Note this is the prog (in-progress) version and may change when the book comes out
Zeth drove the Transpide across the ocean, the electric island disappearing into the horizon. Dusk had arrived, the sun dipping behind the ocean ahead.
Duth_Olec: Oh, sorry if I surprised you with the sudden scene switch, Wally, I know it seemed like we were going to keep following our slube pals, but there’s really someone else we should be checking in on. Someone I’m sure we’re all curious to see an update on. And that clerpson is…
Wally_Plotch: Oh, yeah, I guess it has been several chapters since we saw her.
Duth_Olec: Wally, you were supposed to start narrating. My trailed-off sentence was supposed to lead in to that.
Wally_Plotch: Whoops, sorry. I’ll start writing.
Chee looked up at the rocket ship. Designed and built identical to the first, the long bottom housed the engine and kept the heat away from the top, where the yellow bulbous main ship sat. Chee’s insignia, her own frown with glaring bow eyes, showed on the main ship. The rocket stood on a steel platform in a narrow shaft above her base of operations. One major removal would ensure this flight’s success. She turned to a stroo standing behind her, nearly a full head taller than her.
“Status on those stupid slubes?” Chee asked.
“A bit of a ruckus happened in Shellport earlier today,” the stroo said, wings behind his back. “Seems those slubes shut down the port for a bit, but they hightailed it out of there and left the island. No reports of them since.”
Good. Between that and the vehicle pile-up in Interpolis, those slubes tended to make a spectacle. No news was good news. This time there would be no problems.
Chee walked down a low-angled steel ramp to the first floor, below the base of the rocket. The stroo followed. “Are all the supplies loaded onto the ship? Have all the systems been checked? Has the communication system been tested for clarity in distance?” The stroo confirmed each inquiry. “Has the fuel tank’s durability been double-checked?”
“I had three cleeps check it and then three more check it later,” the stroo said.
“And has the stroo whose beak rides on this taken a look at it himself?”
“Yes ma’am, I will check it with someone once more after the meeting.”
“Good. If anything goes wrong, I will aim the falling rocket at your head.”
They walked in silence down another ramp to the first sub-floor. Below them, visible through the central hole half the diameter of the base, were the ten sub-floors for research, development, practice, quarters, reconnaissance, planning, marketing, and more, every one devoid of cleeple. The base so silent, Chee easily heard the stroo’s occasional faltered step, his uneasy breathing. She knew he had something to say. He cleared his throat once or twice until he finally spoke a single syllable, at which Chee whipped around and glared at him so hard a couple feathers plucked themselves off the stroo and fell to the lower floors.
Chee looked the stroo over. This was her number three, ranked behind herself and her number two. His name was Zack, or Zast, or Martin or something. He was number three; that was what mattered. Number three acting number two, after number two got her face bashed in by one of those slubes. Chee internally smirked, not that she would admit it. Those slubes had a surprising penchant for chaos. If slubes weren’t squishy noodle-nobodies, she’d have considered bringing them into her gang. As it was now she would sooner slice them into pepperoni.
Number three stuttered but failed to form a complete sentence or even a decent word.
“Well?” Chee yelled. She looked at number three’s eyes, his shaking feathers. He was a hex of an organizer and ran a tight ship but was weak. He wasn’t an officer, he was a clerk. Number two was far fiercer, fearless and ruthless, could shake cleeple to their core and stab them in the heart, and that got her face smashed to a pulp. Chee needed new officers. Soon she would have a wider pool to take from.
Finally number three said, “Some of the cleeps and I, mostly some of the cleeps, we’ve been worried. Everything’s been great, we’re finally close to coming into power, but something about it all just seems off.”
Chee stared at number three. She would wait until he said it.
“Yeah,” number three said, “it’s Darmenzi, mostly. The guy is great, definitely powerful, but something just seems off to us. Nobody trusts him. He’s too polite for someone who would knock your head off for a bit of sport. He’s a real boon to the operation, but he brings a power that we’re not really sure we can control. He’s a wild card. He’s a joker card, really, but we don’t know what he represents, and he’s no joke.”
“You are right there,” said Chee. “He is no joke, but you and the others are a joke. Are you trying to lecture me on whom I should have as my allies? Who do you think you are, my figgin know-it-all parents?” She raised her voice until in a shout. “I’ve spent most of my life leading and stabbing cleeple who could blink you to death. You were probably hiding when those slubes showed up. Do not try to put your cowardly fears onto me. I would trade Darmenzi for all of you in a moment, the useless lot you are. Do not question my decisions, you feathery bug. I have more rational brains then all of you combined, so I know what I’m doing better than any of you!”
She spun around and resumed walking, breathing heavily. Her gang was there to follow orders, not question her. So close to their goal, there was no time for weakness. Now was the time for action.
Number three cleared his throat and said, “There-”
Chee spun around and shouted, “What is it now?”
“Th-This,” number three said, wings outstretched. “You are the most rational, composed, level-headed lady I know, ma’am, you always keep your temper in check and at a low simmer, you let your biting remarks and ruthless actions show your fury, but in the past few days you’ve gained an explosive temper beyond anything we have ever-”
“Oh, this is nothing!” Chee screamed. She marched at number three. The world shook around her. Number three backed away until at the walkway’s edge. Chee loomed up and number three leaned back so far they were of equal height. “You say one more word and I’ll show enough explosive temper to start a cave-in! I’ll throw you off the walkway and shout curses at you until the last, prolonged second of your life is nothing but one long cursed string! Got it, number three?”
The stroo shook, more than a few feathers fluttering down the shaft. He nodded so much that his head would probably fall off.
Chee turned back and resumed walking. She breathed even heavier this time until she stopped at a red stone wall, leaning against it. She wheezed for number three to get her a glass of water. She wasn’t normally so tired after becoming angry. It must have been all the excitement. After a moment number three returned with the glass. Chee drank half of it and splashed the rest on her face.
She stood up straight and breathed deeply. “Okay. Ready. Are we ready?”
Number three nodded sharply.
“Good. To the conference hall.”
Chee entered the conference hall where her gang stood chatting. As she entered they silenced and stood to attention. She picked up a microphone from a clay cabinet and walked to the stage at front. Number three stood off at the side.
With a carpeted floor and a material coating the brown clay walls to reduce echo, the conference hall, tall enough to rise slightly above the first floor, had been designed to fit ten thousand seats. Standing, this left the fourteen thousand, eight hundred seventy-six members in a tight fit, but it kept them alert.
Chee looked at her gang. All sorts of Mintop species composed it, mostly ones found in Interpolis. A few shiffles, though only the males. Chee couldn’t stand the sight of her fellow females. The gang had been big enough to take Interpolis by force for over a year now, but immediate action from outside military forces would put a swift end to that, even more so after the military presence increased in Shellport. She needed an edge that couldn’t be beaten with brute force. Darmenzi would be that edge.
“Thank you all for not being lazy asses, or tails in some cases, and actually being here on time. We’re at a pivotal moment now, a moment that should have arrived yesterday morning, but some of you are useless. Disregarding this slight setback, we are on time to begin our history tonight.
“You are all here for different reasons. No reason was too far for me to ask it, but you all know them. Some of you come from broken homes. Others want to make a mark on the world. Some have grown disillusioned with society, while others are idealistic in how we can change the world for the better. Some believe strongly in our truth. Others are sick of our leaders’ lies. Some have nowhere else to go, and others chose here out of everywhere else.”
Was any of that true? Chee didn’t know and didn’t care. Surely some of the many members of her gang had such a story. Even if not, none of them knew that. Reasons were not asked, and while not specifically discouraged from being discussed, there was certainly encouragement not to. All that mattered was to make the speech sound inspiring.
“Heroes, villains, none of that matters. What matters is to make the world ours, to shape it to how we see fit. We know that how we would run things is right, and for those who don’t think so, we’ll use whatever force is necessary. For those who want to keep their pitiful hold on power, we’ll show them we have more power. We will take what we want, and for those who want to take what we take, we will take what they have already taken. We will hold their lives in our hands, wings, claws, or even tentacles.
“Control! That is what we are after. Take control of ourselves, take control of our lives, and then we can take control of others. Take control of the land, take control of business, take control of cleeple! We will take charge, we will take control, we will take it all!” She began to shout, walking back and forth across the stage. “Some may ask why we do this. I say because we can. Some may say what we do is illegal. I say we rewrite the laws. Some may say to enact change within the system. I say change the system, make it ours! Some may say we are insane for this! I say they define such a word only for their status quo!”
Chee’s gang began to mutter amongst themselves.
“This island will be ours! This world will be ours! Mintop cannot stop our influence. You will become as royalty in our new world. Mintop is for the taking! Be proud to be a part of this gang. You have chosen well to follow me. Forward to our rule!”
Chee panted heavily, her face dark and flushed. She hurled the microphone into the crowd. Her gang returned to silence as she finished the speech. What was wrong with those idiots? She couldn’t be more inspirational than that unless she busted out her scripori machine and started stabbing them with the tail. Maybe she should.
With a sound like a worbklicklick, a burst of faded fire in the center of the crowd shoved nearby members of Chee’s gang to the floor. Darmenzi appeared from thin air, clapping his clacking claws together in applause. “Oh, yes, wonderful, m’lady. Indeed, quite inspiring. Encore, encore, good showtime, worthy of the starz! Excellent speech, was on the edge of my pointed legs.”
Darmenzi remained the only one clapping until darkness draped the room—though for less than a second—and Chee’s gang shuddered as if having internal quakes. The entire gang erupted in applause, a little stiff at first but then with gusto.
“Darmenzi,” Chee said once her breath had returned. “Good of you to actually join us.”
“Come now, I watched it all,” Darmenzi said. “I am so tall; I did not want to be a distraction during your amazing address. Such passion, such ferocity. Surely you are the leader all of Mintop needs.”
“Of course. Someone to keep them in line,” Chee said.
“Someone to stop them from foolishly imprisoning one who could be such a boon to their pathetic lives,” Darmenzi said.
“Get up here, already,” Chee said. She was never in the mood for Darmenzi’s thinly-veiled banter. The big crustacean pushed his way through the crowd and onto the stage. “My gang, here is the star of the moment. With Darmenzi’s power, we can hold the whole world hostage. Why take one island and be forced to defend against a force abroad when you can take it all and have no opposition?”
“Indeed,” Darmenzi said. “I’m sure those other two planets won’t mind.”
“They won’t,” Chee said. “Derantu and Zhop have never cared a bit about Mintop. They’ll ignore it like they always have.”
Darmenzi spun a claw. “And when they least expect it…”
Chee scoffed. Attempting to take on Zhop or Derantu was a fight too far. “I’m not crazy.”
“Certainly,” Darmenzi said, wearing the obscure smile always plastered on his face.
Chee crossed her arms. “Are you ready to go?”
“Of course,” Darmenzi said, rubbing his claws together. “I believe it’s about time to arrive at the end game.”
“Okay, show’s over,” Chee said into the microphone. “Everyone to your positions. We will be leaving presently. It’s time to cast a shadow over Mintop.”
Zeth drove the Transpide across the ocean, the electric island disappearing into the horizon. Dusk had arrived, the sun dipping behind the ocean ahead.
“Where’s the last orb?” Numer asked.
“Where I was expecting,” Pocerni said, holding three orbs in each wing against his head. “Same place it was before. But the place has definitely seen better days. Just head southeast, and I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Numer watched the horizon ahead, reds and dark blues mixing with what appeared to be some green, but no structure appeared. He looked at the horizon to the left. Later he looked to the right. He looked behind them for a while, and then stared into the sky where the first hints of stars shone. He looked down at the darkening magenta ocean, and finally looked ahead again, the reds and blues and greens having darkened to nearly an amalgam of gray. Still no structure appeared. Pocerni hadn’t even told them anything about their destination. Where was he leading them?
In the middle of the ocean, where nothing of any note happened or existed, Pocerni told Zeth to stop.
“What is it?” Cherry asked.
“We’re here, dudes,” Pocerni said. “We need to head into the water.”
Zeth shrugged and submerged the Transpide. Down they dove into the bottomless ocean. Well, not really bottomless. Numer wondered if that was their destination. Darkness shrouded them. The Transpide’s front lights would be the only way to see if they neared bottom. Before Numer saw the ocean floor, though, his eyes widened at a stranger sight that emerged from the ocean darkness as if a portal to another world intruding on this one.
“Is that a building?” Cherry asked, sounding as breathless as Numer felt.
“It is,” Pocerni said, as if pointing out any regular old building around town.
The Transpide descended to a dark gray-blue stone castle. Seaweed and moss covered it, and it was in ruins. In fact, it was ruins. Most of the stone appeared cracked, and many turrets appeared demolished or swaying on the edge of collapse. At one spot there was only the base of the turret left. Despite the castle’s state of disrepair, no doubt caused in part by sitting near the ocean floor for a colossal amount of time, it remained standing at least as high as Shellport. Every time Numer thought he saw the bottom more castle appeared from below.
“Welcome to the ruins of Rachester Castle, former home of the Cirsease,” Pocerni said. “Ten thousand years ago their home was destroyed by Darmenzi, right after I got the last orb. My friends and I barely escaped, but it seems none of the Cirsease did.”
They entered the castle through a broken turret, the interiors flooded and saturated. Hints of past majesty remained, but Numer saw mostly present dilapidation. What may have been carpeting had dissolved into mushy patches indistinguishable from ocean soil. Paintings on the wall appeared faded and wiped out, with many canvases in fragments. Numer thought he could recognize the sky in one painting, but it could have been a canyon filled with pianos.
Shattered remains of metalwork lay scattered throughout, rusting for so long that more rust remained than the original metal. Numer saw only one chandelier still in one piece, floating against the ceiling. In one room sat a lummin statue partly buried by rubble, so rusted and battered the lummin looked more like a sofa than usual.
Numer could hardly imagine what it all must have looked like in its prime.
Sounds were sparse in the castle—few or no sea creatures made a home in the castle, it seemed. Other than the hum and beeps of the Transpide and the occupants’ breathing, Numer only heard the occasional gloop of water and the groan of settling stone. Collapsed walls and structures blocked many passages, and Numer worried parts of the castle would fall in on them. When a collapsed hallway barred passage, a hole usually provided a path to the next floor. After some ten floors Zeth descended through one such hole, and the slubes gasped at the sight.
They entered a room half the height of Shellport and as wide around as Nottle. It looked more like a cave than a room. Vast was the word it brought to mind, as if all the cleeple of the world could fit inside and be unhappy, as they would be standing on each others’ shoulders in a messy pile, but they would fit. The Transpide drifted down a waterfall formed by the hole above.
The room was not flooded. The walls stood whole and looked cleaner and more solid than the rest of the castle, not a crack or chip or encroaching plant to be seen. To be sure, the room looked wet and dark, dank and empty, but it remained quite intact.
“How is there airspace down here?” Cherry asked. “Shouldn’t the pressure be crushing these walls?”
“The Cirsease had some great architects,” Pocerni said. “Dudes were pretty much magic, and that magic remains here, though most of it has washed away. I figure they wanted this room to preserve because of that.” He pointed to the only object in the room aside from a few fallen pillars, a statue stretching near to the ceiling.
The statue appeared almost banana-shaped, certainly more so than a slube, with flippers for arms. The mouth stretched halfway across the round head with a rather toothy grin, and spikes jutted out the back. The black, round eyes stared ahead, just a little too big as if the statue’s painter dropped a blob of paint on the statue and in an attempt to fix it just increased the blob’s size. The statue had no neck and gradually thinned from the head to the fish tail bottom.
“The statue of Dorpthal,” Pocerni said. They reached the bottom of the waterfall, which spilled into a pool. A tunnel in the pool seemed to lead back into the waterlogged sections of the castle, but the pool never rose in height.
Zeth drove the Transpide onto the stone floor and to an incline leading up to the statue. “Okay, there’s a statue. What about the guardian?”
“I am right here, not-quite-professor.”
Numer looked up, mouth agape. The statue glowed, lighting up the room like a great but faint lantern. It shuddered, and the flippers and head moved, shifting from a stone body to shiny flesh save for the still-stone tail. It turned a pale blue, and the statue looked down at the Transpide, eyes now a glowing white.
Numer lowered his head. “I was hoping we’d be done fighting giant things.”
“But you are, Numer,” Dorpthal said.
Numer flinched. “It knows my name?”
“I can see far beyond these walls here,” Dorpthal said, spreading its flippers out. Dorpthal dropped the flippers to its sides. “And you can see why I’d want to, with the shape this place is in.”
“Dorpthal,” Pocerni said. “We got six of the orbs, and yours is left, dude. Test us, and then we can go confront Darmenzi.”
“Yes, isn’t that just how it goes?” Dorpthal said, looking up and shrugging. “Stuck underground for ages, and when we’re finally free we have to go right back to using the orbs to stop Darmenzi again. He won’t leave us alone, will he? And he has no intention to; don’t think that rocket means he plans to leave Mintop alone.”
“Wow, you really can see beyond this place,” Cherry said.
“Indeed. I have seen everything that has happened since being freed from restraining Darmenzi.”
“Does that include things happening in two places at once?” Cherry asked.
Pocerni drummed a wing against his leg. “I don’t think we have time for this, dudes.”
“Why not?” Dorpthal asked. “I haven’t gotten to talk to anyone in ages.”
“You do seem rather chattier than the other guardians,” Zeth said. “That is to say, you actually speak.”
“Right. As the leader of the guardians, I’m also sort of the spokesclerpson.”
Spokesclerpson and much more casual, Numer thought. Most of the other guardians were terrifying or obtuse. Sybius was the closest to match such an attitude, but it attacked regardless and with a focus while laughing at them, mostly at Numer.
“Can we get on with it, dudes?” Pocerni asked.
“All right, all right.” Dorpthal lifted its flippers and spoke in a voice that carried throughout the room. “Cleeples who set forth and collected six orbs, now ready to attempt the seventh orb, for your final test-”
An explosion knocked the Transpide over. Pocerni fell off the seat, the others held in place by the safety straps. “What kind of a test was that?” Cherry shouted.
Numer looked around for the source of the explosion. Dorpthal looked as uncertain as a giant statue could; did it really cause that? Numer then froze as he heard a voice more familiar to him than he would have liked.
“You think you can just ditch me and not think I’ll come after you?” shouted the voice of The Conqueror. “Those orbs will be mine. I will kill you, and I will kill Darmenzi.”
Conrad in his hover-chair drifted down from the waterfall above, followed by Wrodin and a round, white pod with a propeller on the back. Conrad flew to the floor. The second pod moved out from under the waterfall. It plummeted straight down but slowed to a stop near the floor, floating in the air.
Wrodin fell out of the waterfall and dropped like a boulder onto the second pod, smashing it to the floor. “Ow!” Czar Spiest floated out of the pod frame, rubbing its head. “What is wrong with you?”
Wrodin glared at the czar. “Hey, some of us can’t fly.”
Numer covered his face. “How did they find us here?”
“He must have tailed us for some time,” Cherry said. “He’s figgin obsessed.”
Zeth pressed a button, and a metal bar popped out of the Transpide’s side and pushed it back upright. “Well, he did name his title after his occupation.”
A top quarter of the second pod lifted open. Sal jumped out and splatted his face onto the floor. “Oh, thank chicken! I’ve been cooped up in there with Sawn poking my sides for times now.”
“I can’t help it if you’re so soft and squishy,” Sawn said, floating around Sal.
Sal looked at Sawn. “I can’t help it if you’re afraid of water.”
Sawn’s eyes narrowed. “Hey! I’m not afraid of it.”
“You’re afraid you’ll rust. Come on, it won’t look bad on you.” In a whisper Sal said, “I’m pretty sure that red on Wrodin is rust. I’m pretty sure its original color was green.”
“No! I’m just not very aerodynamic,” Sawn said.
“Not aerodynamic?” Sal asked. “Come on. You’re completely flat. That’s got to be infinitely aerodynamic.”
“At least more aerodynamic than Wrodin.” Terrent extended his head and appendages from his shell and jumped out of the pod. “It’s just a big ball trying to push through water. It shouldn’t even be able to go anywhere.”
Conrad glared at them. “Stop talking!” He pointed to the Transpide. “There! The slubes. It’s time. You’ve failed to kill them many times before, but this will be your grand moment. All five of you, working together to overpower them.” He curled the end of another tentacle and lifted it up. “Get to it!”
Conrad’s agents charged at the slubes, shouting a great battle cry. Then they crashed into a shimmering, blue barrier and collapsed to the floor in a heap. Numer didn’t even have time to cower before it was all over.
With a groan, Conrad held his head in a tentacle. “Why do I keep these idiots?”
“Ah, the invader from space,” Dorpthal said, clapping its flippers together.
Conrad peered up, barely moving his head. “Who the hex are you?”
“Dorpthal. I’m the guardian of this place and the last orb. Pleased to meet you.”
“The feeling is not mutual.”
“Didn’t think so, Conrad the Conqueror,” Dorpthal said. Conrad cringed.
Terrent pointed at Dorpthal and looked at the other agents. “Did that big, blue banana statue just call The Conqueror ‘Conrad’?”
“Conrad!” Cherry shouted. “What do you even think you’re doing here?”
Terrent held up a hand. “Hey! Conqueror! Is your name Conrad?”
Conrad growled and held his head with two tentacles. “No!”
Czar Spiest merely chuckled.
“Well, that ruins my psychological theory about your childhood,” Sal said. He glanced sideways at the others. “I figured with a name like ‘The Conqueror’ his parents were setting him up for either becoming a jiggly subjugator or disappointing them. It’s quite a loaded name, after all, but if his parents named him Conrad, that throws my whole theory of how he got into this business out the window.”
Conrad flicked a tentacle towards Sal. “Sal, would you come over here?”
“Sure thing, Conrad.” Sal slithered over to Conrad, who grabbed him and tied him into a knot.
“Now go sit in the corner,” Conrad said, tossing Sal aside. “And for the record, I never knew my parents.”
“New psychological theory!” Sal shouted, crumpled on the floor.
“The concept was alien to my home planet.”
Sal looked aside and then turned back to Conrad. “Did you come from a society of conquerors?”
“Would you shut up, already?” Wrodin shouted. “The Conqueror made it clear what his true name is.”
“Yeah, Conrad’s name is The Conqueror.” Sawn looked at the others. “Right? That’s what we got from this?”
The Conqueror named Conrad turned to Dorpthal and pointed a tentacle. “Now then, you. Remove this barrier so that I may destroy my enemies and take the orbs.” He looked at the slubes. “I know you’re after Darmenzi, but I have a score to settle with that charlatan. Whether with the crystal’s power or whatever power these orbs hold, I will have something to aid in my invasion.”
“Hold up, we’ve got to do it fairly,” Dorpthal said, rubbing its flippers together.
“Why should I start now?” Conrad asked.
“Because you on my turf,” Dorpthal said. “For the final test, there will be four separate fights. Good guys versus bad guys.”
“Dorpthal, are you serious, dude?” Pocerni asked. “You can’t give this guy a chance to get the orb.”
“He didn’t even gather any of the other orbs,” Cherry said.
“And he’s evil,” Numer said. If Dorpthal really was a guardian of a species from Mintop, it should throw this invader from outside Mintop back where he came from, not give him a helping hand.
“Evil is in the eye of the beholder,” Conrad said. “Not that you’ll be beholding anything soon.”
Dorpthal shrugged. “What can I say? There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a conqueror can’t play. He’s here, oh dear; he gets a chance for the sphere. Conrad, as you have six on your side, two of your guys must sit this out.”
“Clearly you are the one making the rules here,” Conrad said, tapping a tentacle on his hover chair. “I suppose you are the one with the orb.” Without even turning around he said, “Terrent, go sit in the corner with Sal.”
Terrent flailed his arms. “What? Why?”
“Because you’re annoying and have the fighting prowess of a ruffled chicken.”
Terrent grumbled, trudging over to Sal and sitting on him like a bench.
“Hey,” Sal said, “some chickens can be pretty fierce when angry. Why, I remember one time-” He rambled on about how cuckoo chickens could be.
“All right, the stage is set,” Dorpthal said, clapping its flippers. “It’s old and dank and looks horrible, but it’s still set. Let’s do it!” A flash of light encompassed the room, and Numer felt himself lift from his seat.