Table Of Contents
Chapter I - Getting Begat
He stared at his hands and blinked, swished them in front of his face. It was that slow, strange moment just before reality reminds you of its demands. His arms, like misfiring pistons, shot to his throat as he realized he was indeed choking. Whatever substance he was swimming in had found its way into his mouth, his throat, even his lungs.
His heartbeat trebled as he twisted and turned in every direction. He was dying and yet everything was so slow. All he could see was the colour of subdued pink. Everything was tinted with its bleak cheerfulness: his arms, his wrists and hands, even the surrounding space. He could barely think.
But he wanted air, he wanted control. His body was gasping for air, his eyes widening, a deep terror creeping along his spine. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d drawn a breath let alone had a thought, a memory, a single experience. Out of sheer panic he banged his fists against the translucent membrane enclosing him. His limbs were growing heavy and weightless at the same time.
He was tiring. Panic was giving way to stillness.
Nearby, and at that precise moment, Malark, the Chief Watcher of the Ba’ha Grotto, was busy reading an ancient text, a carafe of wust juice perched on his gyrating knee. He’d just taken his first sip when he heard the decisive banging of a new arrival clamouring for life. Completely shocked, Malark spewed a misty blast of wust juice all over his most prized tome.
“A goo-drinker!” cried out Malark. “Josef to boot, and he hasn’t even been prophesied. The gall!” Leaping to his feet and slandering at least two gods, Malark spun on his one good leg towards a a silver knife resting on a nearby table. The carafe of wust juice fell and exploded into a spiderweb of shards.
It was this same silver knife the man called Josef watched as it plunged into his encasing goo-sac. He flinched as its blade sawed back and forth in front of his face. As the last morsels of air left his lungs, he watched the knife carve an oval into the barrier’s skin. His eyelids wavered; everything was tipping towards a foggy black.
He could only listen to the glug, glug, glug of the goo emptying out of the sac like an apothecary’s vessel. All at once the goo splurged out of the sac and air swam in to fill its place. He felt the cool air make contact with his shoulders, his throat. He felt drool winding down his chin and through the black hairs of his beard.
He tried to speak but it was like trying to talk with a mouth full of water. Two sets of hands reached in and gripped him by either arm and yanked him out. His body started to shake. Then his lungs heaved. And then heaved again. He felt his stomach tighten and his tongue poke free from his mouth. His lungs wanted the goo out, now. His helpers gracefully lowered him to the floor and instantly he began to retch. He heaved and heaved again, expelling more and more goo from his system.
He shivered as the last wad fell from his mouth. He was cold. The floor and walls of the room seemed to be made of red clay. Pulsing and groaning in every nook and cranny were various goo-sacs containing human forms. Their knees were tucked into their chests like sweet-dreaming infants. He’d just been one of them.
A hand touched his face. It propped his chin up while another slicked the goo-plasm from his eyelids. “There, there,” said the voice. He blinked and tried to speak but felt a sizzling pain in his throat. Looking up, he saw a teal-skinned creature with pulsating gills and fin-mohawk curving along the top of its skull.
The creature took Josef’s youthful hands in his and spoke sternly: “My name is Claudius. Your name is Josef. You’re in immediate danger. Your brain region,” Claudius said, tapping Josef’s skull, “isn’t working that well, so I’m going to help you get out of here, okey-dokey friend?”
“Claudius, no!” came another voice. Josef swiveled his head and saw a much shorter man with skin the colour of flaming coals. “You had your chance last time to dabble in your little mysteries. This one will be accounted for! The bell must be rung. I shall tell no more lies on your behalf, you devious, gill-fibbing—”
“Don’t use words you’ll later regret, Malark,” said Claudius, somehow both sweetly and sternly. He stepped between Malark and the bronze bell.
Josef opened his mouth to ask what in the world was going on but his throat didn’t want to cooperate. The same sizzling sensation from before ignited into an inferno. His throat burned and he started to cough.
“I know how hard it is for you to let bygones be bygones, Malark,” said Claudius, “but we have a brand new opportunity here that we’ll never figure out if you ring that bell over there. The poor goo-drinker here has just finished retching and already you want to send him off to be instructed.”
Josef watched in alarm as Malark attempted to snake himself around Claudius, but the nimble Sea Gwell intercepted his ambitions.
“Please. Just give me one second, Malark,” said Claudius, raising his webbed hands up and down in a calming motion.
Josef watched as Claudius began to rummage through several pouches. “Ah-ha! Here we go. Gormulch and a bit of merrycherry.” Claudius cupped his hand into an ad-hoc vessel. He pinched a few pale green shreds of lichen into his cupped hand and then added exactly one drop from a tiny vial. It began to fizz.
Claudius extended the foaming concoction out in front of Josef’s nose. “Breathe.”
Josef did just that. It smelled like swamp water and he burped, but the pain in his throat vanished.
“Much thank,” Josef replied, still on the floor, his hands feeling his throat in amazement.
But then Malark seized the moment and leapt by Claudius with improbable agility. Claudius gasped as he watched Malark grip and yank on the bronze bell’s rope, giving it its first pitiful warble and then a second time, less resolutely. The bell’s sound was almost sickening and everyone, Josef, Malark, and Claudius included, felt their bodies becoming loose, slackening as if ten days had passed in a instant.
As the last onerous clang of the bell whimpered out, Josef looked on as Malark and Claudius’s eyes met and a silent exchange passed between them. Malark’s head was bowed, loose strands of greying brown hair fell down his face.
“Malark,” began Claudius, his voice catching.
“I won’t lie for you again, Claudius. As I said, this goo-drinker will be accounted for.”
Claudius turned and pulled Josef to his feet, put his webbed hand on his shoulder. “I’ll only ask once. Are you one for adventure, Josef? Because if you aren’t, say so. Say so immediately. What I’m about to do can’t be undone.”
Josef looked at Claudius, at his rapidly pulsating gills, at his face of half-horror, half-delight. “I feel like no choice.”
Claudius smiled knowing that Josef could barely speak. His brain was still booting up. “You are absolutely correct.” Then, turning to Malark, he pumped his fist. “See! He’s a fighter! I knew it!”
Malark was too sad to be mad. “Just go, Claudius. Or even better stop while you still have a chance. This is madness. Remember last time? The gujai. . . how did that work out?”
“Malark, I told you already,” said Claudius. “I’ve learned my limits — and I’ve made a few contacts. I don’t like to talk about sure bets but this could be one of them!”
“Remember Lupe III?” Malark pleaded.
“He double-downed on juniper berries in The Crow Meadow. Everyone knows that’s a major no-no.” Claudius chucked a rag at Josef’s face. “Put this on, pronto.” He then busied himself grabbing random items from all over the room, including a large tome that was resting on a squat table next to Josef’s old goo-sac.
Josef did as instructed. He pulled the loose-fitting sack over his head while trying to think, but he hadn’t used his brain in quite some time. He felt faded, on the fritz, as if certain key components of his mind were not only absent, but actually working overtime against him.
“We only have a few minutes, Josef,” continued Claudius as he tossed a rucksack over his shoulder.
“You have less than that,” Malark said, pointing through a multi-coloured stained glass window. Josef followed his pointed finger and saw a group of five walking along a ledge. “They don’t suspect anything, yet. But the machos and brainsnakes will ask me questions, Claudius.”
“I don’t expect you to lie, Malark,” replied Claudius as he bent down and began yanking on a floor grate, “but please do.”
“Who that,” asked Josef.
“The local Ba’ha regiment, but we don’t have time for this right now,” Claudius said as the grate shuddered open, sliding against the dusty clay floor. “Down.”
“Down?” replied Josef, completely confused. But Claudius was already gone. Where the floor grate had once been, there was now only a dark and foreboding hole.
Josef swallowed. Malark spoke. “I’m sorry. I had to ring the bell. Another deviation and both Claudius and I would’ve been depropagated for sure.”
“Josef!” came Claudius’s voice echoing up from the tunnel.
“You should go,” said Malark. “But I want you to know that I’ve tried before. When they catch you, please remember that.”
Josef was struck by the pain dwelling in Malark’s words, but Claudius’s cry echoing up from the dark tunnel pushed him to descend. Quickly he crouched and stretched his feet out into the darkness, finding the ladder’s first rung. He descended a few rungs down and then waved goodbye to Malark. It was unnecessary. They’d known each other for a few minutes, but it felt right nevertheless.
“I’m come, Claudius. I’m come!” Josef cried out.
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