Nogard stepped into a room that had been chiseled out of a cluster of pink pillar polyps. A dim light resonated from a chest in the center of the chamber, illuminating the walls which were painted to depict ancient Aquarian battles. Machuba paid the murals little attention. His eyes were on the trunk made of magically interwoven, luminescent coral. The chest looked to be worth a fortune by itself, Nogard could only guess what magnificence hid within.
Early in the morning, Sidon woke Nogard up and took him on a path through the polyps that protruded out from the courtyard. The trail ended at this strange structure, carved out of the skeletons of cnideria.
“This is where we keep our most valuable relics, relics of the very man who built this fortress.”
The fishfolk paused, hesitating before proceeding towards the chest.
“Do you understand why we hold Namrem Shelmick on such a high pedestal?”
“He united da mermen…” Nogard raked his brain for an additional guess but Sidon cut in before he could continue.
“He united a group of oppressed peoples against a foe far too large to defeat. Shelmick faced impossible odds and, though he lost, he forced the fishfolk never to forget the crimes they committed…”
He strode forward and stopped beside the chest. His glowing tattoos sprayed their cursive-designs across the walls.
“…War is not fair. A win is a win. A loss is a loss. Faced with the destruction of his people and the knowledge that there could be no victory, he spent his last breathe to curse the Gills…”
The fishfolk reached into the folds of his cloak and produced a key. He knelt by the chest and unlocked the locket that held the rough rainbow walls of coral. Then he turned back to the silent chicken dragon.
“…It isn’t the fact that he didn’t give up, that he fought until his last breath, it is the fact that though he lost the war, that war was but a battle in the context of this past, present, and future of conflict between the mermen and the fishfolk. Whether or not he knew what would come of his actions, Shelmick kept the fight alive. And who is it that now bears the torch? What is the name that everyone knows the oppressors fear?”
“Sidon?” Nogard guessed.
Sidon shook his head and Nogard frowned.
“Gill. Whether by Shelmick’s curse or simply by coincidence, the tides have turned. The very man who’s ancestor’s name once meant corruption, now is the symbol of hope that one day the Aquarian Ocean will be ruled democratically and the symbol of hope that one day, mermen and fishfolk might coexist as if they’re one in the same,” Sidon opened the trunk and gestured for Nogard to join him, “but now that hope is locked in a cage and being toted to the king’s throne.”
Nogard looked into the chest and his eyes grew, asking his question before his vocal cords could spit it out.
“I am not giving this to you, Sheenshong Otubak, I am lending this to you. For when you die, these weapons will be returned to the depths of the ocean.”
Dented and scarred, the shield Nogard lifted from the chest looked as ancient and war torn as the Emperor Saint, though it was much older. Nogard slipped his left arm through the straps and grabbed the handle, holding the round shield in front of him like a member of a Greek Phalanx. It was light, almost unbelievably light, and yet it felt solid and sturdy. He felt as though the entire monastery could collapse on him and he’d be fine as long as he was beneath that shield.
“The Shield of Namrem Shelmick,” Sidon said, “and his sword.”
Nogard slung the shield across his back, over where his bladeless-hilt was strapped, and reached in to grab the sword. He flipped it over in his hands, it was an Aquarian-style sword, broad bladed and one sided. Like the shield, it was light as a feather and, whether made of it or not, completely golden.
“They were said to be forged in the center of our world,” Sidon said, “The blade is destined to be Machuba’s, but the shield must go to his closest ally and that is you, Sheenshong Otubak.”
– – –
“Consume to your heart’s desire!”
Sidon stood before a blooming fire that encompassed an entire room. The blue flames pealed out of the furnace to reach from the floor to the ceiling. When they first stepped into the chamber, Joe had thought that it was on fire but Sidon quickly corrected him. Though it was burning a bit over the top, it was meant to be.
“I had a few brothers put extra fuel in the furnace this morning,” Sidon explained, “so that there will plenty for you to take.”
Joe nodded and extended his hand, then paused. As a southerner from the United States back on Earth, generosity was expected from strangers but was also taxing. Accepting a gift meant one was expected to reciprocate in the future. At first, he’d written off Sidon’s hospitality as the fishfolk merely being an excellent host but before Sidon took him to the forge, he’d taken Nogard and given him artifacts of the Stronghold’s patron saint. This went well beyond being accommodating, they were getting the Prodigal Son treatment yet they’d never met the rebel leader before! He had to ask.
“Excuse me sir, but why are you helping us so much? I understand equiping us, after all, we are going to try and help save Machuba but…” Joe hestitated, then just spat it out, “You gave Nogard a two thousand year old sword and shield! You’ve tempted this furnace into a state where it looks like it could melt through this coral! I understand that the Suikii might be your only hope of breaking Machuba out of that cage but, for all you know, we could be going out there to die! The sword and shield could very easily be taken, with Machuba, to Lacitar along with our heads!”
“True.” Sidon smiled, “The things you say and ask only further my beliefs. Tell me this, Sheenshong Joe, why is the half-brother to Sharp Otubak, a Samurai, the brother of Tabuh Sentry, a Samurai, and a human from the Sun traveling to save the nephew of Paud Gill, another Samurai? There is something swirling above the sea, sheenshong, something cooking on dry land. Though separated from the world, we are not oblivious. We can feel it in the atmosphere, taste it in the salt, smell it in the currents, hear it in the lashes of the Iahtro Storm, and we can see it, the good half of it, in you. That other half, the evil half, is threatening to consume Solaris and though we feel safe now, far from the war fought above, depending on who wins this war, it could become the end of us too. The land lubbers call upon their Emperor’s Foretelling for proof, we look to the Delian Prophecy, either way you put it – times are getting tense. The Soldiers and I want to make sure our loyalty lies with the righteous when the calm comes to an end.”
Joe nodded. Everyone has these gargantuan ideas of the future. It made Joe incredibly uncomfortable. Everyone seems to think that the fate of this world lies on my friends and I. Joe did not like it. What if they’re wrong? What if they’re helping the wrong guys? Would it be my fault for not quitting sooner? Joe looked at the raging furnace with contempt. When did I start letting myself believe I could do this?
Sidon could sense Joe’s doubts but this did not worry him. He said, “People aren’t born heroes. Though Saint knew the names of the Mystakle Samurai before they even assembled, the Samurai weren’t born the Samurai. Heroes are the results of trials. Where there are trials, there will be heroes. You were not born to be a hero, Sheenshong Joe. You were born to be Joe. If by being Joe you become what the world calls a hero, then you became what you were born to be.” Sidon looked Joe in his eyes, “Can you do that?”
Joe shrugged, his eyes falling to his feet.
“And never give up.”
Nodding to Siden, Joe rolled his downcast eyes.
“You cannot give up, Joe.” Sidon pressed, “You must promise me that you won’t, tell me you won’t give up.”
Slowly, Joe’s eyes met Sidon’s.
“Say it!” Sidon demanded.
For a second Joe was sure his heart stopped. He couldn’t help but hear Sidon’s words as if his brother had spoke them. Suddenly, he found himself believing that he could do it – that he could save Machuba, that he could bring back the Samurai, that he was the Sun Child!
“I won’t give up,” Joe said, cheesy with confidence, “ever!”
“Then we won’t give up on you!” Sidon smiled then he waved his hand and left Joe with the flames, “Now, consume!”
– – –
The sword flew across the courtyard to stick into the sandy ground within inches of the coral that infringed upon the lawn. Zalfron, dressed in the robe-like, tunic-skirt get up that seemed to be the trademark of Sidon’s disciples, faced the tatted vigilante with his knuckles barred. Sidon looked over his shoulders to the brothers that stood at the edge of the garden. They shrugged. As Sidon returned his gaze to the elf, he caught an uppercut to the jaw and stumbled backwards. Zalfron didn’t stop there. His right arm was already swinging but Sidon wasn’t the type to be fooled twice. He caught the fist and brought it down with a twist then delivered a heel-kick to the pit of the elf’s knee which sent Zalfron to the ground.
“You fight with the clumsiness of a seabear,” Sidon grunted, rubbing his chin, “but the viciousness of a sumarii.”
Zalfron did his best to jump to his feet but the bruise on the back of his leg was worse than he’d expected. No sooner did he get upright than did he crumble back to the sand.
“Calm down, sheenshong,” Sidon order, “we are friends.”
“Ya? Then whah ya insultin mae!” Zalfron argued.
“That was an observation, as much an insult as it was a complement.” Sidon chuckled, “Sumariis are the fiercest creatures in the Aquarian Ocean. Their jaws can crack the shell of oceantelopes, their teeth can cut through steel hulls, and their tails can propel them across the ocean faster than the zoomers of Space City.”
“Oh…” Zalfron had gotten on all fours, ready to pounce on Sidon’s ankles, but after hearing this he plopped down on his rear end, “Well…thank ya!”
“But a clumsy sumarii is a dead sumarii.” Sidon stated.
“So what? Swords ain’t for mae.” Zalfron shrugged, “Big deal!”
“Nor an ax or a trident or a-”
His hands once again balled into fists as he stood from the sand.
Sidon laughed, “You’re as good with a blade as you are with constructive criticism!”
“Ah don’t naed a weapon.” Zalfron crossed his arms, “Ah faht better with mah fists.”
Sidon smiled, “These are armed men we will be fighting.”
“Ah’m fast and an Aquarian Dome makes mae all the faster! Ah’ll be lahk a minnow, zig-zaggin through the ranks of the enemay, baetin em down fore they can even draw their weapons!”
“I’m not going to force a weapon upon you,” Sidon assured Zalfron, “but I must warn you, Sheenshong Sentry, my men will be focused on getting to Machuba, not protecting you. If you can’t defend yourself, no one will come to your rescue and we are counting on you and Nogard to keep Joe safe until he opens a window into our brother’s cage.”
“Plaese,” Zalfron scoffed, “this ain’t mah first rodaeo.”
“I’ve said my piece!” Sidon raised his arms, assuring Zalfron that his lecture was over…well, almost over, “One day your fists won’t cut it. You need to find a tool you can take into battle – even if it is nothing more than an armored gauntlet.”
“Got it captain,” Zalfron said, cracking his knuckles, “wae ready?”
Sidon looked at the glimmering sunlight that barely made it to the courtyard through the cracks in the reef that surround them. He nodded, “I do believe it’s about time.”
– – –
Bold woke up to the incessant chatter of the Knome. Memories hit him like a bag of bricks. He was no longer in the Barren’s Mullet. It hadn’t been a dream. I left the tavern, but still he was puzzled, I should be bloated and blue lying at the bottom of the ocean. The last thing he could recall was the Cinatit capsizing and the three of them, Zach, the Knome, and himself, jumping into the deep blue sea.
“I still can’t get over you coming across us like that!” Ekaf continued.
Sitting up, Bold looked around. The room he was in was not the room the Knome was in. The walls were made of ice and he was sleeping, bare-chested, on a thatched rug that sat on the ice-encased grass floor. Only then did he realize how cold he was. By God, I slept in a refrigerator! He stood and lifted the animal-pelt door to his make-shift bedroom. The room he stepped into was circular with a roof that was unusually high, even the doorways were all at least ten feet tall. At the center of the room was another weed-woven thatched rug but this one lay beneath a large round wooden table. There were four wooden chairs situated around the table, one of the chairs empty.
Zach and Ekaf sat side by side next to their host – a minotaur. Bold had seen a minotaur once or twice in his life and the sight of the looming creatures had always enthralled him. There Bold was, a rock dwarf standing no higher than four feet, next to a man twice his size. Not only was their mere height intimidating but their horns curved up above their ears reaching another foot or so. Then there was the fur which made their commonly muscled physique look even thicker.
“I thought you’d never wake up!” Ekaf cried, hopping out of his chair and hurrying to pull the free seat out for Bold to sit, “This is Boldarian Drahkcor the Fifth, son of Boldarian Drahkcor the Fourth. That’s right, Zach here is a Samurai’s holy-brother, by way of monastery, and Bold is the son of a Samurai,” Ekaf turned from the minotaur to Bold, “This guy saved us. He was out fishing and saw the ship capsize. Thank Tidalus he got to us in time. We would’ve been shark-chow! And you’d never guess who he is!”
“Acamas Icespear.” The minotaur said, extending his hand to Bold.
Bold trotted across the carpet of frozen grass to shake the massive hand, asking, “Son of Theseus Icespar? The King of the Grailard?”
“Yes sir!” The minotaur nodded. His voice was so deep that Bold could feel it in his bones. The minotaur scooted an ice-made plate over to where Bold sat, “Fish and bread, my friend, that’s the best I could provide. You, my guests, have truly caught me off guard.”
“Uh could eat the oice off the wolls ruht about now, brotha,” Bold took a massive bite of bread and swallowed without giving it a chew, “You musta been real close tah the ship…imagine uh sunk lahk a rock!”
“Ah, well you probably would have,” Acamas winked at Ekaf, “but your little friend made sure that wouldn’t happen. You see, I saw the ship rise and plummet and made my way over as quick as I could. Most of the survivors were happily sinking to the Aquarian Dome…Knomes…” Acamas chuckled, “…I’ll never get them.”
“Nor will I,” Ekaf agreed.
Acamas grinned, “Anyways, after getting turned down by every Knome I rowed by, I caught sight of a floating rock dwarf.”
“Not a common suht, aye?”
Acamus nodded, “I rowed over, found the spirit boy and this Knome treading water like fishfolk to keep you afloat. I swear, your little Knomish friend must’ve been swimming beneath you, holding his breathe, forever! Startled the hell out of me when he came out from under you.”
“Guess it’s true whot they say about Knomes and banshees,” Bold said, raising his hands and giving the old Knome a flabbergasted, though appreciative, stare.
“What’s that, my friend?” Acamas asked.
“Thar’s an old dwarvish song in which folks often switch the ward banshee out far Knome and it warks the same!” Bold explained, clearing his throat before proclaiming, “If ya ain’t a blahd, best bary the spahd, cause you ain’t baryin the Knome not tomarra nar today, those lads and lasses are bound to bound away.”
“You should sing the rest!” Ekaf exclaimed.
Bold opened his mouth, cast Ekaf a nervous glance, then closed it. He looked to Zach for help. Zach was watching the minotaur intently. Finally, Bold said, “It ain’t the most politically carrect jingle out thar…”
Zach saved Bold, asking a question that completely changed the subject, “Mr. Icespear, why were you there?”
“He was fishing!” Ekaf interjected.
“No, my friends…” Acamus looked from the spirit to the other two, “While the Trinity Nations fight their war, Iceload fights hers. As you may know, once Talloome was removed from Icelore, Shalis Skullsummon took his place. The War on Mancy never ended for us, all that changed is now we fight it alone.”
“What about the Imperials?” Zach asked, “The Ipativians hold Zviecoff, which stands between Icelore and Recercoff, do they not?”
“My friend,” Acamus was amazed, “Zviecoff has fallen!”
“The capital?” Ekaf exclaimed, “Zviecoff the capital?”
“Not the capital any longer, I’m afraid. They’ve evacuated the civilians. The city’s nothing but a battle field now. And, last I heard, it does not bode well. A number of men, both elven and minotaur, are trapped in the city, surrounded by the Order, unable to resupply. Among them, my father. But I’ve got a plan.”
“No!” Ekaf cried, “Not Theseus, my old pal!”
Acamus frowned, “You knew my father?”
“Oh,” Ekaf stuttered, “uh, well, yes…I fought a little with the Samurai.”
A twinkle sparkled in the minotaur’s eye and his furred snout parted in a grin, “Oh, I see.”
Acamus’ sarcasm was interpreted as sincerity by the Knome.
“What is your plan?” Zach asked.
Acamus narrowed his eyes, “The names you’ve given me tempt me to trust you, but the bizarre coincidence of this encounter suggests that I shouldn’t. This is a matter not to be shared with anyone. Who knows who could be working for the Order?”
“Uh’d die befar Uh’d join the Arder!” Bold snapped.
“I as well.” Zach said.
Acamus calmed, “And I suppose the Order would hardly resort to hiring Knomes.”
“True,” Ekaf agreed, “you can trust us.”
“If you betray me, my friends, you will regret it.” Acamus warned. His tone was not cheery but not accusing, simply honest. Then, his voice grew quieter, as if someone might hear from outside the frozen camp, “I’ve stayed clear of the battle front. I serve my nation on the high seas, hunting down the privateers that work with the Order. These ships prey on the Black Crown Pact pirates that smuggle dark marrow. ”
“Funny,” Ekaf remarked, “the Trinity Nations pays pirates to disrupt the operations of Pact ships too!”
“Ah, they do indeed,” Acamus said, “and what do you think those ships do with the booty they’ve looted from Creaton’s vessels? Throw it in the ocean?”
There was silence for a moment, broken by Bold, “Are ya sayin the Trinity Nations pays the same lads as the Arder?”
“Yes, I am, my friend. These pirates get contracts for Black Crown Pact vessels from the Trinity Nations and bring back the captains to be locked away. The Trinity Nations hands them a sack of gold. Then those same ships sail to Icelore and sell the Order every single thing they found aboard Creaton’s ships to receive another sack of gold.” Acamus said, “The Trinity Nations is feeding our enemy.”
The very idea that this could be true sickened the three.
“What is your plan?” Zach asked again, his voice cold.
Bold was alarmed. Zachias rarely got worked up. But back in Tadloe, people didn’t tend to bad mouth the Trinity Nations. Looking at Acamus, he could see by the minotaur’s smirk that he’d noticed the agitation in the spirit’s voice. Bold made a mental note to make sure Zach and Acamus never had a moment alone.
“I’ve been trailing a ship called the Monoceros.” Acamus said, “You’ve probably heard of her, but these day’s she’s in the hands of a bunch of Aquarian Ocean exiles that call themselves the Sea Lords – another name you probably are familiar with. They used to be the biggest name in Solarin piracy until they had a run in with my father. Now the Monoceros is the best they’ve got. Most of their men are already in Zviecoff, but the captain was sent to restock and they just heisted a massive Pact shipment, a supply of mostly food I believe. I acquired word that they’re to report immediately to Zviecoff. They’re going to restock the Order’s forces. Not only would this endanger our ally’s already delicate bid for the city, but this would further doom my father – especially if Theseus is still holed up in Rivergate, which he was last I heard.”
“We must stop the ship.” Zach stated.
“No,” Acamus grinned, “we must steal it.”
Bold groaned, “Uh hate boats.”
“Well then, brother,” Ekaf said to Acamus, “there’s no option. We’re coming with!”
“Whot about the boys?” Bold asked.
Ekaf frowned for a minute before an idea slipped into his skull, “We’ll hijack the Monoceros, then hop off into the Aquarian Ocean. It’ll be on the way!”
– – –
The Wobniar Woods, the massive coral reef that encompassed nearly half of the Aquarian Ocean, wrapped around the head of Middakle and filled out the southern end of Tadloe’s gulf. Sanction sat five selims south of Fort Gonchi, a distance that could be traveled in one long hard day if the Aquarian troops weren’t marching through the rainbow colored jungle. After leaving the southern city, they traversed a selim of open water before slipping beneath another Aquarian Dome. This dome was the same as the one over Shelmick’s Stronghold – which lay unnoticed only a five hour walk from their path – Fort Gonchi, and the Submarine Canyon.
The long crevice would be the last couple hours of their journey. Fort Gonchi rose out of its northern end. The southern end of the canyon was shrowded in a true forest, not one made of polyps but instead of actual plants. Tongues of red, green, and yellow kelp rose from the dirty sand, nearly hiding the crags ahead. As the soldiers began marching through the mighty tangle of sea weed, their nerves were on edge. All along they’d expected an attempt by the merman separatists to free the prisoner they transported and, since it had yet to happen, the men felt confident that they would be sabotaged in the canyon.
Six scouts had been sent ahead to scan the rift for peculiarities. These men were swift and agile, they jumped from one side of the cavern to the other with the ease of a monkey. The scout in the rear had the job of keeping his eyes on the five in front of him. Holding on to the rocky ledge, feet wedged against the rock wall beside him, his other hand was cupped over his eyes as he made sure his comrades were accounted for. They were. Behind him, he could hear the jingling of armor echoing off the earthen facades. The caravan couldn’t be more than twenty minutes from the bottom of the canyon.
Despite having found nothing wrong, the last scout couldn’t help but feel something was off. Maybe it is just an oddity in the current. Still he didn’t budge from his vantage point. His blue fingertips tap-danced across the conch shell horn sheathed at his waist. Leaving the horn, he reached for his dagger. Far ahead of him, he could now only count four scouts. He’d had all five in his view then one simply disappeared, as if the deep blue sea itself had swallowed him and erased him from existance. Slowly removing his dagger, he watched as another guard disappeared.
“Shenma gay deyu…” he murmured, meaning, “What the hell…”
Then a third scout evaporated, followed quickly by a fourth, leaving one more scout aside from himself. He should’ve blown his horn when the first had slipped into the blue, but it’d happened too quick and now it was too late. Whoever, or whatever, was taking his comrades would soon be on him. He had to act and he had to-
The ground was shifting on the cavern floor nearly fifty feet below him. No, that’s not the ground! He realized he was staring at the dark blue back of a merman! How long had he been crawling right beneath his nose? Letting go of the cavern wall, he dove towards the earth and not a second too late. Above him, he heard a crack, like that of rock being broken. Without looking back, he was sure that another merman was hot on his tail but that didn’t matter. He knew he was doomed. He just didn’t want to float up to Solaris empty handed.
The terrorist below him still crawled onward, completely oblivious. His grip tightened around his dagger as the ground rushed up to meet him. Slicing downwards, he put all his weight on the unaware terrorist below him, using the man’s bare-chest to cushion his fall. The merman collapsed but just as the scout hit the cavern floor, so did four other mermen.
He had missed his mark. His victim, who squirmed in pain, clutching the blade in his shoulder, would not die if he did not attempt another blow. Three more daggers waited at his belt but the time it would take to yank one free would be the time it would take for his adversaries to finish him. So he jumped away. Arms reaching out before him, legs fully extended, he smacked against the wall of the cavern like a tree frog then leapt for the opposite wall. He could hear his pursuers tailing him but he didn’t dwell on it. He was not running to survive but running to see what he could manage to do before being caught.
The horn at his waist slapped impatiently against his thigh.
He leapt again, having lost count of how many times he’d jumped from side to side. This time he missed, his finger tips tickled stone as his body began to fall back towards the sea floor. Drawing the horn from his belt, he put it to his lips and took a deep breath. He could hear the mermen jumping up to meet him. He knew he had only a few seconds left to live. But that was all he needed. He blew the conch-shell horn with all his might then his breath was torn away from him by a cold steel blade.
The call of the scout’s horn echoed through the canyon.
– – –
The end of the armed caravan had just made it out of the kelp forests and into the barren canyon. At the sound of the scouts horn, they came to a complete stop. The rear of the line was a good twenty feet into the crevasse.
“TINGSHE!” The captain roared from the head of the line, his voice drowning out the last echoes of the late-scouts horn. His men obeyed, stopping in their tracks, “JUAN NAN!” His men turned around to face the way they’d come, “YOSHING!:
They took one obedient step forward then froze – blue flames suddenly engulfed the tall seaweed that hid the entrance to the cavern. There was no going back. Turning to look down the canyon, they watched an army of naked fishfolk, so tanned they were hard to discern, climb down the blue stone walls that surrounded them.
The captain stayed cool. “TINGSHE! JUAN NAN!” Once again, the men turned around. Unsheathing his sword, the captain raised the weapon above his head and commanded, “CHOFAY!”
The Aquarian warriors charged. Sidon, who stood in front of his soldiers, knelt in the dirt. His men followed suit. Together, they prayed to their god. Then, before rising, he dug through the sand by his knees and lifted a silver trident and round shield from the ground. Having arrived at the canyon hours before, they’d had ample time to prepare for this attack, planting weapons and forging firebreaks, which made the odds of defeating the little escort from Sanction seem favorable. Sidon rose to his feet, as did his men, and stepped forward into the surging enemy. Blue skin clashed against cloth and armor, pitchforks clanged against blades, and blood floated up, twirling in the atmosphere of the Aquarian Dome like dust in the wind.
Zalfron and Nogard watched from above, laying on a peninsula of rock that jutted out over the canyon’s edge. Joe stood a few paces back, swinging the Suikii.
“What if the Suikah doesn’t cooperate?” Zalfron asked.
“It will.” Joe stated.
Zalfron was unsatisfied, “But if not?”
“We try until it does, mon.” Nogard said.
“What if, with it baein a legendaray blade and what not, what if it can chop through the bars?” Zalfron proposed.
“Well, if we can’t get a portal,” Joe shrugged, “it couldn’t hurt to try.”
“How long til we give up?” Zalfron rolled onto his back to face Joe, “Wae have to wait til after the battle?”
“Zalfron, you don’t even have a weapon!” Nogard laughed.
“So? Ah didn’t naed one in the tavern or when wae jumped them gahs from the carriage…or with the crab the other day!”
“You didn’t contribute at all with the crab.” Joe muttered.
“Not mah fault it burnt mae,” Zalfron replied, turning back to the scene beneath them with his bottom lip hanging out like the ledge they peaked over.
“Burnt?” Nogard cried, “You were in shock, you weren’t burnt!”
“Shock! Ah ain’t never been shocked! Ah don’t know bout chicken dragons, but wae electric elves…”
As they argued, Joe gave the Suikii a break, approached the edge, and scanned the gulch. One glance at the cloud of blood and sand that hung around the battle like a fog and Joe had to avert his gaze. Looking on down through the crags, Joe saw something moving. Between two and three hundred yards away, more armored fishfolk piled out of a daughter ravine of the Submarine Canyon. Joe did a quick count and concluded that there was about as many as had been in the first caravan. The twenty or so Soldiers of Shelmick could handle thirty-six, but could they handle another three dozen?
“Guys.” Joe interrupted their banter and pointed at the enemy reinforcements.
“Farak.” Zalfron gasped, “Wae have to go down there.”
“Dree of us, mon?” Nogard frowned and sheathed his sword, “We’d just wind up dying wid em…We do have to do someding dough.”
Joe looked around and adjusted the tunic that the fishfolk had given him then froze, “Hey. This ledge, they’ll have to walk under us, right?”
Zalfron nodded. Nogard grinned. The ledge almost bridged the two sides of the canyon and, though it wasn’t very thick, it was decently wide.
“You dinking what I dink you be dinking?”
“If we could manage to break it and time it right…we could do some real damage.” Joe suggested.
“Dey’d pis demselves!” Nogard giggled.
“Might be enough to give our boys back the odds.” Joe said.
Nogard smirked, “Dought you didn’t want to kill anybody?”
Joe rolled his eyes, “I’m not just going to sit here and watch the Soldiers of Shelmick be slaughtered.”
Nogard got off Joe’s back with a shrug, “Maybe da display will scare some of dem fishfolk away.”
“So wae’re goin down?” Zalfron asked with his blue eyes wide as the ocean.
Joe nodded, “Yup.”
– – –
The planks of the piers pealed back from the supports as if reluctant to lay flat. The rusted nails, stooping in the face of the waves, had long since wiggled their way out of their homes. Some of the boards had splintered in half and some sections of the docks had been wiped away all together, yet somehow Hermes, Catty, and Grandfather, with his entourage of cage-carrying shadow-summons, had made it to the end of one of these wharfs.
“Who’re we sailing with?” Catty asked, glaring down the Frosted River at a vessel that wasn’t much more than a speck on the horizon.
“John Pigeon.” Hermes answered.
His response was lacking in details, Catty dug deeper, “Captain of…”
After Hermes declined to answer, ignoring his coworker and watching the approaching ship instead, Grandfather spoke up, “That’d be the Aquarian Sea Lords, son.”
Catty would have snapped at Grandfather for referring to her with a masculine noun, as she normally did for this was not the first incident, but her curiousity took over.
“The Sea Lords don’t work for the Black Crown Pact,” Catty stated, she turned to Hermes who was still looking away, “I assume this is just a misunderstanding?”
“What is it you’re misunderstanding?”
“We are about to ride on a ship that works for the Trinity Nations.” Catty said.
Grandfather muttered, “That’s not their only allegiance.”
Hearing this, her eyes narrowed. Though Hermes, as a banshee, could not tell whether or not her eyes were opened or closed, he could sense her leariness. He chuckled, “Meriam, you’re as gullible as your Lord!”
“So you still work for the Order?” Catty’s lip curled and she spat into the frothing river water, “Where are the Sea Lords taking us?”
Catty didn’t like this answer. She took a step away from the skeletal bearn, back towards the shore. Suddenly, he whirled to face her. He yanked the staff from the rope around his hip. The red jewel that crowned it twinkled, as if daring Catty to run.
“Am I your prisoner now too?” She hissed.
“You do not have to be.” Hermes growled.
“If we go to Icelore, they will kill me.” Catty replied, “I have no choice.”
“Not if you are with me.” Hermes promised.
Catty scoffed, “And I’m supposed to trust you?”
“Yes,” Hermes said, “that is not a choice.”
Taking her silence for submission, Hermes let the staff slide back into its loop on the rope wrapped around his waist then set about unlatching his chest plate. Once the armored shell was opened, he reached within his rib cage, pulled out a small crate the size of a shoebox, and tossed it to Catty. As he restrapped his chestplate, Catty opened the box. Inside, wrapped in cloth, was a few of the shattered pieces left from Dresdan’s Sword, the one Hermes had broken on the Sea Cuber, the blade Nogard had wielded.
“I am my own man, Catherine, I make my own way. The petty allegiances I’ve claimed – the Imperials, the Order, the Doom Warriors, the Pact – they are nothing but a means to make me stronger. I am loyal only to myself.”
Catty could careless about the banshee’s self-justifications, “What’s with the box?”
“There are three reasons why we are going to Icelore. First, the book said that the Earthboy will come to me in Zviecoff. The city is a warzone. If I wish to enter the capital, then I must be with one side or the other. I must obtain Shalis’ blessing before returning to her turf, otherwise I will find myself at odds with all the parties fighting to claim the city.”
“You’re willing to bow to her?” Catty laughed, “Thought that’s why you left?”
“Willing only because of the second reason.” Hermes grinned, “The book said that if I take Joe to Shalis, I will become stronger than I could ever imagine.”
“Maybe you’ve just got a weak imagination.” Grandfather suggested.
“And how will this happen?” Catty asked.
“I do not know,” he admitted, “but I believe it will be thanks to the sword this Knome will make with the void-dust Shalis will lend me.”
“Why would she give you void-dust?”
“Because I will give her the Sun Child.”
The banshee had a point. Still, Catty had one more question, “What is your third reason for taking us to Icelore? I still don’t see what these pieces of blade have to do with any of this.”
“If the book is wrong, then I still must capture the Earthboy, for I cannot bear to stay within the Order and Creaton would never take me back without the human. Even if the book is right, Zviecoff is a large city. It is possible I could miss him. Thus, my third reason: in Icelore, they have one of Kenchi Kou’s mechanical creations. Do you know what I speak of?”
Despite having been previously employed in Icelore, Catty had no clue.
Grandfather, on the other hand, had a hunch, “Atlas.”
Hermes said, “Catherine, you’ve heard of mapworks, correct?”
“What about globeworks?”
Catty shook her head.
“That is probably because Shalis Skullsummon owns the only one in existence.” Hermes explained, “Using Atlas, we can track the Earthboy across Solaris. Prophecy or not, if I can get Shalis to cooperate, Icelore is key to us finding the pyromancer. Now, here she is…” he turned away from Catty to face their ride. The vessel was much closer now, its details finally discernable. The ship was nearly all in two colors, maroon and navy, except for the marble figurine of a horse, whinnying above the ocean, that mounted the bowsprit. A horn protruded from between the ivory steed’s eyes. It was from this figurehead that the vessel claimed it’s name, which Hermes murmured, “…the Monoceros!”
– – –
Zalfron slammed his fists down on the rock ledge as if his appendages weren’t made of soft, mammalian flesh. This must’ve been his tenth attempt. The rock didn’t budge. A bloody imprint of the elf’s brutalized hands was all that remained as a sign of his efforts. Nogard was watching the progressing army of Aquarian reinforcements and was constantly reminding his companions what little time they had before they missed their chance. The Soldiers of Shelmick were winning against the caravan, the battle moved slow but undeniably in their favor. However, their success wasn’t vast enough to provide promising odds for the final outcome. If they did manage to defeat Machuba’s transporters and fend off the second wave themselves, there was guaranteed to be vast casualties and the boys new Sidon and his men wouldn’t abandon their brother, they would fight to the death.
As Joe scanned his brain for useful ideas, he swung the Suikii. If only I was a mage or elementalist and could use more than just fire, Joe frowned. But I’ve used my fire to knock someone back, haven’t I? Could I concentrate my fire into a hard enough force to crack the rock? He looked over at Zalfron who was hopping about, eyeing the rock like Rocky Balboa might’ve eyed a frozen hunk of beef. It’s worth a shot.
“Zalfron, step back.” Joe commanded.
Zalfron did, keeping his eyes on his petrified enemy.
“Hope you got somedin up dose sleeves, mon,” Nogard said, “it be now or never!”
Joe spun the fire inside him then let it swim out from his chest and extend from his arms, twirling outward like a drill. He brought his arms together, combining the two spiral tongues of flame into one, then raised his arms. Focus. He sculpted the fire, turning the uncontrolled limbs of sapphire blaze into a solid pole shape. Hammer. The end of the column of conflagration shifted, molding into a cylinder perpendicular to the pole.
“You gotta do it now!” Nogard cried.
Joe swung both his arms down. The fiery hammer hit the rock and the ledge shuddered.
“Selu, that was awesome!” Zalfron fist pumped the air, “Yer a baest!”
As Joe sucked his flames back into his chest, he asked, “Did it work?”
Nogard grabbed Joe by the shoulder, turned him around, and pointed as a crack continued to crawl across the outcropping of rock. The earthen peninsula shifted.
Zalfron was beside himself with excitement, “Yall ready?”
Now the stone was trembling, it was ready to drop.
“What do we do?” Joe yelped, “Do we hold on?”
“No, jump!” Nogard cried.
With one last quake, the boulder bridge fell. The three jumped and they hung in the air for a moment, watching the tongue of stone smack the side of the canyon, shatter, and tumble onto the heads of the unsuspecting soldiers.
As soon as gravity wrapped its heavy fingers around the three, all coordination flew out the window. Arms pin wheeling, they fell to the ground. Joe hit a chunk of stone on its flat side and rolled down it like a ramp. The impact would’ve done considerable damage if not for the forgiving atmosphere beneath the Aquarian Dome. Nogard hit the same rock and came to a rolling stop beside Joe. Zalfron fell flat on the ocean floor at the two’s feet.
Joe and Nogard stumbled to their feet, about to check on Zalfron, when they realized that the twenty-five or so fishfolk not compromised in the falling rocks were but a few steps away. Nogard drew his sword and pulled his shield off of where he’d hung it around his shoulders.
“You ready?” Nogard asked.
“Ready as ever,” Joe sighed, “remember, try to cripple, not kill.”
“Yah mon?” Nogard shook his head, “Dink dat might be just as bad.”
“FARAK!” Zalfron roared, jumping to his feet, “That hurt so damn ba-”
“CHOFAY!” One of the fishfolk at the head of the reinforcements roared and the rest of the men responded by charging with their weapons held high.
Joe moved his arms like he was pulling two curtains apart, forcing his chest forward, and sprayed his blue-flame over Nogard and Zalfron at the charging fishfolk. The fire did little to the armored men except stun them. Precisely what Nogard needed. The chicken dragon ran forward, bashing the closest fishfolk with his shield then stabbing him through his chain mailed gut as he fell backwards. Zalfron charged too, grabbing a nearby guard and yanking his helmet off his head. As the disoriented fishfolk stumbled away from the fire, Zalfron reared back and smacked him across the head with his own helmet.
By then the shock of Joe’s wall of combustion ran out. Nogard went on to the next man, raising his shield to jar the fishfolk but the warrior twisted out of the way and swung at Nogard’s unprotected side. The chicken dragon barely managed to raise his sword and block in time, but when he did another fishfolk warrior was on him, striking his shield with such strength that he forced Nogard to stagger backwards. Zalfron had to back pedal too as sword wielding fishfolk inched towards the tall elf, ready to lunge.
“Guys, fall back over the rock!” Joe yelled.
Nogard turned and ran past Joe, scaling the rocky mound with ease. Zalfron was less convinced. He swung the helmet back and forth, discouraging the fishfolk from attacking but soon, with Nogard gone, he would be surrounded. Joe cursed beneath his breath.
“Zalfron! Re-,” his chest released a tendril of blue flame that leapt up into the air, over Zalfron, and down onto the guard directly in front of the elf, “-treat!”
This time Zalfron listened. He turned and followed Nogard on his climb over the mound of rubble. Joe followed too, after launching a wave of fire at the line of armored fishfolk. As soon as the three reached the crest of the mound, they saw Sidon’s men coming up the other way. At least fifteen of them, all nude aside from the shields now strapped to their backs. There were over a dozen of the remaining armored transport tailing them.
“Switch!” Joe yelled to Sidon.
Sidon raised his trident in acknowledgement before leading his men down the other side towards the un-suspecting reinforcements. Joe turned back to the charging caravan and released a line of fire. The confused fishfolk skidded to a stop as the blue fire swept through them, scorching what skin wasn’t protected. Before they could regain their composure, Nogard leapt from the top of the mound, throwing his shield to knock two of the prisoner guards off their feet. He came down on another soldier and slid the edge Shelmick’s Sword across his neck. Zalfron tackled the downed guards and tossed Nogard his shield, hollering, “NOGARD, CATCH!”
“DANKS!” Nogard caught the golden disk and whirled on the next enemy. Meanwhile, Zalfron kicked one of the downed guards and slugged the other in the nose.
“JOE,” Zalfron yelled as he knelt by the stunned guards, “GIMMAE A HAND!”
Joe nodded and thrust his hands forward, palms out, crying internally, “Kamehameha!” A ball of blue fire the size and density of a bowling ball was launched from his chest, hitting a guard in the head as he approached the elf. The guard stumbled backwards, wiping at the inferno that wrapped his face.
“THAT GOOD, ZALF-”
WHAM! The fire went out and the guard hit the ground, his flat nose now a bloody indention in his face. Joe cringed at the sight. Wearing the gloves of the fishfolk he’d rendered unconscious, Zalfron held the man’s sword by the blade – he had used the hilt as a hammer to pound Joe’s victim’s face in. WACK! He spun on another nearby guard and the handle of the sword clanged against the fishfolk’s helmet.
The brutal blow Joe’d seen broke through his adrenaline-induced iron stomach. Suddenly, Joe felt dizzy and sick. He staggered in place but had no time to collect his thoughts. His eyes looked towards Machuba’s cage. The soldiers had dropped it in the sand and it sat in the middle of the mayhem – between Nogard and Zalfron. Joe could see Machuba, sitting cross legged, still as a statue as he watched the battle through the bars. Both men’s eyes met and a chill ran down Joe’s spine. There was something hopeless about the fishfolk’s blank, black stare.
Nogard’s yell tore his eyes from the prisoner. Five of the guards were climbing up the mound of rubble towards him. Joe looked at his hands. Suikii. It appeared. Joe swung at the hand of one of the fishfolk reaching up for the next block of rubble. An armored hand grabbed the blade. Joe’s eyes met the gaze of the fishfolk guard.
This man is going to kill me.
Joe pointed his finger and sent a blast of chainmail-rattling flame right into the fishfolk’s face. The guard fell to the ground screaming as the other four climbed higher.
“GUYS, WE CAN’T FIGHT THEM ALL OFF!” Joe cried.
“WAHR FAHN!” Zalfron yelled.
“NO CHOICE, MON!” Nogard roared.
There was three left pacing around Nogard, four on Zalfron – counting the two that limped, and four climbing towards Joe. They were outnumbered. Not to mention the twenty-something they’d left the Soldiers to face. Joe looked once more to the cage.
“Machuba,” he whispered, swearing to himself, “we’ll get you out of there!”
Another hand reached up towards Joe’s feet. Taking a step back to get out of reach, Joe swung the Suikii in the air. Finally, the sword did its job. A hole in the universe opened before Joe revealing a window into Machuba’s cage! He was staring right into the captive fishfolk’s face but the prisoner was oblivious. It was as if he couldn’t see the portal. I must have to go through it first. A hand wrapped around Joe’s ankle. Joe fell onto his butt and reached out to grab a stone that shot up from the pile with his free hand to keep from being yanked down.
“GUYS, WE GOT A WINDOW!”
“GO WITHOUT US!” Zalfron hollered back.
As Joe hacked at the armored hand gripping his ankle, he considered taking Zalfron’s advice. But what if you go through, get Machuba, then come back out and, in that time, Zalfron or Nogard is killed? Joe couldn’t risk it. They had to move together.
“JUST GET OVER HERE!” Joe yelped.
But Zalfron was surrounded. He swung the hilt into a limping guard’s gut then, when the soldier lurched forward, he brought the handle up to clock him in the chin. Hurdling over the collapsing guard, he ran in the only direction that was open: towards the stone façade. As he did, he noticed a jagged slit in the cliff side. Raising the sword over his head, he swung the handle into the wall, chipping a decent sized rock from the crack before turning back to his encroaching opponents.
“NOGARD,” Zalfron yelled, “THROW YER SHAELD AT THE CRACK ABOVE MAH HEAD!”
Nogard had managed to get past the guards that surrounded him and had just pulled a guard off the mound of rubble after stabbing him through the back.
“THE CRACK,” Zalfron swung at the guards surrounding him, “ABOVE MAH HEAD!”
Nogard slit the calf of another guard scaling the rock pile then turned back to Zalfron. He glared at the crack above the elf’s head, spun, and launched the shield like a discus. It soared over the elf’s scalp and hit the fissure, sticking there. Zalfron faked a jumped towards the three guards around him, then ran back to the wall. He leapt, with the sword still upside down in his grip, and swung. He hit the shield with the hilt of his stolen blade which both drove the golden wedge deeper and rattled it, vibrating the cliff side.
The wall shifted. A lightning bolt of cracks spread up from the Sheild of Shelmick.
“ZALFRON!” Joe yelled.
Zalfron turned. Nogard and Joe were now both standing atop the rubble, fending off the guards. A pebble fell behind the elf. Shadows, like that of clouds, stretched over him. The canyon wall was collapsing.
He yanked the shield free then ran, zig-zagging past the now fleeing fishfolk. Boulders fell behind him, one after the other, crushing the armored guards like ants. Zalfron didn’t look back. The guards at the rubble pile turned away from Joe and Nogard and looked at the falling wall of stone. Then they turned to Zalfron.
Zalfron skidded to a stop. They took a step forward. Zalfron took a step back. The elf was tall and though he had strong arms, he had stronger legs. With a gulp, he tossed his sword-hammer at the soldiers then charged with the shield before him. Massive boulders continued to rain down around him, some as big as his forearm and some as big as the elf himself. He ran at one of the ducking guards then, at the last second, he held the shield out of his way and jumped – at least five feet. He could’ve cleared the flinching fishfolk’s head but instead he kicked off the man’s helmet for an extra boost. The elf slammed against the pile of rubble and Nogard yanked him up.
“Ya gutsy bastard!” Nogard chuckled.
Giant fragments of canyon wall continued to fall. If they’d stayed behind for one more second, they would’ve been swallowed in the rubble. Instead, they dove through the portal and slammed against the bars of Machuba’s cage. It was dark as midnight. And quiet – aside from the pebbles trickling down above them.
“Where are wae?” Zalfron mumbled, “Ain’t this supposed to bae Machuba’s cage.”
Nogard asked, “Machuba?”
The fishfolk’s voice was strong and forcefully deep. There was a certain firmness in it, Joe noted. Though he had never met the famed fishfolk before, Joe found himself willing to trust the man merely from the way he spoke. Turning to face Machuba, the indigo light in his chest revealed the young fishfolk. What first struck Joe was the man’s age. From afar, he hadn’t noticed, but up close, Machuba looked almost like a child (though with notably well defined muscles). Joe made a mental note to ask the rebel his age later, for now, he had a more relevant question.
“We’re under the rubble, aren’t we?”
“Well then,” Zalfron lay back against the metal bars and let out a deep sigh, “looks lahk wae did it.”
– – –
Sidon yanked his silver trident from the face of his enemy and turned. Not a single Aquarian guard remained on his feet. A few crawled here and their, half a dozen moaned and squirmed, and another half a dozen lay perfectly still though their gills still pulsed as they breathed unconsciously. A long stretch of canyon wall had collapsed, burying the rest of the bodies. At the moment, Sidon was not worried about his men, many of whom had become casualties themselves, that would come later. He was not worried about the blocked entry way, for they could easily climb out. He was worried about Machuba Gill.
With his lips set in a firm line he marched past comrades and corpses to the edge of the debris. At the pile he squatted, placed his hands beneath a stone, and lifted with his legs. His soldiers watched as the fishfolk’s gills flared and veins bulged. Thirty seconds later, Sidon collapsed to his knees.
Behind him, Yiangu cried to the heavens, “Barro! Barro, don’t forsake us!”
His voice bounced off the canyon walls. The soldiers followed Sidon to stand at the edge of the rockpile. Despite the casualties, none had died. All the soldiers had been willing to give their life to save one of their brothers and now they found that the one they came to save may have been crushed under tons of stone.
A tiny pebble rolled down the pile, coming to a stop at Sidon’s knee. He looked up. At the top of the rubble, a stone lifted. Floating in the atmosphere of the Aquarian Dome, it rose then plopped over on its side, rolling down the hill and out of the way. Another lifted. And another. As Sidon rose to his feet, the cage rose from the pile then levitated over to where Sidon stood and fell to the ground.
Joe, Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba sat wedged behind the cold, unmarred metal bars. The wide black-eyed stares weren’t focused on the Gill, but instead on Joe. Whispers spread through the ranks like wildfire, “A miracle,” a fishfolk murmured, “Barro smiles upon us,” another whispered, “Isn’t he from the Sun?” One asked, “He is the Sun Child!” Someone declared. Then, a soldier pointed to the ridge above, crying, “Barro has come!”
Joe turned to Nogard.
“A Delian god, mon,” the chicken dragon whispered, “he rules over all water, takes da shape of a turtle.”
“Look!” Zalfron exclaimed, pointing to a dark silhouette that seemed to peak over the lip of the canyon, “Selu, its raelly Barro?”
Joe followed Zalfron’s finger and there was something, high above them, but it could have just as easily been a strange rock rather than a turtle.
“Dat was just a turtle.” Nogard rolled his eyes.
“Then who pulled the rocks off us?” Zalfron demanded.
The chicken dragon glared at the elf, “Dought you be a Christian, mon?”
“Yea, well,” Zalfron shrugged, “mah god doesn’t do miracles, so maybae its due tahm to convert.”
Sidon strode forward and spoke so everyone got quiet.
“Sheenshong Machuba Gill Juji.” Sidon said.
Machuba bowed his head, “Sheenshong Sidon.”
“Joe, please assist Machuba from his cell.” Sidon said.
“Alright,” Joe raised the Suikii. The other three inched away from Joe’s corner of the cage to give him ample room. He swung. Then he swung again. After the nineteenth swing, he surrendered, “I think we have a problem.”
“What’s wrong?” Sidon asked.
“The Suikii has a mind of its own,” Joe admitted, “I can’t make it open a portal.”
Sidon gave Joe a blank stare. Behind him, Yiangu fell to his knees, lifted his head, and roared as he had before, “BARRO!” but the shadow that had lingered over the edge of the cliff was now nowhere to be seen.
– – –
The sun set and the perfect darkness of night on the sea floor descended upon the Soldiers of Shelmick as the group hiked back to the Stronghold. The controlled forest fire they’d set to trap the fishfolk before the battle had almost gone out and what continued to burn was quickly consumed by Joe to permit safe passage. It took six mermen to hold the cage. They constantly alternated so that no one man would have to bear the weight for the entire journey. Sidon alerted the four that King Lacitar would already be well aware of Machuba’s escape and would stop at nothing to try and prevent them from returning to their hidden abode. As they neared the monastery, the Soldiers’ tattoos began to reappear, glowing brighter and brighter with each step. Joe realized that their tattoos hadn’t been glowing during the battle.
“How do those tattoos work?” Joe asked.
Machuba answered, “The closer we get to the Stronghold, the brighter they glow.”
Hearing Joe’s question, Sidon strolled up to walk alongside the cage so he could look Joe in the face as he spoke, “We use them to guide us home. A spell was weaved in their glowing ink, most of these tattoos have other charms aswell.”
“Lahk what?” Zalfron jumped into the conversation.
“Some help you sleep, some lessen pain, some heighten certain senses,” Sidon shrugged, “there is no limit to what magic can do, only a limit to our imagination. Though, these tattoos are also a weakness. If Lacitar had captured Machuba, then my brothers and sisters and I would’ve had to abandon our home, for Lacitar would use our brother as a compass.”
“Interesting.” Another sudden thought struck Joe. They’d left the canyon with no bodies in tow. Did we just abandon our fallen? He asked, “Did we lose any men?”
“No. One of our brothers, Sheenshong Chuang, is in a very dire condition but, with help, he can walk and, once we return, our women will be able to heal him over time.”
“Da luck of da Sun Child, my boy!” Nogard joked, clapping Joe on the back.
“Not luck,” Sidon corrected, “we survived because we train hard. Our men are prepared mentally and physically. The fishfolk in Lacitar’s armies are hardly trained for true combat.”
“Unless that combat is drunken fist fighting.” Yiangu interjected, “There is a rumor that soldiers in the Aquarian Army are allowed to drink only liquor.”
“Aye mon, when can I enlist?” Nogard snickered.
The comment, fortunately, went ignored.
Sidon continued, “There are many men among the Soldiers of Shelmick that would rank among the top warriors beneath Solaris.”
“Ah swear when wae went over that hump, Ah thought wae were missin at laest half of yall!” Zalfron exclaimed.
Sidon chuckled, “The very camouflage that puzzled our enemies may have conned our allies aswell.”
“Lucky yall are used to thaese cold waters,” Zalfron shook his head, “you’d get a cold and pneumonia if ya ran around fahtin nekked back where Ah’m from.”
The three boys had been saved from the cold, and bizarre dampness that prevailed beneath the domes by the enchanted robes the fishfolk had given them. Janwe had explained it to Zalfron and Nogard while Joe was sleeping. The tunics were devised to work with one’s homeostasis. When cold, the cloth exerted heat and, when hot, the cloth exerted chill. Though the outside layer of the garments were soaked by the water-holding, mist-like atmosphere, the inside layer remained dry.
“Hey, mon, give da Suikii anodder shot.” Nogard requested.
Joe complied, having to switch to his left hand as the muscles of his right arm were so sore they’d stop cooperating. After the tenth attempt, he decided to get his mind off the uncomfortableness of the situation. Joe searched his brain for another question. Finally, it hit him. Turning back to Machuba, he asked, “I’m not sure if this is a rude question or not, so feel free to decline, but earlier someone mentioned to me that Gills have a peculiar curse.”
Joe’s curiousity had rubbed off on Zalfron, “Blood of molten stael!” With wide eyes and a mystified smile, the elf asked, “Can you tell us where it came from?”
Machuba took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Would you rather I tell the story?” Sidon asked.
“Consider this a prequel to the tale I told last night,” Sidon smiled, “though this story began a couple thousand years before…”