This EPISODE is PART FOUR of SIX.
At the edge of the wastes came a rushing cloud. A churning dust storm originating at the heels of a speeding vehicle. A second cloud came alongside it. Gunshots. Yipping. One of the vehicles crashes into the mountainous rubble at the wasteland’s end. The second unloads its passengers to raid the contents, and kill the opponents now prone in their vehicle.
A combination of Porb and Threshold’s magic created a bubble around us. A mirrored like shield in which we remained invisible to outsiders. After the incident with the Goldmen espari and their Genesar lords capturing Porbiyo and I, we decided that camouflage would be best in situations such as this. The world had that cosmic smell. The sky watched us. Creation and Annihilation moved here in the most unconventional ways, Peridot alluded.
Best to be hidden.
Our party shifted patiently over the lands. The grand powerplant smoked alight in the horizon, devouring all the dark with its enormity. Other structures, vague and cloaked in shadow, lie at the corners of my view. The crater-like mountains that surrounded this realm glowed in the faintest deep blue hue. And we, an invisible invasion, made our way into the core.
What were the others doing, out there? The Agglomerates I had never met before? Who were they, what were they, and had they formed their own groups such as ours to investigate this occurrence? What would they do if they saw us? What were they doing to the survivors?
Another pack of vehicles blazed towards the estate. They ran circles around the old house and drove into the wastes from where we’d come. Perhaps Yiz would see them. I’d imagine he would hide. He wasn’t one for confrontation.
A river flowed in our way. A sludge black river, slow as a stream, smelling of sulfur and heat and flame. The ten meter wide waterway seemed to run into the cityscape of the power plant. What was left of that cityscape now comprised of building shells and toppled skyscrapers piled into a mountainous tomb.
“Flows backwards,” I said, stepping down along the bank to take a closer look. The liquid moved towards the mountains. Eyes along the bank, I caught a glimpse of a native pink cyclopean lying near the liquid. The being seemed to be fishing, dressed in relatively advanced clothing. The river bent directly behind him, obscuring a group of six others who came into view after.
“They weren’t out here,” said Owyle. “Didn’t see them in the wastes at all. Should have noticed a group that large.”
“I would have seen,” Threshold said.
Porb teleported. He teleported back a moment later.
“A cave,” he said, “a bunch of caves. Concrete tunnels fractured but not caved in. Sewer lines, maybe, or something similar. Runoff. Irrigation. Who knows. They dwell in there now.”
“Odd that they haven’t gone to the show,” Threshold said.
Between us and the power plant rose a ring of minuscule lights. Across the river, not far at all, stood the tent of Carna Cadava. Spotlights shining through the red and white striped tent and carnival music blaring along the howling winds, I wondered of this stranger.
We crossed the river by a crude bridge formed of a few toppled vehicles similar to buses. The black water rushed through their broken windows and battered against the sides. A bridge and dam in one, which left a slower current on the other end leading into the mountains.
Skedder turned into a two meter tall wheel of spoons, and rolled alongside us. How does a being become entranced by spoons? Was she always a spoon, joined the liminality and took other spoons? Was she a golem, an automaton? Or a person of some unknown race? What was her story, and all the little stories collected by the spoonful that she could tell?
Bigklau, Owyle, Threshold, Porbiyo, Skedder, and I made way to the tent.
The circus tent stood as the largest I’d ever seen. Nearer a colossal monument in size, I found myself intimidated as our party approached in the shining light of the open door. Wind blew and this tent did not waver. Darkness endured and light burst from its seams. A growing silence permeated every step in this strange dead world, and yet cheers and laughter echoed eerily, distorted by distance and magic, from the tent’s folded over door.
Outside, a small goblinoid creature clad in red and white stripes smoked a cigar in a thin director’s chair. His bulbous blue eyes appeared to be made of glass, lacking any pupil or discernible flesh. His amphibious face retreated against his shoulders as we came closer, rolling into folds outside his collar.
“I thought he couldn’t see us?” I whispered.
“They know better than to hide from me,” said the goblinoid in a thick, sensual masculine tone. Smokey and charred, soothing yet horrid. As if the coals of a fire could speak. The frog eyed me, speaking in his awful, terrifying voice, “Opaline. You are a specimen indeed.”
Porb curtsied, “Cadava, how good to see you.”
“How awful to see you,” the goblinoid said, projecting Carna Cadava’s voice. What was this being? This frog goblin?
Two sizable four armed women, muscled to their skeleton’s greatest possibility, strode through the door in singlets. They put their hands on their hips in a very no-nonsense sort of manner.
“I do not care for you,” Cadava spoke through all three of his thralls, “Master of Beasts, nor the Master of Keys and her plotting. Songstress and the Spoon are welcome in my show. You, Shellfish, reek of envy and desperation, please leave at once before you infect my performers with your lack of talent.” The three thralls gazed to me, “But you, my furtive furry friend, are welcome in the show any time. Step right up. No audition, even.”
I remained silent, not wishing to interfere with things about which I may know very little.
Owyle said, “Not joining your stupid act, Ringmaster.”
Bigklau, despite his best work at hiding it, seemed genuinely offended by Cadava’s remarks. His crayfish feelers drooped and his eyes hung low.
“You’d be best not to refer to Opaline of Dahn as furtive,” Threshold said, “or you’d be underestimating one with whom such a mistake would be catastrophic.”
The goblinoid opened his three fingered mitts and threw his cigar to the ground, “Why are you all here, at my door, if not to join my show?”
“Cryptal Vispar is on the prowl devouring natives and their livestock,” Porb said, “considering your care for the snake, I would take it as less than coincidence that she’d headed in this direction.”
“Do not try,” the goblinoid waved a finger at Threshold. “Your vision will not penetrate me, Keymaster, or should I remind you of last time you stepped into my performance with ulterior motives?”
“She headed here,” Threshold said, “and shall I remind you of how that last encounter ended, Ringmaster?”
“Be careful,” Owyle said, “I was there. Her kicking your ass was a better show than anything you put on, you silly sheet.”
The tent writhed—the first movement the fabric gave in all the time I’d laid eyes on it. “I did not care to escalate, and you call it, ‘kicking ass?’” Cadava laughed, “If you knew better you’d see my ten thousand ‘years’ of seniority with the respect it deserves. All of you children I welcome with kind arms and this is how you treat me?”
Cadava’s thralls growled in unison, “You come for the snake? As if we are monsters and you the heroes? I am growing sick of your righteous games, brothers and sisters, and hope you do not shove Opaline into this bitter game between us. How should you feel, Keymaster, if I were to come to you and demand the location of the Songstress? The Snake has done naught to me but breathe in my stalls and gain her footing. A beautiful work of art, she is, and I gave her life after all you’d pulled, Beastmaster. Your homeworld plights should have disappeared the moment you came into this Curse. Ehlonniabatur does not care for us. We must care for one another. Cryptal Vispar is to blame as well, but a mutual road should be taken to healing.
“I find it insulting, degrading, downright traitorous that you’d put mortals and their funny, tiny lives ahead of your own kin. What will you do? Oh no! Beat her up? Like a child on the playground? And if you don’t understand that reference, I am saying it is pathetic. You couldn’t kill her if you tried. It’ll be a boxing match not a battle. Cryptal Vispar is a predator. Allow her to predate, as we allow you to. . . do whatever you do.”
“I’d like to see your show,” I said, tongue moving faster than my brain wished. Perhaps I should have hesitated. But what can I say, his words struck something in me.
I do believe we have a responsibility to mortality, as “greater” entities everyday lives can be destroyed and ruined by our presence alone—creating doubt, fear, questions, and terror in people. But there is something to be said for balance, and nature, and recognizing differences. I’d beaten Porb for killing mortals in a blind rage. Was that the right thing to do? I think the path to less harm is always the best path, even if sometimes it requires violence.
Porb can protect animal life without killing, and I think it will keep him from the madness so many other Agglomerates face.
But Vispar is inherently a killer. She must feed to survive. As I eat, and anyone else eats. Only at a greater scale. It feels wrong. But what is right, if that is wrong?
Monsters must be stopped, but sometimes understanding them is the first step to that path, and sometimes monsters aren’t monsters at all—just people who make so many mistakes that to most, they are unforgivable.
But forgiveness is a deeply personal transformation of perspective, and the thing about perspective is that everyone’s entitled to their own.
“I’ll see your show,” I repeated.
The tent writhed again, this time laughter burst from the doorway. The thralls smiled, “You wish to see it?”
“Not join—,” I made very clear, “but watch.”
The two muscle women stepped aside. Blinding lights burst from the tent doorframe. A force kept me from stepping inside. Threshold said, “Opaline, do not take another step.” She telekinetically shifted me nearer to the group and away from Cadava.
“I have no intentions of harming Opaline,” Cadava said.
“But you would cast your light over him?” Threshold said, “I see little difference. Your audience is captive until their minds go to mud. Those who resided in the estate? You know of whom I speak? When will you release them?”
“When they’ve seen all my acts,” Cadava said.
As their argument intensified I tried my best to get a sense of Cadava as a whole. What exactly was he? These thralls spoke in his bellowing voice but their shared mind came from somewhere else. They argued of his methods—attracting natives to his performances and feeding off their ecstasy and wonder until they were left without it. My assumption had been that he kidnapped and devoured audiences, but no, they were always set free after sitting through his show. They’d be deeply depressed for some time after the incident, but then would recover.
Our Curse’s impact on us comprised of strange perimeters in that there were no perimeters. Every person was driven to madness by different means, and the closer I became to Porb and Threshold, the less madness I saw. Yes, they were great in power and specific in mind, but madness? Very few were so mad as to be insane. Their collecting—coping with their eternity—kept them sane to a degree.
Were there other “Agglomerates” in Peridot’s Curse that did not suffer from Agglomeration as we called it? And what of the other beings trapped in the Liminality, such as Malabeenith and others? How unique was our condition amongst the cosmic afflicted?
How had Cadava succumbed?
He must “collect” shows, I would think. Each audience a specific experience from the next. That would make sense. But where was the original Carna Cadava? In the same way that Skedder had no resemblance to what her original form used to be, would there be a day when Threshold left her flesh behind, and Porb, and even myself?
Cadava argued against Agglomerates hurting one another. I saw no reason to treat him as an adversary. In this eternity ahead, this weird world could be the beginning of many alliances and understandings. I would hope not to regret wasting such an opportunity.
I, against what some may consider better judgement, strode through the tent doorway into Cadava’s light. Threshold, Porb and the others called after me. Perhaps they even tried to stop me, but I made my way inside. My eyes adjusted to gaze upon a vast indoor space, lit with vibrant warm string lights and spotlights. Wooden bleachers rose along the inside circumference of the tent.
Sharp, intense perfumes writhed in waves with the cheering of the crowd. The world slowed in the glitter and glam. Performers of all shapes and sizes walked past me on mission to their dressing rooms or beneath the bleachers awaiting their turn. As I circled the edge of the tent walls beneath the bleachers, I caught glimpses of the acrobatic performance to which all the crowd gazed.
The pink cyclopean peoples came out in troves for Cadava’s show. A duo of eight-armed blue-haired tarantula peoples performed their acrobatic scene. Both performers seemed to be missing the ends of a few legs. They flipped and spun and let loose every sort of trick a spider could do.
The twins spun brilliant silk webs in the air, ducking, weaving, and diving to form incomparable patterns between the tentpoles above the crowd. The display was absolutely breathtaking.
I moved between the bleachers towards the front rows for a better view.
Spiders. . . eight-eyes.
My early years of life I feared the eight-eyes of the Laskan Orchards. Magnificent, intelligent, terrifying spiders the size of a regular garden arachnid, up to mountain-straddling behemoths akin to gods. And their silk, at the touch of sunlight, hardened to glass. A resonant, versatile substance, silkglass was unparalleled in use in our homes. Though difficult to harvest, the rewards were valued beyond belief to my people.
The last time I saw silkglass was moments before I touched Peridot for the first time. Until. . .
Somebody waved to me through the crowd. A tiny lump across the dirt circus ring below the acrobats.
I rounded the rest of the tent beneath the bleachers as the crowd roared, and pushed my way through perfume clouds and past faces caked in makeup. Between two sets of the towering wooden stands, Hum-Dum sat at the very edge in the dark shadow of the spotlights. The native crowd appeared unaware of the egg creature in their midst.
She waved lazily to me over my entire walk.
“Hello,” I said, “surprised to see you here.” I took a seat beside her as the spider twins disappeared into the ceiling and an especially red genie rose from a vase in the center of the dirt ring.
“AND NOW, FOR GAELI ATSARI DUMAD, FIRESKINNER.” The tent shifted and boomed with the announcement. Cadava’s voice indeed.
Hummarie smacked her lips together. Her wrinkly, gnarled face contorted in a sort of smile. The tiny Agglomerate pointed to the performance.
“You like it?”
She smacked her lips. I assumed she meant, “Yes.”
“Do you. . . often watch these?”
She moaned, then grunted. I assumed an, “I do,” or something comparable.
Gaeli Atsari Dumad burst into flames, and beneath the fire formed a mortal form charred in black. The genie became a four meter tall humanoid, horned and bearded and crimson as blood as his skin peeled away. Then, in the most fascinating displays my eyes could fathom, the performer began a lightshow of blaze across his skin, burning pieces of himself at different heats to create whites, blues, yellows, and reds.
Heat and sulfur wafted over us audience members in the first few seats. The crowd erupted with cheers so loud that the tent seemed to expand with excitement and smoke and sparks.
As the genie burned, his skins fell to the ground around him, piling as he floated higher and higher into the air. He formed a tower of sorts beneath his ghostly tail rather than legs.
When he finished, a black metallic flower remained beneath him, and the fires burned so bright that my eyes struggled in adjusting to the typical light after the performance.
After watching several of the acts, I found my eyes wandering to the far side of the bleachers, where Threshold, Porbiyo, Bigklau, Skedder, and Owyle took seats across from Hum-Dum and I. As further performances continued, Hummarie waved to the others—and did not stop, despite my informing her that they did see us—and they seemed pleased.
I felt proud. Perhaps an action I’d made could truly have made a difference. Perhaps my young presence amongst these immortal gods had thrown a fresh voice into the mix to round their perspectives.
Cadava’s show concluded. The crowds left in neat lines out of the exits. I lifted Hum-Dum up and cradled her to meet with the others. When we left Cadava’s tent, the native audience was already far along on their bewildered journeys home. They’d been brainwashed for days, or longer, hypnotized into Cadava’s performances. On many levels, I found that disturbing. But in the longer game, an amiable relationship with Carna Cadava could prove wise in worlds to come—and could help to save countless lives, maybe.
I’d have to compromise, this time, no matter how sick it made me.
When all of our Agglomerates departed the show, the lights dimmed slow and steady, and the wind began to flutter the walls of the structure. None of Cadava’s thralls were in sight—all deep inside the tent.
Our group gathered in the frigid winds of the blue wastelands, with the eerie sky above our heads watching, waiting, witnessing.
“We weren’t even finished, yet,” said Cadava’s voice, booming from the tent as it did during the show, “but I thought I’d let them free. Your awe at my doing was enough, brothers and sisters. I thank you for joining me.” The tent blew from the ground. A vast cyclone ripped the chords holding the structure down straight from the dirt, and the flags and flutterings all folded into the fabric. The tent writhed and churned, devouring all the show beneath it, and holding everything inside like a starship, until forming a shape not unlike a forty-meter sheet-ghost floating before us. A simple costume. Akin to when a child cuts two holes for their eyes and throws it over themselves.
As he spoke, Carna Cadava’s giant skirt edges rippled with his voice. The titanic sheet in its entirety was the Agglomerate. His long sheet-ghost head rose before our group, twin eyes leaking light without a hole for the mouth.
The tent was Cadava.
Cadava was the tent.
“While I found no new acts,” he said, voice booming, and sure to attract attention across the plains, “I am pleased with this show. Thank you for attending. I am pleased.”
I whispered to Threshold, “What. . . what exactly does he collect?”
“Performers, Opaline. Bodies.”
Blatant stupidity on my part, I admit. The morbid truth altered my perceptions, I must say.
“Will you tell us?” I said, “Where Vispar is? We have to be careful, here. There is more going on beyond our vision. Perhaps, should we mess with this place too much, dire consequences could come about. We simply don’t know. We need to stay out of the natives’ business. We won’t harm her, only attempt at reason.”
“I still cannot—.” Cadava began, but his speech stopped.
A violent screech chimed out into the darkness. A doom-like siren of a voice, wicked and terrifying and vile, yet mortified. A shriek of fear.
My blood ran cold.
To be continued. . .