Colostle: The Adventures of October O'Leary

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Memos, records, forms (completed and otherwise), notes, announcements and changes in procedures (both proposed and approved) fell like rain all day on the Mountain.

Well, not exactly like rain.

Rain came from the sky.

Paperwork poured through the Slots.

They were arranged in a neat grid, 20 slots across and 60 slots high, in the Wall, reaching almost to the sky.

When the paperwork fluttered down onto the Mountain, it was collected by junior assistant clerks. They in turn handed the paperwork off for sorting to assistant clerks. Once sorted, the paperwork would be placed onto carts and wagons and taken to Lower Filing. The city of Upper Filing was now too crowded and too busy to build more libraries or repositories.

When the Requisition came in, the junior clerks were flummoxed. Nothing like this had ever come through the Slots. They weren’t sure how to sort it. Instead of putting it on a cart or wagon, it was carried by a fast rider up to Upper Filing and presented, after a great deal of discussion, to the senior clerks.

The senior clerks were also flummoxed, although they didn’t share that with the clerks or especially with the junior clerks. They examined the Requisition carefully, making sure it wasn’t a forgery. No one wanted a repeat of the Incident.

After determining that the Requisition, astonishingly, appeared to be real, a delegation of the most senior clerks made the trek to Goldwatch.

There they consulted the retired senior clerks, to see if they have ever heard of anything like this happening. The Requisition was so shocking that, when the senior clerks returned to Upper Filing, there were fewer retired senior clerks in Goldwatch than when the senior clerks had arrived.

And so, finally, the senior clerks sent for October O’Leary.

October O’Leary, junior assistant hero, did not live in Upper Filing. Or even Lower Filing. He and his family lived in Annex, down on the lower slopes of the Mountain. It smelled like sheep and cow in Annex, because that’s where the farming was done.

Truthfully, October O’Leary was junior or assistant to no one, as there were no other heroes on the Mountain.

According to his grandfather, August O’Leary, there had never been a need for a hero. When the previous heroes had died of old age, they had never been replaced. During a reorganization, managing heroes stopped being the responsibility of any supervisors on the Org Chart. Now, there was no one left to promote an assistant hero to hero, to say nothing of junior assistant heroes to assistant heroes. After the last heroes and assistant heroes died of old age, only junior assistant heroes remained.

Because the O’Learys were always junior assistant heroes. That was the family business. Although there was no chance for promotion, there had never been any actual hero work to do.

None of this stopped October O’Leary. He spent the day practicing sword fighting, archery, climbing, swimming and public speaking -- all the things a hero needed to do.

His daily combat practice and exercising was something of a spectacle in the pastures around Annex. When October O’Leary would wander back into town, shirtless and gleaming with sweat, plunging his head into a trough of icy mountain water to cool off, the milkmaids used to whisper and giggle.

But October’s father, September O’Leary, said the milkmaids would grow out of ogling heroes and marry farmers or merchants or something more practical. He was constantly slipping books about accounting or animal husbandry under October’s pillow when he was out in the field, practicing.

October wasn’t discouraged. The Mountain, he knew, needed heroes. Even if no one could remember it ever happening.

So it was a modest shock to August O’Leary, September O’Leary and October O’Leary when October opened the front door to their shack in Annex one morning to find a delegation of assistant senior clerks standing on their doorstep, clutching the Requisition in their hands.

“There has been an urgent and immediate request for a hero,” the most senior assistant senior clerk said.
 

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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
“’Rescue urgently needed. I am a prisoner of Red Rook. I only have this prayer tube left. All other tubes gone. — MacKenzie Guffin,’” October O’Leary read out loud.

He looked up, confused. He was standing in well of the Executive Conference Room in Upper Filing, with senior clerks looking down from him all around from several tiers of desks.

“I’m sorry, who is MacKenzie Guffin?” October asked.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” the head senior clerk said, in a tone that suggested that he felt October O’Leary still could, if he put his mind to it. “I suppose you’re going to say that you don’t know anything about ‘Red Rook,’ either?”

“I don’t,” October said. “I’ve read all of the archives of previous heroes …”

“Copies of the archives,” another senior clerk interjected. “The originals have been filed.”

“Of course, my apology,” October said. “I don’t recall reading about McKenzie Guffin or Red Rook. I can double check, but I think there’s only one thing we can do.”

“Forget the whole thing and file the requisition under ‘Unknown,’” a third senior clerk agreed.

“Oh, no,” October said. “Someone needs help. I think I have to go find MacKenzie and rescue them from Red Rook, whoever and whatever that is.”
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Noble Steed stared at Lavender Green placidly.

If it had a cud, it would chew it.

Noble Steed had served the Heroic Families of Mount Charta since Marjoram Green, Lavenders’ great-great-great-great-grandmother, had brought Goliath Smith’s body strapped across its back. Marjoram had discovered Noble Steed after Goliath was killed by a Rook, one of the great stone automatons that roamed the Colostole.

Most Rooks left others alone unless disturbed, but Goliath and Marjoram had wanted the magic that powered this Rook for themselves. They climbed the castle-shaped creature, stealing inside and killing it from within, sending it plunging to the earth. Goliath had been crushed in the fall, and was instantly killed.

Inside the Rook at its heart was the Rookling that Marjoram named Noble Steed.

It was shaped like the Rook it had been found within, with a pointed head that looked like a castle tower. A long neck like a snake connected it to a broad tear-shaped body. Below that were two long towers that looked like thin bird legs, ending in three splayed toes on each foot.

When the Green family left heroism after the death of Mace, Noble Steed had wandered away from them, ignoring them like it ignored the other residents of Upper Filing, where the Green family had lived at the time. When the Smith family left heroism a generation later, after Mace’s assistant, Samson Smith and June O’Leary had vanished, Noble Steed ignored everyone but the O’Leary family.

And when September O’Leary had renounced heroism in favor of accountancy, Noble Steed wandered off into the meadows surrounding Annex, ignoring the humans of Mount Charta until one day, he appeared to the newlywed Lavender Green, carrying her back to Annex when she had found herself strangely out of breath while tending the Green family heard of cows.

Seven months later, when Lavender and September’s son was born, Noble Steed became a constant presence in their family, much to September’s irritation, carrying the infant October while his parents worked in the field or in the Annex counting house.

Although Lavender Green wasn’t a hero herself, she was thrilled her son had never wavered in his desire to be one. When he was little, they would lay in his bed at bedtime, whispering stories of their ancestors together.

September O’Leary insisted, as did most residents of the Mountain, that Samson and June had died on their adventure, or had run off together, abandoning their families. But Lavender and October liked to imagine the pair had journeyed farther than anyone else ever had through the Colostle, through all of the Known Roomlands and beyond, coming finally to the end of their world-sized castle, having crossed room that contained oceans and mountain ranges and deserts to do so.

Lavender straightened up and patted Noble Steed on its placid head.

“There. Saddle and saddle bags secure, a thick blanket over Stony Butt here,” she said, “so that should make your ride a little more bearable. But you may still want to get off and walk when you can.”

September O’Leary loudly sighed and crossed his arms, but said nothing.

“Thanks, Mom.” October O’Leary leaned down from where he was seated atop Noble Steed and kissed his mother on the cheek. “I will write as often as I can. I love you both.”

And so Lavender Green and September O’Leary watched October O’Leary ride off down the Mountain in search of Red Rook and MacKenzie Guffin.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Snow melt trickled in rivulets along the path as Noble Steed and October O’Leary descended the Mountain together.

October gave a friendly wave to the sentry at Reception Tower, who scanned the Mountain and the forest beyond with long binoculars long ago salvaged from a Rook.

The air was fresh and clean, the smell of new-fallen snow turning into crystal clear water and of wet earth preparing to burst forth with new green life in spring. And there was something else — smoke.

Smoke poured from the great chimney of Furnace. October nudged Noble Steed onto a narrow side path, well trodden despite the “FORBIDDEN — KEEP OUT” sign.

Mount and rider paused inside a small knot of trees along the path and October looked down at Furnace. The walls, battlements and gate were made from the head of a long-ago Rook, giving the outpost a threatening air. Only a select few were allowed inside Furnace, on direct orders from the senior clerks.

“Take a wrong turn, October O’Leary?” A large man stepped out of the shadows, holding a loaded crossbow.

“Nergal Jones,” October said, smiling, despite noticing Nergal did not point the crossbow at the ground. “No, I’m heading down the Mountain on a heroic quest and just thought I’d take in the sights on the way down. It might be a while before I come back this way again.”

Nergal scowled.

“Heroic quest? Where did you get …”

October held out the Requisition.

“We received this earlier this morning. I’ve met with the senior clerks. I’m going to find Red Rook and MacKenzie Guffin.”

“That’s impossible!” Nergal burst out, reaching for the Requisition with meaty fingers.

“This is just a copy, of course. The senior clerks have the original in Upper Filing.”

Nergal’s hand dropped, his expression now neutral.

“Of course.”

October glanced toward Furnace, watching the white smoke rise from the chimney. Nergal’s wife, Persephone, had stepped out onto the ramparts, with a loaded crossbow of her own. Their enormous son, Chernobog, stood before the gate, hands resting on the crosspiece of a sword longer than October was tall and wider than his torso.

“Be careful out there,” Nergal said quietly. “Anything could happen to you.”

“When I come back,” October O’Leary said, backing Noble Steed slowly away. “Maybe I could get a tour of Furnace and discuss all of this further.”

“Maybe so,” Nergal said, stepping back into the shadows of the trees, his voice taking on a strange tone. “Say hello to your father for me.”

October made sure to keep Noble Steed moving slowly and calmly away from Furnace, despite an unbearable itching between his shoulder blades screamed at him to do otherwise.

About an hour later, he reached the bottom of the Mountain, where the melting snow had turned into icy streams that Noble Steed’s wide feet splashed through. October O’Leary had been down this far before, once or twice, but not for a long time, and he paused to get his bearings when the wall of greenery before him began to sway. Birds exploded from the trees as the sound of wood splintering cut through the air.

A Rook, taller than the tallest building in Upper Filing, shouldered its way out of the Forest, with feet as big as the O’Leary home crushing bushes underfoot and sending boulders flying.

“Oh, oh, it’s coming this way!”

October raced Noble Steed out of the Rook’s path. Craning his head around to see where the Rook was going — not up the mountain, but along its base, now in the same direction October was traveling, although it seemed to have taken no notice of him — he almost missed the

PIT!”

October pulled with his knees to the left, barely avoiding a pit big enough to swallow a herd of cows. He and Noble Steed stumbled into a nearby cave, watching as the Rook’s massive foot just missed the pit, not even slowing in its progress along the forest’s edge for a moment more before disappearing once more into the greenery.

“So close!” The voice so close to October’s ear made him yelp in fear.

A grinning young woman, whose a mechanical third arm casually twirled a spear, stepped out of the cave beside him.

“I was hoping he’d stumble and we could run up inside him.”

“Oh, you’re a Rook Hunter,” October said, feeling foolish the moment the words were out. Of course she was.

“Ruby Cash’s the name,” she said, grinning, sticking out one of the two hands she was born with. “That one was big enough for both of us to share.”

“October O’Leary. I’m not actually a Rook Hunter, I’m a junior assistant hero from Annex.”

Now it was Ruby’s turn to gape in amazement.

“One of the madmen of the mountain?”

“Well, I …”

“I heard you all worship pieces of paper that fall out of the sky.”

“That’s not exactly …”

“Sorry, what are you doing here?”

“I have this piece of paper …” October froze, the copy of the Requisition in his hand. “I’m on a quest. Have you ever heard of Red Rook? Or MacKenzie Guffin?”

Ruby gently took the paper and read it over, examining both sides of it in fascination.

“I can’t say that I have. And this came out of the sky?”

“From one of the Slots in the wall.”

“Amazing,” Ruby said, handing the Requisition back. “I would ask at the Hunter’s Guild in one of the cities. They’d probably know what this Red Rook is and where you could find it.”

“Thank you, that’s good advice.”

“I’d go with you, but I spent too long digging that pit. I just need to make it a little wider and I think I can trip that big boy and get inside him.”

“You’ve given me plenty of help already,” October said, climbing back aboard Noble Steed. “Good luck with the Rook.”

“Good luck on your quest.”

And October and Noble Steed rode along a stream and into the woods, avoiding the path of destruction left behind by the giant Rook.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
A week later and October O'Leary had gotten no closer to finding MacKenzie Guffin. He had asked after MacKenzie and Red Rook in the villages of Alder, Maple and Sycamore, and no one had ever heard of either. But they had heard of the Mountain and were fascinated to meet a resident.

The residents of the villages called this room Cubicus and the great woods that filled it the Cubicus Forest, names October didn’t recall ever having heard. The world was already larger and more complicated than he had ever imagined back in Annex.

And now it was three days later and October was out of food, thanks to torrential rain and a poorly secured pack. He had gotten a smoky little fire going in the shadow of a ruined staircase that stretched up to the sky, but with a gap between the remaining stairs of hundreds of feet. October had no food to cook, but he could at least dry out his spare clothes.

There was a wet sound of a foot leaves. October looked up into the glowing ember eyes of a roast pork. The boar was as tall as October was at the shoulder, with tusks like burning coals and steam coming off its flank. It dug in with its hind hooves as it pawed the ground with its front ones and watched October reach for his bow and arrows.

The roast pork stamped its paw and spit a gout of flame at October.

“Yikes!”

Unable to dive out of the way in time, October raised his forearm to block the flames. Forcing himself to block out the pain, he fired an arrow just as the roast pork opened its mouth to breathe flame again. The great beast made a gurgling noise and fell flat.

It tasted delicious.

Two days later, with a backpack full of self-cooked pork, October O’Leary came to a stony shore on the far side of the Cubicus Forest. A long crack in the eastern wall was filled with rolling seas, lashed by a storm high overhead in the crack between rooms.

Out in the tunnel, he watched a Rook, probably twice as tall as he was, walk through the waves, bringing driftwood ashore from a wreck somewhere in the tunnel.

The Rook wouldn’t attack October if he didn’t attack it — probably — but he kept his distance all the same, only approaching the growing pile of wood when the Rook returned to the tunnel.

He had only read about them in books as part of his training, but October guessed that this wood, with bits of metal attached to some pieces of it, was all from a boat or a ship.

October did a double-take and ran to the wood, brushing a ruined piece of rope aside.

“M. G. was here,” someone had carved into the wood, some time ago.

He looked at the Rook, splashing around in the rough waves. And beyond it, a dark sea and, beyond even that, brightly lit water in another
room beyond the wall.

“Well, I guess I need to find a boat.”
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
As October O’Leary dragged the little salvaged sailboat onto shore, he was greeted by leveled spears.

“Good morning,” he smiled, glancing up at the sky. Day seemed to start a little earlier on this side of what he thought of as the Tunnel Sea, compared to back home. “I’m here on a quest.”

The guards, each of whom had the body of a man, but stubby arms and legs and faces covered in tan, white or black fur, with short snouts and pointed ears, glanced at one another.

“You know about that?” one asked eventually.

October blinked in surprise.

“It's why I’m here.”

The guards awkwardly looked at their spears and lowered them slowly.

“Well, in that case, come with us to meet the prince.”

Their city was built amidst enormous ruined pillars, with newer construction built from the scavenged white stone. On one side, the city looked over the rocky beach and on the other side, gently rolling green meadows.

The locals watched cautiously at October and Noble Steed were marched by spear-carrying guards through their midst.

“Good morning! Lovely city you have here!” he said, smiling and waving. His earlier attempts to shake hands had caused the locals to pull back nervously.

Finally, he was marched up a series of tiny steps to an open-roofed chamber ringed with pillars.

There was a blast of horns and October and the guards stopped several paces away from an open-backed throne, upon which sat another one of their people atop a plush red cushion and wearing an ornate crown.

“Your highness, we present the prisoner, October O’Leary, junior assistant hero, brought here as you commanded! October O’Leary, kneel before Titus Pembroke, King of Corgwn!”

October knelt.

“You are here, October O’Leary, to perform a quest — ”

“Yes, we got the paperwork,” October said agreeably.

Titus blinked in surprise.

“‘Paperwork?’ Did someone file some paperwork?”

His court murmured in confusion, shaking their heads.

“We filed no paperwork!” Titus roared, a rather small sound, although filled with as much menace as he could. “Our people are defenseless. We need you to go and retrieve Long Sword from where it rests.”

“Oh, OK. I’ll be happy to do that. Where does it rest?”

“Inside the Great Rook, which blocks out the sky when it comes near.”

“Ah. And what’s so special about this Long Sword?”

Titus shifted on this throne.

“Well, it’s a magically … long sword. With it, the champions of Corgwn can fight just as well as a long-limbed human.”

October nodded.

“You will do this or our dungeons will have another guest!” Titus said, recovering his composure with a surge of anger. “There is no refusing my will!”

“Certainly,” October said. “I already said yes.”

“And no back talk!”

October nodded and gave the king a silent thumbs-up.

“Anyway,” Titus said, calming down. “I am a benevolent ruler. Do this, and you will be richly rewarded, with a magic item that a hero like yourself —”

“Junior assistant hero, your majesty.”

“That a junior assistant hero like yourself will find most valuable.”

“It’s not necessary, but greatly appreciated, your majesty. Just point me at this Great Rook.”

As they had said, the Great Rook was tall enough to blot out the sky when it wandered by, its massive feet crushing fallen pillars into rubble as it did.

“I don’t suppose it would stop and let me inside if I asked, would it?” October said to Noble Steed, watching the enormous Rook walk with what, to it, would be a leisurely pace. Noble Steed would need to run all-out in order to keep pace.

“Three, two, one — GO!”

Noble Steed instantly sprang to life, running at full speed, where a living mount would have had to gradually accelerated. The Great Rook was faster, but Noble Steed and October O’Leary had started ahead of it and October steered his companion over toward the path taken by the Rook, trying to be as close as possible to one great foot without being crushed beneath it.

“Just a little closer …”

And October leapt, his fingers desperately trying to find a gap between the stones of the giant’s foot, even as he was lifted back up off the ground in long, easy strides, the Great Rook seeming to not even have noticed him.

“OK, you’ve got this. Just don’t look down.”

This was something October had trained for, scaling the Wall nearest to Annex almost as soon as he could walk, climbing as high as the uppermost Slots as a young man.

But the Wall wasn’t in constant rolling motion, as capable of killing him by flinging him a quarter of a mile as by simply causing him to lose his grip and plummet to his death.

Looking up, he spotted a hole leading to the interior of the Rook, where the leg met the creature’s torso, opening and closing as it walked. Climbing closer, October counted out the seconds that the gap was open. Lingering too long would mean getting crushed to death by the swinging leg.

But the people of Corgwn needed him, so he leapt.

October didn’t know if he should be disappointed that inside of the Rook was so normal. Certainly, most castles weren’t in constant motion, with their floors rocking back and forth, but otherwise, it was just a castle. True, the carved stone statues turned and watched him go by and when he once grabbed his sword to keep it from slipping out of his scabbard, several of them stepped halfway off their pedestals before he took his hand back off the hilt. But otherwise, it was just a castle.

“If I were a magic sword, where would I be?”

In the end, he found the sword stuck in the corner of what appeared to be a throne room.

A thing made of stone, with spinning crenelated discs that could have been the tops of castle towers or gears, ground away a top a throne, surrounded by armed Rooklings. Their heads turned toward October as he came in. Stuck behind what appeared to be a stone vase — who was building a vase inside a Rook and why? — was a sword in a scabbard. True to its name, Long Sword was enormous in length, but October found it easy to lift and handle.

The Rooklings watched him and Long Sword closely. He could be at the throne in a minute and there was a top-most spinning disc that glittered as though made of gold, rather than stone. During his training, he had learned that inside each Rook, there was a magical component that would give the one who claimed it great power, typically was an arm, a weapon or even a helm that allowed the possessor to work magic.

There were eight Rooklings. Defeating them all and claiming the crown would be hard …

Titus Pembroke, King of Corgwn, was a little surprised to see October O’Leary return to his throne room. But any harsh feelings he might have felt toward the human boy vanished when he saw —

“LONG SWORD!” he snatched the weapon from October’s hands and drew the blade, which moved through the air like a dream. “You have saved Corgwn! You have our eternal gratitude!”

“And the reward you promised,” October said.

“What’s that?”

Titus whirled the sword back and forth, marveling at the easy with which it could be wielded.

“Oh, very well. Give the boy the key. It can open up any lock in the Colostle, but only once -- then it vanishes.”

October took it from the opened strongbox proffered to him. He held the over-sized gold key up, letting the daylight sparkle on it.

“Any lock, you say?”

“Yes, of course,” a distracted Titus said.

“In that case, which way to your dungeons?”

Despite Titus’ bluster, the dungeons were largely empty. October only found one cell occupied, by a young woman carefully writing in a book.

“And what did you do to land in here?” October raised a finger, interrupting Titus, who was about to offer his version of events.

“The king insisted I fight a giant Rook for him. He wouldn’t believe I’m just a scholar and threw me in here.”

October glanced back at Titus, who just shrugged.

“OK, then.” He took the magic key, which shrank to fit into the cell’s lock and opened the door, dissolving away once he had done so.

“We’ll be going now, your majesty,” October smiled. “I hope Long Sword is everything you hoped it would be.”
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
October O’Leary held the bowstring steady, sighting down the arrow at his quarry.

It was a beautiful specimen, its dappled hide sleek, its blackberry eyes glistening, its antlers green and thick with flowers.

The arrow took the beast in the throat and it fell onto the grassy meadow without a sound, its death as quick and painless as October could manage.

He carried the beast over his shoulders back into the ruins, where his companion had gotten a good fire going and was prepared to cook. Laying the beast by the fire, October opened his field, pulling out his hunting knife and setting aside a saw and small shovel.

“Don’t you need to hoist it up before dressing it?” his companion asked, still rubbing sleep out of her eyes.

“No need,” October said, making a shallow cut beneath the beast’s chin and drawing the blade down along its neck and torso. “This is vegison. It’s a plant that grows in the shape of a deer.”

The hide parted cleanly under the knife, as October was careful not to nick anything inside that might leak juice. Once the plant-beast was opened, he twisted each organ free from the stem that ran along the beast’s interior. Ruby red heartfruit, pomegranate lungs, a long twisted string of plantains where a deer’s intestines might be.

“We can — we should — eat all of it. What we can’t eat today, we can dry; vegison keeps well.”

As the young woman began slicing up the heartfruit, October sawed off the vegison’s antlers and then picked up the shovel.

“These should take root nicely; in a year or so, they’ll each grow another full-sized buck.”

October had just finished burying the base of each antler into their own pile of mounded earth, which he had covered in fallen leaves and bark to keep from drying out, when a sound from the tree line made him look up and smile.

“Ruby! How nice to see you again!”

Ruby Cash stepped out of the trees, her third arm clearing the branches away from her face as she did.

“October O’Leary, I didn’t expect to see your friendly face again so soon.”

While October was fresh-scrubbed and well-fed, the Rook hunter looked worn, filthy and hungry. When the smell of cooking vegison drifted into the clearing, she licked her lips in anticipation.

“Come on,” October said, rising to his feet. “There’s plenty for everyone.”

Ruby trailed October back to the ruins, craning her neck at the huge statues of sword-faced bird people who guarded the entrance.

“Good eaters, weren’t they?” she said, bemused at what appeared to be the stout bellies of the long-dead inhabitants of the city.

The other woman rose from beside the campfire and Noble Steed swiveled its head around at the sound of two people returning from the woods.

“Marcia Polo, I’d like to introduce the Rook hunter Ruby Cash. Ruby, Marcia is an explorer and scholar from the great city of Parapette.”

“Are you the one he was coming to rescue?” Ruby said, shaking hands with the smaller woman.

“MacKenzie Guffin? No, although he did rescue me.”

October scoffed and gestured for Ruby to sit down and eat breakfast with them.

“Hold on,” Ruby said, sitting back after finally eating her fill, “you had a Rook dead to rights and didn’t slay it and take its magic?”

“He couldn’t risk it,” Marcia said, who had debated this with October repeatedly, “because if he failed, there would be no one to rescue MacKenzie, whoever she is.”

“That’s right,” October said, standing and taking everyone’s dishes to wash at a nearby stream.

“Is it possible that he’s crazy?” Ruby said, finishing the last of her breakfast.

Later, as the tree of them hiked through the ruins, Noble Steed, carrying their bags, Ruby spun slowly as she walked, taking in the remains of the bird-people’s empire.

“So who were they?”

“We don’t know,” Marcia said. “There are ruins throughout the Colostle of civilizations older than ours, of people who are long gone. The inhabitants of this civilization had a form of writing, although it’s not any language I know. When I get back to Parapette, I’ll organize a full expedition to come back here and to record everything we can and see if we can learn more about who they were and where they went. For now, I’m just calling them the Triangle-Circle-Triangle-Circle People, after the markings over each of their intact gates.”

“What is that?” Marcia says to herself, but loudly enough for the others to hear.

If the next plaza was like the seemingly endless bleached stone plazas they had already passed through, there would be a fountain there. But instead, there was a dark structure of a different material instead, along with wires and clear tubes emerging from it and then burying themselves back in further along.

The party stopped to inspect the structure.

“Whatever it is, it’s broken,” Ruby said, pulling a large white stone off a splintered clear tube. “It looks like one of these columns fell over, and sent this brick into it.”

“It didn’t happen that long ago, though,” Marcia said, getting our her sketchbook and pens and finding a place to sit. “There’s very little dust on anything and no moss or plants have grown on it.”

October thoughtfully stuck his hand into the tube, careful not to cut himself on the jagged edges, seeing that his forearm could fit partly inside.

“I wonder who came along and put this here. It seems newer than the Triangle-Circle-Triangle-Circle People. There’s something in — ow.”

“Don’t cut yourself,” Marcia said, not looking up from her sketchbook.

October slowly pulled his arm from the tube. In his hand, he held a clear canister with dark caps on either end.

“There’s paper inside,” Ruby said, coming over to look.

October twisted one cap and the canister opened with a pop and withdrew the scrap of paper.

“‘Please help. This is the next to last prayer tube. I am a prisoner of Red Rook, in the Great Volcano Room. Big Bad Beardo the Mad is planning something awful. Please bring help soon. — MacKenzie Guffin.’”

Marcia and Ruby gaped at October.

“Did she know you’d be here?” Ruby asked finally.

“I don’t think so,” October said, looking over at the contraption. “I think this was meant for the Slots but this machine was broken.”

“There must be other machines like this that still work,” Marcia said.

“Do you know where this Great Volcano Room is? Or who Big Bad Beardo the Mad is?” October said, hope rising in his voice.

“No, but they’ll know in Parapette. So I guess that’s our next stop.”
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
October O’Leary, Ruby Cash and Marcia Polo pushed their way out of the woods and gasped in relief at the fresh air and light after days in the nearly lightless forest.

It took them a moment to take in what was in the valley before them.

“That … is big,” Ruby said after a moment.

"Do you mean the giant staircase leading up into the clouds — ” Marcia began.

“Or the skeleton the size of a city?” October finished.

“Yes,” Ruby said. “Both.”

“Actually,” October said, bringing up his binoculars, “there is a village in there. And it’s on fire! Noble Steed, let’s go!”

“October, stop!” Ruby yelled.

“And he’s gone,” Marcia sighed, watching October and Noble Steed race heedlessly down to the village in the valley below. Stretched along the bowl-shaped depression was what appeared to be an enormous human skeleton, its bones long ago bleached and bare, stretched out at the base of a staircase that it appeared to have tumbled off of.

“Well, I guess we’d better get after him,” Ruby said, hoisting her spear with her third arm, and jogging down the hill after Noble Steed.

The village wasn’t much — just animal hides sewn across frames that appeared to be some of the smaller bones from the giant’s skeleton. As he rode down into the valley, October could see simple fields of crops and pastures with herd animals.

But the villagers were screaming in panic, and not just from the fire.

There were other figures moving among them, with spears and swords, and some with mounts of their own, menacing the figures.

“Bandits,” October growled, drawing his sword and bending low over Noble Steed’s back.

At the sight of him, the bandits — who had clearly not been encountering any meaningful resistance — scattered, leaping onto their mounts and riding away, despite the fact that they outnumbered October 10 to 1.

October gripped the hilt of his sword painfully tight before angrily sheathing it and running to join the bucket line putting out the fires.

By the time Marcia got into the village, huffing and holding a stitch in her side, the villagers, October and Ruby — who had arrived about 10 minutes ahead of Marcia — had gotten the fires out and October was talking to their long-faced chieftain.

“— but I don’t need any reward,” October was saying.

“What’s he turning down now?” Marcia puffed, leaning over and bracing her hands on her knees.

“Some old idol they dug up,” Ruby replied, wiping the soot and smoke off her face with a wet rag.

“Ooh, I’ll take that,” Marcia said, straightening up.

“Well, Chief Cunningham has offered to give me this idol in return for driving off the bandits permanently,” October said, smiling a little. “Does that mean you’re coming?”

“Oh.”
 


Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
He gripped the edge of the battlement, his human hand gripping the stone painfully, his mechanical hand actually causing the stone to crack.

What were those idiots doing?

His raiders were more than a match for the farmers from Shrub, which many of his raiders had once been, before their farms had failed. They had been easy to recruit into his army, even if few of them seemed to grasp his vision. But most of them had been happy enough to enforce his edict that the residents of Shrub and the surrounding farms must pay his “tithe” or see their homes and crops burn.

But terrorizing their former neighbors seemed to be the limit of their abilities.

At the moment, a boy mounted on a rookling was making a fool of them.

He had a sword, but he wasn’t actually attacking any of them with it. Instead, he’d ride in, whooping and hollering loudly enough to be heard even from the top of the battlement and a handful of raiders would chase after him, as he was riding just fast enough to stay out of reach but slow enough to convince this uneducated rabble to think they could catch up on foot. Then he’d ride down the hill, out of sight, and the exhausted raiders would follow and find themselves surrounded by farmers with pitchforks. Even at this distance, he could see them throwing down their spears and axes and surrendering.

And then the boy would ride up again, whooping and hollering joyfully, and the next group of his idiots would fall for the trick all over again.

Idiocy!

To think, he had hoped to build his empire with these yokels as his army!

Finally, the boy stopped, looking up at the battlement, his face flush with excitement. Even from here, he could see the sun gleaming off his broad smile.

“I think you’re out of bandits,” the boy called up. “Are you ready to surrender?”

“No,” he called down, trying to keep the rage out of his voice. “Are you ready to fight a duel to the death?”

“I’d rather not,” the boy called up. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

As he spoke, the farmers stepped out from behind the walls, bows and slings and hunting spears in their hands. If he leaped down and attacked the boy, he might cut him down, and most of the farmers would miss him — but enough of them wouldn’t.

“No, I suppose not. What is your name, boy?”

“October O’Leary. What’s yours?”

“Orion O’Brien.”

His mechanical hand, made of scavenged rook parts, released the stone wall and began reassembling itself into a series of blades, fanning out from his wrist. He raised his hand over his head as the blades began to whirl rapidly.

“I’m going to kill you some day, October O’Leary.”

“Not today, though,” October called back, as the spinning blades lifted Orion off the ground and into the clouds above the bandit camp.

“No, not today.”
 
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