Chapter 10 - Incoming
Flip walked next to Terra and chatted up a storm as we took the road north. I tried to strike up a conversation with Ell, but he didn’t respond.
Flip glanced at me after my failed attempt. “Oh! Sorry, Jimmy, I shoulda said something. Yeah, I speak for the big guy. Believe it or not, Ell here is part Vuestan.”
I glanced at Ell in surprise. The vuestan were a very small people, usually only four or five feet tall at the most and of slight build. Ell was well over six feet and was extremely muscular; to put it simply, he didn’t look remotely like any Vuestan I had ever seen before.
“Yeah.” Flip said, catching my look, “I know he doesn’t look it. He’s only an eighth Vuestan. It’s really a fluke that he doesn’t have vocal chords.”
“Can’t he communicate telepathically?”
“Yeah, but it’s not as strong as a full-blooded Vuestan’s ability. I’m the only one who seems to be able to hear him.”
Ell looked away, his face as hard as stone.
Thinking it best to steer conversation away from this, I asked, “Where are you two from, anyway?”
“Well, Ell used to live in the Belmont orphanage. That’s where we first met as a matter of fact.”
“Really?” Terra asked, “There’s a yulias pride in Naidyr?”
“Not really. It was like this; I used to live in the forest just west of Naidyr with my twenty siblings and my mother. It’s a nice wood and all, lots of branches to climb on, lots of places to hide. Anyway, we had a great time until a bunch of duriens moved into the wood.”
“Duriens?” I asked, surprised. Duriens were nasty lizard-like beasts native to the continent of Ircandesta, which was on the other side of the world.
“Iniagus.” Flip said simply.
“Ah.” Strange how just saying our monarch’s name answers questions like that.
“He wanted to improve the wildlife of Wenapaj. As per his usual idiom, he collected specimens of some of the most violent and dangerous creatures from across the planet and just dumped them into the wild.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Iniagus all right.” I said dryly. Terra giggled.
“Anyway, the duriens just came one night. They didn’t kill any of us, but we certainly didn’t wait around. We scattered from the forest.” The smile faded from Flip’s face. “I remember running all night, terrified that I wouldn’t make it. I was just a kitten then.”
“You poor thing.” Terra murmured, rubbing Flip’s furry head to the yulias’s obvious enjoyment.
“It’s okay. I’m sure the others got out all right. Anyway, I woke up in an alley in Naidyr the next day. I wandered around lost and hungry. I hoped I’d find another of my kin, but they weren’t there. I ended up in the park, where I had to eat things I’d rather not discuss.”
Ell grinned. Flip glanced at him, looking distinctly annoyed. “Yes, Ell, like bugs.” Shaking her head, she continued, “Anyway, I was asleep on the park bench when Ell sat down beside me. He scared me at first, but he didn’t bother me so I didn’t move. He had a bag lunch with him, but he just set it beside him and watched a group of local kids playing. They apparently thought they were too good to play with an orphan mute boy.”
“After awhile, the smell of his ham sandwich really started to make my tummy ache, so I finally asked if I could have a piece.”
Laughing, Flip continued, “You should have seen the look on his face. At first, he couldn’t even tell who was talking to him. When he finally realized it was me, he gave me some of his food. I wasn’t that surprised when he started speaking telepathically to me. I’ve always been pretty open-minded about stuff like that.”
Flip leapt from Terra’s shoulder and wound around Ell’s legs. “While I was eating, some of the kids came over and started teasing me … trying to pull my wings and tail, that sort of thing. I told them to stop, but they just kept doing it until Ell here punched the leader right in the nose. The kid was easily twice his size, but Ell sent him flying with one punch!”
Ell smiled at his companion, and bent down so that she climb onto his shoulder. “Thank you, Ell. Anyway, we were inseparable after that. He hid me in his room in the orphanage, and fed me what he was able to scrounge from his meals.”
“And you never got caught?” asked Terra.
“Nope, not until I got a little over-vigorous while chasing a mouse. Little thing hit me with a streamer technique, damned if I know how. Anyway, I ended up flat on my back in front of the woman in charge of the orphanage. I thought I was out for sure, but I managed to talk her into letting me stay.”
I imagined the fact that Flip could talk had something to do about that; the yulias were still considered much of a mystery across Vinta, so much so that many believed they didn’t exist.
“Anyway, I stayed and managed to get rid of the rodent problem. In exchange, she gave me plenty of food and a roof over my head. Of course, I still slept in Ell’s room.”
Ell smiled. Flip laughed and said, “Yeah, I remember. I bet it’s still there, too.”
Terra and I looked at them questioningly. Flip shook her head. “Long story. Anyway, what about you two? How did you meet?”
“I was chasing a dragon.” I said matter-of-factly.
Flip and Ell both stared at me.
Chuckling, I said, “The princess eloped with a draconal who built a large dragon machine to fool everyone into believing a dragon had stolen her from the castle. I met Terra while I was tracking him down. We bumped into each other while taking a late-night swim.”
“Late-night swim?” Flip asked, glancing between the two of us.
Terra and I looked at each other, both of our cheeks going red at the same moment.
Flip giggled. “Ah, right. That kind of swimming.”
Clearing my throat, I asked, “So, why were you and Ell in Wukice?”
Ell shrugged, Flip saying, “Just wandering around. Iniagus gave Ell the job of painting the line around Wenapaj.”
“The lines; you know, if you’re looking at a map of Rimstak?”
I raised an eyebrow at Flip. “You’re not kidding, are you? I thought that was just a rumor.”
“Nope. Gave Ell a paint roller and a bucket of primer, sent him to start down near the coast. We gave it a go, but the roller was pretty much unusable after the first day. ’Course, by that time, another line-painter noticed us and let us stay the night in his house. Turns out he did the same thing as us, only to come to the realization that even if it were possible to draw a line around the country, it would never stay there what with the weather and traffic and such. He had decided long ago just to focus on painting a small part of the line, right where he had built his house.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Sensible idea.”
Ell nodded in agreement as flip continued, “Ell and I talked about it and decided to do the same thing somewhere else. Since then, we’ve been walking around Wenapaj, looking for a good spot to do the same. After Wukice, we went up to Naidyr, followed the border west all the way to Faeroway, and were just passing through Brigsonstrat when we heard about the witch and thought we’d lend a hand.”
“Nice to know I’m not the only one attracting trouble.” I said to Terra. She smiled at me and squeezed my arm as we continued down the path.
It was three days before we were within sight of the city of Naidyr … or more appropriately, within sight of the Wenapaj Center of Knowledge.
The Wenapaj Center was built into the mountain ridge on the north border of Wenapaj. Hundreds of towers spread around a massice central tower, some floating and attached to the central tower by heavy chains, some switching positions along a giant hub. The central tower was a clockwork mess, gears, switches, pulleys … you name it, it was attached and part of the inner-workings, all powered by a large pulsing heartstone in the center of everything.
The Center encompassed the city itself; many of the towers were incorporated into the outer wall, and the homes and businesses were nestled around the massive central tower and adjoining courtyard, both of which were high enough above the rest of the city to be clearly visible from the main gate.
As we entered the city, however, my attention was wrested from the Center just in time to notice a giant blob of green gunk falling from the sky straight toward us.
“Incoming!” I shouted, though I hardly needed to bother; Terra was already pulling me back behind the gate and Ell was right behind us, Flip huddled in his arms.
The green blob passed over our heads and hit the paved road with a loud ‘splat’. To my surprise, the blob remained intact for the most part. It wobbled from the impact for a few moments like an upset gelatin mold.
“You okay?” Terra asked me, looking me over for visible injuries.
I nodded, still a little stunned by the latest twist in my adventures. After she finished fussing over me, we both stared at the sumo wrestler-sized green blob in the middle of the road. It didn’t seem to be burning through the ground or anything. Still, we took special care to not touch any of it.
Flip leapt out of Ell’s arms and approached the mass cautiously. “What in Nocturnes was that?”
“Beats me.” An unpleasant thought occurred to me. “Though I have to wonder if maybe Arc has something to do with it.”
“You think he arranged this as a little welcome for us?” Terra asked.
“He does have access to the Center, and it’s not a big guess to know we’d be heading this way.” I said.
Terra frowned, a hint of anger in her eyes. “For his sake, I hope you’re wrong; that kid’s on two strikes as it is.”
“Heads up!” Flip called out.
I looked up in time to see another burst of green goo fire from one of the towers of the Center. Fortunately for us, the second goo ball was aimed at another part of the city.
“I guess that rules out Arc.” I glanced at the friendly giant. “You said you were from here; is this normal?”
He shook his head vehemently.
“Yeah, the Center isn’t normally in the habit of blasting bits of the town.” Flip sniffed the green goo and instantly recoiled. “Ugh. Smells like old spinach mixed with glass cleaner.”
As we entered the city proper, I noticed that the green goo was the least of their worries. Several houses had recently burned down; others were stretched several stories tall, as though they were made of rubber. Others still were half-covered with tech, as though struck by a mini-corruptions of standard Vintan tech.
The main road into town went straight toward the central tower of the Center. Roads branched off to either side of us as we continued forward. I could tell that the area was used to heavy traffic from the high number of waystations and the well-worn cobblestone roads, which made the lack of people very strange.
“Not even a floater.” Terra commented. “Middle of the day, too. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
I slipped my hand around hers and gave it a squeeze. “Everyone’s probably just staying inside to avoid getting clobbered with that green stuff.”
“Or worse.” Terra said grimly as a bolt of lightning struck out from one of the towers suspended by clouds. “One witch targeting a town is bad, but the whole center?”
“The Center is a place of learning. I can’t imagine they’d just turn on the rest of the city like this.” Still, I kept a hand on Glint.
The entrance to the Center of Knowledge was a very normal set of doors. Unfortunately, there was a large circular courtyard encircled by the main gate between us and the entrance, a prime place for trouble.
It looked peaceful at first glance; there was a fountain with a statue of an Alcian sentient maiden holding a crystal in one hand and a gear in the other. The topiary had been trimmed into the shapes of fierce creatures; among the more dangerous creatures depicted were tigers, duriens, shiiks, and one creature with large leathery wings and a huge gaping maw.
Overall, it looked peaceful, which was exactly why I was worried about crossing it. This was the Center, after all, and there was no telling what sort of protective measures lay in wait.
“Jimmy?” Terra warned as I started to step forward.
I shook my head. “I’m gonna go first. I’ll signal you when I’m sure it’s okay.”
“No argument, please.” I said, squeezing her hand.
She didn’t look happy, but she nodded. “All right, but be careful!”
I drew Glint and stepped tentatively out of the archway. Fortunately, there was no response: no random explosions, no attacking bushes, not even so much as a perturbed duckling appeared to block my path.
I reached the fountain without incident. The water made a light tinkling sound as it trickled around several crystals placed throughout the streams. I looked again at the bushes, the towers, and the doors. I even glanced up at the angelic statue. Everything seemed calm and normal. Still, normal and me hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms since I became a citizen of Wenapaj. Gripping Glint’s hilt tightly, I sprinted across the rest of the courtyard.
The ground erupted beneath my feet only seconds later, sending me flying. I managed to twist around in midair, and land in a crouched position on one of the few untouched paving stones. The doors into the center were quickly being cut off by the rising earth, so I jumped forward onto the nearest rising platform. As I landed, the rest of the ground gave way beneath the courtyard, revealing a pit of swirling energy.
I tried to ignore the deathtrap below me as I leapt across the moving stones, my eyes on the doors. Not for the last time, I was grateful for my samurai training, as I was able to judge the distance between jumps perfectly. I only let myself see the safe platforms, ignoring everything else as unimportant.
Terra suddenly called out, “Jimmy, behind you!”
I glanced back only to see the stones behind me were quickly vanishing. Throwing all caution to the wind, I ran across the remaining steps, kicked off the final step and landed perfectly on the doormat.
With a fierce rumble, the stones all rushed back into place. In a matter of seconds, everything was as it had been when we arrived.
Slightly out of breath, I called out, “Piece of cake.”
“Some cake.” I heard Terra mutter. Daggers in hand, she slowly walked to the fountain. She took every step slowly and deliberately, no doubt expecting the ground to start shifting at any moment. As she reached the fountain, I felt a sudden tightness in my chest that prompted me to call out, “Careful, Terra!”
“Don’t worry.” She told me, flashing me a smile. “I was watching you closely; this should be a piece of-”
Presumably, she was going to finish her sentence with the word ‘cake’. I say presumably, because she was abruptly cut off as a blast of energy rocketed from one of the towers, heading straight toward her. I started to call out to her, but she had already leapt aside. The energy blast made a crater where she had been standing. No sooner than she had landed, a multitude of blasts began firing from several of the nearby towers.
I started forward, but Terra shouted, “Stay there! I’ve got this!” She leapt, twisted, and danced her way around the courtyard, narrowly avoiding every shot. With an amazing leap, she jumped clear across the courtyard, over the fountain, and landed right in front of me. I caught her as she stumbled forward. The attacking tower shot another random bolt at the courtyard before flying swiftly away.
Making sure she was steady, I put my hand gently against her cheek, asking, “You okay?”
She nodded, her cheeks still flushed beneath her white fur. I was still worried, but she put her hand on mine. “I’m fine, Jimmy. A little out of breath, but no harm done.”
I turned back only to find Ell already walking forward. When he reached the fountain, he peered around the area for a moment before prodding the ground with his massive spear. When that failed to produce an effect, he shrugged and walked toward us.
Almost immediately, the hedge creatures came to life and started toward him. He didn’t even flinch; wielding his spear with a master’s grace, he sliced, thrusted, and chopped until all that was left of the topiary creatures was a pile of leaves and splintered sticks. Once finished, he strolled up to us unobstructed, a big smile on his face.
“Oh, get over yourself.” Terra said, grinning at Ell’s cockiness nonetheless.
“All right, Flip.” I said, peering at the far end of the courtyard.
We turned to watch Flip, but she was gone.
“Flip?” Terra called out, her eyes darting around the courtyard. “Where are you?”
“I’m right here, silly.”
We all jumped; Flip was sitting right in the middle of the group, licking her paw.
She snorted at us. “What’s got you all so jumpy?”
“When did you …” I stopped and shook my head. “Ah, forget it. Let’s just get inside before we trip some other kind of security measure.”
The door opened as soon as I said that, a wave of cool air from inside wafting over us. I peered inside, looking for signs of whoever opened the door even though I somehow knew I’d find nothing. I was right; the lobby appeared to be completely devoid of life. After taking another moment to verify the place was abandoned, I motioned for the others to follow.
The lobby of the Center of Knowledge stretched before us, with its intricately carved stone columns, its marble floors, and portraits of famous magi and techs lining the walls. The feeling that this was a place of learning seemed to radiate from the very walls, along with that sense of silence you get when you walk into a library. It also reminded me a little of my own lobby back at the Saybaro.
“No time for homesickness.” I said to myself.
The door behind us slammed shut, making all of us jump.
Terra immediately took cover behind a pillar and drew her spurs. I reached for Glint just as a plasma burst rocketed from the stairwell and melted a hole through a bust of one of the school’s founders.
Quickly ducking behind a nearby pillar, I shouted, “We aren’t here to fight!”
I was answered by a blast of some kind of concussive weapon, which struck the pillar right above me, showering me with stone dust. Ell quickly followed our lead and knocked over a large bookshelf to provide some cover for him and Flip.
Terra took a few shots at our attackers. As they scrambled for cover, she knelt behind a sturdy table near my pillar. “I can make out at least six of them.”
“Probably more on the way.” I reasoned. I glanced back at the door, but immediately discounted the possibility of retreat. One of our attacker’s blasts had hit the gilded edges of the doors right where they met, fusing them shut.
Turning my attention back to Terra, I asked, “You’re faster than the rest of us; any chance you can get around behind them?”
“Null problem.” She flashed me a smile before leaping away. Blasts of energy flew her way, but she was far too quick for them. I watched her lithe form slip between the columns and pillars for a few moments before it occurred to me that I could be making her job easier by providing a distraction.
I let loose a Force Edge that sent a wave of debris toward our attackers. As they scrambled for cover, I shouted, “I am Duke Jimmy Olsen Sakamota, Knight of Iniagus and Specialist of the Royal Guard! Cease your assault immediately!”
To my amazement, the gunmen on the balcony stopped firing at us. Several approached the banister slowly, their eyes on me and their hands on their weapons.
The leader, a man with a cybernetic arm, called out, “The Dragon slayer?”
“The same.” I said, stepping out from behind my pillar. I sheathed Glint and raised my hands. “We came here in peace to seek the Center’s aid.”
“Then you have come at a bad time.” said a man with a metal arm. “The Center is at war.”
“At war?” I asked, startled. “Who are you fighting?”
He opened his mouth to reply when a burst of energy caught me full in the chest, knocking me back against the wall. It happened so fast that I couldn’t even tell where the fire had come from.
“Jimmy!” Terra was at my side in moments. She pulled me back behind the pillar. I could vaguely hear shouting from the balcony, though no weapon fire as of yet.
I wasn’t doing so well. My whole body felt numb, and my vision was fading. I couldn’t move my head to see the damage, though I knew that the numbness couldn’t be a good sign.
Terra held me up, whispering, “Come on! Stay with me, Jimmy!”
I could hear shouting, but it seemed distant. I wasn’t in pain, either, just really sleepy. I just wanted to go to sleep in Terra’s arms, and after a few moments, that’s just what I did.