All Play and No Work
While Strix was a woman on a mission, Ponitius was a man of leisure. He was not tailing anybody. The fate of one’s life was not in his control –aside his very own, of course. He was simply a man living it up, and enjoying everything Agutrot had to offer.
He and Anni strolled through the festival, the question of which one was wider eyed truly a mystery. The outer limits of the grounds took the most time, the most interesting sights to be had on those thresholds and everybody seemed to know it, always keeping an eye on those corners, on those mad lads that toed the line of socially acceptable and morally right, for the people that were there were budding inventors, rising artificers showing off their latest crafts. Even the most mundane of items, the simple gliders given a touch-up, were a mere moment away from being a spectacle. Ponitius didn’t understand all the technological babble being crowed on about, but he knew when something wasn’t supposed to be on fire or meant to explode.
By these locales, some savvy Zephyrians set up stalls, selling a most peculiar treat. He was wary of it at first; after all, corn was meant to be hard. How did they make it fluff up- and then he saw the process in action and stood in awe as he watched those dried kernels leap and explode, revealing their soft, white innards. He and Anni both simply stood there, rooted as they watched the small kettle fill with the white delicacy, ignorant of the three “accidents” that happened right beside them, and it took the vendor poking them with his wooden spoon to pull them out of their stupor.
“Ever had?” She said, a bright, red Zephyrian, and stuck the spoon into the kettle, holding up a good bit to them. “Give it a try. The kettle is well-seasoned, so it picked up its flavor.”
Ponitius plucked one of the white flowers out, almost dropping it as it seemed to crumble from his touch, but managed to make it to his mouth. Unlike its hard counterpart that could be sweet, this had a smoky surge and a salty sweetness, coursing through his mouth and filling it with its soft, savory bite. Without realizing it, he reached for another, popping it in and continuing to crunch. It was by the fifth and sixth that he noticed he had been doing so, for it was then that the vendor pulled back the spoon. Anni must have been enthralled as well, squeaking, whining at its loss.
“Two silver a bucket,” the vendor stated, pulling up what Ponitius could only assume was meant to be a personal-sized bucket. Anni wasted no time in handing him the two pieces, which made Ponitius leer, reaching for his own wallet. The vendor had another filled and ready by the time Ponitius fished out the two coins, slapping them into its greasy palm. She cooed, putting them in the small wallet on the stall, and continued to stir the pot. “If you bring that bucket to any other stall, you’ll only have to pay five copper for a refill.”
“Who conceived this idea?” He said, munching on the puffed corn once more. “Who thought it was a good idea to dry out corn then soak it in oil and keep it tumbling on heat?”
“My mother, actually. Solin Roboasa. She made it for us when we were kids, but only introduced it a few years ago. Now, we’ve been spreading the word for her.”
“Where’s she now?” Anni said, muffled, almost garbled by the sheer amount of puffed corn she had in her mouth.
“Somewhere in the fair grounds. She never cared about the business side of things; just wanted us to be happy. So we do this for her.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you,” Ponitius said... already digging into his wallet for five copper. She held out both hands, one for the bucket and the other for the money, quick to do what was needed for both and allowing Ponitius to crunch away anew –just in time for Anni to need a refill.
“What about you, sir?” She said. “Do you have any children?”
“Nah. Was able to avoid the little devils for this long- and I should probably get going before I pay you another full silver.”
They exchanged farewells, and him and Anni hurried along. They didn’t even bother to note the next few explosions behind lest they find themselves right before that stall, continuing to engorge on that sinfully succulent- Ponitius hissed, tears watering a bit from that crunch. He spat out... his tooth, or at least the fragments of it first, then the nasty little bit of maize that did it. Though it was charred, it was complete, unpopped, hidden in the flower of another.
He was a bit more picky as he sifted through the bucket, as was Anni after that sickening crack. Ponitius didn’t let a little thing like molar mutilation ruin his good mood, though. It would easily be fixed once they returned to the ship. What he wasn’t looking forward to, though, was Strix chewing him out on how he broke his tooth, that he should have known better with something made out of corn... Maybe he should stop by another stand, get a refill, as well as a third bucket. He might just do that anyways; the image of her in the bucket, swimming with the puffed husks was too good to pass up.
Hours passed as they meandered their way ever further through the crowd, making it to the main plaza. All streets connected to this one point, the roads above cleared, the trees bowed away, allowing light to funnel into an almost perfect circle down onto it. No building came near it, easily a block or so before they enclosed, giving enough berth for even the largest glider or gathering of Zephyrian fliers.
Ponitius eased his way through, making his way for the center. The buzzing, the droning, the yelling seemed to all fall away as he drew ever closer, giving rise to something he didn’t think about until it was reintroduced to him. Indeed, midst all the chaos and cacophony, the cheer and mirth and rumbling and gadgetry, there wasn’t an ounce of music to be heard. Until now. He pushed through three people, but wobbled on his heel, seeing a clear ring made around the band there, given respect and air. Even the sunlight seemed a bit dim, shining down upon that small troop. There were fifteen in all, five dancers, swirling such colorful ribbons on long, metal staves, circle hooks seen through the wash of color. They would hook each other, give one another lift, as if dancing through the sky before floating down on the music. It was festive, truly festive, not the madness around but a true jubilation, heralded on gleaming brass, carried on soft woodwinds, and given lift by the strings, all plucking in harmony to the three singers in their middle.
One of them caught Ponitius’s eye, and not because she was the first in front. He wasn’t sure what language she was speaking, but the way her soft, rounded lips carried them, how it gave the world a true gift of her sweet, serene voice, it must have been the language of the Earth Mothers, Themselves. Every part of him felt heavy, like stone, yet also free as air, able to start dancing with those dancers at a moment’s notice, but the way her sapphire eyes pulled him in, doused him in their deepest blue pools, he had no desire to. The rest of her face seemed as soft as those lips, skin almost alabaster, as if she was carved from marble, while her hair was as black as night, almost blue, shimmering in the fading sunlight.
It took him a moment to realize the band had stopped, and was just as late to clap, starting as everyone finished. He wiped his hands, as if clearing it of what was left of the popcorn, but felt a bit of warmth as that woman looked his way. No. Not just his way. She was looking at him.
Too late to look away now.
He gave her a small smile and an even small wave, which she smiled back, lost as she began to sing the next song, taking with it the bit of anxiety he garnered. He relaxed, rocking back on his heels, and took in the rest of her outfit. It, too, seemed to have been molded to her form, that splendid, shimmering, red dress showing off every splendid curve, which it was hard for him to pick a favorite. Every single one was exceptional in its own way. It wasn’t long before his eyes returned to her face, to that innocent, dare he say pure, visage as she sung with all her heart.
It must have quickened, for the words, her voice did. It became sharp, almost cutting. The band lead her, stoked her, pushed her ever faster. The dancers, too. Ponitius’s heart raced, feet dancing with it, knocking into the others around also moving with it. Higher. Faster. Stronger. Bolder. There seemed to be no end in sight.
There was a crash, the cymbals, and they left to ring, carried off once more by the woodwinds. They rippled with its force, reverberated, shaking in the breath Ponitius did pant. His heart, his body felt like it had just run two towns, quaking with joy. The brass faded in again, strings plucking, rising anew, and with it the singer did what she did best, bringing the peace to a resounding finish.
Silence held for a moment. Everyone was quiet, letting the music catch up to them, pull them back to who they were, where they were, and, as one, even Ponitius, they applauded. They clapped, they cheered, some even whistled, and others threw coins, scattering them at their feet, already teeming with previous offerings. If they were as good before as Ponitius just experienced, that amount was paltry. They deserved far more... but he wasn’t going to throw more than four gold. He palmed them, juggled them a moment, made sure they were all there, then lobbed them at the singer’s feet.
She spun around and leaned back. Her left leg raised in the air, showing off its pristine glory as she almost went horizontal, reaching out for Ponitius, and caught his coins mid-flight. She continued her spin, leg scything through the air, coming back down as she stood before everyone again, but Ponitius doubted anyone else noticed the gesture. Years of doing the same had made him quite adept at noticing such quick, nimble moves. The way her foot clawed at the ground, how tight she held herself, how she winked at him... and how the knives gleamed under her arm and by her thigh.
She held up the coins, showing him, and he could only shake his head, smirking, turning to a true smile as they began their next round.
Something changed, however. It was instant. Everyone in the crowd seemed less easy, as did Ponitius. Nothing seemed to have changed, but it was as if all joy suddenly... disappeared. As if it was consumed.
Screams rose behind Ponitius, but they weren’t the same screams as before. There was no joy in those cries, no mirth. All merriment was gone, replaced by howls and wails of despair. Ponitius couldn’t really see beyond the turned heads, but a visible shiver ran through the mass, rippling, moving away from whatever laid beyond. He eased passed Anni, making her jump a little, pushed through the quivering folds, and saw that the ripples were from people scattering, trying to shove their way out. Some succeeded, but others were shoved back, crying out, begging, pleading.
Ponitius wondered why. What was he so afraid of... and that’s when the closest, a darker Terrahn, with such life in his eyes, was robbed of it, taken by purple haze. He stood there a moment, consumed in that air, before simply collapsing, little more than a heap melting into a murky puddle. People simply let him pass, stunned, shaking, collected around yet another ring, but this one was not because of people giving it respect but because they had to, if to avoid the fate of the dozens inside. The metal was bathed in... Ponitius did not want to consider what that languid muck was, all of it coalescing and congealing towards the center.
Ponitius’s chest started to ache, the hairs on his head standing on end. He knew that feeling, what this was, but it couldn’t be... could it? There was no way it could be him; he wasn’t this malicious, but this was the exact feeling he had when he touched that damned sword. What could it have been, the-
The outer limits of the ring started to glow, bathing everyone in purple light. Ponitius gasped, and grabbed Anni behind, keeping her still, the spell they were all under, the trance that kept them quiet, that maintained peace, broken at last. Screams, shrieks erupted again, and true chaos erupted, people trying to flee from that light and the mist it brought with it, filling the streets. Dark, black ichor, almost gel, started to gush out of the metal, snaring those that tried to run and reducing them to jelled masses.
But they weren’t added to the mound. Instead, they rose again, mangled, distorted things that chased after others. One became two. Two into eight; all around those mangled beasts proliferated, but not a single ounce of the ichor, nor the shadowy forms, approached Ponitius nor Anni.
Or Bethilius and Gaz.
They were on the other side of the ring, but the two parties met halfway, still watching that mound in the center. It was about as tall as Ponitius and just as wide, with a thousand gems... no, a thousand eyes dotting its surface.
He explained all this to Strix, how it only seemed to go after those that brandished weapons, that tried to flee, but slapped his shoulder, silencing him as the dark figure cackled again.
“So what are we to do, then?” She said, but all were surprised that she received an answer from the dark figure, itself.
“I would suggest running away,” it said. “That would be entertaining, at least.”
“I don’t think that would work out for us, in all truth,” Ponitius said, chuckling as he scratched his head, trying to convince himself that it wasn’t a good idea.
“How would you know? Have you tried it?”
“Something simply tells me that it won’t. Thank you for the suggestion, though... whatever- whoever you are.”
“We could calmly walk away,” Gaz said, though his voice didn’t even know the word calm. If it wasn’t for Bethilius’s hand on that quivering Faun, he would most likely have been apart of the dark slurry around.
“And why, pray tell, are you so rude?” The Dark Figure said. “Why do you ruin my fun... Why are none of you afraid?”
“Au Contraire, my umbral acquaintance,” Ponitius said. “We are afraid. Terrified.”
“But maintain composure... You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?”
“Just as up close. Our captain has this power, too.”
The thing seemed to shudder, and in Ponitius’s mind he could swear it cocked its head.
“Captain?” It said. “What may be their name?”
“Don’t answer it,” Bethilius said, snorting. “It’s a trick.”
It cackled, and its entire body flashed red. Three gems flew off it, landing before the party, and quickly turned into three, rasping shadows. The dark slurry slopped from their mouths, showing rows of rotten bone, improvised into sickening teeth, bearing down on them.
“How is this for a trick: Tell me their name, and I may let you live.”
“Remove the ‘may’ part and we will.”
“Such an odd request. You want to die?”
“I mean the may. Make it into you will let us live.”
“And where’s the fun in that?”
“Olivier.” Strix blurted, and Bethilius snapped his neck around, giving her a scornful look.
“You fool!” He boomed. “You just doomed us.”
“The only fool I see here is you,” she said. “If they wanted to kill us, they would have done so.”
“Again, taking my fun,” the Dark Figure muttered, humming. “Olivier, huh...” Its body flashed again, this time green, and the shadows returned to it, molding back in. “You know what? I’ll let you go. Run along.”
“What? Just like that?” Ponitius said.
“For now. We’ll meet again, though. Soon enough, and, when we do, let us all savor the... reunion... If you can make it back, that is.”
It cackled for the last time, its eyes, those gems vanishing as it sunk into the ground, vanishing as quick as it arrived. However, the shadows it made still ran rampant through the city. Screams echoed through the streets, explosions rising, fire engulfing all in that sea of darkness.
Some ran through the ring... but stopped. They snarled, turning their attention towards the party-
And were gone, taken by pure light.
Fili panted, hand sizzling as they prepared another orb... but it was Avin who chimed in.
“I take you aren’t too happy about that thinly-veiled th-” He began, blasted into the nearest building by Fili’s next shot.
“We need to get back to the ship. Now.” She stated. “We need to go find my Ollie. RIGHT. NOW.”
“And do what, girl?” Strix said. “Be sitting ducks? We’re trapped here until these two can do something about the Scylla.”
“Oh. Right. Introductions,” Spack said. “Horny Faun, male Faun with a female name, blue fairy- and pink fairy, thank you for joining us again, mousy Faun, Ponitius, meet Swelabeth Surner. Swelabeth Surner, the others.”
“It’ll do for now,” she grumbled, looking down the street. “I take it your ship is further than my shop, so we’ll stop there first. Catch a repreive, as well as some of my tools. Spack, any ideas?”
“As many as you can carry-”
“As all of you can carry, you mean.”
“Don’t think you can start barking orders,” Strix said, patting Ponitius’s shoulder again. “Our captain left Ponitius in charge until we can rendezvous-”
“So you’re going to repair the ship, get it out on open skies again all on your own... That’s what I th-”
Fili blasted another group of shadows away, leaving five smoking bodies melted against the building behind the party. Her light pulsed erratically, matching her breath.
“Can we not fight? Not until we are someplace a little s...saf-” She started to say, breathless, but a shadow shrieked behind her, tried to lash at her from behind.
Skewered into the wall far across by ten knives.
Ponitius shrugged, two more knives glistening in his hand.
“She’s right,” he said. “No use arguing now... Swelabeth is right, though. We’ll all need to simply follow her lead. For now.”
“For now.” Swelabeth repeated, and they finally started down the street. “Did you leave anyone aboard the Scylla?”
“There are four,” Ponitius said, “with my most trusted men among th-”
“Nope,” Durnst said, jumping down from a roof. He was coated in black blood, his claws still dripping with it, bared with his teeth. “I wanted to taste Zephyrian cuisine.”
“Well, in that case, the ship is most likely doomed. Thank you so very much, Durnst.”
“This could have all been avoided if you just asked if I wanted to go.”
“Then I wouldn’t have been able to go!”
“Do you truly have no trust in the others on-board?” Swelabeth said.
“Let’s just say Strix doesn’t give the best pep talks... They should be fine, though. They’re all strong... in their own way.”
“They will be fine.” Strix stated, though Ponitius couldn’t help but notice she dug in her nails a bit harder than needed. “We’ll need to be quick, though... How fast can you two fix the Scylla?”
“Fix it or get it airborne,” Spack asked, but Swelabeth talked over him.
“Ten minutes,” she said.” “Two if we’re lucky; two hours if we’re not.”
“Depends on the tools we are able to scrounge... and I’m allowed to use-”
“By Astra, if it means getting out of here alive, you can use the best.”
“R... really? And you won’t be mad?”
“... I won’t vivisect you.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll be working on my own project mid-flight.”
“Great. We are going to die.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“That was being confident. As you can see around, or your ‘experiments’, there are worse fates than death.”
Ponitius wondered what he meant, but felt a cold chill all the same as he said it, keeping his curiosity to himself as all of them rushed towards the end of the street. With an army of shadows in their way... He had to handle business at some point, though he really wished he could have gotten those three buckets of puffed corn.