Cover Image: The Sand Pit by Carlos Vela-Martinez
Part 2: The Mountain Chair
Cast (in order of appearance)
Stephan Schröder: Private Schröder aka Funk Preacher
Gabriele Chiogna: Professor Chiogna
Markus Disse: The Mountain Hydrology Chair
Noah Carson: Frightened Inmate # 842
Gabe Sentlinger: Emotionally Challenged Guard
Chapter 10: The Sentry
Your party made its way to the formidable hutte. Your stomach growled in hunger and nervousness. Bastian in the lead, followed by Michi, Georg, Brenda, you, and following behind, just starting a Knödel he took from his coat pocket, was Felix. “Mm. This is quite good” he said.
“Private Schröder! Steige Stand!”
Seeing his captain, he stood quickly to attention. “Mein Captain!”
“Private Schröder, we’ve been walking towards you for at least 30 mins. You failed to Hail us or even notice us. We have a visitor and it reflects poorly on our guard if the sentry at the gate does not notice a party approaching. How do you expect to defend the hutte, the chair, or Lord Chiogna if you fail to notice approaching threats. “
“I’m sorry sir, I was distracted by all the crows and I was working on a rap song, that’s actually quite good. But.. won’t happen again, sir.” At this point Private Schröder looked down at you. “Waiiitt. I know him. Captain, I have direct orders from Lord Chiogna to immediately detain this individual and take him to the high tower.
“You surprise me Private Schröder . How is it you recognize our guest?”
“Lord Chiogna said he’d have three shades of hair: brown, grey, and orange. This is the only visitor that matches this description.”
“Oh, burn,” said Felix, finishing his Knödel .
Turning to you, Sebastian said “My friend, we don’t normally treat our guests like this, but these are extraordinary times. Please cooperate and go with Private Schröder. I will speak to Lord Chiogna and explain our journey and learn the import of this order.” Turning to Schröder, he said, “please attend to our guest with the utmost care. He brings magic from another land and the chair would do well to value it”
Chapter 11: The Tower of TUM
Private Schröder turned to you and said “Sorry mate, but I need to put these on you, it’s policy.” He held out a what appeared to be two small weights on either end of a small piece of cord. When the ends met, they clicked together. “Magnets, ” he explained, “Can only be opened with this, and he held out another small weight. “It’s an anti-magnet. Magnetic fields arise due to unpaired electron spins. This contains a material with an opposite electron spin to the ones in here,” he explained indicating your handcuffs. “It’s pretty cool.” He led you towards the hutte, his hand on your shoulder. “Captain Basti actually came up with them. He’s into that stuff, has a lab in the basement. I looked in there once, watch your head here, ” he ducked beneath a door, clearly built for non-mountain men, and lead you towards a stone staircase, “It was pretty weird, lots of beakers and little fires and strange coloured liquids and stuff, and, well.. nevermind.”
“What was the weirdest thing?”
“Well, maybe it was a mirror or something, but I. . I saw him speaking to another guy in the door, and I could have sworn, it was Captain Basti he was talking to.”
“Oh,” you offered.
“And he had…he had too many fingers.” He held up his 4 fingered hand.
“He had 5 fingers?”
“Yah, 5, hold up here.” He stopped on a landing with a balcony and looked out a over the landscape. “It’s so pretty here, isn’t it.” You also went to the balcony. Looking south towards Mors-Em, Minerva had already set in the west and Dion was hot on her tail. You wondered what would happen should he catch up.. Clouds had gathered in the valley below.
“It’s strange to me how everything is always moving, yet, somehow it remains the same. The same rhythms and patterns. The darkness and cold of winter, the warmth and sweet smells of summer. Transitions in Spring and Autumn. Coffee in the morning, work and toil in the afternoon, food, drink and music in the evening. Laughter, sorrow, strife, and it’s gone on for such a long time here in Fathomland, such a long time. Like a very long song. A good long song. Do you like music?”
You considered the leading question, “Yes, I enjoy a good piece of music,”
“Let’s keep climbing. You’d love our group, the Super Fresh Kids, me and a few of the other guards got together, a few of the prisoners…er students, also join in sometimes. I call myself the FunkPreacher, but my real name’s Stephan. Here..”
Private Schröder handed you a handwritten scrap of coarse paper, apparently made from some mashed up alpine grass and root vegetable. The word “FunkPreacher” was burned into it with an image of a circle and an arm. You turned it upside down trying to understand what you were looking at or what you were supposed to do with this.
“We might even have an event up here, in the high tower. You could perhaps listen.. Do you play an instrument?”
“I play the guitar poorly.”
“Groovy man, well, I’ll let you know if we are going to have an event. So many events have been canceled due to the, you know, ” he whispered, “the pestilence.” He looked around quickly. “We’re not supposed to complain about it in here, because of, ” looking around again, ” you know who,”
“No, who? Chiogna?”
“No, ” looking around, and then staring at you with his piercing blue eyes, “Neii-churre. Brr, it gives me chills to say her name. Ahh, here we are, phew, this is your room. ” Outside the room, you heard a mechanical whirring sound, punctuated by a clacking, a bell, and a “verrr” sound.
Stephan took a small black shape, like an elongated bell with a string on it, from his pocket and slid it beside the door handle, there was a loud click, and he opened the door. “Watch your head,” he said as he stooped beneath the 6″ tall door.
The whirring, clacking, and verring stopped. Inside the room, 5 tired looking students looked up from their desk simultaneously. The absent look of despair in their eyes told you they were graduate students. Late afternoon light from Dion shone in through the western window. The students had their hands connected to some kind of keyboard, but not a piano, and a luminescent display shone in front of them, much like the salt portal. The forlorn pleading looks made you want to cry, you could see several mugs of a dark murky liquid beside each of them, spread overtop more scraps of paper with strange symbols and figures. You heard a chain rattle as somebody shifted their foot. As your eyes passed over the poor souls, they locked on a set you’ve known before: the hawk-like gaze of Florentin.
Before you could move, his hand swept to his back and his flute was at his lips. Private Schröder, seeing what was happening, yelled “Nooo!” and stepped between you. No sooner had he done this when the most disturbing, stomach turning, soul-destroying, atonal and offbeat jazz flute riff shot from Florentin’s flute and hit Private Schröder. He buckled and fell to his knees. Being 8’4″ he still was taller than you.
Florentin didn’t relent, but played faster, spinning riffs from old jazz standards and often dropping them onto a 7/5 time signature. Private Schröder held out his hand to try to deflect the onslaught, his four fingers splayed, then 3, then 2, then 1, and suddenly, he lifted his leg. He continued to count with his fingers, then with his voice “2, 3, 4.” Miraculously, he spun to his full height, with massive arms outstretched, head down. He continued to snap his fingers in 4/4 time. Somehow, it’s never been clear to you, he pulled a 4/4 dance beat out of that abysmal 5/7 medley of old Fathomland standards that Florentin was trying to destroy us with. Florentin played faster, undercutting Stephan’s four on the floor with a stachato backbeat, but with an extra beat. Nothing was complete! Just as a phrase seemed to end, there was an aftertone! He tried to undermine Stephan’s structure, chipping away at the rhythmic foundation..
But his beat held.
And his dancing intensified. A combination of krumping and some ancient form of disco, it was mesmerizing. One of the students started to clap. Then another. Soon, all the students were clapping in 4/4 time and somehow the combination and tension between the regular beat and Florentin’s nihilistic tune merged into a provocative story of searching and truth, absence and fulfilment, despair and glory. Even Florentin played louder and his smile widened. Until the big man’s dance reached a fevered pitch and terrifyingly he then did a death drop on the granite floor at the same time Florentin’s flute solo reached an ear piercing finale.
“Stephan, are you alright?” you asked. “You saved my life, probably, I don’t know how, but you did it.”
Private Schröder’s eye flickered.
“We need to get Chiogna,” said one of the students, who you later learned was Mónica. “Quick, reach into his pocket and get the anti-magnet, free us from our chains and we’ll go and get help..”
You were in a very awkward predicament…
“I guess I could..” you offered.
“Please, I haven’t seen my daughter and wife for several weeks! Chiogna has us chained here solving irrational math problems..” said one later known as Daniel.
“Well, you cant leave him there, he saved your life, probably,” said Moha.
“I will free one of you and you can take me to Chiogna to sort this out. But who…”
You reached into the big mans pocket and pulled out the antimagnet. As you pulled on the string connected to it, a second hexagonal obelisk fell from his pocket. As you reached down with the first, the second turned and clung to the first. “Ah, its mate”. You tried to free the two, which you did with some difficulty.
You placed the 2nd obelisk in your pocket for safe keeping. You turned to the students who looked up at you imploringly. As you walked by Mónica, she whispered. “Please.. please pick me.”
Sonja glared at you and held a small soft ball in her hand. “If you don’t free me, I swear, I’m going to take this small soft ball and stick it right up your waterway!” Disturbed, you walked on.. Each of the students in turn made imploring pleas, except Florentin at the back of the room, who just stared at you.
You stared at him.
He stared at you.
“How about you?” you asked.
“How do you know you can trust me?” his flute rest on the desk in front of him. The fading evening light glimmered on it’s well polished keys.
“Because I’ll have this.” You picked up his flute, slowly, without consequence.
“Well, let’s see how this turns out.” He said and stood up, without chains and walked from the room.
You followed him. Sonja grabbed your hand as you walked by. “You will regret your choice my friend, if you live to, you will regret it. ” And she held the small soft ball up towards you. She laughed a bit. Her smile widened and she laughed more. As you left the room, her hysterical laughing echoed down the hallway and into the soft Fathomland twilight.
Chapter 12: Zeno’s Stairwell
Florentin stood at the bottom of a set of winding stone stairs leading up. He turned and looked at you. “Lord Chiogna is in his tower communing with Nei-Chure. I would advise you to be on your best behaviour. Those who insult Nei-chure are said to have their dreams taken away by her.”
“Whyy?” you asked as you started up the narrow winding staircase.
“It is said that our dreams are the playground of our minds. Without dream, your mind’s play will cease, and you will go through your days as an automata, going through the motions, eating, sleeping, but with no purpose. Do you know they say that the pestilence takes away your sense of taste and smell? Eating the most sublime shnitzel tastes like chewing your shirt, indulging in a decadent sacher torte like mud, drinking one of our finest malt lagers tastes like water, foamy water. Coffee in the morning is simply a hot liquid, no smell or flavour. They say that many struck by the pestilence, if they don’t perish by asphyxiation, lose their taste and smell permanently and prematurely take their own lives.
With this thought, you looked out one of the stone windows in the narrow stairwell. You breathed in the cool evening air and smelled the alpine grass mingled with the smell of sautéing onions coming from a hot kitchen somewhere below. The twin suns had now set below the horizon, leaving only a peach dusting of light on the far clouds and mountain tops far, far in the south. Craning your neck and looking up, the top of the tower was lit by the fading light only to a point, then it was shrouded in a cluster of blackness ringing a small window with candle light spilling out. You realized by the movement that the blackness were crows. A crow caw set off a cacophony of caws in agreement.
“You would be advised to not dally, may I remind you that our precious Funk Preacher is still lying unconscious on the floor below.”
You quickened your step to catch up. Stair after stair, turn after turn, the well kept climbing. Each time you looked up, you could only see more stairs, more corner. “How much further?” you asked.
“We’re 1/2 way there,” said Florentin.
After much too long, you’re sure you climbed much higher than the tower appeared to be, you asked again “How much further?”
“We’re 3/4 way there,” came the reply.
Later, “we’re 7/8,” “15/16” at which point you stopped climbing.
“Wait, ” you said. “I should see the top if we’re that close.”
“You’re not that close,” replied Florentin. “I could enter the room at any time..”
Exhausted, you leaned against the wall to catch your breath. You felt something moving beneath your hand and recoiled to see the surface of the stone crawling with tiny insects. They had started to cover your hand, but fell off upon removing your hand from the wall. Smaller than a grain of sand, they moved enmasse in flow paths and sworls, eddies and torrent, ever changing over top, and between, the stones.
“They come to be near her.” said Florentin. “They come to worship. Shall we keep climbing?”
“No. This is some kind of trick or puzzle. What’s the trick?” you asked exhausted and angry.
“There is no trick. This is reality..” he replied.
Remembering the flute you carried in your rucksack. “How about I jog your memory with a little impropromptu jazz flute!” You brought the flute to your lips..
“Wait, wait, please.” said Florentin, “I cannot take you to the room at the top of Zeno’s Stairwell. It’s not a place, but a state of mind. You must enter it on your own. There is a limit to what mathematics can describe of the natural world. Nei-Chure does not allow herself to be bound by mathematics. You must find this limit if you are to enter the room at the top of the tower.
How can we ever reach a goal if we are forever closer, held distant by this mathematical concept? How can we ever play a musical instrument if you remain 1/∞ away? When you touch a lover’s skin, do you really reach her or, if you look close enough, do your atoms get closer and closer until the electrons start to influence the other’s orbits, interfere with their probability waves, and that is what we “feel”? To enter the room at the top of the tower, you must push past this limit.”
You stared at the moving patterns of insects on the wall. Surely, they walked on something. But what is matter but mostly, predominantly, probably entirely empty space and motion…
You placed your hand on the wall. Almost instantly, it was covered in a black mass of moving feet and antennae. Suppressing every instinct to pull away or vomit, you pushed harder. The motion of life beneath your palm gave way slightly, but still it was soft. Just as you did in the dark tunnel leading to underland, you allowed all possibilities to exist at the same time. You tried to line up probability waves, you closed your eyes and pushed harder, relaxing your expectations, seeing the path through, finding the spaces, there was a release, a pulse of dopamine.. and
Chapter 13: The Man in the Infinitely High Tower
You felt your body slide through the wall. You opened your eyes. You were pleased to still have eyes, and apparently arms and legs too! You watched as the insects crawled off of them, onto a stone floor, and then back onto the wall behind you.
You stood at the top of a large auditorium. Much, much larger than the tower in which you had just interminally climbed. The room was covered in crows. They sat on tables and chairs, they hopped from place to place. They did not caw in the closed space, but made soft cooing sounds, rattles, and even conversational “bong” sounds, together with elaborate head gestures. It seemed to be a large conference of crows.
At the bottom of the auditorium was the large crow you’d seen flying overhead. It was speaking to two men and stooped over to address them, still stood about 1/4 fathom taller than them. Each of the three used the same crow language to communicate. Bobbing and cooing, bonging and posturing. On the blackboard behind them were strange symbols and numbers, much like the curly language seen on musical pages and in the shape of instruments. The light outside had faded and the conference proceeded in the artificial light of candles and oil lanterns. Deep in the corner of the room, stood Bastian beside Michi, patiently waiting to speak to one of the men, Georg and Brenda playing a game with the same magnetic weights you carried in your pocket, and Felix, now dusting his kaiserschmarrn with powdered sugar from a cloth bag.
After a heated debate between the three, one of the men in a white tunic and large burgundy draping scarf, went to the board and started scribbling symbols and numbers frantically with a piece of chalk. The large crow rose to its full height, almost 2 fathoms, and looked directly at you. You now say, that the bird did not have black eyes like many of the birds, but eyes like ours, with a white crown, and blue nearing purple iris, and black pupil. The eyes were unusually large compared to its head. The discourse in the auditorium died away and all crow eyes turned towards you. You felt a shiver down you spine. The large crow cawed and the two men looked as well.
The man in the white tunic and scarf looked up at you through his spectacles, “Ah, you must be the man Basti has told me about. So glad you could make it. Please, come here my friend, come, come, don’t be afraid, come here.” There was something engaging, but menacing in the man’s voice as he invited/commanded you to approach.
The other man, a handsome and distinguished looking scholarly gentleman, wearing a pink tunic and large knitted shawl of lambs wool, smiled benevolently at you. As you walked down the stone steps of the auditorium towards the men, the small crows looked up at you with glimmering eyes, some cooed, then hopped behind you to fill your path.
As you approached, the distinguished man reached out his hand to greet you. “So very pleased to finally meet you, I am the Chair of Mountain Hydrology, Professor Disse, but you may call me Markus.” He embraced your hand with both of his.
“We’ve been expecting you, so pleased you found your way to us, I am Professor Chiogna,” and the man held your hand gently bowed slightly.
“You’re the wizard Chiogna?” you asked.
“Well, ha ha, no, I’m a student of Nei-Chure, not a wizard. This is folklore of the Fathomlanders to explain our activities. I cannot conjure matter, or energy for that matter, from nothing. I cannot change lead into gold, or raise the dead, or travel to other dimensions, or change men into sheep, or any of these other folktales said about me. No, no, I aim simply to understand Nei-Chure and her ways, to predict the outcome of certain… situations, if you will. By using this ancient language… ” and he indicated the symbols and language on the board. “And you are very, very lucky to have the opportunity to meet my mentor, my teacher, at the altar at which we all pray: Her Majesty Nei-Chure.” He bowed respectfully to the great bird, who now towered above you and looked down at you with one violet eye. The lighting from the lanterns cast her face in fierce tones. The great bird then looked at Markus of the Mountain Chair and spoke “Ahh?”
Markus replied in the same tongue, then turned to you, “She wants to know, why are you here?”
All eyes now turned on you, “Why am I here?”
“Yes, why are you here?” Your mind raced back in time, your friends starving on a road somewhere in Munich, Dr. Weijs and his sheep, the underlanders, the grad students chained to their desks, the Funk Preacher laying in coma an infinitely divisable distance below you, the flute you held in your hand…
“I’m here to…. to capture Nei-Chure” and you brought the flute to your lips. But before you could blow, Basti had taken you down to the stone floor. You hit your tooth against the cobble floor and felt it break. There was a cacophony of cawing, desperate pleas from Chiogna to the angered god to spare your life, you heard Basti say “Well mate, that was dumb” just before you passed out.
Chapter 14: Paul and Andre’s Story
You first felt the pain. The dull aching pain that told you something was desperately wrong, and please, for gawd’s sake, do something about it you twit. You didn’t like it when you body talked to you like this, but you had to admit, you had it coming. After some negotation with your appendages and various faculties, you determined you were likely lying face down on a cold dirty stone floor. Your hands appeared to be fastened behind your back. Your best guess once your consciousness reached a more or less stable state, was that you had banged your head and been knocked out. With some effort, you managed to sit up.
“He’s awake, Paul, he’s awake.” You heard the familiar voice of Andre.
“Boss, ah great, we were worried you were dead. Well, I was worried you were dead, Andre was making contingency plans, like who would get your stuff. I said, you know, that it was too early for that, but Andre said we should plan for all contingencies..”
“Mnnnn,” you moaned.
“Paul, let the man wake up, don’t bother him with these details.”
“Where am I?”
“Well, as near as we can tell, we’re in some kind of dungeon, it’s difficult to tell, there’s no light, so, that’s just a guess.”
“Paul? Andre? Where did you come from?”
“Paul, let me explain to him. So, if you recall, you left us in Munchenland at the river side. We waited there for about an hour, and I explained to Paul that you weren’t coming back. So I convinced Paul that we were on our own and needed to look for food. So we went round to the backdoor of many kitchens asking for scraps, but were always turned away. Finally, a kind man at Urban Kitchens, Chef Coelho, took pity on us and gave us some pizza crusts and vegetable scraps. I don’t eat vegetables, so I gave those to Paul. We ate what they gave us ravenously, but soon it was gone, except one scrap of pizza crust. I offered it to Paul, but then this really messed up crow nearby started cawing. I said “Maybe we should give it to him,” and Paul was like “I wonder what crow tastes like. ” and I was like, “No, Paul, that’s over a line,” and Paul said, “How is it different that what’s on your Pizza?” and I was like, “This is pepperoni, not .. crowroni.. but before we could discuss it further Paul took a rock and hucked it at the crow. It didn’t hit him, it was close, but it really pissed off the crow. He started cawing really really mad and came and swooped at us a couple of times. Well we didn’t like that so we scidaddled out of there, but this crow, he followed us and kept swooping at us.. Then another crow came and started cawing and swooping. Paul was like “Let’s head for the Eisbach, they can’t follow us there!” So we hightailed it for the river, fighting off these cawing and swooping crows. We ran as fast as we could and jumped into the river.. But we never made the water…”
“What happened?” you asked mesmerized.
“The crows grabbed us.”
“The crows grabbed you?”
“The crows grabbed us, in mid flight, like, I dunno, 40 of them grabbed us and flew us up into the the sky. I was like “Ahhhh!” and Paul was like “What’s going on?” and they flew with us for maybe an hour? It was so long that we kind got bored and I was actually dozing off, when we were dropped onto the ground. This huge guy picked us up and put, like, handcuffs on us, and pushed us into this building, but he was telling us about some dance party? Later that night? He gave us a card, Paul has it, what did he say his name was, PunkMeister or something?”
“Funk Preacher,” said Paul.
“Y ah, Funk Preacher, and he really wanted us to listen for his set tonight, or last night? I’ve lost track, I think it was last night.”
“It was last night,” said Paul, “but I didn’t hear anything.”
“Anyways, that’s what happened to us. What happened to you?”
“That’s a long story, a very long story, some may say too long,” you muttered, “and it’s still not over.”
Just then a door was heard to open. The sound of heavy steps approached and Private Schröder appeared, “Well, you guys really did it. She… is… pissed…off…” he said as he unlocked your door.
“Yah this guy!” said Andre.
“Stephan, I’m so glad to see you’re ok, how’s your head? Again, thank you for saving me..” you said.
“Sure sure, I just can’t handle that irrational time signature shit, give me 4 on the floor over an electro swing architecture and I can drop my moves all over it,” he was now opening Paul and Andre’s door, “Oh shit, here he comes.” He quickly stood at attention.
Basti entered, looking concerned, and stood facing you. Michi and Felix followed. Felix was considering a multilayered Imperial Torte, about 6″ tall, and where to start eating it. This occupied him over the course of the following exchange.
“Well, you’ve really done it, my friend, you’ve really pissed off Nei-Chure. I’ve never seen her this mad. Not even when she caught Michi Lumeling while on duty guarding her perch. I thought THAT was intense. She does not like to be disrespected or “Captured.” What were you thinking?! Her entourage are still cawing for your head on a pike, I can’t hear myself think up there. You owe Professor Chiogna a great debt of gratitude for his defense of your behaviour. She wanted your eyes pecked out and hung next to your bowels on the hutte gate, and she wanted you still alive so you could look at your bowels as they were pecked at by the crows. It’s all too much. Chiogna and the Chair pleaded for a more honorable death.”
“Honorable death?” you feebly asked.
“Yes, and you may still have a chance! Let me educate you. Nei-Chure is an old god, as you know. She needs to be worshipped to maintain her strength and power, it goes without saying. She is not an altar and pray to me type god; she is worshipped by the equilibrium that comes from tension, by struggle, by hunting, fear, the chase, mating, starvation, gorging, the ceaseless give and take of survival, all these things which we Sapiens seek to control, gives her power. She is very angry that we have been taking it away, and taking away the very creatures that give her power: the wild animals, the trees, the grass, the soil, the water, the sheep. We farm her earth and live in wood-heated houses, we keep her animals in warm barns. We have tamed bacteria to fight off her diseases, which she traditionally used to keep the stock strong. There is no more give and take with the Sapiens, no active balance. This has angered, and frankly, weakened Nei-Chure. Like a wild animal when backed into a corner, she is using all the weapons at her disposal to reinstate the balance. We cannot blame her. So, in order to placate her, in his infinite wisdom, Chiogna, in consultation with the ever-exalted Mountain Chair, have agreed to put you in the pit. The Sand Pits…”
“Ohh, is that good?” you asked.
“Hmm, not so great. You’ve heard of King Nick’s Poetrosseum? With the crowds, the winged poetry assassins, the limericks and stream of consciousness haiku battles?”
“Well, yes, we were there!”
“Good, then you may stand a chance here. The Sand Pit is the Chair’s attempt to recreate the struggle of nature, the fight for life, that gives Nei-Chure her strength. “
“Sounds stressful, can I decline?”
“Well, yes, the alternative is to, well, feed you to the crows.”
“That sounds bad,” said Paul.
“What is involved,” you asked.
“Well, you must pick a team of 4 players, Nei-Chure will also pick a team. The teams enter the Sand Pit and will play a game of Fathom-a-Ball… to the death..”
“Yes, in this game, sorry, this seems very weirdly one-sided, am I talking too much?”
“No, no, it’s not weird, it’s part of the exposition,” said Felix in his thick Munchenland accent through a mouth full of Imperial Torte, the alternating layers of marzipan, chocolate, almonds, orange, cocoa, and coffee squishing out of his mouth.
“Right, well, in Fathom-a-ball you take a small soft ball and try to hit a larger ball in 4 dimensions, one for each finger on your hand, x, y, z, and time. Do you understand?”
“No, not really,”
“You must stand in a circle and each player is in danger of being hit themselves. If you get hit, you must go to the outer ring. You may enter the inner circle if you can hit the larger ball from the outer ring. You can only score points from the inner ring. Each time you hit the larger ball you gain 10 (eight) points. The first team to 100 (pronounced “Eighty”) points wins and may walk to freedom. If you lose, I’m afraid you will be eaten by a pack of T-HRECS.”
“Yes, the small & vicious, but highly sensitive, dinosaurs that hunt in packs in these mountains. “
“I see. Well, I guess I have no choice by to choose a team and play like my life depended on it.”
You looked to Paul and Andre. “I have no athletic ability,” said Paul right off the bat.
“Wait, so what happens if we decline the invitation to play? asked Andre, reasonably.
“You’ll be free to go,” answered Sebastian
Without missing a beat, Andre answered, “I’m out, sorry man, good luck out there, I’ll be cheering for you.”
“Can I choose whoever I like?” you asked.
“Yes, you may.”
“Then I chose you Basti, Michi, and I guess, Felix.”
“Hmm?” asked Felix just finishing up his Imperial Torte.
“I would be honored to play on your team, my friend. ” Said Bastian.
“As would I,” said Michi,
“Not me, no thanks, that sounds stupid,” said Felix.
The others looked at him, “Come on Felix, he really needs us,” said Michi.
“Well, he shouldn’t have insulted that stupid crow god thing, that’s what I say. He should have known better, it’s just a crazy bird, man. When’s dinner, I’m starving..”
“You know you should be careful what you say Felix,”
“What do I care, what, are you going to tell her?”
“Caw,” interjected the crow sitting on the windowsill before it flew away.
Chapter 15: Fathom-a-Ball
The roar of the crowd was deafening as you were led into the caged outdoor arena. It was mostly the cawing of thousands and thousands of crows, but also the shouts of a few of the Mountain hutte joined in the festivities. The caged arena resembled one of the jungle gym type structures, aka fight-pits, found in derelict elementary schools, that were used by the children for determining hierarchy on the playground. They have been slowly outlawed due to insurance claims filed to Fathomland’s monopolistic insurance agency, Fathomland Life, which did in fact preserve Sapien life, but left Nei-Chure enraged.
This particular cage was large enough to accommodate 2 concentric rings formed by a kind of cloth belt attached to the sand that filled the sand-pit. The inner was approximately 4 fathoms diameter, the outer twice that. Within the center of the inner circle was another familiar circle of stones. High above the central court was the Mountain Chair’s seating box, a rectangular caged area to protect the Chair and his entourage. Within the chair’s box, you could see Daniel, Mónica, Sonja, Moha, and even Florentin, seated (chained) in front of the Chair. An old Fathomland Folksong played in the background, with the unmistakable electro-swing bassline of Stephan the Funk Preacher, whom you could see dancing along in a small DJ area in the seating box. They all appeared excited for a game of Fathom-a-ball and a bit of good ol’ fashion blood-shed. The Mountain Chair was seated on his.. chair, and now wore a green satin robe with what appeared to be an elaborate headdress made of various rocks and stones. The weight of it was apparently quite a burden as it seemed to pull his head from side to side, until he rested it against the high back of the chair. Chiogna was on his right dressed in the same white tunic and scarf, and Nei-Chure on his left. Chiogna looked as though he had not slept, quite flummoxed and bedraggled, was he. Nei-Chure turned her one large eye towards you as you entered the arena.
Your “team” was outfitted in uncomfortable leather outfits designed by The Mountain Huttes’ Fashion Designer Daniel Beiter. Beiter had been influenced by the Assassin Knights of Satoyama as well as the Baroque costumes of the high court of Harlando, with it’s bodices, tight necklaces, and draping sleeves. “Just as the Mountain Hutte sits on the border of Today and Yesterday, I wanted the outfits to be an homage to the Noble Warrior Tribes of the forests in the North and “Civilized” high court society. These team outfits are a dialog between past and present, an exploration of the resonance between time and fashion, and the tension inherent in social structure,” his brochure read, which came folded in the oversize pocket of your vest (apparently to hold the soft balls of the game). Frankly, you were not convinced of the purpose of the choke chain attached to your vest, or the gauzy sleeves that dragged on the ground. But then again, you never professed to understand high fashion.
A man in an harlequined outfit entered the arena juggling 3 soft balls… in each hand. The crowd went nuts. Then somehow, each soft ball caught fire, and yet he still juggled. Then he threw them all into the air and each vaporized into steam at their apex. The crowd cheered and the man bowed deeply. “Thank you!” he yelled to the cawing flocks and people. “My name is Daniel Beiter, the Hutte Fashion Designer and resident juggling expert. Today, the players will be wearing outfits from our fall lineup, that examines resonant themes in time. I call it, “Echoes of the past, Visions of the Future: Frequency Analysis of Design. ” This really got the group of Graduate students whooping. “Thank you, thank you, but you are not here to listen to me, you want to see a battle! (Caw caw caw) Without further ado, I present, your Prisoner Team!” and he motioned for you to enter the playing area. Beiter then went to center court to watch the match.
As you dragged your sleeved leather and chain outfit onto the court with Sebastian, Michi, and reluctantly Felix, you were directed by Beiter to stand on a small circle, spaced 1 fathom distance apart from the others (on account of the pestilence) on the circumference of a larger circle. Your team filled one half the court. You did not see who the opposing team was. The Mountain Chair rose, with difficulty due to his heavy crown, and addressed the crowds. “My friends and esteemed guests. Welcome, to the Fathom-a-Ball Sand Pit!” The crows cawed loudly and Sapiens cheered. Markus quieted them with a raised hand. “It’s my great pleasure to offer for your entertainment, the ancient game of Fathom-a-Ball (cheers). Now as you know, this is a formalized version of the hunt. We’ve given our challengers each 3 soft balls with which to strike the target. The target will emerge from the central Salt Portal. Balls may only be thrown while the target is airborn. He who hits the target, without being hit, will receive 10 points. If the player is hit, without catching the ball, they are excommunicated to the outer circle and can only join the inner circle by hitting the target from there. They can not score 10 points, nor tag an inner circle player out. The first team to 100 (Eighty) is the winner. To make things interesting, the great Nei-Chure has chosen the opposing team. I will let her introduce them, translated by our own Professor Chiogna (general cheers and caws).”
The great bird hopped forward and eyed the crowd, then with one foot on the box ledge, eyed you and your team. Felix was crunching an apple disrespectfully. The great bird let out a blood curdling “Caw!” and the crows all went wild, flapping, cawing, and pooping on the players. Chiogna translated “My loyal subjects. (Caw caw, rattle, swoop swoop, caw) We will not be mocked! We will not be captured, or measured, or destroyed! (the crows generally agreed. Caw, rattle, bong, bong, gurgle, coo, caw) These monkeys may have learned our language, the ancient language, but they cannot speak it. They poison our waterways, they cut down our forests, they tame our beasts, and steal our power. But they will respect us, or be destroyed! Nei-Chure… shall… triumph!” The crows in the cage were worked into a frenzy. Chiogna did not seem so pleased, nor any of the other Sapiens. A general feeling of guilt and dread fell on the non-crow members of the crowd.
The giant crow then hopped onto the ledge with both feet and spread her massive 2 fathom wingspan and rose to her full height. (Gargle, coo, caw, caw caw) “I’ve summoned four of my four best Fathom-a-Ball players for your entertainment…(Caws of approval) Water!” At this point from the small circle on the opposite side of the court a water spout formed in the sand and rose to form a hooded figure. It’s eyes glowed forlornly in the mist surrounding it’s turbulence. “Flora!” and grass started to grow from the next circle. It twisted round itself into a human form, but then sprouted an extra 4 arms and a slender bosom. She raised her fibrous arms made from long blades of grass, twigs, and brightly coloured berries, to the crowd. The crowd responded with caws. “Earth!” and the sand coagulated together spinning together two massive legs, a barrel chest, and finally two arms ending in fists that touched the ground and were as large as it’s legs. The creature wore a dumb grin as it looked at you. And finally… “Fauna!” and here about 40 crows flew down from the ceiling and formed a large devil like creature with flaring hair, a long black cloak of wings, and eyes from several birds eyes circled together. “These are your champions.” The four creatures looked up at the thousands and thousands of cawing birds.
“Let the game begin!” yelled the Mountain chair. In front of you, 3 of the same soft balls Sonja threatened to perform an enema on you with rose out of the sand. You quickly picked them up. The circle of stones in the middle of the teams started to glow, there was a loud hissing sound followed by the ejection of a large rock shot up out of it and straight into the air. You threw your balls and missed each time. Michi’s aim was much better and he scored 20 points! The elements however waited for the rock to fall, and when it did, they fired. Fauna hit the rock, and the ball glanced off and hit you square in the forehead. “Dammit!” you exclaimed and trudged to the outer circle. Water didn’t even bother trying to hit the rock, but hurled its balls at Basti, Michi, and Felix in rapid succession, hitting Felix (who was still eating his apple), and Michi, but Basti caught the ball. He now had 4 for the next round. Earth and Flora both hit the target on their first shot. 30-20.
Already after the first round, only one of us remained in the inner circle. Team Nei-Chure was up by 10 points. The 3 of us on the outer circle gathered up the balls from the last round and redistributed them, as did the elements. Already they were eyeing Basti.
The central circle began to glow and become transparent, the same hissing sound began and quickly Basti threw his soft ball at the centre circle, striking the rock as it hurled into the sky. He then dropped his balls into his vest pocket and waited for the onslaught. We three outsiders fired our first two balls at the target without success at such a distance. Felix threw his apple core out of frustration, which actually hit the rock, but was disqualified. “What!” he proclaimed.
Water threw his balls at Basti who caught each expertly and dropped them into his vest pocket. Flora and Fauna waited for the chance to score and get Basti out. “Michi” you called, “Aim for Flora.” You both fired at Flora just as she was about to launch her assault on Basti. You hit her and managed to knock a few of the brightly coloured berries loose from her body. A berry caught the eye of one of the crows that made up Fauna’s body and it swooped in and grabbed it. This caught the interest of the other crows who then left their bipedal form and attacked Flora, who tried to swat them away ineffectively. Felix seeing the weakness in Team Nei-chure took a piece of Rosinebrötchen from his inside vest pocket, which he had been saving for later, and yelled, “Hey, you stupid crows!” and tore up the bread and threw it for them. The rest of the Fauna player fell apart as the crows cawed and swooped in for the bread and flew away with their meal. Flora was left swatting away the crows. Earth watched this passively and threw all his balls at the target at once, hitting 2/3.
This made Nei-Chure furious and she climbed to the ledge of her sitting box and cawed loudly, you could see murder in her eyes as she yelled down at you. The murder of crows also passed judgement on your team. Somehow Chiogna was able to calm her down by writing something on a small chalkboard. Nei-Chure yelled at him and went back to her perch. But before she did, she cooed something to both Water and Earth, who nodded in understanding.
40-40. The small circle started to glow and Basti got ready to throw. But before he could, Water raised it’s ghostly tumultuous fingers that splashed and flowed in rivulets. It closed its gently glowing eyes and suddenly you felt a desperate need to use the nearest loo. Not only that, but you started to sweat and cry simultaneously. You could see the same effect was playing out on your teammates, Felix openly sobbing and pissing his pants. Michi did the same, but still managed to hit the target as it flew from its chamber, he ran to the inner circle and threw again with a hit! 50-40. Basti yelled, “Just ignore it, we’ll shower after!” and threw his balls at the Eine Stein as it flew into the air, hitting twice, 70-40.
Earth did not like to lose. He let out a shrieking bellow that caused the entire sand pit to shake. Your team was thrown off balance while he threw his balls expertly, hitting three times, 70-70 before the stone fell back into the portal. Looking at their sobbing, sweating, and wet crotched competitors, Earth and Water looked at each other and had a good laugh and pointed at us. This got the entire crowd cawing, pointing, and laughing.
Something in Felix snapped. He yelled “I’ll teach you a lesson, Earth! I’ll kick your Mountain Ass!” And he tore off his shirt to reveal a chiseled, lean muscular torso, which was surprising given his caloric intake, and he ran at the Earth, fist in the air, as in Figure XX. The Earth anticipated his attack and was ready with his massive rock fist, that was approximately the size of a wheel barrow. It came barreling down at the diminutive Felix from above as Felix attacked. Fearing the worst, I squinted in order to dim the impending pummeling. But somehow Felix blocked the attack (surprising everyone including the Earth) and instead delivered his own dish of Arsch Shlagen on the Earth’s granite chin. A large rock tooth and mud flew from the Earth’s open maw, and he stumbled backwards.
“I’ve been wanting to kick your ass for a long time, Earth!” yelled Felix at the Earth.
While the rules of Fathom-a-Ball don’t strictly prohibit brawls, they are often allowed, as kind of a cathartic “house rule.” Generally, referees will allow the brutality to continue until one of the player’s health is endangered. So it was no surprise when Nei-Chure, The Mountain Chair, and Chiogna all rose in their seats to watch the contest with great interest.
Next it was the Earth’s turn to deliver some corporeal punishment. Felix had noticed the cheering crowd, smiled and waved to his new fans. Seeing his opportunity, Earth rose up with an upper cut of magnitude 4 on the Richter Scale (Richter was a renowned Fathomland Mountaineer who based his scale on how many beers he could drink during the earthquake) that sent Felix about 4 feet in the air. He came crashing down to the sand and lay there… still. It was Earth’s turn to soak up the bloodthirsty crowd’s attention. He smiled his big toothless grin and shook his hands together in a victory. You expected to Felix to take advantage of this lapse in vigilance, but he just lay there. “I guess getting pummeled by the Earth must really hurt,” you thought to yourself.
Instead, Earth took the opportunity to finish off his adversary, and raising his fist above Felix, he somehow gathered up sand onto it until it was the size of a wrecking ball. With a shrieking bellow, he dropped the wrecking ball onto Felix’ head, plowing it about 1/4 Fathom into the sand so that his body kind of stuck up out of the sand.
“Geezuz, that is not how I expected that to go,” you said to Michi, wincing.
“No, me neither. This is bad for us, but mostly bad for Felix,” said Michi.
“Is he dead?” you asked.
“He might be.” At this point the Earth had pulled Felix’ limp body from the sand and was holding it high in the air for the cheering crowd. A bit late, some medic crows swooped in with a wooden and white cloth stretcher. Earth tossed the body to the side for the crows and continued to soak up the adoration. The crows pulled Felix’ lifeless body onto the stretcher and started to fly away with it.
“All he wanted to do was eat good food..” You sadly lamented, feeling someone should say something.
“It’s what made him happiest..” confirmed Michi.
“Perhaps he’s eating now, in heaven.” added Basti.
But then… suddenly!… Felix sprang up from the stretcher! He grabbed the long wooden support and ripped the cloth asunder! As the Earth turned to see what the commotion was about, Felix launched the staff at Earth’s chest with white cloth fluttering behind. It plunged deep into the Earth. Earth looked down at the stake in his chest, extending out his back, and dropped to one gigantic knee. It moaned a sad mumbling groan and fell to the sand.
“Now that’s climactic! ” yelled Felix at nobody in particular. “Take that Earth! Sapiens always beat Earth! Alway…” and then he passed out. The crows pulled him onto another stretcher, and carried him away. Don’t worry, Felix is fine. He will live to eat again.
The Earth simply crumbled and eroded into the sand, leaving only the staff sticking up, white cloth, blowing in the wind. Earth’s friend, water, burbled over to where the staff stuck up, and from its large sad glowing eye, a single tear fell.
“Oh, that’s perfect, ” remarked Basti. The tear soaked into the earth where there lay a berry fallen from Flora and shat on by Fauna. Instantly, as if by magic, a small sprout broke through the soil and curled around the staff.
“Awww,” Basti said. Then Water looked up you with its alien, curious, pleading eyes. The central ring started to glow again, and a stone shot into the air. Needing only 10 points to win the game, and your freedom, you all continued to stare into the Water Creature’s deep and questioning eyes. The Water Creature did the same to you. The stone fell back into its portal.
You turned to face Nei-Chure. All players dropped their soft balls, including Water. The white flag blowing as Fauna tried to get the crows out of his hair, swatting at them wildly in the background. “Nei-Chure!” you called. We will not play your game any longer. We Sapiens have always been friends with Water, and Water has been a friend to us. We want to live in peace and mutual goodwill.”
A heavy silence fell over the crowds and all eyes turned to Nei-Chure. She hopped to the ledge and surveyed the crowds, the subordinate players, Flora as she continued to be harrassed by the crows, chasing her around the theatre, and spoke. “Caawwwwwwww,” Chiogna translated “You…” “Roook? Caw, rook, coohhh.” “You think you’re better than me? You short-sighted, arrogant, entitled, egotistic, selfish little monkeys.” “Caww, caww, rook, bong, bong, rook?” “Where would you be without me? You’d die in the cesspool of your own waste. Don’t you dare, how dare you question a god. I’ve been here since my father Kronos begat this pitiful world. Do you think I like to steward a world of ungrateful dirty children? To be abused, exploited, and discarded, only to be called on like a child when you need me? I… do … not… You may think you have mastered us, but you will learn, tiny monkeys, you will learn… otherwise!” And with that she jumped from the ledge, spread her wings and dove at you, murder in her eyes. Basti and Michi took cover. You stood paralyzed by your impending fate, you almost welcomed it as retribution for the species, you closed your eyes and waited. You heard a splash, and opened your eyes to see a blue liquid bubble around you. The talons of the great crow piercing the water, grabbing nothing, before lifting again into the sky. The powerful wings beat the sand away from around you, the water gathered itself and the protective bubble cleared to show Nei-Chure flying into the wall of the cage. There was a screeching rending of metal as the bird slammed into the cage and tore through it. Her minions scattered, cawing, and the entire murder followed her into the sky, cawing in outrage.
The Mountain Chair, free from the weight of ceremony, tilted his head and the rock headdress fell to the ground with a “Clunk.” He walked up and stood beside Chiogna, who was watching the old god fly away to her mountain home, surely to plan her next move, the next wave.
“Well, that went badly, I think.” said Markus, the Mountain Chair.
“It certainly did..” admitted Chiogna, and sighed.
To Be Continued….
If you’d like to be part of the Fathomland Tales, you can receive 1 Free Fathom-a-Ball Soft Ball with every QiQuac or AutoSalt purchase. Collect three or more to be able to play the game! Or purchase a complete set here for only $42 (+shipping and handling). While you’re shopping, why not purchase a new, XTra Coz-EE Fathom Hoodie, or chic T-Shirt which the entire gang at Fathom are required to wear. Be the first in your department to hang up a Fathom “Technology = Magic” poster drawn by the fabulous Fenella Jacquet. Play Cops & Robbers, or Prisoner & Guard with the Fathom brand magnetic and anti-magnetic paired magnetic bracelets. Watch this space for new toys, games, and environmental monitoring equipment available to ship before Christmas!
Bonus Scene: Grad Student Prisoner and Guard/Poet