Light As A Feather
Trevor Michael Mouw
Chapter 1
Lud Compograv

“Stupid shoe!” whispered Lud Compograv.

He wanted to yell and throw the shoe through a window, but his brothers had warned him: any noise and they would fill the shed with snakes. He knew the woods outside their farm house were filled with snakes, and finding enough to cover him completely would be easy, although his brothers had probably collected a stockpile already for occasions just like this.

His four older brothers locked him inside hours ago. This was the third time this week he had been ambushed and thrown into the dusty storage shed next to their house. Bags of chicken feed piled around him, up to the rafters. Being thick for his age, Lud had room to sit cross-legged near the door, but not much more. Lud never put up much of a fight against their attacks.

The cramped little shed didn’t bother him. Neither did the darkness, because it let him be alone. Someday, he would stand up to them. Besides, it gave him all the time he needed to practice.

Lud looked at the shoe he had removed and set in front of him. He pinched his chubby little fingers together above it and pulled up his arm with a sweeping motion. Nothing moved; the shoe merely lay on the dirt floor. Again, Lud pinched the air together above his shoe and pulled upwards.

He knew he was doing everything right, everything he’d been taught, but the shoe remained still. Thousands of times his teachers had chanted the proper instructions. Focus on the object. Compress the air above the object by pinching it together. Then pull up your hand. It was one of the simplest moves.

Lud knew seven-year-olds who could do it properly, and he was eleven and a half. He knew what was supposed to happen. If done right, a tingling feeling would flow through his arms like electricity, and the shoe would fly. With practice, the shoe, or any object his skill would allow, could be controlled and sent flying in any direction he wanted.

The grown-ups called it “developing” . Each one of Lud’s classmates in his small southwestern village was properly developing powers like normal kids, except himself and a pale, tall, scrawny boy named Turp Paller. He thought about Duco Acer, a black haired, athletic boy who could already move thirty-pound objects all around the room, up to thirty feet away! When the teacher turned her back, Duco showed off to the class by switching items around on her desk. It frustrated Lud, but the class loved it, and thus loved Duco. Lud just wanted to lift a paperclip off his desk. So he worked harder than any of his classmates. He hoped his powers would reveal themselves soon.

Nobody could force the onset of their powers, but Lud still tried. He didn’t want to become one of the unlucky ones.

His teachers tried to reassure him. They told him some kids developed late, and he had little to worry about. After all, he was very heavy. “Developing the power causes people to become denser,” they told him. “Although they look the same, they become very heavy.”

Lud was wider than everyone in his class, but he didn’t feel dense; he just felt fat. One of the meaner rumors in school claimed Lud ate too much on purpose in order to trick people into thinking he had powers. Lud always tried to laugh it off, but it was hard. His brothers probably ate more food than he did, but nothing ever stuck to them. He played in the back woods and did his chores just as often as they did, but he was the only one who got fat. Lud hated the quiet comments he overheard his classmates whisper, but he just wasn’t the type to get revenge, so he settled on ignoring them.

He sighed at the thought and once again focused his attention on the beaten up shoe in the dimly lit storage shed. A loud scream broke the silence and his concentration. He squeezed to the front door of the shed and looked through a large crack between the door and its frame. He saw his mother marching from the chicken coop to the house, her hands clenched in anger. Three patchwork scarecrows floated behind her in a line, dripping dirt from the base of their posts, which had once been anchored in the wheat fields. Lud’s three older brothers skipped behind, laughing and hitting each other as they followed.

“Olim Compograv! Come outside and punish your sons!”

Lud knew his mother was mad when she used their full names, but when she used their father’s full name, she was furious. His dad hustled out the front door.

“Calm down, sweetheart. What happened?” Lud’s dad was tall and strong, and respected by every person in their village. If a quarrel broke out between neighbors, it was Olim Compograv who was called in to mediate, or in some cases, separate. Even his signature bushy mustache made men feel ashamed to be in his presence. However, none of this seemed to intimidate his wife, Portitas Compograv, who cared nothing about growing facial hair.

“I’ve been working outside all day, getting things ready for winter, and every single time I turned around the scarecrows were right there, staring at me. I just went into the chicken coup to check if they had enough feed. I was in there for two seconds, and when I turned around, these boys had all three scarecrows standing in the doorway! I’ve had enough, Olim! Do something!”

“I know you’ve had enough, honey. I’m sorry. Why don’t you go inside while I take care of this? Okay?”

Lud’s mother scowled at her husband and stepped inside the house, slamming the door behind her. From inside she yelled something about feeding the chickens. Lud could tell that his mother knew no punishment would be coming to her sons; there never was.

Olim Compograv was always fair when justice was needed within the community, but when it came to his own sons, he was a softy.

“So, guys,” began their dad. “It looks like we should be getting a good snowfall tonight. They expect this to be the start of a very thick winter. How long will it be until you can start the Winter Battles?”

Lud quit looking out the crack and put his ear to it instead. He had looked forward to the Winter Battles as long as he could remember. He always listened in awe when his brothers told their stories of the epic snow battles fought during the noon-hour recess breaks throughout the winter months. He didn’t know if boys and girls in the large cities in the middle of the country played the same kinds of games, or whether the northern fishing villages even had schools at all, but down in southern villages like Wiyaka Hills, the Winter Battles were a big deal.

“We’re keeping the same teams from last year,” said Yason, Lud’s fifteen-year-old brother, “so we’ll be able to start tomorrow if there’s enough snow on the ground.”

Yason and Lud shared their father’s dark, sun-bathed skin and thick brown hair, but that was the end of their similarities. Out of all his brothers, Lud admired Yason the most. Yason was bold and assertive; two things Lud longed to be most of all.

“My class is picking new teams this year,” said Fulger, who was fourteen and three grades above Lud. “It will be a few weeks before we start our games. Lud’s class will probably take that long too since it will be their first year. Although, I wonder if they will even let him play. Who would want him on their team? Lud the dud.”

“Lud will play,” said Yason. “He can throw snowballs and stuff, but he won’t be much of a help. Imagine him bending down the entire time, packing snowballs together. He’ll be a sitting duck. I’m sure he’ll get eliminated right away, like Fulger did last year when it was his first year.”

Fulger responded by punching Yason in the back and running away. Yason yelped and chased after him. Rapyo, who was seventeen and Lud’s oldest brother, scoffed and went inside the house.

Although he was excited, Lud knew these playground battles were basically just a way to work on, or show off, your abilities. Abilities he didn’t seem to have. He wondered how he could really be a part of his team. Certainly no team would consider him an asset. Going out on the field and throwing snowballs would prove to everyone he was different from them, but avoiding the game altogether would be even worse.

While imagining himself standing alone in the playground, the target of his classmates’ biggest snowballs, he heard his dad walk over to his shed, unlock the door, and throw it open. The bright light blinded him temporarily.

“Lud? What are you doing in here again? Go inside and wash for dinner.” The snowstorm that night brought much more snow than his father had predicted, so only one topic filled the minds and mouths of Lud’s classmates that day: The Battles.

There was so much whispering inside the classroom that the teacher twice threatened the class with being kept after school for an extra ten minutes as punishment. However, threats didn’t bother anyone because the team-picking was happening during noon hour, not after school. In the back corner of the classroom, Lud sat in his wooden desk with the flip-up top. He opened the desk slowly, trying to make as little a creak as the old thing could manage, and looked inside. Every item inside his desk, from the little paper clips to the large book of number problems had refused his attempts to make them float or move in any direction. Still, he took out his favorite practice item; a small man he had molded out of clay in art class the year before. Now it was hard as rock. The clay man had one arm missing from the time Lud thought it might work better to start with the man already in the air.

He placed the man, standing up, on the top of his desk and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Mrs. Jumentum, their teacher, busily wrote the name of each city and its senator on the chalkboard. The rest of the class was passing notes through the air. The students learned long ago that it was hard to see what their teacher was writing on the board, due to her broad shoulders and wild, black hair, so they stopped trying. At the moment, Lud could only make out CHANT CITY: DOLENS, RUNA. So instead, his class developed a fairly complex highway system for passing notes so that no note would ever hit another or make a noise the teacher might hear.

Lud used to get quite a few notes at first, but when it became obvious that he couldn’t easily send any back, the students sent fewer and fewer his way.

Lud pinched his fingers around the air above the man’s head and pulled up with his arm, but the guy just stood there with a goofy, cracked smile on his face. He regretted the day he gave the man that stupid, little smirk.

A rolled up piece of paper landed with a light thud on his desk. He didn’t need to look around to find out who sent it because it had the crown symbol Duco Acer liked to put on all his notes. Still, it was nice to finally get a note again. He opened it quickly. It was brief.

Dear classmate, Meet on the north hill at noon recess. We’ll be picking battle teams. - Duco

Lud looked around at the similar notes on other kids’ desks. Everyone had one. To his right he saw Turp Paller reading his note with a smile. Lud couldn’t remember a time when Turp had ever received a note. He wondered if Turp realized how useless and unwanted he would be to whichever team picked him.

Everybody knew Turp Paller was a Feather.

Turp wasn’t called a Feather because of his pale skin or his small size—Turp was actually very tall, although he did have pale skin—but because Feather was the name given to anyone who was never going to develop their power. By the time Feathers became adults, although they were the same height and looked the same size as a normal adult, they weighed over a thousand pounds less.

Being a Feather meant getting all the worst jobs and, most likely, not many friends either. So Lud never talked to Turp out of fear that other people would see them together and start calling Lud a Feather as well.

He knew the only reason he was not yet labeled a Feather was because his brothers were so talented with their own powers that everybody assumed he was bound to have them too. They wouldn’t wait forever though.

Mrs. Jumentum continued to block her own writing for the next twenty minutes, until the bell was rung for lunch. Lud guessed that a new record for “fastest eating by an entire class” was set that lunch period. Within three minutes his entire class was outside, huddled at the bottom of the north hill, looking up at Duco Acer.

“The battle team leaders from the classes above us have chosen me to give the official instructions,” said Duco. “And as the chosen leader, I have selected myself and three others to be the team captains. I will be the captain of the blue team. Chase will be the captain of the red team. Rev will be the captain of the Yellow team. And Shanta will be the captain of the Black team.”

A few kids were surprised that Duco would appoint Shanta Potesti, a girl, as a team captain, but Lud saw her in gym class and knew she could hold her own in any competition. She had very strong powers and took joy in beating as many boys as she could. Although it happened often, being beaten by Shanta Potesti in a contest was incredibly embarrassing for boys in Lud’s class. Not because she was a girl, but because she was a very pretty girl. Shanta certainly belonged in that position more than he would have.

The entire class was then picked, one by one, into four teams. Both cheers and groans sprang out after each selection. Lud guessed he would be one of the last boys picked, but his heart still quickened as more boys were selected, leaving few left next to him in the huddle. Shanta had even picked two girls already, much to the disgust of the remaining boys—and to the thrill of the other three team leaders.

Soon Lud found himself at the bottom of the hill with only two other boys, a bunch of girls, and Turp Paller.

“I’ll take Lud Compograv,” said Duco Acer, staring down at the leftovers. Lud’s pulse jumped when he heard his name, and he paused to look around before going forward, but he stopped walking up the hill after seeing many of his new teammates arguing with Duco.

“You can’t be serious, Duco.”

“That was an awful pick.”

“You know he hasn’t got his power yet, don’t you, Duco?”

Lud guessed Duco hadn’t known this, because of the look of terror striking across Duco’s face. He looked down the hill at Lud, whose knees started to shake. This was exactly the type of situation Lud feared the most.

“You have to take him, Duco!” cried Chase.

“It’s in the rules, Duco,” said Rev. “A player picked is a player picked.”

“I know the rules!” Duco shouted back. “I’m the one they were given to.”

Duco looked back to Lud with an anger that made him feel more worthless than before. “Get in with the team, Lud.”

After passing more angry stares on his way to the back of the line, Lud watched as the rest of his blue team was put together. Ten girls were picked before Turp Paller, who was chosen by a now furious Duco Acer. Lud thought the idea of having two undeveloped boys on his team was driving Duco crazy.

“Form up!” Duco shouted after his final selection walked up. Lud and his classmates paused, looked around for a while, and then simply moved closer together. “You guys should all be thankful. You should be thankful, not because I picked you, but because those other idiot captains didn’t pick you. Time after time I watched those losers make horrible pick after horrible pick. And each time my turn came up, I jumped quickly to grab one of you before they had realized their mistake. Some teams have power, some teams have speed, but we are the only team with so much of both that it’s oozing out our ears. Still, these things are nothing without strategy. If the game was played tomorrow, I am sure we have the talent and the desire to win, but if we want to destroy these guys, then we need plans. The older kids have given me tons of knowledge about how to win these battles. I can lead you guys.”

Duco turned and pointed to Bardus, the tallest kid on the team. “Bardus, where is your heart?” Bardus looked confused and embarrassed to be singled out, but after a while, he touched his finger to his chest, looking more than a little awkward. “Bardus, where is your brain?” Bardus pointed to his head and smiled at how well he was doing in this quiz. “And now, which is more important, your brain or your heart?” Bardus paused for a few seconds, giving the question a good deal of thought, and then responded, “Um… both?” “Ha. You see? There are no idiots on this team!” cried Duco. “We know we need both heart and brains to dominate these games. You guys have the heart, and I have the brains. I will give you all formations to learn and you can practice them in your free time. Know them well and we will be unstoppable. We’ll meet again tomorrow and I’ll give you the formations. Wear blue.”

After school, Lud saw Duco waiting for him at the bottom of the steps outside the main door. “Lud, I need to talk to you,” said Duco. “Blue teams have always done well in these battles. Our team is as strong as any team I’ve heard of, but we have to keep things organized, and we have to play smart. We can’t have any unnecessary losses. This is why I have a special assignment for you, Lud.” Duco put his hand on Lud’s shoulder and leaned in as if he were telling Lud a big secret. “I need you and Turp to stick together and work as a single unit. The idea is that you just might be able to constantly save each other from being eliminated long enough for the rest of the team to get the victory. Many people are calling the two of you dead weight, Lud, but I don’t see you as dead weight if you work together. You’ll be a great asset to our team if you can keep each other in the game. This will work best if you two stay towards the back of the field, out of the way of the real battles. As long as the two of you are still in the game, our team can’t lose.”

“Sure” was all Lud could say at the time.

Duco walked away with a pleased smile, but Lud saw the twist in Duco’s words. Of course, his team couldn’t lose if he was in the game; every player on a team had to be eliminated for the team to lose.

Lud was starting to dread the battles even more. It was one thing to be the underdog, but having to babysit an even worse player was too much. The battles didn’t start for a week, but he would rather they didn’t start for months. Maybe by then his stupid powers might come.

The next day Lud received a note on his desk during one of Mrs. Jumentum’s attempts at working a long division example. The class loved math for the simple reason that they took joy from the fact that their teacher was as equally bad at it as they were. There was also plenty of time to pass notes. This note, however, hadn’t come through a long flight route because it came from Turp Paller, who sat in the row next to Lud, and couldn’t make anything fly. It was simply tossed over. Lud didn’t want to read it, but Turp kept looking over at him so he opened it up.

Dear Lud, Did Duco talk to you? Did he tell you our plan? He talked to me yesterday and told me the plan he had for you and me. I think it could really work. Working in pairs is a great way to keep each other alive, and think of the damage we could do when we go in firing snowballs with two people! My dad said it would be okay if you wanted to come over to our house after school and practice our throwing accuracy. I think I’m getting pretty deadly. I bet you have a strong arm. So, do you want to come over and practice? - Turp

It frustrated Lud that Turp didn’t understand that Duco was only making this plan as a way of keeping the two of them out of the way of the battle. Duco only wanted them alive because being the only team with players alive was how you won the game. He was sure there would be no way Duco would let them ‘go in firing with two people.’ Extra practice with a Feather was the last thing he wanted.

He wrote back only four words.

Not today. Maybe tomorrow.

When another note was tossed onto his desk, Lud became even more frustrated.

Dear Lud, That’s ok! Tomorrow would probably work even better because then I can set up targets to practice on. And I’ll tell my mom to make something really good for supper too. Do you think that anyone else on our team would want to join our practice sessions? - Turp

Lud doubted any of the other kids would want to come to practice with two nothings like him and Turp.

Abstract chapter design

NATRIX’S RUN

“Natrix! Hurry!”

The trees hung low and the brush was thick and tall, coming up to his neck and making it very difficult to be seen from the village behind them, but it slowed six-year-old Natrix to such a crawl that he was certain their doom would be entirely his fault.

He tried to lift his knees higher as he ran, to quicken the pace, but his fastest jog equaled only the swift walk of his two adult companions holding his hands as they raced through the grove.

He had to run faster. These men should not die because of him. The orange glow of the fires illuminated the terror on their faces as they looked back, searching to see if they were followed. The long blades used to clear their path also reflected their burning village.

The most vibrant light Natrix had seen since the Week of Darkness began was casting everything into a hellish glow.

Natrix tried not to look back; he slowed them enough already. He could see the fear in the eyes of the two adults with him, an unknown man and Genero Magus, the village’s burly carpenter and a friend of his mother’s.

As they reached a clearing, one of the men, the one whom Natrix did not know, threw his blade to Genero Magus, grabbed Natrix by the bicep, and hurled him up onto his broad shoulders. Natrix hesitated to grab hold of the stranger’s long, white hair, but the old man’s sprint was strong, and there was nothing else to steady him.

As soon as his fingers grasped the hair, he felt a familiar burning in his arms. It was not slow, like burns from too much daylight, but intense and white like lightning, and it spiraled from his finger tips up his arms.

When it shot back down, the force burst through his palms, and pushed the old man forward.

He fell at full speed, with Natrix still on his shoulders.

The ground slapped him with massive force and everything turned much darker. Before Natrix’s mind regained control of his limbs, the old man jumped up, grabbed the back of Natrix’s tunic, slung the boy over his shoulder, and continued his sprint.

Natrix now faced the fire, but he could only see a blurred band of orange amidst the darkness.

Suddenly, the old man was on the ground again, and Natrix again slid across the dirt.

“He’s grown too heavy, Genero,” yelled the man, then, close to Natrix’s ear, he spoke: “Boy, you have to run now. Go straight for the cave.”

“I can’t see anything,” said Natrix. “There are only bands of light and dark.”

The old man held the boys arms, raised him to his feet, and turned him away from the blaze of the distant fires. “Run forward, the path is straight and clear. Look for the darkest area you can see; that’s where the cave is. Run straight into the darkness. Your mother is already there. She will guide you when you get inside. Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not.”

Natrix peered out and found the darkest place he could. He ran towards it, keeping his sight always on the black mouth of the cave. Despite his headache and the uneasiness of being unable to see what lay in front of his feet, he sprinted through the clearing.

By the time he neared the mouth of the cave, his eyesight returned enough to distinguish it was certainly a cave. He ran into the opening, but there was no one there to greet him. He turned back towards the clearing, towards the flames, and saw the dark outline of a man running towards him.

“Get farther inside the cave!” yelled Genero as he got closer.

A scream rang out behind him. A man’s scream. An agonizing, painful scream. Chills ran up the boy’s spine and down his arms. When Genero reached Natrix, he nudged the boy onward with his elbow, swords still in each hand, urging Natrix farther inside the cave.

“My arms hurt!” yelled Natrix. The pain was growing in his arms as he was led farther along the rocks. The cave became darker and darker. It was a large cave and reflected light well off its shiny walls. His eye sight was getting stronger too, but they were far inside now.

“I know it hurts, Natrix. If you can, try and calm your nerves, but keep moving.”

Natrix took deep breaths and kept his arms still, but when he calmed his thoughts, he heard the footsteps. It was faint, the light tapping of a hundred claws, but it sounded swift, and it scared him to his core. Genero stopped running and looked grave, causing Natrix to stop as well. Genero turned his back to Natrix.

“Keep going,” said Genero. “They’ll reach here soon. A little farther inside there will be a door built into the cave. That is your only hope. They will protect you, but you have to run. Go.”

The tapping turned to thundering.

Natrix attempted to run, his arms now hot as fire, but instead he fell to his knees. It was hard to raise his arms up to eye level, but when he did he saw long white scars had formed on each arm, spiraling from his shoulder to his wrist.

He saw this despite the darkness because each spiral, the width of one of his fingers, gave off a faint light. Natrix heard the sudden rip of blade through flesh and the scream of the beast who received the strike. He turned back to Genero and, as the light from his own arms illuminated the cave, saw the floor, walls, and ceiling covered with winged creatures crawling towards them.

They were short, even shorter than him, but their wings and tail made them appear larger. Their faces were long, like a dog’s, and he could see their sharp teeth extend out their mouths. Genero swung frantically but precisely as the horde descended upon him.

They were no match for him individually, but for each one he killed, another took its place.

Finally, one of the creatures turned its eyes to Natrix. It dropped to the ground in front of him, and as it moved closer, he could see it better, the light from his arms intensifying. The skin was not smooth, but full of tiny, dark scales. There was the pungent smell of death. The creature arched its back for a second, and then lunged at him. Reflex raised his arms to brace for impact.

Instantly the heat left his arms through the palms, blasting the creature in half and sending both parts flying backwards.

Natrix stood stunned, his arms still glowing, but no longer in pain.

Another creature flew past its dead brethren and attacked him. Palm forward, he thrust his left arm towards the beast. It froze in midair. Without thinking, he reached out with both arms and clapped his hands together towards the suspended enemy. The pulse which roared forward was invisible, but he could see its effects. Everything in the near vicinity was thrust back with enormous force. This included Genero, who landed on top of a pile of wings and limbs.

Then the cave shook violently. Large sections of stone fell and smashed on the floor. Natrix ran to Genero, but before he was halfway, a loud crack resounded through the cave, and a large section fell from the ceiling, above the place where Genero was laying. Natrix desperately grabbed forward, trying to push the feeling out his arms, towards the falling rock. His mind missed, having reached out to where it had been, and grabbed the air above it. However, the stone stopped falling and hung a few feet above Genero’s body. It was heavy though. Natrix could feel his mind losing focus and his arms losing strength. With his hands still clenched, he started moving the focus of his mind to the side, away from Genero.

Then another crack.

The ceiling crashed down directly above him.

Nearly the entire cave was destroyed or caved in. Pieces of ceiling littered around Natrix, everywhere except the tiny area where he stood, his palms facing up, above his head.

Chapter 2
The Winter Battles

After school the next day, Lud walked with Turp down the gravel road to the Paller farm despite a strong desire to ditch the kid and run home. The first thing he noticed when they came within sight was how enormous the house was. It was tall, two-storied, with a wooden porch wrapped around the entire ground-level. Lud had not expected to see such a grand farm because Feathers always worked the worst jobs.

“Oh, my dad isn’t a Feather,” said Turp when Lud asked him about it. “He owns a big construction company. In fact, my dad started construction because he could lift things much heavier than most people. Did you know he believes that he once had made himself fly?”

Wow. Lud knew only those with really great power could make themselves, or any other person, fly.

“Come inside, you can meet him. Maybe he’ll let you see his knife collection.”

When they went inside, Lud saw the knife collection and every other cool thing in the museum of a house. Turp’s dad told a story for every piece, and at the end of the tour Mrs. Paller gave Lud a selection of just about every type of cookie imaginable. The Pallers seemed strangely happy, considering their son was a Feather.

Later, Lud followed Turp out the back door into the yard. By this time he wasn’t surprised by the size of the yard, the Paller family’s wealth seemed limitless, but his jaw dropped at the sight of an army of a dozen wooden dummies standing by a monstrous snow fort. In a line on the side of the yard were four piles of pre-made snowballs, each about four feet high. The set up was so elaborate and unexpected that Lud began to get excited for the first time since the team selections.

“My dad asked his workers to make those dummies for us to use, and I packed those piles of snowballs yesterday after school,” Turp told him. Lud thought it must have taken until sundown to make that many snowballs. Turp ran down to the first pile. “Watch this,” he shouted back. He picked the top snowball and immediately side-armed it at the first dummy, hitting it right in the eyes. He then grabbed the next snowball, planted his feet, but this time threw it towards the dummy farthest away from him. Again Turp hit his mark, right at the top of the face. “I practice a lot.”

For a while Lud stood speechless at the accuracy of Turp’s throw, and then he ran down to the snow piles himself. Grabbing the top snowball, he backed up to get his aim on the closest dummy. Focusing on the chest, he pulled back and threw as hard as he could. The snowball missed its mark by five feet and landed with a thud into a clean patch of snow. Lud’s face turned red.

“Wow, you have a strong arm!” said Turp as he picked up a couple more snowballs. “Hit someone straight on and you could take their head off!” Lud smiled at the thought. Turp fired a shot and hit a dummy in the heart. His follow-up hit in the exact same spot.

Lud practiced with Turp three more times before the day of the first battle and could hit all of the stationary targets, as well as most of the moving targets Turp’s dad strung up on the clothesline. When the bell for noon recess rang, Lud walked onto the battlefield with his chest out, wearing his blue coat and hat. A rush pulsed down his back when he saw the three other teams standing in formation in their corners of the field. Each team stood in front of a snow fort built the week before. This was the only cover they would get in the beginning of the battle. Anything else must to be built where needed as the game went on. It had snowed a few more times during the week so plenty of extra snow was available to use.

Duco Acer stood in the middle of the field with his arms in the air, waiting for attention.

“Battles will begin each day when I blow my whistle,” he yelled. “We will play each day during noon recess until only one team is left. When the bell to end noon recess rings, the game will pause until the next day, and anyone who can’t move at that time will be eliminated. Any player can quit at any time. If anyone starts to bleed, they are eliminated. Any questions?”

This was the third time that Duco had read the rules to the class so there weren’t any questions. Most kids just yelled at Duco to start the game. He blew his whistle and immediately ran to his blue teammates.

The blue team rushed forward a few steps and then stopped. The entire group started transporting snow from the ground, forming two floating walls for protection. Already a few snowballs started falling around them, but most of the other teams used a similar style start, deciding to advance their defenses before making any sort of attack. The red team, however, fell apart immediately. Half their players were building walls while the other half ran into the battlefield at random, forming and shooting as many snowballs as they could, while their leader cussed at them for breaking rank.

“Follow me, Lud!” yelled Turp, running along the perimeter of the battlefield, away from the blue base. Lud worried what Duco would say if he left formation, but it was his primary job to stay with Turp. So Lud followed Turp as he tip-toed along the edge of the battlefield for a while and then cut inside towards the middle of the field.

Sprinting through the field, Lud looked around and saw at least fifteen girls already walking off the field, most wearing yellow coats.

He dashed after Turp, who raced towards one of the free-roaming red players. Turp was much faster than other kids in the class. In a move they practiced many times during their sessions, Turp reached down in full sprint, grabbed some snow, and hurled it forward.

It hit the red player in the face just as he turned.

Just as they planned, Turp continued past the snow-faced player to his next target. Lud lowered his shoulder, tackling the kid before he could remove the snow from his eyes.

“Ow! You’re hurting my arm!” the kid yelled as Lud laid on top of him. “I give up!”

Lud jumped to his feet. The thrill of eliminating his first player overpowered the loss of breath from the sprint. He looked around to see where Turp had struck next. Turp was already jogging back to him, laughing hysterically.

“Lud!” Turp yelled. “I just hit a red player running full speed. It blinded him, and he crashed directly into one of his teammates. They both got bloody noses and were eliminated!” Lud laughed and wished he had seen that.

He looked out across the field to his blue team, now moving as a unit towards the yellow base. Resembling a shaggy dog in the wind, they jogged with all their arms waving around them. Ahead of them, a cloud of snow-dust flew up; blinding the players huddled at the yellow base.

On the other side of the field, Shanta led her Black team against the remaining red players who had followed their leader’s orders and stayed put at their red base. Lud could barely make it out at this distance, but he was sure that when the Black team reached the base, he saw Shanta kick Chase in the crotch, dropping him instantly.

Turp must have noticed it too because his jaw dropped, but before Lud could say anything, a lump of snow the size of a basketball hit him in the chest, knocking him backward into the snow.

Before he could react, an equally large snowball hit him in the back of the head and he went face forward into the snow. As he started to get up another large pile of snow fell on top of him.

Then another.

Then another.

Before long, enough snow piled on top of him that he could no longer move. Everything became dark as the snow coffin closed around him. Lud struggled to free any part of his body, but nothing could budge. Recess was almost over. He had to get out before the bell rang and eliminated him.

What if he never got out? Would anybody remember him? Nobody cared about him. What if he suffocated? He had no idea how long air lasted in snow and it was cold to breathe. He tried to scream, but snow filled his mouth and he coughed.

Then a little light shone through. Quickly, snow was brushed out of his face. He saw Turp frantically digging at his side, digging Lud to freedom. Before long, he could sit up. He wiped a tear from his eyes. He hadn’t realized he’d been crying, but if he had been, he didn’t want Turp to see it. Lud looked over and saw one of the red players lying in the snow unconscious.

“I punched him out before he and his friend could bury you alive,” said Turp. “It really hurt my fist. His friend saw it and ran away. He’s over there crying.” Lud looked over at a kid with a red coat crouched over. “Unfortunately for him, he ran straight into the Shanta. Poor kid. He should have let me punch him out.” Turp smiled. Lud smiled too.

The outside bell rang, and every player froze and stopped what they were doing. A number of players who were pinned down or couldn’t move were eliminated. Those captured were set free, and everyone walked off the field and into the building.

After school, Lud felt too tired to practice at Turp’s house, but considered inviting Turp home for supper — something he thought he’d never have the desire to do. When he found Turp outside, in front of the school, he noticed Duco Acer jogging over to them.

“He’s probably going to congratulate us for battling so well today,” said Turp. “Hey, Duco, good start today! Do you think any of the team will want to come to practice sessions at my house so we can get even better?”

“Shut up, Turp,” said Duco, shoving the Feather to the side and advancing on Lud. “What do you think you are doing? I told you two losers to stay back, out of the way of everybody. The last thing we need is you two bumbling around and hurting our chances of winning. I shouldn’t have to spend any time worrying about two worthless Feathers.”

I’m not a Feather, thought Lud.

“Shove off, Duco,” said Turp. “Lud and I probably eliminated more players than your stupid formations did! Are you worried a couple of Feathers will steal your glory?”

“I’m not a Feather!” shouted Lud. He wanted to run away then, but he didn’t. He just stood there, silent. Turp tried to apologize. Even Duco stopped his threats, but Lud just stood there unresponsive.

After a few minutes, he walked home alone, in silence.

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At the beginning of recess two days later, Lud stood on the battlefield, inside the blue snow fort. During the previous day’s class Lud had been certain everyone was whispering about him; the fact that Duco had labeled him a Feather would be circulating quickly. He spent the entire previous day’s battle sitting inside the base with Turp, who tried desperately to get Lud to go out and fight with him, but it was no use. Lud didn’t want to stand out, fight, or do anything. He had been stupid to think a Feather could ever live a normal life and be accepted in this world. Turp was a good friend, he was loyal and adventurous, but he was still not a complete person. Now Lud would never be either. He decided then, the best thing he could do was to finish this stupid game the way Duco wanted him to, and hopefully some people might not reject him.

So Lud and Turp watched that battle through one of the carved-out windows at the Blue team’s small base. He saw the red team get finished off completely, while Rev survived to play another day with only two yellow players left. Not counting Lud or Turp, the Blue and Black teams each had seven players remaining at the final recess bell.

The next day, the remaining players returned to their positions on the field.

Lud hoped the game would end that day and end his misery. Again, he sat inside the Blue base and watched the action from a distance, not wanting to be a part of it.

“Lud, snap out of it,” Turp cried after a while. “Our team needs us. The Black team eliminated the last three yellow players. It’s only Blue and Black now! Shanta has no idea the two of us are still in this game. We can flank them around the outside and catch them by surprise.”

Lud sat up a bit and looked out the opening. He noticed the rest of the class had gathered around the outside of the battlefield to watch the final moments. If he went out now, everyone would see two Feathers trying to play with the normal kids.

He just couldn’t do the amazing things the other kids could; especially the best of everybody: Duco and Shanta. Lud watched jealously as the two team captains fought in the middle of the field. It would have looked like they were each dancing, twenty feet apart, if not for the flurry of snow formations flying through the air. Each person attacked and counter-attacked. At one point a particularly large blast of snow hit Duco in the chest, sending him over backwards. At this, the three other blue players rushed in to take their turn, but Shanta paused their snowballs, and with a wave, swept the snow from under their feet. They crashed to the ground. Duco retaliated with an intense barrage of the most compacted snowballs he could make.

Then Lud noticed something beyond the battle. The three remaining Black players were under a much different order than Duco’s Blue team, because they had ran back to their fort and were now hurrying back to the action. Floating behind them were six large icicles.

“That’s cheating!” yelled Turp. “Ice isn’t allowed. That’s not fair. I’ve got to help them.”

“Turp—”

“It doesn’t matter what they said about us, Lud. We’re still in this fight. They’re still our teammates!”

Turp rounded the corner of the snow fort. Lud jumped back to the window to see what was happening. Icicles hung in the air, pointed at the blue team, ready to strike. The blue players gave up and dropped to their knees. Shanta took one of the icicles for herself, and in a mist of powdered snow, lifted the point up against Duco’s chest. He put his hands in the air, but did not speak.

Suddenly, Shanta’s concentration broke. Turp’s snowball hit her in the back of her head, causing the icicle to drop to the ground in front of Duco.

Immediately, three large snowballs knocked Turp to the ground. Snow quickly landed on his arms and legs, pinning him to the ground.

Duco spun the icicle in front of him and sent it skimming across the ground towards Shanta. She noticed in time and shot it flying into the air, changed its course, and brought it piercing down. It barely sliced Duco’s leg, but enough to draw blood.

Duco was out.

Then Lud saw something that made his heart stop. The four remaining enemies were forming snow together in the air, collecting it into one giant snowball, as big as any kid.

Shanta pointed to Turp.

Lud’s pulse soared as he rounded out of the snow fort and sprinted towards his friend. Intensity pumped his legs to push him across the snow as fast as he could go.

The snowball was crashing down at Turp.

With a last great effort, Lud flung himself forward, landing on his knees near Turp's head.

Lud thrust out his arms, palms forward.

An electric shock pierced up his spine, filled his arms, and then exploded out his hands.

The snowball hung in the air, just feet away from the two boys.

Lud felt himself ripped off the ground towards the ball, as it exploded backwards, covering Shanta and the other three with snow.

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Lud awoke several minutes later, on his back in the middle of the battlefield. His arms felt hot, as if they were badly burnt, but the rest of his body was cold. When he looked around, he saw he was surrounded by classmates and teachers looking down at him, and right there in the front were Turp and Duco.

“Guys, he’s waking up. Everybody stand back and let him have some air,” said Turp. “We tried to move you inside but you were too heavy for anybody to lift. You must have gained about 500 pounds! How are you feeling?”

“Fine. A bit tired.”

“Lud! We thought you had zapped yourself dead!” said Duco.

“What happened?” asked Lud.

“It was awesome,” said Turp. “You used your power to totally destroy the giant snowball they were going to use to smash me to bits. Then you flew! You were seriously floating in the air for like five minutes! It was the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“The rest of the students ran up and disqualified the Black team for using icicles,” said Duco. “However, we technically didn’t win because you were floating there unconscious when the bell rang, and Turp was stuck down to the ground. It was a tie, so we’re starting over. Same teams.”

Lud looked at Turp, smiled, and said “Then I know a great place for us to practice.”

Chapter 3
The Show

In the dirt between two large bushes and a tall, oak tree, Lud Compograv used his chubby finger to draw a diagram of everything he could remember about the plan. The bottom of his tunic was filthy from sitting the entire morning, and he was very bored. A branch floated in front of him, blocking the only opening from which he could be seen. His brothers Yason and Fulger sat a safe distance further in the woods. They were directing the branch near Lud to hover in the air, because every time Lud tried, the branch either wouldn’t move, or it shot high into the air.

Since last winter, Lud’s progress with his new powers was irritatingly slow.

Shanta Potesti had been the first person in Lud’s class to develop powers, and in the four years since then, Lud watched his classmates progress from lifting small stones to levitating their school desks when the teacher wasn’t watching.

The Winter Games ended with some truly impressive feats. Duco’s tornado. The Red team’s “snowmen diversion” . Lud, however, failed to recreate anything close to the power he had used to stop the colossal snowball. In fact, Lud had eliminated more players before his powers came then he did after. His lack of battle effectiveness hadn’t bothered him though, he had just been happy to be normal. Not a Feather, just a late bloomer.

Now it was summer. Lud was twelve and frustrated with his powers once again. The ability to lift something without touching it was only a useful skill when it could be controlled. Nobody was impressed that he could make a pencil hit the ceiling when theirs were writing words in the air.

Lud moved his hand above a flat stone next to him in the dirt, focused with his mind, and pinched his fingers together. The stone flew up, but instead of hovering, it continued until it bashed into his pinched fingers.

“Ouch!”

“Lud, shut up!” yelled Yason from his hiding place.

Although no longer the freak within his family, his new abilities hadn’t changed his brothers’ opinions of him. They were still jerks. His important role in this new plan had been emphasized so many times that he knew it was just a way of covering up how stupid and dangerous the job actually was.

Lud’s brothers had tied a rope around his waist. This rope ran up the tree, over one of the branches, and connected to a wooden crate set up in a clearing a short distance away. They told him he was the support. He was the anchor.

“You’re the heaviest, Lud,” Fulger had told him, but it wasn’t true. Lud was a very plump twelve-year-old, but he knew all of his older brothers were much heavier than he was. The stronger your powers were, the heavier you became, as if your body was suddenly made of iron instead of flesh. Fulger knew this, he knew everything, but even Fulger could “forget” seemingly pivotal information if it resulted in Lud’s unhappiness.

“Okay, Lud,” said Yason, “when the demon runs inside the crate to steal the doll, it will realize the trap and try to fly away. It will probably be able to lift up the entire crate, so we need you down there to hold it to the ground.”

Yason was muscular with broad shoulders and the only Compograv with blue eyes. He always kept his hair cut short and neat. Although Yason was shorter than their brother Rapyo, and two years younger, Lud thought Yason was the most mature. Unless somebody suggested picking on Lud, of course.

“But what if it’s strong enough to carry me and the box?” Lud asked. “That Balena kid was even fatter than I was, and a demon carried him away. Remember?”

“Don’t be stupid, Lud,” said Fulger. “There was probably more than one that time. Besides, he wasn’t fatter than you.” Fulger had curly brown hair, a thin nose, and a sharp jaw-line, and, although Lud thought Fulger could be a real nerd, every girl in Fulger’s class wanted to talk to him.

“Yeah,” said Yason. “They’d need at least two demons to carry your huge butt away, but we already thought about that. We built the trap just big enough for one. You’re welcome. Now go sit in the bushes. You’re ruining my plan.”

Although none of Lud’s brothers would have been considered skinny besides Rapyo, they would never be called fat either. Lud wondered why he alone had been so “blessed” .

“But if there are more than one demon, wouldn’t the sight of one caught in a trap, make the rest even madder?” asked Lud, crouching lower in his hiding place, but his brothers ignored him. He really didn’t like this plan. It was too much like all the other plans before it; there was too much chance for Lud to get seriously hurt.

The demons they were hunting first started terrorizing the country of Emityna well before Lud was born. He heard stories from his parents about attacks on different villages throughout the land, and each one ended the same way; someone from the village was always kidnapped. Most often it was children, but adults had been taken before as well. If Lud remembered right, his dad had said seventeen people had been stolen since the attacks began back when his dad was his age.

There hadn’t been an attack in ten years, but people were still scared. Because of these demons, children were not allowed to play in the mountain range near Wiyaka Hills, on the eastern edge of the country or in the woods on the foothills. In the stories, the demons always came from these mountains and woods.

So, of course, it was the most effective place to set a demon trap, according to Lud’s brothers.

Suddenly the rope above the branch whizzed forward and the section around Lud’s waist pulled hard. The branches floating in front of him dropped to the ground.

“Run, Lud!” yelled Yason. “Get out of there!”

Lud jumped to his feet and pushed through the bushes, but the rope held tight, stopping him after two steps. His hands scrambled to undo the knot.

“I can’t get the rope off!” Lud yelled. “Help!”

“We’re coming, don’t worry!”

Yason ran out from behind the trees where they had been hiding, but Fulger came from behind Lud’s oak tree, where the trap had just sprung.

“Are you alright, Lud?” asked Fulger? “You look quite distraught? May we be of service to you?” Lud hated when Fulger used his “I’m a genius” voice.

The two boys looked calm and very content to give Lud no help.

“The trap, you idiots,” said Lud. “It worked. Something’s inside it.”

“What is it, Lud?” asked Yason. “A demon? Did it carry you away?”

“I’ll take care of this beast,” Fulger said, and he pounced behind the tree. When Lud felt slack in the rope, he moved behind Yason, but he was already expecting a scam. Fulger came around the tree with his arms out, floating the crate ahead of him.

“Good job, Lud, you got it!” said Fulger. “But it seems that this demon has turned itself into a giant rock to fool us. Well, we’re not fooled, demon!”

Lud’s brothers laughed.

“Keep laughing, jerks,” said Lud, dusting the dirt off his legs and tunic and trying to look tough. “I don’t know why you guys go so far just to scare me.”

“Calm down,” said Yason. “For the first few hours we thought the trap might work, but then we got bored sitting here for so long and thought we’d make the day more interesting. Besides, we have to get back to the house soon anyway. It’s almost time for Rapyo’s show. If we miss that, Mom and Dad will kill us. Come on.”

It wasn’t a very long walk back to their house, but the woods were thick, and although Lud’s brothers took the rock out of the crate, they couldn’t untie the rope so Lud had to carry it the whole way by hand, since his powers couldn’t make it budge at all.

Lud had no desire to go to Rapyo’s performance.

Their oldest brother Rapyo was seventeen and the skinniest one in the family. Their mom could be called skinny too, but Rapyo was really skinny. He was also a showoff, as far as Lud was concerned.

Because Rapyo was so impressive with his powers, well beyond the average adult, and because he loved to prove it, he would hold shows to demonstrate the level of his abilities. At first they were just in the house for the family, but his mother liked them so much that she was soon inviting all her friends to witness as well. This progressed to public performances in the marketplace, such as today’s show.

The weird part was, even though his brothers found Rapyo every bit as annoying as he did, they were genuinely excited for this show.

“Remind me again, Mother, what time Rapyo’s ego-show begins?” asked Fulger when they arrived back at their little brick house on the edge of the village.

“Rapyo’s performances have nothing to do with pride,” answered his mother as she prepared their lunches for the trip. Wiyaka Hills wasn’t a large village, so they didn’t have far to walk, but Rapyo’s shows always went long. She waved her hand, and a knife weaved its way past the boys to her. It began slicing the loaf of bread. “You should be happy for your brother. He’s very talented. When you grow older and develop as strongly has he has, you might want to put on your own show. The town loves to watch these performances.”

“We’re already more powerful than dumb Rapyo is, Mom,” said Yason. “We just don’t go bragging about it to everybody we see.”

“Well, that’s great,” said their mother. “Maybe you should go up on stage with your brother later today.”

Just then their father came in from orchestrating the buckets to pour themselves into the cattle’s feed troughs.

“More powerful than dumb Rapyo, eh?” asked Olim as he beckoned his favorite chair, along with a book from the shelf. “That’s what I like to hear, more prodigies in the Compograv family. More powerful than Rapyo though? That’s saying something. From what I hear, today Rapyo is going to lift Mrs. Plecola’s horse. I’m looking forward to that one, really. I’d like to see you boys lift something living. Go ahead, Yason, try the dog.”

“This isn’t a competition, Olim,” said their mother, “and you don’t have time to sit down and read; we’re leaving soon.”

“I didn’t say I’m more powerful than Rapyo, dad,” said Yason. “I said we are. The three of us together.”

“What about Lud?”

“Yeah, sure, him too.”

“Is Rapyo really going to lift a horse?” asked Fuler.

“We’ll find out when we get there, boys,” their mom said, pushing them out the door. “It’s time to go.”

The walk to the marketplace was nice for Lud, who liked to walk barefoot and enjoyed the smooth roads. When summer arrived, all the stores moved their best items outside to tents on the road, creating a marketplace where there was always something fascinating to look at. Lud’s favorite was Mr. Gaze’s odds and ends store. It held relics and treasures from all over the country, and some things, or so the signs said, from unknown parts of the world as well. These were the things which interested him the most, anything strange or unusual that could be from anywhere or hold untold secrets. It was taught in school that the mountain range on the east side of Emityna, the one near Lud’s house, were actually the same mountains as the range which created Emityna’s western border. They lived on a sphere, and although nobody knew how large it was, their country was the only section not covered with mountains or oceans. So said Mrs. Jumentum.

He inherited this interest of the world from his dad, who read books full of tales of the unknown and filled their little house with items of all kinds. Most of which he told Lud he had collected during his time as a guard at the King’s castle. Lud liked thinking about his dad standing tall at a castle gate with his sword drawn. It seemed very unlike him.

When they arrived at the marketplace, Lud expected his dad to go straight to Gaze’s shop, but instead he stayed back with Lud’s mom. Yason went inside the first store he saw, a music shop.

“Bye, Mom,” Fulger said and left running down the street. Lud also left his parents and started walking down the road. Mr. Gaze’s shop was the third shop from the end, on the right. On his way, he passed three clothing shops, five food shops, and his close second-favorite, the swords and weapons store, where a young boy dragged his feet while being pulled out by the collar. Only adults were allowed to purchase weapons because of the fear that children learning to use their powers could easily slice someone’s head off at any moment. Lud wondered what his parents would think if they knew his brothers had made numerous weapons from the metal scraps behind their old livestock shed.

Mr. Gaze’s shop was smaller than all the others and was the only tent with cloth walls surrounding all but the front entrance. Inside, the light filtering through the red walls made everything look secret and majestic.

Lud stared in awe at the items on the lowest shelf: a small necklace with a ruby, star-shaped medallion; a carved horn ornamented with golden leaves; and a small, black mask with no mouth and two white gems in the eye slots.

However, the item he desired more than any other lay on the highest shelf. He couldn’t see it from where he stood, but he had asked for it to be taken down many times. It was a small clear tube of blown glass, and inside was a rolled piece of paper. The writing on the paper could not be seen; the back of the paper faced outwards, but the small engraving on the bottom of the tube was enough to give him a strong obsession. It read: WORLD MAP.

“Good morning, Lud,” said Mr. Gaze from his little counter at the back of the tent. “Back again, eh? You’re easily my best customer. Too bad you never buy anything.” Mr. Gaze let out a large laugh. “Come here. I want to show you something new.” Lud hurried over to see what new treasure Mr. Gaze discovered this time.

Mr. Gaze was only a little older than Lud’s dad, but looked like he was ancient. He kept his beard long, which always made people look older, but both his beard and his hair were completely gray. His face was lined, and his eyes were thin, but there was life in them, making them the only things betraying his true age.

From behind his counter, Mr. Gaze’s long slender hands pulled up an object wrapped in a scarlet cloth. He unfolded the cloth, revealing the object inside.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked.

“Is it a glove?” asked Lud, picking up the small leather wrap with fingers and thin plates of shiny metal sown on in sections. It was obviously a glove, but objects in Mr. Gaze’s store had a habit of being different from what they seemed.

“Ah, no. Not a glove.”

Lud wasn’t surprised.

“It is a gauntlet, worn for protection and strength during training. This one comes from deep beyond the western mountains. Has your father told you what lives beyond the western mountains?”

Mrs. Jumentum would have wanted Lud to tell Mr. Gaze that the only things beyond the western mountains were the eastern mountains, but that wasn’t the answer Mr. Gaze was looking for. It didn’t take long for Lud to remember his father’s favorite myth.

“Dinolanas!” said Lud.

“Ha. Yes.” Mr. Gaze was smiling as he took back the small gauntlet and began polishing the silver plates. “Dinolanas wear gauntlets to give them focus and strength. Their fur is thick and acts as an armor for them, but their hands and forearms are bare. When wearing heavy gauntlets, the Dinolanas become completely fearless.”

The gauntlet was again given to Lud. It was very light, but the metal felt strong. He remembered the bedtime tales his father had told him about Dinolanas. In those stories, they were always very large creatures, twice as tall as a man.

“But this gauntlet is so small,” said Lud.

“That is because an adult gauntlet would never fit on your small hand. No, this belonged to a young Dinolana, still too weak to wear the heavy metal the adults wear. This is mostly leather, and the metal is thin. It provides more focus than protection, which is why I am giving it to you. You’re father told me about your trouble controlling your newfound abilities.”

Mr. Gaze rose from his seat and moved over to Lud. He took the gauntlet and slid it onto Lud’s hand. It covered his arm, almost up to his elbow.

“Wear this always. The power it contains will give you control for your motions and focus for your mind. But now you must go, I believe your brother is about to start.”

Lud could hear the crowd forming outside in the street. He thanked Mr. Gaze for the present and walked to the tent’s exit.

“Don’t forget to show your father. He’ll want to see it.”

Lud left the tent and started down the road, which was even more crowded than he had guessed. Jumping to see over shoulders, he saw his brother Rapyo at the end of the street, already up on stage, checking to make sure everybody would be able to see him throughout the marketplace. Lud had no desire to watch the show; he was only interested in testing out his new gift.

While scanning the market for something to practice on, something grabbed Lud by the back of his tunic and pulled him off the road, into a gap between tents. Lud turned around to see Yason.

“What do you want?” asked Lud.

“Where did you get the glove?” Yason asked, looking at Lud’s arm, but his look of confusion quickly turned to determination. “Never mind. This is more important. We’ve got a plan. We’re going to show dad our strength and embarrass Rapyo at the same time.” Lud knew the only things his brothers loved more than harassing him was harassing Rapyo. “When Rapyo moves to his grand finale of lifting his horse, or whatever he’s going to do, Fulger and I are going to lift his entire stage out from under him.”

“Let me help,” said Lud. “I can help. I’ve got this new—”

“You will be helping, Lud. We need you to distract the old lady Plecola while we sneak around behind the stage.”

“But I can help lift it. Let me help. Plecola doesn’t need to be distracted anyway; she’s always talking to some other old person.”

“Lud, if you don’t be our distraction and lookout, we’ll tell Mom what really happened to her garden.”

There was no arguing now. Lud agreed to be the distraction and squeezed his way through the crowd to get to the front of the stage. He saw Mrs. Plecola by the side talking to Shanta Potesti’s grandmother. He walked closer to them, but stopped short and looked around for his brothers to give him the signal.

Yason and Fulger were already at the other end of the stage, trying to look innocent; a look which never seemed to fit them.

Rapyo was in the middle of the stage, looking very pleased with his turnout.

“Welcome, ladies and gentler-ladies!” Rapyo began. There was a chuckle among the spectators. “I am pleased and excited to once again provide entertainment for my selected, closest friends” —another laugh— “by giving another demonstration of my humble skills. You already know that I am considerably lucky in the abilities I have been blessed with, but let me remind you that I would be nothing if not for hours of long, grueling practice, as well as the support I receive from each and every one of you.”

A delighted whisper spread through the crowd. Lud wondered how they could buy this stuff. Didn’t they realize he’s just sucking up to them? His brothers looked equally disgusted.

“But before I begin,” continued Rapyo. “Could somebody please tell me who this beautiful, new, flower vase belongs to? I believe it was newly purchased today.” A green and golden vase floated from off stage in front of Rapyo and over the crowd. There was a scream from a woman near the back of the crowd.

“That’s my vase! I bought it today. I didn’t even feel it come out of my bag,” said the woman towards the back. Rapyo sent to vase to its owner, and the audience clapped and shouted.

Wow. That’s not bad, thought Lud.

Rapyo continued with his performance, receiving many more outbreaks of applause. When he started assembling oversized puzzle pieces into a picture of the Wiyaka Hills’ senator, Lud was so entranced he almost missed his brothers patting themselves on the head, the signal to begin the distraction.

“Mrs. Plecola, I wanted to show you how well my arm lines are coming in,” said Lud. Arm lines, the spiral, darkened lines which run down the entire arm, were a physical sign that a person had the power. Lud’s lines were very faint, not enough to brag about, but he needed something to distract her.

“Hush, child,” she said. “He’s about to use my precious horse in his performance.”

“But look, they’re really coming in.”

“Do be quiet, Lud Compograv. I need to watch this.”

Lud’s shoulders sank. She wasn’t being distracted at all. He looked over to the other side of the stage where his brothers had been. They were gone. He wondered if his failed distraction had been enough.

“Attention, please.” Rapyo’s voice was louder than before, creating an instant silence among the crowd. “Many of you heard that for my grand finale I would be doing the near-impossible and lifting, not just an animal, but a large horse.”

The crowd started clapping.

“Unfortunately, I have changed my mind. But do not be disheartened, my wonderful audience, for I will not disappoint. I have indeed changed my plans, but only to replace them with something much grander.”

Whispers spread through the audience. Lud didn’t take his eyes off Rapyo.

“Yes, I can lift living creatures, but that performance must be for another day. Today I will do something I believe maybe only two or three of you have ever seen done before.”

Silence.

“I will fly.”

The crowd gasped. The whispers were no longer whispers, but shouts. Behind the stage the two heads of Yason and Fulger popped up, no longer interested in any pranks.

When Rapyo extended his arms to his sides, with his palms facing up, the crowd hushed. When he raised his right arm above his head, with his fist clenched, there was only silence.

Rapyo closed his eyes, and, for many seconds, just stood there. Then the stage started to vibrate, small at first, but growing with intensity. His body gave a little shake and lifted slowly into the air.

He rose higher into the air, always with his eyes closed. After a while he was an arm’s length into the air. Then two.

At this point Rapyo opened his eyes and hovered.

Instantly the audience burst into uproar. Lud, too, hollered and clapped frantically. Yason and Fulger watched silently, but with huge grins.

Rapyo tried moving forward, but his forward push was too strong, causing him to lose his focus and fall from the air. The crowd caught him. No one saw this attempt as a failure or a mistake. He had flown, if only for a few moments.

Those who caught him set him on the ground, and he was quickly swarmed by people congratulating him.

Lud felt a large hand on his shoulder.

“I like the glove,” said his dad, looking out at Rapyo and his fans.

“Did you see that, Dad?” Lud asked. “Rapyo can fly. Did you see it? It was awesome.”

“Rapyo practiced for me a few times before this show,” his dad said with a smile. “I knew he could do it. He’s done better than this, but he did well.”

That his father already knew what Rapyo could do didn’t surprise him. He watched Rapyo smile and nod to his admirers, say something, then smile and nod again. Then something came to Lud from the back of his memory.

“Dad,” said Lud. “You told us stories about people who could fly. Their lives were never normal. This is big, isn’t it, Dad? What is going to happen to him now?”

“I don’t know, Lud,” said Olim without looking down at his son. “Anything, I guess. People are bound to find out about this. I made sure he knew what he was doing before making the decision to show people.”

“Does he know what he is doing?”

“No, son. Not really.”

Lud saw his brothers jumping up and down, yelling, and trying to push their way into the crowd to get to their brother.

It wasn’t until frantic cries carried over the excitement of the crowd that Lud noticed a man had run up onto Rapyo’s stage and was shouting terrifically.

“LISTEN! EVERYBODY LISTEN.”

It took a while for the noise to quite, but eventually everyone was paying attention to the man on the stage.

“There’s been an attack! On the outside edge of this town. A young girl has been taken.”

Only a few people immediately understood the severity of what the man was saying. Lud was one of them.

“Who?” a woman shouted. “Who has been taken?”

“Shanta Potesti!”

Behind Lud, Shanta’s grandmother let out a shrilling cry.

Chapter 4
Make It Spin

“Lud! Did you hear?” yelled a skinny boy with blonde hair falling past his ears as he ran down the street to catch up with his friend. Most people in Lud’s village kept their hair cut short and neat, except his best friend, Turp Paller. Turp was allowed to do many things deemed abnormal because Turp was the only Feather Lud had ever known. Their friendship flourished after the two boys had been ostracized after being given this label. Lud was labeled incorrectly, but Turp was a genuine Feather. He would never be able to lift objects without touching them or move things with a swing of his arm. Yet he had been the truest friend and strongest ally when Lud had none, and when his powers finally arrived, Lud could never turn his back on someone as friendly and loyal as Turp.

“Did you hear about Shanta?” asked Turp.

“Of course, I heard, but I can’t believe it.”

“I know. Shanta was the fiercest girl in our class. I mean, she was the fiercest kid in our class. I didn’t think anything could get to her, not even demons.”

“She would have stomped on your toes if you hadn’t changed fiercest girl to fiercest kid.” Lud laughed. “She wouldn’t let any boy think he was tougher than her.”

“I know demons are supposed to be really mean and strong and all that, but I can’t imagine them overpowering Shanta. She could blow them all to pieces. You saw the things she could do at the Winter Battles, the size of that snowball.”

It was true. Shanta Potesti rivaled many adults in the strength of her powers. Lud, along with every other boy in the class, had not been very close friends with Shanta. Her desire to be the best overpowered any thought of being friendly, especially to boys.

“Do you think we’ll ever see her again?” Turp asked.

“I don’t know. In all the demon stories, the kid who’s kidnapped never returns. Most people think they get killed.”

“She wouldn’t let herself get killed.”

“I don’t know if she’d have much of a choice, Turp.”

“Well, I hope she isn’t killed.” Turp paused with an odd expression on his face. “Do you think we should go looking for her?”

“I think that’s one of the dumbest ideas you’ve ever had. Do you really care that much? She nearly killed you.”

“I wouldn’t have died. And it’s not about her; I just think you should do anything you can to help people, even ones you think are mean. Anyway, I bet your brother is steaming mad that somebody took the spotlight off him, just when he’s in his moment of glory.”

Lud laughed. He had forgotten about Rapyo, and maybe others had too. “He’s been going around asking all the adults if there’s anything he can do to help, and since his show, I think many are willing to let him join their search party. He’ll still get his attention.”

“When are you going to tell people you can fly? Everyone in our class already knows.”

“I can’t fly,” Lud growled. “You must have been hallucinating from the cold. I’ve tried hundreds of times since then. I can barely lift anything small, much less something alive, much less myself.”

He then remembered his new glove. He’d still been unable to try using it.

“Turp, look at this.”

Turp looked at the wrap of metal and leather on Lud’s hand. His face showed no emotion.

“Yeah, I saw that thing. To be honest, Lud, it’s kind of ugly. I don’t think I’d wear anything like that.”

“Oh, shove off. You’d wear whatever you want and not care what people think.”

“Ok, then, but I wouldn’t wear that. You don’t even have the match to go with it. There’s just one glove.”

“Well, maybe this will interest you: It’s a Dinolana’s glove.”

If that interested Turp, he didn’t show it.

“Hmm... this is assuming that Dinolanas are not only real, but they walk around in their secret country, wearing gloves. Why would a Dinolana need to wear clothes?”

“To protect their hands.”

“Dinolanas have weak hands?”

“Look. Mr. Gaze, the old man–well, the old looking man–gave this glove to me and said it would help me use my power.”

“Does it?” asked Turp skeptically. “Does it work? Let’s go try it out. Look for something to move.”

Standing just outside the village on the road, Lud saw plenty of miscellaneous objects lying around. The village itself was kept properly clean at all times, but less respect was given to the ditches along the smooth, clay road. Lud chose an old wheel of an oxen wagon.

He held out his gloved hand towards the wheel. Despite his lack of experience, Lud knew all the motions by heart. In school, when he had been as powerless as Turp, the two boys were taught everything as if they weren’t Feathers. Both Lud and Turp knew the rituals of lifting by heart.

Focus on the object. Compress the air above the object by pinching it together. Pull up your hand. For small objects, it was simple. The hand didn’t need to be above the object, as long as your mind traveled the distance and focused above it. It was called point lifting.

For larger objects, such as this wheel, it was more difficult because the small pinch was usually not strong enough to work over the whole object. Instead, the technique of sheet lifting was required. There were two types of sheet lifting. The first, the compression method, was similar to point lifting because it compressed air above the object, but it involved a much larger area above the object, and required a lot more focus. The second method, the buoyancy method, was needed now. In essence, his teachers said, it was the opposite of the compression method and it worked from underneath the object and pushed the object up.

Lud cupped his gloved hand, facing down, and, using a scooping motion, while his mind stretched the length of the wheel, he turned his cupped hand upward and moved his entire arm up. The wheel responded immediately by jerking around on the ground for a while before it stopped and went back to lying still. It never left the ground.

Lud turned to Turp, embarrassed.

“What are you looking at me for?” asked Turp. “Try again. Come on, Lud. Really focus on it.”

Lud stared at the wheel. He stood with his hand stretched out for a while, but soon realized he was giving more attention to squinting his eyes than he was giving to the wheel. He went through the motions again. The cupping. The scooping. The stretching. This time he felt something in his mind reach out toward the wheel. It felt like he was in two places at the same time. He could feel the pull from the wheel as well as from everything else around it. It was by working with that pull, while making sure to keep the position of his mind stable, that Lud was able to lift the wagon wheel off the ground. He realized later that it wasn’t buoyancy, but the compression method that he had used, but nevertheless it still worked.

The wheel lifted up with the same amount of tilt it had on the ground. He curled in his fingers a bit more and the wheel stood vertical.

Turp cheered on his friend.

Lud smiled big. He had dreamt about doing this a thousand times during the nights after being ridiculed at school.

“I don’t care if that glove belonged to one of the demons itself,” said Turp. “That thing works. Make it spin, Lud.”

Lud lifted his other hand up next to his gloved hand. With this one, palm facing the wheel, he started to make a vertical circle in the air. The wheel rotated slowly at first, but it picked up speed and soon he had the wheel both levitating in midair and spinning as it hung there.

Next to the wheel, also in midair, several twigs started lining up on both sides.

“Lud? What are you doing?” asked Turp.

“It’s not me.”

Quickly the twigs moved: some together, some apart, many touching. Using his wheel as the letter “o” , it spelled out a word in the sky.

It wrote LOSER.

“Look at you, Lud,” said his brother Fulger. “You actually had a competent lift, and you didn’t hurt yourself.”

Lud looked back and saw his three brothers behind him, Yason’s arms raised, holding up the twig word.

“Hey, Turp,” said Fulger. “What should we write next?”

“How about writing ‘We’re jealous of our younger brother?’” answered Turp.

Yason and Fulger laughed. Lud also laughed a little.

“You never stop saying dumb things, do you, Turp?” asked Fulger.

“Fulger is cool. Fulger has a lot of friends,” mocked Turp. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Only dumb stuff.” This time Lud laughed for real, as did Yason. Fulger started sprinting towards Turp, who ran away. One of the few benefits of not having any powers was that Feathers were always much faster runners. Although Fulger could never catch Turp, Turp didn’t need to worry if Fulger did. Lud could see they were only playing.

“Hey, guys,” said Yason, loud enough to get attention. “I think it’s time to go home.” Lud, Turp, and Fulger looked to Yason, who was pointing, and then to the words in the sky, the object of his pointing. The words had changed.

They now read: GO HOME.

Behind them, Olim and Portitas Compograv stood controlling Yason’s twigs, with Rapyo next to them.

“I think they get it,” Rapyo mumbled to his parents.

“Come on, guys,” said their dad. “It’s almost time for supper, and you still have afternoon chores to do before you can eat. Will you be joining us for supper, Turp?”

“Will I have to do chores?” asked Turp.

“Absolutely”

“Oh, don’t do that, Olim,” said Portitas Compograv, giving her husband a light push. “Of course, you don’t have to do chores, Turp. Our boys are capable of doing their own chores, if they don’t mess around.”

“So I’d better help them, then,” said Turp.

The walk back to the farm went quickly and they were soon back at the edge of the wooded foothills. Occasionally, they had to stop so someone could catch their breath from laughing too hard. Lud’s brothers always picked on him less when Turp was around. He didn’t understand it. Before he gained his powers, he was relentlessly shunned and ridiculed by his brothers, yet, when Turp came over, a Feather who never had any powers and would never gain them, not only did they not pick on him, they were friendly to him. Lud asked them about it when Turp was inside the house after their mother insisted he not help the boys with their chores – gathering eggs from the chicken coop, a job their mother forced them to do by hand, not trusting them to use their powers without breaking any eggs.

“Turp doesn’t take any crap,” Yason answered Lud. “We could call him any name on the planet and he’d just say something smart back. He’s faster at that kind of stuff than we are, if that’s possible.” His brothers had a lot of experience making fun of people, but Lud knew Turp was very quick-witted. “Turp doesn’t back down.”

“Plus, he’s funny,” said Fulger.

“So... you guys like Turp?” Lud asked.

“It really takes things a long time to sink in with you, doesn’t it, Lud?”

“Shut up.” Lud still didn’t get it. In Lud’s village, even in his entire country, public discrimination of Feathers was a part of life. Lud, himself, feared it for the last two years. Feathers were rare in Lud’s country. It was even rarer that a Feather would be born from normal parents, like Turp. Lud didn’t care what Turp was, and apparently neither did his brothers, but it hadn’t always been that way.

“Alright, we’re done,” said Yason. “Let’s go inside and eat. I hope it’s not chicken, I’m sick of chickens.”

When they were inside, their mother floated two trays of sliced chicken to the table.

“Well, at least that’s two less chickens in the coop” said Yason.

“I just hope I get something to eat this time,” said Turp. “I’ll do my best.”

Lud knew Turp was often at a disadvantage at the dinner table, needing to grab things with his hands or walk over and pick something up instead of just floating it over to him. He made due whenever he could, and his speed kept him comparable in many aspects, but when it came to supper at the Compograv’s, Turp often found himself grasping at thin air.

Bowls soared around the table as pieces of chicken danced from tray to plate. Mother sent the vegetables around, pausing at each child until they politely – or not so politely – turned them down. After a particularly messy incident involving the gravy, Fulger was sent away from the table to spend time on extra chores.

Lud’s glove was still working. Everything he tried to bring to himself came without argument. No longer did his slightest attempt send the bread flying over his head and across the room.

When it was time for desert, his mother went to get the pie, but was stopped by a knock on the door. Lud’s dad stood up and answered it.

“Good evening, Olim Compograv,” said the man at the door. “How are you?”

Olim Compograv was a large man, tall and strong, but he was dwarfed by the size of the man standing at the door in the ornamental armor worn by the King’s castle guards.

“I’ve been good, Lieutenant Tolero,” said Olim. “How’s your wife?”

“She’s as crabby as she’s always been, but thank you for asking, Olim. May we come in?” His voice was deep and raspy. It sounded tired.

“Certainly. Come in. We can talk in the study if you require privacy.”

“Oh, no,” said Lieutenant Tolero, as two more equally large guards stepped into the room. Their armor was not ornamented as brilliantly as their leader’s, but Lud thought that only made them appear tougher. “The news I bring is for the entire family. Most of the family, at least, but I bring no secret and it would be fine for everybody to listen.”

“Would you like some wine, Lieutenant?” asked Lud’s mom.

“No, but thank you, Portitas.”

She turned to offer some to the other two men, but Lieutenant Tolero shook his head solemnly, and she stopped.

Olim asked his family to move from the table to the living room, and they did so in silence. Lud thought this was the quietest his house had ever sounded. They waited for their new guest to begin speaking.

“Thank you, again, for cooperating and listening to what I have to say. You have a nice family here, Olim. I am happy for you. It has been many years since you stood for the King in his capitol city, but he has not forgotten your service and again sends his thankfulness and blessings to you. You were a loyal citizen and an honorable guard. May you live for many years.”

“Please, Tolero,” said Olim. “Enough with the formalities. I do not require them and have no need for his blessings. I am pleased that the king remembers times and service even before his reign. I did not serve this current king, but his brother, King before him. I will accept his blessings you have given me, but if there are more, please keep them for yourself.”

“I regrettably accept your offer, Olim, but please remember the Kingship is higher than any one man and must be respected despite the man who sits on the throne.”

“I hear what you say, Tolero, and respect your words.”

Lud had never heard his father talk this way before. He never spoke with such proper technique at home, yet despite his structured words—despite the size of the three new guests—there was defiance in his voice. “What is the exact purpose of your visit, Lieutenant?”

“The King has a new ally. He is a man unknown to the current administration, said to come from the most northern of villages, on the coast of the great northern ocean. He has only been in the castle about two years, but he already enjoys much influence with the King. The powers he has are strong, but limited in form and variety. He has requested of the King a tutor to come to the castle and teach him to vary and strengthen his skills.”

“What can he learn?” asked Olim. “Each man has his own ceiling to what he can do. If it is not in him, there would be no use to teach him.”

“He has been counseled on such matters, but insists on his request as it is,” said the Lieutenant. “That which he can do already is quite formidable. Many believe learning powers is not outside his capability.”

“What does that have to do with me?” asked Olim.

“Very little, I assure you.”

“Then what brings you here?”

“We have come to call upon the tutor, whom the King’s ally has requested.”

“I have already served my country,” replied Olim. “I have no obligations to this king, or his allies.”

“I am not here to call upon you, Olim Compograv. I seek your son, Rapyo Compograv.”

All eyes turned to Rapyo, whose face brightened and grew a large smile. He shifted where he sat.

“No,” said Olim. “He cannot be called to service. He is not yet of adult age. The boy is only seventeen years old.”

“We are aware of the boy’s age, I assure you. We have not come to conscript him at this point. Because he is not yet an adult, the only thing the King asks of us is that we come here and request that he accept the proposition on his own, and come to the castle as the King’s guest.”

Lud watched Rapyo listening to the two men talk. Rapyo looked downright giddy. Lud knew this was the type of thing Rapyo dreamed of: working in the castle and being a political figure. Living in the capital city, Chamberhaven, was the only option Rapyo allowed for himself when it came to his future.

Despite his excited posture, Rapyo’s words came out as hesitant. “They want me to teach the King’s ally?”

“The King and his new guest have long been following your public progress,” said the Lieutenant. Yason and Fulger rolled their eyes. “They know of your dedication to what you can do; to develop at such speeds requires much work. They believe you can teach others the development style which you have learned.”

“This is outrageous!” cried their father.

“I already informed you that we do not seek you in this matter, Olim. Though, yes, they have taken your contributions as his father into account in their considerations.”

“That is not what I meant!” said Olim Compograv, now standing. “My son is too young for these tasks. He’s too young for Chamberhaven.”

“Dad, I’m not too young. I’m seventeen and a half, much nearer to being an adult than a child. I can choose my life for myself, now.”

“I’m sorry, Lieutenant, but I must ask that you leave my house now. Please, take it as no offense to yourself or your men, but I must decline the offer from your king. Your further presence here will only cause conflict within my family.”

“I must insist you consider the words of your son, Olim. He is no longer a child.”

“What do you know of children, Tolero?” barked Olim Compograv. “My civility is now gone. It would be wise for you to leave, my friend, should you still like to be considered as such.”

“I regret having offended you, my friend. I only performed my duties, and, having done so, will certainly leave. I wish no conflict upon you. Have a good day, sir.”

The three guards walked out quickly, not in a scramble, but deliberately and efficiently. They left only silence in the Compograv house.

Lud did not know what to say, and neither did anybody else because nobody said a word, except for Rapyo.

“This isn’t fair,” said Rapyo. “I have every right to make my decisions on my own now, Dad. They came to ask me. Not you. That, alone, shows that I am old enough. They wouldn’t have come to me if they didn’t think I was capable of what they asked.” Lud’s father walked back into the kitchen. Rapyo followed. “This is what I want, Dad. This is why I’ve been working so hard. I’m an adult now and I’m ready to go on my own.”

“You don’t know the first thing about living on your own. You don’t know the first thing about living in Chamberhaven, but most importantly, you don’t know the first thing about this new king. I don’t trust him, Rapyo, and I don’t trust any new ally who comes out of nowhere.”

“But you were a guard: One of the King’s personal guards. I would be a tutor to the King’s friend. I wouldn’t even be in combat.”

“I was three years older than you are when I started with the guard, and I had two years of training and a wife. They know better than to recruit a kid. This whole thing is rotten.”

“I’m not a kid, Dad. I can handle myself.”

“I’ve made my decision, Rapyo. I’m sorry.”

“But it’s not your decision to make,” said Rapyo. “They want me because I’m powerful. If something goes wrong when I’m there I can –”

“There are other people out there who can fly, Rapyo. Not many, but they exist. Why wouldn’t he seek one of them, one who’s already an adult? They want to use you, Rapyo. They see a kid who can be manipulated and taken advantage of. It is obvious this guy, this ally of the king, is just like the new king; they both care only about power. The king cares only about political power, and this guy cares only about lifting power. If I’m not right about this, well, he won’t mind waiting until you turn eighteen.”

“But Dad–”

“I’m done talking about this.”

With that, Olim Compograv left the house, towards the pasture, his wife following him, looking upset. Lud and his brothers still sat, listening from the living room.

“That was crazy!” shouted Fulger after a bit. “Did the King really want Rapyo to teach some guy about lifting? I don’t think Rapyo knows how he does it.”

“He does,” said Yason. “He’s tried to teach me a few times. I never really got anything, but he’s good at showing the moves, and he knows what he does and why he does it.” Yason stood up and turned towards his brothers. “Come on. Let’s go talk to him.”

Lud followed Yason and Fulger to the back porch where Rapyo sat, staring at the sun as it started its descent over the mountains towards its rest. Pink highlights painted the horizon, and a couple stars already dotted the sky.

“Talk about weird, eh Rapyo?” asked Yason as he sat down next to his brother, who didn’t say anything. “It sucks that Dad won’t let you go. I know you really wanted to.”

“Are you gonna’ go to Chamberhaven as soon as you turn eighteen?” asked Lud.

“No,” said Rapyo, getting off the steps and looking at his brothers. Lud thought Rapyo didn’t look sad at all. “I’m going tonight.”

Abstract chapter design

NATRIX’S THRONE

Natrix was thrown onto the hard, marble floor of the grand sanctuary. He had never been inside the King’s castle before, but in his mind he always pictured something majestic and golden.

Instead, although everything was golden, it was the opposite of majestic. The darkness still consuming the world stole any beauty or elegance from even the noblest of sights, leaving everything cold and dreary. It had been six days since the sun shown bright on the land. The hundred candles filling the sanctuary flickered among the many marble statues and columns, but the room was so massive that any light soon faded off, lost in the rafters.

Around him stood forty men, each dressed in their royal robes with hoods over their heads and staffs in their hands. Behind him was a hundred more, dressed in common attire. They were not royalty, but survivors living within the large castle walls. Anxiously they came to see the fate of this six-year-old boy.

Within them stood a black-haired, young woman wearing a ragged tunic and no shoes: Natrix’s mother. He could not see her when he tried, but he knew she was there.

Before him, the King sat in a large throne, half his face visible by candlelight within the dark-purple hood. The throne he sat in was made out of pure white stone and looked out of place in a palace of marble and gold. Beside the King, the royal guard stood at attention with their long-swords drawn.

Natrix wondered if this was the proper way of dealing with freaks.

“Young boy, tell me. What is your name?” asked the King. His voice was hoarse and faint.

“My name is Natrix,” he responded, trying to sound brave.

“More importantly, dear Natrix, what is your surname?”

Natrix looked behind him, trying to find his mother among the faces. He couldn’t see her, but that was best. Seeing her might spark a look of recognition in his face and give her away, although he wondered how visible his face was in this light. Still, if he was about to die, there was no need getting his mother killed just because she had given birth to a monster. She should not die because of him. “I have no surname, your highness. I am an orphan.”

Natrix could think of no person in attendance, besides his mother, who could disprove him, and she would not say a word and risk sharing in his fate. There had been only two other men who knew the truth. Both died saving him from his burning village, one of them dead by Natrix’s own hands because he had selfishly saved himself in the cave.

“You have never known your parents?”

“No, your highness.”

The hooded king sat still, staring at Natrix for much longer than Natrix felt comfortable with. After a few more minutes of silence–there were no whispers, even among the large audience–the king spoke. “My dear Natrix,” he said. “It is my understanding that two days ago you stood with a hundred Annubra and survived, despite the deaths of your two adult companions. Am I correct?”

“Yes, your highness.” Natrix assumed Annubra was the name of the creatures which attacked him.

“Am I also correct in believing that you survived the collapse of the cave in which you faced these Annubra? Tell me young boy, how did you survive this cave in?”

Natrix stood silent for a moment, but he knew the king must already know the answer to his question, it being the reason he was taken in here, so he would answer honestly.

“I held up the part falling above me.”

“Please tell me how a young boy, who has not yet hit puberty, could hold up stone which would crush an adult.”

“Energy burst out of my hands, sir. At times it was uncontrollable, but at other times it obeyed my mind. When the cave collapsed, I imagined the stones being as far away from me as possible, and they did not fall on me.” The crowd in the sanctuary whispered loudly.

“Silence!” said the hooded king. His voice was still faint, but the people were quickly quiet. “Young boy, I believe what you say. There are many stories of men who could lift objects with their mind; they were always in the lineage of the kings. Six years ago I had a son who was lost to me. The queen and I grieved heavily for many days. It is the hope that our lost son has been returned to us that brings you here today.”

Natrix knew this could not be. His mother was alive, standing behind him, and she had told him stories of his father. None of those stories mentioned a king. No, this king was not his father. But Natrix saw this opportunity as his only chance for survival, so he did not argue.

“So,” began the king, “I must put this to the test. If you can perform the action which you say you can, then it proves you are of royal lineage and, thus, my son. However, should you fail, then I cannot make the assumption that we share blood.”

At this, the guard to the king’s right stood and walked to the center of the room, a few paces in front of Natrix. In his hand was a golden crown, studded with rubies, which he placed on the marble floor.

“My boy, Natrix,” said the king. “Please, prove yourself. Lift this crown off the floor with your mind.”

Natrix’s small legs trembled. He had definitely performed those actions inside the cave, and periodically since then the energy escaped his arms and moved objects against his will, but he had not been able to mentally control anything since that disastrous night. Still, he needed to try.

He focused his mind on the crown in the middle of the floor. Holding his body still, he imagined the crown lifting off the ground and into midair.

The crown did not move.

Natrix started to sweat. It was now or never if the young boy wanted to survive the night. He thrust his hand up towards the crown and tried to force the energy out from his hand with his mind focused on the crown.

The crown did not lift. Instead it blasted off the floor, as if the floor had exploded, and shot over the hooded royals who stood to the side. If they had not ducked, some might have lost heads.

Natrix looked at the king with horror in his eyes. He did not know if this was acceptable or not. He had proven he could make the crown move without touching it, but he had not done what he had been asked. The young boy waited with baited breath.

Again the king sat still for an incredibly long time. Again there was silence throughout the room.

Finally the king stood up from his stone throne. He picked up his scepter and walked down to Natrix. Putting his hand on the young boy’s shoulder, the king called out to the crowd. “This is my son!”

There was thunderous applause which nearly filled the large sanctuary, bouncing off the walls and echoing endlessly. After a few minutes with his scepter held high, the crowd went quiet again, although this time unable to stifle all the whispers.

“Please, good people,” said the king. “I am even more excited than you are at this blessed event. You must understand if I need time alone to meet my new son. Everyone exit now and leave us together. We have much to talk about, but please, rejoice, for today there is a ray of hope among this darkness.”

It took a while for every person to leave the room, but soon all were gone except for the king’s personal guards. The king kneeled down to Natrix’s eye level.

“My dear son” he said. “Forgive me, but I have one more test for you. In this room stand six of my guards, along with you and me. However, we are not alone. In this sanctuary, there is another living being. Tell me where he is.”

Natrix looked around the room, but saw nothing. He focused his mind as he had when he moved the crown and again scanned the room. Suddenly he felt a shiver through his body and could feel the presence of something else. Something not human. He looked at the creature.

“It is your throne.”

At his words, the sitting stone giant rose to its full, formidable height.

Chapter 5
Secret Journey

Lud lay awake, uncomfortable in his small, bottom bunk bed below his brother Fulger, pondering the idea of disobeying his parents. If they didn’t want Rapyo to travel to the city, and he was seventeen, there was no way they would ever let a fifteen-year-old, a fourteen-year-old, and a twelve-year-old go without their supervision. However, there was no way he was going to be the one who stayed back and faced his parents’ wrath until he cracked and tattled.

No, he would sneak out tonight with his brothers.

They had spent the evening up in their room – the three youngest brothers shared a room while Rapyo had his own – packing a few sets of clothes and food after telling their parents they were playing a board game. Lud’s sack was next to his feet, underneath his blanket.

It had taken Lud’s brothers all of five seconds to make the decision that they would accompany Rapyo on his secret journey to the capital city. At first it did not occur to them to invite Lud along, but as they discussed what would happen when they left, realization struck that they couldn’t leave him back. However, having seen Lud’s wheel and his competence at the dinner table, his brothers no longer considered him dead weight. He was now just an awkwardly slow weight to them.

They had a harder time deciding on Turp, who begged and argued that he should be allowed to go along. They eventually gave in after Lud reminded them that if Turp wanted to he could beat them to the city by at least a day.

Rapyo, the only one who had ever been to Chamberhaven before, said it would take three days to get there. Once there, he would start his new job, the four other boys would spend the night in the castle, and make the three day journey back home the next morning.

Nighttime silence filled the house for a few hours before Lud heard Fulger sit up, grab his pack, and climb down the bedside ladder to the floor. “Lud,” he whispered.

“I’m awake.” The room’s only window was large, allowing much of the moonlight to creep in, and Lud could see Fulger was already dressed in his traveling cloak. He must have gone to bed in it. Lud sat up, looking across the room at the bed where Yason was already awake and crawling to the floor, dressed in his own traveling cloak. Lud cursed himself for not wearing his to bed.

He rolled out of bed, tiptoed to his cloak, and threw it on.

“Rapyo is gonna’ meet us outside,” said Yason.

Lud walked to the door, knowing great care would be needed to creep down the steps. They always made terribly loud noises at the slightest touch.

“No, Lud,” said Yason. “That’s too loud. Mom and Dad will hear that for sure. We’re going out the window.”

“How are we gonna’ do that without breaking our legs?” asked Fulger, he too already at the door.

“Have faith,” said Yason, and he opened the window, crawled up to the ledge, and jumped out. Lud followed Fulger quickly to the window. Yason was safely on the ground standing next to Rapyo.

“I can’t lift other people yet,” said Rapyo. “But I can slow you down enough that it won’t hurt to land.”

“Excellent,” said Fulger, hopping on the ledge, and then out the window. He fell quickly, but was slowed enough before he hit the ground that he landed without even needing to bend his knees.

“It doesn’t hurt to land, right?” Lud asked, buying time.

“I don’t know, Lud,” said Fulger. “I think you might be too big for Rapyo to catch you.”

“Shut up, both of you, or Mom and Dad will wake up,” hissed Rapyo. “I can easily catch you, Lud. But you need to hurry.”

Lud took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and stepped out the window. He felt the air rush past him as he dropped. For a moment he thought he was falling too quickly and would crash on the hard ground, but as soon as he braced for impact, he felt a yank on his head and shoulders. It felt like his body was being stretched beyond its breaking point. Then his feet touched the ground, and the sensation on his head and shoulders was released.

Lud let out a moan. “That did hurt.”

“You get used to it,” said Rapyo. “Now, come on. We have to go.”

The moon was almost full, giving everything a blue tint, so the visibility was good. They walked along the eastern limits of Wiyaka Hills, avoiding roads and any house with too many lamps lit inside. Most houses in Wiyaka Hills had been built before their current residents had been born. Lud’s dad told him they had been raised by hands and hammers, without any use of powers, but Lud didn’t believe him. It was strange that Lud wouldn’t believe something his father taught him, but construction seemed too difficult to be done without powers. When a new house was built, usually by Mr. Paller and his employees, construction lasted half a day at the most. Watching Turp’s dad lift up a house from piles of lumber and nails was like watching a painter turn a blank canvas into art, a practice which Lud thought also worked better with powers.

Most houses were silent, but occasionally they came upon an old man cooking a late night meal or a young couple doing their taxes.

Before long, they were in the wide open yard belonging to the Pallers. Turp rocked back and forth in an old chair, waiting for them on the porch of his family’s massive house. When he got up and ran to the boys, they saw his backpack. It was nearly as large as he was.

“Wow, Turp. Did your mom send your entire room with you?” asked Fulger.

Turp chuckled quietly. “Which one of you geniuses remembered to bring a tent?”

Lud watched his brothers turn to each other in embarrassment. When he thought about, it hadn’t crossed his mind either.

“You’re welcome,” said Turp.

The five boys slept in Turp’s tent that night. Since it was already dark when they started, they only slept a few hours before getting up, but each boy agreed it was important to get some sleep, at least.

When Lud awoke, the ground was dewy and cold outside the tent. The sun had been up for a while but it was still very early in the morning. Turp and his brothers were already awake, eating a bit of the food they brought along. They had decided they wouldn’t need enough food for the return trip; they could probably find some at the castle, and so they took only enough for the first three days.

After finishing their breakfast, the boys walked north, trying to avoid villages and stick to the countryside. Hiking was easy. The grassy hills from which their village was named waved up and down but never inclined enough to make walking difficult.

“We need to keep the foothills on the east in sight,” said Rapyo. “The farther into the middle of Emityna we travel, the denser the cities become, and it will slow us down.” Lud hated when Rapyo acted like he knew everything about the country. He had only been to Chamberhaven once, but it made him an expert on the subject. “In the heart of Emityna, the cities melt together, almost as one giant city with the capital city of Chamberhaven in its center.”

Shut up, Rapyo.

Fulger seemed to have similar thoughts and began naming each of Chamberhaven’s surrounding cities, making sure to give as many details as possible about the many Rapyo had never seen.

“Well, sure,” snapped Rapyo, “you can always read about something in a book and sound smart, but it’s another thing to actually experience things and go to places.”

Although Lud enjoyed watching Rapyo get embarrassed, he couldn’t help but agree with his brother’s emphasis on experience. Forget the books and the schoolwork. Sure, it was great knowing Chamberhaven had grand marble statues of each of Emityna’s former kings, but Lud wouldn’t truly appreciate such a fact until he was standing at their feet, looking up at the handiwork of the country’s most famous artists.

Late in the afternoon they came to a city called Taripet, which bordered the woods on the eastern side. It was too large to walk around the western side without losing many hours. As often as Lud and his brothers played in the woods outside their house, they were wary of traveling into them here where they were unfamiliar. After all, The demons had struck recently.

“We have to go through the city. We can’t afford to waste time going around,” said Rapyo.

Lud’s brothers agreed. Lud was also happy to follow any plan which offered a minimal amount of walking.

They stood staring up in awe at the stone object before them. It towered toward the sky. Having never traveled far from his home, Lud had never seen a city surrounded by massive, stone walls as Taripet was. At each corner, rose a high, empty watch tower. Two thoughts came to Lud. Why would a city need such impenetrable defenses in the middle of Emityna, and who was there to defend against? Also, walls and watchtowers were so important, why were no lookouts posted?

Lud followed his brothers as they walked along the pebbled ground at the base of Taripet’s walls, looking for the city’s entrance. Dark green vines crept over the upper ledge and down until they nearly touched the ground. Lud grabbed hold of one. The thick vine felt so sturdy that, if any potential enemies needed to, they could use them to easily climb into the city.

The boys walked along until they came upon a massive gate, the entrance to the city. Two heavy, wooden doors stood open. No guards or sentries watched them so there was no difficulty getting inside.

The gate didn’t lead directly into the city but became a long corridor. Inside were two rows of statues of large, blue lions. Each lion, carved with exceptional detail, rose twice as tall as Lud.

The corridor was nearly empty, but as soon as the brothers stepped out into the city, they found themselves in the middle of a lively, bustling street. At first it reminded Lud of the crowds gathered in the streets of Wiyaka Hills to watch Rapyo, but then these people would walk down the street and be replaced by a new, equally large crowd. Men and women of all ages passed Lud, some with their hoods up, most not. A few people wore no robes at all, only their tunics. Ignoring Lud and his brothers seemed to be the only thing that truly united the citizens of Taripet. In Wiyaka Hills, Lud would have already been asked where his parents were and who was watching him now. Nobody took any notice of five unchaparoned youths.

They pushed their way through the rushing citizens and forceful street merchants until they came upon an open square with a large, stone pool. The statue of an eagle with outstretched wings rose from the water, which was murky, the bottom barely visible despite its shallow depth.

Here Lud, happy to find a place where he could catch his breath, looked around at the exotic city. The buildings, some built from clay, others built from stone, were all four stories tall; twice as tall as any building he’d seen before. Lud could see more city-squares at the end of three streets, to the west, north, and south. In the middle of each square was a large statue of an animal, each different. He guessed these were important to the city’s past and no one would tell him.

“Because this is eagle square,” said a twenty-something girl with her hair tied up on the sides of her head. She was the first person to acknowledge Lud’s question. “Why else would there be a statue of an eagle? Seriously, think about it.” Then she left.

Lud had never seen such grandeur in his life, and the busy citizens didn’t take any notice, only caring enough not to run into anything as they moved past as quickly as possible.

“Hey, kids,” said Rapyo, coming back to his brothers from inside the mob of hustling citizens. “I finally got somebody to talk to me, and he said there’s another city a little ways to the north we can still reach by nightfall. We can stay there tonight.”

“We don’t have money to stay anywhere beside our tent,” said Yason.

“I have money,” said Rapyo, regaining the look of superiority his brothers were used to. “I’m going to a new job, remember? I’ll get paid when I get there, so I didn’t mind taking out my savings to help us on our trip.”

“Okay,” said Yason. “Let’s say you do want to waste your savings; what if we run into somebody who knows Mom and Dad and decides to tell on us.”

“Mom and Dad are always working on the farm or just staying around the house. They won’t know any—”

A loud splash stopped Rapyo in midsentence. Turp had pushed Fulger into the pool. “What?” asked Turp, looking offended. “He asked how many diapers my backpack could hold.”

Lud laughed, and then looked around. His smile left. “Turp, where is your backpack?”

“Right there,” said Turp, pointing to the corner of the pool. The backpack was gone. Turp spun around frantically. “Somebody stole it!”

Immediately, Lud and his three brothers began scanning the square.

“There it is!” cried Yason, pointing down the street.

Lud looked past Yason and saw a young man running through the mob, down the westward road.

“Stop him! Thief!” yelled Turp, as the five boys ran after the bag. Not one of the citizens took any notice of them or the young man carrying Turp’s backpack.

The thief had a hard time squeezing through the crowd, but it wasn’t any easier for Lud and his brothers. They entered the fruit section of one of the city’s marketplaces and, as it was near suppertime, the road was even more crowded than the square. Turp and Rapyo were making the best progress, gaining on the thief. Turp moved through the crowd fast because of his speed and slenderness, and Rapyo, besides also being slender, was lightly pushing people out of his way with a wave of his hand and a focused mind. Soon both boys rushed far ahead of Lud, Yason, and Fulger, catching up with the young man and Turp’s pack.

Lud had the hardest time moving through the crowd as he was the largest. He yelled and pushed and squeezed, but made little headway.

Yason and Fulger had been out of Lud’s view for a while when he came up to them arguing with a large man at one of the apple carts. The man was holding Turp by the arm and yelling. Lud wiggled forward to his brothers and his best friend.

“It was just one apple!” yelled Fulger to the man holding Turp’s arm.

“What’s going on?” asked Lud, his voice out of breath.

“I threw an apple at the stupid thief and now this stupid apple salesman – is that your official title? – won’t let me go,” said Turp, struggling with the apple salesman.

“You’re the thief!” bellowed the man.

“Listen,” said Listen. “We’d love to stay and argue with you, but we’ve really got to get going, and you have to take a trip of your own.”

Before the apple salesman could realize what Yason meant and notice the boy’s brother Fulger crouching behind his legs, Yason showed him with all his might.

The large man tumbled backwards, tripping over Fulger, and landed hard onto the brick road.

The four boys took off running before he could get his big body back up on its feet.

They ran faster this time, Yason and Fulger no longer afraid to shove people out of their way, and soon they found Rapyo sitting on top of the thief with a very large group of people standing around watching from a distance.

“Nice throw, Turp,” said Rapyo. “It stunned the kid just long enough for me to jump on him before he could get back up.”

Lud looked around to the people circled around them, watching with bewildered shock.

“Why are these people watching?” asked Lud. “Surely, they must have seen a thief before.”

Rapyo looked at his brothers, his face red. “In order to jump on him before he had time to get up...” Rapyo looked around at his witnesses. “I had to fly.”

“I knew I saw it!” cried a broad-shouldered woman in the circle.

“Good work, genius,” said Fulger. “Way to be subtle.”

More people started describing what they had seen.

“Come on,” said Yason. “It’s time to get out of this city.”

Rapyo agree and got off the thief. The terrified face of the boy who got up looked the same age as Yason. He was certainly not the young man Lud thought he had been.

“Get out of here!” Fulger yelled as the boy pushed through the circle of people and ran away.

“Hey, boy,” yelled a tall man in a dark grey cloak trimmed with red stitching. “What’s your name?” The tall man was addressing Rapyo.

“My friends,” said Rapyo, bringing back his performance voice, “under different circumstances I would love to stay and answer all your questions, but, alas, we must be going.” When Rapyo turned to leave the circle, two men with the same red-stitched cloaks refused to move.

“Please, boy,” said the taller of the two. “We would like a word with you.” Rapyo again tried to walk past. “I’m afraid you don’t have much choice.”

“Get ready, guys,” Rapyo called over his shoulder to his brothers and Turp, but it wasn’t needed; they were already poised to run. “Now!” Rapyo yelled and, dropping to one knee, thrust his arms forward. The invisible force shot forward and knocked the legs out from under the two men. The other four boys ran around Rapyo and over the men, making sure to take as many hard steps on their backs as possible.

Loud shouts came from behind them, through Yason and Fulger’s cloud of fruit, as they pushed their way through the unsuspecting market shoppers who had not seen or heard of Rapyo’s actions. They would soon, however. Lud could hear people yelling the story and giving instructions to ‘catch those boys.’

Past the market, the crowd thinned and the pace quickened. They passed another statue and another shallow pool.

Lud glanced back as he ran and saw four men in gray cloaks still following them. As he was looking back, he failed to see a hooded man in a long, black cloak step out from inside a building and into his path.

“They’re gaining! Hurry—” Ugh!

Lud nearly blacked out at the force of his impact with the man in the black cloak. Stumbling backwards onto the road, he felt as if he had ran headlong into a brick wall.

None of his senses were working properly when he was picked up and thrown into the building the hooded man had stepped out from. The ringing in his ears quieted enough to hear the door close behind him and lock. Inside the building, there were no lights that Lud could see, but, then again, he couldn’t see much at all. He felt himself lifted again. This time he was not thrown, but carried up a flight of stairs.

As his eyesight cleared up, he saw that, not only were there no lamps in the building, there were no furnishings of any kind. The man in the black cloak carried him up stairs past three more empty floors before he stopped. When the man pushed open the door at the top of the final staircase, light flooded in. Lud blinked several times before anything became close to focused.

Lud was set down, his back against the ledge which ran around the roof. In front of him, next to the man in the black cloak, stood an old man wearing a dark-purple cloak and holding a staff. The old man was not wearing his hood, like the black-cloaked man, so Lud could see his face clearly. He had a long nose and eyes which looked too close together. His beard was short, but very white, and made his thin lips look even thinner. He was very tan, especially on the top of his head, which was completely bald.

Despite his many wrinkles, the old man carried himself tall and did not look the least bit frail. When he spoke, his voice was strong and full of authority.

“What is your name?” he asked. “And what is the name of the boy who flew.”

“My name is Lud Compograv,” answered Lud, more quickly than he would normally answer a complete stranger, but that was the type of influence this old man commanded. “The other boy is my brother, Rapyo Compograv. We are on our way to the city of Chamberhaven, to the castle. The king has requested Rapyo personally because Rapyo is incredibly powerful.”

Lud knew he was telling this man more than he should, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Now men are chasing us because they have seen what he can do. I have three more brothers and one friend down there. I don’t know what those men will do to them if they catch them. Please, help us.”

“I will help you. Get up, young Lud,” said the old man. “Follow me.”

Lud got up wearily, but quickly. As soon as he was standing, the old man and the man in the black cloak ran to the side ledge, placed a foot on it, and leapt to the roof of the next building. The man in the black cloak landed with a very large thud, but the old man landed lightly.

Lud shifted towards the ledge they had jumped from. When he looked over it, he saw that it was farther than he had anticipated. There was no way he could jump across the gap as the two men had.

The old man must have seen the hesitation on his face. “Yes, my boy, that gap is far. Much farther than a young boy or an old man could jump. You must trust me to carry you across.”

Remembering Rapyo and the drop from his bedroom window, he backed up to get a running start.

Then Lud remembered another fact: he didn’t even know this old man.

Why was he now, seconds after meeting, going to put his life into this man’s hands? Or powers. Or whatever.

Yet, Lud knew he had trusted this man since he first saw him. There was no reason behind it, just a strong feeling, and he was about to put this feeling to the ultimate test.

With as much energy as his still-recovering legs could manage, he ran to the ledge, stepped on it, and jumped off.

He would have been three lengths short if an upward thrust hadn’t suspended him long enough to make it across easily. It wasn’t as sharp and jolting as Rapyo’s attempt; instead, he felt lighter than air. After landing smoothly, he saw the two men already running towards the next roof.

One after another, he followed them over the rooftops, being carried over the four-story drops after making each initial jump. Often, the old man never even glanced back, but still knew when to help Lud across. When they got too far ahead, they waited for him to catch up before moving to the next roof.

Lud tried not to think about how far he would fall if something would go wrong as he crossed above any one of these four-story tall gaps.

They crossed seven rooftops, including one very large jump over a crowded street. Then they stopped and looked over the ledge, down into the people. The man in the black cloak did not look down.

“Down there, near the end of the street,” said the old man, motioning towards the only section clear of citizens, who had moved out of the way to watch the action taking place.

There, Lud saw Yason wildly swinging his arms, throwing anything he could find towards gray-cloaked men while Rapyo pushed away anyone who came close to him. There were many more than before. Fulger was already captured and being held by two men, while Turp ran around, evading captors and throwing punches where he could.

“Let’s go,” said the old man, pulling his hood up over his head. Then he and the black-cloaked man stepped onto the ledge. Lud did the same, and all three jumped off, falling all four stories to the ground. Lud and the old man both slowed at the end and landed easily on the ground, but the black-cloaked man never slowed. He landed with such impact that it smashed the brick road under him. Standing up quickly and effortlessly, he paid no attention to the damage he had just caused and showed no sign of injuries.

Instead, he walked to one of the men holding Fulger, raised his fist, and brought it down on the arm which held Fulger tight. Lud heard a very loud crack. The gray-cloaked man screamed, instantly let go, and grabbed his broken arm. The other man holding Fulger stepped in to help, but was grabbed by his cloak, lifted, and thrown to the side.

The old man in the purple cloak also stepped into the fight, and with a large wave of his staff, sent a majority of the enemies flying back.

Lud joined Fulger and Turp, and the three boys pushed two men towards the man in the black cloak, who knocked them unconscious with one hit each.

The remaining gray-cloaked men stood back, afraid to continue the fight.

“It is time to leave now, boys!” cried the old man. “Follow me.” All five boys followed him as he ran quickly through the streets. They didn’t need to force many people out of the way this time, as most were now terrified and moved on their own. They followed the old man as he turned right, down another street. The man in the black cloak was soon behind them, but there was no sign of anyone else following them.

The farther they ran down this new street, the less crowded it became. Soon they found themselves running alone. The buildings looked more and more worn down and the street became dirtier and less maintained.

Soon the street led to one of the outside walls. They turned left and followed it until they were at the very corner of the city. Lud looked up at the giant watchtower. They were going inside it.

The wooden door at the base of the watchtower was falling apart, and it didn’t surprise anyone when it made a loud squeak as it opened. Inside was mostly dark, except where light sneaked in through a few small slits every time they climbed one full rotation up the spiral staircase. The stone steps were slick and steep. Lud pulled his way to the top, hoping the old railing wouldn’t break off.

The top of the tower gave them a magnificent view of the city. Dusk was quickly approaching, turning the rooftops below red. Lud took a short glance over the side of the tower and promptly sat down so he wouldn’t have to look over it again.

“You may set up your tent here tonight,” said the old man in the dark-purple cloak. “Trust me, you will not be disturbed. Nor will it rain tonight, which is fortunate, as this is an awful place to be when it rains.”

Lud’s brothers stared at the old man.

“Forgive me if I seem rude,” said Rapyo, sounding very rude. “Who are you, and why have you helped us?”

The old man smiled at the boys, who were breathing heavily after their run.

“Call me Leone,” he said. “It is not my real name, but it is enough for now. You may call my friend Titan, as that is his real name. He will guard and watch over you tonight as you sleep.”

Yason turned to the man in the black cloak, Titan, and said to him: “If you would like, I can stay up for part of the night so you can sleep, Mr...”

Leone laughed a hearty, friendly laugh. “Titan has no surname, and you are kind and gracious for offering such a service, but my friend does not need sleep. Please, show them why, Titan.”

Titan raised his hands to his hood, and Lud saw they were not the color of flesh, but a glossy, pure white.

Pulling back the hood revealed a completely white, completely bald head. His eyes did not contain any iris at all, but were the same brilliant white throughout. His face bore a fixed expression of seriousness.

Titan was solid stone.

Chapter 6
Titan

“What is that?” yelled Turp, breaking a lengthy, awkward silence. They boys were growing more uneasy with their two new companions.

Titan, the man of stone, stood silent. Lud wondered where it was looking, since following its eyes was impossible.

“Titan, as you can see,” said the old man Leone, “is an entity of stone. A living essence embodied inside rock. He is alive, but in the same way an animal of the wild is alive. He has no intellectual consciousness, but lives on instinct, though he never hungers nor thirsts.”

“Is he dangerous?” asked Turp, reaching out to touch it but pulling back.

“He would be very dangerous, would he belong to anyone else. However, he currently lives for me, and as long as he does, you need not fear him. Titan is a Mesmor and, like all Mesmors, can be controlled.”

“You control him?” asked Lud. “How?”

“I am linked to Titan. The same powers which allow you to fly,” said Leone, looking at Rapyo, “allow me to move Titan as a puppet master would move his puppet with strings. My mind can travel inside his. I can see what he sees. I do not feel his pain, but I know when he has been injured.”

“How do you injure stone?” asked Turp.

“It is difficult, but possible,” said Leone. “He is not indestructible, nor is he immortal. Just as a large hammer can break a wall, so can Mesmors be wounded.”

“Where did you get him?” asked Rapyo, eyeing Titan lustfully. “Are there more?” He looked excited. Lud wondered if his eldest brother was thinking about getting his own stone-man.

“More exist, yes,” said Leone, “but they are rare and not native to these lands.”

Not native to these lands? This excited Lud. Was the old man referring to the land outside Lud’s own country; the land where the Dinolanas lived? Should he show the old man his gauntlet?

“Do they all look like him?” asked Turp. “Can I touch it?”

“I’m sorry. It would be quite rude to touch him,” said Leone. “Concerning your first question; no, most Mesmors look very little like my friend Titan. Mesmors are stone giants. They stand upright, with a vague resemblance to men. Their features more closely resemble rocks than men. Titan was no different, until I pushed down on him and sculpted him to look more human, so he could accompany me without drawing suspicion.”

“You didn’t care to do anything about his white skin?” Turp asked and was instantly hit by Yason. Fulger laughed at both the question and Yason’s response to it. Luckily, the old man laughed too.

Yason changed the subject anyway. “I still want to know why you helped us. I mean... it’s not that I don’t appreciate it... I’m just curious.”

“There are very few people who have the natural ability to make themselves fly. I am one of the blessed ones. I have been traveling around the country for some time now, and, luckily for you boys, I have been staying in this city for a little while. I saw the incident in the marketplace and the men whose attention it drew.”

Rapyo shrugged.

“There are men in each city,” Leone continued, “appointed recently by the king to be officers for him, enforcing his rules and watching for any behavior which extends beyond the normal limits. Flying is one of those behaviors. Had they caught you, they would have taken you straight to the king’s castle.”

Rapyo’s expression turned to anger.

“That’s what we wanted!” said Rapyo. “We are on our way to the castle right now. The king chose me for a specific job. If you hadn’t come in and beat up his officers, we would probably be on our way to him right now. What if the king is insulted by this and sends me home?” Rapyo turned to his brothers. “Guys, let’s go down. Maybe we can find the officers and apologize for running away.”

“Rapyo, it’s too late for that now,” said Yason. “It’s nearly night.”

“We can sleep when we’re at the castle. They’ll have big, warm beds for each of us,” said Rapyo.

“You don’t know that,” said Yason. “You don’t even know if they’ll have a place for you when we get there. They have no idea you’re coming.”

“That’s why we need to go and talk to those officers.”

“Rapyo,” said Fulger, “those men down in the streets, those ‘officers’, didn’t seem the welcoming type. We were all down there when it happened, and not one of us ever considered the idea that those men might be helping us.”

“We were caught up in the moment, paranoid of everybody,” said Rapyo.

“It’s because we knew those men weren’t good,” said Fulger.

“You can’t say that,” said Rapyo. “People aren’t simply good or bad. You can’t make that decision quickly. Look where it led us: on a tower, sitting with an old stranger and his pet rock, hiding from the men who could bring us exactly where we want to go.”

“I know you are no fool, young Rapyo,” said Leone, “but neither are your brothers. It is important to trust your instincts. You have been raised well. Do not let your desires blind your judgment.”

“I’m sorry, old Leone,” said Rapyo, “but you don’t know anything about me or my brothers.”

“Not true,” said Leone. “I knew your father well. In many ways, you are very much like him.”

Everybody stopped. Lud stared at Leone, unsure what to say.

“You knew our father?” asked Rapyo.

The old man looked pleasant, as if remembering fond times from long ago. “I knew Olim Compograv when he worked in the castle as a guard,” said Leone. “He was a strong and powerful man, loyal to his King, but more than anything else, he was brave. Olim was the bravest man I’ve ever met. No, I’m not surprise his sons would run off into an unknown city, on a quest to places they’ve never been, to people they’ve never met.”

Lud thought about his Dad. When Lud was very young his dad crushed a large spider in his bedroom once. At the time he had believed his Dad to be incredibly brave. As he grew older, however, the feat grew less impressive. To say Olim Compograv was the bravest person somebody had ever met seemed weird.

“You worked at the castle? Were you a guard?” asked Yason.

“I worked at the castle, yes,” said Leone, “but I was not a guard. My job was far less exciting than your father’s. Although important, what I did was much more mundane; signing papers and overlooking finances filled my days. While your father traveled the world and met many interesting people, I stayed in the castle. I only met interesting people if they ventured inside the castle walls.”

Lud could see Rapyo growing restless. He didn’t seem as interested in the old man’s words as Lud, his brothers, and Turp. Leone must have noticed, too, for he began speaking directly to Rapyo.

“I was able to meet some important people, however,” he said, “including this king you seek.” The old man had Rapyo’s attention now, so he continued. “His name is Ward Eligo. I have known him longer than I have known your father. I was there when he was anointed king, taking the thrown after the untimely death of his brother, the former King, Erus Eligo. He was a noble man back then, as he had been since a child. Unfortunately, I doubt I can still credit him as such. He took to power like a moth to the flame. It plays at his heart now.”

“That must be why Dad seemed so angry when the Lieutenant talked about the king,” said Yason.

“Your father never liked Ward,” said Leone. “Even before the king took his brother’s place, Olim was reluctant to trust him with almost any matter.”

“And now Rapyo wants to be his best friend,” said Fulger.

“I’m not going to be working for the King,” said Rapyo. “I’m going to be working for his ally.”

“Oh yeah,” said Fulger. “The no-named ally is obviously much more trustworthy than his friend, King Ward Eligo.”

Rapyo faked a punch at Fulger, who didn’t flinch.

“Leone,” said Yason. “Do you know anything about the King’s new ally? They say he came recently from one of the northern villages. He’s asked Rapyo to come and tutor him. He wants to learn more advanced powers like flying.”

Leone stood silent for a few moments. “I have not been back to the castle in a few years, so I am unaware of any new guests, but I know the king has grown more paranoid in recent years. If a man could bring himself so close to the king in these days, he must either be a very trustworthy man or an equally good con-artist.”

Leone put his hand on Rapyo’s shoulder. “I see you cannot be swayed from your decision to seek this employment, so I will not stop you, but I must give you a warning.” As Leone spoke, Lud saw the old man’s feet leave the ground. Leone hovered next to Rapyo. As he continued speaking, he steadily rose higher. “Pride runs deep in the hearts of men. Many seek to become the best, the most powerful, or the most famous. When they are not... when they cannot capture their desires... jealousy grows in them like a weed.” Leone drifted backwards, now suspended beyond the edge of the watchtower, over nothing but solid ground. “Be careful of those men. They do not wish to share in your power, but to have it as their own. Do not take your instincts for granted. Put much thought into who you decide to trust.”

The old man looked to the distance, where the sun had set completely below the horizon, leaving only a few faint wisps of pink and gold.

“Now, boys,” said Leone, “you must sleep. Tomorrow I will travel the rest of the way to Chamberhaven with you. It is a long journey from here, and we will be walking from sunrise until sunset so you will need your energy.”

Then Leone let himself fall towards the ground. Lud rushed to the ledge. Just before Leone hit the ground, the old man flew up and circled around the watchtower, slowly rising higher as he went. When he reached the top, he stopped suddenly and landed on the ledge.

Wow, Lud thought, that was much cooler than Rapyo’s performance back home.

“Titan will stay. I will be back in the morning and travel with you to the capital,” Leone said and then was gone, flying back over the city.

“Whoa!” cried Turp and Fulger simultaneously.

As Lud listened to his brothers marvel at Leone’s mysteries and abilities, he noticed nobody was comparing Leone’s flight to Rapyo’s. That was probably good.

After a long conversation, Lud and his brothers turned to Titan, standing silently to the side. Lud looked into his stone eyes. Without any iris or pupils, Titan could be looking at Lud or any of his brothers without them knowing. It was creepy.

That night, the boys laid under the stars, exhausted, and quickly fell asleep.

When the sun rose the next morning, Lud was woken by a cold, stone hand gripping his shoulder, softly shaking him until he sat up. Titan’s white, blank face startled Lud for a moment, until he remembered the previous day’s events. The cold breeze brushing his face told him he was awake. This was no dream.

Titan moved on to Turp, the last person still sleeping. Kneeling down, Titan touched Turp’s shoulder. As soon as the stone hand touched skin, Turp scared awake. He sat up so quickly that his head slammed hard against Titan’s.

Turp let out a loud cry of pain and covered his face with his hands. “You stupid statue! What was that for?”

Fulger laughed. “I like Titan already.”

With one hand over his eye, Turp made a swing for Fulger, but being unable to see and much too far away, he didn’t come close to hitting him.

“I hope Mr. Statue is in just as much pain as I am,” said Turp, but it was obvious Titan felt no pain. Instead he walked to the door leading back down the tower, opened it, and stood staring at the boys. Although, it was possible Titan was looking up at the sky or down at his feet, but since his head was not angled in either direction, Lud assumed it was a safe guess.

“I think he’s trying to tell us something,” said Rapyo, his voice filled with sarcasm.

“What is it boy?” asked Fulger, putting his hands on his knees and bending over as if Titan was a dog, despite the fact that Titan towered over Fulger, even if Fulger would stand on his tip-toes.

The decision turned out to be a bad one, as Titan grabbed the back of Fulger’s tunic and tossed him down the steps. Fulger didn’t land far away; the steps of the square watchtower spiraled down with a platform in each corner.

The uninjured Fulger cursed at the man of stone while Turp laughed uncontrollably, having seen the action through his one good eye. Realizing Fulger hadn’t fallen the entire length of the watchtower, Lud laughed too.

“Guys, stop,” said Yason. “Titan isn’t our enemy. He’s just doing what he was told to do, so stop being such children. Let’s just go along with him.”

Rapyo didn’t seem to like that Yason was giving him orders, so he added, “Yeah, guys. Listen to Mother Yason and play nice with the old man’s toy.”

Yason ignored his older brother and dragged Turp through the door. Turp looked nervously at Titan as they passed.

“Come on, Lud,” Yason yelled from the steps. Lud walked through the door, keeping his distance from Titan as he walked by. Rapyo followed too, but didn’t look happy.

When they got to the bottom of the watchtower, Titan stopped them before they left through the door they entered the previous night.

“What?” asked Rapyo. “We can’t stay in here all day; we have to get to the castle.”

Titan motioned that they stand back, against the door, as he turned to the opposite stone wall. With a large swing, Titan punched a hole through it and sunshine splashed into the dark tower. Titan quickly made the hole larger by pulling out the bricks, one by one, as easily as if he were pulling leaves off a tree. It was soon large enough that they could all step through. Lud realized they were now outside the city walls. It made sense not to go through the streets again if they didn’t need to.

Titan began walking away from the city, towards the rolling hills, heading north in the direction of Chamberhaven.

The boys followed silently for a few hours. Lud didn’t know if the silence was caused by the early morning or by the incident with Titan at the top of the tower. Either way, he didn’t volunteer to break the silence.

Although they kept off the main roads, the land was not difficult to walk across. In the beginning they passed a few herds of sheep or the occasional young girl walking her dog, but now there was no person or village in sight, just hills, pastures, and a lot of trees.

Not until they stopped for lunch did anyone talk again.

“How much farther is it to the city,” asked Fulger to Rapyo, after receiving no answer from Titan.

“I think we should get there just before the sun goes down,” said Rapyo uncertainly. “But what I want to know is... where is Leone? He said he was going with us to Chamberhaven.”

“Don’t worry,” said Yason. “I’m sure he’s not going to fly ahead of us and steal your new job.”

“...Despite the fact that he’s clearly much more powerful than you are,” said Fulger.

“And a much better flyer, too,” added Turp.

“That’s what I meant, Turp!” said Fulger.

Rapyo’s face turned red. “He’s had a billion more years of practice than I have! When I’m that old, I’ll be able to do much more than he can.”

“You don’t even know everything he can do,” said Yason. “You saw him fly, and that’s it.”

“Well, he didn’t look like he could do anything else,” said Rapyo.

Lud chuckled at to himself. “That’s just it,” he said. “He doesn’t really look like he can do very much at all, but it seems looks are deceiving when it comes to Leone. He carried me across the roofs as if I weighed nothing, and your flying wasn’t even close to his.”

“Yeah, well, why are you sticking up for him anyway?” asked Rapyo. “We don’t know the guy, and yet it looks like he’s become your new hero. How can we trust him? He made that point of telling us to be careful who we trust... we should obey that and figure out if we can even trust him.”

“That’s dumb,” said Turp. “We can obviously trust him. He saved us in the streets.” “Yeah, he saved us from people who could have helped us get to the castle sooner. We probably would have ridden in carriages and everything.”

“Shut up, Rapyo,” said Yason. “We’re going to the castle, so what are you still crying about?”

“I just don’t think we can put so much trust into someone who lies to us,” said Rapyo. “That’s all.”

“I regret that I was not able to be with you in person, but I did not lie to you, Rapyo.”

Lud sat stunned, staring blankly at the stone man who had just spoken for the first time. His brothers were equally surprised. Titan’s mouth never moved as he spoke. “Circumstances arose which did not allow me to return to you physically, but I have been with you this entire time through Titan.”

The voice was Leone’s.

“I told you before that I have a connection with Titan which allows me to control him,” said Leone’s voice from within the man of stone. “I have watched you through his eyes and checked in periodically as you traveled. I was particularly amused when you woke up this morning.” Titan turned to Fulger. “I can assure you it was Titan who threw you down the stairs, not me.”

Leone laughed, but Fulger didn’t look amused. Titan turned to Rapyo, who looked even sourer than Fulger. “You may certainly go to the King and his capital city,” said Leone. “As I said, I will not try to stop you. Your father asked me to try, and I regret having to go against the wishes of my good friend, but there are things happening which he does not understand.”

“What?” asked Rapyo. “You told our Dad?”

“No,” said Leone. “Your father sent word to me the minute he found out you left and told me to send you back home. Instead of agreeing, I argued that it would be better if he came to you, not to bring you home, but to join you.”

“Why would our dad need to join us?” asked Yason. “And what things are happening that he wouldn’t understand?”

“While your father was employed at the castle,” said Leone, “he experienced a multitude of adventures. Since then, he chose the humble, modest life of raising a family, and I took his place as surveyor of the world. And the world changed. A darkness exists it is not prepared for.”

The stone Titan kneeled beside Lud, in front of Turp and Lud’s brothers. “I continue to ask for your father’s support and assistance, but he continues to refuse. When I found out about you boys and your quest to the King’s castle, I rejoiced because, despite your youth, you are still Compogravs. Four Compogravs in their youth are better than none at all.”

“But why?” asked Lud. “What is waiting for us at the castle? What darkness?” He had been fine when the journey was just to drop off his brother and go home, but things didn’t look as fun if they were going to the castle of a king their father distrusted, with a darkness the world was unprepared for.

“No, young Lud,” said Leone. “Fear not. Finding this darkness is the purpose of my quest, not yours. The darkness takes many forms, but most often it bears the resemblance of a man. I do not believe it to be at the castle currently. You will be safe there, but be careful nevertheless.”

“Why, then,” said Rapyo, “do you scare us with tales of a man shaped from darkness if it’s your problem and not ours?”

Lud grew angry at his eldest brother for being such a jerk to a friend of their Dad, a friend who wanted to keep them safe.

“I assure you I would not give such information if I did not believe it important to your safety,” said Leone. He continued in a more serious tone. “Whatever happens in the future, let nothing separate you. Much greater strength lies in the love of your brothers than in any physical power.”

Rapyo appeared unconvinced by the old man’s sentiments and ate the rest of his meal in silence. Lud, feeling a bit ashamed of himself, also thought the old man sounded a little too similar to one of the morality plays his school put on to teach kids the importance of sharing or eating healthy foods.

Lud also wondered what Turp thought. Turp was not a Compograv. He didn’t even have any siblings at home. If the conversation with Leone was making Turp feel left out, he didn’t show it. He just sat back, attentive, and ate his lunch.

Leone must have realized that the boys no longer cared to listen to him, or had said everything he needed to, because Titan made no motion or noise until Lud and his brothers were finished eating.

Time passed more quickly during the rest of the afternoon. The land turned flat and barren. A few bushes dotted the countryside, and they saw only a few trees. They passed more walled cities, but managed not to enter any of them. In their boredom, Fulger invented a game. While everyone walked close together, Yason and Turp threw rocks as far as they could — Turp threw even farther than Yason — while Fulger and Lud used their powers to lift hand-made baskets to catch them before they hit the ground. The catcher received one point if he caught the stone and negative one point if he didn’t. The catchers were only allowed to leave the throwers if the rocks were thrown farther than their powers could reach, which was often.

Rapyo refused to play, instead walking in silence, except to yell occasionally at his brothers to pick up the pace. They didn’t bother asking Titan to play.

By the time they stopped to eat again, Fulger led with 154 points. Lud was losing with negative 73 points. Pushing had quickly become part of the game, and although Lud did well with pushing and could control his basket fairly, he just didn’t have the reach or the speed his older brother had. However, he still enjoyed the game. Now that Lud could use his powers without fear of breaking his fingers, he quickly grasped any opportunity to do so.

Rapyo forced his brothers to eat supper quickly so they could get to the castle before the sun went down. Through Titan, Leone said they were on pace to get to Chamberhaven before dark, but Rapyo refused to take any chances and pushed them on.

As they traveled closer to the capital city, the cities grew closer together and forced them to take the busy roads. Very little open countryside remained.

Lud noticed how different city folk were from the residents back at his village. Here, nobody looked at each other as they walked, much less said ‘hello’ or ‘good evening’. The occasional horse-drawn carriage drove by with little regard for the safety of anyone along the road.

The outfits also became more extravagant the farther they walked. The regular tan, brown, or black tunics and cloaks that Lud was accustomed to were nowhere to be seen, replaced by extravagant cloaks of all the colors of the rainbow, trimmed with gold or scarlet.

During a lengthy wait at the only closed city-gate they encountered, Lud noticed most of the cloaks had two embroidered emblems on the chest. The one on the right side—the left of the person wearing the cloak—had a different symbol for almost every person. Lud wondered whether they picked out their own symbol or were given one. Not everybody had an emblem on the left side—their right—but most did, and Lud, seeing that each symbol was almost identical depending on what city they were in, gathered that the minor differences in each one represented the person’s job.

It took a long time to get through each city, and Rapyo was getting crabby. Lud thought Rapyo’s cold attitude fit right in with the rest of the people inside the cities.

Titan, however, stood out more than Rapyo, despite his black hood pulled up over his head. It was common for many people in the cities to wear their hood up, but Leone, who now occupied Titan the entire time, was apologizing to every person he brushed into. Although it was not enough that anyone would stop and talk to him, it was more than any city citizen would do.

Rapyo also insisted that, anytime they took a break, somebody watched Turp’s backpack. Most often it was Lud’s job.

Soon the boys came to the end of one of the busier cities and exited through its massive gate. Ahead of them, the wide road led up a large, grassy hill, and at the top of the hill was a city. The city was smaller than most of the ones they passed through, but the walls and buildings were much taller and much more impressive. The walls were a brilliant white, and running along the middle was a row of bright red, blue, and green symbols similar to the emblems on the cloaks Lud saw. The symbols indented into the sides of the walls, which gave the impression that, if someone carved into those white walls, they would find wonderful colors contained inside.

Rapyo looked at Titan expectantly.

“Yes,” said Leone. “That is the capital city Chamberhaven. From down here you can only see the top of the highest tower of the castle over the wall and buildings, but you will soon see it is a beautiful castle. Now, we must hurry inside. It is nearly dark.”

Abstract chapter design

NATRIX’S ARMY

Natrix was not ready to start calling this king, a stranger to him until today, his father, but followed him down a wide set of stairs from the sanctuary towards another great hall.

The entrance to the stairs had been hidden behind the great stone thrown, which now thundered behind them as it walked upright, in the crude form of a man, following them. The giant did not speak, but followed them as a dog might follow his master.

Soon the stairs opened to the great, empty hall. Standing alone in the cavernous room, four rows of six marble pillars stretched to the back wall. A ring of candles circled halfway up each, giving the room some light but not enough. The flickering candles made the odd-looking pillars even stranger. They were not straight like the columns in the sanctuary. Instead, these pillars lumped and twisted their way to the ceiling, looking like tall, white, deformed men.

Natrix quickly realized that this, of course, was exactly what they were.

The stone giant, which had followed so obediently before, stepped directly over Natrix’s head and slowly walked to the nearest pillar. He lifted one of his irregular arms, and, although his entire body was a conglomeration of large stones, Natrix saw that his hands and fingers had rocks small enough to look similar to human hands and fingers, if the human was painted white. With those fingers, the giant touched the side of the pillar, and Natrix felt a slight rumble in the floor.

The pillar slowly came to life, lowering one hand from the ceiling and then another. It twisted around, and spread its legs apart into a normal stance. The ring of candles remained around its midsection. Natrix could clearly see this was the same type of creature as the one which had once been the king’s throne.

Natrix stood in awe, his mouth open, but the two giants took no time to admire each other. Instead, each turned to the pillar next to them, raised an arm and touched it.

There was another rumbling larger than the first.

Two more pillars lumbered to life, pausing for only a moment before moving on to spread the life they had been given.

Terror struck Natrix as he realized there would be nothing left to hold up the ceiling. He jumped back up a few steps, out of the room, but was still able to see inside.

At the bottom of the steps, the king laughed at him.

“The Mesmors did not hold up the ceiling,” said the king. “You do not need to worry about another roof caving in.”

Natrix didn’t respond, but he didn’t move forward either.

When the rumbling stopped, and every pillar had been turned, the stone giants, the Mesmors, tromped to the front of the room near Natrix and the king. They stood in a formation of three rows of eight. The original giant stood in front of them, as a commander would.

Suddenly, a spark pierced Natrix’s spine, and he found himself temporarily blinded. For a brief moment he felt his mind flow through each Mesmor, giving him a short glimpse through the eyes of each one. When his eyesight returned to him, he saw each giant now stood more erect.

Natrix raised his right arm and felt a tingling flow inside it. At the same time, twenty-five stone giants raised their right arms. He turned his wrist, and twenty-five wrists turned as well.

Then something happened which made him lose focus. From the top of the steps, a faint, blue glow fell lightly on the steps beneath his feet.

“Light!” he yelled.

In an excited hurry, he ran up the steps and into the sanctuary, the king running quickly behind him. Natrix’s heart leapt when he stepped into the room.

A few stained glass windows he had not noticed in the dark were glowing, illuminated from a source outside.

Sunlight.

Abstract chapter design

Eight years later, Prince Natrix stood at the top of a grassy hill in the northwest corner of the country, near the western mountains with only his stone commander by his side.

The sun shone bright overhead, warming his back. He loved being in the sun. Throughout the first four years he lived in his father’s castle, Natrix spent as much time outdoors as he could.

Although none of the other kids who lived near the castle dared to ask him to play with them, he found plenty to amuse himself with. It was there, under the sun, where he learned to control the energy which flowed through his arms and spine.

It was also during those first four years when Natrix began to call the king his father. His mother was still alive, and he saw her often, but she had to remain a secret or else the truth would come out that the king was not actually Natrix’s father. He still knew the king was not his natural father, but the king gave him plenty of food to eat, a mammoth bedroom, and freedom to do what he pleased; which, most of the time, was either experimenting with his powers or playing with the Mesmors.

Being the only person who could control them, Natrix had decided they belonged to him.

He mastered the ability to jump his mind from stone giant to stone giant and control whichever one he pleased, but it was when they moved on their own that he enjoyed them the most. He only had to jump to one, tell it a command, and it would perform the action perfectly. This was how he became good at many games which otherwise required many other children. Because of his extra abilities, Natrix often wondered how much better he would be at games if other kids ever decided to play with him.

The truth was, Natrix assumed there wasn’t a person alive who could do anything better than him. Even great adults lacked the powers flowing through his arms.

The last three years proved this. Natrix was eleven years old when the games he played with his Mesmors turned from sports to war. His father had asked him to become the youngest army leader in the country’s history.

At first Natrix had no desire for war, but when his father insisted he was the country’s only hope of ridding the land of the horrible Annubra, he agreed. He longed for revenge against the creatures which drove him from his home in the first place.

The Annubra were also the reason he had accidentally killed a man.

For three years Natrix led a large battalion of men and his twenty-five stone giants in attacks against the winged monsters.

The first missions drove the Annubra out of any human city they had taken or inhabited. At first, Natrix always stayed away from the battles, leading the campaigns by looking through the eyes of his Mesmors. His stone commander and protector never left his side.

Natrix didn’t enter the battles himself until he was thirteen, and the fighting had ruined many of the known Annubra settlements throughout the country. Hate replaced revenge, and Natrix swept through the Annubra as if they were nothing more than toy blocks.

Now, here on the grassy hill, Natrix looked down towards the final known settlement. It was large. Most of the remaining creatures had fled to it.

Natrix turned to the stone commander waiting patiently at his side.

“Destroy them, Titan.”

Chapter 7
Inside These Walls

“Are you going to come in with us?” Lud asked Titan as they stood at the bottom of the road, looking up at the great, walled city. Lud wondered how long a man made out of stone could stay a secret inside a place certain to ask a lot of questions.

“No.” Leone spoke through Titan. “Nobody can know Titan is near the castle. He cannot go inside, and you boys cannot speak of him once you go in.”

This was enough for Rapyo. “Sounds good,” he said and turned to run up the road. However, Titan’s stone hand came up and grabbed the back of his cloak, stopping him.

“Wait,” said Leone. “I cannot go inside, but I wish to know everything that happens to you.”

“Why?” asked Rapyo.

“Many reasons,” said Leone, putting a hand on Rapyo’s shoulder. Because the action was done through Titan’s stone hands, however, Lud thought the gesture looked more comic than serious or sentimental. “I wish to know what the character of King Ward Eligo has become: if it is true how different many say he is. Also, due to an incident long ago, I have less trust in men from the northern villages. I would like to learn more about the king’s new ally who has asked you to tutor him. Finally, I owe it to your father to make sure you are safe and protected. This is why Titan will be near at all times.”

“But you said Titan can’t come in with us,” said Yason.

“Titan will go inside Chamberhaven,” said Leone, “but not the castle, and one of you five boys needs to meet him every other day. There is a garden in the southeast corner of the castle grounds. Go there at sunset tomorrow and then again every other day.”

“Every other day?” asked Fulger. “Rapyo is the one staying there. We’re only going to be there for a day and then go home.”

“I expect the king will ask you to stay for at least a month as his guests,” said Leone. “This is the custom for the families of those employed by the king, and if any courtesy remains in him, he will insist this upon you.”

“We can’t stay for a month!” said Yason. “Our parents will be furious! They would never let us stay.”

“Your parents know the royal customs well, and neither they, nor I, expect any trouble to come upon you while you are at the castle. It is my hope your parents will make the trip up to stay as well.”

Lud didn’t want his parents to stay with them at the capital city. He and his brothers were bound to get punished for this journey, but he hoped that it wouldn’t come until after they had had some fun.

“Tell them that won’t be necessary. We’re fine on our own,” said Fulger, who must have been thinking the same as Lud.

“Your parents will do as they please,” said Leone, “but now you must go into the city before the gates are closed for the night. I have kept you long enough. Hurry, and good luck.”

Rapyo, waiting for this moment, bounded away from his brothers and up the road towards the castle. Lud thought this was a strange action for somebody about to get a job with the king, but he hurried after his brother.

The five boys ran to the enormous gate, leaving the hooded Titan behind.

A single guard stood at the entrance. He was even taller than Titan, and wore a light suit of armor. The metal plates were painted scarlet and golden and covered the guard’s shoulders, chest, and thighs. White chain-mail covered the rest of his body except his head and arms. Lud thought the guard’s elaborate helmet resembled an animal’s head eating the guard’s head. The guard’s arms were bare, but that didn’t make them look vulnerable. The massive, tan arms bulged with muscles, and the spiral scars circling them were dark and thick.

Attached to his hip was a large knife, consisting of a handle in the middle of two curved, sharp blades. Because combat was often executed with powers instead of hand-to-hand, most weapons were geared to be thrown or flown.

This was the type of man Lud pictured when he thought about the king’s personal guard.

The armored guard never even glanced at the boys as they walked past him into the entrance of the city. Five kids were probably not very threatening, and getting into the castle would be more difficult than getting into the capital city.

Once inside the gate, Lud saw that the interior of the city looked just as magnificent as the outside. Even the white roads wore the glossy finish covering the buildings, and not a speck of trash littered the streets. It was the cleanest place he had ever been too.

Many people in brightly colored robes filled the streets, but Lud had expected more. It was certainly not the shoulder-to-shoulder crowding they had experienced in other cities.

However, after walking through the city awhile, Lud became annoyed by its perfection and its tidy citizens. He longed for something he could upset or knock over. When they passed a young lady carrying a tray of fresh fruit, it took all his will-power not to hit the tray out of her hands.

He hoped the castle would not be this clean.

When the sun fell below the city walls, men with torches lit street lamps throughout the city. Since Chamberhaven was small, Lud and his brothers soon neared the entrance to the castle.

Suddenly, Rapyo sprinted ahead of them. Lud moved Yason out of his way and saw that four guards dressed the same as the one at the first gate were closing the doors to the castle.

“Wait!” Rapyo yelled. “We need to get in there. The king is expecting us.”

The guards looked angry and annoyed as Rapyo made his way towards them, but stopped closing the large wooden doors.

“It is too late for visitors,” said a guard in a deep, serious voice.

“We’re not visitors,” said Rapyo as his brothers walked up behind him. “At least, I’m not. I am here at the king’s request. He asked me personally to come and work at the castle.”

The guard stared, expressionless, at Rapyo, then asked coldly: “The king came to you in person and hired you for a job?”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” said Rapyo quickly. “By personally, I meant that I had been personally asked. In person. I was there. The king wasn’t. I didn’t mean that the king personally came to my house, himself. No, it was some of his guards, I think, like you guys, who came. The king wouldn’t come to me himself.”

It was rare to watch Rapyo ramble like this, but when he did, it meant he was very nervous.

Yason interrupted him. “My brother has been asked to tutor a friend of the King’s.”

The four guards stared at the five boys for a long time before the deep-voiced guard spoke. “Wait here. Step inside.”

Lud, his brothers, and Turp stepped inside the wooden doors and into a small waiting area. The guards closed and locked the doors. The three guards who hadn’t spoken left through a door in the opposite wall, leaving the boys alone with the deep-voiced guard.

Unsure what to do, Lud stood there uncomfortable. Everyone else seemed to have the same feeling, except Turp.

“Aren’t you going to ask somebody?” asked Turp.

“It’s being asked,” said the guard.

“What... Telepathically?” Turp asked and then received an elbow in the side from Yason.

The guard looked at Turp for the first time. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“...kind of.”

To Lud’s surprise, the guard smiled. “No, not telepathically. That’s impossible. One of those other guys is asking right now.” The guard looked happy for the next few minutes until another one of the guards came back into the room.

“The king said the boy, Rapyo, may be escorted to one of the staff rooms. His family should be placed into an empty guest room.”

“Well,” said the deep-voiced guard, “it looks like you weren’t lying. Rapyo may follow my friend, here, to a staff room. The rest of you, follow me.”

Lud, Yason, Fulger, and Turp followed the guard out of the room. The main courtyard in front of the castle was filled with trees, flowers, and a small stream. It was dark now, but enough lamps burned throughout the courtyard that everything was easily visible. Happily, Lud saw that nothing looked like the city streets outside.

No tree or building he had ever seen was as tall as the massive castle before him. Five main towers rose from a central building. The tallest of the towers looked as if it reached the stars. Many large windows bejeweled the walls, confirming that the castle hadn’t been used as defense for hundreds of years. Lud thought any of these windows would give a spectacular view of Emityna.

After quickly passing through the courtyard, the guard led them to a small door in the front of the castle, to the left of the main, long hallway. It traveled inside the castle, but had no doors or openings leading into any room. It seemed to be only a quick way to get from one side of the castle to the other, but even the shortcut took a long time to walk through.

They came out the other end to a back courtyard, much larger than the front. In the dark, Lud could see small, well-kept buildings lining the edge. The yard terraced into sections with a small pond at the farthest end. Long hedges, a little shorter than Lud, lined the terraces and warned of drop-offs just behind them.

The guard directed the boys to a long building running along the right-side wall. The building was sectioned into multiple rooms, each with a door facing the yard. The only room without a light on inside was near the far end of the building.

“You will be staying in room number seven,” said the guard. “I do not have any keys to give you because the doors don’t lock. There are no thieves inside this castle. Understand?”

Lud, his brothers, and Turp nodded their agreement.

When they went inside, room seven was bigger than Lud expected.

“There’s a bed for each of us!” said Fulger. “I call the one farthest away from Turp’s.”

“That’s fine with me!” said Turp. “I don’t care where I sleep; I just want morning to come so we can start exploring the castle. Did you see how high that middle tower went? That’s where I want to go!”

“I bet there’s no way you can get up there,” said Fulger. “It’s probably blocked off, or somebody lives up there, or something.”

“Maybe there’s a princess in need of rescue,” said Yason.

“Ugh. I hope not,” said Turp. “I hope it’s a horrible monster with huge teeth and claws that eats princesses for breakfast.”

“That’s dumb,” said Yason.

“You’re dumb,” said Turp.

“You’re both dumb,” said Fulger, throwing himself down on his bed. “Now, let’s go to bed.”

“Finally,” said Lud. He wanted to look around the castle with Turp, but right now he was too tired to do anything except crash on his bed and go to sleep.

So he did.

The next morning Lud awoke refreshed, but in a strange mood. By the time he had washed himself and put on his clothes, he felt slightly better, but something still seemed odd. During the night he had a dream which, at the time, felt very real. The only thing he could remember was the tall shadow of a man and a large black hammer. But when he looked out the front window and saw the green courtyard under the bright morning sun, he forgot his bad dream completely.

An old man and woman were delicately trimming one of the middle hedges when a girl’s head dashed in front of the window, scaring Lud away and causing him to trip backwards onto the floor. Turp laughed as the young girl left the window, opened the door to their room, and walked in.

“Hey! There are guys changing in here!” yelled Fulger from the back.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” said the girl absently, backing out of the room. “Let me know when you’re ready,” she said through the door.

Yason and Fulger quickly threw their tunics on and yelled that they were ready.

The girl bounced back into the room. She looked the same age as Lud and Turp. Beautiful, long, light brown hair fell down her back. She wore a soft, blue dress even though Lud could feel the chilly, outside air sneaking past the open door. She looked like one of the dolls Lud saw girls bring to school. She looked fun. She looked excited.

“Your dresses are gross,” she said.

“They’re not dresses!” said Fulger furiously.

“They’re filthy,” she said without any hint of noticing his anger.

“Haven’t you ever seen a tunic before?” asked Fulger. “I would think so, since you like to charge into guys’ rooms without knocking.”

“Why should I knock?” she asked, but before anyone could answer she said, “Where are you from?”

“Who’s asking?” said Turp.

“I am, silly.”

“And who are you?” asked Yason.

“Ithaca Eligo,” she said matter-of-factly. She inspected each boy, her eyes jumping to whoever was talking. “Who are you?”

“Eligo!” yelled the four boys simultaneously.

“As in King Ward Eligo?” asked Yason.

“No, that’s my dad,” she said, picking up Lud’s traveling cloak. Lud quickly took it back from her, but she didn’t seem to mind. “My name’s Ithaca, but I like people to call me Ithy.”

“What kind of name is Icky?” asked Turp.

Instantly her smile turned into a scowl. “I said Ithy!” Then, just as quickly, she was smiling again. “How come you don’t have any parents?”

“We have parents!” said Lud.

“Yeah, two of them,” said Fulger. “We just didn’t bring them along.”

“They let you do that?” she asked.

“No,” said Fulger, “but we did it.” He tried to look menacing. “Why are you asking so many questions?”

“I’m just curious,” she said. “My sister told me a bunch of boys came in the middle of the night and were staying here.”

“It was barely dark when we got here—” said Yason.

“My sister saw your brother,” she said, ignoring Yason, “and thought he was cute, so she said I had to come down and pick which one of you I was going to marry.”

“WHAT?” cried the boys simultaneously.

“My sister already picked your older brother. He doesn’t know it yet, but my sister is very pretty, so he will fall in love with her very soon.”

“That’s stupid,” said Fulger. “You can’t force one of us marry you.”

“I wouldn’t need to,” she said.

“Oh, yes, you would!” said Turp. “We’d kick and scream the entire time.”

“A Princess can’t just pick anybody she wants and make him marry her, can she?” asked Yason.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

Each boy let out a large sigh of relief. Ithy looked shocked.

“Why wouldn’t you want to marry me?” she asked.

“Because you’re rude,” said Fulger.

“No, I’m not!”

“And you’re nosy,” said Turp.

“I live here,” she said. “I should be allowed to know everybody who stays here. Now, I demand that you tell me your names!”

“You’re not the boss of us!” yelled Turp.

Ithy’s face turned red, and she stomped out of the room, lifting her feet extra high, so she could stomp extra loud.

“What a weird girl,” said Lud, when he thought she was no longer within hearing distance.

Each boy looked more relaxed with her gone.

“So, Lud...” said Yason, in a wicked voice, “are you going to take her up on her offer and marry her?”

“What? No!”

“I don’t know, Lud,” said Fulger, mimicking Yason’s tone, “I saw you smile when she said she was looking for somebody to marry.”

“I did not!”

“She was looking at you a lot. Maybe she has a thing for chubby boys,” said Yason, “and she’s your age, too.”

“That’s Turp’s age too!” said Lud, then, thinking about it for a while, said: “Besides, you don’t know that for sure. She never told us her age.”

“Oh!” his brothers laughed.

“He’s thinking about it!” yelled Yason.

Lud was outraged. He was not considering marrying her at all. His face turned red, but before he could say a comeback, she was back at the door. She stormed in the room, but she wasn’t alone. A man stood beside her that they hadn’t seen before, dressed in the armor of the royal guards. He looked just as strong as the guards they met yesterday.

“Make them tell me their names!” she yelled at her new goon.

The guard rolled his eyes, but unhooked the double-sided blade attached to his hip.

With wide eyes and a dry throat, Lud wondered whether the man would actually use a weapon on children just because a little girl wanted to get her way.

“Tell Princess Ithaca—”

“Say Ithy!”

“Tell Princess Ithy your names.”

The boys wasted no time spitting out their names and then looked nervously at the guard, who looked at the girl.

“Thank you,” she said to the man. “I don’t need you anymore.”

The guard stared at her for a while, fiddling with the weapon in his fingers, then slowly, snapped it back against his hip and left the room.

“You’re crazy!” Turp half-yelled, half-whispered.

Lud knew she heard Turp because she was looking directly at him when he said it, but she acted as if she hadn’t.

“Now that we knew each other,” she said to all of them, “I can invite you to breakfast in the dining hall. Want to come?”

“Not with you” said Fulger.

Ithy grunted her disapproval and again stomped out of the room. Lud looked at his brothers, who all had the same look on their faces. Was she going to tell on them again? Without a word they came to the decision that it would be best to follow and ran out of the room after her.

She looked pleased when they caught up with her, and she changed course to the rear entrance to the castle.

In the daylight, Lud saw the castle was the same white color as the Chamberhaven walls, but when they walked inside, they found the interior very unlike the streets of yesterday. The majority of the building was still stone: the walls, the floors, and the ceilings all polished, but they were filled with so many rich paintings, colorful rugs, and bright chandeliers that it felt warm and livable.

They followed Ithy through a few long hallways, passing many paintings of former kings, each with an arrogant expression on his face. Occasionally Lud saw a painting of an equally arrogant queen. He thought, if Ithy ever became a queen, she would be just like those paintings.

Finally, they reached a room with a long oval table with about twenty tall-backed chairs. It was the fanciest dinner table Lud had ever seen. The plates and cups were accented with gold, and there was more silverware than Lud imagined one person could need.

“Sit down,” Ithy said to them quickly.

“Where should we sit?” asked Yason. “Are more people going to be eating with us?”

“Sit anywhere; it’s just the seven of us.”

“Seven?” said Yason. “Is Rapyo coming?”

“No. My sister.”

Lud sat down in the closest chair he could find, and Turp sat next to him. Yason and Fulger found it funny to sit in random chairs around the table. Ithy sat down next to Lud, and large smiles grew on his brothers’ faces. He slouched low into his chair.

Moments later a tall, young lady with light brown hair stepped gracefully into the room and slid into a chair on the other end of the table, two seats to the left of Yason. She bore more than a slight resemblance to Ithaca.

“Good morning, Ithy,” said her sister. “Glad to see you got these boys up for breakfast.”

Lud thought Ithy had spoken correctly when she said her sister was very pretty.

“Sephal, you said they’d want to meet me,” said Ithy, “but they didn’t want to meet me at all. They were just mean to me.”

Sephal calmly turned to Yason. “Is that true?”

“Um... uh...” was all the tongue-tied Yason could spit out.

“I see,” said Sephal. “Well, they were probably just intimidated by you.”

“We were not!” Turp said loudly, but quietly sank into his chair when Sephal looked at him.

Lud, Yason, Fulger, and Turp silently ate their breakfast — floated out by three different servants — as Sephal and Ithaca chatted cheerfully about the latest events happening to everyone from the old servant who cleans the carpets with a limp to the senators of the nearby cities. Occasionally Lud found one of their stories interesting, but most were filled with boring details about what the person had been wearing when the events took place.

Finally, after Lud had been finished eating for almost a half-hour, the servants came in, swooped up the dirty plates, and left.

Just then, four men passed through from one hallway, on their way to another. Lud noticed one of the men in the front wore a heavy purple robe with many accents and carried a long, golden scepter in his hand. A large, gold crown rested on his head, moving very little as he walked. He had a short, black beard, which was neatly trimmed.

Surely this man must be King Eligo, thought Lud.

Behind him, Rapyo stepped quickly in a new red robe, trying to look important.

“Hey, Rapyo!” yelled Fulger, getting out of his chair.

King Eligo glanced at Fulger, but Rapyo, his chin up, looked forward and continued walking. Soon all four men were out of the room.

“They don’t talk to us very much when they’re working,” said Ithy.

“Is Rapyo working for them, now?” asked Yason.

“He certainly is,” said Sephal, rising from the table and gliding out of the room after Rapyo and her father.

“Have you met the guy Rapyo is working for?” Lud asked to Ithy. “Was he one of those men that walked through?”

“Oh, no,” said Ithy. “Your brother is here to be the tutor for Hydris Celo, isn’t he? No, he wasn’t with those guys. Trust me, you’ll know when you see Hydris. He’s even cuter than your brother.”

Lud really wished she would stop calling his brother cute.

“How old is Hydris Celo?” asked Yason.

“I don’t know... like twenty years old,” said Ithy. “My sister was gonna’ marry him first, but he turned her down. That’s the only bad thing about him; I think he has poor taste in girls—”

“Would you please stop telling us about what guys you and your sister think are cute!” barked Turp. “We don’t care! From now on, we can no longer talk about marriage, or dating, or anything related to those things. Understand?”

“Yeah, I get it,” said Ithy, sounding offended, but again she quickly bounced back. “So what are we going to do now?”

“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Fulger slowly, “but we are going to start exploring this castle.”

“Why can’t I come?” asked Ithy, as she side-stepped from left to right, trying to block their path of escape.

“Because we’re going to find the darkest and dirtiest nooks and holes in this castle,” said Turp. “Who knows what we’ll be able to find in them. You care too much about keeping your clothes clean. You’d never be able to follow us.”

For the first time, Ithy didn’t have something to say. Her face looked nervous. She spoke hesitantly.

“I... I could so follow you. I... I’ll just... put on some different clothes.”

“Too bad,” said Fulger. “We don’t have time to wait for you. We’re going now.”

“Wait!” she yelled, and sprinted down one of the hallways. “Don’t leave without me,” she called out to them as she ran away.

Lud started to sit back down into one of the chairs, but Fulger pulled him back up. “We’re not waiting for her!”

“Come on. Let’s go,” said Yason.

Lud walked behind his brothers as they navigated through the maze of hallways. Although they moved like they had a destination, Lud knew they were making it up as they went.

After roaming around for hours and circling back a few times, the boys stumbled upon a door with two large lion heads carved at the top of the doorway. Since nothing was ever locked, the door pushed open easily.

Inside, they found a three story library filled with books of all shapes and sizes. No lamps or torches were lit throughout the room, but the sun shone brightly through a great window at the back. Lud saw sections on every interesting subject he could think of: archery, geography, levitation, art, blade fighting, cooking, politics, and a huge section on history he wanted to explore.

“It’s just a library,” said Fulger. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Lud really wanted to stay and page through hundreds of books, but there would be time for that later.

Then as he took one last glance before leaving, he noticed a section on the top level in the corner which read: THE WORLD AT LARGE.

“Guys, wait!” Lud called to his brothers. “I’ve got to check this out.”

Not waiting to see if they stopped for him, he found the spiral staircase and climbed it to the third floor. He squeezed through the aisles and made his way to the desired section.

It was dark in the corner, but he could see the books were very old. Most of the books in the room were covered with dust, but these books had an extra thick layer. He wiped off the spines to read their titles.

Most of the books seemed like scientific books, but based on unusual subjects: Geological structure of Maligladia, Annubra Anatomy, Penna Myths and Legends. Halfway down the aisle, Lud noticed a book on Mesmors and pulled it out, but after he did, another book caught his attention. It was titled The Dinolana: A Complete Analysis.

He picked up the thick book, opening it carefully so the frail thing wouldn’t fall apart. After flipping through a few pages, skipping large segments at a time, something caught his eye.

Completely filling one of the large pages was a detailed drawing of an adult Dinolana. The large, wooly animal stood upright, supporting itself with its large tail. Its head was elongated, similar to a horse’s, but with long, sharp teeth. An outline of a man was drawn next to it for a size comparison; the top of the man’s head only reached the Dinolana’s chest. It had thick legs and arms and on the hands and forearms were two thick, metal gauntlets, much larger than the one Lud wore on his left hand. But before he could inspect any more, the book flew out of his hands and landed in Fulger’s arms. “What’s this?” he asked. “Dinolanas?”

All four boys were next to him in the WORLD AT LARGE section.

“Are these the things your glove belonged to?” asked Turp.

“Really,” said Yason, confusedly, “your glove belonged to a—what’s it called—a Dinolana?”

“Hey!” cried Ithy from the bottom floor of the library, before Lud could answer. “There you guys are.”

Lud looked over the ledge, down at Ithy who had changed from her light blue dress into a light red dress.

“I thought you were changing into old clothes,” Turp said down to her.

“I did. I could never wear this anymore,” she said, performing a slight twirl. “See? There’s a stain on the back of it.”

From where he was standing, Lud couldn’t see anything, but guessed it didn’t take much of a stain to make her consider a dress unwearable.

“Come down here,” she said. “I’ve got someplace exciting to show you.”

Chapter 8
Hydris Celo

Lud and his brothers followed Ithaca Eligo through a maze of hallways and large rooms. Five times she led them up a flight of stairs to a floor decorated completely differently from the one below it. The sixth floor reminded Lud of a forest because of the plethora of green carpets, candles, and paintings combined with heavy wooden sculptures, furniture, and frames. He could have spent hours inside this hallway looking at the different wood-carvings of animals, many he had never seen before. However, Ithy moved through the hall without even the smallest glance at the sights he found so interesting.

She found another staircase and ran up. The secret place she was taking them to was high within the castle. They climbed four more floors before finally leaving the staircase.

“How high up are we now?” asked Turp.

“We’re at the top of the central keep,” said Ithy.

Lud knew Ithy lived in the castle her whole life, but he was still surprised at how uninteresting she found the entire place.

“The eleventh floor,” said Yason. “I’ve been counting.”

“Twelfth, actually,” said Fulger. “We walked up two half-flights of steps at the back entrance this morning.”

“Either way, this is almost twice as high as the watchtower two nights ago,” said Turp. “Are we going to be able to look out anywhere?”

“Just come with me,” said Ithy. “I think you’ll like this place.”

The halls were narrower on the twelfth floor with many small, closed doors. Ithy stopped at a door covered with purple, blue, and white flowers, half of which were already wilting or dead. Noticing this, Ithy reached out tenderly to one of the dying flowers, ripped it off, and stomped her foot three times. She stormed down the hall and pounded her small fist on a nearby door.

Moments later a tall, thin man dressed in a tight black and white robe slowly pushed open the door and stepped outside. He had a long, pointed nose which projected over his bushy, white mustache.

“Putler!” Ithy screamed at him. “What are you doing in your room while there are dead flowers hanging on my door?”

They were going to Ithy’s room? Lud should have guessed that ‘someplace exciting’ meant something completely different to Ithy than it did to him.

“I’m sorry, my lady Ithaca,” said Putler, “I was reading. That is how I enjoy spending my breaks, and you knew I would be on my break at this time, or you wouldn’t have assumed I was in my room.”

“Whatever, Putler,” said Ithy. “You’re always on break. Whenever you decide to get off break, you will replace the horrible, dead flowers with pretty, living flowers. Thank you.”

“Yes, my lady,” Putler said emotionlessly, and then closed the door.

“Ugh!” grunted Ithy. When she turned towards Lud, he saw a glimpse of fire in her eyes, but it quickly turned to a sparkle, and she was smiling again. “Forget it. Let’s go inside.”

“Who was that?” asked Turp.

“That’s Putler. He’s my personal butler,” she said, “but I wish I could replace him. He’s always so cross with me.”

“Wait,” said Turp with a laugh. “Your butler’s name is Putler?”

“Thank you,” said Ithy. “I named him myself. Putler Dutler the butler.”

“You can give people new names?” asked Lud.

“Why wouldn’t I be able to? He’s my butler,” said Ithy, looking confused.

“Well, what was his name before?” asked Lud.

“I don’t know,” said Ithy. “It doesn’t matter.” She pushed past them, opened the door to her room, and went inside. “Come on.”

Fulger, and Turp walked to her doorway, but didn’t go in.

“We don’t care about your room,” said Fulger. “We’ve got more important places to explore. We’re not going into a stupid girly room.”

“We don’t care how much more stuff you have than us,” said Yason.

“Yeah, and we don’t want to see a stupid doll collection or something dumb like that,” said Turp

Ithy came back to the doorway looking frustrated. “Boys are such jerks,” she said, “I don’t have any dolls.” She then grabbed Turp by his clothes and yanked him inside her room. Lud thought she was lucky for choosing Turp to grab, because anybody else would have been too heavy to budge.

Lud quickly followed Ithy and Turp inside. Ithy didn’t have any dolls. Instead, hundreds of stuffed animals of all types and sizes filled her bed, shelves, and floor. They were mostly mythical or imaginary animals such as unicorns and dragons. Lud saw more than a few Dinolanas, complete with gauntlets on their hands. Although most people considered them to be as imaginary as unicorns, Lud believed Dinolanas were real. He had one of their gloves, didn’t he?

On the only wall not covered with animals, there was a tall bookcase with many shelves, but only three filled with books. Instinctively Lud walked over to examine them. They too, were mostly fairy tales and legends.

“Let me guess… you like fairy tales?” Turp asked Ithy, while looking at the books over Lud’s shoulder.

“My uncle read every one of those books to me when I was younger,” she said, “before he died. He gave me most of these stuffed animals.” She picked up one of the books. “I like these stories; the brave knights who save the captured princess, fighting any evil creature in their way. It’s romantic. I wish I was kidnapped.” She placed the book back on the shelf.

This angered Lud. He thought about Shanta, who actually had been kidnapped by the demons. She was no princess, and he was sure no knights were risking their lives to enter the mountains and save her. For a moment he felt guilty that he had chosen to follow his brothers on a vacation to the castle instead of entering the mountains to search for his classmate. Even if she was a bit mean, she still deserved to be rescued.

“Your uncle used to be king, right?” asked Yason as he and Fulger slowly entered Ithy’s room. Fulger could barely hold back his laughter at the sight of all the animals, but Yason looked serious. “How did he die?”

“Suicide,” she said without batting an eye. “They say he committed suicide, but I know that’s a lie. He was always filled with joy. He cared too much about life to do something as awful as commit suicide. Even so, he must have died somehow. I haven’t seen him in years.”

As she spoke, Lud saw the fire return to her eyes. “I’ve heard people say my father killed him,” she said loudly. Lud thought she tried to deliberately make people outside the room hear her. “This is also a lie. I know my father can be mean, he’s killed people, but he would never kill Uncle Erus. No one could. Not just because Erus was so nice either. Erus Eligo was too powerful to let anybody kill him. Or so I thought.”

It surprised Lud how passionately Ithaca spoke. The mere mention of the former king seemed to cause a stir deep within people.

“Your dad killed people?” asked Turp with wide eyes.

“Yeah,” she said without looking at him, “some people don’t like him.”

“So he kills them?” asked Turp.

“Otherwise they would kill him.”

“Wow,” said Fulger. “Your dad sounds really paranoid.”

Ithy didn’t respond. Instead she walked to the door. “Wait here,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”

She left the room and they heard her trot over to her butler’s door.

“Putler! Open up!” she yelled. Lud heard the door open and close and then couldn’t hear anymore.

“Hmm... I didn’t think anything could get under her skin,” said Fulger, picking up a stuffed animal and throwing it on the bed.

Lud pulled a book titled Thalia’s Fairy Tales off the bookcase and opened it. Inside were comically drawn illustrations of people, animals, and monsters alongside texts written in fancy, flowing strokes. He flipped through the pages, admiring the many exotic beasts and the people who stood against them courageously. They were not the knights of most fairy tales; these stories were filled with farmers and shepherds who were forced into fighting to save their families or herds. Lud stopped at a picture of a shepherd watching in horror as a large snake burst out of the side of his sheep.

“Why would it surprise you that the King has killed somebody?” asked Yason to Fulger.

“I don’t know,” said Fulger. “I’ve just never met anybody who’s killed someone before.”

“Well, you haven’t met the king,” said Yason, “so you still haven’t met anybody.”

“It’s just...” said Fulger. “Who would he need to kill? There hasn’t been a war for a hundred and forty five years. Besides, wouldn’t a king have people to do that for him?”

“Since Dad didn’t trust him, and Leone didn’t trust him, we shouldn’t trust him either,” said Fulger, looking more serious than Lud had ever seen him look.

“I can agree with that,” said Yason. “Maybe we should talk to Rapyo and go back home tomorrow. I don’t think he will want to leave though.”

Lud, still holding his book, looked at his brothers with dismay. “We can’t go home yet!” he said loudly. “We never do anything as exciting as this, and we can’t just quit because the King is a bad person.” He looked to Turp, who was nodding his agreement. “Leone said we didn’t have to be afraid when we are at the castle. Actually, he was happy that we came here, remember?”

“He also told us to trust our instincts,” said Yason.

“What do any of you have to fear?” Turp interrupted. “I’ve seen you guys, you can handle yourselves. So what if the king has done some bad things. He’s just one man. If it came down to a fight, the three of you together could beat him. You guys are just as powerful as Rapyo. Lud has flown too.”

Lud could feel his face get red. He wished Turp wouldn’t bring that up.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Lud. “We won’t have to worry about fighting anyone here. The king may be bad, but he’s not a villain.”

“Let’s just stay for a few more days, at least,” added Turp.

“If these guys can have such grand adventures,” said Lud, looking down at Thalia’s Fairy Tales, “then we can too.”

Yason, and Fulger stared back at Lud for a few moments before Yason said, “maybe Lud’s new-found backbone is enough reason to stay.”

The familiar expression of slyness returned to Fulger’s face, and he said, “How else is Lud going to be able to woo his future wife Ithy?”

“Uh-oh!” said Turp, joining the joke, “you’re going to have to learn to deal with the bad King Eligo for the rest of your life. Don’t want to make the Father-in-law mad!”

Just then, to Lud’s embarrassment, Ithy returned to her room. A picnic basket floated behind her. Luckily, the basket diverted attention away from the current conversation.

“We are not going to have a picnic in your room, are we?” asked Fulger.

“No,” she said quickly.

“You said we were going to see someplace exciting,” said Fulger. “Your room is not exciting.”

“I just said we’re not staying in my room,” said Ithy, walking past them. “Bring that book, Lud.” With one hand controlling the picnic basket, she used her other hand to motion the bookcase away from the wall.

To Lud’s surprise, a small opening appeared behind the bookcase, behind it were small, stone steps.

“It’s about time!” cried Turp eagerly.

The climb up was steep but short, only going up one floor. At the top, they found themselves in a small, semi-circle room with many windows along the curved part. Lud’s brothers quickly pressed their faces against the glass and peered down.

“You can see everything from here!” yelled Turp. “I bet we could see our village.”

Lud set his book on the floor and slowly moved to a vacant window next to Turp. Despite a slight shake in his legs, he looked out at the cities sprawling below him. The bustling citizens of Chamberhaven looked like miniature toys in a model of the city. Beyond Chamberhaven’s walls, individual people were indistinguishable as they flowed through the distant city streets. From this height, Lud could see the outlines of the cities, where one stopped and another began. Close to Chamberhaven, each city was touching the next, but the further away he looked, the more separated each city became. In the far distance, walled cities stood alone as islands among the low hills.

“Neat, right?” Ithy asked without glancing out the windows. “I told Putler to make us some sandwiches.” She pulled six large, foil-wrapped balls out of her basket.

“Those don’t look like sandwiches,” said Turp.

“Putler likes to annoy me by throwing all the ingredients into a ball instead of stacking them.”

Opening his foil ball, Lud found thin slices of meat, cheese, and bread mixed about randomly. He set his meal on the ground, flattened out the foil, and proceeded to organize the different items so he could rebuild it into a presentable sandwich. His brothers soon sat down and followed his example. Turp, however, continued to look out the windows at the world below.

Ithy picked up the book on fairy tales Lud had set aside.

“How about a story while you eat?” she asked. His brothers groaned, but Lud told her to read one anyway.

She opened the book randomly and, setting it on her lap, turned it around so it faced them. Mentioning that this was how her uncle read to her, she leaned over and started reading with a pleasant voice. Lud thought it sounded motherly. He also noticed that, from her viewpoint, she must be reading the words upside down.

She read:

“Away upon an age gone by, \ Atop a land of hill and sun, \ A young man did his best to try \ And turn his chore into some fun.”

“A shepherd was the boy by trade, \ Though he cared nothing for his sheep, \ For there upon the hill he laid \ And ate until he fell asleep.”

“Dear sir, said sheep, to his surprise, \ Since sheep were rarely so polite, \ I humbly ask if you could rise \ And aide your flock while there’s still light.”

“What for, asked boy, through hazy eyes, \ You do not need my help to graze. \ Your only dread is biting flies. \ What has created such a craze?”

“Come look, said sheep, you inept guard. \ Come see the product of your zest, \ And if your honor is not scarred, \ By all means, please, return to rest.”

“So lazy boy and talking pet \ Walked to the lake from which sheep drank, \ And lo, behold, a carcass set, \ A vast hole opened in its flank.”

“The boy was shocked at gruesome sight \ Of holy lamb and hole it bore, \ What ghastly ghoul or monstrous fright \ Would kill this way, with so much gore?”

“A snake. A snake. It is a snake, \ Said vocal sheep to his young man, \ A giant snake from in this lake \ Has been attacking all my clan.”

“My friends would drink the water here, \ But can no longer as they like, \ For when a lamb might stroll too near, \ The horrid beast is sure to strike.”

“It enters through a lapping mouth \ Of thirsty sheep who dares to go. \ From there it quickly travels south \ Into the stomach of its foe.”

“Then out, bursts forth from dead sheep’s gut \ The serpent finished with his meal. \ And waits for some new meat to cut, \ And rip, and eat, and strip, and steal.”

“The boy was trouble by this mess; \ The herd his job was to protect \ Was now much worse, was now much less. \ What if his parents would inspect?”

“So boy devised a cunning plan \ To kill the scaly, forked-tongue beast. \ It must be smart or else young man \ Would soon become the serpent’s feast.”

“He then went home, started sowing \ Wool to cloth with cross-stitched ties. \ He must get close without snake knowing \ So he created a disguise.”

“He donned the sheep-suit and went back, \ But in his hand he held his knife, \ And there he waited for attack \ From beast who might just take his life.”

“There at the water’s edge he stayed, \ Till night drew close and sky went dim. \ There at the water’s edge he prayed \ To any that would answer him.”

“Into his suit the snake did come. \ Into his arm did serpent bite, \ And soon the poor boy’s arm went numb; \ The snake pressed down with all his might.”

“But still the boy could grab his blade, \ And carved off serpent’s ugly head, \ It fell to ground and there it laid \ The beast that killed was surely dead.”

“The herd soon cheered, but he felt pain; \ The poison bite was in his arm, \ And now his skin would start to stain, \ And he would quickly come to harm.”

“The sheep watched close and became sad \ Their hero slowly losing breath. \ The joyous scene was turning bad \ As shepherd boy now met his death.”

“Then to his eyes his vision streamed, \ Upon the hill, beneath the stars, \ The fight before he must have dreamed, \ But on his arm were two round scars.”

“From then the boy did strictly take \ His job as shepherd of his sheep. \ He never had to fight a snake, \ But detailed plans of guise he’d keep.”

With a look of satisfaction, Ithy closed the book gently and laid it to the side. She turned expectantly to the boys.

“An animal costume...” said Fulger. “That’s a great idea to use to scare Mom when we get back home!”

Ithy sighed.

“Well, I liked the story,” Lud said smiling.

“Thanks,” she replied.

“Hey guys,” said Turp, still looking out the window. “It’s getting pretty late, and we promised Leone we’d meet Titan at sunset.”

“That’s right,” said Lud. “We should go fast. It’ll take a long time to get all the way back down.”

“I don’t want to run down all those stairs,” said Fulger. “We all don’t have to meet him, just one or two of us, right?”

“Lud and I can go,” said Turp.

“Good,” said Fulger.

Lud didn’t mind getting volunteered. He really was looking forward to speaking with Leone again.

“I’ll go too,” said Yason.

So Yason, Turp, and Lud left Fulger, who was very mad about being left alone with Ithy, and raced down hundreds of stairs on their way to the main floor.

On the third floor, however, while sprinting through a room to get to the next stairway, Lud rounded a corner and crashed into a dining table, breaking it in half, and spilling plates and bowls of food onto the floor. A bowl of soup fell onto his shoulder. It was cold soup, but it smelled bad. When Lud got up and shook off the mess, he noticed the lone diner still sitting in his chair, looking quite shocked.

“I’m very sorry,” said Lud quickly. Turp, who was ahead of him, and had easily missed the table when he ran past, came back to see what had happened. Yason also reached the scene at this time.

“Lud!” cried Yason, “what did you do?”

“No, please,” said the young man sitting next to the broken table, “don’t worry about it. It’s only food. I need only to ask the kitchen for some more.”

The young man stood from his chair and slid it forward as if the table wasn’t broken. He was tall. Lud guessed he was only a little older than Rapyo, but his strong posture made him look mature and proud. The young man also had long, blond hair which fell past his shoulders. Lud had never seen such well-kept hair on a man before. His elegant robes bore the large symbol of the castle. Overall, Lud thought he looked very clean. Clean and proper. Strong and clean and proper.

“Lud,” said Yason calmly, “you and Turp can just go. I’ll clean up this mess.”

“Oh no,” said the man with the long, blond hair. “That’s quiet all right. I’ll be fine.”

“It’s the least I can do. Honestly. Again, I’m sorry about my brother Lud. He doesn’t look where he’s going. My name is Yason Compograv.”

Lud didn’t feel like getting more embarrassed, so he turned with Turp to continue down the hall, but stopped so fast he nearly fell over again when he heard the young man introduce himself as Hydris Celo.

“You’re Hydris Celo?” asked Lud, forgetting all his manners. “You’re the man who hired Rapyo?”

Hydris laughed. “Yes and yes. Rapyo and I have not had much time to work together yet, but I plan for him to be my tutor. He has many gifts which I hope to also attain someday. I have met Rapyo only briefly, but he seems to be a very professional young man.”

Lud thought Rapyo must be putting his sucking-up skills into overdrive today.

“He told me he had brought along his younger brothers. I’m glad I’m getting the chance to meet all of you.” Hydris must have assumed Turp was one of their brothers.

“No,” said Yason, pointing to Turp. “This one is just a friend. The other one is still with Princess Ithaca.” Then Yason turned a serious face to Lud. “But I’m sorry, my brother Lud has important work to do and must be going now.”

Lud got the hint, remembered Titan, and set off with Turp to their meeting. They quickly ran out of the castle. The sky was turning dark as they located the garden tucked in the corner, next to the castle, and sprinted to it. They made their way through the thick collection of flowers, bushes, and vines toward the back wall. The plants grew so tall inside that they blocked out most of the remaining daylight.

Then Lud heard a noise near the back, and a tall, black-robed figure stepped from behind a nearby tool-shed. Lud’s heart started to race. Titan wore a black robe, but inside the castle’s courtyard, the figure before him could be anybody. Lud took a step back, bumping into Turp behind him. Turp nudged him forward a little. Lud stood his ground and pushed his hands forward, sending the hood off the figure’s head.

Titan’s uncovered, white face gave no emotional response to Lud’s move, but Lud was greatly relieved.

“Good work, Lud,” Leone’s voice rang from inside Titan. “You must always be careful.”

“Yeah,” said Turp. “Lud was ready to blast Titan into pebbles,”

“Indeed he was,” laughed Leone. “I’m glad you two remembered to come. I’m very interested to know what you experienced today. Have you met the king and his new ally? Was Rapyo correct in coming here? Will he have work?”

“We only saw King Eligo in passing,” said Lud, “but we just ran into the king’s ally.”

“Literally,” added Turp.

“Uh... yeah,” said Lud, embarrassed. “His name is Hydris Celo, and he said he plans to learn a lot from Rapyo so I guess that means Rapyo was right to come here.”

“Hydris Celo?” echoed Leone. “I am not familiar with that name. What is he like?”

“He seems very nice and polite. He didn’t seem to mind at all that I crushed... uh, ran into his table as he was eating.”

“No, I mean: what does he look like?”

Lud was still having trouble feeling comfortable talking to a statue which never moved its mouth. “Oh. He’s tall and has long, blonde hair. Ithy said he’s about twenty years old.”

“You met Princess Ithaca?” asked Leone. “How is she?”

“Crazy,” said Turp, then, catching himself, added, “but healthy and stuff like that. She’s good, I guess.”

“But she got pretty upset when she talked about people disliking her dad,” said Lud.

“Yes, Ithaca was always a believer,” said Leone. “Everything and everyone is good in her eyes. I am glad she is well.” Leone’s voice sounded sentimental. “However, even though Ithaca still has faith in her father, I must insist, if you meet him, be careful what you say around him. Be polite, but be succinct.” Titan knelt down so his face was level with Lud’s. “Also, I still think it would be wise to be careful around this Hydris Celo until we learn more about him. But please, by all means, do take care of—” .

Leone’s voice broke off and Titan became motionless. Lud wondered if something had happened to Leone, wherever he was, that caused him to break away from the transmission on his end.

Then a twig cracked behind him. He turned around, and when he looked up he saw the tall outline of Hydris Celo strutting towards them.

“What do we have here?” Hyrdis’ voice rang loud in the garden. Lud wondered if Hydris had heard Leone’s warning.

“Nothing,” Lud said, but quickly realized there was no denying the large, stone man kneeling behind him. “This is our friend Titan.”

“He’s our bodyguard,” Turp added, trying to sound intimidating.

“Bodyguard?” Hydris laughed and moved between Lud and Turp to inspect the stone man. When he passed, he pushed Turp out of the way, but didn’t touch Lud at all.

“Yeah,” said Lud hesitantly. “Introduce yourself, Titan.”

Titan made no motion, and Leone said nothing. Lud quickly became very uneasy so he looked for a way to change the subject. “Where is Yason?” Lud demanded.

Hydris, who had been looking very serious the whole time, especially when observing Titan, turned his face to Lud and smiled. To Lud, it looked like one of the smiles people give when they’re trying extra hard to look cool. “I asked Yason to fetch your two brothers so I could meet the whole family,” he said. “We plan to meet in your guest room. I’d like to get to know Rapyo’s family.”

“So why did you come in here then?” asked Turp forcefully. He appeared shaken from the shove Hydris had given him.

Hydris continued to look at Lud when he answered: “I had a feeling you’d be in here.” Then he winked.

Lud was very skeptical and unsure if he had correctly judged Hydris before.

Hydris, leaning over, gave Titan a tap on the head. It sounded solid. “This is quite the craftsmanship. Where did you get it?”

“It’s always belonged to our family,” Lud lied.

“BULLSHIT!” snapped Hydris. Lud took a step back at the outburst. Hydris quickly composed himself, stood up, and tried again. “I find that very hard to believe.” Facing Titan, he took a few steps back. “Let me ask him,” he said calmly.

To Lud’s surprise, Titan stood up and faced Hydris.

“Titan,” said Hydris in a voice that sounded very important. “Do you belong to his boy and his family?”

Titan slowly turned his head towards Lud, and nodded up and down.

“Very well then, I was wrong,” said Hydris, as if everything was very ordinary or uninteresting. “Come on, Lud. Let’s go meet your brothers.” He strode past Lud towards the exit of the garden. “Titan can come too.”

Lud didn’t know what Leone was doing, but Titan followed Hydris out of the garden, still silent.

“I have good news for you boys,” said Hydris happily as Lud watched him walk away. “It’s almost my birthday, and there is going to be a grand party. You are all invited, of course.”

Lud stood there, trying to understand what had happened.

Turp just looked angry.

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NATRIX’S WAR

“It started with a rebellion in a small pueblo dwelling in lower Locopenna county,” Prince Natrix spoke to his royal court, sitting around a large oval table in a dark room. The curtains had been drawn and candles lit because Natrix believed it fit the somber mood of the meeting. His voice was almost a snarl.

“A collection of fourteen families inhabiting fourteen of the tallest buildings successfully held off the Annubra forces without any assistance. As such, when the war was over, they insisted against the placement of my mandatory Watcher and argued that they should be allowed to continue to govern themselves as they had in past centuries. I refused, notifying the inhabitants that county Watchers were implemented for the safety of all peoples, and that any non-compliance would be seen as traitorous to the new Commonwealth.”

The royal court, men of all ages, nodded their agreement with the eighteen-year-old prince. These meetings frustrated Natrix however, who felt he need not be bothered to report on any of his decisions, especially not to a group of pushovers such as these men his father had placed as a parliament. As far as Natrix was concerned, the nation was his. He had fought for it. Which of these pathetic and powerless humans would have any hope of stopping him if he decided the world was his to take?

“At first,” Natrix continued, “young children began playing a dangerous game; throwing rocks at the Watcher, trying to get the closest to the stone giant before hurling the stone. When a young boy and girl raced each other to be the first person to touch the giant, the Watcher seized them and placed them in prison.”

“As he should!” shouted one of the parliament members, but Prince Natrix ignored him.

“The parents of the delinquents chose to act illegally and attempted to free the children. Of course, they too were imprisoned and charged with treason. The father, a Cleric, was formerly the leader of this group, and they reacted violently to his imprisonment. One of the rebels struck Atlas—the name of the Watcher—with his staff, and the force of Atlas’ counterstrike killed him instantly. Most of the population fled from Atlas’ wrath, leaving their homes abandoned. Those that remained were imprisoned.”

The members of parliament whispered amongst themselves.

“A week ago the prisoners escaped their bonds and also fled. Once free, they convinced their brethren throughout the county to flee as well, and the entire county is now vacant.”

“So what has become of the Watcher assigned to that county?” asked an older member, one whom Natrix particularly distrusted.

A crooked smile spread over Natrix, and he winked at the old man. “I’m very glad you asked.”

The doors burst open, and a large, stone creature stooped under the doorway and into the room. The parliament members looked horrified, and Natrix took delight in having affected them in this way.

“I would like you all to meet Atlas. He will assist Titan as a Watcher within the castle grounds and will be under the direct control of my father and myself. Titan will remain Watcher of the castle, as well as my personal assistant, but Atlas will have a small role here as well; he will be the dedicated Watcher of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

Natrix watched confusion and fear spread throughout the room as the members were outraged by their newly appointed babysitter, yet afraid to present any opposition to the prince who could destroy them with a wave of his arm.

“Atlas is as dedicated to me as each of you,” Natrix laughed as he left the room. “Any questions can be directed to him.”

He closed the door behind him and turned to Titan, who was waiting in the hall. He flashed inside his stone bodyguard and gave a quick order to follow him to his father’s chamber. He had no intention of entering into Atlas’ head, laughing at the thought of the members asking questions to the speechless giant. Natrix knew the key to the power he held through his Watcher system relied on the public belief that the stone giants could think, speak, and make decisions for themselves.

The current rumor that the Watchers could fly made him very happy. He had lifted the giant himself—one of the more impressive feats he’d performed with his powers—but to the villagers it looked as if the Watcher had flown on its own.

When Natrix and Titan reached the king’s chamber, they found two maids posted outside the door.

“Prince Natrix, the King is not well,” said the larger of the two women, “he needs his rest now.”

“What do you know about the King’s needs?” barked Natrix, thrusting his hands out to his sides. The two women were forced away from the door and onto the ground. He thrust open the door and stepped into the King’s chamber.

The room was just as dark as the meeting room he had left. His father lay in a four-post bed with the curtains drawn shut. Natrix slowly waved open the curtains.

“Father,” said Natrix to the pale king, “what is wrong?”

“My son,” said his king. His voice was hoarser and fainter than before. “How did it go?”

“Each one appeared genuinely alarmed at their new watchdog,” said Natrix. “The Mesmor nearly drove them mad with fear.”

“Good,” said the king. “I created the parliament for appearances only. They must never gain true power within the country.”

“You mean within the Commonwealth, father? Isn’t that name another one of your little touches?”

“Yes. Always remember that even your worst enemy can be safely controlled if you make your every appearance to be harmless.”

“Yes, father,” said Natrix kneeling beside the king’s bed. “But please, tell me what ails you now.”

The king looked hard into Natrix’s eyes, and grabbed the hand of his adopted son. “Natrix, the pain I feel today is not new to me. I have carried it since before I met you. Alas, it is now beginning to get the better of me.”

Natrix squeezed his father’s hand tighter.

“I do not believe I am to die today, but soon, perhaps within a few years. Maybe sooner. However, when that day comes, and I have breathed my last, the crown of Kindlia will be yours, my son. It will be your nation to rule as you see best, and you will be great. Not for a thousand years has Kindlia seen a ruler with the powers you possess.”

The pale king slowly sat up within his bed.

“You truly are unique, dear Natrix.”

Then he leaned in close to whisper in Natrix’s ear.

“Here.”

Natrix, unsure if he had heard his father correctly, whispered back: “What do you mean?”

“You are unique... here,” said the king. “Here in the nation of Kindlia, in the united Commonwealth which spreads far, spanning to each mountain range, as far south as the ocean shores and as far north as the fire forests. Here you are unique. However, you are not one of a kind.”

Natrix inched closer, listening carefully.

“Natrix,” the king spoke deeply, “you know you are not my son.”

“Yes, father, I have always known this.”

“Yet I have cared for you as if you were truly my blood. After your powers were discovered I spoke with your mother about your future, and we agreed that you would become a great king who would change the world forever.”

For a second, Natrix lost his breath. “You know my mother?” he asked, stunned. “Did you know my real father?”

“No,” said the king. “I asked, but your mother would not tell me about him. Because of this, I do not know whether your father possessed the same skills as you do, but after much study, I have found that it is quite possible that he was a normal man. The ability you hold is not entirely hereditary, though that does have a large impact.”

The king lay back down, exhausted from the effort of sitting.

“No, I fully believe that you will not find another similarly-gifted person in Kindlia. But there are men like you alive in this world. On the other side of this world there is a small country called Emityna, inhabited by less than 700,000 people, but of those people, roughly 95 percent of the population possesses your powers to some extent.”

“The tales of old speak of our world being separated into multiple strips, with the mountain ranges dividing each section. The country of Emityna is bordered by two sets of mountains and two oceans just as we are, however it considerably smaller than Kindlia. It is unknown whether either of the ranges which border our east or west is the same border for Emityna, but the oceans which touch our soil, also touch theirs.”

“How can anybody know this, father? Surely this is all just fairy tales and folk legends.”

“I believe that you, Natrix, are the proof of Emityna’s existence, but it is extremely important that they never learn of our existence, or else they would invade, and who are we to stop them? No, I do not give you such information so that you may simply become aware of their existence. Instead, I have a much more dangerous plan for you. If you are to be king in the next few years, I want you to be more powerful than anyone who’s ever existed. Therefore, it is my wish that you travel to Emityna and learn everything you can from them, always being careful not to give away your true origin.”

Natrix imagined an entire race of people similar to him. His eyes followed the dark scars spiraling down his arms, and he wondered if they would have the same markings. He sat back, away from his father, and looked around the room. With a pinch and a lift, a large melon rose from its fruit-basket across the room and floated to Natrix. He spun it in front of him in the air and imagined that the melon was the world spinning on its axis. Somewhere on that world were people who were just like him.

He turned back to his father. “How do I get there?” he asked.

“All sources list that the northern ocean is the shorter distance. Unfortunately, this means you will have to travel through the fire forests, but this should not be a problem for you.”

The fire forests were named for the plethora of fires which broke out every year. It was said that dragons were the cause of these fires, but Natrix had never believed in their existence. He had assumed they were only fantasy, but if the Annubra existed, and the country of powered people existed, then he was no longer sure about what was fact and what was fiction.

“Beyond the forests,” said the king, “lies the northern ocean. There you will take a vessel across to the shores of Emityna.”

“A vessel?”

“I had my most trusted carpenters craft you a titanic ship, sturdier than any that have existed before. They did not know what it was for, and your crew will not know where you are going. You must guide them. Study the maps I will give to you and then burn them.”

“I will.”

“And Natrix, it is most important that nobody but you knows the existence of Emityna. I urge you, whenever you see fit, to replace your entire crew. Do you understand?”

Natrix stood up, understanding his father’s implications. He was to be the only person that would survive this journey. Turning to leave the room, a thought came to him.

“Father,” said Natrix suddenly. “What if I come back and find that you have already died? What will I do then?”

“Then, my son, you must take back your country by force.”

Abstract chapter design

Two months later, Natrix stood at the shores of the northern ocean and watched as the large waves crashed upon the sand. Titan stood by his side along with the fourteen crew members who survived the passage through the forest. As he prepared himself mentally for the journey across the ocean, he fingered the new necklace he had made for himself. It consisted of a strong, leather rope adorned with many large teeth collected from the fire-wielding beast they had encountered along the way.

Chapter 9
Winged and Wingless Beasts

On the day of Hydris Celo’s birthday party, morning rain gave Lud hope that the extravagant festivities planned would be cancelled. However, by midday the clouds parted and the sun dried up any sign of rainfall.

That afternoon the courtyard buzzed with servants and contracted men working hard and fast to set up decorations. Hundreds of lanterns covered with colorful shades were placed throughout the yard, along with ribbons strung up on poles, creating pathways to guide the guests toward the focal point of the party; a small stadium set up in the middle of the yard with bleachers on the east and west sides and many raised tables along the other two. In the middle of the northern set of tables, a large thrown was placed for the king. Directly across from it was the only reason Lud actually wanted to attend this party.

The bleachers opposite the king’s chair were separated in the middle by a massive marble sculpture of a Dinolana. Its mouth was open, and on its forearms were wooden gauntlets.

Lud wondered why Hydris Celo had any interest in presenting a monster like this, but it still didn’t change the way Lud felt about him. If anything, it reinforced Lud’s notion that everything about Hydris was questionable and dangerous. However, while Turp agreed with him, his brothers were solidly in favor of Hydris Celo thanks to a friendly and impressive performance from Hydris in their guestroom following the events that took place in the garden. Gone was the sinister man who had such a strange reaction to Titan, and in his place was the well-mannered, regal man who had been so understanding at the broken dinner table.

And he had stories too. Fantastic stories of adventures in the north. While Lud wondered how someone so young could have experienced so much, his brothers ate up every word and were fascinated. When the time came for the festivities to begin, they insisted upon sitting in the front row.

They went early in order to beat the crowd, but this was unnecessary. Hydris had reserved a table for them. A table set up for three and labeled The Compograv Brothers.

“See?” asked Turp angrily when reached the table. “Don’t any of you realize Hydris is leaving me out of everything? Where’s my reserved seating?”

“Oh come on, Turp,” said Yason. “He probably just thought ‘Rapyo has three brothers, I’d better save three places.’ I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose.”

“You’re sure?” asked Turp. “He’s been purposefully ignoring me for the entire week we’ve known him. I didn’t get invited to watch one of his training sessions with Rapyo. I didn’t get invited on the tour of Chamberhaven either.”

“Yeah,” said Yason, “but we took you along both times, and Hydris didn’t say anything negative to you about it.”

“He didn’t say anything to me at all!”

“You and Lud are just paranoid,” said Yason, pulling a chair away from an unmarked, nearby table and placing it against their own. “Just sit with us; I’m sure it’s not a big deal.”

Turp looked frustrated with Yason, but sat down next to them anyway. Soon people started filling in all around them. Many citizens of Chamberhaven and some from other nearby cities were invited to attend. By the time food was served and the main presentation was about to begin, more people arrived than were places to sit.

In the middle of the stadium, the grass had been dug up and replaced with sand and rocks. Four large circles dug into the sand were filled with a dark liquid, leaving islands of sand in the middle. On one side, a large metal bowl rested against a rock. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to look at besides the giant Dinolana statue.

Lud saw Rapyo sitting next to Hydris, looking very tired. No doubt Rapyo was not allowing himself much time to sleep, putting everything he had into expanding Hydris’ powers, as well as his own.

What really made Lud uneasy was Titan, who stood motionless at the front of the tables near Hydris and the king. Lud wondered if Leone had decided he could learn much more if Titan was inside the castle.

Ithaca Eligo sat next to her sister Sephal, dressed in fancy attire making both of them look much older and much more like princesses. Ithy waved wildly when she noticed Lud looking at her, which took him by surprise, and he immediately stared down at his plate. As they ate, night came quickly, but the lanterns provided plenty of light for their meal.

After Hydris was done eating, he stepped down from his table near the king, moved through the tables and guests below him, and jumped down into the sandy stage.

“Welcome. Welcome,” bellowed Hydris as he spun around, observing all his guests. “Thank you very much for coming to my birthday celebration. Although I have only known you all for the last year, you have welcomed me as family and I am very grateful. So if you don’t mind, I would like to make this night as much fun for you as it will be for me.”

With that, two small balls of fire shot high into the air. For a moment, they hung as stars in the sky before exploding into hundreds of colored sparks. More followed. Lud and his brothers had heard of fireworks before, but had never seen any and couldn’t take their eyes off them now.

The crowd cheered with delight.

When the fireworks finished, Lud noticed that most of the lanterns throughout the stadium had been put out. It was now much darker.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said Hydris, still brightly illuminated in the middle of the stage. “Because we have had such a short time together, I feel it is important I let you get to know me better.” The crowd cheered again. “I hope you already know my name is Hydris Celo, and I am a newcomer to this wonderful city of Chamberhaven. I was born in the village of Mendacis along the northern ocean. I do not know my parents. I grew up as an orphan. Fortunately, I was taken in by a wonderful old woman until I chose to find my own life in this world at age fifteen. During these last six years I have experienced more than most men will in their lifetimes. Today I will give you the story of the most amazing story of my life so far. The tale of Hydris and the dragon.”

The wooden gauntlets on the massive statue ignited into flames. The crowd gasped and cheered. Lud was confused. Was the Dinolana statue supposed to be the dragon? Perhaps dragons and Dinolanas were the same thing. After all, Lud wasn’t very familiar with tales of dragons, and it was very possible they were simply two names for the same thing.

“Rapyo,” Hydris yelled up to the table where Rapyo was sitting. Rapyo, obviously unaware he was going to be called, sat up confused and looked down at Hydris as Hydris asked: “would you mind if I use your brothers as volunteers to help me tell my story?”

Rapyo nodded and spoke, but Lud couldn’t hear him over his brothers’ excited whispers. They quickly jumped up from their chairs and down to the sand. Lud looked at Turp, who shrugged his shoulders, then followed his brothers down onto the stage.

“These are the brothers Compograv; brothers to my new tutor Rapyo Compograv.” Rapyo stood up and waved. “They will be playing the parts of my hunting party.” Hydris then turned and addressed the boys, “Would each of you please stand inside a circle.”

Lud watched as each of his brothers stepped over the liquid and into a ring. He turned to the only circle left, stepped over the trench of liquid and stood in the middle.

In the middle of the stage Hydris pulled out a necklace made out of large, ivory teeth. “This necklace is a trophy from a night I will never forget,” said Hydris as he floated the necklace before the crowd, and then placed it on his table next to Rapyo. “A year ago, to this day, I was on a hunting trip with professional mountain-men through the woods at the foothills in the northwest. Never have I met such courageous men as those who spent their lives hiking deep into realms where few men dare to go. They were teaching me everything they knew about trapping and survival, and I was learning very much from them.”

Hydris turned towards the great, marble statue.

“It was during a dark, stormy night when disaster struck our campsite. We had just caught a year’s supply of wild boars, and the aroma of the meat as it cooked upon the open fire attracted unwanted attention.”

Two large branches flew in from the sides and hung in front of the Dinolana’s face. Because Lud could not see Hydris’ arms moving, directing the branches, he assumed they must have been directed by assistants outside the performance.

“Our feasting songs were quickly silenced by the roar of a giant beast,” continued Hydris. “Instantly the men took up arms.”

A metal spear flew towards Lud and stopped beside him. Lud cautiously took it and pointed the tip towards the statue, as his brothers were.

“With bated breath the men stood ready, facing the haunting darkness. Then, with a thunderous charge an enormous dragon burst through the woods, its body covered with needle-sharp spikes and its hands ablaze!” The two branches dashed away from the statue. “The men had never seen such a monstrous creature before and stood frozen. Fortunately for me, I had experience with such creatures and instinctively sought the largest shield I could find.” Hydris waved the shield over and held it before him. “As the dragon raised its hands to its mouth, I equipped my shield just in time.”

Suddenly a large pillar of fire burst from the mouth of the statue towards Hydris. It bounced off the shield in front of him, shooting sparks and flames in all directions and leaving the metal shield bright orange. The glowing shield would have savagely burned any man’s arm, but Hydris was not holding the shield, instead he floated it before him.

The crowd cheered loudly at the spectacle when they saw Hydris was unharmed.

“Alas!” yelled Hydris. “My friends were not as wise as I was.”

Before Lud truly understood Hydris’ words, the liquid trench around him ignited into flame. A bright orange fire erupted around him, reaching up twice was tall as he was. Terror struck, and he went down to his knees. All around him the flames dashed toward the sky. Soon his eyes began to burn, and he pressed them closed. The flames were hot, and it was making the air hard to breathe. A sudden pain hit his hands and he dropped the metal spear he was holding. The heat pushed down on him from all sides. His sweat provided little relief. As Lud put his face to the ground, searching for any relief, the image of Hydris Celo came to his mind. Would Hydris kill him just for a stupid dinner-show? Lud wished with all his heart that if he died right here his father would find Hydris Celo and kill him for murdering his son.

Despite the pain in his palms from holding the metal spear, Lud placed his hands on the ground beside his head. He would not die lying with his face in the dirt. With one great effort, he pushed himself up. Wind and relief rushed past his face, but the pain in his palms was greater than anything he had ever felt, and he passed out.

Although the sun was out, hanging a little to the west of noon and shining brightly with all its might, the world was dark and every star could be seen clearly in the sky. To Lud, it looked as if the world was simply ignoring the sun’s attempts to shine upon it; choosing night over day. The stars danced and laughed at their victory.

Standing high upon the castle’s main tower allowed Lud to see to every part of his country. He saw his small village to the south where his mother and father were plowing the field. No livestock pulled the plow, instead it was hooked up to Olim Compograv as his massive legs trudged deep into the earth, and he pulled the blade and turned the dirt.

He turned to the west where he could see far into the mountains. Shanta Potesti sat against a wooden post, surrounded by winged dogs, and she was crying. It was the first time Lud had ever seen her cry. The winged beasts circled around her and laughed.

Further north within the mountains, Lud saw the Dinolanas with forearms blazing, as they burned the forests and each other. The flames swept from tree to tree, progressing through the mountains, but they too produced no light.

Lud looked all around for Rapyo, Yason, Fulger, and Turp, but they were nowhere to be found. As he looked north, towards the ocean, he saw a small, metal barrel wash in against the shore. The tide pulled it out a little, and then sent it back against the sand, only to repeat the process. A tall, stone giant stood on the shore. It looked nothing like Titan’s carefully sculpted figure, but was instead a collection of rocks taking the rough shape of a man.

“Here, Lud, take this,” whispered a soft, raspy voice from behind. He turned and saw Hydris Celo standing before him, holding a completely black axe in his hand. Lud looked at the axe, which was barely visible in the darkness, and then looked down at his feet. Attached to his right ankle was a metal shackle anchored into the stone floor of the tower. “You should hurry.”

Lud heard the sound of many claws clicking against stone and looked over the edge of the tower. Hundreds of the winged creatures were crawling swiftly up towards him. He raised his arm to take the axe and saw that small, blue flames were dancing around his gauntlet. The glove was not warm against his skin so he ignored it and took the axe. With a heavy swing, Lud broke the chains. He felt instantly lighter. As the first of the creatures crept over the ledge, Lud pushed off the floor and shot into the air. The wind whipped his face as he flew for a while, then he stopped and hung in the air.

Looking down, he saw Hydris run down into the tower. A second later the tower exploded as a giant snake burst through the roof, sending debris down on the castle grounds. Like a dart, it made its way into the sky towards Lud with mouth open, displaying hundreds of sharp teeth. At the same time, the axe in his hand turned into a heavy, black hammer which pulled him down towards the approaching snake. He let go of the hammer. It dropped to the snake and burst into black smoke, which melted into the snake.

Lud thrust his fiery, gloved arm forward and flew away from the serpent. It was fast, but Lud was faster and soon he was well ahead of his pursuer.

Losing himself in the pleasure of flying, Lud started circling and rolling through the air. He flipped backwards and forwards, gaining more confidence with each new trick learned. He started diving close to trees and houses and then pulling away before he hit them.

He was weaving through the blurry trees in a forest when a dark figure stepped out in front of him. Lud pulled hard to the right and crashed to the ground in some bushes. When he got up, uninjured, he looked to the dark figure. Even as he stared directly at it, it was never solid, instead it looked like a man made out of smoke and shadows. Lud saw in the man’s hand was the large hammer he had dropped to the snake.

With a big wave of smoke, the dark figure spun the hammer and sent it forward at Lud. Everything went dark.

Abstract chapter design

Lud opened his eyes to a blinding light in a white room. He blinked many times before anything came close to focused. The room had many beds, each with clean white sheets and pillows on them. He tried to sit up, but found he was too weak to do it. Moving his head to the side, he saw Turp sitting next to him, asleep. Lud closed his eyes again, but would not let himself fall asleep again.

When he opened his eyes later, Lud saw that he was surrounded by his brothers. Turp too was awake and hanging over Lud’s head. The lights were still bright in the white room, but his eyes were more accustomed to them now, and he could see everything more clearly.

“What’s going on?” asked Lud. “Where are we?”

“You’re in the hospital wing of the King Eligo’s castle,” said Yason, as he examined Lud’s bandaged hands, causing Lud to notice his own injuries for the first time.

“The explosion. What happened?” asked Lud, using all his strength to sit part-way up. Turp helped him the rest of the way. “Was Ithy in the castle tower when the snake destroyed it?”

Lud’s brothers looked at him with blank stares.

“The main rook?” asked Fulger. “Where Ithy’s room is?”

“A snake?” asked Turp.

Lud nodded and glanced from face to face.

“The tower is fine, Lud,” said Yason. “It didn’t explode. How could it have?”

“But don’t worry, Lud,” said Fulger. “We’ll keep an eye out for any mischievous snakes hanging around the castle.”

Lud sighed and fell back onto his hospital bed. It was a dream. The flying. The snake. The man of smoke and shadows. It was all just a dream.

“Fulger, I’d be careful about the jokes you tell to Lud now,” said Yason.

“I told you Lud could do it!” said Turp triumphantly. “I had seen it myself, and now each of you has too.”

“Yes, we have, Turp,” said Yason, “but you can’t really blame us for not believing you. A year ago Lud couldn’t even lift a pebble.” Lud sat up again. What were they talking about? His brothers already knew that he could lift, now.

“Yeah,” laughed Fulger. “Who would have guessed, little Lud the Dud can fly!”

“What?” asked Lud, shocked. He had only flown in his dream. “What do you mean?”

“You passed out, Lud,” said Turp, “because you used all your power to fly. Just like on the school playground.”

“Yeah, Lud,” said Yason, “you might want to work on that. What’s the point of being able to fly if you pass out every time you do it?”

“I flew? ...I flew around in the sky and everything?”

“No, not for very long,” said Yason. “You just shot out of the flaming circle, over the stadium benches, and landed in the pond in the back of the courtyard.”

“You were like one of the fireworks,” said Fulger.

“Good thing, too,” said Turp, “because if you didn’t, you might have been toast.”

Lud remembered the pain of the flames around him, and how hard it was to breathe.

“It was Hydris Celo’s fault,” said Turp. “I know it was. Yason and Fulger’s fire circles went down after just a few seconds, but yours stayed tall. He said it was just a technical malfunction, but I don’t believe anything he says.”

“Come on, Turp,” said Yason. “It was just an accident.”

“I’m sick of this!” yelled Turp. “Just because Hydris gives you cool new clothes, which I didn’t get, by the way, and has thrilling stories, you’re willing to let him get by with anything.”

“Is that it?” asked Fulger? “You’re mad you didn’t get any new clothes from Hydris?”

“I don’t want his stupid clothes!” said Turp. “I don’t want anything from him.” Turp’s face was red. He looked to Lud, smiled, and patted Lud on the arm. “At least some good came out of this whole thing; besides everyone learning that you can fly, you totally stole the show from Hydris. Nobody cared about his stupid story anymore; they just wanted to meet the boy who could fly.”

“Sorry,” laughed Fulger, “we had to take you here before you had the chance to sign any autographs.”

“Good. I don’t want to talk to anybody,” said Lud.

“Like you had a choice at the time,” said Turp. “You were unconscious. I wanted to see the look on Rapyo’s face, to see his reaction, but he was gone. I couldn’t find him anywhere. I still don’t know where he is.”

“He probably realized he’d have to master his own flying if he didn’t want Lud to show him up,” said Fulger. “I bet he’s practicing right now.”

“Which is what you should do, Lud,” said Turp. “That would be awesome to fly over buildings and stuff.”

Lud looked back to his bandaged hands and remembered the spear. He looked to his brother’s hands, but none of them had any wrapping.

“I suppose all of your fires didn’t last long enough to heat up your spears, did they?” asked Lud to his brothers.

“What are you talking about?” asked Fulger.

“The metal spears,” said Lud. “Since my fire lasted so long, the metal heated up and burned my hand. That’s why I have these bandages, isn’t it?”

“Your spear was metal?” asked Yason.

“Yeah...” said Lud uneasily. “Wasn’t yours?”

The lengthy pause made Lud uncomfortable.

“Ours were wood.”

Lud looked at Turp, who folded his arms and bit his lower lip; a gesture which always meant he was very angry.

“No. Hydris didn’t know the fire would stay on so long,” said Yason, but Turp’s stern look to him ended the conversation. “Come on, guys. Let’s let Lud get some sleep.”

They filed out of Lud’s hospital room. When they were gone, Lud noticed how strange it felt to be the only person in the big room. Every other white bed was empty. To put the thought out of his head, he let himself fall back to sleep.

When Lud opened his eyes again, he saw a very frazzled-looking Rapyo sitting next to him. His eyes were droopy and dark and he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. His clothes and hair were both unkempt, which was probably the oddest part of Rapyo’s appearance. He was usually so put-together and always kept himself well groomed.

Rapyo noticed Lud was awake, sat up straighter, and faced Lud.

“How are you doing? Are you feeling okay? Can I get you anything? I changed your hand wrappings earlier. They were a little bloody.”

“Um... thanks,” said Lud, observing his fresh bandages. “I don’t think I need anything right now. I’m feeling pretty good.” Lud certainly felt better, but he was put off by Rapyo’s concern. He didn’t know what else to say. “Are you okay, Rapyo?”

Rapyo looked surprised at Lud’s question. “Yeah, of course. I’m great.”

“You don’t look like yourself.”

“Don’t worry about me, Lud. I have a lot on my mind right now, and a lot of responsibilities, but things couldn’t be better for me right now.”

“Your hair is so—”

“I said I’m fine,” snapped Rapyo. “I have a lot to do so I don’t have much time. I need to know how you’re doing.”

“I already said I was good.”

“Oh yeah. Well, good.” Lud noticed that Rapyo was making a lot of quick glances towards the door. “Lud, I wanted to talk to you about the other night. At the birthday party.”

“About me flying?”

“Yeah, about that. I wanted to know: do you have it under control? I mean, how long have you known you could fly? Can you do it whenever you want?”

“I still don’t know if I can fly, Rapyo. This is only the second time I’ve done it, and I didn’t have any control over it either time. It just sort of happened.”

“So you can’t control it?”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Oh yeah. Good.”

Good? Did Rapyo really only visit him out of jealousy that he might also be able to fly? Although his appearance might have changed, his personality hadn’t, Lud thought.

“Lud, now everybody knows that you have the ability to fly. There’s no way to go back and erase people’s memory. But you can still plead ignorance. Stick with your story that you have no control over your flight.”

“But I don’t,” said Lud, frustrated.

“I know, but soon you will. You need to practice and master this ability, but if anybody ever asks, tell them you have no control over it. Practice in secret. Don’t even let your brothers know what you are doing.”

“Why not?” asked Lud. “What’s going on?”

“I’m worried they have grown too fond of Hydris. They might tell him. Above all, Lud, you can’t let Hydris Celo know you can fly. It’s practically the only thing he can’t do yet, and it’s driving him crazy.”

Lud leaned in closer to Rapyo, and asked: “so you are worried that he might want me to teach him how to fly, and you would lose your new job?”

Rapyo jumped out of his seat, thrust out his hands, and shoved Lud down hard against the bed with his powers. Lud, still weaker than usual, couldn’t move.

“What are you doing?” yelled Lud.

“Listen to me, Lud.” Rapyo leaned in close and whispered. “Above all else, Hydris is a man with ambition. He has plans, and you are much too young to get caught up in them. For your own safety, please, don’t get involved with Hydris Celo.”

Rapyo released his mental hold on Lud. He walked over to the door to leave, but turned back. “I’ve sent word to father that it is time to come and pick you boys up.” Then he left the room.

Lud lay motionless for a while, confused and overwhelmed by everything that had happened in the past day. He couldn’t understand whether Rapyo was actually worried about his safety, or whether Rapyo just wanted to get rid of Lud and be the only person who could fly. Well, Lud thought Rapyo had little to worry about; there was a good chance Lud still couldn’t control it, and the entire thing was a fluke.

There was only one way to find out.

Mustering as much energy as he could, Lud slid himself out of his hospital bed. His legs were weak, but after a few moments of standing still, they were able to carry him over to the door.

Just then, Lud remembered his bandaged hands. He looked at them, and then looked back to his bed. Where was his gauntlet? Whoever had wrapped his hands must have first removed his gauntlet to do so. Lud became nervous. He needed his gauntlet. He couldn’t attempt his first flight without it; he could barely lift an apple without it.

“Turp has to know where it is,” Lud said to himself. Turp was the only other person, besides Mr. Gaze, who knew how much the gauntlet meant to him.

He hobbled out the door and down the hall. However, he didn’t get very far when he realized that he was in a section of the castle which was completely new to him. Coming to an intersection of hallways, he peaked around, but nothing looked familiar.

“Lud!” yelled Turp from far behind him in the hall he just walked through. “What are you doing out of bed? I was just coming to visit you.”

“Turp, I lost my gauntlet!”

“Your power-glove?”

“Yeah, the one that helps me control my powers. It must have been taken off when they bandaged my hands. Did you see them take it off?”

Turp looked disappointed. “I saw them take it off, yes, but I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I didn’t see where they put it, Lud. I’m sorry.”

“We need find it, and we need find it soon. Rapyo just sent a message to my parents to come get us. We don’t have much time.”

“Your parents are coming? It’ll take—what—three days for them to get here?” asked Turp.

“If they aren’t in a hurry,” said Lud, “and they might be. Let’s search this hospital wing first.”

Lud followed Turp through many unknown passages and into many empty, sterile rooms as they searched for his gauntlet. In the hospital room where he was staying, they overturned nearly every bed.

“Rapyo visited me after you guys left,” said Lud to Turp during their search. “To be honest, he seemed weirder than normal. Do you think he took it? He looked very tired. I think he’s scared of Hydris. He warned me to stay away from him.”

“Rapyo said that?” said Turp. “Wow, I never thought I’d agree with Rapyo about something. He did look different though. I saw him at the party. What a mess. And speaking of a mess,” said Turp, observing the overturned beds. “We really destroyed this place, and your glove is obviously not here. I don’t know if Rapyo has it, but I think we should search the courtyard. That’s where everything happened anyway.”

So Lud followed Turp outside, and the two boys spent the afternoon walking throughout the large courtyard. They started near the pond, where Lud landed, and worked towards the castle. When it became too dark to see anything, they stopped to continue their search in the morning. Lud decided to spend the night back in the hospital room because he didn’t feel like speaking to his brothers that night.

The next day was filled with more fruitless searches. Lud was becoming anxious and refused Turp’s suggestions to try his powers without his glove.

They were turning over the furniture in their guestroom when loud horns sounded through many of the castle windows. Lud and Turp burst out of the room and into the courtyard. There, they saw a large gathering of servants and guests at the main doors in the back. They ran over, hoping to find out what the occasion was.

Hydris Celo came out, dressed in completely black attire, instead of his usual bright, showy colors. He looked over the crowd and spotted Lud.

“Lud! Lud, come here quickly. I have horrible news.”

Lud looked at Turp and hesitantly pushed through the crowd towards Hydris.

“Lud, I have news concerning your brother Rapyo. Your other brothers already know.”

“Know what?” asked Lud.

“Today, on a hunting trip,” said Hydris mournfully, “your brother Rapyo was captured by the demons of the mountains.”

Chapter 10
Plans and Ambitions

“No. How? Lud, none of this makes any sense,” said Turp, as he and Lud followed Hydris Celo and a number of the guards through the castle to where Yason and Fulger were sitting in one of the smaller dining areas on the first floor.

“I don’t understand it either,” said Lud. “How could Rapyo get kidnapped while palace guards were watching him?” Lud turned away from Turp and spoke louder. “Hydris, can you please tell me exactly what happened to my brother?”

Hydris glanced lazily over his shoulder as he walked.

“I’m sorry, Lud, but I can’t go into the details.”

“Why not—”

“YOU CAN’T GO INTO DETAILS?” shouted Turp. “It’s his brother! Tell him what happened!”

Hydris stopped walking and turned swiftly to Turp, his muscles clenched. Lud thought it was taking all of Hydris’ willpower not to rip Turp’s head off, but Hydris spoke softly. “Trust me, little kid; the last person I need to take orders from in this place is you.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Turp sharply. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Afraid of a powerless nothing? You wish,” said Hydris, eyeing Turp up and down. It was the first time Lud saw Hydris really look at Turp. His black robes swinging as he turned, Hydris continued down the hall. “I’ll tell you everything when we reach your brothers, Lud.”

After a moment, they entered the dining room. Lud’s brothers were sitting towards the end of a long, thin table with a heavy, red tablecloth and staring forward in silence, until they noticed Lud and Turp enter the room.

“Lud! Turp!” yelled Fulger.

“Hydris!” yelled Yason. “I’m glad you found them. How are you feeling, Lud? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine” said Lud, “but I’d like to know what’s going on.”

“Hydris won’t tell us anything,” said Turp, as Hydris once again gave him a cold stare.

“My dear boys,” said Hydris to Lud and his brothers, “I am very sorry if you felt I have been keeping you in the dark, but I must assure you that the reason I have not yet told you more is because I do not want people to panic. This is a delicate situation.”

“You didn’t seem to care whether people panicked when you told Lud about Rapyo in front of that crowd of people,” said Turp.

“As I already mentioned,” said Hydris, ignoring Turp, “Rapyo was accompanying me on a hunting trip through the woods. I insisted that members of the royal guard join our party for safety, but Rapyo was adamant that we could protect ourselves, and needed no guards. I must say, I wish I would have denied this request more firmly.”

Lud wondered whether or not Hydris was telling the truth. It wasn’t like Rapyo to turn down any special privileges he might get, including being seen in public with members of the royal guard. But then again, it was also believable that Rapyo would be arrogant enough to turn down anything that would make him look weak.

“So we left the guard and went out by ourselves,” Hydris continued. “We had been among the trees for a few hours, unsuccessful even in sighting our prey, when we heard the sound of hundreds of claws clicking against tree trunks. I was quite far away from Rapyo at that time, and tried to get to him quickly, but it was too late. I killed a few of those beasts as they ran away, but Rapyo was gone.”

“How do you kill demons?” asked Yason.

“The Annubra, as I have always known them, are very thick skinned, but easily cut or torn. Their strength comes from numbers, not individual resilience. My preference is to blast or rip them apart with the power.”

“You have a preference?” asked Lud suspiciously. “How often do you run into them?”

“Often,” was all Hydris said back. He turned again to Lud’s brothers. “Your brother Rapyo didn’t have the fortitude at the time to blast them all away. He was too afraid.”

“Hydris,” Yason said in a serious voice, “where exactly where you when Rapyo was taken?”

“I... What? I already told you I was near him, but not near enough.”

Yason paused for a bit, looking at Hydris, and then said, “No, I meant to ask where both of you were when Rapyo was kidnapped. Where in the country. Could you show me on a map?”

This time it was Hydris’ turn to examine Yason. He grew a smile and stood a little straighter. “The Compogravs never cease to make my life interesting.”

Confused, Lud watched Hydris leave the room, but before he left through the door he called back, “I’m just getting a map, I’ll be right back.” He walked out, but left two of the guards inside the room with the boys.

The minute Hydris closed the door, Turp hopped out of his chair, ran to Yason and Fulger, and started punching them widely.

“I told you! I told you!” shouted Turp. Fulger, not one to back down from anything, tackled Turp to the floor. The two wrestled while Yason stepped back, out of the way. Lud looked at the two guards, who appeared uncertain whether they should break up the fight or not.

Yason stood silent, his eyes fixed on the struggle.

Lud’s face grew hot. How could they not understand?

“Are you stupid?” Lud yelled at Yason while Turp and Fulger still rolled on the ground. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? Hydris Celo doesn’t care about any of us. He’s an imposter. A snake in the grass. Now Mom and Dad are gonna’ come up here and we have to tell them Rapyo is kidnapped.”

“Mom and Dad know?” asked Yason, breaking out of his trance.

“I don’t think so,” said Lud, “but while I was in the hospital bed, Rapyo told me he called them. They are on their way here right now.”

“Good,” said Fulger, still fighting. “They’ll fix everything. We’ll probably get grounded for a year, but we won’t have to deal with this anymore. It won’t matter whether Hydris Celo is friendly or a murderer; we won’t have to deal with him, because we’ll be at home.”

“No,” said Yason. “We can’t.”

“What?” asked Lud.

Yason stepped closer to Fulger and Turp. “KNOCK IT OFF!” he yelled.

With a sweeping, parting motion, Yason sent both boys flying away from each other.

The force of Yason’s thrust surprised Lud. “Since when could you do that?” he asked.

“Since now,” said Yason. His voice was strong and commanding. “Rapyo showed me the move a long time ago, but it hadn’t worked until now. Now listen up.” He turned to Fulger and Turp again, who were both rubbing their injuries; both had multiple, small bruises, but Turp had a black eye and Fulger’s nose was bleeding. “You two, get over here. Lud is right. We can’t trust Hydris Celo.”

“How do you know?” asked Fulger.

“I admit that Hydris had me fooled for quite a while — do you need a tissue, Fulger? — but Hydris proved tonight that he is a liar. He made Rapyo out to be an idiot, but we know Rapyo isn’t an idiot. He may be a jerk sometimes, but he’s smart.”

“Yeah,” said Lud. “There’s no way Rapyo would go out without the guard, not since Shanta was kidnapped.”

“You’re partly right, Lud,” said Yason, “but he might go out alone if he wanted to prove something to people like Hydris. The important part, however, is Shanta’s kidnapping.” Yason glanced at the guards, but chose to ignore them and continued. “That’s where Hydris slipped up in his story. We all know Rapyo would do anything to prove himself important. Remember when we heard him speaking after Shanta’s kidnapping, saying he’d rip apart every single demon if he needed to.”

“That’s right,” said Lud. “Rapyo wouldn’t have been too scared to blast the demons away. He wanted the chance to do it.”

“Exactly,” said Yason. Turp and Lud’s other brothers nodded along.

Suddenly, Lud remembered the conversation he had with Rapyo a few days ago.

“Hey guys, when I was in the hospital, Rapyo came to visit me. He looked awful.”

“Yeah, we noticed too,” said Fulger. “Rapyo looked like crap lately.”

“Well, he came in to visit me and started warning me about a plan. He said Hydris had plans and ambitions, and I shouldn’t get caught up in them. I couldn’t tell whether or not Rapyo was involved in those plans. What if this is all part of one of those plans?”

“We can’t worry about what Hydris has planned,” said Yason. “From now on, we only have one goal: rescuing Rapyo. And we only have one rule: don’t trust a word that comes out of the mouth of Hydris Celo.”

“So... what do we do? Hide out until Mom and Dad show up?” asked Fulger.

“No,” said Yason. “This is our fault. We will handle it ourselves.”

Lud agreed.

So did Turp.

“What about him?” asked Turp a little later, pointing to the corner of the room. Lud turned to look and was shocked to see Titan standing motionless in the low-light of the corner.

“Yes!” said Lud quickly. “We should take Leone’s help!”

But Yason quickly refused. “We can’t trust him anymore. Ever since Titan entered the castle walls he’s been acting weird, and I don’t want to take any chances. Titan stays.”

“Stays?” asked Fulger. “Do we even know where we’re going?”

At that moment, as if on cue, Hydris walked into the room, floating a large ball in front of him. He signaled to the guards to leave the room. When they left, and Hydris came close to the boys, Lud noticed that the ball was actually a globe. Dark shades of brown, green, and blue covered its surface, along with bumps and indents signifying mountains and valleys.

Hydris positioned the globe in midair above the table, in front of Yason, and with a short wave, set it to spin slowly.

“You asked for a map, dear Yason,” said Hydris pleasantly, “but I have brought you something much more fascinating.”

Yason looked at the globe with distrust, Fulger with interest, Turp with hatred, but Lud looked only with amazement. This was their world. All of it.

“What is it?” asked Fulger and Turp simultaneously.

“You mean to tell me that you don’t recognize the very world you live on?” asked Hydris with a laugh. “For all this country’s many wonders, taken for granted, I am amazed at how ignorant and self-aggrandizing everyone is. What do they teach you in these schools?”

Lud exchanged confused glances with his brothers.

“Well, prepare yourselves for a real teacher,” Hydris boasted with his chest out. “Please, sit close together.” He didn’t wait for them to move, but pushed them together with a wave of his arm. Lud, having been pushed more than a few times in his life, was surprised at how prickly the same event was, coming from Hydris.

Hydris leaned over the table, next to the globe, which quickly jolted with a little spin and stuck in place. He pointed to a small, green area covering a bit of the middle and going higher up to a blue area which covered the top of the globe. The raised bumps of a mountain range ran along each side of the green area, and, at the bottom, another large stretch of blue came up from the bottom of the globe and created a southern border.

“This is where we are. Well, here, to be precise,” he said, pointing to a spot in the middle-right of the country. “As you can see,” he said, spinning the globe again, “this is just one small part of a much larger world.” He stopped it again. “These strips of mountain ranges—quite formidable, I must add—separate the entire planet into strips. Three strips on this side, but none on this side, just one large area of land. The oceans on the top and the bottom connect every strip together at the top and are the best way for humans to get from one section to the other.”

He looked up and stared, momentarily, into the eyes of each boy — except Turp.

“I have been to these other countries. I believe I might be the only human alive who can make this claim.”

Placing one hand on the country introduced as Lud’s and one hand on the large country, Hydris turned the globe to the country between the two.

“This country, here,” Hydris said, “is where the Annubra, or demons, live. It is difficult for humans to travel, but the Annubra have no problem with the rough terrain, since they can fly. I believe that anyone kidnapped by them would be taken here.”

Turning the globe to the mountain-border between the Annubra country and the large country, Hydris pointed to a small valley jutting into the mountain range.

“This is where we should go,” he said happily.

Lud quickly glanced up to Hydris, who was smiling broadly. He winked at Lud.

“Where we should go?” asked Yason.

“I feel terrible and partly to blame for the circumstances befallen on Rapyo,” said Hydris, still smiling, “so I proudly extend my knowledge and services to the quest I have no doubt you were about to undertake whether I came or not.”

“That’s very generous, Mr. Celo,” said Yason, “but we couldn’t ask that much of you. We are committed to making the journey alone.”

“I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. I have made up my mind.” Hydris rose from the table. “Pack enough clothes for a week. It shouldn’t take much longer than that.” With that, Hydris Celo left the room, taking every guard with him.

When Lud thought they were alone, he opened his mouth to speak, but instantly shut it again when he noticed Titan move from the corner.

“Leone?” asked Lud hopefully, but the stone figure paid no attention to any of them and left the room.

“You’re right, Yason,” said Fulger solemnly. “We can’t trust anyone, even Leone.”

Lud stared at his brothers. He wanted to tell them how much confidence he had in Leone, but didn’t know if it would help anything. As much as Lud trusted Leone, he believed his brothers wouldn’t change their minds.

Worried Hydris might come back at any moment; the boys hurried out of the dining room and ran to their guestroom. Anything one of the boys thought could be useful for the trip was flown into their packs. Yason yelled at Fulger for filling his pack with more potential weapons than clothes. After Fulger presented what Lud thought was a very good argument, Yason allowed Fulger to keep half of them, but divide them among the packs. Turp suggested tying them to the outsides, allowing for even more room for packing. Every boy expressed approval for this suggestion after seeing how fierce the example pack looked with weapons tied all over.

When he was finished packing, Lud slipped his pack over his shoulder. The rest did the same and made their way to leave the guestroom, but stopped when they heard a faint knocking on the door. Yason turned to his brothers with a look of confusion mixed with fear. Before anyone said anything, the door slammed open.

“Want to go swimming?” Ithy asked in a near-yell, but was surprised to see the boys so close to the door. “Oh. I thought you might be sleeping. Does anybody want to go swimming with me?”

“Not now, Ithaca,” said Yason.

“After supper?” she asked.

“Probably never,” said Turp. “We’re leaving right now. Please get away from the door.”

“Leaving? Like... going in the city? Leaving the courtyard?”

“More like leaving the country,” said Turp.

Ithy looked very confused.

“Turp, we’re never going to sneak out of here if you tell people about it,” Fulger snapped.

“Oh, relax,” Turp said. “I only tell her because I know she won’t understand what I’m talking about.”

“I’m sorry, Ithaca,” said Yason, “but we can’t tell you where we’re going. But thank you for being such a generous hostess while we have been here.”

At first Ithy beamed, but as they moved past her, out into the courtyard, her smile left.

“Can I come with you?” she asked.

“No!” replied Turp.

“We might be back someday,” said Lud.

“...If Hydris Celo leaves,” said Turp, “and if Mr. and Mrs. Compograv don’t ground them for eternity.”

Ithy was now jogging to keep up as they strode across the courtyard. “What’s wrong with Hydris?” she asked innocently.

“I’m really sorry, Ithaca, but it is best that we don’t tell you anything,” said Yason, stopping in the middle of the yard. “What’s the best way to get out?” he asked his brothers.

“I can show you how to get out without being seen,” said Ithy, smiling again. “If you let me come with you.”

“No way,” said Turp. “Come on; let’s check the garden where Titan got in.”

“Okay! I’ll show you anyway!” yelled Ithy as they started to leave. Lud stopped, but his brothers kept walking. “Seriously!” said Ithy. “Follow me.”

She spun and began walking toward the castle. Lud started following her, but noticed no one else was. “She knows this place better than anyone,” Lud argued.

After a few moments, Yason walked over to Lud, gave him a light knock on the head, and started after Ithy.

“You aren’t very good at this don’t-trust-anyone thing, are you Lud?” Yason said laughing. “Let’s go.”

Embarrassed, Lud followed his brothers as Ithy led them to the same long, dark hallway that they had travelled through on their very first night at the castle. It only had one entrance and one exit, so Lud assumed they were going to the front of the castle. Halfway through, however, Ithy stopped them at one of the candleholders lighting the hallway. Looking past his brothers, Lud saw Ithy sweeping her hand over the wall, feeling around for something. He put his own hand against the wall. It felt like a cold, stone wall. He heard a click. Ithy pushed open a section and stepped in.

Once inside, Lud was disappointed to find more tunnels, but then he wondered what he had been expecting. It made sense for a secret passage in a tunnel to lead to a larger network of tunnels.

“These lead underneath the entire castle grounds and throughout Chamberhaven,” said Ithy, as if anticipating his next question. “One of the larger ones leads directly to this cute, little, clothing store!”

Lud laughed. So she wasn’t exactly a mind-reader.

“Which tunnel leads to a cute, little escape out of here?” asked Fulger.

After Yason reminded Ithy that they wanted to go north instead of south, she took them down a narrow tunnel which, she said, led to a “stinky fish market.” Yason decided it was the perfect exit because they might find a cart on its way back to the ocean and catch a ride with it.

It was a long time before they arrived at a small wooden door at the end of the tunnel, but when they did, there was no mistake that they had reached the fish market. The strong odor filled the tunnel and nearly slapped Lud across the face when Ithy opened the door.

Having accustomed himself to the low light of the tunnel, he had to blink many times once he stepped out into the sunlight. After his eyes had adjusted, he peered out around him. The fish market was massive and extended a good distance in each direction.

“Let’s find the shipping department,” said Yason as soon as he stepped out of the tunnel. “That’s where we’ll find transportation to the ocean. I don’t see any need to talk to anyone until we get to shipping, so keep your mouths shut!”

“Oh gross!” Ithy yelled to a man nearby carrying a string of fish-heads. “Are people supposed to eat those?”

Turp grabbed her by the back of her dress and pulled her away.

“Sorry,” said Turp to the man. “Nice heads.”

The burly fisherman muttered something Lud couldn’t hear and continued down the market with his string of fish-heads over his back.

“Don’t you listen to anybody?” Turp nearly yelled at Ithy. “Why don’t you just shut up for a few hours, alright?”

Princess Ithaca looked appalled, but didn’t say anything. When Yason asked her for the directions to the shipping department, she only smirked and pointed to her closed mouth.

Yason proclaimed himself the only one allowed to talk to people, and after asking the directions from a nearby cart-owner, led them through the carts, shops, and customers until they arrived at a long, tall tent where a constant stream of carriages, wagons, and carts filed in one end and out the other. They spent quite a while observing this process. Yason gave them the order to look for the most honest-looking man they could find. This turned out to be a bigger challenge then they expected; Lud thought judging personal characteristics by looks was hard when everybody was covered in dirt, after a long ride to a stinky environment where everyone yells at each other.

“There’s one!” said Turp after a long period of silence. “Three vehicles from the unload station!”

Lud, who couldn’t see the man, or the cart, from where he was sitting, was surprised when Yason and Fulger agreed with Turp. Lud had already given five suggestions, and each one was vetoed by one of his brothers.

It took another long wait before the man Turp picked was close enough for everyone to get a good view. When Lud finally saw the cart and its driver, he immediately agreed with Turp.

The man wasn’t a man at all. Instead, the cart was driven by a little old lady bearing a shockingly-close resemblance to Lud’s own grandmother. She was just as mud-ridden as every other driver, but other than that, there was nothing rough about her. Her horses wore no blinders and were loosely tied to the cart, which was a basic, little passenger cart transformed crudely into a fish-transporter.

“I don’t know if we’ll all fit in there,” Ithy whispered.

Lud, Yason, Fulger, and Turp all turned to Ithy.

“You’re not coming with us!”

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NATRIX’S OATH

For the first time in nearly a month, the crew members of Natrix’s ship worked with renewed pace and vigor. After forty days since leaving his home country, Natrix and his men had sight of land.

He accustomed himself to ocean travel quickly, although he had never been on water before. Every member of his crew had many years of experience, but none had ever traveled so far into the ocean. Most claimed the water was the roughest they had ever seen, and the boat nearly tipped over twice. Natrix, however, never lost his balance, often enjoying the wildest moments. The crew proved their resilience well. Not a single member was lost during the journey, despite traveling through a very nasty storm in the location Natrix pinpointed near the middle of the ocean.

Now they pushed quickly along smooth water, hoping to reach land as soon as possible. The approaching coast was populated with small huts made from wood and area vegetation. Despite a ridge of mountains barely visible on the right edge of the land, it was completely flat. The small village projected inland a short distance. Behind it, sand and dirt stretched as far into the country as they could see.

When they neared the beach, a short, red-haired man named Rahtis, whom Natrix had placed as second-in-command, demanded the boat come to a stop and asked Natrix for a meeting.

“Prince Natrix,” said Rahtis, his voice bore a confidence Natrix had been instantly drawn to, “your men are very eager to set their feet down on dry ground, but many are nervous.”

“What could you have to fear while you are in my presence?” asked Natrix.

“I have no fear with you as our protector, Prince Natrix. I have been completely faithful ever since you took us off the map. Many of my men, however, have come up to me throughout the journey and asked for the purpose of our mission. Unfortunately, I had nothing to tell them, other than wait and see.”

“They do not need to know,” said Natrix coldly. “The purpose of this journey is my business.”

“I understand, your highness, and I do not ask what that purpose is, but now we are approaching a land and a people which these men have never seen before. They are worried you are leading them to their deaths. We do not know whether these men are civil or barbarians.”

“Tell the men they have nothing to fear because they will not set foot on this country.”

“Prince Natrix,” said Rahtis, beginning to sound desperate. The momentary loss of professionalism irritated Natrix. “The men long to get off this ship. Despite their fears, they are willing to follow you wherever you go.”

Natrix remembered his father’s command that he should be the only person with knowledge of this country or this journey, and, for a moment, he took pity on them. A last request? Why not.

“I will travel to shore alone as I planned.” Natrix opened the cabin door for the commander to exit. “After a sufficient amount of time, you may take your men on land as well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“But commander, inform them they are not to interact with the natives at any time, and if they are confronted, they must never declare their homeland. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” said Commander Rahtis, as he bowed out the door.

“Commander!” yelled Natrix out the door after Rahtis. “Prepare a lifeboat for my departure.”

Natrix pulled open one of the larger cabinets inside his room. It was shelved with various blades and weapons. He pulled down two of the large, double-edged side blades, each with the royal seal embedded into the handle in the middle. After hooking them to his belt, he threw on his cloak and left the cabin.

His ride on the lifeboat to the shore was swift. He had refused oars, and oarsmen, instead focusing his mind in front of the lifeboat and using his power to pull him in.

By now, many of the villagers had witnessed the large ship and left their homes to stand on the beach so Natrix was greeted by a large group of mostly children and elderly women. The first thing he noticed about the crowd was their apathy toward his method of propulsion. When he stepped on land, he found they were only interested in the manufacturers of his ship, having assumed he was from another village along the coast. After asking the name of the village—it was Mendacis—Natrix picked the city of Mila as his false home, as it was the farthest city from Mendacis he could remember from the map.

The villagers were quick to accept Natrix’s story, insisting he send his crew in for food and rest as well. Deciding there was little to fear from these welcoming people, he accepted their offer.

With wide-eyed amazement, Natrix watched as the same elderly women whom he had quickly deemed as fragile, scampered to a nearby storage shed and came out with six large row-boats floating in the air. He tried to hide his excitement from the villagers around him and pretend that this sight was completely normal and expected. He allowed himself to smile. This was doubtlessly the country he had been searching for. The thought entered his mind that there might be no limits to what he could learn here.

“Wait a minute!” Natrix yelled to the women nearing the water, boats over their heads. Natrix jogged to them. “My men have not had a very long journey; we stopped many times on our travel here. They are new to life on the water. I have decided it would be better for them to spend more time living in the ship, getting accustomed to it.”

The women obeyed Natrix immediately. As they brought the boats back to the shed, it occurred to him that he was still wearing his tooth necklace and captain’s bracelets. He must look both intimidating and professional. It would be best to use that to his advantage.

“I need a place to stay for the night,” Natrix told a tall, young boy who appeared to have been placed as his assistant by the village. They certainly show respect for those who deserve it, thought Natrix. “I must be on the road inland early tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, mister...” The tall boy looked inquisitive.

Natrix paused. “My name is Commander Hydris Celo,” Natrix lied. The boy nodded respectfully. On the ship, Natrix had had a lot of time to ponder the possible events that could happen when he arrived in Emityna. Included in all possibilities was the requirement of a new name. He had thought of simply giving himself a surname to add after Natrix, but decided it best to keep both lives completely separate. So he chose Hydris, which meant “out of the water” , and Celo, which meant “secret” . If seemed fitting. He did not know whether names had similar meanings in this new country, but nevertheless no one would expect that he had not been born into his name.

Natrix’s new assistant led him to a small shack owned by a pleasant-looking couple whom he placed in their late forties. The boy told him their names were Claudus and Molli Vollup.

Mr. and Mrs. Vollup took Natrix in eagerly and prepared him a generous meal presented in six shifts. Claudus was short and heavy, and walked with a noticeable limp. Molli was slightly taller than her husband with short, curly brown hair underneath a wide, colorfully-decorated straw hat which she wore even when indoors. The hat was large enough to make anyone assume it was worn only to appear silly, but Molli Vollup wore it with such zest that Natrix soon began to believe it was merely an extension of her personality.

“Do you have a girlfriend back home, Hydris?” asked Molli, motioning a knife to cut and serve three pieces of cake.

Natrix had spent the entire meal trying not to stare whenever something floated past him. He was surprised with how effortlessly and mundanely everyone in this country used their powers. He had even seen a young girl brushing her hair without touching the brush. When Natrix used his powers, it was to intimidate or amaze.

“Yes I do,” lied Natrix. “Her name is Tiana.” He pulled the name at random.

“That’s wonderful,” said Molli, smiling, “but if that should go sour, I know plenty of young women in this village who would go for such a handsome young man as yourself.”

“Thanks.” Natrix didn’t know what to say.

“That’s a good compliment, Hydris. Molli has excellent taste in men.” Claudus laughed loudly at his joke. Natrix smiled back.

The rest of the evening passed by in a similar fashion. Mrs. Vollup asked an intimate question, Natrix lied, and Mr. Vollup added a joke. The conversation wasn’t as annoying as Natrix had worried it would be. Instead, he just took it as a game to play and even began to enjoy their company.

However, when the next morning came, he still didn’t see the need in saying goodbye. Rising just before dawn, he contracted a merchant who was up to bring him a few cities inland, and he left the village.

By hitching rides with different merchants throughout the cities, Natrix made his way closer to the capital city in very little time. He realized if he had been on foot, the travel would have been painfully slow through all those different cities, each more densely populated than the previous. The only hiccup occurred when one of his hired guides became suspicious when Natrix asked him how to get to the capital city, and its name. He found out the city was named Chamberhaven, and basically all roads led straight to it, but was subjected with numerous personal questions for the rest of the ride, until finally, in the middle of the road, he chose to find a new escort.

It was late evening when the last of Natrix’s transports pulled up to the gates of Chamberhaven. By now he was tired, but still determined to meet the king of Emityna, or anybody strong enough and in a high enough position that he would be able to teach him something useful.

He made his way on foot through the clean, white, glossy streets, dashing around the vibrantly colored citizens to the entrance gate of the castle.

When he reached it, he was breathing hard and failed to notice his cloak was hanging open.

The castle guards noticed it and saw the tips of his side blades.

“Whoa!” yelled both of the guards at once.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said the taller of the two. Natrix quickly sized up both men. Each stood without fear. They were obviously strong.

“I have come to speak with the king,” said Natrix, trying to stand tall. It was during this focus on posture when he realized his cloak was exposing his weapons. He whipped it shut. “I come in peace,” he added, knowing they had seen the blades.

“I don’t think so,” said the shorter guard.

“Very few people are allowed to see the king, and you are certainly not one of those people.”

“Go away, little boy.”

Natrix, not used to being disrespected, scrambled to explain himself, but the guards mocked him and pushed him away. He stumbled a bit, but didn’t fall.

“Don’t do that,” Natrix hissed. Where he was from, no one treated him this way. “I can assure you, the weapons are for my own safety only. I mean no harm to the king; I just wish to speak to him.”

Natrix approached the guards again. His face grew hot, and he clenched his fists.

“Get lost, kid,” said the tall guard and pushed him again. But Natrix was ready. Dodging the guard’s arms, he grabbed one arm and pulled the guard towards him while he punched at the guard’s head. His blow landed, and Natrix felt the guard recoil from the hit.

Surprised by his own actions, Natrix forgot about the second guard, who vaulted forward and sent his own fist at Natrix.

The punch knocked him backwards violently. He felt his feet go up over his head as he rolled on the ground.

While still rolling, he instinctively reached deep into his cloak and grabbed the handles of both blades. He used his momentum to bring himself to his knees and threw out his arms towards the guard who had hit him, sending both blades slicing through the air.

Before the guard could react, the blades struck hard, one thrusting deep into each shoulder. Natrix watched the guard fall from the force of the hit.

He felt the energy flowing through his arms as the first guard stood stunned, then glared at Natrix.

For a moment, Natrix considered apologizing, but they had attacked him first. Before he could say anything, the tall guard grabbed for the blade at his own side. Natrix thrust his palms towards the guard and sent out a force which not only blew the guard off his feet, but splintered the entire door behind him as well.

Natrix wished they hadn’t pushed him.

“SOUND THE ALARM!” A man yelled from above Natrix. He looked up and saw that guards stationed on the wall had noticed the event. He hadn’t noticed guards up there before.

Shit.

Natrix sprinted forward, waving the blades back to him, out from the shoulders of the injured guard. He ran through the gate and towards the castle itself. He needed to explain everything to the king before someone else lied about it and made Natrix look like the bad guy.

He ran through the front courtyard towards the castle doors, which were now closing. At full speed, halfway through the yard, Natrix felt his feet thrust to the side, out from under him, and he crashed down to the ground, sliding into a small stream.

He stayed under the water long enough to see the men who had tripped him approach the stream. Though distorted through the water, the two guards wore spectacularly adorned armor. These must be the king’s best, thought Natrix. He clenched his fists again, and burst up out of the surface, sending shots of water into the faces of the two guards. It was a short distraction, but Natrix had already sent his two blades sweeping towards them.

There was a loud thud as the projectiles hit their armored marks. Natrix stepped out of the water, watching to find out the effect on his adversaries.

There was none.

The two men were unfazed and uninjured, their armor too thick. In near perfect synchronization, the guards waved their arms out at Natrix and sent out a blast which hit him directly in the chest. He flew back to the other side of the stream and landed in the grass.

Natrix hopped up just in time to see the guards had sent out their own blades at him. Focusing out his mind, he changed their course just enough for each weapon to whip around him without hitting.

Knowing the blades would be called to come back at him, Natrix leapt forward, over the water, and ran straight for one of the guards. His plan was to hit the massive guard with his force at the same time as he hit him with his body, but with just a few feet to go, Natrix felt himself thrust into the air. His forward motion carried him up over the guard, who ducked to his knees.

There was only a spit second for Natrix to realize this was a calculated move, before colliding in midair with the other guard who had jumped up to strike him.

Natrix remained conscious just long enough to realize how much pain he was in.

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Using all the energy he could muster, Natrix tried to open his eyes, but couldn’t do it. He could hear people talking and tried to figure out where he was, but before his memory returned, the pain did. He would have screamed if he had the energy.

He laid there motionless, seeing only black.

“Who is he?” The voice was deep and raspy and unfamiliar.

“I don’t know,” came the reply. “He could be anybody. The only people who have enough hatred for Erus to attempt a break-in at the castle are fanatics and psychopaths.”

“What now, Olim? Technically, you’re in charge of this shift. What should we do with him?”

For a while Natrix didn’t hear anything. Then the voices started again.

“Tell me, Tolero, why do strange things always happen during my shift?” asked the man named Olim.

“You’re just lucky I guess,” said Tolero.

“For now, the best we can do is leave him here in the courtyard until we get a medic to check him out,” said Olim. “When he’s cleared, we’ll put him in prison.”

Natrix heard one of the men walk away.

This was bad. He still couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, Natrix’s mind flashed back to the one place he went whenever things got really bad. Titan.

Within a few moments, crystal-clear vision came to him, but it was not his own. The light was slightly dim as he looked around at the boat and then over the side to the setting sun. He held his hand in front of his face, and, just as he hoped, it was a mass of stones taking the rough shape of a human’s.

Titan, help me. Natrix spoke these words in his mind, into Titan’s head. Come get me. Don’t let anything stop you.

Titan made a motion to the crew members and leapt from the boat into the water as Natrix’s vision returned to black.

Chapter 11
Charity Rewarded

“You have to let me come along! If you don’t, I’m going to tell on you.” Ithaca Eligo’s expression changed from shock to anger.

“Who are you going to tell?” asked Fulger. “We already know our parents are going to find out we left, and we don’t care whether anybody else in the castle knows or not.”

Ithy pondered the idea for a while. Sadness struck her face, but quickly left. Her eyes opened wide, and she smiled. A glance to the old woman and her cart told Lud the new plan Ithy formed, but it was too late. With a bounce, Ithy was up and running to the cart.

“Madam! Madam!” she shouted. “MADAM!”

The old lady searched around confusedly until she saw Ithaca standing a few steps away from her cart. She was hesitant to respond, but smiled back at the little girl. Lud guessed the old lady just wanted Ithy to stop yelling.

“Hello dear.” The old lady’s voice was high-pitched but pleasant. Specks of dried mud spotting her face and clothes and looked out of place on her frilly, pastel-colored dress, yet that wasn’t the most awkward thing about her. On the old woman’s head, on top of her short, curly white hair, she wore a very large, very wide straw hat with colorful ribbons stitched through like a rainbow. This too was speckled with mud.

The hat removed Lud’s worry that this woman might be dangerous. Dangerous people didn’t wear hats like that.

“Is there something I can do for you, darling?” the woman asked as Ithy bounced up and down, waiting for Lud and his brothers to introduce themselves.

“Good evening, madam,” said Ithy happily. “Blessings and good fortunes to you and Emityna.”

“And to you,” replied the woman, inspecting Ithy as she spoke. “You’re quite a fancy, little girl for a fisherman’s market.”

“I know.” Ithy beamed.

The woman paused before she spoke again, but didn’t seem confused by Ithy’s response. “May I help you with something?”

“Most certainly. These boys and I are seeking transportation to the village of Mendacis, along the northern coast.”

Lud and his brothers had to approach the cart now. Yason went up the quickest and stepped in front of Ithy.

“If it’s not too much trouble, of course,” said Yason. “We understand if it’s too far out of your way. Or you simply don’t wish to take on such a load. But we really do need to get there, and there are few drivers we believe we can trust.”

“There are certainly very few drivers you can trust here” the old lady said firmly. “Where are your parents? Surely they could take you. I don’t think it’s wise for a group of children to be out alone. It’s not safe.”

“Why wouldn’t it be safe?” asked Ithy. Lud thought her naivety was getting annoying. Luckily, Yason stepped in again before she said anything to give them away.

“My parents are on their way to Mendacis right now. They consider me old enough to watch my brothers and sister; they trust me. I’m won’t mess this up and let them think I can’t be mature. If you won’t help us, just say so, and we will find somebody else who can.” Yason stood tall as he spoke.

Lud would never have bought that story, and he wasn’t sure the woman did either, but nevertheless she replied: “If you are going to hitch a ride to Mendacis, I would rather take you myself so I know you will be safe. I’d hate myself if I heard some kids were kidnapped and sold because a mean, old woman wouldn’t take them herself.” She looked around her cart skeptically. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe I’ll be able to fit all of you in my cart. It’s sturdy, but it’s not very big.”

“What if our brother Turp rode on one of the horses?” asked Yason. “It shouldn’t bother the horse too much. Turp is a Feather.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” responded the woman sincerely. “A Feather with normal brothers and sister? How unusual.”

“I prefer fantastically challenged,” joked Turp, but quickly realized what he said. “No wait... that came out wrong.” It was too late; Lud and his brothers were already laughing uncontrollably.

“Phenomenally challenged? No. Extravagantly challenged?” As Turp searched for the best words, the old woman looked upset. “You boys shouldn’t laugh at him like that. He’s going to have enough trouble with the rest of the world. He doesn’t need his family picking on him too.”

“Ma’am,” said Fulger, catching his breath. “We’d be treating him like an outsider if we didn’t pick on him.”

The woman in the large straw hat didn’t appear to agree with this answer, but accepted it anyway and let Turp ride on the horse’s back.

“Ithaca should ride on the other horse’s back since she’s the next lightest,” said Yason.

Ithy cringed. “I’m not riding that dirty thing. Can’t I get a saddle first... and get the horse a bath?”

The old woman inspected Ithy once again so Yason quickly said, “If you don’t know how to ride a horse, just tell us. We’ll get someone else to do it.”

“I’m a great horse rider! I used to ride all the time with—”

“Okay!” Yason interrupted. “I get it. You know how to ride, but you’re too scared to. That’s fine. Fulger, you’re brave enough, right?”

“I’m brave!” Ithy shouted. Before Yason could pester her anymore, she jumped up on the horse’s back and fastened her legs around the sides.

“I have to ride next to her the whole time?” yelled Turp when Ithy was settled in. Nobody answered him.

The old woman smiled as she helped the boys into the cart. Once they were all in, she took off her hat and set it in the middle. “My name is Molli Vollup.” Lud, Yason, and Fulger introduced themselves. They used their real names, but changed Turp’s and Ithy’s surnames to Compograv.

Inside the cart was small with two benches, one against the back, and one in the front. Black cloth made up the roof and walls surrounded three sides of the cart. The side facing forward was open to allow driving from inside the cart. It was a tight squeeze, made worse by the pungent odor of fish.

The ride was rough. The old cart transferred every bump in the road to their seat with excruciating accuracy. Still, Lud thought it was better than walking.

During the journey, Molli Vollup explained that she lived in Mendacis. This complicated their story, as it became much harder to find a reason for their journey without giving anything away. Fulger cleverly conjured up a tale which turned their parents into civil surveyors searching for basic demographic reports of the city. Unfortunately, this led Mrs. Vollup to explain the entire population of Mendacis, including every mundane detail. The story ate up much time, but drove the boys to extreme boredom.

“Cib Bos sold my husband meat at very low prices. They had grown up next-door neighbors, and Claudus was always friendly to Cib, even when the rest of the village wasn’t. But that was my husband. He was always nice to people, even if they had burned down his garage. Which Cib did sixteen years ago. He lost one of his torches and turned our garage into ashes overnight. It wasn’t done on purpose, but the fool should still know to be more careful with fire. Claudus never made him pay for it. I told him he should ask for a little money, but he refused...”

The one-sided conversation continued this way for quite a while. They learned that Mrs. Vollup’s husband Claudus died five years ago from pneumonia. He was sixty-one years old when he died. Mrs. Vollup was now sixty-six.

They also learned the reason this sixty-six-year-old woman traveled the rough road to and from Chamberhaven every day.

“Two years ago, there was a terrible storm. The clouds were so large and dark that it was hard to see your hand if you held it in front of your face. Thunder rang louder than I’ve ever heard, but I never saw any lightning. There had been lightning though. The next day I saw the smoldering crevices from the strikes. None of my livestock survived. I sold as much meat as I could salvage, but that money soon ran out. So here I am, an old woman, selling fish every day.”

“But that’s the way life goes,” she said solemnly. “Just when you think you have life figured out, everything changes. I thought I knew this world, but the last two years have been the strangest of my life.”

“What happened?” asked Lud. He hadn’t lived as long as Mrs. Vollup, but he was sure he’d seen his share of strange things.

“I met a man who made the rocks come to life,” she said. “He made them resemble men. He told them what to do, and they listened. And they could speak. I spoke to one. They told me I had no need to fear them, but I did. They scared the mess out of me.”

Lud and his brothers popped up and sat at attention.

“You mean Leone!” exclaimed Lud. “Leone controls the rock men. You’ve met him? You know him too?”

Molli Vollup stared blankly at Lud. “I’m afraid I don’t know this man Leone.”

Lud tried to explain what Leone looked like, to refresh her memory, but she was adamant.

“I’m sorry, Lud. This was not him. It is possible that you know someone who possesses a similar power, but I know the man’s name, and it was not Leone. His name was Hydris Celo.”

“HYDRIS CELO?” The boys shouted so loud that even Turp and Ithy turned around.

“What about Hydris Celo?” Turp called back.

Lud looked around frantically at his brothers. Each showed a look of grave despair.

“Hydris Celo can control stone men?” asked Yason.

“Yes. I’m afraid so,” said Mrs. Vollup. “Do you know him?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Yason.

A frightening thought came to Lud. “Hydris took Titan! That’s why he was acting so different!”

“What did Hydris do?” Turp yelled from his horse.

Fulger looked at Lud. Fear was in his eyes. “Or it was always Hydris.”

No way, thought Lud.

“Or Leone and Hydris were working together,” suggested Yason.

It couldn’t be like this. Lud felt dizzy from the multitudes of explanations running through his head, but he couldn’t catch any of them. “No,” he said. “No. Leone saved us.”

“...saved us so he could bring us to Hydris himself.”

Mrs. Vollup interrupted them. “There’s more about him.”

Lud was hesitant to ask. “More?”

“I don’t think he’s human.”

“What?” asked Yason. “Of course he’s human. What else could he be?”

Turp again asked what Hydris had done.

Mrs. Vollup spoke softly. “I first met Hydris Celo when I was forty-six. My husband and I took him in off a large warship. Eighteen years later when I was sixty-four, I met him again. It was a couple days after the thunderstorm and I had aged considerably. However, besides coming back with long hair, Hydris hadn’t changed a bit. I don’t think he ages.”

“Everyone ages!” said Lud.

“This boy doesn’t.”

How could somebody not get any older? It was a terrifying thought. What were they dealing with?

“LUD!”

Breaking out of the conversation, Lud glanced ahead to Turp.

“WHAT DID HYDRIS DO?” Turp yelled as loud as he could.

“HE TOOK OVER TITAN!” Lud shouted back, just as loud.

“SO IT’S A BAD THING THAT TITAN IS RUNNING BEHIND US?”

Sitting on the end, Lud threw his head around the cloth wall and looked behind the cart. He saw the stone giant effortlessly striding a few yards behind them, gaining fast. Before Lud could even pull his head back into the cart, Titan reached them and crashed into the back wheel. The entire cart was thrust into the air and landed hard on its wheels.

The horses startled, jumping to the side and jerking the cart wildly.

A large stone hand ripped through the cloth into the cart, swung around, then pulled back out. There was soon another jolt, tossing the members around inside the cart.

And then everything was calm. The horses continued pacing forward, and the cart traveled with its familiar vibrations.

Ithy screamed ahead of them.

Keeping his eyes forward, Lud saw a flash of white stone cross before the opening. Lud smashed into the side wall, and the view outside the cart started spinning. At first, green pastures blurrily revolved around them, but they slowly exited from sight as the spinning cart tilted backwards, revealing only the sky. The impact with the ground threw everyone on top of each other, except for Lud, who fell through the ripped opening Titan had made with his arm. He tumbled across the ground, stopping with his face to the ground and his body aching in every limb.

Lud picked his head out of the dirt road and saw Titan standing next to the cart, wearing no robe and no expression on his face. He placed two hands on the metal frame of the cart and violently ripped it apart. Yason, Fulger, and Molli Vollup poured out, sprawling across the ground.

Two separate things pierced Lud’s senses: out of the corner of his eye, Lud saw the two horses, unrestrained, galloping away with Turp and Ithaca on their backs, and behind him, Lud heard a loud thundering sound. Slowly he turned and saw a fleet of five chariots in the distance, surging towards them.

He pushed himself up to his feet.

“Guys get up! They’re coming this—”

A strong, stabbing force shoved him forward, back onto the ground and held him there. It felt like many dull nails were holding him down. He was able to turn his head slightly, enough to see his brothers.

Yason was feebly swinging his arms out at Titan, trying to force him away. Fulger tried to get up too, but he could only make it to his knees.

With a united effort, Yason and Fulger swung their arms and sent forward a force powerful enough to lift Titan an inch off the ground and send him onto his back.

They helped Mrs. Vollup onto her feet and ran to Lud.

Titan was already standing again, but he wasn’t needed. Lud watched as an invisible push thrust his brothers and the old woman to the ground.

Held to the ground, Lud could only listen as the sound of the hoof-beats increased and drew nearer. The chariots skidded to a stop, and Lud heard a man drop from his chariot onto the ground. The force released from his body, but was replaced by a boot on his back.

“Your family is inconceivably annoying!” Lud recognized Hydris’ voice immediately. “Yet, there’s an air of challenge which is enjoyable.”

Hydris then instructed one of his charioteers to hunt down the two escaping children. “When you catch them, take the brat Ithaca back to her father, let him deal with her. Discard the powerless boy. We don’t need him running around telling anybody.”

Lud twisted to shake off Hydris’ foot, but Hydris didn’t move.

“I’m very happy you children chose to join me in my little affair. We’ll have quite the enjoyable ride, I believe. You boys seem so eager to reach our destination. It’s almost forgivable that you wouldn’t want to wait for me. I don’t mind.”

Cursing, Lud tried harder to free himself. At one point, Hydris’ foot slipped off, but came back to kick Lud in the side before returning again to hold him down.

“I hate children. Why would you ruin your life by playing when there’s an entire world out there, waiting for you to meet it, then take it. I’m giving you that chance! Can’t you see it? You boys seem so eager for adventure, yet I’m giving you the adventure of a lifetime!”

Hydris kicked Lud again after more curses.

“I’m giving you the opportunity not only to save your brother, but to change the world! You’ll be remembered as foreign heroes. In fact, you’ll be delighted to know that it was your father who gave me this idea. Unwittingly, of course. He was much younger then, and kicked my ass pretty good, but it changed my life. The incident that followed shortly after his beating gave me plenty of time to work this idea out in my mind. The only question was who I could use. When I returned to your capital city as a new man, I was incredibly pleased to find out that Olim Compograv had a son who grew up to be such an arrogant dimwit.”

“Rapyo is not a dimwit!” yelled Lud. “He saw right through you! He told me!”

“Well,” said Hydris in a mockingly mournful voice, “I’m afraid that if his opinions of me did change, it was a bit too late.” Hydris went silent for a while. When he spoke again, it was with a different tone. “I don’t understand why you boys see me as the villain, here. Once you experience my world, I’m sure each one of you will come to accept me as the great ruler I am. The great ruler needed.”

With that, Hydris instructed his men to place each of the boys onto a chariot. Hydris himself took Lud onto his. The boys were bound so they could not use their arms, thus their powers, to escape.

It was then that Hydris noticed the old woman. He stepped off his chariot and walked to her, but after Hydris passed out of sight, Lud’s bindings wouldn’t allow him to see what was going on. He could only hear.

“Molli! Are you alright?”

“Hydris Celo, what have you done? Get off of me!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were with them.”

“Don’t touch me!”

Hydris yelled at one of the charioteers to place Fulger alongside Yason and give his chariot to Mrs. Vollup.

“I’m sorry about your cart. This is the best I can do. It will get you home.”

“I DON’T WANT ANYTHING FROM YOU. RELEASE THOSE BOYS!”

“I’m sorry, Molli. I can’t do that.”

Hydris stepped back onto the chariot, next to Lud.

“Go home, Molli, and forget this day.”

With a whip of the reigns, the horse lunged forward and began a slow trot. Lud heard the other drivers do the same. It wasn’t long before they passed Mrs. Vollup, who was sitting between the broken pieces of her cart and the new chariot. Lud’s eyes never left her until she was only a speck in the distance.

Lud watched as the landscape flowed out behind him like a scroll being pulled away. He was clueless to their location since he had never been this far north. Not even close. Hydris was taking them to the edge of the map, and beyond.

He stared out and searched every clump of bushes or trees they passed, hoping eagerly to catch a glimpse of Turp or Ithy and know they were alright. Turp had no knowledge of the land, and Lud had serious doubts whether Ithaca could guide them to safety, much less understand the seriousness of their circumstances. She would probably cross them straight back to the castle. Then what would happen to Turp?

The chariot was small so Hydris’ legs pushed into Lud whenever he moved, and he was moving a lot. Lud felt Hydris turn completely around and squat down next to him.

“Lud, I need to talk to you.”

Infuriated, Lud kept staring at the rolling scene behind them and remained silent.

“The night of my birthday party,” said Hydris, “I saw you fly. How did you do that?”

Trying to occupy his mind with anything else, Lud continued his silence.

“Rapyo can do it. You can do it, and I’ve heard there are others who can too. Rapyo showed me what he does when he flies, but it didn’t work for me. Why wouldn’t it work for me? How do you do it?”

Slowly turning his head toward Hydris, Lud said, “Who’s driving the chariot?”

His face stern, Hydris responded, “I tossed the reins to another driver so I could talk to you. Every time I try to fly it feels like I’m cutting my arms off, and I never move. Why?”

Again Lud didn’t answer Hydris, whose face was flashing with anger. Lud grit his teeth and braced himself for Hydris’ wrath, but before anything could happen a driver yelled out.

“Hydris. We’ve reached Mendacis.”

“We’ll talk later, brat,” said Hydris as he rose to his feet and took back his reins. “To the left!”

The chariots turned off the road and traveled along the outside edge of the village.

“It’s getting dark,” said Hydris to his men. “Set up tents for the night. We’ll load up on the boat first thing tomorrow morning.”

While the rest of his men did as they were told, Hydris took Lud into a small shack a little way into the village. Hydris set down a large map on the kitchen table. Curiosity nearly drove Lud to ask about it, but Lud didn’t want to talk to Hydris if he didn’t have to. They stayed there for the night. Hydris slept on the bed, but Lud slept on the floor with only a pillow for comfort. To make things worse, Hydris refused to unbind Lud so Lud slept very little that night.

Overall, Lud considered the day to be the absolute worst day of his short existence.

Despite barely sleeping, the next day came much too fast. Hydris woke up Lud by shoving him with his foot.

“Welcome to your new life,” said Hydris.

Lud moved around dizzily throughout the morning as he watched everything Hydris commanded being rowed out to a fierce, wooden ship. Before he knew it, he too was standing aboard the wide deck, peering out at the shore and the small coastal village as they slowly drifted away.

The three boys were bunked together in a small room which barely fit the three beds. Although the beds had an odd resemblance to their beds at home, nothing was comfortable or reassuring.

The next week felt like a dream; mostly because Lud spent a large majority of the time asleep. The combination of such shocking experiences combined with sleep depravity had taken all of his energy. But he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted to do was sleep anyway. If he could, he would sleep this entire experience away, and he would soon wake up and find himself at home in his bed. He’d have to get up for chores, but he wouldn’t mind.

The few times Lud did open his eyes, he saw Yason pacing up and down their small room, muttering quietly about rescuing Rapyo. Something, something, something; we’ll find you, Rapyo. It was always this or similar. Lud never caught the beginning of the sentence. Above Yason’s right hand three small balls were circling each other in midair. Lud would have found the action very impressive if he could have cared about anything at the moment.

Lud didn’t need to open his eyes to know what Fulger was doing. When Fulger wasn’t throwing up in his bucket, he was shouting curses at Hydris. Lud didn’t know where Hydris was, or whether he could hear Fulger, but he didn’t care. Fulger spoke for both of them.

Finally, Lud got up for breakfast. Occasionally, he had eaten some fruit, or pieces of bread, but little else. He was starving. The crew always offered them plenty of food, and this time Lud was going to accept their offer.

He ate with the cook and couple of the row-men. From their conversation, he gathered that Hydris had demanded they stay close to the shore instead of cutting through the middle of the ocean. Lud, remembering the ocean was mostly a circle, agreed with the men that this was an inefficient route, but didn’t mind taking the long way. Who knew what was waiting for them at their destination.

Even more interesting to Lud were the rumors that the storage hold in the ship was haunted. The cook swore on his life that his dry goods kept rearranging themselves even though he locked the door whenever he left, and the hold had been searched. If Lud had been aboard the ship under any other circumstances, he would have recounted this tale to his brothers, who would then demand to investigate the storage hold themselves. However, Lud decided that if someone claimed a ship belonging to Hydris Celo was haunted; it probably was.

Weeks later, the crew began to hustle around the ship, and more members could be seen on deck.

“What’s going on?” asked Yason. All three boys had come out to meet Lud on the deck. Everybody was tired of sitting in their room.

One of the crewmen pointed out towards the shore. “These mountains mark the border of our destination. We should arrive within the hour.”

Chapter 12
Escape

The ship followed the coast along the country of Kindlia for much longer than Lud hoped. The mountain ridge quickly passed, replaced by a vast forest that, as far as he could tell, covered the entire country. It stretched as far inland as Lud could see and left only a few paces of sandy beach for the ocean. If they were sailing until they found an open space to disembark, it would be a much longer trip.

Luckily, Hydris didn’t wait, choosing to anchor the ship at a seemingly indistinct location along the coast.

The process of transporting everyone to shore proved a much lengthier task than loading had been a few days ago. While there had only been four men and three boys with almost no possessions to transport the first time, fifteen crewmembers with all their supplies disembarked with Lud and his brothers onto the country of Kindlia.

Titan wasn’t rowed to shore. Instead the stone giant simply jumped off the ship and walked along the ocean floor until he came up out of the water onto land.

The trees looked much taller when standing before them on the sandy shore. Lud noticed that Hydris hadn’t chosen an indistinct location. A small path had been cut through the brush, large enough to travel through one at a time.

Four pairs of men had taken out poles and canvas, fashioning stretchers, on which they placed the majority of their gear.

Hydris opened his cloak and pulled out two curved, double-bladed daggers.

“There’s no sense wasting time on this beach,” said Hydris, staring into the forest. “It’s going to be a long and difficult hike through these woods. Stay close together and close to me.”

Lud saw the terror on the crewmen’s faces. On the ship, he heard a few of them state their hometowns, all in Emityna, and wondered whether any of them were native to Hydris’ country. Their fear made him guess not.

Surprisingly, Lud found that very little fear lingered inside him; anger took up too much room.

“If anyone gets bit, walk it off,” said Hydris. “Not many things are poisonous in these woods. If anyone gets burned, then we’ll probably stop.”

Burned?

“Follow me.” Hydris sent out his blades first, to clear some of the overgrowth, and then stepped inside the forest. His men followed him, forcing Lud and his brothers inside as well. Hydris had commanded his crew to keep a close watch on the boys, but not to bind them because they might need to defend themselves along the way.

“Is Hydris expecting a forest fire?” asked Fulger as he passed Lud with a short, bearded crewmember pushing him into the woods.

Lud only shrugged. “Maybe he’s planning on starting one.”

The trees grew so close together, and the trail was so narrow that Lud thought he could have crawled through faster than these men could walk.

In fact, only Hydris was more apt to traveling the rough terrain than Lud and his brothers, who had much experience in the woods outside their home.

About an hour after their hike, the trail they were following nearly disappeared, overgrown from misuse. Hydris’ answer to the problem was simple. Titan stepped from the back of the line to the front and started clearing a new path, stomping through brush and, when he needed to, ripping out some of the smaller trees.

They continued their hike at an increased pace, which raised the spirits of the entire party. Before this, Lud caught mumbles and whispers of the men wondering where they were being taken and whether this journey was worth the substantial pay they were going to receive. This was enough for Lud to deduce that every crewmember had been born in Emityna.

When night fell, it was impossible to judge how far they had gone.

“We’re going to camp here for the night,” said Hydris, as Titan began clearing a space into the trees. When there was enough room, the tents were set up. When the last tent was up, the sun had set below the tree line, but there was still enough light to see.

From deep within the forest the sudden roar of a giant beast startled the men. The roar was quickly followed by a woman’s scream.

All eyes turned to Hydris.

“His forest is no place for a woman,” was his response. He smiled a wicked smile.

Some of the men pressed a fist up to their heart in prayer before hurrying into their tents.

Lud and his brothers were given a tent to share which excited them because they would be able to speak to each other without fear of Hydris hearing them. They waited until loud snores could be heard from the other tents before they began talking.

“What was that noise?” asked Fulger. “It sounded like a monster eating a lady.”

“Who knows what lives inside this place,” said Yason grimly.

“What are we going to do?” asked Lud. “We have no idea where Hydris is taking us.”

“I don’t know,” said Yason, staring at the roof of the tent. “But he said from the start that he was going to find Rapyo. Maybe staying with him is our best option?”

“What?” Fulger hissed. “How is staying with this lunatic our best option?”

“What other choice do we have?” asked Yason. “Hydris is from here. He’s the only person who knows where he is going.”

“I’d rather go blindly into the unknown then follow a knowledgeable guide to our death,” snapped Fulger.

“Or worse,” added Lud.

“We can’t follow a madman,” said Fulger.

“What we need to do,” said Yason, “is find Rapyo. Then we can go home. Not before. If Hydris is going to lead us to him, then we follow.”

“How can you believe what he says?” asked Lud. Lud had seen Hydris’ two personalities. “He is a liar.”

“You were the one who said we can’t trust anybody!” Fulger spoke so loud that they waited a few minutes to make sure everybody was still asleep.

Yason answered in a whisper. “I still stand by that statement. No doubt Hydris lied to all these men to get them to join him, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. A lot of thinking and a lot of listening. Hydris is going to bring us to the spot on the map he showed us. The Annubra stronghold. I’m sure of it. He seems obsessed with our family and he’ll lead us to our brother.”

“But why?” asked Lud.

“I don’t know why,” answered Yason. “The whole situation is creepy, but I think we should use it to our advantage as long as we can.”

Lud wasn’t very happy with the idea, but what other choice did they have? He laid his head down on his pillow.

“I don’t like it, Yason,” whispered Fulger.

There was a long silence before Yason said quietly, “neither do I.”

When Lud woke up the next morning his feet were so cold he could barely move them, and the air lingered with the distinct smell of smoke.

He slowly rose and stepped outside his tent. The sun had not yet reached above the tree line, but sent pillars of its light through the branches. The frost on the ground reflected this light and gave everything an other-worldly glow. Above the trees, Lud could see the distinct outline of a cloud of smoke against the bright blue sky.

He remembered what Hydris said the day before about getting burned.

Soon everybody was up and the campsite was taken down, folded up, and placed back on the stretchers.

They continued as they had the day before; Titan led the way, making the journey easier for everybody else. Two of the men were bitten by spiders, but they obeyed Hydris’ orders and continued without complaint. Meanwhile, their arms slowly turned black.

After a few hours they came across an acre where large, flat rocks created a clearing with no plant-life. They were not out of the woods yet, but Lud found it a nice change to be out in the sun.

However, the peace was quickly broken.

There was a loud hiss through the air and a thud. Everybody searched around for the cause of the sound until they saw the short, bearded crewmember fall to his knees, clutching an arrow embedded in his chest.

Three more hisses and three more men fell to the ground.

By instinct Lud dropped to his stomach, hoping to get under the line of fire, but there was nowhere to hide in the open of the clearing.

He jerked his head around, searching for the attackers.

A few men ducked to the ground as Lud had, but more men were dropped by the archers.

Four of the crewmembers sprinted towards the trees, but only two made it, disappearing into the forest.

“No! Stop!” yelled Hydris, still standing tall. “This isn’t right!”

Lud waited for the sound of more arrows, but the attack had stopped.

“What if you would have hit me?” Hydris screamed into the trees.

Suddenly there was a loud cry and a man dressed in light armor shot up into the sky.

He can fly! thought Lud. Another man here can fly!

But the man couldn’t fly, and he soon began his descent, landing and bouncing against the hard stone. The metal clanged loudly against it. The body stopped before Hydris’ feet.

“There will be no more mistakes!”

Terrified, Lud tried to find the people Hydris yelled at, searching the section of the woods from where the armored man had flown.

To his surprise, a huge, white creature stepped out from the trees. With long strides, the creature stepped its way towards Hydris and stopped before him. It appeared to Lud as if many torso-sized stones connected themselves together, trying to look like a person. He remembered Leone explaining what Titan had looked like before Leone has shaped him. Lud guessed this was another Mesmor.

Behind the Mesmor, four men stepped out wearing armor similar to the man who lay before Hydris’ feet. In their hands were long bows. Lud knew what bows were; Turp had been practicing how to use one before they left, at the request of their school teacher. Lud had tried to convince Turp not to learn the weapon, because it would solidify Turp’s public stance as a Feather, but Turp ignored Lud and gladly began to practice with the weapon. Men with powers didn’t use bows to fire their arrows. Were these men Feathers?

“You idiots!” Hydris yelled around the Mesmor. “I could have used these men. As it stands now, I obviously can’t use any of them.”

Hydris pointed to the spot where the crewmembers had run into the woods. “What are we going to do about them?”

“S—Sir,” stuttered the oldest of the armored men, “we took our orders from Atlas, as you instructed.” Although each man was dressed in battle armor and heavily armed, they cowered before Hydris Celo. One man’s face was as pale as the two stone giants.

“Atlas speaks for me!” yelled Hydris.

“Atlas speaks for me!” The voice was exactly the same as Hydris’ but came from within the stone giant.

“If I don’t give an order,” said Hydris with a calmer voice. “Atlas doesn’t give an order.”

“I’m sorry, Prince Natrix. It’s just been so many years... the orders were to kill any contaminants which might try to follow you back. You’re father said—”

The large arm of Atlas swung back and struck the man, sending him over a body’s length away.

“Don’t you dare speak to me about the king!” hissed Hydris.

Lud, still face-down on the rock, tried hard to follow the conversation. Did he call Hydris a prince? Prince Natrix? Hydris’ father was a king?

“Get everybody up!”

Lud lifted his head enough to see Hydris, who was staring at him. Slowly, Lud got to his feet. His brothers followed.

Only one of the ship’s crewmembers was left standing with the Compograv brothers.

Hydris scowled at one of his archers and pointed to the member.

Lud threw his hands over his eyes when the archer raised his bow towards the man and let fly his arrow.

He heard the thud as the body fell to the rock.

“My sincerest apologies again, Prince Natrix,” said the old archer as he rose back to his feet. “Atlas was summoned away so many years ago on your rescue mission. You must understand; we had begun to lose hope in your survival.”

Hydris said nothing, but stared at the man, who tried to brighten his face into a false smile.

“So we were incredibly happy when we saw Atlas walk into the castle last month. When we heard your voice through him, so many of the members of parliament reconfirmed their allegiance to you and sent out this search party at your command.”

“How many members?” asked Hydris coldly.

“Please, P—Prince Natrix,” the old archer’s body shook heavily as he spoke. “Once they see your surprisingly youthful face again, they will quickly come to their senses.”

“How many members of the parliament?” Hydris over-enunciated every word.

“Almost half, your highness!” The man appeared to be trying hard to sound enthusiastic. “But many of the ones who refused weren’t even in office when you left. I—I’m sure they’ll accept you quickly when they meet you.”

The old man kept his eyes to the ground as Hydris silently stared at him. When Hydris finally spoke, the old man flinched.

“I’ll worry about the parliament later. Right now I need to bring these kids to their brother.”

The old man turned a skeptical eye to Lud. “Yes... but remind me why... these kids?”

“I wanted the best.”

Looking less than convinced, the old man nodded.

“Now,” said Hydris, “I don’t want to stay in this forest any longer than I have to. Let’s go.”

“I agree, your highness,” said the old man, following Hydris.

Hydris stopped and turned back to the man. “You’re carrying the tents now.”

Travel was much quicker with two stone giants clearing the way ahead of them. However, it was odd to see Titan and Atlas next to each other. So different, and yet, the same. Lud and his brothers walked in silence, but glanced at each other often, helplessness on their faces.

That night’s campsite was crafted using the previous night’s technique. Everyone was allowed a larger portion of food than the night before, as there were fewer mouths to feed. Lud ate his larger portion; the daily walking made him very hunger, but he couldn’t help feeling guilty for eating food which shouldn’t have belonged to him.

Before everyone left to their tents, Lud asked Hydris how much longer it would take to pass through the forest. There had been two more deafening roars, and everybody was on the edge of panic.

“We should be out tomorrow evening,” said Hydris, who was sharpening one of his curved blades.

Yet another roar ripped through the forest.

“Don’t worry about the noise, Lud. You have nothing to fear. Remember the story I told at my birthday party?”

“The one with the Dinolana... I mean dragon.”

Hydris laughed. “Yes. I chose to use the word dragon to appeal to my audience, but Dinolana is the real name. I’m surprised you know it.”

“My father taught me.”

“Indeed,” said Hydris. “Well, many parts of that story were true. I did meet a Dinolana and I did kill it. But my men were sailors not mountain-men, and none of them died from the struggle.”

“None of them?” asked Lud, who was surprised to be so relieved.

“A few would later die of sickness, but not by dragons.”

Hydris looked at Lud over the campfire.

“I wasn’t hunting wild boars either. I was hunting the beast itself, and I was successful.”

Turning to a pack laying beside him, Hydris moved around some maps and pulled out a leather strap with a number of large teeth strung along it. It was the same necklace worn at the party.

Lud looked at his hand where his gauntlet used to be.

“This is their forest, Lud, but you don’t need to fear them. Not as long as I’m around.”

Unsure what to say and feeling uncomfortable with the conversation, Lud stood up to leave for his tent. “Goodnight, Hydris.”

“Lud. Call me Natrix. It is my name.”

Lud nodded and went into his tent with his brothers.

Again they waited until everybody was asleep before they spoke to each other. That night Lud revealed to them everything that Natrix had said.

“Dragons? In these woods?” asked Yason.

“Dinolanas,” corrected Lud, “but that’s what he said.”

“Same thing?”

“I think so.”

Yason slammed his fist against the ground and sat back to think. “We have to risk it.”

“I’m just glad Yason came to his senses,” said Fulger.

“I still believe Hydris — Natrix? — wants to find Rapyo,” said Yason, “but after what happened today, there’s no way I’m staying with him. If he cared so little for the lives of his crew, he won’t care about ours either. We have to leave tonight.”

“Where are we going to go? How will we know how to get there?” asked Fulger.

“Hydris has a map,” said Lud enthusiastically. The day’s events had confirmed in his mind that he would rather be anyplace other than with Hydris Celo. Or Natrix. “I saw it tonight in his pack next to his tent. He keeps it with his necklace.”

Just then, something hit the tent. Lud whipped around, his heart skipping wildly. There was silence as everyone listened and waited for whatever was outside the tent.

Another object hit the tent. Lud’s eyes grew wide as he searched for a shadow or something which might give them a hint to what was out there.

When the tent was hit again, Lud realized whatever was out there wasn’t hitting the tent, but throwing stuff at it. “Someone’s trying to get our attention.” Lud started to crawl out of the tent. Fulger followed him.

When outside, Lud peered around the back edge of the tent, looking behind it into the trees.

“Lud!” came a whisper.

He still couldn’t see anything when he heard his name called again.

“Lud! Over here!”

There was a slight movement beside one of the larger trees. It was an arm waving.

“Tu—”

Before Lud could call out Turp’s name, and probably wake up the rest of the campsite, Fulger threw his hand over Lud’s mouth.

Lud agreed to stay silent and tiptoed to the woods. Fulger went back into the tent to get Yason. When Lud neared Turp, he saw Turp wasn’t alone. Princess Ithaca was behind him, covered with dirt and stains, looking less regal then every.

“Turp!” Lud tried to whisper, but was too excited. “I don’t believe it. How did you get here?” Yason and Fulger slinked up behind him.

Turp held his finger to his lips to hush Lud and then whispered. “We snuck onto Hydris’ boat.”

Ithy nodded behind him but looked very nervous, often glancing over her shoulder.

“When Hydris caught up with us on the road, Titan smashed the rod that connected the horses to the cart. Everybody stopped with the cart, except for one chariot which chased after us. I panicked. I had never ridden a horse before, but Ithy was a fantastic rider, and luckily our two horses were still connected together. She led our horses easily through small trails and villages along the hills.”

Despite her nerves, Ithy smiled at the compliment.

“We easily lost the chariot and followed you guys to Mendacis, where we saw the ship. We swam during the night and climbed on board, hiding in the storage hold.”

“So that’s why the crew thought the ship was haunted,” said Lud.

“We thought we were going to get caught a few times,” said Turp, “but they never searched the hold very well. Most of them said they didn’t want to be down there.”

“I almost ran out too when they mentioned haunted, until Turp told me they were talking about us,” added Ithy.

“The hard part was following you guys through these woods,” said Turp. “We followed on your trail when we could, but we often had to go through the trees to stay hidden. The first time we heard the forest roar, Ithy screamed so loud I was sure everybody heard it.”

“We did,” said Yason, “but Natrix assumed it was a native.”

Turp looked confused.

“Who’s Natrix?” he asked.

“Natrix is Hydris’ real name,” said Lud. “At least, it’s his real name in this country.”

“Speaking of Hydris,” said Turp, “he let those men die without a single care? We need to get out of here. Now.”

“We just came to that decision ourselves,” said Yason.

Lud looked back at the campsite. Natrix’s pack was lying in front of the door to his tent.

“Hey, Lud,” said Ithy, stepping out from behind the trees. “I have this for you. When the medics took it off your hand at Hydris’ party, I picked it up because I knew you liked it so much. I meant to give it to you earlier, but I got caught up in the excitement of leading you guys out of the castle. I kind of forgot.”

She held out a small wrap of leather with thin plates of metal attached to it. He quickly took it from her and held it up, examining it. It was still the beaten-up old thing it had always been. He happily slid it back on his left hand.

Before anyone could say anything, Lud bounced back towards the campsite. He was confident that he could easily steal Natrix’s map. He hadn’t wanted to get too close to the tent, and now that he could use his powers again, he wouldn’t need to.

When he thought he was close enough that distance wouldn’t factor into his lifting, he threw out his hands, and his mind, towards the pack. The map was inside the open pack, but hidden from his sight so Lud wasn’t sure if his point would take the map or something else.

He pinched his fingers together anyway and slowly pulled up his hand. Out from the pack, the map rose into the air. Natrix’s necklace soon followed, dangling from the rolled up map. He wiggled his hand in the air, shaking the map until the necklace fell to the ground. Worried this might have awakened Natrix, Lud pulled the map to himself as quickly as he could. When he caught it, everybody sprinted into the woods.

Lud struggled to move through the thick plants and began to shove forward his hands and push anything he could out of the way. Soon everybody was forcing whatever they could out of the way and making good pace through the forest.

However, it wasn’t long before they heard noises behind them.

“They’re following us!” yelled Lud. “They heard us leave!”

The crunch of trees under the stone giants was becoming increasingly louder.

“We have to hide!” yelled Ithy. “We can’t outrun them.”

“There is no way I’m sitting around, hoping they don’t stumble upon us,” said Fulger. “I say we keep running.”

Lud thought frantically for a solution as he ran. Suddenly, a flashback of the woods outside his home entered his mind.

“We’ll do both!” yelled Lud.

“How?”

“The same way you hid me in the bush during your fake demon-trap.” His brothers didn’t understand so he explained further. “When I was hiding in the bush, you guys floated leaves and branches around me so no part of me was visible. There are plenty of leaves and branches to use here. We’ll lift them around ourselves as we run.”

“Yes!” yelled Yason. “That’s it.”

“That might work for us,” said Fulger, “but what about Turp. How does that plan help him?”

Lud looked to Turp. His excitement over the return of his powers had caused him to forget that his best friend wasn’t as fortunate.

“I’ll do it,” demanded Yason. “I can do it. I can cover myself and Turp.”

“No you can’t!” snapped Fulger. “That’s at least twenty branches or so. You can’t hold that many things. Only girls can focus on that many things.”

Everybody turned to Ithy.

“I can’t do that!” she cried.

Lud knew it was true. Ithy had never seemed competent with her powers.

Turp must have also knew it was true because he just laughed and asked, “Can’t I just hold the branches or something?”

“No. I can do it,” said Yason. “Trust me.”

“Whatever we’re doing,” yelled Fulger, “we have to do it now! They’re almost here!”

With that, everybody searched the ground and the trees for branches with the most leaves. The ones they found, they sent to hover around them.

Lud found it was incredibly difficult to focus on carrying the camouflage as well as running, but when he got the hang of it, it was very effective. Lud saw the occasional flash of cloth or skin, but otherwise everybody was well hidden, including Turp.

At one point, the two stone path-makers were less than ten meters away, but as proof for the effectiveness of their disguise, the Mesmors were soon clearing a route in the wrong direction.

After a few hours, they came to a patch of short grass next to a stream, at the base of a mammoth waterfall. Lud was astonished by the combination of beauty and power that stood as a monument hidden within the terrible forest. There they rested both their bodies and their powers.

Surprisingly, the journey to the end of the woods after they left the waterfall was very short. The trees began to grow farther apart, and less fallen twigs and branches littered the ground. They dropped their camouflage when they reached the last of the trees, as it would do them no good out in the open.

The land ahead was mostly grass with the occasional island of rocks. The forest’s elevation was higher than the rest of the plain, and the sun was bright so Lud could see out as far as he thought humanly possible before the land became indistinguishable from the sky. A line of mountains outlined the left side, while the forest dipped down further inland on the right.

Two pillars of a light gray smoke marked the location of two oddly-shaped settlements.

Lud pulled out the map to find their location.

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NATRIX’S RISE

Through Titan’s eyes, Natrix watched as hundreds of people stood stunned in the streets, gasping at the giant mass of stone sprinting through their city. There were many, though, who lacked the awareness to notice the giant in time to escape its path. These unfortunate obstacles were punished for their idleness. Titan never stopped sprinting no matter what stood in his way.

When he left the Mesmor’s mind and returned to his own body, he found that most of his eyesight had come back. He watched as the blurry forms of men tested his vital signs.

A flash of bright light filled his vision. It took a while before he realized the men were holding a lantern before his face to check his pupils.

Annoyed by the light, Natrix sent his mind back to Titan.

From the little information Natrix could remember from his own journey to the capital city, it appeared Titan was very close. Forcing the giant to raise his head, Natrix saw the colorful markings carved into the tall, white walls of the castle.

Titan continued forward relentlessly, and soon Natrix saw the shattered gate and workers busily picking up its pieces. The castle courtyard came into view as Titan sprinted through, and soon Natrix saw what he was looking for.

A small group of men knelt above a body in the middle of the yard.

Faint voices could be heard around him, echoing throughout his head. The experience of hearing people through Titan as well as through his own ears proved very disturbing.

So did the sight of his own body lying motionless on the ground.

Pick me up and get me out of here.

Natrix returned to his own mind when he felt the cold, hard arms lift him off the ground.

The medics attending to Natrix screamed their displeasure.

“What is that thing?”

“Stop. This man is dangerous!”

“Get Olim Compograv!”

When Titan had Natrix up in his arms, he turned and sprinted back towards the gate.

Suddenly, Natrix felt a jerk as Titan was swept sideways. Titan showed himself agile enough to remain on his feet and continued running as Natrix tried with all his might to find where the force had come from. But before he could find anything, Titan was through the gate, away from the castle, and down the streets of Chamberhaven.

Behind them, the sound of horses could be heard galloping through the streets as their riders screamed at them. Natrix listened as the sound slowly died away. The horses were just a little slower than Titan. Plus, they had to stop if somebody stepped in their way. Soon, Titan’s heavy footsteps were the only noises Natrix heard, besides the occasional scream as Titan ran another person over.

When Natrix’s sense of touch returned enough to realize how uncomfortable he was, the stone giant stopped and set him on his feet.

He leaned against Titan to keep from falling.

Ahead of him, the Kindlian men from his ship stood ready for battle, their weapons drawn. Looking around, Natrix saw they were back in Mendacis. They had run all night, and now the sun was just beginning its rise.

“Pack up your things fast,” Natrix barked at his men. “We’re leaving.”

The men stood silent momentarily, prepared to fight, but they soon obeyed their commander.

Natrix quickly regretted his command. Titan had not outrun his pursuers as much as Natrix thought he had. They were already within sight, down the dirt road. Natrix’s men were in no position to fight anymore; half of them were already on the ship.

He would have to hold them off long enough to get on the ship himself.

Watching the opposing company draw closer, Natrix saw the two guards who had knocked him unconscious. Between them, rode a man wearing a large crown on his head. It sparkled under the early morning sun.

So they wouldn’t let me speak to their king when I came peacefully, thought Natrix, but when I pose a threat they have no problem letting him face me in battle?

Natrix, however, no longer wanted to face the king, neither in battle nor in peace. He just wanted to destroy this entire country. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do it alone. He would first return to his country for reinforcements.

As they raced closer, Natrix waved his arms and spun on his heel. A cloud of dust rose and spun around him like a sandstorm. He continued this until he had blocked nearly a quarter of the village from sight. He heard the horses and chariots enter the storm and flashed inside Titan’s head.

The stone giant dashed forward. It was hard for Natrix to see regardless of which eyes he looked through, so he settled on his own. As he dashed in the direction of the coast and his ship, he heard a powerful crack as Titan smashed one of the chariots somewhere within the dust.

Flashing inside Titan, he could barely see the wreckage of the shattered vehicle. He quickly willed Titan to find another to destroy.

When Natrix returned to his own eyes, a horse and chariot nearly ran him over. The rider saw him through the cloud and pulled a razor-sharp turn.

Natrix thrust his palms to the chariot and sent out a pulse which ripped the wheels off. As his ride slid across the ground, the driver jumped out to face Natrix on foot. However Natrix had already lifted one of the chariot’s wheels and shot it into the driver’s back. It was a painful sight.

He heard another loud crack and checked to see the damage Titan had caused.

To his surprise, his mind stretched out to nothing. He began to panic. Where was Titan? He needed Titan. Again he threw out his mind, searching for the Mesmor as he had so often before, but he couldn’t even sense the general presence he always used to zero in on any Mesmor’s location.

Titan was gone.

Without knowing what else to do, Natrix sprinted towards his ship, lowering any of the sandstorms in his way. He reached the beach and didn’t slow when he hit the water. Natrix had little experience swimming, but he thrashed about enough to bring himself to his boat. His men sent down a rope and lifted him up onto the deck.

Immediately, Natrix gave the order to leave.

Out of desperation, he threw his mind out one last time, searching for Titan, but finding nothing.

His heart sunk to his feet. As the dust settled, and the corner of the village became visible again, Natrix saw a tall white figure standing before the two guards and their king. The giant was moving, clearly alive, but Natrix had lost all ability to control him.

In that moment, Natrix felt completely alone.

No, this is stupid, thought Natrix, Titan is not human. This is no real loss.

Yet, he couldn’t shake off the loneliness.

Natrix sent out his mind in the direction of Kindlia. He felt the faint sensation of his remaining Mesmors, but he didn’t try to reach any of them.

Slowly, Titan and the village faded away as the ship carried Natrix across the ocean.

Exhausted, he went into his room and slept. He slept until the morning of the next day.

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When Natrix awoke, there was a panic among his crew. He threw on his cloak and ran to the captain’s bridge. As he moved, the ship tossed violently on the waves. While Natrix never quite lost his balance, he saw many men holding on for their lives to whatever they could find.

In the bridge, he learned they had hit a massive storm, larger than any that Commander Rahtis had ever seen before. As the commander started to point out their location to Natrix, they heard a loud rip from the side of the ship.

“Captain!” The crewman could barely be heard through the howling of the wind and the crashing of the waves. “We’ve been hit by lightning or something. We’re taking in water!”

Everything felt like a nightmare. Natrix punched the wall, but it was not a dream.

He followed Rahtis out of the bridge to examine the damage, but when they reached the deck, waves pushed up the front and rear of the ship. A ripple rolled through the body of the ship, followed by a thundering clap. The ship snapped in half and threw Natrix into the air.

He lost most of his breath upon impact with the water. Cold gripped him like a giant hand. He heard a muffled noise and felt himself pulled down farther under the water. Although he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes, he could feel the water rushing past him. Something pulled him quickly into the depths.

Soon his lungs began to burn as they begged for air. When he couldn’t control them any longer, they demanded Natrix to take a breath. Water rushed inside him, and he slipped out of consciousness.

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Natrix opened his eyes and saw only black. He couldn’t move his body, but he was breathing. At first he wondered if he was dead, but the slow rising and falling of his chest told him he was alive.

The scene on the boat held strong in his memory.

Many hours passed before Natrix could move his body even slightly. It began with his fingers and slowly—very slowly—his entire body became mobile again.

He felt around, trying to figure out where he was. There was still only darkness. Although he could feel his eyes were open, there was no source of light for his eyes to adjust to. On his hands and knees, he felt damp ground covered with wet plants. He crawled for a while before hitting a wall. Above him, the ceiling was so low he couldn’t stand up straight. Lengthwise, Natrix marked out his body length four times.

Small streams of water trickled down the walls. He guessed he was somehow underneath the ocean, but he could find no entrance, no clue about how he arrived inside this earthen den.

Natrix sat down cross-legged in the middle of the den. Unsure which direction he needed, he threw out his mind randomly and began scanning for anything he could grab hold of. He had to stretch out far before he could find even the faint sensation of one of his Mesmors, but as soon as he found one, he lunged into it.

It was Atlas. The distance was long and his connection was strained, but he got through.

Atlas was inside his father’s castle.

Although Natrix had a strong desire to check in on his father, he didn’t know how long he could survive inside the den. Speaking through Atlas, Natrix informed one of the servants about the shipwreck and Atlas’ rescue mission.

“I will inform the king,” said the servant, whose unconcerned tone angered Natrix immensely.

He had no idea about his precise location within the ocean, but he knew getting Atlas to the coast was the initial step. It was also the easy step. He knew where Atlas was and he knew exactly how to get to the ocean. It was a simple command, and once Natrix imprinted it into the Mesmor, he recoiled his mind back into the den. It took too much energy to keep up the transmission when he didn’t need to.

It took Atlas only a few days to reach the ocean. Natrix was still uncertain about his location, and Atlas was still too far away to get an accurate position between the two, so Natrix simply aimed the stone giant towards the center of the ocean and forced him to start walking.

Travel was slow underwater. Often, Atlas’ feet would step into the soft ocean bed and get stuck. Natrix had to flash into him often to make sure he was still moving. This took much of Natrix’s energy.

At first, energy was had to come by. Months went by and Natrix survived by eating the plants that grew on the floor, but they provided poor nourishment. Whenever he could, he tried to exercise to maintain his body and mind while he waited, but it began to take more energy than he was willing to give up.

Therefore, Natrix had a lot of time to think over his life, much more time than he wanted. He passed through his life in his mind. The earliest event he could remember was the Annubra attack and the cave-in when he was six years old.

There was nothing before that.

His life then unfolded before him like a dream, all the way up to the events of the shipwreck. Despite all his successes and accomplishments—his victorious war efforts against both Annubra and men, the millions of backs now toiling under a single Kindlian flag, all the fear he inspired—which of his allies could now return the favor? All human strength now seemed painfully impotent.

From time to time he pondered his force, his now pitifully useless gift, and contemplated destroying the walls of his cage. No doubt, the ocean on the other side longed to penetrate into his protective burrow and crush the life out of he who defied its ultimate power.

But he didn’t. Despite his depression, Natrix began to see through the mental fog to a new purpose for his life. A purpose forged under the ocean by the swirl of hatred and the darkness around him. A purpose in three parts.

First, he would destroy the Annubra, the original source of all his troubles and agony.

Second, he would honor his father, the only man who did anything for him, by mightily ruling the entire country and everyone in it, as his father had dreamed he would someday.

And third, when he would become powerful enough, he would avenge his humiliation in Emityna. He had wanted to work with them, to learn what they had to teach him, but they insulted him by running him out of their country like a dog.

What had he done to deserve it?

Nothing. And now they would pay for their arrogance.

He would expand his empire into Emityna and his father would approve of it.

This was the order in which the events of his life would play out, and he would do whatever was necessary to carry them through.

It was through this hatred that Natrix willed his own survival, taking sporadic glimpses to determine Atlas’ location. He had lost all track of time when Atlas finally came within close enough range for Natrix to find his own position in relation to Atlas’. Natrix’s hair was his only indication that time was still passing. His hair and bread grew long as he waited for Atlas to rescue him.

The closer Atlas came to Natrix, the more Natrix began to envision his escape from his dungeon. Three times Natrix hallucinated the stone face of Atlas bursting through the wall to his rescue.

Finally the day came where the presence of Atlas was so strong that Natrix knew only the walls of his hell separated him from his savior. Natrix realized that a breach in the wall would mean the gates to the ocean would be opened. It was possible that the gush would kill him on impact, but he knew it was death anyway if he didn’t try.

He also knew it was a long journey to the surface of the water so he tried something he had never done before. Just before Atlas made his last thrust into the den, unleashing Natrix from his prison, Natrix pulled up earth from the ground, compacted it densly, and created a cocoon. Hopefully it was enough oxygen to sustain him until he reached the surface.

Natrix’s powers had not failed him, and soon Atlas burst into the den. Natrix could not see it through his own eyes, but he felt the slap as water rushed in.

Atlas grabbed him and pulled him out to the ocean floor. Then, Natrix allowed his power to fade and the layers of mud flaked away until the cocoon’s membrane was thin enough and light enough to begin floating to the surface. It was a long distance, but his plan worked well, and he could breathe. When he reached the surface, he clawed out of his shell.

The daylight hit him like a hammer, and he immediately threw up.

It was an incredibly long distance to the shore, and he didn’t know the way, but he tried to go in the direction Atlas had come from. He hoped he could get close enough to Kindlia that a ship might notice him and pick him up.

Natrix used his powers to pull himself because it used much less energy than swimming, especially since he could barely swim.

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Natrix awoke later on a hard bed in a small shack. He had no memory of finishing his journey on the water, of reaching land, or of entering this house. With a blaring headache, Natrix forced himself up and looked around.

His body was sickly compared to his previous, well-toned physique, but he had expected worse. He had retained much of his muscle mass.

When he scanned the small shack, he saw an old woman sitting in a small wooden chair. She was staring at him.

At first Natrix thought she looked familiar, but he became uncertain the longer he looked at her.

“You’re lucky I found you before anybody else did,” said the old lady, “especially after the storm that brought you in. I should be removing the dead bodies of the livestock I lost, but instead I’m sitting here watching after you. Most people wouldn’t be as hospitable as I was. They would have left you to die on the beach.” The old woman then continued her stare, inspecting him. “Although I’m sure it would take more than that to kill you. Unfortunately, Hydris Celo, it seems death refuses to take you.”

What? Who is this lady? Who is Hydris Celo?

As she continued, everything suddenly became clear. It was strange, but it was obviously the truth. This was the woman he had stayed with before he went to Chamberhaven. This was Molli Vollup, and he was Hydris Celo. That was the name he had told her.

This was Molli Vollup, but a very different Molli Vollup. It was clear why he had taken so long to recognize her. The woman sitting before him was at least twenty years older than the woman he met before the accident.

Molli was still ranting about Natrix’s unusual good fortune when he interrupted her. “You’re old,” he said hoarsely. Words didn’t come easily. He hadn’t spoken in a long time. “How are you so old?”

She looked confused at his blatant question. “It’s been eighteen years since you last saw me, Hydris. People grow older. That is, I should say, human beings grow older. Heaven knows what you are.”

Eighteen years? thought Natrix. Impossible. Where have I been?

Chapter 13
Forest Roar

Lud scrambled for the largest rock he could find without getting too far away. He didn’t have much time. The first one he had tried to lift was much larger than it had appeared, and he couldn’t pull it out of the ground. Settling on one the length of his arm, Lud extended his mind and created a lift over the rock. With it floating before him, Lud ran back to his brothers, Turp, and Ithy who were already huddled together.

“Quick, Lud!” Yason yelled without trying to be too loud. “Set it up on the others!”

Lud pushed out the rock and let it lower gently on top of a wobbly stack of more large rocks.

“Get down!”

Each of Lud’s brothers were holding one or two of the rocks steady with their powers while Lud crawled next to them, keeping as still as possible.

When they checked the map, they saw that while the Annubra stronghold Natrix had pointed out was a just a little south of their location, it was set within the western mountain range, on the opposite side of the country.

Yason decided it would be fastest to travel south, around the forest which sprawled into the country and wedged between them and the stronghold. He was determined not to enter the forest again.

“Travel is much too slow, and we’re more likely to run into Natrix if we go through the forest,” Yason had said.

Lud and Turp disagreed.

“The forest is huge and we can still use our camouflage,” said Lud. “It’s dangerous, but it’s more dangerous out here. We’re more likely to be seen if we stay out in the open.”

Yason refused to listen and began leading them down the countryside. However, as if to prove Lud’s point, they quickly heard noises coming from the tree-line and saw the two Mesmors coming out to the edge of the woods.

They pulled the wall up tighter and were silent before Natrix and his men could step out and see them. Lud thought the wall was a little taller than most of the rock formations scattered throughout the countryside, but it was better than nothing.

They waited behind the rocks for a few minutes, not daring to peak around and get exposed. When they were sure they could no longer hear anything, Fulger decided to take a look. Motioning that the coast was clear, Fulger let his rocks drop. Lud did the same, and everybody continued running down the plain, staying close to the forest.

“I told you that was a bad idea,” said Lud as he ran.

“It was close,” said Yason, “but we didn’t get caught. If we go through the forest, Titan can catch us easily.”

“What?” cried Lud. “Titan is faster on open ground than he is through the woods. He only has to see us out here once and it’s over.”

“Lud, shut up,” said Yason. “I’m in charge. We’re not going through the forest!”

“Who put you in charge?” Turp called back as he strode effortlessly before them. Lud and Yason had been yelling between deep breaths, but Turp spoke easily. “I don’t remember taking any vote.”

“I’m the oldest,” said Yason. “That puts me in charge.”

“That’s stupid,” he said. “Let’s vote. Who thinks we should go back into the trees?” Turp raised his hand. Lud raised his, and Fulger quickly followed.

Ithy didn’t raise her hand. “Can’t we go to one of those towns? I don’t want to sleep outside anymore.”

Yason ignored her. “My vote overrules all your votes.”

Turp just laughed, said “fine” , and veered off to the right, towards the trees.

Lud knew Yason would be angry, but he turned and followed Turp towards the woods. Next to him ran Fulger. When he glanced over his shoulder, Lud was surprised to see Ithy was also jogging after them.

Looking frustrated, Yason came to a stop. Lud, Turp, Fulger, and Ithy waited at the edge of the forest for Yason to make his decision.

“This isn’t a good idea,” yelled Yason. Turp just laughed and put his finger over his mouth.

When Yason trotted over to them, Turp said, “I don’t think there are any good ideas anymore.”

“Let’s just get Rapyo, and get out of here,” said Fulger.

Yason shook his head in frustration. “If Natrix was lying, and we get to the stronghold, and Rapyo isn’t there, I’m going to kill him.”

“Let’s first focus on not getting killed by him,” said Turp.

The pace through the forest was slow again. Lud did his best to follow the map, but it was hard to gauge the right direction inside the thick trees. They tried to use the sun as best they could, keeping parallel with its path through the sky.

The farther they traveled into the forest, the more confidence they gained that they would not run into Natrix. They cared less for their camouflage and soon chose not to waste any more energy holding it up.

Since they had forgotten to take their packs when they left Natrix, they needed to find food elsewhere. Yason and Fulger chose to hunt, forcing the rest to search for edible fruits or plants. The success of both parties surprised Lud, and dinner that night was a thick and robust rabbit stew.

The aroma was the most wonderful smell since he was on the ship, but it made him worried. He remembered the story Natrix told, as Hydris Celo, about the smell of their dinner attracting the Dinolana. However, Natrix had also said the story was mostly a lie so Lud wasn’t sure what to believe.

Lud slept on the ground that night. A few stars sparkled between the tree branches, and the peaceful noises of the forest lulled him to sleep. There were no roars that night.

The next morning they continued west. Energized by a good breakfast after a good sleep, they made their way through the forest with renewed vigor.

Despite their increased pace, Lud couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. Many times he nearly screamed, seeing a black mass dash beside him, but there was never a sound, and every time Lud inspected the area, he found nothing. He wondered if he hadn’t gotten as much sleep as he thought.

“Does anybody know where we are?” asked Lud.

Yason looked back, annoyed. “You have the map. You tell us.”

“I’ve been looking at the map, but I can’t find any landmark to judge our position from. There are only trees. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go through here.” As soon as the words left his mouth, Lud regretted them.

Yason whipped around. Turp slapped his hand against his forehead.

“It was your stupid decision!” said Yason. “It’s much more dangerous in the open, you said!”

“I know, but—”

The sound of splitting trees ripped through the forest, and a flash of light drew everyone’s attention.

It was fire.

The initial blast stopped, and for a moment there was only silence. A few small flames danced on tree trunks and branches.

“Dragons!” yelled Ithaca.

The sound of fire roared again, and Lud saw a blazing light extend out through the trees. Lud gasped as the bright orange fire took a sharp turn around one of the trees and burst towards them.

“Run!”

Lud sprinted and dodged through trees with everybody right behind him. Worried he was holding them back, he tried to push himself faster.

From behind bushes, a brown, solid body jumped out ahead of them. Lud slid to a stop, but his feet caught on a root. He fell forward and landed hard against the forest floor. He picked his head up and saw two massive feet. Each was covered in long, brown hairs except for the three toes, which ended in ivory claws. Lud looked up at the rest of the beast. It looked just like the picture from the book in the castle library. He could see its thick tail behind its legs. The long, brown hairs covered the entire body, including the beast’s long neck and muzzle.

However, there were two differences between the picture and the Dinolana standing before them. A large, leather pouch was roped around the Dinolana’s chest, and the metal gauntlets on its hands and forearms were enveloped by a blazing fire.

Scrambling to his feet, Lud backed away.

The Dinolana arched forward and roared, giving Lud a glimpse of its finger-length teeth.

Ithy screamed.

Before it closed its mouth again, Lud saw a pool of clear liquid collected in its bottom jaw.

The beast then slammed its metal hands together, creating a shower of sparks and flames. It spit through the flames and the liquid ignited. A ball of fire rushed towards them.

Just before it hit, the fire split in half and missed them on either side, then died off.

Flinching at the fire, Lud turned and saw another Dinolana stepping up to them through the trees. It looked nearly the same, except with black fur.

The brown Dinolana stepped close and put his face next to Lud’s. Lud caught the strong odor of what smelled like the liquid his mother used to clean cuts and bruises, and he involuntarily jumped back. The Dinolana jumped back as well, but snapped his jaws at Lud.

Small flames dripped off the burning gauntlets.

“Stop that!” The voice so low it was almost a growl.

Confused, Lud looked at the black Dinolana. It was speaking.

“We can’t hurt them until brother gets here.”

The brown Dinolana lowered its head and dropped its flaming hands to its sides. “Sorry,” it said. “I thought he was already here.”

Lud wasn’t sure whether he was excited or scared. Not only was he looking at real Dinolanas, but they could talk. The Dinolanas were talking to each other! Unfortunately, they were talking about hurting him.

“Our brother saw you,” said the black Dinolana, sniffing at Lud, then at Fulger. “Did you know that? He saw you with his eyes. Clearly.”

“He said you were dumb hunters,” said the brown Dinolana.

“Dumb hunters,” agreed the black Dinolana.

“Yeah, really dumb hunters,” said brown, nodding his head to his partner. “Good memory.”

“Thanks. You too.”

“Thank you.”

“Remind me to tell our brother that you have such a good memory,” said black. “He’ll be proud of you.”

“I hope so,” said brown.

Lud was so utterly perplexed by the Dinolanas’ conversation, that he forgot he was supposed to be afraid of them.

Yason spoke out. “Uh... We aren’t hunters.”

The black Dinolana turned and appeared to be inspecting Yason. “You certainly aren’t. You don’t even have any weapons. Real hunters don’t hunt without weapons.”

“That’s because we aren’t real hunters,” said Yason.

“Fake hunters,” said black.

“They admit they are fake hunters!” said brown. “Our brother was right!”

“He is always right,” said brown.

“That’s right,” said black.

“We’re not real or fake hunters,” said Yason. “We’re travelers. We just want to get through your forest quickly and be gone.”

Turp must have begun to think the same thoughts as Lud, because he quickly asked if they knew which way was west. The brown Dinolana turned slightly and pointed behind him, the direction they had been walking.

“You can’t tell them that!” said the black Dinolana. “We need to keep them here.”

The brown Dinolana nervously glanced between his friend and the humans. “I was tricking you. West is that way,” it said, pointing behind them, in the direction Lud knew was east.

“Is he right?” Turp asked to the black Dinolana. “Is west behind us?”

“Behind you? No. West is that way.”

Turp turned to the brown Dinolana. “You don’t know where west is?”

“I do too!”

“Well then,” said Turp. “Lead the way!”

The brown Dinolana turned and started walking west. “Follow me. I know how to get anywhere in this forest.”

Everybody looked at Turp, who smiled and started following the Dinolana. Even the black Dinolana followed them. They didn’t get far, however, before there was a loud, high-pitched shout behind them.

“HEY! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”

The Dinolanas stopped.

“Oh no!” said black. “It’s our brother.”

“He’s gonna’ be mad at us,” said brown.

“Real mad.”

“You’re right.”

Lud tried to look behind them, into the forest, to see what color their brother’s fur would be. He listened for the strong footsteps, but heard nothing. When he finally saw the Dinolanas’ brother, his jaw dropped in amazement.

“Lud!” said Turp. “Lud? Do you see what I see?”

“I... think so,” said Lud.

“Lud,” said Fulger, “isn’t that...”

“I think so.”

“I thought you said your brother was coming,” said Ithaca to the Dinolanas.

“We did,” said the brown Dinolana. “There he is.”

The black Dinolana tried to whisper to his partner. “Maybe they can’t see him.”

Everyone stared at the figure walking towards them.

“But that is a girl!” cried Ithy, her voice was a mix between confusion and excitement.

A beautiful, young girl of Lud’s age stepped from the shadows of the forest into the light. Auburn hair draped down her back as black clothes clung tight to her skinny body. In her hand, she held a small knife. Lud thought everything about her screamed “I know I’m a girl, but I also know I could beat you in a fight.”

“Shanta Potesti!” yelled Turp. “How did you—”

“Battle stance!” Shanta yelled, and the two Dinolanas crouched lower with their flaming fists held out before them. “How do you know my name?”

“Shanta, it’s me. Turp Paller. Lud Compograv is here too.”

Shanta stepped closer, but remained near her two poised body-guards.

“We were in your class,” prodded Turp. “In school. Remember?”

“I remember,” she said quickly. “Where is everybody else?”

“What do you mean?” asked Lud. “The rest of our class?”

“Of course not! The rest of your search party,” said Shanta. “Why wouldn’t they send any grown-ups with you to help?”

Lud understood quickly and felt guilty. “We’re not your search party, Shanta.”

“Oh.”

“But we are glad we found you, and that you’re safe,” he added.

Shanta looked down at her knife.

“There was a group sent to look for you,” said Turp. “Remember, Lud? Rapyo kept asking to join it, but I never heard anything about it after that. I don’t know where it went searching. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure they looked hard,” said Lud. “Probably just as hard as we’re looking right now. Technically, we are a search party, but we’re looking for my brother Rapyo. He was taken by the demons about a week ago.”

Shanta snapped her head up. “Annubra,” she corrected him. Her face regained the determined look Lud was used to, as if mentioning the Annubra had brought her back to her senses. “Castor, we’re taking these people home.”

“Good idea, Shanta,” said Castor, the black Dinolana.

Lud was about to ask where home was, when Yason said, “I’m sorry, little girl, but we’re not going anywhere with you. We’ve gone through a lot to get this far. We’re going to find our brother even if you get in our way. If you want to follow us, you can, but we can’t be distracted by you or anyone else.”

“What did you call me?” asked Shanta, stepping up to Yason. “Listen here, big, tough boy. There are three things I’ve learned since I’ve was brought to this place by your so-called demons. One: We’re a long way from Emityna. You have little idea where you’re going, or what you are in for once you get there. I do. I’ve seen the fortress. I’ve been within its depths. Two: The Annubra are the most paranoid creatures on earth. They guard their homes with their lives; they have few homes left. You can’t just walk up to them and ask for your brother back. And Three: I don’t need anybody. Got that? I’m a survivor. If anything, you need me.”

“Even us, Shanta?” asked Castor.

“You definitely need me,” she said.

“We really do,” said Castor. “Good thinking.”

“I escaped from the Annubra on my own, without any search parties or anything. I’ve spent my time in their stronghold and I am not going back,” she said to Yason. “I don’t need you to save me. I’ve already done that.”

“Then help us,” said Yason. “Bring us where we want to go, but don’t go in. I don’t care. Just know that we are not going home yet. Not to our home or yours.”

Lud wondered what Shanta would consider as her home now. “Where were you going to bring us?” he asked. Was it one of those cities he saw?

“Castor and Pollux are Dinolanas,” said Shanta.

“You don’t say!” said Turp sarcastically.

Shanta glared at him. “Most people from Emityna don’t know what Dinolanas are, okay? Back off.”

Turp just shrugged.

“They live with their herd in a community in the middle of the forest. If we stop there—”

“Yes!” cried Lud. “Let’s go.” The thought of seeing the Dinolanas’ home excited him, but then he thought of Rapyo and felt guilty.

“No way,” said Ithy. “Isn’t it bad enough we have to walk through this dirty jungle? I’m okay with helping you boys find your brother, but do we have to stay with these smelly, furry, lizard-man-things?”

The two Dinolanas sniffed each other.

“She wasn’t in our class. Who is this girl?” asked Shanta.

“No, she wasn’t in our class. This is Ithy. She’s our friend,” said Lud. “She’s a princess from—.”

“I don’t care who she is. Just keep the little princess quiet.”

Ithy dropped her jaw and looked shocked.

“Listen, tall kid,” said Shanta to Yason, “you would be smart to take my advice. I can help you get your brother back, but you have to listen to me.”

Yason paused and stared at the young girl before he nodded his agreement.

Shanta smiled for the first time, but it was an arrogant smile. She was proud of her little victory. “The first thing we need to do is get back to Castelli Island. We can get supplies for you there. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?”

“An island?” asked Fulger. “The Dinolanas live on an island? Is there a lake within this forest?”

“Castelli is a solitary landmass,” said Pollux, “an open plain, in the middle of a large forest landscape. Therefore it qualifies under an equally correct, yet seldom used, definition of the word island.”

Everyone, including Shanta, stared silently at the Dinolana.

“That’s what they tell us to say,” said Pollux.

“What do you think?” Lud asked to Yason. “She’s been to the stronghold before. She knows what we’re going to see and what we’ll need.”

“Okay,” agreed Yason. “We’ll go to this Castelli Island, but we can’t stay long.”

With that, Shanta sent the Dinolanas to the front, and everybody followed them through the woods, towards the middle of the forest. The path they followed was curvy, but Lud thought they were still going faster than they had before. Wherever the Dinolanas led, the trees were a little farther apart, and the ground was clearer.

Abstract chapter design

When they stopped to rest and eat, the Dinolanas called Shanta their brother again.

“Castor, why do you call Shanta your brother?” asked Turp.

“Shanta is my brother,” said Castor. “He told me so when we met him. Good thing too, we were about to run him out of the forest.”

“But she can’t be your brother!” said Ithy. “That’s just ridiculous.”

“Shanta says we are his brothers, so that makes him our brother. It makes sense.”

“Shanta is a girl!” said Ithy, but Turp quickly hushed her.

“Girl or boy,” said Turp, “either way you two are good to your brother.”

The Dinolanas beamed at the compliment. “Yes, we are,” said Castor. “Family watches out for their family.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Pollux.

Lud enjoyed listening as Turp proceeded to convince the Dinolana he was their distant cousin.

When they continued walking, Lud heard Castor say Castelli Island was only a few hours away. This lifted his spirits because he was getting very annoyed with walking so much.

Behind him, Lud heard Yason ask Shanta questions about the Dinolanas. Yason asked her how they could manipulate their fire to change directions.

“They can’t,” answered Shanta. “That was me. I think it makes them more menacing when their fire can curve around corners.”

Lud tried not to look back and appear to be eavesdropping on their conversation.

“Shanta,” said Yason after a long pause, “what is it like with the Annubra?”

Lud slowed down to get closer.

“I wasn’t with them very long,” she said. Lud couldn’t hear any emotion in her voice. “I think getting hauled over there was worse than the time I spent with them. They carried me most of the way, which was nauseating, but painless, until they couldn’t carry me anymore, then they dragged me. Being held at the actual stronghold, in the small prison cell wasn’t as bad. I decided early on that I was going to escape no matter what, so I kept myself occupied with that thought. I would guess they have your brother in one of those holding cells.”

“How did you escape?” asked Yason.

Lud was now listening so closely he nearly tripped on every step.

“That’s the thing,” replied Shanta. “I don’t really know why, but my escape was easy. I had been formulating a plan to make a nighttime get away when the security was low. However, the afternoon before I was going to try, one of the Annubra came into my cell to bring me my dinner. There was a strange call from outside, and it ran out of my cell, leaving the door wide open. I stepped outside and the entire place was evacuated.”

“Why?”

“That’s the strangest part,” said Shanta. “On my way out I checked the main room, a large auditorium-type space carved into the rock, and I saw a stone sentinel searching around. I suppose the Annubra were hiding from it. I don’t blame them. It was huge. The Dinolanas later told me that these stone-men work for the prince; they’re called his Watchers.”

“Mesmors,” said Lud, before he could stop himself.

Yason and Shanta didn’t seem to mind his interruption.

“We met the prince,” said Yason. “He brought us here, actually.”

“You met the prince?” asked Shanta skeptically. “You met Prince Natrix? They say nobody has seen him in twenty years. They say he was lost at sea.”

“Apparently he made it across,” said Lud, “because he was in Chamberhaven, in the castle, under a different name.”

“And he brought you over here?” she asked. Her voice was becoming louder and angrier. “Is he a good friend of yours?”

“No,” said Lud quickly.

“Honestly,” said Yason, “we ditched him as soon as we could. We’ve been hiding from him inside this forest. He’s probably in here somewhere.”

Lud couldn’t tell whether Shanta was upset at Yason or the news Yason brought.

“Castor!” she called to her Dinolana, “Natrix is somewhere inside this forest!”

“He’s alive?” Castor growled back. Everybody was looking at Shanta now.

“That’s what they told me,” said Shanta.

“Then he won’t be for long,” said Castor.

Castor whispered something to his partner, and Pollux sprinted ahead of them into the forest.

“Do you know Natrix?” asked Yason.

“I’ve never met him,” said Shanta, “and he should hope I never do. Natrix is the reason I was kidnapped.”

Chapter 14
Dinolanas

“Oh, come on. Please, Castor?” asked Fulger.

“I’m sorry, little human,” said Castor, “but I’m not going to let you ride on my back. That would be very uncomfortable. Would you let your brother ride on your back?” Lud watched the Dinolana point at him.

“No way!” laughed Fulger. “If Lud climbed on my back, he’d crush me!”

Lud didn’t laugh. He wasn’t that much heavier than Fulger. He didn’t think he was, at least, so he turned his attention back to Yason and Shanta and jumped in to their conversation. “How was Natrix the reason you were kidnapped?” he asked.

“I don’t know what Natrix did,” said Shanta, “but the Annubra mentioned him every day, and always in spiteful voices.”

“They can talk?” asked Lud.

“No, Lud,” said Shanta. “They wrote everything down on chalkboards and showed them to me.”

He could tell by her tone that she was being sarcastic, but how was he supposed to know whether the Annubra could talk or not? It seemed a logical question to him. He tried to sound offended and hurt when he apologized.

“Just listen, and don’t interrupt me again, Lud,” said Shanta.

For a moment, Lud thought he was angry enough to mention something about her lack of a search party, but he didn’t say anything, and he was glad he didn’t. She’s had a hard enough month already, thought Lud.

Shanta continued. “The Annubra talk in short, barking sentences. Most of the time I couldn’t understand them, but whenever they spoke to me directly, they enunciated better or something.”

“Although, the stupid creatures spoke mostly in riddles,” said Shanta. “It was very annoying.”

“Annoying because you couldn’t figure out the answer?” The words escaped Lud’s mouth before he could stop himself.

“Nobody could figure out those riddles!” said Shanta. She glared at Lud. “You certainly couldn’t.”

Yason broke in and asked them both to calm down. The Dinolanas kept looking back as if they were expecting to jump into a fight. Shanta smirked. Lud quickly tried to imagine how he would begin to defend himself against one of the Dinolanas. They were surely too heavy for him to lift. His eyes scanned the leather pouches hanging against their chests.

“What did the Annubra say?” asked Yason to Shanta.

“Stupid stuff. They mostly repeated my questions back to me. I would ask when they were going to set me free, and they just asked if I would set them free. One time I was fed up, and started answering their questions, saying I would set them free the next day. Oddly, they treated me a little better after that. I asked them how to go about setting them free, but they just asked me how I could set them free. Stupid creatures.”

“What did they say about Natrix,” asked Lud, hoping the answer to his question would be sarcasm free.

“That was their favorite riddle,” said Shanta. “It went like this: What brings Natrix’s wrath? What makes it flee? Will you stay till darkness? Will you go at night?”

Lud thought it was a lousy riddle. “So what’s the answer?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Shanta. “I didn’t care about the riddle while I was there. I only wanted to get out. It wasn’t until I escaped and met Castor and Pollux that I learned Natrix was a person, one whom the Dinolanas hate almost as strongly as the Annubra do.”

“Why do the Dinolanas hate Natrix?” asked Yason before Lud could, although Lud thought he already knew the answer. He remembered Natrix’s necklace.

“They say twenty years ago he killed one of their elite council members on his way to the ocean. The council member’s assistant saw the attack and recognized Natrix. Even among the Dinolana, who keep to themselves as much as possible, Natrix was a very famous man. They say he controlled over five-sixths of the country before he disappeared. One of the Dinolanas’ biggest fears was that he would attempt to control them as well”

“And now he’s back,” said Yason.

“That’s why I’m bringing you to Castelli Island,” said Shanta. “If you really are against Natrix, they will help you.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lud. “Of course we are against Natrix. What kind of a question is that?”

“I don’t know your brothers, Lud,” she said quickly. “I only know you and Turp, and you are nothing like Turp. I remember the Winter Battles in school. Except for the fluke at the end, you obeyed Duco no matter what he said to you, even when he was a jerk. You’ve never really stood out of the crowd, Lud. How do I know Natrix doesn’t hold a similar influence over you now?”

Lud was shocked at being confronted so bluntly. What did she know? Before today, he had only talked to Shanta twice in his life.

Yason looked angry as well, but he didn’t say anything. Instead he just watched Lud, waiting for Lud to reply.

Lud thought about telling Shanta that it wouldn’t have mattered what he thought, because Turp and his brothers were bent on this mission, but he knew this was only part of the truth. From the start Lud had desired to go along on this trip, both to Chamberhaven as well as here to Kindlia. He considered himself a different person from the kid hiding in his parents’ storage shed.

“You have no idea who I am!” Lud said loudly, drawing everyone’s attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Dinolanas again shift their stance, readying for a fight. “And even if you thought you knew, I wouldn’t care. I know who I am. I’m a slow, fat kid who has trouble controlling his powers, but who is willing to fight and die for his family. That includes Turp.” Lud planted his feet and raised his gloved hand towards Shanta with his palm facing her. “Want me to prove it?”

“Go ahead and try, Lud,” said Shanta, jumping into a fighting stance.

Lud felt the familiar tingling flow through his arm.

“Stop! Wait!”

The force stopped at Lud’s palm, and he looked to the Dinolanas. Castor was holding his metal hands over his eyes, while Pollux was jumping up and down, waving his arms for them to stop.

“What is that?” asked Pollux, pointing to Lud’s glove. Before Lud could answer, Pollux answered his own question. “That’s a Dinolana gauntlet on your hand!”

Castor peaked through his fingers, and, without lowering his hands, he added, “Pollux is right. That is a Dinolana gauntlet. He can spot one from a mile away.”

“Thank you, Castor,” said Pollux. “I bet you could spot a gauntlet from a mile away too.”

“Do you think so?” asked Castor with a smile.

“I sure do,” said Pollux, then turning to Lud, he asked, “brother Lud, do you think you could walk a mile away for our experiment?”

“What?” asked Lud. “No. Did you just call me brother?”

“You are right, I did,” said Pollux. “Although you look surprisingly human for a Dino, the gauntlet is all the proof I need.”

“But I—”

“It will be all the proof the council needs as well. They will be happy to meet you. If we hurry, we can catch them before they start the contest. That would be fun. We’re nearly there.”

“What contest?” asked Yason.

The Dinolanas were no longer listening. Instead they happily chatted as they jogged forward.

Lud couldn’t bring himself to look back at Shanta while they jogged behind them. He was pretty sure he had over-reacted, but he felt good about standing up for himself.

Turp gave Lud a pat on the back when he ran up next to Lud.

“Thanks, Lud,” he said.

“I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even thinking about the glove when they saw it. It was just luck.”

“Not that,” said Turp, “the things you said to Shanta. You’re the best, Lud.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lud tried to act cool, but he wasn’t sure it was working.

“Good thing the Dinos noticed the glove too because if they hadn’t, Shanta would have splattered you across this forest!”

Lud laughed. “I’ll splatter you across this forest! I’m not afraid!” Lud tried to kick him, but Turp dodged it and ran up ahead to the Dinolanas.

Lud continued to smile as he ran.

Fortunately, Pollux was right, and after a few minutes the forest suddenly stopped, opening up to a wide, grassy plain. Lud gasped when he saw hundreds of Dinolanas standing about, talking to each other in groups, while their children ran around chasing each other. There were no houses or shelters of any kind. In fact, besides the three large mountains at the far side of the plain and a few banners up on poles, nothing but Dinolanas dotted the landscape.

The herd—Lud didn’t know what else to call a large group of Dinolanas—noticed his small group quickly. This was because as soon as Castor and Pollux entered the plain, they shouted as loud as they could. Every long head turned to see the new arrivals.

A group of excited Dinolanas crowded around Lud’s brothers while he was hurried away by Castor and Pollux to meet the council.

Lud wasn’t sure what he thought elderly Dinolanas would look like. He imagined the council as a group of gray-haired Dinos who walked with canes and sat in a large semi-circle. Instead, when they reached the Dinolana council, Lud saw a group of all different ages and genders—that he could just tell instinctively—running around with some of the young, or laying out in the grass.

Lud noticed that very few of the Dinolanas in the village had their gauntlets on fire. Even Castor and Pollux had quelled their fires before entering the plain. Castor pulled Lud by the glove to the middle of the council.

“Look, council,” said Castor. “I found this brother in the forest, wandering around with his own brothers.”

Some of the sitting council members stood up. Four Dinolanas came up close to Lud.

“A brother?” said one of the grey-haired Dinos who Lud guessed was the oldest. “A brother to us?”

“Yes, Nestor,” said Castor. “I am sure of it.”

“He looks human,” said Nestor.

“He does,” said Castor. “You are right, but look at this.” Castor grabbed Lud’s arm and held it forward so the Dinos could see his glove. “He wears our gauntlet.”

Nestor put his face up close to Lud’s gauntlet; the other three Dinos did the same. Again Lud smelled the strong odor. He guessed it was coming from the leather pouches hanging off their necks.

“You are right, brother Castor,” said Nestor, “that is a child’s gauntlet. You are very perceptive.”

“Thank you, Nestor, can I tell my brother Shanta what you said?”

“You may.” The Dinolana then turned to Lud. “Why do you only wear one gauntlet?”

“I was only given one,” said Lud.

“Ah, you are correct,” said Nestor. “Only one.”

“Should we add this young one to the contest?” asked one of the other Dinos surrounding Lud. Everyone became very excited at this question, including Castor.

“Yes!” said Castor. “Put brother Lud in the contest!”

“Very well,” said Nestor. “That is a good idea. We will postpone the contest to tomorrow and enter Lud as a contestant.”

The council voted unanimously with this decision while Lud stood confused. He wondered whether his real brothers would be mad about this. It would probably push back their search for Rapyo. Before Lud could speak out against his placement into the contest, Castor happily brought him back to Turp, Ithy, and his brothers.

The Dinolanas brought them a feast with a plethora of meats to choose from. Everybody was very happy that Shanta had insisted that the Dinolanas cook the meat before presenting it to the humans. When Lud told his brothers about what the Dinolanas had done, he was relieved that everybody except Yason accepted the postponement.

“We don’t have time for these silly Dino-games,” said Yason. “Every day we don’t reach Rapyo is another day he has to spend with those monsters.”

“Calm down,” said Fulger. “We’ll get there soon and Rapyo will be fine. For now, let’s just keep these guys happy. We can leave right after the contest if you want. Are you going to be able to get us those supplies?” asked Fulger to Shanta.

“Of course,” said Shanta with a smirk. “The Dinolanas have taken me as one of their own. I can get you more than supplies.”

“Like what?” asked Yason.

“I promise to give you boys something that will be a huge help against the Annubra, but I only require one thing: the boy who likes to run his mouth off has to compete in the contest tomorrow, and win.”

Everybody looked at Fulger, who looked at Turp. However, Shanta was looking at Lud.

“Hey,” said Turp, “Lud only talked like that because you pushed him to!”

“I don’t care,” said Shanta. “If Lud thinks he has the powers to stand and fight me, he can easily win a contest with some Dinolana children.”

“What if he loses?” asked Fulger.

“Then he only has to apologize to me, and I’ll give you the supplies I promised, but nothing else.”

“What if I apologize anyway?” asked Lud. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Save it, Lud,” snapped Shanta. “Those are my terms. Oh yeah, if you don’t compete at all, then I give you guys nothing.”

“He’ll compete,” said Turp, “and he’ll win.”

“What is the contest?” asked Yason. “What does he have to do?”

Lud was wondering the same thing. What had he gotten himself into?

“Every young Dinolana starts with beginner gauntlets just like the one Lud wears,” said Shanta. “In order to advance to heavier adult gauntlets, they have to compete in this contest which challenges them, testing if they are ready to proceed to adulthood. The council thinks Lud is a young member of the family and needs to earn his gauntlets like everyone else.”

“The contest has three sections; each testing the young Dinolana’s ability to handle new gauntlets. The fire test is first. You will be evaluated on how well you handle the gauntlets when they are set ablaze. Next is the strength test. You will have to punch your way through three different objects. The final test is speed. It’s a simple race to the finish line. I would suggest not getting too far behind on the first two tests, it will be very hard to catch up, especially since you could never outrun a Dinolana.”

Lud agreed. Everything sounded achievable except the footrace. How would he be able to outrun a Dinolana? He couldn’t even outrun humans. Maybe Turp should try, he thought.

“Don’t worry, Lud. That contest will be easy,” said Turp. “When you get to the race, you can fly to the finish line!”

Immediately, Lud’s face turned red. He wondered why Turp would bring that up in front of Shanta.

“Is that legal, Shanta?” Turp asked. She shrugged. Then he added, “Lud could fly to the finish if that’s legal. You know he can.”

“I know he can float on his back while unconscious,” said Shanta. “I don’t think they have any rules against it, but I think it would be hard to fly very fast like that.” She laughed.

As embarrassed as Lud felt, the thought had crossed his mind. In fact, it had been in the back of his mind for the last few days. He didn’t know why, but something told him that the next time he tried to fly would be different.

Tomorrow, at the race, Lud would fly.

The next morning they were woken up earlier than Lud had hoped, but the sight of the great breakfast the Dinolanas brought perked him up.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere wasn’t as warm as the food. Neither Lud, nor his brothers dared lift their eyes from their plates for fear of meeting the gaze of either Shanta Potesti or Ithaca Eligo.

The night before, Ithaca had asked where they were going to sleep; there were no buildings or shelters in Castelli Island. While Lud thought it had been another of Ithy’s unnecessary, yet good-natured questions, Shanta assumed it was an insult from a prissy princess, and the two started yelling at each other.

“This really is delicious,” Yason said awkwardly to Castor and Pollux, who had joined them for breakfast.

“Thank you, Yaser!” said Castor.

The Dinolanas told Lud they were trying hard to remember the names of all these humans, but were having a difficult time with it. So far, besides Shanta, the only names they consistently said correctly were Lud and Turp.

“Yes, Castor,” said Shanta. “I really think the eyeballs add a lot of flavor! Guts are usually so bland.”

Lud picked his head up quickly and dropped his utensils. Others did the same. He looked at Shanta, who was glaring at Ithy. He guessed Shanta had just been trying to gross out Ithy, and it worked, until Pollux said, “I don’t understand, Shanta. There are no eyeballs or guts in this meal.”

“Certainly not,” said Castor. “My wife cooked it this morning with only the best meat for our guests.” Pollux agreed with his friend’s statement.

“You guys have wives?” asked Turp.

“Of course, we have wives,” said Castor. “Where else would baby Dinos come from?”

“I don’t know,” said Turp. “Everything just seems so communal...”

Yason shot Turp a harsh look to silence him. Lud didn’t understand.

“He is right,” said Pollux, “we have wives. Well, I don’t, but Castor does. Although there is a lady that I want to talk to, but she’s shy so I don’t.”

“No, he’s right. He doesn’t talk to her.”

“A lady Dinolana? Oh, that’s sounds wonderful,” said Ithy. “Why wouldn’t you talk to her? I bet she’s just waiting for you to ask her out. You should go right now. Want me to go with you? Is she pretty?”

“What does that matter?” snapped Shanta.

“It... I was just asking,” said Ithy.

“She is very pretty,” said Castor. “Pollux has good taste.”

“He is right,” said Pollux. “I have good taste.”

“And she is pretty,” said Castor.

Lud wasn’t sure whether it was because she wanted to help Pollux, or whether she just wanted to get away from Shanta, but Ithy stood up without finishing her breakfast and took the brown Dinolana by his hand. Lud thought her opinions of them must have changed since she called them smelly, furry, lizard-men-things.

“Come with me, Pollux,” said Ithy. “We’ll go talk to this girl right now. Don’t worry, I’ve read hundreds of romantic books; I know just what to say to her. I’m an expert.”

Ithy hurried away with Pollux after he pointed out where the lady Dinolana was.

When Lud saw Nestor and the members of the council walking towards them, he tried to finish his breakfast as fast as possible. He wanted all the energy he could get.

The council told Lud it was time to leave his brothers and join the rest of the contestants as they prepared for the events. Nestor led Lud to a structure that must have been built during the night, the only thing resembling a building on the plain. Four tall poles had been erected, and leather curtains were strung up across them as walls, creating a room with no ceiling.

Inside the room, Lud met his nine fellow contestants. Dinolana youth looked much like the adults, except for shorter hair, necks, and tails. Strangely, Lud thought this made them appear slightly human. He tried to imagine they were only human, because he thought he had a better chance of beating humans than Dinolanas.

His opponents were very receptive and even discussed their strategies with him. Nobody made Lud feel out of place inside the curtains.

One of the shorter youths, a talkative and energetic Dino named Nerv, was explaining his jumping, spinning punch when Nestor entered the tent.

“Could all the contestants please stand in a line?” asked the old, gray Dinolana. “Thank you.”

Lud was at the end of the line, farthest from the door, when ten adult Dinolanas stepped into the room. Each was holding a clay pitcher and a leather pouch similar to the ones they wore on their chests. The youths next to Lud were getting excited.

“Each contestant will now receive their Ignus bag and their Focus. Remember, you will only be given a half-bag of Focus. This should be more than enough for the contest, but be careful. If you run out, you will be disqualified.”

The leather Ignus bag was tied around Lud’s neck like a necklace. While the adult bags hung loosely on the skinny, Dinolana youths, Lud’s bag fit more snugly around his broad shoulders.

The clear liquid was poured out of the pitchers into the Ignus bags. Lud smelled the sharp odor again. He was now sure his mother used a similar liquid when cleaning his cuts and scrapes.

“What is this for?” Lud whispered to the young Dinolana next to him.

The Dino looked surprised at the question, but answered it anyway. “When we get out there, you dip your gauntlets into the bag to cover them with the Focus. Then you set them on fire.”

Things were beginning to make sense to Lud. The liquid Focus was flammable. That’s how the Dinolanas could set metal on fire or spit out fire from their mouths.

“Another thing to remember,” said Nestor, “is to pour some Focus into your mouth before you ignite your gauntlets. Otherwise it could catch fire as you pour and suddenly your face is burning.”

The young Dinolanas laughed. Lud took a mental note that he would have to spit out fire during the first section.

“Do not let yourself swallow any Focus while it is in your mouth,” said Nestor, “because despite its name, it has the opposite effect when you drink it. It will make the world start spinning, and it will make you sad.”

Then the adults left the room, and ten more came in, each carrying a pair of metal gauntlets. Lud’s hands had been measured the day before so when he put on his pair, they fit perfectly. The gloves were made of many overlapping plates of a polished metal and were much shinier than his old, single glove. The inside leather was soft against his hand, but couldn’t be seen on the outside, which was only metal. Lud moved around his fingers. It surprised him how mobile and unrestricting they were.

He smiled at his new accessories. When nobody was looking, he held out his hand to lift part of the curtain without touching it. It rose up easily.

“Are the contestants ready?” Nestor called out in a loud voice.

Lud’s opponents all cheered, but he looked around nervously. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t really know what he had to do for the first section, the fire test. Nobody told him.

The curtains dropped and Nestor yelled to start the contest.

The Dinolana youths scrambled out the tent. Lud ran after them. Outside, ribbons strung up on short posts outlined the path they had to follow. The first event wasn’t far away, but Lud had already lost ground to the Dinolanas. There was no way he would be able to beat them on foot.

When he got to the first event, a lone pole held a flaming torch. The contestants were dipping their gauntlets into their Ignus bags and then holding them in the flames until they caught fire. Lud remembered Nestor’s instructions and lifted his bag to his mouth as he ran to the torch. He almost gagged when he poured the liquid Focus into this mouth. It tasted as bad as it smelled. He desperately tried not to spit out or swallow the liquid while he dipped each gauntlet into his pouch.

His gloves caught fire instantly when he held them to the torch, and he turned to figure out what he had to do next. Each contestant was standing before a judge, waving his or her arms around in calculated motions. Lud panicked. Each young Dinolana seemed to know exactly what they were doing, but Lud was stumped.

He was moving towards his assigned judge when he saw Castor waving to him behind the judge’s back. Lud watched as Castor began making deliberate motions with his arms. Catching on, Lud became a mirror to Castor, mimicking his motions exactly. The judge’s smile told him that it was working.

As Lud swung his arms through the air, following Castor’s instructions, he realized none of the heat was transferring from the flames to his hands. The leather and the metal kept the heat out well.

The last motion Castor mimed was to hold his hands near his mouth and blow. Lud mimicked and spat out the gross liquid. Just like in the forest, the liquid burst into a ball of flames.

The judged cheered and clapped, sending Lud to the second event.

“You’re doing great, Lud!” yelled Turp from the sideline.

“You’re in last place, Lud!” said Fulger. “Hurry up!”

“Please, please, please hurry,” screamed Ithy.

Lud saw most of his opponents were already punching through their objects at the strength test.

The fire on this left gauntlet died out when he reached his first target, a clay pole. He didn’t slow down, but used his momentum to amplify his punch. The metal gauntlet passed through the clay easily, and Lud proceeded to his next target.

The next pole was carved out of wood. His first punch cracked it, but his hand didn’t go all the way through. After two more punches, he was through.

A pole sculpted from stone was last. Lud pulled back his arm and swung it forward with all his might. The pole dented slightly. He looked around and saw half of his opponents were already racing down the long straightaway to the finish line.

He turned back to the stone pole. Forcing a strong current down his arm as he punched, Lud hit the pole at the same time as the force burst out of his fist. The combination shattered the stone, and left Lud standing before scattered pieces of rubble.

The crowd erupted into cheers, none louder than Turp, Ithy, and his brothers.

“Do it, Lud!” yelled Turp. “Do it!”

Lud didn’t know if it was his adrenaline or his new gauntlets, but there was no doubt in his mind about his next move. The mechanics were new to him, they didn’t teach this in school, but he had a good idea of the motions he would use.

He blocked out the noise from the crowd until there was only silence. Bending forward, he extended his left arm out in front of him. As he stretched out his mind and created a sheet of lift that began to pull him forward, he extended his right hand flat behind him and pushed. The force against him was strong at first, but not uncomfortable. His feet were yanked off the ground as he shot forward.

Lud was completely off the ground. He was flying.

In his excitement, however, he failed to put any attention into his direction and crashed down into the ground. He skidded momentarily before his shoulder caught on the ground, and he rolled to a stop.

Dizzy, he got back up to his feet. His shoulder hurt, and he could feel scrapes all over his body. Still, he repeated the motions.

Again Lud was pulled from the ground. This time he tried to move his hands up or down to direct his path. A few times he over-compensated and dashed too far in odd directions. When he was comfortable enough to look around, he saw that he was moving much faster than any of the Dinolanas, and despite his slow start, he was gaining fast.

The force of his hand’s lift swept the wind around him and out of his face. He could see well. The grass below and the crowd around became a blur as he raced down the course.

The fuzzy figures of his opponents swished past him, and before he knew it, the finish line swished past him as well.

Realizing he was done, Lud pulled himself up into the air. Before he got too high, he slacked the force of his pull and slowly lowered to the ground. It wasn’t a perfect landing; his knees buckled when he hit, spreading him out on the grass, but he was uninjured.

Turp and Fulger immediately ran up and jumped on him.

“Awesome, Lud!” yelled Turp. “I told them you could do it!”

“That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen!” yelled Fulger. “Show me how to do that! Now! Now! Now!” Fulger playfully jabbed Lud with his finger.

Yason and Ithy ran up next to them.

“You were incredible, Lud!” said Ithy. “You were like swoosh! Pow!” She spun around with her arms outstretched. “I can’t believe it!”

“Good job,” said Yason. “Just think about what you’ll be able to do now.”

When Turp and Fulger let Lud get to his feet, Lud saw that most of the Dinolanas had gathered around too.

“Excellent work, brother Lud,” said Nestor. “You have speed unlike any Dinolana I have seen before. Those gauntlets are now yours to keep! Welcome to the herd.”

Lud laughed. It was called a herd!

“Does that mean I won?” asked Lud. “I couldn’t really see what happened. It was a bit of a blur.”

“I bet it was!” said Turp.

“Oh, no,” said Nestor. “Telling the contestants that only the winner earns his gauntlets is merely a motivational tool. Anybody that finishes the contest gets to keep their gauntlets.”

“He didn’t win?” asked Yason.

“He was a close second,” said Nestor. “An excellent job.”

“Well then, thank you for the gauntlets,” said Lud. He was too excited to care about winning a contest. “My old glove gave me focus, but these adult gauntlets will give me enough focus to do anything!”

“No, I’m sorry, brother Lud,” said Nestor, “but the gauntlets are the only prize. We have no more Focus to give you.”

“I’m not talking about liquid Focus,” said Lud. “I’m talking about the mental focus the gauntlets give.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Nestor.

“Focus,” said Lud. “One of the reasons you wear the gauntlets is because they give the wearer focus.”

“I think you have the wrong assumptions about them,” said Nestor. “A Dinolana’s gauntlets are for communication and protection. There is nothing mystical or mental about them.”

“But I was told...”

“The mind is the most important thing you have, Lud. There is no object that can enter it or influence it. You have to protect it yourself. There are no gloves for that.”

“He’s right,” said Castor. “Good flying though.”

Abstract chapter design

NATRIX’S PLAN

The black clouds still swirled and hung over the northern village of Mendacis, refusing to let the sun shine through for more than a few seconds at a time.

Natrix didn’t mind. The sun still hurt his eyes.

In the middle of Molli Vollup’s pasture, Natrix stood in mud past his ankles. The thunderstorm which carried him to shore had flooded much of the area. Bulging black masses scattered across the pasture.

He held out his hand to one of the lumps a few steps away, clenched his fist, and lifted it off the ground. For its size, it was surprisingly easy to lift. He held it in the air, letting the head and legs dangled before releasing his mind and dropping it back to the ground. When it hit the ground, he noticed a large gash in the animal’s side. He had never before seen anything which had been struck by lightning and couldn’t understand how it could result in such a gash. When he checked, more animals had a similar wound.

Natrix didn’t need to count. Molli had told him she had one hundred and forty cows in her pasture, and none survived the storm. Those bodies would need to be moved from the pasture, but he didn’t think he had the energy to help so he went back inside Molli’s shack.

He would need his energy tomorrow, when he began his trip back to Chamberhaven.

When Natrix first realized he had been brought back to Emityna instead of his own country, he was upset. When he realized the rest of the world had aged eighteen years while he had only aged two or three, he was furious. His father would surely be dead and himself forgotten. Nothing would be the same as when he had left.

However, he did not weep for his losses because he soon realized that his curse could also be a blessing. While he assumed the government of his home country had changed, he concluded it was also possible this country’s government had changed as well.

“Molli, who was the king when I was here eighteen years ago?”

Molli looked at him skeptically. Natrix knew he no longer had her trust. He didn’t blame her. She had told him that the men who chased him from the castle had interrogated her. When added to the shock of seeing him so young so many years later, it was reasonable for her to be suspicious. He tried to tell her the incident at the castle had been a misunderstanding, but it was evident that she hadn’t believed him.

“Erus Eligo was king eighteen years ago,” she said. “He was even among the men who questioned me about you after your incident.”

It bugged Natrix that she kept trying to bring up that conversation.

“Is he king now?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, no.” Molli’s spiteful expression was replaced by one of sadness. “King Erus Eligo passed away a couple years ago. May he rest in peace. His brother Ward Eligo replaced him as king and is ruling in the castle now, but he is a terrible replacement. Erus Eligo cared for his subjects. Ward Eligo only cares about himself and keeping his position. He barely cares about his own daughters. The poor girls have been looked after mostly by servants since Erus died. It’s a shame the man didn’t have children of his own.”

“This new king is a power hungry pig?” asked Natrix.

“I’m afraid so,” said Molli.

“I hate men like that,” lied Natrix, who was inwardly rejoicing at his new fortune. This was the type of men he understood, the type of men he could control. The new plan was simple and struck him in an instant.

“Alas, Ward Eligo is nothing like his brother. The official statement is that Erus Eligo committed suicide, but anyone who’s met him knows that is a lie. Erus would never do something as cowardly as that. If you ask me, it is much more probable that Ward Eligo killed his brother...”

At that moment Atlas’ presence flashed through his mind, and Natrix knew the stone giant had reached his shore. He rose to leave while Molli Vollup was still talking.

“I’m sorry, Molli, but I am still very tired. I will be going to bed early tonight.”

“When are you going to be leaving?” asked Molli.

Natrix stared at her. “Tomorrow.”

He walked out of the shack and down to the beach. He met Atlas among the trees he had commanded the giant to hide in. Seaweed covered much of Atlas’ body, but Natrix didn’t bother to remove it. Instead he instructed Atlas to begin a return journey to Kindlia. He ordered Atlas to inform his home country that he was alive and would be coming back soon.

Just as Atlas began walking to the ocean to begin his journey, a woman screamed.

Natrix spun and saw that Molli had followed him out. She was screaming and pointing at Atlas.

“You!” she shouted. “It was you who summoned that beast to slaughter my livestock! I saw the cuts in the sides of my cows.”

“Molli, I can assure you that my servant had nothing to do with the murder of your livestock.”

“Of course it was that thing! I knew I couldn’t trust you, Hydris Celo. Get out of my village!”

Natrix thought about arguing.

“GET OUT!”

It didn’t matter to Natrix what she believed, and since he hadn’t planned on staying much longer anyway, he obliged her request and left Mendacis. Atlas left in the opposite direction on his mission to spread the word of Natrix’s survival.

Although he was certain Atlas had not killed those animals, he didn’t spend much time pondering what had. He still accepted that lightning had killed them.

It took Natrix only a few days to reach the castle once again. It was easy to find rides, and this time Natrix put more thought into his back-story. He would need a good one this time.

The only person he planned on telling the truth about himself to was King Ward Eligo. Even then he would hold many things back, but Natrix was certain it would be an easy sell convincing the king to take him in. He would promise the king power and tempt him with the information of his home country’s susceptibility. In return he would learn everything he could from this country which took their powers for granted. Then, after he had used the knowledge of this country, and some of its citizens, to destroy the Annubra and regain control of Kindlia, he would kill King Eligo and anyone who knew about the existence of both countries.

At the castle gate, Natrix calmly walked up to the two armored men standing guard.

“I would like to speak to King Ward Eligo, or anybody who could relay a message to him for me.”

“The king is not taking any visitors at the moment, and all his personal assistants are busy.”

“That’s okay,” said Natrix. “I’ll wait.”

Chapter 15
Lud's Flight

“Lud, you can’t look at it as lying,” said Yason, after the Dinolanas had finished congratulating Lud. “Dad and Mr. Gaze just realized you needed something to boost your confidence.”

Lud tried to be happy in the moment, so many good things had just unfolded, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been deceived.

“It worked, didn’t it?” asked Fulger. “So stop crying.”

“I’m not crying,” said Lud. “I don’t cry. I just think it was a mean trick.”

“Mean trick or not,” said Turp, “you should still wear the new gauntlets. Those things are ridiculously cool.”

Lud looked at his metal hands. He did like the look of them, and he could still use them like the Dinolanas did. The Dinolanas didn’t care if the gloves had any focus powers. “Yeah, I’ll wear them.”

“Ridiculously cool? More like just plain ridiculous.” Shanta Potesti came out from behind some of the Dinolanas.

“What’s your problem?” said Fulger. “I would think you would be a little more grateful that we’re here. How else are you going to get home?”

Shanta smirked. “Who said I want to go home? Maybe this is my home now.”

“Where are your gauntlets, Shanta?” asked Turp. She didn’t say anything. “If this is your home, and everybody thinks you’re one of their brothers, why don’t you have any gauntlets? I think you’re jealous.”

“I’d never be jealous of Lud!” said Shanta. “I don’t need any stupid gauntlets, and I don’t want any stupid gauntlets. I have something much more important: the Dinolanas’ devotion. That’s something you’ll never have.”

Shanta folded her arms and looked down her nose at Lud. “I was going to help you out,” she said. “I was going to lend this devotion to you, if you won the contest. I was going to let you borrow the Dinolanas when you tried to free your brother, but since you lost, I won’t have to worry about that.”

“I got second,” said Lud.

“Sorry, but I’m a girl of my word,” said Shanta. “In fact, you can still have your supplies. I’ve already had them packed in some nice bags.”

“Shanta, please,” said Yason. “The Dinolanas could be a big help to us.”

“I know.”

“This is our brother,” said Lud. “He’s being held by the same things that took you away from your family. Think about what it was like. You can help get him out of there. You can help save him.”

“Nobody saved me.”

“We didn’t know,” said Lud. “We didn’t know about any of this.”

Shanta didn’t say anything. She just walked away.

Lud looked at Yason, who shrugged. Turp pretended he was strangling her.

“What do we do now?” asked Lud, but he was sure he already knew the answer.

“We just go,” said Yason. “We go and get our brother by ourselves.”

Lud nodded and pulled out the map. After a day’s worth of forest, there was another two and a half day’s walk before they would reach the Annubra stronghold just inside the western mountain range. The last thing Lud wanted to do was walk any further.

“Let’s get our packs and go,” said Lud.

Just then, Pollux jogged up to them, with Ithy close behind him. “Sorry we missed the end of the race,” said Pollux. “When we saw you finish, we ran back to talk to Phoebe.”

“Phoebe is the girl Dinolana,” said Ithy. “Pollux’s new girlfriend. I’m a great matchmaker. I told him what to say.” Ithy was almost jumping, she was so excited.

“Congratulations, Pollux. That’s great,” said Turp unenthusiastically, “but it was nice meeting you. We have to go now.”

“Seriously, thanks for all your help,” said Lud. “I really enjoyed meeting all of you. I wish we didn’t have to go yet, but we don’t think we can wait any longer. Come on, Ithy.”

Ithy didn’t move, but kept smiling and bouncing.

“You humans can’t leave too soon,” said Pollux. “It will take a little while for everybody to get ready.”

“Everybody?” asked Lud.

“Everybody that owes me a favor,” said Pollux. “I’ve asked every one of them to come help us rescue our brother.”

Lud felt his heart beat faster. He smiled.

“Your brother?” asked Yason.

“Of course,” said Pollux. “Lud is my brother now. Logically, any brother of his becomes a brother of mine. Plus, young Ithaca insisted on it.”

“I asked them to help us,” she said.

“This little human knows everything about women,” said Pollux. “I would be lost without her. Everything she told me to do, I did, and it worked so well that I told her that she could have anything she wanted. She asked me to help you guys save your brother Rabo.”

Lud couldn’t believe his ears. He wanted to hug Ithy, but he was sure his brothers would never cease to make fun of him if he did that.

“Wow,” said Fulger. “Thanks, Ithy.”

“Yeah,” said Turp. “That was actually a really cool thing to do.”

Ithy beamed and hugged both Fulger and Turp.

“It wasn’t that cool!” said Turp, as his face turned red.

It didn’t surprise Lud when Yason immediately began to poke fun at Fulger and Turp.

“I could only get thirty seven Dinolanas to come with us,” said Pollux. “Plus Castor, of course. I hope that’s going to be enough.”

“That’s plenty,” said Yason. “We couldn’t be happier.”

“That’s right, you couldn’t,” said Pollux.

Lud laughed and followed Pollux to the packs Shanta had made for them. He passed them out to Yason, Fulger, Turp, and Ithy. Shanta refused to go. Lud guessed that she was furious that the Dinolanas had ignored her orders.

The packs were loaded with more than enough food and water for the trip, because even though the Dinolanas refused to let any humans ride them like horses, they decided it would be alright to pull the children on sleds.

They followed along a path the Dinolanas had carved in the forest. Since the sleds were being pulled on the hard ground instead of snow, the ride was very bumpy. Nobody minded, however, as this was still better than walking.

Before long, they were out of the forest and into the open land, on their way to the stronghold. Lud often looked out into the countryside, looking for any sign of Natrix and his men, but he wasn’t scared about seeing them. The Dinolanas made him feel secure.

“Hey, listen, Lud,” said Yason, “I have an idea.” Everybody had been paired up on a sled, and Yason was with Lud. “I know it’s a little dangerous, but I was thinking that it might be a good idea if you went ahead and checked the area out first. You can fly now, and I think it would be nice to see what we are getting into.”

“I’ve flown once,” said Lud. “I don’t know how long I can sustain myself. Shouldn’t I practice more or something?”

“What would you call this?” asked Yason. “The best way to learn is to get out there and do it.”

Lud looked up into the sky. During his last attempt, he had been so focused on keeping himself going straight that he didn’t really experience any of the fun of flying. Whenever he used to think about flying, he imagined it as one of the most fun things a person could do.

“Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Good,” said Yason, “but only go in a straight line from us to the stronghold. That way if you fall, we’ll reach you eventually, and you can’t get lost.”

“That’s not encouraging,” said Lud.

Yason told the two Dinolanas pulling their sled to stop. When the other Dinolanas saw them quit running, they waiting to see if everything was alright.

“What’s going on?” yelled Fulger from his sled. “Why did we stop?”

“Lud’s going to fly,” Yason yelled back.

“I’m going ahead to check things out. It shouldn’t take long; it’s just a quick flight there and back for practice.”

“Be careful, Lud,” said Ithy.

“Don’t hit any birds!” cried Turp.

Lud stepped out of his sled and stood on the grass, far away from the rest of the group, where the ground looked the softest. Just in case.

He kept his palm facing his head as he raised his hand straight up above him. The other metal hand was pointed to the ground. Closing his eyes to concentrate, Lud clenched the hand above him to create compression and pushed the power out of his lower hand to create buoyancy.

All of his body organs felt like they dropped into his feet, and for a moment, he wanted to throw up, but this feeling soon passed. He opened his eyes and saw the ground fall behind him as the horizon allowed more and more of the countryside into view.

He tried to look straight down, but the effort caused his arm to lean forward and he began flipping violently end over end. After futile attempts to straighten, Lud cut off his powers and began to freefall. His spinning slowed as he fell. When he thought he could regain his control, he threw out his arms again and sent the power flowing. Once again, he was flying through the air.

Lud practiced turning. Everything followed the clenched fist. Soon, he could make large, arching turns, but if he ever cut anything too close, he spun out of control.

The Dinos and his brothers had begun moving again, although they looked much slower from his height. There was so much land ahead of them they couldn’t see, and beyond that were the mountains. Lud tried to match the outline of the foothills to his memory of the map, but everything was too far away. He would try again after he flew closer.

He left his caravan behind as he watched the ground pass by below him. Brown and green bushes and trees came up slowly and then passed beneath him quickly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Lud saw a black speck in the distance, growing larger. Assuming it was his first encounter with a bird, he watched it come closer. There were no wings, yet the object soared through the air. As it advanced, he became nervous. Clearly, this was no bird. The black speck slowly focused into a purple figure.

It was a person heading towards him. Fast.

Lud tried to make a sharp turn up to get out of its way, but only succeeded in throwing himself into another spin.

There was no time to correct his flight. The force of the man’s impact knocked the air out of Lud’s lungs, and he couldn’t breathe. The man grabbed hold of Lud during the contact and didn’t let go. They weren’t falling; Lud was getting pulled down, out of the sky. His body hurt, but he tried to wiggle free.

Just before they hit the ground, Lud felt a force working against their fall. It still hurt to land, but he knew that nothing was broken, and he wasn’t dead.

The man popped up, grabbed Lud by his cloak, and dragged him along the ground before propping him up against a tree.

“Who are you?” bellowed the man.

The voice sounded familiar, but before Lud could see the man’s face, he heard: “Lud Compograv?”

Lud looked up and saw a tall man with a tan, bald head and a very white beard. He was holding a staff. Lud’s heart jumped, but it was still hard to breath.

“Leone?” Lud choked.

Leone pulled out a canteen and gave Lud some water to drink. “You can fly, Lud? How long have you been able to fly?”

“A day,” answered Lud. He wished he had his breath back because he had so many questions to ask. He could only get out single words. “Titan. Hydris. Natrix.” Above him, Lud heard the sound of something cutting through the air. Leone looked up.

“I’ll be right back, Lud,” he said and took off into the sky. The branches of the tree blocked Lud’s view. Left alone, he began to notice that he was much more bruised than he thought. Rolling over, he tried to get up, but could only bring himself to his hands and knees.

Two men landed on their feet on the ground next to him.

“Lud!”

Before he could turn his head, he felt two massive arms wrap around him. He knew instantly it was his father.

“Dad!” said Lud.

“I’m so glad you’re alright,” said his dad, holding his head up. Lud thought his dad looked tired. “Where are your brothers?”

“Back there,” said Lud. “Coming here. How... how did you find us? How did you get here?”

“Is everybody alright?” asked Olim. “Is anybody injured?”

“Is Ithaca alright?” asked Leone.

“Everybody is okay,” said Lud, “except Rapyo. He’s been kidnapped.”

“I heard,” said Olim. “Your mother and I arrived at Chamberhaven shortly after you left. Sephal Eligo told me everything.”

“How did she know where we were going?” asked Lud.

“She didn’t,” said Olim. “Erus helped me figure that out.”

In confusion, Lud turned from Olim to Leone. Leone looked at Olim.

“I’m afraid I must admit, Olim, that I was deceptive when I introduced myself to your sons. I’m sorry, Lud, but I couldn’t let you accidentally mention my name to anybody within the castle. I truly dislike lying, but it is a necessity these days. My name is not Leone, it is Erus. I’m Ithaca’s uncle.”

“Erus Eligo?” gasped Lud. “I thought you committed suicide.”

“I hate that rumor,” said Olim.

“I do too,” said Erus. “Fortunately, it is a lie. Unfortunately, it is hard for a dead man to defend himself.”

“Why do you need to pretend to be dead?” asked Lud.

“I spent many years of my life serving my country as its king,” said Erus, “but a few years ago I decided that the country needed me to do other work. I chose to give up my thrown to my brother and spend all my time searching throughout the world. Order and balance have been shifting over the years, and things are no longer as calm as they once were.”

“But why pretend to be dead?” asked Lud. “Why not just tell everybody you’re giving the throne to your brother?”

“My brother Ward believed that the country would never truly accept him as king if I was alive. I was skeptical at first, but the last thing I wanted was a divided country so I accepted his terms. I now believe I made a mistake.”

“Yeah,” said Lud. “You gave the country to a man who puts his trust in psychopaths like Natrix.”

“I regret not recognizing Natrix before it was too late, young Lud” said Erus. “It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the true identity of this man who called himself Hydris Celo. When I found out, I immediately searched out your father, who had already arrived at Chamberhaven with your mother.”

“How did you find out?” asked Lud.

“The very first night you boys were in the castle, I spoke to you through Titan for a few minutes. Then I suddenly lost complete control of him. I had to remember back to how I met Titan in the first place. It was twenty years ago and he had broke into the castle to save a man who had attempted to break in. That man was Natrix. When we chased them north to Mendacis, the strangest sensation came over me, and I realized that I was looking through the eyes of the stone giant. That’s when I realized that I had the power to control Mesmors. I asked around and researched this man known simply as Natrix from Kindlia, who also had the ability to control them. By the time I knew, however, it was too late.”

“We didn’t know much about the Annubra,” said Olim, “other than their tendency to live in the mountains. We only knew that Natrix was bringing you to Kindlia. So we left Portitas in the castle, flew back home, and grabbed Mr. Gaze’s map to find you. We were searching above this part of the country when Erus saw another person flying in the sky and assumed it must be Natrix.”

“Why didn’t you tell us you could fly, dad?” asked Lud.

“I didn’t want you thinking you had to live up to my success, but we can talk about all that later. Where did you say your brothers are?”

Lud told his dad about the escape from Natrix, the Dinolanas, and the Annubra stronghold. “They’re not far behind, on their way there now.”

Erus took one of Lud’s hands and inspected his new gauntlets. “You boys have been through a lot,” said Erus. “That’s impressive. They really are your sons, Olim.”

“I wish they were more like their mother,” said Olim.

“I don’t think that would be much of a difference,” laughed Erus. “She’s not one to sit around either.”

“I’d hate to think what’s going through her head back at the castle,” said Olim.

“Can mom fly?” asked Lud.

“If she could, we’d never have been able to keep her at that castle,” said Olim. “Since she can’t, we have to save her son for her. Come on, we can meet everybody at the stronghold. Let’s go get Rapyo.”

Lud’s dad helped him up and then took off into the sky with Erus. Lud quickly followed them. In the air, Lud tried to estimate how far off his course Erus pushed him, but he couldn’t see the caravan anywhere. Following Mr. Gaze’s map, Olim led them straight to the stronghold.

Even from a distance, the massive fortress carved into the mountainside intimidated Lud. Stone walls and turrets extended far from the face of the mountain, and the layers of stone buildings and roads cut just as deep inside it. A few of the nearby mountains had patches of green, or tops covered with white snow, but this mountain was nothing but shades of gray.

At the back of the fortress, in the middle of the cut-away mountain was a large hole, signifying the entrance to the cave systems.

As they drew closer to the stronghold, Lud noticed there were many lookout posts and positions of fortification, but they were all vacant. Not a single living being could be found.

“Dad!” Lud tried to yell. Their powers kept the wind out of their faces, but flying was still loud as the wind passed their ears.

“Yeah, Lud?”

“I don’t see any Annubra,” yelled Lud. “Shanta said they hide from the Mesmors. What if they are already here, controlled by Natrix?”

“It’s possible,” yelled Olim. “Stay close to us. Hopefully your brothers haven’t arrived yet.”

They flew down to the stronghold, near the open mouth of the cave. Olim and Erus landed gracefully, but Lud hopped a little during his landing. They searched all around them as they made their way to the entrance.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be going through the front door?” asked Erus.

The hole-in-the-wall entrance turned out to be a big tunnel which extended a short distance further into the mountain. They could see the orange glow of burning torches at the bottom.

When they made their way down, the tunnel opened into a grand auditorium. From where they stood, at the top of three giant steps which curved towards the back wall, Lud could see everything. The top step was lined with big, bumpy, white pillars. The ceiling wasn’t very high above their heads, but Lud noticed that the tops of the pillars didn’t quite reach it. He wondered why they would even have pillars that didn’t provide any support.

The next step down was lined with fancy wooden doors set up into the stone walls. It wasn’t always a perfect fit; some had gaps between the door frame and the stone as wide as Lud’s foot.

The bottom step was lined with nothing but the stone walls.

The focal point of the room, in the middle of the back wall, was a skinny stage which rose high above the auditorium floor.

A single Annubra stood on that stage. It was the first Annubra Lud had even seen. It wore a tiny crown and held a small, gold cane.

Behind and to the left of this Annubra were many square holes cut into the wall. They were windows for a room behind the wall. Rapyo was inside that room.

“Dad, there he is!” said Lud.

“Let’s see if we can talk to this thing,” said Erus.

Following the two adults, Lud lifted himself over the two lower steps of the auditorium, to the small stage.

Up close, Lud saw that the Annubra was much smaller than he had imagined it. It was bending forward, but if it stood up tall, Lud guessed it would barely reach his elbow. Two long, needle-thin wings made the creature appear larger. Behind its dog-like head, two flat slabs fanned out. Lud couldn’t tell whether they were ears or some type of horns. They each came to a point at the bottom.

“You have come human,” it hissed. “Why have you come?”

“I’m here to get my son,” said Olim. “You took him, but I’m taking him back.”

“Have you come to save us as the boy has?”

Olim stared at the Annubra. “Did you kidnap my son?”

“Not I,” said the Annubra. “Why have my people kidnapped him?”

“Your people kidnapped by son,” said Olim. “It makes no difference whether it was you or them.”

“Why have you come?” it asked.

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Olim.

Lud stepped up next to his father. “Shanta said they only speak in riddles. Ask him about Natrix.”

“Natrix!” hissed the Annubra. “I did nothing wrong. How can your boy save us from Natrix? Natrix the demon.”

Lud was startled. The Annubra called Natrix a demon?

“Dad!” yelled Rapyo, who was leaning up against the holes in the wall. “Dad, what are you doing here? Why is Lud here?”

“We came to get you out!” yelled Lud.

“Rapyo, are you okay?” asked Olim.

“Dad, I’m fine, but you shouldn’t be here. Lud shouldn’t be here.”

Olim stepped up to the Annubra king. He towered over it. “Let my son go, or I will tear this place apart to get him myself.”

“No!” barked the creature. “Who will save us? He will save us!”

Lud believed he was beginning to understand. “Save you from what?” he asked.

“Save us from whom?”

“From Natrix?”

“Natrix.”

“Dad,” said Lud, pulling on his father’s cloak. “They want Rapyo to fight Natrix. I think they kidnap people so they can use them as weapons against Natrix.”

“That doesn’t matter, Lud,” said Olim. “That doesn’t make it right.”

“I didn’t say it did,” said Lud.

Olim pushed his hands close together and used his power to pinch the creature’s wings together and lift it up. It started barking furiously. “Erus, get Rapyo out of there.”

“Olim,” said Erus. “There’s something strange here. My head is pounding.”

“WORRY ABOUT YOUR HEAD LATER, ERUS!” barked Olim. “Get my son, or take this rat!”

“Dad! You weren’t supposed to come!” yelled Rapyo.

Then two things happened so fast Lud could barely tell what was going on. A herd of thirty nine Dinolanas and four humans came running and screaming through the tunnel entrance, and every door on the second floor opened. Hundreds of Annubra rushed in and filled the air.

Chapter 16
Liars

“Get them!” yelled the Annubra leader to the swarm of beasts howling and circling the roof of the auditorium.

Olim dropped the king to the floor and took to the air. Erus also lifted himself from the stage, leaving Lud alone with the whimpering leader. It kept barking out orders, and Lud didn’t know what else to do so he knocked it unconscious with one swing of his metal hand.

“Dad!” yelled Yason as the Dinolanas spread out along the top step. “You can fly?”

“Is that so surprising?” yelled Olim as the Annubra began to circle around him. “Go get Rapyo.”

Yason and Fulger ran towards the back wall to get close to Rapyo’s cell. They left Turp and Ithy standing near the entrance. Lud was about to help his brothers when he noticed most of the swarm of Annubra attack his dad.

Olim sent out waves, and many Annubra fell limply to the ground, but there were too many for him. Soon Lud saw only a ball of wings and claws.

“No!” yelled Lud. A shock rushed down his arms, and he thrust his gloved hands forwards. It was like hitting a glass ball with a bat. The Annubra exploded away from Olim, and the whole mess fell to the second step, including Lud’s dad.

“I’ll check your dad, Lud,” Turp yelled, dropping down to the second step. “Keep fighting those things!”

Lud’s shockwave turned the Annubra’s attention from Olim to Lud. They attacked in groups, and every time they rushed, he sent out a force which shoved them back.

The Dinolanas also drew much attention from the Annubra. With their metal gauntlets, they swung ferociously at anything which flew at them.

“Your dad’s okay!” yelled Turp, kneeling over Olim.

Suddenly, Lud heard a crash and felt the floor underneath him shake. With a quick glance, he saw that his brothers and Erus had busted through the wall which held back Rapyo.

Lud’s oldest brother flew out of his cell and landed next to Lud. Rapyo swept his arms out at the Annubra surrounding them on the stage, clearing their view of the auditorium.

“I told you not to get anyone involved in this!” Rapyo yelled at Lud. “Look around!” Rapyo gestured at their brothers battling against the Annubra alongside the Dinolanas. “This isn’t want I wanted. He was supposed to bring soldiers, not children!”

“Who was?” asked Lud, but he already knew.

“Him.” Rapyo pointed at the entrance. Immediately all of the Annubra stopped fighting. They silently beat their wings and hung in the air.

“You!” yelled Castor. All the Dinolanas stopped and looked at the tunnel as well.

Slowly, Natrix walked down of the tunnel, stopping just inside the auditorium. His long, blonde hair hung over the shoulders of his sleeveless, black cloak, and two thick, golden bracelets were on his wrists. The tooth necklace hung around his neck.

Titan and Atlas lumbered behind him.

One of the Dinolanas nearest Natrix roared and sprinted at him. With a roar of his own, Natrix spun and punched out his right hand, sending a force which whiplashed the Dinolanas head back. The scars on Natrix’s right arm illuminated faintly, and then faded away as the Dinolana fell motionless to the floor.

“Stop!” bellowed Natrix. “Everybody remain calm.”

“You promised you wouldn’t get my family involved!” yelled Rapyo. “You told me you would bring the strongest warriors, not little children!”

Lud guessed the answer immediately. Rapyo’s kidnapping was a hoax to draw people here. But why? Why would Rapyo help this maniac?

“You don’t understand, Rapyo!” yelled Natrix. “I told you I would bring warriors best suited for this mission, and I did! Yes, they are children, but look at what they have already done!”

“You used them!”

“I guided them!” yelled Natrix. “I barely even needed to do that. They consistently surprised me. How could I have guessed that they were willing to flee from me right away, but only so that they could come here by themselves? How could I have guessed that they would be able to recruit the Dinolana race to enter a place they haven’t been to in centuries? I picked the right warriors, Rapyo. Now tell them how to finish this.”

Rapyo looked around at his brothers, who were staring at him with open mouths, and his father, who was just coming back to his senses.

“What is going on, Rapyo?” asked Lud.

When Rapyo turned, Lud couldn’t help but open his stance a little. He really didn’t know what his brother would do.

“Lud,” said Rapyo softly, “think about it. If we can remove the Annubra from this world, there will be no more kidnappings. These creatures are monsters. The world will be a safer place.”

“And you will be the hero who saved it,” said Lud.

“Don’t get like this, Lud,” Rapyo snapped at him, but he also sounded nervous. “They were trying to hurt you just now. It needs to be done. If I can be a part of it, why wouldn’t I? I’d probably even turn down all the accolades and rewards.”

“You’re pathetic,” said Lud. “Do you know why these things kidnap kids? It’s because they are looking for somebody with similar powers as Natrix, who can save them from him. I know that doesn’t make it right, but is it a reason to kill them all? I say if we remove Natrix, we would remove the problem.”

“That’s bullshit!” yelled Natrix from across the auditorium. “They attacked me first! They burned down my village and nearly killed me! When I tried to save myself from them, I accidentally killed one of the men who tried to save me. Where is the justice in that, Lud? I was six years old!”

Lud didn’t know what to say. He frantically searched his mind for an argument. He wondered if he should even make an argument, or if should he say something comforting. No, Natrix was a killer. How could he deserve any kind words? But then, how did these Annubra deserve any kind words either? Lud didn’t know what to say.

“But you know what, Lud?” said Natrix. “I don’t mind anymore. I found my true identity that night. That night led me on the path to become ruler of this entire country.”

Lud heard cracking and shuffling noises.

“Oh yeah,” said Natrix. “It also led me to these.”

Every white pillar was now shifting and moving out of place. Arms and legs became visible. Many of the Annubra screamed as the pillars took their true shape.

Natrix had his Mesmors. All of them.

Lud watched Natrix’s stupid smirk form as the Mesmors came to life and stepped forward.

“These are the things I truly care about,” said Natrix. “My Mesmors never get caught up in stupid emotions. They don’t try to sympathize with the beasts that deserve to die. They don’t need to be tricked into doing what I want because they aren’t power-hungry, arrogant brats like Rapyo. Best of all, I don’t need to worry about them telling the truth about this day. That’s why my Mesmors will be the only things in this room, besides myself, which will live to see tomorrow.” The spirals on Natrix’s arms were now glowing brightly. “I’m sorry boys, but you shouldn’t have grown up to be as big a nuisance as your father.”

Rapyo dropped to his knees, dejected.

“Get up, idiot,” said Lud.

A thunderous crushing sound removed Natrix’s smirk, and Lud followed his eyes to see what was making the sound.

At first Lud couldn’t figure it out. The Mesmor farthest away from Natrix was throwing massive stone punches, crushing the Mesmor next to it. It had already broken off one of the arms. Even before Lud saw Erus Eligo standing a few steps away, he knew that the stone giant was under new ownership.

Erus was directing the Mesmor to destroy the others and was trying to get close to the next Mesmor so he could give that one similar directions.

“No!” yelled Natrix, sprinting towards Erus. “It’s you! You’re the one who took my Titan away!”

Abstract chapter design

NATRIX’S FALL

Natrix’s mind was clouded by rage as he raced towards Erus. He tried to calm his mind as he ran. He knew he would have no chance of regaining control of his Mesmor if he didn’t concentrate properly.

He threw his mind forward at the Mesmor that Erus was controlling, but he was blocked out.

Natrix would have to break Erus’ concentration if he wanted any chance, so he filled his arms with the prickly force.

Before he could unleash the wave at Erus, Natrix was thrust sideways against the stone wall of the auditorium. He hit his heard hard, but ignored the pain.

“You don’t deserve the Mesmors, Natrix!” yelled Olim, who was floating in midair. “But don’t worry. Erus will take good care of them for you.”

“You don’t deserve to fly!” yelled Natrix, regaining his balance. “And nobody touches my Mesmors!”

The thrust Natrix shot out his palms was too fast for Olim to avoid. Olim crashed against the opposite wall. Natrix watched Lud fly over to Olim, and then turned back to Erus. Seeing both of Erus’ palms held out in his direction told him it was too late. The force hit him and he tumbled over backwards, stopping far away from Erus.

As he lay on the ground, he sent his mind out to any Mesmors still under his control, which was most of them.

Kill anything that moves.

Natrix tried to get to his feet as fast as possible. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the Dinolanas charging at him. He swept the Dino sideways and it missed him. With a roar, it turned around to charge him again.

With one hand, Natrix let out a force which held the Dinolana at a distance, and with his other hand, he pulled one of the torches off the wall and shot it at the Dinolana’s chest.

The large explosion left Natrix stunned. He hadn’t expected that, but was pleasantly surprised.

Chapter 17
The New Mesmor

The sound and light from the explosion drew everybody’s attention, including Lud’s. He stared in dismay as the cloud of black smoke lifted, uncovering the motionless Dinolana lying on the ground.

The Dinolanas roared at the sight of their fallen brother, and each one began to attack one of the Mesmors with increased vigor. They only ceased to fight when they saw the Mesmor they were attacking start to fight a Mesmor itself.

It was a battle of vicious blows. Despite being overtaken by Erus, Lud couldn’t understand how they would stop the Mesmors, who’s every hit left the Dinolanas injured. This didn’t stop them from trying, though.

Lud also noticed something unusual. He didn’t know if it was because of the presence of so many Mesmors, or because Natrix told everybody his intentions, but all of the Annubra were crowding near the base of the stage, on the ground floor.

Seeing his father getting up again, Lud flew down near the stage. He was impressed by how well his father could take a hit. He lowered himself close to the Annubra. There were so many it was hard to see, but they were pushing, shoving, and scraping each other to get through a small crack at the base of the stage.

“Ignore the Annubra!” yelled Lud. “They’re running away.”

“Lud, we have to help the Dinolanas!” yelled Yason, who was bringing a struggling Ithy to two Dinolanas whom he had instructed to protect her.

“No!” yelled Ithy. “I want to help my uncle! I can’t let him die again! Let go of me!”

“I’m way ahead of you,” cried Lud. He already had a plan. Pinpointing a Mesmor that was fighting only one Dinolana, Lud threw up his hands and flew towards it like a rocket. Just before he reached the giant, he let go of his force, and put all of it, as well as his strength, into a punch on the Mesmor’s head. The metal gauntlet collided with the stone, and Lud felt like his arm nearly ripped off.

Momentum carried him well past his target and he crashed to the ground.

His arm hurt terribly, and he had a hard time standing, but when he looked back, he saw the results. A wide crack ran down the head of the Mesmor.

The Dinolana jumped on the opportunity and threw all his punches at the fractured stone. Large chunks of rock fell to the ground, followed by the massive body.

Lud looked up at Natrix who successfully held off attacks from his dad and Erus while still working to control each of his stone men. Mesmors turned from hitting Dinos, to hitting other Mesmors, and then back to hitting Dinos.

After Lud saw Natrix’s glowing arms swing wildly, six Dinolanas and two Mesmors soared through the air. Lud could feel the ground shake beneath him. If they couldn’t stop Natrix soon, he thought, this whole place might collapse.

Turning to find somebody else to help, he nearly ran straight into a Mesmor coming at him. Before Lud could react, the Mesmor grabbed both of Lud’s arms by the gauntlets.

“Rip his arms off!” yelled Natrix.

Feeling the stone giant begin to pull his arms to the sides, Lud wiggled frantically until both hands slipped out of the gauntlets. Before the Mesmor could react, Lud flew up and landed back on the stage. When he landed, he couldn’t help looking at his bare hands and smiling. He had flown without any gauntlets.

Up on the stage, Rapyo was still on his knees, watching helplessly as the events played out before him.

Lud wished he still had his metal gloves, but decided his hand would suffice. With as much force as he could muster, Lud slapped Rapyo across the face.

“Snap out of it!” he yelled. “You messed up. Get over it! You can get depressed about it later.”

“We might die because of me, Lud,” said Rapyo, watching Natrix shake the roof again.

Dropping to his knees so they could be face to face, Lud said, “Yeah, we might die. Might. If we don’t do anything about it, we will die. Get it?”

Lud stood up again. “You can fly, Rapyo. Put yourself to good use.”

For a while, Lud simply listened to the sounds as they bounced throughout the room. Metal gauntlets struck against stone. Dinos roared. Annubra cursed at each other. Yason called out orders.

Looking down at Yason, Lud was instantly impressed. On the second step, Yason directed Dinolanas to dash at Mesmors, and then just before the Mesmor swung, he would lift the Dino out of the way and send more to attack from behind. It must take a lot of energy to lift a Dinolana. Yason was powerful.

On the lowest step, Fulger was quickly teaching teams of Dinolanas to trip Mesmors by crawling behind their legs. A loud crash rang every time one of the stone giants dropped.

Ithy was still being held back by two Dinolana in the corner.

“Let me go! I want to help!” No matter how hard Ithy pulled, the Dinolana holding her wouldn’t let go. “Lud,” she yelled. “Come here, please!”

Lud hovered himself over to her. It was hard. He was getting the hang of flying, but floating slowly took more concentration.

“Lud, look at them,” she said, pointing at Erus and Olim as they struggled to overtake Natrix. “They can’t even get close to him. He’s too powerful.”

Lud watched as Natrix threw out massive waves, paused for a moment, and then threw out more. Erus and Olim used their own powers to block his attacks while dodging the two blades Natrix directed through the air.

“He’s winning back almost all the stone guys too,” she said.

Despite the Dinolana successes, Lud could still see many uninjured Mesmors.

“But I noticed something,” said Ithy. “There are a lot of times where it looks like Natrix stops and stands still for a while. When he does this, his arms don’t glow as bright.”

“I saw that,” said Lud. “I think it happens when Natrix takes control of one of his Mesmors.”

“That’s when you can get him,” said Ithy.

“Easier said than done.”

“I know, Lud. I’m sorry. Natrix is even stronger than we thought. I wish my dad had never let that stupid snake into the castle in the first place.”

Lud looked at Natrix, then down to the piles of rocks, the fallen remains of Mesmors.

“That’s it!” yelled Lud. “Ithy you’re a genius!” He was so excited that he jumped forward and hugged her, which was weird because the Dinolana was still holding on to her.

Ithy smiled. “What did I say that was so smart?”

“Natrix is a snake!”

Lud rushed down to Turp, who was telling Dinolanas to rip strips off his cloak and then using the strips to wrap the injuries of other Dinolanas.

“Lud, I don’t know what to do,” said Turp. “I feel worthless. I can’t fight like a Compograv, but I can’t sit around and do nothing. Give me something more to do! I want to help win this battle.”

“Turp, you’re doing great,” said Lud. “But I do have something you can do.”

Lud told Turp his new plan.

“Do you want me to go now?” asked Turp.

“I need you to run and tell my brothers what to do before you get in position yourself. I’m going to try and get some distance.”

“It’s a brilliant plan, Lud!” said Turp, before sprinting to Fulger.

Lud looked back at Natrix. They were still fighting close to the entrance so Lud could get far away while still being in the auditorium. He flew into the corner along the back wall on the top row. The entire battle was visible from there.

Turp left Fulger, who was floating some Mesmor remains into a large pile, and ran to Yason.

Needing little convincing, Yason dashed over to help Fulger. Turp moved on to his next assignment.

Yason and Fulger piled rock upon rock, and Lud watched as his plan came to life. Before long, two legs were distinguishable. The largest rocks were placed in the midsection, from which two arms extended. Finally, one bumpy rock was placed on top for the head. Lud was impressed. His brothers had made one very realistic-looking Mesmor.

It moved awkwardly at first, as his brothers tried to make the creation walk. After two wobbly steps, the right arm fell to the ground. Lud could see Yason yelling at Fulger.

Get it together, guys, thought Lud. This is no time to argue with each other.

Suddenly, the arm snapped back into place, and Lud thought the Mesmor locked together, erect. He smiled when he saw the reason; Rapyo had flown down and was helping his brothers control the giant stone puppet.

With incredible accuracy, the Mesmor sprinted up to the highest step, followed by Lud’s three brothers.

It dashed at Natrix, and Lud took off. Flying as fast as he could, he hoped with all his might that Natrix would see the Mesmor early enough. Turp was on the top step, sprinting at Natrix as well.

As Lud sped through the air, Natrix turned towards the fake Mesmor, his glowing scars fading.

Turp reached Natrix just before Lud, sliding feet-first to get behind Natrix’s legs.

Lud closed his eyes.

The impact was much more painful than Lud predicted. Natrix felt as solid as Titan had, but Lud brought enough momentum that Natrix was ripped off his feet. They both tumbled backwards.

Over and over, Lud rolled. When he stopped, he was almost halfway up the tunnel.

His body ached, but he crawled over to Natrix’s body.

Natrix’s arm was twisted in an awkward position, and there was no movement.

Olim came running up quickly. Two Dinolanas held down Natrix’s body, just in case, while Olim checked for life.

“He’s still alive,” said Olim, “but he’s knocked out cold. We have to bind him quickly, and remove him from the Mesmors.” He looked over at Lud. “Are you okay, son?”

Lud felt horrible. His chest ached, but said he was fine.

His dad came over and held him tight. “You did great, Lud.”

“That was incredible!” yelled Turp, running into the tunnel with Yason, Fulger, and Rapyo. A pile of stones lay behind them in the auditorium.

“Wonderful plan,” said Yason. “I loved it as soon as I heard it.”

“Ithy deserves the credit,” said Lud. “Where is she?”

Yason looked back in the auditorium. “She’s still being held by the two Dinolanas protecting her.” Yason yelled to Ithy’s guards to let her go.

Lud got up and limped back into the auditorium as well. Ithy ran over to them after seeing that her uncle was still telling each of the real Mesmors to quit fighting.

“That was a great idea, Lud,” she cheered.

“Lud says you deserve the credit,” said Yason.

“Why?” asked Ithy. “I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“You called Natrix a snake,” said Lud. “You were the one that told us how to defeat a snake. Remember?”

Ithy still looked confused.

“It was in the fairy tale you read to us,” said Lud. “That’s what gave me the idea to distract Natrix with a disguise.”

“Wow, Lud,” said Fulger, “that wasn’t dumb. Maybe after a few hundred more ideas like that, we’ll stop calling you Lud the Dud.”

“Thanks, Fulger,” said Lud. His side hurt when he laughed.

“Come on, guys,” said Erus, who was finished taking back the Mesmors. “Let’s get out of here before Natrix wakes up.”

“Just a second,” said Lud. “I want to get something.”

He lifted himself up and flew down to the lowest level of the auditorium. It was completely empty now. All the Annubra had left through their crack, and everyone else was leaving through the tunnel.

After searching around for a while, he saw a hint of silver. Running over, he picked his gauntlets off the ground and brushed them off on his cloak. Although scratched pretty badly, they were still dent-free and shiny.

“Lud,” yelled Turp. “You don’t need those things anymore.”

“I know,” said Lud, “but I still like them.” He slid the gauntlets onto his hands.

Chapter 18
Mesh

Lud stepped out of his cart as delicately as he could, but even the slightest nudge brought pain back to his chest. When he hopped to the ground, he cursed.

“Lud Compograv!” said his dad, stepping out of the cart behind him, dressed in a new cloak. “You will not use that language when we’re inside the castle. We don’t want word to spread that Emityna’s new hero has a filthy mouth.”

“Olim!” said Lud’s mom, also wearing a new outfit, “he can’t use that language anywhere! Hero or not.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lud, placing a hand on his bandaged chest. He thought having three broken ribs should give him excuse to swear.

His father hadn’t cared about the language Lud used when he was being transported from the Annubra stronghold to Chamberhaven. Olim, Erus, and Rapyo had flown seven different trips, first carrying Natrix, then Lud, Ithaca, Turp, Yason, finally Fulger over the mountains, back home. Olim and Erus refused to let any native Kindlian citizens see them. The whole process took over half a day, but everyone preferred this method over hiking.

Lud then spent a week staying in Chamberhaven’s nicest hospital, followed by another week in its nicest hotel. Both times he was pampered and waited on, but nothing could shake his intense boredom. For a couple days he even worried that the rest of his life would be boring in comparison to the action of the last month, but realization struck him. He could fly now. His life would never be normal, or boring, even if he wanted it to.

As proof of this, he and his brothers were walking up the castle steps, invited there by Erus Eligo, who had removed his brother Ward from the throne. Turp was also invited, along with his parents. Lud thought Turp’s parents, normally so confident and outgoing, seemed polite, yet timid, inside the walls of the capital city.

Rapyo, however, was not with his family. Lud hadn’t seen him since they arrived in Chamberhaven.

“Oh, wow, Lud,” said his mom, as Lud led his family through the castle doors. “I still can’t believe how much weight you lost. All that running and walking has been good for you.”

“It wasn’t good at the time,” said Lud.

“I still can’t believe we were walking around with the king of Emityna, and we didn’t even know it,” said Turp.

“He wasn’t the king then,” said Fulger.

“It’s still weird,” said Turp.

A servant nervously led them through many halls within the castle. Lud didn’t recognize the path they followed so he couldn’t tell where they were going. The castle was so grand, Lud thought it was a shame they hadn’t had the chance to explore it further.

“How can Erus take back his thrown so easily?” asked Turp. “I know he used to be king, but I didn’t think King Ward would give up so easily.”

“Ward Eligo is very upset,” said Olim, “but he doesn’t have much of a choice in this decision. The king of Emityna is elected by the senators from each city, voting on behalf of their people. Normally, the original candidates are selected by the exiting king, but in this situation, the senators believed they had the authority to bend the rules because Erus had been a king previously. Ward didn’t take that very well.”

While his father spoke, Lud noticed the servants and visitors bowing as they passed.

“The moment Erus revealed his existence publicly, and the news spread that Ward Eligo had given so much influence over to a murderer, the senators demanded a meeting to reinstate Erus as king.”

Titan stood at the entrance to the throne room, holding the door open. Lud was happy to see the stone man again, despite the trouble the big goon had caused. He could even see the difference in Titan’s posture now that Leone was once again in control. Titan was more erect and, if it were possible, seemed more emotive.

Inside were numerous senators, business men, and people of prestige, many with a scribe poised to take notes. Lud had only seen drawings of most of these men and women previously.

“The senators think Erus is about to make his comeback speech,” whispered Olim into Lud’s ear, “but I think they might be in for a surprise.”

Lud watched Erus stand behind the golden podium and beckon attention with his hand. The audience gathered in the large throne room was instantly silent. Many were smiling. Lud could tell they trusted his man, just as he had known to trust him as Leone on the rooftops.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began Erus with a grand voice, “blessings and good fortunes to you and Emityna. Today is a bittersweet day. The displacement of Kind Ward Eligo was a truly unfortunate necessity, and I know that my return created an equally unexpected shock. I hope the official press-release on my absence will extinguish the multitude of rumors abounding. If you haven’t read it yet, please do.”

A few people muttered something to their neighbor.

“You should also know that Hydris Celo, the man who kidnapped Turp Paller, the sons of Olim Compograv, and my niece, Princess Ithaca Eligo, has been placed in a Far-Away cage, where he will be held for the duration of his imprisonment.” Few people clapped. “I can promise you that the sheets of metal mesh inside those cell walls are more than enough to contain his most powerful attacks.”

“In regards to the future of this country’s government, I’m afraid I must disappoint a few people. While there is no greater honor than to govern and lead this country, it is a path which I am no longer destined to follow. I have new duties requiring my constant devotion. This country needs a ruler strong enough to hold the reigns. Yes, I will continue in my efforts to keep this country safe, but I humbly decline the position of king of Emityna. Today, the senators shall accept my first official submission for Ward’s replacement.”

Many in the audience were looking around, trying to guess who the king might suggest. Lud already had his guess, but he tried not to think about it or else he might jinx it.

“Senators and citizens of Emityna, with great honor and excitement, I present for your approval, Olim Compograv.”

The crowd cheered, but none louder than Lud and his brothers.

“Looks like I was the one in for the surprise,” said Olim to his sons.

As Lud’s dad walked up to the podium and Erus Eligo, Lud saw the two guards standing on either side of Erus whistling and cheering. It seemed very unprofessional but Lud smiled. It was still weird to know his father was so popular, but at least he understood why. The people knew a great person when they saw one.

His father gave an exceptional speech.

Despite the hundreds of people who congratulated him, the significance didn’t sink in for Lud until much later in the day. That evening, he ate dinner in the massive dining room, and it hit him; this was the dining room where he might eat all his meals someday.

Lud wished he had caught on sooner, because his brothers already claimed the best rooms. Luckily, there was no shortage of second-best rooms. He picked one near the top because it connected to a large balcony outside. Their mother told them not to get ahead of themselves.

Neither Lud nor his brothers put much thought into their mother’s advice, instead Lud ran up into the room he had selected. Looking outside across what could be his future backyard, he saw the new courtyard decorations. Scattered throughout the grass, seventeen white, stone statues stood in various poses. Every Mesmor who fought against them at the Annubra stronghold, except the five which were destroyed, now ornamented the yard, reshaped the way Titan had been.

When Lud made his way down to the main hall, he saw Erus standing alone for the first time all day. He grabbed the opportunity to talk to the former king.

“I’m glad you kept Titan and didn’t put him with the other Mesmors,” said Lud.

“I agree, young Lud,” said Erus. “Titan is a very useful companion, as long as he is kept out of the wrong hands. Plus, I’ve grown very fond of him over the years. It’s not hard to understand why Natrix cared so much about him.”

“He was obsessed,” said Lud.

“You have to understand,” said Erus, “that Titan was the closest friend Natrix ever had. I imagine it would be like having a doll that you could make walk and talk. But this doll stood nine feet tall.”

“What if Natrix tries to reach Titan, or any of the other Mesmors, from inside his cage?”

“I once told you, Lud, I believe the ability which allows us to lift objects is the same basic ability that empowers Natrix and me to control the Mesmors. The Far-Away cage blocks that power completely.”

Lud remembered the damage Natrix caused inside the Annubra’s mountain and wondered how Erus could be so certain Natrix could be contained, but he changed the subject. “Can my dad control Mesmors?”

“No, he can’t, although he’s tried many times. To be honest, I hope we never find another person whose power is specialized in the way Natrix’s was; you have seen the trouble it can cause.”

For a few seconds, Lud imagined himself controlling the Mesmors, but then he stopped. He didn’t want that much responsibility. He changed the subject. “What will happen to Ithaca now that her dad isn’t the king? Where are they going to go?”

“Ward reluctantly accepted the spacious mansion I offered him on the northeast corner of Chamberhaven; it’s not very far from here. However, as far as Ithaca is concerned, Ward has chosen not to pay for private tutors for Ithaca, a free service in the castle, and will be sending her to a private boarding school.”

“How far away is that?” asked Lud.

“It is in Thermae, five cities west of here.”

Strangely, Lud found he was very disappointed at this. “Okay, thanks Erus.” He tried to leave, but one more question was pressing on his mind. “Um....” He paused for a moment, trying to find the right words to use. A question had been bothering him, but he worried about what people might think if he asked it. After a few seconds, he decided he trusted Erus enough to ask. “Erus, there’s something I don’t understand. We all saw how violent and dangerous Natrix is. I mean... he killed Dinolanas, both in the stronghold and in the forest. I saw him instruct one of his men to kill a man from the boat, and he was willing to use my brothers and me and then kill us when he was done.” Lud paused again. “I guess I just don’t understand...”

“You want to know why Natrix hasn’t been put to death.”

“Yeah.” Lud was relieved he didn’t have to ask it.

“The problem is,” said Erus, “our law doesn’t recognize the murder of Dinolanas as a crime, since none are known to exist in this country. The people know them only as folk legends and myths.”

Lud tried to think of an argument.

“Also, we have no real proof that Natrix ever killed a human himself, either with his hands or his powers.”

“But he instructed a killing,”

“Furthermore, Emityna does not punish crimes committed outside Emityna. The case against Natrix is based on what we know happened in this country. This includes his attempted murder of the castle guards twenty years ago, as well as his kidnapping of you children.”

Lud hung his head.

“As it is, the people revolt against the death penalty. They would be exceptionally angry if they believed somebody received it unjustly.”

“So, how long until he is released?” Lud assumed Natrix would immediately come after him.

“The jury gave Natrix a life sentence. Listen, Lud,” said Erus, putting a hand on Lud’s shoulder. “Be careful how willing you are to hand a person their death. There is no more severe punishment than that. When you see it given, take note, for the lesson to learn is substantial, but do not become upset when it is not given. Instead, remember that the person has been given his or her life back, and for criminals, that’s often the only thing they really care about. Change is possible. Natrix has been given a second chance inside that jail cell. If he is like your brother Rapyo, he will realize his mistake and choose to accept this second chance.”

“Where is Rapyo?” asked Lud.

“He is making a return trip to Kindlia, where he will try to convince Miss Potesti to return home.”

Lud couldn’t stop himself from wondering whether Rapyo was still trying to prove his importance. Had he really accepted his second chance?

“Listen to me, young Lud. Your days will be much more peaceful, and you will soon forget about Natrix if you choose to forgive him for the wrongs he’s done to you.”

“Yeah, maybe...” said Lud. He wasn’t sure he believed that.

Erus laughed. “Run along, young Lud. Begin exploring what might become your new house.”

Lud smiled, thanked Erus, and left.

He wanted to go exploring. The possibilities held within this castle excited him to no end.

But he didn’t.

Instead, Lud walked straight out the front entrance, down the stairs, and out the gate into Chamberhaven’s streets. He kept going until he came to the small building he had been told about. A royal guard was stationed at the door. If any of the citizens passing quickly by wondered why such a guard was standing by an otherwise insignificant building, they gave no notice.

Lud moved straight to the guard. “I want to talk to the prisoner Natrix.”

“Are you Compograv’s son?” asked the guard.

“Yeah, I’m Lud.”

“You look like your dad.” Moving so Lud could walk past, the guard joked, “the prisoner should be easy to find; he’s the only one in there.”

The guard followed Lud inside. There were two rows of four cells in the small building, each with only a small window to look into. Thin black lines crossed the windows, but Lud could easily see that every cell was empty, except the one on the end which held Natrix.

“Can he hear me?” asked Lud to the guard.

“He should be able to.”

Lud put his face up to the glass.

Without the slightest movement, Natrix sat in a silver chair next to his tiny bed, staring at the wall.

“Hello, Natrix. It’s Lud.”

Feeling incredibly awkward, Lud decided to skip any more formalities and say what he came to say.

“A life sentence is a long time to think about what you’ve done, especially if Mrs. Vollup is right, and you never get older.”

Natrix said nothing, continuing to stare at the wall.

“King Erus said this is your second chance. Although I don’t think you deserve it, I suppose if I can have one, you can too. Just don’t mess this up and make me look stupid for coming down here.”

Again Natrix was silent. Lud wanted to think his words were getting through, but something about Natrix’s eyes told Lud that Natrix’s mind was somewhere else.

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CREATIVE WORKS BY TREVOR MICHAEL MOUW

Find more work by Trevor at his website: http://www.TrevorMichaelMouw.com

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Chapter 19
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

TREVOR MICHAEL MOUW

http://www.TrevorMichaelMouw.com

Trevor created the character Lud Compograv and the beginnings of his telekinetic world during an elective Creative Writing class in college. Although he was a Psychology major, he couldn’t ditch the bug called writing. After graduation, Trevor had a hard time trying to find a job without a Master’s degree. He knew he had six months of grace time before student loans needed to be paid, so every morning he walked to a coffee shop in his small Iowa town and wrote this book for fun.

That was a few years ago. Since then, Trevor went back to college at Iowa State University and earned an additional degree to teach high school English. He signed his first contract to begin teaching in the fall!

Trevor lives in Iowa with his wife, Jordan. They enjoy reading, writing, drawing, and football (She not quite as much as he).