She didn’t know it but he did –she was walking in circles, wide circles, the circumferences nearing a quarter-selim in length. From atop a totem of coral, Aqa watched the oblivious wanderer. The shadows of larger animals, floating high above the cnidarian graveyard, drifted over them like clouds. These beasts kept their distance, not because of the girl or the boy who watched her, but because of Aqa’s company.
After her third revolution, Aqa felt his presence. He’d grown accustomed to the fox’s ways since the stones were lifted from his legs. Using magic, the fox was able to heal his crushed limbs quickly. Never before had Aqa witnessed a being so efficient with magic. The pain was still drastic, for whether or not the fox could he hadn’t healed his burns. If it weren’t for aquannabis, then the pain would’ve been too much to ignore but thanks to the drug he was able to refrain from begging his savior for further aid. Keeping his eyes on the lost woman, Aqa spoke.
“Who is she?”
“That is for you to find out.”
The fox that stood behind Aqa didn’t look like the fox who’d saved him from the rubble of the Submarine Canyon. He’d grown from the small rodent sized animal. Now he stood as tall as Aqa on all fours. His jaws were large enough to tear a fishfolk’s head clean off their neck. His fur rippled in the current of the ocean, shimmering, almost as if the coat wasn’t fur but white fire. In this form, Aqa had ridden the beast across the Aquarian Ocean, barreling west. They’d stopped for a break and, before the fox trotted off to look for aquannabis, he’d pointed out the blue-skinned maiden to Aqa.
Without another question, Aqa began to climb down from the coral canopy. From afar, he’d assumed she was a fishfolk but now, as he neared, he noticed a difference in her complexion.
“A merman!” He murmured.
The coral branch beneath him snapped. He hit another polyp shelf then landed in the sand. Pain broke through the waning walls left up from his last dosage of aquatic-pain-relievers. Lights blotted out the world around him. The coral above melted into explosions of fireworks. As the pain simmered, an object eclipsed his vision – the merman.
“Who are you?” She demanded.
Aqa tried to sit up but she pushed him back down with her foot.
“Who are you?” He asked.
“Whether I answer depends on your answer.” She replied.
“My name is Aqa Eniram, who are you?”
“Not good enough.” Aqa tried to rise once more but her foot still held him, she repeated herself, “Who are you?”
“An armored transporter for King Lacitar-”
Her lips curled.
“-but no longer.”
“Then what are you now?”
“A knight.” The fox said.
Lela leapt off Aqa and fell on her butt, her black eyes locked on the monster before her. Aqa stood and the fox addressed him.
“Grab her, Aqa, she is coming with us.”
– – –
They plunged into a sea of clouds, blazing a path for the light of Solaris to reach the murky citadel beneath. At the first sign of Castle Icelore – which was nothing more than the faint shadows of three towers blurred by fog – Hermes slowed the zoomer to a crawl. Dragonic shapes circled above and below them like vultures. Watching these mounted guards inspect them, Catty shuddered and shifted in her seat.
Not long after their escape from the Monoceros, Hermes took the reigns and drove the vessel into the sky. They sailed across the tops of clouds until Solaris set and by the time the great star started to rise they began their descent. The bruised and broken body of John Pigeon had hardly moved for the entirety of the trip. If not for her crow eye, Catty would’ve thought him dead.
Dead. She thought. That’s what I’ll soon be. All she could do was hope Hermes would keep his word. If he even has a choice. Shalis Skullsummon was not known for listening and negotiating. Not only would Catty need Shalis to spare her life, she would need Shalis to provide medical care. Her body had been poorly healed from the wounds she’d acquired on the Cinatit and the Monoceros. She sighed. I should’ve left Hermes…
Before leaving the Monoceros, on her way to where the zoomer sat dormant, she’d ran across a handful of Sea Lords attaching their last will and testaments to the legs of mailbats. Shaming them for their cowardice and using the comatose body of Johnny draped over her shoulders to drive the message home, Catty had cleared the room in seconds then set about scrawling her own letter. Rather than addressing her message to her friends and family – or lack thereof – she sent her mailbat towards Darkloe to alert the Pact that she might very well soon be dead by the hands of the Witch. That her Lord’s fear had come to fruition, Hermes had yet again turned traitor. After the bat fluttered out a porthole and Catty discovered the zoomer another room over, she’d considered ditching Hermes, but no. She had to uphold her end of the deal, she could not leave the banshee’s side unless by direct order from her Lord. If she abandoned early, even to save her own life, Creaton very well might end the life that Catty had endentured herself to preserve…she thought of that life as they descended towards Icelore. For a moment, she could feel his embrace as her memories brought her back to that cold cavern hidden in the snow of the very island they approached.
Soaring towards the façade of the keep, Hermes pulled the zoomer through the open archways of the dragon hold. The chamber was massive – it had to be if it was designed to house Iceload’s formidable reptilian steeds. Two rows of columns ran the length of the hall and from these pillars protruded chain links that one could hook their dragon too. The first thing Catty noticed, before they flew in, was the strong stench of dung and sweat that hung about the entrance like the fog. The second thing she noticed, once they entered, was that the vault was completely empty.
The gates fell shut behind them.
Catty whirled on Hermes, drawing one of her katanas and cursing him while she did. Hermes had expected such a response. He slammed the vehicle into park and the shadowmancer and elementalist went flying out off the zoomer and across the floor. Johnny slid to the far edge of the room, stopping only when his body struck a column. Flopping onto his back, Johnny moaned then forced himself to sit upright. Glancing through swollen eyes at his comrades he groaned again then attempted to wipe himself clean of the dragon-waste he’d swept up in his journey across the chamber. Catty didn’t slide half as far. Once she caught her breath she rolled to her feet, drew her swords, then faced the banshee who had already started launching balls of black flame.
Backpedalling, Catty sheathed her swords then caught the wispy orbs taking their energy for herself. It took time to convert the shadows from one mancer to another and Hermes kept firing until she could juggle no more. Finally, a steaming blast of darkness struck her in the gut and sent her tumbling across the tile once more. Hermes stepped down from the zoomer.
“It’d be in both of our best interests if you’d stay down.”
Catty rolled her eyes and snarled from the ground, “So that you can sell me to that slut?”
“So that we can pleed our case,” Hermes snapped, then stopping himself his voice softened, “together.”
“Ah yes, Shalis the Merciful…”
It would take more than strained sincerety to convince Catty. Using the shadows she’d stolen, Catty engulfed herself then dissolved into five slender obsidian felines that simultaneously charged Hermes. Hermes drew his blade and cocked his arm back, preparing to release a sharp wind that would cut through the line of critters, then stopped. The Sheik would not appreciate him splitting her castle like a slice of bread. Instead, he reached back into his reserved shadows and, mocking Catty, transformed himself into an animal: a wolverine – five of them. The cats were undaunted. They continued their charge but when they reached the first of the giant weasels, they eluded them – slipping beneath their bellies or twirling between their paws – to focus their efforts on the slowest of the bunch. Biting and clawing, the cats subdued their target, but Catty had guessed wrong. The wolverine exploded with a smoggy black plume then the other four mustelids were on her. In minutes the cat clones were stomped out and scraped to bits. When Hermes returned to his ethereal form, a bloody Catherine Meriam was laying in a cloud of shadows at his feet.
“There is no guarantee she will kill you, Catherine,” Hermes lectured, “but there is no hope for you if you choose to keep fighting me.”
Getting onto her knees, she retorted, “I’ve got more of a chance beating you than I do getting sympathy from the Witch.”
“You saved my life!” Johnny yelled from across the room, wincing. Clutching his aching body, he added, “That’s got to count for something.”
“We’re partners, Catherine,” Hermes said as Catty got to her feet, “if she lets me stay, then she must also let you.”
“Oh she’ll let me stay,” Catty hissed, “a selim underground!”
Turning from the banshee, she sprinted towards one of the barred gates of the dragon hold.
Hermes strode swiftly after her, “You won’t be able to break those bars.”
She hadn’t planned to. Using the last bits of her shadows, she returned to the shape of a cat. Half her body had slipped between the bars before Hermes stopped her with a tight grip on her tail. Before she could wiggle free, he tore her away from the gate and flung her towards the center of the room. She hit a column then slid to the ground in her human form.
“Catherine, you’re being foolish!”
“I’m the fool?” She muttered from the floor. She raised her voice as she faced Hermes, “You’re a fool! For continuing this sherade! You’ve already won! The least you could do is be honest!”
For a moment he hesitated, then he gave in. After all, even if she did manage to sneak by him and out of the dragon hold, he still had Total Darkness. As he strutted back to the center of the room, Hermes’ chronic hubris flared up. With his back turned to the shadowmancer, he began to ramble, “It is a pity…handing you over to the Witch, that is…”
Catty stopped listening. She figured he was watching her through the back of his bulbous skull but she hoped his pride hampered his attention. Standing, she drew one of her Fou-style blades slowly so as not to make a single noise. On the tips of her toes she dashed across the floor. Just before she reached Hermes, she tossed her sword high over head then jumped, so that she could reach the undead’s head, and reached back to grab her second sword.
“…but your sacrifice will be remembered-”
Yanking her sword free of its sheath she swung just as Hermes spun to face her. He blocked her strike with his own blade then grabbed her by the throat, catching her in mid air.
“-when I wear the Black Crown.”
Hermes snickered as his power overcame her like a wave of icy water. Her free hand immediately went to the rogue’s wrist but soon the coldness had numbed her muscles and both arms fell slack. Her sword slipped out of her limp fingers and clattered to the tile ground. Darkness blotted out her vision, ringing filled her ears, her mouth ran dry, her nose hairs stood stiff but she still had hope – it was about time for her first sword to come back down. She had just enough sight left to see her blade pin wheel down on Hermes. Unfortunately, the blade missed but the hilt collided, batting the banshee’s skull off its mount. Shocked, Hermes dropped Catty and, fighting the chills still coursing through her body, she recovered her blades, scurried to her feet, running past Hermes, pursuing his skull which continued to roll across the stone floor.
Then she stopped.
Smirking like the devil, Hermes’ skull rested at the bare feet of the Sheik.
“Catherine Meriam and Hermes Retskcirt, I can think of no worse company.”
“My lady!” Johnny gasped from across the room, clutching his heart as if struck by the love-infecting arrows of a cherub.
“I spoke to soon…” Rolling her chestnut eyes, she refused to turn in his direction. Instead, she returned her glare to Catty, pursing her obsidian-painted lips. Half her hair was cut short and braided close to her head but the other half was left untamed, natural, covering one elven ear, the nape of her neck, and and curling down around her breasts. The perk in her nose and way she held her head, tilted back, relayed her pretentions to those in her audience. She stood with her shoulders rolled back, chest out, and legs wide so that her slitted gown left little in mystery. After a minute of unbroken eye contact, she looked past Catherine to the headless body of Hermes, “I do hope you’ve brought more to barter with than this alley cat.”
Catty contemplated attacking – I’m going to die anyways – but the blatant futility of attacking Shalis in her condition – wounded, exhausted, and low on shadows – convinced her otherwise. The sheik could sense the shadowmancer’s animosity growing towards wreckless abandon and decided to go ahead and get her out of the way. With a snap of her fingers, a dozen boneguards, which had been waiting patiently by the door, marched forwards in two lines. They parted to walk around Shalis then surrounded Catty. Dressed from head to toe in armor, Catty couldn’t tell whether they were alive or dead.
She didn’t resist. They marched her, limping, out of the hold in silence.
“Tell me,” Shalis addressed Hermes, “why shouldn’t I send you to the dungeons with the girl?”
Hermes replied quickly, “Unlike her, I’ve got something to offer.”
“It better be damn good,” Shalis spat, “deserter.”
“I didn’t desert,” Hermes corrected, “I died.”
“If you’re dead, then who am I speaking with?”
“My ghost, my soul, my reincarnation.” Hermes rolled his shoulders proudly, “Did you read my letter?”
“You said you had something I’d want.” Shalis pointed her thumb over her shoulder towards the door, “I could careless about the whore, I assume there’s more?”
“Oh yes,” Hermes stated, “your gift will be arriving on this island soon.”
“I offer you my heart and soul,” Johnny had crawled over to where the necromancer stood, he was groveling at her ankles, “I’m forever yours my love!”
“Do you want me to lock you up with Meriam?” Shalis snapped.
Looking up from her feet, he responded only with a raised eyebrow.
Shalis quicky revised her threat, “In a separate cell.”
He whimpered and rolled into a fetal position beside her toes.
“If the Sea Lords weren’t the only decent smugglers still sailing…” She muttered, shaking her head, then turned back to Hermes, “So where’s this present of yours?”
“There are two,” Hermes stated, “one that I will give to you now, so that you will hear me out, and one after I finish my stay.”
“And what is the reason behind your stay?” Shalis asked.
There were many reasons rattling around in Hermes’ skull. One, he needed her void-dust. Two, he needed her globework. Three, he wanted to be aligned with the Order before going to Zviecoff. Four, well, the book said to do this and, so far, every bit the book foresaw had come true – his only regret was not reading more. He kept his answer obscure, “My sheik, with what I know, together, we might be able to bring Saint and Creaton both to bow before us.”
“Ha!” Shalis scoffed, “Now what makes you think that?”
“With your help,” Hermes paused, already relishing the response he knew he would receive, “I can bring you the Sun Child.”
– – –
Joe reached up and slapped the plank over the sliver sized gap, all that was left of the hole in the side of the Monoceros. The patch work had been sloppy but necessary. Taking down a wall between the mailroom and an office of sorts that sat in the bottom of the ship had provided the extra lumber. This was their second task of the morning, the first had been to prepare for the shift in climate. Scavenging through the possessions left by the Sea Lords, the boys were able to find a couple scarves, coats – though they still wore them, they were unable to find any that fit Bold or Zalfron –, and, most importantly, boots. The sandals Joe, Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba had enjoyed on the ocean floor would not suffice in the taigas and tundras of Iceload. Ekaf collected the discarded apparel. Joe redonned his interview-get up as yet another layer of clothing to put between him and the cold. After everyone was ready, Ekaf had the boys get started fixing that hole so that their might be a fighting chance of keeping the bar warm as they sailed into the heart of the frozen continent.
The job had been left up to Joe, Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba but a little over halfway through the electric elf and chicken dragon had drifted away to slip behind the bar. When Joe finally called them out for abandoning them, Nogard claimed they were taking inventory of the alcohol collection and Joe gave up pressing the issue further. The mission was progressing far more efficiently with just him and Machuba on the job. Pushing the point of the last nail into the wood, Machuba drew back his hammer and wrapped the nail three solid times. Done.
The two stepped back. As they observed in their abstract piece of art, Joe wiped his sweaty palms on his pants while Machuba spun the hammer in his hands.
“Smoke time!” Nogard proclaimed.
“Drank tahm!” Zalfron corrected.
“Should we see if Bold and Zach are ready to get up?” Joe asked.
“Nah, mon,” Nogard shook his head, “Bold only be sleepin a few hours, now.”
“A few hours!” Joe exclaimed.
Nogard jumped on Zalfron’s back and began to scrape his knuckles across the elf’s scalp, “After he dealt wit dis one, he finished up wit me. By den, Solaris already be wakin up.”
Bold had spent the entire night finishing up repairs on Zalfron’s mutilated body and Zach stayed awake with him incase the dwarf over exerted himself and needed medical attention himself – something that Zach had been a witness to more than once. When the healing was done, the two were so tired they barely made it into their bunks before succumbing.
Zalfron released the bottles in his hands –one shattered on the floor and the other bounced then rolled away – and he grabbed Nogard’s arms, flung him over his head, and onto the bar. The chicken dragon hit the counter with a gasp then rolled off, wide eyed, to drop to the deck.
“I dink you broke me back, mon!” Nogard croaked.
Zalfron hopped over the bar and began to feel up and down the shirtless chicken dragon’s spine.
“Aye mon!” Nogard squirmed, rolled over, and slapped at Zalfron’s hands when he tried to roll him over again, “Cut it out!”
“Just makin sure yer back ain’t broke.” Zalfron backed away.
“You’re liable to break it twice pokin and proddin me like dat!” Nogard snapped, sitting up cross legged.
“You raelly hurt?” Zalfron asked.
“Nah mon…” Nogard muttered as he rubbed his back, then he broke into a smile, “yo puny ass couldn’t hurt me if ya tried!”
“Oh yea?” Zalfron grinned and hopped up to sit on the bar. Raising his eyebrows he barred his fists, “Ah’ll clock ya in the Adam’s Apple hard enough to make ya spit cahder!”
“Come on now,” Nogard glanced back at Joe, “I don’t dink Mista Nonviolence would be to fond of you and me drowin down, ya?”
Joe nodded, “Not to mention, poor Bold’s probably burnt up all the pages in his book.” He turned to Machuba, “How about a drink?”
“I don’t drink.” Machuba said.
“Lahf’s to short for that!” Zalfron retorted.
“It ain’t be like dat,” Nogard got to his feet, nodding to Machuba, “da poison be corruptin his ancestors ever since ol Shelmick cursed em.”
“You wouldn’t like me drunk.” Machuba said.
“Hard enough to like ya sober!” Nogard said then howled with laughter.
“That’s good of you,” Joe said to Machuba, “it maybe legal to drink the second you come out the womb on this planet, but where I’m from, we’re pretty sure alcohol can do some real damage to a young mind.”
Machuba gestured at the elf and chicken dragon, saying, “So I see…”
Zalfron slid over the bar, retrieved the bottle that didn’t burst then grabbed two more. Smacking their heads against the corner of the counter, he popped off the caps then set them on the bar for Joe and Nogard to make their pick. The liquid was darker than the brown glass that encased them. The necks of the bottles had paper collars labeled: SUCCESS. Grabbing one with wild eyed primates on the body, Joe took a sip and grimaced.
“Wow!” He blinked then reassessed the bottle in his hands, he read, “The Loco Lemur?” Then asked, “Is this beer?”
“Hell yea!” Zalfron raised his in the air, which sported what looked to be a trampled buzzard beneath the bold letters of the brand, “Straight out of Sentrakle breweries!”
“Iceloadic Pale Ale, my boy!” Nogard explained, taking a swig of his own, “da alcohol content make ya dink you be drinkin liquor!”
“The first one’s always rough, brother,” Zalfron burped then slammed his already empty bottle on the table, “but the second one goes down smooth!”
“And it be all down hill from dere!” Nogard giggled.
Nogard, Machuba, and Joe sat down at the bar.
“What’s that noise?” Machuba asked.
“Noise?” Zalfron asked, his pointed ears wiggling.
“The cockatune!” Machuba realized.
“Poor bird must be starvin!” Nogard exclaimed.
“Parched! Parched!” The cockatune cried as it fluttered into the tavern, “Parched! Parched!” It circled the room, fluttering so wildly that it slammed into the roof, dipped close to the floor, then recovered to shoot back up towards the ceiling, “Parched! Parched!”
“Dat bird ain’t hungry,” Nogard corrected himself, “it be dirsty!”
“Zalfron, get it some water!” Joe commanded.
“Water? Ah got somethin better than water!” Zalfron turned to the open cabinet behind him and grabbed another IPA. This one appeared to have a bear mounting a tiger on the label but Joe chose not to look twice. Opening the bottle on the corner of the bar, Zalfron set the beer on the counter then said, “Hey bird! This one’s fer you!”
“I’m not sure beer is good for birds.” Joe stated.
“Don’t worry,” Machuba assured him, “I don’t think that parrot can drink out of a bottle.”
The cockatune landed on the counter. Ruffling his wings then folding them beneath him, he tilted his violet head. The bird didn’t move, only stared at the bottle, trembling.
“This is horrible!” Joe declared, “Pour the poor guy some water!”
Zalfron ignored Joe, he addressed the parrot, “Go on then!”
“Thank you! Thank you!” The parrot exclaimed. He scurried forward, clutched the bottle in his talens, leaned back, lifted it up, and put the nossle between his beak. As the alcohol poured down his throat, his crest of neon green head-feathers stood up.
“I was wrong.” Machuba admitted.
“I ain’t never seen noddin like dis in my entire life, mon!” Nogard crowed.
“That can’t be good for him!” Joe moaned.
“Oh come on!” Zalfron argued, “Its a pahrate parrot! Last tahm ah was on this ship, this damn bird would flah down to the brig and taunt mae and the other prisoners with a baer in both faet.”
“Beer is life! Beer is life!” The cockatune reassured Joe.
“What be your name, bird?” Nogard asked.
“He,” the bird said as he happily strutted around his beer, switching his gaze from one to the other, “He is my name.”
“Sing us a song, He!” Zalfron demanded.
“A song, what song?” He asked.
Taking a sip, Zalfron pondered but Nogard beat him to it, saying, “Marvelous!”
“Farak that!” Zalfron rolled his eyes.
“What?” Joe asked.
“Its over rated.” Machuba stated.
“Thank you!” Zalfron exclaimed.
Machuba shrugged, “I prefer folk music.”
“Wae’ve been listenin to that crap for years!” Zalfron moaned.
“It jus came out, doe.” Nogard said.
“Nah, man, Lo was playin that in Iceload way buhfore the war broke out! Wae’d just gotten it out of our heads when the damn song spread lahk waldfahr across the planet!”
Nogard laughed, “You know you love it!”
Ignoring the dispute, He had already begun to produce the melody. Chirping, whistling, clicking, and clucking the parrot managed to imulate the sound of an entire band – guitar, bass, drums, piano, and possibly even a brass instrument of some kind. His head feathers were spread in a neon green mohawk and his chest was puffed out like a proud bachelor as he began to sing the lyrics with the voice of a woman.
“I’m the hottest mistress, arsonist,” Nogard sang along with the bird, “I got this mystic spark, ya dig.”
Joe stopped mid sip. I’ve heard this before…He swallowed and set his beer down, focusing on the cockatune’s vocals as he scanned his memory for a connection.
“Forget altruistic, lark with kids,” Zalfron popped the lids off two more beers as his lips silently mouthed the lyrics, “rock with this jig you carcasses!”
It hit Joe. The bar! The band in the Barren’s Mullet had played this song – more than once if Joe recalled correctly. Zalfron’s right, they do play this everywhere! Joe was intrigued. I guess this planet isn’t only about war, they’ve at least got some type of an artistic following.
“Say I’ma optimistic narcissist? Lost in this sick farce I live?” Finally, Zalfron couldn’t resist any longer. Passing the second beer to Nogard the two clacked bottles and then sang in unison, “Farak them wicked, heartless men, cause, Selu! This chick is marvelous!”
“They played this in that tavern!” Joe noted.
“Wouldn’t doubt it.” Zalfron nodded.
Joe gestured for another beer and as Zalfron fetched it for him. Joe asked, “Who wrote it?”
“Young lady named Lo,” Nogard answer, “she be mighty fine too, mon.”
Zalfron scoffed, “Yea, if yer into hooves and horns…” then he slammed the beer against the counter to lop off the lid before handing it over.
Accepting the beverage, Joe asked, “Hooves and horns?”
“Shae’s a gmoat.” Zalfron stated.
“You’ve never seen a gmoat?” Machuba asked.
Joe shook his head.
“Hold on der mon, der had to be at least one in da Barren’s Mullet.” Nogard said.
“Wait…” Joe once again thought back to the tavern. Sure enough, he remembered seeing a horned drummer in the band and others as patrons in the restaurant, “Yea! And I think Ekaf told me about them too…”
“Well there ya go!” Zalfron clasped Joe on the shoulder.
“So there are famous musicians in Solaris?” Joe asked.
“Dozens.” Machuba answered.
“More dan dat, mon,” Nogard elaborated, “we got quite a bit of culture you ain’t even heard of yet my boy!”
“The best music comes out of Iceload.” Zalfron stated.
“Hah!” Nogard countered, “You mean Foxloe! Half da artists of Iceload ain’t even from da giant iceberg!”
“Tadloe and Sondor are also big music producers,” Machuba noted.
“And Aquaria?” Joe asked.
“We are,” Machuba said, “but we don’t tend to share it with land lubbers.”
“What should wae play next?” Zalfron asked, “Naeda let Joe experience some of our culture.”
“Someding by da Bard-” Nogard stopped himself, “No! Calleranta Chorus!”
“Don’t worry,” Joe laughed, “we’ve got plenty of time. They still haven’t let us into the river.”
– – –
A resilient peer rose from the frozen Gulf of Heimdallure, the bay off the eastern shore of Icelore. The old dock had survived yet another winter and – despite the creaking and shuddering that occurred as Shalis followed Hermes down it – looked as though it would live through the coming thaw in late July, early August. The moans of the gangway were nothing compared to the groans and distant tremor-causing cracks the sheet of ice made as it received the banshee’s armored boots. In comparison, the solid water seemed not to notice Shalis Skullsummon’s dainty frame.
Through a mist of swirling snow flurries, Shalis could see a smudge of darkness approaching from across the bay. Better than she could see it, she could smell it. The breeze brought chill plumes of snow flakes but it also brought the scent of energy to her flaring nostrils. It was a unique type of energy. Not for its intensity, Shalis had smelt far more powerful beings, but for its oldness. The power she sensed felt ancient. The scent had a distinguished flavor that was unlike the smell of energy in the contemporary generation.
“How old is the Sun Child?” Shalis asked.
“This is not the Sun Child, my Sheik, that will come later,” Hermes was grinning though Shalis would never know it, “this gift will make you laugh.”
“I hope for your sake it doesn’t.” Shalis grumbled.
As the blur approached, Shalis began to pick out the details. It was a cage hoisted by shadowy beings but the contents of the enclosure wasn’t discernible until nearly under her nose. Curled into a ball, was a small little black clothed Knome. Turning to the banshee beside her, the sheik displayed no signs of humor.
“You’ve brought me a Knome?”
Hermes was disappointed, “You don’t recognize him?”
Groaning, the old man shifted out of his fetal position to roll onto his back and gaze up at the two beings before him. His lip curled from beneath his beard, which was far scragglier than it had been in years, but he could only whisper his words.
Hermes tossed a leather flask between the bars of the cage. The pouch hit the elder in the chest. Moving like a sloth, the Knome sat up, unscrewed the cap, and lifted the sack to his lips.
“Still don’t recognize him?” Hermes asked.
“No,” Shalis snapped, “there’s only one Knome I know and this isn’t him.”
“Oh but you forget his brother! The forger of the Four Swords-”
“Grandfather?” Shalis exclaimed.
The skull nodded.
Grandfather dropped the flask from his lips and fixed the two with his sparkling blue eyes. Slowly he brought a hand up to his throat, folding in all his fingers but the middle and his index. He put these two philanges against his throat. This gesture could’ve been verbalized as, “Farak you!”
“Maybe I have assumed too much,” Hermes began, “but would you, by chance, like to weild a fifth and final legendary Knomish blade?”
She would’ve but there was a primal instinct, deep within her soul, calling her to resist the banshee’s generosity and this urge had been ignited by the smugness of this prodigal son. What irritated her most was that Hermes had every right to be smug – his offerings had surpassed what she’d expected.
First off, delivering Catherine Meriam to Icelore was, by itself, enough to sway the necromancer. When Catty had been a loyal member of the Order, Shalis had heard her referred to as the second most powerful mancer beneath Solaris. When Truth, the anonymous hooded-necromancer, had been working alongside Shalis, as if they co-ruled the Order, rumors spread that Truth’s true identity was Catherine Meriam. Still, Catty remained loyal and obedient to her superiors up until the end when she left the Order for the Pact and a majority of Shalis’ most trusted and most worthy subjects followed her. This solidified her contempt for the shadowmancer (for, unknown to the rest of the world, this animosity had been born long before Catty deserted – it had been born when Shalis had been fooled by the smooth words of a man, a man that harbored love for only one: Catherine).
Second, Hermes had just brought her the second most famous Knome in the world. Not only that but Grandfather was notorious for escaping. He was one of the only individuals to have been captured by Iahtro, the great storm, only to leave on his own accord. The old smith was so elusive that many had ceased to believe he had ever existed at all and now here he was, caged like a bird.
Third, there was Hermes’ promise. If not for the first two gifts, Shalis wouldn’t have entertained the idea that the rumors were true, the Sun Child had come, and that Hermes could bring this messiah to her. Still, could she trust Hermes? Why was he coming to her, bearing gifts and begging for her mercy? That was not the type of behavior she’d come to expect from the bearn when he had worked for her.
“What do you want from me?” Shalis demanded.
“Creaton sent me to kill the Sun Child.” Hermes explained, “He fears the Sun Child because he believes the Sun Child may bring the Queen of Darkness back beneath the light of Solaris.”
He didn’t need to explain that point further. Shalis had come to understand Creaton’s fear for the one and only being truly worthy of the Black Crown. She did not share the same affinity for the people of this Abbim as did the Moon Dragon Man who believed the Queen a threat to Solaris. The Queen fought with abandon, Creaton was reserved. He was the type that would die honorably, not the Queen. No, the Queen would go down kicking and screaming – but why does Hermes want the Queen to return?
As if he read her mind, he continued, “I would rather keep the Queen from returning, however, I’m no longer sure that’s possible. Have you heard of the book?”
Grandfather sat up in his cage. No longer wallowing in his discomfort, the Knome listened intently. Shalis noted this and, though she had not heard of the book, she nodded.
“I burned it.” Hermes paused to let it sink in. When Shalis didn’t react, he talked on all the same, “Before I did, I read a few pages. Everything I read, almost everything, has come to pass exactly as it was written.”
“What’s left?” Shalis asked.
“We’re to go to Zviecoff,” Hermes said, “and bring the Sun Child back to Icelore.”
“So you’ve come to me because of a book?”
“Yes,” Hermes admitted, “but if I didn’t believe in it, then I wouldn’t be here.” He hesitated, then elaborated, “The book contained the Foretelling.”
“The Delian Prophecy.” Shalis corrected.
“I skipped around, you see,” Hermes said, “just to see what would come of the prophecies, or what it claimed would…”
“The boy will bring her back into this world.” Hermes said, “And when she returns, I want her to know that I didn’t try to stop her. That, instead, I was a part of the effort to bring her back.”
“You’ve come to me hoping that I can protect you from the true Black Crown’s wrath?” Shalis laughed.
Hermes nodded. This was perhaps the humblest Shalis had ever seen the banshee.
“Now I cannot promise, but if you continue to prove yourself,” Shalis couldn’t help but grin, “I will put in a good word for you.”
“Thank you.” Hermes said.
Lifting the flask back to his lips, Grandfather hesitated to mutter, “I’m going to laugh when she kills you both.”
Shalis and Hermes gazed at the Knome but said nothing. Turning they marched back towards the shore and the shadow guards that held the cage followed after them.
– – –
Stars littered the night sky like glimmering shards of mica scattered across a riverbed. A lone ball of gas shot across the distant swirls of solar systems, arching through space, and continuing on towards eternity. “One day I’ll ride a shooting star.” It was as if someone had just slugged Joe in the gut. Clutching his stomach, he looked down from the heavens and slipped inside the bridge lounge to join his friends.
Standing on top of what was probably Captain John Pigeon’s personal desk, Ekaf was pacing back and forth over a map of Zviecoff he’d laid out. His mouth was moving at a hundred words per second as he pondered out loud his plan of action. Bold stood by the desk, asking question after question, while Zach stood silently observing the layout of the great city. Zalfron was slumped in the captain’s chair, his eyes closed, his nose rattling, and his lips drooling to add to the puddle already gathered in his lap. Nogard and Machuba were gone, far below them in the brig, cleaning out the cells that were empty now that the guards of Etihw City had adopted their prisoners, and Acamus was just outside the lounge manning the helm. The Etihw City police had finally admitted them earlier that afternoon, after the crew assured them they were not planning, as Acamus had claimed, to sail to the embattled city of Zviecoff.
Joe sat down in one of the chairs behind Zach as the spirit began to dispute something Ekaf had claimed about the city. Joe wasn’t thinking about Zviecoff. His mind was still stuck on the memory of his grandpa which brought him to another, but more recent, memory: my warp cube! Grandfather had given him his own warp cube but where had he put it? Had it fell out of his pocket somewhere in between Bonehead’s cave and now? Very likely. If not, it would’ve shorted on the way to the bottom of the ocean. What happens to the contents of a warp cube when they break? Then he remembered, The Sea Cuber! Well…at least its not lost in the Aquarian Ocean.
“By God,” Bold sat down next to Joe and wiped the sweat from his brow, “have ye hard of the lifts in the harbar?”
“Lifts?” Joe asked.
“Great big plates far liftin folks to the city,” Bold shuddered.
“Are there stairs?”
“Aye, lad,” but Bold shook his head, “ten flights of stars would kill me just the same.”
“The Bold I met was willing to crawl through the tunnels beneath the deserts of Vinnum Tow to save a life,” Ekaf challenged, looking down on the dwarf from his vantage point, “what did Sam Budd do to you?”
“Domestic wark softens a man.” Bold admitted.
“Can we expect any support from the Ipativians?” Zach asked.
“Not likely,” Ekaf said, “and if so not much. The GraiLord and Ipativians will be there but their forces will be small compared to the amount of the Order’s chromies I assume we’ll be facing. From the letters I’ve found here,” he stomped on the desk beneath him, “it seems that Shalis is preparing for one last push to take the city once and for all. I’ve written them to let them know of our approach, but I doubt if the GraiLord and Ipativians left will be able to withstand a drive of such proportions-”
“GraiLord and Ipativians working together?” Joe was surprised, “I thought they’ve never gotten along?”
“The one good thing that’s come out of the War on Mancy is that the minotaurs of the Vanian Mountains and the elves of northern Iceload have finally been able to find common ground.” Ekaf explained.
“A hatred for the Order?” Joe asked.
“And the Pact.” Zach added.
Joe gulped, “Both of which we’ll be facing in Zviecoff?”
“Just the Order.” Ekaf corrected.
“Hermes works for the Order?” Joe asked.
“He used to.” Ekaf said.
Joe was confused, “I thought the Monoceros sails for the Order?”
“Pirates will wark far anybody, lad.” Bold stated.
“But he is right,” Zach said, “the Sea Lords work for the Order.” He turned to Ekaf, “Why would John Pigeon allow a traitor on board his ship? Are the Pact and Order cooperating?”
“I wouldn’t think so!” Ekaf crowed, “The two don’t exactly see eye to eye-”
“It sure looks like it.” Joe muttered.
“Looks like it because the three of you can’t see past today!” Ekaf plopped down on his butt, squashing Zviecoff, and folded his arms, “There’s no way in hell that Creaton and Shalis would work together – not again – because the two hate each other! Not to mention, now that you’re around, they have opposing goals.”
Joe begged for elaboration, “Which are?”
“Creaton wants you dead,” Ekaf explained, “and Shalis wants you alive.”
“Because you could be the new Tsar of Pyromancy-”
Joe rolled his eyes, “Yes, I know that, but why does she need me to restart the pyromancy branch? She’s got every pyromancer in existence locked up somewhere. I’m sure she could find one of them that would obey her – one that isn’t prophesized to bring back the Samurai.”
“On the contrary,” Ekaf stabbed the sky with his index finger, “according to Shalis’, and Creaton too for that matter, the Foretelling – or Delian Prophecy if you will – predicts that the Sun Child will not bring back the Samurai. Instead, the Sun Child will bring the Queen of Darkness.”
“What?” Joe, Zach, and Bold chimed simultaneously.
“Who knows the riddle of the Foretelling?” Ekaf asked.
Bold and Zach looked at each other then recited together, “The twelve will rise from the dark. Through ice and fire they’ll prevail but the twelve hides fore their mark and she arrives when they fail…” The two hesitated. Zach threw up his hands in defeat. Bold confessed, “Cain’t remembar anymar of it.”
“She arrives when they fail,” Ekaf reiterated then added, “Sun Child will guide, pure in heart.” His eyebrows twitched with pleasure as he saw Joe begin to understand, “Many believe that the Sun Child will accidentally, hence the ‘pure in heart’, ‘guide’ the Queen of Darkness back beneath Solaris.”
A chill ran down Joe’s spine. What if the planet I’ve come to safe will instead be doomed by my presence? He gulped.
“Uh’ve hard that take on the Fartelling befar,” Bold began, his brow furled and arms folded across his chest, “but how does thot have Creaton wantin him dayd? Shouldn’t Creaton, luhk Shalis, want him aloive so as to fulfill the prophecy?”
“Creaton was never a fan of the Queen of Darkness,” Ekaf explained, “they wore the Black Crown to pursue similar ends, to upend the establishment, but separate means. Creaton wants to liberate the people but not at the expense of the people. The Queen was willing to end all life as we know it to get her way.”
“How so?” Joe asked.
“By turning us all into banshees.” Zach answered.
“Not all of us,” Ekaf corrected the spirit, “only those loyal to her. Those who wouldn’t submit, had to be eliminated.”
Zalfron, who’d woken up, summed up the explanation, chuckling, “Creaton wants to liberate folks, raht? Well the Quaen wanted to liberate the ever lovin farak outa folks!”
“So sense Creaton doesn’t want her back, he wants me dead and sense Shalis does want the Queen back, she wants me alive…still, if the Order and Pact don’t get along, why were Hermes and Catty on this boat? Aren’t they with the Pact?” Joe asked.
“Now I cannot say for sure,” Ekaf warned, “but if I had to guess, I’d say that Hermes isn’t the most loyal subject of the Pact.”
“You think the Order would allow him back?” Zach asked.
Ekaf nodded, “It is possible that he never actually left the Order-”
“A spy!” Bold exclaimed.
“Indeed,” then the Knome shrugged, “or he is buying Shalis’ forgiveness with an offer she can’t resist.”
– – –
The offer Shalis couldn’t resist was preceded by an offer that Shalis hadn’t really needed but had accepted anyways and this offer was sitting cross legged on a wooden cot with his shackled wrists in his lap. His beady little eyes were focused on the woman who now stood in the doorway of his cell – the other unnecessary, but greatly appreciated, offer.
“Well look what the cat coughed up.” Grandfather chuckled.
Catty hissed, “I’m as happy about this as you are Knome.”
“Please enter the cell.” One of the undead soldiers begged.
Catty obeyed and the boneguard shut the door behind them. The cell was a small rectangular box carved out of stone that the island of Icelore stood upon. A small barred square near the top of the door was the only orifice. The room had one cot and one hole and the hole still reeked from the deposits of the last visitor.
“You mistook my tone, I don’t have a problem sharing a bed with the beautiful Catherine Meriam…as long as those shackles are as secure as mine.” Grandfather said with a charming old grin.
“You’re not my type.” Catty stated, not moving from where she stood by the door.
“Ah, that’s right,” Grandfather snickered, “I’m not a canine.”
Catty rolled her eyes.
“Mind if I ask why I get the pleasure of your company?”
“Hermes betrayed me.” She replied.
Grandfather was skeptical, “What boggles my mind is that he was able to trick you in the first place!”
Catty glared for a moment, mulling over whether or not her new cellmate deserved an explanation before she finally decided to elaborate, “Creaton knew Hermes was liable to desert. I was to alert him when this happened.”
“How’d you get captured? How come you didn’t run away as soon as you realized?” Grandfather asked.
“The Pact is very strict.”
“I’m impressed!” Grandfather clapped, “I’d never thought of you as the type to put your duty over your own livelihood!”
“I’m not.” Catty snapped.
Grandfather raised an eyebrow, “Your actions beg to differ.”
“Creaton has a way of ensuring my absolute obedience.”
Shaking his head, Grandfather sighed, “You’ve always had a thing for the bad boys…”
Taking her first step away from the door, Catty strode forward and back handed Grandfather so hard that he tumbled off the bed. The poor Knome landed on his face with a grunt. He managed to squirm over onto his back and lean up against the wall.
Rubbing his cheek with his shackled hands, Grandfather muttered, “We’re on the same team now, you don’t have to kill me.”
Catty rolled her eyes so hard that her eyelids batted.
“How’re your legs holding up?”
She sat down on the bed, asking, “How’s your foot?”
“Better…” Grandfather shrugged.
Silence threatened to ensnare them. Unlike the others of his kind, Grandfather wasn’t opposed to quiet. On the other hand, like his fellow Knome, Grandfather couldn’t fight his natural curiousity and Catherine Meriam had always been an intriguing character. So the old Knome punctured the silence in an attempt to foster conversation.
“I suppose we’ll get to know each other down here.”
“Not for long.”
“These are holding cells,” Catty explained, “they are temporary. In a matter of days they’ll escort us through the castle and make a spectacle of our executions.”
Grandfather’s eyes grew wide then his brow dropped and he laughed, “They wouldn’t kill me, I haven’t even begun their sword.”
“I hope you don’t plan to finish.” Catty remarked.
Grandfather shrugged, “Someone will come to my rescue.”
“Unlike you, I make friends.” Grandfather snapped.
“And your friends know you’re here?”
“They know Hermes captured you,” Catty answered for the Knome, “but they think that Hermes is loyal to the Pact. The last place they’d look is Icelore.”
“So I’m screwed,” Grandfather grunted, then he had a rare burst of optimism, “at least if I die I’ll live out the last of my days with the most beautiful human of Dogloe.”
Catty nodded. Her dark brown hair, black in some’s eyes, hid the right side of her face. Many men had fallen for her mysterious beauty which was quite understandable but Grandfather’s flirtatious comments were more jest than sincere. He knew that there was only one man for Catherine Meriam. Besides, Grandfather was too tired to legitimately engage in romantic endeavors.
“Tell me about this dungeon. You worked for the Order so you should know some tricks. There must be a way to escape.”
“The walls charmed the same substance as the wall of the Cathedral in God’s Island. No matter how many souls power your spell, you can teleport into the castle above, but not the dungeon below.”
“Unless you have the Suikii!” Grandfather interjected.
Catty continued as if uninterrupted, “They hold executions on Sunday. All members, aside from those deployed from Icelore, are required to watch the festivities.”
“Sounds joyous!” Grandfather chuckled.
“The bodies are harvested for bone and shadow. Both of which are stored beneath the dungeon in what they’ve taken to calling the Twin Vials: two giant enertombs that hold the potential to store immense amounts of power. Shalis and Adora use this as their personal bank despite the fact that they claim it is the offering they are preparing for the return of the Queen. Every mancer is required to give ten percent of the shadows or bone they’ve harvested over the week every Sunday.”
“They’ve made mancy into a religion!” Grandfather declared, then he asked, “Are there any exceptions, are there any prisoners who aren’t executed?”
“There is one exception. If the prisoner is a necromancer or shadowmancer they may choose to turn undead and re-devote themselves to the Order as a boneguard or shadowguard for Shalis.”
Grandfather sighed, “Too bad I’m not a mancer…”
“The dungeon is shaped like a corkscrew, starting with the narrow spiral of stairs that lead down a hundred feet before arriving at the holding cells.” Catty continued, “The first floor of holding cells houses only nine, wedged together in a ring. The second floor has rooms beneath the original nine with one missing. The missing cell is instead a path way to a second ring of cells. The second floor has eight plus eighteen new cells. The third floor has a ring of eight, a ring of seventeen, and a ring of twenty seven. There are five floors and three hundred and five cells.”
“Where do you suppose we are?” Grandfather asked.
Catty thought back to her journey down, “Cell three-hundred and four.”
“The only way out is past the other cells and up a century of stairs?”
“Correct,” Catty nodded, “but the spiral staircase isn’t just a spiral staircase. There are no railings and it is in the center of a giant empty column carved out of the earth. The outside of the column is mounted with boneguards armed with crossbows. Even if we manage to get out of the cell, there is no chance we’d make it up that staircase.”
“Unless Shalis is killed.” Grandfather stated.
“Shalis is far stronger than Hermes. Do not under estimate the Sheik and her sister.” Catty replied, “We will not make it out of here alive.”
Grandfather grinned, gave Catty a wink, and said, “Wanna bet?”
“What shall we bet?” she asked.
“You decide,” Grandfather said, “you’re the one who thinks we won’t.”
Catty narrowed her eyes, “But if we don’t we die.”
“Okay, so if we die, what do you win?”
Catty thought for a moment. When she came up with an answer she couldn’t help but smirk. She took a deep breath, forced a nonchalant expression, then looked the old Knome in the eye.
– – –
“Ah don’t sae how this is gonna work.” Zalfron said, crossing his arms.
Rolling his eyes, Nogard turned to the elf, “Oh yea, mon, because you know how dese dings work.”
Bold stepped forward in defense of the Sentry, “Uh don’t thank it’ll fit, lad.”
Standing in the middle of the six, wiggling his right hand, Joe stated, “Fit or not, if I can’t get the Suikii to show up then we won’t even be able to try.”
“Maybe it has returned to its master.” Machuba suggested.
Zachias agreed, “This could be a good omen.”
Suddenly, the sword materialized in Joe’s grip – almost as if just to dispel what hope had spawned in the boys’ hearts – and Joe nearly sliced a hole in the tangle of metal that enclosed the passage like a mechanical pergola. The boys were crowded into the narrow tunnel that led from the door to the map face. In order to fit, they stood in pairs. Zach and Bold nearest the door, Zalfron and Joe in the middle, and Nogard and Machuba beside the cartogram. With the sword now in hand, Nogard and Machuba stepped out of the way and Joe approached the vial. There Joe hesitated.
“What do I do?”
“Just stick it in, mon.” Nogard said.
Zalfron snickered and the chicken dragon jabbed him with his elbow.
“Hold the blade and put the hilt in first.” Zach advised.
Bold concurred, “Aye, that blahd would slice ruht through that glass.”
“How do I open it?” Joe asked.
Machuba bypassed Joe and knelt beside the cylinder. He inspected the steel limb and the enertomb tipped cradle the vial rested on then shrugged.
“Tap da top, mon.” Nogard said.
Machuba poked the cap and the chevron-toothed lid slid apart. Victorious, he moved out of the way and licked his eyes.
“Here it goes…”
Carefully grabbing the blade by its flat backside, Joe stuck the hilt into the tube. Immediately, the glowing spheres that pinched the cylinder hummed to life. The map began to shift. Waves made of tiny shingles, like miniscule wooden pedals, slapped against the three pronged continent of Iceload that reached down from the ceiling. Rather than being oriented upright, the map was sideways so that the northern hemisphere became the eastern and the southern became the western. This put the tip of Middakle, Iceload’s middle peninsula, level with Joe’s head. The boys craned their necks as two distinct blurbs of scarlet animated themselves and rose from the timber tapestry.
The first crimson they noticed rested on the tiny sliver of map between Iceload and the roof, on the lumpy-crescent shaped island of Icelore. A bloody castle stood waist high to the mountains that surrounded it.
Joe’s excitement at recognition of the alien geography was countered by the realization of what it meant for his friend, he murmured, “Grandfather’s in Icelore.”
Zach said, “Hermes is back with the Order…”
“God bless him, lad,” Bold patted Joe on the back, “the old Knome’s at the marcy of that wicked Witch now.”
“Those dungeons…” Zalfron shuddered.
“He’s doomed den, yea?” Nogard asked.
“Maybe we can break him out after Zviecoff,” Zach suggested.
“Ha!” Zalfron cried, “That’s impossible!”
“You got out.” Joe noted.
“Ah had insahd help!” Zalfron argued.
“So we just leave him to the Order?” Joe demanded, “That isn’t right.”
Machuba spoke, “Whether or not we can help him, we can’t until we finish the task at hand.”
Frowning, Joe nodded. He was about to pull his sword from the vial when Zach grabbed his arm. The spirit pointed to the map, a few selims away from Icelore there was another burgundy spec. Rather than being stationary like Castle Icelore, this blob rocked back and forth as it inched its way along the Etihw River.
“Is that us?” Joe asked.
“The blade has two masters.” Zach nodded.
“Wah’re nearly thar!” Bold exclaimed.
“Selu!” Zalfron forgot about the peril of their Knomish friend and began jumping up and down, “Trahskele Point! Have yall ever been?”
The general consensus was shaking heads.
“They say Trahskele is where lahf began!” Zalfron continued, “Come on!”
The elf dashed out of the room. Zach, Bold, and Nogard hurried after. Machuba followed but stopped at the door when he noticed Joe wasn’t behind him. The human’s eyes were back on the map, boring into the miniature castle in the corner of Icelore as if he might be able to pluck Grandfather out and pull him to safety with his glare. Silently, Machuba walked back over to the pyromancer and clasped him on the shoulder. They stood for a minute then Joe withdrew the sword and, as the machines winded down, they left the mapwork room and headed upstairs.
Once out on the deck, the worry in Joe’s heart was outweighed by wonder. Triskele Point, named after the Ancient Elven word for “three”, was called such because of the confluence of two rivers, the great Etihw and the Medull, which split the city of Poricoff in three. Not only was the city interupted by the white waters iconic to Iceloadic rivers, but Poricoff laid out beneath a coniferous canopy whose tremendous trunks stood staggered throughout the point. The forest of Triskele was uncorrupted, its behemoth branches never broken by beings, as it was faithfully protected by pagans who partook in the belief which contradicted the theories of the Big Boom that, as Zalfron put, Triskele Point was where life began. But, it wasn’t the people of Poricoff’s unique understanding nor the fantastic foliage that fascinated folks who floated through the forest city, no, it was the falls.
As steam rose from the abnormally warm riverbed, water crashed down from marble cliffs. The Medull River, which descended from the slopes of the Vanian Mountains, was fed by beautiful waterfalls which the citizens of the forest city had long since fell inlove with. In the first millennia, the people of Poricoff would vacation up and down the Medull, spending weekends basking in the views of the awesome cascades. This had inspired the elites of the town to hire magical engineers to build falls from where the city overlooked their confluencing rivers. Supernatural pumping systems pushed river water up through ice and stone to replace the streets with canals and create a fantastic display of cataracts. Amongst the six boys, there wasn’t a jaw that wasn’t agape.
“What’re yall doing awake!” Ekaf demanded as he came to stand behind them.
“Ya thank we could sleep with whot’s waitin far us tomarra?” Bold asked, not looking away from the city.
“Today,” Zach corrected.
“Suppose not…” Ekaf murmured as he too succumbed to the view.
“Ain’t it perty?” Zalfron attempted to slap Ekaf on the back while keeping his eyes on the scene before them but he overestimated the Knome’s height and instead smacked the cone off the little man’s head. The elf was so lost in the spectacle he didn’t even notice what he’d done.
Ekaf grabbed his hat, replaced it on his head, then said, “Zalfron, go to the kitchen and get Acamus some coffee.”
“Wah?” Zalfron asked.
The sight seers’ momentarily directed their observation inward, at the brig. Acamus stood where he had stood since dinner their first night on board the Monoceros. This last dinner, he had refused to leave the helm so they brought him a plate (and the boys were almost sure that he’d thrown the food over board because the plate was never returned nor found). His behavior worried them more and more. No longer did he stand on his own two hooves, but now he leaned over the wheel, one arm gripping a peg while the other hung between them. His head rolled around on his neck, lulling for a minute then jerking upright but not remaining up for long before drooping again. He was trembling, as if shivering, despite being in one of the warmest places in Iceload. This was not the same minotaur Ekaf, Zach, and Bold had been saved by days before nor was he the same Joe, Zalfron, Nogard, and Machuba met two days ago.
“Jesus, Lard!” Bold yelped, “The par lad’s dyin!”
“Is he sick?” Zach asked, “That can’t be pure greif.”
“Maybe not greif, but dread…” Machuba remarked.
“We shouldn’t have left him alone for so long!” Joe lamented.
“Wae should make him get some rest!” Zalfron stated.
Nogard sighed and said, “Good luck wit dat, mon, dere be no more stubborn a people dan da GraiLord.”
“He will be of no help to us in Zviecoff in a state such as this.” Machuba said.
“Forget sleep, we’ve got no time!” Ekaf said, “We’ve got to juice him up, we’ll be in Zviecoff when the sun rises! Zalfron – or somebody – needs to go below deck and get that man some caffeine.”
“Wah cain’t you?” Zalfron asked.
“Because…” as impressive as the city sprawled out before them was the sight of Ekaf at a loss for words, finally, Ekaf admitted, “…I can’t reach the grounds…”
“I’ll go.” Joe said.
As Zalfron and Nogard collapsed laughing, Joe headed below deck. Bold, who was sympathetic to the plight of the Knome, asked, “Does the lad know how to make coffee?”
“Maybe on his planet,” Ekaf shrugged, “but I doubt he does on ours, I’ll go-”
“No, you go to Acamus,” Bold said, “Uh’ll go help him.”
He hustled to catch up with Joe and, as they descended the stairs, he cleared his throat. Joe turned and gave Bold a salutary nod.
“Been meanin to ask ye somethin…” Bold scratched his hairless head, “bout when ya saved muh life…”
“Saved your life?” Joe brushed it off, “It was really Acamus, we both would’ve-”
“Uh’m eternally grateful, lad,” Bold said, “but…but Zach said you war real…er…warried.”
“Well I was! I-”
“Aye, he said you war so warried, ye even kissed me-”
“Open mouth and evarythan-”
“What?” Joe stopped in his tracks.
“Now he said you called it a kiss of life, or some sart of thin-”
“CPR!” Joe exclaimed, a blushing smile spreading across his cheeks, “Its normal procedure back on Earth, I thought-”
“No need to get defensive, lad!” Bold raised his hands, “Uh cain’t blame ye, uh been told um’m quite the looker but…uh…hate to brake it to ya lad, yar not my type ah fella.”
“No, listen,” Joe continued to pleed his case while simultaneously fighting back a fit of laughter, “that couldn’t be farther from what it is-”
“Uh go far the broader men, closar to me size.” Bold explained, walking again and speaking over his shoulder, “Uh’m too big ah fella to fool with the skin and bones type luhk you.”As the dwarf continued towards the kitchen, unperturbed that Joe had stopped following, he continued talking, “Uh ain’t mad, lad, fact is uh’m sarta honared. Just thought uh should let ye know, far ya get yar hopes up far nothin.”
Joe scoffed and started to move again, “Thanks for letting me down easy.”
– – –
“How devious of you Shalis!” Hermes chuckled, “Locking Catherine up with that Knome!”
Silence was the witch’s first response. She was the type of person not to make a single noise unless she intended too. Her bare feet glided across the floor making as much sound as a cat on the prowl. If it wasn’t for Hermes’ heavy boots and John Pigeon’s thick heeled galoshes, the hall would’ve been silent. Shalis debated on ignoring the banshee’s statement altogether. She was growing tired of how comfortable Hermes was becoming in her presence. Rather than concur, she decided to humble him.
“You’re lucky I came when I did Hermes, it looked as though Catty nearly ended you.”
Hermes froze in his tracks.
“If you keep underestimating your opponents you’ll fall to the same fate you fell to before – only I doubt Flow Morain will save you this time.” Shalis stated, “Now bury your pride and follow me.”
Biting his nonexistent tongue, Hermes obeyed, asking, “When will the execution be?”
“In a month, possibly.” Johnny grimaced. Shalis continued, “We’re selling box-seat tickets for large donations of bone and shadows, if you are interested. I’m expecting both executions to earn us more than the attempted execution of Paud Gill.”
They turned off the hall and began down a narrow staircase that ended abruptly with a door. Shalis held out her palm. A bone materialized in her hand, molding into the shape of a key. She unlocked the door and held it open for Hermes and Johnny to enter first. Johnny bowed elaborately and gestured for Shalis to go ahead of him and, rolling her eyes, she did. (His state had greatly improved from the day before. The Order of Mancers had skilled healers with unlimited amounts of energy at their disposal as well as one of the greatest libraries in Iceload. What little bit of pain still lingered was easily ignored by the vast amount of aquannabis he’d used to coat his johnson.) As Hermes stepped inside, a ball of fire blossomed above him illuminating the web of machinery that hung like stalactites. He stood on a slender stone platform extended into a hollowed out bulb of rock. The bulb was filled with metal arms bending on gears as they hustled to arrange the panels engraved with the puzzle pieces of Solaris. Each portion was accurately painted, with color, depicting both nature and civilization. As they came together into one shape the landscapes began to take life. Wind whipped around the miniature peaks of the Vanian Mountains as white waves lapped against the shores of Icelore.
“Wow…” Johnny murmured, “Now I see why you wanted to come to Icelore.”
“The finest mapwork in the world.” Hermes stated.
Shalis strode past the pirate captain and banshee and addressed the map before her, “Namehda rashi submuloc.”
The Aquarian Ocean split before them and Tadloe was torn in two as the machine rearranged itself. Mechanical arms plucked nuts and bolts off other metallic appendages and put them back together as a part of a separate device. In a matter of seconds, a new creation stood before the three. It stood on two steel feet from which sprouted robotic shins connected by knee-cap-gears to mighty metal thighs. It’s artificial abs cradled a glowing stone where bright yellow energy could be seen flowing through the finely crafted veins and arteries that stretched from the robot’s toes to his broad shoulders and then down to his thimble-like fingertips. His head was a melon of metal with the globe of Solaris engraved over it. He had the jaw of a snapping turtle and the glowing eyes of an owl.
The robot walked across a bridge of man-made hodge-podge landscapes and came to a stop by the three on the stone peninsula.
“This is Atlas.” Shalis said as the robot bowed, “He will accompany you on your search for the Sun Child.”
“Is he the globework?”
“I am,” Atlas spoke, “the one and only.”
Shalis turned to Johnny, “Will we trace the Monoceros through hair or flesh?”
Johnny puffed out his chest and declared, “Flesh,” but his confident stature diminished as he eyed the menacing metal man.
Johnny hesitated, “By flesh I meant blood, no need to cleave off an arm or anything-”
“Atlas will be gentle.” Shalis promised.
The pirate swallowed his spit and approached the robot.
“I am programmed to be much less violent than my magnificent masters,” Atlas said but his animatronic voice offered Johnny no consolation. The robot held his hand out to Johnny and Johnny took the hand out of mere reflex. Before he knew it, Atlas had pricked the tip of his finger and had walked right back off the stone peninsula, “Please wait while I search Mystakle Planet.”
“Mystakle Planet?” Johnny remarked.
“He was made by Kenchi Kou.” Shalis explained, “The brother of a Mystakle Samurai Tenchi Kou, thus he was a fan of the Ancient Elven term and taught his masterpiece such.”
Hermes winced at the reference to the specific Samurai.
As the robot walked off the platform, a platform rose to carry him. The map assembled before him. The entire planet formed around them, from the deserts of Vinnum Tow and the tundras of Iceload to the volcanoes of Darkloe and the valleys of Sondor. Atlas shook his head, moving his arms much as one might when directing an orchestra. The parts of the map most distant from Iceload began to chip away, falling behind the face of the cartograph to insert themselves between the cracks, molding to match the terrain of the continent. Piece by piece, Iceload grew until the map consisted of only the frozen, trident-shaped landmass. Each peak of the Vanian Mountains could be counted. The snowy cliffs of the southern Gulf of Zannon were depicted in entirety, down to the tiniest, most recent chunk of stone that had chipped off and fallen into the sea.
Hermes began to laugh. Not far from Triskele Point was a miniature ship painted completely in red. His armored shoulders bounced with each ear-splitting chuckle, “Fate is smiling upon us, Shalis, they’re headed for Zviecoff.”
“You put to much faith in that silly book.” Shalis asked, “Why would they-”
“There was a minotaur with them and his name was Acamus.” Hermes answered.
“The son of Theseus…” Shalis murmured.
Hermes clasped his hands together, “The fish are swimming into the barrel.”
– – –
She was expressionless. Each secret glance Aqa gave the merman revealed no more than the first. She rode upon the giant white fox, the same form of the beast that had carried him through the submarine Wobniar Woods, and though her legs were hidden in the beast’s fur, it offered her no warmth. The creature was cold, freezing the water rushing over the edge of the bluff they stood upon. Ever so often her steed would tilt its head and watch her with one eye, as it was doing now.
It’s lips curled back into a smile and it walked over to the edge of the falls, leaning so that she could see below. A white river rolled between shelves of marble, the merman recognized it as the Etihw. She recognized something else as well. A murmur escaped the rag that gagged her.
Aqa stood watching the two before he too turned his gaze upon the river. A ship painted in the colors of the ocean and blood charged through the steamy water. At the front of the ship was a bold white unicorn, reared back with its mouth frothing. But what caught Aqa’s eyes was the small figure of a human standing on the deck. As the ship neared their vantage point, Aqa became sure that he recognized the figure.
“The pyromancer!” He said and stepped back from the cliff.
“Yes,” the fox said, peaking over the edge of the waterfall for a moment longer, “It seems he’s headed to Zviecoff.”
“Zviecoff…” Aqa muttered, “How far away is that?”
The fox rolled its muscled shoulders and stretched its neck.
“As far from us as sunrise.”
– – –
Since they left Poricoff, Acamus hadn’t stopped talking. The sleep deprivation combined with the caffeinated beverage had propelled him into a tweeky state. His ears flapped, his nose twitched, and his tongue was constantly darting out to lick his lips in between words. As if dancing to a song, though the cockatune was no where near the bridge, his hooves shifted around beneath him. Joe, Ekaf, Bold, and Zach hadn’t left the minotaur’s side for fear that the jumpy navigator might forget what he was doing and drive the vessel into the snowy ridges they sailed between. Zalfron, Machuba, and Nogard had slinked off to avoid the awkwardness of the situation and busied themselves by attempting to reorganize the obliterated storage room where they’d arrived via the Suikii days before. Every other minute, Ekaf suggested Acamus put the ship on autopilot and sit down for a moment but his comments, along with nearly everything that came out of the Knome’s mouth, fell on deaf ears. He only seemed to hear Joe and Zach and even then it seemed he only heard them when he was asking them a brief question such as:
“Want to hear another story, my friends?”
Joe looked to Zach. Zach looked to Bold. Bold looked to Ekaf. Ekaf shrugged and the shoulder-motion was transmitted back up the line to Joe who responded.
“The other day I told you of Eirene GraiLord and Perseus Muhammad,” Acamus began, “well today I shall tell you more about the ancestors of Mycenae GraiLord, the decendants of Gorgophone Icespear.”
“The Second War of the Blue Ridges?” Ekaf exclaimed, genuinely excited.
As if the Knome wasn’t there, Acamus continued, “This, my friends, is the tale of one of the greatest military victories of the GraiLord Empire, do either of you know of which I speak?”
“The Second War of the Blue Ridges!” Ekaf cried again.
For the first time since they left Triskele, Acamus didn’t twitch. The poor Knome was so flustered he stormed off into the lounge. Fighting back a grin, Joe answered, “Um…the Second War of the Blue Ridges?”
“Indeed!” Acamus proclaimed, turning to Joe with wide eyes and lips peeled back. “The tale of Solon Icespear and Flow Morain! The Tale…” he hesitated as he devised a more poetic title, “of the Furious Warlord.”