The journey was surprisingly short this time around; the car had apparently been modified to go considerably faster, a common practice on Earth I believe. Still, zooming along the road in an antique car driven (quite poorly, I might add) by the insane leader of the country left my nerves on edge.
A few hectic hours later, Iniagusville lay before us. I expected Iniagus to slow down as we approached the city, as the speed limit naturally was lower as compared to the highway. To my surprise, the king just grinned and pressed his foot down on the accelerator all the harder.
“Shouldn’t we slow down?” Arc asked uneasily.
“Don’t be silly! If we slow down, we’ll never make it to the palace. Oh, that reminds me.” Iniagus jabbed a button by the steering wheel.
Moments later, a long ramp rose from the ground a little ways ahead of us. The machinery involved was impressive, supporting the full weight of the stone road and even curving up toward the end.
“By the Creator.” I said it occurred to me what was about to happen.
Cackling, Iniagus said, “Onwards and upwards!”
“You can’t be serious!” Arc said; I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was regretting his seating arrangements, a feeling I shared. I would have much rather been sitting at home.
Nevertheless, we hit the ramp at full speed. Arc started fumbling at his handle, despite the fact that he’d never survive leaping out of the car at the speed we were going.
“Don’t worry!” said Iniagus, cackling ever louder, “I took the precaution of enabling the child locks to prevent you from getting injured. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
“Fascinating,” Mick said, seemingly unperturbed by our imminent demise, “Is this a normal method of aerial transport?”
Iniagus hit another button on the dash. With a lurch that pressed everyone into their seats, we blasted down the remainder of the ramp at a speed I thought impossible for a gas-powered car and shot straight up into the cloudy twilight sky.
I wanted to scream, but found myself without a voice. Arc had no such problem, and Iniagus was cackling with glee. Mick continued to sit in his seat calmly, as though this were a perfectly normal situation.
“The twilight sky is rather lovely, don’t you think?” He said, looking out his window.
We burst through the final layer of clouds, still rising as we came into view of the palace. It was breathtaking from our position; even though I was scared out of my wits, the sight of the floating palace filled me with awe.
“Are we almost there?” Mick asked, moments before we began to fall.
Arc continued screaming as my stomach took up a position roughly level with my cerebellum.
Which much twirling of his hands and fingers, Iniagus said, “Wait for it!”
We were falling toward the palace much too quickly. There was no way we’d ever be able to stop in time.
“NOW!” Iniagus smacked what I had assumed was the car’s horn.
The trunk flew open, spilling out billowing sheets of canvas.
With yet another stomach-wrenching lurch, our descent came to a near-halt. I glanced out the back window to see Iniagus’s giant face grinning at me from the underside of a gigantic parachute.
I fell back against my seat, breathing a sigh of relief. Arc’s voice finally gave out; he just sat in his seat, his mouth agape and his eyes wide.
“There! Wasn’t that fun, my lads?” Iniagus said, grinning at the three of us.
“It was … different.” I admitted.
Our car came to a rest just before the palace gates, where Devon stood waiting. Once the vehicle came to a complete stop, he approached, calling out, “Another excellent landing, your Majesty.”
“Thank you, my Mox Wazoo.” Iniagus hopped out of the car and tossed his overcoat to Devon. “Is dinner ready yet?”
“My apologies sir, but you just missed it. I took the liberty of having the cook set aside a plate for you.”
“King-sized?” Iniagus asked hopefully.
“Of course, sire.”
Iniagus let out a most unregal squeal of delight and dashed off to the castle as the rest of us finally exited the vehicle.
“Jimmy!” Devon said, smiling, “I’m glad you were able to come so quickly. How was the trip?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but was interrupted by the sound of Arc retching over the nearby railing. Turning back to Devon, I shrugged and said, “I’ve had worse.”
Chuckling, Devon asked, “So who’s your friend?”
Mick held out his hand. “Mick Sakamota. Pleased to meet you.”
Devon hesitated only a moment before accepting Mick’s handshake. “Call me Devon.” To me, he asked, “Did you make this?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. The whole ‘Chromeitis’ thing wasn’t going to work on Devon. There was really nothing for it; I had to tell him the truth.
“Mick is a core unit.” I said. “He was designed specifically to be immune to the Corruption.”
Devon looked at me, amazed and just a bit worried.
Mick nodded in agreement. “The facility beneath the Saybaro was built to ensure that I could not be affected by any kind of virus or corruption.”
“The facility beneath the Saybaro.” Devon repeated in a dazed voice.
I sighed. “I know it sounds crazy, but-”
Devon held up a hand to forestall my explanation. “Crazy I can deal with. I am Iniagus’s right-hand man, after all. If you say Mick’s okay, then that’s good enough for me.”
Arc wandered over, still looking a little green. “Next time, Jimmy rides in the front.”
Chuckling, Devon asked, “How about some dinner?”
Arc gave Devon a dirty look, still clutching his stomach.
“No thank you.” I said, only to be interrupted by a loud growl from my stomach. “Well,” I amended, a little red-faced, “I guess I could use a little food.”
He smiled. “We’ll prepare rooms for you while you eat. No reason to jump right into the investigation.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but he cut me off. “Saving the princess is important, but you’ll be more observant after a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. I know; I’ve ridden with Iniagus before.”
“You’re right, of course.” I said, sighing, “Lead the way.”
Arc went straight to his room, so I ended up eating with Mick. We didn’t talk much; Mick was fascinated with his meal, though to be honest he had been fascinated with food since Bethany had installed his sense of taste. I hoped Devon would join us, but he was evidentially needed somewhere else.
After we finished, servants showed us to our rooms.
Mick leaned back as though he were popping his spine, a habit he had probably picked up from me in the weeks following his activation. “It’s been quite a day. I was going to collate some data, but I think I’ll just turn in for the night.”
“Can you dream?” I asked curiously.
“Not yet, but I will after my first evolution.” He paused a moment before adding wistfully, “It is something I look forward to experiencing. In any case, I hope you have good dreams, Jimmy.”
The rooms Iniagus had provided were lavishly furnished; four-poster beds, dark mahogany furniture, and thick, fluffy carpet that felt wonderful on my bare feet after I removed my sandals. I had a nice view of the rest of the palace from my window, but I didn’t stop to ponder it long; it had been an eventful day and I was ready for some rest.
I awoke late that night. I started to go back to sleep when I heard the sound of crying from the hallway. Unaccustomed to using a bed with posts, I managed to somehow swing my legs to the side of a bed in such a way that trying to get up resulted in my head slamming into the heavy wooden post when I tried to stand. My head now aching, I felt my way to the side of the bed and carefully stood up before approaching the door. I opened the door, and stepped out into the dimly lit hallway.
The sobbing seemed to be coming from a large decorative pot. I peered behind the pot to see a young idestan girl in a silk robe emblazoned with the royal crest. Her dark face was streaked with tears.
“Hey.” I whispered, kneeling down beside her, “What’s wrong?”
She wiped away her tears before regarding him with wide, soulful eyes. “I can’t find sissy! I went looking for her, but she was gone and her room was all messed up and now no one will tell me where she is!”
“Is your sister Princess Sera?” I asked.
She nodded, sniffling.
“Ah.” I said, nodding. “What is your name?”
“Zelda Marie. Imma princess.”
“Well, your Majesty, I am your loyal subject, Jimmy Sakamota. I won’t lie to you; your sister was kidnapped.”
Her eyes went wide. “Who stole sissy? Sissy was the most nicest lady in the whole castle!”
“We don’t know yet, but I’m going to find out.”
“You are going to rescue her?” She asked, her eyes shining.
“That’s right.” I said, “It’s why I came here. I’m gonna find the princess and help her beat up the people who took her, so you don’t need to cry anymore, all right?”
She gave him a small smile and nodded, drying her eyes on her nightgown sleeve.
Devon came running around the corner. He stopped short of us and took a moment to catch his breath before saying, “Princess Zelda! Thank the Creator! You shouldn’t go running off like that. You’ll worry Her Majesty to death!”
“Jimmy’s gonna rescue sis!” She said happily.
Devon glanced at me. “Be that as it may, it’s way past your bedtime. Come with me, milady.”
She took his hand, and walked with him down the hallway. A few yards away, she turned and asked, “Jimmy?”
“Yes, your Majesty?” I asked.
“You promise you’ll bring sissy back?”
She gave me a small curtsey. “Thank
Devon nodded approvingly before leading the young princess back to her room.
Smiling to myself, I turned to head back into my room.
The fional I had seen in Iniagusville was staring back at me, no more than ten feet away and clad only in a small shirt with spaghetti straps and a pair of silky short-shorts. A silk robe so thin it was nearly translucent hung on her shoulders.
“Oh!” I said in surprise. “Hello there.”
I expected her to vanish instantly, but she surprised me by stepping out from the adjoining corridor and taking a few steps toward me.
We stared at each other in silence, which finally gave me a chance to look at my mysterious shadow. She had fur the color of cream that almost blended in with the white fur that started at her nose and ended a few inches below her belly-button, and her long ears hung with her long blonde hair down her back, brushing against her slender waist. It was her eyes that struck me the most; they were a soft purple, like the blooms on the ivies that grew across my bridge.
She continued to watch me silently, a shy smile on her face as her hands toyed nervously with one of the strings of her robe.
“Uh, hello, Miss.” I said. She gave me a small nod. So I pressed on. “Have you been following me?”
“Did I do something wrong?”
She shook her head.
She cocked her head ever so slightly to the side. I had the feeling that I was being evaluated.
“I didn’t mean to sound rude.” I told her, feeling my cheeks grow warm, “I mean, if you want to follow me, that’s fine, I just … it seems like there’d be more interesting things to do.”
She stepped closer and stared directly into my eyes. I found myself completely incapable of looking away. Faced with a new situation, my mind went blank.
After a few moments, she brought her hand to my face. Her touch was gentle, so gentle that my hand came up seemingly of its own accord, reaching slowly to touch her cheek as she touched mine.
The next clear memory I had was of waking up in my bed, more than a little confused. I swung my legs over the side of my bed, my mind scrambling to piece together what had happened.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to think about it for long. A knock sounded at my door, followed by the muffled voice of Devon asking, “Sir Jimmy! May I come in?”
“Yeah.” I said, quickly slipping on my hakama. As he opened the door, an idea crossed my mind. I asked him, “Did the young princess get a good night’s rest?”
He flushed, and bowed his head. “I never had a chance to thank you for that. I wanted to tell her, but Her Majesty thought it wouldn’t be in the princess’s best interests.”
Aha! So it wasn’t just a dream!
“Devon,” I asked, “Did you see a fional in the hallway last night?”
He gave me an odd look. “No, I only saw you and the princess. By the time I came back your way, you were in your room.”
I shook my head, saying, “After you left with Zelda, I saw this fional woman. I tried to talk to her, but-”
“Jimmy,” Devon said, looking uncomfortable.
“It wasn’t the first time either. I saw her before, in the city.”
“Jimmy, I don’t know how to say this, but with the whole business with Princess Sera and the whole prophecy thing …” He blushed slightly, continuing, “I mean, you’ve been out there almost a decade by yourself.”
I narrowed my eyes at the implication. “I’m not imagining things.”
“I’m not saying you are.” He said quickly. “I’m just sayin’, that’s all.”
We walked in silence for about a minute before clearing his throat. “So, was she pretty? I mean, I know Shorans aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but still.”
I closed my eyes and drew the image of the fional woman from my memory: her cream-colored fur, the long ears almost covered by her long blonde hair, her soft lilac-purple eyes, and that strange and wonderful shy little smile she gave me, like she had a secret she wanted to share with me … but not just yet.
“Beautiful. Probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I sighed and shook my head. “Or you’re right, and I’m crazy to the point that I’m hallucinating.”
“Well, you know what they say. The simplest solution is often the most accurate.”
“Ugh … I’ll worry about it later.” I said, having already faced enough embarrassment for one day. “Let’s go to the princess’s room; after all, I’ve got a promise to keep.”
We picked up Arc and Mick along the way. It was a bit out of the way, but I was glad for the delay; I still had trouble pushing the fional from my thoughts.
“G’morning.” Arc said, rubbing his bird’s nest of a head. “Slept well, did ya?”
“More or less.” Glancing at Mick, I asked, “How about you? Did you sleep well?”
“Actually, no. I spent most of last night in the royal library garden.”
“The library or the garden?” Arc asked.
Mick nodded. “Yes, that was the place.”
Arc opened his mouth to reply, but Devon cut him short. “We can take the tour later. Business first.”
Our group complete, we headed to Princess Sera’s chambers. Devon opened the door for us, only for a cloud of dust to shoot from the room and envelope us.
“Intriguing.” Mick said as Arc, Devon, and I were reduced to fits of coughing, “So this is what a princess’s room looks like.”
Covering my mouth and nose with the sleeve of my keikogi, I walked into the room and peered through the powdery fog. Although it was unusually bright, I was able to make out a figure with a large mustache in the corner of the room wiping a brush rapidly across a shelf. The mustache was covered with powder, but I was pretty sure I knew who it was.
“King Iniagus!” I called out, my eyes streaming.
He looked up at me. “Jimmy! Excellent! You’re just in time!”
“What are you doing?”
“Checking for fingerprints!”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Beg your pardon?”
Sighing, I told him, “I can’t investigate if I can’t see!”
“Oh! Of course, how silly of me.” The king clapped his hands. Instantly, all the powder in the air settled on the carpet and furniture. It was so thick on the floor that it looked as though the room had been caught in a snowstorm. It was then I realized the reason the room was so brightly lit was because there was no outer wall, at least not anymore.
I let out a low whistle. “How long ago did this happen?”
“Two days ago. Princess Zelda came in to see her sister and found it like this.”
I frowned at this. “Surely someone heard something before then.”
“I …” Devon frowned as well as realized my meaning. “No, nobody heard when it happened. We checked the security feeds, though; it definitely happened in the middle of the night; the cameras make a full rotation every six hours.”
“That’s a pretty wide window.” I said. “Still doesn’t explain the lack of sound; whatever did this must’ve made a heck of a lot of noise. Arc?”
Arc slammed a drawer shut, trapping a lacey undergarment strap. “Uh, nothing here!”
Shaking my head, I glanced around the princess’s chamber. The room seemed normal, save for the missing wall and the piles of dust. I was kind of surprised to see so many stuffed animals amid the mess; Sera hadn’t struck me as the stuffed animal type, though on reflection the dolls most likely came from Iniagus.
I walked over to the missing wall and looked out over the city of Iniagusville, where the twin suns were just beginning to rise over the sleeping city. It was quite a remarkable view.
I turned my gaze to the wall as my hand rubbed against a strange groove in the wall. At first, it looked like it was just a gash, perhaps made by the sharp edge of the machinery used to tear through the wall. It wasn’t just a single gash, though; there were four, all parallel to each other. From the shapes of the cuts in the wood, I found myself thinking they looked like the marks made by some huge set of claws or talons.
I looked down from the opening. As I expected, there were more claw marks on the outside of the palace, though only around the missing wall.
“So it didn’t climb up.” I said to myself, “Whatever did this could fly.”
Sifting through the dust, I found the last piece of evidence I knew would be there; a bluish scale the size of my fist. It didn’t take long to find more, mostly near the edge of the missing wall.
Letting out a sigh, I said. “I think I know what caused this.”
“You do!” Iniagus danced a little gig in his joy, “Splendid, simply splendid! I knew I could count on you!”
I held up the scale. “It’s a dragon.”