Thursday, October 31, 2013

Day Five-Sixty-Four: Oms in the Dark


Well, nothing ate us today. But not for lack of trying.

For a solid three hours yesterday, Jeffrey and I wouldn't even talk. Or move. Or blink. Or breathe. The latter two may be exaggerations, but lemme tell ya, when you can faintly hear the scuttling of tarantula poodles through a hundred echoing caverns, you're not inclined to do a whole lot. Hell, when Jeffrey dared to trumpet out a fart I damn near strangled him.

Why didn't I? His gurgles would cause noise, of course. Why else?

Once the shuffling movement of dozens of legs in distant parts of cavern ceased, we settled down. Jeffrey assured me that tarantula poodles are notoriously nocturnal - something he'd read in a book somewhere - and that they only hunt during the day if disturbed. I figured that being underground might negate such problems, but apparently not.

After I'd finished up yesterday's diary entry, we made some very preliminary explorations into the myriad of caves surrounding us. As I mentioned, we'd fallen into a large room filled with over a hundred small openings in the rock, all of which seemed big enough to carry us elsewhere. Problem is, 'elsewhere' could potentially be home to a tarantula poodle nest. We moved a foot at a time whenever we entered one of these openings, and though none of the dozen we checked led us to danger, they all proved way too steep for us to climb.

In time, night came. The scuttling and scraping and growling in the tunnels began again. We fell silent, backed into the barest corner we could find and draped in old cobwebs. We took turns on watch, but I doubt if Jeffrey or I got even a tiny bit of sleep. Not until the early morning, anyway.

I was dreaming when it happened, dreaming of home. Not Villeinville, nor Pubton, nor even the Dauphine, but of the castle. Castle Whateveryawant. And in the dream, I was working on the Neck, actively executing people. I would send a group of people out onto the bridge, their heads shrouded in cloth, and when I pulled a switch they would all die. Ripped to pieces and dumped into the moat, like the days of old.

I never executed anyone on the Neck. That was the job of the bridge's mechanisms. Everything was automatic. So I guess I can't say what the dream meant... nor could I tell you why almost everyone who died on the Neck did not scream. You'd think they would scream.

I say 'almost everyone'. But that's not 'everyone'. One person screamed. And the voice -

Jeffrey's hushed yet defiant yell broke my fatigue in an instant. My eyes snapped open, and as the haze lifted I saw a struggle beyond the cobweb laying on my lap, a tussle of bodies both haired and less-haired. Something hissed and growled, and something else raised its hand -

- and a dagger came down, hard and deadly. A single slash did the trick.

The tarantula poodle gurgled and died, its voice stolen by the gash across its thin neck. The light faded from its lumpy eyes, its body slackened, and it shuddered one last time before going entirely limp. Jeffrey had to struggle to push it off of his legs.

He dropped the dagger, gasping for breath. I scrambled to calm him down before his noises could bring any more tarantula poodles down on us. Fortunately, this one seemed to be an exception, and we didn't see any more of the creatures for the rest of the day.

Thank the gods that Jeffrey had been awake. Otherwise, he says, we'd have been silently strung up and injected with sleeping poison until feeding time. Which is probably what happened to Grylock and Edmund.

We didn't talk much the rest of the day, even while exploring another dozen holes for a way out. But I did offer Jeffrey my portion of the evening's meal, a hunk of spiced ham, and I think he got the message just fine.

We're running out of food and water. We need to get out of here, before mortality catches up with us in one way or another.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Trapped

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day Five-Sixty-Three: Gritty in Pink

Oh, FUCK ME. I knew something bad would happen, I JUST. FUCKING. KNEW. IT. Now I'm writing by candlelight, pinned up against the quivering body of the only person left to me, and I'm wondering if I'm gonna make it out alive.

(I have that thought way too often these days. WAY TOO FUCKING OFTEN.)

The day got off to a bumpy start. On the rare occasion when he's not drunk off his tailbone, Grylock's a surprisingly early riser. Must have something to do with his age - old farts are always up before the dawn. He's such an early riser, in fact, that the steady rap of his knuckles sounded on my door at 4 a.m. this morning.

Fynn cried. Libby kicked me out of bed on the spot. Guess she only worries over me when she's not half asleep.

After fetching Ed and Jeffrey, both of whom were in equally foul moods (a fact that seemed to delight Grylock), we chowed down on some packaged food, gathered our gear, and set out for the cave. We three humans complained constantly about the chill morning air; Grylock shot us down each time.

"Shut it, ya gits." He waved his poisonheart around. Little flecks of toxic liquid flicked onto nearby rocks. "Anything that's in there'll be goin' te sleep about now. Sun'll be comin' up soon. It's the best time te do this."

"I'm not sure that makes sense," Jeffrey reasoned, stifling a yawn. "If there are... things... living in this cavern of yours... shouldn't we wait until midday? Perhaps lunchtime? Don't know if going while it's still dark is very safe."

Grylock glared at the former king. "Oh, I'm sorry, your majesty. Didna know ye had years of trackin' experience under your belt. Musta squeezed it in between oppressin' your kingdom and shaggin' that big wooden dolly of yours, eh?"

"Ngh... what?" Jeffrey's face blanched. "I... I don't... don't have... a doll..."

Yes you do, I thought, holding back a grin. Or ya did.

Grylock feigned apology. "Oh, no, of course not. My mistake. Musta been that other human king I know. What's-his-name. Has hair, teeth, beard, is a bit fictional. Terrible ailment, bein' fictional, yeah?"

Jeffrey squared his jaw. Everyone snickered at his expense. Couldn't help it, really.

We found the cave after twenty minutes of walking in the dark of the canyon, our four lanterns lighting the way. (Had to tape mine to my arm. Sigh.) It looked a great deal more foreboding this second time around, as there was no light beyond our feeble flames penetrating the gloom of the cave.

"Last chance te turn back," Grylock announced.

"Then I bid you all a fond -" Edmund began, twisting around.

"Just kiddin'," Grylock chortled. He'd already slipped in behind Edmund. "Never had a choice. In ye go, bardy-boy. Mind yer head."

Reluctantly, the three humans took the lead while Grylock followed, watching our tail. Though he was in the back Grylock had no difficulty steering us with his nose, and he quietly murmured instructions to us as we emerged into the first, empty cavern and made for one of the descending tunnels ahead. There were three to choose from; he picked the widest.

"Why that one?" I asked.

"Smell of rust's strongest from down there," he replied. "S'also the closest to the entrance if we have te run for it. Nice and slow, lads, mind the rocks."

We minded. Each step down the rough, natural ledges of the tunnel was carefully calculated, and we took turns shining our lights to allow one another safe passage downward. Between the safety precautions and our teamwork, I soon found my rampant jitters transforming into subtle caution. Grylock's a pretty good leader when he wants to be, I gotta say. (Shame that's not too often.)

After ten minutes of careful scaling we hit stable ground, and the tunnel widened into another cavern. It was much, much larger than the last, expanding into a massive, nigh-bottomless crevice. Dozens of small holes leading into darkness pocked the walls. No sign of rust, let alone of metal.

Grylock stepped away from the group, motioning for Ed to follow. "C'mere, limp-wrist. You're the strongest of the lot. Need your help for a second."

Edmund cringed. "I pray thou should not now confide / In 'pproaching that there chasm wide."

"Yep, sure am." As he walked, Grylock removed a length of rope from around his shoulders. It was fastened to his waist. "Hold on te this. You two, stay alert. If he looks like te drop me, or if somethin' foul shows up, do what ye think smartest."

"Run?" I joked.

"Then if I live I'll put this through yer skull, El Capitan." Standing at the edge of the crevice, Grylock saluted with his poisonheart, nodded to Ed, and jumped. "See yaaaaaa!"

Ed screeched, coiling the length of rope around his arms. Before either one of us could reach him the rope went taught, and though he grunted and his eyes boggled, Ed remained well away from the edge of the cliff. Good thing Grylock's light.

"You're a crazy son of a bitch!" I yelled into the darkness, not quite daring to peer over the lip of the crevice. "Could warn us next time!"

"No fun in it!" Grylock sputtered from somewhere below. It sounded as though he was spitting something. "Egh, might have a point, though. Mighta been wiser te... te..."

His voice trailed off. We waited anxiously for the rest of the sentence.

It floated up as a whisper. "Pull me back, Ed. Slowly."

We looked at one another, panicked. Ed was the worst of us, sweat bulging out of his brow and glittering in the light of our lamps.

"Pull me back," Grylock repeated. "Pull me back slow."

Straining, Ed began to reel Grylock in. I wanted to help him, but I was afraid that helping might bring the goblin up too quickly - as well as whatever had obviously spooked him. My bladder prepped itself for the worst, and judging by Jeffrey's expression, his was doing the same.

"Slower..."

Ed slowed down...

"That's... ack... nice 'n..."

Another hand over hand...

"Almost -"

That was the end of the conversation. Grylock's voice exploded into a battle scream, and less than a second latter Ed was pulled off of his feet by the rope. He fought ineptly with the tether as it dragged him towards the abyss - 

- but before he went over the ledge of his own accord, a huge, furry, black-and-pink form swept up and clamped onto Ed's body. The last we saw of the bard was the frantic kick of his legs.

I bellowed for my friends. Jeffrey bellowed for help. And the sudden wave of tarantula poodles that surged out of the darkness at us, well, they probably bellowed for dinner.


Keenly aware of our own self-interest, Jeffrey and I ran. No shame, no bravery, we fucking ran. We might have fully abandoned our friends, too, but another tarantula poodle leaped down in front of us, its furry fangs bared, puffy hairdo wobbling here and there in agitation. 

I swerved right. Jeffrey went left, received a vicious buffet to his arm, and joined my course instead. Indeed, he was suddenly so intent on going right that he plowed into me. He stumbled, I tripped, we fell. And I can only assume that we fell into one of those holes I mentioned before.

Jeffrey and I are currently sitting in a room filled with cobwebs, many of which broke our fall and kept us alive. We're surrounded by small dark portals, out of which a tarantula poodle may, at any moment, erupt. And when it does, we're screwed, because only Jeffrey has a weapon... and it's a plain 'ol dagger.

This ain't the worst predicament I've been in. Hell, I'll be in worse trouble when I don't come home tonight and Libby finds out. 


Still, though. This be some deep shit.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day Five-Sixty-Two: Possibly a bad idea


Two good pieces of news to report. Everything else is dismal, but you gotta take the good with the bad, right?

First up: Fynn. Our little boy has thoroughly solidified himself as a favourite of his mother. Doing what Grayson apparently never did, Fynn picked up a hammer yesterday and started to mimic Libby. Did his level best to wedge a nail into a board. Failed badly at it, bless him, but he put such a smile on Libby's face that you can't even imagine. She'll make one hell of a mechanic outta that boy.

Second: We found some caves. By which I mean that GRYLOCK found some caves. And where there's caves, there… might… be metal.

I mentioned yesterday that we'd been scouring the canyon walls for signs of metal we could use, and after a solid three hours of searching yesterday Grylock's nose finally picked up traces of rust. (He says it smells a lot like blood, though with a tangy twist. I think he's disturbed.) We followed the scent -

- and quickly discovered a hole in the canyon wall, partially hidden by boulders and leading into the rock face.

"Mmmm, yep, the scent of a jackpot." He tugged on his mohawk thoughtfully. "Gotta wonder why ye'd smell rust underground, though. In a natural cavern. Mite suspicious."

"Maybe somebody uses it as a hideout?" I offered. "Or did? Could be some bandit gear you're smellin'."

He took a few more sniffs. "Mmm. Maybe. Hard te tell without lookin'."

"I was afraid you'd say that."

Despite my very poor experiences with undergrounds of any kind - the hole, the rat warrens under Pubton, the stupid mine in Pubtwon, June's hiding place - I found the cavern beyond to be just that: a plain 'ol cavern. Old, unclean, dark and dusty, but just a cavern.

Now, the tunnels that continue onward into the ground, those're another matter. 

I am happy to report that Grylock did not want to explore too deeply right away. He's a smart little bugger, and he knows full well that shady dangers may be waiting in the deep. I feared I might be pulled underground on an expedition with the little bastard.

... which I am. He volunteered me the minute we got back to the Dauphine. We're just not leaving until tomorrow, which, uh, I guess is better than going today. Time between then and now is time when I don't have thousands of tonnes of rock hanging over my head.

Nor will we be alone. Grylock figures that more light sources equals less a chance of danger, and so he's recruited two more brave souls for the journey: Edmund and, what a massive surprise, Jeffrey. (I think Grylock wants to make Jeff suffer. Lovely goblin.) Neither were terribly keen to go, though Jeffrey, at least, gave in quickly and began packing.

Ed... Ed was not so accepting. Indeed, I believe his exact words were "Man is not meant / To be underground sent." I dunno how Grylock got him to agree in the end, but I think it had something to do with Fynn. Fynn, and a few gestures I can only assume are obscene. Sigh.

Sooooo that's that. In the morning I go spelunking. Libby's not happy about it, and Fynn cried when I tried to explain that I couldn't play with him tomorrow, but there you are. Once more unto the depths.

Better be some damned ore we can use,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day Five-Sixty-One: Crash, bang, boom


Well, shit. We're stuck.

When Plato went on his driving spree last week, he managed to bring the whole of the checkpoint's guns on us. Not just the checkpoint's normal contingent, nor the bundle of extra cannons carried about by the roaming patrols, but both. Hell, Grylock tells me that they'd brought in another squad with guns after the fact, on the chance that the Dauphine might roll back to the border. Guess it was a good call on their part, eh?

The result is a vehicle that's limping badly. THREE of the Dauphine's wheels are on the outs, and will need to be completely replaced. Engineering has been trashed; it's amazing the Dauphine got this far. The control systems need to be overhauled, several of the cabins are completely destroyed, the mast is busted, one of the bathrooms is now open to the world… can't even take a pee in private anymore, it seems. 

This is to say nothing of Command, which, apparently, the Imperium soldiers were aiming at. The amount of pruning we need to do to poor Queen Daena's tree? My lords. Plato may have usurped Jeffrey as public enemy number one.

Everyone's hard at work. The canyon we've parked in is nice and spacious, and long enough that we think we can hide here for at least the week, maybe two. Celine and her ninjas are going to keep an eye out for any danger on the horizon. Hopefully they spot none. Grylock will be, too, though Libby has him on the lookout for deposits of metal in the rock - we could really use some spare ore to shape into support beams.

And me? I'm, ah, wondering what the hell we're doing out here. Seriously.

It was a dumb idea, conjured in the heat of the moment. Roll out of a well-fortified town and head to foreign territory to talk to… who? A hermit in a desert? The hell was I thinking? Plato's actions don't make this any better, either, as his desperation to get to Iko has me reeeeeal suspicious. I believed him before, but… now… 

Trust. Trust has to be earned. He had mine for a little while. It's disappearing quickly at this point. Especially considering I wet myself while we were going through the checkpoint. How long has it been since I last did that? My new clothes smelled so good for a while there, dammit!

I've thought of just about every tool we have on hand as a weapon by now, so I'm pretty much useless as a mechanic. I've been helping Grylock to comb the canyon for sources of metal. Not that great at it, I bet, but… better than nothing…

Fuck. Stuck in one spot on foreign soil. Things couldn't get any better than this, could they?

Oh the sarcasm,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day Five-Hundred-Sixty: Onward!


None of us realized that the Dauphine was moving until it was too late.

We've lived in this transport for more than a month, now. We're all quite accustomed to the rumble and jostle of its movements. More, we're quite accustomed to sleeping through the rumble and jostle of its movements. Guard duty at night has ensured that we've all slept through the motions of the day at least once or twice.

Not once - not ONCE - has everyone been asleep simultaneously. And, in fairness, after lunch this afternoon, at least one person was not asleep.

The day started off inocuously. No word at all from Grylock, which, I have to admit, I expected. Not wanted, but expected. We toiled away the morning, everybody still feeling and acting tense, and by lunchtime we'd worked up a vicious appetite. Bora served a massive meal of tomato gruel and cheddar loaf, with a side of penguin sorbet. Quite delicious… and we all took special pleasure in gobbling the sorbet. Stupid penguins.

The sleepiness didn't hit us for maybe twenty minutes. Then, in a wave, it hit us all.

Morris was the first to fall. He's a skinny bugger, but Morris loves his food, and he took double rations of the sorbet. Gulped it down with great relish… and promptly passed out, face first, in a bucket of water. We all watched, smiled, laughed…

… until Celine passed out, too. Not as abruptly, nor as volently, but she fell asleep all the same. Curled up on the decks of Subsistence and stayed there.

Then her ninjas fell out of the rafters beside her. Asleep.

More followed. Bora went next, slumping over the bar. Libby nodded off in a rocker, and Fynn, at one moment on a sugar high, immediately descended back to earth and flopped over his mother's knee. Ed stopped mid-song and dropped his lute, Jeffrey nearly tumbled down the stairs to Engineering, Daena carried on kicking as her head drooped. 

As far as I know, I fell asleep last. Too sleepy to panic, mind, but I knew that I'd have to investigate. Immediately after my nap.

Time passed.

But not much time.

I was not awoken by the rumble of the decks, nor the tell-tale sounds of gears clanking in Engineering. No, I was jolted back to wakefulness by an explosion, a deep, unnatural rocking in the hull that spoke of wood splintering and flying outward. And another, and another, and another, bang, bang, bang, sounds so familiar and horrible that I had to take stock.

Eyes struggling to close themselves I shambled about Subsistence, attempting to maintain my footing as the Dauphine rocketed forward at an incredible speed. Libby, zombie-like in her movements, joined me, and so too did a few others, all of us trying to shake off the fatigue.

I couldn't figure out much, my brain clouded as it was, but I did notice one thing almost right away: Daena's moveable platform, normally such an obvious fixture in the Neo Beefiary, was gone. It'd been moved up to Command.

Suffering a few more explosive bangs to the hull, I yelled at the crew to man the guns while I went to Command. Everyone else took up their posts as I stumbled up the stairs -

- and found something I'd not expected. Not from such a timid guy.

Amid broken glass and chunks of flying wood I spotted Plato, wide awake and very alert. He was furiously steering, eyes wide, leaning over Daena's prone form to get at the controls. The queen herself was still asleep, though Plato had pulled the pedals up to her legs to get the Dauphine running at full power. All constraints disabled, he was guiding the Dauphine through the Imperium checkpoint.

I forgot about the stupor affixed to my brain. "STOP!" I shouted, dashing towards him, cringing as a cannonball smashed through a window and decorated the limbs of Daena's tree with glass. Through the open front of the great machine I saw Imperium troops scrambling far below, obviously panicked, doing their best to fight back.

I also felt the Dauphine rise and fall countless times as it ran over big clumps of those same troops. Ouch.

I restrained the crazed Plato moments later, but by then it was too late. The Dauphine had cleared the checkpoint and was charging across the plains of the Imperium, shedding bits of metal and wood everywhere. Somewhere below us I heard Libby below "I HAVE TO FIX THIS FUCKER AGAIN?!", which, in retrospect, was pretty funny. At the time, though? Not so much.

After practically knocking Daena awake (I did not enjoy it, trust me), I ran to the other end of the Dauphine and stared out the window. A fair distance behind us was a tiny, green figure on a boar… behind him, a scrambled-but-reassembling mass of troops…

… and, beyond the mangled checkpoint and the fallen blue banners, a wave of black. A much bigger wave than the one which swallowed Villeinville.  The troops turned back to counter it; I don't envy them their chances.

Shaken and angered, I picked Plato up off of the floor and slapped him in the face. "You FUCK! What the hell were you thinkin'? We coulda all been killed!"

Plato stared at his feet. Tears dripped off of the end of his bill. He said nothing.

"Fuck." I shoved him away, then pointed to Ed, who was just coming up the stairs. "Get him outta here. Lock him up somewhere. Away from Command."

Plato went of his own accord. Ed tailed him. As far as I know, Plato hasn't made any move to leave his room since. I don't know that I'll be letting him go anywhere for a while, and I doubt he'll press the issue.

We're across the border. The Dauphine's in terrible shape. We've taken shelter in a canyon; Libby isn't optimistic about the chances of getting us running at full speed again. Grylock - who took a while to catch up, and whose first words were "What the shit, ye fuckin' gits?" - assures us that the checkpoint has other things to worry about before it sends troops after us. (Though he was oddly upbeat about their chances of holding back the Non. Guess the Imperium's got good training programs.)

If Plato can sense the Non, then, I guess he did the right thing. I guess. But he also somehow drugged us and made a heavy decision for us, and nearly got us killed in the process. Hell, he has no practice driving the fucking Dauphine. He could've driven us into a canyon by accident. Lotta good that would do everyone.

I don't know what to do with him. He's timid, yeah, but he makes some pretty fucking bold decisions when he feels the need. He may have delivered my son… but if he puts Fynn in danger again, or Libby, or… or…

I just don't know what I'm gonna do.

At least we're across the fucking border,


Dragomir the Aggrieved


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Nine: Shaken and stirred


This tension? It is thick. I could slice it up and serve it for dinner. With a side of fear. You know, for taste.

When this trip began, everybody was enthusiastic. After the Non attack on Pubton, getting away from the town, beloved though it may be, probably seemed like a gods-send to most of the crew. No more danger! On the move! Enemy in the east? Move to the west! Aaaaaall the way west! Surely, this was the best idea.

But then we came across Vacia. I nearly died. Cannonbottom shot the Dauphine up nice and good. And then, after two weeks of relative peace and maintenance, the whole village was gobbled up by yet more Non. Anyone who thinks this is a safe trip is off their rocker, clearly, and I guess the crew's beginning to discover as much.

There's always the west, of course. The safe, sane west. But first we need to get there… and we're not doing that by sitting around and waiting.

The folks 'round here are doing their best to keep busy. Libby's employing everyone on overtime work, reinforcing the Dauphine's outer hull with more metal sheets which should provide better protection. Our musicians are filling their days with song and stories for the amusement of others. The few hunters we have are combing the plains, looking for game, but never moving too far from the Dauphine. Even Daena's keeping busy, reading a few books on navigation. They're about nautical navigation, mind, but they're better 'n nothing.

Everybody's got an eye on the west. Everybody's waiting for Grylock to come tromping across the grass towards us, signalling that it's time to move. We've been waiting all day for that, and, well… yeah. No dice. For all we know, he got bored and went home to Goblinoster.

Only been a day. Just over a day. We shouldn't be so tense. But we are. We can't help it. Because just as we don't know Grylock's status, we don't know what the Non are up to. The Non which seem quite capable of appearing wherever they like, whenever they like. Silent, deadly killers, eating and decimating everything in their path. Creators of ghost towns.

I was kinda lost on things to do besides keep watch, and most of my watch time was spent alongside Plato. He's as nervous as anyone, maybe moreso, and he's so clumsy that Libby doesn't trust him with a hammer anymore. We spent much of the evening atop the Dauphine, he watching the east, I to the west, his rat… anywhere it fancied, really. (Still don't get that relationship.)

If nothing else, I learned a few things about the Non from Plato. He's still pretty tight-lipped regarding his race, but he eventually warmed to telling me how they move around so fast. Turns out they have little devices called 'fast tracks' which can zip 'em from one place to another in an instant. They have to have visited their destination before, granted, but that's still a really helpful little gadget, you gotta admit.

The problem? You can only use a fast track once. Plato tells me they're the brainchild of some Non genius from umpteen-hundred years ago, and they're in limited supply. Only a couple Non know how to make 'em, and they take a long, long time to churn out.  Plato told me that he had one - s'what he used to get us from Pubtwon to Pubton in an instant, during the siege - and he'd intended on usin' it to take me to Iko. So much for that, eh?

We gabbed back and forth for several hours, he gradually opening to conversation as I told him stories of childhood, as well as my days as a guard. Told him all 'bout my, uh, 'friends' from back home: Barrel, Cedric, the Roberts, Driscol, Evangelina, Prince Logan -
"?"

"Huh? You know somebody called Logan?"
He nodded. "?"

"Nah, he was a kid. Not much bigger 'n you. Head like a volleyball. Had a kangaroo that bit off a thinger once… wait, I think you beat her up, didn't you…?"

Plato shook his head. There must be lotsa Logans in the world. We moved on to other topics.

In time, and not at great length, Plato told me a very, very little bit about his early life. Apparently he, Kierkegaard, and all of the guys in the Omega Corps went to a private Non academy. Taught 'im all about developing his 'powers' for the good of the Non, whatever those might be. (Delivering chocolate babies?) 

"Oh yeah? So, lemme guess, Iko was onea your teachers?"

Nod.

"And…" A faint memory. "Any chance The Baron was onea your teachers?"

Another nod. Though back then he was just called 'The Teacher'. Guess the bastard never had a proper name.

"Gotcha." I tapped the railing. "That explains why y'all weren't, y'know, in that door. Under the castle. Wherever the hell THAT went. So, um… how… did… how did the Non…?"

I stopped. I'd turned to look at Plato full on, hoping that an exchange of glances might impress upon him the importance of my next question. I couldn't bring myself to say it, though, because when I looked at him… he was shuddering. From the tip of his tail to the top of his bandana, every inch of the poor bastard was wriggling in fright as he stared at the horizon.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I clamped my arms on his shoulders. "What's the matter, eh, buddy? What's up?"

Plato tried to check himself, I could tell, but it didn't work. The shivering continued. Soon rolls of tears were flooding down his face. I asked him what was wrong, but he couldn't manage to squeak out a reply I understood. 

Eventually, after five minutes of stressful breakdown, I sent him to his cabin to relax. Haven't seen him since, though judging by the sounds from his room, he's asleep. Quite a loud quacker, that one.

I remained on watch. Wasn't much else I could do - Libby had already gone to bed with Fynn, after a long day of work, and everyone else I knew was winding down. I wasn't sleepy myself, though, and I couldn't help but wonder what had hit Plato so badly.

I received my answer a few minutes later, just as I was pulling out this diary for my daily session. Before I could scratch anything into the parchment, lines began to appear of their own accord.

"They're coming."

I started, nearly tipping over in the chair I'd grabbed from the Neo Beefiary. My head flew around, looking for the source of the writing -

"They're coming, and he knows it."

There it was. Plato's rat, small and chubby, crouched on the railing. It looked a bit strained, and I imagined that it had sweat rolling down its snout beneath its fur. When I moved the diary in close it seemed to relax, as though it didn't need to exert as much effort.

"Okay…" I steadied myself, rubbing the fresh lump on my posterior. "I guess I know who you mean by 'they'. How's Plato know?"

The rat shook his head. "I am uncertain. He seems able to sense others of his kind. Though that is not his only power."

"Ah." I wanted to ask what else Plato could do, but I figured I'd respect the guy's privacy. "Uh. Well, if, like… if he's a Non… and the Non are comin'… why's he freaking out so much? Figure he might be happy to see more of 'em."

Another shake of the head. "That is not the point. If the Non come, he will have to fight them. He has dedicated himself to your cause, but he does not want to fight them. They are his people. If he has to kill another Non, it will scar him. He fears that."

"Ahhhh." I clamped my jaw shut, musing. "Mmmm. Yeah, he seems like a pretty gentle guy to me. Guess he's not big on battles."

"No."

I set the diary down beside the rat and leaned back in my chair, watching the west. What I saw was a line of darkness where the land meets the sky, despite the sun, but I bet that was just my imagination at work.

"This Iko," I said at last, "you've met him, I guess?"

The rat nodded.

"What's he like?"

The rat answered without hesitation. "He is a bastard. But so are we all."

"Ain't that the truth, pal. Ain't that the truth."

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Eight: It's not easy being mean



Yep, we're gonna ram through the assholes.

But not yet.

Today was sat down in Command and had a looooong meeting. It's a good thing that Command is nice and spacious, 'cause danged near everyone made an appearance, and the place was pretty crowded. I stood in the middle and outlined the problem, and demands to attack immediately flew fast and furious.

It was not me, but Grylock, of all people, who silenced 'em. "SHUT IT! Goin' now is retarded, and you're all retarded if ye think we'd survive!"

The room went quiet. Everyone watched the little goblin strut about on his boar as it circled the perimeter and approached me.

"I sneaked over last night," he continued, voice both even and haughty. "They've got a full garrison, 'n a lotta backup te boot. Havena gotten close enough to tell, but that little fort 'o theirs is highly entrenched. Very, very well built 'n maintained. Their stationary guns will do us a great harm on the way in, and the extra firepower they're totin' in the back'll finish the job. Just 'cause this thing is big doesn't mean it's invincible."

The din was nowhere near as loud as before, though people began to quietly discuss and argue the point. Grylock silenced them with a loud rap of his poisonheart on a nearby table… then ordered his boar up onto it. He waved the sword around; most people fled. You don't mess with a poisonheart.

"Ye argue for naught, dumbass humans! We aren't gettin' through there as is! Not without plenty o' hurt! Wouldn't ye agree, Mr. Commander?"

Grylock pointed me. Reluctantly, I nodded. "Yep. That sums it up, I figure."

Libby, as well as a small gang of engineers and maintenance workers behind her, stepped up and growled. "You think my Dauphine can't shred those assholes? They're a buncha tin-suited twits. Wouldn't stand a chance."

Grylock rolled his eyes, undaunted by the opposition. (I assume he rolled his eyes. Hard to tell. Opaque glasses and all that.)  "If they had no cannons, yeah, I might agree. Problem is, they do. These guys ain't the catapult-totin' guys ye're used to, Libby, m'dear. They can rip us apart with one good shot."

Still snearing, clearly unconvinced, Libby stepped back.

"Good girl. So we're left with three options." Smiling, Grylock raised a finger. "One. We wait for an openin'. Give it a week or so 'n watch 'em. If their patrol decides to bugger off, we can use the moment to blast through. We'll take damage from the checkpoint still, but an allowable amount, I'd say. Problem is, I doubt that patrol contingent's goin' anywhere. Could be waitin' a long time. I'm guessin' you're on a timetable, Dragomir?"

I nodded, though, to be honest, I have no idea what that timetable may be. The faster the better? Sure, that works.

"So that's out. Two, we wait, but we do it outta sight. Drive away, maybe a half day's travel, 'n stick it out. The Imperium'll send a scouting party, but they won't move too far past the border t'see where we've gone. Most they'll probably do is make sure we haven't headed off to another checkpoint. We wait a week, keep checkin' 'til the extra troops are gone, 'n blast through. I advise this one, m'self."

Murmurs. I nodded. "Okay. 'n the third idea?"

Grylock's grin grew large and sickly. "Me, her royal bratness Celine, and a couple o' her ninjas sneak over there durin' the night and poison their water supply. Food, too, if'n we can manage it. Can scrape some lovely toxins offa this sword you so generously gave me, Dragomir. Would wipe 'em all out within a day or two."

The whole room went silent, save Daena in the back, who barked an unequivocal "No".

Grylock shook his head. "Buncha lightweights. Then, yeah, option number two. What say ye, fearless leader?"

Everyone looked at me. I remember the days when this level of scrutiny would've driven me antsy. Now, though, I simply scratched my chin and thought it over.

"I say we keep talking a bit longer," I said, and opened up the floor. 

I knew there wasn't much point. For all the extravagant schemes we concocted, Grylock's wound up being the most suitable. Straightforward is good, and straightforward will get us over the border.

We've already moved the Dauphine. Waited until night to do it, when the watch on the other side of the border was at its sleepiest. Roused the whole garrison, judging by the number of torches that went up, but no one chased after us, nor did any cannonballs fly over state lines. I assume the orc who took the message back to his superiors - whom we never did see again! - felt very much relieved to see us go, and the stalemate ended.

We've parked some fifty kilometers away from the garrison. We've set up a more-or-less direct route back there, when the time comes to make the dash, and Grylock's remained behind with his boar to watch for the enemy's departure. I'd wish him luck, but, hell, he doesn't need it. If he can survive bein' mind-controlled by June and attacked by the biggest wave of Non I've ever seen, I'm sure Grylock'll be just fine.

We wait. Hopefully we don't wait too long, though, 'cause those Non… those Non who destroyed Villeinville are still behind us. 'n though I managed to drive off twenty of 'em, I don't know that two hundred will be quite so easily spooked.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Seven: Bladed Bureaucracy


Shit. So much for the fast way. We have to wait.

There's a lot of space between Imperium checkpoints, so we spent almost all of yesterday travelling alongside a canyon, hoping we'd get to a southern checkpoint quickly. And we did… only to find a loooot of troops already waiting for us. 

The moment we appeared, what looked like an entire garrison of soldiers on the other side of the canyon took up arms, both in and surrounding a compact, sleek-looking fortress, its towers decorated with the Imperium's blue banners. They were waiting for us, cannons poised, as we stopped the Dauphine some six hundred feet from the checkpoint. We didn't want to get close, lest the soldiers open fire. I think that was a wise move.

Next?

We waited.

And so did they.

For… a fairly long time. 

The tensness of the situation, oh, man. So tense. You could cut the tension in the air with Grylock's poisonheart. (If only that would also poison the tension, and make it go away, and get us across the border. Alas.)

At length, we opened up the front of the Dauphine. I went and sat on the ramp, unarmed and alone. At greater length, three men on horses galloped out to meet me: one human, two orcs.

"Howdy, gents." I waved them over. "Sorry for freakin' you out. We just -"

"Identify yourself," barked the orc in the middle. He had the bearing and the armour of an officer. "If you be enemy we will show you no quarter."

I held my hands up. "No enemies here. We want to pass through, is all. Peaceful-like."

The orc glared up at the massive nose of the Dauphine. "Mmm. Peaceful. I see gun ports. You aren't convincing, little man. Documentation?"

I scratched my head. "Documentation? Whaddya mean?"

He sighed wearily. "I thought as much. Visitors to the Imperium must now provide proper documentation. Each person on your… transport… requires a passport. The transport itself must be inspected by a team of weapons experts to see that it poses no threat, and any weapons onboard must be impounded by Imperium authorities until such a time as you leave our lands. All equipment and belongings on board must similarly be inspected -"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." I gently stopped him from continuing, hands still up, voice light. "Back up. That's a big list. How long's all that likely to take, you think?"

The orc smirked. "From the looks of this clunker, somewhere between three and six months."

"Months!" I might have stood up, indignant, but I was wary of the three armoured men in front of me. "Months? That's crazy! Sure, I've heard your hoighty Imperium is hard to enter, but months? Too long. Way too long. We've got things to do!"

"Oh? Like what?" The orc's jaw went tight. The two guards at his side loomed forward menacingly. 

I slid back a foot on the ramp. "Like… get to a desert. Waaaay in the west."

"The wastes? For what purpose?"

"Why should I tell you? Y'aren't bein' too nice."

"If you want across the border, you need to state your intentions. Truthfully." The orc rested his hand on the sword at his hip. "Until you do that, your application for entry will not move forward at all. Trust me on that."

I sighed. "Fine. We're lookin' for a guy. Hermit. Name's Iko. Know him?"

"Know a hermit? In the desert? Why would I?"

"I dunno. Worth asking. You guys know him?"

"Don't speak to them."

"Well, that's unneighbourly."

"Be quiet." The orc pulled back to speak with his two comrades for a few minutes. Then, grunting, he came back to me. "I will speak to my superiors. Do not move your vehicle anywhere near our checkpoint or you will be attacked. Is that clear?"

"As the window on my cabin. Which, I guess, could use a cleanin'. Just don't take too -"

And off he went. I considered telling him about the possible horde of Non on our trail, but, nah. Guy's a jackass.

I closed the ramp and found Libby waiting for me inside, one eyebrow raised.

I shrugged. "Yeah, we're gonna ram through the assholes. Fun times."

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Monday, October 21, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Six: Borderiffic


Still numb after what happened at Villeinville. To Villeinville. No clue how I'm going to tell my parents that all their friends are gone. Fuck, man, my mom was BORN there. How do you tell somebody that their hometown has been wiped off the map? S'not easy, I'm sure.

Can't think about that now, though. Cannonbottom, Peter, Cybil, Denby… Gus, I guess… they're in the past. Gotta look to the future, and the future consists of getting across the border. Now.

We kept the Dauphine at full throttle after the attack. Kept it there, and maintained that speed until sundown, when everybody was too exhausted to keep working. It's difficult to remain fearful for over ten hours. Your body starts to fall apart. Especially when there doesn't appear to be anything to fear anymore. Everyone slept, save a few brave souls who volunteered to keep watch…

… and the next morning, it was Plato who clued us all in to what should have been obvious: we'd arrived at the border between the Indy Plains and the Imperium. We were all just too exhausted the previous night to realize it.

Similar to the Grand Chasm back home… home number two, I guess… the border between the two big sections of the world is a massive set of chasms. There are, however, a few differences:

- There are ways across these chasms. Lots of 'em.
- … but these paths have all been blocked off by Imperium checkpoints. You don't cross without going through customs first, and from what I've heard, customs have become a loooooot stricter in the last few months.
- The chasms aren't bottomless. I'd call them canyons, myself, as you can see what's lingering down there. Usually that's just a river or two, as well as some really, REALLY deep cliffs. If you manage to cross through these canyons, well, you deserve to get into the Imperium unharassed. Not an option for the Dauphine.
- Last, perhaps worst, these places have regular patrols beyond customs. Again, this is a new development, and the patrols consist of some heavy-duty troops. Their contingents would give Jeffrey's old army a good run.

The Dauphine was nowhere near a checkpoint when Plato realized where we were, so we continued on for half a day until we spotted one. Spent the whole trip wondering how we might get across, 'cause, let's face it, customs isn't likely to allow a massive community bristling with guns to enter its borders. Probably figure we're off to sack Rodentia or something.

Our plan? Plow through and hope for the best. There's a reason we put guns on this sucker, y'know. This is part of that reason. None of us are huge fans of the Imperium, so nobody cares if we mash our way in. But we'll only do that if there are no troops waiting. If there are… well… guess we'll come to that when we come to that.

Man. I don't have to be all diplomatic and shit again, do I? I'm not in the mood for diplomacy. I have a fierce effing headache, and Fynn's been keeping us up late while he's teething. Quite a set of lungs on the bugger, bless him. If I have to talk to people… well, maybe I can just foist my son at 'em and let his goofy smile get us across the border.

Yeah. Sure. That'll work.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Friday, October 18, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Five: You can never go home again


(Note: Second image coming soon. I didn't have time to draw it today.)

Villeinville is a remarkably insular town. So insular, in fact, that it often takes months for merchants to pass through. Anyone else who shows up is usually a bandit, look to make easy coin off of an isolated community. So Cannonbottom's paranoia is well-founded.

Unfortunately, 'insular' also means that they're blocked off from news of the outside world. Which means that they'd never heard of the Non - and when news DID trickle in from our small visits, most people disregarded the info as bogus. A new fad, or something. Nothing to pay attention to. Cannonbottom will protect as he always has, blasting away from his tower.

It wasn't until said tower went down that people started to pay attention. By then, it was way too late.

We moved the Dauphine to the west side of Villeinville early in the week, practically inching it across the landscape so Cannonbottom wouldn't notice and open fire. It was strictly a safety precaution - and a wise one, apparently, as it put the town between us and the massive pulse of green light that suddenly erupted in the east, early this morning, as we were preparing to leave.

I was at the bottom of the loading ramp when the Non appeared. And I, like everyone else, was frozen for at least five crucial seconds.

The Non erupted out of the clearing green like a noxious cloud of ink, hitting the ground and bounding towards Villeinville with horrid intent. They surged over the walls in a frenzy, heedless of the wooden spikes, heedless of the single guard waving his spear, heedless of the abrupt roar of cannons from the tower. All this with barely a whisper, a hint of their battle frenzy.

My daze broken, I began to shake shoulders, pointing up the ramp. "GO! GET IN THE FUCKING THING! GET TO THE DEFENSES! SOMEBODY TELL DAENA!"

They ran. Some tripped, some fell, all fled. Libby, standing nearby, a bag hoisted over her shoulder, Fynn at her side, gawked at the town. "B… but aren't we going to…?"

I watched a second longer before forcing son and wife up the ramp. "NO! YOU SEE GRAYSON 'ROUND ANYWHERE? I SURE AS HELL DON'T, 'N WITHOUT HIM WE'RE FUCKED! GET FYNN SECURED!"

Though she flinched angrily at the mention of Grayson, Libby wasted no time. Heaving Fynn into her arms, she ran for our cabin. Fynn cried, cradling his head at the sound of explosions from overhead. 

Once everyone was aboard I darted up the ramp and hit the release. Weight and counterweight brought the ramp up, closing us off. Somewhere far above, Daena's ever-moving feet hit the pedals. The Dauphine roared to life. 

Dashing through Subsistence, I dimly noted gunners moving into position, entering niches in the walls where cannons waited. Good, strong people, not soldiers, but friends. I prayed they would be enough. The guns fired towards the wave of Non as the Dauphine began to move -

- and when I reached Command, I realized that the cannons, aimed by untrained combatants, were largely doing the Non's job for them. Most of the cannonballs were flying through Villeinville's walls, turning age-old wooden spikes into clouds of shrapnel. I can only imagine what was happening to the farmers within those walls. 

A crowd of Non broke off from the main group, pursuing the Dauphine with dogged persistence, bouncing across the landscape at a hideous speed. I ordered the rear gunners to focus on the ground behind us, to chew up the greenery and slow the Non down, but it was no use. Their erratic moves brought the Non onto the Dauphine's still-slow tail in no time, and as dirt flew two dozen gangly black forms leaped onto the hull.

Far in the distance, as I watched the last of the Non jump and cling to our backside, Cannonbottom's tower crashed down. Villeinville disappeared into a sea of black and emerald. Grylock swears he watched one of the Non pluck Cannonbottom out of the air and eat the old man whole.

Gritting my teeth, still stunned, I lurched up to the observation deck. Morris was already up there, a spear shaking in his hands, jeering nervously at the Non as they clawed their way up towards him. They were on the windows surrounding Command, some pounding on the glass, others merely punching small holes with their nails as they climbed up to meet us.

"Dragomir?!" Morris yelled to me, over the sound of cannonfire. "Dragomir, the hell we gonna do?! C'mon, man, TELL ME!"

I remained silent, clinging to the edge of the deck, watching the Non wind their way up, up, up, ants climbing on a carcass to collect well-earned meat. I could see no fangs for chewing, but I knew they were there, lingering in flat black faces, anxious to perforate softer flesh.

I wasn't thinking of much at the time. 

I thought of my son.

My sons.

My daughter.

My wife. 

My home. 

My homes

Two destroyed. One attacked repeatedly.

The first thing I did was kick Morris down the stairs, back into Command. He bounced backward with a yelp. Last I heard, he has a bit of a concussion. Otherwise, fine.

The second was to raise my hands, let my anger get the best of me, and unleash the greatest torrent of swear words I've ever conjured into the air.

Heat.

Red lightning.

Pain.

I don't remember much after that. 

When I woke up I was in bed, watched over by a drooly little boy, my head aching worse than it has in years.

The Non left us alone. I did something, and they left us alone. Jumped off the back of the Dauphine and bolted. Ed found me shortly thereafter, slumped over the railing of the observation deck. I'd almost fallen to my second death. On Libby's orders I'm spending today in bed, recuperating. I'm fine with that - my head still aches like a bastard. 

I guess I'm not going back to Villeinville. That vital thing will remain a mystery. Whatever it was. A clue, an object, something somebody could have said… it's gone for good, now. Another sacrifice to the advance of the Non.

But you know what? Memories… memories don't matter that much, in the grand scheme of things.

I'm Dragomir the Guard. Dragomir the Mayor. Dragomir the Wanderer. And today… even though I failed a town… I protected my friends.

I guess that counts for something.


Not much, though.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Four: Such a nice man


I had no lasting relationship with Lord Cannonbottom as a child.

Growing up, I was often warned to stay away from Cannonbottom's tower. It was off-limits until I was a teenager, and even then, my mom told me not to get too close. She didn't trust Cannonbottom's trigger finger, and fully expected him to blow himself up one day, given all the gunpowder packed into the walls.

(She's probably not wrong, either. One accident, and… boom. Hopefully we're long gone before it happens.)

I felt no great urge to disobey my mom's wishes. When Rob and I were only a few years old, we watched Cannonbottom blow up a cow in the next field over. It was a total accident, and Cannonbottom paid for the beast after the fact, but… nevertheless… it's a hell of a thing to see an animal explode. We respected the power contained in the tower, and though we were often bored, the tower was off the docket as far as pranks were concerned.

Today, I went to visit Lord Cannonbottom in his home. It's not the first time, but I certainly hope it's the last.

The inside of Cannonbottom's tower is, as I mentioned, unremarkable. There are stairs, a few age-old and boring decorations, supplies on the bottom two floors, a shitload of loaded cannons, and stone walls. The only thing worth noting is the omnipresent smell of rotten eggs. It's not so strong in Cannonbottom's small meeting room and apartment on the top floor, but it's still there nevertheless.

Cannonbottom welcomed me in with his usual paranoid courtesy. He offered me a cold drink and a sandwich (no flames allowed in the tower), and I sat before his old, wooden throne upon a pile of pillows. Cannonbottom himself always has a sword hanging at his hip, and he's no slouch in using it, so he didn't bother with guards.

"Dragomir, right?" Cannonbottom stroked his beard. He reminds me a lot of Pagan. "Yep, Dragomir. You lot've been here a while. Makes an old man nervous, it does. Almost ready to leave?"

I munched on my sandwich. Cold fish, still boned. Ew. "Yeah. Tomorrow. I think we've rested long enough."

"Wonderful. 'n where're you headed again?"

"The Imperium. We've got a long trip ahead of us. Way over to the western seaboard, I'm told."

"Ahhh, ahhh." Cannonbottom shrugged. He rolled a cannonball from one hand to the other. "Excellent. Far away. Very good. Helluva machine you've got out there, by the way, helluva machine. Couldn't spare any more cannons, could you…?"

I shook my head. Cannonbottom's been trying to steal cannons off of us for our entire stay. We bartered one away in exchange for one of his older models and some food; he's been obsessed with it ever since. "Sorry. We need the rest. Dangerous territory, you know."

"Yes, yes, of course." More beard stroking. "Dangerous radicals over there. Liberals, I hear. Have to keep your guard up 'round liberals. Vacuous fools."

I nodded, inwardly rolling my eyes. Couldn't tell you what a liberal is, even if I did play the politician for almost a year. "We will, don't worry. I mainly just wanted to say goodbye, 'n thank you for letting us come in here…"

"Mmmmm, any time, any time, so long as it's not right now, or for a long while."

"… and, uh, I guess I wanted to ask you a question."

Tapping the cannonball lightly against his throne, Cannonbottom fidgeted. "A question? What kind of question? Nothing 'bout liberals, is it? Deserve a ball in their eye, do those liberals."

"I'm sure." I shook my head. "No, not liberals. I, ah, was wondering if you… remember… me. When I was a kid."

He cocked his head. "You? You was Oswald's brat, right?"

"Yeah." I pressed forward. "You were at our house a fair bunch, 'n I came here a few times. You must remember… something… about me. Anything?"

Cannonbottom's face scrunched into a thoughtful scowl. "Well… hell, why would I have to remember any of that shit? I've been lord 'o this place for years. People come, people go, 'n as I recall, you went off to some cushy guardin' job. S'about all I remember of you."

Yeah, because I mentioned it a few days ago. "Please, m'lord. It's… important. Anything about me. Was I strong? Smart? Stupid? Did… did I have different hair?"

"What, you think I don't have anythin' better to do than to pay attention to your fuckin' do, son?" Cannonbottom sniffed. "I'm a lord! Lord of a town, 'n a damned fine one! And as the lord of this damned fine town, I'm outright sayin' that you should be on your merry way 'fore I bust out my cannons!"

Taking in a deep breath, holding back my irritation, I nodded and rose. I remember why I never liked Cannonbottom. "Tomorrow, we'll be outta your hair for good. Sorry to waste your time."

Cannonbottom grunted. I turned, and walked down the stairs, and left. The last I heard from Cannonbottom was something about telling my dad to stay gone. Guess ol' Oswald tried to mutiny on Cannonbottom a few times, too.

That's that. Dissatisfied as I am, we're leaving tomorrow. I know it's a mistake, to take off without concrete answers about all this… because I know Villeinville has something important in it… but we're leaving.

Fuck.

Maybe I can come back some day and figure this all out.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Three: A clump of Hypotheticals


The standoff continues. The crew of the Dauphine silently questions why I'm waiting so long to leave, and I… I'm not sure why I shouldn't leave.

People come and go. Cannonbottom is still enforcing the five-people-only-unless-Bora's-one-of-those-people-in-which-case-get-me-my-spyglass rule, but with all the time we've spent here I'm pretty sure everyone's had a chance to wander around Villeinville. Libby's bartered for spare parts; Ed and Jeffrey's old bannerman earned some coin singing and playing instruments; Grylock got drunk and brawled with the farmers last night; Jeffrey and Celine toured Cannonbottom's tower, which is much less interesting on the inside than it appears on the outside. They've seen the town, and they want to leave.

But I can't leave. Not yet.

Why? I don't fuckin' know. Just not yet.

I was muddling over the question of why while sitting on the old rock when an unlikely pair approached me, a pair which, in retrospect, shouldn't seem that unlikely at all.

"Hail, good chief," yelled Bora from behind me. "Ya look quite stately on that thing. Aren't you cooking in that armour? The sun's gotta be rather merciless."

Plato quacked his agreement.

Scowling, I slid off of the rock and greeted them. Maybe just Plato. "Anything I can help you folks with? Don't ask me if we're leavin' yet, we aren't."

Bora held up her hands defensively. "Wasn't! Promise. Jeez, I just wanted to see how you were doing. Grumpy."

Plato quacked his agreement.

"Quiet, you." I rolled my eyes. "I'm fine. Just… revelling."

"Revelling?"

"Yes, revelling." I sighed. "I haven't been home in a long time. That's all. Probably won't see it again. Sinking in the sights."

"As long as I'm not part of 'em," Bora said, shuddering. "I'd forgotten how… grabby… this lot can be. I swear m'bottom's been pinched more times in the last week than in my whole life. Maybe it's the new hair…?"

Plato quacked his agreement.

"Why, thank you." 

Bora curtsied. Plato attempted to curtsy back; instead, he fell on his ass. I couldn't help but laugh.

Bora smiled. "There, that's better. We'll leave you to your ruminatin', brave commander. Kiss your boy for me." They turned to leave me brooding on my rock.

"Wait."

Bora cocked her head. "Hm?"

I bit my lower lip. Here goes. "Um… I got a… question, if you don't mind. Like, a hypothetical."

Woman and platypus exchanged glances. "Go ahead."

"Okay." I rubbed my chin, trying to assemble the query into the best form I could manage on short notice. "Let's, um, let's say that you go home one day. I assume y'all come from homes."

Bora snorted. Plato absently looked back east.

"And… and when you get home, you see people who you know. And they know you! It's like a big reunion. 'cause… I guess that's what it is."

They waited for me to get to the point.

"But…" I stared off at the nearest farm. Peter's, coincidentally. "But what if people don't remember you properly? What if they say things like, 'Oh, Bora, your, uh, boobs used to be so much smaller,' or 'Hey, Plato, you sure never used to be a platypus,' or, um, like, 'What's up, Dragomir? What the hell happened to your muscles, man? Did you spend too much time out in the sun and your hair got all light? Or is it the reverse, like how skin gets pale when it ain't sunburned? Is that what happened? Or are you onea those albino doohickeys?' What would you guys do if people were talkin' to you like that?"

They listened to my short rant, Bora sneering at the comment about her breasts, Plato peering back at his tail. When I finished, they thought about it a moment… but, ultimately, all they could do was shrug in tandem.

"Bah!" I swivelled around on the rock to stare moodily at Cannonbottom's tower. "No help, either of ya."

I huffed, and stared, and wondered what would come next.

Then something happened. Something I had totally not expected.

When somebody is in obvious mental agony, you comfort them. You show them a smidgen of compassion, a display of empathy which will set them at ease, even if you don't mean it, even if you don't like them so much. Hell, enemies will still throw sarcastic jibes at one another in response to a horrible situation. It's just what you do, even if the comment you offer is nothing more than a gesture. A pat on the shoulder. A hug. Holding hands.

A kiss. I guess.

And Plato, well, Plato followed through. He patted me on the shoulder. Took him a minute to stumble his way up the rock, but that's what he did. No kiss, and I'm glad of it. Lord knows what a Non kiss would be like.

But Bora… when I turned around, Bora was gone. 

And it's not the first time she's done that.

Yeah, I don't like her very much. She's hiding a lot from me.

Still… considering all the time we shared together, all the good moments and laughter and fun…

Bora…

What a bitch.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-Two: Crackin'


"What ho! Dragomir!"

I'd been out on a walk, my diary tucked between my arm and my side, when I heard the call. My head immediately perked up, though I didn't recognize the voice.

"Dragomir! Here! Over here!"

I followed the sound. My eyes soon alit upon a paunchy old farmer, standing in his field and waving at me. I waved back, quickly recognizing the man as Peter. A lifelong acquaintance of my dad, Peter even, if they did compete a lot in the eel business.

He shook my hand as I walked up to the fence around his field. "Ahh, Dragomir. Saw ya come in the other day. Been hopin' to say hello. Gods, how you've grown! Not much since ya left, I guess, but I got memories of you 'n Robert as kids. Always muckin' in my field, little bastards. How're the folks?"

I felt calmed. Reassured. Wasn't sure why. "They're fine, last I saw. Went through a damned siege, but they're healthy. How's your wife? Medi?"

"Mindy." Peter drooped. "Died last winter. Was a rough year 'round here. She got sick… didn't come outta it again. S'life, I guess."

I patted his shoulder. "Sorry to hear it. 'n sorry I brought it up."

"You couldn'tve known." He smiled, then brightened. "But hey. Care to help an old guy out? I need somea your family's muscle, 'n since your daddy ain't 'round…"

I slipped under the fence and joined Peter. He led me across the field, speaking of old times, and I laughed along with him. Everything seemed secure, safe, proper. We even joked about my last visit, and how much he wished we hadn't taken Bora with us. (Another pervy old farmer.)

Peter led me to the rear of his house. Back here, as I recall, he used to have a big shed for his eels; since then, he told me, he's moved out of the eel business, and wants to expand into something more profitable. When I asked him what, he got a giant grin on his face.

"Urchins, m'boy. Urchins." He pointed at the beginnings of a hole where the foundations of the shed had once stood. "Urchins are big right now. Delicacy in the cities. Traders goin' ta Bottomless come through here all the time, 'n they're always askin' me when I'll put urchins on the trading list. So, hell, I got rid of the shed, 'n I'm gonna make a pond."

"Good idea, I guess," I said, scratching my head, "but why not just use the shed? Ain't urchins bred underwater like eels?"

"Sure, sure, but you need soil!" Peter jabbed at the hole a little more strongly. "Soil's key! Urchins won't grow in tanks. S'common sense. You need fresh soil."

"Yeah, sure, common sense," I muttered under my breath.

"Yup. So I need me a breeding pond. Run into a bit of a snag, though, 'n that's what I figured ya might be able to help with."

Stepping into the pit, he grabbed a shovel and started poking around. The quiet shuffle of dirt was soon replaced by loud clinks as the shovel hit dirt. A few minutes later, Peter had uncovered five decent-sized boulders, wedged into the ground. He then looked back at me expectantly.

I shrugged. "Okay. What? Want me to help you dig them out?"

His face fell, just a little. Then he laughed. "C'mon! You kids used to do this all the time. Well, you did, anyway. You were always the strong one. Oswald'd have you out doin' this half the week sometimes, pickin' away at people's fields for 'em. Always said it'd be good for your future guardin' duties. Surely ya haven't spent so much time politickin' that you've forgotten how to use your arms!"

It's true, my dad made me work a lot. A lot. But… digging up rocks in fields? I couldn't remember doing that.

Grimacing inwardly, but wanting to accomodate the man, I accepted the shovel. Surely, I thought, I would at least be stronger than some 60-year-old farmer. I began to dig into the soil around one of the rocks, straining to fling the dirt out of the hole.

Peter frowned. "Huh. Ain'tcha gonna just break 'em up? Should I get a pick, maybe?"

I peeked at him over my shoulder, sweat already standing out a bit on my brow. "Say what?"

"Well, back in the old days you'da just wedged the shovel right into the damned thing. Crack it in half with a couple swings. Looked more like you were going at it with an axe than a… uh… you tired already, Dragomir?"

Mention of the axe did it. The shovel slipped out of my hands. 

I tried to help. Really I did. I went at the soil with my fingers, scrabbling around the rocks to pry them free. Didn't manage to get a single one up. My frustration was sufficient that I thought the blazing red thing in my hands might make an appearance, but no such luck. Might've accidentally sliced Peter in half had I done that. After twenty minutes of useless work, I apologized and beat a hasty retreat.


I don't remember cracking any rocks with shovels.

I didn't. 

I didn't.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Monday, October 14, 2013

Day Five-Fifty-One: Identity crisis



"We're not leaving yet."

Libby's mouth dropped open. "The hell? 'We're not leaving yet'? The hell you mean, we're not leaving?"

That's exactly what I meant. We're not leaving Villeinville. Not just yet. It was a tough sell, and no one wanted to back me on it, but, we're still here, parked outside Villeinville.

What was my reason? I'm… I'm not sure.

Ever since the meeting with Cybil last week, I've been confused. Confused about the town, about my childhood, about Robert, my parents, my upbringing, everything. All these memories I have, stupid and hollow though they are, have been thrown into a little windstorm in my brain. It's like a can't concentrate on anything, can't focus, and it's driving me crazy.

Shoes. Boots. Shoes. Boots. They're both footwear. They were both ruined. What's the big deal? 

Shoes.

Boots.

Shoes.

Boots.

Fuck.

I spent half of the day, despite my reluctance to leave the town, staring at the walls of Villeinville from Command. The other half, when I finally managed to work up the courage to enter the town, I spent wandering aimlessly through the streets and fields. I watched people work, talk, laugh and frown, wondering as I wandered why everything suddenly seemed so damned foreign.

I'm writing this diary entry atop a rock. I remember this rock. It's near a pond where we used to fetch water for mom. Robert and I used to play around it all the time when we were kids. He would hide behind the rock, and I would run around it, trying to catch him. If I caught him - which I never did, he was a fast little bastard - he'd have to find and chase me instead. We called our game 'Hide-and-go-Tag'. 

It was a stupid game. But we liked it well enough.

Didn't we? 

I'm pretty sure we did.

But when I think of Robert's face, now… when it pops into my head… it looks a little too adult. As though it's ready to sprout a little goatee at any time.

Little boys don't have goatees.

Well. Grayson might have one now, for all I know. He has the same fast-growing bug that claimed Eve and stole away her infancy. But normal little kids don't have goatees, and I'd say that Robert was a normal kid.

I don't know why he looks so adult in my mind. I spent all my time with Robert as a kid. Why can't I remember what his face looked like? I… I think he had pudgey cheeks… he was a bit fat… but if he was fat, how could he outrun me…?

Boots. Shoes. Shoes. Boots.

Fuck.

I… I need to stick around a bit longer. Even if it means inconveniencing an entire transport full of people There's something important in all this.

Sincerely,


Dragomir the Wanderer

Friday, October 11, 2013

Day Five-Hundred-Fifty: Tonight I dine on mud bat soup


Huh.

I was excited when I woke up this morning. Ecstatic. I felt really, really good about the prospect of setting this years-long wrong to rights. Indeed, I could barely contain myself from running out of my room in The Hog's Bed, dashing over to Gus' store, and picking up the shoes as soon as I woke up. I was so giddy as I went about some chores in the place that Bora, who's temporarily back behind the counter, told me to calm down.

(I threw her the finger. After that thing with Tobo, small though it mighta been, I retain my utter lack of trust of the woman. Maybe I should leave her here…? These farmers like her well enough…)

Gus is like most old people in that he wakes up at, like, 2 am, so the shoes were ready and waiting for me when I arrived at the shop, nicely and neatly packaged in a box with a bow on top. I thanked him for his swift work, tossed him another gold, told him to lay off the goats a little, and dashed out of the shop.

Cybil lives in a small corner of Villeinville, which is quite a feat considering the town is a big circle. Her shack is pressed between two much larger farms, and she has a small field of her own jutting out the front of her homestead. It's here where I found her, knee-deep in two adjoining rows of mud, her arms rooting about in sticky brown.

I waved to her. "s'cuse me! You Cybil, ma'am? Mornin', by the way."

Cybil raised her head, a strand of mud clinging to the brim of her sunhat. "Yep, s'me. You come for some mud bats? Got a fresh batch. Comin' along nicely, I reckon."

"Oh!" I cradled the neat little box in my hands, almost afraid to give it to her. "You out of the turnip shrimp business, then? I, y'know, I kinda lived 'round here as a kid. Remember you were always dealin' in those things."

After several nosedives into the mud, Cybil managed to wade her way to dry ground. She carried with her a bucket of mewling, muddy bats. "Ack, gonna need a lifetime 'o showers. You say turnip shrimp, lad? Never sold no turnip shrimp. Been a mud bat farmer all m'life."

I flinched back a few feet, hoping to avoid being coated in sludge. "Oh. Well. My bad. Um, anyway, no, not plannin' on that. Kinda… kinda got you a present."

Cybil straightened, the web of lines on her face contorting into a wrinkly smile. "Ooooooo! I gotta suitor? Been a dozen and ten score years since that happened. Lookin' ta woo this fine entrepreneur, son?"

I laughed, holding the box up. "Umm, no. See, I… well, see, when I used to live here -"

"Lived here, eh?" Cybil made a poor attempt to scrape mud off of her arms. She merely spread it to untouched areas. "Where 'bouts?"

I pointed. "Over there. Other side of the village. Dragomir. I'm Oswald's kid."

"OH!" The old woman brightened. "I heard you were back in town! Good to see ya. Don't think I caught sight o' ya more 'n a dozen times when you were growin' up, mind, I'm so busy with m'bats, but I remember. Put Cannonbottom in a tizzy, ya did, son. Surely."

"Yeeeeeah, that'd be my… ride, I guess." Stealing myself for the inevitable muck-up, I handed the box to Cybil. "Here. This is for you. S'kinda a peace offering."

She shook the box experimentally, delighted. "Fancy. Sounds expensive, eh? Don't remember ya wrongin' me, though."

I explained. I went through the whole affair: the plot, the sneaking, the dipping her precious shoes into oil, the stealthy escape. In short, the betrayal. I apologized most eagerly at the end, praying that the shoes I'd just bought her would make up for that pair which she'd obviously treasured so much in days past. Cybil listened in silence, occasionally screwing up her face to recall the past.

When I'd finished, my head bowed in apology, she opened the box and looked at the shoes. "Real pretty."

"Yes, I got 'em from Gus."

"Ah, Gus. Fine man. Bit weird. Got a thing about goats."

"Yeah."

"Get all my boots from Gus. Every pair." She pointed at the hip waders on her legs.

"Makes sense. Only one who does footwear 'round here."

"Yep." She smiled ruefully. "Only ever gotten boots from 'im. Nuthin' else."

I blinked a few times. "Oh. So… those shoes… guess you got them from somewhere else, or…? That makes sense, I remember you talkin' to my mom at the market once, 'n you were real proud, showin' 'em off -"

Cybil cut me short with a curt shake of her head. "Never owned no shoes, son. Not one, not two, only none. You musta mistaken me for somebody else 'n this rathole."

I took a few steps back. "Huh? Well, uh, no, I mean, I remember the shack, and I remember… uh… well, hell, we snuck through the fields…"

Cybil motioned to the mud. "You think I'm gonna bother wearin' nice shoes in there? I'd be pickin' filth outta my toenails every ten minutes. I buy boots 'n I wear boots. Got nuthin' to prove t'anybody. Now, I do remember this one time when some bastard set a pair of 'em on FIRE, 'n they were a step up from the norm, but…"

"But… no shoes."

She handed the box back to me. "No shoes, son. 'ere, take 'em back. Give 'em to somebody else. I'll just ruin 'em. You okay? Y'look a bit pale."

I was pale. I could tell. The blood had rushed out of my cheeks, replaced by a confused palor. I quickly excused myself, stowed the shoes away, and retreated from the shack, leaving the woman to her mud. Several mud bats leaped out of her bucket and escaped as I ran away, and the last I heard of Cybil was a few curses.

I forgot. Or I mis-remembered. I already mentioned that the memories of the old times are… hazy. Fairly hazy.

But…

Fuck. It's just a pair of shoes. Or boots. One or the other. What does it matter if we doused a pair of shoes in cooking oil or set a pair of boots on fire? We still did something stupid, and I apologized for it. I apologized.



Why does this feel so important?