The smell of sulfur, like a mix of hellfire and hot lava that most would mistake for really rotten eggs, had overtaken the sour reek of The Septic. It was sharper and, in an irrational way, frightening, producing a mass anxiety. Shadows, from the setting Fire, spread over the junkyard. Movement could be sensed but not seen. There were strange noises, too, which wheezed like the bellows of an overheated machine. Scrap landed on Fischel Bocephus’ shoulder and crackled its discontent.
“Don’t worry, little buddy,” Fischel consoled Scrap. “We’ll be flying into Kid City soon enough.”
“Flying?” Nickelan Wand asked.
“Hope you have a strong stomach,” Fischel said, only heightening Nickelan’s unease.
The Fire overhead was nearly extinguished. The garbage dump, which looked bad enough in the light of day, took on a nightmarish cast in twilight. Bursts of orange light illuminated corners of the landscape and then, just as quickly as they flared up, died, leaving their mystery to the enclosing dusk.
“Did you see that?” Nickelan asked.
“Right on time,” Fischel said mysteriously, enjoying Nickelan’s anxiety.
“This is far enough,” Gelsomina said. It was completely dark now, except for the periodic flash of reddish orange light. The sulfur smell was overwhelming.
The kids silently waited. An eruption of fire followed by an intense blast of sulfur announced the arrival of a large form in front of Gelsomina. It was cloaked in the blackness of night, but Nickelan could see a pair of eyes reflecting the little light coming from the various flare-ups around them. The two eyes were about twenty feet above Gelsomina. Then they moved quickly down to her level. They fell like rocks, but never hit the ground. The eyes hovered inquisitively before Gelsomina. She reached out a hand and appeared to stroke a face with a gentle touch. Gelsomina whispered something and the eyes flew back up to a great height above her before disappearing behind an outburst of flame, which illuminated the body of a huge winged dragon.
Nickelan instinctively took a step back and, losing his footing, fell onto his bottom. He looked up at the dragon, which was flying several feet above the ground. Wings spanned far from its thick torso blocking out much of the night sky. The bulk of the dragon’s body was covered in thick and shiny scales. Its rear legs were big as tree trunks and sculpted with heavy slabs of muscle. The creature’s arms were not as large as its legs, but both ended in long, sharp talons that cut the air.
“All aboard,” Gelsomina said as the dragon landed with a heavy thud.
Spike was first on the creature’s back, but only because he was small and fast. The others all clambered onto the dragon as if the fire-breathing beast was a station wagon. Gelsomina turned to Nickelan and said, “Your chariot awaits, your highness.”
“Lay off,” Nickelan snapped at Gelsomina. He was angry with her, but mostly Nickelan was stalling. He didn’t want to get near the dragon and certainly not ride it. As if to punctuate Nickelan’s feelings, the dragon burped a string of fire that landed on a piece of junk at its feet and ignited it. The small fire lit Gelsomina from below, making her look especially threatening.
“Why are you so mad with me?” Nickelan wanted to know.
“Look into my soul,” Gelsomina said with her hands outstretched and her fingers wiggling in mock awe. “Can’t you see through me like a plane of glass, oh great Redeemer?”
“That’s not fair,” Nickelan said. He noticed that the other kids were seated on the dragon as if it was the balcony of a theater and they were watching a movie, of which Gelsomina and he were the main players. Even the dragon looked on with interest.
“What’s not fair?” Gelsomina lost the hint of playfulness in her scorn and was now simply contemptuous. “What’s not fair is that you have filled my team with fantasies, with fairy tales! What’s not fair is that you, some stranger from a supposed surface world, have dangerously distracted my team from its mission! We’re almost home, almost. Once this dragon flies us to the gates of Kid City I’m done with you and your voices and your parents and your bogus divinity!”
“I’m just trying to figure this out—” Nickelan was unable to finish his thought before Gelsomina tore in.
“You’re just trying, Nickelan,” Gelsomina said. “You’re trying my patience with your attitude. You act like you’re special, your head lost in magnificent visions, visions of your magnificence. You expect the rest of us to carry you around like a delicate flower, so you can think your deep thoughts. You think you’re some kind of big shot? And what kills me is that you’ve deluded my team into believing your ridiculous whimsy. I think you’re trouble, Nickelan Wand. The sooner I get rid of you, the better.”
“Gelsomina.” Nickelan was genuinely hurt. He had been acting like a fool of late, he admitted it, but after being a nothing for so long it was hard to resist not only the acceptance of others but their praise. Nickelan abused the situation and took advantage of the others and he wanted to confess this to Gelsomina, ask her forgiveness, but all he could do was whine, “Gelsomina.”
Then he shouted, “Gelsomina!”
Behind her the dragon had taken to the air, but was spinning out of control. The kids were thrown and scattered around the junk heap like that much more trash. Nickelan fell to the ground just in time to miss the swinging arc of the dragon’s head as it sped past. Nickelan made eye contact with the whirling beast. He could see in its eyes a look of fear.
Gelsomina was not so lucky. From her vantage point she was unable to see the dragon take its erratic flight and turned only in time to witness the head of the creature flying towards her like a boulder flung from a catapult. It connected with sickening crunch that sent Gelsomina airborne. She landed many feet away, on her back and still.
“Gelsomina!” Nickelan screamed again.
“She can’t hear you, boy,” Baber Groan said flatly. “I think I might have broken her ears. Poor thing,” he added unsympathetically.
Nickelan couldn’t register what was in front of his face. He saw Baber Groan holding the tail of the dragon and twirling it over his head like a lasso, but his mind refused to accept the reality before his eyes. Baber Groan was at the bottom of the sea.
The dragon slammed down where Nickelan had been standing only a moment before. If he hadn’t leaped to the side it would have crushed him. The dragon appeared unconscious. Black smoke billowed from its nostrils and fire exploded out of its mouth each time Baber Groan smashed the dragon like a club down to the ground.
“Don’t make this more difficult for me,” Baber Groan said. “I can bring you back dead or alive, but I’m going to bring you back.”
Baber Groan lifted the dragon again high above his head and brought it down to the ground with a thundering crash. Nickelan was able to keep one step ahead of Baber Groan and his dragon bat, but he didn’t know for how much longer.
Spike ran to Gelsomina’s side and was cradling her head in his lap. Tears welled in his eyes. “Nickelan!” he shouted. When Nickelan turned, Spike tossed him his baseball bat. It landed several feet away from Nickelan. When he tried to retrieve it Baber Groan slammed the dragon to the ground, blocking him.
“No games,” Baber Groan said. “I don’t need these others,” he said, flinging the dragon behind his back, preparing for a new assault. “Do you want me to flatten them, or will you come peacefully with me?”
Nickelan saw Baby Booba and Maka Mickey pushing Fischel Bocephus, Hop Long, Hooken Ladder, Shiny Buttons, Chairman Meow and Count Blood over to where Spike Vrusho nursed the injured Gelsomina Gillespie. Baby Booba and Maka Mickey were supposed to be at the bottom of the sea with Baber Groan. Nickelan was frozen in shock. Then a glimmer of hope warmed his cold skin and he looked desperately for Selwyn Harris and Dollar Green, but they were nowhere to be seen.
“Crush them, boss,” Baby Booba said.
“Yeah, pulverize them,” Maka Mickey added, herding the frightened kids with his outspread wings.
“You’re dead,” Nickelan finally spoke, less as a threat than a question.
“I’m bed?” Baber Groan asked. “Oh, I’m tired, boy, that much is true. But I’m not ready for bed quite yet. Don’t worry about me. Once I get you back to Thunder World I’ll have a nice long rest. In fact, I may even buy you at auction and make a pillow from your bones and skin you for my sheets.”
Baby Booba and Maka Mickey thought that hilarious and laughed, but there was nothing funny about their laughter. It sounded diseased before twisting into a hacking cough.
“What’s it going to be, boy?” Baber Groan asked. “Either way, I’m happy.” He began swinging the great bulk of the dragon over his head. It made a thrilling noise, violently disrupting the night air.
“Don’t listen to him, Nickelan!” Shiny called from behind Maka Mickey’s wings.
With a fist the size of a block of granite, Maka Mickey punched Shiny on top of her head. His blow smashed the glittering stars that lined her silver tiara. She fell lifeless to the ground.
“You animal!” Nickelan screamed, racing towards Baber Groan.
“I’m just a Maka,” Baber Groan responded calmly. He dropped the dragon, which rolled off to the side and settled awkwardly and unmoving. Baber Groan was able to easily stop Nickelan and hold him at bay. Nickelan swung his fists impotently in the air. Baber Groan smiled.
“Truth is,” Baby Booba said, “you are an animal.”
Baber Groan gave him a hard look, but was too happy to finally have Nickelan Wand in his grasp to let his henchman bother him.
“I mean, we’re all animals,” Baby Booba tried to explain. “You are an animal no different from than from that dragon over there, only a different species.”
“It’s true, boss.” Maka Mickey couldn’t resist joining in on the discussion. “We exile ourselves from the animal kingdom at our own risk. Denying our animalistic side is to deny who we are, our urges and desires, which doesn’t elevate us above animals but, ironically, lowers us to the sorry state of sadness and loss.”
“Yes.” Baber Groan managed to keep his smile pasted on his face. “Baby Booba, Maka Mickey, you make a valid point. I’d like to stab you with it!”
“There’s no reason to tease.” Baby Booba sounded hurt, but neither he nor Maka Mickey said anything else.
“I’ll kill you!” Nickelan was still struggling to break free from Baber Groan’s iron grip. “I’ll kill you!”
“Save your strength, boy,” Baber Groan said. “We have a long trip back to Thunder World. Maybe you’re the one who needs some sleep. Well, I don’t see any beds here. Too bad.” Baber Groan took one of his thick fingers and flicked it hard into Nickelan’s forehead. The force of the blow snapped Nickelan’s head back, but before he could feel the pain everything went black.