Down the Purple Cobblestone Thoroughfare, Yhtorod shuffled, aged and frail. By his side, sleek and fastidious, sauntered his cat, Otot.
As he trudged, intent upon his destination, Yhtorod acquired three additional companions. Each of them wanted something nearly as intensely as he did.
The first, Worceracs, had a massive skull. From the soft flesh at the top, many domes protruded, syncopatedly pulsing: a profusion of brains. Worceracs rarely spoke. Instead, she gasped and wheezed, struggling to take in enough air to support her oxygen-hungry neurons.
The second, Namnit, was otherwise diseased. Her hard exterior was warped. In three sections, just above the coordinated, freakish, over-strong action of her three hearts, the metal bulged. Every second or so, at the systolic portion of a beat, the hearts again slammed against her interior, like a triple punch, and she moaned in pain.
The third, Noil Yldrawoc, was a chihuahua. Her tiny body was seamed with scars and burns; each mark was the memento of some bizarre act of near-suicidal boldness.
Everything was the target of Noil’s competitive temper. She yapped and yapped and yapped continuously. When the other companions, cowering, declined her invitation to duel, she challenged the rocks, the trees, and the very earth. “I will defeat the sun!” she cried, spittle flying.
After a week’s journey, Yhtorod and his companions reached the Ruby Metropolis at the end of the Purple Cobblestone Thoroughfare.
Inside, everything was red: walls, roofs, roads, and sidewalks. At the Wizard’s Palace, soldiers in ruby-studded uniforms welcomed them, then obligingly conveyed them, without the least hesitation, down a ruby-studded corridor and deposited them outside the Wizard’s audience chamber.
“Ladies first,” Yhtorod insisted. So as Worceracs, Namnit and Noil went ahead, side by side, into Zo’s chamber, Yhtorod sat heavily in the corridor, Otot on his lap, waiting.
After an hour, Worceracs emerged, smiling big. From her head, all the excess had been trimmed away. Her breathing was healthy and slow. She had been awarded a job, too, on Zo’s janitorial staff. Brandishing her new mop, she made experimental scrubbing motions while executing a clumsy pirouette.
Namnit emerged next. Her body had also been regularized. In her chest, a single heart beat, silent and imperceptible. In her eyes was a fiendish joy.
In her arms, Namnit cradled a cleaver–the implement of her new profession. As Zo’s Chief Butcher, she would secure those exotic meats that many in Zo enjoyed, but were too squeamish to prepare themselves–things like veal, in particular, and unicorn livers, and the bashed-in brains of baby seals.
Noil emerged last, unrecognizably silent. She wore the costume of a novitiate, black and white. In her claws she clicked a length of beads. Soon, she would begin life in a secluded convent, deep in the countryside.
Restrained by her shyness, Noil kept her gaze fixed on her feet; what little she said, she mumbled. But her mouth was curved in a modest smile, and her eyes glowed with a perfect satisfaction.
Finally, it was Yhtorod’s turn. Leaving Otot in Worceracs’ and Noil’s care–though, pointedly, not in the fiendish Namnit’s–he shuffled in slowly, leaning heavily on his cane.
The audience chamber shimmered with magic. On its walls were rubies, arranged into glittering swirls. On the far end, on a red throne, sat a beautiful young woman: the Wizard. She wore a red mantle and a matching crown. In her eyes, galaxies pulsed and stars flickered.
“Ask anything,” she said, speaking directly into Yhtorod’s mind.
Held by her gaze, Yhtorod remembered everything. His dark childhood under the care of an abusive stepfather, and his dark adulthood spent deep in the coal mines of West Virginia, inhaling the dust, and the dark growths that now spread slowly through his chest and pelvis, for which his doctors had been useless, refusing him the prescription he craved. And the tsunami, too, which had borne him to Zo, and into which he had walked directly, starting from the porch of his assisted living facility, not trying to escape. And how it had only been here, in this magical metropolis and in this land beyond the rainbow, that he had dared to hope.
“I wish to die,” he said.