Chapters 27 – Epilogue

27 – The Special Night

 

The glossy strands held Mean and Tecker to the cavern’s smooth floor. Both of them let out a gasp of disbelief as Pinada fell from the rapier. The blade remained stuck through the back of the cube, thrumming as his body flopped into the case’s corner. His glasses were knocked crooked and his blank eyes stared past the rims. His body slipped a bit, settling to rest. The sword quieted. With a slow release of tension, the numerous strands holding Mean, Tecker, and Tome relaxed and faded out of sight.

“Dark,” Mean said, pulling herself up. She sat on her knees beside him, looking from his face to his wound where Cocoa was stuck. Tecker worked up a smile.

“You don’t have to call me that now–” he chuckled with a wheeze on his breath. Mean held her fingers to his lips, calling across the cavern to Tome.

“We need to get him to a hospital; Tome, I can’t fly–”

“We’ll have to carry him,” Tome replied. He picked himself up, hobbling over with a sideways glare at Pinada’s case. “You get one side; I’ll get the other.”

As the two knelt down beside Tecker a pop sounded from afar. All three flinched, staring across the wide cave toward the hole leading into the hall zone chamber. Darrow stood at the hex door near the square passage.

He squinted, seeing Pinada’s corpse lying still in his box. Blood stained the back of his rectangle-patterned shirt.

“Oh man,” Darrow said. He broke into a run, meeting up with the rest.

“You got the door working?” Tome sighed. “Thank goodness. Help us get him out of here.”

“Yeah,” Darrow said, taking Tecker’s legs. “Got an ambulance up there and everything. Man, those guys took one look at Vornis and about–” His voice cut off with a gasp. He shoved Tecker’s legs into Tome’s hands and rushed away.

“Dark!” he cried out, falling to his knees beside the shattered armor. He picked up the two pieces of the helmet, turning them over in his hands and trying to fit them back together. “What happened to him!? Dark!”

“Darrow,” Mean said. Darrow turned to her with a frown. “This is Dark. We need to save him.”

“Oh,” Darrow said, coming back over with the pieces. “Sorry man, I just thought you were some guy.”

Tecker smiled again, sweat thick on his brow. “I need that helmet anyway; I’ve having trouble breathing.”

Mean shifted, lowering him close to the floor. Darrow placed the helmet on his face and the two halves joined, the seam sealing itself.

“I promise I won’t keep it on,” Tecker said through the shattered chin. Mean hefted him up again.

“Let’s just hurry,” she said. “Darrow, can you help with this end? It’s too heavy for me.”

He nodded and a clatter came from the pile of armor: the breastplate pieces skimmed over the ground towards the group.

“Whoa, what?” Mean exclaimed as the pieces shot over, one part zipping beneath Tecker’s back while the other one locked into place over his chest and Cocoa. Tecker winced as the armor lifted him upright.

“It’s Cocoa,” Tome said. “He’s helping out. I guess he’s the only one with any magic.”

“Wonderful,” Tecker coughed, hovering over to the hex door with his feet dragging on the stone. “Mean, make sure he knows where to take me?”

“Right!” she called, catching up to him and taking him by the arm. She led him to the hex door.

“Take us to the Droldragia gazebo,” she stated. They both vanished with a ripple. Darrow began to follow, but hung back. Tome was staring at the glass cube: A high, long, hiss was escaping from it. As they watched, the four walls tipped outward; Pinada’s upper body dropped from the corner it was wedged in and plopped to the floor. The plates all fell: the top one bounced off Pinada; the others shattered, the pieces all sliding in different directions.

“I had to be sure,” Tome said, wiping at the blond stubble on his chin. “Had to be sure he was dead. There’s nothing left: no patterns. No way he escaped.”

“Sure doesn’t feel like we won though, does it?” Darrow sighed. He pointed at the sword. “You guys stab him with that?” Tome turned, and the two walked away to the hex door.

“Pinada did it,” he replied. “His back was the only one left to stab.”

 

—–

 

Tecker walked through the lobby of the empty hotel. He was dressed in jeans and a buttoned-up shirt; no trace of the armor remained on him. His short, fine hair was washed and combed, and it bobbed at the tops of his ears and neck as he went. Darrow trailed behind him wearing a shirt with a single flower design printed on the breast.

“Does she know you’re out?” he asked.

“She should,” Tecker said, leading the way to a row of numbered hex doors. “I said I’d meet her here after they let me go. Now which one was it? Ah, right, here it is.”

He stepped up into a door labeled ‘6.’ Darrow hung back.

“Well, good luck man,” he stated, giving a curt nod.

“Good luck?” Tecker repeated. “For what?”

“Oh, well, you know–” Darrow started, “you two are like a thing now right? I mean, she was always visiting when you were having your operations, but–I just figured–you know–”

Tecker put one hand on one of the six poles marking the door. “Darrow, you can come up with me; you don’t have to leave just because–”

“No, no!” Darrow assured. “I know you guys probably want to be alone now.” He cleared his throat. “You had that helmet on the entire time at the hospital, right? It must have been tough, not even being able to kiss her. Well, I guess you might have been able to if you went sideways through that crack by your chin. Like maybe half. It would be dangerous with those jagged edges, though.”

Tecker sighed. “Yes, I must ask Eon to punch my face harder next time. Have a good night, then, Darrow.”

Darrow waved, winked, and trotted away.

“Honestly,” Tecker said. The lobby vanished and a long hallway blinked in. He stepped out and started past the rows of ajar doors with their vacant rooms. Tecker strolled to the end, where a plaque labeled ‘Penthouse’ awaited him. He knocked on the closed door nearby.

“Sideways through the crack,” he muttered. He brushed his cheek, feeling the sides of his lips. Shaking his head, he continued to wait as a sharp clank sounded from beyond the door.

“Coming!” Mean said, and the door flew inward on its own, banging as it hit a wall. Tecker saw Mean seated at a table. She wiped at her mouth with a napkin, jumped up, and ran over.

“Hey!” she said, wrapping her arms around his torso. “They let you out!”

“Yeah,” Tecker said, squeezing her back. “You need to be careful with me now that I don’t have the armor!”

She laughed, pulling back to look at his face. “And you took the helmet off, too!”

Tecker smiled. “Yep. Never putting it back on. I left it all with Cocoa. He loves it.”

She touched him on the arm, dragging her fingers past his wrist and grasping his hand. “Come on, let’s sit down,” she said, leading him into an adjoining room.

A blank monitor was set up on a wooden stand, with a cushioned couch positioned across from it. Mean sat down and Tecker joined her.

“I like the way you look without it,” Mean told him.

“Really,” Tecker replied, smiling.

“Mm,hm! Back in the cave I was worried that you wouldn’t–” Mean paused and jerked away. She dipped her head down.

“The cave,” Tecker repeated, watching her. “I guess we need to talk about that.”

“No,” Mean assured him as she fidgeted with her fingers. “That isn’t it.”

“Are you sure?” Tecker asked. “You’re nervous about something. I know you heard everything I said to Pinada. I don’t want you to be scared of me.”

“Dark, I’m not–” She calmed herself, inhaling. “You just caught me in the middle of eating.” She tilted her head back to the kitchen. “Remember? When you got here?”

The side of Tecker’s mouth curled up in a grin. He patted her on the leg. “Wait–so that’s what this is!? The thing where you don’t like people smelling your breath after you eat?” He looked her in the eyes as she gave a meek smile. “So you aren’t really concerned about my darkest secrets? You just wanted to go brush your teeth?”

She smiled and bobbed her head yes; he dipped in and pecked her on the lips.

“Tastes fine,” Tecker said.

She tipped her head up to him as he tried it again, closing her eyes and kissing him back.

 

—–

 

A small boy pulled his pajama legs on, kicking his feet over the side of the large bed. After pulling them snug, he hopped down.

“Mom?” he called out, stepping from the bedroom into the lit hall. The living room beyond was dim, yet he padded over, sniffing. A monitor’s blank glow illuminated the couch and the two figures sleeping there: Tecker slumped over the end arm, with Mean snuggled against his stomach. The boy stepped closer, blocking the light from the screen. Mean mumbled, and her eyes slipped open. The shadowy boy smiled at her.

“Dark!” she yelped. Her fingers dug into Tecker’s leg and he groaned awake.

“Oh, is the movie over?” he asked. He rubbed his eyes, coughed, and stared at the figure in front of them.

“I lost my clothes and my mom,” the boy said.

“Dark, who is this!?” Mean asked. Tecker chuckled, squeezing her shoulder. He leaned over, flipping a nearby lamp on.

“Someone that Pinada thought he killed,” he told her. Far down the hall, a shriek sounded out. There was a thump and a muttering and a bang of a door opening.

“James!?” a woman’s voice called.

“I’m in here, Mom,” the boy hollered back. “With the girl from your show.”

A woman wearing only a bathrobe rushed into the room, taking the boy by the head and hugging him close. Her cheeks were wet with tears and her eyes were reddened. She faltered, spying Mean and Tecker on the couch.

“What are you doing in our room?” she demanded. “Wait–you are her! Me-anne, aren’t you?”

“It’s ‘Mean’ but yeah,” Mean replied. Her eyes were wide and she sat straight up. “Dark, it’s not just them is it? Is everyone–?”

He laughed, soaking up every reaction from her. “I think they are!” he told her. “Pinada didn’t do what he thought he did!”

The woman pointed at him. “That’s right: I was watching the final Two Lives to Play match.” She pointed to Mean. “You had just won. Then some mud woman shows up–one of King’s publicity stunts, I thought–and then Pinada tells everyone on live TV that he’s going to”–she looked down at James–”kay-eye-el-el us!” After spelling the word she checked her son, raising his arm and looking him over. “Are you all right? You disappeared and I–I didn’t know what to do.”

“We’ll leave you two alone,” Tecker said. He buttoned his shirt all the way up, then rose from the couch. “We should probably go to the pyramid to explain what happened.”

Mean tossed off the blanket that was draped over her legs. The two hurried out to the hall, and Mean broke into giggles; the rooms with open doors now bustled with noise: half-naked people questioned each other and poked their heads out.

“They’re really back!” she exclaimed, taking his arm and shaking it. “Dark, did you know about this?”

Tecker hummed, smiling. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up if I was wrong,” he admitted. “But I think that Pinada was too smart for his own good. The time patterns–the ones he said were incomplete–I think they ended up working just fine. The only problem with them was that they sent their subject way further into the future than he expected. But he didn’t know that. He thought the person infected would be destroyed. And he had no way of knowing the truth; he didn’t live long enough to see that everyone was just going to come back.”

Mean hopped up, threw her arms around his shoulders and kissed him. Some of the people through the open doors took brief notice. “Let’s go tell everyone,” Tecker said, taking a breath. He kissed her again before leading the way to the hex door at the end of the hall. “King’s Imperial Pyramid: rooftop.”

“THERE IS A QUEUE;” a monotone voice told them, “PLEASE WAIT.”

“A queue!” Mean repeated, grabbing his arm. “People! We’re waiting on people!”

 

—–

 

The roof was abuzz with a monstrous crowd. They all wore the same thing–a plush, blue robe embroidered with King’s triangular logo. King himself stood on one of the glass cases that Mean and the rest had been encased in. He waved his finger and another stack of the robes appeared; the people that were still naked rushed to them, covering themselves.

“Ha! King’s giving everyone clothes!” Mean said. “Hang on, I’ll fly us over.”

Tecker wrapped his arms around her neck and she lifted them both off the ground. His feet dangled past hers as they hovered over the top of everyone’s heads.

“Mean!” someone shouted, and many on the roof turned to look. Tenny, with Charlie, called out to them. They were sitting in the shadow of the helicopter, and Smatter was taking a look into the cockpit. Tecker tipped his head, seeing Jelk beneath them. His four mannequins were walking at his side, struggling to carry a large body. It was Eon, his upturned eyes blinking at the sunlight.

“Thank you,” he managed to cough out.

“No, thank you for letting me take you through the hex door,” Jelk told him. “I didn’t really want to take you down fifty flights of stairs.”

The crowd parted to allow Jelk and Eon through, closing in around King to bombard him with questions.

“No, get a robe on and get home to your families,” King boomed, holding his microphone to his mouth. Mean and Tecker alighted on one of the other cases nearby.

“King, we know what happened,” Mean shouted over. “Hand me the mic.”

King gestured at her. “Everyone, hold on–give Miss Mean your attention; she seems to have some idea about what’s going on.”

He tossed her the microphone and she snapped it into her palm.

“Thanks,” she said, and her voice resounded over the roof. The crowds quieted.

“Okay, don’t freak out, but you’ve all been warped forward in time,” she explained. Exclamations burst out from every direction, and she glared down at them.

“I said don’t freak out!” she told them. “Pinada tried to kill you, but he messed up! You weren’t supposed to come back at all! Be thankful!”

“Pinada!” someone cried from the gutted helicopter. “Where is he!?”

“Pinada,” Tecker started, leaning in to the mic, “is dead. You don’t have to be scared.”

“But I just saw him kill Donzel!” a woman called out.

“He could come back; we need to get out of here!” someone else cried.

King frowned as the bickering escalated, and he spoke to Mean.

“Things seem a bit more complex than I thought. Go to the hex door; think of a secluded place and I will follow.”

Mean nodded and tossed the microphone back. She and Tecker flew to the door and King addressed the rumbling masses.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry; I’m going to get this sorted out. And I don’t want to hear about any riots when I get back–stay calm and let your families know you’re okay.”

 

Tecker and Mean appeared beneath a canopy of translucent leaves. Blue light filtered through to the grass-covered floor: past branches, tree trunks that did not touch the ground, and the roof of a circular building. Darrow was asleep in his lounge chair.

“Hey Darrow!” Mean called out. As she spoke winged animals fluttered out of the branches, calling with shrill voices. Darrow jerked awake.

“What!?” he said, his voice cracking. “What is–Dark! What’s that sound!?”

He watched the creatures flap away and noticed a furry beast beneath one of the trees. It glanced at him sideways, licking at the sharpened, hanging end of the trunk with its tongue.

King burst out of the hex door next to Mean and Dark; Darrow choked and his chipped mug fell into the grass.

“Darrow!” King cried. “I’m so glad you’re safe!” He rushed past Mean, holding the hem of his robe tight. Darrow gawked up at him, swiping for his cup in the brush. “I’m glad to see you survived this terrible business with Pinada; I lost sight of you during the chaos; how are you?”

“Me!?” Darrow cried. “You were killed! How did–what–you’re back?”

“It’s not just him–everyone!” Mean cheered, sending more bizarre things squawking out of the branches. Darrow gasped up at them, and Tecker smiled.

“Remember? I told you that something exciting might happen tonight,” he said.

Darrow’s monobrow crinkled up. “That’s what you meant!? I thought–! Never mind. So Trisk’s back?” He swung his feet out and rose from the chair. “What happened?”

“Eh, did you see her?” Mean asked.

“The whole roof was full of people,” King said. “I’m sure Tenny will find her. We just came to a quiet place so that you could, ah, explain things?”

The six flaming torches that marked the hex door rippled, and Conneld stepped out.

“There you are,” he said. He held the hem of his robe up as he treaded over the grass. “You’re not getting an explanation without me.”

King groaned, dipping his head. “That’s right, I disabled all the hex door locks, didn’t I?” He jerked back up. “Wait, so they were all open all this time? How long has it been?”

“It’s been about five years since Mean won the tournament,” Tecker said.

“Five.” King shivered. “And are you Dark? You sound like him.”

Tecker nodded. “My real name is–ah, you know what? Just call me Dark.”

“Alright,” King said. “So were you unaffected? Have you been waiting here this whole time? Five years. I can’t believe it. That would explain all the mess on the roof.”

“No we weren’t really waiting for you,” Mean replied. “Us Jesians–we didn’t arrive until this past year. When you saw us at the fair, well, we had used one of Pinada’s time viruses to go into the past.”

“What!?” Conneld spat out. “You were working with him!”

“No way!” Darrow said. “King, we didn’t even know it was him that attacked everyone! We only saw what had happened and we wanted to fix it!”

“And you just forgot to mention it to us while you played fair games!?” Conneld seethed.

King placed a hand on his brother’s arm. “Would you have believed them? Would anyone? I’m having trouble grasping it even now.”

Conneld set his lips in a deep frown. On a tray near the lounge chair, Darrow’s laptop buzzed.

“Darrow,” Tome’s voice called, “are you there? Something miraculous has–I can’t–I can’t even speak. It’s just–”

“Yeah, I know,” Darrow shouted over. “Everyone’s back. King’s over here and we’re telling him what went down.”

“Tome has a computer?” Dark whispered to Mean.

“Darrow’s been teaching him while you were in the hospital,” she whispered back.

“So anyway,” Darrow went on as he turned back to the group, “Pinada was the one that told us to go back. He showed up about a month ago while we were at a café on our world. He told us about how he’d discovered a time machine and that he needed our help to save everyone. But he tricked us. It was just a way for him to test out his virus.”

“Unbelievable,” King uttered. He glanced back as Tome came walking through the grass to the group. He was smiling with tears in his stubble.

“Wait,” Conneld said. “Why would you all just believe Pinada? Why would you try something so dangerous? And why would you risk your lives for us, anyway?”

Tome pressed his hand to his chest, taking a deep breath. “Well, I suppose we should get it out of the way–”

Mean clapped her tiny hands together. “It’s because I’m from this world!” she interjected. “I’m from here, and I wanted to try saving my–my people!”

“I knew it!” Conneld shot back with a smug grin.

“Yeah, you got me,” Mean confessed. “A probe from the other world found me here when I was little. I grew up over there but, well, came back.”

“I, ah, yes, just what I thought,” Conneld said. King glared at him.

“Geez, Mean, stop hijacking my story,” Darrow groused. He sat up straight. “So this time machine wasn’t far from the city we’d made. It was in a place called Droldragia. We were supposed to meet Pinada down in some cave, but he didn’t show up.”

King coughed and his face turned red. “Drol–Droldragia you say? That’s–and you went down into the mine there?” He sputtered and sniffed. “Say, let’s all go back to the pyramid; I’m not sure if we should be around all these dangerous beasts.”

He bounced up and waved everyone toward the hex door; as he did so, Vornis appeared in the center.

“Guys!” he exclaimed. “Everyone’s–uh–oh, you know already I guess.”

 

The growing party made its way through one of the pyramid’s halls: the slanted windows displayed the ruined fairgrounds. Most of the tents were collapsed in dirty piles and the paths were all overgrown with thick weeds. Ivy was coiling up the tall wooden towers that housed the water slides.

“So Pinada tricked you into going back,” King said. He frowned at some dark splotches on the carpet, stepping over them. “How far did you go?”

“Not long before you saw us,” Mean said. “Right when your fair started.”

They reached wide-open double doors and King lead them into an office. Vornis jerked to a halt outside.

“Well this is upsetting,” King said. He put his hands on his hips, gazing at the empty water bottles scattered on the desk and bare floor. A closet was open, with a rack of clothing pulled out. On it hung slacks, silk shirts, and vests. “I gave Parlay this whole floor to stay in but someone’s trashed it! And these clothes”–he pulled on the sleeve of a garment–”they’re her style but they’re far too big.”

“King, there’s something else we need to explain,” Dark said. Mean turned her face back out to the hall. She covered her mouth and her eyes began to water. “Not everyone made it through this.”

 

28 – For the Lost

 

King placed his palms on the desk, his eyes lost in the glossy surface.

“She can’t be dead–” he uttered. “She survived it. I saw her. I just saw–I just saw her.”

The group said nothing, watching him mumble over the desk. With a sigh, Vornis stepped through the wide double doors.

“Parlay did survive it,” he said. “But something else happened to her after that.”

“How would you know?” Conneld asked.

“Because I knew her;” the beast said, “I’m her friend, Vornis.”

King looked up from the table. “Vornis? She did mention–but you don’t look–”

“Sometimes people change,” he said, baring white teeth. “We lose something; someone. Maybe a whole lot of someones. When you’ve lost that much, sometimes the only way to cope is to lose yourself, too.”

“Lose yourself?” King repeated, searching the eyes of those around him. “But she was here? She was alive?”

Vornis sniffed. He nodded at Mean, Darrow, Dark, and Tome. “Parlay found them. Before Pinada did. Before their trip to the past. Any memory of them had been buried, though. She was someone new; someone that could deal with the tragedy Pinada put her through. Someone that could do whatever it took to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Mean took Dark’s arm, pushing her face into his sleeve. King glared at her.

“What did you do to her!?” he demanded. “If Pinada wasn’t involved, and you were the only ones on the planet–!” He slammed his fist on the desk, and she broke out in a sob.

“She feels bad enough about it!” Dark shouted. “Back off!”

“About what?” King shouted, his hands shaking. Vornis stepped past Conneld, putting his claw on the desk.

“Parlay wanted to spread magic to their world,” he began. “She used a little something called a ‘hall.'”

“A what?” Conneld asked. King slinked back, scratching his wild beard.

“It’s a kind of hex door,” Vornis explained. “A large one. One that’s open permanently.”

Conneld shook his head. “There’s nothing like that.” His glanced over at his brother, who was avoiding his gaze. “Oh, you’re kidding me.”

“You want to tell him about it, King?” Vornis questioned. “About your little project down in the mine? You want to explain what happens when a pattern that large is formed?”

“Mine?” Conneld asked. “The Droldragia one? That’s where that Hellzoo monster came from; don’t tell me–”

“I told her about the lab,” King said, his voice cracking. “I told her to go to the other world. It was the last thing I said–so help me, it was the last thing–”

“Oh, she tried to go, all right,” Vornis cut in. “That’s when your little chain-tentacle friend decided to come along for the ride through your hall. She died trying to stop it.”

King frowned, wiping his eyes with his robe’s sleeve. “I killed her,” he said. “I should have dismantled it. I should have had it destroyed!” He pressed his hands on his head, seething through his teeth. “But I covered it up. I had Pinada seal it away. I didn’t want to go down there; not after what happened.”

He hung his head over the desk and Mean made her way over, pulling away from Dark.

“King, she died saving my dad and me,” Mean said. “I didn’t know why she did it at first; she was, like Vornis said, a lot different than the Parlay you knew. She was hard and jaded; a bit annoying, really.” She looked back at Dark. “But now that I know how she used to be, I think that Parlay came back at the end. She saved us, just like she wanted–”

Mean choked, dipping her head as tears dripped down her face. Tome cleared his throat.

“And then there’s what she did for me,” he announced. “Parlay gave me the form she had taken.”

Conneld looked him over. “What does that even mean?” he asked. Tome braced himself.

“It means I roamed the world as a spirit; I had left my body the night Pinada stopped my comet.” He paused. “Parlay let me possess, ah, him, as he died.”

Conneld stepped back, bumping into the window. King froze in his seat.

“So Eon was right,” Conneld said. “Sing was there. You’re Sing.”

King swallowed, nodding at Tome. “So. She knew who you were?”

“She did,” Tome replied. “Parlay knew my past, and she saved me anyway.”

“It sounds like something she’d do,” King told him. “I’m glad–I’m glad someone was with her. I’m sorry I snapped at you, Miss Mean.”

He dabbed at his eyes as the room was silent. After a moment, he tugged on his robe, nodding.

“Well,” he said. “There’s only one last thing I wish to know: What happened to Pinada?”

“It’s a bit confusing,” Dark stated. “But I think we figured most of it out. You heard him say that he wanted to complete his time pattern, right?” King nodded. “Well, he used it on himself after he tested it on us. He went back.”

“And he used a trick he learned from me,” Tome added. “It was his mind that went back, and he possessed his own body. It’s where he got all that extra power from.”

“You’re kidding,” Conneld blurted out. “I knew he was a genius, but that’s why? There were two of him?”

“Just one that kind of overlapped,” Dark pointed out. “Think of it like this: one younger and one older. ‘Younger’ Pinada goes through life with the older one merging with him at some point. He infects everyone at the fair; he goes on to infect us five years later. When we get back we confront him down in the mine. That’s when Cocoa, the rory we saved from Eon, drains all of the magic out of him.”

“So that was it, then?” Conneld asked. “That’s how you killed him?”

Tome shook his head. “No. That’s when the older Pinada came out. He had been dormant; unaffected by the rory’s spell. He took control of the body.”

“And I think I know what happened to the younger one after that,” Darrow broke in. “The slate virus activated, sending him back in time like he planned. But that younger one was the one that took the virus. Since he wasn’t in control of the body it was only his mind that got sent back.”

“He made a mistake testing it out on you then,” King told Darrow. “Pinada had a special condition that you didn’t share.”

Conneld pulled at the points on his manicured beard. “So that’s when he goes back in time and possesses himself, becoming the ‘older’ one?”

“Yes,” Dark said. “He goes through the timeline again: all the way up to the fight in the mine; swapping out with the younger one when his magic is drained by the rory.”

“And then what?” Conneld asked. “That rory would have gotten you too. You all just overpowered him?”

“He got careless,” Tome said. “When we figured out that the younger Pinada had left it made sense. Without the other mind he grew frantic; unstable.”

“He stabbed himself with Donzel’s sword,” Mean finished.

“So the body’s still down there,” Conneld said. “King, we should go check to see–”

“We will; we will,” King replied, slumping down into the chair at the desk. “I’ll see to it that it’s recovered; I’ll dismantle every blasted machine down there, too.”

Conneld rose an eyebrow. “Everything?” he asked.

“Yes,” King replied with a sigh, “you can go down with me if you want. But first we need to take care of the mess Pinada left us. The hex doors are all open, the power grid is a mess, and there are still so many injured–or dead. Before I vanished I saw both Caldera and Mr. Veinsmith killed by him before their viruses activated.” He exhaled again, smoothing his wild beard. “I supposed I’ll petition for monuments–I just–there’s so much to do. I think I’ve had enough talking for today.”

 

—–

 

Several weeks later those monuments graced the roof of the pyramid. They were set in the spots where Caldera and Donzel had died. A flag bearing a rising wave fluttered over Caldera’s; a banner with the branching sword blade emblem marked Donzel’s. Arrangements of flowers and wreaths decorated them both, and Tenny bowed his head at them as he walked past. Ahead, Darrow stood next to a third monument: one carved out of onyx and fitted with a bronze plaque. It read: “For Trisk Henning, who was afflicted with slate on the day of Pinada’s attack. She did not return with the rest. May she find her way home.”

Darrow saw Tenny approach and lifted his hand. Tenny nodded back. They both stood beside each other, staring at the scenery beyond the hard edge of the roof. One of the hills was still marred by Tome’s crater: the dead logs inside it overgrown with new foliage.

After a while, Tenny eyed the box in Darrow’s hands. “What’s that?”

Darrow coughed, and set the box down at the foot of the marker. “I just got some clothes for her. You know–when she comes back.”

“Ah,” Tenny said. “My friends keep telling me not to get my hopes up. It’s good to see that I’m not the only one who has faith she’ll come back.”

“Yeah, it could take a while though,” Darrow said. “Weeks. Years.”

“I’m going to wait here as long as it takes,” Tenny replied. He plunked down on the roof, crossing his legs. “Well, as soon as I get off work every afternoon.”

“Work?” Darrow chuckled. “You have work?”

“I took the week of the tournament off,” Tenny explained, folding his arms. “It’ll be a while before I can take off another one.”

Darrow grinned. “Don’t worry about it, man–when she gets back, I’ll tell her you tried.”

Tenny cocked his head. “Really. And what makes you so sure you’ll be the one to see her first?”

With a snap of his fingers, a magnificent lounge chair clattered to the rooftop next to Darrow. A tray holding a pitcher and mug settled into place at the chair’s side. Darrow plopped down into it, flipping on a rotary fan: basking in the breeze that it provided.

“Tenny,” he said, “you may have me beat in just about every way.” He took a long sip from his mug, savoring the taste. “But when it comes to sitting around waiting for stuff to happen–I’m king.”

 

—–

 

Tome slipped in through the carved archway, where rows of pews faced a pulpit and a flower-laden coffin. Scanning the backs of the seated congregation’s heads, he spied the large thorns on Vornis’ neck sticking up a few rows from the front.

“Sing,” Conneld whispered, stepping out from behind the arch.

“Oh, good, I was hoping I’d see you again,” Tome greeted. “Have they assigned you to me or are you just here to pay your respects?”

Conneld lifted his chin, tugging his uniform. “I may not have liked her, but she was a friend to my brother. As for you: no, your crimes were absolved when you were pronounced dead. There’s no procedure for people who come back to life.”

“I didn’t really die;” Tome explained, “I wouldn’t resist it if charges were brought against me, you know that, right?” Conneld slanted his eyes.

“That’s the most infuriating part,” he muttered. “Now are you ever going to find your seat, or are you just going to stand here and mock me?”

Tome swiped a hand over his clean-shaven jaw. “I want to work for you,” he said after a moment. “As a detective.”

Conneld tittered. “You must be joking,” he said. Several people turned in their seats.

“I learned to see patterns as clearly as physical objects,” Tome said. “Minds, thoughts: they’re all I had when I was just a spirt. I can help you.”

“You just want to show me up,” Conneld said. “I know you’re good–you made me look like a fool during the fair.”

“I just want to get some use out of this life I’ve been given;” Tome assured him, “this body should be in that casket over there. And Pinada may be gone, but there’s still the mystery of the intruders: Templetine and that creature of knives.” He paused, letting a passer-by through before speaking again. “We’ve encountered them before. And I think more might be coming.”

“And how would you know?” Conneld said, struggling to keep his face calm.

“Dark told Pinada in the mine,” Tome replied. “It made him furious.” He glanced over at the front rows of the church, where Dark had his arm around Mean as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “He knows something more about it. His taunts were enough to worry Pinada, and I think that bears watching.”

Conneld peered over at the two. “I don’t sense anything strange,” he said. “Just concern for the girl.”

“He doesn’t think about what he said to Pinada,” Tome admitted. “He just wants to be happy with her, and I don’t aim to ruin it by dredging painful memories up. I’d just advise that we be careful.”

The first notes of a pipe organ’s song resonated, and two said no more. They walked to the pews and sat down with the rest of the mourners as the hymn played.

 

—–

 

Dark and Mean found a balcony door after the service concluded. They walked out into a view of a bright sky with their other world hanging faint past the clouds. They could hear the light chattering at their backs from inside the cathedral, and Dark held Mean close as they looked out from the rail.

“I’m sorry I can’t stop crying,” Mean said, sniffing. “Just when I think I have it under control it starts up again.”

Dark brushed her shoulder. “Well it’s her funeral,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will blame you.”

Mean gave a weak laugh. “Vornis just told me something,” she said. She fished around in the folds of her dress, bringing the lens with leather straps out. “This is the bracelet he gave me when we first met.” Holding it out, she flipped the metallic lens over in her hands. Dark bent his head down as she traced a line around the smooth curve. A tiny engraving on the bottom read “For my friend, Mean.”

“Vornis told me that Parlay wanted to give me a present for winning the tournament,” Mean said. “He thinks this is what it was. He didn’t know that when he found it, though. He only gave it to me because he saw my name on it.” She wiped at her cheek and laughed. “I was so silly; back then I thought it was because we were the same race. But–”

She sobbed again, and Dark’s eyes were wet now, too.

“I think I know what you mean about this crying being hard to stop,” he said, forcing a smile. “Quite a nuisance, now that I don’t have the helmet to hide it.”

She reached up and wiped one of his tears, touched his lips, then stretched up to kiss him. They lingered together a moment, kissed again, and parted. She pulled the bracelet on over her wrist.

“I’ll wear it. And I’ll miss her,” she said. “But I won’t be sad.”

She turned, setting her elbows up on the rail. With the sky at her back, she gazed past Dark–at the people inside the cathedral. Far through the balcony doors a buffet bar could be seen, with Jelk at the front piling his plate high. King and his brother Conneld were next, then Vornis with Eon and Kay Kary giving him a wide berth in the line. Smatter and Charlie flanked Tenny, with Smatter helping himself to Tenny’s crackers and cheese. Tome was picking out pieces of dried fruit from a bowl, while Darrow stood next to him, frowning, with an empty platter. Kello came up behind him with a plate of her own, and she began talking to him.

“Parlay got what she wanted;” Mean said with a smile, “her dream came true, Dark.” She tightened the strap on her wrist, took his hand, and walked in with him. “The world is alive again.”

 

THE END

It Stretches as a Ceiling

 

 

A red sun pulses in the void; vapid streaks of matter bleed out from its form. The plume trails across miles of black space, dipping below the horizon of a shining, glass plain. And the surface is glass; clouds of all colors writhe in an endless crawl beneath it.

A shrine with great walls and columns stands on the glass: statues of people are carved into reliefs, and their faces are all obscured with thick tar. Other, distant buildings stand atop the bare landscape; they appear as stark shapes against the black sky. A figure is lead into the shrine as two more remain by the door.

Three sets of doors lead to a room with a glowing fireplace. Three instruments hang from the hearth and beneath them, the man known as ‘Templetine’ sits. His hair hangs past his shoulders and curves across his chest in a long beard. The tip is still white, with the rest of the length woven with grey. Several people in masks surround him–stoking the fire, carving fruit into pieces–and the features on their masks are all blotted out.

“Hello, dear friends!” the visitor exclaims. A thin veil covers her wide eyes. “How are you all doing? Are you all doing well?”

Templetine takes one of the fruit cubes with a small fork, growling. “Don’t address them,” he says. He takes a bite, speaking while he chews. “Actually, don’t address me either; go back to your angle.”

“But my news is quite thrilling!” the veiled girl says. She dips her head in a bow and back up again in a cycle. “My lady Shirka has given up all claims on her world; any of us may now take whatever we want from it.”

“A worthless gesture;” Templetine says, “a piece of nothing is nothing.”

“But all you need do is help my lady with a few tasks,” the veiled girl says, gesturing with her hand in a continuous circle.

“Help her?” Templetine scoffs. “For a dead world of no use to anyone? Do you think it’s funny, wasting my time with this?”

“This is a generous offer;” the girl goes on, “two of the others have already decided–”

“Generous!?” he booms back. “Tell her to keep it! Go! Get out!”

“I will go do that,” the girl says, spinning on her toe and walking away.

“By Zonz, she’s annoying,” Templetine utters, accepting a cup from another masked person and taking a gulp. A muffled word slips out from one of the others, and Templetine slams the cup down. “What? What is it?” he demands, waving his hand and sending one of the masks falling apart into three pieces.

“I heard–I heard them talking before I opened the doors,” the unmasked individual tells him. She covers her face with her hand. “The people came back.”

Templetine stares with his sunken eyes, his mouth slack. “Eh? People?” he asks. “What people?”

“The ones from her world,” the servant goes on, looking away. “They said everyone that disappeared came back. As quickly as they vanished–years ago.”

“Came back!?” Templetine repeats, slamming the tray with the fruit and sending pieces and peels to the floor. “And who’s they!? Who else is here!?”

At the end of the hall, the veiled girl speaks to another woman: garbed in a black dress and wide-rimmed hat atop red, curling hair. Flecks of rust mar the sleek surface of her clothes, and a circle is strapped against one eye with a band. She turns to gaze at ‘Templetine.’

“You ‘respectfully decline my most generous offer,'” she purrs. She crosses the room, halting at the pieces of spilled fruit on the floor. A stocky, smooth leg slides out of a side slit in her dress.

Templetine chuckles, wiping a hand across his long beard. “Shirka! I didn’t–I was just having a bit of fun!” He gets up from his cushioned chair, pushing aside one of the masked attendants. “I’m quite interested in helping you with your world; you know I have to keep up appearances for these dregs! I was going to come by later, alone; talk it out with you–”

Shirka pinches the rim of her hat; drawing it down over her eye.

“No you weren’t,” she tells him. “I’m not like you. I don’t need magic or separate facts from lies. I don’t need slaves to peel the truth out of something rotten.” She smashes a fruit with the tip of her shoe. She turns her back to him, toying with her hat’s brim. Templetine frowns, snorting.

“You aren’t fooling anyone, you know,” he says after her. “You’re the greediest out of all of us! You wouldn’t just give your world away!”

Shirka puckers her red lips. “Now you’re right about that–I wouldn’t,” she tells him. “I asked a very high price for my world. The highest price that Elder Sain would pay, in fact.”

The veiled girl turns to them with a shadow of a grin beneath the fabric. She hops once with a clap of her hands. Templetine’s foot hits the chair’s leg as he stumbles back.

“The highest–no, Shirka! You wouldn’t!”

He dashes for the fireplace, shoving a servant out of the way. The three ornaments on the hearth snap together. He makes a quick swipe for the device that is formed: falling short and slamming to the ground. Metal tinkles at his bound feet; a chain holds him to the chair. A grin spreads above Shirka’s flat jaw as she watches him thrash.

“Shirka, please,” he begs, brushing at the chains as the interlocked rings twist and wind up his leg. “I’ve been no harsher to you than the others. Please–”

“Your punishment has nothing to do with Shirka’s wishes,” a deep voice states. The masked faces turn to a man striding in: his armor sleek, showing no seams as it wraps across his body. The color is a deep maroon with scattered splotches. A harness holds a monstrous spoked gear at his back. His dark complexion glares out at Templetine through a transparent visor.

“Elder Sain, no,” Templetine whines. “Punishment? No, no–”

“You stole the Nameless’ prototype,” the armored man accuses. “You intruded on Shirka’s world. You have ignored the highest law of Arsiling.”

“I had to–” Templetine chokes out through the chains encircling his torso, arms, and neck. “They broke my world. I couldn’t get it all back together.”

Elder Sain speaks. “And if I didn’t punish you then the world we have here would break. I’m sorry.”

The chains cover Templetine now and the ends of the various lengths snake into the hands of the veiled girl. She swings them to and fro: clanging them together.

“You can’t do this,” Templetine pleads. “It is also law: we can’t–we can’t harm each other!”

The veiled girl goes to the masked slaves, handing each one a chain.

“One last fruit to peel,” she tells them.

Shirka lifts the brim of her hat, both eyes wide with laughter as screams fill the shrine. The armored man looks on with stern continence until the slaves finish with ‘Templetine,’ tossing the heavy chains away. They mumble through their masks at the body.

“After I return them to their world, I’ll prepare the Nameless for her maiden voyage,” the armored man tells Shirka. “If it functions as planned we’ll take it to your former world. Suppress the populace at an appropriate spot. Redistribution will begin from there.”

Shirka turns her head away from the fireplace. She looks up at him through the ring strapped to her eye. “And the other part of my payment–?”

“We’ll pass the other planet on the way; take her and whoever else that you wish.”

He gives a long sigh and beckons to the masked people. “I don’t understand you and your grudges, Shirka; she only destroyed your avatar; we won’t even need them once this is done.”

Shirka stares at his back as she watches him leave with the slaves. “Grudges are all you’ve left me with, dear Elder Sain,” she admits. With a nod to the veiled girl, they exit the shrine: out onto the glass plain where clouds swirl far beneath the transparent surface.

And a weeping, red star hangs in the sky.

 

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