Note this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
After leaving Interpolis, the slubes sailed northwest across an ocean that seemed emptier the further they sailed. According to Zeth, the radar detected crystal energy in that direction. They followed the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. After a few hours a dot appeared on the horizon. “Is that a ship?” Cherry asked.
“That’s where the radar detects a crystal,” Zeth said. “I have a feeling we’re about to enter enemy territory.”
As they neared the dot it grew into a giant steel box sitting in the ocean. It was a metal building, a few stories tall, and wider than even most buildings at Interpolis. The only windows sat near the roof, where they stretched across half the wall. Cannons sat on the roof, but they remained still. The building extended deep into the ocean, possibly even to the sea floor. Numer muttered to himself; had they already arrived to the confrontation with Conrad?
“Conrad’s been busy this past year,” Cherry said.
“Well, at least he left the door open for us,” Zeth said. A flat steel deck floated in the water in front of the building. Beyond it, a doorway big enough for Conrad stood open.
Cherry leaned forward. “We’re not going through there.”
“Why not? Easy access.”
“It’s a trap,” Cherry said. “He might as well have left a fruit basket at the door.”
“Well, it would have been a nice gesture, even if it was a trap,” Numer said.
“We have to go through,” Zeth said. “To get the crystal.”
“We don’t have to go through that way,” Cherry said. “Drive around it; look for another way in.” They drove around the building and looked for signs of another entrance. A big sign appeared as an alcove where ships and submarines docked. The Transpide jumped onto a walkway at the back of the dock. “See?” Cherry said. “I’ll bet he never expected us to come this way.”
They drove up a ramp to a balcony, and a door opened to an elevator big enough for a dozen Transpides. “I hope you’re right,” Zeth said.
“Should we really be bringing this crystal right into Conrad’s base?” Numer asked.
“There’s nowhere else to leave it,” Cherry said. “If we don’t get the crystal Conrad has… Well, I don’t think we’ll be leaving without it.”
“I really don’t like that idea,” Numer said. “All or nothing.”
“It’ll come down to that eventually,” Cherry said.
“Wouldn’t making him come to us put us in a better position?” Numer asked. “We could prepare, know the layout, maybe take him by surprise.”
Cherry shook her head. “He can just send others after us, like Sal and Terrent. It would never end. Besides, he already has most of the crystal. He could do a lot of damage with that alone. We need to get it out of his tentacles.”
Numer sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
“Right,” Cherry said. “Head inside, Zeth.”
They drove into the elevator, and the door shut. “What floor-” The elevator shot down and left Zeth’s words behind. The slubes screamed as they rose out of their seats. The elevator stopped as if it had crashed onto solid concrete. The slubes slammed into their seats and groaned. “I’m starting to think he did expect us to come this way,” Zeth said, swaying as he pushed himself off the dashboard. Numer grabbed his head, halfway sunken into his torso, and pulled it back up.
The elevator door opened, and they entered a room filled with machinery. Some appeared to be construction vehicles like cranes without wheels. Others came in various shapes and sizes, wires trailing from them, bars and sheets and other things that made Zeth’s machinery look simple and Numer’s knowledge look like mud. “How did Conrad manage to do all this in just one year?” Numer asked. “And where did he get the supplies?”
“He probably stole a lot of the material,” Cherry said. A door on the other side of the room opened, and they drove through. Cherry’s mouth dropped agape. “And maybe he’s not done yet.” The hallway they entered lacked a ceiling and most of its wall. Numer stared at the empty space around them. He could just discern in the darkness walls as far away as the length of Nottle. Above he saw a maze of skeletal walls from half-built rooms that seemed to go on forever into darkness. The vast undersea tower spun around Numer; he looked down, and immediately stared at his tail to avoid looking outside the Transpide. Below the walkway dropped into darkness.
The Transpide drove across the walkway to a room shaped like a metal can. A door on the can slid open, and the Transpide slowly entered. “So you’ve arrived.” The walls of the room rose as high as a house in Nottle, nothing compared to the mind-cramping distance outside the room though. In the back hummed a sparking barrier of energy, one of the three crystal fragments sitting behind it in a round, blue container. Wires connected the container to machines, while other wires rose into the ceiling.
Conrad sat in a padded chair. His thin tentacles crossed over his torso, a stringy neck that connected his head to his tentacles. “What do you think?” he asked. “Of course, the building is far from completed, but it shall be done once I’ve taken control of this planet. There is so much I am going to do to this world; perhaps I will let you live long enough to see it.”
“Can the speech, Conrad,” Cherry yelled. “We beat you before, and we’ll take you down again.”
“I had some rotten rebels on my ship last time,” Conrad yelled. “This time there will be no surprises. This time I will have my victory.” Conrad picked up a bazooka from behind his chair. He fired three shells at the Transpide. Zeth drove away from the blasts at full throttle. “It’s just like last time, isn’t it?” Conrad said as he reloaded the bazooka.
“Ah, but different circumstances,” said Zeth. He drove to the barrier and shot an electric spark into it. An electric blast erupted from the field and slammed the Transpide into the wall. The jolt shook Numer in his safety straps.
“Okay… we won’t do that again,” Numer said, rubbing his neck. Conrad leapt next to the Transpide and shoved it into the energy field with his tentacles. The field sparked around the Transpide, and the vehicle rocketed out at Conrad. He jumped to the side. The Transpide crashed into the wall again.
“Ha! We’re insulated,” Zeth said. He drove at Conrad and shot flames from the Transpide. Conrad leapt away back to his bazooka.
“I know this time your machine is not to be underestimated,” Conrad said.
“None of us are,” Zeth said. He held his hand back at Numer and contorted it in a number of shapes.
Numer stared at Zeth. “A… trumpet? Shadow puppets don’t work without the shadow, Zeth.”
Conrad fired his bazooka. As Zeth drove around the room, he said, “What I meant is, I think you should head out there and fight Conrad with the Mallet Blaster. You did pretty well last time.”
“Hey, what about me?” Cherry asked, leaning forward. “I could punch his lights out. Numer probably doesn’t even want to go out.”
“No, I’ll go,” Numer said. “Just jump, open the roof, and make sure Conrad stays focused on you.” Come down from above—Conrad’s head was big enough that he might not notice until Numer was upon him. Let the Transpide’s shielding take the attacks.
“Can do,” Zeth said. He fired a burst missile at Conrad as he reloaded his bazooka. Conrad jumped away and slid along the floor.
“You’ve got some new tricks, I see,” Conrad said. They fired at each other. The bazooka shell blasted through the burst missile as if it were cake. “But they’re weak.” Conrad fired again, and the Transpide jumped. Numer and Cherry leapt out at the top of the jump. The Transpide fired burst missiles at Conrad as it dropped.
Numer held up his mallet. His arm hit Cherry. Cherry’s tail smacked into Numer. They shouted as they bumped into each other. They crashed to the floor. “You got in my way,” Cherry said.
“You didn’t have to come,” Numer said.
“You didn’t have to, either,” Cherry said.
“Zeth asked me to,” Numer said. “I wanted to-” Conrad chuckled. He loomed over them with his oversized head.
“Some discord between you?” Conrad asked. “I never could quite tell who the leader between you two was.” He reloaded his bazooka as if he loaded a basket of laundry. “I suppose it’s a moot point now.” He aimed his bazooka at them. A burst missile exploded to his side and shoved him into the energy field. Conrad screamed as the barrier shocked him. He fell to the floor, breathing heavily.
“Well, something worked,” Zeth said. He clapped. “Ooh, hey, it was mine. Hooray!” Numer stared at the Transpide. The crystal floated up over it.
Cherry sat up. “Zeth, the crystal!”
“Yes,” Zeth said, “we need to find some way to deactivate-” He screamed as the Transpide hurtled across the room at Numer and Cherry. They rolled out of the way, and the Transpide crashed into the wall.
Numer heard a familiar laugh from the crystal. “No… It is still alive,” he said. Darmenzi appeared from thin air, the crystal from the Transpide floating above its staff.
“You cannot kill me,” it said. “Not even Chiphus can kill me. It took far more than that just to imprison me.” With a flash, the last crystal chunk appeared next to the other. Darmenzi gave a jagged smile. “Oh, look at this, all pieces of the crystal are together in one room. I sure hope you don’t use it to imprison me.” It looked at Conrad. “You did a fine job distracting them, Conqueror.”
Conrad chuckled. “I know.” He stood up and looked at the slubes. “I lied. This time, there’s still a surprise. But it’s my surprise.”
Conrad couldn’t have won. They’d focused on fighting him and not protecting the crystal. What could Conrad and Darmenzi even do together? “You’re working with Darmenzi?” Numer asked. “It’s evil! What if it throws the world into chaos?”
“It quite hates this place for imprisoning it for so long,” Conrad said. “I promised that I would see to it the planet’s inhabitants would pay for what their ancestors did.”
“Look at that,” Cherry said. “You needed help just to stop three tiny slubes.”
“Oh, you three I could squash on my own any time,” Conrad said. “But Darmenzi wished to destroy the crystal. Instead of fighting over it, I simply promised to not use it against it. After all, it helps to have powerful allies.”
“Hmm… yes…” Darmenzi said, tapping its mouth with its claw, “but not too powerful…” Darmenzi shoved one of the crystal chunks into the end of its staff. It jammed the other in after it. It teleported behind the barrier of energy and ripped open the container’s door. “I’ll take that.” It removed the third crystal, and the barrier faded. The lights in the room shut off, and the hum of the machinery stopped.
“What are you doing?” Conrad screamed, his eyes wide and tentacles raised. “Those crystals are mine! That one supplies power to half the base!” Dim lights flickered on, only bright enough to faintly see the other side of the room.
“Then luckily, I won’t stay much longer,” Darmenzi said. It wedged the last chunk into its staff. “Because now that I once more am powerful, I shan’t need a pitiful ally such as you.” A shadow radiated out of the crystal like a lamp with a black filter over it and shrouded Darmenzi. “Because now… Darmenzi… is complete again!” The dark radiance around it expanded as an ear-splitting screech filled the room.
“What’s going on?” Numer shouted, climbing into the Transpide.
“I don’t know,” Cherry shouted, jumping in after him. “I think it’s using the crystal’s energy for itself.”
That was it, then. Conrad’s goal for his rule would be superseded by Darmenzi, who would… what? Throw the world into chaos. The darkness condensed around the crystal and flowed through the staff into Darmenzi, whose shape rapidly changed and grew. The staff disappeared, the shadow cleared, and…
Wally_Plotch: Duth! The screen went blank. I can’t hear anything. What’s going on?
Duth_Olec: Sorry, Wally, just a moment. Darmenzi’s suddenly got a lot of power again. Remember when you were very not-fake concerned about Darmenzi, and I said no, it’s fine, it’s weak?
Duth_Olec: Hey, now’s the time to be worried again! But wait, before you worry too much, I’m just doing some system checks to make certain all shields are working properly and to increase their power.
Wally_Plotch: Will it know we’re here?
Duth_Olec: It shouldn’t; I’ve got some imagic shields up, so we’ll be hidden from Darmenzi’s senses, and if it does notice us, we can take a hit before we teleport outta there.
Wally_Plotch: “Imagic”? Is that a typo?
Duth_Olec: You’d think so but nope. Anyway, just consider this to be building dramatic tension. Or demolishing it. Either way. Okay, shields checked and boosted; we’re ready to get back.
Wally_Plotch: Whoa. Is that thing Darmenzi?
Darmenzi had grown from a quarter of Conrad’s height to on par with his height. Unlike a normal crawber’s rather equal dimensions, Darmenzi had grown a long abdomen, making it twice as long as Conrad. Darmenzi’s body had darkened as if roasted in a fire, and it now had five black eyes on each side. Its mouth looked jagged, as though stalactites had formed, with some pointed tips reaching a half a tail past the other side of its mouth. Several pairs of antennae had sprouted on its upper thorax, and halfway down it had three pairs of claws; the upper claws, big enough to fit a slube’s head in, opened in halves, while the lower claws opened in thirds. Under its abdomen stood seven pairs of legs, each as thick as a slube, while black spikes covered its back. At the end of Darmenzi’s abdomen, the crystal appeared lodged in its body.
Conrad pulled out a communicator. “Everyone leave their stations and report down here now!”
“Are you going to try and detain me?” Darmenzi asked. As it spoke its smile drooped to a scowl. “You would do better to just crawl over to a corner and die.” Conrad’s eyes turned bloodshot as his head appeared to expand. He grabbed his bazooka and fired at Darmenzi. The monstrous crustacean shot glowing blasts from its four lower claws. The bazooka exploded and threw Conrad back.
Darmenzi was a monster now, powered directly by the crystal. It looked invincible. They were dead if they stayed. “We need to get out of here,” Numer yelled.
“No,” Cherry said, “we have to get-”
“We need to get out of here!” Numer yelled louder. The exit opened. Zeth drove out through a tide of shouting spleeches rushing into the room. The spleeches, looking like Conrad in minuscule with thinner heads, poured in from the room ahead. Before the Transpide drove halfway across the walkway, the tide ceased. “That wasn’t nearly as many spleeches as I was expecting,” Numer said. He heard bangs behind them; he looked back and saw the room flash. He leaned forward next to Zeth and shouted, “Go! Go! Go!”
They reached the end of the walkway. A new batch of spleeches rushed through the door and shoved aside the Transpide. It toppled off the walkway and plummeted down, unfinished rooms rising past the slubes. “What do we do now?” Numer screamed. He hung onto his seat as gravity left him and put everything into hurling the Transpide down.
“Zeth! Use a burst missile!” Cherry shouted.
“Got it!” Zeth fired a burst missile below them. The blast pushed them up to the floor of an unfinished room. Numer lay back onto the bench seat and felt like melting into a puddle. From the looks of the place, they could have fallen forever. He saw the room they had left above still flashing. “I think Conrad might be preoccupied for some time,” Zeth said, “so let’s find our way out.”
“What about Darmenzi?” Numer asked. Darmenzi had said the crystal imprisoned it… but now it used it to increase its powers? What could they do now?
Zeth sighed. “I don’t know.”
“Darmenzi won’t stay here long, I don’t think,” Cherry said. “You know who we need to find? Chee.”
“We have no leads there, either,” Zeth said. He drove the Transpide along a walkway.
“So we’re doomed,” Numer said.
“We’re not doomed,” Cherry said.
“Right,” Numer said. “We’ve just been sent back to start, but to a different start that leads to a path of ‘you lose’ spaces.” Cherry stared at him with a raised eyelid. “What?” Numer asked.
They entered a room with an elevator. Zeth pressed the elevator call button. Nothing happened. “If this place is operating on reserve power, maybe the elevator isn’t on,” Cherry said.
“What about all those spleeches?” Numer asked. “Were they all on the same floor?”
“This elevator is for big loads, like bringing in supplies, I think,” Cherry said. “The spleech would’ve used a smaller elevator. Or stairs.”
“What stairs? I didn’t see any stairs,” Numer said.
Zeth took a screwdriver and removed the cover plate for the elevator button. “Let’s charge it up,” he said, smiling, “and hope this doesn’t just fry it.” The Transpide discharged electric sparks into the wires behind the wall. The elevator door opened.
“I just hope this works better than the last time you supplied energy to something that way,” Cherry said.
“That way worked fine,” Zeth said. “Except for nearly pulverizing a bystander.”
They entered the elevator. It shot up like a rocket through the base; Numer screamed and squashed against his seat. It halted as if it hit a cavern ceiling. Had Numer not worn his safety straps, he could have slammed against the Transpide’s glass roof. As if from far away, he said, “I’d like to stay level with regards to depth for a while now, please.”
They exited the base. Smoke rose from the top. “I’ll bet Darmenzi already left,” Cherry said. She clenched her fists. “Zeth! What does the radar say about the crystal?”
Zeth slumped. “Nothing. It has no reading, no trace, no anything. The energy signature must have changed. Darmenzi couldn’t have gotten out of its range so quickly.”
“Now what?” Numer asked. The sun was setting.
“I guess we turn in for the night,” Cherry said. “Let’s head back to Interp. We’ll figure out what to do from there.”