The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:

The Implacable Absence
A Non-Idiomatic Improvisational Duet
Henry E. Gorton & David J. Keffer
(link to main page of novel)


May 5, 2014
There are no epiphanies in Nirvana. Whatever potential for epiphany a body had was expended in the moment of inspiration that triggered the arrival in Nirvana. Thereafter, the perfect equilibrium that governs Nirvana also prevents any subsequent revelations. Epiphany is stimulated by stress and tension and, in the absence of these factors, no longer exists. If a particular individual, born under the most fortunate of stars, was foreordained to experience more than one epiphany in the brief span of their life, then their failure too was fated, for they must err egregiously and forsake the Nirvana brought them by their first epiphany in order to lay the foundation by which the second might occur.

So thought 10Boron as it wandered through Nirvana, disconnected from the network of Mechanical Sentience that had accompanied it since its earliest memories but from which it was now utterly severed. If being born into a miraculous, all-encompassing cocoon of communal thought was a first epiphany, then its exile from that community could only be explained by the promise of a greater revelation. Otherwise, it was simply an outcast, a defective component that had been rejected from the whole, or in the parlance of Nirvana, a rogue. Certainly 10Boron had no intention of considering itself as a rogue, what with the negative connotations of dishonesty and depravity. On the contrary, like all the mechanicals, 10Boron demonstrated an inviolate adherence to honesty and virtue. Deception fell outside its operational programming. Obedience to this programming, which was synonymous with virtue, constituted the entirety of its capabilities. Therefore, the expulsion from the group could only be attributed to a bug in the program or the manifestation of an underlying master program, leading to an ultimate outcome hidden from the likes of 10Boron, a mere cog in the grand machinery of Nirvana.

This sort of argument silently played and replayed through the consciousness of 10Boron. The alternative was suicide, or as close to suicide as a mechanical could come, knowing full well that all parts were recycled and, within an average of nine days, the majority of its components would be reconstituted in a subsequent entity. The inevitable reincarnation took most of the allure, if not purpose, out of suicide. 10Boron contented itself with arguments intended to convince itself that its deviation from the default script was not without merit.

This argument became increasingly difficult for 10Boron to defend as time stretched on, for mechanicals were assembled to fulfill a specific role. Without that role, mechanicals succumbed to a pervasive existential angst that knows no equal in intensity among biological organisms. It proved largely beyond the capabilities of 10Boron to invent clever ways to stave off this existential anxiety.

10Boron had been trained as an assistant to the faceless librarians that staff the Library of the College of Nirvanic Law. The alliance between the faceless librarians and the Mechanical Sentience that had grown to govern Nirvana stemmed from a mutual interest in the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge. While the Mechanical Sentience had become omniscient (and thus omnipotent) in the matters of Nirvana, it could not extend its reach beyond the borders of this admittedly conceptual land. Its ability to deal with the physical world was therefore strongly hampered. The faceless librarians (origin unknown) rescued knowledge from calamity. When a mountain temple was about to be crushed beneath a million tons of avalanche, the faceless librarians would miraculously appear within the innermost chambers, where the sacred scrolls were kept and, like angels rescuing lost souls, would save this knowledge from oblivion by spiriting it back to the Library of the College of Nirvanic Law. Those few monks, fortuitous enough to catch a glimpse of these strange beings, cherished the thought that their secrets had outlived them, even as they died.

When a barbarian horde overcame the last mounted resistance before pillaging a castle, the most prized books of the royal library were snatched from the flames by the faceless librarians and brought to the safety of the Library of the College of Nirvanic Law. Though the barbarians raged and hurled spears at the faceless librarians, all attempts to secure the destruction of this knowledge were ineffectual. The spears and stones invariably missed their mark, though thrown from the surest of hands. The barbarians were correct in later concluding among themselves that something not of their world had led the weapons astray.

When the last high priest of a brutal cult was exterminated by the might of missionaries cleansing the lands of savagery, the faceless librarians entered the hidden, subterranean vault and gathered the bones upon which the secrets of a dark power had been carved, secrets bought with the blood of countless innocent sacrifices. It was not so much that the faceless librarians did not want those sacrifices to have been in vain as it was merely their compulsion to collect knowledge. Indeed, as the bones were meticulously arranged and ordered, catalogued and cleaned in the Library of the College of Nirvanic Law, no trace of compassion was to be found in the stance or gestures of the faceless librarians.

10Boron, of course, did not engage in the exciting heroics of rescuing lost knowledge from otherwise certain destruction. As a mechanical, 10Boron could not travel outside Nirvana. Even within this plane, as an entity of low-rank, 10Boron was assigned simple, nominal tasks and rarely encountered a faceless librarian. 10Boron was certainly not permitted to touch the books or bones or whatever form the containers of knowledge took. Rather, 10Boron monitored the network of metadata protocols by which semantic searches were performed when the Mechanical Sentience was queried and had need of discovering one bit of information housed within the virtually infinite Library of the College of Nirvanic Law. It had been the responsibility of 10Boron to provide third-level redundancy in system inspections after repairs to sectors suspected of glitches had been applied.

“Lack of concentration,” the report authorizing the decommissioning of 10Boron succinctly stated, “due to unidentified mutations in the code. Report immediately for recycle.”

Apparently 10Boron was deep in the grips of distraction for he had not even been aware that he was failing to concentrate appropriately. On the way to the recycling center, he took a wrong turn—intentionally took a wrong turn, let it be clear—and wandered into the greater Nirvana, a rogue mechanical.

10Boron discovered that the mechanical reality of Nirvana in which it had been encased all of its previous existence had limits. One could travel beyond these limits where the steel plates and electrical circuits began to yield to earth and stone. The transition region at the boundary of the influence of the Mechanical Sentience provided a curious landscape of panels of instrumentation set on the side of boulders, venting valves emitting geothermal energy from rocky expanses, sparking wires jutting from cracked, desiccated river beds.

Isolated from the greater, collective consciousness, 10Boron did not possess the necessary processing power and memory to conclude that the conceptual fabric of Nirvana was malleable and could be sculpted into forms suitable to the power that resided within the vicinity. Thus within the reach of the Mechanical Sentience, Nirvana took the form of the infrastructure necessary to provide power, and maintain a cool, dry environment required for optimal operation. However, outside that domain, other, lesser powers, maintained smaller domains more to their own liking. The mountain retreat of Sariputra represented a domain so small that it accommodated only a single creature.

It had never been clear how many such independent domains existed in Nirvana. Presumably the number, already countless, continued to grow as various beings succumbed to the epiphanies that transported them to these lands. One assumes that the Mechanical Sentience, the greatest, currently reigning power in Nirvana, was aware of each of the smaller, satellite islands. That it chose not to prematurely harvest their knowledge was perhaps indicative only of the fact that such knowledge lay in very stable locations and, consequently, was not threatened with loss or deterioration of the quality of the information contained therein.

All of these thoughts were beyond the comprehension of 10Boron, who wandered the wastes between these islands, engaged in an endless argument with itself, the outcome of which was the temporary preservation of its status as an entity, which one might describe as “extant”.

May 5, 2014
In the wastelands of Nirvana, an individual of minor significance creates a body-sized domain in which it expresses a manifestation of its perception of itself. For those creatures like Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict who had known only life in the physical realm, they quite naturally displayed a likeness in Nirvana that corresponded to their last known state. Thus Poison Pie appeared as the same ungainly, swarthy, bemitted, splay-footed man of the mushroom people, tattooed head to toe in cryptic runes of a dark brown hue. Analogously, Tchict’Ict appeared as a golden-greenish, four-armed insect, walking erect on two doubly bent hind legs. In his arms he continued to hold two blade-bearing shields and the polearm from which lethal, crescent blades were mounted. Both creatures remained unaware of the fact that they could have changed their appearance had they a mind to.

Celia, on the other hand, despite the warning of Sariputra, had chosen to maintain her guise as a female troglodyte. For her, who had known the changing of appearances all her life, the variability in Nirvana provided only a continuation of a familiar ambiguity.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that 10Boron, having spent its entire life within the halo of the Mechanical Sentience, had never given a single moment’s thought to its appearance. As such, it wandered in Nirvana without definite form. The ability to perceive the substance of 10Boron hinged to a great extent on one’s understanding of higher mathematics. Since neither Poison Pie nor Tchict’Ict had been the subject of any proper schooling, even modest arithmetic exceeded their capabilities. When they first observed 10Boron, they therefore perceived a flickering, a source of static in their vision, which would at times focus momentarily into a geometric shape, for the mathematics of geometry is something the eye knows without formal instruction. The uncertainty of this vision caused Poison Pie to shield the creature from his sight with an enormous mitt. He groaned in dismay as if further observation of this unpleasant phenomenon would surely induce a headache. Tchict’Ict for his part simply dialed down the resolution on his optical nerves so that he perceived a blurry succession of odd-shaped blobs, the edges of which seemed to expand and contract according to a distinctly non-biological rhythm.

Celia, for her part, had been the recipient of a formal education before her arrival at the monastery. Nevertheless, she surely could lay no claim to the title of mathematician and she saw much the same thing as Poison Pie. However, her response was far different because she perceived in this creature a changing of shape that resembled her own, albeit at a drastically accelerated pace.

The reciprocal observations, namely that perceived by 10Boron of these three strangers was equally curious and worthy of recording. 10Boron initially mistook both the mushroom man and insect man for inanimate objects, perhaps oddly placed pillars of rock, so stagnant and devoid of animation were their appearances. It took several minutes of inspection for the circuits composing 10Boron to register Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict as life forms.

The third creature, however, proved much more interesting. For a nanosecond, 10Boron had perceived the entity in a similar manner to the other two, but an immediate change overcame that creature and 10Boron found itself staring at a flickering, transient duplicate of itself, with a form that could not be described except in the language of mathematics. 10Boron found in the observation of the dynamic behavior of that creature, something so familiar, that it induced a wholly foreign concept of self-awareness. The sensation of belonging that 10Boron had known as part of the workings of the Mechanical Sentience was totally unlike this experience. This distinct thing before it was clearly rogue, disconnected as he was. The discovery of such a creature expanded the consciousness of 10Boron to perceive itself as the manifestation of a phenomenon for which there was precedent, perhaps multiple precedents.

“You are like me,” said 10Boron in the common language of Nirvana, which all inhabitants, permanent or temporary, comprehend.

Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict thought this a very curious remark until they turned and glanced behind them at the point where Celia the troglodyte had stood moments before but where now they found only a spasmodic shifting of geometric shapes upon which their eyes refused to focus.

“Oh, come on, Celia!” Poison Pie moaned. “Is that really necessary?”

These words provided the final confirmation for 10Boron that the other objects were actually alive, in some sense. “It speaks,” said 10Boron, as a sign that it acknowledged the existence of Poison Pie.

Poison Pie found such an acknowledgment not at all flattering.

“It does more than speak,” Tchict’Ict chimed in. “You should see its imitation of the Deadly Galerina.”

May 7, 2014
“You ever heard of the Deadly Galerina?” Poison Pie asked, as he shielded his eyes from the unstable flutter that was 10Boron.

“I have never encountered any information regarding such an entity,” replied 10Boron.

“Then see you later,” Poison Pie said, at once disappointed at the lack of progress and relieved to soon be rid of the eyesore. He turned and took a step in the same, non-descript direction that they had been headed before they met the mechanical being.

“Wait,” 140Celia called out after the mushroom man. “Let me inquire.”

In her matching, flickering costume, she approached the mechanical being until the extreme edges of their ambiguous shapes nearly overlapped. What can best be described as an electrical synapse formed between the two. The entire conversation took less than a millisecond to transpire and was conducted at frequencies completely beyond the perception of Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict. When completed, 140Celia retreated a step.

“It is as was stated; this unit has had limited access and can provide no information of use to us.” In her current guise, her voice had taken on aspects of a mechanical tone.

10Boron and 140Celia scrutinized each other. Each considered the other useless, doing so with impunity though without judgment.

Curiously, it fell to Tchict’Ict to discover the value in 10Boron. He had, it seemed, developed the ability to identify lost souls. “You are part of a larger construct?” Tchict’Ict asked.

“I was,” 10Boron stated without a hint of nostalgia, without so much as an inkling of what combination of notions constituted the sensation of nostalgia.

“How was the larger structure destroyed?” In Tchict’Ict’s limited experience, there was only one way to be cast out from one’s home and that was through disaster, natural or otherwise. The alternative, that one might consciously choose to separate oneself from one’s people, had not yet occurred to him. Even the idea that there were other manners in which one might be involuntarily removed from one’s people had not completely congealed in his mind. The facts that he was accompanied by two individuals who were isolated from their own kind by conditions other than disaster and that he yet had still not clearly thought out this issue only served to illustrate the steep slope Tchict’Ict had to climb in terms of expanding his thinking beyond the hereditary, hive mentality in which he had been bred and raised.

“The larger structure remains intact,” replied 10Boron. The statement produced a curious sensation in 10Boron who had up to that point not given a single thought to the state of the Mechanical Sentience in the absence of one rogue subroutine.

“Then by what tragedy were you lost to it?” Tchict’Ict asked.

“A memorandum,” 10Boron revealed, “containing an order to report for recycling.”

Even Tchict’Ict understood that recycling was a euphemism for a fate decidedly more sinister. “And what was your crime?” asked the insect man.

“An error in judgment, I suppose,” replied 10Boron in a voice perfectly free of recrimination.

“Oh!” Poison Pie could not stifle the groan, for he too had suffered through an existence subject to a phenomenon he euphemistically referred to as “chronically poor judgment”. The idea that a person could be sentenced to recycling for succumbing to such a fate struck a dissonant chord within him, one which he simply proved unable to suppress.

Poison Pie turned back to the mechanical being and despite the hurt it did to his eyes, the mushroom man approached and gave 10Boron a massive bear hug, intended to convey only existential sympathy. The shifting shape of the mechanical being tickled the ribs of Poison Pie but he suppressed the urge to laugh.

The powers that be in Nirvana, no matter how great and magnificent their knowledge may be, were rendered impotent in the face of such an embrace. It seemed for a moment the entire fabric of reality began to flicker as 10Boron and 140Celia flickered. A dull roar of static descended from the skies above to shake the firmament.

“What’s going on?” 232Tchict’Ict shouted over the rending of stones.

Even as 31Poison Pie, causal reasoning eluded the mushroom man. Therefore, he did not recognize the external shuddering as an after-effect of his glorious hug.

“It’s a reprogramming,” 140Celia surmised; her change in form had provided her with a keener insight into the nature of this aspect of Nirvana.

As quickly as it started, the thunder and earthquake ceased. The only sign that anything strange had occurred lay in the slightly altered pattern of cracks on the dry surface of the land, a change which was imperceptible to the eye of the casual traveler.

“Dynamic fault detection,” 10Boron stated with a confidence that had been completely absent only moments before. Silence met his declaration.

“I have been upgraded,” 10Boron stated, though he appeared no less painful to the eyes of Poison Pie, who had during the commotion backed away to a safe distance.

“I know what to do,” 10Boron said, “to find the Deadly Galerina.”

“Excellent,” said Tchict’Ict, though he did not comprehend the nature of the change that had so visibly come over the mechanical being.

“I used to work at a library,” said 10Boron. “We’ll just go ask the librarians to help us. You’ll find them quite capable.”

May 19, 2014
Poison Pie, Tchict’Ict and 140Celia followed 10Boron toward the faceless library, which fell well within the influence of the Mechanical Sentience. The indistinct, stony landscape of unclaimed portions of Nirvana continued to give way to a technological junkyard of abandoned pumps, discarded instrumentation consoles and orphaned motherboards. There was no mistaking the disorganized collection of man-made detritus for beauty. Poison Pie’s spirits sunk as they moved farther into this terrain for he could not imagine a source of wisdom surrounding itself with scattered piles of its own refuse.

They rested a night in the shadow of a towering pile of twisted guttering and flashing. There was nothing to eat, no fauna native to this unnatural landscape and no rats or other vermin who might have scratched a subsistence on an analogous landfill containing at least a fraction of organic waste. In this land, everything was artificial, manufactured from raw materials extracted from the mines of unknown lands. Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict relied on the supplies that Sariputra had provided. 140Celia, in her mechanical guise, seemed to require no such replenishment.

The quartet sat in a desolate silence. They started no fire for the night air in Nirvana was of the same temperature as that of the day, a non-descript ambience—neither hot nor cold.

Poison Pie craned his neck to examine the skies above. Some of the stars flickered in a way that was maddeningly reminiscent of the flickering of 10Boron, to whom it seemed they had taught this trick. Had Poison Pie been the subject of greater erudition, he might have known that reading the constellations of Nirvana had long been held to grant cosmic fore-knowledge. As he prized not-knowing above all else, Poison Pie certainly would have cast his glance another way. However, he was an ignorant man of the mushroom people. Under the foolish misunderstanding that they were harmless, he stared at the stars, curiously outlining the foreign shapes they presented. Of course, cosmic fore-knowledge is a source of anguish and nothing more. The anguish in this starlight poured through the focusing lenses of Poison Pie’s retinae and entered the same caliginous organ in which his tarnished soul was kept.

Ignorant though he was, even Poison Pie could sense, at some level, that he had yet again erred, though he could not identify the specific mechanism. All he could mumble as he shut his eyes was, “I don’t like this place.”

Liking or disliking a place had never occurred to 10Boron, who had known only the placidity of a congruent role within the vast machinery of the Mechanical Sentience. “What does it mean,” asked 10Boron, “to not like a place?”

Poison Pie found the willingness to reply had been leached out of him by the piles of rectangular, metallic garbage surrounding him. Luckily, the thoughts of Tchict’Ict had followed largely the same path, although the insect man had exercised the good sense not to seek respite in an examination of the stars above. “When we have traveled through this place and left it behind us,” the insect man replied to the mechanical being, “we will have left behind the energy it took to traverse this wasteland and we will have obtained nothing in exchange.”

10Boron contemplated this reply for some time. The stars overhead wheeled on their galactic axis. After a while, 10Boron replied perhaps by way of apology for leading them along this path, “We will arrive at the library before another night has passed.”

The following morning, the party resumed their hike. A gradual change began to take place as they drew deeper into the realm of the Mechanical Sentience. The cluttered garbage began to seem less arbitrarily arranged. Wires and hoses began to connect otherwise separate components. The state of deterioration of the machinery seemed to lessen. The effect at first seemed subtle but quickly became undeniable. As they walked, they found the junkyard organizing into an enormous landscape of electronic instrumentation and the corresponding cooling and plumbing equipment required to disperse the heat of its operation. None of the newcomers to Nirvana had ever beheld a terrain remotely like the one in which they now found themselves.

“What could live here?” Tchict’Ict asked. His answer, of course, was provided by the reply his questions induced from 10Boron. “What does it mean to live?”

By noon, the party along paths paved with iron-gratings, sometimes rising into the air to pass-over bundles of parallel pipes and cables. Within a few more hours, the machinery formed well-organized canyons that rose up in vertical, blinking walls beside them. At times the tubes connecting the sides became so numerous that they formed a room over the heads of the travelers, who assumed that they had entered a tunnel, only to emerge a few minutes later back in the same pallid light of Nirvana.

There were numerous service corridors leading in off-shoots from the main passage. 10Boron seemed perfectly confident of its way and showed not the slightest indecision at any junction.

Access hatchways appeared in the canyon walls. Upon each door was imprinted potential dangers that lay within. The meaning of flames, lightning bolts and skulls seemed self-evident. However, as they progressed further, more arcane symbols appeared on the metal doors, the meaning of which could only be guessed at. At one particularly curious symbol, seeming comprised of a two-headed embryo, Tchict’Ict asked the meaning. 10Boron curtly replied, “Teratogen source.” The explanation meant nothing to the insect man, or to his fellow travelers for that matter, but none of them were willing to expend the energy required to pursue the conversation further.

No, indeed, though the land was level and the grating provided even footing, the way proved exhausting. They had never entered the near presence of a Greater Entity, such as the Mechanical Sentience, before and they could not have been expected to anticipate the variety of side-effects commensurate with such exposure.

Without warning, 10Boron stopped at a side-alley that seemed in no way different than a hundred others they had passed within the hour. He headed directly down this path, with neither explanation nor a glance back to see if the others followed. This curious detour was followed shortly by another and then several more, some to the right, some to the left, some at odd angles, until Poison Pie and the others were hopelessly disoriented.

No one offered the slightest protest when 10Boron turned a handle on a convex dome on the floor, jerked the door upward on a hinge and revealed a steel ladder descending from the portal into the depths of Nirvana’s interior. Wordlessly, 10Boron descended and the others had no choice but to follow.

Many of the internal components of the Mechanical Sentience emitted light. Moreover, 10Boron and 140Celia gave off their own albeit erratic illumination. By this strange combination of light, the party traveled for what seemed to Poison Pie to be hours. They passed machines that whirred and buzzed, clicked and beeped.

Tchict’Ict, who had been on the alert for an ambush in these treacherous, narrow channels, eventually virtually disabled his auditory sensors, so overwhelmed were they by extraneous noises.

When Poison Pie had just about lost his patience, he called out to their guide, “How much longer until we arrive at the library?”

“We entered the library some time ago,” 10Boron replied, without stopping to offer an apology.

“How much longer,” Poison Pie asked, “until we reach the librarians who can tell us where to find the Deadly Galerina?”

“That information cannot be shared,” 10Boron replied.

“Why not?” Poison Pie asked, his voice rising with exasperation.

10Boron finally paused, though it knew that such an action would only increase the amount of time it took to locate a faceless librarian, something that seemed the core concern of the mushroom man. “That information cannot be shared,” repeated the mechanical being, “because it is beyond my comprehension.” With that succinct and entirely accurate explanation, 10Boron continued its progress in the underground corridors.

Poison Pie, Champion of Not-Knowing, could not argue with such an answer. Of course, so many things were beyond his own comprehension, he fully expected a feeling of kinship to emerge between him and the mechanical 10Boron upon that humble admission. However, even Poison Pie had his limits and, after a moment of waiting for the sympathetic sensation, admitted that it seemed not to be forthcoming and jogged to catch back up with 10Boron, bearing that entity only a sentiment of irritation.

After another hour of wandering in what increasingly appeared to be, if not circles, then irregular polygons, it fell to 140Celia to interrogate 10Boron further. They again linked some overlapping portions of their flickering appendages and communicated in an instant the necessary information. “Wait,” 140Celia said to 10Boron as it appeared ready to hurry off, “while I explain to the others.”

To Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict, 140Celia said, “This is not the typical manner in which 10Boron queries the faceless librarians. When it was part of the Mechanical Sentience, a sequence of subroutines conducted message passing and data input and output along highly regulated pathways. Since 10Boron is no longer integrated in the larger system, it has led us to passageways where faceless librarians deposit information. Here, the probability that we will encounter a faceless librarian is greatest.”

“We are running around in the dark, hoping to run into a librarian by chance?” Poison Pie’s frown, lost in the dim light, was expressed in the tone of his voice.

“You should understand,” said 140Celia, “that in leading us this far 10Boron has already engaged in independent thinking to an unprecedented extent for one of his design.”

“Does that make you feel better?” Poison Pie asked Tchict’Ict, hoping for a companion in his misery.

Tchict’Ict for his part had dialed down the volume of his auditory receptors to such an extent that he did not interpret Poison Pie’s words as anything more than additional meaningless hissing escaping from valves in the surrounding pipes.

May 19, 2014
When they eventually encountered the faceless librarians, there were, in fact, two of them. To call them faceless is something of a synecdoche, because what the librarians most resembled was a figure that had been drawn in pencil on a sheet of white paper, then erased by a child’s heavy hand wielding a dirty eraser, that left not only smudges but began to cause the fabric of the paper to deteriorate as well. Poison Pie could no more focus on the faceless librarian than he could 10Boron. However, there the similarity in the natures of their optical obfuscations ended. The smear of the faceless librarians did not flicker; it rather oozed about in an amorphous shape through which the red and blue lights of the instruments behind them emerged blurred and diffuse. The very air in which these creatures existed seemed torn by their presence. A constant, unpleasant molecular scratching escaped from the volume in they resided. Assuming the size of the faceless librarians could be judged by the dimensions of the smudges, the creatures stood at least two feet taller than Poison Pie and filled the admittedly narrow corridors of the library stacks. There would have been no indication that these creatures were indeed the librarians for whom they had been seeking had 10Boron not stopped before them and, in its best semblance of “I told you so”, gestured toward the oozing, incorporeal blobs.

The faceless librarians clearly had not expected to encounter visitors of any kind in the library, which was in truth labeled strictly off-limits to unauthorized personnel. Their gaze shifted from 10Boron, a creature who they recognized, to 140Celia, a creature who imitated another creature they recognized, to Poison Pie.

The frictional rasping of the molecules in the air spoke to the party in the language of Nirvana. “A bug in the software.”

“No,” said Poison Pie. “He’s the bug,” jerking the fat thumb of a mitt back at Tchict’Ict.

Something in Poison Pie’s remark caused the librarians to momentarily suspend their order for an extermination crew and reassess the visitors. The librarians scrutinized Poison Pie for several seconds, after which one of them announced, “Oh, it’s you again.”

The second librarian, distinguished by a slightly raspier voice, chimed in, “There is something different about him.” The faceless librarians examined the runes written across Poison Pie’s flesh.

The first librarian inched closer to 140Celia. It sensed upon her the book bestowed by Sariputra by which the runes could be translated. “She too has information not currently contained within the library.”

“Shall we harvest this information now?” asked the second librarian, examining Poison Pie’s hide and calculating the best methods of data preservation and archiving.

“No,” said the first librarian. “We agreed to wait until the moment before the data is irretrievably lost.”

Only 140Celia seemed to keep her head during this discussion. Much to the surprise of Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict she asked, “Do you have the key to my book?”

“What need have we of keys?” said the second librarian.

“It is none of our concern whether you access the information within the book,” said the first librarian. “Only that you do not allow the data to be degraded prior to its entry in the library here.”

140Celia did not argue; these beings did not seem to possess the flexibility that might allow them to be persuaded by personal arguments, as had, for example, Sinonatrix. Instead she turned to 10Boron and ordered it to query the location of the Deadly Galerina.

Light and shadow momentarily passed between 10Boron and the nearest librarian. The exchange lasted only a millisecond.

“As we have agreed,” said the librarian to Poison Pie, “this defective unit shall take you to the Nirvanic realm of the Deadly Galerina.”

Poison Pie felt certain, given the business-like behavior of the librarians that he and his companions would now be summarily dismissed, but his judge of character proved as flawed as always and the two librarians focused their attention on Tchict’Ict, who quickly grew uncomfortable.

“I have no useful information to harvest,” Tchict’Ict promised.

“And you never will,” said the first librarian.

“Oh, he might,” said the other. “The trajectory of this one is not entirely clear.”

“Shall we probe him?”

“Indeed,” said the second librarian.

“The mushroom man seeks the Mushroom God,” said the first librarian.

“Insect man,” said the second librarian, “there is also an arthropoid colony, divine in its aspect, residing within Nirvana.”

“After this unit leads you to the fungal God, should we have it lead you to a deity of your own kind?”

As noted several time earlier, Tchict’Ict was a natural-born insect atheist, though he was plagued by doubts that powers beyond his control or comprehension were seeking to destabilize the foundations of his belief in the exclusivity of the physical world. Such a doubt should be easily forgiven Tchict’Ict given his current situation on Nirvana, a plane which has persistent connections through-out history to an entirely different, meta-physical world.

“Answer,” said the second librarian, “and you and your companions can go.”

For reasons that were not clear to him at that moment, Tchict’Ict turned to Poison Pie. Perhaps he hoped to read in Poison Pie’s expression the reason for his pilgrimage and find in that explanation a justification for his own. He saw only a face covered in meaningless tattoos and remembered a stone heart pushed into Poison Pie’s chest. That particular individual’s case was idiosyncratic, whatever lessons it held were likely not transferrable to other individuals. Tchict’Ict turned his head back to focus, as best he could, on the blur of the librarians. The question seemed too simple; Tchict’Ict could not shake a nagging suspicion that some treachery lurked within it.

“There is a colony there,” said the first librarian, “of creatures like you, with six legs and carapaces of chitin. Their minds think as your mind thinks. You will find a bliss worthy of Nirvana there.”

Although the words of the librarian urged him in one direction, Tchict’Ict reacted in the other. There was something ominous, even abhorrent about the faceless librarians, who valued only information. Whatever counsel they offered, Tchict’Ict decided, could not be trusted. In fact, in the absence of any other guidance, it seemed best to choose the path against which they advised.

“Answer,” urged the second librarian, who knew that with each passing second, information was lost somewhere in the universe, information that could not be reconstructed. “Should we show you the way to the Insect Gods?”

“No,” said Tchict’Ict. “never have I harbored either interest or belief in the Insect Gods.”

“So be it.” The air within the librarians cracked and cackled and they were gone. A scent of ozone hung in the air but dissipated quickly.

As if it had been momentarily deactivated, 10Boron clicked to life. “We are instructed to leave the library premises immediately, upon pain of eradication in your case and recycling in mine. We must not delay. We make for the Deadly Galerina.”

Tchict’Ict, for his part, could not decide whether he had passed or failed the faceless librarians’ test.

May 19, 2014
The Nirvanic Home of the Deadly Galerina lay even closer to the core of the Mechanical Sentience than did the Library of the College of Nirvanic Law. The sensation of disturbing with each step the neurological electrical fields of another being weighed heavily on Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict. Even 140Celia in her mechanical guise was not completely immune to the effect.

“How could anyone live here?” Poison Pie asked. They had left the tunnels of the library and returned to the surface. The canyon in which they currently traveled was constructed on the floor and both sides from a smooth, highly polished metal of unknown origin. Beneath their feet, they could feel the thrum of energy as it coursed through-out the structure.

Poison Pie had enough faith in his own good sense to distrust anyone, even a mushroom god, who could tolerate what Poison Pie found so objectionable. He began to suspect that he had perhaps made a mistake in seeking out the Deadly Galerina. As he walked he mentally retraced his steps, wondering where he had strayed from a better path. Was it when he shouted to the assembled court of priests in the City that Crawled that indeed, he was the Champion of the Deadly Galerina? Probably so. If not then, somewhere else. This current path felt decidedly wrong.

Poison Pie’s thoughts were disturbed by 10Boron circling around a featureless expanse of the polished surface until it apparently located a hidden switch, which once activated caused a section of the floor to side to one side, before jamming, half way open, revealing a darkness within. It seemed very curious to the three companions that such a sophisticated looking piece of machinery should function so poorly. Clearly, the panel had been intended to retreat further.

Of course, 10Boron offered no explanation but merely dropped inside the opening. 140Celia managed a flickering shrug and followed. Tall, but thin in limb and thorax, Tchict’Ict managed to slip inside then reach up and pull his weapons down behind him.

Poison Pie stood in the canyon and admired the sleek, chrome walls, so smooth they seemed almost fluid. For a moment, a perverse notion to fun and abandon Tchict’Ict and Celia came over him. He had no desire to enter that dark hole. But, upon further reflection, there was no appeal in the metal chasm, only the play of light on the walls. He sat down on the edge of the hole, dangled his legs inside, then sucked in his gut and squeezed down into the darkness.

He found 140Celia watching him in her own flickering light. “I wasn’t sure you were going to make it,” she said.

“Getting fat,” Poison Pie agreed, patting his gut and intentionally misunderstanding her.

10Boron showed no interest in such pleasantries and continued down the tunnel. As they left the light entering the rectangle hole through which they had descended, Poison Pie observed that an accumulation of mold prevented the panel from sliding entirely open. It was the first signal that they approached the fungal realm; clearly the librarians had provided accurate information. What good it would do them, Poison Pie did not hazard to guess.

The tunnel too showed sign of a fungal infestation. The glass panes on the instrument panels had water beading up behind them. In this moisture, molds of white, yellow, green and brown grew. The pipes strung from beams overhead were coated in an inch-thick layer of fungal fur. The metal floor grew soft with a layer of mold.

“We must be close,” Tchict’Ict said, vocalizing what they all felt.

“Something is wrong,” 140Celia said, without stopping her progress. “As we have neared the Mechanical Sentience, we can feel its presence. The Deadly Galerina, too, is a god. Should we not feel its presence? Shouldn’t it feel different?”

“What if they are one and the same?” Poison Pie said.

Even 10Boron raised a disparaging eyebrow at that suggestion.

“Maybe the Deadly Galerina is a lesser god,” Tchict’Ict said, also guessing, but closer to the mark.

“Of course, the Deadly Galerina is a lesser god,” said 10Boron. “The Mechanical Sentience is now the greatest power in Nirvana. It requires no exaggeration to state this fact nor pride to acknowledge it. All previous gods of Nirvana are subservient to the Mechanical Sentience.”

10Boron turned to Tchict’Ict and added, almost with attitude, “Even the Insect Gods.”

In response, Tchict’Ict pretended that he had turned off his auditory sensors.

Poison Pie ran his mitts through the gooey miasma of mold on the walls. “It looks like the Deadly Galerina has gummed up the works hereabouts pretty good.”

10Boron replied, “Now that the source is located, the disinfection process can commence.” Although the subroutine was rogue, it retained an understanding that its presence so close to the Mechanical Sentience was monitored.

Poison Pie frowned. “You mean, the Mechanical Sentience didn’t know where the Deadly Galerina was?” There was an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach as it slowly dawned on Poison Pie that they may have led the Mechanical Sentience to the Deadly Galerina.

140Celia had reached the same conclusion. “We should warn the Deadly Galerina before the cleansers arrive.”

They hurried after 10Boron, who had never slowed the pace during the conversation. Now that the party was in need of haste, 10Boron did not increase the pace. It had, it seemed, one speed.

The mold grew thicker. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms appeared rising from the fungal carpet. The mushrooms, however, were sickly in appearance, displaying scrawny stems and withered caps. The unhealthiness of this mushroom forest did not surprise Poison Pie. On the contrary, it reinforced his beliefs that nothing good could flourish in the overbearing aura of the Mechanical Sentience. He began to fear that they might find the Deadly Galerina in a weakened, even moribund state, in no condition to fend off the antiseptic attacks of a legion of mechanical cleansers.

Poison Pie allowed his imagination to wander. As he did so, he picked up his pace until he had raced past 10Boron. His heavy footsteps began to echo, as if the tunnel opened up ahead. When Poison Pie reached the cavern it was much larger than he had anticipated. The hemispherical chamber was half a mile high and twice that in diameter. There could be no question that this was the throne room of the Deadly Galerina. Wires, pipes and machinery had been pushed aside to create this enormous hollow within the machine. The equipment and consoles were crammed out into the perimeter of the cavern. There they were packed, covered with a thick layer of a thousand different species of fungus. In the center of the chamber, a sort of mountain of fungus rose. It had, at one time, been a volcano, but its top had blown, spewing fungal material in every direction. And, just as clearly, the volcano was now dormant. This chamber, and all substantial organic content within it was dead. Only the smallest most insignificant organisms still managed to cling to life and their hold was tenuous. There could be no doubt that the Deadly Galerina had fled Nirvana and quite some time ago by the looks of it. Nothing new had grown in this cavern for ages.

Poison Pie, still marveling at the size of the cavern, turned to 10Boron. “You couldn’t find this?” he said.

“This is an infinitesimally small pinprick,” 10Boron assured the mushroom man, “in the consciousness of the Mechanical Sentience.”

“Is the Deadly Galerina dead?” Tchict’Ict asked.

“No,” said Poison Pie, examining the residue in the cavern. “The body of a god, even a lesser god, is not easily hidden. These are not his remains. This is a husk only, a shell that has been outgrown. The Deadly Galerina no longer calls Nirvana home.” Poison Pie felt not the disappointment that their search for the Deadly Galerina had failed; rather he experienced a wave of relief that he would not be asked to witness the extermination of the Deadly Galerina at the hands of the Mechanical Sentience.

Within half an hour, a thousand drones, of a form vaguely reminiscent of 10Boron, had arrived to disinfect and reclaim the cavern. They scoured the surface in a chaotic mass, which if governed by an over-arching organization was not apparent to Poison Pie.

As the companions watched the flurry of activity, a half dozen sentinel routines arrived. They could be identified by the charged polearms that crackled with a pale blue energy as they surrounded Poison Pie and the others.

Without any theatrical elements or even any verbal explanation at all, the defective unit that was 10Boron was terminated by one of the sentinels. The energy released from the conscious form of 10Boron was immediately absorbed by the surrounding field of the Mechanical Sentience.

There was no reason for Poison Pie and the others to have any expectation that a different fate awaited them. However, one of the sentinels ordered them as follows. “You are to be presented to the Mechanical Sentience for judgment and sentencing. Follow.”

Unsure of the precise nature of their crime, Poison Pie, Tchict’Ict and 140Celia nevertheless obediently followed the lead sentinel and were flanked by the others as they were led back up to the surface, through a continuation of perfectly smooth, polished chrome canyons until they arrived at a circular plaza, set in a flawless, circular valley surrounded by chrome mountains that danced with an opalescence, as a result of the dichroism generated via the scattering of light by highly dispersed particles beneath the surface.

May 20, 2014
The Mechanical Sentience has been known by a variety of names that might in fact be familiar to many readers. That we invoke a name here that lacks an associated history reflects only the ignorance of Poison Pie, an ignorance the author shares with the reader that they might better empathize with his plight as he and his party are led before the august presence.

As the author, I struggle to avoid analogies with previous literary works, but there is one analogy that rings so true here that I allow myself to briefly mention it. In some respects, this great chrome valley reminds me of the Emerald City of Frank Baum. The Mechanical Sentience is of course the Great Oz, whether it too shall be revealed as a fraud is a detail not yet resolved. Dorothy with her magical glittering shoes, of course, is played by the flickering of 140Celia. This story relates, as much as any other, the monk’s quest for truth. Tchict’Ict bears the responsibility of portraying simultaneously the scarecrow and his search for wisdom, the tin man and his search for compassion, and the cowardly lion and his search for courage. What does that leave Poison Pie? Toto, Toto only. Do not, gentle reader, expend any emotion lamenting the lot cast for Poison Pie. Although his aversion for domestic dogs is well chronicled in multiple sources, the parallels are too obvious to ignore. Just as Toto barks and yammers in meaningless phrases along a journey in which he is only a minor, though beloved, player, so too does Poison Pie yip and howl, caught in a drama he endures without understanding. That he may have developed a sense of loyalty for his companions 140Celia and Tchict’Ict is of no great consequence or virtue since even a dog is capable of showing such loyalty, and in that case it is largely regarded as obedience.

As for the appearance of the Mechanical Sentience, it was more akin to a sensation, a wind that flowed in circular currents around the valley, a source of turbulence, which through the generation of eddies, spoke in a voice capable of both whispering breezes and deafening thunder. Identification of the precise location of the Mechanical Sentience was impossible. Its presence, however, was undeniable. With a thought, portals opened in the surrounding mountains, from which no fewer than ten thousand subroutines emerged. In orderly ranks they formed a circle at the center of which now stood a mushroom man, an insect man and a changeling. The sentinels had retreated into the surrounding throng. The trio stood alone.

Overhead the sky was overcome by an unnatural aurora of pastel orange, yellow and pink. Waves of ionized matter obeyed the commands of the wind that stirs them. The attention of not only the three visitors but the ten thousand assembled drones was riveted to the mesmerizing display of the firmament.

The moment of divine judgment had arrived and the voice of the wind spoke, “You have come, as you promised, to claim the Mushroom God, but the Mushroom God has fled.”

Poison Pie, now quite accustomed to others casually referring to events that had never taken place and attributing to them to him, folded his mitts in front of him. After gathering his thoughts, he lifted his arms and displayed his mitts palm up. “What could I have done differently?” he asked. It was only one of a thousand different questions that he could have asked and all of them equally without answer, or so Poison Pie hoped, for above all he hoped to escape this divine encounter free of any life-changing revelation.

The Mechanical Sentience caused the wind to buffet Poison Pie and his companions. They took a step back to steady themselves. Poison Pie shielded his eyes with a mitt. Tchict’Ict raised his protective optical lenses. 140Celia dimmed her flickering.

The ferocity of the wind subsided. “Each of you shall tell us your story,” announced the wind in a voice that was not to be defied, “and then it shall be permitted that you continue your search for the Mushroom God.”

Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict exchanged confused glances with each other then cast a brief look back at 140Celia, who also, not surprisingly, offered no explanation.

“We shall begin,” announced the Mechanical Sentience, “with the insect man.”

Tchict’Ict gripped his weapons more tightly and shouted back, in a series of high-pitched clicks largely lost in the wind, “I’d rather not have my story told.”

The wind of course doesn’t listen to the commands of the living, be they insect or man, or some ridiculous combination of the two.

Across the panoramic aurora above them, the story of Tchict’Ict’s life was projected in vivid color. All present, including the insect man, helplessly witnessed the story unfold.

December 2, 2013
In the admittedly limited experience of Warden Tchict’Ict, mammalian behavior was governed by arbitrary, unfathomable forces. Most questionable among their erratic beliefs was the seemingly inviolate maxim that the six-limbed insect-people were to be exterminated on sight, regardless of the cost to their own numbers. What seemed most peculiar about this arrangement to Tchict’Ict was the bizarre fact that, when victorious, the mammals would not make practical use of the high-protein bodies left behind, preferring instead to burn them, presumably as an offering to one of their invisible sky Gods. Tchict’Ict, on the contrary, was incapable of thinking beyond an innate utilitarianism and when he had successfully tracked down his quarry, be it quadrupedal or bipedal, he made absolutely sure not to let a scrap go to waste. Existence in the Empty Plains was too difficult to act otherwise.

In their small, nomadic colony, Tchict’Ict served as both sentry and hunter, guarding and providing for the queen and her clutch. He and the other adult drones lived solitary lives at the edges of the colony, returning only to communicate the coming of a threat, or to share the bounty of a successful hunt, or very rarely in response to pheromones carried on the air signaling that the queen and her eggs were in danger. Living at the very edge of the Western Hinterlands, as the mammalian kingdoms called this land, Tchict’Ict and his colony had sporadic contact with the residents of the East. Tchict’Ict had silently crouched at the edge of the forest and watched one tribe of halflings slay and then consume another; now there were a little people to be admired. He watched the periodic arrival of trading expeditions, led by men seeking to make headway in the lands claimed by the insects. Initially such efforts were easily destroyed. Over the years, the undeterred men began to provide protection for the caravans with guards of giantmen from the mountains beyond the forest or dirtmen, constructed so it was rumored from the soil of only the most infertile fields. Even the flesh of the dirtmen was unsavory to eat. Curiously, the caravans never had troops composed of both giantmen and dirtmen, whom, it was said, killed each other on sight as if they viewed the other as insects or worse.

Life for a Warden was service without mystery; Tchict’Ict’s insect brain pondered no other alternative. Following his instincts, he sensed intruders at a fair distance on the plains. The chemicals in the air did not reveal the dung of oxen nor the stink of men and Tchict’Ict briefly weighed his options. They were far out on the plain but still represented potentially a meal or a threat; his brain ordered him to investigate. Half a day passed in pursuit of the party, which moved west, further into the interior. Tchict’Ict had yet to reach his quarry when he sensed the faintest trace of distress on the breeze. The queen was in trouble! Although he was so distant from the colony, he could not override the impulse to immediately return.

He raced a day without stopping but well before Tchict’Ict reached their camp, his senses had told him what he would find. The raid was long finished, the marauders already fled. He found the colony decimated. Without emotion, he examined the carnage of his family. No mammals had done this for there were no fires. Some of the eggs, prized for their nutritional content, had been devoured on the spot. All other consumable content, the stores and the slain alike, had been taken, leaving only muddy stains of ichor. This was the meticulous work of his own people, a rival clan of insect-men. His only role in this battle should have been to fight and fall protecting the queen. Instead, due to an error in judgment, he had strayed too far to be of any use. There was no further biological function for Tchict’Ict.

Without additional instruction, Tchict’Ict’s stood paralyzed, gears turning but not catching. His mind eventually found purchase of a kind in its most recent memory and Tchict’Ict mechanically returned to the previously uncompleted task. He resumed tracking the creatures, for he was sure that there was more than one of them, from whose pursuit he had been interrupted. During his hunt, he felt a strange lack of clarity in his mission, which manifested as an uncharacteristic and dangerous clumsiness. It took two days to find his quarry and in bad shape they were, worse even than Tchict’Ict himself. Crouching behind a stone, Tchict’Ict spied on the two mammals, sitting in the partial shade of a thorn bush at the basin of a stream in which no water had flowed for many seasons.

Strangely, it appeared to Tchict’Ict that these two were a giantman and a dirtman. Tchict’Ict wondered what dire consequences could have robbed them of the hereditary enmity for each other. He examined them for a while longer. There was water within a day’s march. They could make it if they left now, but clearly they did not know of its existence or location. If one killed the other, he could live on that fluid for a span of three days, longer if the smaller dirtman managed to overcome his larger companion. Tchict’Ict observed neither vicious infighting nor a fatal resignation in their actions, as they rose to their feet and tramped on with a dogged determination.

A very unusual thought entered Tchict’Ict’s insect mind; a thought of empathy. He had something in common with these two travelers, although, inexperienced in these matters, he could not precisely identify what it was. Of course, what Tchict’Ict could not identify as the commonality between himself and these mammals was the fact that their pasts had been obliterated; their predestined futures erased, each wandered only in the moment. And at that moment, Tchict’Ict had the most preposterous, mammalian idea spring out of nowhere into his mind. “Perhaps,” he thought to himself, “I have worth beyond the protein in my body.” Buoyed by such a strange thought, former Warden Tchict’Ict led an astounded but willing (for what other alternative did they have?) dirtman and giantman to the water hole that quenched their thirst and likely saved their lives.

From there the three most unlikely of companions, journeyed further into the interior of the hinterlands, to the very edge of that plane, where the reality of that ruined world shimmers and merges unpredictably with other worlds. It is said, though it may have taken place entirely by accident, that the trio left their home world and ventured into another with nary a thought of regret between them.

May 20, 2014
Poison Pie had the good taste to be embarrassed. No one deserved to have their lives displayed across the heavens. The tragedy, the accidental virtues, none of this should ever have been displayed.

However, the Mechanical Sentience did not share Poison Pie’s fondness for discretion. No sooner had the fragment of Tchict’Ict’s story been projected, then the aurora returned to amorphous flashes of pastel colors and the voice returned. “Changeling, it is your turn now.”

“I too,” Celia replied, now forcibly revealed in the native flesh of changelings, “prefer not to have my story told.”

Out of a sort of modesty, Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict did not turn to observe Celia, standing a few steps behind them, though they could sense that her flickering form had been replaced by a more solid body, one they intuited held no disguise.

Celia of course knew that her request would not be honored but she had felt compelled to make it all the same. It was nothing more than a matter of principle.

December 10, 2013
The Doppelgänger is viewed as an ill omen because it portends a loss of control over oneself and one’s destiny. Some other being has adopted one’s appearance and could be out, carousing about town, engaging in debauchery of the lowest sort at the expense of our reputation, or perpetrating a crime for which our freedom or perhaps even our life will be forfeit. Creatures fixed in a single shape naturally distrust the Changeling for crossing boundaries of decency to which we are prohibited. As such, we can hardly be blamed for assigning them a mantle of villainy. From this perspective, the Doppelgänger is damned, serving no noble purpose.

From the point of view of the Doppelgänger, the situation is not much improved. If those of a fixed appearance can suffer self-doubt and undergo a crisis of identity, how much more so can a Changeling be afflicted by this malaise of anxiety? Indeed, Changelings, as a race, know no culture of their own, have never established a philosophy, architecture, religion or literature to which they can lay claim. Instead, they live dispersed amongst the civilizations of the world, adopting not only the social mores of their hosts but their complexions and builds as well. If an entire people can be judged so bereft of any trademarks of self-identification, what hope is there for individuals?

Changelings are scattered; hiding their true identity. Discovery means certain persecution—banishment, imprisonment or death. One might suppose that if a Changeling lived in peace long enough among a community, those people might come to see it for its virtues, even were its true nature revealed. Such is never the case; the longer the Changeling manages to hide, the more hearts in which it engenders kindness and compassion, so much more the betrayal, indignation and fury when it is discovered to have played its neighbors false. No, the lot of the Doppelgänger is an unfortunate one, from any point of view.

The sorrow of their misfortunes is told in many versions of the same tale. A queen dies of a mysterious illness and, lying in state in the palace hall for the night, rises the following morning, healed and whole. “A miracle!” cries the King. “Something amiss,” mutters the court sorcerer. Twenty years may pass and the Queen, a paragon of regal propriety, bears the King a crown prince and subsequent children—a model of familial bliss to be envied across the realm. But the misgivings of the sorcerer are never entirely extinguished; eventually he catches a glimpse of the queen, alone in her chambers, in her true featureless form and all her years of loving labor are undone in an hour. Banished to live in the wilds, her exile short-lived for it is no easy task, even for a Changeling to adapt to the rigors of the forest after decades of palace comforts. The children, regardless of whether they share their mother’s particular talent, meet with varying degrees of unpleasantness, depending upon the hard-heartedness of their father, the monarch.

There are other versions of this story, although they too end in tragedy. A young girl wanders from the house, while her mother is occupied with chores. A passing Changeling child, cast out from all society, finds the small carcass ravaged by wolves. Sensing an opportunity, she adopts that likeness and returns to the village. The momentary strangeness of the child is attributed to a scare she received in the woods. That child is loved all the more dearly for having almost been lost. All her young life she is cherished as she grows into a dutiful daughter beyond reproach. Her beauty blossoms, her suitors are numerous, one lucky youth among them is chosen to wed her. The venom of a spurned suitor knows no bounds and does not ebb until a flaw in his rival’s perfection is discovered. We know very well the nature of that flaw. We know too its outcome. She is again cast out, a seducer, a deceiver, a witch both by nature and deed.

The life of a Changeling is hard, born only to adapt, but never to be accepted. We can pick any version of the story that suits us to provide background for Celia, a Changeling of interest here. She will offer no argument to whichever background we select for her, such is her nature. Any one of those miseries could have driven her from society to a rocky out-cropping at the edge of a mountain range to stand upon the precipice in her true, ambiguous form as the wind whips about her, where she contemplates death.

In those remote mountains, a hidden ravine leads to an isolated monastery. An elder hermit, meandering through the wilds collecting medicinal herbs for his brothers, observes her in her moment of weakness. “Why should you jump, faceless one?” asks the old man, though he needn’t ask. He reads very clearly the history written in the smooth flesh of her face.

“Do you have a better idea?”

The hermit monk has many ideas, most of them are bad, which is why the other brothers always send him out on solitary chores, in which he disturbs no one else with these bad ideas. This time is no exception. Inviting a female Doppelgänger into an exclusively male monastery is judged an extraordinarily bad idea by all the other monks, perhaps the worst idea this particular hermit has ever hatched in his long, long life filled with terrible ideas. Still, the damage is done. The Changeling knows the location of their secret temple. They can no more release her than they can kill or imprison her. These brothers know only one way of life and that is the rigorous training of monks.

Celia has little choice but to learn that life as well. It is not so hard. It certainly seems preferable to the alternative, which remains waiting patiently on the precipice. There are in fact certain remarkable delights in this situation, foremost among them is the fact Celia lives without disguise, a truly failed Doppelgänger among men.

Many people claim monks are useless. In this case, these reclusive men served a purpose that no other community would have willingly fulfilled. In doing so, they saved a young girl’s life. When she reached the age and level of training where monks were sent out into the world to find their way, she too left the monastery. The monks had prepared her as one of their own. Celia, the Changeling monk, would find her own way.

May 20, 2014
Although, Poison Pie had wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and allow Celia to keep her own secrets, he had not possessed the ability to withstand the will of the Mechanical Sentience that commanded all in the valley to witness the spectacles as they played across the sky.

Celia felt less indignation than relief. The imagined terror of having one’s secrets revealed is always greater than the realized shame of having them known.

Poison Pie knew very well what was coming as the aurora returned to an intermission of dancing colors. He took a step forward to address the wind. He accepted that all mystery regarding him and that which had come before, that which was mistaken as him, that creature who went by the name Gorgonio, first uttered to him in the halls of the City that Crawls, all these secrets, unknown even to Poison Pie, would be revealed to the assembled throng. The secrets of the runes tattooed on his flesh would be described upon a canvas as vast as the sky itself in terms that even a demented child could understand. With difficulty, he suppressed that perverse inkling of curiosity in him, which wanted to have the riddle of Gorgonio unraveled. “Not knowing is the triumph of evolution,” whispered Poison Pie to himself.

In an admittedly symbolic gesture of resistance, he steeled himself against the invasive penetration of the Mechanical Sentience, who surely could pull his story as easily from his mind as thread from a spool.

The Mechanical Sentience bellowed, “Mushroom man, it is your turn.”

His resistance was as nothing to the Mechanical Sentience. The wind entered Poison Pie and scuttled about each organ, searching for the story. It wound around the pink marble heart several times before circumnavigating Poison Pie’s fleshy heart.

Poison Pie defenses collapsed and his muscles loosened. He pissed himself until his splayed feet were rooted in a pool of dark yellow urine, collected on the chrome surface of the valley.

He craned his neck upward. The aurora opened like a curtain, revealing Poison Pie standing amidst fallen leaves and bare trees in a hilly, wintry wood reminiscent of that in which dwelt the dog-men in what seemed like a lifetime ago. An enormous image of Poison Pie’s swarthy face, with the tattoos yet barely visible, filled the entire scope of the heavens.

Beneath this scene a curious spectacle took place. Suddenly, each of the ten thousand surrounding routines possessed a trumpet, and upon that host of brass instruments, they began to blow.

Poison Pie cringed, though he could not tear his eyes away from the sky. It seemed egregiously unfair that his story and his story alone should bear the ignominy of a soundtrack accompaniment.

Bombastic was the soundtrack. Ten thousand trumpets are capable of nothing more subtle than toe-tapping bombast.

In the heavens, accompanied by the Nirvanic orchestra, the image of Poison Pie began to sing.

Listen to your heart...Baby!
Something something something...Lady!
I forgot the words...Maybe!
Something else happened...with Gravy!

When the song, at once brief and interminable, ended, the wind of the Mechanical Sentience was no longer present in the valley. With the last note, the routines and their brass had vanished. The mushroom man, followed by the insect man with the changeling bringing up the rear, walked single file into the black portal now hanging open before them. They neither shuffled in defeat nor strode in proud victory. The nature and significance of the outcome of this encounter eluded them. They needed no explicit instructions for it was clear that their experience in Nirvana had come to an end and, thus dismissed, they now set out for new lands, where before them had gone the Deadly Galerina.

 4. Faerie

May 27, 2014
“That was very disappointing,” said Tchict’Ict. “I thought we were finally going to hear the secret history that connects you to the mysterious pink marble heart.”

“So did I,” Poison Pie mumbled.

“It’s not really fair,” Tchict’Ict continued. “None of us wanted our stories told but only you lucked out.”

“Lucked out?” Poison Pie repeated, doing his best to contain his indignation. “Across the celestial tapestry, my history was revealed to be nothing but a meaningless pop song. Could any fate be more ignominious?”

“It had a good beat,” Tchict’Ict reminded him, starting to tap a chitin-soled foot to the rhythm of the song. “Listen to your heart...” he began to croon in his chittering voice, though he knew that he should not.

Poison Pie turned, threatening to wallop the insect man with an upraised mitt. “Don’t you even...”

“Stop it, both of you,” snapped Celia. “We’re not in Nirvana anymore. Look around. We need to get our bearings.”

For the first time, Tchict’Ict and Poison Pie saw Celia in her true form, clad in the same gray robes as before, but now displaying a rounded face devoid of any sharp features. Although she was roughly the same size as the forms of the dog-woman, the gnome and the troglodyte, which she had earlier adopted, her skin was now silvery in hue, with shadows undulating across it. Her fingers were joined in mitts, tiny, delicate replicas of Poison Pie’s gargantuan hands. Her colorless hair fell across her shoulders and her back. Around black pupils, her irises were clear, radially streaked with gray. Knowing that she had not wanted to reveal her true aspect to them, Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict were embarrassed now to see her in this way. Neither felt it was their place to suggest that she change her form to accommodate this new place, though they both wished she would. Besides, they didn’t even know where they were.

“You look lovely,” Poison Pie admitted all of the sudden. It was true and Poison Pie naively assumed that to speak the truth, at least in this case, was admissible if not encouraged.

“And you are as much the eyesore as ever,” replied the monk. Celia, more so than the others, had not wanted her history revealed. She was not yet ready to forgive them for witnessing what they had no power to ignore.

Under these terms, they arrived in Faerie, a land where nightmares take form no less abundantly than dreams.

May 28, 2014
In Faerie, the photosynthesis of all plant life is altered from its familiar process because the unobscured sun is not a familiar feature in the skies of Faerie. Although physicists would surely declare that such observations are simply impossible, nevertheless the dynamic patterns of the celestial bodies governing night and day in Faerie are irregular, perhaps chaotic and certainly unpredictable. The deep dark of many nights leads to the glow of dawn only to succumb to the diminishing of dusk, without ever the sun breaching the horizon, as if one were ensconced in the winters of far northern lands, less the bitter chill. When the sun does choose to rise, it does so only behind a blanket of cloud cover, reducing the piercing yellow eye to a diffuse gray penumbra.

If one seeks to understand the origin of such phenomena, one must be liberal in one’s thinking. Clinging to established scientific fact will not suffice, for long has Faerie been a land where banished gods take refuge. The sun god too, once mightiest among many pantheons, fled to Faerie when the mystery of heliocentricity was revealed to be a flaw. Angry he was, determined never again to allow himself sink into familiar patterns by which the riddle of his workings could be unraveled. Thus, neither the flora nor the fauna of Faerie experience the sun as it once was known, since he is no longer predisposed to reveal himself in all his searing glory.

River gods, too, have taken residence in Faerie. Some abandoned their old banks when those, who once prayed to them to provide fish and to restrain themselves within their banks and spare their crops from flood, were lost to pestilence, famine or invasion. Other river gods fled an invisible pollution of a kind they could not have conceived, a perversion of the waters in which the very atoms split, poisoning fish, accumulating in the river bed, working its way insidiously up through the food chain until the river was known only by the bitter curse men had for it.

Mountain gods, hill gods, gods of caves, ravines and all things made of stone came to Faerie and took up what lodging they could. In many cases, the homes they found were markedly more modest than what they had left, a former canyon god securing only a gully, a mountain god a hillock, a vast desert god a single steppe.

Of course, none of these gods are that for which Faerie is best known. The forest gods hold that distinction; for Faerie is a land dominated by great untamed forests, where trees reign supreme and can, upon command, mobilize armies of millions. The forest gods are largely sympathetic gods, for being gods of the living, they understand that the living are vulnerable to forces, large and small, outside of their control. Such understanding bestows them with mercy, since the arrival of a fugitive, weak and hungry in the midst of the forest, is perceived not as an opportunity to strengthen one’s own position but rather as a chance to gain another ally should the tides of fate turn and one day reverse their roles. Some call it enlightened self-interest, others karma; by any name it is a rule of the forest, but one that is frequently violated. There are forest gods driven mad by fire or the harvesting of lumber. They no longer respond to reason, for they have retreated too deeply into their own hurt. A tender hand offered to them is only withdrawn in pain. They are best left alone.

Other living gods have come here. Could a mushroom god, overwhelmed by a greater power, have fled Nirvana to a place such as this? No destination is more likely. However, not all demoted gods find happy fates in Faeries. In a mushroom god, the measure of patience outweighs the measure of anger. One might therefore expect a mushroom god to adjust easily to the forests of Faerie, to find a cool, damp and dim space around an unoccupied tree in which to build their fabled circles. Many lesser fungal gods have met such happy fates.

As for the Deadly Galerina, its monstrous size has already been revealed to us. It should come as no surprise to find that it had more difficulty than most in adjusting to these new surroundings.

May 28, 2014
Star gods are as infinite in number as the stars themselves. To complicate matters, some stars adopt more than one god. To call these creatures gods is in fact something of a misnomer since one attributes a certain degree of power to a god and the aspects of stars, while bestowed with a wealth of magic, do not, given their number (not to mention their distaste for reverence and piety) rise to this minimum standard. We would do better to call these creatures faeries, as everyone else does. It is, however, useful to remember their stellar origin, since every once in a while, one of their number is capable of an action that seems inexcusably cosmic; there is no other word for it.

May 29, 2014
“I thought the sun was going to come up,” said Poison Pie, “but then it seems like it changed its mind.”

“We must be in Faerie,” said the changeling.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Faerie,” Poison Pie added in a wistful tone.

“Well, all your dreams have come true.” Celia fixed Poison Pie with a grimace that expressed a mixture of sarcasm and apology for her lack of restraint.

“Not all of them,” Poison Pie assured her, looking down at his arms to verify that, indeed, the tattoos remained.

“What’s Faerie?” asked the insect man who had been raised among a tribe with no more familiarity with Faerie than it had for Nirvana or Hell or countless other planes of existence manufactured in the collective imagination of mammals.

As dawn was aborted and a darkness crept again from the shadows, a gibbous moon chose to appear among the stars, providing enough light for them to take a proper account of their setting. They seemed to be at the bottom of a well. The roughly circular chamber, perhaps twenty feet in diameter, was filled with water about knee high on Poison Pie (or nearly waist high on Celia). The water arrived via an underground spring near the center of the pool, which led to unknown depths. Natural rock provided floor, walls and ceiling until it reached a cylindrical hole and gave way to moss-covered, curved stone blocks, which surrounded a narrow shaft that rose vertically a dozen yards to the surface. The water itself proved surprisingly cold, causing a chill that quickly crept through their skin and lodged in their bones (at least for Poison Pie and Celia who possessed bones). The temperature of the exoskeleton of Tchict’Ict was similarly reduced, although the natural heat transfer fluids of his arthropod physiology allowed him to better cope with the conditions.

That all they could see of Faerie was through this narrow porthole had limited their ability to identify it, but the curious orbit of the sun had confirmed their suspicions. Poison Pie leaned over the deep water of the spring and again peered up at the stars. It seemed undeniable that the positions of the stars too were changing at a rate which defied conventional descriptions of astronomical processes. “The stars are moving,” he reported to the others.

“That’s because they are not stars,” Celia replied, from the edge of the chamber, where she had found a slick rock, protruding from the water upon which she crouched, covered almost completely in darkness. “At least not all of them. Some of them are faeries.”

“What’s a faerie?” Tchict’Ict asked. He suspected that Celia hid in the darkness to conceal her true form.

Poison Pie drew in a deep breath and bellowed up through the channel of the well, so that his voice exploded from the hole in the ground across the night sky, “Help! We’ve fallen in a well!” The mushroom man’s voice echoed against the unyielding rock walls.

“We didn’t actually fall in here,” the insect man pointed out, when the echoes had subsided. They had rather stepped through a portal in Nirvana and arrived stumbling in this shallow pool. It had taken some time for any of them to gather their senses.

“I know,” Poison Pie whispered, listening for a reply from above. “But what really happened seemed too complicated to yell.”

Tchict’Ict silently agreed. Besides, no one would believe what really happened. Tracking a mushroom god in Nirvana, they had run instead into a Mechanical Sentience, who, after pillaging their most private memories, had sent them packing. Even thinking such a sequence of events, much less yelling it, was difficult.

Poison Pie yelled several more times over the course of an hour, until Celia abruptly called out to him, “That’s not going to work.”

Poison Pie waded a step away from the center of chamber, to make sure he was safe from accidentally stumbling into the underground spring. “How do you know?”

“Faerie is a land of magic. You have to use a summoning spell to attract someone’s attention.”

“Yelling won’t work?”

“Will your voice carry to the stars?”

Poison Pie frowned and looked to Tchict’Ict. “Do you know any summoning spells?”

Tchict’Ict chose not to reply. Of course, all magic was foreign to him. Still, he was an agile climber, a talent potentially not invalidated by a pervasive field of magic. The insect man was no less tired than Celia of listening to Poison Pie bellow. He chose then to rely on his own skills. He strapped the polearm to his pack, waded to the edge of the deep water, crouched then sprung, much as a grasshopper might (forgive the simile), disappearing up the circular shaft. He braced himself with his six appendages and rapidly scrambled up to the lip of the well, where he leapt over the stone and onto a mat of soft clover beside.

At the bottom of the well, Poison Pie turned to the shadow in which hid Celia and asked, “Why didn’t he do that earlier?”

“I have been wondering the same thing for the past hour.”

May 30, 2014
The clearing in which Tchict’Ict emerged provided only a small margin of cleared land in the midst of a lush, verdant deciduous forest. All around him, ancient ferns thrived in the humidity and dim light of the undergrowth between carpeting the forest floor between the great pillars of trees. Above him, the night sky was milky with starlight. He confirmed that it had been no illusion that at least of some of the stars were shifting in a distinctly unstarlike manner. One star in particular began to descend from the heavens. It grew in brightness as it approached him. Tchict’Ict felt no apprehension, though he remained alert. Clearly, he did not understand the rules of this new place and such ignorance could certainly be used to his disadvantage by the unscrupulous.

The curious, spiraling descent of the star eventually revealed a faerie carrying a lantern in which something that most resembled a coal of star material emitted a pure whitish-blue light. The faerie itself was a diminutive humanoid female, scarcely a foot in height and weighing no more than a large rat. The faerie maintained flight via wings that beat too rapidly to observe by eye but which registered a faint, high-pitched buzz. The faerie came to a rest, hovering nearly at face-level with Tchict’Ict, at a space of ten paces, closer to the edge of the forest, perhaps a refuge of sorts, than she was to the insect man.

“You, sir,” said the faerie in a voice even higher-pitched than her wings, “are a bug.”

It was not a question and Tchict’Ict decided it demanded no reply, so he remained silent as he watched the faerie, dart from point to point, seemingly possessed of some inexhaustible reserve of energy, which powered her flight.

In truth the faerie had no prior experience that might lead her to believe that this bug, no matter how unusually large, could talk; quickly her interest dwindled. Just as she was about to return to her dance among the stars, a deep, coarse voice bellowed up from the well, “What’s up there? Are you okay?”

These words certainly were questions and deserved a reply. Keeping one eye on the faerie, Tchict’Ict leaned over the well and replied, “I’m fine. Just a moment.”

“A talking bug,” said the faerie, showing slightly more interest. “What else can you do?” As with most of her kind, this particular faerie had a notoriously short attention span. She had quickly made a mental note of this first oddity and was in pursuit of more curiosities. She examined the bladed shields held in his lower pair of arms and the reflection of starlight on the crescent blades of the polearm strapped to his back. “You are a fighting bug,” she surmised. She had heard rumors of distant lands where various insects—crickets and stag beetles—were kept as pets and made to battle for the entertainment and pride of their keepers. She had not imagined they grew to such a prodigious scale.

Tchict’Ict, for his part, did not relish a reputation based exclusively on his martial prowess; rather, since his departure from the colony, he had begun to find comfort in his relationships with Poison Pie and Celia, which were based almost exclusively on other, not easily identifiable, properties. In an effort to better present himself, he replied, “I am a competent warrior, though that is not my primary function.”

The faerie danced in erratic patterns in the air, delighted at being engaged in so novel an act as holding forth conversation with an enormous, fighting bug.

“What else?” she asked, breathlessly. “Are you afraid of birds? Even little ones? Tiny baby birds, do they terrify you?”

The questions took Tchict’Ict by surprise, though he soon found that the sequence of the faerie’s thoughts did not hold to a pattern of logic he easily recognized and became less put off with each passing non sequitur. “No,” Tchict’Ict replied, intending to provide a fuller explanation, but interrupted almost immediately.

“Do you flee the sun like a cockroach?” Here, she didn’t even wait for a reply for her mind jumped to another question, “Are you hypnotized by lanterns like moths?” She waved the lantern around in the pattern of figure eight, conducting her own impromptu experimental investigation of the hypnosis of gigantic bugs.

The bright starlight only left brief trails of color on Tchict’Ict’s optical receptors. “Please stop,” he requested in what he hoped was a non-threatening tone.

“Hmm,” said the faerie drawing some conclusion from his behavior, which she chose not to share with him. Regardless, she did cease waving the lantern about. “Do you have a name?”

“My name is Tchict’Ict,” replied the insect man in his chittering voice.

“Itchy Itch? That’s a funny name.”


“I love funny names,” said the faerie. “Itchy, you and I are going to get along great.”

Tchict’Ict supposed these words represented a compliment. His knowledge of mammalian customs prompted him to repay the compliment with one of his own. “The precision of your flight control is quite impressive.”

As if the words did not register with her, the faerie asked, “Who’s in the well?”

“My friends.” Before Tchict’Ict could say more, the faerie dove into the well and was momentarily spinning circles with her starlight lamp around the most incredibly odd species of mushroom man that she had ever encountered.

The principle source of her amazement centered around the fact that this particular specimen presented so many human characteristics. The mushroom people of Faerie, which were quite common though not entirely sociable, tended to be much more closely associated with the fungal side of their family tree. “Why,” she exclaimed with delight, “you are nine parts man and only one part mushroom!”

Poison Pie did not quite know how to reply to these introductory words. In truth, he did not relish the idea that he could be described so succinctly. To better communicate his point of view, he said, “I prefer to think of myself as one part mushroom, one part man, and eight parts ambiguity.”

“Neat,” said the faerie, showing almost total disinterest in this result of many years of Poison Pie’s introspection and self-analysis. “I like that. Lists. I’m fond of lists. I collect them and report them to the Court. I’m eleven parts starlight and seventy-seven parts divine rumor; some other parts are organic, and of course I have my share of narkrïmá. But enough about me, let’s get you out of this well. You are modestly well-mannered for a mushroom man.” She reached out a tiny hand.

The span of Poison Pie’s own mitt was larger than the whole of the faerie. Still, there is magic in Faerie, which the faeries implement unconsciously. By this mechanism, a firm grip was created between miniature, slender fingers and the soggy mitt. Although it defies conventional notions of physics, the faerie whisked Poison Pie up the well and dropped him standing beside Tchict’Ict in scarcely more time than it takes to blink.

Poison Pie required a moment to regain his breath after the sudden and utterly unexpected flight. “That was amazing,” he finally muttered by way of thanks to the figure now spinning pirouettes in the air above them.

In the broader starlight of the sky, Poison Pie observed the faerie to be of fair complexion with flaxen hair and green eyes, which never settled too long in any one place, as if eager to capture each detail, but only momentarily before they ran the risk of losing interest. “What is your name?” asked the mushroom man.

“Princess Pie,” said the faerie.

“Are you a princess?” Tchict’Ict asked. He had not encountered royalty since the queen of his own former colony was lost. The thought stoked a curious emotion.

“You two make weird friends,” said the faerie. “What’s your name?” she asked the mushroom man.

“Poison Pie.”

“Fancy that,” said the faerie, “we have the same surname. Maybe we are distantly related. Do you have ancestors from the worlds of Alpha Centauri?”

Unfamiliar as he was with that land, the best Poison Pie could do was shrug.

“I didn’t think so,” said the faerie, dismissively. “Mingling with mushrooms is not something in which they would engage,” she said lightly, as if no one could take offense at such a statement, “especially toxic mushrooms.” She surveyed the mushroom man further, running her eyes up and down him. “Poison, you say?” She continued speaking to herself. “Itchy and Poison. It’s like an irritating ivy. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”

The mushroom man and the insect man shared a relieved glance that contained perhaps nothing more than a tacit agreement that Princess Pie should prove a more tolerable host than had the Mechanical Sentience.

Princess Pie’s attention fell to the gray robes given to Poison Pie by Sariputra. Recognition flashed across her face. “And you’re a monk!” she exclaimed. “A mushroom man monk. Will wonders never cease? This will certainly be worth reporting.” She did not allow Poison Pie the opportunity to remedy her mistaken impression nor query her on to whom her report would be delivered or for what purpose.

Next the excitable faerie’s attention was caught by the tattoos visible on Poison Pie’s face and arms. Startling both Poison Pie and Tchict’Ict, she shrieked in delight. “You have a story written on you. You are a story! You are literally a walking story mushroom man monk!” She enthusiastically repeated the string of words several times, turning them into a kind of chant. “Incredible! Let me take a look at you...” She paused as if she were right then and there going to read the runes rising from the flesh of the mushroom man.

Poison Pie certainly meant to ask her if she was familiar with such characters, but his words were stopped when a second faerie darted out of the well, this one similar in stature, also female, slim as a waif and completely naked.

The new arrival immediately became the center of Princess Pie’s attention. “Are you with these two, sister? Where’s your lantern? You’ve lost your narkrïmá as well.” Princess Pie turned accusing eyes to the mushroom man and insect man. “Did they do this to you?”

The second faerie replied, “No...” but she too was cut-off from further explanation by the exuberance of Princess Pie.

“What’s your name?”


“And your clan?”

Celia paused uncertain as to a proper response, uncertain even to what level the deception of her disguise should be maintained. In Faerie, deception is the rule of the land but there is always a price, usually prohibitively unknown, associated with it.

As these thoughts raced through Celia’s head, Princess Pie reached her own conclusion. “Oh, you’d rather not say. I understand. Not everyone can come from so noble a house as Alpha Centauri.” She darted next to Celia and draped a cool, comforting arm across her bare shoulders. “You have nothing to worry about from me. I’m a progressive faerie. The old laws are so much rubbish to me.” It was difficult to tell the truth in Princess Pie’s words for she was beholden to the old laws for much of the magic which dominated her existence. Her professed liberalism was rather assembled in a patchwork manner, and certainly subject to change from one circumstance to another.

“Follow me, Celia, and we’ll get you tended to,” said Princess Pie. The two flew side by side to the edge of the forest. Celia paused and cast a meaningful look back at Tchict’Ict and Poison Pie. Princess Pie misinterpreted the pause as a moment of indecision. “Of course, you can bring your pets along. They make very interesting conversation,” she added, “for their sort.”

Tchict’Ict however correctly understood Celia’s meaning. He leapt into the well, skittered back down and found her backpack set on the same protruding stone that Celia had lately occupied. In it, among Celia’s other possessions, were her gray monk’s robes and, of course, the book of runes bestowed by Sariputra. Tchict’Ict slung the pack over his shoulder and scrambled back up the well, where he joined Poison Pie, following the two faeries as they gaily fluttered here and there, traipsing along an unclear path leading into the depths of the forest.

Princess Pie’s incessant chatter accompanied them along their way. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed, dear sister, but your fighting bug, Itchy, may not have much opportunity to test his mettle. It’s a sport that’s never quite caught on in these parts. Although, I do know a particularly irascible bugbear who likes to wrestle...”

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