Terry’s jaw dropped. I can’t blame him; I was feeling similarly stunned. At the same time, though, I felt that strange thrill one feels when unravelling a tough riddle.
“It’s fake.” I said, staring at the pieces in my hands. “This was one of the scales I picked up in Sera’s room.”
“By the Creator.” Terry said, taking one of the scale fragments and turning it over in his hand. “But if the scale’s fake-”
“-the dragon isn’t real either.” I said. “It’s a prop, just like the one I took out in Wukice.”
“But we saw the dragon!” Terry said, “How can you be sure it’s not real?”
“The fake scale.” I said, feeling a bit light-headed from a euphoric rush. “There are only two reasons it could’ve been in Sera’s room; by accident, or by design. If it just rubbed off by accident, then there you go; the scale’s fake, and so is the dragon. If it was design, then the plan was obviously to blame the dragon.”
“The dragon who already admitted to kidnapping the princess, making the point entirely moot.” Terry said. “No reason to use a fake scale when you’ve got access to real ones.”
“Exactly. Bottom line, dragon’s a fake. That’s why Yaevin didn’t detect it, and why no one actually witnessed the princess’s kidnapping.” I paused, the strangeness of that last statement hitting me. Perhaps the dragon wasn’t the only thing fake about the Princess’s abduction. “Tell me, Terry, were you in the palace the night Sera was kidnapped?”
“Yes.” Terry said, “I spoke with her that evening, in fact.”
“Did you hear anything?” I asked. “The dragon supposedly tore through the walls. I don’t care if they were sound-proofed, it would’ve made a hell of a noise.”
Terry frowned. “Now that you mention it, no. My room wasn’t that far from hers, and I’m a light sleeper. I definitely heard Princess Zelda scream when she we went to see her sister.”
“In the middle of the night, right?”
“Er, yes. When she has nightmares, she likes to slip into her big sister’s bed. It’s really cute. Still, I didn’t hear anything, and given the damage, that’s ridiculous.”
“Because there was no dragon.” I said, looking at the pieces of the scale. “Fake or otherwise; it was just a few scales left around a giant hole in the side of the palace. Whoever did that wanted everyone to think it was a dragon, to scare them off the trail.”
“The kidnapper must be one hell of an artist.” Terry said, turning over the scale. “The dragon looked pretty damn real to me.”
Another realization hit me. Iniagus had said it in an off-handed manner, but looking back, I couldn’t help but feel like a fool for not giving it more consideration. “Not just an artist; a painter.”
“A painter?” Terry hit the railing with his fist, no doubt making the same realization. “That draconis! The guy who painted the palace!”
“He had access to the palace and the equipment to reach her room from outside. I’d bet Glint he drugged the princess, and set up that whole scene. I wonder he only charged the king half-price.”
“He still would’ve had to tear a chunk of the wall out of the palace.” Terry said.
“Hmm.” I tapped a scale fragment against the railing of my bridge as my mind raced to put the pieces together. “How long was he there?”
“He started not long after I first met you, so I’d say at least two months. I think I see where you’re going with this, but wouldn’t Sera have noticed someone sawing into her wall?”
“Not unless the palace has a severe termite problem.” I snapped my fingers as realization hit me. “Bugs. He bugged the palace! Not only would he have known when Sera wasn’t around, bugging Sera’s room let him hear that Iniagus assigned us to find her. I bet he slipped a bug into the throne room too, to make sure Iniagus remained blissfully unaware.”
“Meaning he was listening in when we arrived, and knew we were coming. By the Creator, Jimmy, that’s genius!” Terry said, “But how can we be sure? Find the bugs and trace them back to the source?”
“Not a bad plan, but that’s all the way back in Iniagusville. For now, we have the scale; perhaps Bethany can find something more with a deeper scan. C’mon!”
I ran through the lobby of the mansion, Terry close behind me as we searched for Mick. He had his own room, but as he was not yet capable of true sleep, he tended to recharge via outlet in the kitchen. We found him there, already curled into a ball.
Plush One was there as well, pouring himself a glass of tea that was just a little smaller than the doll. No doubt seeing the urgent look on my face, One nodded at us and tossed a piece of hard candy at Mick’s head, yelling, “Oy, Mick!”
The candy bounced off Mick’s head with a loud ‘ting’. Activating instantly, Mick stood up and let out a yawn before glancing curiously at Terry and me. “Jimmy. Terry. What’s going on?”
“The dragon’s a fake.” I said, handing him the fragment of the scale.
Mick glanced at it, still looking sleepy. In a matter of moments, however, the sleepiness changed to an intense curiosity. He tapped part of the counter; to my surprise, the circular counter pulled back, revealing a small computer center.
“How long has this been here?” I said, perplexed to find so much tech in my cooking area.
“Since my last Inheritor decided she wanted to be able to cook while running genetic models.” Bethany’s face smiled at us from the main screen. “Good evening, everyone. Working late, I see.”
“Good evening Bethany.” Mick said pleasantly. “Could you analyze this scale fragment please?”
“Certainly.” Blue light shot from her eyes and encompassed the scale for a few moments. “Interesting. It is made from a synthetic polymer that is light and surprisingly heat-resistant. If this came from the dragon, then the dragon-”
“-isn’t real.” I finished with much satisfaction. “At least, it isn’t a real dragon.”
“One moment.” Bethany vanished, only to reappear a moment later, an image of another scale appearing on a different screen. “I found a few scales in what was left of the floater; analysis shows them to be identical in composition.”
“Unne Trustworthy!” One said immediately. “He’s behind this! He’s got a dragon suit, and kidnapped the princess to force her to marry him, making him heir to the throne! A classic OEC three!”
The doll looked so proud of his theory that I almost didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. Almost.
“Surprisingly, no.” I said, “Listen, Iniagus mentioned hiring a draconis to paint the palace. We think he created the entire scene in Sera’s room to make us think it was a dragon. Maybe he had help; there’s no way to be sure, but it sure as heck wasn’t from a real dragon.”
“We should check the palace records.” Terry said. “Both for the draconis’s information and for signs of anyone who might be working with him. Being a painter’s one thing, but he’d need a tekker to help make his fake dragon.”
“Fake dragon?” said a sleepy Casey, wandering into the room with her hair a mess and her eyes nearly shut. “The dragon’s not real?”
“Oh, there was a dragon.” I told her. “But it was just another prop, probably made as a backup in case someone actually started looking into the kidnapping. Let’s be honest; how many people would be crazy enough to chase after a dragon?”
Terry counted on his fingers for a moment. “Counting One and the CICs, at least ten. Eleven if you’re wrong about Terra, which, for the record, I still think you are.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at the remark. “Fair enough. Still, that’s good news! That means the Princess is okay!”
“Yes, perfectly fine while being held captive by a draconis.” Casey said, taking the scale fragment from Mick and looking at it curiously. “Okay, so why did this draconis kidnap her?”
“Maybe he’s a romantic, and thought he was rescuing her.” Terry suggested. “She was really bothered the day I met you, Jimmy. I remember her saying that her father was forcing her to marry someone because he saw the word ‘evil’ spelled in his alphabet cereal that morning … with two ‘E’s, no less.”
“Alphabet cereal.” I said, shaking my head. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
“Maybe his interest is a little less pure. The kidnapper, I mean.” said Casey, “If this draconis has been stalking her, maybe he saw this as a way to win her over; ‘rescue’ her from the palace, so she wouldn’t have to marry either of you.”
“I could see that.” I said, “Given the amount of detail in Sera’s room and the dragon itself, I think it’s safe to say he’s a bit obsessive.”
“Wait a minute!” Bethany said, raising a hand to stop the rest of us. “All this is fine and perfectly plausible, but hinges on this stalker having access to the materials to rig up a fake dragon on short notice. The paint on both scales is several years old; either he was planning this for a while, or he already had some kind of mock dragon to work with.”
“That’s …” Terry sighed, enthusiasm deflating. “That’s a good point. Where would someone even find something like that just lying around?”
“Maybe an old prop?” I said, glancing at Casey.
“Maybe.” She said with a yawn, “I can check the database for other dragon props. If so, there may be an identifying-”
She suddenly frowned, her eyes narrowing as she stared at the scale. “Hang on a sec. Jimmy, can I see the other parts of the scale?”
“Sure.” I handed the other fragments to her.
After putting the pieces together and staring closely at it for a moment, she said, “There are letters here.”
“What?” I said, moving around to see. At first, it looked like just like any of the other small ridges on the scale. As I stared closer, however, I was just able to make out tiny letters obscured by several layers of paint.
“One moment.” Bethany’s image blurred for a few seconds before solidifying. An image of a whole scale appeared on one of the side monitors. We all watched as waves of energy swept over the scale over and over again until the paint was scraped away and the words were visible.
“Property of the Nation of teh Noobs.” I read aloud.
Mick rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Strange; this misspelling seems intentional.”
“It’s Leet-speak, slang from pre-Devastation Earth.” Said One, a disgusted look on his face. “'Teh' is a common misspelling of ‘the’, and 'noob' basically means someone who's inexperienced.”
“So, the nation of the inexperienced.” I said. “What does that supposed to mean? Have any of you heard of this place?”
Casey and Terry looked at me strangely. Well, Casey did; Terry just looked in my direction, his mouth open slightly.
It was ultimately Terry who asked, “You never heard about the Nation of Teh Noobs, sir?”
Sighing, I said, “Thirteen years in the Saybaro, Terry. Not a lot of news outlets here, and my Weave connection was spotty at best before Bethany came along.”
“Right. Sorry, sir.” Clearing his throat, Terry said, “The Nation of teh Noobs was a theme park near the western border of Wenapaj. The king had it built for his thirty-second birthday. I remember he billed it as a video game-themed amusement park.”
“Sounds interesting.” I said. I didn’t play as many games as I did when I was younger, but it wasn’t like there was a lot else to occupy the free time between my training and guarding the bridge for the past thirteen years.
“Well, it never opened.” Casey said, “The king lost interest after delays in construction, and the whole thing was abandoned. Millions of shards, just wasted. The king was even forced to make a public apology.”
“I bet that was something to see.” I said, but a soon frowned at an unpleasant thought. “Which means this might not be a stalker after all.”
“You mean … revenge?” Terry said, “Against Iniagus?”
“I don’t know.” I said, “But if my job suddenly died just because the king was bored, I’d be a little upset.”
“Either way, Sera is definitely in harm’s way.” Bethany said, a worried look on her face. “Something like an amusement park should be simple enough to see from orbit. Give me a moment to run a quick surface scan.
The scale vanished, replaced with a 3-D map of Wenapaj. The map focused on the western side of Wenapaj. The map began to fill in more details; the Saybaro Mansion, the roads and rivers, part of an energy-producing city to the north called ‘Brigsonstrat’, and the occasional wayside hotel/bar. After a few moments, the image of a massive castle surrounded by a great stone wall appeared almost directly west of the Saybaro.
“That’s it.” I said, clapping my hands together. “That’s where the princess and her abductor are hiding.”
“It makes sense.” One said, rubbing his tiny chin thoughtfully. “A place with plenty of spare parts that’s far enough from any other settlement, yet close enough for him to link into the Wenapaj Weave … and hey, with a castle like that, I’d bet my rune they had some sort of ride or animatronic designed to look like a dragon.”
Turning to me with a mischievous smile, he said, “So, shall we get going?”
“I suggest we finish resting first.” Mick said, “The Saybaro’s teleporters can take us a good distance, but we’ll still have at least an eight-hour hike to reach the park.”
To my surprise, Terry said, “I think we should go now, sir.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m as eager to rescue her from whatever her captor’s putting her through at the moment, but Mick’s right. If we show up exhausted, Sera’s at even greater risk.”
“They could try to leave before we get there, sir. If we wait, we might miss our chance.”
“If we are unprepared for the fight, we risk being incapable of rescuing her at all.” Mick said, giving Terry an odd look. “Our chances of success are higher if we wait.”
I wasn’t surprised when everyone looked to me for a final decision. I still wasn’t comfortable in the role of the leader, but I supposed this situation was a good example of why someone had to fill the position.
“Mick’s right.” I said after thinking it over. “The better prepared we are, the better chance we have of resolving the situation.”
“Agreed.” Mick said. “Bethany, can you link into the public Weave and see if you can find a map or a schematic of the place?”
“I already have.” Two small stacks of papers materialized on the kitchen counter. “I made enough for everyone to have their own.”
I took one sheet from each stack. The first seemed to be a concept image of a park map, the kind of map given to park-goers. The second was a roadmap with the path from the Saybaro to the Nation of teh Noobs highlighted in red.
Everyone took a copy of each map, save Terry; he took two each.
“Meryli’s in the room next to mine.” He said, “I’ll make sure she gets them in the morning.”
“I could do it for you.” Mick offered. “I need to bring Arc his anyway.”
“That’s all right.” Terry said, tucking the sheets away in his breastplate. “One less stop for you.”
Shrugging, Mick held the final set of maps to One, who didn’t respond in the slightest. After a few moments and a quick prod with my finger, I realized he wasn’t in the doll.
Shaking my head, I said, “I guess One has left the building. All right, everyone, go get some sleep. We’ll head out in the morning after a quick breakfast. Bethany, can you send a copy of everything to the Mox Wazoo? I still doubt Iniagus will send help, but we should let Devon know what we’ve discovered and warn him about the possible bugs in the palace.”
“I’ve already prepared the message.” She said with a smile. “Pleasant dreams, everyone.”
Mick and Casey said their goodnights as well as they left the kitchen Mick taking Plush One with him. As I started to follow them, I saw Terry still standing by the counter. I couldn’t see his face, but he almost looked pensive as the counter slid back into place.
“I’m sorry.” I told him.
He jumped slightly, as though he’d forgotten I was there. “What? Sorry for what, sir?”
“You were trying to tell me something earlier, and I kinda blew you off.”
“Oh! Right.” He seemed to fight with himself for a moment before saying, “It’ll keep sir. Right now, we should probably focus on the princess.”
“Are you sure?” I said, “We’ve got time, and if you’ve got something you want to get off your chest-”
“I can talk to you anytime. I know, sir … Jimmy.” Terry said. “and I will when we get back. I promise.”
I smiled at him. “Okay. Well, I’m heading for bed, but feel free to drop in while I’m making breakfast. We can talk tactics regarding dragon-props. I’ve got valuable experience, after all.”
“I doubt anyone could throw this armor that high, even without me inside it, sir.”
We both chuckled at this for a moment before I headed toward the door. “Goodnight, Terry.”
As I left the room, I heard a slight rattle, as though something hit the counter, followed by a murmured, “Damn.”
“It’s easier to go around the table, Terry.” I said without turning back.
I heard him sigh. “I’ll try and remember that, sir.”
Chuckling, I headed for my room and some much-needed sleep.
As I entered the room, I spotted my sketchbook lying on my bed. It immediately struck me as odd; I usually kept it on my nightstand.
As I picked it up, something brushed against my hand; a small tuft of all-too-familiar blonde hair neatly tied at one end. My heart beating fast, I opened the book to the page to see a message.
“Watch the Tekker. -Terra.”