This cover was illustrated by the author.
☆ Original Sketchbook Story
This story is PART ONE of TWO.
I leaned against the inner wall of the doorframe. Porbiyo’s wide sunhat rested beneath a crude wicker chandelier. His outer coat was a rusty orange, and blended in with the packed adobe clay of the home’s interior. He shrugged, revealing the half dozen other coats—green, and purple, and blue, and red, and more—layered beneath his unbuttoned rusty jacket. Strange enough, these colors melted him into the vibrant carpets on the floor and walls.
A humanoid with pointed ears and tiny arms cowered in the corner. He was only a bit taller than me, maybe a meter and a half?
“Pay, then I tell you,” stuttered the man. Palpable fear burned in his eyes. Porbiyo’s height and expressionless mask were enough to terrify most, but the magic that shimmied in the air with our Agglomerate presence could drive some mortals mad.
“Pay,” the small man demanded, this time stronger than before. “You are early. You caught me off guard.”
“And catching you off guard is a reason to be impolite?” I laughed with a flair of attitude.
“You are hunting something about which you know oh so little . . .” Porbiyo stepped to the man, his shadow through the door devoured the room. “I will pay you with mercy, mortal. Consider that a fair deal. Otherwise, I’ll squish your little skull and have one of my beasties suck out your brains for the information,” Porb tapped his sketchpad. The man in front of us did not understand the meaning, but he shivered with the threat.
“Down in the cavern,” the man said, “down in the cave. . . there is a trail of bones and bodies. East, by the river, in the depth of the desert where none live but the winds and wraiths. She is there.”
Porbiyo jumped in glee, “Excellent! Good day, sir.” He strode from the building with reverberating enthusiasm.
“You know,” I said, hopping down a few rocks, “you don’t have to threaten people so viciously. Most times, they’ll give you what you want without it.”
“Yes, but where is the fun?” Porb said, twenty meters ahead down the hill. “Besides, I could squash him with the snap of my fingers.” He rode on the back of a large, six legged pachyderm. The leathery skinned titan maneuvered the dry, desert slope with unexpected prowess. It’s shield-like head protected four eyes and two large, almost tarantula-like mandibles coated in spine quills.
“You being able to kill him isn’t the point,” I said, lagging behind. I wished the terrain had been sand and not rock. Rocky deserts held all sorts of odd flora and fauna in their crevices. I had to watch every step carefully. In sand, I’d whip out my board and surf down the dunes.
I scurried down the rocks, caught up to Porb, and crawled up the beast’s back to ride next to him. There was plenty of room considering I was the size of human child.
Down in the basin, bones straddled a handful of dead trees. The sun was still high but the angles of the cliffside kept her hidden beneath the rock and stone. Shade engulfed us as Porbiyo’s beauty scuttled downhill.
There must have been ten corpses, stripped of all their flesh and skins, piled between those trees.
“Those are the shepherds,” Porbiyo said, saluting to the bones as we passed by. “No wonder these people put a bounty on her head.”
The further down basin we ventured, the more corpses we found. Large animals with entire skins peeled free—yet their muscle and flesh left behind. We must have passed half a hundred corpses.
The smell of sun-cooked flesh permeated everything. I could feel the air scenting my fur.
My whiskers twitched.
“Porbiyo,” I pointed ahead to a small crevice in the rock face, “that’s it.”
“Yes. That is it,” he said.
We dismounted his creature, and with the tap of his sketchpad the beast returned to it’s two-dimensional form.
We stood together in the desert shade, surrounded by corpses, eyeing the cave of a foe I hoped never to meet.
Porbiyo removed his hat, and held it close to his chest. He said a prayer, “For they are to be leashless and freed, liberty be their natural guide.” He buttoned his coat and set his sketchpad on the ground, hat above it.
I nearly asked what for, but I’d never seen him make such a gesture. The only sincerity I’d heard from him came during the Genesar conflicts on the White Island.
A warm breeze trickled through the basin, disturbing a translucent blue-grey filament which fluttered against the mouth of the cave. It seemed to be a strand of some kind. The filament flapped like a flag.
I approached, and found it to be the end of a snake shed. I nearly touched it, but Porbiyo teleported beside me and his hand shot against my paw.
“No,” he said, “don’t touch.”
Then he straddled the opening of the cave and stepped inside. I, with a hint of reluctance, followed.
The cave was practically impossible to traverse. Porbiyo used a long cane to help himself move. I crawled on all fours with my tail as an extra source of balance. The amount of rock piled and shattered in the crevice nearly blocked it off. But there was just enough space to move forward.
We followed the snake shed.
As we pushed on, I had to avoid contact with the shed skin. Porb insisted on not touching it. And so I listened. The further we traveled, the more curious I became.
Each “scale” was entirely unique. Some were smooth. Others rough. Some appeared to be dead, shed fur, while the adjacent “scale” was made of smaller scales. Each and every scale challenged my perception of this being as Porbiyo had described her.
“Porbiyo, we’ve been crawling for twenty meters. How long is she?” I whispered ahead.
“She grows with every new victim she flays. Meals are fun, but the beasties are her prizes. She finds the rarest and most sought after life she can and then shreds its skins from the flesh. . .” he let go a long, angry, sorrowful breath. “With every kill a new scale forms. With every scale, a new shed. With every shed, a new form.”
I cursed. “Is this such a great idea?”
“I have helped you a thousand times, Ratman.” I could feel the desperation in his voice, and the drive in his eyes behind the mask. “All I ask is that this once, you help me murder someone.”
“Murder may not be the best word.”
“She deserves nothing but murder. So murder it shall be.”
“And where does all of this stem from, this rivalry?”
Porbiyo hissed, “We are foes! Enemies! We are at war! This is no rivalry, you rodent. This is a fundamentally philosophical face off. And it began long ago. . . longer than you’d believe.”
“Maybe quiet down,” I whisper-yelled. “She’ll hear us.”
“She can sense souls from eight kilometers away. She knew I was here the moment we strode into that village. No use in quiet. She’ll put up a fair fight.”
I cursed again.
Porbiyo hiked further into the cave. Eventually the rocks opened into a space where the sky drizzled in through fissures in the ground above. A grotto of sand and stone. The shed kept running along the floor, leading to a stack of coiling skin.
“Yoohoo,” Porb called. His echo vibrated back to us. “Cryptal Vispar, is that you I see, once again on a murder spree?” He strode into the room out of both confidence and pride in his rhyme.
The stacks of coiled flesh were as chaotic and foul as I expected. In mirror to the dry, white snake shed, her scales were each a different sort of skin. From thick pachyderm leather to patches of fur, to thin hair to velvet skin, to feathers, and scales, and chitin. The scales numbered in the thousands. Her coiled body rose five meters into the air, and the thickness of her muscled form was nearly a meter.
“Ahhhh, Porbiyo,” she hissed. A great, long tongue reached out from the coils. The tongue was not forked but instead shaped like a wicked, thorny flower with a half dozen feelers. Her head rose above her coils, sunbeams illuminating a face with a single black eye. The serpentine head was lined with infrared channels and a muscled, thick jaw.
“I’ve come to kill you once again,” Porb bowed, “though this time I brought Peridot’s favorite little friend, Ratman.”
Cryptal Vispar exhaled with a long, eerie laugh, “Humorous, old foe, that you’d bring me such a surprise. I missed our duels.”
“Fifty five years. . .” Porbiyo growled, “. . . and still you miss me?”
“The hunt was mutual,” she said. “And you, Opaline of Dahn, made quite the impression with those gremlins. Do you not wield the Kaihan Helm?”
I took the Kaihan helm from my Boundless Bag and slid my ears into the horns, and snapped the dragon’s jaw visor into place. The golden draconic silhouette bounced light from the chamber and dazzled the room in gold.
“You wield it now to kill me?” she laughed. “We all know there is no death amongst us. We are equal combatants. Though the Ratman is just a baby in this cosmic life. . . perhaps I’ll devour you, first? Then Porbiyo may mourn his only friend.”
“I will not mourn anything but our conflict, Vispar, when you are dead and gone. Even then, I shall only shed a single, dramatic tear quite cinematically and worthy of whatever awards you see fit.”
Porbiyo cracked his knuckles.
I charged my sorcery.
Vispar, in the blink of an eye, transformed into a shriveled, red-skinned creature no larger than myself. Her titanic snake form was condensed into this spritely, frail goblin-looking fiend.
Within seconds, she transformed another six times. I tried to strike with my blade against her giant, ape-like form but missed when she turned into an oversized, tusked toad. Porbiyo missed as well. The dodging went on for nearly two minutes, with the sunbeams of the cave bursting with each transformation through a vast array of magical creatures.
I collapsed into the wall, breath heaving. Porbiyo slid beside me.
Vispar, currently in the shape of a four winged bat, shifted back into her enormous serpent form. Her thousand skins rustled as she coiled into place, ready to pounce on us.
“Is it time yet?” I said, referring to Porbiyo’s plan.
“Uh. . . you know what, sure, it’s time.”
And so commenced the poor execution of a fantastic plan.
To be continued. . .