By the time they reached Rivergate, the overcast skies had begun to drop the first flakes of the impending storm. The Monoceros was there, bobbing amongst the bodies now frozen together over the bay in a sheet of death, a testament to the gross evil of the Order. The boys were too tired to be affected. Though they managed to get both Bold and Zalfron awake, the two could hardly stand let alone walk. Lugging the lanky elf and stocky dwarf while crouching through the drainage tunnels of Zviecoff was as exhausting as battle. It didn’t help that the two were delirious, singing jibberish and thrashing about during fits of hallucinations.
Having seen his fair share of bad trips, enduring many himself, Nogard was impressed by the mind altering power of exhaustion.
The drainage tunnels came to an end alongside the third floor of Rivergate, opening up and funneling together with other tunnels to pour into the canal far below. If it had been late Summer, the whole lot would’ve been thrown to the bottom of the harbor but, fortunately, late
Spring was cold, frozen, and dry. The inside of Rivergate had been empty – though it had seemed empty when they first arrived in Zviecoff too. They took the stairs so as not to incite a repeat of their last visit and they didn’t run into trouble.
The Monoceros was able to crush its way through the crust of corpses and escape the bay. Though Zach claimed to have seen scouts watching from atop Rivergate, there was no effort on the Order’s part to stop them.
Shaprone and Ekaf manned the helm while the Ipativians ransacked the bar. The Battle General knew that a return to civilization would be more bitter than sweet for his troops, knowing fullwell they’d be expected to depart to invade Icelore soon after. A booze cruise was the least he could do. The storm descended down from the Vanian Mountains, following them to Triskele where the Monoceros flanked the clouds and rode north, against the current, up the Etihw. When Solaris set, there was not a lick of alcohol left onboard which wasn’t good because that’s about when Zalfron and Boldarian finally woke up and both men were aching – Bold in his head and Zalfron everywhere.
As Bold meditated – his books were in desperate need of repaging – Zalfron hobbled off, with Zach’s help, in search of food. He was elated to reach the kitchen but his joy subsided when he saw who was in the kitchen. It wasn’t Nogard and Machuba that turned him off, but Shaprone Ipativy.
The tension was pungent.
Nogard and Machuba turned from where they stood at the stove. Two knights that were sitting nearby scooted their chairs back from the table and sat up straight. Shaprone met Zalfron’s glare. Despite the elf’s desire to surge towards the general, Zach wasn’t budging from where he stood hoisting Zalfron up in the doorway.
Shaprone shattered the silence with a nod saying, “Sentry-”
Zalfron flung himself from Zach’s side, hoping to reach the table which he could grasp for support. His bound got him to the table but his arms were just as week as his legs and the rest of his body. No sooner did his palms hit the surface of the table than did his elbows buckle and his upper body slam, face first, onto the table top with such force that he rebounded off the table. He would’ve landed flat on his back had Zach not jumped forward to catch him by his arm pits.
Shaprone and his fellow knights shot out of their seats, standing were they sat with their hands by their belts (where their swords would’ve been had they not been attempting to relax). Nogard and Machuba rushed over to assist Zach as Zalfron continued to thrash. Frothing at the mouth, all the elf could manage was mangled gibberish.
“ENOUGH!” Zach roared.
This miraculously stilled Zalfron as if the spirit’s silver eyes had caught Zalfron like a minnow looking into the light of an angler fish. Both Machuba and Nogard exchanged impressed glances. Zach, slightly embarrassed at his own outburst, continued in his natural, subdued tone.
“What is it?”
The spell was broken, Zalfron’s rage returned, though this time at a controllable level. His blue eyes rolled back to glare at Shaprone, “Ya…ya got no raht sayin that name.”
“Men.” Shaprone pointed to the door and his soldiers happily obeyed his orders, clawing past one another to get out of the kitchen. Once gone, Shaprone said, “You have no clue-”
“MAH SISTER IS DEAD,” Zalfron interrupted, “CAUSE UH YOU!”
His words hit Shaprone like a bag of bricks. The knight staggered back from the table. He looked Zalfron in the eye once more saying only, “I loved your sister.” before marching out of the room with his eyes on the floor.
“Ya don’t know she’s dead, mon.” Nogard offered.
Zach hoisted Zalfron back up to a standing position and Machuba slid a chair out from under the table so that Zalfron could sit down.
“Yes,” Zach concurred with Nogard, “do you not have faith in Joe?”
“Aeven if wae brang her back, still his fault shae was ever gone…” Zalfron shook his head, “his fault mah parents are dead…”
“I may be ignorant,” Machuba warned before asking, “I know Shaprone led the troops for Talloome, but isn’t it a stretch to blame him for what happened to your family?”
“They were getting married.” Zalfron stated.
“Shaprone and Tabuh?” Machuba asked.
The elf nodded.
“I dought Tou Fou and Tabuh had a ding,” Nogard mumbled.
“It was complicated.” Zalfron admitted, “But Shaprone promised mae, to mah face, that hae would kaep her safe, then hae led an armay against her. Hae knew shae loved Tou when hae asked our parents for their blessin yet hae promised mae, no matter what, hae would make sure that no one laid a finger on my sister.”
“Do you think he was lying?” Machuba asked.
“Uh, yea!” Zalfron scoffed.
“No, just now, when he said he loved her.”
Zalfron hesitated, then said, “Ah don’t know.”
“I will not claim to understand your pain,” Zach said, “but I do understand your distrust. Not long ago, the Ipativians were our enemies and Shaprone was Talloome’s right hand man.”
Zalfron chimed in, “And ah betcha some of thase soldiers in this boat raht now were in battle against mah sister and the Samurai…”
Zach continued, “But now they fight Shalis and only Shalis.”
“And she has Joe.” Machuba stated.
Nogard threw his hands towards the heavens, half serious and half just being Nogard, “Who will save da Samurai!”
“Hopefullay…” Zalfron muttered.
Zach nodded, “Our only hope.”
Zalfron groaned, “Ah get it.”
“You don’t have to like him.” Zach said.
“You should talk to him about it.” Machuba suggested.
Zach elbowed Machuba in the shoulder, not a gentle action when still adorned from foot to toe in heavy armor.
“But make sure one of us be dere,” Nogard smiled, “in fact, more dan one of us.”
“Ah thank ah’ll just avoid him for a whahl,” Zalfron decided, “til after we get Joe back.”
“In da mean time,” Nogard pulled his pipe from his robe pocket, “let’s eat, my boy!”
– – –
As the Monoceros crept up the Etihw, away from the blizzard, Acamus Icespear led his troops through the Vanian Mountains enduring sleet, snow, and hail as they marched unperturbed towards Recercoff. The trails between the two ethnic capitals could be traversed by the long legged minotaurs in less than a day under sunny skies but the weather slowed the men down and, when combined with their exhaustion from the previous struggles in Zviecoff, Acamus was forced to stop whenever they came across a little mountain village. Though most of the Muslims of the Blue Ridges didn’t consume alcohol, most weren’t opposed to a little coffee here and there and so the troops would cram into small town taverns, holding their frozen hands to the fires, sipping that dark, bitter elixir as the heavens above clamored to remind all that winter rarely ended west of the Etihw.
“One more round for the whole lot, my friend.”
The owner nodded and barked the order down the bar where the bar tenders had clustered to listen to the soldiers’ tales of war. Though the owner scowled at her lusty employees, she herself was busy chatting up a Guardian’s son with her eyes, every once in a while, drifting to the minotaur’s left hand and bare ring finger.
“What do you think?”
“Me?” She almost laughed but cut her breathe short so as not to spill as she refilled Acamus’ mug, “What would I know?”
“You know as well as I what my father means to our people,” Acamus elaborated, “but you lack the inherent prejudice I have as his son.”
“You must go to Icelore! Absolutely!” She cried, able to laugh now that the coffee pot was back on its warmer.
“But would he want me to risk the lives of our people just to save his own?”
“No,” she admitted, “but if he were here and that were any other minotaur locked away in Icelore, you and I both know Theseus would advocate any means to return them.”
Acamus responded with a fake smile that fooled no one but the owner didn’t call him on it. It wasn’t whether invading Icelore to save his father was the right thing to do or not, that wasn’t what weighed heavy on his mind, it was whether or not he was being realistic or not. Would the Order actually bring Theseus to Icelore alive? The Order is evil, not idiotic. Machuba had not recounted seeing Theseus being captured, only seeing Theseus go after the captured Earthboy. What if we risk these souls for naught?
His thoughts were interrupted as the tavern door was flung open with such force that it slammed back shut. Again, it opened but this time a frosted figure stood in its way as she staggered inside and over to the bar. The soldiers fell silent. With a grunt, Acamus rose and went over to the woman, setting his steaming coffee down before the traveler and beckoning to the owner for another. Another, less frozen, minotaur came in the door.
“Acamus,” this second new comer said, “she comes from Recercoff, told me she was taking word to Zviecoff, so I figured she might as well take her message straight here.”
Acamus turned back to the shivering woman beside him. She pushed the mug back towards him.
Acamus modified his order “A warm water, please!” Then asked the woman, “Could Recercoff not send a mole?”
“That’s what I said!” The villager that had redirected the messenger came to sit beside Acamus at the bar, “Said an Alpha Bull wanted to be sure the minotaurs got the message.”
Acamus didn’t want to press the recooperating messenger, he waited in silence and let the glass of warm water do what it could. In the meantime, he speculated. The bulls of Recercoff had been more and more anti-Icespear. After Theseus chose to take an active role in the Pirate Wars and the War on Mancy, in hopes of encouraging more active support of the GraiLord nation by other members of the Trinity Nations, a hope that proved to be misplaced, the citizens of Recercoff began to oppose international initiatives and promote more isolationist policies. Policies that looked out for Recercoff, not for Iceload and her Blue Ridges. An important message from an Alpha Bull to the troops in Zviecoff would, most definitely, not fit nicely into Acamus’ – or his father’s – agenda.
Finally, the messenger had thawed.
“Rautonim Kurr,” she began and Acamus cringed, Rautonim was the staunchest proponent of isolationism in Recercoff, “as Alpha Bull, in solemn recognition of Theseus Icespear’s death-”
The house erupted as contempt spewed forth from the mouths of the enlisted men and women.
“QUIET!” Acamus commanded before turning back to the messenger to say, “My father is not dead.”
“The Ipativians said he was abandoned in Rivergate and no reports of him have circulated since-”
“And the Bull took that to be a death sentence?!” Acamus roared, inciting another uproar from the congregation, “Quiet, my friends,” he turned back to the messenger, “Theseus Icespear did not die in Rivergate, nevertheless, go on. Deliver your message.”
After a gulp, the messenger dragged the words out of her mouth, “The GraiLord will withdraw from Zviecoff and return to Recercoff.”
The troops didn’t need another order to stay quiet, though they still felt outrage. Acamus too was furious but he took a moment and a sip of coffee then responded cooly, “Rautonim would have us abandon Theseus?”
“The majority of the bull voted so, sir,” the messenger said, her head bowed over the drink she cradled, “Recercoff thinks Theseus dead. The people are in mourning.”
Acamus was appaled, “Theseus survived the Queen of Darkness and dueled Iahtro himself but they think he’d falter against the likes of Shalis?”
The messenger didn’t respond at first but after Acamus and the entire bar for that matter remained silent, she dared to illustrate the opposing argument.
“The people of Recercoff love Theseus as do all minotaurs,” she swallowed her spit then continued, “but we have no stake in Zviecoff. It is the greatest news that Theseus is well, is it not also great news that no more minotaurs will have to die in that Ipativian city?”
“No,” Acamus couldn’t hold back a snarl, “because now we must go to Icelore.”
“Icelore? Let the Ipativians deal with the Order!”
“Theseus is there now.”
The messenger was silenced.
“What’d Rautonim say about all us?” The villager who brought her to the tavern asked, gesturing to himself and those behind the bar.
The owner added to her neighbor’s notion, “We can’t just leave our homes and hide behind the walls of Recercoff when the Order finishes with the elves and decides to come for us!”
Acamus placed his hand on the messenger’s shoulder, now trembling with frustration, “Stay here for the night, my friend, wait out the storm, then return to Recercoff and tell Rautonim and his friends that we will be meet the Ipativians in Icelore to save my father, to slay Shalis, and to destroy the Order.”
“Sir?” The new comer to the conversation was one of the troops. Acamus gave him a nod and he continued, “What of reinforcements?”
Another soldier chimed in without permission but Acamus let it slide, the woman said, “And how will we get to Icelore without dragons from Recercoff?”
“We’ll have to make do with what we have, my friends.” Acamus sighed, then turned back to the messenger, “Regardless of where you stand, it is safe to say that Recercoff won’t change their mind on the issue?”
The bar owner spoke up again, “What about us folks?”
“Yea,” said the man that had brought the messenger, “there are dozens of villages tween here and Recercoff and hundreds of able bodied men and women.”
“Dragons too!” The bar owner exclaimed.
“Minotaurs who haven’t got the luxury to ignore what’s going on here!”
“Minotaurs who would be honored to give their lives for Theseus Icespear!”
A soldier asked, “But can they fight?”
“Can they?” The bar owner laughed.
“Son,” the messenger’s guide chuckled, “we couldn’t survive in the Blue Ridges if we couldn’t.”
“There won’t be time for me to visit each village,” Acamus stated, he turned to the messenger’s guide, “Sir, what is your name?”
Acamus turned to the bar owner, “And you?”
“Akiline, Kaly, if you would come up with a list of villages to which you can provide directions, villages all within less than a day’s reach,” Acamus gestured to the other bar tenders, fully enthralled by the conversation, “any of you that can help them would be appreciated.”
“What of villages further out?” Akiline asked.
“He’s right,” Kaly nodded, “there are many wealthy mining villages near Medullbrik.”
“I shall write them.” Acamus determined, “Do you have moles?”
“Bats.” Akiline and Kaly said simultaneously.
“Fantastic, my friends, I cannot thank you enough.”
“What if this is all for naught?” The messenger returned to the conversation, genuine concern in her eyes, “What if you fail?”
Acamus clasped her on the shoulder, “If we do, our souls won’t be haunted by shame. My only fear is for you and the people of Recercoff, safe as you may be behind your walls, if we fail it will be no fault of our own. If we fail, there will be no sleep in Recercoff.”
He turned away from the messenger, towards his comrades, “We will send twelve groups out to gather the willing and the able. We must be upfront with our people. There are no weapons to spare nor any steeds, so only those that can provide for themselves and can share a dragon can accompany us to Icelore. We won’t take young parents and we won’t take only children.”
“Where shall we regroup?” A soldier asked.
Acamus thought for a moment, then decided, “Mount Krynor.”
– – –
Ipativy spread across the hills in the low-lying tundra north of the Vanian Mountains and south of the northwestern arm of the Etihw. Like Zviecoff, Ipativy was a city of many towers but none of their star pillars were still standing. When Talloome Icelore took over Iceload, Ipativy refused to comply. The city was destroyed, the star pillars snapped in half. But the land beneath the rubble was still Ipativy and when Talloomes forces were expelled from the remains by the Samurai, the Ipativians rushed back in to rebuild. Two and a half months later, heavy construction was still underway. Scaffolds and cranes stood everywhere. The clangs and thuds of the laborers and their machines could be heard from the harbor. The skeletons of three great walls, that would split the city into three rings, each a hundred feet higher than the last were the most impressive of the projects underway. Though not yet visible, the plans for the construction above the wall were even more radical. There was to be another hundred feet of towers atop each wall and these towers were to be connected by a series of arches which were to be connected by bridges. The blue prints designed a maze, complete with dead ends, to make invasion by dalvary nearly impossible for any force not trained in Ipativy. The mayor, Lanigiro Seman, told Saint, “If the Queen of Darkness returns, come to Ipativy. Not even a moon dragon could bring us down. Ipativy will never fall again.”
“Ipativy will soon be known as the Armored City.” Shaprone said to Ekaf as they sailed into port the morning after they left Zviecoff.
Once the Monoceros was docked, they made a bee line for Fort Vanii (the fort that sat within the third ring of walls, at the center of Ipativy). They being Ekaf, Nogard, Machuba, Zach, and Shaprone. Bold was still busy healing Zalfron and the troops had been released to do as they pleased so long as they returned to the fort by the following morning. Jaeko Road wove through the city from the front gate all the way to the heart of the fortress. The people of Ipativy lined the road staring in silence, wondering who these foreignors were that traveled with Shaprone and praying that the soldiers in their families might be among the lucky few that returned for a day of vacation.
When they arrived at Fort Vanii, the guards hustled to lift the gate then scurried off to spread the word that the General had returned. Knights came scurrying down the scaffolds along the wall, filing out of the half constructed towers, and jogging over bridges like children called out for recess. Like the civilians, they came to stand along Jaeko Road in silence, watching silently, keeping their questions in their eyes. The road finally came to a stop in a football-field-sized courtyard which sat at the very center of Ipativy. When they arrived in the clearing, it seemed as though every knight in the fort was present. Nogard, Machuba, and Zach were surprised to see that, though Ipativy had suffered many casualties in Zviecoff and in the battles of the war that preceeded it, it seemed Fort Vanii couldn’t spare room for another soldier.
As they made their way into the center of the courtyard, an earth elf in Ipativian garb approached.
“Commander Cedar Row,” Shaprone addressed his fellow knight, “send a letter to the Strategy Generals that we must-”
“Shaprone,” Cedar clasped Shaprone on the shoulder, “the Generals are already on their way.”
“We received word from the GraiLords,” Cedar explained, “Acamus Icespear to be exact, which gave me some idea of what exactly it was you have planned.”
“The invasion of Icelore?” Shaprone asked, Cedar nodded, the General continued, “And what do you think the Generals will say?”
“There are five Strategy Generals,” Ekaf whispered to Machuba, Nogard, and Zach, “and they vote on military decisions that aren’t isolated to the authority of the Battle General – such as recruitments and new offensive engagements.”
Cedar raised his eyebrows with a grin, “I think you’ll be able to get your way.”
Ekaf continued to give the boys the low down, “The Battle General gets two votes and there are two Strategy Generals that fought under Shaprone when he served Talloome.”
Shaprone shared his subordinate’s smirk, “I suppose I should be more concerned about the opinions of our men and women.”
“Yes,” Cedar switched his smile for a frown, “I must admit, morale is low what with the news from Zviecoff being quite bleak.”
Turning to look at the crowd around them, respectfully standing just far enough away to be out of ear shot, Shaprone asked Cedar, “How many of these men are fresh recruits?”
“Roughly half,” Cedar answered, “more accustomed to a pickaxe than to their blades.”
“Alright then,” the Battle General cleared his throat, “my comrades!”
The unorganized cluster of troops stiffened into attention.
“Except for Zvie Castle, Zviecoff has fallen.” Shaprone paused to allow for the collective groan, “The capital is crawling with mancers and pirates, busting at the seams. In part, I am here to send some of you brave knights south to reinforce the garrison there. Yet, the main objective of this visit is to prepare for a new assault, an assault on Icelore.” There was an aggregate gasp. “The Witch has made a fatal mistake. She has deployed the main weight of the Order to capture Zviecoff. Though she has succeeded in taking our capital, she has left the anchor of the Order vulnerable, she has given us the opportunity to go on the offensive.”
He paused to sense the sentiment of the crowd. Their was an air of hope, an eagerness to be optimistic yet a practical hestitation, can we truly invade Icelore?
“Theseus Icespear has been captured. He now sits in a cell in Icelore.” Shaprone didn’t pause to allow a response, “The Blue Ridges tremble with rage. As I speak now, Acamus Icespear is gathering the GraiLord in preparation for this ultimate assault. With or without us, they will storm the shore of Icelore aiming at the core of the Order – I almost pity the shadow slingers and bone benders that get in their way.” He paced towards one side of the courtyard, coming close enough to the soldiers that he could clasp one on the shoulder, “But we will not let our allies embark on this endeavor alone!” He shook the young warrior playfully, “We can’t let the minotaurs hoard all the glory, now can we?” The soldier smiled, but Shaprone wanted a response, “Can we?!”
“No, sir!” She shouted.
“Damn right!” Shaprone patted her soldier then strolled down the ranks, looking each comrade in the eye as he continued, “And with our help, together, the GraiLords and we, the Ipativians, will drive a blade through Shalis Skullsummon’s wretched heart. The only question is who will be the lucky bastard to get there first!”
The troops roared. They’d been temporarily convinced. But in the night, alone in their beds, Shaprone new doubt might creep back in upon them, so he continued.
“These men I brought with me, they saved my life in Zviecoff – not to mention the lives of many of our comrades.” The crowd quieted, “Nogard Otubak, Machuba Gill, Zachias of the Woodland Ridge,” a wave of awe spread across the knights, “and in the harbor, on board the ship, the ship these gentlemen hijacked from the Sea Lords – that’s right, the Monoceros once more sails for the righteous – back on this ship rest two more heroes, two more of my saviors’ comrades, Boldarian Drahkcor the Fifth and Zalfron Sentry.”
The amazement escalated into cheers at the last name.
“They came to Zviecoff following a human, a human pyromancer, a human they claim to be the Sun Child.” Shaprone chuckled so as to keep the troops from scoffing at him but rather at the idea, then he raised his hands to quiet them, “Now, now, I know, I know, we’ve all heard of this Sun Child, but then again…it is intriguing, is it not?” The silence suggested his comrades agreed, “This human’s party has quite the characters, remenescant of the Samurai, only, instead of serving Saint, instead of acting in the best interest of the Trinity Nations, to the chagrin of those that recite his Foretelling, this supposed savior has come to aid those members of the alliance that Saint seems to have forgotten.”
The skepticism began to dwindle.
“And this pyromancer is not here today, nor is he recovering from the battle back onboard the Monoceros. No, he was captured attempting to save Theseus and both were taken to Icelore. Sun Child or no, he and his comrades saved my life and the lives of many of our men and women, he is a hero and he is our ally.”
He paused, slowly making his way back to the center of the courtyard.
“We have the opportunity to save the souls of two heroes – one who has saved Solaris and one who may come to do so in the future. And if he is the Sun Child and if you believe the Foretelling was true, then even if the odds weren’t in our favor already, comrades – we cannot lose!”
“Too long has the Order clung to Iceload like parasites! First they stole our beloved King and now they have stolen our capital! How can we sit back and build up our walls waiting for the next victim of that Witch’s appetite? These men behind me and the two waiting in the harbor, they are prepared to go on to that frozen island alone, to save two friend, if we do not accompany them. Two men! We stand the chance to save the entirety of this continent! But you may be tired, this war has worn us all, if so I understand and I will not ask you to join us. I too will go alone and the Strategy Generals can find a new-”
Shaprone’s words were drowned out by the fervent cries of the knights that filled the courtyard. Fists and blades were raised towards Solaris as the crowd converged upon Ekaf, Nogard, Machuba, Zachias, and their leader. Through all of the clamor, Cedar Row managed to shout a question to Shaprone.
“DO YOU REALLY THINK WE CAN DO THIS?”
“CALL ME CRAZY,” Shaprone shouted back, not insulted but completely aware of the extremity of the plan and the catastrophic potential if they were to fail, “BUT I DON’T THINK, I KNOW!”
“THEN SO DO I!” Cedar exclaimed.
“DEATH TO THE WITCH!” Shaprone proclaimed and the men and women echoed him, “END TO THE WAR!”
– – –
“Somewhere outside that finish line…”
Joe stood beneath the overpass. There was his car, green and crushed like a june beetle devoured by the gargantuan rodent that was the eighteenwheeler. By his driver’s side door stood Death, looking into the car patiently. How many times had he seen this scene since the event first occurred? Who could say, but Joe hardly noticed it now for this time something was different. Beyond the overpass and the road that ran beneath it, where the cars going the other way should’ve been waiting patiently, was an inferno.
A wall of fire. While the rest of the world was frozen in time, this hellish sight continued thrashing and pulsating. It was all he could see beyond the wreck, as if there were nothing else left of the Earth. But though they moved, they didn’t budge from the line they held. The red curled black then the orange plumed white, but it hesitated, as if seeking permission.
“I square up and break through the chains…”
Joe rushed forward and dove into the flames, but he didn’t find himself inside the fire instead he found himself beneath the surface of the Saluman River, surrounded by little hungry shamoos. He was curled up into a ball, as if submitting to his demise, but no – he’d finally conquered the situation, at that moment he was at peace, and in the next he released everything – he became the inferno.
“I hit like a raging bull…”
Again he was beneath the surface, but this time much farther. And this time his eyes weren’t closed, but wide open as he lifted a balled fist of flame and smashed it into the land bridge at his feet, tearing it from the cliffside and sending it crashing down on the enemy below.
“Anointed by the blood, I take the reins…”
As he began to fall, darkness swallowed him up, plucking him out of one memory and dropping him into the next – high above the Monoceros. He drew back the Suikii as the glowing giant below him prepared to do the same to his friend but Joe acted first. He closed his eyes and clubbed Hermes’ head off his body. When he reopened them, he was standing on the Monoceros, in the morning light, stairing at the cold walls of Rivergate.
“Cut from the cloth…”
He sprinted up the stairs, charging after Theseus with Machuba by his side. His thighs ached, his lungs burned, but his mind was set and his chest was warm.
“of a flag that bears the name…”
Suddenly, the stairwell fell dark. Theseus was no longer there before him and Machuba no longer beside him. He was still running the stairs, only a different staircase, and though his thighs still ached and his lungs still burned and his mind was still set, his chest was no longer warm. Slowly the scene faded to black.
“They’ll call me the contender…”
Light returned in the form of the towering façade of fire. As if the Sun itself had crashed into the Earth just moments after his wreck. He was back on Earth, back in that timeless scene.
“They’ll listen for the bell…”
Joe turned away from the inferno, looking back the way he’d driven, but he no longer stared at Earth. In fact, he wasn’t staring at a place he’d been yet in Solaris either, but it was a familiar scene. Snow covered everything. People sat in the distance watching a scrawny man on his knees tied to a cross. Before this man, between him and where Joe stood watching, was the dark figure of Shalis Skullsummon with an ivory blade in her hand.
Joe looked hurriedly away.
“With my face flashing crimson from the fires of hell.”
He turned back to the wall of fire.
“What are you afraid of?”
I’m not afraid. He began running, sprinting, nostrils flaring, teeth gritting, and he burst through the flames yet again. He was brought back to that snowy landscape, only now he wasn’t watching the slouching man and the Witch, now he was the man bound to the cross.
“And what are you made of?!”
As Shalis plunged the blade into his intestines, Joe felt no pain, only rage – righteous, indignation – as he released everything he had – as if he’d brought the inferno, the mass of combustion every bit as magnificent as the Sun – there with him.
Joe woke up.
Lo was leaning over him, her hands on his shoulders, her brow furled. She asked, “You okay?”
“You were…” she couldn’t help but giggle a bit, “I think you were singing?”
“Oh…” Joe blushed a bit as he giggled a bit too, “I had one hell of a dream.”
“Well…I got my execution over with.” Joe laughed.
Lo smirked, “You must be disappointed.”
Joe sat up, “Honestly, I kind of am. I went out like a bad ass.”
“What’d you do?” Lo asked.
“I don’t know…” Joe scratched his head, “it was a funky dream but…I think I basically dropped the Sun on her.”
Lo laughed, “Ah, of course, you are the Sun Child.”
They were quiet for a moment. Both slouched back to lean against the wall, Joe at the head of the cot, Lo at the foot. Miraculous as it may be, they slept head to foot on the tiny cot. It hadn’t been intentional, but the two had stayed up talking after Lo’s tale – nothing real important, don’t worry, you just missed some character development – and before they knew it they were asleep. Despite being strangers, the dismal conditions of their short time together created a quick bond between the two. The short spells of silence weren’t uncomfortable. They just…were.
“Is it weird that I wish they’d just go ahead and do it?” Joe asked.
“Nah.” Lo shook her head, “Donum.”
“Is it faraked for me to say I hope they wait a while?” Lo asked.
“Ha,” Joe laughed, “I think under normal conditions that’d be the opposite of ‘faraked’.”
She chuckled a bit before explaining, “Its just that…Girn knows when they’ll get to me,” she shook her head, “and I don’t know if I’d rather they keep me down here alone or run the risk of them sticking me with some creep.”
“I’m not a creep?” Joe asked, raising an eyebrow, “Didn’t I ask if you wanted to make babies with me yesterday?”
She laughed, “Point taken.”
Another spell of silence.
“Where’s ‘donum’ come from?” Joe asked, “I know it’s a curse word, like farak, but there’s a story behind farak. There a story behind ‘donum’?”
“You sure you want Solarin history from a Delian?”
Joe shrugged, “You seemed to know plenty about the Pirate Wars!”
She smirked and dusted off her shoulders, “Well I don’t like to brag, but I am pretty knowledgeable.”
“So how bout it?”
“You’re asking me to tell you the tale of the Queen of Darkness, you know.”
“I know now.”
“Alright…” Lo frowned for a minute then began, “It all started with the Plague…”