Alex Reynard's Online Books
Dream VI: Morning
Thank you for all the doubts, and for all the questioning,
For all the loneliness, and for all the suffering.
For all the emptiness, and the scars it left inside.
It inspired in me, an impetus to fight.
For all who stood with me, when we stood as one,
Thank you for guiding me, for bringing me home.
And if it seems that I'm obliged to say these words,
I write this in gratitude, the least that you deserve.
-VNV Nation, "Gratitude"
Many changes happened.
Aided by the Vermillion, the stories spread faster than Scaphis. The Bargeld were eager to trumpet their victory. Tales of, 'I was there!' and 'I fought alongside Suchandsuch!' abounded. The influx of eager Phobiopolans, wanting to come view the scarred countryside and battered city walls, might've replenished Rhinolith's imaginite all by itself. Still, Aldridge had promised Toby. He flew to the city holding a mountainous sphere of the precious iridescent mineral, and a flick of his will exploded it into rain. The Bargeld danced in the streets. (There was not much lingering ill will towards Toby. When the citizens learned that their wealth had been burgled to create the most gargantuan explosion in the history of the world, most of them had to admit, that was pretty fucking metal.)
Aldridge could have also flown the five travelers all the way to Phlogiston. But Toby had a better idea. He thought they deserved a rest first, and he knew the best place in the world for one.
Zinc opted not to overhaul the Fearsleigher. Aside from a new driver's side door, he said she'd earned her scars. When kids on the cliff shouted down that a strange nightmare-driven vehicle was approaching, Scarlatina quickly cobbled together a defense force. Men with bone spears stood at the city limits in apprehension. Then a familiar white mouse emerged from the backseat, still wearing his yellow ribbon. A certain furless kitten burst through the front line, hollering in joy, and leapt to hug his brother with tears in his eyes.
They spent the following week in paradise. Toby was overjoyed to introduce his friends to his family. Kat and Tak's cave was a bit small for everyone to squeeze into, so Toby stayed with Skeeto while the others took beds at the city's lone hotel. The five friends had not shared a more relaxing time since their long-ago afternoon in Coryza. The days were full of boating, swiff games, souvenir shopping, and hang-gliding (Zinc learned the hard way that pride should not keep one from swapping out metal arms with lighter ones). The nights were full of beach parties, dancing, local cuisine, and stargazing. No more thoughts of Scaphis, except for retelling their story to Coral's enthralled classmates. George was asked relentlessly for rides. After a few days, Junella told Toby that chilling out was never really something she was good at. She kept fidgeting, needing something to do. Toby introduced her to the Summer Vacation. Body-looting turned out to be something she had a great knack for, after Skeeto showed her the ropes. The skunk was glad Piffle had trained her to be patient with overly-cheerful chatterboxes. And needless to say, the hamsterfly and furless kitten had lots to gab about together.
Toby also got his hand back to normal. After being told by George about the first experiment, Zinc pitched a rum bottle at his head. Voila.
During the vacation, Toby shared correspondence with both Aldridge and Luxy. The mayor-king wanted to hear every detail about the mouse's journey, to make sure they'd be recorded properly for historical preservation. Toby at first declined, saying he was fine with everyone else taking credit. Luxy wouldn't have it. "Facts demand to be known, Squeak. Kiss your humbleness goodbye and welcome to celebrity. It's the best catastrophe you'll ever enjoy." Toby winced, but figured it couldn't be any worse than fighting a tyrant queen. He and the others all provided their memories. George proved invaluable for this, staying up all night while the others slept, relating endless accurate details to equally-tireless Vermillion. Concurrently, Aldridge let Toby know that his hermit act was over. The wizard-angel could no longer deny that his capacity to do good demanded he make use of it. Based on a suggestion from Zinc, his first mission was the painstaking rescue of the victims of Dysphoria, via wings and harpoon. Rebecca set up a hospital on the underside of the mountain and became a full-time nurse. Some of her patients even woke up. One debatably-lucky fellow did so instantly once he was in Aldridge's arms, having somehow survived for years burning all his memory to fuel sheer denial.
When it was time for the travelers to move on, all of Scarlatina came out to wish them well. There was cheering and singing. A multitude of hugs. George was buried alive in flower garlands. It was much easier for Tak, Kat and Skeeto to say goodbye to Toby this time. For one, he wasn't leaving under the dark cloud of a suicidal quest. And they knew he'd always have a home waiting for him here. As Coral hugged them close, he told them he thought it was inevitable he'd come back someday permanently. But for now, Toby still had things to do.
His friends were surprised when he asked that their long drive home start with Dysania. "I thought you never wanted to smell that place again," Piffle said. But Toby had a hunch. They also had a bulging trunkful of imaginite, so a new air conditioning system kept the soap stench out. And before the first day in the desert was through, George spotted a speck on the horizon. With a cart.
They met one another in silence. An apology was made. Actually, L'roon fell to his many knees and outright groveled. The merchant babbled out reasons and regrets to a mouse who remained completely silent. When L'roon dared look up, he saw it was because Toby was stifling giggles. "'I'm sorry' was plenty," Toby said. The merchant stood up straight, brushed the powder from his shirt, and pretended to be outraged at having wasted so much breath. Bygones were made bygones. Knickknacks were purchased.
They continued on to Lalochezia. The first change Toby noticed was the complete absence of refugees. With Papilloma freed, they all had homes to return to. Secondly, the market town was recovering splendidly. There were twice the customers of Toby's first visit. And a hell of a lot of them wanted autographs. The quintet spent the whole day browsing, people-watching, and being watched by people. Junella bought a new welding backpack. Piffle had her caricature drawn. Zinc walked around carrying a fried biteranodon drumstick as big as a stop sign. Toby had planned to introduce his friends to Poubelle & After's diner, but that was not to be. Instead he found an empty lot and a large placard with a RB&WB logo: Come Visit Our New Location In Ectopia Cordis! Mention This Sign For A Free Slice Of Pie! Toby was more than okay with having to wait a while longer to see them again. He was also happy to re-encounter Chorizo. The young 'roo guided them around, showing off his favorite vendors and hangouts, plus introducing his whole gang (As it turned out, they were all named after Mexican foodstuffs). Madame Tif Tif had moved back to her previous location, and had been making a killing selling mementos of the famous Tent Town Bonecuddy Battle. Photographs, weaponry, clay impressions of hoofprints, and actual shards of burnt bone. She made George pose for photos for two solid hours.
After a mediocre night's sleep in a crowded hostel, the quintet headed for the tub stations. There followed an enjoyable romp through Marasmus, killing the living daylights out of constructs. The travelers had planned to spend another sleepover with Gilla-Gilla, but upon arrival, his house was empty again. But the traps were definitely active this time, as a luckless test hot dog's hair-trigger carbonizing attested to. There was a note on the screen door in his typical terse style: "Luxy's hired me for a project. Serious bank. Leave the stuff on the table. We'll catch up sometime, fam. GG."
"Then let's head to EC," Toby said (after leaving the stuff on the table).
The rest of the drive was a blast. They'd all survived the worst the world had to offer, so Phobiopolis' mundane horrors were now a breeze to deal with. The travelers took turns pedaling the gatling gun, lobbing grenades, pumping shotguns, and hammering skulls, laughing all the way. They took their sweet time, detouring often to get out and have fun. They went ice skating and dodged frozen piranhas. They roasted meat and marshmallows over starlit campfires. They marveled at the sheer amount of things Piffle got herself killed and transformed by. They applauded Junella when she managed to perfectly bisect a pouncing cattacuda, nose to tail. They shaved the Cold Coven for snowcones. They enlarged themselves en masses to climb the columns in Lumbago and terrorize the local pigeons. They cheered on George as he crossed the freeway at mach speed, simply outrunning its various beasties. They grew to love one another as a genuine family, and an unstoppable team.
Ectopia Cordis was a whirlwind. Not only was the clash at Rhinolith the talk of the town, but Aldridge had passed on Toby's theories about the nature of the world and its constructs, which set the scientific community ablaze. While scholars debated, entrepreneurs pounced. A thriving industry sprang up overnight: tamed-to-order personal parasomnic pets. Bounty hunters were dispatched to all corners of Phobiopolis, capturing constructs and bringing them to EC for rehabilitation by burial. The demand was high, with everyone wanting one before their neighbors. Researchers were scrambling to discover faster methods of conferring sentience. Luxy himself spearheaded the effort, commissioning Gilla-Gilla for a bonded pair of convorines. "I want them to still be a bit vicious, for a challenge," he said in an interview. "I want to stand astride both of them, reins in hand, galloping across the plains. And teach them to call me Daddy."
Toby and his friends were themselves interviewed quite frequently (Jamais had much nicer things to say about him this time.) When they weren't being hounded for photos or duels, they explored as much of the cylindrical city as it had to offer. Food, drinks, violence, nightlife, dancing, and danger. Junella and Zinc stopped by the former home of Julius Ounce to inform his family that, better late than never, he had been recovered from Dysphoria. They handed over photos Rebecca had taken of him sleeping. There were many happy tears. All rewards were refused.
On their second day, the five were summoned to Bigwheel Forty-Eight where Rippingbean & Woofingbutter welcomed them warmly. They begged the travelers for an endorsement contract. The group all agreed they couldn't stay in town indefinitely, but a days' photoshoot was fine. Kay and Kaye had them modeling all sorts of outfits and gear, and told Toby they'd been selling oodles of blue vests lately. Plus white scarves, sleeveless jackets, and pink safari outfits.
In payment for the promotional materials, Junella and Zinc asked for three days' unlimited use of the downstairs garage. RB&WB agreed immediately, only requesting that, whatever they worked on, could tickets be sold for customers to watch? "Sure, we'll give 'em a show," Junella promised. After an absolutely lovely breakfast (and free pie) at the new nearby diner, the skunk, the mutt, and the stallion got to work on a new vehicle. Luxy had commissioned another project, you see. Arrangements had been made en route. The raccoon had been inspired by something he'd seen at Aldridge's house, and wondered if Toby & Pals would help him forge it into reality. All expenses paid, of course.
After a tearful goodbye, the Fearsleigher was given a permanent home at Ectopia Cordis' foremost historical museum, The Agglomeration. Hundreds of kids and visitors would get to gawk at her battle scars, read her story, and sit in her seats. Toy models (with pop-out George) were already the hottest selling item in the gift shop. Toby didn't know how to feel about seeing himself as an action figure.
Junella, Zinc, and George spent most of the following days bending metal and imaginite to their will. They collaborated with Andy on design, abused the limits of the garage's inventory, and tossed grins to fellow gearheads in the roped-off audience. With those three fully occupied, this left Toby and Piffle free to go full-on tourist and geek out at all the typical out-of-towner attractions. They finally got to spend a day at Luxyland ("Where All Our Rides Have A 20% Chance Of Death!").
By now, Toby had noticed a shift in the zeitgeist. It was present in Lalochezia, but it wasn't until now that he was able to put words to it. The stories spread by Luxy and the Bargeld had been having an effect. They were stunned to hear of accomplishments that had been previously thought impossible. People wanted to see these places where a ragtag army had pushed back against the terror of the Plastic Storm. And though it was nothing concrete Toby could point to, he felt like, in a way, Phobiopolans were experiencing something similar to the epiphany he'd had in Poubelle & After's. A shift in how they viewed the familiar. A thought that, maybe their world had been grinding through a century-long stagnation, and now it had been jump-started again. The old wars had been terrible, but they had also been a time of exploration and discovery. Ever since, Phobiopolis had become a place to run to shelter and lock the doors; to huddle close and hope to survive the night. But maybe it didn't have to be. Maybe there were sights and places and people out there worth the risk of stepping out the door. Maybe the wilderness was conquerable. Maybe life was more than a misery to be endured. Toby acknowledged that he might have just been seeing what he hoped was true. He was still too modest to believe he could be such an inspiration to an entire world. But one time, he'd passed a neighborhood where little kids were play-fighting a friend in a Scaphis mask, wielding toy hammers and swords.
Junella, Zinc, and George didn't even need three days to finish their work. With much fanfare, they rolled out a truly intimidating beast of a drill tank. Trapezoidal treads as tall as monster truck tires. A bit that looked like Hell's largest pinecone. NASA booster rockets on the back. And a new home up top for the brass gatling gun (the museum used a mockup for the Fearsleigher). Another Cyrus Tear powered the drill, but George was the main power plant. He wouldn't have had it any other way. Toby christened it the Groundgouger. Screaming fans pushed each other out of the way for the bragging rights of being the first to get run over by it.
They left EC with a heroes' fanfare, lighter in imaginite but laden with souvenirs and road food. Their new transportation was a much smoother ride: the interior as cushy and spacious as an RV, the exterior armored like a mobile fortress. Ordinary constructs were no longer a problem. Though it was still fun to pew-pew at them from the gatling turret, and George enjoyed setting the treads on fire for extra lethality. When they encountered the Hell's Bozos again, the air was pierced by a terrified honking and the crush of motorcycles. Junella even took the time to revisit an old "friend".
Coryza thought at first a siege was underway when the Groundgouger approached. Zinc sent a message: cut out the cannonballs before they fucked up the paintjob. Thus began yet another vacation on top of all their others, revisiting old locations and discovering new ones. Their stay at the Tatterdemalion was free of charge, with both Xenoikos rushing out to enfold the travelers in happy hugs (though the parking lot otter had a devil of a time squeezing in the tank). They all sat together in a booth at the bar till midnight, getting sloshed, telling stories, and having their hearts eaten. Toby tried his first alcoholic beverage and was promptly unconscious. Piffle surprised everyone by drinking Junella under the table.
After a lengthy sleep, they went to visit Dorster and Alfonzo. The two avians were just as glad to see them too, saying that, thanks to word of mouth about the travelers' exploits, they literally could not make sheath pills fast enough. "One guy came in and bought about twenty. Turned himself into a walking armory-slash-swiss-cheese-impersonator," the blacksmith said with a rumbling laugh. Toby ended up with a sore hand from autographing them. He and Piffle told tales of hammer and fork while Alfonzo furiously scribbled notes, occasionally muttering, "I never thought they could do THAT..." Meanwhile, Zinc took Dorster to the back junkyard and showed off the doorknockers' new tricks. There was much manly roaring, spilling of beer, and highing of fives.
More sightseeing, more enjoyment, till finally they were on their way to Phlogiston. Junella and Zinc both shed happy tears as the prow of their sweet Jennie-Mae came into view, still untorched by Tinder Fingers under its eternal raincloud. One snort from George was all it took for the combustible construct to run and hide while the others unloaded the Groundgouger. Junella hugged the hull and rubbed her cheek on it, singing a lover's ode to her cherished boat. Zinc plopped down on the old battered couch and sighed blissfully. "Yep. Place's got the same old stink." Toby thought it was going to be a bit of an adjustment living in a place this cluttered and dusty. 'Though maybe that'll be good for me. Like, for balance.' Piffle decided to make a treehouse room for herself out of the crow's nest. George said he'd be more than happy to use the attached parts yard in Scrofula for his residence (after being assured that it only drove mortal souls into homicidal psychosis; nightmares no more so than normal.)
There followed several satisfying days of kicking up their feet and doing a lot of pleasant puttering about. Piffle flitted to and fro in Jennie's labyrinth of shelves, finding all sorts of trinkets to tinker with. Junella was initially fidgety to watch someone else messing around with her stuff, but the hamsterfly's nimble skill was undeniable. Soon they were spending whole afternoons shoulder to shoulder, with Piffle wrist-deep in clockwork, Junella grandly spinning the stories behind her treasures. Toby rearranged one of the larger closets into a cozy bedroom. Just enough space for a hammock and some books. George developed a taste for soulsucking serpent-ghosts. Zinc found a map in their mailbox with the location of Aldridge's promised imaginite horde. He rode a chopper out one afternoon to confirm its richness, then began doodling up blueprints. He babbled endlessly to the others about his ideas. A hot pink vampire with six Bobcat wheels. A grille full of syringes. A bloodpowered engine. It'd run by running over nightmares, drinking them to death. He was thinking of calling her Yvonne.
Soon they would begin on Luxy's grand experiment. And afterwards, maybe a return to guide work and bounty hunting. Toby was thinking of calling their group the Sur5ivors, but wasn't sure. First though, there were a couple more local matters to take care of.
While J, Z, & G remained behind to get the ship shipshape, Toby and Piffle took the tank to Stoma. She had been sending postcards to Billawhi all throughout their journey. When they arrived, the hamsterfly barely recognized her foster mom. Most of her fungal infection was gone, and she was holding hands with an equally old-and-cranky-looking gentleman. After a long reunion luncheon where they revealed themselves with much greater honesty than ever before, Billawhi explained to Piffle that her new friend was Stoma's doctor. In between her treatments, they had discovered a mutual love of complaining. "Plus, his favorite side dish is deep-fried mushrooms," she said with a wink. While those two reminisced, Toby excused himself to visit the local diner.
Porthole windows and red tailfins, waiting like a pitcher plant. Toby stepped inside and offered no resistance as the waiterthing led him to his fine dining fate. When Toby arrived again in the underground realm of grinding machinery and weeping slaves, he slid his hammer into his hand. After destroying a quarter of everything, he cornered Dacryphilia in his office. "Look," Toby said in a calm, reasonable voice to the legless, cowering, splintered construct, "you can keep your operation. Piffle said you're actually onto something here. But from now on, if someone tries to escape, you let them. You will have a waiterthing show them the exit and wave them goodbye. Because if I come back again and that's not the case, I'm leaving nothing standing." The Doctor said that sounded like a jolly fine idea and he'd get on it right away, oh yes-siree.
Toby and Piffle's final stop before heading back to Phlogiston was the unkempt woodlands of the Blackdamp. Toby stepped out onto the grass and felt an overwhelming rush of emotion. It had been less than three months since he'd first arrived here, running from a rustbeast. It felt like a lifetime. It felt like only a day. This place seemed almost harmless now.
Toby walked towards a cluster of trees and another mouse stepped out. He was startled, until he remembered that this was the literal beginning of the world. It made sense that the same doubling effect from Aldridge's lawn would be present here too. Toby regarded his reflection. He wasn't sure when it had happened, but during his return he'd regained a healthy weight. Sure, his torso was still considerably concave, and just as bruise-purple as ever. But the rest of him was back to being wiry and athletic, not emaciated. His face wasn't a skull anymore. He looked pretty much allright. Maybe Tía Lopez' magic bean deserved the credit, or maybe it was just that he didn't have worry gnawing at his bones anymore. He'd been setting aside a little time each day to practice with his calming gem. Sometimes Junella joined him.
Piffle flounced over and noticed the mouse was in one of his introspective moments. She said hi to her duplicate, kissed her to merge, then gave Toby's shoulder a tap to let him know they weren't just here to sightsee.
The mouse and hamsterfly unloaded wide boards they'd brought all the way from Anasarca. Aldridge had long since considered the idea of signs to help new souls understand where they were and what the rules were. But with Phobiopolis' instant-onset dyslexia, he'd never been able to establish a universally-understood message. He put the idea to Toby. Having knowledge of the age of emojis, the mouse thought he could probably hammer something out.
And so, with Piffle scouting locations and Toby pounding signposts, they did what they could to hopefully make future souls' emergence a little less nightmarish. Their signs looked like this:
They hung around awhile, wondering if maybe they'd get to welcome someone new. But it was a slow day. Toby mused that maybe Phobiopolis might start sucking up cryogenic patients eventually. Piffle asked what that word meant. He told her all about it on the drive back to their friends.