This cover was illustrated by the author.
☆ Original Sketchbook Story
This story is PART ONE of TWO.
One Day Earlier. . .
“Vispar has one very particular weakness,” said Porbiyo. He stood in front of a cave wall illuminated by the shell of a tortoise-like beast upon which he stood. The creature appeared very satisfied with holding Porb’s weight, which the man attributed to its “Boulder carrying biology.”
Porbiyo tapped the bright shelled beast and it stepped several paces to the side, allowing Porb to reveal the drawing he’d made on the wall. Due to aesthetics and the region we’d blipped into, I expected some kind of hieroglyphic or cave painting. Instead I was greeted with a frighteningly accurate depiction of a green-headed snake with a thousand different scales.
The snake had one single eye.
“This is Cryptal. She, as you know, enjoys causing problems. Mainly because of her insatiable desire to collect creatures.”
“Sounds eerily familiar,” I said.
“You must drop the attitude, or else how can I finish my presentation.” The glowing tortoise spotted a succulent and reached for it. He inched nearer the treat. Porb did not notice this. He set his hands on his hips, gently shifting along the wall as the tortoise sought it’s prize. “I do not cause problems, I solve problems,” Porb said, “take this matagi for instance. I rescued him from a shell hunting collective some two hundred years ago. Drew him up, took him into my book, and here we are. Now I also allowed the other two hundred matagi to feed on the flesh of their hunters, the hunters’ wives and children, and most of the town except for several small girls who had helped me, but needless to say, I solved a problem. Vispar enjoys causing problems.”
“It’s sad to me that you needed to defend yourself so readily when all I said was a mildly sarcastic remark.”
“It’s sad to me that you would insinuate that I have anything in common with Cryptal Vispar outside of. . .” he stopped, and said, “Anything! Right, now, her weakness. Do you know my weakness, Opaline?”
“Your apathy to sentient life.”
“I care for you, and you are sentient. I find my drive to liberate non sentient life from the sentient life virtuous.” The matagi kept reaching for its succulent. They were quite out of place, now.
I found myself surprised he admitted caring for me, though he wasn’t very stoic—more chaotic. It shouldn’t have surprised me. I said, “Get to the point please.”
“Virtues are weaknesses. Devotion is a weakness. The very existence of standing for something makes one vulnerable towards their own care,” Porb shrugged. He was still woefully unaware of the fact that his matagi was now several meters from his original drawing on the cave wall.
He continued, “I do admit I can become. . . vicious, when animals are harmed or controlled. But you must understand that to me, sentient life has no business interfering with beasts of any kind. Leave the natural Garden to its state, eh? This can lead me into precarious situations. It can cause a lack of judgement on my part, even.
“Vispar believes all she can see deserves to be seen by all. She controlled animals, bound them, imprisoned them to be shown off to the public. Her hunger for exotics only intensified in life, until, eventually, she succeeded in capturing the most perfect specimen of all. . . a tiny purple Dragon.”
Now, Porbiyo was in the mouth of the cave. He noticed the matagi was crawling and stepped off his assistant as the creature enjoyed its well-deserved succulent. Porb reached into his coat and pulled out a step-ladder made of plastic and metal. He stood on it beside his drawing again.
“Back then,” he said, as if nothing happened, “greed and collection were already her ambitions.”
“Now, as an Agglomerate, she continues collecting beasts,” I said. “Her hunger and greed grew into malevolence.”
“Yes. I study beasts from afar and copy resurrect departed specimens into my sketchbook. Each beast I draw is accurate in most ways, only the soul used is necrotic in origin—I will not interfere with the living, see? Vispar devours their souls, and seeing as there are no menageries or zoos in our Curse, her own skin has become her very own cosmic compendium.”
I thought a moment, “So, we flay her?”
“That’d be idiotic. She’d shred us alive, or eat us, or maybe both if she’s feeling more in a sliver-of-meat sort of mood than a slab-of-meat. No, she can transform at will. Into an insect, or a pachyderm, or even Kaiju-sized beasts. We couldn’t flay her.”
Kaiju—a Draconic word—tinkled with melody at his saying it.
Porbiyo ticked his head to the side, “We’ll blind her.”
“Vispar’s eyes. Well, eye. I already took care of the last one sometime ago.” Porb pointed to the magical rainbow circles on Vispar’s head. The charismatic corona radiated out in rings of blue, red, pink, purple, green, and so on and so forth. “Her eyes are hypnotic. She can stare into your very soul and paralyze you. A great power. Fun part? An eye is an eye. It’s just a fleshy ball of water ready to get prodded. She has to keep focus on her target to hypnotize them. That’s when we,” he made jab motions with his gloved hands, “stab, stabby, stab stab.”
“You’ve done it before? How long have you both known one another?”
“Long time. And yes, I did. Now, this was quite some time ago, and she was. . . weaker. Significantly weaker. Spectacularly weaker, in fact. But it did work. I did succeed. And now she only has one eye.”
The most effective plans are the simplest ones. An objective and a path to that objective. Setting motions or waves into stone never lead to any great outcomes. So Porb’s simple plan of plucking the eye of an Agglomerate WorldWalker, though it may seem stupid, was precisely my sort of route.
Be prepared for anything. Keep the goal in mind.
Simple plans are fantastic plans.
“Only thing? One of us distracts her while the other goes for the eye. I think you distract her. You’re quick and can’t teleport so it’ll be more convincing. You’re also a dirty rat and tasty to a large snake. You distract, I attack.”
“Can we even kill her?” I said. “I’ve heard horror stories about Vispar from Bigklau and Yizzimis. They said she doesn’t abide by the same rules as us.”
“No. She does,” Porb said, “those two are imbeciles. There is only one who does not abide by our rules, Opaline, and all the stories about him are softer than his truth.” Porb shivered, and said, “Cryptal is mighty. But she is a simple monster. And you, my friend, love killing monsters. What is it that you always say to me?”
“‘Why did you do that?’”
“'You’re an asshole?'”
“Yes. Exactly. Well, Vispar is the holiest of asses. Time to put our plan in motion! To the village! I heard she slaughtered some shepherds last night.” And off he went, strutting past his tortoise friend and sucking the beast back into his sketchbook. He left the step ladder in the cave. I’d have loved to have seen the bronze-aged folk find that thing later on.
One day later, in the midst of the plan. . .
Deep in the caverns in the rock, where Cryptal Vispar shed her last skin and gained her new bestial form, Porbiyo stood across from the great snake and bowed. Her single remaining eye—as the opposing side was permanently scarred—vibrated with chromatic light.
“Oh, my dear, finally we will make you pay for all you’ve done.” Porbiyo said. “After all this time. After all of the pain you’ve caused.”
The massive serpent hissed, “I am tired of this foolish game. Submit to me, old enemy, or I will flay the flesh from the Ratman’s bones.”
I found myself enthralled in Vispar’s appearance. My eyes couldn’t look beyond hers. From a distance away, with her head of beautiful green and blue scales draped in sunlight, my brain relaxed. Her body was wrapped in lovely, tear-drop shaped scales of all shapes and colors—like a dream of chromatic static. As if sleeping, or in a dream, my thought fell to the waves of another’s flow.
I saw light. Pulsating, colorful, brilliant light. Rings of every color surrounded my vision.
I became paralyzed. I couldn’t move.
Porbiyo teleported away from Vispar’s incoming tail swing. He came beside me and shook my body. I didn’t snap free. I could see, and hear, and even pay attention, but everything turned passive. I’d felt magic like this before. It was akin to torture.
Porb teleported away. He reappeared beside her eyes and tried to stab her. She slithered closer to me and wacked him with her tail.
Deep inside, stonefire boiled. Through the visor holes of the Kaihan Helm, color burned into my eyes, and song vibrated from the helmet’s insides to my ears. The melody hummed softly. The light itself danced upon it’s own sung song.
Vispar did paralyze me.
But I was no regular mortal like those she so readily preyed upon. She may have been older, but I was an Agglomerate same as she. She couldn’t stun my sorcery.
Stonefire burst from my mouth and through the visor of my helm. The wicked blue and orange flames churned into one another. Suddenly, feeling was regained. I stumbled back—ending my sorcery—and slowly gained feeling in my limbs again. My mind was foggy, but adrenaline kicked in quickly.
Across the cavern, a stonefire path solidified into a grey streak of hardened liquid. The far wall had stalagmites and stalactites cloaked in stonefire matter. Vispar’s shed skin was captured in some sections, too.
Cryptal Vispar’s tail slithered from the chamber and into the cavern through which me and Porbiyo came. Porb was nowhere to be seen.
I had no desire to crawl into confined caverns with Vispar. I eyed the crack in the ceiling of the cave and the desert sun where it came from. As the end of her muscled, lengthy body disappeared into the dark, I sent a quick exhalation of stonefire over the mouth of the cavern. The thick, wicked hot, and frigidly cold liquid hardened fast.
The entrance was blocked.
Porb had no doubt teleported outside to wait for her. Now I’d make my way out. I eyed the cavern wall and climbed up fallen rocks where Vispar had been coiled. The eerie sense of an empty arena filled me, kenopsia not unlike strolling through an empty park. That sensation is always sneaky. Some places are typically frozen in memory as only a place for fighting, or a showdown. This cavern was just that—Vispar’s lair.
Now it was empty. Empty places always feel as if you’re being watched. Eyes barrel into you from the shadows, whether they be spiritual or not. Like ghosts of memory haunting the purpose of a space.
That morning I had eaten cacti and seeds for breakfast. Root Essence writhed in my Aura. I Channeled the Essence. Eyes glowing green and palms shining bright, I slammed the pile of rubble and rose my fingers like twisting vines. A trunk of thick green foliage enveloped me in huge leaves and carried me to the cavern slit above. I crawled through then sprinted to the edge of the rock where I knew Vispar crawled to below.
I slid at the edge. Down below, Porbiyo danced around his sketchbook on the ground. His hat waited there like a gravestone still. He danced due to the onslaught of strikes from creatures I had never seen before.
Chimeras of all shapes and sizes, with heads and wings and tails of every kind of creature I could know. Vispar transformed so quickly and viciously, that she become a colorless blur around Porbiyo.
The speed of her strikes were unimaginable. Lobster claws and raptor’s talons and ferocious fangs lurched to Porbiyo. But he teleported with equal measure, dodging each one of her attacks excellently.
Our plan had failed. And I realized that, maybe, we should have planned something more elaborate. Now Porb was on the defensive.
He protected his sketchbook from her.
I raced down the cliffside, clawing and skidding down straight slopes to the ground. Halfway down, Vispar stopped and slid away from Porbiyo. She was shaped like some kind of six legged bison, with tusks larger than it’s body length and a tail that doubled as a battering ram.
Porb remained stalwart before his sketchbook.
Both were out of breath. Magic—no matter how powerful you are—always exhausts you. And they had both just unleashed insane amounts of power in that swift exchange.
“Why now, Porbiyo?” Vispar said. Her voice had changed to match the bison, with deeper tones. She circled him slowly, breathing deeply. “You cannot kill me.”
“No. I can’t kill you,” he shrugged, “but you can’t kill me.”
“Yes I can.”
“That’s probably true,” he opened his hands, “know that I will kill you, someday. So my answer to your ‘why now’ is that it isn’t now at all, but later.”
Vispar laughed. She transformed into a huge raptor, fur churning into feathers and hooves into talons, muzzle into a break and brown eyes to blazing gold. She swept up into the air and hovered for a time, screechy voice calling, “You are so lost. . . trapped in a vision of preservation.”
She swept across the valley, making a pass at Porbiyo and his sketchbook. He grabbed his book, and his hat, and teleported several meters out of the way.
Vispar landed on the cliff. She screeched so loud that the trees rumbled. She said, “Even back home, you’d wander those far off realms bringing back stories of what you found there. You were passive. An observer. You had no drive, no guts. Now, perhaps, in the Curse, you do have some drive. . .”
She swooped again. Porbiyo repeated his teleportation. At the end of her arc, near the ground, Vispar transformed into a feline creature with eight legs. The lengthy, blue furred, long eared creature writhed back. Spines shimmered off its back.
Vispar growled and lurched towards Porbiyo. He teleported again, this time twenty or so meters away. He spotted me, but said nothing.
Vispar said, “You’re as maniacal as I am. You kill and murder and care for nobody but your beasts. You never had anyone but the monsters you watched. And you watched because you couldn’t get close. . .” she laughed viciously and transformed back into her titanic serpentine form. Her scales rolled into existence one after another until the hundred-meter long snake coiled like a small mountain in the valley. She hissed, “You took to animals because they were easier company. You watched because participation meant the risk of failure. Your relationships are comprised of you joking, and prodding, and torturing people because they did nothing but joke, and prod, and torture you.”
Vispar struck Porb. She missed and slammed into the hard desert earth. Dust plumed into the sky. The speed of her strike—especially for a being so huge—was incomprehensible. I blinked and saw only a sped blur.
“I know why you’ve come to me, now.” Vispar said again. She couldn’t find Porbiyo. He had teleported in front of me. She locked on and slithered nearer. “You didn’t want to kill me. Or hurt me—”
“Oh no, I definitely did,” Porb said, “I even planned on blinding you.” He strode forward. “I came to show you that perhaps today I can’t kill you, but someday I will slaughter you slow and steady. You will feel every second of it as I rip the scales from your skin and save the souls you imprisoned there.”
As he spoke, Vispar rose further into the sky. She was so high in the valley that the sun actually streaked across her single, chromatic eye. The many scales of fur, and hide, and skin churned with ripples of muscle beneath them.
“You only wished to show off your new pet—the Ratman,” Vispar said. “You have the need to show me your friendship. How pathetic.”
Porbiyo stood between the giant snake and me. I had a flashback to my ancient past, before Peridot and the curse, to when snakes were the most deadly creatures to the mice of the Orchards. The shadow of the titanic Vispar echoed to the snakes which roamed the long grass of my old home. I remembered my dear friend, Bigby, stepping in front of the garden snake so large it could swallow us both whole, and I remembered jumping between us to save him.
I had a difficult time liking snakes.
Vispar was no exception.
Porbiyo said, “You have me psychoanalyzed. Good for you,” he clapped his gloves together. The noise echoed humorously in the quiet alley. “But you are far worse than I. And Cryptal Vispar, you always have been, even on Eggnaut all those centuries ago. My fondness for your family is dead and gone. My fondness for any family is dead and gone. Perhaps. . .” As Porbiyo spoke, and he kept going on, and on, and on, Vispar wound her body into a trebuchet-like state. She reeled back.
In the midst of Porb’s speech, she struck.
But I’d already stepped in the way.
Vicious stonefire poured from my lips. Radiating blue and orange magic-flames poured against her face. Vispar cried so loud that the trees shook again. She transformed a hundred times in half a minute, and as she writhed in the valley, clutching her face and eye in agony, I said, “Asshole.”
Vispar turned into a small bird and flew away. We did not chase her.
Porbiyo donned his hat. He nodded, “Plan worked.”
“I thought I was supposed to distract her. Your speech worked well enough.”
Porbiyo laughed, “I told you, she focuses too much. That eye really enjoys honing in on its target. She didn’t even notice you.” He shrugged, “It’d be nice if you blinded her.”
“She was in quite a bit of pain.”
“Yes, well, your sorcery is painful. She’ll likely heal.”
“But now she knows.”
I rose an eyebrow.
Porbiyo patted my head with reluctant kinship, “That I am not so alone these days.”
I smiled, “No. No you aren’t.”
“Where to next?”
I spun my top. We had time. “Let’s find a beach. I’m tired of the desert.”
“Beach sounds good. . . let’s check for cetaceans! I love hunting whalers. They squeal so loud when you kabab them on their harpoons.”
We walked off through the desert, jumped on Porbiyo’s magic carpet, and started flying all around for a coastline. I didn’t bring up Vispar, or the fact that she mentioned his homeworld, or the other fact that they were—seemingly—from the same home planet.
I’d leave that for some other time. And I figured, given Porb wasn’t a secretive fellow, that if I needed to know, then he’d tell me.
My mind lingered, though, on Cryptal Vispar, Master of A Thousand Skins, and wielder of a single eye. I felt myself feeling underwhelmed by our duel. I’d expected near death, and was faced with nothing near it. I sensed her and Porbiyo did not wish death on one another at all. I sensed, even, a mutual rivalry agreed upon by half-hearted fights and pulled punches.
I’d be right on that.
Just like I was right about where they came from.
And just like I was right about keeping it to myself.