At the tubs, Toby leapt off before George had time to stop. He hopped into the nearest porcelain transporter, said one word, "Rhinolith!", and vanished.
The mouse had been looking right at him as he spoke, so the word was a command to follow. George glanced at the startled citizens surrounding him, then at the bathtub. With considerable effort, he was able to squeeze all four hooves inside and duck his neck beneath the shower head. He thought of Rhinolith as well: the colosseum-shaped city on the hill.
He felt his bones liquefy down the drain. Then he was traveling. Then Sire Toby was screaming again.
George thought at first it was from fear, or more anger. The red-lit palms were absent now and the land around them was nearly pitch black. Bare starlight here. George's eyes adjusted quickly and he could see shapes moving in the darkness. Fellow constructs. The ground itself moved. An endless carpet of writhing plantlife.
Tendrils curled up and over rocks, entombed trees, even snatched birds out of the sky and absorbed them. But they weren't the only wildlife. Rhinolith was mostly open, with low, rolling hills. Even in this low light, George could see for miles. Nocturnal nightmares were at play all around him. Herds of cowlike beasts with hollow steam shovel faces. Huge snails that pulled themselves along via masculine arms emerging from their shells. Small things that hopped among the green; things that seemed all teeth and eyeholes.
Sire Toby continued screaming, and George began to think instead that the cause was regret. They had been quite hard on Sir L'roon. Perhaps his master wished they could return and offer apologies?
But then George became unsure again when the mouse's vocalizations resolved from feral noises into bottomlessly anguished swearing.
"FFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKKKKKKKK!!!!! Goddamn shitting hell motherfuck! Helldamn! A shit, a cock, a piss, a fuck, A BASTARD!!" Toby was not well-practiced at swearing, so he simply threw out everything he knew in a throat-shredding word salad. "Cocksucking ass dammit!!! Fuck hell!! SHIT!!!"
The mouse was in no danger of being swallowed by the ground vines, as he was stomping around in a circle and inadvertently murdering them. George had arrived in a different tub from Toby's, part of a sparse rest area just outside the city's huge iron doorway. Two benches, three tubs, that was it. George extricated himself as quickly as he could and walked over to comfort his squalling master. "Sire, please! My heart aches as well that Sir L'roon will not be joining us, but this outburst is unlike you!"
Toby turned and fell against the horse's ribs. Tears streamed from his eyes. The whites had turned as pink as the irises. "George, NO! It's more than that! LOOK! Look at the WALLS!!!"
The mouse sounded insane, like his voice was about to tear his small body apart. But George hadn't been focused on the city, he was focused on his friend. He raised his head, scanning the countryside first for anything that might have been approaching. And some things certainly were. He would need to fight in about twenty seconds. Until then, that left time to turn his attention to Rhinolith proper.
George remembered passing it on their way to the maze. The whole structure rose from the hill like a giant's tooth. From outside, nothing could be seen of the inner city. Everything was surrounded by a mammoth wall of skulls. The uncountable ivory domes reflected starlight. And when George's gaze reached the top of the wall, he nearly screamed too.
Toby stared, unable to take his eyes away. Of course she had. Of course she had. This place was so much closer to the mountain than Marasmus.
And it was the perfect target. Like it had been built just for her ease. Rhinolith had no upper lid like Coryza. Its walls protected it on every side, but not from the air. Presumably, none of the nightmares around here could climb or fly that high. But for a sloshing tidal wave of liquefied dollflesh, it was child's play. Just reach up and dive in. The wave of Scaphis had rolled in from a plastic carpet that stretched back towards Anasarca as far as Toby could see. A hundred times thicker than the single finger she'd sent after Gilla-Gilla. Her skin had charged at the city, then flooded over the top like milk in a cereal bowl. And Rhinolith had two city walls. They'd left the inner one up when they built the second, Zinc had said. So Scaphis had undoubtedly filled the gap entirely, surrounding the city's populace in seconds. Blocking off all exits. Trapping them like bugs in a jar. She could then pick them off at her leisure.
Another wave of anguish punched Toby in the guts. He shut his eyes tight and weakly punched George's ribs in frustration. He felt the vines growing around his feet and didn't care. His words were blurred by sobs and sniffling. "They were my backup plan, George. After Gilla, I was going to come here and try to talk them into joining us. I knew it was a long shot. Zinc said they didn't like shrimps. But I thought maybe I had a chance. Maybe they'd listen and help us fight. But she knew about them too. She took them first. I'm all out of ideas now..."
George did not feel Toby's feeble hits. His attention was on the ever-narrowing circle of constructs. They were held at bay by the confusion of smelling one of their own, but knew the scent of a frightened soul alongside it. "I can fully appreciate what you must be feeling now, Sire. But we have immediate concerns. Shall I place you on my back so that I may take us out of danger?"
Toby had no idea what George was talking about. He looked up, smeared the tears away from his eyes, and saw only shadowed shapes. But then he remembered why the people of Rhinolith had built their walls in the first place.
There was a fluster of panic. Then his hammer seemed to heat up inside his arm, itching to do more than just what it had unleashed in Outerspace Eats. It would have felt good to let the steel loose and thrash some skulls. But even so close to the edge of frenzy, Toby still retained an ounce of sense. He counted at least three hypenas. Other things too. Things he'd never fought before. And his guts felt like they were floating around weightless. His nerves felt like they'd been sanded down to strings. He was in the mood to fight, but in no shape to win.
Toby yanked his feet away from the vines, grateful that his shoes didn't get swallowed off, and started scrambling up onto George's back.
George felt his master mounting and nodded approval that he was not so far gone as to forego self-preservation. The snarling, salivating beasts pawed nearer. Most constructs cared more about fear than food. This slow approach was usually meant to intimidate a lone soul into fits of blubbering panic. This time though, it gave the horse and rider a sizable window of escape. George hauled ass as soon as he felt Toby get a good grip.
The lead hypena was more than a little startled as George took off like a bullet straight at it. Then jumped and used its back as a springboard to sail over the others.
Then George was tearing across the green in the starlight.
Toby was nearly torn out of the saddle by George's acceleration, but his scrawny fingers managed to hold on. Once he was hunkered down at a safer angle, he glanced behind him at Rhinolith. He could see the light reflecting off the frozen surge of Scaphis. 'She really did just pour herself in like a can of paint,' he marveled. How many people were inside? How many of them were now entombed in plastic like Gilla-Gilla was? Toby imagined the citizens waking up to frenzied cries, seeing tentacles of flesh invading their town from every entrance. Nowhere to run. They would have stood and fought. Completely doomed, but they would have fought anyway. Toby imagined torches, arrows, and cannons firing at the invader, all having no effect. How can you fight a fluid? And one that can paralyze with a touch? They'd never had a chance. He wondered how many had sunk into her clutch realizing this, and how many had kept on fighting until the last beat of their hearts.
His eyes stung and his throat hurt from yelling. He was ashamed of himself for cursing. 'I must have looked like an idiot. But, then again, having every single chance of rescuing your friends taken away from you... I guess that would make anyone lose it.'
"Stop, George. Please," he said hoarsely.
The stallion ignored the order. "We are not out of danger yet. I see enemies all around."
"This'll only take a second, trust me. I never got around to giving you your present."
George skidded to a halt, shredding the plant tendrils beneath him to coleslaw. "Sire Toby, I am constantly confused!!" he snorted. He tried to keep his tone civil, but he had to protest. "I understand you are under an immense strain from recent events, and in my opinion you are bearing it with remarkable fortitude. But your mood changes like the weather! I cannot keep up unless I have access to your thoughts!"
Toby fumbled himself down to the ground. "I agree," he said simply. He walked around to George's front, quickly sizing up the number of constructs around. Too many. He unzipped the backpack and rumbled inside. "George, I paid L'roon for a potion for you. Something for both of us. Take it right now and that'll give us time to talk." Again, he added, "Trust me."
George nodded. "I always do."
Toby held up an aluminum-coated capsule the size of a sniper's bullet. "Swallow this. Or chew it. Or however it is you eat." He held it out and George took it between his teeth.
It pulsed. George could feel its contents trying to get out and react with him. "I hope I will not become an item of clothing again," he said, then bit into it.
There was a loud bang as the magic was released. Toby watched a glittering clear jelly burst from George's mouth like a popped gum bubble. It moved quick. The substance separated into sluglike dollops that sped around George's face and neck, squirming into him through whatever cracks they found. George looked mildly concerned at first, then suddenly doubled over in a violent clench. "GAAAHH!!" he screamed. He felt like a puppeteer had just yanked all his strings taut.
Toby looked around. This potion's effect was not instantaneous like others he'd seen. Some of the shadowy creatures might reach them if it took much longer. Toby kept his eyes wide, turning in a circle, gauging which nightmares were closest. He reached back to fumble with the zipper on his backpack's side pocket. He reached in and found two exploding grapes. He zipped back up, momentarily terrified at spilling them all over the place and losing them.
As George grunted and protrusions of calcium began to emerge from between his shoulders, Toby rolled the little ivory spheres in his hand. Now was as good a time as any to see what they did. He squeezed one hard, then flicked it at the nearest construct.
It was an armsnail. Its slimy, heavily-muscled hands grasped the grass to pull itself forward. The knuckles and tendons flexed visibly. An arm like that could crush bone easily. But then the little white dot sailed towards it and, in a flash, did its job.
Toby was temporarily blinded. He'd seen a single bright arc of lightning leap from the tiny bomb, slashing through the snail like a cleaver. The construct fell over on its side, dead as hell.
Toby turned to throw the other one and realized he didn't have to. A snake-legged spider was already fleeing from the flash. He remembered seeing those on the highway, partnered up with arachnopuses. Maybe both kinds were close to smart.
He turned to George, and his mouth involuntarily opened in awe.
The blackened stallion was panting from the exertion of having seemingly grown two trees right out of his withers. Branches of bone as long as his whole body rose into the air, creaking and flaking off soot. They twitched, finger-like. They weren't as heavy as he would have expected for their size.
George had not felt pain, but rather an intensity that had knocked the wind out of him. He managed to turn his head to look. "Good heavens!! What ARE they!? Immense superfluous hands!?"
"No, George," Toby said, and was able to find a weak smile. At least one thing had gone right today. "They're wings. You just have to fill them in."
The construct gasped. For a moment he was too overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to speak. This was his heart's desire come true. He remembered his Ectopia disguise. The thrilling freedom of being unbound by gravity. Free to travel in any direction he chose. If there was anything George loved more than his companions, it was movement.
While Toby kept his eyes peeled for more nightmares, George concentrated and grew membranes between his new fingers of bone. He had seen enough bats to know how they looked. When finished, his wings were like sails woven of sinew. Lumpy and unpleasant looking, yet with the slightest flap he could feel the air push against them. They would work beautifully. He gave them a strong experimental sweep and sent tendrils squirming in a hundred foot radius. The gust nearly toppled Toby.
George was quick to dart forward and snag his master's collar in his teeth. "Sire!! I cannot possibly express the full extent of my happiness! You have given me flight!! Not even being merged with the Fearsleigher could bring me such rapture! My heart bursts with the need to repay you immediately!!"
George's explosive enthusiasm helped to cure some of Toby's black mood. "All I want right now is just for you to take us out of here."
"DONE!" George boomed. He flicked his head back and tossed Toby into the air, catching him gracefully in the space behind his wings. Toby did not have to be told to grab hold immediately. George whinnied like a sprightly colt and slammed his new appendages against the air. The downdraft knocked a cactusyote clean off its paws. George flapped again and again, tasting the wind until he was ready to begin taming it. When the time felt right, he pushed off. It was almost effortless. He shot up towards the stars with the swift agility of a fish through water.
Toby felt his heart skip. Gravity turned sideways. The wind whipped his eyelids open. The stars came closer.
Then George was laughing, loud as a steam train's whistle. He cut the sky with ease, graceful as a dancer. His new wings felt like they'd always belonged to him. "This is a marvelous gift, Sire Toby! I am delirious with joy! Quickly! Give me a direction or I will lose my mind trying to choose for myself!"
Toby had both hands white-knuckle grasping a big knobby vertebrae. He hadn't foreseen George reacting with this much zeal. "B-back to Rhinolith!" he sputtered out. "I want to see it from above!"
"Immediately!" George shouted. He changed his flight angle so fast, Toby nearly threw up horizontally.
The mouse was freezing up here, terrified of falling off, terrified George might try a loop-de-loop, and still in just as much of a hopeless predicament as ever. But George was radiating joy like the sun radiates light. It would have been impossible not to be affected. And while Toby's sense of loss and despair didn't leave him entirely, he was able to find a place of neutrality away from his emotions.
George swooped low over Rhinolith's perimeter. He tilted inward to begin a slow circle.
Toby was relieved. George was flying more smoothly now, giving his own guts time to un-knot. And he had a perfect view of the city from up here.
His predictions were near-perfect. Everything he'd imagined Scaphis had done, she had. The gap between Rhinolith's inner and outer walls was filled up to the brim. From above it looked like a massive ring of pancake batter. Scaphis had used herself to block all the inner exits, and there was visible evidence of a titanic battle below. Scorched walls. Bullet holes. Everywhere, people were webbed in place by strands of vinyl skin. Some were bundled up in piles together, limbs and heads poking out like a massive mutated creature. Others were paralyzed singly. Their faces showed their last expressions. Screams of fear, or cries to battle.
Toby turned away. "I actually thought I could fight this..."
The words had been a whisper, but George's ears were sharp. "There is always a chance," he said encouragingly. "Have you forgotten the time that, against all odds, we tipped a mall to stop the rampage of Gyre Two?"
"Yeah, well... I didn't really do much then."
George spoke quite firmly. "If you had not spurred the rest of us to action, we would have done nothing at all."
That made Toby quiet for a moment.
George could not reach his neck back far enough to nuzzle his friend, but he wanted to. "I am with you, Sire. The scene below fills me with a need for justice to be seen. We are witness to an act of unspeakable cruelty. It must not stand."
"But just look at it!" Toby whined. "These were the toughest guys in the whole world! Zinc said so! If anyone could have kicked Scaphis' ass, it would have been them. But she got ALL of them! The whole bunch! Wiped out! It doesn't look like it took her more than a few minutes!"
George could plainly hear that his master was flirting with giving up. "Sire Toby, it is an important fact to note that these people- The Bargeld if I remember correctly- were taken by surprise. Few do well in an ambush. Especially with all routes of escape removed. They were unprepared. That is the difference between them and us. We have time to think."
"George..." Toby sank low, lying down between the two huge flapping wings. "I already have been thinking. I busted my brain on the way to find you. I thought about everything. And my best plan was to get the potion from L'roon, get Gilla's help, or the Bargeld's, or both, and then we could plan from there. That was it, really. Now I'm out of friends and the problem's as big as it ever was."
George flew silently for a short while, pondering. "That is true, but it may be possible to change the problem by changing our angle of observation. In Ectopia Cordis, I faced the problem of how to stop a runaway apartment building. I faced time pressure as well as having an enormous amount of variables to consider. But this was also an asset. Because it meant that I also had an enormous amount of avenues from which to approach a solution. I had an entire city's resources at my disposal. I opened myself to all ideas. I ran them through mental simulations, discarding and discarding until only the best remained. Sire Toby, you have indeed lost your two primary options. But two out of how many?"
Toby's head rose. He'd never thought of it that way. He looked upwards to the stars. Millions of them.
He felt something buzzing in his chest. An energy.
The mouse was quiet for an uncomfortably long period. "Sire?"
"Take us up, George," he said suddenly. "Take us away from here. It stinks like burning plastic. I don't want to be here anymore. Take us up as high as you can go."
"That is a challenge I find quite appealing." But first he thought of his master. In addition to his usual saddle, George coiled strong tendons around Toby's ankles, and also grew a handle of gristle.
Toby appreciated that. It felt icky and rubbery, but more comfortable than grabbing bare bone.
When George was certain his favorite passenger was secure, he pointed himself towards the sky's ceiling and took off.
Toby felt the air being squeezed out of his lungs. He reminded himself that he didn't need to breathe anymore. He fixed his eyes on the stars. They were not just lights, he remembered, but living beings. Constellations bumbling to and fro as they had since time immemorial. He wondered if George could get close enough to meet them.
'What am I thinking? He's George. Of course he can.'
A grin on his spectral snout, George made himself a moon rocket. The wind wrapped around him like a friend's embrace. His wings caressed its weight. He had felt so bulky before, so heavy and clumsy at times. But his weight was microscopic compared to the weight of the air. There was so much of it surrounding them at all times, and hardly anyone noticed. It was invisible and omnipresent. George could take hold of it now. Climb upon it like a staircase. Swim through it. Dance on it. His wings grabbed handfuls of the stuff like rungs of a ladder. He pulled himself higher and higher. The starlight grew brighter until he had to squint.
Toby was struck silent. The Veil Of Tears. Phobiopolis' stars truly weren't just glimpses of burning hydrogen millions of light years away. They were here. Almost close enough to reach out and touch. Silvery blue spheres of pulsating illumination. They dotted their upside-down landscape like berries on a bush. And here and there, unthinkably huge constructs wandered. A whole race of two-dimensional life forms, living in the sky like drawings on a galaxy-sized sheet of paper. They were as big as Red and just as docile. They acted out their predation of one another without malice. It was simply tradition. Toby watched a feline-shaped constellation take several minutes to pounce upon and swallow a rodent-shaped constellation. Both looked perfectly placid about the situation. Only the brightest stars that made up their forms could be seen from below. But up close Toby realized they were infinitely denser. The bigger stars formed the outline, while smaller ones provided details. And details. And details. Each dot was orbited by exponentially smaller dots, forever. When the cluster of stars that made up the rodent-shaped construct entered into the feline-shaped one, they scattered about and dispersed. And Toby saw an equal number of lights inside the feline constellation wink out in response. Conservation of form. The old stars melted away as new ones took their place. And elsewhere, Toby saw an unconnected cluster gather itself together, merge into a mouselike shape, and wander off in perfect contentment.
Toby's paws trembled. He wanted very much to reach out and touch one of these constellation-beings. But he also felt that this was a wholly separate world that hovered above his own. Perfectly balanced as a hanging mobile. The introduction of any new element might cause chaos. Toby wasn't sure if this was some revealed truth or just his own imagination, but he sided with caution and kept himself still.
Together the mouse and stallion gawked for a full fifteen minutes. Neither noticed. It took exactly that long for George to bring the words together to speak.
"They are like me. I can tell."
Toby thought George's voice was nearly on the edge of tears. He wished he'd asked L'roon to give him that ability too. "I know," he replied in a reverent whisper. "I figured it out at the diner. I was going to tell you soon. This is what all constructs could be like. What they all start off as."
The thought overwhelmed George with longing. "But then... why are we what we are?"
Toby did not want thoughts of Logdorbhok intruding in this peaceful place. "Because something changes you from what you ought to be." He felt his friend about to ask and shook his head. "The details aren't important. Just be glad you changed. I am. You are so incredibly important to me, George."
"Thank you, Sire Toby."
"And I'm glad you like your wings."
A soft chuckle. "They are magnificent. I shall never stop thanking you for them."
Toby smiled. "Glad to hear it. We've got eleven more capsules, so let's make them last."
"And let's go back now. This place is beautiful, but we need to plan."
"An excellent idea."
It took several more minutes to pry their eyes away from the panorama of hypnotizing beauty in front of them. Then they descended back towards the troubled world which they had chosen to fix.
George was soaring. Swooping, gliding, diving. Toby gave him free reign, telling him to do whatever he felt like. "I need time to think." George cautioned that he didn't have to take on the problem all alone. Toby said he knew, and that if he ran into any brick walls he'd bring George in to help knock them down. "And thank you. You gave me a new way of looking at this."
"You're very welcome, Sire," George said, and nosedived playfully towards a herd of shovelcows, scaring the heck out of them.
Toby had lost most of his childhood on Earth, he knew that. Scaphis' injection of gunk hadn't erased his past, but had stripped away the road signs along his neural pathways, making navigation almost impossible. But memories have a way of reemerging when one thinks of something just similar enough to draw a new connection. George's advice had brought back a memory of grade school. Every student in Toby's class had been given a box of random junk and an egg. They were told to build a cradle that could keep the egg from breaking when dropped from the height of the school's roof. The students perked up at the idea of chucking stuff off a building and dove into their task. Most of them had no experience in engineering and ended up just taping everything in the box into a bulbous cluster. But Toby had attacked the problem with quiet logic. He went through everything in the box, arranging them in as many ways as he could until he felt confident in a solution. He remembered the way tree seeds would twirl gracefully towards the ground on spring days. His egg was largely unshielded, taped beneath a paper spiral reinforced by accordion straws. At the end of the day, when eggs rained from the roof, only four survived. One was Toby's.
Now he had to solve the problem of fighting an omnipotent, omnipresent supervillain. He had been through so much already. He'd lost his friends, lost his memory, gained a family, lost them too, been kicked and barbecued by a friend, lost another to Scaphis, turned away one more, then on top of all of that, discovered his backup plan had been drowned in plastic too. It was more than anyone should have been able to bear. Toby felt like an eraser worn down to a nub. A cigarette smoked to the filter. He felt like there was barely anything left of him, and what remained was held together by loose string and thumbtacks.
None of it changed the fact that someone had to plant a boot in Scaphis' ass for all the rotten things she'd done.
So Toby turned the problem around. It had seemed insurmountably huge, but not when he accepted that his pool of solutions was even larger. George had only a city to make use of when he'd come up with his plan to stop Gyre 2. Toby had the entirety of Phobiopolis. And as George flew him over the undulating hills of Rhinolith, it was the perfect vantage point to fully realize and appreciate that fact. "All of this is mine," he told himself. He tried to draw upon the confidence that Piffle, Junella, and Zinc had shown. The attitude of, 'I can bend the world to my will.'
The first rule was not to worry about how. Toby looked down at the land below and envisioned everything in it as ingredients laid out before him on a kitchen counter. It didn't matter right now if something seemed impossible to get. He could worry about that later. The important thing was to allow himself to factor in EVERYTHING. Everything he'd seen during the entirety of his journey. Every place, every weapon, every furson, every food, every nightmare. It was all on the table. Spread out for his use.
Toby imagined a tiny, fragile egg. Upon it was written: 'Get back my friends and save the world.' His goal was to drop that egg from the top of the world and keep it from shattering when it crashed into Anasarca.
As George performed aerial acrobatics, Toby performed mental math. Eventually the rushing wind blurred away to background noise. He didn't see the writhing green vines or the yelping nightmares below them. He didn't feel George's bones beneath his seat. He barely saw the sky. All that mattered was his mind. Phobiopolis' residents and resources became numbers. Variables to be added, subtracted, multiplied or divided. Within them somewhere was the combination to solve The Scaphis Problem.
Hours passed. George knew his master was onto something when the mouse began to giggle in mad triumph. "An idea?"
"More than that, George." Toby's eyes were wide, seeing nothing in front of them. His skin tingled, his heart fluttered. He felt like he was holding something large and complex and incredibly fragile, but brilliant. "I've got a plan. How about you land us back at Rhinolith and I'll tell you everything."
"Inside the walls?"
"Not yet. Take us back to the tubs we came out of. Land on one of the benches so the grass doesn't eat us."
"A wise precaution." With that, George took a moments to regain his sense of direction. He'd been having so much fun, he barely knew where he was anymore. But soon enough they were headed back to their starting point. It was only a few minutes away, and Toby used the time to poke at his imaginary contraption, testing for weak spots.
He'd started off with some ridiculously unwieldy ideas. Plans so complicated they'd collapse under their own intricacy like a skyscraper of cards. So he kept simplifying it. He broke the big problem down into smaller ones. He combined and compressed his ideas. He shot down everything that caused more problems than it solved. Finally he was left with something that was ludicrously simple compared to his original schemes. It wasn't noble. It wasn't exciting. It wasn't how heroes in storybooks solved their problems. But it felt like it could work.
Hooves touched down on rickety wood. The bench had seated many bottoms over the years and was not well-maintained, but George kept still and it bore his weight begrudgingly.
He waited for Toby to speak.
The mouse was staring off into space again.
"Right! George! Okay. Sorry, I got wrapped up in double-checking everything." He licked his lips nervously. "Where to start? Allright, so, let's first be honest. If you and I just storm Anasarca and tell Scaphis to let everyone go, she's gonna cream us."
It rankled him, but George eventually nodded. "Regrettably correct. While we do possess the element of surprise, she has shown she is smart enough to foresee those who are capable of opposing her and rendering them dormant before they can."
A nod. "We have to assume she's as smart as we are. But who's smarter than her?" Toby asked with a grin. "And who's already beaten her once?"
George mulled the question over. "All that is coming to mind is Sir Luxy Bleeder in Ectopia Cordis."
"Bullseye! For one, if he knew she was on the loose again, I have a feeling he'd drop everything to go after her. He understands exactly how powerful she is. Better still, if there's anyone to ask for advice, it's the guy who got rid of her in the first place."
"But surely he is too far away to lend assistance."
A broad grin. "Distance doesn't matter, George! Wanna know why not?"
"Why not?" George echoed.
"Because we live in a land with the best postal service in the universe! All I have to do is write a letter and a little mouse will bring it to him."
"Splendid idea! I had not considered the Vermillion. Possibly due to being quite transportation-minded myself. So, are you proposing to gain insight from Sir Bleeder through correspondence alone? I do not think the mice are able to transport fursons in their entirety, or else no one in the land would own vehicles."
"Elementary, my dear stallion," Toby quipped. "And you're right. I'm gonna ask for his help, then bring him right here to us while we get ready in Rhinolith."
George was befuddled again. "How?"
Toby leaned in close till he was a millimeter from the bonecuddy's ear. He whispered gleefully, "Who do we know who's faster than you, and doesn't mind being a taxi?"
The snow was coming down so thick it was like being buried alive in cold.
Toby's vest and shorts poofed up. Genuine terrorbunny wool, after all. He'd forgotten they did that in cold weather. His knees and elbows were still pretty chilly, but the rest of him was relatively warm. He looked like a blueberry with limbs.
Toby waited in the shin-deep snow for George to pop into existence. When he'd stepped into the tub a moment ago, he'd thought of their mutual friend, rather than a place. He hoped like hell he'd actually been taken to the right area. But regardless, he'd asked George to wish for a certain mouse when it was his turn. And now, right on time, here came the THUMP of nightmare hooves plopping down into the drifts beside him.
George drew his wings in tight and looked all around, shivering. "Gracious sakes! Where in all the world has it taken us to!?"
"No idea!" Toby shouted back. They both had to shout over the incessant howl of the wind. And also be mindful of snowflakes up the nose. 'At least it's actual snow this time and not ash.'
George looked around at the vast white emptiness, then back at Toby. "Regardless, I am glad that wherever we are, we remain together."
Toby reached out to give him an affectionate pat. "Me too. I don't know what I'd do if it spat me out here alone and I had to find you all over again."
"Pity we cannot hope to encounter Sir L'roon out here so he can sell you another amulet."
Toby nodded solemnly, remembering the merchant’s silence as they'd left him behind. "Yeah..." Since there was no way to navigate in such a pounding storm, Toby picked a direction at random and pointed. "Might as well start searching that way first. It's as good as anywhere else."
"Actually, Sire..." George paused and concentrated. He raised his head, swiveling his ears around. "I may have..." He trailed off again, then abruptly slung himself down onto the ground with a huge POOFF of snow.
Toby brushed a splat off his face and looked closer. George was splayed out on his side, motionless. "...George?"
The bonecuddy was silent a few moments longer, until he was sure. "I feel minor tremors. By luck or coincidence, they are approximately in the direction you had already indicated."
Toby was pleasantly surprised. "Then let's go!"
The two friends trudged along side by side through the punishing weather. It was not a long journey, though the cold made it feel like miles. Toby was blinking constantly to keep the snow out of his eyes. And the drifts around his ankles were starting to numb his feet. He held onto George's ribs like a lifeline.
Soon enough they saw a massive dark shape looming ahead. When they drew nearer, they were treated to a remarkable sight.
Red was playing.
The mammoth construct was romping about in the frosty weather. Jumping and pouncing, driving his face into the snow, popping back up to leap to where the flakes were falling from. His titanic weight cracked the ground wherever he landed, but in this desolate place there was no danger of hurting anyone. He didn't have to watch his steps. No more worries about trampling smallones or their possessions. Plus the frigid temperature didn't bother him a bit. He was happy out here. It was his favorite place.
George and Toby watched him with immense grins on their faces. Toby held a glove over his muzzle to hold in giggles. It was simultaneously awesome and adorable to see something so gigantic frolicking around so carefree.
They let him have his fun for a few minutes until Toby realized his toes had gone numb as rocks. He tugged George's humerus to let him know. The bonecuddy nodded, then tipped back his head in a low-pitched, keening blare.
Red froze in his tracks. His boxy head zeroed in on the sound.
Seconds later, Toby could not hold back a scream as several thousand tons of oxidized metal came thundering towards him. Red skidded to a stop with plenty of space to spare, though he did kick up a minor avalanche in front of him.
With incredible dexterity, Red leaned into the snow pile and gently nuzzled his two friends out.
To be gently nuzzled by a ten-foot rusted cube is quite an experience. Toby's heart was hammering. "Hi again, Red!"
Red made a noise like a dinosaur in a car compactor. That meant he was happy.
Toby asked George, "Can you tell him the plan?"
"Certainly, Sire!" George began a series of ululations. Strange calls that sounded like brass instruments underwater, or tortoises mating.
Red sat down in the snow and listened very, very carefully.
While the two constructs talked, Toby crawled through the snow closer to Red. He was shivering hard now. Red's metal was cold, but at least it blocked the wind. The rustbeast even held a boxy paw over the smallone to shield him. Toby thanked him with grateful petting.
George spoke with solemnity, speaking simply but eloquently. Red responded in long, low tones. It was much like listening to a recording played at slow speed. Red could move quickly, but usually saw no need to think quickly as well.
Finally, George nodded in satisfaction. He looked down and noticed the snow was up to his ribcage. Fighting past it, he slogged over to Sire Toby. "Excellent news! I have conveyed the plan and Red is enthusiastically on board!"
"G-g-great!" Toby said, teeth chattering.
"To my surprise, I did not have to explain to him the concept of Scaphis Tarrare. He remembers her. She posed no real threat to him during her reign, but he took note of her negative effect upon the, as he calls them, 'smallones'. I have conveyed her current form. He agrees that she must be stopped."
Toby nodded. He struggled to stand. From the knees down his legs were nothing but icicles. His fingertips were already turning unpleasant colors. "I g-gotta adm-mit, part of m-me was expect-ting to get h-here and find h-h-him covered in p-plastic t-too."
"If I may wager a guess," George said, "Scaphis has been unopposed for over a month, yet Marasmus is the furthest known point she has extended herself. I hypothesize it is a laborious process for her. If it were so easy as walking, she could have reached Stoma by now. But something is limiting her. We may not yet know exactly what, but my guess is that, even if she did remember Sir Red, not knowing where to find him, she may have decided it would not be worth the effort to seek him."
"S-sounds s-solid," Toby concurred. The little mousesicle shuffled towards George, and the construct had to catch him when he toppled over. "Th-thanks." Toby did not want a faceful of powder. He thought his nose and eartips were close to falling off anyway. George's wing membranes were displaying spots of frostbite too.
He turned to address Red. "You unders-stand everyth-thing?"
Red's head raised slowly, then lowered slowly. A nod.
"And you can get to Ect-topia Cordis quickl-ly?"
A momentary pause, then Red gave Toby a head-tilt that perfectly conveyed, 'C'mon, kid, that's an easy one.'
Toby managed a laugh. It came out more like a gasp. He could see his breath crystallize in front of him. "Y-you're gonna b-be a hero for this, Red. P-people are g-going to l-love you."
Another nod. This one bursting with quiet happiness.
"Might I ask another request?" George spoke up. "I believe my companion is about to expire from this region's low temperature. As there are no tubs here to return via, might we hitch a ride with you to the nearest warmer weather?"
Red made an 'oh, sure!' noise.
"Excellent!" George leaned down to collect the ragged scrap of frozen mouseflesh before him that was still stubbornly clinging to breath.
Toby dangled bonelessly. "Th-thank y-you, George. I f-feel like a snow c-cone." Part of his tail fell off. He didn't notice.
"We'll soon have you warmed up again," George assured. And when Red knelt down, George sprung onto the top of his head with a bound.
Red took off running.
George slid backwards and collided ass-first with the top of Red's shoulders. Sire Toby nearly flew out of his mouth. As the immense red rustbeast flew across the frozen ground, George felt a moment of empathy for what his own passengers went through during one of his fast starts. His rusty friend was positively pronto.
Toby slid in and out of consciousness. The G-forces of Red's velocity were rattling his brain, plus the physical strain of the day was simply catching up to him at last. He began to feel strangely comfortable. He remembered from somewhere that hypothermia was actually a relatively pleasant way to go. Your body started hallucinating warmth near the end. 'Fine by me,' he thought with a smile. Still dangling like a kitten from George's clamp, he died quite peacefully.
Toby went through about four more deaths until they were out of the cold. Red had brought them to a region that looked like the bottom of the ocean. The air here was air, not water, but the plantlife resembled seaweed and coral. The ground was unmistakably composed of aquarium pebbles. There were even rock formations that looked like treasure chests and deep sea divers. George spotted no fauna, but he had a feeling whatever constructs roamed here would sate his taste for sushi.
Toby was currently deceased, and awoke just in time to feel the vibrations of Red galumphing off into the night. The mouse had just enough time to roll over and sit up, then toss Red a wave and an encouraging shout.
He was happy to hear the rustbeast bellow a goodbye as well.
"An immensely agreeable fellow," George said, smiling. He craned his neck down to check on Sire Toby. "You are alive again. Good. And do not fret: I remembered to thank Sir Red for rescuing the vending machine prisoners."
Toby blinked until his eyes focused. Amongst all the dying, he'd gotten just enough sleep to whet his appetite for the stuff. But he couldn't let himself drift off just yet. One last thing to do. "Thanks for remembering. He really is a sweetheart. I'm glad Piffle introduced us. I hope after this is all over, wherever Red goes people will come out and cheer for him and ride on him and make him happy."
"That is a pleasing thought," George concurred.
Toby flexed his fingers. Still six in total. No more frostbite on his left paw, although he noticed the tips of his righthand stubs had gotten quite callused over time. Made sense.
Looking at his hand reminded him of earlier when he'd reached inside George's brain. Toby considered the experiment he'd thought of during his whirlwind brainstorming. 'Nah. Time for that tomorrow,' he decided.
George noticed a hideously scabrous giant sunfish poking its beak out from behind a reef. "We should be off again soon, Sire Toby."
"Actually, do you think you could guard me for a few minutes while I write some letters? I don't think I can hold a pencil steady if I'm riding."
George remembered this part of the plan. "Understood! I shall patrol the area and let nothing interfere with your task." He chortled. "Truth be told, I have no idea where we are and the thought of tasting new constructs excites me."
Toby laughed too. "Go have fun then. Hopefully this won't take long."
So dismissed, George nodded and turned towards the sunfish. He growled a guffaw and charged. It screamed noiselessly and attempted to escape, hovering along the ground like it was swimming through the air. George soon caught up and began feasting. He reasoned that since the taboo on cannibalism was invented by living souls, they could keep it.
Meanwhile, Toby sat cross-legged in the pebbles and slipped his backpack off. In Gilla-Gilla's cabin, he'd written the porcupine a note. Now he gambled that he'd remembered to slip the notepad and pen into the bag when he was done. Toby's rustling paw soon found paper. He held the pad on his lap, clicked the pen, and tried to decide what to write.
George left the sunfish's corpse with more holes than a shipwreck. In his peripheral vision he spotted a stinger-tailed seahorse approaching Sire Toby. "Not on your life!" he bellowed gleefully and charged again.
The notepad was small. He'd have to be concise. Toby wrote:
"Dear Luxy." (He remembered the raccoon did not like to be called sir.) "I'm one of the people who helped stop Gyre 2. If you've ever felt like maybe you owed us a favor for that, now would be a good time. Scaphis is back. She was with us all along, in hiding. Now she's a shape-changing plastic monster and she's swallowing whole towns. I need your help ASAP. Send acknowledgment and I'll give more details."
That seemed pretty good. Toby signed his name at the bottom.
The seahorse's head split from its neck with the barest effort from George's powerful jaws. Its blood tasted fascinating. Miniature nightmares spawned from its pouch and George amused himself trying to splatter them all.
Toby tried to remember exactly how to mail his letter. Either Zinc or Piffle had explained it at some point. He knew the mice would need a hole, for one. He didn't want it to be anywhere on his body, so he made a little divot in the pebbles with his thumb and hoped it would be good enough. He tried to remember the words. 'They were pretty simple, right?' He cleared his throat, then spoke clearly. "Um, I have a letter I'd like to send."
Right away, a tiny whiskered head popped out of the thumb-hole.
"Allright!" Toby grinned. He folded his note in half and placed it between the nonev's eager paws. "Take this directly to Luxy Bleeder. I don't care where he is or what he's doing. It's top priority."
The mouse gave him a look like, 'Duh, that's what I do,' and popped out of sight.
Toby took a deep breath to steady his nerves. He rested his head in his palms and awaited a response.
After his massacre of the seahorse's children, George bounded towards a flounder sporting concentric rings of pointy teeth all over its underside. George trampled it even flatter than usual. After taking a sample, the taste was so enjoyable he nearly lost himself in devouring it and failed to notice a stalagmite-covered crab sneaking up on his master.
Toby hardly noticed George's hooves plummeting down out of the sky to punch the unfortunate construct six inches underground. He was too excited by seeing the mouse show up again. It handed him his same note, folded over backwards with a new message inside. Without waiting for thanks or a tip, the postmouse vanished again.
Toby opened the note. It read:
"You're out of your fucking mind! Insane! SCAPHIS!? Don't fucking talk to me about that filthhearted cesspool of a bitch! I already keelhauled her six ways from sunday. That was ages ago! What do you bring me these lies for!? I'll hunt you down and pitchfork your kidneys for this, you fucking bullshit-dispenser! LUNACY!!! GO TONGUEFUCK YOUR MOTHER!!!"
All the color drained out of Toby's face. He was stunned stiff. Nobody could have prepared for a response like that. He felt like the words had been screamed point-blank in his face. He could almost feel the flying spittle. This was bad. Oh, this was bad. He had been counting on Luxy as an ally. Now it seemed he'd become an enemy. Toby imagined the raccoon driving a chariot straight across Phobiopolis to come javelin a pair of mouse kidneys into oblivion.
He managed to tear his eyes away from the note long enough to realize that another representative of the Vermillion was glaring at him impatiently. With another note.
Toby's shaking hand took it. He was too terrified to open it for a moment. Cringing, he did. In much smaller letters, it read:
"Oops. That was rude. Gimme a sec here."
Toby had a brief moment of confusion-paralysis. Then it dawned on him that maybe all was not lost. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more easily he could picture Luxy being woken up in bed, reading Toby's note, replying in a fit of irrational rage, then cooling off a moment later and realizing what he'd done. The raccoon was certainly impulsive enough. Toby inferred another message would be incoming and waited anxiously for it.
Meanwhile, George was swinging the dead crab's claw like a baseball bat and causing massive blunt force trauma to a salmon the size of a safari van.
Toby stared into the pebble-hole in front of him, knowing that a watched pot never boils, but unable to tear his eyes away. So much was riding on this. Luxy's help would be crucial. And if nothing else, the letter proved the raccoon was safe. Out of Scaphis' reach. Toby thought she knew it too. He would have bet EC was exactly where she was heading, to wrest back her fortress, and torture the one who'd kicked her out. The frustration of not being able to get there yet was probably eating her up.
The mouse appeared. Another note. Toby snatched it immediately.
"I should probably apologize for that first one, shouldn't I? We all have our berserk buttons. Guess what mine is? But if I remember you right, mousie, you don't have a dishonest bone in your precious little body. You're telling the truth about her. That worries me. And I'm a hard guy to worry. So allright, paisan, what do you need? Tanks? Nukes? I'll empty this city's armory to stop her. I'll tip RB&WB's upside down and shake it. Whatever you think you know about the shit she's capable of, just take your worst worry and add five. I am at your disposal. Dead serious. Just tell me where she is and what she's doing. Half of me doesn't want to believe you, but the other half's been planning for this contingency a long time now. You can't stomp someone like her far enough into the dirt to get her to stay down. AND FOR FUCK'S SAKE, IF YOU EVER END UP FACE TO FACE WITH HER, NEVER BELIEVE A WORD THAT COMES OUT OF HER GODDAMN STINKY MOUTH!!!"
It was signed at the bottom with "Luxy XOXO".
Toby fell over backwards in relief.
George looked up with his mouth full, thinking for one horrible second that something had shot Sire Toby with a poison quill or some-such. Then he saw his friend sit back up, grinning immensely, and start passionately writing on his notepad. George smiled. All was well. Now to deal with that manta ray over there.
Toby yawned and tried to stretch, but couldn't move his arms.
He came awake quite suddenly, alarmed by the sensation. His limbs were pinned to his sides by some kind of gummy substance. For a second he imagined he was back in the arachnopus' lair. But then he remembered the night before. He looked down to see the ground streaking by below him.
He was sixty feet up, cruising along inside of George's ribcage, packed in nice and comfy with a layer of cushioning fat. Just like bubble wrap.
He relaxed. Yawned again. He barely remembered finishing his correspondence with Luxy and slithering into George for the night. By the end, he could barely keep his eyes open. His handwriting was abominable. But he and Luxy had worked everything out. The raccoon knew transportation was on the way, and he'd promised he'd inform his guards not to shoot any missiles at the red behemoth that would hopefully show up in a day or so. Toby finally let his pen and paper fall out of his hand, while the tireless Vermillion tugged the last note from the pad and sent it on its way. George recognized his master was exhausted, so he did not keep him awake for long describing the buffet of constructs he'd rampaged through, and how much easier pouncing was with wings. He helped his tuckered-out companion crawl inside, not minding being a sleeping bag.
Looking back, Toby could hardly remember the last time he'd slept. Was it back in Skeeto's bedroom or in L'roon's stomach? He tried to walk himself through yesterday's events in order. He couldn't believe half things he'd done. Some of it made him cringe, some of it conjured a smidgen of pride. He was surprised to find sleep hadn't erased any details of his grand plan. Keeping it simple had helped.
George noticed the mouse stirring. "Good morning! You have slept for nearly nine hours! Well-deserved, in my opinion. I have been flying all night, by the way. I feel as though, if I were never allowed to land again, I could be content with that," he said with a happy sigh. "You slept even more soundly than I would have thought possible. By accident I have discovered why flight is not commonly possible in Phobiopolis. It seems air currents and density can shift as capriciously as the land itself. I nearly fell out of the sky several times until I learned to compensate. Yet still, throughout the jostling, you snored on!"
Toby was kind of impressed with himself. "Honestly, I didn't feel a thing. I had weird dreams all night though. What's been going on? Are we anywhere close to Rhinolith yet?" He looked down at the landscape. Seemed like a pretty normal deciduous forest from up here. Albeit one with a lot of skeletons running around. Skeletons that hadn't come out of any lifeforms he'd ever seen before. Way too many heads.
"I have no idea where we are in relation to our destination. I am traveling by dead reckoning, if you recall. Madam McPerricone's method. Aside from turbulence, there have been no problems to report."
"Good to hear." Toby watched a few skeletons toss femur spears at him. None came anywhere close.
"From on high, I have had no vexation from earthbound constructs. They chase along below me, leaping up and snapping, but I am able easily to evade. When I feel like a snack, I simply descend, find a neck to wring, and eat on the go."
Toby thought he could smell raw meat on George's breath. "Sounds delicious," he deadpanned. Though actually... His tummy rumbled. "I wouldn't mind a full belly myself."
"Allow me, Sire!" George banked into a slow curve, skimming just above the treetops. "As soon as I spot something with a little meat on its bones, I would very much like to share a meal with you. It has occurred to me during the night that I have all the skills necessary to prepare for us, a 'cook-out'."
Toby became frightened. He pictured George rotating a whole spitted convorine over his flaming head. 'On the other hand, I liked Gilla-Gilla's buttered scorpion. Maybe nightmare-ala-George would make a good breakfast.'
George swooped to and fro until he found a sturdy treetop to deposit Toby in. The mouse slid out and got seated. "Won't be a moment!" George called cheerfully, and shot like an arrow towards the forest floor.
Toby hadn't minded being flown around in the stallion's passenger compartment. He'd been held so securely inside, he had no fear of falling. Snug as a bullet in its casing. The whole experience reminded him of hang-gliding. And that thought gave him something pleasant to reminisce on as he waited for George.
Soon, delicious smoky smells were nudging into his pleasant memories.
With a whoosh of wind, George appeared with two jumbo-size drumsticks held in his teeth. Toby was taken aback by their size, but the fire-grilled aroma made his mouth water. George plopped one of the legs into the mouse's lap, immediately soaking his clothes in juices. "Jeeze!! What'd this come from, George!?"
The branch sagged and creaked as he settled in beside Toby (It is not easy for a hoofed mammal to perch in a treetop). He held his meal between his forehooves as best he could and took a bite. "Mmmm! Hypena, originally. Spotted the wily specimen and remembered advice from Sir Gilla-Gilla. 'Muscle tone makes for good meals'."
Toby was too intimidated at first to take a bite. The roasted thigh weighed as much as an entire furson. But when he did lean over and sink his buck teeth in, he instantly became a caveman. "WOW!! Is this really your first time trying to cook, George? It's fantastic!"
George wiggled at the compliment. "I observed several methods along our way, and extrapolated. I am pleased it pleases you."
Toby smashed his muzzle into the meat, tearing with his teeth, letting the drippings stain his cheeks. The taste of freshly-killed hot beast awoke something primitive and masculine inside him. He felt like a Viking in the dining halls of Valhalla.
Hours later, Toby was splayed across the branch with a stomach stretched tight as a trampoline. He idly waved the remaining femur back and forth. George had taken several trips back down to the forest floor to finish off the rest of the hypena, chunk by chunk. Together the duo were bleary and bloated and utterly satisfied.
George said sleepily, "It would be prudent to continue, now that we have finished our meal, Sire Toby. We would not want our allies to reach Rhinolith before us."
"Yuhhh," Toby groaned. He burped spectacularly. "That's assuming I won't burst the second I try to move."
"Are you in distress, Sire?"
A broad grin. "Not in the slightest, George. I'm wonnnnderrrrrfullll..."
George was tickled pink to have satisfied his master so. He spread his wings and hefted himself off the branch, then maneuvered around to half-roll, half-pour the stuffed mouse onto his back.
Toby moaned. He felt like a waterbed.
George blanked his mind and tried to 'feel' the right direction to point himself towards. Northeast seemed fine. "Hold tight!" he called out, and let the wind carry him away.
Toby watched the treetops blur below him. He felt his stomach slosh around, and vowed to himself not to waste George's cooking by bringing it back up for a repeat viewing.
The mouse and the construct passed through many strange lands that day. Some well-traveled, others less so. And when they encountered areas no other living Phobiopolan had yet laid eyes upon, they were unaware of their discoveries. These places would have to remain nameless until new explorers stumbled across them again, however many years or decades that might take.
Traveling Piffle-style, by picking a direction and coasting on hope, is not like traveling by map. When one knows the route, the route is more likely to behave itself and conform to expectations. When one doesn't, Phobiopolis' natural chaos is let out to play. Regions that might otherwise be miles apart are suddenly sharing borders. Sometimes entirely new landscapes are created when two others smash together, or superimpose. George had an inkling of this, but Toby gave no thought to the wondrous terrors below. He was just glad he was out of reach.
For a while the forest continued. Toby recognized the trees with leaves shaped like card suits. Odder plantlife eventually appeared, as if the land was devolving, losing its coherence. The beasts he could see looked like half-exploded scribbles. They did not walk so much as fling their writhing misshapen bodies forward.
Further on, they entered a pink-walled canyon where blood-chilling screams could be heard all around, echoing into infinity. Toby clung tight to George's vertebrae and kept a watchful eye, but no nightmares seemed to be producing the sounds. That struck him funny, and he found himself laughing. George laughed too. Toby laughed even harder. Eventually he realized that the air here felt thick and had a foul, medicinal taste. That was hilarious. They were breathing in laughing gas. Soon enough they were howling helplessly. The screams around them had never actually been screams at all, but helpless, tortured cackles. Toby's vision blurred with tears. His ribs were in agony. He could barely breathe. Guffaws ripped from George's throat so hard his jaw dislocated. He tried to fly above to clearer skies, but the canyon's walls seemed never to end. The only way through was forward. Toby fought to stay alive. His convulsive mirth felt like it was ripping his tendons from their moorings. He was within seconds of asphyxiation when he tasted normal air again. George shot through the gap like a bullet, emerging from the side of a cliff over a grisly orange river. He coasted until he found solid ground to set down on. He and Toby panted and held onto one another as the final giggles left their sore, throbbing bodies.
George did not feel like flying for a while. He folded his wings and began to trot. Toby felt like a wrung-out washcloth. Like he'd already shed all his breakfast weight just from laughing so hard. They had to admit, their encounter with the gas canyon had produced one positive side effect. It had brought them back to full alertness.
George thundered across a desert made of fiberglass sand and razor wire bushes. A land of lacerations. Toby spotted antelope-shaped constructs with faces and hooves made of knives. They sprinted towards the smell of his soul, and Toby reached into the side pockets of his backpack. He knew George could outrun them, but he also knew he could use a bit of target practice. Gilla-Gilla's throwing knives were small but dense, akin to arrowheads. Toby whiffed his first few shots. He growled and reminded himself that he no longer had a magic pouch: his ammo was finite. He felt bad enough about stealing them without letting them go to waste too. He waited until a knife-creature was tailgating, lowering its icepick antlers to spear him clean through. Toby calmed his heart and let his arm compensate for speed and wind. Then the knife flew like it had been magnetized, straight into the antelope's breast. The nightmare bleated, stumbled, fell, and gashed its own throat open with its front legs. Toby nodded in satisfaction. Soon, other constructs fell.
George kept track of his master's progress. He did not offer advice or assistance. He knew it was unneeded. He simply kept his gait reliably smooth. A grizzly bear made of mirror-shards burst into pieces from the skillful toss of one of Sire Toby's lightning bombs. George smiled proudly.
However, when they approached a plateau and from behind it emerged a colossus of prosthetic limbs, both travelers realized it would be smarter to flee than fight. The lumbering amalgamation's oval mass blotted out the sun. Artificial arms and legs, glass eyes and dentures, were all cobbled together with sutures, straps, and surgical pins. As if every discarded prosthesis from all of Earth's junkyards had been sewn together into this charging monstrosity. Its scratched corneas rotated towards the tiny horse and rider. Its teeth rattled. It shed fragments of itself like dander. It oozed a grimy residue. Its legion of arms and legs shuffled and rotated places, swapping out as old leather straps cracked or fingers shattered off. Other constructs, and what souls it could catch, were all ground up and used for grease to keep its ancient parts from grinding.
For George it was like trying to outrun a clattering dust storm. He could not help but recall the catskulls. This thing was easily as huge. He could feel it spitting porcelain teeth and wooden fingers at his flanks. He considered unfolding his wings for a shield, but reckoned they would create wind resistance.
Toby tried his damnedest not to look back at the medical monster casting a shadow over him. He could hear its thousands of jumbled parts clacking and scraping against one another. He could feel the debris it spat against his back. A thrown ceramic hand grasped his neck and he smashed it with his hammer to get it off.
Then suddenly the monster was gone and they were somewhere else.
Such was Phobiopolis.
George barely stopped his legs skidding out from under him. He would have bashed facefirst into the ice otherwise. They were skimming across a frozen lake now. A few inches of wintry water splashed against his hooves where he ran. The ice below did not inspire confidence. He could hear it creak as it contemplated shattering.
"Wings, George!" Toby shouted. His breath made cotton candy in the air.
George took to the frosty grey sky as the ice began to break up beneath him. Just in time, as hordes of hypothermic piranhas started pouring from the cracks to leap and nip at his hooves.
The land grumbled at his escape and sent tantrums of gusty wind at him, but he managed to stay airborne until land was in sight. He plowed onwards past the ice-encased trees, dodging the frozen corpses of animals that lurched stiffly up from the ground as he passed.
'This is like Dysphoria all over again,' Toby thought.
Though, given the choice, he knew which place he'd prefer to be. Absolutely. Wherever he was now, it was only throwing the same mindlessly random attacks at him as anywhere else in Phobiopolis. He sensed no will behind it. None of the canny sadism that had animated Dysphoria's pranks.
Soon enough they were out of the woods, and George nearly wiped out again. This time because the ground, and everything else, had attained the consistency of lunchmeat.
It looked like normal prairie but felt like trying to run across a bouncy castle. Toby clutched George's neck and was dribbled like a basketball. George put up with this for exactly forty-three seconds before deciding it was an assault on his dignity. He spread his wings again. Toby sighed in relief, then became amused watching hog-sized radioactive moles attempting to chase after them. They tumbled around like pinballs.
They soared uneventfully for a time. Below, the land regained rigidity and Toby saw a multitude of licking caves: the nightmares his hammer's tonguerubber grip had been made from. The beasts looked like little hills, except that whenever anything came near, they'd split open like an observatory's roof and an unspeakable tongue would flop out in search of food. Toby watched dozens of the mole-creatures get eaten. Some of the licking caves even tried to eat each other, which never ended in anything but mutual gory annihilation.
And then he and George went suddenly blind. After a bit of screaming, they realized that it was actually the landscape that had turned dark, not their vision. It even absorbed most of George's illuminated marrow. Toby wondered if they were in a black hole. He could see nothing. George figured keeping his hooves on the ground was safer, lest he fly them into unseen tree branches or cliffs. Gingerly, he descended until his hooves touched asphalt. A road. A bit of tap-tapping revealed the width of it. It felt like any normal highway. So George followed it, as there was nothing else to do. Even at full brightness he could only perceive a few inches in front of him.
Toby kept his ears perked in case something was lurking around to pounce on them. Sure enough, there was. But at least it was considerate enough to bring its own light.
They began as soft blurs. Far behind them, but closing in fast. Toby heard the hollow, windy echoes of engines. Soon the blurs looked like clumps of fog on wheels.
Ghost cars. Toby could see their headlight beams feeling the road, searching for new victims. Their forms were insubstantial as smudged pencil sketches, but Toby could see dented doors, broken windshields, missing hubcaps and other signs that these were the spirits of long-ago crashes. Dead drivers slumped in their seats, clearly no longer the ones in control. Spectral grilles grinned as they sighted prey.
But the mouse held down his fear. He knew the only ghost here was him. These were still just constructs, and the squeeze of a lightning bomb soon proved it. A snapshot flash of a ghost car's shocked scream, then it blinked into blackness like flicking a switch.
This posed a problem. The ghost cars were the only light in this inky realm. When they crowded close, George could see the road ahead which gave him advance warning of curves. When Toby extinguished the foes, George had to squint to spot the rapidly-fading highway lines. Worse still, his brief glimpses showed they were in a tunnel now, complete with a sharp stalactite ceiling. Flying was definitely out. They were stuck on the road, battling their pursuers.
It became a juggling act. Toby had to let the cars get close enough to be their night-light, but stop them before they rammed into George. Luckily, he discovered that a knife thrown through their hoods was just as effective as a lightning bomb, and these things made nice, fat targets.
Toby and George were surrounded by the screech of tires and the stench of gasoline. The ghost cars swirled and stretched like living mist, solid only when they chose to be, or when they were caught off-guard. They soon learned to go incorporeal when Toby was trying to line up a throw. This irritated him.
Finally he asked George to hold his ankles down with some tendon-ropes, because he was about to try something risky.
Toby turned around backwards in the saddle. Then, trusting in George, he let himself slide sideways. The tendon-ropes held snug. He was now horizontal with the road. He could see the yellow lines streaking by, mere feet below him. Another car was heading in to ram. Toby readied his hammer. He knew he had to be careful here, because a mistimed strike would send it flying off into the darkness where he'd never find it again.
The car's engine revved. Toby's fingers flexed.
There was a scream of crumpling metal. The front fender was driven up into the hood, exploding the tire into rubber scraps. The car squealed sideways and crashed into three of its kin.
Toby savored his victory for about five seconds until George yelped a warning and swung him up and over to prevent a second ramming attempt.
So it went.
It felt like hours passed until they saw moonlight ahead and they emerged in a brand new elsewhere. Toby was drenched in sweat and his arm pulsated with the echoes of a dozen hammer-shockwaves. He'd completely lost count of how many cars he'd scrapped. The repetition had begun to hypnotize him. All thought vanished, replaced by automatic action. Until finally, his foes began to fade away at the first touch of natural light.
The grass here was high and wavy. Waist-height. The horse and rider slowed to a walk and allowed themselves a moment of rest. George checked behind them. Nothing but an endless savanna all around. The dark region, the tunnel, and its haunted autos were all gone.
Toby's palm-slit ached like fire. Unsurprising. For a while there he'd felt like the Fearsleigher's turret: George had spun him back and forth to counter threats on either side. One time the ghost cars had even coordinated a synchronized attack from both sides. George had tried a risky maneuver. With a cry of, "Hold tight!" He'd spread his wings just before the double impact and coasted below his estimate of the spiky ceiling. The two cars totaled one another and caused a pileup. George and Toby had a moment's reprieve before the rest caught up.
Now, thankfully, it was over. Or at least, whatever new unspeakable beasts were out here hadn't shown themselves yet.
The cold evening wind rustled Toby's fur. The silent emptiness of this place should have been a relief, but instead it unsettled him. Miles of green nothing. Just infinite grass, dancing in the breeze. There were occasional stubby trees that looked like inkstains on the purple horizon.
George trotted slowly. The soft dirt felt much better than asphalt under his swollen hooves. He lifted his head and scented the air. "I believe we are near Rhinolith at last."
Toby perked up. "Really? Good. I was worried it might take us another day."
George acknowledged the same worry with a nod. "The air here smells similar. We should be less than an hour away."
Toby felt massively relieved, until he looked down at all the grass surrounding them. "Um, this stuff's not going to try to eat us, is it?"
George chuckled. "Fortunately, it seems inert. Unless it is simply waiting."
They continued on. The swishy-swish of the dancing grass was soothing to listen to. The land was dim and quiet. Toby wasn't sure if it was always nighttime here or if they really had been traveling all day till evening. Time meant nothing anymore. Their journey felt like hours. It felt like a week.
George heard faraway movement. "We may not be alone," he warned.
Toby snapped out of his calm. Relaxing, he remembered, was not a good idea until they were safe within Rhinolith's walls. He scanned in all directions. He couldn't see anything yet, but this was a perfect place for pouncing predators to hide in.
After a few minutes of staring fruitlessly into the darkness, Toby thought he saw a soft white glow. Maybe an optical illusion. "I hope it's not more of those damn cars."
Long before he could clearly see them, George recognized what they were. Even so far away, on a still night like this, the wind carried the sound of his own hoofbeats clearly.
The full moon hung overhead. An obese spectator.
The herd was coming.
George halted. No sense wasting energy when they were already on their way to meet him. He began a low, thrumming growl deep in his throat.
Toby didn't know if it was simple irritation or if it meant something in nightmare-ese. He stood up in the saddle to get a better view. The white mass was nearing. Glowing. Gleaming. Toby suddenly understood what they were.
"It just never lets up, does it?" he breathed.
George kept his eyelights fixed ahead. "Regrettably, no. It does not." He pawed the ground as he took stock of his body, seeing how much fight was left in him. "Though, in a way, I have been awaiting this. I had not yet encountered another of my kind since my reemergence. I suppose it was only a matter of time."
"Are they your old herd?" Toby asked.
George focused, casting his sight out as far as he could. "I cannot tell. Though does it matter? Would they recognize me even if they were? Or I them?"
Toby sat back down. He ran a gloved hand along his friend's neck. "I'll be right by your side, George."
The bonecuddy looked back. "No you will not, Sire," he said firmly. "This is my cross to bear. They are my past, and I shall face what I once was. It is not your fight. Quickly, climb down into my ribcage. I will protect you."
The mouse hesitated. Looking ahead again, the herd's numbers were more numerous than his first guess. Toby wasn't sure if George could take them all alone, but he didn't want to sound insulting by saying so. Instead, he hopped down into the springy grass and pulled himself inside his companion. Layers of shock-absorbing fat began to form all around him. "You don't have to," was all the mouse said.
George gazed forward, facing the oncoming horde. He folded his wings as best he could to hide Sire Toby from their sight. "I have come this far in shame of my origins. You and the others have done your best to assure my success in becoming something new. Now I must test that belief by experiment."
Toby nodded. "I can respect that." He looked ahead and steeled himself, knowing he was about to experience massive turbulence.
They rumbled across the grassland in a V formation, like a swarm of birds, or a plow. Their bones seemed to catch and imprison the moonlight. Brilliant ivory white. Sparks of color shot through calcium like comets' tails. Their teeth were bared. Their hooves trampled the grass to mud. The sound of their synchronized galloping was like an ongoing explosion, rolling across the landscape, growing louder and louder as their arrival drew near.
George tried not to quiver as he faced eleven reflections of his former self.
Within a perimeter of twenty feet, the others all stopped on hidden signal.
Toby could hardly breathe, awestruck by the sight of them. They were terrifying and gorgeous in equal measure. On Gilla's porch, he'd only seen the one that killed him for a second. There hadn't been time for details. Now, Toby could understand George's vanity. It was surprising his friend could stand his blackened, sooty appearance after having been one of these. They were masterpiece nightmares. Long, lean, unblemished bone glinted with rainbow hues. And some were unicorns! Toby couldn't believe it. Two of them brandished icicle-shaped spears, stretching skyward from their brows. Leaders? Did these things have a hierarchy? Toby noticed something else interesting. The others' colors were brighter, yet George's aura was sharper.
They stared at George in vicious confusion. Their nostrils drew in the smell of prey, which seemed to coexist within their charred cousin. This was beyond them. They shook their heads and stamped their feet, waiting for this unnatural thing in front of them to clarify whether it was enemy or family.
George felt the weight of their gazes like an iron yoke around his neck. Could these be his own relations? Had the herd been so large in his day? Or had their number grown in the centuries without him?
They were waiting. Eager to attack, yet momentarily held at bay by the inscrutability of this two-scented enigma.
George could not bear the tension any longer. He stamped his hoof, hard, twice. Then addressed them in their native tongue.
Eleven pairs of spectral ears perked up.
In the language of constructs, George tried to persuade them. Toby could not understand the meaning of the tortured-sounding grunts and bellows, but George's tone sounded pleading. Diplomatic but desperate.
'He's telling them what he's become. Asking them if they'll try too,' he realized.
The other bonecuddies gasped at the astonishing ideas coming out of the darkone before them. Impossible ideas. Ideas so beyond what they were currently capable of, they seemed to scrape painfully inside of their skulls.
George was building to his most fervent plea when one of the light ones suddenly bellowed and charged. These ideas caused too much pain. They had to be stopped. The others agreed.
George dug in his hooves and braced for battle.
Toby shielded his eyes.
The next thing he knew, intense heat smacked his face. George had unleashed a gargantuan fireball.
It startled the others, who never could have imagined one of their own using such an attack on them. It boiled their marrow even hotter. This thing was not just insane, but a traitor. The living soul inside its ribs was not prey, but a parasite! They had to destroy it! And then destroy their corrupted kin.
The struggle that took place that night was a spectacle deserving of a vast audience. But only the moon and one small mouse were there to witness. One bonecuddy against eleven. Black against white. An uneven chess match played out on a board of swaying grass.
It was a battle of strategy versus brutality. The white stallions were more numerous, but George had the ability to think. And what was more, he had something to protect. It wasn't just cleverness that kept him bounding out of their attack range, or smash them with unexpected kicks. He had a reason to fight. One they could not begin to appreciate. Their motivation was to purge the infection from his body. George's was to keep safe the small living soul he cared about more than anything else in the world. His eyelights shone like drops of molten steel. His gritted teeth struck sparks.
They came at him from every side but one. Above. The sheer crushing weight of their numbers should have bulldozed George into powder, but he had another advantage besides his heart: his wings. They could not hold him down. They kicked and chewed, but he could regrow flesh perpetually. He lashed broken bones back together faster than they could break them again. Their squalling shrieks were a tempest of outrage. The abomination in their midst would not submit and die. Again and again, he leapt away from their attacks to divebomb, shattering skulls and vertebrae whenever he struck.
Toby cringed in darkness and weathered the storm. He had his eyes shut tight. He wished he could lift his arms to cover his face. Gravity kept changing direction, kicking him from every angle. His ears were folded back, but the sounds that made it through rattled like a heavily-shelled warzone.
For a while, George was brawling well enough to feel confident. Sire Toby's heart still beat within him. His own bones were scraped and cracked, but nothing important was broken. He'd scored seven kills already. But the problem was, his earliest victories were beginning to regenerate and rejoin. He suddenly realized he had a twelfth opponent: time. The only way he could win was to slay all eleven before the first could rise again. He calculated and realized it might be impossible.
For that brief instant of doubt, he was unguarded.
A flying pair of backhooves slammed into his cheek with the force of a car crash. George's left side went dark. They had taken his depth perception.
He roared in rage and doubled his ferocity, but the tide had turned. With only half his vision, he now had a literal blind spot they could exploit. He felt several more hooves smash into his legs and pelvis. Strong, blunt teeth clamped down on his wings, not trying to chew but to hold. Keeping him still so the others could rain down punishment. George struggled with the devil's strength, but there is a point where all the will in one's heart simply cannot conquer physics. Ten bonecuddies chomped down, digging their teeth into his ash-flaked frame. More weight than he could withstand. George writhed and bucked and shrieked and gushed fire into the faces of his demon doubles.
Their jaws clamped down harder. They were not so stupid as to be beneath cooperation. While ten of them held on, the remaining stallion charged.
George saw too late. He reared back his head to counter, but the one at his shoulder leapt up to bite down hard on the shattered side of his face, pulverizing the eye socket completely. The lightone held down the blackened heathen, preventing him from stopping what was rushing towards him.
Toby had been covering his eyes until he heard George's scream of, not pain, but anguish. The mouse risked a glance. A silvery-white lance was advancing.
Then the unicorn drove its horn through the top of Toby's cranium, shredding down the mouse's esophagus and spreading streaks of brain matter across his other organs. The construct snorted in satisfaction and screwed its head back and forth, churning the already-dead parasite to slush.
George wailed. His cry was not from loss, as he knew full well that death was impermanent. Neither was it from the agony of feeling his master's pain as he would his own. It was from the deeper pain of failure. When he'd seen the other constructs on the horizon, he'd been certain he could defeat them. So certain that he'd stood his ground and asked his closest friend to hide in the safest place he knew. Only now did he understand his arrogance. 'I could have flown away,' he realized. There was never any real need to confront them. They meant nothing. They were no different from any other beast he'd slain or fled from. He had only made them important by projecting upon them the memories of his past self. And Sire Toby had suffered because of it. No physical pain could compare.
Driven by grief, George whipped his head forward and tore a skull clean off its neck. Then he jammed his black teeth into the unicorn lancer's forehead. It gurgled a sound of surprise. George sucked out he shimmering essence and chewed it to tatters. The unicorn let out a shrill, excruciating wail at feeling its very existence vivisected.
The others fell upon their bastard cousin in fury. They held on with their teeth and pounded hooves against George's bones, trying to shatter his limbs and ribs. They'd long since turned his wings to crumpled, useless kites dragging from his shoulders.
George howled to the sky. He could feel his master's limp body dangling from within his own. The blood ran down his legs and pooled in the dirt. He prepared to light an ultimate pyre. If they would not let him go, his flames would fuse their bones to his. He would bring them all to cinders. His inner lights surged. His temperature rose. He changed tactics, no longer trying to escape but trying to keep them from escaping him. He heard them squeal as his fire began to burn their skulls as black as his own. They would learn. All of them. Fire was the most primitive and strict of instructors.
Someone's pelvis turned into ivory confetti.
George felt the weight on one side of him lessen.
An agonized whinny as a femur became a mist of splinters.
Those still living among the lightones wrenched their heads away from George's burning haunches to search for what was reducing their numbers.
George knew. And suddenly he felt limitlessly foolish for thinking he could do this on his own.
This was a two-man job.
Toby disappeared again. The grass was the perfect height to hide him. The fire was so bright it stung his eyes, but he didn't dare look away from the mob of maddened bonecuddies that were tearing themselves away from George's welding torch of a body. Some realized they were being stalked. One caught the sound of rustling and turned its head directly to Toby's position.
He stepped out into its view. He held up his palm.
The lightone snorted. The parasite was loose! It was reaching out for mercy! It would find none! It would-
Toby's hammer pushed its face through its spinal column.
"GEORGE!! I'M WITH YOU!!!" the mouse roared.
George heard. There were still so many weighing him down, and his own bones were already so fragile, but there was only one option left. He had to shove them all off at once. For that he'd need some divine intervention. When he'd done this before, he'd always needed to raise his forequarters high and then bring them down in a smash. But he couldn't now. Instead, he decided, he would simply will it to be. He concentrated all his mind on his fire, raising his inner furnace to temperatures beyond limits. And at the instant when he let his boiler overflow, he called down the lightning.
Toby went blind.
George became a living cataclysm. Heat and electricity exploded out of him, ripping the other bonecuddies apart. Incinerated instantly. For one singular moment, George beamed brighter than all of them combined.
Toby crawled backwards on hands and knees. He couldn't see. He could barely hear. A high-pitched drill was skewering his head. George had blown up somehow. A lightning bolt had come and his friend had erupted like a volcano. It was amazing to watch, but Toby thought his retinas were probably baked into glass right about now. Worse, he could feel hoofbeats shaking the soil nearby. The survivors of the blast were converging on him. Toby waved his palm around wildly, but knew in his heart he couldn't hope to make a blind shot.
Two nearby bonecuddies had charred and smoking rear ends. They had to limp along, dragging themselves by their forelegs. But even crippled like this, they were certain they could outrun the rodent they smelled. They cast a glance between themselves and zeroed in, attacking from both sides, heaving themselves forward to plunge their hooves into the-
The rodent was pushing its hand against its temple. Then it ceased to be there.
Two pairs of hooves smashed down onto nothing but grass. The lightones snorted petulantly and scanned around for any signs of their quarry.
They weren't looking for George.
He ran to the one on the right, bit down, and peeled its ribcage open like a trash can lid. It sputtered in inexpressible agony. George was kind enough to end its misery by planting a crushing hoof in its throat. Its corpse bounced in the grass with a thump. Its head landed nearby.
The other stared. First at its dead companion, then at the looming form of the blackened heathen. It had no concept of a Grim Reaper, or else its mind would have instantly flown to the image. It cowered in terror nonetheless, separated from its herd and pinned under the vengeful gaze of this inconceivable betrayal.
"You sicken me," George snarled, and passed judgment upon the construct at his feet.
The others were beginning to recover after being blasted to kingdom come. Toby had reappeared, senses intact, a few feet away from the action. When the cluster of bonecuddies smelled him, they turned like a single mind.
Toby tossed a lightning bomb into their midst, then ran.
Electric arcs took out two of the constructs that were closest together. There were screams of surprise and hatred as the others detoured around the smoking remains and gave chase.
George gave chase too.
The lightones were keeping their focus entirely on Sire Toby. His master was cutting through the grass like a hot scythe, zig-zagging crazily, easily eluding them. The poor dumb creatures, their minds were overtaxed tonight. They weren't watching their flanks.
George sped along behind them, gaining ground. He'd known he'd lose his wings in death; that was how potions worked. But even without them he could still leap. While his cousins saw only the mouse in front, George lunged into the air and came down upon two unfortunate backbones. Two lovely, splintering crunches. The crippled pair fell to the grass, braying in pain and horror. George elected to leave them like this. They deserved no merciful coup de grâce.
'Two down, minus the pair back there, leaves seven,' George calculated. And now it was easy. He'd ensured his own failure when he tried to take them all on at once. There can be no victory when your enemy surrounds you. But now they were spread out, still chasing Sire Toby, whose feats of evasion were quite extraordinary. No normal soul could outrun a bonecuddy without a heroic injection of willpower. Then suddenly, only six remained. George guffawed as he watched Sire Toby suddenly stop dead, turn, slide past the legs of a bewildered pursuer, then hammerstrike its ankle into glue. It tumbled into the grass like a crashing airplane.
Toby's ears pounded with the drumming of hoofbeats. He readied himself to be stomped into goo, or maybe impaled again, when suddenly a black corvette T-boned the two nearest bonecuddies and slammed them to the ground in a tangle of bony limbs. George sank his hooves through their ribs with the ease of breaking toothpicks.
Toby had never seen his friend's eyes glow such colors.
Flushed with glee, George pranced over and met his master's eyes. And suddenly his pride was replaced with overwhelming shame.
Because the mouse's face was etched in horror. Shock. Revulsion. Sire Toby was seeing him for what he was. No more or less than these craven beasts surrounding him.
He allowed only a fraction of a second to be overwhelmed by self-disgust. Then he swiveled his head to the three remaining lightones. George snorted blue flames. He shook rib fragments from his battered hooves and advanced upon the trio.
Bonecuddies are relatively intelligent by nightmare standards. These ones were smart enough to know when it was time to retreat.
George charged towards the quaking threesome anyway. They could not scamper fast enough to stop him leaping forward and biting the remaining unicorn's horn clean off, leaving behind a hole in its skull like a gunshot.
He snorted towards the fleeing nightmares, "RUN!!!" To hell with their shared language. Spoken words were more elegant. "Run from me, you low, weak, primitive insects!! You gutless dullards! BLIND!!! ALL OF YOU!! So blind you can't see how blind you are! Let your fleeing backsides be the last I see of you, or next time I'll scatter chunks of your carcasses from one edge of this world to the other!! BASTARDS! FEEBLE-MINDED VERMIN!!! REMEMBER THIS NIGHT! THE NIGHT I TAUGHT YOU HOW TO FEAR!!!"
The remaining bonecuddies fled as soon as they reincarnated. George chased them away, still shouting and snapping at their heels. His contempt for them was bottomless. They fled from his teeth and his tirade, all scattering in different directions. George could not permanently kill them, but at least he had scared the collective into eleven whinnying deserters.
George watched them bolt towards the horizon, keeping his eyes on them until they vanished into specks. He was trembling from fury. A mane of flames along the length of his spine still burned without him realizing it. His tail was also alight, looking like a firework fountain.
Toby peeked out from the grass. He saw his friend and protector standing in the center of a clearing where everything living had been scorched flat. Breathing heavily, he pulled himself to his feet and approached.
George's head was still twitching back and forth like a clock's second hand, watching for any sign of returning bonecuddies. From his sneer, he looked like he even hoped for it.
Toby reached out to pat him comfortingly. Then he winced and snatched his hand back. "Jeeze! You're like a stove burner!"
The stallion jumped at the mouse's outcry. "Sire Toby! My endless apologies!" He grimaced and snarled. "It seems I am completely unable to stop myself from bringing you harm..."
George's head popped up. "You laugh at this!?"
Toby could hardly believe his friend was serious. "You're not still upset I got shish-kebabbed are you? It's allright. I know you tried like crazy to keep me safe for a hell of a long time. And it's not like worse stuff hasn't happened to me. At least it was quick."
George looked absolutely baffled, actually backing up a step. "But... But I... I was a fool! I let them harm you! I invited them to attack when, if I'd had any sense, I should have fled! I am directly responsible for causing you to suffer!"
Toby gave the quaking bonecuddy a withering look. Then he approached him. George shrank back, not sure what his master intended. Toby opened his arms and hugged the silly horse. It sizzled a bit, but he didn't take his arms away.
George stood there paralyzed for a moment. But then he turned to jelly and flopped down in the grass.
Mouse arms were around his neck in no time. Toby squeezed gently, not minding the heat anymore. It had leveled off; just about the same as sitting close to a campfire.
"Sire Toby... It is hard for me to understand," George said in a very small voice.
"Why?" the mouse asked gently.
He jerked his head away, almost insulted. "Because...! Because I am a beast! At heart I am merely one more of their number! I know, yes, I have come far from my roots. You do not need to remind me. But to see them..." He looked out across the moonlit savanna again. "Memories are one thing. But to see their savagery, their brutality... their ignorance!!" he hissed.
George's chest did not rise and fall with breath as a living soul's would. He also lacked a heartbeat. Yet when Toby held him close like this, the mouse could feel a faint shifting of his colors. Like water flowing through buried pipes.
He was about to remind George of all the things he'd done that demonstrated loyalty and thoughtfulness, but then he reconsidered. Sometimes it's not enough to be told something. Not when your own eyes seem to contradict it. Instead, he decided to tell his friend a story. "Once upon a time, George, there was a star being."
George angled his skull back towards his master, making an 'Excuse me?' sound.
"There was a star being," Toby reasserted. "And it got killed. Its body floated around until this ugly asshole called Logdorbhok found it and smeared its cruddy ugliness all over it. Like wiping boogers on toilet paper. But the star being had started out good and was still good underneath."
"This is what Sir Aldridge told us," George recalled.
"Yes, but none of us understood what it meant at the time," Toby said. He poked the stallion right between the eyes. "That star-being is you." He pointed away, to where the bonecuddies had fled. "And them. And all the other constructs. Even my hammer. It's all made of the same stuff, which is inherently good. George, you've had it backwards all along. You didn't start out being like them. They started out being like you."
The stallion froze stiff.
Toby rested his cheek against his friend's flaking cheek. "I remember the night I found you. You told me you wanted to be my servant, so you could learn how to be better. How to be kind and sweet and polite. George, haven't you realized? You never needed me to teach you any of that." He smiled reassuringly. "You were perfect from the moment you woke up. You never needed my help, or any of us."
George's old neck bones softly creaked as his head hinged downwards under the weight of the revelation.
Toby patted him between the ears.
"I was afraid sometimes," George whispered.
"You," he replied, turning to meet Toby's eyes. "Specifically, of the moment when you would begin to fear me. I felt it was inevitable. Upon our first meeting, I knew you were in shock. You couldn't have accepted me otherwise. And I hid my trepidation the next morning, fearing that the instant you woke up you would scramble off my back and vanish into the wasteland. But you didn't. And then further on, when you suggested selling me I thought, 'Well, here it is.' But I was wrong again. You kept... confusing me by refusing to turn away."
"I never realized," Toby said.
"I am a good actor," George replied with a hint of a smile.
Toby rubbed up and down his friend's backbone, then winced. "It must have been really hard on you when I stomped off after the waterfall."
George nodded. "Yes it was. But even then, I could see that it was not due to my own actions, but friction between yourself and Madam Brox. You even spared a word for me as you left. Such consideration..." He sighed. "Sire Toby, I have waited so long for the moment when I'd look at you and see fear in your eyes, and I thought I saw it a moment ago. Yet here you are now, as if it never happened."
Toby just smiled at him and shrugged a little. "I don't remember ever fearing you. Maybe my eyes were just bugged out, watching you stomp those other guys."
George reflected. Maybe that was what he'd seen. Not fear, but awe.
Toby asked, "George, why did you think I'd give up on you? Was it," he flinched, "because I was such a scaredy cat overall?"
"Not at all!" George was quick to reassure. "It was not a lack of faith in you, Sire Toby, but in myself. I was unable to believe I deserved such compassion as yours. I worried that you were... 'too good to be true' as the saying goes. Whenever you showed me kindness, I would recall my past misconduct. Memories of merciless sadism. And there were times I would slip and find myself enjoying those memories..." He turned his face away from his friend, unable to bear the shame.
Toby sat up a little straighter, then he took George's skull into his paws and manually rotated it back towards him. Eye to eyelight. He spoke with great solemnity. "George. Listen to me."
"Fuck the past," said Toby. He chuckled tiredly. "What's it ever done for us, right?"
George could not stop a small laugh from exiting him as well. "You sounded like Madam Brox for a moment."
A nod. "I was thinking of her."
The construct's inner light cycled through several gentle colors. "While I would not have expected you to phrase it in such a way, Sire Toby, I believe I understand your meaning."
"Good. Because as your master, I am hereby ordering you to stop thinking so badly of yourself. You have been the most loyal companion I could ever ask for. Whatever you used to be, you've already more than made up for it in my opinion. I'm just sorry you were keeping this to yourself all this time. If I'd known, I would have disagreed sooner."
George looked deep into the coral eyes of his friend. The thorny brambles inside him began to unclench. His air of assured self-confidence had always been easy to fake when he was with the others, and sometimes it even felt true. Now, he thought that maybe it could stop being an act. George could not put words to it, but he now understood the power of a rare moment that few people are able to recognize or appreciate: having someone see you for all that you are, both the good and the bad, and still love you.
Toby didn't know exactly what George was thinking, but his friend looked better already. He'd always changed moods swiftly and with intensity. "Are you okay now? Do you want to rest a little more?"
"No, no. I am quite recovered. Though I would enjoy another vial of potion. A bit of flight would be soothing to my nerves at this time."
Toby stood up and brushed the burnt grass from his legfur. He dug around in the backpack. "Gotcha. I think I'd enjoy a night breeze too. Oh, and just in case you were thinking it, you don't have to apologize about fighting those guys. I know we could have flown or run away, but there's a reason I didn't even suggest it."
George pondered that as he hefted himself to his hooves. "Are you telepathic, Sire Toby?"
A chuckle. "Nah, I just figured... Some things are important. Personal." Toby found the cache of aluminum pills. "Here you go."
"Thank you." George accepted it with a bow. A moment later he gave Toby yet another dazzling show as his wings reemerged. They grew much faster this time. After a bit of pleasurable excruciation, George moaned contentedly as he stretched his new bones and regrew the membranes between them.
Toby looked around for stray bonecuddies once more, before grabbing some ribs and hoisting himself up. "Sorry your family turned out to be a bunch of jerks, George. I can empathize."
The stallion snickered. "At least I tried. I'm sure you heard me attempt to convert them, even if the dialect was not clear. I thought perhaps I could make them see how limited their lives were, that a door was open to greater experiences."
"It's not your fault they didn't listen," Toby said.
"I am aware."
Toby patted his headbone again. "Maybe someday. Maybe we could round 'em up and bury them for a while. Until then, at least we've got each other. And soon we'll have everyone else back too."
"With luck and courage, yes," George nodded. He arched his back and prepared for takeoff.
What Toby said next came out as nothing more than a casual remark. "I know I used to be an only child, but I've had some experience lately. I think you would've made a great brother."
The bonecuddy had been testing the wind and trotting forward to begin building speed, but suddenly he stumbled.
For a moment Toby thought he'd said something offensive. "...George?"
The stallion slowly turned his head, fixing his eyelights on the mouse. "Only Sir L'roon has ever said that word to me before."
Toby noticed George was actually trembling a little. He'd really struck a nerve. "'Brother'?"
"Yes. Did you mean it?" the construct asked, or rather pleaded.
"Of course," Toby said without hesitation. He smiled warmly. "I guess I've got two brothers now. Skeeto in Scarlatina and you right here."
From George's reaction, Toby thought he would have been crying if he were able. He looked up towards the moon, overcome with his depth of feeling. "Sire Toby, I cannot fathom what I have ever done to earn you."
Toby leaned in close to hug him again. "Same here."
George laughed as if coming up for air. Then his jollity rose in volume and intensity as he began to run. When his wings swept the pair of them up into the sky, he was bellowing in joy. Toby joined in, screaming his heart out just for the fun of it.
George grinned and made himself an arrow. Streamlined and deadly. He pointed towards Rhinolith and streaked across the sky.
Toby woke up to a bony nose nudging his ribs. "Sire, the sun has risen."
The mouse flopped around for a moment in unfamiliar sheets. Then he stretched and gurgled. He glanced out the window at the unspeakable horrors surrounding him, then followed George into someone else's kitchen for a quiet breakfast.
Toby had known yesterday that they didn't have much time to implement his grand plan before the others arrived. Every tick of the clock was a stomp of Red's big feet. 'Could he be at Ectopia Cordis already?' Toby wondered. Even so, the night before, he couldn't bring himself to start on the unpleasant chores ahead. Knowing he'd have to work doubly hard the next day, he and George landed within Rhinolith and found a house that wasn't currently engulfed. They snacked briefly from the pantry and fell asleep. Toby took the bed, George wrecked the couch.
Now it was morning. As Toby crunched his cereal, he knew he had a hell of a day before him. He wondered why he was even bothering to eat anything at all, knowing what was coming.
At least the weather was cooperative. The sun was bright overhead. Not a hint of breeze. But a pall covered everything nonetheless. Rhinolith was silent. A village turned to stone by a medusa made of vinyl. Like the story told by Gilla-Gilla's smashed window and secret door, Rhinolith's streets were a narrative spun in a single snapshot. Scaphis had scaled the wall, surrounded the villagers, and drowned them in herself.
Strings of skin crisscrossed the town like carnival banners. Like cobwebs. As if a giant toddler had leaned in above the town with an enormous crayon in hand, scribbling thick, waxy lines of pinkish-beige all over. And in these strands were tangled citizens, frozen in their last instant of free will. They were posed like action figures: some running away, some attacking the unkillable invader, some on their knees in despair. If these people were still awake inside, Toby thought they were probably noting who amongst their own had shown courage or cowardice.
Rhinolith seemed like the kind of place where courage would be highly valued. The architecture suggested a blend of barbarian, punk, and paranoid militia. Just about everyone was wearing some kind of armor. No one was without a weapon. 'These people didn't even relax inside their own home turf,' Toby thought. As he walked out into the empty street, he could hear the dirt crunch beneath his sandals. A tiny sound, but there were no other noises to drown it out. "I kinda wish I could have seen this place when it was alive."
"I as well," George replied, joining his side. "What are our plans for today?"
Toby crossed his arms behind his back and took in a panorama. "George, how's your nose?"
He cocked his head at the odd question. "Fine as ever."
"I meant, I know you're not a dog, but can you sniff out imaginite?"
George lifted his head and drew air up through his sinus cavities. "Not with ease, as it is an inert mineral of no strong odor, but I should be able to locate some if it is nearby, yes."
Toby nodded. He'd thought so, but it felt good to be reassured. He waved his hand across the city. "I'm going to need you to find all of it for me. Every speck."
George was stunned. "Sire Toby! These people will have quite a low opinion of us indeed if we rob them of all their wealth!"
Toby took in a deep breath and cast his eyes down. "I know. But yesterday, you told me to consider every option in fighting Scaphis. I know this city's gonna hate us. I know it's going to be hard for them to recover after we run off with all their rocks. I even thought that maybe we could pick some off Anasarca instead. But she'd be closer. If we have to sneak around right under her nose, I'd rather it be in a place her consciousness is far away from."
"So we assume," George pointed out.
"Yes." Toby nodded, then took a deep breath to reinforce his confidence. "I know this is risky, and it'll hurt these people. But I think getting unfrozen will be a fair tradeoff for them."
"I will concede that," George acknowledged. "May I ask what we will need the imaginite for?"
Toby told him.
The stallion looked very surprised. "That will certainly make an impression."
Toby let a grim little grin slide onto his face. "I hope. But before we get started, there's something I wanna try out first." He pointed down the street. "Go over there, about a block away."
Last night, they'd chosen this place because it was in-between exits. Most people had fled away from it when Scaphis invaded, meaning there was little of her vinyl to dodge. George still passed empty houses with their windows and doors smashed in. Scaphis had left a hell of a lot of herself all over the town, but there were signs she was actually conserving her flesh as efficiently as she could. She did not leave strands in any place where she had searched and found nothing. Her plastic remained only to keep citizens entombed, and to maintain a network of connections between her prisoners.
As Toby watched George trot away, he suddenly realized just how much the pattern of her stringy flesh reminded him of neural pathways. Dendrites. 'Something to think about later,' he told himself.
George stood between a streetlamp and a butcher shop. "And now, Sire?"
Toby cupped his hands around his muzzle. "Find something to throw at my face as hard as you can!"
George briefly feared his master had gone insane. "Sire!?"
Toby couldn't help a laugh at his friend's bewildered posture. "Trust me! I'm pretty sure if I think about this too much, or try to explain it first, it won't happen. Just chuck something big but catchable, like a brick. And don't hold back!"
Loathing the prospect of harming his dearest friend, George nervously scanned for a suitable object. He peeked inside the butcher's broken window and saw nothing but meat. Finally he settled on a loose chunk of curb.
When he looked back at Sire Toby, the mouse had his left arm curled tightly around his back, holding up his fingerless right to catch the projectile with. "Sire!!" he protested.
Toby bobbed from foot to foot, psyching himself up. This might be really, really stupid, and it might really, really hurt. "Trust me, George! C'mon! Throw it hard! Make me need to catch it!" He clutched the back of his vest with his left hand, keeping it locked away, useless. He flexed his fingerstumps. He felt the weight of his hammer.
George sighed and whimpered, "I preemptively apologize if I damage you."
Then he reared his head back and whipped it around in a perfect pitch.
Toby saw the chunk of concrete whiz towards his skull like a cannonball. Big as a fist. It rotated in slow motion.
He dumped all his willpower into his hand, but nothing was happening yet. 'Oh shit! It's gonna break all my hand bones and drive my nose through the back of my head!'
He shrieked a squeak and closed his eyes.
Toby was breathing faster than a hummingbird. The impact had skidded him backwards three feet.
"Sire Toby!!" George shouted in astonishment.
When Toby pried his eyes open, he saw, to his immense relief, exactly what he'd hoped to. The concrete baseball had been stopped an inch from his face, with his right hand's gleaming steel fingers clamped around it.
George ran back towards the mouse to gawk.
Toby's body relaxed but he did not let go of the hunk of curb. He wasn't sure if his new hand would vanish the instant he did. At least it wasn't vanishing now. He was looking right at it, and it continued to exist while he was aware of it. That was a very good result.
George skidded to a stop, spraying pebbles. He watched his master reverently trace a finger along the metal. "How did you know? What exactly occurred?"
Toby tapped the fingers. They registered touch just like his real ones. This was not a mere prosthesis. He looked up at his friend with a dizzy smile and let go of the concrete chunk. It thudded to the street below. Toby flexed his new fingers, then waved hello to George.
He gaped. "It's your hammer!!"
Toby nodded, grinning ear to ear. "You got it. When I brought you back to your senses in the market, there was a moment where I remembered punching your head open and actually grabbing hold of your brains. My hand wasn't what I was paying attention to obviously, but later I thought, 'How the heck did I do that with all my fingers missing?' And yesterday, I think it happened again a few times, but I'm not sure. Moments where I needed both hands, so my hammer made me a new one." He rubbed his furless pink left over his new argent right. The melted steel flowed out of his palmslit, leaving a slight pucker in the center. It covered his hand all the way to the wrist, where it ended in a seam like a glove. And when he clenched his hand in a fist, the fingers fused into a solid steel block. Seamless. He was worried it might stick like that, yet when he flexed his hand again, the fingers separated just like normal. He tried it again. Fist. Fingers. Fist. Fingers. He giggled excitedly. "Cool!!"
Before he could let himself stop and think, he dashed towards the nearest building and punched the wall. His steel fist plowed through brick like a wrecking ball, but Toby was left gasping and hopping. Pain had blossomed all along his arm up to the shoulder. "Ow ow ow ow! Lesson learned! It's only my hand that's metal, not the rest of me!"
George stepped closer. "Are you injured?"
Toby wheezed a laugh. "No, no, I'm fine! I feel great, actually! I don't know how long this'll last, or if I can actually control when it comes and goes, but just knowing I have it is fantastic!" With both hands, he tugged George's ribs. "I was thinking I'd have to spend the whole rest of forever with only one hand! I even started teaching myself to write with my left! I thought I'd never be able to tie a shoe, or pick up a penny, or thread a needle, or anything else delicate like that. I mean, I was getting by before. But to have my fingers back like normal, its...!" There weren't words. He just hugged his friend.
"I am very happy for you, Sire Toby!"
The mouse grinned more and gave his friend an extra squeeze. Then he let go and surveyed the town. The success of his experiment had filled him with verve. "Allright! We've got a lot of ground to cover and I've gotta work up an appetite!"
George nodded a salute and drew in a deep breath. "I believe I smell imaginite in the very shop I was standing by a moment ago."
Kitchens were some of the best places to find the stuff. Many of Rhinolith's bars and eateries were thoughtstaurants, or made fresh meals from imaginite ingredients like Poubelle & After's. Better still, these places tended to have willwells nearby, so Toby didn't have to exhaust himself using his own. Plus, he rarely had to step over any bits of Scaphis, as people do not tend to run into restaurants while their city is being attacked. Though in one saloon, Toby and George came upon a few dozen children and parents who'd tried seeking shelter in the back room. Fish in a barrel. What Scaphis had done to them looked exactly like spraying a huddled mass of frightened people with quick-hardening plumber's foam. The fear in their eyes was almost too much to bear.
But there were things more important than his own emotions. So Toby stole from them right in front of their petrified gazes. He did his best to keep stoic. He apologized and promised them he had good reason. He didn't know if they could hear him.
So it went. George's wings were invaluable throughout the day. There were many places inaccessible by foot due to the dangling streaks of Scaphis all around. The duo went about their business mostly in silence, partially out of reverence for the victims, partially out of nervousness. It was skin-crawling to be so near to her, knowing that one single stumble could wake her up. She'd leap to life and end their mission so quickly they wouldn't even have time to scream.
The duo burgled businesses until Toby built up the stomach to start breaking into houses. He felt like the Grinch. Slithering through windows, tiptoeing around homeowners plastered in their beds, rifling their drawers and cupboards. It was heart-wrenching work. But Toby knew they needed all the imaginite. He could not half-ass this. He had to go for overkill beyond his wildest imagination, because too little would be fatal. He knew that. Nothing could be left to chance. And so he walked all day from room to room, following George's sense of smell, chewing until his jaw felt purple with agony. A few times he even killed himself to make the ache stop.
Along the way they began to understand Rhinolith as a city and the Bargeld as a people. Here they were, way out in the badlands, nightmares on every side. Everyone was walled in like life in a fallout shelter. That kind of isolation could drive people insane. Toby remembered shows about cabin fever: people trapped in the woods for so long they went mad and chopped each other up for stewmeat. Coryza at least opened up once a day to stave off claustrophobia. Rhinolith had only a few metal doors. And so the people kept their spirits up in any way they could. Sure, everyone was armed. But brawling just seemed like a way of life to them. There were posters all over for bare knuckle boxing events, wrestling, and even outright deathmatches. He saw flyers for other sporting events, concerts, and shows. Banners for upcoming festivals. And lots and lots of bars, all decorated with framed photos of good times. It seemed like these people were always either fighting or partying from the moment they woke up.
And Toby began to get the sense that these victims weren't mindwiped like Piffle, Zinc, and Junella. He passed by uncountable cocooned Bargeld throughout the morning, and sometimes he swore he heard breathing. Sometimes he'd notice one of them drool, or with a yellow puddle around their feet. Once in a great while, he'd hear a moan or an attempt at a word. A picture was emerging that these people were aware. Locked in their bodies by Scaphis' paralysis, still capable of thinking and seeing. And sometimes they even mustered up the willpower for the slightest iota of resistance.
This theory was proven when they came upon the royal palace. Or so they assumed. It was the biggest house in town, and one of only a few buildings that rose above the height of the city walls. Whereas most of the buildings were Coryzan in appearance (everything smershed together efficiently with little twisting streets in between), this house was pointy and huge and ostentatious. George had to fly Toby over a rat's nest of guardsmen, all fighting to prevent Scaphis from getting inside. Unfortunately, she had fought with equal ferocity. When she conquered them, she'd poured herself down their mouths and nostrils. Just to make doubly sure they stayed put.
Dropping through a skylight, Toby and George found the silent battle continuing inside. The walls in this broad hallway had once been bedecked in ceremonial weaponry. Almost all of it had been torn down in desperation to hold off Scaphis. Toby saw civilians, maids, and other servants all joining in the doomed fray.
At last they came to the king. Or the chief. Whatever they called the guy in charge, he was now as much a statue as anyone else. He was the biggest man in a city full of musclebound hulks: a hippopotamus with a crown of giant, jagged teeth. While his followers fought to protect him, he had not sat idle on his throne. Ensnared in vines of vinyl, veins stood out on his biceps as he reared his twin hatchets back for a last blow that never fell. On his face was stitched a snarl of undying fury.
And as Toby and George passed by to raid his treasury, a hissed whisper froze them in their tracks.
Toby walked back with his mouth agape. When he looked in the chief's eyes, they were blazing. The hippo's muscles were motionless, yet seemed to vibrate with constrained energy.
Toby looked down at his palmslit. He wanted to grant the man's request. A hammerstrike to the forehead would do it. But they'd successfully avoided Scaphis' notice so far. Toby could not jeopardize that for anything. Even if he did free the chief, all the man stood to gain was a few seconds of movement before Scaphis shackled him in place again, alongside a mouse and a bonecuddy.
Toby looked up solemnly into the chief's eyes. "I'm sorry. I can't give you either."
He swore he saw the chief's rage rise.
"But what I'm doing now will free you later, I promise. I don't know how long you've been here like this, and I know it must be the cruelest thing in the world to ask you for patience. But that's how it is." Toby hesitated, but then thought if anyone here deserved an explanation, it was the city's leader. He quickly laid out his plan.
He could tell he was not believed.
Toby sighed. There wasn't time to waste convincing him. So they left.
George led the way to where the imaginite was stored. A stone-walled vault, filled to the rafters with great wooden crates upholstered in bear fur. George went to work smashing them open. Toby poured his will onto the sparkling stones inside.
After an hour or so, they returned through the throne room on their way out. Toby couldn't bring himself to make eye contact this time. He felt a burning gaze on his back until they were outside.
He decided he couldn't stand stuffy rooms anymore. They'd been sticking to a semi-planned route, but now he told George to take him someplace he wouldn't feel boxed in. George placed his troubled master astride his back and took to the air.
They passed over houses and taverns. A sporting arena. An artillery range. A school. Soon they spotted a produce market. It reminded Toby of Scarlatina. He asked George to land.
The market was completely free of frozen citizens. No one had tried to hide or fight here. No walls for protection, nothing to hide under but flimsy tables and carts. Toby and George walked amongst the rows of slowly-spoiling vegetables, looking for cash boxes or vendors' raw materials. It was quiet here. That made things much easier. Toby didn't think he could take any more eyes glaring at him as he went about his work.
Slowly, the mouse's mood lightened. He could breathe fresh air now. He wasn't surrounded by living statues or slabs of Scaphis. He still felt bad every time he picked up another measly nugget of imaginite and thought about how hard someone must have labored to earn it, but the work itself was easy to become dulled by. Repetition was calming. And it was good to know George was near. Even if they didn't speak, the constancy of his presence helped.
He even managed a smile. One display stand was a charming sight, full of hand-carved animals whose heads bobbed to and fro, tick tock, in synchronization. 'Solar powered?' Toby wondered. No one had been here to wind them up in quite some time. Behind him he heard a cross between a 'zap' and a 'bonk'.
Toby began to turn, his eyes skimming rows of abandoned booths and tables. The sound replayed in his memory until he recognized it as a transformation potion. So he wasn't too surprised to find a giant glass cube sitting in the spot where he'd last seen George. 4'x4'x4'. Flawlessly transparent on all sides. Toby could see right through to the piles of browning flowers behind him.
Toby blinked, then almost chuckled. He figured his friend had triggered a prank someone had left lying around, or had eaten a construct-trap disguised as food. The mouse shook his head and started towards the former horse, readying his hammer-arm to smash him back to normal.
At the instant of his second step, reality fell out from underneath him and plunged him into deathly cold.
Gravity bodyslammed him. Toby was paralyzed from the neck down, engulfed in the most vicious freeze he'd ever felt. This was unnatural cold. Concentrated cold. A thousand wasps of ice all had their stingers in him. The pain obliterated his senses. His eyes stared at the dusty ground but saw nothing. Screams could not force their way out of his choked-shut throat.
'NO! STOP! THINK!!!' his brain screamed.
It was only pain. He'd been through this before. 'Okay, maybe not this, but close enough.' In fact, didn't it maybe feel kind of familiar? His curiosity perked at the idea. Good. A mystery to focus on instead of how much it fucking hurt to be dunked in liquid nitrogen. 'Where have I felt this?' His mind first brought up the tundra-place where they'd located Red. But no, even as piercing as that place was, it still just felt like normal cold weather. He didn't have too many memories of being outside in Earth's winter, but enough for comparison. No, this was...
Toby looked down at his vest. He could hardly see anything else of himself with his face in the dirt, but he could see enough. His vest was normal. Not all puffed up.
So the chill wasn't real. It was freezing inside his mind. 'That's it!'
Despite the agony, Toby felt a spark of pride for figuring it out. 'Kay and Kaye! That little cube-thingy they put on my neck to help me hold still!' That explained the paralysis. And of course theirs hadn't felt so chilling, but Zinc had said, this was the badlands. Lalochezia was nearby. It wasn't a wild guess to think that someone had gotten one of those silver cubes at the market, popped it open, and pumped up the settings.
Having some knowledge over the situation made him feel less helpless, despite being an inert lump of mouse ensnared in a web of nonexistent ice. Toby craned his neck to look at George. 'He didn't transform by accident.' Someone did this to both of them. Someone quick. Or maybe it was a trap they'd laid out? Toby sure as hell hoped not. He thought of a nonev fox caught in a snare, having to wait hours or days for the fur trapper to come back and end them.
Toby swiveled his ears. If he had to wait, he'd go insane. The cold was like icicles with teeth. Like roots of a life-stealing tree burrowing deeper and deeper into his meat. Did he hear footsteps?
Maybe. Far away. The city was so silent it wasn't difficult to make out little noises like that. Pitter-pat. Someone was jumping around arrhythmically. Cleaving a straight, acrobatic path directly towards the prizes they'd caught. Toby turned his head sideways as far as he could. He thought he saw something.
She came into view at the edge of the market. The world had gone diagonal, but Toby could make out a brown blur right at the limit of his vision. It was lithe and light: a coffee-colored body clad in leather. Barefoot. Moving soundlessly from years of practice. A long, thin stick was strapped across her back. The market stalls were no impediment to this hunter. She leapt them like hurdles.
The stench became clear before the visuals. Toby's nose wrinkled. Stale piss and sweat. Whoever this was, she smelled like she'd been marinating inside a hot coffin.
Suddenly a small, clawed foot kicked his side, rolling him over onto his back. Direct daylight sizzled his eyeballs.
Before he even had a chance to blink, her fingers were digging into his shoulders, hauling him snout-to-snout. Sour breath smacked his nose. "ANSWERS!!! YOU'RE GOING TO EXPLAIN EVERYTHING! NOW!!! EVERYTHING!!!"
Toby's brain felt like scrambled eggs, trying to comprehend all the crap suddenly vying for his attention. The burning cold, the stinging sun, his body's continuing refusal to move, and now this smelly, angry person screaming an inch from his face.
"I don't know anything!" he sputtered.
A sharp slap across his nose. "Wrong!!"
"Dammit!" Toby yelped. "I don't even know who you are!" He blinked hard, trying to get the floating green sun-spots out of his eyes. A face was hovering in front of his own. A preyish shape, but a predator's teeth. Some kind of weasel. Pine marten, maybe?
Her eyes were latched onto his. Drilling into them with molten ire. Toby had no idea why, but it was immediately clear that this furson hated him. Wanted him dead. Like he was her personal lifelong nemesis.
Her lips pulled away from yellowed teeth. "Answers," she snarled again.
She drove her claws into the flesh around his eyebrow and cheek. Her words came quick, slurred by speed and the intensity of her anger. "Don't play dumb with me!! I saw you! You and your dead horsie! Flying around last night, looking down and probly chuckling to yourself at how well it all worked out! But you didn't see me! HAH! Didja, shitpig!? Didn't see me, looking right back at your ugly face through my scope! You CAN'T EVEN KNOW the effort it took to not to shoot you down right then and there! But I knew, I knew you'd be back! So you could parade around and get what you came for! But you didn't count on me! I waited! Fuckin' piece a shit, I waited for WEEKS on you!!" The nails drove deeper into the mouse's uncomprehending face. "And now you're gonna tell me how to get rid of it so I can have my city back!!"
Toby's mouth opened to start protesting his innocence, but he stopped himself, realizing that he was in enough pain already without adding more. This marten was insane. Clearly. She smelled like she hadn't bathed even once during her weeks of waiting. And her eyes were practically bursting from their sockets at him, like barking dogs at the end of their chain.
He gulped a breath first, then tried to reply in a reasonable voice, "What do you want me to get rid of?"
She nearly choked on her disbelief. Her free hand waved wildly at the threads of vinyl criss-crossing her village. "THAT!!! All of it! The pink shit you spilled on us! What did you fucking think I meant!?"
Looking into her eyes, trying to keep his words as sincere as he could, Toby replied, "I'm trying to."
She didn't expect that. Her eyes scanned his face. They weren't getting what they wanted, so she threw him against the dirt like a mailsack and stood up.
Looming over him like his tombstone, Toby realized now that the 'big stick' across her back was a sniper rifle. She was covered in little pouches, but her outfit was otherwise simple, plain-colored, and designed for mobility. Shades of brown, like her fur. Though her bloodshot eyes were nearly as pink as his own. Toby could see frustration crawling all over her face. He was not giving her the reaction she'd expected. That was irritating her. Toby wished he could find whatever words would placate her enough to take the cold off of him. Panic had made him forget it momentarily, but it wasn't getting any less painful.
She slowly unslung her rifle and held it by the end of the stock, pointing it right at his nose. Her finger was off the trigger. For now. "Better answers," she ordered.
Toby tried to slow his breathing enough to speak without his teeth clattering. "Hi there. My name is Toby deLeon. You seem to think that me and my companion caused this, what happened to your town." He saw her twitch at the denial. "We didn't!! Please, I swear we didn't! I'm here trying to get rid of it! Same as you! Please!"
His attempt at peacemaking only made her angrier. She was practically vibrating, keeping herself from whipping around the rifle butt and gooshing his head like a jack-o-lantern. "I don't... fucking... believe you, rat."
She dug the barrel into the meat of his nose. "I've watched you all day. It's all I can do in my little tower, watch. Afraid to go out. I'm the last one, of course. You got everybody else. But I keep hidden for a living. I'm good at it. So I waited it out, watching and listening while everyone else screamed. I knew someone caused this. I knew they'd be back. And now here you are, just like my gun told me. It knows. The target always puts themselves right in front of my bullet. I just have to wait until they park themselves there, right in that perfect spot. Just like you did. I waited, and you did."
'I'm at the mercy of a lunatic,' Toby thought but didn't say.
The marten rotated the gun, smearing Toby's nose back and forth. "So my rifle says you're guilty. You wanna call it a liar? It can smell liars."
Toby began to fully comprehend just how deep in trouble he was. 'She's not joking. Not the slightest little bit.' And on the heels of that thought, a surprisingly petulant one. 'I don't need this. I really don't. I have work to do. The imaginite scavenger hunt was already bad enough, and now I've got to deal with this on top of it.'
Toby knew he couldn't do anything in this situation but tell the truth. It was all he had. "I'm not lying. This wasn't me, I swear."
A giddy smile came to the marten's face. She was so glad he was making it worse for himself. "Is that right? I'm just misunderstanding? A rat, on a tamed nightmare, flies in here after everyone's all tucked away silent, then starts robbing us of everything we have. Pretty solid case, seems like."
Toby paused. He hadn't thought about it like that. All of his actions made sense from his perspective, but now that he could see hers, he realized it did look pretty damning.
A bit of hope flickered. They didn't have to be enemies. If he could see things from her perspective, he could explain the situation to her. Maybe she'd even help once she understood. He gave her an ingratiating smile. "It really does look bad, doesn't it? I understand your anger completely! I'd feel the same thing if I were standing there! But please, I really can explain everything. See, Geor-"
He was cut off by the rifle barrel grinding in harder. "I don't need everything. I just need to know how to take off the pink shit you put on us."
Toby wiped the smile off his face. "We can't." The rifle pushed down harder. "Not YET!" he quickly added. His nose already felt like it was halfway to concave.
"And why is that?" she asked with a sarcastic lilt.
"Because it's not a spell or a substance or anything like that. It's alive."
"I know that!" she spat back impatiently. "I told you, I watched!! I saw how it moves! I watched it chase people, swallow them, pour itself down their mouths! I fuckin' saw!! Just quit the garbage and tell me how to kill it!!"
Maybe if she had some idea of the gravity of the situation, that'd sober her up. "It's Scaphis Tarrare," Toby said gravely.
Her eyes narrowed.
"Can you see Anasarca from here? Notice how its color's changed lately? Doesn't it look like the same color that's all over your city? That's her. I'm sure you don't care how, but she's got Aldridge's wand and she's growing like mold across all of Phobiopolis. I'm trying to stop her."
The marten stared at him for several moments, expression unchanged. Her fingers on the rifle trembled. In a flash she turned around and stepped away. Hunched over, thinking.
Toby shivered with relief. He'd bought himself some time. Even if she didn't believe him, if he could somehow get away quickly enough, it might not matter. He tried not to think about how fast she was, how he'd seen her gliding across the city like a skipping stone. 'Well, you can run pretty fast too when you're scared,' he reminded himself.
A bit of good luck. Now that she wasn't blocking his vision, he could see his chest. There was a shiny silver cylinder right above his heart. A dart. 'She's a damn good shot,' he had to admit. And this proved he was right about the cold. If he could pull the dart out, that was the first step to getting away. He looked back at his captor. Only a few seconds had passed. She still had her back to him. He started stretching his neck forward as far as it could go. If he could just pull it out with his teeth...
"No," she said.
Startled, Toby jerked his head back.
She turned around and looked down at him. Her anger had chilled, but not in a good way. It reminded him of when Junella's rage iced into a calm, remorseless need to kill. "It doesn't fit," she said, even sounding a bit like the skunk despite her Rhinolith accent. "You came in and right away started stealing every bit of imaginite in town. From families. You even had the balls to steal from Chief Ghummin. As excuses go, you're gonna have to do a lot better than blaming a dead fairy tale."
"I will!" Toby shouted. "Just give me a chance."
She remained unimpressed. "Prove it yerself. Give the plastic a poke and we'll see what happens."
Toby tensed. "No. That is a bad idea. We can't. I would love to prove what I'm telling you, but she's too dangerous to play around with. Anything I can think of, you've already seen her do. It's too dangerous to risk."
Her tone was the epitome of unsurprised. "How very convenient."
Toby imagined a small cartoon mouse, digging himself into a hole. Every word out of his mouth was a shovelful.
"This is a plague bullet." She pulled it out of her pouch in a smooth swipe, holding it up where he could get a good look. "If you think the ice dart's bad, you're in for a right treat." She began loading it into her gun. Leisurely. She had him dead to rights, which meant she could take as long as she liked to get what she wanted. "The tip is full of microbes. They're going to crawl up into ya. Into your blood. You've never felt anything like them. And you'll scream anything I want to hear. You will. Everyone does."
Blind, stupid fear eclipsed Toby's rational mind.
"You're a very good liar." The marten snapped the bullet into place. "But you're still lying." She stepped closer. "This bullet's going in your guts to make you tell the truth. And if that doesn't work, maybe I'll carve off your little pecker for a necklace."
Toby looked down the length of his body. Still paralyzed. He'd be completely unable to fight back. He'd have to watch every second of it.
She raised the gun. "Or whatever else it takes. We can do this all night, or all of tomorrow, or for a month, I don't care. Because you took my city from me. You took my everything. My HUSBAND! My CHILDREN!!!" Her voice rose to the roar of a storm. She looked down the barrel's sight, aiming an inch below the mouse's bellybutton. She put her finger on the trigger.
There was a loud bang. Something black flew. George did not have time for anything more than a simple, practical head-butt.
The marten was hit in the chest with 200 pounds of horsepower. She went flying backwards, limbs flailing, and landed with a shattering crunch in a display of flowerpots. Her rifle was flung even farther, clattering to the ground in the next aisle over.
Toby did not waste time asking how the miracle had happened. "George!! The dart!!"
"Indeed!" he hollered back, not even adding a 'Sire Toby'. His charred teeth closed around the silver cylinder and yanked it free. Toby spasmed instantly, knocking the dart away into the dirt with a tiny 'plop'.
The mouse curled into a fetal position and started rubbing his arms all up and down his clenched body. He sputtered loud, incoherent gratitude at George and tried to rid himself of the cold. Fortunately, it had vanished as soon as the dart was out. Only an illusion. But his body still shivered from the memory and his face still ached.
'No time! She's gonna get up any second!' his brain screamed.
Pain could be ignored for a few moments more. Toby popped up, kneeling, and looked to where he'd heard the crash.
Smashed pottery. No marten.
"Where'd she go!?"
George stepped closer. "I'm sorry, Sire Toby! I took my eyes away for just a-"
Toby watched the lower half of George's face explode.
He didn't know if the plague inside would work on a construct, but it sure as hell did fine as a regular bullet. George's jaw and sinuses became flying splinters. He stumbled sideways from the force of the impact, trying to keep himself from toppling over onto the nearest stall. Toby held up his arm just in time to shield his eyes from bone shrapnel.
The gunshot was almost deafening, but Toby looked around for where it had come from and saw the marten standing in the open, trying to reload fast enough to take out her primary target.
She clawed at the leather of her bandolier, muttering to her bullets, "...Get outta there! Fuck!!"
Toby had one shot. She'd be ready to fire back within the next few seconds, but he was ready right now. Just like he always was. He tried to shake off the pain. Snap himself back into the past, to his training day in Gilla-Gilla's front yard.
He reached his arm towards her, palm out. He grabbed the wrist to steady it.
His hammer streaked through the air towards her face.
She dodged it easily.
It 'thunk'ed in the dirt behind her, useless. The marten watched it pass by her shoulder with a quizzical expression, then looked back to where it had come from, and a laugh started to rise across her muzzle.
Toby felt helplessness and humiliation engulf him like fire. He saw her head tilt back, her teeth bared in a grin, laughing at the stupid little mouse who had so perfectly failed.
Teeth grinding in frustration, Toby made damn sure his next shot wouldn't miss.
Her eyes were closed just long enough. She never saw the second hammer coming. It crashed into her cheekbone at the speed of an arrow, churning the bone and muscle to pulp.
An unholy, gurgling scream poured out of her
Toby stared in shock. He hadn't killed her, but he'd certainly ruined her depth perception.
The marten wobbled back and forth on her feet. Still standing, incredibly. Her hands reached up to touch the damage, then recoiled. The hammer had split her lower jaw in half. She'd lost sixteen teeth. Her cheekbone was a pulverized mess, which the remains of her left eye dangled down into. Her staccato shrieks sounded like someone drowning in jam.
Toby was paralyzed again, this time from revulsion. But then something occurred to him, and he looked down the length of his outstretched arm.
He'd fired his hammer. Twice. But he only had one. So where had...
He could still feel the weight of it inside his arm, just like always.
'Oh you total moron,' he berated himself. 'Of course I can do that!'
He thought of Junella and her endless supply of pistols.
"PIECTHHH UV SHHIGKKTTT!!!"
Toby's head snapped back towards the marten. Her remaining eye glared like a blowtorch. Her half-jaw swayed back and forth. Blood poured from her face like a running faucet. She stabbed a pointing finger towards him. "I'HM NOGHT 'HROUGH 'ITH YOUU!!!" She bent over and snatched up the rifle from where it had fallen. Her hand found another bullet and shoved it in.
Toby was too transfixed by the godawful sight to look away, even though part of him realized he was right in the line of fire and begging for a hole in the head.
But she didn't aim at him. She twirled the rifle around like a baton and crammed the tip into the dripping hole where her upper palate had been. She gurgled something close to, 'be right back'.
A pull of the trigger, and the rest of her head vanished like a magic trick. Her body tilted backwards and flopped against a wooden table.
Toby was stricken. Cheeks pale, breath caught in his throat. He thought he'd reached his limit of seeing unspeakable gore. Nope. Phobiopolis always had something new to fling at him.
"Sire Toby! The dart!!"
George's voice tore his eyes away. George was saying something. With his mouth. The one that had been blown off. Because he'd resurrected. Which meant their guest was only a second away from doing the same thing.
Adrenaline pounced through Toby's veins. He spun around, eyes darting back and forth for a flash of silver. There! He lunged for it, but some of the dart's effects still lingered. He sprawled awkwardly. Then wasted more precious time clawing his way across the dirt towards it. That little metal tube, just inches out of reach...
The instant after his paw clamped around it, he was airborne.
George knew that his master would never have time to throw the dart, much less chase and tag their assailant with it. Her new body had already appeared and was beginning to move. It was far more efficient to pick up Sire Toby between his teeth and fling him at her.
Vienna Tusk felt her consciousness awaken in a new form. She'd been in too much shock to feel the pain from her demolished face. Now she could definitely feel the after-echoes. She was flat on the ground on her belly. Her hands cast around for her rifle. The familiar wood slipped into her fingers, like a faithful pet coming when it was called. She shoved herself upwards, intent on putting a hundred holes in that cocksucker who'd stolen her city. Her bullets never ran out. She would kill him a thousand times before sundown. She glanced up and saw a white missile incoming.
Toby slammed into her with his face. They toppled together onto a display full of fly-nibbled vegetables. He did not let go of the dart. It was the only thing on his mind. He jammed it into her ribs, then pounded it down with his other fist just to be sure.
The marten stopped moving. Her eyes popped open and she sucked in a sharp inhale at the lacerating chill enfolding her.
Toby stumbled to his feet. His lungs burned from breathing so hard. The marten started screaming every swear word in existence. But she wasn't moving. So everything was finally okay.
From when George head-butted the marten to now, seventy seconds had passed. It felt like hours.
Toby slumped over a table, bracing himself with his shaking arms. He was grateful when, a moment later, George walked over to offer his forehead to lean against.
"Thank you George thank you so much oh my god thank you." Toby could not speak above a gasped whisper, but George heard him fine.
"You are welcome, Sire Toby. That was some lovely teamwork, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Toby breathed, still shaking. "We did pretty good."
The martin's newly-reformed face was boiling red. "I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU! THIEF! MOTHERFUCKING LITTLE HEARTLESS FAGGOT PIECE OF SHIT COWARD! LET ME GO! I'LL KICK YOUR BALLS UP YOUR THROAT! I'LL STAB YOUR GODDAMNED HEART OUT, YOU FUCKING THIEF MOTHERFUCK! I WANT MY CITY BACK! I WANT MY FAMILY BACK, YOU SHITEATER SCUMBAG! THIEF! THIEF!!!"
George eased Toby off of him. He walked over to their captive, ignoring the volume of her tirade, and raised a hoof.
She was smart enough to shut up when he pressed it deliberately against her ribcage. She winced at the dart being driven in another half-inch.
"Madam, you are speaking to one of the noblest, kindest, most selfless fursons I have ever made acquaintance of. I highly suggest you put your lying tongue back in your mouth and keep it there, unless you would like me to bite it off!"
She relented. She glared up at George with smoldering hatred, but also a bit of astonishment at the obviously-impossible sight of a speaking construct.
Her soul burned to keep on flinging insults at the fucking thief and his trick horse. She could feel the words gathering just behind her lips. But the weight of the hoof made her keep herself in check. She did not believe for a second she was wrong about these two, but maybe she had underestimated them. Maybe the strategic thing now was to observe and wait. It was what she was good at.
George returned to Toby, who was still braced against the table. "Sire, I do not believe she will give us more trouble. At least not in the immediate. Do you have suggestions for what we may do with her in the long-term?"
Toby shook his head. "I was hoping you would." He looked over his shoulder, and just one glimpse of the marten's wrathful stare was enough to make him flinch away like he'd touched a hot stove. "Y'know, for a second there, I actually thought that maybe I could explain things to her and she'd become another ally."
"Perhaps at some point," he said optimistically.
Toby sighed. "I don't think so. And the worst part is, I can't really be angry at her."
George snorted. "She treated you extremely poorly! Myself as well!"
A nod of acknowledgment. "Yes, but if you lost everyone you knew, don't you think you might go a little crazy in the head? You might want justice so bad you stop caring if you've got the right furson?"
George mulled it over. "I do not think I have ever been in such a state."
Toby shrugged. He looked at the inert, fuming sniper a few feet away. He looked around at the strings of Scaphis clogging up Rhinolith. He said very softly, "I don't ever want to be like that, George. Please let me know if I start going crazy out here."
"I have seen no sign of it thus far," the construct said comfortingly.
Toby nodded. "Thank you."
George perked up. "Oho! An idea has just come to me!"
"The arena! We passed above it several times. Sire Zinc described gladiatorial battles against unenlightened constructs there. Such beasts would need to be housed in strong cages."
Toby's eyebrows went up as he followed that trail to its conclusion. "Sounds good." He patted his friend on the snout and George whinnied. He fished in his pocket for another potion, then added, loud enough to be overheard, "The question is, will she be cooperative when we take her over there?"
Vienna bared her teeth at them, but said nothing.
A devilish tone entered George's voice. "Her cooperation is unnecessary. I will carry her along regardless of her will. She has only to decide how comfortable, or uncomfortable, the ride will be." He approached the marten with several strong stomps of his hooves, pummeling the dirt into puffs of dust, and giving his teeth a clack.
Their captive did not show any sign of intimidation.
George lifted her up by the back of her shirt, and her only strong reaction was after he'd taken to the air. Seeing her rifle left behind, she winced in pain at yet another loss.
She did not struggle during the flight. It was pointless. She knew that thrashing her head around was more likely to injure herself than to dislodge the freeze dart. She seethed in the cold, dangling from George's mouth like a kitten by the scruff. She kept quiet, and planned.
The arena was empty. A round bowl of a building with a sand-covered floor. Opposite the pit entrance was a line of wheeled cages, vacant except for one. A tiger-sized velvet glove paced inside on its fingertips, drooling and snarling from the mouth in its wrist hole. Toby decided to put the marten in the cage next to it, so she'd have some company.
Before shutting her inside, Toby suggested frisking her for weapons so she couldn't escape via suicide. George said that was unnecessary. He remembered cages like this. In his time they had been fully deathsecured. Given his hundred-year nap, these models were likely improved-upon.
Thus reassured, Toby held the door open and George (rather ungracefully) tossed the marten inside. Toby slammed the door shut as quickly as possible, not taking any chance that her landing might have jarred the dart loose. It hadn't though, and he locked her in without incident.
Vienna slumped to the floor sideways. For a moment, she'd been hopeful that she'd end up stuck upside down with her chest compressed. Suffocation would come in a few minutes and resurrection would dislodge the dart, even if it didn't set her loose. Instead, it looked like she'd have to wait it out. The dart's effects only lasted an hour or so, but the thief didn't know that. Maybe he'd leave her like this. It would be a long hour, but worth it. When she got out, she would skin him alive an inch at a time.
Toby was not stupid enough to trust that a simple latch would hold her, dart or no dart. George had thought of the same thing and had another good idea.
Vienna watched her hopes die when the construct blew a thin, tight flame, welding the door's hinges into fused lumps.
There was nothing to lose now in venting her rage. As George continued, she unleashed a tidal wave of bile. Every insult she could imagine. She called them thieves, murderers, monsters, child-rapers. She sliced into the rat's manhood, digging at his height, his pink eyes, his cowardice, his parentage, even accused him of keeping his nightmare around for a fuckpet. She watched the rat closely, making note of what hurt the most, then drilling in harder.
Toby tried not to show any reaction, but it hurt. She insulted every part of him, head to toe. Anything and everything she could say to call him gutless. His ears burned. He could see it was affecting George as well. And that was proven when, the instant he finished with the hinges, the stallion rammed the cage hard enough to knock her head against the bars.
"QUIET!!!" he roared. He reared back to do it again.
Toby dashed in front of him, holding up his hands. "No, George! Stop. She's angry because she's grieving. We both know it's all lies. Let's just leave her here. C'mon."
The stallion was a statue for a moment longer, blazing eyelights glaring down at the marten. She glared back without the slightest hint of repentance. "You show a greater willingness to forgive than I would, Sire Toby," he growled low. "But I will defer to you."
Toby exhaled. "Good. I just want this to be over so we can go back to work."
"I understand." George turned away from the cage, but kept his eye on the mustelid for as long as he could.
Toby turned his back on her as well.
They walked towards the arena's exit. It was quiet enough for their footsteps to echo in the hollow space. Until the stillness was destroyed by another insult barrage. Toby winced. It was like she could see inside his head to everything he hated about himself.
He firmly grasped George's rib when the construct started turning around. "No."
"We have work," Toby said, calm but firm.
George shook his head in irritation, but kept walking. He folded his spectral ears to his skull, trying to block the repulsive words. It didn't help any. The only thing that would diminish her volume was putting distance between them.
They reached the perimeter of the sand pit, where it became a concrete walkway under an ornate arch. They passed through into shadow. The marten's voice was merely echoes now.
George noticed his master was very quiet.
"None of what she said was true."
Toby nodded absently, staring down at his feet as he walked. "I know."
"Still, I felt it necessary to reiterate."
Another nod. Then Toby suddenly slumped against his companion's side and hid his face in his arms.
George stopped. He let his friend cry for a moment.
Toby's shoulders shook. He stopped trying to hold the hurt back. He let it come and have its moment. He'd never be able to concentrate on his work like this anyway. The silent sobs clutched at his chest for a few minutes. Then he sucked in a deep breath through his nose, wiped off his red eyes, and continued walking.
George did as well, without comment.
Toby sniffed. They got a few more feet before he blurted, "It's just, even though my mind knows it was all just a bunch of dumb rudeness, my feelings, I mean my emotions, just..."
"No explanation necessary," said George. "I believe I understand."
Toby looked up at him and a weak smile emerged. "You're a good friend, George. And before? When you had your hoof on her and you said those nice things about me? Thanks for that too."
A nod. "Not a word of it was exaggeration."
Toby patted his flank.
They turned a corner into a long, narrow hallway with lots of branching passages. They could see daylight now, streaming through a dusty inset window in the door ahead.
"At least I figured out I can dumbfound my hammer," Toby said idly. Then he winced at his own stupidity. "Geez, I can't believe I never thought of that until now!"
"I am ashamed to admit the idea did not occur to me either," George said. "Though I further admit that, since I have no skill in dumbfounding myself, it may be forgivable that the complexities of the process elude me."
"True." He walked another few steps. "Hey... how the heck did you get yourself changed back from being a cube?"
A modest chuckle. "Why Sire, I have had plentiful experience with transformation potions. I believe the saying is, 'been there, done that'."
Toby snerked a giggle.
Some time later, Toby re-entered the arena.
Darkness shrouded Rhinolith, but the lights above the bleachers came on automatically at sundown. The pit was piercingly bright, every detail divulged. As Toby stepped onto the sand, he was alone. Most of his ire at their captive had dulled over the intervening hours. Drudgery will do that to a furson. Toby mostly felt pity for her now. But George was still deeply offended, so he was parked far back at the entrance. Toby thought it best to do this alone. Just in case the marten's mouth started running again and George couldn't control his urge to trample her into oblivion.
From across the pit, Toby couldn't quite see the cages clearly. Though the glove-construct was still wandering back and forth, as if maybe on its fourteen-kazillionth turn around, a secret exit would appear. As he drew closer, Toby confirmed the marten's cage wasn't empty either. Good. Half of why he was coming here was to make sure she hadn't escaped. In fact, as he got closer and squinted, her cage seemed... fuller?
The dart had worn off. She was standing up, clenching the bars in her paws, baring her teeth at him. Silent for now, but still radiating equal parts hatred and body odor. All the straw bedding on the cage's floor had been kicked out in a rage. 'Guess she'll have a hard sleep tonight.' Or maybe not. She could always use her own corpse for a pillow.
That was why he'd been confused at first: there were actually two of her in there. "Ha! You tried killing yourself out, didn't you? How many times?" He was forty feet away where he stopped. Close enough to be heard, but not within her attack range (he hoped).
She was not in a joking mood. Her eyes scanned him head to toe, reading for weak spots. "Thief," she addressed him. "Is this the part where you come back to rape me?"
Toby was so startled he nearly dropped the bag he was carrying. "What!? Of course not!! Why would you even-"
She gestured to her dead former self. "Or maybe her? You seem like the type."
The mouse made a face like a seagull had shat in his mouth. "EWW!! Shut up! No!!"
She grinned, glad she'd gotten such a good reaction out of him. "Why not? You've already fucked the whole city when it was helpless. Why not go further? Here I am in a cage. Just how you want it, right? Gonna dart me first? Then climb aboard and take everything else from me? Thieving maggot. Maybe you'll have your horsie pal standing by to watch? Maybe he'll ride you afterwards?"
Toby winced all over. "That's completely disgusting! I'd never do that!"
She slammed her palms against the bars, BAM. "What's disgusting is how dumb you think I am! That I'll buy your 'innocent' act! Like you've got fucking standards! It's fine to drop a load of plastic plague on us to make us easier to rob, but you flinch at the thought of getting your precious little paws dirty! Fucking scum! Spineless pansy! The men of this town would tear you apart like toilet paper! I sure as fuck could! Hell, my kids could!"
Toby shrugged. "Probably." No point in arguing. Talking to her was already making the imaginite hunt seem preferable.
Her anger flared at him for not taking up the challenge. "Good god, you're even too weak to defend yourself from insult. How did my city lose to you? You're a shitmark in my underwear. You're a worm. There's barely enough of you to keep standing."
Toby rolled his eyes. "Are you gonna talk all night?"
She shoved her face against the bars as hard as she could, the metal peeling her cheeks back. "Ohhh, if I had the choice, I wouldn't. You pathetic fuck. We could be doing much better things than talking. If you had any sperm in your sack you'd let me out and fight me. The arena's right here. Give me some honor. Or is that a foreign concept to a sidewalk-licking fuckfag like yourself?"
He shut his eyes and cringed. Her words were literally nauseating. He could feel his last meal shove against his esophagus. "Look, I just came here to give you something, then leave. You're making me sick with all this crazy stuff you're saying, so stop it."
Her eyes gleamed. "Y'can't make me."
Toby glared back hard. "Maybe not, but I know George'd like to."
A high, snarky laugh. "Oh, of COURSE! Little rat's too weak to hear a few true WORDS, so he has to call in his pet nightmare to shut me up! What a fucking playground bully you are, Mr. Thief! What a goddamned dandelion. No muscle on your bones, so you gotta enchant constructs to come beat up people for you."
"I told you to stop it," Toby growled. "You're the bully."
"I am!?" she sputtered. "Because I'm hurting your fucking feelings!? Tough shit, cumsucker! Have you ever felt pain in your whole life that compares to mine!? I doubt it! I'm just giving you what you deserve! I'll bet you've never loved anyone like I loved them. Or been loved that much either. I'll bet your life's been a lonely, empty hell. And you've deserved every moment of it."
The words reverberated through him like a shockwave. Toby kept his muscles rigid. He felt like he was fighting a hurricane. "Shut up. Stop it."
Nothing could have delighted her more than his pathetic little mew. She made exaggerated damsel gestures. "OR WHAT!? Go ahead! Call him over! Heeere, horsie!! Have him stomp my kneecaps backwards! Have him knock me around till I'm compliant. Will that get your rocks off!? Then you can drag me out and try to shove your pathetic raisin-dick in me!"
"I SAID SHUT UP!!" Toby howled. He hated the weak tremble even as it left his throat. Tears were forming in his eyes and he tried to suck them back in through sheer anger. He shoved his face against his balled fists.
But she didn't shut up, because she knew she was getting to him now. She was ecstatic. Her body was locked in this cage but her words were free. "What's in the bag, speckdick? Got sex toys? Gonna pleasure yourself while your henchhorse kills me? Jam a rubber rod up your ass and wish your own was that big?"
"You are the sickest-!!" Toby stopped himself before he could continue. There was nothing to gain in insulting her back. If it came down to nastiness, she already had him beat, so there was no point. "You wanna know what's in the bag?"
"My husband's cock? You couldn't resist it? Or maybe my little boys'?"
Toby's face was hotter than a forge. "It's FOOD, you awful asshole!!" He reached inside and held up a fistful of granola bars. "See!? I guess I am weak, because when I thought of you locked up in here, I couldn't stand treating you so bad. So I brought you something to eat and some water bottles! I don't even know why!! I sure as heck can't spare the imaginite to make this stuff, so I guess I'm just an idiot!!"
She wrinkled her nose, instinctively disbelieving him.
"Take it!!" Toby screamed. He slung the bag towards the cage. It was a good throw, putting it just within reach. "Not that you'd show any gratitude!"
She sneered at the bag. "You poisoned it. You must have."
"Fine. Think that. Starve." He wasted a second longer glaring at her, then turned around and headed back towards the entrance.
She called after him with a laugh in her voice. "Your trick won't work! You think I'll get desperate enough to touch that stuff!? How much did you piss in it, genius? I'm a fighter! There's nothing I can't endure! I'll beat you one way or another, even inside this fucking cage!!"
Toby whipped around to face her. His pink eyes shone from the wet sheen of tears. The words did not come to him consciously. They bypassed his filter and came straight out of his mouth. "If you're such a great fighter, then how did I beat you!? How'd I put you in there, huh? Maybe, just maybe, you're not in your right mind!!"
Her face went slack. Her eyes widened. She looked like she wanted to screech something back, but she had no more wind to speak with.
"Think about it!!" Toby yelled, then turned around again. His footsteps pounded the ground like he was stomping ants. "Good night!!!"
The sniper didn't say anything back to him.
Toby's whole body trembled with embarrassment and disgust. He hadn't thought it was possible for anyone to speak such disgusting, disgusting, disgusting things as she'd said. Even if she'd lost everything and blamed him, that wasn't any excuse. Or was it? If he'd been locked in a cage by his worst enemy and had only language to fight back with, would he say garbage like that? 'No,' he told his inner devil's advocate. 'Absolutely not. There's a line you don't cross. That was beyond inappropriate.' The only place he'd ever felt so uncomfortable was Dysphoria. He wondered if she'd feel honored to be compared to that place.
'But at least one part's true,' the advocate piped up. 'Honor probably does mean a lot to her. Part of her culture. She challenged you to a fight and you didn't even acknowledge it.'
He sneered. 'You can shut up too.'
'ARE you afraid she could beat you?'
'No!! I just have to get back to work!'
'Wouldn't it feel good to smash that sewer mouth of hers again? And this time, get to actually hold the hammer?'
'No. One hundred percent no. I don't even care if that'd satisfy some temper-tantrum side of me. I've got more important things to focus on than some jerk trying to bait me into a fight.'
'Are you sure?'
Toby tried everything he could think of to make the ugly voice go away. Counting. Song lyrics. Biting the inside of his cheek. When he rejoined George, the construct looked worried.
"I couldn't discern what she said to you, but I gather it was just as rude as before. You seem extremely tense, Sire Toby. May I suggest-"
"I don't wanna talk about it!" Toby snapped. "I just want to keep busy and not think about anything till I can fall into bed tonight, okay!?"
George recoiled in surprise. He let his friend storm past him, then fell into deferential step behind him. "Understood, Sire Toby. I was simply attempting to help."
The mouse winced, feeling even worse now.
Some time later, Toby re-entered the arena.
Another morning had come. The sun was blocked by hazy clouds. Nothing flew in the sky. Rhinolith's native fauna ate anything before it could get off the ground.
Toby had slept hard, but not well. George needed considerable effort to prod him out of bed. The mouse had been drifting in a dreamless black void where he didn't have to think about any of the things he'd have to do today. He wanted to go back there and stay for a year or so.
They ate breakfast. Toby packed another bagged lunch for their prisoner. George flew him to the arena to get this over with before they resumed their scavenging. The stallion decided on his own to stay outside this time.
The marten had been hunched over when Toby approached, but leapt to her feet at the first sound of footsteps. She stared at him.
Toby reflexively flinched.
But her eyes and posture were different today. Calmer. Maybe she'd tired herself out from shaking the bars all night, he didn't know.
He stopped in approximately the same spot as the night before. The mouse and the marten regarded one another.
She looked at the bag in his hand.
He scowled at her through tired eyes that were doorways to deep, deep wells of irritation.
"Is that-" she started.
"I don't wanna hear anything you have to say to me today," Toby shot back immediately. This was not the same whiny cry as last night. This was spoken quietly, but ironclad.
She moved back from the bars a little, her posture demure. She let a bit of silence pass, then said, "Not even if it's an apology?"
Toby didn't let his expression change, even though he was genuinely surprised by that.
The marten slid down the bars to a kneeling position. She looked at the mouse with chagrin. "I said some things last night, didn't I?"
She pointed behind her to the empty bottles and crumpled wrappers. "I ate it all, by the way. Wasn't poison, obviously. Thank you. I didn't expect that. I... thought for a long time about it, actually."
Toby crossed his arms. "Oh really?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I started to consider that, maybe someone who'd think of their prisoner's well-being... maybe you're not what I thought at first?"
'It's a trick,' the nastiest part of himself said.
Toby looked into her eyes. They seemed clear, and honest. Not bloodshot and bulging like before.
Her voice had been desperate when they'd first met, and now it was again, but in a wholly different way. "I just... Please. I'll listen now."
He knew he could use another ally. Especially one who knew this city and might be able to help him finish up here sooner.
The marten pressed herself close to the bars and reached out as far as she could. Not in aggression. She was asking to take the bag from him. Or maybe shake hands.
Toby looked at her open palm. A wordless plea. His heart stung, remembering the horrible words she'd said to him before. But with all she'd been through already, if she could come around to forgiving him, he knew he'd be a bigger jerk not to offer the same.
He sighed. It felt foolish to trust her, but he wanted so hard for just one good thing to come from all the suffering he'd been living lately. "Fine." He let go of his reluctance and walked closer, holding out the bag. "I have no idea what you like, so I just guessed. I can make something else next time if y-"
A huge wet slug landed right across his eyes. Moist and warm. Toby froze dead in his tracks. Slime trickled down his nose into the corners of his mouth.
For several moments he was paralyzed by revulsion. Then all the skin on his body gave a cumulative shudder that broke the spell. He was leaping back, flailing, screaming, willing to do anything to get that putrid worm off of him. The unspeakable thing fell to the ground with another damp splat. Toby could still feel it, the floppy, damp weight of it. He felt like he wanted to shower in fire. It had leaked slime all over his face. Soaking in his fur. Trickling into his ear canals. And now he could smell it. Foul. Unbelievably rank and sour.
The marten started laughing.
Toby frantically wiped his eyes off and opened them. Lying on the ground at his feet was a filthy grey sock filled with clear, frothy, bubbling fluid. A sock full of spit. She must have been saving it up all night. Oh god, he could picture it. Thin, oozy strands of mucus dangling from her lips into the stinking pouch. And now that stuff was on him. She'd doused him in the perfume of her rancid halitosis. Her germs were crawling their way into his tear ducts.
Toby howled in mindless abhorrence. He slapped at his face, trying to scrape the slime away. His claws gouged ruts in his skin.
The marten slumped against the bars, cackling her ass off. She had tears in her eyes.
Toby gurgled. A lifetime's worth of germophobia all caught up to him at once. At least on Earth when he'd been sticky with fluids they were his own. He'd never been baptized in anyone else's! The saliva seemed to clone itself the more he tried to wipe away.
He realized that he already had his right palm pressed against his head, ready to fire.
A shudder shot through him. 'No!'
No. Even though he'd never felt so nauseated in all his life, he wasn't about to embarrass himself by taking the coward's way out. He wasn't going to kill himself to get away from a bit of drool.
He turned his palm towards her.
She was keeled over laughing. She'd never see it coming.
Toby's blood pounded in his ears. He looked at the moist gift lying in the sand before him. Listened to her piercing, screechy giggle. Humiliation clutched his whole body like a vice. Each breath was hot as jet exhaust. She wasn't even afraid of his retaliation, because she'd already won. The proof was dripping down his cheeks.
His arm trembled.
The weight of the hammer inside sang to him. It would feel so good to let it fly. Crack her head right open like an eggshell. He wanted to. He WANTED to.
He suddenly felt horrified at himself.
'I cannot let myself be that.'
Toby kept the hammer where it was. But his anger was not about to give up that easily. So he compromised.
The marten yelped as a water bottle careened off her forehead. A moment later, a granola bar hit her in the nose. She laughed even harder, seeing the little ratthief's face all screwed up in petty rage as he chucked breakfast at her.
He emptied the bag at her, then tore it in half and threw the tatters at the ground. He turned and retreated to the exit.
She cut off her gigglefit long enough to shout out at his back. "You and your stupid questions! 'How'd I beat you?' Well if you're so much better, then why're you wearing my gobbings!? Fuck the hell off, rat! Anyone can make a lucky shot!!"
Toby ran faster towards the pit entrance, trying to outpace her goddamned voice. He hoped he could find a shower somewhere so he wouldn't have to tell George about any of this.
Some time later, Toby re-entered the arena.
This time, George was at his side.
Mid-day. The sun hung overhead like a bloated yolk. The mouse and stallion's shadows were inky dots beneath their feet. Toby walked rigidly across the sand, still fuming. Hours had passed and he hadn't cooled in the slightest over her 'prank'. George had finally gotten him to talk about it after seeing his friend constantly scrubbing at his face. After hearing the story, George suggested immediate disembowelment for the marten. Toby vetoed this. He said he was still committed to being the better furson. He admitted though, he was starting to forget why he ought to.
So. Once more he was walking towards her with a bag in hand. This time he would not be dumb enough to get in range for another game of snot-bag toss.
He wondered how many more times he'd have to do this. Three times a day, for how many more days? He looked up at the sky, wondering where Ectopia Cordis was and how long it could possibly take Red to run from there.
The glove construct was still pacing around mindlessly and the marten was still in her cage. Her extra corpse was beginning to smell. It had been shoved as far to the back of the cage as possible.
Toby derived a bit of schadenfreude from her current predicament. It looked like when he'd flung the bottles of water, one of them had landed juuuust outside her reach. The sniper was flattened on the floor of her cage, shoving her shoulder against the bars, stretching as far as she could. The water was a few tantalizing inches away from her scrabbling clawtips. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead.
"Too bad," Toby said.
She hadn't noticed them coming, and the embarrassment of this showed clearly on her shocked face when she looked up. In a flash she was on her feet, holding onto the bars. Her dismay lasted only a second, replaced by a wicked grin. "How'd you like my surpr-"
Toby cut her off. "George, if she moves, light the cage on fire."
He clopped his hoof in a salute. "It would be my fervent pleasure, Sire!"
The marten's jaw dropped. She glowered at the ratthief. "You wouldn't. You're too chickenshit."
Toby shrugged. "Exactly. That's why I'll let him do it." He raised his hands to forestall any snappy retort. "And whatever you think of me for that, I'm just protecting myself. I know you've got another sock." He glanced at the corpse. "Three more, actually. You're not getting another chance. Simple as that."
She mock-pouted. "Aww. But I already did once. And that's all that matters."
George growled at her disrespect, but otherwise kept quiet. Sire Toby could handle this on his own. And the instant that was no longer true, he would step in to correct the situation.
Toby grimaced like he had a headache. "I actually believed you when you said you were sorry."
"Yeah, what a fucking moron you are!!" she hissed bitterly. "Why would I ever!? After all you did to me!"
"I never did anything to you." Toby said firmly.
"COWARD! LIAR!" She slammed her fists against the bars. "You put me through hell! It would have been better if I was alone in that attic, waiting for you! But I wasn't! Because I could see the streets from my window. I could see dozens of people all giftwapped in your plastic slime. Three of them were mine. My husband. My Ronnie. And my Cale." Her voice trembled. "Every. Fucking. Day. For WEEKS. I had to look out that window and see them huddled together, petrified in death, like a fucking garden statue!!"
Toby hung his head. "I am honestly sorry to hear that."
"No you aren't," she snarled with infinite bitterness. "You're only sorry you have to stand here and face the consequences. You didn't count on anyone staying alive to look you in the eyes and spit in your face, but here I am!" She did spit. It landed far from its mark, but the point was made. "They knew. They stood and made a wall of themselves. For me. Not because I was Mommy, but because of my eyes. My job's always been to sit and watch and shoot. They knew, if anyone in the city could hide and wait it out, it was me." Her breath hitched. "They gave themselves to make sure Rhinolith would survive, even if it was only through one of us."
Toby felt guilt churning up his breakfast.
She couldn't stand the ratthief's crocodile tears. "I wish my arm was long enough to rip your heart out like you did to mine. Every day I had to sit there and look out my window and see them. Knowing if I stepped outside, their fate'd be mine. Everything I wanted, just out of reach. Just like you're doing to me now, you worthless clot. Every day I had to hold myself back from throwing down my rifle, abandoning my post, and running to my family to join them in death. God damn you for that."
Toby closed his eyes. "They're not dead."
"DON'T GIVE ME FAKE HOPE, YOU FUCKING MONSTER!!!" she exploded. "FUCKING THIEF! THIEF OF EVERYTHING! YOU TAKE AND YOU TAKE AND YOU TAKE AND LEAVE NOTHING BUT ASHES! YOU'RE A LIVING BLACK HOLE! AND WHEN I GET OUT OF THIS CAGE, I SWEAR, I'LL DO WORSE TO YOU THAN YOU DID TO ME! I'LL MAKE YOU SUFFER FOREVER! ETERNAL FUCKING TORTURE'S THE ONLY FITTING PUNISHMENT FOR WHAT YOU DID TO ME!!"
His reply was quiet. It was taking all his control to stay calm. "I never did anything to you."
"LIAR!!! LIAR, LIAR, LIAR!!! BURN IN HELL, YOU SOULSTEALING THIEF!!!"
"I never did anything to you," Toby repeated. It was lost in the sea of her screams, and he didn't care. It was the truth. All her volume didn't change that. He spoke just to have the words be said, whether she heard them or not. "You won't listen to me, because you need someone to blame. I understand that. But it was never me. And I gave you the chance to help me stop Scaphis and have your family back."
Tears spilled down her face and made her eyes reflect sparkles."DON'T YOU GODDAMN SAY A WORD ABOUT THEM! THEY WERE BEAUTIFUL! MY HAPPINESS! MY FUTURE! MY REASON TO KEEP GOING IN THIS HORRORWORLD! YOU STILL DON'T HAVE THE BALLS TO ADMIT TO WHAT YOU TOOK FROM ME! YOU'RE THE FIRST PLACE COWARD OF ALL FUCKING TIME AND SPACE!!"
George whispered to his master, "Please, Sire Toby, let me silence these falsehoods."
Toby shook his head. "What'd be the point? Let her talk. We know the truth."
The marten's eyes lit up like bonfires. "The truth!? You still think you have it and I don't? MY heart knows the truth, you pigshit! The truth is that I spent the last weeks of my life in a Hell worse than Dysphoria because of you! I watched my family die and couldn't even bury them, because of YOU! All for what!? Imaginite!? A fucking robbery!? You ruined a whole city's happiness just for some fucking MONEY!? What kind of insect could ever dream that up!? What kind of pathetic, heartless, worthless, sewage-drinking RAT!? A rat with a dick the size of a peanut! A rat who won't fight! A rat who has his faggoty pet pony do all the heavy lifting! A ratthief who dumps his pink jizz all over town so no one can fight back when he steals from FAMILIES AND CHILDREN!!! THIEF!!! CHILD-KILLER!!! MURDERER!!! HOW'D MY SPIT TASTE, YOU COCKSUCKING PISSJUG!?"
Her volume had been rising to throat-shredding levels. The force of it, the heat of it, almost knocked Toby back. He felt like he might shatter at how much it hurt to have someone hate him this much. But as his guilt writhed around his guts like a biting cobra, and the marten reached her apex of insult, something unexpected happened.
Toby felt something within him burst and go dark.
Just like that. Like the fizzle of a dead bulb. One moment he felt like a mountain of empathy was weighing down his shoulders, splintering his bones... and then it passed. And now he didn't know what he felt. It wasn't forgiveness. It wasn't hate. It wasn't sadness. It wasn't anything. He searched his insides and felt hollow as a glove. He just... didn't care about any of this anymore.
He looked up at the marten's face. Tears streaming from her eyes. Mouth wider than an erupting volcano, still pouring out lava flows of hatred towards him. And none of it touched him anymore. He heard the words, sure. She was calling him a coward and a murderer and a faggot. She was calling his dick small again. None of it mattered. He was done with this. Just, done.
He looked directly into the marten's eyes. They shone like beacons of Hell, guarding an endless ocean of grief. Toby said to them, softly, "I don't care."
"I don't," he said hollowly. He sounded as surprised as her. "I wish I did, but I don't. You're rude and I'm sick of you and that's it." Still looking her dead in the eyes, he held the bag of food out to arm's length, then let it drop in the sand.
He turned to George. "We can go now."
The marten strangled the cage's bars. Veins popped out on the backs of her hands. "I'M NOT DONE WITH YOU!"
Toby had his back turned. "I'm done with you though."
She didn't think it was possible to hate him more. Her chest felt like a forest fire. Her hatred tripled, quadrupled, exploded tenfold. "SO THAT'S IT!? YOU'RE JUST GONNA PROVE ME RIGHT!? ALL YOUR LIES ABOUT SHOWING COMPASSION! YOU COULDN'T BEAR TO LOCK ME IN HERE WITHOUT FOOD! AND NOW YOU'RE LEAVING ME TO STARVE!? FINALLY SHOWING ME YOUR REAL FACE!?"
Toby's expression didn't flicker in the slightest. "Yes," he said over his shoulder. His voice was a robot's. All emotion canceled. "Sorry."
She glared daggers at him. She tried to kill him with sheer will. She strained her shoulder reaching past the bars, wishing his neck would slip into her fingers. If she only had her rifle again! "GET BACK HERE!!!"
"No." Toby continued walking.
The marten looked down at the bag in the sand. She could see droplets glistening off the water bottle. She had dumped out all the water he'd already given her, certain it was a trap. She'd thrown the granola bars into the stands. Now suddenly she was painfully thirsty. "You can't do this!" she shouted desperately. "You said so! You can't!!"
"You CAN'T!!!" she screamed. It was beginning to dawn on her that he had been her only hope of getting out of this cage. If he left now, she was here indefinitely. Dehydration was a slow, bad death. "PLEASE!! Come back!! I'm sorry! I'll believe anything you say! Just kick the bag over to me! I'm done insulting you, I promise! I'm THIRSTY! I'm HUNGRY! How can you not care what you're doing to me!?"
George remained beside Sire Toby at a steady trot, but spent a moment to turn his head to her. "You have no worry of starvation, Madam. There is an ample supply of meat with you in your cage already." The smile he gave her then was perfectly befitting a living nightmare.
Her face went pale in horror.
George nodded in satisfaction, then returned to his trot.
She began screaming everything that came to mind. Aching pleas mixed with spiteful insults. Sometimes both in the same breath. She screamed until she tasted blood in the back of her throat. But nothing was making them turn around and come back. They were no longer responding to shame or threats or promises. They were walking away.
The bag of food and water was right there. Still in sight. Out of reach.
She dove to the floor and started trying again to reach the other bottle.
By the time Toby and George passed into the shadow of the archway, the mouse had searched himself top to bottom and found nothing but emptiness. He hadn't just been taunting her. He didn't care. He meant it. No lie. Whatever part of him had shared the pain of her story, it had vanished in a puff of smoke. He pictured her a week from now, sprawled at the bottom of her cage and bony from hunger. No guilt arose to turn him around. He pictured her dying again and again, leaving fresh corpses to gather flies. He found he was okay with this. He would be living up to her worst accusations, trapping her in that cage just like she'd said he trapped her in her sniper's perch. 'Oh well' was the only response he could dredge up. He simply did not give a shit one way or another.
And it wasn't even the devil's advocate part of himself throwing these tests at him. It was his core self, because he wanted something to spark a response. He wanted to be wracked with guilt, because at least guilt was something. This echoing, dusty void where his soul had been a moment ago... it felt wrong.
It felt like something was broken.
They were halfway down the branching hallway now. "George, I feel a little sick," Toby understated. "Do you think we could just sit down for a while and not do anything?"
"I think that would be fine, Sire Toby," he replied. There was a note of approval in his voice at their decision to leave the prisoner behind.
Toby didn't think he wanted approval. The mere idea of it made him nauseous for real. Suddenly, he wanted to be away from here. Far away. Maybe that wouldn't numb this feeling that something inside of him had gotten lost somewhere irretrievable. But maybe it would distract him from it. "Can you just... fly me somewhere else? I don't want to think of this arena anymore."
A nod. "We can do that as well."
Toby opened the door and the two of them stepped outside.
A moment later, the wind was in Toby's fur. Cool and soft. Like a cleansing wave. He did not want to feel cleansed.
He still felt nothing. Perfect apathy. His only care was towards the apathy itself. He didn't care what would happen to the marten. He didn't care what had happened to her. He didn't care that he'd never learned her name. And he didn't care if he harvested any more imaginite today. All he wanted was to sit down and not think or feel anymore.
He asked himself if he was okay not moving again forever. The answer that came was yes.
He asked himself how he felt about abandoning his quest to confront and punish Scaphis. Yep. Fine with that too.
He asked himself if he was okay with leaving his friends trapped and alone and memoryless.
'I heard you the first time.'
He searched inside the hollow paper shell of his chest, and did manage to find a small twinge of pain at that. He recalled their faces. The twinge hurt more.
That reassured him. Maybe whatever he'd broken wasn't irreparable. Maybe he'd just been working it too hard and he needed to switch out the fuse.
He relaxed a little, glad to find something inside that told him he wasn't going to end up a blank mannequin for the rest of infinity. He looked over his shoulder. George had been zooming away at his usual speed, but Toby could still make out the faint speck of the arena.
Something struck him funny. A sickly laugh croaked out of him.
George cocked an ear; alarmed by how unnatural it had sounded. "Sire Toby?"
A pained grin came to Toby's face as he delivered the punchline. "George, you're flying right now."
The construct tilted his head, extremely puzzled by the obviousness of the remark. "...Yes?"
Toby's teeth went grinding back and forth. "You're flying. We could have just swooped over and air-dropped that bag onto her cage. We could have been doing that all along. Ha ha. None of what we just went through was necessary. It was all pointless. I put myself through all of that for nothing."
George winced twice. First at how such a simple idea had eluded him. Secondly at how his poor friend sounded so demolished. "Your reasoning is correct, Sire Toby. Though..." he hesitated, not wanting to give hollow comfort. An idea occurred. "Perhaps it was not pointless after all."
Toby blinked a bit, but his expression still stayed neutral. "How so?"
"Maybe some part of you needed to confront her," George suggested.
The mouse considered that. He grimaced."I don't see how. It was probably just bad luck and me being stupid. I dunno." The idea gnawed at him. "If I did though, then... why?"
George tried to sound reassuring. "To face her accusations? To make certain they were untrue?" He shrugged. "Why did I confront my herd?"
Toby was about to respond, then went quiet.
He held onto his friend's ashy, flaking bones, looking at the smudged sky and the city below.
The wind rustled through his ears. He couldn't think of a single thing to say.
The next morning, Toby woke up in an unfamiliar bed with very little memory of the previous evening. He struggled out from beneath heavy construct-fur blankets. There was a mirror beside the bed. He stared at it till his eyes were able to focus. 'Oh good, I both feel and look like reheated leftovers.'
A horse came through the doorway. "I hope your outlook has improved this morning, Sire Toby."
"'llo, George. Sorta." He grabbed the bedpost for support to stand up, then looked around. A cozy, compact room. Lots of flowery patterns and a few war axes. Definitely still Rhinolith. "How'd I get here?"
A sympathetic chuckle. "I let you rest for a while after our final encounter with our captive."
Toby winced at the memory's return.
"You attempted to return to work, but, to put it gently, you were ineffective. At the point when I held a large unit of imaginite under your nose and you stared past it without recognition, I decided it might be wise to seek an early bedtime."
Toby mustered a smile. He wobbled over and patted his friend. "Good decision."
"Do you feel rested?"
Toby shifted and stretched. "I guess so." His body felt allright, but he was more worried about his mind. Sifting through his feelings, he was glad to discover that a good night's sleep had reduced the all-encompassing numbness from yesterday. He didn't feel so broken. Though there was still a blank spot at his core. A feeling of pointlessness. Toby hoped it would fade soon. Though he worried it might be caused by something his deep heart knew, and his conscious self had yet to face.
That thought made him sigh, and the inhale brought an interesting smell. "Did you make breakfast?"
"Yes! I am attempting to learn cooking!" George sounded very pleased with himself, and at Toby for noticing. "It would have been devilishly difficult with only my hooves, but today I am exceeding my own expectations!" George nudged his friend out of the bedroom.
Toby remembered their previous breakfast of roast hypena leg. Delicious, certainly, but he wondered if it meant George had killed something, dragged it into this stranger's house, and barbecued it in the sink.
Expecting a massive mess when he turned the corner, Toby instead found a tidy kitchen with ingredients all neatly sorted on the counter. George was making omelets. The stallion trotted to the stove, checked the burners, then picked up a half-full carton of biteranodon eggs with his teeth. "Your meal will be ready in a moment."
Toby took a seat and gaped at George's preparation. The stallion had retracted the cartilage between the bones of his wings, and now reached around to utilize them as a giant, spindly pair of hands. Toby watched him delicately select an egg, crack it into a mixing bowl, then set the shell aside. The precision was machine-perfect.
"There was a recipe book lying out," George said. "I would not have had the confidence to experiment otherwise. And, it is my educated guess, the shells are not to be included, correct?"
"Spot-on, George. I'm seriously impressed."
George fidgeted, pleased as punch. "Thank you, Sire Toby! Though you may wish to withhold judgment until after partaking. I am unaware how much my palate differs from yours, and my first attempt came out... wrong." He nodded towards the trash. Something blobby and black was on top.
"I think you overcooked it."
George nodded bashfully. "The instructions said to cook until 'done'. That seemed 'done' to my best estimation."
Toby snickered. "I could help you out if you like."
"I would appreciate that very much!"
Toby did his best to only offer help when asked, and mostly let George figure things out on his own. Seeing how excited the construct was to try something that normally would have been impossible for his kind, the excitement rubbed off a little. Toby found himself feeling better.
He also congratulated George on the brilliant repurposing of his new wingtips. He'd had the new appendages for less than a week and was already taking them beyond what they were meant for. George was tickled pink at the praise. He asked with giddy glee for Toby to watch him open a spice jar.
And the omelets turned out fine. Biteranodon eggs are pretty big, and when all the skilleting was done, George plopped a small mountain down in front of Toby. As the mouse raised the first forkful to his muzzle, he worried a little what George might have seasoned it with. A can of drain cleaner might look like a saltshaker, after all. But George had deferred to the recipe exactly. Toby 'Mmmm!'ed at the flavor. Then George began to badger him with endless questions of how he could improve for next time.
Stuffed with eggs, the duo later emerged once more onto the streets of Rhinolith. Toby felt the weight of worry fall upon him again. It was easy to forget all the bad crap in the quiet little kitchen, enjoying George's surprise breakfast. Now here he was again, surrounded by strands of taut, beige plastic. A life-sucking spiderweb. He wasn't finished with his work here.
He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to calm his mind. "Allright, George. Let's pick up where we left off yesterday."
After a short flight, they landed in a place that seemed to Toby like a barely-remembered dream. They'd obviously been to this apartment complex before. Scaphis had ripped the whole north face of the building off, and a third of the rooms showed signs of a mouse and horse snooping around. In the first one George led him to, there was a bright chunk of mineral waiting on the bed for him. Toby gave a queasy sigh and did to it what he'd been doing with all the rest so far. The first bite of the morning always tasted the worst.
The work progressed from there uneventfully. Toby opened the drawers, had George crack the safes, and together they collected all the iridescent rocks they found. Toby was careful, as always, to put other valuables and mementos back just the way he'd found them. He worried that after Scaphis' hold on this place was broken, there might be plagues of looters. He hated the thought that he might be helping thieves steal other people's most treasured belongings. 'But if that happens, it happens. As much as the idea hurts, it's still a better outcome than these poor people staying cocooned forever.'
He thought again about the sniper in the arena. Normally he would be bringing her breakfast. But today, the decision not to didn't sting his conscience much. She could figure out how to dumbfound some water if she got thirsty enough. There was no point in wasting more time letting her pummel him with insults.
As Toby searched and chewed, his thoughts drifted back in time. His fight with Junella after Rither's ambush. His musings in the backseat about comic book heroes versus real world morality. Toby was coming to understand that he'd already taken an important step when he'd made Rhinolith's imaginite a part of his plan. In that moment, he accepted that he'd have to compromise his morals in pursuit of a greater goal. And that was weighing on him now. The marten sure as hell had her finger on that open sore. Though he decided it was okay to feel some guilt from that. It meant his heart hadn't frozen over. He could feel the guilt, but not let it stop him. Because Scaphis was more important. Nothing mattered more than her. And if that meant he had to feel bad, or make others feel bad... He didn't like it. But he didn't have to like it. It needed to be done.
Toby pried a locked cabinet door off its hinges. Inside were trophies, framed photos, and other keepsakes. He snatched the pebbles of imaginite beside them without hesitation.
'This isn't about me anymore. I'm not on some fairytale hero quest. This is about Scaphis. She'll hurt everyone unless somebody stops her. And it looks like I'm it. I didn't ask to be. Fate just put me in the best position to know how to fight her. It's not a matter of what I want, it's a matter of, that's how the dice rolled and here I am. So it's not fair. And that means it's okay if I'm not fair either. If I have to cheat to win against her, oh well. If it means I'll hate myself after everything's done, oh well. What's the alternative? How much worse would I feel if I did nothing? What if I sat on my tail and waited to find some perfect solution where I don't ever have to do anything the slightest bit dirty? While I was waiting for perfect, she'd take over. Because 'perfect' doesn't exist.' The full depth of the realization was finally hitting his heart. 'There is no perfect plan. Not anywhere.'
Toby thought about the market stalls in Lalochezia that had gotten torched in his battle with George. He thought about stealing from Gilla-Gilla. He thought about his choice to leave the sniper to her hatred.
He thought about hammer-bashing all those innocent mall guards in Ectopia Cordis, to give Zinc time to destroy the supports and save the city.
'Junella, you were right.'
It felt strange to come to that conclusion. It hurt. There was a tearing ache inside his chest as he fully let go of his ideals. That a hero was someone of unblemished courage and purity and kindness. 'Or maybe that is what a hero is ...and I'm just not one.' That idea sucked. A bit liberating, yes, but it also felt kind of skeevy. He'd always thought of himself as a good furson. Maybe not a hero, but someone who looked up to them. And now he'd walked away from that path. Though he wasn't really a villain either. He was something in between. Something without an easy label. He felt adrift.
He wished Junella were here and he could talk with her about this. Ask if she was ever unsure if she was still on the side of the good guys.
His inner voice butted in. 'If you ever want to have that talk, you know exactly how to get there.'
'Right. Keep on eating imaginite.'
Toby thought about the plan. It was not heroic. It was not evil either. It was simply practical. All considerations of morals aside, it was something he thought had a better-than-luck chance of working.
He comforted himself with that. Maybe it wasn't even up to him whether he was good or bad, or some weird hybrid between the two. Maybe other people would decide that in the afterwards. Possibly based on nothing more than whether he succeeded or failed. Maybe that was all that ever separated heroes from villains.
'Okay, that's getting a bit too cynical,' he warned himself. Then he chuckled silently at how much he'd changed, that such an idea could even occur to him now.
He thought back to his first moments in Phobiopolis. Appearing in a field, running, with a big red rustbeast chasing him. He thought about the Blackdamp. The Mushroom Woman. The cave. Piffle.
It seemed like years had passed.
Hours certainly did. Toby and George finished searching the apartments. They moved on to the building next door. The work was steady. They did not talk much. They kept to their own thoughts. George tried humming to lighten the mood, but was not very good at it. They searched more buildings. They found more imaginite. They searched more buildings. They found more imaginite.
And then, sometime around mid-afternoon, out of a clear grey sky came the universally-recognizable sound of a car horn playing La Cucaracha.
An amplified voice echoed across the city, "HEY!!! DID SOMEBODY ORDER A PIZZA!?!?"
Toby's head shot up. His ears pinpointed the sound. He knew that voice. "They're here! They're here!!"
Within seconds he was on George's back. Then they were airborne, zooming like a rocket towards the edge of Rhinolith's walls. Toby's heart was beating in his throat. The waiting was over. Days and days of work. It was finally over. He hadn't found 100% of the imaginite yet, but he honestly didn't care. The cavalry was here.
Relief and happiness burst out of him like fireworks when a boxy, oxidized behemoth came into view.
Luxy Bleeder was standing on top of Red's colossal noggin, waving and wielding a megaphone. "ARE WE LATE, EARLY, OR RIGHT ON TIME?" Red showed obvious excitement at seeing George again, nearly bucking the raccoon off in his enthusiasm.
Toby's head was spinning with relief. It seemed like this moment would never come. He kept expecting to blink away this dream and find himself back in the city with another chunk of rock in his paws.
Luxy stepped back to allow George plenty of landing space. "FIRST WHEELS NOW WINGS? NICE! CUSTOMIZABLE, AINTCHA?"
As soon as George's hooves were planted firmly, Toby leapt off and waved a warning at the lanky raccoon. "Shhhh!! Cut it out with the megaphone! I'm glad to see you, but we can't risk waking up Scaphis! Sound vibrations or something!!"
Luxy gave the mouse a reassuring smirk. "Negative problemo, tovarich. The old bitch's deaf as a road toad in this form. I could holler into this thing all day." He held it to his lips. "MADEMOISELLE TARARRE HAS A FAT FARTY ASS." He tossed it over his shoulder, letting it bonk off Red's cranium and tumble to the writhing vines. "See?"
Toby's tension lessened. "Good to know, but you almost gave me a heart attack!"
The raccoon seemed to enjoy causing such reactions. Today Ectopia's mayor-king was dressed in an outfit befitting the solemnity of the expedition. A sharply-tailored cream-white suit. Ample pockets for concealed weaponry. Gold accents on the hem, cuffs, and epaulettes. The jacket was unbuttoned to reveal a raspberry-red t-shirt underneath. On Luxy's feet were heavy-duty waffle-stomper hiking boots. "We actually know quite a bit about Dear Scrappy by now. Mucho opportunities to experiment on her along the way."
Toby wondered if that was why they'd taken longer than expected to get here. "Geez... How far along is she by now?"
"About halfway to EC," he said blithely.
Toby recoiled. "No!! That's awful!"
A chuckle. "No, that's good."
The wily coon crouched down to eye level with the younger mouse. His grin was already tasting victory. "Remember what you wrote me about her reaction time? It's half that now. We chucked all sorts of constructs at her. Terrorbunnies, eraserheads, you name it. One of them almost got away. Do I need to elucidate the significance of that? The more she stretches, the more victims she snags, the more tasks she has to keep track of. I don't care how smart she thinks she is, you can only multitask for so long before you start to lose focus."
The heavy iron chains of worry that had been wrapped around Toby's heart began to crack. "That is the BEST news I've heard in a month! You hear that, George?"
Toby turned around and saw that his construct friend had his wings folded away and was down on his knees, ululating to Red in their shared tongue. "I have been paying attention, Sire Toby, but also saying hello to a very enthusiastic compatriot!"
Toby felt a sudden pang of guilt at overlooking Red. Luxy was just about to speak, but Toby held up a finger and gave him a 'just a moment' look. Then he dropped down, spread his arms wide and hugged the gentle crimson nightmare as hard as he could. "I am so glad to see you again," he said softly and sincerely. "You brought them, just like I asked. You did great. I'm so happy. Thank you so much, Red. You did a great job. You are just completely wonderful." He rubbed his cheek against the rusty metal and kissed it.
Red was overwhelmed with joy. His construct friend was back! His smallone friend was back! Everyone was praising him! This was the best day EVER!!!
Luxy Bleeder watched Toby completely ignoring him, nuzzling and snuggling the rustbeast instead. Far from being offended, he was amused. Here he was, the most important furson in Ectopia Cordis (possibly the world), and this mouse had turned his back to him without a thought. To give a squeeze to a skyscraper. 'The balls on this kid! Out-fucking-standing!' He was so glad he hadn't brushed off Toby's message. Not just due to the warning about Scaphis, but because Toby deLeon was presenting himself as someone to keep an eye on. The unassuming little pipsqueak had been dropping clues left and right and left that here was a potential titan in the making. An untapped vein of unpredictable power. And the rodent himself was too humble to notice. He was an atom on the verge of splitting, poised to unleash a limitless blast that would crater the status quo of this realm. Luxy couldn't wait to watch it happen.
He let the mouse and pony dote on the big red rustbeast for a few more moments until he could no longer stand not being the center of attention. "Yeah, hey, Red's just swell ain't he? But is there anyone else standing here deserving of accolades? Perhaps your own personal Jesus, hmm?" He spread his arms and struck a saintly pose.
Toby snerked and got to his feet, but not before giving Red a last pat. "Yes, Mr. Bleeder, I am very glad to see you too." He approached for a hug or handshake, whichever the raccoon would be more comfortable with.
Instead Luxy hissed and flinched back. "I am wearing white and you are bright orange right now!"
Toby looked down. His cheeks, chest, vest, shorts, and knees were all covered in rust. Looking over his shoulder, George also looked like he'd been swimming in cheese puffs. "Whoops."
"Just give yourself a second to forget yourselves clean again. Then you can kiss my feet or whatever you like."
Toby chuckled. He looked up at the handsome, grinning mayor and felt a shiver of unreality. "You're actually here," he said breathlessly. "I've been losing my mind waiting. I kinda half-think I'm dreaming right now."
"People do tend to feel that way when I show up," Luxy deadpanned. "Sorry to keep you on the line, chum. I try to make sure my presence rewards patience. How've you been since our last chat? You're both looking well." He turned to George, "I meant it about the wings; they're metal as fuck."
George deduced from the inflection that this was a compliment. "Thank you, Sir Bleeder."
"Did you have 'em before? I can't remember. Then again, you were just a collared head for most of the trial."
George gave them a flutter. "Your first assumption was correct. They are brand new additions, courtesy of a potion from Sir L'roon."
Luxy's expression went unreadable for a moment. "Ah. Him." He quickly changed the subject back to Toby. "And you, kid! You've lost weight!"
"Huh?" Toby looked down at himself again, this time past the rust stains. He'd completely forgotten that he was still pretty much a walking stick with a pelt draped over it. Though, considering what had caused it, he was surprised he'd gained back any weight at all. "Yeah, well, Logdorbhok took a chunk outta me a while ago."
Luxy blanched, and for the first time in Toby's presence, actually looked unsettled. "Ha ha. That's, uh, not something people usually joke about, kid."
"Oh, I'm not!" Toby said, thinking the raccoon was disbelieving him. "We barely got through Dysphoria to Anasarca! I was a wreck. That poopthing had his microbes chew on me for a while before my friends shocked me out of there."
The mayor was biting his lower lip and badly concealing his sense of alarm. "Well golly gee. That's sure interesting. We are VERY going to have a little talk about that soon. But for now, um, hey, how's things been going here? The prep you wrote me about? All that fun stuff?"
Toby shook his head. "It's been... tiring, I guess. I mean, I've found plenty of imaginite: don't worry about that. But it's hard knowing I'm stealing from people. It's hard spending all my time around statues that used to be people, knowing they're watching me. And there was a survivor too. She was not happy to see me." He laughed mirthlessly. "George and I locked her up in the arena after she tried to transform him and torture me."
Luxy became highly interested. "Really?"
A nod. "Yes. I still can't quite figure out what to feel about doing that to her."
"I think," Luxy tapped on his own pursed lips, "that she might be an interesting furson to talk to."
Toby grimaced. "If you do, brace yourself! Get ready for a lot of foul language and violence. She shot George, darted me, and hit me in the face with a snot-sock."
The raccoon's brow furrowed. His grin darkened, showing off slightly more of his clenched teeth. "Oh she did, did she?"
George nodded. "I can attest partially to Sire Toby's account. I did not see the sock being thrown, but I witnessed this individual injuring and threatening to further injure my companion."
Luxy pressed his fingertips together. "Ah so."
"In her defense," Toby felt he needed to add, "what would you do if you lost everything, and thought the furson who did it was standing right in front of you?"
Without hesitation he replied, "I'd ask them questions until I was sure."
'That's pretty close to what George said too,' Toby thought.
"Don't forget, I'm a licensed judge. Grief makes people stupid. I've seen too many cases where one loss causes another and another. People think with their tears and their rage, not their heads. It pisses me off. I think I will go visit your caged pal. I'll hear her side with an open mind, but I'm no fan of excuses."
Toby found himself worried for the marten, even despite how much she'd done to him. A pissed-off Luxy was a force to be reckoned with. Toby remembered Cleanup Crew, but still couldn't remember the man's original name. "I guess I could take you over there."
Luxy was about to reply, then paused and gave Toby a good, long look. "Sorry for asking, but have you slept lately?"
"Well, yeah," Toby said, a little surprised by the question. "Not very well though"
"You look tired."
Toby was taken aback by the sudden, complete sincerity of the statement. No flourishes, smirks, or sarcasm. "I probably do, I guess."
Luxy crouched again, and put a hand on the mouse's head, swiveling it back and forth under his inspection. "More than that, you look burnt out, if not a little shell-shocked. I saw how your muscles tensed when you talked about this prisoner of yours. That's how people act when they're covering for someone who's hurt them."
Toby backed away from the raccoon's paw. "I didn't..." he started to protest. "I... Maybe. I understand her reasons why, but... yes. She got to me pretty bad."
An unsurprised nod. "And now you're holding it in like a mouthful of poison you won't spit out." Luxy crossed his arms. "Kid, here's a better idea. How 'bout I borrow your horse for a while? Not just because riding on a flying nightmare sounds so fucking cool I can't even deal with it, but because you need a break." He lightly poked Toby's sternum. "Why don't you go up top and meet the rest of the platoon? I think you even know a few of 'em. I did like you suggested and rounded up the most dangerous bunch of has-been ass-kickers I could find. People like me who've tangled with Li'l Miss Scaphy T. before. Go mingle. Being around people always cheers me up. Plus, we actually do have pizza."
Toby was surprised by the suggestion. He didn't really want to split up from George, yet he also did not want anything more to do with the marten sniper. Luxy handling her by himself sounded A-OK. Plus, they had pizza. "I literally can't remember the last time I had a slice."
"Christ, you poor thing!!"
Toby turned to George. "What do you think?"
The construct gently nuzzled his master's ear. "I think Sir Bleeder's observations are all accurate. You are more tired than I've had the temerity to say, and I think my silence has done you a disservice. I believe that a pleasant interlude among friendly faces would do you good, and another confrontation with that woman in the cage would do nothing but harm. Sir Bleeder is correct that he and I can handle it by ourselves. And also correct that it is very cool to ride on me."
Toby smiled and hugged his friend. "Completely true."
Luxy marveled for a moment at seeing such genuine friendship between a soul and a construct. He glanced at Red. Even with all the rustbeast's help so far, Luxy knew he hadn't really been treating him as anything more than a taxi. He pressed his palm against the red metal. "Thanks, by the way," he said quietly.
Red heard him, and growl-hummed an appreciative response.
Luxy chuckled. Then he looked upwards: a ten-foot wall of metal between the top of Red's head and the flat of the construct's back. Luxy squatted, then sproinged, pivoting himself on his palm and landing with both feet at the edge.
Toby gawked. "Wow!"
"Do your exercises every day, boys and girls, and you'll grow up to be a lithe, supple specimen of ultimate masculinity just like me." He knelt down to offer Toby a hand up.
Toby looked at George again, realizing this would be the first time they'd be going in separate directions since Lalochezia. But that was allright really. It would only be for a short while. And both of them would be in good company. Toby nodded to George, then reached up on tiptoes to grab Luxy's hand.
He was instantly whisked up, like he weighed no more than a shopping bag. He cradled his hand as soon as it was released. "Your grip's like a vice!"
"Danke schoen," said Luxy.
Toby was about to add another comment, when he actually got a look at Red's back.
He fell dumbstruck.
He blinked, yet everything he'd seen was still there. "Damn... I saw a big bunch of stuff when I flew in, but I didn't have time to... How'd you get all this junk UP here!?"
Luxy smirked. "Well jimminy jeepers, it's not like I live in a city that's primarily focused around transporting things vertically."
Toby rolled his eyes and felt a bit foolish.
There was practically a mansion on Red's back. An embroidered multicolored rug the size of an airplane hangar covered almost all of the square footage, and on top of it was a warehouse's worth of luxury furniture. Couches, canopy beds, armchairs, a big-screen TV. A kitchen nook complete with oven and refrigerator. A pool table. Decorative lamps and palm trees. And a truly foreboding stockpile of weaponry. Ornate wooden racks of assault rifles, sci-fi blasters, painlaunchers, and hand cannons. Plus, far at the back were six humongous rectangular tanks of unknown contents. Each was about the size of a boxcar.
"Oh yes," Luxy said at Toby's awed expression, "I travel well-stocked."
In addition to the accommodations, Toby also spotted a half-dozen other passengers. Some were up and stretching their legs after the long journey. Some were carrying supplies. Some looked asleep. But a few were familiar. Specifically, one disfigured fox, one biomechanical gorilla (currently visible), one energetic simian, and one bifurcated, tattoo-shaped feline.
Luxy was glad to see some recognition on the kid's face, and took that as his cue to exit. He was actually itching to debrief the lad, but in the state he was in, that would be cruel. Let him rest his poor mousey brain first.
George 'Oof!'ed as a tall raccoon suddenly dropped out of the sky onto his back.
"Hyaah! Giddyap!" Luxy shouted, lightly kicking his heels against George's ribcage.
George craned his neck around slowly. "Sir Bleeder, you could achieve much more effective results by simply asking me."
The coon grinned. "I'm just yankin' yer chain." He patted around the stallion's withers. "So where's the steering wheel on this thing?"
George had no eyes to roll. Still, he couldn't be too annoyed at the raccoon's shenanigans. It mattered more that a living soul he'd barely met was comfortable enough in his presence to hop on without hesitation. And even joke with him. "I steer," he said with his own smirk, and unfolded his wings.
Toby heard the rustling and turned. "Goodbye, George! I'll see you later!"
"Let's hope we can reckon with her expediently!" he called back. "Hold on tight, Sir Bleeder. I am faster than you dare imagine!"
The raccoon's face lit up. "Great!"
Toby enjoyed the first good laugh he'd had in days as George took off at top speed and all he heard was Luxy's fading scream of "FFFFUUUUUUUUUUUuuuuuuuuucckkkk..."
Footsteps behind him. One pair large and one pair small.
"Draght! I'g hopefd we couwd geh a wuhd in wigfh hihm befauw he lehghft!" said Mr. Rippingbean.
"Oh, sorry!" Toby spun around to find the two businessfurs right behind him. "He and I were kinda discussing stuff, and he went off to see this sniper I captured and-"
Mr. Woofingbutter shook his head and removed his monocle. "No, no, my boy! We have spoken at length with Mr. Bleeder on our journey." The gorilla leaned in and stage whispered, "In fact it is hard to shut the rascal up." He and Rippingbean shared a guffaw. "My colleague actually meant your horse."
Toby blinked. "George? Why?"
The fox with the half-melted face was about to launch into a detailed explanation, but his partner held up a finger, forestalling him. "Ah. Yesh. Mehbbe yuo'd betuhh. Yuh do 'ahve thhe finuh vuhcabbawewwy."
Both the fox and gorilla were dressed in gorgeous, gleaming, silver-gray suits, complete with top hats and umbrella canes. They looked like splendid gentlemen. Well, except for the bit of unfortunate drool on RB's lapel, and WB's monstrous contraption of a medical exoskeleton. The ape expounded, "We were hoping to give him some thanks. You see, his exit from our garage in his vehicular state got quite a few tongues wagging. People thought it was a publicity stunt. A construct-powered car! We were flooded with customers asking how we did it!"
"Bizhgnessh dubbled!" Rippingbean added.
Toby smiled. "I'm sure he'll be really happy to hear that."
Woofingbutter steepled his large fingers. "I'm a tad surprised he's had more alteration done. We'd been planning to offer him a contract as a showroom model."
Toby's eyebrows went up. "Um, I think he'd be honored, but he might also get bored. Plus, he and the Fearsleigher kinda got separated. The car's up on Anasarca as far as I know. Assuming Scaphis hasn't chucked it into space just to be a jerk."
Rippingbean 'tsk'ed. "Shahme. Shtill, ougr Andymahn couwd buiwd 'im anozher."
Woofingbutter tittered at the pun. "He certainly could! And if wings are his new fad, a fuselage might look good on him too. Pass it on then, will you?" he asked Toby.
A crisp nod from the mouse. "I'll remember. So, I assume you two are in charge of supplies here?"
Rippingbean doffed his hat towards the gun racks. "Indeeghfd."
"What's in those big tanks?" Toby asked.
"Actually, Mr. Bleeder procured those from a wholesaler," said Woofingbutter. "Some kind of fiendish industrial solvent. I dare say Madame Tarrare is going to have her feathers ruffled."
Toby winced, his thoughts filling with sounds of hissing acid. "I hope it doesn't burn a hole in her and give her an escape from the plastic."
Two head-shakes from both of them. "Ohnononononooo," Woofingbutter said. "If Aldridge's magic put it on her, it's her own soul that'll keep it on." He sighed wistfully. "He was the greatest of the age. A pity he retired."
Rippingbean made sounds of agreement.
Toby was just about to ask what WB had meant by Scaphis' soul keeping her curse in place, when a withered hand clutched his shoulder and whipped him around with surprising strength. Toby found himself face-to-face with two wild eyes, a grin full of crooked teeth, and a beard that swept the ground. His paw was shook so intensely it felt like it was being ground into powder.
"There's the boy! By gum and by cracky, it's good to see you at last! Or is it again? Yes, yes! We met at the hotel once! A pleasure if I do say so! You sounded the alarm and brought us all out of mothballs again! Gettin' in a brand new scrap with this buncha dusty bastards again is a treat! A true treat! And to get another swing at that screwy old bag Scaphis? Crackerjack!"
"You are breaking all the bones in my hand!!" Toby wailed.
The excitable marmoset looked down at the paw he was crushing. "What's that you say? Well shoot, I apologize fer that. Let myself get a bit carried away there, by golly."
Lady Xenoiko swooped in to disentangle her husband from the discombobulated mouse. "Ignatius! Stop mangling the poor child!"
The miniature simian huffed and puffed bashfully. He dusted off Toby's paw. "Looks allright to me. He'll be fine in a jiffy or two."
All of Toby's fingertips had gone white. He recalled that, despite the marmoset being shorter than him by four inches and old as the hills, Mr. Xenoiko had once been a prominent demonslayer. "Um, good to see you two again."
Lady Xenoiko's smile stretched wide across the cat and tiger halves of her face. The living tattoo gave Toby a courtly nod instead of another handshake, then looked to Rippingbean and Woofingbutter. "Apologies for interrupting, but do you mind if I borrow this mouse for a while? I'd like to give him the tour."
"Thaght wuld beh phhhine wi'h meh, Muhddahme."
"And I as well."
They both reached out to kiss her hands. The fox took the larger and the gorilla took the smaller. Lady Xenoiko blushed appreciatively at their manners.
Mr. Xenoiko squinted at the two fancy-pants businessfurs puttin' lips on his woman.
A slender, ivory-furred paw fell on Toby's shoulder. "If you would be so kind as to follow?"
"Sure," Toby said. It felt like ages since his stay at the Tatterdemalion. He was happy to catch up with the friendly innkeeper again.
"Ta-ra, sirrah! We shall speak more at a later time!" Woofingbutter called out, waving his hanky.
Mr. Rippingbean attempted to say 'Indubitably'. The results were untranscribable.
Toby tried not to laugh. "Okay, see you later!" He had just turned to follow the Xenoikos when another memory leapt into mind. "Oh! And if you guys ever go to Lalochezia, you should check out Poubelle & After's diner! I think you'd like them!"
Neither had heard the names before, but they gave each other looks of, 'Might as well.'
Toby walked away with a grin. He thought back to the kind words and free dessert that had brought him out of his blackest depression. 'I hope that pays it back, you two,' he thought towards the bat and blueberry squirrel.
Mr. Xenoiko's waterfall beard nearly obscured his khaki safari suit. He was carrying a gold walking stick with a pearl at the tip so big he couldn't fully wrap his hand around it. Toby suspected it was used primarily for head-bashing. Meanwhile, Lady Mia had left her kimono behind, choosing instead a kind of battle dress. It was satiny pink and gold with an emerald sash tying it together. Quite beautiful, but also leaving her arms and legs unhindered for swift movement. 'I'd like to see her fight,' Toby thought, wondering how she compensated for having one side of her body so massively overpowered.
Together they led Toby towards the center of the carpet. He was once again stunned at the finery. Marble, velvet, silver, and silk. This was beyond first class traveling. More like 0.01st class.
"Hungry?" Lady Xenoiko asked, and directed Toby's attention to a buffet table.
There was the pizza, as promised. As well as fancier dishes and a few examples of Phobiopolan cuisine the mouse couldn't even guess at. "Yes, thank you! I've been doing almost nothing but eating since I got here, but it's been... unpleasant. Looks like my food-luck's changing though." First George's tasty breakfast, now this. Toby grabbed a plate and started filling it up, sampling a bit of everything.
The plan had been passed on through Luxy, so Lady Xenoiko didn't have to ask what the boy had been choking down. "I think you've shown rare courage out here all alone," she told him.
"Damn tootin'!" Ignatius agreed.
"Aw, I... George was with me anyway, and..." Toby blushed, then crammed a truffle in his mouth so he wouldn't have to continue.
Mr. Xenoiko smirked. He tapped Toby very lightly on the noggin with his walking stick. "Heh. I like a man who'd rather keep his mouth shut than crow about hisself."
Toby smiled at that.
"Rest assured, I didn't lead you over here just to fatten you up and fluff your ego," Lady Xenoiko said. The housecatiger moved in closer, placed a paw on Toby's shoulder, and her voice lowered. "To be honest, Junella and Zinc are two very good customers. Perhaps even friends. I have heard worrying things. I was hoping you could give me news, good or bad?"
Toby's ears drooped. "I can, but it's nothing good."
She closed her eyes, conveying that she was prepared for that. "I would like to hear the story anyway, if you are willing to tell it."
She reflected for a moment on the mouse who was now filling his plate. Everything about his body language had changed since her first impression. There was caution in him still, but no longer any trace of cowardice. "How about I introduce the others to you? Then we can all have a seat, share a lunch, and you can spin your tale."
"That sounds nice," Toby said.
"Actually, my little kittyhawk," Ignatius said to Mia, "how 'bout you fill me in on th' kid's report later? Now that this big beastie's stopped movin' I'm eager to begin preparations for the upcomin' ballyhoo."
She gave him a nod and a kiss on his old balding head. "I know you like to keep busy, my lion tamer."
"You betcher boots," he said with a wink. He leapt onto her for a quick hug, barely able to wrap both arms around his powerhouse of a bride, then plopped down and offered another parting handshake to Toby.
The mouse had never been so glad to be holding a plate of food. "Oh look, my paws seem to be occupied!"
"Too bad, sonny. You've got a man's handshake. I like that." He gave the mouse a quick salute instead, then turned towards a pile of crates near the six solvent tanks. "Don't smooch m'wife too much or I'll hafta whop you on the head with this here whackin' stick!" Before Toby could react to that, the marmoset sproinged away.
Lady Xenoiko had a giggle behind her paw. "We like to play that I'm his delicate flower in need of protection. He's so adorable when his blood's hot."
"I get the feeling you can probably take care of yourself," Toby said.
A sly smile. "He's fiercer and far more dangerous than he looks," she said. "On the other hand..." With her housecat hand, she reached down to the buffet and selected a walnut. Placing it delicately in the center of her tiger palm, she squeezed. Then she opened her paw and nothing but dust came out.
Toby suddenly remembered her punching through Piffle's exoskeleton. "Yow."
His wide-eyed reaction tickled her. "I will take your plate if you like," she offered.
Toby passed it to her. "Don't do the walnut thing to it."
They both laughed.
"Let us locate the other expeditioners. Aldridge and Tarrare's contemporaries. You may have heard their names. It was a time long ago when all the world was a magic stage."
Toby nodded. "The big war. I've heard a bit about it."
Mia led him past the buffet, along a hallway of trunks, suitcases, and potted palms. "The fact that we are all here in one place shows how true the saying is, 'time heals all wounds'. A century ago, I was a tyrant monstrosity. Our assembled magicians were bitter, bloody rivals. Years pass. Old hates seem silly in reflection. Murderous vendettas become humorous recollections over shared drinks." She shook her head. "I cannot imagine Scaphis' will, to hold onto old grudges for so long. To keep her venom fresh and boiling."
Toby made a disgusted sound. "Let's not talk about her."
Mia's hostess instincts berated her for allowing a guest to become uncomfortable. "I understand." Then her ears perked at the sound of paws rustling through a suitcase.
The feline steered the mouse around a mahogany wardrobe and they came upon an unassuming hyena unpacking his belongings onto a glass coffee table. He looked up as the duo approached.
Toby was a bit surprised. If he was one of the old-timey wizards, he sure didn't look it. He seemed to be in his early twenties. Handsome. Movements were relaxed yet precise. He had the usual hyena spots, dark muzzle and paws, with carefully-combed headfur. The only thing suggestive of his true age was his outfit: tan vest, red tie, black trousers, and spats. Looked pretty sharp on him.
Lady Xenoiko flourished her paw. "It is my pleasure to introduce Ike Fanshaw, The Loudest Man In The World."
Toby tensed at that. Even more so when the guy walked over for a handshake (it was blessedly gentle compared to Mr. Xenoiko's). "Hi," Toby said, expecting a cannon blast for a reply.
Instead, "Hey, yo, what's up? Toby, right? Bleeder says you're the one who blew the horn about Scaphis. Good on you, man."
Toby was pleasantly baffled. The hyena's voice was sweetly smooth as honey. "Uh..."
Ike knew exactly what the mouse was about to ask. He grinned. "I can turn my volume up and down, no sweat and no worries. I'd be a pretty lonely guy if I couldn't."
"Oh, okay." Toby relaxed and smiled too.
"Maybe you'll see me in action someday. Just, y'know, keep some distance. And bring your earmuffs."
"You've certainly got me curious what exactly-" Toby's sentence was overpowered by a sudden screech.
"IKE, YOU LECH! WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY FUCKING OPAL NECKLACE!?"
The hyena winced hard.
Xenoiko bit her lip. "That would be the voice of Janie Jing, Goddess Of Dumbfounding."
They did not have to wait long for the voice to make an entrance. Shoving boxes out of her way, a white hurricane approached. "I have told you time upon time to keep OUT of my belongings, Fanshaw! This is really the last of my patience!!"
Ike rolled his eyes so high they scraped the Veil Of Tears. "I ain't touched your shit, Janie."
The outraged bunny stormed over to waggle her finger in his face. "You can't fool me, you shifty-eyed beast! My favorite opal necklace has gone missing! All throughout this accursed trip you've been deliberately provoking me! It's unconscionable!"
This continued on for many more sentences. Toby stared. The most noticeable aspect of Miss Jing was the voluminous white dress she wore. It looked almost like she was on her way to a wedding. It also looked like the dress had been stuffed in a closet for the past century, as it was riddled with holes and wrinkles. Same for her bonnet, which had lost most of its embroidered flowers. But Janie herself was interesting in that she didn't actually have fur, or skin, or possibly even bones. Her body seemed to be hollow white plastic. Thin enough to allow the multicolored, shifting lights inside her to shine through. 'Reminds me of George,' Toby thought. He wondered if the rabbit might be an ascended construct as well. Or transformed, like Junella. She looked like an Easter nightlight.
Janie continued reprimanding Ike, making everyone else uncomfortable. "First the daisies, then the incident with my hat, then your horrid whistling, and now this! You are a cad, Ike Fanshaw! I demand you return my personal property immediately or I shall be forced to inform Mr. Luxy!!"
The hyena looked completely unintimidated, like he'd weathered her outbursts many, many times before. "Oh no, the bigmouthed tattletale's gonna rat me out. For something I didn't do."
Her cheeks shone red, literally. "BIG MOUTH!? Good lord, the hypocrisy of such a statement! You fresh bastard!"
Ike went back to sorting through his suitcase. "My parents were happily married, thanks."
Janie slammed the suitcase lid down, nearly crimping his paws. "WHAT ABOUT MY NECKLACE!?"
Toby jumped back when a halo of guns suddenly popped into existence around her head. Half a dozen oversized pistols held aloft by floating fireballs, all of them pointed at Ike.
The hyena put his hands on his hips. He flicked a glance at the pistols. "Really?"
Janie growled as viciously as a bunny was capable of. The fireballs flamed brighter. Six pistols moved in closer. Six hammers cocked.
Toby tucked himself behind Lady Xenoiko, just to be safe.
Ike reached up to nudge one of the guns away. "It's been a few centuries, but I remember your stage show just as well as you remember mine. This doesn't impress me. So put a sock in it, Sunday."
She glared at him through slitted eyes a moment longer, pouting her mightiest. Then as abruptly as they had appeared, the guns all vanished. Janie stepped back and crossed her arms. "I'll find my necklace, Fanshaw! And when I do, you will be in so much trouble!"
A goofy smile arose on Ike's face. "Is it the one you're wearing?"
Janie looked down at her bosom. A silver chain and an oval opal. She clapped her paws over it. Her inner lights spun wildly. "What!? That's impossi- Oh! YOU PUT THAT THERE, YOU SNAKE!!!"
The hyena fell over the coffee table laughing.
Janie made little bloviating grunts for a moment, trying to construct a last word to get in. When nothing came to mind, she stuck her nose in the air, lifted the hem of her skirt, then departed in a huff. Ike was still chortling.
'I don't think she noticed me the entire time,' Toby thought. He crept out from behind Lady Xenoiko. "Are you sure she's not the loudest furson in the world?"
A polite titter from the housecatiger. "I do not like to speak ill of my comrades. But no, even with that little performance just now, she cannot hold a candle to Ike when he is in full voice." She crouched to whisper in his ear, "And yes, before you ask, they have been like this the whole journey."
Toby blinked. "I'm guessing they have some... history together."
Ike wiped a tear from his eye, still wobbly from the giggles. "You could say that. Our shows used to go head to head for ticket sales."
"She's still pissed at you over that?"
His grin widened. "Oh hell naw, she wants it back again! Some people are only at their happiest when they're hating their best enemy."
Toby felt his mind boggle at that. "I... don't think I understand."
Ike fished a silver dollar out of his vest pocket and flipped it in the air. "A thin line between love and hate, kid. A mighty thin line."
Lady Xenoiko could see Toby struggling to understand things that were well beyond his years. "Let's move on to meet some other friends, shall we?"
Toby did not mind the paw at his back leading him away. He waved to Ike as Lady Xenoiko ushered him around the corner.
The hyena tossed him a 'see ya round' nod and went back to unpacking.
There was something cooking nearby. It smelled spicy and alluring. Though they'd have to wait to find out what it was, as Toby and Mia came upon two very old men seated in the lotus position across from one another. They seemed to be praying. Both were dressed in rumpled robes, looking like mirrored piles of dirty laundry. They were both so smothered in wrinkles, dust, and overgrown facial fur that their species were hard to tell. One was maybe a cervine and the other was maybe a rodent, but they looked more like each other than anything else.
When Toby got a little closer, he heard tinny music. He realized they didn't have their paws clasped together in prayer: they were playing handheld video games. A cable connected their devices. The two ancient bodies were motionless as statues, but their thumbs blazed quick as hummingbirds.
Lady Xenoiko bowed. "This is Waxacada and Driuwej, Masters Of Meditation And Telekinesis."
Toby took a cue from the respect she showed them and bowed as well. "Um, hello, sirs."
No response. Their eyes stayed glued to their games.
Lady Xenoiko patted Toby's shoulder. "They've achieved enlightenment, so they're fairly boring now."
Toby snerked. That seemed a bit rude, but neither of the wizards seemed to mind, or notice.
Mia chuckled. "Hard to believe, but those two used to be worse than Ike and Janie."
Toby looked between them. The two men were essentially one another's reflection. They looked like they'd progressed past best friends to a state of oneness. 'Hard to believe indeed.'
A potato chip floated away from Toby's plate. "Hey-"
It drifted through the air to a point between the duo. There it split in half perfectly, and both halves swooped down beneath the old men's mustaches and out of sight. Chomp chomp chomp.
Toby couldn't help but be amused. "Allright, that was kinda cool."
The sound of two games pausing. Two wrinkly old heads turned towards him incrementally, like stone statues rotating. Two slow winks. Then Driuwej and Waxacada returned to their shared game.
Toby felt like he'd been granted an honor. He asked Xenoiko, "I get the feeling these two are heavy hitters?"
A definitive nod, as if the mouse had no idea just how heavy. "They are resting now. Testing their minds against one another. Saving their energy for the fight. But once they get started..." Xenoiko's expression showed awe and perhaps a bit of fear. "Alone, they moved mountains. Together? I imagine they could tear the world in half if they so chose."
One of them grunted. As if to say, 'Child's play.'
Toby's eyes got big. "Let's not disturb their game then."
A laugh. "If Janie can't disturb them, nothing will. But you is nonetheless thoughtful. Let's go meet our chef."
If that meant finding out what that yummy smell was, Toby was all for it.
Xenoiko led him further towards Red's rump where the six gigantic tankers were stacked. There was a little kitchen there, and at the center of it, a roly-poly woman who looked like the quintessential grandma.
She was singing a waltzlike melody to herself as she stirred a bubbling pot. The liquid inside was a spicy deep umber. The coyote wore a simple black dress, elegant reading glasses, and, somehow, a spice rack across her shoulders. Toby saw her reach back and the shelves shuffled themselves to meet her paw. She took a little canister, gave it a sniff, smiled warmly, and dumped a few shakes into her concoction.
"The esteemed Tía Lopez," Lady Xenoiko introduced, "Peerless Practitioner Of Potioncraft."
"Pleased to peet you," Toby said, then winced. "...meet you."
She turned and beamed at him. "Our little family grows! Another soul to cook for! Lovely!"
Toby chuckled. Tía Lopez had the body of comfortable middle age, the easy confidence of a lifetime's experience, and the mischievous eyes of a child. Naturally, she came out from behind the counter to give him a hug. The wizened coyote was almost perfectly round. Toby felt like he was being swallowed by couch cushions. "Thank you," he said, muffled.
"De nada," she replied, and returned to her cooking after a thorough squeeze.
"How's it progressing?" Xenoiko asked her.
"We will see." She swirled her wooden spoon around, then lifted out a sample and let it cool for a bit. She took a sip. Pure joy touched her face. She dipped out another spoonful. Holding her paw below it, she held it out to Toby. "Try some."
The scent was like summertime in October. Toby sipped. His eyes closed. Warmth caressed him head to toe. His muscles relaxed and his tongue sighed happily. "Mmmm..."
The coyote's tail wagged.
Toby blinked, feeling like he'd been napping on a sunny hill among dandelions. "What is it?"
A swish of the spoon. "It's Tía Lopez' love potion, little grandson mouse."
Toby was mildly alarmed. "Um, who's it supposed to make me fall in love with?"
She pointed to the pot. "The soup, of course."
"Oh! Well, that's okay," he said, chuckling. "And it worked."
She nodded, as if there was no doubt. "May I pour you both a bowl?"
Toby was about to say he didn't think he could eat his whole plate of buffet food plus a bowl of soup, but then his tummy decided, no, he absolutely could. "Yes, thank you."
His politeness pleased her. "Rapido." Two bowls appeared in her palms and she scooped them through the soup. "Now... think of how it made you feel. Imagine the exact opposite. That is what I will brew for Miss Scaphis."
Toby's eyebrows went up.
"Among other things." The coyote grinned toothily.
Soon both Toby's and Mia's paws were warmed by big ceramic mugs full of wonderful soup. "Gracias, Tía Lopez," Xenoiko said. "Your cooking has been the best part of the journey."
She made an 'oh, stop' gesture. "The best part of any journey ought to be one's companions."
Toby nodded deep agreement.
Lady Xenoiko indicated a fat maroon sofa nearby where they could sit. Toby nodded to Mrs. Lopez. "I'll see you later. Thanks for the soup." He gave it another sniff and felt his heart melt a little.
Then a hand was on his wrist.
Toby's head popped up. Tía Lopez was looking directly at him.
She lifted away her glasses. Her eyes probed his.
When she spoke, it was a soft whisper, yet filled with such confident sincerity it froze him to the spot.
"You will do just fine."
Toby was shaken for a moment. The words traveled through him much like the soup had, giving him an all-over feeling. This time it was like a cool washcloth on his forehead. An easing of buried tension. His breath had caught in his throat, and now it relaxed. "Th-thank you."
A nod. "It's true. And you needed to hear it. Now, go eat."
Toby walked away from the smiling curandera, tingling all over. He really couldn't explain it. It didn't seem like Tía Lopez had read his fortune or anything like that. She just knew what to say. Maybe it wasn't even magic, but simple experience.
He sat down on the couch beside Lady Xenoiko, staring into space for a few moments.
"She is wise as she is kind," the feline said. "We would be lucky to have her even without her abilities. Any army needs morale."
"Makes sense," he mumbled absently.
Lady Xenoiko sipped her soup and purred.
Toby tried another spoonful as well. In an instant, he was somewhere far away.
They sat together quietly for a while, just enjoying their meal. Somewhere nearby they could hear Janie and Ike arguing again, but it didn't matter. The day was bright, their paws were warm, and their bellies were filled with good food.
Once Toby had finished his bowl (and licked it clean) he started in on his other tidbits. Most of it had cooled off, but still tasted good. Toby didn't bother to ask what some of the stranger items were. It was interesting to try new things.
And as he chewed, his story began to tumble out. Lady Xenoiko sat with her paws in her lap and listened attentively. Toby skipped a few details for brevity, but told her all he could about the furson who had been Doll for a while. He told her what had happened to Junella, Zinc, and Piffle. And to George. And himself. He told her about his plan, and she agreed it was a good one.
She was sorry to hear what had happened to their mutual friends. She said it made the fire inside her burn hotter. This time, Scaphis was through. She admitted they had once been friends. Scaphis' silver tongue drew in many, many admirers and acquaintances. Everyone loved her, or at least respected her abilities. But in the end, she herself loved no one. Xenoiko's deal with Scaphis had eventually led to her dual-natured body and her marriage to Ignatius. But it was a bloody, painful path along the way. Something it had taken her decades to make amends for.
"Scaphis has poisoned everything her hands have ever touched."
The peaceful mood the soup had brought them had grown somber. Toby felt like the day's warmth had chilled. He noticed the empty bowl in front of Lady Xenoiko. He was done with his tray as well. That gave him an idea.
"Hey, um, I ate more than you. That's not fair, don't you think?"
Lost in her thoughts, it took her a second to respond. "Hm? Oh, no. Think nothing of it. I am satisfied."
Toby leaned back against the couch. He opened his vest wider, showing off his bare chest. "You sure? Cuz, if you like, you could have dessert."
She raised an eyebrow, thinking momentarily this was a come-on. Then she smelled his beating heart. Her eyes widened. "...You remembered."
She put a paw to her mouth, shocked by his generosity. "You'd... Really? You were so afraid before! I teased you, but I wasn't serious."
Toby remembered her feasting on his friends. Piffle's excitement. Zinc's blissfully dazed grin. "I've been through a lot since then. The idea doesn't scare me anymore. So, yeah. If you need hearts," he patted his ribs, "one's right here."
A tear came to her eye. "Normally I acquire them in trade. Strictly a business transaction. Only friends I have known for a very long time will offer them freely. You and I... we have only met twice."
Toby shrugged. "I like to make my friends happy."
She gave him a deep, genuine smile in return. "Your generosity honors me."
Toby blushed. He found he was actually looking forward to this now. Not just the good feeling of generosity, but also to confront a previous fear. "So how do we...?"
She motioned for him to turn around with his back against the armrest, facing her. She leaned in close, drawing in the scent of his flowing blood. She began to purr again. "As I recall, I told your companion Piffle what a delight it is to taste a heart I've never harvested before. Thank you for this moment, Toby."
"You're welcome." She put her tiger paw against his shoulder to steady him. It felt as big and leathery as a baseball glove.
Her smile gained a pixyish edge. "Let us make this a challenge. Mister deLeon, I dare you to stay alive for as long as you can. Are you game?"
"Uh..." He was a bit surprised, but why not? "Allright." She loomed over him. Toby felt a dainty white palm press against his chest. His heart beat against it.
"It will happen quickly. There will be pain, but less than you expect. I have years of skill on my side."
Toby was starting to sweat a bit. "I t-trust you."
She nodded. "Then, itadakimasu. A phrase which can mean, 'I humbly receive'."
Toby remembered that from a book he'd read. And then a gunshot hit him in the chest.
He gasped a rattling croak.
"Shhh," she said.
He tasted blood in his mouth. The pain had filled his world for a second, a blinding lightning strike. But soon it faded, replaced by a strange, dancing numbness. Oddly familiar. Four of his ribs were smashed to splinters. His brain was probably dumping out gallons of endorphins to counter the shock.
Xenoiko purred. "I have my fingers around your red apple, little mouse."
Toby glanced down. Her paw was inside his chest up to the wrist. She'd made a surprisingly tiny hole. There was blood painted all the way up to her elbow like a red silk glove.
"No, no, little mouse. Don't look at that. Look at me." Her voice was hypnotic. Her eyes met his and held them in place. "Stay here. Relax yourself. There is nothing at all to fear."
A bit hard to believe, but that voice of hers could've persuaded him of just about anything. Toby's body had never felt sensations like this before. The pain had changed into something... good. His skin tingled like falling raindrops. His hearing dimmed. His toes and tail grew cold. Her amber eyes cradled him.
He flinched as he felt her hand moving around his insides. Then there was a swift little twist.
"Keep your eyes on me. Stay awake, my mouse."
Toby obeyed. He saw a wet, red jewel emerge into his field of vision.
"See? See your gift that you have so generously given? It feels liberating to give of yourself, doesn't it? It feels good. You are not afraid. You are in no pain. You will stay awake with me because it is pleasant to."
"I'll... try..." he gurgled. He tasted copper. A line of red traced down his cheek from the corner of his mouth.
Lady Xenoiko held his gaze with the same assuredness as she cupped his still-beating heart. She brought it to her lips for a kiss.
Toby was starting to feel light-headed. From the impossible sight, and also because his brain was losing oxygen. He watched his heart twitch back and forth in her hand like a little soft metronome. 'Leftover electrical impulses,' he thought. She licked it like a strawberry popsicle. Then he watched as she opened wide, gasped in pleasure, and bit down.
Her expression of joy made him happy.
A wave hit his brain and seemed to wash his balance away. His flopping head nearly hit the armrest, but Xenoiko caught and cradled it in her tiger paw.
"Mama's got you..."
She wasn't really his mama, Toby's soupy mind recalled. His real mama was mean. But if Lady X wanted to play pretend for a moment, then that was oooo-kay. Better than okay.
His eyes started to get funny then. He kept them open and tried to hold onto consciousness, but it was a foregone battle. Dark curtains began to sweep the sides of his vision, followed by nifty colorful sparkles. Euphoric. Weightless. Giggly. He smiled at the pretty lady who was drinking his heartsblood.
She smiled at him too. He was nearly deaf by now, but two of her words made it through. "...so sweet..."
Toby thought that was an awful nice thing for her to say. His neck felt wobbly. He couldn't feel his arms and legs. Maybe they ran away? His heart turned pale pink as Xenoiko sucked it dry. Fascinating. He really wanted to stay awake for the rest of the show, but his brain wasn't being cooperative. His vision grew fuzzier, more indistinct, until the sparkles became fireworks and took over. Everything else shut off.
Toby felt his head fall backwards against the armrest.
'That was fun...'
"You seem to have kept yourself busy, Sire Toby."
"George!" Toby put down the crates he'd been carrying and nearly tripped over Ike's tail in his haste for a hug. He squeezed the old dry skeleton and felt an ashy jawbone nuzzle behind his ear. "Yeah! I had a great lunch, and Lady Xenoiko did too, and I met the rest of the group, and I've been helping them get ready. How'd it go with Luxy?"
The stallion snickered schadenfreudally. "Our captive presented him no trouble at all! Despite speaking malodorous untruths to him the likes of which I would never repeat to you, Sir Bleeder is no fool. He offered her the chance to prove to him that zealous rage trumps calm reason. He let her out of the cage."
Toby was about to ask how, but figured, if anyone was likely to have tools for the job in his pockets, it was Luxy. "Did they fight?" he asked (knowing the answer already, but really asking 'How bad was it?')
A guffaw. "It was a ballet, Sire Toby. I have never seen such grace. As she charged at him with teeth and claws bared, Sir Bleeder withdrew a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from his suit. He tossed both items into the air, then caught a lit cigarette in his mouth and the packet on top of his head. He left them balanced there, and kept his hands in his jacket pockets for the entirety of the brawl."
Toby's eyes widened. At first he thought this was yet another example of a showman's arrogance. But no. "...He was handicapping himself, wasn't he? So she'd have a fair chance."
"Exactly so. But her swings and lunges were feral. Easily dodged. With naught but the soles of his shoes, he wore her down to panting. She lay in the sand, begging for mercy, yet without ever ceasing her stream of venomous insults."
"Does not surprise me," Toby said. "So where're they now?"
George motioned over to the edge of Red. "He has requested to meet with you."
Toby walked towards the precipice of the giant construct's back. Everything outside the city's walls was normally choked by a living carpet of bloodsucking greenery. Down below though, there was a bald spot. Every vine in a hundred foot radius was shriveled to a husk. Luxy Bleeder sat on a rectangular tank of Phobiopolan weed killer, still smoking, and still with the cigarette packet resting between his ears. He spotted Toby and waved.
"I've wanted to go over the details with him anyway." Toby turned around to where the other members of the expedition were boxing up furniture and unboxing implements of destruction. Waxacada and Driuwej were simply glancing at crates and conscripting them to move. Janie was directing a wheelbarrow, its handles held by two of her fireballs. Toby called out to everyone, "I'm gonna go talk to Luxy! Will you guys be okay without me?"
Lady Xenoiko smiled. She reached down to the box he'd been lugging before and picked it up between two fingers of her tiger paw.
Ike quipped, "We'll manage somehow."
Toby laughed. "Allright, see you later everyone!" He walked back to George and patted his flank. "What'll you be doing?"
"I believe, if I am not immediately needed, that it would be pleasant to spend some time in the company of my fellow construct."
A smile. "I think both you and Red are pretty lucky to have met each other."
"Very much agreed."
Toby touched his forehead to George's. "Go have fun then."
"Call out if you need me, Sire Toby," George replied, then trotted towards Red's noggin. Toby heard him hop down, and then came the skin-crawling scrape of hooves on rusted metal. A scalp massage.
Wincing, Toby decided that this was a good cue to exit. He looked towards the grey clouds beyond the edge of the rustbeast. For a moment he wished he'd asked George for an elevator ride. 'But I really don't need one,' he thought. Let the two constructs hobnob. There was still a bit of Coral left in him.
Toby ran towards the edge, remembering the cliffs of Scarlatina.
The rust disappeared from beneath his feet. Only air carried him. Then it let him go. Eyes closed, Toby tumbled, unafraid.
Well, maybe a little. But manageable.
Toby hit the ground headfirst and his skull shattered. Dead again. Business as usual.
When Toby opened his eyes, the face of a pine marten was looking back at him.
"EEEYAH!!!" he yelped.
A silver hammer emerged by reflex and cleaved her head down the middle.
Luxy started laughing his ass off.
Vienna's corpse tilted backwards like a fallen tree. Before it hit dirt, Toby scrambled to his feet again, hammer at the ready, eyes peeled for wherever her next reanimation would appear.
"Relax, rodent!" Luxy called out. "The cagey dame's neutralized."
Toby still flinched when Vienna popped into existence a few feet away. The sniper turned and recognized him. Her eyes blazed. Unholy hatred gushed from her glare. Her lips curled, showing teeth.
Toby backed up a step. Gripped his hammer tight.
Luxy leaned forward nonchalantly, chin resting on hand. "Kurushimeru..."
The marten swiveled towards him, suddenly stricken with panic. "Please! No!"
He considered her plea. Rejected it. But felt slightly merciful. "...twelve seconds."
She dropped to the ground like a rock. Her back arched in an almost completed circle. Vienna started clawing at her body like she was trying to rip her own veins out. She wasn't even able to scream.
And then the whatever-it-was ended, leaving her shuddering in the dirt, saliva dripping from her cheeks.
Horrified, Toby shuffled away from her. "What was that!?"
The mayor beamed proudly. He flicked his cigarette away into the vines. Then he tossed his head, letting the pack glide down into his jacket pocket. "I told her I infected her with a well-trained virus I keep in a box. But really, it's nothing more than a post-hypnotic suggestion. I'm priddy decent at thems."
The mouse looked back. The marten was slowly and shakily getting to her feet. It was hard to believe mere words could do that to a furson. "...Really?"
Luxy snorted at the lad's skepticism. "What's Cleanup Crew's original name?" he asked.
Toby drew a blank. "Touché."
"Mmm, I love hearing that word." Luxy patted the tank he was seated on. It sounded like a bongo beat. "C'mere, Slick. We got bizz-nizz to hash out."
As he took his seat, Toby noticed the tank had a speckled texture that felt odd on his bare legs. It also jiggled slightly from the liquid inside. Toby didn't like being so close to whatever this stuff was, but figured, if Luxy wasn't afraid of it... He cast another glance at the marten woman. He could see she was staggering a bit from the aftershocks.
"Keep killin' them weeds, Vienna!!" Luxy shouted. "And buck up! I could do so much worse to you than community service!"
She fumed for a moment, then limped over to her previous body. It was wearing a plastic backpack which she roughly wrestled off. Putting it on, she took the attached wand and started spraying the vines that had already grown closer in an attempt to feast on her corpse. Whatever liquid was in the backpack, it knocked them out quick.
Toby felt kind of uneasy at seeing her reduced to slave labor. But then he remembered the sock full of snot. And he didn't say a word more about her.
Luxy looked around at the countryside. "Rhinolith ain't a bad place for a picnic if you salt the earth first. You've met the wily Ignatius D. Xenoiko, I presume? He and I camped out here once. Scoutin' potential species for a construct-powered transportation system. Big old hamster wheels in generators. Boy did that end up a clusterfuck!"
Toby opened his mouth to remark on that, when something he'd been seeing since his landing suddenly clicked. He gawked at Red's legs. "I'd been wondering how the heck he showed up here without making a sound!"
Luxy nodded, glad the kid had finally noticed. "The Ectopian Corps Of Engineers knows by now I come up with some pretty loopy shit. So when their god-king asks 'em outta the blue for the six biggest rollerskates in all the universe, those magnificent fuckers follow through."
Toby had thought it was just because of his own shoddy memory that Red seemed taller. But no, the construct was currently balanced on six brontosaurus-sized sets of furniture casters. Thick metal slabs slotted over his square feet. Underneath each was a huge black cylinder, like a steamroller. Toby wasn't sure whether to be more impressed that someone had built these insane things, or that Red had learned to use them so well in such a short time. "They seem a little... cartoony."
Luxy shrugged, not contesting the accusation. "Maybe. But sometimes goofy works. Stealth and speed, plus the sheer giddiness of riding a rollerskating nightmare across a sea of broken glass. We made great time when we weren't dicking around doin' science to Scaphis. Heck, worth the price alone just to bypass those goddam loops on the highway. They make me urk." He mimed a gagging gesture.
Toby was glad to hear that he wasn't the only furson not fond of them.
"Hey, there's a smile on ya! Lovely! When I got here, you looked like an armada of unruly rugrats'd been using you for a piñata. And you know how I feel about people not having a good time!" His famous silver pistols slid out of his wrist holsters into his palms.
Toby jumped. "You don't have to shoot me! I remember!"
A giggle. "Nah. I just like holdin' em." He rubbed them against his cheekfur, moaning, "GOD, they're so perfectly weighted!" He blinked, then cast an envious peek at the mouse's hammer. Luxy nibbled his lip. "You, uh... mind if we swap for a second? I just wanna touch it! Promise!"
Toby tilted his head, then realized what he was still clutching. The marten had spooked him enough he'd forgotten to put it back. "I guess?" He was still uneasy about guns, but figured Luxy probably didn't let just anyone touch his personal pistols, so this was probably an opportunity any other Phobiopolan wouldn't be caught dead passing up. He sat his hammer on the tank between them.
Luxy snatched it up like any stereotypical raccoon with a shiny object. In the same motion, he uncaringly flicked his guns at Toby, trusting the mouse to catch them.
"Yeek!!" Toby nearly fumbled, but managed to get his hands around both of them before they hit the ground. 'And I didn't shoot my feet off!'
The raccoon appraised the hammer, licking his lips. "God, I'm so shamelessly a kid around weapons. I gotta play with 'em." He gave the tool a few practice swishes. "A little small for my hand, but, yeah, I can feel the quality."
Toby realized the pistols were way lighter than he'd been expecting. When he turned them upright and slid the grips into his palms, their weight seemed to vanish entirely. They seemed to almost have a life of their own. "Jesus..."
"Not quite, but close: Red Velvet. He make this little number too?" He laughed at his own stupid question. "No, dipshit! Velv' wouldn't have," he scolded himself. "Dorster, right?"
"Uh-huh." Toby handed the pistols back, a bit overwhelmed by their aura of effortless power. "You know him too?"
"Sure. Same as I know she's Vienna Tusk and you're Toby deLeon. I know everyone. Part of my job." Before giving the hammer back, a glint of curiosity came to Luxy's eye. He reholstered one pistol, held the other to his ear, then gave it a soft tap with the hammer. The sound made him nod. "I thought so. They're both dream-steel. They like each other."
Toby accepted his hammer back and let it slide home into his arm. "That makes sense. Dorster said it came from Phobiopolis itself, not from imaginite. That makes it stronger, I guess."
"Not just stronger, more real," Luxy said, his voice dropping to a near-whisper. "Maybe it's the demented conspiracy theories of a lunatic raccoon, but I figure, just maybe, every time one of these babies shows up, it's for a reason. The dead god we're sitting on vomited quite a lot in the beginning, but ever since then it's been more sporadic. So, maybe it... I dunno, 'feels' us walking around on its back. Like Red. And it wants to help. So it dreams us something we need. Some people walk right past theirs. You, Toby, were lucky or smart enough to be observant."
The mouse was a bit thunderstruck. The compliment passed right by him. "You know about the star-being too!?"
A solemn nod. "I know a lot of things. But, eh, the thing about your hammer and my pea-shooters is just wild speculation. Probably just... what I'd like to believe."
Toby became aware then that Luxy was calmer than he'd ever seen him before. Maybe this was the 'real' Luxy. Or maybe the manic side never really left. Toby noticed, even as the raccoon gazed thoughtfully towards the horizon, his leg was jittering up and down impatiently.
"I think I get it," Toby ventured. "Aldridge told me about the star-being, but it took a while to really process it and understand Logdorbhok's not all there is. There's all this ugly stuff on the surface of Phobiopolis, and that's easy to see. But underneath there's something that keeps the ugliness from taking over."
As Toby spoke, Luxy slowly brushed his hands over his scalp, staring at nothing. "You speak his name without a flinch..."
The raccoon suddenly sat up straight and painted on a breezy smile, as if he hadn't said anything at all. "You're right, you're totally right! The glass is just as half-full as it is half-empty. For me though? Ha! This world's always been a paradise." He ticked reasons off on his fingers. "You never starve, you never grow old, you can murder people to your heart's content and at most they're mildly annoyed. Plus you're never broke so long as you have enough will!" He sighed happily and drew in a deep breath of fresh air.
"I hadn't thought of it like that before. Those are some pretty good points." Toby looked away for a moment, not sure if it was wise to press the issue. "...You said something else though."
Luxy groused at being caught. "Nosy, nosy." He stood up suddenly and began to pace around the tank and Toby. The mouse had to rotate his head to follow him. "This'd look so much better with a cape," Luxy mumbled to himself, then reluctantly confided, "I know about The Cruelest One too."
Toby nodded, not too surprised. Luxy knew everyone, after all.
"I don't like to discuss him though. It weirds me out just knowing I'm sitting next to someone who survived his taint firsthand. That... joggles my worldview a bit. All we know of him otherwise is myths and glimpses."
Toby listened to the raccoon's voice circle around him like a surround-sound demo. "I'm fine with not talking about him. Though I can if you want me to later."
Luxy stopped. "You're talking now. Your brain's not chowderized. That oughtn't be possible. This is good. But it's also information that upsets a lot of previous theories I had. It's going to take a while to reset them."
"We can talk about Scaphis instead," Toby offered. "Figure out what we're going to do about her."
Luxy took off, rapidly circled, then stopped again in the same spot. "Let's be honest. We don't really need to."
Toby was taken aback. "We don't!?"
A shake of the head, 'nuh-uh'. "We went over the plan in your letters. I still have 'em. It's solid. It'll work. The only question mark is you." He paused long enough to dramatically point at the mouse, then resumed pacing.
"Me?" Toby's ears drooped. He felt suddenly heavier. A long-expected dread settled over him. "I guess this was inevitable," he said quietly. "This is the part where you take over, isn't it?"
Luxy skidded to a halt. Tilted his head. "Why would you think that!?"
Toby's hands made an 'isn't it obvious?' gesture. "You're stronger and smarter than me! Plus you've fought her before. It didn't really click until now, but of course that was the flaw in my plan. I put you on second string and me on the front line. It ought to be reversed."
Luxy walked back a few steps to stand directly in front of Toby. And to the mouse's surprise, the raccoon looked offended to the point of heartbreak. "Kid... do you really think so little of me?"
Toby gave him a blank look. "Huh...?"
The mayor snarled a sigh and ran his fingers through his headfur. "Do you actually think I'd steal your revenge like that?"
"Well, I didn't mean it like that," Toby said in a small voice. "It's just, you’re more suited for..."
Flat and matter-of-fact: "No, I'm not."
Toby was utterly befuddled. "How can you NOT be!? You're the freakin' god-king of Ectopia Cordis! I'm just some mouse!"
Luxy gave him a dirty glare, like his offense had switched targets. "That's the talk of someone trying to wiggle off the path he's on."
"No!" Toby protested, starting to panic a little. "Honestly, I do want to fight her! It feels like my responsibility. I'm just trying to put myself aside and think logically about the plan and what'll work best. That's what I've done this whole time! It's why I called on you and the others instead of just barging in on her like some stupid fairytale knight. I'm trying to be humble."
Luxy's expression didn't soften. "There's humble, and then there's bullshit. Toby, this is exactly why I just called you a question mark."
The young mouse's paws curled into fists. His brows drew down. "What do you want from me then!? I don't get it! Why are we suddenly mad at each other?"
"I'm not mad," Luxy said firmly. "I'm just thinking of the plan as well. I can see the board, I can see the pieces. But one of them keeps... flickering." He placed one padded fingertip in the center of Toby's forehead.
Toby jerked back from it. "Then what do you want me to say?"
Luxy rotated the finger into a 'wait a moment' gesture. "For now, listen. First: understand that I would never take this away from you. I understand vendettas. They're personal. Maybe even sacred. You and Scaphis have conflict now; I settled mine. This is the sequel, with a brand new cast for the returning villain. So my team's gonna be on mop-up work. That's fine. That is fine."
"Allright," Toby acknowledged.
Luxy turned away and began to pace again. Toby wished he'd stop that. "Secondly: you're being less logical than you think. I'm not gonna disagree that I'm stronger and smarter. Though that's no knock against you, cadet. Same's true for everyone else on the face of this floating space scab."
Toby rolled his eyes. Luxy's ego could not stay penned for long.
A wriggling, pointed finger passed by Toby's nose. "Think. What advantage do you have over me? Or even Aldridge?"
"I..." Toby blinked. "I wasn't aware I had any. Unless you're about to say something sappy like, 'because I care about my friends, and true caring always beats a cold, mean heart'?"
Luxy nearly choked laughing. "HAAA! No, kid, no! Evil triumphs frequently! I'm not gonna be a cryptic asshole about this and make you waste more time playing a guessing game. It's this:" He circled around til he was facing Toby again. "I beat her my way. Aldridge beat her his way. She will be expecting those."
Toby hadn't thought to calculate for that. But it slotted perfectly into place as soon as he did. "I have a different mind."
Again with the pacing. "More than that, my little chickadee, you have a new mind. Phobiopolis is a closed system, remember? Every new soul brings in a little more information from the mortal world. Something that wasn't here before. And you, Toby, might as well be a space alien compared to the majority. Don't ask me why because I dunno. Maybe Earth's just changed that much in the past few decades. But kid, one of your greatest strengths is, you have no fucking idea what you're doing!!"
"Well, thanks," Toby said sourly.
Luxy strangled the air in front of him. "That was a COMPLIMENT, you asshole!! Do you effing realize that people here have been trying, for eons, to do stuff that you've zoomed through like a goddamned rocket sled? You had help, yes. Every generation of new souls brings us all a little closer. But the fates fucking lined up for you like someone held a gun to their heads. You lucked out into the perfect combination: getting the gist of how crap here works without all the baggage that comes from centuries of being stuck in a rut." He stopped and clutched the mouse's shoulders from behind, making him squeak. "You aren't chained to our patterns, Toby. You've got the big picture but none of the nitpicky details. You don't know what won't work, so it does."
Toby froze up. "I hit the moon with a paint can once," he remembered.
"I don't even know what that means! But I'm sure it was equal parts brilliant and stupid! Which is the napalm of combinations! The URANIUM of combinations!!"
Toby started to sweat. "Does this mean my plan won't work, now that you've told me it won't?"
Luxy whirled around the tank in a heartbeat, sitting down and gripping Toby by the snout to drill his words in deep. "It will. Because the only thing that'd stop it from working if oldies like me tried it is because WE know it wouldn't."
Toby thought he understood the subtle distinction there. When Luxy let go of his nose, the mouse said, "The whole thing runs on willpower."
A nod. A very, very pleased nod. "Exactly. Nothing in this world truly exists beyond the perceptions of those perceiving it. What you see, is what you get."
Toby nodded too. "Allright." He had a feeling that even talking about this was dangerous. Will was the power of action minus doubt. Perfect faith in one's self. Believing in something so completely that the world relented and made it so. Toby worried that dwelling on it might cause him to lose the ability.
But he brought that worry to a halt. His plans were logical. Even if they were his own constructed logic, not present anywhere in Phobiopolis before his arrival, they made sense to him. And he could feel a confidence in his calculations far above his confidence in himself.
"You haven't asked me what your other strength is yet," Luxy pointed out, noticing that the kid was starting to drift.
"Huh? What is it?"
Luxy folded his arms behind the small of his back and resumed pacing. Toby growled a little. "Lemme go back to that little chat we had when I first arrived. You said you crossed Dysphoria, right?"
Toby craned his neck over his shoulder, trying to pinpoint the raccoon. "Yeah."
From another direction: "And you've seen Ol' Floaty McShitcranium."
"Yes. Whatever his name is, I've seen him."
A crisp nod, as if this was a simple matter of putting the facts in order. "And you have also tread foot upon yonder mountain Anasarca?"
Toby already felt like he was being grilled by Sherlock Holmes, but that put it over the top. "Yes. I sat in Aldridge's living room."
Toby felt hot breath.
Luxy's snout was now a whisker away from his ear.
Whispered, plainly: "That's three things I haven't done."
Toby spun around, but the raccoon was already in motion again. "Seriously!? But you're the illustrious Luxy Bleeder! I kinda thought you'd done... well, everything!"
Luxy stopped in front of the mouse to reply, then his expression blanked for a moment. "Illustrious Luxy... Illuxstrious?" he tucked that thought away for later, returning to himself. "No, kid. For one, I've never had a reason to fuck around with Dysphoria. And Whats-His-Ugly even less. I like it here! Why would I wanna follow the yellow brick road to the exit?"
"I thought you and Aldridge knew each other though."
A shoulder-hunching shrug. "Well yeah, but we weren't buddies! He sure as hell never invited me back to his place for tea and Twister." His demeanor seemed halfway between petulant offense and regret for what might have been. Luxy scowled and wrenched the topic back to Toby. "Point is..." he spoke his next words with an unexpected tremble in his voice. "you might actually be the toughest thing in the world."
Toby's mouth fell open. He gawked as if the biggest pile of horseshit in the universe had just cascaded out of Luxy's mouth. "You're KIDDING! Don't lie to me like that!"
The raccoon's jaw twitched. He did not like the L-word. "I'm not," he enunciated firmly.
Toby seemed about to jump up in outrage, then sat back down awkwardly. "No! I don't need my self-esteem pumped up with a bunch of hot air! Look at me! I'm tough? Are you out of your mind!?"
Without warning, the mayor lifted his leg and planted a door-breaking kick dead center in Toby's chest.
It would have snapped a half-dozen ribs if Luxy hadn't held back. As it was, the mouse definitely went flying off the tank and thudded into the dirt. Pain shot through his spine from the clumsy impact. His eyes popped open. His breath had been literally knocked out of him. He looked towards Luxy, hurt and confused.
With his long, lean legs, the raccoon stepped up onto the chemical tank. His eyes were fixed on Toby's like a hawk. All mirth and mercy were gone from his face. Cold as stone.
Toby dragged air into his lungs, then was back on his feet. Still gasping. Staring wildly. Twitching like a nonev.
The raccoon was looming above him, glaring daggers into Toby's soul with eyes like burning embers. Using the full force of his presence, he bore down upon the small mouse like the crushing fist of God. He commanded, "STAY DOWN!!!"
It wasn't even a matter of disobeying: Toby's hammer melted into his hand on pure reflex. The mouse's eyes were wide in panic, but he set his stance automatically. Frightened out of his mind, but instantly tensed to fight.
Seeing that, Luxy's rage melted. The mask of anger fell away, and he could hardly speak above a whisper. "Unbelievable. Without even hesitating..."
Toby gulped down enough breath to shriek, "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT FOR!?"
Luxy's slack mouth began to curl at the edges into a stupefied smile. "When we first met, you could barely meet my gaze. White as a sheet. But look at you now. Weapon at the ready. And if I came at you, you'd swing."
Toby glanced down at his hammer, but then quickly back at the raccoon who'd attacked him out of nowhere. Though, from the change in Luxy's body language, Toby was starting to understand this had all been a test. A really goddam mean one. And somehow, he'd passed. "Yes?"
The smile turned into a full-fledged grin. Luxy shrugged and giggled. "You just proved my point."
"You got back up, Toby," the raccoon said reverently. "You get back up. It's what you keep doing. That's toughness."
Softer now, still disbelieving. "...What?"
"You've seen me fight. I kill crowds. I could end you in a snap. You knew that. But when I acted like a bully, you stood up to me. That simple. No thought to whether you'd lose; you were willing to try. You are unbreakable."
Toby exhaled and inhaled, still feeling his ribs throb in the shape of Luxy's boot. He was kind of infuriated, but also kind of impressed. The proof was clutched in his own right hand.
Still looking at Toby with the fondness of a mentor seeing his protégé's emergence from the cocoon, Luxy called over his shoulder, "Of course I hear your footsteps, idiot. You only think you're stealthy. Kurushimeru, two minutes."
Vienna Tusk gurgled in agony and thrashed around in the dirt for a bit.
Toby looked behind them. The marten had gotten within thirty feet. He felt a bit embarrassed about that. "I should've been paying attention."
Luxy made a 'no biggie' gesture. "You've got a lot on your mind. Sorry about trampling your sternum. No hard feelings?" He walked over and offered his hand.
Toby narrowed his eyes at it. Then glared at Luxy for a few seconds. Then shook the hand. "Fine. Point made. Thanks, I guess."
"I play rough," the raccoon said apologetically. "Plus, I'm an impatient bastard who'd much rather perform a hands-on demonstration if I think it'll shortcut-GYEEEIIAHHH!!"
That was the sound Luxy made when Toby surreptitiously shot out his hammer against the coon's kneecap. Not very hard. Just enough.
The mouse smirked rather sadistically. "There. Now there's no hard feelings."
Luxy cradled his poor knee and stared in utter shock at the mouse. "I didn't think you'd do that! I mean, I saw your fingers flex, but I didn't think you'd do it. And not that HARD! Fuckaroonie!" He hissed in pain. "Sweet hot scrotums, I like you, kid!!" His pained rictus turned into a highly-amused grin.
Toby looked slightly chagrined. "Maybe I'm surprising both of us today."
Giggling now, Luxy flexed his leg and checked for bone splinters.
Toby sighed, then sat back down on the tank with his chin resting in his open palms. Even if the raccoon approved, he still felt a surge of guilt about the petty trick. The pre-Phobiopolis Toby never could have done that, or even thought it up. "You wanna know something? I'll be honest, after this whole past week, or month, or whatever... I've changed so much I hardly recognize myself. You were right to call me a question mark."
"Nah, that was about your willingness to fight. I don't doubt that now," Luxy corrected. He limped over and sat beside him. "I'm fully convinced you're capable of putting on your Junior Bastard League cap whenever you choose. But the inner conflict jazz? Pfft. It's normal. Your conscience's having growing pains. In fact, if there ever comes a point where you're making all your decisions with 100% moral certainty, THAT's the time to start worrying about yourself."
Toby mulled that over and gave it a 'fair point' sound. "But you're a judge. And you seem so certain about all your decisions."
"I seem to, yes," Luxy agreed. "Only 'cuz my process is three-quarters reflex and too quick to see. Practice creates the illusion of ease. Really, until I get the facts, I'm always seeing every side of every problem simultaneously. A living prism. That's why I always prefer to steer people into making my job easier by showing me their guilt or innocence. It's pathetically easy once you get good at it."
Toby thought about that. He swayed his tail back and forth, making patterns in the dirt. He watched Vienna finally unclench herself and scurry over to kill more weeds lest Luxy become displeased with her again.
Finally Toby asked the question that had been on his mind the longest. From between his hands he mumbled, "How did you beat Scaphis the first time?"
Luxy nodded, having anticipated it'd be asked. "You mean me and Aldridge. I can't take sole credit. Much as I'd like to." He leaned back and braced himself against the tank with his flat palms, looking up to the sky, possibly to Anasarca. "Short version: I riled her up and he took the shot. It took a long time, but I got close to her through a lot of lies and flattery. Some of it was even sincere. There's something to admire in someone that skilled at getting what they want." His eyes glazed, wondering how things might have been if... "Anyway, I feigned weakness. Then when the time was right, I backstabbed her right up the tailpipe. ...Figuratively, not literally."
Toby was kind of glad he'd clarified.
Luxy was about to continue, then remembered what Toby had said had befallen his friends. "Sorry if I put that idea in her head, 'do unto others before they do unto you'."
Toby closed his eyes.
A sigh. "I took everything I could from her in one snap of my fingers. Had to. Knew I'd never have time for anything else. Besides escaping, I mean. The plan was simply to get her out of her mind with rage, because a clear-headed Scaphis is a Scaphis you are screwed against. That's a big reason I like your plan so much; you figured that out on your own. For me, once I had her fuming at full steam, Aldridge stepped in and cast a whammy on her." He shrugged. "Unfortunately, you don't have that in your arsenal this time. In fact, with her having absorbed the wand, it's almost like you'll be fighting a Scaphis-Aldridge hybrid." He made a 'sheesh' face. "Sucks to be you."
"Oh, that makes me feel great," Toby snarked.
"It gets even worse!" Luxy said cheerfully. "Because, you know why she's scarfing up whole towns, right? I've seen her do this before with her cult buddies. The plastic's a new thing, and gotta give her credit for turning a curse into an advantage-"
"I thought she was engulfing people to preemptively stop anyone from opposing her?"
A shake of the head. "Nonono, that's just part of it. Why's she keeping them alive then? Why's she not just chucking handfuls of 'em into Dysphoria like she used to? That was practically her favorite sport."
Toby pondered it. "She's using them somehow?"
Luxy's smile did not conceal the horror he felt at the true breadth of the revelation. "They're willpower-batteries."
The fur on Toby's neck stood up and his pupils shrank to dots. "Oh CRAP, that makes so much SENSE!!"
"You really didn't know?" Luxy asked, surprised. "I thought you'd figured that out at least partway."
"No! Although I guess I should have." He chewed his fingernails. "God, it explains a lot! Why would someone who doesn't care about anyone else not just destroy them utterly? My best guess was that she wanted the feeling of having them in her control."
"You were not wrong about that," Luxy said, patting his shoulder. "That's part of every decision she makes."
Toby felt a bit better. "I just wanted you and everyone else here because, if you succeed, suddenly you'll have all of Rhinolith fighting alongside you, mad as hell."
Luxy nodded. "Perfectly good reasoning all on its own. And they'll make good allies when the time comes. We won't even have to ask them to fight. Guaranteed, their first instinct will be to fuck her up with anything they can grab."
Toby could not fathom the pent-up rage of spending weeks upon weeks locked up in the palm of your worst enemy's hand.
"But what it also means," Luxy said, "izzat the more souls we free, the weaker she gets."
Toby's ears perked.
"I mean, she'll still be a nigh-invincible boss monster with that goddamn wand anyway, but it oughtta make some difference, right?"
Sarcasm aside, Toby did derive quite a bit of comfort from the idea. Maybe he'd have something to gauge how well the fight was going once he was in the thick of it. A countdown timer.
The mouse leaned back so he was looking at the sky too. "Maybe it is practically nothing, but at least it's good news. I've been knee-deep in bad for a while now. And I think I've also been doubting, deep down inside, whether or not I'm just insane. Whether I really can do anything at all."
"You got back up when I ordered you not to," Luxy offered.
"Yes," Toby acknowledged, and rubbed where his chest still felt sore. "But endurance is only part of it. I can only get back up so many times. And if she can just keep knocking me back down forever, it won't matter."
The raccoon crossed one leg over the other and kicked it back and forth. "What is it you're really worried about, kid?"
Toby let his eyes drift to the clouds, and then let his mind drift deeper inwards. He tossed the idea back and forth, wanting to be sure he was choosing the right words to express it. "...I'm worried that her cruelty will outlast my will," he finally said. Then he thought of an even simpler way to put it. "I'm worried that I can't hate her enough to beat her."
Luxy closed his eyes, remembering his own past. He nodded. Then smiled. "Why do you think you need to hate her at all?"
"Isn't that obvious!?" Toby sputtered. "She's got this boiling volcano of wretchedness in her gut. And I'm just... sad. How can I hope to go head-to-head with her? Won't it be like opening up a furnace door and jumping inside, naked?"
Luxy chuckled at the image. "Y'wanna know a terrific way to lose a fight? Take what your opponent is best at, and try to beat them at that. Works like a charm!" he grinned.
Toby snorted. "Okay, I'm an idiot. Ha ha."
Luxy rolled his eyes at the poor rodent, then stretched his arm around his shoulders, pulled him close, and noogied him with his chin. "You're not an idiot. Just not as experienced at the fine art of revenge as I am. It's like watching an Olympic runner and wondering why you're not as fast. Prac-fuckin'-tice. Ever notice how there's tons of overused aphorisms about how vengeance leads folks to ruin, or about the abyss staring back into you? It's not because revenge is inherently futile, it's because nearly everyone is SHITTY at it!"
Toby was slightly uncomfortable in Luxy's embrace. The raccoon's bones were poky right through his suit and his smell was... difficult to describe. "So how do I get... un-shitty?"
"Didja read that quote I had engraved above my courtroom?"
He blinked. "I did, but I don't remember it now."
"Short version: People with hearts of gold or hearts of wormwood tend to self-destruct when they try to fix the world. Pure evil and pure good both fail, because they lack essential understanding of the other. It takes a well-balanced mixture of compassion and corruption. You need enough warmth to genuinely empathize, but enough cold to shut it off when the time comes. You have to be able to comfort the innocent AND pummel the guilty. You, Toby, are actually further along the path to balance than I ever would have guessed when I first met you."
It was meant as a compliment, but somehow it made the mouse's guts knot up. "I know I need to be this way to face Scaphis... but it hurts to. I feel awful."
Luxy was quiet for a few moments, then said, "Yes."
Toby looked up to meet Luxy's eyes. "Are you saying you feel this way too?"
A knee-slap. "Me? Haw. Hell no!"
Toby grimaced. "You have a way of being almost-profound for a moment, then popping that moment with a pin."
A gleeful nod. "People who take themselves too seriously become insufferable pricklords. And let me be clearer: I know exactly how you're feeling right now because I used to. You're looking at a Luxy that bears no resemblance to the one who plopped into Phobiopolis a jillion years back. I keep saying that word: practice. I've done the whole justice thing long enough to develop a thick callus of confidence. I can trust that my decisions have brought about more 'better' than 'worse'. I've learned to believe it when people say I'm great. Because I am. Not because I think I am, but because I've got a whole city of people who are happier than just about anywhere else on this rock. Should I not bask in that accomplishment?"
"Doesn't, like, pride goeth before a fall or something?"
"Stupid pride," Luxy corrected with a wagging finger. "Unearned pride. There's no reason not to delight in how awesome you are if you've actually worked that hard to be that goddamned awesome."
Toby's memory flashed to Junella, wielding her confidence as a weapon. "Can't disagree with that, I've seen it in action. So then, I need to..." He drew a blank. "I'm sorry. How does this connect back to me beating Scaphis?"
A shrug. "Probly doesn't. If you get me talking long enough, the subject's always gonna come back to me performing self-flattery-fellatio." He mimed a sucking motion.
"Bleagh!" Toby scooted away from the hug.
Luxy guffawed at his reaction. "Seriously tho'," the raccoon said, "You were worried you couldn't hate Scaphis enough. And I said, 'don't try to be what your enemy's best at'. Find the opposite. Be that instead. The more emotional fighter is the one who usually loses."
Toby arched an eyebrow. "You seemed pretty emotional in the courtroom sometimes."
A dismissive wave of the hand. "That's TV, kiddo. It's controlled. It's an act. Unless I'm strung out on substances... which I'll admit can be not infrequent, I'm always 100% cognizant of how crazy I'm letting myself be. Because I can't just be Luxy Bleeder in front of that audience, y'dig? I have to be L*U*X*Y B*L*E*E*D*E*R!!!"
Toby chuckled. "You sounded like Loud Kevin there."
A titter. "Oh, we do each other's voices all the time! We get up to some hilarious shit. I miss him already, the li'l spud-shaped fuck. Wonder what he's doing right now? It's way less fun introducing myself."
Toby rather liked seeing this small moment of Luxy acknowledging a friendship.
"I'm talking about me again!!" Luxy roared, waving his arms as if swatting flies. He suddenly lunged sideways and ensnared Toby. He shoved his muzzle millimeters away from the mouse's ear. "You wanna know a secret? Like, a BIG one? The one I don't let anybody, anybody, anybody know?"
Toby gulped, tense as a bowstring. "I don't know... Is this something where you'll kill me if I tell?"
A breezy laugh. "Probably, but not any more than usual. No one'd believe you anyway."
"Okay, Junior Luxster, you ready for it!?" The raccoon buried his nosepad in Toby's ear hairs. He cupped his paw around his muzzle. In the tiniest voice this side of audibility, he said, "I don't hate anyone."
He released Toby and sat back, arms spread, like the end of a magic trick.
The mouse was more than a little confused. "That's it?"
A giggling nod. "That's it!"
Luxy leaned forward, chin in hands, elbows on knees. The mouse didn't get it yet, but he would.
"Well. You're right that it seems unbelievable. You sure seemed to hate Cleanup Crew a lot. And that rapist guy"
Luxy shook his head. "Moments of anger. They aren't hate. Hate extends past the moment. It lingers. It keeps you aflame long past the point where it's doing you any good. It's unproductive. There's not a damn thing wrong with a flare of rage when it's appropriate, but I switch it off as soon as the problem's dealt with. I never let it be all of me. I am never more emotion than thought." He pointed in the air as if dictating a great wisdom: "Hatred, Toby, is for shitheads."
Toby was rather surprised to hear this, coming from someone to whom murder was pleasure. "Doesn't violence come from hatred?"
"Doesn't have to!" he said merrily. "Why can't it be art? Comedy? Something to keep the mind engaged, to prevent the complacency and slipups of boredom? Most of the time when I'm in that courtroom, I'm having fun. I'm playing a role. Enjoying the game. I don't let it get personal. I see thieves and killers and rapers and bigots and lie-tellers and other miscellaneous scum so ugly you don't even wanna spit on 'em. And I don't hate any of them." An open-handed shrug. "What good would it do? Are they any more or less stuck in The Pipe for me feeling nothing more than bemusedly gobsmacked at their reprehensible garbageyness?"
Toby thought he got it now. "You're detached."
A nod and a pat on the head for the attentive little pupil. "More than that, I know when to turn my faucets off. Or on full-blast. If I were to let myself feel the full empathy deserving of every act of savagery that happens in my city, I'd never sleep. I hardly do anyway, but that's just from being a Busy Bleeder Bee." For just a moment, he let Toby see the tired jitter in his eyes. "I've scraped and carved and molded myself into a furson capable of being mayor/judge/god/king/Bwana Dick of the hugest city in this world. Capable of being that, while not being a bully. It's not for everyone... but it has to be someone."
Toby felt an eerie deja vu. Hadn't he thought something similar about himself just this morning?
Luxy Bleeder reached over and took Toby's hand into his, giving it a firm but gentle squeeze. "You have been thrown in the deep end, kid. But you've taught yourself to swim in record time. You've faced the worst and the best this aborted afterlife has to offer. In days. You're tasked with becoming something like me in a fraction, a microscopic sliver, of the time it took me." Another squeeze of the paw. "It's going to gut you, Toby. You are going to be a walking shipwreck when this is over, if you don't feel that way already."
A nod. "I do."
A 'that's how it is' smile. "...But you'll fucking win."
Toby wanted to believe that. The words were convincing, and he felt awed that Luxy had shown him such kindness and deference. Though... "How?"
Luxy reached up to cup Toby's lower jaw in his hand, holding his gaze in place. "By being her opposite. Toby, amigo mio, I see in your eyes that you despise the thought of becoming a bully as much as I do, and that's commendable. It'll keep you from getting drawn into the endgame she wants. She wants your hate. She wants someone to fight against. She wants to be opposed, so she can have someone to crush, and feel the thrill of, 'I won'."
Toby had a flash: "Janie and Ike."
A small trace of a smile. "That, but dialed up so far the knob breaks off. It's fine to enjoy a rivalry. Competition. But Scaphis wants someone as ugly as she is so she doesn't feel alone. And she's not suicidal enough to seek it in Logdorbhok, unfortunately for us. So she creates enemies. She builds people to hate her. She sets up her game. You can only win, Toby, by setting down to the table, starting play, then refusing to follow her rules. She wants everything on her terms. Give her yours. Piss her off. Hate is for shitheads, remember? Let her hate you. And the more she does, the less you do."
Toby's voice cracked when he tried to respond. He felt a tear tugging at his eye. "How do I not hate someone who took my best friends from me?"
A steadying paw clapped his shoulder. "By keeping in your mind that hate doesn't help. Pity is so much more useful. When you hate someone, you are setting them up in the more powerful position. They made you angry. Except, they didn't. You are choosing to feel that way. So choose differently. Take control of yourself. When she slaps you in the face, you shrug. Or stare. Or flip her off. Or shove a power drill up her nostril. Whatever!" A finger poked the mouse's sternum, right where Luxy had kicked it. "The point is, no one makes your decisions but you."
Toby winced at the poke, but he was starting to feel hopeful. Even a bit energized.
"For all her strength," Luxy said, tossing a contemptuous glance towards Anasarca, "she has no power over your mind. She'll try to trick you into giving up control. She'll try to manipulate you. But if you can resist, and keep your power for yourself, then she's dead."
Toby was breathing a little faster. 'Like in Dysphoria...'
Luxy noticed the slow change in the kid and kept going. "Mindset's a neglected weapon in battle. Winners tend to keep winning and losers tend to keep losing. Because they've cast themselves in those roles and subconsciously act them out. You don't go in thinking, 'I'm going to win.' You go in knowing, 'This poor sonovabitch. I've already won and they still think they have a chance'."
The mouse was transfixed by the words, but managed a nod. "If... if everything I planned works out, then that'll be true. I'll have won just by standing in front of her."
"Absolutely," Luxy encouraged. "And I can 99% guarantee she will be stupid enough to let you get that close. How can she resist the feeling of, 'Behold this pathetic little booger! The foolish hero come to save his doomed buddies. I can squeeze him like a pimple, just like that!'
Toby chuckled at the snippy voice Luxy had put on.
The mouse took a deep breath. He could feel his heart racing from the pep talk. He wanted to hold on to that feeling, but not let it overpower him. "So, if I can stay calm, then I win."
A nod. "You'll walk in there knowing the ending already. Then all you have to do is pull it towards you. Simple." His whiskers twitched as he remembered something. "Oh! This might help your confidence..." He began rustling in his pockets.
Toby looked over to see, then craned his neck down as Luxy reached over to pin something on his vest. It looked like a brass elevator button. "It's a thingy."
"A distress flare," the coon clarified. "Squeeze it; toss it. The explosion'll made a particular light that I'll recognize. I will keep out of the way and let you kick her ass however you choose, but if you run into heavy problems, you've got a lifeline. Not sure how, but I'll find a way to scoot my tail up the mountain to ya."
Toby traced the button with a fingertip. "I'm sure you'd find a way. Thank you."
"Wear it for a few days," Luxy counseled. "Just so it starts feeling like a part of your outfit and you won't lose it when you get killed. Of course," a nonchalant shrug, "you'll never use it."
That confused Toby for a moment, but then he smiled. "Because I won't need to."
Luxy's reply was his grin.
Toby grinned too.
Luxy suddenly slapped the mouse on the back almost hard enough to knock him over. "So! Feeling any better, you mopey, pink-eyed dishrag?"
Toby couldn't help a laugh. "Yeah, I guess so. You fine, upstanding citizen."
That got a giggle out of him. "The opposite of what I was expecting! See? You're good at this already!"
"Yeah." Toby let his muscles unclench. He dangled his arms at his sides, staring for a moment at the dirt. Just enjoying the pleasant, warm halo surrounding him from Luxy's encouragement. Like the feeling in his muscles after a good run. "I do feel better. Not to say I'm completely de-worried yet though," he added with a chuckle.
"A little's not bad. Keeps you on your toes. Adaptive."
Toby stood up, as if he was about to go running off towards the horizon. Then he stopped, hesitated, and sat back down again. "I guess the part I'm still worried about is trying to keep ahead of her." He leaned back completely, facing the sky, letting his arms droop over the side of the plastic tank. "You've told me a lot, and I've picked up clues here and there, but still... it's looking like I gotta psychoanalyze her to win, and I honestly don't know anything about her."
Luxy's body language conveyed that this was less of an issue than Toby was making it out to be. "A furson's actions in an unguarded moment will tell you more than their whole biography would."
Toby acknowledged the wisdom of that with a nod. "Still, I'd like to have more ammo. Some specifics. Some old secrets, or-" He suddenly froze.
Before he could let his brain tell him how stupid an idea it was, that they were undoubtedly shredded to smithereens, Toby darted his left paw to the inner pocket of his vest and pulled out a small stack of notebook sheets.
Luxy tilted his head: 'might I inquire?'
"Doll's notes," Toby said, as pleasantly stunned as the first time he'd produced an ace of spades. "I remembered just now. In the market, when I was lost in the desert, Doll and Junella got to talking. She told about her history. Who she'd been before her curse. She wrote it all down, and Junella gave me the notes to read later!" Toby shook the pages, his arm trembling in excitement. "Here they are! And whether they got torn up when Scaphis threw me off the mountain, or when L'roon ate me, or anything else, it doesn't matter because I remembered them and so here they are!"
Luxy licked his teeth. He eyed the scraps of paper in Toby's fist with a bit of unease. He wondered if he should say anything.
Toby sat up straight, delighted that he'd accomplished yet another bit of brilliant stupidity. "Of course they were long gone. But now they're not. And I've got her secrets right here! I can-"
His excitement died in a heartbeat.
Luxy leaned a little closer, still keeping quiet. But he smiled proudly when the kid folded the notebook sheets over and tore them in half.
The pieces fluttered to the ground like dandelion seeds.
There was a knowing lilt to Luxy's tone as he asked, "Why'd you do that, chum?"
Toby stared down at the scraps. Not allowing himself to feel stupid, but wanting to. "Because... why would she tell Junella the truth?"
A soft pat on the back.
Toby acknowledged it with a quick, grateful glance. "It'd be lies. All of it. Probably some sob story engineered for maximum sympathy. She was probably tickled pink to get Junella, who hated her guts, to finally let her in. She would've come up with some BS right on the spot to make anyone who read it go, 'Awww, you poor thing!'"
'And this kid was worried he wouldn't be any good at psychoanalysis,' Luxy thought with a satisfied smirk. As bait, he offered, "You know, she and I got pretty tight together. I could fill you in on some stories. Are ya kidding? Me, having the chance to run my mouth gossiping?"
Toby didn't crack a smile at that. He stared straight ahead with his brow furrowed, thinking hard. "Actually... no. I'm sorry to be so back-and-forth on this, but no. I just realized... I don't need it."
'Yessss!' Luxy thought to himself. 'Keep going!' he silently cheered.
"I was just... stalling, I guess. Like, I remember going grocery shopping. Mom and I would both stand around near the checkouts like big dummies, thinking for sure we'd forgotten that One Last Thing. But I haven't this time. I'm pretty sure of that. I don't need one more thing for her. I've got my plan. I've got George. And I think I'm getting my motivation back. Maybe there's some private secret I could deploy to make her blow her top. But how would I know it? And how would I know she wouldn't just laugh it off? It's unreliable. And..."
Toby hesitated. Knowing what he was about to say was a little coldhearted. But maybe that was okay.
"Maybe I don't want to know anything more about her. Who she was before, I mean. I'm sure it really would be a tragic story, because how else could someone end up so mean? But I don't want to know. Because it'd make her more of a furson to me. I'd feel sympathy. And I don't want to. I want to think about how she tore my best friends' faces off."
Luxy's claws were digging into the sides of the tank with the effort it took to keep his goddamn mouth shut. Toby was on a roll.
The mouse narrowed his coral eyes. His gut felt like a lava rock was splashing around inside. It hurt, but it also made him eager to get off his tail and start doing something. "I remember when Gilla-Gilla was teaching me how to kill constructs, I ran into a bonecuddy. And he reminded me of George. For just a second I felt like, 'I can't hurt this thing. It reminds me of my friend.' And then it killed the hell out of me. Stomped my guts out. Because I hesitated. I don't want to hesitate when I'm facing Scaphis."
Luxy nodded ferociously.
Toby didn't even notice. "You're right, Mr. Bleeder. I don't have to hate her. But I don't have to care about her either. Not a bit. She hurt my friends. She hurt me. She's hurt a lot of good people. And it doesn't make me a bad guy for not caring how much I hurt her back. I won't hate her. I don't think I can pity her. But is disgust okay? Like, if I'm looking at some nasty parasite on the sidewalk that does nothing but suck blood and spread disease, and I wanna just stamp it out like a cigarette butt? Is that okay?"
Luxy clapped a paw across his muzzle to keep from cackling in delight. With his free hand he jostled Toby's shoulder joyously. "Holy shit, kid. I think you just graduated!"
Toby took in a deep breath through his nose. He let it out through his mouth. He stood up. His face was calm. Cold, but calm. Quietly he decided, "I think I should go now."
The raccoon hopped to his feet. "Not a bad idea."
Toby looked towards Red. Way up high, he could still see little people skittering to and fro across the construct's back. Sadness touched his expression for a moment. Regret. "I barely got to meet them. I feel bad about just taking off like this. Part of me wants to stay a few more days. Help you set up camp. Eat some more of Tía Lopez' soup."
"It is friggin' excellent," Luxy conceded.
Toby shut his eyes. This part hurt. "But your talk helped, Luxy. I think I need to go now. Right now. So I can hold onto how this feels."
A brown paw patted his shoulder. "Smart."
Toby turned suddenly and hugged him, hard. Squeezing without holding back. "Thank you."
Luxy stiffened like he'd been electroshocked. Not just because the bony little shrimp's grip was deceptively strong, but because he simply wasn't used to this. "Heh. Welcome. Y'know, I don't get many of these. I'm not sure what to do with it."
Toby had his head resting against the mayor's burgundy shirt. "You can just stand there and do nothing if you want."
"Allright." His whole body was stiff as a barber pole. "Kisses, stabbing, fucking, sure. Lots more familiar with those."
Toby nodded, his cheek sliding against the fabric. "I just need this. For a moment. Something that feels good before I gotta go all Terminator robot. I'll have George, but he doesn't have any skin. So I'm sorry if this makes you uncomfortable, but it kinda feels like, once I let go, I'll be a different furson. And I'll be letting go of more of me than you."
Luxy stood quietly for several moments, letting the poor battered little rodent have some peace. "That was well-said."
"I used to read a lot of books."
They stayed like that for nearly a minute. Like moss growing on a tree. Luxy started to feel sweaty. His tail twitched like a cat's. "Hey, you maybe want me to kill you a little bit? Just some friendly knifeplay?"
Toby couldn't hold back a laugh. "I'd rather not." He let go then, and stepped back a bit to look at Luxy again. He didn't seem like this imposing, all-powerful figure now. He just seemed like a friendly, interesting, smart, busy guy. Toby liked how that felt. He held out his paw for a final shake.
Luxy accepted, and rubbed the back of his neck with his other hand. "Sorry if I spoiled the ambiance. It's hard for me to express affection without a li'l violence mixed in. Got some wires crossed in my attic."
"It's fine," Toby said. "I've just had enough of that for one day already."
Luxy put two and two together. "OHHH, so THAT'S it! You'll let HER rip your heart out for snacktime, but not ME? I'm not GOOD enough for you!? What a snobby little pissant you are!"
Toby laughed so hard he saw stars for a moment. "Stop! You're wearing me out, Luxy!"
"Eh. I'm like dessert. So damn sweet, but easy to get sick of quick."
Toby attempted to squeeze the last of his giggles out. He felt like he'd really needed the catharsis.
"Ready now?" Luxy asked.
Toby hesitated a moment more. Like those last few minutes snoozing before getting up and facing a test at school. "I guess so." He turned towards Red, cupped his muzzle, and called George's name as loud as he could.
Luxy swirled a finger in his ear, wincing.
"Tell them I'm sorry," Toby asked. "Tell them goodbye, and that I know I'm kind of a jerk for running off so soon. Especially Red. The big sweetheart did just what I asked. Tell him I wish I could give him a last hug." He looked back and could see the gargantuan construct was looking his way, as a black speck departed from his shoulder and flew closer.
"I'll tell them," Luxy promised.
Toby watched George's wings come into focus.
"One more thing," Luxy said.
"Better make it quick. My taxi's about to land."
A chuckle. "I'll make it quick." He skootched in closer and knelt down to Toby's ear. "You've got the drift that hate's no good. But ya wanna good tip on how to flush it out of your system? Burn your tanks dry. Get it all out before the moment. Sometimes in my office before trials, if it's a bad one, I'll look at the evidence and let myself go. I'll throw shit around the room. Scream. Punch my lovely plastic assistants til my knuckles are dust."
George had made a nimble landing a few feet away, but kept to himself till Sire Toby and Sir Bleeder had concluded their business.
"I'll hate the P.O.S. until I've run out of hatred, til the whole idea seems ludicrous. Like saying a word over and over til it doesn't mean anything anymore." He squeezed Toby's shoulder. "You've got a few miles between here and the mountain. Ample time. Go squeak your head off. Be a complete bastard to some poor, innocent cactusyotes or something."
Toby nodded. "Seems a bit silly, but it might not be a bad idea."
George took a step forward and bowed acknowledgment. "Sir Bleeder."
"Well met, noble steed." Luxy extended his paw and shook George's hoof.
"I have been summoned?" he asked Sire Toby. "Am I needed perhaps for clearing away more of these verminous vines? I am certain I would be a more efficient worker than..." he cast a black glance at the marten sniper, spraying as far away from them as possible. "...that."
Toby chuckled at the undisguised contempt. "Actually, George, I'm sorry if you were having fun with Red back there, but, well... it's time to go."
A flick of his spectral ears. "So soon? I had been under the assumption we would stay and help our newly-arrived allies make camp."
"We're a pack of ageless demigods," Luxy interjected. "I think we can deal with a few tents."
"If that is your choice," George acknowledged. Then he looked a little flustered. "Although, in truth... I am somewhat grateful you pulled me away, Sire Toby."
The mouse looked concerned. "Why? Were they, like, giving you dirty looks for being a construct?"
"Quite the opposite! I was treated as a fascinating novelty and fawned over. Sirs Woofingbutter and Rippingbean were especially overflowing with goodwill. And it is always a treat to chat with Red! However, when I inquired into the lights visible beneath the surface of Madam Jing, and if perchance she might be of similar kin to myself..."
Luxy imagined the look on her face and giggled shamelessly.
George shuffled from hoof to hoof. "I am honestly surprised you did not hear her reaction to my question, even from a distance this far. You have rescued me from an awkward position, Sire Toby."
The mouse patted the stallion's leg consolingly. "I'm sure you asked very politely anyway."
"I tried to!"
Toby was just about to climb up into the saddle.
"Actually!" Luxy shouted.
The mouse turned back. "One more thing?"
"It'll only take a sec." Luxy turned around and whistled, ear-splittingly, in the direction of Vienna Tusk. When she looked up, he made a 'getcher ass over here' gesture.
Toby made an unpleasant face. "Why would you-"
"A coda," the raccoon said simply.
The weed-killer wand dangled and dragged on the ground behind her. Deep hatred throbbed in her tight-shut face. She didn't say a damn word as she approached the tyrant judge, and the thief, and his fucking pet horsie.
Luxy tucked his arms behind his back. He didn't say anything either. He just looked at Vienna with a placid, neutral expression, and let her ask first.
She glared at him for a moment, then realized he was playing some kinda dumbass cat-and-mouse game. "...What!?" she spat.
He said nothing. Made her come a little closer.
With a begrudging snarl, she did.
Toby reflexively grabbed one of George's ribs. Whether to hold back his friend or steady himself, he wasn't sure.
When Vienna was just close enough, Luxy swung round a kick to the back of her shin. He didn't mean to knock her down in the dirt, but it accomplished what he was hoping for anyway.
Her claws sank deep in the ground, tendons taut in the backs of her hands. She hefted herself up, breath ragged from anger and humiliation. Still though, she kept her mouth shut. Lest he open his and say that word again. The one that made all the bugs in the world start eating her alive from the inside out.
Still keeping proper decorum, Luxy took a step closer and lightly swatted the back of her head, towards Toby's direction. He spoke in a pleasant tone but without any ambiguity that he was giving an order: "Apologize."
Toby saw her eyes rise to meet his. Saw her jaw set in a feral rictus. Saw how tense her muscles were, bulging beneath her skin. She was absolutely livid. Smoldering with anger. But she feared Luxy. That was even more obvious. He'd tamed her.
Vienna shut her eyes for a moment to build up the will to go through with it. Unable to make eye contact with the ratthief, she kept her gaze down in the dirt. "I'm sorry," she rasped out. "Please forgive me."
Toby's face showed sympathy. The marten was on her hands and knees in the dirt. Literally groveling before him. Asking for forgiveness. After losing everything else, her dignity was taken too. This was probably the most humiliating moment of her life. Toby took a step forward, his hand reaching out to...
His hand dropped to his side, and his expression changed. The concern left his face, cycled through pity, and then became as neutral as Luxy's.
"No," he said.
Her head jerked up. She hadn't heard that right. When you said you were sorry, the other person was supposed to say 'that's fine' and then it was fucking over with! "Why!?"
Toby took another step forward, until his shadow covered her face. His eyes were perfectly clear.
"Because you wouldn't have said anything if he hadn't forced you."
He saw her mouth move, about to lash out with angry protest. But he didn't care to hear it. He turned away from her without another glance and walked back to George.
Luxy looked at the mouse with a conflicted, multilayered expression. Not sure if he'd said the right things. Not sure if he'd been using this kid, turning him into a walking hand grenade against his old enemy. But he didn't think so. He thought Toby had made this choice himself.
The mayor-king of Ectopia Cordis cast a quick glance at the ascended construct the mouse was approaching. He gave him a nod towards Toby: 'You'll take care of him.'
George saw, and nodded back: 'Without question.'
Vienna Tusk knelt with her head down. Wordless. Chest rattling with seething, repressed bile.
Toby had a firm grip on George's vertebrae, pulling himself up to the bony spine, feeling the familiar fat emerge beneath him into a saddle shape. His face was still calm. He looked forward, taking his time scanning the sky until he could make out the peak of Anasarca. When George placed leathery reins into his hands, he gave them a soft tug in the right direction. George pointed himself, and Toby gave him a pat.
The mouse and construct took their first steps away from Rhinolith.
Toby looked back over his shoulder at Vienna. "I don't know if you'll ever see me again. But you'll get your city back. I promise you that."
Not caring about her response, if any, he cracked the reins like he'd seen in cowboy shows and George took off like a shooting star. There was just enough time for Toby to give one last nod of appreciation to Luxy.
Hands in his pockets, the raccoon watched the kid ride off. George was fast enough that soon they were no more than a black and white speck against the green. Luxy turned his head back to Rhinolith. A city entombed in spiteful threads. A long, long road of beige plastic snaked from the city in both directions: towards new conquests, and towards the mountain where its consciousness sat in wait. Not a hard trail to follow.
Luxy watched George get smaller and smaller as he and Toby headed towards his former arch-nemesis. He felt like he had fired a pistol, and was watching the lone bullet fly.
'They're going to shatter her. And this world is going to change.'
He couldn't wait.
He turned back around to see a certain marten slinking away. He strolled over to tailgate. "Y'see, that's the fundamental difference between us."
She swiveled around, no clue what the bastard was talking about now.
"At heart, Toby's a real nice kid. And I'm not." His boot swung back, then kicked her butt. Not too hard.
"Got about eight hundred more acres of vines to wipe out before nightfall," he observed. "We don't even need that much space. I'm just gonna make you do it because I'm a sadistic monster. Tee hee!"
She looked back over her shoulder with a glower that could split steel.
"Awww, cheer up! Another few days and you'll have your family back." He mimed sticking a finger down his throat. "Lucky them!"
The sun was beginning to set.
A vast band of furious orange had settled on the horizon like an endless wall of flame. A forest fire in the sky. Between them and this burning wall were unknown miles of badlands. Realms crawling with constructs and other nasty tricks. Ghosts of the Allfilth's will. Toby was not afraid.
In fact he was tired. Irritated. His mind was a mess. He could feel his doubts and emotions swirling around in his stomach like the contents of a magic 8-ball. And now Phobiopolis was gonna start pulling pranks again. He was in no mood.
George had locked tendon-stirrups around his sandals. Toby held tight to the reins and stood up. His gaze was nailed to the horizon. The wind slashed at his face from the speed. He could feel it pulse against the tear-scars at the sides of his eyes.
George replied silently with speed.
The sky looked as big as the whole of space. Clouds, like battleships of smoke, sailed onward. Toby thought he could even see the first traces of the constellation-animals, beginning to wake and wander the Veil Of Tears as they had for eons past.
The color of the sky matched his mood. The sun was a molten red ball sinking into the ground. Baking it hot. Toby felt its heat inside him too.
It was a callous thing he'd done to the marten. He knew that. He felt guilty about it. He didn't feel guilty. He felt both at once. He let his emotions battle it out inside, not caring anymore which was right. Let them fight. He'd done it, it was over, and he was already far away. The past was closed now, so his doubts could whine all they wanted. Useless screams. The churning feelings inside of him only added to his anger. He thought he might take Luxy's advice. He began to scan for signs of movement.
The vine-carpet was always in motion, but George was dealing with that. Every hoofstep effortlessly pulped a square foot of tendrils. George was making coleslaw. Besides the green though, Toby spotted several of those arm-snails and shovel-faced bulls. Neither were a concern. The former were too slow to catch up and the latter too stupid to do more than stand around chewing. Farther away though, Toby saw something else. Cactusyotes. Just as Luxy had said. He'd seen them in almost every part of Phobiopolis. Hardy beasts, but not very strong against steel.
"Let 'em get close, George."
A nod. The stallion didn't have to ask why. He had been with his master long enough, he was beginning to understand the mouse's moods, shifting as they were.
Yips and shrieks. Green spines. Thudding paws. Packs of loping forms began to zero in on the mouse. Toby saw their open, eager maws. They'd love to eat him. Rip him apart. A dozen or so emerged from seemingly nowhere, maybe spawned from the vine-tentacles themselves. Maybe that's how they grew. It was unimportant. They were almost close enough now to nip at George's heels.
Toby turned in the saddle and held out his palm towards them.
He let one leap. Let it see his eyes before it died.
It became a spray of green paint across the air.
The pack took this as their cue to move in. Shoulder to snarling shoulder, they raced past the fallen, tangled skin of their packmate. Muscled past each other to sink the first bite into this trespasser in their territory. Foamy green spittle puffed at the corners of their eager jaws.
Flashes of steel. Pained yelps. Arcs of green blood. Bodies ricocheting against the ground, tumbling against their kin.
Toby killed six of them in as many seconds.
He barely blinked. His stone expression never changed. He no longer worried about losing his hammer. No matter how many times he fired it like a bullet, he would always have it now. He didn't feel any sympathy for the cactusyotes as he maimed and shattered their bodies. They had made the choice to come to him. This was their consequences. Toby kept firing until not a one was left alive.
He looked back to the horizon. Past it. Past Anasarca, to the dreaming shitbeast at the world's mirrored core. 'Got anything else?'
It did. The cactusyotes were only a prelude. As Toby and George thundered deeper into the badlands, other nightmares began to appear. Hypenas. Pig-things. Arachnopuses. Those cat-shaped barracudas.
As more of them came, Toby stopped aiming. He focused on the feeling of launching his dream-steel out to meet them. He became as familiar with the sensation of it leaving as the hammer itself. Till he could fire as many times as he could recall the feeling of firing. A yellow-eyed fish launched itself towards him, feline fangs bared. Toby tore it to shreds with a fan of hammers. The sound was like a machine gun. Like Zinc's beloved brass monster.
George joined in the festivities. He ignited his mane, and as the land grew darker, it cleared their path. A lone headlight. George blew a wedge of incinerating death towards anything stupid enough to attack from the front. He felt as remorseless as Sire Toby. Perfectly united in mood.
Toby's internal war fueled his cannon arm. Inside him, nauseous thoughts battled. Every regret he'd ever birthed clashed against his newfound confidence. As if his past were trying to wrench him back from riding towards his future. As if his old self was not about to be replaced without a fight. His thoughts were flashes, half-formed ideas that he countered before they'd even finished. He second-guessed himself, then second-guessed the second-guesses. He hated what he'd become. What he'd become was necessary. He felt guilt. He did not feel guilt. And soon, like a rising drumbeat, one thought began to drown out all the others. The reason why his new self was necessary. The reason he was rushing to meet. The one he hated with such fury it made his own self-loathing shrink back in submission.
Pink eyes blazing with the heat of plasma, Toby stood high in the saddle, one hand on George's reins and the other still blasting out hammers at anything that dared move. Piranhacoons screeched as their backbones snapped. Tunnelroars burst like blue water balloons. Giant insects sprouted holes in their carapaces. And a lost, maddened ambulance was so peppered with craters it skidded onto its side and caught fire.
Scaphis. Toby's eyes gleamed red and his teeth scraped enamel. Scaphis. The enamel scraped. His jaw muscles swelled. Scaphis. A torrent of tears stung the corners of his eyes. He hated her. Powerfully. Infinitely. Raw, red-meat hatred pulsed through his veins like ignited gasoline. And he could SEE her all this time. That sloppy rope of plastic flesh stretching back to Aldridge's mountain. To the place where she'd killed him. Broke his bones and toyed with him. Where she'd balled George up like aluminum foil and discarded him. Where that goddamned tongue had come out of her face and pierced Zinc's forehead. Stole his mind. Piffle. Junella. Their identities violated. Their everything erased. And Scaphis had been insane enough to blame them for it. She had been lying the whole time. From the instant he'd met her. That very first moment in Trapforest Path. Good GOD, he'd TOUCHED her! While those toxic thoughts had been swirling around in her cracked maelstrom of a head, she had ridden piggyback on his shoulders. He had cared for her. They all had, even Junella in the end. It was unfathomable how someone could hold a lie that long. Sitting with them, faking weakness, being helpful just to shore up the act. All so she could use them to get close to Aldridge. She'd never cared about anything but the wand. She had fooled them all, then murdered them all. Because she'd gotten what she wanted and their friendship was disposable.
Toby filled his lungs and screamed.
So loud it felt like the sky cracked. So raw it felt like the earth shook. Toby screamed until he ran out of air, then pulled in breath to do it again.
George worried his friend had lost his mind. "...Sire Toby?"
"FASTER, GEORGE!!! FASTER!!!"
The stallion obeyed.
Toby screamed until blood flecked his chin. He screamed until his voice box was nothing but a wad of shredded cartilage. And he kept on screaming. His scream transcended the limits of his physical body, coming straight out of his soul now. The blind, animal rage that he had suppressed for every moment of his life until this moment. A lifetime of staying quiet and meek when poison was poured down his throat. When he was jailed inside his room. When his father was removed. When his own body became a wasteland of sores and pus and vomit. When fate kept him even from the peace of death and brought him HERE, to this repellent funhouse. A place where he was constantly preyed on, mocked, attacked, and had everything he'd ever cared about trampled on and taken away. Toby knew the star-being was asleep somewhere deep below, but right now he didn't care. Why hadn't it put up more of a fight against Logdorbhok? Why was this place such a fucking trashfire of pain and humiliation? Why had he been so stupid as to love someone who was planning the whole time to betray him? Why couldn't she have just taken what she wanted and let them go? Why had she gutted his memory, let him find happiness with the family he'd always wanted, only to lose that again!? Why had he remembered!? Why had she dragged him back!?
Toby screamed until the front of his chest was soaked in red. His tears slashed open the sides of his face. His jaw unhinged. His legs were fused standing. His mind was a galaxy of hornet's nests. His body became a monument to hatred.
They were passing through a valley of licking caves now. The yawning jaws lunged from the ground at the mouse and stallion, but got nothing for their attempts but mouthfuls of fire and metal. Toby fired blindly, yet even in the depths of his crazed rampage, some part of his compassion remained on auto-pilot. He launched his hammer hundreds of times. He killed countless constructs. But he never once struck George.
He had no awareness of self, except for a shatterproof knowledge that he was untouchable now. Because he willed it. Because he was not about to let anything else stand in his way. He was tired of being this poison realm's prey. It would be his victim now. He stood upon his chariot, feeling like a chromatic plow of purest will extended out in front of him, crushing and battering aside anything that came near.
George carried him onwards. Past lands they'd never seen before. Lands that were never situated between Rhinolith and Phlegmasia on any other souls' journey before. Phobiopolis threw all it could at Toby. It was swatted away effortlessly. Armies of skeletal dinosaurs. Murderous construction equipment. Plagues of flying scorpions. The night itself. It all burned. Toby carried his own weather: a constant rain of hammers.
At one point, the prosthesis-beast even returned. The lurching golem of discarded, bloody limbs and teeth that had menaced them on the way to Rhinolith. It came again, head on. Arms made of crutches, waving fingers made of peg legs. Each tooth was a set of clattering dentures. A thousand glass eyes spun.
George's blaze and Toby's arm cleaved it in half.
And they rode on.
If he'd been in anywhere near his right mind, it might have occurred to Toby to marvel at some of the uncanny sights he was passing. He forged a burning path through strange and exotic horrors, annihilating them with barely a glance. Slithering piles of filthy, tattered cloth. Eternally-burning wooden animals. Creatures that consumed through their nostrils. Lurching, ink-dripping storybook illustrations that struggled between two and three dimensions. Behemoths of emerald. A bog that sculpted swamp foam into everyone it had drowned. Gaunt gamins that swarmed blindly, nothing in their heads but empty holes. Toby left them all twitching and bleeding in the dirt. All of them. It was not enough to simply push them out of the way. They deserved to feel what they would have shown their victims.
They passed a monster cake that lived to slither its way down unwilling throats and burst stomachs from inside. Toby killed it. They passed a ghost whose baleful screams drove mortal souls to suicide. Toby killed it. They passed the Teddy Decapitator: a miles-long conveyor belt in the desert where ancient machinery ripped the heads from an endless supply of stuffed animals, and dumped their bodies in a greasy pile. George burned it down.
These things would lurch back to normal some time after the duo had passed. But so few souls ever traveled this way. It was almost tragic. Their one chance in decades to put on a performance, and the audience shot by with barely a flicker of notice.
Toby and George rode on. Knowing their destination. Waiting for Phobiopolis to cut out the roadblocks and let them arrive.
Toby's scream went silent after a while, only because there was nothing left in him capable of maintaining it. Luxy had told him to burn his tanks dry. To get it all out before he faced her. Toby's tanks had been fuller than anyone would have imagined. He burned more internal petroleum than an oil field fire. All the doubts. All the pain. All the self-pity. All the hatred. All the... everything. By the end, Toby felt as much like a living skeleton as when his friends had dragged him out of Dysphoria.
Except he didn't feel hopeless like then. There was none of that useless nihilistic depression. He felt like he'd walked through a waterfall of lava, melting away everything but his purpose. He knew what he had to do. He wanted to do it. He had everything he needed right with him. It was now just a matter of getting there.
The moon ahead was obscured by a white wall that extended up to infinity. And yet, they could see the mountain beyond it. Phlegmasia's wall was there, yet not there. A ghost image. George knew full well though, it existed regardless of their perceptions. He had been assured as much the first time: there was no going over without Aldridge, only through.
His hooves sliced barren sand as he hurtled towards the wall. There was nothing else in this blighted place but himself and his master. His keen eyes spotted the entrance to the maze dead ahead. Of course it wanted them inside. And he remembered the fate of the souls it trapped.
Toby had gone silent some time ago, though his hammer-arm still twitched at the slightest movement. Otherwise, George might've thought the mouse had turned to stone. "Sire Toby? What are we going to do about Phlegmasia? We have none of the protection we had before. I do not want to lose you if you find yourself reading the words on the walls."
Toby wasn't worried, as he hadn't been worried about anything else so far. This was all amateur shit. He could handle it. His muscles were latched solid to keep him upright, bundles of concrete and wire, but at his will they loosened and he sat down smoothly in the stallion's saddle.
He placed his palm on George's head in reassurance. He couldn't talk. His throat was a little scratchy at the moment.
"Sire..." George still sounded worried. The doorway was getting nearer. He had not slowed down, as his master had not told him to.
Another pat. Toby saw the single rectangle of shadow in the endless white wall. An idea came to him. Not a very pleasant one. But it came, just like he was sure that it would.
He rolled his neck, then cracked his arms out to the sides like spreading his wings. Fresh onions appeared in both hands. He'd only need one, but it couldn't hurt to have a spare.
"Sire, what exactly are you doing?" George craned his neck to see, then didn't need to. The odor hit his nose.
The mouse shrugged. This wouldn't be nice. But it was necessary. He shoved both halves into his eyes and ground them in till they fell apart in his hands.
He didn't shriek. Couldn't. But he also couldn't see a damn thing as they passed through the entrance to the maze.
Phlegmasia's grim hallways were wide enough to have driven the Fearsleigher through. Carrying merely a passenger now, it was far easier for George to navigate. He barely needed to reduce his speed. And was glad for it, as the constant babbling of the braindead was disturbing enough to make him want this over with quickly. Thanks to his construct mind, he wouldn't need to. Even though the layout had changed since before, and Zinc's red line was long gone, George knew this place played fairer than the rest of the world's lurching landscapes. George burned hoofprints into the floor wherever he went, and never turned the same corner twice.
When he was already a mile in, he realized to his horror that he could see. If he slowed down and beheld the words on the wall they were doomed. He began to panic. But of course, that was silly. On reflection the solution presented itself: never slow down. George was perfectly content with that.
If he truly worried about anything, it was Sire Toby, who had gone through three onions already. The mouse never cried out, but George could still feel him wincing. He could hear his friend gasping and sniffling. He kept his tendon-stirrups tight, and sped up as much as he dared. Maybe that alone would suffice, as his speed kept the words a blur for himself. But he admired his master's resolve in leaving nothing to chance. Eyes full of water saw nothing but grey.
It made sense to him, he reflected, that this place was Aldridge's design. It was so much more orderly than anywhere else. Stark and precise. Though far from clean, as the maze's prisoners had left behind slimy trails of effluence as they crawled back and forth, forever reading, like literate snails.
Two more onions, and then they were out.
George skidded to a stop at the edge of the world, watching pebbles and tile skitter over. They were back at the exit, where nothing but a thin ledge separated them from empty, glittering night. Black and white linoleum, then the tumbling debris of the asteroid field that masked Dysphoria's madness.
But things had changed. The stallion gaped at what he beheld. "Good gracious..."
Toby tried to respond but had nothing left in his throat to respond with.
"Sire, it is safe to look now. And also highly recommended. I cannot hope to make sense of this on my own."
Even through the stinging blur over his vision, Toby could make out the transition from dim white walls to a vast blackness sprinkled with starlight. He made his hand let go of the reins, which were stamped into his palms by now. An attempt was made to sling his leg over George's side to climb down, but Toby realized partway through that he didn't have the energy. Oh well.
George was startled by the sudden little 'splat' of a mouse falling over onto checkerboard tile. "Sire Toby! Are you allright!?"
The crumpled mess held up a single finger: 'gimme a moment'. He rolled his tired bones over, and with a flick of the wrist, neatly blew his own brains out. A moment later he had an unbloodied vest and a functioning larynx. He stretched his jaw and rubbed his eyes, still feeling afterechoes. "I've been better," he answered.
George moved closer to nuzzle at his friend's shoulder. "Are you entirely certain? You howled so long I thought all sense had left you. And, while ingenious the solution was, I am sure your eyes are currently unhappy with you."
The mouse actually choked out a rusty laugh. "Yeah, they are. Feels like they're full of welding sparks." He tried to look ahead but couldn't stop blinking yet. When you've crammed in that much onion juice, getting a new body doesn't make the pain fade instantly. "But I think... I needed that. I needed to let my anger go. There's been a lot of stuff I've held in. I needed to vent my steam. And to remember some things. Like why exactly we're here."
"To regain our friends from the control of Madam Tarrare," George affirmed.
"My head knew that, but I think my heart needed a refresher of how much she hurt us. A booster shot."
"I am not familiar with the term, but I will take you at your word."
Toby nodded. George's amenable nature was a reliable constant, and comfortingly so. "You were really, really fast back there. And, while I could barely concentrate on anything but screaming, I saw you did some neat fire stuff as well."
George bowed. "Thank you, Sire."
The mouse collapsed against him in a tired hug. "I love that I never get tired of how cool you are, George," he said, muffled.
The construct was so pleased he was momentarily at a loss for words. "...Thank you twice."
Toby exhaled slowly. He could still feel the heat from his warpath, but it was fading now. He felt like an overworked engine that had finally been allowed to break. He directed his gaze downwards until the tiles stopped doubling.
He looked back at the wall, flinching a bit at how much starlight it reflected. No flicker anymore: Phlegmasia's barrier was solid up to the top. He could feel the emptiness of space surrounding him without having to turn around. He knew this was the place where Anasarca had crumbled off from the rest of the world. Though, when he did finally look, he got a surprise.
"I hadn't actually thought about how Scaphis got through," he realized.
But obviously she had. And he certainly didn't need to ask how. A few hundred yards to his right, Phlegmasia's outer wall had been battered into a gaping, open wound. Scaphis had first tried to dig underneath, as shown by the scratches and scattered chunks of brick. Finding no end to the wall in a downwards direction, she'd punched straight through instead. A gargantuan tentacle went right up to the surface and seemed to fuse there, holding the wall back from its slow-motion attempts to repair itself.
Toby turned his head, following the flesh-highway back where it had come, and got a second shock.
"This was what I wanted you to see," George said. "Dysphoria is not as it was before."
The first time Toby had seen this place, it looked like far-flung desert of floating asteroids. An illusion to hide the vicious dreams within. But Scaphis had brute-forced her way through that as well. There was a long, long trail of her warped and disfigured flesh leading up to Anasarca, where it twirled around the mountain like the stripe on a candy cane. But to make her path through the Allfilth's playground, she had shattered reality itself. There was a great chasm cleaving the middle of the asteroid field, with flashing cracks streaking far off into the sky. Pieces of night flaked down like shards of mica. Dysphoria looked like a glass diorama that someone had split with an axe. Scaphis had poured herself through the trough she'd made, and judging by the whorls and scars in her skin, Logdorbhok wasn't giving her free rent. Branches of plastic, like reaching mold, were spread across and into the cracks. Twitching, spasming. As if receiving periodic shocks. Dysphoria pushed against her, but Scaphis pushed back, holding the path open like a foot in the door.
Toby felt a brief falter in his confidence. "Christ... The will it must take to hold all of that back... And she's got enough left over to send chunks scouting around for people to snack on."
George stood beside his master, marveling at the sight as well. "What an abominable mind she has."
Toby nodded absently. He glanced back at Phlegmasia, but the door was already gone. Of course. He wondered why there was anyone left in there, why she didn't snatch them up too. A probable answer occurred immediately. 'Luxy said her victims are will-batteries. They didn't have enough of it to interest her.' Toby also realized that he'd been too wrapped up in rage to keep an eye out for the ruins of Papilloma. Might have been worth it to detour by her first crime scene. 'They were better targets,' he reasoned. 'It'd take a lotta willpower to live next to the wall and not go mad or get seduced inside.' But they were here now, so it was moot. The sight of Dysphoria bested in a contest of strength taught them everything they needed to know.
Toby looked back at the road of skin. "This is the power we're up against, George. Are you ready for it?"
George gazed across the cracked and glittering divide for a moment. "I am a construct. I have nothing to lose but my newfound sense of self and my memories. I treasure this time you have given me. But if it is taken from me again, I am serene in the knowledge that, while it lasted, it was good."
Toby could not help but hug him again. To see him so willing to risk everything that made him who he was... Heartbreaking, but also heartening. Toby felt his own willpower reignite. He would see this through. If nothing else, just to ensure that George would continue being George when it was all over. His friend had worked too hard to deserve anything less.
"And you, Sire Toby? Are you ready?"
The mouse stepped back to let George see his sincerity. "One hundred percent."
George saw a great many things in his master's eyes. Exhaustion, emotional collapse, fear, pain, grief. There was no joy left in those eyes. But also not a single flicker of reluctance.
He looked back to the asteroids and Scaphis. "How are we to endure Dysphoria this time? We have no equipment. Are you planning to dumbfound some?"
"Nope," Toby said. He was too tired to smile, but he crossed his arms behind his back and waited to see if George could guess.
The stallion thought hard. "Did you deduce that since Madam Scaphis had found a way through, you could utilize for yourself whatever tunnel she made?"
Toby made a 'getting closer' sound.
"...No, that could not be it. She would undoubtedly feel my hoofbeats upon her skin and engulf us in a blink. Even if I were to use my wings, she might still sense the downdraft. And there is no reason to think her presence would prevent Dysphoria from contaminating our minds during the crossing."
Toby nodded. "All true."
The stallion snorted. "Then I am without further solutions, Sire! From your nonchalance I assume you have a plan, but I cannot guess it. How are we to get through?"
Toby slowly turned towards him, and managed to drag a grin across his lips. A Luxy grin. "We aren’t."
George was taken aback. "We aren’t?"
"Why bother?" Toby looked away again, to the top of the mountain. Then his gaze trailed down and down.
"We're going under."
END OF BOOK FOUR