Note this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
Numer left his seat. For once, he wasn’t the one holding things up. He wondered where Zeth was, though. Still asleep? No, he probably just got distracted by something and lost track of time. Numer wogged to the end of the stage and then stopped. He felt a slight tremor below him that grew into a rumbling quake. He wobbled about and waved his arms through the air. “What’s going on?”
“Are we having an earthquake?” Cherry asked.
“Please, no; I was hoping today would go smoothly,” Caleco said, hanging onto a chair.
“Well, so much for that,” Cherry shouted. The ground near the stage exploded. Numer dove to the floor, holding his arms over his head. A round object as big as a bedroom burst out of the ground. It flew into the air and crashed onto the stage.
“That was quite disturbing,” Zeth screamed, sitting in the Transpide on the stage.
“Well, that’s a grand entrance if I’ve ever seen one,” Cherry said. The crawber floated out of the newly-formed hole and glared at the stage.
“Now who is that?” Caleco asked.
“Where… is… the crystal?” the crawber asked.
“The crystal?” Cherry shouted.
“Who are you?” Caleco asked. “Just what is going on here?”
“I am…” A line of shadow appeared in front of the crawber. It expanded and solidified into a staff twice its height. The crawber gripped the staff in its claw. “I am the…” It fell to the ground. Its body faded in and out of shadow. “Can’t hold… this body…” The crawber turned to the black crystal in the center of town. It staggered towards the crystal, using the staff as leverage to help it walk.
“Zeth, what is going on?” Cherry asked.
“I wish I knew,” Zeth said. “I should say that’s no ordinary crawber. Something happ-” A series of blasts crashed around the stage. Fire and smoke filled the air. The stage collapsed. The slubes of Nottle screamed and fled. Numer hoped it would all just turn out to be a bad dream. He heard a splash and looked up. Three shapes emerged from the north shore that Numer had hoped to never see again.
Twice as tall as any slube was Wrodin, a red, metal sphere split in half; a black cylinder connected the top and bottom together, two blue-gray eyes just below the top half. This machine had once been abandoned junk on a wasteland of an island. Advanced technology had given it a one-track mind. Its primary goal seemed to be the top general of Conrad the Conqueror. To achieve this it would blow up anything in sight.
Half the height of a slube was Sawn, a buzzsaw with big, red eyes and spikes big enough to carve a tree in an instant. This fast-talking tool had been the first encounter Numer had with Conrad the Conqueror’s influence. Anyone who let it get close could fall apart in an instant. It could zip through the air like nobody’s business.
Five times as long as a slube (and gasping for breath) was Sal, the striped-green snake. His striped, triangle eyes sat on two cones atop his head, two more cones mirrored on the bottom. With a wide, flat head, his mouth was big enough to swallow a slube whole and gave his head the suggestion of two cymbals. Unlike the other two, Sal had been an animal mutated and given intelligence, or at least some kind of substitute.
“Did we really have to wait underwater?” Sal asked.
Cherry stared at them. “They’re back,” she said. “After so long we thought we were safe, but they were still out there.”
But Conrad was dead—left on an exploding space station a year ago. “What do they want?” Numer asked.
“Whatever it is, they won’t get it,” Zeth yelled. He started up the Transpide, but it stalled. “Oh, gaddfern it. All that stress must’ve been too hard for the engine… Come on, you can do it.”
“Sawn! Patrol the crystal,” Wrodin shouted.
“Uh, I think you mean guard, actually,” Sawn said.
“Whatever. Sal! Keep those three pains busy. I’ll herd the rest of the slubes away.” Wrodin blasted explosive shells into the town. The townscleeple sleeged to the edge of Nottle and hid behind houses.
“Hey-hey, you got it, righty-o, big Wro’,” Sawn said. It shot through the air spinning, fast as a bullet. It whizzed by the crawber and flew around the crystal.
“They’re still after the crystal,” Cherry yelled. She jumped off the stage and sleeged after Sawn. Sal crashed into her, and they tumbled to the side. His mouth, big enough to swallow several slubes whole, clamped down onto Cherry. She held it open, her arms shaking.
Sal moaned out something unintelligible. He coughed Cherry out of his mouth. “I said, did you miss me? And you’re supposed to respond with a witty remark. Come on, work with-” Cherry delivered an uppercut to his head.
“Numer!” Zeth shouted. He tossed a mallet to Numer. Ah, the Mallet Blaster! Now Numer felt prepared. It had been a gift from Zeth last year: a metal mallet, painted to look wooden, that shot energy beams from the head. Now he could defend himself. “The Transpide isn’t the only thing I’ve been working on lately.”
“You mean the Mallet Blaster has upgrades?” Numer asked.
“No, I made it shinier,” Zeth said. “Go on, hurry.” Right, Cherry was out there fighting, now it was Numer’s turn. He jumped off the stage and sleeged for the crystal.
Jake jumped out from the rubble of the stage. “You’re not blowing up my town!” He sleeged at Wrodin. Caleco grabbed him and pulled him back.
“No, no! You’re much too young, and I’m much too old.” Caleco hid with Jake behind the stage rubble. “I can’t quite imagine how my daughter fought off these things, but we mustn’t be rash and get ourselves hurt.”
The crawber stopped next to the crystal and pointed its staff at Sawn. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m guarding this here cargo,” Sawn said. “No one to take the crystal without clearance. Guard it from enemies. Wrodin put me on guard duty so it could have its stupid fun shooting cleeple. Who the hex are you, eh?”
“I’m here to take the crystal away.”
“Hey, what do you take me for, an idiot?” Sawn asked.
“I take you for a pitiful nuisance,” the crawber said. It whacked Sawn away with its staff. Sawn flew in an arc at the crawber. It blocked the buzzsaw with its staff.
Numer sleeged to the crystal and smashed Sawn with his mallet. “You’re never getting this crystal.”
“Oh, hex, I hate you so much,” Sawn shouted. It flew at Numer; he jumped to the side, and Sawn clanged against the crystal. Numer bashed the buzzsaw away with his mallet.
Numer was thrown back and slammed against the crystal. The crawber, floating in front of his head, held its staff against his neck. “I am only going to warn you once, you slug: Stay out of my way.”
“Who… are you?” Numer asked. He pushed against the crawber’s staff, but it wouldn’t budge. How was it so strong? It was a third Numer’s size, and it looked halfway crippled when it had walked to the crystal.
“I am the force of chaos,” the crawber said, “and chaos has been locked up long enough. I will not be so pleasant this time, once I am again at full power. I despise your people and all the peoples of this miserable planet.”
Air replaced the crystal behind Numer. He fell backwards, and the crawber landed on him. The crystal floated above them. “Oh, the planet is not so miserable. It could use a bit of work, perhaps, but I’m sure I can make things work.”
Numer looked up and gaped. “Conrad!” Conrad the Conqueror cringed.
Above them flew a round, gray hover-chair that gave the air of a lounge chair adapted for military service. A claw secured the crystal below it. Conrad’s gray, hot-air balloon head, bigger than Numer’s entire body, sat in the hover chair, his body secured inside a metal casing. The back half of his head was a glass case with his big brain visible, and two teardrop-shaped eyes glared down at Numer.
“That’s right, you worm,” Conrad said. “I’m back for round two.”
“I thought you… died,” Numer said. “When your space station exploded.”
“You can’t take me out that easily,” Conrad said. “Now that I’m here in clerpson, the crystal is mine. You’re powerless to stop me.”
The crawber floated up onto the crystal. “You know not what and who you deal with.” It spun its staff and aimed the end at the crystal.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Conrad said. A laser gun popped out of the hover-chair and fired at the crawber. It deflected the shots with its staff.
Numer shot energy beams from his mallet at the claw. “I won’t let you have the crystal.”
“Do you really think I want to waste my time with you annoyances? Say goodbye to-” The energy from Numer’s shots enveloped the crystal. It glowed in a rainbow of colors. The crystal blew apart into three chunks as if the center exploded. “Broken again?” Conrad asked. “How fragile is this thing?”
Numer screamed and jumped back. He’d get more than just a black eye from a fragment that big landing on him.
Conrad turned to his agents. “Get the crystal, you idiots!”
Both the crawber and Conrad grabbed a fragment. Numer stammered and looked around; neither Cherry nor Zeth were nearby. He lunged for the third piece. It was almost as tall as him and as heavy as a slube. He lugged it away as fast as his tail could push him.
“Ow! My eye! You’re punching my eye! Why?” Sal screamed. Cherry smacked Sal away with her tail. She sleeged to the mad grab for the crystal.
Sawn slammed into the crawber, and it dropped its fragment. It passed hands several times—well, passed between hands, claws, a tail, and the flat side of a buzzsaw. Conrad shot Cherry with a laser gun, and she crashed into Sal. Sawn caught the fragment in the air. “All right, I got it! Here ya go, boss,” Sawn said, carrying the fragment to Conrad. “Can you go ahead and take it off my eyes?”
“Two,” Conrad said, holding them in his tentacles. “Where’s the third one?”
“Ah, who cares?” Sal said. “I got a better gift wrapped up for you.” He held Cherry wrapped up in his tail. She shook, but Sal held onto her.
Conrad chuckled. “Let’s go. As far as I’m concerned, we have all we need.”
The sound of maniacal laughter and explosions spread out across the other side of Nottle. “Hey, Wrodin,” Sawn shouted. “Get your blasting head over here already, would ya? We’re moving out.”
“What?” Wrodin shouted. “But I was having so much-” Conrad glared at it. “Fine. But how are we even shouting about leaving without someone trying to stop us?”
The four of them left Nottle over the ocean, going northeast to Numer’s southeast.
Silence settled back into Nottle.
The rumble of an engine broke the silence. “It started! I knew you could do it! Uh, I mean, I got the inanimate object started.” Springs on the bottom of The Transpide bounced it out from the ruined stage. “I’m ready!” Zeth said. “Let’s go! Let’s… um… huh?” Everyone was gone. “… What happened?”