Day 26. 64 pages, 30,229 words.
The tunnel terminated in a large automated collection and processing plant built into the near-vertical swell of icy stone that marked the outermost edge of the flatworld. Above, the grey crags curved back towards horizontal while below they curved slowly in the opposite direction into a great overhang and the inverted stalactite mountains of Cursèd’s underside.
Gabiscus the Knurled navigated them artfully through the plant in a strange dance around the swinging arms and floating surveillance drones, each one of which turned or deactivated or moved away to restart its automated cycle elsewhere just as they were passing. The Happy Bumfuck drifted towards the deposit ramp inside its own personal mobile blind spot, and eventually landed in a notch left for it in the top front of a large cube of compacted waste materials. From their perch, they could look out and over into … well, into nothingness, really. The air was already thin this far out, although still breathable. It did not at any point actually reach hard stellar vacuum between here and the Rooftop, but it came close enough to strain the hopper’s specs.
The sun of Earth and Hell might have cast a little light as it looped by far above, but it was entirely possible this was neither the time of day nor the necessary flatworld arc for it to happen. And beyond that, there was nothing. The Rooftop of Castle Void was unlit in the area immediately surrounding the Four Realms and so, from this distance, was simply not visible. They might have been contemplating ejection into deep space.
Çrom and Lotus rose from the couch and stood on either side of Gabiscus as she shut the hopper down and activated a sequence of smugglers’ code routines Çrom knew better than to look at or even think about too closely.
“Ready to take a leap of faith, Çrom?” Lotus asked him in a quiet voice.
“I don’t have faith,” Çrom replied absently. “After a certain point, you just have to follow the numbers.”
She smiled. “And what numbers are you following this time?”
Çrom shrugged. “Number one is always a good start.”
Gabiscus unfolded silently from the sling. “Is this truly what you want, beautiful forms?” she breathed. “It is so very dangerous for you, down in the endless halls.”
Çrom looked at Lotus.
“This is the path we must follow,” Lotus said firmly. “Thank you for your help, Gabiscus the Knurled.”
“Thank you,” Gabiscus said, inclining her scarred head to Lotus. She turned sad eyes on Çrom. “I will leave,” she said, “and place misdirect tags on the hull of your hopper. Your separation altitude and landing path is input to the computer. There is a transport, I believe, at the landing site but it may not have great range. It may not even be there any longer. The accesses into the Castle … this will be your trial to face.”
“Understood,” Çrom said, and exchanged another dry, pointy hug with the Vorontessi. “Thanks again, Gabby. Help yourself to wraps on your way out,” he added, pointing to the mostly-full box next to the couch.
Gabiscus stooped, picked up the box, and pulled out a handful of chuda wraps. Such was the length of her fingers that she could hold half a dozen or more of the packages.
She tossed these onto the couch, and tucked the box under her arm.
“You will die,” she said, “or return to the worlds above, before needing more than this.”
Çrom chuckled. “Works for me,” he said. “We have a few other flavours in the hold anyway.”
“We do?” Lotus said in surprise.
“Jumpin’ Grag wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Çrom said, and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Too many syllables.”
Gabiscus cast a final, just-slightly-too-lingering look back at the two humans, then departed silently into the biting cold. Çrom and Lotus returned to the helm chamber, and Lotus stood by his side as Çrom climbed back into the sling and prepared to … well, to sit rather extraneously at the controls and watch the hopper fall, he supposed.
“And so we begin,” Lotus said, as the block of waste materials on which they were parked rumbled smoothly forwards to the brink of the deposit ramp.
“Begin,” Çrom said, trying to inject as much certainty and optimism into his voice as he could, and make it sound like he really meant begin instead of end. “Begin the process of sneaking into Castle Void to steal the dark gift.”
“Yes,” Lotus said placidly. “Diabolisation shall be mine,” she put a hand on his shoulder. “Yours too, if you wish.”
“I’d rather die,” Çrom said.
Lotus cackled. “That was our agreement, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph.”
“Any clues as to how we’re going to find the dark gift, in a building an appreciable fraction of the size of the universe?”
“I know where we must go,” Lotus replied.
“And are you going to tell me what ‘service’ you’re planning on performing – aside from stealing the secret of diabolisation – in order to have your slate wiped clean by the Heavenly authorities and ensure your legacy?” Çrom asked. “Or are you going to kill me before I get to find out any of that stuff?”
The great block pitched forward, swung ponderously, and fell into the darkness.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.