ZigZag’s bald head was smooth down to the temples, where the veins took over, spidering into an angry mess above his eyes. His ears were small. The whole rest of him was tight and sinewy, as if the hide of a Gater had claimed his long bones. A gash in his cheek had left a scar several inches long. A scar that he admired very much, a shiny jagged stitch from temple to chin. A zigzag.
When ZigZag was a boy and the Bog Beast had come for him, he thought the monster would skid on the soil, lumber to a halt and stall. He did not know the Bog Beast was just as adept on land. He did not know she could run faster than most, faster than a cocky, ill-mannered boy at any rate. No, he knew nothing of these things and it was only a matter of minutes before the beast’s teeth snapped his heels, tripped him and scurried to catch his bones in her jaws. He’ll never forget the crack, the sound of his cheekbone breaking, the taste of blood on his tongue.
His pa had saved him, barely escaping the beast himself, as she slid and clawed and eventually backed away from the weapon, back into her murky, watery deep. ZigZag’s pa took him home then, but not without a good tongue-lashing.
“Why in blazes were y’out there on yer own? What kinda dumb sap!”
The boy couldn’t answer. Something had called him. A dare perhaps. A dare from the Bayou itself. Come find me! Come play! It had called. And so ZigZag’s young self left town, his bare feet following the echoes, deep and deeper into the twisted wet knots of this place. And here he found something, a cavern large and looming and wide as his waxing greed. The Throat, he would later name it, for its long, swallowing fall into the earth.
In this place the Bayou’s chant went silent and all he could see was a trail of lights, tiny hues, shimmering despite the brightness of day. The lights disappeared behind the Throat’s rocky teeth.
The boy did not hesitate, but followed, even as the mouth of the cave clamped down behind him, blocking sunlight and leaving him temporarily blind. For there was something here off limits.
Come find me! Come play!
A moment later an ascension of step stones emerged from the darkness, aglow in a royal wash. He took them two, sometimes three at a time, all the way up to the green door that curved into a point at the top. He knew instinctively he was not welcome. He smiled, regardless and turned the handle.
Young ZigZag, barefoot and itching saw everything then: a lamp’s bejeweled shade; chairs richly fabric’d; an ornate weaving of rugs; and books upon books, their covers and pages gilded gold…all shining, beloved tokens of a home cherished, the likes of which his pinched, beggared self had never seen before.
He wanted all of it, every last warm drop. But as his feet scurried about the room, its walls began to tremble. Indeed, he was not welcome here at all. The floor moaned and cracked under the weight of its intruder. In the next instant something came up behind ZigZag, slid cold palms under his armpits and lifted him off his feet. He could not see his escort, but whatever it was, it swiftly navigated him back through the green door where he was discarded with a slam.
Upon the threshold ZigZag stood, banging fists, cursing, spitting his youthful gripe into the silent wood. It was a tantrum that would not last, however, as the Throat itself decided the visit had come to an end as well. ZigZag felt a rumble rise up from its belly. He turned and found the stairs, their blue crumbling away and falling like hot coals into a black abyss. The Throat was collapsing. He leapt, taking whatever existing steps he could and scrambled up the mouth of the cave as it folded deep into the hollowing earth, taking tree and rock and mud with it.
ZigZag hurdled over tumbling debris, managing a final desperate climb up the only tree whose roots had remained. At last the sinkhole settled, leaving the gasping boy dangling over its swampy new crater. He waited for his breath to recover. Then he waited for the muddy waters to still. And when he felt his body could no longer contain the ache of its taut clinging muscles, he slowly, ever so slowly eased himself down the teetering trunk and onto the solid rim of ground.
He would have considered this escape a good omen indeed. But instead he found her. And the Bog Beast, now homeless and childless tore a jagged gash into his cheek.
“Why didn’tchy’climb like y’been told!” the boy’s pa rumbled along now with the old wagon’s grind. “When faced with a Bog Beast on land, y’always climb!”
To this the boy shrugged. He hadn’t remembered. But now, stinking of green sludge, his face half open and pouring life, he would never forget.
To this day ZigZag keeps the memory. Along with another memory, a memory of a day, years later, one day when he exacted revenge on the Bog Beast, showed her who was boss. Like he’d done to everyone else in his miserable life.
He’d wanted to do it sooner, leave the stinkin’ town and his pa’s backhand. But that was like asking the stars to fall on cue. His pa was having nothin’ of it. No son a his was gonna pussyfoot ‘round in the bush, not when there was work to be done. No way, no how.
Soon the Bayou would sing to ZigZag at night. Patience…soon.
Finally soon came. His pa had witnessed the disturbing insides of his son, when he found the young man, his smile alone and amused, watching a creature’s slow succumbing under his knife…then he knew something weren’t right with that boy.
He let his son go that very night. Sent ’im with a sack of junos and a threat to never come back. There were no back hands then. Or ever again.
And so ZigZag, claiming all the eager bonds of manhood, slipped away, followed the song of damp, dark waters, poled his pirogue along the lazy bayous with their knurled trees and hanging moss, and turned himself toward the one that called him: Bayou Vagura, a word that meant entrapment to the ancients that once knew its ways.
He went deep into Vagura’s belly where it stilled and stunk of rot, where forgotten beasts lived and watched him with yellow eyes. It was here he found her, the Bog Beast, the Dark Queen, in the thick heart of the trees, where the water from four different rivers and seas congealed. There she was, sittin’, hummin’, watchin’ him like she’d been waitin’ his arrival, and indeed she had been. She knew he was coming. She knew his dark revenge. She knew he’d want her to play her part. And she was ready.
It was a battle the wind, to this day shudders along moss and trunks, the night the great Water Queen was conquered, the hour of her fall, when her blood turned the Vagura red. And the years and years and years of servility that followed, the years and years and years of cruelty at the hands of the scarred bald man. The years and years and years of her own surging revenge.
Soon her native water would sing. Patience. Soon.
ZigZag never used the sack of money his pa had sent with him. There’d been no need. The Bayou had taken care of its new sinewy god, offered him meat and drink, taught him its secrets. He learned the language of the snakes, their mortal tricks. He learned how to read water and make the wind carry his feet. But there was one thing, one thing of the Bayou Vagura that ZigZag, despite his best efforts, could never conquer – the whereabouts of the Throat, the sunken tunnel that had once led him to its gifts so many years before.
He had forgotten its bearings. His youth had left no signs, no path. And though he sought it night after night, year after year, it remained lost in the Bayou’s enormity, a size that would take a man’s entire breath to explore. But ZigZag was no ordinary man. He knew the power of desire, and what he desired, more than any other existences, were the treasures his eyes had eaten all those many years ago. All of them. One was not good enough when it had brothers and sisters, still golden and mighty and unclaimed.
Of that night, when his cheekbone cracked and a scar changed his name, he remembers only one thing, the bizarre shape of the sinkhole. The recognition was brief, a mere moment of registry while he dangled from that tree, but it would stay with him forever. Six points, as if a star had leaned in and cauterized the wet wound.
It would be another full year of seasons before ZigZag would, at long last, stumble upon his cleaving memory. It was the tree, yet clinging to the sinkhole’s rim, peeking over as if still in disbelief, its roots a tangled knot twisting for more and more ground. The moment ZigZag saw it he knew, for his skin lifted off. He’d found his prize. The mighty Throat. Only now it was buried deep beneath a murky green swamp-filled star kiss.
He began digging that very moment.
And he returned to dig every night thereafter.
Months later, when the surface had barely moved, when it was obvious that anything cleared was seeping back, ZigZag, for the first time in his life, longed for help. It never came of course, for he was a lone thing. A creature who despised. And as his failure grew, he despised even more, directing his fire toward the Bayou itself. And most notably the tiny radiant creatures that shared its waters and leaves. The only ones who could help him: Skeens.
In his bitter sweat, ZigZag would watch them skimming, dancing, playing over the water on sun-filled days when it sparkled. He’d watch these fragile creatures with their flitting wings and their light. It was the light that he despised the most. The light that came from them. He hated that light. He, a creature now given to dark hours, wanted to put that light out.
But the Bayou Vagura would allow no such thing. It let him take a whip to the Water Queen anytime he felt like it. It let him skin a boatload of snakes. It let him chew on the bones of its decaying things, even sicken the skin of its crooked trees. But its beloved Skeens, ZigZag could not touch. Not a one.
He knew it was because his heart was too black. A heart so black that the Skeens, in their radiance, couldn’t even imagine its being. Oh, but he imagined them. Saw them hanging from his porch, dead and dim.
But not until they helped him first. He knew their power. They would help him, they would. He’d make sure of that. They would help him and then the porch. From then on Vagura would know who was boss.
Until that day, another strategy would have to suffice. ZigZag pulled an old sack from a high ledge. He gauged the weight in his hand. He had never touched it, not even once after his pa had shoved it at his chest and told him to go and never come back. Now however, it felt useful in his grasp. He had heard speak of some Marrow Bind…a buncha Bone Grits lookin’ for lost artifacts. Needin’ Rovers. Kids, they were. Probably nothing like the days of Grayshank. Grabby, watered-down strays, most likely, but Finders nonetheless. Could come in handy. As long as they didn’t get any ideas. It was only a temporary fix, a meanwhile, but it would do.
Thus the crude, unfit man known only as ZigZag and the sack of junos that came with him, stood before the Guardian of Lanlynne, Studaben Picklepug, who wiped the sweat from his brow, put the sack in a chest and stamped the sheet of parchment in front of him:
ZigZag of the Bayou Vagura.
Official Rover for the Clade of Acquisitions.
Summer would have been wrought with anxiety for Root Karbunkulus if not for the sneaky comings and goings of Kor Bludgitt of late. Without his suspicious outings to distract her, she would have surely succumbed to the night’s long lone fears where Fledger’s very breath lay in limbo.
Root had seen Kor nearly every week, the first time as she was returning from the stables, a warm cloudless night, when most everyone else was sleeping…or should have been. She had not been able to escape her worry and when every tap of crooked branch on the windowpane brought thought of Fledger’s grasping fingers, she stole out of Gubelyn’s thick citadel doors.
She headed straight for her beloved Hovermutt with his favourite treat in her hand, a leftover fodge-bone from dinner. She didn’t care to change and so stayed in her pajamas, intending a quick return to her room.
Stogie was, as his spinning tail always indicated, overjoyed to see her. He snatched the bone and allowed a few lingering pets while it broke and snapped in his jaws. Root slipped two more fodge-bones to the stalls either side of her where Dwyn and Lian’s Hovermutts, Hana and Pilsnips, chomped them up with the same eager wagging of tails. CPR’s stall was empty. No doubt she was on another moonlit romp across the stars, lapping up a meal of tiny nocturns.
Root snuggled in near to Stogie, sweeping her fingers through his wiry hair. She loved these placid hours between sleep and wake, when nature graciously buried its yesterday. She loved tuning her ear to the silent passage. In this peace the smallest cry of a mole could be heard. So it was quite startling when she heard something altogether foiling…a rugged trampling of footsteps. Someone was coming!
Root peeked out the stable door. The House of Gubelyn, its many windows endowed with torches, gave off plenty of light. But even with a fixed squint she could see nothing but the yellow blossoms of Common Broom swaying in the wind. Then she realized there was no wind. None whatsoever.
Hmmmmm…She looked closer. The Common Brooms were swaying all right, swaying and parting a distinct path toward the Shack. And once that path of swaying bush went still, there appeared a succession of muddy footprints down the cobblestone, their destination suspiciously firm. At the end of the cobblestone a secluded, rarely-used side door of the Shack creaked open…all by itself?
“I think not!” Root whispered and with a final pat along Stogie’s belly, she crept out of the stable, keeping low pursuit. She quietly drew open the side door and slipped in as it closed heavily behind her. Here she caught sight of a newly forming fold in the loose carpeting of the stairs.
“Kor,” she hissed. It had to be him. Who else had Invisibility Gum? It’s a good thing he’s too dumb to be discreet she thought to herself, as Kor led a blatant, noisy path of shifted curtains, squeaking doors and echoed steps all the way up to his floor and down the hall, where Root at last saw him carelessly saunter into his room.
“See! Right there!” Root whispered. It was now the tailing end of summer, another starful night, though with a crisp breath. This time Root had successfully used a full week’s dessert to bribe her close friend, Tamik Chillenly to serve as witness to Kor’s nightly rendezvous.
“Where?” Tamik scanned the murky forest that grew for miles from the base of Mammoth Rock.
“Over there. The bushes to the left, just before those big trees…see them moving!”
“Oh! There! Geez, he’s not very discreet is he?”
Root shook her head. “C’mon!”
The two girls clamped on to each other, trying not to giggle despite the rush of night and secrets and linen pajamas. They left Mammoth Rock and trailed their suspect up to his point of entry into the forest. Root, on her own had never trailed Kor farther than this and now, with the moon dipping gaunt fingers of light into the forest and the way the mist and shadows slithered about, it was enough to make her turn right around and forget the whole thing.
“Where d’ya think he’s going?” Tamik whispered, feeling the same unease.
“I dunno. But he’s been going out invisible into the forest nearly every single week since I first saw him. Meeting someone I’m sure!”
“Well, obviously someone secret, if he has to hide. I think, whoever it is, is coming from outside Shack property…meeting him halfway.” A part of Root was excited about the prospect of catching Kor in the middle of some dubious act, but another part of her had definite misgivings. If Kor was cruel enough to use Gut Oil not long ago, there’s no telling what sort of evil he was brewing now, in these hidden after hours.
“Well, it’s time to find out.” Tamik tugged Root’s arm.
“Okay,” Root shivered, “But we gotta be careful. We can’t let ’im see us.”
“We’ll keep our distance. Besides, he’s so loud he won’t notice anything anyhow. Okay…” Tamik took a deep breath, “let’s go.”
Instinctively they clutched each other again. But this time, stepping across the line from shelter to wilderness, there was no giggling.
They entered deeper into the forest, feeling swallowed by its infamy. Lambent eyes, crouching in its soils suddenly found them. They walked as one being, their feet a stumble of nerves, steady in one thing only, the flagrant movement of Kor’s invisible body.
On they went, going far too deep, they thought, for any imaginable survival. Though Mammoth Rock could still be spied through occasional gaps, a cry for help would not be heard.
“I think he stopped,” whispered Tamik, putting her hand out to block Root. They slipped behind a bush to watch, eager to shake off the shadowy night things that had hitched. In due time Kor’s body materialized into view. He began looking around expectantly.
“He’s looking for someone,” Root whispered.
“Or some…thing…” Tamik said and squeezed Root’s arm.
“Shshhshshsh…didjya hear that?”
It was a cracking of wood. A cracking of wood directly behind them. They froze. But it was too late. Two calloused, stinking hands slapped across their mouths.
“Well, what’ve we gots here…two nice smelling lil’ girlies out fer a walk in the woods, eh?”
A steaming belch of brew caught them and nearly brought tears to Root’s eyes. Moker Snivickus was not one for freshness, that was certain. He and his wife Hanratty were far from it. It was ironic then that they’d been hired as the new housekeepers of the Shack.
From the first day they had arrived simmering in sweat, Moker with his knuckled, yellowed fingers and hardened face; Hanratty with her shifting eyes, a lipsticked cigarello held in a gap of occasional teeth, they demonstrated nothing of hope for the decaying state of the cursed citadel.Their giant shabby suitcases, only half full and half full of brew bottles at that, had clunked and clanked into the staff wing with clear warnings of shrunken laundry and sour meals to come.
That’s when Root overheard Mordge lambasting Master Gubelyn for bringing such well-known undesirables onto the premises. But they had apparently come upon the high recommendation of Grotius Vulcherk…
“Whom, it cannot be ignored, has recently donated an extraordinarily generous sum toward restoration,” Master Gubelyn reminded Mordge.
When Mordge pressed him further, citing the threat of things quite possibly going missing from the likes of those two, Master Gubelyn’s sharp reply was, “I’m afraid it’s all I can get. Everyone else quit! So, if it’s all the same, I’d rather have someone than no one and that includes animated cacti, Madam. I bid you good day!”
Root would not easily forget the tone of Mordge’s response. It was laced with warning, something Root did not see often in her grandmotherly friend. “Might I remind you, Master Gubelyn,” Mordge had said with the kind of calm that was loaded in aftershocks, “my duty here is to salvation, not preservation. There is a monumental difference.”
Master Gubelyn had called after Mordge as she left, but she did not reply. Root felt slight pity for him in that moment as he cursed his existence. Though Moker and Hanratty Snivickus were the last things Root wanted handling her garments and food supply, as long as the Krux remained in the citadel, sending its icy shadow over the floors and walls, mangling or at the very least humiliating its victims, the Snivs were all Master Gubelyn could keep in service.
Shocking as it was, the new housekeepers seemed quite at home with the Krux’s Cold Spots, as if they’d grown up together. There seemed to be a mutual understanding between them: you stay outta my way, I’ll stay outta yours. Once this was established, the couple settled in cozily indeed.
In very short order they had created a routine, returning a weekly supply of laundry, shrunken and often moldy, along with a daily spooning of what became scathingly called slop. Thank goodness for Lian’s mum, Estrella Fuffleteez. If it wasn’t for her regular supply of real food, Root was sure they’d’ve all starved to death by now.
Of course Hilly Punyun’s clothes were never shrunken, discoloured or mismatched. Her laundry was sent out to private cleaners, under her mother Hyvis’ account. As to meals, these were brought in, usually on silver platters, piping hot. Also under the care and dedication of Madam Hyvis Punyun.
As for maintenance, Elgart, in Root’s opinion, was the only one who kept the Shack together. If it weren’t for his constant, vigilant fixer-uppers, the Krux would have destroyed its walls and floors by now for sure. As Gubelyn’s right hand man, Elgart was surprisingly never caught without a smile on his face and a sunny tune from his lips.
But it was not Elgart who was out wandering the forest this night. It was Moker Snivickus, without a smile and definitely without a sunny tune. “Now, I wonder what brings such nice smellin’ ones out here in a big, dark forest after hours, mmmm?”
Moker Snivickus kept his grimy hands tightly wrapped across the girls’ mouths and dragged them along, up the stairs of the great rock until they reached the Shack’s grounds, where he let them go with a push.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong!” Tamik said, spitting and wiping her lips.
“So youse allowed t’wander the forest at night? That right?” Snivickus eyeballed her.
“There’s nothing saying we can’t!” she returned.
“There is now, jabber jaw!”
Moker Snivickus held up a piece of parchment. “That’s what you’d call a pr’motion. Ward of Security.” The document was hardly readable in his big stupid ugly hands, so Tamik grabbed it to see for herself. She read it aloud.
“This is to confirm…Moker and Hanratty Snivicks…”
“Snivickus, if you please,” Moker smiled a line of broken brown enamel.
“Snivickus,” she sneered, “…to the positions of Wards of Security. Since when do we need security when we’ve got an actual Brédin Wheel literally beside us on the lake?”
“Since I informed the good master that it was a nessitation is when.” Moker Snivickus leaned in, a waft of sourness escaping his mouth.
The girls backed up. “How is it a…nessitation?” Tamik mocked his pronunciation. “I don’t see any Deathlings or mad lunatics on site…unless we count the house keeping staff!”
“You shore is a yappy one, aintchya?” Moker Snivickus said. “What about you?” He looked at Root. “You got a big yapping trap too?”
“I think it’s a fair question if that’s what you mean,” Root said.
“I’ll show y’fair. Fair’d be me throwin’ ya in this here Shack’s nasty underground dungeons. But consider this yer one ‘n only warnin’. I be the Ward of Security now and ain’t no one wanderin’ my land in the middle of the night y’got that?”
“Well, we’ll just have to take that up with Master Gubelyn in the morning,” Tamik snitted as she and Root turned away, rolling their eyes.
“And that be includin’ halls ‘n unauth’rized chambers!”
Root mimicked Moker Snivickus under her breath, causing a snort of giggles.
“Think yer funny, eh!” Moker started for them. “We’ll see how funny y’are in a dingy ol’ cell then.”
The girls looked at each other…Nope. Not if they could help it…and ran. They sideswiped Moker and made a break for the side of the Shack. By the time his wheezing lungs caught up, they were gone. All he could see was moon-kissed grounds leading up to a wall of thick vines. He ran onward, certain they had slipped around the next corner.
But they hadn’t. They had been right under his nose, encased in the pod of a Hulking BloodLeaf. Had Moker taken a more inquisitive look, he would have noticed the fullness of the pod’s size, the uncanny human shape and the slow sauntering way in which its stalk twisted and climbed out of reach. Instead, Moker Snivickus tore around the corner and the eager BloodLeaf continued its trek all the way up the wall of the citadel where it would enjoy its favourite meal in privacy.
Dwyn and Lian were in full celebration mode. They’d emptied plates of Estrella Fuffleteez grandwiches and were on their second round of Chuck. A good dozen or so pink and blue Chuck Bubbles were drifting through the room, awaiting the inevitable ‘pop’ when a giant green tendril appeared at the window and rapped against the pane.
Lian stood up cautiously and peered out just as the BloodLeaf pod opened, delivering Root and Tamik to the ledge. He sighed in relief and opened the window. As the girls hopped into his room, he reached into a nearby sack and drew out a large yellow and red candy. The BloodLeaf practically uprooted in anticipation. Its leaves wagged not unlike Stogie’s eager tail. Lian tossed the candy and watched the BloodLeaf catch the sweet in its pod, whereupon it giddily slid away to feast.
“I still can’t get used to that thing,” Root said.
“What, Kleopatra? She’s harmless.”
“I can’t help thinking one day she’ll decide humans taste better than triple berry sponge toffee.”
“Nah, she’s got the Ekladian stamp. Not to mention Smitherweeds’ personal handiwork. Trust me, she’s a keeper.”
“What’re you guys doing here, anyhow?” Dwyn called from a putty-chair that he’d shaped into a trophy cup.
“Escaping the new Ward of Security, Moker Snivickus,” Tamik said dryly and helped herself to an Estrella Straw Jolt. She blew on the end of her striped straw and watched her candy pop out. She was delighted to have blown her favourite, an Otter, which swam through the air playfully before dropping into her mouth.
“Ward of Security? Are you serious?” Lian closed the window.
“This is all your fault, Karbunkulus,” Dwyn teased.
“Ya, if you hadn’t screwed Grotius Vulcherk out of bajillions of junos by taking the Song from him, he wouldn’t have sicked the evil Snivs on us.”
“Is ‘sicked’ a word?” Lian asked earnestly and reached for a book.
Root groaned. “Curse you, Grotius Vulcherk and your evil, foul-smelling minions!” She popped open a jug of Chuck.
Tamik walked over to a corner of Lian’s room where a shining silver trophy sat gleaming. “And there she stands, the mighty Hover Cup!” She leaned in and read the plaque. “First place…”
“For the second time in a row,” Dwyn added.
“First place, for the second time in a row, awarded to Dwyn Puffler and his swiftliest companion, Hana.”
“Which makes her the fastest Hovermutt in practically all of Lanlynne,” Dwyn sniffed proudly.
“Yes, we were there. But then you probably didn’t notice us in the shadow of all those screaming… erm…fans.”
“It is a word.” Lian closed his book.
“See, I’ve got some brains along with all this brawn,” Dwyn stretched lazily.
“Speaking of sicked,” Root said. “Moker Snivelpig said he was gonna actually arrest us for being out at night in the lower forest! And I don’t think it was just a threat, do you, Tamik?”
“Uh uh. He was serious. Creepy jerk serious.”
“He can’t arrest you…can he?” Lian closed his eyes briefly allowing memory to surface. “Nope. Clause one twenty-six: In order to protect both wildlife dwellers and visitors, it is not recommended that one inhabit the lower forest between the hours of dusk and dawn. No mention of consequences.”
“Ah, but this is apparently a new nessitation,” Root said.
“What were you doing in the lower forest in the first place?” Dwyn asked.
“Spying,” Tamik said.
“Nessitation is definitely not a word.” Lian reached for his book again.
“And we almost had ’im too,” Root added. “He was meeting someone for sure. But then Moker went and ruined it.”
“Man, how much Invisibility Gum did Kor get?” Dwyn said. “That stuff’s pricey.”
“As pricey as Gut Oil?” Root said, leaving a space in the room for a few shivers to spill out.
“Who do you think he’s meeting?”
Tamik shrugged. “We didn’t get a chance to see.”
“We need to find out,” Root added more seriously. “What if he’s planning something even worse?”
“We’ll just have to – ahem – dispose of him before he even gets the chance.” Dwyn patted Root on the back and looked at Lian. “I think it’s time to tell ’em?”
“I knew it. Nessitation is definitely not a word.” Lian closed his book and folded his hands, satisfied.
“Tell us what?” Root asked.
“I know nothing,” Dwyn smiled. “I leave that brilliance to the one, the only Master Lian Blick!”
Lian took a swig of Chuck and belched victoriously. “I think I know what the next Find is.”
“Are you serious?” Root and Tamik moved in closer.
“It’s the Tome of Antiquilus,” Dwyn blurted, thoroughly ruining Lian’s build up.
“The what of Antiquilus?” Root asked.
“The Tome,” Lian said, scowling at Dwyn. “It’s a book.”
“Well according to legend, it houses all the mystery spells of the Great Forgers of Aureus.”
Dwyn molded his putty-chair into the shape of an open book, adding a suspenseful melody to Lian’s narrative.
“And you’re sure this Tome’s the next item?” Root asked.
“Not a hundred per cent,” Lian said. “But pretty sure. I heard my dad blurt it by accident. He didn’t know I was behind the door. But that’s what he said, the Tome of Antiquilus.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.” Root stole grabbed a pillow, put it behind her head and leaned back.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t researched it already.”
Lian smiled, cuing his avid audience to move in closer. All except Tamik, who had become distracted by a noise and was now discovering a pair of tiny, featherless birds in a makeshift nest in Lian’s wash basin.
“What’s wrong with these Echoes?” she asked, reaching down toward them.
“Nothing!” Lian leapt up to stop her. “Don’t touch them! They’re newborns and they’re very weak. I found them by the boathouse, abandoned. Just let them sleep.”
“Sleep? They don’t look like they’re sleeping; they look like they’re dying.”
“Hardly, Lian. Look at that little guy. He’s trembling, even with the heat you’ve got going.”
“They were just born. Their bodies are still in shock is all.”
“Well, what have you fed them?”
“They won’t eat.”
She gave him a look, “Nothing?”
“Nothing. Won’t touch it.” He pointed at the little mound of food he’d laid down for them.
Tamik scooped a tiny pellet on her finger and held it out for the smaller of the two baby birds. It lifted its little head, sniffed and then turned away, burying its tiny beak under the naked wing of its sister.
“I dunno, Blick…they don’t look too well to me.”
“They’ll be fine. Just give them space.” Lian pulled Tamik away, back to the huddled conversation.
“Okay, alright. Settle down there, Blickster.” Tamik allowed him to lead her by the elbow. Neither Root nor Dwyn mentioned the red flushing of his ears upon the word Blickster, lest he kick them out.
“Okay, so the Tome of Antiquilus,” Lian stood firmly between his friends and the washbasin, “Well, you all know who Antiquilus was, right?”
“Only one of the greatest Sagii of all time,” Root said.
“Yes, but here’s something I bet you didn’t know!” Lian said excitedly.
“Antiquilus was brother to the Master Forger, Eldisius?” Tamik called out.
Lian deflated with another scowl then attempted to continue. “Who--”
“Who made the Rival Rings for the Trials?” Root blurted.
“And the Rider Rings, don’t forget!” Dwyn said.
“Ya, but those’re different. I’m talking about the Rival Rings, the ones that were forged for the Trials, not the special ones made for the Riders.”
“Anyway!” Lian interrupted, anxious to tell the rest of his story. “Can I continue or are you gonna keep interrupting?”
“Sorry,” they all said in unision then laughed at their timing. Lian waited impatiently.
“Go ahead,” they all said at the same time again and could hardly resist another chuckle. Under Lian’s unamused look they wrangled themselves back to attention.
“Okay,” he continued crisply. “So you know they’re brothers. But there’s more! As you also know, there was a time when the monarchy was settled through a Trial in which anyone who wished, no matter their station, could literally compete for the crown in a series of critical challenges. From as far back as the ancients, the Trials were officiated by a Jury of great Sagii, masters who created tests in all the Eternal Virtues, be it courage, wisdom, strength, et cetera. To those who passed these preliminary tests, Eldisius forged from the One Crucible, the Rival Rings. Imagine unlimited Heat housed on your finger! A Rival Ring could do anything!”
“I heard they could Flash Trek anywhere, even outside of the Commons!” Root said excitedly.
“Flash Trek, conjure…any of the Heats.” Lian concurred and turned to Dwyn. “You think Brédins are amazing. They’re nothing compared to a Ring Rival!”
Lian continued. “So, these incredible Rings were forged by Eldisius, the only one who knew their Heat intimately and who could pull them gleaming and alive from the ancient One Crucible of Aureus!”
Lian had them. Each of his listeners was now far off in old Lanlynne, watching a golden ring arise from its fiery birth, throbbing with power. Their eyes were lit in its radiance.
“Many years ago, when the silent enemy Vor attacked from the north,” Lian continued, “he somehow found a way to the hidden mountain city of Aureus where the Forgers lived. He intended to force Eldisius to make him an ultimate ring of power that he might use to become a new invincible ruler. But he was refused and so Vor killed Eldisius right then and there, stabbed his sword through the heart of the Master Forger. Then Vor set his army upon the mountain city with orders to bring him every scrap and scribble of their knowledge.
“But…here’s where it gets interesting! He was foiled! The Forgers’ many, many books had been Stamped to literally combust if anything bad happened to the Master Forger and so all their writings, every single page, every word, was instantly destroyed and all knowledge of their incredible Heat along with them!”
“Except the Tome of Antiquilus, right,” Dwyn guessed.
Lian shook his head. “Uh uh…and you know why?” He drew in closer with a thrilled whisper. “’Cause the Tome wasn’t even written yet!” Though the eyes of his friends furrowed in confusion, he continued eagerly. “There was a back-up plan! A powerful Stamp that superseded all, ensuring that if the Aureus writings imploded, every single letter would be Inscribed into the mind of a surviving Forger.”
“Antiquilus!” Root cried.
Lian nodded. “When Vor attacked, Antiquilus was not in Aureus. When he heard what happened to his kin, he escaped into the forest where he hid in a secret cave. And here he set about painstakingly rewriting his ancestors’ ancient mystery Stamps. And that’s what became the Tome of Antiquilus. Potentially the greatest, most powerful canon in all of Lanlynne.”
The room fell into a silent nod of satisfaction. It had been a productive night indeed, full of history and wonder. Not to mention the fact that the Valadors now had a very big head start in the third Find for the Clade of Acquisitions.
That’s all that mattered to Root. Her life had whittled down to only two things. The first was to continue Finding so the Guardian would keep Fledger alive.
The second was rescuing Fledger from Death Flat before he transferred to the Tomb, the horror-filled new prison designed by the Guardian himself and equipped with powerful new Stamps that would ensure secrecy. It was only a matter of time before its build was complete and its wicked doors opened. Once there, Root knew she would never be able to Find Fledger again. And the Guardian would keep her under his cruel thumb forever.
Jorab and Mordge had remained remarkably calm when Root first told them of the Guardian’s deeds. Yet by now, she knew that this did not signify passivity. Indeed, she’d seen the powerful Heats of these two and knew that, beneath the twinkling features, there dwelt mighty fires. For her part, she would continue with the Finds, keep Fledger alive, and await the hour when Jorab would call her to arms.
“The Tome of Antiquilus.” Tamik nodded contentedly.
“Is Goat-face talking to you yet?” Dwyn looked at her.
“Nope. As far as he’s concerned I’m a traitor, which is nonsense; I was never loyal to him in the first place.”
They all laughed and hunkered in for another round of goodies.
It was such a small sound, a tiny sorrowful cry and it stopped the conversation cold.
“My Echoes!” Lian ran.
He arrived, along with the others, to find the smaller of the two baby birds lying perfectly still on its belly. Its big grey eyes were closed and though its smooth pink skin was still bare, it had stopped shivering.
“It’s…dead,” said Root.
Peep! Peep! The other baby Echo was in despair, weakly circling her brother, falling down, and wobbling up again.
“Shshshhsh…” Tamik cooed to the tiny bird. “It’s okay little one.” She gently stroked her finger along the baby Echo’s back. It closed its eyes, its tired, grieving body giving in to Tamik’s compassion. It had been fighting so hard to survive. It was just so exhausted. Tamik stroked another finger along the still spine of its brother and began a soft soothing lullaby.
“You’re not supposed to touch them!” Lian cried. “You’ll contaminate them…they have a thin coating of powder that needs…”
“Lian,” Root interrupted. “That little baby needs care, not cold observation!”
“No it doesn’t!” Lian snapped. “I just read…”
“Not every answer’s in a book!”
“Oh and I suppose you know how to take care of an Echo, one of the most fragile creatures in Lanlynne. Who spends its entire infanthood in its mother’s sanitized pocket before it can even sit on its own.”
“Okay now,” Dwyn broke in. “Just take it easy, Root.”
“Me? How come only me?” Root resented Dwyn’s siding with Lian all the time and was not about to back down. She and Lian often came to this impasse, this polar opposite of understanding and neither had learned the gift of middle ground yet.
“I’m just saying…sometimes you need more than hardnosed practicality. You just need simple love!”
“You can’t argue facts, Root,” Lian said. “And it’s a matter of fact that one out of four hundred and seventeen Echoes survives after birth, even with a mother’s protection. One in four hundred and seventeen. Probably more than double that for these ones, having no mother at all. Those’re pretty slim chances.”
“That little one could’ve been that slim chance. But you already wrote him off to impossible odds.”
“Oh so now I killed it?”
“Well, you didn’t exactly save it bringing it in here and slapping it into a cold sink!”
“’Kay guys, seriously…” Dwyn stepped between the two. “Root, just drop it.”
“Again you blame me!” Root glared at Dwyn.
“Well, I refuse to make this my fault,” Lian snapped. “That baby Echo is dead and there is nothing you or I or anyone could have--”
Lian stopped talking. His jaw dropped. He had turned back to his baby Echoes, the smaller of which was now standing sturdy in Tamik’s hand, rapturously eating the food she was providing. In the basin below, his sister was also somehow more vibrant and plump! She was trying to fly up to her brother but, with nary a feather on her tiny pink body, she was going nowhere. Tamik reached down and let her jump up. Together the tiny
creatures ate every last morsel in Tamik’s palm. And all the while she was singing. No words, just a gentle swaying melody…
…that stopped Death in its tracks.