A Reptilian Epilogue
rating: +20+x

Erwen Niffs did not consider himself an angry man.

He'd hosted more company holiday parties than he could count. The turnover rate in the division he supervised was fairly low, something he took pride in. If you got him frozen yogurt, you’d find the way to his heart immediately.

But today, Erwen couldn't help but stew. He sat in his office, every eye boring an imaginary hole through his door as he snarled under his breath.

Ever since he had heard news of his two reporters crashing into Zikr Zalat’s Shelf, Erwen had been itching to give them a piece of his mind.

The voice of Aisha, his secretary, peeped through the door, "Si-Sir? They're–"

"Send them in." Erwen clasped his hands together, resting them on the desk. Duke Gathers would not get the better of him this time.

The door snapped open, what appeared to be Duke's foot extended in the air. Gottsam R'lek could be seen visibly cringing behind him.

Foot still in the air, Duke shoved an unknown amount of crumpled up cash into Aisha's hands, mumbling, "Don't spend it all on one dealer."

Foot falling hard in a wide step, Duke stumbled over and slumped in one of the chairs in front of Erwen. R'lek, who felt like he was the only sane one in the room, quickly skittered over and huddled on the other seat.

Erwen's eyes had shifted to Duke as soon as he had made his entrance, but he didn't say a word. Not yet.

R'lek's eyes nervously darted between Duke and the editor. He knew that the auction had been a disaster, and he had completely failed in his duties to keep the lizard in check. He tugged at his scarf.

Duke's eyes spun around in different directions, looking at nothing in particular.

The mantis looked down at Erwen's clenched hands, his eyes widening slightly as he realized that his boss' knuckles were white, so white that it looked like his hands feared not find each other again if they unclasped. R'lek shifted his focus to Duke as a small chuckle escaped the lizard's lips. Erwen likely only saw Duke's stupor, but R'lek knew better. There was a spark in his eye, one not there when he was fully fargone. Yes, R'lek was sure of it, Duke was treating this meeting as a joke. Frankly, this whole assignment felt like a joke to R'lek, but that's beside the point.

Duke certainly wouldn't get them out of this mess, he thought, so it would just have to be him.

The mantis leaned over, placing a gentle claw atop Erwen's hands.

"Mr. Niffs, I understand how our performance on the last assignment is upsetting, but I assure you it won't happen again. Just send us out agai–“

Erwen's hand shot up, batting R'lek away. As he began to speak, Erwen slowly rose from his seat and leaned across his desk until their faces were mere inches apart.

"Again? You want me to release the shitstorm that is you two, again? Give me a fucking break, Gottsam, and save the charm for your fans."

R'lek scooted his chair a pace backwards.

He cleared his throat, and tried again.

"As I said, mistakes were made, auctions were interrupted, streets were chased through, yes all that yes, but, and hear me out, why don't–"

A loud cough emanated from Duke. The two turned to him as he continued hacking, until a plastic wrapper unceremoniously splatted into his hand.

"Don't remember putting that there," he mumbled. As if it was the first time he realized other people were in the room, Duke turned to look at the mix of horrified and disgusted faces of Erwen and R'lek.

"Y'know, it's considered rude to stare. Won't hold it against you though." He paused to replace the cigarette in his holder, then spoke again. "By all means, keep going, Niffs was just getting to the good part."

Erwen felt his eye twitch.

"Right. The good part." Erwen sat back down, straightening the wrinkles out of his jacket. Then, to both journalists' surprise, he smiled. It wasn't a happy smile though, maybe only happy for himself.

"We've certainly been here long enough without getting to the point, so let's. Based on your reactions, I think you're fully aware of the way you fucked up your entire assignment, but I'm feeling merciful, so I'll skip the ass-beating I'd normally give for something like this and move to the second thing."

"Gee, you're a real chum for that, Erwen," Duke sneered.

Erwen slammed his fist on the table, still smiling. "I'm glad you think that Mr. Gathers! Because here's the kicker: the Planasthai Press has been BANNED from EVER reporting on an MC&D event. All because of YOU."

R'lek's mouth dropped open in shock, but Duke sat up in interest.

"Really?"

"Yes, really, Duke."

"That's the best news I've heard all week! Where do you stash the drinks? We should celebrate!"

R'lek shook his head and looked at Duke in confusion.

"Duke… this is a huge loss for the press, surely you understand that."

The chameleon gestured his hands towards Erwen, saying, “C'mon Niffs, I know you see it. Aren't you people wired to only see money? We could destroy them for this! 'Marshall, Carter, and Dark Censors Multiuniverse's Leading News-source.' You'll be fucking rolling in–"

"SHUT. UP." Erwen shot up and slapped his hand down on his desk again, two pieces of paper underneath his palm.

Erwen sighed and sat back down, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"These are your notices of leave for three months, without pay, effective immediately."

R'lek quickly looked at Duke then back to Erwen, stuttering, "Mr. Niffs, that's an incredibly harsh punishment for Duke, you sho–"

"I don't think you understand. This is for BOTH of you. The first time I ever give you something with a bit of pressure you get crushed. Take this as a learning experience."

The mantis' mouth opened and closed multiple times, but no sound came out. If a praying mantis could cry, he likely would've been.

clap clap clap clap

Duke slowly clapped. Suddenly he looked completely sober. Maybe he had been sober the entire time.

"Well, Niffs, I never thought you'd manage to surprise me again, but here you are. That's possibly the dumbest thing I've ever had the displeasure of seeing."

Erwen rolled his eyes, then said, "Spare me the theatrics, Duke. I don't care you're upset about losing a job. Cry about it on a forum for all I care."

Duke immediately lashed out his hand towards Erwen, as if pouncing on prey. Erwen flinched but realized Duke had stopped, his claw only pointing straight between Erwen's eyes.

"That. That, right there, is your fundamental flaw. You think I care that you kicked me out for a few months? Shit, that's a free vacation from having to look at your ugly mug every week."

Duke stood up on his chair, quick flashes of color rolling across his scales.

"I may not like what R'lek writes, but his craft is solid. His reputation with the readers has saved your ass multiple times, even after all the scandals that have dragged this paper through the mud. And he does it because he's loyal, not out of greed like your fucking kind does. He was just about to take that bullshit of a punishment you handed out without saying a thing! But that's thing with you Editor types isn't it? You used to be us, but you didn't think like us. Your superiors saw your bland ambitions and your malleable minds and promoted you up to this position to force the same garbage down our throats so we can replace you someday."

A low rumbling resonated from Erwen, an anger response typical of his species. He growled, "Watch your words, Duke."

Duke stepped off his chair onto Erwen's desk, the colors flashing even faster.

"The only thing I'll be watching is when you get your ass handed to you by your Editors once they find out you threw out one of your best journalists. The Planasthai let Marsh get away with whatever because he's one of the Chief's favorites, but we're a long way from the Chief, we're down in the ditches, devouring each other. There's always a bigger fish… and they'll eat you alive, Erwen."

There was a long, and painful silence after Duke finished. His scales returned to his regular dirty green. Erwen slowly wiped the spittle that had flown from Duke's tirade off his face, then smirked.

"I'm so glad you've volunteered to take full responsibility for the incident, Mr. Gathers. Your severance pay will be sent in the mail. And don't ever try to publish for the press again."

Duke hopped off the desk without a sound, plucked the still burning cigarette from his holder, and stabbed it down onto his desk. The smoke from the wood lazily curled in-between the editor and the journalist staring into each other's eyes, unaware of what had just happened.

Duke tipped his hat to the room, turned, and exited, passing through the office hurriedly trying to pretend they hadn't been listening.

Erwen picked up the pieces of paper on the table and ripped them in two.

"You can come in to pick up your next assignment tomorrow, R'lek."

R'lek stood, almost as if he wanted to say something, but instead left in a hurry, trailing behind Duke Gathers.


"The Wanderers' Library has a bar?" R'lek said, half surprised, half concerned, his eyes gazing at the poorly-lit room at the end of the stairs he and Duke had just descended, full to the brim with drunk or soon-to-be drunk patrons. "How come I've never heard of it?"

"One, you're a pansy, so it's not like we would've ever invited you without a good reason," Duke muttered as he signaled the bartender, a shaggy-looking wolfman, to serve him his usual. "Two, your self-absorption would make Narcissus blush; you couldn't follow a lead or a rumor that wasn't about you if your life depended on it. And three, we're underneath the Vogon Poetry shelf. Who the fuck would think of looking for something fun here?"

Duke swallowed his drink in one gulp and immediately asked for another, one of his eyes fixed on the glass while the other turned to gaze directly at R'lek's face.

"Oh, and four, if word of this ever reaches the Chief Archivist, I swear to Bacchus I'll make you swallow your typewriter whole."

"I actually use a digital notepad…" R'lek had barely any time to process the threat before Duke ordered a third glass, and then a fourth… and a fifth…

"Hey, slow down, Duke! You're gonna make yourself sick!"

"The fuck does it look like I'm trying to do?" the chameleon retorted, lighting up a cigarette and taking one long hit. "I deserve it, after these last few shitty days. Blacklisted! That fucker Niffs took his sweet time, too. Thought he would have gotten the message after that obituary I wrote for Reagan's ghost: "Dragged off to hell, and all is right with the world." But no! He just had to drag it on and on… almost wish I hadn't taken that gig at the Final Tour…"

A solemn moment of silence followed. R'lek thought he should say something, some words to show solidarity with his colleague, gratitude for what Duke had said and done at Niffs' office, but his train of thought was abruptly interrupted as Duke loudly belched through his cigarette's smoke and ordered yet another drink.

"What are you even drinking?" R'lek said, staring at the grey, murky liquid that swirled in Duke's glass. "Oh, it smells awful!"

"It's called a Full Moon Hare. Regis here is the proud inventor, though he won't tell me what's in it, the furry bastard. You want one?"

"I really shouldn't–"

"Regis!" the reptile bellowed without paying the mantis any heed. "Serve the bug one! And an Electric Funeral for me. Put it all on his tab."

"You got it, boss," the lycanthrope said, pouring R'lek a foul-smelling glass of his concoction.

"What should we toast to?" the mantis half-heartedly said as his colleague reached for his glass, now full with a green, bubbling substance.

"Does it matter? It's good alcohol; drink up."

R'lek's mandibles clenched with disgust as he took his first sip.

"Gah!" he gagged. "Tastes like–"

"Like death, right?" Duke grinned. "Nothing punctuates a horrible day like a horrible drink."

"Hey, Duke?"

"Yeah?"

"About earlier…"

"Don't mention it. I had it a long time coming, as did that three-eyed sonuvabitch."

"But… why? You hate my guts! Why defend me? Why– why sacrifice your job at Planasthai for me?"

"Because as much as I hate you, I hate editors even more. Any opportunity to tell them to fuck off is a golden one."

"You didn't have to, Duke. I don't even know how to thank you for–"

"Then don't," the lizard sneered. "I didn't do it for you. Get it through that chitinous head of yours. You don't owe me shit. Now drink."

Knowing the chameleon would forever mock him if he didn't finish his drink, R'lek hurried to swallow the rest of the noxious liquor, trying all the while not to vomit. When he finished, the world around him felt shaky, unreal. Duke, Electric Funeral in hand, looked at him with a mix of amusement and genuine surprise.

"Not too bad for a wimp. Most first-timers shit themselves after the first few sips."

"I bet it stops being so awful after your taste buds die," R'lek said. He wiped his mandibles and burped. "You know what? I'll have one of those too. Might help me wash down the Hare…"

"Aye aye, captain," Duke smirked. "You're paying, after all."

"Now may we toast?"

"What to?"

R'lek collected his thoughts as Regis served him his Electric Funeral.

"How about to the free press? To telling editors and phonies off with their shit?"

"Yeah, I could toast to that," Duke smiled, lifting his glass.

"And… to friendship?"

"Not a chance, bug."

"Fair enough."


Entry 0922

Date: Ekrev 17th, 3121, Bruavay

27:00 hrs.

Well… Fuck.

Here we are again, drink in hand, ten cigar butts still smoking on the floor. Paints a pretty depressive picture if you look too closely at it… and if you just side-eye it too.

Still, what the fuck was I supposed to do? Wimper like a coward? Beg for my job like a salaryman caught fucking his co-worker? I'm above such weaknesses, so far, far above.

It ain't a matter of strength or pride, but of principle, of self-respect. Stand up for yourself, or get the fuck out. Such is the life of a truth-sayer: people won't like it when you say things as they are; the powers that be will conspire to turn even your closest allies against yourself. The Man will thrash and writhe and simmer in His hatred, looking to smite you like a vengeful god of lies and conformity. He who battles gods must know that he is fighting against the inevitable; every victory is short-lived, a prelude to a much worse defeat that looms just over the horizon. You are ultimately alone, and it is only on your own will that you can rely.

Still, the greatest defeat is to stop trying. There are those out there who can't or won't stand up on their own, people who out of ignorance or out of fear cannot break their chains and raise their voices against the phonies that run the Multiverse. A younger Duke would have probably left them to their own means, but now… well, guess I've learned my lesson all too well. Maybe there's no one there for you… but you can always be there for them.

I know it's hard to get along with others in your line of work, especially when all they do is peddle the shit The Man feeds them, a bunch of good little lap dogs who will happily betray their principles for "prestige" and "Yuletide bonuses" and other slave-grade wages. But you don't have to get along with them to stand in solidarity. All we got is each other, however wayward some may be; even that can be forgiven because, what else could they know when they've grown at the shadow of mediocrity and shallowness?

Guess that's the case with R'lek.

Part of me wishes I hadn't thrown everything out the window for that bug. Losing my main source of income can really do a number on my alcohol reserves. But what's done is done, and I don't really regret standing up for someone who would rather spend his time crawling than confronting his problems head on.

I never really held any ill will towards R'lek, however horrid his writing is. Him finding a nice lady mantis, settling down and getting his head devoured… that I could wish for, sure, but there are fates far worse than marriage. Truth is, I would never allow a fellow writer to get treated like garbage by someone like Erwen Niffs. Not even the likes of R'lek. I still have my journalistic integrity, and that means never allowing my fellow man to suffer under The Man's yoke. Even if I hate their guts.

Regardless.

I'll just pour myself another drink and see how the night goes. Maybe I'll finally start writing my memoirs. If I don't get it done before kicking the bucket, I might as well eat my typewriter already.


Duke's eyes blinked separately, his skin a dull grey from the Final Tour's hangover finally catching up with him.

It had been a couple of days since his firing. How many exactly Duke could not tell: half his memories were of inhaling copious amounts of Naxatras, followed by a blurry whirpool of stroboscopic lights, deafening music and vomiting in unspeakably filthy toilets. Fun times, probably.

The lizard stood next to R'lek, watching patrons move about the Main Hall. It was busy today, even by library standards, with many patrons lined up at the Main Desk, currently tended to by a being with a floating hand for a head and an owl-centipede creature. An antlered octopus-man and a ram-headed entity chatted with a clown; a bipedal mass of living glass and a kid with an intricate snake tattoo sat reading books together; a girl with a bear hat talked a storm to a very confused, mute docent; normal Library weirdness.

Had R'lek's Renallum-delivered message not reached him (Duke had tipped the fox with a pile of bottle caps) earlier that day, Duke would have probably spent the entire morning trying to mooch off someone else's breakfast. Fortunately, the mantis had brought a bag of pickled grubs, which Duke immediately snatched and ate in a single tongue-strike.

"So… why'd you bring me here, huh?" Duke asked, still savoring his catch. "Can't just be about treating me to breakfast."

"I wasn't… Those weren't for… ah, forget it!" the mantis mouthed. "See, I've been assigned to cover another big event for Planasthai. I'm covering the grand opening of Ambrose Wanderers' Library, that new restaurant on the Rafters. It's all the rage, from what I hear; real high-end multiversal cuisine."

"Huh, so Niffs trusts you not to fuck up another front page. Look at you; lucky little bug."

"Yeah, it's nice to be back at commenting on more… cosmopolitan issues. But I wouln't have this without you, not really. What with all sticking your neck out for me and–"

"Ah, shit, here we go again," Duke pressed his hands against his head as if trying to drown R'lek's voice. "I told you I don't want your thanks, damn it. I didn't do it for you!"

"I don't care why you did it. It was brave, it was selfless, and I'm thankful for it."

"Pffff, yeah, figures," the lizard sneered. "Now, are you done embarrassing me, or do I have to listen to more of this shit? I have places to be, people to meet…"

"Oh, yeah, like who?"

"None of your business."

"Ugh," R'lek rolled his eyes. "Look, I just want to show you something, Duke. A small token of my appreciation, if not my gratitude. Can we say I do it out of professional respect?"

"Fine," Duke finally exhaled, his head pulsing as he took out a pair of tailor-made sunglasses and put them on. The hangover was only getting worse. "Show me the… err… thing."

"Awesome! Come now, follow me!" R'lek gingerly stepped over a line of spiders going across the hall. "You won't regret it."

Duke groaned as he evaded the spiders, wondering all the while if he'd get banned from the Library if he ate some, just a few of them. What is sapience anyways?


"So… what's next for Duke Gathers, journalist extraordinaire?" R'lek asked as they walked through the maze of shelves. They'd gotten pretty far away from the crowds that filled the main hall. Wanderers had become sparse; the Chief Archivist crawled across the ceiling, barely visible in the distance.

"I don't know," Duke scratched his nape. "Got some stalled projects from before I worked at Planasthai. Maybe I'll get them done. Or maybe I'll join the Serpent's Hand, write a book on them and their exploits against the Jailors."

"That sounds… adventurous…"

"Beats mugging other patrons for drug money," the lizard shrugged. "Are we close? I swear only Ulak ever ventures this far without a Page to guide him. Look, there he is!"

Duke waved at the Drifter, who simply nodded before returning to writing on his tome.

"Oh sure, ignore me, but who was always there when you needed twenty bucks," Duke groaned to himself.

"We're almost there now," R'lek said. "Just 'round that shelf right there."

Duke took off his sunglasses as he and the mantis finally stepped into a section of the Library that he had never seen or even heard of before. There, in the middle of a great atrium, a towering structure loomed before them. He could barely believe his own eyes: it was the Moyoren Calendar, thought to have been destroyed by an asteroid that recently housed the Final Tour. There it stood in the midst of the Wanderers' Library, pristine, intact.

It was more beautiful than the lizard could have ever imagined: on pitch-black stone, faint swirls of purples and tiny white stones lied inset as the structure lazily rotated on its own axis. Blue swirls seamlessly transitioned from imprint to paint, floating stones hovering around the main structure moving in predetermined patterns which Duke could not truly discern. The atrium itself had circular wooden platforms inset into the floor, one of which another Patron was using to float up and around the stone to study it closely.

"By the gods…" Duke gasped. He was definitely coming back here with a bag of shrooms. "How?"

"I knew you'd like it!" R'lek smiled. "Good thing too, because it cost me the first five years of my potential firstborn, a secret handshake and the memory of my first scarf. Guess competent chronomancers are hard to come around."

"Wait, chronomancer? As in…?"

"Yeah, I paid one to freeze the few moments before the Final Tour's asteroid collided with the planet. Then we opened a Way directly under the Moyoren Calendar and voilà! No damage done to the timeline either, with the whole planet being destroyed regardless. Hardest part was getting it past the Docents. Think they'll believe me if I tell them it's always been here?"

Duke did not answer. His back straightened, his fists clenched. A whistling sound left his mouth as he struggled to keep his voice down.

"Gottsam," he hissed the mantis' first name for the first time in years. "Do you realize what you've just done?"

"Saved irreplaceable cultural heritage, thanked my bud and fellow reporter for his nobility and added a brand new area to the Wanderers' Library? Oh it was my pleasure to–"

"To de-juice my work," the lizard hissed. "To take… to steal my thunder."

"Eh… I'm sorry, what?"

"YOU GODSDAMNED CHITIN-FUCKER! YOU POSH KNOW-IT-ALL PIECE OF SHIT!"

Duke sprang towards R'lek like a raging storm, claws clasping the journalist's scarf and pulling at it. Foul breath fogged the mantis' glasses (sea glass this time) as the lizard ranted.

"I– I don't understand–" R'lek's mounting confusion prevented him from fighting back.

"Oh sure! You don't even fucking recognize what you just did! You took my thunder, tore meaning off my godsdamned piece! "The Final Tour is Decadent and Depraved." WHY THE FUCK DO YOU THINK IT WAS NAMED LIKED THAT?"

"Duke, c'mon, calm down! If you're concerned about what the other Wanderers will think of interfering with the laws of space-time…"

"It. Was. Over." Duke punctuated. "Gone! Destroyed! Atomized! That was the whole fucking point! People celebrating the loss of something unique and irreplaceable! Now the whole piece will read like any of my own fucking weekends! You just took all nuance from one of my best works!"

"Wh– what? So you're mad about a publication? What about the culture whose last vestiges I just saved? What about the history, the… the glory?"

"Only glory I want is having my works not shat on by posers like you!"

R'lek huffed, hurriedly stepping back as Duke finally let go off him.

"Well you're fucking welcome!" he blared.

"For what? You ruining my day?"

"Oh, you rude, uncivilized cave-lizard!"

"Heh," Duke sneered. "I've been called worse!"

The mantis lifted a claw as if to flip off Duke, but instead adjusted his glasses.

"Think I'll take my services elswhere, where they're appreciated! You'll see, once the rest of the Library gets this news… which I'm gonna write right now! I can already see it: "Local Hero Gottsam R'lek Saves Historic Artifact." That'll show you!"

"Yeah, yeah, go kiss Niffs' ass while you're at it!"

With a final huff of irritation, R'lek turned and left, cursing Duke all the way.

Ah, finally, Duke exhaled as soon as the insect was out of sight. He didn't want him to see the smile that had quickly taken over his scaly face.

It had been a heroic thing R'lek had done, really. Duke almost wished he'd thought about it himself. Now, the last remains of the Moyoren culture were at a place they could call home, a place where all knowledge, no matter what in what shape or manner, belonged to. Here, their legacy would be forever appreciated by people from any and all realities. It was a fate far better than Duke could have ever imagined.

Alas, a journalist had a reputation to keep, so for now, Duke's true feelings would be his own. He silently thanked R'lek and, at last, sat down to admire the Calendar. He took a flask from one of his pockets and toasted.

The Library was beautiful that morning.

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