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The Chariot

The Chariot Memories of Remus came to Tommy at the most random times. He’d be doing just fine, maybe restocking the bar or polishing glasses, and then he’d remember the glass lake of Glocolas and how Remus had pointed out all the raw diamonds at the bottom. Or he’d cut his finger and remember how Remus had saved him from nearly getting the same finger sawed off in the infinite factory of Machinus. And then he’d have to take a deep breath and get his bearings again. Sometimes, the memories expanded beyond Remus, of course, to all the adventures they’d had. More than anything, he thought of H’thalee. Whenever they had just endured something particularly difficult or scarring, Mathilda would take them back to the forest, and they were always welcomed by the people there. They weren’t very technologically advanced, but to say that they lived in “tribes” would not be correct. The people of H’thalee didn’t make that distinction. Villages were maybe more accurate. Their herbal medicine was some of the best in the realities, due to all the nearly magic herbs and plants that grew in the forest. But this was also a double-edged sword, due to the moist, tropical climate encouraging the propagation of a variety of plagues and illnesses. This meant that sometimes their break was less of a break then an even more stressful adventure. That was exactly how Remus had died. But there were a lot of happy memories there. There were some very bad ones, as well, but he preferred not to think about those. It was a place to go back to, nearly as much of a home as Mathilda. Tommy learned a lot from their doctors, and everyone else really. This was the one place where he made friends around his own age. H’thalee was also where he’d received his tattoos. The people of H’thalee nearly all had tattoos of some sort. And they all meant something. You might get a tattoo for a significant birthday, or for surviving an illness, or for having a child. None of this was sanctioned by any method, people got tattoos for nearly everything. The only catch was that in their culture, you had to undergo extensive training in order to be considered worthy of inking tattoos. Very few people gained the title of Inkulo. Usually they weren’t permanent residents of a village, but traveled between them, trading their skills for food and rest. That might have been why he and Kei became such good friends. They had met when Tommy was thirteen, at least by his reckoning. It was a little difficult to tell the exact passing of time when you were constantly bouncing between realities. Mathilda had brought Remus and Tommy back to H’thalee after an especially trying adventure in the carnivorous library of Asbeatus. Usually, Mathilda placed herself a short distance from the nearest village, and it wasn’t until after a few minutes of walking that they approached the main square and saw that the whole town was in a tizzy. “Ah, Remus,” the village leader, a beaming, muscular man named Tios, caught sight of them from across the square. “And Tommy too. Welcome. We are always pleased to see you.” Tommy glanced around at the villagers gathering in the square, and periodically turning towards the meeting house, a large, wooden building which maintained a central position in the village. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Today is a special day,” Tios beamed. “An Inkulo has come to town.” Remus had explained all about the tattoos the first time they’d come to H’thalee, so Tommy nodded. “Come, let me introduce you.” Tios beckoned them towards the meeting house, through the crowd. But before he could enter the humid interior, a rustling bush drew Tommy’s eye. He blinked, and peered into it, only to be greeted by another set of eyes winking back at him. They were an incredibly bright shade of blue, just a hint darker than the sky. The bush rustled again, and the eyes were gone. “Wait,” Tommy called, pushing past a few people and into the bush himself. Remus might wonder where he’d gone, but he’d be back in a few minutes. He followed the sounds of snapping branches, and emerged in the forest, the tree trunks, each thicker than a house, peering down at him with curiosity. But there was no sign of the person those eyes belonged to. He took a couple steps forward, glancing this way and that, but the woods were oddly silent. “Hello?” he asked, his words made small by the density of the trees. For a second, he made to turn around, until: “You’re persistent. I’ll give you that,” came a voice from above him. Tommy looked skyward, and there on a branch of a tree sat a girl about his age. Her long, nearly blue hair was wrestled into a messy braid on the top of her head, and her smirk was so pointy she cut have cut him with it. “Why did you follow me?” “I don’t know,” Tommy admitted. “I was wondering why you were hiding in a bush.” Instead of answering his question, her grin became even wider. “I’ve never seen you before. Who are you?” Frowning, Tommy strained from craning his neck. “I’m a traveler,” he said. “I could say the same about you.” The girl giggled, standing on the branch. “I’m a warrior princess from the moon,” she then grabbed onto the branch and swung down to the ground. Her eyes sparkled. “Okay, that might have been a lie,” she admitted. “I’m actually—” “Kei!” called a voice from the direction of the village, and the two turned to see an old man with a grizzled grey beard frowning at her. “Running away again? How will you ever learn the craft if you never practice?” “But I’ve been practicing all morning!” she complained. “Look, see! My hands are covered in ink!” “You did one design and then dipped your hand in the pot.” The girl, Kei, sighed. “Guess you caught me.” “And who’s this boy with you?” Right on cue, Tios and Remus emerged from the trees. “Ah, that would be my son, Tommy.” He had taken up the habit of introducing Tommy as his son a little more than a year ago, mostly because it was easier that trying to explain the full story. But Tommy still beamed a little every time he said it. He was proud to be his son. The older man, whom Tommy surmised must be the Inkulo, led Kei away, back to the meeting house, while Tios also pulled Remus and Tommy aside. “Truth be told,” he sighed. “I’m glad you’ve come back.” Remus frowned. “It’s not another plague, is it?” “No, no, nothing like that,” Tios shook his head, but they could tell that he was worried about something. “It’s just—” he continued as they stared at him. “There have been rumors... of a rift.” Tommy’s eyes widened as Remus nodded gravely. Rifts were extremely dangerous. They were rips in reality, places where the space between began to slip through. If left alone for long enough, it could destroy a whole reality. Tommy had only seen one once. He still had nightmares about the man who had been sucked in and devoured by pure entropy. “A better fate,” Remus had told him. “He could have become a daemon instead.” “I’ve only heard of rifts in tales,” Tios seemed agitated. “Can you help?” Nodding, Remus thought. “Perhaps. It depends on how big it is. Either way, we’ll need to find it quickly.” “Of course,” Tios agreed. “I’ll gather my best trackers and we’ll begin our search immediately.”

The two men began to head back to the village, and Tommy made to follow them. But then he heard a soft “psst” from the bushes again. “Did you sneak out again?” Tommy asked the bush. “I think your master’s gonna be pissed.” Kei emerged from the bush, twigs and leaves stuck in her hair. “He doesn’t even know I’m gone. I used my moon jujitsu powers to clone myself. I’m still in there working right now.” “But I thought you said that was a lie.” “Did I?” she grinned. “Mmm, I don’t remember that. Nope, I’m definitely a princess from the moon.” Her words seemed convincing, and for a second he almost believed her. But then he noticed how her gaze kept darting around the trees, landing almost anywhere but on him for more than a second. A tell. Remus had been teaching him about those. “You’re lying,” he said. “Are you sure about that?” “You won’t look at me, and your left eyebrow keeps twitching. So yes, I’m sure.” She froze mid-grin, then turned to him. “You noticed all that? Wow, I’m impressed.” He looked down at his feet, blushing a little. “If you want the truth, I told him I had a headache and needed to lie down. But that doesn’t matter.” Her eyes lit up. “Your dad and the village leader, they were talking about a rift!” “Yeah, they’re really dangerous,” Tommy warned, already knowing what was probably coming.

But Kei ignored it completely. “I’ve heard they can grant wishes. Let’s go find it before the adults do!” “Why would you want to?” Tommy struggled as she grabbed his hand, her eyes momentarily falling to the round bumps on his arm. “You could die, or worse.” “Because it’s my destiny to close all the rifts. I am secretly, the ‘Rift-Puncher!’” Then she cringed. “Okay, that was really bad, even for me. What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” “Wait!” he protested, but his words fell on deaf ears as he was dragged away through the forest. They walked for several minutes in silence, and before long, Tommy found himself entirely reliant on Kei knowing where she was. “How do you know where you’re going?” he asked. “I don’t.” Well, there went that idea right out the window. “I really hope you’re lying this time.” “I learn quickly. You shouldn’t have told me how you could tell, because now you’ll never know!” Shaking his head, Tommy sighed. “You are a strange one.” She simply laughed. “Me? I’m not the one who said ‘I’m a traveler’ and then changed the subject. I’m not the one with the crazy scars.” Tommy looked down at the ground, suddenly silent. It took Kei a solid minute to realize what she’d said. “Oh I’m... I’m sorry, I didn’t mean...” “It’s alright,” he muttered. Even though it wasn’t. He was sure he knew how Kei was going to respond. She’d either abruptly change the subject, or mutter another apology. But not Kei, never Kei. You couldn’t predict Kei. Maybe it was because she had almost no concept of social norms, or that she just didn’t care for them. “How did you get them? If you don’t mind me asking.” He paused. He’d never told anyone in four years. But something about Kei seemed familiar to him, friendly. “Remus... isn’t really my father,” he began. “He helped me get away from my father after he gave me these.” Tommy meant to stop there, to start walking again and drop the subject, but instead his mouth just sort of... kept going. “Cigarettes,” he held out his right arm, “Belt,” his neck. “And I hate it. I hate these scars. I hate when people look at them and they just... they get this look in their eye, they pity me. But they never ask. They just look away and avoid the question. And every time, it makes me remember it.” “Is that what you’re going to use for your wish?” Kei asked. “What?” “When we find the rift.” “Oh...” Tommy paused. “I don’t know.” He had never thought about that before. He’d never been given an opportunity like this before. Honestly, it probably wasn’t even real. He’d never heard of rifts granting wishes. But he didn’t tell Kei that. If there was one thing he’d learned over the last four years, it was that nothing was impossible. They searched for hours, scrambling over roots and vines, and before long Tommy was covered in dirt and numerous cuts. Gradually, it began to grow dark, the shadows of the forest lengthening around them. “We should head back,” Tommy whispered. “They’re probably worried about us. And it’s getting dark.” “No,” Kei was in front of him, her face turned away. She almost sounded angry. “We need to find it before they do, or we won’t get our wish.” He stopped walking. “What are you going to wish for, Kei?” Looking back at him, Kei grinned. “For all the bagels in the world.” Tommy opened his mouth, about to call her out on the lie, but then Kei froze, her eyes widening. She pointed over Tommy’s shoulder. “Tommy, look!” As soon as he began to turn his head, Tommy saw it: the glow of the rift. It was an odd, purplish-greenish color, shining through the trees. Kei grabbed his arm and pushed through the last layer of branches... And there it was, in the middle of a small clearing. The rift was a jagged shape in reality, cutting a line through the world. Beyond was chaos. It scared Tommy, goosebumps sprouted all up and down his arms. But Kei seemed fascinated by it. She drew closer, reaching out a hand. “Kei, no! Don’t touch it!” Tommy warned, surprisingly forceful, which made her pause. “Why not?” she asked. “How else am I supposed to get my wish?” He took a step towards her, but stayed wary of the rift. “I don’t know, but not like that. Bad things happen when you touch rifts.” The man’s scream had shaken Tommy’s bones as the lower half of his body was unmade. “Why are you trying to stop me?” “I’m not!” “You don’t want me to have my wish?” “I do, but—” “Then don’t stand in my way!” She tried to push past him, but Tommy grabbed her arm, pulling with all his might. He didn’t want to hear her scream like that. “Let me go!” she yelled. “No! Don’t do this,” Tommy had to use all his weight to hold her back. “What do you want so badly, anyway?” “Let go!” she repeated. “Tell me!” “I want a friend!” she screamed, and for a moment, the woods fell silent. “I just want a friend. Someone I can talk to, and play with. I don’t... I don’t want to be alone anymore.” He thought that this might be the first time she’d told the truth since he’d met her. Despite himself, Tommy started laughing. “What’s so funny?” she spat. “I’ll kill you with my moon magic!” “I thought it was jujitsu.” Kei was fuming. “Whatever,” she sulked. “You think my wish is stupid.” Tommy shook his head. “Not at all,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t need a wish for that. I’ll be your friend.” There was a pause as Kei looked at him. “You will?” “Sure. I’d love to.” The breath was almost knocked out of him by the force of her hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.” “Over here!” shouted a voice from the trees, and several men that they recognized from the village emerged into the clearing, followed by Tios and Remus. “Well, well,” Remus chuckled, “Looks like we’ve found both of our queries. Are either of you hurt?” They shook their heads. “Neither of us touched it,” Tommy added. “Good. I wish you wouldn’t run off like that, Tommy. But alls well that ends well. Who’s your friend? Is that the Inkulo’s apprentice?” Tios nodded and answered for them. “Yes, he is very worried about her. Takē!” he called, and one of the trackers stepped forward. “Take these two back to the village.” The tracker nodded, then gestured to the children to follow him. Both of them were too tired to argue, and followed meekly behind. Remus must have noticed them holding hands, or he winked at Tommy and whispered as he passed: “Remind me that we need to have a talk later.” Blushing, Tommy passed him by without saying a word. He wasn’t looking forward to that conversation. Remus didn’t return to the wagon until very late that night, but found that Tommy was still awake. He’d been thinking about wishes. He’d wanted his scars gone for so long. But wishing for something to happen wasn’t going to change anything, he realized this now. “Remus,” he began as the aforementioned lit a lamp. He paused, looking to the boy. “What is it, Tommy?” “I want to get a tattoo.” “A tattoo?” He asked, laughing. “What brought this on?” “On my arm,” Tommy continued. “...And my neck.” A second later, Remus understood. “Ahh,” he said. “You know, my boy, tattoos are rather painful. I wouldn’t do it all at once. But if you’re really serious about this, I’ll allow it.” “Thank you,” Tommy beamed. “I think I’ll ask Kei to do it...”

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