“Run that back,” I said, paw massaging my temple. I leaned against the terrace and took a deep inhalation of outdoor air. Porb floated in the middle of the room, transfixed on a 3 meter tall canvas. I couldn’t see his work—he always enchanted unfinished pieces to be visible only to him—but he was awfully taken, even making excitable yips and groans during his process.
“Porb?” I asked louder this time. He tended to be “in the zone,” when in reality he simply ignored you. “Explain again, please.”
The stench of aunikai hung in the room, as they lounged all over the loft painting and raiding plates of cheese—cheese harvested from their own utters. Even through the maze of hay bales and easels the arm-cow musk managed to assault me. I waited on the terrace, a protest display in avoiding the pungent odor.
Porb groaned, “I’ve explained six times. The little grey dwarfs beat the aunikai and the Goldmen beat the grey dwarfs. Now both the Goldmen and the dwarfs are getting what they deserve at the hands of their victims!” He peeked from behind his canvas and tipped his hat, “All these lethargic limbs needed was a brain cell or two. . . and a little help. . . and now look at what they can do!” Porb grabbed one of the cow’s canvases. On the canvas was painted a crude, child-like depiction of a cow snacking on a man’s thigh. Porb giggled, “Such artistry. . . they’ll be free of this island in no time.”
“You’ve already told me this.”
“Which I tried to tell you.”
“I meant run it back to the city. What about the city in the middle of the island?” Every time I pried into the island’s contents, he turned on his giggle switch. Meaning he adopted a silly, imbecile front. I reiterated, “What did you see in the city?”
Attached to the terrace, a telescope beaconed like an arrow into the orange haze. Between two of the far-off starships there lie a pocket through which one could see the other side of the island. The fog was too thick. Porb claimed a city lie out there—he slipped, mentioning it in passing. He also slipped a second time, admitting he’d entered said city.
I let go of the anger, and said sincerely, “The city, Porbiyo.”
His expressionless mask shot through my soul. But his shoulders slouched, enough to show a break in the facade he so often sported. His words were quick as a jab, “Not a city. A temple.”
“You said it was larger than a starship, though? A place ‘fit for millions?’”
“I never said city, you inferred city.”
“From a description of a ‘place for millions,’ I find it to be a sound assumption.”
“A small assumption, not sound.”
I rolled my eyes, “So this is a temple built for millions of people.”
“No. Fit for millions. Built for a few.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. . .” I rubbed my temples. Porbiyo kept on painting despite the conversation. I eyed the distance and tried to imagine the scale of the island based on the eastern coastline I’d hiked that morning. I said, “A temple kilometers long built for ‘a few.’ You’re talking nonsense. A complex that size wouldn’t fit on this island! It’s only what, six kilometers wide? Nothing of that size would fit with those starships parked here.” I pointed to the midst of the island.
One of the cows mooed. She enthusiastically attempted to show Porb her work, to which he responded, “Not now, Phillis, I am busy with the Rat’s unwarranted inquiries.”
I told him he could help her if he wanted, but seemed more mad at me for suggesting it, then he quickly said, “Think like a mage and not like a rat. Size is not a matter of matter alone.”
I tapped my Boundless Bag, “Enormous inside, small on the out. . . a pocket dimension.”
“Ding ding ding! We have a winner.” Porb lowered to his feet and his canvas shrunk to size, sliding into his sketchpad perfectly. He gestured to the room of arm-cows, “Do you like my students? Art is the second step after language they say in the intellectual ladder. Soon they’ll be independent of me.”
I marched through the loft and to the steps. If he’d ignore me, I would ignore him. If he wouldn’t tell me about that city, then I’d find it myself.
The Meat Factory was inside out, with the building’s insides dominated by living space and outside for manufacturing. The whole complex gave me sickness, and the sulfuric air brought a thick cough from my throat. Even with my sorcery blood, one could only take so much toxicity.
I stomped to the archway, past dozens of disapproving arm-cows, and sat in the front seat of some kind of vehicles—halfway between a cart and a car.
The cart rejected a start. I slammed the pedal but the vehicle wouldn’t get going. I glared to the aunikai guarding it, “Key?”
I said, “You know. . . I’m really in the mood for a burger right about now.”
They did not seem to know what a burger was. I rephrased, “I’ll cut your heads off. Keys—now.”
“CRUEL,” Porb teleported beside me, pushing me into the passenger seat. He wagged his finger and tucked a paintbrush into his outward coat—which was red. “You are such a cruel, cruel little rat.”
“At least I don’t commit the atrocities I threaten.”
“At least I do precisely what I say I’m going to do. Burn a village to the ground and feed the local rascals to a coop of carnivorous chickens? Absolutely followed through. I don’t respect a talker. . . if you say you’re going to do something then do it!” He folded his arms. “Though in this case, you aren’t doing anything. I confine you to this Meat Factory.”
“I’m going to the temple. You won’t tell me? I’ll go see.”
“No,” he whined like a child.
I jumped off the cart seat and marched through the arch. The road was long towards the glowing starships, but if that’s where I had to go then I didn’t have a choice.
Porb teleported in front of me. “Enough of this pestering persistence, Ratman. Turn around. No more games!”
I walked around him.
He teleported again, “This is foolish! Why go there, anyway? There’s nothing to see. Nothing to find. Only a couple of worms.”
I rose an eyebrow, “Worms. A couple of worms. You’re an ass.”
“I’m telling the truth! Just some worms, talking about wormy things. And you know—the whole ‘ass’ thing doesn’t make sense.”
“You are an ass, doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you—only me.”
We’d marched a good hundred or so meters from the factory, and now stood out in the white concrete plain. I shuffled to the side and moved on.
“Opaline. Don’t. Please.” Porb teleported in front of me, again. He said, “Opaline, don’t go.” His voice had never carried such weight. Fur stood up over my body from that. He never lowered his voice. “In light of our once ruling an entire peoples together. . . and my not being very good at telling truths to the people, or you, or anyone but the mirror. . . I will admit one now: you are in the dark on this. And though you may be ignorant, know that everything is under control. Trust me. Just this once, trust me. Don’t walk any further down this road. It won’t lead you anywhere kind.”
He was trying to protect me?
My stomach turned. The sickness of the stench, the sulfur, and his tone compiled. I tried to push the fear aside, but the nerves skittered in my veins like a parasite to sanity.
What was he protecting me from?
My eyes asked for elaboration, to which he submitted, “I blipped here—on the island, not offshore like you. I saw the Goldmen, whose true name I will dare not speak, and knew to be wary of where I went. . . I had seen these Goldmen before, and who they belong to. I kept a distance as far as my curiosity would allow.” He continued in explaining how he’d seen thousands of the arm-cows genetically engineered in facilities across the island, so he used his teachings to give them speech and then rallied them against their grey slaves who kept the cows in check. He included an especially graphic tangent of slaughtering the masses. I’ll spare you his, “delightful descriptions.”
He avoided me, again. He told me a long, sweeping tale of his time freeing the aunikai but danced around the details—the Goldmen, and the temple, and the kilometers’ long vessels parked dead center.
He finished, “And now the cows can escape and rule as they please, eating all the organs and skin they so desire. The end.” He pulled a wrapping of cheese from his coat, and slid a piece beneath his mask. He offered me a piece. He chewed, very slowly, and when he realized I was irritated beyond belief he spit the cheese out and whispered, “You don’t understand. . . this place. . . these powers. . . they are not ours to know. Stay clear.”
“WILL YOU STOP. Tell me! Just tell me what’s going on!”
“Leave, Ratman, before you get yourself and all the rest of us in more trouble,” he opened his hands, “How long did your top spin for? I bet we’re nearly done here.”
“The top never stopped spinning.” I stepped up and, even though he was double my height, I yanked his lapels and brought his mask to my face, “You were enamored of being WorldWalkers again? Unless you want to be trapped on another planet for decades, or centuries, or forever, you will tell me what you know. Peridot has not answered me once since we blipped in. She is in trouble.”
Porb stepped back, “What do you mean she hasn’t answered you? She never answered me—but she also never answers me because, you know. . . I hunted her down and such. But you? What do you mean she didn’t answer you?”
“It’s simple, really—SHE DIDN’T ANSWER ME.” I jumped up and slapped his porcelain mask.
He cocked his head and said, “I’ll try and forgive that. Oh no, oh dear. . . It’s happening.” He held out his hand. From two hundred meters away, the telescope ripped off the terrace and soared into his palm. He swung on his heel—coattails like red waves—and pressed his eye-hole against the lense. “DAMN HAZE. I can’t see a thing.” He cursed in a dozen languages and clenched his fist, shattering the telescope. “I miscalculated, Just a minor, tiny, enormous miscalculation. She was the confident one! She was always boasting how they’d never catch her. I mean if I could never do it, of course no one else could. They tried before—months ago for them, I’d bet, though centuries for us. That was before you even came into the group. She slipped away and assured she’d always manage it. . . because they’d keep coming.”
“Who would keep coming?”
He shook his head.
“I can’t speak their name. We’re too close. . . they’ll hear it all.” He clenched his fists, “Those Goldmen? They aren’t mortal. Not quite immortal, but not mortal. Somewhere in between.”
“So there’s a state between mortal and immortal, but you can’t speak the name?”
“You’re being cryptic for cryptic’s sake.”
“No. I’m not.” He paused, “The Goldmen serve a coalition, a pantheon, a nation, an empire, an enclave. . . every word both fits and doesn’t. They serve a ‘power.’ A power like us.” Porbiyo fluttered his fingers for dramatic effect. “The power walks worlds.”
I said, “Rotamar?” That was the only greater power I was aware of. Rotamar were elemental beings. Not elemental like fire, water, earth—those are spiritual elements. Elemental in the truest sense, Rotamar were god-like souls representative of chemicals, substances, and atomic reactions. They are. . . difficult to comprehend. I’d only seen one in physical form before. It was so powerful that it slipped an entire continent into a dream simply by existing—our bodies couldn’t handle the pressure, and subconscious had to take over.
It had to be Rotamar. What else existed that could trap a Dragon? That could trap Peridot?
But Porbiyo shook his head, “No, not Rotamar. Something. . . else. Like Peridot, they are gods without godhood. Beings so mighty that they’ve transcended the destruction of universes. They watch other gods build worlds. . . in the way a person studies ants digging their nest.”
I couldn’t speak.
He wasn’t lying. He wasn’t exaggerating. His voice, his shoulders—the sheer humility in his presence made me feel so very small. He spoke the truth. Peridot was subdued by a group of gods beyond gods, whose name alone held power over the voices who spoke them.
To make my feelings known, I broke the silence, “That is horrifying.”
“Only in the mind.”
“Fear only exists in the mind.”
“No. Fear is beyond the mind,” he cocked his head, “but only in the mind do we fall to it. Though you are not one to submit to the mind. Rodents are stubborn creatures.”
I smiled, “That we are.”
Together we faced the starships. The orange haze began to fade with a wild wind. In the light of the crystalline vessels, the white concrete singed my eyes. This place spoke of divinity. The energy, the reverence, the absolute—the vision itself promised a providence beyond comprehension.
“So Peridot is captured by a bunch of elder space gods. The Eldest Oldes, I’d guess they’re called? The female slave I met spoke of them.”
Porb eyed me, “Yes, Eldest Oldes. A mortal translation, though, of their true name.”
“Which you can’t tell me.”
“Because we’re too close. If we survive, I’ll give you the Draconic name. It’s a pretty song. . . if not unnerving. But only if we survive.”
I grinned, “Survive what?”
“The rescue, of course.” Porb cracked his knuckles and whipped out a two-meter paintbrush. He wielded the weapon like a staff, and painted a Pegasus to ride. The animal huffed with hooves crackling the concrete below. He jumped on his steed and leant a hand, “Peridot is mine, and I still haven’t gotten my portrait yet. I won’t let anyone—Eldest Oldes or not—take my prize before I can paint her. . . animals are to be free!” She wasn’t an animal, but I wouldn’t ruin his moment.
I took his hand and climbed aboard. I said, “How do you reckon we approach this, seeing as minutes ago you wouldn’t even speak about this place, never mind walk there?”
Porb shrugged, “Well, that was before Peridot was captured and our Blessing was at stake! Now we’re in desperate times, and desperate times call for disputable measures.”
“That isn’t the saying.”
“Says the one who keeps referring to me as an 'ass.' Yet my saying still works regardless of my own artistic license. Besides—what desperate act isn’t disputable?” Porb chuckled and politely asked the pegasus to take off, as opposed to whipping her reigns. He wielded his paintbrush like a lance. A few minutes into our flight, we landed on the path. Porb said, “You know, as indubitably awesome as this was, a pegasus would probably get us spotted.”
We walked the rest of the way.
“Why did they capture her?” I said, heart thundering at the sheer ignorance of what transpired.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but any fiend who puts arms on cows can’t possibly have good intentions for time-cursed world skipping Dragons. I won’t lie, this scares me.”
“Yes, me too.”
“But only in the mind, of course. . .”
“Yeah, of course. . .”
So we sneaked our way through the starship light and sulfuric mist. A mouse and a zoologist, heels clicking on a concrete world, trying our best to keep to our word—that fear was only in the mind.
Until it wasn’t.
Part 2 of 4