This EPISODE is PART THREE of SIX.
The crater stretched sixty meters wide in any which direction. Rock pummeled and cracked from incredible sonic force. The dented mountain reminded me of an enormous hoof print. Shards jutted from the edges, not unlike the pieces of the shattered sky.
“The snake shrugged it off,” Owyle said. The girl went from walking to floating without issue. She’d occasionally spin upside down, or accidentally do cartwheels in the air as she maintained her instrument. She did not seem aware of these gravity effects, or maybe she simply didn’t care. “I blew out my string on that one, too,” she whined of her defeat.
Owyle, Porbiyo, Threshold, Bigklau, and I all crowded into the crater.
“You let her escape?” Porb said.
“I needed help,” Owyle said. “I snapped my guitar string, and wound down my mood.”
“Your mood?” Porb scoffed.
The girl’s eyes flickered. The intense, unnerving gaze of a millennia’s old being trapped in the facade of a ghostly child. She growled, “If I want my sisters, I need to transform. When I need to transform, I have to be in a particular. . . emotional state.”
“Ah, yes,” Porb said, “I thought you’d have more control over that.”
“I thought you’d have more control over the snake.” She threw her hands up, “My bad, though, as I know she scares you shitless. I’d be scared, too, if someone else out there could devour all that I loved. Like if Bigklau were actually good at music and went thieving my songs.”
“I suffice,” Bigklau announced, blowing tunes from his tuba horns.
Threshold rose into the air. Her fingers signed as she read the memories of the crater. Porb watched.
Owyle drifted upside down, legs crossed, beside me. Her sharp face contorted as she struggled with her guitar strings. I asked despite my hesitancy, “Why do you fix it manually?”
She said, “The best part of being able to play one of these things is having to take care of it.”
I eyed the lands below the mountain. We’d traveled quickly across the blue-grey wastelands. I hadn’t paid much attention to my surroundings beyond the distant structures of whoever survived this cataclysm. One of those structures was not so distant, anymore.
“You see it,” Threshold said, “as I see it. A compound.”
“Almost looks like a government building, or some sort of corporate entity.” The building resembled a palace, but also an office building. Some hybrid of this alien architecture and the basic forms required for mortal routine. A fence—judging by the metallic sheen—surrounded the complex on all sides, though gaps created by craters or other forces did negate its proper function.
“That way,” Threshold pointed. “She slithered down there.”
Porbiyo slid off his carpet. He grunted, “Last time we met, Opaline scared her senseless with his sorceries. She went flying away. Perhaps this time we will teach her a true lesson.”
“Do you believe she stayed in the building?” I said.
“It is worth a try,” Porb said. “We are nearing survivors, surely. All of these buildings and roads will lead us to the natives eventually.”
The adobe-like forms used for home dwellings remained present in this more impressive structure. Curved, organic forms. Compacted clay and smaller, rounded doors. Yet ornate details lined the fringes and edges of this building. The front doors stood dead-center to a symmetrical shape. A rectangular body running parallel to the doors, with two big “wings” on the sides. Two manors adjoined by another whole home in the middle.
“An estate,” I said.
“People of wealth lived here,” Threshold said. “An important family to this cyclopean peoples.” She continued as our party walked through the front gates, across the dead yard towards a fountain in the midst of the circular driveway. “Galas thrown in honor of new findings. Midday parties for workers. Grand receptions for mighty beings. This lawn, when it was a lawn, had been home to countless events.”
“I can hear their players,” Owyle said, “taste their songs. You feel it, Bigklau?”
“From the ballroom, indeed. The swells of music churning crowds. A peculiar sound. An unfamiliar sound.” He twiddled his giant claws at the speculation.
The octagonal fountain stepped to a figurehead of a god-like sort. One of the fetus beings I’d spied in Threshold’s visions. The grey being was depicted just as I remembered. Shriveled at the legs, curled at the spine, enormous head seeming like an engine keeping it afloat. The obelisk on which it stood had been cracked, but the statue did not appear damaged.
As the others passed the statue, Threshold came beside me.
“A home constructed by the people for their leaders,” Threshold said, “a guest home. A family kept this place in their bloodline for generations, making their priority and inheritance the reception of their rulers to their home. Strange. They viewed these beings as creators.”
“No Dragons?” I said.
“I have not opened my mind too far. I feel a lack of divinity here, do you?”
“A lack of anything besides myself.”
“Perhaps this odd little world is not a world at all, but an entire universe so small in scale that we can fathom it.”
“The sort of hubris only mortals would partake in.”
“There are too little memories,” Threshold said. She squinted her blood red eyes as they gazed the lands behind us, and the estate forward. “I feel as though I am looking at a curated cut of history, and not the nuanced portrayal that a space often whispers to me.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“When I walk into a shed in the forest, I see that space’s entire timeline. What stood before it. The ferns, the fungi, the logs from which it was born. I can see the colonies of isopods and termites in the bark, the remnants of their minuscule society left in the processed planks hammered with iron to create a box. And in that box I can see every hand which touched every tool, and every voice which spoke around those hands and tools. There is a tree born in the sun over decades of aging. A spider born meters away, who journeyed to the shade of the roof tiles to build her web. Every nail and where it was mined, and compressed in the ground or forged by the gods.
“This place does not have such depth. I feel as though I am only seeing the shed as a shed, and not as many strings sewn into a single chord in an even larger tapestry.”
“Oh I see. This estate, you mean? The structure doesn’t have that?”
She shook her head. “All of it, Opaline. Every step we’ve taken across this entire crater-universe. It reminds me. . . well, it reminds me of the Corner of the Sphere. A place formed outside the typical cosmic means. This place appears to have gone further in its apathy to convention.”
Once again was the journey during That Time brought to light. The Corner of the Sphere had been a treacherous place, full of deep knowledge buried in the layers of that realm. I’d spent the majority of That Time researching and digging into understanding those lands and their peoples.
In understanding it, I’d come to understand my Curse, and my place in the cosmos. That is how significant the makeup and architecture of that universe was. A “unique specimen,” Peridot had called it.
That fifty-five years was not only spent as a ruler with a family. There was a reason I had been chosen to lead Kaihanas. There was a reason I had ascended to a throne and earned the Kaihan helm. I’d seen the world, and left my mark on it, and knew perhaps too much of its conception.
“I hope Peridot can uncover all of this,” I said.
“I too. In the meantime,” she strode after the others into the estate. I followed.
The estate remained in line with what I’d expect from such a historic landmark. A double staircase the moment you walk through the front entrance, leading to an indoor balcony and windows so tall they banished several floors’ worth of potential living space in the name of an impressive foyer. Offshoots and hallways designed to gather everyone in the same areas. Ballrooms, libraries, drawing rooms, and whatever else one could imagine.
No dust. No cobwebs.
All was. . . clean. As if lived in up until that very morning.
I did not venture through the home as Porbiyo and Threshold did. I stayed in the foyer with Bigklau, as he lazily eyeballed hallways to try and find a way to the ballroom, while Owyle continued the repairs to her instrument.
“Alrighty,” the girl slung her guitar across her shoulder, “all set.” She drifted to the chandelier on the ceiling. The ornateness of a human structure was lacking, thought the scale did not go unnoticed. The chandelier seemed to be simple piping, rather than intricately molded pieces of metal. Strange to see a civilization so close to the design of what I’d seen in other worlds, yet so far in the execution of that design. Like a face with eyes just too far apart to seem true, or a wind where the trees did not blow, or a river running backwards from the elevation it should.
Something about the buildings and their implementation seemed off.
Shuffling, then the sound of broken stone.
Behind me, Bigklau tried to go down the hallway towards the ballroom. He was far too large for this estate, and his shell and instruments carved into the wall as he moved.
“I must see this instrument I am hearing,” he announced in a whisper, as if to justify the damage to this alien property.
“Wonder if they have anyone living here. All the lights are off.” Owyle said to the sound of Bigklau demolishing the hall on his quest.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“A place like this would have a kitchen below,” she said, “keep the servers—or mortals—or whatever out of sight. Classist but classy. I wonder what they ate, here. I’m feeling hungry.”
I admit that I, too, felt hungry. Rarely did hunger pain me, as the Curse deterred the natural effects of aging or other biological decay processes, but when I thought of food—or the lack thereof—I often found my stomach wanting. I’d been told it went away after time in the Curse.
“Want to come munch with me?” She floated to the ground. Her leather boots, raised by a few centimeters of thick rubber, clacked against the herringbone-style tile.
We snuck through the hall beneath the staircase balcony and the giant window, which led to the main sections of the home. Upstairs, Porb and Threshold took charge, and eventually the sound of an organ-like instrument began to echo from Bigklau’s playing on the main floor. The haunting sound of an unskilled musician called out as Owyle and I descended the stairs to the underground level. Now we were all one floor apart, spread across the house.
“Poor crab,” Owyle said, pointed ears perked from her hood, “I’d hate to have claws and want to play instruments. Imagine wanting to be a crab but having fingers. Half the fun is the whole claw thing.”
In the darkness of the cellar, the skull beneath her ghostly facade face became more noticeable, shining in bone white.
“You’ve played all this time?” I asked, “Even before the Curse?”
“Of course. Love music. My sisters and I all played in a band when we were kids. Not a band, really. Just us three singing for our mom and dad in the living room. Used to copy concerts from the TV.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve watched something like that. On this world with crazy fast racing cars. I was on the ‘TV,’ actually. Whole race was broadcast via satellite across the frog world I think.”
We descended an endless staircase. A noticeably lesser quality of construction from the rest of the home, given the creaks and groans of the battered old stair. Every step vocalized discomfort. We were not supposed to be there, walk there, venture there.
Owyle turned back and shot me a smirk, “That sounds adventurous. We watched all sorts of fun stuff on our TV. Balloon racing, rocket racing, hoop-ball and plate-ball, this one cooking show all about root vegetables that my dad loved for some reason. But concerts?” She made a fist, “Cool shit, Ratman. It was cool shit.”
“I’ll guess you mean that in some slang way.”
She giggled, “Literal cool shit all the way.”
“You learned to play from watching concerts?”
“Nope. I used to just air-guitar as a kid,” she made this funny motion with her hands, and a phantom instrument appeared that she strung to a tune. “Whoops!” She exclaimed, “Didn’t mean to do that. Back to bed, Birtha.” She banished the phantom guitar. “They’re always doing that. . . poor things can’t let go.”
Owyle stepped into the cellar. She waved her hands and sent pulsating blue light across the walls, outlining a massive kitchen complex in the eerie glow. She began sifting through cabinets.
I said, “How’d you learn, then? If as a kid you and your sisters played at playing.”
“Psyche ward, loony bin, mental institution as they preferred to call it,” she said, “another patient taught me.” When I didn’t reply, she poked head out of a cabinet, “No worries. Long time ago. Wasn’t my fault I got locked up, anyway.”
I nodded, “You were young when Cursed?” I also started scavenging the room. Not for food to eat, but more to do something with my arms as we talked. “You seem to look young, as far as humanoids go.”
“I was young, yeah. Seventeen, I think? Can barely remember the time anymore. Crazy to think how much of an impact that little decade and half had on my whole existence, you know?”
“I know all too well. Your sisters, younger or older? I had siblings and friends of all ages. I was also a mouse, so very different.”
“Us aldrin definitely don’t breed like mice. Closer to humans. Both older sisters. They’re way younger than me, now, though.” She got into some kind of boxed food. A powder that stuttered her speech.
“I wonder about what happened to the people I love far too often.” I said, once again wondering about the people I love.
“My dad murdered my mom and my sisters while I hid in the attic,” she wiped her face of the powder, “then I killed him with a lamp.” With the physical powder on her face, in the blue light of the room’s aura, her skull peeked out like a headstone. She smiled in voice, but there were no lips to enact it. “I have it easy. No wondering at all.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“He suffered,” she tried to smile again, oddly sharp canines visible, “that’s all that counts. Still suffers.” I pondered what she meant by that, but didn’t press. Owyle continued, “Besides, my sisters are with me forever. As much as they can be. And I’ll never take that for granted.”
I nodded, wishing so desperately I hadn’t wasted time with my loved ones. I knew the clock was ticking. Everyone does. But still I wasted time. Problem is that my clock never stops ticking. The regret only continues, endlessly, without a promise of letting go. I suppose that is the first step into madness—realizing there is no ultimate finale for us Agglomerates.
We rummaged through the first section of the dark kitchen, and passed through a me-sized doorway to the other side. There, glass cases backed with mirrors held dining sets of all shapes and sizes. Silverware, fine porcelain, other materials likely culturally appropriate to this world. On the island slabbed in granite hunched a figure. A figure who shined in Owyle’s light.
The metallic creature seemed made of scales. Thousands of scales shifting and moving at once. But then I looked closer. They weren’t scales, but pieces. The reptilian, rodent shaped creature shifted between anatomies. A golem forged of a thousand little instruments.
The creature’s face peered to us, with eyes and a mouth shaped like spoons. A comically framed smiley face. The being raised a hand which forged of her metallic components—also spoons.
A being made of spoons.
“Skedd,” Owyle said, taken aback, “why didn’t you come say hi, you little freak?”
Skedder Reskatahl, another of the Agglomerates. A name Porbiyo had said many times. Apparently, she had resided in my palace during That Time, attracted by Bigklau, Yizzimis, Porbiyo, amongst other residencies. I never actually met her. She was good at hiding, and felt guilty for stealing my dining sets, so I’d come to understand.
Skedder pointed to a broken doorway between this section and what seemed to be another portion of the cellar. She cowered then shot herself into thousands of spoons and hid away in the drawers. Like an indoor firework. A remarkable display.
When she coalesced, Skedder returned to that humanoid-ish form. She broke herself in half, one half turning into a serpent and skulking along the floor, while the other half fireworked again into the cabinets.
Owyle eyed me, “I don’t feel anything like Cryptal Vispar in here, do you?”
“I didn’t feel Skedder, either,” I said, “neither did you.”
“Maybe we’re all too close to be precise.”
Skedd shook her head. She made a snake form disappear.
“Oh, she left?” Owyle asked.
I said, “We should tell the others. I’m sure Threshold felt it, though her senses are messy in this weird world.”
Skedder turned into a wall against the exit, and a giant spoon-made hand pointed to the doorway where Cryptal Vispar resided.
Owyle peered into the darkness. “Fuck. . . look at that.”
Mouse eyes tuning to the shadows, I peeked beside the musician to find a hold empty except for a coil of dead grey snakeskin thick enough to swallow a bus, so lengthy I could not have guessed how long. Skin I’d seen before. With scale impressions of a ten thousand skins, furs, scales, feathers, and more.
“She digested,” I said. “She came down here to hide, and metabolize. You must have scared her.”
“Damn right,” Owyle plucked her broken—now fixed—guitar string. “Alright, mission accomplished. Snacks and snakes. Back upstairs I say.”
“I say too.”
Before we could go, Skedd took her place on the granite island once more. Her utensil form jingled in a spoonful song. She raised hands as if saying, “Wait, wait!” We stopped in our tracks.
Skedder’s head ignited with a crown of spoons in a visual onomonopia for excitement. The headdress remained as the spoons in her “stomach” churned all around in a minuscule maelstrom. Her facial expressions shifted just as quickly, going from, “Oh almost there!” to “Eh, just one second,” to “Aha there we go!” in seconds.
“No way!” Owyle floated into the air, and banged her head off the ceiling in excitement. When she came back down, she said, “You haven’t met each other yet?”
“How did you know that?” I asked.
Skedder waved a few hands made of spoons at me, gesturing to come near. I obliged to find a collection of spoons—a dozen or so—all floating idly in her core, in some sort of golden-lit rib cage comprised of ladles and soup spoons.
How powerful a thing that I thought I’d never say: that in seeing the spoons of a thousand worlds, I could see cultures and histories beyond my possible imagination.
Skedder poked me in the chest. Gentle, kind. Another of her hands motioned to the idling spoons. The third hand made a circle in the air.
Owyle came behind me. The girl, heads taller, left her hand on my shoulder. “Skedder gives gifts when she first meets you. It’s very sweet.”
“That’s very kind of her.”
“I’m not sure you understand,” Owyle said.
Skedder made her gestures once again. The poke, the motion, the circle.
“These are from home, Opaline. Your home.”
A little iron spoon rusted to the core.
A piece of silver flowing with leaf embellishments.
A thick wooden ladle.
A brass spoon forged by hammer and brawn.
A steel molded spoon, edges weathered black.
Another hunk of rust riddled with moss.
A glass spoon, lengthy, elegant, forged of silkglass.
A matching set of twin gold spoons, one small one large.
Another glass spoon, ribbed with hardened eight-eyes silk.
A tiny wooden spoon, meant for a child, cracked and flowing with moss.
Owyle’s skeletal hand cast a ghostly shadow over the metallic shining Skedder. A gold light came from from Skedd’s insides, like a museum exhibit, spotting her gift in radiant glow.
In Owyle’s hand she cradled a small plastic spoon, pink with piglet characters dancing down the sides. She patted my head with the other hand, “There is a chance. . . it’ll be the last piece of home you ever touch.”
I reached out, but closed my paw.
I wish I could say I was a decisive person, but moments like those were not to be wasted. We had so much time. A decision like that—to carry home with me, even in the shape of a spoon—could never be so simple.
“May I choose later?”
Skedder smiled and nodded. Her ribcage closed. She shot out arms as a spider and leapt to the ceiling. Then she elongated into a spoon-made centipede. She slithered to the stairs, and up onto the estate’s main floor.
Owyle and I trudged through the kitchen in silence.
Then, the lengthy climb up the unending stairs.
“I used one of these as a girl,” Owyle said of her spoon, “my favorite cartoon character. Piotr Bourne the Piglet Boar. A husky pig who grew tusks whenever he was mad. Based on a real pig who gained sentience and saved his town. Real cool story. Anyway, I probably ate every meal from being a baby to ten years old off a spoon like this.” She tucked it into her hoodie pocket.
She continued, “I didn’t need time to choose. Funny that I never, ever, cared about a fucking spoon until I saw this thing floating in a freaky spoon-lady’s body.” She grinned. A little tear came to her ghastly eye, and peered down the cheekbone of her skull. “Guitars? Music? Fuck that. If I ever lost this thing, now, I’d probably turn permanently.”
I’d almost forgotten that this Owyle was the same demonic musician I’d seen with Bigklau early in my blips. The lead member of Avarice in Tweed was a different character, indeed.
“Take your time, man,” she wiped the tear away, “it isn’t everyday we get a piece of home. As much as I hate that place, the flower can’t grow petals without the seed, am I right?”
“You are right. Home is cool shit?”
She barked a laugh, “Maybe more confidence with the slang, my dude.”
“Home is cool shit, my dude.”
She raised a fist. “Bump me.”
I did fist bump her.
“I’m never saying that again,” I said.
“Definitely doesn’t work for you but hey, I appreciate the effort. You’re cool. I get it now, why everyone’s always chatting about you.” She ran up the steps in a playful enthusiasm, and I scampered behind.
“Do you have mice where you are from?”
“We have rats. And molerats. You have concerts? Music?”
“No electricity. No screen-things. Lutes and flutes.”
“Lutes and flutes? I’m into it. Bigklau lets me play with his lutes. Well, he yells at me a lot, but I just prefer to pretend he lets me. Easier that way.”
A piece of me forced glance behind as we came through the door. Nothing was there, but I had a feeling the nothing was watching.
“She is gone again,” said Threshold. We all met in the foyer. Skedder added herself to our party, excitedly chatting with Porb in some indecipherable method of communication involving spoons and his sketchbook.
“She moved,” Porbiyo said, “Skedder sensed her slither out into the wastes again. She merely digested her food, here.” He looked about, and asked, “Where is Bigklau?”
Owyle skipped to the hallway turned tunnel. Bigklau’s insistence on making it to the ballroom proved worthwhile, as he did indeed make it, and wrecked thirty meters of what used to be art, end furniture, and lighting fixtures along the hall on his way there.
Marching across the battlefield, I couldn’t help but imagine Bigklau in a mood less benevolent. His robotic voice modulator never hinted at emotion. Such a physical presence, I wondered what kind of ability he’d have on the battlefield should he unleash both his physical and instrumental might.
As far as I understood it, Bigklau and Yizzimis were pacifists. Hallways (and possible ingredients) not withstanding.
Skedder crawled on the indented ceiling, Porb strode beside me as Threshold and Owyle floated behind. We came into a two-story space in one of the wings of the estate, which, in fact, comprised of the entirety of said wing. A ballroom lined in pillars and glass windows allowing the freakish ghoulish sky to peer down on us. The sheer stone floors had been polished to an unnatural degree. A statue of the saucer-flying fetus lords (a mouthful I wish I could rescind) hung upon the far wall. Flanking the statue were tubes of polished metal snaking their way in the shape of an ox’s horns to a box below.
An organ of some kind.
And sitting before that alien instrument, whose tubes webbed over every wall to send sound throughout the entire chamber, Bigklau sat in lonesome introspection.
“We must go,” Bigklau said. His big black eyes focused on Threshold, “You know.”
Owyle gazed back and forth between them, “What?”
“Do you not hear it?” Bigklau said. “The songs have not left these halls just yet. And not the hisses of the snake. These keys were pressed not too long ago. This room. . .”
Threshold finished, “He is not wrong. The owners of this estate were bunkered here until recently.”
“Vispar killed them? Does she do that?” I said.
“No,” Threshold said, “she did not.”
“She’ll kill anything,” Porb said, “anything.”
“They left on their own accord,” Threshold said. “Perhaps another bunker, somewhere. A place more equipped. Refugee camp, the power plant, something along those lines. They dressed well before they left. Intricate robes in pantheons of geometric patterns.” She moved through the hallway to the foyer. We followed. In her wake, the walls opened with memories. In her golden light I saw laughter and love, duty and passion, rage and greed. Snaps of a familial history rooted in this home and the purpose behind its sanctuary. Ghosts of the cyclopean peoples swarming in all kinds of clothes, moods, and quests.
My feet kicked pieces of the rubble from Bigklau’s demolition. A part of my heart broke. All those moments in this hall destroyed by a big musical crab from another world.
“More than those who lived here departed,” Threshold said, and down the foyer stairs promenaded peoples who had gathered in the home that very day. “Long after the sky fell and the world was slaughtered.” The whispers of the walls passed between our party apathetic to the present, enacting their past perfectly. The doors opened and they loaded into metal vehicles. One of the ghosts cheered, “Life lives on, I say!” in their native tongue.
In their hands shined tiny red and white tickets. In coat pockets were rolled flyers. I tried to grab one, but it was merely a memory.
Threshold reached and snatched one of the flyers. The page became corporeal in her hand. The memories vanished. All but that flyer.
“Oh my, oh my,” Porb said, “is that what I spy?” He drifted to the windows beside the door, gazing to the far lands. “I thought it a home from a distance. I think not.” Across his porcelain mask twiddled tiny, distant lights.
Owyle floated near Threshold’s shoulders. Her eyes grew twice their size when she saw the sheet. “Well fuck this.”
“They thought their world was reviving,” Threshold said, “grasping at the ends of what used to be. But what was will never be again. A predator came to feed on their attachment to that comfortable life, to their complacency and expectations. And the rich fell into that trap—desperate for a false joy to cover their despair.” Threshold waved her hand. The flyer floated over towards Bigklau and I.
The flyer was a black and white picture of a circus tent. A moving picture. Lights beaming like a television set, music playing in my ears—the old horns of a carnival, and from the tent opening walked a a cyclopean native dressed in red and white stripes.
“Come one, come all!” said Carnis Cadava, “come one, come all!”
“They wanted entertainment,” Threshold said, “longed for it after their apocalypse. He knew. So he did what he does best: put on a show.”
FREAK SHOW at CARNIS CADAVA printed in a block lettered header, red and white. The snake slithered into the show, it seemed, and we had no choice but to follow.
To be continued. . .