They could smell The Septic before seeing it.
Hooken Ladder was using his ax to cut a path through the thick brush when he fell to his knees and vomited. He had traveled through The Septic dozens of times, but no one ever gets used to the stench.
Gelsomina’s mouth filled with hot saliva that made her gag. Tears ran from her eyes. The smell was almost physical the way it grabbed your guts, jabbing down your nose and mouth like fingers. It was the smell of raw sewage, which was what The Septic was, sour and sharp. The Septic was an open sewer that surrounded Kid City like a moat. All the toilets of Thunder World flushed into The Septic and there the waste flowed in an endlessly circulating river of refuse.
The Septic offered not only a physical barrier protecting Kid City, but a sensory one. The smell of poop was stronger than even a Maka’s will. Few would pursue an escaped kid through The Septic. Those that did never forgot the experience. Hardened Makas suffered recurring nightmares. Weaker souls lost their minds. Kids just lost their lunch, like Hooken.
The natives were restless. They had traveled to the edge of The Septic in the past, but it still made them queasy. Their camp was far enough away that the odor of human waste only wafted over on the occasional strong breeze off The Septic. That was a small price to pay for their privacy.
As Mumbo Jumbo led his tribe closer to the clearing where the stinking waves of The Septic broke on the foul shoreline, he and his people looked even whiter and paler than usual.
Fischel Bocephus was eating a sandwich. He shoved it heartily into his mouth and made loud sounds of delight as he chewed, bits of the meal falling over his smile. “Anyone want a bite?” he asked the braves marching beside him. They blanched, gagged and one dry heaved, his stomach already emptied from throwing up earlier.
“More for me,” Fischel said, satisfied, and took another large mouthful of the sandwich.
Fischel’s obnoxious humor would have irritated Gelsomina had it not been for Nickelan. Nickelan wasn’t doing anything, which was what bothered Gelsomina. He was resting, his feet up and his head back. He was in a chair supported by two long wooden poles that a group of four strong braves carried on their shoulders. He had a drink in his hand, but he wasn’t drinking. The smell was too intense. A squaw gave Nickelan a cloth dampened in perfume for him to hold up against his face. From what Gelsomina could see of Nickelan, high above her and the rest of the group, the perfumed cloth wasn’t helping. Gelsomina grinned happily.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Nickelan announced, setting off a frenzy of activity from the natives.
Nickelan dropped his drink. He began to rock on the chair, sending his carriers off balance. Nickelan grabbed his stomach and spewed a waterfall of hot liquid from his mouth. A violent jerking of his body sent the chair, poles and Nickelan all crashing to the ground.
“Redeemer!” Mumbo shrieked in dismay. “Are you hurt? Idiots!” He turned to the carriers, who were scrambling to right the chair and return Nickelan to his throne.
“Ow!” Nickelan yelped. “Watch what you’re doing.”
The braves fell to their knees and dropped their faces into the dirt. Bowing before Nickelan, they begged his forgiveness.
Nickelan wiped his moist lips and swallowed hard. “Where’s my perfume?”
The squaws ran up to Nickelan, sitting on his butt on the hard ground, and poured perfume on another cloth. They handed it to him on their knees, their faces down, not daring to look at their Redeemer and somehow offend him.
Nickelan took the cloth without a word of thanks, placed it over his face and stood up. He waited impatiently for the braves to lower his throne and then took a seat. As they lifted him up he asked, “What is that awful smell?”
“You’re rotten, Nickelan,” Gelsomina said, “and it stinks.”
Mumbo Jumbo pulled out his tomahawk and Gelsomina slapped it easily out of his hand. Mumbo bent down to pick up his fallen weapon and Gelsomina kicked him in the rear, his face plowing into the ground. He fell to his hands and knees, coughing up a mouthful of dirt. Gelsomina sat on Mumbo’s back, forcing him down into the dirt again, and looked up at Nickelan. “That smell, your highness, is The Septic,” she said. “And I’m about ready to dunk you in it up to your ungrateful eyes.” Everyone stopped.
“How dare you address the Redeemer in such a fashion?” Mumbo said beneath Gelsomina, through a mouthful of dirt.
The braves encircled Gelsomina with their weapons drawn. Gelsomina’s team, in turn, encircled the natives with their weapons drawn. Both groups held their ground in silence. Nobody wanted to fight. The mere thought of fighting was enough to make everyone heave.
Gelsomina stood and stared at Nickelan, who was still seated in his perch high above the rest. Gelsomina thought he was enjoying the attention. She turned and began to aggressively move towards The Septic. The tension momentarily broken, both camps put their weapons away and followed her. Nickelan squeezed the perfumed cloth tightly to his face and Mumbo got up, brushing the dirt from his loincloth.
“Pay no attention to that child,” Mumbo said, racing to catch up with Nickelan. “What does she know? She’s a soldier and good for only one thing, fighting.” Mumbo’s tone lightened. “But soon there will be no call to violence. Right? Soon there will be peace and plenty. Your will be done, of course, Redeemer.”
Nickelan said nothing. He sat back in his chair and huffed deeply from the perfumed cloth. It covered his face right up to the eyes Gelsomina had threatened to dunk in The Septic.
Nobody said anything as the column of kids and natives cut through the plants. The smell of The Septic intensified. By the time they reached the edge of the forest even Fischel was looking green. Breaking through the thick vegetation, the group was hit by the thick reek of the unfiltered Septic. It was a rich brown in color with darker and lighter spots moving over the surface of The Septic, giving it the quality of a living creature. If The Septic was truly a living creature, then it was a living creature that had lost its innate desire for cleanliness. Where the body of The Septic touched the line of the horizon floated an ill hue, a material manifestation of its stench, bad breath that stuck to it like a trusty sidekick, a constant companion, a dark and disgusting cloud over its head. No living creatures except Gelsomina’s team and the natives could be seen near the banks of The Septic. The whole scene was static and devoid of life except for The Septic, which moved slowly as small waves crested on the beachfront. The beach was not sandy but covered in loose, dirty hair and clumps of less easily identified objects, which no one looked too closely to identify.
“This is where we must leave you, Redeemer,” Mumbo cried. He wasn’t sad at having to part with his beloved Redeemer as much as sickened to tears by the pure and putrid odor of the open Septic. “My people cannot cross The Septic.”
The braves lowered Nickelan, who had difficulty standing steady. He looked over the great expanse of The Septic. Would they have to swim across it to Kid City? Nickelan thought he’d rather surrender to Baber Groan than dip a toe in that disgusting muck.
“Andor!” Gelsomina called over the still waste of The Septic.
Then the waste was no longer still. It bubbled and boiled not far from the shoreline. Gelsomina and her team took cover. Nickelan and the natives looked on in nauseating fascination.
The Septic’s mounting agitation came to a head in an eruption that sent waste spewing over the shoreline and landing on Nickelan and the natives in chunky clusters. Nickelan stood petrified, coated in slimy waste. His eyes, popped open in shock, took in the images of the natives. It was not a pretty sight. The lucky ones were puking their guts out. It gave them something productive to do. The others were on the ground rolling around in the filth desperately trying to rub off the repulsive covering of the splattered Septic. There were screams and cries and moans as natives called for their mommies and lost both their facilities and their faculties. Nickelan would have joined the natives in madness if he could have done anything other than stand rigidly horrified.
“Who disturbs my sleep?” said the giant Andor. “I needed to get up. Can’t waste the day away. Or I could use an extra hour of shut-eye.”
Andor trudged through the heavy slime of The Septic and stood on the shore, towering over the sickened natives. He was naked, but covered in a syrupy layer of stool that made him look as if he were melting.
“What do you want, puny human?” Andor looked down at Nickelan, who was still too frightened to move. “I could crush you under my foot. Or I could listen to what you have to say first. Sorry, I always wake up in a bad mood. I’ll be better once I have some coffee. Or maybe tea?”
“How about water?” Gelsomina said, tossing him a water sack she pulled from a fallen brave. “You drink water, don’t you?”
“I do,” Andor said, catching the water sack, which looked as big as a pill in his fat fingers. He threw the whole thing down his throat and swallowed. “That hit the spot. Though something hot would be nice. Or cold? Maybe both. Is there such a beverage that is hot and cold? And, if so, would it be better or worse than a drink that’s simply hot or cold?”
“Let’s discuss that as you’re carrying us across The Septic,” Gelsomina suggested.
“Deal,” Andor exclaimed in a loud voice that shook the tops of the trees. “I love a debate!”
Andor the Giant of The Septic loved a good discussion. He loved any discussion, being very lonely, living as he did in the lifeless swill of The Septic—lifeless that is save for Andor. No one knew how Andor landed in The Septic. He had been there for as long as The Septic had been there. Legend spoke of a studious giant, so distracted by intellectual pursuit that he stumbled into The Septic while lost in deep thought. This giant welcomed the solitude to study offered by The Septic, but there was a price to pay for sanctuary, that price was his mind. Long exposure to the toxic fumes emitting from The Septic warped even the toughest intelligence. If wisdom is questioning, then Andor was the wisest creature underground, only Andor questioned his questions, even questioning the question of questioning. It got very confusing, and Andor sunk deeper into The Septic.
Andor crouched down and the kids climbed on his broad shoulders. He noticed the natives and, picking one up gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, asked, “What’s wrong with these guys?”
“They’re not used to your unique aroma,” Gelsomina spoke into Andor’s cavernous ear.
“Really?” Andor commented. “Now that hurts my feelings. Then again, it’s completely understandable. I do live in poop. Ha!” He placed the stricken brave down on the ground. “And this one?” He jutted a chin the size of a mountain peak towards the petrified Nickelan.
“Yes,” Gelsomina answered coldly, “that one. He’s with us, but I think he’ll need extra-special care. It’s his first trip across The Septic.”
“Is that true,” Andor said, warming up to Nickelan, “or are you pulling my leg? I have a very big leg and you are very small, but I’m not insensitive. I have feelings and I don’t like being made fun of.”
“You’re a giant,” Nickelan finally spoke.
“Yes, of course, I’m a giant, a giant among giants, the ferryman of The Septic. In fact, I’m the sole inhabitant of this body of waste. It’s not much, but it’s home. Now, come, little one. It’s time we got going. Or is that leaving? Should I say depart or farewell? Anyway, good day to you.” He nodded at the sickened natives.
Andor’s hand swooped down and swept Nickelan up in his palm. Then he turned his back on the natives and headed towards The Septic.
“Remember us, Redeemer,” Mumbo Jumbo gurgled through a mouthful of puke. The last thing he saw before passing out was the giant disappearing into the murky waste. The small figures of Gelsomina and her team rested on his shoulders. Nickelan sat in Andor’s hand and hugged the giant’s thumb so closely it looked as if he was sucking it.