“Bale Morain is dead.”
Hermes Retskcirt spoke with his armored chest puffed out, his skull tilted towards the roof, and his hand on the staff in his belt. He was standing within one of the four Basalt Minarets, the great towers of the Acropoliskia. The Acropoliskia was a hodge-podge of holds and spires assimilated to the lumpy surface of Dalvary, the famous hills in the center of Hormarah, Darkloe. Like a tangled heap of four giant black pythons, the Acropoliskia coiled around Dalvary. The neck of the serpants, the pillars known as the Basalt Minarets, reached rigidly towards the three moons with their tongues tied together to meet at the center tower, the fourth tower – which rose from the highest peak of Dalvary. It was in one of these thick dark obelisks, somewhere near the top, that Hermes stood glaring with his eye-less sockets at Aeschylus Roq, his superior.
“You’d best bow before you speak to me.” The undead responded, his upper lip twitching as it curled. His bushy red brows drew together, dropping over his eyes, as he examined Hermes. The skeletal bearn stood motionless, debating mentally whether to commit to defiance but ultimately conceding once Aeschylus’ hand moved towards his hilt. With his knees on the marble floor, Hermes’ teeth ground against each other. Aeschylus didn’t hide his pleasure. Smiling, the banshee folded his arms, one plump with muscle, the other arm made of naked bone.
“Killing Bale was unnecessary.” Aeschylus Roq’s growl rattled the bricks of the tower and his velvet cape fluttered behind him like wild fire.
“I disagree.” Hermes snapped, “I find it necessary to put an end to anyone who provides aid to the enemy.”
“I did not ask your opinion, mancer.” Aeschylus spat the last word.
Curving his temper, Hermes kept his voice low but loaded with sarcasm, “My apologies, Master Roq, may I hear your opinion?”
“Bale Morain was one of our greatest spies, through his eyes Our Lord could watch the enemy.”
His knees having served their time, Hermes stood, revealed the scrap of paper clamped in his armored fist, and asked, “Then why does Creaton need this, if he could already see it?”
In one swift motion, Aeschylus took the paper in his ossein fingers and struck Hermes with his right hand, knocking him back on his knees. The crimson fires, red as the cape draped from his shoulders, swelled, rustling his wavy harvest-moon-colored hair, causing his battle scars to glow – especially the X across his left cheek. These flames poured out his mouth as he rebuked his subordinate.
“Refer to Our Lord with the respect due!” He hesitated, waiting to see if Hermes would retaliate but the undead bearn held his long-since-decomposed tongue. Aeschylus proceeded sternly, “Our Lord asked for this page only to ensure you had destroyed the correct book. The goal was to create another hurdle in the path of our enemies, not to see the names written across this parchment. Now rise.”
As Hermes stood, Aeschylus turned to the black doors that loomed behind him like a shadow. Placing his hands flat on the sable posterns, he paused before pushing them open.
“Before entering Our Lord’s presence, I must remind you to mind your manners. He is far more just than I.”
If Hermes had eyes, he would’ve rolled them. Aeschylus pushed the doors open and a strong gust swept at their flames, as if welcoming them back into the outside world. Stepping out beneath the moons, Aeschylus led Hermes across a bridge that linked their belfry, the smallest of the Minarets, with the tower in the center. Beneath them, the torches of the castle twinkled like the stars in the skies above. Before them, atop the middle Minaret, eight collumns surrounded a cathedra elevated on a stout pyramid of stairs. The throne was not facing them, so once they arrived, they strode around to its front before beginning to scale the stairs. When the man in the chair at the top stood, the two banshees halted and knelt before him.
The Lord was crowned with the blackened skull of an eagle, holding down ebony locks of hair. His face was flaw-less, defined by a stern chin, hurt eye brows, and weary, dulling green eyes. A dragon tooth neckless rested on his bare chest. A heavy belt held up his trousers, the buckle marked with the symbol of the Black Crown Pact: three crescent-moon shaped claw marks. A coat of black feathers was draped over his shoulders and his body was engulfed in the red flames of a banshee, the same shade of his right hand man who now knelt before him, alongside Hermes.
“My Lord,” Aeschylus said, “Hermes has burnt the book and retrieved the page.”
Creaton stepped down from the cathedra and took the charred paper from Aeschylus, reading aloud, “His name will be Joe-”
The paper turned to ashes with a hiss.
“-he is the one. You both may stand.”
The two stood. Hermes was over eight feet tall, taller than Creaton, but Creaton kept himself higher, distancing himself with a few flights of stairs.
“Hermes Retskirt. Of all the mancers in the Black Circle, you’ve proved yourself to be the most valuable to our plight. Many were skeptical when I permitted you to wield the Soul Staff but you have not betrayed me.”
Creaton strode back to his seat. Instead of sitting down, he whirled back around, as if he had changed his mind, and marched swiftly back to Hermes, standing nearer to the banshee than he had before.
“However, you abandoned the Ipativians for Talloome, then fought for the Order under Shalis, and deserted to the Doom Warriors under Morain before coming to bow to me. I, like your critics, do not trust you…but I would like to…” once again, Creaton turned his back to Hermes and strutted back to his throne, plopping in his seat as he continued, “For this purpose, I have devised a final test. The boy Bale Morain was assisting, this Earthboy, this Joe, I want you to hunt him down and kill him. He is uneducated, untrained, and weak. He is no threat to the Pact nor to me, and even if he remains to be cultivated in the possession of the Trinity Nations he still won’t be a threat. He should be more easily defeated than the Samurai.”
Creaton stood and began to pace before his seat, “What worries me is the very thing that so worried Bale Morain up until the moment that you killed him. Do you know the Delian Prophecy?”
Ignorant, Hermes glanced over at Aeschylus and, from the banshee’s expression, he gathered he was the only one on the precipice that was not familiar. Creaton read this in his silence.
“What about the Foretelling?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Hermes nodded, “spoken by the Bastard Emperor?”
“Ask any Delian, the Foretelling is merely a reiteration of the Delian Prophecy but both Delians and Solarins interpret these predictions differently. While the Foretelling predicts this Sun Child will bring back the Samurai, the Delian Prophecy claims the Sun Child will return the Queen to Solaris. If the old boneguard is right, if the Earthboy is to be the Sun Child, then once word spreads to Shalis Skullsummon she will want to have him. That we simply cannot allow. It is far better he remain with the Bastard than fall into the hands of the Order. While I do not believe in these ridiculous predictions, I cannot afford to ignore them.” Creaton fell back into his seat, “Do you understand the potential of this threat?”
“Yes, my Lord.” Hermes said.
“Kill the Earthboy and you will gain my trust. Fail and Aeschylus will get the pleasure of piercing your frozen heart. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“This is an honor. You should be proud. Depart tomorrow morning, alone, for Chanetown. There your guide, the Bard, will find you and take you to whoever he has chosen to accompany you on this mission. Now leave me, I wish to speak with Aeschylus alone.”
Hermes nodded with a swift, “Yes, my Lord.” Then strode back around the cathedra and across the bridge towards the Minaret. After waiting for the undead bearn to walk out of ear shot, Creaton turned to Aeschylus and asked, “What do you think of Catherine Meriam, could we trust her to watch Hermes?”
“I believe so…”
“What is it?” Creaton demanded, “Speak your mind?”
“Why don’t you send me, my Lord? This Earthboy is nothing. Why make the risk of sending Hermes when he very well might have the nerve to turn around and deliver him to Shalis? Why trust him or Catty when I could easily wrap this problem up before anyone realizes its potential?”
“Aeschylus, my son, if this boy is the Sun Child and the prophecies are true then whoever I send is doomed!” Creaton laughed.
“But my Lord, if Hermes is a traitor-”
“I would not be surprised.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to send someone you trust? In case it isn’t too late and we can stop the prophecy?”
“Listen to yourself!” Creaton shook his head, “The prophecies are nothing but vague riddles used by each generation to keep the peasents in the field, the soldiers in line, and the hope alive. I have seen the boy, this alien, through Bale Morain’s eyes and he is nothing to worry about. The only use for him is as a test of Hermes loyalty.”
“I trust you my Lord,” Aeschylus looked down at his boots, “I apologize for my superstitions.”
“There is no need for apologies,” Creaton stood from his throne, marched down to Aeschylus, and clasped him on the shoulder, “and no need for superstition. Even if Hermes takes the Earthboy to the Order, he will not join Shalis. You know the power Knomes have over the minds of fools. After a few days with that silver tongued slickster, even an alien would rather die than join the Order.”
“It shouldn’t take much lying to convince anyone of Shalis’ evil.” Aeschylus agreed. Then he asked, “My Lord, how can Saint or Shalis believe that someone from Earth, a planet without magic, can save our world? Without their machines, they are nothing! It is true the Bastard and the Witch don’t come close to you in wisdom but how can they not look at this boy and see the weakness you see?”
“Even the wise can be wrong,” Creaton admitted with a chuckle as he returned to his throne. When he sat down, he asked, “After all, was it not a Knome, the least of all Solarins, who put a stop to the Queen of Darkness?”
– – –
“Wake up you lazy bums! It’s time to move!”
The raspy Knome gave the two boys no time to obey. Hopping over Zalfron, he grabbed Joe by his tie and pulled him halfway off his cot. Then, he turned on the snoring elf and shook him by the shoulders. The only effect was a pause in the wheezing for an abrupt snort before the nose returned to the incessant white noise. After a minute or so of shaking Zalfron, Grandfather had had enough. He kicked the elf just above his butt crack. The snore turned into a howl as Zalfron rolled across the room. Hopping to his feet, the elf raised his fists first at Joe. Joe, having just staggered out of bed, replied with a blank stare. Then Zalfron lowered his gaze and squinted at the Knome before him.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Who am I? Wake up, son! We’ve gotta long day ahead of us!” Grandfather crowed then stormed out of the room.
“Who the hell was that?” Zalfron asked Joe while rubbing his butt.
“You know who that is!” Joe didn’t have time to explain, he had a question for Grandfather. As Zalfron asked again, Joe sprinted out the room after the Knome.
He skidded to a halt and turned with such speed Joe expected some sort of grumpy rebuking.
“Uh…” Joe fumbled in his pockets before withdrawing the keys, “what should I do with these?”
“Where’d you get those?” Grandfather demanded.
Joe shifted his feet rather than provide the obvious answer.
“You’re just as bad as the old coot!” Grandfather sighed then continued down the hall, “You might as well keep em.”
“Keep them? But won’t the spirits trace them to us?” Joe asked.
“Well look at you!” Grandfather spun around again, “You’re learning fast!” He took off his black cone, pulled a small cube out of it, and tossed it to Joe, “Take my warp cube.”
Joe dropped the keys in the process of catching the cube, “Your warp cube? You mean I can have it?”
“Well, I shouldn’t think you’ll be out of reach anytime soon.” Grandfather said, this time he remained facing in the opposite direction, continuing to march through the cavern halls, “Besides, I’ve got more than one and you’ll need one sooner or later.”
“Really?” Joe asked rhetorically, “Thank you!”
“Thank me?” Grandfather shrugged, “Ha, it’s the least I can do, son. After all we’ve dragged you into this mess of a world.”
“Willingly.” Joe stated.
“Willingly?” Grandfather scoffed, “Ignorantly willing.”
They’d come to the kitchen, the same food hall where Joe, Ekaf, and Bonehead had shared organ pudding an evening prior, and found that Grandfather had concocted a breakfast of sorts. The meal was divided into mason jars and had to be scooped out using pale white tongs that stuck to the tongue (when Joe asked why, he immediately regretted it. Grandfather explained briskly, “Bone clings to your saliva.”). The color of brain matter, or so Joe imagined, the gruel had the texture of soft scrambled eggs as it slid down his throat. Joe stopped eating when he noticed that Grandfather had refrained from serving himself a jar. Zalfron happened across them, with his nostrils flaring, eyes wide, and his tongue running laps around his lips.
“Why didn’t yall wake me up!” He demanded, genuinely hurt.
Grandfather responded by slinging his empty mason jar at the elf’s head. The jar missed and shattered on the damp façade of the cave. Zalfron raised two fingers, index and middle, then put the finger tips against his throat – a gesture equivalent to an American flipping a bird. Their salutations expressed, Zalfron joined Joe and Grandfather at the breakfast table and proceeded to devour his mush, drinking it straight from the jar. Like a nervous puppy, he eyed Joe’s portion. Shaking his head, partially amazed and partially disgusted, Joe slid the elf his jar and watched him down it.
With a burp, Zalfron looked at the others, slapped his thighs and said, “So, what’s the plan, huh?”
– – –
Grandfather set the pace, his tiny legs pumping with such vigor that Zalfron and Joe could only keep up by jogging. They followed a trail for a good hour before it opened up into a gravel road. Occasionally a wagon would pass by, horse riders and all, but, to Joe’s dismay, no dragon riders. Zalfron and Grandfather explained that those who traveled by dragon would be flying. Though, with skies overcast as they were, Grandfather noted that he wouldn’t be surprised to see a few dragon riders pick the road over the icy precipitation above. As they trotted down the road, Joe spoke up to get his mind off of his throbbing feet.
“So, how far away is Portville?” Joe asked.
“A good day’s walk, we’ll get there beneath the moon and hitch a ride on a boat in the morning. That’s where we’ll stay the night.” Grandfather said.
“It’s fixina bae pissin down rain,” Zalfron stated, watching the sky, “maht een snow.”
“Do you think we could ask the next carriage that drives by for a lift?” Joe asked.
“We could but I doubt we’d find anyone willing,” Grandfather responded, “not with that rock in your chest.”
“And not with a Knome on board.” Zalfron added.
The fiery orb imbedded in Joe’s sternum was hardly hidden by the thin white cloth of his button up dress shirt. Joe asked, “What happens when we get to Portville and they won’t let me in?”
“Psh!” Zalfron elbowed Joe in the shoulder, “They’d look a shadah slanger straight in his crow ah and still let em in!”
“Its a trading city. Folks from everywhere beneath Solaris come through Portville. The locals are used to seeing a diverse spectrum of people. Granted the guards will keep an eye on you, and me too most likely, but in places like Portville you’ll find the people are the one’s you have to worry about – not the police.”
“Even during a time of war?”
“The guards get it easy during wartime. Everyone above the age of thirteen is carrying and their eyes are pealed for trouble. The citizens wind up doing most of the policing.”
“That would terrify the authorities where I’m from.” Joe stated.
“Well, son, here the police respond to crime rather than attempt to prevent it.” Grandfather said, “It does terrify the civilians. You won’t see many children in the streets during war but you’ll see plenty of criminals, soldiers, and veterans. I’d be willing to wager we’ll get to see a fight tonight, I just hope we won’t be involved.”
“Wonderful,” Joe said. He didn’t like the idea of inciting conflict – especially if these were many of the people he would soon be fighting in behalf of. Is Tadloe on our side? Joe really had no clue – he had assumed such but he couldn’t recall if Ekaf had told him one way or another and he knew that Tadloe had opted out of the Bishopry, the global alliance that captivated Solaris five hundred years ago, “Hey, Grandfather, is Tadloe in the Trinity Nations?”
“I thought so…”
“Why?” Grandfather asked.
“Just making sure…” Joe felt his next question would sound stupid but he really wanted clarification, “…I’m in the Trinity Nations too, right?”
“Uhcourse!” Zalfron exclaimed.
“Calm down, son, that’s his decision not ours.” Grandfather corrected the elf before responding to Joe, “Only if you want to be.”
“Would ya rather faht for Creaton?” Zalfron asked Joe.
“Not at all!” Joe cried, “I’m just trying to put things together!”
“Like what?” Grandfather asked.
“Like what’s going on here! Today! Ekaf told me about the First Void War and Zalfron told me some about Saint’s rise to power, but I really don’t know why the wars are being waged today.”
“Do you know anything about what’s going on today?” Grandfather asked.
“I know that the Samurai fought for Saint, the Emperor of the Trinity Nations, against Iceload and – though they failed – they kind of won too?” Joe raked his brain to put together the mismatched information he’d received over the last few days, “and that Iceload was being controlled by both the Pact and the Order, right?”
“Moreso the Order, the Pact only truly got ahold of itself once Creaton made his appearance and it was shortly after that when the two parties split, the Order remained in Icelore and the Pact shipped off to Darkloe.” Grandfather explained, “So your question is?”
“The Samurai’s Army, which is the Trinity Nations’ army, is fighting the Pact in Darkloe. Ekaf told me that the elves and minotaurs are fighting the Order in Iceload…So is the Trinity Nations helping the war in Iceload or are these two separate wars?”
“Supposedly, the Trinity Nations are offering the Ipativians and GraiLords some support, with supplies and funds or what not, but for the most part, you’re right.” Grandfather conceded, “These have become two separate wars.”
“So Iceload is not in the Trinity Nations.” Joe concluded.
“Nope!” Grandfather and Zalfron chimed.
“And never has been?” Joe added.
“Under the Council!” Zalfron corrected.
Grandfather nodded, “Before Talloome Icelore reestablished the monarchy, Iceload was a member of the Trinity Nations for almost one-hundred years.”
“An it was a bad case of the tail waggin the dawg…” Zalfron muttered.
Joe turned to Zalfron, “I thought you liked the Trinity Nations?”
“Ah do.” Zalfron bowed his head, “To the Nations ah pledge mah allaigiance! But, the Council pulled the wool over Saint’s ahs jus as they done to us in Assload.”
“The Council was run by a bunch of merchant families that used their power to make themselves richer and wound up making Iceload a cesspit for piracy.” Grandfather concurred.
“Right in time for the Pirate Wars…” Joe murmured.
“Exactly!” Grandfather exclaimed, “Which is how the Order found an in in Iceload.”
“So what nations are in the Trinity Nations?” Joe asked.
“Tadloe, Batloe, Munkloe, Foxloe, Dogloe, and Manaloe,” Grandfather said, then he added, “All the ‘loe’s but Darkloe because…well…Darkloe isn’t much of a state.” The old Knome shrugged, “But there are also many nations within states that pledge allegiance to the Trinity Nations-”
“Lahk the Sentry!” Zalfron interjected.
“They make up the Crystal Council,” Grandfather continued, “twenty nations, tribes, dynasties, or families, whatever you’d like to call them. This is where the ‘Trinity’ in the Trinity Nations comes from. One third is the Diamond Council, the six kings of the six allied states. The second third is the Crystal Council, the twenty nations. And the third is Saint, the Emperor himself. All three vote on any Empire wide decision that is made.”
“It is complicated, but you’ll-”
Glancing over his shoulder, Grandfather realized that Joe’s “Woh” had not been in reference to the political landscape of Solaris. Behind them, three dragons were galloping down the road. From afar, Joe couldn’t make out one from another. The beasts ran shoulder to shoulder and moved fluidly, as coordinated as an old couple on a tandem bike. Grandfather ushered the boys to the edge of the street where they would allow the reptiles and their riders to pass.
“Act normal.” Grandfather ordered.
“Will they care about my rock?” Joe asked.
“The chest stone? There’s no way of knowing but if I were them, I’d stop and check us out. Not only do we have a pyromancer, but its not everyday you see an electric elf in Tadloe.”
“Or a Knome.” Zalfron added.
“Let me do the talking.” Grandfather said.
Grandfather predicted correctly. The dragons didn’t stop until they were right beside the three. As they stiffened their limbs and dug their talons into the gravel, a shower of dirt and rock sprayed the three travelers. The beasts were smaller than Joe had expected, though this didn’t undermine his pleasure in finally seeing a dragon up close – three at that! They were of the same kind though they varied in size. The lead was the largest, looking to be almost thirty feet if it were stretched taut from head to tail. It’s scales were a dark violet, nearly black under the cloud filtered light of Solaris. The others were closer to twenty though all about the same height, no taller than the roof of you typical pick up truck. Their scales came in all sorts of sizes: large shingles ran up the belly getting smaller the closer they got to the spine. Their wings, batlike, were folded, tucking in the saddles that held the riders. Of all the dragons Joe had heard of, he knew instantly which he saw – curlheads. Their name come from the curled crest that came off the backs of their heads and curled in towards their necks. Joe had little time to take in the spectacle before two of the riders hopped down.
Despite their stern faces and cold eyes, Joe couldn’t help but get excited. One was an earth elf but the other was of a race Joe had only heard about: a crimson scaled, purple eyed chicken dragon. Both were women of average height. The elf wore sweat stained long sleaves beneath a mismatch of armored plates. The impressions of absent armor could be seen in the wrinkles of her clothes and bumpy appearance of her short, flat top cut hair. As for the reptile, she wore robes that hid her body from nearly head to toe, only her dome faced head was visible. The elf had her hand on her sheathed hilt and the chicken dragon kept her fingers in her pockets.
“What do we have here?” The elf asked.
“Wary travelers.” Grandfather said, “Spare a ride?”
“Na, mon.” The chicken dragon said, then she pointed at Joe and Zalfron, “Can’t trust dem blondies dese days. And a mancer? No sir!”
“You know, we’ve been to every corner of this planet and back. Few things we haven’t seen. One fewer now,” the elf stepped towards Joe and poked him in his chest, “never seen a pyromancer.”
Grandfather’s thought process was split between trying to explain why and how their was a pyromancer standing next to him and examining the riders on the third dragon. The electric elf had half her head shaved and a bandage that crossed her face to cover her left eye but it was the bearn Grandfather thought he recognized. The bearn was dressed in tight leather, tufts of fur poked through where his get up was torn. What intrigued Grandfather was the unstrung bow sitting in the warrior’s quiver. It was a gamble, but if the Knome’s hunch was right, he might be able to talk their way into a free ride.
“You know what I’ve never seen?” Grandfather began, “A bearn with a bow.”
“Changing the subject, eh?” The earth elf accused.
“No, I was just curious…” Grandfather raised his voice to address the bearn, “Are you the brave sir who fought with the Samurai’s Army? A retired Kou Knight…they called you Sniper, right son?”
The bearn didn’t budge.
“Boys,” Grandfather whispered, “bow and show your respect. If this man and these ladies are who they appear to be, then they deserve our honor.” The two boys obeyed. Whether or not his tongue could earn them a ride, he was now sure that he could at least keep these four veterans’ suspicions from turning violent. To seal the deal, Grandfather added, “They fought with your sister.”
“His sister?” The electric elf sitting behind the bearn, still on the dragon, asked.
“He is Zalfron Sentry?” The earth elf scoffed.
Zalfron nodded, got up, and dusted his knees.
“Now I ain’t suspicious, I be curious.” The chicken dragon said.
“Who are you?” The earth elf asked Joe.
“I doubt you’ve ever heard of-”
“What’s your name?” The earth elf demanded.
“Well, Joe, normally we kill mancers.” The earth elf said.
“But normally we ain’t see nuddin but bone benders and shadow slingers!” The chicken dragon acknowledged.
“And we rarely run into a Sentry.” The one-eyed electric elf added from the dragon.
“But before we run along and let yall go on your way, I got a few questions.” The earth elf brought the attention back to herself.
“Fire away.” Grandfather replied calmly.
“Nah, these are for the pyromancer to answer. No cheating.” The earth elf gazed between the Knome and the dirty blacksmith, making sure she saw comprehension in their faces before continuing, “Where ya headed?”
“Um…” Joe prayed he remembered correctly, “Portville.”
“Where from there?”
“To see the Emperor.” Joe answered.
The two interogators and their comrades burst into laughter, even the seemingly mute bearn chuckled. Anxious, Joe looked to Grandfather but the Knome gave a reassuring wink. When the hilarity lost it’s flavor, the earth elf returned for one last question.
“What you got to do with the Emperor?”
“Uh…” Joe hesitated.
“I think the Emperor would’ve told you,” Grandfather stepped in, “if he wanted you to know.”
The earth elf looked down at the Knome silently. Rain began to fall, pecking them one at a time then turning, in half a second, to an all out downpoor. The precipitation seemed to spur the dragon riders on. Without a word, the chicken dragon returned to her steed as did the earth elf. The dragon with two, the electric elf and the bearn, left first followed quickly by the chicken dragon’s beast. The earth elf waited a bit to give the three travelers a farewell.
“Sorry about the rain, but we can’t afford to offer you a ride. We probably are already being too trusting to let yall go like this.” The elf shrugged, “Chances are we’ll see you in Portville. If so, we’ll buy yall some drinks…since yall are so fond of war heroes,” she rolled her eyes, “maybe we’ll lend you a tale.”
Neither of the three cared to respond or wave which didn’t seem to bother the elf. After her short goodbye she followed her friends and left Joe, Zalfron, and Grandfather standing on the side of the road in the cold, Spring rain. Glaring up at the overcast skies Joe squatted down on a bolder at the base of a large tree trunk on the side of the road. Thunder exploded above them as Grandfather, willing to take a break from their travels in an effort to stay somewhat dry, forced the human to scoot over a little so that the two could fit on the rock. Zalfron joined them, each hardly having any bit of rock left to sit on as they watched the rain sink into the dirty gravel road.
“Ah say wae wait til the next travler comes bah an hitch a rahd.” Zalfron said.
“I second that.” Grandfather said.
“Didn’t you tell me you doubt any one would agree to?” Joe asked.
Adjusting his cone hat grumpily Grandfather explained, “We don’t have to give them an option.”
Joe grunted uneasily but before he could protest such a plan, his train of thought abruptly switched tracks. His hands slid into his pocket and he felt the warp cube. My keys! The ring! He asked, “If we don’t get a ride and I get drenched out here, will that break the warp cube?”
“Its possible,” Grandfather admitted, then he shrugged, “but unlikely. Typically, they’ve got to be really submerged to malfunction. Besides, I’ve got a way to recover things lost in my warp cubes, incase of situations like these.”
“Good,” Joe sighed, “while we wait, may I ask you something.”
“Ekaf told me that the Order of Mancers betrayed the pyromancers and locked them up somewhere…” Joe hesitated but the old Knome was bobbing his head so he continued, “If everyone knows that, why are people still sketched out when they see that I’m a pyromancer. You’d think folks in the Trinity Nations would see me as a refugee, not a threat.”
Zalfron answered, “Its against the law.”
Grandfather agreed, “The Order may have been neutral in the past but, in most parts, mancy has been illegal for a long time.” Stroking his beard, Grandfather hummed on a thought for a moment before elaborating, “I suppose you could compare a mancer’s place in society to that of a drunkard’s – before the Pirate Wars, that is. In most places, being a mancer and being a drunkard was illegal but-”
“Baein a drunkard ain’t illegal,” Zalfron argued, folding his arms, “laest not in Sentrakle.”
“You can’t just roam the streets liquored up now, can you?” Grandfather challenged.
Frowning, Zalfron grunted, “Spose not.”
“As I was saying, if you stayed out of trouble, people tended not to complain and authorities tended to look the other way, but that didn’t change the fact that people would rather you not. Pyromancers, like shadow and necromancers, were never exactly welcome. Then, the Order of Mancers began to cause more and more trouble until finally the Trinity Nations essentially declared war on them.”
“They did declare war on em,” Zalfron remarked.
“Not at first, at first it was simply on piracy. Only later, after the Order’s attack on God’s Island, did the three councils deam the Order the enemy of the Trinity Nations.” Grandfather continued, “And whether or not the pyromancers were advocates for the Order’s switch in policies, I suppose folks assume that any pyromancer is still more likely to be a proponent of the Order than of the Trinity Nations.”
“That makes sense…” Joe nodded, “do you think the pyromancers, if we were able to find them and set them free, do you think they’d join our side and fight with us?”
“Well they sure ain’t gonna faht against us,” Zalfron muttered.
“I doubt the pyromancers would care to fight the Pact, they’d probably go straight to the aid of the GraiLord and Ipativians in Iceload to fight the Order.” Grandfather said, “So Zalfron is right, they would not be our enemy.”
If we can’t get the Samurai’s Army or the Tenchi Kou Warriors or whatever the Trinity Nations calls their military to back us up, then maybe we could get the pyromancers, Joe pondered. He asked, “Where does the Order imprison them?”
“No one knows. Son, for all we know, they could be in Delia.” Grandfather responded.
“Or dead.” Zalfron suggested.
“All of them?” Joe exclaimed.
“Mere speculation.” Grandfather warned.
Joe couldn’t bear to imagine such a pointless genocide. How could an organization switch from neutral to evil so quickly? He shuddered. Then he began down a subject that had haunted him ever since it had first been mentioned, “Bonehead said the Order would be after me.”
“That they will.” Grandfather nodded, “That is, when they find out about you.”
“I’ve asked Ekaf and Bonehead but…when they find me, what do you think they’ll do?”
“If you’ll bow to them, I think they’d eagerly take you under their wing.” Grandfather remarked with a stern frown on his face, “I’m sure they have dreams of revamping their forgotten third.”
“Don’t do it, Joe. Stick with us.” Zalfron said.
“Otherwise…” Grandfather didn’t have to finish the alternative, “One day they may have you in a tight spot, son, and you may have to chose between your values and your life.”
Joe gulped, “The more I learn the more I feel that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.”
“Then don’t stop chewing.” Grandfather’s frown had turned into a weary, sarcastic smile, “Savor the flavor.”
“Hey!” Zalfron leaped to his feet and ran out into the middle of the street, “Hey! Stop!”
A dark skinned man driving a carriage yelped. His horse reared back on its hind legs and whinnied, hoofs pawing at the sky. Zalfron got out of the way and walked to the side of the buggy as it came to a stop. The dark skinned man, an earth elf, was standing beneath a cloth awning, reins in hand, eyes wide with outraged confusion.
“Sorry, sir! Can wae getta rahd?” Zalfron asked.
“Get a ride?! Are you crazy?! Runnin out into the road outa nowhere!” The man cried.
“Sir, wae ain’t got any money, but wae’re uh…wae’re warriors and could offer protection. Thas a pertty rahd ya got there, prolly carryin some expensive cargo-”
The man jumped down from his vantage point atop the cart and jabbed his index finger into Zalfron’s chest, “What do you know bout my cargo?”
Zalfron was flustered, “Huh? Not a thang! Ah was jus sayin…looks lahk a fancy carriage, a healthay horse, an what not…”
The earth elf watched Zalfron carefully. The rain pelted the two. It took less than a minute for both of them to be entirely soaked. The cart was indeed nice. Its wood was smooth and painted with colorful trim. Satin curtains covered the windows. The buggy was probably the nicest one the three had seen on the road that entire day and they had been passed by nearly a dozen.
“That’s an earth elf,” Grandfather whispered to Joe, “and Zalfron’s an electric elf. I’m not sure if you gathered as much before, but earth elves don’t always trust electric elves and for good reason I suppose. In many of the wars in this great worlds history, the two elves have been polar enemies.”
Grandfather got to his feet, Joe followed suit. They were still a considerable distance from the earth elf and Zalfron. They were out of view for the driver, who faced Zalfron, and also out of hearing distance.
“I think Zalfron stumbled upon a smuggler, tobacco if I had to guess.” Grandfather said, his voice stern and controlled, “The man might draw his weapon.”
The two watched as Zalfron continued to argue. The earth elf seemed to be getting increasingly annoyed. Joe looked down and saw that Grandfather was holding the Suikii, Joe nervously began to tap the fiery rock in his chest.
“Tobacco’s illegal here?” Joe asked.
“Yup.” Grandfather said, “That boy’s got no common sense running up to a stranger like that! Who knows who could be waiting inside that buggy.”
Joe had been watching Zalfron and the smuggler but something rustling across the street caught his eye. At first, he saw nothing, just a few bushes shaking in the rain, but then he saw more movement. Green movement, green in the shape of a man. An elf! There were maybe four of them in all – not all of them elves, some were furred – and all were dressed in brown and green, crouching low in the leaves.
“Grandfather, look over there.” Joe pointed across the street.
“What, where? Oh!” The Knome flinched, “Thugs!”
“Thugs?” Joe asked.
“Highway men, bandits, thieves, these roads out here in the woods are dangerous during war times. Which is why I don’t understand this man coming out here with no guard…unless…” Grandfather’s eyes grew wide, “I’ve seen this done before. Alright son, listen up. I bet that there’s no cargo in that buggy. I bet that there’s a handful of armed men in that cart and what we’ve got here is a scam. They drive a nice cart, no noticeable defenses, so they attract bandits. Bandits come up and attack, bam! Out comes the ‘cargo’ which is really just a bunch of thugs themselves. They over power the bandits and turn them in to the authorities, dead or alive, for cold hard cash, because chances are they’ve got a record of criminal activity!”
“So those guys across the street, they’re about to attack the buggy?” Joe asked.
“Yup.” Grandfather nodded.
“And then folks are gonna hop out of the cart and kill them?”
“And Zalfron’s in the middle of this?”
“Shouldn’t we warn him?!” Joe exclaimed.
“Not yet, be ready…” Grandfather waddled out from under the tree to get a better view, “I want to see him fight.”
The two didn’t have to wait long. With a loud, high pitched shriek – like the Confederate rebel war cry – the muggers hopped out of the brush brandishing their rusted rapiers and bent blades. Two of the highwaymen clambered up onto the far side of the carriage, out of Joe and Grandfather’s view, while the other two ran forward, confronting Zalfron and the earth elf.
Zalfron ran forward and ducked as a brown furred bandit clumsily swung a sword at his head. He balled his hand into a fist, still running forward, and caught the bearn in her gut. The thug stumbled backwards, straightened up, and raised her sword yet again. The two glared at each other for a moment, lightning striking overhead, then the thief struck. Leaning back, Zalfron waited for the wide swing to miss then lunged, tackling the bearn – who was an inch or two taller than he – to the ground. Before the two landed, Zalfron had already delivered a sloppy but effective knockout punch across the thug’s jaw.
“He’s a natural!” Grandfather whispered to Joe.
Joe nodded, “The fight’s not over yet, though.”
“Right,” Grandfather nodded, “get your flame ready and wait for my command!”
Zalfron turned to face the second bandit who had just ran his blade through the cart driver’s ribs. Yanking his sword free, the thief turned to face Zalfron. Before either the theif or Zalfron could make a move, the door to the carriage cabin flew open and another dark skinned elf squeezed his way out. Far bigger than the earth elf that approached Zalfron, he was covered in rippling muscles from head to toe with a long broad sword held in both hands. The highwayman took one look at the giant and charged Zalfron in hopes of running him over and escaping back into the trees.
“Fire!” Grandfather yelled, running towards the carriage, “Now!”
Joe jumped out into the street, “Zalfron, duck!”
The elf, although his brain seemed to be constantly wrapped in a mind-numbing fog, was in his element now. Immediately upon hearing Joe’s warning, Zalfron leaped out of the way and dove into the muddy gravel. A beam of flame burst from Joe’s chest, unperturbed by the pouring rain, and hit the elven bandit. The elf let out a berzerker’s cry as he pranced about the street, his clothes roasting on his skin, before collapsing to the soggy earth, unconsciously dousing the flames in a puddle. No sooner had he hit the ground than had Grandfather jumped over the burning body and glared defiantly into the eyes of the giant earth elf from the cart. Meanwhile, Zalfron got up from the mud only to see the unarmed bearn that he’d knocked down earlier back on her feet.
“Hey Knome, ya wanna switch?” Zalfron asked without removing his gaze from the bearn before him.
“No, I’m fine!” Grandfather yelled back, “Ya wanna race?”
“Race?” Zalfron repeated.
“Race!” Grandfather answered.
“Race.” Zalfron grinned.
“I’ve never killed an old man before.” The tall earth elf said with a white-toothed grin stretching across his face. The veins in his arms bulged as he raised his sword.
Grandfather grinned though the Suikii in his hands was a dwarf, or Knome, in comparison to his opponent’s weapon, “And I’ve never been killed.”
The earth elf lunged and swung his sword in a downward ark. Grandfather lifted his sword, tapping the dull edge of his blade against the elf’s. Then he jumped – pressing his blade against his opponent’s to guide his leap – and flipped over the massive steel blade. The elf’s sword hit the muck of the road below as Grandfather, still in the air, retracted and spun the Suikii.
And then he was gone.
“What the hell…” the elf looked around but it appeared the old Knome had disappeared out from under Solaris, “where’d you Far-”
A dull black blade shot through the elf’s skull, protruding out of his right eye socket. The elf fell to his knees as his eyeball bobbed in the puddle before him. A second later, the man followed his eye and fell flat on his belly, his brain-dead head submerged in the rain soaked earth. Grandfather, standing on the elf’s back, looked over at Zalfron who sat watching the Knome with an expression similar to that of a child’s face on Christmas morning. Zalfron’s opponent was still struggling, Zalfron’s arm wrapped around her furry neck.
“I think I won.” Grandfather said, his smile as white as his goatee.
“That’s the,” Zalfron released the bug eyed bearn and let her fall to the road below, “Suikii!”
“That it is.”
“So yer-” Zalfron was interrupted when his enemy staggered to her feet. The elf raised his fists but the bearn raised her hands with fingers flayed. Zalfron stepped to the side and the thug bounded off into the woods. Returning to the Knome, Zalfron continued with the same excitement in his voice, “Yer Grandfather! The Grandfather! The legendaray Knomish smith!”
“No, the other Grandfather…” Grandfather rolled his eyes.
“Oh…Ah got rael excahted there for a-”
“OFCOURSE IM THE GRANDFATHER!”
Grandfather placed one foot on the giant earth elf’s head, took the handle of the Suikii, and pulled it from the back of the man’s skull. Zalfron got beside Grandfather so quickly it was as if he’d teleported. Staring at the plain black Fou-style blade as if it were the Holy Grail itself, he declared, “Ya gotta taech mae some tricks! Ah maen, ah’m as good a smith as my sis but you…yer a legend! Who makes yer hammers? Bet ther prahssy! How hot a fahr-”
“Fire!” Grandfather jumped off the dead body, eyes wide, jaw dropped, “Where is Joe!”
– – –
While Grandfather and Zalfron tussled with their separate foes, Joe wandered over to the other side of the carriage, remembering the other two bandits. He found the two, elf and bearn, face down in the mud. Over the bodies stood a man of a race that he’d only just seen. However, unlike the robed dragon rider he had encountered, this chicken dragon was dressed far more revealing. He was dome faced with hotrod-red scales and snake-like tails that hung off the back of his head, almost like a fleshy version of dread-lochs. Two more of these tails stuck out in opposite directions below his nostrils, resembling a mustache. He was shirtless, dressed only in the shortest of short shorts, and held a large two handed sword with a scarlet hilt shaped like an + sign.
The two stared at each other, Joe and the reptile. Lightning flashed. The chicken dragon took a step forward. He looks like he could snap me in half – but I have magic. I need to let him know I can use it. Joe spread his arms and let fire seep out of his chest and across his shoulders from hand to hand. Flames ran down his pants legs and fires danced about his head.
The chicken dragon raised his head in a nod, “Neva seena flame drower before.”
Joe was suddenly surprised to hear a voice that sounded as young as his own. After he’d spoken, he lowered his head again and smirked and the two returned to the silent staring contest. Once again, the swordsman broke it. With three long paces, the reptile closed the distance between them and swung his sword upward. Joe back paced and instinctively released a blast of fire from his chest. The flames hit the man’s swing and knocked the man’s blade arm back. The reptile spun and swung again, this time aiming at Joe’s head. No! Joe thought, Block! Raising his hands he brought fire into his palms and pushed out, the flames bounced the reptiles sword back once more.
I can’t keep letting him attack!
As the swordsman stumbled back, Joe strode forward. He brought his hands together and put them to the reptile’s chest. The man’s snake-like eyes grew wide and he dropped his sword to slap Joe’s hands off him. Joe’s blast missed, sailing into the rain-soaked forest. The reptile fell to the ground and rolled to his feet. Turning to Joe, he froze.
“Don’t move.” Zalfron said, coming to stand beside Joe.
“Wait a second,” Grandfather, now standing on Joe’s left, rubbed his eyes then squinted at the warrior before them, “I swear I’m seeing a ghost.”
The man didn’t reply.
“Hae looks alahv an well to mae.” Zalfron said.
“Very alive,” Joe agreed.
“No, I swear he looks like-”
“Sharp?” The chicken dragon asked.
“Yea, son, if Sharp was red then you’d be twins!” Then he added, “Without the beard and armor, that is. You’ll grow into that though…the beard I mean…I’m going to take a wild guess here. You’re one of Dresdan’s boys.”
The chicken dragon gave the Knome a curious glare.
“You be Grandfather?” He asked.
“Recognize da sword, mon.”
“Hol up, Grandfather, yer sayin this guy is ralated to Sharp Otubak?” Zalfron asked.
“Yes, which isn’t as rare as you’d think.” Grandfather looked back to the chicken dragon, “Dresdan wasn’t exactly picky when it came to women.”
“My fadda wasn’t picky?” He laughed, “Nah mah boy, he jus had da cream ah da crop bowin at his feet!” He paused to duck his head, respectfully, “I go by Nogard.”
“Nice to meet you, Nogard.” Grandfather bowed, “This is Zalfron Sentry, Tabuh Sentry’s brother.”
“Well I be damned!” Nogard strode up to Zalfron to shake hands, then stepped back to ask Grandfather, “And who da pyro?”
“Hae’s from another planet, like Daelia.” Zalfron said, proudly, as if it were an achievement to befriend an alien.
“What be ya name, mon?” Nogard asked.
“Joe,” Joe answered, “I’m sorry, I’m still learning about this place, but who are you?”
“Da son of a great pirate cap’n,” Nogard grinned, “and half brudder of a Samurai.”
“That can’t be coincidence.” Joe stated.
“You think he’s one of the eight?” Grandfather asked.
“Eh?” Sharp asked.
Grandfather said “You’ve heard of the Foretelling?”
“Saint’s proppecy.” Sharp muttered, nodding.
“Some people think our friend here might be the Sun Child.” Grandfather continued.
“Da Sun Child?” Nogard whirled to watch Joe, “You be da Sun Child?”
Joe shrugged again, “That’s what I’ve been told.”
“And what dey tellin you I be?” Nogard asked.
“There’s posed to bae seven others,” Zalfron explained, “to help the Sun Chald.”
Nogard stared at the three for a moment before bursting into laughter, “Da gogo got me goin, da gogo got me dis time!”
Nogard fell to his butt where he continued to laugh.
“It got me seeing dings!”
“What’s his problem?” Joe asked.
“The gogo.” Zalfron snickered.
“You know how I said tobacco is illegal here?” Grandfather said. Joe nodded. The Knome conintued, “Gogo isn’t.”
“And gogo is?”
Zalfron smirked at Joe with accusations in his sapphire eyes, “Come on, you know! Ya smoke it. It smells lahk a snow skunk. It makes ya giggle and turns yer ahs red-”
“Weed!” Joe exclaimed, “He’s a pot head!”
Having stopped writhing in the mud, Nogard sat up suddenly and asked, “Folks I rode wid dead?”
Joe and Zalfron exchanged glances then looked to their guide.
Grandfather didn’t hesitate, “Unfortunately.”.
“Ya bastards!” Nogard grabbed his sword and hopped to his feet. The three backed away and prepared for the attack but the chicken dragon began to laugh once again. Between chuckles, he managed to explain, “No worries mon, I’m messin whitcha, we be good! Hahaha! Da situation no longer lead us to kill each udder and, don’t know bout yall mon, but dere be four reasons why I say da four of us hop up in dat carriage and ride way.” Nogard sheathed his sword then raised his index finger, “First, dis be one hell of a trippy situation.” Upcame another finger, “Second, I be wet. And third,” raising his ring finger to join the first two, he grinned, “I got da gogo!”
“And four?” Zalfron asked.
“Four?” Nogard repeated, “Did I say I got gogo?”
More jubilant laughter bounded out of the chicken dragon’s lips as he clambered back on board the carriage. He entered for a second before re-emerging to ask, “Yall were goin to Portiville, right?”
“Yup!” Joe nodded before Grandfather could shush him. Skeptical, Grandfather stepped between his boys and the carriage and warned, “If you try any funny business, son, you best believe you won’t get away with it.”
“Wouldn’ta dreamed of it!” Nogard chuckled, “I need yall, mon! I can’t drive dis ding! Horses give me da creeps!”
Joe looked to Zalfron who looked to Grandfather.
“It does seem too good a coincidence to let pass.” He admitted.
“We were lookin for a rahd anyway…” Zalfron added.
Grandfather gave in with a shrug, “I’ll drive, you two hop in and keep an eye on that joker.”
Crackling and flashing, the storm seemed to be following the four as they travelled down the puddle stricken road. The rain showed no intentions of letting up. According to Zalfron, weather “comes and goes” year round in Tadloe. He predicted the storm wouldn’t last until night. “That’s Alabama weather,” Joe remarked, to which he received blank stares.
The only one of the four with any prior carriage driving experience was Grandfather and he was more than happy to take the reins. Joe, whose first encounter with a Knome was Ekaf, noted that Grandfather was much quieter and more introverted compared to the other Knome and, from what he’d heard, that was peculiar for their race. Nogard, on the other hand, was not so quiet. He was chock-full of questions.
“So how Solaris be treatin ya, mon?” Nogard asked, slipping on a silky body-length robe and lighting the long stemmed corncob pipe in his mouth – he looked like a reptilian Hugh Hefner.
Joe shrugged, “I’ve only been here for a few days, though it’s felt like forever. Man, since I got here I’ve been chased by spirits and barrens, inducted into pyromancy, bitten by river monsters, exploded, ridden see-through flying horses, been chased by town guards, chased by knights-” Joe paused to breathe, “It’s been a long four days.”
With a sly, sharp toothed grin the reptile replied, “Sounds like dey be good days, doe.”
Joe opened his mouth as if to speak, then smiled and nodded in agreement. Zalfron sat watching the lightning crisscross the overcast skies. There were two benches in the carriage cabin. The booths faced each other so that their backs rested on the walls. The seats were cushioned and the carriage was quite comfortable. Every muscle in Joe’s body cried out for him to go to sleep but the bumpiness of the water-logged road ensured that sleep would be no easy feat.
“What do they call your people again?” Joe asked.
“Cold-blooded bastards,” Nogard held a emotionless stare for ten seconds before bursting into explosive laughter, “Hahaha, nah, mon. We chicken dragons, only scaled folk you liable to run into dese days.”
“That’s what I thought,” Joe said, “like Cannon.”
“Honorary fadder of my kind, mon!” Nogard nodded.
“Hae was a Sentry!” Zalfron stated.
“Psh,” Nogard chuckled, “You skinned folk always tryina take da credit from dose of us wid scales.”
“Damn right!” Zalfron declared sarcastically, “So where were ya headed after Portville?”
“Lookin for a way into da Aquarian Ocean. Got a friend I be tryina see.” Nogard said.
“Fishfolk?” Zalfron asked.
“Ah didn’t thank chicken dragons raelly lahked goin below the surface fer long.” Zalfron said.
“Come on, mon! Not all chicken dragons are da same!” Nogard laughed, taking a puff before admitting, “But, you be right. I don’t.”
“So it’s a rael good friend?”
“How long would you be staying with him?” Joe asked.
“No clue, mon, til he kick me out I guess,” Nogard laughed, “why?”
“More than a day or two?” Joe continued.
“Hahaha, yea mon, why?”
“Oh,” Joe sighed, “well, we are headed to the Emperor. Hopefully he’ll tell us who all we’re supposed to be looking for…he might even be able to clarify whether or not I am the Sun Child. Anyways, if you happen to be on the list, I thought I should ask where could I find you?”
Nogard shrugged, “Don’t know. I never know. I’m here and dere.”
Damn, Joe thought to himself, maybe he isn’t one. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
“Come on man, ah thank ya should rahd with us.” Zalfron stated, “Everyone has plans! Ah had plans when ah ran into Joe but how could ah turn down somethin this big?”
“Someding you dink is dis big,” Nogard critiqued, “yall jus guessin!”
“But what were the chances of us runnin into you? Don’tcha fael it?” Zalfron turned to Joe for support, “Come on, don’tcha guys fael it?”
“I feel it…I think” Joe sighed, “Zalfron, he’s right. We can’t expect him to drop everything because of what we believe.”
Zalfron frowned and folded his arms. Nogard playfully nudged the elf’s boot with his sandled feet.
“Don’t worry bout dis proppecy business. It happens if it be meant to happen, mon. Dats why it be a proppecy.”
The cabin went silent. The thunder grew distant and the lightning became frayed threads on the horizon. Joe ran his hand through his hair, it was still dripping wet, damn I need a towel! Nogard looked around with his scaled-eyelids pursed. Zalfron looked back out the window, a blank stare in his gaze, lower lip hanging down to create a very un-intellectual expression. Sighing, Joe closed his eyes, and, despite the rugged road beneath them, it only took seconds for him to fall asleep.
And then five minutes for Zalfron to wake him back up.
“Ah never finished the storay!” Zalfron exclaimed.
Joe yawned, “Oh yeah…where were we?”
“Ah cain’t remember…” Zalfron frowned.
“Uh…So, Saint grew up in Munkloe then got fed up with the Bishopry and started a fight.”
“Yea! And the Archbishop framed the Bishop of Munkloe so hae, Apache, decided to back up Saint which meant it became Munkloe against the entahr Bishopry.” Zalfron recalled.
“Da story of Saint’s rise, eh?” Nogard asked, “Haven’t heard dis sense I was a lil tot! But don’t lemme interrupt, gogo’s got me talkin, go on wid de story, mon.”
“Alright, so this is the Tale of the Renegade Crusader…”