The sloop creaked in the midday sun. The sails rustled and the vessel bobbed. Five figures populated the ship. One at the back, one below her, a smaller one staring off starboard, one swaying and the last, sitting cross-legged upon the tip of the prow.
“It stinks.” Complained Tig. “Of liquor, sweat and is that a furball?”
Gemjo’s ears twitched, “It might be.”
“What’s wrong with liquor, mate?”
Franco shivered, “It swishes, it’s liquid and it… it surrounds us.”
Tig’s eyes quickly swapped from Gemjo sitting at the back to Franco huddled below her. The boy frowned. For a man who boasted of toppling the navy he had not stood up once since the sloop set sail. Worse, he was rocking. His round and determined eye had become stuffy and adrift.
“Are you alright, Franco?” asked Tig.
“Me? Yes. Yes! Of course, why wouldn’t I be? I just needed… shade to… look at maps better.” He shuffled until his back was to the railing, and he tapped the wall of the half deck behind him. A drawer zipped out. Several scrolls toppled, and he gestured at them nervously. “Too much light if I stand. Yes that’s it.”
“You sure it’s not something else, mate?”
Light glinted off the half empty bottle. Franco had been glaring at the man at the end of it.
“I’m certain, friend.”
The Professor lowered his bottle, flashed a gold and silver smile and swaggered close to Franco, “Savy I guess mate? I’m good at guessing.”
The Professor tripped a bit and hicc’ed, “I’d say it’s big and blue.”
Franco went pale.
“And…” continued the drunk, “It’s above us isn’t it?”
Gemjo rolled her eyes, “The sky? You think it’s the sky?”
The Professor fell by Franco’s side and slung his brass arm over Franco’s shoulder, “Terrible thing, the sky. I understand you mate. Believe me. Always above us like a roof you can’t escape.”
“Yes the sky.” said Franco. “Oh how did you know?”
“Pure genius. I am Professor.”
Tig cocked his head, “But Franco, you weren’t shaking on Siblisey?”
Franco puffed, “Did you ever see me look up? Hah, no I bet not, that’s the secret.”
Gemjo yawned, “You’re all idiots.”
“And you’re stuck with us, mate.”
The sea wolf pouted. Tig ofudn himself grinning. It was true. Despite the power of her people, despite how much freedom it afforded her at sea, Gemjo of Clan Yuka would forever be stuck sailing until her bounty was cleared.
The man in the white hat spoke, “A man approaches.”
All eyes turned to the front. It was the first thing the stranger said since they left Siblisey two days ago.
Sure enough, a tall, thin man in a straw hat and white robes rowed towards them upright and on a raft. Tig squinted at what appeared to be an outline of island behind him. Gemjo elbowed the steam engine and it stammered to a stop. The waters slowed around them.
“That island.” Started Franco, sitting up at the sight of land. “Yes, my star reading last night was correct. If we ring around that isle we should intercept the Hungering City in a matter of hours!”
“Hours?” said Gemjo. “Enough for a nap I guess.”
“Is that all you think of?” laughed Tig.
Gemjo shrugged, “That and whether the man up ahead means us harm.”
Tig refocussed on that figure. As close as he was now, the straw hat did little to hide his features. He had a black face, white eyes and a tattoo the shape of a ‘Y’ that curved above his brows and ran down his flat nose. It was as white as his eyes and that of their guest’s.
He was seconds away when their guest spoke again, “He is a time priest, servant of one of the twelve. He is powerful should you fail his question, docile should you get it right.”
“I’ve heard of that lot. They travel around and ask what Hour you worship. Savy you pick the one he worships and he’ll leave ya alone. Otherwise he kills ya”
“Three lines.” Said Gemjo. “Three lines form the shape on his head. I say it’s the Third Hour.”
“Agreed.” Said Tig.
“So we all say Third then?’ asked Franco. “Alright. Third it is.”
The guest gave an affable grunt and the Professor swayed a bit.
The raft scraped the prow of the boat and Straw hat tilted.
“Which Hour do you serve?” asked the straw hat man.
A bead of sweat rolled down Tig’s temple. The guest had been right. He flicked his eyes to Gemjo then Franco. He wondered who was brave enough to go first.
He did not expect it to be the guest, “I worship the Third Hour.” Hummed the old full turn.
Gemjo was next, “Third.”
“Third.” cried Franco.
Tig gulped, “Third.”
The Professor lowered his bottle. Just as the drunk began to voice a word, the straw hat man held up his black metallic hand.
“That is enough. By time’s decree, you have passed. You are no heretics. May the seas bid you well.”
The raft dislodged from their sloop and Tig drew a breath as it did. Still, he eyed the raft and the man on as it drifted to their side. He had no doubt whether that man could kill them or not.
He had only heard the name ‘Time Priest’ mentioned once before and that was on the worried breaths of sailors who had seen too much.
The Professor blurred in his peripherals.
“Oi, priest! Ya left without letting me finish.”
The raft paused, the man turned.
The Professor half smirked to that, golds and silvers glinting, “The Hour I worship is the First.”
Silence. Both boats swayed. Tig ran his wooden hands across his face. The sighs of his companions joined his own. An idiot. He had been traveling with an idiot.
His telling glare quickly fell off the Professor when he noticed how the Time Priest had shifted.
Both his white tattoos and eyes had been glowing.
Tig stumbled back and tripped on the last step, “He’s angry isn’t he?”
The eyes glowed brighter, the air around the priest simmered.
“Yup. Definitely angry.”
The engine buzzed to life and he saw Gemjo repeatedly whacking it. He flipped back to the priest, narrowed his brows. He had to act. Now.
He reached into his black coat and searched madly. Not there. He kept patting.
“Impossible.” He muttered. “I never took it off.”
“You looking for your book mate?”
“Yes! Do you know where it is?”
The Professor swished his head, “I may have, uh, sold it at the pub for some cogs. Good money that.”
Tig’s jaw quivered. He hadn’t the words. The white lights of the Straw Hat man’s eyes had become almost blinding now.
Tig shook his head, “Gemjo, use your gun!”
“I don’t have a gun!” she yelped.
He whirled, “Franco, use—use your muscles!”
Franco swallowed and leapt to his feet, “Right, you can do this Francisco Cantinio. It’s just a little water, nothing to be afraid of.” His eyes traveled down to the waves in front and instantly he shrank. “Nope, nope, nope. I can’t good Tij—“
“-- I’ve cramped my leg.”
“Yea.” said Tig. “That’s it.”
“He-re-tics.” The straw hat man’s voice was a snake’, hissing and venomous. “Heretics!”
His arms jutted apart. The overflowing robes he wore shuffled back to his elbows and bits of white lightning crackled at his fingertips.
Just when the sloop creaked forwards, the priests swung his arm, lights culminating upon it. Tig gulped. They would not make it.
And dissipated. Now the black outline of the guest had formed in front of them. His feet were perched on the rim of the boat and his hands pressed together as if he was praying.
His head clicked as it turned to Tig.
“Run.” He hushed.
The engine roared and sloop jetted ahead.
Sea water spilled over the deck. A salt mist hovered rom the sides.
“He’s following.” Reported Gemjo as she leaned over the edge. “Fast to.”
“I shall fight him.” Said their guest.
“No old man, you stay here.” Snapped Franco.
The old guest made that same mandible smile he had previously and before Tig could reach for him, he stepped over the edge.
“No!” said Tig running towards him. A bronze hand drew him back.
“Trust your elders, mate. I bet the old butt’s got a plan.”
“Or he’s senile.” Said Gemjo.
A loud boom resounded as she said that. Gemjo, Tig and even Franco peaked over the edges of the ship.
What they saw was beyond any of them. It was Magic.
White lightning streaked across the sky, licking the sea as it shot at the guest. Not one hit him.
Tig’s focus remained on the old man even as that figure shrunk in his sights. Hit after hit resulted in massive sea sprays, fogging the battle more and more.
“Ice,” gasped Tig, “He’s using Ice.”
“Never heard of the magic.” Said the drunk.
Tig turned to him, the island neared, “But you’re professor of magic!”
“Precisely why it bothers me, mate. No such thing as ice magic. Freezing water? Preposterous. Maybe with written magic? Yes written magic could do it.”
A monstrous beam of white barely grazed the ships’ portside. Tig staggered to see where it came. His heart sank.
The straw hat man had emerged from the fog and was close upon them. His raft was skidding the waves with tremendous speed.
Franco struggled up, “There’s a forest in the island ahead friends, we’ll hide within it.”
“If we can make it.” Croaked Gemjo. “Look!”
The priest had been making signs with his hands. Lightning gathered around him. Water swirled and winds gusted.
A crackling white dome of sea, air and lightning formed around the still moving priest and expanded. Tig fell to his back. His eyes rising. Now they wouldn’t make it.
The dome swallowed the sloop and several minutes of the sea along with it. Everything went white.
For a moment he raclled a land just as white. Of a small village made of black stone huts where smoke incense mixed with rockswimmer meat. He recalled home. True home.
The white vanished. He gasped. Sizzling sand burned at his exposed neck and he stood up to the banter of distant seagulls and the momentary wash of waves.
A jagged plank stuck out of the sand. He saw another. Then another and another. His head hammered as he stood up and the sight of more planks flooded into view. It ended with the rather abrupt and sinking sight of a shattered sloop upon a black tooth.
Tig fell to his knees. His heart began to race. Sweat dripped from his forehead and drenched the sand.
He glanced up.
“By the Hours is that you Tib?”
“Tig.” He sniffed, strangely elated to have his name mispronounced. “Did the others… did they survive?”
Franco nodded, waving some scrolls ahead of him, “As did my scrolls. I stayed to search for them while Gemjo went out looking for you. The Professor, well, I’m not sure where he went. Just wandered into the forest after Gemjo left. He had some strange pouch on him. Muttered something about sobriety.”
While the forest rested in Tig sights, the sea had him more enamored than anything. He asked the inevitable, “Where is he?”
Franco held his map to the sky and Tig grinned at the man who had already overcome his fear of the sky.
“Don’t know.” Said Franco. “And I don’t care to find out. Best he thinks us dead as my sloop.” Franco frowned. “Which brings me to our other pressing matter.”
The two of them stood by the foot of the shattered boat. It was split in two and the prow was missing. Remnants of tattered sails gripped to the sharp rocks desperately.
Franco cocked his head, his chin crested by his silver hand, “You know, I bet we could salvage this.”
“We do need fire.” Nodded Tig.
Franco gave him a shove and smiled at him, “Not that, you tanned city fish. I mean a raft. Seeing how our villainous assailant pursued us has inspired me. If I can salvage the engine of the ship, gather a few planks and the propeller, it could work.”
“You can do that?”
“Aye, I may not look like it good Tik--”
“—But I have bachelor’s in Chronodynamics, a minor in Tinkership.”
“You know, tinkering for ships.”
“Right. I knew that.” Said Tig. “I’ll find Gemjo and the Professor then.”
“Oh and should you find some full turned animals, bring them back. We could use their parts for the ship.”
Tig nodded, waving back at Franco as he ventured into the island.
From where he stood he could not spot much past the immediate forest and the beach that curved on the other end. The island was a small one. It was flat with a gradual incline leading to a central hill. The forest Franco had described earlier was a sprawl of junipers and cork oaks. Gaps in the forest gave way to particular larger oaks.
Untouched by the machinations of civilisation, it seemed the epitome of nature.
Had it been any other scenario, it would have been a triumph of his escape. A true island escape. But now, with planks scattered behind him and the sun burning at his temple, it was no more than a disaster. His feet splurged in his boots. He shuddered. Wet socks.
He decided on finding Gemjo first. If she had truly gone looking for him she would been somewhere around the coast. His brows lowered and he stepped towards the forest. If she had bothered to that is. Knowing Gemjo, there only one place she would go.
A piercing howl deafened all else. A series of aluminum birds rushed out of the trees. He froze. He sorely wished that was either Gemjo or the Professor. Otherwise, they were not alone.
He turned back to the ship and saw Franco in the distance gesturing him to continue.
Tig sighed and kept on his pace. “One step Tig, one step,” he told himself.
Trees swished over ahead of him and the shade off the forest welcomed him. The heat was gone the moment he entered. Circkets chirped, piano birds sang.
Then he heard another sound. A familiar sound. Snoring. He passed a gnarled oak and two junipers and found her on a hammock made with much of the missing sails.
“Of course,” he muttered, his brows low.
He reached for her and paused. Franco would take a while to put together a vessel, at least the bits Tig could not assist in. He had time. Perhaps to breathe. Perhaps to think.
He leaned against the hammock, and it lurched as he did. He crossed his arms. The last few days had been hectic. He had thought about leaving to sea a thousand times before but to think he’d lose two ships in the span of days was almost unthinkable. Or perhaps, as long as the Professor was with him, that would be a daily occurrence.
Even if nothing seemed guaranteed, Tig knew it was the moments of peace that served as the true treasures. Not cogs, not even sleep or drink. Just peace.
He took in the sight as he thought that. They were by a meadow. A creak trickled by. Light spat past the opening in the branches and glinted off the waters, revealing some of the cobble rocks at the bottom.
He glanced at her.
She was asleep on her side and facing him. Bits of the light from the treetops twinkled on her metal hairs. Her mouth was half open, drool trickling out. Maybe she was after peace of a different kind?
The scarlet scarf she wore hung loosely off the edge. He squinted at it and remembered. Peace was not his to have, not until he finished what he needed to. No one knew. No one except Wilma and, now, most likely Marici.
He did not want them to. Not for the longest time. Not until he realised he would not come back.
Gemjo’s snores hummed in the back of his mind, and he smiled.
“Perhaps I should tell you.” He mused. “You are a northerner.”
Her snores croaked a little.
He stared off into the creek bed, “It happened six years ago, I remember it still. I remember the colors. The smell. Fire. It was the day I met my half family. Well,” he trailed, his eyes flicking down, “the day they met me. The have a saying in my family. That blood runs hotter than steam, whatever that means.” He laughed. He paused as his smile faded. “But they’re not my real family and they never will be. Not after what they did. I can’t…” He stopped short as something in the creek caught his eye. The glint of it made him slide up his goggles.
He took off from the hammock and made to the rushing waters. As he got closer the shape of it became more defined.
He crouched, his hand extended ahead of him. It was a key. The water formed eddies around his alien limb before he drew the treasure out of the bank.
Still dripping, he held it up to his goggles. He marveled at it. It was a polished ebony piece, with a golden trim around the head and an hourglass cut out of it. His eyes traveled to the end of the key. It had only one projection, but one shaped like a triangle with a circle carving out the tip. He ran his index finger along the blade and turned it. Small letters appeared briskly in the light. Letters he knew nothing of.
“You found something?” Yawned Gemjo.
He caught her rubbing her eyes and sitting on the hammock.
He stuffed the key in his coat pocket, “No. Just observing my turn.”
“Oh?” she said wading to the creek. Her furry face soon joined his as the two stared into the surface. Her eyes lowered. “This is boring.”
Tig glanced away, “When did you wake?”
“Why? Did you want to know when I knew you were gawking at me?”
“I—I just got here.”
Tig shook his head. “The Professor. We need to find him.”
“About that. I have a proposal. Now hear me out, chitik, I say we abandon him.”
“Not again. We tried that.”
Gemjo flung her arm around his neck and leaned close, “This is different. We’re on an island. If we go, he won’t find us. Say Franco finishes his ship, then we leave without the man who got us here. Think about it.”
Tig stepped away from her, “No. I felt sick the first time we did that. I’m not doing it again.”
She frowned, wandered to her hammock and tumbled into it, “I tried.”
“You’re just going to sleep here? What if Franco needs our help?”
She turned over, “Even if Franco doesn’t finish I could always swim off.”
“And your bounty?”
“I got enough cogs to pay it off. And in case you’re wondering, I hid my cogs before I found shelter. In case someone stole from me while I was… recuperating.”
A smile played up his cheek, “Did you hide those cogs in a pouch?”
She shot up. The hammock swung.
“Because Franco saw a certain drunk carrying it.”
Her voice croaked, “No…”
The two northerners sped under the branches. They ran for minutes before Tig requested a stop. Trees hovered over them. They had run directly into the midst of the forest.
“Where?” He puffed. “Where could the drunk have gone?”
Gemjo sniffed the air, “Follow me.”
Gemjo sighed, “You rest too much, chitik.”
“I don’t want to hear that from you, seawolf.” Tig stood up as he said that. “Did you howl earlier by the way?”
Her tail visible shivered and he scoffed back a laugh.
Gemjo spun to him, her guise livid, “We do not howl.”
“Was it the Professor then? Did he howl?”
“What howl?” she sighed.
“You didn’t hear it? It happened a little before I stumbled upon you.”
“See my delightfully fluffy ears? I would have heard a howl.”
His brows fell low. Gemji’s butterfly ears twitched.
“What if you were asleep?”
Gemjo had risen a rebuttal finger when a crunch echoed from the woods.
“Professor?” asked Tig.
Another crunch. Gemjo nudged her head to the side and held that rebuttal finger to her lips. Tig took a gander at his sides. The shrubs shuffled. A branch snapped.
He heard hurried breaths. Shadowy outlines appeared between the trees.
“Definitely not alone.” Said Tig. He counted ten of them.
Steps sounded behind them and soon they found themselves surrounded with little more than oaks to keep them separate. Tig’s back brushed against Gemjo’s.
The creatures wandered forwards. They were not human. Most were of similar build. They had long double jointed arms, red suits that covered their lanky forms, and crimson top hats that favored their heads. Their skinny legs ended with ornate mechanical talons. And worst of all, each had the face of an ivory owl.
Several green and orange owl eyes blinked around them. Tophats tipped. Long limbs dragged.
“I’ve heard of these.” Said Tig. “The Mad Gents of Triberi. Wil—the woman who took care of me told me about them. They were supposed to be fairy tales.”
The gents straggled close, their heads clicking every which way.
Tig rose his hands as if to defend himself, “The gents are physically strong and they don’t communicate the same as us. They are extremely aggressive.”
“Strange fairy tale.”
Tig shrugged, “Wilma always tried to be blunt about these things.”
“Then I’ll be blunt as well.”
Her back brushed of his and the moment he spun to her, she shifted into an orca. Black and white collided with red. Tig started. The gents paused. An opening lay before him.
Steam billowed up as she returned to her form “Run!” she cried.
Tig made to Gemjo, helped her up and ran as quick as he could.
He glimpsed behind him, but heard them first. Nine terrible screeches muted all else. He covered his ears instinctively as he ran.
Gemjo had been speaking as the two made pace. He lowered his arms and glanced back, red blurs were speeding up.
“Tig!” spoke the puffing Gemjo. “Can you hear me?”
“I smell him close. Just him.” She sniffed. “Wherever he is, he’s outrun from these things. Even safe perhaps.”
They jumped a log. Another screech
“Or he’s deftly avoided them.” Countered Tig.
Gemjo ducked a branch. Even in their sprint, the girl played her skeptical mug.
“Right.” Huffed Tig. “He’s definitely outrun them.”
The space between trees expanded. Something black bobbed in his view. Gemjo snapped to the front and ran even faster. The feature became defined. Deep. He had run too fast to stop.
“Jump!” said the sea wolf.
Tig leapt when she did. The ground rushed up behind him. Then black. He spotted a light at the far end of the fall and braced himself.
Two splashes echoed one after the other. Two half turn heads bobbed up and gasping. Tig pulled his goggles off and willed his dark eyes to the top.
Nine tophats popped over top.
“Quick mates, hide.”
Gemjo dove while Tig remained head out. He squinted at the man hugging the dark end of the fall, “Is that you Professor?”
A rock tumbled down. Several screeches bounced one after the other.
“And they saw us. Great.” Griped the Professor.
Gemjo popped out of the water and crawled to the surface by the full turn. Tig decided to do the same.
He held his breath and dove. The world muted. He could hear the low reverberations of the two on the other side. One was more elevated and frantic, the other slurred.
Tig pressed forwards, one arm after the other. Just a stroke before the other side he caught a golden glint and saw his newfound key sinking. He caught it a moment before it had gone too far and noticed something peculiar about the bottom of that pit.
The light he saw had come from it. It was pulsating and yellow. Almost inviting. A bronze arm gripped his and pulled him out.
Tig rubbed at his eyes.
“Either you savy the water or the water savies you.”
“No, I saw something down there.”
“Keep your observation to yourself, mate. It appears we have visitors.”
Tig swiveled up. The gents had begun climbing.
“Where’s my treasure?” demanded Gemjo.
The Professor lifted a pouch and Gemjo snatched it greedily. She took one whiff of the contents and handed it back. Her frown was immediate. Her sigh second.
“This isn’t my pouch.”
Tig shrugged. He stole a quick glance of the pit. It wasn’t too large, but it proved big enough for their voices to echo. At least three of their sloops could have fit within it.
Falling rocks reminded him of his peril.
“We need to go.” Said Tig.
“Mate, I tried looking, honest. Not exits.” He said pointing up. “Just the entrance.”
“What about down?”
“We are down.” Slurred the Professor.
“In the water, there’s something there. But it’s deep. I don’t think… Gemjo, you can take us!”
Gemjo peaked at the descending gents and shuddered, “Fine, but whatever you do. Don’t touch the tail.”
The other two nodded and Gemjo jumped into the water, shapeshifting halfway. The Professor and Tig followed in and clung to the sides of the orca. They descended in seconds.
The middling light grew dramatically. The light became an opening. Tig closed his eyes as they swam through.
The water had gotten hot, nearly sweltering. He opened his eyes and coughed, nearly gagging on the water that rushed in.
Several yellow orbs the size of coconuts glittered across the walls of the underwater tunnel. Turquoise water surrounded them. A surface neared and Gemjo broke through.
Tig fell off her back and floated. Hot water flowed in through the ends of his collar. Though he was above water, the little breath he had was stolen by what lay ahead.
A crystalline tree of silvery blue soared in the distance. It was as big as the wizard tower of Verace. No. Bigger. And brighter. The bark of the tree shimmered as brilliantly as a moon. Black growths and iridescent flora had made a thousand gardens all along the trunk of it. The roots of the giant had spread in every direction delving deep into the ruddy black stone that covered it. Even now, two impossibly wide tendrils had dug into either side of the narrow channel they had entered in. The water, the same stuff Tig was on, glowed as bright as his hands only with yellow stones dappling it here and there. It flowed further down and joined a lake underneath the crystalline tree.
His eyes trailed from the roots to the ceiling and he spotted a bulbous cap at its top… It wasn’t a tree. It was a mushroom. Tig sniffed the air. It smelled strongly of mint.
He could hear the crash of waves above it, and that same sound rebounded a hundred fold within the cavern.
Tig’s head bumped against the rocky shoreline. He rubbed at it gingerly as he stood on the shore.
The Professor and Gemjo had gone ahead. He followed briskly, ducking the roots and eyeing the rough walls He let his wooden fingertips brush them as he passed them by. The walls were cold, yet the water hot. The air temperate and humid as if he were by the sea.
He stopped short when he came to the edge of the river. The reflection of the mushroom rippled within it, blotted only by smaller fungi whose caps only just managed to breach the surface. Strangely, those same caps formed a line. Tig followed them to the bottom of the trunk. They led further down and stopped abruptly at a small door.
“A pathway.” Said Tig. “They form a pathway.”
The Professor took the first step, and when he didn’t fall, the other two followed. From there, they ventured further down the line.
Stepping between mushrooms that were close enough together and jumping to those that weren’t, the trio traveled to the end of the soft path.
A door had been carved there. Unlike the glimmering walls of the fungi it was an opaque red. A symbol in gold was carved on the surface of it.
It was the symbol of an hourglass. One half full.
“Seem magical.” Noted Gemjo.
“Must be.” Agreed Tig.
The Professor tapped it by the end of his bottle and it opened with a creak.
“Clearly not.” Said the full turn.
Tig wandered past him. Despite what it was carved into, the room appeared as spacious as a pantry. Until he looked up. Shelves upon shelves of books lined the circular walls, all the way to height of the mother mushroom. Tig felt his head spin just by staring at it. A ladder on wheels seemed to be the only to go up.
A book slammed shut.
“Can’t read this.” Cursed Gemjo. She tossed it aside careless and picked up another. With a flip of few pages, she let it fall. “This neither. The language in it is strange. Foreign.”
Tig grabbed the nearest book he could. It had a forest green hard cover. Dust shrouded his face when he picked it. He tossed it open with a flick of his wooden finger. He recognized the figures, yet just as Gemjo said, he could not read it.
He tried another. No good. Book after book, the words had no meaning.
“Impossible.” Hushed Tig. “The Empire consolidated all written text. There should not be exceptions.”
“Unless it’s old.” Said Gemjo.
Tig scanned the high rows upon rows. There must have been thousands of books, hundreds of thousands.
“Really old.” He added.
Then laughter. The Professor’s laughter. He had been chuckling as he scanned the pages of one such book. Tig raced to him as did Gemjo. His expression dropped. He met gemjo in the eye and saw the same wonderment.
They both stared at the Professor.
Gemjo asked first, “You can read this?”
“What this? I’m not illiterate mate. I am a professor after all.”
“What language is it? Where is it from?” asked Tig.
“A place over there beyond the sea of sands and a little bit closer to the horizon.”
Tig stammered, “T-that Horizon? The one you need squint really hard to see?”
“Now you getting’ it.”
“Is this his home then? Are we here?” asked Tig.
The Professor smiled, “Not even close. But there is something here.”
The man walked about the room and tapped the floorboards at intervals.
“Ah” he said after a particularly hollow tap. He stepped on it three times hard and the floorboards zipped a part, revealing a long spiralling staircase below with nothing but black around it.
“It goes lower?” said Tig in disbelief.
“Trust me mate, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
The three of them tapped the seemingly endless steps. Lights flickered on the walls as they conquered portions of the descent. Tig noticed they were the same lights dotting the water floors. When the Professor finished his bottle he tossed it into the descent. Tig listened for the fall. It never came. The Professor had already pulled a bottle from his pouch. Tig realised they would be there for a while, and perhaps the Professor knew.
Minutes passed, then an hour. Tig glanced behind him. The lights that had turned on had vanished. It seemed strange. Nothing ahead and nothing behind. Almost as if…
“We’re not going anywhere.” Said Tig.
“Patience mate, were almost there.”
“Suppose we take much longer.” Humored Gemjo. “Wouldn’t your bottle run out by then? Maybe you’ll even be sober by the time we get there?”
The Professor was silent for a good minute, “By the Hours! We need to hurry.”
“This must be a trap.” Surmised Tig. “My old instructor often told me how magic worked that way, especially if constructed through written means. Assuming whoever built this also owned that library, I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“Brilliant deduction, truly. The of shcolars. But hows abut are we to break it, eh?”
To that he had no answer. If the path truly was endless there was no way out. It reminded him of Verace. How much he tried to escape, year after year but tried little to truly do so. Until the Professor arrived, until one man gave him a choice. Stay or jump.
That was it.
“You’ve gone insane, chitik. Less you are unaware there is no guarantee there is water down there.”
“The furry ones makes a lot of sense.”
Tig took off a shoe, “If we are close, we’ll hear a sound.” He tossed it into the abyss and waited. Nothing.
“Alright.” Said Tig. “I’m jumping.”
Gemjo held her hand before him, “Hold on, there could be something dampening the sound. Dropping a shoe proves nothing. We should walk.”
“But what if this is a trap?” Said Tig. “What if that is the trial here? Not persistence but cleverness?”
“And if it’s not?” asked Gemjo staring into the abyss.
Tig gulped, “Then… then…”
“You’re dead.” She put it bluntly. “Is that worth risking for however many steps remain?”
Tig lowered his head. Perhaps he had gotten used to jumping lately?
He sighed, “You’re right.”
The other two continued ahead of him, while he remained, staring into the abyss. If only the shoe had made a sound. If only for once he was made correct. He sighed and took a step.
The world tumbled.
Tiguak Trimbly had made two mistakes in the great descent. One, he had forgotten to dry his socks, and two, he had grabbed his both his companions by their ankles when he inevitably fell.
Winds surged by them, the layers of stairs rushed one after the other until they seemed stutter like the blades of a fan. Gemjo had been crossing her arms and glaring at him. She mouthed a word. Tig frowned.
The worst, however, was yet to come. Because, as Tig realised most bitterly, there was in fact a floor. It snapped to them in frightening speed. He shut his eyes
Yet there was no impact. Instead, he felt as if he had been submerged. He opened his eyes and realised he was not. No, it was still air. But not air he could breathe. Light seemed to dim. The last he saw a floating bottle and boot.
He gasped. He could not breathe. The light vanished. He could not see. Not even sound permeated the invisible expanse. He reached out to nothing. He knew nothing. He was nothing. For a moment, the abyss consumed him.
Tap. Light returned. Everything returned. He found his himself on a black marble floor and his companions standing beside him. The Professor was happily snoring a ways away.
Gemjo grabbed him by the collar. Her steel hands dug deep into the black wool.
“You meant that didn’t you?”
The chamber howled. It was a deafening screech that made his ears ring. Gemjo’s grip loosened and his senses returned to him when it ended. It was a sound he had heard before.
“That was it.” clamoured Tig. “That was the howl! Ha! Guess you heard that, eh Gemjo? That was… Gemjo?”
Her attention was elsewhere. Her face had gone as still as stone. A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead, her open mouth quivered and her eyes seemed wrenched open as if an unknown entity kept them that way.
He flinched. He saw it in the reflection of her pupils. His breath became shallow. He didn’t want to turn.
A shadow that made them specs loomed over top. Gears churned. Steam whistled.
A sonorous voice echoed through the chamber. It was akin to dry thunder, distant and closing.
“That, little fleshy thing, was the third law of Chronodynamics.”