Here we go, in an installment quite likely to be overshadowed by the announcement later today, the continuing adventures of Philo.
“This isn’t so bad,” Philo said, glancing around his home for the time being.
His encounter with the adorable but psychotic creature they called The Overseer had left him shaken and bleeding, but all things considered it had gone fairly well. Sure, he ended up with a gash to the head when the little guy had illustrated his supernatural powers, he’d also managed to plant the idea that maybe he would be more useful as a fetcher than a field worker. Almost immediately, his host Wrunx had suggested that being a fetcher wasn’t the best job in the world, but the alternative was an eternity of hard labor in the fields. The fetchers he’d met, granted, had been a little unhinged, but that seemed to be anything but rare in this place.
He’d been sent to the so called “Fetcher’s Den” to wait for his final assignment. It wasn’t the most luxurious place, but he’s seen worse. To be honest, it looked more like a campsite than a den. It wrapped most of the way around the opposite tip of the floating hunk of rock called Upper Spire, fenced off and scattered with shelters that had almost certainly been assembled by the fetchers themselves. Having met three fetchers already, Philo tried to guess which shelter belonged to which. Mr. Stubbs’ home was the easiest to spot, as it was about half the height of a normal house–just the right size for a hobgoblin–and had a massive perch installed on the roof for his trusty vulture Hooks. Something told him that a simple mound of rocks, something that looked like a stone igloo, belonged to Rill. The rest were a complete mystery. The gray-brown glob of what looked like papier-mâché, for instance, which sat prominently at the edge of the road that made up the only non-Den portion of the area and didn’t seem particularly hospitable. Then there were the assorted half-demolished things that might have been homes at one point or another. There was even what looked like a simple pine coffin laying on the ground in the middle of a bare patch of ground.
The thing that confused him the most was a simple cottage. What was so strange about it was that there was nothing strange about it. It was positively wholesome, two stories and built from good solid timber. The roof was thatched, the windows had fine heavy shutters painted a deep blue. Over the dutch door was a pair of horseshoes with their openings pointed down. There was even a small garden wrapped around it with assorted herbs and greenery. A shed sat beside the main house, every bit as picturesque and perfect as the rest of the scene. It was like something out of a nursery rhyme, and it was sitting right in the middle of a chaotic wonderland. The mailbox beside the door–it actually had a mailbox–said Beatrice Zalthea.
“Jeez. The only thing missing is a white picket fence and a dog house,” Philo said.
“What are you doing here, champ?” called a voice from above.
Philo looked up to see the striking yet demonic fetcher named Trixie. She was just near enough for the leathery beat of her wings to be audible.
“Oh, hi there!” Philo called back. “Guess who is being considered to be a fetcher!”
Trixie slowly descended until, with a few quick and graceful flaps, she touched down and strode up to Philo. She was a few inches taller than him and looked down with a grin. “No… You might be a fetcher? You’re a science type, and I don’t see any wings or flying contraptions. How do you plan on getting around?”
“I suggested they team me up with Rill.”
“You? With that monster? Ha! Good luck,” she said, fluttering her wings a bit to get them to fold properly. “Rill can barely play nice with herself. I can’t even imagine what will happen once a fourth head is in the mix.”
“Aw, Rill’s a sweetheart… well, except for that left head,” Philo said.
“The one with the scars? Yeah,” Trixie said, rubbing her jaw. “Don’t push that one unless you’re ready for her to push back.”
“I think we’ll do fine.”
“I don’t. But on the off chance you do end up sniffing around in my turf, I guess I’d better make sure you know the score.” Trixie shoved him with two fingers, effortlessly throwing him from his feet onto his back. Before he’d wrapped his mind around what had happened, she planted a hoof on his chest and held the head of her hammer just above his forehead. “I am faster, stronger, smarter, and more experienced than you, and you’re lowest on the seniority roster. The only reason I’m not The Overseer’s number one fetcher is because I don’t want to be. I’ve got my own interests, and this is just how I get the resources I need for my own ends. Don’t–do not–interpret this as weakness. I take all of my own assignments and only my own assignments. You won’t catch me trying to scoop you on a fetch, and if I ever catch you trying to scoop me on a fetch, I won’t hesitate to turn you into a red smear on the bridge out. Got that?”
“Uh… there was a lot of stuff in there that I didn’t understand…” She let the hammer drop an inch. “But if the message was ‘Don’t Mess With Trixie’, then it came through loud and clear.”
“Good.” She held a hand down to him.
After a moment of eyeing it warily, he accepted it and she pulled him to his feet.
“Now, what did they tell you about the whole fetcher gig?” she asked, dusting him off a bit, then slapping him on the back, prompting him to walk along beside her toward the homey little cottage.
“Nothing. But I’ve gathered that fetching is involved. Mostly people, I guess.”
“People, goods, whatever the Overseer wants. Right now, that’s mostly people. He insists he’s building an army. Can’t do that without bodies. You’ll need to be available whenever they need you, so when you’re not on a fetch, you’ll be here in the den. You’ll want to set up a decent place to live, which shouldn’t take too long, because fetching is one of the few jobs on Shard that actually pays. Most fetches will get you three or four tokens. A really rotten one will fetch you two. How much did Rill get for you?”
He turned his eyes to the ground insecurely. “One.”
She laughed uproariously for considerably longer than was appropriate. “One token for fetching a newcomer! That’s science types for you!” She wiped away a tear. “Oh, you’ll learn to hate ‘em as much as the rest of us do before too long. Anyway. A token is good for a trip to the quartermaster. The quartermaster will let you take your pick of as much as you can carry of the junk the Overseer doesn’t know what to do with, or one or two pieces of the good stuff. There’s a lot of haggling and/or threatening involved.
“Fetching newcomers like you is pretty rare, which is why the Overseer should have realized that if four of us were heading out to fetch newcomers at the same time then one or all of them were bound to be decoys.”
“What’s a decoy?”
“Heart Core’s got a bunch of really talented mystics. They can make it seem as though someone showed up, but when you head out to get them, you’ll just keep going without ever finding anyone. There’s an art to figuring out when you’ve been duped and when a newcomer’s just hard to find. You, for example. Rill spent way longer looking for you than I would have. She’s an idiot, but her intuition is pretty sound.”
“How do we know when we need to go get someone?”
“The black and white stinker will bring you a note. The Overseer’s official messenger. You’ll know him when you smell him.” She stopped at the base of stairs leading to the front door of the cottage. “Other than that, you just listen for the announcement of an invasion and defend Shard as best you can. That’s the long and short of being a fetcher. Now run along. I’m not inviting you inside.”
“Inviting me… wait. You’re Beatrice Zalthea?”
“Of course,” she said, opening the door and setting her hammer into a stand just inside. “You didn’t think I was really named Trixie, did you?”
She stepped inside, rolled her eyes, and slammed the door.
“Trixie,” he muttered to himself. “Kinda blows hot and cold, that one.”
He turned to leave, but something odd caught his attention. At first he couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but steadily he realized that it was a sound, distant but growing nearer.
“… philo philo Philo Philo PHILO PHILO PHILO!!!!”
He turned to see two excited lavender heads and one disinterested one for an instant before Rill plowed into him, knocking the air from his lungs and dragging him into the air. She coiled around him and slid to the ground, her heads bobbing excitedly in his face and vying for his attention.
“Did your assessment go well?” Rill asked.
“You’re here in the Fetcher’s Den!” Right!Rill squealed.
“You’re actually going to be our partner?” Left!Rill added in disbelief.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. One at a time,” he said. “I talked to the Overseer. I mentioned the idea of us working together and maybe going to retrieve the people the Heart Core fetchers took back, and he sent me here while he thought about it.”
“He’ll say yes! He has to. It’s a great idea!” Right!Rill raved, curling her head around his neck and pressing her cheek to his.
Rill inspected him for a moment, sniffing at the flecks of dried blood above his eye. “You’re hurt.”
“He is?” Right!Rill said, unwrapping herself and joining Rill in her investigation.
“Hold still,” Rill said.
She darted a thin purple tongue out and lapped up the flakes of blood, uncovering a faint pink gash where the Overseer’s spike of intimidation met its mark. Rill smacked her tongue a few times, like a connoisseur considering a fine Chablis. Left and Right each closed their eyes and tilted their heads in quiet appreciation.
“You’re very tasty, Philo,” they said in unison.
“That’s not what you said before,” he said.
“That’s because we didn’t get to taste the juice before,” Left!Rill said.
“The inside always tastes better than the outside,” Right!Rill said.
“Okay. Good to know. Maybe let’s not talk about how good I taste anymore.”
“Come see our home!” Rill said, releasing Philo from her coils and slithering toward the mound of rocks. “We made it ourself and we’re very proud.”
Having not given it much more than a glance earlier, a few things about the construction were baffling. There wasn’t any mortar holding the place together. In fact, the precarious way in which the jagged rocks clung together made it a wonder that it was standing at all. Rill dropped a bag that she’d been carrying with one of her tails and slithered in a loop around the mound.
“How do you fit inside?” he asked, recalling how large she’d been even when she was wadded up in a ball, trembling about him tearing off his face.
“Take a look!” Right!Rill said, puffing out her chest… or at least the portion of her neck that was the closest thing she had to one.
He found his way to the irregular opening on one side that served as a door and poked his head in. He was greeted by the sort of powerful, organic scent one always seems to find around large animals, though it had a spiciness that he’d never encountered before. Just inside the doorway, aside from becoming almost pitch black thanks to the strangely polite way that light remained outdoors in this place, the ground dipped down in a shallow bowl. Between the dome of the stones and the burrowed out ground, there was just enough room for her to curl up inside. The black, sandy ground was piled with shredded cloth and bits of leather, forming a comfy if simple little bed. A tiny alcove had been dug deeper than the rest, with a particularly heavy stone sitting at the bottom of it.
“I’d invite you to stay with us, but there’s really not room for you,” Rill said. “Have you put any thought into what you’re going to live in?”
He scratched his head. “I didn’t realize I was going to need a place to live until Trixie told me…”
“Oh,” Left!Rill said in irritation. “You talked to Trixie.”
“Should I have not talked to Trixie?”
“We don’t like Trixie,” Rill said.
“She’s mean to us,” Right!Rill said.
“And every fetch she does is one we don’t get to do,” Rill said.
“And The Overseer never gives her any of the dirty jobs,” Left!Rill said. She flipped her tail up in front of Philo, revealing a splash of red with a formerly gray feather plastered to it. “We were busy picking out our food and they made us go and pluck a wing off one of the spotters. You know how hard that is to do without killing it? You can’t just pull. You’ve got to squeeze, twist, bite, and pull, or else the end is too messy for the healers to put it back on easy. No one respects how tricky it is!”
“Yeah… yeah can imagine it takes a lot of finesse,” Philo said, gently pushing the tail away.
As he watched her lick idly at it like a child getting to lick the cake batter off a spoon, he recalled how often the word ‘monster’ tended to be used in describing his purple friend.
“All of the other fetchers get to have more fun than me. Basically I’m the only one they don’t let go recruit people, or re-recruit them. That’s always Stubbs, Brankle, and Duke. Sometimes Trixie, but only on regular recruiting for her. She doesn’t re-recruit. Trixie likes to do the resource runs instead, along with Brankle and Duke. They don’t let Stubbs do those much anymore because he’s a thief. The only thing they let us do is defend against Heart Core and fetch newcomers, but everyone gets to do that,” Right!Rill said.
“Okay, well I’ve met you and Trixie and Stubbs. Who are Brankle and Duke?”
“Brankle is a big bug guy who doesn’t even talk most of the time. And Duke is a stuck-up pale human like you who can turn into a bunch of bats,” Rill said.
“A human who can turn into bats… He wouldn’t suck blood by any chance, would he?”
“You’ve met him?” Right!Rill asked.
“No, but I know the type.”
“You do? Is your memory getting better?” Rill asked.
“I guess, a little, but so far it’s all little stuff. Nothing about me.”
“Probably it’s more useful that way. What good would knowing about you do you? No one else knows anything about you and we’re all doing fine,” Left!Rill said. “All you need to know is that you shouldn’t deal with any of the other fetchers. But definitely don’t deal with Duke.”
“He’s super uppity. Everything is beneath him. Him and Brankle didn’t get back yet from their fetches,” Right!Rill said.
Philo turned slightly to see that the sack Rill had been carrying had rolled to the side and was squirming.
“Your bag is moving,” Philo said.
“Oh yeah!” Right!Rill said, snatching the bag up with her tail. The other two tails quickly tugged it open. “This is what we bought with the token we got for fetching you.”
She dropped the bag and dipped all three tails inside to pull out three things that looked like crabs, though they had a few too many waving eyes, waggling legs, and snapping claws to be the crustaceans Philo knew. They were also bright blue, which didn’t seem terribly crab-like, but they had shells and claws, and that was good enough for him.
“… My freedom is worth three crabs?” Philo said.
“Yep!” Right!Rill said happily.
Philo looked away quickly as Left!Rill lunged at her crab. The air filled with a sickening chorus of crunches, gulps, and murmurs of delight.
“You always forget how good eating is until you get to do it again,” Right!Rill said with her mouth full.
“Yeah, it’s great. I mean, after this little experience I probably wouldn’t want to do it for a while anyway, but it’s great,” he said, holding up his hand to block the sight of the feast.
“I can feel the cuts and scrapes from the Heart Core fetchers healing up already,” Rill said as the crunching came to an end. “There’s nothing like a little snack to perk you up.”
He looked back to see the three heads contentedly licking the remnants of their hard earned meal from their faces. They were messy eaters, though that may be unavoidable when the thing you’re eating is trying to get away. Now that the crunching had subsided, he noticed that at some point a new sound had begun to lilt across the landscape. It was a tiny, raspy voice chanting in a singsong manner.
“Rill, Trixie, New Guy. Rill, Trixie, New Guy,” it repeated.
“Oh boy!” Right!Rill said. “A new job!”
Philo squinted into the distance. The voice seemed to be coming from behind the low fence that separated the Fetcher’s Den from the main road. Between the posts he could see a blackish form trotting along. It didn’t seem to be much bigger than a dog. It nimbly hopped up onto the fence, then back down to the ground and trotted directly for them. A massive, fluffy tail drifted along behind what was either a fox with a skunk’s paintjob or a skunk with a fox’s stature. Strapped to its back was an adorable little pack with three bundled scrolls sticking out of it. Before it was halfway to them, it was clear this was the ‘stinker’ Trixie had mentioned, as he had a substantial aroma. It wasn’t quite skunk, but it was definitely in the same part of the stench spectrum.
The beast pranced up to Rill and Philo and tapped back and forth energetically.
“Message, Rill,” it said, lowering its head to present its pack.
Rill snatched the scroll tied with a purple ribbon and eagerly pulled it open. As the three heads fought to get a good view of the message, the little creature turned to Philo.
“New guy?” it said.
“I’m Philo,” he said.
“New guy?” it repeated.
Right!Rill leaned over and whispered. “The messenger isn’t the brightest thing around. He doesn’t know many words.”
“Yes, I’m the new guy,” Philo said.
“Message, New Guy,” the messenger said, lowering its head.
There were two messages remaining, one tied with a white ribbon, the other tied with a red one. Reasoning that if the purple one had been for Rill, the red one was probably for Trixie, and thus the white one was for him. He snagged and unfurled it.
“As a test of your effectiveness, you are to accompany Trixie and Rill to the junkyard to acquire the resources listed below. You are to work as a team with Rill, and acquire all of the listed items. Trixie has her own list, and will merely show you each the basics of resource gathering. If you are successful, you and Rill will be considered a single Fetcher and will split all earnings as Stubbs and Hooks do,” Philo read.
“Neat!” Right!Rill said.
“But we have to split our earnings with him. He’s a burden already!” Left!Rill objected.
“But we’ll be going to the junkyard. We’ve never been asked or even allowed to go there before. We’ll be doing more work, so it will all even out,” Rill reasoned.
The messenger trotted over to Trixie’s quaint little cottage and scratched at the door.
“You have got to be joking!” she roared from within, causing the messenger to spring back. She threw the door open, plucked up the messenger by its pack, and held it to her face. “I just got home! Just got home! You tell them that if they are going to send me on a wild goose chase, next time I get some time off before the next one. You hear that? Next time Trixie gets a break!”
“Next time Trixie gets a break,” the messenger said, nodding its head vigorously.
She grabbed the message and dropped the messenger, who trotted happily back toward the castle trilling “Next time Trixie gets a break” over and over again.
Trixie read over the message. When she reached the end she rolled her eyes and looked toward Philo, then past Philo to give Rill a hard, measuring stare. Philo turned to see Rill returning the stare in triplicate.
“Oh, I can tell this is going to be a fun trip,” Philo said.
The next one might be a touch late, because, again, a distraction is coming along roundabout noon today.