This cover was drawn by the author.
This episode is PART FIVE of FIVE of our OCTOBER SPOOKY-LINE.
“TILL THE BONES,” called far across the hills. The magical blue strings glistened bright in the orange light, then faded. Thousands of colossal giants’ bones arched over the heads of workers below, whose picks and hammers chiseled into the bone, collecting dust and marrow in buckets.
“Look. . . when the horn sounds, do you see the puppet strings?”
Threshold nodded, “Polly is here. These workers, the Mayor—He controls them.”
Wind screeched through the field and battered against our conversation. We stepped behind the tree-line, safe from both the wind and prying eyes.
“This could be advantageous,” I said. “Polly recognized us, and tried sending us to that factory. He was caught off guard, certainly not expecting us to stumble on his little undead doll of a Mayor and whatever he’s planning with this town. We can sick the Vicar on him.” I gestured to the army of workers on the hill as “TILL THE BONES” thundered once more. I continued, “Venefica drains blood, but she’s a Starbleeder messenger, meaning she’s not only interested in flesh.”
“Souls, yes,” Threshold said.
I ground my teeth, “That monster Polly steals souls for his dolls. Quite a many souls.”
“And so avarice will meet avarice,” Threshold clenched her fists, “I can prepare a chamber. I have an idea. But I need time. Discretion and speed will be key to success.”
“I can draw him off your tail.”
“You can fend him off for a couple days?”
I thought back to several worlds ago, when Polly had escaped my stoneware breath and succeeded in snatching the girl’s soul. I vowed vengeance. I would have it.
“I’ll handle him.” I quickly added, “We need to stop whatever he is doing here. I’ll handle this, you handle the Vicar’s prison. Set the trap and when you’re ready I’ll lure him to you.”
“Verywell.” She looked off in contemplation.
“So. . .” I put my paws on my hip. “What is this plan of yours?”
I managed the entire first day to charge sorceries. I spent my time in an abandoned building in town, consuming the necessary materials to allow my sorceries to root in my Aura. Cinders from a tended fire mixed into my drink, many vegetables and grasses for breakfast, and I recalled physics calculations in the event I’d need my “telekinetic” sorceries.
My magical abilities were rusty compared to my martial training. But a day’s rest and preparations provided the confidence I desired.
Threshold laid the foundations of our final act across town. Making time for her was the upmost priority. So, with a day to spare, I decided what best way to divert Polly’s attention than by paying him an early, unwarranted visit.
Saber in arm, spear in tail, I strode through the three meter wooden doors of the Main Hall, scarf trailing off my neck. My ears shot up in defiance of diffidence.
“Is there anyone else in the building?” I called to the Mayor’s secretary.
“Only Mayor Mitchell.”
I nodded and planned for quite a show.
Mayor Mitchell’s secretary called for me to stop. She shouted, “Do you have an appointment? Rat? Do you have an appointment?”
I marched up the wooden stairway in the midst of the large foyer, leading to the second floor, and glared back at the secretary. I said, “Leave. Leave now.” She scurried out, arms leaking paperwork.
When the paper settled, and the secretary was far down the street out of harms way, I inhaled and churned my Aura deeply.
The sorceries of my homeworld lived on inside me. Essence, Force, Shade, Voice, Muse, Rot—the mighty powers which comprised Dahn’s magics. But within me burned the brightness of the stonefire, born unto me by the starsign Opal for which I was named.
I couldn’t unleash that stonefire. Not yet.
“Yoohoo,” I whistled up the steps. I banged my spear across the railings. Every loud step I followed up with a bang of my glowing white starspear. “Oh Mayor Mitchell?”
I opened my Aura to every hint of power I could sense.
My sorceries weren’t as honed as my martial skill. The five Great Powers known to my mice peoples comprised of such: Force was the application of physics. Essence stemmed from the manipulation of matter, while Rot sprouted from the decay of said matter. Shade relied on light and reality altering understandings of light. Voice was not dissimilar from Threshold’s power of speaking to places. The Muse was the manifestation of consciousness into reality. The mouse-kingdoms of the Laskan Orchards housed other mysteries, such as the dream-like Radiance and reality enhancing Agony, but these, amongst other mighty powers, were never tamed by my teachers.
I was more proficient in some of these powers than others. Some did not work properly on worlds outside my homeworld. But this fight was not for winning by any proper means. I needed Polly alive until nightfall. I needed Polly pissed off.
My skill in sorcery wasn’t important.
The best distracter was noise.
So, I’d make some noise.
Upon the final stair, standing across the hall, Mayor Mitchell’s towering top-hat gleamed in the candlelight. In buildings without windows, such artificial attempts at light invaded every corner of every building. But Mitchell stood at home amongst this empty chamber.
On either side of the hall, five doors lead to five conferences rooms—all vacant with the town’s declined populous. Ahead stood the door to the Mayor’s mirror-lined office.
“Wicked Mitch,” I said, “that’s what they call you. Would you prefer to be called Mayor?”
“Wicked suits me just fine.” The walking corpse whispered through his wrapped face.
“You lied to me and my associate, Mayor.”
“And you lied to me.”
“I suppose we did.” I sensed the fire of the candles on either side of the room. Their heat, their energy. The carrots I’d consumed for breakfast writhed in my stomach. The power of Flame and Root Essence vibrated in my Aura. “Mayor Mitchell?” I said, eyes glowing red and green mashing into a golden light, “is there anything left in there? Or has the puppet-master hollowed you out completely?”
Mitchell hunched like a wrestler. His arms dangled at his sides with oversized coat sleeves that drooped below his wrist-line.
The Mayor said, “I am a guest in my own body.”
Faint blue strings sparkled in the dark. They ran from above into the Mayor’s limbs and head. When the candlelight burned too bright, these strings went unseen.
“Before we begin,” I said, “Was it all Polly’s doing, or your own, Mitch?”
Mayor Mitchell gazed from beneath the brim of his hat, brown eyes ireful. His lips broke through the wrapping across his face, “HE HAS STOLEN ALL THAT I BUILT. THAT DAMNED POL—.”
The Mayor’s jaw shut. Flesh sewed over his lips, silencing him. His eyes fell dead. His shoulders rolled back, his legs took stance.
A ghostly wind killed the candlelight.
Only the blue strings remained in the darkness, gleaming off the Mayor’s shiny black clothing.
I lunged forward, silver blade splitting the dark. Polly’s blue strings gleamed off my blade. I soared past Mayor Mitchell as he dodged my attack.
The Mayor grabbed a cane which leaned against the wall. He drew forth a concealed blade and took stance. His physical language invited a duel. But this wasn’t a duel proper.
I leapt into the air and flipped. My tail sheared by like a trebuchet. The starspear flew from my tail’s grip as a javelin and skewered the Mayor’s leg.
The puppet wailed. He lost his stance.
I Channeled Flame sorcery, feeding off the candle-smoke still churning in the hall and the ashes in my stomach, and my free paw spouted a fiery wrath in Mitch’s direction. He screamed as his coat caught fire.
The blue puppet-master’s strings dissipated.
“Forgive me, oh lord!” Mitchell writhed. He tried to collapsed but my spear—still nailed through his leg into the floor—didn’t allow it. He slumped awkwardly to one side as my Flame sorcery engulfed his clothing. “For the will of Death moved through me! Till the bones! Till the bones! Till the bones!”
I marched to his side and withdrew my starspear from his flesh. The heat scorched my fur. He collapsed, writhing and screaming as any burning man would, and I cut my saber threw his neck.
His head plopped onto the floor. A bloodless strike. The undead head continued it’s wraith screams. I kicked the head down the steps.
“Hello, Opaline,” Polly’s wretched voice slithered into the room. “How is Peridot’s favorite rodent?”
“Angry. Vengeful. Driven.”
“Pleasant.” The voice crawled from every crevice in the Main Hall. Where was he?
“I’m afraid its not pleasant at all.”
“Well, I hate to hear that. I will assume you’ve come to murder my little puppet, here? Good work on this fool. Bastard deserves it after all he’s done.” With my silence, Polly followed with, “I certainly deserve it, too. But we both know you aren’t catching me. Ah! We’re ready for your meeting. . .”
Through the pitch black hallway burst a stream of white light.
The door to the Mayor’s Office creaked open.
I shrugged, turned on my heels, sheathed my blade, and walked down the steps. I gave Mayor Mitchell’s head one last, good kick, and strutted out of the building into the street.
With Threshold’s assurance of tragedy and pain in this building and nothing joyous left within, I went forward with her plan, praying that my trust was not in vain. Arson was not often my chosen course of action.
I raised my paws. Root Essence vibrated in my Aura, seeded by the carrots and grasses I enjoyed for breakfast. I motioned my fingers as if crawling. The weeds in the sidewalk climbed across the Main Hall. Ivy that draped from the facade verandas thickened and devoured the building in a web of green vines.
I had spent the entire morning readying my Aura to perform such sizable sorcery. By the time the building was half green plants, and half red bricks in appearance, a great sense of satisfaction fell over me.
I hadn’t done such a feat in quite a long while. Since That Time, in fact.
With a mighty exhalation, I drained these sorcery-plants of all their water and life. The building’s greenery browned and crisped in death.
A fire burned inside the building. But that wouldn’t be enough.
With a step to the wall, I flicked my claw and a petite spark ignited all the crisped vines. The Main Hall went up in flames, a lone monument to cruelty and hidden evil flanked by two smashed building alleyways. In the grey of concrete the orange flames engulfed the hall.
Polly screamed inside. Not a hint of pain. Only rage.
I didn’t look back. I didn’t need to know if he followed.
Where I headed, he already waited.
The slope crawled with mind-controlled thralls, commanded by the instrumental chant of “TILL THE BONES,” which echoed through the arches of giant bones. Like the flags of a ski-slope the ribcages, femurs, and titanic arm bones jutted from the barren field.
A great brass horn stood proud in the midst of the fells. A wooden platform supported the immense instrument. A particularly petite goblin screamed “TILL THE BONES” into the horn with as much animation as one could muster.
A shimmer of blue strings waved across the fields following the calls. And the workers toiled hard at the bones. They collected buckets and wheelbarrows full of marrow and bone shards, then transported these containers onto a railcar whose track swooped out of my sight.
I saw no tracks into town.
So the railway ran underground. I’d follow that later. In the meantime, I had a particularly powerful enchantment to break.
The slope down to the field covered great length. The density and assiduous nature of the workers led me to believe that, if they noticed me, this crowd could be aggressive. If they were so meticulous by enchantment to work the bone farms, I didn’t want to risk suddenly having to fight off, or gods forbid cut down, hundreds of innocent townspeople under Polly’s spell.
I couldn’t simply stroll down the hill.
I needed to go swiftly.
I rummaged through my Boundless Bag. The rebounding surfboard of the Rajam Put shimmered in green runes carved across its sacred surface. I no longer had to rely on my transforming crystal shield as a board.
With rajami board beneath me, I kicked off in the dirt and surfed down the barren slope. With bone dust and dry clay the surface felt more like sand than land. With a touch of friction I soared down the hill.
Workers eyed me, faces shocked by my speed and the strange sight of a mouseman riding a glowing green surfboard. I shifted my hips and cut around a giant femur, then turned back and swiveled around a ribcage large as a house.
“TILL THE BONES,” sounded off again.
At the bottom, the workers seemed less interested in me than I expected. Excellent. I hoped it would keep up.
The wooden platform raised above the ground to support the massive, curled brass horn. Up close, Polly’s churning blue magics were far brighter than upon the hill.
I kicked off my board, scurried up the open steps onto the platform, and grappled the goblin. He fought though I choked him out quickly. I dragged his unconscious body off the platform, laid him on my board, and called through the oversized instrument, “OH POLLY, YOOHOO.”
With Force, I recalled the great might of machinery. I’d once been caught beneath a garbage smasher, whose jaws crunched entire vehicles in it’s teeth. I thought back to that power and exercised the Force onto the horn.
I squeezed my fist, imparting thousands of kilograms of imagined pressure manifested with my sorcery.
The brass horn crumpled. The hunk of metal crashed through the platform. I breathed Flame, and the wooden panels burned bright, streaking smoke stains across the strangled brass.
The crowds of workers wailed. They collapsed to their knees. In the orange haze of sky, the blue strings snapped as if real and not magic, and faded into nothingness. Some of the workers remained in this position. Bewilderment took their eyes. Fear took their physicality.
For half an hour, as the workers awakened from their trance, and found way back to town, I waited.
No Polly. No thralls. No dolls.
Unease tickled at my feet—I needed to go. I taunted Polly and burned his building. The smoke still plumed into the sky from over the hills.
He should have been furious.
He should have followed.
Not one to ignore intuition, I followed my feet. And they moved quickly. I packed up my surfboard and took Beep’s page from my pocket. With a touch of the illustration, my Beep appeared before me. She “bahed” and “buzzed,” big old eyes in question.
“Fly to the toy factory. Check on Threshold. I’ll be in town, find me afterwards.” Beep buzzed and jolted off through the trees.
At first, I intended to sprint into town. Polly certainly waited for me. Though I worried perhaps he came upon Threshold prematurely. Our plan involved her making use of the factory. Perhaps someone snitched to Mayor Mitchell, and thus Polly.
She could certainly enact the plan without me. I worried she did not have time to prepare her torture chamber.
Beep would find her. I banished my worries.
I tried to run into town. But a silent curiosity called to me. In the corner of my eye lead the railway. Carts of marrow and bone shard were hauled off by mine carts to the tracks. From that view, I saw the tracks lead beneath the hills—underground.
Threshold searched the town for memories of Polly. She found little, except the toy factory’s sickened whispers. Even in the abandoned factory—Building 4—where “Wicked Mitch” had originally sent us, there was nothing. The factory was truly, entirely, utterly abandoned.
So where did the rails go? She should have found the other end, I remember thinking. With all of that spacial power, Threshold couldn’t have missed where the bone pulp was being taken.
But we only had a day’s investigation.
And she’d spent that day preparing her prison.
She missed it. I missed it.
And that’s where this story takes it’s turn. You see I wondered, for so long, if there was anything we could have done. But that’s the curse of this infinite blip we Agglomerates suffer—especially in Threshold’s seeking justice, or my wanting to help. Justice is not always served. And help is not always possible.
When you open your heart, and the universe strangles it, you cannot blame the universe. You invited a response. For good or for ill. You opened yourself, and you must accept what fills the void: sorrow or joy, pain or pleasure, dream or nightmare.
That is Existence. To be is to be all that is thought or spoken. There is no crafting one’s Existence to perfection. There is only Existence. Our action defines our perspective. The universe does not have perspective, only being.
And to us—to the Cursed—that was most exemplified.
I warn you. This does not end well. Though do any stories involving megalomaniacal dolls end well?
I stood in the cave mouth of the rail tunnel.
My eyes glowed with sorcery light leaking from my Aura, and when I stepped into the tunnel, the crude walls of wood arches lit in an eerie soft touch.
I drew my saber, if only to slice the silence with the draw of silver from sheathe.
The path was laid straight. It was constructed with a single purpose in mind, not repurposed from some old mine. Mayor Mitchell must have built this long ago to transport bone from the giant fields. The stench of mildew wriggled in my whiskers. The deeper I delved the colder the walls and air became.
An hour’s cautious trek later, and I came to a spacious chamber. An enormous cavern opened ahead. I couldn’t see anything without moving to the edge of the hole.
As quiet as could be, I crawled to the edge of the tunnel. The chamber opened wide to an impressive bored hole. Huge metal rafters, criss crossed by angled support beams, rose like the framing of a skyscraper along each wall and held up obelisks at their peaks.
The metallic structures ended at the tunnel gate. A vaulted ceiling of concrete and steel rebar domed above. The obelisks surrounded the hole before me, and a set of stairs and ladders lead down into a hole so deep I could just barely see the bottom.
A hundred meters deep, I couldn’t believe the size of it.
The obelisks were carved of bone. Vertical slits ran along the sides, giving them a hazy shimmer in the dim light of the oil lamps on the walls.
The ceiling was halved. A thick seam—like steel jaws—clenched the roof over the operations below. An investigative scan of the structures showed gearboxes larger than me placed along the walls. This machinery must open the roof.
“. . . Oh lord. . . help me. . . please stop this. . . oh lord. . .” Whispered weeps echoed quietly in the dark. My eyes followed the noise. Just below me, on a landing between scaffold stairs, a worker man rocked back and forth in the fetal position.
Saber in hand, I slid down the passage and crawled along the railing towards him. A cold wind rose from below, followed by a bellowing blue light.
The bearded goblin pulled his cloth hat over his ears. When he saw me his eyes doubled in size.
“I ended your trance. I know what Mayor Mitchell has done. I will stop him. I am not your enemy.”
The goblin did not speak.
I leant out a hand, and took his own. I held it firm, “Mitch is dead. I killed him. But I need your help, because he is not the only evil left. We must stop his plans. What is this place?”
“He said we needed a weapon,” the goblin’s lips trembled. “He said we’d build a weapon. A monster to match the monsters. One who could never die, for he was already dead. One who could not be defeated, for he could not fall. One who towered over the others and was built of their bones.”
Down the hole, the blue light misted over a titanic skull set upon shoulders more than twenty meters wide. The great body lie slumbering in the dark, a churning white mass of bone sprinkled in Polly’s blue strings.
Wicked Mitch built himself a giant.
Necromancy was no hobby.
“Is it awake?” I said.
He shook his head, “Only the master can wake him.”
“We need to open this ceiling now. How do we do that?”
The goblin jumped up at my command and sprinted to a large lever. He pointed to one across the way. I followed his finger to the opposite platform. We pulled together.
A machining BOOM shook the premises. The ceiling crease broke, and streaming light poured in. The gear walls installed to the stone churned back and reeled their respective sides of the ceiling into place. What was left was the interior of a vast building.
“1140 Old Rathen Avenue, Building 4,” said the goblin.
I climbed the ladder into the open room—an abandoned factory floor, devoid of all machinery and life. The fifteen meter ceilings and decaying concrete floor seemed nothing like the complex beneath it.
“That can’t be,” I said to the goblin, who followed me up the ladder. “This can’t be Building 4. Threshold and I searched this place. She saw nothing in her visions.”
But this was Building 4. I visited that very place the day prior with her.
The goblin said nothing. He motioned to the door. “We should be going.”
“Can we close it from above?”
He strode to a concrete pad at the edge of the steel jaws of the open floor gate, and set his feet into indentations. He walked in place and this side of the floor began to close. I jogged to the opposite end and matched his pace in that pad. The floor locked together as if it were normal ground.
“Run home. Get all of your family, friends, and get as far away from the city as you can!” I called to the goblin.
I took off out of the building, down the street, and towards the toy factory. I sheathed my blade and leapt onto all fours.
Empty streets and alleyways blurred past, broken lots from giant-smashed buildings faded to my periphery. My eyes looked to the toy factory.
Paws sore from the hard brick streets, I skidded up to the blue factory door and burst through. Inside, towering pyramids stacked of wooden dolls crawled over every piece of machinery. Every assembly line, every workbench, every packing station had been consumed in dolls taken from the empty crates stacked at the far end of the building.
Threshold floated in the air, hand signs moving with vicious speed. Eyes closed, the green shine of her runes lit the room in a spooky glow.
Beep buzzed towards me. Feeling uneasy, I tapped her scroll and turned her back into a drawing. She was a good fighter, but I didn’t know what Polly could do to her should he try.
I marched through the flanks of unconscious factory workers, put to sleep by Threshold’s whispering magics. The cosmic sorceress said, “Opaline. Your Beep visited me.”
“You were wrong.”
She opened an eye, “About?”
“About Building 4. The abandoned factory? You missed the entire complex underneath the building. Mitchell constructed a huge facility underground and pieced together a bone colossi with his necromancy.”
She stopped signing. She said, rather matter of factly, “That’s impossible. I couldn’t miss that.”
“You did. “
“I must have scanned quicker than I realized. I should have been more diligent. Damn complacency in all its evils.” She floated down to the floor, “I am nearly finished here. Where is the doll?”
“You don’t know?”
“I burned down the Main Hall, he never followed. I destroyed the fields and the horn and broke the spell, but before coming back to check on Polly I followed a rail tunnel to the complex under the factory. I don’t know where he is.” I waved my hands over the room of dolls, “Can he see us through these? Can’t he scry through his thralls?”
“Proximity is his weakness. He is too far to use this army effectively,” she said, “His powers are stretched thin, here. He has really walked the boundaries of his ability. The bone colossi—did you see it?”
“Yes. Blue light. Polly controls it, I’d assume.”
“And this explains his weakened power even more. The amount of souls Mayor Mitchell harvested to create an undead giant is absurd. The number of souls Polly harvested to enchant this factory full of dolls is equally disturbing. For Polly to control both must be tearing his mind apart.” Threshold set her jaw, “This town stood no chance. Polly was dropped into the perfect breeding ground for his power. I only fear that his collection will move on.”
This was a worthy fear, and one we shared. The Agglomerate collections that each Peridot’s Cursed amassed traveled with them. Porbiyo could drop his sketchbook of beasts and critters but it would always follow him. His zoological collection was a piece of him, now. Same with Threshold’s keys, same with Polly’s dolls.
“We can destroy the dolls,” I said. “Burn this entire place to the ground and not risk it.”
I opened my palm and the top spiraled. We only had a few hours left, if that. Our plan would need to be enacted soon.
“Venefica,” she said. “I won’t risk her being loose. Not with this kind of bait dangled in front of us. I will be finished within the hour. Drag Polly here no matter what you must do. And if you can—get that colossi too.”
“Finish your prison,” I said. “I’ll bring Polly to you.”
Saber drawn, I stood before the burning Main Hall. Flames continued their wrath within the collapsed building. The walls had caved in. The room fell to ruin. A pile of smoldering wreckage remained.
Polly was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps he burned in the flames. But elements were nothing against such powerful magic. He couldn’t have been killed.
Why didn’t he follow me?
What we he doing?
I decided to take another approach. Saber in hand, spear in tail, sorceries charged, I walked down the street. Wicked stares from the townspeople turned my stomach. But knowing what had been inflicted on those people by magi like Mitch and Polly made me sicker.
Threshold’s initial evaluation was far too accurate. This place was broken.
I walked down mainstreet until I came to the park, where the evergreen trees flanked the orphanage. No goblins or children played in the street. There lie a fog across town. A deterrent to any and all fun or humor.
The orphanage stood alone.
And then the sickness festered in my gut.
I would have ran but couldn’t. The realization slowed me to a lifeless walk. I moved across the park, and the street, and to the steps of the orphanage. And though everything inside begged me not to look, Threshold’s words echoed in my mind:
We must not shy away.
I creaked open the door to the orphanage. In the foyer stood a wooden doll. His bowtie shined black. His hat cloaked his wooden face in shadow, the eternal smile burned in my mind.
At his feet, a child slumbered wrapped in a blue blanket.
“You’re late,” he said.
I ground my teeth, “What. Have. You. Done?” I sheathed my blade and filled my Aura, contemplating the girl’s weight from the last time I carried her to bed.
Polly laughed, “Built myself an army. Wicked Mitch was quite the idiot despite his grand plans. Quite an easy takeover. The change in management went smooth as could be.” He tilted his head, “Oh? The girl? What will I do, you mean? Kill her. Right now, soon, maybe later—haven’ decided yet. She’ll die. Painfully. Agonizingly. And you will watch, little rat.”
With Force, I reached back with my free hand. The girl soared from the top stair and I caught her in my arms. Nearly my size, I stumbled back but didn’t fall and backed through the door.
Polly screamed. His wailing sound waves shattered the doorframe. I countered the power of his blast with Force, and the two magics collided—cracking the building’s front wall.
Starspear wrapped in my tail, I carried the child in the front and kept an eye back towards Polly. The puppetmaster jumped out of the building. A half dozen dolls followed. Strings shot like spiderwebs to the park trees and building rooftops. The dolls swung in pursuit.
I summoned every ounce of energy I had.
I had to run halfway across town carrying this girl, who weighed almost as much as I did.
I breathed deep and used sorcery to balance the weight. With Force beneath her, the girl’s body felt weightless. I could nearly run full speed.
I glanced behind, and fought off the dolls’ attacks with my starspear in tail. Polly’s blue strings webbed from his horde. But he was gone.
Where did he go?
I couldn’t worry about that just yet.
I made it to the blue door. I snapped the knob with my starspear and kicked it down. When I made it inside, I set the child down underneath the floating, meditating Threshold.
Polly’s dolls did not follow me inside.
Titanic footsteps shook the ground. The factory rattled. The piles of dolls collapsed. The slumbering workers stirred.
“. . . he’s here,” Threshold said.
The wall with the blue door burst inward. Bricks and metal supports toppled down onto the workers Threshold put to sleep. Some screamed. Others were killed on impact. A spot of blood splatter shot out across the floor from a crushed corpse.
A huge white mass reached beneath the roof. Blue streaks smoked around the enormous bones. A second white mass came beside it. Giant’s skeletal hands. They lifted the roof and snapped the entire ceiling from the walls beneath it, tossing the roof over like someone ripping the sheet from bed.
Polly descended from strings connected to his bone colossi abomination. Dozens of dolls followed him. Rag dolls, wooden toys, plastic babies. In the crowd which descended from the giant’s shoulder I spotted her: the doll from Atunda’s bedroom.
That was Atunda’s soul, now.
I squeezed the sleeping child in my arms. I had failed Atunda. I would not fail her.
Above me, Threshold drew her scythe. The reality altering weapon would cut a hole in this place, drowning all of Polly’s dolls and their stolen souls into a single chamber tattooed upon her skin.
There, Polly would be trapped, to forever flee Venefica, who’d be eternally satiated by his collection of souls. The Vicar would be drowned in the agony of Polly’s twisted collection of soul-filled dolls, and he would be forced to always defend his Agglomeration from the vampire’s wrath.
Threshold ripped free the rusted iron key from only days ago.
She slid the key into the glowing golden keyhole on her forehead.
Turning the key, a burst of gold light flashed.
“THEE SHALL FALL BY THE MESSAGE OF THE LORD.” A wicked, bestial, mutilated voice spoke.
Threshold flew to my side, scythe spinning freely around her as both hands signed green runes in her spacial language.
“Do it!” I screamed over the resounding screeches of the Vicar.
“Almost,” Threshold said through strained teeth.
The monstrous Venefica flew in the air across from the bone colossi. Her skin, made entirely from the teeth of her victims, churned and chattered when she spoke. Her two bone-made wings spread wide, blocking my view of Polly’s colossi.
Polly’s dolls collected on the ground. They pounced on us. My tail nearly broke trying to defend against all the attacks. I churned a Flame sorcery inside, and set a wall of fire in front of us to deter the mostly wooden thralls.
Polly touched the ground in front of us.
“Vicar Venefica of House Starbleeder,” Polly shook his head, “how did you manage to keep her locked up? Impressive.”
Stonefire churned in my stomach. I let loose the mighty orange and blue flames. Hot as lava, cold as ice. The thick sorcery laid before me and turned a half dozen of Polly’s dolls to stone as it hardened.
Polly stepped through the stonefire. He brushed my sorcery off his body like it were rainwater.
Above us, Vicar Venefica shot towards the massive skull of the skeletal giant. A bright display of cosmic rays burned above us as the Starbleeder vampire unleashed.
Polly marched beneath this massive battle as Threshold put the finishing touches on her prison. “Your little stonefire sorcery is a toy,” Polly laughed. “And I am not a toy.”
My maw opened wide—I unleashed a second strike.
I froze in place. Like vomit stuck in the windpipes my sorcery diminished in my throat.
Polly wagged his finger in front of my open mouth as the stonefire died inside. He said, “Ah, ah, ah. Last time you got me. This time I have your jaw, too.”
My arms. My legs. My mouth. Even my eyes. I couldn’t shift, or twitch. Blue strings hooked into my soul as ethereal, barbed needles. Polly raised his hands like a piano player. His fingers controlled my movements.
I stood, let go of the girl, and drew my blade.
“Will you do the honor?” he pointed to the sleeping girl.
I rose my right arm, blade overhead.
But power raged inside me. Denial. Defiance. Will.
I screamed at the top of my lungs. Polly commanded me to kill the girl. I fought him. I stared into his eyes, not hers. He was weak—stretched as Threshold had said. I would not submit to some pathetic wooden doll.
If the Curse couldn’t bend me, no overinflated marionette could.
“ENOUGH,” I roared. My Aura seared inside, burning Polly’s strings from my soul. He stumbled back as I stepped over the girl with blade overhead, ready to cut him down.
“Opaline!” Threshold called to me.
Her hands broke her signing. Her red eyes widened, lips parted in an ireful roar. Her concentration snapped from the prison she forged, and her scythe soared from the air.
The scythe sliced through a living doll behind me, which dragged the girl several meters away.
When Threshold’s scythe cut the thrall doll down, I turned my back to Polly. A grand example of reaction clouding judgement.
In the blink of an eye, Polly’s strings wrapped around the girl’s hands and feet. She opened her eyes, begged for life, and. . . he took control.
I’ll spare you the rest. I don’t know that I can repeat it.
She was murdered. The same girl we rescued from Venefica’s terror, and brought to that orphanage for a better life, was slaughtered by the demon Polly.
A drop of her blood landed on my eyelash.
Going berserk, I turned and stonefire billowed from my stomach. I closed my eyes and unloaded sorcery. Out of exhaustion, I collapsed to my knees. When the smoke and steam of the stonefire trickled away, Threshold stood over me to protect me.
Vicar Venefica jolted away from her fight with the colossi. She bit down into Polly, massive fangs churning through his wooden body. Her thousand voices said, “THE GIRL WAS MINE. YOU HAVE STOLEN THE PRIZE OF THE LORD. YOU AND YOUR SOULS SHALL BE DEVOURED.”
Polly’s colossi reached down and grappled the Vicar in his grasp.
Then we blipped.
We blipped onto a desert world. Sand was all the eye could see. Nothing but endless wastes. Polly and his dolls fled from the Vicar, yet she pursued. His titan fell in the sunset—shorn into pieces by Venefica’s magical rays. Polly turned to defend himself and his Agglomeration.
The demons dueled in the dunes.
The Agglomerate battle saw no end in sight as Polly defended himself and his collection of souls from the vicious vampire.
I couldn’t fight, not anymore. And Threshold, drained from days of building a pocket dimensional prison only to see it destroyed by trying to save the girl, couldn’t fight either.
In a single glance, we agreed to leave the monsters to themselves.
Threshold and I trekked across the dunes. As night fell, we kept walking. The further we could move from the fight, the better. Aimless, I felt a great emptiness in myself. Watching that girl die destroyed me. Knowing that the town we left behind was demolished, and scarred forever, destroyed me.
“We could have saved them,” I said. “If we had just killed Polly with Venefica in the beginning, rather than planning all that time, we’d have won. We should have saved those workers. . . that town. . . the girl. The universe wanted to punish us. . .”
The moon rose bright silver. Together we admired the great celestial body. Two cosmic Cursed alone in the dunes.
Threshold’s cold hand squeezed my shoulder. She said, “When you open your heart, and the universe strangles it, you cannot blame the universe. You invited a response. For good or for ill. You opened yourself, and you must accept what fills the void: sorrow or joy, pain or pleasure, dream or nightmare.
“That is Existence: to be is to be all that is thought or spoken. There is no crafting one’s Existence to perfection. There is only Existence. Our action defines our perspective. The universe does not have perspective, only being.
“And to us—to the Cursed—that is most exemplified. We are anomalous little pollinators of whatever our actions seed in this Garden. We are sowers of perspective, and the Garden shall reap mercilessly all that ‘is.’ We should not Exist, yet we do, thus we should. No mortal should feel this level of emotion, yet we do, thus we should. In the end it is not up to us as individuals to take action on all things. Sometimes we must reap what the Garden sows, and rise beyond what our perspective tells us ‘should be.’ We were chosen to bear this burden of acceptance. You bear it with kind heart. That is most difficult of all.”
I pondered her words, which wrapped around my heart like a kind blanket, and said, “To be is to be all that is thought or spoken. . . failure rises to success, which falls again. I am all I have done, all that I have said, and all others have done to me, and said of me.” I smiled up at her, and rested my paw on her hand, “Our fallen hopes define us just as much as our victories. Till the fields of all that is. And till the bones of all that should have been.”
Threshold smiled, “I wondered for thousands of years.”
I rose an eyebrow, “Of?”
“You. The stories, the statues, the myth that circulates the Garden. I wondered before you came to Peridot, if I would ever meet you. I am pleased to say I have. And to think. . . how young you are. Whatever awaits you, Opaline, is grander than any vision I could ever fathom.”
“I wish it weren’t so grand. I wish it simply ‘were.’”
Threshold grinned once again, “Grand is only a matter of perspective. I assure you, great tragedy awaits you in equity with your triumph. You are too good—too open—a heart not to be strangled by the Garden’s wrath.”
“And if tragedy comes. . .?” I set my jaw.
“I’ll be there,” she twirled her keychains, “ready to lock it away. We will meet again, Ratman. I look forward to that day. Let us hope the vampire and the doll finish one another.”
We said our farewells, and she marched out into the dunes, alone, leaving only a trail behind her cloak in her wake. I wanted to follow. But if she’d have wanted company, she would have stayed by my side.
“Peridot?” I said. A few minutes later, after I’d given up hope she’d come, the minuscule purple Dragon appeared before me. I curled up in the sand. She curled up on my snout. “Can you tell me about what you’ve been up too? I need to escape my head for awhile.”
She told me a story so lovely that it hurt.
But when it was done, and slumber took my dreams, the chants still called to me, “TILL THE BONES, TILL THE BONES, TILL THE BONES.”