I’ll go get Kyle,” Mike bade Lex and Clover hastily, hoping he would get to chat with Blade. “It seems he doesn’t remember the Magmalians are on the watch for us.” Clover was sitting opposite Lex. The boy looked like he had just finished battling a creature more dreaded that Trium for a hundred years. He was dirty and bruised, and his hair was more ragged than a ruffian. His head hung down droopily. Clover touched his face softly with her warm, gentle hand, and raised his head. She looked into his eyes, and she felt a strange feeling, a fluttering sensation.
“When you were taken…” she whispered. Tears flooded her delicate face. Lex raised his hand slowly and feebly held her smooth neck. “I felt so lost,” she told him. He stared deep into the infinite depths of her green eyes.
“I’ll die before I let you get taken again,” he promised.
The wind howled as they stared at each other for a moment that felt much longer than it was.
“Won’t you kiss me before they return?” she finally asked, smiling slightly.
“The very thought of it was what kept me alive in that hell hole,” he confessed. Her eyes widened and her heart hammered her chest even harder. Their heads slowly drew closer together like faint, averse magnets. Lex closed his eyes and tasted her lips. They felt a strange feeling of completion and satisfaction, and there was no slight doubt. It felt right, perfect. He caressed her lips with his, and he felt a sweet bliss that he had long imagined.
They moved apart urgently as they heard nearing footsteps. The moon suddenly showed itself, and shone brightly through the small holes in the cave. “It’s time we leave this place,” Kyle said, barely entering the dim cave.
“Magmalian soldiers are on their way here for certain,” Mike said. Clover stood quickly, offering Lex her hand. He grabbed on to it with a smile made faint by his weariness, nearly pulling her down on him as he stood.
“We’ll avoid using the main roads,” Kyle told the group, “no doubt soldiers are on patrol.”
“That’s right. We should head to Central River through pathways we make ourselves,” Mike added, “the current will lead us out of Magmalian grounds.” Kyle nodded, seeing the river clearly in his head, having studied his map thoroughly.
Mike led the group through a wet, grassy pass. Kyle constantly checked his map and compass every now and again with no complaint of being led the wrong way. Though he never said it, he looked up to Mike in more ways than one, not that he was anywhere near the ‘Legend of Zakashi Village’ in Kyle’s esteem anyway, who had defeated quite easily the strongest of Magmalian soldiers. Small, thorny scratching shrubs made the path tedious and seem much longer than it was. “I can’t go on,” Lex panted after a short while, and crouched in the low, wet grass.
“We’re almost there, Lex,” Mike assured, “and we can’t stop here anyway.” Lex nodded, not finding the energy to argue. Kyle helped him to his feet; he could see the hunger printed out on the boy’s face. “SHH!” Mike shushed them, and went down low, signalling to them to do the same. They followed Mike’s order, thinking he might have spotted soldiers nearby. Mike pointed easterly. They looked and saw a man in huge, heavy boots, long dirty trousers, a tattered shirt and a straw hat walking in their direction. He was only a few yards away, and seemed to be following the trail they left behind. “Fisherman,” Mike whispered, “maybe his boat’s stashed away near the river bank. It must be hell to bring a boat back and forth through this thick bush of thorns.” They stayed low until the fisherman turned and leisurely walked out of sight. “Come,” Mike whispered, and signalled to them, carrying them through more chunky bush. After a few minutes of slow, militant movement, the four reached over to the bank of the river.
“Wow…” Clover mused and stared as the river took her by surprise. As far as their eyes could see ahead, crisp water calmly reflecting and rippling the pleasant moonlight gently flowed.
“Let’s find that boat,” Kyle reminded.
“So we’re just gonna steal this man’s boat?” Clover asked, sounding quite reproachful.
“Hey, we murdered the queen, princes; what’s stealing a boat?” Mike said, almost laughing.
“Get with the program, sis,” her brother came in quickly, grabbing and shaking her head slightly. “Lex, come with me. Sis, go with Mike.” Kyle set up the search teams, and they went searching for the boat.
After less than ten minutes of search, there was an announcement of good news. “Over here!” Mike called. Hearing his voice from the distance, the other team moved as fast as Lex’s feet could manage to walk. They gathered around the small canoe that sat comfortably in high grass around ten meters from the river. They rallied quickly and used their strengths to push and pull the boat into the water. Mike went in first and quickly examined it for leaks. Lex climbed on board, and helped Clover up, then Kyle followed quickly. Mike grabbed up the two paddles that sat in the boat, handing one to Kyle.
“The river’s about half a mile across,” Mike said, sounding like a tour guide. Well he almost always sounded that way. “Even if we don’t row too hard, the current should get us there by sunup.” In just a little while, even with their slow rowing, the shore was minimizing into the distance. Kyle felt a burn in his muscles that he didn’t imagine rowing a small boat could inflict. He breathed heavily, trying to conceal his aching and tiredness, but Mike knew well that it was his first time rowing a boat.
Lex plopped his head onto Clover’s lap with a heavy sigh and closed his eyes. Clover smiled and rested her head on her brother’s shoulder, watching Lex drift into sleep.
Miles away from the quietly moving boat, meters up from the ground, a door was opened abruptly. Prince Azar looked at his father, and for the very first time, had pity for him. His face looked drab and sombre; it didn’t have the choleric look it usually took on when things weren’t going his way. Instead, he looked like a sad, grieving man who hadn’t the power to simply command ‘off with their heads!’ The man’s father had married a witch six years before, and was more attached to her than Azar thought possible. Usually, he would marry young virgins, then after a year or two of serving at his side as queen, another would be married, each ex-wife becoming a concubine that couldn’t even speak to him directly. Azar walked up to his father, who sat on his bed, not looking up at his son.
“I’ve been doing some more reading, father,” he began. The angry look he knew his father to have when annoyed returned as Azar opened his mouth. The youth never before preferred to see that look, but this time he thought it more bearable than the pitiful, sorrowful countenance he wasn’t used to. “These writings confirm where this power I have been seeking rests! Can you believe it?! It’s here!” Azar ranted in an exhilarated with wild hands. His eyes glowed with zeal and eagerness to find this treasure he long read about and searched for. “Tomorrow I will set out for this hidden treasure!” he continued, “And I will find those who did this, the ones who murdered your wife!” he tried to get through to his father, “Just imagine, father, how much more powerful my magic will become when I amplify it with this legendary power!”
“You foolish boy!” Oziah raged suddenly, his face contorted and warped even further than usual, “There is no demon sitting in a gold jar! It’s a goddamn story! That is all it is! You are hopeless, Azar!” The look of disgust and disappointment took over his face, an expression the prince was accustomed to seeing. “You are of age to take my place on the throne, but you are still a child! Always chasing after treasures these stories tell you about! These great Kizer and Oga you read about every night might have been two fishermen who wrote these stories when they had nothing bloody better to do! There is only one true treasure!” the man flared.
“Get out, you imbecile!”
Azar tightened his fists suddenly, and red mana flared up about them. “Get out!” the man blasted, looking even frightened, “You are her son, Azar! That wretched power! She gave it to you!”
The mana disappeared, and Azar’s resembled that of a man who returned home after a day’s work to see his house missing and a garden of lilies in its place. His muscles grew weak. Oziah turned his head away from his son. “I met her twenty-four years ago… I married her… I loved her. She bore me a son… you, Azar.” He glanced back up at the frightened boy. “The same year you were born, I passed a decree that officially made sorcery illegal and punishable by death…” he spoke with a grim tone of regret, that Azar never heard him use before. “When I passed the decree, she must have wanted to run away with you, as you would expose her before long… Even infant warlocks show signs of sorcery every now and again. She didn’t master the technique of teleportation back then, and the queen was not allowed outside of the tower, so she could not bring you away. Still, leaving you behind, she fled the palace, leaving you for your own safety. Once I had signed that decree with my signet ring… not even I could go back on it. Still, she knew I would never kill my own son, my own blood and bone, but she thought I would have her killed.”
The king looked down at the aging ring on his right hand that he had took from his father’s hand after his death. He looked at it like it was an awful curse mark that he was burdened by fate to carry. “I raised you. When you were still a babe, I had the council revisit the decree. I made another, making sorcery legal under very particular conditions. Decrees took time to process, but I ensured this one got by in less than a year, so my son would not be killed by my own law. I raised you. I knew what you were… Sorcerers are barely human, Azar… but I loved you, for no matter what you were, what you are… you are my son… Two years ago, your mother spaceshifted into my chamber. She told me she had returned to train with her elder sister, and had become more powerful a witch than ever. I took her into my arms again, and loved her still, and married her again. By then you were sixteen years old.”
Azar’s face remained pale, and he said nothing for quite some time. “You… you lied to me…” he said in a tone that could be mistake by a person who had just began listening as calm. “You told me a long time ago that my mother had died… and was watching over me from heaven.” His voice grew shaky and his eyes became moist.
“What was I supposed to do, Azar?!” the man blasted, guilt and regret heavy in his voice,
“I couldn’t tell you your mother ran away!”
“That’s only because I’d eventually figure out she left because of your decree! I would have to realize it was your fault!” Azar raged, mana flaring up about his fists again, brightening and heating the room immensely. “And even when she returned, you hid this from me?!”
“I didn’t want you to grow up hating your father!”
“Your father… was he really a wizard, then?”
“He was. That is why your magic climbs levels so quickly.” Azar glared at his father, still trying to come to grips with the idea that his mother was the woman who was murdered. Miriam, as far as Azar knew, met his father two years ago and her father took her as queen. It was custom that the King would change queen every few years, so Azar never bothered to grow attached to any of these women. Instead, he grew attached to the old books his grandfather left behind. “My son… Pour your hatred upon those who killed your mother…” the king beseeched.
As Lex drifted into sleep on the quiet boat, the familiar voice spoke to him in a clear whisper, Ghost Town… As the boat drifted northerly across the gentle river, Mike and Kyle joined their companions in sleep. The soft, smooth current gave them pleasant dreams through the night.
Time passed slowly, and the first rays of morning sun woke Lex. He raised his head from Clover’s lap slowly, then stared at her for a little while. He grabbed his stomach as it barked loudly. It reminded him just how hungry he was when he had slept the night before. He caught Clover quickly as Kyle got up, making her fall from his shoulder. The boy stood upright, but his eyes were still closed. “Kyle?” Kyle made two dreary steps. Lex’s eyes widened in fright as he watched the boy step overboard. The loud splash and sudden splatter of water woke Mike and Clover. Clover jumped out of Lex’s arms in fright. Lex rushed over to the struggling, gasping Kyle, and stretched his hand down. Kyle grabbed on to Lex. Mike and Clover helped pull him back up on the boat. Lex burst into laughter suddenly, rolling on the floor of the boat, unable to contain his amusement. Mike and Clover, just understanding what had happened, joined in the laughter. Kyle, the most confused of everyone, was laughing with his friends. He tried to speak, but the constant laughter didn’t allow it; he hadn’t sleepwalked in quite some time, and of all the times to resume such a strange habit…
“Is there a Ghost Town on you map, Kyle?” Lex asked, just recalling the name of the place. Kyle and Mike glanced at him, still rowing.
“It’s a little distance northeast,” Mike answered before Kyle could speak.
“Not really a little distance,” Kyle added, remembering accurately its position on the map.
“Well, it’s only a few days journey. Quite a lonely place though. Last time I checked, the population density there’s like… one person per ten square miles! It’s about seventy miles away.”
Kyle took out his map and estimated the distance. “Actually, it’s around a hundred miles from here,” Kyle said, sounding glad to make the correction.
“A hundred miles from Magma Town,” Mike corrected, “we’re actually at Waterloo now.” Kyle looked back his map, impressed and more so annoyed with Mike’s accuracy. Clover rushed over to Kyle’s map, taking a little time to recognize the familiar places. Her eyes lit up.
“Waterloo’s like…. far away from Magma Town!” she said, “We got this far overnight?!”
“That’s right; we covered nearly thirty miles. This river is the biggest on the continent, but even a small boat can go across it in a night. We’ll soon see land.”
“How could you possibly know so much?!” she asked, musing at Mike’s knowledge.
“Heh!” He grinned. “Well, I travel.”
“Not anymore, princess,” he answered, still smiling. Clover smiled back.
“So where’s your family?” she questioned, “Your parents?”
“Well, I dunno about my parents,” he said, not sounding reflective or sombre, “but I think I know my family!”
Warm, friendly conversation took them across miles quickly, and Lex even began to forget just how hungry he was. “What’s the matter with this ‘Ghost Town’ anyway?” Kyle asked, like he was thinking about it for a while.
“Right!” Lex just remembered, then his face contorted with deep thought. “The other half… of the spirit…” he said, sounding like he was trying to recover some old memory pushed to the deep recesses of his mind. Their faces wrinkled with confusion. “That’s right… I never told you,” Lex said, looking up at them. His mind went back to the time old man Ben showed him the strange vial, and opened it in front of him. “That demon your grandfather told you about in the stories, Trium’s little brother…” He wondered how to phrase the next part of the story. “He had a portion of the demon hidden in the house back at the village.” The listeners’ eyes widened as they tried to understand. “The night before… old man Ben died… he gave me that portion of the demon…” Lex looked over at Clover, who was shaking like she was staring through a translucent ghost. Her body fidgeted like she was very afraid, or all her warmth had left her blood. Kyle’s mind flashed back to the blackness in Lex’s eyes he saw back at Smoke Hill, then to the black ice that Lex used to trap Rhino. Clover just remembered the strange black hands she was now sure she saw come from the black ice and grab the soldier that were chasing them back in the alley at Magma Town. Mike’s face was very different from those of the siblings, though; he looked more intrigued than frightened.
“While I was in prison,” Lex continued, “the spirit spoke to me… And I heard its voice again while I was asleep.”
“It speaks to you?” Mike asked in a musing whisper, grinning with excitement, having met such a demon many times in old stories.
“It told me that the other half of his power is in Ghost Town…” Clover and Kyle were still speechless. “And we must hurry to it!” Lex asserted, just remembering an important detail.
“Hurry?” Kyle asked.
“We’re not the only ones after it!”
“We’re after it?! You had some dream and now we’re after it?!” Kyle stood with clenched fists with an expression Lex didn’t quite expect.
“Listen, Kyle, we’re not the only ones going for it!” Lex told him, “This demon speaks to me! It must have been what saved our asses back at Smoke Hill!”
“And it nearly got you killed back in the alley!” Clover came in.
“It’s not the enemy!” Lex defended, “Remember, it’s this power that I must use to defeat Trium!”
“Lex, when were you planning on telling us all this?!” Clover asked, sounding vexed and even betrayed.
“I’m sorry,” Lex said softly, “I just didn’t see the perfect time.”
“This is totally badass!” Mike blasted, standing and grinning, nearly losing his balance, “So who are we running against to get this treasured power?!”
“… The Prince of Magma Town,” Lex said hesitantly, almost under his breath.
“This is beyond epic!” Mike raved, his imagination running wild. He had a crazy look on his face. “So you must be the boy from the prophecies!” he continued, then laughed wildly and uncontrollably, “Just imagine when Kyle becomes even stronger than Blade, and Clover is even stronger than the queen and her sister were, and Lex captures the other half of the legendary demon! And I become strong enough to tear down a mountain with one blast!” His wild gesticulations made Clover giggle. Lex grinned, hoping the others would think like Mike did. “We have no time to lose, then!” Mike asserted, “We must beat the prince to the demon, and become as strong as we possibly can so we can crush Trium when he returns!” he declared.
“There’s land!” Clover announced, pointing in the direction they were slowly drifting in.
They looked out onto the distant shore. Mike and Kyle grabbed the paddles and got to work. They noticed three girls at the bank catching water. The boys grinned as they saw the ladies drop their buckets suddenly and fixed their clothes and hair in a hurry. They were wearing elegant cream dresses that reached them just above their knees. As they neared the shore, the faces of the smiling girls became clearer and more definite, and they certainly weren’t bad-looking. Clover stared at the girls ahead with ambivalence. She had always wanted to make friends with girls her age, but she had her reasons for being of two minds. “Just when I thought today couldn’t get any better!” Mike rejoiced, grinning.