Jinni woke up groaning and took a few seething breaths while trying to constrain and compartmentalize the pain overtaking his senses. With a dose of venom flowing through the skin surrounding his throat and back, Jinni dangled lifelessly from the shackles holding his wrists. Beyond the pain originating from Jinni’s rash, his neck and arms had become sore from their positioning during confinement.
“You finally awake over there?” It was the same man as before. Jinni recognized the distinct sound of his calm defeat.
“Yeah,” Jinni said. He was depleted of energy, but with every blink, he healed just a bit more.
“That thing you did with the light. You think there’s any way you could do that again?”
Jinni could hear the man’s tears rolling over the dried trails of others that had come and gone. Jinni closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, and his arms began to vibrate. The girthy chunks of iron around his wrists began to turn cherry red with the heat.
The glow filled the room and the other prisoner watched in disbelief as each shackle split in two and plopped onto the damp cave floor. Once again, the entire room went dark. In silence, Jinni approached the other prisoner. Just as the other shackles had done, these turned red with heat and split before falling to the rock floor, returning the room to darkness.
“How did you do that?”
The long wick of a white wax candle gave birth to a flame. As it filled the ominous cavern with a dim glimmer, Jinni was revealed to be the candle’s holder.
The man leaned in and gazed at the rash developing on Jinni’s throat. “What are you going to do now?”
Jinni waved his arm over the dark, watery entrance. “I’m going to dive into this pool, find my way out, and go home.”
“You’ve been here before, haven’t you?”
Jinni stared at the water, his mind swirling with memories and regret. “A long time ago.”
“Take me with you,” the man pleaded. “I don’t know what she’s going to do to me, but if I had it my way, I’d rather not find out.”
“I can’t take you with me,” Jinni said. “Once you get to the bottom of this pool, there’s a long water tunnel. It stretches roughly three miles before it opens to the ocean. And once it does, you’re two miles below surface.”
“What?” New surges of panic began to rush over the man’s cheeks. “How’d she get me down here?”
“She has her ways.”
“I have to try,” the man said, beginning to tear up. “There’s nothing you can do?”
“If there was, I’d be happy to help you out of here, but I’m afraid there’s not.”
“How is it that you can survive it?”
Jinni nodded. “I don’t know.” It was true. Jinni had no idea how or why he was able to do some of the things he was able to do.
“Oh, please, no.” The man lost control and began to sob.
“I’m sorry,” Jinni said. “I really am sorry. And I don’t know the best way to tell you this, so I’ll just give it to you straight. Your best course of action is gonna be to follow me into that pool, take a big deep breath, and…let yourself go.
“I know that’s not what you want to hear right now. But it’s the truth. If you don’t, and she comes back here and has her way with you…I’m tellin’ ya right now. It’s going to hurt. Her stingers. Her poison. It’s like feeling a red-hot iron being pressed against your skin. Only worse. Eventually, an iron will burn your skin off, and you won’t have to feel it anymore. What she does—it doesn’t go away. It takes over your blood, makes your whole body spasm with the most awful pain. And if that isn’t enough, it makes you see things. Things that aren’t there. Your most terrifying nightmares become reality. By the time it’s done running its course, you’ve been dead for several hours.”
“What if drowning is my most terrifying nightmare?”
“Then you haven’t got much of an imagination.” Jinni hopped into the unwelcoming waters and adjusted to the chill and saltiness saturating his wounds.
“Wait,” the man cried out. “Thank you for letting me loose.”
“Don’t mention it,” Jinni said.
“I always thought she was a myth, ya know? Is it really her? Is she really the one they talk of, when they talk of the Sea Witch?”
Jinni nodded. “Just don’t let her hear you say that.” He dove under the water and disappeared. Whether the man decided to drown himself, or wait for the Sea Witch’s return, was anyone’s guess.
When one thinks of a desert, images of the relentless sun, cacti, and sand so hot that its temperature is visible are usually the first thoughts. It’s often underappreciated how cold the desert can get. Luckily for Mac, Pinocchio had packed an extra coat and more than enough blankets from a buck he’d killed a year earlier. Even so, it was a bitter night. The two of them sat at the open end of their tent, keeping warm by the robust fire.
“It’s colder than a well digger’s ass out here,” Pinocchio said. Like a small child sneaking sweets, Pinocchio slowly pulled out a sizable portion of cake he had stashed on his mule. “Want some of this?” he asked.
“No. Thanks,” Mac replied, gazing curiously at the contents of Pinocchio’s plate.
“Suit yourself.” Pinocchio scooped his first bite. “I never have dessert at home, so this is going to be a real treat,” he said with a mushy mouthful.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Go for it.” Pinocchio wasted no time digging in for another bite.
“Do you think the emperor and empress will be able to help me?” Mac asked.
“Hard to say. But when it comes to the topic of heroes, your dad’s a fan favorite around here. And to them.”
“You bet. There are all kinds of stories about him. Even the ones I’ve heard over and over again don’t get old.”
“I’ve heard a handful over the years from visitors,” Mac said, with a somber gaze into the fire. “They don’t show up like they used to, though. You have a favorite?”
“Hmmm. As I’m sure you know, the king of Troy started the war, and he had a bunch of innocent people locked up in his castle.”
“His castle had these tremendous barriers and steel gates thicker than any others in the world at that time. For two whole years, our guys tried to break through, and climb over, and dig under. But every attempt was a bust. And every attempt resulted in a lot of lives lost. So one day, your dad gathered everybody together and told them that the war was costing more lives than it was worth, so they should just give up. Pack it all up and go home.”
Mac looked away from the flames, sending an inquisitive look toward Pinocchio.
“He said they should withdraw forces from around the castle and build the king a gift. Something really nice that he’d love.” As Pinocchio’s narrative furthered, so did a youthful enthusiasm. “The king really liked horses, so your dad came up with the idea to build this huge wooden horse and put it outside his gates. Your dad knew that when the king saw it, he’d assume the war was over, and that he’d won…at least that’s what your dad wanted him to assume.
“My dad designed the plans for the horse and did most of the framework. In fact, there’s a little model replica on a shelf back home. When we go back, you’ll have to take a look at it. But your dad, my dad, and a bunch of guys helped build it. Late one night, they put it outside the gates. The king’s guys brought it in, and just like your dad predicted, the Trojan king thought he’d won the war. So he told his men to celebrate. But your dad, Robin Hood, King Charming—back when he was still a prince—and a few other guys in this special elite unit were hidden inside the horse. They came out of a trap door and were able to open the castle gates from the inside. Soldiers poured in by the hundreds. And the rest is history. Within hours, the war was over, and they managed to save everyone the Trojan king was holding prisoner.”
“Whoa,” Mac said, mesmerized.
“You had to have heard that one,” Pinocchio said.
“A long time ago. And certainly not the way you told it. Why’s that one your favorite?”
“Are you kidding?” Pinocchio asked. “My dad working side by side with the great Otis Seehus to end the Trojan War—how could it not be my favorite? My dad might not have known who he was toward the end, but no one will ever be able to take that away from him. No one.” Pinocchio smiled and winked while finishing the last of his cake. “Mmm. That was quite good.”
Without notice, their tent was whisked off its props and thrown to the ground. What they first thought to be a gust of wind turned out to be two grungy thieves roaming desolate portions of the desert, fully aware and taking advantage of the fact that the emperor’s watchmen were concentrated primarily on the coastal regions of Nestor Island.
Both men had lanky, unsure postures. Within the shadows and flickers of the fire, one of the men looked like a fox, complete with beady black eyes gently placed over a cluster of gruff whiskers. The other man’s face was more like a cat—somehow made darker by the flame while his red eyes popped out from the night sky surrounding them.
Both men wielded sharp, heavy swords and the upper hand.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Pinocchio said, more agitated than afraid.
“Take whatever you want. Just don’t hurt us.”
“Hands up.” The fox-faced man began to smile, enjoying this line of work more than anyone should.
Pinocchio and Mac complied while the cat-faced man disarmed each of them and tossed their daggers into the distance.
This wasn’t their first attempt at theft, and each man knew his job. The cat-faced fellow acted as lookout while making sure that Mac and Pinocchio didn’t make any sudden movements. Meanwhile, the fox-faced man was tasked with going through their satchels.
“They don’t have anything but food. And water.”
“Keep lookin’,” his feline comrade replied. He kept his blade tight against Pinocchio’s throat, seeing him as the only credible threat. “Where are you two going, anyway? All the way out here?”
“Up a hog’s ass for some pork stew,” Pinocchio said.
“Cute. That’s cute. But I don’t really care where you’re going. I only care that you’re here.”
The flapping of leather and the shuffles of frustrated boots paused as the fox-faced man grew impatient with his search. “Nothing.” He rejoined the other three, pointing his sword at Mac.
The cat-faced man kept one eye on his partner and the other on his captives. “Empty your pockets.”
Mac and Pinocchio did as they were told, which ultimately didn’t mean much. “What a waste,” the cat-faced man said, digging his fingernails into his forehead. “What do you want to do with ’em?”
“Not much we can do with ’em.” The fox-faced captor clicked his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
“Maybe I’m missing something here,” Pinocchio said. “But you could just leave us be and go on your way.”
The cat-faced man sneered. “And leave you out here to seek out the nearest watchmen? Tell them what we look like—what we’re wearing—so we can end up swinging from the nearest gallows? I don’t think so.”
Pinocchio glanced around. “What watchmen are we going flag down? It’s the middle of the night in the coldest desert on the island.”
Poked and prodded on the back by swords, Mac and Pinocchio were pushed away from the visible shelter provided by the shrinking bonfire. Mac’s heart began to throb, and he found himself wishing that Jinni had come along for the journey.
The fox-faced man guided Pinocchio, struggling considerably in comparison to his partner in the matter of controlling his prisoner at sword point. “You made us waste a lot of time tonight. You practically brought less than nothing. Even your mules aren’t worth this much trouble.”
Feeling his life slipping further away, Mac came to grips that he wouldn’t be able to brawn his way out of this situation. So he used his words.
“Wait.” Mac tried to stop, but a solid jab forced him forward.
“Keep it moving.”
“If you’re planning on killing us, I beg you to consider otherwise. My name—is Mac Seehus. My father is the king of Ithaca. And he’d be willing to pay a lot to get me, and my escort, home safely. You may have heard of my father. His name is Ot—”
Pinocchio pivoted to his right, safely wedging his captor’s blade beneath his right arm. Pinocchio grabbed the sword’s handle with his right hand, claiming a firmer grip than the man holding it. Simultaneously, his left fist slammed into the cat man’s pointy nose, sending him to the sand.
Both Mac and the fox-faced man stood stunned as Pinocchio turned toward them both. The other captor tossed his sword to the chilly desert surface and dropped to his knees.
“Please don’t kill me,” he said. “I’ll do anything you want. Just please don’t kill me.”
“OK,” Pinocchio said, approaching the man cautiously. “You can start by emptying out your bag. I know you didn’t take anything from our camp. So what do you got in there?”
Shaking, the man emptied the contents of his travel pack. “We weren’t going to kill you. I swear. We were just going to scare you.”
“Yeah,” Pinocchio said, pulling the blade away from the man’s throat. “That must be why you don’t have anything in your pack but knives and rope.” He went over each item, touching three lengths of rope and six knives as if checking to make sure they were actually there.
Pinocchio stood the man up and began to tie his hands behind his back. “Mac, you know how to tie a good knot?”
“Go tie his hands like I tied this one’s,” Pinocchio said.
The man being held by Pinocchio started to cry.
“Oh, take it easy, ya big baby, before you piss yourself. I’m not going to kill you.”
“You’re not?” the man sounded like a young child.
“No,” Pinocchio said in a soothing voice. “Just doing this to make sure you two don’t hurt us tonight. Tomorrow morning we’ll turn you loose and be on our way. You really do seem sorry.”
“I am. I am!” the man exclaimed. “So sorry.”
“Then let’s all go back to the campsite and get a good night’s rest.”
The midmorning desert sun hovered as a heat wave started to burn off the cold of the night. Mac and Pinocchio packed up their camp as the fox-faced man and his feline-looking friend were beginning to wish they had been killed the previous evening. Their hands remained tied behind their backs while their necks were firmly noosed and tethered to the same tree branch. They each stood on a large boulder as their tiptoes bore the full weight of their bodies.
“You said you weren’t gonna kill us,” the fox-faced man cried out. “Goddamn liar.”
“Hey, hey,” Pinocchio said, firmly tugging down at the man’s legs. “You fellas will be able to live nice, long, fulfilling lives. Just don’t let your toes get tired.” He looked up at the sky. “And as long as it doesn’t rain out here. If it does, those stones you’re standing on are going to sink like—well, they’re going to sink like stones,” he concluded with a chuckle. Pinocchio picked up a small rock and used it to inscribe a note in one of the boulders.
“We—tried—to—steal—and—all—we—got—was—this—lousy—rope.” He stepped away and read it, satisfied with his penmanship. “Good luck, fellas.”
Pinocchio strolled away whistling and joined Mac, who didn’t yet have the moral range to know how he should have felt about what had just transpired. The two of them loaded their mules and rode off into the sunrise, ignoring the desperate pleas that finally hushed with distance.