I can’t help but feel a touch nostalgic when I think back to the moment the four of us stepped out of the city and onto the Natalya Highway. We were an untested team with no idea of the strange things that were to come.
I’m getting ahead of myself. You’re probably wondering why we were walking. To explain, we’ll have to back up a few minutes.
As we approached the floater rental station near the East Gate, Arc approached the counter and made a great show of clearing his throat. “Ah, excuse me!”
“How can I-” The attendant turned and scowled. “Oh. It’s you. What do YOU want?”
Seemingly nonplussed by this response, Arc said, “I need a floater, an Uleo model this time.”
“Certainly, just as soon as you pay the fifteen-hundred shard fee.”
Arc’s mouth fell. “Fifteen hundred shards? Who carries that kind of money around?”
“It’s the repair cost of the floater you wrecked after your last visit.”
We all looked at Arc, who suddenly seemed a little sheepish. “So I left it with a few slight dings.”
“Half of the car was missing!” The attendant admonished, “If we hadn’t found the other half, we would have charged the full price of the vehicle. Now are you going to pay or not?”
Sighing, I pulled out my wallet and surveyed its contents: Seventy-six shards, my personal ID card, and a receipt for the hamburger I had for lunch during my last visit to Iniagusville. I had a debit card, but I had given it to Bethany, as she wished to purchase certain materials for her own reconstructive efforts.
“So much for that.” I said.
“The merchant told us the trip would take two or three weeks on foot.” Mick reminded me.
We all considered this for a few moments.
“Maybe Iniagus would give us the money?” Arc suggested, but it was clear from the sound of his voice that even he wasn’t that naïve.
I let out a snort. “He’d probably just let us borrow his car … and no, we aren’t considering that, Arc.”
As Arc sulked, Terry said, “I did bring my portable cabin, just in case, but-”
“-but the princess and the dragon will probably be long gone by the time we get there.” I finished.
We all turned to Mick as he continued, “If the dragon took the princess for personal reasons, then it stands to reason that he took her to his lair. If the dragon was seen at Wukice, his lair may be nearby.”
“In which case, they may be able to at least tell us which way the dragon went.” I gave Mick an appreciative nod. “Good thinking, Mick.”
Mick smiled, his cheeks tinged with gold.
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’, Mick?” Terry asked, his tone curious.
“Well, we’ve established that it was a dragon that kidnapped the princess. Since only male dragons are known to engage in this kind of hoarding behavior, it stands to reason that this dragon is male, and is probably fairly young.”
I nodded. “I agree. Probably just about to reach adulthood, and itching to prove himself. That’s good news for us; he’ll probably be careless. Once we find his lair, we might even be able to sneak in and carry the princess off.”
Arc let out a whistle. “That dragon’s gonna be pissed when he finds out.”
He had a point. We would need a fallback plan in case the dragon discovered our rescue.
“We’ve got a few weeks until we reach Wukice.” I said. “I’m sure we’ll think of something by then.”
“Wait, we’re really just gonna walk there?” Arc said incredulously as the rest of us started walking toward the East Gate. “But he said it’d take weeks!”
“I’d love another option.” I told him, “But I don’t have a license to rent a transport for all of us or the money to cover the damage you caused. Of course, if you have a better idea, I’d be more than happy to hear it.”
Arc grumbled well until Iniagusville was a speck on the horizon behind us. I wanted to laugh, but I remained silent; Arc was already having enough trouble carrying the monstrosity that was his sword.
We passed many other travelers on the ground path, most riding horses, felpas, or in once odd case, a domesticated durien. We smiled and waved politely as they passed. I was a little surprised at the traffic, but reasoned that most were people from local settlements near Wenapaj.
As the ground path veered away from the floater path, the traffic on the road grew sparse. The weather remained fair, and as there was nothing else to do, we fell back into our usual pastime of telling stories about our lives, or in Mick’s case, the life of Thomas Desygan.
The only one who didn’t speak much was Terry. I couldn’t really blame him; wearing all that armor in the hot sun had to be taxing. Still, his complete silence was more than a little unnerving. In truth, I was hoping he’d be more forthcoming; I was curious about Devon’s son, and the life he had thus far led.
As we traveled, I continued to watch Terry out of the corner of my eye. Something about him seemed odd, and it wasn’t just that he stayed in full armor despite the heat.
His endurance was impressive; even with all that armor, he never seemed to need a break. Even if the armor had a self-regulating temperature unit, it was still quite heavy. Nevertheless, he didn’t complain.
“So,” I said, trying to strike up a conversation with Terry for the umpteenth time, “Did you grow up in the palace?”
After Terry once again gave no further response, Arc let out an exasperated sigh. “Yes sir? That’s it? Dude, it must be totally whack living with the King. You have to have some kind of story.”
When he still didn’t reply, I said, “If we are to work together, we need to establish some kind of communication. Granted, this wasn’t how I was expecting to spend the next few weeks, but we might as well make the best of it, right?”
He continued walking in silence.
Just when I was ready to give up, he said, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just not used to being part of a group, sir.”
“What are you talking about? You’re a member of the freakin’ Royal Guard!” said Arc, throwing up his hands. “Or is this some parallel dimension where the Royal Guard isn’t a group?”
Terry replied stiffly, “I’ve only been part of the Royal Guard for a week or so. Before that … well, I was never really popular among the other kids in the palace.”
“Because you weren’t royalty?” Mick asked curiously.
Terry snorted. “Nothing like that; if anything, the royal children were nicer to me than anyone else. They teased me because I’m …”
After a moment of silence, I asked, “Because you’re …?”
He shook his head. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
Arc opened his mouth to argue, but I quickly shook my head. No reason to put Terry on the spot; from the sound of it, he had quite enough of that already.
After a few minutes of silence, Terry asked, “If it’s not too personal a question, how did you come to be at the Saybaro?”
Arc let out a snort. “If you aren’t going to talk about yourself-”
I stopped him. “It’s all right, Arc. I’m originally from Ronisgald. When I was five, my parents moved to Rimstak to investigate a series of recently discovered Glyche ruins. Unfortunately, they fell victim to the last Corruption; I survived, but my parents were killed.”
Terry bowed his head. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“It’s all right.” I said. “That was a long time ago, and I’ve come to terms with it. Anyway, Uncle Ann raised me from that point until I was thirteen, when I felt that it was time for me to see the world. I heard about Iniagus’s proactive citizenship plan from some travelers, and decided to give it a try. That was thirteen years ago.”
“Thirteen years, man. I still can’t get over that.” Arc let out a low whistle. “I can’t imagine spending that much time by myself.”
“Devon stopped by every now and then, and I grew to like the solitude. It was nice to wake up and know that I had nothing to do but better myself. Still, after thirteen years, I have to admit that it’s nice to have some company.”
We continued walking in silence. Mick and Terry both seemed pensive; Arc just seemed bored.
As the suns began to set, we stopped for the night and set camp at the edge of a nearby forest. As I looked around for a comfortable spot to sleep, Terry pulled a small box out of his pack and set it on the ground.
“Step back.” He said, grabbing a small rip cord on the side of the box.
I complied. Terry pulled the cord and quickly moved away. The small box seemed to fold outward, growing larger and larger until it was the size of a small house.
I felt the side of the house. It felt like a normal, wooden wall. “Feels pretty sturdy.”
“Well, yeah. It’s a portable cabin.” said Arc, giving me an odd look. “Haven’t you ever camped before?”
I glanced at the house, thinking of the week I had spent sleeping out in the open. “I guess not.”
The house’s interior was pretty simple: a small, serviceable kitchen, a bathroom complete with a tub with running hot water, and a large bedroom. Unfortunately, there were only three beds.
“I told him to get me one with four beds!” Terry said, his pitch rising with his annoyance.
I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. You three take the beds; I was gonna sleep outside anyway.”
Terry seemed mollified by the thought. “You’re my superior, sir. I’ll sleep outside.”
I sighed exasperatedly. “Would you quit that already? You don’t have to show me extra respect. It’s your cabin, you sleep in it!”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.” Terry gave me a final salute before heading toward the bathroom, only to discover Arc had beat him to it.
I left the cabin and found a nice tree not too far away. It was a nice clear night, and I was well used to napping beneath trees at that point. Making myself comfortable against my pack, I put my hands behind my head and stared up at the night sky.
Just as I started to fall asleep, I heard Mick ask, “Are you awake, Jimmy?”
I opened my eyes and propped myself against the tree. “Sure. What’s up?”
Bowing his head, he said, “I want to apologize.”
“Apologize? For what?”
“For what happened to your parents.”
I felt a slight constriction in my chest. “It wasn’t your fault, Mick. Heck, you weren’t even operational back then.”
“But it was Glyche technology that killed them.”
“I don’t blame the Glyche, Mick, not even the transversion cells that corrupted my parents.”
Mick still looked troubled. “When you told me that others would be afraid of me, I understood why; my people did much harm to the populace of Vinta. How is it that you of all people show us such acceptance?”
“If I dropped a hammer on my foot, should I blame the hammer?” I replied, chuckling. “The Glyche were corrupted, Mick. Someone altered their baseline programming and made them nothing more than killing machines. That person is to blame for those who died at the hands of the Glyche, not you.”
Even with his limited facial features, Mick looked grateful. “Thank you, Jimmy. I’m sorry if I woke you up.”
“I’ve always got time to talk, Mick.”
“I’ll remember that. Goodnight, Jimmy.”
It was hard not to think about that awful time as I lay back down. Fortunately, years of practicing meditation had given me an impressive amount of mental control. In a matter of minutes, I was asleep.
I dreamt about Mick. He was wearing a maid outfit made for a female and was engaged in cleaning the lobby of the manor, which for some reason was filled with hundreds of pots.
I searched the pots until an enormous dragon head poked out of a largish pot in the middle of the room. It looked at me and said in an extremely high-pitched voice, “And what do you want, little man?”
Mick glanced up from his work and said, “He’s supposed to slay you. I don’t think he will though.”
“Huh! A coward!”
“No,” I said, “I just don’t know why I should care.”
“What about the beautiful princess?”
The dragon held up a hand covered in an enormous sock. The sock had a crude face painted on it, and was wearing Sera’s armor. “Help me, Jimmy!” The dragon said in an even higher-pitched voice, trying to hide the movements of its enormous mouth with a claw, “Save me, my hero!”
“I’m not a hero!” I said, “I guard a bridge!”
The dragon began to laugh. I opened my mouth to give an indignant reply, but was interrupted by a loud shout of, “Watch out! It’s a trap!”
I ducked just as the dragon took a swipe at me. Terry was standing there, holding Arc’s gigantic sword as though it were a toothpick. With a mighty blow, he cracked the vase the dragon was hiding in, revealing none other than Arc.
Arc looked at me with a rather annoyed expression; the mechanical controls whirred as he tried to continue moving the dragon’s head and claws.
“Aha!” Mick proclaimed, brandishing his feather duster, “It was Arc in the lobby with the dragon!”
As I tried to make sense of what was happening, Terry walked over to me and started shaking me by the shoulders.
I woke up to find it was in fact Arc who was shaking me, though Terry was with him. There was fear in their eyes …well, in Arc’s eyes anyway.
“What’s going on?” I said, my mind still clinging to the vestiges of the dream.
“We can’t find Mick!”
Now wide awake, I said, “He’s not in the cabin?”
Terry shook his head, “He was gone when Arc woke me up.”
If something happened to him, Bethany would be really sore at me. Seeing as I still had to live at the Saybaro once this dragon business ended, it was in my best interests to stay on her good side. Besides, Mick was my friend; if he was in trouble, I wanted to help.
Easing up from the ground, I said, “You two up for a little walk?”
It was a nice night for a search. Okay, no night’s a nice night for a search, but at least Everblue was out to give us plenty of light. We searched the nearby woods as thoroughly as we could, but Mick was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t even find traces of his passing.
The most obvious answer was corruption, but I didn’t buy that at all. Bethany had centuries, millennia even to perfect Mick; if it was possible for him to be corrupted, it would undoubtedly take more than a few weeks to break through whatever guards she had created … that is, unless Bethany was also corrupted.
I glanced down at the PIM device she had given me. “No,” I said to myself, “She wouldn’t have made me Inheritor; she would have just infected or killed me.”
After about fifteen minutes of searching, I spotted the glimmering surface of a lake through some of the trees. I started to check it out when I heard a shout from Arc in the opposite direction. I found him not too far away, near the mouth of a gaping hole in the ground that easily stretched more than ten feet across.
Arc pointed at the massive hole as though it would somehow escape my notice. “Careful, man! I nearly fell in!”
I knelt down by the edge. The grass had grown over the edges and partly down the sides of the hole. I would have written it off as a natural formation except for the fact that it was perfectly square.
“Don’t see many square holes, right?” Arc crouched down beside me.
“Indeed.” I stood up just as Terry caught up with us, “Anyone have a flashlight?”
Instantly, the underside of the PIM began radiating a wide beam of light. Glancing at the unit with a smile, I couldn’t help but comment, “Handy little thing, isn’t it?”
I shone the light down the hole; it was deep enough to make jumping in an iffy proposition. To my surprise, there was grass growing at the bottom.
“All right.” I said, “I’ll head down first and see if there’s anything down there. You two wait here, okay?”
“Yes sir.” Terry said. Arc looked like he wanted to argue, but only nodded and crossed his arms.
I had to be careful as I climbed down the hole; the dirt was very dry and crumbly, so I had to make sure each foot and hand hold was secure before moving down. Slowly, the light of the moon faded, leaving me in near darkness.
I continued to climb down, using the PIM to check the distance. The chasm was a lot deeper than I originally thought, but I was making good progress.
A few clods of dirt fell from above. I raised my PIM hand to shield my face. “Sir!” I heard Terry shout, “Watch out!”
The next thing I clearly remember was Terry helping me to my feet.
“Are you okay, sir?” he asked.
“I think so.” I said as he helped me up, “Did I fall?”
“Not exactly. Arc fell on you.”
I turned my light on Arc just in time to see him scowl. “So I lost my grip. Big deal. You’re okay, right?”
“Yeah. I was pretty close to the bottom anyway. Are you two okay?”
Arc started brushing dirt and grass off his clothes. “Yeah, except for all this dirt. These threads weren’t exactly cheap, you know, and the dry-cleaning bill alone …”
Shaking my head as Arc continued complaining, I activated my PIM’s light again and looked around the bottom of the hole. Even with the light, I almost missed the cavern entrance, a nearly black hole in the side of the hole. Unlike the rest of the hole, the cave looked to have been dug quite recently.
“Aha!” Arc slid his goggles over his eyes, “Toldjya there was somethin’ here, didn’t I?”
“Indeed. Terry, you might want to ready your-” My eyes darted over to Terry, who had already unslung his plasma rifle. “Right. Okay, I’ll take the lead.”
“Sir, I should go first.” Terry said, sounding as though it was the last thing he wanted to do. “If there’s something down here-”
“If there’s something dangerous down here, I’ll drop to my knees and let you blast it. We’ve only got one flashlight, and it’s attached to my hand; I’ll go first.”
I walked slowly through the cave, one hand out to light the way, the other clamped around the hilt of Glint. Terry was right behind me; he kept accidentally hitting me with the muzzle of his rifle whenever I’d stop. Arc was in the back; I could hear the scraping of his sword against the ground.
Everything was fine until the flashlight suddenly deactivated. I stopped and was instantly smacked by the butt of Terry’s rifle again.
“Oww! Ease up a little, Terry!”
“What’s the holdup?” Arc’s disembodied voice asked, “Where’d the light go?”
Try as I might, I couldn’t get the PIM’s flashlight to activate. I shook my head, despite the fact that no one could see me in the darkness. “I don’t like this. Everyone stay close.”
“Not that close!” I shoved Arc and Terry back.
A strange noise made us stop in our tracks. A short distance away, a small red light suddenly blinked into existence.
“What in Nocturnes?” I’m not sure which of us said it, but we were all thinking it.
The red light began moving quickly away.
“Come on!” I said, hurrying after it.
“Are you crazy?” Arc called after me, but I didn’t stop to argue; the light was moving very quickly, much faster than a skriever. I stopped immediately when my foot came down on something that was far too smooth to be dirt, and was instantly knocked forward by Terry and Arc.
Fluorescent blue lights flickered to life. I held a hand over my eyes to avoid being blinded.
Arc wasn’t quite as quick. “Gaah!”
“Quiet!” I said, trying to listen for whatever it was we had been following.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I was standing in a very familiar-looking hallway. “By the Creator,” I whispered as the realization of my surroundings hit me, “It’s another Glyche facility!”