Alex Reynard

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Chapter Seventy-One

L'roon was surprised Toby took so long to get back to him. The mouse found the merchant lounging at an open-air cafe with assorted meat snacks in three of his hands. Toby and Skeeto sat in deck chairs on either side of the reclining nightmare. L'roon asked Toby how much had come back. By now, a lot. Easily more than half. But any more names would be useful.

Soon L'roon filled in many more places and people. It felt like crossing them off a list. Rhinolith, Coryza, Marasmus, Hypovolemia, Ectopia Cordis. Dysphoria. Anasarca. Luxy Bleeder, Aldridge, Gilla-Gilla, Xenoiko, Rippingbean & Woofingbutter, Dorster, Alonzo, Red. Scaphis Tarrare. All these names bloomed in Toby's mind like flowers of light, illuminating his memories and sharpening details. He began to recall people's body language, vocal tics, scent. It was like restoring a painting by brushing off patches of black soot.

And he finally knew what that lighted scar was for. What slept inside his arm.

Toby asked and asked. He ran out of questions long after L'roon ran out of answers. The peddler had lived a long time, but tended to only circulate among the same few towns in the badlands. Most of what he knew of other places came from eavesdropping. He traveled to Coryza and Ectopia Cordis just once a year. In cities that large, he wasn't familiar with everyone. Still, Toby thanked him sincerely for the bits of information he was able to provide.

By now Skeeto was playing with L'roon's leftover toothpicks, swordfighting one hand against the other. Toby didn't want to keep pestering all night. He asked if he could accompany L'roon when he left. The merchant replied that the only payment he would require was conversation. Toby was glad to hear that, but asked, wincing, if they'd have to go right away. L'roon reassured him with a grin. The wily construct always stayed overnight in any town, to sample gossip, cuisine, and whatever citizenry he could coax to share a room with him. He'd be leaving in the morning or late afternoon, depending on his sluggishness, so the mouse would have plenty of time to say his goodbyes. Skeeto squeezed Toby's paw when he heard that.

Toby noogied the kitten and told him it was time to get home. They said goodnight to L'roon, and raced each other across the marketplace to the elevators.

That night they had their dinner late. Tak and Kat had been sitting at the table waiting. They badgered the boys about why they were getting home after dark, until they saw that something had changed in Coral's eyes. He began to tell his story. His parents listened until the food on everyone's plates went cold.

At the very least, Toby's story became clearer to him through its telling. Many lost details leapt to mind as he relayed them. Kat and Tak had tried to guess what kind of furson their Coral might once have been, and Toby's story both surprised them, and didn't. In less than a month, their mouse had lived through more than some Phobiopolans endured in a lifetime, which went a long way towards explaining their adopted son's behavior. They'd seen him flinch at loud sounds or fast movements, and stare off into space with a crestfallen look in his eyes. They noticed how much time alone he spent. And they'd known about his bad dreams from the start. This surprised Toby, but they told him they knew the signs of a kit crawling to breakfast with tiredness and fear still showing in his eyes.

They all knew he would be leaving tomorrow. Yet they put off saying it for as long as possible. Tak and Kat got up from the table and came around to hug the brave little mouse. Skeeto piled on too. Kat said they should have a special treat tonight. She and Tak went to the kitchen to fix it. And out of sight, they cried. Grieving for the new life together they had barely begun to plan.

In the meantime, Toby showed Skeeto his hammer. The kitten's eyes lit up with fireworks when he saw the gleaming steel emerge gracefully from his brother's palm. Toby nearly spoiled the moment by dropping the big heavy thing, but managed to catch it with his thumb. His fingerstubs slotted into the tonguerubber grip, but they couldn't hold on as well as they used to. He guessed swinging it was out. He was stuck with his palm-strike technique. Hadn't he given it a cool name?

Kat returned with a huge conglomeration of every dessert they had in the house. Cookies and chunks of cake were crammed into a huge bowl of banana pudding. Skeeto licked his lips. Both boys dived right in. And at the end of the meal, Tak solemnly held out a large green bottle. With a flourish, he poured some out for each of them. The mouse was about to say he didn't drink, but then realized what it actually was. Plain, clear water. In a place like Scarlatina, it made perfect sense it would be treated with such reverence. Toby took a sip and couldn't believe how good it tasted. He wondered if his fur would grow back after he left.

It was getting very late indeed. Everyone said their goodnights. Toby would definitely need his rest for tomorrow. Many hugs were shared. Kat and Tak assured Toby that he would always be welcome in their home. He let them know he couldn't promise to return, as he knew what he'd soon be facing. But, if he survived, he vowed to see them again. And bring friends.

Toby snuggled in. Kat turned out the lights.

Now he was wrapped up tight in his own little bed, across the room from Skeeto's. A bed which would likely be sold tomorrow.

The room was dark but the mouse's thoughts were aflame. He'd held back some of what he knew, to spare his adoptive family from worry. That left plenty remaining for himself though. When he left tomorrow, he knew what he had to do. He'd be heading into battle against a sorceress of infinite cruelty. Trying to rescue his friends with no idea where they were, or if their minds even still existed to be rescued. And how much more power might Scaphis have gained in the month he'd spent here!? Added to however long he'd been lost to amnesia!

The longer Toby thought about it, the more suicidal the scenario became. He didn't know if this was depression setting in, or practicality.

He remembered his bookshelves, the ones that had stood guard across from his bed so long ago. The stories themselves were just blurs now. Flashes of the emotions felt while reading them. But he knew he'd loved them. Maybe a little too much. They'd shaped his outlook more than real life had. He remembered, along the road trip, Junella knocking down all his assumptions about heroism, cowardice, and morality.

He had to face facts. His own sense of loss demanded he do something. But he had no idea what. Not even the faintest sketch of a plan. Nothing more than, 'I have to.'

'Do you really?' a voice asked.

'Yes. Obviously.'

'Do you really?' it asked again.

Because he did actually have a choice. He just hadn't allowed himself to see it yet.

He could stay.

Ignore his memory and stay here. Safe in the loving arms of the first real, true family he'd ever had. Maybe tomorrow he could fake amnesia. Say the memories were all gone again. Just shrug and eat his cereal like normal.

The idea was agonizingly seductive. It crept tighter and tighter around him as he wriggled further down into his blankets.

'I could stay.'

It meant abandoning his friends. Letting go of the atrocities Doll had done to them and the pain she had put in his soul. He'd be deciding that his comfort meant more than all that. More than honor, more than loyalty, more than his own trauma.

This would be an act of monumental cowardice. But a part of him knew damn well he was capable of it if he tried.

He could. He really could.

Maybe his friends were gone forever anyway. He'd seen what had happened to them. Their faces had been peeled off like china masks, their bodies reduced to hollowed-out toys. He'd only gotten a tiny whiff of Scaphis' mind-stealing mist, but that had blanked him completely. The others had gotten a full dose. Maybe they were unrecoverable.

Or maybe they'd already escaped? 'Remember when you ran away from that crazy cult leader in the stovepipe hat? The one who put the teacup on Piffle's head and trapped her? You ran away and left her there, and you tore yourself to pieces over it. But look what happened! She escaped on her own! Because she was a hell of a lot stronger than you gave her credit for. All of them are. What are the odds this is something they can't handle, but you can?'

He could hear the voice sneer. 'Mighty Toby. With his hammer he can't even hold anymore.'

The words made him wince. Yet he welcomed them, because they were making such a strong case for the easy decision.

It wasn't difficult to believe. Maybe his friends were already free and had defeated Scaphis weeks ago. Maybe they were looking for him.

'L'roon already told you that's not the case,' a less-persuasive voice rumbled.

Oh, right. He'd forgotten about that. When he told L'roon what had lurked beneath Doll's disguise, the merchant connected it to strange stories he'd been hearing for weeks about living waves of plastic searching through the forests. Hunting for people. Ensnaring and paralyzing them. Some said this plague had engulfed whole towns.

Toby saw this mental image in bone-chilling detail. 'She's still out there. She hasn't been defeated. And you remember what Aldridge and his wife said.' That last conversation had been slathered in heavy layers of his nihilism, but it was also the most recent memory before he'd been blanked. A surprising amount of detail had remained, including the description of Scaphis Tarrare as a power-mad psychotic who wanted to punish the world.

'She'll never stop. Never, ever, ever.'

Toby shut his eyes tight and grit his teeth together. 'THAT DOESN'T MEAN I CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT!!!'

'Who else?' another voice replied.

'Somebody... more powerful than me. Someone stronger. I don't know any magic. I don't have a special sword or a golden shield or an enchanted horse.'

'Sure you do.'

'That was only a maybe!' he screamed.

A week before his arrival in Scarlatina, another boy named Reggie had been out fishing and found something interesting. A sphere of blackened bone, compacted to the size of a medicine ball. He'd taken the faintly-glowing orb home to his parents and they'd instantly told him to get rid of it. Three days later when the strange merchant came around like he did every month, the boy sold it to him. And L'roon sold it to somebody else. Toby was appalled at this. "You're both nightmares! Don't you have any... any kind of professional courtesy!?" L'roon defended that it had not been a simple decision. He'd tried everything he could to revive the hibernating bonecuddy, but his skills weren't up to the task. George remained an uncrackable nut. And so, following his capitalistic code of ethics, L'roon had done the only thing that made sense in his position.

Thankfully, the place L'roon was headed tomorrow was the place where he'd sold George. This was Toby's only lead and it was a thin one. It had been a month, after all. George might have already changed hands to a dozen different buyers. Maybe Toby was setting himself up for a wild goose chase.

'And why should I even bother?' another part of him whined in a tantrum voice. 'Would they do the same for me? How many times did Junella and Zinc refer to me as 'the client'? They got me up the mountain; that was their only obligation to me. They wouldn't come after me if I was missing. Especially not if it meant facing Scaph-'

'George would.'

That last voice was strong and clear.

'You know he would. Piffle too. And shame on you, for even spending one second thinking that they wouldn't. You were more than just a taxi fare to them. You shared moments that bind people forever.'

This new voice had drowned out all the others. It shone like a nightlight at the front of Toby's mind. And it wasn't just a voice, he realized. It was himself. His truest self.

'You know damn well you're not staying here. Yes, it'd be nice. Yes, it will be hard to make Skeeto, Tak and Kat cry when you leave. But you'll do it. Because you have an obligation to your friends. No matter what Scaphis throws at you, and no matter if you fail, you are still going to try your hardest. It's non-negotiable. You couldn't even stay if you wanted to. If you did, what you'd become would be someone Kat and Tak wouldn't want as a son. Someone Skeeto would be ashamed to call brother.'

These words hurt too. Yet in a way that felt like healing. The other voices were silky on the outside with rot and stagnation beneath. This one was as firm as a callus, but strong.

'You already knew it was over,' it told him. 'You've known it for days now.'

Toby rolled over in bed. 'No...'

'Of course you have. The signs are practically nailed to your forehead. At school, the work's too easy. Ridiculously easy. You're getting A's by barely trying. Almost as if, golly jeepers, maybe you already know all this stuff already!? And you've started spending less time with Skeeto and more with adults. You love him, of course, but you'd rather have a good, long conversation with Kat or Tak, or Cincurro and Carms. Skeeto only wants to talk about little kid stuff. And you-'

Toby felt the end of that sentence coming. He tried to stop it, but it was like standing in the path of a bullet train.

Finally, he finished it on his own. In the dark, Toby whispered, "I'm not a little kid anymore."

He felt the strong, warm voice give him a pat on the head.

'There. Was that so hard?'

'Yes!!' he snapped back in irritation.

'Okay. Fair enough. But it's better to admit it, right? You couldn't stay here no matter how much you want to. Because the moment won't stay the same. You shouldn't be doing grade-school math and reading below your level. You shouldn't be hanging around kids who can't fathom the kind of things you've seen. You've been through Dysphoria, for crying out loud! Did you forget that!? Hardly anyone in this entire world has ever reached the mountain, but YOU HAVE!'

The last two words were a poke in the chest.

'Do you really want to stay and ruin things? It's gonna get weird eventually. Face it. Imagine Kat and Tak taking care of you as if you're still little. As if you still need them to. As if you haven't gotten through Phobiopolis end-to-end already.'

'I wasn't by myself then,' he countered.

'True. But you recognized when you were weak and you asked for help. Your friends carried you until you could walk beside them. And just when you were finally getting somewhere, it all went wrong. By sheer dumb luck, you ended up here: the perfect place for rest and recuperation. Be glad for that. But it's finished, Toby. You're as healed as you're gonna get. It's time to leave the hospital bed.'

The voice paused, then added, 'You want to know what this has been, Toby? Here in Scarlatina? It's the name of the boat that rescued you.'

Toby was crying softly. He didn't know where all of this was coming from, but he knew every word was real, no matter how hard they were to swallow.

'Grieve for your lost family. You should've had this kind of love when you were growing up, but you didn't. You've crawled through an ocean of garbage, and that's not fair, but it's already happened. It's unchangeable. All you have are the days ahead. Time is going to push you forward no matter how hard you push back. Maybe you could try running with it for a change, instead of against it.'

Toby clutched the blankets tight in his left hand. The stumps on his right tried, but couldn't match the grip. He whispered to no one, "I can't even hold my hammer..."

'You'll think of something.'

'I don't want to.'

Gently but firmly, 'You will because you have to.'

Toby sighed. 'I know, and I will. But at least let me cry like a baby for a while before the morning comes, allright? At least give me that. This is hard.'

The voice didn't have anything more to say.

He smiled lopsidedly. He felt the tears run down his face to his pillow. Behind him, Skeeto was snoring already.

Toby stared at the reflected moonlight on the bedroom wall until his eyes grew so heavy he could no longer keep them open. His cheeks were soaked by the time he fell asleep, but that was okay. It was okay to let yourself hurt, and to not want to return to what had caused it.


The dream that night was sitting on the beach in the sand. A real beach, with salty air flicking drops of ocean spray onto his fur. He saw himself building a sandcastle... No, it was a sand tombstone. As he stood over a much smaller, much more fragile Toby, he saw his own fingers write the word 'Doll' on it. Then he crossed it out and wrote 'Scaphis' instead.

Then he smashed it into a thousand pieces, crying his heart out without making a sound.

But no matter how hard he tried to destroy the little headstone, it always returned. And sometimes when he looked over his own trembling shoulder to read the name, it had changed to Coral.


The next day there were more tears and more hugs. Kat made a big breakfast and fussed over Toby. Skeeto wouldn't leave his side. Tak kept suggesting things the mouse could take with him that might be helpful along the way.

Toby went to school one last time to let Cincurro and Carms know he wouldn't be finishing the semester. He snuck in at recess when the classrooms were empty. He didn't think he could deal with saying so many goodbyes to all his classmates face to face. It was hard enough seeing the sorrow he caused his wonderful teachers, though they'd suspected by now that he was far beyond his schoolwork. At the edge of the recess cave, he stood hidden behind a corner and watched everyone play, etching them into his memory. In the end, he couldn't stop himself from stealing a marker to write on the wall: 'You were awesome friends and I'll miss every one of you. Oasis, Denny, Sail, Taska. Even Palo and Diver,' and a wink.

Now he was standing in the middle of the marketplace. Skeeto was quiet. Kat had packed a lunch bag full of treats. Tak offered Toby one more fast boat ride around the beach, but was politely declined. Toby didn't want to keep L'roon waiting. "He can come with us?" Tak wheedled. Toby hugged him.

The merchant was waiting outside the town's only hotel. He stank a bit of devious fun, but seemed alert as ever. He asked if the mouse was ready to go.

Toby nodded. "Yes. I mean, almost."

Scarlatina scuttled and murmured around them, unaware of the moment taking place in their midst. Unaware that their newest citizen was now departing, possibly for good. People bedecked in ribbons walked past with shopping bags and produce, not noticing the little mouse who stood between a merchant and a family.

L'roon was not entirely heartless. He let Toby take as much time as he needed. (Plus it gave him a moment to go hunt down another breakfast.)

Toby walked back to Tak and Kat. They knelt to put their arms around him.

"Gonna miss you," the fennec whispered as she petted his ears.

Toby nuzzled her cheek. "Me too. We were just starting to settle in and really know each other. I'm so sorry for doing this to you."

Tak gave him a shoulder-pat. "You don't have to apologize. You had a life before this. It's okay to go back to it. We understand."

"You have no idea how much I want to stay."

Kat brushed a paw across her eyes. "Sure we do. And you can always come back for a visit. We'll never stop being happy to see you."

"I'm looking forward to it already," Toby said.

One last big hug, then he turned to Skeeto.

The kitten in the big floppy t-shirt was doing his best not to cry, but failing. He jumped at Toby and squeezed tight, like he was trying to get all the air out of a balloon.

Coral smiled and squeezed him back just as tight.

In his ear he heard a tiny, whispered, "Don't go."

He pulled away to look in his eyes. "I have to," he said softly.

Skeeto sniffed. "I just got used to having a brother. Now I'm losing him and it sucks. I had so much cool stuff I never got around to showing you."

Toby smiled bittersweetly. "Save it for next time," he said.

Skeeto nodded. "I'm gonna miss you a lot. Like, five hundred a lots."

Both of them giggled. "Think of it this way," Toby said. "If a monster kidnapped Tak and Kat, and you had a chance to get them back, but you knew it meant giving up everything...?"

Skeeto sighed. "Yeah, yeah. 'Course I would. I understand."

"It still sucks though, right?"


One last hug, as brothers.

Then they both stood up and brushed the sand from their knees. Skeeto touched the ribbon pierced to Toby's arm. "Remember us," he said.

Toby put his hand on Skeeto's green wristband. "Of course I will."

One last, last hug.

And then Toby turned to where L'roon was just finishing up a grilled foot. The merchant swallowed it, toenails and all, then reached out one of his long, spindly arms to the mouse.

Toby looked to him, then back at his family, and began to walk away.

The sounds of the market dimmed away to nothing. All he could hear were his footsteps. He kept his head down, not wanting anyone else to see his heartache.

L'roon observed how hard the mouse's shoulders were shaking. "Leaving is not a pain I know much of," he said quietly, not very used to comfort. "I haven't formed many attachments, so I float from place to place. It seems difficult for others though."

Toby nodded. "Yeah."

L'roon made sure his cart was hitched up right. Following the cliff would take them back to Phobiopolis proper.

Toby followed after, watching the trinkets and artifacts jangle as the wheels rolled over bumps in the sand.

When he'd gotten a few yards away, he heard Skeeto cry out, "I hope you find your fingers someday!!" Toby allowed himself to look back, and saw the little cat jumping up and down and waving as hard as he could.

He turned away, to the dry and empty path ahead.

Then an insane idea seized him.

It was impossible. He hadn't been very good at it before, and he'd never tried it with what he had in mind. Still... A strange, determined grin came to his face. "Could you hold on a minute, L'roon?"

The merchant's gut rumbled. "Not a problem. I need one anyway to belch away my indigestion. I may have eaten my own weight last night."

"Cool! Back in a sec!" Toby turned and dashed away at top speed. His smile was delirious. He concentrated solely on running, because if he thought about what he was about to do for even a heartbeat it wouldn't work. That was the thing about dumbfounding.

Tak and Kat each had a paw on Skeeto's shoulders as he wiped his eyes. Then the little kitten blinked and saw his brother zooming straight towards him like a rocket.

Toby skidded up a massive dust cloud when he stopped. Skeeto sneezed. "What-!?"

"A gift!" Toby shouted. "Have fun selling all this!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a massive handful of something that hadn't existed until just a second ago. Grabbing Skeeto's paws, he dumped them in, spilling them all over. Batteries. The most sought-after resource in Scarlatina. As much as they'd scavenged for an entire month, all out of thin air.

Before Skeeto's eyes could even start bulging, Toby shouted, "Bye!!" and ran off again, giggling like a nut.


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