Episode 4 (The Letting Pen) ~ World premiere!

Welcome to this blog-o-sphere debut of “The Letting Pen” — the fourth episode in the Lore of the Underlings epic. And look for the ebook of Episode 4 coming soon, all for free as my gift to you and other friends of the Lore!

The photography of Michael Leacher ~ The open door

There, in midair, a pair of disembodied orbs.

He seemed at home here alone in the silent night, back to the wall with true blue eyes standing watch as his two friends slept. But he knew where they were more by sense than by sight, for the gloom that engulfed them morphed all to vague shapes.

The knotwood against his shoulder blades was rough and sticky with fetid tar, leaving him nowhere to lean. Beneath his feet a crooked floor made standing straight a struggle. And yet he had no mind to sit, no quit in his tirelessness.

Of a sudden from somewhere there came a voice.

Ee`aye ee ~ Ss`noop pa`boofii J`onncapp na-kynd^

“Morio?” he half-whispered, turning an ear.

Ss`noop pa`boofii na-kynd ~ J`onncapp^

“Hold on… no comprende, mi amigo. I don’t have Oglet on me here.”

John Cap looked up through the black and called out. “Oglet, I need you. Come on little guy.” Then he raised his right arm, his fist thrust high.

Something small like a moonbat whipped about overhead, too quick of wing to let a good look. It glanced off the walls around the room, making impossible loops.

So swift to follow what else could it be but some sort of fairy or pixie? A sprite of the lowlight that glowed from above, a fleeting glimpse into the indigo. No chance a man could catch it. But then it slowed and spiraled down.

Just a simple strip of flesh. A frisky, hand-size flap. It hovered then wrapped around his wrist.

John Cap’s head snapped back. “Okay, now, you were asking…”

“Are you awake, John Cap?”

The young man paused and held back a sigh. “Um, that’s a pretty dumb question.”

Morio smiled toward John Cap’s voice but barely saw his tall, fair friend in the dark of this foul-smelling place. “Why, yes… I guess it is!”

John Cap slowly shook his head and patted the skin round his forearm.

“When did you last doze off, dear chum?” wondered Morio, now sitting up. “How long has it been since you’ve slept? Since you’ve dreamt?”

“I never have… slept, I mean.”

“Not even as a child?”

“No.” The standing man shifted his feet.

“Nor as a babe wrapped warm and snug by a blanket of love in your mother’s arms?”

“That’s what they always said. Worried my folks that I wouldn’t nap when they put me down with the other kids. But that they got used to and kept it quiet…”

“Ah. Oh! So this is not normal with your people?”

The question made John Cap grin. “Heck no.”

“Well, all along I’d just assumed…” said Morio sounding sheepish. “But never mind and please go on!”

“There’s not much more to say.”

The rounder man would hear none of this. “But surely there is, much more,” he urged. “It’s not good to hold such stories in. To keep tales secret till the end. Tell me my friend how you grew up, reared in a state like that.”

“It’s not something that I usually…”

“Say — for instance, suppose, I just had to ask: Were all of those waking hours kind to that boy, to you, the young John Cap?”

For a moment nothing but silence came from John Cap’s side of the night-shade room. So Morio Yoop leaned forward more, pressing his palms into the floor. He felt worn boards and bits of straw mashed into the rotting wood.

“Maybe it could have been okay. But my eyes gave me away.”

“I see.” Morio pawed at the fragrant fibers underneath his fingertips. Those flaxen strands lent a fruity note to the stench that filled his nose.

“Our Aunt Louise, who was visiting, found me wandering in the night. She ran out screaming, ‘Devil child!’ Said I had a haunted look. It was all downhill after that…”

The older man nodded in sympathy, though his mop-top nob was but a blur from John Cap’s spot across the way.

“My brother’s gang, they called me Spooks. That or Johnny Owl Eyes.”

“And those were not fine names to have?” asked Morio just to be sure. A hint of puzzlement tuned his tone and his eyebrows arched in mild surprise.

John Cap let out a muffled laugh. “Oh yeah, they were the best.”

“They were?”

“Sure, a dream come true.”

“Well yes, that’s what I would have guessed.”

“So maybe you’d like a nickname yourself.”

“I would be honored to be so known. Do you have such a name in mind?”

John Cap thought for a minute or two, happy to turn the talk from himself. “How about Morio Pork-Yoop-Pie?”

“Ooo, that does make me sound quite yummy!” squealed Morio, rubbing his belly. “But a creature not to be trifled with either. Thank you my true and fowl friend. A hoot-out to you from this pig pen…”

The night owl answered with, “Who…” then stopped. It seemed that he knew not how to respond. But Morio, hogging the floor, carried on.

“I do note one small flaw in this appellation, otherwise sweet though it may well be. It reminds me, so sadly, how hungry I am — and how very empty is my growling tummy. Oh, for a slice of porkling pie! I think I’d give an eye. Even a bite would do.”

John Cap fought to hold back a smile. “Man, sometimes you just kill me ‘O. Where I come from they’d call you a weirdo.”

Somehow Morio got what that meant. And it made him upset.

“A lifetime ago I heard words like those…” he said in a mumble, aslump toward the floor, “in an age and place long gone, my young guest.” His round, sweet face lost its usual mirth. “When I too knew something of being uncommon…”

Morio raised a soft, hammy fist and rubbed at his puffy eyes with it. They were watery now and bloodshot, their pure tan stained in rills of red. And he made a sniffly sound with his nose like someone ready to cry a river.

“Aw… damn, Morio. It’s alright. I didn’t mean anything by it guy. That’s the same thing they said about me.”

Morio perked up. “Is this true?”

John Cap nodded, “Yup, I swear,” and tapped his heart with his palm. “Promise you.”

“Why then we’re practically brothers in harms! Or cousins of some kind, I suppose. But I’m sure we are something near, dear friend.”

And Morio made a funny salute that no one but he could see through the dim. It appeared to matter not to him. Morio Yoop was happy again.

A nebulous blue bled down from above. It seeped from the sky through a hole in the ceiling. A beam the chameleon moon slipped in.

“Now tell me of your dreams, John Cap. What are those for a man without sleep? Whether ones come true or not…”

It took John Cap a while to speak, as if hoping the silence would answer for him. But sound of a drip from overhead filled the void with time instead. Like a tick, tick, tick in the timelessness. The marking of moments by drumbeat drops of rainwater falling from the past. Somehow it became unbearably loud.

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

“How so?”

“Because… I’m not sure what a dream even is.”

“Reveries? Flights of fancy?”

“Now you’re really losing me.”

“The vision that comes when you close your eyes?”

“I see the back of my eyelids — it’s black.”

The room, it seemed, had turned slightly lighter. The seeing was bluish but better now.

Morio shifted his seat from discomfort then, crossing his legs, sat back. His torn shirt stuck to the sticky wall.

“Has your mind never journeyed to faraway lands?” he waxed with a rip and a sweep of his hand. “Imagining sweet drink and foods never had? Or creatures and wonders beguiling to see, all the while battling bravely a foe as evil as can be? With allies of legend, the subjects of song, who sing every rite and right every wrong?”

“Hello?” John Cap sang, “You’ve got to be joking. Just look where I am. What’s left to imagine?”

The young man ran his hands through his hair then held them there atop his head. His blond locks looked all precious silver — a trick of lunar alchemy.

“Then what of your past or your home, comrade? Do your thoughts never conjure up scenes to play out in places with faces you’ve known or loved?”

“I’d just as soon forget all that.”

Morio sighed, a tad deflated, for the moment admitting himself defeated.

“Well, I have a dream today my friend — to get a drink and best this thirst. A swig to wet my whistle. All of our absorbing talk has left me o so very parched and scratchy as a thistle! Dry as the vast Western Desert of Merth. Believe you me I shan’t be picky. Pom wine, brewn ale, a cup from the saltless sea — anything.”

With that he lay down and fell back asleep.

John Cap must have thirsted too. He held out his right hand, palm side up, and caught a few moments of refalling rain, which still leaked down from some pool on the roof. Then he raised that cup to his lips and drank. The overdue drops were warm on his tongue and salty like tears of remembrance.

~

After a while the dripping slowed and with it time as well. But the watchman could not tell. He had turned already to something timeless with his wide and lonely eyes. It was the other on whom he gazed — the girl in a halo of sapphire blue aglow at the end of the room.

Perched on a platform all alone, there she sat… yet not.

His lips mouthed words with barely a breath, words he meant for her. “If this is some kind of fairy tale Vaam, then you’ve got to be Sleeping Beauty. I wonder what story you’re living tonight. Where have your dreams gone this time?”

John Cap stared at the shape she made. He seemed unable to look away.

~

It turned out the plump one’s return to Nod was short-lived and woefully failed. No, that land would not let him in again lest he steal the rest of this waning night. So it led him instead to wander and moan, roaming the netherworld between. The half-awake realm of hopes and screams.

Morio tossed about and groaned, in some phantom conversation. He mumbled of sweet things now unclean with someone from a dream unseen. Nightmare talk till he woke with a start.

Still drunk of that uneasy sleep, he tried too fast to rise afeet from the angled floor of pynewood planks. But somewhat dizzy was he, unsteady and ready to stagger and fall. So he reached out for the tarry wall and a place to brace himself.

Yet it was not wallwood his fingers found but the touch and clutch of a vine thick around. He had a handful in his mitt. It felt hairy, no… furry, and wet.

A drip too slimy to grip it was, so his grasp let slip and he fell with a bump on his prized and slightly ample rump. “Ho!” he exclaimed with surprise in his eyes. “How did I not notice you before, mister rope hanging right by my head?!”

It seemed to fall from atop the wall, spilling out of a gap just under the ceiling. Almost like a natural thing that sprung there on its own.

Morio rocked to mock the swing of the giant’s string he had set in motion. “You have a dodgy way of moving,” he bemused with a touch of frustration. But the man had a plan or at least a notion of how to take another whack, a hack at the tip of the twisty twine, or epic tail, whichever it was. Checking the angle of its dangle, the round fellow readied himself to strike.

“One, two, THREEE…”

With the speed of a greazy frying-swine, fat but fast as skyfire, Morio grabbed the vine again. This time he had it by both hands.

“I’ve got you now, you knotty one!” he teased with a pleasing tone. “Don’t think that I don’t know the ropes!”

Then in pitched battle to pull himself up, he let loose on the line with a mighty yank. But the vine had another idea in mind. It gave way with an arm’s length of slack, landing Morio back on his behind.

And it did more than that.

High atop the opposite wall, the one under which the younger man stood, five long and narrow windows flew open to the night. They were set in place in the shape of a hand and such a delicate hand it was. The hand of a woman or wizened man. Four slender fingers and thin thumb that cast a pallor on Morio Yoop in the form of a ghastly grasp. A palm that pointed nowhere good. Sign of something that shed little light.

There was something else at hand as well. The sound of stone on stone, and an even fouler smell. It came from a door in the window wall twenty paces or so from John Cap’s stand, on his right-hand side.

Morio knew what that noise was. “I hear our friends afoot again. But lord knows ‘tis no easy feat to name that rank and vile stink, my noble night owl sir. Death be the odor of the day, don’t you think?”

John Cap, who had seen it all, just gave him a look. “I think you woke them up. You probably shouldn’t have pulled that thing.” Then he raised his favored wrist and spoke in low tones to the strap wrapped around it. “Vaam will not be happy.”

“Maybe so,” chimed Morio. “On the other hand, with any luck, perhaps they’ll bring us breakfast! Oh to be waited on hand and foot, now wouldn’t that be sweet?! Yes…

“And how ‘bout a sudsy bath to boot, to throw or kick in while I’m wishing on it? We might as well ‘Reach for the stars,’ as you say. And what better wish than a wash?”

John Cap let the moment pass and listened for more from the wall at his back. After a while the scraping stopped and the few muffled voices he’d heard faded out. Although, he thought he could still hear a song, as if over the hills and far away off. Only the smell remained the same.

He noticed a pout of disappointment on Morio’s always honest face.

“No bathroom here ‘O. Or room service either. But I bet you’d be sorry with what they’d deliver.”

“Room service, John Cap?”

“Never mind. Just forget it.”

The watchman suddenly spun around, away from Morio and Vaam, and struggled up the tilted floor to the other end of the rectangled room. And there he faced the massive door through which they had passed a few hours before, cast in as prisoners by the Guard and left alone to stew.

He squinted at it and tipped his head, using what weakling light he had. Then the young man motioned with his strong hand. “Look at this,” he said.

Morio, heartened, did not wait or even think to hesitate. He eagerly crawled to the door on all fours, pausing only to let out a sneeze and a snort. In fact, he flew with such ease on his knees that he met his friend in no time.

Then they stared side by side at the rosewood, those men, each on his own and the both of them. The tall one from his steady feet. The shorter still stuck to his seat.

John Cap pondered what he saw and pressed a palm to his handsome jaw. “These panels — they seem to be carved with scenes, just like they’re telling a story. Do you recognize them? Do you know what they mean?”

The porkly man looked as best he could while wiping his nose on a tattered sleeve. “Hmmm, yes… I believe… Ah, indeed! Now that could be…”

“Yo. Are you going to tell me?”

Morio beamed a childlike light that all but lit the gloomy room. “I shall have no higher calling in life.” He pointed way up. “Let’s start at the top.”

John Cap eyed the most distant square where a man becrowned and in flowing robes led a long line of the young. They marched two by two from a gleaming city. “Who is that guy, the one with the beard? He looks kind of kingly to me.”

“Kingly? Yes, oh I should say! A Semperor of Syland he must be. Perhaps the last of his line — the one who sent these poor folk here before the Troubled Times.”

“In the next scene the bearded man is gone and the people seem to be wandering…”

“Lost. Lordless and forlorn. With countless of their untold number frail and falling for four panels more. And longish panels they are at that. They take a good half of the door. See there? What an epic journey it must have been, a quest to test the best of men, and women and children as well…” Morio nodded knowingly. “But this is the gist of the few fabled tales that I’d heard somewhere and a time ago. So I’d swear that it all rings true to me.”

“And that brings us to here,” said John Cap. He stretched out his fingers to touch the figures and shapes before him at arm’s length. The rosewood was smooth against his skin and smelled of something flowerish, a fragrance set free when it met his flesh. He could tell that it had been tooled and rubbed well with perfumed oils to make it shine. But his findings too made him raise a brow, for such craft did not fit in this box of pyne.

And another surprise — these panes portrayed a happier time. “Something has changed. What’s happening?”

Morio took a look and spoke. “I recognize the great plain that we crossed, albeit airborne thanks to the ogs. So this must depict their trek here from afar with dawn’s rising orb as a guide or Pole Star. (I’m just guessing about the Pole-ish guide, but the carver does show the sun on their side.) Then their nights turned to halcyon days in this place, sweet dreams washing the nightmares away — wiped clean like a frown from each sunny face. No mourning on them anymore.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” muttered John Cap with a telling smirk. He moved his hand to the form of a man in the midst of a speech to a crowd by a wood. A multitude was amassed before him, all enthralled by whatever he said. Some marks were inscribed beneath his feet. “H Hurx ~ Treasuror III,” they read.

“Hurx? I think we just heard that name out in the field tonight. Isn’t that what they called those boys?”

“Their uncle too,” added Morio, “our friend with the little red riding beard.”

Distracted, the young man did not hear. He pressed his thumb to one of the marks then studied the fresh impression it made — lines and angles on his skin. “So ‘treasuror’ must be some local leader, like a governor or mayor.”

“Or an electryon.”

“What’s that?”

“Most likely like one of those two you bespoke. But ‘twas how we knew office holders back home, when it was still a free land called Merth.”

“And let me guess — they were usually crooks.”

“Crooks or things much worse. But how…”

“I’m learning that some things are universal.”

“Yet exceptions there are, some giants among us. Those meant to make their place and time.”

John Cap surveyed the remaining scenes. “It seems like H Hurx must have been such a man, judging from the rest of this side…”

Yes, the artist showed life going well for a while with a bounty of all that they might want or need. Game for meat. Greens and seed. Timber or stone. Time to breed.

And a leader beloved, wise, and kind.

So much heaven sent to a folk so forsaken. Redemption. Rebirth. The smell of bacon.

But then there by the floor, at the foot of the door, the magical yarn got caught in a knot. A tragic tangle of the tale. For in the final frame they found not chords of joy or sweet string sounds but notes of fond farewell and grief. Runes etched around an empty seat told of a treasured man’s defeat as Guard and folk and elders sung the tune of a life too brief.

H Hurx was gone or lost or ghost.

Yet to his place a young man rose. A handsome one, his elder son — “Ayryx of Hurx” it said below. As all bore witness to his grace, he bowed his head and turned his face in humility to the sacred ground. And the mantle of Treasuror was bestowed upon his shoulder with a pike.

Thus was this enshrined for time to come in the red hewed everwood.

John Cap stepped back searching ceiling to floor, hoping to find a few panels more. “We need to know where the story goes to understand these people.”

Morio grabbed the young man’s arm and with it fought to make his feet. “Perhaps on the other side of this door, my friend, it may continue. I did not notice when we came in.”

“The door was open. It couldn’t be seen.”

“Of course, now I remember too. Anyhow, it’s high time we try the latch,” said Morio doughtily reaching out. He itched for a fight with its rough handle. “Perchance we can sneak a peek or two or even snatch a more leisurely glance.”

John Cap was wary yet did not object.

But try as he might, despite clutching it tightly, the man o’ more simply could not trip the catch. And so some grumbling ensued.

“It’s locked.”

“We’re stuck.”

“Do you think we should knock?”

“Then what, Morio, ask the guards for a tour? I’m sure that they’d love to punch our tickets.”

“Yes please! That’s the ticket indeed dear lad, the magic of wishful thinking at work. A tour plus punch to quench our thirst? Now I’m truly optimistic!”

“But maybe just hold that thought for a bit, ‘cause I’d rather live till daylight. And anyway, Vaam is still asleep.”

“I could wake her if you’d like.”

“No ‘O, not yet. She needs more time. Let her dream on a little longer.”

Then the two men did their best to recall what they saw on their path that night to this place, this hell-scented pigpen of fallen angles, this lopsided lockbox of purpose unknown…

~

The Guard had led them from Liar’s Tree field down a road by a glade to the foot of a hill. There, yet under night’s thick cloak, they saw a dark structure loom ahead enshadowed from the moon. It was oddly tall amidst the trees with a face of silent stone — a visage unwelcoming, gray, and cold. Windowless it was this façade, though oriented east, as if keeping some secret unseen within or shunning the light of the world without.

And so by the push and prod of the pike were the three strangers sent single file inside, to and through its open maw all of two stories high and yawning wide. On their left and their right there they passed twin great gates of hardest ironwood wrought by hand. Upon those gates a herd of shapes adorned the void that they minded with beasts.

One thing low and snaky, two lofty a-wing, some devilish dirt dog, an odd cat-like king. Bull-sheep and bear-ass greeted them too, both by a boar-rat and all under toe of a tusky behemoth from realms far below.

The clear voice of the tall young woman rang like a song through the stony hall. “Why this menagerie?” she sang. “Why honor these unheard-of creatures here?”

But she and her friends knew not of this place. And the Guard were in no mood for show and tell.

Rudely were they ushered on through a chamber of dull-colored quarrystone. Its floor was smooth, worn down in places, as if by rituals oft repeated. Yet its ceiling soared halfway to the heavens. They glimpsed strange implements hung from the walls, devilish things that seemed made to maul or maybe maim or make holey somehow.

Dead ahead a pair more of the armored Guard awaited them mirthless and still — stoic sentinels standing on either side of a gaping inner doorway. The hole of it filled a space like the first through which they had safely passed, but from this deeper one there spilled an unavoidable blackness. Far off to the left at a table there sat two others, yet Guard those were not. They looked of old plainsmen, swarthy and crude, who eyed the strangers with cold disdain. One leaned back with his feet propped up as he sharpened the tip of a goring pole. It was bile-stained a vile green. The other bit into a blood-red pom and spit out its seeds with spite on the floor. Both wore the leathery skin of countless seasons riding wild and free, as ranger men of a treeless land, ever awash in sun and dust.

The doorkeepers held abreast and ready a brace of heart-crossed battle pikes. Now each rapped his own two together twelve times in a duel of hard knocks to announce their guests. By this were the guests held in rapt attention with no choice but to listen. Nor had they a hope to avoid the vision of hosts of apparitions sprung from the chamber’s phantom lamplight just for the chance to dance for them.

Ghosts of a hidden history… were we never let to tell our story… but for the shadows upon these walls… where we evermore dwell…

Done, the rappers sang a song, a torch song of hellish welcome:

Had you a good wife?
A strong, young son?
Beautiful daughters
Chased yet virgin?

Questioned guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Cornered beast
Pale ghost

We see soft hands, signs
Of rich lands owned,
Fine fabrics your skin,
Fat flesh on bone

Hapless guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Captured beast
Pale ghost

And in some safe haven
Of holywood,
For what is your treasure
Of gold now good?

Helpless guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Hogtied beast
Pale ghost

“This pelt be of value”
“For marrow, his bones”
“Hang him till tomorrow”
“All blood let and run”

No marrow tomorrow
Your hide be gone
The last of your ‘morrows
Bled on this ground

Sorrow tomorrow
Six feet down
Death bed made
No sound

Screamless guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Dreamless guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Hopeless guest
Pale ghost, pale ghost
Lifeless beast
Pale ghost

So into darkness the three were thrown, over the crown of ghastly glow.

~

Morio must have felt that his shoes had gone loose for he bent at the belly to tie them. His plump hands nimbly found the soft, weathered boven-hide leather and laces but something sharp as well.

“Wow! Oh! Ho, that smarts!” he exclaimed with a wince of pain.

It was a needle still stuck from the Liar’s Tree.

He checked his pricked finger and saw that it bled, thick as hooven soup but red. So he kissed it and sucked at the running blood all the while yet doubled over.

“You make a good point,” he said to the stickler as if engaged in some civil debate. “But if you don’t mind I’d like a retraction. Better that than dicker or bring legal action to force a divorce and secede from this union made by the blade of an iron-willed faction against a mere fancy-free, footloose sole.”

Morio paused for dramatic effect. But, hearing no rebuttal back, the porkster mustered all his pluck and unstuck his pockmarked folk shoe.

“Ah,” he exhaled. “I smell defeat!”

Unluckily as he dethorned himself his system of checks and balances failed — so ironically though no longer nailed, the shift of state sent him a-sail, and thanks to the crooked planks on the floor, each one a conspirator and all at odds and war, he was at last toppled, order upset, governing body over head. Betrayed by the rules of a natural law that was traitor to his constitution, Morio found the upright overthrown and in the throes of revolution.

“Divided we fall after all…”

He tumbled away from the storied door and rolled downhill to the parallel wall. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thud.

John Cap called, “Okay there ‘O?” No response. “Morio?”

Then a slow and woozy voice. “This place… is surely full of pitfalls… truly unruly… but… O the thrills…”

“I guess, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“I’ll bet this is some kind of play-house or pen…”

“Really dude, are you alright?”

“A funfair for children to frolic in…”

“More like an amusement park from hell.”

“To make us feel like boys again…”

“Only because you bumped your head.”

“Dizzy with dreams from way back when…”

“That’s just your concussion talking, man.”

“When we rode on the wings of the wind… in a magical land of mirth and men… where anything could happen…”

Suddenly a painful expression washed across Morio’s hazy face. As if his brain had been picked, his ears bent, or eyes peeled. Something had woken him up.

He listed left then let out an “Ooo!” and pulled the freed needle from his behind. “Yet you, my friend, are no magic wand.” He studied the silver spike in his hand, turning it over several times. “And still…”

From the deepest depths of a bottomless pocket hidden within his handy pants, Morio conjured a swaddle cloth and wrapped the needle in it. “Since you’ve stuck with me this long… I suppose we should try to keep keeping on.” Then he stuffed the bundle away.

~

At that moment time came to a crossroads it seemed. As if at a fork in the void. Awaiting. What could have been years or a second or two…

And there without warning, omen, or clue, but for a stirring of air in the room, the wizard’s hand cast upon Morio’s wall transformed from its hollow and bitter vein blue to warm, sweet, summer, butter yellow — soft and pure as a pixie’s whisper promising gold to come. Though those riches came at the cost of magic, which fled the advancing sun.

The cowardly moon turned tail and ran too.

Now all was bathed in a whole new light revealing much before concealed. A naked truth not so poetic, but plainly worth a look.

~

“What the heck?!”

John Cap’s sharp eyes opened wide as he pointed due north of Morio’s head. “Where did all those come from?”

The cause of the young man’s sudden surprise was the sight of a hundred vines, which had just appeared from out of nowhere where before there had been but one. They hung down in lengths all over the map as if snipped by a mischievous child — bobbed for no obvious reason or rhyme — though most were still furry like the first. And many of them were also damp with an ugly sheen in the new-found light or dangled dark drops from fraying ends that fell into old, moldy rings of black-green. The tipsy floorwood, already unsteady, was littered with these soggy spots, moist patches of rot that smelled of must. They let off a perfume of decay that mingled with some other secret stink and turned the air pungent and thick. It was hard not to choke from a whiff of it.

Both men turned their gaze from here to look highward and trace the odd cords on their climb to the ceiling. Up, up, up they spun, one after another, by hair-raising turns each rose to the roof. Their spiral locks in twisted braids made mock of a circular stairway to heaven.

At last by accord were all ascended, man vicariously through vine. And there they discovered a webwork of cracks that resembled a mapmaker’s handicraft… a plotting of paths on the chamber roof by a million imagined milky ways now aglow from the honey sun pouring in… like long-sought trade routes blazed in the sky to dreamlands of spice and gilded things.

The travelers crossed them by mind’s eye to reach the far wall where their third yet slept. But descending that side they first found something fearsome hanging above her head. Another deathly array of spikeful machines — more morbid than those they saw before. Devices that few but a devil could love.

Morio mumbled soft worries aloud. “Be careful Miss Vaam… something looms…”

John Cap, however, did not seem concerned. Clearly he had other matter in mind.

He stepped toward the space she displaced and spoke, his voice turned a tender hush. “It’s morning Vaam. Time to find your way back.”

A thin stream of blue, one last lingering moonbeam, seemed locked upon the young woman’s face. As if from another world it spilled to show her in some form of sleep. She sat on edge of a tiny platform — a place just big enough for one — back straight, palms up, legs crossed and tucked, pilgrim-style like those who quest for blessing, her eyes wide open yet all but missing. They were a blur as though submerged and fading off into a distance. In fact her whole shape looked drowned under water, submersed in a small oval pool around her. She floated below the surface of it. It rippled, distorting her form.

Still, she stirred not. She made no wake.

The vines, though, went to wag like a hundred tongues talking — a chorus commemorating the scene. Or ten tens tellers of a tale, whispering words such as these as they swung:

Astride like a knight rides in the day
This prince of light our treasured sun

So charming in his starry armor
Chasing the gray girl’s blues away

A golden kiss upon those lips
The purple of sleepy beauty

Then just as the moody blue was gone, she blinked and her handsome friend could see a pair of emeralds, lucent green, rising from the liquid deep. She broke the surface with a shudder and uttered the slightest sigh.

The young man looked caringly in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed, moving near to her.

She drank in the air then exhaled long and slow, as if she’d been holding her breath forever.

“It’s alright,” she said to reassure him.

The shape-shifting pool had receded behind her, although a trace of it remained. The hint of a faint gray glow.

John Cap’s eyes said he had more to say. He started, “I missed…” but stopped himself there.

He saw that Vaam’s thoughts were still elsewhere. A distant lost home. A time slipped away.

In mindless motion she reached for her throat and clutched at something her high collar hid. She smiled when her fingers found it. And a calm washed over her flawless face in a way that drained her cares away and revealed how very innocent and young she really was.

Then Vaam gently drew from her hiding place a most unusual necklace, and her calm overcame the room.

It was a pendant about the size of an eye, a glossy object of reddest rosewood, mounted on a cord of hide from the side of an animal skinned and dyed. The icon was smooth looking worn from time in the palms of many possessed. The cord was crude against her skin.

To the naked eye the strange figurine mocked the shape of a priestly being — behooded, kneeling, arms concealed — like a sacred relic from holier times or hallowed jewel baptized in blood, so ruby-enrobed it was. But who could tell with so much wear…

Vaam herself left no room for doubt. She cradled the thing in her slender hand and felt it with her fingertips. It looked like she hoped to coax magic from it or perhaps just reminders of the past. What came out was a mingling of them both, here and now spellbound in her grasp.

Maid of mirage she was. Shy by trials yet untold. Still statuesque even as she sat.

Absently she closed her eyes and quietly began to sing. She sang a beautiful, haunting song… the spirit of a shadow’s dream… a shapeless, enrapturing melody that wrapped the mind in mystery… the echo of some ancient lullaby calling from deep inside…

O you my little love, my child
Were born a flower of the field
Your perfumed hair so soft, so sweet
The gold of summer long adored
Adorned in ribbons, O yet wild
Bright-eyed, no darkness have you seen
But kissed of sun, caressed in rain
Brushed by the wind upon the field

My ever love, my only love
My child, my flower of the field
They say your petals ride the wind
One and a thousand leagues away

My ever love, my only love
My heart, my flower of the field
They say your petals sail the sea
Two and two thousand leagues away

My ever love, my only love
My soul, my flower of the field
They say your petals grace a land
Three and three thousand leagues away

Tonight my love, the stars above
Show me my flower of the field
Your petals cast across the sky
Long gone my love yet ever here

As her ballad’s last notes drifted off in the air, Vaam pressed her lips to the toy statuette and tucked it inside the neck of her frock, hidden away and safe again. Then she raised her downcast eyes.

“Tell me, John, of all I’ve missed.”

But he’d been charmed speechless, so all enthralled.

And Morio’s face was wet with warm tears.

“O hearthland! Dear Merth! You’ve taken me back. Beckoned again to the days of my youth and the fair, green farmlands where we played — I see them even now in sounds, reborne homeward bound by your incantation.”

Morio wiped his chubby cheeks and pressed both eyes with the heels of his hands. His face was red when he pulled them away.

Vaam peered at him. “Are you unwell, Uncle M?”

Morio let go a few more tears but he was less wistful now than proud. “I cry for my beloved country… Oh child, Miss Vaam, so pure of heart, your hymn has made mine beat again refilled with the blood of a native son. It pours from your voice and through my veins, unmeasured by rhythm or rhyme.”

“It’s a song my father sang to me… at bedtime as I fell asleep… wherever we hid that night…” Vaam’s voice faded off into soft nothingness, as if drained of all it had to give.

“Your father, your father,” he nodded his head. “My all-but-brother and dearest friend. The bravest heart of the Underland and comrade-in-ogs so true… Oh how I miss him so.”

“Yes, Uncle M. I miss him too.”

John Cap briefly touched her hand and found his voice again. “We learned some more about this place and these folks or whatever they’re called. They’re tough. They know what hard times are for sure — the elderly ones especially. Their story and how they got here is good. A long, hard road but they survived…”

“Even thrived,” chimed a cheery Morio, heartily joining in. “Yes, a long and winding road of death that left just the fittest alive at the end to build this stronghold on a hill. We’re all but experts now Miss Vaam. The locked door, it turns out, is the key to knowledge. Come and I shall show you…”

“In time, Uncle M, in time. But mostly we must know if your findings alter the map of our mission at all. From what you both have said I say not.”

Vaam unwound her long crossed legs and shifted position with ease in place, half springing up to crouch a-heel. Something in the way she moved seemed to prove her a creature of force and grace, a little cat-like in a way.

The narrow platform she made her lair was but the one flat spot in the room. Nothing else was on the level.

“Remember that I was here once before — a fortnight ago, though not for long — and imagined our plan of attack based on that…”

“No, no indeed! Yes of course I recall. But, just for the record, how did that go?”

Vaam gave him half a grin. “Just for the record…” she began. “Under cover of dark on the stormiest night I came to scout this settlement out and unlock its secrets for our quest. The rain and the hour had driven all in, whether gentle folk or beastly men, so without a single soul in sight the road was left to me alone. I soon found myself in the heart of a square, their marketplace by every sign, at the site of a tall, round tent pitched there. Yet still unmet I slipped inside and by the low glow of an oil lamp tried to see what I could see. A strange chamber of shadows spun circles around me, casting all in murky gold. The old dreams of bygone souls. It seemed to be a meeting place with a ring of cushions on the floor and room for standing many more all along the walls. Everything here was wood and bone but hard as any heavy metal. Hoping to find some scroll or book that might give a clue or hold a key, I crept further in to an alcove or den that looked to be hidden at the rear. I neared it quiet as a thief. Then I lifted the tattered patchwork flap they’d made to be its door.

“There on the ground to my surprise was a light-sleeping man who awoke as I spied. But by fortune or luck or trick of the light, which flickered and faked flaring firefly-like, he mistook me for something entirely else. I was to him the ghost of a queen, some songstress from treasured antiquity for whom he feverishly bent a knee to bow and vow fidelity. A siren of legend, the sweet of his dreams…

“Then it struck me, the trick that I almost missed and something more precious than gold in this. His mistake meant that there was advantage to take of this phantom operation. So I used his delusion and played along for the price of a song to help our cause. He mumbled some words about being unworthy… ‘Even as leader of my people… despite my red hair… my family name…’ Yes this was the very same iron-eyed man, the steely jawboned and rust-bearded one, who would meet us so hard in the field tonight… two weeks later and worse for wear riding herd on his wounded beast. It was I who sent him on that errant mission, on a chase through the wild with a goose, as John says. Yet it was all truly the man’s own idea, a test that he already had in mind…”

“A wild goose chase,” confirmed John Cap. “Vaam, how wicked smart was that?!” He gave her a wry and admiring look. “We couldn’t have diagrammed it better if this were all a game. A game of thrown matches and catches, I mean.” The young man turned to his friend on the floor. “It was more than luck that snuck us in. That’s why there were lazy boys on the walls — just a couple manning them — instead of a few good men. And why the regular guards weren’t here to see us land out on the plain then walk through the gates and blend right in.”

Morio nodded, “Yes, I see, that makes perfect sense to me. I can handle the truth, most certainly. Using the cover of broad daylight — really clever, very bright. And I was around when we covered this? You say I knew about it?”

John Cap flashed him two thumbs up.

The ground hog returned a sheepish look. “You might have noticed I’m not one for scheming, rather more prone to a little daydreaming. The same goes for plotting. No. Let alone meetings! I confess I nod off at the drop of a hat then snooze or doze like a lapdog or cat, a napster with the best of them… So I may have missed some finer points during our pregame planning scrum.”

He slid toward the tall two with puppy og eyes as if seeking forgiveness, the road to redemption. “But if you’ll permit me a brief presentation… I’ll prove to be less than a total bum… or at least a bit more than the butt of jokes.” He slid another yard then… “Yikes!” Mr. Yoop stopped abruptly and pursed his lips, seemingly stuck again, re-spiked. “Ouch!” He reached for his moon’s far side and pulled out another surprise from his rump. “I submit evidence, Exhibit A, that some points I sorely did not miss.”

He held up a slender splinter of plankwood then casually tossed it away.

After a pause to compose himself, the defendant continued to plead his case. “As I sit before you in this court of flaws let the record show I do not stand accused of being amongst the most agile of men, when it comes to thinking I mean. On the other hand for a man of my day, born sixty and eight years ago give or take… minus seventeen lost as a nowhere man, living in a nowhere land… um… darn, I’ve forgotten what I was to say…”

“Something about your mind,” cued John Cap.

“Thank you dear friend, as a matter of fact…” Morio placed his hand like a hat. “If you don’t mind I’ll try my suspect brain with an exercise of memory. A little display if no one objects.  I’ll step through each leg of our trip to date, just from the mental notes I’ve made, hour to hour and day by day, all along the way. Then you be the judge and jury.”

“I wish there were photos too,” cracked John Cap. “And brochures from the Syland Travel Bureau.”

Morio shook his curly head. “I assure you these legs have no faux toes. I stand by them sure as you call me ‘bro’ sometimes and picture an honest soul.”

Vaam simply rolled her eyes at both men. She did not dare encourage them.

John Cap shrugged his broad shoulders at her.

Morio carried on, undeterred.

“It’s hard to fathom how far we’ve come in a single cycle of the seas, just one month of the watchful summer moon. All almost too quick to tell the truth — like some spooky arithmetic’s at work to keep the time of our lives in check when you sum the entire trek. Like we’re digits of nature’s mathematician, manipulated, our days numbered to solve a secret formula or perform her perfect calculus. Prime examples of fate’s numerology.

“However you figure, the total’s the same.

“It took seventeen suns from our escape cast off the former shores of Merth to cross the timeless Sea of Mer’n, the ancient ocean of our blood. From dawn to dusk it added up. By day by air aloft on the ogs, our hearty high-borne friends in flight. By night by sea afloat on their backs, transformed to make fine boats for us and rest themselves awhile asleep. And alive we made the coast of this land, this island, this Syland, little known.

“Then seventeen more suns did we pass, now sailing the skies above the grass so green by cities old but gleaming boney white below… over velvety rolling hills ribboned in roads, dotted by villages, inns, and outposts… past great golden fields of early grain to the edge of a forest veiled in rain… as lush and vast those woods as could be with treetops so high they touched the bellies of our wingy changelings, all but cloud-bound though they were…”

Morio looked to the distant ceiling, almost as if he could see them.

“But here the pynes grew thin and small, the land ascending to a wall of silent, stone-faced mountains over which we barely dared to climb. The cold froze hard our faces, crystalline as snowmen and snowgirl… word the world had turned and not for the better but dark and wild. Then howling like a devil child the wind forced us to take a dive too steep, falling at the speed of what faint light was left… only to find ourselves fogbound and lost in the thick of a hellish muck that stunk a stink of sulphur so, so acrid that it burned the nose… a swamp to rival any known. O no more than a glimmer of hope could penetrate this woeful place.

“And so sick and dizzy from our descent, into the shadowland we went. The wilderness at the heart of this island. The chamber of secrets of Syland…

“And so on and so forth, which brings us to here!” At that the proud teller threw both arms wide and twirled them with a dramatic flourish.

Young John Cap could not help but laugh. “Whoa there ‘O! Hold on just a minute. I think you left out a couple of things…”

“Left out? Are you sure? It’s hard to imagine… I know! I’ll just take it again from the top!”

“Oh no, that’s alright,” insisted John Cap who had turned out his palms in a signal to stop.

Vaam faked a cough to silence them then turned her eyes to the older man. “John is right to remind us of this. There are some things we must never forget.”

Both men nodded back.

She went on. “Such as the place where this quest began. We have to remember the moons lost in hiding, healing our wounds from the Grievil’s wrath all before we ever left… I carry those scars on my soul to this day…”

John Cap clutched at his thick left shoulder. “I’ve still got the cuts on my back from their claws. I guess I may have those forever. They’re dug so wide and deep.”

Morio’s head bobbed, conceding the point. “Incisive remarks as always,” he said.

Vaam brushed away a few strands of gold that had spilled down to cover her emerald eyes. “It’s very important, Uncle M. You need to pay heed and keep things in mind…”

“Like the fact that we landed a dozen times and explored on foot for quite a while.” John Cap tugged at his own shirtsleeve. “That’s how we found these clothes ‘O…”

“Along with some worries we wished not to find,” Vaam added, still holding a hand to her brow.

“Yup, you skipped over all of those.”

“I have been known to skimp on clothes for a skinny dip, if that’s what you mean…”

“We’re not joking, Uncle, about these lost gems. You must do your best to recollect them.”

“I suppose I can, Miss Vaam. It’s just that the flight was so exciting!”

The young woman’s eyes opened wider. They glowed with a calm and pale green fire.

“Were you bored to discover their great cities empty, nary a living soul in sight? Unimpressed to be chased by beasts through the streets, nearly gored on the horns of a herd gone wild? Or barely bemused to be turned back by storms and swarms of looming evilings as we approached the realm of their king — his seat of power and palace home? The breathtaking place called Syar-ull?”

She tipped to her side to catch his eye. “Didn’t your blood run as we fled from the firestone rain upon our heads? Of heart did you not lose command under these signs of a devil hand?”

Morio suddenly looked enlightened. “Well, now that you put it that way…” Then he stopped himself to wonder something. “So that’s when we changed course to go chasing ghosts?”

Vaam seemed relieved. “That’s right.”

John Cap clapped.

“And you asked me to tell you all that I knew of the legend of Syland’s Lost Folk?”

“It’s true.”

“Yes, I see. Ah, that must be… the bumpy road where I lost track. Red rocks to the noggin will do that you know… But skipping one’s breakfast, that doesn’t help either. Not to mention lost lunch. Then no filling dinner? Well, you can forget about it!”

“So let’s go over that part one more time.” Vaam’s tone was quiet again and patient.

“The part about finding some friends to bring back? That much I always had in mind. Or do you mean the part about lunch?”

Vaam put a finger to her lips. “Shhh. Just listen till I’m done telling.”

She waited for him to be settled then told.

~

“I was so foolish in our first attack, thinking to out-trick the Trickster himself, expecting to sneak into his world unseen and with us alone succeed. Just strong John the hero, brave Ogdog, and me. But we learned the hard way that we would need help to prevail in the darkened Underland, now so hopelessly enslaved, enchained so deep within evil’s heart.

“Yes we failed and miserably too — except for setting you free, long-lost Uncle, and that was by accident. No. There was no choice now but to find an ally, somewhere where there were yet peoples free. If such a place there was. And so as we cowered and licked our wounds we wondered and dreamt who they could be.

“The compass, at least, was no friend to us. To the north lay naught but the Steppes of Nor Dool, which turned to a permafrost that stretched for thousands of leagues to the Frozen Sea where an ice-floe armada ruled. The song of the south offered even less solace, singing of sure and grotesque death for any who passed that way. Such a merciless place it was. A jungle land of hellish hot that boiled the blood and left the flesh to rot away in hours or less with little evidence of its victims — serpent-bit, fever-pitched, ravaged by sickness down to a thick and sticky tar that was one minute man then putrid pool. Westward? O the world just ended, out at the edge of the final frontier where the rising moon met the setting sun. Old myths told of another All there, a whole new world for those who dared to fly — but none who ever tried returned to tell their tale.

“So what way was left but to look to the east? Of course we knew of that continent island out across the Ocean Sea, there by the bed of the waking sun at the far where the arc of the world fell away. Every child of Merth had heard of Fargonne, the name by which we called that land. But its peoples and ways were a mystery, cloaked or concealed and well-defended, shielded from sight by a mighty hand. Many a sailor’s shanty warned how few slipped by their western fleet, fierce and armored to the teeth, a thousand swift ships strong. And fewer still made it on to shore to face the sharp spikes of their songful war men, the fearsome and long-renowned Guardians.

“Yet now was our prayer to find these tales true, to be overwhelmed by their deadly do. So we set out to journey across the sea and plead for the conscience of their king.

“We’d need their armies. Their navy too. And just how was I to convince them so? Some strange-storied girl of seventeen years who appears from nowhere with two stranger men? How could I make believers of them? Or make real the doom that awaited all if they failed to join our cause? The maw that would swallow their world as well? I pondered it all the way there.

“Meanwhile there was something odd in play, a scenario I did not expect. Like an actor too soon left the stage their fleet was nowhere to be seen. Not the smallest boat on the empty sea. Before long we would land and learn why.

“I had good reason to be suspicious. And an all too familiar chill in my bones. Of course I should have known…

“The evil I feared was already here. His mark was everywhere we looked. All within the Grievil’s reach.

“No Fargonne remained to save our souls. This land was all but lost. Now what? We had no plan, no hope…

“Dear Uncle, how lucky you already knew just a little about this island, these folk. For in that dark hour your legends revealed the clue and showed us what to do. We would have missed it without you.”

Morio, cheery red, was ready to burst. “The Clue!” he blurted out at last, gleeful, unable to hold himself back. “Surely I didn’t forget about that. Its words, Miss Vaam, to be exact: ‘Keep safe the Semperor’s Secret Treasure, deep in your heart where the Wild things are.’ You’re welcome and thanks for bringing it up — ever my honor to help of course. And what better rulers than friendship and love to measure the depth of one’s heart in the end? But… if you don’t mind giving me a clue too… where was it we saw that again?”

Vaam drew a line in the air with her hand. “Carved into a lonely rosewood tree in a forest of iron and rusty leaves. A day away from the Semperor’s city. You were able to read the runes then told us the Treasured fable.”

“My pleasure. I hope it entertained you.”

“Uncle, your stories always do. But this time we entertained the idea that the fairy tale was true. And upon it rewrote the plot of our mission…

“That night we turned south and traveled by stars up over the mountains and into the wild. There we made a marsh our camp, atop a wide tuffet of swamp grass, then flew out each day our separate ways to search for buried treasure. On the third day nature gave them away — by a circle of birds black and high in the sky spied from afar by Ogdog and me.

“But we had to be sure that this wasn’t a trap. It did seem we’d found them too easily. There in plain sight and just for me, the one the Misleader most wanted. If these were the agents of you-know-who they’d have to work harder than that. So we fashioned a nice little ruse of our own and made phantom menaces of the ogs.”

The round man applauded, pleased as punch. “And the rest, as they say, is history!”

“Is everything clear now ‘O?” asked John Cap. “Do you get what our aim is here?”

“Oh yes, of course… at least I think so. But perhaps I’m still feeling some effects of having been left in limbo so long — tends to make for a wandering mind you know. So if you could put it in one tasty nutshell…”

Vaam stood up. Her voice was clear. “We must gain the trust of this guarded folk so they’ll hear our tales and join our quest.”

Morio had a hand cupped to his ear. Soon he was nodding vigorously.

“Sounds good to me! Let’s go! Oh — but shouldn’t we round up Ogdog first?”

Vaam spread her palms in a sign of calm. “I welcome your passion but we must stay patient. Let them come to us on their own. The leaves of this book will unfold in time. As for Ogdog, he’s found a job to do, albeit one you helped him happen into. We’ll see him again when it’s done.”

Morio looked a bit deflated. John Cap tried to perk him up.

“Maybe ‘O can be in charge of starting to think about our route back. We’ll need to go a different way seeing that it will be on foot.”

“Yes, I think that’s a fine idea.” Vaam gave her young friend a grateful wink.

“Have you still got that map of yours ‘O?”

In a moment of panic the moored man went pale, blood drained from his moon-like face. “The map?! Oh my! With all the commotion… I wonder if it’s where I…” And he reached for the thick sock around his right ankle.

His fingers went fishing and finally found the what that they sought and pulled it out. His pallor waxed back to rosy relief. “You know, I favor a heavy stocking and it has once again served me well. Nothing’s better in dark times of crisis like this. You really should try it, John Cap!”

“Sure…” said John Cap quizzically. “Next time I go shopping.”

Morio hardly heard the young man, so busy he was at working his find. At last it opened up. From a tiny square that fit in the palm unfolded a large sheet of leafy parchment. A long, ragged edge gave it the look of a page torn hastily from a book.

He turned the loose leaf over twice then around and upside down in a squint. “I see that the eyes no longer have it,” he noted to himself. “Nay… it’s still a measure dim in this room to study cartography such as this — a golden example of olden arts too fine to size up in the slightest darkness.”

He lifted the map toward the beam streaming in and pulled it taut between his hands. “Not beyond the shadow of a doubt but at least I can make some things out now. Border lines and legend runes… a title, ‘Sempyre of Syland,’ atop… It’s bound to help us navigate, if just to show the state we’re in.”

Morio rose to rest on his knees and pressed his face against the leaf. Then he muttered a few more words to himself as his nose took a brief tour of the coast.

“But more than that? The jury’s still out. I’m looking for some sign of magic in it. The ability to let us foresee. A hint of the power of prophecy. Or some kind of spirit locked in its key who can map a path through times to be and chart our future history…”

He lowered the page and sighed. “Perhaps I’ve set my sights too high… with hopes that border on pie in the sky… Or maybe I just need to shed more light. Come at this from another angle…”

~

Morio cast an impish eye at the hundred vine line hanging over his head. It wagged all along the hand-lit wall as if calling the schoolboy in him to come play.

“Let’s see about pulling some strings around here and letting in more of that light ‘o day. I have a string theory, you know…”

The would-be sage stretched as far as he could and tugged at the vine that hung nearest to him. Nothing happened in the room. But then…

They heard a distant horn.

“Out there, listen.”

“What was that?”

“No bird of the morn, Uncle M.”

“I guess my theory is not so sound,” said Morio shrugging his soft, round shoulders. “No matter. Just time to try, try again.”

“Maybe that’s not such a hot idea,” John Cap cautioned, stepping near. “Why go and waste your energy?”

“Then what, sit and take cold comfort instead? Don’t dread, dear watchman. There’s little to fear. Fat chance that hell’s reign will befall us here… Unless by our own idle hands we’re doomed in the relative shelter of this boarded room with such slim pickings for things to do.”

He stood half a-crouch to reach for the next and gave it a hearty heave-ho.

“Oh!”

Torrents of rainwater poured from above and soaked Morio from head to toe. Only the mitt with the map kept dry.

John Cap couldn’t hold back a critique. “That was more ‘Helter Skelter’ than ‘Gimme Shelter.’”

Lacking satisfaction with them, Vaam just let it be.

Belatedly, Morio stuck out his tongue and caught the last drips of some drops from his nose. “Now that was the drink I’ve been dreaming of. How sad that I never got the news.” He wagged his finger at the vine. “Next time, drop me a line.”

A cloud must have passed by the eye in the sky, stray ghost that cast a pall inside. Light fingers made gray fist… then reflexed, sun-kissed.

“And speaking of dropping a line — this fishing hole’s cold, its tales all trolled. We need to be moving on.” He turned. “Time to travel, leave the past, out of the blue and in from the black, back to the future that lies ahead on a road not yet made but driven instead by the lore of eons to come. A way from this wormy hold where we’re stuck.” He reeled and returned to his walleyed look. “Though I think I spy a hotter spot where casting away might bring more luck…”

With that Morio was off, knee-walking awkwardly all along the V-shaped trough beneath the vines, a gutter that caught their drops and joined the tar-specked wall and warped floorboards. He followed its track to the corner near Vaam and stopped at the last bunch of cords, breath gone.

“Whew!” he huffed with a swipe of his brow, “we’re getting somewhere now… I finally have it narrowed down…”

The sweaty man snatched up one more droopy rope, the next to last of the dangling links, and squeezed it tight in his ham-handed right with four sausage-like fingertips. “Okay my dear map, let there be light!”

Crrreak…

Crack!

Thump.

All of a sudden the floor’s tipped end dropped to an even sharper dip. And from the first chamber there came a “Grrr,” then an angry “Ouch!” and a very loud rip.

“Oomph,” was the sound that Morio made, landing in a heap. John Cap, arms out wide for balance, barely kept his feet. Only Vaam stood unaffected — her platform had not moved an inch.

The thrown one wasted little time trying to bounce back up again. But things were more unstable now, saddled with such a wrong angle as this.

“Sorry friends! That was not quite the plan.”

“Come on ‘O, stop horsing around.”

“Nay, worry not — I’ll make it right.”

Morio stuck the map in his mouth, clenched in his cornrow teeth. He took the final tail in both hands. He tried with all his might.

Bang! Crash!

“Uh-oh.”

WHOOSH…

~~~

There’s more Lore in store…

~~~

The illuminated lore project is an ongoing collaboration of
photographer Michael Leacher
and Lore of the Underlings author John Klobucher

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