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There once was a mighty giant. He was 20 feet tall, had the strength of 1000 men and wore a crown made of tarnished steel. He lived in a small hut near a mountain where he happily spent his days doing giantly things. One evening though, he began to feel very tired. You see, giants don’t sleep, at least not like humans do – instead, he would close his eyes every night and stare into the blackness of eternity and never feel rested.
He made his bed and laid down. He did not bother to lock his doors because he knew that those who trifled with giants were fools that would crumble with a wave of his mighty fist. He pulled his blanket over his body and drifted into a deep and well deserved slumber.
Smelling their opportunity, the creatures of the forest knew this was their chance – though they didn’t hate the giant, they longed to taste his blood on their sandpaper tongues. At first, a few brave ones crept through his door and into his house and skittered toward his bed. They began to nibble on his legs and he did not stir. The others gained courage from the sight and soon his entire house was filled with the thirsty beasts.
He only needed to open one of his fiery eyes and they would scurry for cover.
But alas, he was very tired and did not wake. He could not wake.
…and the creatures, slowly but surely, rent the meat from his bones, leaving only a skeleton.
“We’ve arrived too late.” the princess said with despair, “all is lost.”
The Warlock looked down at the carnage. The city lay in ruin, smoke billowed up from the burnt out shells of buildings and homes. Lines of soldiers wearing the dark steel armor of the black infinity marched along the streets scanning the rubble for any movement. Those that were found were dragged away screaming – once they were branded and taken to the mines, there would be no escape for them.
The Warlock adjusted his broad leather hat before removing his cloak and tossing it carelessly to the side. He then removed his gloves – one finger at a time – revealing grimy calloused hands underneath.
“There is only one thing we can do in a time like this.” he said, mostly to himself.
He fished around his coat pocket and pulled out a small metal tin. He carefully selected a pungent smelling herb from it and carefully broke it down. Licking his finger, he laid it in a line along a small square of paper and rolled it. He then pulled out a zippo, put the paper between his lips and puffed slightly before exhaling a fine stream of smoke.
“Uh…” said the princess, “is that a joint?”
The Warlock handed it to her. She took a hit and shrugged.
“You know, I don’t think we deserve to be here,” said the Mad Bumbler leaning against the bars of his cell, “we didn’t do anything that everyone else doesn’t do – what is a king but just a man pretending to be one?”
“I only have two things to say to you. One, I knew this was a bad grift from the start. Two, next time you think up something like this, don’t bring me along,” Daisy responded, scratching his 2 day scruff and scowling.
“And I have just one response” said the Bumbler, patting his cot and lying down,”at least we didn’t have to pay for a bed to sleep in tonight.”
“Even so, we sleep this night sober and without soft curves to keep us company,” grumbled Daisy.
“Bah, it’s good for us,” replied the Bumbler, “too much luxury will make us soft!”
“Ha! HA HA! This from the one who insisted on separate suites with deluxe baths last night. You worry about MY softness?” the big man snorted.
“When we travel with savages, we sleep on the dirt under the stars. Last night we were noble aristocrats, so we slept under silk sheets. Tonight we are criminals, so we have these cots, chains and cold floors. Tomorrow, who knows?”
“I cannot believe” the warlock paused for emphasis, “that I have to spell out what has to be done.”
Theodore inhaled sharply before sighing. “It appears so.”
“Your fleets are out of position – the nearest Returners cannot close the distance in time. Corzin’s ships will be through the gap and into open space WITH the Dimensional Oubliette in tow before ANYONE can block him.”
The Warlock glared with impossible rage. These were the most powerful beings in the universe, Masters that made him appear but an amateur trickster in contrast. Were they so immersed in unfathomable dreams that they no longer recognized themselves as tokens on the game board?
“Except us, you twice-damned fools! We can go hold the gate of Orim ourselves!” The warlock grabbed the bars of his cage and shook them futility. “What other choice do we have?!”
The cage swayed back and forth – the creaking chain echoed throughout the chamber.
Theodore glanced at his siblings – Alue closed her eyes softly and Rudario furrowed his brow and stroked his thin beard.
“You would have us dirty our hands?” Theodore asked.
“You are already SOAKED in blood. You ALL are drowning in it! Are you MAD?” The Warlock screamed.
Alue walked over and grabbed the cage firmly, halting its inertia (and creaking).
“Peasant.” She hissed, locking her eyes with the Warlock. “We are quite mad – but that is of no consequence or concern of yours. Besides, what do you care if Corzin escapes?”
She leaned forward with her face between the bars of the cage and mouthed “tr-ai-tor”
The Warlock lunged foward but was held back by the iron* shackles around his wrists and neck.
Alue coolly leaned back and smiled.
“We … misplayed our hand and underestimated our opponent.” she continued, “these things happen. Even to us.”
“Indeed,” Rudario replied, “Corzin has proven quite resourceful, I am impressed. And now he has the Null Beast, or will once he cracks the Nth lock.”
“All the more reason.” the Warlock snarled, “that we stop him now. RIGHT NOW. Before he has the opportunity!”
Theodore fished around in his pocket before revealing a tarnished iron* key.
“Quite right.” Theodore said, tapping the key against the bars of the cage. He inserted the key into the lock and turned until there was a barely audible click. The locks the bound him opened with the sound of hidden mechanation. “Good luck then.”
Theodore then looked at his cohorts, who nodded dispassionately to him. In the space of a blink, all 3 were gone – to where? I do not know.
The Warlock rubbed his wrists, grunted and kicked the cage door wide open.
There is a long empty expanse in the infinite tower that covers miles and takes days to traverse. Passage is provided by elevators that range from mostly functional to rickety death traps. The more you can afford, the better and safer your journey.
Tuggs Turtle stows away inside a large crate and gets loaded along with other cargo on to the 3rd freight elevator. He feels lucky, this was one of the better ones. Inside the elevator sits an automated Victrola that rattles wistful tinny notes from within its metal cage. Once the music warbles its way to a labored, melancholy close, a brass arm operates like clockwork, swinging around and flipping the ceramic record over. The needle drops and the song begins anew.
Peeking out, he sees a middle aged woman wearing a silk shawl and a prim hat, in the style that was de rigueur with the wealthy ladies. When she notices him peering out, she regards him, (and, really, the entire situation) with disgust. Perhaps the luxury elevator was being repaired and she was forced to slum it by going freight – or perhaps, she chose this lift for discrete passage.
Having been noticed, Tuggs climbs out and sits down, sighing deeply. He stretches his bones and ponders in silence. Finally, he produces a black metal tin and selects a prerolled joint from it.
His companion smells it, and stares at him.
Finally, after a time, she asks, “may I take a hit?”
Everyone knows that the long empty space in the infinite tower was created by a large earthshake which caused the anchors and tethers of the frame to collapse. An untold number died as city upon city folded into one another.
Which is why it is intriguing when the woman whispers conspiratorially to him “You know, my ancestors are the ones who caused the destruction that created this gap.”
The elevator, particularly the freight elevator, is one of the loneliest places in the tower. Having been trapped in such an intimate space with strangers, hurtling through nothingness, Tuggs is familiar with elevator confessions. But even he is intrigued by this one.
Her story unfolds thusly: her family was part of a cabal that deigned the corruption and filth of the city levels beneath them had reached an untenable, hopeless state. They decided that a cleansing fire was the only way to let them start over and build a better world.
She tipped the joint slightly to dump out some ash.
The inferno blazed as planned, but it broke through the fire breaks and ignited in all directions. The thing about fire is, it is impossible to truly control. And it is indiscriminate as to what it burns.
The powers that be had a choice – detach the anchors of floors below and let them fall, or risk the fire burning everything.
“My grandmother says that’s why I am the way I am. She thinks the guilt of being part of that destruction has left an indelible mark on the soul of our blood line.”
The Victrola begins skipping, stuck on a loop. Its monotonous stuttering echoes throughout the elevator. The cage temporarily keeps them from fixing it, but after a few moments, Tuggs manages to locate a long metal rod and slides it through the gaps, knocking it hard enough to put an end to the music entirely. A thin smile plays on the woman’s lips. They share a brief moment of victory before contemplation creases her face.
“I don’t know about blood lines. Or souls.” she says. “But I do think things are probably hopeless.”
Tuggs selects another joint from his tin.
This time he passes it to her, giving her the first pull.