“No! Please don’t. Stop. I’ll go for you if you let Kurou live.” Ami screamed.
Yasu lowered his sword and looked up at her with a grin. “That’s more like it. Do you swear?” he asked with a low growl.
Ami nodded as the tears ran down her cheeks.
“That’s not a good answer,” Yasu roared as he raised his sword and pulled Kurou’s head for the final blow.
“Yes! Yes, I swear. I swear on the life of my unborn children. I’ll go to your field of swords and fetch this Reaper’s Toll you are talking about. I swear it. Just let Kurou go.” Ami sobbed.
Yasu grinned wickedly as he lowered his sword. Then he gave Kurou a hard shove to the ground.
Kurou groaned and rolled over to look at Yasu. “No! You must not do this. He already had the Scarlet Terzite. If you give him the sword, he will be unstoppable.”
Ami shook her head and wiped the tears from her face as she shakily to her feet. “He is already unstoppable, Kurou. He defeated all five of us without it. The others are dead or dying. I just want us to live.”
Kurou groaned and refused to look at her.
“I will not look at your face ever again if you do this.”
“I don’t care if you don’t look at me, Kurou. Just knowing that you are still alive will be enough for me. The hope that someday you will look upon me again will be enough.”
“I will never look at you again,” Kurou spat in her direction, and then moaned in pain at the movement. Then he tried to push himself up.
Yasu kicked Kurou in the ribs. Hard. Ami heard ribs crack.
“Please stop it,” she sobbed. “I already said I would fetch your stupid sword. Now, leave him alone.”
Yasu smiled as he kicked Kurou again. “I don’t trust your kind,” he growled. “If I let him up, he’ll do something that would make me want to kill him. I need him alive for you to do what I want. So, it’s best he stay down.”
The large, burly man spat at Kurou who lay groaning at his feet. “Now, go fetch me my sword you snotty, little brat.”
Ami looked up at him pleadingly, “But where is it? How do you want me to get it if you don’t tell me where it is?”
Yasu snorted, “Seriously? You expect me to believe that line. You and your friends attacked me to try and steal the Scarlet Terzite. It’s obvious you wanted it to get to the Field of Swords. Why else would you have come after me like that?”
He reached down and grabbed Kurou by the back of his coat and tossed him over his shoulder.
“Walk in front of me down this way,” he grunted while pointing down the shadowy tunnel.
Ami walked slowly shuffling her feet more than she had to just to buy some extra time.
“What about my friends back there?” she asked.
“What about them? They’re dead. You can come back and bury them after you get me my sword.”
Amy asked him a few other questions, but he didn’t answer. Yasu told her to shut up and keep walking. He paused from time to time when they came to branching tunnels as if trying to remember which way to go.
Finally, he stopped and motioned for her to step inside. She walked into a massive cavern full of exquisite stalactites and stalagmites that had formed over hundreds and thousands of years.
They came to the other side of the cavern and Yasu motioned her through a smaller tunnel that led to another smaller cavern.
A soft blue glow filled the room. It was beautiful. It emanated from a round circle in the middle of the cavern.
“What is that?” she asked.
Yasu guffawed in scorn, “Seriously, you’re still gonna play dumb and act like you don’t know what that is?”
Ami shrugged and looked at him blankly waiting patiently for his reply.
“C’mon! That’s the portal to Sechya.”
“Sechya?” Ami exclaimed. “But that is over a thousand miles away. What’s in Sechya?”
Ami’s sobbing had ceased. She seemed enthralled with the sight of the portal before her.
Yasu scoffed. “That’s where my sword is, and it is far. That’s why you need the portal.”
“But I was told portals like this were dangerous,” Ami exclaimed. “In the stories, my grandmother told me as a child there is always a trap.”
“Of course, to keep others out. Your people built this and set traps to kill my kind.”
“So, what traps are here and how do we get through it?” she asked.
“Not we! You. I’ll stay here with your friend while you fetch me the sword. And don’t even think of trying anything funny. I’ll slit your friend’s throat without thinking twice.”
Ami sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Just tell me what it looks like and how to find it. Quickly, so I can come back and help him before he bleeds out.”
Yasu kept his eyes fixed on her as he pulled a piece of folded paper out of his pocket. He held it by the corner and shook it out so that it unfolded. It was old and brown and tattered and worn.
“Wow!” Ami exclaimed as she stared at Yasu’s crude drawing of a sword. “It looks like you drew that a long time ago. Huh? How long have you been looking for this thing.”
A low growl erupted from Yasu’s throat, “Far too long. Far too long. I spent my life searching for this weapon.”
“Why?” Ami asked.
The grotesque orc stared at her a long moment before answering, “Once I have it, I will exact vengeance upon my enemies. And I will drive them away from this mountain so my people can once more live in peace from those who have enslaved us to dig out the treasures the mountain hides. Then the treasure will be ours once more.”
Ami sensed the passion emanating from him as he spoke.
“So, what does this sword do?” she asked. “Why is it so important to you? And how will it help you?”
She looked back at the portal and squinted. It seemed like she could make out the faint outline of a sword on the other side of the glowing blue light.
“It’s the sharpest blade ever forged here in these mountains. Some say it is so sharp that it could cut through the hardest rock like goat butter in the summer sun. Once I possess it, I will slice through my enemy’s ranks as none of their weapons will be able to withstand me. With the Scarlet Terzite in one hand to protect me, and the Reaper’s Toll in the other, I shall be undefeated and vanquish my enemies.”
Yasu’s low growl increased to a roar so that by the end he was shouting the words at her as his arms flailed wildly. Ami had to wipe bits of slobber from her face with her sleeves.
“Okay, okay. I get it. So, how do I get through the portal then if there are traps? I can’t even see what is on the other side.”
Yasu grinned and pulled out the Scarlet Terzite. He stepped closer to the portal. The blue glow cleared so that they could see through to the other side. Ami could see a field full of swords all stuck into the ground.
“So, that’s why they call it the field of swords,” she muttered. “How did they get there?”
“They were taken there when great warriors died. It’s a safe haven for them where they are protected from the elements until such a time as one worthy to wield them was found. Or at least that’s what the legends say. They say that the Reaper’s Toll was…”
“C’mon, I don’t have all day or Kurou is going to bleed out,” Ami interrupted him. “Let me go get the sword and then you can tell me all about it.”
Yasu cocked his head to the side and looked at her with a pleased look. “Yes, good. Go!” he commanded.
“But what about traps,” Ami asked. “What if I die going through. Then how will you get the sword.”
The orc grunted and frowned as if he hadn’t considered the possibility. “But your kind can go through there. Only I cannot. It is a trap for me.”
Ami shrugged. “Maybe, but there may be something else that triggers it too.”
Yasu smacked his face with his hands and sighed in exasperation. He walked around in a small circle and motioned her through. “Just go. I’ll take my chances. If you die, I will find someone else of your kind.”
“But you won’t have any leverage over them like you have with me and Kurou.”
“Argh!” Yaso roared. “So, what’s your plan woman. What do you suggest?”
Ami shrugged. “We should at least throw somebody through to make sure that portal won’t burn me up like it would you.”
“Haha! Very smart woman. You want me to throw your friend through first and then you will jump through and run away. I am not that stupid.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking of him. I was thinking of the body of my friend that you killed back there. You can throw her through just to make sure nothing will happen to me because I sure don’t want to die going through this portal today.
“Hmmmm…” Yasu growled. “I suppose you are right. I don’t want to have you die. Then who would get my sword for me.”
The bald-headed orc growled and ran his large rough hand over his grisly gray bread as he pondered his options for a moment.
“C’mon! Let’s go fetch the other body,” he finally said.
He threw Kurou over his shoulder and walked back through the tunnels the way they had come. When they arrived back where the fight had started, he pointed at one of the bodies on the ground.
“What?” Ami said. “You’re the big, strong orc. You can carry them both.”
“I’m not doing all the work here,” Yaso growled.
“Well, fine! But the other guy over there is smaller and lighter.”
Yaso set Kurou down and helped Ami heave his body over her shoulder. She staggered and stumbled under his weight as they walked back down the corridor. They had to stop a few times for her to set him down and catch her breath. Yaso had to set Kurou down and help her each time.
They finally made it back to the portal. It had closed again and turned blue. Ami heaved the weight she was carrying to the ground and placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath.
“Let’s go! We don’t have all day. I want my sword.” Yaso complained.
Ami pointed at the portal, “Well, first you have to open it though. Right?”
Yaso snarled at her and looked like he was about to say something but didn’t. He pulled the Scarlet Terzite from his pocket and held it in front of the portal until it cleared. He nodded for her to continue.
Ami picked up her friend’s arm and held it by the sleeve as she tried to push it through.
“It’s not going through,” she huffed. “Maybe he has to go through with the Scarlet Terzite.”
The orc snorted and his nostrils flared. “I’m not giving you the Scarlet Terzite, woman.”
“Well, do you want me to get through this portal or not?” she asked. “You’ve never actually used it before, have you?”
He slapped his thick orc hands to his face and roared as he turned away for a moment. Finally, he turned back and handed it to her.
“Fine, take it. But remember what I’ll do to your friend here if you try anything foolish.”
Ami took the red crystal pendant and placed it in her friend’s hand before pushing it through the portal.
“Be careful,” Yaso yelped. “If it falls out on the other side, we may be stuck her without being able to fetch it.”
Ami looked at him with a scowl but then paused for a second to wrap the chain around her friend’s hand so she could pull his arm back through when needed. Then she pushed his arm right on through the portal.
The orc breathed a giant sigh of relief behind her. He was so close that the sound and feel of his warm breath down her neck startled her so that she almost fell through herself. She jumped back, pulling her friend’s arm and the Scarlet Terzite back with her.
“What are you waiting for? Go on!” Yaso berated her.
“Calm down, orc. It’s my life on the line. I want to make sure there aren’t any of those traps that are going to go off after we get him all the way through. Help me turn him around so we can push his whole body through.”
The orc shook his head, “Not me. I’ve seen what it does to other orcs that get too close to this thing. Other orcs have tried before me. I’ve seen it. It was built to keep us orcs from going through to the other side.”
“So, how did you know that the Scarlet Terzite would get me through,” Ami asked.
Yaso shrugged, “My friend and I overheard two of your kind talking. They said the Scarlet Terzite would open the portal to the Field of a Thousand Swords. So, we took it from them. My friend tried to go through the portal. And it turned him into a pile of mush and goop.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ami said after a quiet pause. “Let’s push his feet through first.”
“Don’t let the Scarlet Terzite go through,” the orc rumbled in his all-too-familiar growl as he turned her friend around. The orc gave her friend a slight shove through the portal so he was about halfway through.
Ami lifted his upper body up and pushed him the rest of the way through while holding onto his arm. She let his limp body flop through to the other side of the portal and pulled the Scarlet Terzite off his hand at the last second.
“It works,” she shouted with a glance back at the orc.
He waved her forward and she took a step through. The shimmer around the portal had disappeared and the air was completely clear as if the very fabric that separated the two locations no longer existed.
Ami held up her face to the warm sun that she was now standing under and paused with her arms lifted up over her head.
“Hey! Get the sword,” she heard the orc yelling at her.
She turned and grinned at him. “Hang on to your horses there you impatient imp! Do you know how long I’ve been down in that cave and since I’ve felt the rays of the sun warming my body?”
Ami saw his face fill with rage and he flinched as if he were going to leap through the portal at her. She just grinned and looked back at the field around her.
It was full of pink and white flowers. Dozens of swords stuck up out of the ground around them with their sheaths beside them.
She pulled a sword out of the ground and waved it in the air around with masterful skill. She picked up its sheath and slid the sword into it. Then placed it on her side.
Ami turned and smiled at the orc. “Come get your sword, Yaso. I have no idea which one it is, but I think I’m going to keep this one.”
“What?” the orc shouted in a thunderous roar. “I’m going to chop off your friend’s head.”
He slid his sword from its sheath and reached down to grab Kurou’s head in a threatening gesture.
Ami just smiled and shrugged her shoulders as she placed the Scarlet Terzite around her neck.
“Go ahead. You can’t get to me. I’m safe. Do what you want to with him because I didn’t care for him much in the first place.”
The look of shock on the orc’s face at realizing he had been had was classic. He screamed and threw his sword at her. Ami easily dodged it and just kept laughing.
“C’mon, Hibiki!” she said kicking at the body of her friend. “You can get up now. No, need to keep acting.”
Hibiki opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Whew! That was close. I almost threw up when that stinky orc got close to me to help you pick me up.”
He reached a hand up and Ami helped pull him to his feet. “You always were a good actor.”
They glanced over at the orc who had a befuddled look on his face as he tried to process what was going on.
“What?!” Kurou yelled. “You’re going to leave me here to die.”
Ami shrugged. “Sorry, Kurou. That crazy orc would kill us all anyway if we gave him what we wanted. This is what we came for. Right? Our task was to get the Scarlet Terzite and come through the portal. I saw that Hibiki wasn’t really dead like the others. He had only passed out. I just had to improvise after Yaso bested you to get us over here.”
Yaso took a step forward and growled at them, “Careful, woman. You swore an oath on the life of your unborn children that you would get me that sword. Your word is your honor.”
Ami smiled wistfully, “Truth is, that I can’t have kids, Yaso. My doctor told my parents that years ago. So, that’s not something I’ll have to worry about. Is it?”
Yaso let off a string of thunderous curse words in his language that Ami had no idea what he was saying, although she imagined they were probably pretty foul as he took another step forward.
“Careful, Yaso!” the woman cautioned. “You don’t want to turn into a pile of goop and slime like your friend. Do you?”
He held up his hand and pushed it forward slowly. It came through the edge of the portal without anything happening to him. Ami and Hibiki took a nervous step back.
“It seems the portal is wide open. I think you forgot to close it behind you, little lady.” the orc said with a smirk. “When you called me an imp, I almost went into a rage and close enough to sense that the portal’s protection was no longer blocking me.”
Ami pressed closer to Hibiki and whispered for him to grab a sword while she covered him. She began to slide her sword out of its sheath. Hibiki lunged for the nearest sword sticking up out of the ground. But the orc was still faster.
He closed the gap between them and grabbed the hilt of her sword with one hand and slapped her to the side with the other.
The orc spun around and lashed out the tip of Ami’s sword clean through Hibiki’s wrist whose hand fell off still holding the sword he had tried to grab.
Hibiki fell to his knees screaming and clutching his wounded arm with his good hand.
Yaso walked over to the woman who lay sprawled on the ground where she had landed. “What was it that you said about improvising?” he smirked as he circled her.
He waited in front of her as she pulled herself to her knees. Ami had landed on top of a sword and pulled it up behind her back. Hoping that the orc wouldn’t see the tip until she had a chance to use it. Waiting for him to come closer.
Yaso didn’t disappoint. He got right up close in her face. Grinning with that taunting smile.
“Thank you for opening the portal, Ami. Now, I can find my sword myself. This turned out much better than I expected. In fact, I think I see it sticking up right over there.”
As he turned to point to the side, Ami swung her sword out from behind her back and shoved the weapon up into his chest as hard as she could.
He looked down at her in shock. “You don’t cease to amaze me, human. For a female of your kind, you are very resilient and so full of surprises. Too bad you are not one of us. I would take you for my wife. There would never be a dull moment with you around.”
Ami waited for him to step back or fall forward. But when he smiled, she looked down at the sword she had shoved at his chest. She pulled it back. Then sighed in frustration when she realized that the blade had broken.
The orc pushed his fingers through the hole the sword had made in his shirt, exposing the hard leather and chainmail protection he was wearing. He continued holding on to Ami with the other hand.
A glimmer of sunlight flickered in Ami’s eyes and bright flash accompanied by a swishing sound of sweeping sword before it connected with the orc’s thick arm. The orc screamed and let go of Ami immediately.
She fell back to the ground and saw Hibiki looking just as a shocked as the orc did.
“A hand for a hand, and a wrist for a wrist, you orc scum,” Hibiki shouted in gleeful anguish. “No protection there. Huh?”
The orc’s arms were thick and strong, and Hibiki only had one arm to swing the sword with. So, it hadn’t cut clean through the orc flesh and bone but gotten stuck about half way through.
The orc grabbed the handle of the sword with his good hand and roared as he pulled it loose.
“Your kind should know better than to mess with someone like me. You’re weak and pathetic. That’s why I didn’t kill you in the beginning but let you live. I should have followed my instincts and cut your heads off right from the start.” he spat at Ami who was scrambling to get away from him on all fours.
Hibiki was limping over to pick up another sword. He turned to face the orc with his sword pointed in its face. But the orc swatted it to the side. His powerful arm were no match for his scrawnier, punier opponent’s.
Even though he only had one, good arm to swing with, he drew his sword back and brought it straight down on Hibiki’s head, cleaving through his skull.
Yaso didn’t even try to pull it free. He left it there and turned to go after Ami before she became a threat. She had found a sword and was turning around, but Yaso didn’t even bother finding another weapon to face her with.
He simply dodged her attack and swatted her arm in the opposite direction. She attempted to recover and swing back in the other direction. But before she could come back around, the orc smashed her across the face.
Ami fell hard. The sword fell beside her. She lifted her head to look for it, but the world swirled around her from the pain of the blow. She felt around for the sword, but by time her fingers found it, the orc had already stomped his giant foot down on it.
Yaso bent over and swatted her hand away. He picked the sword by the handle, then wiped his face with the back of his other hand. He wiped away the sweat, but ended up smearing blood from his wounded arm which only made matters worse.
The orc spat to the side and stared down at Ami with so much hatred that she could almost feel the rage emanating from him.
“I rue ever considering accepting your offer to get the sword in exchange for your friend’s life,” he growled as he flipped the sword in his hand so the blade faced down.
Yaso raised it over her throat for the final blow. Ami raised her arm and turned her face to protect herself.
She heard the sound of metal slicing through flesh. She felt the splatter of warm blood across her face and body. But she felt no pain.
Ami pulled her arm back and looked up to see Yaso with a large blade sticking out of his throat and another through the middle of his chest.
He dropped his sword and reached up to feel the blade coming through his flesh.
The orc continued to look at her in disbelief as he tried to understand what had just happened. He turned around slowly to face Kurou before falling to his knees.
“What? How?” he said as he fingered the sword coming through the breastplate in his chest.
“I guess you were right about the Reaper’s Toll cutting through anything,” Kurou said before bringing a third sword across the orc’s neck. It took three or four hacks for Kurou to chop off.
“Do you think he’s really dead?” Kurou asked as he pulled the Reaper’s Toll from the orc’s chest.
Then Kurou came over and bent over Ami. She smiled at him and sat up trying to hug him.
“Oh, Kurou! I’m so glad you’re safe.” she said with a sob.
“Oh, save it, woman. Your tears don’t fool me anymore.” he said as he pulled the Scarlet Terzite from her neck. “You left me back there for dead.”
He stood up and walked away. Ami scrambled to her feet.
“Wait! Where are you going? I’m coming with you.”
“I’m going to finish my mission. You can go back to whatever hole you crawled out of before I found you.” he growled.
Ami fell to her knees.
“No, please don’t leave me. Stop. I’ll go with you and fight with you!” Ami screamed after him.
Kurou turned and smiled at the irony of her words before stepping back through the portal and closing it behind him.
“Pssst! Hey Anwar, come over here.” Anwar whispered loudly across the abandoned, old junkyard.
Muhamed looked up from the pile of junk that he had been quietly digging through and set down a handful of trash that he had been sorting. He brushed off his hands and opened his backpack. Then placed a few items that he had set to the side that he deemed worth keeping into the old, greenish-brown backpack he had picked up a few weeks ago on the other side of the junkyard.
It was old but practical. Everyone had wanted the backpack. Some had asked him for it. Others tried to trade something else for the large bag. Imram had even offered him fifty Syndicate Pieces that were commonly referred to as the Haoding. But Muhamad had turned them down.
Having the larger, sturdier bag meant he could carry more than twice the amount of stuff back to the underground village easier. It had already paid for itself in the short time he had it.
Muhamed packed his items carefully inside the bag and closed it. Then he slid it over his shoulders before heading over to Anwar.
“What is it?” he whispered quietly while trying to figure out what it was exactly that Anwar had found.
“It’s an AIX-49, silly!” Anwar retorted in an aggravated but hushed tone.
Muhamed squinted and stooped closer for a better look. He could see an arm and part of its side where Anwar had pulled away the surrounding trash.
“I don’t know what an AIX-49 is, but I’m sure you can scavenge some of its parts for a fair amount of Haoding from the hackers over in Pagarh.”
He started to walk away, but Anwar grabbed onto his leg and pulled him back.
“Where are you going? Help me get it out. I want to take it down there whole. Not just a few pieces. I’m sure it will be worth much more this way.”
Muhamad scowled at the thought of all the work it would take to dig the robot out and drag it back to camp. “You should just cover it up and go see if you can find anyone interested in it before going to all that trouble. Besides, we only have a few hours left before dark, and I still have to meet my quota. I haven’t found much of anything that will interest the quartermaster.”
Now it was Anwar’s turn to scowl. “But someone else may find it and dig it out before we return. C’mon, help me out. I’ve already had more than my quota for the day. I’ll share it with you. Hurry up and help me claim it before Annisa gets here.”
The younger boy glanced over his shoulder and saw the lithe young, dark-haired girl coming around a pile of twisted metal over to his left. He sighed and threw himself down onto the dirty heap of rubbish that Anwar had been sifting through.
“Fine, I’ll help you. But I don’t like it. I’ve never heard of an AIX-49, but if they are anything like the Mechans, then it’s dangerous to even be messing around with.” he whispered hoarsely as he grudgingly began clearing trash and debris away from the machine.
“What did you boys find?” Annisa whispered when she came up behind them.
“An AIX-49,” Anwar said proudly with a big grin. “It’s what the previous generation of Mechanized Human Control Technology was composed of. They were…”
“I know what an AIX-49 is, silly. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m stupid.” Annisa said with a scoffing laugh.
“Muhamad didn’t know what one was,” Anwar said with a quiet laugh as he jabbed his friend in the ribs. “And she does.”
Muhamad blushed but kept right on digging as if he hadn’t heard. Annisa crouched down and began helping Muhamad pull away the twisted metal and debris that surrounded the AIX-49. Anwar pushed her shoulder and took her place helping Muhamad move a chunk of metal.
“Go on, Annisa. Find your own scraps to meet your quota. This won’t count as much for quota, and we don’t have enough for you.” Anwar growled in a low voice.
“Quota! You have an AIX-49 that looks like it’s in decent condition, and you’re worried about meeting your quota. What’s wrong with you? Do you know how much this is worth?” she shrieked louder than she had intended.
Anwar slapped his hand over her mouth, “Shhh! Keep it down. You’ll attract the mechans. And yes, we’re going to sell the AIX-49 at the market tomorrow.”
Annisa scoffed again, “At the market, silly boy? You won’t get a tenth of what it’s worth at the market. They’ll only give you what it’s worth in scraps.”
“And you know where to sell it for more?” Anwar asked while trying to keep the hopeful plea out of his voice.
“I do. I have a friend who has an acquaintance. They are willing to pay ten thousand haoding for an AIX-49 or something equivalent.”
Anwar’s jaw dropped and his eyes glazed over as he visualized how he would spend all that money. Muhamad didn’t believe her and asked, “Why are they willing to pay that much for an old Mechan like this?”
She shrugged. “They didn’t say what they wanted it for, but from what I gathered they found a way to hack these things and convert them into fighting for us.”
“And you’ll help us negotiate a good deal with your friends?” Anwar asked.
“Fine,” Anwar agreed while nodding at Muhamad. “We’ll give you ten percent of the price you help us get for it.”
“What?! No way, I want at least fifty. You won’t get anything without my help.” she said with a smirk.
“What?!” Anwar screeched. “But I found it.”
“No,” Muhamad retorted. “We’ll split it evenly three ways.”
“What?!” Anwar screeched again as he turned to face Muham
d. “But I found it. I should get fifty percent and then thirty for each of you.”
Annisa looked at Muhamad and laughed, “Boys, boys, boys. Math never was your strong suit in school. Was it? I’m leaving. Have fun digging your stupid AIX-49 out from under there. It’s probably no good anyway.”
Anwar leaped forward and grabbed her by the arm to stop her. “Fine, we split it equally three ways. But your friends better be legit.”
Annisa smiled and pulled her hair back. Muhamad slung his backpack off to the side under some shade. They began to work quickly to dig out the AIX-49 before it got dark. None of them wanted to be out after the sun went down.
The three worked tirelessly for a while to free the Mechan from the rubble and debris. Muhamad cleared the dirt and debris from around its face. Carefully brushing and blowing at dirt and bugs that filled the lines and crevices of its face and head.
Its face was completely black with a red rim around the top and backside of his head. Robotic sensors and antennas drew back from its head like braids of hair. It didn’t look anything like the modern-day Mechans that he was familiar with.
“What’s that?” Anwar asked from where he was working around the AIX-49’s feet. Muhamad looked over to Annisa who was reading off of a black rectangular object she had picked up.
“I thought it was trash and almost tossed it to the side. But it looks like it’s some kind of power supply,” she said with a shrug. “It might belong to this little baby here.”
Anwar grabbed it from her to read what it said. Annisa tried to grab it back from him and they wrestled for a brief second, but Anwar was bigger and stronger. He yanked it away and held it over his head. The girl pushed him and kicked at his ankles. He just laughed and moved away.
“It looks like it might fit right here,” Muhamad said, pointing to a hole in its head.
Annis and Anwar stepped in for a closer look. Muhamad reached out his hand and Anwar grudgingly handed it over to him. It took a few tries of pushing and twisting until he got it in the right spot and the piece clicked into place.
A greenish-white light lit up the circle around the AIX-49’s face and moved around in a clockwise rotation. Greenish-white lights also lit up along its shoulders.
“Stop! Turn it off.” Annisa hissed as she tried to push her way forward to pull the battery back out. Muhamad had already tried, but there was no way to get a grip on it to pull it out.
There was a loud hissing and vapor started coming up from underneath the AIX-49’s body.
“It’s gonna blow!” Annisa screamed as she and Anwar fled.
Muhamad raced over to grab his backpack but tripped in the process and fell down in a tangled mess. When he pushed himself up, the AIX-49 was already looming over him.
It reached down with its right hand which Muhamad realized was a sharply pointed claw. It hooked into his shirt and pulled him up onto his feet. The AIX-49 drew him close. Muhamad could hear soft whirring noises as if it were analyzing his face.
Muhamad looked around for his friends, but they were nowhere in sight. “Help! C’mon guys. Do something.” he yelled as he tried to pull himself free.
Just then he heard a loud shrill whistle waft across the junkyard. The warning whistle. Mechans were on their way. Most likely attracted by the commotion of Annisa’s screams and the Muhamad’s ruckus with this stupid AIX thing.
He could hear the faint whirring of the drones as came searching through the smog. Muhamad kicked at the AIX-49 and pulled desperately to get free from its claw. But its grip was too strong.
The AIX-49 looked up in the direction of the drones as they came into view. It cocked its head to the side and analyzed them as it had been doing to the boy. The normally aggressive drones paused as if confused by the sight of the AIX-49 and weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
After a few moments, the two drones moved on and continued to search the area. The AIX-49 continued to stand there holding Muhamad while watching the drones float around the area.
One of the drones paused its long, slow circle over the area. Then zipped down toward a pile of junk. Muhamad heard Annisa scream and the loud clatter of junk clattering as she jumped out of her hiding place. She came racing around the trash heap toward Muhamad and the AIX-49.
The drone didn’t have to circle around. It came straight up over the top and cut her off just in front of Muhamad. The faint whirring sound grew louder as it came lower in their direction. Annisa was stuck between two large heaps of junk and had nowhere else to run except back the way she had come.
The small girl turned to flee back in the direction she had just come from only to realize that the second drone had cut off her escape route. She glanced forward and then backward between the two before glancing over at Muhamad who could see the defeat in her eyes as she fought back the tears.
Muhamad tried to pull himself free again. He wanted to do something to help Annisa, but the AIX-49 held him back. He turned back and swung the fleshy, underpart of his fist at its head. But it didn’t do any good. His hand bounced off without even phasing the Mechan. Muhamad took another swing at the Mechan.
After his third swing, Muhamad felt out of breath. He took a fourth swing, but his arm felt heavy and his head felt dizzy. The AIX-49’s tight grip twisting his shirt and jacket up around his neck. Muhamad felt his legs get heavy and go weak as well.
The AIX-49 turned its attention back to the lad and said in a low voice, “When I let go of you, grab the girl and run for cover as fast as you can.”
Muhamad tried to focus and even answer, but his vision started to darken around the edges as he began to blackout. All he could do though was gasp for breath. The AIX-49 suddenly let go of him and leaped into the air.
It seemed to float up toward the closest drone now hovering over Annisa. The drone quickly shifted its attention from the girl and spun to meet the oncoming Mechan. It attempted to float up higher as it moved away from the oncoming AIX-49.
The Mechan had either calculated the drone’s movement or could fly because it continued moving over Annisa’s head along with the floating bot.
The boy wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was really true or just a dream he was having after passing out. He took a step forward in Annisa’s direction. But his legs buckled under him and he fell to his knees.
He took a ragged, gasping breath before glancing up as he pulled himself back up onto his feet. The Mechan had pulled a large sword with a glowing, white blade that seemed to crackle with electricity that it pulled from the air around it.
The AIX-49 brought it down over the drone. The sword seemed to cut through the large drone as if it were warm butter. The drone fell to the ground in two pieces just past Annisa. It turned its attention toward the second drone. And leaped towards it. But it had already turned and was floating over a large heap of trash.
The girl came to her senses and raced toward Muhamad. “C’mon, Muhamad. Let’s get out of here,” she panted in a hushed voice.
But Muhamad didn’t listen. He moved over to where the two halves of the drone lay still quietly clicking and hissing as it tried to move around. He slung the backpack down and managed to slide it into the bag. But it wasn’t big enough to hold them both. So, he picked it up in his arms and tried to carry it.
“What are you doing, Muhamad?” the girl hissed. “We have to get out of here. That thing will be coming back at any minute.”
“Do you know what this thing is worth?” he exclaimed excitedly.
“You’re not going to be able to run and carry that thing. And I’m not gonna dawdle around here while you try to drag that thing back to camp.”
Just then Anwar came out of the heap of trash he had managed to hide under. “It doesn’t seem too heavy. Just put it over your shoulder and run with it. When you get tired, I’ll switch and help you carry it. We’ll trade it off and on until we get back home.”
Annisa let out a gasp of exasperation, “We need to run home before that thing comes back and chops us up with its sword. I can’t help you carry that thing if I’m dead.”
She took off on a dead run through the heaps of grimy trash that lay smothered in the dark smog.
“Annisa’s right. It’ll slow us down. We can come back for it later.
Muhamad shrugged the second half of the drone at the base of a trash heap and threw some smaller junk around it to camouflage it. Anwar started to protest, but then helped throw trash around it too.
Then they both broke into a quick trot toward the camp. Muhamad was moving along at a pretty good pace, even though he was hugging and puffing a lot harder than Anwar. They were about halfway home when Anwar tugged on the backpack to take it from him.
Muhamad paused briefly to shrug it off his back when they heard the crunch of footsteps in the gravel. Both boys spun toward it. The AIX-49 swung its blazing sword at their outstretched arms holding onto the backpack.
They both let go and fell backward as they scrambled to get away from the Mechan. It stood there looking at them. Muhamad stood to his feet first when he realized that the sword had sliced the straps clean off the backpack.
“What did you do?” he squealed out chastising the Mechan as he waved the straps in front of its face.
“You shouldn’t take that back with you. They’ll be able to track it right to you.”
The Mechan reached down and pulled the drawstring that held the bag shut. He shook the drone’s half out onto the ground. He stuck his sword inside of it and sliced off a piece. Then picked it up with the hook of his other hand.
“This is the tracking device. I’ll take it with me to lead any others away from you. You can do what you want with the rest.”
Anwar finally stood to his feet. “You…you aren’t going to kill us. Or take us prisoners?” he stammered.
The AIX-49 chortled. It was a strange robotic sound, but the boys still recognized it as a laugh. They looked at him blankly.
“What?! C’mon. Don’t you boys recognize me?” it asked waving its sword around wildly in the air above its head before striking a pose with its hook hand on its hip and the sword pointed off over its left shoulder.
The two boys looked at each other and shook their heads before looking back at the AIX-49. Its light seemed to dim a bit and its shoulders sagged as it lowered the sword.
“Weird! We are on Autox. Right?” it asked.
The boys nodded.
“And this is Ayukana. Right?” it asked again.
The boys looked at each other quizzically and nodded again.
“So, it’s me. Gage, the AIXtron. Surely, you’ve heard of me. Right?”
This time the boys shook their heads. The so-called, self-named AIXtron looked around at the heaps of rubbish around it. Then up at the sky. It looked down at the drown at its feet. It sighed with a loud hissing sound as smoke rolled out of its back.
“What year are we in? How long have I been down here?” it asked.
“5781,” the boys both replied simultaneously.
“I have heard legends of a Mechan that defended us and led our troops into battle back during the uprising. But that was a long time ago.” Muhamad added.
The Mechan sat down and looked off into the distance. “That was long before either of you was born. I didn’t realize that I had been out so long since that last battle against…”
Gage stood to its feet. “No matter. Return to your camps quickly before more drones come. The next ones won’t be snooper drones, but full-on attack drones. Tell your people about me. If any of them remember me, tell them to light the fires of Pagarh. I’ll be around. Tell them I’m ready to take up the fight again. And only this time I won’t lose.”
Muhamad and Anwar raced back to camp excitedly. They told everyone that they knew about the AIX-49. Most of them just laughed and called the boys crazy. But a few of the elders cried when they heard the boys’ story.
“Yes,” they said. “We remember this Mechan. He was a mighty warrior. We almost defeated the Mechans. But they managed to defeat him. We thought he had been destroyed.”
Their hope was rekindled. And they rekindled the fires of Pagarh. Waiting for the return of their once valiant hero whom they hoped would once again return to save them.
Kemp smiled at Deloris. “This is it, doll. Today, we put our work to the test. We prove that time travel is possible.”
“Or not,” she retorted. “I keep telling you that I don’t have a good feeling about this. I don’t think we’re ready.”
The red-headed man with three-days of unshaven, orange scruff scoffed, “This is science, baby. We don’t have room for feelings or thoughts. Only data and cold, hard facts.”
“Yes, but those cryptic messages that you keep receiving back through your ‘time machine’ sound more like a Nigerian scammer than someone from the future. I keep telling you I got a bad feeling about this. We should let someone know.”
“And let them get all the credit? No, way! I worked hard for this. But don’t worry, as soon as I get back, we’ll let the higher-ups know. Okay?”
“And what if you don’t come back? Or what if something worse happens?”
“Oh, c’mon, Deloris. For crying out loud. Why do you have to be such a pessimist? Can’t you just be positive for once? Especially on a day like today. Sheesh.”
The dark-haired woman’s eyes flashed fire and fury. But she bit her tongue and frowned. She turned back to the console so he wouldn’t see her wipe away the hot tear brought by his scathing remark.
Kemp sat down at the opposite terminal and began typing furiously away at the keyword while humming a tune off-key. She had once thought it cute. Now, it irritated her.
Deloris regretted ever bringing this idea to Kemp in the first place. He had seemed like such a nice guy at the time. But the man had changed as their work progressed.
The man walked over and stood under the portal. He shoved a lock of red hair from off his forehead. Checking the wires to make sure everything was connected properly.
Kemp began taking over the project like it had been his idea in the first place. He became more arrogant and bossy with each progressive discovery. Never mind that it was her ideas that brought about each breakthrough. But he never acknowledged that it was her input that got them to where they were.
Deloris watched as he moved to the monitors to make a few final adjustments.
She couldn’t believe that she had once been in love with Kemp. At least not this version of him. Deloris had seriously considered walking away many times, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of taking credit for her ideas and everything she had done.
Kemp came back to his terminal and threw himself in his chair with a smug, satisfied grin. He typed furiously away again.
No, Deloris had a better idea in mind. Once this time machine worked, she would go back in time and warn herself not to let Kemp in on the project. And she would bring herself the blueprint so she could accelerate the development process.
Finally, Kemp spun around in his chair and announced that they were ready to begin. She nodded in agreement. Still lost in thought.
Deloris wondered briefly how she would manage without him. There were things that she needed him for. Granted, the ideas were hers even though he was the one who actually executed them. But why did he have to be such a douche and take all the credit?
“Earth to Deloris. Are you there? Are you ready? It’s go time, woman. Let’s get a move on it, woman.”
She scowled at him. “Of course, I’m ready.”
“Sheesh, girl. You don’t have to be so touchy. What’s wrong with you today?”
Deloris bit her tongue. She would definitely go back in time and remove him from the project. She could find some other person to take his place. It was a time machine, after all. She could go back as many times as she needed until she found the right person.
The thought crossed her mind that he might come back with her idea and try to remove her from the timeline. She would have to act quickly. As soon as this thing worked today, she would send her past self a message three years earlier. The day she met Kemp.
“C’mon, D!” Kemp said right behind her ear.
Deloris jumped. She hadn’t been paying attention and seen him come up beside her.
“Oh, that’s cute. You’re just doodling my name on that paper. You surprise me sometimes, Deloris. I thought you were angry at me.”
Kemp didn’t wait for a reply. He rushed over to stand in the portal.
“Okay, I’m ready when you are. Fire away,” the man ordered.
Deloris fingered the keyboard. Prepared to start the process. But then paused.
“We never talked about when I should send you?” she said.
“Just send me back five minutes into the past,” he said impatiently.
“But wouldn’t we have seen you already? You should have appeared five minutes ago.”
“Of course not, babe. Because you haven’t pushed the button yet.”
“But in the future, I have.”
“Well, you obviously haven’t. Otherwise, I would already be here.” Kemp retorted.
“Maybe the machine doesn’t really work the way we think,” she said thoughtfully. “I really don’t think we should open this time portal without some security measures in place.”
“C’mon, woman. Not again. We’ve gone over this a million times. Let’s just get on with this already,” he sighed in exasperation. “Nothing can go wrong. We can always go back and undo this if something goes wrong.”
“We really need to inform the board.”
“They won’t let us proceed and tie us up for another ten years. Don’t you want to find out what happened before you were born, and what will happen in the future?”
“We need to get some security guards in here.”
“Why? Do you think I’m gonna come back any crazier than I already am?”
“We need to have an emergency crew in place.”
“Nothing is going to happen. It’ll be fine. The messages have been telling us exactly what to do till now. That’s how we made it this far. If we don’t hurry up, they might get tired of waiting and send their messages farther back in time to someone else.”
“Yes, but what if those messages weren’t really from our future selves?”
“Oh, c’mon, lady. Don’t start now. You’ve never brought these questions up before even though you’ve considered them. You want this just as badly as I do. Why are you bringing them up now? Sheesh. C’mon. I’m the one that’s putting my neck on the line here. And I’m prepared to accept the risk. All you have to do is push the button. Just go ahead and push it already!”
Kemp’s voice increased in volume and frustration.
“No!” Deloris replied firmly. “This was my idea, and it’s my project. I’m not going to let you ruin it.”
“What? Your project? Since when? We both worked on it together. And your idea? What are you talking about? I’m the one who told you about my discovery of these Flashing Roumbernites deep in those French caves that I discovered. Before I ever met you. I showed you my team’s research about its effects on time and space. Before I even knew you existed. So, if you think that your bright idea of harnessing all my previous research means you own this project, you are completely mistaken, buddy. Now, push that button already and send me back in time.”
“You just happened to travel to France? Just happened to go down into some mysterious cave that you’ve never revealed its location? And just happened to discover Flashing Roumbernites?” Deloris spat.
“Yes. Of course,” Kemp replied.”What are you insinuating? That the messages told me where to find the Flashing Roumbernites? That would have been impossible. We didn’t start receiving messages until after we found it.”
“And until I came up with the time travel idea,” Deloris pouted.
“No, we received the first message before you came up with that idea,” he growled.
“No, it’s not,” she whined.
Kemp sighed in exasperation. “It’s easy to prove. We can go back and look at my journal. I’ve recorded every important idea, detail, and even there.”
The man stomped down from under the carved ring of Flashing Roumbernite. He stormed over to his computer and pulled up his logs. Kemp clicked through various links and scrolled down the page.
“Look here,” he gloated. “I found it. Dated January 23rd.”
He scrolled down a bit more before reading out loud, “A mysterious item materialized out of nowhere beside the Flashing Roumbernite today. As we discussed the strange event over dinner, Deloris suggested that someone might be using it to contact us from the future. Our initial hypothesis is that we might be able to harness its strange properties to contact whoever sent this and eventually be able to connect with them. She is such an intelligent woman. I love the way her mind works.”
“Really?” Deloris asked.
“Really, what?” Kemp replied.
“Do you think I’m an intelligent woman? Do you really love the way my mind works?”
“Of course, doll. You know, I do. Why would you even doubt that?”
“Because you never tell me those kinds of things? You don’t tell me how you feel about me. About us.”
“What? Oh, c’mon. Sure we have our ups and downs. But you know I love you. I’d do anything for you.”
“Sure, babe. Why else do you think I listen to your crazy time-traveling ideas and work my tail off to make it actually work?”
Deloris shrugged, “I don’t know. You don’t listen to me and make fun of my ideas. You do things your own way.”
“I do what it takes to make things happen. Most of the time, I know that what you are suggesting won’t work, but I understand what you want, and I get the end result you want. So, I get the result you want, even if I don’t do it the way you’re telling me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“Well, it makes you seem arrogant and better than others. You make these snide remarks that make me want to cry.”
“Oh, grow up, girl. That’s just the way I am. You should know that better than anybody. That’s the way I am with everyone.”
“But I’m not everyone,” she pouted.
“I know, baby. Or course not. Come here.”
Kemp reached out and gave her a long hug. She buried her face in his shoulder. Relief and joy washing away the anxiety and resentment that had been building up over the past few weeks.
Deloris took a deep breath and wiped the corner of her eye before looking back up.
“Thanks, Kemp. I needed to hear that,” she sighed softly. “I didn’t think you liked me anymore.”
“Of course, I like you. I love you.”
“Really?” she asked again. Pleading for assurance.
“Of course. I keep saying that. What do I have to do to prove it to you?”
“Don’t initiate the time portal. Not till we get make sure this is what it really seems.”
Kemp scowled and threw himself back in the chair, “I thought you’d want something easy. Like a diamond ring. Look, I already bought one. Just so you know. I was going to give it to you as soon as this project was a success. C’mon. We’re so close.”
Now, it was Deloris’ turn to sit back. “What? You really bought me a ring? You want to marry me?”
“Yes, doll. You’re the only woman I’ve ever wanted to marry. We think so much alike. We can do great things together. We belong together.”
“Fine. Just to wrap up this phase of the project. For the record, though, I don’t like this. ot one bit. I don’t think we should do this. I have a bad feeling about this. I still think we should wait.”
“Duly noted, my dear. Just one more quick experiment, and then we’ll take some time off to document and publish our research. We’ll be famous. After we’ll get married in Greece. Honeymoon in Bora Bora. When we get back, we’ll pick up where we left off. Everyone will know what we are doing. That’ll give them time to set up security measures in place. How does that sound?”
“Yeah. I like it,” Deloris replied with a smile. “I guess we do have to prove that our theory actually works. Otherwise, no one will believe us. Worse, we’ll just be the laughing stock of the scientific community.”
“I love the way your mind works there, little lady. But don’t worry. This will work.”
“No, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that it might not work the way we think. Or that we might not even get it right the first time. It took Thomas Edison ten thousand tries to create the first light bulb.”
“Stop being such a pessimist,” Kemp growled. “Think positive. Besides, old Thomas didn’t have someone on the other side telling him how to create his light bulbs. I think we stand a much better chance of success. C’mon.”
Kemp jumped up and bounced around like a young boy on Christmas day. It made Deloris smile. Maybe she was just being a pessimist. It had almost cost her a future wedding. If he hadn’t taken the time to say all this now, she would have changed the past as soon as he got back.
Deloris breathed a sigh of relief as she settled back into her seat. She waited for Kemp to get into position.
“I’m gonna ask one last time. You sure you want to go through with this? We can run some other tests first.” she asked.
“Yes. I am absolutely positive. We’ve already discussed this. Any other test has so many variables that we wouldn’t be sure of the results. The only way to be certain of the outcome is for one of us to actually experience it.”
“Fine,” Deloris sighed. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I won’t,” Kemp said, flashing his super charming smile.
It was what she called his fake smile. She knew it was just as nervous as she was, even though he acted so positive and upbeat. He didn’t fool her any.
“Okay. We’re ready,” she said.
Kemp gave her two thumbs up.
“Three. Two. One,” Deloris counted down before pressing a large, red button to initiate the portal.
Just as the instructions they received in their previous message had stated, a soft glow began to fill the portal around Kemp.
But something else she didn’t expect began to take place as well. Long bolts of blueish-white light began to flow out in all directions. It frightened her.
Deloris stood up to get a better view of what was going on but then cowered back down when the beams moved in her direction.
“What’s going on, Kemp!” she shouted with her voice quavering nervously.
Frightened, Kemp didn’t move. He stood absolutely still. Waiting for things to calm down.
“I think you’d better shut it down, Deloris,” he thundered. “Something isn’t right.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do!” she replied desperately.
Deloris typed furiously to close down the program. But nothing seemed to be working. She tried to shut it down manually, but that didn’t work either. She was growing increasingly nervous.
She looked up to where he was pointing. The power source. Deloris ran over and unplugged the system. Nothing happened.
“It’s not working,” she shouted.
“Hit the circuit breaker panel like I showed you,” he ordered.
Deloris ran over and flipped all the smaller switches. The lights and computer monitors began going off one by one. What that was done, she flipped the main breaker.
All the lights were out. The computer monitors off.
And yet the portal area within the Flashing Roumbernite continued to glow softly. The electrical field around it hummed softly. The bolts of light continued to flow and move around the room as if searching for a place to connect.
Kemp seemed to be safe within the portal, but Deloris had to dodge a roving beam moving in her direction.
“I think you’d better get in here with me, where it’s safe, Deloris.”
He stretched out his hand in her direction. She hesitated a moment but then reached out her hand to move toward him. Shuffling her way through the glowing darkness. But as she got closer, Deloris realized that he was fading away in front of her.
“Kemp! What’s going on?”
“I think it’s working, babe. I’ll see you in the past. Five minutes ago.”
“If that’s the case, why didn’t you appear five minutes ago, Kemp?”
“Because I haven’t gone yet, woman,” Kemp replied in an exasperated tone of voice. “Just give it time.”
And then he was gone. Fading away softly until she could no longer see the slightest trace of Kemp.
The bolts of flowing, bluish-white light grew shorter and smaller. They disappeared. Then the soft glow of the portal faded away.
There was only silence. The room completely dark.
“Kemp! Are you there? Can you hear me?”
A few moments. Five minutes. Forever.
But Kemp didn’t return. Not then. Not five minutes in the past. Not five minutes in the future.
After what seemed like an eternity, Deloris stumbled back through the darkness. Fumbling for the circuit breakers. Flipping on the main switch. Then one by one flipping on each of the other smaller breakers.
One by one, the lights came back on. One by one, the computer monitors flickered back into view. One by one, the computer systems whirred back to life. As if nothing had happened.
Everything looked just as it had a few minutes earlier. Except that Kemp was no longer there. Kemp was gone.
Deloris wanted to turn the portal back on. She wanted to jump in herself. To go after Kemp. Find him. Rescue him. Bring him back. Marry him in Greece. Go on that honeymoon in Bora Bora.
She resisted the urge. That would be foolish. No telling where Kemp had gone. No telling if he had gone anywhere. Maybe he had just dissipated into nothingness.
There was no telling if their controls actually worked. Maybe he was a thousand centuries in the past trying to avoid becoming a dinosaur snack. Perhaps he was a million millennia in the future watching time unfold. Or maybe he had just gone to a different dimension.
Well, not time to cry over spilled milk. Kemp had been a bit of an arrogant dork most of the time anyway. She’d figure things out with him if she ever saw him again.
Right now, she had to figure out a way to do some damage control here. She quickly shut down the security cameras and deleted the feed for the day. No sense in leaving it up for anyone else to see.
If she took credit for this idea, she would be responsible for Kemp’s disappearance. And if she said it was his responsibility, Kemp would get the glory if he returned someday.
Deloris sat down at her computer and began to type furiously. Putting her new plan in place.
Suddenly, the portal began to glow again. A bolt of blue light flickered and spanned the room. It buzzed and crackled overhead. Growing in intensity.
A dark form took shape in the portal. Then another. A musty scent filled the room. Deloris covered her mouth and coughed.
“Kemp! Is that you?” she exclaimed.
As they took form, she could see that they were men. But neither was Kemp. They were both larger and stronger. Both had long hair. Each held a long sword, unsheathed at their side.
But the strangest thing about them was that their eyes glowed a bright bluish-white. Almost the same hue as the bolts of electricity coming from the portal.
“Where is Kemp? And who are you?” she demanded to know.
“Kemp,” the taller of the two men growled with disdain as he stepped out from the portal. “Was that the name of the whiny, little man.”
Deloris noticed blood dripping from the edge of his sword. Her eyes widened in shock.
Her voice quavered as she asked, “Are you from the past or the future?”
The men looked at each other and laughed.
“Silly human thinks time travel is possible,” the larger man said to his companion with a laugh.
“You sent the messages. You said you were from the future. Helping us.” Deloris asked in confusion.
“I told you humans are gullible, Tanyl,” the larger spokesman said.
Tanyl guffawed loudly. “You were right, as always, my friend. This is going to be like taking candy from a baby. I can’t believe this was so easy.”
“Who are you?” she demanded, still shaking her head in shock.
She reached for the phone and dialed security. Tanyl, the shorter man who had appeared, reached out the edge of his sword and flicked it away from her ear.
“I think this is how they communicate, Alwin.”
“Let’s get what we need and leave for now. We’ll gather our troops and prepare the invasion. Now that the portal is open, we can come back when preparations are in order.” Alwin said.
“What of her?” Tanyl asked.
“Let her join the one she calls Kemp,” Alwin replied.
Tanyl raised his sword as if to strike her. Deloris’s mind whirled, trying to come up with an escape plan. She refused to die here like a loser. She stood to her feet and lifted her head defiantly.
“Take me with you. I created this portal. I can help you create others. To other locations in our world. Give you more access points. Our world is large. I can make your invasion easier. If you only enter through one portal, other countries will have time to gather and fight you. Push you back. You should come through multiple points of entry.”
“Silly, human. I wouldn’t trust you for a second. We already have a plan set in motion. We will infiltrate your world. Your kind will never know the Nemderians have arrived.”
She scoffed. “You underestimate us. You caught me by surprise, but my leaders know everything. They will soon know about you unless you have someone like me that understands how they think and can teach you our ways.”
“I think we should take her with us! She could be useful.” Tanyl said, lowering his sword to his side.
“No, it could be trickery. This human has the look of one who plays dumb to fool us. Yet all the while, she plots to overthrow us.”
Tanyl groaned and threw up his hands in exasperation, “You say that about everyone, silly.”
They began to jabber in a strange language. Deloris let them argue it out for a bit.
“Why would you help us and betray your people?” Tanyl finally asked as if willing her to convince his partner.
“Well, if Nemderia is going to attack us and kill us all, I want to be on the winning side, of course,” she replied as sincerely as she could.
“See,” Tanyl said, lifting his arms to his side as if proving a point to Alwin. “She is an intelligent woman. And she can help us.”
“Fine,” Alwin growled. “Bring her along. But I still don’t trust her. And if she does anything sneaky, I’ll cut her head off myself.”
Tanyl smiled at her. “Come, let us go and make preparations. We have much to do.”
They stepped toward the portal. A Nemderian on each side of her. She looked directly at the cameras in front of her knowing they were not recording. She had shut them off. Knowing that no one would see the feed or do anything about it. Hoping that she would be able to stay alive long enough to escape and return home.
The portal glowed softly. Bolts of light flowed out around the room. And then they were gone. The computers whirred busily. The monitors glowed brightly. The only evidence anyone had recently been there were a few drops of blood under the portal and the musty scent of the Nemderian warriors who had taken Deloris still wafting in the air.
Strogoben stood before the cave entrance. Preparing himself mentally for the greatest challenge of his life. Something he had prepared for ever since he was a young child. He stood there silently. Breathing deeply. Taking in everything he could gather with his five senses and more.
They had been sharp enough to help him survive ever since beginning his journey to locate Venomshank, the Warblade of Ballara. His quest had begun many moons ago when he first arrived in Dysheimr.
Those who pointed the way had indicated the entrance at the Chambers of the Golden Raven. From there he had made his way down through the Haunt of the Thunder Giant. Struggling to find his way through the Maze of Destruction. And finally coming out through The Screaming Tunnels. And now he had arrived. His final destination.
The Lair of Vor’onuuth who was known among men as The Flames of Darkness.
If his sources were correct, this was where he would find the Warblade.
After catching his breath, Strogoben pressed forward through a portal that had been revealed only after releasing a burst of flames underneath it. It was designed that way so that only the dragonkin and those who could control fire might pass through.
Strogoben stepped through into the foreboding environment that awaited him. This one completely different from the previous he had encountered when stepping rough the Portal of the Golden Raven.
The air was dry and hot here. Bright strobes of light blinded him. Strogoben could feel his lungs burn with every breath. It was a harsh world. Reminding him of the desert he had traveled through as a child after the Jooppi tribe had wiped out his people and taken him captive.
There they had trained him to fight. Taught him magic and how to use the elements. Preparing him to take down small dragons in the desert single-handly. The Joopi had known his people were descended from the dragonkin. They wiped out the adults but kept all the small children alive.
Strogoben had been no more than seven when they had captured him. They loved his skills and abilities. The Joopi people had admired him. The chief had treated Strogoben like a pet though. Locking him in chains and using whips to keep him in line.
The chief had depended on his mage’s magic as well to keep the young boy obedient. But they hadn’t been enough to keep him down. He was careful to watch and observe everything the mage did.
He practiced and experimented at night on his own. When he grew strong enough, Strogoben broke free. Wreaked his revenge on the tribe of nomads who had destroyed his family. Strogoben had burned them all with fire. Battling their own mage had been no easy feat. But he did it. He had freed himself.
From there, Strogoben set out on his own. He had continued practicing and improving his skills over the years. And eventually, he had settled down in the region just south of Dysheimr. There he kept his skills a secret. Rarely using them.
Strogoben had lived their peacefully, planting a farm, and even taking a wife. He had married a beautiful young woman named Freygerd Styrbiorndottir.
But before they were married a year, the land had come under attack by the fire gnomes. They swept through taking cattle and sheep. Burning crops and destroying the farms as they went. Occasionally even taking humans as well.
And that was when they had taken Freygerd with them.
Strogoben was devastated. He spent weeks searching for the fire gnomes without luck. The burning trails they left behind all disappeared at the river they used to escape.
After searching high and low across the land, he came across an old priest who mentioned someone that might be able to help him.
Vor’onuuth. Part human. Part dragon. Part giant. Created by the engineers, he had escaped and wreaked havoc in the lower realms. Eventually, locked away and unable to return to the surface. The dangerous path to find Vor’onuuth, served just as much to keep him in as to keep others out.
Strogoben was willing to make the journey. Not to meet Vor’onuuth. What he really wanted was this Venomshank. An ancient weapon once left behind by the Engineers responsible for the dragonkin.
It had been lost after the great war by Strogoben’s ancestor who ruled the land. Strogoben had heard the stories and legends as a child. Those descended from the Dragonkin who had enough skill and power could wield the Warblade. Using it control any of the fire-based creatures under the Warblade’s command.
Strogoben hoped to use it to locate the fire gnomes and find his wife.
According to the priest though, the Warblade hadn’t been lost. It had actually been taken by the engineers. Some said they removed it from their game because it was too powerful of a weapon. Others said that they had locked it away with Vor’onuuth for safekeeping until such a time as one worthy to carry the blade should be able to take it from him. It was the Engineers way of leveling up the game and increasing the difficulty.
The village chieftain had been excited to hear that Strogoben would attempt to locate the Warblade. He gave the young man all the supplies the warrior could carry.
“The outer farms have come under attack, I’m sure we’ll be next to receive a beating by those brutes. I appreciate anything you can do to save us and stop those nasty gnomes. I’m in no state to fight, but I know you’ll manage without me. Please, take care of those gnomes for my people. I will give you anything you want, even up to half of the land I rule if you can find a way to stop their rampage.”
And so had begun Strogoben’s quest to find the warblade and stop the evil fire gnomes. That had been at least five moons ago. It was hard to keep track down here. He had crossed two different portals and had no idea if moons here were the same back in Dysheimr.
Strogoben had little hope of ever finding his wife, but he refused to let go of the idea that someday, somewhere, he would find Freygerd. Yet here he was, he had finally made it to the entrance of Vor’nuuth’s lair.
His heart thumped loudly. Partially with the excitement of being so close to finding the Warblade to find his wife and also from the nervousness of not knowing what danger he was about to face to achieve it.
Strogoben’s short, dark hair hung clumsily over his round, time-worn face. Bloodshot gray eyes, set wickedly within their sockets, watch warily for danger.
His freckles spread beautifully across his cheeks and forehead. Leaving a bittersweet memory of his adventurous love life with Freygerd many weeks ago. He was tall compared to most of those who lived around him. He had a light frame but was wiry and well-muscled from his years of preparation and formation.
People found him alluring. Perhaps it was his presence or perhaps simply the feeling of anguish after his wife’s kidnapping. But nonetheless, people tend to hit it off with him, while treating him to a good meal when he’s around.
Strogoben prided himself on what he called charm, wits, and good looks, as he had always joked about with Freygerd. But here in this dungeon where he was headed, Strogoben knew that it would take more than that. He would need more than charm and good looks to weasel a prized Warblade out of a dragon.
Strogoben came to a wide pair of granite doors in a small sultry grove. They marked the entrance down into the dungeon below. He continued through them cautiously. Beyond the doors lay a narrow, timeworn room at the bottom of the stairs. It was covered in mawt droppings, rubble, and large bones.
He could see remnants of what once must’ve been a mess hall of sorts, battered and wrecked by time itself.
Strogoben pressed on through till he came to two tunnels. He sensed that the right was a dead end. He didn’t know how he knew it exactly, but he did. He had learned to trust his instincts long ago in the desert where it was often a matter of life or death. Survival belonged to the fittest and the smartest. Rarely giving second chances to those who failed to get it right the first time.
The twisted trail continued to lead downwards and soon he entered an eerie area filled with tombs. Their owners were no longer in their graves where they belonged but had been dragged out and spread across the floor.
“What happened in this place?” Strogoben thought to himself.
He cautiously proceeded onwards, deeper into the dark shadows. He passed dozens of similar rooms and passages, each with their own twists, turns, and destinations. But eventually, Strogoben made it to what he thought was the final room.
An immense granite door blocked his path. Various odd symbols were scratched into it, somehow untouched by time and the elements. He stepped closer to inspect it and listened quietly. It seemed as if he could hear a scratching sound coming from behind the door.
Strogoben pulled his dragon-skinned jacket closer around him. He had purchased it brand-new in the market before leaving on his journey. And then had an old dragon mage etch protective runes into the scales and a large protective sigil on the back.
But now it was tattered and threadbare. Barely tied together with some old string he had picked up to replace the buttons that had long since fallen off in his runs through the tunnels to escape the grey cave mawts and in his struggles against the Aracni’s that often attacked while he slept.
The jacket had a wide, round neckline which reveals part of the worn-out yellow shirt below it. And over that a faded black belt, which was tied everything together. The belt had initially been bought on a whim to as an accessory to the rest of his look, based on the recommendation of the pretty young saleswoman at the market.
But now, they were absolutely necessary to holding up his pants since he had lost much weight on the journey. With little time to find and prepare food along with the extra exercise, Strogoben had returned back to the lean, ripped form he possessed in the desert before softening up during his good life at Dysheimr.
His pants were still in good shape, all things considered. They were simple and of a comfortable fit. Reaching down to his bound cloth shoes. The shoes were made from an unusual cloth that wasn’t dragonskin. But the shoemaker demonstrated to him that they were fireproof as well. Other than that though, his shoes looked no different from any other shoes he could have bought at the market.
Strogoben tightened his belt around his waist and the shoes around his feet. He wanted to be ready to face whatever creature lay behind those doors. Vor’nuuth or not.
He slid his shield down off his back. Strogoben affectionately called it Eclipse. He had taken it from an enemy who had challenged him in the desert. He had looked for another shield to replace it, but had never found anything this good.
It was an impressive round shield made from ironbark that offered stalwart cover against arrows and bolts. Extremely strong because it was forged by lunar dragonkin in a storm workshop. The shield’s edges embellished with spikes and decorated with metalwork emblems of victory and personal accomplishments at the center. It’s clear this shield has seen glory and victory. Dints and dents made by who knows what. But one thing is sure, this shield isn’t done serving just yet.
In the end, Strogoben decided to just keep it and stop looking for another shield. Once he found out where it had been made, he tracked down the old lunar dragonkin blacksmith that had made it and requested a matching sword. It was a long, strong blade that had served him well over the years.
The young man shook himself off and stepped forward to figure out how to open the door. It opened instantly without him even having to raise a finger. That was surprising since most of the others had required the activation of a rune or resolving of a puzzle before he could pass.
Strogoben quickly leaped off to the side, in case any foul creature came charging through. But there was only silence. He couldn’t see much past the threshold. It was pitch black. Even for his eyes. And that was because Strogobend’s eyes were powerful enough to walk through caves and tunnels without needing to light a torch.
He waited for a few seconds, but when nothing else happened, he stepped through. The impression that he had was of something or someone actively absorbing all of the light in the room. It was the strangest sensation. Then he remembered the name of the creature.
Vor’nuuth, also known as the Flames of Darkness.
Strogobend had assumed that it was simply a name given by storytellers and adventurers seeking to embellish their stories. But now that he was here, he realized that the name fit perfectly.
He sucked his breath in short shallow gasps. The heat was intense. Not enough to burn him yet. But still enough to make him uncomfortable even in his dragon skin clothing and flameproof shoes. He could sense the protective sigil on his back being activated as designed to do if he got into a firefight with a dragon. He sensed the familiar hum of energy as it began to glow.
The glow was enough to light up the area immediately surrounding him. But even that was dulled and faded at more than a few feet away from him.
Strogoben took a few more steps deeper into the darkness. He heard a loud hiss off to his left and paused. Something rustled in the darkness. Then the sound of muttering as if someone were awakening from a deep slumber. There was a small clink and rattle as it moved around.
He couldn’t see what was there and what was coming, so he ducked down to make himself smaller in case it tried to target him. He raised his shield in front of him. There were several more whispers and rattles. Then the room fell silent again.
After a few moments, he took another step forward. A loud voice challenged him from the darkness.
“Who goes there? And what do you want?”
Strogoben leaped back and spread his arms out as he crouched low once more.
“Hurry up, I tell you. I don’t have all day. There’s no sense in sneaking around. I can see you just fine.”
The man stood up and straightened his clothing with his sword hand. He bowed stiffly even though he couldn’t tell exactly which direction the voice was coming from as it boomed loudly all around him and echoed off the walls of the dungeon.
Strogoben cleared his throat before answering.
“Hello there! How are you? I’m quite fine thank you. It’s a great pleasure to meet you. Even though I can’t see you.” he shouted out.
His voice didn’t boom loudly like the others. It sounded rather weak and hollow. Even after he tried to deepen it toward the end.
“Oh, right? Excuse my rudeness,” Vor’nuuth replied with as rasp somewhere between a snicker and a growl. “Where are my manners? Oh, yeah. I do that so people who walk in with their sword drawn and shield up ready for battle can’t attack me.”
“That’s quite understandable,” Strogoben replied a little ashamed of himself. “It’s just that I heard something scratching the door. I didn’t want it rushing out to attack me unaware.”
“That was one of my pets. I pulled it out of the way and tied it up to keep it from escaping as soon as I heard the door opening. But don’t you think it’s a bit rude to just walk into my home without knocking? What do you think would happen if you walked into a human home unannounced and their dog bit you because they didn’t know that you were coming over. Would it be their fault for not warning them or theirs for not tying it up?”
“Yes, I do see your point,” Strogoben said with a weak laugh. “Sorry, I should have knocked. I just didn’t know where to announce my coming. The door swung open automatically.”
“Hmm! I wondered how you got in so fast. I’ve never had anyone break through before, although many have tried. I do suppose that means you are here for the Warblade then as most who make the journey down here. Eh?”
“You are so wise and intelligent, great Vor’nuuth,” he said using his old tactic of buttering up the Joopi as they thrived off it.
“Oh, come on. Don’t think I’m going to fall for that malarkey now. Do you? You don’t even know me and you come barging in her talking like that, it’s obviously not true.” Vor’nuuth growled. “So, state your case and tell me why I should hand over Warblade.”
That last part took Strogoben back a bit. He hadn’t expected to just walk in and ask for it, much less have the creature just hand it over.”
“So, how many others have made it down here?” he asked.
“Three, in the past two hundred years.” the monster in the darkness replied.
Strogoben let out a low whistle. “Guess you don’t get many visitors. Huh?”
Vor’nuuth let out a loud laugh. “I guess. Right?”
The human stepped back as the peals of laughter continued to ring around him.
“You are funny, human. I will give you that. Now state your name, and I will provide some light for you to see me.”
“Strogoben of Dysheimr,” he replied loudly, emboldened by the creature’s laughter.
“Dysheimr,” Vor’nuuth growled. “Don’t lie to me human. There are none of your kind in Dysheimr.”
“My kind?” he asked hoarsely. “I wasn’t born there, but that is where I have been living for the past few years. I was enslaved and taken from my home when I was yet a child. So, I never knew the name of my city. It was wiped out by the Joopi.”
“So, why do you seek the Warblade?” Vor’nuuth hissed quietly.
Strogoben could hear the voice loudly though and sensed that it had moved closer. He wanted to duck instinctively into his shield in case he spat dark flames in his direction. But he resisted the urge to flinch and stood firm.
“I remember that my family was descended from Harald the Stout of Novgorod who once wielded Venomshank. I have come to claim what belongs to my bloodline,” he said, half-expecting the beast to take that as a challenge to fight.
“Yes, that’s obvious, since you were able to enter my lair so easily. Only those of your bloodline have been granted access. My question is why you seek it now. What do you hope to accomplish with it?”
Strogoben breathed a bit easier. Maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as he thought.
“I come for love!” he declared boldly, hoping to pull on the creature’s emotional strings if it had any.
“Love. Huh? That sounds typically human.” Vor’nuuth snorted. “Flowers and sweet treats were created to woo love. The Warblade was created for blood and battle. Guts and glory. Most only come looking for Venomshank when they are beyond despair and have no other hope of achieving the vengeance or salvation their soul desires. I’m afraid you come to the wrong place looking for the wrong thing.”
“But it’s not. I mean I haven’t come to the wrong place. I’m looking for all of that. I seek vengeance against those who have taken my love from me. I will do battle against them. And as for glory, I will receive my own kingdom if I defend the realm of Dysheimr.”
“Hmm. Oh my. That does sound like a worthy cause. Maybe you will be willing to pay the price.” the creature muttered. “Who took your love from you and threatens Drysheimr?”
“The fire gnomes,” Strogoben spat quietly.
“Argh!” Vor’nuuth growled. “I knew that those little rascals would be nothing but trouble. I tried to put a stop to them, but they wouldn’t let me. The Engineers locked up down here for meddling.”
“Why?” Strogoben asked.
“Why what?” Vor’nuuth asked. “Why did I meddle? Or why did they lock me up?”
“Well, both are good questions, I guess,” Strogoben replied. “Someone told me that you were locked up for wreaking havoc in the lower realms. They made it sound like you were somewhat of a troublemaker.”
“Is that what they say about me. Do they?”
There was a flicker in the darkness. It didn’t last long and was really low, yet brought relief to Strogoben’s eyes since they had been staring into nothing but pitch black darkness the entire time.
Slowly, the dungeon around him began to come into view. There was a light glow off the walls around him. Eventually, a dark form began to take shape before him. It wasn’t so much that light came into the room, but rather that this creature, whatever it was, stopped absorbing what little light was available in the room around them.
As it did so, the heat seemed to let up a little in the room. The impression that Strogoben had was that the dark flames had diminished and regular flames began to take their place. It was the strangest sensation he had ever experienced.
The smell of burning sulfur filled the air around him, and Strogoben had to close his nostrils and cover his mouth with his jacket to breathe without gagging.
As the beast came into view there was a sparkle in the smoke, a cracking of wood, and suddenly he was met with an outlandish beast of smoke and flame. The first thing that stood out at him were two huge, desolate eyes staring back at him with harrowing excitement, and another sparkle thundered from its ridged mouth as if to summon others. Several sharp teeth poke out from the side of its mouth and give a preview of the terror hiding inside.
The eyes were almost level with him, but as Vor’nuuth stood to his full height, they rose quickly towering above Strogoben. Almost five times the height of the human. And that was only from the knees up because the giant stood in a pit filled with the strange flames.
Four horns adorned its the creature’s bony, angular skull that sat atop a broad, robust body. Two smaller horns in the center which gave the creature a very ominous looking appearance. Along with two larger ones rooted into the sides of its rugged head. A constant plume of smoke escaped the creature’s narrow nostrils set within a hollow nose.
Its skin was blackened and charred. Continuously burning off in ashes that floated carelessly off the burning red flesh that burned underneath. The skin seemed to simply replace itself before burning off again.
The first thought that came to his mind when he saw it was that a giant bull wanted to barbecue itself and built the firepit that it was roasting itself in. Strogoben would have burst out laughing if he hadn’t been so terrified.
The creature strode closer toward Strogoben. Two muscular limbs carried its body and allowed the creature to stand noble and elevated. Each limb had 4 digits, each of which ended in pointy talons seemingly made of onyx. Its legs gracefully carried its fiery body with a hurried energy. Its movements were playful, yet determined.
Strogoben took a step back. Away from the edge of the pit where he had been standing. If the creature hadn’t spoken up, he probably would have fallen into the pit with the black flames.
Though now, he could no longer see them. Regular yellow, orange, and reddish flames leaped up over the edge casting an eerie glow over the creature and across the room.
Steam and heat wafted up out of the pit around Strogoben. Not that it had really diminished or grown hotter, but there was a definite difference in the type of heat that the flames were putting off. The light colorful flames seemed bright and cheery compared to the previous dark flames. Those had been oppressive. Seemingly sucking the life and energy out of the room.
“Well, I meddled with the Engineers because they created the fire gnomes from my own flesh and fire. It was a little experiment they were doing on me for their game. They wanted me to continuously be generating little fire gnomes. Like these things would just pop out of my flesh and take off screaming. I knew they were bad news, and it hurt like water being poured on my flesh. That’s why I wreaked havoc in the lower realms and became a troublemaker. Because I wouldn’t let them do what they wanted with me.”
“So, they didn’t lock you up down here? You created this place for yourself.” Strogoben said as it dawned on him.
“Well, I didn’t create it. It already existed. I destroyed it and made it more to my liking.” Vor’nuuth said with a grin.
“How would destroying it make it more to your liking?”
“They released me as a weapon against a civilization created by another engineer. The fire gnomes annihilated it. I felt horrible. So, I tracked down the Engineers who had released me. And this was where I found them. I killed most of them. A few escaped. They tried to take it back, but they didn’t stand a chance against their most powerful creation. Here I’m safe and comfortable.”
Strogoben looked around and noticed that it was absent of any fire gnomes.
“The flames of darkness prevent you from producing any more of those nasty little critters?” he queried.
The giant nodded.
“It burns them off before the can form in my flesh and come out through my skin.”
“Ouch, that must really hurt.”
“Not really. It just numbs me. And it’s a lot less painful than birthing fire gnomes out from under my skin.”
Strogoben really did feel sorry for the creature. Here he had come ready to fight to the death to kill it. If he had known the fire gnomes had come from Vor’nuuth, he would have tried to kill it without asking questions. And here it had locked itself away and was doing everything it could to keep from producing more.
“Wow. I’m really sorry about that. I had no idea. That must be awful. It’s like a fate worse than death.”
Vor’nuuth smiled sadistically.
“You don’t think I brought the Warblade along with me for nothing did you?”
“What do you mean?” Strogoben asked.
“I knew that if I continued running around out there, the fire gnomes would continue to propogate. And I had no idea where to find those of your bloodline. I would release too many fire gnomes across the land on my journey. So, I brought it with me so that those of your kind would come to me.”
“You want me to use Venomshank to kill you and put you out of your misery?”
Vor’nuuth nodded and fell to his knees. Lowering his giant head till his eyes were level with Strogoben.
“I will give you the Warblade willingly. I don’t want to suffer anymore. It takes three days of pure agony to give birth to a batch of fire gnomes when I’m not near the dark flames. But I don’t want to while away my days here in this pit any longer. Besides, the flames are growing weaker. They aren’t as strong as they once were. Once they die out, my suffering resumes.”
Strogoben’s heart went out for the poor suffering creature. He slid his sword back into its sheath and stepped forward.
“I came here to fight you for the Warblade. Even planned to kill you if necessary. Not that I probably could anyway. I really had no idea what to expect. I thought you were like a dragon or something. But seeing you in this situation is horrible. It’s ridiculous that someone would do this to you and make you suffer so. There has to be something we can do to stop it.”
The giant dragon demon thing, whatever Vor’nuuth was, just shrugged.
“I’m tired of the struggle. Two hundred years. Wasting away. It seems pointless. Like I’m putting off the inevitable. Just waiting for something worse to happen.”
“Like what? What could be worse than this? You’re still alive. That’s what counts.”
Vor’nuuth threw his head back and laughed mockingly.
“Great. Woo. I’m living. Yee ha. Holed up here in this fire pit of oppressive heat and darkness just to keep from feeling worse. Put yourself in my place. You would be grateful.”
“Surely, there is something you can do. Someone who can help you. An Engineer who can reverse the effects.”
Vor’nuuth pointed to his back and stood again. There was a large yellow sigil that lit up around his back and head. Strogoben had seen it earlier, but hadn’t paid much attention to it. It was a large, glowing circle with runes around the edges.
“The Engineers have branded me. This seal was placed upon me when I officially joined their game. None of this clan will dare to go against it. and none of the other clans are allowed to touch it, lest they be cast out. It’s hopeless.”
“You mean you willingly submitted yourself to this?” Strogoben asked incredulously.
“Yes. I mean not this exactly. They promised me power and wealth and all kinds of amazing things I never dreamed of. Once I was in, it was too late. I couldn’t back out. And this was the result.”
Vor’nuuth knelt back down and leaned forward. He reached out one long finger of his right hand. There was a sword balanced on the tip of his finger. Strogoben sucked in his breath. This was it. This was the warblade. One of the finest ever forged in the mines of Ballara on the other side of the continent.
It was exquisite. Even more amazing then he had imagined. He could feel the power that had been forged into it emanating directly into his body. Strogoben could feel the connection it had to his blood. It recognized him as one authorized to wield it in all its power and glory.
Strogoben wanted to reach out and take it immediately, but he pulled himself back.
“I can’t kill you if you give it to me,” he said softly.
“But you would have killed me in a fair fight to take it from me by force?” Vor’nuuth spat indignantly. “You humans and your sense of justice.”
Strogoben shrugged. “It’s different.”
“Oh! So, it okay to kill me against my will, but if I give you permission, then suddenly you have moral qualms about taking my life. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
The human shrugged again. The fiery beast sighed.
“Fine. Let’s do it. We shall duel to the death.” Vor’nuuth declared, standing again to his full height.
“That’s silly,” Strogoben spat out. “You’re just going to let me kill you. It wouldn’t be a fair fight.”
“Yeah. Is that what you think.” Vor’nuuth said stepping up out of the pit and placing his giant foot beside Strogoben.
The human leaped back. He stumbled and tripped over a stone. Strogoben hit the ground hard and rolled over. Trying to get back onto his feet while pulling out his sword at the same time. He raised his shield and continued to back up as the giant set his other foot outside the pit.
Strogoben dashed for the door, but Vor’nuuth didn’t even have to take another step to stop him. The large creature simply reached over the man’s head and blocked the exit. Then he opened his mouth and spewed out a stream of yellow fire.
The shield barely protected him from the blast of heat. Strogoben could feel the flames curling around the edges as he put his head down to protect his eyes. If it had been for his dragon skin jacket and hood, he would have been toast. He could sense the protective sigil on his back absorbing a good portion of the heat as well.
His toes started to heat up. Strogoben looked down to see what was going on. The shoes were still holding up well against the flames as well. He was glad he had paid the extra gold to get this pair. Others had been cheaper and even more comfortable. But he had taken these anyway in case he had to face a situation like this.
It had happened once before. In one of his first dragon fights. The Joppi hunted them for their skin. It was just a small dragon. Probably a baby that didn’t know how to fight very well. But it still managed to get off a puff of fire that burned and blistered his feet. He had learned to go in to any dragon fight well protected.
Being forced to hunt the skins for the Joopi was why Strogoben had refused to ever buy clothes made of dragon skin after that. But before making this journey, he had known he would need them. So, he made sure that the clothes he picked up did not come from the Joopi marketers.
Strogoben was glad for the shoes. They really did protect his feet even better than a pair with dragon skin soles. He barely even sensed this toes warming up.
As soon as the blast of fire from Vor’nuuth shut down, Strogoben stood up and raced to the side to get behind some protective rocks. But before he could make it, two blazing beams of light shooting from the monster’s eyes blasted the rocks to smithereens.
That brought Strogoben up short. He changed direction and raced directly toward the giant beast’s legs. At least there it wouldn’t shoot itself in the foot or try burning it’s own leg. At least that’s what he hoped anyway.
The warrior leaped up onto its feet and looked up. It’s mouth glowed once again, and Strogoben leaped off to get behind it just as a quick blast of flame burst out around him.
It took a moment for the creature to realize where the human had disappeared to in the flames. Strogoben took advantage of the time to catch his breath. He was furious. There was no escaping this place or the monster. He didn’t want to kill it, but he didn’t see any other options.
It was either kill or be killed.
Strogoben didn’t even know if he could kill this creature. Something this powerful would surely take some sort of magic or power that he didn’t know if he possessed. He was a good fighter. Wielded his fair share of power. But he had never fought anything this size.
He decided to give it a go though and see what kind of damage he could do. Strogoben raised his sword and leaped at the monster’s calf. He drove his sword deep into its flesh and pulled down as hard as he could leaving a large gash in its flesh. The beast gave a mighty roar and jerked its leg up, pulling Srogoben up with it.
The movement flung the human across the room and sent his sword flying. The creature thrashed madly around. Shattering the stalactites and stalagmites from around himself. In one of his thrashes, it smashed its head against one that didn’t shatter. It stumbled forward and fell to its knees. Grabbing its face it let out a horrible roar. Then it leaned forward and slowly toppled to the floor.
Strogoben leaped to his feet and raced for his sword. He picked it up with both hands and waited for Vor’nuuth to rise again. But it lay still. The warrior walked forward to take a closer look at his mighty foe.
“C’mon. It couldn’t have been that easy.” he said, reaching forward to give it a quick jab in the face with his sword.
Vor’nuuth winched at the pain and opened one eye.
“Oh, seriously. You didn’t finish me when you had the chance.” the monster ground. “C’mon. You were supposed to finish me. That was your cue. Slice my head off and put me out of my misery.”
“You wouldn’t have stood the pain two seconds. As soon as he started sawing away at your head, you would have screamed like a baby dragon. The slammed me across the room.”
Vor’nuuth chuckled bitterly.
“Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t really want to die. But I just don’t see any other way out of this misery.”
“Why don’t you let me try to find some help for you. Give me the sword, and exchange, I will seek out one of these Engineers who can help you.”
The giant growled and shook his head as he sat back up.
“How do I know you won’t just run away with it. Or worse yet die out there trying to fight the fire gnomes to save your wife. Then I’ll be stuck down here still with no way to attract another one of your kind to kill me.”
“Yeah, I guess you could just wait down here for another 200 years to see if anyone shows up. Though, by then, everyone may have forgotten about you and that stupid sword.”
Vor’nuuth spat angrily at the thought and pulled himself up. He scooted back toward his pit.
“I don’t have long before I need to start up the dark flames again. You should leave.”
“C’mon. I’m your best chance. Let me try. Send one of your pets along with me to keep an eye out for me. It can help me. And if I die, it can bring the Warblade back to you.”
“I suppose I could send Milsa with you. But what would you do to help me?”
Strogoben placed his sword back in his sheath and bowed low. Even getting down on one knee. Tell me what you would have me do. If you grant me the sword that I may save my love and avenge myself on the fire gnomes to obtain my half of the kingdom, I would spare no expense or effort to attempt to help you obtain relief from this horrible suffering.”
Vor’nuuth growled and then sighed.
“What choice do I have in the matter. It is what it is. If it is to be, it is to be.”
He leaned down to Strogoben and handed him the Warblade once again. The human took it carefully with both hands. He felt it hum in his grip. It felt perfectly balanced. Everything he had ever imagined in the perfect sword.
Venomshank was a hundred times better than his current sword.
“Three months. Find a way to free me from these flames, or else return to kill me. That is my condition. After that, you may seek to free your wife.”
“No, that’s impossible!” Strogoben roared.
“Three months is more than enough time,” Vor’nuuth shot back.
“It took me more than three months to find this place. Now, I have to go back and start looking again. Even if I find it, I still have to return all the way back here. But that’s not the point. I have to save my wife first. She may die or worse happen to her if I don’t find her soon.”
Vor’nuuth shook his head. Three months is all I will accept. Return quickly. Otherwise, at the end of this time, I will return to hunt you down until you kill me. If you don’t I will destroy everything you hold dear and everyone you love for making me suffer by leaving these dark flames to produce more fire gnomes.
“But you’ve been down here two hundred years. What are a couple of more months? Even a year?” Strogoben cried in anguish, trying to figure out how he was going to find his wife and save this beast in three short months.
“I will go directly to the fire gnomes, find your wife myself, and then come after you to kill her before your very eyes. Return in three months. Kill me. Then continue to search for her.”
“But she is in immediate danger, and you aren’t. You are safe here.” Strogoben exclaimed in exasperation. “Please. I have to help her first to have a clear head to focus on your problem. I will do my best. I just need to help her to get that cleared off my plate. Then I will do everything in my power to help you. Even if it takes twenty years. I won’t give up on you.”
Vor’nuuth growled and turned away. Settling down deep into his pit of dark flames. They slowly began to rise up around him. Extinguishing the light from around the dungeon. That darkness began to take over the room. The dark flames absorbing the light in the room. The giant fading away into the darkness of the flames licking up around him.
Soon, the only thing that Strogoben could see was the yellow glow of his eyes. Unblinking. Staring back at him out of the darkness.
“Fine. Save the woman if you must before helping me. But that doesn’t diminish the time frame. Three months to save her, find a way to help me and return here for my judgment if the solution is acceptable.”
Strogoben nodded and bowed low.
“I swear that I will do my very best to resolve this as swiftly as I can. You have my eternal gratefulness, and I owe you more than you can ever demand of me. I will return at the end of three moons, whether I have found my wife or a suitable solution for you. If I don’t return it is because I am either dead or imprisoned against my will.”
The room was almost completely pitch black once again. Strogoben heard Vor’nuuth shift down deeper into the flames.
“Go,” the creatures sighed. “May Mishal help you, guide you, and protect you. She is of the fire too, so you can control her with the Warblade. May your journey be as swift as your vengeance when you come upon the fire gnomes.”
Strogoben backed toward the door. A quiet patter followed him. He could hear the creature’s nails clicking on the floor as it walked.
When he got back out through the doors, the slid shut behind him automatically. Strogoben looked down once again at Venomshank in his hand. It was amazing. And he was so excited to have the possibility of saving his wife.
He glanced over at the creature that had followed him. It looked like one of the doberman pinchers the king of Drysheimr raised. Only this one was twice as large and pure black. Even its eyes were completely dark. No whites at all.
“C’mon, Mishal. We have a great adventure ahead of us. And there is no time to waste. We should try to make it back out of here over the next three days. We shall have to fly. But I’m glad to have your companionship on this journey.”
The creature cocked its head to the side and wagged its tail briefly. Then it pushed on past him and took the lead as if it understood wher he wanted to go.
Strogoben followed close behind it. Pleased to not be alone. It was late and it had been a long day. He would soon be tired. But he wanted to get out of this dungeon before finding a place to settle down for the night.
He continued to walk along behind Mishal as he admired Venomshank. Hardly believing that he actually had it in his possession. Especially since he didn’t have to take it by force or even kill the giant who had given it to him.
Strogoben smiled. Finally, things were starting to look for him.
“Hang on, love of my life. I’m coming for you. I will not stop until I have found you.”
They made a strange pair as they pressed though the cavern. The human and a large, black dog that was almost as tall as he was. He could sense that they would hit it off well and have many adventures together.
Carl walked down the street casually. Not really walking fast. Not really walking slow. He had no specific destination in mind. Nowhere definite to go. Just meandering along. Out and about for an afternoon stroll.
He had time to kill. A lot of it. For now anyway. But it wouldn’t last long. So, he wanted to enjoy it.
It was a good day. He was happy. More than happy, Carl was in love. He had recently met this really cute chic. Sharp-witted. Smart as a dart. Very energetic. Extremely adventurous. Yes, she was single, he had gathered. And to top it all off, he was going to get to see her every day.
There was only one problem. She would be Carl’s boss. Yep. She was going to be ordering him around, and he didn’t know how he felt about that. He wanted to ask her out. During his first interview with her. Tell her that he loved her. Wanted to spend every possible second with her.
But he could foresee a lot of potential problems and pitfalls with that. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to navigate both a professional and private relationship with someone like that. If things didn’t pan out between them, that could really put a damper on a future promotion or even his career.
And if they had problems at work, that could sour their relationship. Carl thought about turning in his resignation right after the first interview. But that would be stupid because he didn’t even know if he stood a chance with her.
However, with the way she made him feel, Carl was almost willing to take the risk to find out. Resign from the job he hadn’t even received yet. And ask her out.
He knew that the company had a strict policy about managers dating their subordinates. And if he read her correctly, he knew that she wouldn’t even accept an invitation for coffee with an employee to avoid any wrong appearances or give herself the chance to be tempted to break that rule.
Carl knew he was probably over exaggerating, but she seemed like the type that took herself seriously. Way too seriously. Completely unlike Carl. He always wanted to find out what the rules were so he could break them.
Rules were made to be broken.
That was his philosophy in life. He lived and died by it. Not because he enjoyed being a rebel, but because he wanted to push back the boundaries. Explore his limits. Find out how to do things faster and better than anyone before him.
Obviously, he was careful to make sure that no one got harmed in the process. Because it wasn’t about trying to prove himself to anyone. It was just that he enjoyed the challenge of pushing himself to see how far he could go. How much he could get done.
Carl knew that would be the most significant source of conflict between him and Hanna. She would be the one making the rules and telling him what to do. But he would always be pushing them back. Playing around with them. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before they had their first run in. Not that he would purposefully try to irritate her, but he knew that it would happen.
He had always irritated his superiors. Even when he got great results that exceeded their expectations. His managers and bosses would still get their panties all up in a wad because he hadn’t done it the ‘right’ way.
Carl didn’t understand why they preferred to follow the company rules and policies instead of striving to become the best they could be. Even if that meant switching things up.
He hated company politics. Always having to play the corporate game. Sucking up to somebody else for a promotion instead of just earning the right to advancement and higher pay based on results and exceeding expectations.
He sighed and shook his head to himself as he stopped at the crosswalk. He waited for traffic to let up or the light to stop them.
Someday, he would start his own company. Then he could make his own rules and policies. He could strive to exceed himself without anyone else trying to push him back down or pull his rug out from under him.
Carl would run his company by giving his employees all the support and free reign they needed to get better than average results. He would only promote and recognize those who were willing to go all out like himself.
He already had some great ideas for different businesses that he wanted to start and companies he hoped to run. But for that, he needed to raise capital. A lot more capital. It wasn’t that he didn’t make good money, just that he often spent more than he made.
That was a habit he needed to break. Not that he planned on downgrading his lifestyle or cutting back on his expenditures. No, he needed to find a way to make a lot more money.
This job was the first step in that direction. Not only was the salary three times more than he had ever made before, but it would allow Carl to get even more training and experience in his field of expertise. As well as open doors to other potential people, positions, and partnerships that had currently been closed to him.
The light turned red. Cars stopped. Carl crossed the street and continued walking as he pondered his options.
No, he needed this job. He was going to take it if they offered it to him. He wasn’t going to turn it down on a whim. He’d still get his chance to sweep Hanna off her feet later.
He had a good feeling about this. He knew he had impressed Hanna and the HR manager. He knew that they were only undecided between him and one other candidate.
Hanna had told him as much at the end of the interview. So, now he just had to wait for her decision.
He just reached the following corner when a man came rushing by and almost rammed into him.
“Hey, watch it, buddy!” Carl shouted after him.
But the man was long gone. He hadn’t stuck around. Much less tried to apologize. Carl shook his head in disgust. People around here could be so rude.
Carl walked on a few more steps before realizing his cell phone was gone. The realization of what had just happened suddenly hit him.
“Argh!” he yelled in frustration.
Several passersby turned to look at him. Others still coming in his direction widened their path to walk out around him and avoid getting near him.
“You okay, dude?” someone asked.
“Someone just stole my phone,” Carl growled. “Bumped into me like he was in hurry. I didn’t even realize it.”
“Sounds like old James. The homeless bum. He’s always around here. Pickpocketing, stealing, you name it. The only thing I haven’t heard anyone complain about is him outright holding someone up.”
Carl thanked him for the information and kept on walking.
“Wait, man. Aren’t you going after him?” the passerby shouted after him. “At least register a complaint down at the precinct.”
“Nah, I got better things to do with my time,” Carl yelled back over his shoulder.
It was an old phone anyway. Time to upgrade to a new one. He spotted a phone store down the street and headed for it.
Just as he got to the door, the same passerby came up behind him.
“Hey,” he said and tapped Carl on the shoulder.
Carl turned around and raised his eyebrow.
“Here’s your phone back.”
“Oh, thanks,” Carl said suspiciously, wondering how the man got it back so quickly and what he would want as a reward.
“Also, here’s a new company phone. Hanna will call you on it in a few minutes.”
Carl took it. The confusion obvious on his face.
“I work at Hanna’s company. I’m a research psychologist. We’ve been following you and analyzing your reactions to different situations that we tossed in your direction to build up a profile on you. Normally, you wouldn’t ever meet me, and you would most likely never know what I was doing. But we’ve had a bit of an emergency and Hanna needs to get in touch with you. So, she asked me to return your phone.”
“Does this mean I got the job?” Carl asked with a grin.
The man shrugged.
“I have no idea. I don’t make those decisions. I just analyze and report my findings in your portfolio. I let the higher ups decide what they want to do with that information.”
“Thanks,” Carl said. “I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”
The man smiled.
“Dude, you are so in love. It’s written all over you. Who’s the lucky woman?”
“That obvious. Huh? Just someone I met recently.”
“Okay, well, you have a great day. If you get hired, I suppose I’ll see you around. I’ll be doing your onboarding session and preliminary evaluations.”
“Great. I hope to see you again then,” Carl replied enthusiastically.
“Sure, my name is George, by the way,” the man said as he stuck out his hand.
Carl reached out and grabbed it firmly, pulling the man into a warm embrace.
“Wow, I didn’t see that coming in my analysis,” the man exclaimed with a chuckle. “Either you really are in love or you desperately need this job.”
“Probably a bit of both,” Carl admitted awkwardly.
He felt a bit miffed and embarrassed that the man had picked up that much about him in such a short time.
Carl really hoped that was all the man knew. That it wasn’t that obvious that he had fallen for Hanna. He really needed to get it together if he wanted this job. He had to step up his game. Otherwise, he would go back to working in another museum for a measly salary that was barely enough to pay his bills each month.
He loved the work itself and had been grateful for the experience it had provided him. Working as an assistant curator in the Greenvine Museum of Natural History had been interesting. He loved the expeditions and digs. Working with volunteers. Even holding office hours at the local university.
But Carl had outgrown that position and wanted something that paid much better. At first, he tried requesting a promotion, but he was told flat out that there was no chance for growth where he was unless he wanted to wait till the current curator retired or kicked the bucket.
He had spent a few months looking for a new job on the side without luck. Carl grew tired of the wait and put in his resignation. He made looking for a new position with a better salary his full-time job.
That had been three months ago. Carl had come close to getting something, but things had hadn’t panned out. They always paid him some dumb compliment right before letting him down and telling him that they had given the position to someone else.
Carl had been extremely frustrated and ready to throw in the towel when a headhunter had contacted him last week about this opening at Quest Technology Services. He hadn’t found the position very interesting at first, but for lack of other options, he had gone in for the interview just so no one could say that he hadn’t tried.
That was when he had first met Hanna. A brief chat over a cup of coffee before she explained to the group of potential candidates what she would expect of them if they were hired.
He had loved her passion and vision. Carl wanted to work with her and for her. He was sure he would be willing to do just about anything if she asked him personally. He was willing to apply himself diligently and do his best on the tests that the group was required to participate in.
But then when she told the group that the starting wage was a six-figure salary, he was sold. He didn’t care if he had to mop floors to get the job. Carl was determined to convince her that he was the right person for the job. He had slaved over every test and task.
In the end, it had all boiled down to himself and one other candidate. And it had been three days since he had last heard from anyone at the company. These had been the longest, most agonizing days of his life.
And now, Hanna was about to call him. In just a few moments, he would receive the call that had the potential to change his life.
Carl took a deep breath as he walked across the street towards a park in the middle of the city. He sat down on a bench and took several more deep breaths to calm his nerves. The last thing he wanted to do was sound anxious over the phone.
He didn’t have to wait long. The phone started to vibrate, and Carl let it ring a few times before answering it.
“Hello,” he said pleasantly.
“Hey, Carl. It’s Hanna. How are you doing?” she asked.
“Good. I’m doing really good. I have to admit that I’ve been a little anxious waiting for y’all to get back with me.”
“Oh, of course. I understand. That’s a perfectly reasonable way to feel when you’ve worked so hard to compete against so many other people for the same spot. You did really well and impressed us all. We loved your dedication and commitment to the entire process.”
Carl’s heart sank. There it was. The compliment. Right before they stuck the knife in and twisted it for the final kill. As if somehow paying him a compliment helped them feel better about letting him down. He held his breath and waited for her to continue on with rest of the details and ramble on with the blah blah blah.
“We wanted to make a decision sooner. I had scheduled a meeting with the board of directors the day before yesterday for us to go over your profiles and come to a consensus. But unfortunately, we had a huge issue come up that took all of our attention.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you got everything resolved okay,” he muttered despondently, not really meaning it.
He already knew what came next. A few more details about the decision process. Why the chose the person they did. The fact that he had only been discarded for the other person because of one tiny detail. And then the let down.
“So, we went over all the results from the tests and exercises that you finalists went through. It was really close. It was pretty much a tie between the two of you. But we had to make a choice, so in the end, it came down to one tiny thing that made all the difference.”
“And what was that?” he asked.
“Well, you know that we are expanding our network. And the next two countries that we’re targeting both speak Spanish. And since you don’t speak Spanish yet and Juan is fluent, we decided to go with him. But I want you to know that is the only reason we picked him over you. You were a really strong candidate with a lot of great experience under your belt.”
Carl tuned out immediately after that. He heard Hanna rambling on a bit more, but he didn’t listen to a thing she was saying. The sense of bitterness and disappointment was overwhelming. After three months of this frustration, he had had enough. It was more than he could take.
He had thrown himself into this opportunity for the past two weeks. Given it everything he had. Even if Hanna had asked for just a little bit more, he wouldn’t have been able to give it.
Suddenly, the phone went silent, and Carl realized that she had asked him a question and was waiting for an answer.
“I’m sorry, Hanna. I was in a park when you called and someone going by distracted me. I didn’t catch the last thing you said. Could you repeat that for me please.” he said as politely as he could.
All he really wanted to do though was scream and smash the phone into the sidewalk. Carl was ticked. Two weeks of his time that she had wasted. Two weeks that he could have been looking for something else. Two weeks of free work that he had done for her.
And now that nice fat salary that he had been dreaming of and counting on would go to someone else. He felt almost as much anger and hatred for her as almost as great as his love had been for her less than an hour ago.
No, not hatred. But just deep disappointment and regret at letting him get so emotionally involved in his head without any acknowledgment or reciprocation.
Not that it was her fault. He knew that it was completely on him. Carl had never let on how he felt, much less spoken to her about it because he didn’t want that to be something that could be used negatively against him.
So, he couldn’t blame her.
But he had been so sure that she was going to give him the job that he didn’t even consider it. Now, he wondered if it would have changed anything. If he had at least hinted that he cared for her or even given her some indication of how he felt, would that have tugged at her heartstrings? Possibly thrown things in his favor?
Carl wished so badly, that he could go back in time and change things just a little bit. At least try. A second chance. But now it was over.
He realized that she had repeated her question, but he still hadn’t caught it because he had been so deep in thought. So, he just said whatever came to mind.
“Okay, I understand your position, Hanna. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to at least give it a shot. I wish you all the best and your company lots of success.”
Carl figured he was supposed to say something to the effect of congratulating the guy who took his spot as well, but he just wasn’t in the mood.
He was ready to hang up and started to press the button. But then he wondered why George had given him a company phone. What was he supposed to do with it now? Was it a reward for his participation in their training?
Carl looked around for the shrink but didn’t see him anywhere around. Then he remembered about the man telling him that they were still observing him.
Why would they be doing that if they had already made the decision about the other guy who got the spot? Was this still part of the test? Were they still analyzing him and adding his reaction to his portfolio?
A twinge of excitement hit him. Not too much. He was careful not to get his hopes up.
“Carl? Did you hear what I said?” Hanna asked again.
“I’m afraid not,” Carl replied. “I don’t think the connection is very good here. Why did you give me a company phone anyway, if I didn’t get the position?”
“Standard procedure, Carl. We just wanted to make sure we were talking to you on a line that was encrypted at both ends.”
“So, what do I do when it when we wrap up the call? Is George still around?”
“No, Carl. He’s already back at the office. I saw him walk through a minute ago. I guess you really didn’t hear what I was asking you.”
“Sorry, I guess not,” he retorted.
Carl wanted to give her a piece of his mind and tell Hanna that she had given him the hardest bit of news that he had received in his life. But he didn’t. Carl bit his tongue and kept his mouth shut after that.
“I asked you if we could go out for coffee later on this afternoon. I’d love to meet you outside a business setting. You know, employer vs. employee kind of setting. Just to talk about normal people stuff. To get to know you as a person. I have to admit that you really left an impression on me. And you’re kind of cute too. Know what I mean? I kind of got a vibe from you. I think we really clicked. Like we were synchronized. On the same wavelength. I felt like we really hit it off and I wanted to explore it a little. See if there’s something there.” Hanna said quietly, her voice lowering and getting quieter at the end as if she were unsure of herself.
Carl couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was she for real? Rage flooded through his body and his pressure rose to the point where his vision started to black out. He breathed deeply to control his fury.
“Are you there, Carl,” Hanna asked. “I, um, sorry if I read things wrong. Maybe I’m mistaken. If so, that’s okay. Or maybe I’m not mistaken, but you’re upset about us choosing Juan, that’s okay too. I understand. I wish I could have talked to you about this earlier, but I didn’t want to confuse the lines between a personal and professional relationship before we had come to a final decision.”
Hanna’s voice trailed off at the end. She waited for a few seconds to give him time to reply.
“Well, I’m going to be at that little coffee shop at the corner where you and the other candidates would go after the training sessions. I’ll be there from four to five p.m. I hope to see you there.”
Carl wanted to laugh into the phone. What was this woman thinking? That she could just go on like nothing had happened after all of this. He was absolutely furious.
“Well, Hanna, I do appreciate the offer,” he finally said when he got his emotions back under control. “But I’ve got to get back on the wagon here and find another job. I’ve stopped looking after the training sessions started at Quest. So, I need to find something a.s.a.p. Even if it’s just a temporary gig. Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I’m gonna be really busy over the next few days. You know. I’m not in a very good place right now. I don’t think I would make for very good company. Perhaps when all of this is over, and I nail something down, then we can do the coffee thing. Okay.”
“Yeah. Sure, Carl. I understand perfectly. I appreciate your honesty. You’re probably right. Things might not have worked out any different anyway. I do this to myself. Set high expectations and then make a stupid mistake and shoot my own hopes down. I hope you aren’t angry about this. I apologize if I said or did anything that upset you or offended you. I just didn’t want to let the opportunity slip by without at least letting you know how I felt.”
Carl grinned to himself at the irony of the entire situation. Not less than ten minutes ago, he would have given anything to hear her say those words. He would have even given up that job position. He had even considered resigning if he thought he had a chance with her.
But now, that it had been snatched away from him, since she had snatched it away, and given it to someone else, everything had changed inside. His perspective of her had completely flipped a hundred and eighty degrees.
Even Carl was shocked at the complete change in his attitude. If someone had told him just twenty-four hours ago, he would have scoffed at the idea. Now, he had no idea what he was capable of doing even to himself if his thoughts, attitudes, and feelings could change so radically in a single moment.
“Thanks, Hanna. That was kind of you. I appreciate your courage and sticking your neck out on the line. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do something that bold.”
“Yeah, sure thing. Don’t mention it. I don’t think it was that bold of a thing to do. I did it mostly for myself. I try to follow my heart which means I can be pretty impetuous at times. But it also tends to get me into trouble.”
“Sure. I hear you. Well, I’m gonna run. I gotta meet up with my brother-in-law. He’s kind of a douchebag, but he’s family you know. So, gotta keep the peace.” he tried to say jokingly to lighten the mood.
“Okay. I’ll let you go then Carl. You take care now. Okay. Give me a call in the next week or so, if you change your mind or find some time to have that coffee.”
“Sure, Hanna. Bye-bye.” he said.
He waited for her to hang up. Carl had always had the impression that it was rude to hang up on someone who had called him. There was a long pause as if Hanna was waiting to hear if he would say something else.
But he held firm. He so wanted to let go of the anger and rage and bitterness. Tell her the truth. Confess that he had been madly and deeply in love with her the entire time. Tell her to wait and give him a few days for his wounded pride to heal.
Carl admitted that it was mostly just his pride that had been hurt. The fact that they had chosen Juan over him. But he didn’t want to let go. He didn’t want to tell her how he felt. He liked to nurse his grudges. He didn’t even know why. It was just an old habit of his.
Sit around and brood over the his broken ego and wallow in his own misery. Steep himself in negative thoughts for a week, until he was forced to do something about it. Only now, he didn’t have any time left. His bills were piling up. If he didn’t start making money soon, he was going to be in a real pickle. He was already feeling the effects of his three month cash crunch.
He had complained about his salary before while working at the museum. But at least he had enough to pay his bills and enjoy life. Recently, he didn’t do anything but look for jobs or sit at home. He didn’t go out anywhere with his friends anymore because he didn’t have the money.
But at least he could go work with his brother-in-law. It wasn’t anything fancy. It was just a mowing job in his brother-in-law’s landscaping business. He had offered Carl a bit over the average wage he paid his regular employees just a few weeks back.
Carl had turned him down because he wanted to be free to focus on finding his dream job full-time. But after all this time and no luck yet, Carl knew he should take it. Beggars can’t be choosy, he mumbled to himself.
He stood up and stretched. No time to be lazy. He’d call Carl and start first thing in the morning. He continued walking down the street in the same direction had been headed earlier.
Carl didn’t walk fast. Nor did he walk slow. He still had no specific destination in mind. Nowhere definite to go. Just meandering along. Out and about for an afternoon stroll.
It hadn’t been a good day. He wasn’t happy. Not happy at all. Carl was alone. He had just lost his dream job. Good pay. Great people. Energetic vibe. Intense learning experience. That he could have had, but he didn’t. And to top it all off, he wasn’t going to get to see Hanna any more.
But none of that mattered. He would get a job. Work his tail off. Make some money. Go back to school. Improve his resume. Then he would come back and get an even better job. Rub it all in their face. And if they offered him another, he would turn it down point blank.
Or better yet, he would start one of those business ideas that he had. Maybe they would come begging him for a job in a few years when the market changed. He smiled to himself and hummed a little tune as he walked down the sidewalk. Amongst the hustle and bustle of those who had places to go, things to do, and people to see.
Carl looked around wondering if that old shrink was watching him. Still taking notes. Filling out his portfolio. Analyzing his profile. Feeding them back to some nameless corporation.
He knew he would get his shot. It hadn’t been this time. The experience had been disappointing, but he was still alive. He was on his feet. And he would make a comeback when the time was right.
Carl put his cell phone to his ear.
“Hey, Dora! Is your husband there?”
“Well, listen, when he gets back in tonight, could you let him know that I’d be happy to come work with him tomorrow if he still needs a hand.”
“No, the opportunity didn’t pan out.”
“Yeah. Me too. I’m still pretty bummed out about it. But that’s life. Right?”
“Yep. I’m sure it will. Another opportunity will come around and my number will pop up.”
“Okay. Thanks. I love you too. Bye.”
When Igor is invited to his archrival’s party, he knows something is up, but he wants to keep the peace. However, everything goes south when his enemy is killed. And of course, Igor takes the blame.
Now, he has to prove his innocence and stay alive, while protecting those who want to blame him for the crime they think he committed.
Can Igor stay alive long enough to figure out what’s really going on and put a stop to it before it’s too late?
An action-packed thriller you can read in a single sitting with only 12,000 explosive words to solve the crime in 4 short chapters.
Start reading Chapter 1 – Old Dreams now >>>
Tom Bentson is tired of moving every few months. He just wants to get a little job to make some money. Then he can rent his own place when his uncles move on.
But when his family asks him to help out with a little hustle, Tom knows he’s in for some shady business. Fortunately for him, Tom makes some new friends and finds a way to make the money he is looking for.
Until he meets his new friend’s crazy neighbor. Then things might not turn out so well for him.
Mystery abounds in this little city, and Tom just may have something to do with it. However, only time will tell.
Meantime, read Scorpion Sparks and meet Tom in this short read of 10,000 words that teens and adults can read in a single sitting.
Start reading Chapter 1 – Strange Dreams now >>>
When the evil doctor ships the woman he loves off into the dead of winter on a Russian Train, Alecks is determined to do whatever it takes to get her back.
Even if that means having to break out of his prison cell. He doesn’t know how he’ll manage to get past all the guards and stop the train.
But fortunately for Alecks he has someone looking out for him ever since he was attacked by the Bodark and his comrades were slaughtered in the snow.
Maybe, just maybe, whatever happened to him on that dark night will give him the edge he needs to bring back the love of his life before it’s too late.
Another short read for teens and adults that is only 8,000 words that you breeze through in one sitting.
Start Reading Chapter 1 – Torn Here >>>
I’m really excited because Episode 2 of the Edge of the Universe comes out in a couple of days. And I can’t wait.
So, meantime, I’m releasing a short story from April’s point of view about what she discovered in Sector Seven, and why she left Tony. You can download it for FREE right here on the blog
Or just start reading Chapter 1 – Breaking & Entering right here on the blog >>>
It’s about 10,000 words (30 pages or so depending on who’s counting) which means you can probably read it in less than thirty minutes.
Once you’re done reading this story, go ahead and grab a free copy of Rise! (the first book in the Edge of the Universe series as well)…if you haven’t read it yet.
Once you read, Floor 47, I would love to hear your thoughts on April and her reaction to Tony trying to have her killed off.
She totally surprised me in this story.
I mean, I’ve been planning this series for nigh on to five years now, and I pictured her in a completely different way.
April just stormed in and took over the story, demanding to know what was going on down in Sector Seven and throwing her personality around like she was the one telling the story.
We had a little argument there for a while.
I tried to put her back in her role and make her do what I wanted.
But she was a feisty little character and put her foot down hard.
So, this was the story of what happened to April Roman on Floor 47 the fateful night she broke into LocTech and realized what was going on down in Sector Seven.
Start Reading Chapter 1 – Breaking & Entering >>>
Hey there! Another quick short story. This one was inspired by a video I watched about the Bermuda triangle. 300 ships and 75 planes all disappearing into the sky. Hope you enjoy it. And yes, this does tie in directly to an ealier short story called ‘City In The Clouds‘.
The clouds rolled in thick and dark. Towering hundreds of feet high. Extremely unnatural for this time of the year on this section of the planet. It pressed onward in their direction.
Unrushed. Unhurriedly. Slowly. Steadily.
Pushing forward into all the other clouds before it.
The crowd quickly gathered around. Everyone craning their necks to get a better look. Some quickly brushed it off as normal and moved on as if the cloud wasn’t really there.
Gayle stayed around with those who remained. Soon, most of them began to chat about other things. Seemingly unworried about the sheer size of the massive billows steadily coming closer.
She lay down and kept a close eye on it. Gayle didn’t care if anyone else was interested in it or not. She was going to try to understand this strange phenomenon and figure this thing out.
After a bit, the rest of the crowd began to disperse as well.
“Not much we can do about it anyway, best get back to work,” she overheard one man say to his companion.
“Aye, but it sure seems strange though. Never seen something like this in all my days. And I’m a lot older than you are.”
“That you are, old man. That you are. You must be at least four hundred times as old as me,” the younger one laughed as the older man swung out his cane.
Gayle smiled. These crazy folk in Stratosville were a humorous bunch. She was glad her family had moved here. It was much nicer than the previous cloud they had lived on before. Resources were harder to come by, and their neighbors were always uptight and cranky.
Suddenly, Gayle realized what seemed so surreal about this enormous strange cloud still threatening to overtake them.
It was because the massive, dark thunderhead wasn’t moving quickly and overtaking their cloud. Nor was it drifting so slowly that their billows were catching up to the larger one.
As she watched closely, Gayle noticed that the enormous atmospheric phenomenon wasn’t drifting with the current wind currents at all. In fact, it wasn’t even simply floating in place because it was too large to be pushed about by the gusts that often threatened to sweep Gayle off her cloud as at that altitude.
It was literally moving against the wind currents as if it sought to collide head-on with all the other clouds in its path.
As she watched, Gayle a sense of foreboding washed over her.
It seemed as if this cloud wasn’t just drifting through the others. But instead, it seemed to swallow them up and assimilate them. Making them a part of its larger self. Whatever it was.
Gayle had often heard horror stories like these since she grew up among the cloud people. Her mother warned not to go jumping off onto strange unexplored clouds or wander off too far where she might be devoured by a Cloud Eater.
And now, with this strange atmospheric phenomenon, she was sure of it. This was the Cloud Eater.
Gayle raced home to find her mother. Diving down into the entrance when she arrived. Calling for her mother.
“Great clouds on fire, child! What’s all this screeching about?”
“Mother, the dark cloud. It’s the cloud eater. It’s coming. We have to get away from here.” Gayle pleaded, tears streaming down her face. “Come! Come see.”
“I already saw it, silly girl. It’s not the Cloud Eater. No such thing even exists. It’s just a story that parents use to make their children behave. I’m sorry if we scared you. Go sit down at the table and I’ll make you a snack.”
The mother turned and glided down the hall. Gayle didn’t stick around. She raced off to her best friends home.
“Ventis! Ventis!” she called desperately upon arriving at her home.
No one answered quickly enough, so Gayle barged right on in, diving into her friend’s bedroom.
“Hey, Gayle! You spooked me. I didn’t hear you coming. What’s up?”
“It’s the Cloud Eater, Ventis. I saw it. It’s this huge, dark, enormous cloud out there. Eating up every other cloud. Come and see it for yourself.” Gayle pleaded.
“Silly, girl. That’s not a Cloud Eater out there. I saw that earlier today on my way back from school. Even before anyone else. I think I was the first to notice it.” Ventis declared proudly. “Besides, I can’t go out right now. I’m grounded this week. Remember?”
Gayle sighed despondently.
“Oh, c’mon. Don’t cry.” Ventis continued trying to comfort her. “Our parents just use those stories to keep us in line. Most kids our age don’t even believe them anymore. I can’t believe you still do. We only tell those stories at night under the light of the full moon to try to scare each other. Remember?”
Gayle nodded and turned to leave.
“Hey, don’t go running around screaming anything else about the Cloud Eater out there. You’ll be the lacking stock of the Aereyons when the story gets back to them of the girl who cried Cloud Eater.”
Ventis giggled as Gayle stomped off furiously.
How could these people be so blind? They couldn’t see the obvious when it was right in front of their faces. They told themselves these stories for so long and convinced themselves that they were only children’s fables. Talking themselves right out of seeing the danger in front of their very eyes.
Gayle stormed furiously through the village to the far end of the cloud for a better view. She paused once or twice along the way to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. A few of them even jokingly referred to it as the Cloud Eater.
“Yep, if it looks like a Cloud Eater and moves like a Cloud Eater, it’s probably a Cloud Eater.” One of the men said mockingly, and everyone standing around him joined in the laughter.
“How can they be so stupid,” Gayle muttered to herself.
She had to find a way to convince them that this was indeed a Cloud Eater and get them out of here before it was too late.
Gayle finally arrived at the edge of her billowy, white cloud.
Old man Atmos was standing on the very edge. Watching the massive, dark threat looming high over their heads.
He had once been the chief of their cloud. A very busy man. But after an argument with the current chief over some petty issue, old man Atmos had been ousted from the clan. He had spent many years traveling, but recently returned. He lived by himself on a smaller cloud, and it was rare to see him over here on Stratosville.
“Oh, hello there, Gayle,” he mumbled. “What are you doing out here at this hour. Shouldn’t you be at home doing your homework.”
She nodded. Surprised that the old man remembered her name. Most normal adults didn’t even call her by name. They just called her little girl or child. Even her mother rarely called her by name unless she was angry about something. h
“How is that cloud propelling itself against the wind and assimilating all the other clouds in its path?” she asked meekly because she was sure that he was going to make a joke of it and start laughing at her for her foolishness.
Old man Atmos didn’t though. He actually turned to her with a surprised look on his face.
“Hmm, so you noticed it too. Huh? And where did you learn such big words from, Gayle?”
The young girl just nodded and beamed with pleasure. She prided herself for reading the dictionary and encyclopedia every day to increase and improve her vocabulary.
“I’m afraid I do know what it is, but I need to find a way to get higher. Would you like to join me?” he asked.
She didn’t look at him but continued watching the dark billows growing ever closer. If that thing was the Cloud Eater, they were all doomed. There was no escape for those on Stratosville.
Gayle finally looked up after considering her options. If it weren’t a Cloud Eater, her mother would scold her for running off like that. But still, all things considered, it was better to be reprimanded by her mother than annihilated by that thing. Whatever it was.
“Yes,” she finally managed to say, as she took Old Man Atmos’ hand.
Old Man Atmos led her from cloud to cloud. They moved higher as they went, seeking to rise above it.
Away from the giant, dark cloud that came steadily onward against the wind currents. The same wind current that pushed the other clouds ahead of it directly into his waiting jaws.
Gayle had the impression that the large cloud formation was a living, seething, angry being. Like a celestial being that was scowling down upon those before it. Preparing to pour out its wrath and fury.
It was a long, hard climb. Gayle was soon panting and unable to keep up with Atmos. But if they didn’t hurry, they would quickly be swallowed up too. So, she sucked it up, took a deep breath, and tried to keep up with him.
But the climb was too steep for Gayle’s thin, frail frame. Especially trying to make it up the last few clouds toward the end.
Atmos came back for her. Stooping low to pick her up off the puffy billow Gayle had paused to rest upon. Panting heavily she began to cry.
“I can’t make it. Go on without me. I don’t want to hold you back too.”
But he didn’t listen. Atmos swooped her up easily. She was small and light for her age. Atmos continued the climb, carrying her on his back.
It made her feel safe and secure as if he would protect her from the fury of the cloud before them. She clung tightly to his neck and nestled her head into the back of his thick, silvery-white hair.
Gayle could sense that her weight, slight as it was, still slowed him down. But he didn’t complain about having to bring her along, and for that she was grateful.
There was one unusually long leap from one cloud to another that she almost didn’t think he was going to make. It was a huge jump even for him on his own. And with her on his back, she didn’t know how he made it.
She actually thought he was going to wait for another cloud to blow closer, but he was anxious to get to the top and didn’t want to wait for it. She closed her eyes and held her breath. They made it. Just barely, but it was enough.
After that, it wasn’t far. Just a few more short hops on up and they finally made it out onto a small cloud that was level with the larger one. Gayle gasped at the sight before her. Large jagged spikes curved up and out of the top of the evil-looking thunderhead. Gayle shivered and closed her eyes briefly.
They were still headed on a collision course with the larger cloud though, and she felt Old Man Atmos moving farther along the edges trying to make his way higher.
He managed to pick out a path up higher over the top of the larger cloud and off to the side where they were out of its way as long as the winds held steady and didn’t shift directions.
Atmos set the young girl down carefully and sat beside her to catch his breath. He scooted closer to the edge. Hanging his legs freely over the sides of the cloud they were on.
Gayle didn’t have the courage to sit beside him. So, she lay on her belly and glided forward till she came up beside him. Close enough to peer over the edge. She hung on to puffs of the cloud tightly. Just in case a draft of wind tried to playfully push her over the edge.
She was high enough up, and there were enough clouds before her, that they would probably catch her and break her fall. But then Gayle would have to find her way back up here again on her own. She preferred to stay right here beside the old man in safety.
Her home cloud was nowhere in sight, she glanced around nervously in all directions.
“Where is Stratosville?” she asked Atmos anxiously.
He pointed it out to her off to the side a little ways. It was closer to the big cloud than she had expected it to be. Almost under one of its large billowy overhangs. It wouldn’t be long till Stratosville collided with the larger cloud.
Gayle hadn’t ever been this high up or far away from her home before without her mother before. She looked down and sucked in her breath. It was just a small speck far below them.
“Will everyone make it out on the other side okay?” she asked almost in tears. “Will the city cooling condensers be strong enough to hold up against a cloud that size?”
“I hope so,” he said softly. “I tried to warn the leaders that we were entering a dangerous area that the humans call the Bermuda Triangle. I warned them that many ships and planes have been swallowed by the clouds here. But they just laughed at me. I told them that they needed to decrease the temperature to form ice crystals which would solidify the cloud and strengthen it when the time came. Maybe giving them a chance to survive. But they didn’t want to waste the fuel. They said it would take too much work to replace later.”
“You mean the lazy bums just didn’t want to have to work hard after it was over,” she said bitterly. “Was my father there with them?”
Atmos nodded sadly.
“Unfortunately. I tried to turn the condensers down myself, but the leaders wouldn’t let me. I even offered to gather the extra fuel too. They refused to listen to me. They said I was just a silly old fool. I would have stayed with them if they had listened. But they didn’t, and that’s why I left.”
The thought of her family and friends not making it through to the other side horrified her. Most natural clouds that collided with one made by cooling condensers just slipped right on through. Sometimes, a larger cloud would even join up with theirs for a time. Pulled along with it.
Two clouds with cooling condensers were never allowed to collide though. The stronger one with the most cooling condensers would end up tearing the other apart. If the collision was unavoidable, both cities had to work together swiftly to synchronize their systems. One large cloud would form, and the two would be merged together forever.
But it wasn’t just the size of the giant cloud that concerned her. It was the menace of the large, jagged curves coming up from inside the puffy white billows.
The cloud itself no longer looked dark and dangerous from her position up here. The sun hanging low on the horizon off to her their right actually lit it up brightly, even colorfully. If it were any other normal cloud, it would have been a stunningly gorgeous view as the hues of gold and yellow reflected the rays all around them.
Gayle glanced back down along the sides of the large cloud and could see just how far the sun’s rays traveled. The cloud grew darker, the farther down she looked until it was a dark, hideous gray at the bottom that matched the curved spikes rising out of the golden, yellow puffs before her. She shivered once again at the darkness before her.
It felt so evil. Like dark figures that often haunted her dreams. Figures she could never actually see but could sense surrounding her, watching her, disturbing her. She could feel them here now.
“What is that thing, Atmos?” she asked.
The old man shook his head slowly from side to side.
“I don’t know, child. After I left the village, I spent time wandering the paths of the sky. I traveled all the way to Aereyon.”
“Oh,” Gayle gasped. “Is it as beautiful as my mother tells me?”
“Even more beautiful, young lady. Words can’t truly describe it. It is a sight you must see for yourself.”
“So, what did you learn on this trip?”
“I met many wanders who told stories of this threat that hides in the clouds. They had many names for it. Some called it the ‘Drifting Wraith’. Others simply called them ‘Death Clouds’. One even told me that he knew where they came from. He said they came from above. He said that they come from the land of Kruvia where they are known as Dhaqs.
“There’s a monster inside that cloud?” she asked interrupting the old man.
He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. Then smiled warmly at her.
Gayle could sense though that he was only smiling to calm her down. She could tell that inwardly, he was just as terrified as she if not more because of the tales he had heard.
Old Man Atmos stood to his feet and stretched. He handed a cooling condenser that he had brought along with him.
“You stay here. I’m going down to take a closer look. If I don’t make it back, you burrow down into this cloud for the night. Use this cooling condenser to make sure it does dissipate from around you. And then in the morning, head that way until you come to Aereyon.” he said pointing in the opposite direction of the setting sun.
“Why?” she asked.
“You must warn the Aereyons of this great danger. The wanderers say that the Dhaq seek Aereyon. They hope to stumble across it and consume the great city in the clouds. Others say that the Dhaq already know of its location, but they are not yet strong enough to attack it. So, they feed off smaller clouds and cities until the time is right.”
“But what will I tell them when I get there? That is if I ever even make it.” she cried.
“Tell them what you have seen here today. Tell them what happened to Stratosville. Hopefully, they will listen before it is too late.”
“I hope it works well. It is one that I made myself. There should be enough fuel in it to last you for a few nights so you can sleep well. Turn it off during the day to conserve the energy as long as possible. Hopefully, you will find more before it runs out.”
“Please don’t leave me,” she pleaded softly.
“I must try to find out what these things are exactly if we hope to have a chance to fight them. I shouldn’t be gone long. I’m just going right over there.” Atmos said pointing to the closest edge of the large cloud.
“So, why are you giving me the cooling condenser and telling me to make the trip on my own?” she said crying. Tears flowing down her cheeks.
“Only in case, something happens. I am an old man. I could fade away at any time. It is the way of life. I am ready for that moment. I want you to be as well.”
“What if I get lost?” she asked quietly.
“Don’t worry. You’ll find others along the way who will guide you in the right direction. Look for solid clouds that don’t wisp away at the edge. You’ll recognize them. It’s easy to find Aereyon because it never leaves its place. It remains fixed just over the highest mountains on land.”
The young girl stopped sobbing. She grabbed onto the old man’s hand and clung to him. He patted her head softly and hummed her a song that she remembered her mother used to sing her to sleep at night.
Gayle couldn’t contain herself any longer. She wrapped her arms around his legs and sobbed loudly.
Atmos waited patiently for the young girl to stop. When she had stopped sniffling, he knelt down beside her and leaned forward, giving her a big hug. She squeezed him back tightly around the neck.
“Promise me that you will go straight to the city of Aereyon. Ask to speak with the queen. And tell her all that you have seen and all that I have told you. Don’t leave out one word.”
Gayle nodded bravely. She stood on the highest point of her cloud. Watching as the old man leaped from cloud to cloud back in the direction of the ominous, jagged curves rising out of the top of the cloud.
It seemed to her that she could see less of long curved spikes than before. As if the giant mass had assimilated the clouds that collided with itself and built them up higher around its jagged curves.
Soon, the old man was just a speck in the distance. She leaped over to another cloud that was just a bit higher and blocking her view. She climbed up to a tip of the cloud that jutted up above the rest.
Gayle watched Old Man Atmos pause before making his final leap onto the large cloud itself. And then, he just disappeared, as if the darkness or whatever was inside had swallowed him whole.
She stood there for what seemed like hours. Holding her breath. Waiting for Atmos to reappear. But the old man never did. She was completely and utterly alone.
Gayle was still standing there for what seemed like hours and even days until her little cloud floated on past the larger one.
She kept her eyes peeled, looking down below out the far end of the cloud, anxiously waiting to see if Stratosville would waft on through. Breaking out into the bright, clean air behind it. But it never did.
The young girl never saw her home cloud again. Not that night. Nor the next day. Nor ever again. No one ever heard from anyone at Stratosville after that.
When the fading sun began to set, Gayle activated the cooling condenser and burrowed down deep into the billowy puffs. Pulling them tightly around her.
Gayle cried herself to sleep. Cried for her family. Cried for Ventis. And even cried for Old Man Atmos.
She knew that the old man had known Stratosville wouldn’t survive the collision. He had known he wouldn’t return from his expedition into the dark thunderhead full of Dhaqs or whatever those things were.
She imagined him fighting whatever controlled the dark cloud from within. Seeking to destroy it. Seeking to stop it. Or at the very least gain control. Giving his life to protect others.
Gayle didn’t understand why. It seemed so futile. So pointless. It had all been in vain.
After she had cried her eyes dry with no tears left to shed, she pulled a few more billowing puffs of cloud around her body and made up her mind to travel to Aereyon.
She would begin her journey. But she swore that along the way, she would discover who these Drifting Wraiths were. She would find out what powered their Death Clouds. And she would learn how to eliminate them. Then she would travel to Kruvia and destroy them all.
She, young Gayle of Stratosville, would become the Destroyer of the Cloud Eater that had devoured her home cloud.
Those were her final thoughts as she drifted off to sleep.
The brave young lass didn’t see the large dark beings pulling themselves out of the dark cloud. Pulling themselves onto the large, jagged spikes. Shaking themselves off. Then leaping into the air to flit and play under the light of the moon until the sun came up. Gloating over their victory over another city that day.
Neither did they seem to notice her, tucked away in her little cloud that was drifting safely away in the opposite direction under the light of the stars. Little dreaming that their greatest future nightmare lay innocently passing them so closely by.
Thank you for reading my short story! I hope you enjoyed it.
If so, make sure to read more of my stories on here on the blog, as well as sign up to get updates when I release new stories at https://DaveBailey.me/go/crew
Read my web novel called ‘Edge Of The Universe’ at https://www.wattpad.com/story/166114932-edge-of-the-universe-art-on-the-run
Or continue to meander on through my fictional musings here at https://DaveBailey.me
You can also follow my daily writings on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/DaveBaileyMe/posts
For reprint or licensing options, contact Dave Bailey directly at http://davebailey.me/go/contact