After a dinner of mystery-meat casserole (termed “organ pudding” by Ekaf) the Knome and Joe followed Bonehead to the exit of his subterranean labyrinth. Heat emanated from Joe’s chest. Each bit of combustion he had added to his collection gave him another ounce of confidence but with the confidence came jittery anticipation. He couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that something was going to go wrong and his Knomish companion wasn’t helping.
“So, to reiterate,” Ekaf said, as he had said over a dozen times since supper, “the plan is to arrive in Suinus, find Grandfather, and convince him to let us into the Key Library.”
Grandfather was another one of the Knome’s mysterious friends. Joe couldn’t help but wonder if this friend would have flesh.
“Once in the Key Library, you can replace your key while I look for a few other keys I’ve been wanting, you know, so I won’t have to mooch off of Grandfather and who all anymore-”
Joe smiled, “How considerate of you!”
“Of course! Anyways, get to Grandfather, get to the Library, return the key, come back to Bonehead’s. And-”
“Hold up,” Joe asked the Knome, “I’ve been thinking, what if I go home – just for a little bit, just to say good bye – then come back?”
“That’s not a part of the plan!”
“But couldn’t I, potentially, go home and come back in a split second?”
“If you can find the right keys, but I’m not sure we’ll have time-”
“But you’ll have time to find the keys you want, seems only fair I find the keys I want!”
“You’ve never been there! You won’t know left from right! It’ll take twice the time because I’ll have to show you around and ugh…can’t you just do that later?”
“Fiiine…” Joe rolled his eyes, “Promise I’ll get the opportunity?”
“Promise. Now, as I was saying, Suinus, Grandfather’s, Key Library, then,” Ekaf paused, poking Joe in the ribs as they walked on, finally reaching the spiral staircase, “this is imperative, so listen up. If we happen, I mean, I doubt we will, but if we just so happen to stray from the plan, out of some rare chance – but I highly doubt this will happen – though if it does happen: stick with Grandfather and he’ll get you back to Bonehead. Got it?”
“Got it,” Joe nodded.
“Then you and Bonehead can figure out when you can go home to say your goodbyes and all.” Ekaf rolled his eyes, “Just remember, if shit hits the fan, stay with Grandfather. Back to Boneheads. Stay with-”
“He’s got it.” Bonehead chuckled, his undead laugh sent chills down Joe’s spine – he’d almost forgotten the dinosaur was behind them, “This is the hundredth time you’ve told him.”
“Better safe than sorry, that’s what I always say, and I also always say-”
“Plans were made to be broken.” Bonehead completed, “I’m finishing your sentences and you just got here. I suppose it is about time for you to leave.”
“Ah, my fleshless friend,” Ekaf paused, turned around, and patted Bonehead’s leg bone, “I will miss you dearly.”
“So…” Joe said, quickly taking his chance to speak as Ekaf paused, “are we walking to Suinus?”
“By the Guardians, I should hope not! A few of my friends have volunteered to give the two of you a ride.” Bonehead said, “Are you scared of heights?”
“Scared of heights?” Joe skoffed, “I’ve seen spirits, barens, river monsters, and now an undead dinosaur. Just a day ago I literally exploded. Bonehead, I’m starting to get used to facing my fears.”
“Good because the two of you will be flying.”
As if on cue, the spiral staircase came to an abrupt end and once more they faced the forests of Tadloe. In the small clearing stood two snarling beasts. They were dark as midnight shade. Their hairless skin, as slick as the surface of an untouched pond, was stretched taught over their muscled horse-like bodies. Joe shivered as he watched them, staring through their transparent skin, muscle tissue, and organs to see the pale white skeleton beneath. Misty swirls of breath rolled out from their nostrils. Their ruby red eyes glowed like distant stars. The two beasts reared back on their hind legs and whinnied, hoofs stirring the air as their bat-like wings spread wide above them.
“Pegasus…es?” Joe murmured.
“Pegasuses?” Ekaf chuckled, “Those aren’t real! These are horseflies, steeds of darkness, midnight mares, carnivorous, mind you, unlike their bland herbivorous cousins.They’ll eat insects and rodents but also dogs and cats. Rumor is, a Knome once saw a heard swarm a barren and get damn well near to tearing the hump backed, bestial bovine to-”
“Horseflies…” Joe repeated beneath his breath before speaking up to interupt, “How do you ride one?”
“Hop on and hold tight,” Bonehead answered.
“I won’t…uh…sink in?”
“Ha! They’re transparent but not fleshless like spirits. I’ll go first, just follow my lead. Oh yeah, just warning you, it’s gonna be chilly up there.” Ekaf said as he strode forward with his hand extended to the creatures. The two eyed him, treading the soil beneath their feet warily. Ekaf didn’t hesitate. One of the freakish horses reached out with its long neck and snapped at Ekaf’s pointed hat, barely missing, as Ekaf turned back to face Joe, saying, “But actually, I bet your fire will keep you from hypothermia.” Clutching his chest and bowing his head, he added humbly, “I will be protected only by my superior will power and reserve that has delivered me through so many-”
Joe cleared his throat to stop the Knome. Joe watched the horseflies much like the way they had watched Ekaf. The creatures did not look like eager participants in this journey and Joe shared their mentality, “And why do we have to fly again?”
“Suinus is a walled city.” Ekaf replied, “Guarded by a dalvary-”
“A calvary of dragons,” Bonehead explained, “And not only that but you’ll be pressed for time.” Bonehead interjected, “Without a warp cube, the Knights of the Light will not be far behind.”
It dawned on Joe that he had never heard Ekaf mention their name, “That’s what the guards of the Key Library call themselves?”
Bonehead answered, “They aren’t guards of the Key Library-”
Joe turned to Ekaf, “I thought you said they were-”
“On the contrary,” Ekaf’s abruptly raised finger seemingly silenced Joe, “I said they were from the Library not that they worked for the Library! You came to that conclusion on your own!”
“You said they were after you because you broke the rules!” Joe remembered.
“Did I?” Ekaf asked.
“Yes! You said they were tired of you tampering with people’s fate, taking people into the wrong afterlives and what not-”
Ekaf squinted as if that might help him recall, “I don’t think I used those exact words.”
“Excuse me, Joe,” Bonehead interjected, “but what do you mean by afterlives?”
“I died on Earth,” Joe explained, “but rather than going to Heaven-”
“You didn’t die on Earth.” Bonehead stated.
Joe turned to Ekaf, puzzled, “But I got in a wreck and Ekaf said-”
Bonehead corrected him, “You surely would’ve died, had Ekaf not pulled you into Solaris.”
“This is not an afterlife.” Bonehead stated, “You have yet to die.”
“Which doesn’t really change anything-” Ekaf jumped back in.
“Then why’d you tell me I’d died?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know…” Ekaf shrugged, “One reason was I thought it might make it easier for you to come to terms with leaving Earth if you thought of this as an afterlife – which it basically is, I mean, if I hadn’t pulled you out of your car then you would have died.”
Joe frowned, “You were trying to trick me.”
“Not trick, well…I guess to a certain extent I did-”
“No, but it wasn’t to trick you, or to change your mind or anything, I just wanted to make it easier.”
Joe folded his arms but didn’t interrupt.
“Trust me. The last couple days would’ve been a lot more traumatic if you’re brain was as wrapped up in survival as it was back on Earth when you thought you only had one life to live. And, for all practical purposes, what’s wrong with seeing this as an afterlife?”
“I might not’ve agreed to putting a stone in my chest if I didn’t think this was round two.” Joe replied, flatly, “What if I could’ve survived the wreck?”
“You would not have.” Bonehead stated.
“Oh…” Joe muttered, then, after a moment of thought, he half smiled, “at least I know I’m not in Hell now.”
“Not yet.” The words escaped Ekaf’s mouth before he could stop himself.
Joe ignored him, “Just seems weird. You could’ve just told me the truth, I doubt it would’ve changed anything.”
“Bet…” Ekaf muttered.
“He has his reasons,” Bonehead assured Joe, “though they may never make sense to you or I – and I have a hankering that’s due to the fact that these reasons are never fully disclosed.”
Joe glared at the Knome, “Almost tempted to go home just to spite you.”
“You’ll have more opportunities to spite me if you stick around!” Ekaf grinned.
“Now that we have your aliveness settled,” Bonehead said, “you two really must be going. The spirits won’t be far off.”
Joe nodded and turned back to the undead dinosaur, “Good bye, Bonehead, see ya soon.”
“Have courage, Joe,” Bonehead bowed, “and patience.”
“Thanks for the hospitality,” Ekaf began his salutation, “as always. Don’t feel as though you must wait for us in your hole, go out and enjoy the night!”
Joe imagined Bonehead was smiling as he said, “Take care, Ekaf, try not to give Grandfather too much trouble now.”
As the dinosaur retreated back into the cavern, Joe and Ekaf climbed onto the backs of their devilish steeds. No sooner did they mount than did the beasts trot into a sprint and takeoff, wings flapping wildly, rising just steeply enough to clear the tree-line.
The ride was smooth. At first, Joe expected the height would be the worst aspect but in the end it was the wind that was the most unbearable. The horseflies themselves where cold too. It was like riding an ice sculpture. Nevertheless, Joe held on tight and did not complain, after all, if he was cold then he could not imagine what his miniature companion was going through. His tie flapped about behind him like the tongue of a dog with its head thrust out a car window. The journey seemed to take forever, but, it took them less than half an hour to reach Suinus.
Even without the stars, Joe would’ve been able to make out the megalopolitan from miles away. It was massive, larger than any city Joe’d seen back in his home state of Alabama. The entire city sat in the base of a massive crater. Just behind the lip of the walls, houses upon houses were stacked one on top of the other, forming stairs for a giant as the crater descended. Drawing nearer, Joe could see tiny wooden balconies jutting out from the front doors of the upper level abodes that then wound around to the sides of the buildings and led down to the streets like fire escapes. There were so many balconies, Joe was sure one could walk for miles on the upper levels of the neighborhoods without ever touching solid ground. There were four major rings of structures, each ring discernable by amber glowing streetlights. These rings surrounded what looked to be commercial or industrial areas that Joe was able to identify by the large open spaces and bulkier buildings. Each neighborhood looks like its own little town. At the center of the crater, surrounded by the circular neighborhoods, a garden of sky scrapers rose up from the dimpled earth like defiant umbrella trees in the African Savannah. The ancient stone towers surrounded large empty squares of cobble stone lit up by balls of swirling fire, patrolled by murders of dragons that, in the distance, looked like a wake of vultures circling silently. I can’t tell who’s more advanced, Earth with our science or Solaris with their magic.
“THOSE THERE ARE CALLED STAR PILLARS,” Ekaf yelled over the rush of the wind, “SOLARIN TOWERS OF BABBLE!”
Joe nodded then his gut clenched as Ekaf directed his beast downward and Joe’s immediately followed. Passing story upon story of foliage-garbed architecture, they swooped between the stacked houses in the burrows. They had to fly single-file to avoid scraping the elevated terraces.
“KEEP YOUR CHEST TO THE BEAST!” Ekaf roared.
Joe did as he was told, smothering the light of his chest stone. He kept his head craned upward, looking between the rooftops in an attempt to keep watch for the eerie silhuettes of the aerial police, but the street lights around him blotted out the stars painting the sky above pitch black. Let’s hope they’re incompetent. He returned his gaze to the city streets and was swept away by the pulchritude.
Each building was dressed like a forest, wrapped in wreaths, lacerated with lianas, clothed by kudzu. The natural environment seemed to be a part of the city, not outside of it. The scene reminded Joe of images of ancient Aztec temples, abandoned and overcome by the jungle. But here, civilization was thriving. Even in the dark, Joe saw figures traversing the boardwalks and shadows standing in the windows. His awe helped his mind to stray from the cold and his rapidly decreasing distance from the road below.
He could see people stalking the alleyways and patrolling the streets armed with large ax bladed pikes and adorned with massive suits of armor. It didn’t seem that civilians strayed far from their porches. As they zoomed out of the neighborhoods and between the roots of the sky scrapers that Ekaf had called star pillars, the only non-plant life forms seemed to be prepared for battle.
The horseflies glided lower and lower in silence and none of the police seemed to notice. The ride was so smooth, Joe was caught off guard by the fact that the ground was coming up to meet them at a not-so-slow pace. Falling yards in a matter of seconds. Abruptly, his horsefly spread its wings wide, incidentally testing Joe’s hold on its neck – he passed.
Joe’s eyes were shut when they hit the cobble stone street with the CLICK-CLACK of horse hooves. If his mind had not been on his stomach, he would’ve cringed with Ekaf at the loud landing. Hurriedly, their steeds dipped out of the main road and into a back alley. The horseflies galloped down the narrow passage, across another open street, and into a forest where the soft mossy ground cloaked the sounds of their hooves.
They trotted a small distance down a trail. The grove was a small park. Joe could street lights glimmering between the staggered tree trunks. The same night songs of nocturnal critters that had accompanied them two nights ago on the edge of the Saluman River now hid their voices as Ekaf hopped off his horsefly and turned to Joe.
“We’re-” he paused as the horsefly shoved its nose in his face. He patted it a few times, “Thank you,” he said, “stay here.” The beast almost seemed to nod then trotted off, nose to the ground, looking for a late night snack. Turning back to Joe, Ekaf said, “We’ll leave them here. As I’m sure you noticed, they’re a little loud to take on the streets.”
Joe nodded. He slid off his steed and almost collapsed had his ride’s long snout not swooped in to support him. The ground hit his feet like a bed of needles as blood began to return to his numbed extremities.
“Whatcha think of Suinus?” Ekaf asked.
“Its amazing.” Ready for the tingling, Joe straightened back up and stroked his horse, adding a quiet but sincere, “Thank you! Now uh…stay here, with you buddy, alright?”
The horsefly snorted then joined its companions critter hunt.
“Not all cities are this fantastic,” Ekaf admitted, “but I’d say most, aside from maybe Space City, are pretty darn close – some even better, just wait until you see Poricoff!”
“Are they all this…uh…natural?”
“Absolutely – big cities especially!” Ekaf chuckled, “You can’t burn all these lights and not have something to suck up the carbon.”
“Wonder why we never thought of that…” Joe mumbled.
“Not enough profit in preserving the future. With the majority of the population as wage slaves and the prosperous few and fat, civilization can get nasty. Suppose we’re lucky we found magic before we found coal-”
“Should we be in a hurry?”
“Yes!” Ekaf said with a hop. He scurried over to Joe and beckoned for the human to get down on ear-level so that he could – unnecessary as it was – whisper the plan into Joe’s ear, “Grandfather lives off one of those town squares, where the main roads intersect in between those beastly buildings.”
Joe nodded, “The star pillars.”
“Yes. He’s got a shop house in the base of one of those behemoths. The night guards are tough. There’s a curfew downtown and they’re especially not fond of finding a Knome that’s breaking curfew – especially around the shops. Not to mention you’re a pyromancer.”
“We’ll have to be sneaky,” Ekaf straightened his cap, “and we’ll have to be fast!”
And that was it. Ekaf was off. His tiny legs pumping as he zoomed into the brush.
“Jesus!” Joe yelped, running after his companion, he lowered his voice to a hiss, “Slow down!”
Ekaf didn’t hear, or maybe he did, but nevertheless Joe managed to catch up. They were out of the park in seconds. They stuck to a main road but dashed along in the shadows, dodging the glaring balls of fire that provided the night with light and that would make them easily identifiable to the dragons and their riders watching from above. They’d jogged for about ten minutes before they passed a policeman. Neither Joe nor Ekaf had seen him but they definitely heard him as he came jogging out from a dark alleyway.
“Don’t stop!” Ekaf exclaimed.
The two increased their jog into a sprint only to run, head first, into a few guards as they rounded a corner. The two they hit fell on their butts, but two others stood with their halberds lowered menacingly. One tapped Joe’s stone with the spear-like tip of his weapon, poking tiny holes in Joe’s tie. The guard’s appearance only served to heighten Joe’s fear – his nose and jaw jutted out slightly more than a human’s and was coated with fur and topped with a nose more similar to the ursus genus than the homo. This was the closest Joe had ever been to seeing a bear and this bear appeared ready to arrest him.
Before speaking to either Joe or Ekaf, the bearn addressed the bird on his shoulder, “We’ve got two curfew violations, one dark magic violation,” he snarled the last bit, “and a Knome. Report back in five.” The bird fluttered off over Joe and Ekaf’s heads. Then the police turned his attention back to his captives, “Now you know better than comin in the city with a rock like that in your chest.”
“Maybe he doesn’t,” one of the guards said as he rose to his feet. This man was dark skinned, shorter and skinnier than his bearn counterparts, and had long pointy ears. The presence of an earth elf, a more humanoid race, among the constables relaxed Joe’s nerves a bit. The elf continued, “after all, he’s running around with a,” he snarled as if the next word stung his tongue to pronounce, “Knome!”
Ekaf was indignant, “I’m a citizen same as you!”
“Cept we don’t ride around with illicit magicians.” The other bearn guard said as she helped the other elven guard to her feet, “After curfew.”
“Actually, yall are also walking about after-”
The second elf interrupted, “What are the two of you up to?”
“Visiting a friend.” Ekaf said.
“Oh yeah?” The bearn who had first spoken sneared, “Order or Pact?”
“Don’t make us fight you,” Ekaf groaned, “just let us go.”
“You hear that?” The earth elven male asked.
Ekaf and Joe hadn’t before but now they could, the rattling of armor and clopping of boots. Reinforcements were on their way.
“Even if you could fight us,” the elven female said, “we’ve got you out numbered.”
“Leave the Knome to us.”
The guards turned and were as surprised as were Joe and Ekaf to find that the clinking metal and heavy footsteps were not reinforcements at all but instead the armored spirits that Joe and Ekaf had fled from in the forests south of Suinus. Their black blades were drawn and their silver eyes swapped between glaring at the Knome and pyromancer to the four constables that harassed them.
“And who are yall?” One police asked, “Manaloen?”
“Never seen that insignia.” Another said.
“This is not your territory, spirits.” A third warned.
“Explain yourselves.” The fourth demanded.
The spirit in the lead, the same one that had demanded Ekaf’s arrest two days ago, spoke with such annoyance-filled hate it almost seemed to be a hiss, “We’ve got no time and no need to explain – this is a matter of extreme importance. Step aside or we will consider you in league with the Knome.”
“I’m afraid the Tadloe Guard bows to no one but our master, our king, and the Emperor.”
“So be it.”
As halberds struck swords, Ekaf tugged at Joe’s shirt sleeve and the two slipped into an alley. When they came out the otherside, back onto the street, they were no longer sticking to the shadows. There was no stealth to their mission any more, now their only hope was speed. The towers they passed got bigger and bigger, as did the fat square shop buildings they sat upon. Finally they came to one of the grand intersections between the bases of the star pillars. They paused and Ekaf took a long sweeping gaze of the block.
Joe followed, looking over his shoulder: two figures were now thundering down the road after them, their armor clanging like church bells, but from the distance Joe couldn’t tell whether there was flesh under their armor or the wispy blue matter of a spirit. I wonder if I’d be able to fight my way out if Ekaf and I got separated…I wonder if I’d be able to find my way back if we got separated. But it was too late to look for street signs. As Joe returned his gaze to Ekaf they arrived before a humble stone house built in the shadows of an alley that looked as if it once cut through the base of a sky scraper.
Ekaf tried the door. It was locked. Joe turned. The guards hadn’t made it to the square just yet, but he distinctly heard them coming. Turning back to the door, Joe was surprised to see it ajar and Ekaf waiting impatiently inside.
“You picked the lock?” Joe asked.
“No.” Ekaf pointed to a window next to the door, “Window was open, now come on.”
Joe leapt hastily inside and Ekaf swung the door shut.
“You think they know where we were going?” Joe asked as his eyes began to adjust to the pitch-black darkness of the room.
“Well, most Knomes live in the Under. Grandfather’s probably one of the few if not the only Knome living in Suinus. So they’ll probably guess that we’re in here or we broke in elsewhere.” Ekaf stated, “And the spirits will be able to track us because of the key.”
Ekaf closed the window and dropped the blinds, leaving Joe’s chest as the only light source. Joe was about to complain but before he could the room exploded with light. A ball of fire, like those he’d seen above the streets, clung to the roof in the middle of the room.
“Well, well, well, look what the dog hiccupped.”
“Long time no see, Grandfather!”
Ekaf strode forward to hug the Knome that had lit the room and for a split second Joe thought he was seeing doubles. Ekaf wore a blue tunic and leggings, with a black belt and black boots, and a red cone-shaped hat. Grandfather wore roughly the same except all his clothes were as black as coal. The two mirrored each other age-wise and both had bright blue eyes. Aside from apparel, the main defining feature that separated the two were the beards: Ekaf’s was ash-gray and unkempt, Grandfather’s was well trimmed and white as the moon – well, the Earthen moon.
“Who’s the mancer?” Grandfather asked as he broke free of the embrace.
“Joe, from Earth.” Ekaf said.
“JOE FROM EARTH?!” Grandfather choked so hard he barely got the words out, “Not this bullshit again!”
“Grandfather!” Ekaf gasped, he glanced back to Joe, “I apologize, it’s not you-”
Grandfather tackled Ekaf. Straddling the Ekaf, Grandfather grabbed him by the ears and slammed his head down on the tile so hard that Ekaf’s cone flopped off and the key bounced out.
“How’d you get ahold of that key, huh?” Grandfather demanded, grabbing Ekaf by the ears again, “You got one answer and it better be the same as my best guess!”
“Hey!” Joe shouted, having rushed over to the two he wasn’t sure what to do to restrain the little man without getting on his knees but fortunately Ekaf intervened.
“Don’t worry about him, Joe,” Ekaf assured him, “he can be a little grumpy some-”
“Grumpy?!” Grandfather slammed Ekaf’s skull into the floor again, “You wanna tell me why this key isn’t in a warp cube?”
“That’s actually my fault…” Joe admitted.
Grandfather turned to Joe which gave Ekaf the opportunity to rolled the Knome over so that it was now Ekaf straddling Grandfather. He hurriedly grabbed his hat and key and returned them to his scalp. Then he gave Grandfather something else to grumble about.
“You can chew us out later. We’ve got to get into the Library. The Knights of the Light are coming.”
“KNIGHTS OF THE LIGHT?!”
Grandfather managed to slip a hand out from beneath Ekaf’s knees. Soon as the hand was free, a black sword materialized in his closed fist. In this short moment of paril, Joe unfortunately was not paying attention. Hearing commotion outside, he’d tiptoed over to the window. As Grandfather crowed the name of their pursuers, Joe saw them marching up, not five yards away. Fortunately – for Ekaf, not really that impactful considering the entirety of the situation – Grandfather had not drawn his weapon in order to kill. Instead, he clocked Ekaf in the nose with the butt end of the hilt. Ekaf tumbled of Grandfather and the black dressed Knome got to his feet.
As soon as Grandfather got up, the front door flew across the room in splintered chunks of wood. The Knights of the Light marched in. They strode past Joe, still standing by the window, without seeming to notice and pointed their blood-dipped swords at the two Knomes, Ekaf still sprawled out on the ground clutching his nose. There were four of the armored spirits in all. They came to a stop a yard before the Knomes. Still unnoticed, Joe began to creep towards the doorway. He stared into the empty city square, I could run! I could escape! But whatever part of his mind gave him such ideas was shut down by the greater majority of his conscious. No! I can’t leave Ekaf!
The lead spirit raised his visor but before he could speak a smoldering ball of flame slammed flat into his back and sent him sprawling forward, over Ekaf, to slam into the far wall. The three other spirits turned to see Joe in the doorway.
Now Joe ran. Yet, a few yards out into the cobble courtyard Joe found the Tadloe Guard trickling in from all angles, earth elves and bearns geared up to fight. There was nowhere to run. He turned back to face the spirits, two of them, closing in on him. What do I do? Where do I go? Where can I go? An idea came in the nick of time. Letting fire pour out from his stone, envelop his shoulders, and drip down his arms, he shot another fireball – not at the guards – at his feet. The blast launched him into the air, tumbling like a kid who’d gotten too much air on the trampoline, right over the charging spirits to slam back down on the hard paved ground.
The air was knocked out of him and he did not have the time to gain his composure before the spirits spun around to chase after him. Fortunately, as they neared, Ekaf leapt over the prostrate pyromancer to deflect their swinging swords. As Ekaf parried the spirits and Joe crawled to his feet, Ekaf yelled to him.
“Joe! Grandfather needs you to open his warp cube!”
“What about you?!”
“Save your flame, I’ve got these goons!” Ekaf cried, “Quick! Go back to Grandfather, we need to be in that Library before the police arrive!”
Joe spun on his heels and sprinted back to the house. Bounding through the doorway, he nearly tripped over an empty suit of armor crumpled on the floor. The implications of an abandoned pile of one of the spirit’s equipment wouldn’t hit Joe until later, for now adrenaline narrowed the scope of his thinking to the task at hand.
The Knome was busy sparring away with the head spirit, wielding the blade he’d used to break Ekaf’s nose. Without glancing to Joe, Grandfather tossed his warp cube across the room.
Joe caught it.
“Turn it on, tap the first screen twice, swipe it left!” Grandfather instructed, “If its not gold, then it’s the wrong one!”
Joe pressed the button on the top, immediately a neon green key appeared, hovering above the cube. He spun the cube around in his hand until the tiny screen he stared at had a one atop it. Not bothering to read the tiny text, Joe went ahead and tapped it twice then swiped left. The hologram didn’t seem to change. Is that a different key? Neither gold nor silver, the only color the cube projected was emerald. He swiped again. Instead of a key, the room was nearly filled with a bulging green oval.
“You’ve got a boat in this thing?!” Joe crowed.
“This is no time to go snooping through my stuff!” Grandfather roared, “For the love of Solaris, get that damn key!”
Joe swiped back right and the cube switched back to projecting a key. Just as Joe had on the cliff above the Saluman River, he stuck his finger through the ring of the key and it solidified. As the green became gold and the light became metal, Joe’s vision blurred. No longer was he across the room from Grandfather fighting a losing battle with a warrior twice his size, now he stood amidst row after row of book shelves. Each shelf was covered with pegs upon which hung golden keys. The shelves themselves seem to sit on nothing but a pure white floor and the floor was same as the walls and the roof – it was as if there was no floor, walls, or roof. It was almost as if the entire room, which extended as far as Joe could see, was floating in a world of nothingness. Taking a step forward, the illusion disappeared and he was back in Grandfather’s house.
“USE THE KEY YOU SON OF A BITCH!” Grandfather begged as he ducked under his adversary’s legs and fled up the stairs.
The spirit turned to Joe. How do I use the key? Before he could try, Ekaf flew in the doorway and snatched the key out of his hands. As the spirit raised his sword and charged, Ekaf thrust the key out before him, twisted his wrist, then pulled back. The air in front of Ekaf opened. No longer was he looking past Ekaf at the approaching spirit, he was once again staring at the Library, though, only a glimpse of it – a small oval. Ekaf strode forward, stepping between dimensions, and Joe followed on his heels.
Holy shit, that was close!
The Library was unbearably bright and yet, not bright at all. Once more, Joe took it all in. It wasn’t just the lack of boundaries that made the chamber incredibly strange – there was something off with the light. There are no shadows. He shuddered. This peculiar, never ending expanse of pale nothingness in which the Key Library sat was far more alien to Joe than Solaris had been. This, Joe thought, seems like a dream. As Joe followed Ekaf down an aisle of key covered shelves he squinted, trying his best to find where the rows ended. The rows would break, so that one could walk over to a parallel row, but then after giving a yard or two of space, the rows would continue. On and on and on.
“Keys for everyone past, present, and future-” Ekaf began before interrupting himself, “Watch out!”
Ekaf yanked Joe out of the way and pulled him around the side of the next row so that they could sit with their backs up against the shelf. Instead of explaining, he held a finger up to his lips. A second later, Joe could hear why. Metal clinking. The spirits followed us through. Joe listened as they strode down the aisle, behind them, then watched as they continued to wander through to the next one. Once the spirits, three of them, were out of sight, Ekaf released Joe and lowered his finger.
“Sit tight.” He whispered.
Joe was just glad they didn’t have to run for the moment. His eyes ran over the keys across from them and one in particular caught his eye, it glowed radiantly as if the very metal was a light source. Joe reached out and took it off the hook. The Library disappeared, the entire world fell out from beneath his feet. Darkness engulfed him then a split second later the sun was beaming down on him. He was on Earth. Time had stopped and left him staring at a woman, an ancient woman that was lying on the crosswalk. She looked as old as Ekaf and Grandfather combined. The humpback lady from the intersection! The one he almost hit! Joe looked around, she was on the road at the edge of the intersection, the very intersection of his accident. He looked across the street and, sure enough, the eighteen wheeler was inches away from his little Honda Civic – frozen in time. This was right before my wreck, right before my death – or, right before I would’ve died…He glanced back at the prone lady. He took a step forward, towards the accident.
He was back in the Key Library, somewhere between Earth and Solaris. His fingers held the new found key. Ekaf stood a few yards down.
“Did I just teleport?” Joe asked in a whisper.
“No. Notice how none of the keys have labels, right?”
Joe looked about, Ekaf was right. Some of the keys were rusted, few were shiny like the one he’d grabbed, but for the most part he couldn’t tell one from the other.
“When you touch a key, you see the death it would take you to. Now-”
“The death?” Joe asked.
“I never mentioned that? Keys take you to the place of a death.” Ekaf explained, “Now come on, we’ve got-”
“What about the key we used to get here?” Joe asked.
“Some keys are less accurate than others, but yes, someone died to leave that passage, now come on…”
Joe stared at the key in his hand. Then he got up and followed Ekaf.
“…The Library seems to organize itself randomly but you always manage to find what you are looking for-”
The two stopped. A black cat, its fur as slick and flawless as the pure whiteness that surrounded them, sat atop a shelf. Its tail flicked back and forth and its eyes, silver like cooled steel, watched. Ekaf turned to Joe and whispered, “That’s Alone, she’s the librarian.”
The cat hopped down, strode past Ekaf, and approached Joe, sniffing his pants leg.
Looking up from the cat, Joe asked Ekaf, “Are you or are you not allowed to be here?”
Ekaf shrugged, “Alone’s boss is currently unavailable so it depends on whether or not she remembers me.”
“Let’s hope she does.” Joe muttered.
“Let’s hope she doesn’t.” Ekaf corrected.
“Can she not understand us?” Joe asked.
“Nor can she hear us,” Ekaf explained, “She’s Alone, after all.”
“The good news is, since no one can communicate with her, she has a hard time remembering anyone and, essentially, lets anyone do as they please so long as they strike her curiosity.”
The cat hesitated a moment longer then rubbed its head against Joe’s pants leg.
As soon as Ekaf had spoken, a new voice erupted through the peace and quiet of the Library behind them.
“There you are!”
The two turned and their hearts sank. Two Knights of the Light stood three dozen yards down. Their swords were drawn, their visors up, and their transparent lips pursed.
“Once again, you’re under arrest, but now, the both of you!”
Ekaf and Joe turned to each other but no words needed to be spoken – they were off. Ekaf got the silver key out from beneath his cone and threw a lateral pass to Joe.
“Wait,” Joe caught the key, “why are you giving me the key?”
“They’re more interested in catching me, not you!” Ekaf said as he huffed and puffed and continued to run alongside Joe, “Catching you would be like shooting fish in a barrel – dead fish, that is.”
“So they won’t chase after me?”
“Well,” the two turned down an aisle of shelves, Ekaf snatching miscellaneous rings as they ran, “they’ll catch me first and then worry about you. If nothing else, we’ll have better odds losing them if we can separate them.”
They slipped down another row. Ekaf looked back just in time to see that their previous pursuers where gone only to be replaced by a tall dark cloaked figure who glided quickly after them. He turned back to Joe.
“When we get to the next aisle, we’ll split up. Alright?”
They reached the next aisle. Ekaf took the row to the left, Joe took the right. And only a few seconds after they’d split, Joe froze. How am I supposed to get back to Grandfather’s house? A tempting thought popped into his mind as he glanced at the gold key he’d plucked off the wall. I could always just return to Earth. He looked behind him. Two spirits were hot on his trail. Shit, I may have to! Joe took off yet again. Where the hell am I going? Where do I put my key?
The cat – or librarian or whatever it was – was flying down the top of the key shelves just ahead of him. Follow me. That wasn’t Joe’s thought. That wasn’t my thought! Joe’s eyes grew wide but he didn’t stop running. Are you talking to me?
I thought you couldn’t communicate?
“Mrow,” follow me.
Joe followed. The cat hopped down onto the floor, scurrying along, its coat of fur seeming to melt across the strange blank turf of the Library. They zigzagged from row to row, passing key after key. He glanced over his shoulder, he could no longer see his pursuers. Looking ahead, his eyes stuck on another key that, like the old lady’s, seemed to shine brighter, as if begging to be noticed. Joe skidded to a halt.
“Mow.” What’re you doing?
Reaching out, Joe poked the key. Once again, a dropping sensation hit him in his gut as his vision flashed back, but this time light returned to him slowly as did the details, as if trickling into place. The sun shone in gently, glistening off specks of dust that drifted lazily through the air. It was a green room, it smelled old and familiar. There were two desks, one covered in papers and one with a computer. It’s definitely Earth. Pictures of family, children in their graduation day robes, but also pictures of other things, a rocket ship, a moon rover, Earth as viewed from space, lined the walls. Then he saw a chair, in the corner of the room, and the old man who sat in it, sitting rigid and still – so very still. Papa…
Wake, the cat hissed, nudging his foot, up! Joe was back in the Key Library, glaring at the shining key.
“Raise your hands!” Came a command from behind him.
“Meow?” Do you want to die?
Joe didn’t even bother to look back but instead he bolted after the cat. They came to the end of a row, turned around, and ran down a parallel isle. Then they swerved right, going right back down the isle they came from, and continued running in the direction they’d been before Joe had stopped. Four rows down, Joe glanced back to see they’d put almost three rows between them and the guards. Thank God I’m not wearing armor. At the end of the next row, they turned left and turned down another hall before the guards rounded the corner to see them. After another minute of running, the cat meowed: Your key is coming up to the left.
Joe watched the shelf intently but saw no empty pegs.
Stop. It is here, directly to your right. Three pegs up.
Following the cat’s directions, Joe found himself staring at another key.
What the…Joe thought as he reached out to touch it.
“Meow!” I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
The cat offered only a blank stare.
“You can talk to me, but I can’t talk to you. Great.”
The cat almost seemed to shrug as it purred, Unless you wish to see how would’ve died-
He reached out and touched the key. His gut dropped and the world went black. Light returned slowly to his vision. The first thing he noticed was snow. Snow was everywhere. Then he saw the audience. Before him, rows and rows of darkly dressed people sat in stands – blurry from the distance at which they sat, but obviously focused on whatever was occurring directly in front of Joe – a scene which he could now make out. Beside him was a woman – with pointed ears – in a glamourous black dress who was stooped over another figure, the figure of a man – a figure he recognized to be himself. He was on his knees with his head slumping back over his shoulders to rest on a small cross that he was bound to. A pale white blade was lodged in his stomach, attached to the grip of the woman. Shuddering, Joe staggered back and was whisked away from the scene and back to the Key Library.
He left the key on the peg. Slowly, the gold shifted to the color of silver – the same silver as the key he held in his hand, the key he meant to return.
I hope it was horrifying, the cat spat, for once you have seen your fate, your fate inevitably changes-
“Thank God…” Joe muttered.
-leaving you to be haunted by the glimpse and the attached questions.
Joe looked down from the key on the peg to the silver key still in his hand, then he looked back to the Librarian.
“Meow.” Now it is time you return to Solaris.
Joe looked over his shoulder. They’d evaded the spirits for the time being but that time wasn’t going to last forever. His heart thumped with exhilaration formed of both fear, confusion, and excitement. Fire swirled about in his chest, ready to be released. His body wanted him to leave but he couldn’t-
“Not without Ekaf.”
Good bye, pyromancer.
The cat was gone, the guards disappeared, the shelves and shelves of keys were whisked away, the practically blinding white atmosphere of the Key Library was tossed upside down, flipped inside out, and color returned to the world. Joe was lying on wooden floorboards.
“You’re back already?”
Grandfather stood over Joe as he slipped on a black leather backpack. With the bag situated, Grandfather fixed Joe with a glare then opened his left hand as his weapon materialized in his grip. Joe stared at the sword from where he lay, getting a better look than he had been able to during his short tussle with Ekaf. It was plain but black, indescribably black. Not glossy or shiny but not dull either, it was simply black as the Library walls had been simply white. It was almost as if it wasn’t real, as if it was a hole in the universe like the one Joe had just fallen through. Other than its color, it was a Fou-style sword, a style Joe recognized as similar to a katana: a slender, one sided blade on a skinny hilt with only a small disk between blade and grip to protect the hand.
Noting Joe’s stare, Grandfather grunted, “This is the Suikii, brother of you’re bastard-friend’s Duikii. Speaking of the old geezer, where is he?”
“We got split up…” Joe said, averting his gaze – in doing so he noted the pile of empty armor lying above the stairs, Looks like Grandfather may be as apt as Ekaf…just a little less merciful.
“I knew it would happen! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! And I bet you that fart’s still got my key! Doesn’t he? And he owes me money…That scoundrel! That son of a-”
Footsteps came from below them. We’re above the room we were in before, Joe realized, that must be the Tadloe Guard! Joe was on his feet in an instant, shoving his keys in his pockets. He looked back to Grandfather and the two exchanged similar expressions of panic.
“Get the light!” Grandfather whispered.
Joe spun to face the fiery sphere, frowned, and almost turned back to ask the Knome before he remembered what Bonehead had taught him. He called the swirling ball of flame and it came to him with a whispery poof. The room went pitch black aside from the moonlight that shone in through the stone window frames and the glow emanating from Joe’s chest.
“Listen son, I need you to keep them from coming up here.” Grandfather raised his sword, “This puppy, the Suikii, is a lot like those keys you were fooling with. What I mean is, if I sweet talk her enough she’ll open up a way to escape. Just keep them back!”
Tingling with anticipation, Joe moved to stand above the stairs. A furred guard already stood at the bottom.
“Come down without your weapons and with your hands up!” He demanded in a husky voice.
Trying his hardest to deepen his voice to match that of the bearn, Joe warned, “Don’t you come up here!”
“Boy, if you don’t surrender now then you will surrender your right to a trial.” The guard shot back, “Three good men have already died because of you, my men would love to get some revenge.”
Three! Joe was horrified. Those spirits must’ve killed some of those guards! He said, “I apologize but I assure you, those spirits weren’t with us, they’re as much our enemy as they are yours!”
“Indeed, but they were here because of you.” The bearn countered, “Now I won’t tell you again. Keep your hands over your head and come down the stairs.”
Joe looked over his shoulder at Grandfather. The Knome was waving his sword around with wild eyes, dancing about the room as if facing an imaginary foe. Still no luck. When Joe looked back down the stairs, the bearn charged. Instinctively, Joe stepped back. You can’t let him up! Joe stepped forward and flexed. His entired body was engulfed in flames. The warmth swarmed over his skin like a heated fleece. From his own glow, he could see the fur blown back into the charging guard’s eyes which were wide with fear. Joe didn’t even have to attack, the mere gust from the flames – or the fear they instilled – knocked the guard off his feet. He fell down the stairs, ontop of his following comrades.
Though Joe may have stopped their leader and those unfortunate guards who had come right behind him, other guards clambered over their stunned companions to run up the stairs with their pikes aimed at Joe’s gut. Raising his palms to point them at the closest guard, he released two bursts of flame, smacking her in the chest once to throw her off balance and again to have her crash into the others behind her. Once again, the police were falling back down the stairs to land on top of the guards that had just begun to get back on their feet. Now there was a dog pile at the base of the stairs, too large to climb and too tangled to get out of. Just incase, Joe poured his fire onto the top three stairs until they were alight themselves.
With the constables subdued, Joe turned back to Grandfather in time to see the old Knome jump up and swing the Suikii for the final time. The weapon tore through the very fabric of the universe, opening a dark hole that was somehow darker than the unlit atmosphere of Grandfather’s house. He turned to Joe but need not speak; the pyromancer was through the portal before Grandfather himself could follow.
Joe could see the stars, the moon, and swirling masses of clouds slowly drifting over the sky-scape. Those clouds are awfully low. Then a breeze hit him. No. It wasn’t a breeze. It was wind with the force of a tidal wave. Oh God! Joe’s eyes grew wide, his jaw dropped, his stomach clenched. That isn’t wind! That’s gravity! He was hundreds of feet in the air and, as he rolled over onto his belly, he was looking down on the city of Suinus.
The Suikii had opened a portal into the night sky.
“DAMN YOU!” Grandfather cried, his old crackling voice barely audible over the whipping air as the two fell towards the ground, “YOU STUPID GOOD FOR NOTHING SWORD! I’VE BEEN NOTHING BUT GOOD TO YOU AND HERE YOU GO CONSPIRING AGAINST ME!”
“TRY AND OPEN ANOTHER!” Joe yelled over his shoulder, craning his neck in an attempt to spot the Knome, “WE MIGHT HAVE TIME!”
Grandfather was now falling beside Joe.
“NO.” Grandfather said with crossed arms.
“WHY?” Joe exclaimed.
“I SAID WHY!”
“IF SHE WANTS TO BE IMMATURE, THEN FINE. WE’LL DIE AND SHE’LL DIE WITH US!”
“GRANDFATHER,” Joe yelled, pronouncing each word as if his life depended on it – which it did, “I! DON’T! WANT! TO! DIE!”
Grandfather looked at Joe then at the sword in his hand then back at Joe. And just as he looked as if he were about to speak, he looked down.
Joe followed Grandfather’s gaze.
Against the darkness of the city below, silhouetted above the fiery balls that spotted the towers, were many flying creatures. At first, Joe could only see the dalvary, large reptilian silhouettes that slithered through the sky above the city, but then he spotted two bird shaped creatures. The creatures grew closer and closer as they fell and Joe soon noted that they were not bird shaped at all, but rather mammalian. More horse shaped than bird shaped. And to be completely specific, they were more horsefly shaped than horse shaped.
“The horseflies!” Joe exclaimed.
“THE HORSEFLIES!” Joe repeated, “EKAF AND I RODE THEM HERE!”
“Of course,” Grandfather chuckled, speaking so that only he could hear, “it was on his list.”
– – –
“Number Three, ride horseflies into Suinus.”
Ekaf read aloud as he crossed it off his list. Folding the paper gently, so as not to tear the ancient parchment, he slipped it back into the inside pocket of his vest and sighed. Step one, bring Joe to Solaris. Step two, initiate Joe into the art of pyromancy. Step three, get him to Bonehead. Step four, lead him to the Library and ditch him. Ekaf smiled, his eyes twinkling, Now the next couple steps are all up to Joe.
“How am I not surprised,” Death said with a voice as deep as a roll of thunder but completely devoid of any inflection.
“Is it possible to surprise Death?” Ekaf asked.
“I know you’re a mortal and all, but still…” now Ekaf shrugged, “Just curious.”
“If anyone could do it, it’d be you.” Death replied.
Ekaf was sitting in a plain wooden chair: four-legged, four beams shooting out the back topped off with a plain wooden cross bar as a back rest, no cushion, no padding, it was merely a chair in its dullest yet most accurate of forms. The chair’s four legs sat on nothing. Ekaf looked down between his stubby legs. His sight could’ve gone on forever, then again, it could’ve stopped beneath his chair – he discern within the whiteness. Much like the walls of the Key Library, Ekaf was in a blank world and all that existed in it was himself, his chair, and Death. Death strode into Ekaf’s line of sight, observing the Knome.
The first couple times Ekaf had set eyes upon Death, he’d gotten chills. But as he grew into a ripe old age, he came to fear Death less and less. He became more of a promise than a threat. Of course, that sense of dread, the same sense of dread proclaimed in the monotone notes strung out by Death’s vocal cords, was still there and Ekaf dreaded the day he would leave Solaris behind. But, until then, he was content to carry on a conversation with the gothic-clad bag of bones.
“Boo!” Ekaf said suddenly, his thin lips pulling back in a charming smile as he watched the skeleton before him for any sort of flinching. When it became apparent there would be no such movement, the Knome continued, “Well, Death, you may not be glad to see me, but I sure am glad to see you. It’s been forever.”
“Too long…” Death nodded.
“Too long indeed, you should drop by more often! I say we go out for coffee or beer or…well…I suppose the beverage won’t make a difference to you. You’re just skin and bones…or…bones rather. You know, that’d be what I miss the most – Joe pointed it out the other day. The undead can’t eat. You ever miss eating?”
With empty eye sockets, the skeleton watched the Knome.
“Am I wrong?” Ekaf asked, “You can’t eat after you die, right?”
“I don’t know.” Death said, “I’m not dead.”
“I forget that sometimes.” Ekaf said.
“I wonder when I’ll die.”
“I mean like really die. Not any of those bullshit possible fates – I mean the real deal. When me – or at least, this universe’s me – really uh…kicks the bucket. That’s another thing Joe gave me.”
Death nodded, a gesture that – in this context – had all the significance of a shrug.
“Can you give me a hint?”
“When you will die?” Death asked.
Ekaf nodded, actually meaning to signify, “Yes,” rather than just filling the gap in the conversation.
Ekaf jerked in his seat, stopping himself from leaping to his feet as he cast a distrustful glance at the absence of matter below him. He returned his attention back to the conversation.
“I can but I won’t.”
Ekaf switch objectives, hoping his failed previous request might make this secondary queery seem more acceptable, “Will you tell me if my plan will work this time around?”
“You’re a buzz kill.” Ekaf pouted.
“You’re obnoxious.” Death stated.
“You’re cold-hearted.” Ekaf snapped.
“You’re loud.” Death replied.
“You’re dreadful!” Ekaf cried.
“You’re a Knome.” Death said.
Ekaf giggled, “You’re a funny guy when you don’t try to be.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t asked about the boy yet.”
“I’m in no hurry.” Death gestured to the emptiness surrounding them, “We’ve got all the time in this universe.”
“Yes,” Ekaf stood up on the chair and glanced around the realm, as if checking to make sure the coast was clear, then turned back to Death and whispered, “but too long a conversation and the reader’s will get bored.”
Death cut right to the chase, “You continually break the rules we set.”
“And I’m dreadfully ashamed.” Ekaf said, whole-heartedly, “Gonna tell the boss?”
“I won’t press charges but-”
“You never do.”
“-I’m not the one to worry about.”
“Of course,” Ekaf smiled, sitting back down in his chair, “but those spirits are so clueless.”
“I was speaking about the boy.”
“You’ve taught him to have no respect for time.”
“At this point,” Ekaf shrugged, “time’s got little integrity left to respect, but why do you say that.”
Death looked away from Ekaf and gazed off into the white abyss.
“This time,” Death said, “he left with three keys.”
– – –
As the horseflies came to a running stop in the small clearing before Bonehead’s cave, Joe felt a tad uneasy. It wasn’t just him either, the horses’ eyes were wide, lips curled back, and their pale ivory teeth were frothing with foam. Before the two could dismount, their steeds whinnied and leaned back on their hind legs then pranced about the clearing, treading the brittle soil beneath their feet like angry bulls. Finally, they came to a rest and allowed Grandfather and Joe to exchange weary glances as they slid off the slick, transparent hide of their demonic-rides and gave each their due pats.
“I got a bad feeling…” Joe said, watching the entrance of the cave.
“As do I,” Grandfather nodded, wielding the Suikii as they approached the rocky entrance, “stay close behind me and watch our rear. Just in case.”
Joe nodded and glanced back to watch the horseflies trot off into the dark forest before following his Knomish companion into the rocky depths of Bonehead’s cave. At first, the scent was weak, almost a mere suggestion and Joe couldn’t really tell what it was he smelled – he could only tell that he did smell something. As they reached the base of the spiral stair case, he knew immediately what he’d smelt. Burning. Ash. Charcoal. The aftermath of a fire and, oh, was the smell ever so strong. Yet, all the fires that had once lit the subterranean halls were gone, even the one’s Joe hadn’t absorbed. The two proceeded with only the light of Joe’s chest.
“Should we call for him?” Joe whispered.
“No,” Grandfather said sternly, “if Bonehead is here, he knows we are here. Which means one of three things – he doesn’t want to greet us, can’t greet us, or he isn’t here.”
“Or he’s going to eat us…” Joe mumbled beneath his breath.
“He would never,” Grandfather said, not an ounce of doubt in his voice, “I’d trust him with my soul. And also he’s undead so eating us wouldn’t do him any good.”
“True,” Joe scratched his head, “hey this may not be the right time-”
“-but I left Ekaf back there, in the Key Library.”
“Ekaf?” Grandfather asked.
“Ekaf.” Now Joe was scratching his head out of befuddlement.
“Who the-” Grandfather choked on his own words, “Ekaaaaf. I gotcha. What were you saying?”
“We left him back there!”
“We left him or he left us?”
“I left him.” Joe confessed, “I mean, he said if we get split up its fine, but what if-”
“He’ll be fine. Trust me. He is the last person you should be worried about. Honestly, we’d all be better off if something bad did happen to him.”
“I thought you were his friend?”
Grandfather snorted, “Joe. Ekaf is not in trouble. I guarantee you he is hitch hiking on fates, slipping in, out, and between universes right now, having the time of his life. If the world were to end tomorrow, he’d be the last one to die. Trust me. He is fine.”
Joe sighed but accepted the half-assed attempt to reassure, “Alright.”
“Now hush, I’m pretty sure we aren’t the only ones down here.”
Joe obeyed but Grandfather broke his own silence a moment later.
“And by not the only ones, I mean someone other than Bonehead.”
After that comment, the only other sound in the cavern was the dripping of water from the stalactites above. Joe put a hand to the stone in his chest, feeling the warmth and estimating how much fire he had left. Each second trickled by sluggishly and it felt like an hour before they reached the laboratory where he had woken up the previous morning. The smell of burnt wood had increased steadily as they neared it and, when they rounded the corner, they could see flames bouncing up and down in the shadows on the walls around them.
Grandfather dashed down the hall with Joe stepping on his heels as they sprinted into the room. The fierceness of the flames had been amplified by the shadows for most of the fires had gone out. Most of the smoke floated up through ventilation holes carved in the roof of the chamber, though some did trickle down the hallway. Only a few clumps of books and shelf were still standing, the rest were burning in heaps on the floor, the majority of the room had long sense burned away. The book! The Fate Programmers’ Book! But just as Joe’s mind threatened to slip into panic, he noticed a black figure sitting amidst the piles of ash with its back to the two. Some how this stranger’s presence, though he had perceived it initially as a threat, calmed him.
Grandfather was already one step ahead of Joe. He stood with his chest poked out, his white-bearded jaw set, and his sword pointed at the kneeling figure before them.
“Don’t move!” Grandfather commanded.
The figure tensed up. His body glimmered in the firelight due to a mixture of sweat and ash. Joe could now see that the man’s skin was much lighter under the outer layer of filth and, Joe couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could make out two pointy ears sticking up from under long blonde hair.
The man’s accent was thick, sounding very familiar to the thick accents Joe heard back home in Alabama, so thick in fact that “Zalfron” sounded like “Zavrawn” and the “Sentry” sounded more like a “Sentrah”.
Sentry! Joe thought, Could he be a descendant of Zannon Sentry?
“What are you doing here?” Grandfather continued.
“Ah was followin some un.” the elf said.
“If yall’re friends uh whoever lived hare…wae’re on the same sahd…” The elf paused, “Can ah turn around?”
The elf got to his feet, arms raised, and turned to face Joe and Grandfather. Joe was suddenly struck by the height of the man, probably six and a half feet tall, if not more! He was skinny but Joe could tell there was some lean muscle hidden beneath the soot. His shirt had been torn nearly to pieces and his rough brown pants were intact but covered in ash and glued to his legs with perspiration. Joe was staring at his very first electric elf.
“You’re Tabuh’s brother, aren’t you?” Grandfather asked.
Zalfron nodded, squinting at the Knome with his brow furled before turning to look at Joe. His eyes lit up.
“A pahromancer! No way! Ain’t never thought ah’d maet one uh yall!”
It was as if the elf had completely forgotten that the old Knome was pointing his sword at him as he leapt over to stand before Joe, poking the glowing orb poorly hidden by Joe’s dress-shirt. The elf paused, his eyes straying from the stone in Joe’s ribs to the plain red tie rolling down from Joe’s neck.
“Whatcha got awn?”
But before his query could be answered he was on the ground, on his belly, Grandfather standing on his back holding his wrists with opposite hands and twisting them so that the elf winced.
“What about slowly don’t you understand! You’re lucky I didn’t run you through! Goodness sakes, son,” Grandfather growled, more aggravated than angry, “explain yourself!”
“Ah was chasin uh bone bender!”
“Cause ah wanna faht in the Samerah’s Army.”
The elf sighed, “Ah wanted to faht for the Emperor…but they said ah was too…uh…unco-ordained…” then his voice regained the energy it had when he’d first spoken his name, “But then they tol me bout the Knahts!”
The Knights? Joe wondered, When Bonehead mentioned the Mystakle Knights it sounded as though it was a secret. Joe asked, “The Knights?”
“The Kou Knahts!” Zalfron said, “Their lahk the Kay Dubbya special forces.”
“K.W.?” Joe asked.
“Raelly?” He scoffed, “You must bae a few arrahs short of uh quiver.”
“No laughing!” Grandfather demanded before explaining to Joe, “Stands for the Kou Warriors, which became a part of the Samurai’s Army.”
“Ther the folks that snaek insahd uh the enemay’s cities an open up the gates, they creap inta fortresses to assassin genrals and what not. You ain’t gotta use a sword to bae a Knaht, you jus hafta prove you can faht – and ah can faht.”
Grandfather scoffed. To prove his point, Zalfron struggled beneath the old Knome but was unable to get him off. Once again, Grandfather snickered but this time he accompanied it by giving Zalfron a playful kick in the gut.
“So you wanted to kill a necromancer to show that you could be of value?” Grandfather asked.
“Oh God,” Joe muttered, “please don’t tell me you killed Bonehead.”
“Ha!” Grandfather shook his head, “This punk is far to weak to take down Bonehead.”
“Bonehead?” Zalfron asked.
“Was the necromancer you were after an undead dinosaur?” Joe asked.
“Huh?” Zalfron blinked dumbly, “What’s a dahnosaur?”
“A reptile,” Grandfather explained, “was the necromancer undead?”
“Yup!” Zalfron exclaimed.
“Was the undead a person or an animal?” Joe asked.
“A person…” Zalfron snorted, “…you ask waerd questions.”
“He’s not from here.” Grandfather said.
“Where ya from?” Zalfron asked.
“Earth.” Joe said.
“Earth?” Zalfron repeated, then his eyes widened and he seized beneath Grandfather, “Where the Bahble came from?!”
“Calm down! We are the ones asking the questions, Sentry.” Grandfather roared, kicking the elf in the gut, “Tell us about this necromancer.”
Zalfron stopped struggling and obeyed, “Ah’d followed this necromancer for thrae days…or was it two? Well…it was more than one for sure! So a couple days ago the bone bender left the war sane in Darkloe. Yall know some uns at war in Darkloe? Ah didn’t. Ah thought it was the Samerah, cause the Kou Warriors and what not were there, but ah asked to see em, the Samerah that is, and the troops told mae they ain’t there.”
Zalfron paused, his eyes wandering off to the heat-dried stalactites above, before they rolled back to the ground beneath him, “Anywho, hae, the bone bender, hah tailed it from Darkloe hare. Ah followed him down into this cave, hae’d gone down hare with some undead. Ah smelled a fahr so ah followed the smell and found a handful uh undead burning thase books but the necromancer was gone as yesterday. So ah fought em and baet em and – you can sae their bones over yonder,” he pointed with his head. Grandfather and Joe looked and sure enough, a couple crumpled skeletons lay against the corner of the destroyed library, when they turned back to Zalfron he continued, “That necromancer was waerd lookin, it was lahk he was on fahr but the fahr was green – lahk Flow Morain, but hae sure as hell wasn’t Flow Morain. Ah dunno…but ah suppose all them bone benders look a lil funky, maybe all mancers do…judgin from the way you look.” He nodded towards Joe with this comment. “You thank hae mahta been a Doom Warrior that somehow flew the coop?”
“I’ve got a good idea of who it may be.” Grandfather murmured, “but continue.”
“Anyway, after killin all the undead, ah found this paper. Thas what ah was doing when yall got hare. Just looking at this paper. It musta come from one of them burnt up books and ah raelly don’t know how ah managed to fahnd it but if you’ll let mae up, ah’ll show ya.”
Grandfather cast Joe a cautious look then rolled off the elf. Zalfron stood, dusted himself off to no avail, then pulled a sheet of paper about the size of his thumb out of his pocket. It was burnt on all edges and what little was written across the sheet was smeared with ash. But Joe managed to catch what it said.
“Zalfron Sentry.” Joe read aloud.
“Mah name.” Zalfron nodded.
“I’d wager it was from the book.” Grandfather stated.
“The Fate Programmers’ Book?” Joe asked.
Grandfather nodded, “Indeed, one of the names from the Foretelling, one of the twelve Saint found amongst the names of the Samurai that have yet to be revealed. Possibly one of the crew Ekaf expected you to take with you.”
“I wish Bonehead would have just let me read it.” Joe sighed.
Before Grandfather could answer, Zalfron interrupted, “Who’s this Bonehead fella?”
“The owner of this cave.” Grandfather explained, “A good friend of the Emperor who had a book that recorded the twenty-four names received by Saint in the storm that preceded the Foretelling, twelve of which have already made themselves known-”
“The Samerah!” Zalfron interjected.
“-the last twelve have not. I’ve never seen the list but you being a Sentry, I wouldn’t doubt that your name was on it.”
“So maybe he is one of the Mystakle Knights!” Joe exclaimed.
“Lets not get ahead of ourselves,” Grandfather raised his hands, “I’m still not so sure you’re the Sun Child.”
“Huh?” Zalfron squirmed, trying to look at Joe from where he lay beneath the Knome, “You maen to say that flame thrower’s the Sun Chahld?”
“Some of our friends think he is,” Grandfather shrugged and rolled his eyes, then he said to Joe, “at least I’m assuming that’s why that old rat saved your life, but we definitely can’t say for sure until you save the Samurai.”
Zalfron was confused, “The Samerah ain’t need no savin.”
“Zalfron,” Grandfather hesitated and vanquished all the coldness from his voice, when he continued, one could almost describe his tone as grandfatherly, “have you not heard?”
“When was the last time you saw your sister?” Grandfather asked.
“Maybe a yaer fore the War on Mancy started? A good whahl ago.”
“Where did you go to be recruited to the Kou Warriors?”
“Do you seriously not know?” Grandfather asked again.
“Know what?” Zalfron cried.
“How is this possible?”
“The Samurai aren’t fighting in Iceload anymore. The war in Darkloe you saw, that’s where the Samurai’s Army is. Creaton is back, Zalfron. The Samurai fell.”
Zalfron fell limp.
“The Samurai fell,” the Knome continued, walking off the boy’s back so that he could sit up, “but their final battle pushed Creaton out of Iceload.”
“The Samerah fell?” Zalfron mumbled, staring at the Knome but not truly seeing him, “What’s that aeven maen?”
“They’ve been defeated. Captured or killed. Benjamin Fasthoof was the last one left, he was cut down in battle the other day by Hermes Retskcirt.”
“And,” his voice cracked, “Tabuh?”
“She’s gone.” Grandfather whispered.
Zalfron stood and strode away from the two, his thick leather combat boots sinking into the ash that covered the cavern floors. He walked back and forth, his eyes as dark as his soot covered cheeks. Finally, facing away from the Knome and human, he fell to his knees, head bowed, just as they had found him.
“Tabuh,” he whispered.
“Son…” Grandfather cursed his skeptic ways. He had to put his doubts aside, not only for the sake of the heart broken elf or for the lost Earthboy, but for the future of Solaris. For if his doubts proved to be unfounded, then he very well could ruin what so many of his friends and heroes had fought for. Walking over to Zalfron, he put a hand on his shoulder, “Son, that Earthboy over there – he being here means that the time is soon for the Samurai to return. Your sister and the rest of the Samurai are not necessarily dead – and if they are, they aren’t dead forever. We just don’t know where they are. Some, including the Emperor, think they’re just dormant. Waiting in some void until they can return and defend our world once again. I’m not sure about all this myth and legend stuff, this prophecy shinanigans, but if both Bonehead and that old Knome thought he was the Sun Child…” Grandfather looked to Joe, “…then you must be the Sun Child.”
“So what do we do?” Joe asked.
“We need to go to the Emperor.” Grandfather said.
“Yer crazy! We cain’t just go to God’s Ahland and ask to sae Saint!” Zalfron crowed.
“We can and we will.” Grandfather said, “Now, Zalfron, that necromancer you were talking about. He was undead, right?”
“And engulfed in green flame?”
He nodded again, “You know who it was?”
“I think so,” Grandfather stroked his beard, “anything else you noticed about him?”
“His skull was strange…” Zalfron mumbled, “Not elven…not human aether…kahnda…kahnda baet up too, now that ah thank about it…”
“Aha! That’s because he is a bearn and not just any bearn. He was killed by Tenchi Kou then turned into a banshee by Flow Morain. With the Samurai gone, I’d wager Creaton is trying to tie up all the loose ends. Creaton must’ve sent Hermes, that’s right, the feller that took Benjamin Fasthoof out just the other day, to hunt Bonehead down after he saw Bonehead talking to you about the Prophecy.”
“But why would Creaton all of a sudden start watching Bonehead?” Joe asked.
Grandfather laughed, “Bonehead trained the Samurai, I’m sure he was under constant surveillance.”
“But I thought Ekaf said-”
“Take what Ekaf says lightly.” Grandfather warned, “Now, no more talking. We need to get some rest – or at least, I do – and we don’t have much left of tonight. The cave should be safe. I’ll cast a couple trip spells to wake me up incase we get company, though I doubt we will. My sword is the bane of banshees, I doubt Hermes would dare come near you two if I’m here. So get some sleep, as much as you can. I know it may be rough trying to sleep for you, Zalfron.”
The elf nodded silently.
“But you need rest. We need to leave for God’s Island tomorrow and get to Saint as fast as we can.”
“We?” Zalfron and Joe said in unison.
“We.” The Knome nodded, “I’ll wake the two of you up, bright and early.”
– – –
Joe led Zalfron to his cavern room (after they found a shower for the filthy elf to bathe in). Unfortunately, Ekaf had only brought one cot for the room thus someone would be sleeping on the stone floor. Zalfron assured Joe he would be able to sleep on the floor saying that he’d been sleeping on the ground for so long his body wouldn’t know what to do with a bed. Joe didn’t put up much of a fight. The moist bumpy floor of the cave looked anything but comfortable though it couldn’t have been much better than the cot.
It was somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow, but not yet today, when the two laid down to go to bed and even Joe on the cot could tell he wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep. At least, not for a good long while. Too much had happened. Joe’d flown to Suinus and back, witnessed his own death in the process, discovered Bonehead dead and his library destroyed then found one of the seven Bonehead had preached of (although Grandfather insisted that they not declare Zalfron a Knight until Saint confirmed, Joe was convinced). And as for Zalfron, well, his hope and dream of becoming a Kou Knight was closer than ever with the old Knome’s prophetic revelation that he could possibly be in the party of heroes who might come to parallel the epic-ness of the Mystakle Samurai themselves. Screw the Kou Knights, this was on a-whole-nother level. He fully committed to believing this possibility, after all, to not believe it meant to believe that he might never see his sister again.
Zalfron was the first to break the silence.
“You slaep?” He asked.
“Nope,” Joe said, “not even close.”
“Yup.” Zalfron said.
Silence threatened to descend upon them again.
“So yer from Earth?” Zalfron asked.
“Yea, it’s nothing like Solaris.” Joe answered.
“Better or worse?”
“Well, if I can stay alive, Solaris is an exciting place, that’s for sure. I do miss my friends and family…though I don’t miss diabetes.” Joe half chuckled, “Where are you from?”
“Iceload,” Zalfron replied and though Joe knew what he meant, the word sounded dangerously like, “Assload”. Zalfron asked, “Ever been?”
“I just got here a few days ago, Tadloe’s all I’ve seen.” Joe said, “I’ve heard of Iceload though. I heard your last name was Sentry, is that like Zannon Sentry?”
Zalfron nodded, then remembered that Joe couldn’t see him from his cot, “Yup. It ain’t as uncommon as ya’d thank though, Zannon hadda lotta kids.”
“Ekaf told me the story of the First Void War but that’s about all the history I know.” Joe said, “That story is the only thing I really know about this planet.”
“Who was Ekaf?”
“A Knome, I met him before I met Grandfather.”
“Ah…” Zalfron nodded, still a pointless notion, “wait, is yer granddaddy from hare?”
“Not my grandfather, Grandfather as in the Knome you just met.”
“You hang out with a lotta Knomes.”
“Well, I’ve only been here three days…”
“Huh…” Zalfron was quiet for a while, then he said, “Ah know a lotta history. Ah could tell ya about Solaris. It might help us fall aslaep. Is there anythin ya wanna know?”
“What year is it?” Joe asked.
“Umm…” now it was Zalfron who chuckled, “…well ah know it’s in the 90s…”
“Woh…” Joe muttered, wondering Did Ekaf really need to start at year one? There’s two thousand years to cover! Numerous questions stood out in Joe’s mind: When did the other moons hatch? How did Creaton find his way back into Solaris? How’d the Queen of Darkness take over the world? His mind settled on one he felt was quite revelant towards his mission, “Can you tell me the story of how the Samurai came about?”
“That’s one ah don’t know much about.” Zalfron said, “Ah just heard lil stories hare and there, snap shots of their adventures. Ah woulda sat my sister down and had her tell me the whole thang, start to finish, if ah’d uh known…”
“Yea…” Joe rolled over to observe the elf. He lay on his back, eyes boring into the ceiling, his lips pursed in a dismal frown, “…I’m sorry.”
Zalfron brightened up, “But that’s whah yer hare, raht?”
Joe slumped back onto his belly, “I suppose so.”
“Well, if Grandfather can’t tell us about the Samerah tomorrow, ah’m sure Saint will bae able to give ya the run down when we get to God’s Ahsland.”
“Saint’s the Emperor, right?”
“Course!” Zalfron laughed, “Yer friend didn’t tell ya about the Emperor?”
“Not much.” Joe stated.
“Well now ah know what ah can tell ya!” Zalfron jerked to an upright position, sitting cross legged, “This was mah favorite story growin up! You sae, in the years after the first millennia, after the Quaen of Darkness naerly took over Solaris, the known world doubled. The southern hemisphere – Assload, Tadloe, Sonder, Munkloe, and Batloe – had been all that was known up until that point. For naerly fahv hunnerd years the folks of the south fought over how to divahd the territories of the north, despaht the fact that many of thase lands were already owned by natives. They fahnally decahded to chop it up twaen twelve Bishops.”
“Like Christian Bishops?” Joe asked.
“Yup, yup! Back then, almost everayone in the southern hemisphare were Christian…well…almost everayone in power that is.” Zalfron continued.
“And was Saint a Bishop?”
“Hahahaha!” Zalfron laughed, “No sir! Hae killed most of em!”
“Ah don’t want to give away anymore, ya gotta haer it from the beginning. Ah’ll start with how hae was found as an infant in the winter of uh…what was it? Oh yea, 1487…”