Forcefully he swallowed—Mama Chu’s fire cheese fritters burning his smoldering thirsty throat.
Anxiously he flew—oily obsidian claws sticking in mossy bark as he leapt through the treetops.
Eight years his junior, the seven-year-old mud puppy zipped far behind him with a feral howl in panicked protest. The race to be the first to reach the dark swamp’s lighter creamy coastline was being taken quite seriously by the younger of the two adoptive brothers. It was freaking hilarious.
“Chains, you’re an ASS WAGON!”
Whatever an ass wagon was supposed to be, he wasn’t about to let the weak insult go unaddressed—no matter how weak. Crowing with elated metallic laughter, he easily dodged the enormous ball of murky mud hurled his way in near hyper speed, and swiftly retaliated with an even bigger ball of ballistic flame. The little shit was getting pretty good with his mud majík.
He was frothing with nauseating excitement, and so he wasn’t about to slow down. The brothers were taking their first real sailing adventure on the open sea, and there was no way to restrain their monstrous excitement. Barking with milky fangs bared and molasses cheeks blazing, Mama Chu had spent entirely too much effort trying to groom their furry bodies and pack their leathery packs. They were going out to sea for the day, which meant plenty of sudden saltwater showers and scrumptious snack barges. Or so he’d heard.
Blasting forth from the salty pea soup depths of the demon swamp—and unable to reliably sustain flight just yet—he dove down over a steep muddy cliff and scampered across the wide, rock slab road made glassy smooth by the countless legions of barrel-footed dinosaurs who patrolled it. The dark road and the peanut butter beach expanse were vacant at the moment, though such was ideal. He was not accustomed to exposure of any kind.
Like roasted almonds dropped in no particular pattern, huge pointed rock formations jutted up from the squelchy peanut butter beach from murky horizon to murky horizon. Levitating himself a razor’s width over the sloppy sand, he took in the sight and the feel of the coast with a deep inhalation of smoldering cheesy breath.
Out of the swamp!
An intense, fiery blood orange disk, Sólra was slowly dawning over the eastward intersection of creamy peanut butter beach and foamy spinach bisque sea—casting a fiery seasoning of streaky light across both. The luscious soufflés of savory cumulous clouds flanking Sólra’s ascent were the kind so thick and radiantly back-lit that they seemed like solid objects one could climb upon. Blanketing a dusky lavender twilight sky, the clouds puffed in all murky hues from zesty mustard to tangy olive to stormy blue cheese rind.
Hot damn I hope the snack barges are open already.
“Look at all that algae!” Zene breathlessly exclaimed as he screeched to a halt in the muddy sand nearby. “And those weeds. Gross, we’ll be eating seaweed stew for weeks.”
Indeed the recently departed Monsoon Season had left behind an enormous coastal buffet of rich seaweed and salty algae. The scent—the taste—was so viscous that he could feel it coating his smoldering lungs and sizzling stomach.
Mud brown hair and fur freshly washed and brushed, the mud puppy shamelessly trudged through the peanut butter sand for the sheer delight of feeling it seep up between his bare clawed toes. The smooth skin of his face and neck was the exact same peanut butter color as the saturated sand, and his tiny body was blending in with the beach. Low puppy ears and thin leonine tail twitching, Zene looked to him with a sudden expression of deep concern and savage cynicism.
“Is that…thing…our boat?”
“Apparently,” he dreamily snorted—a sudden enthralling chill washing over the bare flesh of his naked torso as he studied the sumptuous sky.
The spaces between the cushy soufflé clouds looked like wide-open portals to heavenly sky worlds—or perhaps more like a glimpse of the sort of views one could have while visiting sky cities and cloud nations. From the civilizations at her planetary core to her bustling near space, the world of Gaia Lux was an endless enchantment.
You can do this. You MUST do this…
“Quit your daydreaming and let’s GO!” Zene abrasively woofed from between clenched teeth—abrasively striking his big brother’s bare side with a well-placed furry elbow.
The command was punctuated by a most satisfying howl in prepubescent protest as Chains zipped off across the peanut butter beach—to the beached boat whose booty was bobbing in the spinach bisque sea. Next to the bitty sail boat proudly stood a scholarly man in loose burlap clothes, a smoldering molten aura, and plenty of leathery pouches full of crystals and currency.
Hair and fur greying only because he had suffered as a slave for fourteen years, the well-groomed man was relishing his freedom along with the churning spinach bisque sea before him. With a toss of greying burnt umber braids, their scholarly steward turned to greet the ballistic brothers with a wide fanged grin and an excited tug of his braided, greying umber beard.
“What took you so long?” Serpiz blazed with a wildfire in his burning feline eyes. “Never mind. I don’t want to know just how much further Mama Chu has herself worked up about you two leaving the den. Like the boat?”
“Does it float?” Zene immediately demanded—leaping and stomping his sandy clawed feet upon the rim of the creaky bow.
“Through sea and sky,” their scholarly steward assured with a flare of his warm suede feline nose. “The Deneb Kaitos is compatible with several types of majík—I made sure, Zenith. She may not look it, but just renting her for the day is costing ten thousand lore. I directed her here from the dock, but now let’s have you do a check on all the majík materials she’s made of.”
About nine metrons in length, the rickety-looking sail boat was strong in spirit and comprised of several majík-soaked materials in addition to its chewed but enchanted wood frame—humming hammered steel, sparking gold pegs, whispering sea whale skin, glistening amber resin, and shiny sea serpent scales. The materials were quite old—and perhaps not as powerful as the once were—but such was fitting for their star-crossed family of similar wear and tear. Like Zene’s oversized tunic, the sail boat looked patchwork in functional design.
Über accelerated with majík, the mud puppy eagerly performed a check on the vitality of the boat’s materials, and then they shoved her into the spinach bisque sea with howls in excitement. Plopping onto rickety wooden benches, the brothers squealed inside and out as Serpiz demonstrated skill with the sky whale skin sails. Sails unfurled and secured, they howled all the harder as they snagged the spicy wind that would carry them southwest and to their mysterious day trip destination.
“A fire god commanding a boat of sea and sky!” Zene feverishly shrieked against a blast of chilly saline wind—his furry butt bouncing hard on their squeaky bench.
“Only a true fire god knows their way around water!” Serpiz called out against a delightful spray of warm spinach bisque—suede clawed hand gripping the metallic tiller as he plopped down at the stern of the faintly glowing sail boat. “Looks like the Brachiosaurus Tribe is on the move again!”
It was surreal to think that, in ancient times, the Southern Swamp was a dry, arid land of minimal foliage. Now an expansive demon swamp of extreme heights and endless reach, the murky colors of the land were often reflected in the creatures who dwelt there.
Towering in their primeval majesty—and in all colors of the swamp—the Brachiosaurus Tribe eerily lowed in a variety of communicative tones as they trudged upon the rock slab coastal road. From a distance each dino looked to be the size of his own honey-colored hand, though as always the feel of epic dino energy rattled his being to the celestial core.
But the swampy pea soup shore was quickly seeming out of reach the further the Deneb Kaitos swiftly sliced through the savory spinach bisque sea. The rolling water—saturated with murky algae for a couple of kilometrons out to sea—was also rife with primordial marine life in hundreds of shades of demon and deva. Crustaceans and cetaceans, snakes and serpents, seals and cephalopods, monsters and merfolk. All were slithering around far beneath the boat, though some were breaching the surface to sneak a peek at him in all his supposed glory as a long-lost son of a Gaian noble family.
And as the God of Revolution…
Gathering his platinum and obsidian hair in his wet hands, he leaned over the edge of the softly glowing boat to stare down into the salty spinach bisque with insatiable curiosity and delicious fright. The denizens of the deep were recognizing him on many levels, and he was immediately terrified. More and more the past liberated year, his post-slavery swamp sanctuary was being yanked out from under him.
While the dynamic spinach bisque sea lazily rolled beneath them, high above the back-lit soufflé clouds of glowing golden mustard and dark blue cheese rind seemed like stationary sentinels by comparison. The chill saline wind suddenly swirled through sails and sinuses—forcing the brothers’ scholarly steward to quickly redirect the shimmering sky whale sails. An iridescent pale grey color while the Deneb Kaitos was beached, the sails became sparkly and translucent as they billowed with the saline wind.
But as the warm bisque sea was loaded with life, so too was the savory soufflé sky as it awakening in the dreamy dawn twilight. Crustaceans and cetaceans, snakes and serpents, seals and cephalopods, spirits and skyfolk. The chill, cheese platter sky was a contrast to—yet a reflection of—the warm spinach bisque sea, and the rickety little majík boat was beginning to feel incredibly vulnerable.
“Not quite the same as being tucked away in the trees, is it?” Serpiz deviously hissed with a subterranean rumble of laughter—steering the sea-slicing boat with a bit more caution. “The energy of the Tartak Sea is as light as the energy of the Tartak River you’re familiar with. But it’s the expansiveness and the synergy with patches of darker waters that’s making it difficult for you boys to comprehend. This sea is nearly land-locked and highly transitional. Hope we don’t get sucked into another dimension!”
“You forgot the part about being watched,” he found himself caustically crowing as he dizzily noted just how fast their boat was moving and how far they’d already travelled. “How about you telling us where we’re going? I can’t read your mind with all this new stuff everywhere.”
“I’ll tell you just as soon as I get a good read on our destination. Brace yourselves, boys. We’re headed out far enough that you won’t be able to sense the depths of the sea floor—much less be able to levitate while this far up from solid ground. And swimming in the sea isn’t anything like swimming in the river—”
“Breakfast!” Zene zealously interrupted with a smearing mudslide sneer as he withdrew a furry arm from the rolling sea—successfully directing a whirl of salty water through the moist air with a puny peanut butter paw. “Look at those barges!”
Sandwiched between spinach bisque sea and cheese soufflé sky, objects of endless color and whimsy were then bobbing in twilight sight as the rickety little majík boat glided high over the submerged continental shelf. Severely alarmed with the intense drop in seafloor depth that could be powerfully sensed, the brothers simultaneously became queasy as their scholarly steward laughed with spewing plumes of exhaled star weed smoke. Apparently he was skilled enough with sailing to smoke his slender gator bone pipe at the same time.
But the amazing Tartak Sea spread they were quickly happening upon looked immensely promising. Fantastical vessels in the shapes and colors of fish, sea creatures, and plants floated directly on the darkening water as well as through the salty air just over it.
Tiny, magnificently manufactured islands of sand and soil, rocks and crystals, wood and plants, or metal and majík remained stationary upon the water and bore mysterious hermitic houses of likewise enchantment.
Strange, mechanical dais platforms and weird lights beneath the darkening waters indicated the position of diving expeditions—whether in suits or submersibles. Farther away in the hazy southern horizon, gulls were circling the horrific undersea presence of a legendary squid gigante lurking much closer to the salty sea surface than other such beasts.
“Nice and busy!” Serpiz proudly boasted as their majík boat sliced through sparse spinach all the faster. “I promised you boys a big day out, and you’re going to get it. But where shall we eat? Are your noses on straight enough to sniff out a preference?”
“That giant floating cheeseburger!” Zene squealed and pointed on behalf of them both—ignoring his gut-wrenching queasiness as he then extrapolated intel from a distance. “Mister Melty!”
Flanked by only a couple customer boats of various sizes, shapes, and whimsies, Mister Melty’s Snack Station looked as delightfully cheesy at it smelled. Indeed a giant, glittering metallic replica of a cheeseburger, the peacefully floating establishment featured outdoor eating at a curvaceous metallic bar while the flame-broiling belly produced an endless menu of savory creations covered in melted local cheeses.
Literally drooling all over themselves, the brothers were mercurial about helping Serpiz furl shimmering sails and securing the Deneb Kaitos to designated poles at Mister Melty’s curvaceous pier. The scent of hot, deep-fried delights was so incredibly potent that he felt like he was already swallowing molten food.
They were even faster about securing three spiraling metallic seats at the curvaceous metallic bar, but the urgency of their incinerating stomachs had seriously corrupted their social cautiousness. The brothers immediately jolted in their steely seats as Mister Melty himself abruptly boiled up from the depths of the flame-broiling burger belly.
“BONJÚ boys!” the enormous, muscle-bound behemoth bellowed with a violent slap of a wet, once-white greasy towel upon the chilly metallic bar. “Mister Melty gonna fix you up a BIG breakfast dis fine mornin’!”
The toasty brown skin of his chest, neck and clean-shaven face glistened with salty sweat from cooking up the large reed baskets of deep-fried hors d’oeuvres he was then shoving at the nervously braced brothers. Like many fur-bearing chefs, the darker brown fur covering the rest of his body was sheared down to a dark brown velvet to avoid fur getting in food, and his head was likewise shaved save a forehead-to-nape crest of matted, dark brown spikes. Unlike the greasy wet towel he apparently enjoyed flinging around, his apron was fresh, crisp, and blindingly white this early in the day.
“Brilliant,” Serpiz arduously approved in with a poof of star weed smoke—sliding waxy parchment booklets into the brothers’ meek and mystified claws. “Your menus are in multiple Djinn Jumba scripts. We’re working on learning all the languages and scripts of the empire.”
Clearly he was speaking of the brothers and their underdevelopment.
“NAW, naw!” Mister Melty boomed with a blinding, apron-white fanged grin as he once again slapped the metallic bar with his greasy wet towel. “No need for explainin’ dem iron collars and cuffs dese boys have yet to do away with! You just tell me how ol’ Mister Melty can warm yo’ bellies.”
Once enhanced with technology and fused to their bodies, the iron collars and cuffs remained as a strange, ironic sense of security disguised as memorials and tributes. Once freed, Serpiz himself had loosened and removed his own iron with such a quickness that it was clear he was of the prideful older faction who wished to pretend their captivity had never happened.
I can’t pretend since I haven’t known anything else…
“Macaroni and Seas of Cheese,” Chains therapeutically murmured in a famished metallic croak—using a salt-encrusted obsidian claw to help him memorize all the script swimming across a waxy waterproof page.
“Seven Pepper Pizza!” Zene responded in seven-year-old excitement as he squat upon his tall, steely stool seat—drool literally dribbling from his parched, merlot-colored mouth and splattering upon the waxy menu parchment. “Molten Crustacean Celebration! Soft Pretzel Parade!”
“I’ll start the day with an iced rum,” Serpiz much more calmly interjected with a concrete request. “Then surprise me.”
“Iced?” he snorted in jabbing jest as his heterochromic platinum and pyrite eyes waltzed around upon the same waxy menu page.
“Your mother always took her beverages with ice.”
A sudden, frightfully public revelation about a goddess yet unknown to him.
They ended up ordering several dishes in addition to the surprise combo platter of pasta and sea creatures Mister Melty presented Serpiz with. Macaroni and Seas of Cheese, Seven Pepper Pizza, Soft Pretzel Parade, Molten Crustacean Celebration, Chili Chicken and Waffles—it all went down their greedy gullets along with plenty of warm sarsaparilla, iced rum, and excessive paranoia as the four other diners present suddenly multiplied into a standing crowd of Gaian and offworld races.
He had never experienced anything like it before, and as the metallic backrest of his stool was bumped for the hundredth time, he crunched down hard on traces of fried batter and welcomed the warm suede paw then heavy upon his bare honey shoulder.
“Come now, boys,” their scholarly steward encouraged with protective concern then surpassing his previous delight in watching his pups’ social struggle. “Wrap up your leftovers in parchment and let us be off. Surely we will find a sweeter snack along the way.”
What the shit is wrong with me?
Why am I being such a coward?
“Take dis for your cravin’,” Mister Melty fiercely grinned as he squeezed their coin currency in one large paw—the other paw presenting Chains with a fresh plum fruit. “And look out for de places dat resemble sweets! Embrace who you are, boy—a sugar-cravin’, science-y mix-up meant to be!”
“Thanks!” he stammered with his bare honey chest puffed out.
His unusual cascade of platinum white hair sprouting from the crown of his otherwise obsidian mane suddenly didn’t feel quite so grotesque anymore. Nor did his abundance of exposed honey-colored skin accentuated by only pants and forearm sleeves of obsidian fur.
One shiny platinum iris and the other a glittering pyrite—seemingly not such a big deal. Really there was no reason to be ashamed about the fact that—as an infant—he had been subjected to genetic testing that mutated certain attributes into those of another race. At present it was just stupid hard to maintain such resolve.
<THANK YOU.> Serpiz could be sensed mentally communicating with the wildly grinning, firmly nodding chef giving a farewell slap of his greasy wet towel to the crowded metallic bar.
“Sweets!” Zene sluggishly hooted once they were back onboard their bitty majík boat—apparently inebriated by fried foods as he gulped down stomach-soothing ginger tablets. “Rock this boat a little harder, I’ll throw up breakfast, and then I’ll have room for sweets.”
“Such is what I am trying to avoid,” Serpiz articulately announced upon a discreet burp as he slowly maneuvered the Deneb Kaitos away from Mister Melty’s floating establishment. “But beyond the chef’s remarks on biology, realize that the Tartak Sea is vastly Middle Third Sphere—different from the Lower Third Sphere status of the swamp. You boys are ascending enough that your bodies will be a little more efficient with food, and when you are hungry again you may crave sugars. Such a craving signals ascension much more so than genetics.”
Their on-point professor could turn any situation into a lecture. Usually it was obnoxious, but at the moment Chains kept any crude comments to himself as he slid his sharp fangs into the chilled plum and sucked its sticky juices. The winged race that was tainting his genetics was known to have innate proficiency with ascended spheres of being. His occasional but noticeable cravings for sugary foods had been occurring throughout the past couple years, so clearly it hadn’t much to do with any dimensional acclimation that morning at sea.
“Where are we going?!” he impatiently, histrionically sighed in sharp interruption of the then rabid academic discussion between tedious teacher and his mud puppy pet. “Let’s turn around and go to Ibiza instead! Gnatty Bizz performs there all the time—”
“And would you prefer a rap concert over a haunted shipwreck?”
“WHU-U-U-U-UT?!” the big-eyed brothers sputtered in plum and ginger unison as their shimmering little majík boat was then allowed to pick up speed through the darkening, clearing waters.
“Some pirates decided to attempt an escape from authorities through an amateurly, illegally manufactured portal. Their ship incorrectly exited the portal, and before any of them could react, their ship was smashed into a rock face. The survivors took what treasures they could and fled. But those whose bodies perished are refusing to allow anyone close to the wreckage.’
'This happened only a few hours ago last night, so authorities have yet to resolve the situation. Meanwhile every pirate, treasure hunter, and thrill-seeker within a thousand kilometrons will be on their way to the wreckage now. Thought you boys would be interested—”
“DAMN YOU OLD FART!” Chains abruptly shrieked with molten pubescent passion as he lunged and violently jerked upon the loosely guarded tiller. “Can’t you make this boat go FASTER?!”
“You could have told us this earlier!” Zene breathlessly chimed in with a feverish yowl—almost falling into the dark, churning V-shaped wake as he leapt to his puny clawed feet.
“I wanted to be sure there was still something left of the scene!” Serpiz explosively roared—then erupting in rumbling subterranean laughter as the snarling brothers attempted to tackle the majík tiller away from his flaming tricentennial grip. “That what I’d read late last night was true! According to Mister Melty’s customers, there’s plenty to see but still no getting close to the wreckage. BOYS!”
“The Rock of Gibraltar!” Chains breathlessly gnashed upon his mental excavation of their steward’s information—then successful commandeering the glowing, spine-tingling metal tiller. “Let’s bust a move!”