Arik and Deen took turns explaining while they unchained us. It had all been Nyll’s idea. He thought there was a traitor in the Order, but he needed to insert his own spies among the Guild to be certain. He decided that Arik and Deen would be perfect for the job, so he had them face each other in a phony death match. The “dagger wheel” was nothing more than a sleight of hand.
“The dagger wheel may have been a trick, but there was nothing phony about how you hit me!” Deen groused.
“Quit being a domay!” Arik retorted. “I only hit you with the flat of the blade!”
They bickered back and forth for a minute, but it felt like the banter of old friends. I’m not sure what all they’ve been through, but they’ve certainly seemed to grow on each other. After they’d lain low for a while, they applied as guards for the Guild. When they’d heard that we’d been captured, they got rid of two of the guards and took their places.
“Arik almost blew our cover, when that guard went after you,” Deen griped.
I snuggled closer to Arik, and Deen rolled her eyes as he kissed me. After a minute, Arik looked around.
“Who’s the new girl?” he asked. “And where is Baadonai? And is that bird what I think it is?”
It took more than a little explanation. Arik took the news about our past lives better than I thought he would. He was much more interested in the weapons our “other” selves had left behind than sitting around worrying about what had happened before. But Baa’s death hit him hard. He stayed behind because he had too, but that didn’t mean he feel responsible for us. Teriine introduced herself and explained that she was deaf, so he held out his hand.
“MY NAME IS ARIK!” he shouted.
I never said I missed everything about him…
I looked down at my hand and remembered the Intelligence ring.
Well, it can’t hurt.
“Arik, we received special rings from the Prophets. I think this one was meant for you.”
He took the ring and stared at it.
“What’s it supposed to do?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “Just put it on.”
“Does this mean I’m taken?” he joked.
I playfully punched his arm.
“You better believe it!”
The ring didn’t seem to have an immediate effect other than to make him realize shouting at Teriine wasn’t really necessary. That was fine with me. I don’t love Arik for his brilliant mind any more than Gertrude loves Nulio for his handsome face. But it would be nice if he thought before he acted once in a while.
“I CAN TALK! I CAN TALK!” Nulio shouted excitedly. “HEY! ELINARA DOESN’T HAVE A ring now…”
Speaking of which…Oh, well. Yaisona would have brought it up sooner or later anyway.
“Take one of mine,” Yaisona insisted.
“I’m fine, Yaisona. I don’t need one. We need you to keep them.”
Yaisona insisted, and I didn’t press. The last thing I wanted was to throw her injuries back in her face. I took the Agility ring, but I’m going to have to find some way to get her to take it back.
Yaisona said that while she was glad that Arik and Deen were safe and sound, we still needed to find a solution to our current problems. In other words where were we going and why was this train filled with skeletons? Teriine couldn’t tell us much. The legends don’t say anything about the Train of Consequences except that people are sent there to be judged, and that no one who had ridden the train had ever returned. Not particularly comforting. We picked through the skeletons trying to find some clue as to how all they all died. It looked as if they had been crushed somehow…
Suddenly this strange warped voice started echoing through the train. I couldn’t catch what it said, but from the fear in Alyssa’s eyes it couldn’t have been good. She translated for the rest of us.
Please commence decompression
Gertrude found a control panel at the front of the train, but we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to do with it. There was a rod sticking out of it, but it wouldn’t budge! Teriine tapped me on the shoulder and asked what was happening. I explained as best I could, but she couldn’t think of anything either.
Please commence decompression
Something was happening. The train sped sharply downwards. My head ached, and it was getting hard to breathe. Arik swayed and leaned against the railing. He didn’t look so good. Nulio looked at the bracelet on his arm, and then he slid it over the rod. It clicked right into place. The rest of quickly placed our bracelets into the slots. Between the two of us, Gertrude and I figured out how to manipulate the bracelets. There was an audible snick, and air started hissing from somewhere in the train.
Nulio hugged Gertrude.
“Gertrude, that was amazing!” he cried.
For a wonder, she snuggled up against him.
There may be hope for them yet.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was seeing things,” Arik said in awe.
I looked up when Arik spoke, and froze. I can hardly begin to describe what was flashing by the train’s windows. Huge landmasses loomed all around us. They were connected with cables and wires, and we could see other tracks like the ones we were on in the distance. Below us we saw nothing but mist.
Where are we?
Yaisona turned the bracelets and more of those strange panels covered the windows. Some of the panels showed us what was outside the windows. There was one panel that had what looked to be a cross section of Kh’aosii. As Yaisona adjusted the controls, we could see large gaps between and under the land. We were traveling through those gaps.
Suddenly there was a loud splash, as if the train had gone under water.
Now entering core coolant.
The train came to a stop in a room that mirrored the one we’d left hours before down to the pillars that were pointed straight at us. Carved on the archway was Core Terminal 7. On the far side of the room was a panel that looked like it would hold the necklace. But it wasn’t going to do us any good if we couldn’t reach it. Yaisona wanted to test what would happen if something left the train, so she had Arik toss out some of Nulio’s metal shards. Arik hurled them as hard as he could…and they were incinerated not four feet from the open doorway.
The coaliathen, who had spent the entire ride perched quietly on Nulio’s shoulder, began pecking at his harness. It seemed as if it were trying to tell us something. I wondered if it could carry the necklace to the platform to shut off the pillars. Yaisona said that it seemed worth a try, so she asked Alyssa for the necklace.
Alyssa unfastened the necklace, and held it in her hand just looking at it.
“I never guessed such a small token of affection would lead to so much,” she whispered.
The tinge of bitterness in Alyssa’s voice was new and unsettling, but I couldn’t really blame her. She’s going through a lot that I wouldn’t be able to begin to understand. Alyssa held the necklace out to the coaliathen, and it flew out of the train. At that moment a door opened from the other side of the room. Millimaru walked in and stood by the pillar. The coaliathen flew straight for her, but its form was fading; it disappeared entirely even as Maru reached out her hand for the necklace. She placed the necklace in the slot, and the pillar powered down. Then she motioned for us to follow her. As we crossed the room, an eerie greenish light lit everything. When I looked up I saw why. The whole ceiling was made out of the clear metal we’d seen in Elbridge. Swirls and eddies of greenish fluid flowed above us. I guess that was the core coolant the voice on the train had been talking about. When we were safely across, Maru took the necklace out of the pillar and gave it to Yaisona. She tried to give the necklace back to Alyssa, but she shook her head. Yaisona held her eyes as if to make sure, but then she tucked the necklace away in her pocket.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Maru led us along metal walkways above pools of boiling liquid. Above us we could see a perfect night sky sparkling with stars—only Selenia itself blocked the view. Through the mist, we could see the continent suspended above our heads!
How did we…they…whoever…create all this?
Arik took my hand, but I think it was as much to keep me moving as anything else. He was right. We had no idea where we were headed, but hopefully, the sooner we got there, the sooner we could get some rest. We were all about dead on our feet.
Suddenly, Maru stopped. An enormous blue crablike creature clambered on to the walkway. Arik reached for his sword, but Maru held up her hand and shook her head. Just as Arik was really starting to get impatient, the thing wandered off the walkway and into a pool on the other side. Maru led us to a transport, and we all climbed aboard.
After riding for about an hour, we could see a battle of some sort going on in the distance. As we got closer, we could see a dozen of the giant crabs were attacking other creatures that looked like huge bugs. They were remarkably agile, and had weapons like none of us had seen before, but they were still outnumbered and seemed close to being overrun.
Arik got all excited when he figured out we were going to fight.
“Just wait and see Nara! I learned all sorts of awesome moves in the Arena. I’ll slaughter ‘em. They won’t even know what hit them. They’ll—“
Arik broke off in confusion. He stared out the window for a second and then turned to Yaisona.
“Which side are we on again?” he asked.
“Just kill whatever looks edible.”
“Right…I’ll rip their claws off! We’re gonna have seafood tonight!”
Yep. That’s my Arik. Some things never change.
Nulio seemed a little annoyed at Arik’s bragging. After all, with Arik gone, Nulio had been our strongest fighter. But I wasn’t too worried. Something told me Nulio would get the chance to prove himself to Arik soon enough. Maru brought the transport to a stop close to the battle. We drew our weapons and rushed to the aid of the Bugs.
One of the crabs advanced on Deen, and she swung her sword with a ferocious battle cry—and missed. Unfortunately, the crab didn’t, and its claw caught Deen in the side. Arik struck it with his sword slicing it completely in half. I felt a chill wind from behind me as Teriine aimed an icy blast at the crabs. Two of them shrieked and scuttled off into the pools beyond. Arik got slashed by one of the crabs. He yelled out and swung his sword. He killed it in one blow. Just then one of the crabs got Nulio. He clenched his fists in rage; this was not going to be pretty…
The crab exploded showering all of us with foul smelling guts. It was a bit excessive, but it definitely got Arik’s attention.
“I guess you’re not as big a wimp as I thought!” he admitted.
“Yeah, well, I’m just full of surprises!”
As much fun as the boys were having, we needed to hurry up and finish these things off. Yaisona was completely defenseless; her bolts bounced right off the things’ shells. Not to mention Deen had been pretty badly injured. Teriine shocked one of the pools and sent two of the crabs scuttling for deep water. I aimed a blast of cold at one of the three crabs that were left. It screeched and headed for the water. Alyssa slammed one of the crabs with an icy blast. It fell twitching onto its back. Yaisona ran up to the Bugs and tried to talk to them, but she wasn’t getting anywhere.
You’d think she’d at least wait till we were through fighting.
I cast amplify on Alyssa; one last blast of cold would kill the crab, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Apparently, Alyssa wasn’t either. She drove her sword straight through the creature’s brain, killing it instantly. Gertrude healed Nulio while Arik healed Deen.
“Why do I always have to save your hide?” he teased.
What Deen answered back does not bear repeating. We looked around at the carnage. There were crab corpses everywhere. Two of the Bugs had died during the battle. The Bugs started leaving, Maru followed them, and we followed Maru. Yaisona kept trying to communicate with them, but none of us could make sense of their clacking and chittering.
As they led us to their village, we passed an enormous ship half buried in the mud. I looked at Gertrude, and she shrugged. She’d never seen anything like it either. I would have liked to get a closer look at it, but now was not the time. Instead I concentrated, trying to get some idea of the Bugs’ intentions. They were hard to “read.” They were different, somehow, than any of the other strange beings we’ve met so far. However, one thing stood out loud and clear. They were afraid of us.
They led us past rows of crude mud huts to the center of their village and stopped in front of an odd looking machine. Maru tinkered with it for a few minutes, and it started up, but instead of the normal clacking and whirring of gears, it came to life with a coughing rumble. The leader of the Bugs spoke, and after a few seconds, the machine translated its words to a crude form of Falsaye. It thanked us for our aid. Teriine touched my shoulder, and I remembered she had no idea what had just been said. I turned to her and repeated everything as clearly as I could as the leader spoke. If they thought anything of it, they didn’t call attention to it.
It called us the Founders, and said that the “Bloodless One” had told them that we were coming. The Bloodless One was Maru. After a lot of effort and rewording on both sides, we gathered a few more strands of the web we’ve been caught in. Apparently the Bugs were the last remnants of the Invaders, and we had annihilated the rest of their race.
The Invaders had been afflicted by a terrible plague for which they had no cure. The people in charge had offered them a cure, but they had to come and claim it. The leader said that Kh’aosii was the world that had not been there before. When they got here, they were suspicious because there was a ship around the moon. They didn’t understand why they had to come for the cure, when it could have been brought to them. When they began “taking the cure,” the Founders had brought down “winds” that completely destroyed their fleet. The ship that was buried in the mud was the only ship that had survived, and that was only because they’d been able to crash land on the core.
“How did you communicate with Kha’osii in the first place?” I asked.
“We came in good faith, and you destroyed us,” the leader countered defensively.
They told us that our world was “dead,” but they couldn’t explain what they meant by that. They said that the “ones who had the cure” were battling the “ones who offered the cure.”
“But doesn’t matter anyway,” the leader told us, “because the ‘ones who had the cure’ are dying out, and there are no males left to carry on the race.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out that the “ones with the cure” were the Saturii and the “ones who offered the cure” were the alpha maintainers. They also called them the “hoofed ones.” The ship near the moon was sending signals again, and the “ones who offered the cure” were planning to leave Kh’aosii.
The leader couldn’t tell us how long ago all this had happened, or when they’d last had contact with “ones who had offered the cure,” only that it had not been in this generation.
“We need to find a way to breach the Citadel,” Yaisona announced.
“When the founders came the first time, they had weapons of incredible power,” the leader told us. “Without those weapons, you don’t stand a chance.”
We were all absolutely exhausted, and all of these revelations weren’t going to help if we were too mind fogged to comprehend any of it. Yaisona asked the leader if there was anywhere we could rest. He led us to one of the huts and let us be. We collapsed as soon as he left. A few hours later I was jolted awake by Nulio’s shouting.
“AYU!” he cried joyfully.
Maru must have repaired her while we were sleeping. She jumped to Nulio’s shoulder and nuzzled his face. I was surprised how happy I was to see the stupid bird. I told myself it’s because she’s finally proving to be useful. Maru entered the hut, and Nulio ran up to her babbling thanks. He went on and on until she finally held up her hands in surrender. Yaisona had been staring out the window, but she turned to face Maru when she came in.
“What’s causing the water to boil?” Yaisona asked.
Maru bent down and started to draw in the dirt floor. We gathered that the water was acting as a coolant, but what machinery could be large enough to give off that much heat? We asked her if the Kh’oass engine was here in the Core, but she just shrugged. Nulio asked Maru what we had all been thinking. Was she the Successor? Was Marianna still alive? Apparently Marianna is still alive, though we still have no idea where and as for Maru being the Successor, she just shrugged.
Yaisona gathered us all together to decide what our next move should be. Yaisona said that we could probably use the Trinaquinence paths to get back to Elbridge. She said the alpha maintainers had probably abandoned their ship when it crashed. Yaisona wanted that ship. Nulio pointed out that they still owed us for the transport, but something tells me they would blame us for the damage done by the alpha maintainers. And we’d probably have to fight Relic for it though having Deen with us might help. Yaisona sighed, and said that as much as she would like to get her hands on the alpha maintainers’ ship, it just wasn’t practical. We might not be able to get into the Citadel, but if the Saturii were still there we might be able to get their help. But first Yaisona wants to meet with the Invader leader one more time….