Fingers working over the lock for the Fiddich House. A simple mechanism. A bolt and some gears. Broken down and rebuilt in no time. Last item of the day. They’ll pick it up tomorrow. Time to clean up shop, close my doors, spend another night locked away from the garbage of the Bends.
The Bends, lowest level of the beautiful city of Kage. “Ka-shey,” they pronounce it. Those up above chose the soft sounds. Weakened the K and the G. “Cage” is how I pronounced it the first time I read the word. It’s how I pronounce it still.
Hands moving, work slip filled out for the Fiddich House lock. It’s good work. Children in that house. Children need a good lock down here.
Putting my tools back, each to its place. Order amongst chaos.
“Excuse me?” a voice says. I look up, about to tell them I’m closed, but it’s Maggie from the soup kitchen. Can’t rightly tell the only selfless heart in this city to leave without hearing her out. Yet, that’s all I want to do, close up shop and dream again in my cage.
“Puck, I hate to be a bother but there seems to be some trouble in the back of the kitchen. One of those pipes that goes who knows where has quite the nasty hole in it. If a rush of steam comes it’s liable to ruin the stores if not scald everyone in the front room.”
Tools need to be put away. Everything in its place. Order to the chaos. Maggie’s a nice enough human, always treated me well as a gnome. Always treats everyone well. You’d have to be crazy or a saint to run a soup kitchen down here.
“Puck?” she asks again.
I haven’t answered her. What’s wrong with me? “I’ll have a look, of course, Maggie.” I try to reassure her, but it’s hard because I don’t want to go. I just want everything in its place, my door locked, and my mind free to try and see beyond the walls again.
“Oh, thank ye much, Puck. No hurry. I’ll see you when you’ve got your shop squared away then?”
Nevertheless, there’s hurry in her voice. Real worry too. I give her a firmer nod and a heartier smile this time, and as she walks away I shake my head to get the cobwebs out. Maggie sounded worried and I can put my blasted hammer and pliers back in their places once I’ve been around to help her.
The Sunset Chimes sound, ringing through the Bends. Closing time officially for most. Drinking time officially as well. Maggie was walking alone, but she’s well-known to these parts and she’s not three and a half-foot tall. Heading out at this time, best to head out prepared.
Turning, I look at the fur-covered lummox curled up on the floor and my blood starts pumping joy right through me just at the sight of him. “Time for a walk, boy,” I say to Cubby. Sir Cubbington is his full name and we make sure everyone calls him that. Only friends get to call him Cubby.
He rises, brown fur flecked with a silver tint, and pads over to me. His paws are alien things on the metal floor, but he doesn’t care and I get a warm nosed nuzzle to my neck in greeting.
Three and a half-foot tall I may be, but Sir Cubbington never fails to make an impression of his own. Still and all, I put my hide armor on and load Cubby’s pack with more than just my tools.
Another wet nose at my neck and with a laugh I climb up onto his back. He begins plodding off, faithful heart underneath me. My fingers dig in his fur, partly for grip, partly because I love his fur. It hides my dreams.
Digging deep and touching his skin I feel it there. It never goes away I’m told. “Bathe and rinse and stand in a hurricane and you’ll still be shaking it out of your green hair,” the men of the caravan had told me. Sure enough, Cubby hasn’t lost all of his and my fingers feel the grains buried under his fur against his skin. I scratch out a few and hold them up, my hand bobbing up and down as Cubby plods along towards Maggie’s Soup Kitchen.
Sand. Grains of sand. The desert. My dreams.
“It is not natural,” my Elder had said.
“It’s not made by any creature,” I had argued back.
“Puck, you got a children’s tale from a troubadour stuck in your foolish head, that’s all.”
I had known before then that I was going. But that was when I knew I wouldn’t be going with anyone’s blessing. “Foolish head.” That sort of talk had followed me all my life. They would never see. To them I was still a child. If I stayed much longer they’d cramp me and talk of the laws and I’d fold.
But this wasn’t like debating a line from the Elder Scrolls or asking what made the sky blue at one moment and red the next. This wasn’t curiosity. Yet that’s what they’d think. And that’s why they’d stop me. “Just Puck being Puck,” they’d say. And their not taking it seriously would eventually rub off on me and then it would fester. I would fester.
No. The troubadour had described the desert, and I had seen it as the children no doubt had, as part of his story, but it was well after the troubadour’s tale had ended that it had called to me. I had seen it as it really was and I had known. I had known, despite having never been there, what parts the troubadour had gotten wrong. I had seen it as clearly as if I had been standing there and its beauty was so strong I wanted to weep. The desert. My dream.
My new god.
Cubby’s back bobbing up and down.
It had meant hard travels for both of us and our faith tested plenty of times. Seeing a bear get seasick is not something anyone should have to live through.
But we had made it. And we had been there. Feet in the sand. Glorious parched yellow singing out in all directions. I had wept then. A tear or two. My heart trembling.
“Come on, half-pint,” the caravan men had said. They too had thought I was joking. Couldn’t be serious. Nobody loved the desert. And nobody could ever worship it. “Come on,” they had ordered, and though I could have stood there forever, parched mouth smiling, I had gone along.
Plenty of time, I had thought. Cubby and me, we’re here now. Plenty of time. Best to maybe read up and learn from some locals. Get my spells in order. We’ll be back out here soon enough.
But then the gates had closed behind me and down I went into the Bends and the sands of time fell through their glass and next thing I know I’m a local tinkerer looking at a corroded pipe in Maggie’s Soup Kitchen.
“Well there’s your problem,” I say, staring at the pipe, the hole plain as day. It’s a joke but Maggie doesn’t laugh. Few do around Cubby.
I begin to look about for something to get the pipe fixed. “Sir Cubbington, dance,” I say as I rummage about. And then Maggie is laughing like a child. Cubby doesn’t always scare off the enemies I need him to, but his dancing usually relaxes the friends I want him to.
Up on his hind legs hopping about, Maggie is clapping along in time.
She laughs, Sir Cubbington entertains, and I manage to find a nice enough piece of brass to patch the pipe. Wiping my hands when I’m done I turn around, thinking it might be nice to enjoy some company and pass the time with Maggie. But then a sound like hell’s own horses screaming breaks out behind me and I turn to see the whole pipe fall, quick as you please, down into the floor, taking some floor with it for good measure.
That wasn’t my fault. There’s no way the hole I patched could have caused that. But Maggie’s just staring at the hole in the floor. All I can do is stare too, bewildered. Even poor Cubby is staring at the floor, then at me, then at the floor, hopping from one foot to the other, dancing all the while.
The noise from the falling pipe has stopped but there’s screaming coming up from below now. A woman’s voice, swearing like a man, a deranged mix of languages. Looking down through the hole it looks like a sewer and still that voice shrieks up at me from the dark. But not just the voice assaults me; muggy, wet air rising up slaps me in the face. Whatever these pipes are feeding with steam it needs a lot of it. Any minute now and this whole place could go from muggy to boiling.
I scamper about, panicked, looking for something to plug the new hole in the floor. Poor Maggie is screaming, trying to calm down the crazy voice from below, more a waterfall of cursing at this point, like its owner needs to run through all the swears in her head before she’ll bother to throw out a true sentence.
Then I smile. A bit of draconic comes up from the hole in the ground, cursing out my spawn and ancestors and I can’t resist throwing some draconic swears of my own back down. The voice stops at this and there are some questions.
No time for that, though, the entire soup kitchen could fill with steam any minute.
All I can find is a mess of rags, but wadded up they might do the trick. It’s shoddy work, but I wasn’t expecting to fix the entire Bends themselves, just patch a small hole.
Rags are what I have so rags are what I’m using.
“Maggie?” a voice calls from outside; it’s the voice from the lower level, calmer now, though.
“Back here, Cordelia,” Maggie answers.
“I thought you could use a real handyman,” Cordelia says, coming into the back room. A half-orc follows her. A real handyman. One over three and a half feet tall. Very subtle.
It doesn’t help my pride that Cordelia looks worse off than I am. Human and dirty, some sort of outfit made of I don’t know what. A red dress that looks sewn together of wet poppy leaves. And her hair. Her black mad hair. I’ve known women to carry crazy in their eyes; I’ve never known one that carried it in her hair.
Before I’m even done staring her down, the half-orc has patched the floor.
“There was no need for that Cordelia,” Maggie says, ever diplomatic. “I’m sure we would have had it fixed in no time.”
Cordelia tries to hold in her snicker as the half-orc folds up his tools and is on his way. I think maybe all this embarrassment might be over, but my heart sinks as all eyes follow the half-orc out of the room, and land on Sir Cubbington, still dancing for all his might as if this will somehow help.
Cordelia cackles, loud laughter. She’s not laughing with me, not by a long ways, but at least she’s laughing at Cubby instead of at me.
“What happened down there?” I start to ask. That pipe shouldn’t have collapsed like that. Only just then I notice that there’s a rat in the room. There’s a rat on Cordelia’s shoulder in fact. And amidst her laughter she’s now clapping along with Cubby. She’s an animal lover. Clearly insane, but an animal lover.
“Sir Cubbington, you can stop dancing now,” I say, and Cubby drops to all fours and begins sniffing the air in the room. Cordelia sours. I’ve stopped her fun.
“What happened down there?” I ask.
“Oh, a gnome tried to kill me with a pipe,” she answers, as if you could always count on a gnome to do just that.
“The pipe corroded below and above us, not to mention who knows how many other…” I trail off. It doesn’t matter. It’s the gnome’s fault no matter what I say and I really don’t care. But that open pipe down below could be trouble.
“Look,” I say, “if someone calls for steam through this switching station that whole area below could be scorched.”
I can tell from her eyes that, at the mention of danger below, Cordelia has ceased killing me over and over again in her imagination.
“Yes,” I say, “the open pipe in your…” I have no idea what word I’m looking for, “…nest,” I finally settle on, “needs to be looked at too.”
Cordelia’s eyes, flaring blue, manage to impress upon me that I am not to refer to whatever is down there as a nest. Her hair is making a different argument though.
“I’ll see if I can catch that handy-man,” she said, and begins walking off.
I follow. We both know the half-orc is long gone. “I can take a look at–”
“I don’t need help from a gnome, thank you,” Cordelia laughs as we start walking down a metal ramp to the lower level. I’m already almost lost. Hatches, pipes, ramps and turns seem to mate down here and deliver new litters once a week.
Cordelia continuously looks down at me and I’m certain the only thing preventing a string of draconic swears coming my way is Cubby’s heavy breathing at my side. She’s not afraid of the bear, though. It’s not that. In her mind she’s made a new bear friend who happens to have a pet gnome that she has to put up with.
“Hey!” something calls out behind us.
Cordelia doesn’t respond, if anything she walks faster.
“We want that tooth!” whatever it is shouts after us.
My legs can’t keep up with hers and I’m about to climb onto Cubby when something flies over my head and Cordelia screams. Her eyes match her hair as she looks down at her arm and sees blood. I catch sight of a dagger bouncing off into the darkness.
Cordelia is already turning to fight. I have to give her credit. No hesitation. Eyes already gone from crazed to cunning.
Then the stink hits me and before I turn, I know. Goblins. Fucking goblins. Heart pounding I can’t even move as one thousand years of ingrained hatred ingrained boils up inside.
Cordelia takes a piece of tin sheeting out of some pocket in her poppy-leaf dress and begins whispering to it.
A thousand years of hatred get cut to an even hundred as bafflement overtakes me and I watch as she whispers. I almost feel like she’s got a good point though, there’s something wonderful about that sheet of tin. And while I’m not about to lose my head I could see how you might just fall and fall and fall in love with that wonderful tin square.
Shaking my head, I finally catch sight of the goblins, three of them. Two, though, seem less inclined to fight than the third. That’s all right, one goblin to start with is fine.
I lean over to Cubby, fingers deep in his fur and I get a nuzzle to the neck. A few words whispered in his ear and cute turns deadly as suddenly he charges. It never ceases to amaze me how many creatures think angering a gnome with a pet bear is a good idea.
“Go home,” Cordelia says, and at first I think she’s telling me that this is her fight. That I should leave her alone. But then I see the first two goblins, the ones not really inclined to fight, turn and begin walking off. As far as pieces of tin go, that one is right helpful to have in a pinch.
The two goblins turn a corner and disappear as Cubby hits the third. Sir Cubbington, I should say. In battle he deserves his full name and title, even if I did make it up. Sir Cubbington. Claws and teeth spill goblin blood and then the green coward is off and running, around a bend, or up a ramp, or who can tell in this place.
I smile. I smile because one-thousand years of hatred combine with one notion in my head: a goblin can’t outrun a bear.
Within a few seconds a scream echoes off the dead metal. The only downside is that I didn’t get to use my sickle…only the screams go on and on. More voices join in. I give a shout to Sir Cubbington to get him back, worried that a bear loose in the Bends isn’t such a good idea. A few tense seconds and then he comes pawing around a corner, his mouth lined with goblin blood but otherwise fine. And still there’s the screaming.
“We should go find that goblin’s body,” I say.
“Goblin’s body?” Cordelia says, disdainful.
“My bear just killed something in what sounds like a crowd.”
“All of my belongings are about to be boiled in steam.”
“He may have something of value on him?” I try.
“He was willing to rob me,” she returns, “how well off could he have been?”
This is the first sensible thing I’ve heard her say all day.
“Let’s go,” I say, and she leads.
Cordelia knows her way around and we’re beneath the soup kitchen soon enough. The collapsed pipe is lying amongst sacks and bales of I can’t even guess what.
“We have to hurry,” she said.
“Yes, your garbage might be ruined.”
This goes unnoticed as Cordelia begins collecting books, hefty tomes with thick pages that appear to have less value to her than the other things lying about.
Ignoring her, I turn to the pipe. It’s corroded, just like the upper part. Warm air rises out of it. Steam can’t be far off. The edges are too thick to bend but it could be plugged.
Then there’s a clang, an echoing clang. It erupts out of the pipe and both of us flinch as the exposed end of copper shivers from the sound. Steam is coming.
“We can plug it with this,” Cordelia says, ripping sheet after sheet out of some gigantic book she had been squirreling away.
I debate this. Steam pressure is a terrific force. But enough paper, it might work.
“All right, but you don’t just wad it up like that,” I say, taking the paper from her and I begin to work. Fingers moving. Paper rolling tight. Enough rolls plugged into the gap should expand and seal it. But against steam? So much pressure. I’d prefer layer after layer after layer of tightly packed rolls.
More clangs, so loud my teeth shake.
“You have it sealed?”
“Yes, but only an inch or two of paper’s worth.”
“It’s okay,” she says, and then she’s muttering, her rat perched on her shoulder.
I take a step backwards.
Her incantation finished we both wait. The clanging of the pipe grows louder, the entire exposed length vibrating…and then nothing.
I let out a sigh.
Cordelia smiles and begins talking to her rat.
“Well, your home is safe.”
Cordelia starts to say something, but now that the pipe is silent we can both hear it. Screaming, more screaming, still coming from back where we were.
We’re both moving. I don’t think either one has said anything but I’m on top of Cubby and Cordelia is jogging and we stop where the goblins spilled her blood. We both listen.
“It’s coming from where that goblin ran off to,” she says.
She starts off again.
“Wait,” I ask her. “Whoever’s up there saw my bear maul that goblin. They might not believe our side of that particular tale.” I stare down at Cubby’s fur and run my hands over it slowly. A little glimmer, not much, but his fur turns from the silver glinted brown I love so well to a deep dark black.
“Very smart,” Cordelia says. “Now they’ll think it was that other bear that lives down here.”
Before I can respond she’s off and I’m following. Feet and paws against metal. Around the corner and up a ramp and there’s the goblin’s body. But nobody’s paying that no mind.
There’s a crash as we walk into an open area and a piece of the roof collapses to the ground.
Skittering around at the far side of the atrium is a nasty thing, bug like and ugly. Feathered antennae wave on its head. A cockroach the size of a pony. As we watch, one of the feathered antennae touches a nearby pipe and the pipe begins to rust, then crumble.
“Gods,” I say, “it’s a rust monster.”
Cordelia stares at it, then turns to me. “I can summon a dolphin.”
Another section of wall crashes down as its supports turn to rust and I can’t be bothered with Cordelia right now. I whisper in Cubby’s ear and he’s off, bounding across the grated floor, dodging rusted out holes, ears back and teeth bared as he charges the giant bug.
I pull my sling out and hold a few of its stones in my hand. Fingers brushing over them I feel their surface, acknowledge the rock they were hewn from, the journey they’ve made to reach this very point, and I ask for their blessing.
Loading one, I whip my sling around and throw, only to see my rock bounce off the monster’s chitinous hide.
Cordelia is whispering again, mad secret words, and a flash of fire bursts on the monster’s antennae. With a shake of its head the bug puts it out.
But then Sir Cubbington closes. Pouncing with claws and teeth he attacks. The monster’s teeth back in return.
I sling another stone but again I miss, and now even Cordelia’s rat has joined in, scampering towards the beast.
Another stone, another miss and Sir Cubbington and the monster do battle. Sir Cubbington’s shoulder is wounded, blood matting the dark fur there, but Sir Cubbington’s claws have done some work as well and the giant bug has gashes in its hide.
Cordelia whispers secret words and again the monster’s antennae burst aflame. Only this time it’s too weak to shake the fires out, and even as Sir Cubbington rears up to claw at it again, the monster collapses. Slowly it begins to roast as fire spreads over its body.
A slight limp in his shoulder, Cubby comes back to me. Breathing heavily I watch the bug burn.
Cordelia bends low and with two open palms scoops up her rat. Then she, too, stands still for a moment and admires our handiwork.
“My name is Puck,” I say, finally. “And this is Sir Cubbington,” I nod at my bear.
I run my fingers in his fur, debating something. “But you may call him Cubby…if you’d like.”
A whisper in Cubby’s ear, a mention of the word “friend,” and I get another warm nuzzle against my neck.
My fingers are still in his fur. Grains of sand buried there embed under my fingernails.
I dreamt of it last night and it called to me.
I’ll dream of it again tonight.
Joseph Devon: Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.