Once upon a time there was a peasant boy named John Egbert. He was no ordinary peasant boy, of course, otherwise this story would be very boring. You see, John was actually an heir, not to any kingdom, but to his father’s pastry shop.
And he hated it. There was only so much he could take of the sweet smells day in and day out. Worse than the smell though was the occasional surplus his father refused to put back on the shelves the next day. While John was willing to dutifully put up with the cooking lessons to inherit the store one day, he refused putting the spare confections anywhere near his mouth. What he did instead of march with the offending tray of sweets up to his bedroom, where he would immediately dump them in his pack, crawl out the window, onto the roof, up one side, down the other, down the gutter pipe, and onto the dumpster in the alley. From the alley, John was free to scamper into the crowded streets without his father knowing a thing.
Prospit City was the crown city of the Prospit Kingdom. The vast golden palace where the king and queen resided could be seen from every corner of the city, but tonight, like all the nights for the past four years, the king was not home. The queen watched the kingdom in his place while her husband was off on the battlefield in the fringes of the kingdom and in the no man’s land known as Skaia set between Prospit and the enemy: Derse. The Dersite kingdom was said to be equal in wealth and power to Prospit, but the people there were possessed by cruelty and greed. Conflict between the two kingdoms had gone on almost as long as the kingdoms had existed, with full-scale warfare cropping up whenever peace seemed even a remote possibility. The current bloodshed regarded some nonsense about a kidnapped prince.
Luckily, John didn’t care much for politics. In fact, despite how beautiful his home city was, he felt his calling reached even beyond even that. Down side streets, through the guard tower with the broken lock, and down the grassy slope lay the Shade Forest, and deep inside, the Oil River. No one was technically allowed inside, since the woods were said to be haunted and full of the most dangerous sort of creatures, especially at night. John, however, had been inside loads of times, and had met nothing but cute salamanders, and the occasional harmless crocodile. Even the river itself wasn’t actually oil, but just a strange dark water that bubbled up from the rocky swamp where, despite the weather conditions in the city, a breeze was always whipping around.
It was the swamp and the forest where John came when the pastry shop became too stifling. Unlike himself, the creatures here adored his father’s sweets, and after years of visits from the boy learned to flock around when he came by. They were scary at first, and rightfully so for amphibians the size of human children, but in time John was able to reach out and pet them. In all the years he had been coming here, salamanders and crocodiles were the only creatures he had seen. Even birds, rabbits and squirrels, abundant everywhere else in the kingdom, seemed to avoid the swamp and forest. So John thought, at least, until he saw the crow.
For all he knew, the bird could have ended up in the swamp by accident. Its wings were stuck in the black mud but still they flapped desperately to break free. He couldn’t just leave it there!
“Hey, shhh, stop,” he cooed as he crouched down on a rock near the struggling creature. “Relax, I won’t hurt you.” The bird struggled harder, but not a sound left its throat. Its feathers were as black as the tar it was trapped in, and when it glared at John, its eyes were red like fire. Intelligent, even.
Hesitantly, he reached forward to touch the bird. Immediately his fingers were met with the sharp rap of a beak and he yanked them back and straight into his mouth with a curse. They tasted like blood. He removed them for a moment to stick his tongue out at the bird.
“I’m trying to help you, you know,” he grumbled. The bird, of course, didn’t understand. John’s hands hovered once more, looking for the right opportunity, and when the bird’s head was turned he struck, grabbing its neck between two fingers and swiftly pulling its wings free with the other. He could only hold it for a moment, and although mud still clung to its feathers, the bird was free. John dropped it on dry land and pulled his hands away as fast as he could to wipe on his pants.
Immediately, the bird tried to take off, but the mud was too heavy and its effort only served to splatter gobs of it in all directions. John laughed as he shielded his face from the foul goo.
“Hey, stop that!” he chuckled.
To his surprise, the bird did. With a ruffle of its feathers, it set its wings down so they didn’t touch the rest of its body, turned and tried to hop away.
“Oh no you don’t!” John lunged, catching it so its wings were trapped against its sides.
The bird gave an undignified squawk.
“I can’t just let you go,” he told it to its face. “We have to get you cleaned up first.”
The bird began to struggle again, but John had a good hold on it this time.
“If you can’t fly, you’ll die!” he insisted as he got to his feet. “Heh, look at that, I rhymed.”
The bird did not find it nearly as amusing, but by the time John was out of the swamp he wasn’t trying to fight as much. Up the hill they went, through the guard tower with the broken lock, and into the city streets. The sun was nearly set and the streets were starting to empty, so John hurried along at a run. When he arrived at his street, it became painfully apparent he’d never be able to climb back into his window with his hands full. If he was lucky, his father was in the back room and he could sneak in through the shop. A peek through the front window proved it so, but even then John tiptoed silently as he could to the stairs before dashing up as fast as his legs could carry him. He burst into his room just as his father’s inquiring voice sounded from downstairs.
“Shit,” he swore to the bird. “Shit, okay.” He looked around the barren room frantically until his eyes fell upon one of his dirty shirts. Clamping the bird to his side to free up a hand he grabbed for it and tossed it on his bed, then plopped the bird on top.
“Stay right there,” he hissed. “I’ll be right back.”
If only he could retrieve and fill a washing basin without running into his dad. Unfortunately, the basin was in the kitchen behind the shop, so there was no way around it. He would just have to do it as quickly as possible. When he burst into the back room, his father by the counter stirring a great vat of batter.
“Evening, John!” he smiled.
John ignored him and dove for the pantry. He knocked several pots over yanking the basin out.
His father stopped stirring. “What’s the hurry, sport?”
“Oh, uhh,” John opened the faucet to full capacity over the basin and risked a glance over his shoulder. “I...dropped a cupcake. And I don’t want to it to stain the carpet, so I’m going to clean it really fast.”
His father’s grin widened. “That’s very responsible of you,” he said. “I’m proud of you, son.”
“Thanks, Dad,” John replied guiltily. The basin wasn’t filling fast enough.
“What’s that all over shirt?”
John looked. There was a large splatter of black mud where he had held the bird to his briefly, and more mud caked to his boots.
“I, um, spilled my ink, too,” he lied.
“Is everything alright?” his father frowned. “It sounded like a lot of noise a moment ago.”
“Everything’s under control!” John chirped as he screwed the faucet off and heaved the basin into his arms. “I got this. Thanks, Dad!”
His father gave John a wave as the boy fled the kitchen. Although some water sloshed out on the way, the basin was still mostly full by the time John pushed his bedroom door open with his backside.
As he set it down, he said, “Okay, now I just gotta go get the soap and--”
And then, if the basin hadn’t already been on the ground, he would have dropped it. He probably would have screamed, too, if not for his dad downstairs under the illusion that everything was fine. But everything was not fine, because where there had once been a black, muddy bird on his bed, there was now a pale, muddy teenage boy with windswept blond hair, peculiar black markings lacing across his skin, and not a scrap of clothing.
The boy gave a nod in his direction.
Four or five questions fought their way to make it out of John’s mouth at one. All he ended up with was, “who-- how--” and then with a regrettably aimed flick of his eyes his expression scrunched in disgust, “why?”
The blond boy stretched and reclined back on the no longer clean pillow with his arms behind his head. He couldn’t have been much older than John, almost out of the limbo stage between kid and adult. It was hard to tell with the lights off and the sun past the horizon, but there was something weird about his eyes.
“Like what you see?”
John put up his palm to, from his view at least, give the stranger some decency.
“How did you get in my house?” seemed the most pertinent question.
“How do you think,” the stranger shrugged.
John stared. Then, very hesitantly as if the stranger could flash to a different location in heartbeat, darted his eyes around the room. It was completely unchanged, nothing moved, nothing stolen, not even any trace of clothing that the stranger might have discarded, the last of which John didn’t know if he should find more unsettling or less. In either case, this guy was out of his mind.
John must have been silent for too long, because the stranger invited himself to answer John’s unasked question.
“Front door. You even carried me to the bed and everything.” Sitting up lazily, he flicked a strand of hair out of his face. “Afraid I’m saving my purity for marriage though.”
John gaped. “What? Huh? I didn’t-- I brought in a bird.” Again he tore his eyes away from the lunatic to survey his bedroom, but the crow was nowhere in sight.
Meanwhile, the stranger spread his tattooed arms like a magician presenting his illusion, but his face stayed completely flat.
John frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Bird’s right where you left it,” the stranger replied, pointing down at the shirt he was sitting on.
“You’re sitting on him?!” John exclaimed, actually moving his hand out of the way for a second to get a look and suddenly finding himself extremely uncomfortable.
The stranger’s brows furrowed slightly, but before he open his mouth, John interjected a much more pressing question.
“And why are you naked?”
There was movement downstairs. The peasant boy hurriedly shut the door as the stranger on his bed shrugged and said something John didn’t catch over being too focused on his father’s voice calling from downstairs if everything was alright. Shit.
“I’m okay,” he called back, sounding anything but as he pressed his back to the shut door.
“Chill out,” the stranger told him as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.
John gave him an exasperated glance.
“As I was saying,” the blond teenager continued, ”feathery assholes don’t need clothes, but if you wanted to lend me some pants that’d be great.”
“No way, dude,” John wrinkled his nose. “You’re all dirty.”
“Welp.” The stranger wiped a muddy hand down his muddy chest. It did not make him any cleaner. “Guess I better go take a bath then.”
He stood, and John could only gape as he waltzed up to him. The idea of being that close to a dirty, naked, crazy guy repelled him away from the door as the stranger approached. Only when he stepped into the hallway did John’s brain hit the panic button.
“Wait--” he hissed, and stopped. Below, he could hear his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Chattering curses under his breath faster than his mouth could form them, he scuttled into the hall and shoved the stranger forward at a run, swiftly sending them both to the bathroom and locking the door behind just in time for his father’s footsteps to sound into the upstairs hall.
“John?” the man’s voice called. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Uh, yeah! I just...really had to pee,” he called as he flicked on the lights. As if on cue, the sound of a stream of water hitting the bottom of the tub came from the other side of the small bathroom. John gave a dirty glance to his companion.
“Don’t look, dude,” the blond said as he positioned himself away. “I got a shy bladder.”
John turned back and pressed his ear to the door. By the sound of it, his father had gone to his room. The man liked to go to bed early and get up with the sun, so he could probably get away without any more suspicion if he kept quiet from now on.
Behind him, the roar of the water being turned on nearly made him jump. When he spun back around, the stranger was plopping down in the tub.
“You know how to clean yourself, right?” John asked hesitantly. For a man that couldn’t dress himself, it seemed like a necessary question to ask.
“Totally,” the blond replied, holding up a bar of soap. “I eat this, right?”
The look John gave him must have been really something, because for a second the stranger’s poker face broke into a smirk. “You’re really gullible, aren’t you?”
Before John could ask anything else, he dunked the soap under the stream of water and demonstrated that he did in fact know the proper procedure on his arm. John didn’t realize he was staring at the black markings entwining the teenager’s body, twisting, jagged, and symmetrical across both halves of him, until the other snapped his fingers a few times to focus John’s attention.
“You still in there?”
John blinked and immediately turned away to stop looking. “Sorry,” he squeaked and fumbled with the doorknob. “I’ll go get you some clothes.”
He wasn’t sure why he said that, since weird naked guys wearing his clothes was pretty much as creepy as it got, but he only realized as much once he was safely out in the hall. Trying and failing to fight off a shudder, John slipped as silently has he could back into his room. Black mud had made a bigger mess of his bed and floor that he originally thought. Additionally, the window was shut, as he had left it, which meant the bird still had to be in here, right? Birds didn’t just turn into people, as the stranger seemed to suggest. That was stupid. Stupid stupid dumb. Instead of looking for the bird, however, John first changed into his pajamas before digging through his closet to find the biggest shirt and pants he could. He didn’t know if what he wore would fit, but wearing something too big was better than trying to squeeze into something too small. After dropping the bundle through a crack in the bathroom door, John went back to strip his bed and use the sheets to mop the mud off the floor with the help of the wash basin from earlier. Once everything was snugly in the hamper and the bed was remade, he went back into the hall with the basin only to find that although light in the bathroom was still on, the door was swung open. Further inspection showed that, not counting the mess of soaps and suds in the tub, the room was empty. The stranger was missing, and John’s clothes with him.
Before he could begin to wonder where he had disappeared off to, a crash came from the floor below. Abandoning the basin, John scrambled downstairs into the kitchen. There, cupboards were flung open, a pot was rolling around on the floor, and the stranger was standing next to the open refrigerator with a bowl of cake batter in his arms, eating it off his fingers. At the very least, he was clothed this time.
“What are you doing?” John whispered as loud as he could.
“What does it look like?” the stranger asked, pulling a finger out of his mouth with an indulgent pop.
John stormed over and yanked the bowl from his hands. “You can’t eat this! It’s probably bad for you raw.”
“So?” he reached for the bowl back, unperturbed.
“So. Don’t eat it,” John told him, holding it out of his reach before shoving it back in the fridge with a note of finality.
“Fine, what else you got?” the stranger lightly shoved his gracious host aside to get a better look. “I’m fucking starving to death over here.”
“Can’t you go get your own food?”
“I’m what you might call homeless,” the stranger began as he chucked a container of yogurt over his shoulder with disgust. John scrambled to catch it before it exploded all over the linoleum. “But not really. Can’t tell you much more than that. Shame, the story is riveting.”
Fuck, there was a homeless guy raiding the fridge.
“Why are you here? What do you want from me?” John tried.
“Anything but birdseed,” the stranger shuddered. “Fuck birdseed.”
“No, I mean-”
“Aha!” the blond exclaimed, hoisting high a jug of cider. Before John could protest, he twisted the top off and drank straight from the bottle.
“I mean in my house, in general,” John corrected when the stranger came up for air. Why he waited that long he didn’t know, except for maybe the novelty of never seeing anyone gulp anything that fast. It was mesmerizing.
“I’m pretty sure we went over this, uh...” He waved his hand in the other boy’s direction.
“...John. You brought me inside, remember? Never asked you to.”
“I brought home a bird,” John insisted.
“And that bird was me,” the stranger finished for him and took another swig.
“No it wasn’t.”
The stranger lowered the jug and cocked an eyebrow.
“Birds don’t turn into people,” John continued.
“And wouldn’t I give anything if people didn’t turn into birds. Seriously though, I can’t talk about this.”
“It’s a long story,” the stranger shrugged as he lifted the jug back to his lips.
John crossed his arms stubbornly. “I’ve got time.”
The stranger continued to drink, but when he came up for air John had not moved.
“Look,” he said as he drew his (John’s!) sleeve across his mouth. “What’s the big deal?”
John tapped his foot.
“Oh wow,” the stranger’s red, red eyes flicked down. “That’s really threatening.”
The stranger gave him a look up and down. “You really wanna know?”
The stranger pursed his lips and after a moment of contemplation, said the last thing John would have expected.
“Alright, imagine you’re an evil wizard.”
The heir’s look went from serious to confused.
“Just go with me here, man.”
John held the disbelieving look a moment longer before relenting. “Fine, I’m imagining.”
“And you wanted to curse someone.”
“Would you want them to go blabbing about the details of the curse and how to end it?”
“I guess not...”
“Then there you go,” the blond finished decidedly and brought the jug to his lips again.
John dropped his arms. “Wait, so are you saying you’re cursed...?”
The stranger lowered his drink only long enough to sing, “Ding ding ding! We have a winner ladies and gentlemen!”
“...to be a bird? And not talk about it?”
This time he just got a thumbs up for an answer.
“Will you stop that?” John stamped his foot. The jug was lowered again, this time because it was thoroughly drained.
The stranger wiped his arm with his sleeve again. “Don’t see what’s got your panties in a twist.”
“Maybe it’s the crazy homeless guy in my kitchen drinking all the cider and giving me weird excuses!” John exclaimed in another loud whisper as the threw his hands in the air for drama. “Also keep it down. My dad is sleeping.”
The blond, who had set the empty jug on the counter and was now pulling out a jar of tomato sauce, looked up, as if waiting for John to say more. When he didn’t, the stranger straightened up and retrieved a spoon from one of the thrown open drawers. Leaning against the counter, he started to wrestle open the jar.
“Sounds fucked up when you put it that way, but what are you gonna do?” The top came off with a pop and was discarded on the counter.
“Well...I..can...” John hesitated and raised two unsure fists. “I can kick you out.”
“‘Kay,” the stranger agreed through a mouthful of tomato gloop.
The fists dropped a few inches. “Aren’t you going to fight me?”
“Nah,” the blond shrugged. “I see myself out, but I need directions somewhere first.”
John dropped his defensive pose entirely. “Where?”
“I need to find,” he paused to spoon more tomato sauce in his mouth. “Prospit’s Keeper.”
“The Keeper of the Guardian.”
“Oh! That Keeper.”
you don’t know what they’re talking about, right?
that’s okay! it’s my job to explain this stuff :D :D :D
we’re going to have to rewind a little though, hang on!!!
Once upon a time, there were no cities, and people lived simply on their farms. Then one day, the Great Guardian came into existence. With his help, the people were able to construct the greatest kingdom on earth. It was a sprawling cosmopolitan superpower, capable of bringing peace and harmony to all the world, as well as everyone’s destruction. The kingdom was so vast, in fact, that two capital cities had to be constructed; one was built of gold, the other of black diamond. Over time, the people of the two cities grew resentful of each other, each claiming their city was the better and worthy of housing the Great Guardian. The argument soon threatened to bring down the whole kingdom, so the Great Guardian did the only thing he could: he split himself, and the kingdom, in two. To the golden city, he gave the white Guardian and to the diamond, the black. The two new kingdoms came to be known as Prospit and Derse, from the cities that controlled them.
Unfortunately, the Great Guardian’s halves were unstable. One could not control itself without the other, and their powers leaked, causing havoc to the cities that housed them. The kings and queens were forced to relocate the Guardians as far from their capital cities as they dared, creating the need for powerful magicians to keep the beasts in check. Each kingdom appointed a witch or wizard known as a Keeper to protect their Guardian, and while their location was no secret, powerful protective spells shielded the hallowed places from harm. Even in times of war, one kingdom never dared attack another’s Keeper.
did that make sense?
back to the story!
“Oh! That Keeper. Why the hell do you need to go there?”
“I need his advice,” the stranger shrugged in a way that was meant to be offhand.
“Her advice,” John corrected. The blond gave him a confused looked. “Prospit’s Keeper is a witch.”
The stranger waved his spoon as him. “Whatever. As long as she can work her hocus pocus shit and get me back to normal.”
“You don’t really need directions, though,” John thought aloud. “You just follow the main road east until it dead ends in the woods. Can’t take more than three days. Less since you can fly.”
The second the last part of that left his lips, John smacked a hand over his mouth, having essentially just admitted he believed the curse story.
“Cool. Let’s go,” the stranger replied as if he hadn’t noticed. John gaped at him as he set the jar of tomato sauce down and proceeded to the door.
“Well?” the blond asked from the doorway. “Are you coming?”
“I hate to break it to you, Jim, but lives could be on the line here,” he said, leaning against the frame. “So let’s motor.”
“But,” John stammered. “But...why do I have to come?”
“Look,” the stranger crossed his arms. “Three days there, three days back, right? Less than a week. What’s the harm, right?”
“But I still don’t--”
“I’ll get you back for this, Joey. Come on.”
The blond sighed and heaved himself from the doorway. His stare was intense enough that John wondered if he couldn’t see straight inside him as step by calculating step he came to stand right in front of his host. The stranger was taller, but not by much. Without realizing it, John held his breath. Suddenly, a hand was trust in his face.
“I swear on my honor you won’t regret this.”
John looked him up and down skeptically. “What honor?”
“Just shake the hand, John.”
He stared at the hand. The fingers moved slightly in response.
Six days. Six days that he’d get out of the pastry shop and go on an adventure to rid someone of a curse. Granted, that would mean trusting a complete stranger, but what possible reason could he have to do John harm? Besides, he’d been more than willing to help the bird, and it would be just rude to refuse now. Above all else, there was a pull in him that said the great outside destiny he always wanted was being presented to him here in this moment, in this little kitchen in a big city at the center of a country fringed by war. He’d be stupid not to take it.
Breaking out in a determined grin, John grasped the hand and gave it a shake firm enough jostle the stranger’s shoulder.
“Wow there,” the blond grimaced. “Easy.” When he tried to take back his hand, however, John refused to get go.
“You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Would if I could,” the stranger sighed.
John frowned at him again. “Give it a try.”
Again the stranger tried to pull his hand back and again John held fast.
With a grimace, he did. He opened his mouth, but what came out were not words. It was a loud, nasty bird-like caw, certainly not anything in the realm of a sound a human could produce willingly. He closed his mouth before it was completely drawn out, and didn’t look very pleased. The look didn’t last long, and was quickly replaced by one of complete indifference.
“And that happens every time I try to spill sensitive secrets.”
“I gotta call you something,” John argued at last.
The other teenager pressed his mouth into a line. After a moment of internal debate, he seemed to force himself into a decision.
“Dave,” he blurted out.
John still didn’t let go, and gave him the eye instead. “Is that anything close to your real name?”
“Sure,” the blond shrugged, looking, if anything, slightly uncomfortable. “Only my sibs call me that, though. Called.” The last word he whispered under his breath, but John caught it anyway and let go of his hand as he flashed Dave another reassuring grin.
“Then it’s settled! If we leave right before sunrise, we can probably hitch a ride on some wagons heading out into the country. Until then, we gotta clean up the mess in here and upstairs.”
Dave looked around. “What mess?”
Over the course of the next hour, John remained unable to discern if the question and the act that followed was meant to be a joke.
sorry i’m not around this morning, i had to leave before you woke up. a friend of mine needs my help. i’ll be back in a week, so don’t worry about me, okay? i’m not a kid anymore. i brought lots of extra socks and my sweater even though it’s not even that cold out anymore, but i thought you’d want me to anyway. i packed some food too, and in case that runs out, i took some of our savings. not a lot! i’ll give it back if i don’t use it, promise.
i just have to do this one thing dad. i’d feel crumby if i didn’t. i hope you’re not too mad, but if you are you can definitely ground me forever when i get home. okay, maybe not forever.
It didn’t take long for the boys to find a cart headed east. It was already piled high with hay from the west and a few dozen crates of particularly foul smelling chickens, but the three burly men driving it out to their farm agreed to let Dave and John ride in the back. It was a bumpy ride. John sat in the back with his legs hanging over the edge. Behind him, Dave alone sat on top of the hay bales with his eyes to the sky. John had already begun to doze off when the blond plopped down beside him and nudged him awake with an elbow to the ribs.
“Watch this,” he whispered. John swatted at him sleepily but cracked an eye none the less.
In front of them, the golden spires of Prospit City were still visible, glowing faintly in the dawn. When the first ray of sunshine crossed the horizon, the golden towers burst to brilliant life. The whole city shined like a jewel in the landscape. John’s mouth hung open in silent reverie; although he had lived there his whole life, he had never seen the city at a distance at dawn. It was so gorgeous he completely ignored the little flash of green on the edge of his vision and the faint popping sound that accompanied it, but when he turned to get a look at Dave’s face, he was met with nothing. He looked down. Where the blond had been sitting was nothing but a heap of clothes.
John was about to poke it when it moved. He yelped when a sleek, feathered black head poked out of the folds. Unnaturally red crow eyes fixed themselves at John.
“Gosh,” he breathed. “Dave, is that you?”
The bird nodded and fluttered its wings to dislodge itself from the fabric. John reached over to help.
“Man, you weren’t kidding,” he muttered in disbelief.
Once free, the bird hopped away from the clothes and John was able to stuff them back in his bag, all the while looking back and forth between the marvel that was Prospit City and the marvel that was Dave as a crow.
“So, can you still understand me?” he asked.
The bird nodded again and began to pick at his feathers.
“Can you control when you change?”
Dave continued picking at his feathers without any discernible answer.
“Was it because of the sun?”
Still no answer.
“Are you ignoring me?”
Nothing. John tried poking him. It was hard to tell if the bird took offense, but he fluttered to a bale of hay out of reach none the less. John stuck his tongue out at him and ignored him right back. When he looked back to the road, he saw an old man leading a mule along the edge. He waved just to be friendly, but received only a weird look in return. After some thought, he reasoned it was probably for the raspberry he blew at a seemingly ordinary bird.
At least, John thought Dave was seemingly ordinary. When the cart drivers stopped for lunch, they immediately started giving the crow the evil eye and asking John all sorts of questions about what happened to his friend and how long the bird had been there. John was forced to make stuff up about how he hadn’t really noticed when the bird got there, and that he didn’t know what friend they were talking about because he was alone the whole time. This seemed to unsettle the farmers even more, and in the end one got out a shotgun and told John to start walking. Stiff-backed and sweating bullets, he did. A minute later, a red-eyed crow settled on his shoulder and couldn’t give a coherent answer as to, “what the fuck was that about?”
They walked until John’s stomach started to growl and he began to regret not eating while riding on the cart. Under a tree by the side of the road, he performed surgery on his sandwich which involved removing the top slice of bread without disturbing anything underneath, and devoured the bottom in three bites while watching Dave pull apart the top. Later, they stopped again so Dave could eat something that was either dead, garbage, or both. After that, the boy resigned to share meat from the sandwich as well.
The sun was still a good distance from the horizon when the boys came across a sign promising a village ten miles ahead. Ten miles, it turned out, was a damn long way. John, who knew nothing of walking long distance by foot, estimated it would take an hour. Three hours later they finally caught a glimpse of a settlement up ahead, which was right around the time Dave began to beat the shit out of John’s head with his wings. John flailed around to get him to bugger off, so the demented bird began attacking his pack instead. He must have looked ridiculous standing in the middle of the road, swinging his fists at a crow, though not as ridiculous as when the last of the sun dipped below the horizon and, one pop and one flash of green light later, he found himself standing next to a very irritated looking naked boy with intricate black tattoos. Apparently, attacking your face is bird speak for “please dump my clothes in the bushes, asshole.”
The town wasn’t a particularly large collection of houses, and the only inn doubled as the local bar. Since travelers among the main road weren’t exactly rare, no one paid any mind two more as they made their way to the counter and asked for a room. As John immediately set to bartering the price, Dave leaned against the bar and observed the other patrons. John paid him no mind.
After some haggling, he elbowed the blond to get his attention.
“Hey, that price sounds reasonable, right?”
Dave didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on a table occupied by two old men locked in a loud discussion.
“--and now on top of it all, I heard they had an earthquake, too,” said the first.
“About time,” agreed the second. “The Heavenly Council finally giving those bastards what they deserve.”
“Seems like we finally stand a chance of winning the war this time around instead of another ruddy stalemate again. Can’t wait to put those assholes in their place.”
“Stand a chance?” the second chuckled. “We can conquer the whole damn kingdom if we wanted. They’ll be begging us to after what that flood probably did to their crops.”
“What the flood didn’t get, that hurricane sure did.”
The men laughed and slammed their mugs together.
“To Prospit’s prosperity!”
“To Derse’s Demise!”
Dave grabbed John’s wrist so hard he yelped.
“We’re going,” the he told him through his teeth.
“But I’m about to pay,” John complained.
“Save it,” Dave hissed. The look of barely controlled rage on his eyes superimposed on a completely blank face was enough for John to let himself be forcefully pulled to the door. Dave didn’t stop when they got outside either, and it wasn’t until it became apparent that he was dragging him out of town all together that John dug his heels into the ground.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?”
Dave rounded on him, looking notably less enraged but still entirely too tense and angry. “To meet with the Keeper. The sooner we get there, the better.”
“Yeah, but we need to sleep, too,” John insisted. “We’re still really far away.”
Dave’s mouth pressed itself into a thin line. After scanning both sides of the street, he marched over to the last building on one side, a large barn, and peeking inside.
“You can sleep here,” he announced.
“But what about the--”
“Take it or leave it,” Dave snapped unexpectedly.
John studied his friend like the reason behind the outburst was written across his face. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Was he still angry about having to be naked in public for like a minute? Nobody was even around, and it was practically dark! It seemed like a silly thing to be so angry about it for so long, but for the life of him John couldn’t think of what else it could be. It felt like a good time to keep his mouth shut, even though the barn kind of smelled like manure and horse sweat. He spread out a blanket he brought on a pile of hay in the corner just to be on the safe side. Dave sat next to him with one leg drawn up to his chest.
“What’s wrong, man?”
The blond said nothing.
“Hey,” John called to him softly. The blond didn’t so much as look at him. “I’m sorry, okay, buddy?” He didn’t know what he was apologizing for, nor did he know what whether a snort meant the apology was accepted or not, but he felt like he had to say something. Although his head was suddenly too heavy for him, he still waited for a proper answer. None came. Gradually, even keeping his eyes open became to much of a burden for him.
At last, he sighed. “Goodnight.”
He wasn’t sure, but he might have heard Dave whisper the word back. In either case, the blond didn’t move. Even as John fell asleep, he still sat as still and tense as a stone, hair silhouetted in moonlight and eyes fixed unwaveringly on the road outside.
The next morning, John woke up to a crow pecking his face. He swatted at him, groaned, and rolled over, but even that didn’t deter the bird’s efforts. When at last he pushed himself up and dismantled another sandwich for breakfast, Dave barely pecked at the bread, even when John tossed him some sliced ham to go with it.
As soon as he was on his feet the crow soared up and out. For the rest of the day John had to practically chase him with the pace he’d set, and welcomed lunch with great relief. Dave ate a bit more this time, but even then managed to finish before John did and used the time to hop around impatiently. At one point an old woman walked past, as far from John as she could.
“You got the death omen around you, boy,” she croaked, pointing a thin, bony finger at Dave. “Beware!”
When John tried to ask her what she was talking about, the old crone scuttled away as fast as he legs could carry her. He decided to ignore her all together and resumed walking.
This time, there was no conveniently placed town up ahead. Just when John was considering doubling back to stay in the one they had left an hour or two back, Dave began to attack his face again and this time he knew better than to just stand there like a doofus.
Even in human form, however, Dave refused to explain what had gotten into him. He shrugged it off as wanting to be “free of this feathery bullshit as soon as fucking possible,” but John couldn’t say he entirely bought that excuse. He eased off, though, at least for now as exhaustion set in. The boys walked long into the night and would have kept walking if Dave had his way, if not for the rain that started as a drizzle and turned into a storm. They managed to squeeze themselves into a hollow tree before the real downpour began. John declared that it was “no homo” to sit with their legs entangled because there wasn’t any room otherwise, and promptly fell asleep.
Dave woke him just when the rain stopped. It was still early enough for him to be human, which meant it was way too early for John to be forced to get up, stomach yet another sandwich, and face another day of grueling walking. The sky was gray, the dirt road was muddy, and the sky continued to shower the boys with a light mist as they walked. An hour or so after lunch, the path narrowed and pressed deeper in the woods until at last it was just a thin trail. Dave, back in his bird form, zipped back and forth as he scouted ahead, but it was another hour more before the crow’s cry alerted John that they had arrived. He broke into a sprint, tripping over the roots underfoot and pushing his way through brambles. When he broke out of the trees, there was no question that they had arrived.
Before them, the ground cut out into a cavernous valley. A wall of white clouds swirled in the center, and despite the overcast day, the sky above was a pristine blue. As John stood gaping, the clouds slowed and thinned until there were but a few of them, mingled among floating islands of fresh grass and wildflowers. In the center was the biggest island of all. It, too, was crammed thick with plant life, but an enormous glass dome the size of a palace resided among the greener. The most miraculous thing, of course, was that the entire setup was floating, spinning gently above a fall of certain death.
John’s attention was brought back to earth by Dave landing on his shoulder.
“So I guess this is it, huh?” he asked. “How do you think we’re supposed to get across?”
The bird ruffled its feathers, a gesture John had come to interpret as Dave shrugging.
“Maybe you could fly across and I’ll just wait here?”
As if in answer, the ground below John’s feet suddenly vibrated. He dropped into a crouch as it started to shift, sending Dave’s claws scrambling to stay on his shoulder. With an ear-splitting crack the piece of land detached itself from the cliff side and floated smoothly into the swirling clouds. With the greatest care John risked standing up, finding the feat easier than expected. He glanced back and the shrinking forest, then ahead at the approaching glass dome, then down at the abyss, and chuckled nervously. The chuckled quickly escalated into full on laughter as he spread his arms wide to welcome the wind whipping his hair. It felt like flying! Was this what Dave got to do all day? To be able to do this whenever he wanted, John would trade places with him in a heartbeat.
With a shudder, the chunk of cliff came to a halt against the largest island. The collision was enough to knock John gracefully onto his hands and knees, and as he dusted himself off got his first impression of just the scale of the building towering before him. As soon as he stepped onto the large island though, the piece that had brought him there swept back. John watched it join the other satellites before Dave nipped his ear as a signal that he should keep going. This John did, stepping around some kind of exotic tree to find himself face to face with the tallest doorway he had ever seen. The knocker was too high up for him to even consider trying to reach, and as an offhand attempt he tried to just pull one of the doors open himself. Miraculously, it was unlocked, and even more miraculously, both doors creaked open on their own after John edged the first open a crack. The sound echoed throughout the grand entrance hall they revealed. When the noise stopped, John leaned forward and peered inside curiously.
It looked like a ballroom from a fairytale, with one notable difference. Around the room were piled heaps and heaps of things. Toys and furniture and rugs and boxes and weapons and jewels and trinkets and knickknacks and doohickeys of every kind adorned every wall and reached all the way to the ceiling everywhere but in a large path cleared from the door to the staircase on the other side. The stairs wrapped around the room and up onto platforms lined with doors leading presumably to elsewhere in the house.
“John!” a voice called from somewhere. “You’re here!”
The boy started and immediately set to trying to find its origin, only to finally locate it waving at him excitedly from the stairs. It was a woman, and a young woman at that, with big round spectacles, long dark hair, and a golden dress. Her grin was so infectious John couldn’t help but smile and wave back. Her face positively lit up when he noticed her, and scooping up the hem of her dress, she pattered briskly down the rest of the way and across the entrance hall to meet the visitors.
“Welcome!” she sang. Her friendliness had the force of making even the most awkward of teenagers feel like an old friend.
“Hi there,” John answered. “Sorry we just sort of let ourselves in. How did you know my name?”
“I’ve been expecting you,” she beamed as if that explained everything.
“Oh,” John glanced over at Dave. “Well, we’re, uhh, looking for the Keeper actually.”
“I know!” the girl giggled, extending her hand for John to shake. “Jade Harley, pleasure to meet you!”
John shook it, unsure of where this was going.
“What can I do for you boys?”
It took a moment of blinking at her wide-eyed sincerity before it finally hit John.
“Wow, wait, you’re the Keeper?!”
She laughed. “That’s right!”
“Gosh, I’m sorry!” John stammered. “It’s just that when I think of the Keeper I think of an old witch or something! ...Not that I think you’re old or anything! Or a witch. I mean, um, you’re probably magical being a Keeper and all but you’re so young and--”
Dave ruffled his feathers, accidentally or not knocking a wing into John’s face. The boy went slightly pink.
“Anyway, I’m, uhh, the reason we’re here is about my friend,” he finished, pointing to his shoulder.
Jade turned her acid-green eyes to the crow and frowned slightly as she turned her head this way and that to get a look at him.
“Wow, he has a nasty spell on him,” she deduced. “What’s his name?”
“Dave,” John replied. “Or something like that. He can’t tell me the rest.”
“Oh no,” Jade cooed as raised her hand to the bird. “May I?”
John opened his mouth to answer, but Dave nodded before he could say anything. Since she had been asking the bird after all, Jade took the nod as permission to gently stroke the crow’s head with her finger. As soon as her hand made contact, a ripple of electricity buzzed through the room. John tensed, but for a second mistook it as some kind of magic until a vicious growl sounded from up on the platform. Three heads turned to see something enormous like a white dog leap down onto a pile and bound down it, sending things sliding and toppling to the floor. When he landed on the floor, the pressure in the room suddenly skyrocketed and the beast began to grow and sizzle with green energy. It’s fangs bared down on John, who would have run for it if his feet weren’t frozen in place.
Jade, on the other hand, had no such reaction.
“Bec!” She huffed with a stamp of her foot. “Bad boy! Down!”
The beast grew quiet and sat, shrinking back to the size of a large dog so quickly John for a second thought he had imagined its size. As the thing’s presence dissipated, the boy was surprised to find a trickle of blood coming out of his nose. Meanwhile, Jade was scratching the beast behind the ear.
“What is that thing?” John asked as he wiped the blood with the back of his hand.
“This is Bec!” Jade chirped like it made all the sense in the world. “He’s the White Guardian.”
John swallowed, suddenly all too aware that he was in the midst of one of two of the most powerful beings in the universe. “Does he always do that?”
“No,” Jade frowned. “I don’t know what came over him! It might have something to do with the magic surrounding Dave though.”
“Does that mean you’ll be willing to help us?” John asked hopefully.
“Of course!” Jade exclaimed happily. “Did you bring payment?”
“Uhh...” John’s stomach sank. He hadn’t known he needed to bring payment. All he had was the money he borrowed from his dad, and that wasn’t very much.
“It’s just the rules, John, I’m sorry. Anything will do, even something ordinary,” Jade assured. “What’s in your bag?”
“Well,” John began as he shrugged it off his shoulder. Kneeling down, he dug inside and took inventory. “I have some bread and cheese, and some clean clothes, and fifty boondollars, and a blanket--”
“Let me see the blanket,” Jade interrupted.
Perplexed, John pulled it from his bag. “It’s a little dirty,” he apologized as he handed it to her.
“This is perfect!” she declared excitedly as she studied the childish print. “You have yourself a deal!”
“Really?” John asked as he shouldered the pack again.
“Absolutely,” Jade smiled. “Hold on a moment.”
She clutched the blanket and closed her eyes. For a second, nothing happened. Then John blinked and the blanket was gone. Before he could ask anything, Jade turned and motioned for them to follow her to the stairs.
“You can’t talk about your curse, right Dave,” she asked, peeking over her shoulder when they reached the platform.
He shook his head.
“I don’t know if I can fix that, but,” she offered him a reassuring smile. “I have a way for you to show us what happened.”
With Dave on his shoulder, John followed the Keeper through one of the doors. Bec trailed behind, much to John’s discomfort. The hallway then came into was wide, though made significantly narrower by the countless rows of suits of armor lining the walls. The whole hall curved with the building, without a single door except the one at the very end, which Jade threw open with a flourish.
It opened into another large room, this one perfectly circular. Light screamed in from a hole in the ceiling floors above, lighting up a strange arrangement in the middle of the floor. The only things in the room were seven chairs, each positioned on one of eight designs akin to transmutation circles from the days of the old alchemists. The circles were arranged in yet another ring. None of the seats matched, however, ranging in style from a simple iron chair to a pale blue throne, to something that looked eerily like an indigo electric chair, complete with done up restraints. The others present were teal, green, brown, and mustard yellow. The transmutation circles were all the same to John’s untrained eye however, save for the empty one which was much smaller.
Jade, on her way to the beginning of a staircase that curled several times around the room to the very top, noticed John looking.
“That’s where the Red Council is summoned,” she informed him.
One foot on the staircase, John froze.
“W-wait, you don’t mean like the Heavenly Council, do you?”
For some reason, the question caused Jade to laugh so hard it took her several false starts to get her sentence out. “Don’t let them hear you say that!” she snorted. “They’re anything but heavenly. But yeah, that’s them. Part of them, anyway.”
John had to jog to catch up, and was glad to note that Bec remained at the bottom of the stairs and didn’t follow. Dave on the other hand, jostled by the sudden brisk pace, took off.
“All the way to the top,” Jade pointed for him. The crow sped ahead, leaving Jade to address John again. “Anyway, I don’t summon them often. They’re kind of a hassle!”
“But,” John still had a hard time wrapping his head around any of it. “I thought the Council was just a bunch of stories. Gods don’t really exist.”
“Oh, but they do,” Jade replied. Although she wasn’t looking back, John could hear the twinkle in her eye from her voice. “Except they’re not as regal as everyone seems to think!”
He had no reply to that, and by the time he half formed one, it was too late to speak up. Higher and higher they climbed until at last, both thoroughly out of breath, they reached the ladder to top. John was the last out. All it took was one look around for his breath to catch in his throat.
Jade had lead them out to roof, the very very top of the glass dome palace and the epicenter of the spinning clouds. From here, they were not just fluffy and white; each was playing a scene, like so many clips from so many movies; there was Prospit City, there a snowy hillside, there a lake with a pink island and something blue shooting from the water, there was a land checkered like a chess board.
“Like it?” Jade asked, grinning ear to ear again. “I come here all the time. It’s the only place where you can see the cloud’s visions.” John nodded, mesmerized. Jade laughed and grabbed his arm. “Over here.” She pulled him closer to the edge, not far from where the roof became too steep, and pushed him down to sit. “Alright, Dave,” she turned and pointed to a white spike topped with a ball situated on the highest part of the roof. “Go sit there and focus as hard as you can on your memories.”
The bird shifted from leg to leg and puffed up its feathers.
“I need to see what happened to you so I can fix you,” Jade told him sternly. Couple with a brief stare-off, her words seemed to do the trick. As Dave flew off, she settled herself next to John and slipped her arm around his. “Watch this,” she whispered.
As soon as the crow touched the ball at the top of the spire, the clouds grew dark with an impending storm. The pictures on them flicked out in unison, and with a rumble of thunder, were replaced by new scenes entirely.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
A large portrait hangs in a dark hall, locked in an elegant purple frame. Before a backdrop of the Dersite flag stands a man in regal robes. On his head sits a crown identical to that of the Prospitan king’s in all but its color. A shadow from elsewhere in the room casts a shadow across his face, but his eerie blue eyes are still visible on the canvas. Beside him is seated a blond woman with eyes of lavender, donned in the same regal robes and the crown of a queen. In her lap is a little girl, no more than five or six of age but with an intimidating intelligence in her equally lavender eyes. On her mother’s other side stands a boy perhaps in his mid teens. He bears the uniform of a high-ranking military officer, complete with a sword at his hip, but with a silver crown worn only by the Heir Apparent. The shadow that obscures the king stretches over his eyes as well, and his right hands rests on the shoulder of the fifth and final person in the portrait; a little blond boy, the same age as the girl, also draped in formal military attire and also bearing a sword, gazes out of the painting with red, red eyes.
Suddenly, the shadow across the painting jumps as the room is lit up by green light. First only a flash, then darkness before the green light comes zapping back in blinding quantities. The only shadow on the wall now is that of a man. He doubles over as if in pain, but the only sound to be heard is that of the building storm. His outline grows fuzzy for a moment, but when he painstakingly straighten up, the canine ears atop his head are unmistakable. He raises a hand upward and his shadow is blotted out by the light he himself emits.
When that cloud slides from view, smaller clouds around it become apparent for the first time. There is the blond girl, older now, perhaps early teens, weaving a strand of light from a wand in her hand in an attempt to make a bowl of water bend to her will. There are the brothers, locked in a sword fight of fierce attacks by the younger and effortless blocks and jabs by the older. There is the queen on her throne.
All at once, green lightening flashes across the three clouds, and all the characters in them whirl around to stare at something the clouds don’t show. The girl raises her wands, the boys their swords, but the queen has only time to stand before green light shoots at her and engulfs her. She opens a mouth in a scream that cannot be heard, and when the light fades she is gone. Nothing is left of her but a ring which clatters to the floor. Coal black fingers reach down to pluck it up before the image vanishes entirely.
Meanwhile, the girl does not fare much better. She launches spells at the unknown attacker, but each is deflected in turn until the green light is turned on her. She dodges, jumps, tries attacking again only to be forced to block the green magic. In the end, it is too strong for her.
If anyone stands a chance, it is the older brother. He’s impossibly fast, faster even than when he was training a moment ago. His attacker, a dogman with skin blacker than obsidian and sizzling with green fire, is forced to abandon conventional magic and match the Dersite prince on his terms with a black blade he pulls seemingly from his own chest. The younger brother, unable to stand by and watch, tries to help. With his inferior skill he stands no chance of keeping up, and the attacker practically pays him no mind until a lucky swipe comes close to nicking his ear. Now the dogman has reason to turn his attention to the younger boy. His killing strike is so quick it is easily missed by the untrained eye, but the older brother is quicker.
Elsewhere, unlike her mother, the sister does not vanish. The light envelopes her for much longer, but when it dissipates the girl is changed. Her skin bubbles dark gray, her expression wiped completely, and her eyes are white and void. Something ripples around her neck, like liquid being disturbed on the surface of an invisible object. A shimmering chain stretches from her neck to a black clawed hand adorned with the queen’s ring. With a slight tug, the girl raises herself to her feet and follows where the chain leads her without a hint of struggle. In the throne room, she sits, unfeeling, in the chair her mother had once occupied. The collar around her neck shimmers once more and suddenly she is the spitting image of the queen. Next to her, a crow thrashes around in a bird cage.
In a neighboring cloud, the younger brother is thrown upon the floor unharmed. He looks back, and an expression of abject horror flashes across his features as a droplet of blood splashes on his cheek. His brother’s sword clatters to the ground by his feet.
Without warning, every cloud was wiped clean and white. Johns turned around in time to see Dave take off from view. Next to him, Jade was shaking slightly.
He leaned down to get a better look at her face. “Are you okay?”
“He fused,” she muttered softly. “He fused with the Black Guardian. That’s...that’s...”
“What? Who? Is that bad?”
“Derse’s Keeper!” she cried. “Such a thing is unthinkable! It goes against the Oath! Against nature!” Bec was beside her in a flash and she threw her arms around him. “How can any Keeper do that to their best friend?!”
John gently patted her shoulder, wary of the beast less than a foot away.
“That’s just Derse for you, I guess,” he shrugged.
Jade rounded on him. Her eyes were dry but that didn’t make her look any less devastated.
“You can’t generalize like that, John!” she chided. “They might not think like us, but that doesn’t make them all monsters! We’re all the same, really. Deep down.”
The boy made a face like he didn’t quite believe her. All his life he’d been surrounded by anti-Dersite propaganda. They were greedy and vicious and cruel, and all they ever wanted was to burn Prospit to the ground. They were tyrants, and some might say they deserved what they got.
On the other hand, there was Dave. Or, well, Prince Dave, though the concept was near impossible to wrap one’s head around. He wasn’t exactly what John would call a nice person, but he certainly wasn’t evil. They had only known each other three days, and most of the time one of them couldn’t talk, but John already felt like he’d known him for ages, and if there was one thing he wasn’t willing to do, it was turn his back on a friend, even if he was a Dersite.
In the mean time, Jade had gotten to her feet. She still looked a little shaken, but at least she was managing.
“I need to consult on this,” she declared. “Do you mind?”
“Uhh, mind what?”
“Staying here,” she explained even as she hurried for the opening they had come from with Bec at her heels. “I don’t think it’s a good idea if you interrupted.”
John looked from her to the direction that Dave disappeared in, and back again. “But what about--”
“Prince David needs some time to himself, I think,” she frowned. “Stay here and wait for him, would you?”
John stood as well and saluted her. “Sure thing!”
Jade gave him a thankful smile and disappeared, closing the hatch tightly behind her. The boy was left alone on the roof with the clouds, which showed no signs of the storm that had been coming to a crescendo just moments before. Instead, they were fluffy, white, and showing various scenes like they had been when John first arrived. He could spot a few places in them he recognized, but most were a mystery to him. Then again, it was to be expected; this trip was the farthest he’d ever been from home.
As he walked over to the other side of the building, toward the direction Dave flew off, he felt some kind of energy shudder beneath his feet. It wasn’t terribly noticeable until he sat back down, but that could have been because it surged so suddenly John’s ears rang, then ebbed off.
A boy’s voice could just barely be heard from below.
“Oh what the fuck is it now, Harley?”
“Shh,” said a girl’s voice that wasn’t Jade’s. “Someone is within auditory range of our meeting.”
“I’m on it!” A different female voice said, and before Jade could finish squeaking that that wasn’t necessary, John was out like a light.
He awoke to Jade nudging his shoulder. Lazily, he peeled an eyelid open, and was shocked to find Jade’s worried face surrounded by stars. A smile materialized across it as John bolted upright.
“Thank goodness your awake!” she grinned. “I was worried it might be stronger magic. Is Prince David back yet?”
“I don’t think so?” For not remember falling asleep, John actually felt pretty good. Well rested, even. Still, it took him a moment to connect who she was talking about “How long was I asleep?”
Jade bit her lip. “Six or seven hours,” she confessed. “I didn’t think it would take that long, but,” here her smile returned, “we have a plan now and everything!”
“That’s great!” John beamed. “A plan for what?”
“I’ll explain it all when you get back!”
“Oh, okay,” John nodded. “Wait! Where am I going?”
Jade grinned like she had a dirty little secret. “Bec!” she called. “Fetch the stuff we talked about!”
Although the dog demon was nowhere to be seen, a pile of junk zapped into existence beside the Keeper.
“Oh no!” she frowned. “Not this stuff.” She dug into it anyway. John recognized the blanket she had taken from him among the items, but she shoved right past it. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she yanked at something buried deep. “Never mind. Thanks Bec! Good boy!” The whole pile shifted and a blue handle became visible, but it was still far from dislodged. Jade pulled on it to no avail.
“Do you need help?” John asked. The girl nodded frantically. Together, they were able to tug the mysterious item free, though the boy ended up on his butt from the ordeal.
What they had pulled out was a double-headed hammer. A big, blue, double-headed hammer painted with curling blue designs. Jade held the handle out to him.
“Here!” she chirped. “It’s your now.”
John took it hesitantly and eyed the mallets. “I’m not sure I can even lift this thing, Jade.”
“Oh, it just takes practice!” she assured with a wave. “Now get on!”
“Yeah! Like a broom.” She mimicked for him the motion of mounting a broomstick. John hesitantly followed suit.
“Now you summon the breeze!” Jade threw her arms in the air. After a moment of doubt, John hesitantly tried to do the same, but she shoved him hands back to the hammer’s handle. “Just feel it,” she told him.
“But I don’t get how--”
“Focus!” she snapped, and John clamped his mouth shut, allowing his eyes to close too.
He tried to feel the cool material of the hammer in his hands, and focus on the breeze stirring a few hairs on his forehead. The breeze intensified slightly when he did so, but he doubted that was any of his doing. Readjusting his grip, he tried to will it to grow. There was no effect.
“Jade, I don’t think this is working,” he muttered with his eyes still shut tight.
“It is,” she insisted. “Just keep imagining it!”
This time, John tried to imagine a strong wind. He held his breath in anticipation as the wisps of air around him picked up again, but let it out when they slowed again. As he huffed, however, a gust hit him in the face. The impact made him gasp. The wind picked up.
“Jump!” Jade yelled next to him.
Without thinking too much about it, John jumped. The wind roared in his ears and tore at his clothes. He waited for the sensation of landing back on his feet, but it never came.
“Watch out!” the Keeper yelled, but her voice was coming from far behind. John opened his eyes just in time to see a cloud vision of an erupting volcano heading straight for him. In a panic, he tried to turn away and miraculously the hammer in his hands complied. The wind shifted, but he could still hear Jade cheering somewhere below.
John looked down. Directly underneath him were the floating islands, and beside them was the glass dome. Jade stood at the top, waving her arms. John waved back, a nervous giggle transforming into bubbles of laughter before he tried to will the breeze to bring him closer. It complied, shakily at first before speeding up to something a bit out of John’s control. He had a hard time keeping the hammer steady at first , and a harder time still landing. At the last second, he realized he was going way too fast and pulled up, skimming his shoes along the roof and nearly knocking himself off his seat. The accompanying breeze sent Jade’s hair flying in all directions, as well as lifting John’s blanket up into the air and away.
He was about to chase after it when Jade called out to stop him. “Don’t bother!” she yelled over the wind. “It’s going where it’s supposed to.”
Before John could ask what that meant, the Keeper tapped her glasses with her finger and the lenses glossed over purple.
“Prince David is that way,” she pointed. “No, wait, that way. Over there a little ways in the trees. Bring him back here!”
John nodded before squinting off in the indicated direction. With a wave of his hand the clouds began to part and just like that he was zooming off again toward the trees.
Unfortunately, Jade’s directions were not very helpful, especially in the dark. John whipped himself around the area she pointed to a few times until he caught sight of something in the leaves. He glided forward, but by the time he realized what he saw was an owl, it was too late to stop. Boy met foliage face first. The branches broke his fall mostly, but he was still dumped painfully on the forest floor by the end. The hammer thudded down next to him.
“Dave?” he called loudly, sitting up and rubbing his head. There was no response, so John climbed to his feet and heaved the hammer onto his shoulder. It was actually much lighter than expected for such a hefty-looking weapon. Not to say it wasn’t heavy, because it certainly was. “I mean, uhh, your Majesty.” He coughed and tried not to snicker when he said it, but addressing Dave like that sounded all kinds of weird.
“Think it’s funny, do you?” A voice sounded from behind him.
He spun around to see his friend emerge from behind a cluster of brambles.
John grinned before schooling himself into a more serious expression. “You okay? ”
“Oh, you know,” Dave shrugged. “Now that I’m done doing the most uncool thing and running away like a virgin from a pony show.”
John’s lip curled into an unwilling smile, but the prince’s expression stayed nothing if not perfectly flat.
“What’s that?” the Dersite indicated the hammer with his chin.
“Oh, this?” John let it fall forward from his shoulder. “I don’t know actually. Jade just sort of gave it to me.”
Silence settled over them and John got the distinct impression that Dave would stick his hands in his pockets if he had any. Which reminded him...
“I brought you some pants,” he said as he yanked the legwear from his backpack. Dave held out his hands and John tossed them to him before staring up at the stars through the leaves to give his friend some privacy. When the rustling stopped he looked back, and sure enough, hands were securely tucked away. He was slouched a bit, too, in a way that would look cool if his eyes didn’t give him away. Before John could remember yet again that this was a prince he was dealing with, and a Dersite at that, he let the hammer’s handle go, closed the distance between them in three strides, and hugged him.
Dave tensed but didn’t move until it became apparent John wasn’t letting go. At that point, he pried John’s forehead off his shoulder and pushed him away.
“Yup, enough of that.”
“Are you feeling better?” John asked as he watched the other’s face for even a flicker of dishonesty.
“Holy shit,” Dave replied. “Who ordered the sympathy parade? I’m fine. Get off.” He pushed the boy again and this time he complied.
“Let’s go back,” John suggested as he flashed Dave a smile and picked up his hammer. “Jade has big plans she wouldn’t tell me until you were there!”
Dave followed. “How are you on a first name basis with your country’s fucking Keeper this fast?”
“Am I not supposed to be?” John asked as he mounted the mallet and patted the space behind him.
Dave didn’t have a clever answer to that, nor did he seem very willing to get on the flying weapon.
“Come on!” John coaxed. “You’re not scared, are you?”
That did the trick. As John summoned the breeze once more, Dave asked, “are you sure this is safe?”
“Well, I’ve never done it with two people before,” John admitted. “In fact, I’ve only done it with me once!”
Dave started a protest that turned into a shout as the hammer jerked into motion. He was suddenly not all that opposed to hugs either, which made John laugh hard enough to end up with leaves in his mouth when they cleared the treetops. Their ride bucked a few times on the way back to Jade, and each time John found it in him to laugh at Dave’s reaction.
“I thought you’d be used to flying by now.”
“Shut it,” Dave ordered. “This is different.”
The second landing went much more smoothly, though both boys still ended up sprawled on the ground and it was only a lucky gust that saved John from sliding off the top of the roof all together.
“I told you you could do it!” Jade bounced. Next to her was a different pile of stuff, much smaller. The over pile was gone.
Dave made a show of brushing himself off while John bounded over next to him with hair sticking out at every conceivable angle. Jade assessed them both approvingly.
“Prince David?” Dave gave her a nod. “John B. Ebgert?” John still didn’t know how she knew his name, but decided to follow Dave’s example. Jade smiled and went on. “By the power invested in me by the the Council and Guardian, I am sending you both on a mission to right a great wrong. Do you choose to accept it with the knowledge that you may both lose your lives in the process?”
Without skipping a beat, Dave answered, “I do.”
John took a bit longer. “If Dave’s going, I’m going too!” he decided at last. Jade beamed.
“Very good. What you’ll have to do is make your way to Derse City and into the palace undetected. Once there, you’ll have to kill Derse’s Keeper. He’s dangerous and neigh unbeatable, but separating him from the Black Guardian is the only hope we have of saving Derse. Also,” she turned to Dave, “I’m sorry, but Bec can’t undo magic cast by his other half. You’ll need to ask the original.”
“Great,” he replied.
“There’s good news though,” Jade continued, addressing them both. “For one thing, Bec can teleport you as far as Skaia. For another, you won’t be without help.” John perked up slightly. “With the small price of course.” His shoulders dropped again. “It’s the rules!” Jade insisted to him. “Besides, it’s very slight this time. I just need that.”
She was pointing to his chest, and it took John a moment to realize she meant the red strand of yarn hanging around his neck. It was traditionally meant to be a thin iron chain, but John had managed to rip it long ago by accident and had since replaced it with the only thing he had on hand. Although he himself was not a firm believer in the Irons that dangled from the necklace, but
he had a feeling his father would be disappointed if he simply abandoned the religious symbol. At any rate, he saw no reason not to give it up for a good cause; finding a replacement would be no trouble back in Prospit City.
Jade smiled as he pulled it off his head and placed it into her palm. After tucking it into her pocket, she reached to pick up two of the things lying by her feet. The first was a sword with a teal handle ending in a crescent and locked in a red scabbard; the second was a regular pair of sunglasses.
“For Prince David, the Gallow’s Fang.” She passed him the blade and he accepted. When he unsheathed it to get a better look, the blade shined blue in the moonlight, but otherwise appeared ordinary. On the hilt were embroidered carved two distinct symbols, one on each side. “And these,” Jade finished, holding forth the sunglasses to place them on Dave’s face herself. When he bent down to let her, she continued. “We couldn’t decide on a badass enough name for them, but if you keep those on from now on, you won’t regret it.”
Dave straighted up and pushed the lenses further up his nose. They didn’t look half bad on him, but they cut off pretty much his complete range of emotion. “Thank you.”
Jade grinned and turned to the other boy.
“As for John, you can keep can keep Pupa Pan’s Righteous Slamhammer.” Dave smirked. John made a note to remind him later that at least his weapon didn’t look like it was colored by the blind.
“I’m also giving you this.” She held out to John the last item from the floor: a simple white ball. “You can use it to talk to me if you need my help,” she explained when he took it. “I can’t leave Bec here alone, and Bec isn’t allowed to leave. If he did, all of Prospit would lose power. Otherwise, I’d come with you guys for sure. That’s how important this mission is! Are you ready?”
Both boys nodded.
“Good luck,” Jade smiled before giving a nod to the devilbeast that had somehow appeared on the roof with them. The last thing John saw was her waving the two of them goodbye before his hair stood on end from the green energy and his insides were suddenly being squeezed into spaghetti.
And now, I have to get back to college kicking my butt. I can almost guarantee and update by Thanksgiving, but until then keep your fingers crossed for a lull in my workload.