Alex Reynard

The Library

Alex Reynard's Online Books


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Chapter Fifty-Four

Toby miraculously managed not to wet his pants.

Memories flooded back to him: his first frenzied moments in Phobiopolis, cowering among the trees as an unspeakably huge creature came stomping right past him. Impossible. Unstoppable. It had found him again. Toby watched those massive crimson legs leave square footprints big as swimming pools. He was going to end up in one of those footprints. Squashed like a grape. Flattened into a tiny smear.

The rustbeast was constructed entirely of rectangles, like a small child's drawing of a bug. If Piffle was as big as a house, then this was easily the size of a mall. And shaped like one too. The body was a gargantuan box, with six stiffly bending legs and a relatively small square head. No facial features. No eyes, ears, mouth, wings, or antennae. Every surface was the exact same color: oxidized coppery red. Rust incarnate.

At first, Toby was too stricken with brain-destroying dread to notice how much it had changed since their first encounter. But gradually it dawned on him that before, its appearance had been almost skeletal. Its limbs were like the Eiffel Tower: crisscrossing gaps all throughout its infrastructure. But now they were filled in smooth. And hadn't it had a tail before? Was this not the same beast? Another of its 'species'? Or had fear tangled up his perceptions the first time?

Whilst everyone else was staring at the immense oncoming abomination with a knowledge deep in their souls that this was the end, Piffle's reaction was quite different.

She twirled in mid-air, then flung her arms outward and shrieked in total joy, "It's RED!!!"

She zoomed like a cruise missile across the canyon right up to the rustbeast, immediately flinging her arms around its neck in a jubilant hug. "Oh it's SO good to see you again!!" she squealed. "And I can finally give you proper cuddles at this size!" She planted a series of rapid-fire kisses on the side of its face, staining her lips orange.

Doll leaned out of the side door and just gawked. She couldn't think of any gesture that could convey her feelings at seeing what she was seeing.

"Oh, of course," Junella muttered weakly, her brain blowing gaskets right and left. "Of course Piffle knows the monster at the end of the world. God put her here to fill my life with chaos."

George didn't hear a word she'd said. He was slowly getting to his feet again, trembling as he stared. His eyes shone with awe. "It's a nightmare construct," he breathed. "Like me."

Junella was about to say, 'Well yeah, there are lots of nightmares all over,' but then the deeper meaning struck her. "Like you? You mean... smart?"

George's voice was far away. He could barely believe his senses. The very idea that he was not alone in this realm had been unthinkable just a moment ago. "It does not seem to possess the same level of intelligence as I do, but look! It is not attacking her. It is docile. It is... tame!"

Indeed, the rustbeast was rubbing its cheek against Piffle's. Swaying side to side as she squeezed and smooched and babytalked to it.

She sighed in bliss. "You couldn't have come at a better time, ya big sweetiepie. We were in a heckuva fix, but you wouldn't mind doin' us a favor and letting us hitchhike, wouldja old pal? Nah! 'Course not! Because you're wonderful all over, aren't you? And looking so well-fed! Hardly any holes today!"

It nodded slowly. Its head was roughly half her current size. Flakes of rust like crimson dandruff sloughed off whenever it moved. Its shape was like a beetle, but its movements recalled a very large, old tortoise.

Piffle gave the rustbeast one last firecracker of a kiss, then buzzed her wings and rocketed back towards her friends. She was so overwhelmed with happiness, she did three barrel rolls and landed on her tummy like a runner sliding into home plate. "Hiya, guys! Isn't this great!?" she boomed.

The resulting minor earthquake knocked everyone off their feet. She giggled sheepishly as her friends picked themselves up.

Toby pointed past her and stated the obvious. "...That's the rustbeast!!"

"It's Red!" she repeated. "He's an old pal. I met him years ago. He walks through the Blackdamp every now 'n again, then vanishes for a while and comes back. Actually, that might explain why he's hereabouts. Maybe he just walks from one end of the world to the other. For exercise."

George looked up into her shining eyes, desperate for answers. "Madam McPerricone! Why did you never tell me you knew of another ascended construct? I've felt achingly alone all this time! Thinking I was nothing but a fluke, an aberration!"

She blinked. "Gosh, it never crossed my mind!" She looked back and forth between George and Red. "I never thought of him as a nightmare! I mean, he's never acted like one. Normally you guys are all 'rawr rawr'. But I watched him go by a few times and he just seemed like he was passin' on though without a care. I flew up to talk to him one day and he didn't seem to mind me. After a few times, he'd even wait for me to show up."

"Incredible," George husked. His mind whirred with curiosity. Had this beast lost its normal nightmarish temperament through the years, like he himself had? Or had it come into existence like this? Was it really even a nightmare? It smelled like one and gave off all the right signals. But it might also be something new. Or something ancient, predating himself and all other constructs. Was it someone's imaginary friend come to life?

"I think he'll like you guys," Piffle said with assurance. "Anywizzle, didja see the way I KO'd those nasty crows?" She grinned proudly and took a swing at imaginary villains.

Seeing her so gigantic made Zinc's heart beat in a rather unexpected way. He was the size of a sparkplug compared to her. "You're the most, babe! Our very own Pauline Bunyan!"

"Why thank you," she said sweetly. She looked down at all her tiny friends, greatly amused at their bug-eyed expressions and how they were barely taller than the toes of her boots now.

That gave her a wicked idea. "I just can't resist!" She crouched down and made a grab for George.

"ExCUSE me, I..." He neighed in protest as she bounced him up and down.

"Trot trot trot! My little horsie went to the races!" She paraded George around in a circle like a plastic toy.

"This is an assault on my dignity!" he snorted.

Junella was laughing so hard she was crying. That is, until a humongous hamster paw picked her up and lifted her into the air. She opened her mouth to scream but all she could manage was a record scratch.

Toby did not panic too much when Piffle did the same to him. He knew she wouldn't do anything terrible to him, right? And her paw was really soft. Like having a bunch of couch cushions abduct him.

Piffle's grin was spectacularly mischievous. "And here we have the lovely bride and groom on their wedding day! Aren't they a sight! I'm the preacher and I say that now you may kiss the bride!"

Junella's expression turned to boundless horror.

Toby screamed as Piffle suddenly thrust him headfirst towards Junella.

Piffle was careful not to crack her little playthings' skulls, but she did kind of bonk Toby's face against Junella's cheek while making smooching noises. "Oh, oh, my precious darling! You are the cream in my coffee! The only one for me!"

Junella wiggled a hand loose enough to scream, "ZINC, FOR GOD'S SAKE, SHOOT HER!!!"

But he was laughing way too hard to aim straight.

From behind them came a quiet, questioning grunt. Although "quiet" hardly applied to a rustbeast. Its mutter sounded like iron beams bending.

Piffle remembered she'd left him standing there. He was probably wondering why his friend had run off so suddenly. She was about to tuck her friends in her pocket, but then remembered poor stuck Zinc. Instead, she lifted Toby, Junella and George up onto the Fearsleigher's roof. Then she gripped it under the chassis, lifted with her knees, and picked the whole darn thing up. "Whoof! It's heavier than it looks! How do you do it, George?"

He was too busy trying to not fall off to answer. Hooves and metal do not make for secure standing. Plus, the others were all wobbling around trying to deal with the shaking too and he didn't want to step on them by accident.

Piffle skipped merrily across the canyon with her playset and action figures. Each footstep sounded like a dumpster dropped from a helicopter. Toby flattened himself to the roof on his tummy. Junella wobbled around like a rolling die, barely avoiding the gatling gun barrel (it was still so hot it would have melted her smooth). Piffle skidded to a stop in front of Red and held up the car. "Looky! These are my friends!"

Toby's brain could barely deal with being so close to the thing that had first introduced him to the terrors of Phobiopolis. Back then it had nearly scared him into a coma. He expected a gush of hot breath to blast him off the roof as the thing sniffed him, but of course it didn't have a nose. Its face was nothing more than a featureless red wall.

"Oh, and we can't forget Doll." Piffle snugged the Fearsleigher under her arm so she could poke her finger through the side door. Doll felt as tiny as a ladybug as she crawled up onto it. Piffle placed her on the roof along with the others.

Doll craned her neck up, trying to deal with the enormity of this thing. She gave an uncertain wave to it.

Red's head moved back a fraction, surprised by the near-microscopic furson dressed in burlap. Then it leaned in a little closer.

"I think you're interesting to him," Piffle said.

Then she farted.

POOOT. The flabby, rumbling noise was almost exactly the same as air escaping from a balloon. And just as it happened, Piffle shrank a few inches.

Her cheeks reddened. "Oh gee!"

Zinc piped up, "I don't think that resizer's supposed to work like this! I think the effect's wearing off!"

Junella had a horrible thought of Piffle suddenly reverting to normal all at once, and what would that do to the car and everyone on it? "Put us down while you still can!!"

"Better idea!" Piffle sing-songed. She reached out to gently pet Red's big square noggin. "Is it okay? I just wanna be sure first." She tooted again, hiccuped, and lost another bit of height.


"There's always time for politeness," Piffle admonished the skunk.

It took a few moments for Red to acknowledge Piffle's question, but then his head slowly raised and slowly lowered: a nod.

"Great! Thank you so much!" She kissed his forehead, then got a better grip on the car and took off with her wings. She grunted. It was even harder trying to carry the big armored thing while flying.

Another poot. Everyone on the roof nearly lost their balance.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Piffle said. Straining and puffing, she managed to get enough height to bring the Fearsleigher's roof level with Red's back. Then her friends could hop to safety while she dealt with getting the car parked.

"Go, go go!" Junella yelped. By reflex she snatched up Doll's arm as she dashed past, and tossed her like a bowling ball onto the relatively stable ground of Red's back.

"Need assistance, Sire Toby?" George asked.

Toby did indeed. His bravery tank had reached empty and he was having a lot of trouble convincing his limbs to let go of the roof.

George bent down and picked him up by his vest collar like a mother cat carrying a kitten. He trotted onto Red and set his master down.

The rust felt uncomfortably scrapey under Toby's moccasins.

Still shrinking by inches every few seconds, Piffle struggled to haul the Fearsleigher up higher. At first she was just going to plop it straight down, but then she realized that the unexpected solution to one problem had created another. The Fearsleigher had not been able to push itself up on its blades, but with Piffle holding it, gravity had bent them down anyway. And locked them there. This was good for the car but might be painful for Red's back. Piffle fretted for a second, then decided the best solution would be to tip the car over on its side.

Zinc hollered as his feet slipped out from beneath him and he dangled by his hands. "Still stuck here, remember!?"

"Yikes! Forgive me!" Piffle exclaimed. "How do I set it down without hurting him!?"

Junella got an idea. She ran back towards the car and timed a perfect leap onto the grille. Then she clambered up the fender and dropped down into the front seat. She called out to Piffle, "Rotate it back to normal if you don't wanna get sepukku'd!"

The hamsterfly obeyed. Zinc was glad to have something to stand on again. Junella pressed a button and the car started vibrating. Piffle yelped and tightened her grip. The skate blades began to move.

What Junella had done was to engage the manual merging sequence. Even without George there, the Fearsleigher could be tricked into thinking he was. Its gears click-click-clicked, extending the mangled remains of his harness while raising the skate blades to their horizontal position.

"Good job, Junella!" Piffle said as she sat the car down flat. Good timing too, as her arms had started shaking from the strain. Now that all her friends and all their stuff was safe, she switched to the next highest priority.

She flicked her wings and swooped back around to Red's head to glom it in one last mega-hug. Now it was almost larger than she was, but still the mammoth hamsterfly squeezed with all her heart. "Thank you soooo much, Red! You're a swell fella! A really big help! I dunno what I can ever do to repay you, but I hope my hug's a good start."

His head slowly raised, then slowly lowered.

Piffle rubbed her cheek against him, getting it all rusty. "I'm glad."

Piffle continued to poot until she was back to normal size. By then she had crawled up on top of Red's head, lying spread-eagle across it, trying to ensure that her hug would continue to cover as much surface area as Pifflely possible.

Toby peeked over the edge of Red's back. It was like a sheer cliff. Ten feet down to where his head was, but sixty more to the ground. He was still nervous about Red, but anyone Piffle could love so wholeheartedly couldn't be all bad.

Doll toddled over to hold onto the hem of his shorts for stability. Toby looked down at her, then at Piffle and Red, and found the parallels interesting.

Piffle gave her big buddy one last squeeze, then sat up. "I guess I'd better tell you where we're going, huh? Hopefully it won't be an inconvenience. We're trying to get to a place called... I'm not sure, actually. Zinc called it Hell's Arse and Junella called it Fistula."

Junella overheard this and ran over at top speed to correct her. "No, no, no, NO! Don't give him that idea!!"

Piffle nibbled her finger in confusion. "But you said..."

"That was when we were up on the ropes! Did you see that flaming hole in the sky? Normally it's the quickest route. But if your big pal doesn't mind, I'd MUCH rather take our time and walk to Marasmus. Skip the hot place entirely."

"...Amen!!" Zinc shouted. "Ever had your eyelids pan-sear your peepers? Ain't fun, lemme fuckin' tellya!"

Piffle grimaced. "I can imagine!" She reached down to stroke Red like a puppy. "So how's that? Do you know where Marasmus is?"

It nodded a little faster this time, as if she'd asked a really easy one.

She clapped her paws. "That's super!"

From deep within the beast came a low bass groan. Like the creak of long-dormant machinery struggling back to life after centuries of decay. Resonant enough to vibrate up through everyone's feet. For Red, it was a whisper.

Piffle gave him a pat. "Mm-hmm, we're ready. We can go anytime."

It nodded. Then it looked side to side at the nearby rock pillars. Red had no reason to care about environmental destruction when he was all by his lonesome. Everywhere in Phobiopolis, the land perpetually healed itself behind the scenes (and where it didn't, Red did not go). But now he had smallones as passengers. Heavy rocks could kill them. That would make them unhappy. Red knew that sometimes he would step on smallones by accident, but tried whenever possible not to.

Toby dropped down to all fours as soon as he felt the rusty bulk shift below him. He could perfectly picture this thing rocking back and forth like a humongous camel, sending him sliding off the side to fall and go splat. But to his amazement, once those big legs started moving, Red's stride was as smooth as if he were gliding on rollers. Toby cautiously stood up, laughing in amazement.

Piffle could see the overwhelming breathless relief in her mouse friend's expression. He actually put his arms out to the side and let the wind rustle over him.

She smiled warmly. Was there a better feeling in all the world than introducing old friends to new, and having them all get along?


'The view from up here is impressive,' Toby had to admit.

Now that he had a moment to appreciate them, the rock pillars were actually rather beautiful. They were not a solid orange, but striped with many different hues. And the way the land curved between them reminded Toby of ocean waves. Best of all? No more biteranodons. Any of them foolish enough to hang around after Piffle's pummeling had skedaddled the instant they laid eyes on Red. Well, except for the ones that were currently beset by packs of gnawing terrorbunnies.

Toby's nerves were calming down. Red had shown not a speck of aggression so far. If the big beast knocked over trees and rock pillars when it walked, that was only due to clumsiness, not malice. Toby told himself that if he could accept George as a friend despite his fearsome appearance, there was no reason he couldn't accept Red too.

The mouse knelt down to reluctantly pat the rustbeast. "Uhh... Hi."

It raised its head in Toby's direction.

"Pleased to meet you," Toby semi-lied.

A slight head tilt. Possibly a shrug?

'Not the world's greatest conversationalist,' Toby thought.

Meanwhile, Junella was trying to get Zinc down off the roof. Some people vented their frustrations though sports or debate. Right now she was using a crowbar. It had come from the storage space under the hood, where she'd been glad to see (thanks to the inner carpeting and some tight packing) almost nothing had been broken. Right now she had the crowbar's forked end jammed between her partner's right wrenchpaw and the gun grip, sweating and straining and actually rather glad for having a practical problem in front of her she could solve with brute force.

Zinc had his tail between his legs. "I appreciate this, partner. I was starting to think I'd spend the rest of the trip as an object d'art." (Of course, he pronounced it as 'ob-ject da art'.) He had his feet folded up behind him as far away from the pedals as possible. Still, Junella gave the gun threatening looks as she worked. 'Just you TRY and shoot me...'

Finally there came a CRACK and both the skunk and mutt fell backwards. Junella tipped herself back on her feet with her tail. She hefted the crowbar over her shoulder. "One down, one to go."

"Nah, you go unwind. I got this one," Zinc grabbed hold and grunted. Finally having some leverage, the second wrench came free in half the time. Even better, the grips' inner mechanisms still had some spring in them. With a bit of repair work, he was certain the gun would be good as new again.

Seeing as Zinc now had that 'Oh boy I get to fix something' gleam in his eyes, Junella decided to take his advice and go chill while she had the chance. She handed him the crowbar and hopped down from the car. She found she kind of liked the feel of Red's scaly 'skin' on her feet. Good for scratching itches. She laid herself down and stretched out every bit of herself, releasing a sigh.

"Might I offer my ribcage as a pillow for your head, Madam Brox?" George asked as he trotted over.

The skunk shrugged. "Don't hafta."

He was already kneeling down to curl his legs below him. "Actually, I was hoping we could have a bit of a conversation."

Junella got her tail out of his way and scooted back so she could fold her arms behind her head. She eased down onto him. For charred old bone, he was fairly comfortable. "'What's shakin'?"

George looked out across the landscape. The rock pillars were becoming scarcer in this direction. There were more numerous bushes and other native flora. Packs of terrorbunnies followed behind Red like groupies, all leaping up to nibble scraps of biteranodon flesh from his feet. Great numbers of them were gooshed beneath those gargantuan square soles, but Red took no notice.

Finally George laid his skull down against the rust. "I just... It seems as though you are the de facto leader of our expedition, and given that position of authority, I feel I must make a formal apology for my actions earlier."

Junella arched an eyebrow. She said nothing, coaxing him to continue.

He was surprised she didn't immediately know what he was talking about. "I let the biteranodons rile me into burning down the bridge! Then, after we fell, I let loose that dreadful outburst!" He shook his skull from side to side in shame.

Junella snorted and closed her eyes again. "Forgiven."

Her curtness wounded him. "Madam Brox, I am serious in wanting to make amends. I don't-"

She shot a hand out to lightly smack him upside the head. "And I was serious about forgiving you. George, did you happen to notice I drove us off the wrong ramp and landed us in Kar... Kart..." It was always hard finding the syllables to stitch together a new place. "...the land of 1000 airplanes!? That was stupid as hell of me and it nearly got us all royally fucked. And you know what? OH WELL!"

She shouted that last part so loudly it startled him.

"Point is, no one's the hero every time. I get that you're on this noble quest of penance for your evil past. I can relate to that more than most people..." The hand that had smacked him reached out to gently caress his cheekbone. "But you're gonna fuck up along the way. And you've gotta forgive yourself, 'cause you'll curl into nothin' if you don't. Remember that you fucked up, but don't get all crazy over it either. The more you concentrate on a mistake, the more likely you are to do the same damn thing over again."

George took a moment to silently ruminate on this. Then he spoke softly, "That is very wise, Madam Brox."

"Experience," she sang back. "You either get smart or get dead."

He nodded. Then nudged her cheek gently. "Thank you. That was, I think, the most helpful thing you could have said to me."

She grinned a little. "I'm a people-pleaser." Then she tilted her head back to stare up through the lazily swirling sky. She'd just let George see a part of herself she usually kept hidden. There was a thoughtful place inside her she'd long ago sealed behind walls of outer armor. It was a place she could see firsthand on the rare occasions when she curled up into her own bellybutton. She only did this when Zinc was nowhere around, and only for as long as it took to remember. It was easy to forget her own advice. She often did.

Meanwhile, Piffle was sitting on top of Red's head, just enjoying the view and daydreaming. The weather was nice and warm. She could see dust trails pluming up from the various nightmare critters that patrolled this place. But they didn't worry her. Up here on Red, they might as well have been doodlebugs.

She leaned over to give him one more kiss and a pat, then stood up to stretch. She was curious what the rest of her friends were up to. She jumped, and hoisted herself up the ridge onto Red's back.

Toby was sitting cross-legged nearby. Doll was propped up beside him, back-to-back. The mouse's eyes were blank and faraway. He looked deep in thought, so she decided to slip past without disturbing him.

In actuality, Toby's mind was as vacant as his expression. Now that he had this moment to cool down, he'd taken full advantage of it and fallen into a kind of waking sleep. He let all conscious thought slip away as his brain's sub-basement tried to process through everything that had happened recently.

Piffle gave Doll a wave, and a wave was returned. Doll seemed to be keeping watch over Toby while the mouse spaced out, so Piffle left her alone too.

Then, up on the rooftop, click click click. Zinc was giving the gatling turret a thorough inspection, squeezing it and fondling it from every angle with his wrenches.

Piffle fluttered up to peek over his shoulder.

He took no notice at first. His gaze was locked on the big brass gun, checking her all over for injuries. He realized now that her out-of-this-world price tag wasn't just for her looks, but her craftsmanship. Solid as a battleship.

"What's the prognosis, doc? Will she ever play the piano again?"

He swiveled around to find Piffle loitering behind him. He chuckled. "Once I fix the grips she'll be right as rain. Wouldja mind grabbing my tools from inside? I'm pretty sure I remembered to stash 'em back in the glovebox before we..." he gestured like a spinning top.

"Right on it," she said and vanished. A moment later she plopped his tool bag beside him, along with an unexpected surprise. "Voila!"

"Jesus, this thing's got a good luck charm on it!" Zinc took the rumpled cornucopia from her paws and marveled at it.

"I thought we'd lost it too! But nope, it got wedged under your seat."

Zinc uncrimped the edges and held it above his head. A fountain of cool water spilled out. "Ahhhhh! That hit the spot!" He shook himself top-to-bottom, drying off as canines do. Piffle laughed and shielded herself from the spray. Then Zinc conjured up a peeled hard boiled egg from the cornucopia and handed it back. "Thanks, toots," he said with his mouth full.

"You're welcome. I always like helping." She pulled out a plate of cake and sat down to watch him work.

Seeing that he had her attention, he decided to give her something worth looking at. First he spread out his tools on the roof. Then he detached his Doorknockers and let his wrenches pop off their mounts. He shucked his shirt and jacket to keep them from getting grease-stained. He reattached his arms and arched his back in a long, deep stretch. The afternoon sun ran its warm fingers through his chestfur. Felt good.

Piffle felt her heart flutter. Zinc's body shape was a bit like an alley stray: thin and patchy. But his muscles were like bundles of copper wire underneath his taut skin. And then she realized that he had a circle of curious fur over his left pectoral, right where his heart would be. "Say, what's that big polka dot you got?"

"Oh this?" He was mildly startled. He'd put a lot of work into matching the color. Not many people noticed it. "Come on over and take a closer look. It's real interestin'."

Piffle let her cake stop existing and stood up. He'd sounded almost shy just then. Her antennae twitched as she leaned in closer. She put out a paw to touch the spot. "It feels counterfiet. Like a stuffed animal."

He nodded. "Lift the flap. See what's underneath."

She crouched a little lower to do so. When she did, she gasped.

The round patch came off in her hand like velcro. Underneath was a hard plastic circle: the end of a clear tube that passed entirely through the left side of Zinc's chest. She reached around to feel his back. As expected, she found a second patch.

When she slid it away, the sun shone fully through him.

Inside the transparent tunnel was a tiny masterpiece of gears. Bronze-colored and sparkling. They made up a rough sphere that whizzed around inside the tube: back and forth, back and forth, like a trapped bee behind a closed window. Piffle could not get a good look at the speedy little thing, but she could tell it was as delicate as it was complex, and that constant miniature lightning strikes were going off around it.

She was speechless.

Zinc grinned at her expression. "Nifty, huh? I got a tin man's heart."

Reverently, Piffle put her hand against the plastic window. It felt incredibly durable. Bulletproof. She could feel an intense tingling vibration travel up her fingertips from the tiny dynamo inside. "It's beautiful..."

He acted nonchalant, but his cheeks were turning pink. He liked seeing her amazed expression. The way her mouth hung open past her cute buck teeth.

Then she furrowed her brow. "But... I saw Miss Xenoiko eat yours. And Luxy scooped it out 'long with mine."

He chuckled and patted the other side of his chest. "Real one's still in there too."

She leaned even closer to press her ear to Zinc's right side and could hear the th-thump, th-thump of his organic beat.

"A normal heart can't generate the force for bloodpower. Not for long at least." He flexed his wrenches in a bicep curl. "So ol' Doc Coddington shoved it aside and plugged this spankin' new one in for hi-octane backup. It's a bitsy little power plant. Perpetual motion. If that tube ever broke, all hell'd break loose. The little wind-up toy inside'd probably go whizzing around and shred right through the world and out the other side."

"Gosh..." Piffle breathed. The longer she held her hand in place, the more the buzzing from the tube traveled slowly up her arm, creating a tickly numb sensation. When she let go, she could still feel it strumming her nerves. "That's a doozy of a ticker you got there. Or tickerS!"

"I'm glad you like 'em, baby." He took the patches back and reapplied them. "Too much sun can make it overheat," he explained. "I wouldn't want to end up with a broken heart."

"You and me both." As soon as Piffle said this, she blushed as pink as her jacket and covered her mouth with a paw. But the other, giving away her true feelings, reached out to trace along the edge of Zinc's right wrench.

He shivered as those gentle furred fingers traveled slowly up and down his rough metal. Ooooh... "Hee hee! If I could get 'em, you'd be givin' me goosebumps!"

Piffle's touch inspected every little nick and dent. "They've been through a lot, haven't they? You're gonna have to set me down one of these days and tell me all about where you got 'em."

A lightbulb went off. "How 'bout now? The repairs on the gun are dead simple. I just need to bend metal till it gets back to normal. You could sit and listen to me talk."

She 'boop'ed his nose. "Even better, I can be your eager young assistant. You can ask me for tools and I'll go fetchem. Just like in a surgery where the doctor asks the nurse, 'Scalpel... forceps... washcloth...'."

They both chuckled. "That'll be good practice for when you get back to Coryza," he said.

She liked that he remembered her ambition. "Whatcha need first?"

Zinc leaned over the bent grip. "Uhhh... Let's see. I think, first..." He cast a sly eye towards her. "...a smooch?"

She felt like sunny yellow dandelions were raining down around her. With a bounce of her ruffles, she giggled, squeezed closer, and placed a feather-light kiss to his cheek. The fur smelled like gunpowder and sweat. A very exciting odor. "Silly pup," she whispered.

Zinc turned beet red.


Toby remained an inanimate object for the better part of an hour. Despite the clanging and sizzling from Zinc and Piffle's repairs. Despite Doll getting restless and going off to make use of Red's wide back by running around and exercising her limbs. Despite Junella exhibiting her equivalent of snoring (her paw was on her chest, and as she breathed it scratched out the same syllable repeatedly). Despite George and Red sharing a long, rumbling conversation in which George received as many new questions as answers, and discovered that Red's mind was molasses-slow not from lack of intelligence, but from a state of such perfect calm that reacting to anything took as long as getting up from bed in the morning.

Also despite the change in the landscape. They'd left the rock columns far behind, entering Lumbago's wide open spaces. The rocks out here were piled up in grotesque aerobic contortions, looking like a stiff breeze might topple them. Amongst the formations scampered a variety of nightmare beasts. Cactusyotes and terrorbunnies, but also bristle-furred creatures resembling hyper-muscled hyenas. These stocky constructs moved as if in a state of constant paranoia.

The nightmares out here shared no professional courtesy. In the absence of souls to torment, they chased one another in frenzied circles, tearing chunks of living flesh away whenever one was caught. It was a möbius strip of maddened predation. Those among the rat race too slow or too stupid to get out of Red's way were liquefied beneath his tread, simple as that.

There was a greater variety of plantlife out here too. It looked like someone had sprinkled around a giant's packet of garden seeds. Overgrown pumpkins and potatoes curled into tangling mazes, often tripping up the constructs as they rushed to catch their fellows.

And the sun was going down. For now it was dangling midway through the sky, indecisive as a cat on a doorstep. Its lazy light reflected through the thick clouds surrounding it, changing them to strange and monstrous colors not seen on Earth. Ominous or beautiful, it depended on the viewer.

Toby's eyes saw very little of it.

Or rather, they saw, but they did not judge or react. He was on standby.

And when he eventually came back to his senses, he felt as refreshed as if he'd just woken up from a ten hour sleep in a voluminous bed. His neck and elbows were stiff like uncooked pasta, but otherwise he actually felt- dare he think it- peaceful.

He had gone from feeling overwhelming terror towards Red to a genuine gratefulness. He placed his palm against the rustbeast's hide and moved it in slow, gentle circles. His fingers left trails behind in the red dust.

How long ago had their trial in EC been? A month maybe? Losing track of time in Phobiopolis was as easy as letting water run through his fingers. His mind now turned backwards, replaying all his adventures in reverse, making sure he remembered the cause and effect of everything. From the highway to Kartagener and back. From EC to the highway. There was Gyre 2, and then the mall. Before that, Coryza. No, wait, there was Fugax, Rither, and the Bozos in between. Going back even further, there was the campfire where they'd all come together. Before that was the waterfall, before that was Sander's shop, before that was building the Fearsleigher in the Jennie-Mae's magic backyard.

His mind paused on that detail for some reason. Hovering around it. The big square doorway with the carpet cover. One one side was Phlogiston, on the other, Scrofula. A portal. A wormhole. Why was his mind fixating on this?

'Well, for starters, having doorways like that everywhere would have made this trip a whole lot easier,' he thought with a weary chuckle.



That was a legitimate point. Why weren't there portals all over the place?

Why couldn't Phlogiston connect to somewhere else instead? Or many different places? Why did traveling between Phobiopolis' two biggest cities mean passing through a land of unconstrained mental torture? Why was traveling across Hypovolemia necessary? Or this place? And what about this Dysphoria thing that was was supposed to be so terrible? Why hadn't someone plopped a couple of doorways down to completely bypass the place? Why couldn't he have walked from Stoma to Anasarca in one step?

Oh, this was gonna bug him until he got some answers.

He stood up a little too quick and his head felt dizzy for a moment. He looked around.

Doll was off doing actual cartwheels. He was impressed she could maneuver so well in her burlap burqa, and figured she'd been practicing for as long as he'd been vegetating.

Junella and George both seemed to be asleep. She was using his ribcage for a pillow, and he was resting his head on her tail. Toby smiled. That was awful cute.

On top of the car, Zinc had produced a radio from somewhere which was spitting out a steel guitar tune. He and Piffle were tinkering with the gatling gun, laughing together and chatting up a storm. They were shoulder-to-shoulder, looking into each other's eyes and just... glowing.

Plus, Zinc had his shirt off. Toby felt a brief pang of jealousy.

But he stopped and shook the emotion away like picking up garbage and depositing it in the wastebasket. Yeah, he felt envious of Zinc's tight stomach and chest muscles. Yeah, he wished that it was him up there being cuddly with Piffle. But those were just automatic feelings. He knew, rationally, he would be going home someday. Hopefully soon. If that left P&Z together, that was fine. In fact, he realized that he actually felt pretty good about having introduced the two. They both looked really happy.

Toby knew his crush on Piffle had really only been reflexive anyway. She was sweet and soft and female, and he was male and starved for affection. The outcome seemed obvious. Except that reality wasn't turning out to be as simple as his books. The hero didn't always have to "get the girl". And he didn't really feel a need to either. Maybe someday he'd be ready for love, but right now his biggest priority was Toby deLeon. Nothing selfish about that; a simple truth. He was a pinging pinball, bouncing between terrors both external and internal, still unsure over his ultimate destination. In this state, he couldn't hope to focus on someone else more than himself. And that was okay. There would be time later, someday.

Piffle happened to glance down and notice the mouse standing there. She read his expression easily. She was glad to see approval in his eyes and not hurt. She waved him over.

Toby trotted across Red's back towards the car. (Though he didn't know it, Red absolutely loved the sensation of smallones' feet scampering across him. It was delightfully tickly.) Toby stepped up carefully onto the skate blade. From here he could see the pair had gotten the gatling gun half-dismantled. Brass parts were scattered all over the roof and hood. How was there any place left to walk around?

Zinc finally noticed Toby and the mouse's bewilderment. "I, uh, get a little carried away sometimes when I'm working, y'know? Fixing one thing turns into, 'Say, I'll bet I could make a few improvements here!' Next thing I know, I got a jigsaw puzzle in front of me."

Piffle gave him a squeeze. "Don't worry, I'm keeping track of all the pieces."

Zinc smiled at the squeeze, then his expression turned to alarm as he realized Toby was standing right in front of them. His affections had clouded him from realizing it before, but he had no idea if he was stepping on the mouse's heart by getting close to her. He held up his hands in a peacemaking gesture. "Whoa! Toby! I didn't mean any-"

The mouse smiled lopsidedly. There was still a small pinch of jealousy in his heart he couldn't get rid of, but it was manageable. "It's allright. Piffle and I talked about it when we went to the movies."

"Huh," he said, surprised, but glad, at the mouse's unruffled reply. "So wait... you knew before I did?" He ruffled the back of his neck bashfully. "Heh. Guess this is my week for bein' unobservant. Still, I don't want there to be any bad blood between us. I know she was your friend first."

Toby nodded. "It really is okay. Piffle and I are friends. You two can be more if you like."

Zinc nodded at the maturity of that and shook the mouse's hand.

Piffle was glad to see that everything was working out well. She gave both boys a snuggle for being gentlemen. Then an extremely naughty smile came to her face. She swirled a finger beneath Zinc's chin. "Oh Zinc... did I forget to tell you about that powerhouse smooch Toby gave me after we fell off the bridge?"

Zinc's tin eyebrow went up.

Toby's fur stood on end. He sputtered, "I...! Why would you tell him that!? It was a reflex!"

She giggled evilly.

Zinc caught on to her little game. He cast a mock-stern expression at Toby and mimed rolling up his sleeves. "This smirch upon mine honor must not go unaddressed! You and I shall duel at dawn, yon varlet! Fencing swords or pistols?"

Toby laughed at the melodrama in Zinc's voice. "How about feather dusters? I have sensitive skin."

Zinc bent in half guffawing.

If they could joke about it, then things really were okay. "Actually, if you don't mind me interrupting whatever you guys are doing, I came over 'cause I had a thought about the doorway in your ship. The portal one. Like, why and how?"

Zinc scratched the back of his neck. "Man, I dunno. Ask Junella. She'd know more than me. I just live there."

"Allright." Something else popped into Toby's head. "...I can't remember if you ever told me how you guys ended up with a pirate ship in the first place."

Zinc chuckled sheepishly. "'Stealing' is such an ugly word," he said, smiling fondly at the memory. "More like, after we turned in a particular bounty and Luxy thought it might be a good idea for him to spend the next twenty years in the Pipe, Junella and I decided to take stewardship of some of his more fascinating possessions."

"I see," said Toby. "Presumably without his knowledge or permission?"

"You presume correct," Zinc said with a smirk.

Piffle pretended to be morally offended. "Gasp! My mother warned me about getting involved with hooligans like you!"

"I guess we're more fun than she could handle," he quipped back.

This led to more giggling. Their gazes magnetized to one another.

"I'll, uh... go ask Junella about the thing," Toby said with a blush and a smile, leaving them to their continued canoodling.

Tiny flames flickered at the edges of George's nostrils with each one of his snores. The normal pinprick lights in his eye sockets were dimmed.

Toby crept around him silently. Moccasins were good for that. He couldn't help noticing that George had his head laid down on Junella's tail, right in the midst of the record shard part. Could that possibly be comfortable? Maybe George was such a heavy sleeper it didn't matter.

The skunk had her hands folded over her belly, chest rising and falling in silence now. Toby's eyes were drawn to her sheathed cutlass. He wondered if he dared to wake her. After all, he could ask his question some other time.

She didn't open her eyes, but her hand reached down to pat the empty space beside her.

He knelt down and swiveled himself to sit. "I should've figured you were a light sleeper," he whispered.

She shook her head. "Just dozing. Keeping an ear on things. You seem to have been occupied with your own head for a while. What's new?"

He'd never heard her sing so softly before. Somewhere between a lullaby and a nightclub chanteuse’s coo. It was soothing. "What can you tell me about the portal doorway in the Jennie-Mae? Like, who made it and how does it work?"

She was surprised enough by this line of inquiry to actually open an eye. "Why's that caught your interest?"

He made an 'idunno' grunt. "I was just thinking about all the awful places people have to go through to get to the good ones here. Why aren't there portals everywhere? Travel would be so much easier."

She nodded. "I agree. And you're not the first furson to ask that. Fact is, I don't know why my Jennie's got a magic door. I'm just glad she does, since our Scrofula place is like a bigass walk-in closet. I don't know its origins tho'. It just came with the ship, that's all. I asked around once and the best answer I got was, this is just a thing that happens when goods get made and moved around. Some specks of Scrofula got mixed in with her timbers, and now wherever she goes she 'remembers' her birthplace."

Toby 'hmmm'ed. He also looked down at his palm and wondered if Alfonzo's sheath might've tapped the same principle.

Junella yawned and went on. "Even though worldwide doorways would cut my business in half, I'd welcome them. If I never had to pass through Fugax again... But things like that can't be made. You can't just take a bit of one place, sprinkle it on some wood, and 'tada'. Scrofula's a special case anyway, it's more unstable than it looks. The buildings were there, people moved in, then all of them went insane. All of 'em."

Toby suddenly got very worried, and a little upset. "...You let me walk right into it."

She rolled her eyes beneath their lids. "Namby-pamby mouse. A little dose ain't gonna hurt ya. We have barbecues back there all the time. An afternoon is fine. A campout. But spend four weeks? Then you'll start painting the walls with your dead relatives."

"So it's like radiation poisoning. I saw a show about that once. There's places on Earth where you can take a tour through, but if you actually lived there, all your fur'd fall out and your balls would turn into raisins."

She chortled pretty hard at that. George snurfled in his sleep.

Junella tried to keep it down. If any of them deserved a good rest, it was George. "But back to your question. Don't feel bad about asking it. People have tried to do exactly that. Best we've got so far are the tub stations."

Toby vaguely remembered hearing that term before.

"Bathtub in the middle of the street. Step in, think your destination," she made a furson-being-sucked-up-by-a-drain noise, "you're there. But they're one-seaters, and not too reliable. Most people make their own cars, or there's people like me 'n Zinc who get you from here to there with a bit more insurance. There's also a coupla big blue buses with tank treads, run between Coryza and EC every few weeks. That's the extent of Phobiopolis' mass transit."

Toby felt a bit disappointed. "It's a shame. I just thought, souls have been ending up here for years and years. Surely in all that time, someone must've tried connecting the towns and cities."

"Oh sure they've tried," Junella replied. "I remember Luxy bankrolled a railroad once. Bad investment. They'd lay down tracks, and by the time they came back through there'd be snarled-up chunks of metal all over. Fugax and the forest, like most locations, go loco when no one's nailing them down with observation. There is a reason, Toby, why people only live in certain places here."

He folded his arms across his knees and rested his chin on them. "I understand. I don't like it, but I understand. It's not fair."

"Most things aren't," she replied simply.

He sighed, imagining how much more bearable this world might be if every trip to another town didn't have to be an expedition. "Still, I'm glad there's people like you and Zinc who are brave enough to get out in the bad places, doing good things for people like me who'd never make it on our own."

She raised her paw to answer.

"...Even if you are about to tell me you're only doing it to get paid."

A great big grin slid across her face. "Mouse, I think you and I are actually starting to understand one another."


Red continued walking. It was no burden to him. It was what he'd be doing this time of day anyway. As Piffle had guessed, his life was spent moseying from one end of Phobiopolis to the other. Again and again. His routes varied, and he guessed by now he'd seen every inch of the world there was to see. Walking helped to keep him in his state of calm. The motion of his own legs hypnotized him. He had achieved something most souls in Phobiopolis would do anything for: he was perfectly safe, and perfectly calm. It turned out the secret formula was to be big enough that nothing could harm you, and so bored from your own invulnerability that you transcended into nirvana.

Around him the land grew dark. The sun was now a fat orange tomcat, sitting on the black-painted fence of the horizon. The sky was smoky grey, bruised purple, and infected red. The nightmare constructs continued their eternal ouroboros around Red's feet. Literally beneath his notice.

Toby had slid down to lie beside Junella and watch the sky darken. He noticed something green ahead. Something he'd dimly assumed must've been a giant celery stalk. But then it moved. Toby felt his nerves clench. Through the shadows, the towering figure slowly revealed itself:

A thirty-story praying mantis, crying red tears shaped like people.

As tiny as Toby was compared to Red, that's how small Red was compared to this unbelievable monstrosity. It held out its arms in the position its species was named for. Its exoskeleton seemed like the epicenter of green in the universe. On either side of its triangular head, tiny pupils, almost comically small, floated around in eyes as smooth as porcelain. From these eyes poured many gallons of garishly bright red liquid. Artificially red, like cherry soda. As these teardrops fell, they twisted and writhed themselves into rough doodles of bipedal life. Arms. Legs. Round, featureless heads. They seemed to come alive in midair, born into the terror of falling.

The mantis was so large, whenever its antennae twitched it sounded like the cable of a suspension bridge snapping.

Toby felt his face freeze and go numb as every drop of blood drained from it.

But when he looked at Junella, she hadn't moved a muscle.

He could barely force himself to speak. He was certain that it's enormous UFO-shaped head would turn in his direction at the slightest sound passing from his lips. But he leaned close to Junella's ear and asked if she was seeing the same thing he was seeing.

Sure, she replied.

Her very nonchalance calmed him. If there was any reason to fear this thing, Junella Brox would have been on her feet with her hands full of sword and gun.

Instead, she offered explanation. As far as anyone knew, this thing had always been here. It was actually a good sign, since it meant the border between Lumbago and Marasmus was close. Whenever she and Zinc had passed through Hell's Arse, the back portal spat them out in its general vicinity. She admitted to Toby that upon her first encounter with the giant mantis, she had not been able to keep all her bodily fluids inside. If riding slowly on the back of a humongous protector bug towards this thing was scary, she said, imagine being in a car suddenly transported to a hundred feet away and speeding straight towards it.

The mantis was not the problem, she said. It just stood there. Period. No one who had ever passed through described seeing it take a single step, or so much as move its arms. It was as motionless as the rock towers. The monster's tears were the real hassle. The red beings spawned from it were like feral infants. Confused, hungry, and needy. They could rush at a car in such overwhelming numbers as to haul it away like a tidal wave. The only good thing about them was that a single bullet would burst one like a water balloon. Junella summarized them as the world's most murderous gummi bears.

Red passed within a few hundred feet of the mantis. They briefly nodded to one another.

The rustbeast continued on without incident, enjoying the feeling of the mantis' newborns dying in massive numbers beneath his feet. Smearing like lotion.


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