Between: 7

I almost didn’t get this one done in time. Had some unexpected life stuff come, and some expected stuff that took longer than… expected. Anyway, here it is, Between: Episode 7. This is the chapter where I finally introduce one of the obligatory elements of a Lallo Story.

“What’s this test for again?” Philo asked breathlessly.

For the last few hours, Philo had been put through a battery of tests and trials by a floating brain in a jar. The tester–or Logistician, as he preferred to be called–was named Wrunx, and for the most part he seemed to be a fairly decent chap. The tests, on the other hand, were a little hit and miss. Some had been fairly obvious in their relevance. His top speed, his strength, his stamina, and his memory were all recorded, for instance. Other tests were clearly valuable, but much less pleasant. Determining his flammability was very nearly disastrous. Fortunately, Philo had managed to convince Wrunx that his flammability was extremely high and that it would be best just to take his word for it. Then there were the oddball tests. “Mystic Receptiveness/Resistance” had involved Wrunx waving a carved piece of crystal at him and saying the word ‘sleep’, then shaking him awake and informing him that his mystic resistance was ‘remarkably low.’ A test of will had involved trying not to yawn, which lasted until roughly the second time Wrunx said the word yawn. (This was evidently enough to earn him another ‘remarkably low’ rating.) Other tests had run the gamut from counting pebbles to swinging a sword.

Now he was standing on one foot, balancing a stick on one palm and bouncing a ball with the other.

“This is for coordination. You’re doing very well,” Wrunx said, watching thoughtfully and taking notes with his trusty quill pen.

“Whew. That’s good to know. One for the good column then,” Philo said.

“I’m sorry, the what?” Wrunx asked.

“The good column. Sometimes it’s useful to keep track of all of the things going in your favor,” Philo said. “The other stuff goes in the Bad Column.”

“Hmm… A foreign concept, but I can certainly see the value of it. What’s the tally?”

“The what?”

“How many things are in the good column?”

“I don’t remember.”

“So… when you say you keep track of these things…”

“It’s more of an unofficial thing.”

“Ah… I may have overestimated your language and memory ratings,” Wrunx said, pointing his eyes doubtfully at the page containing Philo’s various grades. “You can stop, by the way.”

Philo set the stick down and caught the ball. “Okay, what’s next?”

“I believe I have everything I need,” Wrunx said.

“Oh, good! So, what’s the verdict?”

“Well.” The Logistician flipped through the pages. “I’m afraid you’re rather unremarkable. Middling scores across most of the physical tasks, very low scores on the mystical tasks, and moderately above average on the mental tasks. You do have a very good attitude though.”

“Does that help?”

“With your eventual assignment? Not at all, but in life it’s rather helpful,” Wrunx said. “With these scores, I’d say you’ll probably end up working in the fields, or else as a foot soldier if you can develop some additional skill with a pike. We’ll need plenty of pike men.”

“When do I find out?”

“We’ll speak with the Overseer in a moment. He’s quite hands-on and involved, as Overseers go. Insists on making all initial assignments himself.”

“Is he a nice guy?” Philo asked.

“Nice… That isn’t precisely the word I would use. He’s more… Er… What’s a word for someone insane, but too frightening to risk calling insane?”

“Eccentric?”

“Perfect! I’m boosting your language score for that. Yes, the Overseer is viciously, criminally eccentric. But he’s not killed any newcomers for quite some time, so you’ll likely survive this meeting. I think that certainly belongs in your good column, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I probably won’t die in a minute? Yeah, that’s a good one.”

“No sense dawdling then. Come with me. I’ll take you to him.”

Wrunx hovered to the door and pulled it open, beckoning Philo to follow. The two headed into the hallway, where the imposing figure of an orc in heavy black armor loomed beside the door.

“Chorkuk, follow us, would you? Philo here has been perfectly behaved thus far, but one never can tell how he’ll react once he gets a glimpse of the Overseer.”

“People don’t like duh boss,” Chorkuk rumbled. He appeared to be scowling, though it was possible his twisted green, tusk-bearing face always looked like that. “And I don’t like people wot don’t like duh boss.”

“Good to know,” Philo said.

Wrunx led the way down the hallway, which was just wide enough for the three of them to move side by side. Unlike the room he’d left behind, and much of the rest of the places in Between, the hall was fairly uniform. It was built from blocks of black stone, with stout black columns at regular intervals. On every alternate column there was a glowing torch, though as he passed them he noted that the glow wasn’t coming from a flame, but instead a tiny white orb floating above each torch. An effort had been made to chisel interesting designs into the surface of the stone. The attempt hadn’t been terribly successful, but it was nice to see that someone had felt the need to make some aesthetic touches. Somehow it made things seem a little saner. Anything that could add a little sanity was a good thing, particularly in light of the most notable quirk of the architecture.

The hallway executed a ninety degree clockwise twist along its length, which coupled with the columns made Philo feel as though he was walking along the world’s largest model of a DNA helix. Rather than sliding aside as the floor gradually became a wall, the trio simply walked along without any difficulty. From their point of view it felt more like the castle was twisting around to suit them.

“This whole dimension has a funhouse vibe to it,” Philo said. “I like how gravity is context sensitive.”

“It does offer some fascinating departures from typical interior design, doesn’t it? Back where I come from not everyone is lucky enough to have themselves installed on a hover platform like I did. Some of the cheaper methods have wheels, and as such stairs can present a problem. Here in the castle, we use what I’ve heard other earthlings call ‘candy cane corridors.'”

“Ah, I get it. The walkway spirals around the main support pillar?”

“Right! They are really quite accessible for the less mobile among us.”

The hallway led to the aforementioned candy cane corridor, which tied Philo’s spacial reasoning in knots. Logically he knew he was walking along sideways, winding his way upward, but his eyes insisted he was in a narrow hallway that was rolling along beneath him, watching as sections of the walkway split off and twisted to become the floor of a new level. Trying to work out how many floors he’d gone by, or even trying to determine if the torches over his head counted as sconces or chandeliers, was more trouble than it was worth. He decided to focus on small talk.

“So, Wrunx. Let’s say I do get sentenced to manual labor.”

“Assigned.”

“Right. Is it a good job? What are the hours? Do I get days off?”

“There are no hours or days here. You work until you are unable to work or until there is no more work to do, then you rest or find other work to do, without end, until you are killed, escape, are recruited to Heart Core, or get promoted.”

“That sounds pretty awful.”

“That does seem to be the popular opinion.”

“Hopefully I don’t get it, then. … This might be a weird question, but are you a boy or a girl?”

“I don’t have any of the associated anatomy, so I’m not sure the answer is relevant.” Wrunx said. “Why do humanoids always ask that?”

“Uh… pronouns, I guess. Calling you ‘it’ just seems so impersonal.”

“Oh, yes. English is one of those languages with a biological influence. Well, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m not hearing what you’re actually saying anyway, and since I very much doubt the two of us will be procreating, you may pick the pronoun of your choice.”

“I’m gonna go with he,” Philo said. He then turned to Chorkuk. “Now you’re a probably a dude, right?”

As a response, Chorkuk reached out a ham-sized fist with fingers a thick as Philo’s wrist and grabbed a handful of jumpsuit. Without so much as a grunt of effort, Chorkuk slammed Philo against the wall/ceiling/thing beside the thing they were walking on.

Philo wheezed and fought some breath into his lungs. “Definitely a dude?” he offered.

Chorkuk gave a satisfied nod and dropped him.

“Sorry buddy. You’re my first–” Philo began, then hesitated and winced “–orc?”

“Yes. Chorkuk is an orc,” Wrunx said.

“See, that’s funny, because where I come from, orcs are fictional,” Philo said.

“Where I come from, neither orcs nor humans have even been conceived of,” Wrunx said.

“Where I come from, humans are food,” Chorkuk said.

“Really? Interesting,” Philo said, nodding politely and moving to the other side of Wrunx.

“Relax. The overseer is very strict about predation within Shard. We can’t afford to lose the population.”

“Hey, this was bothering me. If this is Shard, what’s the name of the funny shaped planet its circling around?”

“The Overseer considers both to be Shard, the larger portion is simply Lower Shard, and this is Upper Shard.”

“Good to know.”

The trio circled upward, their walkway getting narrower the higher it went, until finally they stepped (or floated) onto one of the off-ramps and found themselves on a much more luxurious portion of the castle. Only fifteen feet wide and about thirty feet long, the room seemed to be something of a foyer between the walkway and–based on the size and elegance of the arched doorway at its end–the throne room. Like the entryway of the castle, this was a trophy room of sorts, though as it was much smaller it was host to tiny but priceless pieces from a dozen different worlds. Resting on twin rows of black stone plinths were crystal display cases. Some held exquisite gems set in precious metals, though the configuration was unlike any jewelry Philo had ever seen. Others held sculptures, like the nearest one which held the alabaster bust of a magnificently beautiful yet strangely otherworldly woman.

Chorkuk led the way to the door, beside which the final two plinths displayed a flower which appeared to have venom-dripping stingers at the end of each petal and a stand displaying a mint condition copy of Action Comics #1. Philo paused investigate the comic.

“Okay, never mind the question of how you got a copy of this, but how exactly do you know it’s valuable?” Philo asked, peering at the iconic image of Superman.

“Philo, please. You aren’t our first earthling. Though to be perfectly honest I’ve always preferred Batman. Superman is so irritatingly invincible,” Wrunx said.

Wrunx reached out to the handle of the door, but paused. There were voices behind the door. Though they were too muffled for the assembled group to make out what was being said, there were certainly two voices, and they were certainly angry.

“We should wait. You don’t want to go in while he’s angry,” Wrunx advised.

“Huh. Sounds like Trixie,” Chorkuk said. “She’s gettin’ chewed out good.”

“Who’s Trixie?” Philo asked.

“Another one of our Fetchers,” said Wrunx. “She was off collecting someone during the Heart Core invasion. The fact I’ve spent the last few hours testing you without interruption means she didn’t bring anyone back. That would mean that she was sent out after–”

From behind the door a vaguely male voice screeched, “A DECOY!? We lost three subjects while you were off trying to fetch a decoy!?”

“It was your precious Spotter who sent me after it! Don’t you dare try to blame this on me!”

“Trixie yells at duh boss. Trixie’s not too smart,” Chorkuk sagely observed.

The voices drifted back below the threshold of hearing, but it was clear that the discussion was still quite heated. Finally something struck the door hard enough to cause it to leap in its hinges. Philo stumbled backwards, startled. He would have crashed into the comic display if Chorkuk’s casually raised hand didn’t stop him with all of the gentleness of a brick wall. The door opened to reveal, presumably, Trixie.

She wasn’t human, not by a longshot, but at the mere glimpse of her Philo was transfixed. Though she was uniquely dressed in custom made armor, her shape was abundantly female. She was over six feet tall, and her skin was bright red and just a bit glossy with perspiration from her heated argument. Her face may as well have been that of a human, and a cute one at that, if not for its crimson color. Shiny black lips were twisted in an angry sneer and her eyes–the least human part of her face–were entirely black save for blood red irises. Her hair was black as pitch too, cut into a short ragged bob. Sticking up through it were two points that Philo initially thought were spikes of hair. Close inspection revealed they were shiny black horns jutting up like thorns from her head. Behind her swished a thin tail of the same red skin color and ending with a spade shape. Her feet were bare, and in fact weren’t feet at all. She had black hooves that clopped on the stone floor was she walked. Topping off the inhuman aspects of her body was a glorious pair of red, bat-like wings folded across her back. Her armor was bulky, so it was difficult to tell what her build was, but there was no doubt that both her chest and hips were noteworthy in both quality and quantity.

The armor itself was worth noting as well, as unlike Chorkuk and the other guards, she wore protection that was as haphazard and cobbled together as the trophy collection. She’d assembled something that was equal parts football pads and plate mail, with each plate irregularly pounded out of whatever piece of metal she could find. Most were unrecognizable, but Philo felt sure he saw a license plate and a few cola cans in the mix. Completing the ensemble was a helmet hanging from her belt. It probably started life as some sort of sports equipment before she’d bored two holes for her horns and riveted some scrap metal to it. In one hand she held a sledge hammer, or at least whatever the medieval equivalent was called. Judging by the many stains on its head and handle, it was more accurately called a war hammer.

“You’re going to want to give him a minute to cool off,” Trixie said in a smoky voice. She turned to Philo. “Is this fresh meat? Nice to know we didn’t all go out chasing shadows. Let me see that.” She snatched the grade sheet from Wrunx and looked it over. After only a few lines, she cast a disparaging look in Philo’s direction. “Oh, you’re a real winner, aren’t you?”

“I’ve got a good attitude! And a sock puppet act,” Philo defended.

“Well, the boss does love puppets,” Trixie said.

“Really?”

She snorted. “No.” She gave a derisive laugh and sighed. “Oh, he is going to hit the roof when he sees you. Get the grinder ready, because he’ll be making meatloaf out of somebody before this blows over.” She gave him a punch to the shoulder. “Good luck in there, champ.”

Trixie returned the grade paper and marched down the hall, her hips swaying and jingling her armor as she went. Philo found he couldn’t take his eyes off her until she was nothing more than the echoing of hooves in the twisting corridor.

“This is an… inauspicious beginning to your task assignment,” Wrunx said.

“I want some of dat meatloaf, if duh boss makes it,” Chorkuk said.

“This is a joke about the meatloaf, right? That’s just ‘haha, he’s gonna be really mad’-type metaphor, right?” Philo said nervously.

“Of course!” Wrunx said.

“Okay, good.”

“The Overseer detests meat. He’s more apt to eat your soul.”

“… You can eat souls?”

“I can’t, but the Overseer has done so on occasion,” Wrunx said, matter-of-factly. “Shall we get on with it then? No time like the present.”

Philo opened his mouth to suggest that there were many times like the present and, might he add, that the future seemed like a much better time for this sort of thing. He didn’t get the opportunity. Wrunx pulled open the door and Chorkuk ushered Philo inside.

The throne room–and that’s indeed what it was–was lavishly decorated. Intricately woven tapestries adorned the walls, each depicting a different fantastic scene or landscape. Two vast, peaked windows displayed the grandeur of Lower Shard. Because the castle stood on the end of Upper Shard, the windows were looking straight down, giving Philo an intense feeling of vertigo. Racks of weapons stood on either side of the doorway, each fully loaded with spears, halberds, complicated swords, baseball bats, assault rifles, and rocket launchers. On the far right wall there was a door, slightly ajar, leading to a darkened room.

Between the two windows, facing the door, was the currently vacant throne itself. It was a gleaming thing of carved marble, more of a work of art than a piece of furniture. Every edge was scalloped, beveled, curved, or chamfered. A sweeping badge of some sort had been set into the arched top rail, made up of thin strips of engraved gold and fitted with gems the size of a walnut. The cushions were black velvet with gold threading, plush and overstuffed. Despite these inviting pillows, the shape and size of the seat gave Philo the overall impression that it wasn’t a particularly comfortable place to sit. The scale was absurd. You could fit three Philos side by side with room to spare, and each would have his feet dangling like a toddler. He shuddered at the thought of how enormous the Overseer must be… wherever he was.

“Wrunx, have you worked out how much this invasion has upset our timetable,” fumed a voice from the corner of the room. It was a high-pitched, creaky voice. A voice that only seemed appropriate for someone who would grin at you while leaning on a shovel beside an open grave, or perhaps offer you a poison apple while calling you ‘my pretty’. It was a demented cackle waiting to happen.

Philo turned to the source. Standing there was… nothing. He didn’t realize his mistake until Wrunx drifted past him, then downward, to present the grade page to a small, plump creature on the floor. It didn’t quite look like anything Philo had seen before, but a raccoon came closest albeit a white one without the bandit markings. It had the same cunning little paws, chubby little body, and fluffy tail. The ears had more of a bunny quality to them, though not as long and coming to a sharper point. Its primary color was white. There were fine red stripes tracing out arcing, almost tribal patterns across the short fur of its forehead, back, and sides. The thickest red lines formed two curling red tufts over its deep blue eyes, giving the semblance of flamboyant eyebrows pulled down in a devilish and scheming manner.

“I’m afraid not, Overseer,” Wrunx said. “I was conducting the trials for the newcomer.”

“Newcomer! Yes, yes, excellent!” the creature said, its piercing, crypt-keeper voice now seeming to be far too large and articulate for the creature. “I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get any fresh blood at all from this fiasco. Who brought him back?”

“Rill,” Wrunx said.

“Rill? Oh, yes. That one, with the tails. She’s really coming in handy. Yes. Yes we should reward her. Give her two… no three quartermaster tokens. One for each head. Yes. Must keep them loyal. Loyalty is very important for the flyers.”

He snatched the page away. Wrunx took the opportunity to make a note of Rill’s reward while the overseer waddled slowly toward the throne. His small size made the trip a lengthy one, and required him to use both forepaws spread nearly at arm’s length in order to hold the parchment he’d taken. About halfway to the throne he stopped and his little ears pulled back.

There was a shuffling beside Philo and he turned to find that Chorkuk had taken two steps away from the human, his arms held in a vaguely defensive position. Wrunx was considerably more cautions, having retreated to the far side of the room.

“A science type! We lose three, three, of my subjects in a single stroke and all that stupid snake can bring me is a science type? Fine Rill two… no three quartermaster tokens. One for each head. Yes.”

Wrunx simply crossed out the note of the reward.

The Overseer tore up the sheet with remarkable ease and scampered on all fours to the throne, clambering up to the seat. Once there, he began muttering to himself. “Trixie… going after the decoy… I suppose the spotter may be at fault… Wrunx, bring me a piece of the spotter who found the decoy Trixie went after. Nothing vital, but something useful. A thumb or two.”

“The spotter in question was Ovid, sir.”

“And?”

“Ovid is a great owl. No thumbs, sir.”

“Well then take one of his wings then. Do I have to spell everything out for you? Dunces and dunderheads, the lot of you.”

“And where shall I assign the newcomer, sir?”

“Eh? Oh. Yes. Throw him in a field somewhere. He’s rubbish,” the Overseer said dismissively.

“Uh, I’m sorry, Mr. Overseer? If I may speak for a moment in my defense,” Philo said.

Chorkuk audibly gasped. Wrunx dropped to the ground and covered his eyes with his hands. The Overseer cast a furious look in Philo’s direction.

“You’re an earthling, yes?” the Overseer said.

“Yes.”

“I’ve known a lot of earthlings, yes. Not one of them was worth the breath it would take to order its execution. But they all had a few things in common. The more unfortunate was the inability to be suitably intimidated when meeting me for the first time. I’m told it is something to do with my size, yes? Or the nap of my pelt? There are things on earth that look much as I do, and those things scurry away when you come near, unless you deign allow them into your homes to be coddled and fawned over.” He took a step forward on the seat of the throne. “That doesn’t happen where I come from.”

As he continued to talk, there was an odd hissing noise that permeated the air.

“Where I come from, people have a respect for creatures like me. It wasn’t always that way, but eventually those who lacked respect learned it, or else they learned what it felt like to have the bones pulled from their living flesh.”

It became clear that what Philo was hearing was the sound of sand pouring out against something, he couldn’t find its source. Then he saw a curling strand of dust spiraling up from below the windows. It was like a tornado had swept through the remains of a forest fire, drawing up the cinders and ash and whirling them into a chaotic ribbon of black.

“They learned that being small and fluffy has little bearing on how truly dangerous something is. Yes.”

The ash poured in through the windows, blotting out the view of the outside and snuffing out all sources of light. The room was plunged into darkness. The voice continued to speak, louder now and seemingly all around him.

“You could stand to learn a few lessons. You could stand to learn that here, magic is the only real power. And magic has little to do with how you look. At least, how you look with untrained eyes. Yes. And you could stand to learn that you do not speak to me until you have earned that right.”

The black sand dropped away from the lights and windows, but an array of needle-sharp spikes made from the stuff hung in the air around Philo, so close he couldn’t move an inch without potentially skewering himself.

“Have I made myself clear?”

Silo tried to nod but caught a spike to the eyebrow for his trouble. “Yes,” he said, blood trickling down his face.

“Yes…” The Overseer said, waving a paw and dismissing the spikes. “Now what possible defense could you have?” At his whim the pieces of the parchment swirled together and repaired. “No mystic skill, not even particularly strong. What are you good for besides working in the fields?”

“… Do I answer, or…”

“Yes! Yes you answer!” Overseer snapped.

“Well, I mean, you just lost three people. That probably created some non-heavy-lifting openings.”

“Ha! We lost a centaur. All he was good for was pulling a plow, but that still makes him five times more useful than you.”

“What about the other two?”

“Who else did we lose, Wrunx?”

“Gastov the Sigil Writer and Menev the enchanter,” Wrunx shakily supplied.

“Do you know how to engrave mystical emblems and empower them?”

“… Maybe?”

“You don’t. I can see mystic talent plain as day, and you are the most mystically inert being I’ve ever met. Yes. It is like you aren’t even here.”

“Well then maybe I can help get them back.”

“And how would you do that? You can’t fly or swim. I’ll be sending Mr. Stubbs to get them back. I’ve tried Trixie for that, but Stubbs has consistently outperformed her.”

“When I was talking to Rill…”

“Talking to Rill… You surely mean pleading with Rill, yes?”

“No, no. We got along fine.”

“Wrunx, is this human lying to me?”

“No, Overseer. As I understand it he and Rill parted on very pleasant terms.”

“And she suggested maybe we could work together. I’m very diplomatic. Maybe I could… negotiate their return or something.”

“We are conquerors, not negotiators.”

“Well then maybe I can trick them into thinking we’re negotiators so we can conquer.”

“A distraction… Yes… But you are useless, Philo. You can’t defend yourself. They will capture you.”

“Well if I’m useless, no big loss, right?”

The Overseer scratched his head with a hind foot, considering the words.

“I will think about this. Yes. Wrunx, take him to the Fetcher’s Den. And figure out that timetable!

With that, the Overseer dove to the floor and scuttled to the unlit adjoining room. The door slammed behind him. Wrunx hurriedly led the way out of the throne room.

“Hah, see that? Another one for the good column,” Philo said.

“No, Philo. This is definitely one for the bad column,” Wrunx countered.

“Why?”

“I suppose you will find out soon.”

There you go. We’ve got a cute cuddly creature now. Tune in next week where something happens involving the other fetchers I guess. I haven’t decided what yet.