It took around thirty minutes to reach the mangled, shell-littered roots of the opposite bank. Slow but steady, the magic-powered boat kept pace the entire trip. Occasionally, during Ekaf’s story, Joe would peer over the side of the craft and catch a glimpse of scaled hide nearing the surface of the leafy green water. If those beasts I faced were mere babies, Joe shivered, I can’t imagine a full grown shamoo. When they reached the sandless beach, washed naked by the tide, they pulled the boat onto the shore. A forest, which looked identical to the woods they’d traveled through the day before, awaited them.
“We have to travel fast, no dilly dallying. Bonehead lives in a cave due north of here, pray that I don’t get us lost. I’ve been through these parts a million times but I seem to get my memories tangled up. I’m afraid those spirits will find us if we don’t get to Bonehead’s by tonight. Not to say we couldn’t handle them. I can’t wait to see you in combat what with your knew found powers, think you’ll-”
“I think we’d be able to manage them together.” Joe interjected instinctively. He’d become accustomed to how it was occasionally necessary to interrupt the little man in order to get the ball rolling.
The two set off through the forest. Even though it was only Joe’s second day in Solaris, he’d grown accustomed to the strange noises and distortions of the somewhat familiar organisms. His curiosity had lessened as the pain in the soles of his feet grew. Step after step, Joe trudged onwards. Every time the trail doubled back, he found himself wondering if they were going in circles. Each section of woods looked like the last. The hope of resting his feet was beginning to seem bleak. Ekaf was being abnormally quiet, perhaps pondering over whether or not this was indeed the correct trail. To get his mind off his throbbing feet, Joe conjured up some conversation.
“What happened to the Samurai?”
“Remember, last night you said Benjamin Fleetfeet was killed-”
“Fleetfeet?” Ekaf came to such an abrupt stop that Joe nearly kicked him in the jaw. Instead, Joe veered right and tumbled head first into shrubbery. Tugging on his beard, Ekaf said, “Gmoats don’t have feet, they’re goat people, they’ve got hooves.”
“Hooves?” Joe grimaced as he pried himself from the briars.
“Yes and a tail and the curled horns of a ram. His name isn’t Fleetfeet, its Fasthoof!”
“Sure-” Joe shrugged, “Fasthoof, you said he and the Samurai were-”
“I did not!” Ekaf cried, “They aren’t dead, how could I expect you to bring them back from the dead? For the Guardians’ sake, you’re not a god!”
“Then what happened to them?” Joe snapped.
“The day I pulled you from your car, Benjamin Fasthoof was defea-”
“Defeated. So they were captured?”
“Then what? Are they on vacation?” Joe scoffed.
“No!” Ekaf groaned, “They’re gone, bout as gone as you were two days ago, they’re not in Solaris-”
“So I have to bring them back with keys?” Joe asked.
“No, no, no,” Ekaf shook his head then paused, “well…maybe…” he shrugged again, “They aren’t dead, they aren’t captured…though most people think they are, really I might be one of the only folks that thinks they aren’t-”
“And if you’re wrong,” Joe narrowed his eyes, “then you brought me here for no reason.”
“On the contrary!” Ekaf squinted to match Joe’s glare, “Would you rather be in Hell?”
“Jesus!” Joe cried, “What’s with you and thinking I’d be in Hell?”
“First impression, that’s all-”
“What?! Then why’d you pick me to be your savior?!”
“Don’t all Christians think everyone deserves to go to Hell?” Ekaf asked, “I was just trying to adhere to your belief system!”
“There’s actually a wide range of interpretations when it comes to Christians and Hell, Ekaf. According to my own beliefs, God wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh, my apologies.” Then Ekaf muttered, “Sorta seems a little sinful – a little cocky – to assume you’d be in Heaven, though…”
Joe rolled his eyes, “Can we get back to my question? I was asking how exactly am I supposed to save the Samurai if no one – including you – now’s where they are?”
“Or if they’re even alive.”
Joe glared at the Knome, “I’m starting to think it might be worth the struggle explaining this stone in my chest to the people back on Earth just so I never have to have one of these conversations again.”
“Calm down, calm down. While I still don’t think that’d be a good idea – the government would probably kidnap you and dissect you as if you’re a dead pig fetus in a biology class – I understand your worry.” Ekaf walked on, returning to his hasty pace. Joe followed as he continued, “I suppose I have put a lot of pressure on you, what with all these tales of grand heroes plus my promising you your own place among them…”
Among them? Ekaf’s monologue became a mush in Joe’s ears as he wondered at the man’s words, Not only am I to save their heroes, but I’m to become one? There’s no way I could lead an army like Creaton or face a moon dragon like Cannon! Joe watched the Knome’s crimson hat flop atop his bobbing head as he continued to babble. Who does Ekaf think I am? Doesn’t he know who I was on Earth? I’ve never even been in a fight!
“…but you really shouldn’t worry. This is all very far away, that’s why I’m trying to hold back all these details and let the facts trickle in rather than lifting the flood gates and risk drowning you. It sounds scary because it should, right now you’re horribly unprepared, but every day you become more and more ready! Just think, yesterday you cowered helplessly before a barren but today you fended off an entire school of blood thirsty baby river beasts! You’ve got to believe in yourself, be confident, and utilize your instincts, the strength that lies within us all. In no time…”
He is right, a few days ago I wouldn’t have even tried to fight back when faced by such creatures. Maybe I do have it in me. The whirling fire in his chest seemed to agree, sending waves of warmth through his body. Joe rolled his shoulders back and stepped firmly onward. Was Cannon a hero before he met Zannon? Was Creaton a leader before he met Chane? What makes a hero anyway? Is it in your DNA? Is it our history? Or is it the present circumstances? Anyone can be a hero in the right place and the right time…right? Joe set his chin and furled his brow. Right!
With his mind settled for the moment, having accepted the notion that he could possibly be of some help to his miniature savior, he didn’t bother delving into the other issue that still loomed undecided in the outskirts of his mind: will I stay? Instead, Joe returned his attention to the incessant chatter of his guide.
“…weren’t all defeated by the same hand, after all, there were twelve, but they did succumb to the same weapon.” Ekaf paused and shot a quick glance over his shoulder. Just as Joe had gotten used to the length of his monologues, so had Ekaf gotten used to Joe interrupting. It actually threw the Knome off now that Joe had let him blabber on without an interjection. He correctly wondered if Joe had been listening. He stopped fast in his tracks. Joe managed to skid to a halt before diving into the prickly foliage at their sides.
“What did I just say?”
“Uh…” Joe gulped and took a guess from what little he’d caught, “…the Samurai were beat by the same weapon?”
“Correct!” Impressed, Ekaf continued his march and his explanation, “They were all, one by one, struck down by the Soul Staff. Like I implied, a lotta folks have never heard of this weapon and many of those who have heard either don’t believe in it, don’t believe it was used on all the Samurai, or don’t believe it spared their lives. After all, no one knows for sure where the Staff sends you. All we know is that to be struck with the Staff means you will disappear.”
“So then that’s why no one knows. The Samurai have all disappeared – they maybe fine or they may be locked up somewhere or – hopefully not – they may all be dead?” Joe asked.
“Indeed, though I’d wager they’re fine and dandy roaming around some distant universe.” Ekaf nodded.
“And you want me to find them?”
The confidence Joe had just acquired seemed to be standing on a foundation of sand. Frowning, Joe asked, “Are there any theories as to where they might be?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Ekaf stated. He sputtered for more words as he realized that this statement might do little to console Joe, for after all-
“If your guess is as good as mine, then why the hell did you bring me here to find them!” Joe crowed, “Isn’t there some sort of clue for me to work with?”
“Calm down!” Ekaf groaned as he held a low branch out of the way then released it after he passed. It swung back to slap Joe in the groin. With a yelp, Joe instantly crumbled to the forest floor and Ekaf twirled to face him. Thinking Joe cowered out of the futility of the situation he had just described, Ekaf patted Joe on the shoulder and said, “I do have a few ideas, a list of possible leads for you to follow.”
“See, currently, the Soul Staff is held by a fella in the Black Crown Pact. Remember the Pact are the folks who follow Creaton and fight the Trinity Nations – my buddies. They have been backed into the corner of a continent called Darkloe fighting what’s left of the Samurai’s forces.”
“But the staff was made by a necromancer named Truth. She worked for the Order of Mancers before she disappeared, much like the Samurai. Still, the folks in the Order might know something about the weapon’s mechanisms, and they are in a similar situation as the Black Crown Pact. Fighting over Iceload against the Ipativians and the GraiLords, the Order has been forced into the Vanian Mountains, their stronghold standing on the island where Zannon, Cannon, and Bluff defeated Kor – Icelore.”
Rising from the ball he had made on the ground, Joe got to his knees and glared at Ekaf. The Knome’s words had not calmed him, if anything, they’d threatened his confidence even more. Joe said, “So you expect me to walk into your enemies’ lands and ask them how they got rid of the Samurai so that I can bring them back?”
“I wouldn’t advise stepping foot on Darkloe, I’m not sure Creaton has any intentions of keeping you alive. However, though the Order of Mancers may be none to fond of me, you, on the other hand, you are a mancer.”
“Yes but…wait, isn’t the Order an enemy of the Samurai?” Joe moved to get to his feet but the sickness in his scrotum had yet to let up, so he stayed on his knees.
“What makes you think that?”
“Well they made that staff didn’t they – the weapon that defeated the Samurai,” Joe shrugged, “and the Ipativians were against Creaton in the story you told me crossing the river, so I just figured that if the Ipativians were fighting the Order of Mancers then the Order of Mancers must be bad guys too – or the enemy, rather.”
“Very nice! You’re right. The Order is none too fond of the Trinity Nations and the Samurai which makes them, like the Pact, my enemy.” Ekaf elaborated, “But despite the fact that all forms of mancy are illegal in most states and have been for centuries, the Order wasn’t always our enemy. They used to be neutral, having no power over anyone aside from other mancers and having no territory outside of their islands. For the most part, the allied states of the Trinity Nations refrained from persecuting mancers because the Order kept them out of the limelight, but that changed in recent years. Drug and slave smugglers began to work alongside the Order of Mancers. This exponentially increased the power of piracy. Eventually, the Emperor of the Trinity Nations declared war.”
“On the Order?”
“Not at first, initially it was just on piracy. They called it the Pirate Wars. It was through this conflict that the Order of Mancer’s leadership fell into the hands of Shalis Skullsummon, a necromancer, who betrayed and imprisoned the pyromancers as she began an explicit policy of anti-empire, specifically anti-the-Trinity-Nations’-empire, similar to that of the Black Crown Pact. The necromancers led the shadowmancers against the pyromancers – because they sympathized with the Trinity Nations – and imprisoned them. Soon thereafter, the Order had taken root in Iceload and-.”
“Okay, most of that went over my head.”
“It’s simple really, the Orde-”
“Stop, its fine, I got it. The other mancers turned on the pyromancers.” Having finally recovered from Ekaf’s unintentional castration attempt, Joe got to his feet and followed the Knome as he returned to the hike, “But if they turned on the pyromancers, wouldn’t they be against me?”
“They may…or they may see you as a chance to revamp pyromancy. Shalis might take a liking to you. After all, if she could restart the pyromancy branch with someone willing to bow to her, I’m sure she would. You, having no loyalty to the pyromancers she betrayed and being one of the only pyromancers out of captivity, would make for a rare opportunity-”
“So you want me to buddy up with the bad guys in order to find out how the Soul Staff works?” Joe asked.
“I’m saying that could be an option,” Ekaf shrugged, “but I could be wrong, too. Shalis may kill you the second she lays eyes on that stone in your chest.” Ekaf shrugged again, “Believe me, whatever plan we concoct today will be vastly different from what winds up happening. And besides, there’s a few things we need to get out of the way before we can worry about bringing back the Samurai.”
“Like training?” Joe asked.
“Yes,” Ekaf said, “and getting rid of your diabetes.”
“You get rid of my diabetes and, even if I find out Creaton is a saint, I’ll fight for you.” Joe laughed and he was at least half serious.
“Creaton definitely isn’t evil,” Ekaf said, “but he is no saint. If it weren’t for him, and people like Shalis Skullsummon, Solaris would be a far more peaceful place.”
“What is Creaton even fighting for?” Joe asked.
“Well, that depends on who you ask. If you ask the Trinity Nations, the folks who call the Samurai their heroes and claim Creaton and Shalis to be devils, they’d say the Pact is after one thing: chaos. And in the past, I would’ve said that’s true.”
“Except in the story you told me, it seemed like he brought order to Tadloe.” Joe argued.
“Yes, but that was nearly two thousand years ago-”
Joe’s eyes widened, I forgot the story started at the beginning of his world’s history!
“-Creaton’s motives have changed drastically over the years as he’s come and gone from beneath the heat of Solaris.”
“Where’s he gone?”
“He comes and goes,” Ekaf shrugged, “much like the Samurai are now gone, most don’t know for sure where he disappears too but few Solarins miss when he is here – as he is now.”
“And now that he’s back here, beneath Solaris,” Joe gestured to the sun, “what’s he after?”
“Well, for one, keeping the Samurai from coming back.”
“This is a question I can’t answer simply – especially without you having any sort of clue of what’s transpired in this universe – the tales I’ve been telling you, last night and as we crossed the river, will eventually explain-”
Eventually? Joe sighed, I’ve got two days to decide whether or not to commit to a cause I know nothing about!
“Can’t you just hit me with the basics?”
“I did! He doesn’t want the Samurai to return.”
“See! There is no short and sweet answer. It isn’t even about the Samurai, really, I shouldn’t have even given you that answer. Just know that its complicated. You’ll know by the time you need to know, trust me, okay?”
“Fine.” Joe groaned.
“Besides, before we get to my friend’s place, I need to give you the run down on the plant species in Tadloen forests!”
Joe rolled his eyes and groaned.
“Especially, pur trees,” Ekaf paused momentarily to slap a smooth, flakey-barked trunk, “of all the trees, I’d say they’re definitely in my top twenty favorite Tadloen trees. Anyways, they…”
As the Knome described foliage, Joe did his best to pay attention and keep his mind off his aching feet. After hours, of walking they strode into a clearing and Joe’s eyes captured his mind with curiosity. The layer of grass, weeds, shrubbery, and decomposing leaves that had carpeted the forest stopped abruptly. Cracked and dry earth, a brittle soil black as charcoal, filled the clearing, spilling out from the mouth of a cave. The entrance to the cave was the size of a modern doorway, narrow enough to walk through without touching the sides and high enough that Joe wouldn’t have to stoop. What had caused Joe’s sudden silence wasn’t the cave or the strange terrain, but the creature that stood before the rocky hole.
It was fleshless. The skeleton was stooped, with a long neck of vertebrae and a long spiny tail. Its ribs looked large enough for Joe to climb inside and lay in the beast’s belly. With a lizard-like skull it stared – without eyes – at the two, head cocked to the side with its lip-less mouth stuck in an eternal grin. It stood on two hind legs and its arms were much smaller and drawn up by its chest. The prehistoric undead stood higher than Joe but not too tall. I’m staring at the skeleton of a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex or maybe the bones of a giant archaic raptor.
“Good afternoon.” The dinosaur said.
“Bonehead, meet Joe. Joe, meet Bonehead.” Ekaf said, smiling as he extended his index finger towards Joe and pointed to Bonehead with the other.
Bonehead stuck out a boney reptilian hand and stepped towards Joe with one stride of a massive hind leg. Joe, still trembling, took the cold phalanges and shook them.
“Pleasure to meet you.” Bonehead said with a full and boisterous voice that made Joe feel welcomed despite the being’s frightful appearance. Then it turned to the Knome, “What name do you go by now, dear friend?”
“Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz.”
Ekaf bowed then removed his hat from his curls. The key on top of his head fell to the ashen ground as he replaced the cone. With one wide step, the dinosaur leapt to stand beside the Knome, leaned over, and retrieved the key. It curved its neck so as to stare at the object in its skeletal palm.
“My, my,” it said, looking at the key and then at Joe and then back at the key, “we need to hurry and get this inside the cave,” the dinosaur turned to look back at Joe, “then get you a new pancreas!”
With that the deceased reptile headed for the entrance of the cave, ducking so as to fit. Ekaf turned to Joe beaming from ear to ear.
“Bonehead’s cave is off the grid. You see, the creator of this cave went back in time to make it. The signals the spirits get from the key will tell them we’re underground but they’ll have no clue how we got there! It’s great! No one knows about it, which is also good because he’s got a lot of dark magic down there, you know, necromancer stuff.” Ekaf said.
“Wait, necromancer stuff? I thought necromancers were ev-,” Joe cut himself off and restarted, “I thought necromancers were our enemies?”
“Most are.” Ekaf nodded as he made his way to the cave entrance, “Even those that don’t follow Shalis and the Order of Mancers. They require bone and it’s a lot easier to satisfy a necromancer’s appetite with beings rather than beasts – a fact that leads many a mancer down dark paths…”
“But not Bonehead?”
“With age, the villainous temptation of efficiency can be cancelled out by a patience enstilled by compassion and the desire to leave a legacy worth missing.”
“Uh…sure,” Joe said, following his miniature guide, “but why would a necromancer be a skeleton. Aren’t skeleton’s what necromancer’s summon?”
“That’s where Bonehead’s situation becomes so peculiar.” Ekaf said as they began to descend a spiral staircase carved out of the stone just inside the entrance to the cavern, “During his campaigns across Solaris, Creaton performed millions of magical experiments and a few of these experiments survived the ages. Bonehead is one of those few. It’s a pretty cool story, in fact-”
“Wait! Creaton made him?! Wouldn’t that mean that Creaton now knows where we are? Wouldn’t that put you and Bonehead at odds?” Joe asked, then, before Ekaf could respond, Joe’s eyes grew wide as a horrible hypothesis filled his mind. “Is Creaton at the bottom of this cave? Are you, after all you’ve said, a part of the Black Crown Pact?!”
“Calm down, Joe! Why would I have saved you – multiple times, too – if I wanted you dead? Besides, Creaton doesn’t have the slightest clue who you are…yet…”
“Just because I know you’ll save the Samurai doesn’t mean anyone else does.” Ekaf cleared his throat, “Now, in reference to your previous question, necromancers can be skeletons. Say for instance a necromancer knew their doom was upon them and their opponent was about to land the final blow. Well, in this situation, the necromancer could decide to use a spell that turns themself into an undead.”
“Whats the difference between that and being killed?”
“Well, for one, they remain conscious and – to a certain extent – in control and, secondly, whatever undead they’d previously summoned will remain animated.”
“So, normally, if you kill a necromancer their skeletons go with them?”
“Indeed.” Ekaf stopped in front of a stone door. The cave around them was cool, water dripped off the sides. Magical flaming balls provided flickering orange light. The bouncing fires reflected off each drop that trickled down the stone walls as if the facades sweated gold. Ekaf’s hand was on the knob as he turned back to Joe, “Now what consequences might this entail?”
“I don’t know,” Joe shrugged, “I guess you wouldn’t be able to eat or drink.”
“True, but more importantly, you give up some control and your consciousness loses its privacy. The reason they’re called boneguards is because they submit primary authority to another. That other can override the boneguards free will, if they desire, and can observe the thoughts of their boneguard aswell. Because of this, boneguards often are used as body guards by whomever primary authority is given to.”
“So Creaton could potentially watch us through Bonehead – maybe even attack us through Bonehead, yea?”
“Then isn’t this the last place we’d want to be?” Joe asked, “Couldn’t you have grabbed a key to somewhere safer?”
“Probably,” Ekaf shrugged, “but we’ll be fine. Bonehead’s been dead for centuries, Creaton has probably forgotten that he even exists.”
“Hopefully…” Joe muttered, “Hey, why is he a dinosaur or is that a type of person here in Solaris?”
“Oh no, his skeleton is that of an ice raptors, which is a beast and not a being, but it wasn’t originally. He once was an elf, from Iceload, named Bale Morain. You’ll hear about Bale Morain later but for now you just need to know that his reptilian appearance is due to one of Creaton’s many experiments.”
Ekaf nodded, “See, while Creaton was conquering Tadloe and Batloe and invading Sondor and Iceload, he was also trying new things with magic and specifically necromancy. One of these new things was Bonehead.”
“So he was the first to have a boneguard?”
“Yup – and the first to figure out that once someone becomes a boneguard, they don’t have to stick to the same skeleton, they can mix it up.”
“Seems kind of pointless…”
“Says the man with a red cloth hanging down from his throat just asking from some sneaky foe to come along and strangle you.”
“Fair enough,” Joe acknowledged.
“You ready to lose your diabetes?”
They stopped in front of another stone door. Ekaf flung the door open and the two strode inside. The chamber was dimly lit by balls of red flame that floated below the roof in all four corners. Each wall was lined with shelves filled with row after row of miscellaneous jars and boxes that spilled over the top with bones. Some jars held organs, guts, and gore floating in green goo. Weird worms and peculiar parasites wrapped around themselves as they bobbed up and down in mystery fluid. Femurs carved into blades leaned against the walls, sometimes beside skull tipped staffs or scythes made of leg bones adorned by sharpened ribs. Beast’s heads were mounted here and there. Some of the creatures looked so humanoid Joe wondered if they were another alien race Ekaf had yet to tell him about.
At the center of the room, Bonehead stood leaning on a table stacked high with text books, crumpled sheets of paper, vases, jars, and graduated cylinders. In one boney palm he held a long knobby gray organ, still dripping from the jar he’d pulled it from.
“What?” Ekaf asked him, “You’ve never seen a pancreas before?”
– – –
Tufts of fuzzy wheat seads, clinging to wiry stems, brushed against the two boys’ hips, unnoticed as they bowed in the midnight breeze. Prickly footed insects dragged themselves across the two boys’ sandled feet yet still the two seemed unaware. Their heads were upturned, their bright eyes bound to blades of light cast by meteors burning in the atmosphere as they fell towards Earth. Joe watched the children from a few yards away. He recognized the field, he recognized the night, he recognized the boys and he couldn’t help but feel a chill run down his spine as a man strode past him to stand between the two kids.
“One day,” Joe mouthed the words as they came from the lips of the little boy on the right, who stood just a tad taller than his brother, “I’ll ride a shooting star.”
“You can’t ride a shooting star!” The other little boy said, looking up to the man that stood between them for confirmation, “Right, Papa?”
The old man exhaled slowly, his breath whistled as it squeezed its way out from between his teeth. His shoulders sagged, in fact his entire upper body seemed to hang limp as if it were hung on his spine and kept from toppling over by balancing, delicately, upon his hip bones. A stranger might mistake his posture as a sign of exhaustion, though Joe knew this was years before a slow tiredness crept upon his Papa. No, the old man slumped because he was comfortable, there was no better place for Papa but with his grandchildren. When he finally answered, his voice brought tears to Joe’s eyes, “They once said the same about going to the moon, you know…”
“But Papa, do you really think people could ride a shooting star?”
Joe remembered his grandfather’s response like it was yesterday.
“Son, whether or not I think it doesn’t make it any more or less possible. Impossible only means its never been done before.”
The same warmth these words had given Joe, years ago when he had been the boy standing on his grandfather’s right, came to Joe again – like the fire in his chest. Joe had nearly forgotten the faith that man had in him and his brother. I miss you, Papa. The wetness budding along his eyelids was increasing with each second. He knew it was a dream but still he wanted to see his Grandfather’s face or maybe to hug him one more time before returning to reality. So he took a step forward but he couldn’t put his foot back on the ground. He was beginning to levitate out of the weeds and further away from his younger self, his brother, and Papa! No! I don’t want to wake up! Not yet! Pivotting in the air, Joe stretched out and grabbed a clump of weeds, clinging to the scene as his vision blurred over with tears.
“You boys can do anything you put your minds to and, one day, I know both of you will make me very proud,” Papa continued, “the only thing that can stop you is fear. You have to be brave, brave enough to try new things and brave enough to never give up.” The boys looked up at their grandfather, taking his hands, and watching how the moonlight glimmered off the rocket-ship shaped pin that clung to his breast, “When I worked with the astronauts, that was one of the biggest obstacles.”
The younger brother was shocked, “The astronauts were afraid?”
“Ofcourse,” Papa nodded, “and many of their friends and family told them what they were trying to do was impossible.”
“I could never be that brave…”
Yes you could! Though Joe couldn’t see from where he hovered, clinging to the tall grass, he remembered how his little brother had looked down from Papa to look up at him. How different was that image of his brother from the one he hadn’t said good bye to, two days ago, in their parent’s house. He wondered how his brother was taking his disappearance. He wondered if his brother would lose the hope he had grown into, if his brother would return to the little boy that stood in the field before him now, afraid and doubtful.
I miss them so much!
Determined to fight the physics of his dream, Joe pulled himself to the ground and, digging his fingers into the dirt, began to claw his way towards his family.
His little brother continued, “…maybe…maybe if Joe goes first.”
“I’ll go first,” the little Joe agreed, “and I’ll write home so you can join.”
His brother liked that but then changed his mind, “I want to go with you!” He cried, “We’ll go together!”
“Then its settled,” the old man’s S’s whistled as he spoke, “my brave young spacemen, you’ll take man beyond the sun!”
Joe could feel the same excitement build within him that had manifested within him that day. Where did that dream go? He wondered. Somewhere, while growing up, he’d forgotten this childhood promise and substituted it for more practical goals. Yet, here he was, in a foreign world, only able to return to Earth in his dreams, a dimension away from the sun. He smiled. He may have forgotten, but fate hadn’t. I wonder if Papa will hear of this adventure? His smile broke. I wonder what Papa would say if I went home and never came back?
“We’ll explore every last corner in the galaxy!”
“We’ll befriend the aliens and unite the stars!”
Joe could feel the tugging on his ankles, pulling him towards the heavens. Fighting it, he dug his hands deeper into the earth but the force only got stronger. He called out, but no sound left his lips.
“Now boys don’t let me down…” Papa said.
His hands were yanked from the soil, he groped for the weeds but their roots could no longer hold him. He was flung backwards. Screaming silently, he spun through the sky with his hands still clutching bundles of grass. Even as the three in the field became nothing but specks in a moonlit valley, Papa’s words continued to reach Joe’s ears as if he were speaking right over his shoulder.
“…even if I’m long gone by the time you grow up, I’ll be listening from heaven…”
Now Joe was so high above the world that the pasture had become a stitch upon the face of the Earth. Shooting stars tumbled down as meteors, boulders engulfed in fire, trailing ribbons of flame behind them. All around him, they fell like rain, hissing like snakes as the atmosphere devoured them. As the invisible force pulled Joe from the atmosphere, he closed his eyes and mouthed his grandfather’s words as they sounded in his ears.
“…and I expect to hear that yall’ve been riding on shooting stars.”
– – –
Joe was sitting upright before he realized where he was. He hadn’t forgotten that he was no longer on Earth, instead his mind was confused on his new environment within Solaris. He was in a library laying on an old wooden table. The eroded roof of rock was overhead, I’m still in the cave, but the wooden legs of the table sat on checkered, white and black, tile. Each bookshelf rose within a foot of the cavern ceiling, adjusting to the formation of the rock. The room was lit with the balls of flame he’d seen in the laboratory. He still wore the clothes he’d adorned for his Earthen interview but they had been cleaned, they were stiff and scentless.
How long was I asleep?
“We had to put you under.”
Joe turned to see Bonehead behind him, holding an ancient yellow-paged book.
“The organ transplant was done without severing the skin, don’t worry, I merely took the energy out of the preserved organs and put that energy into yours. Your diabetes is now just a link in your DNA and nothing more. And, if that’s a problem, I can fix that too.” Bonehead offered.
“So I’m not diabetic anymore?” Joe asked.
Joe jumped off the table and charged the dinosaur with arms spread wide. All initial mistrust aside, Joe would’ve given Bonehead the first hug he’d had since he lost his flesh if the old necromancer didn’t have his hands full. Instead, Joe threw his hands in the air and said with eyes that seemed to be wider than his smile, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
“My pleasure!” Bonehead would’ve blushed if he still had the skin and blood to do so, then he got down to business, “While you were asleep, Ekaf told me you were full of questions, about our world, about our ways, and, specifically, about why he chose you and what he chose you to do.”
“Yes sir…he didn’t explain a lot and…of what he did explain…” Joe didn’t want this to come out as an insult and he hoped Bonehead knew Ekaf well enough to understand what he meant, “I’d almost say he left me more puzzled than I was before.”
“He has a tendency to do that,” Bonehead smiled, “in fact, he neglected to tell me many of the details about your arrival. As far as I knew, you were simply an Earthen diabetic he had saved in need of a magical operation. I had to put the clues together on my own.”
Bonehead lowered the tome and beckoned to Joe who walked over to the dinosaur’s side to observe the decrepit pages of the book.
“In here are numerous prophecies, some that have come to pass and some that are still to come. It was written long ago. An entire history, from Earth, to Solaris, to Delia. Look!” Bonehead lowered the book to reading level for Joe and pointed to a paragraph before reading aloud:
“The twelve will rise from the dark.
Through ice and fire they’ll prevail
but the twelve hides fore their mark
and she arrives when they fail.
Sun Child will guide, pure in heart,
but he cannot drive the nail.”
“Brought by saviors unrecognized
the siblings pick sides and join the fight.
Bound by blood, love, and fate alike,
three universes collide.”
“When truth fulfills the worst of lies,
Brothers Flame and Spark soar the skies.
Not one will watch with tearless eyes,
as in the end the sun does rise.”
Bonehead looked up from the book and spoke to Joe.
“This is the prophecy carved by lightning in an upper room of the Emperor’s private quarters. Saint, the Emperor of the Trinity Nations, delivered this riddle to the public on the day we call the Foretelling. It nearly matches a prophecy given to the Delians, in the early days of their universe. Every culture who speaks it reads something else. Ekaf, the Emperor, and I hope this rhyme is about you.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed and he folded his arms, “It sounds like it could be about anyone.”
“Along with this poem the storm revealed the names of the twelve mentioned in the song. Saint promised to reveal the names once they came forth and before a year was out they appeared: Tou Fou, Tabuh Sentry, Daernar Darkblade, Tenchi Kou, Daffeega Shelba, Sharp Otubak, Paud Gill, Lalmly Shisharay, Benjamin Fasthoof, Fetch Eninac, Marvell Azuran, and Boldarian Drahkcor. These men and women led the climax of the Layman’s Revolution and Saint donned them the Mystakle Samurai – defenders of Solaris.”
“And now they’ve disappeared.” Joe said, looking to the pages to make sure he remembered correctly, “‘The twelve hides fore their mark’. Wait, what darkness did they arise from and what ice and fire did they prevail through?”
“Darkness as in mystery. They came up out of the blue, most of them strangers united by chance or fate, however you choose to see it. Saint predicted they would defend the world and within a year those twelve led the peasents of Batloe to overthrow a corrupt dictator – the Layman’s Revolution. Then, after King Talloome Icelore’s Iceload attacked God’s Island, to free the imprisoned necromancer Sheik Shalis Skullsummon, the Samurai invaded Iceload to end the Order’s influence over the frozen country side. Batloe’s deserts and Iceload’s tundras are the fire and ice – or so we believe.”
Joe read the next line. And she arrives when they fail. “But who is ‘she’?” Before Bonehead could speak, a guess came to him, “Is she Shalis Skullsummon?”
“Many think so.”
“No. Shalis rose before the Samurai fell. I can’t say I know who ‘she’ is, though I can tell you who Saint thinks she is: the Queen of Darkness.”
“Ekaf never mentioned the Queen of Darkness?”
Joe shrugged, “Maybe? He’s mentioned a lot in the last two days.”
“Well he should’ve mentioned her first. She is the single most powerful being this world, or any other world that we know of, has ever seen! She came to Solaris at the turn of the first millinium and nearly conquered the planet – both hemispheres, twice what Creaton accomplished in the First Void War – and she did so in league with the Black Crown Pact! A band of heroes called the Guardians were only able to repel her by tricking her into striking the Stone of Krynor and ever since our world has been on its tip toes, fearing her return.”
“Do you think its her?” Joe asked.
“No, she should already be here if you are the Sun Child.”
Sun Child will guide, Joe read, pure in heart, but he cannot drive the nail.
“What if it is her and I’m not the Sun Child,” Joe muttered, then he asked Bonehead, “Do you think I’m the Sun Child?”
“I think you could be.”
Unsatisfied, Joe grunted, “Yea but even if I am the poem says I can’t ‘drive the nail’.” Joe said, pointing at the line in the text he referenced, “It sounds to me like this Sun Child won’t do any good.”
Bonehead closed the book, almost catching Joe’s nose in the pages.
“Alone, no, you cannot, but together you can.” Bonehead replied.
Joe looked up into the dinosaur’s skull with a frown but he didn’t argue.
“When Saint spoke the names of the Samurai, he said there were twelve more names. Once again these names were withheld, to ensure that half the world wouldn’t name their children after the heroes in hopes of raising a legend. However, the Emperor’s most trusted friends got to see those names. Though he did not allow me, I learned when I read it in the book.”
“Wait, wasn’t that book written a long time ago?” Joe asked.
“By Fate Programmers,” Bonehead nodded, “so they were able to write a full history, past, present, and future.”
“So does the book say I am the Sun Child?”
“It says a boy from Earth named Joe is.”
Joe burst out laughing and raised his hands in disbelief, “I’m not the only Joe on Earth. Couldn’t the book get more specific?”
Bonehead slid the ancient novel back into its place among the others as he answered, “I don’t know.”
“You haven’t read it!”
“Only what needed to be read has been read.”
“And who decides what needs to be read?”
“Why wouldn’t the Emperor have you read it all?!” Joe demanded.
“His decision is greatly influence by the very fellow who brought you here.”
“Ekaf…” suddenly the existence of all these illogical hurdles made complete sense, still Joe was impressed with Bonehead’s resolve, “you must have the self control of Jesus Christ!”
“I am very disciplined. Probably why the text was entrusted to me.” Bonehead strode nearer to Joe though he made sure to stay between the pyromancer and the book, “Another part of the text that I have read prophesied that seven of those twelve other names would accompany you. You plus these others will make up what the book called the Mystakle Knights and what Saint described as ‘saviors unrecognized’ – the heroes who will tend to the Samurai when they falter.”
“So I’m supposed to find seven other prophesized warriors and lead them to find the missing Samurai just because my name is Joe and I’m from Earth? Am I crazy or does this seem a little ridiculous to you too?”
“Ridiculous? What does ridiculousness matter? I’m an undead dinosaur for crying out loud!” Bonehead cackled to himself, emitting a laugh like grinding metal – a laugh Joe did not reciprocate.
“What if…” Joe was practically whispering, clearing his throat, he repeated himself with more confidence, “What if I don’t plan on staying? What if I’ve been planning to head home as soon as we get to the Key Library?”
Bonehead was undaunted, “If that were the case, then I would ask how you plan to explain this stone in your chest.”
Joe had thought about that before and had yet to come up with an idea.
“Or your sudden lack of diabetes.” Bonehead continued, “Not to mention the fact that your car lies totaled in the middle of an intersection without a driver inside of it.”
Retreating back to the table, Joe sat back down. He muttered, “Sun Child or not, I’m stuck here.”
“But your friends and family,” Bonehead pointed out, “they aren’t stuck there.”
Joe scoffed, “You think they’d abandon their home – their universe?”
“If they love you as much as you love them,” Bonehead shrugged, “I’m sure they would. If you help us bring peace back into our world, then Solaris would be safe enough for you to bring your kin and comrades.”
This may not be Hell but it sure as hell seems like some sort of purgatory. His shoulders trembled as he thought about the friends he’d left behind, many of which he hadn’t seen in years and now he may never see again. His lips quivered at the thought of his grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, parents, and pets and how they must be coping. Have they had a funeral? They don’t even have a body to bury. Then he thought of his brother and the tears broke free, streaming down his face.
Bonehead strolled forward, holding a bland, silver ring beneath Joe’s nose, under the drizzle of tears. He said, “I can’t help but offer you a solution, it would be cruel to act like there is no other way.”
Wiping the moisture from his cheeks and taking a deep breath, Joe looked up at the dinosaur.
“This ring will disguise you. Your physical body will not change. You will still be a pyromancer and you will still have a working pancreas, but when people look at you, even those who know you well, they will see what they expect to see.”
“Huh?” Joe mumbled as he picked up the tiny silver halo.
“You’ll still have to explain how you survived the car accident and will probably have to maintain the charade that you still are diabetic,” Bonehead warned, “but this ring will hide your chest stone, even from the most intimate of touches.”
Joe slid the ring on his finger. He turned his hands over but saw nothing new. The stone still shone through his white button up shirt.
“You will always see what you are,” Bonehead explained, “but those who do not know, will never know any better as long as you keep that piece of jewelry on your finger.”
“Why would you give me this?” Joe asked with a sniffle, “Don’t you want me to stay? Don’t you want me to be your Sun Child?”
Bonehead nodded, “I do, but I also know that the true Sun Child would not run.”
Joe slid the ring off his finger and placed it in his pocket.
“The true Sun Child would feel he owed it to his savior, Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz, to return the favor.” Bonehead shrugged, “Feel no pressure Joe. If you choose to go home, then you were never the one we were looking for to begin with. Do as you wish. Think it over and follow your heart, though you don’t have much time to ponder. Tonight, the two of you must return the key to the Key Library.”
“Tonight? It isn’t night already? How short did I sleep?”
“Not too short, for you it’s already tomorrow, tomorrow afternoon that is.” The dinosaur explained, sticking the book back into its place on the bookshelf, “According to Ekaf, this is your third day in Solaris.”
Joe mumbled his words, thinking back to the car accident. How simple that day had felt, how ordinary. The dinosaur’s head was cocked to the side once more. If it had eyes Joe was sure they would’ve been fixed upon him with a penetrating stare. Reaching out with a boney claw, Bonehead poked the glowing stone in Joe’s chest.
“Fire. Since day one it has fascinated man.”
Joe looked down at his chest and reveled in the warmth that swirled in the orb that was now a part of him. There was an urge in him that he couldn’t describe, it was strange. It was almost as if he longed to be aflame, like a toddler longing for the comfort of his blanket.
“There is one thing Ekaf may not have warned you of. What do you know of the Order of Mancers.”
“Ekaf told me they turned against the pyromancers and the Trinity Nations in the Pirate Wars.” Joe said, “He mentioned they might want me to join so that they could restart the pyromancy branch.”
“There is no might to it.” Bonehead stated, “Each and every mancer has to report to the Order. There are very few of us mancer’s that have obtained our power without consulting the Order, one of those is myself but only because I was converted long before the Order had a presence beneath Solaris. Still, if they knew of my existence they would find me and present an ultimatum, the same two choices they give all mancers: submit or die. If word spreads that there is a pyromancer wandering around Tadloe, they will come for you – especially if word spreads that you are expected to be the Sun Child – for they have their own take on the prophecy. Before that day comes, I suggest you ponder over what your reply will be.”
“It seems like I already know what my answer should be.” Joe muttered.
“That answer will not be an easy one, they will hunt you to the end of the world.” Bonehead warned, “Don’t let Ekaf send you out into the world without the proper training.”
“But if all the pyromancers are locked up somewhere, who can train me?”
“I’ll be glad to train you.” Bonehead said, “Although I’m not a pyromancer, I’ve studied them. As soon as you and Ekaf return from the Key Library, we can begin. What do you know?”
“How to blow up.” Joe laughed, “That’s really it. Ekaf told me I need to constantly restock on fire, but I don’t even know how to do that!”
“Its simple!” Bonehead moved beneath one of the hovering fires and said, “Call it.”
Joe frowned but nevertheless glared at the flame that hovered by the roof above the dinosaur’s head. Call it. Stretching out his hand that only yesterday had been knarled to the bone, he called it, “Fire.”
The flame flickered, pulsating, growing and shrinking, as if it were a living creature itself. Joe’s eyes widened as the ball of fire began to hover towards him, swirling around, squirming as if it wanted anything but to come to Joe. When it got within a yard, the ball of combustion ushered a quiet pmf and then slipped into the surface of the orb in his chest. Joe felt that familiar heat surge through his veins. He felt refreshed.
“Now release it, not all of it, just some of it.”
Joe closed his eyes. He could feel the fire – no, it was no longer fire, it was a part of himself. He was the flame and the flame was he. When he opened his eyes, he saw tongues of fire licking his arms and legs, bouncing up and down on his shoulders. He wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t scared. He felt radiant, as if he’d never been healthier. He felt strong.
“How does it feel?” Bonehead asked.
“It feels,” Joe whispered, a goofy smile stretching across his lips, “it feels glorious!”
– – –
Joe spent the rest of the day playing with fire. Ever so often as he walked down a lonely hallway of the dinosaur’s cavern he would launch flames from his appendages as ordinarily as an athlete stretches. He day dreamed of returning to Earth with his new found power. He was normal in Solaris, but on Earth he would be super-human. By evening, half the fiery lights in the cave had mysteriously disappeared and the orb in Joe’s chest was shining suspiciously brighter than ever.
After many hours of exploration in the subterranean tunnels, he stumbled upon Ekaf. He caught a glimpse of his little companion through a cracked door. On his tip-toes, Joe approached the door, staring over Ekaf’s shoulder. The Knome slipped a hand in-between the buttons of his tunic and retrieved a wad of paper from an inner-breast pocket, unfolding it with slow delicacy. Joe saw that it was a list, an extremely long list, falling like an accordion to the ground. Squinting, Joe managed to read silently, “Number nineteen, steal Nogard’s sword.” It was crossed off, Joe continued to read, “Number twenty, take Notreac to Delia.” Also crossed off.
Ekaf flinched, almost dropping his pencil. With a broad grin he stepped out of the door way so Joe could fit through. Marking something off his list he looked back at Joe to answer, “It’s a to-do list of sorts.”
“Like a bucket list?” Joe asked.
“What’s that again?”
“A list of stuff to do before you die,” Joe explained, “before you kick the bucket.”
“I guess you could call it that.” Ekaf shrugged as he folded the sheet of paper and tucked it back into the inside pocket of his tunic. After clearing his thoat, he said, “Bonehead told me he’s taught you a little on the topic of the art of pyromancy. He’s quite the adroit necromancer, well, he’s quite the skilled mancer period. He could be a splendid teacher, if you’d like that. Would you like him to teach you?”
“Hell yea!” Joe said, striding past the Knome and into the room to look around. The room was quite plain and reminded Joe of a Hollywood Western jail cell. Other than the sink – a stone basin that jutted out from the wall below a jagged faucet head – the room’s only other amenities consisted of a thin rectangular mattress, sheetless, blanketless, and pillowless.
“Is this your bedroom?”
“On the contrary, it is yours. I moved the cot up here, I still got some more things to add to it, but eventually it’ll be your bedroom. Look cozy enough? I mean there are other rooms but they all look about the same. And this one has a sink – a magic sink! Slide your hands beneath the faucet and it’ll cut on. It’s crazy that Bonehead’s got piping down here, I mean, how far underground do you reckon we are? Suppose its probably ground water. He must’ve been a clever bastard, whoever carved this cave! I mean after all-”
“Why won’t you let anyone read the Fate Programmer’s Book?”
Ekaf froze. His eyes fell to his feet and his hand slid his hat off the top of his head to hold it over his heart. When his eyes returned to Joe, his lips were twisted and his brow furled, “If I let you or Bonehead or the Emperor or anyone read the book, then it might never come true. If you knew how you would die, would you not alter the decisions you make now to change that final end?”
“But you’ve read it!”
“If I jumped off a cliff-”
Joe rolled his eyes, “Don’t give me that bull shit!”
“Fine.” Ekaf replaced his hat but the torn expression remained, “Joe, there is nothing I can say. All I can do is ask that you trust me. Will you?”
Joe felt any sort of commitment to the silver tongued mini-man could prove to be a huge mistake. Instead, he retreated and changed the subject, “So after we go to the Library, we’ll come back here and I’ll train?”
“That’s the plan, our plan that is, who knows fate’s plan. Fate always seems to have a different plan, so let’s just cross our fingers and-”
“Will you be staying with us?”
Joe plopped down on the cot, half expecting the mattress’s frame to offer some give but there was none. The mattress was as soft as wood. The lumpy stone floor looked to be just as comfortable.
“No.” Ekaf frowned, “I think I’ll have to go gather the other Knights and make sure they’re heading in the right directions. But we’ll meet again I-”
“Who’ll finish the story of the First Void War!” Joe exclaimed.
“Everyone knows the story of the-”
“But most people will tell me the story historically. You’ll actually tell me the story.” Joe complained, genuinely worried.
“Knomes are just good storytellers. But I’m sure Bonehead can tell a mean story, he was around for the First Void War after all! I’m sure he’d-”
“What if you finish the story now, before we go to the Library?”
At first the Knome hesitated. After all, he had planned on getting quite a bit done before their journey and if he wished to finish the tale they would probably have to leave immediately after. Then again, he would miss Joe and he would hate for Bonehead to ruin the story. Giving in, he sat down on the rock floor across from Joe’s bed.
“Where were we?”
“You just told me about how Zannon, Cannon, and Bluff met, forged the Mystak Blade, and slayed Kor the first moon dragon. I think you stopped right when Creaton was about to invade Iceload.”
“Ah yes, the epic finale to Creaton’s first coming,” the little Knome’s body shook as a wave of memories coursed over his body, “Here we go…”