Aside from the sign, there was, etched in a stone tablet (resembling much those Moses had carried down from the mountains) a series of “commandments”:
Though shalt oink in joy, ‘pon seeing thy Queen
Though shalt e’er obey the elder swine
Though shalt bring offering of bacons and hams (why exactly a pig would eat a ham, none of them could figure)
Watch out for bitey basilisks
Should you guess the magic word, enjoy your stay in the Kingdom of Oink! You will experience, first hand, our advanced hive mind, salty local cuisine, and hand-made crafts.
“Wonderful,” muttered Chaim, flatly, “The Kingdom of Oink. Salty cuisine. A hive mind. I gather that this isn’t the mist-veiled kingdom you had expected Petka.”
“Truthfully, no,” said Petka, though not a trace of disappointment could be found in his voice, “What’s an adventure without a toss-up or two? So, Chaim, Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, just what are we up against?”
All of a sudden, a voice rang from a tall, heavily armored figure clanging up the chipped stairs toward them– her voice was louder than one might expect, as her distance made her appear no larger than a chessboard rook. And as her plate leggings and greaves echoed up the stairs at a frightening pace, she grew taller and taller, until she stood before them, nearly 6′ 10”, standing taller than even Petka.
“Pigs, you idiots!” said the juggernaut in a sweetly low and feminine, though clearly angry voice, “Ya read the sign shaped like a pig, it’s called the bloody Kingdom of Oink for the love of the heavens! I’ve been waiting ages for you lot, especially you, baldy! Creighton said you’d ‘be here in no time, snap’, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean in your otherworldly tongue! I reckoned it meant quick but-”
And the oaths continued for a while until Finnen interrupted the heavily armored figure, who dwarfed the burly Irishman by at least a foot and a half, and whose height had rendered her slightly gibbous. The young woman’s armor was quite odd- a stark cold blue, with spherical pauldrons; the armor covering her chest and back was blocky and had slightly creaking joints of a similar cerulean color– under one arm she carried an almost absurdly decorated helmet very much resembling a Venus flytrap; clenched in the other was a strange sword with an elaborate guard. It was only slightly longer than it was wide, and came to a broad point.
Her face was sweaty, as was to be expected in this circumstance, as her armor must have weighed a ton, and her short, close cropped blond hair lay messy around her ears and neck and fell over her forehead. All the while she raved and ranted at the three stunned and silent strangers (and one wolf) she had taken to accosting. Even Raksha, who had faced down grizzly bears and won had taken to hiding behind Petka, as the Amazonian woman stood over them, rambling on about all manner of piggy-related topics, and something about a Queen being in trouble; about the usurpation of the throne and the danger of– but her words were cut short by Finnen, who had raised his voice to a volume that would have rivaled Vesuvius on Pompey’s worst day.
“Oi! Colleen! Ya said Creighton! Is he OK? Is the Missus with him? Take – me – to – them – now!” he enunciated every word to a stony degree.
“Bullocks,” replied the towering lady knight in a now raspy, but still feminine voice, “That’s right… you were friends. Well, he’s here- Johannah too. Come on. I’m Anais.”
* * * * *
Finnen, hearing Anais’ tone felt his heart drop into his feet, bypassing his stomach altogether. When this Knight Anais had said “Bullocks”, his immediate fear was that that they were harmed or seriously injured. But he knew Creighton was a fighter and the Missus Johannah was a real hellcat- nothing scared her, and everything feared her- “hell hath no fury” indeed- the phrase was practically coined for her.
Surely, they must have survived whatever danger that could have come their way. But this fleeting optimism he felt with his fond memory of the pair was extinguished when the group had reached the bottom of the stairs, which had gradually grown dark with overhanging tree branches; and this darkness seemed all the more foreboding, as if the sun itself had no desire to see what lay at the bottom. Come to think of it, Finnen didn’t want to see it either, and he shut his eyes tight, his steps guided by his companion’s – Petka’s large, long-fingered hand on his left shoulder, and Chaim’s ice-cold fingers drifting into the flesh of his right shoulder. Eventually, they stopped in a little clearing; even the birds had stopped singing, and the ubiquitous chattering insects ceased their endless talk– all the insects, that is, except for the one, bloated glow-roach who hung obstinately in the back of Finnen’s mind.
It was Greeb of course who, at long last, had put down his everlasting meatball grinder, made an attempt to straighten out his marinara stained beater, and stopped scratching his rear; he spoke with true sorrow- a first for Greeb, who didn’t seem to know such emotions.
“I’m sorry Finnen, they’re dead.”
Slowly opening his eyes, which near instantly welled up with tears, he saw what he feared the most.
Some say that an unsolvable mystery is the worst thing you can leave a loved one, or dear friend. Endless, unverifiable possibilities scream from every angle in every quiet moment; what-ifs parade endlessly in thorny armor, trampling and setting afire one’s nerves, and endless “maybe tomorrows” provide a prickly, and downright cruel sort of hope that tastes like acid on the tongue, and burns the palms of ones hands, crown of one’s head, and needles endlessly the heart beating in one’s chest. And to the rest of the world, this is absolutely true. But to Finnen, all these things would have been most welcome, as he vastly preferred a world with Creighton in it, wherever his wanderer’s spirit had led him and the Missus.
Ever since his brain had been scrambled, he was used to Chaos, used to what-ifs, used to unknowns, partial truths, and that the belief that no matter how dangerous, something good laid just over the next ledge, just “beyond the ranges” as Petka Fawcett would often say. Finnen had fully expected to find Creighton and Johannah having waltzed into the mist-veiled Kingdom and ruled over the citizens with kidness and charity, the things Creighton and the Missus were made of. It had it be. It was a must. He could imagine it, dream it, believe it no other way.
Finnen, you see, could only take so much unadulterated, immutable truth at one time, and now, crowding out everything else was the singular sight before him, as unchangeable and unshakable as the faith that had brought him beyond the ranges, and down the cliffs to battle with strange Wisps, beyond time and its refusal to obey, and beyond the brink of death and reality. And now, sharing that limited space in Finnen’s skull was a new truth- Creighton and Johannah- friends, confidants, a brave man and braver woman, both made of iron and steel- invincible, fearless soldiers and healers- superheroes even, had died. And the proof was in the two stone statues sitting sadly upon a little wooden bench, forever frozen in one last, loving embrace.
Petka and Chaim instantly knew the cause of death, having dealt directly with the beasts responsible- those pale, fat-headed, barbed-tailed basilisks- stupid beyond all measure, but doubly dangerous as they were capable of complete silence while hunting.
Finnen McKinnon who had nearly died in his time, saw the slaughter of all he cared about in his adopted hometown in this world – a world which was was infinitely more cruel than the one he left behind- dropped to his knees and wept. Neither Chaim nor Petka said a word- they simply sat cross-legged next to him, a hand on each shuddering shoulder. Even Raksha who, once upon a time vowed to destroy Finnen, was so moved that she worked her way onto his lap, and began to lick the tears as they rolled down his stubbly cheeks; Finnen, in turn, buried his reddening face in her fur, and coddled her much like one would a teddy bear, and not a carnivorous wolf.
Anais broke the silence.
“I’m…I’m sorry this happened. The gods-damned woods are lousy with those fat, lumpy snakes. Far as I could tell, Creighton wanted to camp for the night, and stepped into the woods for some kindling. Got a direct sting, in the calf, right above the boot. Full dose; the poison acted quick- he couldn’t have felt a thing– just sat on the bench and waited…
“The gal… Johannah? She tried every poultice, potion, and medicine in her pack, but there’s no cure. His last words were ‘Finnen will be here in no time, snap- that man’s a goddamn hero.’”
Finnen peered up at Anais’ dour face, then to the two statues. Creighton’s eyes were closed, but there was the slightest ghost of a grin on his lips. Finnen had seen it before- it was one of acceptance, resignation- just like when the plagued-people were let out to be swallowed up by the wilds, and their blighted homes burned to the ground by the healthy folk. But he was too strong and good natured to ever let on his true fears. It was not a smile of indifference, but rather of a painful recognition of the sorrow that clung so closely to humanity, that lurked just behind the joy one feels in the right company on the right days. His smile was of a deep and aching sorrow only eased by the opportunity to make things a little better for somebody, to improve tomorrow even a little bit, or the next day, or the day after that.
But here was the most sadistic endgame Finnen could imagine. Here were his friends- a rightful King and Queen if every two existed- he could reach out and touch them, but they would not…could not react. He took a little solace in that souls were couldn’t turn to stone by even the most arcane venom– but still, as he gazed upon the pair on the bench, he couldn’t help but feel the dagger of loss buried deep in his chest.
“I just came over the sky-bridge as Johannah was limping towards the soldier. In trying to get him out of the woods, she got scratched by one of the bloated worms- slower death, stone all the same. She had placed her stiffening arms around Creighton, and laid her head upon his shoulder, the bloody Crown of Fools at her feet.
“She asked if…if it could all be undone. If they could be made well, made whole again, if the poison could be made null. I didn’t know what to tell her- there was no cure, no way back? It was too cruel, even to say to strangers.”
“Then what did you t-tell them?” asked Finnen in a flat and broken tone.
“I told them that I would return forthwith, and that they would both wake up in a better place.”
Finnen gazed upon Johannah’s face, and saw upon her lips a more authentic smile gracing her stony features, as if she had merely taken an afternoon rest with her lover– merely waiting for the warbling song of some bird of paradise to be carried upon the wind to their ears to awake them.
“At least ya didn’t lie,” said Finnen quietly.
“Well, spirit doesn’t turn to stone,” replied Anais.
“The crown…” said Petka, “It’s still at their feet…”
“Oh, that bloody thing,” replied Anais, “Legends grow like weeds over the years. Originally, the books were meant to allow outsiders to enter the kingdom to trade, or in the event of some catastrophe. Unfortunately, it was written by a rather embittered priest.
“All the dangers were all meticulously detailed, but he added two little words that changed everything. The first was ‘crown‘- a universal symbol of rulership, typically of a kingdom– and in fairy-books, Kingdoms are full of treasure, and the allure of gold and power attracted all the wrong people- this was further exacerbated by the use of the word ‘fools‘. Man is funny that way; it inspired in the treasure seekers some kind of ridiculous sense of competition- they– and who ‘they’ were, of course, could never be known, were fools and failures, but not ‘me’– at least that was the thought process.
“You see, the devil of it is that our royalty does not… never did wear crowns. Their positions were marked by special tattoos upon the cheeks or foreheads- ancient designs, passed down from time immemorial. That rusty headgear that sits at your feet? It only ever gave one the ability to see a sky-bridge that leads to the gate. Didn’t make you King of anything more than this bloody clearing. And while it’s true that there was a so-called ‘magic word’ to get the crown, it was deceptively simple, and- well, any number of words would work.”
“Just what in Christ did ya have ta say?” asked Finnen, looking up with swollen eyes.
“You just had to ask nicely. The royalty was trying to keep the treasure hunters and wicked hearts out, and assumed that was the last thing they would try. And it worked too. Johannah figured it out. Oh, she screamed curses, pounded her fists, then out of sheer desperation muttered ‘s’il vous plaît’- but ‘onegaishimasu ‘or ‘would you kindly’ would have worked just as well. She put the crown on her head, was able to see me coming, and that was that. She tossed the crown aside and waited until she found rest.”
Anais chewed her lip, silent for a moment.
“That bitter priest, the author of those books of ivory and leaves was really quite ingenious in a sense. We’ve always been pretty self reliant and strong- we felled dragons and giant bees and rodents of unusual size, until the so-called Wisp Queen rolled over the bridge and started to tarry ’round the throne room. My order sent me to see if any help had come. It was pure luck that Creighton figured it out.
“He didn’t want to be King of anything; he seemed uncomfortable even being a Mayor,” said Finnen, hardly above a whisper.
“He was clearly a virtuous man,” sighed Anais, “Been waitin’ for you, Finnen- felt like ages. Sorry for my anger before. Bones of the selfish dead, purple-pink lighted Wisps all tryin’ to kill you- it’s a wonder you made it at all. You’re as strong as Johannah said you were.”
“Tell me what you need,” said Finnen with a flattened affect, standing up and wiping the drying tears from his eyes. It was more of a statement than a question.
Anais took a deep breath, and told her story.
* * * * *
“Once, there was a mist-veiled valley that hid a great kingdom, with gold and blue accented, alabaster spires so tall they seemed to mingle with the firmament. The royalty- a Queen- her husband had passed away- was fair and caring and thus, the citizens enjoyed peace and prosperity. Aside from the occasional dragon attack or uni-rat-nicorn infestation, people lived long, happy lives, unaffected by changes in ‘gods’ or ‘management’ or whatever-the-hell they called themselves, and were protected from the relentless march of smoke-stack industry that so permeated the ‘otherworld’. It was like this since time out of mind, from my understanding, but then everything changed.
“Then, and quite suddenly, it was like a balance became upset somewhere, like something gluttonous and without any critical thinking skills had bucked off its reigns and taken power. The old ways and old spirits became useless and redundant, and for the first time in known history – well, at least since Queen Olivia and her now-passed King took charge, an army was pounding away at the gates with a hellishly determined vigor. But, of course, this did not happen overnight. There was an omen- a morbidly obese, hideous half-Wisp, a thing, masquerading as human but was actual the aether wrapped in gluttony, named XZMNLQQQBPNX- or, in your otherworld tongue, Scott. After the city walls fell to what turned out to be an army of hideous pig-things, this great-behemoth of a food-whore came riding in on a strange, horseless carriage, powered by a clearly overworked steam motor. The thing propelled her ample frame (which sagged over the armrests and seat) much to the amazement of the onlookers.
“Now, I’m not one to judge on appearance alone, but we should have known this was big trouble wrapped in a lifetime of poor and downright gluttonous life decisions. On the afternoon her demoralized, steam powered cart wheezed its way past the front gate, she made a b-line straight for the bakery, flanked by her greenish pig warriors, and promptly consumed any and all confections that were within her ham-fisted grasp, to include a realistic, but still very cardboard model of a three-tiered wedding cake. It was a massacre.
“One of her burlier pig-monsters ‘escorted’- and I use this only in the loosest sense of the word- Scott, as her belching steam-scooter was evidently not wont to ascend steep hills without somebody pushing mightily from the back. A number of knights led the way and also stood behind- she wanted to see Queen Olivia directly, and give her some information about some ‘upset’ in the order of the gods outside her walls- apparently the viscous pounding she gave our town’s walls was a ‘friendly knock’ – her words, not mine. Of course, nobody believed a word of it- our knights were ready to fight to the death- hell, not even the town fool, Ephraim Q. Billicus – a man who wore socks on his hands, and claimed to have built a palace on the moon- bought the dreck this lady was selling.
“Now, as a general rule, our kingdom didn’t concern itself with the comings and goings of semi-divine monster things, but seeing as how one was being wheeled towards the palace, we really didn’t have a choice. And our Queen, ever gracious, ever cautious, allowed the spherical wisp-thing to enter her court and deliver her message- this proved to be a mistake, though not in the way anybody would have foreseen.”
Anais let out a long, weighted sigh.
“The bloated fleshy thing, whose torso had swallowed her neck entirely, explained that there had been a ‘change in management‘ and that a new ‘contract‘ had been negotiated. Queen Olivia, of course, had no idea what to make of this, and was frankly more mesmerized by the sheer number of oozing grilled cheese sandwiches this so called Lady Scott was able to materialize out of literal parts unknown , eating one after the other as she carried on her conversation.
“’Pigs.’ said the behemoth finally.
“’What? Who?’ asked Queen Olivia, amazed at the sheer pace with which this sphere had consumed ten thousand calories in a single sitting.
“’My teenie, greeniebabies- the ones that knocked in the doors to your kingdom. They all bow down to me- perhaps- and I do believe it’s so, they do so because of my breathtaking beauty…’
“‘I rather think,’ replied our queen, ‘it is because you always smell of cakes.’
“’Never you mind!’ shouted the brutish, fused-to-her-scooter monster, ‘This little piggy went to murder!’
“She was apparently quite pleased with her joke, as in her snorting laughter, small pieces of partially masticated eclair fell upon her ample, fleshy frame, staining her and, I quote ‘The Royal Muumuu‘– it was already stained with thick yellow splotches under her arms, so any further stain would hardly be noticeable.
“Now there were three personal knights- the top of their class- in the palace to guard the queen. Two of these knights were immediately killed by arrows fired from some shadows by unseen hands, which would actually turn out to be cloven hooves with disturbingly human thumbs. I was the third. The Quen Olivia bid me to run for help, and I escaped out of a hatch designed for the purpose, into the streets. The pig warriors, which had crashed through our gates, had either killed or imprisoned the other knights of my order– gods, the streets were impossibly thick with them. The peasants were beaten into submission. The really frightening thing was that the pig-things seemed to act in a sort of perfect choreography; they acted as one, completely coordinated, as if they could see through each others eyes.
“I tried to join my captain in battle, but with a mighty boot to the rear, he told me to run like Cerberus himself was chasin’ me, and gather reinforcements. Now this was a bit of a bluff, as we were the only functioning, populated Kingdom in our land, at least as far as we could tell. What he was referring to was outsider…otherworlder help, and that had all but been skunked by that priest who appealed to the greedy with the word “crown” and to the haughty with the term “fools” It was a long-shot at best, but the only shot we had.
“Without any other options, I bolted over the sky-bridge, making the steps by memory and saw Creighton and Johanna- the fact that they made it here was a miracle in itself. They mentioned an Irishmen whose heart was bigger than his brain and the little settlement in purgatory that had been set up. And so I waited for you, Irish, specifically– he had every confidence in you, and made that clear in no uncertain terms before he finally succumbed to the poison. He believed in you Finnen McKinnon, and now the three of you are all the reinforcements we’ve got.”
“Wonderful,” said Finnen in a no-nonsense tone neither Chaim nor Petka had heard before, “So what’s the plan?” He asked this as he affixed one of the uni-rat horns to Creighton’s rifle which lay at the stone man’s feet, to act as a magical bayonet; and upon his face was cut a stony look of sheer determination.
“Regicide,” replied Anais, “We dress up like bakers, hide you in a giant cake, make our way into the throne room, then come out swinging.
“A Trojan Cake?” asked Petka.
“Never look a gift cake in the mouth,” added Chaim, “Or something like that.”
“Anyway,” resumed Anais with a tone of annoyance, “It’s like I said. They all think as one. Cut of the morbidly obese head, and the rest is an easy-peasy mop up job. So can I count on the three of you?”
“Well!” said Finnen with a sort of unhinged glee, “They’re already dead!” He loaded a few cartridges into Creighton’s carbine.
“I never fancied cakes, but I love the smell of crispy bacon,” Chaim added, holding his Big Freakin’ Gun at the ready (nobody laughed).
“Now,” said Anais with a grumble, donning her pointed helmet, “It is important that you follow my steps quite carefully, or you will plummet to your death. Oh, and one more thing, everything smells like pancakes there- it’s quite intoxicating, but deceptive- our once peaceful kingdom is now populated with horrors; evil beyond reckoning. It’s just for some reason, this particular evil smells like butt’ry pancakes. Go figure.”
And so the five- Anais, Finnen, Chaim, Petka, and Raksha walked with extreme care over the sky bridge, into what was surely to be a furious battle, which in fact did- though, somewhat anti-climatically-smelled like flapjacks- and buttery flapjacks at that.