The Nation of teh Noobs
The Ascendant shot from the courtyard of the Saybaro Mansion, just barely missing the railing of the bridge.
“Yee-haw!” Meryli whooped as the Glyche floater sped forward. In a matter of moments, the Saybaro was just a speck on the horizon.
The initial burst of speed had pushed me back in my seat, but after a few moments I found that I was able to move about normally.
“Probably some kind of inertia dampening system.” I said to no one in particularly.
Meryli grinned at me. “Smooth ride, ain't it? And we're going way faster than that rental floater! We'll be there in no time!”
I felt a slight push as Meryli pulled up slightly to go over part of the Carhal Mountains. Swiveling in my chair so I could see the others, I said, “So, I suppose we should go over the plan.”
“We steal the princess and get the hell out before the mad scientist sends his robot dragon after us.” Arc said instantly. “That's about it, right?”
“Well, yes.” I admitted. “I was thinking we could go over the maps and work out a search pattern.”
“Hold on a sec.” Casey interrupted, “Arc, did you say 'mad scientist'?”
“Seems pretty obvious to me. Made a dreadnaught out of an old prop, holed up in a castle, has a strange penchant for kidnapping beautiful women; sounds like a mad scientist to me.”
“More like a mad mechanic.” Casey replied.
“Hey!” Meryli said, looking at Casey through the rearview mirror. ”I'm a mechanic!”
“Yes, but are you mad?” Casey asked.
Meryli let out a laugh that started off normal but slowly became a full blown maniacal cackle.
“Ladies and Gentleman.” Terry said wryly, “Our pilot.”
We all had a good laugh, none louder than Meryli.
“Man, I miss this.” She said, her laughter fading into a sigh. “Being part of a team, working together on a common goal, facing unknown dangers in the name of the mad king.”
“Oh? You used to be a Royal Guard?” Casey asked.
“Yup.” Meryli said, “I even trained to be one of the Queen’s Shadows for a while.”
“What?” I said, drawing many a curious glance from the rest of my friends.
“The Queen’s Shadows. Y’know, her Majesty’s little secret service. Spies, basically. King Iniagus may be nuts, but her Majesty likes to keep an eye on things.” Meryli sighed again. “A bit too close an eye on things for my liking. I hated all the cloak and dagger stuff, so I quit.”
“Quitting’s an option?” Arc said, sounding legitimately confused.
This prompted laughter from most of the group, everyone save me and Terry. He frowned at me, no doubt correctly guessing Terra lay at the heart of my surprise. I turned away from him and stared out the window, trying and failing not to wonder if I’d been wrong about Terra after all.
We studied the maps Mick had provided of the Nation of teh Noobs. It was a surprisingly complex layout; it seemed divided in one of seven areas, loosely based on video game conventions.
There was the Shroom Woods, a forest of mushrooms home to kiddy rides; Crystal Cove, a pirate-themed area with ships, sandy beaches, and gem-studded caves; Galactic Central, a space-themed area with an impressive observatory; Miner's Refuge, a large underground exhibit with many maze-like corridors, the Shadowlands, an fear-inspired area filled with spooky attractions, and the Aetherial Plane, an educational area that proposed to teach visitors about the many forms and uses of magic on Vinta. The final area, labelled on the map as 'Bizarre Bazaar'(and yes, I wanted to punch someone after reading that) encircle the palace and led up to the main entrance.
“It's a damn shame.” Meryli said. “All that equipment just abandoned like that. Matter-replicators for food and souvenirs, state-of-the-art rides and attractions … I dunno about you, Jimmy, but I coulda used some of that.”
“You mean they just left it all there?” I said, shocked at the waste.
Terry let out a snort. “The Queen was eager to stop the waste of money, and the King had completely lost interest. He probably just assigned some poor schmuck to guard it and forgot it ever existed.”
“Gee, that's fair.” I said. “I get stuck with a bridge in the middle of nowhere, and someone else gets the abandoned amusement park.”
“Yeah, poor Jimmy.” Arc snorted. “With your mansion and your Glyche facility.”
A distant rumble caught my ear. Peering through the front window, I spotted storm clouds on the horizon.
“More good news.” I said.
“Don't worry, Jimbo. I can handle a little rain.” Meryli winked at me. “That reminds me; you think to pack some snacks?”
I opened a pack of beef jerky and offered it to her. She made a face, but took some anyway. “Never cared much for seasoned shoe-leather. Still, better than nothing.”
Terry and Casey each took a piece, but before Terry could hand the packet back to me, Arc snatched the bag from his hand and rushed back to his seat. I didn't mind; I wasn't feeling very hungry.
The dark clouds slowly spread across the sky as we continued across the rocky plains. As we drew nearer our destination, conversation slowly died away. Even Arc seemed pensive, which was a refreshing change. I absently rubbed the lock of Terra's hair, lost in thought as Terry checked his rifle and Casey continued scribbling in her notebook.
All too soon, we were within sight of the Nation of teh Noobs. It lay in the dead center of a large valley, a massive castle surrounded by rollercoasters and rides seemingly frozen forever in place. It made me feel a little sad; had it been finished, it would've looked nothing short of wondrous, especially to a child.
I tried to maintain my composure, but I was worried; what was waiting for us inside the park? What kind of traps would we find? Would they just make things difficult, or would some of us possibly not make it?
The road led right up to the Main Gate. According to the map, it was the only way past the massive stone wall that surrounded the park. The massive doors had been painted to resemble the visage of our nutty liege, the massive red mustache looking as though it were designed to move in some fashion.
“Waggles.” Terry said.
“Spins.” Arc said.
“Guys.” I said, “A little seriousness please.”
Meryli shook her head. “Whatever it does, I'm flying over it.”
“Wait!” Terry said as the Ascendant rose in the air. “There's a-”
The ship shuddered as it tried to pass over the gate. It wasn't like the Ascendant hit anything; more like something was pushing it back. Nevertheless, the sudden change in momentum was jarring to all inside the craft.
“-skyshield.” Terry finished, falling back into his seat. “It's to keep floater traffic from being a hazard in the park.”
“Great.” Meryli said, “So if the main gate shuts, we're stuck in there?”
“We could always climb over the wall.” Arc suggested.
“That wall's over fifty feet high.” Meryli said, “I'd like to see you make it up there with that sword of yours.”
“Or my armor.” Terry said. “And I'm definitely not leaving it behind.”
“Dude, is it worth your life?” Arc said. “Why so secretive anyway?”
To my surprise, Terry paused. “I wouldn't consider it except as a last resort. This armor was surprisingly expensive.”
“We could park outside.” I suggested, but Meryli shook her head.
“Ain't leavin' a work of art like this out here for some dragon to torth.” With a sigh, she brought the Ascendant back down to ground level and slowly flew through the giant mouth of King Iniagus.
I saw her cringe as we passed under the massive white teeth. I couldn't blame her; I half expected them to come crashing down too.
After a long drive through a deserted parking lot, we found ourselves at the edge of the Bizarre Bazaar. There were several covered parking garages marked as 'employee parking'. We ignored the signs, agreeing unanimously that the shelter was preferable to leaving the ship out in the open.
Once safely parked, we left the Ascendant and walked rather reluctantly toward the gates that led into the park's main area: the Bizarre Bazaar. As the map indicated, this area had a definite circus theme; giant tents were visible as we reached the ticket booth, while smaller wagons and stands lined the roads.
We each took turns hopping over the turnstile, but not until I had Meryli give it a quick glance for traps. I found myself thinking how odd it was that we'd yet to trip anything. Perhaps Terry was right, and the draconis had already escaped.
I suppose I should've known better; after all, this was Wenapaj. The moment Arc slipped through the gate, the safety shutters on the other side came down with a frightening crash. Arc leapt an impressive distance away, his loud yelp nearly as loud as the falling gates.
Before we could react, the entire park came to life. Lights flared, Rides began running by themselves, carnival music blared through strategically placed speakers, and food stands began making the usual fare of the sort of amusement parks. We watched in stunned silence as hotdogs materialized on rollers, enormous turkey legs appeared on spits, and sugar was rapidly spun into billowing clouds of cotton candy.
“I think we've been made.” Terry said, a high-pitched whine shooting through the air as he activated his rifle.
Arc gave him a scathing look. “No, really?
Glancing at the rest of the group, I said, “Maybe not. This might all be automated by some kind of motion-”
My voice was immediately drowned out by the boom of strategically placed speakers as a deep, cheery voice said, “Welcome to the Nation of teh Noobs! A glorious monument to video games of both Earth and Vinta! Whether you're a samurai, a white-rank, a gardener, a punk from the Center, a mechanic, or even a plush doll, I promise that tonight will be a night you never forget.”
“Wow. That was subtle.” Arc said, his hands clenched around the hilt of his massive sword.
“What's wrong, little ones? Are you afraid of a little entertainment?” The voice asked, “If you don't want to play, you're always free to be on your way.”
The shutter retracted once again, revealing the parking lot beyond. I was surprised he'd even offer the appearance of a choice, though part of me was sure it was just another trap.
Trying my best to sound determined, I said, “We're not going anywhere without the princess.”
I fully expected the gate to slam shut again, but to my surprise it remained open.
“Perhaps not now,” The voice over the loudspeaker said, “However, I'll leave the door open for you in case you change your mind. Since you're here, why not take a look around? Sample the rides, experience the thrills … but remember: there's always a price. Enjoy the show, samurai.”
“Wow.” Plush One said from his perch on Meryli's shoulder. “Theatrical much?”
“You would know.” Meryli said, giving him a knowing look.
His plush cheeks went pink. Coughing, he said, “So, where to now?”
Arc grimaced and pointed to the massive castle in the center of the park. Even from a distance, we all could see the light in the tallest tower.
“Oh, come on.” Casey said, “That's way too obvious.”
“You're right.” Arc said. “I mean, the guy's been nothing but subtle so far.”
I stared at the light. “I'm inclined to agree with Casey on this one. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure if I was Mick and didn't realize what a massive cliché it was, I'd have gone straight for it. Maybe it's wrong, but I'm more worried about him than Sera at the moment.”
“Wait a minute!” Terry said as we started toward the castle. “What if this is his plan?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We all go to the castle, he slips around us and runs off with the princess. He wouldn't need a dragon for that; just a floater.”
“Well, maybe we should split up then.” Meryli said.
Arc let out a snort. “Speaking of clichés.”
“I agree with Meryli, sir.” Terry said, to my surprise. “Splitting up is the best course of action, given the circumstances.”
As much as I hated to split the party, they were right. They were all right. Now they were all looking at me.
“Fine.” I said. “Okay; there are six of us counting One, so I suggest we split into three teams. One stays here to cover the entrance and check out the rest of the Bizarre Bazaar while the other two circle around the castle looking for signs of Sera, Mick, the draconis, the Dragon, or anything else that looks off.”
“Dude, splitting up is not a good idea.” Arc said. “The draconis might be expecting that!”
“And he might be expecting us to stay together. We just don't know; this way, at least we'll have eyes near the gate should he try to slip out.” I sighed, adding, “I know it's not the best plan, but the only other option is to turn tail back to the Saybaro. I'm not going until I find Mick and Princess Sera, but I won't blame any of you if you want to leave.”
Arc let out a sigh and shrugged. “What the heck. I didn't want to die old anyway.”
“We're with you, sir.” Terry said, the others nodding in agreement. Casey and Meryli nodded with a similar sentiment.
Looking at my friends, I felt a surge of gratitude for their friendship and loyalty. “Thank you … thank all of you. Keep your eyes open for more traps.”
“I thought this might be an issue.” Meryli dug in her side-pack and tossed us each a small walkie-talkie.
I caught mine, a little embarrassed I hadn't thought of bringing some myself. “What's the range?”
“About a five-hundred feet. They aren't great, but I've got them set up to act as relays; if we spread out the right way, we should be able to stay in touch. Just don't be surprised if they get jammed; if he's a tekker of any skill, he'll have ways of cutting these off.”
“Still better than nothing.” I said, clipping the device to my sash. “Now we just need to split off into teams.”
“I'll take the gate.” Meryli said. “I'd like to keep an eye on the Ascendant, just in case the bastard tries to make off with it.”
“I'll stay with her.” Terry said.
Meryli shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but I don't need a protector, Terry.”
“It's two to a team.” Terry said. “And if we do run into trouble, I can fire off a blast to alert the others.”
“Good idea.” I said. “It'll give us a warning even if we're out of range.”
Meryli looked like she wanted to argue, but just pursed her lips and nodded. I would've written it off as her just being uncomfortable around Terry if it weren't for the note in my sketchbook. As it was, I was glad Terry was going to be able to keep an eye on her.
“I'm going with Jimmy.” One said, floating over to me and landing on my shoulder. “You're going straight to the castle, right?”
“Yes.” I said, “I'll check the tents along the way, of course, but I'd like to rule out the castle.”
Arc and Casey looked at each other. Neither looked particularly pleased.
“If you feel safe enough on your own-” I said.
“I'll head to the Aetherial Plane.” Casey said at the same moment Arc said, “Dibs on Crystal Cove.”
“Fair enough.” I paused, feeling I should say something before we headed off to what could be our doom. Strange how mysterious Glyche facilities barely made me bat an eye, yet this felt somehow more dangerous. I looked at each of them for a long moment before finally saying, “Stay safe, everyone.”
With that, we went our separate ways. One patted me reassuringly on the shoulder as I walked toward the castle.
“Don't worry.” One said. “I really doubt he's out to kill us.”
“I don't know.” I said, peeking into an empty tent. “He certainly gave it a good try when we chased him out of Salutier.”
“Yeah.” One said, rubbing the back of his head. “I guess that's a good point. Still, actually killing someone … actually doing it as opposed to defending yourself, that's not something I think anyone really can do easily. My instincts tell me we're gonna run into traps designed to … er, trap. Either that, or just slow us down.”
“I hope you're right.” I said.
“Tell you what.” One said, “Give me a sec and I'll see if we've got a proper Atlas for this place in the Elsewhere. It'll show us where the traps are, and whether or not they're deadly.”
“That … sounds really helpful.” I said.
“Right. Might take a few minutes depending on the mood of the Library, so you might as well go on without me for the time being.”
“Understood. See you soon.”
With that, the doll fell limp in my hands. I tucked it in my pocket and headed cautiously into the heart of the Bizarre Bazaar.