The hug was uncomfortable. Her fingers opened and closed, waiting for it to be over. Her mother’s pregnant swell forced her to lean back. Emzara could smell her mother’s hair; it reminded her of all the other hugs she’d gotten over her thirty years. There was the one when she announced her own pregnancy at fourteen. Her mother had been so happy that she cried. Emzara cried as well. She cried because of fathers and mothers. She cried when she hit herself in the stomach with a closed fist; she did that for hours and tried to think of it as a workout. One two three punch, one two three punch, okay just ten more, and then I can be done for the night. More tears than punches.
Her mother gave her a pity hug when the doctor told her about the miscarriage. The hug made her abdominal bruises sting, but the pain didn’t show on Emzara’s face. She couldn’t let it show. If her mother knew she’d done this on purpose… nothing would make her angrier. She’d put me in a coma, Emzara had thought. And while I was busy sleeping my life away she’d visit every day to yell at me, hoping her anger would sink into my pickled brain and shame my damaged soul.
The hug, and the pain, grew tighter when the doctor said there was serious bleeding damage. Emzara would never have children. Good, Emzara had thought. I saved my own life. Learned to swim in the middle of drowning. Ditched those… functions. Nothing but dead weight anyway. What good is it to make a new drowning victim?
“Don’t worry,” Magdalayna had said, wiping her cheeks red. “Your father will find the best doctors. The best treatments. You’ll have your own babies; I promise.” It was a promise she followed through on. They got her regenerative pills. Emzara told her parents they didn’t work, which was probably because she dropped them in her little brother Shem’s cereal every month, but she left that part out.
Magdalayna arranged a surgery to implant an artificial reproductive system. Emzara was horrified when she saw the model: a rather large looking collection of black rubber hoses and silicone bags that looked like it could barely fit inside someone her size. She’d need a plumber instead of a gynecologist. Emzara bribed the doctor with her life savings. Normally the piggy bank of a teenager wouldn’t sway someone to risk their medical license, but she did come from money. Every year her father gave her ten thousand crumbs to buy a new hovercraft or some nice pieces of furniture. Instead she saved it. She used the money to build tinted walls between herself and her family. The doctor took the sixty thousand crumbs, made some superficial incisions, and placed some stitches to make it look like that squid-like mess of bags and tubes had been implanted.
“I guess I’m just defective,” Emzara would say with a smile. Her mother’s constant sadness over the matter made her furious. Once Magdalayna gave up, every look she gave her daughter was filled with a selfish sorrow. She could tell her mother saw her as dead: a waking corpse that could still carry things around but served no emotional purpose other than a mobile memorial for the daughter she used to have.
“Okay mom,” Emzara said and peeled her mother’s arms away. “That’s enough catching up.” They took a step away from each other, standing just inside the mansion’s front doors. Magdalayna now saw her daughter top to bottom, from her hair that was dyed snow white to her masculine boots with toes so wide they could make a shoe shiner charge extra. None of her clothes were feminine really since she was cloaked in IML battle gear. The sleeves were long, the neck was high, and the fabric around the chest was thick enough to almost completely hide the shape of her breasts. Her pipe sword, longer, thinner, and more square than Dana’s preferred model, hung in a sheath on the left side of her belt.
“I see you’re ready for action,” Magdalayna clucked disapprovingly. There was a creaking sound from above. Emzara looked up to see her brother Shem leaning over the railing of the next floor.
“Hey Sis,” he said aloofly.
“Shem,” Emzara acknowledged. “So what’s the emergency?” Shem leaned back and out of sight.
“Your little brother lost something of your father’s and we need to get it back before he finds out. And since you’re his favorite little enforcer I thought you could help us.”
“Dad’s not here is he?” Emzara asked.
“No of course not. He’s on one of his hunting trips on Mavercree. He’ll probably be there another week and a half.”
“Well what is it? And who has it?”
“We can discuss it over lunch,” Magdalayna said and waved at Shem to get him to come downstairs. He did so quietly and with slumped shoulders. The idea of discussing his failure with his older sister over sandwiches and soup did not appeal to him that much. The three of them walked down the main hallway toward the dining room. They could smell the cold meats and sharp cheeses and hear the clinking of silverware as one of the servants set the table.
Emzara glanced at the wooden archways on the hall and the round light fixtures with warm pink glass. Come to think of it, being in this house was more uncomfortable than any hug. When Emzara was born her father was merely unreasonably rich as opposed to the sun-buying sort of man he was now, so the family had lived in an older stone house on the planet Autique. It was a place where you could find a nice cold corner to meditate in. A house that would whisper back to you during the night with wind through its windows and pebbles falling from the ceiling. Her mother had so many houses, apartments, resorts, and even a few private islands to choose from, yet she stayed in this sickeningly opulent nest. It’s a waste of Dad’s money, she thought. A thousand crumbs for every polished faucet. Two thousand a month to maintain the garden and the hedges. And all she does here is take baths and gossip with the swingers. Emzara had always tried to live and eat humbly, only buying top quality when it came to her combat training and gear. Better to suffer through stiff bread, Argus-eyed potatoes, and wilted asparagus than barely lose a fight because of an ill-fitting knee brace or gauntlet. Here was her mother, her source, living as far from that as possible. It made her sick to think the blithering sow waddling in front of her made up half of her own genetic code. There was no getting rid of it. Humans could move faster than light but there was no pulling apart those two strands.
With plenty of bile to go around, she looked at Shem and noticed the crab logo on the sheath of his long knife.
“Still using scoundrel weapons I see,” she commented.
“Dark&Dagger makes the best,” Shem spat back.
“Best of the worst,” Emzara retorted.
“That’s enough you two. Honestly, who cares which of you has the sharper swizzle stick?”
“Dad cares,” Emzara said, wrenching the subject back by the tail so it couldn’t escape. “He uses IML. Says Dark is for scum.”
“Yes but your father just gets sentimental about things. He still thinks his home town’s grappleball team is the best in the galaxy.”
“The Dust Devils,” Shem said, hoping to impress his mother with his memory.
“Is that what you tell him the two D’s on all your stuff stands for?” Emzara asked. “I doubt he’d let you stay in this house if he knew what you really used.”
“Emzara Knarkid! You stop right now. It is none of your business. I forbid you to tattle on your brother over something so silly.” By that time they’d arrived in the dining room and were able to express their aggravation by pulling their chairs out and sitting down in the noisiest fashion possible.
One of the staff appeared and served Magdalayna a glass of red wine with a large moss green capsule. She picked up the pill and swallowed it, following it up with a few sips of wine. The pill would absorb all the alcohol and protect her babies, a lovely invention that had let her drink during her last eight pregnancies. Oh what a relief it had been to no longer have to abstain.
“Go on. Eat. We’ll get a plan straightened out after you clean your plates,” she said. Shem shot one last dirty look at his sister before tucking into a sandwich made especially for him: roast beef, swiss cheese, mayonnaise, and the crusts cut off. Since she didn’t want to feel like a naked fledgling having a wriggling worm shoved down her throat, Emzara merely sipped at a glass of lemonade and waited for information. Eventually her mother would tell her how she could help her father. It seemed ironic to her that the only person in the entire family that deserved help never really needed it. Dad’s the best after all. Richest man in the galaxy. A god among men. And I’m half a god. Emzara watched her mother finish off the glass of wine and wipe the sides of her mouth with a cloth napkin. Half a god. Other half doesn’t matter.
Emzara’s ears perked up. There was an odd sound coming from somewhere; it was sort of a wail that was trying to find a rhythm, like a choir member six notes behind the rest of his ensemble and an octave too high. Shem looked out the window in an attempt to find the source of the sound himself.
“What is that?” Emzara asked. Her mother merely groaned and rang a small silver bell next to her plate. A servant appeared from the kitchen and asked what she needed.
“What is that horrible racket outside?” Magdalayna asked her butler.
“I’m sorry madam. It’s that Leprechaun again. He’s standing just off the property line and shouting his nonsense about your husband again. Judging by the slurring I would say he’s inebriated this time. I can call the authorities if you’d like but he usually runs off before they get here,” the butler said. Magdalayna sighed.
“What Leprechaun?” Emzara asked.
“Oh it’s nothing,” Magdalayna said dismissively. “Just some artist-type. Your father uttered a few criticisms of his work at a gallery a few months back. Since people respect his opinion I guess the little greenbean out there has seen a drop in his sales. He comes out to protest every so often. He’s been doing it more often lately. I may have to file some kind of harassment charge if he doesn’t get over it soon.”
“You shouldn’t call him that,” Emzara said.
“Call him what dear?”
“Greenbean. It’s a slur. The War of Cousins has been over for a very long time. When you say things like that it seems your tongue is still brandishing the sword.” The butler looked at Emzara with a slight smile. She could tell he had wanted to speak to his madam that way for a long time. Magdalayna was not amused. She pressed her empty wine glass into the butler’s hands, sending him off for a refill.
“You shouldn’t speak to your mother that way,” she complained, practically spitting icicles at Emzara.
“But then nobody could ever tell their mothers how wrong they were,” she said plainly.
“She’s not wrong,” Shem said. He took another bite of his sandwich and burped. “They’re practically houseplants. What’s wrong with calling them greenbeans?”
“Having a layer of algae in your dermis doesn’t make you a houseplant,” Emzara reasoned. “I know lots of Leprechauns. They can be great fighters and cunning thinkers.”
“Now how can you tell if a garden is laid out cunningly?” Magdalayna joked. Shem snickered.
“I guess they’re sneakier than Amazons,” Shem added. “What with their big gross clown feet.”
“Like these?” Emzara said as she stomped on her brother’s toes with her massive boots. Shem shot up from the table and squealed. He pulled out his knife and thrust it into the wood of the table, two inches from his sister’s hand. Emzara went to draw her sword.
“That’s enough you two!” Magdalayna shouted. Emzara dropped her hands. “If you’d stop stabbing my furniture for a few seconds you’d realize the Leprechaun has already ceased his rambling.”
It was true. They heard nothing but the chirping of a few birds and the footsteps of the servants. Magdalayna lowered herself back into her chair and rubbed her stomach. All this stress couldn’t be good for the babies. She hoped that when her newest children joined the world they wouldn’t bicker so much.
Emzara was about to again request that her mother get to the point of the visit, but the point came to them. A bolt of electricity fired into the room and struck Shem in the chest, throwing him against the window. It shattered outward. Shem surely would have fallen with the shards of glass to the thick spiky rose bushes below if his sister had not grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him back in. Emzara unsheathed her sword and turned to see the attackers. There were two figures in full IML gear, and one of them was so tall that her head was hidden by the wooden archway.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Dana said, sword still pointing forward. Arcs of electricity crackled around its blade. “Those two look just like the suspects on TV.”
There was a gentle trickle of cold clear water against the black stone. Perseus gently placed a blue metal rectangle against the stone in the path of the water. He pulled his hand back and the rectangle stuck. It moved a little. A bead of blue light shined at its center. The water stopped flowing over the rectangle and instead flowed through it. The new stream was filtered of all contaminants, so Perseus pressed his mouth into the stream and sucked quietly. It had to be the best water in the galaxy. Mavercree was such a wonderful planet, so much life and so few people. Trees as tall as skyscrapers spread throughout continent-wide forests. Carpets of moss and grass so soft and lush that you could sink into them. And water from so deep underground it sparkled like the dew of creation.
Perseus and his gear were tucked in a small cave that looked out onto a large rocky plain. He wiped his mouth and looked out at the empty expanse once again. The only feature between the rocks and patches of frost-covered grass was the splash of red a few hundred feet from the cave: the front half of a local deer species called the stormy gray elk. The air was cold, so the deer’s blank eyes were glassy with ice. There was a hole in its neck where Perseus’ arrow had pierced it. The tail section was his bait of choice for the past two days but his target never came, so he moved to the cave and tried the other half. Maybe they liked to see the face of their prey.
This was his eighth labor. His first wife, Magdalayna, never ceased to annoy him by referring to them as ‘hunting trips’. They were his labors, just like those of Heracles. Chances to prove that there was no better human. He was a monster slayer like his brothers in history and Mavercree had all the best monsters. It was hard picking just ten of them for his labors, but that divine voice in his head said it plainly: ten labors. So he picked his ten. Seven of them lived on Mavercree. Seven of the mightiest, noblest, and most dangerous animals to ever leave Earth.
It was impossible for anyone to guess how terraforming genes worked out on each individual planet. Some worlds wound up with ecosystems based on fungi more than plants. Some rocks refused to grow anything. If the plants took hold the animals were introduced next, pumped full of new code that increased their metabolism, their rate of mutation, their breeding cycles, and all sorts of other biological subroutines that would help the planet feel ‘lived-in’ as quickly as possible. Mavercree’s animals were among the only ones that really had time to flex those new genes since large-scale human populations just never made it there. The predators and prey grew bigger, sharper, and more territorial.
Previous labors had won him the heads of the berserker rhinoceros, emerald garshark, Fednaught’s sloth bear, sunburnt sea dragon, bearded manrilla, snub-snouted aardwolf, and the murderous mud tiger.
His newest target stepped silently into the clearing. Perseus held his breath and hoped the scent-blocking gray gel slathered on his jacket and skin would disguise his presence. He reached for his bow, but did not pick it up yet.
The creature’s massive paws, each the size of dinner plates, concealed yellow claws so sharp that they could tear the hides of four thousand pound yaks like they were a layer of flaky pastry. Evolution had forced its two canines through the bottom of its own jaws as it transformed them into the familiar shape of sabers. It seemed nature missed Smilodon dearly. In his research on this legendary cat Perseus had seen footage of it crushing a deer’s skull, snapping off its antlers, and drinking its blood greedily. Two streams of blood flowed down through the holes in its bottom jaw and left a distinct double trail like a sledge that had run over a fresh corpse. Its thick fur was patterned with white and gray spots, giving it the texture of a bleak looking eggshell, the kind of thing that houses an embryo starved by its diminutive yolk sac. A thick mane ran along its spine and tipped the tail like a paintbrush. Its eyes were colder than the deer’s. It was the pastoral ice leopard. It was the eighth labor.
It sniffed at the elk carcass. The beast did this twelve times, looking up after each sniff and scanning the horizon line for competitors or threats. Perseus’ index finger touched the bow. The leopard lifted its head again. Perseus held his breath.
He wasn’t sure if there actually was a devil in the world or if the universe was just an indifferent place. Sometimes it did feel like there was a force, opportunistic and filled with rage, which acted on the weak-minded beings around him to stunt or end his greatness. If that force existed it must have been there then as some kind of phantom that either whispered in the cat’s ear or wriggled through the small hole and possessed its mind, because the leopard looked towards him. No smell or sound had escaped the cave, so occult interference seemed most likely. Either way, the leopard’s eyes locked with his. The two were motionless for several minutes. Who would strike first? Perseus, still human after all, had a small calendar in his brain reminding him that time was precious. The leopard only knew the moment: the drifting snowflakes, the frozen grass, and the pulsing blood.
“I haven’t got all winter,” Perseus growled. He grabbed the bow and an arrow.
The leopard bolted. The only sound was the crunch of grass with each stride. The distance between them closed terrifyingly fast. The creature’s eyes grew bigger and clearer. Its movements were so fluid that its head seemed fixed, never moving an inch closer or further from the ground; it was now just a powerful conveyor belt bringing a spear-filled mouth to Perseus. It was halfway there already.
Perseus loosed an arrow. It connected. The leopard paid no attention to the blue shaft of wood sticking out of its left shoulder. Its steps did not falter. It did not lose speed. It did not blink as snowflakes melted on its open eyes. I just shot an arrow at an arrow, Perseus realized, for there was no better comparison. He pushed the fear back so it couldn’t wrench control of his limbs from him and readied another arrow. The bow groaned under the pressure. He loosed it. Zheeeeooooowww.
The leopard seemed to gain speed as if had stolen the arrow’s kinetic energy for itself. Had he missed? No. Another feather-ended shaft stuck out of the same shoulder he’d hit the first time. Perseus reached down to grab another arrow and looked up in time to recognize he would never be able to nock it. Instead he grabbed it and immediately rolled backwards towards the rest of the gear and the cave’s sloping wall. The leopard was inside, limbs outstretched in the last part of a thirty foot pounce. That beast would have no use for wings. Its paws opened wide and its claws emerged.
Perseus used one hand to thrust the arrow forward and the other to reach for the hilt of his IML saber. The arrowhead sank into the leopard’s chest so fluidly that it did not immediately bleed. It seemed like the monster had no blood to shed and, with speed and size on its side, was like trying to hunt an avalanche. Its weight smashed into Perseus like the wall of snow he’d just pictured. One of his ankles twisted and the nerves around it screamed. He slipped under the leopard’s chest to avoid its teeth, which scratched along the stone wall and left white streaks. His hand continued to fish for the saber, but now the cat’s bulk was resting on top of it. One of its back paws stepped on his thigh; its claws sank in.
“Yeeeuuuh!” Perseus screamed before a mouthful of fur muffled him. One idea kept him focused. The hydra did not beat Heracles. The gorgon Medusa did not beat his namesake. The leopard was only an animal, be it meddled with by the long electric syringes of science, under the thrall of a fallen angel, or both. Only an animal. Perseus was more. He had more strength than his muscles. More wit than his brains. More soul than his heart. More will than his bones. More influence than a nest could contain.
His hand found the hilt of his sword. He sliced straight through his knapsack, freed his arm from under the cat, and stabbed it horizontally through the gut. The blood finally came when he shook the hilt. It flowed over his hand and down into his coat. The Leopard sprung up, hit the ceiling, and landed on its stomach in a very un-cat like way. Its hind limbs twitched and gave out. It snapped downward, still trying to grab Perseus’ head. He hung onto the fur of its chest, pushing down to keep him away from its jaws. The beast lifted and fell again. Perseus’ coat made a wet spongy sound as it splashed in the blood. He ignored the knot forming on the back of his head from the impacts. It was over; he just had to hang on.
Three minutes later the last life left the creature. It took Perseus another five to pull himself out from under its massive weight. He crawled to the stream of water and took another long sip. He leaned against the stone and gripped the dark leg of his bloodied pants. The labor was done.
There was one advantage the other demigods of history had: their youth. Perseus was not so lucky. He wore an eye patch. The leopard’s blood already stained his dense gray beard. His wrinkled hands shook a little from the cold. He looked to be in his mid-sixties but that was the work of the telomere boosts. He was actually one hundred and thirty four.
Not quite Noah, but not bad for the son of god almighty.
The Freight Bridge
The taxi dropped them off in an extremely affluent neighborhood before it flew away, making them wonder if they needed to flag it back down and reiterate the address slowly. Did the farcoward live here, his nature moldering over time amongst the perfectly trimmed topiary sculptures and silver-handled strollers?
“Are you sure your friend gave us the right information?” Shay asked Dana.
“Positive,” he replied, looking down to check his datawatch anyway. “I gave him my first interview after my witness procedure. We’ve been friends ever since. He tracked down the reporter who got the tip about us and used his connections to offer the guy a promotion if he’d give up his source. The call came from…” Dana looked at the street signs. “The house at the end of this street.”
The two walked as quickly as they could, Dana struggling to keep up with Shay’s giant strides. They would surely be noticed if they lingered about dressed the way they were. Shay now wore a full IML body suit she had kept tucked in the bottom of her luggage. It was green, so it matched the bow and arrow quiver strapped to her back. Being aggressively patriotic, she had wanted to bring the bow she carved from a tree back on Tortim, but limited packing space had required her to buy a cheaper one that could be taken apart and stored easily. Even though she also carried her mace and the Appearl inside her shoulder bag she did not appear burdened by the extra weight.
Dana had augmented his regular clothing with thick gloves, a tincloth neck protector, additional leg guards, and a belt loaded with pipes for his sword.
“So what are we going to do when we find him?” Shay asked. “Aside from knock the stuffing out of him.”
“We’re going to bind the bastard,” Dana said, patting a coil of cord on his belt. “I know the police commissioner of this region. We’ll take him there and turn him in with the Appearl. With any luck they’ve got some of his DNA from the crime scene or something. And with a pinch more luck we could get out of this as heroes that only have to do a minimal amount of paperwork.”
When they reached Knarkid manor they were greeted by someone they did not expect: a drunken Leprechaun who banged at the black metal gates blocking the front entrance.
Though he looked quite like it at the moment, Leprechauns were not in fact bad stereotypes melded with Irish mythology. Where the Amazons had willingly adopted their name as a statement of philosophy, the Leprechaun tag was attached by the rest of the species and stuck much too firmly. Originally descended from a number of Asian ethnic groups, the Leprechauns were bred to make the colonization of space much easier. They took up far less space and measured, on average, four feet and eleven inches high. A layer of dense symbiotic algae lived under their skin, allowing them to photosynthesize some nourishment and take in less food. As with the rainbows present in the other subspecies, there were many shades of Leprechaun: dark peat, meadow grass, olive, and a dozen other hues. Their hair, in another unfortunate clash with their fictitious namesake, ranged from pumpkin orange to deep crimson; when their ancestors had fiddled about with human code the genes for red hair somehow snagged a ride along with some that helped keep their algae from migrating out of the body.
The one that stood before Dana and Shay was male, somewhere in his thirties, had moss-colored skin with dark red hair, and was dressed in a short-sleeved IML turtleneck. One of his purple socks was rolled down to the shoe while the other touched the bottom of his knee. He leaned against the gate with one arm through the bars and the other tapping on the metal with a piece of jewelry. As Dana and Shay cautiously approached they saw it was a necklace that depicted a streaking comet in diamonds and gold. The little green man tapped on the bars with the diamond and shouted as if the nearest thing that could hear him was a few planets away.
“Do you want this too?” he screamed through the bars. “It’s all I got left… you assssss. You treasure-chest cracking assssss! Huh? Do you hear me Knarkid? I’m gonna tell everybody. I’m gonna… what am I gonna do? I’m gonna tell everybody that you think you’re top turtle. Think you’re too good to be served up, souped up in your own shell like the rest of us! Huh? I’m gonna tell everybody, and then I’m gonna tell their parasites and their pets! Spread the word through every living kingdom! You can’t buy my silence you… you glass-jawed, carrot-nabbing, big-stick-waving… assssss!”
“I take it you don’t like the owner of this mansion?” Shay asked. The Leprechaun looked over and noticed the two other people leaning on the gate for the first time. He had to crane his head so far up to look Shay in the eye that all he saw was the blinding sun. He tucked the necklace into his pants pocket and looked around using his hand as a visor.
“I had a sign,” he said. “I made a sign to protest but I don’t know where… Anyway it says, in big red letters, ‘Knarkid’s an art torcher’.”
“Who is this Knarkid?” Dana asked quietly, hoping to bring the Leprechaun’s voice down with his own. It worked, a little; he responded in a slur that was only loud enough to scare one or two more birds out of the nearby trees.
“Perseus Knarkid. He’s an…” the Leprechaun squished his cheeks between two of the bars and hissed the next word, spraying spittle all over the pavement: “Assssss.” He looked back at Dana. “Nice gear,” he said with squinted eyes and a smile when he noticed Dana’s pipes. “I’m a boxer myself. At least I was until Perseus took it all away.”
“What do you mean?” Shay asked, reaching one hand out to hold the Leprechaun up in case he fell.
“He doesn’t want anybody to know it, but he’s the richest guy on the planet. Yeah! Might be the richest on two or three! Thinks he can buy people out of existence. Not me though. Too noisy. I’m too strong to be bought. If I could get in this gate I’d march right up to him, tug his beard down to my level, and hit him so hard his brain’s airbag’d go off.”
“We’ll get you in,” Dana said casually, with a little smile of his own. “Shay, would you get the key please?”
“My pleasure,” she said and drew the Appearl out of her bag dramatically. None of them knew it, but that was the first time the pearl had been exposed to direct light from a sun. It reacted like a puppy loosed in a field full of chipmunks. Its quivering light grew extremely bright and absorbed some of the yellow from the sun’s rays. The reflections of the clouds above rolled across its surface.
“What… what is that?” the Leprechaun asked, leaning in.
“The key,” Shay said. “Or something that’s about to become one.” She stepped lightly to the middle of the gate where there was a metal box and a keypad numbered 0-9. She held the pearl two inches from the box and waited.
The Appearl, perhaps encouraged by the sunshine, burst into activity quicker than ever. The heads of all the news anchors from the programs it had watched appeared again as holograms. Some of them were made of stone, others of water. Strings of numbers danced and twirled like ribbons. It started ticking like the datawatch clock function. Then all of the anchors looked directly at the gate’s keypad. A huge column of green number holograms emerged from the box and broke over the pearl like shattering glass. They merged with the other images and stretched and moved like bubbles in oil.
“We need to lead it in the right direction,” Dana said and reached out to manipulate the images. Shay slapped his hand away.
“You broke it last time,” she accused. “Just let it do its own thing. It’ll figure it out.”
“What is that?” the Leprechaun asked again, entranced.
“I’m not going to ruin anything,” Dana said gruffly. “We have no idea if it’ll do what we want. I’m just going to try and pull out what looks relevant.” Shay sighed and gestured for him to go ahead. He reached his hands out once more; they penetrated the skin of illusions surrounding the pearl. Numbers rolled across his skin just like the droplets of water from that morning’s shower. His palm lightly pushed a floating head away from the numbers near the keypad before he tried pressing several of the buttons. When he hit the four key the Appearl made a delightful noise like a wind chime heard through a conch shell. “I guess that means there’s a four in the combination,” Dana said. After pressing all the keys he had four colorful numbers stuck on the ends of his fingers as if glued there: 4, 5, 2, and 0.
“We don’t know what order they go in,” Shay noted.
“It’s quite beautiful,” the Leprechaun admired. “Did you make this? I’m an artist myself.”
“You said you were a boxer,” Shay said.
“I’m both,” he replied. “A man can be as many things as he wants.”
“Is one of them quiet?” Dana tersely suggested. The Leprechaun looked ready to burst back into his protests, but the Appearl proved too distracting. Dana rubbed his hands together as if washing them and the four numbers separated from his fingers and hung in the air, drifting in the Appearl’s circular current of lights. He pinched the four and watched it stretch as it tried to keep up with the others, eventually popping out between his fingers and moving on. He pinched the zero and got the same result. Then the two. The five only stretched slightly before splitting into two smaller fives. “I think that means there are two fives,” Dana said.
“Ooh, there’s a clock face. Snag it!” Shay ordered. Dana spotted the circle of light drifting near the Appearl’s bottom and pulled it towards him.
“What do I do with this?” he asked.
“Put the numbers on it,” she urged him. “I bet if you put all the numbers on it will arrange them in the order they’re supposed to be in. You know, clockwise.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Dana said and grabbed the face. With his other hand he brushed the one through twelve off of it and replaced them with the five green numbers he’d extracted from the keypad, sprinkling them on like parmesan over a slice of pizza in the hopes that the pearl would take their random placement as a sign to do some organizing. The numbers slid around for a moment, then took up slots around the edge of the virtual face.
“It worked!” Shay exclaimed. “Start at twelve o’clock and push them.”
“Hang on,” Dana said, “I want to try something first. Maybe…” Instead of pressing the buttons on the pad, Dana pressed his finger through each of the hologram numbers in order. 5 4 2 5 0. The keypad emitted a click in response and the gate swung in a little.
“You didn’t even touch it,” the Leprechaun said excitedly, hands running through his hair in disbelief. “How’d you do that? Did you hack it? I’m a roboticist myself.”
“But you’re still not quiet,” Dana said to quell their new companion’s enthusiasm. He turned to Shay. “It looks like our little marble here can be used as a remote control as well.”
“It never ceases to amaze,” she said proudly and rubbed its surface in praise before stowing it back in her bag. All the holograms went with it. She tapped the gate with her toe and it swung in all the way, opening up a straight path to the mansion’s front door. There were a number of hovercrafts parked out front which made Dana nervous about how many people they might be up against.
“They’re all his,” the Leprechaun said as if his mouth was full of bile. He spat on the ground and rubbed it in with his foot. “Knarkid’s got like ten more in the garage over there. His wife just uses whichever one she feels like.”
“How do you know?” Shay asked.
“I’ve been watching this place, trying to get that twisted old root to come out and fight me like a man. Hey, you guys keep going. I’ll go around back and try to sneak in that way.”
“Go nuts,” Dana said, convinced the inebriated little man would’ve been more of a hindrance in combat anyway. The Leprechaun hunkered down lower than he needed to and shuffled around the side of the house, almost falling over twice.
Shay and Dana crept closer until they could look into the glass panels on the side of the door. They saw no one. Dana grabbed the handle and turned, surprised to find it open. He shrugged at Shay and made a ‘ladies first’ gesture. She rolled her eyes but ducked under the door frame nonetheless and entered the house. They could hear a conversation going on down the hall. Shay silently lifted her bow off her shoulder and readied an arrow. Not looking to complicate things the way blood spatter tended to, she had only brought pestle arrows with her; they were tipped with a blunt piece of steel. When shot by an Amazon they still had more than enough force to knock a man over or smash straight through his teeth and collide with the back of his throat.
Dana unsheathed his sword and pulled a blue pipe off his belt. He slid the cylinder into an empty slot in the sword’s hilt with a barely audible sound, like icy magnets clicking and humming as someone tried to separate them. He slid part of the hilt around in a complete circle, which attached the now unseen pipe to the machinery hidden in the sword. The electrically charged liquid flowed into the blade and it crackled to life. Bolts of lightning jumped off it in small arcs, waiting to be loosed onto foes. Pipes, although they offered some range to one’s attacks, were not generally considered to fall under the pathos of the farcoward. The IML only produced electric pipes that were strong enough to stun unarmored targets. Each blast, if unmodified, was weaker than the electroshock batons many police forces still relied on. Other pipes like fire, magnetic pulses, and liquid nitrogen, had extremely limited range.
They shuffled along silently, the family squabble growing louder. Dana recognized the farcoward’s voice. When the three diners were in sight he wasted no time in thrusting his blade forward, pressing a small button on the hilt of his sword, and launching an electric bolt into the farcoward’s chest. He flew back and fell over. The other two whirled around to view their attackers. Dana ignored the odd person out, the pregnant woman with no weapons or gear, and immediately turned his sword toward the young, well-equipped, blonde woman.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Those two look just like the suspects on TV.”
Emzara started to draw her sword, but had to dive underneath the table when Shay fired an arrow. It sailed through the back of her chair and stuck fast in the wall.
“We’re not here for you,” Shay stated. “We’re just here for the lightning rod over there. Stay out of it and we won’t hurt you.”
“What are you doing in my house?” Magdalayna screamed, knowing it was loud enough to alert the servants who would in turn alert the quick-response security team her husband kept on payroll. Their response time was usually under three minutes. She turned back to Shem and was relieved to see him getting back to his feet, although his legs wobbled like the mansion was sailing rough seas. Shem grabbed his knife and steadied himself against a window frame. Emzara rose with her sword now fully drawn and loaded it with a C-gel pipe. Her blade now had a red glaze everywhere but its edges that greatly increased the speed of her swings by reducing friction.
“Where’s the pearl?” Shem sputtered at Dana.
“Somewhere safe,” Shay spat back. “And I suggest you address your questions to me,” she said as she readied another arrow. “Since I’m the one who’ll be carrying you out of here on my shoulder.”
“What pearl?” Emzara shouted.
“This is what I called you about,” Magdalayna quickly explained. “These two stole the Appearl from your brother.
“The Appearl?” Emzara questioned, feeling very left out. If her father’s affairs were a top secret folder then Emzara was just a sticky note on the front of the filing cabinet, which bothered her very much. “What does Dad need the Appearl for?”
“Yes please tell us,” Dana implored sarcastically. “We’re all just dying to know.”
“What do I know about your father’s work?” Magdalayna huffed. “We just need to get it back!”
“Got it,” Emzara said, glad the chattering was over. She sliced down with her sword with so much force that it split the table, including much of the silverware, china, and a candlestick, in half. She grunted and kicked the table forward at Dana and Shay. Both of them were quite surprised by the power of the maneuver. Dana dived to the left and entered the dining room while Shay merely crossed her arms and let the table hit her. It broke around her, leaving a few inconsequential splinters lodged in her forearms. She took up her firing stance as if nothing had happened and shot her second arrow at Emzara, who deflected it expertly and sent it spinning off to the side.
Shem quickly regained his composure and hopped over the remaining half of the table to get between his mother and Shay. He didn’t mind another shot at this fight, especially since the odds had evened out. He tried to remember what he’d heard about fighting Amazons as he charged Shay with his knife. What was it? He thought. The legs? Go for the legs? No the article said ankles. Take out one ankle and they come down like a snow-covered roof. When he was in striking range Shem dodged another one of Shay’s arrows and swung his knife out in a great arc. It sliced through the first layer of her pants but didn’t reach the skin. The Amazon backed up one step and lifted her leg. Shem guessed she would try and knock him down with a kick so he spun the knife, leaned down, and thrust upwards in hopes of getting through her boots.
Shay ignored the knife as if it wasn’t there and brought her leg down anyway. The blade penetrated the back of her boot but then slanted off to the side and got caught between the leather and her skin. The rest of the kick bent Shem’s wrist against his forearm with a jolt of pain. He only managed half a snarl because Shay’s other leg kicked out and sent him backward. Maybe it wasn’t the ankles.
He nearly collided with his sister but Emzara spun out of the way. He can worry about himself, she thought. The pearl had to be her only concern. When she acquired it she would make the trip to Mavercree and deliver it to her father personally to show him that she wasn’t afraid of the hang glider-sized condors and whip-tailed dragons that lived there.
She certainly gave Dana a challenge. Her C-gel-coated sword moved so quickly that every successful block felt like he’d won the lottery. Her fighting style was like a school of piranha all swimming toward his heart at once, like a hundred spears thrown from different angles and all converging on the same molecule. He was trapped in a defensive position with little chance to point the sword forward and fire any more bolts. He was struck on the shoulder. Droplets of blood rained down on the half of the tablecloth Emzara stood on. There’s an opportunity, Dana thought, his injury not serious enough to break his focus. He ducked another swing and tossed his sword up into the air. Few were trained well enough to ignore this, to focus on their opponent rather than their weapon. Emzara couldn’t help but glance upward. Dana grabbed the table cloth and pulled with all his might. Thanks to his naturally strong shoulders the force was so great that Emzara stumbled backwards, right into one of Shay’s kicks. Emzara’s head snapped back as she changed directions again and collapsed onto the floor.
“Stop kicking my children!” Magdalayna shrieked at Shay. She wanted to reach down, pick up a plate, and throw it at the Amazon, but in her state it would take a minute or two just to bend down. “What right did you have to take my son’s property?”
“What?” Shay said, affronted, as she pulled Shem’s knife out of her boot and tossed it to the far end of the hall. “Your son attacked me with a needle! He put himself in our way, which you can tell was pretty stupid.” Shay shouldered her bow, drew her mace, and knocked Shem down again as he tried to get back to his feet.
“I said stop!” Magdalayna cried again. It had been many months since she’d given an order that hadn’t been followed. Novel though it was, she did not enjoy it and the frustration turned her face red. She fanned herself with a hand. “Don’t you see how dangerous this is? I’m with children!”
“Well then get out of the way!” Shay howled at Magdalayna. None of them had ever heard a human quite that loud. Amazon lungs were as extraordinary as the rest of their bodies. Their singers could shatter glass a hundred feet away with their highest notes. Their divers could hold their breath longer than some types of porpoise. Most notably, everyone knows when they’re upset.
The shout stunned everyone into silence for a few seconds. Shem was suddenly aware of Shay’s shadow covering his entire body.
“Your son’s a rancorous farcoward,” Dana accused. “We don’t give a shit about you or your family, but he’s coming with us.” Dana started unspooling some restraining wire from his belt. He walked over to Shem and kicked him onto his back, holding him down with a foot to the spine. Shem grunted.
“What do you mean a farcoward?” Emzara asked. Surely her brother wasn’t that much of a scoundrel. Dark&Dagger weapons were one thing, but…
“When he attacked us he pulled a laser,” Dana said. “When he’d noticed he’d bitten off more than he could chew he figured he’d dice up his meal from twenty feet away.”
“You outnumbered me,” Shem sputtered, his face contorted like a flounder’s as he tried to eye his accuser. “It wasn’t a fair fight; what was I supposed to do?”
“A laser? What the Hell were you doing carrying a laser?” Emzara asked. Although she was shocked, she still had the presence of mind to inch her hand towards her sword. “Dad’s going to skewer you for that.”
“No, you can’t tell him,” Shem pleaded. He had instantly transformed from a twenty-something crushed against the ground to a whimpering child begging on his knees and pulling at pant legs.
“You’re not telling on your brother,” Magdalayna said. “Your father doesn’t need to know about Shem protecting himself.” She turned to Dana. “Now tell us where the pearl is.”
“You don’t exactly have the best leverage,” Dana said, wiping some of his boot polish onto Shem’s cheek.
“Actually I have the best money can buy,” she declared with a devious grin. She snapped her fingers. A throwing knife whirled through the air and struck Shay in the back. It penetrated her arrow quiver, nearly causing it to split. She and Dana turned to see the hallway full of running figures: five to be exact. They were dressed from head to toe in IML protective gear complete with black-visor helmets, armored gloves, and padded joints. They all had some sort of long weapon sheathed on their backs. From what Dana could tell it looked like there were two long swords, a halberd, a spear, and a war hammer with a small sharp head. Their uniforms were blue and gray and bore a pair of connected padlocks on the chest: the logo of the Endless Shield private security company.
“Hired blades,” Shay said, looking to Dana for their next move. Before he could tell her Emzara rolled across the floor, picked up her sword, and swung it in a red arc. Shay pulled away in time but the blade struck the side of her shoulder bag. A bright blue glint shone out of it. Wisps of watery holograms flowed out of the hole. Emzara’s eyes lit up. There was nothing like seeing the goal line to give someone a second wind. Surely that strange blue color wasn’t from a normal device. There was something about it… It was so vibrant. It had the energy of something that ran on heartbeats and dreams instead of electricity.
“She’s got the pearl in her bag!” Emzara yelled.
“Get the Amazon’s bag,” Magdalayna ordered the rapidly approaching locksmiths (as they were often called).
“The windows!” Dana shouted to Shay. He knew from watching the Leprechaun stumble away that the land behind the mansion sloped downward, but he could only hope it wasn’t enough to make for a leg-cracking fall.
The two of them hopped across the debris that had been a well-organized brunch just a few minutes ago and leapt straight into the two closed windows. The glass shattered outward. Shay was too large to curl her limbs up, so she had to dive horizontally as if she was a thrown javelin. They both realized the ground was being very kind in its closeness; they only had about ten feet to fall.
Dana had an additional obstacle to contend with. After he’d broken through the glass he’d collided with the Leprechaun, who appeared to be moments away from breaking in through the window. The two of them hit the ground hard and rolled away from the hedges lining the mansion’s brick walkways.
“What’s the hurry?” the Leprechaun sputtered as he sprawled out on the ground and wiped grass stains and glass shards from his shirt. Shay landed on her feet, boots leaving a deep impression in the ground. She ran over and pulled Dana up by the collar.
“I got it; I’m fine,” he growled and shook her off.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Time to run. Guards are on our tail,” she hastily told the Leprechaun.
“Guards? You finally got him to sick the dogs on you? I’ve been waiting for that for days! Time to cause some trouble,” the Leprechaun said. He took out a pair of long IML gloves from his back pocket and pulled them on. Dana recognized the little pouches built into all the knuckles; they were filled with iron powder to protect a boxer’s hands and increase the force per punch.
Before Dana could tell him to give it up Emzara and one of the locksmiths leapt from the windows and landed near them. The Leprechaun ducked under a swing of the locksmith’s sword, hopped up on the man’s extended knee, and delivered an uppercut that shattered the man’s jaw from under his helmet. He collapsed to the ground and writhed in pain.
“I guess he is a boxer,” Shay admitted. The rest of the locksmiths and Shem poured out from the windows. Dana, Shay, and the Leprechaun (who thought twice upon seeing six more pursuers) ran from the house as fast as they could. Emzara and the others gave chase, occasionally throwing a dagger or knife. Shay’s incredible strides quickly pulled her ahead of her partners in crime, so she did her best to blaze a trail through the opulent back gardens. She powered through some bushes and came out the other side covered in hundreds of burs. A swing of her mace destroyed a gate made of thin iron bars, ripping it from its hinges and sending it spinning through the air. Dana and the Leprechaun did their best to follow the trail of destruction. They weaved their way through hedges taller than the Amazon, changing direction frequently to confuse the locksmiths. It also had the negative effect of getting them completely lost.
The party behind them wasn’t faring much better since neither Emzara nor Shem had ever bothered to explore the boundaries of the property. After all, if all the land their father owned was laid end to end it would take them lifetimes to run across it.
“Don’t lose them,” Emzara shouted to the locksmiths. She popped the C-gel pipe out of her sword to conserve what she had left and placed the nearly empty phial back on her belt. I’ve got to get that pearl, she thought. Mom won’t tell Dad that Shem’s been hunched over an anthill with a Dark&Dagger magnifying glass, but she’ll sure tell him if I fail one of her errands. She sheathed her sword and pumped her arms, trying desperately to pick up speed. Shem and the locksmiths started to fall behind her.
“The name’s… Buck by the way… Buck Renshi,” the Leprechaun told Dana between deep breaths. He extended a hand despite the fact they were both still running.
“Not… the best time,” Dana puffed. He looked over his shoulder and couldn’t see their foes. The two of them ran through one more Amazon-shaped hole in the tallest line of hedges yet and suddenly found themselves on a sidewalk. Ahead of them they could see Shay standing still and eyeballing the structure in front of her. Having passed beyond the Knarkid property line, the trio now stood over a huge rocky drop, a common Maymow topographical feature that didn’t seem like such a selling point at the moment. Their only way forward that did not involve backtracking was an artificial bridge built between the top of that peak and the next one. It was a freight bridge unfit for human traffic, but the human traffic had no other choice. It was either fleeing across the bridge or splattering on the rocks below like a pile of bird droppings.
The bridge was composed of three lanes of mechanical cars moving slowly between the mountains. There were workers positioned on both ends with cranes and forklifts ready to move various containers onto their new transports. They shouted at Dana and company to stop but they ignored the warnings and vaulted over the barriers.
Dana heard the roar of water and guessed there was a river below them. He took the lead and looked for the safest path across the cars, eventually choosing to run across the top of a long and dull red container. The metal complained and wobbled under their feet.
“They’ll know we came this way,” Buck said. The excitement of the chase seemed to have sobered him significantly.
“We’ll lose them on the other side,” Dana offered.
“Not an option,” Shay shouted and stopped dead in her tracks. She grabbed her bow once again and readied one of the three arrows that hadn’t fallen out of the badly cracked quiver. She fired it and struck a locksmith directly in the chest, knocking him into a crevice between two containers. “They’re on us.”
Emzara, Shem, and the other smiths were indeed right on their tail, hopping between containers and redrawing their own weapons.
“Eugh… Fine!” Dana snarled and turned back. It was going to have to be a fight after all. The three of them were on the side of the bridge headed away from Knarkid manor, so Dana worked that into his battle plan. If we can force them onto the other side it’ll put some distance between us, he thought. “Try and stay together,” he told his fellow fighters.
Shay fired her second to last arrow, which shattered the face plate of another locksmith and knocked him unconscious. She decided to save her last arrow in case things got desperate.
Their plan to present a united front faltered when Emzara and Shem, just ten feet away, broke their own formation and split up. Shem dropped down into the cracks between containers while Emzara and the locksmiths kept the high ground. Emzara’s blade clashed with Shay’s mace. Dana’s sword fended off a locksmith.
Buck rolled under the flying leap of another smith. Shem’s knife emerged from between the cracks like a scorpion’s tail and struck Buck’s shoe. The blade slid between two of his toes and drew only a little blood. Shem’s arm snaked back down into the cracks and vanished again.
Emzara stayed glued to Shay, using her superior speed to slip around the Amazon’s wide strikes. She had to get close enough to grab the bag, to snatch the pearl between the snaps of the razor sharp clam protecting it. With an impeccably timed thrust she skewered the bag and then pulled upward to shred it. Everything spilled out onto the containers except the pearl. Shay caught it with her free hand and lifted it high into the air like an adult keeping a toy out of a child’s reach. Emzara did not let up; she continued advancing and forcing the Amazon to step back and play defensively. She’s basically one-handed now, Emzara thought. These nuts really don’t want to give it up.
The pearl responded to the fresh air in its usual bubbly fashion. Unaware of the conflict around it, holograms and noises poured out of it and mixed with each other in the air. It proved to be a useful distraction as the locksmiths were taken by surprise. Dana sliced through a wave of light and knocked the sword out of his opponent’s hand. It flew off the side of the bridge into the waters below. The locksmith, who could not get paid if he was dead, held up his hands in surrender.
“Go back the way you came,” Dana ordered the man, who shook his head vigorously and hopped over to the other side of the bridge.
Buck’s foe was startled to see himself wading through several inches of water and little green numbers, so much so that Buck was able to pummel his abdomen until he collapsed. One more solid shot cracked the helmet and sent him down for the count. He wiped the sweat from his brow and started cracking his knuckles in success, but he only got to knuckle number three before Shem emerged from the crevices like a shadow and wrapped his arm around Buck’s mouth.
“Last warning!” Emzara shouted over the wind that had just kicked up. “Give me the pearl or I’ll cut you down a few dress sizes.”
“You could stand to lose a few yourself,” Dana quipped from behind her. She whirled around to face the tip of his sword. The Amazon stomped her way closer. Surrounded, Emzara thought. I’d rather die than surrender and face him. She was about to make the extremely foolish move of spinning and slashing the front of Shay’s legs. If she had tried it, Shay would have brought her leg down and snapped the sword in half and Dana would have thrust his weapon directly into one her kidneys.
“Over here,” Shem called out to all of them. They turned to see him standing on an adjacent car with Buck held in front of him and well off his feet. Shem had his knife to the Leprechaun’s throat. “Hand the pearl to my sister,” he ordered, “Or he doesn’t see the other side of this bridge.”
Dana and Shay stared impotently at the little boxer. They knew Shem was a murderer. Calling the bluff could leave them all soaked in blood. Shay started to lower her mace, but kept the pearl out of reach.
Dana looked around desperately for an out. He found one by glancing off the side of the bridge and looking at its support structures. They weren’t a series of metal struts as he had expected; they were more like a set of tracks. He concentrated, trying to place where he had seen such things before. With his blood ruby resting comfortably on a massive cushion of random information, he tore through the stuffing to find what he needed. It is a track, he realized. The bridge can be raised and lowered. It’s a freight bridge with a river under it. There should be swivel joints… Dana focused on the end of the bridge and indeed noticed huge circular pads connected to the main structure. In case of fire…
“You god damn farcoward,” Dana scolded Shem as he pulled a red pipe off his belt. He ejected the lightning pipe like a shell casing from the guns of yore and loaded the other one in. “Damn you for making me do something this stupid.” He switched the pipe on to its highest level, the blade erupting in flames.
“What are you doing?” Emzara asked. Shay sheathed her mace, lowered the pearl, and wrapped both her arms around it. Whatever Dana was cooking up, she hoped it was good. Dana spun the volcanic sword once and pierced the container below him. He shoved it down as far as he could; the metal turned black and hissed like a python full of steam.
An alarm shrieked in all their ears. Huge red lights came to life, flashing and spinning on the sides of the bridge. Out of sight a few massive mechanisms moved into place with the same sounds an imminent collapse would make. Dana wrenched his sword free from the container, extinguished it, and put it away.
“Give me the pearl!” he shouted. Shay looked wary for a moment and then tossed it to him as gently as she could. “Now grab the Leprechaun. Try to follow me.”
“Where are we goi…” she tried to shout over the alarms as the bridge interrupted her. The structure shuddered and then dropped out from under them. For the briefest of moments they all felt weightless, like old cartoon characters given a moment to reflect on their predicament before falling. Then everything was rushing air, screams, and alarms. Shem screamed and flailed, his knife spinning away from him. Emzara was similarly terrified, but suspected their targets had not actually decided on suicide. She did her best to keep her cool and check their destination. The river below was both a welcoming and terrifying sight. How far are we falling? What’s the speed that makes water like concrete? I used to know…
When Shay looked down she saw the bridge, which had the slightest head start, slam into the water and submerge completely. A fountain of spray hit her face and she struggled to wipe it away. She knew she was supposed to grab Buck but she couldn’t find his falling body in the chaos. She thought back to the black cliffs of Nerata Bay on Tortim: an old vacation spot. She’d had diving lessons there with a few friends. Were they higher? Lower? There was no time to remember. She oriented herself as best she could and held her legs together, hoping to pierce the water like a lance. For a moment she worried she might penetrate too far and break her legs on the submerged bridge.
They all plunged into the water and were immediately swept up in the current. The waters pulled Dana under and spun him a few times. The force ripped a few pipes from his belt and tossed them against the stones below. One of them exploded and the force of it pushed Dana to the surface where he gasped for air. With one arm occupied by the pearl it proved more difficult than he thought to keep afloat. After a moment it became much lighter, so light that Dana had to roll onto his back to keep a hold of it. He clung to it like a life preserver and tried to spot any other heads above the water. He saw a locksmith pull himself ashore on the side closer to Knarkid manor and rip off his helmet. Shem followed right after him, spotted Dana, and screamed an obscenity while he kicked mud into the river.
A pair of hands shot out of the water and grabbed at the pearl. Dana sputtered and pulled it closer to his chest, but the hands did not let go. Attached to the hands, a determined Emzara wrapped her legs around Dana and refused to give in. She took a deep breath and rolled the both of them, hoping to deprive Dana of air. The Appearl turned a dark color and grew heavy again, so the tangle of limbs that was Dana and Emzara submerged completely. Emzara locked one of her arms around one of Dana’s, freeing her to pull her sword from its sheath. The Appearl pulsed with a black light and grew even heavier. It touched down on the riverbed and sent up a cloud of sediment. Emzara’s sword cut through the cloud and slid along Dana’s chest, but the water slowed her strike too much and she couldn’t cut the tincloth. She abandoned the weapon to the flow of the river and pulled a dagger from an ankle sheath. She would dice his fingers into a cloud of flesh and marrow if that was what it took to get the pearl.
Perhaps this is my own labor, Emzara thought proudly. Retrieving a seemingly magic pearl from a riverbed did feel like the stuff of legends. She looked up and saw Dana holding something blue in his hands. She squinted through the stinging sediment to see. Is that… oh father… why is this fool so willing to risk his own life?
Dana pressed a button on his spare lightning pipe which released a small amount of the electrically charged fluid into the water. Both of them were shocked violently. The muscles in Dana’s hands and arms contracted, keeping him anchored to the pearl. Emzara curled up like a dead bug and was carried downstream, a froth of bubbles flying from her mouth.
The shock had taken everything out of Dana. He needed to breathe, but he couldn’t even tell which way was up. He couldn’t decide if that blue spot in the middle of his vision was the pearl, his dropped pipe, or just a blur caused by the shock. The sediment clouded everything else. I’m Rudolph, he thought, somewhat accepting of his possible demise. Why can’t I see through this? Why can’t I shine my way through?
Two more pairs of hands reached through the cloud. The larger set grabbed Dana and pulled him out of the murk. The smaller green one took up the Appearl, found it quite light, and headed for the surface as well.
Dana awoke in a shady crevice close to the water. His body was half-sunk in the mud and his joints protested when he tried to move. He coughed hard enough to rock his whole body onto its side. He could see roots hanging down over the crevice and dipping into the river. Shay and Buck were both next to him; the poor Amazon could barely lift her head without it scraping the rocks above. Buck was seated comfortably, ignoring Dana’s coughing, and dexterously moving lights about on the surface of the Appearl with his small green fingertips.
“I lost my bow,” Shay said to Dana, who was still hacking away.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” he wheezed once he’d grown accustomed to air again.
“How did you know the bridge would do that?” Shay asked.
“I saw the end of the structure. Maymow’s pretty mountainous,” he paused to cough some more, “so they hollow a lot of them out… for warehouses and power facilities. Freight bridges like that often have multiple levels so they can… huhemm… deliver to different parts of the mountain, including submerged facilities.”
“So if there’s a fire,” Buck said, looking up from the pearl, “like the one your sword was wearing, the alarm goes off and they just dip the bridge. Smart.” He turned back to the pearl. His eyes still a little blurry, Dana couldn’t tell if Buck was interacting with the pearl’s programming or just stroking it like a cat.
“I guess they never considered what might happen if somebody was on it,” Shay said.
“We kind of broke the rules,” Dana sputtered. He grabbed a low hanging root and pulled himself up into a sitting position. He cringed, reached behind him, and pulled a flat rock from the back of his pants. He hurled it out into the river with an angry grunt. It skipped across the surface eight times before sinking.
“Nice throw,” Shay complimented.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” Dana grumbled. He combed his fingers through his hair, pulling out twigs and chunks of mud. “We need to get back to the inn and get checked out.”
“What for?” Shay asked.
“Did you not see that house? Those locksmiths? We’re not just dealing with some thief. That kid’s entire family is in on this and it looks like they’ve got loaves to spare when it comes to the finances. Buck here said that Knarkid guy could be the richest man on the planet. And they won’t be giving up on the pearl. That blonde girl was ready to gnaw my hands off when I had it.”
“If Knarkid wants this I know for a fact he’ll pull all sorts of strings to get it. Strings you wouldn’t even think existed,” Buck attested as he fiddled with the Appearl. “I’ve no doubt he’s got whole echelons of Maymow living in his pockets licking at his spare change.”
“So you think he would be able to find us at the hotel? Maybe… get us arrested?” Shay asked the both of them. They answered yes in unison.
“That’s why you guys are coming to stay with me,” Buck said. The two weary travelers looked at the Leprechaun with raised eyebrows.
“Relax, I’m sober enough,” the Leprechaun assured. “I know what I’m doing. You two have run afoul of the guy who ruined my life. So it just makes sense for us to keep all that hatred in one place. We’ll focus it like a laser and see if we can’t burn through some of his tricks. Besides, I have got to mess with this thing some more.”
The pearl darkened. Buck tapped at it like aquarium glass. Shay slapped his hand away and stored it back in her bag.
The manager of the Blind Spirit Inn was not pleased to see Dana Rudolph return in the state that he did. Not only was he coated in leaves and muck, but he trailed two subspecies guests now instead of one. All three of them tracked mud in with nasty squelching footsteps. The Amazon’s hair looked like an abandoned beaver dam.
“Mr. Rudolph, what happened?” she asked as she blocked their way through the lobby. She thought if she sounded concerned enough she might convince them to remove their shoes and spare what was left of the carpet.
“We’re checking out,” he said gruffly and tried to walk through her.
“We have a contract!” she exclaimed. “You’re obligated to stay here for three full days and write a full review!”
“Read the fine print lady; the contract is void if the hotel engages in any of my extensive list of unethical behaviors,” Dana grumbled. He was very ready to swab the sediment from his ears and the last thing he needed was her yammering clogging them up further.
“There’s been no unethical behavior here!” she shouted. Dana glared at her. She swallowed hard and was honestly worried he might punch her. Shay considered the possibility as well. Instead Dana just turned to Buck.
“Buck, could you do me a favor and switch off all those lights on the wall over there,” Dana said and pointed to a series of switches.
“I can’t wait to see where this is going,” Buck said to himself and jogged over to the switches. They were slightly out of his reach so he had to jump to flip them all off. The lobby darkened. Now all the milling guests and employees, seven in total, couldn’t even pretend they weren’t eavesdropping. Everyone watched Dana. He stomped over to a window and looked in several directions as if he expected to see something. When nothing happened he moved to the next window. Then he stuck out his hands and flailed and jumped, face as creased and sour as a moldy cantaloupe.
The foggy luminescent figure of a woman appeared behind Dana. Everyone heard a whispering moan. The woman’s eyes and mouth were just patches of black void and the edges of her white garment trailed off into mist. Her feet hovered several inches above the floor, toes dangling down. Dana, without looking at the figure, pointed over his shoulder at it.
“The owners of the Blind Spirit Inn have seen fit to populate it with something other than guests,” Dana said matter-of-factly as he dove into his first live review. “When walking the halls at night you may notice a series of specters following you and moaning. One can only assume they are the spirits of previous inhabitants who were bored to death by the décor that belongs on a much cheaper rock about fifteen years ago.”
“I noticed them myself on the first night of my stay when I made a routine survey of the layout and the views from various windows. Imagine my surprise when one of the oldest tricks in the book attempted to scare me into recording the fascinating state of the Blind Spirit Inn.” He took a few steps to the side and smeared some mud from his hand across a very well-hidden bump in the molding of the wall. Part of the ghost behind him vanished.
“A haunting has long been the refuge of a desperate hotel and nothing brings it into the modern day like a few hidden hologram projectors triggered by a combination of motion and a lack of light.” Dana nodded to Buck, who once again jumped and flipped all the lights back on. All the guests could see the pink shame growing on the manager’s cheeks.
“While the attached restaurant the Red Hearth provided quick service, warm atmosphere, solid food, and even accommodated my traveling companion’s unusual requests, I’m afraid I must judge the Inn on one factor alone: its honesty.” Dana leaned in towards the manager’s face. “I award the Blind Spirit Inn two out of five reindeer!” he shouted in the woman’s face. He pushed through her and moved towards the elevator.
“You have to sign out,” she said feebly and gestured towards an old-timey paper guestbook at the lobby counter. Dana ignored her and kept walking. Shay slammed her flat hand onto the open guestbook loudly, startling the guests and leaving a huge muddy hand print on the page.
“There you go,” she said innocently and strolled towards the elevator herself. She was getting tired of Maymow anyway. What a bunch of stuck up doilies, she thought.
“Two out of five reindeer?” she whispered with a snicker when she caught up to Dana.
“My name’s Rudolph so it just makes sense for the scale to be… oh shut up. It was my editor’s idea.”
Once in the room they cleaned up quickly and gathered their luggage. Buck was kind enough to call a taxi while they prepared and from there it was a twenty-minute ride to Buck’s home. Shay took the opportunity to fill the Leprechaun in on the entirety of their situation. The small man listened, eyes bugging out at every strange detail. Dana was quiet the whole way as he pondered a different kind of specter: Perseus Knarkid. It was just a name for now, but Dana had the dark feeling it was about to grow into something much worse. He was reminded of the man who had pulled the strings that resulted in his blood ruby. It’s amazing boats can even move through space with all these damn strings blocking the way, he thought.