Table of Contents The Sulphur Queen • • • 37
Unspeakable Crimes • • • 63 The Skeleton Crew • • • Extras David and Valery Mini Comic 1-2 • • • Riddles 1-2 • • • Fan Art • • •
The Sulphur Queen
t was nighttime in the Mausoleum, as usual. Not that it was usually nighttime, as even the Mausoleum was subject to the average rotations of the earth and the various day-times and night-times that came with it. But it was nighttime as usual, because that’s when all the fun things happened at the Mausoleum. Few fun things happened there during the day, unless you consider decomposition to be really thrilling. Specifically, it was just about to be truly nighttime, and the last few red streaks in the western horizon were calling it quits and turning a deep violet. The shadows on the grave markers stretched so far that they disappeared into the forest edge, before melting into a blanketing shadow across the entire clearing. A few white lawn-darts landed next to a target “It’s hard to do this when it’s so dark out,” Vincent complained, squinting as he lined up another shot.
“It’s also hard to do when you’re bad at it,” Dinah replied, tossing a dart in a perfect are and scoring twenty points on the little paper board, which was propped up at the foot of a statue ten feet away. Vincent sighed in frustration and looked at the scorecard.
“Well apparently you’re the one who’s bad at it, because I’m still winning by fifteen points,” he countered triumphantly. Dinah frowned and clutched her hand of darts tighter.
“Maybe I could concentrate better, if not for”--she took a deep breath and yelled down the walkway at two distant figures--”ALL THAT RACKET!”
“Did you hear something?” Edaniel asked, sliding out on a mechanics board from under an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage that was up on four wooden blocks, near the entrance to the Mausoleum grounds. Edrear stopped hammering an iron hoop nearby and paused, the last loud blows of his mallet echoing in the trees. He looked down the pathway to Vincent and Dinah, then back. “Are you going to help me fix this wheel or not? He glared at his brother, who slid underneath the carriage hastily.
“Just gotta take a look at this here leaky manifold he said in a muffled voice, his furry feet wiggling between the spokes of one of the wheels. Edrear sighed and continued knocking the wheel hoop back into place.
“I can’t throw things in a bolero jacket,” Vincent continued “It’s hard; it rides up under the arms. And it’s a weird material.” “Maybe I could let it out for you,” Dinah said, looking down the nose of one of her darts, before giving it an experimental toss into the ground. Vincent folded his arms and looked away. “I don’t like it, I look too much like Edaniel.” Dinah sighed inwardly, knowing what was coming next. “And YOU look too much like-”
“YES! Thank you, Vi! I know! You think my outfit looks a lot like Edrear ‘s! Which it doesn’t! But thank you! For the fourteenth time!” “I’m just saying-”
“You’re ALWAYS just saying!”
“I don’t think he’s given up on you,” Vincent announced, stamping his boot on the cobblestones. It’s always MISS Dinah this and MISS Dinah that and can I pull your chair out for you to sit down, MISS Dinah and can I get you another napkin, MISS Dinah and can I brush all of your teeth for you and take you to prom, MISS Dinah-”
“Let it GO!” Dinah said, throwing all her darts down. “He’s going to do that until the end of time, because that’s just how he is! Edaniel says he did the same thing with his sisters. He’s just, you know, chivalrous or something. Leave him alone.” “Aren’t you done with that stupid thing yet!” Vincent shouted down the walkway, towards
the carriage. Edrear growled something inarticulate, installing the repaired wheel with a bang of his mallet. He turned and waved the others over, then leaned down and dragged Edaniel out from underneath by his tail. Snack cakes and coupon clippings went everywhere, as Edaniel rolled out from under the carriage, guiltily holding a pair of scissors and a large catalog.
“Union break,” he said through five bites of cake, as Edrear opened his mouth in protest. Edaniel hopped into the carriage through a window and curled up on the plush scat. Dinah and Vincent walked up as Edrear held the carriage door open and gestured them inside. Vincent got in with a small jump, leaned out and slapped Edrear‘s outstretched hand away. He picked up Dinah’s hand himself and helped her in, shooting a glare behind him. Edrear sighed, adjusted his collar and stepped in. An invisible whip cracked some hundred or so miles away (at least, that’s how it sounded to Dinah) and the carriage began to roll along by itself. At a speed of about ten miles an hour, it lifted off the ground and went soaring into the sky, picking up momentum gradually. It turned in a wide circle and headed towards the ocean. “I always get car sick,” Dinah said, hanging her head out the window. “Unless I’m driving, I always get car sick.”
“You can drive a car?” Edaniel asked, from the floor, where he was diligently shredding part of the cream-colored velvet seat with his claws. Dinah made a face. “Well no, but I was studying to get my permit, and Aunt Jane let me drive her car up and clown the driveway and on that one back road sometimes.” “Who’s driving THIS vehicle? Vincent asked.
“Don’t ask,” Edrear and Edaniel said in unison. “But I just did.”
Edrear took out a small square of cloth and started buffing the fittings of his already shiny armor, stopping to breathe on them every so often and resume polishing. “This is an important occasion,” he said, not looking up. “Your first introduction to the rest of the Guildsmen. We must all be on our best behavior.”
He frowned at Edaniel, who was pulling the stuffing out of the chair and eating it. “Or we must quickly develop some kind of good behavior and immediately put ourselves on it,” he added sternly. Edaniel spat out the cushion stuffing in disgust. “It’s just the stupid Guildsmen’s Ball!” he declared. “Who cares? It’s gonna be a bunch of hi-how-are-yous to the other employees and then a boring dinner and a bunch of boring speeches and then we all go home. Like last year.”
“Will there be dancing?” Dinah asked, momentarily pulling her head back in the carriage. “No.”
“Then why is it called a ball?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
Dinah sighed and stuck her head back out the window. Edrear stopped polishing his armor and glanced up. “Miss Dinah, the Guildsmen’s Ball is an annual event that allows us to communicate with other guilds, reaffirm our dedication to our duties, compare workloads and enjoy”--he shuddered--”unstructured socializing.”
“Wallflower,” Edaniel said. “It’s supposed to be some sort of networking affair, but basically it’s just everybody awkwardly eating crackersnacks and looking down their nose at everybody else, because everybody knows that their guild is the best” “That’s unfair,” Edrear replied, “Every guild is equally useful and important to the Host and our contributions are vital.” “Even if other guilds are better than us?” Edaniel asked. “ Well, no. Obviously we are the best. “
“How many people will be there?” Vincent asked.
“All the guild members from every guild on the planet,” Edrear answered, “so well over a thousand.”
“So...not all the guild members from other worlds, then?” Vincent asked. “Dinah was telling me about that whole other worlds reincarnation thing.”
“Yes Jason,” Edaniel said from halfway inside the seat cushion, “there’s gonna be a nearinfinity number of guildsmen there and were gonna have to meet a near-infinity number of people and were gonna host it in Hilbert’s Hotel. You’re in charge of paper cups.” A sudden jolt of the carriage, followed by a blinding flash of light, caused Dinah to jerk her head back inside the window, rubbing her eyes and cursing. The entire carriage began to shake and rattle violently, as lights flashed outside the windows. Edrear scrambled to pull down the shades.
“I-I-I- r-r-r-r-eal-l-l-l-ly h-a-a-a-ate this-s-s-s pa-a-a-a-ar-r-r-t-t” Edaniel stuttered, clinging to the rattling floor with all four sets of claws.
“Wait, I want to see!” Vincent objected, trying to get past Edrear, who was fastening the shades down and drawing the curtains.
“Trust me, Vincent, you really don’t,” Edrear muttered, sitting back in his scat and clutching the edges with both hands. Dinah grabbed Vincent’s arm and held on for dear life, as the carriage lurched back and forth. Strange, faraway shouts and noises were heard, but it was impossible to tell who or what could be making them. They ‘seemed to rush like wind around the carriage and through the outside spaces. Jagged shadows flickered beneath the gaps of the shades as they passed by the windows. Vincent put his arms around Dinah and held her tight, as the carriage gave a final bone-jolting leap forward, then instantly became still. The noises and lights stopped. Nothing was heard but the lazy spinning of the carriage wheels. Edrear opened one eye, then two. He snuck a peek through the side of the shade, then lifted it. “Everyone out,” he said, snapping the shades up and opening the door.
Dinah stepped out of the carriage. They were in a sort of large...space. It was hard to see just what kind of structure they were in. The ceiling was so high it was barely visible. There was a sort of oversized honeycomb motif everywhere...in the patterns on the polished floor, in the formation of the nearby gargantuan pillars supporting the roof and in the shape of the hexagonal windows, interspersed on the distant walls. The whole area was diffused in a yellow, parchment-colored glow of light. It was like being in a beehive the size of the world’s biggest airplane hangar. She noted that the carriage had parked itself neatly on top of a large hexagon shape on the floor. It reminded her of a parking spot, especially when she looked up and saw many, many other vehicles parked in lines on similar shapes. Roman chariots, covered wagons, rowboats, curiously large paper air planes, golden palanquins, and in one case, a gigantic, bored-looking lion. The lion looked up from the magazine he was reading on the floor and nodded to her.
“Let’s get this over with,” Edaniel said, changing into his human form and putting a carnation in his lapel. Dinah gave a few useless strokes at her skirt to smooth it and followed behind Edrear, who was striding off into the distance. Vincent caught up with her in a few steps and held her hand. She shot a smile at him and squeezed his hand back.
“This’ll be a piece of cake,” she whispered. Vincent smiled back, but it was not a smile of confidence.
“You really think we’re going to fit in with a crowd of undead weirdo’s?” he asked. Dinah grinned.
“I can’t think of any scene better suited to us now. At least there’ll be food,” she answered.
They hurried to catch up to Edrear and Edaniel, who had already disappeared behind a row of conveyances. A sudden outburst made them run faster. At the end of one row of vehicles, there was an enormous black ship, defying gravity and logic by standing perfectly upright on the floor, despite the fact that it was not a flat-bottomed ship. “Pirate ship” was the phrase Dinah would have used for it, though in her limited understanding of ships, that phrase pretty much encompassed all old-fashioned models with lots of sails Vincent would have called it a frigate, if he wasn’t too busy standing and gawking at what was happening around the other side of the ship.
Edrear was in hysterics, laughing at something Edaniel was doing. Dinah walked up behind them just in time to sec Edaniel’s pocketknife disappear back into his jacket, as he hastily strode off with his hands in his pockets, smirking. The dubious word “JERKWAGON” had been carved into the hull of the black ship in big sloppy stick-letters. Edrear was trying to stop laughing and failing utterly. Dinah looked shocked by the sight of it, though whether she was shocked more by the vandalism, or by the rare sight of Edrear laughing at anything, it was hard to say. “Edrear!” she admonished, and Edrear jumped in surprise, spinning around so fast he almost revolved back towards the ship again. He started to talk, closed his mouth, opened it again, then shrugged sheepishly.
“Are you actually vandalizing something?” Vincent said incredulously, drawing out the verb for maximum humiliation. Edrear stared at his boots. Vincent grinned. “Do you want me to tell you what it says? I mean, because of the illiteracy and—OUCH!” This last outburst came from Dinah stepping on Vincent’s toes. “You’ll thank us when you meet them,” Edaniel said, wheeling back around in his nonchalant stroll. “Worst guild ever. Come on, they’re probably putting the nosh out by now.” He sauntered off, with Edrear following him up closely, followed by Vincent making disapproving clucking sounds, followed by Dinah kicking him in the back of the heel.
A giant honeycombed archway at the end of the huge room led into a smaller, though still considerably big, formal social room of some kind. Large globe-shaped yellow lanterns seemed to be the only effort at decoration, but there were quite a lot of them, hanging down from the ceiling. Milling about the ballroom floor were hundreds of the strangest people Dinah had ever seen. Up until now, her only experience with guildsmen outside of the Mausoleum had been a few glimpses of the valkyries from the nearby Metro guild. But those were positively tame, compared the bewildering horde of creatures now filling up the ballroom.
Most were more or less humanoid....two arms, two legs, human head, fairly human facial features. But they sported decidedly non-human features, like horns, clothes made of living bone, blacked-out eyes, or paper-white features. Some had gills, others had pointy cars, one or two were the wrong color for any kind of person. Some were vaguely transparent. A few were over fifteen feet tall. It was like a creation god had made the template for humanity, but got bored after the first couple dozen people and decided to liven things up a bit. “The gangs all here,” Edaniel said, in a tone that implied he desperately would like the gang to be anywhere else. He spotted a buffet table and darted off, his long green tail waggling through the crowd behind him. Dinah gripped Vincent’s hand harder, as a tall man wearing a suit that might have been made from tree bark wandered by, spotted them and approached. “Ah, Guildsmen Bizenghast,” the man croaked in a gravelly old voice. “Good to see our more...youthful delegates. Where are your sisters?”
Edrear forced a smile, or something that hopefully wasn’t the look of a man trying to bite through a railroad spike. “Our dear sisters are no longer a part of us,” he answered shortly. “We have received new guildsmen.” He gestured to Dinah and Vincent. Vincent held out his arm for a handshake. The tree man looked him up and down slowly. “Pity,” he rasped, and slowly walked away. Vincent dropped his arm and glared in astonishment,. “I thought you said these people were your friends?” he asked, turning to Edrear, who was balling his fists so hard, Dinah could hear his knuckles cracking. “We are...associates,” Edrear replied through his teeth. “Not friends as such.”
“Like co-workers,” Vincent offered. “I do not know what that word means, but yes.” “Is something wrong, Edrear?” Dinah asked, putting a hand on his arm. Edrear relaxed his tense form a bit.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “The truth is that Bizenghast is not as highly thought of as other
guilds. We are much newer than most others...less than 300 years old. That guildsman’s comment was meant as an insult.”
“So, who cares?” Vincent replied. “You said yourself that were still the best.” Edrear shook his head. “In my own personal opinion, yes. Everyone thinks that of their guild. But age and history are everything to guildsmen. Our length of service is the only accomplishment we have, really. The guilds place the utmost importance on how old another guild is, not in how hard it works. Other than making our quota, all we have is our length of existence. And since America was not widely colonized for a long dine, no guilds were put in place there until recently.” “Wait, what about the Native Americans?” Dinah asked.
“We have quotas?” Vincent said at the same time. Edrear looked from one to the other. He pointed at Vincent. “Yes. Also,” --He pointed at Dinah--”they were not in need of a guild for quite some time. The peoples who lived there before the colonists were...better at accepting death than most. They were more in tune with nature and the inevitable cycles of life.”
“I would have liked to meet them, actually,” he added, looking off into the middle distance for a moment. “Quotas,” Vincent reminded him. Edrear shook his hand and glanced over.
“Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just to make sure we’re still needed. If we don’t make our quotas, it’s a sign that humans may be moving away from our area, in which case we would either be moved, or destroyed and a new guild created elsewhere.” “Oh, just destroyed, that’s nothing to worry about?” Vincent asked incredulously. “So as long as were making our monthly goals, we don’t die?” “Yearly.”
“Super.” Vincent glanced around at the crowd that surged about them, talking in whispers and quiet tones. Dinah looked as well, noticing that for all the people here, there was little noise compared to a group of hundreds of humans. No shouts of laughter, no raised voices, no arguments, no interruptions or outbursts. Everyone spoke in a measured tone, evenly and in turn, but the majority were silent, looking around at each other while sipping awkwardly out of glasses and staying near their own guild group. It was like a prom for the agoraphobic.
Edrear sighed. “Dear Eniri was better at this than I,” he said, slumping his shoulders. “She was so good at talking with the others. She had a force of dignity and assurance about her. No one would dare speak ill of us when Eniri was around. We often left her to do the socializing for our guild and uphold our reputation. I never realized what a burden she bore, being the leader and having to speak with the other guilds. It is much harder than I imagined.”
Dinah patted his shoulder sympathetically. “You miss her, don’t you,” she whispered quietly, away from Vincent’s hearing. Edrear nodded almost imperceptibly, staring at a lost napkin on the floor. “Well you’re in good company,” Vincent said in a loud tone. “Everyone here parties like a mathlete. Scratch that, I’ve partied with mathletes and they’re insane. But this is just sad. I’ve never seen an entire crowd of people fail at socializing. You’d think one or two of them would have a good time by pure accident, statistically speaking.” “Were not used to going outside of our guilds much,” Edrear muttered. “That’s why we can only stand to do this once a year. Personally, I wish I’d stayed at home.” “I know,” Dinah said with forced brightness, “let’s go get something to eat!” She took an arm of each young man and half-dragged them over to the long tables on the side of the room. There was an enormous spread of light foods and what Edaniel called crackersnacks. Apparently not even the afterlife could escape the inherent laziness of passing off things on crackers as h’ordeurves.
“C’mon in kids, the punch is finer called Edaniel, back in animal form and swimming in the punch bowl, much to the chagrin of nearby guildsmen. Edrear slapped his forehead in embarrassment. Dinah hurried over and fished a wiggly, wet Edaniel out with an oversized ladle. “That’s weird, blue punch?” she asked while he shook himself dry on the floor. “I thought punch was usually red.” “We don’t eat red things, dur-hay,” Edaniel said. “We’re not allowed.”
“Wait, what?” Vincent replied, walking up with a plate full of cheeses. He looked up and down the table. Not a scrap of red fruit, vegetable or other food was to be seen.
“Did you guys read your manuals?” Edaniel asked accusingly. Vincent looked at the ceiling and Dinah looked at the floor. “I sort of skimmed mine,” she offered. Edaniel frowned and shook punch out of his car. “You’d better read it when we get back, because there’s a ton of rules in there, and the
guild takes our pointless taboos very seriously!”
“Then why did I see you eating an apple the other mmmff!” Vincent tried to push Edaniel off him, as Edaniel clung to his jacket and stuffed cheese in his mouth. “Shut yer yap, Jasper!” he hissed.
A sudden uproar on the other side of the room caused all four to stop and turn. A crowd had formed around some sort of activity. Vincent dropped the squirming Edaniel and rushed over, taking Dinah’s hand as he did. With a shrug, Edrear and Edaniel followed. They pushed their way through the growing throng to see what the commotion was about. A young man with cropped, fiery hair was apparently holding court. He had ordinary, albeit old-fashioned, clothes on and his nearby companions lacked the matching uniforms that all the other guildsmen wore. He was gesturing wildly and laughing. “And then we ended up on this tiny little isle right off the coast, with three minutes to dawn and no sign of him!” he said. The crowd of guildsmen oohed and aahed. The man jumped up on a nearby table, scattering platewear. He drew his sword and slashed at the air dramatically.
“So it was me and him, him and me, and that spirit was determined to go down fighting! I was getting torn to pieces all through the underbrush, on a madcap chase! It was maybe twenty...no, ten seconds to dawn when we spotted him at last on the cliff. My shipmates pushed him right into our trap and BA.MI He was ours! No Unbearable is safe from the Sulphur Queen!”
He flourished his sword as the crowd erupted in cheers. His fellow guild members...a tall, willowy woman, an older man and a small, strange shadowy creature...burst into adoring applause. The young man on the table took elaborate bow after bow to his audience. He picked up a jug of something at his feet, took a swig, and sprayed it out towards his waving sword. The liquid, burst into flame as though his sword had been a torch, and fire billowed up over the crowds heads, to thunderous applause. Dinah applauded too, until she noticed Edrear was staring with burning eyes at the mystery man, his arms clenched tightly in front of him. Edaniel was rolling around on the floor, making fake gagging noises. “What’s your deal?” she said, giving Edaniel a nudge with her foot. He rolled over and opened one eye in mock suffering.
“Let’s see how Mr. Popular feels when he sees what I carved into his boat!” Edaniel spat.
Dinah glanced back at the fiery-haired young man, who was now drinking champagne out
of a lady’s shoe.
“Oh dear,” she muttered.
“Man, now that guy’s the life of the party,” Vincent said, sitting on a row of chairs with the others, by the buffet table. Edaniel rolled around on his chair, pretending to puke over the edge of it at times. Edrear looked up sharply at another burst of laughter from the crowd that was still gathered in the corner. “He seems pretty cool,” Vincent added.
“He’s from California,” Edaniel chimed in.
“He’s an idiot,” Edrear snapped. Dinah almost lost the drink she was sipping.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you insult anybody,” she said, staring in awe at Edrear, who looked embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Dinah, you shouldn’t have to hear that kind of language,” he apologized. “It’s just that the Sulphur Queen guildsmen are so....they’re so awfully...” he made fists and looked at them for inspiration. “Sulphur Queen?” Vincent repeated.
“The name of their stupid, stupid, stupid boat,” Edaniel muttered, sounding genuinely sick over his fake vomiting. “Shouldn’t they be named after their guild?” Dinah asked. Edrear shook his head.
“Their guild IS the ship. They are a pilot guild, a guild which can move about on its own for purposes of transporting local guildsmen on business.” “Which you’d know, if you read your handbook,” came Edaniel’s voice from under a chair.
“They are also OUR pilot guild. Meaning we have to ask them for transportation every time we need to move Unbearables to another location. Which we will need to do when we get back home, as we have two containers waiting.” “You can’t just take the carriage?” Vincent asked, scratching his head.
“The carriage doesn’t go underwater.”
“So I’m guessing you don’t like these guys mu—underwater?” Dinah exclaimed.
Edrear put his chin in both hands and glared in the general direction of the Sulphur Queen crew.
“Orion Bones is the biggest, most idiotic, most overblown braggart on the face of the earth, and thars including my brother,” he said through gritted teeth. A small green paw gave him a thumbs up from underneath Edaniel’s chair. “It’s a well-known fact that our guilds hate each other.” “I feel like I’m in high school again,” Dinah sighed.
“Bad news for us, because he’s coming over here,” Vincent murmured, pretending to be occupied with his drink glass. Edrear looked panicky for a second, swiveling his head around for an avenue of escape, but calmed down when he felt Dinah patting his hand. He looked down into her eyes. “Everything will be fine,” she whispered. “You’re going to do Eniri proud.”
Edrear managed a weak smile, then fixed a determined look on the approaching guildsmen. Orion was juggling wine glasses to the delight of his crew. He let them all drop with a crash as he threw his arms wide in faked delight.
“Why, if it isn’t the crew of Bizenghast he declared loudly, in case anyone in the cheap seats had trouble hearing him.
“Guildsman Orion Bones, nice to see you again,” said Edrear in an even tone, standing up to bow, and quickly taking his scat again. Orion smiled wide.
“You know, that’s what I love most about you guys,” he said, pointing at Edrear’s head. “You’re just so cute. Just about the quaintest thing ever, so darling and old-fashioned. A real tribute to what the guilds were like in the old days. With the matching uniforms and the matching names and the...well, well, well...” He trailed off, looking hard at Dinah. “This doesn’t look like the famed ice queen Eniri. New look? And that,” he glanced at Vincent, “if it is in fact your other sister, was a very poor choice of haircuts.”
“We have new guildsmen,” Edrear said, trying to maintain his composure. Orion gave him a sympathetic pout. “So I heard, so I heard. Humans! Really, Edrear? Do you think that wise?”
“The Host believes it to be wise,” Edrear said, staring just past Orion’s head. Orion frowned in sarcastic thought. “Yes, of course. The Host, is always right. You know they just upped our quota again. Seem to think we need a bigger territory, lots more souls coming in every day. Busy busy.” “Well I guess more people die of stupidity in California than they do of old age in New England,” Dinah suddenly found herself saying. Orion raised an eyebrow.
“Can’t you control your pets?” the woman to Orion’s left finally spoke. She was a tall, pale creature with long, white-blonde hair and dark, sunken eyes. Her purple dress, though the height of fashion during whatever time period it was made, caused an unpleasant contrast with her skin that made her look like a drowned woman. “PETS?” Vincent snarled, standing up even as Dinah tried to restrain him. Orion laughed.
“I like this one,” he said, leaning close to Dinah. “She’s so much more lively than that other sister, whatever her name was. What’s your name, human?” CRACK! Orion staggered back with one hand to his jaw. Edaniel was on his feet, in human form and with a terrifying look, fist still outstretched.
“THIS one’s name is Dinah, and HER name was Elala, and don’t make me carve all that into your face for handy reference!” he shouted. Dinah looked up into his face, which was wiped of the usual levity and filled with a blurry red hatred. Without the smile, without the whimsy, Edaniel had a hard, cold face, one Dinah had never seen before. She cowered instinctively back in her chair.
A sharp clacking sound of metal boots on marble and Edrear was standing too, hand on his sword. Orion’s hand went for his own sword slowly, but stopped at the sound of Edaniel’s voice, which was like a block of heavy stone being dropped. “Get walking, Bones,” he said quietly.
Orion looked uncertain, but withdrew his hand from his side. He glared icy daggers at the Bizenghast crew. “Relics,” he snorted. “Fossils. Going by the letter, little paper-pushers to the end. Pont be surprised if they phase you out altogether.” “We follow the Hosts instructions. Always,” Edrear said softly. Orion’s lip curled.
“The creed is good enough for us,” he said over his shoulder, as he and his mates turned and made a slow exit. “The creed?” Vincent said quizzically, after a lengthy silence. Edaniel sighed.
“Take no living, spare no dead. Read your handbook, man.”
“I don’t see what’s so great about them,” Dinah said, forking another piece of pear into her mouth and staring at the Sulphur Queen crew, two tables over. The crowd had long since adjourned from the ballroom, into an elaborate white dining room illuminated by the same yellow paper orbs near the ceiling. Endlessly long tables with immaculate linen and shining metal dishes were set up, with hundreds of guildsmen seated for a formal supper. It was bemusing to see what constituted as food for guildsmen who, apparently having little sense of taste, no allergies to poisons and the ability to cat just about anything, preferred food that was visually pleasing over things that were considered actually edible by more alive creatures. Moreover, the kinds of plants that humans ate and the kinds that they avoided confused guildsmen, who could not understand creatures who would cat tree fruit but not tree leaves, herb leaves but not herb roots, vegetable roots but not vegetable flowers. As far as guildsmen were concerned, the whole world was edible, provided it wasn’t red.
And so regular food mingled with dishes made from elaborately knotted string, wood bark sculptures and different colored mineral powders in little bowls. Origami cranes and flowers made of stationary paper floated in an iridescent soup, which an experimental smell told Vincent it contained gasoline. The shiny rainbow effect was nice. The taste, probably not so much. Edrear had ushered the group over to some empty scats near more conventional dishes. Edaniel sat down and immediately started scarfing a plate of tiered cupcake wrappers, folded into pretty fan shapes and sprinkled with powdered sugar. “I’m angry hungry,” he had informed Dinah, through a mouth full of wrapper. He didn’t seem likely to become angry full any time soon.
The dinner dragged on, with Dinah and Vincent picking out what foods they could actually cat, though Vincent had decided to try the flavored origami animals, grazing peacefully on a cake topped with actual grass turf.
“They’re not bad,” he whispered. Dinah picked up a folded deer and put it on her plate halfheartedly. “I’m just so mad,” she said heavily. “I thought this would be fun, but it’s been just awful.”
“It’s always awful,” Edaniel muttered, chewing his napkin thoughtfully. “That’s why we never want to come.”
“But I thought you...! I mean, Edrear said the guilds all care about how old your guild is, right?” Dinah persisted. “We’re, Iike, almost two hundred years older than they are! They’ve got to be one of the youngest guilds here! Yet look how everyone loves them! They even called us old! So what, we’re dumb because were too young for everyone else, and were dumb because were too old for them?” She waved a hand at the Sulphur Queen crew, who were telling jokes at their table, amusing everyone within earshot. “What’s so special about than that they get better treatment than us?” “Cuz they’re hilaaaaaarious,” Edaniel waggled his hands sarcastically.
Edrear sat staring at his plate, poking at a slice of mothcake with his fork. Dinah looked over in concern, then jabbed Vincent in the ribs and nodded in Edrear’s direction. Vincent sighed. “Don’t let them get to you, dude,” he said. “The world is full of jerks who are popular just for being jerks.” Edrear said nothing, still poking his plate. “Thank you, Vincent,” he said at last, quietly. “But it’s not that. I just wonder why they can get away with all that they do. The human clothes, the human attitudes, the lack of respect for the rules. I was created to follow the rules to end of my existence. We all were. My entire point of existing is to do my duty, as it is for everyone. Is that the right way, or simply the old way, as Orion says? He says he follows the rules, but he questions them at the same time. I don’t understand. I was told we were made to follow the rules, that they are ingrained in our very being. Sulphur Queen is different. So are they not like us?” “Well Edaniel’s different, and he seems to break the rules a lot,” Dinah said. Edrear shot a glance out of the corner of his eye to Edaniel, who was doing the same thing in reverse. Dinah followed the look from one to the other.
“How can he get away with breaking rules anyway, if they’re so totally encoded in you guys?” she said slowly. Ethnic’ made a coughing sound. Edrear started shoveling cake into his mouth at rapid speed. Vincent turned and gave a suspicious glance to both of them. “I notice you guys clam up a lot lately when we ask questions,” he said sharply.
“Were just wicked hungry,” Edaniel replied, upending a basket of toasted champagne corks into his mouth.
“Well that was the worst party I’ve ever been to,” Dinah said, as they left the ball some hours later.
“Crackcrsnacks, shoelaces in gravy and about eight thousand speeches on productivity and quotas.” “I liked your speech, Edrear,” Vincent said. Edrear raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Really? I thought it was no better than most. I’ll admit I don’t speak much in public. That was always Eniri’s job.” “No, it was, er...” Vincent groped for a compliment. “It was very...you sounded very confident. Definitely. I heard confidence, no doubt.”
Edrear smiled with surprise and delight and clapped Vincent on the back, hard enough to wind him. He strode off ahead of them, towards the carriage, walking a bit lighter than he did before, while Vincent leaned over to catch his breath. “What was that about?” Dinah asked. Vincent looked a little guilty as he straightened up.
“I’ve been giving him a hard time, and he has a lot more work to do than I thought,” Vincent muttered. “Plus every single other person from other guilds seems to be a total jerk. So I’ll give him a break for a while.” He almost sounded like he was regretting it, until a sudden and enthusiastic kiss changed his mind.
“I feel icky and fat,” Edaniel moaned, climbing into the carriage. “I’m going to have to swing sooooo many kettlebells to take this weight off. Why do I always overeat at these functions?” “Because you always overeat at every single meal, regardless of where or when it’s consumed?” Edrear suggested. “That’s probably it,” Edaniel said. “Oh, WHAT THE HELL!?”
Dinah and Vincent came running up at the sound of Edaniel’s shrieking. He was tossing cushions out the carriage window and stomping around. Strangely enough, Edrear was doing the same crazy dance. “What’s going on?” Dinah shouted over Edaniel’s yelling.
“Someone filled our carriage with a variety of water beetles!” Edrear shouted, stamping
down on a hundred wet, shiny, crawling things. “And quite a large amount of water, as well.” He kicked aside a soaking wet, infested cushion.
From out the window came flying a soaked panel of wood, which had become detached from the inside of the door. On it was carved a crude skull and bones. “STUPID JERK BOAT!” Edaniel screamed.
Dusk was once again falling over the Mausoleum. Dinah carefully balanced on a chair in her room, hammering tacks into the white-washed walls. She jumped down and admired the new curtains in each corner of her bedroom. There were no windows to drape, but at least the curtains gave the room a little...vertical something. She wasn’t sure what the decorating term was for it. But it looked less bare, anyway. It looked a lot more human. Which I’m not really supposed to be, because. I’m a guildsman now, came the treacherous thought, but Dinah pushed it to the back of her head and started laying out a new bedspread and table covering.
They had come from a stash of things in the closet of her old bedroom. She couldn’t bear to go in and take them, so she waited outside the house while Vincent crept in and stole them for her. I wonder what Aunt Jane will think if she finds them gone, she thought idly. Maybe she’ll think I’m haunting the house.
She sat down heavily on the edge of the bed and sighed, putting her head in her hands. She tried not to think about it anymore. Just pretend everyone you know doesn’t exist anymore, she told herself. Then she wouldn’t have to think about how unhappy they were after she had died. She was forbidden to have any more contact with humans...the bedspreads and things had been a little last allowance on Edrear’s part, after weeks of pleading. But it wasn’t the same. She wondered if this was how her mother felt when she died, unable to tell people that she was all right...just in a different place. Dinah lay down on her bed and curled up into a ball.
Down the hall, Vincent was mounting hooks to hang his bicycle up on the wall. He didn’t trust Edrear, who said he could leave it outside in the hallway, or in any other room. The
minute Edaniel saw him wheel it in, his eyes lit up with the look of someone planning an illegal joyride. Vincent wasn’t letting the bike out of, his sight.
He emptied a duffel bag onto the bed. A pile of clothes, books and CDs tumbled out. Skippy bounced out along with them and rolled underneath the bed. Vincent glanced at the door, which was closed, and reached under to pick up the threadbare stuffed fish he’d had since he was three. He hid Skippy under the pillow and out of sight. He felt like he was going away to camp, but forever. There was a newspaper he saw when he’d raided his former home, now full of people...visiting relatives, friends and his parents. They returned home eventually, like he knew they would. They found the grave out back. They dug it up. The police called it a murder-suicide by a mentally troubled teen. His parents had been holed up at home ever since, a steady stream of wealthy friends and family coming by to comfort them. He wanted them to miss him for a very long time, but getting it now, just as he wanted it, felt awful. It felt worse than being dead. The picture of Dinah they chose for the article was terrible. She looked sullen, angry, skulking. Maybe that’s why they chose it.
It shouldn’t matter anymore. But it burned him up, to know that the truth would never be found. He’d tossed the newspaper and decided not to tell Dinah about it.
“Guildsman Dinah!” Bali-Lali appeared at the door of the bedroom, the little bells on her hat tinkling. Dinah jumped up and almost knocked over her nightstand. “WHAT! I mean...what? What do you want?”
“It is time to meet the others in the main hall,” Bali-Lali informed her dutifully. “Do you wish your room cleaned while you are away?”
“No! No, that’s all right.’” Dinah said hurriedly, gesturing Bali-Lali out of the doorway and keeping her at a distance as she edged around her into the hall. “In fact, I will clean my own room from now on. Don’t even worry about it. Don’t bother.” “Don’t bother,” Bali-Lali repeated slowly, looking confused. “Yes, it’s fine,” Dinah assured. “Er...goodbye.”
Dinah tossed her hair over her shoulder and walked quickly down the empty stone
hallway, trying not to look back to see if Bali-Lali was watching her from the doorway. Padding through a few archways and down a set of stairs, she entered the main hall, which was the scene of some confusing activity. “I said put it down!” Edrear was yelling in a voice half-anxious, half- furious. Vincent and a human-shaped Edaniel were zigzagging around the room at top speed. “Stop it at once, you’ll break it! That’s a very delicate piece of equipment!”
Vincent streaked past him, running around in circles, avoiding both Edrear and a team of imaginary football players. He had an Unbearable Container tucked under his arm, which Edrear was flailing madly at, trying to wrest it away without dropping it.
“Open!” Edaniel screamed, waving his arms wildly from across the hall. Vincent skidded to a halt and pivoted, tossing the egg-shaped Unbearable container through the air with perfect spiral form. Edrear gave a decidedly undignified shriek and sprinted across the hall, diving with hands extended to where the egg would land. Edaniel caught it in id-air and spiked it across Edrear’s back. He and Vincent ran around their respective end-zones, doing touchdown dances and laughing.
Edrear lay on the floor, curled up protectively around the retrieved container and shaking with anger. Dinah chose this moment to step in and relieve him of the egg, carrying it out of the field of play for safety. Edaniel and Vincent were still doing circles in the middle of the hall and slapping each other on the back, whooping and laughing. Edrear hopped to his feet, his metal boot-toes clacking loudly and echoing in the rafters. “That’s ENOUGH!” he bellowed. All activity, screeched to a stop. Edrear ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and tried to compose himself. It didn’t look easy.
“Mas-- VINCENT,” Edrear corrected himself, “I don’t know if this has been made perfectly clear to you, but now that you have been made a guildsman here, along with Miss Dinah”-he bowed respectfully in Dinah’s direction--”and due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding our sisters, I am now the head guildsman. Which means I am in charge. Which means I am in charge of YOU.” He gave a pointed look to both Vincent and Edaniel. “As such, you are my subordinates and must obey my orders. Here are some orders to start with. Consider them standing orders, assumed to be in force at all times. DO NOT PLAY BASEBALLS WITH UNBEARABLE CONTAINERS.”
He paused and observed the smirks trying not to creep over the boy’s faces and continued smoothly, “Or any kind of ball. Do not play ball of any sort with those containers, especially the kinds of ball with which I am apparently not familiar, because I have better things to do with my time than educate myself on sport. Those are my orders. Do not play ball in the house, or handle our nice things.”
Vincent’s smile immediately reversed into a sulky frown and he glared at Edrear, who pretended not to notice.
“Furthermore, this is the perfect time to address...well, addressing. As the senior guildsman, it is my privilege to be addressed with respect. ‘Hey emo’ is not respectful. Neither is Exo-Skeletor, Big Chief Stick-In-Mud or the increasingly frequent Lord Picture Books. From now on, the correct way to address me is either Guildsman Edrear or Our Dear Brother.”
“Oh come on!” Vincent blurted out. “I’ve heard Edaniel call you a million worse things! And I’m not calling you my dear anything. I’m trying to work with you man, but why are you making up all these rules just for me?” “I’m not making them up,” Edrear countered. “I had to follow these rules when our dear sister Eniri was in charge! We all have to follow them!”
“Yeah, except for Edaniel, apparently,” Vincent persisted. Edrear sighed and shook his head. “Edaniel follows the rules in his own special way,” he replied. “Nevertheless, you are no longer Master Vincent to me, and I am no longer just Edrear to you.” “I notice Dinah is still MISS Dinah,” Vincent muttered. Edrear blushed and pecked over his shoulder. Dinah was sitting on the floor some feet away with the Unbearable container, shining its tiny colored-glass inlays with her sleeve and watching the argument with interest.
“That’s because she’s a lady,” he finally said, with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “Big deal, so is Victor,” Edaniel said, before getting the back of his head slapped. Vincent rubbed his hand and started to complain once more, but Edrear cut him off.
“We don’t have time to discuss this,” he snapped. “The Sulphur Quern is scheduled to arrive any time now, and we must be outside to meet it. I don’t have any wish to deal with Orion Bones and his slouchy ilk again, but it’s the fastest way to do our delivery and it’s the rules. So let’s please, please, just try to get through this without any lapse in decorum, ill words or knife fights this time.” He glared at Edaniel, who pulled down the hem of the t-shirt he was now wearing. “Check out my new band name,” he said.
The shirt was black. The words SLOUCHY ILK were written in lightning across the front of it. Edrear rubbed his temples in silent agony.
“So when are we getting new human agents?” Vincent asked. “If the only people I can boss around are new agents, then lees see some! Shouldn’t we have more by now?”
Edrear sighed, picked up his cloak and threw it dramatically over his shoulder, to indicate that it was high time for departure.
“We must make the Mausoleum visible at night and wait for humans to happen along, as we usually do. It could take weeks until a new agent shows up. In the meantime,” he added, glaring at everyone, “can I remind you all that we have a task that needs doing right now? Everyone outside, now. Miss Dinah, I will assist you with the containers.” He picked up a second container, leaning against the wall by the stairway entrance, and motioned Dinah to follow him. She picked up her egg and walked out, carefully cradling the container in both arms. Vincent and Edaniel brought up the rear. “Think this new authority thing is really going to his head,” Vincent muttered.
With an audible pop, Edaniel returned to his comfortable animal form, but with an added Green Bay Packers helmet. “Take-down take-down, TWO POINTS!!” he yelled, tackling Dinah, who tossed the egg container in the air as she fell. A dark hand shot out and caught the container, inches from the floor. “OUTSIDE!” Edrear bellowed.
The ship was huge. Or rather, it was a great deal smaller than most frigates were made. It seemed to be both too big and not nearly big enough at the same time. Dinah’s eyes watered just looking at it, like a magic eye puzzle.
The Sulphur Queen was sitting on the lawn of the Mausoleum, the anchor dropped, possibly on purpose, right on top of a rather nice marble statue, which was now missing its head. Like a giant black paperweight, it sat sulking ponderously by the gates of the Mausoleum. Edrear closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and set his jaw determinedly. He adjusted the container under his arm and nodded to the others, then proceeded down the walk. The Sulphur Queen loomed overhead as they got closer. It still seemed to defy the mind with its air of huge compactness, even up close. Edrear lifted an arm and rapped smartly on the side of the hull, then backed up and looked towards the rails. “Ho, Sulphur Queen!” he shouted. “Four guildsmen and two to transport!”
They stood awhile and waited. Edrear began to tap his foot impatiently and stepped
forward to bang on the hull again. Edaniel rolled his eyes and lay down on the grass for a nap.
“And they keep us waiting too. Nice one,” Vincent muttered. A small commotion overhead caused everyone to look up. Some heads appeared over the rail. Very, very slowly, the longboat appeared on its ropes, being positioned over the side of the boat and slowly lowered. It certainly seemed to be taking its time. Once or twice it stopped for no reason, while Edrear watched it with incredible calm.
Dinah began to look the ship over again. She stepped to the side a bit to see the figurehead on the prow. It was a large mermaid carving, its neck draped in hundreds of strings of small pearls. Big ones, small ones, pink, yellow, white, all mismatched and strung together seemingly at random, in dozens of rows. It looked as though she had been to Mermaid Mardi Gras. The figurehead suddenly turned its carved face down towards Dinah and gave her a hard stare. “Than their Watcher,” Edaniel whispered from the ground. “Don’t tick her off.”
Dinah averted her eyes and tried to focus on the little boat that was now finally low enough to climb aboard. She noted that the crew didn’t let the boat go all the way to the ground. The good half a foot of clearance just made it that much harder to clamber into the longboat without looking like a clumsy idiot. They sat in silence, as the longboat jerked and swayed roughly upwards at a snails’ pace. “They’re just doing it to make us late,” Edrear muttered through his teeth. “What do they care if we arrive on time? It’s only our heads, not theirs.”
Vincent shot a glance upwards. Orion Bones was lounging against the rails, with a look on his face that all but openly confirmed Edrear’s suspicions. He was picking his teeth with a sliver of wood. At long last, the boat was even with the rails, and the Bizenghast crew unloaded. Edrear faced Orion and nodded curtly. Orion took the toothpick out of his mouth and leisurely flicked it onto the deck. “Let’s get this over with,” he said at last. He turned to face the rest of the deck. “Weigh anchor!” he shouted.
A tremendous rattle from below followed, as giant chain links shook and spun back up into the ship by invisible hands. “Shove off, I guess,” Orion said lazily, falling back into a hammock that stretched from the
cabin door handle to the nearest mast. The ship lurched forward and upward, into the sky. It would have been a most amazing flight, on a gracefully soaring ship through the starry sky, if everyone didn’t want to kill everyone else. The Bizenghast crew sat on the deck silently, talking amongst themselves. Orion slept in his hammock, one eye open. The pale woman Edaniel pointed out to Dinah as Deerka was sitting on one of the rails, watching them. The older man—looking about in his early forties—was Justav and he was aloft somewhere in the rigging.
There remained only the shadowy creature that walked slowly about the deck. It was roughly in the shape of a small child, but it was just a smoky form, no solid body, though at times it looked like it was wearing a dress or very long shirt. Dinah was not sure if it could even touch or hold things, or only amble about. Edaniel refused to talk about it at all. Edrear sat bolt upright, his almond-shaped eyes fixed on Orion, who snored loudly in his hammock. The chilly night air passed all around them and Dinah gathered her thin, gauzy skirts about her, huddled against Vincent for warmth. Edaniel had fallen asleep in her lap. “Where are we going’?” she finally asked Edrear, who relented in his one-sided staring contest and looked at her. “To Neptune’s Gold,” he answered quietly, “one of the two primary guilds on Earth.”
Vincent, who had bothered to read some of his handbook after the ball and was eager to show off, chimed in. “Right, right, they’re the two very first guilds in existence,” he said knowingly. “They’re located in the sea, where life began. They’re the only ones who can take the Unbearable containers back to the Host.”
Dinah looked very impressed. Edrear merely glanced back at Orion out of the corner of his eye. The snoring had stopped, but he seemed to still be sleeping. “Yes, they mainly deal with the Unbearables of the world. Having no human agents, they mostly concern themselves with Unbearable shipments,” he added.
“What, no agents at all?” Dinah asked. “Weren’t there enough humans lust wandering by on the bottom of the ocean to conscript?” Edrear looked at her, as if he wasn’t sure whether to take it as sarcasm. “Well no, obviously not. Still, the dead at sea are much easier to move along than most...I suppose because going to sea on a ship, you always know there is a risk of sinking. It’s not as sudden or unpredictable as many deaths. The sea tends to take the fight out of most spirits, anyway. After a few decades rolling on the tides, many of them are just glad to be brought in from floating on the endless currents forever and want to be reunited with their families in the beyond. There’s little need for human intervention, in those cases.
Neptune’s Gold simply collects them up and processes them into vaults, and they gradually sort themselves out.” Dinah gave a look over her shoulder through the scuppers, as if she might see ghosts floating on the waters’ surface below.
“Neptune’s Gold is our most senior guild and thus of the highest rank and order,” Edrear continued. “It would be unwise for us to offend them in any way. I should...not mention to them that you are human, if I were you. Hopefully they haven’t yet heard of our recent reorganization. It would be better if they thought you were merely constructs like us.”
“That’s racist, mrn… rnfrnm,” Edaniel muttered in his sleep and rolled over. Dinah frowned. “So what, we’re human and not bite you? They don’t like that?”
“They...prefer the old ways. The traditional ways of doing things,” Edrear said delicately.
“Then you should all get along just fine, just fine,” came Orion’s voice from the hammock. He turned his head to look at them. “You can be old-guard relics together.”
Edrear stood up and picked up the containers by his side, shuffling his crew down the rail and out of earshot. They sat in silence anyway, huddled together in the cold winds. An interminable amount of time passed. Edaniel woke up and rubbed his cars. “Is it six bells yet?” he asked groggily. “I’m starving.”
“Heave to!” Orion yelled suddenly, causing everyone to jump. The ship slowed to a jog and started to descend. “I don’t know what anyone is saying,” Dinah complained. “God, I hate boats.”
The ship was now bobbing on the surface of the ocean, with no land in sight. Dinah glanced over the rails at the black water. Little dancing pools of light were appearing. She looked up to see Justav and Deerka lighting the lamps. She looked down at Edaniel, who was sitting silently in her lap, looking a little less green than usual.
“Are you all right?” she asked, patting his head, Edaniel just shook his cars and tucked his head under his arm. She looked up at Edrear, who shrugged. “It’s not a very pleasant voyage,” he stated simply.
“It hasn’t been that bad, really,” Dinah replied. “I mean, it’s been a pretty smooth ride and all. No chance of getting seasick yet, anyway.”
“Just wait,” Edaniel muttered into her lap. “Luff up!” Orion shouted at last, when all the lanterns had been lit. The ship slowly, ponderously turned ninety degrees in the water, its prow aiming into the wind.
“Luff DOWN!” he shouted in an even louder voice. There was an ominous creaking. Vincent wrinkled his nose in thought. “Luff down?” he repeated. “That’s not a nautical term.” Against all rules of gravity, the ship tipped its prow forward until it was standing on its nose in the middle of the ocean. Then it shot straight down.
It wasn’t so much the feeling that you were most certainly going to drown, nor the feeling that you should either be floating off the deck through water or sliding down to the prow of the deck by gravity, but certainly not sitting calmly where you were on the deck before the ship submerged. No, what made it really awful was the nonstop screaming.
“It’s ALL RIGHT!” Edrear bellowed into Dinah and Vincent’s terrified faces. “It’s FINE, see?” He waved his arms about in the air. Gradually letting go of each other, the two humans wound down their shrieking slowly and looked about themselves. “Oh,” Dinah said weakly, “the boars got a bubble around it. I see.” She attempted to pry her hands off Vincent’s collar, where they seemed to have been permanently curled into clutching fists. From the opposite rails, derisive snickering was heard. Deerka and Justav laughed behind their hands at the newbie guildsmen. “It’s not funny!” Dinah shouted, before Vincent pulled her away.
“Let it go, they’re not worth it,” he said. He reached behind his head and peeled Edaniel off his back. What are you so upset about?” he asked. “Haven’t you done this before?” “Doesn’t mean it don’t scare the funny hats out of me,” Edaniel said, trembling from cars to tail. Vincent dropped him on the deck, where he scurried over and dug his claws into Edrear pant leg. Edrear looked down.
“Thank goodness for natural armor,” he said. “Now don’t worry, we’ll be at Neptune’s Gold shortly. This last leg of the trip takes the least amount of time. So try to relax.” Dinah looked up at the various frightening deep-sea creatures streaking past the invisible barrier that kept both water and crushing pressure at “No,” she said.
The ship sailed on underwater, passing monstrous forms in the inky blackness. Strange, unearthly animal life swam just out of view of the lanterns, giving only momentary
glimpses to vast, slippery gray walls of flesh that hinted at positively enormous bodies. The deeper the ship went, the more rare these creatures thankfully became, replaced instead by tiny luminescent fish and squid. Dinah tried hard to stay in the exact center of the deck, as far away as possible from all sides of the ship as she could. It was difficult, because Edaniel was trying to occupy the same space. The furry animal was dug into the wood fibers of the deck with every claw, spread-eagled and daring anything to move him with less than a crowbar. He flattened his cars and swished his tail anxiously. “Are we there yeeeeet?” he wailed above the rushing of the water past the ship.
“Nooooope!” came the laughing reply from the direction of the wheel, against which Orion was lounging and eating a pear. Dinah got the feeling that the ship sailed itself, and all Orion’s orders were just for show. It was more than a feeling after the ship suddenly changed direction, causing the wheel to turn and knocking Orion’s elbow away. He cursed and picked himself up from the floor. Ten feet away, Edrear smiled to himself.
The black ship spun and wove its way through the icy depths, past things that had seen no man-made ship (or man, for that matter) in their lifetime. Down, down and still further down they went. The darkness threatened to even snuff out the lanterns, which were now tiny dots of smoky yellow, in between yawning blackness. Dinah felt her way over the mainmast, where Deerka was standing, watching the sails flap in nonexistent winds. “Why do you light the lanterns if we can’t even sec down here?” she asked. Deerka looked her up and down, one fine eyebrow arched disapprovingly. “We light them so that we can be seen,” she answered icily. She picked up her violet dress hem and flounced off towards the prow, leaving Dinah alone in the dark again.
Vincent stood by the rails, peering into the gloom. A flash of something light-colored caught his attention. From out of the inky blackness, a small light emerged, bobbing up and dawn, growing steadily larger. A thin arm, white as death, appeared in the faint glow of the lanterns, carrying a sort of bio-luminescent light. Strange hands beckoned the ship away from its path. “EDREAR!” Vincent yelled, sounding slightly unhinged. I think it’s for you!”
The commotion brought everyone to the sick of the deck, where many long, pale forms were now swimming and undulating, carrying dim lights with them.
“Are they...mermaids?” Dinah breathed, watching the figures trace lazy circles over their heads in the water. They had long hair and black eyes. The scales of their tails glimmered white, with iridescence of pink and green.
“Hardly,” Edrear said. “They’re criads. Bottom-feeders who scavenge the barren sands down here for dead or dying animals. They are carrion-caters. They also eat human bodies,” he added, causing Vincent and Dinah to jump back from the rails. Orion laughed at them openly. “Don’t worry, they’re the Cleaners for Neptune’s Gold,” Orion said. “They won’t hurt guildsmen. You know, unless they decide to hurt guildsmen.” He swaggered off, waving his hand in a maybe, maybe-not gesture. Edrear scowled after him.
“Don’t listen to him. There’s nothing to fear as long as were together,” he said, looking at Dinah. After a moment, he realized he should extend his reassuring gaze to Vincent as well. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “They’re just hat to lead the way to Neptune’s Gold. It’s difficult to find without their help.” Difficult was definitely the word. Even with the dim lights guiding them, the ship seemed to have trouble keeping up. It staggered this way and that in the water, slowing to a crawl to avoid unseen obstacles. Dinah imagined the Watcher figurehead on the front of the ship, peering through the darkness, trying to keep in range of the criads and their mysterious lights. Even by supernaturally fast standards of travel, it was agonizingly slow. After what seemed like hours of trawling along the bottom of a deep crevasse, the lights finally stopped, moving together to form one bright circle. The ship nosed its way carefully in through the opening of light. A giant underwater grotto appeared, with a dock inside of it and what looked like dry land. Glowing coral walls provided the bare minimum of light to sec the interior. Cold, damp wind rushed forward onto the deck, as the ships invisible protection disappeared in the pocket of air within the cavern. “Cast the-” Orion began, but Edrear pushed him aside.
“We know the ship sails itself, save your lungs,” he cut in sharply. Orion sulked and stomped off to his cabin, slamming the door behind him. Edaniel slowly retracted each claw with an audible ping; one at a time, until he was free of the deck beams.
“Ugh,” was all he would say. He shook himself, as if he’d just had a very unpleasant bath. And in fact, in a manner of speaking, he had. “Well, wed best go inside ourselves to take care of the delivery,” Edrear announced, in a jaunty and unnaturally loud tone. “I believe that Neptune’s Gold has a rule against inexperienced guilds from entering. Is that correct, Edaniel?”
“Yes indeed,” Edaniel replied at the top of his lungs. “No guilds under 2.rp years of age can stand in their august presence. Their winter-fresh, zesty lemon-lime, melts in your mouth but not in your hand presence. The presence of the oldest and most respected guild on Earth. That’s a privilege afforded only to the-”
“JUST GO ALREADY!” Orion Bones screamed from inside his cabin. The crash of something heavy being overturned was heard within. Manic’ and Edrear, grinning from ear to ear, strolled down the gangplank, which unceremoniously slammed down onto the coral dock. Dinah and Vincent followed with the containers, smirking back at the sullen crew on board.
“What happens if Sulphur Queen has to deliver one of their own Unbearables?” Dinah whispered out of curiosity. Edrear looked positively gleefully.
“That’s the thing, they can’t. They have to ask us to do it for them. We’re the nearest guild with enough seniority to do it. Because we deliver all the Unbearables of North America, they have to fly all the way over and bring their containers to us, at drop-off time then fly all the way back again at delivery time and pick us up to go deliver them.” “It’s a lot of bureaucratic crud,” Edaniel added. “But it’s good fun to screw with them.”
As it turned out, the main hall was not so easy to reach. They walked through innumerable inner chambers, each with smooth, opalescent walls, illuminated by a suffused white light. Dinah began to feel as though they were walking along the inside of giant nautilus shell, spiraling deeper and deeper inwards towards the center. She felt a bit dizzy after a while. Every room looked the same. Edrear walked with his eyes straight ahead, silent and serious. Even Edaniel said very little and kept to a straight path behind his brother. It was all very mysterious.
After what seemed like an eternity, they finally reached an enormous door, made of what might have been whale ivory or some other similar material, covered in elaborate carvings and designs of sea life. Edrear made a sign for everyone to stand back respectfully, and stepped forward to knock.
Before his hand could reach the door, however, it swung open slowly of its own accord. A flood of golden light from within came pouring out, making Dinah squint and shade her eyes with one hand, the other tightly clutching the egg-shaped Unbearable container to her chest. She stretched up to look over Edrear s shoulder. On gold-wrought thrones shaped like whales and other deep-diving leviathans, befitting the very first guildsmen of this world, sat the Five. They were human-looking, at least to the same standard as the Mausoleums crew. In the two smaller thrones on the side were a young man and woman, possibly in their early
thirties. The young woman was as fair as her counterpart was dark-haired. Next to them were two more, older man and woman in their late forties, both with auburn hair and a stern, elite look about them. Oldest of all was the man sitting on the largest throne in the middle, staring stonily at the door, his white hair contrasting with his piercing black eyes, the color of the water at the bottom of the sea, where no light ever reaches. They were all dressed in shimmering white clothing, with gold thread embroidery and various embellishments around the collars and sleeves. The entire room was painfully bright, with large vaguely translucent windows that might have been made from the film of oyster pearls. The little group huddled by the door and waited. Finally, the oldest of the Five cleared his throat and spoke in a strong, imposing voice. “Come forth, Guildsmen Bizenghast.”
Edrear strode forward without hesitation. Dinah and Vincent hurried to follow, stopping just under the elevated throne dais. With a slight pop behind them, they turned to see that Edaniel had taken his human form and was nervously trying to shine the toes of his boots on the back of each pant leg. He was looking very uncomfortable. “Two Unbearables to present and deliver,” Edrear said, after making an elaborate bow. He snapped his fingers. Dinah and Vincent walked forward and put the egg containers on the floor, at the foot of the thrones, then hustled back behind Edrear. The old man was looking at them sharply, ignoring the containers and Edrear. Dinah thought she could see his nostrils flaring in and out, as if he were sniffing hard. Can they smell humans? she wondered nervously.
After some moments, he seemed satisfied and nodded to Edrear. He waved a hand to dismiss them and turned to one side to address his stony-faced companions.
“Erm,” came a throat-clearing sound from Edaniel that was like an ice pick on a frozen pond. All heads snapped towards him, as Edaniel stepped forward with a hapless look on his face, his arms full of paperwork. “There’s, uh...the correct papers still have to be signed—so...” he mumbled, “Guildsman Odin,” he added hastily, giving a quick bow that was more of a nervous curtsy. He dropped a few sheets of paper and scrambled to pick them up, while the cold faces of the Five sat watching him impassively.
“Osiris,” the one called Odin snapped. “Take care of this.” The dark-haired young man jumped up from his throne and stepped down to meet Edaniel, who was holding the paperwork at arms-length as if it might explode. Osiris flipped through it, stopping to read a sentence here and there. He produced an ornate little shell, fashioned into an inkwell, which he unscrewed and handed to Edaniel. He took a fishbone-shaped quill from his
pocket, dipped it in the shell, and began to sign the many papers.
Dinah glanced around the room nervously, then at the five illustrious guildsmen again. Odin was discussing something with the man next to him, in a language that Dinah couldn’t understand. Had these people really been down here, at the bottom of the ocean, for thousands of years? She didn’t even remember seeing them at the ball. Perhaps they didn’t like the idea of socializing with what Edrear had called “inexperienced guilds.” Perhaps they never came out of the sea at all. They never had human agents. They never saw anyone. Just each other.
She looked down the line of thrones to the youngest member, the woman with the fair hair. The woman glanced at her companions, then gave a tiny smile to Dinah. Dinah smiled back. Shutting the inkwell with a snap, Osiris handed the stack of paper to Edaniel and sat back down. With a look of enormous relief, Edaniel stepped back, bowing and trying not to trip over his own boots. Odin was still talking to his companions, his expression tense. Dinah wondered if something had accidentally gone wrong with the transaction. Her handbook certainly didn’t cover any of this. There seemed to be so many rules she didn’t understand, things that were clearly on a need-to-know basis for people like Edrear. People higher up than her. Edrear looked confused as well. He coughed slightly. Odin looked around sharply, as if suddenly realizing that the Bizenghast crew was still there. He waved his hand again in an irritated dismissal and went back to speaking with the others. Edrear bowed again and did an about-turn, motioning for the others to follow. They exited through the gigantic doors, which closed automatically behind them. “Well that was-” Dinah started to say, before Edrear shushed her. He glanced around the chamber and started wanting quickly through, back to the dock
It was only when they were safely back aboard the Sulphur Queen that he breathed a sigh of relief, running his hands through his dark, curly hair. “That was a tough one,” he said finally.
“Is it just me, or is absolutely everyone besides us a complete jerk in this organization?” Vincent asked angrily. “First we attend a ball full of rude people, then we get on a boat full of ruck people, then we go do business with a bunch of really rude people. The afterlife seems to be staffed entirely by creeps.”
“We’ve got some friends in England who are pretty cool,” Edaniel said, brushing out the fur on his ears. “But yeah, there’s a lot of jerks.” “I wonder what they were so preoccupied with,” Edrear said to himself. “Usually they pay more attention to visitors. They seemed to skip quite a bit of ceremony this time, which is very unlike them.”
“Whatever,” Vincent snorted. “The less I had to be around them, the better. I’ll be glad to get home after this.” “They-re not SO bad,” Edaniel said charitably. “I mean OK, Odin is a grouchy old man. Odelial and Odysseus arc stuck up as well. But Odette is kinds nice.” “She smiled at me,” Dinah offered. Edrear nodded.
“Odette is quite civil, even if she does have to keep company with...the rest of them. But she’s the least senior of their group and her opinions usually count for nothing with them.” “Osiris has nice penmanship,” Edaniel added. “And that’s absolutely the only nice thing I want to say about him.”
“I’m just a bit relived they seemed not to notice that you were human,” Edrear continued, in a voice that said he was really, really relieved. “They could have been very unpleasant otherwise.”
“Speaking of unpleasant, where’s Orion Bones?” Vincent said. “Let’s get this show on the road!” He knocked on the cabin door and the sound of a bottle hitting the other side made him jump back.
“Hey Bones, we want to leave!” he yelled through the keyhole. Another object hit the inside of the door. “So? You don’t need me to do it! The boat drives itself, remember?” came a petulant voice from within. Edrear stepped up and rapped loudly on the door. “Stop being a child and get out here, guildsman!” he said sternly. “Do your duty!”
The sound of numerous bottles clinking together and rolling around was heard, followed by a thump and some angry cursing. Orion appeared, blinking groggily at the door, his hair rumpled and his shirt laces half undone.
“Shove off, I guess,” he muttered. A thunderous rattle, and the anchor came up of its own accord. The ship creaked and groaned its way out of the dock and back into the open water. Deerka and Justav appeared as if out of nowhere, hurriedly lighting the lanterns around the deck once more. Edrear narrowed his eyes at Orion.
“Have you been drinking, Guildsman?” he asked sharply. Orion wiped his face on the back of his sleeve and staggered out, banging the door closed behind him with one foot. “No rules against it,” he muttered, sitting down in his hammock. He flat on his back and
threw one arm over his eyes, rocking gently back and forth in the hammock. He began whistling off-key. Dinah frowned at him in severe disapproval and sat down on a step nearby.
“I hate this job,” she said in a defeated tone. Edaniel jumped into her lap and curled up snugly. “Don’t worry,” he yawned. “It’s only for the rest of eternity.”
The trip back under the sea was largely uneventful. They headed back through the impenetrable black waters of the frigid deep. The criads danced around them with their lanterns for some time, then abruptly headed back to their guild, disappearing quickly in the darkness. Justav silently climbed up to the crow’s nest. Deerka sat against the rail and watched the marine life floating by. There was no sign of the shadow child. Dinah was napping against Vincent’s shoulder, still sitting on the step. Edaniel was in dreamland, absently chewing a mouthful of Dinah’s skirt.
And Edrear was leaning against the opposite rail, staring at the back of Orion Bones’ curly head, as it lay in the hammock. Not a word was being said by anyone. At least, not until Vincent looked up and saw it.
Nailed to one of the masts was a beaten-up basketball hoop. It looked bizarrely out of place on a ship like the Sulphur Queen. Or it would, if the Queen herself didn’t already look out of place, cruising along the bottom of the sea at full sail. Vincent craned his head to look around. There was no basketball in sight. He nudged Dinah, who woke up, then leaned against the other side of the stairs and resumed dozing. He stood up carefully and slowly walked around the deck, looking about himself. “What are you doing?” Deerka asked. Vincent peered down one of the hatches. “Just looking for a basketball.”
“Nobody plays basketball on my ship,” Orion announced loudly from his hammock. Vincent made a face. “Well obviously, nobody here plays it, because you probably stink at it,” he retorted. “Everyone here probably just tosses it around like it’s a dodgeball. But I do play, and I’m
gonna shoot some hoops.”
“Nobody plays but ME,” Orion corrected angrily. He sat up and immediately fell out of the hammock. The rubbery sound of a bouncing ball across the deck made him pick his head up and squint. Vincent had found the ball inside an empty barrel. He dribbled over and laid up a perfect shot. “Check this out, Di!” he said. Dinah lifted her head, blinked and put it back down again. “That’s super, Vincent,” she said, yawning. Vincent took another shot, which was intercepted by a frowning Orion, who tucked the ball under his arm.
“Don’t touch my things,” he growled. Vincent licked one finger expertly and touched the mast. “Wham,” he announced. He touched a line, then Orion’s shirt.
“Bam,” he added. The ball hit him squarely in the chest as he caught it. “Horse,” Orion said, glaring through red-rimmed eyes. “Now.”
Edrear was staring out at the surface of the sea, which had since reappeared as they left the ocean and took to the sky again. Submerged in his own private thoughts, he hadn’t been paying much attention, until a shout snapped him back to the present. Orion Bones and Vincent were standing in the middle of the deck. Orion was off to one side, arms crossed. Vincent had a curious orange ball in his hands, cradling it at about shoulder-height. He tossed the ball upwards, arcing it so that it passed through a metal ring that had been attached to the mainmast. “Still H,” he said.
Orion burst into objections. “Your foot was over the line!” he yelled, “You have to take the shot from where I was standing!”
“You were standing right here!” Vincent pointed down to a beam, “Right on this spot! Take your shot and shut up!” Orion fumed and snatched the ball up from the deck. He stomped over to where Vincent was standing, lined up his shot and threw. The ball hit the rim of the hoop and bounced back. “That’s R,” Vincent said calmly. Orion slumped his shoulders and kicked the ball hard across the deck. He looked pointedly at Vincent, who sighed and ran after it.
Edrear watched, mystified. Dinah was watching too, but only because the noise had woken her. “What are-” Edrear started, but Dinah cut him off.
“Horse. They’re playing horse,” she said. Edrear looked back at the players with interest.
“Well they’re not very good at it,” he said at last. “Neither one of them is riding the other.”
“Much to my relief,” Dinah said, shaking Edaniel off her lap. He landed with a short bounce and curled up on the deck boards. Dinah stood up, stretched her back and strolled to the aft of the ship, past the squabbling basketball players. She sat near the tiller, watching the cloud wake the ship created behind it. The agonized shouts of Orion floated back to her, as Vincent sunk a shot from halfway across the deck, there the ball had ended up being kicked. Orion barreled over and pushed him out of the way, grumbling as he tried to make the same shot.
Dinah leaned over and watched the sea, far below them, through the clouds. It was like a long, dark expanse of black ground, with only a telltale white wave every so often to reveal its watery nature. She sighed and propped her chin in one hand, listening to the argument over what constituted an “S” or not. Suddenly, her eyes widened.
“Hey!” she shouted back up the deck. The game stopped and all eyes turned to her. “There’s a…a…I think a ship is sinking out there!” Both crews ran back and craned themselves over the rail on either side of the ship, looking down. Below them, a large freighter was sinking into the water. Black smoke had begun to pour out of it. A few tiny orange spots betrayed men in life-jackets, running across the decks or trying to lift out comrades who had fallen into the water. Dinah sat, horrified by the sight. Orion pulled out a spy-glass and sighted down it toward the wreck. “Definitely sinking,” he confirmed. “Looks like they have at least a few lifeboats. Probably not enough.” “We have to help them!” Dinah yelled. Orion gave her a pitying look.
“That’s not our job,” he said simply. “Look, Neptune’s Gold has it covered. All deaths at sea are their territory.” He handed her the telescope, which Dinah took reluctantly and aimed at the ship. She could see several criads appearing in and out of the water around the ship, always out of sight from the living humans, waiting to cart off souls mcc the body count was complete. They carried coral-coated tridents, the ends sharp and gleaming. Orion strolled off to find the basketball. His crew slowly followed. Dinah sat stuttering at the retreating figures.
“But...but we HAVE to help! Those people might die!”
“That’s the idea, basically,” Orion called back over his shoulder.
Edrear put an arm around her comfortingly. “Miss Dinah, that’s the point. We can only interfere when humans die. We cannot interfere with the affairs of the living in any way, even to save them. Only the already dead fall under our jurisdiction. Those are the rules. Take no living, spare no dead.” Dinah shoved his arm away and looked at Vincent, who was staring down at the disappearing freighter. “Vi, you don’t believe that, do you? I mean, maybe that’s the rule for them, but we’re human, we’re different! We have to help living people, we’re-”
Vincent cut her off with a shake of his head. “No we’re not, Di,” he answered softly. “We’re not alive like them anymore. We’re dead. And we’re guildsmen. This is how we do things now. I hate it too.” He sighed and patted her on the shoulder. Dinah looked at him, then Edrear. She gasped and buried her face in her arms against the rail. Vincent tried to give her a hug, but she shook him off. He motioned to Edrear, and they left her alone by the rail, watching the fast-sinking ship. Dinah sniffed, picking up the telescope in her lap. She trained it on the freighter. There were people in the water, people still on deck, people running back and forth trying to salvage the situation. Possibly, they’d radioed for help at some point. Weren’t these new modern ships a lot safer, able to warn you when something was about to go wrong, so you’d have time to call for help? But they were so far out in the middle of nowhere, hours and hours away from the nearest land or civilization.
All those people, lost because she couldn’t do a thing to help them. Families broken, sons, brothers, husbands...
She rubbed her eye and looked again. Then she adjusted the telescope and looked once more. The glass of the telescopes lens gleamed in the starlight, as she watched the freighter intently. Slowly, Dinah stood up. She turned around, surveying the ship deck. Orion and Vincent were still arguing over the basketball. Edaniel was rolling about on the deck, napping fitfully as the ship shifted back and forth. Deerka and Justav were talking in the shadows. And Edrear was sitting by himself, watching the sky. Dinah walked over to him and sat down stiffly. She was staring at nothing, her eyes wide. Edrear glanced over and started to pat her arm, but stopped when she turned to him.
Vol. 1 END
he black, starry night sent cold gusts of wind through the sails of the Sulphur Queen as it soared through the sky. On deck, Edrear and Dinah stood silently by the railing, looking down into the darkness of the distant ocean below.
Edrear was staring off into nothingness, his face a blank. His strong hands were gripping the rail as though he meant to snap it in half. Dinah gave him a sidelong glance and cleared her throat impatiently.
“Did you hear m-” she started, when Edrear slapped a hand over her mouth with a speed that made her almost scream. He grabbed her protectively up in his other arm and whipped his head around to take in the rest of the deck, a look of fear passing over his dark features, as if something from the long shadows over the other end of the ship might attack at any moment. Vincent was halfheartedly tossing some free throws at the 3asketball hoop. Orion Bones was back in his hammock, lying face down. From the stairs came the rhythmic sound of Edaniel calmly sharpening his claws on a wooden step. The rest of the ship’s crew was nowhere to be seen. Dinah pried Edrear’s hand off her face, trying to wriggle out of his grip. “What’s the matter with you?” she huffed, before gasping in shock as Edrear actually started shaking her. “You don’t ever, ever talk like that!” he hissed into her face, keeping his voice as low
his emotions would allow. Dinah stared, too stunned to say anything more. Edrear’s expression was a mixture of anger and fear, his eyes locked on hers as he put her down. He pointed an accusing finger at her, opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again, turned away and began scratching his scalp with his long fingers in frustration. “I don’t care...I don’t know what you thought you saw,” he said eventually, “but you can’t just lay claim to something like that! Especially in front of strangers!” he added in a harsh whisper, nodding over towards the hammock. “What if they had heard you?” “But I did see it!” Dinah replied hotly, to which Edrear turned back towards the rail and covered his ears with both hands. She grabbed his shoulder and shook it angrily. “I SAW those horrible mermaids putting holes in the hull of the ship with their trident things. I saw-” “What did you see?” Vincent suddenly appeared by her side, basketball tucked casually under one arm. “And what’s his problem?”
Edrear still had his hands over his ears and was staring out to sea, as if determined not to acknowledge Dinah’s existence, or anyone else’s, for the rest of his life. At the sound of Vincent, voice, however, he whipped around and extended an arm out between Dinah and Vincent. “She didn’t see anything, so just...just...” he spluttered in anger, before managing, with a monumental effort, to get a grip on himself,”-just return to your game! Let’s all have a...a little time to ourselves on the trip home. That’s an order.” He gave a hard look at Dinah, who ducked under his arm and ran out towards the middle of the deck, dragging Vincent by the arm along with her. “Vi, I saw...” she started again, before Edrear came running up behind them. “BE STILL!” he bellowed into her face at the top of his lungs.
A sort of record-scratch moment suddenly surrounded them, as Edaniel looked up in shock, Dinah’s mouth fell open and Vincent dropped the basketball.
“OK, that’s not cool,” he said, bunching his hands into fists. “You want to yell at me and Edaniel, fine. But don’t yell at Di!” Edrear looked hot in the face, glancing from one person to the other, sullen but unwilling to stand down. “Hey you kids, play nice or I’ll turn this boat around right now!” Edaniel interjected, putting his now-human self in between Edrear and Dinah. “What’s this all about?”
“I saw those criads sinking that ship!” Dinah shouted. “They did it on purpose! I SAW THEM!” There was an ugly silence, as her shouts echoed around the deck for what seemed
like a suspiciously long time. Orion Bones was sitting up in his hammock, staring at her. Deerka had appeared out of nowhere and was watching from the half-shadows. Both had a slack-jawed air of disbelief about them. Edaniel slowly turned his head away from his brother and aimed it over his shoulder at Dinah, who was defiantly standing with her hands on her hips.
“Come again?” he said, in a shaky voice, all traces of joviality gone. Edrear put his head in his hands in a gesture of agony. A sharp thump was heard, as Orion jumped from his hammock and strode towards them. He looked Dinah over with a hard gaze, as if it were the first time he’d ever seen her. Then he shrugged.
“Humans, they see lots of things. Bad eyesight, bad light, maybe a bad spy-glass. Forget it.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but there was a note of worry in his overly-casual voice. “It’s an impossibility, so why even get upset?” He waved a hand dismissively over his shoulder at Deerka, who disappeared down a deck hatch. He winked at Edrear. “I promise not to report you for such an unspeakable accusation,” he said with a cruel sneer. “It’s not your fault your humans aren’t too bright, after all.” His insult went unheeded, as both Edrear and Edaniel continued to stand still in shock. Vincent looked around at everyone.
“So what, so maybe she did see it,” he said. “Who cares? Maybe they were just, you know... helping the ship along? Helping it...sink faster, so they could get their work done sooner? Something like that?”
“No, I SAW them, Vi,” Dinah insisted. “They were tearing into the side of the ship like it was made of paper! And I’m pretty sure I saw one of them hold a man under the water...” She trailed off as Edaniel put a hand on her shoulder and bent down to look her straight in the eye. “Did you really see this, Di?” he asked with unusual seriousness. She swallowed nervously and nodded. Edaniel looked over at his brother. “I believe her,” he said simply.
Edrear took his hands away from his eyes and looked around to everyone. He turned and glanced back at the stern of the ship, where the sinking ship had long ago disappeared into the dark distance. “I...” he began, but was unable to say more. He sat down heavily on the deck and slumped his shoulders forward, staring at his shoes. “This is idiocy,” Orion says. “You really believe some silly human girl? You think the most
illustrious guild in the world would break the creed itself, and you believe it because a human child told you so? And here I thought I couldn’t respect you any less.” He shook his head in disgust and turned smartly away on one heel, taking two steps before tripping over Vincent’s outstretched foot and landing flat on his face. Vincent looked back towards Edaniel. “What’s the big deal, aren’t they allowed to do their job?” he asked. Edaniel gave him the now familiar you-didn’t-read-your-manual look. It seemed to be cropping up quite a bit lately.
“Listen Victor, even you should know by now that our creed, the one rule we are never to break, the rule that is written into our otherwordly DNA, is Take no living, Spare no dead.” We DON’T. TAKE. THE. LIVING. Except for now, apparently.” He gave a special glare to Orion Bones, who was brushing himself off haughtily and staring daggers at the back of Vincent’s head. Everyone present jumped at a sudden, loud howling sound, which turned out to be coming from Edrear. He was rocking back and forth on the deck floor, making a terrible keening noise, somewhere between a wolf howl and the cry of an animal in pain.
“Oh man, quick! Put a wallet under his tongue! Boil some water and tear up some bed sheets! Turn him upside-down and count to a hundred!” Edaniel shouted, as he rushed over and grabbed Edrear’s arm, the wailing growing louder. Dinah ran to his other side and took his hand. “What do I do?” she screamed. Edrear thrashed around, seeming not to hear them. He put his head back and howled up at the sky, his eyes screwed shut. “Sit on his arm!” Edaniel yelled. Dinah obediently helped Edaniel wrestle him into a reclining position and then sat on his elbow, trying to pin his shoulder down with both hands. Vincent held his feet down and knelt on them. Edrear bucked and wriggled, trying to get free, his head shaking back and forth as he screamed.
“Is he having a seizure or something?!” Vincent yelled in a panic, his face red with strain as he struggled with the unusually strong guildsman. Edaniel was rummaging in his trouser pocket. He produced a little square of something white and stuck it in Edrear’s mouth, holding his jaw closed so he couldn’t spit it out. Edrear’s muffled cries gradually subsided and he relaxed into unconsciousness. Dinah cautiously stood up as Edrear slumped back onto the deck, chest heaving up and down with exertion, his dark eyes closed.
“What...what was that all about?” she asked. Edaniel was breathing hard, one hand over the tattoo on his chest in a gesture of relief.
“The Howl for Help, as we like to call it,” he said at last. “Some more...old-fashioned guildsmen have a built-in instinct to do...well, that...when they’re confronted by a deep mental conflict. In this case, Edrear’s unquestioning loyalty and belief in the laws of the guilds came into conflict with his belief that you”-he nodded at Dinah-”were telling the truth. It’s like a computer that finds a major error in its system. Rather than burn out or break down, it just shuts off. Or screams and screams and screams until it blacks out.”
Dinah stared goggle-eyed at the sleeping Edrear. “You mean you just...you just howl if you can’t make sense of something?”
“He does, not me,” Edaniel corrected. “And not just anything. Only something that’s a fundamental part of who we are. Like I said- and like you would know if you read your damned manuals- the rules are built into us. We don’t just believe in them, were made to believe in them. It’s like seeing ordinary colors your whole life, and then one day waking up to find the entire world is made out of colors your brain couldn’t comprehend yesterday. To suddenly be shown that the most basic and important rule of all could be broken can, well...break us. Him. Edrear.” He was kneeling down now, with Edrear’s head in his lap, as he stroked his brother’s dark, curly hair comfortingly. Edrear was still limp as a dishrag and covered in a cold sweat. “Why not you too?” Vincent asked with sudden suspicion.
“I...don’t understand the question.” Edaniel busily fussed with arranging Edrear’s cape, and Vincent gave a knowing glance to Dinah, who shook her head. Now was not the time. “Was that medicine you gave him?” she asked instead. Edaniel reached into his pocket and pulled out another white cube. “Sugar cube. They’re his favorite snack. Sugar calms him down. He’s been a little more high-strung lately than usual, so I keep some handy. It’s probably just that time of the month.” Dinah opened her mouth to protest, then realized she wasn’t sure how what he said counted as an insult, exactly. But she gave him a dirty look regardless.
“Urn, dude?” she heard Vincent say, and looked up to see him staring over her shoulder. She turned around.
Orion Bones was slumped at the bottom of the nearest mast, shaking from head to toe. He was opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water. “Looks like someone else believes now! Think we might need more sugar!” Vincent said urgently, as Edaniel gingerly laid Edrear’s head on the deck and jumped to his feet.
“Nah, he’s a newer model, I think he can handle this,” Edaniel said, dashing over to Orion. He hauled Orion up by his shirt and shook him as hard as he could, then began slapping him back and forth across the face. The dull look of shock went out of his eyes almost at once. After the tenth slap, Bones managed to shove him away heavily. “I was fine after the first one!” he yelled. “Why do you keep DOING it?!”
“I dunno, kinda wanted to see how long you’d let me do it,” Edaniel grinned. He ran as Orion pulled a dagger out of his boot and gave chase. “Hey, Edrear said no knife-fights this time! Come on! What’s a savage beating between pals?” Edaniel’s protests died away as Orion pursued him down a hatch, bellowing curses. Vincent followed up hard, jumping down the hatch to give back-up. Dinah carefully wiped Edrear’s forehead dry with the hem of her dress. His eyes opened slowly and he turned his head towards her. “Miss..Dinah,” he said weakly. “What happened’?”
“You, er...had a bit of a funny turn after all this...boat…business,” Dinah said gently. She patted his hand. “Do you feel better now?” Edrear gazed at her in silence. He closed his eyes.
“Miss Dinah, I am so...I didn’t meant to yell, I would never...” he trailed off and gripped her hand tightly. “I am so very sorry. I mostly humbly beg your forgiveness.” “It’s really all right,” Dinah said hastily, mentally rolling her eyes at the exaggerated chivalry that was Edrear. “Sometimes we just get mad and yell, it’s not a big deal. We all have bad days, and today really has been pretty bad.” “But to raise one’s voice to a lady, it’s so...uncouth,” Edrear persisted, looking away in embarrassment.
“Edrear, I’m not sure if you know this, but women recently started getting treated as the equals of men. No fooling, we can vote now and everything. Which means we don’t have to be treated like fancy little china dolls anymore. We take the good with the bad. So if you yell at me, it’s no different than yelling at Vincent or Edaniel.” She paused in thought. “Well, Vincent, anyway. Edaniel gets his own special yelling techniques.” She looked down to see Edrear staring up at her in surprise.
“You don’t...I mean, you actually prefer to be treated badly?” he asked in astonishment.
“No! I mean you don’t have to go to all this trouble to treat me better than everyone else! I’m a person just like you, Edrear. Treat me the same as you would anyone else. I’m not a
lady, I’m just...me.”
Edrear smiled and held her hand up to his cheek, causing Dinah to blush and dart a glance over at the hatch, in case Vincent had decided to come back.
“‘I’m a person just like you.’ That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Miss Dinah. To be thought of as a person, a living thing with a soul. I know I don’t possess one, but it’s nice to think that you believe I do.” He smiled and sat up. “Can you really vote?” he asked.
“Because if we tell anyone, they’ll come and stomp us flat,” Edaniel said, biting the head off a dried fish. He chased it down with a swig from a green bottle that he had spent ten minutes convincing Edrear did not contain any alcohol. The concept of root beer was a mystery to his brother.
Everyone, with the exception of Justav (who was aloft in the crow’s nest as lookout) was assembled around a low wooden table in the ship’s galley, their faces dimly lit by a lantern in the middle of the table. Edaniel was rummaging in the barrels of supplies near the wall. Edrear was sipping water from a tin cup and looking pale. He had a pile of sugar cubes in front of him that he was steadily consuming. “They can’t do anything to us!” Dinah countered. “They’re at the bottom of the ocean! We just report them and let the Host settle it.”
“I don’t like that idea,” Vincent said. “Look, I admit I’m new around here and don’t get how your whole organization works-” “Then be quiet,” Deerka said.
“-BUT I know how a human company works,” Vincent continued, shooting Deerka a dirty look, “and whistle-blowers always get some kind of backlash when they report a superior’s mistakes. We can say we were just doing our job and trying to be loyal little drones, but someone somewhere is going to come down on us when no one’s looking, just for making their own job harder. I mean Neptune’s Gold is THE guild. They deal with all the world’s Unbearables.” “Half of them,” Edrear muttered weakly, through a mouthful of crushed sugar.
“Whatever. We get them shut down and the whole thing will be chaos, a wrench in the works, gum in the gears, and all anyone’s going to remember after is, ‘Man, those jerks at Bizenghast screwed everything up with their petty complaints!’”
“This isn’t a petty complaint!” Dinah countered. “This is like...like THE biggest rulebreaking you can do! It’s like if you found out your boss committed murder! You don’t just cover that up!” “I do,” Edaniel said, stowing a dried herring in his pocket for later. “I just walk away from this and go home and watch TV and if anyone asks me, I say, ‘Neptune who?’ That’s what I do. That’s what we should all do.” Dinah looked around in disbelief, as everyone else nodded their heads. Only Edrear remained unmoved, silently chewing sugar cubes and staring at the table. “You can’t be serious! We just cover this up? What if it comes out later, what then? Someone finds out that we said nothing and we get in trouble for it anyway!”
“We-eell,” Orion said slowly, “technically only you would get in trouble. You’re the only one who saw it.”
“Nice, real nice, you creep,” Vincent spat. “She told us all about it, so there. You’re in this as deep as we are.” “Sure, but she’s the only one who SAW it. The Host doesn’t do things by words. They just look into your memories and see what you saw. Then they know the truth.” “They can do that?” Dinah asked in awe. “They could see exactly what I saw?”
“Of course,” Deerka replied. “Not that guildsmen would lie to the Host, but it’s just so much easier to get the truth by looking through a guildsman’s eyes and seeing what they see. And since only you saw it, only you could testify to it.” There was a silence around the table, except for the sound of Edaniel’s steady munching. Edrear stirred and sat up straight. “We must report it. It is our duty,” he said firmly. Orion narrowed his eyes.
“You do and I’ll throw you off this ship and let you swim home!” he said hotly. Edrear halfstood in challenge, but Edaniel grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him back down.
“Have some more sugar,” he said, putting another tiny cube in Edrear’s hand. “Look Bones, we don’t like it either, but it’s that, or wait around to get into even more trouble.”
Orion leaned back with a smile, suddenly very calm. “Sure, fine, whatever you think is best,” he said blithely. Edrear glared at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Orion let his
gaze wander around the table slowly.
“Only...Neptune’s Gold has broken a pretty big rule. The biggest, in fact. Who’s to say they wouldn’t try breaking a few others? We can’t destroy fellow guildsmen, for example. But maybe they saw us; maybe they know we saw them. Maybe they’re thinking of a little payback of their own, if this whole thing comes to light. Don’t think you’re safe, just because they’re at the bottom of the sea. They have their ways. And who’s the one person who definitely saw them do it?” His eyes finally rested on Dinah.
“NO!” Edrear yelled, pounding the table with his fist, causing sugar cubes to bounce around and almost knocking the lantern at the center of the table over. “I will not allow it!” “Then if you know what’s good for you,” Orion said quietly, leaning forward into the dim circle of light, “you’ll say nothing.” Edrear stared furiously at Orion, who smiled mirthlessly back. After a tense minute, he slumped his shoulders down in defeat.
“We will...we will not, report it,” Edrear said painfully, his eyes closed and his fists tight. Orion gave a glance to Deerka, who stood up and retrieved a small scrap of paper and a pen from high shelf. “Glad you see reason,” Orion said. He gestured to the paper Deerka laid before him. “Because we’re putting this in writing. You’re going to swear to this. All of you.”
“Our word should be good enough for you, Bones,” Edaniel said, flicking a fish bone at him. Orion threw it back and scribbled something on the paper. “Just a little precaution, in case you start feeling differently tomorrow,” he replied. “I think we’ll all feel better once this whole thing is sworn to secrecy and put behind us. I know I will.” “I’m not signing that,” Vincent said flatly.
“Sign it or I’ll tip you over the rail myself,” Deerka hissed. Dinah leaned across the table and took up the pen. “It’s OK, Vi,” she sighed. “I don’t want to put everyone in danger. If it means covering it up to keep you safe, I’ll do it.” She signed a neat little “Dinah W.” at the bottom of the page. Edaniel came around to the far side of the table, looked over the impromptu contract and reluctantly signed his name.
Vincent hesitated, then, with a look of utter disgust towards Orion, leaned over and signed
the paper below Dinah’s name. Deerka and Orion added their own signatures.
“Your turn, guildsman.” Orion proffered the pen to Edrear, who stared at it before reaching forward. Taking it with a shaking hand, he turned the paper around to face himself and sat for a moment, his eyes shut tight. He opened them and looked around the table. His eyes stopped on Dinah. He scratched an X at the bottom of the paper.
There were no parting shots, no insults, no talk at all as the Bizenghast crew were slowly lowered down to the lawn of the Mausoleum, hours later. The longboat bumped to a halt on the grass and everyone got out. The ropes creaked and croaked as the boat was hauled back up with as much speed as possible. The Sulphur Queen rose into the air and sailed over the tops of the trees, nicking some higher branches in their haste to get away as fast as they could. The Bizenghast guildsmen stood as one and watched the giant ship soar westwards into the night. “Daylight will be on us in an hour,” Edrear said at last. “Let’s get inside.”
The sound of the stone doors closing behind them echoed around the clearing, leaving the rest of the world to get on with its own business.
Down below the terrible, crushing depths of the sea, criads were swimming back to their home. They dragged a silvery net between them, filled with a large bubble that held an unearthly glow. Inside the light, faces and bodies bubbled and swirled, confused and scared voices surfacing like deep echoes from a bottomless well. The criads swam through the water, their faces impassive, their scaly bodies shimmering pink and green in the light. Downwards, towards the very bottom they headed, straight into a rocky tunnel that burrowed into the sea bed. In the blackness of the tunnel, they twisted and snaked through the turns and curves, heading into the heart of Neptune’s Gold. The slimy stone walls glittered in the light of the netted bubble.
Surfacing in an underground chamber filled with a sea-lake, the criads manhandled the net up to a distant rocky wall. Set within it was a large metal hatch, decorated with a nautilus spiral. They wrenched the hatch open and upended the net into it the mouth of the large
hole behind it. The bubble of light slowly rolled out and downwards into the dark pit below.
Osiris was standing by on a nearby shore, tapping his foot impatiently. One of the criads swam up to him and he bent down to address it. “How many?” he asked. The criad held up ten fingers.
That’s it, ten? All that for naught but ten? Did I not say to seek out a bigger ship this time?”
The criad shrugged. It had no words for “lifeboats.” Osiris sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “Worthless creatures. But for gills, I would do the work myself. Off with you.”
He was halfway to the exit, when a small commotion in the water brought him back. One of the criads was floundering near the shore, trying to get his attention. “Yes, what is it?” he snapped. The criad pointed to her eyes. Puzzled, Osiris got down on both knees and leaned forward, taking the criads small, pointed chin in his hand. He squinted his gaze.
In the black, iris-less eye of the criad, a memory was floating to the surface, like a dark and silent movie. Water was splashing around in the foreground, while above were stars in the sky. The head of the criad swung around, taking in the sinking ship nearby. Several times the image went black, as the criad ducked under the water to avoid being sighted by humans. Emerging again, the ship seemed to be lower in the water and small orange boats filled with people were appearing on the surface. The criads head turned upwards suddenly. An old-fashioned ship was floating overhead, high above the water. Osiris narrowed his eyes and looked closer. A young woman was watching from the ship, her spy-glass trained directly on him.
Osiris dropped the criads chin, his hand shaking. He stood up, backing away from the creatures in the water, then turned and sprinted down the adjacent hall, towards the throne room.
Three days later, and it was evening in Bizenghast. The long shadows were stretching out over the silent graves of the Mausoleum, which stood visible, waiting for a hapless human
to stumble upon it and enter into what would easily be the worst job application of their life.
Dinah sat at the large dining room table in the guildsmen’s communal room, which was half kitchen, half meeting area. She was eating cereal out of a bowl and reading the back of the cereal box. Vincent was idly going through a plate of bacon and hash browns. A humanshaped Edaniel was consuming a fifteen-slices-high tower of buttered toast, his hair in curlers, a green herbal facial mask covering his features. “I thought your hair naturally did that,” Vincent said. Edaniel frowned at him over his stack of toast. “What, the honeymoon’s over now that you live here? Don’t like the way I look in the morning? You’re lucky I make the effort.”
Vincent sighed and rolled his eyes. “Where’s our fearless leader?” he asked. “He’s usually up by now.” Edaniel glanced at the door. “He’ll be along. Give him a break, he’s all crabby lately.”
“Not like you to go easy on him,” Vincent muttered around a glass of orange juice. Edaniel shrugged. “Not usually, but he’s really out of sorts. Just that time of the month.”
Dinah slammed her cereal box down with a loud sigh and glared at Edaniel. “You know, it’s REALLY not funny for you to keep making that sort of joke, especially when there are women present!” she snapped in annoyance. Edaniel stared at her, a slice of toast paused halfway to his mouth.
“What?” was all he managed, before the heavy, carved wooden door to the common room banged open. Edrear was in the doorway. Part of him, anyway. There seemed to be quite a bit less of Edrear this evening, possibly because he had no armor on. The brown skin of his neck and arms were as smooth and bare as any human’s. “What the...?” was all Vincent managed, before Edrear sat down grumpily at the table, scratching his arms and shoulders with both hands. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt declaring how much he hearted New York. His arms were red with the efforts of his scratching. “How’s the molting coming along?” Edaniel said brightly. Edrear glared darkly at him and continued to scratch. “Molting?” Dinah exclaimed. Edaniel looked over at her with a miffed expression.
“Told you it was that time of the month.”
“You mean he...I mean, you...you molt your armor off, Edrear?” Dinah continued. “Every month?”
Vincent burst into hysterical laughter, pounding the table with one hand. Edrear stopped scratching himself just long enough to hurl a juice glass at him, which Vincent easily dodged and continued laughing as the glass smashed against the far wall.
“It’s not funny!” Edrear yelled. “Do you have any idea how badly I’m plagued with itching?!” “I didn’t even know your armor was...you know...part of your body,” Dinah said, going almost as red as Edrear’s scratched skin. “How do you...er...do...stuff?”
“Luckily, there’s a lot of stuff humans do that guildsmen don’t have to do,” Edaniel said. “Or can’t do. Why do you think we don’t have a bathroom in this joint?” Dinah stopped and looked at her cereal bowl, then her spoon. Her eyes rolled up to the ceiling in thought. Vincent was snorting into his hash browns, trying to eat and stifle laughter at the same time. “It’s only for one day,” Edrear spat. “I’ll be fine tomorrow!”
“Come to think of it,” Dinah murmured to herself. “When was the last time I had to...”
“And grumpy the next thy,” Edaniel said. “You’re always such a pain around this time.” He stuck his tongue out at Edrear, who was about to endanger yet another juice glass.
Dinah narrowed her eyes at the cereal box in front of her. “Is this even real cereal?” she asked, shaking the box as if it might be a hologram. Vincent looked at her, then at his plate. He poked his hash browns with a fork experimentally. “I’m not grumpy!’ Edaniel ducked under the table as Edrear turned a furious look on him. After a moment, a hand snuck up and carried the plate of toast down under the table as well. “Vi, have you had to...I mean, since we got here, have you...”Dinah said slowly.
“I don’t understand the question,” Vincent interrupted, avoiding her gaze. He pushed his plate away. “Gyahh!” Edrear moaned, scratching furiously at his neck and shoulders in agony.
“Poor Edrear,” Dinah said absentmindedly, still looking in puzzlement at her cereal box. “I have some aloe vera lotion in my room that will make you much less...er...plagued with
itching. Come by my room after breakfast and I’ll give it to you.”
Edrear managed a small smile, before standing up and crossing the room to the stone sink that had a continuous trickle of cold water flowing into it. He held a metal cup under the flow and drank deeply, before sitting back down. He absentmindedly scratched his chest through the t-shirt. “It’s...not quite so bad when you get used to it,” he said eventually. “In just very annoying.” “Why didn’t we see you go through this before?” Dinah asked carefully. “Remember all those times I said he had important Mausoleum stuff to do?” said a voice under the table. Edrear closed his eyes and kicked out with his left leg, smiling when a sudden “OUCH!” came from somewhere near the floor.
“So do you love New York as much as your shirt says you do?” Vincent asked with a smirk. Edrear looked puzzled, glancing down at his shirt and tilting his head to try and see it right-side up. “Is that what it says? I got it from Edaniel. I haven’t any idea who Nooyork is, but I’m sure I don’t love her.” He lifted up the shirt to see the writing, revealing a muscular midriff covered in long scratches and raised bumps where his new armor was beginning to grow in.
Dinah winced at the sight of the long, red score marks. “Maaaybe we’d better get you that lotion,” she said, standing up. She instinctively ducked as a scrabbling sound came from the ceiling. High above them in the rafters, a Cleaner lurked, waiting to take care of the breakfast dishes. “You know what? Let’s go now,” she added, half-running to the door.
Edrear followed Dinah through the dim corridors of the Mausoleum, scratching himself around the neck and shoulders the entire way. We should get him one of those big veterinary cones, Dinah thought. The kind they put on dogs after surgery.
In her room, Dinah fished through a small drawer of bottles and cosmetics. Edrear stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, looking around at her things and scratching his arms. He wandered over to examine a little side cupboard, the top of which was covered by a doily and had a few odds and ends mattered over it. He picked up a thimble and put it on his finger. “Here we are!” Dinah said at last, slamming the drawer shut. Edrear put the thimble down and came back to her, still scratching his neck. She handed him the little plastic bottle, which he stared at expectantly.
“Erm,” he said, looking at the unfamiliar flip-top lid. Dinah took it from him and popped it open. “You just squeeze the bottle, see?” she said, dispensing a little lotion into the palm of his hand. Edrear rubbed it on his arm and smiled. “That...that does feel better!” he exclaimed. He eagerly poured more all over his arms, dripping it all over a small throw rug in his haste. “So much better! Thank you!”
“Any time,” Dinah said, carefully edging the rug to one side with her foot. She watched with interest as he did a wiggly little contortion act. “Uh, what are you doing?” “Trying to get it onto my back, “Edrear replied in frustration, one arm stuck behind him and down his shirt, the other attempting to help while still holding the bottle. “It’s worse back there.”
Dinah scratched her neck. She was starting to feel itchy just watching him. “Do you, er,..do you want some help?” Edrear stopped and looked at her blankly, then slowly turned bright red as it dawned on him. “Oh no, that’s...that’s not necessary, I can manage,” he stammered, backing away, clutching the aloe vera bottle to his chest protectively. Dinah rolled up her sleeves.
“It’s fine, don’t worry. I put sunscreen on Vincent’s back when we go swimming at the lake. Used to go swimming, I mean,” she corrected herself. Edrear hesitated, biting his lip and twisting the hem of his shirt up around his free hand, unwilling to expose any more of himself than he had to in front of a lady. But the creeping, itching sensation between his shoulders made him start wriggling in agony again and he hastily pulled off his t-shirt and turned around. Dinah tried not to gasp at the swirling patterns that were raised slightly over Edrear’s brown skin. It looked a bit like a very worn-down, muted version of the armor she’d always seen on him. Is it really going to just grow outwards like this? she thought. Like a turtle shell or something? All by tomorrow?
She poured some lotion into her hand and rubbed it carefully between his shoulder blades. Edrear shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, meekly covering his chest with his t-shirt, his skin hot with embarrassment. Click!
Dinah swiveled around to see Edaniel standing in the doorway with a Polaroid camera. Edrear turned as well. Dinah glanced at him, expecting a furious explosion, until she saw him looking ii faint bemusement at the camera in Edaniel’s hands.
He doesn’t even know what it is, she realized. Oh man, is he going to be mad when he finds out. “Having fun, kids?” Edaniel asked brightly. Edrear frowned and snatched his shirt up, pulling it quickly over his head.
“No, we are not,” he said curtly. “But Miss Dinah has been most invaluable in helping me tend to my...condition. If you’ll excuse me.”
“THANK YOU, MISS DINAH!” he shouted in Dinah’s face, He nodded a polite bow to her and brushed past his brother, “It’s common courtesy to yell at ladies sometimes,” he informed Edaniel in a matter-of-fact tone. “They can vote now.” He swanned out into the hallway. Edaniel lounged against the door frame and stared down the corridor in bafflement. Possibly for the first time in his life, he had nothing to say. Then he turned back to Dinah, who held up her hands defensively.
“Look, it’s not what it seems,” she began. “About the lotion, I mean. I have no idea about the shouting.” “Of course it isn’t,” Edaniel interrupted. “It never is. Like I haven’t seen enough sitcoms to know that. But it’s still funny. You must be the only girl who’s ever had her hands on him sans-armor. He’d probably write a whole chapter about it in his diary, if he knew how to write. Wait until I tell Victor!”
He pulled out the ejected polaroid photo and stepped forward to wave it under Dinah’s nose. Much to his dismay, she refused to take the bait, so he stuffed it into his pocket. Dinah flipped a lock of hair over her shoulder haughtily and strode out of the room, pausing at the door next to Edaniel. “Someday you’re going to really hurt someone’s feelings,” she said quietly. “And you’re going to feel just awful about it.”
“Hasn’t happened yet,” Edaniel replied with a gigantic smile. “Why just yesterday, I was saying to-”
He paused, feeling a cold sensation near his hip. He looked down to see Dinah emptying the entire bottle of lotion into his trouser pocket. Edaniel jumped back into the hallway and pulled out a ruined photograph, still dripping with aloe vera. Dinah smirked and threw the empty bottle back into her room. “Sucker,” she said, sashaying down the corridor.
There were many waterways into Bizenghast. The sea was already so close, crashing up against beaches that were not more than fifty miles from the town. Little rivers emptied into bigger ones, flowing downward towards the ocean, creating a network of watery veins and arteries that could be easily navigated in reverse, with enough persistence. Long, pale limbs, bleached white and blue in the utter darkness, sculled through the waters against the feeble currents. Serpent-like tails gave off an unhealthy shine, as they slowly snaked through the river beds, over stones and through weeds. Black, unblinking eyes stared through the dirty river water, watching leaves and twigs drift past in the eddies, relying only on the darkness of night to protect them from blinding; burning sun in this unfamiliar land Native brook trout and little crawfish swam in a panic ahead of them, trying to outrun the unpleasant, rotting smell, Deer drinking from a little stream spat the suddenly fouled water out and scrambled up the hill in fear, as rivers all around became filled with a noxious vapor. The waterways running into Bizenghast were choked with strange fish, all swimming towards the town.
“And that’s why I never got my cake-maker badge,” Edaniel finished, pointing to an empty spot on the green sash around his chest. “It was all political. That troop leader had it in for me the minute she saw my superior knot-tying skills Knot-jealousy, plain and simple.”
“How about tonight we share stories that are actually true?” Dinah replied. “Might be a nice change, for once.” The guildsmen were sitting up on one of the four towers of the Mausoleum, enjoying the midnight summer breeze and waiting, as always, for new human agents. Vincent was attempting to carve some buttons out of wood, laying with his head in Dinah’s lap as she wound up some yarn into a ball. Edrear was hunched over by the edge of the tower with one of his picture books, shifting uncomfortably in place every so often. His new armor had come in since the previous day, but it was stiff, glistening and scab-like, and needed to be broken in. Edrear thumbed through his book, pausing to look hard at the words Dinah had written in it. Under a picture of a boat, she had carefully printed “B-O
A-T” in big block letters. She was trying to teach Edrear to read.
Tonight was Family Hobby Night, something Dinah had insisted upon once a week, during which everyone had to learn a new hobby. Edaniel’s hobby was supposed to be Shutting Up For Five Seconds. He was failing at it. “You don’t think that’s true?” he asked indignantly. He stood up, wearing a girl scout sash, beret and pleated skirt over his usual outfit. “If it weren’t for my audacious new innovations in J. lot-tying, I’d still be stuck in Daisy ranks!”
“You were never in the girl scouts, Edaniel,” Dinah said calmly, looking at a knitting book while weighing a ball of yarn in her hi rid. “Then where did I get this skirt?” Edaniel countered triumphantly. “We can only imagine.”
Edaniel opened his mouth in protest, then sat down with a huff, I caring open a little pink packet of powdered sugar and dumping it onto a small, circular cake pan full of brownie mix, before hanging the pan into his Easy-Bake Oven and switching on the inside light bulb. “Jealous,” he muttered.
“I’d like to hear about some of the other human agents,” Vincent said abruptly. “I mean, you’ve never told us who used to work here before we came along. How many agents have you had, exactly?” Edrear paused, looking up at the sky in thought.
“That...is a hard question to answer. Many of them didn’t survive past the first few vaults. And then there were companions who had no contract, like you. But I should say...at least one hundred and fifty contracted agents.” “A hundred and fifty in less than three hundred years?” Vincent said. “That’s about one new agent every two years. That’s pretty good, considering what a dangerous job it is.”
“Oh, I wasn’t counting the ones who died before clearing the first ten vaults,” Edrear replied, turning a page in his book and focusing on the word “S-Q-U-I-R-R-E-L” written at the bottom. “If those are taken into account, then it could be somewhere near a thousand.” “A thousand?” Dinah choked out, staring in disbelief at Edrear.
“It’s a tough job,” Edaniel shrugged, tearing into another tiny pink packet, his mouth ringed with sticky powdered sugar. “We actually average 3.57142 agents a year, which isn’t really
that much, all things considered.”
Vincent craned his neck up to look at Edaniel, who shrugged n. “I’m good at math,” he said. “How many of these people actually, you know...succeeded?” Dinah asked Edrear. “I mean, if you yourself only met a hundred and fifty out of a thousand, how many made it all the way through?” Edrear pondered once more, closing his book and knitting his dark brows together. He silently counted on a few fingers. “Not counting yourselves, of course, there were...I think...”
“Thirty-nine,” Edaniel interrupted, leaning down to look through the tiny window of his oven at the slowly-solidifying brownie mix, cooking over its solitary 30-watt heat source. Edrear nodded. “Thirty-nine sounds about right. Mostly men, perhaps because women were not likely to wander out by themselves at night back in the day.”
“How many were...children?” Dinah asked slowly. Edrear looked at her in surprise. “None, of course! We don’t take children.” “But there must have been some,” Vincent insisted. “Kids wander around, run away, go playing in the woods at night all the time!” Edrear shook his head,
“Perhaps, but we don’t take them. It isn’t just luck and happenstance that makes someone an agent. The Mausoleum evaluates them even as they find us. It decides whether or not to open the door for them. Just as it did for you.” “But we were children,” Dinah said, prompting an indignant frown upwards from Vincent. “Don’t look at me like that, Vi, it’s true. We were under eighteen when we came here.” “The Mausoleum must have known you would do well regardless,” Edrear said. “It senses things that may not be apparent to others.”
“Youuuuu were the chooooseeeen oneeessss...” Edaniel moaned in a spooky voice, wiggling his sugar-coated fingers at them. “Tell me about your other agents. Were you friends with them?” Dinah asked, ignoring Edaniel. Edrear smiled. “We got along fairly well with some of them. Some never stopped complaining, right up until the end. Some were...bizarrely over-eager for the job. But many took it in stride after a while, as you did. I did my best to assist them.” “Yeah, especially Molly,” Edaniel snickered. Edrear rolled his eyes. Vincent sat up and
“The first female agent we had,” Edaniel replied, wiggling his eyebrows at Edrear, who pretended not to notice. “A very capable young woman,” Edrear said matter-of-factly.
“Edrear spent the whole time telling me he was totally used to talking to Eniri and Elala,” Edaniel continued. “so talking to human girls would be such a cinch for him. Then I introduce him to Molly, she goes to shake his hand and he runs off and hides up a tree for the rest of the day.”
Vincent rocked back with laughter, while Edrear snapped his hook open and angrily stared at the word “M-O-O-S-E”, printed boldly under a drawing of a rather dimwitted-looking member of said species. “I did no such thing! I was on surveillance at that time, while our dear sisters went out to retrieve a new anchor for the Mausoleum. It was my duty to keep a watch for them.” “Yeah, you watched so hard that you were still up there an hour after they got home,” Edaniel smirked. “Molly thought you were the biggest freak.” She did not!” “Did too!”
“What about Jasper?” Edrear said quickly, causing Edaniel to suck in his breath with a hiss. “We agreed never to speak his name again!” he whispered fiercely. Edrear smiled loftily, licked his finger and delicately flicked another page in his book. “What a handsome young human he was,” Edrear said loudly, to no one in particular. “I recall all the girls in the town were wild about him. Even our dear sister Elala admired his countenance. Just having him in the room seemed to make everyone else pale in comparison.”
Edaniel sat fuming and snapping little pink plastic spoons in half, staring in anger at his brother. Dinah looked at him curiously.
“You can’t mean you hated some agent just because he was prettier than you!” she said at last. Edaniel ran a hand through his perfectly-curled blonde hair. “He wasn’t prettier than me!” he snorted. “No one’s prettier than me!”
“Lady Nareesha didn’t think so,” Edrear said quietly. “Even after you pushed him down that well.” Edaniel jumped to his feet and started doing a little dance of rage.
“I hate that guy, I hate that guy, I hate that guy!” he yelled. Vincent waved a hand at him. “Dude, calm down! Isn’t he probably dead by now or something?” Edaniel stopped and glared.
“NO! He stills lives in the town! Owns a bookstore or something. Ugh. HATE.”
Dinah dropped her ball of yarn. “Old Mr. Jasper Duskett?” she shouted. “HIM? He worked for you guys?”
“That hundred-year old fossil?” Vincent goggled. “He worked for the Mausoleum? He survived the Mausoleum? That guy couldn’t survive a bad case of the hiccups!” Edaniel sat down with a bump, crossing his legs and staring at his toy oven. “Yeah, Mr. Pretty Boy Duskett, what a jerk,” he muttered. Dinah and Vincent stared at each other in shock.
“Old Mr. Duskett, who knew?” Dinah said softly. “If only we could have talked to him about it.” “Small world,” Vincent said, leaning back with his head on her lap again and picking up a half-carved button. “This town is full of crazy amounts of history,” Dinah said. Edrear coughed politely.
“I think, Miss Dinah, you’ll find that everywhere in the world is full of history. We’re just not always privy to it in the here and now.”
“Yeah, like the basement,” Edaniel said. Everyone turned to look at him, as he prodded his little cake inside the oven with a fork. He looked up. “The basement?” he said. “You know, downstairs?”
“We have a basement?” Vincent asked. Edrear coughed again.
“I think he means the...other edifice, upon which the Mausoleum is built,” he said. “Before we were here, there was another building, also constructed by the Host. But that was well before our time and it has since sunken far into the ground below us, even further down that our own catacombs.”
“What was it for?” Dinah asked. Edrear waved his hands around, trying to find the words for a difficult concept. “It was...something like a guild, but not quite. An early proto-guild, if you will. There was one to a continent, placed there over a thousand years ago. It was unstaffed. This was before the creation of guildsmen.” “If it wasn’t staffed, how did it work?” Vincent asked. Edrear scrunched his face up in perplexity.
“It’s complicated. Dear Eniri could have explained it better. She made a study of it, actually, mapping out the lower tunnels in her free time. Not much is known about to us this earlier system, except that it was evidently made obsolete as human culture progressed. We don’t bother about it. If it were important, the Host would have told us about it.” “It’s all icky and spider-infested and dank down there,” Edaniel said, eating half-cooked brownie mix out of the tiny pan. “So basically, a basement. There’s not much to see, just a few empty rooms. I went down there once myself, for laughs. It’s like Centipede Grand Central Station.” “Gross,” Dinah said, shuddering. “You had me up until centipedes, then you lost me.” “Thought so.”
A sudden breeze sprang up, blowing over the treetops and gusting through the towers core. Dinah shivered and glanced over at Edrear, who had stood up and was facing out towards the woods. “Do you smell that?” he asked. Everyone obediently sniffed the air. “I don’t smell anything,” Vincent said.
“I smell brownie mix,” Edaniel said, his face covered in brownie mix. “I wonder why.”
“What is it?” Dinah asked. Edrear stood with his face to the wind, breathing deeply over and over. Then he turned away, “I thought for a moment I smelled something odd on the wind. Like an animal carcass.”
“Well, were in the woods, so there you go,” Vincent said, picking up his buttons and putting them in a leather bag with his carving knife. “Come on, let’s go inside, it’s getting cold out here.” They filed down the little staircase into the tower, Edrear being the last to go. He looked around at the dark trees that hemmed in the Mausoleum, watching the wind rustle
through the branches, making dark, undulating motions in the treetops, like waves on the ocean. He descended down through the stairway hatch and locked it behind him.
Edrear sat by a stained-glass window, set just above ground height in one of the towers. The others had gone to bed just after dawn, but he continued to watch the outside world well into the day.
He’d done an admirable job of hiding it, but his fear and worry from the fateful night aboard the Sulphur Queen was still gnawing away inside of him. Everyone appeared to have reached an unspoken agreement not to mention it again. Life seemed to be getting back to normal around the Mausoleum, but Edrear was loathe to let it go. He’d regretted signing that contract with Orion Bones the minute he put his X at the bottom of it. Now he sat and listened to the constant argument going on inside his own head. We should have told someone. We should have reported it.
There’s nothing in the handbook that says we had to report it. It says to defer to our superiors at all times. It’s the spirit of the law, if not the letter. We knew something was wrong, we should have reported it. Our dear SIS- our Miss Dinah, she would have been in danger if we had. The Host would have Neptune’s Gold destroyed for such an unspeakable crime. Dinah would be in no danger. But what if they didn’t? Not right away? They know where our guild is, they know where to find us. If punishment was dealt, they could reach us before it happened The Host would not allow it to happen! The Host would not allow them to kill humans, either. But they did. They don’t even know that we saw. We don’t know that they don’t know. I wish Eniri was here. Why do I get the feeling that we’re being watched?
Edrear stared pensively out the window, watching the trees around his home. Not a leaf stirred in the hot midday sun.
Dinah sat at a little makeshift vanity table in her bedroom, combing her hair. She had to admit that life was pretty boring after you died. Once the expiration date on your existence was taken away, things just became a lot less important. It was hard to imagine doing this for the rest of eternity. Of course, technically it was hard to imagine doing anything for eternity. But if she’d had the choice, she would at least like to keep busy. She glanced down at the clock on the table. One in the morning. Dinah stood up and opened her bedroom door.
Down the hall, she could hear Edaniel’s TV blaring away in his room. He and Vincent were probably in there playing video games again. Edrear was...wherever Edrear went when he wasn’t around. She still wasn’t sure how he occupied his spare time. Probably sitting outside, waiting to spot some new agents, like the diligent employee he was. She trotted through the corridor and down the stairs, heading out towards the main hall. Might as well get some fresh air, as long as there was nothing inside worth doing.
She pushed the big slab-like door to the Mausoleum open. She glanced up at the Hooded Angel, who opened one eye and looked her, before going back to sleep. Or back to being a statue. Hard to tell. Dinah stretched her arms over her head and strolled leisurely down the walkway. Edrear was nowhere to be seen. She felt a little guilty about being outside, especially without Edrear nearby. He had told everyone to stay indoors at night, “just in case.” He didn’t elaborate. Everyone understood. But tonight was peaceful and quiet, with a clear sky full of stars and the reassuring rustle of leaves around the clearing. Dinah sat on a headstone and kicked at a dandelion, stubbornly growing in defiance of the Cleaners weekly grass trimming routine. I wonder what everyone in town is doing tonight, she thought idly. I wish I could go visit. Probably get in trouble, though. Humans are off-limits now.
She pondered the word “human” and how she now used it as a way to describe the very people she used to live among. She still called herself human in her own private thoughts,
despite the fact that she was no longer one. True, when she cut herself the other day by accident, she did bleed. But the blood was thick and black, and disappeared with the wound in a matter of minutes. She’d been horrified by the sight at the time, but now it seemed oddly normal. It didn’t even bother her when she tried holding her breath this morning and found that, while it caused a certain lightheaded feeling and no small amount of tiredness, she could do it indefinitely. She wasn’t even going to think about why they didn’t have a bathroom.
Edrear said we would eventually grow to be more like them, she thought. Eventually well become constructs like them. Does it mean well lose our souls? Will we go away to the afterlife, or will our souls just be confiscated out of us and sent on while we remain here and forget what it like to really live? Dinah sat, mulling over unpleasant thoughts, until a sharp crack of twigs underfoot called her attention to the edge of the clearing. Vincent was walking along towards the cliff path, carrying a bag. “Vincent!” Dinah called, jumping up to run after him. But he seemed to be out of earshot and continued away into the woods. He’s in big trouble if he’s going back to his parents’ house for more stuff! Dinah thought. Edrear said no more looting our old rooms!
But Vincent seemed to have a different destination in mind. He was heading to the path that skirted around the outside of the town. Dinah chased after him, running through the deepening shadows and into the forest. “Vincent, wait up!” she yelled to the figure walking quickly a few dozen yards in front of her. “Where are you going?” She dodged around scrubby little bushes that pulled at her gauzy dress with tiny thorns and stumbled over big stones hidden under carpets of dead leaves. “Wait for me!”
Vincent stopped and turned, apparently having finally heard her. She caught up and leaned over panting, hands on her knees. “What’s your hurry?” she gasped. “Where are you going at this time of night? Edrear’s going to be super annoyed if he finds out were not at home!”
She looked up at Vincent. An icy chill ran down her spine, freezing her in place. Vincent stared back at her with black, iris-less eyes. With both hands, he pulled taut the net he was carrying. In the surrounding trees, there came a horrible chattering noise and the smell of rotting fish.
It was dinner time in the common room when Edrear finally decided to halt his weapons practice and hang up his sword in favor of a snack.
He sauntered in to find Edaniel scarfing a large pizza, a smaller pizza and several pizzas the size of drinks coasters, all scattered across the table. Vincent was eating a salad and watching Edaniel with interest. He’d never seen cheese and peppers disappear so fast into one mouth. “Where is Miss Dinah?” Edrear asked, glancing around the “She’s usually the first one here.”
“Haven’t seen her all day,” Vincent replied, stealing a coaster of pizza away from Edaniel and taking an experimental bite. “I thought she was with you.”
Edrear gave a quizzical look to his brother, who shook his head and continued swallowing slices of pizza whole. Fear gripped his heart and Edrear dashed out of the room at top speed, towards Dinah’s room. He kicked the door open to find the bedroom empty. “What’s wrong?” Vincent asked from the doorway of the common room, as Edrear bolted past him and down towards the main hall. He dropped his soda and followed. Edaniel appeared at the door, unwilling to leave perfectly good pizza behind in favor of a chase. Edrear screeched to a halt at the front of the main hall. The front door was open.
He streaked up the stairs and burst out onto the lawn, turning his way and that in a panic, trying to see everywhere at once. “Do you see her?!” he shouted at Vincent, who was standing in the front door. “Where is she? I told her not to go outside!”
“What? I...no, I don’t see anyone!” Vincent yelled back, darting around the statue of the Hooded Angel and squinting off into the trees at the back of the clearing. “It’s too dark to see anything! Dinah! DINAH Answer me! Are you out here?!” “VINCENT”
Vincent jumped at Edrear’s voice, which was a high-pitched scream of fear. He ran around
to the front walkway, where Edrear was standing, rooted to the spot and staring at the ground.
In the center of the walkway, a green bottle, worn opaque by years of floating in seawater, had been dropped upon the path stones, pieces of it shattered off. Vincent stared at it, mouth open in shock. He turned the bottle over slowly with one foot. Dozens of broken nautilus seashells poured out of the broken underside. Edrear wiped the cold sweat from his face. “They took her,” he whispered hoarsely.
Vol. 2 END