Alex Reynard's Online Books
Whether the flowers outside had shrunk away to nothing or had all been cut down, Toby didn't know. Once again, he'd transitioned scenes without noticing. Now they were speeding like an ICBM across a lifeless dry wasteland, kicking up a miniature dust storm behind them. The ground was as cracked and arid as month-old pizza crusts.
For miles around there was nothing but nothing. Except in the direction they were headed. Toby could see a patch of dark, and a patch of light.
"That's Coryza," Zinc pointed out. "One of Phobiopolis' very few cities. It's hard to build here, I'm sure you can imagine. You have to find a spot with the lowest uncertainty possible. Otherwise your floor might end up your ceiling one morning."
The mouse nodded. "That makes sense. You said other places were high in uncertainty, so there'd likely be an opposite end of the scale."
"Barely," he replied. "There's no place completely stable. Ectopia's closest to it. On the other hand, some places are so screwball, you can pretty much just walk out and snag imaginite with your bare hands. Whoever founded Coryza either had real luck or real brains. Land's stable, but nearby's this vortex thing with imaginite up the wazoo. Good for mining if you got a strong safety line and enough nerve. By the way, the reason for our current haste is that if we don't get there soon, we might not get in at all."
Something had been itching Toby's brain about that. "How can you tell? Neither of you have watches and the car doesn't have a clock."
"Don't need 'em," Zinc said, impressed the kid had noticed that. "You might've scoped it went from day to night real quick a while ago. This whole region: nighttime forever. But eventually you get a feeling for when it's night-night and not just regular night, got me?"
Toby blinked. "No."
Zinc waved a wrenchclaw towards the window. "Look outside. Does it seem any different than at the campsite?"
Toby looked and tried to see. The wind made his ears flap all rubbery-like. The stars were more piercing, that was clear. Maybe the sky was a little closer to black than blue. "I'm not sure," he said as he leaned back in.
"I am," Piffle said.
"What's different?" Toby asked her.
She shivered a little and held Doll tighter. "You know how you can't just tell someone how to ride a bike? I can't tell you why the sky was nice back there, but it's getting scarier by the minute now. It's just in your bones, I guess."
"Or exoskeleton, as the case may be," Zinc said suavely.
"Ooooh! You know a big word!" she kidded. Both of them laughed.
"You'll get a feel for it eventually, pinkie," Zinc told Toby with a leg-nudge. "The important thing is, Coryza's like a flower that closes up at night. We wanna be inside when that happens."
Toby looked ahead out the windshield. Past George galloping along tirelessly, he could now see a massive structure smack dab in all this nowhere. It glowed warmly, making the whole thing look like a city-sized tea candle. But Toby soon realized, the light was starting to fade.
Zinc noticed too. "Shiiiiit. They're starting already," he said through gritted teeth.
"I've got eyes," Junella reminded him. She spoke a little louder to make sure George overheard. "If we keep going at this speed, we'll just barely squeak it!"
"Then I shall go faster!" George sang out, clear pride in his voice. The Fearsleigher's chassis had already been shaking a bit from his velocity, and now it rattled even louder.
Toby dared to lean out the side window to see Coryza coming closer. He felt something pop into his hand, and found the little tube was a spyglass Zinc had passed to him. "Thank you." He extended it, pressed his eye to the aperture, and squinted the other shut against the sprays of sand and dust.
The whole city was a circle. Like an enormous cake tin filled with houses and shops. Every building was exactly the same height. They were all lit up as brightly as a Christmas village. Streetlamps stood at attention every few feet, strings of bulbs ran across every rooftop, candles burned in every window. It was the most welcoming sight Toby had seen in Phobiopolis so far.
He also saw the reason why those lights were growing dim. Encircling the city were a number of enormous metal panels. Each one shaped like a child would draw a house: a triangle atop a square. Toby could see smoking machinery and dozens of townspeople pulling on stout cables, raising the panels up. As each square stood up straight, the triangular sections swung down on hinges.
Toby gasped as he realized what was going on. It was brilliantly straightforward. How do you keep a large number of people safe in a land of monsters and fear? Lock the whole town up an an enormous metal box. Each of Coryza's mighty panels interlocked with the one beside it. Toby could hear the slamming-together even this far away. The citizens were closing them in a double-clockwise pattern, so by the end there'd just be two panels left open at opposite ends of the city. George obviously realized this too, and altered his trajectory toward the place where the last open panel would be. By the time the walls were all closed up, everything would fit together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle.
Toby's imagination decided to torture him by painting him a picture of what it might be like for those unlucky travelers who ended up outside when the panels sealed tight. Having to spend the darkest hours of night huddled close to the metal walls. Banging and scraping their fingers to bloody nubs, begging to be let in. How many new skeletons each morning would be crushed to dust underneath those panels? How many centuries' worth of powdered bone lay beneath them?
Thankfully, these ghastly thoughts were driven from Toby's mind by Piffle shouting, "There's someone out there!"
Toby jumped across the seat, nearly into her lap, to get a look.
She was right. A few hundred yards away, someone small and thin was running at top speed towards the closing city. And from the look of their stumbling stride, they would reach the limit of their body's endurance long before they reached Coryza.
"We've gotta stop for them!" Toby shouted to Junella.
Piffle backed him up. "Yeah!"
The skunk kept her eyes straight ahead. "We can't. If we so much as slow down, no one gets inside."
Toby's heart rate shot up. "Can't we at least try!?" he said desperately.
The skunk didn't acknowledge him with so much as an ear flick. Zinc either.
"How can you be so heartless!? I don't know what's gonna happen to that furson all alone outside the city, but I know it'll be awfulness beyond comprehension!" He looked again out the window. The little figure was waving their arms back and forth over their head. "PLEASE!!" Toby begged.
Junella looked back at Toby and Piffle, her eyes as cold as the ocean depths. Then her scowling muzzle fluttered and she couldn't hold in her laughter anymore.
Toby was so outraged that he actually thought for a microsecond about slapping her.
But then the skunk swatted Zinc on the arm. "Let's stop fucking with their heads and go help that runner. You wanna man the turret or should I?"
"You got the angels! My turn now!" he said with zeal.
Before Toby could deal with the relief that the duo's cruelty was merely a prank, Zinc opened the car door and stepped out. Toby involuntarily screamed a bit.
But like Junella before, Zinc had clamped himself tight to the frame. He swung himself up onto the roof as calmly as if they hadn't been traveling at over 100 miles per hour.
Piffle and Toby both poked their heads out the side windows to see what the hell the canine was doing.
Toby had seen the harpoon turret before, but gave no thought at the time to its function. Zinc slotted his wrench-hands into the custom-designed slots, near-purring at how smoothly they fit into place. He felt the turret's gears go clink-clink-clink as he sighted in on his target. The wind was pretty annoying. He hoped his ears wouldn't break off and go sailing away like a pair of paper planes.
He held his breath and squinted through the crosshairs, watching the flailing little figure. So much to compensate for. Their speed, the runner's speed, the wind, the dark. Finally, he simply closed his eyes and told the harpoon in its chamber that it had better damn well hit its mark if it knew what was good for it.
He clenched the trigger.
Toby's head snapped around as he watched the silver spear shoot across the desert and plunge straight through the chest of the running furson.
"Hot DAMN!!" Zinc whooped.
Toby shut his eyes to keep out the sight of the limp body being dragged along the bumpy ground, twisting and flopping, as the harpoon turret reeled it in. Nausea made him moan. He tried to keep in mind Phobiopolis' rules of impermanent death and that the stranger would very likely be fine after this.
"Yaaaay! You saved him! Good shot!" Piffle called upwards to Zinc. Junella also gave the roof a congratulatory thump.
"Deadeye Zinc!" the canine howled. "King of the wild-ass fucking frontier!"
Toby caught a glimpse of the stranger's dirty, mangled corpse being hauled up the side of the car. He really hoped he could keep himself from throwing up on anyone's feet.
But a moment later, he heard the 'shooonk' sound of a harpoon being ripped out of flesh, and then the grateful shouts of, "Thank you! Thank you so much! I never would have made it in time!"
"Just being a good citizen," Zinc replied. "Here, take my wrench. Try to squeeze yourself in the back."
Toby had to move out of the way as a pair of green feet came barging in.
Their rescuee looked fit as a fiddle, showing no traces of being impaled and dragged across the sand a few moments ago. He was either a snakelike lizard or a lizardlike snake. Either way, he was as young-looking as everyone else, as green as a peapod, and was wearing swim trunks with a tanktop. His large eyes stuck out from his head like gunner pods. "Hello!" he said to Toby and Piffle (and winced noticeably when he saw Doll). "Thank you all for helping me!" He nodded towards Junella. "You too!"
"Zinc did all the work," she replied.
The twiggy reptile smiled ear to ear, sitting with his hands in his lap and his beanstalk legs twitching up and down.
Toby tried to strike up conversation. "So, how'd you end up out here all by y-"
His sentence was cut off by Zinc hurling himself back into the front passenger compartment in a tangle of legs and metal. He wound up with his nose smershed into the glove box. He slammed the door behind him and attempted to straighten out. Wrenches flew dangerously close to everyone's heads for a few seconds. "Damn, I hope I get to shoot more stuff with that thing before this trip is over!" he said gleefully.
The reptile leaned forward to squeeze Zinc's shoulders. "All of my gratitude, all of it! I wish I had some way to repay you, but my pockets are empty. I lost my concentration at a tub station this morning and ended up a hundred miles off course," he admitted sheepishly.
"Happens to everyone," Zinc said with a handwave. "If you're serious about repayment, we'll be staying at the Tatterdemalion."
Their green guest nodded in recognition. "I know the place. I'll do what I can. My name is Spiretto Bronze, by the way." He held out his hand for a shake.
The canine tried not to crush it. "Zinc. Just Zinc."
Toby had a realization that Spiretto was likely the most normal-looking furson he'd encountered so far. Though maybe he turned into a werewolf on Thursdays or something.
By now George's thundering hooves had brought them within the aura of Coryza's waning light. Toby could see the flickering torches held by guardsmen standing around the city's perimeter. Only two more panels remained open, but it looked like they'd make it inside with a pinch of time to spare.
What everyone had forgotten was that their vehicle was being driven by a literal galloping nightmare. Exactly the type of being that Coryzan citizens preferred to remain outside.
So they were all a bit startled when the first flaming arrow hit the hood.
Toby was already reflexively rolling up the windows as he watched a swarm of fireflies appear out of the night headed towards them. But they were certainly not harmless as insects. He flinched and turned the window crank faster as the spear-sized projectiles started booming off the Fearsleigher's roof and sides.
Needless to say, most of the arrows were directed at George. He was performing some rather elaborate acrobatics to dodge them while still keeping the skatecar on track. One of the arrows lodged smack dab in his ribcage. He ripped it out with his teeth and chomped the shaft in half. "THAT IS HIGHLY UNCALLED FOR!!" he bellowed.
"I shoulda known this would happen," Junella said with a sigh. She leaned out the window and yelled to George, "I'll handle this!"
Putting Toby's nerves on edge once more, she exited the vehicle as Zinc had. She clung to the open door and snaked herself around it. She leapt and kicked out at the same time, landing on the Fearsleigher's hood just as the door slammed shut. She stood and directed her gaze ahead, ears twitching as more arrows whizzed by. Then she crouched and sprang, landing deftly on George's back.
"Oof! Be careful up there, Madam!"
"I'm steady as a sunrise, thanks." Her toes and tail clutched the nightmare's ribs like a tripod, leaving her arms free to wave back and forth to get the archers' attention.
To Toby's wonderment, it wasn't three seconds later that the fiery fusillade stopped.
Junella's chest was outthrust, hands on her hips, standing bold and nonchalant upon a deathless black steed. The pair of them looked like a single statue carved from night itself. When they finally reached the city limits, Coryza's guardsmen either stood gawping in wonder or ran out to meet her. The torchlight reflected fluidly across her grooves. It matched her eyes beautifully.
This was an entrance that legends were born from.
The moment was robbed of only a slight bit of illustriousness when George trotted to a stop and let the Fearsleigher bump into his backside. Junella wobbled a bit but kept her pose.
"Miss Junella! You tamed this thing!?" one of the golden-armored guards called out. He and the others cautiously clustered around George, keeping their torches pointed out in front of them. They were all as stunned as Junella and Zinc had been by the sight of a nightmare that was not at the moment doing everything in its power to attack them to death. The monster was even allowing itself to be ridden!
George was not good at looking harmless, but he attempted it as best as he could.
Using the top of George's skull as a pivot point, Junella gracefully hopped down. She stood before the assembled crowd of Coryza's most fearless, drinking in their expressions of astonishment. "I can't take all the credit. He came pre-tamed," she sang modestly.
"Izzit really a nightmare or did you build it?" one of them asked.
George looked towards the armored tapir. "I can assure you, I am-"
"IT TALKS!!" several guards sputtered.
George did not have eyeballs, yet he still managed to roll them.
Coryza's captain of the archers had just come sliding down the ladder from the watchtower's arrowslit and was now running up to extend his hand to Junella. "My apologies, my apologies!" the tall chestnut stallion cried out. He shook her paw. "Hopefully we didn't damage your vehicle too much. But I'm sure you can understand our reaction."
"No sweat," she said.
The captain looked up to George, staring into the pinprick eyelights of the undead beast, comparing their equine features. "Extraordinary..."
"You're not half bad looking yourself," George could not help replying.
Several guards guffawed. The atmosphere relaxed noticeably. Everyone seemed to recognize instinctively that a being with a sense of humor couldn't be all bad.
"Looks like we got here just in time," Junella said, nodding towards the second-to-last panel being pulled into place at the other end of the city. Even at such a distance, everyone's teeth rattled with the 'THUMMM' of the triangular roof falling into place. "We were planning on staying the night. Is he gonna be a problem?" She hooked a thumb over her shoulder at George.
The captain looked at her, then at the other guards, then at George, then at the other guards, then back to Junella. "Honestly, if it was almost anyone else but you, I'd give a definite yes. I'd suspect some sort of plot to... I don't know. Mayhem of some sort or another. But if you give me your word he's not a danger..."
The skunk reached up to stroke George's muzzle like petting a kitten. "If I had a sugar cube I'd let him eat it out of my hand."
Taking a last consensus-gathering glance towards the other guards and not finding too much skepticism, the captain shrugged. "Good enough for me."
Junella smirked broadly as the captain stepped aside to grant her passage into the city. She took hold of George's harness and walked alongside him as he stepped onto the massive metal panel. The skunk waved cheerfully to the Coryzan citizens who had gathered in the street to marvel at the impossible sight of a well-behaved nightmare.
Toby felt like his eyes were overflowing. So many things to see! All the city guards in their gleaming golden armor and burgundy uniforms, armed to the teeth with weapons from every century. Spiked morningstars, compound crossbows, submachine guns, laser cannons, even a blunderbuss!
The section of wall George was carrying them across was just as impressive in its own way. From on top of it, Toby could see the sheer scope of its design. It was as tall and wide as the side of an apartment building. Dovetail teeth would lock each panel like a zipper to its neighbor to keep the city sealed up tight. The hinges connecting the square and triangle sections were as big as boxcars. Into the metal were soldered several things that looked like iron soccer goals. Toby soon realized that each one was just the right size for a guard to sit in and keep watch from through a tiny slit. Toby looked for any doors at the base of the panel and saw none. Maybe they really did lock out both monsters and shelter-seeking travelers alike when they closed up for the night.
The architecture of Coryza proper was actually less chaotic than Toby had expected. It was kind of an Old World aesthetic. He did see touches of both the modern and the ancient, but for the most part the city wouldn't have looked out of place in the previous century. As he'd noticed before, each of the town's buildings was exactly the same height. They built them up as close to the metal roof as they could. Houses were stacked on top of businesses and vice versa. Toby saw ornamentation and greenery everywhere. Bright paint, elaborate storefronts and signs, vertical gardens, murals, gargoyles, windowboxes. Even the manhole covers and streetlamps were intricately carved. He guessed that all of it (plus the abundance of lighting) helped to offset the claustrophobia of living in a city that was half the time perpetual night, the other half airtight-sealed.
George's hooves clopped mellifluously against the cobblestones. Scores of people backed slowly out of the way at his approach. He tried to bow pleasantly to as many of them as he could. One small rabbit boy ran up and stared shamelessly. "Coooool!" he gushed. His mother quickly yanked him back by his collar. George chuckled.
Toby could see dozens of men and women with thick leather gloves waiting impatiently for the Fearsleigher to get off the panel so they could start raising it up. The guards and the captain of the archers were already inside, many of them ready to help heave the final piece in place.
One guard with an elaborate golden nose sculpted onto his helmet shouted out, "ANYONE ELSE?"
From above, another Coryzan who was already at their watchpost replied, "Nothing!! Just a bunch of cactusyotes!"
"I don't think we need them trackin' in muddy footprints," the nose-guard said with a rumbling laugh. "CLOSE IT UP!!!" he shouted to everyone else.
Toby watched forearms and calves bulge with effort as the crowds on both sides started pulling. Steam-powered machines added a whooshing, whizzing sound to their grunts of exertion. Muscle and machine worked with all their might, and the huge metal panel began to move.
Rust flaked down like rain as the unimaginably heavy slab rose, angle by angle. The crowds, even the ones not pulling, all chanted, "One!! TWO!! Heave!! HO!!" Toby could see smiling faces everywhere. Even the ones clenched up with strain still held a trace of a grin. He guessed this nightly ritual brought the whole community together.
As he looked across the crowd, he saw fursons from a wide variety of species, even within families. Plenty of them had impairments or improvements (as one chose to see it) like Junella, Zinc and Piffle. Clothing styles were as varied as their wearers, though strong colors were much more prevalent than greys or earth tones. Coryza appeared to be a city of individuality and unity in equal measure.
Toby looked way, way up and watched with flinching anticipation as the triangle above him began to lean inwards. It 'CLANGGG'ed shut with a noise that felt like a punch to the chest, sending a reverberation rippling through the air that knocked a few watchguards' hats off.
A cheer rang out from the crowd as they knew their city was safe for one more night. Then, as if by hidden signal, every last one of them all turned away and resumed whatever they'd been doing before. Conversing, selling, playing, or heading home.
Spiretto let out a sigh. "I made it," he breathed. He then whirled around inside the vehicle, giving everyone hugs. "Thank you, thank you again!"
Zinc chuckled as the lizard kissed both his cheeks. "I dunno about the rest of my crew, but I was thinking of capping the night with some desserts. You wanna come along?"
Spiretto's eyes widened with heartbreak. "I'm afraid I have no choice but to decline. I must be getting home. But it was a generous offer!" He reached out to shake Zinc's wrench one last time.
Piffle scooted out of the way to allow him access to the door. "Goodbye! Have a good night!"
The snakey lizard (or lizardy snake) hopped down to the sidewalk and smiled back up to her. "And you as well!"
Toby watched him dart off, tail swishing behind him. "Reynold, Reynold!" he cried out. "I made it in time!!"
Toby didn't know who Reynold was, but the mouse felt incredibly happy that they and Spiretto would soon rejoin. Even though Toby hadn't actually been a part of the reptile's rescue, he nonetheless felt glad.
It was a good feeling to know that, even if everything in this environment was constantly trying to kill him, there were still plenty of people here with their hearts screwed on straight.