Note this is the prog (in-progress) version and may change when the book comes out
In the middle of the ocean in the Transpide, Pocerni held the gray and blue orbs near his head, eyes closed.
“So do you have anything?” Numer asked.
“Come on, let him focus,” Cherry said.
Pocerni opened his eyes. “Got it. Duston returned to the same place. That makes sense. It usually ignored the floggles who worshipped it anyway.”
“What and where is Duston?” Cherry asked.
“It’s at a mountain jutting out of the sea,” said Pocerni.
“I’ll bet that’s Sea Mountain,” Zeth said.
Numer smiled and held up a hand. “See? Mountain.”
“No, we’re not there yet,” said their driver.
Pocerni stared at them. “Right. Anyway, it’s like a stone statue most of the time, but it activates when it has to.”
“You mean we’re fighting a rock?” Numer asked. “Great. How do you hurt rock?”
“With another rock, maybe,” Pocerni said. “Our fight had some special circumstances.”
Duth_Olec: Everyone knows that you hurt rock with water, grass, or… ground or fighting.
Wally_Plotch: Wait, with what?
Duth_Olec: Look, I admit I may sometimes be influenced by things. But not right now.
Wally_Plotch: But sometimes?
Duth_Olec: No, what gave you that idea?
Wally_Plotch: You just—okay.
They arrived at Sea Mountain, an outcrop of chunky orange and brown rock in the middle of the ocean that rose into the sky. They drove onto a plateau at the mountain’s base and up a winding path.
“Lower or higher?” Zeth asked.
“Higher,” Pocerni said. “Duston remained near the top of the mountain, so it may have returned up there.”
“How would it have gotten there if it’s just stone?” Numer asked.
“The ways of the guardians are mysterious, dude,” Pocerni said. “They’re deities of a sort. The floggles who lived here believed Duston’s spirit could travel through stone and reform itself wherever enough stone was.”
“No floggles here now,” Cherry said.
“This place looks pretty empty now,” Pocerni said.
The path rose to the edge of a crater just smaller than a Nottle house. Several crawbers in the crater dug through the rock with drills and chipped away with pickaxes.
“Well, I suppose it’s not completely empty,” Zeth said. “Hello, down there!”
“What’s that? Who’s there?” On the path around the crater, a plump stroo wearing a long-billed cap sat on a steel chair raised on stilts. Upon Zeth’s shout he sat up with a start, shaking his thick feathers.
Zeth drove to the stroo. “Ah, hello, sir, we’re just passing through.”
The stroo snorted. “Huh, passing through. Nobody just passes through on this”—he cleared his throat—“empty mountain.”
“Passing by, then?” Zeth asked.
Cherry crossed her arms. “So what are you doing here?”
“Just a bit of excavating,” the stroo said. “Fossils, old tools, you know, things used by whoever lived here thousands of years ago or whenever.” He reached into a cooler next to the chair and lifted a glass bottle. He examined the bottle cap, looked at the crawbers, then grunted and placed the bottle back in the cooler.
“You’d have better luck looking lower down the mountain, then, dude,” Pocerni said.
“Bah,” the definitely-excavating stroo said, “what do you know?”
“Probably more about ten thousand years ago than most do now,” Pocerni said.
“Look, just get to passing through, would you?” The plump stroo waved a wing at them.
“Passing by,” Zeth said. He drove the Transpide around the crater to resume the path.
“And by the way,” Pocerni said, looking back to his modern-day counterpart, “you should really look into a diet plan.”
“Big talk for a thin strip,” the stuffed stroo said. “You’re as thin as your slube pals.”
Numer looked at the crawbers as they passed. It looked like hard work down there, the sun shining overhead. He knew crawbers liked to be near water. He sure couldn’t do that work. He wondered how the crawbers could.
They turned a corner, leaving the crater out of sight. Numer had his own work to do, and he was sure he could do it. Probably.
Cherry looked at Pocerni. “I didn’t like that guy, either, but that was a bit rude.”
“It was?” Pocerni shrugged. “I mean, dude looked what, forty? Maybe even fifty. He looked as unhealthy as a stroo can get. He can’t live long like that.”
“He didn’t look that bad,” Numer said.
“Well, compare to Pocerni,” Cherry said. “Maybe stroos were a lot healthier in his day.”
“Perhaps modern conveniences gave way to modern weight,” Zeth said.
“And modern politeness,” Cherry said. “Well, I guess you were just trying to help.”
“Or perhaps the lost health was the result of a lot of sitting,” Zeth said. “For example, take our friend’s legs-”
Two pairs of thin, hooved legs dropped onto the Transpide, skittering on the round roof. Numer shouted and backed down flat on his seat. Zeth screeched the Transpide to a stop as the white legs slid off the Transpide onto the path.
The legs were connected to a slender body covered in thick, green protrusions. A slender, brown head with pointed ears and snout emerged from one end, while two longer brown protrusions emerged from the sides like the head. The bush-looking animal flailed its legs, rocking on the rigid, blunt protrusions.
“Why, it’s a callare,” Zeth said. “We must be nearing the top. I imagine it jumped from a spot above and by sheer accident landed on us.”
“What does it think it is, a daredevil?” Numer asked.
The callare flailed its legs until it rolled right off the cliff. Everyone shouted as the animal dropped from sight. Cherry jumped out of the Transpide and peered over the edge.
“Hey, it’s alive,” Cherry said. “It fell on a small outcrop.”
“I’m fine with your eyewitness,” Numer said, covering his eyes.
“It hardly looks hurt,” Cherry said.
“Ah, yes, that’s right,” Zeth said. “Those thick bristles are hard enough to cushion falls from steep heights.”
“You mean it’s not to disguise it as a bush?” Numer asked.
Cherry returned to the Transpide. “Yeah, it just slowly stumbled onto its legs. Must take a tough body to live up here.”
Numer looked at the cliff above. “Can we get moving before another one drops on us?” Crawbers digging, bush-animals falling… It took a tough will to survive on a mountain. Numer felt his squishy body was out of place among the rocks. Then again, Pocerni said floggles once lived there, a rather squishy and gangly species. They jumped high, though, so that would help to get up a mountain. Then again, Pocerni said more artifacts would be found lower.
Numer shrugged. Why was he thinking about that? He had to get his mind focused.
Higher up the mountain they traveled, seeing more callares jump along outcrops high into the air. Fortunately no more fell on them. They drove along the outside of the mountain and through a few open-roofed tunnels deeper in the mountain. A few times Zeth sprang the Transpide onto a higher ledge in a graceless mockery of the callares’ leaps. Eventually they arrived at a plateau near the peak, a wall of craggy rocks blocking it from view outside. No callares ventured into the area. In the middle stood a tall, black stone, hexagonal around and pointed at the top.
“It’s Duston.” Pocerni exited the Transpide and walked to the rock. Numer and Cherry followed.
“It’s just a big rock,” Numer said.
“A big statue,” Pocerni said. “It stays like this until it needs to move. Hey, Duston! We’re here to challenge you for the orb.”
The stone remained still.
“Maybe it just looks like Duston,” Cherry said.
“No, it just takes some time to get going,” said Pocerni.
Numer sat down and rubbed the rock floor. It was so exposed that there was hardly any sediment, just a few broken pebbles near raised stone. It felt as smooth as glass.
Numer jerked his head up as the statue shook. The top point opened to a hole from which emerged a round stone with some dozen blue-green crystal spikes jutting out. At two opposite corners of the main stone emerged long crystals, two each connected at one end as if arm joints.
“So what, it just sits there?” Cherry asked.
“It allows others to come to it,” Pocerni said. “Has little contact with cleeple, so it just sits motionless most of the time.”
“Well, let’s see what it’s got,” Zeth said. He fired a burst missile at Duston. The statue move not one inch. “Right, trying to push it around doesn’t work. That’s not all I have.” He fired the Transpide’s flamethrower and electric sparks. Still Duston wouldn’t budge.
The big rock grabbed the Transpide with its crystal arms and lifted the vehicle over its head. “Oh dear. Oh dear! Oh my! Oh dear!” Zeth screamed as Duston hurled the Transpide. The vehicle careened off a boulder and crashed on its side halfway across the plateau.
“Zeth! Are you okay?” Cherry asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Zeth said. “Ouch. But perhaps you will be fine with leaving me out of this match?”
“Leaving you out?” Numer looked at Duston. Its arms returned to a resting position. “I think I’d rather leave Duston out of it.”
“Well, let’s try another rock.” Pocerni lifted a loose rock roughly head-size. He threw it at Duston, and the rock shattered. They stared at the fragments for a moment. “Okay. Any other ideas?”
“I’d try hitting it myself,” Cherry said, “but I get the feeling this is going to take something besides brute force.”
“Well, we can always try it,” Numer said. “Just try something harder than a rock.” He wogged to Duston and swung his mallet charged with a particle beam. Numer shuddered like a jackhammer after hitting the stone, not even scratching Duston. It grabbed Numer, and he screamed.
“Let go of him!” Cherry smacked the crystal arms with her tail, and Duston dropped Numer. They backed away from its arm reach.
“Ouch. I was right about that,” Cherry said, rubbing her tail. “That thing is hard.”
Numer looked at Pocerni. “How did you beat it?”
Pocerni sighed. “Like I said, there were special circumstances for us.”
“Us?” Numer asked.
“I said I was traveling with others before,” Pocerni said. “One of them turned out to be bad news. Look, that’s not going to help us. We need to find some way to get through Duston with what we got.”
“Zeth!” Cherry said. “Get over here.”
“I’d rather not be in this confrontation,” Zeth said.
“I said get over here.”
“Okay.” Zeth slogged over, slumped. “What is it?”
“You’re a professor, right?” Cherry asked.
Zeth mumbled. “Well, maybe I’m not entirely yet a professor, but, you know, I have been working on it, sort of, in a way that’s not entirely-”
“Look, we just need some intelligent ideas for beating this thing,” Cherry said, and she rolled her eyes and threw up her hands, adding, “so why am I asking you?”
“Oh, I can do that,” Zeth said, smiling. “Now, those diamond arms of it look pretty strong. After all, diamond can cut things.”
“How do we even know it’s diamond?” Cherry asked.
“It has all the appearance of diamond,” Zeth said. “Obviously it is diamond.”
“You never studied geology, though, did you?” Cherry asked.
“The point is,” Zeth said, “we could try knocking its arms into its stone part. Perhaps it will break or at least fall over.”
“But how are we going to hit it with its own arms?” Numer asked.
“The Mallet Blaster,” Zeth said. “If you charge it up first, we should be able to knock its arms back.”
“Great.” Numer shook his head. “How do we know it’s not hearing us discuss this right now?”
Cherry pointed to the round stone head. “Do you see any ears on it?”
“Ears?” Numer rubbed the sides of his head. “Sure, maybe not visible, although those crystals in its head must be for something.”
“Whatever. Just try it,” Cherry said.
“Do I have to?” Numer asked. “I’m not sure about this.”
“Don’t be nervous, Numer,” Cherry said. “Go ahead or give me the mallet so I can do it.”
“All right, I’ll do it,” Numer said.
He inched towards Duston. The statue made no move. Numer almost made no move. Like an inchworm, or perhaps more accurately a slug, he edged closer and closer to Duston. Finally he was within reach for a swing. The statue remained still. Numer charged a particle beam and swung his mallet at the crystal arm. The hit slammed the arm into Duston’s body, and Numer jumped back.
Duston moved its arm back to the prior position. Still not one scratch.
“Well, that didn’t work,” Cherry said. “Maybe we could try to knock off those diamonds on its head.”
Zeth scratched his chin. “They look rather solid on there. Could we try knocking it over?”
“I don’t see that helping,” Pocerni said. “It’ll just continue to sit there like nothing happened.”
“There must be some way to break through it,” Zeth said. “Nothing is indestructible at some level, even if that level is slowly removing molecules from it.”
“Right, like with water,” Cherry said. “Slowly carving through rock over millions of years. Unfortunately, we don’t have a million years.”
“Well, we have more sophisticated technology than just water,” Zeth said. “Maybe enough shots from the Mallet Blaster could get through at some point.”
As they discussed their options, Numer wogged around Duston, keeping distance from its arms. The big rock looked the same from all sides; in short, it had radial symmetry, except that’s a term used for biological creatures and not rocks.
Numer focused on Duston from top to bottom—it lacked symmetry in that direction. The body was huge. How could anything break through it? It was built like a fortress. The arms weren’t a main part of the structure at all.
So the head, then? Maybe Cherry was onto something by knocking the crystals off, but those seemed extraneous like the arms. The main black stone part of the head, though—maybe something could be done to that.
Numer backed up behind Duston. Well, on the side opposite to the others—who was to say what was front and back?
“Well, yeah, something can destroy it,” Pocerni responded to Cherry, “but I don’t want to say what. Believe me: I got no more idea of what to do than-”
Cherry held up a hand. “Hold on. Numer. What are you doing?”
“I’ve got an idea,” Numer said. He looked around distractedly. “So if it doesn’t work and it tries to kill me, be ready.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna try to kill you, dude, just hurl you away,” Pocerni said.
“Shouldn’t you tell us what you’re doing first?” Cherry asked.
Numer shrugged. “Zeth never does.”
He sleeged towards Duston and slammed the rock ground with his mallet, launching himself into the air. He dropped down to Duston and smashed the top of its head with his mallet. The force jammed Duston’s head into the main body. The crystals on its head burst out through the body like rockets and blew it apart. Duston’s body shattered and collapsed into a pile of rubble, which Numer fell into.
“Hah! Now that’s what I call using your head, or someone else’s head,” Pocerni said, pulling Numer up onto his tail.
“That was great, Numer,” Cherry said, patting his back. “I can’t believe we stood around talking about it and getting nowhere while you just went for it and got it.”
“Once again you’ve proven I gave the right clerpson to the Mallet…” Zeth stumbled, “gave the right Mallet Blaster to the… Wow. Wait, I got it. Gave to the Mallet clerpson… You know what I mean.”
Numer shrugged. “Yeah, I was staring at that head, and it just looked like a big button that I could push with the Mallet Blaster. So I went for it.” Numer rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, I could have mentioned it, but I figured I could just try it myself.”
“Fine with me,” Cherry said. “You get a plan, you just go for it.”
“I would imagine this as a test of ingenuity,” Zeth said. “If Sybius is a test of stamina, then perhaps these guardians are not all intended to be simply a fight.”
Pocerni shrugged. “Maybe. Fighting seemed to work for us, anyway, for the most part.” He picked up a brown orb in the rubble. “Okay, we only got two more left. I’ll use this and the green orb to find the yellow orb, and then we can get the last one, which shouldn’t be too hard. After that, well, then comes the hard part.”
Numer groaned. “Gee, thanks for the positive outlook.”
The slubes and Pocerni returned to the Transpide and drove back down the mountain.
Behind a rock hovered the buzzsaw Sawn, glaring at the slubes as they left.
“Yo, Conqueror; a report,” Sawn said. “Looks like those slubes are collecting some sort of orbs. Guess they plan to confront Darmenzi with them. Should I pilfer them?”
“Still do not engage,” Conrad ordered. “This is our chance to ruin that two-faced monster, but we’ll only get it by keeping tabs on those slugs. These orbs just may prove to not be a false promise like the crystal was.
“No, stealing the orbs now will only waste time, time they will spend trying to get them back while more orbs remain. When we can confirm they have nearly all these orbs, we will show them that they have collected them for us, and we will swoop in, steal the orbs, and strike Darmenzi.”
“Whazzat?” Sawn asked. “Sorry, spaced out.”
“Just keep following them, you zipping twit!” Conrad screamed.
Sawn twirled sideways. “Right, got it, going now.” The dizzy buzz saw zipped after the Transpide.