Anacrusis

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Of the Toasted Bagels

Of the Toasted Bagels

Now they trek through the clammy forest, breathing air that tastes worn and musty, like the fragrance of ancient mushrooms that stand tall just out of view, opening weary eyes and watching, frustrated, their star stolen right from under their stubby noses.

It was silent in the forest. Too silent. The sort of silence that feels heavy on the eardrums and fills the head with pressure. Ink felt as if he was drowning in a thick molasses of anti-sound. He had to break it.
“So, do you, uh… murder plants often?” He said, his voice echoless and loud in his ears. He recoiled a little.
Coda shrugged, “I dunno man, I would totally do it again though.”
“Mh.”
“…”
Ink scratched his eye, which made an audible squelching sound.
The stars had gone again, the mist had lifted in the past half-minute or so and they were surrounded by a thick fog, illuminated red by Coda’s hand. Stars! I saw stars! The Reaper thought. It was surreal. No longer was the roof over his head. No longer was he surrounded by undesigned turmoil and terminal negativity. All that now existed was the mysterious unknown of what lay ahead. Finally, a future. He wasn’t going to miss a damned thing, and already home was draining out of the holes it had made in his head.
“Hey," said Coda, "You know, this is the sort of place you find witches and edible houses made of icing and that crunchy brown stuff.”
The Reaper scrunched up half of his ugly face. “...Wood?”
“No, no… It's like, candy.”
“Chocolate?” Ink asked. He had always wanted to try some.
“Why? You got any?”
“What…? No I mean, isn’t that the – “
*Splash*
Ink’s ragged, hole-ridden slipper thing sank tragically into an icy river. “Damnit!”
Coda stopped and held out her palm. It seemed that they had reached a stream of some sort – still and quiet, and with no boatman around, the water stretched out ominously into the mist. Just at the brink of sight yet straight ahead, there was an eerie shape looming. Ink squinted, though he was good at seeing. He was very proud of his vision and often showed off to his brothers and sisters by reading various forms very far-away writing, back when things were… not so awful.
The object was round, and almost looked like a waterwheel for a mill, though the water was still, and the wheel wasn't even touching the surface.
How impractical Ink thought, before he realised that the wheel, somehow, was turning with a slight yet rhythmic creak.
How… impossible.
Coda looked up and down the unmoving length of the river, and then observed something that Ink couldn’t seem to see. “Hey, look! Lights!”
She pointed out in the general direction of the wheel, maybe slightly to the left of it, and the Reaper could see no light.
“What? Where?”
“Right there, dude! You can’t see that? It’s like, some sorta cosy cottage window.” And Coda indeed saw this window, in fact she saw two. There was another directly above the water wheel. And yet despite this, and despite his incredible (albeit rather gunky) eyes, Ink could not for the life of him see anything o' the sort.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Jeez, you’re not very good at seeing things, are you?”
“Hey, I-…” Ink began, and then decided that he couldn’t really be bothered. He dabbed the sticky graze on his head and winced, he definitely had not seen that tree earlier. “Is it near that wheel over there?”
“What wheel?”
“That one”
“Can you, like, point to it?”
“That one."
“Mmmmmsure, man.” Coda sighed. There was a brief silence as the pair stood uneventfully on the bank. Clouds of fog drifted by as eerily as they could, and the other side waited in anticipation. “Well, I guess there’s not much else to it!” Coda announced as she set her foot in the black river.
“Wait, what are you doing?”
“Wading. It’s like walking except in water.”
“Oh, so it’s like walking on water but… Rubbish?” Ink groaned. The water was freezing! “It’s freezing!”
“It ain’t that cold!” And to her, it wasn’t that cold. Yet, despite the apparent lukewarm temperatures of the river, Ink felt it instantly chill his entire being. He followed her in, nonetheless, until it was halfway up his shins and soaking the bottom of his robe. “Wait!” He called, “Can’t we just look for a bridge or something?”
“And die of hunger before we get anywhere? Nah man, I’m starved! Also, you wouldn’t happen to know me, would you? I don’t remember where I live.”
“I told you before,” Ink said, lifting his robe as the water reached his knees. “I’m a Reaper, from the Dimmer!”
“I doubt it. Wait, where now?” Coda was up to her waist and was only about a third of the way across, and the water was at the temperature where, if not for the pressure and general wetness that water typically connotes, one might forget it were there. I wonder if I can swim.
Meanwhile, Ink was beginning to shiver. “The Dimmer. Hell? You know the place?”
“Oh, Hell. That’s a place?”
Coda kicked off and began to swim.
“Oi! Wai-“
“Heck no.” She swam past the halfway point, and into the mist. Ink watched as the red light left, and he plodded on until he was waist deep. And then he saw it; there were windows in the distance. Warm, homely and comforting. Windows more pleasant than any he had ever seen in his life, and they radiated a subtle, sweet comfort. He tried to call out, but the cold had left him breathless already.
Lured by the light, and not wanting to be left in the dark alone, he powered forward as far as his legs would take him and kicked off into the freezing cold. He put an arm or two on front of the other, but there was evidently some things that Ink had forgotten too. I… can’t swim He remembered just in time to feel himself sink. What breath was left turned quickly into icy water, which felt as if it were only an illusion of water – when he went below the surface, he fell through it like unbreathable air.
Well, He realised, I’m dead.
He thought back to his family, and then immediately put the thought out of his head. He thought about very recent events instead. It… was worth a shot, at least.
And all went grey.

A while later, Coda heaved the Reaper out of the water and laid him on the purple riverbank, he was rather heavy for his unhealthy slimness. She huffed and looked down at his unmoving body. With no idea how to revive someone, she stared at him for a good few seconds. She could run and get help, but it may be too late for that, so she tried something else – lifting her boot, and bringing it down heavily on his chest.
It worked.
Ink coughed up dark water and made a dreadful gargling noise before turning himself over and gasping desperately. Coda sat, and patted him on the back as he coughed and returned the water to he river. After he recovered, he straightened his back and sat up a little.
“That - - “ He gasped, “Was entirely - - Irresponsible.”
“You don’t really float, do you?” Coda looked back across the dark river, where nothing of the other side was at all visible.
After a while, Ink stood, shivering in the cold air, and they carried on. The mill’s lights were on, and the door was around the side, alight with a flickering oil lamp perched on the ground just by it. Ink could barely walk and had to lean on Coda for support, and the pair of them were soaked through. Leaving the saggy, dripping Reaper to stand alone for a minute, she raised a glowing red fist to knock on the wooden door, which opened pre-knock.
A small person wearing a pointed hat swung the unnecessarily tall entrance/exit open with a sharp, rushed creak and bent down to pick up the lamp, completely unaware of the pair.
But then they looked up and stared for a second at the two drenched, ragged, death-faced strangers that looked like large drowned rats, one with a fist raised that happened to glow a menacing red. It took a moment or so to register, but the small figure yelped and ran inside, closing the door.
Coda proceeded to knock.
*dokdokdokdokdokdokdok*
And added one more for luck.
*Dook*
Then the door creaked again, not enough to be overly dramatic, but enough to keep a bored oil can occupied for a bit. The figure walked nervously out, no longer wearing the pointed witch’s hat, and thus a small boy stood before the pair. He appeared younger than them, but he could've simply been vertically challenged.
“h-... hhh-hi.” He said, shaking. His hair was a wavy silver-white, and his eyes were a sort of off-green colour. He appeared shorted than Coda and Ink.
“Hey.” Replied Coda.
The boy shifted anxiously, “S-sorr-ry for sl-slamming th d-d-…The d-…”
“Heyah, we’re a little lost,” explained Coda, “do you have like, a map?”
Ink groaned and rubbed his eyes.
“Oh, and my buddy here is about to keel over and die any second now, can I leave him with you? You wouldn’t happen to know me by the way, would you?”
The boy shook his head, and spoke slowly and unsurely, examining his words carefully as if he had lost a pinhead in them. “The nearest t-town is Pi-Pier, and that’s a da-days walk away. B-B-But you can come in if-if you want!”
“Oh, do you have directions?”
“We ha-have bagels!” The boy offered enthusiastically. That was all Coda needed to hear. The boy opened the door, introducing himself as Toven, and let the pair inside. He switched the switch on the wall, then switched it again when he realised that he had just switched it off, and on came a set of lightbulbs that hung, bare, from wooden beams that spanned across the ceiling. They made a faint clink sound. The room did indeed have windows, and a metal furnace on the wall where the water wheel hung on the other side. A thick, dusty shelf bore various strange herbs, glowing liquids and bodyparts of exotic animals, of which Ink would later be glad to not be able to identify - he was too weary to look at them right now. The house was brighter than any he had ever been in, and it hurt his eyes.
The eyes of those native to the Dimmer have pupils almost the size of their irises, as Hell has become a pretty cold and dark place over the past couple millenia. See, it never used to be that way - there once was the great infernal fires that ravaged the streets of Heck, which used to be a bustling town for the damned souls of the Overworld (Earth) to get beaten into good nick so that they may join Otum (Heaven) and rest in peace - or, depending on the severity of their sins back on Earth and thus the longer they would spend in Hell - pieces. There once was royalty - royalty that was feared and respected, as opposed to hated and targeted by desperate folk with intentions that were less than noble. There used to be parties, trades and financial support by the Angels Of The Valen, and rich, interesting lives for the Overseers and Dimmer-born folk who grinned blissfully into the foul sinkhole of glorious agony that was the Nine Circles. Even the Imps had it good.
Anywho, one thing that did stand out to Ink about this house was that the floors were sleek, shiny and very well swept indeed. So well swept that they had a natural smooth polish on them.
"Mulb-berry will be ba-back in the mm-morning" Toven stuttered, "You can st-stay here for the night if you ww-… wwwant."
Ink was glad to hear it.
"Who's Mulberry? Wait! Is she a witch?" Coda asked with a grin.
Toven's eyes widened with a silent gasp, he thought everyone knew Mulberry, and if she didn't, then how did she know she was a witch!? "Yy-yyes!"
"Hah! Told you so!" She punched Ink playfully in the shoulder, which sent his frail form stumbling into the corner of a wooden table who's sleep was undisturbed by him. If she is a witch Ink thought, picking himself up, then this cannot be the Overworld.
Mulberry was also Toven's great aunt, and was out buying bagels at this specific moment, a moment that she really did not want to miss. But oh well, it couldn't be helped.
Bagels are an important part of life.
Toven led Ink through a door to a cold fireplace and the Reaper plonked himself down by the hearth. He checked that his sketchbook and pens were dry. They were. At this moment, he uttered a small note of thanks to the inventor of watertight pockets, who wasn't listening as he was enjoying a delicious miera tuna steak in Heaven - or as it's know as by some - Otum. Ink cursed that place and its ever-shining sun, he cursed their people, Otumbloods and Ex-Overworlders alike, and he cursed their precious Queen for what she did to his world.
He took off his tattered green robe and Toven hung it on a radiator, who's white paint was flaking off but nobody had yet cared to repaint it. The Reaper averted his eyes from the family crest on the back of the dirty green fabric. Toven brought him a blanket in which he wrapped himself, and went up to the attic to look for a lighter that actually had gas left in it.
"There w-will be one somewhere!" He called down, "M-Mulberry never thr-throws things away."
Meanwhile, Coda was exploring the kitchen, which had a different smell than the rest of the house - one which could only be described as smelling of old people and rotting wood. In fact, the kitchen smelled of a multitude of things, each too obscure to identify. Cupboards overflowed with tins and residual food-magic; this was definitely a witch's house. This point was made clearer when Coda found that the drawer under the sink actually opened, unlike a couple other drawers. One of the drawers oozed a flatulating green sort of moss that bubbled like melted cheese but was still somehow mossy, another drawer was full of teeth and coins and was labeled "Compensation". A massive, six-slotted toaster sat on the ceiling and was spawning a slow-turning tornado of slightly burnt toast that extended to the floor. Coda helped herself.
And the coo-coo clock on the wall was ten minutes away from striking thirteen and a half o-clock. Midnight.
There was a crash, and a plastic box of lighters dangerously spilled out onto the flamable carpet. Thankfully all that followed was Toven, who stumbled down the ladder, never quite managing to regain his footing as he slowly fell to the floor.
"You good?" Coda chuckled.
"Y-yeah! Said a flustered Toven, "They're j-just sort of he-heavy."
Coda helped pick them up. "Really? You don't have any that are a little… Lighter?"
And so the fire was lit, and Ink would have fallen fast asleep if not for Toven's offer of toasted bagels.
"Wh-what do you want on-n-nnn it?" He shouted through to the pair as he bashed at the roofbound toaster with a long pole that was kept for that specific purpose. The toaster did this a lot.
"Just butter, please." Ink yawned.
"What you got?" Asked Coda.
"Uhm, th-there's a bit of ma-marmalade and some jam!"
Coda thought about it. "Got any ice-cream?"
"Only st-strawberry."
"Put that on it then!"
So, Toven whacked the toaster unconscious and it fell with a clatter into a pile of it's own toastings. "So-sorry." He told it. He cut three bagels in half and put each piece into the pacified toster, which hastily popped in a matter of seconds. He spread butter on two-and-a-half of the pieces, ice-cream on two-and-a-half, and jam on one for himself.
Coda had gotten a roaring fire going by the time Toven arrived with the bagels, and they sat in silence and ate for a minute before Coda explained their situation to him.
"O-oh, well I hope y-yyyyour memory comes back!" He smiled sweetly. "A-And what about y-yyou? Do you remember an-anything?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Ink said, "... What world is this?"
Toven was confused by his question, but then remembered what side of the river they had come from. He shivered. "Ah, Its Ah-Ahbon. You pro-probably haven't heard of it."
Ink hadn't heard of it. "Is this at the bottom of the portal of Cocytus?"
"Wh-what?"
Ink grunted, "Nevermind." He yawned. He was too tired to contemplate what was happening. Hopefully this Mulberry person would be able to explain everything, but right now, Ink was just thankful for this blanket and for this fire and for this bizarre new torus food. His mind trailed away from the conversation and he entered his abstract nightmares.

Toven and Coda stayed up for a while and played a simple block-breaking game on a handheld console. Toven later fell asleep during one of Coda's turns, and she blasted through a couple more levels on the bulky console before settling down on a nearby windowsill.
"Huh." She said to nobody, "Weird night."
There was a lot Coda knew she had lived and simply didn't remember, and this world was definitely not one of them. For it had an atmosphere that, deep down, she knew she had never experienced before. Looking out to the purple glow in the distance, she made out the silhouette of the forest, but that was all she could see for the moment. That and the stars.
Stars which, she could have sworn, were staring directly at her in particular. Untwinkling.
So, what's your story then? She asked herself. It didn't really bother her that she couldn't remember anything, but she was curious. - Maybe I'm a dragon rider, who slays evil with an epic greatsword! Or maybe a rockstar with a sick, uh… Whatjimehcallems?- The word she was looking for was "guitar", but it never came to her. She sighed, and looked down at her glowing hand.
Hell, maybe I'm both.
She smiled, and licked the gap where a tooth used to be.
Then, silence.

… I wonder who I am.

Well, let me tell me tell you, that indirect question will be answered soon enough, and it will meet even Coda's dreamful expectations. But who knows who she used to be; that was a whole different question entirely. One that will, admittedly, not be truly answered for quite a long time.
Yet, as the night rolls like a fat dog may do for a treat, she sits and breathes condensation onto the glass until the dark sees her to sleep. She is happy, and can't wait for tomorrow to come by.




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