Despite the fact that Solaris was still waking up, the Barren’s Mullet still had a fair share of customers. Most of the patrons were those that had slept the night in one of the rooms above, but some had come solely for breakfast. Ever since Sam Budd had hired Boldarian Drahkcor the Fifth, the food quality at the Barren’s Mullet had increased from occasionally edible to absolutely “scrum-diddly-umptious”. This was a term coined by a common customer – who stole it from a great Earthen writer – and on this morning, the dawn following Joe, Nogard, and Zalfron’s first night in the submarine jungle, this very customer sneaked between the legs of the drowsy door guard and strode into the bar. Ignoring the protest of the employees around him, the patron stormed into the kitchen where he, finally, decided to explain himself.
“I am here to speak with Sam Budd and I need to speak with him right now!”
The cooks tightened their grips on their utensils and leaned protectively over their dishes as they glared at the speaker, a Knome. Only one seemed to know what to do: the Mullet’s culinary messiah.
“Hello, thar, lil brothar,” Bold placed himself between the intruder and the kitchen, keeping him from leaving the doorway, “we don’t let folk into the kitchen n-”
“Boldarian!” The Knome cried, “You’re going to kick me out?”
Bold’s name swept the dwarf’s composure out from under him, “Who are you?”
“Mr. Reppiz!” Bold strode forward with his arms outstretched towards the Knome, “Whot brings you tah Partville?”
Putting aside his initial offense, Ekaf accepted the hug but remained stern, “Serious business, I’m afraid. I really need to talk to Sam but, then again, I probably should run this by you and the Woodland Ridge boy first. After all, it does concern the two of you just as much as it concerns Sam. Well, actually, even more so-”
“Yesterday, Grandfather and three young men were sailing on a Knomish ship called the Sea Cuber and Hermes Retskcirt attacked them-”
“No?!” Bold gasped.
“Yup! Fortunately, the boys escaped but, unfortunately, the great Knomish smith was captured. I can’t say how. After all, with the Suikii, Grandfather should’ve been able to zip-zap-zop right out of that banshee’s range but, regardless, he is in the custody of the Pact and my young friends are on the run.”
“That’s harble!” Bold exclaimed, “Ya don’t thank thull kill im, do ya?”
“No, I don’t think so. Word on the Knomish-grape vine is that the flaming undead plans to have Grandfather make him a sword. Then again, that’s coming from a bunch of Knomes. Grandfather could be dead for all I know.”
“Lard, anothar Knomish blahd?” Bold was flustered, not sure whether to be relieved or just as mortified, “As if banshees aren’t scary enough!”
“I’m not to worried about Grandfather, the old Knome always finds a way out, but I am worried about those three boys he had with him. You see, they’re very important, and now I’ve heard they’re wondering about Aquaria getting into who know’s what kinds of trouble! So, I thought to myself, who are two other highly combat-trained men that I could ask to accompany me? Being in Portville, you and Zach immediately came to mind…”
As the Knome rambled on, Bold sat his spatula down on a counter behind him and turned to his coworkers, “Aye lads, do yall mind if uh step out for a we bit?” Shrugs and shaking heads were the responses, “Thank ye!”
Turning back to Ekaf, he ushered the still blabbering Knome out of the kitchen and pushed him along until they got to an empty table.
“Listen, Mr. Reppiz,” Bold began, “Grandfuther asked Zach and uh to go with um and the boys the uther night.”
“We said no.”
“But…” Bold sighed. He looked away and turned his eyes on his toes, “Uh’ve been thankin…Uh thank it was a mistake.” Despite Ekaf’s natural inclination to respond immediately, he hesitated, sensing Bold had something he needed to get off his chest. Bold continued, “Two yars ago, if ya recall, Zach and uh trud to help with a slave revolt in Vinnum Tow…”
“Oh yes…” Ekaf nodded.
“Uh can’t stop thankin…how many slaves would still be aloive if uh…if we hadn’t of-”
“Slaves were freed because of you too!”
“But only a few…” Bold took another long pause. Then, with a deep breath, he shook his head, shrugged, and looked back at Ekaf, “Uh preciate ya gettin us this job and ull, uh really do, if not then sharly the slave huntars woulda gotten us by now…but uh can’t stay har farever. Uh’ve got to try again. And again, and again, until not a dwarf slaves in those desarts.” Bold grunted, “Uh’d been planning on leaving, uh just thought it’d be in anothar yar or two. When Grandfuthar came, uh felt colled to go with um…but uh didn’t. Maybe uh was scarred. Uh told muhself, uh said it’d be a waste of time. Uh said they’d be just as likely to do the dwarves some good as uh was back in the kitchen, just luk the Samurai…even with muh futhar with um, they didn’t do nuthin far the dwarves…but uh don’t know. That pyromancer…”
“Uh seen it in his eyes. He may not know about the strifes of my people, but uh could tell he would care. Aftar ull, he seems to have volunteered far a war that ain’t got nuthin to do with his people.”
“His people don’t even know this world exists.” Ekaf agreed.
“My fathar, he fought in anothar’s war with the hopes of one day takin the foight back home. Nevar got the chance. But uh…uh’m aloive and well. Uh’ve got the chance and uh better take it while uh still can.”
“Your father would be proud!”
“Well,” Ekaf whiped his hands on each other as if he’d just finished some dusty task, “that was easy, thought you’d take some convincing…” Ekaf giggled, turned, and almost ran into the armor-plated legs of the spirit named Zach, “Woh, didn’t see you there. Say, Zach, you remember me right?”
Zach looked past the Knome to Bold who mouthed the name, “Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz.”
“Mr. Reppiz,” Zach nodded.
“Then how’s about you help me out with something. You see, Grandfather has been…”
“I heard,” Zach interjected with a smile, “I will go.”
“Selu, this was a piece of cake!” Ekaf said, though now he knew it was time for the hard part, “Where’s Sam?”
– – –
“Ya know ah been thanking…” Zalfron paused to burp and the gamey odor of their crab dinner and recent crab breakfast wafted out of his mouth like pollution from a smoke stack, “…bout that banshae yesterday-.”
“Yea?” Nogard asked.
“Well, hae was a banshae, raht? Evraythang ah’ve ever heard bout them is that if ya come across one your done for! Wah didn’t hae kill us?”
“He seemed pretty full of himself, mon,” Nogard shrugged, “maybe we lucked out?”
They’d woken up with the sun. The plan to take shifts throughout the night had ended not long after midnight but their fire – and the smell of cooked crustacean – kept other Aquarian Dome animals at bay. After a quick breakfast washed down with coral-cacti juice, they lubed Joe’s leg with more aquannabis and hit the trail (that is, what they hoped to be a trail). With his arm draped over Nogard’s shoulder – the chicken dragon was six inches closer to his height than the electric elf – the three made slow progress. Despite the bleakness of their situation, Nogard assured them that it would not be long before someone associated with his friend noticed their presence and paid them a visit. Nogard’s submarine associates maintained near omnipotent surveillance of the polyp graveyard. By noon, the effects of the pain killer that coated Joe’s right leg were beginning to wear off. To get his mind off the increasing pain, Joe joined the conversation.
“Is Creaton a skeleton like Hermes?”
“Nope,” Zalfron said, “sae Creaton was turned bah the Well of Youth.”
“If you believe in dat sorta ding,” Nogard remarked.
“You don’t buhlieve in the Well?” Zalfron scoffed.
“People be talkin bout da Well of Youd for two dousand years, mon, if it were real, den it’d be on a map by now.”
“Oh yeah?” The elf rolled his eyes, “Just cause it ain’t on a map doesn’t maen it ain’t rael, ah maen, farak, yer the one takin us on some wald duck chase through this underwater wasteland! Whah ain’t you got yer buddy’s place on a map?”
“Nobody heard of dis place, ofcourse it isn’t on a map, but everybody be talkin bout da Well of Youd – and where is it?”
“Ah thank ya naeda lay off the drugs for a whahle.”
Nogard shot back, “I’d radder rot my brain wid mah plant dan be brainwashed by a fairytale.”
“Hate to interrupt,” Joe lied, “but, assuming it is real, according to the tale, do banshees that haven’t touched the Well all look like Hermes?”
“Yup,” Zalfron nodded, “their flesh rots raht off. Aven their bones would prollay turn to sand if they lived long enough…” He turned back to Nogard, “Explain whah Craeton hasn’t rotted.”
“I can’t explain how magic be,” Nogard laughed, “I got a sword, mon, not a staff.”
“So how do ya get off buhlaevin one thang and not another when ya-”
“Guys, shut up!” Joe snapped.
A creature tumbled across their path, less than fifty yards ahead, stirring up a plume of sand. No sooner did it crash to the ground than did it hop back up. It’s twiggy legs pumping, the creature propelled itself from the cloud of sand only to run head first into the trunk of a thick purple staghorn coral. The impact must’ve snapped the organism’s spinal cord – if it had one – for when it hit the ground this second time it did not get back up. As it lay, it trembled and it’s protruding blue eyes wiggled on their stems. The body was covered in a rainbow of fur starting with yellow by the tail then turning, green, blue, purple, before finally becoming red by the head. Beside the eyes, antennas or antelers – Joe couldn’t decide which they were – stretched out to create a field goal shaped U. From what Joe could tell, he was looking at a giant furred shrimp.
“What is that?” Joe cried.
“An oceantelope,” Nogard said, then he exclaimed, “GET BACK MON!”
Nogard threw Joe off his shoulder and into the sand behind a grove of pillar corals. Landing on his left side, Joe’s ankles collided, rattling his right leg so that blinding pain consumed his body. When the stars in his eyes faded, he peered around the edge of the hydroid and realized why Nogard had freaked. Flopping forward with impressive speed, using a motion strangely similar to what Earthen dancers call the worm, was a massive, tyrian-colored fish. A bulbous red-purple oval, the creature was more belly than anything else. It humped its way across the path and landed on the paralyzed crustacean. Opening it’s fat-lipped mouth, the fish slurped the oceantelope in, slowly, swallowing one segment at a time as if savoring the taste. Joe was almost certain he could hear a faint, high-pitched scream as the giant shrimp was swallowed whole.
“Selu, thas a fishippo, ain’t it!” Zalfron asked.
The two boys cowered in the sand behind Joe, peaking over his shoulder at the spectacular scene before them.
“Ya boy!” Nogard nodded, “In all my years, never seen dem eat before! Rarely even seen an oceantelope inside da dome!” He patted Joe on the shoulder, “Joe be good luck, mon!”
However, the show was not over. Just as the fishippo finished its meal, a spear shot out of the polyp forest, striking the fish in one of its big stupid eyes. The beast flopped forward only to have the end of the spear smack against the coral above it, pushing the point deeper into its brain. When the obese bottom feeder hit the sand, it was dead. Joe, Zalfron, and Nogard didn’t budge but they didn’t have to. Whoever had killed the giant fish had already seen the three.
“Who are you?” Came a voice from the jungle of dead cnideria.
Nogard clamped a hand over the elf’s mouth and whispered, “We don’t know who dese people be!” He raised his voice to address the hidden speaker, “Who be you?”
“You answer our question or die.”
Our? Joe looked around the clearing. How many more are there?
“Guess we got no choice,” Nogard admitted, “but let me do da talkin, boy.” Nogard stood and walked out into the open with his hands up, “I be Nogard Otubak.”
Now it was those in hiding that hesitated. As they waited for a response, Zalfron helped Joe to his feet then assisted him in walking over to where their scaled comrade stood. After a few minutes, the speaker emerged with four others. They hopped down from above, having been posted up in the branches of coral that spread over the deceased fishippo. They were blue skinned and dressed in the blood-dyed furs of a bloated dim dim (another sea creature). Like chicken dragons, these beings had no outward protruding ears. Instead, they had two mesh-looking ovals on either side of the head, reminding Joe of the tympanum ear that sat behind a frog’s eyes. That wasn’t the only alien-like distortion of the beings’ bodies, their noses were replaced with mere nostrils, their heads more diamond shaped than oval, their collar bones were crowned with gills, and their eyes were black, pit looking, similar to that of a shark’s.
“Fishfolk…” Zalfron whispered in awe.
The speaker yanked his spear from the eye of the fishippo, “Hello, Nogard Otubak, you and your friends will be coming with us.”
As the stern faced hunter watched them, with a faint trail of blood still rising, like steam, from the blade of his spear, the other fishfolk tended to the body of the great fish. One of the men was busy using a pale dish-shaped razor to slice the giant fish’s muscle into slabs that he then shoved in the leather pouch on his back. Another came behind this fellow to saw the organs from the flesh, collect the scales, and pluck the eyes from the sockets. A third was busy chopping at the bones with a coral-handled ax. The final fellow had the most peculiar job. Once enough of the ribs had been snapped and removed from the cage, the fishfolk cut a bulging indigo sack loose, quickly tying the sleeve-like intestines that sprouted from either side of the bag into knots to stop the orange liquid from leaking out. Then, he slid a bone-made contraption off his back, pried it open, plopped the bouncing bubble-like organ into the harness, then clamped the bones tight around it before hoisting it onto his back again. With his thighs bulging, the man leaned forward to keep the organ from dragging the ground then led the march onward through the coral forest. The other three followed his lead and the man watching the boys, the man holding his spear, came last, beckoning for the three to follow. The carcass they left was only few scraps of flesh and a dissolving cloud of blood.
“So…Nogard…thase guys our friends?” Zalfron asked.
“Yea mon, don’t worry abo-”
“Quiet!” The spear toting fishfolk demanded, whirling around to face them. The boys didn’t argue. The fishfolk didn’t move for a minute. His black eyes observed the trio. It was impossible to tell where he was looking. Finally, he spoke again, “You’re leg, it is hurt.”
Joe nodded, “Yes sir.”
The man stabbed his spear into the ground and lifted the skirt-like apparel that covered his groin. Strapped to his left thigh was a suede pouch, which looked remarkably similar to some of the organs Joe had seen the hunters remove from the fish. Without a word, he squirted some gell from the bladder then knelt beside Joe’s leg (Joe’s pants leg was rolled up so that the makeshift brace wouldn’t have to be removed everytime Nogard applied more psychoactive painkiller) and gently applied the gunk.
“Aquannabis?” Joe asked.
Standing the fishfolk corrected Joe, “Warmsap.”
“Dat comes from anodder type of coral tree.” Nogard explained.
“Quiet!” The fishfolk demanded, then he turned to Zalfron and offered more, “You too, you’re burned.”
“Ah’ll bae alraht,” Zalfron muttered, looking at the milky substance with distrust, “Ah’m not so sure that-”
The man strode towards him.
Zalfron reared back.
“Zalfron!” Nogard snapped, “Don’t be dumb, mon, ya wanna die?”
With a sigh, the elf closed his eyes and allowed the fishfolk to rub his face and neck with the cream. When the task was done, the fishfolk turned and continued to follow the hunters now way ahead of them. As soon as he turned, Zalfron did his best to wipe the gell onto his charred shirt before jogging to catch up.
The further they walked the denser the coral foliage became. Eventually, only slivers of Solaris’s light managed to reach the sea floor. They would’ve been walking nearly blind if not for the growing brilliance of neon tattoos that covered the fishfolk. When they’d first met, the tattoos hadn’t even been visible but as the journey continued they became brighter and brighter. To further light their path, the fishfolk stopped and set down their bags then unbuttoned their blouses, so that the clothing fell limp over their belts, to allow more of their light-producing body art to show. No one set of images were the same though Joe could recognize a few similar symbols between images depicted on the men. They seemed hieroglyphic to Joe but, as much as Joe wanted to, he did not dare speak up and ask.
Eventually they left the sand and began to walk on shelves of polyps. After a few hours in the coral tunnels, Joe began to notice lights flashing in the distance, like an approaching thunderstorm or fireflies blinking in the woods, and as they drew closer he realized that the lights weren’t flashing but rather slipping in and out of view. They were slender luminescent zigzags and they drifted back and forth within a large structure. Until they got within fifty yards, Joe couldn’t tell whether the building was in fact a building or a peculiar polyp because the walls and roofs were adorned with ocean life – barnacles and bushes. Sitting on a hill of the ancient cnidarian skeletons, the palace was wider than it was tall and was almost entirely enclosed in the great reef around them. The only opening was through the coral bridge the fishfolk led them in on. The castle was built much like a layer cake, one story topped by a trapezoidal roof with the next story stacked on top. The walls were of thin materials, the roaming lights could be seen glowing within them.
The cry came from a man, dressed nearly identical to the boys’ guides except his tunic was white, on the steps of the temple. Their entourage halted as the fishfolk ran to meet them on the bridge. He slammed into the chicken dragon, who shoved Joe off him and onto Zalfron at the last second, and embraced Nogard with a tight hug.
“Janwe!” The stern, spear toting fishfolk snapped, “Fonwe da neda chan!”
Releasing Nogard, the fishfolk trotted back down the bridge and up the stairs, returning to his post across from another guard. Nogard looked back to Joe with an apologetic grimace, Joe responded with a deep breath. Zalfron shifted Joe back onto Nogard’s shoulder and they continued to follow their guide as they marched the rest of the way across the bridge, up the stairs, and stopped at the door so that “Janwe” and the other guard could slide it open. Once they had, the boy’s stern guide turned to the fishfolk that had recognized Nogard and once again spoke to him in their language.
“Wo chiang neda chan.” He said.
“She-she, sheenshong.” Janwe said.
“Tada twe shoshong.” He said, “Day ta shu gay jenso.”
The stern man and Nogard’s friend switched places so that the friend was the one who now guided them forward and into the Aquarian temple. Once the doors shut behind them and the other hunters disappeared, heading their separate ways, the goofy fishfolk nearly re-embraced Nogard.
“Wait, mon,” Nogard nodded to Joe, “a blue fire crab got his leg.”
“Oh, yes,” Janwe bowed apologetically, “I am so sorry,” then he brightened up, “but we have the best healers, you are in good hands.” His grin grew even broader as he looked back to Nogard, “It has been so long, friend!”
“It be good to see you too, mon!” Nogard laughed.
The fishfolk turned to Joe and Zalfron, “I am Janwe. Welcome to Shelmick’s Stronghold. Any friend of Nogard’s is a friend of ours. What are your names?”
“Nice to meet you both!” Janwe said, offering another sharp toothed grin before frowning and looking down at his webbed toes, “I apologize about my brother, Yiangu. He can come off as rude.” He looked the boys back in their eyes, “He doesn’t like funny business.” He began walking again, “How’d you know where to find us?”
“We didn’t mon.” Nogard said, “Dey were hunting fishippo and de beast ran right in front of us!”
“You were just wandering around Mirkweed?” Janwe asked.
“You’re crazy!” Janwe laughed, “This man is crazy!”
“Works everytime, my boy!” Nogard chuckled.
“Only because you have the luck of a god’s son!” Janwe said.
“It be dis one’s luck, I jus be leachin off it!” Nogard replied.
One of the floating lights swam by them and Zalfron jumped out of the way (Joe would’ve too if Nogard hadn’t tighted his grip on the cripple). Janwe and Nogard laughed. Even if the beast hadn’t surprised them, Joe and Zalfron would’ve still thought it horrifying. The snake-like creatures were as thick around as a grown man’s thigh and their jaws were like an alligators except they lacked teeth. The reptile paid them no mind, though, and swam on.
“What is that?” Joe asked.
“A glow eel!” Janwe explained, “They eat bugs so there is no need to be afraid!”
“Where be Machuba?” Nogard asked, “He alright?”
“Well…” Janwe’s shoulders slumped, “He is alive.”
“What do you mean, mon?”
“He’s been captured…”
“Afriad so…” Janwe sighed, then picked his shoulders back up, “but we will soon be sending a group of men to get him back! I am sure Sidon would be glad to let you accompany them!”
“It be an honor…” Nogard spoke with a sense of urgency Joe had yet to hear in his voice.
Janwe stopped before a door and slid it open, “This is our clinic. May we let them see about your leg.”
Joe nodded. Three female fishfolk stood in the room, one busy by a cabinet, another cleaning off a cot, while the third approached Joe. The doctor knelt by Joe’s leg and remarked something that did not sound too promising in the Aquarian Dialect. Standing, she turned to her companion by the shelf and asked, “Shamian yea.”
Closing the cabinet, she opened a drawer by her waist, then withdrew a stone box similar to one where a person might keep their jewelry. Coming over to the doctor, she opened the box and the doctor took out a blue leaf. Before Joe could consent, the fishfolk pried open his mouth with her index and middle finger, tossed the leaf in with her other hand, then clapped his jaw shut. His body’s first reaction was to gag but the woman clamped her hand over his lips. The leaf began to bubble then it dissolved completely, turning almost to a gas. Despite Nogard’s support, Joe staggered backwards sneezing. He glanced back at Zalfron and Janwe but they were nothing but blurs, a blue blob and a pink one. Joe turned back to Nogard but never saw his friend because his eyes fell shut and he drifted out of consciousness.
– – –
“What makes you think Flow Morain is going to be happy to see you?” Grandfather asked, “Something else you read in that silly book?”
Though the banshee didn’t answer, his silence provided Grandfather with enough information to form a guess.
“You’ve got no clue how he is going to respond!” The Knome laughed, “Did you actually read it or just look at the pictures?”
The banshee’s flames flared but he didn’t say a word. The only response Grandfather received was a smirk from Catherine. With a grunt, Grandfather plopped back onto his butt and glared at his shadow-made pallbearers. He had spent the majority of their trek across Middakle annoying his captor as best he could. In all honesty, he was surprised Hermes tolerated him this long. He must really want that sword. Grandfather sighed. He would rather die than forge the undead bearn a magical blade. Then again, these days, Grandfather rarely found himself unwilling to die. He considered himself way past his expiration date and, in the grand scheme of things, he was admittably unnecessary. Solaris didn’t needed him. If he hadn’t realized that himself, the Suikii had promptly informed him by her absence. But, at the same time, after having lived so long there was an urge in Grandfather, an urge that grows in each of us over time, the desire to survive and more often than not, no matter how much he believed he was ready to die, he found himself fighting death tooth and nail.
Catty staggered a bit and cursed beneath her breath.
“Your calves still giving you trouble,” Grandfather asked, “You really should’ve seen a healer, carterizing wounds like that is a surefire way to get a permanent limp.”
Catty ignored him.
Grandfather continued, “I would hate to see such a pretty set of legs all scarred up.”
“Would you like me to stab your other foot?” Catty hissed as she turned to glare at the caged Knome.
Averting his gaze, Grandfather cleared his throat, “This forest is even colder than the taigas.”
“Suppose that’s why they call it Frostwood,” Catty remarked.
“You know, Catty and I could freeze to death out here.” Grandfather said.
“I’ll thaw you out when we arrive.” Hermes said.
Grandfather chuckled, “If Flow doesn’t kill you.”
Hermes snarled, “I’d like to see him try.”
“Would you now?”
The voice was not Grandfather’s nor Catty’s, it was so chilling that it made Hermes’ demonic voice seem prepubescent. Flow Morain emerged from behind the three, having some how avoided the far reaching sight of the banshee he now loomed before. Cloaked in armor from head to toe, the Doom Warrior was as tall as Hermes despite the fact that his skeleton was elven. Their flames were an identical shade of sickly emerald. Two factors made it easy to decipher between the two, Flow wore a closed helmet that hid his entire skull and the engraved beast that romped around his chest plate was a wolf rather than a wolverine. Catty and Hermes staggered away from the imposing figure before freezing in their tracks. Grandfather slinked to the back of his cage.
“What brings Hermes Retskcirt back into my neck of the woods?” Flow asked.
Catty spoke up, “We need-”
Within a second, the tip of Flow’s sword was poking the shadowmancer’s neck. The blade was one sided, much like the Fou-style Suikii, only the edge was serrated like a saw. If it were to have pierced her flesh, even if it was but a scratch, the magic enfused weapon would’ve ensured Catty’s death within a day.
“I am speaking to Hermes…” but Flow paused before turning back to his fellow banshee, “Fancy that, I knew Hermes switched sides but you too, Catherine? It seems you mancer’s have the loyalty of felines!”
Catty didn’t respond, she only glared. Flow lowered his weapon and turned to Hermes.
“Sir,” Hermes said, “I’ve come to ask for a favor.”
“And you come bearing the gift of a Knome?” Flow cackled.
Hermes looked to Grandfather who merely smiled in response. He turned back to respond but Flow had already started walking away, deeper into Frostwood. Hermes then turned to Catty. She too had started to follow the Doom Warrior. Grunting, Hermes directed his cage-bearing shadows to follow.
“Are you going to let him take me?” Grandfather asked, still grinning.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Hermes asked, not looking at his prisoner as he responded.
“You’d be bowing down to him. He knows you plan to keep me. He isn’t an idiot. He’s testing you, to see if you’re still the bitch you were when he saved you.” Grandfather responded.
Hermes froze in his tracks and Grandfather found himself, for the first time, truly grateful for his cage. Hermes continued to walk.
“The more you talk,” Hermes growled, “the less I want your sword.”
“Kill me then,” Grandfather snapped.
“In time,” Hermes replied, “in time…”
They traveled the rest of the way in silence. While Hermes, Catty, and Grandfather sweated, wondering whether Flow Morain would spare them, the Doom Warrior savored their fear. His icy castle came suddenly. The trees grew all the way up to the towering walls of Fort Dunvar. The castle, looming beyond the black façade, was hidden from view by the canopy. There was no gate but, as Flow approached, the bricks wiggled out of the way. Catty, Hermes, and the shadows carrying Grandfather followed and the walls closed behind them.
Inside, the forest continued as if it had never been stopped though now a trail, paved with ice coated cobblestone, twisted through the trees. Tall dark buildings rose here and there, mostly hidden by the brush which made the fort appear like an abandoned city. Though there were people, they just weren’t living. Engulfed in the flames of the banshee and draped in the armor of a Doom Warrior, Flow Morain’s followers could be seen here and there, guarding a doorway, watching them from a window, or wandering away from the road through the pine groves.
“You’re rebuilding your army.” Grandfather said.
Flow didn’t respond.
“Who’s side will you be on?” Grandfather asked.
Flow answered, “My own.”
Not another word was spoken until the road ended abruptly at two large, black marble doors that sealed a tunnel which protruded from the base of a massive tower. The base of the minaret was in the shape of a cross, with four equal sized halls enclosed in ebony stone extending from a box shaped center. At the middle, where the four legs met, was a square shaped ring of arches that covered an open-air walkway which surrounded the actual trunk of the tower. The round bodied tower rose way above the tree line to be concluded by a snowy roof-top courtyard with four small, single-story, watch towers. This great structure, called the Rook Belfry, was as legendary as the knight that defended it.
Flow stepped forward and the doors parted to let them through. He marched them down the long hall, past the arches, and into the chapel that sat at the bottom of the tower. There, he stopped and asked Hermes the question.
“What is it you want?”
“I want void-dust.” Hermes said.
Hermes wished he didn’t have to say. The fact that Flow himself wielded one of the Knomish Four Swords made Hermes doubt the Doom Warrior would be willing to assist in the creation of a fifth. Not to mention, his own personal history with the ghost. Still, Hermes knew better than to lie to Flow Morain.
“So that Grandfather can make another sword.”
Instead of answering, Flow Morain raised the Ruikii and pointed it at the Knome cowering within the cage. An ear wrenching roar tore through the quiet chamber and the world, which had already been dark in the confines of the Rook Belfry, grew completely black. Only matter with energy was intelligible, taking on varying shades of gray and white. Catty and Hermes were frozen stiff, Grandfather, one the other hand, was not. The two were in the realm of Total Darkness.
“Where’s your Suikii?” Flow asked.
Grandfather replied with a hateful stare.
Flow chuckled, “Calm down, Knome, I’m not going to kill you. I just don’t want Hermes and the Meriam girl listening in.”
“May I ask a question?”
“Are you not asking one now?”
“Why did you save Hermes?”
For a moment, the Doom Warrior was silent and motionless. As if he had dropped out of his own spell to be frozen alongside Grandfather’s Pact escorts. Finally, he answered, “You of all people should know the pain of growing old with no one to carry on your legacy.”
“You plan to die soon?”
“I don’t plan to live forever.” Flow replied.
Grandfather knew that feeling.
“Hermes was a lot like me,” Flow shrugged, “I saw promise.”
“Apparently you were mistaken.” Grandfather chuckled.
“You aren’t born with power, Grandfather. You earn it. With the proper teacher, Hermes could be as strong as he believes himself to be.” Flow said, “He should have never left the Doom Warriors.”
“Why didn’t he go back to the Order? Why’d he go to Creaton?”
“He did go back,” Flow continued, emotionless as he spoke, “though he left shortly after his return. You see, Shalis has no interest in sharing her power. Creaton, on the other hand, is like me. He is not afraid to train his followers even if that means that one day he creates a monster that can surpass even himself.”
“Why didn’t you kill Hermes when you had the chance?”
Flow strode over to stand before the frozen silhouette of Hermes, as if mocking the paralyzed undead.
“If it was up to me, I’d let him live forever so that he will always know he will never be as strong as I. Unfortunately, he is doomed to get himself killed sooner rather than later.”
“If you can’t bury your pride,” Grandfather agreed, “you might as well bury yourself.”
“Wise words.” Flow said, “Now, about why I wished to speak with you. Do you want me to take you from Hermes? Is he a hindrance?”
“No,” Grandfather shook his head, “I suppose I should keep an eye on him. Though I wouldn’t suggest giving him the void-dust.”
“Hadn’t planned on it.” Flow assured him, “Where will he go next?”
“Icelore probably,” Grandfather shrugged, “though I can’t see Shalis allowing him to have me forge another sword without her being the ultimate recipient.”
“If he does manage to get the materials, would you do it? Would you actually make a fifth sword?”
“Yes.” Grandfather nodded, “My brother assured me that its all a part of the plan.”
“And you trust that bastard?” Flow growled.
“He’s gotten us this far.” Grandfather said though his tone expressed little faith. Then he asked, “Why are you offering to help me? I never thought us friends…”
“Nor have I…” Flow thought for a moment, “but now, we both seem to have a common goal.”
“Common enemy, rather.”
“Ah…” Grandfather was still puzzled, “who?”
“The Queen of Darkness!” Flow crowed as if it were obvious. Then, lowering his voice as if the beings frozen in time beside them might over hear, he said, “I’m not a fan of the prophecies, but only a fool would think she won’t one day return and I would be wasting my time beneath Solaris if I didn’t spend each coming day preparing for her arrival…Seems to me the Trinity Nations are the most capable to resist her, I’m not eager to ally with Saint, but I don’t mind setting myself against his enemies.”
“Does this mean we can expect you to be helpful?”
“I wouldn’t go that far…” Flow looked back to the silhouette of the undead bearn, “but I surely won’t be helpful to the bastards in the Pact or the insects of the Order.”
Grandfather couldn’t help but express his surprise, “You’ve changed. What happened?”
“I was fortunate enough to speak to the father of my lineage,” Flow explained, “and he revealed to me truths I could not ignore.”
“I thought you weren’t a fan of prophecies?”
“Depends on who is doing the prophesying.” Flow admitted, “What the common folk believe to be the foresight of a prophesy, others might know to be the hindsight of a time traveler.” He smirked, “Now, before we bring back time, would you like me to properly heal your foot?”
– – –
An hour later, Joe woke up in another room. The floor was a taught fabric of some kind, similar if not identical to the material that made the walls. Both the floor and walls were adorned with the hieroglyphs that scarred the flesh of the fishfolk Joe’d met. Sitting on the floor across from him, suckling at leathery red bladders, sat Nogard and Zalfron.
“Good mornin!” Zalfron exclaimed and as Joe sat up the elf tossed him his own flask, “Drank up!”
Joe took a sip and grimaced. This is what alcohol is supposed to taste like.
“Dat be underwatermelon wine!” Nogard explained.
“They gave it to us to tahd us over til dinner,” Zalfron added, “which is when wae’ll figgre out xactly what wae’ll bae doin hare.”
“What are our options?” Joe asked.
“You can always leave, mon,” Nogard shrugged, “dey won’t keep you here if you wanna go back up to da surface.”
“Or ya can stay and help Nogard…” it was obvious Zalfron wanted Joe to stay, “Ah don’t know if ya know who this is but Nogard’s friend is Machuba Gill. Gill! Hae’s a nephew of a Samurai!”
“No way!” Joe exclaimed.
“We didn’t meet by chance, my boy!” Nogard grinned, “Not sayin it was by some proppecy, but it sure be strange!”
Joe looked down at his body. His pants, shirt, and tie were gone and replaced by a blue full body tunic of the same style as the ones worn by the fishfolk around them. Joe lifted his skirt and glanced beneath. They even changed my underwear! He couldn’t help but chuckle a little. Then his eyes fell on his legs. His left leg was covered in a silky white sock and slipped into a sandal. His right leg had the sock too though it was nearly hidden from view. A rubbery, bluish black creature was coiled around his shin.
“Calm down, mon!” Nogard grabbed Joe’s hand before he could begin to pry at the long bodied creature wrapped around his leg, “Dat be der to help ya!”
“It’s uh haeler slug!” Zalfron explained, “That perty blue haeler from the clinic, the one that knocked ya out with that laef, shae explained it to us. Sae, they ain’t got a haeler as good as Bold was. To hael a broken bone ya needa laaaaahtta training and what not.”
“So dey didn’t wanna risk farakin up your leg, mon.” Nogard interjected, “Dey got natural healin meddods.”
“The slugs live off yer filth, sweat and dirt and shit…well, not actual shit, just meant shit as in…shit…” Zalfron lost his train of thought and took another swig.
“Insteada deir moud being stuck to ya, like a leach be, deir ass be.” Nogard said.
“Huh?” Joe was unsure whether he heard correctly.
Nogard’s statement nudged Zalfron’s mind back into action, “Ther shit haels ya!”
“And dey hold on tight which help keep your bone set right!” Nogard added.
“Weird but…also cool.” Joe smiled and petted the slug affectionately. “How longs it take?”
“I dunno.” Zalfron looked to Nogard.
Nogard shrugged, “Dey said when its done it’ll let go and crawl off.”
“Yeah, they come from all over, not just Aquaria, so ya can kaep it on once wae go back above water.” Zalfron said.
With Joe questionless, it was Zalfron’s turn. He gave Nogard a grin that made the chicken dragon fear for his homosexual virginity – the same expression Zalfron had given Joe when he first noticed the rock in his chest in the library of Bonehead’s cave.
“Machuba Gill!” He murmured.
Now Nogard understood the look, he laughed, “Yah mon, didn’t wanna tell you when we first met. Not somedin you can tell a stranger, ya know?”
Joe asked, “Why not?”
“He be a Gill, mon. It be illegal to have dat last name in Aquaria. Dough I doubted a pyromancer and an electric elf would have anyting to do wit King Lacitar, you can never be too careful.” Nogard took a swig from his flask, licked his lips, then finished what he was saying, “I wasn’t about to tell some strangers I would lead dem to da last remaining Gill!”
“This got mae grinnin lahk a mosquita on a moon dragon!” Zalfron euthemized, “Ah ain’t got no doubt, yer one of the eight – Selu! – you and Machuba both!”
“Yea, if he’ll come, he’s gotta big bounty,” Nogard sighed, “got half of Solaris after his head.”
“Why does the king hate the Gills?” Joe asked.
“Do you know anyding about da Gills?” Nogard asked.
“Fish use them to breathe under water.” Joe retorted.
Nogard smirked and said, “Da Gills are a legendary fishfolk dynasty, mon.”
“Yea, lahk the Sentrys or Ipativians.” Zalfron added.
“So what happened? Why do the fishfolk want the Gills dead?” Joe asked.
“Cause the kang ain’t a Gill.” Zalfron said.
“Yah mon, da king be scared of da Gills because da people love em,” Nogard elaborated, “and because der is a growin group of people who dink dat ol King Lacitar not be all he be cracked up to be.”
“Sounds like it is time for another story!” Joe said with a smile.
“Oh, come on, mon,” Nogard laughed, “I be no good wid dat sort of ding. Zalfron?”
“Sorry guys,” Zalfron held his hands up, surrendering the title of story-teller, “if it ain’t a story bout Saint then ah ain’t got a damn clue.”
A knock on the wall put an end to the dying conversation. The door slid open and their was the silly-grin of Janwe. Spreading his arms to welcome the guests, he bowed.
“Dinner time, friends.”
– – –
With Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz in their group, the amount of available ships willing to sell them tickets greatly diminished. They arrived at the docks of Portville around noon and spent the rest of the light of Solaris begging clerks to allow their passage. The dwarf and spirit got so desperate they were willing to sneak Ekaf onboard in Boldarian’s backpack. The plan would’ve succeeded if the Knome had kept his mouth shut. A fight nearly erupted when he was discovered and the three had to leave the vessel in a hurry. In the end, they were forced to settle for a Knomish ship called the Cinatit that was departing for a glacier-engulfed island just north of Morainakle called Knomeloe. This was the only above-land Knomish safe haven and it was nothing but a chunk of ice littered with igloos. Ekaf struck a deal with the captain, a fellow by the name of Emanla Erymton, that they would sail to Kilko after taking the rest of the passengers to Knomeloe.
Kilko was a double-city. Above water, it consisted mostly of a mixture of Iceloadic peoples and Tadloen elves. Beyond the beaches, below the waves, was another side of Kilko which was made up of Aquarian fishfolk. It was a city-state, independent of Iceload, Tadloe, and Aquaria, ruled by the Electress Morrigan Oreh and, her husband, Dagda – a fishfolk that had taken her surname. Ekaf claimed he would be able to sneak the boys into Aquaria through Kilko. Otherwise, they would be forced to answer questions at the border of Aquaria. The two young men’s relation to Samurai would garner suspicion that they might be, somehow, affiliated – or at least friends – with the Gill family. Whether or not Ekaf’s claim was valid, they wouldn’t make it to Kilko until evening of the following day at the earliest.
The worst part about the trip before them was the fact that, partially due to it being a night cruise, the Knomes onboard weren’t there to sight see. They were there to party. Ekaf, Bold, and Zach locked themselves in their suite, below deck, and were forced to listen to the constant thud of the bass and incessant barrage of feet dancing overhead.
“I miss those days…” Ekaf sighed, looking at the roof, eyes cloudy with wistful nostalgia, “though,” he admitted, “I can’t recall a night spent partying with Knomes where I woke up the next day without something stolen. Once I even lost my sword-”
Ekaf flung himself from his seat and slapped his belt, making sure that the Duikii was still clinging to his side. With a deep sigh he sat back down and continued his monologue.
“I wonder how drunk Captain Erymton is by now. Bet-”
“Ya don’t mean the captain is actually drinkin, do ya?” Bold asked, his normally-tan face pale.
“Don’t worry!” Ekaf assured the dwarf, laughing, “This isn’t like driving along a city street. Out on the deep blue sea you can be as drunk as a Darkblade and not worry a bit!”
“Uh didn’t pay him to get drunk, uh paid him to sail this blasted boat!” Bold grumbled.
“He hates boats.” Zach reminded the Knome.
“I forgot!” He patted the dwarf’s thigh, “Bold, don’t let the fear get to you! There’s nothing to crash into except the shore and you’d have to drink an awful lot not to see that coming!”
“What about icebergs?” Zach asked.
Bold’s eyes grew wide, “Icebargs?”
Ekaf’s eyes narrowed, “Thanks a lot Zach.”
Zach attempted damage control, “They’re rare!”
“Yea, so no need to worry!” Ekaf added.
But there was a need to worry. Zach had spoken of the devil.
The ship lurched and the ocean screamed. RRREEEEAAAAOOOHHH! They tumbled against the opposite wall. Bold’s head put a hole in the planks. The sounds of music above had stopped and in the silence the three could hear high-pitched screams that each ended with splashes. Ekaf and Zach had to work together to get Bold’s head out of the wall. When they did the dwarf looked at them like they had pulled him out onto another planet.
“Whot was that?” Bold yelped, his voice squeaky.
“Probably just a prank by the captain,” Ekaf’s words spilled out of his mouth as he did his best to stop the rising panic in Bold’s soul, “you know, he hit the breaks real quick to give his patrons a fright!”
Zach ran to the porthole, “I think it was an iceberg.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Ekaf ran over to Zach and tried to get a look out the window but the spirit wasn’t budging, “There’s no way it could be an iceberg!”
The door to their cabin flew open and an old Knome dressed in the blue and white colors of a sailor appeared. A smile stretched across his lips and his eyes were wide with anticipation.
“Iceberg! You won’t believe it, we hit one! Just now! How thrilling? Come on! We’re going to capsize!”
“Get your stuff!” Ekaf cried as he ran to follow the Knome, “Look on the bright side!” He stopped at the door to wait for his friends, “I’ve ridden with drunken captains a million times and never before have we hit an iceberg. This is a once in a lifetime experience!”
“Buh God, if the captain don’t die uh’ll kill em!” Bold was trembling with both fear and rage, “Uh’ll take him to cart!” Bold rambled on as they darted after their Knomish leader, “Damn ice! Damn ships! Damn the ocean! This lad wasn’t made far the ocean. Nevar trusted boats, nevar needed boats, not til the hellbrutes farced us to flee ar homeland!”
They ran above deck with a herd of Knomish passengers. Ekaf disappeared in the tide of little people and left the dwarf and spirit to fight their way onward alone. Zach held tight to his bow and quiver as they went. Bold’s furious banter was enough to keep kleptic hands of fellow passengers from slithering into his knapsack. Once above deck, they could tell the boat was beginning to lean. The bow was slowly sinking towards the cold waters of the Aquarian Ocean. Soon they’d be bobbing out of the water like a humpback whale in mid-breach.
“Whar are the emargency vessels?” Bold cried.
Before Zack could reply, the captain did. He had no microphone or intercom so the boys were lucky to hear him. He stood on the platform above the stairwell that they’d just fled through, yelling over the railing like a pastor at his pulpit.
“I’m sorry to inform you, my Knomish brothers, but there are no more emergency vessels!”
Bold began, “That son of a-”
“To be completely honest,” the captain continued, “I hadn’t the slightest clue that icebergs were real!”
“War gone to die.” Bold plopped down on his butt, nearly squashing the Knome standing beside him, “This is it.”
The announcement was not yet over, “I’m terribly sorry. Fortunately, it is only about a two day swim to shore and an Aquarian Dome is right beneath us. Though not only are Knomes prohibited from the submarine world, but this is a no drop zone. Directly above the palace in Aidaros.”
Instead of an outraged cry, the passengers, those who were close enough and quiet enough to hear, applauded. The simple twelve hour trip had just been turned into an adventure. Bold was at a loss for words and Zach wasn’t quite sure what to do either.
“No vessels?” Zach muttered.
Bold could only reply with a nod.
“So we must swim?” Zach stated.
“Aye, you swim, lad,” Bold corrected, “Uh’ll sink like a rock.”
Ekaf reappeared, chattering like he had never left, “Isn’t this incredibly exciting? I spoke with the captain and he says that not only will we sink, we’ll actually capsize! That sailer wasn’t kiddin! Come on!” Ekaf disappeared almost as quick as he had appeared. Zach lifted Bold to his feet and the two did their best to follow the old Knome’s voice, “I’ve got an idea. Since you’re a rock dwarf I figure you can’t swim…not to be racist, I just meant that you weigh a lot…not because you’re fat, but because you have such thick skin…though I don’t mean that you’ve got no feelings, just that-”
Tired of Ekaf’s antics, Bold swept his fellow passengers out of the way and grabbed Ekaf by the back of his tunic. It took a lot to make a peaceful dwarf like Bold so confrontational but leave it to one’s worst fear to bring out the aggression in a man. He demanded, “WHOT THE HELL’RE WE TO DO?”
“We’ll go to the end of the ship – stern if you know your ship jargon.”
“The stern is about to be perindicular.” As if validating Zach’s observation, the tilt on the deck shifted to nearly forty-five degrees. Dozens of Knomes lost their balance and came tumbling down from the back of the ship, rolling by like bowling balls. “I’m not sure that’s wise.”
“On the contrary, that’s exactly why we must go to the stern!” Ekaf exclaimed, clawing at Bold’s grip but failing to pry himself free, “The higher we are, the further away we can jump and the less likely we are to be sucked down with ol Captain Erymton!”
It seemed that each second the incline grew steeper. Bold still wasn’t letting go.
“JUMP? Ol Captain said it’d be a two day swim! TWO DAYS!”
“Well then sink to the bottom and walk to shore.” Ekaf shrugged.
“WOLK? How the hell am uh supposed to hold muh breath for two days?” Bold crowed, flinging his hands into the air.
His act of bamboozlement freed Ekaf and once again the Knome took off towards the stern. Zach and Bold had no better options than to follow him – Bold was hell bent on continuing his rant, especially after Ekaf’s next comment, “It may be a two day swim but it can’t be more than a one day walk.”
“One day? One day he tells me!” Bold chuckled hysterically, “Lad, uh can’t hold muh breath for foiv minutes, let alone a day.”
“What’s the longest you’ve ever held your breathe?” Ekaf asked.
“Uh doubt longar than a minute!” Bold exclaimed.
“So you’ve never held your breath for as long as you could?”
“Uh mean uh have but-”
“Then what stopped you from going longer?” Ekaf asked.
“Uh gave up because-”
Ekaf snorted “Then don’t give up this time!”
They had made it to the back of the Cinatit. Ekaf slipped between the bannister-bulwark, which was over halfway to being parallel with the ocean. Zach grabbed the railing and placed a hand on the dwarf’s back. Bold sputtered, spit flying from his lips, eyes wide and wild like a bull that’d just been branded but when he looked to his friend, Zach, he calmed somewhat.
“Make the best of it,” Zach said, a phrase that normally came from Bold’s lips not his own, “that’s the best you can do.”
After a deep sigh, Bold climbed over the railing and Zach followed him. Below them, Knomes jumped overboard left and right, high fiving one another before taking the plunge. Zach spotted the captain floating away on a little bitty row boat but decided not to mention that to his companions. Even if he had wanted to, he didn’t get the chance, the boat had taken too much water. Now came the final heave. The ship flipped up to stand perpendicular to the water, putting the three nearly fifty feet from the waves. Knomes rained down like flees jumping from the fur of a dog.
“Alright boys,” Ekaf said, “it is time to jump.”
Bold could only stare at Zach, tears budding in his eyes, lips quivering. Zach gently pried the dwarf’s fingers from the railing, placed a gentle hand on his back, and gave him the slightest of shoves. No sooner did Bold begin his fall than did the spirit and Knome jump after him. Bold prayed as he fell but he never got to, “Amen” because he passed out.
This was fortunate for Ekaf, for a second after Bold went limp, Ekaf got his parachute bag situated on his back. Holding tight to the dwarf and spirit, he pulled the string and their descent was abruptly stopped. Realizing they’d been saved from smashing the surface of the water like a couple of pumpkins onto pavement, Zach wrapped his arms around the Knome and dwarf, the embrace came half out of necessity and half relief.
“Why didn’t you tell us you had a parachute?”
Ekaf laughed, “You thought I had us jumping from the highest part of the ship without a parachute?”
Rather than berating the Knome, Zachias bit his nonexistent tongue. They didn’t have long before they would hit the thrashing water below. He asked, “Do you have a boat?”
Looking down at his hand, Ekaf realized he’d dropped his warpcube.
– – –
A mountain of miniscule mint-green eggs, trickled with a thick teal paste, rose from a salad of shredded red seaweed. Surrounding the caviar volcano and its kelp forest were slabs of salmon-colored meat, striped with sinew, that sat like the fruit of a flower surrounded by pedals – the pedals being hundreds of tiny purple minows soaked in the same azure gravy that doused the fish eggs above. Initially, Joe wasn’t sure whether it was a work of art or dinner.
Janwe led the way. It seemed the entire population of the Stronghold was present, crammed into the dining hall, all sitting patiently on the floor. Those at the inner circle, which bordered the assorted delicacies, picked up the chrome scales stacked before them, filled each plate, then passed them back to those sitting out of reach of the food. Joe, Zalfron, and Nogard, who sat at the inner circle with Janwe, followed the example of the others (though those unfortunate enough to sit behind Zalfron received dishes glossed in electric elven drool). Only after everyone behind them was eating did the men and women in the center of the room begin to scoop food onto their own dishes.
“Ah thank thase scales are from a fishippo!” Zalfron noted through a mouthful of caviar.
“Very astute of you, friend,” Janwe complemented, “we polish them down to make them lighter, that’s why they lose their purple color.”
“It looked like yall planned on using every last bit of the-” Joe choked on his words as a plate of half-melted eyeballs was slid in front of his face.
“Mayo she-she ne, mayo she-she ne!” Janwe said hurriedly, though with a smile, to get the fishfolk maiden with the plate of eye-jello to go away then he apologized to Joe, “Sorry, friend, eye-flam is popular among our people.”
Joe didn’t speak. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly until the nausea subsided.
“What all you use fishippo for?” Nogard changed the subject.
“The pink meat you see there, some of that is from the beast you saw.” Janwe said, “Not only do we eat the muscle and eyes but we eat most of the organs too. The intestines we don’t eat we find other uses for – like the flasks we gave you earlier!”
Joe couldn’t help but grimace at this revelation.
“What was that big ol honkin balloon ah saw yer folks pull outa that fish?” Zalfron asked, “Was that the stomach?”
“It was.” Janwe nodded, then explained further, “Before Yiangu speared the fishippo, you saw it eat something, correct?”
“An oceantelope!” Joe recalled.
“Yes!” As he continued, he scrounged about the inside of his robe, “Oceantelope are impossible to catch outside of the Dome but inside they are clumsy and foolish and often wind up in the mouth of a fishippo.”
“Why do dey come inside da Dome den?” Nogard asked.
“They lay their eggs here. See, the oceantelope has a very tough exoskeleton.” He pulled a medallion adorned with a slinder blue disk from within his tunic. Shaking it, the shell wiggled, “Hard as metal yet flexible.” He put the necklace back and continued, “Only two creatures can hunt it: the fishippo and the sumarii. Only the sumarii will eat oceantelope eggs, which are as tough as the shell of their parents. A fishippo won’t even notice them.”
“They risk ther lahvs to birth ther babies?” Zalfron said, “Thas kahnda sweet.”
But Janwe wasn’t finished, “Sumarii manage to break through the shell with their powerful jaws and sharp teeth. The fishippo just swallow’s the giant shrimp whole and let their stomach juices do all the work.”
“So Yiangu and the others took the stomach for the oceantelope?” Joe asked.
Janwe nodded, “Even our hottest fire isn’t strong enough to soften the oceantelope’s shell. For us to forge what we want out of it, we have to go to work as soon as we draw it from the fishippo’s stomach acid. It stays soft for a matter of minutes.”
“Dats why all de Soldier’s of Shelmick have cool colored armor!” Nogard exclaimed.
“I’m surprised that was never explained to you.” Janwe beamed, “I am pleased I got to teach you something new!”
A hush swept through the room as a man stood across the food pile from the boys. He looked much the same as any of the other fishfolk, his tattoos were no more elaborate and his muscles were no more massive. The largest defining feature was his tunic and even that was only peculiar because of its color. It was the only black dress the boys had yet seen. Other than that, the clothing appeared no fancier than those of his peers. If not for the attention his actions seemed to demand, Joe and Zalfron might’ve never thought him any different from the others.
“Welcome back into our home, Sheenshong Nogard Otubak,” the fishfolk said, “please introduce your friends.”
“Dis be Zalfron Sentry, sista of Tabuh Sentry,” Nogard said, “and dis be Joe, from Eard.”
“It is a pleasure to host the both of you.” The man bowed then continued, “I am called Sidon. We call ourselves,” he gestured to the fishfolk that filled the room, “the Soldiers of Shelmick. It would be wise not to mention your stay here to others once you leave, even wiser to forget how you got here. Even above the oceans, Lacitar has more allies than we have sympathizers.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Sahdon, wae ain’t gotta damn clue how wae got hare.” Zalfron assured him.
Sidon smiled politely – which was a little creepy coming from a sharp toothed fishfolk – then wiped the expression from his face and asked without portraying any emotion, “Your friends are our guests and I trust them because I trust you, but in times like these…” he folded his arms, “I cannot help but be suspicious. I must ask – why did you bring these men?”
Joe and Zalfron exchanged glances then turned to Nogard. The chicken dragon didn’t blink, he kept his eyes on Sidon. His posture and tone remained steady, as if they were engaged in small talk – as if he hadn’t noticed the cold edge to Sidon’s voice and the warning in his words.
“Our ship was attacked, mon, we had to jump.” Nogard replied.
“I see.” Sidon bobbed his head, licked his dark black eyes, and let his arms hang down by his sides, “These are dark times for us, Sheenshong Otubak.”
“Janwe told us Machuba was captured.” Nogard said.
Nearly two dozen outraged cries of, “JANWE!” shot from all corners of the room and the fishfolk that sat beside the three boys ducked his head in embarrassment. Sidon ignored the outburst.
“Nearly forty of Lacitar’s men are transporting him back to the royal palace where he will be executed by the king himself. His death will signify the end of the Gill family in all its entirety. We have a counter attack planned, an attempt to intercept the caravan tomorrow.”
“Please, I want to help, mon.” Nogard said.
Sidon nodded, “And your friends?”
“Sure,” Zalfron shrugged.
All eyes fell on Joe. He squirmed.
“I wouldn’t be much help…”
Sidon disagreed, “While you slept, your friends told Janwe their story and, as you will soon learn before you leave our company, Janwe keeps no secrets.” Quiet, half hearted chuckles circled the room. “Word spread and I was told you wield a famous blade, a blade we call Changjio, which the Knomes call the Suikii, meaning deliverer.”
Though Joe didn’t will it, the black blade appeared in his lap. An awed murmur shifted through the gathered crowd much like the silence that had spread earlier when Sidon first stood. The rebel leader’s eyes, dark and empty, wouldn’t allow Joe to look away.
“That weapon could do for our brother what all our men cannot.” Sidon continued, “Lacitar Te-Naryt knows we stand between him and his captive. He knows we have the strength to stop the transport.”
Across the room, the stone-faced Yiangu spoke up, “He is as evil as he is wise.”
“His men carry Machuba in a cage with bars that cannot be bent and with no locked gate that we could pick. Only magic can free our brother, whether it be the magic word known only by Lacitar or the magic sword that now lies in your lap.”
“You see, friends,” Janwe spoke up, “just as you believe destiny brought the three of you together, we believe destiny brought you to us.”
Once again, all eyes were on Joe. Even the eyes of his two comrades bored down on him but he was still hesitant. He fidgeted. It was Zalfron that broke the quiet.
“Whah don’t ya wanna help?” He asked in a whisper, “Are ya scared?”
“No! Well…actually…yea.” Joe admitted, raising his voice for all to hear, “I am scared.” Those in the room that understood common tongue gasped. Some even shook their heads in disgust. The looks some of the fishfolk gave him suggested that Joe might have a limited amount of time to explain himself before he was thrown out of the fortress. Joe did provide his excuse and, though it wasn’t what the audience expected, it was an acceptable response, “Two nights ago was the first time I ever killed a man.”
The were some scoffs from the room – maybe even some eye rolls though no one would be able to tell what with the pure-blackness of the fishfolks’ eyes. But Sidon nodded, he said, “It is a horrible thing to have to do.”
“It is.” Joe agreed, then admitted, “And if I have to, I probably will do it again.” He sighed, then continued, “But before I get in another situation like that…I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing. I’m new here – to the Aquarian Ocean and to Solaris – and things are happening really fast. I need to know what’s going on before I agree to get involved.”
“Understandable.” Sidon said.
“If I fight for anyone who asks…who’s to say I wouldn’t wind up accidentally fighting for the Pact or the Order, not even knowing it.” Joe shrugged, “That’s all. I trust Nogard and Zalfron, so I doubt they’d lead me astray. And, Mr. Sidon, even though we just met, I trust you, your people took us in, gave us wine and food, and healed my leg! But before I give you my word, I need to know what’s going on.”
As tongues flopped out to scim black eyeballs, the attention switched back to Sidon.
“Where are you from?” He asked Joe, “Where is Eard?”
“It’s another planet, from another sun,” Joe said, “the Sun.”
This answer garnered another round of gasps. The majority of the Soldiers of Shelmick were Delians and, to them, the proper noun version of “sun” was almost only ever mentioned in reference to the Sun Child.
“Whether or not you join us tomorrow,” Sidon said, “you have gained my respect, Sheenshong Joe. Sometimes the bravest man is the one who is not eager to fight. Though, if you listen to the horrors I am about to describe to you and still wish to keep your blade sheathed, then this first impression of you has deceived me. Now please, allow me to explain…”