Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
“Why do I have to go back to the Micagox?”
“Because you belong to them.”
“No, I don’t. I lied.”
After Alden had nearly fainted, Top had shaken him back to his senses. He’d woken up further when Spenk and Jamal splashed a bucket of water over him.
Now Alden and Top walked through the forest. Alden had swapped to a looser, thinner t-shirt that was cooler (and dry), along with a pair of leather shoes as thick as tree bark up over his ankles.
He had to return Top to the Micagox. He let Top come to his home, so he had to be the one to bring Top back. That didn’t mean he wanted to. It didn’t sound like Top wanted to, either.
“You don’t want to go back to the Micagox?” Alden asked.
“Not really,” Top said. “Some of them are okay. Most of them are just boring. They talk way too much. Not like me. I hardly talk at all. All my fun times and humor come from physical comedy. Hey, look, a bird. What’s that over there? By the way, you might want to find another tree to get impents from. They tasted a bit off. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.”
Alden stopped paying attention. If Top wanted to leave the Micagox, that might make the mages angry. Would they blame Alden? Would they force Top to stay?
Duth_Olec: Dramatic irony again.
Wally_Plotch: Breaking the fourth wall again.
“Besides, I didn’t know they were scary and dangerous,” Top said. The ball shook and wailed like a child surrounded by monsters. “I’m scared. I don’t want to go back!” Top jumped onto Alden’s head. “Hide me! I don’t want to meet scary cleeple.”
“But you already met them. You were with them before,” Alden said. “If you didn’t know they were dangerous, surely they didn’t treat you badly?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, one did try to cage me, but I think they were just having a grumpy day. Or year.”
“Well, maybe…” Alden looked up at Top. “How long are you going to stay on my head?”
“Three more seconds,” Top said. One, two, three. The ball hopped off to the ground.
“Maybe you can visit us,” Alden said. “You are a funny beach ball, even if you do eat enough for a village. Not at all what I would expect the Micagox to have. I’ll almost be sad to see you go.”
“I’ll be sad to see me go, too. I don’t wanna go back. I wanna stay with you. Don’t make me go back.” Top hugged Alden’s legs, eyes shut. “I’m not going back. You can’t make me! They can’t make me! Waaah!”
“I don’t think they’ll be too keen on the idea,” Alden said.
“We don’t have to tell them.” Top looked up at Alden. “It can be our secret. We can be secret friends, and the Micagox can be secret jerks who aren’t friends.”
Alden shook his head. “They’ll come looking for you. I don’t want to risk my family being attacked.”
Top jumped back and held up an arm. “Then I will take my case straight to them. They can’t make me stay there. I’m an adult. I’m almost two months old. I can make it on my own. With a roommate. And his siblings. And uncle. And an alien robot who is studying for a law degree so they can become a lawyer.”
“What are you talking about?” Alden asked.
“Freedom! Liberty! And the Amicagox way.” Top and Alden stared at each other. Top shrugged, an impressive feet for someone with no real shoulders to speak of. “Or maybe we can just tell them I wanna move out. Let’s go!” Top ran ahead.
Alden reached out to Top. “Wait.” He ran after the ball. He hoped one thing more than anything, more than the Micagox allowing Top to leave, more than the Micagox not blaming Alden for taking Top away.
He hoped the Micagox didn’t blame him for putting these ideas in Top’s head.
Alden peered out from behind a tree. A clearing was ahead where stood a group of wooden acorn-shaped huts. He didn’t see anyone around.
“Okay, let’s go,” Alden whispered to Top. “Move quietly. I don’t want to find a bunch at once–”
“Hey, dudes, I’m back,” Top shouted, running into the village.
Alden dropped his head and whimpered. Top would get the attention of every Micagox.
Top walked through the village. “Hey, Green Spikes. Blue Frog. Soil Face. Red Helix. Light Bulb? Swirly? Where you all at?”
A Micagox who barely stood taller than Top emerged from a hut. “The Guardian? You have returned?”
“Hey, it’s”—Top stared at the Micagox—“you. Crescent Head.”
Alden looked at the Micagox. Their mask was white, with green down-pointing crescents shading the top and bottom. Where eyes would be were green diamonds, with green crosses below. Alden thought the Micagox would look more frightening. The mask looked like something from an arts-and-crafts shop.
“Yeah, all right, look,” Top said, walking up to the Micagox, “it’s been swell and stuff, but I think it’s about time we broke up. Went our separate ways. Where’re the others, anyway?”
“Broke up?” the Micagox asked.
“I know you’ll all miss me,” Top said. “You all thought we’d be together forever, from now until the end of our story, but I think we’ve drifted apart.”
Alden tensed up. Was that movement behind him? He twitched. Alden choked a gasp as something cold gripped his neck. It felt solid yet ethereal, as though the wind had grabbed him. Alden peered down. At the edge of his vision he saw a shadowy hand with webbed claws.
A voice behind him froze his nerves and chilled emptiness into his stomach: “What do we have here? An intruder who brought back that which removes intruders. I think you just sealed your own fate, native.”
Alden felt his heart jump. His skin grew cold, and mucus seeped down his body. The shadowy hand threw the scalago to the ground next to Top. He held his hands over his head and lay still. He didn’t want to see what the Micagox would do next.
“What? Who is…?” The crescent-masked Micagox bent over Alden. “They’re cold. They have some scrapes and there’s pressure around the neck. I don’t see any real damage, fortunately. Someone–” The Micagox looked up. “Yyy? What did you do?”
“We have an intruder, Floir,” said the chilly voice behind Alden. “Don’t be a wuss. You know what we do to intruders.”
Floir stood up. “We show them compassion. We only act if they hurt us first.”
“I consider returning that ball of idiocy a hurting,” Yyy said, as if discussing pleasant weather. “So I’ll hurt back.”
Top shouted, and Alden heard a thump and a grunt behind him. He flipped onto his back. Top stood before him, facing a black-robed Micagox, presumably Yyy, who lay with their back against a tree. Top held in both arms a black and white staff.
“Don’t hurt my friend,” Top yelled like a small fry standing up to a school bully.
The Micagox’s mask was black, centered by a scattered white spiral like a galaxy that seemed to flicker and swirl. “You’re supposed to be a Guardian for me, you idiot,” Yyy shouted, bile dripping over every word. The Micagox rose into the air, the robe hanging over the ground, shadowy claws emerging from the sleeves. The robe flapped about as the Micagox flew at Top like a bird of prey determined to tear its enemy to shreds.
Wally_Plotch: What was that?
Duth_Olec: Oh geeze, magic reaction, remember how I filled The Cloud up on magic earlier? Yyy’s magic is reacting with it, so some of the machines are acting up and spilling imagic about. I’m getting it under control, but for the moment try not to use your imagination or think about anything like, say, ferrets.
Wally_Plotch: Duth there’s a furry animal with sharp claws gripping my head. It’s covering my eyes, and I can’t see.
Duth_Olec: I’ll get ALFALFA to remove it. Hang tight. You, too, ferret.
Wally_Plotch: Duth? Okay, yeah, I guess I can’t see if you responded or not. Can you respond vocally? Hello?
*”Duth sent me to remove the ferret, Mr. Plotch.”* *hiss* *”Ugh. Thanks, ALFALFA. Did it draw blood?”* *”There appears to be no penetration on your head. This ferret’s claws are not very sharp.”* *”Good.”*
Wally_Plotch: Is everything fixed?
Duth_Olec: Yeah, I got everything under control.
ALFALFA: That is exceptionally difficult to believe.
Wally_Plotch: So where were we?
Yyy flew forward like a jet as the air around them rippled. Alden pulled his legs close and grabbed his tail, waiting for the moment Yyy would obliterate him and Top. A purple light shone around Yyy and then the Micagox froze in place as if someone had paused a video.
Alden stared at the frozen Micagox. No, Yyy wasn’t frozen—they still moved, but at such a slow speed they appeared frozen.
“There will be none of that, Yyy.” A purple-robed Micagox walked between Yyy and Top, the robe as still as Yyy now was. “I know you always want to defy my decisions, but how can you when I have yet to even make one?”
The new Micagox walked over to Top. More entered the village. Alden’s nerves tingled, as if a congregation of tall priests surrounded him for a sacrifice, though most of the Micagox were shorter than him. Even Yyy and the purple-robed Micagox were just a head taller.
“I see you found our Guardian.”
Alden stood up. The purple Micagox had walked up to him, not Top. Alden started to explain himself, but his voice cracked.
“Donovan,” Floir said, motioning a sleeve to Top. “The Guardian has told me–”
“I want maternity leave,” Top shouted, arm up. They lowered the arm. “I mean a vacation. I mean a permanent vacation. I quit! I’ll take my last week’s paycheck in the mail. Or direct deposit. Wait, I didn’t get a paycheck. Wow, this job was lousy.” Top raised an arm again. “I quit a second time. And a third! And if you don’t give me a barrel of roast toast, I’ll quit a fourth time.”
Donovan looked at Top and then at Alden.
Alden nodded his head and stammered. “I-It’s true. I found them out there, near the waterfall. As soon as I learned Top was yours, I immediately brought them back. But Top– It wasn’t my idea, but they didn’t want to come back.”
Alden looked at Donovan’s mask. The mask’s eyes looked big enough to see through someone but clouded, like they would hesitate to do so. They looked like they hid a distressing secret, kept hidden for the sake of others. Alden always thought of the Micagox as dangerous and terrible. This mage looked cautious and mournful.
“Top wanted to ask if they might leave and come live with me,” Alden slowly said. He fidgeted and quickly added, “It was their idea, mind you.”
Donovan nodded. “And what is your name?”
“My name?” He slowly answered, “It’s Alden.”
“Do you believe yourself capable of taking care of a being created by the Micagox?” Donovan asked.
Alden realized that was probably a question he should have asked from the beginning. Xavier had been against the idea. Orville and Spenk gave Top a warm reception. Alden hadn’t even thought about keeping Top until his family met the beach ball.
“Keep in mind,” Donovan said, “the Guardian is a ravenous eater.” The Micagox turned to Top. “It appears to be trying to eat one of our huts right now.”
“No I’m not,” Top said, mouth open and against a hut. The ball stammered. “I-I’m saying goodbye.”
Alden recalled Top had caught a thwibble in the river. The ball could forage for themself. As long as Alden’s family kept an eye on their food, Top wouldn’t be too much of a burden. Maybe the ball could even help. Top could eat anything his family couldn’t.
Alden looked directly at Donovan. “Yes, I do. My family, we can look after them. Top can help us. Actually”—Alden looked at Top—“I’m not sure Top would leave us anyway.”
“I agree,” Floir said. “That scream, that was the Guardian. It attacked Yyy in protection of Alden, here. I don’t think it’s our Guardian anymore.”
Donovan nodded. “Top, Alden, I have good news.”
“You’re going to let me leave?” Top asked.
“We had already intended for you to leave,” Donovan said. “We had sent you away. You are done here. Prove to us that–”
Top screamed with the joy of a kid who just received a puppy-bike. “Come on, Alden. Back to home. Our home. Home! Home for the all-the-days! Whoopee!” Top leapt out of the village into the forest.
Alden stuttered and thanked Donovan. He worried that if he said anything the Micagox would change their tune, worried that if he didn’t they would change their tune. He turned to follow Top, but Donovan placed a soft sleeve on his shoulder.
“Should the Guardian prove too much of a burden, you are welcome to return. We will do what we can to help.”
“Shouldn’t we have a vote on that?” said a Micagox with what was pretty much a color wheel for a mask, sleeves crossed.
Donovan turned to the Micagox who stood at only a third of their height. “No. Not for this. The Guardian is no longer our responsibility, but we remain accountable for it.”
Alden nodded, thanked Donovan again, and followed Top. As he left the village, he slowed down and looked at Yyy, who still moved at an extremely reduced speed.
Alden considered himself a bookworm. He loved reading. He loved learning.
He sprinted out of the village. Some things he didn’t want to learn about.
Duth_Olec: Yeah, like, what did I just step in? Why is this bread so fuzzy? Who keeps whispering dark thoughts when I open the fridge? Why did the Micagox disappear after only three chapters?
Wally_Plotch: That’s it for them?
Duth_Olec: Top doesn’t give a fig about ‘em. They’re gone from him. Top has enough imagication alone for the whole story.
Wally_Plotch: Okay, then.
Alden’s uncle and siblings sat on the front porch of their house. They had watched Alden leave. Still they watched for his return. They jumped at a screech from the forest, and Top ran out of the woods to the house.
Xavier stood up. “What are you doing back? You need to return to the Micagox.”
“No, wait, it’s okay,” Alden said, running after Top and waving an arm. “Top wants to stay with us, and it turns out the Micagox had sent Top away. They can stay with us.”
“Party forever!” Top yelled.
“Really?” Spenk pumped up her arms. “That’s awesome.”
Orville rubbed Top’s head. “I guess you’re staying with us, little guy.”
“Okay, that’s cool,” Jamal said, scratching his head, “but doesn’t Top have a huge appetite?”
“On the way back we stopped by the river and Top ate about fifteen thwibbles,” Alden said.
Jamal shook his head and laughed. “Dude, that’s not reassuring.”
“No,” Alden said, “I mean we can feed them separate from our food. For that matter, on the way back Top ate a tin can, a plastic bottle, and some rotten fruit on the ground, so they’ll eat just about anything, I think.”
Jamal bent down to Top. “You know, there are some recipes I’ve wanted to try, but I’m always worried they won’t come out right and I’ll have wasted food.”
“I’ll eat them!” Top said.
Jamal grinned and lightly bopped Top on the head. “Then let’s do it, do it, do it.”
“Wait a minute,” Xavier said. “Even if they don’t eat all our food and actually dispose of what we’d otherwise throw out, this is still a dangerous creation of the Micagox. We can’t just bring them in and . . .” He sighed as everyone else welcomed Top to the family.
Alden shrugged. “What can I say? They may be a creation of the Micagox, but Top doesn’t want anything to do with them. Top wants to stay here. Plus, I think you’re outvoted. It looks like Top’s a part of the family now.”
“Yay!” Top said, arms up. “Family ties! Family affair! Family feud! Wait, maybe not that last one.”