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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Cyrus LongBones and the Curse of the Sea Zombie

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Cyrus LongBones and the Curse of the Sea Zombie

 By Jeremy Mathiesen

 

Text copyright © 2017 Jeremy Mathiesen All Rights Reserved

 

Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

To Sally and Oscar Mathiesen

for without their brave journey, this adventure would never have been possible

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 1

THE END

 

 

RUN…”

Cyrus turned in the direction of the voice. The chamber was cold, dank and ill lit by dying candles weeping over craggy ledges. He smelled something sweet, yet foul in the air. Then it struck him. It was the reek of fear.

He searched the darkness. Several rusted manacles draped against the damp walls, and the odd meat hook jangled overhead.

“Fibian,” Edward cried.

Cyrus looked to the small spider. Edward clung to Cyrus’ shoulder, pointing forward. Cyrus peered ahead.

At the room’s center, Fibian lay strapped to a thick, wooden chair.

“Angels,” Cyrus gasped, “What happened?”

Candlelight illuminated Fibian’s sharp features. He was haggard, a ghost of himself. His face was bloody and battered, his nose broken and his eyes swollen. Deep lacerations outlined his brow and cheekbones. The way he sat, Cyrus suspected his ribs were broken too.

“Run,” Fibian repeated, wheezing, “Before she returns.”

He moved his head, gesturing to the rear of the room.

Cyrus rushed to Fibian’s side. He began to unbuckle the leather straps around his wrists. Long dried blood stained the chair’s deep grain.[*                             *]

“ No, go- now,” Fibian coughed, blood spattering his lips.

Cyrus unstrapped his friend’s ankles, contemplating their escape. The only way out was the stairway. But that was suicide. Yet if they stayed…

Cyrus hefted Fibian out of the chair and hauled him to the double doors.

“Get ready to run,” Cyrus whispered.

“No,” Fibian begged.

“Cyrus,” Edward pleaded, digging his legs into Cyrus’ flesh.

Cyrus unbolted the steel lock. Something heavy clicked behind them. He turned. Beyond the shadows, a hidden door in the back wall began to edge open. A long, spidery hand reached through the crack. Cyrus’ legs grew weak. A bald, crooked, old woman emerged through the passage.

“The Sea Zombie,” Edward gasped.

The creature’s white powdered face and wooden, costume nose was spattered with dried blood. She grinned like a snarling wolf. The rip in her membrane-thin cheeks exposed dark, decaying gums.

She began to move forward with a cripple’s gait, but Cyrus was not fooled. He knew crushing strength hid beneath the grey, tattered robes.

She looked at Cyrus through black, oily eyes, their deep sockets drilled into jutting cheekbones.

“Murderer…” she said in a breathless whisper, “Thiefff!” she spat, as she raised her blackened, right arm.

The right arm that, because of Cyrus, was now handless…

Chapter 2

THE BEGINNING

 

 

TWO MONTHS EARLIER

 

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD CYRUS LONGBONES rushed along the sandy shore, mindful of the Dead Fence lurking in the nearby forest. The sky was heavy and grey; the wind crisp and salty. Raindrops lashed the beach.

“We need to finish the boat tonight,” Cyrus said, “If I’m not back before dinner…”

He did not need to say more. His blackened right eye told Edward enough.

“I’m afraid,” said Edward.

The velvety spider, crouched on Cyrus’ shoulder, “I’ve seen strange things over there. Weird blue lights in the night.”

“It’s an island, like Virkelot,” Cyrus huffed, running with a sheet of silk in one hand and a steel pin in the other, “You’re letting those ghost stories get the better of you.”

But the truth was; Cyrus was afraid as well. It was just that his stepmother terrified him more.

Edward was an odd, little spider. He had a yellow mark on his back that looked similar to a skull-and-crossbones. Four years earlier, a twelve-year-old Cyrus had found the seven-legged orphan clinging to a web. The boy had said hello to the creature, and the strangest thing had happened; the spider had said hello back. As Cyrus spoke, Edward began to mimic everything he would say. Over the years, Cyrus taught him how to speak and shared with him all he knew. Cyrus had also asked about his missing eighth leg, but like most of his young childhood, Edward could not recall that memory.

Cyrus cut through a withered field of bluish-grey grass and tramped over several half-buried, stone tiles. The ancient stones were weather-beaten, and each looked as large as the town churchyard. He had always wished to ask someone where they had come from, and why they ran along the entire coast, but knew he never could. He was not supposed to be on that side of the fence…

“Angels,” Cyrus cursed, as he slipped in the mud.

He fell to his bottom on a soggy patch of grass. He managed to keep Edward and the sheet out of the filth.

At the south end of the island flowed the island’s lone waterfall. The excess water from the village’s steam-powered contraptions drained into the man-made river; then into the sea. Over the years, the fall had carved its way through one of the stone tiles, clearing a lagoon where it met the ocean.

With time running out, Cyrus found his feet, waded through the pool and skirted in behind the sheet of water.  There lay the entrance to a cavern. The result of an old cave-in, Cyrus reckoned. The hairs on his neck prickled.

He hurried through the darkened entrance. The air smelled moist, yet stale, the damp, sandy floor squishing through his toes. The small cave opening gave way to yawning darkness. Cyrus looked up. A massive ceiling rose dome-like above his head; then vanished into shadows.

Cyrus moved to a ledge, collected a box of matches from beside a square tin and struck a match. The stick broke in his hand.

“Come on,” he said, trying to light a second.

The matchstick’s head sloughed off. The matches were damp.

“Hurry,” Edward said, “this place gives me the creeps.”

Cyrus tried a third. On the fourth strike it ignited. The acrid smell of sulfur filled the air. As he lit the lantern, the sulfuric scent was replaced by the oily odor of kerosene. The flame attempted to illuminate a chamber larger than the largest whale.

“Let’s go,” Cyrus said, moving deeper into the cavern, “My stepmom’s already suspicious.”

The cave’s interior smelled damp and stony. Torchlight danced on the bone yellow walls.

“We’re just going to scout it out first right, make sure it’s safe?” Edward asked.

“I promise,” Cyrus said, trying to appear unafraid, “Tomorrow I’ll skip school and we’ll sail to Myrkur Island. If all goes well, we can leave this place for good.”

Edward nodded, but his round face showed concern.

At the edge of the blackness, resting on the sandy floor, lay a small, three-hulled boat. The main hull was leaf-shaped and made of dark, dunkel wood panels. Two smaller hulls hung from the sides by four horizontal struts, and a dunkel wood mast rose a foot above Cyrus’ head.

He rushed to the boat. The lantern light exposed a sandy shore beyond, verging on the edge of a vast, underground lake. The reservoir looked deep and still as it drifted off into a black, watery abyss. Cyrus had always been too afraid to explore the dark pool, but he suspected that the lake ran underneath the entire village of Virkelot. A familiar gulping sound echoed in the murk.

Over the generations, the villagers had drilled and dug a network of wells and pipelines, and like huge straws, thick, leathery hoses plunged from the cavern’s ceiling, sucking gallon upon gallon of water up to the hard-working people above.

Cyrus set the lantern on the ground. The flame flickered, and for a brief moment, all went black.

“Be careful,” said Edward.

Cyrus pulled the spider silk sheet from beneath his arm and flapped it out like a tablecloth.

“Beautiful,” he whispered.

Unlike most spiders, Edward only had two eyes, and they watched in seeming anticipation as Cyrus tugged on the sail. It flexed and made a subtle humming noise. How could spider silk be so strong, Cyrus wondered?

“Will it fit?” he asked.

“I think so,” Edward said, smiling nervously.

The spider’s square teeth glinted in the dark.

Cyrus began to rig the mainsail to the mast and boom. The rigging was difficult at first, and he feared he would run out of rope, but as usual, Edward’s craftsmanship was perfect.

Cyrus moved back to the ledge and picked up the small, tin box. Inside, he kept an old, yellowed piece of paper with a drawing of a boat. The parchment smelled musty and decayed.

“Think it’ll float?” he asked, comparing the finished vessel to the sketch.

“I don’t know,” Edward said, crawling up Cyrus’ shoulder; towards the illustration.

Cyrus had discovered the drawing years ago in one of the preacher’s ancient texts. Seeing his chance to escape, he had stolen the page. The picture was crude and faded, and at first, words like ‘starboard,’ and ‘stern,’ were foreign to him, but through much study, he had learned what most of the terms meant.

“Now for the dam,” he said, collecting the pin and scrambling out the tunnel.

He followed the South River over the giant, stone tile and up into the forest. A square piece of wood, tied to a leather ball, hung from the boughs of a tree. Cyrus used a rope with a rock tied to one end to lower the two objects over the river. The board slid down a slot, and using the steel pin, locked into a square-shaped spillway, sealing a wooden river dam.

“Angels! The pin’s too big!” Cyrus swore.

“Just use a stick,” Edward said.

“No, it’s got to be smooth or we’ll never be able to unlock it. We have to do this right.”

“Then what now?” Edward asked.

“I’m going to have to break into my stepmom’s shed,” Cyrus said.

“No, if you’re caught-” Edward gasped.

Ding, ding. Ding, ding. Ding, ding.

“The dinner bell!” Cyrus whispered, his flesh goose prickling.

“Go,” Edward demanded, “Don’t worry about me. Just go!”

Cyrus scrambled to his feet, turning to leave.

“I’ll be back tomorrow. Be ready.”

“You’re sure you still want to do this?” Edward called after him.

Cyrus did not bother to reply. A familiar feeling of cowardice and shame twisted in his belly. His skin flushed hot. He began to dash back over the massive, stone slabs; through the windy footpath, the trail driving him hard towards the dark and mysterious Hekswood Forest.

Chapter 3

VIRKELOT VILLAGE

AND

THE DEAD FENCE

 

HEKSWOOD FOREST SURROUNDED each side of the Dead Fence, and both the woods and the wall encircled the entire perimeter of Virkelot Island. The odor of stagnant mud and skunk cabbage filled Cyrus’ nostrils as he sped along the trail. He was careful not to snag his denim sleeves on the coils of prickle bushes that crawled like barbed serpents through the thickets. The thorns looked of polished, black steel and their points dripped with yellow poison.

Shining eyes began to emerge out of the shadows as Cyrus delved deeper into Hekswood. Overhead, crooked dunkel trees wove their limbs together like so many lies, with only the finest of sunbeams able to penetrate their depths. At his feet, a thin layer of fog blanketed a skin of dead leaves.

The forest came to an abrupt stop several feet from a ten-foot-high wall. The ground began to wilt and crack as it neared its thick pickets. Over the generations, the Dead Fence had become less wood and more like stone, its red paint blistered and faded.

With a running jump, Cyrus began to clamber over the top. He kicked and pulled against gravity. The fence felt rigid and frozen to the touch. He attempted to swing his right leg up over the wall. His foot caught; then slipped from the edge. He tried a second time. His shoe snagged on the pickets and fell to the other side. On his third attempt, he drew a deep inhale and kicked with all his might. The muscles in his side cramped. Straining, he pulled himself atop the fence. Then, catching his breath, he slid down the wall’s interior and dropped to the ground. The earth cracked around his feet, exposing a network of decayed roots just beneath the soil. Cyrus collected his shoe and fit it to his foot.

Within the walled perimeter, Hekswood continued its advance. There, Cyrus penetrated the forest’s inner circle and carried on towards the Virkelot Ring Road.

Like the Dead Fence, the Ring Road rimmed the entire circumference of Virkelot, acting as a boundary line between the forest and Cyrus’ village. All streets and alleyways ended at that round road.

Cyrus peeked out from the underwood. There was no one in sight. Good, he thought. He would make it home in time for dinner. But he still needed that key…

He scrambled out onto the street. Potholes dented the gravel lane and several homes slouched along its inner edge. The cottages’ blue and grey exteriors had faded. Their grass roofs sagged overhead.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

A wiry hand clutched Cyrus by the neck. He could feel sharp nails stab into his flesh.

“Mom?”

Cyrus tried to look back. The grip was tight, the nails drawing blood.

“Just like your father, aren’t you? Always sneaking about like a little rat.”

She twisted him around to face her.

Cyrus’ stepmother, Llysa, was slender compared to most villagers, a little taller than Cyrus, with skin as pale as teeth. White strands of coarse hair slashed her death black mane.

“I wasn’t sneaking,” Cyrus said, his body flushing hot.

He heard his voice and hated how weak and pathetic he sounded.

“How many times do I have to tell you to stay away from that demon’s shrub, you little, ungrateful bastard?” Llysa said, her thin lips tightening in anger, “If you want to ignore village law and get yourself killed, that’s one thing, but you will not endanger or embarrass your half-brother and I as well.”

Cyrus had always thought she might have been beautiful at one time, but years of fear and hatred had sharpened her features into a soulless, lined mask.

“There’s no law that says you can’t go into Hekswood,” Cyrus said, regretting the words the second they left his lips.

WACK!

Llysa slapped him hard across the jaw. His vision flashed white and his blackened eye felt bruised to the bone. He began to taste blood.

“Don’t talk back,” she snarled, “You live under my roof, eat my food, you will do what I say. I didn’t ask to be burdened with an orphan, but I’ve done my duty. I’ve done what your tramp of a mother couldn’t, and what your cheating father wouldn’t. You’d best remember that.”

Furious, she began to drag Cyrus down the tree-lined road and towards the town square. He heard the large key ring jangle in the pocket of her grey, ankle-length dress. He needed that shed key if he was going to escape…

When they arrived at the village main street, Llysa dragged him past stout, grey-haired adults and round, white-haired children. All watched them out of the corner of their eyes. The smell of mud and animals filled the crisp, fall air.

“There goes Gunnar’s bastard,” said one young girl, from the balcony of a two-story shop.

Cyrus looked up and noticed that the girl was not alone. Beside her was Sarah Heiler. Sarah was not like the rest. She seemed thoughtful and kind. She was one of the few kids in the village that did not pick on Cyrus. She peered into his eyes, then quickly looked away.

“It ain’t right him being pointy-eared and skinny,” said an old woman.

She sat in a rocking chair beside the two girls, smoking a pipe.

“Where do you reckon he got those odd, blue eyes and yellow hair?” the first girl asked.

“His mother was a witch,” the old woman cackled.

Sarah’s face flushed red. Cyrus looked to the ground. His skin prickled and burned with humiliation.

His stepmother yanked him stumbling into a crowd and through a long lineup at the Virkelot Work Office.

“Back of the line,” shouted one man.

“You have plenty of work on your own farm,” shouted another.

“Mind your business, you greedy gluttons,” Llysa yelled back.

From there she pulled him along a small wooded trail and across ChickenLop Lane. When they reached the family farm, she hauled him through a shriveled apple orchard, past a burnt down barn and towards the family home.

The house was old, squeaky, and like most others in the village, painted pale blue. Thick tor grass grew from its sagging roof. A grey roof goat chewed at its bowed ridge.

Llysa pulled out the ring of keys to open the kitchen door. Cyrus focused on the shed’s skeleton key. The kitchen door was already open.

“Niels, how many times do I have to tell you to keep the doors locked?” Llysa yelled, “You never know who might try to break in.”

“Did you find him? Is he okay?” Cyrus’ half-brother replied.

His voice came from the pantry.

“He was right where I said I’d find the little sneak,” Llysa said, locking the door behind them, “hiding from his chores as usual. Just like his father, can’t pull his own weight.”

To Llysa, pulling your own weight seemed to mean moving piles of bricks from one spot; then moving them back. Or digging deep holes in the earth, only to fill them in again.

Cyrus’ half-brother Niels walked into the kitchen with a plate of steaks in his hands. He gave Cyrus a sorry smile.

Niels was taller than both his half-brother and mother, with broad, brick-like shoulders and a square jaw to match. He was a year and a half older than Cyrus, and had graduated school one year earlier. He kept his thick, grey hair short and neat.

“Grab a seat and dig in,” he said.

The table was spread with baked potatoes, roasted vegetables, fresh bread and a dish of warm, creamy butter.

Llysa shoved Cyrus into a seat, then sat down herself. The keys jingled in her pocket, seeming to taunt Cyrus.

“It looks amazing, Niels,” she said, “You’re such a hard worker. Why don’t you say grace?”

“Sure,” Niels said, smiling awkwardly.

He took a seat, clasped together his thick fingers, and said, “Oh Angel King, we thank you for the bountiful work you have provided for us, and for the Dead Fence which protects us. Please, bless our family and keep us safe, and pray that we always respect the boundaries that you have set forth for us. Thank work.”

“Thank work,” echoed Cyrus and his stepmother.

“So, how was work today, son?”

Llysa’s face seemed almost kind when she looked at Niels.

“Worked in the orchard all day,” he said, “Those trees aren’t what they once were, but they’ll live.”

“Such a hard-working boy,” Llysa said, “You take such good care of your mother. You’re nothing like your drunk of a father was.”

“What did you learn in school today, Cyrus?” Niels asked, changing the subject.

“The usual,” Cyrus said, “Work harder, not smarter or the Sea Zombie will get you.”

He and Niels chuckled at the familiar joke.

“Smart ass, eh?” Llysa said, “He wasn’t at school today. The little rat was playing hooky all day in the forest.”

She whispered the last part as if someone might hear.

“I didn’t,” Cyrus lied, “I was coming home from school, I swear.”

“Liar!”

His stepmother grabbed the plate of steaming vegetables and heaved it into his face.

“Mom, no!” Niels shouted.

The cauliflower and broccoli seared Cyrus’ chin and neck. He fell out of his chair trying to brush the burning vegetables off and broke a cup.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Llysa growled, “Go to your room and get out of my sight.”

Cyrus sat on the floor, covered in soggy greens. He stared up at his stepmother and half-brother. Niels looked as shocked and scared as Cyrus felt.

“Get to your room, now!” Llysa repeated, “And don’t worry about cutting school tomorrow, cause tomorrow you’re going to work with your brother.”

“No,” Cyrus gasped.

But he knew it was useless to argue. He picked himself up off the floor and retreated to his bedroom, alone, hungry and afraid.

 

*****

 

AT AROUND NINE O’CLOCK, Cyrus heard a knock.

“You awake?” asked the large, square silhouette opening the bedroom door.

“Niels? Everything okay?” Cyrus asked.

“Shhh, Mom’s sleeping.”

Niels walked over to the bedside and handed him a plate of meat and a glass of milk.

“I thought I’d bring you some dinner. Tomorrow you’re going to need your strength.”

“Thanks,” Cyrus said, stabbing at the steak.

Niels reached out and touched Cyrus’ cheek. He looked at his blackened eye and frowned.

“I know Mom’s hard on you,” he said, “but it’s tough for her with Dad gone. I don’t think she’d be so angry and bitter if…”

“If Dad hadn’t found me on the doorstep?” Cyrus finished.

“If Dad hadn’t died,” Niels said.

Cyrus nodded, unsure of what else to say.

“Tomorrow will be good, you’ll see,” Niels said, smiling, “We’ll get lots of work done. It’ll be fun.”

Then he said goodnight and retired to his own bedroom for the evening.

 

*****

 

SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, a shuddering jolt shook Cyrus awake. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he peered around the darkened bedroom. Everything seemed just as he had left it. He thought maybe the sensation had been part of a strange dream. Then he noticed the glass of milk on his bedside table sloshing about. Earthquake, Cyrus thought? Even though he had heard of them, he had never actually felt one on the island before.

Chapter 4

THE KEY

     

 

THE NEXT MORNING, after a cold breakfast of porridge and dry toast, Cyrus and Niels packed a lunch and headed out into the chill, moonlit morning. The scent of hay and damp soil permeated the farm. The brothers crossed a field of brown and purple mork wheat and walked towards an ivy-entangled tower. The tower rose fifteen feet above their heads and looked like a large barrel on stilts. At the base of the structure, Niels turned its rusted valve.

“Soil here just isn’t what it used to be,” he said, wiping, wet rust filings off his meaty palm.

Water began to spring out of the earth, quenching the stunted crop.

Behind the tower, like the bones of an ancient giant, slouched the burnt-down family barn. Cyrus stopped and stared. The barn looked so cold and alone in its grave.

“Come on,” Niels said, “Dad was a good man, a hard worker, no matter what Mom says.”

He took Cyrus by the shoulder and led him around to the tool shed.

“I’ve tried telling Mom we don’t need all these locks around the house,” Niels said, pulling out a ring of keys, “but she’s afraid blood-sucking klappen are going to break into the house in the middle of the night and run off with all our souls. She believes all those stories about fire-breathing dragons and giant wolves.”

Llysa’s keys, Cyrus thought. Niels unlocked the shed and began to load a wheelbarrow with the equipment they would need for the day’s work. This was Cyrus’ chance. His heart began to quicken. He could feel the veins in his neck swell. He entered the shed and started to look through buckets of nails and around shovels, picks and sledgehammers. His nose grew itchy with dust and rust. Cob webs clung to his ankles and sleeves. He would have to grab at least three steel pegs to get the perfect fit.

“Don’t worry about that stuff, Cyrus, I got what we need.”

Cyrus grew hot. He ignored his brother and continued to rummage through the cold, grimy tools.

“Cyrus?”

“Wait, I dropped something,” Cyrus said, still searching.

“What?” Niels asked, his square frame moving closer.

Cyrus prayed to the Angels as he picked through the last tin can he could find.

“Clothespins,” he whispered, through clenched teeth.

Niels put a meaty hand on his shoulder.

“Nothing I guess,” Cyrus answered, unable to think fast enough, “just thought I dropped something.”

He choked down his disappointment and reluctantly followed his brother out the shed empty-handed. I need those pins, he thought, I need to get away from this place. Niels began to turn the key in the lock. Cyrus searched his mind for some ploy, or excuse. How long would he have to wait for another opportunity like this? The lock clicked shut.

“No wait,” he blurted, his voice cracking.

He moved to the door, nudged his brother aside and unbolted the lock.

“Cyrus, what are you doing?”

He ignored Niels and began to search the shed, tossing aside buckets and bins and spilling nails and bolts.

“Thank the Angels,” he whispered, as finally he found what he was looking for in an old coffee tin.

He rubbed a thin coat of oil off the three pins and placed them in his pocket. Then he walked out of the shed.

“I’m not coming with you,” Cyrus said, refusing to look his brother in the eye, “There’s something I have to do.”

“What are you talking about?” Niels asked.

“You have to cover for me. You have to tell Mom I was with you.”

“Cyrus, don’t be stupid. You’re coming to work.”

“I’m not. Not today,” Cyrus said, looking at the ground.

“And what if Mom finds out?”

“She won’t. Not as long as you cover for me.”

“Angels Cyrus,” Niels cursed, “You can’t continue to go messing around with that forest, and never mind village law or the curse. Something evil waits past that wall. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Cyrus looked up. Evil? What was he saying? Niels looked away.

“It was a long time ago. I don’t like talking about it. But you stay away from that fence. And if you see glowing blue lights, you run.”

The blood seemed to have drained from Niels’ face. Glowing blue lights, hadn’t Edward mentioned something like that?

“I’m not going anywhere near that place,” Cyrus said.

“I hope you lie better than that if the Mayor’s men catch you. They’re not joking when they say they’ll hang you by the neck or worse.”

A small tremor shook the earth.

“An earthquake?” Cyrus gasped.

“It’s okay,” Niels said, “Mom’s been drilling a few new wells. Supposedly, they happened daily with all the well drilling during the Hoblkalf Water Works Project.”

Cyrus did not feel reassured.

“I’ll be back in time for dinner,” he said, turning in the direction of the nearby woods.

“Be careful,” Niels whispered after him.

Cyrus made his way quietly through the forest until he was out of earshot of his home. Then, like a fugitive, he started to dash through the woods, springing over fences and ducking under fallen trees.

He passed a grey mill bordering the Virkelot Ring Road, and took cover behind a blue-leafed bush. To the left of the structure, a windmill resembling a large, wooden dandelion, spun in the wind, pumping water up from the earth, into a nearby water tower.

Inside the mill, an old grey-haired man drank from a flask and mumbled to himself about the good old days as he tinkered with the mill-saw’s motor.

The steam engine resembled a large tin drum resting on its side with belts and pistons rising through its casing. Out the back, an exhaust pipe dripped water into a small canal. The engine’s excess moisture, along with many other village machines, helped feed tiny waterwheels, dams and other such mechanisms, before flowing out into the South River.

Cyrus hunched low. A twig snapped underfoot.

“Wha-, who’s out there?” the old man asked, looking up from his work.

Cyrus’ senses spiked. He took a deep breath, then sped across the gravel street and plunged into Hekswood Forest.

“ Wha- the Sea Zombie…” he heard from the old man’s direction.

Cyrus ran so fast down the trail that he nearly crashed face first into the Dead Fence. Ignoring his brother’s warning, and village law, he threw his lunch over the wall and climbed, struggling, to the other side. Then, within the forbidden part of the forest, he snatched up his bag and continued towards the seashore.

Dawn blanketed the coast in a dark, blue hue. The setting moon rimmed rocks and trees with a silvery sheen. The stars glistened like gold dust, and the breeze felt brisk and light. With time running out, Cyrus tucked his hair behind his pointed ears and ran towards his best friend’s tree.

Cyrus found Edward snoozing in one of the silk hammocks he had taught the spider to make.

“Edward?”

The little hammock shifted and sagged.

“Cyrus?” the spider asked, through half-shut eyes.

“Get up. We’re going.”

Edward sat straight up and accidentally flipped out of his bed, landing like a plump berry in Cyrus’ open hand.

“Right now?” Edward asked.

“Yes, quick, before sunrise,” Cyrus said, dashing towards the cave.

Within the cavern, Cyrus lit the lantern. The contours of the boat appeared out of the inky blackness.

“Secure the jib and mainsheet. I’ll go out and block the river,” he said, setting Edward down on the boat.

“What if it’s not safe over on the island?” Edward asked.

His two eyes grew moist and his seven legs began to tremble.

“That’s why we’re going over to explore it first, make sure it’s safe,” Cyrus said, “If it is, we’ll come back tonight, steal some supplies and leave tomorrow for good.”

The little spider nodded, took a deep breath, and began to spin silk to fasten the sails. Cyrus ran from under the waterfall and followed the South River over the stone tile, up into the forest.

He found the rope tied to the stone counterbalance and lowered the board and ball down from the trees. Then, searching his pockets, he collected the three pins of slightly varying thicknesses. Kneeling down, he slid the board into place, locked the lever and tried securing it with the first pin. The steel was too thin. The lever unlocked. He tossed the pin aside and tried the second. The steel was too thick. Wrenching it free, he dropped the fat piece and tried the third. It was even thicker.

“No…” he breathed.

His head grew light and his blackened eye ached. What was he going to do? He could not stand to be on that miserable island a day longer than needed. And would Niels let him back into the shed? Why had he not grabbed a few more pins just in case? Keep your head, there’s got to be a way to fix this, he thought. Then it occurred to him. He fought back the panic, took the fattest of the three pins and began to work it into the hole. The wood bit and stiffened around the steel. He picked up a rock and started to hammer at the pin. He looked up. Would someone hear? He decided he did not care. He was too close to escaping for good. He pounded the steel clean through, forcing the hole wider. Then again, he tried the medium-sized piece. It jammed. He worked it around a few times until it fit perfectly. He fell to his seat, relieved and out of breath. The river had been damned, and the waterfall would not impede their craft’s voyage.

Back along the shore, he ran through the trickling fall and into the cave. Edward skittered across the boom and bit a loose thread from the mainsheet.

“That’s the last of it,” he said, springing onto Cyrus’ arm.

“Then this is it.”

It was time. Time to do what he had planned to do, dreamed of doing for so long. Cyrus grew hot and clammy. What if all the stories were true, the monsters, the Sea Zombie? He thought of the alternative, going home to his stepmother. He made up his mind. He walked to the ledge, collected the lantern and placed it in the boat. Then he moved to the bow and began to drag the craft out of the cave and towards the sea.

“Edward, hold on.”

He hauled the boat over the grating sand, through the pool where the waterfall had previously poured, and into the ocean. The cold water lashed at his legs as waves crashed over the prow. The pontoons bounced and jostled.

“Quick, hop in,” Edward said, from his shoulder.

Cyrus threw his body over the side and into the craft. Then he clumsily found his seat, grabbed an oar and began to paddle. The surf foamed and frothed. His hands felt tender gripping the damp wood. His back strained with each stroke. He looked out into the sea, felt it roil beneath him. A sense of helplessness began to creep into his bones.

Once they were beyond the chopping waves, he looked down at the hull. There was a small pool of water from where the waves had crashed over, but the craft itself seemed watertight.

“It works,” Edward said, “The boat works.”

Cyrus exhaled a tense breath. He continued to row the boat towards their destination, Myrkur Island.

Besides Virkelot, Myrkur was the only other island around for as far as the eye could see. It was much smaller than Cyrus’ island, yet shared its same dome-like shape. Because it was on the forbidden side of the fence, the villagers considered it cursed and haunted and ignored its very existence. The only true evil Cyrus had ever crossed was waiting for him at home.

“Cyrus, the sails.”

In the commotion, the sails had become unraveled and were half blowing in the wind. Cyrus threw the oar to the ground and started to untie the mainsail and jib. The two sheets floundered helplessly as waves chopped against the craft. Cyrus controlled the mainsheet and rudder and turned the boat into the southern wind. The sails began to flap and flail. He started to doubt their design.

Fwump!

The sheets filled to their full girth. The boat jerked forward as if being pulled by a pod of whales. Cyrus felt electricity tingle through his limbs. Freedom! The craft bucked through the whitecaps and started to veer off course. He began to panic. He forced himself to relax. He had seen his friend use the wind many times to float his web from one branch to the next.

“Edward, what now?”

“Hard right,” the spider replied, running from one shoulder to the next.

Cyrus cranked the rudder left, steering the boat right. The sails began to flutter and fade.

“Duck,” Edward shouted.

The wind caught the starboard side of the mainsheet. Like an axe man’s blow, the boom swung portside. Cyrus hunched. The boom clipped a few strands of his hair. He pulled hard on the mainsheet. The sails caught another belly full of wind. He had to hold back his excitement as he reestablished control over the ever-rushing craft.

The two trespassers sailed through the dawn with sea spray in their faces and briny air strengthening their resolve. They zigzagged their way towards Myrkur Island with only the seabirds as witnesses to their bold endeavor, or at least that is what Cyrus thought…

 

 

FROM THE DISTANT SHORE, keen eyes and a sharp wit stalked the newcomers. It watched with deep interest as the two interlopers neared its forsaken island.

Chapter 5

THE SECRET STAIRS

 

 

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, Cyrus and Edward reached Myrkur Island. Cyrus dragged the boat up the beach and into the cover of the woods. The scent of dried kelp clung to the shore like a fog.

“We made it,” Cyrus said, exhaling a shaky breath.”

“What now,” Edward asked, brushing sand from his fur.

“We scout the island,” Cyrus replied, “We’ll make our way to the southern shore. If all seems safe, we stick to the plan; head back to Virkelot, steal supplies and leave for good in the morning.” 

They hid the craft under several branches and fern leaves and began to explore the forest. The trees and undergrowth looked very similar to Hekswood and if Cyrus had not known better, he would have sworn that they were still on Virkelot.

“Look,” Edward hissed.

He crawled along Cyrus’ shoulder and pointed a shaky leg at a nearby footpath.

“How is that possible?” Cyrus asked, “No one’s supposed to live here.”

The path led into the woods and was overgrown with vines and poisonous creepers.

“You hear that?” Edward asked.

Crack!

The sound came from the trees. Cyrus froze. Barely audible under the wash of the tide, he heard twigs snap and pop underfoot and branches scratch against skin… Or was it fur? Then it was gone.

“A wild pig maybe,” he said, trying to fight back the fear, “I think whatever made this path is long gone. It hasn’t been used in years.”

Edward’s hair stood on end and his eyes were wide and searching. Cyrus found a stick and began to bushwhack their way along the neglected trail. Scavenger birds squawked from tangled trees and rats scurried through ragged shrubs.

“It’s weird,” Edward said, “the animals here don’t seem to be as frightened of me.”

“The animals are no more afraid of you here than anywhere else,” Cyrus replied.

But that was a lie. There was a strange absence of rodents and sea gulls near Edward’s tree, and the one time that Cyrus had tried to sneak his best friend home, the forest creatures howled and fled as if a storm approached.

Cyrus saw movement through the woods to his right. At first, he thought it was his shadow, for the dark shape too seemed tall and slender. His pulse quickened. A deer maybe? It was too small. He began to track the figure out of the corner of his eye. Its motions were slow and graceful, like a cat through grass.

“Watch out!” Edward screamed, digging his legs into Cyrus’ arm.

Cyrus turned and found himself at the edge of a chasm.

“Holy Sea Zombie!” he gasped, teetering at the verge.

The rent was about four feet wide. It cut across the path, delving deep into the forest on either side. His legs felt numb. Stumbling, he stepped back from the pit, loosening a patch of gravel from the edge. The pebbles rained into the chasm. Several breaths passed before,

Sploosh!

“Edward, you okay?” Cyrus asked, his breath labored

“It sounds like another underground lake,” Edward said, panting, “like under Virkelot. The cavern’s roof must be starting to cave in.”

Cyrus looked about for the thing that had distracted his attention. The shadow seemed to have disappeared.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes on the trail,” Edward said.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

The two continued deeper into the woods. The smell of mud and forest cabbage blanketed the earth.

By late afternoon they arrived at the southern tip of Myrkur Island. There, the forest receded into the island’s white, stone foundation; then rolled off into a steep cliff. The bluff rimmed the entire southern coast. As they walked down its slope, they saw a vast underwater sandbar that surrounded the land.

“I’ve never seen the ocean look so clear,” Edward said.

Cyrus peered down the slope. His stomach twisted. Someone, or something had cut a stairway into the island’s face.

“Edward, look,” he whispered.

The wind-worn stairs snaked over the cliff side and out of sight. What if they had discovered the Sea Zombie’s den, or the lair of some troll or demon? Cyrus wanted to run, leave this place and never come back. He weighed his options. Go home to his stepmother, or explore the strange pathway. Summoning all his courage, he began to make his way down.

“What are you doing?” Edward asked, skittering around his neck.

“If we’re going to live here, we have to see where it leads,” Cyrus said, his voice quivering.

He hugged his body to the wall as he descended the stairs. The cliff’s face was smooth like a massive egg. His heart raced and his flesh grew cold and sweaty. He reached the end of the steps. There lay a large plateau. The stone bluff acted as a threshold to two yawning caverns.

“The caves are mirror images of one another,” Cyrus said, forcing himself to peer into each.

Both entrances were oval, and their ceilings at least ten times taller than Cyrus. A draft of sea air gusted through both, as if the very island exhaled breath.

“Come on, this is far enough,” Edward said, “Let’s turn back.”

“I don’t like this either,” Cyrus said, “but if we’re going to leave home, we have to know what this is.”

Carefully, they entered the cave on the left and walked into the depths of the island.

“The walls are so smooth,” Cyrus whispered, gliding his fingers along the yellowish stone, “They look almost hand finished.”

At the end of the tunnel, they found that they did not need a lantern. Both caves opened up into an even larger, brighter cavern. Cyrus craned his head out of the tunnel and Edward poked his head out of Cyrus’ hair.

Another pair of cave openings lit its interior. The passages to the east and west were several times larger than the one the two friends had entered. The ocean sprayed outside of each as sea gulls flew through them like threads through the eye of an oversized needle.

“Look at that,” Cyrus said, as he entered the chamber, “Somebody carved pools in the ground.”

Near the back of the cave lay mirror image ponds. Dark purple barnacles framed the pools edges and their black waters reflected their surroundings like glass.

For a moment, in the western pond, Cyrus thought he saw blue lights move below the surface.

“Edward, did you see that?”

“What?”

Cyrus looked again. The lights had vanished.

“ Nothing- I guess…”

He turned his gaze from the pools to the vaulted ceilings. The arches were symmetrical with cracks running through the stone like that of a fractured pot. Long, dark roots had forced their way through the rents. Water dripped from the tendrils like tears.

“I think this whole place was carved out by hand,” Cyrus said.

He turned and saw a round wooden door set into the cavern wall.

“Angels help us,” Edward said, spindling down from his friend’s ear.

Cyrus stood frozen. What sort of creature waited beyond that door? Why was he risking his life for this? He felt his black eye; remembered again the home he would be returning to.

The door did not seem to be part of the cave’s original design. Cyrus forced himself to move closer and study the hatch’s details. An undisturbed, salty film clung to the metal and wood, and sand filled the cracks between the door and the wall. With a shaky hand, he reached for the handle.

“What are you doing?” Edward gasped.

“The hinges are all rusted through. This door hasn’t been opened in ages.”

The metal latch felt grimy with salt. Carefully, Cyrus began to open the weather-beaten hatch. The hinges crumbled and the covering crashed to the ground like a broken shield. Cyrus’ heart jumped and his skin prickled. Sunlight shone through the entranceway. Freshly churned dust danced and swirled in its beam. He masked his nose with his denim shirt and peered into the egg-shaped room, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. The air smelled of old potato sacks.

“Someone used to live here,” he whispered, noticing tattered fishnets and oil paintings hanging from the curved walls.

The depictions were of dark woods and seas. In the center of the room, on a large wooden table, several teardrop-shaped glasses sat on metal stands. Dust and cobwebs clung to the apparatus, as if they would collapse without their aid.

Every muscle in Cyrus’ body tensed as he passed through the threshold.

“What is all this?” he asked, peering about.

Edward said nothing.

Cyrus stepped towards the table and inspected a pair of rusted tweezers and a long skinny knife that was more handle than blade.

“Don’t touch anything,” Edward hissed.

Cyrus studied a dried turtle skeleton that lay on the table.

“Someone used twigs and moss to model a forest, fence and village on the top of its shell.”

“Who ever lived here must have been mad,” Edward replied.

Against the wall, a large wooden bookcase brooded over several volumes of leather bound books. To its left hung a steel rack that displayed vials of animal organs as well as several reptile skeletons.

Cyrus felt movement from the entryway. He spun. The door stood empty.

“Cyrus…”

He looked to where Edward sat frozen on his shoulder. The spider pointed a long, needle-like leg to the back of the room. In a darkened corner sat a clothed skeleton with a book in one hand, and a quill pen in the other. Cyrus’ limbs tingled and butterflies filled his ribs.

“It’s a man,” he whispered.

He forced himself to move closer.

“Cyrus, no.”

The skeleton wore a pair of blue overalls and a sealskin jacket and boots. On what had once been its face, rested a pair of wire-framed glasses. A web stretched from its skull to its hands, and a large, brown maus spider occupied a finger. It scurried off its perch and into the skeleton’s eye socket.

“I think the old guy died writing something,” Cyrus said.

He crept over to the dead man’s bedside. The air smelled like a disused attic.

After a moment’s hesitation, Edward asked, “What’s it say?”

Cyrus leaned as close as he dared and read the text, “‘Early winter, day eleven thousand, three hundred and fifteen. The blue-eyed phantom watches me from the water. Too tired for further study, need rest…’ from there it just trails off.”

“Blue-eyed phantom?” Edward asked, his fur bristling, “Cyrus, we need to go!”

“Just a sec.”

Cyrus pulled the book out of the skeleton’s grasp. Its hand crumbled to dust.

“Sorry.”

He brushed the book off and stuffed it under his arm. Then he sprang across the room and gathered up the strange turtle skeleton with the model village on its back.

He and Edward rushed out of the dead man’s dwelling. As they crossed the entryway, they found fresh, webbed footprints leading from the nearest pool. Cyrus froze, cringing as if about to be struck. The blue-eyed phantom…

“Run,” Edward hissed.

Cyrus shook the terror from his limbs and scrambled out the caverns. He hurried back through the forest with Edward looking over their shoulders and set sail under the dying sun.

Myrkur was not safe. That was clear. But Virkelot seemed little better. What was Cyrus going to do? The book! He had to read the book.

Chapter 6

THE ODDFOOT JOURNAL

 

IT WAS JUST AFTER SUNSET when Cyrus stumbled into the kitchen and found his brother and stepmother hunched over the dinner table. The kitchen smelled of beef stew, but the round table stood bare. Niels looked up, his face pale.

“Where were you all day?” Llysa asked, staring down at her hands clasped on the table.

Her black hair cast a dark shadow across her face.

Cyrus looked to Niels. Niels shook his head slowly but Cyrus could not read the sign.

“I was helping Niels,” he lied, his stomach turning.

Niels’ head slumped.

“All day?” his stepmother asked, in an even tone.

Her calmness sent tingles over Cyrus’ flesh.

“ Mm- most of it,” he said, growing sweaty and hot.

Niels shifted in his chair.

“And where did you go after that?” his stepmother continued, looking up.

She wore a faint smile that did not reach her eyes. Niels shot Cyrus a look. What was its meaning?

“The Western Woods,” he finally said.

“And what were you doing there?” she asked.

“Ga-gathering berries.”

Llysa reached down to her lap and brought up a leather belt.

“Gathering berries after a long day’s work?” she said in an almost sweet voice, “You’re a little liar. Niels needed your help. Where were you?”

“Mom, I was fine,” Niels started to say.

His mother cut him off, “And where are these so-called berries?”

“ I- ate them,” Cyrus said.

His eyes shifted back and forth between Llysa and the belt.

“We both know you weren’t with Niels, or gathering berries. If you were, I would have found you. So I’m not going to ask you again. Where were you?”

Llysa rose from her seat, her voice becoming a growl. Cyrus’ hair bristled and a chill sweat coated his flesh.

“I was in the Western Woods,” he stammered.

She started to move slowly towards him around the table. He wished he had taken his chances and stayed on Myrkur Island.

“I also hunted a little near the North River. I swear.”

“Liar!”

Llysa threw a chair aside and lunged at Cyrus. Niels stood up.

“Mom, please, don’t,” he shouted

“You stay out of this.”

Cyrus cowered away, his back crashing against the kitchen door, “Please, no. I’m telling the truth.”

She grabbed him by the hair and let the belt unravel.

“I won’t tolerate lying in this household,” she shouted, pulling him up by the roots.

Raising the belt high, she bared her teeth and whipped at his backside. Instinctively, Cyrus tried to shield himself. The blow struck his arms. He clenched his teeth, fighting back a scream. It felt as if he had been slashed with a blade.

“Stop covering up or I’ll get the stick!” she snarled.

“Please, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cyrus begged.

She whipped him a second time across the forearms.

“Aaahh!”

The pain was too much. He pulled his arms away. She lashed at the back of his thighs. The sting was like a glowing rod of iron.

“Aaaahhh!”

Again, he shielded himself.

“I said move those arms,” she shouted.

But Cyrus could not any more than he could keep himself from shrieking. She began to whip at him with wild fore and backhand strikes. Cyrus fell against the wall and curled up fetal. She struck him around the head and shoulders. Cyrus took most of the blows on the arms and hands. Finally, he kicked at her ankles and scrambled free, crawling across the floor and recoiling into a corner of the pantry.

“How dare you lift a hand to me!” she spat.

Rage filled her hate-creased face. She grasped the belt at its leather end.

“Mom no!” Niels cried.

She raised the belt high and swung the metal buckle around her head in a single, smooth circle. Cyrus’ eyes grew wide. He tried to somehow scurry further into the pantry’s corner. She lashed at him with a furious, snarling grunt. Wincing, he spun away. The steel buckle caught him in the ribs.

“Aaaaahh!”

Hot, white pain engulfed his side. Instinctively his back arched as if shot.

“Mom, that’s enough,” Niels said, stepping between his mother and brother.

“You get to your room, you ungrateful little bastard,” Llysa said to Cyrus.

Her chest heaved and her hair stuck to her sweaty face.

“We’ll talk more about this in the morning.”

Stumbling, and barely able to breathe, Cyrus fled to his room and shut the door tight behind him. He took several moments to catch his breath. Then, cringing in pain, he blocked the door with a wooden chest. He winced every time he moved or twisted. His arms were covered in dark, red streaks. He took his shirt off and inspected his side in a round wall mirror. Like a hot brand, the steel belt buckle had stamped its imprint into his flesh, leaving what looked like a bloody capital E in his ribs. He shook all over, the terror and adrenalin slowly ebbing from his system.

He wanted to kill his stepmother, choke her by her scrawny, little neck. He began to fantasize about striking back at her. Grabbing his own belt and lashing at her with the steel end. Watching her beg for mercy and not receiving it. He thought about lighting the house on fire, watching her burn in the middle of the night. She would see Cyrus beyond the blaze and scream to him for help. But he would only stare back at her, and in that moment, she would know that he had had his revenge.

But what if Niels was somehow caught in the blaze? Or what if Niels went in after her and was killed? Cyrus would never forgive himself. No, it was best just to run away and escape. Escape! The journal, he suddenly remembered.

His blood began to cool and his breath slowed to an even pace. He moved to his bedroom window, opened it and grabbed the book and turtle skeleton from where he had hidden them below the sill. He stashed the skeleton under his bed, then brushed the mud off the journal’s jacket. The pages smelled of dried wood. He looked to the door and listened for intruders. Hearing only the clatter of cutlery, he lit a small lamp, rolled into bed and opened the thick journal to the first page. The flame’s glow flickered and danced on the yellow paper. The parchment felt of autumn leaves, and even though the pages were water stained, the careful printing was still legible.

“The Jimothy OddFoot Journal,” he whispered, as he read the title.

He opened the book to the first entry and read aloud, “‘Day one. It is the sixteen hundred and seventy-fifth year after the great siege.’”

That was almost thirty years ago… Cyrus thought.

 

Made the long crossing to Myrkur by raft. Strange creatures inhabit these waters. Heard breathing and splashing out in the night and something kept pushing up against the raft. Also, saw blue lights moving below the surface. Beginning to fear I’ve made the wrong decision by fleeing Virkelot. Safe on land now and have set up camp on the northern shore for the evening. Rather cold and suffering chest pains. Plan to search for a more suitable home in the morning.

 

Day 2,

Something was in the camp during the night. Strange hand and footprints on supplies. Armed with a knife, I’m off to seek out a more fortified shelter.

Day 2, second entry.

Cleared a path to southern tip of island and have found a strange system of caves. The caverns look like they might be the ruins of some ancient inhabitants. Found a small hollow on the southwestern side of caves. Hope it will serve as a safe refuge.

 

Cyrus leafed through several pages of Jim’s journal that described him adjusting to his new life on Myrkur. In the beginning, Jim had fed poorly, forced to snare small frogs and rabbits for food. But over time he had cultivated several small vegetable gardens and learned various ways to catch fish.

Cyrus discovered that Jim had been an orphan raised by his grandfather. When his granddad had died, he had decided to leave his life of tax collecting and follow his dreams of animal study and research. Jim had wanted to understand how a caterpillar could transform into a butterfly, or how a dog’s sense of smell could be so keen. And how could birds leave the island for the winter, only to navigate themselves home the following summer?

It seemed that with the exception of his granddad, Jim had never really enjoyed life on Virkelot, or living amongst its people. 

Cyrus heard footsteps, then a knock at the door. His heart jumped. He blew out the lantern, hid the book below the covers and pretended to sleep. The person tried the knob. The door gently bumped against the chest. They attempted to push the door open. The chest began to grind against the floor. The grinding stopped. After a long moment, Cyrus heard something touch the ground. Then footsteps began to pad away. What was his stepmother up to, he thought?

He let several tense moments pass. When he felt all was clear, he relit the lantern. Then, keeping one eye on the door, he continued to read. He arrived at the Day 50 entry. He could not help but notice that Jim had rushed his usually tidy handwriting.

 

Day 50,

Moments ago, had first encounter with the strangest creature. I was crouched behind the stove, repairing the chimney, when the thing crawled in on all fours. It was hard to see by candlelight, but its skin was black and sleek, and it looked the size of a tall, underfed child. Like a cat, it sniffed and studied several objects in the room.

It must have sensed my presence, for, without warning, it stood on hind legs and, with glowing blue eyes, turned in my direction. In the darkness, could not discern its face, but its eyes seemed to grow brighter as it looked about.

With frog-like agility, it leapt from the cave and dashed out of the door. Damp, webbed hand and footprints remain on the floor, with only the faintest scent of seawater in the air.

Heart racing and chest pains have returned. First thing tomorrow morning, must fortify entrance.

 

Cyrus’ jaw fell slack. Is that what stalked them on the island?

 

Day 146,

Have spent much time researching plants and animals on island, but the creature that most intrigues me has been most elusive. Have seen evidence of its presence.  A ripple in ponds, wet handprint on rock, but no new sightings of the blue-eyed phantom. Wonder if it is the last of its kind, or if there are more? Does it have a connection to these caves?

 

A loud hoot came from outside the bedroom window. Cyrus jumped. Instinctively, he hid the journal. Only an owl, he thought. His nerves began to calm. He noticed his candle beginning to flicker and fade. He crept out of bed to use the outhouse. His side had grown stiff and a large bruise had formed around the belt’s bloody brand. Outside the door he found a plate of food. Niels, he thought. It had been Niels at the door. His brother had created a happy face using sausages and brussel sprouts. Cyrus felt his eyes begin to well.

When Cyrus returned from the toilet, he checked the time. There were a few precious hours of nighttime left. He lit a new candle, dug into his dinner, and delved back into the dead man’s journal.

 

Day 9693,

Was on the seashore, studying one of the island’s many turtles, when the webbed hand of the blue-eyed phantom reached out of the ocean and pulled the shelled creature below. Could that explain the cavern’s symmetry? Have little time to lose. There is much work to do.

 

Day 9723,

Spent past thirty days measuring and mapping out caves as well as the island’s topography, but still notes are inconclusive. There is one final thing I must do before my theory can be proven. But if caught, I fear it may mean my death. First thing tomorrow night, must steal back to Virkelot Island.

 

He came back? Cyrus thought, he must have been crazy.

 

Day 9724,

The crossing was dark, but the water calm. Heard what I believed to be the blue-eyed phantom occasionally surface and take breath from out in the fog. Two thirds of the way across, heard the toll of a bell from out to sea. After that, sensed the phantom no more. Was it as afraid of the sound as I?

Once on Virkelot, first point of interest was the shoreline. Using my lantern, measured and sketched large tiles along coast. Again, heard bell toll, and saw what looked like a large ship off eastern shore of Myrkur Island. Was my fear getting the best of me? Lost sight of apparition behind fog.

Entered Hekswood Forest and climbed over the Dead Fence. Many changes have taken place in the village. All around, deep trenches have been cut into the earth, embedded with pipes and hoses.  In addition, several wells have been drilled and fitted with water pumps and well covers. Every person in Virkelot must be working on, what signs call, ‘The Hoblkalf Water Works Project.’

Spent the rest of the night trekking across the island, recording various lengths, widths and elevations, before making my way back to the fence.

Back on OddFoot, have double and triple checked my maps, notes and calculations and keep coming back to the same startling conclusion. It is almost too remarkable a discovery to believe.

Virkelot and OddFoot Island are the skeletal remains of a long dead, giant, turtle-like creature. Virkelot is its fossilized body and OddFoot its skull. The caves here on OddFoot are its nasal cavities and eye sockets.

I am currently living in a section of the right eye that was most likely the attachment point for a ligament or tendon. Have also studied several fossil samples and by my calculations, these two islands have roughly five hundred to one thousand years left before they become dust and are scattered to the sea.

 

Below the entry was a map of the two islands, along with a legend describing each part of the skeleton’s remains. The artwork was finely detailed, and jumped from the page as if the creature was real. Cyrus’ mind began to spin.

“This can’t be,” he gasped.

But of course, it was true. Cyrus thought of the tiles along the beach. He grasped the small turtle skeleton below his bed and inspected its back. Virkelot’s shoreline tiles were merely larger versions of the scales on the skeleton’s shell. He thought of the underground lake. Virkelot was hollow, like the empty turtle shell, and he recalled all those strange caves on Myrkur Island. He studied the skeleton’s skull. He realized, back on Myrkur, he had walked through the skull’s nostril and had arrived at it’s right eye socket. So that explained the caverns strange symmetrical shapes.

He wanted to show Niels, show anybody. People had to know. But if he did, there would be questions. And the answers to those questions could lead to his imprisonment or death. What was he to do? The only thing he could do. First thing in the morning he would go see Edward. Maybe his best friend would have the answers.

Just then, a large tremor shook the earth. The candlelight extinguished and a picture frame swayed.

“These two islands have roughly five hundred to one thousand years left before they become dust and are scattered to the sea,” Cyrus read, with a shaky voice.

He lay in his bed wide-eyed for what seemed hours, hugging the leather-bound book to his chest. Then, in the early morning light, the journal slipped from his hands and he found sleep. Turbulent, troublesome sleep.

Chapter 7

THE PIT

 

THE NEXT MORNING Cyrus woke to a rumbling in his bones. The pictures on his bedroom walls shook and the ceiling lamp swayed. He shifted in his bed. He found the turtle skeleton lying next to him and the journal resting on his chest. He looked around, eyes wide. The bedroom door was shut. No one had seen. He exhaled a shaky breath, stowed the skeleton under his bed and hid the journal beneath his mattress. Then he jumped out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen.

“Niels, what’s going on?” he asked.

“Mom’s using the drill. She’s finishing the third well,” Niels said, trying to keep plates from jiggling off the wall.

“Angels, she’s going to kill us all,” Cyrus said.

He ran out the kitchen, still in his pajamas.

“What, Cyrus. No, wait.”

The sun was shining and the air was cool. He followed a chugging water hose to the southern half of the farm. There, he found his stepmother sitting on top of a steam-powered drill, a deep scowl of concentration carved into her face. Cyrus felt his cut and bruised side and hesitated. Then he reminded himself of the journal.

“Mom, you have to stop. It’s too dangerous,” he shouted over the noise.

The machine was eight feet high and shaped like a steely, riveted ice cream cone. The smell of steam, boiling metal and rock dust wafted from its toil.     

“Go help your brother. I’ll deal with you later,” she shouted over the drill’s racket.

The hose fed the bottom half of the contraption, and with carnivorous, corkscrewing threads, it twisted and tore itself into the earth.

“No, it’s not safe. This whole place could cave in.”

The top half of the machine shook and jangled as it sputtered and spurt jets of water and vapor into the air.

“You’re only making things worse for yourself,” she growled.

Cyrus searched his mind for some way to make Llysa listen, make her understand the danger she was in, they were in. But it was too late. Cracks started to web out from beneath the four-legged contraption and all Cyrus could do was scramble away in fear.

“Mom!” he pointed to the newly formed rents in the earth.

“If I have to tell you one more time,” she spat over her shoulder.

Like the sound of a hundred trees snapping, the ground shunted, and then started to give way.

“What in Kingdom?” she screamed.

“Jump.” Cyrus yelled.

Llysa leapt from the doomed machinery. Her dress snagged on the pedal shifter. The ground around the drill dropped three feet. Llysa screamed as she kicked and pulled at her dress. The material began to tear and come free. The foundation gave way and the drill slipped through the crust like a sinking ship. It fell several feet before the leather hose reached its length. The drill jerked to a halt and began to sway like a large church bell. Cyrus knew he should have cried for help, but he just stared speechless at the ruin.

“Cyrus,” Llysa shouted, her head barely visible above the verge of the chasm.

Cyrus hesitated. What if this was the answer to his prayers?

“Please!” she screamed, grasping and straining towards the edge.

He gazed at the pit, unable to move…

“Do something!” she shrieked, her expression a mix of terror and fury.

Cyrus’ daze broke. He scrambled over to the edge and began to pull at the waterline. Llysa’s cries echoed within. 

“Try to climb back up,” Cyrus yelled.

Wiry fingers emerged from the cave-in, gripping the swelling tube. Cyrus crawled forward on all fours. He grasped the back of Llysa’s right hand. The hose could no longer support the drills weight. It tore free, whipping and spraying like a severed artery. The drill dropped into darkness. The leather snake slapped Cyrus’ injured ribs, kicking him to the dirt and folding him up like a crumpled napkin.

“Noooo,” he groaned, his side on fire.

Several moments passed before,

Sploosh!

The drill hit what sounded like water far, far below.

“Help!” Llysa shrieked.

Her fingers clung to the edge like claws, tearing desperately at the earth. Cyrus found himself again hoping she would slip. Then she did, her hands vanishing from sight. Oh Angels, what have I done? Cyrus thought. He listened to her cries descend into the nothingness as his mind reeled and chest wheezed.

Sploosh!

Silence. She was gone…

“What’s going on?” Niels shouted, running down the slope.

Cyrus turned, trying to catch his breath.

“Mom fell,” he gasped, fighting for air.

He pointed a shaking finger at the newly exposed chasm. The pit stared back at them, dark and bottomless.

Chapter 8

HOBLKALF’S WAR

 

CYRUS AND HIS BROTHER burst into the town hall, past the mayor’s secretary and straight into Mayor Hoblkalf’s office.

“Mr. Mayor, we need your help,” Niels demanded, “My Mom’s fallen into a pit and she’s going to die if we don’t do something!”

The ninety-two-year-old man sat slouched in his chair, snoring like a pig. Cyrus felt he resembled a shriveled potato that smelled of wet boots and cigar smoke.

“Mayor Hoblkalf!” Niels shouted, forming a blow-horn with his hands.

On the desk in front of Hoblkalf, laid a sheet of paper with titles such as, The Hoblkalf Games, The Hoblkalf Stone Cutting Project and The Hoblkalf Twenty-Four Hour Work Day Project. All had been crossed out in red ink.

“Mr. Mayor,” Cyrus said, gently shaking Hoblkalf’s shoulder.

Reluctantly, the three-and-a-half-foot man awoke from his slumber. He straightened his tie and smoothed back his bald head, mumbling something about the good old days.

“Mayor, we need your help,” Niels repeated, “My Mom’s fallen into a pit and we can’t rescue her by ourselves.”

At first, Hoblkalf did not seem to hear a single word. He looked more preoccupied with trying to ignite his cigar. But as Niels explained that the very earth had opened up and swallowed his mother whole, the mayor’s eyes began to twinkle, and he started to pace the room with a bounce in his limp.

“She’s still alive,” Niels said, “We heard her screaming and we promised we’d get help. If we don’t get her out of there as soon as possible, she’s going to drown or freeze to death. We need to do something NOW!”

“We’re going to need the whole village in on this rescue operation,” the mayor said, “I’ll fill out the paperwork and order an emergency town meeting. You two ring the town bell.”

 

***

 

A HALF HOUR LATER, the entire village waited outside the town hall.

“What’s taking the Mayor so long?” Niels growled through clenched teeth.

He paced beside Cyrus, squeezing his hands into fists.

“What do you think we’re doing here?” Cyrus heard another person say.

“I reckon the old coot’s ready to admit he’s too old to be mayor,” answered another, “I bet his son, Lars is finally taking over.”

“That senile bag of skin hasn’t done anything for us since that Hoblkalf Waterworks Project some forty years ago.”

As the town folk prattled on, Cyrus could hear coughing and yelling from inside the mayor’s office. His secretary burst through the front doors, crying and leaving a trail of papers in her wake, as she ran off down the main street. This caused further buzz among the suspense-filled mob.

With a great cloud of cigar smoke, the mayor emerged from his balcony door. The villagers grew silent. Hoblkalf leaned on his cane and hobbled across the banner-draped terrace, towards a large platform. The sun glinted off his head as if it was silverware. He limped up the steps, took a giant puff from his grumpweed cigar and shuffled some papers around on the stand in front of him. Then he adjusted his monocle and scrunched his beady eyes, inspecting the speech before him. Hoblkalf opened his codfish-like mouth and broke into a fit of coughing and hacking. When the attack subsided, he cleared his throat and began again.

“My fellow citizens, I am sorry to interrupt your busy day, but I bring urgent and distressing news. We the hard-working people of Virkelot Island are under ATTACK!”

Hoblkalf smashed his fist down on the podium. The crowd jumped and began to chatter like chickens.

“Eh-hem, it seems the Sea Zombie has executed a surprise attack, spear headed at the LongBones farm. We are not sure the extent of her plans at present, but we do know her first goal was to capture one of our own and hold her ransom,” Hoblkalf paused, staring soberly into the audience, “No word of her demands as yet, but we predict a request to tear down the Dead Fence and the surrender of our everlasting souls. Never, I say, NEVER! We do not make deals with demons or assassins.”

“Hear, hear,” shouted a toothless, old man in the crowd.

What is the Mayor talking about? Cyrus thought. He turned to his brother. Niels looked bewildered.

“It is not clear at this time why the LongBones farm was targeted, but what we do know is this. We must fight them hard and we must fight them fast. They may come from land, sea or sky. We must join forces and battle the Sea Zombie’s army tooth and nail, down to every last man, woman and child. Any questions?”

“Mr. Mayor-” Niels shouted.

“Good, let’s get to work,” interrupted Hoblkalf.

The crowd hollered a war-like cheer of support and praise.

“It’s been forty years since I’ve seen Hoblkalf so spry,” said the preacher.

“What’s going on?” Cyrus asked Niels, “Who said anything about the Sea Zombie?”

He had never seen his brother look so worried and confused.

“I don’t know, Cyrus, but we better find out.”

Chapter 9

THE COUNTER ATTACK

 

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, on the LongBones farm, Hoblkalf was giving orders and receiving intelligence from within a large, grey tent with the letters, ‘HQ,’ stamped over the doorway. Several yards away, Cyrus peered in and saw the mayor pouring over a map of Virkelot Village with buttons and thimbles representing various fronts and positions on the island. A runner poked his head in through the door flap.

“Sir, Niels LongBones is requesting your counsel.”

The mayor looked up from his map, “One moment, Mr. Fod.”

Outside, Cyrus watched as Niels paced the ground; raking his fingers through his thick, grey hair. A large number of villagers had gathered on the farm, eager to find out their roles in what Hoblkalf was calling, the Hoblkalf War.

The mayor emerged from the tent in a plume of cigar smoke.

“Mr. Mayor,” Niels said, anger and frustration tainting his words.

He marched towards Hoblkalf. Two guards intercepted him and pushed him back. The mayor coughed and hacked as he hobbled over to a stack of wooden crates. The masses murmured while two more guards helped him up onto the makeshift podium. He raised his cane into the air to signal silence. Then the old man took a long, slow pull from his cigar. 

Cough, hack, eh-hem!

“My fellow citizens, thank you for being so patient in this our gravest hour. As most of you now know, Llysa LongBones is being held captive at the bottom of a pit. It seems the enemy has found a way around our blessed fence. I have consulted my staff and have come up with a rescue plan to save the widow LongBones.”

The mayor wiped beads of sweat from his liver-spotted forehead.

“It is my intention to build a wooden crane over top of the pit and pull the captured woman out of enemy hands. The steam powered ‘Hoblkalf Crane,’ as it will be named, will stand over seventy feet high and use over two hundred feet of cable. We will need every woman to collect rope and materials and take part in the cable’s fabrication, and we will need every man, not given a task, to support the crane’s design and construction. It is an ambitious endeavor, but one the Sea Zombie will not be expecting, and I am counting on all of you to make it a success. Does anyone have any questions?”

“Mr. Mayor,” again Niels shouted.

“Good,” the mayor said, ignoring him, “There’s no time to lose, everyone report to your staging areas. We have work to do.”

Hoblkalf received another volley of praise and applause.

“We don’t have time for this,” Niels cried, “The Mayor’s going to get Mom killed.”

It was worse than that. Cyrus thought of the journal. The mayor’s plan would cause an even larger cave-in. Could Cyrus trust his brother? If the mayor got his way, would it matter? He made up his mind and crossed his fingers.

“Niels, there’s something I have to show you, but you have to keep it a secret.”

“What?” Niels replied.

“You can’t tell anyone. You promise?”

“Sure, I promise.”

Several minutes later in Cyrus’ bedroom, Cyrus pulled the turtle skeleton from under his bed, and the OddFoot journal from beneath his mattress. He handed both to his brother. If the entire island collapsed because he had kept the truth a secret, he would not be able to live with himself.

“What in Angels is this?” Niels asked, looking at the strange village modeled on the turtle’s shell.

He placed the skeleton on the bed and studied the journal for several moments. His expression turned from curious, to confused, to finally terrified.

“Is this real?” Niels asked, his eyes wide.

“I don’t know,” Cyrus said, “but it makes a lot of sense with the drilling, the underground water, the earth quakes and now this cave-in.”

“Where did you find all this?” Niels asked, picking up the skeleton and inspecting its eye sockets.

“The OddFoot home,” Cyrus lied, “It’s been abandoned for years.”

“The book says that the crazy, old fool crossed over the Dead Fence,” Niels said, “cursed his whole family.”

“He didn’t have any family left to curse,” Cyrus said.

“We have to show the Mayor.”

“No wait,” Cyrus exclaimed, “You promised.”

He chased his brother out the back door.

“Please,” Cyrus continued, “The Mayor will kill me if he finds out.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him I’m the one that found them.”

“Niels no!”

Cyrus followed Niels down to the mayor’s tent pleading the entire way.

“I must speak with the Mayor immediately,” Niels demanded, running up to the guard standing at the door.

“You can’t. You promised,” Cyrus begged.

“You will just have to be patient,” the guard said, “the Mayor is indisposed.”

“Send Mr. LongBones in,” the mayor’s voice ordered from inside the tent.

Niels shouldered past the guard and ducked into the tent with Cyrus close on his heels.

“Cyrus StrangeBones,” the guard muttered as Cyrus entered the HQ.

The tent’s canvas walls smelled sour, like damp clothes left in a pile. Hoblkalf was sitting at his desk, talking to a member of his staff.

“And what can I do for you, Mr. LongBones?” the mayor asked, exhaling a nose-full of smoke.

Niels moved to the front of the desk, holding the book and turtle behind his back.

“Mayor Hoblkalf, first off, we’re grateful for all the work you are doing to save our Mother.”

The mayor nodded smugly, patting his plump belly as he leaned back in his chair.

“But is all this really necessary? We said nothing about the Sea Zombie being involved. The ground simply isn’t stable. I think the drill weakened the earth and it gave way. We don’t have time to build a giant crane, but even if we did, the land around that hole won’t support that kind of weight. It’s suicide.”

The mayor frowned.

“May we have some privacy Mr. BackWood?” he asked his aid.

The man nodded and exited the tent, leaving Hoblkalf, Niels and Cyrus alone.

“What in Kingdom are you talking about, boy?” the mayor barked.

“I think this whole village sits on top of a giant, underground lake,” Cyrus said, “I mean, where does all the water come from? I think the earth’s extremely unstable.”

“Don’t be stupid, boy,” growled the mayor, “Underground lake? This was obviously the work of the Sea Zombie.”

“This wasn’t the work of the Sea Zombie,” Niels said, almost pleading, “but even if it was, and even if the ground could support your Hoblkalf Crane, there’s no time. It’s been three hours. My Mom’s going to drown down there unless we do something now.”

The mayor paused for several moments, seeming to weigh Niels’ words. Then slowly he began to shake his head.

“Oh no, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. I won’t go letting the hastiness of youth weaken the integrity of this operation.”

“Your crane is what’s going to weaken the integrity of this operation,” Niels said, taking the OddFoot journal from behind his back and slamming it down on the mayor’s desk.

The journal splashed open to the map page. Cyrus’ heart stopped in his chest.

“What is this?” Hoblkalf asked, pulling the book closer and adjusting his monocle.

The map was brittle and water stained, yet the sketch of the two islands looked almost real.

“I’ve never seen a drawing like this before,” the mayor said, “Jim OddFoot? He vanished years ago. Where did you two find this?”

“I found it,” Niels said, “Along with this, in the old OddFoot house.”

He handed the mayor the small turtle skeleton, then gave Cyrus a knowing nod. Confused, the mayor inspected the small forest and village constructed on the turtle’s shell. Then he placed the skeleton on his desk and buried his nose in the book. The old man read Jim’s notes and studied the map in detail.

“He crossed the Fence and survived? It must be a trick,” he said, under his breath.

“It explains all the water wells, earthquakes and the cave in,” Cyrus said.

“Who else could have done this?” Niels asked, “Cyrus and I have terrible hand writing and we’re no artists. There’s only one thing to do. You must cancel your Hoblkalf War and pull our Mother out of that pit immediately. Just use the cable, it’ll take a day at the most with everyone’s help.”

“This is impossible.” Hoblkalf whispered, “I was going to lead us to victory…”

The old man fell back in his chair and seemed to shrivel.

“Come on, Cyrus,” Niels said, “We need to tell the others.”

Cyrus was still reeling, but he turned to follow his brother out to leave. From behind them came what sounded like a fist pounding against the desk. Cyrus looked back. The mayor’s eyes were ablaze, his monocle falling from his face. Hoblkalf started to rise, as if some unseen flame heated the gas within his belly.

“Never. Don’t you see what has happened here? Doesn’t it seem a little too convenient that you two find this book in the home of the damned and then your mother becomes lost in the depth of a dark and evil pit? It’s a trick! The Sea Zombie took this Jim OddFoot over forty years ago and she created this, this misinformation to cause confusion and panic amongst our troops. This false intelligence stops here, and that’s an order.”

The mayor glared at the two brothers.

“If the two of you disobey me, the manner in which you found these two items of evil, and the connection they have to your mother’s predicament will be enough to have you locked up for life. It is only out of sympathy for your dead Father, that I do not charge you both with treason this instance.”

Cyrus looked to his brother, fighting back tears.

“Come on,” Niels said, “The Mayor can’t help us.”

“Yes, you will leave,” the mayor continued, his face turning purple,” You will leave these items of wickedness with me and speak of this treachery no further, or you will be charged as traitors and hung by the neck until dead, do you understand?”

Niels took Cyrus by the arm and led him out of the tent. Cyrus looked back over his shoulder. The mayor glared after them like a red-hot coal.

Outside, construction of the Hoblkalf Crane was already underway. Villagers trampled this way and that, carrying tools and supplies, and great trees were being felled and dragged towards the perimeter of the chasm.

“We have to stop them,” Niels said, peering around at the frantic workers.

Cyrus could feel the earth begin to tremble and quake.

“Oh Angels,” he said, “I think it’s too late…”

Chapter 10

A VERY BAD DAY

 

 

CYRUS AND NIELS HURRIED from the mayor’s tent. The rumble and quake of the Hoblkalf War effort droned across the farm.

“What are we going to do?” Cyrus asked.

“We have to stop the construction and save Mom,” Niels replied.

Cyrus could hear the roof goat bleat in the distance as the rhythmic beating of a pile driver clanged through the trees.

“What about the Mayor? He said he’d hang us,” Cyrus said.

“If we listen to Hoblkalf, Mom’s going to drown. Come on.”

Cyrus did not like the idea of risking his life for his abusive stepmother, but he knew his half-brother would not understand, so reluctantly he followed.

Amongst the grass and sparse trees, the recent traffic had etched a dirt path through the LongBones’ field. The roar of a drill filled the air.

“We have to hurry,” Niels said.

As they jogged past the worksite, Cyrus could smell the scent of tree sap and sawdust. He could also sense an excitement amongst the workers. If he had not known better, he would have thought that the newly erected beams and scaffolding were part of a town fair. There were villagers hauling freshly cut trees, sawing and sanding wooden beams, digging and drilling large holes. Several hefty men used a large rope-and-pulley operated pile driver to pound foundation beams into the earth. Cyrus thought the whole structure looked more like the framework for some sort of circular arena, rather than a crane.

The two workers operating the drill became startled as its rotor jammed and the machine blew a gasket.

“I told you not to force it,” one of the operators shouted.

“What do you know about drilling?” the other barked.

CRACK!

The ground quivered and dust sprang up from the soil like mushrooms. The workers stood crouched, as if on broken glass. Lightning-like fractures ripped outwards from the center of the site, creating a lacework of dust and rubble.

One of the men screamed, “Run for your lives!” and both leapt from the contraption.

The workers reinforcing the foundation beams scrambled from their posts like fleas from a drowning mutt. Some jumped two stories from their wooden platforms.

“It’s happening again,” Cyrus shouted, “We have to go back.”

“We have to help Mom,” Niels said, pressing forward.

The noise of the island’s crust splintering sounded like a thunderstorm. Cyrus pulled on his brother’s arm.

“You don’t understand. It’s going to cave in,” he said, digging his heels into the earth.

“What in Kingdom…” Niels gasped.

Cyrus looked back. A large plume of dust filled the air as the crane’s foundation began to twist and sink. Again, he tugged at his brother’s arm. This time Niels followed.

From behind, frantic and condemned voices screamed as the two brothers ran towards the village square.

The cave-in spread rapidly as a faster boy sped passed them, crying, “Run, it’s the Sea Zombie.”

Cyrus and his brother dashed up ChickenLop Lane, through the village main street and towards the Virkelot Ring Road. Cyrus turned back and saw a wave of trees and houses tilt and slide off the edge of the earth, vanishing into a large cloud of dust. The wave stretched across the entire island, and it was growing near.

“This way,” Niels said.

The two brothers hopped a fence and began to make their way across several farms and groves.

It must have seemed that they knew what they were doing, for other people decided to follow their footsteps.

Cyrus saw a mailbox ahead that read, ‘CobblePop Corn Farm.’ The cornstalks barely came up to his shoulders, and their ears looked like bunches of white raisins emerging from cigar paper.

The ground shuddered. A small hole in the earth opened before them. Niels tripped. His right foot fell into the hole. He crashed hard to the ground, knocking his head against the mailbox’s thick post. The earth shunted. The pit grew larger, swallowing Niels whole.

“Niels!” Cyrus shouted, diving to grasp his brother’s hand.

Niels clung feebly to the edge by one hand, blood oozing from a gash on his forehead.

“Climb,” Cyrus shrieked, pulling at his brother’s wrist.

Niels struggled and gripped the ledge with both hands. His skin was pale and his expression confused and pained.

“Come on,” Cyrus groaned.

With all his might, he tried to pull his brother out. He heaved until his face turned red and his back became numb. He felt the bloody, E-shaped welt on his side split open. Cringing, he held on. At the same time, Niels grappled with the ledge, attempting to climb free, but he was too weak and disoriented.

“ Cyrus, I- can’t hold on,” Niels breathed.

Cyrus turned to the villagers passing by.

“Help!” he shouted.

But they only ignored him and leapt over the chasm, terrified. He grabbed at their clothes. They shook him off like mud.

“You’re all cowards!” he screamed.

He even cursed them by name, but nothing worked. No one would come to their aid.

From the strength of the tremors, Cyrus felt that the cave-in was mere moments away.

“Come on, Niels, you have to climb,” he said, panicking.

“I can’t,” Niels gasped, his hands slowly slipping.

He seemed to be struggling to keep his eyes open.

“I can’t do this myself,” Cyrus yelled, still hanging onto his brother.

He felt as if he was being ripped in two.

“I can’t hold on,” Niels groaned. 

“You have to climb!” Cyrus cried.

A nearby tree splintered from its roots. Twigs and soil snapped into the air. Then the tree began to lean and moan. Cyrus watched in frozen terror as the giant started to tilt in their direction.

“Cyrus, move,” his brother groaned.

Faster and faster the tree descended towards them.

“Move,” Niels screamed.

Something inside Cyrus took over. He rolled instinctively away from the hole. The tree smashed the earth. Cyrus’ bones rattled in their joints. Branches clubbed his body while pine needles showered his flesh. Dust filled the air, along with the scent of sap and split timber. His head reeled while his very soul hummed and rang.

“Niels,” he wheezed.

He tried to look about. Dirt scratched and burned his eyes.

“Niels,” he coughed a second time.

He could hear nothing over the ringing in his ears.

“Niels…”

He began to drag himself from beneath the fallen tree. Branches tore at his clothes and skin while sap stuck to his hands. After much effort, Cyrus climbed free and found his footing. Again, the ground shunted and shook and he lost his balance. He slammed headfirst into a tree trunk. His mind flashed white. He took a deep breath and again tried to call for Niels. His throat filled with dust and he began to choke.

The earth continued to rumble as Cyrus tried to feel his way through the dusty haze. His head ached and he could sense something warm running down his face. He kept moving in circles, unable to find a path around the sharp branches and thick cornstalks. His breathing grew labored.

With all the breath he could manage, Cyrus screamed, “Niels!” then fell into a heap on the ground.

He coughed and sobbed as he punched the earth, feeling frustrated and helpless. How long could Niels hold on? Cyrus tried to crawl blindly along the ground, but met only thick brush and broken timber. He did not even know in which direction he should move. Then he began to hear hundreds of tiny voices calling out. The cries seemed to echo. He moved on all fours in the direction of the shouts, using his shirt to filter each breath.

He crawled head first into a mailbox’s post. The mailbox read ‘CobblePop Corn Farm.’ Cyrus squinted his stinging eyes and looked about for his brother. The quaking had stopped and the dust began to clear. At first Cyrus’ eyes could not focus. Then a queasy falling feeling punched through his ribs. He scrambled away from the mailbox.

Where moments ago, a cornfield had stretched out row upon row, there was now a crumbling ledge and a dizzying drop. Three-quarters of the island’s center had vanished into the once-underground lake, and like the top of a caved-in pie, only the outer crust of the island remained. Forests of trees and clumps of undergrowth floated freely in the enormous bowl of island soup. Villagers, lost in the pit, clung to what scraps of buildings and farm equipment they could find. They screamed in pain and called out for help.

Cyrus searched the waters for any sign of Niels, but he was gone, lost between the swimming pigs, splashing goats, bubbling houses and sinking orchards.

“Niels, I’m so sorry,” Cyrus sobbed, “I tried. I’m sorry…”

Chapter 11

RESCUE

 

CYRUS SAT AT THE EDGE of the sinkhole, his mind racing with worry and dread. What do I do? Niels could be drowning down there and I can’t help him. Then he remembered the boat.

Cyrus raced towards the eastern bend of the Ring Road and plunged into Hekswood Forest. Once over the Dead Fence, he sprinted in the direction of Edward’s tree.

“Edward, I need your help,” he said, as he arrived panting, looking up into the tree’s branches.

Several long legs emerged out of a knot in the trunk.

“What’s going on?” the spider asked, climbing free of the hole.

“It’s Niels, come on.”

Cyrus plucked Edward from the tree and dashed towards the waterfall. Along the way, he told the spider everything, from the OddFoot journal to the loss of his brother.

“We’ll find him,” Edward said, “I promise.”

As they reached the fall, they found the South River all but dried up, leaving the usual hidden cave entrance illuminated and exposed.

“The cave-in’s destroyed the water supply,” Cyrus gasped.

With Edward on his shoulder, he ran into the cave, past the boat and down towards the shore of the underground lake. Only it was no longer underground. Where there had once been a dimly lit shore that kissed the edge of black, watery nothingness, there was now a huge sun-lit lake, full of the broken remains of Virkelot Village.

“Holy Sea Zombie,” Edward whispered, “It’s worse than I imagined…”

Far off in the middle of the lake, villagers screamed for help and paddled in circles. Some tried to climb the dome-like walls of the fossilized prison, but none had found the lone route of escape. They were too far away from the cave’s shore, and the relatively small opening was lost in the vast bowl of sky-high rock.

“We don’t have time for them,” Cyrus said, “We have to find Niels.”

He collected the lantern from the ledge and mounted it to the boats bow, then dragged the craft to the water’s edge. Once aboard, they paddled out into the lake. Edward sprang from Cyrus’ shoulder and found his way to the top of the mast. Cyrus began to steer towards the center of the reservoir, pushing past floating trees, swimming pigs, bubbling chests and bobbing apples. The air tasted of wet animals and ripped lumber.

“Niels!” he called out.

Instead several other stranded and helpless villagers replied. Cyrus saw them clinging to trees and pigs, or sitting on top of floating outhouses or barns. Some appeared to have broken legs and arms, others nasty cuts and bruises.

“Have you seen my brother?” Cyrus called to them, “Have you seen Niels?”

They all replied no.

“Please, help,” several called back.

Cyrus pointed to the cave opening on the distant shore.

“Head for that cavern. It leads to a way out.”

“Cyrus,” Edward whispered, “some of them are hurt. We have to help.”

Cyrus felt torn in two. He wanted to help, but Niels came first.

“They wouldn’t help us,” he finally replied, steeling his emotions, “And now Niels is trapped down here, maybe drowning, or worse.”

“What about your stepmom?” Edward asked.

Cyrus felt the bloody welt stamped into his ribs. Llysa had been on his mind as well. Secretly he hoped that she would never be found, that she had succumbed to some cold, dark end. He prayed that he would never have to see her again…

He and Edward began to paddle past bobbing hedges and around floating sheds and buggies, calling out for Niels and searching the village’s drifting remains. They poked around floating trees and picked through bales of hay.

“Cyrus,” a weak voice cried out, “help, I can’t swim.”

“Over there,” Edward said, pointing to someone floating amongst a heap of brambles.

“Sarah?” Cyrus called back.

It was Sarah Heiler, the girl that had always been nice to him. She was clinging to a wooden barrel. The barrel kept rolling in the water, making it hard for her to grasp.

“Cyrus hel-”

Sarah slipped under the water, then reemerged, gasping for air and clawing at the barrel.

Cough, hack.

“Help!”

Cyrus felt something in his chest leap. He could not let Sarah drown.

“I’m coming,” he said, paddling towards her as she splashed amongst the floating thickets.

“Cyrus!”

Again, Sarah sunk below the surface.

Cyrus began to panic. What was he supposed to do? She bobbed up a second time, splashing and choking down water.

“Hurry!” Edward said.

Cyrus struggled the boat through the fringe of thick brambles.

“Cyru-”

Sarah slipped from the barrel and sunk below the icy chill a third time. Cyrus finally cleared the debris and pushed towards the center.

“Sarah?”

He watched the glassy surface.

“Sarah!”

He peered into the murk, searching for her struggling form.

“She’s drowning,” Edward said.

“What do I do?” Cyrus asked, his voice shrill.

“Jump in after her,” Edward demanded.

Cyrus looked up at the spider, terrified. Then, not giving himself a chance to hesitate, he dove into the lake. The cold bit at his flesh, stabbing through his ribs and into his lungs. He opened his eyes. A brownish, green atmosphere surrounded him, thick and dark. He kicked forward, towards where he had last seen Sarah. The lake water tasted of fall rain. Cyrus came up for breath.

“Sarah,” he gasped, flicking water from his blond mop, “where is she?”

“She hasn’t come back up,” Edward said.

Cyrus sucked in a lung full of air and plunged below. His clothes were heavy and hard to swim in and he could only see a few feet before him. Sarah was drowning. He could not fail her. He had to try harder. He kicked and pulled with all his strength in a descending circle, doing his best to search beneath where last he had seen her. The first several feet were green and hazy, but below that the lake became as black as oil. Cyrus grew confused. Was he swimming in the right place? He turned back around and kicked deeper into the murk. The water grew colder the further down he swam. His lungs started to strain. He paused in the deep and peered about, looking up, down, left and right. She could be three feet in front of him and he would never see her. The strain in his chest grew unbearable. He tried to swim further. His body fought back, panicky and desperate for air. It was hopeless. He couldn’t help anyone. Not Niels, not Sarah, not even himself. He abandoned his search and retreated to the surface. He could feel something icy shift in his belly. Then a deep shame crawled up from his guts and wrapped its cold tendrils around his pounding heart.

Chapter 12

LOST

 

 

SOMETHING CLUTCHED CYRUS around the ankle and began to pull him into the deep. He panicked and started to kick free. Then he looked below. There he saw Sarah, white as a ghost, clawing and scrambling at his trousers. With the last of his breath, he reached down and grasped her wrist. Sarah’s writhing form became limp in his hand. He kicked and began to pull her back towards the surface. Cyrus swam with all his might, his lungs starved and his chest struggling to inhale. A dark fog began to close in around the edges of his vision.

He broke the surface, sucking air like a whale, and pulled Sarah to his chest. Cyrus wheezed and choked, fighting to keep Sarah’s head above water. He peered about. His eyes swam with stars. The boat! Where was the boat?

“Cyrus, over here, quick,” Edward said.

Cyrus turned and found their craft floating right behind them. He swam closer and rested Sarah’s chest over the nearest pontoon. Then, struggling to catch his breath, he climbed, kicking and clawing, back into the boat. To Cyrus’ relief, Sarah began to cough and hack up lake water, pulling in air in deep gasps. Cyrus hauled her from the pontoon and helped her climb aboard. She fell to the floor, cold and white, her silver hair a mask across her sunken face. Cyrus noticed how her sopping dress clung to her slender body, the subtle swell of her chest. His eyes grew wide and butterflies filled his belly. He looked away, his cheeks growing hot with embarrassment.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Thank you…” she whispered.

Then she passed out in a heap on the floor.

“Is she going to be okay?” Cyrus said.

“We have to get her to shore,” Edward replied, scurrying down the mast.

Cyrus scrambled, sopping wet, to the rear of the craft and began to paddle hard for the cave opening. His back ached from the pace, but still time seemed to pass unbearably slowly.

    When finally, they reached the shoreline, they met a group of villagers arriving on a makeshift raft. Cyrus looked to the crow’s nest. Edward was crouched down, a black and yellow dot on the top of the mast.

“Please, you must take Sarah to her father,” Cyrus said to the group, “She nearly drowned and won’t wake up. Dr. Heiler will know what to do.”

The villagers exchanged curious looks and muffled whispers at the sight of Cyrus’ floating contraption.

“She could die,” Cyrus pleaded.

After a moment’s hesitation, the group crowded around and lifted Sarah from the boat. Cyrus wondered if he should warn them about where they were headed. Then again, did it really matter? Either way the villagers would surely blame him for their being on the forbidden side of the fence.

After several more hours on the lake, Cyrus’ search for Niels was proving fruitless. Day was turning to dusk. Most of the villagers had escaped the pit, paddling towards the cavern on objects such as fence timbers and housing beams. Others clung to swimming donkeys and cows. The moon rose and the search went on. Cyrus’ hopes wore thin. He tried to stay positive, struggled to stay hopeful, but he found that they were moving in circles, checking the same places repeatedly. Cyrus felt time was running out. He started to curse aloud.

“It’s going to be okay,” Edward said.

“It’s not going to be okay,” Cyrus shouted, kicking the boat, “Where the Angels is he? We’ve searched every last stick in this stupid lake and we haven’t found a thing. It’s hopeless.”

Edward spindled off the boom and onto Cyrus’ hand.

“Come on, Cyrus. You can’t give up hope.”

“Hope? What hope?”

Cyrus smashed a fist against the wooden hull. Tears formed in his mostly-blue eyes.

“I’m a useless bastard. My stepmom’s right. I can’t help anyone. I couldn’t help Niels out of the pit. I almost left Sarah to drown, and I sure as Angels can’t help Niels now.”

He sighed heavily and sat with his face in his hands, while he and Edward drifted across the water with only the lantern light and cold air for company.

“Cyrus…” hummed a low voice from out of the blackness.

Cyrus was ripped from his self-loathing stupor. He grabbed the lantern from the bow and held it high in the air.

“Niels, is that you?”

Both he and Edward listened for a response.

“Can you see anything, Edward?”

The little spider leapt back onto the mast and climbed to the top.

“Nothing from here,” he whispered.

“Cyrusss…”

This time it was closer. It came from the starboard side of the boat. Cyrus turned the craft and paddled in the direction of the lost voice. He found himself cutting a path through clumps of rubbish and muck.

“You see anything yet?” he asked.

The spider paused, then said, “Over there.”

Cyrus turned towards where Edward was staring. He saw nothing. He looked back at the spider. Edward’s two eyes were fixed. Confused, Cyrus shifted to the front of the boat and shone the lantern high in the air. He searched the water for whatever had captured his friend’s attention. Then he spotted it. There was something, or someone crouched on a floating tree. It was just outside the torch’s glow.

“Niels, is that you?” Cyrus asked.

“I don’t like this,” Edward whispered.

Cyrus motioned him to be quiet.

“Niels, please answer.”

Still the person did not move. It hunched deathly still on the decaying log.

“Edward, we have to help him.”

The spider scuttled down the ship’s mast and onto Cyrus’ shoulder.

“I don’t think it’s your brother, Cyrus. We should get away from here.”

Cyrus was not going to fail Niels a second time. He steered the ship around a slowly sinking bed and bookshelf and rowed closer to the shape on the log.

“Niels, I’m coming.”

“This is all wrong, Cyrus.”

The figure slid towards them along the trunk. Cyrus stopped paddling immediately. No person moved like that.

“I told you,” Edward hissed, “Get us out of here.”

The creature began to uncoil from its crouch and rise to its full height. The lantern light glanced off its back, exposing its dark, smooth skin. Cyrus could see its spine through its thin flesh. He felt goose bumps rush up his arms. His chest tingled, then grew ice cold. The creature turned its long, slender neck and looked back at the two. Its eyes flashed open and shone a dim blue.

“It’s the demon!” Cyrus gasped, falling back in the boat.

Its body was long and lean and its head slender, but the creature’s facial features were difficult to detect in the darkness. It turned its back on the two and the light from its eyes fell upon a larger shape at its side. Then the stranger lowered itself into the water and melted into the murk.

“What was that?” Edward asked.

“The blue-eyed phantom, I think…” Cyrus whispered.

“It left something behind.”

A familiar shape lay on the log; a husky, brick-like body. Cyrus stabbed at the water as he paddled closer. The ice in his chest evaporated, becoming acid in his throat. He reached out and turned the body to face him. Cyrus felt as if he was dangling over the edge of a cliff. All the air left his lungs and his knees buckled.

It was Niels. His face was serene, but lacked spirit beneath the flesh. Gently, Cyrus shifted his stiff body down into the boat. With Niels’ head on his lap, Cyrus caressed his icy cheek.

“No,” he half blubbered, half shrieked.

His thoughts became stilted and frozen. He felt trapped in frigid waters, pinned under endless waves. Cyrus wanted to rage, wanted to run away, wanted to smash himself in the face. But all strength abandoned his being and he was left shaking with sorrow.

“I’m so sorry…” Edward whispered.

Like a key in a jammed lock, Cyrus felt something in his heart twist and break off. The tiny fragment began to burrow itself into his soul. He recalled his brother’s terrified face, as he dangled alone at the edge of the dark chasm.

“Why couldn’t I help him?” he asked, through gritted teeth and glassy eyes, “Why?”

He had failed his brother, the only family that had ever cared for him. And he had failed himself. A useless bastard, everyone was right. And he would have to suffer that shame for as long as he lived. Which would not be long at all, he thought, in a moment of morbid hope, for his tiny world of Virkelot was crumbling, and the end was surely near.

Chapter 13

TRAPPED

 

THE FOLLOWING DAY was like a dark and hazy dream. Cyrus had still not grasped the fact that he would never see Niels again. He sat at his stepmother’s bedside. Neither spoke.

Several villagers had found Llysa floating unconscious inside a wooden bathtub and had towed her ashore. She spent the night in a deep coma, but as her temperature rose and the pale color returned to her skin, she began to rouse in the early morning hours. She had said little since the news of Niels’ death. She just lay in her bed, staring at the wall.

Cyrus felt numb all through his being. He was afraid to think about his brother. He had to keep his guard up, for even in Llysa’s weakened state, he felt as if trapped in a room with a poisonous viper.

The one saving grace was that, because Cyrus had rescued Sarah Heiler, her father, Dr. Heiler, had given him and Llysa their own private room. Like the main infirmary, their square tent was constructed with salvaged fence posts and donkey blankets. In the corner burned a makeshift stove that kept the shelter toasty and dry.

Cyrus heard rustling and saw the doctor duck into the room. He was a pear-shaped man with slicked back, grey hair and a long slender nose.

“How’s our patient doing?” the doctor asked.

He took a seat at Llysa’s bedside and felt her forehead.

“Hmm… I’ll try to get some more wood for the fire and scrape together a hot meal. Warm stew should bring back some of your strength.”

With the loss of most of the animals and all the farmland, provisions had become scarce on the island, and the villagers were forced to ration what food remained.

“By the way, Cyrus,” the doctor continued, “I never got the chance to thank you for saving Sarah. I don’t know what I would have done had you not been there.”

“You’re welcome,” Cyrus replied, not knowing what else to say.

The doctor put a comforting hand on his shoulder, then slipped out of the tent.

Llysa looked over at Cyrus for the first time since she had received the devastating news. Her hair hung thin and lank and her skin appeared stretched tight over her sharp features.

“It should have been you,” she said.

Cyrus’ heart began to quicken.

“You think Niels would have been off saving some hussy instead of his own brother? You should be the one lying dead at the bottom of that lake.”

Cyrus said nothing. He just stared at the floor, his head low.

Without warning, Lars Hoblkalf stuck his fat head through the door flap.

“Excuse me, Mrs. LongBones, but I was wondering if I could have a word with your son?”

“What’s this all about?” Llysa asked.

She coughed deep from her chest.

“It will only take a moment,” the mayor’s son answered, with a slapped-on grin.

“Go then, the both of you. Get out of my sight.”

Cyrus rose from his seat, thankful for the excuse to leave, and followed Lars out of the tent.

Lars Hoblkalf was a portly, middle-aged man with thinning curly hair and a freckled face. He waddled through the muddy streets of the make-do village with Cyrus trailing after him.

Rubbish and muck lined the narrow pathway while bloated clouds drizzled rain from above. The pair stepped aside as several villagers ran past with coats over their heads, collecting whatever materials they could claim to cover their temporary homes.

“Cyrus, if it wasn’t for you finding a way out of that pit, I surely would have drowned in that lake. I just wanted to thank you in person. I always knew you were a good lad.”

Lars ruffled Cyrus’ hair.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Hoblkalf,” Cyrus said, as he pulled away and straightened his yellow locks.

The mayor’s son smelled of beer and cheese.

“You can call me Lars, Cyrus.”

Cyrus did not reply.

“Say, how did you find that cave anyway?”

Again, Cyrus remained silent.

“Come on, I have something that might cheer you up,” Lars continued.

The fat man led Cyrus through the rain-spattered streets and towards the temporary town square. The air smelled of soil and mold. Cyrus could hear the mayor’s voice booming through another of his longwinded speeches. He was talking about rebuilding the Hoblkalf Crane, salvaging what they could from the lake and repairing their damaged island. The crowd booed and jeered in response.

“What’s going on?” Cyrus asked.

“You’ll see.”

The mayor’s son guided him through an alleyway, which led to a backstage curtain guarded by one of the mayor’s men.

“He’s here,” Lars said.

The guard nodded, then stuck his neck through the curtain and gave someone the thumbs up.

“Please, now everyone calm down. Calm down!” shouted the mayor.

Through the curtain, Hoblkalf waved Cyrus over.

“You’re on,” Lars beamed.

“What?”

Cyrus tried to pull free from the mayor’s son. Lars took him by the arm and handed him over to the guard. The burly man lifted Cyrus onto the stage. There, two more men dragged him towards the mayor. He tried to turn and run but the mayor seized his right hand and shook it vigorously as he smiled wide for the crowd.

“If it wasn’t for this young lad, none of us would be here today,” the mayor boomed, “He was the one that warned me against building the Hoblkalf Crane, and he was the one that told me of the impending doom. Isn’t that right, m’lad?”

The mayor stunk of soggy cigars and his teeth were crusted with brown plaque. After a long hesitation, Cyrus nodded yes. The crowd grew silent. What was going on, he wondered? Was the mayor trying to align himself with Cyrus to gain favor amongst the villagers?

“No more Hoblkalf Crane!” one old woman shouted from the crowd.

“This is all your fault, Hoblkalf!” another shouted.

The mayor waved off stage. Lars waddled over and handed his father a book. It was the OddFoot journal! The mayor’s grip squeezed tight on Cyrus’ hand. Cyrus felt ice run down his spine. He looked to Lars. The fat man held the small turtle skeleton in his other hand.

“Yes, this young lad came to me with this book, and the strange skeleton that my son holds, and told me that our island faced a grave danger. He warned that if I built my Hoblkalf Crane and tried to rescue his mother, the whole island would cave in on itself and all would be lost.

And where did he find these two peculiar items, you ask? And who created them? Well, the boy claims one Jimothy OddFoot created them. He says he found the items in the old abandoned OddFoot home. The journal speaks of Jim trespassing over our Dead Fence and meeting with blue-eyed demons. It says that Jim collected this turtle skeleton from the sea and modeled a village similar to Virkelot on its back. See for yourself.”

The mayor flung the book into the crowd. Lars threw the skeleton. Several pages came loose from the journal and fluttered through the air. A man with a bandaged eye caught the book. An old man attempted to catch the skeleton. It slipped through his fingers and struck the ground with a crack.

Cyrus tried to pull free from the mayor’s grip. His hand was trapped. His stomach began to swirl. He looked around for a place to escape. He saw the mayor’s men watching him from dark corners off stage. He was a rabbit caught in a snare. He turned to the crowd. People were looking at him with frightened and confused stares. He saw Sarah Heiler move towards the front of the stage with a dirty blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

“But I ask you this,” the mayor continued, his hairless face squished into a wrinkly expression of doubt, “If Jim OddFoot wrote that book, did he also build this boy a floating craft and tell him how to escape the pit?”

Villagers began to murmur and curse in terrified tones.

“It says our village was built on the back of a giant, fossilized turtle,” the man with the journal yelled.

“Just like this monstrosity,” the older man said, holding up the small skeleton.

There was a large hole broken in the turtle’s shell and half the model village had fallen in.

“No,” the mayor shouted, his monocle falling from his face, “Our village was no more built on the back of some creature than that book was written by a man who vanished over forty years ago. This boy is a liar and a traitor. Clearly, he has trespassed over the Dead Fence and joined forces with the Sea Zombie. Where else would he have gotten that book, or his strange floating craft? And how else could he have received secret knowledge of the land beyond our wall? Everyone rescued in the cave-in claims it was Cyrus LongBones who showed them the one route of escape. How could he have known about it if he had never been beyond the Dead Fence before?”

“Look at the turtle shell,” Cyrus cried, pointing to the man holding the skeleton, “It’s old and fragile, just like our island. It’s caved in and hollow, just like our island. It’s not a lie. Tom’s journal tells the truth!”

The crowd stared at the strange object in the old man’s grasp. Then they looked around at each, as if unsure what to do next.

Cyrus turned to the mayor. He saw a single drop of sweat run down the old man’s wrinkled brow.

“Could it be true?” one young man asked.

“It would explain a lot,” another voice said.

Cyrus looked across the crowded square. For the first time he was not invisible. The villagers were watching him. They were listening to him. They were actually taking him seriously.

“You’re going to believe StrangeBones?” one of the guards shouted.

The crowd began murmur low, all seeming to look down at their muddy shoes. Come on, Cyrus thought, you have to believe me!

“You stupid little boy!” shouted an old woman, “This is all your fault.”

“Look for yourself,” Cyrus cried.

“Throw him in the pit,” yelled the man with the journal.

“No, the mayor’s wrong!” Cyrus continued.

“Do you deny handing me that book and giving me that warning?” Hoblkalf asked, his bald head swelling red.

“No,” Cyrus replied, “but…”

“And would you like to explain where your craft came from?”

Cyrus fell silent. He had walked into an ambush. The Hoblkalf Crane had failed, and the mayor needed a scapegoat. Cyrus found Sarah’s face again in the crowd. Her eyes were full of sorrow.

The mayor began to slowly shake his head.

“It is clear that this young man has broken our most sacred of laws, and brought the curse of the Sea Zombie down upon our village. He has exposed himself to the devious ways of the enemy, and let himself be manipulated into deception and murder. It is clear that the book and turtle shell was meant to confuse us, divide us, stop us from building our Hoblkalf Crane and saving our village. It is my unfortunate duty to demand that this boy be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

The crowd’s bewildered faces shifted into a sea of hateful and hostile glares.

“Murderer!” they shouted.

“Traitor!”

“It’s not how it seems,” Cyrus cried, “The mayor’s going to get us all killed.”

Cyrus felt his world closing in. He had to escape. He stomped on the mayor’s foot, pulled free of his grip and began to run. He ducked under one man’s clutching grasp and made for a gap in the makeshift stage wall. Two guards appeared out of dark corners and tackled him to the ground. His bruised ribs seared. They mashed his blackened eye into the floor. He looked around for help. He saw Sarah leaving the square, shoving and pushing her way back through the churning mob. The men hauled him up and began to drag him off stage.

“So, in accordance with village law,” the mayor boomed, “tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp, Cyrus LongBones will be hung by the neck until dead.”

The crowd jeered and shrieked with glee.

Chapter 14

TREACHERY

 

 

THE TWO GUARDS HAULED Cyrus down the alleyway like a sack of rubbish.

“Where are you taking me?” Cyrus asked, dragging his feet.

“To the Mayor’s tent,” growled one of the guards, “where you’ll await execution.”

Cyrus could hear the mayor begin a lecture about the importance of following village law.

“Hoblkalf’s going to get us all killed,” Cyrus said, “I’ll only be the first,” he uttered under his breath.

And in some small way that made him feel better, as if it would absolve him of Niels’ death. But once he imagined the noose draped around his neck, all thought of absolution left his mind. He knew he would become helpless and cowardly and scream for release.

The wind started to pick up and blow debris off several shelters. He noticed one of the tents had ‘HQ,’ freshly painted above its door flap. He could not believe that it was in this patch-worked heap that he would spend his last hours.

“You ever seen somebody hang before, boy?” the tall, burly guard asked, “You wet your pants for the whole village to see.”

Cyrus imagined the coarse hemp squeezing tight around his neck. Wetting his pants seemed the least of his worries.

When they arrived at the tent, the guards shoved Cyrus head-first through the door flap. He hit the ground hard, trying to protect his bruised and lacerated ribs. He winced and yelped in pain. The tent smelled of mold and stale cigars, and at the back sat an extinguished, wood-burning furnace. Cyrus peered about for escape.

“Don’t even think about it,” the fat guard said.

Beside the furnace rested a pile of scavenged wood and to Cyrus’ left lay a mattress stuffed with hay.

The guards shoved him to his belly and pressed his face into the cold, damp earth. Then they bound his wrists and ankles in rope.

“No, stop!” Cyrus cried.

But the more he struggled, the more they twisted his limbs and kneeled on his back. He remembered a time when he saw a farmer, with a blade in hand, go out to butcher a pig. The pig knew what was coming and began to squeal wide-eyed, running in terror. Cyrus could not get the image out of his mind.

The men rolled him onto his side and tied him to the furnace. How much longer did he have to live? He dared not ask, too frightened of the answer.

“We’ll be outside,” the burly guard said, “Keep whining and there’ll be nothin’ left to hang when the time comes.”

Cyrus lay on the frigid earth, his hip and shoulder bones grinding against his skin. He stared at a few cases and satchels piled in the corner, thinking, was all this real? Wouldn’t someone come to rescue him? Didn’t someone care? But Niels was dead and Edward was too far and too small to help. Llysa would not help. This would be good news for her. She would be rid of a long-suffered embarrassment and burden. Cyrus had nothing and no one left. It barely seemed worth feeling sorry for himself. That would only please the town folk more. How had he gotten himself into this mess? He only wanted to help the village, stop the cave-in. He only wanted Niels to be safe.

Cyrus heard digging and rustling sounds behind him. Then came what sounded like something large sliding into the tent. The shouts of the mayor’s speech had vanished. Was this one of the villagers back from the gathering? A small scrabbling came from near the furnace. Cyrus held his breath. His skin began to prickle. He tried to roll to his opposite side. He was tied too close to the furnace. He began to twist and struggle, feeling almost claustrophobic. A cold, slender hand clasped him over the mouth. A pale figure with long, lank hair moved over him.

“Sarah?” Cyrus gasped, into her palm.

She had the prettiest, grey eyes. She put a finger to her lips and began to untie his bonds. One of the guards uttered something outside the tent. Sarah froze. Cyrus clenched his teeth and stared at the door flap. The other guard chuckled in response. Sarah kneeled like a statue for several moments. Then her hands began to shake as she continued to untie the ropes.

Once the restraints were loosened, she waved for Cyrus to follow her. Was this a trap? What was Sarah doing? Why would she risk her life like this? He watched as she crawled on her belly under the flagging side of the tent. Then he followed.

As he wriggled beneath the canvas, he found two of the tent posts unearthed. So that is how she had crawled in. Outside, on her feet again, Sarah began to thread her way around several shelters, keeping crouched and quiet along the way. Cyrus stood and looked over his shoulder. What would they do if he were caught trying to escape? Was there anything worse than being hung? Sarah poked her head around a brown, water-stained tent and waved frantically. Cyrus ducked low and followed.

“Are you trying to get us killed?” Sarah asked, as Cyrus neared.

“I’m sorry. I’m just…”

Cyrus did not want to admit he was half frozen with terror. And seeing Sarah now so worried and beautiful, her throat flexing with each desperate breath, he found himself unable to speak.

“Alarm, alarm! The traitor’s escaped!”

The cries came from behind them.

“Come on,” Sarah said, taking Cyrus’ hand.

They ran crouched through the makeshift village in the direction of a small stand of trees. Angry shouts echoed at their heels. When they reached the trees, they ducked low behind a thick, thistle bush.

“Where are we going?” Cyrus asked, his heart punching at his ribs.

“You have to escape over the fence and flee. Sail your boat away from here. It’s your only hope.”

Sail his boat away? Where? There was no land around as far as the eye could see. It was suicide!

“Why are you doing this?” Cyrus asked, between gasping breaths.

“Because you risked your life to save mine,” she answered, her skin smooth and pale, and her cheeks aglow with life.

“Duck,” she whispered.

The two lay flat on the wet earth beside each other. The sound of several villagers trampling along the grass came from the opposite side of the bush.

“He could have gone anywhere,” a deep voice said.

“Probably had help from the Sea Zombie herself,” said another.

Cyrus could not tell if the damp all over his body was from the wet ground and drizzling rain, or from his sweating in terror. He could feel Sarah shift beside him. She felt warm like a small furnace.

“We gotta keep moving,” a third voice said.

The group continued on south along the field.

“Let’s go,” Sarah said, under her breath.

She hopped to her feet and helped Cyrus off the ground. They ran like hunted foxes through the woods, vapor gusting from their lungs and their eyes always over their shoulders. They came to the Ring Road and peeked out of the forest. The gravel street looked empty.

“Quick, while there’s still time,” Sarah said.

Cyrus’ ears caught something barely audible. He grabbed Sarah’s wrist just as she was about to spring out. He looked at her, pleading and wide-eyed, and pulled her behind a tree. Twigs snapped and popped under heavy feet along the trail behind them. Cyrus fell low to the earth and peered out. The two guards from the tent came stalking through the woods. One carried an axe; the other a heavy tree limb.

“If we lose him, it’ll be our hides for sure,” the fat one said.

“Then let’s be sure not to lose him,” the burly one replied.

Their faces were red and soiled and their shirts sweaty and wrinkled.

“I heard him here a minute ago,” the fat one whispered.

“Then he can’t have gone far.”

The burly guard nodded to his partner and the two split up. The burly guard made his way out onto the Ring Road and looked about. The fat guard stepped through the underbrush, slowly moving in Cyrus and Sarah’s direction. Cyrus pulled himself back behind the tree. He and Sarah would be caught for sure. Sarah put a hand on his shoulder and he almost screamed. He looked back at her, his mind blank with fright. She pointed at herself and made a running motion with her fingers; then pointed at Cyrus and did the same in the opposite direction. She was planning on running off and leading the guards away so Cyrus could escape. No! She would be taking too big a risk. He heard the fat man shift behind the tree. He saw his meaty hand slide around the tree’s trunk. Cyrus grabbed a fist full of dirt and rose to his feet. Just as he saw the whites of the guard’s eyes peer around the trunk, Cyrus loosed the dirt into his fat mug.

“Ahhh!” the guard screamed, dropping his club and clawing at his face.

“What’s all that racket?” the burly guard shouted, from the road.

“It’s him. He’s thrown dirt in my eyes!”

Sarah stood up and began to move further into the woods. Cyrus grabbed her wrist. She pulled free and put a finger to her lips, then quickly ran into the forest. Cyrus heard the burly guard come crashing through the trees, towards his fallen comrade. If Cyrus ran across the Ring Road, towards the Dead Fence, the guards would hear or see him and he would be caught. He began to crawl slowly away from the tree, through a bush and down into a roadside ditch.

“Where is he?” the burly guard asked, his voice full of rage.

“How am I supposed to know? He blinded me,” the fat guard whined.

Cyrus peered over the bank and through the bushes. He saw the burly guard come stalking around the tree. The man looked left; then right, then began to move in his direction. Cyrus readied himself to run as best he could. With the chipped and dinged axe, the man began to part the bushes above Cyrus’ head. Run, you idiot, he thought. But fear kept him frozen in place. The man’s sweating, dripping nose started to poke through the part in the brush. Cyrus bit back a scream.

“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!”

Cyrus panicked and grabbed his mouth, but quickly realized the cry did not come from his lips. It came from further in the forest. The burly guard turned and ran in the direction of the cry.

“What’s going on?” the fat guard shouted, stumbling blindly after his partner.

“I saw him, I saw him!” Cyrus heard Sarah say, just beyond the trees, “He shoved me over and ran that way!”

Cyrus held still, watching the woods and listening. Were the guards coming back? Was Sarah in trouble? He could not see or hear a thing. He stood listening for several moments. Then he began to make his way out of the ditch.

“Cyrus?” a voice whispered.

He turned and to his relief saw Sarah creeping out of the brush.

“Over here,” he answered back.

She slid down the bank and into the ditch.

“There’s no time. They’ll be back soon,” she said.

Cyrus took her by the hand and pulled her across the road. They raced through Hekswood Forest, splashing up mud and whipping past sharp branches. They arrived at a clearing and crouched beside a tree. There the vegetation stopped and the Dead Fence’s dried and cracked earth began. Cyrus scanned the area for danger. The coast was clear. He looked to Sarah. She was afraid, wide-eyed and beautiful, with twigs in her hair and mud on her face.

“Cyrus, you have to go,” she said, “I know you didn’t do what the Mayor says, but they’ll never forgive you. You have to sail away and never come back. Go to Myrkur Island. You’ll be safe there.”

But Cyrus knew that that was not true. Myrkur was crumbling just like Virkelot. It would only be a matter of time before he found himself in a cold, wet grave. And there was the blue-eyed phantom to worry about as well.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Now we’re even,” she replied.

Cyrus looked into her eyes, unsure what to do or say next. Sarah dropped her gaze.

“You have to go, Cyrus.”

He looked to his feet, feeling a familiar sense of rejection.

“Thanks again.”

He paused a moment, his pointed ears burning, then turned towards the Dead Fence. He began to make his way across the cracked earth.

“Wait,” Sarah said.

Cyrus stopped and looked back. She came over and stood in front of him. She had the strangest glint in her eyes, as if she was about to cry. She reached up and touched his blackened brow. Cyrus looked away, ashamed. Sarah seized him and hugged him hard, pressing her head to his chest. Cyrus froze like a petrified tree. Then slowly he raised his arms and hugged her back.

“Take care of yourself and be safe,” she said.

Cyrus did not want this moment to end. He smelled her hair and held the light warmth of her body.

“I will.”

He heard voices off in the bushes. The two separated as if caught in some unthinkable act. Sarah looked to Cyrus.

“Run!”

Then she sped off into the woods, away from the nearing cries. Cyrus searched the tree line. Nothing. With a charging jump, he began to climb the ten-foot-high fence.

“There he is!” the burly guard shouted.

By the sounds of the racket, there were several men on his trail. An axe struck the fence to Cyrus’ left. The blade hit the wood like stone and fell to the earth. Cyrus clambered to the top of the wall. Several rocks passed near his head, hitting trees and bushes far beyond. Cyrus looked back. Eight or nine men broke into the clearing, furious and armed. One heaved a pitchfork. Another threw a sharpened stick. Cyrus half jumped, half fell off the fence, landing on the forbidden side of the forest. The projectiles hit the top of the wall and came clattering to the ground around him.

“Run back to your Sea Witch, traitor!” one man yelled.

“She’ll do worse than hang you,” another shouted.

The men hit the fence like wild beasts, yelling curses and poking sticks through knotholes in the pickets. Cyrus scurried away from the wall on all fours. What if one of the men grew bold and followed him over? Cyrus rose to his feet and began to sprint for the shoreline. He had to find Edward.

Chapter 15

SUPPLIES

 

 

CYRUS CRASHED THROUGH THE WOODS as if on fire, leaping over poisonous creepers and dashing through puddles of mud. He cleared the forest and rushed down the seaside path, heading for Edward’s tree.

“Over here,” a familiar voice shouted.

The fuzzy spider was dangling from a grey leafed bush. Cyrus made his way over.

“The Mayor’s ordered my death,” he said, his breath labored, “They’re trying to kill me. I have to escape.”

“What do you mean?” Edward asked.

Cyrus’ senses were electric.

“He says I’m a traitor and wants me executed. My only chance is to take the boat and run.” 

Edward seemed anxious.

“Well, I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t understand,” Cyrus said, “I can’t stay here, and with the cave-ins and that creature, Myrkur’s not safe either. I have to sail away, find somewhere else to live; a new island, a new home. I have to leave this place and never come back.”

“But you can’t do it yourself,” Edward said, “You don’t know north from your nose. You’ll get lost the minute you lose sight of land.”

Edward was right. The little spider did seem to have an uncanny sixth sense when it came to direction.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll even make it through the night,” Cyrus replied.

“But if I stay, I’m guaranteed to drown with this place. With the two of us together, at least we stand a chance.”

Cyrus felt tears well up in his eyes and the weight on his shoulders grew lighter.

“We better hurry,” he said, picking Edward up and putting him in his shirt pocket.

Twenty minutes later the two runaways were adrift. Cyrus paddled through the shore break and searched the tree line for danger. It seemed that no one had dared cross the Dead Fence in pursuit. Were the old legends true? Was there truly some ancient evil beyond the wall? His stomach twisted. He did not share his apprehension with Edward.

The grey sky grew dim with the coming evening, and the sea foamed and chopped amidst the rising tide.

“We’re going to need food and water,” Cyrus said, shivering in his wet denim.

“And some warm clothes,” Edward added, “You’re going to freeze.

The small spider began to crawl out of Cyrus’ pocket and up his shirt.

“What should we do?” Cyrus asked, picking Edward off his shoulder and placing him on the mast.

“Myrkur Island,” Edward said, skittering up the crow’s nest, “Old Jim has lots of stuff in that place.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

Cyrus’ heart sunk further.

They arrived at the southern tip of the island and moored the boat at the edge of the seaside cave. The land seemed to have withered since their last visit, for the trees appeared bone-like and bare.

They climbed up into the eye socket of the massive skull. Cyrus felt as if he was seeing the caverns for the first time. He studied the arching and somber forms. The twin pools in the fossilized rock reminded him of the blue-eyed phantom. There was no time to waste.

“Ready?” he asked Edward, who was crouched on his shoulder.

The frightened spider nodded, his two eyes wide. Cyrus lit the lantern with a shaky hand, then crept into old Jim OddFoot’s dwelling. He peered about the room for danger. Nothing had been shifted since their first visit. He made his way towards the skeleton on the bed. 

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he whispered.

“You have no choice,” Edward replied, “Be quick.”

Steadying his nerves, Cyrus pulled the sealskin boots off the skeleton’s feet. He knocked the dust out. The air became musty and stale. Coughing, he kicked off his wet, tattered shoes, held his breath, and pulled on the black boots. To his surprise, they were fleecy, warm and felt tailor fit. Finally, some luck, he thought. Next, he pulled a leather belt and sheathed knife from the dead man’s waist. The dagger was a little longer than Cyrus’ hand and its fang-shaped blade sharp as broken glass. He buckled the belt low around his hips. The weight of the knife made him feel larger somehow.

On a coat rack, near the entrance, he found a fleece-lined leather jacket and cap, and a wool scarf. The clothing was a few sizes too big, but warmed him to the core.

“Cyrus, over there,” Edward said, pointing two legs towards the bookshelf.

“Holy Sea Zombie.”

Cyrus moved towards the shelf and gathered up a bow and quiver of arrows. The belly and back of the weapon was crafted from dunkel wood, and the grip bound with leather. Cyrus pulled the string. It was coarse and felt of tough hemp.

“No Cyrus. The water skin and blanket.”

Cyrus swung the quiver and bow over his shoulder and collected a wool blanket and empty water skin from the bookshelf. But where would they find fresh water?

“Do you feel that?” Edward gasped.

The little spider curled into a ball and rolled into Cyrus’ shirt pocket. Cyrus paused. What was it he was supposed to feel? Then it happened. A strange vibration moved up from his feet into his teeth. The hum grew into a grumbling roar.

“A cave-in!” Edward shouted.

Cyrus clutched his gear and sped towards the door. Dust and stone rained down from spreading cracks in the ceiling. The oil paintings started to fall from the walls. Books and other objects crashed to the ground around Cyrus’ feet. From behind him came what sounded like giant rock biting through massive stone.

“Jump!” Edward screamed.

Cyrus leapt through the door and crashed to the earth. A splintering boom echoed throughout the caves. Dust and stone fragments enveloped the would-be victims. Cyrus coughed and wheezed and peered into his pocket to make sure Edward was safe.

“I’m okay?” the small spider said, “You?”

“I think so,” Cyrus answered, looking back through the haze of bone dust.

A large portion of Jim’s roof had collapsed, blocking the entrance to his lair.

“Let’s get out of here before the rest of it caves in,” Cyrus whispered.

With his hand on the sheath of the knife, he slipped from the cave, tossed their gear into the boat and pushed off from the eroding fossil.

“Cyrus,” Edward said, his voice shaky.

Cyrus looked to his pocket. His best friend peaked out, quivering with fear. Cyrus scanned the area. Then he saw the cause of Edward’s concern. There were wet, webbed handprints on the boat’s mast and hull. The blue-eyed phantom.

Chapter 16

FOGGY SEAS

 

 

NEVER MIND THAT,” Cyrus said, “Let’s just get out of here.”

He paddled hard and fast away from the island, peering repeatedly over his shoulders. His back ached with worry and dread. He kept imagining the thing from Jim’s journal springing aboard their boat.

“Which way should we head,” he asked, once he felt they were far enough from shore.

“I say south,” Edward replied.

The two set a southerly course into the dwindling afternoon. In the distance the sky flickered with lightning and rain.

“I think it’s going to pass us by,” Edward said.

As they voyaged into uncharted waters, Cyrus felt more and more helpless. Where were they going to find food and water? What if they could not find land? Day became night and the sea grew calm.

Cyrus slowly began to process the events leading up to his escape. Niels, Cyrus’ brother, and only true family, was gone, and it was all because Cyrus had not been strong enough to save him. Cyrus’ lone crime had been wanting to flee his stepmother and live in peace. He had told Niels about the journal and together they had tried to warn the mayor. But Hoblkalf would not listen. Instead he used threats and lies in an attempt to further his own selfish schemes. When the mayor’s plan failed and caused the cave-in, he had shifted blame to Cyrus. The villagers cheered for Cyrus’ death, never much liking him in the first place. But Sarah did not blame him. She had saved his life. She even seemed to care for him. Yet still Cyrus had been forced to escape the hangman’s noose. That is what he got for trying to help others. He would never make that mistake ever again.

The moon slipped behind a curtain of cloud. Cyrus’ eyes grew heavy with exhaustion. He shifted to the floor of the boat and huddled under the wool blanket. Edward curled like a tiny mouse within the warm collar of Cyrus’ fleece jacket. Cyrus drifted between the sleeping world and the real. Stifled tears grew frigid on his thick eyelashes. When finally, he slumbered, he dreamt of drowning turtles and foggy seas.

 

THE BLUE-EYED CREATURE that clung to the hull of their craft dreamt of far more sinister things.

Chapter 17

RORROH

 

 

CYRUS AWOKE TO THE SOUND of a tolling bell. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked about. It was still night. The air was thick with a green fog that smelled of some sort of burning weed. Maybe seaweed, he thought. Cyrus’ throat tightened. He began to cough.

“Edward, you awake?”

“I don’t feel good,” the spider said, coughing.

Cyrus searched his clothing and found his best friend balled up in his shirt pocket.

“Hold on, I’ll try to get us out of here?” Cyrus said, gently petting Edward’s back.

The ringing of the bell grew nearer. Cyrus worried they might collide with its source. Clumsily, he lit the lantern and held it to the sky. At first, he saw nothing. Then out of the haze loomed a sailing ship. The boat was fifty times larger than their craft, and instead of two sails, it had over ten. The sheets hung ragged and stained from three towering masts.

The craft was on a collision course. Cyrus grabbed an oar to paddle clear. Dizzy from the smoke, he let the pole slip through his fingers. The ship coasted into their boat and skirted it aside like driftwood. Alongside the oily vessel, a mesh of rope hung from the top deck.

Ssseize it,” a distant voice whispered.

Possessed by an overpowering urge, Cyrus reached out and grabbed the thick net. What just happened? he wondered, staring at his gripping hand. The deck boards groaned from above. A hooded silhouette peered over the edge. Cyrus held the lantern high. The light reflected off two dark eyes beneath the soiled hood. 

“Ssssss…”

The stranger seemed to taste the air.

“A child, how sssweet,” said a high-pitched voice.

Cyrus heard phlegm rattle in the creature’s windpipe, but not whether it was man or woman. He felt he should flee, but his thoughts swam within the cozy, green mist.

“You must be deathly cold, my dear. Come aboard and join me for ssssome hot tea.”

With a crooked, boney hand, the creature waved Cyrus up into the boat.

“Don’t,” Edward gasped, from within his shirt.

Cyrus fought the urge to climb the mesh ladder.

“No, um, thank you for your kind offer, but we must be on our way.”

He shook his head and tried to clear the fog. A waterfall of green smoke drifted down from within the stranger’s cloak.

Breathe…” it whispered.

Suddenly desperate for air, Cyrus drew the fumes into his lungs and began to cough. Edward sneezed violently inside Cyrus’ pocket. Cyrus’ vision grew murky and his senses blurred.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“You are lost, young Master LongBones,” the stranger said.

Cyrus’ attention peaked out from within the gaseous gloom.

“How do you know my name?”

“Oh, I know many things. I know your village has crumbled into the sea. I know you search for a new home. And I know the land for which you ssseek.”

Cyrus rubbed his irritated eyes.

“You know what happened to my island?”

His voice sounded distant, as if spoken by another.

“How do you know these things? Who are you?”

“Oh, I have many namesss… but you may call me Rorroh…

The stranger whispered the name from the bottom of its belly and a slash of yellow teeth flashed in the lantern’s glow.

“Come aboard, young Master. Let me guide you on your journey.”

Another plume of smoke washed down over Cyrus’ head. Once the coughing cleared, he fell into a hypnotic daze and began to climb the ladder.

“Cyrus, no…” Edward whispered, weakly.

Cyrus paused, momentarily pulled from his trance.

“Quickly, young Master,” Rorroh called down, “or the tea will get cold.”

“My friend, he’s sick. He needs help,” Cyrus slurred.

“I have all the aid you require aboard my ship. Come,” the stranger beckoned.

“Cyrus…” Edward moaned.

“They’re going to help us,” Cyrus said.

He climbed the remaining length of the ladder and pulled himself aboard. Rorroh drew away from the lamp’s flame.

“Please child, extinguish your torch. It is too much for my old eyesss.”

Cyrus blew out the lantern and set it on the deck. The creature shivered with delight.

“Come, don’t be afraid,” it said, as it limped towards the stern of the ship.

“I’m not,” Cyrus said, as he followed Rorroh through the haze.

“Yesss,” Rorroh smirked, “the traum weed can have that sort of effect on the mind.”

“Effect?”

“Oh, never mind, just, breathe.”

Swampy moss coated the top deck like a gangrenous skin, while a six-pronged tiller moaned with the ocean’s current. Rorroh shuffled towards a cabin at the rear of the vessel, careful not to step on any of the deck’s fractured floorboards. The shack’s horn-shaped chimney billowed with green smoke, and from within, the room’s round windows flickered with a dim, emerald hue. Rorroh grasped the door handle and let Cyrus into the ill-lit chamber.

“Thank you,” he mumbled, drifting through the creaking doorway.

He had to focus his eyes to take in his surroundings. The cabin smelled of sweet perfume and dried flowers, but under that odor, something sour lurked. A stove at the back of the cabin burned with green embers, warming the damp quarters, and on top of the stove, a blackened kettle began to whistle.

Cyrus noticed a second person pick the pot up and carry it towards a round table nook. Like Rorroh, the creature too wore a hooded robe.

“The tea is ready, Mistress,” the short fellow said, his voice gravelly and high pitched.

Mistress, Cyrus thought, So Rorroh is a woman.

“Aghamore, set the tea down there,” Rorroh replied, limping towards a cupboard.

As Aghamore placed the tea on the table, Cyrus caught a glimpse of his face. The creature looked grey and starved, with a shabby, white beard. His left eye had swelled twice as large as his right. He retreated towards the stove and sniffed at Cyrus through slit-like nostrils.

Cyrus realized he was staring. He looked towards the table. There he saw a large map pinned to the wall. The chart was sketched in a red so dark, it was almost black. Several islands dotted the map with names like VANN GARDE, GRUNN GARDE, and, HIMMEL GARDE. At its center were sketched Virkelot and Myrkur Island. Both were marked HUNE

“Why do you have a map of my home?” Cyrus asked, rubbing the fog from his eyes, “and what are the rest of those islands?

“That’s where klappen lurk and mermaidsss shriek,” Rorroh said, “But those demons are of no concern to you, now…”

Aghamore snickered. A chill brushed Cyrus’ flesh. He tried to make a mental note of the details. His thoughts swam and twisted.

“Please, have a ssseat,” Rorroh said, setting a pair of tin cups out on the table.

“My friend,” Cyrus said, drawing Edward from his pocket, “He’s not well.”

He slid into the nook’s bench seat, farthest from his host and held Edward cupped in his hands. The spider was breathing, but barely conscious.

“What have we here?” Rorroh asked, moving closer.

In the emerald glow of the fire, Cyrus could see his host’s facial features. Rorroh had powdered her face in white makeup, but under that mask, her skin was a map of wrinkles, clinging to her skull like dried leather. She wore a long, wooden costume nose, tied to her head by thin rope, and her cheekbones jutted out like cliffs, smeared with red blush.

Cyrus opened his hands. The old woman’s pale flesh grew more pallid somehow.

“Blodbad spider…” she gasped, staggering back.

“He’s my friend,” Cyrus said, drunkenly, “He needs our help.”

He laid Edward on the stained, yellow tablecloth and stroked his furry back. Hesitantly, Rorroh took a glass beaker from a shelf. Then she sprang forward, trapping the spider under the glass.

“What are you doing?” Cyrus asked, jerking his hand away.

“We don’t allow wild animals to run free on our ship,” Rorroh said, forcing a smile.

“Don’t be afraid,” Cyrus said, his head lulling, “He’s not like other spiders. He talks.”

“Oh, he does more than that,” Rorroh said, peering closely at the arachnid through the glass, “And do not worry about his health. The traum weed affected him more than most. He will be as good as new in a few hours.”

“Thank the Angels,” Cyrus sighed, enjoying the sedated hum running through his body, “If you give him back, I’ll make sure he’s kept safe.”

Rorroh moved around the table and shifted into the nook, her hand still on the glass.

“Now, now, child, don’t be rude. Take a sssip of tea before it gets cold.”

With her opposite hand, she poured Cyrus a cup and nudged it closer. He took the mug and paused. Rorroh grasped the other, nodded to Cyrus, and swallowed a scalding hot slurp. Several drops of tea dribbled down her narrow chin.

“Now it’s your turn,” she said, “Go on, drink.

Cyrus lifted the mug and sipped a tiny mouthful. The liquid burnt his tongue.

“Good, isn’t it?” Rorroh smirked.

The tea was bitter sweet, like dandelion juice mixed with too much sugar. Trying not to gag, Cyrus smiled and nodded. The hot tea began to trickle down his throat and become ice in his belly.

“My only family drowned,” he slurred, “My people want me dead and I have nowhere else to turn. I need help. Anybody’s help…”

Cyrus’ skin began to sweat.

“Now,” Rorroh said, “I can understand how you were able to flee my island, but how you were able to elude my froskman is another matter entirely.”

“Froskman?”

Rorroh’s words sounded muffled, Cyrus had to focus his hearing.

“Tell me boy, have others tried to essscape, or are you the only one?”

“Others? No, I’m the only one. They tried to kill me.”

“Good, that’s good,” Rorroh cooed.

Cyrus’ guts twisted and the room started to spin. He tried to stand. His limbs had grown numb.

“What’s happening?” he whispered.

“It’s a funny thing about veneno tea,” Rorroh said, in mock conspiracy, “I’ve been drinking it for decadesss and it’s always been good to me, but for an alveling such as yourself, there’s no telling what sort of effectsss it might hold.”

Cyrus began to lose all control of his body. He slumped sideways in his chair.

“I don’t feel well.”

Rorroh set down her mug and oozed overtop of his paralyzed frame, coming face to face with the boy. Her eyes were black and gleamed with oil, and her narrow teeth stabbed inward, like barbed hooks.

“What are you?” Cyrus gasped.

“The Sssea Zombie.”

Then all went dark.

Chapter 18

THE PHANTOM

 

 

CYRUS AWOKE achy and nauseous. His nose filled with the stink of wood rot and mildew. Had it all been a bad dream? His head felt swollen and his vision blurred. He heard the toll of a bell.

“No…”

Ice slid down his spine and he began to sweat. Cyrus tried to move. He discovered his wrists bound by rope as he dangled from a meat hook overhead.

“The Sea Zombie!”

He struggled to recall how he had gotten there. His memories were hazy and green. He felt cold and realized he was clothed in nothing but his underwear. Where was Edward?

“Edward, you here?” he half whispered, half cried.

“Edward?”

He recalled his friend trapped under a glass jar. He peered around the room. His surroundings were ill lit and full of shadows. The only light in the chamber came from a potbellied stove rusting in the corner.

The furnace glowed with orange embers, and on its top sat a caldron large enough to boil a pig. Within the iron pot bubbled something that stunk of lard and seaweed. Cyrus’ vision focused. His eyes adjusted to the shadows. He saw steel shackles and what looked like the skulls of children hanging from greasy walls.

“What in Kingdom?”

His heart began to pump fire into his limbs. He was an insect trapped in a web. He prayed Edward was somewhere safe.

He searched for a way to escape. At the back of the room, several shelves stood stocked with objects such as crystal orbs, steel swords and strange jars of liquid. Cyrus peered down a narrow hallway leading to the stern or aft of the ship. Two dim, blue lights appeared from within the darkened socket. Cyrus froze. His breath grew rapid. The orbs drifted out of the passageway. The stove’s fire lit the contours of a dark, slender figure.

“No, get away,” Cyrus hissed.

It was the creature from the lake. The one Jim OddFoot had described in his journal. It was male, clothed in a flesh-tight suit. The suit was made of black, whale skin. It covered all but his head, shins and forearms.

The newcomer neared. He drew a knife from his belt and raised it overhead. Cyrus tried to scream.

“Sshh,” the creature said, fixing a grey, webbed hand to Cyrus’ mouth.

The stranger began to cut his bonds.

“Oh, thank you,” Cyrus whispered, as the newcomer helped him to the floor.

Cyrus’ body felt stiff and numb and the welt on his side stung, so with one arm over his shoulder, the stranger helped him towards a door in the corner of the room.

From the deck above hinges creaked and footsteps crept downstairs. The stranger’s eyes dimmed. He signaled silence, then dragged Cyrus into a corner, behind a row of shelves.

“Silly child,” a muffled voice whispered.

The cabin door opened and in hobbled Rorroh, gripping a palmed-sized, crystal sphere. Aghamore followed, carrying a small cork-topped vial.

“Call off the hunt. I’ve found him,” Rorroh said, speaking into the glowing, green orb.

“As you wish, Mistress,” the orb replied.

Its emerald glare cast shadows across Rorroh’s face. Her red painted mouth drooled with need.

She paused as she noticed the empty hook.

“Aghamore, what have you done?”

“Nothing, Mistress,” the small, hooded figure answered.

Like an owl, she twisted her head to the right. The tendons and vertebrae in her neck snapped and crackled like crushed shellfish. She craned her head towards the ceiling and sniffed the air.

“A trespasser aboard my ship?” she asked, her tone eerily playful.

She peered down the shadowy hallway. Something drew her attention back to the hook. Then slowly her head turned in the direction of the darkened corner. Cyrus’ breath grew shaky. What were they going to do? They were trapped in the belly of a rotting ship with a creature claiming to be the Sea Zombie.

The blue-eyed stranger leapt from behind the shelves and grabbed Aghamore by the neck, holding a knife to his gilled throat. Aghamore dropped the glass vial. It did not break. Cyrus slumped against the wall, his limbs still numb.

“Make one move towards us and I will cut your puppet gill to gill,” the stranger said.

His voice was odd. It hummed as if there was a bee in his throat.

“What have we here?” Rorroh asked, “A traitor in our midst?”

“The door, young Master, go!” the stranger demanded.

Cyrus’ hands and feet were full of pins and needles. He stumbled in the direction of the door. Then he noticed a small, black shape trapped within Aghamore’s glass. Edward! He moved towards the standoff. The spider appeared to be unconscious.

“I would not touch him if I were you,” Rorroh said. 

Cyrus looked up. His eyes focused on the grinning witch. She moved ever so slightly forward. The stranger’s body tightened. Aghamore let out a squeal of pain. Cyrus reached out and grasped the vial. Then he scrambled to the door and tried the knob. It was locked.

“Looking for this?” Rorroh asked, producing a greasy, black key from within her cloak.

“Hand it over,” the stranger demanded, pressing his blade to Aghamore’s throat.

Aghamore’s gilled neck flared and his misshapen eyes peered about crazed.

“You misunderstand, traitor,” Rorroh said, her eyes twinkling with the glow of the furnace, “I do not serve Aghamore. He serves me. Attack!”

Cyrus watched dumbstruck as Aghamore threw his head back and struck the stranger in the face, breaking his nose. The stranger lost his hold. Aghamore spun around and again head-butted his opponent. The stranger wiped blood from his mouth. Then he clutched Aghamore by the collar. He flipped him over his back, slamming him to the deck. Then he grasped an arm and a leg and, spinning on his heels, cast the villain headfirst into a nearby wall. The boards splintered and Aghamore dropped like a broken marionette to the floor. 

“Break the door open,” the stranger shouted.

Breathing heavily, he pointed to a row of battle-axes resting at the bottom of a shelf. Cyrus set the snoozing Edward down near the door and grabbed an axe. The weapon was heavy, causing his injured side to ache. He struggled to raise it shoulder height.

Rorroh began to creep closer.

“Tell me child, how were you able to tame the blodbad spider? Even I would not dare handle such a hostile and poisonous creature. Besides, I thought them all dead.”

Cyrus’ breath quickened as he chopped at the door. Blodbad spider? Poisonous and hostile? Did she mean Edward?

The door was old and hard like stone. With each awkward blow, the wood chipped away in small, jagged shards.

“Stay back, witch,” the blue-eyed creature demanded, raising his knife.

Rorroh ignored his words and shambled closer.

“Even if you were able to flee my ship, there is nowhere to run. You saw the map. Wherever your boat lands, my minions await.”

Terror lent Cyrus strength. The axe became light in his hands.

“I said back,” the stranger repeated.

He reversed the grip on his weapon and flew at Rorroh. He brought the blade down hard at her skull. Cyrus watched in horror as Rorroh caught the blow mid-air and turned the knife. The stranger slammed into the witch, impaling himself on his own blade. Steel pierced his back.

“No!” Cyrus cried.

“You have grown foolish and weak, traitor,” Rorroh spat.

Black bile dripped down her horn-like chin.

“Better than what I once was,” the stranger choked.

She struck him with a backhanded blow, casting his limp body to the ground. Cyrus looked past the panting witch, at his rescuer lying blood spattered and battered on the damp floor. The knife had penetrated his heart. Dark blood pooled around his still corpse. Cyrus grew faint, watching as all hope drained from the room.

Chapter 19

HORROR

 

RORROH BEGAN TO CACKLE AS SHE looked up at Cyrus.

“If only you had not crossed my fence.”

A grill of thin teeth grinned cheek to cheek, tearing the right side of her face. Cyrus again chopped at the door, tears streaming down his face.

“Your death could have been quick and painless,” she said

“You don’t have to do this,” Cyrus said, striking the metal lock, “I’ll go home. I promise!”

“Oh, it’s too late for that,” Rorroh said, stepping closer.

Cyrus swung at the steel bolt. With a spark, the lock broke. The door creaked open.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Rorroh asked, her face snarling behind her white, wooden nose.

“Cyrus, what’s going on? Where are we?” Edward asked, half asleep.

The spider was beginning to rouse, trapped within the glass tube.

“It’s okay,” Cyrus breathed, casting a quick glance down at his best friend.

Edward’s vial rolled back and forth along the deck with the motion of the sea.

What was Cyrus going to do? If the stranger could not stop Rorroh, how could he? He thought of making a run for it. She was too close.

Cyrus turned on the witch and raised his axe.

“Please, just let us go.”

“Let you go? But you’ve only just gotten here.”

Rorroh came within striking distance. Cyrus prayed to the Angel King and swung with all his might. The blade arched through the air, whistling towards her skull. Rorroh caught the axe by its neck, the blade inches from her face. She wrenched it free and broke it in two.

“Wha-? Cyrus, run!” Edward shrieked.

The spider was now fully awake, clinging to the wall of the glass.

Rorroh reached out to grab Cyrus. He pulled away and tripped, falling to his backside.

“Edward!”

He clutched for the glass vial and pulled it away from Rorroh’s reach. Then he kicked and scrambled himself against the wall. There was nowhere to turn. He was trapped between thick, hull boards and a child-eating demon.

“No,” he cried, hugging his legs tight to his chest.

“Cyrus, run!” Edward screamed.

Rorroh, an arm’s reach away, grinned in delight. The torn half of her mouth was a wolfish snarl. She came nose to nose with the boy.

“I was going to save you for the stew, but you’ll be just as tasty raw.”

Cyrus squeezed his eyes shut.

“Please…”

With long, coarse fingers she gripped his throat and pinned him to the wall. Cyrus felt something drip on his face. He forced himself to look. Rorroh’s bloated tongue squirmed in her mouth. She dislocated her jaw and opened it wide. Dark drool dribbled onto Cyrus’ cheek, smelling of vomit and tar. She was going to bite his face off, tear out his throat. Cyrus attempted to scream. He could not find the breath. Then he heard what sounded like a hissing barn cat. It came from the vial in his hand. It was Edward, seething and clawing at the glass wall. He appeared crazed, like a rabid dog, his fur on end. The witch pulled away, frightened. Then she peered over her shoulder. Cyrus suddenly became aware of the scent of burning oil and fertilizer. He looked past Rorroh. The galley was on fire. More specifically, the stranger was up, knife through his chest. He had opened the stove and was casting flaming logs about the cabin, setting it ablaze.

“My ship, no!” Rorroh shrieked.

She leapt up at the stranger, striking him with a heavy palm that sent him skidding across the deck. Then she grabbed a large cloak and began to smother the flames. The stranger staggered to his feet and stumbled towards Cyrus. He gripped the wall for support.

“Come, while there’s time,” he croaked.

He held a slender, webbed hand out to Cyrus. Paralyzed with fear, Cyrus looked beyond. Rorroh was knocking over shelves and flapping her cloak out, trying to extinguish the blaze.

“Quick,” the phantom said, dark blood dripping from his mouth.

Cyrus looked to Edward. The spider trembled with anger and terror. Cyrus reached up and took the stranger’s hand. His grip felt like steel wrapped in silk. With the door’s lock broken, the stranger threw it open and pulled Cyrus up a narrow set of stairs. They burst through a hatchway and found themselves in the cabin where Cyrus had first been drugged.

“Help me trap the witch,” the stranger said.

Cyrus clutched the vial between his teeth. Together he and the stranger ripped and pulled the potbellied stove from its chimney. Footsteps crashed up the stairway. Cyrus and the phantom dragged the iron furnace overtop of the hatch. The hatchway jumped and cracked.

“Open this door or I’ll eat out your liver,” Rorroh shrieked.

The phantom tipped a shelf onto the stove, adding to the blockade.

“Watch out!” Edward screamed.

Cyrus heard wood splinter. Then something snapped tight around his ankle. He instinctively jerked his leg away. It would not budge. He looked down. Rorroh’s branch-like arm reached through a crack in the trap door. It was pulling his leg below. He took Edward’s vial from his mouth.

“Help,” he cried.

If she got his leg down the hole she would surely chew it off. The phantom grabbed Cyrus’ arms and tried to pull him free. Rorroh’s grip was too strong. Cyrus was being dragged under.

“No!” he shrieked.

His ribs throbbed. He searched for a weapon. It was no use.

“Quick, take mine,” the phantom said, gritting his teeth.

The veins in his corded neck swelled. Cyrus looked to the knife protruding from his heart. How was he still alive?

“There is no time,” the stranger shouted.

Cyrus’ foot was two inches from vanishing down the hatch. At best he would be crippled for life. He reached out and grasped the blade. The phantom winced in pain. Like a stiff cork, Cyrus twisted and pulled the knife free. The stranger let out a death choke and seemed to wilt, but still he held on to Cyrus’ wrist. The weapon dripped arterial blood down Cyrus’ hand. He looked down at the boney, grey limb trying to pull him under. Gripping the knife dearly, he took a deep breath, then struck with all his might.

“Ssssaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh!”

The blade found its mark, slicing Rorroh’s hand off at the joint. Black blood spewed from the wound. Cyrus and the stranger flew back from the hole, crashing into the door. Cyrus dropped the vial. It shattered against the deck.

Rorroh’s severed limb thrashed and sprayed, before recoiling below deck. Her screams ripped through the ship like a shock wave.

“Come on,” Cyrus said, scrambling to his feet.

He collected Edward off the floor, then found his clothes in a pile near the door.

Outside the sun fought to break through a heavy fog.

“Cyrus, your leg,” Edward said, running up his arm.

Cyrus looked down and found Rorroh’s severed hand still clutching his ankle.

“Holy Sea Zombie!”

He used the stranger’s knife to skewer the appendage and fling it into the sea.

“Over here,” the stranger gasped, slouched over the ship’s railing.

It was their boat, moored to the rope ladder below. The stranger must have secured it.

“Quick, before that thing breaks out,” Edward said.

Cyrus dropped his clothes overboard and began to escape into his craft. He kept one eye on his strange rescuer. Why had Rorroh called him a traitor?

Chapter 20

FIBIAN

 

FOR A DAY AND A NIGHT Cyrus and Edward sailed south, while the stranger slept, reeling in a feverish dream.

They had long ago lost sight of Rorroh’s vessel. Cyrus still searched the horizon for the oily ship.

In the grey, morning rain, he wrapped the stranger in the wool blanket and mopped sweat from his forehead. Cyrus was in awe of how fast the creature’s injuries healed.

Over the twenty-four-hour period, the stab wound to the stranger’s chest knit itself together as if closed by unseen stitches, and his fractured nose became narrow and straight. Deep lacerations to his sharp cheekbones and angular chin vanished, leaving his sunken face unscarred and smooth.

Cyrus also found six incisions cut into the ribcage of the phantom’s suit. The eight-inch-long vents exposed two sets of shark-like gills that gasped for air as the stranger took in breath. Cyrus wondered how old the creature was. He looked childlike from one angle, middle-aged from the next.

The stranger’s eyes opened. Cyrus flinched.

“Uh, are you thirsty?” he asked, offering the stranger the canteen, “I’d give you some food, but we have none.”

“Thank you,” the stranger whispered, accepting the drink with his webbed hand.

“You were out for quite a while,” Cyrus said.

“I feel much better,” the stranger said, slowly rubbing his chest.

“My name’s Cyrus, and my friend here is Edward.”

The spider gave the stranger a slight nod, his expression uncommonly cold.

“Ah yes,” the stranger said, attempting to roll to one side, “allow me to introduce myself,” he bowed his head, “My name is Corporal Fibian, of her Majesty’s Secret Army. Aid to the Warrior Witch, keeper of the island prison, and I am what is known as a froskman.”

“Warrior Witch?” Edward asked, “Why did that monster call you a traitor?”

Fibian paused a moment, cringing as he adjusted his weight.

“That monster and the Warrior Witch are one and the same,” he said, “Your people know her as the Sea Zombie.”

“She was telling the truth?” Cyrus gasped.

A gale wind blew across the sea, spraying the crew in a salty mist.

“I am afraid so,” Fibian said, “She called me a traitor because that is what I am.”

“You set her ship on fire and locked her below deck. Is she dead?” Cyrus asked.

“Dead? You cannot kill what does not live, Master Cyrus.”

“What are you talking about?”

With some effort, Fibian climbed over to the seat at the bow of the craft.

“The witch may have been wounded, but she is not called the Sea Zombie in vain. She has been cursed to wander the ocean, lifeless and wretched. No mortal hand will ever take her from these waters.”

“And you served her?” Edward asked, his voice rising.

“I had little choice. She is my maker.”

“Maker?”

Edward scurried over Cyrus’ shoulder.

“How is she your maker?”

The froskman paused, as if reflecting inward.

“In the beginning, the Angel King created the sea and everything in it, but he also created Angels to join him in this task. Your people speak of this, correct?”

Cyrus nodded, guiding the tiller.

“What you may not know is that the first Angel ever created was named Rorroh,” Fibian’s eyes flashed bright as he spoke the name, “Rorroh was the most beautiful and powerful of all the King’s creations, and she loved her King more than anything, even her own beauty,” his expression became grim, “You see, Rorroh grew vain, and when she was not at his side, it is said that she would spend long hours admiring her reflection in the ocean.”

Fibian took a large swallow from the skin.

“It is said that one day the Angel King created a vast kingdom, and ordered his Angels to leave the heavens and serve all the beings of this new realm. But Rorroh, unable to live without her King, begged him to stay. How could he send an Angel as beautiful as she off to serve creatures so weak and unworthy? The Angel King scolded her for her vanity and pride, and ordered her away with the others. Feeling abandoned, Rorroh’s love turned to hate and she planned an alternative course of action. One of murder and revenge.”

Rain started to fall in sheets, wrapping like thousands of fingers on the wet crew.

“She took council with Mor Hav, Mother Ocean.”

“You mean the sea itself?” Edward asked.

“Herself, yes,” Fibian said, sipping again from the skin, “Together they made a pact. Rorroh began to create an army of monsters, which she hid in Mor Hav’s belly. When the time was right, Rorroh planned to unleash her hoards and destroy all the King’s creations, leaving only her armies to rule the sea. In return for Mor Hav’s help, Rorroh promised her a kingdom of her own, but Mor Hav is a fickle mistress, and she double crossed Rorroh, telling the King all.”

The wind began to pick up, causing the mainsail to flap and whip at the rain.

“The King then came to his most beautiful and powerful of creations and banished her from the heavens forever, cursing her to wander the seas, the most wretched and diseased creature imaginable.”

“Why would the Angel King allow this?” Cyrus asked, pulling his coat tight, “Why would he let that thing haunt my people?”

Fibian took another drink from the water skin, then handed it back.

“It is said that before Rorroh was banished, she dared the King to put his kingdom to the test. She said that if he let her and her armies wander the seas for one hundred thousand years, she would turn his creation of goodness and beauty into a wasteland of wickedness and evil. The King, wanting to show Rorroh the error of her ways, agreed to the unlikely terms.”

Cyrus and Edward exchanged confused looks.

“I tell you this because I was one of Rorroh’s soldiers, hidden in the murk of Mor Hav’s belly. When I was awoken, I was raised from the deep, given the rank of corporal and charged with the duty of guarding the island prison. That is of course your island of Virkelot, Master Cyrus.”

“My island, a prison?” Cyrus asked.

“Yes,” Fibian replied, “It was my job to make sure no one ever escaped your shores.”

“Why did you become a traitor?” Edward said, his eyes narrow as he crouched on Cyrus’ shoulder.

“Over the centuries, I grew lonely and weary of my post, until one day a man named Jim came to my island. I was so grateful for the company that I did not try to stop him. He was a kind and gentle soul and I felt a sort of kinship towards him. It was watching him and his love of the sea and its creatures that made me question my ways.”

Fibian slouched in his seat.

“When he died, I felt a great emptiness. Then, years later, you came along, Master Cyrus. You reminded me so much of Jim and my heart filled with joy. Then your brother drowned, and I felt a great loss for you. And when you escaped the island prison, I grew worried. Finally, when you were captured by Rorroh, I knew I had to help.”

“Why is no one allowed to leave my island?” Cyrus asked, securing the mainsheet.

“Long ago,” Fibian said, “The Warrior Witch told me of a prophecy. She told me that a savior would rise up from the most unlikely of places, destroy her armies and scatter her ashes to the sea. I think Rorroh believes that that savior will come from your people.”

“My people, why?” Cyrus asked.

“I was only the second line of defense,” Fibian explained, “Your home is surrounded by many other islands, full of monstrosities waiting to trap and kill anything that nears their shores.”

“Why would she go to such trouble,” Edward asked, “Why not just kill the entire village if they’re such a threat?”

“I believe she has a more devious plan in store for your people,” Fibian said.

Worse than murder? Cyrus thought. Well maybe they deserved it. If it were up to them, he would be dead and buried. Then he thought of Sarah, of her soft smell and cautious smile. He pushed the thought from his mind. What could he do? He could barely save himself.

“So, we’re escaped prisoners?” Edward asked.

“I am afraid so,” Fibian replied, “and it is worse than that. I think the Warrior Witch may believe that young Master Cyrus here is that very savior.”

“Why would she think that?” Cyrus asked, almost laughing.

“Because that is what I believe,” Fibian said, matter-of-factly, “You are not like the rest. Your hair, your ears, your courage, and there is something else…”

Courage? Cyrus thought. Was Fibian making a joke? He did not appear to be joking. Was he insane?

“She will not stop her hunt until we are all destroyed,” Fibian concluded.

Cyrus swallowed hard, overwhelmed by the realization that they were fugitives, hunted by a demon witch.

“She called me a blodbad spider, poisonous and hostile,” Edward asked, “Why?”

“You know that yellow mark on your back?” the froskman said, “It is the mark of a blodbad spider. You come from a long line of the most powerful and evil creatures the Warrior Witch ever created.”

Edward’s mouth began to tremble and his eyes grew wide.

“They were the guardians of the Dead Fence, the first line of defense. If any villager were to trespass over the wall, they would surely cross a blodbad’s path and perish. The spiders bickered and squabbled over many things, and at some point, they broke into two factions.”

Evil spiders in Hekswood Forest? Cyrus thought. Is that where the fear of the woods came from?

Fibian shifted in his seat.

“For many years the two armies battled, until finally, they killed each other off, and the blodbad became no more. You must have only been a baby.”

He nodded to where Edward’s eighth limb had once grown.

“That is probably how you lost your leg, defenseless in the middle of a fight. You are the last known heir to King Fedor, the very first of your kind.”

“Are you saying that I’m evil?” Edward asked, “Are you saying that I’m the enemy?”

“No, Master spider, no more than I,” Fibian replied.

Cyrus peered down at his best friend as if he were a stranger. Edward, a poisonous killer? The tiny spider looked so frightened and alone. 

Fibian turned to Cyrus.

“I have no home, no friends and no family, but I can help you escape to freedom. I am a froskman, which means I am a fierce warrior, stealthy hunter and a loyal comrade. All I ask for in return for my services is your company and friendship.”

Cyrus looked to Edward. The spider looked shaken and unsure.

“You can help us find safety, somewhere Rorroh will never reach us?” Cyrus asked.

“I doubt that,” Fibian said, “Make no mistake, one day you will have to face her. You are the only one that can. But in the meantime, I can help you escape to a safe refuge where you can buy time, ready yourself for the inevitable battle.”

Cyrus considered that for a moment. Fibian had clearly gone mad in his years of isolation, but he decided to humor the froskman a little while longer. He had been clever enough to rescue them from Rorroh.

“We accept.”

“A choice you will not regret,” Fibian said, a subtle smile exposing his ivory teeth.

“What about the rest of the island?” Edward asked, his voice shaky.

“My village?” Cyrus replied, “They wouldn’t believe a word of this. And even if they did, they tried to murder me. I’m not risking my neck for them.”

“You will,” Fibian said, “It is the only way you and yours can survive.

“How do we escape these islands?” Edward asked, his eyes downcast.

“There is a creature so wicked and spiteful that he may want to help us escape, if in return we destroy the Warrior Witch,” Fibian replied.

“Wicked and spiteful?” Cyrus asked, his breath quickening.

“We must sail to the Himmel Garde,” Fibian nodded, “We must seek out the dragon.”

Chapter 21

THE HIMMEL GARDE

 

DRAGONS WERE NOT REAL, Cyrus thought. They were monsters in children’s stories, made up to keep you from venturing over the Dead Fence. But what if the two-headed giant was real? Seeking him out would be suicide. They should take their chances and sail south, try to find a safe route through the perimeter islands.

Fibian argued it was suicide to attempt to escape past wretched water klops, giant wolves and grotesque mermaids loyal to Rorroh. They debated back and forth for hours. Finally, Cyrus had conceded, and five days later, on a frigid, northeasterly wind, the threesome reached the base of Himmel Garde’s towering lair.

The slender tusk-like mountain punctured the sea and pierced the heavens. Once, it had been a vein of molten rock that coursed through the throat of a mighty volcano. The giant had long died out and crumbled into the ocean, leaving the tempered horn of magma as its heir.

Cyrus awoke as the glow beyond the horizon began to warm the morning sky. He ate tidal nuts and drank rainwater from the canteen. If it had not been for Fibian’s ability to breathe under water and gather food, he and Edward would have died days ago.

“How are we going to get to the top of that thing?” Cyrus asked, searching for a path up the sheer, rock face.

Edward crept hesitantly from Cyrus’ jacket pocket. He had not been himself since learning of his familial past.

“We climb,” Fibian said, his eyes glowing a soft blue.

A brisk, salty wind swept the boat, raising goose bumps on Cyrus’ flesh.

“I can’t climb that,” he blurted.

“It is quite simple,” Fibian replied, “I will show you.”

“No. No way. That’s insane. It’s thousands of feet,” Cyrus argued.

“There is nowhere else to turn, young Master. We are surrounded by would-be killers and assassins. If you want to escape these islands, you must face the rock, or you must face sure death.”

 

*  *  *

 

AS CYRUS CLUNG TO THE ROCK FACE, his knees shook and his biceps burned.

“Keep your body close to the wall,” Fibian called down.

The froskman made the climb look effortless, even with the bow and arrows slung over his back.

“Don’t look down,” Edward said, from Cyrus’ shoulder.

Cyrus peered between his legs and saw their empty craft bobbing on the waves hundreds of feet below. How had he come this far? How could he go any further? He would surely fall at any moment. He had to get down from this place! He reminded himself that he was tied to Fibian’s waist. His eyes studied the rope secured around his own midsection, then followed the line up to the froskman above. What if Fibian fell? That seemed unlikely. The dark creature scaled the sheer, black mass as if weightless, his long limbs and delicate fingers navigating the surface with cat-like grace. Still there was always a chance…

“Keep moving,” Fibian shouted, over the buffeting wind,” You are gripping too tight. Keep your arms straight and relaxed and carry your weight in your legs.”

Remembering what the froskman had told him, Cyrus kept three points of contact with the rock at all times. He placed his hands and feet where Fibian’s had been and moved one limb at a time. He stood on a three-inch ledge, his hands jammed into a salty, horizontal crack. Cyrus began to sweat beneath his fleece cap. What if the dragon realized Fibian was insane? What if he discovered Cyrus was not the person from the legend?

“One step at a time,” Edward said, trying to encourage him.

Was Edward really a poisonous monster, Cyrus thought? What if the blodbad turned on him? Cyrus was completely vulnerable dangling on the side of a mountain. For the hundredth time, he was regretting his decision.

“Just because this dragon hates his master, you really think he’ll help us?” he asked, “Maybe we should turn back.”

“He more than hates the Warrior Witch,” Fibian called down, “He wants revenge. A revenge that only you can achieve.”

“He’ll risk his life for us?” Edward asked, the wind blowing his fur tight to his round face.

“Long ago, the Warrior Witch ordered the two-headed beast to patrol the borders of the Northern Sea,” Fibian said,” To watch for anyone trying to escape your island. The dragon’s other half, Kravel, agreed to the charge, but Drache, feeling it beneath him, refused. He turned on both Kravel and the witch. He bit off his other head and swallowed the Warrior Witch whole. That is when he learned of the witch’s immortality,” the froskman’s voice grew bleak, “For his insubordination, she took what was dearest to him. She extinguished his belly’s hellfire for all eternity.”

“She told you this?” Edward asked.

“The witch made sure all in her armies knew of the dragon’s treachery and punishment.”

“He bit off his own head?” Cyrus said.

He began to feel weak. He had to get down, away from this place. This was madness!

“We have to turn back,” he said, reaching below with one foot.

“Cyrus, what are you doing?” Edward asked, “You’ve gone all white.”

“Do not move, young Master,” Fibian called down, “I will come to you.”

“We have to find another way,” Cyrus said, the welt on his side aching.

He looked down, trying to guide his foot to the next hold. He saw their boat far, far below. It looked like a toy bobbing on the sea. Butterflies swarmed his belly. He dared not look below again. He reached out with his right leg, probing the stone. He felt nothing. His arms were growing stiff. He had no choice. He ventured another peek. Several gulls circled the mountain beneath him, squawking and bickering. He lost all equilibrium. I can’t climb down, he thought, his cheek pressed to the cold stone. I can’t make it to the top either. His entire body was flexed, trying to adhere to the mountain.

“Cyrus, breathe,” Edward cried.

“I am coming, young Master,” Fibian shouted.

A fierce desperation grew in Cyrus’ belly. His vision began to close in from all directions.

“Breathe!” Edward screamed.

Cyrus was losing his hold on the rock. He tried with all his might to regain his grip. His arms and legs would not respond. He watched as his hands slipped and the damp stone fell away. He did not care. He was happy to finally relax. He felt his stomach shrink as he plummeted to the ocean. Then he was swallowed by a cozy, warm dream.

Chapter 22

THE HIMMEL HORN

 

CYRUS AWOKE TO A SHARP stabbing sensation in his ribs. He opened his eyes. A large wash of grey lay before him. He felt movement. His blood ran cold in his veins. Cyrus’ eyes started to focus. He no longer smelled the sea. A large gull circled past, squawking. Finally, his surroundings became clear. He was climbing back down the mountain, away from the ceiling of cloud far above. But where was his fleece cap? And why was his hair on end?

“Holy Sea Zombie!” he gasped.

He was upside down. His breath shot out in steamy puffs. He began to squirm. An iron grip held him tight around the waist.

“Cyrus, you’re awake,” Edward said, “Thank the Angels.”

Cyrus felt the tiny spider crawl along his neck.

“Careful, young Master,” Fibian said, “We are nearing the mountain top. We must keep quiet. The dragon will not appreciate our company. Not until I have explained to him our situation and offered our deal.”

Cyrus’ bearings adjusted. He was slumped over Fibian’s shoulder, thousands of feet above the sea, while the froskman continued his climb up the sheer, rock face.

Cyrus felt humiliated. He had lost his nerve, panicked; then fainted. All with Edward clinging to his jacket. The fall would have killed them both. Why had Fibian made him make this climb? Clearly, Cyrus was not strong enough, mentally or physically. A wave of shame and anger passed over him.

“We are here,” Fibian said.

Cyrus was carried over a ledge; then laid on the ground. He put a hand to his injured side. The scabs on his ribs were bleeding. He smelled dung and rot. He looked about. They were sat on a cliff, with several step-like stone outcrops leading further up the peak.

“Cyrus, you okay?” Edward asked.

The spider crawled down the sleeve of his jacket.

“I could have killed us both,” Cyrus said, fighting back tears, “And I’m supposed to be some savior? This is ridiculous. That dragon’s going to take one look at me and kill us all.”

“You did well, young Master,” Fibian said.

He placed Cyrus’ cap back on his head and handed him the coiled rope.

“There was a reason we were joined by rope, because of that very likely outcome. But you found the courage to climb. And climb you did. You made it much farther than I would have expected.”

“You knew he would fall?” Edward blurted.

“Keep your voice down, little one,” Fibian warned, his blue eyes glowing bright.

“You knew he would and still you made him climb?” Edward seethed, through bone white teeth.

“As I said, we had no choice. He had to climb as much as he could himself, for next time I might not be there to catch him.”

Edward’s eyes smoldered with hate. Fibian passed Cyrus the skin of water, but kept the bow and quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder. The froskman sniffed the air.

“Come, the dragon’s den is near.”

Cyrus took a deep swallow from the skin; then poured a little water into his hand for Edward. The small spider took several sips.

“I don’t trust him,” Edward whispered, “We should get away from him.”

“I know,” Cyrus whispered back, “But we have to go along a little longer, because I’m not climbing back down that mountain.”

“Is going to meet with a dragon any better?” Edward asked.

Cyrus did not have an answer to that. He placed the spider on his shoulder and followed the froskman up the stony steps.

The mountain was frigid and desolate, the coal colored granite covered in what looked like gull droppings. Here and there Cyrus discovered the odd bone or rib cage scattered along the path. He spied a skull he swore was the remains of some massive pig with tusks. His guts twisted and his knees grew numb.

As they reached the top of the awkward, zigzagging steps, Cyrus saw a large, reptilian gull circling the peak, scavenging for food. Near the mountain’s summit, shrouded in cloud, the creature found a huge animal carcass strewn across a precipice. The corpse stunk like the worst outhouse Cyrus had ever smelled. He had to cover his mouth to avoid retching.

Squawking in hunger, the gull swooped down, landed on the bluff, and began to pick at what looked like a whale’s spine.

Cyrus felt the earth rumble. Fibian pulled him to the ground.

CRUNCH!

A massive, scaled claw stretched out of a darkened cavern and pinned the reptile to the charred rock, crushing it like a fly. Then, out of the cave emerged a great dragon, oily and jagged. His scales were like rectangular sheets of steel and his beard was as white as lightening. Once, he had been a two-headed dragon, but a scarred stump was all that remained of his second head.

Cyrus wanted to scream; run in horror, but Fibian dragged him back behind a rock. He felt Edward scurry up his neck.

“Cyrus, we have to leave,” the spider whispered, deep panic in his words.

But go where, Cyrus thought? He held his breath and stood as still as the stone he peeked around.

With a coarse, cat-like tongue, the dragon lapped the gull off his claw and choked it down. Then, he sniffed the night air and stretched out his enormous wings. Thick, sword-like scales clashed on their tops. Beneath, membranes of black skin strained between long finger-like appendages. The dragon’s shoulder blades hitched and creaked as he limped towards the edge. Like a crashing bolder, he threw himself from the cliff, falling several stories, before engaging his wings and taking flight.

“Stay hidden and do not move,” Fibian whispered.

“Wait, where are you going?” Edward asked, crawling along Cyrus’ shoulder.

Fibian leapt out from behind the rock, climbed up around the peak and out of site.

“What’s he doing? Cyrus asked.

He searched the mountainside for the froskman’s whereabouts, but he had vanished.

“This is our chance, let’s go,” Edward said.

“Great and powerful Drache!” Cyrus heard Fibian shout.

The froskman’s voice carried far and wide on the wind.

“What in Kingdom?” Edward gasped.

The hulking mass of flying steel stretched out his wings and began to bank right. He climbed high into the sky, then formed the shape of an arrow and came hurtling towards the earth. Cyrus heard a shrill whistling coming from the meteor-like object.

The dragon again engaged his wings and roared like a windstorm as he skimmed the mountaintop.

“Who dares trespass on my mountain?”

The serpent began to circle the peak, his eyes probing the stone.

“I am Corporal Fibian of her Majesty’s Secret Army,” Fibian’s vibrant voice echoed,

“A traitor to the Warrior Witch, and once keeper of her island prison. And I am here to offer you a bargain.”

“What could you possibly offer me?” the dragon asked, swooping low, near Cyrus.

Cyrus ducked and circled further behind the large rock. He could feel the air pressure change as Drache’s mass swept past.

“I can offer you freedom. I can offer you revenge. Revenge on the Warrior Witch.”

“You think I am a fool?” the dragon growled.

“The legend is true,” Fibian shouted, “I can prove it.”

The serpent glided near the large precipice and beat his wings, kicking up dust and bone fragments. Cyrus felt the icy wind swirl and buffet the mountainside. The ground quivered as the dragon touched down in front of the cave.

“Show yourself, traitor,” the beast bellowed.

Fibian appeared on a cliff, above Cyrus. The froskman had the bow loaded, charged and aimed at the dragon. The laceration in his suit where Rorroh had pierced his chest yawned wide.

“This arrow is poison tipped,” he shouted, “If you try to harm me or my companions, I will shoot you dead.”

Poison tipped? Cyrus thought, as he peered around the edge. This was crazy; Fibian was bluffing!

The dragon shook with a deep, rolling chuckle.

“You think that twig could penetrate my luxurious armor?”

“Your body is not entirely defended,” Fibian countered.

The dragon snorted a laugh, but shifted his bulk to hide the scarred remains of his severed, second head.

“I will not hurt any of you,” Drache purred, “if what you say is true. Come out from behind that rock, oh chosen one, and let me judge for myself.”

Bloody Kingdom, Cyrus thought. He must have leaned out too far. His flesh grew hot and tingly. He looked up at Fibian. The froskman held the bow taught and nodded his consent. Cyrus balled his fists. Was he really going to expose himself to this monster? The beast would know for sure that he was a fraud. Did he have a choice?

“Don’t do it,” Edward warned.

“He knows we’re here,” Cyrus said, “Where are we supposed to go?”

He felt Edward crawl within his scarf, but the spider did not reply. Cyrus remembered the knife on his hip, not that it would do him any good. He looped the rope over his shoulder, put on his sternest face and stepped out from behind the rock. He felt naked and terrified, as if the bow and arrow were trained on him. Slowly he looked up at the mighty beast. Drache stared at him with cat-like eyes. Cyrus’ gaze wavered.

“So this is the mighty hero from legend?” the monster said, his thick muzzle exposing two rows of jagged and fractured teeth, “Looks like a frightened child to me.”

“He has already faced the Warrior Witch and survived,” Fibian said, “He cleaved off her hand and threw it into the ocean.”

“A ridiculous lie,” the dragon countered, shaking a scrap of gull from his beard, “He is a feeble boy.”

“He did what you could not,” Fibian said, “You already underestimated the Warrior Witch once. Do not underestimate her destroyer as well.”

The serpent’s eyes shifted to the froskman. Cyrus sensed an ancient anger burn within the beast. Fibian’s gone too far, Drache’s going to kill us, he thought. He felt his body grow electric, ready for flight.

“Revenge on the old witch, you say?” the dragon growled, “Then freedom would truly be mine.”

He seemed to turn inward, as if weighing the risks, and the rewards.

“We will discuss this further inside,” he finally said.

He turned his back and ducked into his dwelling.

“But if I sense any lies, or if your plot is foolhardy, you will all be in my belly by nightfall.”

Cyrus looked to Fibian, bewildered. Fibian nodded back, a slight grin on his smooth face. Had the froskman’s plan actually worked?

Chapter 23

DRAGON’S BLOOD

 

CYRUS, EDWARD AND FIBIAN crept down the large tunnel of the Himmel Garde’s lair. The din of dripping water and squeaking rodents echoed off the granite walls. Was this a trap? Was Cyrus walking to his death? His breath was rapid in his chest.

“What’s that smell?” Edward asked.

The tiny spider clung to Cyrus’ forearm, his face twisted in disgust.

“It smells like rotting chicken guts,” Cyrus whispered, fighting the urge to vomit.

They found the dragon curled up on a dark rock in the middle of his chamber. The blackened ceiling bore scars from his horned crown and his legs dangled awkwardly off the foot of his stone bed.

“I discovered this cave years ago,” Drache boomed, “It was inhabited by a much smaller dragon. I claimed the dwelling as my own and called out the puny beast. The battle lasted mere moments, and in the end, I stood victorious over the whelp. I swept his carcass from the cliff like crumbs from a table.”

The dragon’s thick, steely face beamed with pride.

Was that some kind of threat? Cyrus thought. His legs quivered as he followed Fibian into the main chamber of the serpent’s abode. The dark grey of the froskman’s flesh and seal skin suit made him invisible, with the exception of his glowing, blue eyes.

“So tell me, child, how was it that a boy, a blodbad spider and a froskman came to face the Warrior Witch and survive?” Drache asked.

Cyrus looked to Edward. The furry spider stared back at him, his two eyes as big as coins. If Cyrus told the entire truth, surely all three of them would end up in the dragon’s belly. But if he lied and made himself sound heroic, would the beast be fooled? The image of Niels lying dead on a cold log infiltrated his thoughts.

“I discovered that my island was a giant, fossilized turtle shell,” he said, steeling his nerves, “I tried to warn the mayor, but he wouldn’t listen. The shell fractured and my island caved in on itself. Many survived, but we lost the whole village. The mayor blamed me for the cave-in, saying that I brought an evil curse upon our island. He sentenced me to death, but I escaped.”

“Giant turtle you say,” the dragon said, his eyes narrowing.

Growing hot, Cyrus drew the fleece cap from his head. He wiped his brow and gestured to the small spider on his sleeve.

“My best friend Edward here joined me and we sailed out to find a new home. That’s when we came across a creature that called herself Rorroh. She welcomed me aboard her boat, fed me poisoned tea and tied me up below deck. Fibian found me and cut me loose and-”

“And together,” Fibian interrupted, “we fought our way out of her ship, defeating the Warrior Witch and setting her vessel ablaze.”

“If you were able to cut off her hand, why did you not just kill her?” the dragon asked.

“You especially should know that that is an impossible task,” Fibian replied, “the boy needs time and training if he is to achieve his destiny.”

“So what do you propose?” Drache said.

“These islands are riddled with the Warrior Witch’s minions. We need safe passage, somewhere far from her reach where I can train the boy,” Fibian said, drawing from his collar, a small glass vial, stung around his neck, “and we need your blood.”

Blood? What was Fibian playing at? And where had he gotten that vial? Rorroh’s ship?

“Tell me you do not believe in that hogwash?” Drache snorted.

“The prophecy says that, in a time of great need, the chosen one will drink a vial of dragon’s blood to strengthen him, when all strength is lost,” Fibian said, as a matter of fact.

“It may save the one, yes, but to all others, it will give a slow and agonizing death,” Drache growled, “burning you alive from within, as if you’ve swallowed molten rock.”

“Will you give us some?” Fibian continued.

“We will see,” the dragon said, seeming to measure Cyrus, “but what will you do once you’ve had your safe passage, and the boy’s received his training?”

“When his training is complete, he will hunt down the witch and rid the seas of her tyranny.”

“Do you have a place in mind for this training? the dragon asked.

“No, but we need somewhere where the Warrior Witch would never think to look for us,” Fibian said.

“I will ponder your requests,” the dragon purred, “In the meantime, let me rest.”

Cyrus could not believe his luck. The dragon was going to help them escape. Then once they were safe, far from the Sea Zombie and her spies, he and Edward could get away from the mad froskman and live a life of peace.

He thought about Fibian, about the risks the froskman had taken for them. A deep guilt began to simmer in his heart.

“Come on,” Edward said, “I’m tired too.”

The trio found a place to bed down near the mouth of the cave, away from the den’s putrid stink.

“Why didn’t you mention dragon’s blood before?” Cyrus asked.

“Without actually having any, I did not think it necessary,” Fibian replied.

“Drinking it causes a slow and agonizing death?” Cyrus said.

“Only for the unworthy,” Fibian replied, his voice a low hum, “Now try to sleep,” the froskman lay down with his back against the cave wall, “With any luck, we will be airborne by daybreak.”

Cyrus used his cap as a pillow against the cold, granite floor. They were so close to escape. His shoulders began to relax.

“Everything’s going to be alright, isn’t it?” Edward said, curling up on Cyrus’ forearm.

 

***

 

IN THE BOWELS OF THE CAVERN, away from the trio, Drache picked through a pile of bone, gold and steel. There, he found a crystal orb. The tiny sphere was like a pebble in his claws. A dim, green ember glowed within its womb. He gazed into its center.

“So, Mistress, he cleaved off your hand and lit your ship ablaze,” the dragon chuckled.

“Bring him to me, sssnake,” the orb spoke.

Drache’s slick scales gleamed in the emerald light.

“I envy the child’s boldness,” he said, in a low purr, “It is a shame he must die.”

Chapter 24

A FOOL’S BARGAIN

 

THE NEXT MORNING Cyrus woke up cold as stone. He looked out the cave entrance and saw grey skies threatening rain. His belly growled and his head throbbed. He rolled to his side and grimaced. The welt on his ribs felt like a knife wound.

“Edward, you up?” he asked, searching his jacket for his friend.

The tiny spider spindled down from his hair, onto his nose.

“Yes. I’m hungry,” he said, crawling onto Cyrus’ sleeve.

Cyrus found several tidal nuts in his pocket; gave Edward one, and ate the rest himself. The kelp bulbs tasted like chewy grapes.

“Can you believe we’re getting out of here?” Edward asked.

Cyrus took a sip from the canteen. The water was ice cold.

“I don’t know. After everything that’s happened, I can’t believe we’re still alive.”

“Well wherever you end up, you will need to know how to defend yourself,” said a warbled voice.

Cyrus’ head spun towards the mouth of the cave. From the top of the entrance, silhouetted against the granite sky, the froskman hung bat-like, his eyes glowing a dim blue. He dropped several feet from the ceiling and landed on all fours.

“Where have you been?” Edward asked, chewing on a bit of tidal nut.

“Surveying the peak,” Fibian replied, “Do you know how to use a knife?” he asked Cyrus.

“To cut bread or sharpen a stick,” Cyrus said, feeling unsure.

Fibian walked over to the two and drew his own blade.

“You want to get to know the feel of your knife,” he said, “All are different and you want to be able to change your grip without dropping it.”

The froskman reversed his hold on the blade, then with a flash of his hand, flipped it back.

“You want to know its weight and how it will move in your hand.”

Cyrus rose to his feet, his body achy with a hard night’s sleep. He unsheathed his own knife. Its bone handle was slick, about six inches long. He rubbed his thumb along where the handle met the blade; then reversed the grip. He tried flipping it back. It fell.

“If you lose your knife in a fight,” Fibian said, “you are dead.”

With a deep sigh, Cyrus picked up his blade and hefted it in his hand. He felt awkward and foolish practicing in front of others, but Fibian was right. After what had happened on Rorroh’s ship, he had to learn to defend himself.

Fibian stood a little crouched with his right foot forward and his knife in his right hand.

“You want to try and stand sideways to your enemy, giving them as small a target as necessary, and always keep your knife between you and your opponent.”

Cyrus mimicked Fibian’s stance.

“Keep your chin down to defend your neck,” Fibian said, “and use your left hand to block your throat and chest. Better your hand is pierced than your organs.”

Pierced organs? What am I doing? Cyrus thought. He prayed to the Angel King that he would never have to use a knife in defense ever again.

Looking to Fibian, he tucked his chin and raised his left hand to his chest, as if he was going to catch something with it.

“That is good,” Fibian said, “Now put your knife away and take this.”

The froskman produced two knife-sized sticks from the back of his belt. So that is what he had been looking for on the peak. He handed one to Cyrus. Holding the other, he stood at the ready.

“When facing an armed enemy, your first goal is to disarm them,” Fibian said, “Attack the knife hand above the joints to sever tendons,” he pretended to cut Cyrus above the wrist and elbow, “and inside the arm to slice arteries,” he dragged the stick along the inside of Cyrus’ forearm and biceps, then mimicked stabbing it into his armpit, “The same goes for the legs.”

A deep chuckle echoed from within the dragon’s chamber. It was followed by heavy footsteps. The beast’s head emerged from the darkness, a sneering smile forged across his armored mask.

“Do you really think a tiny knife will aid you against the Warrior Witch?”

Cyrus dropped his stick and stood straight. He must look a fool, he thought.

“You should ask the witch that same question,” Fibian replied, “then ask her about her hand. You would be surprised by what can cause the mighty to fall.”

He cast a thoughtful glance towards Edward. The spider scurried up into Cyrus’ thick jacket collar.

“I have thought a great deal about your predicament,” Drache said, “and the story of your doomed island reminded me of a past memory.”

This was the moment, Cyrus thought. Was Drache really going to help them escape Rorroh’s web? The dragon stroked his snowy beard with an iron-crusted claw.

“A few years ago, I saw a queer island drifting north. At first I thought, where has this rock come from? For it had trees and earth on its back. Then I saw that it swam and looked about with a head and eyes. It was a massive turtle, like the fossil you described, but living.”

Cyrus’ mouth fell open. Was Drache telling the truth? Could there be more of those giants? Edward crawled back onto his sleeve. The spider looked almost frightened.

“When I thought of the great creature heading north, it reminded me of something else,” Drache continued, “Long ago, the Warrior Witch told me of a great Yeti Kingdom that ruled in the Northern Sea. She said the yeti were a race of giants that worshiped knowledge above all else.”

The dragon lowered his voice. A fiery glow flickered in his large, reptilian eyes.

“I believe their wisdom threatened the witch, and their beast-like beauty made her envious. Many times, her minions laid siege to their stronghold, but always they failed.”

Drache brought his enormous head down to Cyrus’ level. The serpent’s hot breath smelled like a long dead funeral pyre.

“You will not find a better place than the north to escape the Warrior Witch’s probing gaze. There you can gain new allies and ready your counter attack. Maybe even find a way to rescue your people.”

Cyrus liked the idea of aligning himself with giants and escaping Rorroh’s grasp. But a counter attack was out of the question. He was no savior of legend. And risk his life to rescue his people? Never. They did not deserve his help, and he would not give them a second chance to take his life. He pictured Sarah drowning in the lake…

“It sounds like a good place to start,” Cyrus said to Fibian, shaking the image.

“I have heard stories of these yeti,” Fibian replied, looking unsure, “It would be very cold and dangerous, but it would also be the last place the Warrior Witch would search.”

“Then it is agreed,” Drache said.

The dragon quaked with a low, rumbling chuckle.

Chapter 25

THE BLODBAD SPIDER

 

 

IT WAS JUST BEFORE LUNCH when Cyrus followed Fibian up onto Drache’s tail. The armor smelled musky and felt thinly of oil. Don’t fall, Cyrus thought, pulling his way up the dragon’s back. He clung, white knuckle, to the spikes along the beast’s spine. The serpent’s scales shifted and scraped underfoot.

“We will fly on until nightfall, then find a place to bed-down for the evening,” Drache said, stroking his beard, “It may take two or three days to reach the north depending on the wind.”

“Will the yeti definitely help us?” Edward asked, huddled inside Cyrus’ jacket collar.

“It would be in their best interests,” Fibian said, adjusting the bow and arrows slung around his chest.

The froskman walked across the dragon’s uneven body as if it was flat, solid ground.

“We both have the same enemy and we both desire the same result.”

“Save your breaths until we are airborne,” Drache said.

The dragon rose to all fours and began to stalk towards the cliff edge.

“No wait-” Cyrus blurted.

He sat behind Fibian, clinging to the serpent’s barbed spine as if he meant to never let go. Drache paused on the precipice.

“If you want to turn back, now is the time,” the dragon smirked, looking over his shoulder.

Turn back and go where, Cyrus thought? He set his face in a mask of stern concentration and fought back the urge to run.

“As you wish,” Drache said.

The rain had long since passed, but the sky was still dark, the wind moaning like a searching wraith. The serpent tipped himself over the edge. Cyrus’ world became a rushing mass of terror. The wind ripped at his ears; at the rope looped around his chest. His internal gauges spun like mad clocks. His stomach screamed of impending doom. Against all instincts, he fought back the panic, keeping his eyes shut and mouth bit tight. Was the dragon trying to kill them?

The wind in his ears calmed and the descent began to slow. Then their course evened out and Cyrus peeked an eye open. They were skimming the waves. The water was white-capped and dark as coal. Cyrus peered around for land. He saw only the Himmel Horn stabbing skyward behind them.

“Edward, you okay?” he asked, his voice thin and shaky.

“I think so,” Edward said, still clinging to Cyrus’ collar.

Cyrus looked out and watched as the dragon’s armor plated wings pitched and beat against the grey sky, sheets of steel buckling and sliding over massive shoulder blades. How could this colossus fly with such little effort? Cyrus thought of the yeti and what those giants might be capable of.

“If the yeti stronghold was able to fend off Rorroh’s minions, do you think it will be able to protect us from Rorroh as well?” he asked.

“Perhaps long enough to ready you for what you must do,” Fibian said, “but make no mistake, Rorroh is a rising tide. No one but you can stop her.”

The froskman looked up towards Drache’s severed stump.

“Many have tried and failed, but no one has ever been able to defeat her. And no one but you ever will. We can help prepare you for what must be done, but it is you and you alone that will have to end her vile reign.”

Can’t he see I’m not a hero, Cyrus thought? Can’t he see I’m not the one? How could he be so clever and yet so wrong? Well, he’ll figure it out when he wakes and finds Edward and I have fled…

Careful not to hurt his best friend under his collar, Cyrus pulled his cap firmly over his pointed ears and wrapped his scarf tight around his neck. The wind bit at his hands and face and his body ached with clinging tension.

They flew for several hours, passing strange volcanic islands and cloud-ringed peaks. Cyrus’ lids grew heavy and he craved rest, but he dared not for fear of slipping from the dragon’s back and falling to his death.

They neared a distant island with high peaks and deep bays.

“We will bed-down here for the evening,” Drache said.

As the shoreline drew closer, Cyrus spotted an abandoned fishing village with several huts and boats along the water’s edge.

“I wonder where all the villagers have gone?” he asked.

The forests below were lush and green and as dense as the deepest, darkest sea. Drache followed the foaming coast to their unknown destination. In a shadowy cove, near the tree line, Cyrus thought he saw several strange people, narrow and bent, peering out from the woods. Were they the villagers from the fishing village?

“What is that?” Edward asked.

“Some sort of castle,” Fibian said.

Cyrus turned and saw a tall, spiny structure, looming over a jagged cliff edge. Below the cliff was a well-protected bay. And within the bay was moored an oily, black ship. Rorroh’s ship!

“Fibian,” Edward gasped, from Cyrus’ collar.

Fibian drew his blade.

“It is a double-cross!” he said.

“Wait, what?” Cyrus gasped.

His legs turned to jelly. He could not face Rorroh again. He had barely escaped the first time. And this time she would have a dragon. Drache veered left, his body flipping sideways.

“Aahh!”

Cyrus scrambled and grasped spine and scale, his hands slipping off the slick steel. Fibian sprang across Drache’s winding frame and leapt onto his head. He stabbed at the beast’s eyes and face. Drache roared and his flight became erratic. Cyrus’ stomach felt full of snakes. He could barely hold on. Fibian’s going to get us killed before Rorroh even has a chance, he thought, fighting for a tighter grip. Drache dove for the forest, his body clipping the treetops. One caught Fibian in the chest. He came flying off Drache’s mantle, flipping and reeling through the air.

“No!” Edward shouted.

If they lost the froskman they were done for. Cyrus had to duck as Fibian’s flailing form whipped past his head. Cyrus watched in shocked amazement as the froskman grasped hold of the dragon’s tail. Without missing a beat, Fibian again leapt and clutched his way along the serpents arching body. The dragon ducked into a narrow river valley, trying to knock Fibian off on either side of the wooded bank. This time Fibian sprang over to Drache’s severed stump. The dragon seemed to sense the danger. He shrieked and corkscrewed. Cyrus lost his hold and slipped backwards.

“Cyrus!” Edward shouted.

Cyrus slid into a row of spines, spun and clung to the nearest he could grasp. He hugged the horn with all his might and watched as Fibian held his blade high. The froskman stabbed the exposed scar tissue of the serpent’s severed head. Blood sprayed the air. The beast shrieked and veered right, crashing through several trees. Pine needles, blood and bark showered Cyrus’ face. Ahead, the river gathered into a large, frothing pool at the base of a crashing waterfall.

Fibian drove his blade into the dragon’s flesh a second time, cutting a deep trench into his hide. Roaring in pain and fury, Drache bridged and dove headfirst for the water.

“Nooo-”

The pool struck Cyrus in the side with a concussive slap. His surroundings became a ringing torrent of swirling bubbles and muffled thunder. Fighting for clarity, he pumped his limbs. He felt trapped in frigid oil.

When his senses gathered, he found himself floating upside down and heavy with clothing. Bewildered, Cyrus kicked and clawed his way through the churning water, away from the crashing steel. His breath was running out. His hands grasped stony bottom. He lifted his head and broke the surface. Cyrus stood at the edge of the pool in waist-high water.

“Edward?”

He felt around his neck. Where was Edward?

Metal smashed against stone. Cyrus turned towards the ruckus. Fibian sailed past his head and struck a tree on the riverbank. The froskman clattered to the earth like a bundle of broken kindling.

“No.”

Cyrus splashed through the water and ran to Fibian’s side.

The froskman was groaning, clutching his chest where Rorroh’s blade had penetrated his heart. Cyrus heard the dragon nearing behind him. He turned, his nerves electric, and drew his blade. The dragon towered over him, ribbons of water streaming off his serrated, iron frame.

“You’re coming with me,” Drache snarled.

He swiped at Cyrus with a steely claw. Cyrus ducked. The dragon missed, catching only Cyrus’ fur hat in his talons. Drache hunched low, exposing his bleeding stump.

“Or would you rather I eat you whole?”

Cyrus was not going back to that twisted Rorroh creature no matter what. But what was he supposed to do? Run? Fight back? Both were suicide. He had to do something. He felt his heart beat as if it were going to explode. Desperation took hold. Like a trapped mouse, he turned and fled for a small opening between two trees. Maybe he could lose the dragon in the underbrush. A massive claw smashed the earth, blocking his path. Cyrus cut right, bolting along the water’s edge. He searched for another gap in the vegetation. A second claw struck down in front of him, cutting off his escape. He turned and began to backtrack. The dragon’s tail nearly crushed him. Cyrus was cornered. His lungs drew quick, shallow breaths. He thought of Rorroh’s slavering maw and her amputated hand. What parts of him would she cut off in retribution? His mind became feral.

“So, you wish to be eaten alive, do you?” Drache asked, closing in.

Again, the serpent hunched low, baring his fleshy stump. I’m not going back! Cyrus sprang at the beast like a barn cat. With his knife held high, he dove at the dragon’s exposed flesh. A hulking, armored head struck Cyrus in the ribs. His world exploded into a massive swirl of stars. Then he crashed backwards into the shallows, his side screaming and his thoughts scattered. Like dropped coins, he tried to collect his wits as he crawled drunkenly through the water.

“Enough of this foolishness,” Drache growled.

Cyrus felt steel clamps grip him around the body, squeezing the wind from his already battered chest. Panic cleared his vision and he found himself face to face with the raging serpent.

“I would kill you myself,” Drache snarled, “but she will triple any torture I could think of.”

“You could have been free,” Cyrus wheezed, his blond hair plastered across his face, “why betray us?”

“I crossed the Vann Witch once,” Drache said, shaking his head, “Never again.”

The dragon turned to give flight.

“Please don’t,” Cyrus begged, “I’ll do anything.”

He looked around in desperation. The tree where Fibian had lain was bare. The froskman was gone. Had he abandoned him? And where was Edward? Dead in the water?

Drache twisted and roared. Fibian appeared on the dragon’s snout. Thank the Angels, Cyrus thought. Fibian un-shouldered the bow and nocked an arrow. The dragon whipped his head, but Fibian clung to the beast’s bloody scales and held on. Lowering himself down to one knee, the froskman drew the string and fired the projectile point blank into the beast’s eye. The arrow hit the lid and shattered on impact. Again, Drache reeled and shrieked. Fibian nocked another arrow. Drache’s tail whipped past his head. The froskman ducked. He fired a second arrow close range. To Cyrus’ dismay the second splintered as well, but Fibian was not about to give up. He nocked a third arrow. The dragon’s claw caught him clean in the back. Fibian went sailing, head over heels, through the air.

“Noooo!” Cyrus screamed.

Then, to both Cyrus and Drache’s surprise, the froskman loosed his bolt mid-flight. The arrow shot straight amongst the roiling havoc and struck Drache in the exposed right eye.

“Gaaaaaarrrrrr!”

The dragon dropped Cyrus and clawed at his damaged face. Cyrus landed in the shallows and watched as the beast shrieked and roared, splashing and stumbling through the churning pool. He beat his wings and swung his tail, splitting trees and stone alike. Then, with his good eye, he again caught sight of Cyrus. Cyrus scrambled to his feet.

“I’ll rip you and the froskman in two!” Drache shrieked, the shaft still protruding from his bloody socket.

The dragon began to charge. Cyrus tried to flee but the serpent closed the distance. Cyrus fell and curled fetal. Drache shrieked, then jerked to a halt. He towered over top of Cyrus, frozen, as if struck by lightning. Then, like a crumbling statue, the beast began to tip. He splashed into the water with a mighty crash, causing plates and scales to fall into jagged heaps amongst the churning silt. His head fell last. Cyrus winced and drew his legs in as the serpent’s skull smashed down at his feet. A wave of frigid water washed over Cyrus’ body, chilling him to the bone.

“Angels,” he cried out, and scrambled away from the yawning, jagged mouth.

He spotted Fibian lying in the grass, covered in the dragon’s blood. He rushed to his side.

“Fibian, you okay?” Cyrus asked.

“I will live,” Fibian said, his vibrant voice sounding weak, “Where is the dragon?”

“Dead, I think,” Cyrus said, “You killed him.”

Fibian’s eyes lit up, full of confusion.

“Where’s Edward?” Cyrus asked, searching his collar and pockets, “We have to find him.”

He looked to the pool. Edward must be somewhere in there.

Like a barn collapsing, a great groaning came from inside the dragon. Then the serpent’s armored sheets started to separate and slide into disjointed piles. Sand poured out from cracks in the armor and from Drache’s nose and mouth.

“It takes much more than a single arrow to kill a dragon,” Fibian said, looking suspicious.

The froskman rose from the ground and leapt into the water, making his way towards the serpent’s carcass. Cyrus followed.

“Well if you didn’t kill him, who did?”

Fibian waded over to the dragon’s head, then beyond to the severed stump. Both the skull and stump were hollow husks bleeding a fine, golden silt. Fibian began to sift his fingers through the sand spilling from the severed neck.

“We don’t have time for this,” Cyrus pleaded, “We have to find Edward.”

The froskman poured sand from one webbed hand to the next, seeming to study each grain.

“I believe I already have,” he finally said, with a look of worry.

He held his right palm up to a beam of dwindling sunlight. There, within a small mound of sand, lay the unconscious Edward, his black hair on end, and the yellow mark on his back ablaze.

“Oh Edward,” Cyrus moaned, “What have you done?”

Chapter 26

WITHOUT ANCHOR

 

CYRUS TOOK EDWARD FROM Fibian’s open palm.

“Edward, wake up. Edward?”

Cyrus rubbed his best friend’s back. The spider did not stir. If Edward dies, I’ll be all alone in the middle of King knows where. He looked to Fibian.

“What do we do? Will he live?”

“I think so,” Fibian replied, collecting the spent arrow from Drache’s eye and gathering up Cyrus’ fur hat, “He just needs a little time to recover.”

The dragon’s carcass shifted and groaned as scales and sand settled within the bubbling pool.

“What happened?” Cyrus asked, making his way over to the shore, “How did he end up buried inside the dragon’s remains?”

“We will have to wait until he wakes to find out,” Fibian said, “Come, we must build a fire to avoid your blood running cold. And while on the subject of blood,” the froskman pulled the pinky-sized, glass vial from around his neck.

“What is that?” Cyrus asked, dreading the answer.

The vial was blood smudged. Cyrus inspected the swirling liquid within. He swore he could almost see fiery phosphorescence dance and spark against the glass tube.

“Dragon’s blood,” Fibian replied.

“You took it from Drache?”

Cyrus stepped back.

“It was not difficult,” Fibian said, gesturing to his blood-spattered body.

“You don’t expect me to drink that, do you?” Cyrus asked.

“There may come a time, young Master, when you do not have a choice.”

 

***

 

WHEN THE GLOW OF THE SUN vanished and the moon began to rise, Cyrus and Fibian were sat around a crackling fire, drying themselves in its warmth.

“Come on, Edward, wake up,” Cyrus said, shivering in his underwear, petting the spider curled up in the palm of his hand.

The flames toasted one half of Cyrus’ body, while the night air froze the other. His clothes were drying beside him along a log.

“Give him time,” Fibian said, “He is still breathing. He will be alright.”

“What are we going to do?” Cyrus asked, desperation in his voice, “We’re trapped on this island and Rorroh must know we’re nearby.”

“Our plan remains the same,” Fibian said, inspecting the remaining arrows, “Tomorrow we will make for that fishing village to the west. There we can find a boat and head north in search of the yeti ourselves.”

“Won’t sailing north be dangerous?” Cyrus asked, “And what if Drache was lying about the yeti?”

“Sailing north will be very dangerous,” Fibian said, “But I believe the yeti to be real, and staying here in reach of the Warrior Witch is sure death.”

Cyrus could not think of an alternative. He just sat beside the licking flames, his belly grumbling as he studied the sleeping spider balled up in his hand.

“You do not think you can defeat Rorroh, do you?” Fibian asked, his eyes aglow in the darkness.

“How could I?” Cyrus said, “She’s immortal, and far more powerful than I am. I don’t even know how to fight.”

“It is true that no mortal hand will ever take her from the seas,” Fibian replied, “but it is your destiny to end her reign over this world. You will destroy the form in which her tainted soul rules. You will cast her adrift to wander the oceans without harbor or anchor. And you will do this because you have love in your heart, and all she has left is hate.”

Cyrus stared at Fibian for a long moment.

“Love?” he finally asked, “Love? How the Angels will love help me against an ancient, axe-wielding witch with black magic, immortality and monsters on her side? Are you insane?”

“What if Rorroh appeared right here and now?” Fibian asked, “What would you do?”

“I would run,” Cyrus said, his skinny arms goose pimpled.

“What if you were back on your island and Rorroh stood between you and your home?”

“She could have it,” Cyrus replied, “I would still run.”

“But what if Edward were inside the home?” Fibian added.

Cyrus thought about that. His breath quickened. He could not just leave Edward to die.

“And what if Edward was not alone?” Fibian continued, “What if your brother was alive and at his side?”

Cyrus felt a bubbling anger rise in his belly.

“My brother is dead,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“Even now you can sense the great strength love lends you,” Fibian said, “You will defeat her because of your love for Edward, and because of the love you feel towards your people.”

“My people tried to kill me,” Cyrus shouted, “I hate them. I’ll never risk my life to help them!”

But what about Sarah? Cyrus thought, surely she doesn’t deserve to die.

He heard a small coughing noise.

“Master Edward has decided to join the conversation,” Fibian said, his voice calm.

“Edward, are you okay?” Cyrus asked, holding the spider close to his face.

“What happened?” Edward asked.

“The dragon tried to double-cross us and we crashed. I lost you during the fall. Then Fibian found you near the dragon’s dead body.”

Cyrus saw Edward’s confusion turn to fear.

“Do not be afraid, little one,” Fibian said, “You did the right thing. You saved Master Cyrus’ and my life.”

Edward said nothing. He just shook ever so slightly in Cyrus’ slender palm.

“What are you talking about?” Cyrus asked, “What did Edward do?”

His best friend would not look him in the eye. Cyrus turned to Fibian. The froskman stared knowingly back.

“Wait,” Cyrus stammered, “Are you saying that Edward killed the dragon?”

“You did, did you not?” Fibian asked Edward.

“I don’t know what happened,” Edward finally said, “After the crash I found myself clinging to Drache. He was trying to kill Cyrus. I was terrified, and then I became angry. I lost my temper. I don’t remember much after that.”

“My guess is that the blodbad in you took over,” Fibian said, “You bit into his exposed scar tissue and killed him.”

“You killed a dragon,” Cyrus said, bewildered, “I never would have thought that possible.”

“I’m so sorry,” Edward started to cry, “I never wanted to hurt anyone.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Fibian said, “You saved our lives.”

Cyrus saw Edward in a whole new light. A killer. A hero. He owed him his life. But Cyrus could not help the fear he felt.

“Am I evil?” Edward asked, his round eyes watery.

“No,” Fibian replied, “You are unique among your kind. Be proud of that fact, for even now, the Warrior Witch’s wrath works against her in you.”

Cyrus flushed with shame. He wanted to give his best friend a hug, tell him that everything was going to be all right, tell him he loved him. But something held him back. They had to focus on getting to the fishing village. They had to escape north and elude Rorroh.

“You did good,” Cyrus finally said, stroking Edward’s back, “You did really good.”

A cold shiver ran up Cyrus’ spine, as the yellow skull on the spider’s body glared back at him.

Chapter 27

THE HUNT

 

 

THE NEXT MORNING THE TRIO crept through the chattering forest, heading west for the fishing village, and the boat that would carry them south to the Yeti Kingdom. Cyrus’ dried clothes were crusty and stiff, but he welcomed them warmly after a cold night in his ragged underwear.

He took a sip from his canteen. Fibian had filled it several steps upstream from where the dragon’s sandy carcass lay. The water was cool and clean tasting, but it did not satisfy Cyrus’ grumbling belly. He poured a drop into his open hand for Edward to drink. The tiny spider crawled from his shoulder, down to his palm. Would the blodbad spider ever bite and kill him, Cyrus wondered for the hundredth time? His hand shook ever so slightly.

Fibian signaled for silence and ducked low. In a tiny clearing ahead, a small boar rooted in the soil. Fibian un-shouldered the bow and beckoned Cyrus closer. Then he handed him the weapon.

“You want to grip the bow just below the middle of the shaft and pull the string back to the corner of your mouth,” the froskman whispered, his grey coloring blending with the shadows.

“What? I don’t know how to shoot an arrow,” Cyrus whispered.

“It is time you learned,” Fibian said, pushing the bow back into Cyrus’ hands.

Cyrus took the weapon and nocked the arrow like he had seen Fibian do. Then, keeping his left arm firm and straight, he raised the bow. With his right hand, he drew the arrow to the corner of his mouth. Both arms shook.

“Aim down the arrow shaft,” Fibian whispered, “and when you release the string, let your right hand fall back to your right shoulder.”

Cyrus was not against killing animals for food. He had helped Llysa and his brother kill many chickens and pigs in the past for supper. But he realized now that he had never delivered the killing blow.

“Good,” Fibian said in his ear, “Now trace a line up the boar’s front leg, four inches above his armpit. That is where the animal’s lungs are. That is where you want to put the arrow.”

“How do you know so much about killing and weapons and stuff?” Edward asked.

The spider was crouched on Cyrus’ shoulder, staring down the arrow shaft.

“I do not know,” Fibian replied, “That is just the way the Warrior Witch made me.”

Cyrus was certain he was not made for this. He aimed his arrow above the boar’s armpit. His belly again grumbled and his hands began to sweat.

“Relax and loose the arrow,” Fibian whispered.

Cyrus was starving, but could he really kill this helpless animal? The boar smelled something and looked up.

“Now,” Fibian said.

Cyrus released the missile. The boar bolted. The arrow struck dirt. The wild pig snorted and squealed as it vanished into the underbrush. Fibian rose to his feet and held a hand out to Cyrus.

“It was a good shot. You would have hit it, had you not hesitated.”

Cyrus took the froskman’s hand and stood straight.

“Sorry,” he said, handing the bow back, “I’ve only really killed rats and flies, stuff like that.”

Fibian un-slung the quiver and handed it to Cyrus.

“You keep them. It is time you learned to kill more than rats and flies.”

They spent the rest of the morning trekking through the forest, foraging for fruit and nuts, always on the lookout for game. Fibian spotted some footprints and dropped to one knee.

“What is it?” Edward asked.

“It appears to be a creature that walks upright,” Fibian replied, his blue eyes bright.

“A villager from the fishing village?” Cyrus asked.

“I do not think so,” Fibian said, “This creature has webbed feet like mine, but long, clawed toes. Keep your guards up.”

They carried on for several hours, crossing valleys and streams, making their way around cliffs and landslides. The sun was low in the sky when again Fibian halted.

“More foot prints?” Edward whispered, crawling from shoulder to shoulder across Cyrus’ back.

Fibian crept through the underbrush with Cyrus close on his heels. They discovered a dead deer lying ahead on the ground.

“We’re not going to eat that, are we?” Cyrus asked, holding his nose.

The carcass was rancid, its skin shrunken and withered, tight to the bone. Fibian inspected the animal’s neck. There, Cyrus saw two puncture wounds.

“Something sucked the blood dry from this animal,” the froskman said.

“What would do that?” Edward asked, poised on Cyrus’ shoulder.

“We must try to make the village before nightfall,” Fibian replied.

“What is it?” Cyrus asked, noting the concern in the froskman’s tone.

A shriek that sounded like an impaled bat cut the silence. Cyrus’ guts twisted and his hair prickled.

“Klappen,” Fibian hissed, “We must hurry.”

Chapter 28

KLAPPEN

 

 

CYRUSHEART BEGAN TO POUND like a battle drum. Klappen? Llysa was right? The old ghost stories about the blood sucking monsters were real? Cyrus’ knees started to quiver. He followed the froskman through the underwood towards a small marsh. The forest shadows reached far with the coming evening. They stopped at the edge of a muddy puddle. Cyrus listened for danger. All he could hear was his panicked gasps.

“What are we doing?” Edward hissed, hurrying across Cyrus’ back.

“Klappen are daylight sensitive,” Fibian replied, using his webbed fingers to spread puddle mud across Cyrus’ face, “We must make the boat before nightfall. Stay low to the ground and conceal your movements. Klappen have poor eyesight. They hunt mostly through scent and sound.”

“What exactly are they?” Cyrus asked, rushing to camouflage his clothes in the earthy smelling muck.

“Minions of Rorroh’s,” Fibian whispered, “Keep to the shadows and follow me.”

The trio hunched low and crept from tree to hulking tree. Fibian peered over his shoulder. Cyrus followed his gaze up into the forest canopy. The klappen were climbers, Cyrus guessed. He and Fibian moved with stealth as best they could, crawling through small ditches and along fallen logs, avoiding open clearings whenever possible.

Fibian stopped and fell flat to the earth. Cyrus followed. His heavy breath rattled the fallen leaves. Edward crawled to Cyrus’ shoulder, closest to the froskman.

“What is it?” the spider asked, his two eyes searching.

Fibian pointed to the trees above. At first Cyrus saw nothing, just thick branches and dwindling daylight. Then he noticed something twist ever so slightly and sniff the air. Cyrus’ skin bristled. The creature was brown as a rat, with red, rodent eyes, yet it wore the tattered trousers of a man. It leapt from its perch. With arms, much longer than a man’s, it half fell, half glided to the next tree. Ripped membranes of translucent skin stretched from elbow to waist and slowed its descent. It seized the branch with long, clawed hands and let out a muted shriek. It looked starved and diseased and infectious to the touch.

Fibian motioned for the bow and arrows. Cyrus gladly handed them over. The froskman signaled them forward. They crawled away from the klappen and continued along the forest floor. Muffled cries sounded throughout the woods. Branches snapped and cracked overhead. The evening grew darker. More shapes crossed high above. The klappen were on the move, but unable to detect their prey.

Cyrus and company reached a deep ravine, far too wide to jump. Fibian took the rope from over his shoulder and tied a lasso. Then, spying for danger, he threw the lasso across. The loop snared a tree branch.

“You and Edward go first,” Fibian whispered, handing Cyrus the rope, “I will follow.”

Cyrus took the rope in both hands. The fibers were coarse and biting. He tested his grip. Strong enough, he figured. The branches above crackled.

“Cyrus,” Edward gasped, crouched on his shoulder.

Cyrus almost screamed. He looked overhead. A dark form stooped in the tree limbs and tasted the night. Had it seen them? The sky was growing dark. What was Cyrus supposed to do? If he stayed, more klappen would come. If he swung across, the creature would surely sense them. Cyrus froze, his hands shaking.

Like a snake strike, Fibian drew an arrow and fired. The klappen clutched its ribs and attempted to scream. The shaft had pierced its lungs. It toppled from the tree and hit the ground dead, rolling into the ravine.

“Go,” Fibian whispered.

Cyrus swung across the bog with Edward clinging to his collar. He struck the far side of the gully hard and had to scramble up the steep bank. The trees above quivered with the swish and rattle of newcomers. More klappen! Cyrus’ thoughts became erratic. He scurried to the base of a large tree trunk and wedged himself between thick roots. His side ached and his back was slick with sweat. Shining eyes peered down at him, then the shadows came alive with panting and wheezing.

Fibian’s bow thrummed four times from across the ravine. Four klappen dropped to the ground, unable to shriek. The branches grew still. Cyrus stuffed his muddy hair under his cap and exhaled a long-held breath. Things were getting too close. He wanted Fibian here now so they could get to the boat. The rope! Fibian needed the rope passed back to him if he was to cross.

Cyrus pushed to his feet. He caught the sudden smell of excrement and urine. He looked to his left. There, sniffing the very tree he hid behind, was a fifth klappen. Holy Sea Zombie! The creature did not blink, just drooled and bared its rotted fangs as it hunted its prey with all its senses.

“Cyrus, do something,” Edward whispered, as he crawled up his collar.

Cyrus remembered his blade and drew it. The creature perked up at the sound of steel against leather. It began to narrow in on them. Remembering Fibian’s training, Cyrus focused on the klappen’s emaciated neck. The fiend drew closer. Cyrus backed a foot away. The creature became desperate at the sound. Its nostrils flared and its hands groped the tree. Cyrus fixed his grip on the knife, as Fibian had shown him, ready to strike.

“Watch out!” Edward cried.

The creature pounced cat-like, driving Cyrus to the ground. Cyrus lost his weapon. The klappen shrieked and snapped at his neck. Cyrus, fighting to get both hands on the villain’s boney chest, forced it back. The klappen doubled its efforts. Cyrus’ arms began to shake. He switched tactics and began to drive his thumbs into the creature’s windpipe. The fiend choked, its breath putrid and noxious. Cyrus got both feet on the klappen’s hips. He kicked it away. The villain sprawled backwards. Cyrus found his knife and scrambled to his feet. The klappen did the same. Instinct and rage clouded Cyrus’ terror. Now he was the aggressor. He thrust at the fiend, slashing at its hands and stabbing at its face. The klappen snarled and clawed, backing itself into a tree. Realizing it was cornered, Cyrus saw the creature grow frantic. Cyrus hesitated. The villain lunged forward all teeth and claws. Cyrus heard something hiss on his shoulder. It was Edward! A ridge of yellow fur spiked across the arachnid’s back. The klappen froze, wide-eyed. 

This was Cyrus’ chance. He targeted the klappen’s neck. Fibian’s bow rang. An arrow punched the creature in the chest. It stumbled and shrieked. Its cry was cut short as Cyrus’ blade found its mark, nearly taking the klappen’s head off. Brown blood sprayed across Cyrus’ face and leather jacket, mixing with the dirt and mud. The klappen fell to the ground, thrashing and attempting to scream. Cyrus stood stunned. Had he just killed? Had he won a fight? Fibian’s sleek silhouette appeared out of the brush, dripping bog mud. He stood over top of the struggling klappen and loosed a final arrow into its skull. The creature grew peaceful and struggled no more.

“The sun is down,” Fibian hissed, “The time for stealth is over.”

From across the ravine, the forest came alive with frenzied cries. The klappen knew where they were, and they were coming.

Chapter 29

DEEP WATERS

 

QUICK, UNTIE THE ROPE,” Fibian said, retrieving the arrows from the dead klappen.

The hunters closed in through the trees like a flock of savage birds. Cyrus ran back to the edge of the ravine.

“I can’t reach the knot.”

“Cut it loose,” Edward said, quivering on his shoulder.

There was a strange growl to the spider’s voice. Cyrus slashed the rope free.

“Move!” Fibian shouted, waving them ahead.

Cyrus began to run, winding the rope around his arm as he hopped over bodies and bushes. Out the corner of his eye he saw Fibian draw an arrow. A klappen flew from the woods, shrieking like a banshee. Fibian struck it mid-flight, its cry cut short as it crashed to the earth. The froskman nodded to Cyrus and turned to follow.

The trees were thinning. The village was in site. Cyrus ran as fast as he could, stumbling across the uneven earth, avoiding deep puddles and ankle-breaking pits.

As he made his way out of the forest, he paused at the top of the grassy hill and looked back. Fibian was dashing through the forest, every few seconds turning to loose another projectile into the darkness. Each shot was followed by a shrill scream.

“Keep moving!” Edward said.

Cyrus half ran, half rolled down the prickly hillside, towards the village. The klappen’s cries were close. They would be at their necks at any moment. Cyrus tripped and hit the sand, sprawling like a starfish. Edward flew from his collar and bounced along the beach.

“Get up,” the tiny spider cried, spitting and shaking sand from his fur.

Fibian rushed to Cyrus’ side and pulled him to his feet.

“We must find a boat,” he said, handing Edward to Cyrus.

They began to run through the dilapidated village, searching the salty huts. Cyrus spied the odd cracked or punctured craft abandoned alongside several log structures. What had happened here, he wondered? He sped towards a boat resting at the water’s edge. He stopped short. The craft was barnacle covered and half buried in sand.

“Over there,” Edward said.

Cyrus spotted a long, narrow craft propped up on a pair of makeshift workhorses. It was just beyond the threshold of a sagging shed. It seemed someone had been repairing its hull before abruptly abandoning it.

“Let’s go,” Cyrus said to Fibian.

Together they ran to the door, grabbed the front of the boat and jerked it off its stand. It struck the sand with a hollow thud.

“This will have to do,” Fibian said, throwing a weather-bleached paddle into the craft.

Cyrus’ pointed ears pricked. He heard the sound of running feet.

“They’re coming!” he said, dragging the boat towards the surf.

Fibian un-shouldered his bow. A klappen sprang from behind a hut. The froskman dropped it in its tracks. More came rushing down the beach.

“Quick, Master Cyrus, into the boat.”

Fibian shot another scrambling across a rooftop. Cyrus drove the craft into the lapping waves. The sea numbed his bones, but his terror masked the chill.

“Behind us,” Edward shouted.

Three klappen tried to rush by Fibian, towards Cyrus. One fell to an arrow; the other two sped past. They hit the water like rabid dogs, kicking and clawing at the sea. With Edward on his shoulder, Cyrus leapt into the boat and began to paddle. An arrow punctured the second klappen’s throat. Cyrus waited for the third to fall. Then he saw Fibian discard his bow and quiver. No more arrows…

The fiend lunged for the boat’s aft and began to pull itself aboard.

“Kill it,” Edward screamed, digging his legs into Cyrus’ shoulder.

Cyrus scooped up the oar and chopped at the creature’s skull. It fell back, bloodied, but gripped the edge. Cyrus shoved the paddle into the villain’s snapping jaw and shoved it below the waves.

“Fibian,” Edward shouted.

As Cyrus struggled to drown the wretch, he quickly glanced to shore. The froskman was holding the enemy off with his bare hands, striking them to the ground, two and three at a time.

“Fibian, we have to go!” Cyrus cried.

The klappen pulled the oar from its throat and clawed at the boat. It snatched Cyrus’ wrist.

“No!”

Cyrus tried to pull free. The creature started to drag him overboard. Edward came springing down Cyrus’ arm and bit into the klappen’s knuckle. The creature shrieked as if on fire and fell backwards into the sea. Cyrus crashed to the floor of the boat.

“ Th- thanks,” he stammered.

Edward pursed his mouth shut and nodded back. There was something strange about the spider’s face.

More and more klappen began pouring down the beach. Cyrus snapped back to the situation at hand.

“Fibian, hurry, you’ll be overrun,” he shouted.

The froskman’s eyes flashed about violently in the dark.

“There is no time. Keep him safe, Master Edward. If Master Cyrus dies, we are all doomed.”

“Fibian!” Edward screamed.

The froskman became engulfed. He twisted and thrashed, tossing his attackers aside like children. More piled on. Fibian began to move as if in tar. Several klappen sprang past and started to rush towards Cyrus and Edward.

“They’re coming!” Edward said, hurrying up Cyrus’ arm, “We have to paddle out.”

Abandon Fibian? Cyrus’ stomach began to turn.

The klappen crashed into the surf and started to push towards the craft, their faces filled with a feral yearning.

“Fibian, please,” Cyrus cried, retreating into deeper waters.

The monsters waded into the sea up to their chins. They shrieked in rage and frustration, apparently unable to swim.

“Fibian!”

Cyrus watched as Fibian wrestled with the mob, struggling to stay upright. A klappen sprang onto the froskman’s back. Fibian grabbed its arm and threw it into several others. Another leapt on. Fibian sent it hurling too, but his strength was visibly waning. A klappen picked up an oar off the ground.

“Behind you,” Cyrus shouted.

It struck Fibian in the head. The froskman turned and snapped the creature’s neck. Another klappen tore a timber from a hut and broke it over Fibian’s back. Fibian dropped to one knee; then rose back up and hit the fiend with a clubbing blow that sent it twisting to the ground. Several others began to tear apart the nearby huts, creating clubs of their own. They came at Fibian in an undisciplined frenzy. The froskman caught the first strike, twisting and breaking the klappen’s wrist. He dodged the second blow, blocked the third, parried the fourth, but the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth struck him from every angle. He stumbled and again fell to one knee. With clubs held high, the klappen closed in, beating Fibian into the ground like a steel spike.

“Fibian,” Cyrus shrieked, his eyes and nose running, “NO!”

He was losing Niels all over again.

Chapter 30

[*SACRIFICE *]

 

CYRUS AND EDWARD WATCHED helplessly as the klappen dragged Fibian’s limp body into the forest. Only a handful of the diseased creatures remained to observe the two fugitives as they drifted out with the ebbing tide.

“Is he dead?” Edward asked, his voice wavering.

The small spider began to shiver on Cyrus’ shoulder.

“He can’t be,” Cyrus said, wiping tears from his eyes.

He looked down at the klappen blood all over his hands.

“Rorroh stabbed him through the heart and he survived. He just can’t be dead.”

Fibian had received the chest wound rescuing Cyrus and Edward from Rorroh. Now her crazed minions were carrying the froskman away, and there was nothing Cyrus could do about it.

“What do we do now?” Edward asked, huddling into a furry ball.

Cyrus could not think straight. Fibian was supposed to take them north, to the safety of the Yeti Kingdom. But Drache had double crossed them and led them straight to Rorroh. Why had they trusted a dragon? What choice had they had? Had Edward really killed the beast?

Now they were stranded alone in a leaky boat, off the shore of some unknown island. And Rorroh’s ship was nearby, within a secluded cove, overlooked by a looming, cliff-top castle. What would Rorroh do once the klappen got Fibian inside the castle walls?

“This can’t be happening,” Cyrus said, rubbing his damp eyes with the heels of his hands.

He fought back the urge to cry. Why had Fibian sacrificed himself? Cyrus was no legendary savior. He was just a boy. He just wanted to live in peace.

Fibian was mad. Maybe he deserved to die. If Cyrus and Edward tried to save the froskman, both would be captured and murdered. Sure, Cyrus had managed to defeat one klappen, but Fibian and Edward had helped. Cyrus had slashed the creature’s throat. There had been so much blood. Cyrus’ stomach began to roll. He forced the thought from his mind.

Rorroh would surely kill Fibian, but not before she first had her revenge? She was going to boil me alive, Cyrus thought, what will she do to Fibian? He recalled Niels’ cold body lying limp on the log. He could not lose another brother. It was all too much.

“We can’t just sit here,” Edward said, “We have to do something.”

It was like the day Virkelot caved in all over again. Was Cyrus really going to stand by while another person he cared about died? A deep anger rose in his belly. He clenched his teeth and balled his fists.

“We are going to do something,” Cyrus said, “We’re going to get Fibian.”

Chapter 31

THE FORTRESS

 

 

CYRUS AND EDWARD DISCUSSED their rescue plan while the slender boat danced with the tide. The small group of remaining klappen monitored their prey from the shoreline. The night grew long. Cyrus and Edward slept little. Then morning broke and the sun began to rise. The fugitives watched with relief as the grotesque creatures retreated to the protection of some dark dwelling. Probably the castle, Cyrus thought. The hairs on his neck prickled.

“It’s time,” he said, taking a deep breath.

Cyrus began to paddle back towards the beach. His eyes were scratchy with exhaustion. Was this a good idea? The morning sun was hidden behind grey clouds and the wind swept west. Their craft hit the beach with a sandy crunch. Cyrus watched the trees for an ambush. Fibian never told him what happened to klappen if they were caught out in the daylight.

“I think they’re really gone,” Edward said, crawling on top of Cyrus’ hat.

Cyrus hopped out of the boat and slowly made his way up the shore. The beach was littered with their dead and battered foes. Under the light of the grey, morning sky, the carcasses began to smoke and smolder. The stink brought Cyrus to his knees, heaving. So that is what sunlight did to klappen.

“Try to hold your breath,” Edward said, “The faster we’re done, the sooner we can leave.

Cyrus wiped his mouth and rose to his feet. He made his way towards the huts. There, where Fibian had made his last stand, was the bow and quiver. Cyrus picked them up and inspected each. Both had been trampled and roughed up, but they would work.

“Thank the Angels,” Cyrus whispered, “We’ll need all the help we can get.”

Next, he moved towards two bodies with arrows through their chest. Cyrus crouched down beside the nearest. He caught a whiff of the smoking body and threw up in his mouth. Coughing and spitting, he held his breath. Then he grasped the shaft near the entry wound; twisted and pulled. Wet muscle and tendon bit and snapped at the arrow, but finally it tore free. He inspected the projectile. It stunk of burnt, putrid meat, but it would fly true.

In the end, Cyrus collected sixteen arrows in total. He cleaned them all as best he could in the ocean. Then they climbed back into their boat and set off north in the direction of the castle.

The beach seemed to span the coast for miles, watched over by a dark jungle that might harbor all sorts of spies or assassins. Finally, sand and tree gave way to sheer, towering cliffs. Sea birds squawked and circled above, darting into cracks in the rock. Waves crashed against stone, sending sea spray into the air. Cyrus’ hands and face grew coarse with sea salt. Around every corner, he hoped and feared he would spot Rorroh’s ship. Then, at mid-day, they did…

Amongst the cliffs was a secluded bay with a narrow mouth and wide belly. Cyrus’ eyes fixed on Rorroh’s vessel. It appeared black and lifeless. Was there movement within? Cyrus could see nothing obvious, but there was no way of telling what eyes may be spying from which crack.

“Over there,” Edward said, crawling across Cyrus’ shoulder.

How had Cyrus missed it? Within the bay, set into the stonewall, the sea lapped at a massive, steel gate.

“This must be how she entered the castle,” Edward said.

The gate was as tall as thirty men, and half as wide. It was very thick and crafted to look like a shield. It was rusted and encrusted with barnacles near the water line.

Cyrus peered up at the fortress, high upon the cliff. He wished entering the castle would be as easy as knocking on the massive door and stepping through, but he knew that would be as suicidal as attempting a frontal assault. He saw no weakness in the gate, and it would take a lifetime to cut through that steel.

“You think whoever created this place cut a tunnel through the rock from sea to castle?”

“It seems so,” Edward said.

Cyrus shook his head in disbelief. How many armies would it take to complete such a task?

He paddled past Rorroh’s ship, giving it a wide berth, and over to the cliff below the fortress.

“Are you sure about this?” Edward asked.

Cyrus had the rope, bow and quiver of arrows wrapped over his shoulder and around his chest. The small spider crawled along the equipment, inspecting them for flaws.

“It’ll be fine,” Cyrus said, “I just have to remember what Fibian taught me.”

He wished he felt as confident as he pretended to be. He checked his boots, made sure his knife was secure, and tucked his hair under his cap. Then Cyrus reached out and grasped the stone wall. Was he really going to climb up the sheer rock face to save Fibian? He could still turn and leave, paddle out to sea and hope for the best. He gripped the face with his other hand, then wedged his right boot into a crack. Cyrus peered down at his left foot still in the boat. The craft gently bobbed with the sea. Cyrus withdrew his foot and jammed it into the crevice. The small craft began to drift away.

“There’s no going back now,” Edward whispered.

Cyrus relaxed and took a deep breath. Then he loaded his weight into his legs and, keeping at least three points of contact with the cliff, began to scale the rock face.

Chapter 32

NO GOING BACK

 

 

HAND OVER FOOT, Cyrus climbed the rock face. He dared not look down. He focused only on his breath and the next place he would wedge his hand or foot. Several times his grip slipped. Cyrus kept his composure, and his three points of contact, and continued on undaunted.

Cyrus reached the foot of the castle, exhausted. The climb had not been as treacherous as the Himmel Horn, but it had still taken all of his determination and focus. His forearms quivered and his fingers bled.

Where castle wall met cliff face, the earth had eroded exposing the fortress’s foundation. Cyrus forced himself to steady his breath. He studied the wall above, plotting out the next leg of his climb.

“You see any guards?” he asked Edward, his voice strained.

“None,” Edward replied, from the top of Cyrus’ cap.

So far, their guess that the seaside flank of the castle would be least defended had paid off. The castle’s builders too must have thought that no one would dare scale that wall of the fortress, for the mortar between the brickwork had been poorly filled, making for rough handholds. Cyrus’ knees shook. He climbed the brick face as if it were a ladder.

Cyrus finally reached the battlements. He could barely feel his arms and his hands were grimy with bird droppings.

“Come on,” Edward whispered, “we’re almost there.”

A shriek echoed deep within the castle’s innards.

“Fibian!” Cyrus gasped.

His heart ripped. Was Fibian dying? Was he being tortured? Cyrus had to hurry.

Fear strengthened his grip and he pulled himself over the ledge. He crouched low within the rampart’s walls, his chest heaving. The adrenalin ebbed and his muscles started to knot. He peaked over the inner wall. There was a small courtyard below with a trap door at its center. The door was open…

Cyrus smelled dung and realized that the ground was slick with a sort of muck. A snorting, snarling sound came from the stone stairs leading from the courtyard to the battlements. Cyrus’ mind raced. He un-shouldered his bow. A rat as big as a sheep dog hobbled onto the rampart. Its teeth were yellow shanks, its eyes red pits, and its tail arched and lashed like a whip.

“Kill it,” Edward cried, leaping from Cyrus’ hat onto his bow arm.

The rodent was only a few yards away. It sighted the intruders and hissed. Cyrus drew an arrow. He took a deep breath and pulled the nock to the corner of his mouth. His fingers stung and his arms shook. The rat began to froth, loping forward like a mad boar. Cyrus exhaled; then, at point blank range, released the arrow. The missile struck the beast between shoulder and neck, penetrating the lungs, and probably the heart. It crashed, snout first to the floor, its rear legs twitching.

“Thank the Angels,” Cyrus sighed.

He doubled over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

“It has a collar,” Edward said, his black, fuzzy form crawling down Cyrus’ forearm.

“Some sort of watch dog,” Cyrus said, stepping on its skull and jerking the arrow free.

He looked at his dung stained pants and hands, then at the rampart floor. Had that lone creature created that much waste?

More hissing came from each side of Cyrus.

“We’re surrounded,” Edward said, his two eyes wide.

From the rampart’s north and south corner came two more of the grotesque monsters. They were about thirty yards away. Could Cyrus make the stairs? They spotted their downed comrade and came at the trespassers in a frenzied rage. Cyrus nocked the arrow he was holding. He shot at the rat to his right. The target was too far. The projectile missed, shattering against the stone floor.

“Hurry,” Edward said, scurrying up Cyrus’ arm, “the other is coming.”

The rodent to his right was now mere yards away. Cyrus fired a second arrow. The shaft punched through the rat’s skull, dropping it like a sack of flour. The second creature closed in from behind and shrieked. Cyrus clutched his knife and spun. The rat lunged at his groin. Cyrus kicked it in the nose. It snapped at his hand. Cyrus cut it across the face. It bit into his sealskin boot. Cyrus stabbed it in the ribs and, with his free hand, grasped its collar. He pulled the beast from his boots and hurled it over the battlement. It vanished from sight, falling to the sea, far, far below.

Cyrus fell to his knees, winded and shaken. Without Fibian’s protection he had killed his attackers. He felt only relief and fear. Would he be so lucky next time?

Another scream rang out deep within the fortress.

“We have to hurry,” Edward said.

Cyrus picked up his bow and made for the stairs. There were three other matching stairways leading down from the north, south and east ramparts. As Cyrus descended the steps, a fourth rat appeared on the far staircase. Cyrus froze. So did the rodent. Cyrus grasped an arrow. The creature began to sprint forward. Cyrus nocked the arrow and pulled. There was something odd about the way this beast ran. It was not snarling and frothing like the others.

“It’s making for the trap door!” Edward shouted, from Cyrus’ shoulder, “It’s going to warn others.”

No! They would lose their only true weapon; the element of surprise. Cyrus took aim and breathed deep. The creature was at least forty yards away. Cyrus fired. The arrow arched through the air, more towards the door then the rat. The rat dove for the hatch. The arrow missed its lungs, but pierced its tail, pinning it to the door’s wood frame. Cyrus hesitated. He had not actually thought he could make the shot.

“Quick, kill it,” Edward shouted.

Cyrus pulled another arrow and ran for the door. The tail whipped and snapped, then became still. Cyrus and Edward reached the hatch and found the tail still pinned to the frame, but no rat. The creature had pulled free from its appendage, leaving a bloody trail in its wake.

“What do we do now?” Edward asked.

“We go after it.”

Chapter 33

RUN

 

CYRUS DASHED DOWN the stairway, nearly breaking his ankles. The stairs twisted like a corkscrew, ending in a long, torch-lit corridor. The air was cool; the torches few and far between. Cyrus squinted, adjusting his eyes.

“Edward, you see anything?”

“It looks like the passage leads left,” Edward said, clutching Cyrus’ shoulder.

Cyrus moved quickly and quietly along the stone flags, doing his best to avoid the thick trail of blood. He reached the brick bend and peeked around the corner. In the torchlight, he made out two klappen crouched over a still shape on the ground. The creatures hissed and clicked. Had the rodent spoken before it had died? Could it speak?

“Edward,” Cyrus whispered, “What if you crawl over there and bite them?”

“ I- I can’t,” Edward replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t just ignite it like a match,” Edward stammered, “It’s not something I control. It’s a reflex. Something’s trying to kill us and it just happens.”

One of the klappen rose and turned in their direction. It wore a wolf’s head on its crown. The remainder of the pelt draped its shoulders like a cape. The second creature hissed and bared its broken teeth.

Willing himself to stay calm, Cyrus crouched to one knee, drew an arrow and charged his bow. He steadied his shaking hands and aimed for the center of the one on the left. It moved. Cyrus fired. The klappen yelped, then dropped. The other fiend shrieked. His heart pumping, Cyrus pulled another arrow. The creature charged.

“Hurry!” Edward shouted.

Cyrus raised his bow. The creature struck him to the ground. Edward cried and the bow split. Cyrus tried to scramble away. His back hit something solid. The klappen barged forward and clutched Cyrus’ throat, lifting him up the wall. It was grey and gaunt and covered in coarse, dark hair. It bared its black fangs and glared at him through pale orbs. Its breath reeked like compost. With a machine-like grip, it began to crush Cyrus’ neck. Cyrus felt his eyes bulging and his vision began to fade. Fibian’s lessons flashed through his mind. With precious seconds left, he drew his knife and stabbed it into the creature’s armpit. The klappen gasped and flinched, its knees buckling, but still it squeezed. Cyrus again punched the blade into the reeking pit. The villain screamed, its fingers biting into Cyrus’ neck. Cyrus slashed the inside of the fiend’s exposed forearm, severing tendons and veins. The grasp broke and the monster fell against the wall, shuddering. It clutched its wounded arm and slid down the brickwork wheezing. A smear of brown blood illustrated its descent. Then its head lulled and it moved no more.

“You okay?” Edward asked.

The spider’s voice seemed to come from somewhere ahead in the darkness.

“Yes,” Cyrus said, catching his breath, “where are you?”

“I got knocked to the ground. I’m at your feet.”

Cyrus felt along the cold stone. He found Edward. The tiny spider’s usually soft fur bristled. Cyrus collected him up and then reached for his shattered bow. It was irreparable. He discovered his fleece cap lying at his feet. He brushed back his greasy hair and replaced the hat. Another of Fibian’s cries echoed down the corridor.

“We have to hurry,” Edward said.

Cyrus gritted his teeth and continued on. He passed the klappen with the shaft through its chest. It still wore the wolf pelt.

“A disguise,” he said. 

He removed the headdress and placed it over his cap.

“It stinks like a rotting corpse,” Edward said, fleeing into Cyrus’ shirt pocket.

They sped down the passage and descended several stairs that opened into an even larger hallway. Pillars lined the corridor and rubble littered the floor. The ceiling above had partially collapsed exposing a darkened chamber. Cyrus stepped into the corridor. He felt as if the hallway behind him was closing in. There was no turning back…

A silver chandelier loomed overhead, glowing with candlelight. Cyrus spied a large, gold-framed painting on the wall. The canvas had been torn out.

“I hear whispers,” Edward said, in a hushed voice. 

Cyrus drew his knife and stepped forward. He caught the whiff of dung and wondered if it was the pelt. Then he noticed a dark, mud-like substance staining the floor. Ahead and to the left, a rat skittered out of a darkened passageway. It vanished under a tattered, red rug. A klappen followed close behind, scrabbling in the wreckage. It looked up and sensed Cyrus. Cyrus felt exposed. He kept his face low, hidden under the wolf’s muzzle. The monster took no notice and continued its hunt. Cyrus pressed forward, his blade ready. Another of Fibian’s shrieks rang out. It seemed to come from the next room. Cyrus flinched. The klappen peered up, roused by the reaction. Cyrus felt his breath quicken. After several burning moments, it returned to its search, but it now watched the intruder from the corner of its eye.

“Walk like it does,” Edward whispered.

Cyrus hunched low and bent like an old man. If this thing exposed them, there would be no escape. He continued in the direction of the scream, trying to avoid the creature without appearing conspicuous. The klappen’s path began to meander closer. It started to sniff the air and seemed to scrutinize Cyrus’ trousers and boots. It walked so close that Cyrus could have kissed it. It passed on in search of its tiny prey.

Cyrus continued along the hallway, picking up his pace and looking over his shoulder.

“No,” Edward hissed.

Cyrus bumped into something bony and sour. His headdress fell as he spun forward. A klappen two feet taller than himself shrieked in rage. It must have followed its kin through the left, side passage. It snapped at Cyrus’ face. Cyrus ducked low and to the side, slashing at the creature’s throat. He cut it across the nose. It squealed and clutched at its eyes. The first klappen abandoned its hunt and whirled to attack. Cyrus dove through the passageway. To his relief, he found the threshold defended by double doors. He slammed the doors tight, securing them with a bar of timber.

“What now?” Edward panicked.

The doors began to shake and shudder like mad drums. Cyrus spun about looking for an escape. A single wall torch illuminated the chamber and the air stank like a well-used outhouse. In the center of the room, a stairway descended to another pair of doors. Something warm and heavy slopped onto Cyrus’ shoulder. A half-eaten rat fell at his feet.

“Cyrus,” Edward whispered, desperation in his voice.

Wood beams creaked overhead. Cyrus looked up. At first, he thought he saw a ceiling of golden stars. Then he realized that the wavering points of lights were reflections off of many, many pairs of eyes. One of the klappen bared its teeth and shrieked like a demon. Cyrus staggered back, then sprinted down the stairs. He barged his way into the cell beyond. He turned and bolted the cold, steel lock. He pressed his shoulder to the doors and waited for the inevitable battering to begin. No attempt to breach the room came. Cyrus placed an ear to the wood. Silence. Then something spoke.

“Run…”

Chapter 34

THE OLD WOMAN

 

 

CYRUS TURNED IN THE DIRECTION of the voice. The chamber was cold, dank and ill lit by dying candles weeping over craggy ledges and grimy counter tops. He smelled something sweet, yet foul in the air. Then it struck him. It was the scent of fear.

He searched the darkness. Several rusted manacles draped against the damp walls, and the odd meat hook jangled overhead.

“Fibian,” Edward cried.

At the room’s center, Fibian lay strapped to a thick, wooden chair.

“Angels,” Cyrus gasped, “What happened?”

Candlelight illuminated Fibian’s sharp features. He was haggard, a ghost of himself. His face was bloody and battered, his nose broken and eyes swollen. Deep lacerations outlined his brow and cheekbones. The way he sat, Cyrus suspected his ribs were broken.

“Run,” Fibian repeated, wheezing, “Before she returns.”

He moved his head, gesturing to the rear of the room.

Cyrus rushed to Fibian’s side. He began to unbuckle the leather straps around his wrists. Long dried blood stained the chair’s deep grain.

“ No, go- now,” Fibian coughed, blood spattering his lips.

Cyrus unstrapped the froskman’s ankles, contemplating their escape. The only way out was the stairway, but that was suicide. Yet if they stayed…

Cyrus hefted Fibian out of the chair and hauled him to the double doors. He was amazed by how light the froskman felt. Fibian still had the vial of dragon’s blood around his neck.

“Get ready to run,” Cyrus whispered.

“No,” Fibian begged.

“Cyrus,” Edward pleaded, digging his seven legs into his friend’s shoulder.

Cyrus unbolted the steel lock. Something heavy clicked behind them. Cyrus turned. Beyond the shadows, a hidden door in the back wall began to edge open. Then a long, spidery hand reached through the crack. Cyrus’ legs grew weak. A bald, crooked, old woman emerged through the passage.

“The Sea Zombie,” Edward gasped.

The witch’s white powdered face and wooden, costume nose was spattered with dried blood. She grinned like a snarling wolf. The rip in her membrane-thin cheeks exposed dark, decaying gums.

She began to move forward with a cripple’s gait, but Cyrus was not fooled. He knew crushing strength hid beneath the grey, tattered robes. The small, bulbous-eyed Aghamore groveled at her side.

She looked at Cyrus through black, oily eyes, their deep sockets drilled into jutting cheekbones.

“Murderer…” she said in a breathless whisper, “Thiefff!” she spat, as she raised the blackened stump of her maimed right arm.

Cyrus felt his insides turn liquid. All strength left his limbs.

Chapter 35

RETRIBUTION

 

 

SHAKING, CYRUS DREW HIS KNIFE.

“Did you know I can still feel it?” Rorroh asked.

Black bile dripped from her narrow chin.

“Did you know that my hand still lives in the belly of some sea creature? Even now I can feel it crushing the fishy’s cold innards.”

Cyrus’ muscles tensed. He dug his toes into the ground, preparing for the onslaught. Then he felt the knife stripped from his grip. Fibian shoved him aside.

“For the last time, run!”

The froskman leapt at Rorroh, brandishing Cyrus’ blade. Aghamore intercepted the attack, drawing his own knife. Fibian slashed out, but over committed. Aghamore parried the blow and sliced Fibian’s side. Fibian countered with a backhanded stab, but was again easily parried. Aghamore went for the throat, but cut only shoulder. Fibian stood cringing, holding his ribs.

“What are you doing?” Cyrus cried.

“Giving you time to escape,” Fibian said, breathing heavily.

Aghamore lunged forward and stuck Fibian in the belly.

“Heal from this,” the water klops squealed, jerking the knife upwards.

Fibian winced, then clutched Aghamore by the throat. Aghamore panicked, releasing the blade. Fibian squeezed so hard, Aghamore’s bulbous eyes looked to explode. Then, in a fit of rage, Fibian hurled the water klops into a wooden beam. Dust shook from the ceiling. The creature slid motionless to the floor, painting the beam red.

Fibian drew the klops’ knife from his stomach and rounded on Rorroh. His hands quivered.

“Cyrus, help him,” Edward begged.

Cyrus stood paralyzed.

Wielding two knives, Fibian rushed Rorroh. The froskman’s usually sure-footed movements were awkward and forced. Rorroh slipped back, out of reach. Fibian flung Cyrus’ knife at Rorroh’s head. The action came out of nowhere, hidden by the deft roll of his shoulders. Still, Rorroh caught the weapon with ease. Fibian continued his advance as Rorroh worked her way back around various torture apparatus. Fibian picked up a chair and flung it at the witch. It shattered against her blocking forearm.

“Fight me,” the froskman roared, through bloody teeth.

Rorroh stepped forward and, from within her cloak, flung a fist of powder in his battered face. Fibian was momentarily frozen. Rorroh lashed out with Cyrus’ blade and slashed the froskman’s throat.

“No!” Cyrus screamed.

Fibian clutched his neck, blood bubbling from his lips. With one last gasp, he reached for her robes, splitting the hem of her right shoulder. She grasped his wrist and forced his arm to a butcher’s block. 

“Seeing as you choose to fight his battles,” Rorroh spat, gesturing to Cyrus, “maybe you would like to pay his debts as well.”

Rorroh held Cyrus’ knife high in the air.

“Fibian,” Cyrus cried.

Fibian made a fist, trying to tear his arm free. Rorroh wielded the weapon like a seasoned butcher. She chopped Fibian’s right hand off, mid forearm.

“Fibian,” Edward cried.

The froskman’s body slid formless to the floor.

What’s happening? Cyrus thought. What has Rorroh done?

The witch stood panting, her front covered in arterial spray.

“Did he tell you the company you keep?” Rorroh asked Cyrus.

She tossed the bloody hand and knife to the floor. Cyrus stared at the weapon. It was his, the knife he had found in Tom OddFoot’s dwelling. She had cut Fibian’s throat with it; mutilated him with it. And Cyrus had just watched.

Cyrus’ world began to spin. It could not be. This could not be happening. How could she have done that? And how could he have just watched? Cyrus felt compelled to run. But he also felt something else. Anger. He let the anger rise and take over. He welcomed the sensation.

“Fibian told us of Mor Hav’s army, and about the blodbad spiders. He told us what you are.”

“Ahhh, but he did not tell you everything, because even he did not know all.”

The witch began to giggle and cough.

“Did you know your people were once a proud and happy folk, and that your little ssspider friend’s kin helped change all that?”

She wiped at her boney cheek, smearing blood and white makeup.

“What are you talking about?” Cyrus demanded.

Rorroh hobbled forward, her flesh reeking of spoiled meat.

“I am talking about revenge, boy. I am talking about murder. I loved the Angel King. All I wanted was to serve at his side. I, the most beautiful creature in all of creation. And for that, he turned me into this.”

She stood before Cyrus, bald, hunched and twisted, her tattered robes hanging from her fleshy bones.

“So, I took what was most precious to him and I drained them of all that was good and righteousss.”

Her neck cracked and popped.

“Your people were once tall and vibrant, and your island strong and full of life.”

Confusion added to Cyrus’ rage.

“Do you understand, boy? You are living proof of your kinsmen’s long forgotten glory. You are a throwback to what they once were. Your people are the tortured descendants of the once proud hune alves.”

“That’s impossible,” Cyrus whispered.

His hand drifted to the point of his right ear.

“Is it?” Rorroh asked, “Your village was built on a giant shelled creature called a hune. And that hune had a name, Uriel. Uriel loved and cherished your people as if they were her own. And your people adored her as children do their own mother. Uriel traveled the oceans, delivering the hune alves to the most beautiful places in all of creation. And the alves farmed, fed and cared for the giant. They lived in balance and harmony, a most happy and charmed family, and the Angel King’s dearest creation.”

A look of mock pity contorted Rorroh’s gangrenous face.

“It was in these creatures that I decided to begin my revenge on the Angel King.”

Rorroh clenched her remaining fist so tight, Cyrus thought the knuckles might burst.

“Long ago, I waited until the hune crossed over a large reef. Then I had my blodbad spiders poison the giant.”

“No,” Edward gasped.

“The hune died a slow and painful death,” Rorroh continued, “her flesh turning to sand. But the giant did not sink, and your people were left stranded and heartbroken in the middle of the sea.

“With the help of my armies, I surrounded and terrified the hune alves until they built a giant wall around their village and, having farmed and cared for the hune their whole lives, their hands became restless, and they began to cut and dig at the earth like rodents.”

Rorroh clawed at the air with her remaining fingers.

“Why didn’t you just kill us and get it over with?” Cyrus asked.

Rorroh hissed, “I do not want your lives, I want your soulsss. I have found flaw in the Angel King’s design. I have fooled your people into self-imprisonment, and I have driven them to self-destruction. Always, they could have done as you and left the island to find fertile land, but they have let their fears be their undoing. Rather than sacrifice and fight for what is right, they have lost all courage and been fooled into misery and self-loathing. And with the fall of your village, your people will beg to join my army, and I will be so very close to making this Kingdom mine.”

Rorroh stood triumphant, her black eyes wide and frenzied.

Cyrus gritted his teeth.

“That’s not true. You haven’t fooled me.”

“Yes, but you are a coward. You abandon friends and family to save your own skin. Your life is forfeited. Your soul is mine.”

Cyrus felt as if Rorroh had ripped out his heart. He shut his eyes tight, wanting to hear no more.

“There is another detail I have yet to mention,” Rorroh continued, “Something else that makes my plan truly ingenious. Like I, whenever the Angel King created a female, he also created a male.”

Cyrus looked up and gasped, “The hune?”

Drache had told the truth.

“That is right, boy, there were two. Two hune, and two villages of hune alvesss. When I killed the female, I let the male live.”

“There’s another village of hune alves?” Cyrus asked.

“Not quite,” Rorroh said.

A craggy smirk split across her face.

“Gabriel still lives, but his people are long dead. I had my blodbad poison them the same time they killed Uriel. The poor hune is miserable and alone. He searches the oceans for another village to again make him whole, but he is growing weak and I fear very soon, his sorrows may drag him down to a watery grave. If only your people and Gabriel could somehow unite.”

Rorroh began to cackle, delighted by her own twisted brilliance.

“Where’s the hune now?” Cyrus asked.

“It does not matter,” Rorroh replied, “He was last seen in the Northern Sea; impossible to follow. Only once has he come near your village, and with Drache’s help, he was easily turned away.”

Cyrus’ mind spun. His people had once prospered on the back of a giant, living creature? And there was another of its kind, still alive, that could rescue Cyrus’ village, unravel Rorroh’s lies, and untwist their narrow minds? And the only thing standing in their way was Rorroh?

Cyrus looked to Edward. Where was Edward? Cyrus searched his shoulder, his collar, his pocket. Where was Edward?

Cyrus noticed something small and fuzzy lower from the ceiling. It dangled by a silvery thread over Rorroh.

“Edward?” Cyrus whispered.

The witch’s expression turned from hatred to confusion. She looked from Cyrus and found a black spider, with a yellow mark on its back, crawling along her hand. Horror and rage filled the arachnid’s face and his hair stood on end.

“Is this what you made me for?” Edward seethed, “Is this what you want?

The spider’s eyes shut and his brow began to swell. Like fishhooks, he dug his seven, long legs deep into the Sea Zombie’s flesh. Edward’s eyes flashed open, milky and white, along with six smaller eyes that bulged from beneath his fur.

“NO!” Rorroh screamed.

Chapter 36

BE AFRAID

 

 

RORROH TRIED TO SHAKE THE SPIDER OFF, but Edward was fastened to her like a lock. A hiss began to emit from his throat. His jaws creaked open.

“Let go!” the witch shouted.

She reeled back and whipped her hand through a shelf of jars and beakers. Glass shattered and sprayed the room like sparks, but the Sea Zombie was unable to dislodge the blodbad spider. Two needle-like teeth began to extend from Edward’s gums, each dripping black venom.

“I promise, I will see you both ripped limb from limb,” Rorroh snarled.

Like a steel trap, Edward bit deep into the witch’s hand. His body began to convulse, as he pumped ounce after ounce of boiling toxins into her diseased flesh. Around the bite, Rorroh’s skin started to dry up like paper; then turn to sand. She fell to one knee, crippled with agony. The poison started to spread further up the Sea Zombie’s arm. It reached her shoulder and advanced towards her chest. Cyrus’ heart began to lift. The witch was dying.

Rorroh fell to her other knee and held out her decaying hand. Like salt, the first layer of flesh started to sprinkle the floor. She fought to make a fist and, uttering a language Cyrus had never heard before, focused all her attention on the wound.

With great effort, her body seemed to battle back against the transformation. The veins in her arm bubbled and swelled with black blood and her skin turned from a yellowish-grey to a dark, blistering purple.

The witch’s blood erupted into Edward’s throat and his stomach began to grow. His eyes whipped forward and he started to choke. Clutching his belly, Edward released the bite, moaning as he tumbled to the floor. He bounced to a stop and curled up into a ball. Then he began to shiver uncontrollably, vomiting black bile.

Cyrus watched as his best friend’s hair turned from black to white and the yellow mark on his back faded to blue.

“Edward!” he screamed.

“You better run while you ssstill can…” the Sea Zombie slurred.

Cyrus stared at Edward, unmoving, so helpless on the ground. Then he looked to Fibian, maimed and bleeding in a heap. Was he even alive? Both had risked their lives for his. He looked to the Sea Zombie. She was injured and weak, but growing stronger with each passing moment.

Cyrus turned and made for the door. With a shaking hand, he grasped the handle and held the door ajar. The stairway led up and away and was clear of any danger. Cyrus craved escape. An image of Niels spiked his thoughts. He shook his head and paused. His breath gusted through his throat. Was he really going to do this? He slammed the door shut. Then he chambered the bolt and locked the room tight.

“I’ve run for the last time,” Cyrus said, “It’s your turn to be afraid.”

Chapter 37

BATHED IN FIRE

 

 

LETTING HIS ANGER DRIVE HIM, Cyrus rounded on the Sea Zombie. He marched over to her, and kicked her to the ground.

“How dare you!” the witch wailed, her poisoned hand shaking uncontrollably.

Cyrus weaved around a table and rack and drew a short-sword from the wall. Again, he looked to Edward and Fibian. Both lay stone still. He walked back to the cowering witch, wringing the handle of the sword. She looked cold and waxy, dripping with sweat. He kicked her in the stomach.

“That’s for my island.”

The witch wheezed and fell to her side. He kicked her in the ribs.

“That’s for Edward.”

Cyrus heard bones crack. Rorroh curled up fetal. He kicked her in the head.

“That’s for Fibian.”

Rorroh’s head snapped back, her costume nose flying across the room. She slumped to the floor, blood dripping from her mouth. Cyrus stood over her like a hunter over game. He lifted her head, exposing her neck.

“And this,” he said, bringing the blade to her throat, “this is for Niels.”

The Sea Zombie clutched his arm with her remaining hand. She squeezed so tight, his wrist snapped. Cyrus cried out, dropping the sword.

“And that is just the beginning,” the witch growled.

She threw an elbow and struck Cyrus in the head. His face exploded in crimson pain. He fell to the ground and grasped his broken nose. Rorroh rose to her full height. With her wooden nose missing, her rotten, boney septum whistled and seeped. Her torn robes draped from one nobly shoulder. She ripped off her sodden rags and threw them aside. Her sagging chest panted with yearning. Her drooping belly billowed and heaved. Her wiry legs rippled and flexed. 

Cyrus struggled to his feet, favoring his broken wrist. Rorroh sprang forward, naked and crazed. She kicked him in the gut. Cyrus flew back over a table, planting on his broken wrist. Lightning pain flashed through his arm. He gasped for air. Rorroh threw the table aside as if it was made of straw. She kicked Cyrus in the mouth. His jaw shattered and his vision flashed white. As he came to, face down in the dust, he tongued his bloody mouth. Two of his teeth were broken. Rorroh stomped down on his ankle, snapping the bone. Cyrus tried to shriek, but had still not recovered his breath.

Rorroh grasped him by the root of his hair and jerked his head up.

“First, I’m going to gut your froskman friend,” she said, brown spittle flying from her lips, “then I’m going to dissect the blodbad spider. And you’re going to watch it all.”

Rorroh released her grip, bouncing Cyrus’ skull off the floor.

“And when you beg to see no more, I’m going to chew out your eyes and leave you for the klappen.”

She walked over to a wooden slab table and began to set out various knives and stained instruments.

Cyrus writhed in agony. He wished for sleep. He wished for darkness. He wanted the pain to stop any way possible.

“You know,” Rorroh said, looking over her humped shoulder, “I can understand the froskman’s betrayal. I was never sure how much hate to put into their souls. Too much and they become arrogant and unruly. A fine trait for a dragon, but not for a deadly spy and assassin. But how you were able to corrupt the blodbad’s way is truly a mystery.”

Cyrus slowly regained his breath. He tried to stand, but his wrist and ankle screamed. With great effort, he looked around. Fibian lay across from him, the short-sword near his side. What was Cyrus going to do? He could not fight.

“Master,” Fibian whispered.

Struggling, Cyrus looked up. Fibian stared at him through blackened slits. How was he talking with a lacerated throat? The froskman coughed up a trickle of blood, then opened his remaining hand. The vial of dragon’s blood rolled out.

Cyrus remembered Drache’s words. All dragon’s blood will give you is a slow, agonizing death. Rorroh turned in their direction. Cyrus swept the vial up off the floor.

“Believe…” Fibian whispered.

Cyrus coughed and twisted in pain.

Rorroh drew a long, slender spike from the table. Then she stalked over, picked the froskman up by the wrist and skewered his remaining hand to a wooden pillar. Fibian did not shriek. He just dangled like a cut of meat, his head lulling.

“Have you ever seen swine gutted and cleaned before?” Rorroh asked, wielding a long, skinny blade.

It was now or never, Cyrus thought. The pain was too much; he was going to faint. He uncorked the vial. The air seemed to snap and the blood within began to glow and boil.

Fibian raised his head

“He is starting to believe.”

Rorroh looked at Fibian, confused, then turned to Cyrus.

“Dragon’s blood? No!”

Cyrus made a small prayer; then, cringing, threw back the elixir. The blood tasted of sugar and kerosene. It seared his mouth. The burning coursed down his throat and into his legs. Cyrus began to seizure and sweat. What was happening? His broken ankle made a cracking noise like a split rock. The agony caused him to convulse and his back snapped. His wrist, nose and jaw too twisted and cracked. Cyrus felt as if he had swallowed molten steel. His skin grew red. He started to tear at his clothes. He let out a throat-ripping scream. Then he emptied his stomach with a violent convulsion. Cyrus was dying. All went black…

Chapter 38

THE SEA ZOMBIE

 

 

DARKNESS. The world was silent. Was this death? Cyrus strained to move. He felt detached from his body. He opened his heavy eyes. He was blind. Then color began to creep in at the edges. He started to hear dripping water. He felt around with his hand. He was lying on cold, solid ground. He looked up. His vision cleared. Rorroh was eyeing him, still as a corpse. Behind her, Fibian still hung by his hand. The froskman had the distinct look of hope on his battered face.

Cyrus rose to his feet. His ankle felt strong. He held his wrist and rolled his fist. The bone had mended as if never broken.

“I survived,” Cyrus said, his jaw whole and his words clear.

“No,” Rorroh cried.

She charged Cyrus like a rabid boar. Cyrus wondered why she moved so slowly. She stabbed at his face with her long, narrow blade. Cyrus easily guided the blow away with his right hand, gripping her shoulder with his left. With his left leg, he swept her feet. She crashed head-first into the wall.

Rorroh scrambled and gained her footing, a large gash over her right eye. She looked at Cyrus, shocked and confused. Or was it fear? She drew a long-sword from the mantle on the wall.

“I’ll split you in two!”

She came at Cyrus swinging the blade with expert timing. Cyrus read her movements as if reading her mind. He picked up his short-sword and stepped back. He ducked the first blow, parried the second and jumped the third. Cyrus was amazed at how easily he could predict her patterns. The sword felt like a feather in his hand. And when he blocked Rorroh’s strikes, they seemed to have no power.

The witch grew frustrated and attempted a brute, overhead swing. Cyrus kicked her in the chest mid-blow and again sent her sprawling to the floor.

“You think you can beat me?” the witch growled, wiping blood from her torn mouth, “You think you can kill me?”

She sprang back to her feet, wielding her long-sword as if she was a whirling tornado. She slashed at Cyrus’ neck.

“Now,” Fibian wheezed.

Cyrus parried the blow, directing its energy downward. Rorroh’s sword bit deep into a wooden table. She wrenched at the handle as if it were a stubborn root. Using his momentum, Cyrus shifted his weight to his rear foot. His blade whistled through space. He hacked into the witch’s wrist, severing her remaining hand.

“NOOOOO!”

Rorroh fell from her sword, black blood jetting from her stump. Cyrus carried his motion into a spinning, backhanded slash. He cleaved through Rorroh’s sinewy neck. Her head spun into the air; then struck the ground, heavy and wet. Blood sprayed the room. The witch’s headless corpse kicked and thrashed at tables and chairs as if fighting off a swarm of wasps. Then it careened into a wall and crumpled into a grey, writhing pile.

Cyrus dropped his sword and stepped back. What had he done? He looked at his hands, his chest. Blood covered. What had come over him? He stared down at the empty vial that had once contained Drache’s blood. He had saved his friend’s lives. He had believed. Fibian was right. The legend was true.

Chapter 39

TINDERBOX

 

 

CYRUS,” FIBIAN WHISPERED.

Cyrus was snapped from his stupor. He shook his head and collected his wits. Then he ran over and lifted Fibian down from the pillar. Fibian was pale and wasted. He clutched his cut throat with his pierced hand. The bleeding seemed to have stopped. Once again, Cyrus asked himself, how was he still alive?

“Your hand,” Cyrus said.

Fibian held his right arm tight to his body, the stump protected beneath his left. He looked to Cyrus, his expression mournful. He shook his head no. The hand was gone.

Cyrus stood stunned, unable to find words. Without Fibian’s sacrifice, they would have been murdered. But the price had been so dear.

Fibian nodded to the ground. Edward. How could Cyrus have forgotten? He helped Fibian over to the spider and collected him off the floor. Edward looked so small, so vulnerable in his palm. Cyrus petted his snow-white fur and felt for life.

“He is very strong,” Fibian whispered, “He may live.”

Cyrus looked about the room.

“We can’t stay here.”

He made for the secret door in the back.

“No,” Fibian said, “There is a boat.”

“Where?”

The froskman motioned in the opposite direction.

“When the klappen first delivered me to Rorroh, I saw it as she carried me here.”

The three moved towards the stairway. What klappen ambush awaited them, Cyrus wondered? He collected his knife off the ground and unlocked the bolt.

He kicked the door open. Dust and soot swirled in the candlelight. The three ascended the stairs and arrived on the top step, in the center of the chamber. Cyrus looked about, ready to strike. Torchlight illuminated several statue-still klappen. They stared at the intruders blank faced. Then they looked beyond, down the stairway, at their mistress laying in pieces on the floor. The klappen hissed. The hiss turned into a whimper. They fell to their hands and knees, pressing their foreheads to the flagstone. Then they crawled away from Cyrus as if he were pure sunlight. Cyrus felt his chest swell.

With his arm around Fibian’s midsection, Cyrus carried the froskman and Edward to the double doors. Again, he drove his boot against the timbers. The doors crashed open. The two klappen he had locked out were standing beyond the threshold. They stared at Cyrus, wide-eyed. Then they saw their kin within groveling in the dust. The creatures looked at each other, then to the floor. They let out shrill warning cries and fled off in the direction of the upper chambers.

“This way,” Fibian said, gesturing left.

Cyrus carried the two further down the hall and arrived at another twisting stairway. Deeper and deeper the trespassers plunged. Torchlights flickered weakly on the walls. Many had burnt out leaving most of the broken steps hidden in shadow. Fibian shone his eyes bright. Cyrus pried one of the torches off the wall. Every fifty steps or so they met a landing. There, a passageway would delve into darkness, leading to some deep, dark corner of the castle.

Cyrus heard a klappen, maybe two, scrabbling and clicking around a stairway bend. They must have heard the newcomers. They emitted small squeals and fled further down the stairs.

The air grew salty and chill. Cyrus sensed what he thought was a large body of water. The stairway concluded at a final landing, which led to a narrow tunnel. Cyrus and Fibian ducked as they navigated the passage. The tunnel emptied out into a cold, cavernous chamber. Cyrus’ torch and Fibian’s eyes fought in vain to beat back the surrounding murk. Lapping waves and drizzling runoffs echoed about the cave. Fibian motioned to a large, rusted lever on a nearby stone wall. Cyrus reached out, and with great effort, pulled down the salt grimy handle.

A great KU-CHUNK! thundered about the room.

What sounded like large chains rattling and gears grinding rumbled to life. Then a long sliver of daylight began to grow out of the darkness. Understanding struck Cyrus like a rock. He knew where they were. They were on the other side of the hulking, steel door. The one they had sailed past when they had discovered the cove, the castle and Rorroh’s ship.

The steel barrier raised high overhead, long ribbons of water streaming off its rusted, barnacled exterior. Daylight washed in, illuminating the cave. Cyrus and Fibian were standing on a stone landing. The retreating tide lapped at the landing and clapped against the walls. Several feet away, two klappen cowered on the landing’s edge. They had been hiding in the darkness. Now exposed, they leapt high onto the stone walls and fled into the ceiling’s stalactites. As the door retreated further into the air, daylight advanced unhindered, exposing the depth of the huge cavern.

Cyrus gasped. At the center of the cave floated a large, sailing ship. It was old, salt stained and rusted, but it was also beautiful. It was about sixty feet long with dual masts webbed in a network of sails, ropes and pulleys. Its hull was wide and deep and a young mermaid had been carved into its bow.

“There is a skiff,” Fibian whispered, nodding to the edge of the landing.

Cyrus moved towards the water. An eroded, steel ladder mounted to the landing’s side led several feet down to the sea. Tied to the ladder was a seven-foot long skiff. The water looked cold, dark and very, very deep.

“I can manage,” Fibian said, “You first, Master Cyrus.

With Edward in his shirt pocket, Cyrus began to climb down. Muscles and barnacles encrusted the rungs. Awkwardly, Fibian followed. Cyrus boarded the craft on wobbly legs. He reached up to help Fibian. The climb proved too much. The froskman slipped near the bottom. Cyrus tried to catch him, but both fell to the floor.

The rest of the crossing passed without incident. Cyrus tied a rope around Fibian’s waist and helped him climb the sailing ship’s mesh ladder. Then Cyrus laid Fibian down to rest on a folded sail next to the foremast. The vessel was suspended in the middle of the cave by three horizontal lines. Cyrus guessed the moorings kept the ship from drifting on the tide. He cut the stern line first. Another clicking of gears roared to life. Like a bowstring, the two bowlines began to slowly propel the vessel out to sea. Cyrus immediately understood. This is how they launched their crafts without wind or oar. He ran to the bow and waited until the ship had nearly reached the door. He cut the starboard line first, followed by the port. The vessel continued its course driven by momentum and the retreating tide.

“Rorroh’s ship,” Fibian whispered, “It must be sunk.”

“Why?” Cyrus asked, “She’s dead.”

Fibian shook his head.

“You cannot kill that which does not live.”

Cyrus grew cold and sweaty. He looked back, towards the tunnel they had just escaped. Then he inspected the deck for something to sink a ship. He found coils of rope, un-scrubbed deck boards, the ship’s tiller, but no weapons. He ventured within the small cabin at the stern of the vessel. The space was dusty and cornered with cobwebs. He searched a table nook, shelves and several cabinets. On a grimy windowsill, he found an oil lamp and tinderbox. Careful not to ignite the room, Cyrus used flint and steel to light the tinder. Then he lit a match on the tinder and ignited the lamp. He walked back to Fibian.

“This might work.”

The vessel passed through the towering threshold, the mast barely clearing the door. The black ship still rested within the harbor, awaiting its master. Cyrus manned the tiller and steered the drifting craft closer to Rorroh’s. He grasped the lantern and climbed up on the gunwale, holding the ship’s rigging for support. Both vessels were similar in height. Cyrus waited until he passed near the very cabin in which Rorroh had drugged him. He remembered all the salves and elixirs kept in her small galley. Some of them must be flammable, he hoped.

He cast the lamp through the cabin window, shattering the glass. The escaping vessel drifted past, further out to sea. Cyrus stared back at the black ship. Nothing. They continued on through the narrow waterway, flanked by towering cliffs. Would they have to go back? They sailed beyond the cliffs, out into open water. Rorroh’s boat still floated unharmed. Cyrus had been too rash, too reckless. He had to sink that ship. He peered back one last time.

“Fibian, do you see that?”

He looked to the froskman. Fibian had passed out on the sail. Cyrus looked back, squinting. A thread of grey seemed to issue from the black ship. Was that smoke? He needed a closer look.

Cyrus saw the explosion before he heard it. The side of the ship’s hull blew out as if struck by cannon fire. Then a great, KA-BOOM! echoed over the sea. Fire spewed out the port side hole. The ship was burning.

Chapter 40

THE END?

 

 

CYRUSBODY SAGGED with relief. The vessel began to take on water. Great clouds of raging steam swirled and wound with the black smoke. Cyrus breathed deep. They would not have to turn back, and Rorroh could not follow them.

He watched for a long time as the boat burned, slowly slipping deeper and deeper beneath the sea.

He could not believe he had done it. Somehow Fibian had been right. Cyrus had defeated the Sea Zombie. He could never have done it alone, but he had done it.

He thought of his home. He thought of his brother Niels, of Sarah. He missed them so much. He thought of his stepmother and Hoblkalf. He pictured the villagers. They had caused the island to cave in, and had blamed him for it. They had run him off, tried to murder him. But was it really their fault? By Rorroh’s own admission, wasn’t she truly to blame? Was it not she who had first murdered the very giant his people had called home? Was it not she, all those generations ago, that had haunted and terrorized his people, confused and disfigured their past, made them petty and weak?

Cyrus had been chased from his own home. He had been run off, right into Rorroh’s child-eating grasp. If it had not been for Fibian, he and Edward would surely be dead.

But they had not died. They had escaped, escaped to a once two-headed dragon. They had made a deal with the beast. If the dragon would fly them north to the Yeti Kingdom, Cyrus and company would rid the seas of Rorroh’s tyranny.

It had been a fool’s bargain, and in the end, they had been double-crossed. Instead of being taken to the safety of the yeti, they had been dropped in hostile territory, surrounded by the blood sucking klappen. And to make things worse, Cyrus and Edward had lost their leader. The only one who knew what to do, the one that had taught them everything, gone, captured by those vile creatures.

But somehow, Cyrus and Edward had discovered the klappen’s lair. And somehow, even after learning of Rorroh’s presence, they had found the courage to go in after their friend. And Fibian had been right. Not only did the dragon’s blood not kill Cyrus, it saved his life. When all hope was lost, it mended his broken body. It gave him strength beyond any he could imagine. He had fought Rorroh hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye, and he had taken her head…

He thought of his broken bones and felt his nose. What had once been narrow and straight felt jagged and scarred. His nose had healed, but would forever be marked. A small price to pay compared to what Fibian had lost.

And what of Edward? Edward had thrown himself at the witch and attacked her without fear or mercy. Cyrus drew the small spider from his pocket. He stroked the blue skull-and-crossbones marked across his now white fur. Would he live? Would he ever be the same?

Cyrus thought of Rorroh, lying in pieces on the floor of that savage torture chamber. According to Fibian, she was not dead; could not be killed. That meant she was coming; would never stop coming, until Cyrus’ people were enslaved in her soulless hell.

Cyrus gritted his teeth and felt a low ache in his mended jaw. He would die before he let that happen. He would give every last piece of himself before he let Rorroh take another life from him.

Cyrus walked to the mast, untied the rigging and set the mainsail. They were heading out into the North Sea. They would weather whatever the winter sea could throw at them. They were going in search of the Yeti Kingdom, the giant hune, and they were going to rescue Cyrus’ people. And if Rorroh got in their way, he would cut her up into so many tiny pieces that even the Angel King would not be able to make her whole.

There was only one problem with Cyrus’ plan. He did not know how far the Sea Zombie’s crippled grasp reached, did not know how far her lies and curses had traveled on the wind. For if he did, maybe, just maybe, he would have chosen a different path by which to find their wayward hune. Instead, Cyrus had set a course for sure disaster, and Rorroh’s vengeance grew ever near.

THE END

    FOR NOW

 

 

 http://www.jeremymathiesen.com/sneak-peek/

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

Jeremy Mathiesen has been a professional computer animator for nineteen years, working on cartoons such as Mainframe Entertainment’s ReBoot, Transformers and War Planets. It was in working with Mainframe’s scriptwriters and directors that he learned much of his foundation in storytelling. He is also a member of the West End Writer’s group, as well as the Western Canadian Children’s Writers Group.

Jeremy lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with his lovely wife and beautiful children. 

http://www.jeremymathiesen.com/


Cyrus LongBones and the Curse of the Sea Zombie

Stealing into forbidden territory, sixteen-year-old Cyrus LongBones discovers that his small island is in fact a giant, fossilized turtle shell. With his village’s obsession of working the earth, the skeleton collapses in on itself, killing Cyrus’ brother and destroying his village. Forced into action, Cyrus is the first of his kind to leave his land and sail out to sea in search of a new home. Little does he know that a creature known as the Sea Zombie is at the root of his brother’s death and his people’s oppression.

  • ISBN: 9781775091820
  • Author: Jeremy Mathiesen
  • Published: 2017-08-23 09:22:28
  • Words: 52543
Cyrus LongBones and the Curse of the Sea Zombie Cyrus LongBones and the Curse of the Sea Zombie