Solaris had set by the time they arrived back at Shelmick’s Stronghold. The three moons’ pale light barely made it through the canopy of coral, leaving only the glowing tattoo’s of the soldiers to lead them through the Wobniar Woods. Once they made it to the polyp bridge, in sight of the eel-lit castle, the fishfolk amongst them began to grumble in the Aquarian Dialect. Initially, the boys had no idea why until Zalfron spotted the cause of their discontent. At the top of the stairs, a white robed guard lay fast asleep beneath the doors which lay wide open.
“JANWE!” Yiangu roared.
The scrawny fishfolk leapt to his feet, his diamond face pale.
“Dojo yo ne eechi shamien?” Sidon cried, flying up the stairs after Yiangu.
“Boo…boo ty chang…” Janwe shuddered as the nude warriors charged him.
Yiangu got to Janwe first and, grabbing him by his collar, he lifted his little brother off his feet and slammed him against the wall. Reaching the fishfolk’s side, Sidon put a hand on Yiangu’s shoulder to keep the man from striking his kin. The rest of the warriors came to a halt, their glares sparing Janwe no mercy, and took a deep breath.
Looking over his brother’s shoulder, Janwe’s face lit up, “Machuba Juji!”
Patting Yiangu on the arm, the fishfolk lowered the failed guard but did not release him. Sidon asked, “Were the doors open when you fell asleep?”
Janwe fell pale again. Now Yiangu released his brother so that he could draw his sword from where it hung, hooked on the shield strapped to his back. Those that were not carrying the cage up the stairs followed Yiangu inside. Sidon turned away from the boy, and looked to Joe, Zalfron, Nogard and Machuba.
“The fight may not be over.” Sidon said.
Sidon stepped aside and beckoned for them to march on but stop in front of the door. There, they put the cage down, drew their weapons, and waited.
“There’s no way Lacitar found yall, is there?” Joe asked.
“Anything is possible.” Sidon said.
“One day soon we won’t have to live in fear of our own king!” Janwe proclaimed.
“Doubtful.” Machuba stated.
“Come on, mon,” Nogard said, “gotta keep ya head up!”
“Why?” Machuba snapped.
“Optimism or depression,” Nogard replied, “dose be da choices, which would ya radder?”
“What good is considering the bright side when the bright side is still too dark to to tollerate?” Machuba retorted, “We have no numbers. We have no support. Those who sympathize are still too afraid to speak up and those who had courage have all disappeared just as I nearly did. The people who are left don’t realize that our cause is their cause! They’ve come to believe Lacitar’s lies – that we are nothing more than terrorists! The Aquarians want freedom but they don’t want the Soldiers of Shelmick! They fear us! These people aren’t our people any longer! Even if I were to kill Lacitar today, they would have me killed tomorrow! They-”
“Maybe violence isn’t the answer.” Joe interjected.
His lips trembling, Machuba turned slowly to face Joe. For a moment, Joe wondered if he was going to have to fight the young fishfolk. The flames in his chest rumbled a bit. Before either could speak again, Zalfron jumped into the conversation.
“Joe’s from another world.” Zalfron explained, “Hae ain’t used to vahlence.”
“Violence is the way of nature.” Machuba challenged.
“Not the way of civilization.” Joe countered.
“You’re a fool to think you’re anything other than an animal!” Machuba crowed.
The fishfolk’s rage seemed to be contagious, for Joe was beginning to get a little heated, “You’re a fool to act like you don’t!”
Machuba stopped. He licked his eyes then glanced at those around him, Nogard, Sidon, Janwe, then back at Joe to ask, “Who are you?”
“Joe.” He said, “I’m from Earth.”
“Where is Earth?” Machuba asked.
“Under the Sun.”
Machuba raised his head, the way that eyelidless folk express suspicion without the ability to squint, he mumbled, “A pyromancer from the Sun…”
“He and da elf, Zalfron Sentry-”
“Sentry…” Machuba muttered.
“Be on der way to God’s Island,” Nogard explained, “dey took a detour to help me save you.”
Machuba lowered his chin and looked at Joe straight. The boy’s age struck Joe. For a kid, he is very articulate. Still, I shouldn’t have been so abraisive.
“Met em on da road to Portville,” Nogard said, “a few days ago.”
“Wae were headin in the same dahrection,” Zalfron shrugged, “wound up rahdin together, then wae ran into trouble.”
“The Black Crown Pact is after me.” Joe said.
“Why would that be?” Machuba asked.
“Ta sho gay Sun Child.” Sidon said.
“The intruder” Yiangu said, appearing in the doorway, “was but a friend.” He turned to Janwe, “Ne zoy-how she-she Barro way su eega.”
The Soldiers lifted the cage once more and followed Yiangu, Sidon, and Janwe inside the castle.
“Iesop Shell.” Yiangu elaborated.
“Ah!” Sidon chuckled, “Or should I say, ‘Ooooh!’”
The fishfolk laughed. Janwe turned to explain to the encarcerated guests.
“Iesop Shell is the oldest member of the Soldiers of Shelmick. He was on a journey through the southern end of the Wobniar Wood and around the southern leg of Iceload-”
“Azunu.” Zalforn interjected.
“-where the mermen have relocated to cities outside of Lacitar’s jurisdiction.”
“Yall speak wid dem?” Nogard asked, “I dought dose who fled be on bad terms wid yall, seein as dey abandoned you…”
“We no longer have a position hospitable to the maintenance of our pride.” Sidon admitted, “As young Machuba said, our situation is not a sustainable one. Eventually, Lacitar will find us. Eventaully, not a place beneath the Aquarian Domes will be outside of his reach.”
They went through the building and into the courtyard where they found the entire community gathered around a single individual that Joe correctly assumed to be Iesop Shell. The old fishfolk was sitting atop a giant sea turtle. The reptile was as ancient as its rider, its leathery wrinkle neck shook as it struggled to hold its head up. It’s eyelids drooped making Joe wonder if it could even see as it looked here and there. The fishfolk atop had a similar expression, his eyes slightly squinty – relative to his wide eyed comrades – from sagging skin. The wrinkled little blue man wore only shorts and a coat from where he sat on the turtles back, dressed much like Nogard, holding an ornate umbrella over his shoulders.
“Oooh!” Iesop said, “We have visitors?”
Sidon nodded, “While you were gone, Machuba was captured. Nogard Otubak and his friends, the human and elf, found us around the time we were planning to come to Machuba Juji’s aid.”
“Oooh!” Iesop cried again, “But they’re all in the cage?”
“The Suikii let us in,” Joe said, swinging idly, “but she won’t let us out.”
“The Suikii?” For a moment Iesop’s voice lowered. His brow flexed, pulling the wrinkled flesh back from his black eyes so as to get a clearer view of those before him, then he was back to squinting with his head tilted towards the heavens, “What are your names?”
“Oooh! What names!”
Sidon turned the attention back on Iesop, “Tell us of your travels!”
“Oooh! The time is coming for Lacitar to pay for his crimes! There are many mermen!”
“Along the Frosted Coast?” Sidon asked.
“Oooh! Indeed,” Iesop nodded, “Thousands. They understand our pain, brothers and sisters. Oooh, I think they may fight! They wish to speak with you Sidon.”
Sidon frowned, “I’m not sure I can afford to be away for so long…”
“Oooh! Can we afford not to have them with us?”
“Maybe we should all go to them,” Machuba suggested, “and stay.”
All fell silent.
“What are we fighting for? A piece of land? There is no home left in Aquaria, not for us. The people will never stand up to Lacitar. Don’t you see? Look what happened to me in Sanction! We are the only enemies Lacitar has left.”
The ensuing silence expressed more than words could. They were hurt by Machuba’s statement. After all, he was the one they believed would eventually rule Aquaria. Machuba was to be their king and now he stood before them telling them to give up. The worst part was, they thought he was right.
“There is no victory for us here…” Machuba finished, his voice revealing that his words not only depressed his fellow refugees, but also himself.
“Oooh!” Iesop nodded his head vigorously from atop his turtle, “The lands to the south are ours to take, ours to defend, and it rolls across the ocean floor far from the domes of Aquaria. Your old dreams to be ruled by yourselves can be re-born among the mermen there. Oooh!”
Sidon frowned, “This is an issue not to be decided in one night.”
Joe wasn’t paying attention. The submarine political dialogue was a little too confusing for someone who’d only been introduced to the planet a week ago. Instead, Joe faced a thought that had been lingering on the fringes of his mind all night. As he swung the Suikii this way and that, he let his memory bring back a scene from the battle.
An armored glove gripped his blade, jolting Joe. He looked into the eyes of the man. The fishfolk looked young, no older than he – in fact, probably younger, and though his lidless eyes were perpetually wide, Joe could see fear in his adversaries expression. Wild animalistic fear. And Joe thought, this man is going to kill me. It was simple as that. Joe could lay down and die or fight the man off. The kid had a life, a family, and friends – he was a person – but that didn’t matter because, at that moment, it was kill or be killed. So he shot a bolt of flame into the man’s face and the fishfolk fell to the ground screaming in pain.
Joe felt queasy. Not bad enough to spew as he had the night after the fight in the Barren’s Mullet, but bad enough to make him wish he’d throw up. These little skirmishes never fully ended. When there was downtime, if he closed his eyes the faces of those he’d fought – those he had killed – came back, plastered to the inside of his eyelids. How many have I killed? He wondered. He knew he killed the elf back at the tavern but how many guards lay dead at the bottom of the sea because of him? Three? Six? Joe shuddered but was saved from his thoughts by Zalfron.
Zalfron pointed to Joe’s side of the cage. The Suikii had just torn open a portal. The hole revealed a small wooden room filled with chests and large keg-like barrels.
“Where is that?” Zalfron asked.
“It could be anywhere,” Joe shrugged.
“It be dry, mon, dats for sure.” Nogard said.
“Do we go?” Joe asked.
“Oooh! If the Suikii offers you a door,” Iesop cried, “then you take it!”
Joe turned to Sidon.
“We will not be able to assist you if wherever you go leads you into trouble, but Shell is right. You cannot afford to question the Suikii.” Sidon said. He turned to one of the women nearby and ordered her to, “Duh-dow gay bow.”
As the woman ran off, Nogard asked Machuba, “Will you be coming?”
At first, the fishfolk didn’t respond. He stared vaguely at Iesop. Finally he turned to Sidon and spoke, “The Stronghold is doomed, Sidon. Go with Iesop. All of you, please, go with Iesop.” He paused, then said, “I’m leaving Aquaria.”
There was quiet for a minute. Not a soul budged, not even a gill flared. The sadness of the group could be felt like the misty atmosphere.
“Will we see you again?” Janwe asked.
“Not if you stay. All that you’ll find here is death. One day Lacitar will fall, one day his people will see the truth, but I cannot keep waiting for that day and neither should you. Build your own kingdom, brothers and sisters, and there I will rejoin you. And there, someday, we will rise up and crush Lacitar and his corruption like sea-snails beneath our feet.” The boy paused. Then, abruptly, he said, “I bid you adoo.”
Before even Joe crawled through the window, Machuba did. The three left in the cage exchanged glances, thanked Sidon and the Soldiers, and then followed their newfound fishfolk friend. Joe was the last to go and before he did, the fishfolk woman Sidon had sent off returned. She slid a leather pack through the bars to Joe. Joe looked to Sidon, puzzled.
“Your clothes, Sun Child,” Joe flinched at the nickname, Sidon continued, “and a fishippo scale medallion, should you ever need to find us.”
“How will it work?” Joe asked.
“Just as our tattoos, only it is linked to me. Now go, protect our prince,” Sidon smiled, “and protect yourself. Good luck, Sheenshong Joe.”
“Thank you,” Joe had one foot through the portal when he paused, looked back, and promised, “Sidon, after we find the Samurai, we will come back and help you,” He turned and gestured to the rest of those clustered around Iesop and the cage, “all of you.”
Sidon nodded, “Thank you, brother.”
Then Joe stepped through.
– – –
Searing pain greeted him when consciousness returned. He tried to move. Agony was the only product of his attempt. Surrendering to lay where he’d awoken, he looked around. The ocean was dark, everything was colored in bleak shades of black. Craning his head, he found himself staring at a strange object. It was long and cylindrical ending in five limp tentacles. The tentacles were small and creased, bending in two spots all except for the fifth which had only one bend.
Recognition was a cold grip on his gut – an arm! The arm’s owner was smashed beneath a massive pile of stone and, as he now noted, so was he. Now he remembered. His brothers had been transporting the man who claimed to be Sidon when the terrorists struck. As his unit was torn apart, the canyon walls began to crumble, separating them from their reinforcements. He remembered the land lubber, dressed in the robes of a Soldier of Shelmick, launching blue flames from his chest and carrying a peculiar black sword. He remembered the young man’s eyes as he reached for him and he remembered the human’s reaction: a blast of flame that engulfed him and threw him down the pile of rubble.
He’d crawled – he would have died if not – as the cliff collapsed. When he finally thought he’d cleared the falling stones a boulder hit the pile behind him. On his back, he had watched it roll down the debris towards him, having lost the motivation to save himself. He knew his comrades had all been slaughtered. This is it. He had thought but now here he was. Alive, with his legs crushed beneath the destruction that buried his comrades. Laying his head back down, he cursed.
A noise caught his attention. It sounded like shuffling feet. Another survivor? A fellow comrade? Once more he craned his neck, trying to see who moved behind him. What he saw shriveled his heart like a raisin. The man was dressed in black robes that dragged about his feet. A hood was thrown over his head, hiding most of his face in its shadow, only the portion of his face from the nose down was visible in the dark atmosphere of the submarine night.
The man’s face was nothing more than a skull. The wounded soldier watched as the stranger approached a slain comrade. The skeleton man knelt down and pulled back his sleeves then submerged his right hand in the dead man’s chest. Pulling his hand from the man’s chest, the skeleton now held a key. The man stood up, pocketed the key, and moved on to the next.
This can’t be a necromancer’s minion. He’s alone. The way he walks, the way he acts, it’s almost as if he is living. What peculiar magic allows a man to reach into another’s chest? Is this a banshee? His thoughts were cut short as he realized that the man was now heading his way. He offered up a silent prayer to Barro.
The footsteps stopped beside him. The skeleton’s bones creaked as the man knelt down, coming back in view of the fishfolk. Does he know I’m alive? Is he going to kill me? Reaching out, the undead slid his hand within the man’s chest and withdrew a key. The man gasped.
The skeleton’s jaw dropped, “You’re not dead!”
As swift as he had removed it, the skeleton shoved his hand back in the fishfolk’s chest and yanked it back out again, keyless. Still the fishfolk could only gape.
The skeleton spoke slowly and had switched to use the Aquarian Dialect. Each word was pronounced with such little emphasis that it was as if the man were reading a script meant to be spoken in monotone. The only frightful thing about the skeletal figure was his skeletal figure. So as the initial shock left the fishfolk, he felt the courage to pop the question he was dying to ask.
“Who are you?”
The skeleton stood and began to walk away.
“Hey wait! I’m stuck! Help!”
The skeleton paused.
“What’s your name?” The skeleton asked.
“Aqa Eniram,” the fishfolk said.
“Aqa? Well I will see you in a couple years.” The skeleton responded.
“Who are you?” Aqa asked.
The undead didn’t respond. His back was still turned though he had come to a stop.
“Are you Hormah’s aid?”
“That depends on who you believe Hormah to be.” the skeleton said.
“Are you Death?”
“That is a question no living should ask.” Death stated, turning to face Aqa.
Aqa replied, “No living should ever see Death, either.”
“Sometimes Death makes mistakes,” Death said, once more walking away, “though I believe this was more the trickery of another rather than any foolery of my own doing.”
“If you leave me here, I will die!” Aqa yelled after him.
“No,” Death replied, “no, you won’t.”
And that was the last Aqa Eniram saw of Death but that would not be the last Death saw of Aqa Eniram.
– – –
“You’re heading to Icelore for a mapwork?”
The man leaned back, both hands on his hips, and released a boisterous laugh.
“You don’t need to go to Icelore for a mapwork! Check any vessel bearing a skull and cross bones and you’ll find yourself a mapwork!”
John Pigeon’s lack of all sense in the area of honor and respect often got him into trouble. Some attributed his behavior to his carreer path while others blamed it on the fact that he was constantly oiling himself with aquannabis. The man was so used to the symptoms of hallucination and bamboozlement that he was able to work through it without anyone suspecting that his weirdness was anything more than a personality trait. Hermes was fully armored, fleshless, engulfed in green flames, and almost twice the size of the short human but Johnny wasn’t daunted.
“You,” after each word he poked the banshee’s chest plate, an act that put his flesh at serious risk, “Silly. Badger.”
Hermes tolerated Captain Pigeon’s antics. Though he may be rude, he was one of the most trustworthy individuals the banshee knew.
“Follow me,” Johnny strode past the two, out of his office and down the hall as he told his fishfolk guards, “we’re going to the mapwork room.”
When they’d boarded the Monoceros, Johnny had been sound asleep. He had a bad habit of staying awake for three days and sleeping for four only to rise and repeat the same cycle. Thus, it wasn’t until the following morning that Hermes and Catty actually got to speak with Captain Pigeon.
Before the Sea Lords found John Pigeon he’d been a loner. An independant aquannabis grower and smuggler. He’d sneak below the surface of the Aquarian Ocean, using his elemntalist magic to provide oxygen, and would grow aquannabis in the Wobniar Woods. As he perfected his product and his trade, he made enemies on land and in the sea. One of these enemies was Captain Ching Shih of the Sea Lords. Numerous times he’d been captured and numerous times he’d been set free thanks souly to his charm – despite his ability to annoy 99% of women beneath Solaris, Ching happened to be his outlier. Ching could never bring herself to kill the man, instead, she fell in love with him. When Theseus Icespear destroyed the fleet, Ching Shih died and in her will she’d asked her crew to let John Pigeon replace her. At first, the Sea Lords had no intentions of fulfilling this final wish but, once their partners in the drug trade turned on them, they had no choice but to seek out the human. That was how Johnny ascended to the helm of the Monoceros, becoming not only one of the only non-fishfolk crew members but the actual captain of the Lords himself.
“You may have maps, Johnny, but Icelore has something you don’t have. Have you heard of a globework?” Hermes prodded.
“Ah yes, a portable-mapwork,” the pirate scoffed, “they act as though that’s some kind of novel idea. Let me ask you this, Hermes, what do you think the Monoceros is? Stationary? Why would anyone need a mapwork they could fit in their pocket, especially a Doom Warrior!”
“A banshee,” Hermes corrected.
“Oh right…” Johnny chuckled, “Listen, if you don’t want to use my mapwork you don’t have to.”
“We’d love to use your mapwork!” Catty said.
Johnny froze in his tracks, looked back at Catty, grinned and winked.
“Any time,” he said, “any time.”
The map room was one of the least furnished Hermes and Catty had ever seen. Hermes caught himself about to comment on its poor organization but remembered how his prior comment had hurt Johnny’s pride and refrained. Mapworks took a lot of machinery but in Solaris’ modern day and age, they were seen as necessary on most vessels. They normally sat on a top of a desk while the machinery reached up into the desk from a room below where the true magic-powered mechanization hid. The map room of the Monoceros was different only because the mapwork was added to the ship long after the vessel was created. Assembly lines of gears covered the walls. Long chains of interlocking contraptions created a narrow hallway to where the actual map of the mapwork lay. It was like walking in the top of a clock tower.
“I can see in your skeletal expression,” Johnny sighed, “you’re disappointed.”
“A mapwork is a mapwork, Captain.” Hermes replied.
Johnny approached the map. The cartogram was a giant rectangle of wood plastered against the wall. Each valley, each mountain, each river was carved with the finest of details. The map was truly a geographical masterpiece. On the floor, before the map, a cylindrical tube closed by a small metal lid protruded from the floor boards held by a curved mechanical arm. At the end of the metallic extremity, three fingers pinched the base of the foot-long, four inch wide vial. The fingertips of these philanges were made of enertombs. Johnny tapped the lid and the metal pulled apart like the jaws of a shark.
Catty opened the crate she carried. Hermes plucked one of the shards from Nogard’s sword out of the box and dropped it into the tube. The shard fell to the bottom of the vial and the trio of orbs that clasped the cylinder began to buz. The wooden oceans, the wooden forests, and the wooden clouds of precipitation carved across the map on the wall suddenly began to move. Tiny little brown tides flowed in and out, minuscule carved trees blew in the breeze, and microscopic wood shavings began to fall like rain drops on the wooden representation of Solaris.
The three stared at the map for a minute in complete silence. Finally, Johnny spoke up.
“I don’t see the red dot.” He said, “You sure that little piece of metal belongs to anyone?”
“Positive,” the lack of results frustrated Hermes and Johnny’s sure-minded behavior wasn’t helping, “maybe your map is broken?”
“Maybe the people you are looking for are dead.” Johnny suggested.
Hermes glared at Johnny. Johnny glared back. Catty rolled her eyes and looked back to the map. She said, “You might want to look again.”
Hermes and Johnny looked back. Their eyes grew wide. They could see the tiny wooden figurine of the Monoceros sailing through the Dragon Gulf, south of Middakle, Iceload. It had been there before but now there was something new. The once tree-trunk-brown boat was now ruby red.
“I thought you were the ones looking for someone,” Johnny laughed, “looks like they came to you.”
“How the-” Hermes began.
“The Suikii.” Catty stated.
CRABOOM! The Monoceros shook then shifted this way then that. The floorboards creaked as the boat settled back down. The three exchanged glances.
“What the hell is going on!” Johnny cried.
Hermes began to scan the floorboards of the ship. His eyes saw in the same manner as the eyes of the living do when within the spell of Total Darkness, a sort of energy vision. One sweeping look across the ship revealed the position of every soul on board. But something else troubled Hermes: there were two bright shining clusters that demanded his attention, clusters that had not been there before. He’d been surprised on the Sea Cuber when he saw Joe. Though Hermes had seen many that emitted a brighter light than most, he’d been appalled by the ferociousness of Joe’s glow. There was a certain uniqueness to it. It seemed he’d never seen a purer shine. He had thought one thing was for sure, he’d forever recognize it, but this was not the case. There were two similarly brilliant glowing figures onboard the Monoceros.
Catty, with her crow eye, saw it too.
“I’ll take those by the front of the ship,” she said.
Hermes nodded, “And I’ll get the ones at the back.”
As Hermes and Catty headed out the room, Johnny yelled after them, “Reinforcements will be on their way!”
– – –
As soon as all four were in the room, the portal closed behind them. The appartment was lit only by the sapphire fires in Joe’s chest. They found themselves crammed between barrels and boxes that were stacked so high the walls of the small chamber were barely visible. When Joe arrived, Zalfron was already climbing over a stack of wooden containers. Once he reached the top, he alerted the others, “Ah found uh door!” then scurried over the crate-tower and out of view.
“Hold on one second!” Joe demanded.
Machuba and Nogard turned to listen but Joe could still hear Zalfron clambering through the cartons and casks.
“You too Zalfron!” Joe waited until the room was silent then continued, “Are you guys with me?”
“Selu, yea!” Came Zalfron’s cry.
“Huh?” Nogard asked.
Joe elaborated, “I mean, are yall coming with Zalfron and I to meet the Emperor?”
“Why?” Machuba asked.
The fishfolk looked to the chicken dragon who turned to the human who was unsure how he should put it. Zalfron solved that problem, screaming, “Hae’s the Sun Chahld!”
“I can’t force you to come with me but….” Joe was uncomfortable referring to himself as some sort of messiah, especially before he’d done anything to prove himself, “According to the prophecy, if I am the Sun Child, I will need seven heroes to accompany me so…I’m asking, will yall come with me?”
Again, Zalfron answered, “Yessir!”
Machuba looked to Nogard.
Nogard bit his lip, hesitating, then he gave in saying, “I want to fight wid ya mon.”
Still, Machuba was unsure, “I must decide later.”
Joe was afraid of an answer like this, “The reason I was asking now is because…if you do want to fight with me, it is gonna be a little different…for yall…” He knew his demand would get him ridicule but he had to be true to his beliefs, “No killing unless we absolutely have to.”
“Joe, dis be a war, mon!” Nogard cried, straining to not laugh in his face, “Das da way it be!”
“You think we aren’t killing because we have to?” Machuba asked.
“I understand that sometimes we will have to,” Joe admitted, “but if we don’t, we shouldn’t. How can we claim to be any better than Creaton or Shalis if we solve our problems with violence? One sin doesn’t justify another!”
“Mercy is how you die.” Machuba stated.
“I’d rather die a righteous man, then live an evil one.” Joe replied, then he added, “I’m not asking you to not defend yourselves-”
“And others.” Machuba interjected.
“And others.” Joe agreed, “I’m asking you to spear every soul that you can – good and bad.”
Zalfron hollered, “It ain’t lahk wae jus killin folks for the hell of it, Joe.”
“I know, I know,” Joe sighed, “I probably didn’t even need to bring it up…”
“I understand, mon.” Nogard said, striding forward to clasp Joe on the shoulder, “You’re new to dis world and since you been here you’ve only seen warriors – barely spent anytime as a civilian.”
“We believe, same as you, dat violence be a last resort.” He turned to Machuba, “Right, mon?”
“Raht!” Zalfron shouted.
“And we see where you be comin from wid your worries.” Nogard patted Joe’s shoulder, “And we will do our best to be da good guys, raht?”
“Right.” Machuba said.
“Raht!” Zalfron yelled again.
Joe was about to thank them when they were interrupted by a loud: CRABOOM! The floor tilted beneath them. The kegs and crates slid to one side of the room. Joe, Nogard, and Machuba had to work together to hoist each other up onto the top of the stacks before being crushed by the sliding receptacles. The room shifted the other way, then back again, before finally stabilizing. Once things calmed, the four exchanged horrified glances from where they lay wedged between the roof and the columns of cartons.
“Dink dis be a boat!” Nogard concluded.
“Then what the hell was that? Are wae under attack?” Zalfron asked.
“Seems so.” Machuba nodded.
“Alright then, lets get out of here,” Joe said, adjusting his new back pack, “before this ship sinks!”
No one was arguing with that. Zalfron scurried down from his vantage point and grabbed the door. As soon as he opened it he was launched back into a stack of boxes and barrels which splintered upon impact, releasing gallons of alcohol and cannon balls. As Zalfron tumbled backwards, drenched in ale, the stacks of boxes that had leaned on their brother for support now topple over, spilling Joe, Nogard, and Machuba onto the floor of the now beer-soaked storage room.
A woman stood in the door way. She was dressed in a black leather jump suit. Dark hair fell over her right eye, half of it rolling down her breast while the rest fell down her back to hide the handles of her two Fou-style blades. Joe’s eyes grew wide. He recognized her instantly: the shadowmancer that had fought Grandfather at the Barren’s Mullet.
I’m done for!
“Let’s solve this like people,” Joe said, “this is your first and last chance.”
His proposition fell on deaf ears. Catty launched a ball of shadows into his chest, throwing him to the ground. Joe’s heart thumped like a flee covered dog’s foot as he struggled to his feet, his robes steaming from where the shadows struck him. Zalfron was back on his feet, bounding over the debris to charge Catty with balled fists. The shadowmancer shot another searing orb of shadows and, after the elf dodged it, spun to deliver a round house kick to Zalfron’s jaw. The elf hit the floor once again. Nogard with his Shelmick’s shield and Machuba with Shelmick’s sword charged.
I’ve got to get up! Joe released a brief blast of blue fire into the floor beneath him to propel him onto his feet.
Nogard raised his shield and dropped his shoulders. Machuba reared back and swung. Catty didn’t react until the last moment. She drew a sword with a spinning motion to parry Machuba’s blade then leapt in the air and planted her feet on Nogard’s shield to spring herself towards Joe and slam her fist into the pyromancer’s gut.
Joe fell to the ground gasping for breath. Nogard and Machuba were still on their feet, nervously creeping towards Catty. She turned to them and pointed at the kneeling pyromancer behind her with her sword.
“This is the boy who will bring back the Samurai?” She scoffed.
Nogard and Machuba said nothing.
“Do you know how powerful Creaton is?” Catty continued, “Do you understand that I don’t even possess a fraction of his strength?”
“Ah’d kick Craeton’s ass!” Nogard and Machuba turned. Zalfron was standing between them, chest puffed out like a rooster prepping for the morning tune. “And Joe could too!”
Zalfron lunged, Catty ducked and twirled, sweeping Zalfron off his feet with one extended leg. Before he hit the ground she grabbed the elf by his greasy lochs and brought her knee swiftly to his forehead then let him fall onto a crate.
She hissed, “I hate killing weaklings.”
As soon as she finished speaking a blast of blue fire hit her square in the back, projecting her forwards, past Nogard and Machuba, and into one of the last standing stacks. Joe was back on his feet cracking his knuckles. Zalfron staggered upright, smearing the blood that dribbled from his nose across his cheek. Nogard and Machuba turned to face Catty.
“Four on one,” Joe said, praying silently that his voice sounded intimidating, “I suggest you leave.”
“Back up has arrived!”
A human stood in the doorway. He was dressed precisely how one would assume a pirate to dress: a proud smuggler’s hat, a curled mustache, a pair of loose trousers, and a gaudy belt, with a pristine vest that looked as though it was the first day he’d worn it. The only thing the man lacked was a peg-leg, a patch, and a parrot. In the hallway behind him stood at least a dozen Sea Lords. Catty pulled herself out of the shattered boxes, glanced back at the pirate and his loyal fishfolk, then looked back to Joe with a smile.
“Sixteen to four,” she smirked, “and it’s far too late to leave now.”
– – –
It may or may not have been too late for Joe and his friends, but, minutes before they found themselves surrounded by pirates, Boldarian Drahkcor found himself in an entirely different predicament and it was definitely too late for his frantic line of questioning to produce any fruit. The four, Acamus, Ekaf, Zach, and Bold clung to the sides of a teeny dingy, propelled by a humming enertomb engine, which bobbed in the waves alongside the great Sea Lord vessel.
“Whar is the back up, lad?”
“Back up?” Acamus laughed.
“Right?” Ekaf concurred, “Who needs back up?”
Zach chimed in,“Acamus, you ensured us we would not be alone.”
“Roight! Ya thunk we can jump this boat arselves?” Bold indignantly squeaked, “How many Sea Lards ya reckon are waitin in thar?”
“I’m an Icespear, my friends,” Acamus assured the dwarf with a wink, “my father took down the entire fleet of Sea Lords single handedly!”
“Bold has a point.” Zach stated.
“Well,” Ekaf shrugged, “we’re here now.”
Shaking his head, Bold whimpered, “Uh’m a dead man.”
“What you should be asking…” Acamus paused to point his spear at the façade of the Monoceros. The spear extended rapidly, piercing the side of the ship and holding fast. The weapon anchored their tiny row boat to the Monoceros while keeping them far enough to not be crushed. Then, the minotaur continued through gritted teeth, “…is how you are going to get on.”
“Me? How will any of us get from har,” Bold said, pointing at their little boat then pointing to the ship before them, “to thar?”
“The spear Acamus is holding,” Ekaf said, “is the same that Theseus Icespear wielded alongside the Samurai, the Vanian Spear, crafted by Zannon Sentry – crafter of the Mystak Blade.”
Bold and Zach exchanged embarrassed glances.
“Uh’ve hard of the Vanian Spear, lad,” Bold said, “but whot does it do?”
“Well as you just saw, it can extend,” Acamus said, “but my friends, that is not its strongest power. When activated, anything it touches will freeze.”
“So what’s the plan?” Zach asked.
Acamus explained, “I freeze the wall of the ship, shatter it, then stab the spear back into the ship so that the two of you can run across it and onto the Monoceros. Knomes and spirits are nimble or is that just a stereotype?”
Zach and Ekaf nodded.
“That leaves me with you, my friend,” Acamus said to Bold, “I don’t see you running across my spear.”
“Could ya even hold the spear far me to try?” Bold asked.
“Another valid point, my friend.” Acamus chuckled.
“Well, I’m glad that’s settled,” Ekaf said, “let’s get started. Acamus, if you would, pull the spear.”
“Settled?” Bold exclaimed, “Lad, its anythin but settle-”
Ice began to spread from the spear head, freezing the facade of the Monoceros.
“Hey, come on now,” despite the cool ocean breeze, Bold was sweating, “wait a minute!”
Acamus set his feet on the row boat and twisted then yanked the spear free. The section of frozen wall shattered with a horrible thundering CRABOOM. As the chunks of frozen wood fell into the ocean, the mighty ship rocked violently and the row boat, floating in the wake, began to lose its stability. The waves tilted the boat back and forth so that it was almost perpendicular to the sea floor. Acamus nearly fell out but he was used to this. Taking aim at the wall, he harpooned the ship once more. The spear struck the vessel just below where the minotaur had torn a hole.
“Hurry, Zach, Ekaf!” Acamus roared, straining to keep both his dingy stable and his spear head imbedded.
Zach and Ekaf obeyed, hustling up the spear-bridge as if they’d done it many times before. Now it was just Acamus and Bold on the boat. The two looked at each other frowning.
“How did we say we were getting you on the ship?” Acamus asked.
“We didn’t.” Bold growled, “Uh’ve been duped by yar damned hubris and the impatience of that blasted Kno-.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Acamus stated.
“Laddie, thar’s no way in hell uh can run cross that spear!” Bold cried.
“I’ve got another idea.”
Acamus grinned. He yanked the spear free – which sent their row boat sailing straight for the hull – and let it shrink to a size that he could slip through the loop on his belt. He turned to the dwarf. Before the stocky man could resist, Acamus bent over and wrapped him in a bear hug. In seconds, their dingy would be smashed against the bottom of the Monoceros. Ignoring the chaos around them, Acamus focused on the fear-frozen dwarf in his arms and the hole in the ship nearly ten feet above them. As they came to the crest of a particularily large wave, Acamus roared, “Fly, my friend!” then lobbed Bold with all his might.
The throw couldn’t have been better. Bold disappeared inside the Monoceros with a long, indignant shriek. Stretching his arms, Acamus took aim once more with his spear. He hit nearly the same hole he’d used to create a bridge for Ekaf and Zach. Instead of using his spear as a bridge, he made his spear shrink, yanking him off the row boat and pulling him quickly towards the ship just as his dingy was crushed beneath the smuggling vessel.
Half a minute before Acamus arrived, Ekaf and Zach found themselves in a tavern of sorts. The tables that filled the room had been undisturbed by the rocking of the ship, as they were bolted to the floor, but the chairs had toppled over and slid across the room. There were no sailors in sight, but the room wasn’t empty. Just inside the doorway opposite the whole Acamus had made, Hermes Retskcirt waited.
He spoke first, “I’ve seen you before Knome…”
Ekaf shrugged, “We Knomes tend to look alike.”
Hermes drew his broadsword. Zach knocked an arrow in his bow. Ekaf yanked the dagger from his belt and climbed on top of the bar before them.
“Knock his skull off,” Ekaf said, “I’ll distract him with swordplay.”
Zach put the arrow back in his quiver and pulled out a separate one. This arrow had a blunt head, rounded and flattened on the end like a hammer. He had made the arrow himself, calling it his hammershot.
Ekaf approached. The dagger in his hand grew to match the size of Hermes’ mighty blade. The fiery skeleton nodded.
“Now I know I recognize you.”
Ekaf raised an eyebrow, “Then why aren’t you running?”
Hermes charged, bringing his sword down from above. Ekaf’s weapon shrank to a dagger and he ran beneath the banshee’s burning legs. Hermes spun and swung. Ekaf’s dagger was once more a sword and he blocked the attack easily, but Hermes had made one mistake. He had turned his back on Zach. Zach’s hammershot flew through the air, hitting the back of Hermes’s skull and sending it flying into the corner. The skull glared at Zach while Hermes’ body staggered back.
“Grandfather made the same mistake,” the skull said as it began to levitate, “continue to underestimate me and I will continue to win. You are a mere Knome, the day I lose to a Knome is the day d-”
As his skull returned to his body, Hermes turned to look at Ekaf. He had expected to see some sort of awe in the Knome’s eyes or at least a glint of fear that Death might soon be on his way. Instead, Hermes saw a grin stretched from ear to ear across the little man’s face.
“What’s so funny?” Hermes demanded.
“What were you going to say?” Ekaf asked.
“The day I lose to a Knome is the day…” Ekaf started.
Puzzled, Hermes finished, “the day dwarves fly.”
At that moment, Boldarian Drahkcor the Fifth flew into the ship screaming at the top of his lungs. He hit the armored Hermes square in the back. Bold rolled away then got up and, seeing Zach, scurried to get behind the bar. As the dwarf clambered over the counter, Acamus arrived alongside them.
“Whot’d uh hit?” Bold shivered, “A block of uss?”
“A banshee.” Zach answered.
Bold’s eyes grew wide.
Hermes was back on his feet.
“Boldarian Drahkcor I assume, what are you? The seventh?” Hermes asked.
“Fifth.” Bold corrected.
“What a pity, because now you’ll be the last.”
– – –
Hidden behind the Shield of Shelmick, Nogard charged with Machuba and Zalfron at his heels. Joe, behind them, released a column of blue fire, directing it over his comrade’s heads. Then, Joe felt something in his hand and looked down. The Suikii! He swung the black blade and the room tore in half before him. All he could see was darkness, pure and absolute.
Meanwhile, Nogard, Zalfron, and Machuba came to a skidding halt – Catty was gone. In actuality, she had gone no where but instead she’d shrunk into the form of a feline and slinked off into the maze of toppled boxes. The pirate captain stood in her place. Grabbing his belt, he roared, “GET OFF MY SHIP!” and a jet of red fire from the gem on his buckle raced forward, putting Joe’s blue fire out. While Nogard kept his eyes on the pirates, who stood awaiting orders, Zalfron and Machuba scanned the room for the shadowmancer.
Catty had snuck behind Joe, reclaiming her true form without the pyromancer noticing. She aimed a kick at his spine.
“JOE!” Zalfron cried.
But it was too late. Catty’s foot hit him square in the back which sent him stumbling through the portal the Suikii had just opened. Without Joe, darkness returned to the chamber. Nogard, Machuba, and Zalfron stood in the center of the storage room looking from the silhouettes of Captain Pigeon and his men to Catty.
“Johnny, take these three. I’ll get the mancer.” Catty ordered.
Johnny’s eyes were as wide as the smile that had suddenly took hold of his lips, “No problem,” with a flamboyant arm motion he bowed, “my love.”
Ignoring his gesture, Catty strode through the interdimensional window.
As the magical hole closed, a thunder clap rattled the vessel. It was as if hell itself had open and all the forsaken had lifted their heads in one harmonious, “OOM.” The three pulled their eyes away from where Catty and their alien leader had once stood and locked eyes with the pirate.
He clapped his hands and an enertomb embedded in the roof came to light.
“I see that you were giving my lady a hard time,” Johnny said, checking his nails as he spoke, “We Sea Lords don’t tolerate ungentleman-like behavior, right boys?”
Taking this to be their que, the fishfolk swarmed into the room, piling in around their captain with their mismatched weapons raised high. Nogard ran forward to meet them. He swung his shield, sideways, hitting the closest pirate in the neck, forcing the man to stumble back with blood gushing from his throat. Machuba had the next, stabbing him through the gut. But Zalfron didn’t have the third. Nogard had to fall to one knee in order to get his shield in the way of his attacker’s swing. Machuba was able to wrench his sword free and slice Nogard’s foe across the chest but there was the fourth and a fifth. In a matter of seconds the two would be completely surrounded.
A keg rolled across the room, spewing alcohol in all directions. After those in the way jumped back, all eyes turned to what ran behind it: a bloodied elf spinning forward with his arms fully extended, his hands grasping a cannon ball. Zalfron released the cannon ball. It caught a fishfolk in the gut and knocked him into the blade of the comrade behind him. Nogard charged again, grabbing the head of the pirate before him and slamming it into his shield. Finally they’d made it to the captain and Machuba was able to swing at him.
Johnny leaned back and clutched his belt. A fist of stone slammed Machuba in the gut, knocking the breath from his gills as he fell back, barely managing to keep hold of his sword. As the stone fist turned to dust, Nogard approached, raising his shield and bringing it-
-Johnny stumbled out of the way, slipping, but as he staggered he directed a wave of water to sweep Nogard’s legs out from under him. And as Johnny fell onto his back, he closed his eyes to focus, and summoned a stone bolder to slam the now downed Nogard into the deck.
However, once more, no one had accounted for Zalfron. As Johnny hit the floorboards, Zalfron landed on top of him. Zalfron slammed fist after fist into Johnny’s face. Two punches landed before the fishfolk could react. Four punches landed before they aimed their advances. Six punches until Johnny knocked Zalfron off of him with another club of solid stone. The elf landed beside Nogard and Machuba as they struggled to stand. Neither wielder of Shelmick’s weapons could stand up straight, both had hands clutching their broken ribs.
– – –
Bold felt the sound in his bones. His heart flat lined for that excruciatingly long second. Terror is the only word to describe what filled the dwarf’s mind as his world sank into darkness. Hermes rose before him shining a vibrant white. Bold had heard of this before and until now it had been nothing more than the topic of nightmares: Total Darkness.
“Why me?” Bold asked.
“Why not?” Hermes responded, “Why not kill every last one of you today?”
The chills that ran up his spine and the tingling that caused his fingers to tremble somehow took the fear from Bold’s mind. Maybe it was the hopelessness of the situation or maybe Bold was simply becoming immune to terror after having been scared senseless so many times in the last few days. Whatever it was, he found himself chuckling. When the dwarf managed to speak, he mocked Hermes, “Good luck with thot, lad!”
“You’re laughing?” Hermes was flabbergasted.
“Uh’m honored actuerly!” Bold was becoming hysterical, “Ya wasted this on me, lad, uh’m nuttin but a healer! Thar’s Zach and Ekaf and Acamus left to foiht. Ya ain’t got a shot in hell.”
Hermes roared and with a swing of his massive sword he launched a beam of white straight for Bold. It was a direct hit. Instead of the blunt force Bold expected, the shot hit like a blade, slicing across his chest and shoulder. The dwarf stumbled back.
I can’t fight a banshee with only my fists. I must endure. May God pity me.
The pain ended the hysteria. Bold murmured spells of healing as he rose. It was hastily and painfully constructed though it still took a vast amount of energy. Having missed a day of meditation, Bold was unsure how much energy he had to spare. He still wasn’t scared. It was as if his emotions had shut off entirely.
“Dragging it out I see,” Hermes noted. He stared at Bold for a moment. Bold cursed the silence. The white silhouette flared. Hermes broke the quiet, “well I think I know how to end it. Blades just wont do on a dwarf. Dwarves don’t take pain like most races.”
Bold’s heart sank.
“Water. Right? Do you, Boldarian, know how to swim?” Hermes asked.
Bold ran for the door. Hermes stepped in front and launched another beam with a sweep of his sword. A second slash ran across his chest, slamming him into the delicate remains of the Monoceros’s wall. Bold fell, bruised and bleeding, beside the gaping hole Acamus had created. As he healed himself, his eyes turned pleadingly to the static glowing blobs of his allies. He said a quick prayer. When he opened his eyes, Hermes was gone but a second later, the banshee was back looming over him.
“Time for a dip.”
A swift kick shot Bold through the wall behind him. When he landed, he did not land on a liquid. He landed on an incredibly hard surface, as flat as a frozen lake. The pain of the fall and the slice across the gut nearly knocked Bold out then and there but he held on, bearing the pain until he could slap on a few more adlibbed spells. After the magic was cast, he barely had enough energy to keep his eyes open. When Hermes spoke, Bold could tell he still stood on the ship.
“All I have to do,” Hermes said, “is snap my fingers.” Hermes paused. “I don’t know what I’m waiting for…” he cocked his skull to the side, “…wait, I see something. Two scars across the chest? How symbolic would it be if I were to add a third.”
Hermes reappeared before Bold.
– – –
Darkness. Complete darkness aside from one glowing orb that stood in the center of his view. That was the first thing Joe noticed when Catty knocked him through his portal. The second thing Joe noted was the absence of the ground beneath him. Wind rushed up and gravity pulled down. Joe rolled over. Now he knew where he was.
Though everything was carved of different shades of black and white, Joe could now recognize the scene. He was high above the ship, falling towards the ocean. There was a brilliant figure standing out on the water. The person must’ve been a child for he wasn’t very tall – though his width was another story.
Hearing movement behind him, Joe balled up. No sooner did he tuck his head than did a luminescant ball fly by, dissolving into thin air after it missed him.
Still in free fall, Joe rolled onto his back to face his foe. From the ivory silhouette, he could tell it was Catty and by the look of the glowing orbs surrounding her hands she was ready to attack once more. Two more radiant white balls flew at Joe. Joe shot two blasts of the fire he’d absorbed in Aquaria and the two projectiles melted upon collision. Catty raised her hands but produced only a trickle of shadows.
She’s out! Joe realized. Turning from the shadowmancer, Joe noticed that the ground was quickly rising to meet him. Joe now could tell that the figure standing on the ocean, which was flat as the surface of a mirror, was not a child, but – Bold? Then another figure appeared beneath him, standing before Bold. The figure was a radiant white, brighter than Bold, and far taller. Hermes!
Joe was only a few yards from hitting the hard ocean surface when the Suikii reappeared in his hands. Hermes swung his sword, slicing Bold across the belly for a third time.
Catty yelled from above, “Hermes!”
The bulky white silhouette turned just quick enough to see Joe swing. Off went Hermes’ skull. Darkness disappeared. Color returned to the world. The sky was once more blue, the Monoceros was once more trimmed with the maroon and navy, and the ocean melted back into a liquid.
Joe, Bold, and Catty fell into the thrashing salt water. Blood poured out from Bold’s chest as he sank like a rock. Joe turned from the dwarf to the shadowmancer behind him. For a moment they stared at one another, hovering beneath the ocean’s surface. Then Joe released some blue fire, letting it engulf his body as a warning to Catty. Apparently, it worked. Catty swam up to the surface and disappeared.
Joe turned to the sinking dwarf, swimming after him as he ponder how the hell he would manage to swim a person with such an impressive density back to the surface.
Above the water, Hermes retrieved his skull then went about retrieving his partner. Using a disk of shadows he levitated above the surface and lifted his female companion from the waves with a shadowy arm. His skull was back on his head and Catty could instantly tell he was in a bitter mood.
“The dwarf will sink like a rock,” Hermes stated, “and so will the human if he tries to help.”
“What’d the book say?” Catty asked.
“I don’t know,” Hermes growled, silently cursing himself for having skimmed over so many pages, “but I know that this is not where we will catch him. That will come in Zviecoff.”
The banshee dropped Catherine onto a plate of shadows that hovered beside his.
“You’re out of shadows?” Hermes noticed, “Let’s go.”
“We can’t leave.” Catty said.
“Why not?” Hermes snapped.
“We can’t leave Johnny with these rogues.” Catty replied.
“I thought you were Catty,” Hermes retorted, “Not Ching Shih.”
Catty’s response was a glare.
Hermes was puzzled by her sudden loyalty to the gentlemanly drug addict. His suspicion was well placed. Catty had no desire to save the horny sea dog but with each step she took, Hermes brought her closer to Icelore. Sooner than later, she knew she’d find herself standing before Shalis Skullsummon and when she did she needed someone to watch her back. The undead bearn certainly wouldn’t. John Pigeon, on the other hand, would defend her like she were his wife. Despite being skeptical, Hermes also feared the coming reunion with the necromancer Sheik and figured that the odds of her trusting him again would increase if he saved one of her most beloved – useful, rather, not so much beloved – peons.
– – –
“Where’d Bold go?” Zach asked.
“Where’d Hermes go?” Ekaf asked.
“There!” Acamus pointed out the whole.
The three watched as Hermes and Catty hovered through the hole in the wall and over the bar to land in the center of the room.
“You’re dwarvish friend is taking a little trip to the sea floor.” Hermes chuckled.
“Acamus,” Ekaf asked, “do you think you can handle saving Bold?”
The minotaur and Knome looked at each other.
“You two are going to take on the banshee and the shadowmancer?” Acamus asked.
Ekaf didn’t turn. His eyes were locked on his two opponents.
“Acamus, you go help Bold. Zach, give me cover and I’ll manage.”
Acamus turned to Zach. The spirit nodded, “Please.”
Acamus nodded back, “Good luck, my friends.”
Without any more discussion, Acamus took three long steps then leapt out of the hole. The spear expanded in his hand as he jumped. He couldn’t see Bold but he could see something below the ocean surface, a dark sapphiric glow, and he decided to aim for that. Acamus hit the water and dove down. He now saw where the glow originated – a young human pyromancer, the stone in his chest shining a brilliant blue. Acamus hadn’t expected this. Nor did he expect to see the pyromancer kicking with all his might while hugging Bold to his chest. Acamus didn’t pause to ponder, the pyromancer was obviously trying to help.
He activated his spear. The water around the tip of the spear hardened, freezing and spreading. After only three seconds a sphere with a radius of ten feet had frozen around the end. Three seconds was all Acamus needed to swim alongside the mancer and dwarf. He ended the spear’s spell and wrapped the human and dwarf against him. The magic gone, the ice began to float – quickly – and the three shot to the surface.
Holding his spear with one arm and hugging the dwarf and human with the other, Acamus introduced himself as they burst the surface.
“Acamus Icespear,” he said, “Boldarian is my ally so I assume you are too.”
Joe took a gulp of oxygen and nodded then turned, eyes wide, “You’re a minotaur!”
“Indeed.” Acamus watched the human for a moment then spoke, “My friend, we need to get Boldarian on the ship.”
“Yeah,” Joe glanced back at the Monoceros, “Do you have any idea how we could do that?”
Joe looked back to the minotaur. He wasn’t watching, he was staring at a chunk of debris, made of wood and machinery, that was floating, slowly but steadily, their way.
“I know a way.”
– – –
Blood covered his face like war paint. His once elegant mustache was now frayed. Nevertheless, he stood tall, checking over his nails as he spoke.
“I wasn’t going to kill you boys,” Johnny Pigeon said, “but the elf ruined all hope of peace.”
Nogard, Machuba, and Zalfron looked each other over. They’d already taken quite the beating from the captain and his men and it looked as though there was more to come.
“Come at me!” Pigeon snarled.
Nogard threw his shield. The pirate captain reacted in time to block, summoning a stone pillar to take the blow. By this time, Machuba was back in sword-range and the fishfolk didn’t hesitate. He swung. A Sea Lord stepped up to block the attack. Johnny turned and launched a blast of stone into Machuba’s chest. As Machuba staggered back, Zalfron charged forwards. A pirate stepped between him and the captain. The elf grabbed the buccaneer’s sword arm and punched him square in the nose. No sooner did he land the punch than did Johnny land a punch of his own. As the pirate before Zalfron hit the ground, Johnny strode forward, fire engulfing his fist, and slugged the elf in the stomach. Zalfron fell back and Nogard took the plate, shield back in hand. Before Johnny could recover from his attack on the elf, Nogard smacked his shield against the captain’s face. Johnny fell into the arms of his men. Nogard tried to fight his way to the captain but all he did was get himself surrounded. By the time Johnny was back on his feet, the fishfolk pirates had Nogard held down.
“Always going for the face,” Johnny spit out a wad of blood, “time to return the favor.”
His belt buckle glowed white and, as Johnny stepped towards Nogard, ice engulfed his right foot. Johnny kicked Nogard in the jaw with such force that the ice shattered. Nogard fell onto his side. Johnny strode up to the chicken dragon, his foot now encased in stone. This time Johnny kicked Nogard in the gut. Nogard rolled over onto his back, coughing. Johnny knelt down and straddled the chicken dragon just as Zalfron had done to him.
By this time, Machuba had sliced up another buccannear and Zalfron had gotten to his feet, ready for another go around. They charged with Zalfron leading the way. Wielding a cannon ball over his head he smashed it into the closest pirate. Then came Machuba, jumping in on Zalfron’s right and slicing through the gills of an enemy. Zalfron whirled on the next pirate, smacking the cannon ball across the ear-like-membrane on the side of his head. With a spin, Machuba had severed a jugular and cut the fingers off the sword hand of his next attacker.
Johnny tried to ignore the chicken dragon’s comrades and he landed three good swings into Nogard’s face before he accepted the fact that his pirates could not handle the elf and fishfolk. Standing from Nogard, he waited for his men to get out from between him and the two boys before sending a bolt of lightning from his belt to strike the two. Zalfron fell backwards. Machuba fell forwards – right in front of Johnny.
Before Machuba hit the ground, Johnny’s foot, sparking with electricity, slammed into Machuba’s jaw. Machuba’s body twitched like a fish out of water until Johnny kicked him once more in the belly. Johnny paused for a moment, checking on Zalfron. The elf was back on his feet, his body quivering with rage. Two Sea Lords stood before him. Johnny smiled, he would make the elf watch. Squatting, Johnny picked up Machuba’s head with one hand then punched him where his nostrils were.
“Ouch.” Johnny shook his fist as Machuba’s metallic blood sizzles his knuckles.
Zalfron roared. Johnny looked up. The elf tackled the pirate before him and, scurrying over the surprised Sea Lord’s body on all fours, he leapt towards Johnny. Johnny leaned back, grabbed his belt buckle, and shot Zalfron in the gut with a ball of fire. Zalfron skidded across the storage room floor. Johnny chuckled. Nogard lay still on his stomach. Machuba squirmed quietly on his back. Johnny laughed again, punching Machuba once more.
“It ain’t over yet.”
Johnny turned and was genuinely surprised to see the elf back on his feet. Without another word, Zalfron charged. Johnny waited until the elf was a yard away then stepped smoothly to the side. The elf tripped over Machuba and hit the floor. Grabbing his belt, Johnny created a boulder of stone at least a yard wide in diameter and let it hover over Zalfron. As soon as Zalfron hit the floor, he was trying to get back up and, as soon as he started trying to get back up, Johnny dropped the stone. It hit Zalfron and pinned him to the ship floor with a crunching sound.
“Now please, stay down!” Johnny kicked the rock off the elf, “You’ll be worth a lot more to Shalis if she get’s to do the killin.”
Nogard still lay on his stomach, but his head had turned so he could watch Zalfron. Machuba too had positioned himself to watch his comrade. Both silently prayed that Zalfron would stay down. He didn’t. As soon as the boulder rolled off him, his palms were flat on the floorboards as he tried to push himself back up. Johnny strode forward and kicked the elf in the face. Zalfron fell onto his back.
“Give up.” Johnny laughed.
“Ah never,” Zalfron rolled onto his side then his knees, “give up.”
Raising his hands to the heavens, as if to say, “I tried!”, Johnny kneed the elf in the nose. Zalfron was back on his back.
“Give up,” Johnny said. There was no more humor in his voice.
Zalfron rolled onto his stomach.
“Zalfron stay down, mon!” Nogard begged.
He got onto his side.
“Zalfron, stop!” Machuba pleaded.
He pulled himself to a knee. Johnny sighed, took a step forward, and –
– Zalfron punched. It was a beautiful punch, accurate, quick, and clever. Zalfron hit where he knew Johnny to be weak: the genitals. Johnny managed to deliver another kick to the elf’s face before clutching his pride and doubling over in pain. After a moment, Johnny was back on his feet but Zalfron was already on his. The elf, covered in blood, was hyperventilating, his fists balled and twitching and his eyes were wide but rolled back so that only white could be seen.
No longer were Nogard and Machuba worried about Zalfron, now they were scared of him. So to were the last few uninjured fishfolk, who watched from where they knelt tending to their comrades. Johnny attempted some sort of snide threat but his words were drowned out by the elf’s scream.
The cry was like that of a furious baboon and Zalfron’s behavior could’ve been described similarly. Zalfron flung himself forward. Johnny gripped his belt but he didn’t have enough time to get a spell off before Zalfron had a hold of him. Grabbing him by the shoulders and wrapping his legs around the pirate’s chest, Zalfron brought his head back then slammed his temple against Johnny’s nose.
They hit the ground. John Pigeon didn’t move but Zalfron slowly crawled off him. Remaining on all fours he stared, with his white eyes, at the remaining pirates. They stumbled away from their mates and staggered towards the doorway. Zalfron’s blonde hair was plastered to his face by blood and sweat and his lips were curled in a dog-like snarl. Pigeon’s pirates were so appalled they froze halfway out the room. Bounding forward like bear, Zalfron dove on one of the fishfolk’s legs. As the pirate fell to the ground, his remaining companions, the only two that hadn’t fled and weren’t dead, unconscious, or bleeding on the floor, stepped in to stop the elf.
By now Nogard had gotten to his feet. He chunked his shield at one of the last the pirates, conking him in his diamond shaped head. With a clunk the Sea Lord hit the ground. Machuba was up too. Though he was halfway doubled over from his wounds, the Gill straightened up for a second and pointed his sword. The last Sea Lord froze. With the fingers of his sword-hand cut off, he stood awkwardly holding a blade in his left. He looked from the elf before him, who was still bashing the lifeless body of his comrade into the floorboards, to the chicken dragon and fishfolk, then he ran out the door.
“Zalfron?” Nogard called.
The elf stopped beating the corpse but didn’t look back to aknowledge his friend. Instead, grunting like an angry boar, he took off out the door.
“Dat boy ain’t all right in da head.” Nogard stated.
“When’d you realize that?” Machuba asked.
The two limped out the doorway, down the hall, and turned to the right. They’d come into a room maybe nine times the size of the cellar they’d just left. It had obviously once been an eating hall of sorts but now it lay in complete disarray. The chairs were almost all toppled and scattered about the room in clumps after having slid from one side of the boat to the other. Most of the tables still stood, clamped to the floor, but many had been demolished. On some, only the legs remained. Even the walls weren’t fully intact. A massive hole had been torn out of the hull just behind half of the L-shaped bar. Nogard took this in quickly for what really garnered their attention was the culprits of such destruction, two of which he recognized.
Hermes Retskcirt was caught in the middle of a heated sword fight with a man less than half his size. With this valiant Knome was an armored spirit – Zachias, Nogard realized – that stood behind the bar shooting arrows at a tightly-dressed human shadowmancer that deflected the projectiles with her two slender swords. Then there was Zalfron. The elf had just picked up a chair and was running at the woman that hadn’t seemed to notice this new threat. Zalfron smashed the chair across her back and she crumpled to the floor but when the chair splintered, one of the legs popped off in just such a way that it clocked the elf in the noggin. As Catty hit the ground, an unconscious Zalfron followed her.
The fighting stopped. The Knome stepped away from Hermes, back towards the bar, and Hermes stepped away aswell, towards his fallen comrade. Nogard and Machuba did their best to hide their pain and look as menacingly as possible.
“Look who it is!” Hermes cackled, “We meet again, Otubak.”
“Who are you?” Machuba asked, looking at the Knome.
“Ekaf,” he said, then he gestured to the spirit behind him, “this is Zach.”
Nogard wasn’t paying attention to the others, he was focused on the banshee.
“Where be Grandfadder?” He demanded.
“Don’t worry,” Hermes snickered, “he is in good hands.”
“Is that Nogard?” Zachias asked.
“You mean you four don’t know each other?” Hermes was puzzled.
“Now we do.”
This speaker was not Nogard or Machuba nor Ekaf or Zach though it did come from behind the bar. It was Joe. No sooner did he speak than did Bold come flying back through the hole in the wall. Once again the dwarf slammed into Hermes’ chest like a cannon ball. The banshee was flung backwards and Bold rolled to a stop beneath a table – the dwarf was still out cold. Using the flying dwarf as cover, Catty harnessed what little energy she had to spare to turn herself into a cat and scamper off, past Nogard and Machuba, out of the dining hall. When Hermes stood, he was his only ally in the room.
“You best surrender, banshee,” Acamus Icespear said as he climbed in through his hole, his spear still shrinking in his hand, “you’re quite outnumbered.”
But the minotaur had spoken to soon. The rest of the Sea Lord crew came marching into the chamber – almost twenty men strong. Before anyone could move, Acamus reared like a quarterback and lobbed his spear, impaling the foremost fishfolk through the ribs. As the Sea Lord fell, his body began to turn to ice. Avoiding the spreading frost, the pirates surged around their fallen comrade towards their closest foes: Nogard and Machuba. Acamus hurdled the bar and ran, past Ekaf and Hermes, to his spear.
Machuba stepped forward, still stooping, and blocked the blade of a buccaneer then slit the offender’s throat. Tucking himself agains his shield, Nogard rammed the next fishfolk that approached Machuba. He and the pirate tumbled to the ground. Machuba stepped over Nogard, who was restling with the man he’d tackled, with his blade raised. Machuba parried two swings from two different pirates but a third delivered a chop to his arm. The blow would’ve severed the limb if the blade had been sharper and Machuba’s blood hadn’t been made of liquid metal. Machuba fell to his knees. Magma poored from the wound, dripping to smolder on the floor boards. Three Sea Lords in front of Machuba brought their swords back for the finishing swing. Nogard was still tussling with his pirate and Acamus was still a few yards away.
When the Sea Lords stormed in, Zach had only one arrow left. Joe had noticed the spirit hesitating to launch it. In a swift moment of brilliance, Joe reached below the bar and grabbed quarter of a handle of liquor and a cloth napkin. Using the handkercheif to open the bottle – his hands were too sweaty to twist off the lid bare – he shoved the cloth inside the bottle’s throat – as he’d seen done in movies – then popped it over the top of the arrow in Zach’s hand. Using the sliver of red fire he had saved throughout his journey on the ocean floor, Joe lit the end of the napkin and slapped Zach on the back.
Zach adjusted for the weight and landed the arrow in the midst of the three guards who had almost been able to slay the last Gill. As the trio was sprayed with glass and red fire, Machuba, who’s left arm – his dominant arm – had been unharmed, sliced through the burning flesh before him.
After jumping the bar, Acamus ran head on into the fishfolk. He stiff armed one, then ducked his head and bowled at least three over with his horns, goring a forth in the process. By the time he made it to Machuba’s side, the Molotov had landed. Before anymore Sea Lord’s could rush Machuba, Acamus grabbed his spear, twisted the grip, then yanked it free. In the seconds that the Vanian Spear had been activated, the ice had spread to not only freeze the entire body of the original victim but also encase two more up to their hips in ice and one more unlucky pirate by the ankle. After he ended the spell, he twisted the grip which activated the mechanism to vibrate the rod and shatter the ice – destroying a chunk of the floor, killing two more foes, and obliterating the foot of the third victim. This third barely had time to feel the pain before Acamus had jabbed his spear through his face. A pirate ran around this footless man and the hole in the floor screaming with rage fueled by the horrors he’d just seen only for Nogard – who had finally deceased his opponent – to tackle him and begin the process of bashing yet another bucanneer into capitulation. Four more pirates stood in the doorway. They looked at the bodies of their comrades, those bleeding, burning, and what bits and pieces were left of the others, then took off back the way they’d came.
After Zach shot his final arrow, he turned to Joe and said, “I must get more ammunition.”
Joe nodded, the Suikii held tight in his hand, and said, “I’ll go help Ekaf, you stay behind me!”
Climbing over the bar, Joe came to stand alongside the Knome. Frustrated, Hermes roared. He was now faced by the edges of two legendary Knomish blades. Lowering his own weapon, he stepped away from the two and towards the handful of reinforcements that had made it past the doorway. These four pirates had only just recovered from being run over by the minotaur but now they were ready to aid the banshee. With a quick glance around the room, Hermes realized that the battle was already lost. He cursed Catty. That bitch abandoned me! Then, as his help charged forward, he stepped back. He spun his skull around again. Wait a second…the banshee would’ve grinned if he could have. She just saved my life, but he would only ever admit this in the secrecy of his own mind. Turning, he sliced his blade through the air, sending a beam of what looked like wind towards the Knome. The wind cut through the fishfolk between them. Ekaf stopped it with the blade of the Duikii, driving the gust into the floorboards which it cut through as easily as it had the flesh of the Sea Lords. Dashing for the bar, Hermes launched another blast.
“Joe, get back!”
Ekaf shoved Joe behind him as he blocked the gust again, redirecting the power into the floor. Zach stepped up to stand beside them, a recovered arrow knocked in his bow, but by the time he took aim Hermes had already fled out the hole in the wall. Instead, he turned his bow on the bleeding pirates, keeping them from trying anything, as Joe and Ekaf ran to the cavity.
“Will you ever learn to fend for yourself, Sun Child?”
Hermes was hovering ten yards out, level with the orifice, standing on a plate of shadows.
“Run away, little badger.” Ekaf snapped.
“As I told your brother,” Hermes snarled, “you can’t protect them forever.”
Despite Hermes having never told Ekaf this, but having to Grandfather, Ekaf laughed it off, saying, “Nor can you run forever.”
Hermes ignored the retort and floated down to the ocean surface where a vessel was waiting for him. John Pigeon lay, still as a corpse, in the floor of the small ship and Catty stood at the helm. The machine was made of dull chrome and looked similar to the fishing boats Joe had often seen zipping across the wide rivers of north Alabama. The main difference was that the rear end was lacking a motor and propeller but instead was armed with what looked like a cannon. This cylinder was adorned by a glowing enertomb locked in the spidery legs of a metal contraption. Catherine Meriam stood at the from of the ship, gazing at the assortment of nobs and levers that surrounded the stearing wheel. Finally, she found the right button, mashed it, and the cannon roared to life, breathing fire. The vessel raised itself from the surface of the water then skidded west across the waves.
“What the hell is that?” Joe demanded.
“A zoomer,” Ekaf explained, “manufactured in Space City.”
“Damn…” Joe muttered.
“Alright then!” Ekaf whirled away from the hole in the wall to examine the outcome of their skirmish. Five Sea Lords were left, the others were dead or had fled from the ship’s tavern. Of the five, only one looked likely to survive. The rest, three of which had been nearly split in half by Hermes’s sharp wind and the fourth had been gored through the gut by one of Acamus’ horns, lay quietly on the floor. They stared at Nogard, Machuba, Zach, and Acamus, at least those who were conscious enough to, but when Ekaf turned to address them they gave him their undivided attention. He raised his dagger menacingly, “Surrender Sea Lords, the Monoceros is now ours!”