As the clouds dissolved into the night sky, the three moons were revealed to be nothing more than slivers. Only the stars and fireball street lamps lit the city of Portville. Morning was on its way in, slowly bringing Solaris back into view. No one saw the man enter the city. He was tall compared to most Tadloens – aside from his fellow bearns. Green luminescent flames pulsated around his skeletal body. Each step made his armor clang like distant church bells but still no one in Portville noticed and it probably had to do with the spell being weaved, under the guise of merry music, by Hermes Retskcirt’s guide.
The guide, the Bard, was an eccentric character. He always seemed to turn up when there were large sums of gold on the table. He was dressed in layer upon layer of flamboyant crimson, as if he wore all the red in his wardrobe, and armed with a banjo which he strummed fiercely. As he sang and skipped, his scarlet tails danced about beneath his fedora.
“Heyi, eyi, oh! Eninac and Meriam both!” The chicken dragon sang, “They’re bound by fate to succumb to waves, in the midst of our final days! Tragedy, sweet tragedy, why oh Lord did it have to be! Tragedy, sweet tragedy, they’ll die together happily!”
A black cat ran out of an alley to stand before the burning skeleton and his reptilian musician.
“Hello, Catherine,” Hermes said, having to speak loudly as the Bard continued to sing, “How is Route 15?”
“Is this about last night?” Catty asked as she left her cat form in a shadowy poof. Once more, the stunning, slender dark haired human was staring defiantly into the eyes of, what she believed to be, an opponent. All the while she wondered: They’re here to punish me? They didn’t give me time to correct my mistake. Creaton knows I always correct my mistakes!
Clink, clink, clink, clinkclinkclinkclink –
Cobblestone was chipped and churned, zig-zagging a course through the streets. Catty’s first thought was that they had another magic-cursed worm upon them but the tunnel was far too small and her crow eye assured her this was not the case. After the initial surprise she recognized it for what it was – a mailmole. The tunnel hit a nearby house and the mole burst to the surface. It’s nose twitched, whiskers vibrating like the strings of the Bard’s banjo, then, after a quick sniff around, it ducked back into its hole and dug over to where the three stood. Again, the subterranean rodent breached the surface. The creature puffed out its chest, lifted a dirt-speckled sheet before its snout, cleared its throat, and spoke clearly in common tongue.
“Mole Hershel reporting for Aeschylus with orders from Our Lord to a Catherine Meriam! You are no longer Boss of Route 15.” A faded green turtle shell sat low over the little creature’s beedy black eyes bouncing with each syllable of his message. “You are to intercept Hermes Retskcirt as he arrives in Portville with the Bard. In order to ensure the safety of your beloved F-”
Catty snatched the sheet from the mole. The Bard and Hermes exchanged curious glances. With his beetle like eyes, the mole stared at Catty as she read. His whiskers had stopped twitching. A tear budded in the rodent’s eye. Finishing the letter, she tucked it into her collar then strode forward, between the mole and the banshee.
“Tell Mr. Roq I will do just that,” Catty knelt down and lifted the little guy’s helmet to scratch the cowlick on his scalp, “thank you, Mole Hershel.”
The mole cringed with pleasure then, with a tip of his helmet, he disappeared back down his tunnel.
“Tardiness should never be rewarded.” Hermes growled, “As a fellow rodent, I assume you empathized with the rat.”
“Rodent?” Catty hissed, “I assume when a banshee loses their flesh, they also lose their brain.”
“The allies meet and sparks fly, contemptive glares, parallel crow eyes!” The Bard declared, “Wolverine and cat working for a fox. Backstab and attack her, if her guard drops!”
Hermes and Catty turned to the Bard. His strumming slowed as he saw that the annoyance once directed at each other was now aimed at him. With a grin and a few plucks on his banjo strings, he sang, “Goodbye fair folk, I’ve earned my gold! So now I head home fore my songs grow old!”
“May I never see you again.” Hermes prayed.
The Bard danced off.
“No wonder Aeschylus loves him…” Catty murmured.
If Hermes’ lips hadn’t long since rotted off, Catty would’ve caught him smirking.
“We might actually get along, Meriam.”
“We might have no choice.”
“What happened last night?” Hermes asked as he gestured for Catty to follow him into the alley from whence she had came.
“You’ve heard of Grandfather?”
“The Knomish smith?”
Catty nodded, “He intercepted one of my shipments of dark marrow. Poured it into the dirt.”
“Odd… he’s never given us much trouble before…” Hermes muttered, “Are you sure it was him?”
“You can’t mistake the Suikii,” Catty responded. Though she was offended by the banshee’s doubt, she understood his befuddlement and offered an answer, “He wasn’t alone – had three young men with him, two of which come from families closely associated with the Trinity Nations.”
Catty took the lead, guiding Hermes through the narrow back-passages, taking him deeper into the city.
He asked, “And the third?”
“He was a pyromancer.”
Hermes perked up, “He wasn’t human, was he?”
The sun was rising, the stars and moon were slowly being painted over by blue skies. This stripe of sapphire, wedged between rooftops, was all that could be seen above them.
How’d he know that? Catty wondered. Of all the races, a human would’ve been Catty’s last guess. She remembered Grandfather’s mention of the Delian Prophecy. Maybe I was wrong about the pyromancer.
“What is the reason for me meeting you here?” She asked.
“Our Lord has instructed me to hunt down a human boy from Earth.” Hermes answered, “A boy that some in the Bastard Emperor’s tightest circle believe to be the Sun Child.”
“He’s in the Barren’s Mullet!” Catty exclaimed, “Right now! As we speak!”
Before she could take off towards the infamous tavern, Hermes halted her with a shout.
“Wait!” He strode around her, blocking the alley before her, “We must wait.”
Despite her hatred for being told what to do, Catty knew he was right. After the battle at the bar, it was sure to be crawling with heated patriots. Even with a banshee around, it would be quite risky to try and fight their way to the pyromancer – especially if the four infamous veterans still lingered. Sniper and his crew would loved to get a chance to kill the man who had defeated the last Samurai. Yet, Hermes didn’t know they were there – did he?
“Why?” She demanded.
“I have a plan.”
Rolling her eyes, she took his bait, “Which is?”
“Aren’t you curious how Creaton heard about this Earthboy?” The woman replied with an impatient glare. Hermes continued, “Ofcourse you are! Curiousity is your kind’s weakness, isn’t it? Well, Our Lord sent me to find one of his old boneguards and destroy an old book that belonged to the undead – a book of prophecies.”
Catty scoffed, “Do you believe in the boogieman, too?”
“I have no choice but to!” Hermes argued, “I’ve been ordered to kill him!”
“Then lets get on with it!” Catty cried.
“If the book is right, then we will have plenty of chances to and, if the book is right, then letting the Earthboy run for a little while longer will work to,” here he lied for, from what he had read, delaying the murder of Joe would benefit himself but it would ruin his new partner, “our advantage.”
“And if it is wrong?” Catty asked.
“Then he isn’t Saint’s savior and will be no trouble to us anyway. We will abandon my plan, swoop in, and kill him.” Hermes concluded.
“When will we know?”
“Today,” Hermes said, “we will meet them on board a ship. The Earthboy and his friends will escape, but we will capture Grandfather.”
“Not as long as he has the Suikii!” Catty laughed.
Hermes shook his skull, “Precisely. It seems nigh impossible to capture that weasel which makes this all the better for testing the reliability of the book.”
Catty didn’t trust Hermes. Yet, she also knew that returning to the tavern would be suicidal. Approaching the pyromancer on the high seas – away from the help of Emperor-loyal Tadloens – would be the most practical approach to the mission. Even less than Hermes did she trust the word of fortune tellers. Her hatred for prophecies gave her a sick desire to shatter such predictions. But then there was the curiousity. How long had it been since she’d seen a pyromancer? Wouldn’t there have to be something to this boy to get a skittish character like Grandfather to stick his neck out in a war he’d been, up until this point, essentially avoiding? Might as well ride it out, she figured.
“As soon as you find a word of that book untrue, we end this silly game and kill the pyromancer as we were ordered.” Catty stated.
“Deal. Now, how’s your eye on shadows?”
– – –
Rising with Solaris, Joe, Grandfather, Zalfron, and Nogard left the Barren’s Mullet . The quickest way to God’s Island would’ve been by dragon but, ever since Talloome Icelore attacked the capital, security had been increased and only ship traffic was allowed into the city. So there were two options: sail north or south. To head north from Portville would have taken roughly two days (approximately four naecos). However, the eternal foe of sea goers, known as the Iahtro Storm, had been orbiting God’s Island for a week now and was forecasted to be in the Bearn Sea, north of Tadloe and south of God’s Island, for the next two or three days. The other option was to travel south, a voyage that would take three days (approximately six naecos). Either route was risky. The Iahtro Storm had a will of its own and often changed direction when least expected. For this reason, most ships were avoiding traveling to God’s Island altogether but there was one ship willing to take them, the Sea Cuber.
Not only was this ship brave enough to set out on such a journey but it was daring enough to allow a mancer on board. This peculiarity was due in whole to the cargo: Knomes. Sense the vast majority of the Knomish race lived beneath the world’s crust, in a place called the Under, when Knomes ventured to the surface they came as tourists. Knomes would’ve loved to settle in the light of Solaris, and some did, but widespread discrimination discouraged it. Solarins saw Knomes as liers and theifs and treated them as such. Few businesses catered to Knomes, including ship captains. The Sea Cuber was one of the only vessels in the harbor of Portville willing to permit Knomes onboard and, in doing so, it quickly was over flowing with the little people. Despite the fact that a predominately Knomish vessel was unlikely to be admitted into the capital, Grandfather assured his followers that they’d find a way to switch ships before their arrival.
The stall and gangplank was sparsley populated, not a soul, neither tall nor short, stood in line.
“Anything you don’t want stolen,” Grandfather said as he paid for their ticket, “throw over board. And if they steal something, don’t be violent. Knomes aren’t aggressive but if you threaten one, they’re all feel threatened. Joe, if you don’t believe me, ask Zalfron and Nogard.”
“He be right, mon,” Nogard nodded, “Knomes have no manners.”
“Of all the Knomes ah’ve met,” Zalfron said, “cain’t rememer one good thang bout em.”
If you can remember anything about them at all, Joe thought with a grin. He asked, “It seems like we might not have much to worry about, the ship looks empty.”
“Despite my knack of timely prudence, my kinfolk run on schedules as if they’re banshees,” Grandfather continued his hate speech, “trust me, the ship will surpass capacity. No time for lollygagging.”
No sooner had they set foot on the deck than did a trumpet blow from above the helm. As if they spawned out of the scaffold itself, flocks of Knomes were on the boys’ heels before the tone ended. They waded through the mob, swatting prodding phalanges while simultaneously protecting their pockets.
Zalfron leaned towards Joe and whispered, “Ever sae anythan lahk this on Earth?”
It was a fatal mistake. A handful of Knomes heard the exotic term and in seconds the mass’s frenzy reached a whole new level. It seemed they sought to snatch the clothes of the young men’s bodies, all the while they bombarded Joe with questions which became less and less motivated by genuine curiousity and more and more out of a michevious desire to mock the outlier.
“Do they have Knomes?”
“Do they have humans?”
“Do they have women?”
Some struck Joe as suspiciously to aware.
“Are you American or Russian?”
“Are you a terrorist or a republican?”
Grandfather, who had dodged almost all discomfort due to his race, had to step in and distract the crazies with snide remarks of his own, hampering efforts to molest the outsiders as the Knomes hesitated in an effort to one up their old fellow’s retorts.
By the time they made it to their suite, no one had any desire to leave. The room was rectangular, with a booth by the window in one corner, two sets of bunk beds in the other, and a kitchen table in the third. Thankfully, the vessel had not been built for Knomes. Sitting across from each other in the booth, they entertained themselves by talking and taking turns peering out the porthole. They were heading west and expected to see the icy banks of Iceload by the light of morning.
It was around lunch when Grandfather noticed that something was off. Nogard was puffing his pipe, Zalfron was snoring, and Joe was leaning over him to stare out the porthole at the fuzzy outline of the Tadloen coast. Yanking off his cone, Grandfather shuffled through the contents of his hat with one hand and scratched his curly white hair with the other. He felt as though he was forgetting something, the same nagging feeling that occurs when you can’t remember a word, and though he couldn’t place it he knew there was something off.
His eyes grew wide.
Nogard choked on smoke and Zalfron sat upright so quickly that the back of his head clocked Joe in the chin.
“The warpcube! The one I gave you!” Grandfather dove forward and shoved his hands into Joe’s pockets, “Where is it?”
Joe looked down at the Knome who stood a little too close for comfort. I swear I guarded my pocket, but from Grandfather’s expression he could tell it wasn’t there. Grandfather retracted his hands, turned to back to his side of the booth, slipped his hat back on, then slammed his head on the bench.
“My key…” Joe muttered.
“Did you lock it?” Grandfather asked.
“Lock it?” Joe asked.
Grandfather’s temple returned to the bench, “Guardians help us all.”
Nogard nudged the Knome with the stem of his pipe and Grandfather accepted the offer.
“Thank you could get it back from em?” Zalfron asked.
“Get it back? Get it back! Did you not just endure the insanity? Even if I could get them to listen, they all look the same! I’ll end up searching the same Knome a hundred times over!”
“Ya know mon, you may be a Knome, but dat is pretty racist.” Nogard stated.
Zalfron tried to shrug off the emotional toll of Grandfather’s ridicule, “Ain’t no sense in crahin over spilt baer.”
The elf propped his feet up on Grandfather’s empty seat and slumped back down to go to sleep. Grandfather’s tiny hands balled into fists. He was one second away from storming over to Zalfron and pummeling the elf. Nogard pacified the old man by handing the pipe back his way.
“He be right, dough.” Nogard admitted.
“We’ve got to find it!” Joe said, standing, “If they get ahold of those keys…” he shuddered, “would they know how to use them?”
“Oh, if not they’d surely figure it out! But you sit down.” Grandfather commanded, “You three must stay here, I’ll be back.” Grandfather marched over to the door but before he left he repeated his order, begging, “Please, do not leave this room, okay?”
Joe and Nogard nodded. Zalfron was already half asleep.
“Zalfron?!” Grandfather demanded.
“Alraht!” Zalfron jerked upright, “Ah ain’t gonna laeve the room!” He slumped back down, mumbling, “Shit…”
Satisfied, Grandfather opened the door and shut it swiftly behind him to keep the curious river of Knomes from flowing in.
– – -
Standing before the door to the suite, Grandfather slipped off his hat and tossed Joe’s warp cube in with the rest of his trinkets – most of which were other warp cubes – then looked around. The passageway was empty aside from a few Knomes here and there, none of which seemed to notice him or particularily care about the room he stood before which was a drastic difference from the hall he’d left. Those blasted boys! He put on the hat, flung the door open, and strode in. He was right. The boys were gone. As soon as his brain translated this into thought the door slammed shut behind him. His smile dropped dead as something excruciatingly hot wrapped around his neck. A split second later, he was lifted off his feet and pinned against the wall.
“This time your pyromancer won’t come to your rescue.”
Catty’s voice chilled his nerve endings but not enough to compensate for the burning grip. It wasn’t her hand holding him, though her hand was raised as if she was, it was shadows. Across the room, she stood in the corner by the table. A ray of darkness stretched from her fingers to the Knome, pressing him to the wall with a steaming embrace.
Round two, here we…Grandfather jostled his wrist…go? The Suikii didn’t answer. The interdimensional blade had only abandoned him a few times before but normally there was some kind of warning, a short break up before the absolute rejection, Great timing. He’d have sighed if he had the breath to do so. If that sword ever comes back I swear I’ll…I’ll…
“Where’s your toy?”
Lowering her hand, Catty drew one of her swords, leaving the shadows around Grandfather’s throat. The Knome squirmed. He swatted at the hot blackness that pinned him but only accomplished burning his palms. As if she actually were part cat, she took her time. She took each step torturously slow. Her hips swished as she strode forward while her lips twitched with anticipation.
At least if I die, it’ll be by her…Grandfather ceased to struggle. Suffocation was beginning to enforce its lethal apathy…the sexiest human I’ve seen in a long-
The sword came!
He sliced through the shadows binding him to the wall. Catty lunged but was too late. Before he even touched the ground, Grandfather had sliced open a portal, fell through, and the sword shut it behind him. Catty cursed. The Suikii dropped the old Knome behind her and Catty whirled around at the sound of his boots on the table top. He ran off the table and jumped, swinging the Suikii. She parried and ducked, allowing Grandfather to roll over her shoulder and slam against the far wall as she slid her second sword out of its sheath. Once again, Grandfather opened a window through which to fall before hitting the floor. Catty backed into the corner she’d hid in before and engulfed her blades in shadows.
When the Knome reappeared, above the booth seats by the porthole, she swung her blades in the air and launched darts of whispy shadow. He sliced through the first, deflected the second, ducked under the third, leapt over the fourth, swung the Suikii beneath him as he hung in the air, then disappeared before he could be struck by the final.
“Cheating!” She hissed.
Appearing beneath the table, Grandfather sliced her across the back of her calves (which was truly merciful seeing as the Suikii was sharp enough to cut both of her legs clean off). She buckled. She twisted to stab under the table but the Knome was already gone.
“And shadowmancy isn’t?”
Grandfather had spoken to soon. As soon as the first syllable reached her ear she realized that Grandfather had reappeared in the corner above and behind her. Dropping her swords, she put her palms to the floor and, ignoring her bleed legs, she swung her body heels-over-head to deliver a beautiful double-mule-kick straight into the old Knome’s groin. He flew across the room to slam against the wall. This time, he was in far too much pain to open a portal before sliding to the floor.
The two glared at each other from across the small suite.
I underestimated him. She forced herself to stand, No. I underestimated his sword. Grandfather didn’t budge. Catty marched forward, refusing to flinch as each step wracked her body in pain, and drew back both her swords. Still Grandfather remained on the floor, holding the Suikii in one hand and his balls in the other. What’s he up to? Criss-crossing her blades and lining the crux up with the old man’s neck, Catty took another step, closing what little space had existed between them, and sliced-
-she stopped herself with the edges of each blade pressed against his throat.
“I’m not going to execute you.” Catty lowered her weapons and staggered away.
“Why not?” Grandfather shrugged, “I’m done.”
“I’m done!” Grandfather exclaimed, “That kick!” He adjusted his hand and shuddered, “I’m done. Do what you must,” he bowed his head, “kill me.”
“You’re not done.”
Lower her swords from his neck, Catty stabbed Grandfather in the foot. The Knome howled in pain. Catty yanked her sword free then retreated back to where she stood before.
“BITCH!” Grandfather was up, hopping on one foot, “You gonna torture me if I don’t fight?”
“You wanna fight?” Grandfather roared, “Here’s your fight!”
He sliced at the air. Nothing happened. He paused, cursed his blade, then ran – or hopped – to the door. Catty didn’t bother stopping him.
“What a puppy.” Catty sighed.
In the passageway, a crowd of Knomes had gathered to listen to the fight. Some had even taken to collecting money for any Knomes willing to place bets, despite having no clue who was actually fighting within the room and how one would decipher who bet on who. Some had merely been passing through, got caught in the crowd, forgot what they were doing, and decided to stick around to see if they could make anything of the awful commotion going on behind the door. All in all, over fifty Knomes had gathered in only a few minutes. They were thrilled when Grandfather came out. They parted to allow him to hobble by – some even helped him along though they searched his pockets in the process.
“He has the Suikii!” One of the Knomes said.
“Grandfather’s on our ship!” Another said.
“You didn’t know?”
“Yes, I’m Grandfather!” Grandfather snapped, “Now get out of my way.”
When the Knomes saw Catty in the doorway they were even more excited, though excitement wouldn’t be the correct term, outrage would fit better.
“She’s the one who was fighting Grandfather!”
“She hurt Grandfather?”
“SHE HURT GRANDAFATHER!”
Waves of bamboozled horror surged through the dozens of Knomes and just as it seemed the anger would climax, a sudden noise rocked everyone’s train of thought. The sound was as if someone was dragging their fingernails down a chalkboard combined with a rumbling like distant canon fire. For a moment, everyone stopped, everyone winced, even Catty. But then it was gone and they were left wondering if they’d even heard it at all.
“Stand aside, brother,” one of the Knomes said, “We’ll handle the demon-woman, let’s go men!”
Before Grandfather even had the time to “stand aside” the mob of midgets pushed their way into the room, taking Catty with them. Well, that worked out nicely, Grandfather sent the Suikii back to wherever the blade went when it disappeared and adjusted his cone hat atop his head, but what was that sound, I’ve heard it before–
He forgot the noise as he remembered: The boys!
The Suikii reappeared in his hand.
“What do you want?”
The sword vibrated, trembling like an impatient kitten. With a shrug, Grandfather lifted the blade into the air and swung it in a circle. A portal opened immediately and Grandfather did not like what he saw inside. Darkness, pure darkness, like the shadows Catty had thrown at him. Even the Knomes surging towards the room behind, Knomes who normally would have hopped through any portal rain or shine, made sure to step wide around the blackness on their way by. Grandfather tried to swallow his spit but his throat had run dry.
Now he remembered where he’d heard the sound before.
All he could do was hop forward and hope he wasn’t too late.
– – –
“Nogard, that a new robe?” Zalfron asked, he’d given up on trying to sleep barely a minute after Grandfather left and had begun to ask questions that made both his travel mates wonder whether or not he had ever looked at them twice. Before this question, he’d asked Joe if his hair had always been brown.
“Dis?” Nogard looked down at the robe, deep indigo with a rainbow assortment of cartoony flowers, and shook his head, “Nah mon, same as da one ya met me in.” He split a mischevious grin, “When dat nose of yours get so pointy, mon?”
“Saerissly, you look diffrent.” Zalfron replied.
“I don’t know about lookin different, mon, but I do feel like I be forgettin-”
“Where’s your sword?” Joe asked.
Nogard reached behind him and patted the leather sheath that hung between his shoulder blades – the empty leather sheath. His eyes bulged.
“Could ya have left it back at the tavern?” Zalfron suggested.
“Na! I remember having it when Grandfadder said-”
“The Knomes!” Joe exclaimed.
Zalfron’s eyes widened, “The Knomes!”
“Da Knomes!” Nogard roared, storming out the door of their cabin, “Dose damn Knomes!”
Joe and Zalfron stared at the door, looked at each other, then followed. Nogard hadn’t gotten far. As soon as he opened the door, he was swarmed by Knomes. Trembling with rage, he grabbed the closest one, lifted him off the ground, and slammed him against the wall. The Knomes that filled the hall around him gasped.
“Where be mah sword, mon?”
“Your sword? What do you mean? I didn’t steal your sword! I don’t have a sword. Did someone take your sword? I would never-”
“WHERE BE MAH SWORD, MON!”
“Jimbobb Perrywinkle took it!”
“And where be dis Jimbobb Perrywinkle?”
“On the deck! You’ll spot him. He’s the only one with your sword-”
Nogard dropped the snitch and began to wade through the Knomes. Joe and Zalfron followed as the Knomes began to disperse, half of them murmuring about chicken dragons’ tendency to lack anger management skills while the other half raided the boy’s room incase they left any intriguing possessions behind.
“Maybe we should wait for Grandfather?” Joe suggested.
“A very important man gave me dat sword.” Nogard growled in response.
“Yer dadday?” Zalfron asked.
“Never met me fadder.”
“Your brother?” Joe asked.
Nogard nodded, “Sharp Otubak,” his voice was so strained by rage that he was practically hissing, “I’d radder die dan see someone hold dat sword widdout bearin da name Otubak!”
The closer they got to the stairwell, the tighter the mass of Knomes became around their hips. Unlike the passengers they’d encountered in their passageway, these seemed less interested with the boys and, instead, moved in the same direction as if they too sought to see Nogard’s sword. Moving with the current of the Knomes propelled the boys along. It was like riding a stampede of baboons. Even if they changed their minds and chose to turn back and wait for Grandfather they would’ve been trampled by a hundred tiny feet the moment they tried to do so. The afternoon sun was blinding on their way up the stairs so that when they came out onto the deck it took them a few minutes of blinking and squinting before they could see. What they saw froze them in their tracks.
There was Nogard’s sword but it was not in the hands of a Knome. Joe had never seen the man who stood before the mast, holding the sword, but he recognized him. The bear-like skull, dented and fractured, and the emerald flames that enveloped the man gave it away in a heartbeat: Hermes Retskcirt. The wolverine on his chest plate pranced about impatiently, eyeing the boys with wild silver specks for eyes.
“How do you kill a banshee?” Joe whispered.
“Best way is ta lop off their noggin,” Zalfron replied, “or stab em through the heart.”
“And he has our only sword.” Joe muttered.
Nogard was undaunted, “I’m going ta kill him, mon.”
Human-like figures made of shadows formed a perimeter around the banshee, keeping the congregation of curious Knomes at bay. As Hermes raised Nogard’s sword, squeaks of excitement emitted from the audience.
“Nogard Otubak,” Hermes said, his voice made Joe’s brain throb, “what a nice sword.”
“Drop it if ya know what be good for ya!” Nogard demanded.
“I came to kill the pyromancer, but first, I think I want to fight someone else.” Hermes said, dragging each word out, ensnaring the three with anticipation, “It’s not every day you meet one of Dresdan’s bastard sons. This should be fun!”
He tossed Nogard his sword and drew his own, a larger, broader weapon. The symbol of the Black Crown Pact was carved in red upon the hilt. Nogard caught his sword by the handle and the blade hit the deck. Yanking it from the gash the heavy weapon made in the floor, he strode forward, leaving Joe and Zalfron a step behind. The two glanced at each other, gulped, then moved to stand back beside him.
“You aren’t fighting him alone.” Joe stated.
“Wae’ve gotcha back.” Zalfron nodded.
“Ha!” Hermes crowed, “A pyromancer and…what? A peasent? And not a blade betweenst them. Stand aside.”
Four of the shadowy figures left the ring around their séancer and glided through the air. Losing their humanoid shape, they wrapped around Joe and Zalfron’s bodies, pinning their arms at their sides. The shadows pulled them away from Nogard. They struggled beneath the dark energy’s scorching grasp then Hermes pointed his blade at Nogard and everyone froze.
The stillness was ushered in with a sound something like teeth grinding accompanied by deep resounding thuds. Everyone, even the Knomes, shut their eyes tight, covered their ears, and cringed for the brief duration. It could have lasted for an hour or for only a few split seconds, but when it was over it almost felt as though it had never happened at all.
When Nogard opened his eyes it was dark. At first he thought he had passed out and woke up twelve hours later, but he wrote that hypothesis off pretty quick. He was still on the ship, only the ship was a shade of darkness. The entire world had been translated into differing degrees of two colors: black and white. Joe and Zalfron behind him were glowing silhouettes of white distinguishable only by the darkness around them. The two boys were gray in comparison to the brilliance of the figure of Hermes. Hermes’ apppearance had melted into a singular shadow of light in a world of dark, a pure white silhouette of what the banshee had been.
“Welcome to Total Darkness, Nogard,” Hermes said, “the dimension of the dead.”
The ocean water was blacker than the ship, the distant shoreline was but a glowing string on the horizon. The shadow-summons and Knomes were frozen in place, just as his comrades, each colored in separate shades of gray. Even Joe and Zalfron stood frozen.
“What you see is power, pure power. You’re seeing with the eyes of a banshee.” Hermes continued, “Some are brighter than others and some are so bright that their power emanates from their body like fire.”
Hermes’ flames were no longer green, but instead white. What about me? Nogard looked down at himself and his eyes widened. He too was covered in white flame. Woh!
“In this realm, I am the way in and I am the way out. As long as we’re here, only you or I can die.” Hermes explained, “There is no where to run and no one to defend you.”
Nogard swallowed his spit and raised his sword, “Den let’s go mon.”
Hermes was upon him as if he hadn’t even taken a step, as if he had simply teleported to stand a yard from Nogard. Hermes swung. Nogard raised his sword to block. The sheer force of the undead’s swing almost bowled the chicken dragon off his feet. Nogard jumped back but there was no getting space between him and the ivory silhouette before him. Again, Hermes swung, aiming at Nogard’s legs, then his gut, then his head. Each attack Nogard was forced to deflect and stumble backwards. It didn’t take long for Hermes to have forced Nogard past Joe and Zalfron and into the doorway that they’d come out of. If he was forced back into the narrow stairwell, Nogard knew there would be no jumping out of the way from the shadowmancer’s swings. Below deck, the fight would end within a minute.
I have to find a way past him. As soon as the thought graced his mind, he knew the only way. Between the burly white figure’s legs. It was now or never. He parried a final blow from the banshee then he dropped his sword, tucked his head and dove. He scurried across the deck for a little ways on all fours before managing to get to his feet and turn to face the ex-Doom Warrior.
But Hermes was gone. Nogard was left staring at the empty doorway and the frozen silhouettes of Joe and Zalfron.
“I control this realm.”
Nogard spun around, his heart clinging to his ribs. Hermes stood behind him, Nogard’s father’s sword in one hand and the banshee’s own in the other.
“I am everywhere and I am nowhere. If you take your eyes off me for one second, you may never find me again.” Hermes raised Nogard’s sword, “It is unfortunate…I hoped you to be as strong as your brother, but you’re not even a challenge. You’re nothing but a waste of time.”
The sword, which had once belonged to Captain Dresdan of the Obsidian Sail and had been handed down to Sharp Otubak the Mystakle Samurai before it came to Nogard now wavered in Hermes’ hand as if it were melting then it burst into pieces. The shards shot into the air, twinkling like stars, before raining back down to the deck. With a haunting laugh, that echoed through the dark world as if it were a cave, Hermes threw the hilt at Nogard’s feet.
Now the fear swirling about in Nogard’s mind died, not because he was no longer afraid, but because there was no longer any hope. His gut sank, his throat throbbed, and his heart fluttered like a dying moth. His sword was gone. He was useless. He was completely powerless against Hermes without a sword. Nogard fell to his knees and closed his eyes. Its over. Nogard took a deep breath and Hermes raised his sword – I’m done for. – then brought it down-
“Get up, son!”
Nogard opened his eyes and gasped. Though the figure before him was nothing more than a three foot silhouette, Nogard knew immediately who it was. The little Knome was glowing as bright as Hermes, brighter even. Their flames smashed against each other as Grandfather stood between the banshee and the chicken dragon, the Suikii blocking the swing that would’ve been the death of Nogard Otubak.
“You should know better than to duel a friend of the Suikii!” Grandfather growled.
Hermes took a few steps back and readied himself for the Knome to attack, asking, “Two on one is it then?”
“Zero on Zero,” Grandfather replied, “Nogard, let’s go.”
With one sweep of the Suikii, a portal opened up in the colorless dimension. Grandfather didn’t have to repeat himself, Nogard grabbed his blade-less hilt and dove through the portal. Grandfather followed. Color returned to the world as the dimension of the dead closed up and the two returned to the realm of the living. To Joe and Zalfron, nothing had changed aside from Grandfather appearing by their side.
“We’re directly above an Aquarian Dome,” Grandfather said as he limped forward to slice the boys from their burning, shadowy bondage, “All three of you, can you swim?”
“Yes sir!” Joe said.
“Yup yup!” Zalfron nodded.
“Yah mon,” Nogard said.
“Then jump!” Grandfather commanded, “Now.”
The boys ran and Grandfather hopped over to stand between his departing comrades and the banshee, keeping his weight on his left foot. Watching the three run away, the banshee snickered.
“You can’t protect them forever, Knome.”
“One day, I won’t have to.” Grandfather whispered, out loud he said, “Go ahead, chase them.” Now it was he who chuckled, “You might just wind up with a legendary sword in your back.”
With a roar of anger, the banshee strode forward and swung for Grandfather’s head. As the Knome and giant armored monster began to fight, the Knomish passengers around them leapt on Hermes’ shadowy fiends, swarming them like ants.
Grandfather knew he couldn’t beat Hermes, especially not on one foot, but he could distract Hermes until the three escaped and then, hopefully, he’d still be alive enough for the Suikii to whisk him away to safety. He blocked blow after blow from the great warrior, ducking and dodging, and when a move by Hermes looked like it might mean the last of him, the Suikii opened a portal for Grandfather to disappear through. The Knomes had destroyed the shadows but could only watch the gaffer and skeleton duel. They would have the effect of fruit flies on a car windshield if they attempted to assist and, surprisingly, the Knomes realized this and exercised restraint. Equally as surprising, the Knomes watched in silence, almost solemnly, as one of the most well respected members of their kind struggled to fend off a banshee.
“Hermes, why don’t you just walk away?” Grandfather asked, feining a lack of fear in hopes that Hermes had yet to realize his extreme upper hand, “You’re young. Too young to be dedicated to the cause of the Black Crown Pact.”
“Too young? I’m undead, Knome.” The banshee laughed and paused in his attacks to pace around the old man, “And this cause of the Pact may very well save the world!”
Grandfather scoffed, “Ah yes, anarchy would make Solaris such a better place.”
“Have you not read the book?”
Grandfather’s glare narrowed.
“I’ve read what not even Creaton himself has read.” Hermes said with his armored chest puffed out like a rooster. Grandfather was surprised to hear him use the Moon Dragon Man’s actual name, “I know what not even Creaton himself understands, that is, what this Joe of yours means for Solaris.”
“Save your lies for younger ears.” Grandfather snapped, pivoting to keep Hermes in front of him.
Hermes wasn’t fazed, “You should keep me talking, old man. You aren’t your brother, I can squash you like a fly.”
“If you can catch me!” Grandfather dared.
Hermes took a massive step and swung at the Knome but he was gone.
“We can play hide and seek with your little toy all day long-”
Grandfather reappeared a few yards over the head of the banshee. As he fell towards his opponent, he was surprised to see Hermes undaunted by his disappearance. He isn’t even trying to protect himself! Raising the Suikii, he aimed the flat of the blade at the back of the undead bearn’s cranium. The fool’s too cocky for his own good!
“-but at some point you are going to have to face me, Kno-”
Grandfather batted the bearn’s green flaming skull into the crowd of Knomes and the sailors scurried out of the way. The vertebrae of his backbone peeked out from his armor like a frightened turtle. Grandfather landed on the ground behind the banshee unable to believe what he had just accomplished. I just cut off Hermes Retskcirt’s head! His eyes bugged. I just killed Her-
The headless banshee turned to face Grandfather as if nothing had changed. And when he spoke, he spoke from his head that was still somewhere in the crowd of Knomes.
“I’m not just any banshee.”
“How?” Grandfather gasped.
“I’m far more powerful than the Hermes who fought in Iceload.”
The headless-Hermes swung diagonally upward then looped his blade back down. Grandfather hopped about, but each attack he parried made him wearier, and the continued blood loss didn’t help the matter. Not only was he old and bleeding, but now he was not only unsure if he could beat Hermes but of how to beat Hermes.
Just as the Knome thought he would collapse, he felt a familiar heat slither around his neck and lift him into the air. Catty limped out from around the banshee. Grandfather quickly reached up and cut through the shadowy grasp. He fell to the deck, then fell to his butt as his right foot gave out. Catty now stood between Hermes and Grandfather, one sword in hand, one sword sheathed.
“Any last words Knome?” Catty smirked.
Hermes’ head rolled out of the flock of Knomes and floated into the air, coming to a rest back on its neck where it twisted back into place.
“Let him live.” He said.
Catty took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “Why?” Catty’s voice was even more heart-stopping than the undeads. She turned to stare cooly at her partner, sheathing her sword, “Do you want the pleasure?”
“No.” Hermes said, “I am no longer the Hermes of flesh and bone. I am growing in power. How do I expect to become great without a weapon of equal brilliance? Creaton has one, Flow has one, and now I will have one.” He turned from Catty to Grandfather, “You will make me a sword.”
Re-drawing her sword, Catty took another step towards Grandfather but her words were to Hermes, “You’re an idiot.”
Grandfather didn’t budge. He was content to let the two decide his fate – that is if the Suikii didn’t offer him an out.
“I will kill you if you touch the Knome.” Hermes stated.
“Ha!” Catty laughed but even as she did she wondered. Can he? She looked at Grandfather. If he managed to cut off the cocky oaf’s head, then Hermes must not be stronger than I? She couldn’t be sure. Half of her assumed that Grandfather lasted as long as he did because Hermes had, as the big headed cocky banshee tended to do, allowed Grandfather to make it that far. Like a cat toying with its prey. A bad habit that Catty was equally guilty of. In the end, she obeyed. She didn’t take another step towards Grandfather. But she did hiss a warning at Hermes, “Grandfather will be the death of you.”
Then she marched back below deck, refusing the urge to limp by supporting her lower limbs with a burning cast of shadows. Grandfather took it all in silently. Hermes turned back to him once she left.
“Why shouldn’t I leave you with Catty and go after the Earthboy?” Hermes asked.
“Well, first off, she’ll probably kill me and you won’t get your sword.” Grandfather growled.
“You tell me,” Grandfather shrugged, “you read the book.”
“Ah, but I won’t spoil it.” Grandfather could hear the smugness in the banshee’s voice, “Just wait and see, in due time, he and his friends will come to me and, when they do, I will evolve into a new level of greatness.” For the amount of faith Hermes placed in the book, he really should have read the whole thing. He continued, “Now before you begin work on my sword, I need you as ticket into the Fort of Dunvar.”
“Why the hell would you want to go there?” Grandfather asked.
Hermes twisted his skull from side to side, popping his neck to make the old man cringe, “We’ll need void-dust, won’t we?”
“And you think Flow Morain will just give it to you?” Grandfather scoffed, “Catty’s right! You’re an absolute fool!”
Gritting his teeth, Hermes devoted the insult to memory. He will pay for his insolence, he thought yet at the same time he knew the Knome had a point. Flow Morain would not be glad to see him – but where else could he go?
– – –
While Grandfather faced the banshee, Joe heeded the old Knome’s command. He shoved – or kneed rather – his way towards the edge of the ship, wading through a sea of enthralled passengers. Zalfron and Nogard were right behind him. The edge of the Sea Cuber was lined with frayed rope, strung through banisters. The ocean slammed against the hull, launching foam nearly as high as the deck.
Glancing back at his friends, Joe asked, “So?”
Nogard stepped over the rope but held it tight, letting his sandals fold over the raised lip of the gunwale as he stared down into the sea.
“Hold on one second!” Zalfron grabbed Nogard by the shoulder, “Ah ain’t never done this!”
“Dere be noddin to it, mon! Jump and swim down, you’ll see it.” Nogard promised.
“Alraht…” Zalfron gulped. He followed Nogard’s example, stepping over the railing and holding tight, then turned to Joe, “You comin?”
“And we can breathe down there? In the dome?” Joe asked.
Joe had about a million more questions to ask but from his prior experiences in Solaris, he figured it was best to just go with it. I’ve already died once, he reminded himself. He climbed over the railing onto the ledge and gripped the splintery rope tight behind him. They were between twenty and thirty feet above the water, he estimated. Though he’d been raised around rivers and lakes, he had never jumped from so high before. Or have I? How high was that cliff above the Saluman River? Unfortunately, this reminded him of the sort of monsters that swam in the waters beneath Solaris. And that was just a river! He couldn’t imagine, nor did he want to, what could be waiting for him in the ocean. Driving these thoughts from his mind, Joe looked straight ahead and took a deep breath.
“On three.” He said.
But Nogard had just jumped.
“Shit.” Zalfron stated, “Well…”
The elf gave Joe a nod then followed the chicken dragon.
Swim down, just swim down. Joe let go, jumped away from the edge, and flattened his body like a pencil before he plunged into the Aquarian Ocean. Forcing his eyes open as he punched through the surface, Joe scanned below him for whatever he was supposed to be looking for. The Aquarian Dome. He didn’t see anything peculiar but he didn’t see his comrades either. There looked to be only sand beneath him, but he had a limited supply of breath so he quickly began his swim downwards. At the edges of his vision, he could see shadows of creatures lurking further out in the water. He could hear the faintest moaning cries of what he hoped to be whales. He didn’t turn his head, he had no time to dilly dally and no time for distractions. The longer he held his breath, the more he began to panic. His strokes had started out smooth and precise but, as he neared the sea bed, they became rapid and chaotic.
Then he saw something strange. A school of silvery fish swam up out of the ocean floor, turned, and swam back in only to swim back out again. The sandy bottom that Joe had thought he’d seen before was no bottom at all. As he drew closer, he could tell that it was rounded, almost like the side of a hill sloping downwards. The Aquarian Dome! The dome was sprinkled with sand and ocean salt, a thin layer of what was not heavy enough to pass through it. He tore through the water, arms moving with renewed vigor, legs pumping at full speed, ignoring the bubbles budding in his ears. All he could think of was breathing. It took him a matter of seconds to reach the edge of the dome and he didn’t hesitate when he got there. He just kept on swimming.
His arms went through first, clawing forward but finding nothing to pull back. No water? A chill ran across his spine, Is that air? But it was too late to stop. He slipped through the membrane and was no longer swimming, he was falling with a puff of sand and salt raining down behind him. Taking a giant gulp of air, he gasped it right back out.
Joe was in free fall.
He spun around and around, one second he was looking up at the purplish, translucent film of the dome then he was looking at the rainbow display of coral shooting up from the ocean floor.
“HEY JOE! WAE MADE IT!” Zalfron yelled as he slipped through the dome and began his fall.
Joe looked back at his elven friend. The school of fish drifted back through the dome, but instead of falling they began to flap their fins like wings and they glided about for a little before swimming back out – peppering the elf as he tumbled. Joe cleared his throat and yelled back to Zalfron.
“WHAT DO YA MAEN?”
“WE ARE FALLING!”
“AH DON’T KNOW! AH AIN’T EVER DONE THIS!”
Another sharp jab of ice struck Joe’s spine and it wasn’t the cold chill left from the cool ocean water or from the cool ocean air that barraged him. The ground below him was sprinkled with an insane assortment of coral. Every color was displayed and even more colorful were the little fish-birds that swam in and around them. It was impossible to tell how far he was from the ocean floor, distance-wise, but time-wise, he had a guess and that guess was less than a minute.
Having experienced a free fall high above sea level, Joe could tell something was off about this fall. No doubt, if he hit the ground he would make a decent splat, but it wasn’t the same as it had been over Suinus. It was as if gravity was lagging by but a fraction of a moment. So maybe, just maybe, depending on what he hit, he might not die an immediate death. This was no consolation. With an imaginary clock ticking in his brain, Joe searched the corals but he saw little he could do other than get a guess at his fate before receiving it.
Well Death, he thought, looks like I’ll be seeing you sooner rather than later.
Then he hit something and was flung back up. Spinning like a cartwheel, he passed above the still falling Zalfron. What the…he managed to stabilize himself and look down in time to see Zalfron hit the same thing…a jellyfish! They were huge, as big around as trampolines, and yet completely see-through except for the stringy purple organs knotted up inside their gelatinous bodies. Now it was Zalfron that was flying up past Joe. Looking around, Joe saw there were hundreds of jellyfish – an entire school – beneath them! They floated in the air like giant stinging clouds moving with the breeze of the current. After falling for another ten seconds, Joe bounced off another. Then another and another until Joe’s stomach was screaming out, “Uncle!” and he was left wondering if he would ever reach the sea floor.
After almost two minutes of bouncing, Joe hit something that was much more solid – sand. On his back, he lay there for a minute, letting his stomach calm as he watched Zalfron be pinball-ed across the ocean. Beneath the fog of jellyfish was a forest of coral. Giant orange and pink branches soared up out of the sand, disk-shaped purples stretched diagonally out of the arms of porous green spheres. Tiny, manatee like creatures with stumpy legs shrowded in wrinkled webbing hobbled around the skeletal jungle-gym, gliding from one polyp to the next. Winged reptiles sat perched, high above the sea bed, watching the wildlife with hungry yellow eyes. Polka-dotted rays soared between the reefs among the flocks of flying fish. It was beautiful to say the least and for the second time in a matter of minutes Joe found the Aquarian Ocean had taken his breath away.
Zalfron would have fell on Joe if the Earthboy hadn’t rolled out of the way.
“Selu,” Zalfron said through a goofy smile, “that was awesome!”
“Yea, but I wouldn’t do it again…” Joe was looking through the heard of jellyfish hovering above them, “Where’s Nogard?”
“Hae ain’t hare?” Zalfron jumped to his feet and whirled around. Looking up, he squinted for a moment then pointed through the giant jellyfish to a small red shape of a man who had just made it through the sand dusted dome, “Look!”
The jellyfish were moving up, towards the sun, and instead of Nogard falling further down he was being juggled upwards. As soon as he fell through the dome he was bounced right back out. Soon, Nogard would break through the membrane without the slimy trampolines beneath him to break his fall. Joe and Zalfron exchanged helpless glances before turning their gaze back on Nogard. After the last jellyfish left the Aquarian Dome, the tiny red speck remerged and began his free fall. Fish fluttered out of the way as the other creatures of the ocean floor watched in silence. The chicken dragon disappeared from view, into the canopy of coral, and the two waited to hear a distinctive SNAP!
But there was no SNAP! And there was no splat or crunch or thud. In fact, the only noise they heard from Nogard’s direction was an embarrassing, girlish squeal as the scaled man was flung back into view. He landed back on the same coral, getting off three more good bounces before finally coming to a complete stop. Chuckling, Zalfron headed over to the yellow dish shaped coral as Nogard crawled to the edge.
“De fall,” Nogard paused to lean over the edge of the slab of polyp and puke, “always gets me, mon.”
“There had to be a safer way.” Joe stated.
“Not when der be a banshee behind ya.” Nogard replied.
Nogard rolled over the edge of the coral to land in Zalfron’s outstretched arms. Despite the weaker strength of gravity within the dome, the fall still nocked Zalfron to the ground, stealing the air from his lungs. Now it was Zalfron who needed some time but after he recovered the three began to make their way through the coral jungle. Nogard had no clue where they were. Normally, a week or two before his annual visit, his friend would send a mailmole with a description of the plan: where they would meet and when. The letter hadn’t come this year but still Nogard had his mind set to make the journey, the lack of a letter only encouraged him. If his friend was hurt, a trip through Aquaria was the only way Nogard could find out. Thus the three were forced to wander until someone, or something, stood out to Nogard as familiar.
Unfortunately, it would not be someone and it would not be helpful.
They walked until their feet were sore then kept walking. Unaccustomed to the atmosphere beneath an Aquarian Dome, their heads were throbbing and their stomach’s were sickly when Nogard, to Joe’s relief, declared that they were stopping for the day. The ocean was dark and cold. Solaris had long sense set over head. Thanks to the fire still swirling in his chest, Joe was the only one that wasn’t shivering. In the sand, they plopped down on their soggy butts but only got to rest for about a minute before a sound caught their attention.
“Did yall haer that?” Zalfron asked.
“Ya, mon, be plenty of animals down here, don’t be surprised.” Nogard shrugged, “Let’s get a fire going and chase away dis cold.”
Joe frowned, bubbles rising from his chest, as he said, “No fire, apparently, this is still underwater.”
“Aquarian Domes make an atmospere where bode air breaders and water breaders can breade.” Nogard explained.
“Sorray but ah ain’t fixina braed with aither of ya.” Zalfron snickered.
Nogard slapped the elf on the back of the head and finished what he was saying, “It be more like water dan it be like air so red fire won’t be lightin. Das da way Aquaria be.”
“Hey yall, ah thank whatever’s makin all that noise is comin this way…” Zalfron noted.
They stared into the dark branches of coral.
“It sounds big…” Joe mumbled
“Or strong…” Zalfron suggested.
The cracking and popping sounds continued, growing louder. There was no question, the noises were getting closer.
“Be ready to fight my boys!” Nogard warned.
“Good luck,” Joe said, standing, “I’ll be useless.”
“Wae got fists,” Zalfron said, “don’t-”
CRACK! This time, they saw the cause of the noise. A giant branch of coral, cut clean off, soared over the underwater jungle towards the three in their clearing. They dove out of the way. Sand exploded into the air and floated around them. Through the settling fog of dust, they could see the polyp piece sticking out of the ground like a flag and behind it, shooting out of the cloud of sand, a massive orange pincher. SNAP! The pincher opened and closed as another appeared. SNAP!
“Is that,” Joe murmured, squinting through the settling particles, “a crab?”
“Not just a crab, mon,” Nogard moaned, “a blue fire crab!”
Once the sand had fallen back into place, the three stood face to face with the giant arthropod. One segment of its spike covered legs was as tall as Joe and its serrated pinchers were thicker than Joe was wide. Altogether, the creature stood almost two stories tall. It was bright red, the same shade as Nogard’s scales, and it had two knobby blue eyes that shot up from the front of its shell like giant thumbs. It stood there for a moment, it’s little eyes teetering back and forth, pinchers opening and closing.
“I don’t think punching’ll do anything to this guy, Zalf-”
Joe’s comment was too late, Zalfron had already charged. The elf dodged one sweeping swing of one pincher, leapt onto the second, then pushed off it to get close enough to the beast’s face for a good solid punch in the eye. But before he could deliver the blow, Zalfron was thrown backwards by an explosion of blue fire. He hit the ground, completely engulfed in the flickering sapphire flames.
“Farak!” Nogard cried running towards the elf, “Joe put it out!”
“How!” Joe cried, running after the chicken dragon.
“Fire, fire puts it out!” Nogard exclaimed.
“But I can’t…Wait!” Joe raised his hand, his palm facing Zalfron. He focused on the blue fire, closed his eyes, and called it to him. He could feel it twisting around his fingers and seeping into his chest. It provided the same familiar warmth as red fire as the two mingled inside him, turning the stone in Joe’s chest purple. Zalfron lay trembling in the sand. Nogard dropped to his knees, rolling Zalfron this way and that to check the damage.
“He be alright, he be alright, nuddin dat can’t heal-”
Joe had turned during Nogard’s discernment, just in time to watch the crab’s arm swoop down towards them, “Look out!”
Nogard was swept off the ground in the grasps of the giant shelled monster.
Joe ran towards the crab then stopped. My punches won’t do anything to it! It reached out to grab him with its left arm but he jumped backwards, falling on his butt. Scrambling to his feet, Joe retreated, running back towards the giant splinter of coral in the center of the clearing. The crab looked at Joe for a moment longer before it turned its attention back to the chicken dragon in its grasp. I have to hurry…Joe spotted a low hanging offshoot of coral…something! He reached up, grabbed the branch, and put all his weight on it. The limb snapped off easily, breaking in a jagged edge.
“Hey crab!” Joe cried as he ran towards the monstrous sea creature, raising the polyp spear above his head.
The crab paid him no attention. It held Nogard before its open hanging mouth and the chicken dragon screamed, “Hurry, mon!”
Joe hurried. But there was no way he would be able to get there, climb up the creature, and stab it before Nogard would be, at least partially, digested. He was going to have to throw it. Leaning back as he continued to run forward, he did his best. Though he wasn’t necessarily an athlete, he was from Alabama. As a part of citizenship, Alabamians were required to know how to throw a football and get a decent spiral out of it. Unfortunately, he had never mastered the art of a javelin toss. He especially didn’t have the skills to toss the spear up and over Nogard to hit one of the un-armored eyes of the blue fire crab. Instead, the coral spear went straight for Nogard’s back.
“NOGARD, LOOK OUT!”
Nogard turned, eyes wide, and the crab lowered him, just in time for the spear to miss Joe’s scaly friend. The spear hit the crab’s hard shelled face and fell to the ground without leaving so much as a scrape on the sea creature. Before Joe could flee to retrieve another spear, the crab rushed forward and snatched him with its free pincher.
The pinchers held him tight around the waist, squeezing, as it raised him and Nogard before its face. Its eyes wiggled with excitement and its mouth slowly opened to reveal the hundreds and hundreds of teeth hiding inside. The monster’s breath reeked of rotten fish and warmed the water around them.
“Nice one, mon…” Nogard grunted.
“What else could I have done?” Joe asked.
“Don’t as me, mon! I’m not da Sun Child!”
“I’m not the one that got myself caught in the first place!”
“Oh, so it be my fault?”
“Yea, I’d say it’s your-”
“FIRE!” Nogard screamed.
Swirling in the back of the crabs throat were those familiar blue flames. As soon as Joe turned to see them, the fire exploded around them. It disappeared within seconds, leaving them both unharmed and filling Joe with energy. Fire! He could feel it inside him, two separate rivers meeting in his chest, churning over each other as if two snake-like dragons swam within him, waiting to be released. Flinging his arms before him, palms stretched out towards the arthropod’s hanging mouth, he released all the red-fire he had creating such a stream of flame that it was able to survive – at least temporarily – in the Aquarian atmosphere. Directing it into the crab’s jaws, he snuffed out the blue fire that was once again building up inside it then pushed it further to boil the crustaceans organs. It dropped Nogard and Joe as its legs fell out from under it. The crab hit the ocean floor with a dull thud.
Sand swirled into the air once again, hiding the crab as it desperately began to swallow the salty-water-air around it in a feeble attempt to cool it’s roasting insides. Nogard wrapped an arm around Joe and ran his knuckles through the human’s hair.
“I knew you’d pull drough, mon!” Nogard grinned.
“I like the confidence,” Joe began, rolling his eyes, “but I don’t think this is over.”
The sand had just begun to settle again when Joe spotted the top of the crab’s crimson armor rising through the murk. Its blue eyes glared at the human and chicken dragon with agony fueled rage. One pincher was dug into the sand, used almost as a cane to keep it on all eights, and the other held the burnt-body of Zalfron.
“Help!” Zalfron cried as the beast brought him closer to its charred jaws, “Ah don’t wanna get ate!”
“Dat damn crab just won’t die!” Nogard moaned.
“We need a sword!” Joe exclaimed.
And there it was. In Joe’s right hand. The Suikii with its black blade as dark as the sky far above them, almost invisible in the deep blue darkness of the night. Joe looked from the sword to Nogard and then back at the sword.
“Freak out later, mon, da elf’s medium-rare right now and I dink da big bad crab wants him well-done.”
Joe nodded and ran forward. Bubbles flew out of the crab’s jaws as it attempted to force just a little more blue fire from its charred-jaws. With the eloquence of a monkey, Joe scurried up the big clawed arm, which was still stuck in the sand, and stepped out onto the hard body of the crab. As Joe mounted the beast, Zalfron found himself staring at a growing ball of blue flame in the back of the arthropod’s throat.
The eyes stuck up before Joe like giant mushrooms. Bringing his arm back like a peasent with a sickle about to hack at a bunch of wheat, Joe sliced through the quivering sensory organs in one quick, easy swing. Instead of fire, the crab let out an ear splitting scream, yanking its pincher up out of the ground and reaching, as best it could, for the human on its back.
“Finish it, mon!” Nogard cried, “Hurry!”
SNAP! The pincher jerked about blindly as Joe raised the Suikii above his head, holding it with both hands. SNAP! It grabbed a hold of Joe’s leg and yanked just as Joe brought the sword down. Joe was flung off the shell and out into the sandy clearing, leaving the Suikii stuck between the bleeding stumps of crab-eyes. Joe’s flailing body hit Nogard in the chest and the two hit the ground.
They held their breaths as they turned to watch the crab. It staggered to the right, then to the left, dropped Zalfron, then stumbled to the right one last time before falling against a disk shaped coral and snapping it with a horrible CRACK as it collapsed – dead.
“Jesus…” Joe mumbled, rolling off Nogard and onto his back.
“Joe,” Nogard said, sitting up and shaking his head with a grin, “you got da luck of a deity, my boy!”
“Please tell mae that thang’s dead?” Zalfron moaned from where he lay.
“Looks to be,” Nogard said as he got up and offered a hand to the still-adrenaline-high human, “danks to our alien and dat old Knomish sword.”
Joe took the hand but as soon as he stood and put pressure on his right leg he fell back to the ground. It was as if his leg had disappeared from under him. Nogard cocked his head to the side, knelt down, and pulled back Joe’s pants leg.
“Oh…mighta spoke too soon bout your luck, mon.”
“What?” Joe asked.
“Your leg,” Nogard shook his head, “it be broken.”
It was as if Nogard’s words were the keys to some invisible gate in Joe’s mind that was holding back the pain his nerves were dying to transmit. As soon as Nogard told him, Joe was positive that his leg was broken. Then again, from the sudden pain that wracked Joe’s body, Joe would’ve believed Nogard if he said that his leg had been ripped clean off. Tears welled up in Joe’s eyes but he never got to the point of crying, at least not consciously, because he passed out.
– – –
The cell was supposedly Knome-secure, as in, not even a Knome could get out of it. Not that many Knomes could pick a lock to begin with. Grandfather could but most Knomes would not have the patience to fiddle with metal twigs in tiny holes. Most Knomes rarely had a need to. Knomes are like cats. Most people compared Knomes to rats or mice and Grandfather, too, normally labeled all Knomes vermin but, in reference to their ability to escape just about any inclosure, Knomes were cats. Grandfather did not appreciate the term Knome-secure, but he respected the fact that this was indeed one of the only Knome-secure containers he’d ever been locked in (and he also knew he had no right to criticize anti-Knome rhetoric). It was nothing but a square made of bars. Incredibly uncomfortable, he was forced to sit on the cold metal rods with his legs dangling through the gaps. There was no gate, it could only be disassembled with a magic password – a password Hermes had concocted.
The cage was carried by four shadow-summons, one on either side, and progress was slow through the Spring snow covered taiga in Middakle, Iceload. They had a ways to go but Hermes didn’t mind. Iceload was his homeland after all.
Normally, Knome-secure did not mean Grandfather-secure but on this particular occasion it did. The Suikii was being exceedingly difficult and would not open a single portal for the old Knome. He’d sat in the cage swinging it all day to no avail. In fact, Grandfather had the feeling that if he were to send it back to wherever it went when he wasn’t wielding it, he would never see it again. The blade’s hesitation to his calling back on the Sea Cuber had been a sign of the direction in which the Suikii was heading. Though it didn’t happen often, there were times when the sword, which he himself had fathered, abandoned him for another weilder. The blade usually only took a short excursion. Still, without it, Grandfather felt like a puppy without his master.
As he became more and more sure that the Suikii was destined to ditch him, dread began to fill his old, dry bones. Lying the sword in his lap, Grandfather asked, “Now, come on. Can’t whoever just find a different sword. What if I’m dead by the time you come back?”
The sword did not reply.
“You really can be ungrateful sometimes.”
The sword was beginning to fade.
“Whoever they are, they better be up to par!”
The handle had left and the blade was now floating in thin air. Fading in and out.
“Don’t let him mistreat you!”
The sword disappeared.
“I love you…” Grandfather murmured.
It reappeared for a split second, as if to say, “Diddo!” and then it was gone.
Hermes laughed, “Leave it to a Knome to talk to his sword.”
– – –
Joe woke up and immediately decided he was dreaming. The ocean, instead of being that dark blue hue, was now swirling red and purple neon, as if he were inside of a lava lamp. Zalfron and Nogard beside him were but watery figures – their skin squirming, eyes bulging – and their voices sounded like the forlorn call of whales – distant and unintelligable. It took his mind a little while for it to be able to decipher what exactly his friends were saying.
“You thank wae gave him too much?”
“What be too much, mon? It do da same no matter how much you be takin. I don’t dink it matter how much you take…”
Seeing his eyelids flickering, his friends turned to him and laughed. In Joe’s eyes their smiles didn’t stop spreading, their lips continued to pull back and their teeth began to grow. Closing his eyes, Joe knew it before they even said it.
“You be high, mon.”
“Hah?” Zalfron laughed, “Hae’s blown, man!”
“He be completely baked!” Nogard agreed, “How’s it feel to be trippin, my boy?”
“Off what?” Joe managed to ask though his lips weighed a hundred pounds and his mouth was so dry that his bloated tongue felt like a beached porpoise.
“Its sae waed, get it?”
Despite the name, aquannabis was a herb very different from Earth’s beloved cannabis. Aquannabis was an Aquarian found hallucinogen that was mainly used, at least by doctors, for pain. The plant, disguised as a dangerous type of coral, could be torn open to release the gel-like cream inside. One would rub the cream on the injured area then wouldn’t expect to feel it for hours, maybe even an entire day depending on how strong the particular aquannabis plant was. Not only that, though the numbing would apply only to where the gel was administered, the drug would distort the perceptions of the mind in all of its senses.
Joe couldn’t feel his right leg at all and his brain was so loopy he didn’t even remember that it had been broken. Though neither boys were healers, they had no problem accurately diagnosing the wound. Miraculously, the bone hadn’t broken the surface but the leg was bent at almost a right angle in the middle of his shin. While he was out cold, Nogard splinted it with coral and Zalfron manufactured a kelp rope to bind it. Nogard nearly passed out himself when they reset the bone, as best as two amatures could. Then, as Zalfron watched the sleeping Joe, Nogard gathered fire wood – consisting of ship-wreck-debris and dead sea weed. In doing so, he stumbled across a grove of aquannabis (Nogard tried some himself to make sure he recognized the plant correctly). They cut up the crab for meat and used the remaining exoskeleton and broken polyps to create a simple lean-to shelter. After Joe woke up, it took the boys almost an hour to get the inebriated pyromancer to light the fire. As Nogard and Zalfron cooked, Joe’s high began to dim. His leg still remained quite numb and his mind quite boggled, but he was able to follow Nogard and Zalfron’s conversation.
“You remember dat loud boom, mon?” Nogard asked.
Zalfron scratched his wild blonde hair and shook his head. Joe did remember, he’d heard it shortly before Grandfather appeared out of the blue, between them and Hermes, and told them to abandon the ship.
“Maybe I just heard it,” Nogard shrugged, “but when it happened, everyding went dark and time froze.”
“Huh?” Zalfron held his crab-on-a-stick away from the fire to peer at Nogard up close, checking his scaled face for any sign of jokery.
“I swear, mon! Time froze and everyding went black and white. You and Joe were white. Even I was white, Hermes too. It was in dat dark where he broke my sword.”
“Was it some kahnda magic?”
“He said it be Total Darkness,” Nogard explained, “De dimension of de dead, some kinda banshee magic.”
“Jaez,” Zalfron shuddered, “do you thank hae’ll come down hare?”
“Na mon, dis is da fishfolk’s domain.” Nogard shook his head.
“If hae can fraeze tahm,” Zalfron said, “ah don’t thank some fishfolk will scare him off.”
“Da whole ocean would be at his droat!” Nogard argued, “If you aren’t invited, you be in hot water comin in Aquaria.”
“Wae ain’t in hot water, are wae?” Zalfron asked.
“Na mon, I be your invitation.” Nogard smiled.
They were quite for a moment. The gentle current of the strange atmosphere came and went. The darkness of the submarine world made midnights spent in the forests of Tadloe seem bright. Joe wondered what they would do about his leg. He wondered if Hermes had killed Grandfather or if he had gotten away. He wondered if there would ever be a complete eight. Then, for the first time in a while, he wondered if he was still dreaming. After all, who was to say that you couldn’t dream forever in one night? But he didn’t really believe that. The drug was making him second guess himself.
“Hey,” Joe said and Zalfron and Nogard flinched, Joe had been quiet for a while, “how’s my leg look?”
“Well,” Zalfron bit his lip, “it’s still a leg.”
“If we don’t get you a healer,” Nogard admitted, “it might not be a leg for much longer.”
“Eh…I always figured I’d lose a leg anyways, just thought it’d be from diabetes,” Joe shrugged, smirking, “I think a fake leg would be kind of cool.”
“That’s the spirit!” Zalfron laughed, “How about ah finish that story whahl wae cook?”
“Saint’s story?” Nogard asked.
“Yes sir!” Joe nodded.
“Yup yup,” Zalfron said, “Ah’ve gotten Joe up to the point where Saint locked Creaton in a pillar of stone.”
“Slidder back to de shadows, ya bastard!” Nogard quoted.
“Isn’t that what Cannon said when he beat Creaton?” Joe asked.
“Saint said it too.” Zalfron explained.
“It be what everybody say when dey beat da Moon Dragon Man.” Nogard laughed.
“Okay,” Joe smiled, “so how does Saint become Emperor?”
Zalfron cleared his throat then began, “This is the tale of the Bastard Emperor…”