Nickelan Wand ran. He ran into the pitch-blackness with little care for what lay before him. Whatever it was, it was better than where he came from. So, he ran. He ran barefoot, even as the soles of his feet cut and bruised as they landed on sharp twigs and rocks. Low-hanging branches sliced his cheeks and he felt warm blood roll down his face. But he kept running. His breath was labored and his lips wet with saliva that sprayed from his mouth with each heavy exhale. He ran until his lungs were on fire, until his muscles burned and his bones ached as if they were about to break. He ran until a tree, which he crashed into with great force, stopped him.
When Nickelan woke he was on his back. It was still dark and the woods were quiet except for a savage panting, which was Nickelan’s breath. He lay there on the floor of the forest for some time, waiting to catch his escaping breath and turn down the volume on the high-pitch of his battered body. Every inch of Nickean hurt to some degree, but he didn’t care. He was ecstatic. He had defeated Baber Groan and gotten away from the Makas.
Nickelan stood up to assess his situation. It was still too dark to see anything more than the outline of trees. He began to move in the direction he hoped was opposite from the Makas’ camp, but this time without the fuel of panic driving him.
Using his hands to guide him, Nickelan found a path through the dense brush. His eyes began to adjust to the dim light. After what seemed like hours the Fire rose in the east and Nickelan could see clearly again.
There was not much to see. The woods were thick and the trees grew high and their tops were overgrown with large leaves. The forest floor was dank and dark even under the blazing heat of the morning Fire. Nickelan’s enthusiasm about breaking free from the Makas was now replaced with the dawning reality that he was alone, had no idea where he was or how to get to Kid City. His body was in pain and, worse, stiffening up, making it harder for him to move without discomfort. He was tired and hungry, but there was nothing else Nickelan could do other than walk. So, he kept walking.
The morning calm was soon broken by noise, a sound Nickelan couldn’t place. It filled the air with a tension that ate at him from inside out. His ears were buzzing with the hum, which was gushy and fluid, filling him with warmth, but also sharp and cold, making Nickelan apprehensive to take another step. But he took another step, and then another, until his foot landed on something that loudly protested.
Whatever he landed on was too soft to be the hard forest floor that had been lacerating his feet all night long. That was a fine change, except now the ground wailed and whined, cried and moaned, which was unnerving. Nickelan didn’t want to look down, but he looked down.
A baby was looking up at him. Not much bigger than Nickelan’s foot, the baby was naked with a mouth wide open and tightly shut eyes. Nickelan quickly stepped off the crying baby, but his foot landed on another one. He moved off that and onto another crying baby. It was difficult, but Nickelan found a small piece of unoccupied land and stood awkwardly there, looking over a field of crying babies.
As far as the eye could see there were babies, babies on their backs, babies on their sides, babies rolling over other babies, and their cries, screams, cooing and gurgling combined to create a sound more like a wild jungle than a nursery. Nickelan couldn’t move forward or backwards or side-to-side, all he could do was crouch down and try to comfort the closest babies.
The babies recoiled at Nickelan’s touch. They didn’t want comfort, at least not the kind that Nickelan offered. The babies were hungry or dirty or gaseous; they wanted milk or a warm rag or a gentle pat on the back. Nickelan held one and another cried, so he turned to that one, but then a different baby called out in need, until Nickelan was racing over the squirming babies like fingers on the keys of a piano that was out of tune, making a terrible racket.
“No, no, no,” said a voice. “Not like that. What are you doing?”
Nickelan looked forward, he looked backwards—no one was there, only crying babies.
“Get your hands off of my babies,” the voice persisted.
Putting down the baby he was cradling, Nickelan looked around for the source of the voice. There were only crying babies carpeting the ground as far off as Nickelan could see, hundreds of them. None were able to speak; certainly none could speak so authoritatively.
“What are you doing here?” the voice asked irritably and punctuated its sentence with a slap to the top of Nickelan’s head.
Nickelan looked up and saw flying above his head a large white bird. It had a long, elegant neck and on top of its head a boxy messenger’s hat. The bird looked down at Nickelan with intelligent eyes, but the idea of a talking bird, even in this pandemonium, was more than Nickelan could fathom. Taking his eyes off the bird, Nickelan continued to look around for the source of the voice.
“Don’t you turn your back on me!” The bird swooped down to land another blow on top of Nickelan’s head.
“Ow!” Nickelan shouted. “Stop that!”
“You stop interfering with my work!” the bird shouted back.
Nickelan hadn’t been underground long enough that the novelty of a talking bird escaped him. The long-legged bird, its white feathers tipped with black, reached down to soothe the baby with a gentle stroking of its long stout bill.
“You can talk?” Nickelan asked.
“Well, of course,” the bird said irritably. “How else can I communicate? Now let me get back to my work.”
“Work?” Nickelan found it hard to carry on a conversation with a bird, even an articulate one.
“Are you blind?” The bird was exasperated. “What do you think this is?” Its ten-foot wingspan gestured over the field of crying babies. “Chopped liver?”
“They’re babies,” Nickelan observed. “What is a bird doing with all of these babies?”
“What is a bird doing with a bunch of babies?” it responded in a whiny voice, shaking its small head. “Do you know who I am? I’m a stork. Perhaps you’ve heard of storks? We’re very important birds, especially for your kind. We do, after all, deliver your young.”
“That’s a myth,” Nickelan said, thinking of white storks flying diapered infants hanging from their beaks and dropping the child like a bomb on the expectant parents below.
“A myth?” The stork stopped what it was doing to stare directly into Nickelan’s eyes. “Do I look like a myth? Do you think I’m a figment of your imagination?” With that last question the stork rammed its large bill into Nickelan’s chest, nearly causing him to step on a squirming child behind him.
“Ow!” Nickelan yelped. “Watch it.”
“You watch it,” the stork angrily retorted. “You’re the one with mental problems. You’re the one that sees things that don’t exist. You shouldn’t be around children. You’re a danger to them and yourself. Be gone from my nursery this instant!”
“My pleasure,” said Nickelan, who was getting equally annoyed with this obnoxious bird as it was with him.
The stork went back to its work, offering bottles to hungry babies and changing the diapers of dirty babies and quieting the cries of upset babies. Nickelan stood his ground. He wanted to leave, but there was no path that wasn’t covered with wiggling infants. Babies had overrun the path from which he had entered the nursery. Nickelan was trapped.
“What are you still doing here?” the stork asked, looking up from a dirty diaper.
“I can’t leave,” Nickelan told the stork, “without stepping on a baby.”
“You’d step on a baby?” The stork couldn’t believe its ears. “What sort of heartless beast are you?”
“I didn’t say I’d step on a baby,” Nickelan corrected the stork, “I, well, I just can’t leave without stepping on a baby.”
“Yes.” The stork now understood, looking at Nickelan, an island of maturity in the sea of infancy. “You do have a point. So, what to do? It’s been a while since I carried someone as large as you. Some babies weigh in the double digits, you know, but you… Well, all right. Whatever. Anything to get you out of my way.”
The stork took flight and seemed to abandon Nickelan in the swarming humanity of the nursery. Just when Nickelan thought he would be alone with the cries and smells of the teeming tots, when the stork was flying high, above the trees and almost touching the latticework of piping that covered the domed sky, it dived, gliding down gracefully to where Nickelan stood. Nickelan was so amazed that such a large creature was able to maneuver through the air with such poise that he almost didn’t notice when the stork was right on top of him. It grabbed the back of Nickelan’s tunic and swept upwards in a wide arc back into the sky with Nickelan dangling from its bill.
“Hey!” Nickelan spat out in surprise. From high above the trees Nickelan could see hundreds, maybe thousands of babies spread out over the ground. They were packed tightly together and spilled out in all directions.
The stork was heading to higher ground, to a treeless hill, where more storks congregated. Some had babies hanging by their diapers from the storks’ bills. They were taking off and flying to faraway lands to deposit these bundles of joy. Others were just mulling about, smoking cigars and talking to a rotund man who seemed to exert some influence over them.
“Now get lost!” the stork said, opening its mouth. Nickelan fell and landed hard on the ground. The smoking storks turned and stared at Nickelan as he stood and rubbed his black-and-blue behind.
“Nickelan!” shouted a friendly voice. “How good of you to drop in.”
“Selwyn Harris?” Nickelan asked, more shocked to see him than the smoking birds. “But how?”
“How?” Selwyn said, racing up to Nickelan and slapping his big hands on Nickelan’s narrow shoulders. “Is that any way to greet me?”
“But you’re dead.” Nickelan was confused. The last time he saw Selwyn he was underwater, under Baber Groan and under the wreck of the Happyland.
“Dead.” Selwyn laughed. “I’m living it up!”
“How?” Nickelan couldn’t help but repeat himself.
“Yes,” Selwyn said, putting an arm around Nickelan and leading him on a slow stroll around the summit of the hill. “You’re full of questions, my boy. All right, so, do you really think a big, bad Maka can kill old Selwyn Harris? Please. Now, it wasn’t too pleasant fighting Baber Groan. He’s got a terrible temper. And I prefer my fisticuffs on dry land. Still, I managed to hold my own against him. This isn’t all fat, you know,” he said, patting his round belly.
“But how did you get here?” Nickelan was confused. “No grown-ups are allowed in Kid City. No grown-ups can travel The Septic. No grown-ups are able to traverse the Lands Between.”
“You’re so negative.” Selwyn frowned. “Here I am. Do you deny my presence? I stand before you in the flesh and blood. Do you dispute the evidence of your own eyes?”
“No,” Nickelan answered, “but none of this makes sense. Did Andor carry you over The Septic?”
“Andor,” Selwyn guffawed, “that indecisive giant? No. I met up with Tobias McGleaner. I would have drowned if not for that croc jockey. He found me treading water, nearly exhausted, about to give up and sink to the bottom of the sea weighed down by a lungful of salt water. Once I regained my senses, I told Tobias to take me across The Septic on the back of his croc, so I could find you. At first, Tobias was uninterested in helping me get you to Kid City to fulfill your destiny. It seems you made quite the poor impression on Tobias—and his croc, I might add, is no friend of yours either.”
“It tried to eat me!” Nickelan protested.
“Don’t you get hungry?” Selwyn asked. “Would you let a poor defenseless animal suffer?”
“It’s not defenseless!” Nickean shouted. “It’s the size of a house, only a house with very sharp teeth!”
“Of course it has teeth,” Selwyn responded calmly, “how else can it chew its food? Really, boy, I thought you were more sensitive to the plight of our animal kin. I saw what you did to that harmless croc, taking out its eye, Nickelan, that’s no way to make friends.”
“That crocodile and Tobias McGleaner are not my friends.” Nickelan changed the subject. “You sold us to him as slaves.”
“No,” Selwyn said defensively, “as indentured servants. There’s a difference. A slave has no hope of freedom, but an indentured servant may work off his debt. That’s all. You don’t expect a free ride, now, do you?”
“Tobias McGleaner is a bad man,” Nickelan concluded.
“He’s not that bad,” Selwyn said. “He’s got a charming singing voice. You should hear it.”
“I never want to see that horrible man again in my life,” Nickelan said.
“Really,” Selwyn pondered that. “Your entire life? That’s a long time. You shouldn’t make such rash statements.”
“I’m not so sure I want to see you ever again, either,” Nickelan was hot with anger.
“Now, boy,” Selwyn said, stopping. They could see clear to the horizon. “How will you ever get to Kid City without me? I see Gelsomina and her gang of toughs left you to the wilds of the Lands Between. Pity. There are still dangers en route to Kid City. Do you plan to face them alone? Why, boy, you couldn’t even get past the nursery. If a litter of babies are a problem, imagine what Dinosaur Park will be like.”
“Dinosaur Park?” Nickelan asked. The only dinosaurs he’d seen were decapitated and their heads displayed on poles lining the streets in Thunder World.
“Yes,” Selwyn said, “Dinosaur Park. It’s not really a park, like with a playground and swings, slides and sand. It’s more like a woodland environment with fierce dinosaurs running free, doing what they please. Do you know what they please? Eat. That’s what dinosaurs do, they eat, all the time. And do you know what their favorite delicacy is? It’s you, boy. Well, not you specifically, but the tender flesh of a young child, yes, that’s enough to send a pack of ferocious meat-eaters on a feeding frenzy.”
“You’re just trying to scare me,” Nickelan tried to act brave.
“And I hope I’m succeeding,” Selwyn said. “Kid City has remained an almost impenetrable fortress precisely because of its strong lines of defense. From the odorous moat of The Septic that surrounds it to the roaming dinosaurs just outside the city borders, those foolish enough to attempt to enter Kid City uninvited are rudely awakened to their folly.”
“And how do you know so much about Kid City?” Nickelan asked suspiciously. “You’re a grown-up. Grown-ups are never invited into Kid City.”
“Yes, I’m a grown-up,” Selwyn agreed, “but don’t believe the stories that Kid City is a pure garden of innocence never polluted by adulthood. I, for one, have ventured behind its walls, disguised yes, but I’m not the only one. There have even been assaults on Kid City by the Makas, who would like nothing more than to enslave its inhabitants. These are the final days of Kid City. It will burn to the ground and those that survive the holocaust will wish they didn’t when they’re brutally forced into the labor camps overseen by cruel Makas. That is, unless you let me help.”
Nickelan was overwhelmed. So much was riding on him—the fate of his parents and of Kid City—that he literally felt too heavy to stand.
“Don’t sit,” Selwyn snapped, grabbing Nickelan by the hair and pulling him upright. “Look, out there, do you see it? Kid City. It’s only a glimmer on the horizon, but it’s as close as you’ve yet come, and if you stick with me you’ll be there soon.”
“What will I do?” Nickelan wanted to know. “I’m no Redeemer.”
“Oh, no.” Selwyn took Nickelan’s face in his hands and brought it inches from his own. “You are the Redeemer. You are going to end the conflict between Thunder World and Kid City and bring peace to all the Lands Between. It is your destiny.”
Nickelan just shook his head, which was still in Selwyn’s hands. Selwyn stopped Nickelan’s shaking and made his head nod up and down. “Say yes, boy,” Selwyn commanded. “Say it!”
“Yes,” Nickelan spoke weakly.
“Louder!” Selwyn ordered.
“Yes!” Nickelan yelled more angry than enthused.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer,” Selwyn said.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer,” Nickelan echoed.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer and I am going to Kid City,” Selwyn roared.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer and I am going to Kid City,” Nickelan parroted.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer and I am going to Kid City to save the world!” Selwyn was singing the words as if they were a battle hymn.
“Yes, I am the Redeemer and I am going to Kid City to save the world!” Nickelan hollered, almost believing it.