This cover was illustrated by the author.
☆ Original Sketchbook Story
A man’s fingers clung to the cliffside. When he dropped, he smacked off the rocks, each limb breaking just a bit until they weren’t quite limbs anymore, and then he flopped into the water as red and pulpy as one would expect, except it was much worse than any expectation.
The worst part was that he was not dead. It took some time for him to die. All the while, I imagine he thought of his life, and his children, and the world he’d left behind. When he finally went it wasn’t from the injuries. It was because water filled his lungs, and the waves dragged him out into the sea.
Porbiyo laughed. A wicked, sinister, vicious laugh. And the enormous winged beasts around him took flight to freedom. All but one. One with a torn, bloody red wing. The orange pteranodons flocked from their cages on a large, treaded train that had driven across the cliffside.
Three men crawled through the grass. One was missing a leg. One was missing an arm. One was going to die any moment, as his head was gone, and his crawling was only his nervous system grappling to life with a writhing, sorrowful, reluctant movement.
Wind screamed past me. The blue sky churned with white clouds, bringing sun rays in all colors of silver and gold over the raging long grass. My head just barely stood above the grasses.
I growled and leapt into the air, propelling myself with Force until I landed and skidded into the grass so hard that dirt canyons were carved by my paws when I landed. My kick missed.
Porbiyo stepped out of the way.
His white, expressionless mask could not look away from me. And my glowing eyes could not look away from him.
I kicked, and punched, and flung myself with my tail, but could not land a single blow. Porb evaded every single strike.
Until I did hit him.
And he flew three meters from my sorcery-enhanced blow. He skidded into the grass, lime-green outer coat staining with the deep chlorophyll of shredded plant matter.
“What,” he growled, lifting his head and exhaling audibly, “has gotten into you?”
“You are a killer,” I leapt to land another kick. He teleported out of the way. Behind me. He always teleported behind me. When I landed, I didn’t even look, but I Channeled Flame Essence and spiraled my tail to make a flaming tornado.
When I turned, the grass was scorched, and the headless twitching body was burnt crispy. The smell wafted into the wind. I tried to ignore it.
Porbiyo stood some distance away, as he’d likely teleported again, and he screamed, “Are you trying to kill me?” He appeared directly beside me, mask so close I could smell the scent of paint and charcoal and ink on his clothes. He whispered, “We both know you can’t.”
I grabbed his collar. He tried to teleport away. I went with him.
I punched him across the face, then in the gut, and wrapped my tail around his waist so that no matter where he teleported, I’d appear. We traveled across the grassy plain, on top of the pteranodon cages, inside of the cages, beside the injured pteranodon, into the plains again, then down the cliff where the one man was eviscerated by rocks and died.
Down the cliffside, I stopped hitting him. But I kept my tail attached to him. He didn’t fight me.
“Please. . . what. . . what did I do?” his voice shook.
I said nothing.
“Why are you doing this? You know what I am. . . who I am. . . what I do. I am a person who despises people. The innocence of life without sentience or sapience is all I stand to protect. You know that.”
“You kill, and murder, and slaughter to protect animals, Porbiyo!” I screamed. “Back in That Time, you released—.”
“It needed to happen. You know it.”
“And before that, every damn world. . . we met because you tried to feed a child to that reptile!”
“Because the child kicked the ansegorus in the snout and spat on its head.”
“The theme park, not even many worlds ago, you released that dreaded beast and it killed all of those people. And the city afterwards. And again, before That Time, and during it, how many people have you killed? You can’t name a number? No. Of course not. Because they’re worthless to you.” I hit him again. So hard that my knuckles broke. He collapses with my tail around his waist. I leapt off him.
He fell against the rocks, and lie prone in the slow, steady tide, sinking into the sand that crept between the sharp, kelp-covered stones.
“I—,” his voice shook again, “—I don’t care about them. They are worthless.”
“I have spent so much time with you that I’d forgotten who you are! What you are.”
“What am I, then?” he said, desperate and shaky. His chest heaved with the start of a cry. I couldn’t see his face. If I had, I don’t think I could have continued. His head barely lifted from the rocks, “I thought we were. . . I thought maybe. . .” he fell onto his back and stared up at the sky. “Look up.”
The orange pteranodons circled above us some half a kilometer. Their calls echoed out into the vastness of the ocean air with gaiety.
Porb said, “They enslave, and torture, and beat, and maim, and cage beings for nothing else but their own entertainment, or food, or pride. ‘Animal’ has so many definitions, in so many languages, on so many worlds. Animal to me describes two distinct categories of being—the innocent animals I wish to help, and the monstrous animals who enslave them.” He rose one hand, and pointed, “They were going to be caged by those men. Ten enormous, beautiful creatures. Trapped by men, horde of ten, let them free to fly again.” He swayed his hand to the rhyme.
I didn’t say anything.
“I killed four people. I saved ten lives. ” His head swiveled down to meet me. Waves churned in, washing kelp around his green coat. “I am a hunter. A predator. A plague to the arrogance of sapient enslavers. You, my friend, are a rodent blessed with the mind of a mortal and the glory of the gods. You are a traitor to every one of your kind every time you stop me. Every. Time.” He turned back to the sky, “Fly away.”
“If you stay on this path, you’ll end up like the rest of them.”
He said nothing.
“I vowed to myself that I would spend every minute of every world trying my best to help someone who needs me. Sometimes I pick the wrong side. Sometimes I fail. But I help people. I don’t kill unless I need to. I don’t harm unless necessary,” I squatted beside him, and tapped his heart, “I want you to think of Threshold, and her power, and her drive for justice. And then I want you to think of the others. There are two ways to go for you and I, Porb. We end up like Polly, and Vicar Venefica, or we end up like Threshold. Do you want to cause the harm people need saving from, or be the savior?”
His blank eyeholes swiveled to meet mine.
I said, “You can free animals without killing. You can save livestock without ruining a farmer’s livelihood. You can be a savior without being a hunter, or a predator, or a plague.” I grabbed his hand, “I won’t let my friend murder until it’s all he can do. I won’t watch you become a monster.”
“I think it’s too late.”
“We're immortal. It’s never too late.”
“Unless the Genesar come for Peridot, and end the loop, and slaughter us both for our incredible bravery against them, and use their likely re-enslaved army of arm cows against me for spite against my revolution.” He laughed a long, hard laugh. “I think this is who I am.”
“Of course it’s who you are. Time to make you better, brother.”
“Brothers. With a rat.”
“Brothers with a mouse.”
“Those don’t exist.” He pointed up, “I can see the stars through the sky.” I laid down in the water next to him. “I think we’re forming a clique. Bigklau and Yizzimis and Avarice in Tweed are a thing, and some of the others. I think we’re a clique.”
“You need to change.”
“I—I do.” He giggled, “I’m lying here, in the water, and I don’t feel so bad anymore. Strange, isn’t it? How lying in the water helps.”
“Strange, isn’t it? How admitting you are headed down the worst path possible and need to change helps? If you weren’t you, I’d have killed you ages ago. You know that?”
He ignored me.
Several minutes later, he said, “You’re mad at yourself for being so friendly with me, aren’t you? Otherwise, why surprise? Why come for my head so viciously out of nowhere?”
“The whalers, last world. I could have stopped you. I didn’t.”
He didn’t say anything else for awhile. But he kept circling his fingers towards the sky, trailing behind the pteranodons he freed. I wondered if I could actually change him. We—they more than I—were all so powerful. I had to practically rewire his brain after centuries of malevolence and unchecked internal standards. I’d have to change they way he thought about dealing out his “justice,” and that scared me.
Something hit me.
Maybe, if I could help Porbiyo’s madness, and help guide him on a more life-saving path, perhaps we could be the first of the Agglomerates to revert some of the maddening side-effects. Everyone fell into their own crazy. Helping Porb become a good person? That may just hold the key to alleviating the Agglomerate drive inside all the Thirty-Seven.
I didn’t know quite what that meant at the time. I was no scholar, or god, or cosmic doctor (not that those exist), but the idea warmed me, somehow. It made me feel like maybe I could stop my own inevitable descent into madness. Or, at the very least, not cave into my personal ideologies, and have a chance at impartiality.
“All I can see is the blue,” he said, giggling, “blue hue, haven’t a clue, beautiful as the morning dew. Everything’s dark but the sky, shining spritely in my eye.”
He sung of a dark world without color, but the words I can’t seem to remember. When he was done we sat there for awhile looking up at the resplendent sky.
“Brothers with a rat,” he laughed, “I suppose that’s fitting.”