A small man in a rounded frame lapsed his green eyes over a list of scratched names. He flipped the paper over and fixed on one name in particular.
A couple of knocks intruded his mess of a room.
“Come in.” he squeaked in his shrill voice.
The door clicked and a lithe copper women in a white robe sashayed in, “Have you finished the list, Doctor?”
“Not yet, Miss Esther. But this name fascinates me.”
The table creaked as Esther leaned on it back first, “You say the same about every new registration.”
“But this half turn.” He said tapping the paper. “He makes me wonder.”
“What is his name, doctor?”
The stout doctor collected his papers into a stack and chuckled briefly, “Why Esther, you of all turns would know.”
Esther had the head of a mannequin, so when she grinned or laughed it appeared almost robotic. Her eyes were black and blue rings transfixed in white space, her head was bald under her white hat.
Her fingers played an invisible piano upon the edges of the table, while that mannequin head toppled to the side.
She practically hissed the words, “And why, dear doctor, would I know that?”
A simple week turned into the longest he’d ever known.
Dr. Meragmarrat noticed it first. Perhaps it was his job to notice. There were dents on his arms. Bruises by his unturned stomach. A broken rib, maybe two. All of which lay comfortably hidden under his black jacket.
Just as the Timebender arranged, Tig saw to his two friends as part of his practical training. He quickly learned that meant as an assistant of assistants. He’d fetch dressing for the wounds, little injections of toxin neutralizers and buckets of hot water and rags.
On occasion, the Timebender would let him watch the dressing process but never partake in it, confining him to spend his time reading more and more books, so by the fourth day he had already finished volumes two and three of Observations on Mechanization. He was on his way to retrieve the fifth volume when Charles tasked him with the most unfortunate chore.
A golden watch glimmered under his sleeve, it was sullied with dirt and scratches.
“This is ridiculous.” Complained Remy. “Why must I accompany you?”
“Charles complained you got him lost. Twice.” Said Tig.
“Because travel within this tree requires it. How am I supposed to be create pathways that aren’t there? Bring forth tunnels at a command? Tele—How did we get here?”
“We took the path labeled Main Plaza.” He answered.
“Impossible. I saw no sign.”
Tig pointed up. There were signs upon every pathway, each indicating clearly as to where they would lead.
“How often do you look up?”
“Enough…” she trailed.
Tig formed a line with his brows and mouth. Somehow his first gander into the wonderful world of Kura made painful sense.
He slid his wooden fingers across his half iron muzzle and repeated himself, “So did you catch that? Follow the signs, look up to read them.”
“You think me a fool?”
“So long as you carry Carter, I cannot. Right let me show you the first level.”
Remy gripped his wrists before he moved further, “You’re dented.” She noted.
He pulled it away. “I fell.”
She squinted at the arm and clutched her chin.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Calculating to trajectory of your fall to produce such a dent.”
“Unlikely. Unless you fell on a boot.”
Tig pulled his arm free and hid it, “Yes,” he said. “In fact I did fall on a boot.”
“In what manner?”
“The falling kind.” He elaborated. “So the first level. If you apply my steps of looking up and reading you should…”
His speech fell away, his eyes locked on a trio traveling in the distance and closing.
“We should head back.” He decided.
Remy seemed transfixed by the signs in the distance. The trio were closing. They would spot him any moment now. He had to act. So he spoke again before she could take a step, “Bet you don’t know the way back.”
A twitch, a draw, and a click. It was worth it. Remy angrily marched the entirety back, armed all the while. Carter seemed to be her favorite and notably lethal counter.
“A tournament?” she asked moments before entering the hospital.
Tig glanced at a sheet of paper she had been holding. A whole board of the adverts strayed steps away from the Hospital’s front.
“Ah that. They say it’ll be held in the seventh sea.”
“The prize is the key of Seven.” She said, fixing her goggles as she peered at the text. “It could be vital resource to the army.”
“Is that all you think of, the army?”
“That or new parts for a—ahem, that is none of your concern.”
He glanced at the edges of the parchment now sticking out her hands.
“Well if I won, I’d sell it for a sprocket.”
He awaited her aghast reaction at the mention of sprockets. All he got was a raised brow.
“Is that all you think of?” she echoed him. “Money?”
Tig pushed the door, “Don’t underestimate what money can do. With money, it doesn’t matter what you do in life, just why you do it. I want that.”
Remy stayed silent for minutes as they walked the long hall.
“I wouldn’t mind if money truly did that.” she said at last. “But it doesn’t.”
“How would you know?”
Carter pressed against his back. She spoke in a whisper, “I’m rich.”
The bare chested Franco stood crossed armed by the doorway to his room and the gun lowered.
“Cantinio.” Said Remy.
“Ah, the famous Remy Le Ricci, the one who took on Venezio Trimbly and nearly won.”
“Yes.” She said. “Until she defended Tiguak Trimbly.”
Tig peaked in the room to see if Gemjo was inside. He spotted her lazily sprawled and scratching her side. He smiled, lazy or not she had been fast returning to normal.
His upturned lips quickly contorted as he spoke, “I was just showing Remy how to properly navigate Kura. Wait.” He started, spinning to Remy with a finger levied at her. “Did you just say my name correctly?”
“Is there any other way to pronounce it?”
“Hah! Franco.” Called Tig. “That is how you say my name.”
Remy shook her head, “No Ti-gu-ak, the ‘g’ is formed at the back of your mouth.”
“Ah.” Said Franco with a snap of his silver digits, “So it’s silent then?”
Tig plopped his hand on his head. He sighed towards Remy, “Forget it. It’s hopeless, Remeaux.”
Remy raised a hand to contest that when Gemjo cut in.
“Oi, you two, ditch the blue hat for a moment.”
The two turned to Remy, then Gemjo and back to Remy again.
“You’re conspiring.” Accused Remy. “Definitely conspiring.”
Gemjo snarled lazily, “Who says we’re conspiring, princess?”
“Princess?” muttered Remy.
Gemjo raised to her wolf feet tiredly. Her tail swept the ground in her wake, “Aye, you. Lil’ niss noble. Ricci was it? Rich girl, huh? The only thing us poor folks conspire about is what we’ve got to eat and whether or not we’ll end up as scrap come the morrow. Now do you want to hear all that, princess?”
Remy had already reached for Carter as she gobbed a response, “As a matter of fact I--”
Gemjo closed the gap between until her breaths brushed the tip of Remy’s nose, “What is that? Silver plated? Just how rich are you to silver plate a gun? Ah, that’s it. You’ve come to mock us, eh? And is that?” She audibly sniffed. “Gunpowder perfume? Good talk. Well heard. If you want to stop us from conspiring, try getting a blue hat that reeks better than you do.”
Remy’s face had gone cherry bright when Gemjo finished. “You know what?” She sneered. “I will.”
She puffed and turn extravagantly. Her stomping echoed well after her.
Second passed before Gemjo glanced back at the other two and wandered back in the room, “That’ll give us some time.”
“You mean you planned that?” asked Tig, following her closely
Gemjo scratched her ear, “I wasn’t having some blue hat listen in on us.”
“We’re conspiring then?” guessed Franco.
Gemjo stopped short between the two stretcher beds, “Ofcourse we’re conspiring.”
Tig pointed at the Timebender, still in the room and enjoying an oily tea, “And him?”
Gemjo shrugged, “Future problems. Now, our escape.”
Franco nodded, “I’ve thought of it too. We’ll rent a ship.”
“Better steal one.” Said Gemjo.
“Steal?” scoffed Tig.
Gemjo rolled her eyes, “You have any idea how much renting a ship costs? Even a sloop requires a down payment of two hundred cogs.”
“Wait. Wait!” stammered Tig. “We’re not even sure we want to leave. Timebender, surely you have a say I this?”
The old turn lowered his cup, “This tea is delicious.”
“Useless.” Sighed Tig. “Well I say we stay, at least until I can reliably heal you two.”
The tea cup clattered against the porcelain and the trio turned to the Timebender, “Gemjo and Franco are still poisoned. It is in their best interest to go.”
“An avid reminder, ol’ chap.” said Franco. “While I am terrified of the large, consuming, endless, dark—you know what, I’d rather survive. If that means crossing that you-know-what, I will go. Tig, are you with us?”
“I…” Tig lowered his chin. It was a damning choice. He had to become a doctor. He just had to and while travel did lean itself to gathering knowledge it did not equate to learning the traditional, safer way. Even if that way happened to have three very moderately sized obstacles.
“I can’t.” he said shaking his head. “Not yet. I’ve still much more to learn. Maybe in a year, perhaps two, I’ll join you.”
“Two years?! Hours Tig, we’ll have toppled a quarter no half the Navy by then!”
“Right. Half. So you’re leaving us?” said Gemjo.
Tig nodded. It was decided, “It’s my only chance at doing what I need to do.”
“But what you don’t want to do.” Finished Gemjo. “I can’t say I understand you, but I won’t push you. Too much effort that. So if you’d rather not get implicated, get lost.”
Tig frowned, “Gemjo.”
“She’s right Tig.” said Franco.
Gemjo gave him a lazy smile, “We’ll call you back when it’s time to change the bandages.”
The Timebender nodded and the door shut behind him, muffling the voices that played after. Tig traveled the rest of the halls with hands stuffed in his coat pockets and his steps long and measured.
His arms throbbed, his ribs burned but more than anything his head dizzied. There might as well have been fireworks there, cups clanking and the wizard tower always in the distance. He was back in Verace again.
He thought of escape, that ever distant door, the outstretched bronze hand and the willfully stupid wish. What was it really if only that, a dream?
Dr. Meratmarrag woke him from that dream. The small, strange faced doctor had been waiting by the door.
“Nister Trimbly. Have you made up your mind?”
“Yes Doctor, I’m staying.”
“Excellent choice if I may say so. Young turns these days rush too much. I can arrange for your first exam at once.”
Tig pushed open the door, “I’d like that. But give some time for now.”
He steeled himself as he passed it and studied the grass emptily. Another day awaited him. Not escape. And all another day meant was more bruises and the slightest read of a book.
“Tig.” The word was spat, directed. Anu. Tig shivered up. They had followed him.
Cinder had been punching her hands together as if that made the already fiery metal assailant any worse. Hau had his teeth grit and his chin upturned. While Anu stared, only stared.
“I don’t want to fight.” Called Tig.
Silvers veins bulged on Anu’s temple, “Enough of your feeble wishes. Fight us this time. Show me that Trimbly blood that boils in your arteries.”
Tig balled his fists, “Doctors heal people.”
“You’ve killed more than you’ve healed.”
“I haven’t killed anybody!” retorted Tig.
“Tell that to my father.” Anu snapped his fingers, ghostly winds swirled around him. Some of the soldiers in the courtyard stopped to watch. Always watching.
Tig readied himself. He knew where the attacks would come. He could blunt them off with his arms to avoid any serious injury. He winced as the burning in his ribs got worse and he darted his eyes between the three of them. The problem was the other two.
“You’ve an unpaid debt, Trimbly.” Said Anu stretching his arms to the side. “And I mean to collect.”
The blue winds that swished around him were spirits and every chitik used spirits differently. Anu’s style reminded him much of his father’s, that is, each blue spectre would deliver a blunt force.
The spirits rushed. The other two charged. Seconds now, steps.
Then silence as a shot had echoed through the chamber. Several of the on-looking soldiers had reached for their guns, heads zipping about.
“Who interfered?” roared Anu, levelling a finger at Tig. “He’s Tiguak Trimbly. The same Trimbly as the ones who filled that hospital.”
A menagerie of angry eyes surrounded him. No wonder they watched.
Her steps crunched before her. Smoke billowed form Carter.
Remy Le Ricci spoke with her gun hovering on Anu and her back to Tig, “I did.”
“You’re friends with the navy?” laughed Anu. “Really? You need them to fight your battles?”
“I didn’t ask for it.” Said Tig.
“A soldier protects.” Answered Remy.
Cinder and Hau had retreated by now.
“Let’s go, Anu.” Said the Tangata. “That’s the same Ricci that fought Venezio Trimbly. She’s strong.”
The grit of his teeth was audible.
“No.” He barked with a running start. Anu was as fast as Tig and seemingly fearless.
The next shot missed and Anu had Tig by the collar. He held the boy even as Carter pressed against the side of his head.
“Fight me, damn it. Fight me!”
Tig fought back his grip. “No.”
“Because I’m to be a doctor.”
Anu pulled him close, his grip tightening, “You, a Trimbly? Becoming a doctor?”
His head tilted to the side as Carter pushed against it.
“Unhand him.” Ordered Remy.
“Wait.” Said Anu with his orange eyes darting to the girl. “I’ve an offer. It’s in his best interest.”
The gun lowered. Anu continued, “There’s a sparring ring, upper levels. Fight me there, one on one. No Cinder or Hau nor your soldier girl. Do so and whether you win or lose I’ll leave you alone.”
“You mean it?” wheezed Tig.
Anu nodded briskly, “I swear by my ancestors.”
“Alright.” Said Tig, letting his arms fall to his side. “The ring it is.”
Tig’s boots scraped the floor as Anu thrusted him back.
“We leave at once.” Said the boy gruffly. “Follow me.”
Remy stood in front of him as the boy shrank to his friends.
“He’s lying.” She put it bluntly.
“Perhaps he is.”
“Then why did you accept?”
Tig glanced away, “Because if there’s even a chance he’s not, I need to take it.”
“To become a doctor?”
“The melancholy of one Trimbly is enough to permeate the ranks of us sevens, disappointing as that may be. Even to the point of distracting the Sergeant,” she said that with a sigh and reached in her coat, momentarily producing a slim notebook. Its cover was green, leathery and warm, “Take this. If you are to fight that vagrant might as well use magic you’re familiar with.”
He spotted an inked pen alongside the book as he accepted it, “Written magic. I’m surprised you knew that to. Though I would have preferred a gun.”
“You’re too young.”
“I’m as old as you!”
She studied him from top to bottom, “Perhaps physically but you lack the same maturity.”
“I…” Tig caught a distant Anu scowling at him and tapping his foot expectantly. “Nevermind, it seems I need go.”
Two steps and the fabric of his jacket tugged back. The silver glint of the hand holding it engrossed him.
Remy dared not meet his eye, “I’m coming along. Know that should you’re life be endangered I will interfere.”
“No, this is my fight. I don’t want any others injured.”
Her brow furrowed, “I wasn’t asking for permission.”
The thought of involving her made him sick. He was the opposite of a doctor again and he wanted nothing more than to change that. He could think of only one way.
He lowered his chin, “I won’t let him endanger me then.”
Following Anu led them to the main hall then up another. This one, as Tig realised, lacked the long unending bookshelves that populated the lower levels. Instead, shorter paths blotted the sky at varying levels, painting the oak pathway in subtle shadows.
The path they were on led up a slight incline and into a plaza with an open skyline. Tig spotted pagodas close by, jutting out the cover of a forest growing on a massive branch. They were bits of grey and browns in ocean of green. Ticking gondolas ran atop tracks spiralling along the tree’s expanse.
A fountain spewed in the middle of the mossy plaza and clockwork birds flew by in swarms. Yet another tunnel opened halfway across the space. Hordes of mechanized denizens travelled to and fro the elevated entry.
They kept on it nervously. Every step onwards was a step into the unknown and one high and higher. The tunnel split apart a dozen times and on each occasion Anu made quick, practiced work of it, Cinder and Hau always close by. Most of the tunnels had tightly packed metal houses with lamps lit by them and within. The final tunnel became the exception.
In place of the usual wall side structures stood ten angled roof manses with walled grounds. Five on each side.
Each ground was marked by strange symbols Tig knew to be the language of the Above Landers. While the people themselves loitered around. Remy seemed to shrink as strangers glimpsed their way.
“Fighting schools.” She croaked, making herself scarce behind Tig.
He could hear the coordinated huffs within the various gated schools. The flocks of turns had matching outfits based on which school they came out of. Some wore long red robes with golden trims, other bore glossy grey shirts and trousers, a white lion’s head engraved on the back.
And another group wore strictly white garments. Tight top covers and puffy white pants and, strangest of all, white straw hats with long similarily white ear like extensions.
Tig cocked his head at one these turns, “They look almost like…”
“Rabbits.” Sneered Remy.
Tig found that odd how she said that, even as she seemingly cowered behind him as they paced, there was the purest discontent in her tone. So much so it was notably different from her usual discourse.
He wondered just what she had against rabbits, but only wondered. He lowered his head as Anu vanished into the far hall. The sounds of sparring were evident in the kicks, cries and blunted impacts. Right now, he had to fight a fruitless battle.
A pavilion opened before him. Three colosseums as wide as galleons sat underneath a cavernous roof supported by natural wooden arches. Light from the clock engine spilled from the very center of the ceiling.
Anu had been talking with a half turn Above Lander by the left coliseum when Tig and Remy made to them. He was dressed in the white outfit Tig saw earlier.
“But Anu, we’ve got practice here, brother.”
“This is important, Renshi. All I need is thirty minutes.”
“Half an hour?” Renshi glanced by way of Tig and nodded. “If that is all, maybe, but no more you hear me?”
Anu clutched his hands together and bowed deeply, “Honor to you, friend.”
Renshi bowed back, his long black hairs falling with him, “And to you, brother.”
When Renshi left, Anu made to main the door of the coliseum and gestured Tig to follow him.
The height of the ornate iron doors was a testament to the high walls of the building as were the menacing spikes that dotted it at equal lengths.
The room darkened as they entered. A bright light glimmered at the end of it. Gears and the distant of pounding of colossal clockwork played somewhere between the endless arches.
“Close,” said Tig as he saw Anu, Cinder and Hau engulfed by it. He hid the book Remy gave him within his coat and finished the last steps. Light blinded them as a dusty field expanded ahead. Rows upon rows of seats circled above the tall walls. All were empty.
“No one to see you fall. Pity.” Echoed Anu now at the center of it. His goonish companions fled to a far side.
Remy, who had mostly recovered in the absence of strangers, made to a place opposite of Anu’s friends.
Tig lifted his jacket slightly and peaked at the green notebook Remy had gifted him. “Rules?” He asked.
“None. Fight with anything you got. Be it magic, fist or weapon.”
“Well I have a rule.” Said Tig. “No killing.”
“You think me your kin, Trimbly? I am no criminal. But,” said Anu, cracking his stony knuckles, “I won’t stray from teaching you lesson.”
He raised his hand to that and Tig steeled himself.
A series of finger snaps echoed and what followed was a bombardment of blue strokes through the air, each as strong as Anu’s fists.
Tig managed barely to block each of the hits, but the pain made him a blunted blade. An ethereal strike connected with his gut. He stumbled back. Steps resounded and when he reared up, something hard pushed his chin.
The sight of Anu, one knee up, greeted him. Anu spat and closed the distance with a running punch. Tig knew there would be no delay, no moment to think. All he could do was block it with his elbows.
The impact shook him. It was a heated strike, yet one of immeasurable anguish. Anu followed it with another then another. He was relentless yet slow.
“I could do nothing.” Cried Anu, drawing his fist back. “Nothing when he was killed.”
Another blow echoed loud. Stone against metal. The plates in his arms creaked horridly. Something cracked. There was pain in those punches. And not just for Tig. For each hit was a memory. Frustration. Anger. The terrible revolt of a creature lost in grief. In those punches Tig saw the image of a boy bloodying his fists on a wall, challenging the enemies he could never face.
Then, tired of his own monotony, Anu aimed lower. Stone crunched against un-mechanized flesh. Wounds opened. Tig balked back.
“Did you know how my father spared yours? Huh? Did you?”
Tig shook his head, his hand covering his churning gut.
Anu paced ahead of him, fists quivering madly, “Yutu, the great hunter of man. The elders tasked him with finding Toklo and when he did my father discovered a man who remembered nothing of his past ruthlessness, a man who seemingly begun anew in a far off border village. Yutu spared him.”
Anu snapped his fingers and a blue fist sent Tig sprawling, one wooden hand held loosely over his cheek.
“My father showed mercy and not two years later that killed him.”
Another blow, the other cheek.
“So why is it you try little to finish the job?” asked Anu.
“We… are… not our fathers.”
Tig shook his head, “No.”
Anu’s lip twitched in fury. He made to snap his fingers but stalled himself, “They say even the wounded stone seal will fight when it enters the jaws of death.”
Tig stood up straight. “I said I won’t fight.”
“Then I’ll make you.”
Tig clutched his jacket making Anu pause once again. A series of chuckles escape the Trimbly. He had heard enough.
“I take it you got everything you need out?” asked Tig.
“What are you scheming at Trimbly?”
Tig smiled, a black pen tumbled between his fingers. He flipped open his jacket and caught the pen with the tips of his fingers.
“If you’re done,” said Tig, lowering his chin, “Then it’s my turn.”
His opponent realised it too late. Before he could snap his fingers or even think to move, Tig wrote two lines on the paper and shut it.
Anu flinched, “What did you…” He gasped and lowered his hand. His breathless expression shifted into one of outrage. “You snake!”
“Minor binding spell.” Revealed Tig. “Your fingers on either hand are now bound to your palms.”
Anu puffed, “I thought you knew nothing of our ways, Trimbly.”
“I didn’t. But I know you snap your fingers before you attack.”
Anu took a step, “Then I’ll pummel you.” He tripped on the next, “Gah!”
“Again.” Started Tig. Ashes fluttering beside him, “Minor binding on your ankle.”
“Who trained you!?” He spat.
“The best.” Answered Tig. “Though I’d rather a simpler method.”
Cinder and Hau were about ready to pounce. Hau more so, “He’s cheating- sha.”
“Anu, let us help you!” called Cinder.
“No. This is nothing.” Anu turned to Tig. “You could have fought back all this time and yet you waited to fight me. Why?”
“Not to fight. To restrain.”
“So this entire time you were studying me?”
Tig’s eyes fled low. “Yes and… no. I haven’t done anything wrong, but I did survive. Perhaps I thought I deserved your cruelty. Even then, know that fighting me will do you little good. Not for you nor your father.” Tig swished his arm to the side and his pen nearly escaped his grasp. “It won’t bring him back.”
“Silence!” snapped Anu, struggling against the binds. “This is the only way to honor him.”
“There is no honor in this.”
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up! I don’t want to hear that from a Trimbly.” He stumbled up, his ankle stretching unnaturally as he did. “Nor… will I lose to one!”
“Stop.” Cried Tig. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
His orange eyes quivered, his exposed ankle contorted and he dared a step.
He didn’t make it.
A red cape obscured the boy and a blade sounded against flesh, a hollow shunk. The glint of a steel edge flashed. Black blood dripped off the tip of it.
“I told you didn’t I?” started the figure in red, turning his masked guise to meet the boy, “I told you I’d come, brother.”