Between monsters, murderous priests and acid rivers, the Underground was filled with danger. The dangers made sense though, they had rules of a sort. They (mostly) wouldn’t hurt you for simply stepping out your front door. Komiyan hadn’t even known that was something to be glad of, until he went Above Ground and discovered a horrible thing called ‘the weather.’
Water fell from the sky at random and everyone shrugged and called it ‘rain.’ Nobody batted an eye when white chunks fell either, despite the bitter cold and towering drifts it formed. Sleet was an abomination combining the worst of both. And hail? Whose idea had it been to pelt the ground with small rocks every now and then? Komiyan had thought the Good gods had control over things like that, but something so spiteful felt more like a lesser demon’s work.
In theory he could understand the appeal of sunshine. You could see further. A vast expanse of blue stretching horizon to horizon was pretty cool, and those constantly changing fluffy white blobs kept things interesting. Also, apparently it made food grow better? Definitely helpful.
Unfortunately all this came with sweltering heat, blinding light, and gross, sticky, grumpy travelling companions.
“We’ve been walking literally hours,” Casper whined, kicking up a cloud of dust from the country road with each dragging step. “Isn’t it about time for a break?”
Mink sighed. “It’s only been half an hour since the last break.”
“But it’s hot.”
Tugging his wide-brimmed hat lower, Komiyan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was much less energy to look down and watch the cracked earth pass underneath as he trudged after Gort up the hill.
“Shut up Casper,” Gort ordered. He strode ahead of the group, his armour clanking with every step, unfazed by the hill or anything else. Komiyan supposed it made sense the Lord of Hellfire was unaffected by the summer heat but hells was it annoying for the rest of them.
“Mink’s arguing as much as me!”
“Your voice is more annoying.”
Grumbling about favouritism under his breath, Casper left Mink and jogged to catch up to Komiyan. “Haven’t got any water left, have you? I’ve already nicked Michaelus’ and I’m worried Jill poisoned hers when she saw.”
“Nope, drank it hours ago,” Komiyan replied, tapping the crumpled water skin on his hip. “But thanks for reminding me how thirsty I am.” Another power he hadn’t realised the fabled Sun had which, coupled with its power to dry up rivers and ponds, was definitely one of the worst for travellers.
Casper groaned. “We’re definitely going to die on this walk, and not even from anything cool. This sucks. Least we’re at the top.”
Considering they’d been trying to reach it for half an hour, the summit was not as exciting as Komiyan might have hoped, just a stile and a wooden signpost stuck at an angle in the dirt. Casper squinted up at the place names, rubbing his chin. “Avonlow? I’ve been there.”
“Oh?” It was far too hot to care, but Casper would tell him the story anyway.
“Last year I hit a mansion up on the clifftop. Hardly worth it in the end, I ended up hanging out a window and half the jewels fell into the sea, and then –“
Komiyan frowned, tried leaning against the signpost and almost knocked it over. “Ah, xsa,” he muttered, making a half-hearted effort to right it. “Stop smirking, it’s not funny. What’s the sea you mentioned?”
“What’s the -?” Casper’s eyes widened, then he broke into his first grin all day. “Oh man, I have the best idea.” He cupped his hand to his mouth “Gort! Hold up! We’ve got to make a detour!”
“Ugh, what now?” Gort kept walking, but Mink grabbed his arm, muttering something, and he looped back round to them.“You had better have good reason for slowing us down.”
“It’s a very good reason,” Caper replied. “Komiyan’s never seen the sea.”
“So we need to go to Avonlow. It’s only five miles away and it’s got the best beach ever, all soft sand and white cliffs and –“
Gort turned to go. “No.”
“The Drow doesn’t care about the sea, and neither does anyone else.”
Komiyan held up a hand. “Uh, sir? I would kind of like to go. If someone tells me what it is first.” Casper didn’t sound like it was dangerous, but Above Ground they had funny ideas about that. Above Ground they thought keeping small wolves in your house was safer.
“Oh, we’re going to the seaside?” Mink asked. “That could be fun.”
“No, we’re not –“
Jill crested the top of the hill, red-faced and scowling, with Michaelus in tow, presumably to keep her company as he looked completely fine.
“What’s this about a visit to the beach?” Jill gasped between breaths. “You should have given more notice, I would have brought my good swimwear.”
Michaelus looked close to smiling. “I haven’t been to the beach since I was a boy.”
Clenching his fists, Gort glowered at the party. “Nobody is going to the damned beach. We haven’t got time. Do you want to build the Empire of Gort or not?”
Everyone shrugged, shuffling their feet, and Komiyan suddenly found himself under Gort’s intense gaze.
“It’s not that I don’t want to help... But it’s only five miles away, it won’t delay things that much. And it might be good for… morale?”
Fluttering her fan delicately, Jill smiled. “If we don’t go to the beach I will slit your throat while you sleep.”
Gort laughed, hands on his hips. “Good luck with that, you know I don’t need sleep.”
“I will find a spell that can make you sleep specifically to help her with this,” Mink said.
“Wow, they must really want to go if they’re working together voluntarily,” Casper whispered to Komiyan, though evidently not quietly enough as they both shot him a glare.
“See, sir, good for morale!” Komiyan repeated before an all-out fight could erupt. “We get to see the sea and you don’t have two potential assassins! Or, two fewer potential assassins than normal, I suppose.”
“I do have a lot of enemies,” Gort agreed, nodding his head. “Two more is nothing.”
“That… wasn’t my point.”
Casper bought his hand to his chin and frowned. “Hey, Gort, weren’t you complaining this morning we need more cash? I reckon this could help with that. When I was here last year I dropped half my haul off the cliff. It’s pretty rocky and remote, so it’s probably still there. Why don’t we pick it up?”
“Hm.” Smashing his fist into his palm, Gort smiled, revealing those unnaturally sharp canines. “Very well. I have decided we are going to the beach! But I expect all of you to remain battle ready at all times. You never know when…”
The rest of whatever he was trying to say was drowned out under the general excited chatter. The party hadn’t been so lively for weeks, and even though the sun was as hot as ever Komiyan’s spirits began to lift.
“Come on, let’s get going,” Casper said, tugging on Komiyan’s arm. “This is the best thing that’s happened since Gort set that innkeeper on fire. Excited?”
Komiyan half smiled and adjusted his rucksack as they set off again. “Yes, I think? Um, nobody’s told me what the sea or a beach actually is yet though, so…”
“You really never heard of it?”
“I think I’ve heard of the sea, isn’t it something to do with water?”
“Yeah, imagine the biggest stretch of water ever, so it’s all you can see. And it’s sloshing onto a big stretch of sand. And there are big cliffs around it. In the water there are loads of fish and some are huge with sharp teeth called sharks. They hardly ever eat people though, so don’t worry. That’s basically the beach. Fun, right?”
Komiyan would have swallowed if his mouth wasn’t so dry. “Oh. Sounds great.”
“Are you not going to buy anything?” Mink asked, running her hand along a rack of swimwear in the bustling Avonlow market. Vendors shouted prices from their stores, shaded from the burning sun by colourful canopies, housewives bartered over goods and, as the party made its way through the square, everyone gave them a very wide birth. “I don’t think the others will be happy if you swim naked.”
Arms folded, Gort scowled at random passer-bys until a toddler burst into tears. “I’m not swimming. I’m treasure hunting. And I don’t know why you’re looking at that stuff, you’ll be helping me.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You’re a dragon. There’s treasure.”
Fanning herself with one hand, Mink left the stall and wandered off to inspect the next. She knew Gort would follow. “But it’s so hot. Maybe I’ll just bask in the sun instead.”
“When there’s a pile of jewels out there?” Gort asked, grinning as he fell in step with her. The fangs probably scared more children than the scowl, though Mink could hardly talk. She did have scales.
“Guess you do know me.”
“Of course. You’re my ‘oldest friend I haven’t killed,’ remember?”
“You couldn’t if you tried.” They met eyes. Almost a challenge. Almost. “Not that we’ll ever find out now,” she added, turning her gaze across the bright stalls and shops instead. “So, what supplies do we need?”
“Casper told me where to look. It could be a trek. And he gave me a list.” Ticking off against his fingers, Gort made a list. “A map, rope, buckets, spades…” He broke off as Mink started to laugh. “What?”
“It sounds like you’re building a sand castle.”
Gort frowned. “When I have a castle it’ll be much stronger than sand.”
Still laughing, Mink pointed to a nearby stall. “Come on. That looks a good place to start.”
Rocks skittered away from Komiyan’s feet down the narrow cliff path, before disappearing into the heavy vegetation flanking the trail. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
“This is the last corner,” Casper said, grinning back over his shoulder as he bounded ahead.
Komiyan hurried to catch up, suddenly breaking out from the dense, shady bushes into a burst of sunlight. “Ah!” He threw up his hands, shielding his eyes.
Casper laughed, running back and forth from the sound of it, the crunch of sand under each footfall. “Isn’t it awesome?”
Careful to keep his hat shading his face, Komiyan inched his arm down, but a sliver of brightness crept through his defence and he flinched. “The ground is bright!”
“No, that’s just the sun reflecting off the sea. Stop being a wimp and look properly.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re not the one born underground,” Komiyan grumbled, but lowered his hands anyway, first slowly, then letting them drop away entirely as he took in what lay before him. Open mouthed, he stared at the brilliant open water as wide as the sky, far bigger than he could have ever imagined. “It… it’s huge,” he said, squinting harder as he raised a hand to shade his eyes again. “Where’s the other side?”
“That’s way too far to see, even for an elf who’s not blind.” Casper threw his pack down onto the sand and started rummaging. “Let’s get changed and go swim.”
“Swim – in there?”
“Where else?” Casper held up the two swim-trunks he’d bought. “Right, do you want red or blue?”
Soon Komiyan was wearing his new knee-length red trunks. A bit big, but they could be tightened with a white cord. Overall, Komiyan thought they looked quite good. It was nice to have another thing to own, especially something useful. The brooch he’d won was nice, but he always felt like he should do something with it, not just wear it.
While he’d been changing the rest of the party had arrived and already Michaelus had begun building a fire pit, studiously ignoring Mink and Gort’s shouting match.
“We could be fighting at any time,” Gort insisted, shaking his fist. He was still in full armour, his heavy boot prints clear in the sand. “Put it back on!”
Mink rolled her eyes and continued neatly stacking her armour near Komiyan’s pack. “Who’s going to fight us here? There’s nobody around. I’m not wearing that heavy stuff in this heat.”
“If you die, I die too, remember? Put your armour on before you get stabbed and kill us both.”
“How could I forget? Take your armour off before you overheat and fall and kill us both.”
Head down, Komiyan made himself small as he walked by, but it wasn’t enough to save him.
Gort grabbed his shoulder, the metal of his gauntlet hot against Komiyan’s bare skin. “Drow. Tell Mink she’s being foolish and she needs to put her armour on now.”
“Come on Komiyan, you know he’s being ridiculous,” Mink replied, rolling her eyes. “Tell him to take his armour off.”
A bead of sweat rolled down Komiyan’s forehead as he looked between the two. “Oh, I think Casper’s calling me,” he said, jabbing his thumb towards the sea.
“I don’t hear anything,” Gort and Mink said together.
“Special elf hearing? I’m just going to…” Komiyan turned and fled down the beach, stopping just short of the sea’s reach.
Casper, already in up to his knees, raised a hand. “Why so slow? Hurry up and get in.”
The sea lapped the shore with a rhythmic rush, reaching up and drawing small pebbles back into the depths. Up close, it didn’t look refreshing or inviting. It looked strange, and huge, and dark, and Komiyan’s mind wandered to everything Casper had described on the way. About sharks, and jellyfish, and crabs, and kraken and sirens and a thousand other beasts ready to drag careless intruders to watery graves.
Despite the summer heat, Komiyan shivered. “I’m not sure about this.” He glanced at Casper and winced. “And I’m definitely not sure about those.”
Casper looked down at his tiny blue swimwear that clearly had decided imagination was overrated. “What? Regretting your choice? Too bad, I’m not swapping.”
“My choice in friends, perhaps.”
“But we are friends, so don’t be rude.”
“This coming from you.”
Huffing, Casper folded his arms, looking very put upon considering it was Komiyan who had to deal with the most nonsense. “I’m not rude to everyone. For example, I’m very charming to ladies, who are always very glad to be my ‘friend.’”
Komiyan groaned. “Only because they haven’t seen you in that.”
Waving his hand, Casper snorted. “Yeah, yeah, very funny, I know you’re just trying to distract me from the fact you won’t even get your feet wet.”
Damp sand crunched under Komiyan’s toes as he curled them in. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Then you won’t mind if I do… this?” Casper kicked up a spray of water, but his sly grin had given him away and Komiyan skipped back before any hit. “Aw, shit,” he added, his face falling.
Komiyan turned to find Jill frowning from behind one of her not-so-ornamental fans, a thin book in one hand. Her new clothes were little more than scraps of green material tied together in interesting ways and Komiyan looked away quickly, more out of self-preservation than modesty.
Inspecting the few dark spots of sand splashed by the water, Jill shook her head. “You’d better not get any of that one me. I only just bought this and I don’t want it ruined.”
“But isn’t it a swimming costume?” Komiyan asked without thinking. “Made for water?”
“Boys, honestly.” Jill rolled her eyes and continued her way down the seafront, noticeably away from Gort and Mink, still squabbling even as they set off to search below the cliffs.
“Please tell me that made no sense to you either,” Komiyan said.
Casper shook his head. “Not a bit mate. Now get in here before I tell everyone about your glasses.”
Sighing, Komiyan took his first step into the sea. The water was cool, but not freezing, and almost relaxing as it swelled up and down his ankle. “You need a new threat to bully me,” he said, wading deeper in. “If they find out by themselves you’ll be left with no leverage.”
“If you hadn’t done this, I was going to use you being a scaredy-cat about the sea,” Casper replied with a shrug.
Now Komiyan was up to his chest, his steps made light by the water. “You still haven’t explained cats to me. Anyway, everyone already knows I’m scared of everything else. It wouldn’t be – agh!” Komiyan recoiled as something slimy brushed his shin. “Something touched me!”
Casper laughed. “Relax, it was probably seaweed.”
“Are you sure?” Komiyan squinted at the water but he couldn’t see more than a foot down. It was an odd feeling, seeing his torso disappear beneath him. “Maybe it was a shark.”
“Nah, sharks don’t come this close to the shore. Besides, if one comes near you just punch them on the nose. A guy in a pub told me.”
“Very trustworthy then.” Komiyan took a few steps further out, until water lapped around his collar bone, and threw a left hook. Too slow, he’d be eaten in an instant.
Shaking his head, Casper made a fist. “Nah, you’ve got to do it more like… this. Oh.” His punch was also disappointingly slow. “Maybe like… this? Or… this? This?” Water sprayed about as he failed again and again to defeat the imaginary shark.
“No, you have to move with the water, more like this.” Komiyan jabbed his hand downwards, curling his fingers into a fist at the last second. It flew through the water with a satisfying woosh.
Casper copied him, breaking into a grin. “Nice!” Turning to face Komiyan, he raised his fists and raised an eyebrow.
“Sure you want to do this?” Komiyan asked, raising his own fists as he shifted into a fighting stance.
“Loser buys ice-cream?”
“You can have a lick of mine.” Casper sprung forward, fist sailing through the water, but Komiyan jutted up his forearm in a block. “Ow.”
In the split-second Casper glanced down at his arm, Komiyan thrust his palm across the water’s surface, spraying water into Casper’s face. He spluttered then bam, a sharp reverse strike to the stomach.
“Gah, wait, you’re –“ A wave breaking over his head cut Casper off.
Time to finish it. Komiyan planted his feet – one, two – then raised his knee, ready to snap out his leg for a roundhouse, but he’d underestimated the resistance and overbalanced, his leg flailing. Stepping in, Casper grabbed his foot and yanked him upside down.
The sun disappeared under swarming bubbles, then the bubbles disappeared into swirling confusion too. Up or down made no difference; waves roared in Komiyan’s ears and he choked as water streamed up his nose. Instinctively, he squeezed his eyes shut and struck out.
A pair of arms seized him from behind and hauled him up. He broke the surface gasping for air, the world fractured into a red-tinted kaleidoscope by droplets streaking down his glasses.
“Hey, stop struggling, I’ve got you!”
At Casper’s voice Komiyan let himself relax and his feet found the bottom again. “That was a dirty move,” he muttered, wiping stinging water from his eyes.
Casper held up his hands. “I didn’t expect you to half drown, okay? I thought you could swim!”
“Why would I be able to swim?”
“Why did you come in if you can’t?”
“You told me to!”
“If I told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”
Komiyan blinked the last of the water from his eyes, derailed by this sudden jump in the argument. “Why would you tell me to jump off a bridge?”
“I wouldn’t, it’s just a thing mums say.”
“Ouch. And I thought Drow parents were tough.”
“No they don’t –“ Casper broke off with a shudder, his eyes sliding down. “Something touched my leg…”
Komiyan squinted into the murky water. “Sharks don’t come this close, you said?”
They exchanged a look.
“Should we –“
“-Go in?” Casper finished. “Yeah.”
Getting out was a lot quicker than getting in.
A compromise had been reached. Rather, a Mink and Gort ‘compromise’ where they both did what they’d wanted in the first place. Neither won, but at least nobody’s pride was injured. It was more an individual compromise than one with each other.
Mink wore her new bathing suit and Gort wore what he always did, except noisier, to annoy her. It worked.
“Did you have to bring that?” she said, glaring at the metal bucket Gort was lugging down the beach.
Clang. Gort let the bucket bounce against his armour. “Yes. Casper said we’d need it.”
“Well Casper didn’t say you had to bang it against your leg and every rock we pass.” Clang. “If you keep whacking it that hard it’s going to break.”
Clink. Mink considered it a victory. “So how far is it anyway?”
“According to Casper’s map, about two miles along here.”
“Are you sure Casper’s map is right?”
“He promised it was.”
“Yes, but from the way he was telling Komiyan –“
Mink slapped the back of his head. Lightly, of course. “When are you going to stop pretending you don’t know the Drow’s name?”
“Anyway, from the way he told it, he was hanging out a tower window at midnight in a storm. Is he really going to remember where they fell?”
“It’s Casper. He wouldn’t-” Gort cut off as he stumbled, and Mink caught his arm on instinct.
“Pfft. When did you get so clumsy?”
Gort didn’t answer, breathing heavily as he stared down at the sand.
Frowning, Mink tapped his shoulder. “Gort?”
He looked up. “What?”
“Are you okay? You’re kind of flushed.”
Shaking his head, Gort started off again, his steps less sure than before. “I’m fine. Come on, we haven’t got all day.”
“If you say so,” Mink said, matching his slower pace. They were always rushing to fight this person or explore that cave or rob those people. Enjoying the walk along the beach made a nice change, sand soft and warm under her bare feet, the sun sinking into her scales. And Gort was hardly bashing the bucket and spade against anything.
The thud of footsteps and indistinct shouts pulled Mink from her contentment. She glanced back over her shoulder to see Casper and Komiyan running full tilt towards them.
“Gort, look,” she said, nudging him.
He turned and broke into a grin. “I told you there’d be trouble,” he said, raising a flaming fist.
“Put that out, it’s too hot for fire.”
“You didn’t complain when the bear started building a fire pit.”
“That’s for cooking dinner, not frying us both.” Mink squinted back down the beach as Casper and Komiyan drew near. “I can’t see anything. Why are they running?”
Whatever the reason, it clearly had them motivated. A spray of sand trailed behind them until they collapsed into a panting heap.
“What happened?” Mink asked.
“Are we under attack?” Gort added.
“I won!” Komiyan gasped, pushing himself upright. He smiled at Casper, a cocky tilt to his head. “I thought you said beaches were hard to run on?”
Casper got to his feet, grumbling. “Alright, smug bastard.” Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he looked to Mink and Gort. “Got any water?”
“I’m going to hang onto it,” Mink replied. “We could be searching for a while.”
“No. I don’t need any.”
Mink frowned, crossing her arms. “You should have still brought some, to help cool down.”
“I am a Lord of Hellfire and –“
“Fire can’t hurt you, blah, blah, blah, yeah, we know,” Mink finished with a sigh. “Whatever. You’re too old for me to warn you about playing in the sun. What’s wrong, you two?”
“Nothing,” Casper replied. “We just wanted the bucket and spade.”
“And Casper said I couldn’t beat him on sand,” Komiyan added.
Gort tightened his grip on the bucket handle. “You said I needed these to get the treasure.”
“Yeah, no. I just wanted to build a sandcastle.”
With a growl, Gort let the bucket and shovel clatter to the ground. “You are the worst minion ever.”
“Not your minion,” Casper said, grabbing his prize. “Anyway, cheers. C’mon Komiyan, building time.”
“Thanks sir!” Komiyan added over his shoulder as he followed Casper back down the beach.
Mink sighed. “Why do I feel like we’re a nursery, not an adventuring party?” No response. “Hey,” she said, giving Gort another concerned look. “You sure you’re alright?”
He blinked a few times before his eyes trailed to her, a drop of sweat trickling down his temple. “Fine.”
“Okay. Whatever you say.” She looked up to the clifftops, just visible high above. “I think that’s the corner of the mansion Casper robbed. And those must be the rocks he said we had to get over. It can’t be far now.”
They kept walking.
“This is taking forever,” Casper said, tossing another spadeful of sand over his shoulder. Sweat gleamed along his contorted back muscles as he straightened for a moment, surveying the moat he and Komiyan had half dug.
“You’re the one who said we should make it big enough to stand on,” Komiyan pointed out from his spot at the bottom of the hole. Down here the sand was cool and slightly damp, a welcome relief from the oppressive heat that refused to relent even late in the afternoon. He scooped out another handful of sand, dumping it into the growing pile in the middle. “At least you get the spade.”
“The spade is the hard job.”
“You don’t get sand under your nails though.”
“We get blood in worse places.”
Komiyan shuddered. “Yuck. Don’t remind me.” He stood up, the lip of the moat coming to his knees. “Is it deep enough yet?”
Chucking the spade to the ground, Casper hopped out. “Eh, close enough. Now we just dig to the sea and let it fill up. Then we can use the water to help the sand stick together. I vote we build Three Spires.”
“We’re kind of far from the sea.”
“Nah, the tide will be in soon. Trust me, I’m an expert at this.”
That seemed unlikely, but he clearly knew more than Komiyan did. “The what will be here?”
“The tide? It’s when the sea comes further up the beach. Look, it’s happening already. That rock’s almost underwater, but it was dry earlier.”
Komiyan frowned at the sea. It didn’t look like it was getting closer, but a sneaky enemy was always more worrying. He wished Casper had thought to mention this before. “Should we go? How does it know where to stop?”
“I think the moon controls it?” Casper shrugged. “Dunno. It just does.”
“The moon?” Komiyan scanned the sky but it was nowhere in sight. He’d always disliked the way it changed shape over the month and refused to be confined to the night, unlike the sun which reliably stayed in the daytime where it belonged. Now he knew it had the important job of stopping the ocean from swallowing them up, he felt vindicated in his distrust. “But – it’s not here. Does that mean –“
“Stop scaring him, Casper,” grunted Michaelus, lying on the sand nearby. “Komiyan, don’t worry about it. You see the line of seaweed on the ground? That’s as far as the tide will go.”
“Oh. I see.” The line was still closer than Komiyan would have liked, but it was better than no line.
Casper walked over, wearing his friendliest smile, the one nobody who’d known him more than five minutes would ever trust. “Hey, Michaelus, did you finish the fire pit?”
“It’s not lit yet, but yes.”
“Want to help us with the moat? It’ll be fun.”
“Are you saying this because you want me to join in, or because I am strong and you want me to do the work?”
“Uh…” Casper grinned, properly this time. “Both? Think about it, I bet bears are really good at digging, with those big paws and all. You just go-“ he mimed scrabbling at the sand. “- and we’re done!”
Michaelus didn’t reply, instead rolling over onto his front with a sigh.
“I think that’s a no, Cas,” Komiyan said.
“Nobody in this stupid party is any fun,” Casper grumbled, scuffing up sand as he went to grab the spade again.
“I don’t think a quest to assemble the regalia is meant to be fun.”
“Well I think that’s an oversight on Mephistopheles’ part.” He struck the spade into the sand and paused. “Uh, no offence.”
Komiyan smirked. “None taken. I could do without all the stabbing and stuff too.”
“Well, nobody’s getting stabbed today,” Casper said happily, heaving the spadeful of sand behind him.
“Are you quite sure about that?” a voice asked, instantly chilling Komiyan’s heart.
“You’ve got awful luck today,” he said as he took in Jill, damp sand splattered all down her front.
Casper spun on the spot and shoved the spade behind his back, as though that could somehow save him. “Ah shit. Sorry Jill, I didn’t see you there.”
Wordlessly, Jill glared at them both, then turned and stalked her way down the sea.
“Why’d she glare at me?” Komiyan grumbled. “I didn’t even do anything. I’d have thought she’d be more cross though. Or stabby.”
Wide eyed, Casper shook his head. “Are you kidding? She didn’t do anything!”
“Isn’t that a good thing…?”
“No! It means she’s going to do it later, when I’ve forgotten about it!”
“Then… don’t forget about it?”
“How could I?” Casper ran a hand through his sweat damp hair, staring up at the sky in despair. “She’s definitely going to murder me in my sleep, or poison my food, or something.”
“Yeah, probably,” Komiyan agreed cheerfully. “But not until later, right?”
“What difference does that make?”
Komiyan picked up the spade. “Then we’ve got time to finish the castle.”
Casper brightened. “Yeah, suppose so! But I’m not touching that thing again.”
The sun might be slipping across the ocean to the horizon, but the rocks had spent all day absorbing that heat and weren’t planning on letting go any time soon. Giving up the search to curl up on a flat stretch of stone was looking more tempting by the minute. Over an hour of comping boulders and rock pools hadn’t turned up so much as a penny, though Mink did have an armful of interesting rocks and shells. It was a shame Gort had given up the bucket.
Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard from him for a while. They’d naturally spread out as they searched. She wasn’t sorry: his temper had only got worse as the jewels failed to materialise. But that was the thing – his curses (aimed at Casper,) threats (aimed at rocks) and occasional bursts of fire (aimed at seagulls) should have kept her informed of his position. But they’d dropped off without her notice, and now there was only the sound of the sea and the screech of gulls
“Gort?” she called, worry crawling into the pit of her stomach. He didn’t need supervision, but he had been acting weirdly and – “Ow!” The shells and rocks clattered to the floor as pain jolted through her arm. “Gort!”
No response, but the sound of metal scraping rock caught her ears and Mink scrambled towards it, still calling Gort’s name.
She found him lying unconscious, one arm squashed beneath his body. That must have been the shock of pain she’d felt, but it didn’t explain why he’d passed out.
“What have you done now?” she muttered, pulling his helmet off him. His face was flushed red, almost obscuring his runes, and his eyelids fluttered feverishly. She touched a hand to his forehead and winced. “I said you’d get heatstroke if you didn’t take that stuff off.”
Gort didn’t reply.
Taking off armour was tricky enough when it was your own. Getting it off a heavy, unconscious man didn’t seem likely. Groaning, Mink looped her arms under Gort’s from behind and let her wings unfurl. A few strained flaps lifted them off the ground. “How are you heavier knocked out?” she grunted, adjusting her grip as she rose before gliding back towards the others. If Gort was going to kill them both with heat stroke, she might as well have company.
“Mmm.” Casper licked his bone clean and chucked it into the fire with a satisfied smile. “See, I told you everything tastes better at the beach.”
“This is… exactly what we have all the time,” Komiyan pointed out. He examined his chunk of mystery meat, shrugged and took a bite. Somehow Casper wasn’t entirely wrong – it was pretty good.
Michaelus turned the spit and frowned. “If Gort and Mink don’t return soon there won’t be any left.”
“Gort doesn’t need to eat,” Jill reminded him. She nibbled daintily on her piece, somehow avoiding making a mess like everyone else. “And I’m sure Mink can deal with one missed meal.”
Casper snorted. “Ha, don’t let her hear you say that.” His grin vanished as he realised he’d once again caught Jill’s attention. Komiyan wondered how long before he forgot he was scared of her, and if Jill would indeed strike at that point.
The fire crackled over the whisper of the sea (this ‘tide’ business remained unsettling but it hadn’t yet gone further than the seaweed, so he would tolerate it for now) and Komiyan closed his eyes, soaking up the last of the day’s warmth. Relaxing sounds populated the landscape of his mind – his friends eating, gulls cawing, water sloshing around the finished castle’s moat, and – was that wingbeats?
Komiyan’s eyes flew open. “Uh, guys? Mink and Gort are back.”
“Heads!” Mink’s wings flapped erratically as she came in to land, Gort a dead weight in her arms.
“Mind the castle!” Casper yelled, but it was too late. The carefully crafted towers, spires and arches crumbled under Mink’s half-crash landing. “Oi, we spent ages on that!”
“Softer landing,” Mink said, dusting herself off. “Serves you right for making us buy you stuff.”
As the only person properly alarmed, Komiyan dashed to Gort’s side. “Sir, are you okay?”
“He’s passed out,” Mink said. She jumped over the moat and strode up to the fire. “Some left for me, Michaelus?”
“Shouldn’t we at least get him out the water?” Komiyan said, tugging on one of Gort’s arms. He didn’t move. “What if he slips and drowns?”
Mink shook her head. “It’ll cool him down. That’s good for heat stroke.”
“Heat stroke?” That definitely sounded serious. Komiyan looked between the rest of the party in turn, but they were all equally unconcerned. People Above Ground really were crazy.
“Komi it’s fine, he probably gets heat stroke all the time,” Casper said. “Leave him be.”
“That… makes it worse.” Still, clearly nobody else was going to help and he couldn’t move Gort alone, so Komiyan gave up and joined Casper at the fire again.
Casper waited until Mink had eaten half her portion before attempting to make conversation – they all knew she hated having dinner interrupted. “So, how’d the treasure hunt go?”
“Useless. Couldn’t find a thing.”
“That’s a shame. Guess we’ll have to come back again sometime?”
“Hm. What about the rest of you?”
As Jill and Michaelus filled Mink in on the rest of their day, Komiyan leaned closer to Casper. “You weren’t expecting them to find it, were you?”
Casper smirked. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, it’s just that leaving a big pile of jewels about anywhere doesn’t really seem like you…”
“Are you suggesting I picked up the jewels the next day? And made up the whole story about them still being there as an excuse for Gort to take us to the beach and keep him out the way?”
Laughing, Casper clapped Komiyan on the back. “I like your thinking, mate. Anyway, if that is what happened, what’s the problem? We got a day out and nobody got hurt.”
“Apart from Gort getting heat stroke.”
“Eh, his problem.” Getting to his feet, Casper offered Komiyan a hand up. “Now, come on. We’ve still got time and the sea is flat. I’ll teach you how to skip stones.”