Unknown Date 2479 A.R.T
Our return trip to reality had been much kinder than our departure and I am glad to tell you that there was no loss of consciousness for any amongst us. The return was not without its pain however and as I’d sat up, finding myself at the centre of a patch of dying spectral brambles, the knowledge that I had failed Skull and Butter had tore deep into me. I left them, I’d written, my handwriting spidery with sorrow. I failed them, I promised them I’d get them home.
After the time and space void of the Foundations the advent of once again existing within flowing time and upon a plane comprising of sane direction and depth had caused me to feel quite nauseous and for a few moments I had sat with my eyes closed against the glare of the sun, gripping my spoon for comfort. I cannot fully articulate how tangible passing time had been to me during those moments. I could feel the future slipping into the past all around me, dragging the seasons along it with and leading the souls of the living from the cradle to the grave. I had been surprised by the chill of the ground beneath me, the soil and rock which composed it, hard and unyielding against my derriere and quite unlike the warm, soft flesh of the Foundations.
I had been conscious of the song of the creature and the sounds of stone scratching upon slate all around me but still my eyes had remained shut, unwilling yet to see reality and face the reality it carried. You lost them, my mind had whispered. They’re trapped there forever because of you.
A hand had fallen lightly onto my arm and I had at last looked out through my misty goggles to see my friends staring down at me, concern thick amongst them. It’s not your fault Sunrise, Omen had written, reading my slate. You haven’t failed them. Its that horrible Demon woman’s fault not yours.
It’s not over yet anyway, Horizon had written, offering me his hand. We’ll find a way to get them back.
I’m sure they’re having a great time on their own anyway, Taboo had written, making a suggestive and quite obscene gesture. You know those two, they’ve got each other’s backs.
Yes, that’s right, Omen had written, and we now have ground beneath our feet and a sky above our heads. Things are looking up Sunrise.
I had nodded as Horizon had pulled me to my feet, their kind reassurances, doing nothing to quieten my conscience. Where are we? I’d written, scanning our surroundings. I had been surprised and elated to see a familiar column of steam in the distance, albeit rising in what seemed to be the wrong portion of the sky. I had also been quite uplifted by the welcome sight of the Creation Tree which stood far beyond a line of trees to our left.
We’re nowhere near the point where we entered the forest, Horizon had written, confirming my suspicions. He had consulted his compass to confirm it had regained its senses. We’re miles and miles further south.
The line of trees had bordered a boggy marsh and, amongst the branches of a particularly gnarled specimen I had spied a tiny, child-like figure hanging from a bough, dangling lifelessly from a cord. Horrified, I had hastened toward it, my legs weak beneath me. My remaining friends and the creature had followed, still carrying the provisions we had collected from the now, long-gone forest.
Thankfully, upon closer inspection the small hanging figure had proved to be a porcelain doll which had been suspended from the boughs, its face eerily reminiscent of the Rider’s mask. The doll had been weather-beaten and what I imagine had once been gay and gaudy attire had been faded and torn. Bizarrely a small sleigh bell had been tied to the doll’s hand and it had chimed solemnly as a slight breeze had stirred it.
I had thought that Cloud would be most distressed by the plight of the doll and I had anticipated him demanding its immediate rescue but instead he had stood behind me, peering fearfully at the doll over my shoulder. At the time I had supposed that it had been the doll’s likeness to the rider that had made him fearful but, knowing what I know now, I believe Cloud had sensed something within the yonder bog, something dark and gloomy, a stain left by an ancient and horrendous act which will forever mar the area.
Horizon had stepped forwards and had stared thoughtfully up at the doll. I know where we are, he’d written. I think I visited here once before, back in the before time. This is Marionettes Lurking. We’re in Phoenixhelm, I’m sure of it! He had taken a step backwards, his goggles trained on the doll as its bell chimed again. I remember stories of this place, he had written. We should leave.
Yes, Cloud had written, tugging on my arm. I don’t like it here. Let’s go find Skull and Butter and go back to our mountain.
I had simply yielded to Cloud’s urging and had allowed him to lead me away from the doll, not possessing the strength to tell him that he was unlikely to ever see Skull and Butter again and that once again two of his friends had gone away.
We had journeyed back through an area which, due to the future activities of myself and my fellow Orderlies, would one day become known as the Lamentia Pastures. Back then the pastures had been an expansive tapestry of lush grasses and wildflowers punctuated here and there by the odd tree or shrub. The scenery that day, though dreary and cold, had been quite picturesque but I had been far too distraught by the loss of Butter and Skull to truly appreciate it. I recall musing however that the weather had not improved since the day of our departure, the skies still threatening snow.
Our mountain had grown ever larger and as we had stepped into its shadow, we had been caught in a quite hideous bout of sleet, a quite frigid and uncouth downpour which had seemed all the worse after recently exiting the calm, weather-less skies of the Foundations. Despite the weather however, a strange warmth had seeped into me as we had neared the base of our mountain, a weary comfort which told me our recent tribulations were almost at an end. I had quickly chastised myself for my brief moment of relief, reminding myself that because of me, not all of us were home.
As we had rounded the base of our mountain in the direction of the stairway Cloud had seen fit to give our guest an improvised tour, writing things such as Over there is Hush Prairie. Its all broken now. We played hide-and-seek there, and A little further around the mountain there’s a hill where some hungry bunnies live. We’re going to feed them. Cloud had showed these messages to the creature which had warbled and trilled with apparent interest as it slithered along at our side.
We need to give you a name, Cloud had written, holding his slate up toward the creature. You’re part of the family now and it wouldn’t be right if you didn’t have a name.
Maybe you should show him the blot test and let him pick out his own name like we did, Pulida had written. Script filed it away in the mummy chamber, I think.
At this Cloud had clapped his hands excitedly, exclaiming that he considered it an eggcellent idea.
Cloud’s mention of the hungry bunnies had briefly turned my thoughts to their plight and I had suggested that we deliver their alfalfa before mounting the stairway, a proposal upon which we had all agreed.
As we had passed the base of the stairway, we had entered the sludgy, barren mire left over by the flood waters and, to my surprise, we had come across a group of footprints in the mud, all of them heading in the same direction that we were.
These are our footprints, Horizon had written, bending to examine them, and they look fresh.
But that’s not possible, Pulida had written. Footprints are left behind you as you walk, they do not appear ahead of you and we haven’t passed this way since we left for the forest and that was days ago. They can’t be ours!
It’s an omen of doom! Omen had written. These footprints will lead us to our deaths!
Shut the narf up Omen, Taboo had responded.
I’m certain they’re ours, Horizon had written. He had pointed to a churned patch of mud. Take a look.
Upon closer inspection, the patch of mud had proved to hold the imprint of a beaked face and goggles, irrefutable proof that Butter had recently passed by.
They’re here! I’d written excitedly. They made it back somehow. Butter and Skull are here!
We were ALL here, Horizon had written, pointedly underlining the word all. He had peered into the distance with his spyglass before handing the instrument to me. I don’t understand how but take a look for yourself.
I had gazed in the direction Horizon had indicated and had jumped at the sight of a group of Orderlies walking into the distance. But where are they going? I’d written, still not grasping the situation. Is it a search party? Have they gone looking for us?
They’re going to the Eastern Forest, Pulida had written.
But the forest is gone! I’d written. Demon said so. She said the spectral bramble would die and she would close the holes it had wrought in reality. They can’t get to the forest.
She hasn’t closed the breeches yet, Horizon had written, nodding. There was no time in the Foundations and we’ve somehow managed to arrive back here before we even left.
I had stared blankly at the retreating Orderlies, trying to process what I was hearing. I had looked up into the sky to see that the sun was at its highest and, as it had done before, the Eastern Forest had appeared as if on cue. They’re us! I’d written, using Horizon’s telescope to search through our distant party. My gaze had rested on Butter and Skull. We have to stop them. I’d written. If we stop Butter and Skull from going into the forest then I won’t get them trapped in the Foundations. We can still save them!
This is the only instance Ink has ever agreed that ‘I was in two places at once,’ ‘didn’t know if I was coming or going,’ and that I was also ’quite beside myself.’
We can’t stop them, Pulida had written. It’s not possible. It’s a paradox. If you stop them from entering the forest now then, yes, they will not become lost but when you then travel along the alternate timeline you’ll create and again reach this particular juncture in time you will believe that they are safe and therefore you shall not again attempt to save them. They must enter the forest. It’s unalterable.
I know it’s fudging awful, Taboo had written, looking Pulida up and down. I’ve no shatanging comprehension of what that great walking wazoo just said but I think he’s right. You have to let it be.
But we can’t just let them leave! I’d written. I promised I’d get you all back safely!
Well you haven’t broken your promise yet, Cloud had written. There’s still time isn’t there?
Suddenly the most ingenious plan my mind has ever comprehended had occurred to me and I’d hastily broken my slate across my knee, splitting it in half, a gesture my brethren had taken as an act of frustration.
Violence never solves anything! Pulida had chastised.
It shatanging well can solve things! Taboo had argued. Watch this! In some bizarre attempt to prove his point Taboo had then proceeded to tackle Omen, dragging him violently to the ground. To this day I am not sure exactly what Taboo was attempting to solve by this act of unprovoked aggression and at the time I had been far too busy to contemplate its meaning. My plan, though ingenious, required me to make a great sacrifice on my part and potentially lose something very precious to me; my spoon.
As Bubbles had attempted to prevent Taboo from giving Omen what was later described as a ‘potentially life threatening wedgie’ I had hastily scrawled a message on half of my broken slate with my spoon and had carried them both to the creature.
Please, I’d written, hoping the creature could comprehend my words. Please I need you to take these to my friends. Take them to the one who helped break off your mask.
The creature had purred and crooned at me, its tears falling liberally. Reaching down it had taken my spoon and the fragment of slate I’d offered and, with a beat of its mighty wings, it had leapt into the air and was off through the sky, hurtling towards our past-selves with unparalleled haste.
As the pandemonium of Taboo’s demonstration of problem-solving violence had continued behind me, I had attempted to track the creature’s progress through Horizon’s spyglass struggling to hold it steady in my nervous hands. May the Architect watch over you, you brave little spoon, I’d thought, my heart breaking at its departure. Bring them home.
The creature had swooped low over our distant-selves, dropping the chunk of slate and my spoon on, of all unlikely places, Butter’s head, a blow which quite understandably had sent her sprawling to the ground.
The creature had been so stealthy in its approach and departure that, though several of our past-selves had turned their goggles skyward none of us, myself included, had caught sight of it. I had experienced the most peculiar bout of deja-vu as I had watched myself scan the heavens before helping Butter back to her feet, actions which I had undertaken several days earlier.
To my relief I had witnessed Skull retrieve my spoon and the fragment of slate from the ground and following the instructions I had provided, he had stowed them in his pocket, telling none of us of his discovery. Suddenly Skull’s strange behaviour that day had made perfect sense to me.
The next scenes I had recalled vividly and though I could not read the words scrawled on the distant slates I had known exactly what was being said.
Are you okay there Skull? You seem alarmed.
Yes, I’m fine!! I am not alarmed!!! There’s nothing strange going on at all!!
Something hit me on the head! It knocked my hat off!
No, no, nothing unexpectedly fell from the sky and hit you on the head. You just fell over in your usual graceful fashion.
I had kept watching as we had all crossed the fringe of ghostly bramble which, I now know, had allowed the forest to slip into our midst.
What did you do? Horizon had written as the creature had returned to us. You gave Skull your spoon, but why?
If and when my plan works, I will let you know, I’d written, picking a stone from the floor to use as a scribe. After writing with the handle of my spoon for so long the stone had felt extremely cumbersome and had been quite detrimental to the quality of my handwriting.
Taboo had staggered to my side, See, I told you! scrawled across his slate. Violence solves lots of things. I feel much better now.
I’m not sure it solved much for me! Omen had written, wiping mud from his scuffed suit.
That’s because you’re plegging well doing it wrong, Taboo had written, draping his arm around Omen’s shoulders. Need me to demonstrate again?
No! Omen had written, trying to ward Taboo away with one of his many talismans.
As the last of our distant-selves had entered the forest I had lowered Horizon’s spyglass and had handed it back to him.
So, what now? Pulida had written. Do we just wait for this plan of yours to take effect and for Butter and Skull to return?
Yes, I’d written, knowing I’d done all I could. We’ll just have to wait and hope, and while we do, we have some hungry bunnies to feed.
Some time later we had climbed to the top of Little Bedlam. The hill had been just as barren and bleak as it had been upon my previous visit and an uncomfortably cold wind had whistled about us, stirring dead leaves and dust at our feet. Upon reaching its pinnacle I had quickly procured the alfalfa from Script’s satchel. Unfortunately, having been picked several days previously, the alfalfa had become rather dry and crispy, crushed and desiccated by the rigours of our adventure, and as I’d laid it out before the bunnies’ burrows it had looked a very meagre meal indeed.
We had retreated to the far side of the hill and had watched patiently as the emaciated bunnies had emerged to nibble at our offering. The cold wind had been unrelenting and we had huddled together for warmth.
Can I pet them? Cloud had written, struggling to contain his excitement.
Maybe, I’d written, placing a calming hand on his shoulder, but not today. Lets just let them enjoy their meal. As I’d written these words a particularly cruel gust of icy wind had scooped up the shrivelled remains of the bunny’s meal and had stolen them away into the sky, sending the distraught bunnies scampering back into the safety of their burrow.
But we tried so hard for them! I’d written, utterly defeated. All of that for nothing!
Their foods all gone now, Cloud had written. Does this mean they’ll go to sleep like my butterfly did now? Won’t I ever get to pet them?
None of my companions had managed to offer Cloud any words of reassurance, all of them as heartbroken as I was. Taboo did however manage to write quite an impressive string of profanities.
The creature, who up until that point had stood motionless at our side, had stretched out its serpentine body and had stared intently at the cloud of desiccated alfalfa as it had swirled away into the distance, it’s dark, tearful eyes focused and bright. It had made several odd little clicking sounds before nuzzling a pouch of seed at Oats’ waist. Then with a cry of “Motoko, Motoko-baareen!” it had once again spread its wings and had taken to the sky, cartwheeling and pirouetting above us, its tears falling like rain.
Oats had stared down at his pouch of seeds, clutching it in his hand. He had turned his face up toward the creature and, as the creature’s tears had splashed against his goggles, he had nodded his understanding. He had poured the precious contents of his pouch into his palm and, as the next gust of wind had whistled around us, he had flung them into the air sending them swirling through the sky.
As the seeds had dispersed and settled over the hill, I had witnessed yet another miracle of the creature’s tears, a show of life-imbued power surpassed only by that of the Vessel whom I would meet some two-hundred years later. As the seeds had touched the barren rock of the hillside they had burst into life, germinating amidst the creature’s miraculous lamenting. Withing a few short minutes, a healthy crop of dessert spoon-length vegetation had covered the hill, a fresh crop of food upon which the bunnies could graze.
(Ink would like to inform you that, using an hour glass and several hens eggs, he has conducted a series of experiments to investigate my claim that ‘a healthy crop of vegetation had covered the hill within a few short minutes,’ and he would at this juncture like to share his findings. He has come to the conclusion that all minutes contain exactly sixty seconds and that sixty minutes fit snugly into every hour. After timing several hundred individual minutes he has unequivocally determined that short minutes never occur.)
What had occurred next I can only describe as a frenzy of ravenous bunny activity which had included a great deal of hopping, much whisker twitching and the frantic consumption of dubious quantities of vegetable matter. In short, the bunnies had eaten and had eaten heartily, struggling to squeeze themselves back into their burrows after their seemingly insatiable gorging.
Well, you did it, Pulida had said, patting me on the back. You saved the bunnies.
Time to go home, Bubbles had added. Our work here is done.
Wearily we had left the bunnies to sleep off their food-comas and had made our way back up the treacherous stairway that led to the ‘Day Trip’ entrance. On many occasions I had found myself looking east toward the forest, hoping to see Butter and Skull hurrying to catch up, my plan leading them back home. No such view had greeted me however and as we had reached the strata of cooled lava the clouds, which had long been threatening it, had begun to shower us with large flakes of snow.
We had been greeted at the top of the staircase by Magpie whom had emerged from the mouth of his quartz mine, his fists full of crystals. He had seemed very confused by our arrival, asking us if our premature return was due to the forest failing to reappear as planned. He had been so shocked by the presence of the crying creature that he had dropped his crystals into the thickening snow. He had also asked about the whereabouts of Butter and Skull, a question which I had not been ready to answer and, though I had been immeasurably happy to see him, I had used the jingle nut from the dusters to distract him, its lustre immediately ceasing his queries.
After delivering what remained of the branches to sawdust and the firewood to Smoke and Ablazelea, (a delivery which had caused Smoke to label me a ‘lifesaver,’) we had journeyed to find Dr. Phlegm, being mobbed by many curious Orderlies along the way. All of them had wanted to know the origins of the strange creature whom slithered at our side and the location of Skull and Butter. Only Darkness had seemed unsurprised by our return and unconcerned by Butter and Skull’s absence, telling me rather cryptically that they would find their way back to us when we needed them the most.
In order to answer everyone’s questions and explain the events and implications of our adventure in the Eastern Forest and beyond, myself and Pulida had decided to call a meeting at dawn the following morning, giving us time to get some rest and settle back in. Unfortunately, whilst we had been scratching our notice into the rock of the mountainside Yarn had approached us and had asked me if I had managed to acquire the wool he had requested, stating that the current weather conditions meant that wool was an absolute necessity. The news that the Eastern Forest hadn’t had any wool to offer had sent him running away in a state of panic, a panic which Omen has seen fit to join in on, following after him with his arms a-flail. Yarn was later seen sitting on a rock with his pin cushion and sewing box, rocking himself back and forth whilst apparently trying to knit a scarf from thin air.