by Christopher D. Carter, © 2014
Text and Illustration Copyright © 2014 Christopher D. Carter
All Rights Reserved
Also by Christopher D. Carter available at ebook retailers:
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 1
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 2
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 3
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 4
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 5
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 6
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 7
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 8
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 9
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 10
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 11
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 1
Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 2
Discover other titles by Christopher D. Carter at
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Table of Contents
The Queenmother grinned her wicked smile from the silky covers of the wooden sleigh bed, and Pound hesitated as she motioned enticingly with her index finger for him to join her. He resisted with all of his willpower, but he found that her wicked spells were more powerful than his own ability to repel them. In the end, he felt his feet stir, and his knees wobbled. With the sliding of one foot at a time, Pound slowly and agonizingly eased across the room against his will, and he feared that he was to be her next victim. He remembered from his dreams how she had tossed aside the dwarf’s love for the appeal of power, and his stomach began to turn even as his feet carried him to her bed for her consumption. The Queenmother’s appetite was for destruction, and Pound knew that as soon as she finished using him for her needs, she would toss him aside, maybe to live, maybe to die.
“And what was she now,” he thought to himself as she slid back the covers and waited for him to join her. From the visions that he had been shown, she had been transformed into something quite scandalous by the demon, though she bore the outer appearance of the beautiful young princess that had fought to rescue her father from the dragon’s fire. Carried by the appetite of her monstrous will, Pound neared the edge of the bed, and involuntarily, Pound’s hand reached down to rest upon the silky sheets of the mattress. It was then that he found the inner strength to blurt out his protest in desperation.
“Queenmother, you are no beauty! Your heart beats with death’s throes, and the demon that cursed you to this shell of existence mocks you in his laughter!” Pound said as he verbally attacked the very core of her being. Believing that his outburst would at least affect her desires, he was surprised to find that he was still being drawn into her bed.
“You humans are all the same,” she laughed as she drew the covers back to make room for him. “You believe that you can change your future by cursing your betters. Insult and swear all that you like, human. I have seen the power which you wield, and my children shall bear it as well,” she said as Pound reluctantly raised his leg and placed his knee upon the bed. Using all of his remaining strength of will, Pound managed to reverse the motion of his movements, and he stumbled backwards to the floor. The Queenmother peered at him from over the edge of the bed, and she giggled to herself at his plight.
“Let me go, Queenmother. I have seen all that you have endured, and I pity your position in life,” Pound reasoned. “But taking me for your mate will not bring back your father.” The Queenmother’s eyes suddenly sparked with the passing of these words, and a look of anger grew where her shallow grin had once been.
“What are you talking about, peasant?!” she demanded as she sat up in the bed and drew the covers over her bare skin.
“I was shown a vision, my lady, a vision of you in your youth. And in the vision, your father had been taken captive by the giants during a raid of their castle,” Pound said as he described what he had been shown, and the Queenmother listened to his story with interest. “I witnessed your deep love for your father, and I know that you did everything in your power to save his life from the giants,” Pound continued, though he left out her careless actions that had led to her father’s untimely demise in the dragon’s fire. His hope was that he could find some constructive way of communicating with her, and then maybe he could charm his way out of her clutches. After all, he had only his wits to bail him out now since Shad was nowhere to be found.
“You are very discerning then, my sweet tart,” she said as she turned her head away to glance at something behind her. Restricted by her spell, Pound could not see what it was that she was looking at, but perhaps it was nothing of importance. Maybe this was her way of being introspective. “If I could have had the assistance of the king’s court, their knowledge and their foresight, then I would have been warned of the trickery of the giants before the dragon burned their castle to the ground,” she said as she rubbed her fingers across her eyelashes. “I will carry that regret to the end of my days, but rest assured, my father’s advisors carried it to their own graves,” she said as she licked her lips with disdain. Whatever had happened to the royal advisors, Pound could only guess the answer from her facial expressions because the Queenmother was not going to elaborate on it. Still, Pound wanted to know, and discretion sometimes was not his strongest suit.
“So where are the king’s advisors,” Pound asked, and the Queenmother followed up with a glare in his general direction.
“You will learn this of me, human,” she said in her smug tone. “The royal court was here to serve me, and they have been served.” Pound did not like the sound of that, and though he had very little control over his motor skills, he could still think for himself and read between the lines.
“Your majesty, I meant no disrespect. I am new to your realm, and I wish only to ask for the release of the slaves within the mines,” he requested as he lay there on the floor. “If you can find it in your heart, my lady,” he added for good measure. It seemed the simplest request, and since she was so powerful, he reasoned that she really had very little need for their service. In his time within her chambers, he actually had not seen any servants whatsoever, and so beyond digging for gold, the slaves appeared to serve no tangible service to her.
“You know at first glance, you are an attractive man,” she said as she placed one wicked finger to her lips. “But the more words that spout from your lips, the more unattractive you become.” With her finger raised high above her head in a spell, a pillowcase on the bed unwound itself from its pillow, and the fabric crawled across the bed to the edge of the mattress. With one end lifted, the silky material danced with the motion of her fingertips, moving like a snake from a wicker basket. The pillowcase hissed once, and when the Queenmother thrust her hand forward, the fabric leapt from the bed and wrapped its body around Pound’s mouth and neck. Gagged and bound, Pound could no longer ask any more of the irritating questions of her majesty, and she breathed a sigh of relief at his condition. “Now that is much better,” she said as she leaned forward over the edge of the bed and smiled. “Now, we have business to attend to, advisor. And if you serve me well, I may let you live.”
Shad stood outside of the Queenmother’s bedroom, steaming in jealousy at the thought of Pound bedding her. Though he knew in his heart that Pound was under her spell, he was still having trouble pressing the emotions down from the surface.
“After all,” he thought, “haven’t I been a good steward and brought him here to her lair. Isn’t that what is expected of me?!” he raged as he slammed his fist into his open palm. But with the other side of his mind, he wondered how could he blame Pound for what she was doing? Wasn’t she ultimately responsible for what was happening?
Shad shook his head in disgust and plopped down against the castle wall. With both hands behind his head, he closed his eyes and thought back to his childhood. The princess had been quite demanding as a child, and even though she had played with Shad and Sean, she had never really been close to anyone save her father. Since the king was not around to control her desires, Shad would have to accept the fact that he himself had created a family with a promiscuous woman. There were consequences to his poor choices, and this was one of them.
“I wonder. If I popped into the room, would the process stop itself?” he wondered as his mind shifted from analyzing the problem to overcoming the problem. “Or would I interrupt something that I would never be able to get out of my mind?” Shad had no idea what he would encounter if he entered the room unannounced, but his jealousy for the Queenmother’s affections had clouded his thoughts, and there was no way that he could stop himself from entering. With a snap of his fingers, Shad vaporized into a cloud of dust and arrived almost instantaneously in a dark corner of the royal bedroom. To his surprise, he found that the Queenmother was alone on the bed, covered in a blanket and staring down at the floor. Afraid of being discovered, Shad crouched down in the corner behind a table, and he watched as the Queenmother beckoned Pound to lay by her side. As the events unfolded, Shad noticed that an unusual glow was emanating from a covered object on a nearby tabletop. It was about the size of a small lamp and was covered with a black fabric, and a dim light came from beneath the cloth as it sat alone on the counter. Curiosity gained the better of him, and he kept one watchful eye on the Queenmother as he snuck closer to the edge of the table. Preoccupied with her newest conquest, the Queenmother failed to notice the dwarf as he crept around the corner of the table and out into the open. With one hand, he lifted the fabric from the object, and he found himself staring intently at a radiant statue of a child. Immediately, he recognized the Soul of the Mountain, and Shad snatched the precious stone and disappeared from the bedroom while the Queenmother was distracted by Pound’s resistance to her charms.
In an instant, Shad found himself alone at the top of a stairwell deep within the royal palace, and he gently placed the artifact against the wall. Another blink of his eyes came, and the dwarf found himself back inside the royal bedroom where Pound still struggled against the Queenmother’s desires. Knowing what he must do, Shad leapt over the bed and wrapped the lady inside her blanket. Then he tackled Pound to the floor, and they both disappeared before the Queenmother could catch sight of him teleporting. In the next instant, Pound found himself freed from the selfish spell of the Queenmother, and he quickly thanked Shad for saving him from her powerful influence.
“Don’t be thanking me yet, laddie! We’ve far to go before we’re free of the witch!” the dwarf instructed Pound, and he bent down to retrieve the child of stone. “The steps lead down to the mines. Follow them down and take this with you,” he said as he handed the glowing artifact to Pound. Pound accepted the gift, though he was unsure of the stone’s significance. “Keep quiet as you go, and when you get to the bottom, keep the Soul of the Mountain safe from Prince Argentine. The Queenmother is going to be one pissed off sorceress when she finds out you’ve taken it from her.”
“I didn’t take it from her, dude! You did!” Pound exclaimed and shoved the statue back at the dwarf.
“Aye, but if you want to get back to your world, you’re going to need it more than she will,” Shad explained with a grin and pushed the statue gently against Pound’s chest.
“Great!” Pound said to himself as he took the dwarf’s advice. He tucked the statue in the cradle of his arm and bolted down the well of stairs. He had only gone a dozen steps when he realized that Shad was making no effort to join him. “What are you waiting for?” he asked the dwarf. Shad shook his head and waved him on.
“Oh, I’ll be along in a little bit, but don’t wait up for me,” he said as he nervously scratched his chin. The only light Pound had in the darkness came from the stone statue, and Shad watched as he disappeared down into the darkness of the mine.
The Queenmother unraveled the blanket that had covered her head, and to her great displeasure, the man was gone.
“Where are you, little one?” she playfully asked as she placed her bare feet on the cold stone floor. There was no answer, and so she knelt down by the bed and looked underneath to see if he was hiding down there. “No,” she said to herself, and that was when she caught sight of the bare surface of the corner table. Standing to her feet, she marched over the bed as if it were not there and franticly searched for the missing stone. When she could not find it anywhere in the room, she cursed at her luck, and her eyes blazed with anger.
“Shaddd!!!!” she screamed aloud, and the surface of her skin began to bubble beneath the superficial layers of epidermis as she clinched her fists. Her former lover then appeared on the bed from thin air, lying down on the disheveled blankets with his head propped upon his palm.
“You rang, my lady?” he answered with a wink and a smile.
“What have you done with the stone?!” she yelled. It was not her custom to hold back her temper with underlings, and she certainly would not break tradition for this dwarf. Her skin began to change to a deep red with her rage.
“Oh, that little trinket?” he asked innocently. “Why would you care about the Soul of the Mountain? Isn’t it more important where the human is, hmm?” Long hairs popped out of her skin and grew across her back with the rise of her anger, and the Queenmother paced determinedly toward the bed. “It has been a long time since we shared our time together here,” Shad chided as he patted his hand on the bed. Her skin ripped open, and the beast within burst out of the thin layer of dermis like a jack-in-the-box toward the dwarf. Shad snapped his fingers and disappeared as the red and black exoskeleton of the velvet ant tore across the soft blankets of the bed. The mandibles churned and the antennae flicked back and forth as she searched the room for traces of the dwarf and the man, but there were none to be found. Only the lust of her wicked heart for the Soul of the Mountain remained, and that alone was enough to drive her insane. It proved to be a very short ride.
Pound slowly wound the stairs around the inner wall of the well, and he found that the dim glow from the Soul of the Mountain shed just enough light to see about three steps ahead in the path. For the first time in several days, Pound actually felt as if he had a legitimate chance at escaping this world of giant birds, enormous bugs, and magical people, and he had no one else to blame this positive turn of events on except Shad. The moody dwarf had proven to be a difficult companion on their journey through the dead forest to the fortress in the mountainside, but as it turned out, the little fellow had enabled Pound’s escape from the Queenmother into the stairwell where he found himself on this dark path to the mine. Based on the previous events, the dwarf’s actions against the Queenmother did not seem to line up squarely with Pound’s expectations. The more Pound looked at the bleakness of his surroundings, the more he thought over the apparent rescue. The longer he wandered through the empty mineshaft alone, the more he began to wonder: had he indeed been rescued by the dwarf because of the dwarf’s good intentions? It was true after all, the Queenmother had special plans for Pound that involved her forcing him to help her bear more children, and it was also true that Shad had fathered some of her children, including Argentine.
Pound stopped in his tracks and looked upward to where he had climbed down from for a moment as he thought to himself more deeply about what was going on. Was it possible that Shad had helped him out of pure jealousy? Or did the dwarf really want to help the slaves of the mine to escape? The answer to the former question seemed likely to be yes, and based on the dwarf’s surly demeanor, the answer to the latter question was likely no.
“So why should I trust him?” Pound queried himself as he looked down at the child of stone that glowed in his arms. Maybe he couldn’t trust Shad? Maybe then he should go back up the steps and fight the Queenmother face to face. That would truly be an insane move on his part. She had successfully paralyzed him and rendered him no more than a slave to her lesser desires. The outcome would be certain. If he were to face her in battle, he would undoubtedly lose. Pound shook his head in aggravation at the complexity of the situation that he had stumbled upon, and he decided that whether he could trust the dwarf’s intervention or not, he had to go with his gut feeling and continue heading downward into the mines.
It was too much to think about, and maybe there was some unanticipated bit of luck that waited for him when he reached the entrance to the mine, he thought as he held on tight to the Soul of the Mountain. Taking the next step down, his foot slipped on some loose dirt, and he immediately crouched down to steady himself from a fall. His momentum slowed as he slid uncontrollably down two more steps, but his grip on the Soul loosened just enough in the process that the child of stone slipped from his hands to tumble further down the steps. Before the darkness caved in around him, Pound watched helplessly as the Soul pinged off the corner of a step and plummeted down the center of the well.
“Crap, it’s a long way down,” he thought as he saw it bounce along on the bottom of the shaft. An instant later, the echo of the artifact’s rebound reached him, and he cursed his luck under his breath as the unforgiving hard angles of the stone steps pressed into his back.
Shad appeared behind one of the great curtains that hung down the full height of the throne room, and he held his breath as he listened quietly for any evidence that the Queenmother would return for him. He counted to one hundred behind the curtains and still there was no sound of the monster that he could detect. He knelt down on one knee and stuck his face next to the surface of the floor, and looking beneath the fringes of the drapes for the giant ant, he saw nothing besides the bottom of the throne. Dissatisfied with the limited view that was offered, Shad stood up to his feet and leaned his face forward to peek around the edge of the hanging fabric. With one eye, he peered around the voluminous room, and to his surprise, there was no indication that the colossal insect had ever entered the room. Shad stepped out from behind the curtain and began to tiptoe quietly toward the columned exit when he heard the sound of mandibles grinding. With a gulp of dread, Shad stopped in his footsteps and slowly angled his head back to take in the setting. Perched atop the throne, there stood a six-legged monster. The exoskeleton was colored in black and red hair, and its mouth salivated between the oscillations of her hardened jaws. Shad froze in terror at the horrible sight of his former lover, and his life was mercifully ended before she devoured him.
Walking by faith and not by sight, Pound inched his way down along the inner wall of the stairwell. Though the darkness had never blocked his ability to listen to his surroundings, it seemed that his sense of hearing had been heightened once his vision had been rendered useless. There was a steady drip of liquid that he had failed to notice before, and he felt the cool spring of water chilling his ankles as he stepped into the puddle. He leaned over and cupped his hands to drink a mouthful of the fresh water, and he felt instantly refreshed. After several more handfuls, his thirst was quenched, and he was rejuvenated. He said a prayer and thanked the heavens that he was still alive.
Crouching down on his knees, he felt his way along the steps and continued to descend the great height of the vertical shaft until he heard the scraping of a stone block moving somewhere high above. A faint light broke through into the chamber, not bright enough to help him see his surroundings, but just bright enough to irritate his maladjusted eyes. With his hand covering his eyes, he looked up to try to catch a glimpse of what was happening above, and he saw something very large step out into the mine shaft. From his vantage point, he could not determine what the creature was, but he could hear it growling and knew that it was not friendly. Pound stood up and leaned with his back against the wall. Picking up the pace, he then began stepping sideways down the steps to make better time, but in his hastiness, he created a louder racket that echoed up to the ears of the intruder. The Queenmother’s antennae danced with the noise that sounded from below, and she knew that she had found her quarry. When she had caught him, she would take him back to her lair and decide what to do with him there.
Once Pound had gotten the hang of stair climbing in the dark, he found that he was moving fast enough to stay ahead of the beast that lingered above, and the dim light of the Soul of the Mountain came into view at the final turn of every revolution. He imagined the steps in his mind, and he saw himself going in circles in his mind’s eye. At first, this was helpful in speeding his travel, but then his imagination got the better of him. When he realized that he was traveling in a circular motion, his head became woozy, and he stopped for a second to stretch his neck and relieve the tension. He felt better for a moment until the wave of vertigo hit him like a freight train, and he stumbled forward and lost his footing. In his unfortunate descent, he reached out his hands and luckily caught the gritty edge of the steps with his fingertips. Gripping desperately onto the side of the stone staircase, Pound dangled high above the ground in the center of the well, and he yelped out involuntarily in fear at his misfortune. Thoughts of his young life flashed before his eyes as he hung there suspended in space, and he felt that he was not ready to die so helplessly in this foreign world. With a burst of strength, Pound pulled his chin up over the edge and then kicked his foot out toward the staircase. He missed the first time as his toes kicked the bottom of the step, but he steadily swung his body back up again for a second try. This time, his heel landed on the flat of a step, and he used the added leverage to plop his ribs onto the hard edge of a stair. Though it bruised his midsection, Pound was thankful to be on a solid surface again, and he hesitated only for a moment as he rocked to his feet and started moving quickly down the steps once more. Pound listened with dread as the many footsteps of the antlike creature grew nearer. He was desperate to move quicker, yet short of falling to his doom, there was nothing that he could do to go any faster to the bottom. His heart pounded in his head as he kept moving, and when the glossy skin of the exoskeleton passed by him along the wall above, he knew that his time was coming to a close. Closing his eyes, he held his breath and waited there on the steps for the creature to find him. The squeak of leg joints bending in a rapid motion back and forth made him tremble with anticipation as the insect descended the long staircase, and Pound came upon a crossroads in his own mind.
Would he give up and be conquered by the creature, or would he fight?
The answer had been there all along, buried beneath the thin, frail skin of his human body, and the anger that came with the determination to survive welled up in his bones. He had made his choice, and without further hesitation, Pound knelt down to the floor of the steps to feel for a clean, solid surface with his fingertips. Then he gently placed one leg over the side of the step into nothingness and let himself drop down until all of the tension of his weight rested on his fingertips. He slowed the thoughts of fear in his mind by controlling his breathing, in and out, in and out. The Queenmother swirled around the steps, and the many feet carrying her huge exoskeleton stepped past the empty stair where Pound dangled over empty darkness. The behemoth’s many feet clicked by without so much as touching his fingertips, rounded the curve, and then approached him once again on the next level below. Pound carefully raised his knees in a ninety degree angle to his abdomen, and waited for the creature to clear the bend and pass him by entirely. He thought that he had outsmarted his opponent quite well, and he swung one foot up onto the nearest step while the other foot remained pointed downward. An antenna from below reached out and caressed his ankle, and Pound froze in place above the velvet ant.
“Ah, you are quite clever, human. Wait for me here, and when this is all over, you will father more children for me,” she slathered the words out between her mighty mandibles. Pound cringed at the awful thought as he sagged on the side of the staircase. He would not be able to escape this beast without any plant life around to call on for help, and he knew that his fate would be sealed if he allowed her to win this small battle. So Pound did what he thought he should do. He swung out parallel to the floor, and he let go. Before he could blink, he felt the antennae rise between his hands, and his body landed with a thud on her hairy back. With the antennae still in his grip, he rolled over, placed his feet squarely on the wall, and shoved desperately with all of his might. Pound acted so quickly that the Queenmother lost her grip on the stairs and tumbled over the side, taking Pound with her as he swung out over the edge with her appendages still in his hands. The fall seemed to take forever, and Pound wrapped his legs around her midsection in hopes that he would land on her body and not vice versa. An altogether risky move, but as it turned out, the Queenmother struck ground first, and Pound’s body bounced on the springy hairs that protruded from her back. He held on tight to the antennae at first, and the resultant momentum of the bounce carried him in an arc over her head where he was forced to release her and to land on his feet. Pound stumbled forward into the curved wall with a thud, and he felt the cracking of bone as his wrist bore the load of the devastating impact.
“AHHH!” he screamed out as the pain shot through his arm and up into his neck. Pound fell to the floor and cradled the injured arm as he acclimated to the dim light of his surroundings. Fortunately for him, the Queenmother lay stunned upon the hard floor, and he was thankful that he had a moment to gather his wits.
“Could have been worse,” he said as he stood to his feet and rubbed his sore wrist with a grimace. His eyes were drawn to the light, and he knew that there was little time to act. He swooped over to where the artifact lay on the floor, and he picked it up to cradle it with his good arm. Then he scanned the area for an exit and saw a stone door that separated the stairwell from the mines. There was one significant problem that remained. The door lay behind the stunned body of the Queenmother. With a flicker of movement, her antennae trembled, and her body began to quiver with signs of life as he looked on.
“That’s unfortunate,” he said to himself as the Queenmother’s limbs twitched with vitality. She was awakening, and there was little time left to act. Risking capture, he climbed over her stunned body and positioned himself between her exoskeleton and the wall, and then with a shove of his feet, he forced her mass away from the door. With his one good hand securely on the handle, Pound leaned his body weight outward for leverage, and the door made a scraping noise as it budged a quarter of an inch. Pound stopped pulling once to examine the progress of the new crack in the seam of the wall, but he had little time left to dally. The Queenmother’s legs had become still and firm, and her breathing had increased in strength. With his fingertips, he felt along the seam for any obstructions, but to his disbelief, there were none that he could see.
“Of all the times to have door issues, this is the worst,” he said to himself as he tried to keep calm. As suddenly as the heavy breathing behind him had started, it quickly ended, and there was an unhealthy silence within the cavern. The familiar creaking of exoskeleton joints returned, and Pound knew that the sand in the hourglass had run out. He swung his head around and found his nose, just inches from the head of the giant insect. The antennae on her head reached out and caressed the fragile jawbones of his face.
“Silly human, try pushing next time instead,” the Queenmother instructed Pound as she reached out two of her arms to snatch him and pull him closer.
“What?! Idiot!” Pound mumbled to himself as the words of advice registered in his mind. Throwing a wild uppercut at the Queenmother with the Soul of the Mountain as a club, Pound struck the insect lady under the chin and knocked her head upward. He then kicked the door with his foot, and the door of stone eased forward and opened into the cavern beyond the boundaries of the well. “Thanks for the advice,” he said smugly and bolted through the door to find himself in an open cavity in the mountain, suspended on a ledge high above the workers that labored beneath. To his dismay, there were no steps leading downward. There was only an open square hole in the floor that resembled an opening to an elevator shaft. The Queenmother’s bulky body then filled the opening of the doorway as she approached, and Pound sidestepped around the square elevator hole in an effort to keep the opening in the floor between himself and his pursuer.
“Welcome to my underworld!” she jeered with a laugh. Then she closed the door behind her and trapped him on the ledge.
Crush had his hands full leading the prisoners from the castle of the giants through Ecklebee Forest to the mountain. The people appreciated their newfound freedom, but Crush was no politician, and there was hunger and sleep to manage. His first method of dealing with their concerns was to explain how he was taking them all to the mines where they would be free, and this idea went over like a lead balloon. The former prisoners knew full well what going to the mines meant, and though he had led them to freedom from the castle of the giants, only a handful of the prisoners were willing to follow Crush on his return to the mines. He tried every explanation that he could, and still the disbelieving crowd was unwilling to travel to the mountain as a whole. To his dismay, several of the respected leaders within the group revolted that first night and led seventy-five percent of the former prisoners out into the forest, never to be seen by Crush again.
“Enjoy your freedom, and I wish you only the best,” Crush had said to them as he waved goodbye to the rebelling majority. The departing leaders uttered curses at him and mocked the twenty-five percent that stayed behind to follow him.
“There is only death and destruction awaiting you in the mountain, fools!” the disenchanted group jeered as they walked away from Crush. The malcoons refused to leave Crush’s governance, a mercy for which he was thankful. Crush’s outer appearance betrayed his age, and he wisely made a plea with the monkeys of the forest. Calling out into the wood in their foreign tongue, he summoned the simians for a small assembly, and from there, he requested their aid in watching over the departing freed peoples as the fires and smoke of the seized giant castle rose high into the darkened sky. The monkeys indicated that there was enough room in the forest for the people to live as well, and so they agreed to help them with food along their journey. At the end of the meeting, Crush also called for assistance for the small remainder of people that stayed with him. The monkeys took pity on the freed people and concurred with his wishes. Sending scouts into the forest to reconnoiter with their kinfolk, the monkeys returned with enough food and water for the last stage of their journey to the mountain. Crush thanked the monkeys for their aid, and he bowed to them as they departed. Following his lead, several of the members of Crush’s new tribe bowed in respect as well, and the monkeys signaled their farewell.
A dragon’s roar bellowed out into the night and echoed into the forest, sending chills down Crush’s spine. With the late night governing convened and the dragon’s tooth by his side, Crush was anxious to continue on their way to the mines. The last thing that he wanted to have happen was to be caught by the dragon in the woods with the extracted tooth. He feared the outcome of that scenario, and so he led the people onward through the night. As he rode the malcoon over the brush and alongside the edge of the mountain, Crush hummed “Amazing Grace” to himself for comfort.
“What are you singing?” asked a voice that rode further behind him. Crush turned to find a little girl had taken interest in his song.
“It’s a song of thanks,” he replied with a smile and turned his attention to the journey.
“Oh. Can you teach it to me?” she asked innocently.
“I suppose. But may I ask you why?” Crush replied.
“We have songs of thanks, but I would like to sing yours,” she answered honestly. Crush found himself touched by the sincerity of her answer, and he spent the rest of the night teaching the song to her.
As dawn approached, the malcoons had patiently carried them around the untraveled parts of the forest that surrounded the mountain to a break in the timberland which bordered on a field. Crush signaled the malcoons to stop for a few moments while he inspected the way ahead. Scouting alone, Crush snuck through the brush from tree to tree, and when he had reached the border of the woodland, he crouched down low behind the cover of a large tree. Scanning the field, he watched the tall grass mesmerizingly wave in the wind, and he noted that the path was clear all the way to the top of the ridge which rose steadily up to the mountainside. Using his catlike vision, he discerned that there were two kilted guards standing watch at the point where the ridge intercepted the base of the mountain, and he looked on curiously as they endured their dreary assignment with much boredom. Crush recalled where he was, and it seemed that he had come full circle in his travels to arrive once again at the entrance to the mine.
Overhead, Crush heard the faint sounds of a bird flapping its wings, and he braced himself closely against the tree for fear of another bewildering encounter with the ruthless giant fowls of the Queenmother. A shadow covered the forest and strayed ahead into the field, and to his astonishment and fright, a winged harbinger swooped down low beneath the clouds of the violet sky and touched down a hundred yards away from the mine entrance along the top of the ridge. This time, though, it was not a bird that landed. To his great discomfort, it was the dragon who had arrived between the forest and the mines. The guards were clearly surprised to see the giant beast, and their frantic movements indicated that they were unsure about how to handle the situation. The dragon bent his head down to the ground and stalked cautiously forward while the men scrambled unwittingly at their post before the entrance to the mine. Crush took pity on the soldiers, even if they were the enemy. If he could have reached out with his mind and told them what to do, he would have screamed out orders for the guards to retreat. Such as it was, he could not interfere and was only able to observe.
“But why shouldn’t I?” he asked himself. “Those men will die if I don’t help,” he reasoned correctly as he heard a twig snap behind him. He spun around to find the young girl that had befriended him on their journey. He whispered something faintly into her ear, and she nodded her understanding and approval. With a colossal bravery that belied his catlike frame, Crush then stood to his feet and marched out into the open field of swaying grasses.
“Hey!!! You big, ugly lizard!!! You’re toothless and ruthless!!!” Crush chided as he held the dragon’s only tooth alight in the air. The dragon swung its head to the side and looked down the sloping hill to find the human with cat ears standing alone and unguarded within the tall grasses of the field. And there was his tooth!
“Human!! You will surrender the tooth to me now!!!” the dragon bellowed as it tramped down from the ridge and off the trail. The guards marveled at the stranger’s bravery at first and then mocked his stupidity a moment later as he turned tail and ran into the dense cover of the forest. They laughed even harder when one of the Queenmother’s great birds swooped down from out of the sky and plucked him from the ground just seconds before he could disappear into the wood. The dragon looked on as the bird snatched him from the terrain and rose high up into the air with its victim, and the beast’s anger boiled over at the trickery. The dragon turned on the cackling men, and the scales within his belly grew red hot with the taste of vengeance. The kilted guards dove headlong into the cave before the flames reached the opening, and they left the entrance unguarded for the time being. The dragon then spread its wings and launched itself into the air after the bird as the little girl looked on from the forest. She had her orders from Crush, and she looked grimly at the undefended opening that topped the ridge.
With Simon on her shoulders, Beni steadily followed the tracks of the malcoons for several hours that evening. She had left the castle far behind her, and she was determined to see the freed prisoners returned to their homeland with Crush. She came to a spot on the trail where the tracks were muddled, and bending down close to the ground, she examined the odd way that the malcoon tracks had milled around as if they had stopped briefly. She then noticed a small trail that led away from the tracks, too small for a malcoon, but perhaps the right size for a group of people. The tracks headed off into the brush and disappeared from view, as if there had been two paths chosen. There was a separation of the group of humans, yet she determined that the malcoon tracks plowed ahead perpendicularly over the next hill.
“What has happened here?” she wondered to herself as a bird call whistled through the air from in front of her. Simon sensed the unusual call as well, and he hid beneath the locks of her hair in anticipation. Another call answered somewhere behind them, and Beni tensely gripped the handle of the blade at her side as she crept over to hide behind a tree. She stood to her feet against the rough bark, and she waited for the inevitable. She closed her eyes, and sweat rolled down her forehead as she took in a deep breath to relax. Her inner strength had waned since her emancipation from the pendant, and she searched herself to measure whether her inner force was sufficient to allow her an escape. The power was there, she determined, but it was not without its limits. She would have to conserve her energy in case the dragon stood in her way.
Opening her eyes, she studied the woods and watched carefully for any signs of movement. For the longest time, she waited patiently, and all that she observed was the glowing orange from the flames of the castle that littered the night sky. She listened carefully, and the few sounds that she could now hear were the echoes of the dragon as it stamped out her birthplace, her castle, and she wept. Silently, the tears of sadness streamed down her face, and she wiped them away with her glove. With a sniffle, she looked out into the sky, and she prayed for the nightmare to end. She prayed for help in this cruel world, and when she opened her eyes, she saw something reflecting the dimmer light of the night sky. It was a face, or only one half, and the other half was masked in darkness. It was another giant’s face, a warrior’s face, scarred and weathered, and it stood still as death as it watched her from under the cover of the brush. Beni caught her breath again as she returned the stare, and then it blinked.
As fast as a jackrabbit fleeing from a hawk, she bolted from the side of the tree and followed the path of the malcoons only to find a giant warrior blocking the path. When she revolved to run back, another giant barred her way. At last, she had been found, and she dropped to her knees and broke out in tears of frustration. The warriors surrounded her, and when Beni looked up to face her captors, she recognized the hardened face that had been staring at her from the forest.
“What do we have here?” asked one of the warriors.
“A present handed right to us in the forest where no one can hear,” another announced, and Beni’s anger began to well within her. She was no one’s plaything, and she would make sure of that.
“Quiet, Rodrick. This lady needs our help,” the weathered warrior commanded, and the others remained silent as he knelt down on one knee and grasped her hand gently in his own. “Is there anything that we can do to help you?”
“Yes, Captain,” she replied as she determined his rank from the markings on his uniform. “Your duty is to your Queen, and if you will look through the trees, you will see that our castle is under attack. Please do not waste any more time or effort on me,” she urged him and pulled her hand gently away from between his palms.
“Yes, Captain Colere,” Rodrick scoffed. “We really should be on our way,” he said with an air of veiled menace as he placed his hand on Beni’s shoulder. Simon, who had been deathly still since the encounter began, crept softly under her hair and further away from the giant’s menacing hand. “I will be glad to come back and take care of this later.” Beni knew a threat when she heard one, but she was no helpless lady as they surmised. She shrugged and wiped Rodrick’s hand from her shoulder as if it was a flake of dandruff, and she chose to ignore his impotent intimidation, for the time being. The men had been on deployment for an extended period of time, and misbehavior in the field was not unheard of in the courts of the castle, yet she believed that there was never an excuse for intimidation of a perceived weaker individual. Perhaps he deserved a lesson from one of the weaker sex, but there was no time for that now.
“A dragon awaits you and your strong right forearm, scout. Though your calloused hand does nothing for me, one stroke across the scales with it might make the lizard shiver, I would imagine,” Beni parried, and the other men laughed as Rodrick’s upper lip turned on one side. “You do realize that you are addressing the Princess and Queen Dowager’s sister,” she announced, and the scout’s face turned white with embarrassment. Captain Colere had been searching the night skies for the sign of flames, and he was sure that he had sighted the anomaly that lit the night sky before the last statement crossed her lips. He was as surprised as anyone else that the princess was still alive, and he immediately wondered how this could be so.
“Princess Beni? She has been missing for too many months now,” Colere replied and tensely snapped his feet together when he recognized her. “I will send my men to the castle immediately, my lady. But by virtue of the oath which I have taken, I cannot leave you alone in these woods. Rodrick, gather your wits about you and lead the men to the castle. Search out the Queen and give her your protection.” Rodrick nodded his head in agreement with his Captain’s orders and disappeared into the forest with the other men following. Captain Colere stayed behind and stood uncomfortably still at Beni’s side as she nervously flicked a sharp stone into the brush with her boot.
“Captain, I am headed for the mines. I tracked a couple of malcoons that are carrying prisoners who escaped from the castle earlier this last evening,” she said as she stood to her feet with her hand on her sword. She was unnerved that she was going to have to tell Colere the truth, but she was not an adept liar like her sister.
“The prisoners escaped the castle? But how? It is so closely guarded, and I know the warden quite well,” he expressed with sincerity.
“When the Princess frees the slaves, the number of guards matters not,” she said as she withdrew her sword and grasped it hardily as she stepped back to put distance between herself and the captain. “Do you swear allegiance to Queen Dowager or not?” she asked with the razor sharp point near to his face and twinkling in the night. The captain placed his relaxed hand on the blade to move it aside, and she allowed the gesture on his part.
“No matter the folly, my lady, you have my fidelity,” he answered, and she believed him at his word. By the light in his eyes, she thought he could be trusted.
“Follow me, then,” she said and put her sword away. “The trail that was made by the malcoons continues ahead into the forest. The prisoners are headed to the mines, and they will require our help if they are to survive their journey.”
“There is no doubt in your words,” Colere replied as he followed in step behind her. “The Queenmother that rules the mountain is a treacherous person to behold. It has been said that after she destroyed our castle . . .”
“. . . she was changed into an insect,” Beni finished his sentence for him. “Yes, I have heard of the curse that was brought on by the evil that she has sown. Do not also forget that my father, the king of the giants, also played a hand in his own destruction, and that to this day, my sister rules the giants with terror. We all share guilt and responsibility for the harmful circumstances that suffuse into our world, and we must learn how to turn from our crooked paths and make our ways straight.” Captain Colere listened intently as she lectured him on the straightness of one’s path, and he marveled that someone with such a bright understanding of the interactions of living things could have been raised within the same household as Queen Dowager. The monarch had impressed her evil mark on everyone in the ranks of her guard, yet he kept his thoughts to himself as he followed Beni through the forest towards the perimeter of the mountain. It would do him no good to bring up his own political and philosophical beliefs in her presence. Since she had chosen him to aid her in this game of night time war, the best that he could hope for would be that Queen Dowager would allow him to live after they were caught. And they most definitely would be caught. He knew that Rodrick would squeal on him at the first chance he got, but Colere felt it was his duty to serve the castle royalty as he was commanded when he took his oath. Right now, he was simply obeying orders from the Princess.
Before long daylight began to break over the horizon, and the captain snatched Beni by the forearm and urged her to silence by placing his finger over his lips. They listened to the sounds of the forest, and somewhere out in the distance, high above the treetops, the whooshing sound of a bird flying overhead filled the forest as it grew ever closer. Louder and louder the sounds increased in intensity as it approached, and they guessed rightly that it was no bird, but a dragon that approached from a distance. The light of day grew, and Beni looked at her surroundings, and she noticed the two malcoons standing quietly behind the bushes at the edge of the forest. A green field stretched out ahead, and she motioned for the captain to follow her as she tiptoed quietly through the woods to join with the humans that had been freed from the castle. When she had reached the malcoons, the roar of the dragon echoed into the forest, and she and the captain fell face first against the ground to hide from the terrible wrath of the beast. As she lay there with her cheek lying next to the ground in front of a shrub, she caught sight of the humans hiding on the ground beneath the foliage, and she watched them scatter in fear of her gaze.
“My sister is to blame for this,” Beni told herself, and when the dragon had passed by overhead, she spoke to the large group of humans as they hid in the bushes.
“Freed people of the castle, do not be afraid,” she started. “It was Crush and I who freed you, and we are taking you to the mountain to return you to your home world.” Suddenly, one of the humans, a little girl, came running forward bravely from the forest to speak with Beni face to face against the urging of her fellow people. She was tiny in comparison even to her own people, and she had her hands clasped nervously together behind her back as she spoke.
“Miss Princess Beni,” she started with her head bowed down so as not to make eye contact. “Crush says that he is going to distract the dragon so that our people can go down into the mountain. I told them, and they are waiting for the dragon to disappear before they go out. Are you coming, too?” she asked with naïve innocence. When Beni considered this question, she gulped a breath in surprise at the revelation just as the dragon’s deafening roar blasted out across the open field. The princess covered her ears with her hands and rolled onto her back to look skyward. The funniest thing happened then. She watched as a bird darted by over the treetops and snatched a person up from the ridge of the field where the dragon was posted.
“He did it?” Beni mumbled to herself, and Captain Colere confirmed her suspicions.
“A bird just scooped up a human from in front of the dragon,” he declared. The dragon then jumped off the ground to follow the bird into the air. Beni nervously grabbed the captain by the biceps and shook him.
“Do you know what this means?!! Crush has bought us some time! We have to get these people up the hill and down into the mineshaft before the dragon comes back!” she shouted at the warrior. The captain did not have a complete understanding of all that was actually going on yet, but he was very capable of following orders from a superior officer. He nodded his head in agreement, and they both set about transporting the weakest of the people up the hill first. The rest followed on their own. The captain reached the mine entrance first, and he was greeted with spears by the two kilted guards. With one kick of his foot, he brushed them aside and relieved them of their duty, and then he placed the handful of people down in front of the cave. Beni arrived next, and she did the same, though she was disgusted at the bloodshed that waited at the front door. She hated the practices of slavery and the devaluing of life that her father and sister had practiced, and she liked combat even less. If she had not been interrupted by the dragon and reminded of their urgency, she would have had some choice words for the captain’s disregard for the guard’s lives. She quickly unloaded her precious cargo and ushered them into the tiny mouth of the cave before turning to search the skies above for the dragon. The scaly beast was flying straight down from the heavens toward them on the ground when she looked, and Beni realized that even though everyone had not completed the journey uphill, their time had most assuredly run out.
Crush felt the squeeze of the talons that wrapped around his midsection, and he knew that he had placed himself in a dangerous spot this fine morning. Before running out to meet the dragon, he had spotted the bird on the cliff side above, and though a dragon was present, he had guessed rightly that the bird would not turn down an easy meal. Now he was faced with the task of changing his fortune from prey to predator. Crush dangled between the talons behind the speeding bird’s tail like meat on a hook, and he looked on the dragon that trailed close behind with dread. The beast stretched its neck forward and with a wide open mouth, the great lizard snapped its jaws shut and barely missed the bird’s tail feathers. If Crush did not act soon, he would be swallowed by the dragon and digested along with the giant bird. With the sharp edged roots of the dragon’s tooth, Crush inserted it between the bird’s toes and pried open a gap. He then slipped his feet between the gap and dropped his body down through the hole that he had created. When his midsection had passed through the space, his body fell quickly down with no effort, and he found himself holding onto the roots of the tooth with the world far below. He was now stretched even further behind the bird’s body, and the dragon laid his eyes on his kill then. The serpent’s head stabbed at him three more times, narrowly missing him but getting closer with each bite, and Crush was on the verge of panic when the bird’s direction of flight abruptly changed. The feathered creature flew straight down, and the dragon soared past with an angry roar, missing them both by mere feet.
For an instant, it seemed to Crush that he was weightless as the bird plummeted toward the ground, and the tooth that had been lodged between the bird’s toes was let loose to fly through the air. Crush stretched out his hand and pulled the dragon’s tooth close into his body, and then he stretched his other hand out in an attempt to catch the bird’s tail feathers before all was lost. One particularly crooked feather protruded much farther out from the bird’s body than the others, and Crush grabbed this one just as the bird altered course to fly horizontal with the ground. Crush’s momentum swung the bird’s backside downward with him, and the feather released from the bird’s skin. Unwilling to lose its breakfast so easily, the bird swooped back around at Crush’s falling body with an open beak and a determination to make a meal of the cat-man before the dragon returned. Crush dropped the useless tail feather and avoided the bird’s open maw, but he knew that he had to save himself from splatting on the ground. When the bird’s beak clamped shut, Crush caught the edge of its mouth with his claws and ripped into the dense skin and soft feathers of its face. The great bird squawked a cry of pain, and it shook its head furiously to agitate the climber’s hold. The shaking did little good as Crush perched on its body with his arm and claw firmly dug into its neck, and he tolerated no more of the bird’s rebellion. The bird’s overall flying speed had decreased dramatically with the struggle, and this allowed the dragon to swoop in behind the bird and grin with delight at his craftiness.
“At last I have you,” the dragon said as it congratulated itself with a job well done, and the beast closed its eyes and opened its mouth wide to swallow the bird and Crush together in one bite. Crush squeezed the bird’s sides with his legs, and the bird instinctively relieved itself at that instant. The droppings lingered there in the air for a moment as time seemed to stop, and with some satisfaction, Crush watched as the excretions splattered across the dragon’s open mouth and face.
With a smile and a laugh that could only be enjoyed for a twinkling of a moment, Crush beamed with delight. Before he could celebrate for more than an instant, he felt the bird’s primal urgency to survive kick in suddenly, and he tightened his grip on the bird’s neck feathers. The bird jerked its legs together and dove downward to gain speed, and Crush’s neck snapped back with the effort. They were plummeting headlong toward the ground, and it took every ounce of strength that Crush had to hang onto the giant bird. Through the torrent of wind that rushed past his face, Crush saw two giants on the ground from a distance: one female with long blond hair that he recognized as Beni and one male warrior whose identity was a mystery to him. They had knelt down in front of the mine entrance, and through his squinting eyes, Crush could see that they were funneling the escaped prisoners quickly into the mountainside. He then ventured a glance back to discover the dripping saliva and oversized uvula in the open mouth of the dragon as its head darted to swallow the bird and himself along with it. With his feet braced securely, Crush bounded off of the bird’s back perpendicular to the flight path in the air, stepped over the dragon’s wet nose, and skidded across its scaly back. With his back now turned away, he missed seeing the serpent gulp down the bird, but he did get to see the poof of feathers that trailed in the sky behind. Fortunately for Crush, the dragon had its mouth wide open and its eyes shut completely when it swallowed the bird, and the great beast failed to notice the cat man’s escape with the tooth in the process.
Satisfied with the high protein breakfast, the dragon swung its weight around to slow its momentum, and it landed on its feet with a graceful slide in the dirt. When the dust settled, the dragon’s head was held high in triumph, and it stuck its tongue out to lick the edges of its mouth and to gulp down the last of the feathers before speaking its mind.
“Well, giantess, we meet again. I have had quite a night out, dining on roasted warden and rare warrior,” the beast chided Beni as he stood proudly before her. “What have you to say now that I have had feathers, fur, and friends for breakfast?” The dragon was in such a good mood from his misguided belief that he had recaptured the stolen tooth (if he had swallowed it, he would see it again the next day), and the thought actually crossed his mind to let Beni, the captain, and the freed prisoners go. What he did not know was that Beni had noticed Crush’s acrobatic maneuver to escape, and she could see him quietly crawling down his back to the ground below. Crush needed a diversion to keep the dragon’s mind and attention preoccupied temporarily, and she thought she owed him that for his bravery.
“Boast all you like, beast. You can destroy everything that you see if you wish, but you should know that these people deserve their freedom,” she reasoned with the serpent.
“Oh, indeed they do. As their master and warden at the castle for so many years, you would know their needs. And now you have decided that they should be allowed to go free. I could not agree more, Princess,” the sharp witted creature stabbed at her with his sharp words of criticism. “Besides, the Queenmother will have her way with them when she gets the chance.” Beni watched on as Crush leapt down to the ground and made a break for the mine entrance. The field agent had not separated himself from the dragon for very many yards before the scaly eyes caught a glimpse of his backside and the dragon’s tooth that was cradled in his arms. The dragon roared his displeasure at the deception by Crush, and the scales of his belly turned bright red as the fires of his anger churned inside his bowels. Crush glanced backward for an instant, and he knew what was coming.
“I hope that’s just a fart from indigestion,” he quipped before the searing heat rose from the belly up into the neck of the beast, changing the color of the scales and disproving his optimism. Crush’s adrenaline kicked in, and he crossed the gap at record breaking speed, but it was not quick enough to outrun the dragon’s fire. The beast reared its head back first and then whipped it forward to throw the flames across the empty space between them, and the tongue of fire shot out toward Crush with great accuracy. When Crush chanced a second glance, it was as if he was seeing the world through a green tinted lens, and the dragon disappeared behind the ever-growing flames that seemed to form a curved wall in open space around Beni. He looked above to the giantess Beni, and by the form of her stance with her feet spread out and hands held forward at the flames, he recognized that she was working her magic. The last of the people were filing into the cavern when Crush arrived, and he quickly followed them inside to make his way to the front of the crowd where two more kilted guards were now being held by the frightened and angry mob.
“I’m back,” Crush announced as he broke the circle that surrounded the guards. “Miss me?” he asked, and they had no reply as they realized that their station in life had changed rather significantly. “Sucks to be on the other end, doesn’t it? Tie up their hands and bring them with us,” he ordered the men nearby as he grabbed a torch from the wall. The men obeyed and held the guards at spear point, and Crush then led the people down the tunnel toward the labor camp below.
“What did you do to anger that dragon so?” one of the followers asked Crush.
“Besides pulling his only tooth, you mean,” Crush responded passingly and shrugged his shoulders. “I crapped in his face and gave him the bird.”
Outside of the tunnel, Beni and Captain Colere stood dangerously between the approaching dragon and his quarry. The time for talking had long passed for the dragon, and the beast charged toward the couple in his anger. With wings, arms, and legs widespread, he tackled the green sphere that surrounded the two giants, and the magical orb moved a few feet with the blow. Beni’s strength was waning, and she felt the globe move with the attack. She had no idea just how long she could endure the dragon’s assault. The captain placed a hand on her shoulder to get her attention.
“Princess, let me go out there and see what I can do with the creature,” he suggested between attacks, and sparing any words, she gave him the intense look of her disapproval. Though Colere knew he would not last a minute against the dragon, he could sense that her strength was fading. Sooner or later, as long as the two giants stood between the dragon and Crush, they were going to die. Why not do it with action, he thought to himself.
The dragon had not missed seeing the movement of the sphere with each attack, and he knelt his body down low and spun around with his tail gliding over the surface of the ground. When the tail struck the magical green sphere, it lifted off of the ground and bounced away from the entrance to the tunnel, taking Beni, Simon, and the captain with it rolling down the side of the ridge. With a cleared path, the dragon lunged for the opening of the tunnel with his mouth wide open, and he breathed a terrible stream of fire into the hole in the side of the mountain.
The magical globe tumbled to a stop by the brush at the edge of the forest, and though dizzy from the summersaulting and weakened from the exertion that the magic had taken upon her body, Beni managed to find her footing. Simon peeked his head out from beneath the cover of her hair, and he was captivated by what he saw.
“They are doomed,” Beni whispered, and she cringed with dread as she looked on helplessly at the smoke that ushered from the hole in the mountain.
Calvin Smith staggered down the darkened tunnel that led into the mines. He had fared well in sneaking past the guards during their unscheduled but frequent naps, and he was getting very close to the opening in the great chamber. From what he could remember, there was one more bend in the tunnel, and then he would come upon a guard shack carved into the stone wall at the opening to the tunnel of the mine chamber. Calvin had spent many years working in the outdoors, and he loved to feel sunshine the warmth on his skin. When he was younger, he had believed that the work of mining was fit for blind men who could not see the sunshine or for greedy men who only valued increases in their net worth, and that there was nothing below the ground that could possibly match the beauty which existed on the outer surface of his slice of home.
This journey had changed his thoughts in those regards. In his newly opened eyes, the veins of brilliant gold, quartz, and even the glittering coal had proved to hold at least as much beauty in their own right as a proper sunset on the beach; never as warm, grant you, for they were in the buried darkness of the caves. But they were never subject to rain, wind, and the ravages of the changing of the seasons. Precious stones and metals were never affected like the things that survived on the surface. His free hand reached out and touched the shell of the tunnel, and closing his eyes, he admired the coolness, the changes in depth, and the texture of its surface as his fingertips moved across the many elements, compounds, and amorphous arrangements within the tunnel wall.
“How have I missed this experience all my life?” he asked himself, yet knowing the answer was that he had relied on his eyesight for all of his information and had neglected the other lesser senses as a guide in life.
Then a new vibration shook beneath his fingertips, and he opened his eyes, but there was nothing to see. The vibration repeated with the same frequency as running footsteps, and Calvin dragged the shrub-like air supply which Pound had fashioned for him to the corner of the bend with urgency. Someone was coming down the shaft toward the mine; he could feel it, and he needed to get to safety. “That’s a laugh,” he thought. “I’m down here where I shouldn’t be, and my chest hurts more and more with every step,” he reflected as he grabbed his ribs and bent over to get more air into his lungs. The deeper he had gone into the mines, the harder it had become to breathe, and his body thirsted for air now more than it ever had before. It was not the botanical breathing device that Pound had created which was the issue, though with only muted light, there would come an end to the plant’s respiration and the supply of oxygen exhaled by the vegetation would eventually cease. No, the problem now was Calvin Smith’s body; he was experiencing the side effects that many years of smoking had taken upon his body, and he sensed, not with his eyes or even his hands, but with his spiritual fingertips, that his life was nearing its close.
As the footsteps drew closer, he leaned his back against the wall at the corner of the bend and stretched his neck upward to face the ceiling. With the herbal mask still attached to his face, a white light appeared in the ceiling, and he saw a figure standing in the midst of the light. It held out a hand to him, and he nervously reached for the revolver that was resting between his hip and the belted waistline of his pants. Nonplussed, the figure shined ever brighter, and the hand that had been extended simply disappeared. Calvin was not ready to go. Not yet. There were some loose ends to tie up, and the light would have to wait a little longer.
Just then, a kilted guard bolted from the inside of the guard shack, cut around the bend in the tunnel, passed by the dying old man as if he were not there, and disappeared around the next corner as he ran higher up into the tunnel toward the sound of the approaching footsteps. The light in the ceiling then dissipated as well, and Calvin knew that he had a little bit longer and a little bit farther to go before he would reach the light. Dropping his head, he stumbled around the bend past the unattended guard shack and into the chamber of the mine.
Crush sprinted down the many bends of the rocky tunnel as fast as he could move. He knew that if the dragon ever made it past Beni, their lives would all be in danger. He grabbed the kilted guards who ran beside him by the arm and yelled out over the deafening sounds of the crowd that followed.
“What protections do you have against a dragon?” he asked as he kept his aggressive pace.
“There are the pipes over’ead to let out steam,” the guard noted and lifted his chin up to indicate the ceiling. His hands were still tied, but he could point with his nose, and Crush looked above to see that indeed there were large diameter holes carved out of the rock and spaced about every thirty feet. “They’re linked together and exhaust to the air outside the mountain. We also ‘ave the doors to keep the beastie’s breath contained,” he replied as he nodded his head forward to indicate a structure ahead. “Just up there.” The discrete outlines of the large doorway became more apparent the closer that Crush got, and when he had passed through the frame in the tunnel, he forced the two guards against the wall, and he motioned for everyone else to keep moving past. When all had passed, Crush yelled back up the tunnel to test for stragglers. After a second yell and a count of three, he heard no other sounds coming from behind, and so he unchained the gigantic doors from the holders on the walls. Then he closed the doors just as a roar issued from the tunnel above.
“I don’t think that’s a straggler returning my call,” Crush joked as he sat down on the floor against the doors and pressed the locking bolts to secure the panels down into the floor. A whoosh of air siphoned through the cracks in the door, and it suddenly became difficult for him to breathe as the heat increased and the oxygen quickly depleted through the cracks in the locked frame. Flames licked through the creases at the top of the doors, and Crush was forced to move away from the metal frame as the doors began to glow a faint red with the expulsion of thermal energy. “I don’t think we’ll be using that door again, fellas,” Crush kidded with the guards, and then he surprisingly untied their hands. “You two have as much life at stake as we now do. I’m letting you free to save your lives, but I expect that you won’t make me regret the gesture.” The men looked at one another and then at the melting door, and they nodded their assent to Crush’s request.
“Very well,” the first one said.
“Do you have a plan?” the other asked. Crush held out the dragon’s tooth and shrugged.
“Somewhat,” he replied as he stared down at the excised molar. “Though, we will have to rely on a little guy hiding down in the mine for what comes next,” he explained and ushered them forward to join the rest of the crowd.
“Prince Argentine? He isn’t small,” the first one commented.
“Pftt!! That name gives me as much heartburn as the dragon’s breath,” Crush said crossly at the mention of the green-skinned tsar’s moniker. He held his tongue before he said anything more about Sean. Even though he had a small army of prisoners at his disposal, the truth was that they were not much of an army, and he was loathe to think of anyone as disposable. “Let’s keep moving,” he added and pushed his way to the front of the crowd to leave the guards behind.
The dragon was enraged to the point of distraction. He had his claws dug into the rock, and Beni looked on as the beast blew fire into the stone until it was molten in his clawed hands. With a handful of red hot slag, the serpent pitched the chunk of glowing rock to the side and dug his way deeper into the mountain. If there was no other way to get his tooth back, he was determined to dig his way inside to get to the mines. A handful at a time, the beast made quick work of the tunnel opening, and Beni knew that Crush only had a short time before the dragon was on him.
Rodrick led the giants back through the forest towards the flames of the castle that rose high into the night sky. He was a faithful servant to Queen Dowager, and he had earned a place among the river scouts by serving the realm. The reality that his military position would become watered down with the attack on the castle made him angry. The fact that his captain was participating in seeing the slaves to freedom made his blood pressure rise even higher. Carefully placing his temper to the side, he made himself of one mind: save Queen Dowager. If she were somewhere beneath the piles of rubble, he and the other faithful men would find her, and she would set things right.
“And we will tell her of everything we have seen tonight,” Rodrick assured himself.
The warriors darted through the forest in the dark with deft precision, leaping over fallen logs and cold, narrow waterways until they arrived at the castle at daybreak. The walls were a smoking ruin where the dragon had gusted fire from his belly into the partitions and then thumped the wood and mortar over with his mighty tail. On the inside of the walls, the castle yard was littered with the destruction of the beast, and half-charred bodies from the previous night’s battle lay everywhere. They scanned the remainder of their home village, and they could not help but feel a mixture of conflicting emotions: remorse for not being nearby to fulfill their duty and defend the castle, sadness for the families of the many warriors who had passed away the previous night, and unbridled hatred for the dragon.
Indignant, Rodrick inhaled deeply through his nose and spit a wad of phlegm on a flickering flame that burned on the ground, smothering the spark where it lay. He quickly spied the area where he believed the Queen’s quarters should be, and he waved the others on to follow him as he trudged over the destruction with purpose. He passed through a gulf in a damaged wall to the castle hold where a steel spiral ladder which had led up to Queen Dowager’s bedroom suite was located. The ladder was now bent and mangled from the heat and the rage of the dragon, and the wooden bedroom suite above had been burned to a crisp. Yet, the solid floor beneath was intact. Rodrick knelt down on one knee at the foot of the ladder, and he swept away the thick layer of ash and coal that had deposited onto the floor. At first, there was nothing but solid tile surrounding the landing. As he made his way around the base of the ladder, he discovered that the metal plate which formed the foundation of the spiral ladder actually extended in a rectangular shape along the floor on the backside of the ladder toward the wall. Structurally, this extra length of metal made no improvement to the staircase’s stability, and he suspected there was another reason for the additional plate. Feeling around in the dust, he confirmed his suspicions that the plate was not one solid strip of metal, but was actually hinged. Using a charred strip of wood, he swept away the ash and filth that had amassed onto the extension of the plate, and he uncovered a handle at the far end past the hinge. Whoever had built this structure had created a removable lid which had been hidden behind the base of the steps, and to Rodrick’s surprise, the mad creature had failed to notice it during his tantrum the previous night. Rodrick stood to his feet, bent down and grasped the handle with both hands, and he pulled the reinforced lid open. He covered his eyes from the eruption of dust that lifted into his face, and at first Rodrick could see nothing within the darkness of the room below. As he knelt down and stuck his head closer into the space below, he still could see nothing as his eyes slowly adjusted to the changes in lighting. Two spots of light appeared in the darkness, and the lights seemed to grow closer and closer with each passing second until Rodrick realized what they were. They were eyes, and they were coming toward him. Standing to his feet, he withdrew his sword from his scabbard as the other giants gathered around the opening to the black box that formed in the floor. With a full body suit of armor and a stern appearance of disgust, Queen Dowager stepped out from the darkness beneath the floor into the morning light.
“How did you all fare against the dragon?” she asked with a scowl on her face. None of the ragged group dared to have an answer for her except for Rodrick.
“Quite well, since we were not here, my Queen,” he said as he placed the sword back into his scabbard. “We have been maintaining your borders along the river as ordered, and we rushed to get here on our captain’s and your sister’s orders.” Queen Dowager’s eyebrows peaked at the mention of her sister.
“Where is your captain, young soldier?” she quickly asked.
“He has gone forward to the mountain with Princess Beni,” Rodrick answered, and Queen Dowager’s visage darkened with the news.
“Then there is no time to waste. We must find Beni and the escaped prisoners, and if need be, squash any resistance,” she commanded, and the soldiers all came to attention at her words. She looked at Rodrick and grinned a wicked smile. “What is your name and rank, good soldier?”
“Sergeant-at-Arms Rodrick Portcullis, my Queen.”
“Captain Rodrick Portcullis, you will follow my lead,” she said as she waved him closer with a flippant gesture of her hand. Pleased with the good fortune of his sudden promotion, Rodrick snapped the giants into formation, and they pressed in closer to her in a tight circle as she steeped her hands together in a spell. There was much ground to cover, but Queen Dowager was a powerful giantess when her will was fervent. A white globe of light enclosed the group, lifted them high above the walls of the smoldering castle, and shot out through the forest trails toward the mountain.
Pound sidestepped around the outer edge of the elevator shaft to keep the abyss between himself and the giant velvet ant on the other side. The Queenmother craned her head forward and gazed at the Soul of the Mountain that rested in his arms through the complexity of her composite eyes, and all the while her antennae inspected the cabling that connected the elevator from the top of the ceiling to the bottom of the great mine chamber below.
“Do you not find my true appearance pleasing, my companion?” she spoke through the clasping jaws, and Pound felt a queasiness in his stomach as he stood opposite the horrid creature.
“I’m sorry I can’t hang out with you, Queenmother,” Pound answered. “You remind me too much of my aunt,” he jested and then leaped down the hole in the elevator shaft. The Queenmother gasped at the insanity until she understood that Pound had used his free arm to catch onto the cabling. With his legs wrapped tightly around the twisted steel, Pound slowly lurched down the open space to the open chamber of the mine below. She gurgled and her mandibles flinched back and forth until what must have been laughter began to echo against the walls, and Pound nervously looked up at her ever-growing face. Yet she was not moving; why was she growing? Gazing downward, he understood his mistake and her folly. The elevator was traveling up, and he was on the wrong cable. The other cable was descending with fury, and when he was within a few feet of the Queenmother’s level, he swung over and chanced a transfer. At first, his hands burned with the chafing of the steel cable’s frayed edges, but he gained purchase and descended with great speed down the elevator’s route. His injured wrist was swollen, and he relied heavily on his other arm and both legs for stability. With the cold, steel surface of the cable against the skin of his thighs, Pound wished that he still had his pants on and not the kilt that wrapped around his waist.
“Hah!” he laughed at her as he descended quickly away, and Pound smiled to himself with the small victory. The cable thrummed like a banjo string with the pull of the machinery, and he felt an odd sensation running down his arm, though he was bound so tightly in place that he could not see the backside of his wrist. Twisting his head around, he noted the dark red blotch that gathered between the cable and his arm, and the hair on his arm was matted with the liquid. “Blood,” he thought to himself as his sturdy grip on the wire was loosened with the lubrication of his own bodily fluids, and he began to slide faster to his doom. There was nothing for it. Pound’s body had lost its adhesion to the cylindrical surface of the cable, and he plummeted toward the approaching elevator car.
“Keep moving!” Crush yelled at the straggling crowd behind him. They were obviously tired from their long night marching, but the sound of the dragon’s rage reverberated through the tunnel, and it was only a matter of time before the beast forced his way inside. Crush had no doubt about the beast’s abilities; Scalus Mountain had collapsed in rubble around the serpent’s lair, and yet here he was. “He wants this tooth pretty badly,” he muttered to himself and shook his head in awe at the persistence.
With Crush in the lead, the crowd came upon a single kilted guard within the tunnel, no doubt alerted by the sounds of their footsteps and the dragon’s tantrum. At first Crush thought that he may have to tackle him to get by, but the guard’s eyes were as large as saucers, astonished by the size and urgency of the crowd. The guard wisely stepped to the side of the corridor to let them pass.
As they turned the last corner past an empty guard shack, they entered the vast open chamber of the mine. The workers that had been toiling in the ground that morning looked up in surprise at the arrival of the shaggy group of prisoners, and the guards that stood by with whips were quickly overtaken and disarmed. Crush stood out in the great open room and held the dragon’s tooth above his head as he announced his return.
“Sean!! We’re back!!” he yelled, and his voice echoed emptily throughout the chamber. Crush waited for a few seconds, yet there was no reply. “Sean!!” he yelled again and waited. Scanning the many levels of the walls, he saw only freed men, restrained guards, and baffled miners.
“Where is he?” he asked himself. Then he noticed the cargo elevator that lifted from the floor and traveled upward. The door was open, the light was on inside of the lifting car, and if he squinted his eyes, Crush could see something moving inside of the elevator. It was a hand, and it was waving side-to-side hurriedly in front of a familiar face.
“Sean?” Crush said again in disbelief. “What the crap is he doing?” The dwarf was up to something, but Crush was in the dark as to what he was doing.
The open chamber of the mine stretched upward into the elevator shaft that rose high above, and Sean peeked his head out to look up and gaze at the falling body high above. With a snap of his fingers, he disappeared, and instant later the dwarf was back inside the elevator with a visitor in his arms, a human. It was a man, and he was clearly startled to find himself inside the elevator with the dwarf. The elevator continued its travel upward, and before his captive could get his bearings, the elevator stopped. The door opened, and the Queenmother, the giant velvet ant of terror slammed her legs against the doors and shoved her head into the box to snatch the men with her mandibles. Sean snapped his fingers once again, and the dwarf and the human vaporized together just as the Queenmother’s jaws snapped shut in the space where they had been. From Pound’s perspective, the elevator that surrounded them and the giant ant’s jaws disappeared from existence, and he was surprised and pleased as his emotion mixed all into one frightful exhilaration. An instant later, their surroundings changed, and they appeared at the bottom of the elevator shaft. The human stood quickly to his feet, and Crush recognized him; it was Pound! With the tooth cradled carefully in his arm, Crush went running across the floor of the mine to join Pound and the dwarf where they stood together.
Pound caught the sudden movement out of the corner of his eye when Crush came galloping to meet them, and he immediately went into a fighting stance with the Soul of the Mountain cradled in his arms. When he recognized his old friend, his shoulders relaxed, and the intensity of the moment fell from his visage.
“Pound, old buddy! You came back!!” Crush exclaimed as he slugged him in the shoulder. “And you’re wearing a dress.”
“It’s a kilt, you big pussy cat,” Pound replied with a smile. It had been several days since they had parted company, and neither one knew whether they would see the other again. The words he wanted to utter hung on his lips, and before he could say anything more, the ground shook violently with the dragon’s demolition. Pound spread his feet and steadied himself, and Crush then noticed the blood flowing down his friend’s arms and hands. A frown of concern passed across his face, and he was just about to ask about his injuries when Sean interrupted.
“Tis good, you both are here,” Sean said as he scratched at his chin. “One of you brought the dragon’s tooth, and the other brought the Soul of the Mountain. Fine work, indeed my friends.”
“Yeah, about the dragon’s tooth. It was still in the dragon’s mouth when I found it,” Crush explained. “It would have been nice to know that before I met the dragon, don’t you think? What exactly will it do to help us anyway?” he asked the little guy inquisitively.
“It will bring the dragon, of course,” the dwarf explained. Crush’s face immediately turned red, and he brought up his free hand to point his index finger into the face of the little fellow.
“Do you mean to say, I traveled across this hell of a world so that I could bring back a dragon to kill us all?!! Are you mad?!!” Crush yelled as he bent down to stare face-to-face with the dwarf.
“Yes. Saying that I am mad is the pot calling the kettle onyx, my friend. It would help you to take a few deep breaths,” Sean said as he patted Crush’s bloated red cheeks.
“The least you could have done was tell me that’s what you wanted!” Crush replied with great irritation. He liked having a full understanding of a mission when it was given to him, and he certainly did not expect to be toyed with by the dwarf.
“The important thing, my friend, is that you did return.” Sean then looked over at Pound, reached out, and gently touched his arms. Tiny sprinkles of light filled the air around the wounds, and Pound felt a prickly tingling race through his arms and hands at the dwarf’s touch. Pound then raised his hands and looked them over carefully. The open wounds had closed, and the bleeding had ceased. His injured wrist had also stopped throbbing, and the swelling had dissipated. He could move his hand and fingers with no pain or tightness, almost as if the fall had never occurred.
“Now that’s a nice trick, little guy,” Pound said in amazement at the dwarf’s abilities. “Thanks for breaking my fall. I thought I was a goner,” he added and then addressed Crush. “I know you’re upset, but we could use one of these guys around the office. Are you sure you want to hold a grudge on this little guy?”
“Not really, but if you haven’t noticed, the mountain is falling apart because a dragon is pounding his way in,” Crush retorted as the ground shook with the violence of the dragon’s relentless attack on the cavern. “That beast will dig his way inside in a few minutes at this rate.”
“The dragon’s not the only one to worry about,” Pound said as Prince Argentine strode out into the great hall surrounded by twenty of his finest soldiers. None of the freed prisoners cared to step foot within the dispute between Argentine and Crush and Pound, and soon the heroes were surrounded by shiny, golden spearheads. “Any ideas?”
“You could teleport us out, couldn’t you?” Crush warily asked the dwarf.
“The time for hiding is over,” the little fellow replied as he checked a phantom watch on the back of his wrist. They could see nothing except fine hair on his forearm, but Sean seemed to be able to glean some useful information from it. He looked up at the gathering crowd of soldiers, and he issued a warning. “You all are a very brave and hearty group, no doubt. But let me warn you that you have ten seconds to clear out of here before the dragon arrives.” The soldiers grew wide-eyed as the ground quaked and the ceiling shook, and Argentine’s army scattered like roaches at the flick of a light. Soon Argentine stood alone and unguarded amidst the crowd of freed prisoners, and with all eyes on him, he suddenly felt naked in front of the angry mob. He was saved from certain capture by the disintegration of the stone ceiling on one side of the enormous chamber, and daylight found its way to the dusty floor of the mine. Blinded momentarily by the sudden surge of radiance, everyone in the room cupped their hands over their stunned eyes to protect them from the swift change in ambient lighting. The shadow of the dragon then hove into view, and Crush, Pound, and Sean stood in awe of the great beast.
Swallowing her fear, Beni called upon the last of her magical strength to bolster the protective shell that surrounded Captain Colere, Simon, and herself, and she strode out purposefully toward the dragon’s backside. The creature had dug a new tunnel into the mountainside until he had reached a fissure within the mine, and Beni could only guess that if she did not act now, Crush’s life would be taken from him in the same manner that her father’s life had been seized from him so few years ago. They ran at a sprint to hurriedly reach the dragon, and with her sword already drawn, Beni sliced the keen blade across the scales of the serpent’s crusty backside. Her blade swung true while it reached out through her protective shield of magic, and one of the dragon’s mighty wings fell to the ground with a thud. Stunned by the sudden attack, the dragon turned his head to face Beni, and he hissed his displeasure at her interference. To her credit, Beni did not hesitate, and she swung the sword again, but this time, the dragon was prepared. He caught the blade in his claws, opened his mouth wide as his belly turned bright red, and then breathed a storm of fire directly on the blade. The temperature of the sword escalated rapidly, and Beni was forced to release her grip on the scorching blade. The dragon yanked it from her hands, and with a wild swing of his body, he flung the weapon into the forest at the edge of the field. Unarmed, Beni stood opposite the beast, and she wondered just then if she should have thought her actions through more carefully before she acted. Her magical energy was ebbing, and the creature’s attack had only just begun. Before, she had been worried about Crush. But now, who was going to saving her?
The dragon hesitated only long enough to summon fire, and he belched a white-hot flame that covered the protective shell from her head to the ground.
The Queenmother peered down from the balcony of the elevator shaft, and she watched the ongoing destruction below with great interest. She had known the dragon well as a youth, and she had dreaded the day when he made his return to the mountain. That day had arrived, and she was ill-prepared for the consequences that may come as a result. The dragon had been driven mad that fateful day they had fought together against the giants, and she knew that if he recognized her, then chances were good that he would blame her for his condition in life.
But the Queenmother lusted for power, and the Soul of the Mountain had been taken from her. Dragon or no, she would take back the artifact that had been stolen from her. She bounded over the edge of the chasm, and though she had no wings, she glided on the hot winds of the dragon’s breath toward the humans below. If the guards were afraid of the dragon, that was no concern of hers. She would steal back the gift that had been nicked from her bedroom by Pound.
With all eight legs spread confidently open, she gracefully landed unnoticed on the hard cavern floor behind Crush, Pound, and Sean as the severed dragon’s wing fell to the ground.
With the dragon momentarily distracted with his injuries, Sean reached out and grabbed the Soul of the Mountain from Pound’s hands, and he closed his eyes to murmur some ancient chant under his breath. Immediately, the dragon ceased his destruction and froze into place where he stood. There was a crackling of the stones along the surface of the ground, and from every direction, the loose rocks that littered the floor began to tremble and roll toward the dragon’s feet.
“That’s bizarre! It’s like watching a movie rewind,” Pound commented as the tiny stones and boulders rolled uphill to cover the dragon’s body. Crush and Pound watched the battle of the giants come to an abrupt end, and they were astonished by the power that Sean and the Soul of the Mountain displayed over the dragon. Beni held her protective shell intact, but she clearly was relieved at the dragon’s sudden immobility. The stones kept rolling up the serpent’s body to cover his skin in a granite casing, and soon, only his head remained uncovered.
Then they heard Sean cry out from behind them in pain, and when they snapped their heads around, they witnessed the unraveling of their salvation. The Queenmother had opened her jaws wide, and she had snatched Sean’s head between the pincers. As she held him secure in her vise-like grip, she seized the Soul of the Mountain from his hands.
“How dare you lay hands on royal property, dwarf!!” she declared as the magic created by the talisman was broken. With the dissolution of the enchantment, the spell that had immobilized the dragon was now gone, and the stones tumbled from his scaly skin as the serpent’s mind awoke and shook off the dwarf’s control. “It is mine!!” she shouted.
Suddenly a gunshot rang out from the ledge above, and the giant ant froze in her motions as if time had come to a halt. Blood slowly poured from the Queenmother’s abdomen onto the ground, and from behind a loose boulder, Calvin Smith stepped out into the daylight. The Queenmother’s jaws opened, and she dropped the dwarf to the ground along with the Soul of the Mountain. The dragon then reached out a claw and took the Queenmother, his old friend and now wounded villain, into his arms, and a sense of mercy passed across the serpent’s face as he looked upon her agony.
“Your days of kidnapping are over,” Calvin said aloud as he lowered the pistol to his side. The old man had risked his life to get back to the mines and to help his friends in any way that he could, and he had saved Sean from certain death at the Queenmother’s jaws. He had also enraged her allies with his actions, and they were not happy with him at the moment. Prince Argentine bolted from behind a hidden crevice in the chamber, rushed the old man where he stood, and wrestled him to the ground. There was another gunshot, and Calvin’s body lay still with Prince Argentine on top. The dragon’s rage grew as he held the Queenmother in his claw, and his belly grew white hot as he looked on at the struggle between Prince Argentine and the old man who had shot his friend. The beast cared nothing for either man, and his mind was set on vengeance. He roared in fire and wrath at the two men, and the dragon engulfed them in flames.
“NO!!!” Crush cried out in anguish over the old man’s death, and his cry drew unhealthy attention from the great creature of fire. The dragon turned on him, and his eyes squinted to focus on Crush. He was prepared to deep fry the cat-man where he stood. Frightened for his life, Pound kept his head, and he quickly picked up the child of stone from the ground. Dragon fire roiled in the belly of the beast, and the dragon opened his mouth to draw in a great breath of morning air. Sensing danger, Pound hastily spat out the magical words which the dwarf had recited just moments earlier.
A great and mighty wind suddenly roared through the cavern, and a funnel of light and a swirling storm opened in the dragon’s mouth. The creature halted in his tracks, and the fire never came. The spell had worked.
“You did it,” Sean said as he rubbed his head with both hands in an effort to smooth out the pounding headache he had gotten from the pressure that had been exerted on his head between the Queenmother’s jaws. “That’s your road home,” he added dizzily and pointed toward the glow in the dragon’s mouth.
“Say what?” Crush replied. “You expect us to believe that’s the portal home? In the mouth of the dragon?!” Crush stared at the little guy and wondered if the Queenmother had squeezed his brain too hard.
“I see it, Crush,” Pound said as he squinted his eyes to look into the center of the swirl. “There are images passing by, moving in his mouth,” he replied with a glimmer in his eye. He then turned his head toward Crush. “Didn’t you have to get into the dragon’s mouth to get the tooth? You could do that again.”
“Yeah, I did it once because I was told that the tooth was what we needed to free the slaves of the mines,” Crush declared with a dripping sarcasm. Pound and Sean’s expressions remained the same at his answer. Crush considered the implications, and he flipped the bird at Sean. “Never trust a green dwarf,” he added, and he marched over to the foot of the paralyzed dragon. Most of the stones had covered the dragon’s stiffened body again, and it was reasonably safe to climb the beast as long as the spell lasted. With his claws extended and a leap in the air, he bounded up the dragon’s legs to the heavy mid-section of its body. He then carefully climbed out along the dragon’s extended neck to its head where the vacuum from the wind was travelling with a mighty suction into the mouth. He crawled on all fours then, and he craned his head down below the upper jaw and looked into the beast’s throat. Where the serpent’s mouth and esophagus had been just moments before, there was now no uvula to be found between the jaws; there was only the swirling portal to another world. Crush had experienced traveling between worlds through portals, and he was convinced that a window had opened in the beast’s mouth, though he wished it was located in a less dangerous spot. Bravely and with little concern for his own life, he entered the gaping mouth of the stunned beast to assess the window more closely.
“Maybe it’s another time. Maybe this isn’t earth that I’m looking at,” he doubted as the images of trees, mountains, seas, and people changed every few seconds. “Where will I end up if I go through?” he asked himself quietly. He crawled back away from the mouth and stood on the dragon’s eyelids where he yelled down to the dwarf.
“Sean!! Where does this go?!!”
“To earth!!” Sean yelled back, and the pain throbbed in his aching head. There were bruised spots on either side of his head where the Queenmother had pinched him. “You have to trust me,” he said as he spoke to Pound and pointed to something new out past Beni and Captain Colere. Pound’s eyes followed in the direction of the dwarf’s hand, and he saw something there that spurred his decision making. It was Queen Dowager. She grimaced a dour frown inside the magical sphere of her own making, and she had several giant warriors alongside her. He had no dealings with her as yet, but based upon the vision he had witnessed, he doubted that she had come to help the prisoners to escape.
When he saw the look of surprise on Crush’s face, he knew that his reasoning was sound. Around him, the crowd of slaves and prisoners had swelled, and a dire urgency slid into Pound’s bones like never before. All of these people were depending on Crush and himself, but there was no way that the prisoners were going to climb the dragon’s body and escape under the watch of Queen Dowager. Some of them, if not all of them, were doomed.
“Beni!!” Crush exclaimed over the turmoil. “Can you please help lift these people?” he begged, and the giantess heard his plea for help. Using the last bit of her strength, she extended her arms outward to the sky, and the protective shell of magic emanated outward enough to block off the entire section of the mountain from her evil sister’s schemes. Beni’s energy was ebbing, and she stretched out on the ground at the foot of the dragon with the mental exertion. Luckily, the people scattered out of her way in time, and no one was injured with her collapse.
The shield would not last long, and Colere surveyed his circumstances at a glance. It was his duty to serve Queen Dowager, and he now found himself caught between loyalties. No matter the outcome, when this disaster was over, he knew that his life would be forfeit in Queen Dowager’s eyes. He had helped her sister, and she would never forgive him for doing so. Then he looked on the crowd at his feet, and he took pity on them for the state of their affairs. There would be no forgiveness for them either. If Queen Dowager had her way, the sacrifice that Beni was making would be futile once Beni passed out from exhaustion, and so the brave warrior did something that he never would have believed he could have. He defied his Queen. With two gigantic open hands, he scooped the people from the crowd into his palms, and he funneled them into the swirling vacuum at the dragon’s mouth. They stepped into the mouth of the dragon and vaporized into the nothingness beyond. One handful after another, he fed the enormous crowd into the void as Queen Dowager watched in disbelief.
“When the energy field disrupts, Rodrick, you will take the captain prisoner,” the monarch ordered from outside Beni’s magical sphere.
“What of your sister, my Queen?” he braved the question. The Queen’s eyebrows lowered, and wrinkles furrowed on her forehead.
“I will see to her,” she said with daggers in her voice. Rodrick cautiously backed away from her a step and bowed his head with her orders. The energy field was fading fast while the Captain worked to feed the last of the prisoners and slaves into the mouth of the serpent. The giant warrior reached down to pick up Pound and Sean, but Sean backed away into a corner and waved him on.
“Go on, human. The earth is no place for me. This is my home,” the dwarf explained as he held the dragon’s tooth in his hands. Satisfied with the answer, Pound nodded and climbed onto Captain Colere’s open palm. The giant raised him up to the mouth of the dragon, and he stepped up onto the dragon’s snout with Crush. Pound hesitated for a moment, and he gazed up at the giant to ask him a question.
“Aren’t you coming, too?”
The giant thought on it for a second, and he looked to Beni for an answer. She was weak, and when the magical field died, she knew that they would be at Queen Dowager’s mercy.
“What do you say, my lady? Will you go, or will you stay?” the captain inquired as he bent down to lift her in his arms. She swallowed once as she thought about it the decision with hesitation. Just then, Simon, the forgotten companion, came out from under her hair, and she could not bear to see anyone else that she cared about die that day.
“We will go,” she uttered as her eyes closed with exhaustion. The energy field that had protected them for so long evaporated into the morning air. The captain extended a free hand into the void at the dragon’s mouth, and in an instant, the two giants and the monkey were gone.
Once the protective shield was gone, the other giants wasted no time in their pursuit. Crush snatched the dragon by the nostril, and he swung down into the mouth of the beast. He was gone, and now there was only Pound and Sean. The dwarf dropped the dragon’s tooth, snapped his fingers together with a click, and disappeared to some secret cubby hole deep in the mountain, leaving Pound all alone with Queen Dowager and her guards.
Rodrick withdrew his sword and swung a wild blow at the dragon’s head, narrowly missing the field agent as he ducked his body down flush on the snout. Sparks flew from the granite, and Pound dropped into the dragon’s mouth below and disappeared into the nothingness of the portal.
Pound fell through the brilliantly lit portal as if gravity was calling to him, and he coasted like a kite through time and space. Images of nameless people, animals, and cities passed by as he held on tightly to the child of stone that rested in the cradle of his arms, and the pictures that buzzed by his body whirled into fantasies in his vivid imagination. The flickering and twinkling and blinking of the images was maddening, and Pound fought with his own mind’s eye for control of his emotions. He closed his eyes, and he breathed a silent prayer as he meditated on what he knew was real. His mind, his body, his kilt.
Oh, the kilt. Crush would never let him live that one down without ribbing him for months on end. It suited the bagpipers in the local pipe and drums band just dandy, but he was an American field agent, and Crush would tease him forever. That was okay, he thought, because he will always be just a big pussy.
He opened his eyes, and though the imagery flashed with the same intensity, Pound was settled in his mind that those unknown worlds and times were not for him. Finally, a beautiful face which he recognized quite passionately droned by his body. It was Sherry Tatum, and Bat Jackson stepped up behind her to place his hand on her shoulder. Pound reached out to touch the image of her, yet he was too far away. The child of stone could take him there, but not today. Today, he was going home . . .
“Where am I going?” He turned his body in the direction that he was travelling, and there was only darkness ahead. Wherever he was going, he hoped it was not at the bottom of the ocean, he thought to himself as he plunged through the final thin film of this reality into the earth.
When he opened his eyes, Pound blinked a few times, and there was no light. He held his breath, and he felt around in the dark for his face and hands. As far as he could tell, he was not under water, and he was still in one piece. There were also no sources of pain anywhere in his body, so he decided that he must not have been hurt from the fall.
“Hello. Is anyone there?” he asked to no one in particular and to everyone who might be listening.
“We’re all here,” a familiar voice answered. “Though I do not know where here is. Does anyone have a match?” Crush asked though his own eyes had adjusted to the dark that surrounded him, and then he remembered that no one who travelled with them was a free person and most likely would not have any handy trinkets to start a fire with on their person. “Beni? Beni? If you’re there, can you make your magic glow so that Pound can see?”
“I am here,” a soft voice answered. Strange, Pound thought to himself, that voice is not as loud as I would have expected. “I feel rested from our journey. Perhaps I can try,” she afforded, and a dim green glow resonated through the darkness to fill the empty space. By the appearance of the surroundings, Pound surmised that they were inside a cavern. People were laid out everywhere on the ground, moving in the dark, and there was a body of water next to where they lay. Crush stepped over the many people that lay between himself and Beni, and he knelt down by her side as she propped herself up on the ground by her arms. The strangest thing had happened when they had traveled between worlds; Beni and the Captain were the same size as everyone else. Crush was amazed at the unexpected change, and Beni was shocked as well by the conversion in height. She said that she felt the same, possibly even better than she had before, but it would take some time to adjust to being ordinary.
“You have all the time in the world to adjust. Perhaps we can search for a way out of this cavern in the meantime,” Crush mentioned as he got to his feet and noticed another familiar face in the dark. “Simon? How did you get here, too?” The small monkey grabbed Crush’s hand and climbed up into his arms.
“I had no other choice but to bring him with us,” Beni replied, and Crush nodded his understanding. He scratched Simon’s head as if he were a pet and then set him back on the ground. Crush then walked out to the edge of the wall and felt his way around for any openings that might lead out to daylight. Pound joined in with him, and within a couple of hours, they had discovered a passageway that led out into the midday of a hardwood forest. Crush and Pound each took turns directing groups of the freed prisoners out of the cave and into the afternoon sun, and when all of the people were out in the open forest, they had a small meeting with the Captain and Beni to discuss how to proceed.
“We are at the base of a mountain,” Pound noted. “Perhaps if we move outward in a straight line and mark our way as we go, we will find a paved road. That is assuming that we’re in the right year.”
“Or I could climb a tree and scout the surrounding area, maybe save you some time,” Crush advised. The group liked the idea, and Crush found the tallest tree that he could climb on the nearest side of the mountain. He climbed to the top like a pro, and Simon scampered up behind him. After scanning the area for any signs of civilization, he pointed in the direction that he felt they should take. They marked it on the ground with stones while he climbed down the tree, and when he had reached the bottom, they split up, leaving Simon with the rest of the freed slaves from the other dimension. Crush knew the monkey was an extraordinary creature and that he would be able to keep an eye on the people while he was away. The four of them, Crush, Pound, Beni, and Colere, marched out for a mile to the paved two-lane road that he had noticed from the treetop. Two more miles down the road, they reached a convenience store with a screen door, empty gas pumps, and a broken refrigerator.
“All we got’s cereal and dog food,” the young lady said with a smile that showed one tooth on top. She swatted a fly that landed on the counter, and she then clicked a nearby push-button pedometer that should have been used for counting steps but was clearly being used to count bugs. She raked off the remains, and Crush leaned over curiously to get the number from the pedometer display, which now read “45”. Not too shabby, but it was bad news when the flies outnumber the customers ten-to-one. The cashier took one look at Beni’s metal shoulder pads and the Captain’s leather outer garments, and exhaled a sigh through her chapped lips. “Ya’ll ain’t from around here, are ya? Goin’ to a convention or a paintball tournament?”
“Not, uh . . . no and no. Where are we?” Pound asked, and the lady looked at him with one corner of her top lip raised. The brown layer of cola and chocolate was visible on the top of her tongue.
“Whut?” she answered his question with another. “This is Randolph County. Same as it has always been. And that mountain out there, that’s Faraway Mountain. Don’t ya know?”
“Of course, we do. We’ll take a flashlight and batteries if you can spare them,” Crush broke in and reached into his empty pockets to pull out dust. Pound went to reach in his pockets for money as well, and then he remembered that he still had the kilt on. There was a tiny sporran wrapped around his waist, and all that was inside of it was a chunk of moldy cheese. With no money, it seemed that they would have to leave empty handed until Beni used her mind powers to hypnotize the lady behind the counter. There was no phone line in the old store, and they had no way of getting in touch with the DAM without one. They made the most of the temporary mind control, and they took only the immediate supplies that they needed. Crush then reached over the counter and clicked the clerk’s pedometer twenty times before he left.
“Her day’s not going so well. Might as well help her with the fly count,” he reasoned as he joined the others in the parking lot. “Pound, our old friend Hunter is the mayor of a nearby town called Franklinville,” Crush reminded him. “I’ll bet he can help us get in touch with the Doc.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten the name of the county,” Pound replied. “What’s your plan?”
“I’ll follow along the road and see if I can’t get a ride to Franklinville. It might be for the best to take the supplies back to camp and ration them out to the people. We can’t hold them back for long, but we also need help getting them acquainted with the world as it is. The Doc can get everything else arranged.” Pound, Beni, and the Captain followed the markings back through the woods to the mountain while Crush thumbed a ride into town. Four cars passed him by without stopping over the next hour, and Crush started to wonder if he had made a wise choice.
“Pound might have had better luck. He doesn’t look like he’s wearing a Halloween outfit like I do,” he thought to himself as he smoothed back the hair on his cat ears. “With the kilt on, he could shine his calves for the locals, too. They’d probably like that,” he thought with a grin.
After walking for another hour, he reached a stop sign where the road ended at a junction with a four-lane highway. Several cars passed by every minute, and it was not long before a brown beater from the ‘70’s chanced to pick him up.
“Heading to Franklinville,” he told the lady driver, and she stared at his ears while he sat in the front passenger’s seat. “Costume party,” Crush said with a grin, and she shifted the car into drive and blew a puff of cigarette smoke out the window.
“I hope you’re not planning on winning any prizes,” she said with the long white cigarette bouncing up and down between her lips. The ashes were an inch long, and by the burn marks on the carpet, she did not care. “I can take you there. What’s your name?”
“Thanks, ma’am. S. S. Crush is my name, but my friends just call me Crush,” he admitted. She placed her hand coolly around the cigarette and flicked the dangling ashes out the window. Twenty minutes later, they pulled into a parking spot outside the Franklinville town offices, and Crush thanked her for the ride, though the conversation had been sparse. She saluted him with two fingers and thumped a burning filter out into the middle of the street. Then she left, and Crush realized that he had never gotten her name. He decided against ever trying to find out, and he walked into the open offices to find Mayor Hunter relaxing with a newspaper in a corner chair.
“Mayor Hunter!” Crush called out, and the newspaper came down with a start. The mayor snapped his fingers and pointed at Crush with a smile.
“Crush, right. How the heck have you been?” he said as he stood up and walked over for a friendly handshake. Crush obliged him, and they talked about old times for a little while. “You’re looking pretty rough, there buddy. Do you need to come by the house to clean up?” Crush had not thought much about how raggedy he must look, but now that the mayor mentioned it, he was covered with dirt and grass stains from head to foot.
“I’ll take you up on it. I could also use your phone to call the home office while I’m at it,” he said.
“Sure, sure, no problem. I’ve got some clothes your size, too,” the mayor offered. “Let’s go ahead and make the call from here before we leave since the nationwide calls from here aren’t considered long distance.” Crush dialed up the home office, and there was no answer, only the machine. After three tries, Crush left a voice message for the Doc about their circumstances.
“Mayor, do you have a pen and a notepad?” Crush asked exhaustedly. “I need to write a report for the home office.”
“Sure,” the mayor said as he handed Crush a chewed up ball point pen and several sheets of blank printer paper. “We can staple your book report together when you’re done.” Crush was not sure if that was an attempt at humor, but the comment made him smile none the less. It was a terrible story that he would have to scribe for the department’s archives, and ultimately, he would have to report that it was somewhat of a failure since Calvin Smith had not survived the journey home. If it had not been for the older gentlemen’s sacrifice, they may not have made it back at all, and Crush wanted anyone that read the report to understand Calvin’s heroism. “And what of the extra travelers we brought back?” he asked himself, but he resisted the temptation to list Beni, Colere, and Simon in the statement. He would be in enough trouble with Calvin’s death; he did not think he wanted to explain why he brought two giants and an intelligent monkey back to earth with him.
When he was finished, he stapled the pages together and sealed them in a large manila envelope. The mayor then did Crush another favor and drove him over to his own home to clean up, and he promised to help Crush out with whatever was going on at Faraway Mountain.
The DAM office phone rang and rang and rang, and the strange man sat next to the empty desks in the darkened room and waited for the answering machine. After listening to the message closely, he pulled down one of the blinds and peered outside the building to find a busy city bustling by. The office had been closed for several days now. The agency was shut down for restructuring, and yet here was a phone call from one of the missing agents.
“Curious,” he thought to himself. “The Director will want to hear about this,” he whispered as he placed a call on his cell phone. It would not do to use the office phones in the building where he could be so easily tracked.
Queen Dowager cursed her luck when Pound vanished into the mouth of the dragon. The prisoners, her sister, and the others had all escaped from her. The castle where she lived had been destroyed, and all that she had at her disposal now were these ragged warriors.
“My Queen, where have they gone?” Rodrick asked unwittingly. With her back turned to them, she threw her hands up in the air in defeat and walked away toward the forest to leave them behind. If she was going to start over anew, she would find giants that were brighter than this group. Rodrick and the others turned their backs on the mountain and scratched their heads in wonder at their Queen’s apathy. A sigh of hot air was exhaled behind them, and when they turned around to see the source, the dragon smiled as he inserted the missing tooth back into its slot in the roof of his mouth and placed the wounded Queenmother into the saddle on his back. To make matters worse, the severed wing had grown back in place, and there was a look of renewed strength that stretched across his scaly face.
“I believe I want to upsize my meal,” the dragon said as his midsection turned red from the building fire in his belly.
With their triumphant return from the Queenmother’s dimension and the successful redemption of the kidnapped slaves, Crush and Pound find themselves in the rural parts of North Carolina with the daunting task of resettling the redeemed on modern day earth. They need the help of the DAM to begin the restoration of the freed peoples of the mine, but they return to find the DAM is not the same organization as it was before they left. Meanwhile, Dr. Tatum and Seth Hogan begin a new adventure across the country to recover a retired World War I hero from the clutches of STUN.
Christopher Carter is an engineer by day, and transforms into a writer and artist by night. He lives with his wife and cat in central North Carolina.