The remaining Sea Lords didn’t put up a fight, not after witnessing the majority of their crew be slaughtered. Zach, Ekaf and Acamus searched the ship to gather the rest of the pirates. They found one five-fingered Sea Lord cowering beneath a bunk, stumbled across three other buccaneers that had been tripping so hard on aquannabis they had missed the entire fight, and four others that had fled from the skirmish to draft a swift declaration of mutinee in an effort to obtain the mercy of the hijackers. All in all, thirteen fishfolk were carted off to the brig in the basement of the ship, six were severly wounded, three in states of complete delirium, leaving only four unharmed and responsive. In the bottom of the ship they found another tenant of the Monoceros, a cockatune. As they organized the pirates into pairs the singing bird provided a merry ambience. Ekaf promised a healer would come to the aid of those who were wounded just as soon as said healer was able (the healer himself had been left in pretty bad shape). When they left, they tried to get the parrot to follow but it only watched their gestures and continued making music for the encarcerated Sea Lords.
Rounding up the living was followed by disposing of the dead. The toll rose to an even twenty. Zach prayed over each corpse before they dropped them into the ocean. Though some Sea Lords had jumped ship, Joe was surprised more hadn’t until he was reminded that these fishfolk were exiles – wanted men – and that they might not be as lucky as Joe, Zalfron, and Nogard had been, obtaining protection and shelter after only one night in the coral wilderness.
As the rest of the team dealt with the defeated and the dead, Joe stayed by Bold’s side. The dwarf had healed his final scar before passing out. After Ekaf claimed the dwarf wasn’t breathing, Joe rushed to start chest compressions. It was only when he rocked Bold’s head back, pinched his nose, and attempted to give mouth to mouth that he realized the Knome had been incorrect. The mistake cost Bold another fractured rib but, fortunately, the dwarf would live. After the fight, Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba were immediately bed ridden in the ship’s sleeping quarters (they had given up on transporting the far heavier dwarf). Joe was fine aside from a few bumps and bruises. When inspecting his body, he was impressed to find his healer slug still in place, tightly coiled around his shin.
Acamus sailed the ship. Though the vessel was an ancient one, the Sea Lords continually renovated the Monoceros so that it had the most recent innovations. This meant that the entire ship could be sailed by one man. As long as the enertombs were filled with energy, magic would adjust the sails and shrouds accordingly. Once Acamus had some time to play around with the gears and gadgets of the helm, he’d be able to set the craft on autopilot.
With the pirates locked away, the dead discarded, the wounded resting, and Acamus on the bridge, Ekaf was finally able to sit down and talk with Joe. They sat in the tavern around the unconscious body of Boldarian. Joining them, Zach sat by his buddy’s head, watching his wounded friend with sad silver eyes. Occasionally a large wave would bash the side of the Monoceros, splashing through the hole and spraying the three with a cool mist.
“How was Aquaria?” Ekaf asked as he moseyed behind the bar, “See any sea critters? How bout mermen? Did that old bastard of a king give you any trouble, he can be a real-”
“No but we gave him some!” Joe replied, “Sidon and the Soldiers of Shelmick found us and we helped them free Machuba who’d been captured by Lacitar’s people. Then the Suikii brought us here.”
“Look at you. I was worried you’d have trouble without me but it seems like I may have been holding you back!”
Ekaf returned from the bar with a fat bottle of pink liquid. Plopping down across the dwarf from Joe, he unscrewed the lid and took a swig. Grimacing, he passed the handle to Joe. Joe accepted the drink and lifted the nossle to his nose. The scent stung his nostrils. It was like sniffing gasoline.
“There’s your first mistake!” Ekaf cried, “Never sniff it first! You gotta close your eyes, open your throat, and let that puppy slide down the hatch otherwise you’ll never-”
“What is it?” Joe asked.
“Fairycane rum, now drink!”
Joe put the bottle to his lips and took a gulp of the poison. It burned going down his throat but hit the pit of his stomach like a warm ember. It wasn’t as bad as he expected. Blinking away a few tears he passed the beverage to Zach. Zach was uninterested, he handed it back to Ekaf. The Knome took another sip then put the bottle down beside him.
“When’d you get the Suikii?”
“After we jumped off the Sea Cuber,” Joe answered, then he asked, “have you heard from Grandfather?”
“Unfortunately, no…which isn’t a good sign. Another bad sign is that he wasn’t here with Hermes or Catty. Last I heard, he was in their custody.” Ekaf took another gulp from the fairycane, “Either they did away with him or they shipped him off somewhere-”
“Wouldn’t be surprised…”
Joe reached across the dwarf and grabbed the rum. Saying a quick prayer for the old smith’s safety, Joe sealed it with a taste of that bitter alcohol then passed it back. Ekaf told Joe how he had heard about the sabotage on the Sea Cuber and that he had gone to Bold and Zach fully intending to take them into Aquaria to search for Joe, Zalfron, and Nogard but fate had chosen otherwise. They’d hit an iceberg. They were driven even further off course when they met the son of Theseus Icespear and accompanied him on this hairbrained boat heist. Though in the end it seemed they never strayed from the path because now here they all were.
“So as soon as we help Acamus rescue his father,” Ekaf spoke quietly, as if hoping Joe wouldn’t notice the mention of such a detour, “we’ll go see the Emperor. Who knows, maybe Acamus will join us. But enough about all that, how ya been? Getting used to Solaris? Ready to be the Sun Child? To lead the foretold knights to liberate the Samurai?”
“About that…” Joe scratched his salt-water soaked scalp in silence, allowing Ekaf another swig, before answering, “I’m more than happy to meet Saint and try and bring back the Samurai but…” once again Joe’s tongue teetered on the edge of a statement.
“Spit it out!” Ekaf cried.
“I can’t stand for this violence!” It came out of his mouth like a yelp. He clarified, “And I know its necessary, I know that if we didn’t fight we’d be locked up or worse but I still don’t feel right about having the blood of…how many? A dozen?
“Twenty…” Zach corrected.
“Jesus Christ!” Joe flung his hands in the air, “How many dozens have already died because of me? And I’ve only been here, what? A week?!”
Zach and Ekaf exchanged glances and though they were silent Joe could hear the retorts lingering behind their lips.
“Listen,” he continued, “I know the story of Saint, his Sharemen, and the Samurai of Delia. I get the concept. Sometimes someone does have to stand up and fight, sometimes, we can’t all be saints…” Joe slapped his hands on the floorboards, “but if we set out willing to sin to accomplish an end, how can we call ourselves righteous when we succeed? It’s a cop out to claim we are taking the sins of the people, doing what must be done, because who are we? Aren’t we people? What if everyone claimed to be the scapegoat and picked up a weapon?”
Now the expression shared by the spirit and Knome had changed. Still, it would take more than a single conversation to break their stubborn resolve.
“I’m not saying we can’t defend ourselves or our friends,” Joe said, “but there’s a fine line between defense and revenge. We’ve got to give the enemy as much mercy as we wish they would provide us.”
“Even if they don’t deserve it?” Zach asked.
Joe nodded, “Especially if they don’t deserve it.”
Zach snorted, then asked, “What does this mercy entail?”
After thinking for a moment, Joe said, “I’m not quite sure…I’ll have to think on it…”
Bold sat up right, “Aye, laddies…”
“Bold!” Joe, Zach, and Ekaf exclaimed.
“Uh had the strangest dream…” his eyes wandered down to his robust belly. His shirt had been torn to shreds and his flesh seemed to have been as well. Three diagonal scars stretched across his abdomen like the claw marks of a dragon. Even Joe recognized the ironic symbolism of the wound – it matched the symbol of the Black Crown Pact. Bold could only whisper, “…oh.”
“We’re safe now.” Joe promised.
“Aye…” Bold looked from Zach to Joe to Ekaf then his eyes landed on the alcohol. He snatched the bottle and took a quick gulp, burping as soon as he put the jug down, “…Aye.”
“There’s a handful of Sea Lords in the brig in desperate need of your services.” Ekaf stated, “Then there’s Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba in the sleeping quarters. Zachias and Joe know the way, are you feeling up to doing some-”
“Ofcarse!” Bold hopped to his feet but flinched as the motion strained his poorly healed battle souvenirs. He had to stoop over in pain but he played it off as an awkward attempt to adjust his drenched backpack.
“Your books!” Joe exclaimed.
“Thull be foine lad,” Bold promised, “magic keeps em safe. Now, whoile uh heal, how bout ya go cook us some dinnar?”
“Deal!” Ekaf cried.
“You haven’t had time to meditate, which means that magic,” Zach gestured at the twisted knots of flesh that had sealed the lacerations across the dwarf’s chest, “was done at your own health’s expense.”
“Indeed,” Bold didn’t try to lie, “but now uh’ve got tuhm and uh can use muh text far the rest of the healing.” Zach seemed unconvinced so Bold continued, “Uh can’t let ar friends suffar cause uh’m tarred.”
“I can’t let you demean your own well being for another’s. Your body needs time to rest and heal as well.” Zach argued.
“It will,” Bold agreed, “aftar uh see to these goons and me friends!”
“Whot? Uh got ter make the best of it,” Bold reminded his old friend, “that’s the best uh can do.”
Finally Zach gave in knowing that the dwarf had his mind set and not even the Emperor himself could get Bold to change it. Zach and Bold made for the brig but the dwarf stopped in the doorway. Joe hadn’t moved.
“Ya comin, lad?”
Joe shook his head, “I’ll be there in a minute, I’ve got to ask Ekaf something.”
Bold nodded and left. Joe turned to Ekaf. The Knome averted his gaze and was looking out the gaping hole of the ship, whistling as if he hadn’t heard what Joe had just said.
“I’ve been thinking…” Joe got right down to it, “What was the deal with the Key Library?”
“What do you mean?” Still Ekaf avoided eye contact.
“It was completely unnecessary!” Joe threw his hands into the air, “We could’ve just tossed the keys in the river and been done with it! Why the wild goose chase?”
Ekaf shrugged, “I had to give you a chance to go home.”
“Bull shit.” Joe stated, “You couldn’t have just told me that?”
“How about you tell me what’s the deal with you stealing keys?” Ekaf demanded.
“Don’t get on to me!” Joe roared, “Seriously, the whole thing didn’t add up. It didn’t strike me at the time, but there was no reason for that whole adventure. I asked Death-”
“You talked to Death?”
“Yeah, I did, and he didn’t make any sense either.”
Hesitating, Ekaf lifted the rum to his lips then stopped. Deciding better of it, he put the bottle down and said, “What’d he say?”
“That you always pick me to be the Sun Child, why?”
Ekaf handed Joe the fermented fairycane. Joe took a gulp.
“To be honest,” Ekaf admitted, “your key was in the right place and the right time.”
“What if I’m the wrong guy for the job?”
Ekaf shrugged, “You’ll get it right eventually. I mean, I’ve thought of trying other people but you and I have made it so far – gotten so close, at this point, I’d be starting all over to pick someone else.”
“So you mean…” Joe took another swig, then continued, “…in these different timelines Death told me about, where you always pick me – its always you doing it?”
“Huh?” Ekaf asked, receiving the bottle.
“Like…I have no recollection of these other timelines, where you pick me, its like those are completely different Joes, right?”
“Right,” Ekaf still didn’t get what Joe was asking, “because they are…”
“But you’re the same Ekaf?”
Ekaf nodded, “Yea, because after you die, I go back and try it again and that, obviously, starts a new timeline.”
Joe scratched his head, attempting to wrap his head around the timeline thing for a few moments before latching onto a different element of what he’d just been told, “Are you telling me that everytime you picked me, I’ve died.”
“Sometimes you just quit.” Ekaf said, “Then there are also those times you join up with Creaton or Shalis…one time, honest to god, you just started working for Sam Budd.”
“What the hell…” Joe muttered, “So there’s a good chance that I – this Joe, the Joe that is here right now in this universe – will die.”
Joe snatched the fairycane rum back from the Knome.
“But that’s why I do the things that I do. You were asking why we went to the Key Library. All for good reason, Joe. If we go about this quest in a completely novel way – unlike any attempt we’ve had before – I’ve got no clue what to expect, but if you stick to my plan then I can predict the punches before they land and keep you out of serious danger!”
Joe hiccuped and set the alcohol down. Shaking his head he said, “I just gotta keep telling myself I’d be dead anyways.”
“See, that’s why I told you that you were dead in the first place!” Ekaf got to his feet and began to mosey towards the door, “If I could’ve kept you believing that, this whole journey would be a lot easier on your noggin!” The Knome stopped in his tracks and scurried back to retrieve his liquor before continuing, “But don’t worry, they wouldn’t write a book about the Joe that doesn’t win in the end, would they?”
“What’s the farthest I’ve ever made it?” Joe asked.
Ekaf chuckled, “You’ve got a ways to go before you’re even close.”
“That’s comforting.” Joe scoffed.
“It should be!” Ekaf assured him, “It means that we’re still in the honey moon phase!”
– – –
One by one, Bold dragged a wounded prisoner from their cell and, with Zach watching down the notch of his bow, healed them as best he could. The pirates didn’t struggle. They knew they were defeated and knew that without the rock dwarf they would die or survive crippled and condemned to a lifetime of pain. The only Sea Lord that gave them trouble hadn’t even been in the fight. One of the buccaneers that was still bamboozled by bathing in way too much aquannabis attempted to escape. When Bold opened the cell to remove the druggy’s cell-mate, he made a run for it. Zach was ready to end the poor soul’s existence but it was unnecessary. The smuggler missed the open gate and ran straight into the bars that surrounded him. He went down immediately and, after healing the cellmate, Bold had to treat him for a concussion. Afterwards, Zach and Bold attempted to goad the cockatune out of the dungeon but once again the bird refused all efforts and the two gave up, assuming that eventually it would get hungry and fly out on its own. The sky was beginning to color, painted by Solaris setting, by the time the dwarf finished with the POWs and moved on to tend to his friends.
Despite their afflictions and the pain it took to do anything but remain in a fetal position, Nogard and Machuba sat on the edges of their beds, one on either side of Zalfron’s cot. Joe and Zach sat with them – the human beside the fishfolk and the spirit beside chicken dragon. Bold was next to Zalfron with his purple boarded tome of healing. He had already healed the wound on Machuba’s right arm, but the rest of the fishfolk’s and chicken dragon’s wounds would have to wait for later. Of all of them, the elf had taken the biggest beating.
Zalfron hadn’t cleaned himself up at all, as Nogard and Machuba had tried. His left eye was pinched shut by a goose-egg sized swelling that had ballooned up on his cheek and a yet-to-color bulge on his eyebrow. His beak of a nose was bent to the right, having gushed a trail of blood over his lips which were split and busted. Bold had the boy remove his shirt, a task that ended up being immensely painful which did not bode well. The pale skinned elf’s chest and abdomen looked like the peal of an overripe banana. Bold started with the brain, as there had obviously been at least one concussion, and as he skimmed through the pages he asked the boys to question the elf to see the extent of the damage.
“Ah member that woman throwin mae cross that cellar,” Zalfron stated, his voice nasally, “and that bastard pahrate, bowed up lahk a banty rooster, raht about there is where ah lose it.”
“You lost it alright, my boy!” Nogard crowed.
“His eyes rolled back in his head.” Machuba explained to Bold, clutching his throbbing ribs as he spoke, “Howled like a dog, then he went ballistic.”
“We won though, so it worked.” Zalfron shrugged and immediately regretted the motion.
“Hold still…” Bold began to recite the Sacred Tongue as he ran his left hand over the texts and gently placed his right hand on the elf’s melon. As flames came to life on the ink of the page, the dwarf’s hands glowed and Zalfron’s mane, despite its blood and sweat greased condition, shimmered. When the page had all burnt up, Bold dropped his hand, sighed, then continued to flip through his pages asking Zalfron questions as he did.
“Who is the Emparor?”
“How many Samarai?”
“Who is the Black Crown?”
“Craeton…no wait,” Zalfron hesitated, “the Quaen of Darkness?”
Bold paused in his page turning and looked to Zach, “Yuh know, uh’m not shar?”
“Both,” Zach answered, “it is the title of the current leader of the Pact. If Creaton is around, then its him, if the Queen is, then its her.”
“Dank god dey never bode around!” Nogard’s chuckle was cut short as he caught his belly and weezed out a moan between gritted teeth.
“Don’t jynx it.” Joe remarked.
“Ulroight, last question lad,” Bold cleared his throat, “what yar is it?”
“Farak me,” Zalfron moaned, “Ah ain’t gotta clue!”
“In his defense,” Joe spoke up, “I asked him that a while back and he couldn’t give me an answer.”
“1996.” Machuba stated.
“Indeed,” Bold nodded, “don’t warry though laddie, you passed the test. Thar is something in that noggin of yars keeping that brain safe, ya must be charmed.”
“We all must be charmed, mon,” Nogard whispered as if the volume of his voice might agitate his wounds, “we just ran off a banshee!”
“And an infamous shadowmancer.” Zach added.
“And high jacked a legendary ship.” Machuba reminded.
“Da luck of da Sun Child, boys!” Nogard couldn’t resist raising his voice.
“And all we need is two more.” Joe stated.
“Huh!” Zalfron jerked, nearly jostling Bold out of his spell.
“There’s you, me, Nogard, Machuba, Bold and Zach,” Joe said, “that’s six of us.”
“Yall’re going to God’s Island aswell?” Machuba asked.
“We’re headed to Zviecoff.” Zach corrected.
Nogard frowned, “Zviecoff?”
“Aye,” Bold had finished another spell, having reduced the bruises on Zalfron’s belly to barely noticeable dark patches. Once more flipping through his book he explained, “to help Acamus save his father.”
“Deseus!” Nogard exclaimed, he turned to Joe, “Gotta say, mon, I wanna be der for dat!”
Joe looked to Machuba. The fishfolk shrugged. Then to Zalfron who’s wide eyed expression assured Joe that the elf would not be opposed to such an idea. Even if we went straight to the Emperor, something else would probably come up. He sighed. Seems like going with the flow is the best option in this chaotic world – Ekaf’ll turn us around if it’s a bad idea anyways.
“Sure, after all, it is possible that Acamus is supposed to be a part of the team too.”
“Selu! That’d bae awesome!” Zalfron exclaimed, leaping from the bed.
“Calm down, lad!” Bold roared as he slammed the elf back down, “Chrust!”
“He’s pretty old, Acamus.” Zach stated.
“Machuba’s pretty young.” Joe countered. Machuba nodded. Then Joe asked, “Is Acamus really that old?”
“You can’t tell with just a glance.” Zach said.
“Minotaurs age like spirits, mon.” Nogard explained.
“They don’t age?” Joe quearied.
“Barely.” Zach nodded.
Machuba had to real the boys back in, “I doubt he’d abandon Iceload.”
“Aye,” Bold said between spells, “wouldn’t count on him.”
“Regardless,” Joe shrugged, “We’ll help save Theseus, then go to the Emperor. That’ll make Saint love us for sure.”
“After Zvahcoff, will yall join us?” Zalfron asked Bold.
“Well…” Bold looked to Zachias, when the spirit nodded the dwarf continued, “Aye!” Turning to Joe, he grinned, “Considar us on bard, Mistah Sun Child!”
– – –
Eventually, Bold got so frustrated working on Zalfron that he decided to take a break and finish up Machuba. Bold was surprised, and thrilled, to find that the fishfolk had no broken bones – only a few small fractures. It turned out that though his cursed blood constantly subjected him to pain, the molten metal protected the flesh that lay beneath the surface. The defense wasn’t perfect. A strong blow could still sever a limb or break a bone (in fact, Bold warned Machuba, his right arm had been substantially weakened and another similar blow could chop the extremity clean off). On the other hand, healing bruises of liquid steel turned out to be just as arduous a task as putting one’s rib cage back together. While Bold worked, he asked Joe and Nogard to take Zalfron around the ship to not only keep them from distracting the dwarf but also so that the chicken dragon and elf could reassess what areas on their body still pained them. The walking was slow and awkward, even Joe had somewhat of a limp. They staggered forward like a couple of old men stooped and shuddering from the pain of arthritis.
“What all do you remember from da fight?” Nogard asked as he held the door out of the sleeping quarters open.
“Lahk ah said,” Zalfron grunted, knowing better than to shrug, “jus the beginnin.”
Nogard pushed deeper, “Ya remember gettin knocked down and hoppin back up again bout a dozen times?”
Zalfron thought for a moment as he opened the next door.
“Kahnda.” He concluded.
“Why’d ya do it, mon? Why didn’t ya stay down?”
They’d come into the tavern. They crossed the sea-water slicked floor in silence. Giving Zalfron ample time to answer, Nogard busied himself with packing his pipe. Joe was hardly paying attention to the conversation. He was busy watching his friend’s hobble along, ready to lunge forward and catch one of them if they were to suddenly fall. After packing the bowl, Nogard looked back to Zalfron but the elf remained silent. Nogard scoffed and looked to Joe for support. The pyromancer shrugged, determined not to participate in the chicken dragon’s investigation. As they left the tavern and came into the stairwell, Nogard nudged the elf in the shoulder with his fist.
“Hae was gonna to kill us,” Zalfron snapped, “someone had to get back up!”
“Nah, mon,” Nogard disagreed, “even before you went beserk, der was someding in your eyes…I got da vibe der be more to it.”
Joe could tell that Nogard’s questions were angering the elf. He gave Nogard a stern glare but the chicken dragon waved it off and defended his interrogations.
“Don’t answer if you don’t want to, but if we gonna be fightin togedder I dink I gotta right to ask. I just be curious. Seemed to be you had it out for dat man, like as dough you had someding against him…like as dough dis wasn’t your first encounter wid Captain Pigeon….”
The elf was quiet until they reached the top of the stairs. There, he gave in, “It wasn’t.”
Nogard looked to Joe as if to say I told you so. Joe jabbed the chicken dragon in the ribs. Nogard resisted the urge to howl in pain, displaying immense self control.
Zalfron continued, “After mah sis became a Samurai, fore the War on Mancy broke out, some folks broke into our estate in Yelah…they, uh…they killed mah parents. They took mae back to Icelore…Geuss what ship wae took.”
Neither of the boys needed to guess. They followed Zalfron down the hall, heading towards the bow.
“Ah remember saein Pigeon,” Zalfron stated, “but ah don’t thank hae ever said a word to mae.”
“Did ya make it to da dungeons of Icelore?” Nogard asked.
“What are dey like?”
“The rooms are square, bout as wahd as ah am tall – jus long enough for mae to lay flat. No windows. It saemed lahk it was underground. The food comes through a hole in the door everay other day. At first it was hard to swallow but, bah the end of it…”
Zalfron paused for a moment. He continued walking but the words had shriveled up on his tongue. Now Joe was giving Nogard the glare again. Nogard did feel guilty.
“Sorry, mon,” he muttered, “you don’t have to-”
“Nah…” Zalfron cleared his throat, “Ah ain’t never told anybody…haven’t had anybody to tell…can ah kaep going?”
“Course!” Joe exclaimed.
“Brudder,” Nogard said, “let it out.”
Zalfron chuckled a bit, “Ya know, that slop became the hah laht of mah day. Didn’t raelly learn to lahk it until they started forgettin to faed us.”
“You had a cell mate?” Nogard asked.
“Yea but…but they killed him after bout a month. Then ah was alone.”
“How…” Joe couldn’t help but ask, “how long were you down there?”
“Not a yaer, ah don’t thank.” Zalfron said, then he frowned, “Ah dunno…Ah know it was 1995 when they killed mah parents…but this is the first day ah’ve heard the date since.”
“How’d you get out?” Joe asked.
Nogard swung wide the door before them, revealing a hall walled by the whirring machinery of a mapwork. The conversation came to a temporary halt as the boys’ wonder took hold. They limped forward. Spread across the bow-side wall, the map continued to depict the Monoceros as a ruby jewel scooting across the Dragon Gulf. After the initial shock of their curiousity faded, Nogard returned to the topic at hand.
“Tell us how you got out, mon! Nobody escapes Icelore!”
“Mah jailor let mae go.” Zalfron shrugged, “Ah never gotta name…but ah remember her face. Shae was short, human, prolly round our age, and shae was a shadowmancer. Ah told her one day ah would return to Icelore and kill everay last mancer there but shae didn’t saem scared. Shae almost saemed glad to haer me say it…Ah don’t thank shae saved me cause shae felt bad for me. Ah thank she saved mae cause she hated the Order.”
“Musta been an undercover agent, mon.” Nogard said as his eyes turned back to the map, “She musta been working for da Pact.”
“Aither way, ah share no pitay with those who work for the Order.” Zalfron stated.
“Do you know how long you’ve been out?” Joe asked.
“Not long, maybe not aven a month.” The elf began to drift out of the room, stern-ward, “Soon as ah got out ah went lookin to join the war.”
Joe followed him, “Damn.”
“Ah sorta lost mahself, with all those months spent in the dark. Ah couldn’t go back to studyin, not after that. Ah thought about startin a blacksmith shop.”
“You’re a blacksmith?” Joe asked.
“Every Sentry is trained to bae a blacksmith, part of the familay tradition.” Zalfron explained, “And ah prollay would’ve eventually stuck with that, had ah not got the ahdea to trah out for the Kou Knahts and ran into yall. You’ve given mae a maens to faht, Joe, a maens to get mah revenge.”
Despite the compliment meant by the elf, Joe couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable due to the violence promised in his words. Yet how could he blame Zalfron? If someone had killed my parents, wouldn’t I be out for blood? Did that excuse it? Is there a such thing as righteous violence? Initially, Joe didn’t think so. All he knew was that with each coming day there was more and more blood on his hands. The elf continued out the doorway, as did Joe. Looking back, he realized Nogard was still by the map. The chicken dragon had opened the vial that jutted out from the geographic façade and was withdrawing a shard of metal from the tube.
The cartogram went still. The symphony of clicking and rattling wound to an end.
“What is that?” Joe asked.
As Nogard joined him in the doorway, he answered, “A piece of my fadder’s sword.”
– – –
Dinner consisted of burnt bread and a collection of baked animals.
“One creature a person!” Ekaf declared.
This wasn’t a problem. The smallest specimen was a pretty good sized chicken – something called a wooly chicken – enough to feed Joe for a week. Nogard picked first, taking a mighty drumstick that looked to have belonged to an ostrich (which the chicken dragon called a thrasher or a “drasher” rather). Machuba chose a slab of fish known as a fofo. Zalfron contested but then submitted after realizing there was no neuni sauce. Instead, he latched onto a ridgeback flank. Despite being disgusted by the abomination that was Knomish cooking, Bold’s belly ached so he bit the bullet and grabbed the deep fried frost elk neck. Joe played it safe and ate the chicken. Acamus came down from the wheel, proudly proclaiming that the Monoceros would be sailing herself, then took the bowl of Batloen chili. Ekaf settled upon a tan gelatin-like substance that no one dared pick (especially after Bold swore on his soul that it was just a bowl of grease). Zach ate nothing.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Joe asked.
“Spirits don’t eat, lad.” Bold stated.
“Remember when I told you there is only one way to kill a spirit?” Ekaf cried with a mouth full of dried grease, “Well they can’t starve to death or die of dehydration either!”
“They can suffocate!” Zalfron corrected.
Dismayed, Ekaf swallowed his food in silence.
“My flame runs on oxygen,” Zach explained, “without it, I will go out.”
As Joe gnawed his chicken, he thought about this. No wonder he is always in armor. I would be too if my life hinged on something so fragile. Joe had thought diabetes was bad. A new question struck Joe, “Does water put it out?”
“No, its purple fire.” Machuba explained.
“Ah,” Joe nodded, “so its like blue fire?”
“A combination of red and blue.” Zach concurred, “Only a lack of air and bad intentions threaten me.”
This threw Joe for a loop, “Bad intentions?”
“It takes more than touching the flame to kill a spirit, my friend,” Acamus laughed.
“I told him that,” Ekaf shook his head, whispering to the minotaur, “the boy never listens.”
Intrigued, Joe asked, “Can I touch it?”
“Take da mon out to dinner first, my boy!” Nogard cried.
Everyone laughed except for Zach, Machuba, and Joe, though the spirit couldn’t help but grin.
“My people mate by touching flames,” his smirk grew to a chuckle, “and I apologize but I am saving my flame for marriage.”
“Dese pyromaniacs always be after folks’ fires!” Nogard couldn’t stop laughing and his cackling kept Ekaf and Zalfron going too, “Don’t go to sleep, mon!” Nogard slapped Zach on his armored back, “You might wake up in Joe’s chest!”
Blushing, Joe apologized, “Sorry Zach, I didn’t realize-”
“It is fine,” Zach nodded, still unable to stop smiling, “but it is a little funny.”
“It was…” glaring at the chicken dragon, Joe rolled his eyes, then raised his voice with a grin, “maybe if Nogard worked more on his fighting than his jokes he wouldn’t have to get a weaponless electric elf to save him from a couple of Sea Lords.”
Stunned, Nogard’s laughter stopped and his smile took a sideways twist.
“Green horn Sea Lords at that!” Acamus joined Joe’s defense.
“Green horns?” Nogard was indignant, “Pigeon be no green horn!”
“No but the rest of the crew, my friend,” Acamus chuckled, “all new recruits.”
“Raelly?” Zalfron asked.
Acamus nodded, “The majority of the Aquarian Sea Lord pirates are already in Zviecoff, doing what they can to assist the Order and finish off the resistance. John Pigeon was out to steal some goods from the Pact and he picked up some new men from one of his training camps while he was at it.” Lifting his bowl of chili to his lips, the minotaur slurped down what was left then dropped the bowl to the table and got to his hooves.
“How do ya know all this?” Zalfron blurted.
“Suspicious are we?” Acamus chuckled.
“Ah didn’t maen-”
Acamus waved his hand, “No harm, my friend, can’t help but give pale elves a hard time.” He nodded to Ekaf, “When I ran into your friends, I’d just gotten back from Aquaria.”
“No way, mon,” Nogard jabbed Machuba in the arm, “Can you imagine a minotaur in Aquaria?”
“Oh, my friend, the looks I got.” Acamus chuckled, “As I was saying, I went under to find me a Sea Lord. See, last I heard, my father was in Rivergate, that’s the harbor there in Zviecoff, and the whole port was crawling with Sea Lords. But, he told me I could get him out if I could get a boat in and out of there. That’s what got me to focus on the Monoceros which is what led me to the Sea Lord base in Aquaria. I had to be sure the ship was headed back to Zviecoff before I committed to seiging it and it wasn’t hard to get the Sea Lords Pigeon left behind to talk. Poor fishfolk nearly died at the sight of me.”
“You planned to take the Monoceros yourself?” Machuba asked.
“Initially,” Acamus nodded, “til I ran into Boldarian, Zachias, and the Knome.”
“You be crazy, mon!” Nogard crowed.
“I’m an Icespear.” Acamus shrugged, “I must be getting back to the helm.”
“But the autopilot?” Ekaf complained, “You sure you don’t want to stay down here and chit chat? I’ll share my sou-”
“No, my friend, I’ve got no idea how much energy is left in the enertombs nor do I know the flaws in this vessel’s enchantments, every ship has its quirks.” Acamus moved towards the door then paused, “If you seek my company, my friends, you know where I’ll be.”
Acamus left and the boys went back to their dinners. Zalfron waited until he was sure the minotaur was out of earshot then addressed his companions, “What do yall thank about him?”
“Who?” Bold asked.
“Acamus!” Zalfron exclaimed.
Bold shrugged, “A noice enough lad,” then his eyes grew wide, “and he’s strong as an ox!”
“He threw Bold!” Ekaf nearly screamed the sentence he was so excited to tell the others.
“And his spear is as powerful as a Knomish blade.” Zach stated.
“On the contrary,” Ekaf had to interject, “no weapon is stronger than a Knomish blade!”
“Da Mystak Blade, mon!” Nogard countered.
“Aside from that one.” Ekaf admitted.
Machuba brought the discussion back on topic, asking Zalfron, “Why do you ask?”
The elf frowned, “Somethan bout him saems off…lahk hae’s a few arrows short of a quiver…”
“You’ve just met the guy!” Joe cried.
Zalfron shrugged, “It was just a vahb.”
“Aye, the vary thought he could take this boat boi himself…uh bit dillusional, thar…” Bold admitted.
“You don’t think he could’ve!?” Ekaf exclaimed.
“We went with him,” Zach said, “we may be just as crazy if he is.”
“Ya mon,” Nogard grinned, “everybody be crazy.”
“I think Zalfron and Bold are onto something.” Machuba said.
“Ya?” Nogard scoffed.
“The look in the minotaur’s eyes…” Machuba said as he licked his own.
“Yea!” Zalfron nodded, “Kahnda made mae…made mae fael hopeless, ya know?”
“A look I’ve seen in you, Boldarian, just today.” Machuba stated.
“Whot?!” Bold jumped out of his seat, he looked to Zach, “Uh’m not crazy…am uh?”
“I’m not saying you are.” Machuba was quick to speak, probably the quickest Joe had yet seen him, “I’ve been there too.”
“What are you talking about?” Zach demanded.
“When you fear you might have lost someone close to you,” Machuba said, his black eyes locked with Bold’s brown ones.
Nogard sat back in his chair, withdrew his pipe from his coat, and began to pack a bowl.
“It’s a look of desperation,” Machuba continued, “but with you, Boldarian, it is not there all the time. It comes and it goes…”
Bold slowly got back in his chair.
“Cause ya still got hope.” Zalfron suggested.
“But with Acamus,” Machuba frowned, “it hasn’t left his eyes since I’ve met him.”
“Desperation makes a man dangerous,” Ekaf acknowledged, “to his enemies and his friends.”
“Should we speak with him?” Zach asked.
“Aye, if any is to speak with him, to give him hope,” Bold spoke up, “it should be Joe.”
“Ya mon, tell him bout da luck of da Sun Child,” Nogard said bitterly before he lit his pipe and took a puff.
“What can I say?” Joe asked, “How can I tell him we’ll save his father when I don’t even know if the man is still alive?”
“Telling him yar willin tuh give it a go will comfart him mar than ya can imagine.” Bold stated.
“I’ll go with you!” Ekaf said.
“Mae too!” Zalfron declared.
“Oh no you won’t, laddie, uh’ve finished with Machuba and Nogard, uh’ve gotta finish with you!” Bold said.
“Damn.” The elf cursed.
Ekaf got up from his chair. Joe was hesitant but it seemed that the decision had already been made. Swallowing one more bite of chicken and washing it down with the magic-strained sea water, Joe grabbed his backpack, got up, and went with the Knome to the bridge.
– – –
Acamus sailed the great vessel north. The plan was to sail the ship around Middakle to the city Etihw, where the north eastern mouth of the river lied. Spared both by the Samurai and Talloome Icelore, Etihw was one of the few cities left practically unscathed by the War on Mancy. In the nellaf king’s absence, the city became one of the strongest supporters of Ipativian Imperials. With the fate of the greatest Iceloadic city in turmoil (Zviecoff), the Etihwy made sure to closely regulate all those that sought passage onto their river and no ships were admitted after Solaris had set. Thus, in the slow hours after midnight, Acamus was forced to anchor alongside a collection of other patient crafts.
The high rising bluffs of Etihw’s harbor joined the heavens in twinkling as citizens took to the sea-side bars and clubs. Faintly, Nogard could hear thumping bass and garbled singing. He sat alone, straddling the bowsprit above the headsail. Jutting out from beneath his squirming mustache was the stem of his corncob pipe. The bowl was lit and every minute another plume of pungent smoke poured out of the chicken dragon’s nostrils to be shredded by the ocean wind. With each coming puff, his blood cooled. With each coming puff, the ache in his soul eased.
Reaching into his robe, Nogard withdrew the shard of blade he’d recovered from the mapwork room. He flipped it over and over in his hands. How many nights did you sit like dis, smoking gogo, on da Obsidian Sail? He wondered. Did you ever dink about me? Did you even know I be? His lips curled in disgust and he had to pinch the pipe in his teeth to keep it from falling into the sea. He recalled an old, Foxloen proverb: Da wise man knows it be better to lose tan never to have. The shard in his hands shimmered in the star light. He spat on the reflective surface – I hope dere be a hell, Dresdan Otubak! – then threw the metal into the ocean.
As the sliver of sword hit the water, he noticed the weight of the blade-less hilt sheathed between the Sheild of Shelmick and his spine. Reaching back, he withdrew the crimson, X-shaped handle. Not an inch of blade remained within the hilt. He hoisted it over head, ready to do with it what he’d done with the shard. He hesitated. This was the last artifact he had of the father he’d never known.
Could he really blame his father? He’d been conceived consensually. His mother knew who she was getting into bed with and she had abandoned him just the same. I be a bastard…but it could be worse. At least I know who my fadder be…even if he never knew me. Taking one last final drag on the gogo, Nogard exhaled and replaced the hilt in its sheath. At least I had dat…at least I have dis.
– – –
With his best friend off blazing and bruding, Machuba decided to tour the Monoceros. He had never seen the ship before but he’d ran into Sea Lords on more than one occasion. The life of a Sea Lord was lusted after by many young, mischevious fishfolk. Like Sidon and the Soldiers of Shelmick, the Aquarian Sea Lord’s were one of the few groups willing, and able, to work outside the law of the submarine monarchy. However, instead of sneaking below the law, they operated above it. Though Lacitar never explicitly endorsed the pirates, the enlightened eye could easily see what was going on. Their smuggling survived thanks to the corruption of the dictatorship. Wandering through the brig, Machuba was curious to see if any of their captives bore familiar faces. As soon as he came into the dungeon, the cockatune fluttered over to land on his shoulder. As he walked by the cells, observing the scowling, dark eyed buccaneers the parrot clicked, whistled, and chattered a popular sea farring song.
“The body of a siren, but a heart kind and faithful.” The bird’s voice was surprisingly deep, “With a will firm as iron, but the grace of an angel.”
Machuba was enjoying the birds musical talent so much that he continued to walk around the cells, straying away from those that were inhabited, and idly moseying towards the bow into the deepest darkest corner of the ship.
“She sees who I strive to be, despite knowing what I am.” The bird continued, “She confides her trust in me, loves me even when I can’t.”
Machuba froze. The voice was feminine. He walked back to the speaker’s cell. He licked his eye balls to assure himself he wasn’t hallucinating. She had the tan of a Soldier of Shelmick though Machuba didn’t recognize her. He assumed her to be one of the mermen of the late great Mirkweed Empire. Her eyes were larger and rounder than any fishfolk eyes he’d ever seen. Her lips were plump as if stuck in a perpetual pout. His double take wasn’t because of the woman’s ethnicity but because of her beauty.
“Take me away! Take me away! Oh wind and wave, take me away!” The cockatune recited the chorus, “To where she stays! To where she stays! Oh take me away to where she stays!”
He was puzzled. How does she know me?
“Those eyes,” she murmured, “they’re like your father’s.”
“What do you know of my father?” Machuba demanded.
“You sound as though I’ve insulted you.” the merman replied, slinking away from the front of the cell, “Perhaps I should’ve stayed quiet.”
Now Machuba was confused. He licked his eyes.
She continued, “You’ve taken the Monoceros, you’ve locked the Sea Lords in their own brig. It was foolish of me to assume we could be on the same side. Even though you are a Gill.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“You’re working for King Lacitar.”
Machuba’s confusion turned to rage, “I would never!”
“Then we are on the same side,” she approached the bars, “I am Lela Laroc, your father and mine were friends.”
Her elaboration was unnecessary. Machuba recognized the name.
“What happened to you,” Machuba asked, “after your father died?”
“We went to a man named Iesop Shell who brought us, my siblings and I, south. We lived in a small merman village.” She replied, “Outside of Mirkweed, under the waves of the Dragon Gulf.”
“Safe from Lacitar’s reach?”
“Yes, but not safe from the Sea Lords.” Lela didn’t skip a beat. Machuba could tell the pain had long since came and went. He knew all too well the numbness that fills the gaps after the loss of one’s kin.
“The Sea Lord’s had always taxed the village but after Captain Ching Shih died, they began to ask for more. When we couldn’t pay, they razed the town. My brothers were killed. My sisters suffered worse. I was fortunate. I was younger then. They let me remain alive as a slave.”
She took a pause to eye Machuba once more. The way she scanned his body, from head to toe, thrilled Machuba but he held back his emotions so that they wouldn’t distract him from her solemn tale.
“Just last year I turned thirteen and bought my freedom. I remained amongst the Sea Lords by my own free will. Where else had I to go? It was a tough life, but it was a life nonetheless…until it turned sour. The new recruits were never much more than fools. A few months ago, one was bold enough to impose himself upon me.” She shuddered, licked her eyeballs, then continued, “I killed him.”
Machuba felt that was a fair alibi.
Now it was her turn to interogate, “Why are you here?”
“I’m here to help Acamus Icespear save his father in Zviecoff.”
“What drove you from the sea?” Lela asked, “Iesop said that you were in the Soldiers of Shelmick.”
Machuba sighed, his gills flaring. Machuba could not look her in the eye as he answered, “I’ve grown tired of slamming myself against a stone dam.”
“Why are you helping the minotaurs?”
“Before I left Aquaria, a human saved my life.” Machuba explained, “To repay this debt, I will fight by his side.”
She nodded and Machuba could tell she understood.
Machuba strode away from the cell before she could respond. His quickness was partly because he didn’t want her to point out how pointless a statement like “wait here” was when spoken to someone locked in a prison cell and partly because he wanted to act before he had a change of heart. At the entrance of the brig, he grabbed the key and went back to the merman’s cell. Sea Lords hooped and hollered as he ran by, praying to Barro that the key he held was for them.
“You’re going to set me free?” She asked.
“I trust you. You are the daughter of Leord.” He shrugged.
She retreated from the front of the cell, suddenly skeptical of the resemblance she believed she saw, “But I haven’t given you any proof…”
“No one below the sea knew I was with the Soldiers of Shelmick,” Machuba said as he fiddled with the lock, “except for Iesop Shell and no one who is a friend of Iesop Shell is an enemy of mine. Whether or not you are who you claim to be, I know you are not my enemy.”
All she could respond with was a sharp toothed smile as her cheeks blushed purple. Without another word, Machuba unlocked the cell and Lela strode out. Listening to the cockatune’s singing, they left the brig, ignoring the yells from the pirate prisoners, and made their way up three flights of stairs to the deck – the bird, yet again, refused to follow them outside of the dungeon. They walked over to a railing and there they stopped. Machuba observed Lela in the moonlight. From her dress, Machuba inferred that she’d been taken straight from the crime to the prison cell. She was dressed much like a man, trousers, tunic, and boots, though her tunic was cut a little lower than her comrades’. Her front side was a very light shade of blue, her back side was so dark it was almost purple. Machuba had never been attracted to another person before. He had never felt romantic in his entire life. But right then, right there, he felt like swimming away with her.
He knew before she even said it that she wasn’t going to stay.
“Where will you go?” He asked.
“I’ll find Iesop,” she shrugged, “maybe join the Soldiers.”
Again silence fell around them. Encompassing them. Machuba didn’t want to break it because he knew that the sooner the conversation was over the sooner she would be gone.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
Biting his lip, Machuba looked away. He had hoped she wouldn’t ask. He glanced on down the ship and there, walking slowly towards them from the bow, was the dark figure of Nogard. The chicken dragon hadn’t spotted them yet, but soon he would. Again, Machuba sighed deeply.
She smiled sadly saying, “Good bye, Sheenshong Machuba Gill Juji.”
Lela leaned forward and kissed Machuba on the lips. Whether or not she had meant it to last long, Machuba pulled her close and held her tight. She was the first to pull back. When she did, they didn’t speak. They watched each other with their big, black eyes for at least a minute. Then she turned, climbed up on the railing, and jumped off the Monoceros.
Nogard arrived alongside his friend, “Who be dat?”
Machuba didn’t speak. He only licked his eyes. Nogard nodded, despite having no clue what he’d just witnessed, and patted Machuba on the shoulder. After a long while of staring into the distance, the chicken dragon spoke.
“She be a pretty one, mon.”
“Yes,” Machuba agreed as he turned to head back below deck, “and strong.”
– – –
Aqa Eniram awoke to the face of a white fox. The creature sat on his chest, watching him with its head cocked to the side. Not only was it peculiar to spot a fox on the sea floor but this fox had spoken! The fishfolk’s heart raced. Only hours ago he’d seen Death and now he was visited by the very avatar of Hormah. He prayed to Barro.
“Are you going to lie here praying until you die?”
The fox’s mouth didn’t move but the words were audible and spoken in the Aquarian Dialect.
“What are you?” Aqa asked.
The voice replied, “I am a fox.”
“Who are you?”
“That is a question I’ll have to answer later. Right now, I’ve got questions for you.”
The fox trotted down his chest, across his belly, and leapt onto the bolder that pinned his legs. There it spoke again.
“Who did this to you?”
“The Soldiers of Shelmick!”
“The Soldiers of Shelmick?” The fox shook his head, “They might’ve slaughtered your brothers but who did this to you?”
“There was a group of land lubbers, one a human, a pyromancer,” Aqa said. Anger began to well up inside the fishfolk. The pain that covered his face and legs was quickly forgotten as an unholy hatred consumed his body. He could see the human’s face as if the pyromancer stood before him.
“What would you do if you ever met this human again?”
“If I lift this bolder and you follow me then everything you ever wanted will be yours – starting with the opportunity to meet that human again. All that I ask of you in return is your loyalty.”
“I am loyal to King Lacitar!”
The fox chuckled, “And look where that got you.”
Aqa watched the fox. He could leave the Aquarian Ocean and no one would know the difference. He would be pronounced dead with all the other soldiers buried beneath the crumbled canyon. Yet, on the other hand, he would be abandoning the king of his people to follow a talking fox – which very likely could be the physical manifestation of the Delian God of Death – all because he wanted revenge. Then again, turning the fox down wasn’t much of an option. If the fox could indeed lift the stone off his legs, then he would have a fighting chance at survival. If not, he would surely die.
“What exactly does it mean to give you my loyalty?” Aqa asked.
“I will tell you to do things and you will do them. There will be tasks you must accomplish before I can go about granting wishes. Each assignment I give you will make you stronger. You will become one of the strongest fishfolk to walk the dusty surface. Your name will be revered among my followers like Tidalus is amongst the Trinity Nations. You will create a team to counter the human pyromancer’s and you alone will be in command of your team mates. You alone will get the privilege of killing the human and once he is dead – you will be free to do as you will.”
“What do you have against this human?” Aqa asked.
The fox replied, “It is not the human I despise, but his fate. Whether or not we leave here together or I leave here alone, if that human lives then there will not be a part of this world, above or below, that will escape the evil that he will release.”
– – –
Stiff as a board, Acamus stood at the helm of the Monoceros. Before him, monoliths of frosty earth rose hundreds of feet from the mouth of the Etihw River, staggered in rows, like the trees of a forest, and wedged between the vast cliff faces that shored the delta. The earthen pillars were speckled by snow capped structures which were scurrying with elven life. Bridges of wood and stone passed from column to column. These were lit with jumping flames so that the dragons that weaved in and out of the geological peg board could spot the overpasses through the twilight and the smog that twisted and twirled upwards from the chimney stacks of the buildings. Though his glossy eyes rested on the spectacle that was Etihw City, he saw naught. All Acamus could think about was Zviecoff. Soon, father. He was so lost in his thoughts he didn’t notice as Joe and Ekaf clambered up the stairs onto the bridge.
“Hey there Acamus-” Acamus whirled around with wild eyes and Ekaf’s words died.
Joe picked up the slack, “How are you feeling?”
“Feeling?” Acamus barked.
Joe hesitated then decided to go with the truth, “At dinner, some of the boys mentioned being worried about you. They’ve been through a lot of similar situations and-”
“My friend,” Acamus scoffed, “I doubt their father’s have been trapped in a city crawling with powerful adversaries who would leap at the thought of lobbing off their heads!”
“On the contrary,” Ekaf raised an index finger towards the constellations, “this is Machuba Gill Juji and Boldarian Drahkcor the Fifth we’re are talking about. Their fathers never made it out of such environments! You have heard of the-”
“I’m feeling fine.” Acamus glared at the Knome, “Thanks for the reassurance.”
Once again, Joe swept in to save the conversation, “Now Mr. Icespear, you situation isn’t as bleak as theirs! You’ve got a team of devoted individuals! They know what you’re going through, they empathize, and because of that they’ll fight all the harder!”
“My friend,” Acamus clasped Joe on the shoulder, “It will take more than will power and strength to save my father, we’ll need luck and lots of it.”
“Well then you hit the jack pot with us!” Ekaf proclaimed, “You don’t get much luckier than Joe! He’s never been trained for combat but he’s fought off a barren, a school of shamoos, a squad of the Tadloe Guard, not to mention the Knights of the Light, a gang of smugglers, Black Crown Pact goons, soldiers of the Aquarian Army, and, as you know, a boatload of Sea Lords and he’s only been on this planet for a little over a week!”
“It seems to me that someone with good luck would have avoided all that trouble in the first place.” Acamus stated.
Joe couldn’t argue with the minotaur’s logic. He was going to have to keep Ekaf quiet for this dialogue to be anything but a failure, “I just wanted to let you know that we’ve got your back. As long as you’re with us, we’ll treat you like one of us. When the weather gets rough, we won’t leave you high and dry.”
Acamus grunted and strummed his fingers across the wheel. A murder of dragons soared over head and the minotaur craned his neck to watch their silhuettes eclipse the distant stars. Joe looked to Ekaf. Raising a finger, the Knome’s mouth opened as if to speak but he was cut off by the minotaur. Looking down from the sky to watch Joe intently, he said, “The weather will get rough. Whether we are successful or not, before this is all over, blood will be spilt by the gallons.”
Joe felt sick to his stomach. How much more fighting can I bear? Yet, I can’t turn around! These people need my help! Lives will be lost with or without me but maybe, he reassured himself, with my help, a few will be spared. The dark eyed minotaur could read the distraught expression on his face.
“Are you afraid?” He asked.
“Anxious, yes,” Joe stated, “but who wouldn’t be?”
Once again, Joe was rushed by a sudden gust of honesty, “What I’m most afraid of is that I’m leading my friends astray. There must be a better way…without the need for all this bloodshed.”
Acamus chuckled, “You sound like Eirene GraiLord, my friend!”
“Who?” Joe asked, turning to Ekaf.
“The last true GraiLord to rule the minotaurs.” Ekaf explained.
“Few who hail outside the Vanian Mountains have heard of Eirene, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the First War of the Blue Ridges?”
Joe shifted his weight between his feet and took a guess though he knew he was wrong before the words even left his lips, “The First Void War?”
“By Allah!” Acamus crowed, good heartedly, “You weren’t kidding about being knew to the light of Solaris.”
“Tell him the story!” Ekaf suggested, “He’s got to learn!”
“It’s quite a long tale.” Acamus warned.
“I don’t have anywhere to be.” Joe laughed.
“Suppose not,” Acamus agreed, “well, my friend, it is a sad, bleak story but one imperitive to understanding the peoples of Iceload. This is the story of Eirene GraiLord…”