Theophilus could still hear the screams.
They plagued his ears, refusing to gift him even the tiniest moment of silence. They played over and over again like a snake eating its tail, filling his skull until his mind was drowning. There were the crashes, the bangs, the ring of shattering glass, the crumbling and tumbling of ancient architecture and churches tall as clouds, and then there was her roar. A high-pitched, cacophonous scree more suitable for a banshee, but equally filled with rage and bloodlust. Never had he seen a creature so angry before. Never had he thought such anger could exist. She had proven him wrong, if the creature even deserved to be called a she. It was more like a destructive beast, come out of the clouds to kill them all.
That was why he was here. And that is why he would go forward. All would be well when he found her.
“Sir! Excuse me, sir!”
Theophilus woke with a start, his talons rushing to the hilt at his side, but he saw the startled face of the conductor before he reached it. “Whoa there, don’t cut my head off!!” she yelped at him, stepping back quickly.
Theophilus let his talons drop and rubbed his face, sighing with exhaustion. “No, I apologize. You startled me, that’s all.”
The conductor, a tall, yellow flower with bright black eyes and a wide smile, blinked and laughed. “Hahah, no trouble, no trouble. Just don’t go cutting anyone up with those katanas of yours.” She then leaned forward, causing Theophilus to become a bit uncomfortable. “Say, you’re Ooen, aren’t ya? A psittaelin?”
Theophilus blinked in surprise for a moment, but then thought, Of course she’d recognize me. I’ll stick out like a thundercloud in a blue sky where I’m going. “Yes, I’m from Ooeh.”
The conductor cocked her head. “Then what’re you doing popping all the way out to Zelen? It’s quite the trip, especially if you transfer through Undar.”
“I…” His voice faltered for a moment as her scree played for the millionth time. “… I’m on important business.” Then an idea struck him. “Say, would you happen to know how to get to Capyville from the station?”
“Capyville?” It took the conductor a moment to recognize the name. “Uhh, that’s in the East Juhn province, right? On the southern edge of the island?”
“I believe so. I’ve come in search of the hero who resides there,” explained Theophilus.
Then it hit her. “Oh! Ohhh! You mean the Dragon Scythe! Yeah man, I know where you’re going. We’re gonna be stopping in Star City, Cepel. There are plenty of cabs there, so just ask one to take you to the Juhnstol. From there, you probably just wanna walk southeast to Capyville, but hey, you’ve got a pair of wings on you. Shouldn’t take more than a couple days.”
“Thank you very much,” said Theophilus. That’s a bit more complicated than I was hoping for, but it can’t be helped.
“It’s no trouble. Good luck finding her!” The conductor took a few steps away, but then stopped and turned. “Oh, I forgot I came over to tell you that we’ll be arriving in Star City in twenty minutes. You distracted me, hahah!”
“Thank you,” Theophilus said. She nodded and headed off.
Alone again, Theophilus let his head rest on the window of the train. It was pretty high class, with seats made of red velvet, the walls made of finished mahogany wood, and the window frames carved with gorgeous, Zelenese designs of leaves, trees, and vines. Theophilus gazed outside, but it was not landscape or rolling plains he saw. It was the stars and infinite space he gazed out on, the night sky sprawling out in all directions. There wasn’t even a track for the train to ride on, but instead if chugged through the open air, floating as if by magic. A trackless train riding through the stars.
Unfortunately, the gorgeous view could not console Theophilus. He was seeing her, it. Immense wings that could block out the sun, golden feathers tough as scales, glistening white fangs thrice as larger as his body, furious, golden eyes. Its scream. Theophilus wasn’t anywhere he would like to be right now. He was out in space, out in their territory, where trains could be gobbled up like insects by a bullfrog. His only solace was the two katanas at his hips, tucked under his wings.
As Theophilus gazed out the window, he could just make out his reflection. The conductor’s sentence echoed through his head for a moment. Say, you’re Ooen, aren’t ya? A psittaelin? Of course, she had noted his home island from the pair of feathered wings at his sides. Theophilus was a psittaelin, as bizarre a creature as any in the Five Islands. He was a parrot-cat griffin, with a parrot’s head and beak, a cat’s bottom half, feline eyes and ears, and a feathered tail. The feathers on the upper half of his body were cherry red, his wings accented with green and blue and white, and his fur was a reddish brown color, more subdued than his brilliant plumage. He had a white beak, pink parrot feet on his forelegs, and paws on his hindlegs. And two katanas hanging at his hips.
Twenty minutes, Theophilus thought to himself. Twenty minutes and I’ll be one step closer. All will be well when I find her.
When Theophilus stepped off the train and looked around, his immediate thought was, It’s so green! This thought wouldn’t be too dissimilar from any first-time traveler’s upon arrival in Zelen, for Zelen was the green island. Completely covered in forests from end to end, ranging from thick deciduous forests to mile-high coniferous trees to mountainous forests in the north.
Theophilus spread his cherry red wings and fluttered down off the platform to Star City below. The instant his feet touched the ground, he flapped his wings in shock and then bent down to look closer at the soft, brown material he was now standing on. What in the Five Islands is this stuff? Earth, maybe? Or dirt? Was there a difference again?
He nearly leaped when he heard a snort next to him and turned to see a mountain guin, which was like a giant, spiny guinea pig, staring at him in amusement. “You look like you’ve never seen dirt before, son.”
Are all Zelenese so forward? Well, time to practice my Greentongue, I guess. I’m gonna need to stop slipping into Ooen if I want to even communicate with her. “Oh, well I haven’t. I’ve come straight from Ooeh Above,” explained Theophilus.
The mountain guin’s mouth gaped open. “All that way? You must be on some mission or some’at. Never seen a tree before either, have ya?”
That reminded Theophilus. He gazed out at the Zelen trees, and he remembered that though he had seen plenty of sky trees whenever he traveled around Ooeh on business, he never really had seen a real, proper tree with real, proper roots. “I admit I haven’t.”
The mountain guin laughed boisterously. “Nothing beats ‘em, son, nothing beats ‘em! Get a good whiff of that air too. Bet you don’t got nothing like it up in Ooeh.”
Theophilus inhaled so deeply he nearly choked himself on air. That’d be a pathetic way to die, huh. “The air’s so much thicker down so low. I’m not quite sure if I like it or not.”
The man laughed again and started to walk off. “Welcome to Zelen, son!”
As he walked away, Theophilus found himself just standing there in blissful silence for the first time in days.
Welcome to Zelen.
It didn’t take Theophilus long to find a cab. A roller, which was a porcupine-like creature capable of curling into a ball and rolling anywhere it wanted, was the driver. Theophilus approached and, in Greentongue, asked, “Excuse me, sir! Could you drive me somewhere?”
The roller gave him a look. “No sir, I can’t. I’m just standing by this cab because I’m planning on stealing it.”
“Oh,” Theophilus said, his voice laced with confusion. “My apologies. I’ll just be-”
He paused when the roller burst into fits of laughter. “No, I’m kidding! Yeesh, you Ooens are so literal, aren’t you? This is my cab here, where you wanna go?”
Theophilus had to physically restrain himself from slapping the boy. I’ve got limited time and the lives of thousands on my wings, and this roller is telling jokes. If she is anything like this, I swear… “Juhnstol, please.”
The roller coughed. “Juhnstol?! Okay man, first off, that’s extreeeeemely far. Extremely. And second of all, didn’t you hear about that schism that happened a few years back? Juhn hasn’t been such a nice place ever since it split up.”
“I’m well aware. The province split into East and West Juhn. But I don’t have time to worry about political squabbles and a few ragtag bandits,” Theophilus growled. “I’d rather provinces be splitting up than dragons be waking.”
The roller couldn’t find a good response to that. “Well, yeah, but-”
Theophilus ignored him, went into the bag hanging by his shoulder, brought out his purse, and opened it so the roller could see inside. There were practically dollar signs in the cab driver’s eyes. “What was that about Juhnstol being too far again?”
It took the roller a good few moments to find his tongue. “Oh, I, ah, alright sir. Hop in!”
“Thank you.” With a polite nod, Theophilus fluttered into the cab. The roller clambered up onto the driver’s seat on the outside of the carriage, and they were off.
Theophilus knew cabs well. Every so often, his father allowed him to come along on missions around Ooeh Above, and more oft than not they traveled by cab. They were wooden, box-like structures with wheels, movable using a special transportation spell that cabbies trained for moons to master. Certainly not an advanced kind of magic, but no easy feat. What he wasn’t used to, however, was just how rustic this cab was. He was used to lush velvet seats that could be slept on comfortably, ornate designs and decorations, and most importantly, a bump-less ride. The rough wood of this cab’s seat scratched his delicate skin and ruffled his feathers, and if he felt so much as one more bump in the road, he would explode or cry or both.
But as the trip went on through the magnificent deciduous forests of Zelen, Theophilus found himself caring less and less about the scratchy seat and the bumpy ride. The view out the window had captured him. He leaned as far out as he dared, just admiring the untouched beauty that was the green island. Emerald green trees stretched as far as the eye could see, some of them with trunks as thick as houses and branches as high as the clouds. Some of the trees were even painted with bright, gorgeous colors, an ancient Stromist tradition Theophilus knew as bark painting. There were bright blue streams bubbling through the earth, thick underbrush, and the music of the forest swirling around him.
I like these sounds, Theophilus thought, his feline ears flicking. Better than back home. And, to his distress, he was plunged into memories once more.
Theophilus found himself millions of miles away, back in Ooeh where things had once been so simple. He was speeding through the halls of the castle on his cherry red wings. His heart was pounding so hard he thought it might break his ribs, and it was a physical effort to control his breathing.
Keep it together, Theophilus! Your people need you!
He finally arrived at the main gates, where a huge line of men and women were pouring a momentous effort into keeping the doors shut. The doors were thrice barred and held shut with the thickest chains the crown could afford, yet the ancient, sky tree wood was already beginning to splinter. Bang after bang boomed against the door, causing ripples with each one, and outside, he could hear her awful scream.
“Prince Theophilus!” He turned to see the head of the royal guard, Jargon, staring at him with wide eyes. “You shouldn’t be here! Please get to safety immediately! You-!” His voice was cut off as her awful scree filled the air again.
“What? Theophilus?” He cringed upon hearing that voice. He had hoped more than anything that he wouldn’t be here. Another psittaelin, one of a dark green color and mesomorphic build, whirled around to him. “What are you doing here? I told you to get to safety! Must you do this now of all times?!”
“Shall I take him, Your Majesty?” Jargon asked, but he went ignored.
“I couldn’t just flee, Father!” Theophilus shouted. He winced as another bang resonated through the hall, causing the walls to tremble. “I can’t stand by and do nothing while that thing terrorizes our people! Especially not when you’re in danger! Open the gates, and my katanas will meet her in battle.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Theophilus,” his father growled. “No being on this island could stand up to her. However…”
Theophilus felt agitated at his pause. “However what?!”
The king glanced uneasily at the brave knights and guards holding the gate, then grabbed Theophilus by the talons and ran him off to a quieter corner. “Theophilus, listen to me. I can think of no one on Ooeh who could even have a chance against that beast, but there might just be someone who can.”
Theophilus’s eyes widened. “What? Who?”
The king looked uneasy, but he continued on. “I’ve only heard tales and rumors of her, so I’m not so certain about this. But they say she is a hero right out of a fairy tale, with a kind soul and strength unmatched by even the greatest Star Warriors. She goes by many names: the Reaper of Monsters, the Poison Flower, the Heroine of Zelen… but most commonly, the Dragon Scythe.”
Theophilus was unsure what to say. “And you believe this woman can defeat her?”
The king sighed, his face completely agitated. “Theophilus, if I’m to be honest with you, I simply don’t know. Nothing like this has ever happened before. But if any of our people are to survive her bloodlust, we are going to need help. We are going to need a hero. I know you have never been far from Ooeh Above, but your years of studying have brought you nothing if not knowledge, and right now your people need you. Go to Zelen, find the Dragon Scythe, and bring her here. Meanwhile, I’ll do whatever I can to find a way to bring down this beast.”
Fear stirred in Theophilus’s chest. His father was right; he had never been off his home island, and the Five Islands was an intimidatingly large land. But then he remembered the rest of his father’s words. He hadn’t spent so many years studying for nothing. He had mastered all five languages of the Islands, the entire of history was like memorized song lyrics in his head, and his people needed him. “I’ll go.”
The king smiled. “That’s my boy. Now get to the tunnels, board a train in the Perching City, and be off. The fate of Ooeh rests on your wings.”
Theophilus didn’t feel so content as he came out of his flashback. The fate of Ooeh rests on my wings, huh? I’m not so sure how I feel about that.
It was a long while before Theophilus finally reached his destination. Day went, night came, and day came again before the cabbie announced, “Here we are! Juhnstol, just like you ordered. That’ll be three hundred and four listes.”
Theophilus gave him a look. “Three hundred and four? Why not three hundred? Isn’t that easier?”
The roller shrugged. “Hey, I’m the cabbie. I get to make up my numbers.”
Theophilus sighed and dug into his purse. “By the way, would you happen to know how I can get to Capyville from here?”
The roller gasped so loudly Theophilus looked up in shock. “Capyville? You mean where the Dragon Scythe lives? She’s a real living legend, isn’t she?”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t met her, yet all my hopes rest in her talons,” Theophilus murmured.
“Well, I’m pretty sure she don’t have any talons, but boy oh boy is she powerful,” the roller laughed, practically giddy with excitement. “They say she can cleave the head off a monster half a league tall and twice as long without even breaking a sweat! She’s even a Star Warrior!”
Now this surprised Theophilus. “A Star Warrior? You mean a hero who constantly travels between islands?”
The roller laughed. “What other Star Warrior would I mean?”
“I just wasn’t aware she was a licensed Star Warrior, is all.”
“She may as well be, man. I hear she’s been all the way to Izhan!”
“Izhan?!” So this hero has traveled farther than I ever have. For word of her to spread so far, she must be extremely powerful. I wonder what she’ll be like.
“Well anyway, if you wanna get to Capyville, you wanna head in…” The roller rotated his body to point southeast. “…that direction. Just remember, Capyville isn’t easy to spot, and there isn’t a road, so just look out for people. Hey, good luck, man!” He jumped back onto his cab.
“Thank you!” Theophilus called as the cabbie drove off. Though he had enjoyed the roller’s company, he sighed with relief. Wow, speaking another language for so long is exhausting. It’s a shame there’s no chance to rest, but time is of the essence. Without further ado, Theophilus spread his wings and took off.
As Theophilus flew through endless trees and blue skies, he didn’t forget to keep his eyes open and ears pricked. Just like in Ooeh Above, there could be anything in the woods, watching and waiting for a quiet moment to strike. Monsters were a thing that plagued all five islands, and he had no intention of falling victim to any of them. The two katanas at his side would have something to say to any monster that dare approach him.
It is pretty quiet, though, he thought. Maybe Zelen has less monsters than Ooeh? I can’t imagine that, though. There’re so many places to hide here.
On Theophilus flew, for so long that he was just starting to wonder if he had made an unintentional turn or if he’d already passed the village. It was late evening when he stumbled on perhaps among the most bizarre thing he’d ever seen in his sixteen years: a tree with a door in it.
It was so strange, Theophilus skidded to a halt in his flight. He approached cautiously, his talons ready to dart back to the katana hilts. What in the seven hells is a door doing in a tree?! he thought. Not even years of interdisciplinary studies could prepare him for a tree with a door.
And then something even stranger happened. The door opened, and a red and white mountain guin wandered out nonchalantly. Upon seeing Theophilus staring at him with beak agape, he demanded, “Umm… yes?”
“O-oh, sorry!” Theophilus said, quickly recomposing himself. “I just… You live in a tree?”
The mountain guin looked him up and down. “Uh, it’s a hollow tree. When have us Zelenese ever not lived in trees?”
Theophilus almost felt like slapping himself. “Oh, of course! Zelenese hollow trees from the beginning of Zelenese civilization. I suppose I always just never thought of them has having doors and such.”
The man snorted, “How the hell else are we supposed to get in our own houses?” and wandered off, shutting the door with his foot as he went.
Theophilus stood there for a second, but then realized and chased after the rodent. “Hey, wait! Do you know if I’m going the right way to get to Capyville?”
Without turning back, he called, “You already found it!”
Another thing Theophilus hadn’t expected. Wait, what? Then that means… And upon looking around, he realized he indeed had reached the village. Every tree in the surrounding area was equipped with a front door, little windows, and even small balconies for the larger ones.
Well, it certainly was hard to spot, Theophilus thought, and he wandered into the village.
It was a tiny little place, Capyville, and hardly anyone was out as the evening shadows stretched across the ground. He made his way to the village center, where there was a little circle lined with the tiniest shops and markets he’d ever seen. No Ooen village was this small. The very center of the village had a wooden well with a pail hanging from the string. A couple of young flower children were running through the town, and there laughter was the only noise in the twilight.
Certainly not a place you’d expect a renowned hero to live in, Theophilus thought. Maybe she just likes quiet places. But he could not help the beginnings of doubt spawning in his belly.
As Theophilus wandered through the empty village, he thought, Well, there’s not much of a chance I’ll find her at this hour, and if I fly any longer, I might drop from exhaustion. Sure enough, his feet were dragging along the earth, and his ears were drooping from exhaustion. He was half-tempted to dump his katanas just to lighten the burden. I’ll find somewhere to sleep and resume my search in the morning.
As Theophilus walked in search of an inn of some sort, he didn’t realize that he had wandered to the outskirts of the little village. With all the buildings being trees, it was hard to tell where civilization ended and wilderness began.
Theophilus started, his talons itching to jump for his hilts. In battle stance, his eyes scanned his surroundings for anything out of the ordinary. And though he didn’t spy any monsters, he did indeed spot a pair of very large, very peculiar ears poking out from a thick bush.
Theophilus took pause. Could it be a monster? Or is it harmless?
The owner of the ears then popped up from the bush, and blue eyes met black eyes. They were completely silent for a few moments, just taking each other in, before the newcomer said, “Hullo!”
She was a little girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, and probably one of the most adorable creatures Theophilus had ever encountered. She was a runner, which someone from Earth might call a rabbit, except no rabbit could run at seventy miles per hour. Her fur was black as midnight with tiny white paws and a tiny white nose, and she wore a snow-white cloak on her back. Her eyes were big and black and bright, sparkling with childlike innocence.
When Theophilus didn’t respond, her left ear flicked, and she asked, “Who’re you?” Without waiting for a response, she bounded out of the bush and walked right up to the psittaelin.
“I’m just passing through,” Theophilus explained, backing up a touch. “What’re you doing in a bush?”
The girl’s nose wriggled. “Looking for snails.”
“Snails? Don’t you find those around water?”
The little girl mulled over that for a moment. “Huh. That’s probably why I haven’t found any.” Then she looked up at Theophilus again, smiling brightly. “Hey, help me look!”
“Absolutely not,” grumbled Theophilus. “I’m on an important mission searching for someone… or perhaps an inn.”
“No inns here,” the girl said with a shrug.
“Well, then I’ll be on my way.” Theophilus turned and started to walk away, but the continuous thumping behind him told him he was being followed.
“Say, what’s your name?”
That’s a first. Theophilus turned. “I’m Prince Theophilus of House Fernfall, crown prince of Ooeh.”
He had been expecting awe or admiration or even just a reaction of some sort, but the look the little girl gave him was pretty much blank. “Cool! Can I be princess?"
“We’re not siblings,” said Theophilus. “Now, I have to go. I’d like to find who I’m looking for as soon as possible.”
He turned to go once again, but was stopped when he felt something tug on his tail feathers and turned to see the young girl clutching it with her paws. “Wait, I know what to call you! From now on, you’re Theo!"
Theo’s beak dropped. “Theo? Absolutely not!”
“Don’t you like your nickname, Theo?”
“It’s not my nickname. Now please stop bothering me. There’s someone I have to find.” Theo yanked his feathers out of her grip and stormed off.
Thump thump thump thump.
“Stop following me,” Theo muttered without turning.
“Who’re you looking for, Theo?” the girl inquired.
Theo wasn’t really keen on humoring the girl, but then he thought, Maybe she knows where I can find the hero. With a sigh, he turned again and said, “Well, if you must know, I’m here looking for the Dragon Scythe.”
The girl’s ears pricked, and her eyes brightened. “The Dragon Scythe? That’s me!”
For a good few moments, they just stared at each other, Theo’s eyes widening and the girl’s grin growing. For a good few moments, just silence. And then the screams returned, and Theo’s eyes burst into flame with rage. “You?!”
The girl’s grin dropped. “Me.”
Theo backed up. “You?! You’re the Dragon Scythe! Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.” He whirled around and stormed off.
Thump thump thump thump. “What’s the matter, Theo?”
“That isn’t my name!” Theo shouted. “Don’t you see? I’ve wasted my time!” With his hind paw, he laid a ferocious kick to a tree while the girl watched on emotionlessly. “She could’ve killed them all while I’ve been wasting my time here! I should’ve known.” He laughed humorlessly. “I came here chasing a rumor, and a Zelenese rumor at that! The grand, great hero I’ve been trying to find is a tiny little girl looking for snails? Absolutely not! Enough of this place, I’m going home.” Theo spread his wings and flew back towards the village, hoping to lose her.
Thump thump thump thump. “Why’d you come looking for me, Theo?”
“I didn’t come looking for you. I came looking for a solution that didn’t exist,” Theo grumbled. At this point, he figured losing this girl would be impossible.
“What’s going on in Ooeh?”
“Nothing,” Theo spat. He arrived back in the village center and landed by the well.
The girl hopped up to him and rested her white paws on the rim of the well. “Hey, if you don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight, wanna stay at my house?”
Theo was inclined to deny her, but he realized night had just nearly fallen and there was no inn in Capyville. It took all his effort to say, “Fine.”
The girl smiled. “Great! Follow me, then. My name’s Olivia, by the way. Olivia Larkspur.”
Theo didn’t respond. He followed Olivia through the village, but his mind was back in Ooeh with his father hopeless, his people screaming, and her.
The fate of Ooeh rests on your wings.
Then I’ve failed them, Theo thought, his eyes downcast. I’ve failed them by chasing a false hope.
Theo looked up to see Olivia standing by another hollow tree on the southern outskirt of Capyville. There were little windows, but no door. Instead, there was a hole in the ground outside.
“Do you live in the tree or the hole?” Theo asked.
“Both!” Olivia sang. “Come on!” She dove into the hole like a diver into a swimming pool.
Theo followed her, albeit more cautiously. Every instinct in his body was telling him to back up and get to where he could see the sky. The hole writhed and squirmed around him, but he moved forward after Olivia, and it wasn’t too long before he was up and out.
Theo hadn’t been sure what to expect when he heard of hollow tree houses so many years ago with his tutor sitting across the table. Maybe they looked like trees on the outside, but on the inside they were mansions with quartz columns and granite countertops. Maybe they were just cavities in trees with splintery wooden walls and moss for bedding. Maybe they were stuffy, maybe they were wide, maybe they were freezing in the winter, maybe they were sticky with sap. Of course, the only thing that hadn’t occurred to Theo was maybe they were just regular houses, and that was what met him upon entry.
It was an adorable little abode. They entered into a wide living area with kitchen counters and a dining table on the right end and a few wooden sofas and chairs on the left. The floor was patterned with swirling wooden growth rings, light on the outskirts and a reddish brown in the center. The house wasn’t long or wide, but upon looking up, he could see several more levels up above. The walls were lined with several doors, which he could guess led to the upper levels. The inside was toasty warm, not in a stuffy way but in a comforting way. This was, without a doubt, a home.
Olivia suddenly popped into his field of vision, grinning widely. “You like it?”
Theo backed up. Why do all Zelenese insist on invading my personal space? “It’s quaint,” he admitted.
Olivia giggled and then bounded over to the kitchen area. Theo realized there was another runner in the kitchen, tossing a bowl of salad. She looked very similar to Olivia; same black fur, same white paws, same small stature. The only difference was the wide white stripe on her left shoulder and the complete lack of a smile on her face.
The other runner groaned and looked up from the salad. “Olivia, I have told you 142 times, and I will tell you 143 times. My name is Beatrix. Beatrix. My name is not Trixie. If you call me Trixie again, I am going to yank your ears.”
Olivia wriggled her nose. “You said that the first 142 times, Trixie.”
Beatrix turned back and banged her head on the counter.
Olivia giggled. “Trixie, look! I found a prince in the woods!”
“Huh?” Beatrix turned to see the strange psittaelin standing by the entrance. She looked him up and down, judging with subtly, and said, “Olivia, why’re you always bringing home weird strangers?”
“He’s not a stranger anymore! His name’s Theo. He came looking for me,” Olivia explained.
Theo moved over to them. “I did not come looking for you. I came looking for the Dragon Scythe but was sadly disappointed.”
Beatrix narrowed her eyes at him. “Yeah, what’s the difference?”
“The latter is a myth.”
Beatrix looked to Olivia, who simply shrugged, and then picked up the wooden salad spoon in a rather aggressive manner. “He’s an unlikable douchebag, but I’ll feed him. Sit down, Theo.”
“Yay!” Olivia leaped up and wrapped her arms around Beatrix, who responded by shoving her off. “Theo, you can sit next to me!” She ran over to the four-seat dining table and started pulling out chairs, knocking one over in the process. Beatrix turned back to her salad.
As Beatrix started to demand where in the Five Islands were the snails she had asked for, Theo took a closer look around the house. There were lots of crude drawings on the wall, he noted, done with a child’s hand. The largest was of four child runners and a mountain guin. The doors also had drawings on them, though they were of much higher quality. One door had a drawing of Olivia, another of Beatrix, and the other two of unfamiliar runners, perhaps parents or siblings.
But as Theo was admiring a drawing of a white runner, he suddenly realized that a big, red eye was staring at him through a narrow crack in the door. He gasped in shock, leaping back, and the door slammed shut before he could even register what had just happened.
Olivia bounded over. “You okay, Theo?”
“Yes, I was just startled.” Theo quickly brushed himself off. “I… I believe something was staring at me, though.”
“Hm? Oh, Molly!” Olivia hopped over to the door. “Hey, Molly! Do you wanna join us for dinner?” When there was no response, she sighed and said, “Okay, we’ll leave a plate out for you.” She then turned and bounded back over to the kitchen. Though he was curious, Theo decided to leave it and rejoined the two girls in the kitchen.
As they prepared the food, Theo simply observed. They seemed about the same age, Beatrix and Olivia, which made sense since runners usually had litters. However, there was a distinct difference. While Olivia practically radiated childlike innocence and wonder, Beatrix had a much more mature, responsible air to her. They appeared to be sisters, but all Theo could see was a mother and daughter.
His thoughts were interrupted when Beatrix announced, “Food!” and tossed the salad bowl onto the table so hard it nearly went right off the far edge. They then slid into their seats, Beatrix across from Theo and Olivia next to him. Beatrix passed out wooden plates to all of them, and dinner commenced.
“So, Theo,” Olivia said as she scooped her salad, “do you eat snails in Ooeh?”
“We don’t have snails. We’re mainly vegetarian, in fact,” explained Theo.
“So are we! Well, mostly,” exclaimed Olivia. “Trixie makes good salads. Right, Trixie?”
“What of it?” grumbled Beatrix.
“What’s Ooeh like, Theo?” Olivia asked, changing the conversation suddenly. “I hear you guys live on clouds!”
“We do indeed. Well, most of us do. There’s Ooeh Below, which is the mountain that takes up the entirety of our island, and there’s Ooeh Above, which is the cloud layer where most of my people live. We live on super-dense clouds,” Theo explained.
“That’s cool!” Olivia said, eyes sparkling. “Are they super fluffy?"
“No. It’s hard to describe, really… It’s more like walking on water. The clouds always shift and sway beneath your feet. Honestly, your solid ground here is a bit disorienting. I’ve never been on it before,” admitted Theo.
“Not a very well-traveled prince, are you, Theo?” commented Beatrix.
“Well, are you?"
“Yeah,” said Beatrix. “It’s not like we were born here in Capyville. Took a while to get to where we are.”
“It was an adventure!” Olivia chimed in. “Oh, and volcanoes are fun too.”
All three looked up with a start as a tremor rippled across the ground. They all sat silently for a moment before Olivia suggested, “Earthquake?”
“I don’t think so,” Theo murmured. All he could think of now was her, ramming against the castle doors.
Olivia stood up in her chair. “Okay, what is that?”
“Maybe the Ooen military, come to rescue the prince you kidnapped,” suggested Beatrix emotionlessly. Theo couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not.
The salad bowl and most of the tableware leaped into the air, clattering to the ground. Theo had to physically restrain himself from trembling. A good prince shows no fear in the presence of his people! Olivia’s grin had dropped, and her ears were flicking around as if scanning her surroundings, though Beatrix was just staring sadly at the salad.
BOOM. A last one, and then they heard it. Just outside, a deep, guttural roar.
“That doesn’t sound good!” Olivia sailed off her chair and hopped over to the window. Both frightened and curious, Theo quickly followed her, flying over the table in his haste. Together, the two peered out the window, and the sight that met them was not friendly.
A monster had descended on Capyville in the moonless night, unlike Theo any had ever seen. It was enormous, twice as tall as the surrounding trees, and appeared to be a mobile, carnivorous plant. Its head was an enormous red and white flower, its wide petals lined with ferocious white teeth, and a hideous tongue flapped in the air as it roared. It moved along on roots as thick as a man’s forearm, sprawling in all directions and knocking anything over that dared to get in its way. A hideous monster it was, and the citizens of Capyville were scrambling to escape the fate of being devoured alive.
Theo’s heart hammered in his chest, and he forced memories of home out of his head. He turned to Olivia, expecting a similar reaction, but his surprise knocked all the fear out of him. Olivia did not look frightened, or worried, or even upset. The grin on her face was the widest he had ever seen on her, and she was practically bouncing on her feet.
Olivia whirled around and skipped over to Beatrix. “Ooooh! Monster, monster! I call it! I CALL IT!”
“Yeah, whatever,” Beatrix muttered. “I gotta clean up the stupid salad I slaved over all day, anyway. Bring back some snails if you find any.”
“Yaaaaaaaaaay!” Olivia turned and dashed through a door into a dark room.
Theo’s beak had practically dropped to the floor. “Beatrix, are you insane?! She’ll get killed out there!” The runner simply shot him a glare and got back to picking dressing-drenched leaves off the floor. Knowing he wouldn’t get anywhere with her, Theo sped after Olivia.
The psittaelin burst through the door and started to say, “Olivia, don’t do this! You’ll-” But his voice trailed away when he saw what was on the walls.
Hung up by pegs were some of the most beautiful weapons Theo had ever seen. How Zelenese commoners had come across them, he couldn’t even fathom. On the left was a set of five icy blue throwing knives, each blade embedded with a lapis lazuli gem. On the right was a beautiful, two-handed sword with a dark gray blade, the dark walnut mahogany hilt carved with intricate leaves and vines. And in the center was a gorgeous scythe. The snath was made of white wood, and bulged out where it met the blade. The scythe in fact had two blades, with a smaller one coming off the other side of the snath and light gray in color. The main blade was also light gray and patterned with curved, white zigzags and black zigzags running the other way behind them. It was an absolutely gorgeous weapon, and it was also the one Olivia was currently grabbing off the wall.
Olivia looked up once the scythe was comfortable in her paws. “Oh, hey! I would invite you to come, but I called this one! You can help Trixie clean up if you want.” She turned and made her way for the door at the other end of the small room, one unnoticeable from the outside.
Theo leaped forward and grabbed her cloak. “Olivia, wait. This is madness! Don’t go!”
“Hmmmm… Nah!” With that, Olivia yanked her cloak out of Theo’s grip, flung the door open, and dashed outside with scythe in hand.
“Wait!” Theo ran after her, but when he got outside, he skidded to a halt for what he saw.
Olivia was charging the monster head on, her scythe flying out behind her. The monster hadn’t noticed her yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Olivia lunged for its root and, with the flash of her scythe, slashed it clean off.
The monster bellowed in rage and turned its attention on her, hissing and spitting as its pink tongue flopped everywhere. She’s dead! She’s dead! Theo tried to move, but his limbs refused to budge as his eyes drank in the scene in horrified fascination. He could only watch as the impossible unfolded before his eyes.
Olivia spun her scythe in an elegant dance, her mastery of the instrument clear. As Theo watched, the weapon started to glow. As she danced and danced in swirling motions, the scythe grew brighter and brighter, and then POP! In a blink, the scythe Olivia had brought outside was gone, and in her hands was an entirely new weapon, and this one was as tall as the treetops with a blade accordingly large. How she managed to wield such an enormous weapon, Theo would never be sure, but she waved it as easily as one would a toothpick. This new scythe’s snath was dark purple, its blade patterned pink. But before Theo could even get a good look, there was another POP,and in Olivia’s paws was a scythe over twice as tall as the trees and larger than the monster itself! Its height could rival some of the towers in his own castle. This new weapon’s snath was pure white, the blade white gold in color with a round, red eye painted at the base of the blade. The smaller blade on the opposite side had been replaced by a feathered wing carved from white wood, and the scythe was now radiating bright light.
Olivia gave the immense weapon another twirl, and with a giggle of delight out of place on the battlefield, she swung the scythe right down on the head of the monster. The carnivorous plant screamed in pain as she sliced many of its petals and a piece of its head clean off. “Heehee!” Olivia giggled. She swung the blade lower and pressed it against the monster’s back, trapping it between her and the brilliant weapon. “Buh bye!” She yanked the blade forward, and the monster was sliced clean in two, white liquid spraying everywhere like a sprinkler. Several trees went along with it.
Theo turned. He hadn’t realized Beatrix could come outside, but she was stood to his left. The runner gazed at her little sister with more pride than Theo had ever seen in one creature. She murmured, only just audibly, “Olivia the Runner indeed.” Beatrix then noticed him, and her expression changed to a smirk. She turned to reenter the house, but she said, “Doubt my sister again and I’ll decapitate you,” before slipping inside.
Theo felt embarrassment well up inside him like an uncomfortable wet sponge. Hoping to repress it, he turned his attention back to the battle, which was practically finished. He watched as the scythe Olivia held popped back into its smaller, pink form and then into its regular size. The villagers were already swarming the young girl, showering her with appreciation and a few flowers while she giggled and took a bow, her ears flopping as she did.
Theo looked on for a while. The celebration ended quickly, and Olivia hopped back over to the house. She saw her spectator and smiled. “Hey, Theo! Did you see me?”
Theo was quiet for a moment, at a loss of what to say or do. Then he knew. He crouched down and touched his beak to the ground in a bow, his ears laid back against his head. “O-Olivia- no, Dragon Scythe, I beg of your help! Please lend your strength to an island that needs you and a prince who doesn’t deserve your help!”
His eyes were squeezed shut, but they darted open when he felt a comforting paw on his head. He looked up to see Olivia beaming down at him. “Sure thing! Let’s leave tomorrow! Get a goodnight’s sleep, okay?” She circled around him and bounded into the house.
Theo rose to his feet again, took one more look at the torn-apart corpse of the monster, and then looked after the adorable little girl who had sealed its fate. His embarrassment came back, but there was something else laced inside it. Hope.
Olivia the Runner indeed.