"Give me the bucket."
"I can carry it."
"You're dragging it."
"I am not."
"Yes you are, look, see. Now give it here."
"Fine, but I get just as much pie as you."
"The Queen said we needed to give her the water before nightfall and we're not even close to town."
"Don't look at me like that. You're the one who got us lost."
"We would have been back and half way done with our pie if your scrawny little arms could carry a bucket. You're lucky it has a lid or you would have sloshed half of it out already."
"The water's heavier than normal. And why'd we have to come all the way out here for plain old water? The well in town works just fine."
"I don't care. The Queen said we'd get a week's worth of pie for a day's worth of work. And the day's just about up."
"I know. I'm not complaining."
"It sure sounds like it."
"Well, I'm not. I just don't know why we had to walk so far into this dark and creepy forest for a tiny little bucket of water. What's so special about that torn down well anyway?"
"Why don't you try asking after your mouth is stuffed full of pie?"
"I do love pie."
"Here, hold the bucket while I climb down this ledge."
"Hey, did you hear that?"
"It was probably just your stomach. Now lower the bucket."
"You really didn't hear it?"
"I thought I heard someone scream. And, and, it sounds like someone splashing around in the river."
"It's probably nothing. And even if it was, let them drown. We have to get back before nightfall. Come on, let's go."
"No, listen. There it is again. Someone's drowning. Over that way. Hey, look."
"We don't have time."
"We can't let them die."
"Yeah, well, if we don't get back in time we're the ones who are going to die -- of starvation. Let's go. Hey, I said let's go, wait, you're going the wrong way."
"I think it's a woman. She needs our help."
"Don't be stupid."
"I'm going to help her."
"And who's going to help us when we're begging for scraps?"
"Her screams are getting louder. She must be just over that hill."
"Alright, we'll help her, but only if it's quick. If this is going to take too long then I say we just knock her on the head and be done with it."
"Knock her on the head?"
"You know, put her out of her misery. I hear drowning is a horrible way to die."
"That's what I heard."
"Alright, if it takes too long then we knock her on the head."
"But what if we can't reach her."
"Oh. Hmm...well, then we find a big rock and throw it at her."
"What if there aren't any big rocks?"
"A couple small ones will have to do."
"Alright then, it's settled. If we can't save her in a timely fashion then we knock her on the head. If we can't find a long enough branch, then we throw a big rock at her. And if we can't find a big enough rock then we throw a few smaller ones until she's done in."
"That sounds reasonable."
"Alright, let's have a look." They stood at the top of the hill and peered down at the river. The woman they had heard was clawing and scraping at the surface of the water. Her grey dress looked as though it had caught on a branch or rock that was now sitting on the river bottom. She gasped for breath as each wave overtook her. Her face looked lumpy, or was that a trick of the water? And those things jutting from her mouth, those couldn't be tusks. Her eyes flashed with surprise and almost pleaded, as if she saw the two boys standing on the hill.
"You were right. She is drowning. Are you sure you want to help her?"
"Why wouldn't I? And besides, we've already walked this far. We might as well help her."
"I'll start looking for a long branch just in case."
"That means I have to jump in?"
"You're the one who wanted to be the hero."
"I'll shake you for it."
"Alright, on 3. 1, 2, 3. Ha, I win. You still have to get her."
"That's not fair. You always win."
"You better get to it. It looks like her face is turning blue."
"Ah, fine." He took off his jacket and his shoes. "Just hang on lady, and quit splashing." He jumped in and swam to her. She was still flailing her arms. He dived down under the water. It was dark and muddy because she was kicking her legs. Except one leg was a little slower. He could see a rope tied around her ankle. It was leading down to, what was that, a bag of rocks?
He pulled out his knife and cut the rope. Her knee knocked him in the shoulder as she pushed her way to the surface. The pain shot through his arm and half way down his chest. She was strong, stronger than a woman should be, he thought. Stronger than a human should be? He shook his head and swam to the surface, his arm almost numb.
She was crawling out of the river. He could see her shoes. They were very strange, big and ruff with rounded edges, or were those her feet? He pushed his way out of the water and onto the shore. He rubbed his shoulder and arm.
"Oh, thank you," she said, "thank you, thank you so much. I thought," she coughed, "I thought I was going to die." She was on her hands and knees, looking down, trying to catch her breath. Her dark, black hair covered her face.
One of the boys stood over her, gently holding a long thick branch. "So, you're alright then?"
"Yes, thank you."
He shrugged and threw the branch back in the woods. "We've done our good deed. Let's go."
"Wait, why was there a rope tied around your ankle?"
She sniffled and coughed. "They were trying to kill me."
"Who was trying to kill you?"
"Well that's not very nice, but you're not dead, so, you know, you're welcome. Now we need to go." He picked up the bucket of water.
"Why would they want to kill you?"
She tried not to cry but she couldn't help it. "I don't know." She leaned back onto her knees and pulled her hair out of her face.
"OH," both boys gasped and looked away. Her nose was long and round. Her eyes were big. Her ears were long and pointed. Her skin was a light shade of blue and two small white tusks jutted from her mouth.
"What?" she said, "what is it?"
"Uh." The boys looked at each other and then back at her. "You're sure you have no idea why they would want to kill you?"
"No," she said, "I have no idea."
"They didn't say anything?"
"Not a thing."
"And nothing feels strange to you?"
"Strange? I don't understand. What do you mean strange?"
"You know, with the, uh" He rubbed his teeth.
"What, you mean these?" She touched her small tusks. "Everyone in my family has them. I know mine are smaller than most but," She looked at the two boys. "How come you don't have any?"
"What kind of a question is that?" He pointed at her teeth. "We're not supposed to have any of those, those giant things because, because we're normal. You, you're not normal. We're normal."
She looked frightened. "You're from the village aren't you?"
"Please don't kill me."
"What?" He squeezed some of the water from his shirt. "We're not going to kill you. My name is Otto and that's my brother Osgood. And," he shrugged, "I kind of like your teeth."
Her cheeks turned a darker shade of blue. She smiled bashfully. "My name is Ysmay."
"Okay, Okay. We don't need your life story." Osgood pointed in the opposite direction. "We need to get back to the castle."
"Maybe I can help."
"Unless you know a shortcut, I don't think we're going to make it back before nightfall."
"You can stay with me and my family for the night." She looked at the ground, "if you want, I mean."
"No, no. We can't. The only way we get our pies is if we give the Queen this water before nightfall."
"Ah," Osgood dropped the bucket. "Why'd you have to tell her about the pies? Now she's going to want some."
Ysmay's eyes got wide. She looked at the bucket. "Where did you get that water?"
"What, this? Some old well. Why?"
Her face was struck with panic, worse than when she was drowning. "That wasn't just a well." She grabbed the bucket. "We need to put the water back."
"Hey. What are you doing?" Osgood grabbed the handle of the bucket.
"You don't understand." She said.
"No. This isn't just water."
"I don't care. It's mine and I'm getting my pies."
"That well was an ancient troll shrine and this water is what's left of the god."
Osgood pulled harder on the bucket. "She's lying. She just wants the pies to herself."
"No. We need to put it back where it belongs."
Otto looked at the horizon. "I don't think it matters. The sun just set."
"Yeah, well, it's the principle of it."
"Just let go of the bucket."
The bucket started to shake and hiss. The air around it felt cold. The lid buckled. The wood cracked and snapped. The water erupted into a tower of dark blue. It hung motionless. Stubby fingers grew from the walls. Thirty of them on each side. And hairy bulging arms. The tower fell forward, the arms extending like spider legs. The fingers danced as if learning to walk after years of sleep.
A tail, like that of a scorpion, extended from the back of the creature. On its tip, a long bulbous nose grew, and small beady eyes, and drooping ears, and tusks, long and jagged tusks.
The creature's watery body contorted and spasmed as if chunks of it were trying to escape. Its head swiveled back and forth on its tail. It looked down at Osgood, Ysmay, and Otto. The creature screamed and the ground shook. Its head jutted forward and swallowed all three of them in one bite.
The body had the consistency of melting gelatin. It seeped into their mouths and eyes and ears. It burned and numbed their skin. It felt as if their souls were being stripped from their bodies.
Ysmay tried to scream, but her voice came out muffled. "Girasol terrae." A light burst from her hands and mouth. A wave of heat rippled through the creature. Pain bellowed from its mouth. And as the light from Ysmay's hands became blinding, the creature's body exploded into a soft mist.
Osgood, Ysmay, and Otto fell to the ground. They coughed and tried to regain their breath. Otto looked at his hands and arms. They were now the faintest shade of blue. He looked at his brother. He, too, was now the faintest shade of blue.
Osgood spit out the blue gelatin. "What was that?"
"Well," Otto wiped at his eyes, "whatever it was, it's gone now."
"No, no, it's not gone, it's, it's, oh," she covered her face with her hands. "What have I done? What have I done?"
Osgood huffed. "You've ruined our chances for getting pie, that's what you've done."
"I don't know, maybe we could use this blue stuff to make a pie."
Ysmay looked horrified. "What? Those are the remains of my family's ancient god. You can't use that for a pie."
"This dark part tastes kind of sweet."
Osgood took some with his finger and put it in his mouth. "hmm, you're right that is good."
"Would the two of you stop that? You're desecrating my family god."
"Us? You're the one who blew him up."
"Me? I-I-I kept us alive. And anyway, I didn't blow him up. I did something worse."
"Worse than getting blown up?"
She cringed and nodded. "I freed him."
The boys looked at each other and shrugged.
"You don't understand. It's not worse for him. It's worse for us."
"I don't care. It's dark out. We don't have any food. And my clothes are all sticky. It's bad enough already."
"Wait, you have to listen."
"I don't have to do anything. Come on Otto, let's go."
Otto didn't move. He was still picking blue gelatin out of his ear.
"Otto, I said let's go."
"Hang on." He tilted his head and shook. "This blue stuff isn't coming out. I'm going to go dunk my head in the river."
"Wait." Ysmay cried, but she was too late. Otto was already nearing the water.
He dunked his head. It felt cold and good. But, were those voices? Did he hear voices? Was the water speaking to him?
He opened his eyes. The water swirled and glowed like the burning embers of a fire. He saw the shapes of faces, but they were missing eyeballs and noses. Their mouths curled from ear to ear and occupied half their face. They were lipless and skinless. Their bodies were contorted and lifeless, bending to the current of the water. They moaned and cried out to him, but their language was unrecognizable. There were hundreds of them, maybe even thousands. Their screams echoed and overlapped. The noise hurt his ears. It climbed up through the water like millions of tiny fingers scaling his eardrums. He pulled his head out of the water and fell back against the hard clay shore. He coughed and tried to catch his breath.
Ysmay ran to him and touched his shoulder. "You didn't touch them, did you?"
Otto shook his head. She couldn't tell if he was responding to her question or simply trembling. She kneeled and spoke softer. "Otto, what you saw, it was real, but don't be afraid. Just make sure never to touch them."
Osgood walked behind Ysmay. "Afraid? Afraid of what, little fishes?"
"Not fishes." Otto stuttered.
"Not fishes." Osgood grumbled. He walked to the edge of the shore and looked in the water. The river was calm and peaceful. The water was clear. He could see the sandy bottom. He shook his head. "What are you afraid of now, sand?"
"Not sand," was all Otto could mutter.
"Quit playing." Osgood moaned. "We need to get back to the castle and tell the Queen what happened."
Ysmay was holding Otto. "Oh, you can't go back to the castle."
"What do you mean we can't go back to the castle?"
"We need to see the shaman of my village first, and soon. All three of us will need his guidance if we are to survive."
"Well, yes, of course. We have quite a bit of work ahead of us." She picked up Otto and started walking in the opposite direction of the castle.
"Whoa, hey, put my brother down. Hey, I said put him down." He chased after her, grabbed her arm, and pulled. She didn't flinch. She was much stronger than he anticipated. He dragged along the ground as she continued to walk without hesitating. "Just," his hand slipped, but instead of falling off all together, he grabbed her foot, "just wait, would you."
"There's no time." She picked him up by the back of the shirt and threw him over her shoulder. "We have to finish the spell before the sun rises or nothing will be able to stop what's coming."
"I don't care what's coming, just put me down."
"Fine," he said, reaching under her dress, and pinching her on the softest part of her bottom.
"Owh." She screamed.
He pinched her again and again as hard as he could.
She dropped to one knee and flung Osgood to the ground. He rolled and sprung to his feet. She set Otto down and rubbed her sore butt cheek. "You little scoundrel. I ought to--" she didn't finish the thought. She just kept rubbing the darkening purple spots covering her right butt cheek.
"Now," Osgood smirked. "Unless you want another taste of these," he pinched his fingers together, "my brother and I are leaving."
"I can. And I will."
"No, you don't understand. You can't leave the forest until the spell is complete. The trees won't let you."
He scoffed. "The trees? Unless they want to end up firewood they'll let me do as I like." And with that, he slapped the closest tree he could find. "See." He smirked. "They know what's good for them."
Ysmay's eyes got wide.
Osgood turned. Just in time to see a giant branch slap him upside the head. He stuttered forward. As he stumbled, he could see tiny roots growing up from the ground. They latched around his wrist and pulled him flat against the soil. His eyes darted up at Ysmay.
She smirked and walked toward him. "Now, what were you saying about firewood?"
He looked back at the tree. "I-I-I don't know what she's talking about."
She kneeled down next to him. "And what was that about doing what you liked?"
"I...uh...I don't know what you mean."
"Oh really." She pulled down his pants and started pinching his bottom.
"Owh" he screamed and squirmed. "Alright, alright. I'll do whatever you want. Just stop. Owh. Just stop pinching me."
She stopped. "Good." She stood up and walked back to Otto. "Now, we need to get to the shaman and finish the spell." She helped Otto up. He was still groggy but he could walk.
"Hey, what about me." Osgood was still pinned to the ground with his pants down.
She pointed toward him. "Ecteo victus." The roots released him and slithered back into the ground. The rest of the branches returned to their normal stiffness.
Osgood pulled up his pants and stood. He glared at the tree. "I'm going to find the biggest, sharpest ax that I can find and then we'll see what you have to say about it."
The tree didn't move.
Osgood grunted. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Ysmay looked back at him annoyed. "Come on."
"Fine, let's just get this over with." He said, following her. "And what's the big deal about this spell anyway? I thought you blew that thing up."
"That thing was an ancient god and I didn't blow it up. I released it."
"Okay, so you released it. Shouldn't it, oh, I don't know, be grateful that you freed it?"
"It was grateful. It was very grateful. But aren't you more curious about what I freed it from."
"No, not really."
She huffed and shook her head.
Otto nudged her arm. "I want to know."
She turned to him. "A long time ago, when the Earth was young, all that existed was mud, and the mud covered all the Earth. And the Earth was quiet and peaceful. One day the mud had a thought and that thought bubbled up to the surface of the murky depths and emerged in the form of a troll. The troll loved the mud and rolled in it and covered her body with it, but the mud was only mud because it had used its one and only thought to create the troll.
"The troll became very sad because no matter how far she traveled, no matter how far she searched, she was always alone.
"She began to cry. Her tears were strong and heavy. They pushed the mud down into deep valleys. And soon those valleys were filled with her dark blue tears. She looked at what she had done and she became angry. The thing she loved the most, the mud, was now very distant from her because she had covered the Earth with tears.
"In her rage, she screamed and stomped her feet and pulled out her hair.
"Her voice was so powerful it spread across the whole Earth. Her saliva flew from her mouth and scattered across the sky becoming clouds of all different sizes and shapes. The clouds were filled with her sadness still and wept with tears of their own, but their tears were sweet and good.
"Where her feet struck, the ground shook and erupted with molten lava. The lava rose out of the water and formed land, but it wasn't soft and comforting like the mud. It was hard and brittle which only kindled her rage.
"Her hair came out in tuffs, and she threw the tuffs in every direction and with all her strength. When the strands hit the water they turned into fish of all kinds, both big and small. And when the strands of hair hit the land, they sunk into the ground and grew into flowers and trees and many other varieties of plants.
"When she realized her anger could not be stopped, she feared for the new life she had created and in her fear, she tore herself in half. One half fell upon the land and crumbled into many different types of creatures and peoples, both big and small. The other half fell into the ocean and crumbled into spirits capable of bringing life to those creatures and peoples that now lived on the land. The spirits lived to possess the creatures and the creatures lived to be possessed.
"However, in her haste, the troll did not split herself evenly in half and there were many more spirits than bodies. Some bodies were capable of containing more than one spirit and to these bodies great power was given. Other bodies were capable of containing many spirits, and these bodies became like gods. But there were still many spirits that roamed the Earth bodiless. These spirits carried with them the anger and sadness of the troll. They lived to remind all life of the sadness and anger that once existed. They possessed creatures only to drive them mad.
"After many years of chaos and destruction, the great god creatures gathered at the top of the highest mountain. They agreed that the angry spirits must be silenced. Each god returned to its province to capture and contain the evil spirits for as long as they were able. The gods swallowed the evil spirits and trapped them inside their bodies." Ysmay was silent.
Osgood looked at her. "Then what happened?"
"The gods became old, but the spirits stayed strong. Soon the gods became silent and many people forgot about them."
"Yeah," Osgood nodded, "until you blew one up."
"I didn't blow him up. I freed him. And when I freed him, I freed the evil spirits contained in his body."
Otto pointed in front of them. "You mean like that one."
Ysmay's eyes got wide. She swallowed hard. "Oh no."
Osgood looked at Ysmay. "Isn't this the part where you wiggle your fingers and that thing explodes?"
The earth shook. Dirt, trees, and rocks were ripped from the ground and flew into the sky. They circled into a towering mass. Ysmay looked back at Osgood. "It's not that simple."
Osgood shook his head. "Of course not." He picked up a big rock and threw it at the towering mass. The rock was sucked into the cyclone of objects.
Ysmay pulled him back. "You really expected that to work?"
The objects spun faster and faster, strung together by a haze of static and lightning. They began to form a shape, large and round in the center with one long flat foot. Two heads emerged. One with a wide, toothless mouth. The other had a long duckbill with large wide eyes. A single wing jutted from the body of the creature and began to flap violently. The creature screamed and squawked, obviously in pain.
The wing, made of rocks and trees and debris, swooped down, chopping the heads off trees. Ysmay and Osgood grabbed the closest trunk hoping not to be caught in the back draft. The falling branches were immediately sucked into the body of the creature.
Ysmay grabbed Osgood's arm. "Where's Otto?"
Osgood turned to look behind them, but nothing. He looked to the left, back to the right. He began to panic. Otto was gone. He looked back at the creature. "Otto?"
Ysmay followed his line of sight. Otto was walking toward the creature. "Otto," she screamed. She pointed at the creature's wing. "Ecteo victus."
The tree branches shot to the ground and began digging into the earth. The creature pulled and screamed but the wing wouldn't move.
Otto continued walking toward the creature as if in a trance. Osgood ran after him but he knew he was too far off. "Otto," he screamed. "Otto get back."
Otto touched the haze of static. It sparked and crackled. He pushed his hand through, and then his arm, and his body.
It was beautiful. Blue and orange gasses swirled together erupting into bright sparks of light. Static jolted from the edges of the creature inward. Otto's skin tingled and his hair stood on end, swirling in the soft breeze. He took three steps forward, pushing away the haze. There, at the center of the creature, suspended in air, he saw it.
It was small, slimy, and round with two frog legs and a wide toothless mouth on the front of its body. Above the mouth, a long feathered neck stretched up into the shape of an 's'. At the top of the neck two large eyes glared with rage. One wing extended from the back of the creature and hung lifeless.
"Don't be afraid." Otto said, walking closer. "I'm not going to hurt you." He laid his hand on the back of the creature. There was a spark. It burned his palm and fingertips. The blue and orange gasses shifted into a long and spiraling tunnel that swirled around his head. He tried to take his hand away but he couldn't. A surge of lightning ran up his fingers and arm and neck. A light flashed in his mouth and shined through his teeth and nose.
As if commanded, the smoke thrust itself into Otto's mouth and down his throat. It seeped into his lungs and bones. He fell to the ground gasping for breath. And as the smoke disappeared, the rocks, trees, and debris fell to the ground. The lightning and static dissolved. And the creature fell into Otto's arms.
Osgood ran to him, Ysmay right behind him. "He's swallowed the spirit." She said grabbing Osgood's arm. "Don't get to close."
Steam floated out of Otto's collar and shirt sleeves. His hair stood straight up. He was breathing quick, shallow breaths.
"Oh," he moaned, "I think I'm going to have a stomach ache."
Ysmay looked at him wide-eyed. "You're, you're not dead?"
"Ugh, I don't think so." He looked down at the creature in his arms. It squawked.
Osgood was gripping a long, heavy branch. "What is that thing anyway?"
Ysmay kneeled to examine it. "Oh my, the spirit must have been powerful.
"This used to be two separate creatures: a frog and a duck."
"Spirits can do that?"
"If they're powerful enough. By mutating reality they can draw in more physical power." She looked at Otto. "I don't know how you're not dead."
He shrugged, then looked at Osgood and held out the creature. "Can we keep him?"
Osgood grunted. "Keep him? We don't even know what he is."
Ysmay stood. "He's perfectly harmless. Anyway, it's better if we take him with us. The shaman will know what's best for him."
Osgood leaned into Ysmay and whispered. "What about him?"
"I don't know. The spirit should have mutated his body the same as the frog, unless," she thought for a moment then shook her head, "no, no, it's impossible."
"Nothing. We need to get to the shaman. Come on."
They traveled through the mountains, down a small pass. The ground became soft and muddy. The tree trunks were wide and the branches were tinted blue. There were bright yellow and purple vines climbing through the trees and dark red and pink flowers sprinkled across the ground. The air was warm and a soft blue haze floated up from the earth.
Ysmay stopped. "The shaman is just up ahead. He doesn't like creatures that don't have tusks, so be careful what you say." She looked at Osgood. "You know, it'd be better if you just didn't say anything." She pointed at a big puddle of mud. "There's the entrance."
"All I see is mud."
She took a few steps forward and then jumped into the mud. Her feet and legs, her whole body sunk into the mud and disappeared.
"Did she just?" Osgood stood bewildered.
Otto smirked and jumped in after her. His feet and legs, his whole body sunk into the mud and disappeared.
"Of course the entrance is a big pile of mud." He shook his head, pinched his nose, and jumped in. His body sunk and he dropped into a long, dirt hallway. His face and clothes were covered in mud. He could see Ysmay and Otto down the hall. They were also covered in mud.
Ysmay looked back at him. "Well, are you coming?"
He wiped the mud from his face and grunted.
There was a faint glow coming from the walls. He could see large black and red beetles scurrying in and out of holes, their backsides glowing orange as he walked by them.
It smelled like rotten fruit and manure and moldy bread. Each smell was strong and distinct, carried on a warm breeze. There were many tunnels leading in every different direction. It would be easy to get lost. He stayed close behind Ysmay. "You know where we're going, right?"
"Of course, I've been here many times before. See," she turned right. It was a large dining room with a high ceiling made of stalactites and large stone pillars. There was a long stone table in the center and stacks of manure where chairs should have been. On the table there were piles of moldy and rotten food. Ysmay smiled. "It feels like being home."
"Well," she shrugged, "this place is so much nicer than where I live."
Osgood faked a smile and nodded.
A gruff voice boomed from across the room. "What's the meaning of this? You dare to bring outsiders into this holy place?"
Osgood turned. His eyes got wide. It was a troll, large and fat. He was more than twice the height of the tallest knight and more than ten times as fat. His skin was dark blue with the same toughness as a bull. There were two long jagged tusks jutting from his mouth and two small beady eyes near the center of his head. He had long pointy ears and small clumps of hair on his head. His arms were as big as tree trunks. His legs were short and stout. And he leaned on a tall, wooden, totem staff. His voice echoed off the stone walls. "Ysmay, explain."
She took a step forward. Her eyes started to well up. "Promise you won't get mad."
"Ysmay, what did you do?"
"I didn't mean for it to happen but, but I couldn't stop it and, and--"
"I freed the ancient god Crikx, and now all the angry spirits that were trapped in his stomach are roaming the earth."
The troll sighed through his nose. He sat on the pile of manure at the head of the table. "Crikx's time had come. He was old and ready. What of these two?" He nodded toward Otto and Osgood.
"They saved my life and, and, they were there when I freed Crikx."
He looked them over. "These boys?" He grunted.
"And that?" He tilted his staff toward the mutant frog-duck. "That looks like," he turned back to Ysmay.
Ysmay looked at the ground. "It was formed by a spirit. We, we were attacked before we could reach you."
"And what of the spirit?"
She pointed at Otto. "He swallowed it."
Otto frowned and rubbed his belly. "I didn't mean to."
The troll's eyes got wide. "No lies."
Ysmay shook her head. "No lies."
The troll stood and walked toward Otto. His feet were bare and ruff and thumped loudly against the dirt floor. Otto was barely a fifth of the troll's height and about as wide as the troll's leg. The troll touched the frog-duck. "Animus vinculum ex solvo."
There was a loud crack of lightning as the troll grabbed the duck by the neck. He yanked hard and within an eye's blink, the frog and duck were separated and restored. The troll threw the duck to the ground. "Now, let me have a look at you boy." He leaned forward and, with manure covered fingers, pushed Otto's mouth open.
"ahAhaH" Otto groaned and squirmed but couldn't get free.
"By the blue ass of Crikx. You swallowed it all. You should be dead boy."
"Why does everyone keep saying that?"
The troll took a step back. "A furry spirit can't be kept in the body of a boy." The troll pointed the totem staff at Otto. "What are you?"
"I think I'm going to be sick." He was franticly trying to clean the manure from his lips and tongue.
"No games spirit. Speak your name."
Otto didn't seem to notice. He was leaning against a pillar spitting out what was left of the manure. He didn't even want to think about who or what it might belong to.
"Name yourself spirit." The troll thrust his staff forward. "Ex solvo." The tip of the staff blazed white and shot three bolts of lightning at Otto.
Otto turned in time to see the bolts as they struck him in the head. He flew back, somersaulting uncontrollably, and slid on the ground. His body didn't move.
"What are you doing?" Ysmay screamed.
"Get behind me." The troll yelled, still targeting the staff at Otto.
Osgood stood paralyzed by shock and fear. His brother laid motionless. "You killed him."
"Get behind me boy. You can't kill what's already dead."
"My brother wasn't dead until you killed him. You shot him in the head with your stupid magic stick and you killed him."
"I already told you, he's not dead. Now get behind me."
The troll grunted. "Ysmay restrain the boy."
She hesitated. She was staring at Otto and she just. Couldn't. Move.
"Ysmay," the troll shouted. "Ysmay." He turned. She must have been in shock. He side-stepped in front of her and angled the staff down at Otto's unmoving body.
Osgood grabbed a fork from the table. "You killed my brother," he screamed and ran at the troll. The troll turned, but too late. Osgood shoved the fork into the troll's thigh. The troll squealed and thrust the staff into Osgood's stomach. Osgood flew across the room, knocking over the table, and then tumbled into a stone pillar. He grabbed his stomach and coughed, trying to catch his breath. "I'll kill you," he tried to say, but couldn't get enough air into his lungs.
The troll snorted and yanked the fork from his thigh. "Boy, move again and your life is forfeit."
"I'll," he took a breath, "cook you," another breath, "in a stew you giant blue pig."
The troll's eyes looked fierce and his lips curled. "Your human brain is small and full of air. If I hit you hard enough it will come out your ears."
Osgood's eyes got wide with fear. The troll felt a sliver of satisfaction, but the boy wasn't looking at him. He was looking past him. The troll turned, following Osgood's gaze.
Blue and orange smoke slithered out of Otto's ears and wrapped its way down around his body. The smoke crackled and sparked with energy and static. The whole room glowed.
The troll raised his staff "Ex solvo." Three more shots erupted. The static hissed and the bolts were absorbed. The light danced against the stone pillars and walls. The troll grunted. "It's too late."
Ysmay's hands were shaking with fear. "Too late for what?"
The blue and orange smoke lifted Otto off the ground and back into a standing position. His head and arms were limp. His eyes were closed. The smoke clung to his body like dew and worked its way into the pores of his skin. The smoke around his head rushed into his nose. His eyes shot open. He gasped for breath. His arms came to life and he dropped to his knees gasping for air. The smoke was gone, as well as the holes in his forehead from the troll's attack.
"Owha," Otto groaned, clutching his forehead. "My brain hurts." He pushed himself up and onto his feet. The troll stared in disbelief. Ysmay was wide-eyed with her mouth hanging open. Osgood, too, was speechless. Otto looked at them blankly. "What? What is it? What are you guys staring at?"
"You're, you're," Osgood swallowed hard. "You're not dead?" He ran to Otto and hugged him as tightly as he could.
"But how?" The troll murmured. "He shouldn't still have control." He stared at Otto. "How are you in control?"
"Control of what?"
"Control of the furry spirit."
"What furry spirit?"
"The furry spirit you swallowed."
Otto looked at Osgood and then back at the troll. He shrugged. "I don't know?"
"How is this possible?" The troll was staring at the floor, searching his thoughts for some kind of answer. He couldn't find one. "You're a weak and frail creature. The spirit should have consumed you. It should have merged you with other physical objects to draw in more power. But," the troll shook his head. "How?"
Otto rubbed his forehead. The blast marks looked like tiny scratches. "Can we go home now? I'm getting tired."
Osgood sighed. "The queen won't let us back in the castle without the water. We'll have to find someplace else to sleep." He glared at the troll. "But we're not staying here, that's for sure."
The troll's brow furrowed. "The queen? What do you mean the queen?"
Osgood shook his head. "You know, the queen? She lives in a big castle and rules over all of Rakoen."
The troll's eyes became wide. "The queen." He grunted. "The queen. I should have known it was the queen." He began to pace. "Explain your relation to her."
"We're just servants in the castle." Otto blurted. "But I think she likes me."
"Shut up." Osgood said. "We don't need to tell him anything."
"What do you mean she likes you?"
"Well, she gives me things and she lets me sleep in her chamber sometimes and she makes things for me to drink. And she's always very nice."
The troll rubbed his scraggly chin. "These things she makes you drink, what do they look like?"
"They're blue and they glow in the dark."
"What?" Osgood interrupted. "She's never given me anything like that."
"No, no, she wouldn't." the troll said. "You're too old for her magic."
"What do you mean I'm too old?"
"Quiet boy," the troll grunted, and then looked back at Otto. "Go on now, tell the rest."
"uh, well, she draws a big circle on the ground and puts symbols in it and says that it's just for me and that's where I sleep. And then she'll talk for a bit in words I can't understand, but I just nod and smile because she's so nice I don't want to make her feel bad. And then the symbols glow and I fall asleep and wake-up the next day."
The troll grunted again and quickly left the room.
Osgood glared at Otto. "What do you mean she gives you things? What kind of things? And how come you never shared."
"I don't know, just things. And she made me promise not to tell. Oh," he laughed. "Oops."
"Everybody always likes you best." Osgood grumbled.
The troll returned holding a giant tome. He wiped the dust and cobwebs off and opened it. "Here," he said, "come here. Look at this. Is this what she drew?"
Otto looked at the picture. "Yes, it looks just like it."
"hmm," the troll nodded. "I feared it would."
Ysmay took a step closer. "But what does it mean?"
The troll looked down at the two young boys. "I knew your queen many, many years ago, before the dark ash covered the mountaintops, before the koh-koh vanished, even before the Great War."
Ysmay looked puzzled. "But the Great War was over 200 years ago."
The troll nodded. His eyes looked solemn. "She was very young then, in many ways still a child. Her father had been killed in battle and most of the army had scattered. The Owalikin were preparing to attack the town. That's when she came to me. She wanted to use troll magic to push the Owalikin back, to protect the castle. I told her troll magic was too old and too powerful for humans to use but she wouldn't listen. She had a way with the spirits, a raw and unpredictable bond, but she was not strong enough to be a conduit. I told her the trolls would not interfere with the ways of man. I told her that humans were bound to their own fate. She was furious and stubborn and could not control her rage. The spirits were drawn to her emotional outburst. I do not think she had the power to summon them consciously. I took my staff and repelled the spirits, but in the chaos, the queen escaped with three of my most powerful spirit tomes.
"She studied the tomes and used them to drive back the Owalikin, but at what cost, I do not know. A troll's body is strong and their sprit is great. The magic in those tomes could only be used by the strongest of trolls and I have spent many years wondering how the queen was capable of such power. But you," the troll looked down at Otto. "You tiny, little human boy, you are another mystery."
"Well boy, do you wish to know how you overcame death?"
Otto shrugged. "Not really."
The troll huffed.
"Wait," Ysmay said, running after Osgood and Otto. "Wait, don't go yet." She got a hold of their arms and pulled them back. She turned back to the troll. "Go on Grandpa, finish the story."
Osgood's eyes got wide. "He's your grandpa?"
Osgood faked a smile and nodded with her.
The troll sat down at the table. He looked tired. He took a long deep breath and let it out slow. "You did not die because you cannot die. For most creatures, the spirit and the body are two separate objects. The spirit enters the body and brings life to it, the same way a foot enters a shoe and for a short time the two seem as one, but eventually death comes and the body must return to the earth and the spirit must return to the great troll mother. That is the nature of all things, except for you.
"There is a very old magic, older than life itself. It began the moment the mother troll spoke, the moment just before she ripped her body in half. The ancient tomes say, if her words are spoken exactly as she spoke them, then the body and spirit would be fused as one. I do not know if it is possible. I have never seen it done, but that is what the ancient tomes say. When the body and spirit become one, a void is created within the center of the creature. That void can be used to channel or capture many spirits in order to perform powerful magic. I believe the queen has made you into a conduit so she could use you to perform powerful magic."
"But what about the well? The boys said the queen wanted the Water of Crikx. Why would she need that if she had a conduit?" Ysmay asked.
"I do not know. Crikx had swallowed over forty spirits. That is enough to perform very powerful magic. Enough to become like a god."
"Is that what she's trying to do?" Otto asked.
"The queen, is she trying to become a god?"
"She knows it's impossible. I told her so myself."
Ysmay took a step forward. "Has that stopped her in the past?"
The troll's face contorted in disgust. "She knows better. Even with the help of a conduit, trying to swallow that many spirits, her body would be destroyed. She would become an abomination."
"But," Ysmay paused. "What if she is trying, and, and maybe she is in danger. She might need help."
The troll shook his head. "She was always stubborn." He thought for a moment. "Fine." He said. "For your sake Ysmay, we'll check on her." The troll stood, picked up his totem staff, and exited the room. He looked back at them annoyed. "Well, come on."
Ysmay, Osgood, and Otto followed him down the large, mud hallway. He turned left, right, left, left, right, left, right, right. They walked for what felt like a few hours. The troll stopped. "Alright," he said. "The castle is above. Prepare yourselves."
Osgood groaned. "So where exactly are we? It smells."
"Yeah," Otto added, "I can't hold my breath this long."
"We're in the dungeon. Now be quiet." The troll pulled Ysmay up through the mud hole then slid a large stone over it. "The queen's cambers are on the other side of the castle. We need to hurry."
Otto looked puzzled. "How do you know where the queen's chambers are?"
The troll grunted. "The humans and the trolls were once very close, but that was before the Great War. Now be quiet." The troll pointed toward a flickering light coming down the hall. "Shhh." He whispered. The light got closer. The troll pointed his staff. The guard turned the corner.
"Dormio velox," the troll whispered.
The guard stumbled against the wall and slid to the ground.
The troll exited the shadows and began walking down the hall. Otto squatted next to the guard and poked him in the face. "Hey, you didn't kill him did you?"
"He's only sleeping. Now come on. We haven't got much time." The troll was so large he filled the entire hallway. He had to squeeze up the stairs. Osgood, Ysmay, and Otto followed close behind. The troll paused. The light of two torches flickered against the far wall. The troll pointed his staff. Two guards walked past. The troll waited for the light to dim; then he took a left down the hall. It was dark. There were no windows and none of the torches were lit. The troll held out his staff. "Loom solis." The tip of his staff sizzled and burst into a faint, red glow.
He whispered. "We need to cross the dining hall, here. Stay close." He pushed open a large wooden door. The dining hall was empty.
Osgood started walking toward the kitchen.
"Where are you going?" Ysmay tried not to shout.
"There's no time. The hour's near."
"The spirits are strongest at night, especially now. We need to hurry."
"Why do you care so much?"
"I-I-I just do alright."
"Well how long is this going to take?"
"I don't know." She grabbed him by the arm. "Just come on."
Osgood looked down at Otto. "Aren't you hungry?"
Otto put a hand on his stomach. "No. I feel sick."
Ysmay paused for a moment and kneeled down next to him. "Those are just the spirits. They're nearby and you can feel them. Don't be afraid."
"I'm not afraid. I just feel like I'm going to throw up."
Ysmay quickly stood and took a step back. The whites of his eyes were swirling with bright blue static. It sparked and sparkled.
The troll turned and grunted. "The spirits are close and the void in his body hungers for them. Come, the queen's chamber is near."
Ysmay picked up Otto with her free arm and yanked on the other, pulling Osgood behind her. She followed the troll down another hall, up a flight of stairs, left down another hall.
"Here." The troll said, placing his hand against the door. "It's been sealed using magic." He set his staff against the wall and pressed his other hand against the door. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Lanua aperio." The door hissed and crackled. A faint translucent flame climbed out of the key hole and rushed across the surface of the door. The lock clicked open.
The troll grabbed his staff and pushed open the door.
The room was warm and sticky, and as they entered, their bodies suddenly felt heavy. Tiny, glowing orbs hung in the air like a soft, red mist. The troll brushed them aside with his arm. Moans seemed to echo from every wall. It was impossible to tell where the voices came from.
Ysmay set Otto down, and as his feet touched the floor, static burst from the stones. The blue smoke clouded his eyes, and the air around his body seemed to wavier. "This way," he said, walking further into the chamber.
Ysmay looked at the troll. He nodded and she followed Otto. Her hand, which had been clutching Osgood's arm, slid down and grasped his hand. He wasn't sure, but it felt like she was trembling.
Bright yellow smoke covered the ceiling. It crackled and ripped open with eruptions of light. "There," Otto said, pointing toward the far wall.
Ysmay followed the direction of his finger. The queen. She was on her knees, clutching her stomach. The yellow smoke pulsed out of her eyes and nose and ears. Ysmay ran to her.
"NO," the queen shouted. "Stay back." As she spoke, the muscles of her back twisted into large and awkward shapes. She screamed in pain. The spasms abruptly stopped. She could barely speak. "Please, don't come any closer."
The troll raised his staff. "Tergum animus ex solvo." A bright blue bolt exploded from the tip of his staff. It struck the yellow smoke just above her head. The queen fell to the ground. The yellow smoke thrashed about as if its head had been cut off. "Ex solvo," the troll shouted, firing three more bolts at the yellow smoke. The smoke curled and arched, avoiding the attack.
The troll looked back at Ysmay. "The queen. Hurry." The troll turned but the smoke was almost on him. He raised his hand, "res navi." A gust of wind erupted from his palm, flinging the smoke across the room.
Ysmay ran to the queen. The queen tried to speak, but as she opened her mouth four of her teeth fell out. Ysmay kneeled and touched the queen's shoulder. It was hot, as if on fire. Ysmay pulled her hand back. "It's going to be alright, I promise."
The queen stared at Ysmay. There was a flicker of recognition, and her eyes became very sad. She reached out her hand and touched Ysmay's cheek. "My little Ysmay," she barely whispered, "how you've grown."
Ysmay looked back at the troll and then down at the queen. "Everything's going to be alright. We, we brought the conduit and he's going to save you."
"No." She shook her head. "He was never meant to save me. He was meant to-"
"Stop." Ysmay cried. "We're going to save you and everything's going to be alright. We're going to--" the words stuck in her throat.
"It's too late. He-aahh" the queen screamed, her spine contorting into awkward shapes. "Get back," the queen shouted. "Get back." She pushed Ysmay back.
Osgood caught her.
Ysmay turned to Otto. "Do something."
He shrugged. "Like what?"
"I don't know." She cried. "I don't know. Just do something."
Otto looked down at the queen. The yellow smoke clouded her eyes and seemed to seep out of her pours. It exploded with static and light. Her body contorted and twisted into unrecognizable shapes. The yellow smoke grew larger, funneling out of her nose and mouth and ears. The table, the bed, and the chairs were sucked into the queen's body. She screamed. Her arms twisted from their sockets and shifted to the back of her spine. One large talon grew out of her chest and clawed at the air. She fell to her knees and screamed but only blood came out. Her jaw grew large and square as a second set of teeth forced their way up through her gums. Her legs twitched and spasmed. The veins became huge and broke through the skin. They danced about wildly, as if with a life of their own.
The queen screamed, but the scream came out a roar. Her eyeballs were gone, and in their place the yellow smoke erupted with static and light.
Osgood pulled Ysmay back and shouted at Otto, "Just do what you did with the duck."
Otto swallowed hard and shrugged. "Okay." He walked toward the queen slowly. "I'm not going to hurt you." He extended his arm and showed that it was empty. "Everything's going to be alr-"
The queen lunged at him, her mouth clamping down on his right arm, just below the shoulder. He screamed as her teeth dug into his skin and bone. The queen snarled and yanked her head from side to side until Otto's arm came loose.
"Res navi," The troll shouted, his palm pressed against the queen's forehead. The queen somersaulted back and hit the wall hard. She slumped to the floor dazed.
The troll looked down at Otto. His right arm was missing, but there was no blood. Instead there was a small trail of blue smoke. Otto's eyes were wide and motionless. The blue smoke and static from earlier was gone. The troll slung Otto over his shoulder and pointed his staff at the queen. "You should never have gone back. You should have stayed with us. Those stupid human problems," he shook his head. "You couldn't fix them all. You should have left them alone." He pointed his staff at her chest, "ex solvo." Three burst erupted from the tip. The queen rolled and arched her back, avoiding the first two. The third hit her shoulder, scorching the skin. She yowled.
The troll shouted to Osgood and Ysmay, "RUN." But they were paralyzed with fear and awe. The queen jumped at the troll. The veins from her legs wrapped around his right arm. His left arm gripped her neck, keeping her fangs from tearing at his face. The talon on her chest clawed his arm and part of his stomach. Otto slid from the troll's shoulder and fell to the ground between them.
The troll pushed his foot back trying to keep his balance. "You've swallowed too many spirits queen. You knew there would be a price, but it's not too late. You can fight them. I know how strong you are."
The queen snarled and her mouth opened. Her tongue was gone and in its place was a long spiral of yellow smoke. The yellow smoke extended, licking his cheek. It burned and he could feel his flesh begin to melt. He tried to push her head back but his arm was failing. "Fight it queen. Fight."
Her grip on the troll loosened and her talon went slack. The yellow smoke in her eye sockets fizzled for a moment. The troll's eyes were wide with surprise. Then he heard a sharp hiss and crackle. He looked down, toward the sound.
Otto was standing between them. Blue lightning crackled from his eyes. His right arm was gone, but a long trail of blue smoke had taken its place. The blue smoke had curled around the queen's stomach. She whimpered as it touched her skin. Otto thrust it forward like a sword. The queen screamed. Otto pushed further.
The troll took a step back, nearly falling as the queen's grasp loosened. She was suspended in air now by the blue smoke.
Otto pulled her closer, studying her face and the yellow smoke. The queen shook with pain. Otto reached out with his other arm and stroked her cheek. "It's going to be alright."
Suddenly rage burned in her eyes and the yellow smoke hissed with energy. She flung the smoke tongue at his face. Static crackled and burst from the touch. He was unmoved and unhurt. He slid his left hand behind her head. He moved the blue smoke arm up her chest and throat, and then he forced it down her mouth. She spasmed and struggled, but he only pushed further.
Her body went limp. The yellow smoke from her eye sockets was sucked into her body. He pulled his blue smoke arm from her throat and with it a long spiral of yellow smoke. The queen's body fell to the ground. The yellow smoke flung about wildly, wrapping itself around Otto's arms and legs and chest.
He opened his mouth and the yellow smoke slithered in. The light erupted from its center like tiny explosions. Then suddenly it rushed in, flooding his eyes and nose and ears. He groaned and collapsed as the last of the yellow smoke entered his body. He laid motionless.
Ysmay ran to the queen's body and as she touched it, it turned into a soft white powder. Ysmay began to cry.
The troll touched her shoulder. "She's been released. Do not be sad."
Ysmay wiped the water from her eyes and swallowed the rest of her tears. She saw Osgood kneeling over Otto. "Is he-"
"No." The troll said. "He's only resting. He's a power creature now. Far too powerful to remain here. We must take him."
"I do not know. There is no place strong enough to hold him. He's a conduit now, and we must keep all of life safe from his power. Come, for now the only place we can go is home."
Ysmay took Osgood's hand as the troll slung Otto over his shoulder. They left the castle together and returned to the dark caves of the trolls, if only to sleep for the night.
The Sun Kissing Cannibals
"Come on Otto, wake up. We need to get out of here. I said, let's go." Osgood shook Otto's shoulder. Otto didn't move. "Quit playing around. We need to go. I've got a bad feeling, like there's something this troll isn't telling us. Come on." Osgood shook him again. Still nothing. He pulled the blanket away. "Get up already."
He could see the teeth marks in Otto's right shoulder. It took him a moment to realize Otto's right arm was gone, that the queen had bitten it off. The end of the stub was scarred dark blue. It had only happened the night before, but it felt like a dream, a dream that had happened many weeks ago. He shook Otto's shoulder again. "Wake up. We can't go back to the castle because the queen is dead and we can't stay here. I don't know where we're going to go but," he kicked Otto in the leg. "We need to go now."
Otto still didn't move.
Osgood swallowed hard. "Otto?" He kneeled down and put his fingers under Otto's nose. He couldn't feel any air. He pressed his ear to Otto's chest. No heartbeat. He grabbed Otto and shook him.
He shook him again.
He dropped Otto to the floor and ran to the hallway. "Ysmay," he screamed, "Ysmay." He ran farther down the hall. "Ysmay."
"It's Otto. Something's wrong with him."
The troll stood and quickly grabbed his staff. Ysmay followed him down the hall.
"He's, he's not breathing." Osgood stuttered. "I, I don't know what happened. But he, he's not waking up."
The troll kneeled down next to Otto. He placed his thumb on the center of Otto's forehead and began to hum.
Osgood looked at Ysmay. "What's he doing?"
"He's speaking to the spirits inside Otto's body. He's checking to see if they're still inside."
"Well are they?"
"I don't know. He's not done yet."
"Quit your whining boy," the troll grunted. "The more you yell, the longer this will take."
Osgood scowled. "Why should I trust you? You already tried to kill him once. Maybe you're the one who planned all this. Maybe you snuck in here while we were sleeping and did something. Yeah, that's it. You poisoned him. And now you're going to eat him."
"Oh no," Ysmay shook her head. "We don't eat people."
"And if we did," the troll growled, "we certainly wouldn't start with you or your brother. Now be quiet." The troll waved his free hand over Otto's stomach and continued to hum.
Osgood was about to speak but Ysmay grabbed his hand. She shook her head and he let out a quiet sigh.
The troll hummed louder. His hand began to glow as flakes of light floated up from Otto's stomach. There was a quiet hiss and then the flakes exploded. The troll pulled his hand away. "The spirits are still contained within his body but they are struggling with one another. If he does not wake soon, the spirits may overtake him."
"What do you mean overtake him?"
"The battle with the queen weakened him and the spirits he consumed have not been calmed."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Hmmm," the troll grunted and stood. "The conduit is not alive or dead and so he cannot be killed, but he is not invincible either. Here," the troll picked up a clay jug. "Hold this."
Osgood took the jug.
"This jug is like the conduit. It is empty and light. But," The troll took a pitcher from the table and began pouring water into the jug. "As I pour water into the jug it becomes heavier."
"So." Osgood said, trying to keep the jug from falling.
"The jug has not changed. Only the weight you feel in your arms has changed." The troll turned and looked at Otto. "Your brother is the same. He has not changed. Only the world around him has changed."
"I don't care," Osgood growled, slamming the jug on the table. "Just make him better."
"I do not have that power."
"What good are you then?"
"Only a god-creature can calm the spirits in your brother."
Ysmay lowered her head and stared at the floor. "You mean like Crikx?"
"But, she blew him up," Osgood shouted.
"I didn't blow him up. I freed him."
"Fine, then let's find him so he can fix my brother."
The troll grunted. "You can't find Crikx. He has returned to the troll mother."
"Fine," Osgood roared, "then how do we save my brother?"
"You can start by lowering your voice, boy." The troll sat in a stone chair. "The closest god-creature is Vespia. She is kind and wise and she will help us, but reaching her may be difficult."
"I don't care. Let's go."
"Sit down and listen, child." The troll's voice boomed off the stone walls.
Osgood scowled, but quietly sat down.
The troll continued. "Vespia lives on the peak of Mt. Titook. The only way to reach the peak is to scale the south face of the mountain. It's too steep for an old troll like me so I will wait at the base." The troll sighed. "Vespia has not come down from her mountain for hundreds of years so you will have to take Otto to her. One of you will have to carry him on your back. The other will have to fight off the vulgats."
Osgood shook his head. "What are vulgats?"
The troll grunted. "Vulgats are dangerous creatures you should not trifle with."
"But what are they?"
"Just hope you do not find any. I have heard they like human flesh the best."
"I'll fight whoever I have to fight. Now quit stalling and let's go."
The troll stood. "Very well."
"Wait," Ysmay interrupted. "What about food and blankets and things like that? You haven't even told us how long it will take to get to the top of the mountain."
The troll shook his head. "I do not know. I have never climbed it. Blankets will only weigh you down. And food will attract the vulgats."
"Fine, then we travel with nothing." Osgood bent down to pick up Otto. "But we're traveling now." He managed to get Otto over his shoulder but he could barely walk. "Let me just-" Otto slipped and Osgood fell into a wall. "I'll just-" He tried to rebalance Otto but couldn't quite stand.
Ysmay picked up Otto with one hand and laid him across her shoulder. She used her other hand to help Osgood to his feet.
"I'm fine," he said, pulling his hand away. "I'm fine. Let's just go."
The troll was already half way down the hall. Ysmay and Osgood had to jog to catch up. "Wait a minute." Osgood yelled.
"Are you ready or are you not ready?" The troll grunted.
"I'm ready, just-" Osgood and Ysmay slowed to a walk. "Just don't leave us behind in these tunnels."
"You should pay closer attention, boy. I should only have to guide you once. Or are all you human children as stupid as you are stubborn?"
"You're the one who lives in a dark, stinky cave."
"Stinky?" the troll snorted. "When is the last time you took a bath?"
Osgood lifted his arm and smelled his armpit. "I don't smell anything."
"Ha." The troll grunted. "That is because your nose has stopped working. You humans are the smelliest of all the creatures that came from the troll mother. Some trolls think that when the troll mother split herself in two your race came from what was left of her butt. That is why you are so soft and smelly."
"What," Osgood pulled a rock from the wall. "I'll show you who's smelly you stupid blue pig." Osgood threw the rock as hard as he could.
The troll turned as quick as a lightning bolt and caught the rock with his left hand. He scowled and tossed the rock to the ground.
Osgood raised his fists as if to fight. "I'll show you who's the softest."
The troll snorted and shook his head. "Which way did we just turn?"
"I said, which way did we just turn?"
"I don't know."
"Of course you don't, boy. Your head is full of anger and easily distracted. You need to make use of your eyes and pay attention. The path to Vespia is dangerous. If you are not even aware of the path we are on now, how will you be prepared for the path that is to come?"
Osgood was about to respond but instead stared at the ground.
The troll pointed at Osgood's chest. "Love with your heart, but think with your brain and you'll save the life of your brother. Now come on, we are wasting time." The troll continued down the tunnel. Left, right, right, left. The tunnel started to climb upward. Right, left, left. The ground became steep and hard. They turned a corner and a bright light shone in the distance.
"We are in a cave at the base of Mt. Titook. Come," the troll said.
They exited the cave. They were standing in a lush, dark green forest. The shadow of the mountain stretched farther than they could see. Osgood stared at the face of the mountain. It was steep and climbed high into the clouds. It was so tall it seemed to break the sky in two.
Osgood swallowed hard. "How are we supposed to climb that?"
"Here," the troll handed Osgood a pair of open fingered gloves. "Remember not to look down."
"Don't look down? Is that all?"
The troll nodded. "And keep the gloves on at all times. They may appear to be ordinary, but don't underestimate their usefulness." The troll pulled a long rope out of his bag and walked toward Ysmay. "Otto should be tied to you. You will need both your hands to climb."
Ysmay slid Otto from her shoulder down around her chest as if he were a small baby. The troll wrapped the rope around Otto's legs and body and then around Ysmay. "Good," the troll said. "You are ready."
Ysmay began climbing the mountain.
"Wait." Osgood looked at Ysmay and then back at the troll. "Is that it? What about magic? Can't you just float us up there?"
"No. Some things require sweat and blood." The troll grunted and took a step toward Osgood. "Why, have you lost your nerve, boy?"
"No, I haven't lost my nerve." Osgood growled. "It's just," he stared up at the mountain. "It'll take us all day to reach the top, maybe longer."
"If it takes you all day, then it takes you all day. If it takes you longer, then it takes you longer. Are all humans born without patience?"
"Born without patience," Osgood grumbled. "I'll show you patience." He dug his foot into the face of the mountain and started climbing. "Stupid troll," he whispered under his breath.
Ysmay continued to climb. "Wait Osgood. You're going too fast. You're going to use up all your strength."
Osgood ignored her, pulling himself up even faster.
"Wait," Ysmay said, "I'm not kidding. We need to stick together. We don't know where the vulgats live or how many there are-"
"Or if they even exist."
"They do exist."
"Have you seen one?"
"No, but my grandpa's told me stories."
"And I should believe your grandpa?"
"Yes." Ysmay said matter-of-factly. "He knows so much, even about things before the Great War."
"I don't care about things before the Great War. And I don't care about what your grandpa has to say either."
"So you don't want to hear about the vulgats?"
Osgood look up at the mountain. He still had a very long way to climb. He sighed. "Alright, fine. It's not like I have anything better to do."
"Well," Ysmay began, "Late one night, during the Great War, the Owalikin were laying siege to the castle. Many of the soldiers had already fallen and the Owalikin were not relenting. In his desperation, the king ordered any man, woman, or child capable of lifting a sword to defend the castle walls. If they could hold their ground until sunrise, reinforcements would arrive from the east with a tactical advantage to push the Owalikin back.
"The Owalikin made quick work of the dead or dying and their numbers swelled. Some of the villagers, fearing for their lives, fled. The Owalikin could sense the chaos and attacked. The wall crumbled and the Owalikin breached the castle. The king and his four strongest knights held the interior until sunrise. The Anion army arrived and pushed the Owalikin back, but the king had suffered a mortal wound and died before midday.
"The villagers who abandoned the castle, they ran for several days until they came to the shadow of this mountain. They thought they would be safe here, and so they cleared a small part of the forest and built wooden huts. They began to plant crops and herd cattle. For three seasons they lived happily in peace, but during the winter of the fourth season a great flood covered this valley. It happened so quickly the villagers had no time to gather any of their belongings, not even their food.
"They hurried to the mountain and began to climb. They climbed as fast as they could, but without food they became very tired and soon their arms could barely hold them. If they let go, they knew they would fall to their death and so they clung tightly to the face of the mountain.
"For seven days they clutched the sharp stones, only drinking water from the rain. Their bodies became thin and frail but they would not let go because they feared the thought of death so much.
"A group of vultures, who had yet to learn patience, began to peck and eat the villagers. 'Please, please, don't eat us.' The villagers screamed. 'We'll do anything. Please, we just want to live.'
"The largest vulture ruffled his feathers and stretched out his wings, 'but we have not eaten for many days and you are almost dead anyway. It would be very kind of you to stop screaming but if you must, you may continue.'
"The smartest villager, who had thought of the plan to escape the castle, spoke. 'Wait' he said 'When the rain stops we will give you food.' The vulture stared at the man's eyeballs. 'But we are hungry now.' The man began to cry. 'What else do you want? There must be something.' The vulture looked at the man's legs and arms. 'I have always wanted to know what it was like to run and I am tired of bending and pecking for my food. I would like a pair of arms to grab it and bring it to my beak. Give me your arms and legs and I will let you live.'
"The smartest villager was speechless. 'But I don't know how.' The vulture screeched as loud as he could. 'Then I will eat your arms and legs.' And with a quick bob of his head, the vulture pulled a piece of muscle from the man's leg. The man screamed. He knew that death was close upon him. He felt an overwhelming bolt of terror. It shook his body and spirit and he could not control it. The vulture tried to pull another strip of muscle from the man's leg but his beak was stuck. He pulled again, but it wouldn't move. Something was wrong. The muscles began to wrap around his beak. The vulture screeched and flapped his wings but suddenly the wings stuck to the man's body as if his skin was made of honey.
"The vulture pulled and screeched and fought with all his strength but he could not break free. The man tried to scream for help but his voice wobbled and screeched like a bird. Soon, the two became as one, neither a man, nor a bird, but something else, something that had never existed before.
"Each of the remaining villagers and vultures were sucked into the body of the man and the man became a large and fearsome creature. With his giant wings, he flew to the top of the mountain. Once there, he fell into a deep slumber.
"He dreamed four dreams, each one more terrifying than the next. In the first dream, the man was very hungry. In the distance he saw a goat and so he chased after it. As he got closer, he saw that the goat had the face of a man. He said, 'goat, why are you wearing the face of a man?' The goat replied, 'I hungered for the taste of meat, but as a goat I could not have it, so I traded my face for one more suitable.' The man was confused. 'But what man would trade his face for yours?' The goat smiled, revealing two rows of sharp, long teeth. 'You would. And you have.'
"The man reached up to touch his face but it was gone. 'And what did I get in return?' The goat grinned and licked his lips. 'You made me promise not to tell.' And the goat galloped into the woods.
"In the second dream, the man was very thirsty. In the distance he saw a small stream and he went to it. As he kneeled down to drink, he realized his lips and mouth were gone. He wanted so badly to cry but he no longer had eyes so he could not even quench his thirst with tears. A small bird saw how sad the man was and flew down to his shoulder. 'I could help you,' the bird whispered in his ear. 'I will use my beak to poke a hole where your mouth should be so you can drink.' The man nodded desperately.
"The bird pecked at the man's skin until a hole formed. Immediately, water gushed from the hole. The water was made from all the tears the man had been crying. When his tears mixed with the stream, the water turned the color of blood and everything the water touched withered and died. The bird, with its dying breath, looked at the man and said, 'why have you killed me and everything I love?' The man shook his head. 'I don't know,' he said, 'I don't know.'
"In the third dream, the man was very warm. In the distance he saw the sun, and the sun was very large and red. Giant flames erupted from its surface like arms. The arms stretched across the sky until they grabbed hold of the moon. They pulled the moon toward the sun and the sun swallowed it.
"The world became very hot. The trees burned and the streams boiled. The man began to sweat and his skin began to crack. He took of all his clothes off and searched for a shadow to hide under but none existed. He thought, 'if only I could take off my skin maybe then I could stay cool.' And so he began to pull at his skin. And to his surprise, his skin and muscles slid off like old clothes and he laid down in the dirt wearing only his bones.
"In the fourth dream, the man could not move. He tilted his head down and saw that his skin and muscles were gone. Only his bones remained. He heard footsteps in the distance. As they got closer, he could see that they belonged to the goat who had taken his face. 'What are you doing here?' he said to the goat. The goat smiled, revealing two rows of sharp, long teeth. 'I have come to fulfill our agreement.' The man was confused. 'But I don't know what our agreement was.' The goat licked its lips. 'You gave me your face and in return you made me promise to eat your bones.' And the goat began to eat the man's bones until there was nothing left.
"When the man awoke, he saw four other creatures lying next to him, each one hideous and grotesque. They had patches of black feathers covering their bodies with long backs that arched like birds. Their skin was rough and wrinkled like the heads of vultures. Their hands were sharp and strong like claws. Their eyes were large and could see for miles. In place of their nose were two small holes. Their mouths were lined with two rows of sharp teeth. Their legs were thin with long, dark wings that stretched from their hips to their ankles. They had a second set of long, strong legs that grew out of their backs. And a long sharp beak grew out of their stomach.
"The man was frightened until he saw his own body and realized he was the most grotesque of all of them. A soft calmness came over him. He did not want to cry or hide or run. He only felt an overwhelming hunger to live." Ysmay wiped sweat from her brow and continued to climb. "That is how the vulgats came to be."
Osgood shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense."
"What doesn't make any sense?"
"How can you know what someone else is dreaming?"
"Magic, I guess. I don't know."
Osgood stopped climbing. He was tired and sweaty. His arms and legs felt like mush. "Well, it was a stupid story."
"You don't have to be mean."
"Whatever. Only an idiot would believe that story." Osgood began climbing again, but at a much slower pace.
Ysmay climbed a little faster to catch up with him. "Only a fool would ignore its message."
"Well, then I'm a fool." He glanced up at the mountain. "Look." He pointed with his finger. "I can see the top."
"Good," she said. "I think Otto's getting heavier. We need to find Vespia soon."
"Let's hurry up then." Osgood climbed up over the edge and rolled onto the final plateau of the mountain. He gazed over the edge and helped Ysmay up. They were both breathing hard. Ysmay laid Otto on the ground. He had a faint blue glow.
Osgood pointed at his brother. "He looks worse."
"I know. He feels warm too."
"Can't you wave your arms over him and calm the spirits down?"
Ysmay shook her head. "No, I'm not as powerful as my grandpa. We need Vespia."
"Then let's go get her."
"I need time to rest. That was a long climb."
"Maybe if you didn't do all that talking, you wouldn't be so tired."
Ysmay frowned. "I was carrying your brother too."
"Breaks over." Osgood said, bending down to pickup Otto. He gripped his fingers around Otto's arm, but it burned and he had to pull his hand away. "Ouch, it feels like he's on fire."
"There's a lot of energy confined in his body."
"How are we going to carry him?"
"If you just let me catch my breath I'll-"
"Never mind. I'll figure something out." Osgood started collecting long, sturdy branches and tying them together. "See, it's like a bed, but we can drag it behind us. Now we just need to-" He carefully pulled Otto's body onto the wooden bed and tied him to it. "Alright, that wasn't so hard. Now where do we find Vespia?"
Ysmay was standing with her back toward Osgood. She was staring at the mountain. It looked like its peak had been cut off and a big scoop had been taken out of its center. A vast forest had grown with a variety of strange and beautiful trees. Their leaves were yellow and blue and red and purple. They were of all different sizes and shapes. At the center, a colossal stone temple looked as though it had been carved from the mountain itself. Ysmay pointed at it. "I don't know, but that seems like a good place to start looking."
The stone temple looked old and abandoned. Trees and vines had grown up and around the walls, through the windows, and pushed their way up through the cracks in the ground.
Osgood rubbed his neck and sighed. "Are you sure this is the place?"
Ysmay nodded. "It has to be."
"Well, I don't think anyone's home." Osgood cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hello," he shouted. "Hello?"
Ysmay grabbed his arm. "Shh."
"I've got a bad feeling about this. It's going to be dark soon and I don't think you should be making so much noise."
"How are we supposed to get Vespia's attention if we're not making any noise?"
"It's not Vespia I'm worried about."
Osgood shook his head. "Come on, help me light this torch."
Ysmay put her hand over the tip of the torch. "Loom solis." It ignited, burning with a red-orange glow.
"Alright, so," Osgood held the torch high in the air. "We can go that way." He moved the torch in the opposite direction. "Or we can go that way."
"Shouldn't we have a plan first?"
"This is the plan. We find Vespia and we get her to fix my brother."
"But what if she isn't here?"
"Ha." Osgood grunted. "That would teach me to trust a troll, wouldn't it?" He picked up the left handle of the wooden bed Otto was tied to. "Well?" He tilted his head toward the other handle. Ysmay picked it up.
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
"Oh sure, Otto and I used to spend the summers here all the time. We'd pick flowers and ride little ponies and run and laugh and play and sing."
Ysmay rolled her eyes. "You don't have to be such a jerk about it."
"Then don't ask stupid questions."
"hmph." Ysmay grunted, turning her head away from him. She stared at the dozens of small, stone houses surrounding the temple. They looked dark and empty. They weren't made of brick or thatch. They looked like giant boulders that had been carved out. There were intricate designs etched into the walls around the doors and windows. The sketches looked like ancient protection wards, but she couldn't be sure. The ground was paved with six-sided stone tiles. Some of the tiles had symbols with an arrow etched into an adjacent tile. "Hey," Ysmay pointed to one of the symbols. "Do you recognize that?"
Osgood stared at it. "No." He let out a sigh. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know. It looks like a very early version of the troll language."
"Don't you speak troll?"
"Yes, but this is a pure version. I don't even know if my grandpa could read it. I think it has to do with the names of streets or buildings."
"It's not much good if we can't understand it. Come on, we need to keep moving."
"But that means trolls lived here in the past."
"In all the stories my grandpa's told, trolls have always lived underground or in swamps. This means that-"
"Is this going to help us find Vespia?"
"I don't know."
"Then who cares."
She made a sour face. "You're just plain rude."
"Yeah, yeah. Just keep your eyes open and pay attention. I don't know what Vespia looks like."
"I don't either."
"Well, that's just great. Maybe she's invisible too."
Ysmay shook her head. "You-you're, you're so-" She tightened her fist. "Hmph." She set down her side of the wooden bed and pointed a finger at Osgood. "You're an ornery, stubborn, stupid, little boy, who doesn't know the first thing about anything and you deserve to-"
"Don't quiet me. You-"
"Shhh, something's coming."
Osgood grabbed the bed and pulled it into the closest house. He stepped back into the street and grabbed Ysmay's arm, pulling her into the dark alcove. "Now be quiet," he said.
"What is it?"
There was a heart-wrenching squeal and the shuffle of feathers. Osgood took a step forward and kneeled behind the window. He peaked over the edge.
"What are you doing?" Ysmay whispered.
"Shhh, I want to see what's out there."
"Oh," Ysmay whimpered. She kneeled next to Osgood and peaked over the edge. There was another loud squeal and a faint glow coming from around the corner. The noises got louder and strange, disfigured shadows danced on the opposite building.
"I've got a bad, bad feeling about this."
"Quiet, this might be Vespia."
"I hope not."
Osgood could see something coming around the corner. It was dark with blotches of feathers all over its body. The feathers had a blue and red shine from the light of the moon. Its skin looked rough and wrinkled. Its back was hunched like a bird but it walked on two legs like a man. It limped and wobbled its head as it moved. Its face was grotesque. Osgood could see a lipless mouth with long sharp teeth and two pin-holes where a nose should have been. It was grotesque and he wanted to scream, but then he saw the little pig the creature was carrying in his arms. The pig's squeals were loud and shrill as if it were in pain.
And then Osgood saw it - a long jagged beak extending from the creatures stomach. And he realized, the creature wasn't holding the pig. It was eating.
He could hear the crunching now and the faint gurgle of blood. He felt Ysmay's hand clutch his. She was looking away, covering her mouth and nose, trying not to cry.
Osgood looked back at the creature. Its eyes glowed orange and seemed to burn a hole into the night. It was thin and bony but looked as tall as a building. Osgood could feel a faint wave of heat as it passed. It kept walking toward the temple as it gnawed on the pig. The squeals became weaker and weaker until he saw the creature enter the temple.
Osgood let out a long and heavy sigh. He realized he had been holding his breath the whole time. He looked at Ysmay. She was shaking and holding back tears. "I told you they were real." She said, still clutching his hand.
"Okay, okay, so they're real. That still doesn't explain where Vespia is. Now come on." He pulled her out into the street.
"What are you doing?"
"Something's in that temple and I want to know what."
"Are you crazy? That thing is in there."
"I don't care. It's the only living thing we've seen so far. It has to know something."
"And how are you going to get it to talk?"
"I haven't thought that far ahead yet. Now come on." He pulled on her arm but she wouldn't budge.
"What about Otto? You're just going to leave him here?"
"He's just slowing us down. Besides, he's safer here. Just remember," Osgood looked at the symbol above the door, "just remember squiggly, squiggly, cow face, backwards squiggly."
Ysmay shook her head. "We need a plan."
"We've already got one. Come on." He pulled her arm and this time she came. She looked back at Otto and whispered "sorry" under her breath. Osgood tugged her arm. "No looking back. Now, this temple should have a side entrance, right?"
"Better yet," he pointed about a quarter of the way up the temple. "We could use that window."
"I don't know, I'm still tired from the climb earlier."
"Hey," she hit him in the arm. "I had to carry your brother, remember?"
"Yeah, yeah, quit complaining. We'll shimmy up that tree and then jump across to the window." He pulled her toward the temple and the tree.
"Wait, quiet" she whispered. "Quiet." He could hear it too - more ruffling feathers. He pulled her into the shadows near the temple. She was squeezing his hand again. He tried to slow his breathing and stay calm but he was shaking too. Three more of the grotesque creature emerged from the ruined city and entered the temple.
"That's just great," Osgood growled "now it's four to two. We just lost our advantage."
"You weren't seriously thinking of fighting one of those things?"
Osgood shrugged and started climbing the tree.
Ysmay shook her head. "I've got a better idea," she said, pointing at a metal grate on the side of the temple. She put her fingers through the holes and lightly pulled. It broke loose, taking some of the wall with it.
"I guess that will work too." Osgood huffed, climbing down from the tree.
They slid through the opening and into a long hallway. Purple flames flickered in the distance. There was enough light to see the beautiful murals on the walls and stone columns. Even the floor had intricate designs etched into it. It was the most beautiful thing Osgood had ever seen, even more beautiful than the castle during the harvest festival. The colors were so vivid. They seemed to shine and glow in the darkness. Osgood touched one of the murals, and as he did, his whole body felt a strange and overwhelming vibration. It was like he was connected to the temple and the temple was connected to him. He could feel a surge of memories that he didn't recognize, and suddenly panic and pain. He pulled his hand away. It was throbbing. He swallowed hard and looked at Ysmay. "We need to figure out what those things are doing here."
Ysmay pointed to a small hole in the wall. Osgood looked through it. He could see the ugly creatures. They were a floor below, standing in a circle around something. Osgood plugged the hole with his hand and whispered to Ysmay, "We need to get a closer look." He looked around the hallway and pointed to a small set of stairs "There." He took Ysmay's hand and they crept down the stairs as quietly as possible.
The floor below was even more beautiful and intricately designed. There were small silver basins attached to the walls. A purple flame seemed to hover above them. "It's too bright down here." Osgood whispered. "They're going to see us."
"Over here," Ysmay whispered, pulling him down the hall. The room was gigantic. At the back of the room there was a long set of stairs that led up to the main doors. In the center of the room the grotesque creatures stood around something large, an animal of some kind, but it was still too difficult to see.
Osgood and Ysmay ducked behind a wide stone table. They could hear the vulgates screeching and flapping their wings and what sounded like the cries of a baby lamb.
"I still can't see." Osgood whispered.
"Neither can I." From the corner of her eye, Ysmay could see one of the creatures coming toward her. "Oh no." She grabbed Osgood. "We have to hide." She moved fast, pulling them both into a small closet across the passage way and closing the door. The room was barely big enough for one of them, but they didn't move. They didn't even breathe. There was a small crack in the door that led to a hole. They could see the creature move past them, down the hall. Ysmay and Osgood both let out a shaky breath.
"That was close." Osgood whispered into Ysmay's neck. He tried to move his head but there wasn't enough room.
"Hey," Ysmay tried to keep her voice low. "Watch where you put your hands."
He glared at her. "Trust me. I'm trying."
"Oh," Ysmay blurted as his hand grazed her butt. "Try harder."
"What about you," he said into her shoulder. "You knee is drilling into my thigh."
"Well, sorry. I want to get out of here as much as you do." She reached for the door handle.
He bumped her hand with his elbow. "We can't. If we leave now, they'll see us."
Ysmay knew he was right. She pulled her hand back. "Well can you see anything?"
"I don't know. Let me just-" He tried to extend his right leg and pull his left arm down. His shoe caught her dress, pulling her forward. He tried to use his left hand to steady her hip but his arm went a little too low and to the inside.
"Oh," she yelped, but quickly covered her mouth with her hand. She glared at him. He shrugged and pivoted onto his left leg. His back was up against the stone wall and she was pressed against his chest. He tilted his head and peaked out the hole.
The vulgats were dancing in a circle now. And a fifth had joined their numbers. They bobbed their heads and swung their wings high in the air. The beaks around their stomachs chirped in unison while their lipless mouths chanted in chorus.
Osgood saw the creature at the center of their dance clearly. It was large, about the size of a war boat, with long, white feathers that were as long as Otto was tall. It had the legs of a gazelle, with a long neck that led to a lioness' head. It was bound with metal chains and surrounded by a floating ring of orange fire. The fire seemed to be an extension of the vulgats eyes.
"So can you see anything?" Ysmay whispered.
"Shhh." Osgood whispered back. He was mesmerized by the creature's beauty. It almost seemed to bend the light surrounding it. Then he noticed that one of its legs was missing. It looked as if it had been bitten off. And patches of feathers were gone. And when he heard its whimpering cries, he somehow felt responsible. He looked back at Ysmay. "I think I found Vespia."
"Wake up," Ysmay whispered, shaking Osgood's shoulder. "Wake up." His head was resting in the nook of her neck. "And stop drooling on me," she said.
He licked his lips and tried to move his hand, but it was still pinned behind her. He wiggled his nose. "I've got an itch."
She rolled her eyes and then scratched his nose with her chin.
He yawned. "I have to pee too."
Ysmay's glared at him. "You better hold it."
He frowned. "How long was I out?"
"It's morning now and I think their moving Vespia." She leaned over cheek-to-cheek with him and peaked through the tiny hole. "They stopped dancing a little while ago and one of them started squawking, but I couldn't understand him. They chained Vespia to a wooden pallet and dragged her out of the temple."
"We need to follow them. If Vespia is the only one that can fix my brother than we need to save her."
"I know, but like you said before, we're out numbered. And even if we do free Vespia we don't know if she's strong enough to fight. That means it's still five to two."
"Yeah." Osgood tried to stretch his leg. It was beginning to cramp. "Maybe we can take them by surprise?"
"I don't know." His leg rubbed against the inside of Ysmay's leg as he stretched.
"Hey," she said "be careful and you better not be peeing."
He ignored her. "Did those things have any weaknesses in the story?"
"I don't think so." Ysmay pushed his leg back down. "But if we don't hurry we may lose their trail."
"So we can leave?"
"Why didn't you say so earlier?" Osgood pushed the door open and they both fell out.
"Ouch," Ysmay said, pushing herself off of him.
"You're telling me," he moaned.
She glared at him. "Come on, we need to catch up to them."
"But I still need to pee."
"There's no time."
"Oh," he grumbled. "Fine." He followed her through the gigantic doors and out into the city.
"There," she said. "They're taking her to that giant rock at the edge of the cliff, come on."
Osgood followed her through the stone city and up through a small patch of trees. They could see Vespia. She was chained to the rock. The chains were translucent like pieces of glass and glimmered when the sun hit them. The vulgats had surrounded her and were stretching their wings up to the sun. Ysmay could see Vespia clearly now. She noticed one of her front legs was missing. She thought she could see teeth marks. "I-I think they're eating her, Osgood." Ysmay looked back. "Osgood? What are you doing? Oh, oh, you're disgusting."
"What? I had to go." He shook himself and pulled his pants up.
Ysmay looked back at the vulgats. One of them was turned in their direction, sniffing the air. Ysmay ducked back down. "Great, now they've spotted us because of you."
Osgood barely peaked over the rock. He could see one of the vulgats coming toward them. "Yeah, well, I had to go. Besides, it's two on one. We can take him."
"Do you even have a weapon?"
Osgood looked around for the closest, thickest branch. He picked it up and nodded.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "We're going to die."
"Alright, look, I'll distract it and you pin it to the ground with some vines like you did with that spirit before and then I'll knock it on the head. Some of the other vulgats will come looking for it and that's when we free Vespia, got it?"
She could see the vulgat getting closer. "What choice do I have?" She said, running behind a tree.
Osgood swallowed hard and stood in a clearing about twenty paces from the rock where he had peed. He could see the vulgat creeping its way up the rock. Its skin looked pale and the feathers, which were bright blue and red the night before, now looked muddy and colorless. It tilted its head and sniffed the air. It seemed to grin as it spotted Osgood. It screeched and whirled its head up and down like a bird.
Then, like an arrow shot from a bow, the vulgat lunged from the rock. It was quicker than anything Osgood had seen. He readied his club.
"Ecteo victus." Ysmay shouted. A flurry of roots and branches and twigs burst up from the ground or shot down from the trees and slithered their way around the vulgat. It screeched and screamed and struggled against the branches.
Osgood ran at full speed and swung the club down against the vulgat's head. It looked dazed. Osgood swung the club down again. The branch broke and the vulgat went silent. Osgood smirked. "One down."
Ysmay pointed at the rock. "Four to go."
Osgood looked back at the rock. The four remaining vulgats were staring him down. He swallowed hard. "See, it's a perfect plan." He turned and started running toward the stone city. "Go free Vespia," he shouted. "Now."
Ysmay waited for the vulgats to fly past her. Osgood didn't have much of a head start but hopefully it was enough. Ysmay couldn't risk helping him. She knew she'd need as much time as she could get to free Vespia. She ran to the giant rock where Vespia was chained. The chains seemed to hum the closer she got to them. They were enchanted. Breaking them would be difficult. Vespia turned and glared at Ysmay. Pain, anger, and fear burned in her eyes. "I'm not going to hurt you." Ysmay said soothingly. "I'm here to help. We don't have much time."
Vespia lowered her head and closed her eyes. Ysmay looked back down at the chains. She grabbed them with her right hand. "Tergum ex solvo." A bright blue light glowed from the center of her hand. She pulled her hand back. The chains were unharmed. She sighed. She grabbed the chains again. "Haxus quvasii." Her hand turned into a red flame and burned the ground around the chain black. She pulled her hand away but the chain was still unharmed.
Ysmay heard a thundering crash and she turned to see a large cloud of smoke and dust rise up from the city. She needed to hurry. Osgood needed her help, that is, if he was still alive.
She grabbed the chains tightly with both hands. "Raz lex lium." A purple light blazed between the gaps in her fingers. She took her hands away. There was a tiny crack. She looked back at Vespia. "It's a start."
Osgood was breathing hard. His leg was starting to cramp again. He had spent too much time in that stupid closet. He rolled behind a building and pressed flat against the wall. He saw a vulgat jump from the roof above him to the adjacent roof. Another clawed its way through the alley. He tried not to breath. The wind was blowing and hopefully it had carried his sent in a different direction, but there were still two vulgats behind him.
He didn't want to peak around the corner. He took a deep breath and let it out slow. He inched his way to the edge of the wall and peered over.
He was staring face to face with a vulgat. It screeched and the beak around its stomach tore at his shirt. Osgood fell back, trying to avoid its talons. He looked up and saw another vulgat gawking at him from the roof. It lunged at him.
He rolled and kicked it with his right leg. It slammed through the wall. Dust and smoke filled the alley. Osgood could hear wings flapping two houses down. He could use the dust as cover, but he had to move quick.
He ran into the opening and slid past the fallen vulgat. He was tracing the wall with his hand because it was so hard to see. The vulgat in front of him was coughing and scratching at its eyes. It swung its wings blindly. Osgood hoped the dust and dirt would mask his sent, at least for a few minutes. The smoke was staring to clear. He had no choice.
He sprinted through the alley into the next house. What was the symbol above the door? Squiggly, squiggly, cow face, backwards squiggly. "Oh, no." Osgood looked at the far corner. Otto was propped against the wall, still tied to the wooden bed. "No, no." Osgood ran to his brother and started pulling at the rope. He could hear the four vulgats squawking at each other. The smoke was clearing and they were getting closer.
Ysmay gripped the chain again. "Raz lex lium." A purple light blazed between the gaps in her fingers. She took her hands away. The crack was deeper, almost half way through. She wiped sweat from her brow. She was getting tired. It was a powerful enchantment and she was running out of strength. "Don't worry, I'm not giving up."
Vespia's eyes became wide and she let out a shrill cry. Ysmay turned in time to see a vulgat covered in roots and branches lunge at her.
"Res navi," she shouted. A powerful gust of wind shot from her hand, hitting the vulgat in the center of its chest. It flew into the trunk of a tree forty paces away. Ysmay thought she heard bones crack.
The creature pushed itself up into a sitting position. It licked its lipless mouth. Its eyes were haunting, like a fire burned inside its head.
"Ecteo victus." Ysmay shouted. Roots and branches enveloped the vulgat, but its beak and talons tore through them with ease. It spread its wings and flew into the air. Ysmay grabbed the closest stick. "Ex solvo." The stick blazed and a blue bolt erupted from its tip. It shot through the vulgat's left wing. The creature fell and hit the ground hard.
Ysmay through the stick aside as it burned to dust. She ran behind a nearby boulder and took a deep breath. "Res navi," she said, pushing both her hands against the side of the boulder. The boulder twirled into the air, landing on the right wing of the vulgat. It screeched and screamed and then fell silent.
Ysmay looked back at the stone city. "Just hang on Osgood, we're coming." Ysmay gripped the chain again. "Raz lex lium."
Osgood pulled at the ropes, trying to free his brother. "Stupid knots." He grabbed a sharp stone and started cutting the rope. "Don't worry Otto. I'm not going to let them eat you." He heard a crash and turned.
The vulgats were shoving their way through the door. Part of the wall crumbled. They tilted and bobbed their heads and extended their talons. Their eyes blazed like tiny suns. Osgood felt a wave of heat rush through him.
He returned to cutting. The rope snapped and Otto flew forward. Osgood caught him, but was off balance and stumbled into a stone table. Otto's head lurched forward and his lips almost kissed the beak of a vulgat.
The vulgat screeched, its eyes wide with terror. It jumped back and flapped its wings violently against the inner wall. The other vulgats stepped back and chirped at one another. They looked frightened.
Osgood wrapped his arms around Otto and lifted him up. The vulgats clattered more loudly and stepped back again.
Osgood looked at Otto. His arms and legs were slack. His head had drooped forward. He was still asleep. Were they afraid of him? Osgood took a step forward, pushing Otto in front of him. The vulgats shrieked and flew back against the wall. Osgood smirked. "Afraid?" The vulgats squawked and squealed. One flew out a window. Another broke through the door. A third clawed its way through the wall. The fourth was curled in the corner whimpering.
Osgood gave Otto a hug. "Remind me to thank you when you wake up." He flung Otto over his shoulders and exited through the door. Before he could reach the alley, a bright purple light consumed the sky and melted the clouds like liquid fire. Osgood fell against the wall, blinded.
Ysmay gripped the chain one final time. "Raz lex lium." She heard a loud crack and when she let go, the chain broke in two. The blades of grass fizzled and popped. The wind circled faster and faster around Vespia and suddenly a dry heat sucked all the moisture out of the air. Ysmay fell backwards and tried to shield her eyes.
Vespia's feathers became even longer and their edges sparkled with a deep and beautiful purple. The patches that were missing began to grow back. Vespia stood. Purple smoke streamed from her eyes. She took a deep breath and then roared.
It was deep and primal. It reverberated through the bones in Ysmay's body, and through the earth and trees and boulders. Purple glowing flakes floated up from Vespia's feathers and rippled through the sky. The world felt like it was moving slower. Ysmay suddenly felt tired. Her arm and legs felt like they were made of sand. The sky tumbled back into its normal blueness and Ysmay opened her eyes.
Vespia was gone. The dirt and plants and rocks were scotched dark black where she had been. She looked back at the stone city. Part of it was burning. It looked as if even the stone houses were slowly melting. "No, Osgood." She pushed herself up and started running toward the city.
Osgood rubbed his eyes. The world was slowly coming back into focus. The sky was purple and liquidy like an ocean. The purple flowed down from the sky and swirled around each of the vulgats. They shrieked and whimpered.
There was a faint glow and a dry heat coming from Osgood's left. He turned to see Vespia walking down from the sky as if it were a purple road. She limped slightly because her front right leg was missing. She had her head raised proudly.
Her eyes narrowed, and as they did, the purple flames contracted around the vulgats. Soon, their whole bodies were covered in purple flames. Their feathers burned and their bodies contorted. They screamed and cried and pleaded but nothing would stop the flames. Even the stone houses melted as the vulgats went near them. The flames burned and burned but none of the vulgats had fallen.
Vespia stepped onto the ground. She spoke with calmness and strength. "You will burn for as long as you are hungry for life." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. A purple mist floated from her mouth. When it touched the ground a giant fissure opened and the vulgats fell in. She inhaled and the fissure closed. She glanced down at Osgood. "Thank you, human."
Vespia tilted her head toward Otto. "He is-."
Osgood stood. "My brother." He laid Otto against the wall. "And now that you're free, you need to make him normal again."
"Normal? I do not understand. He is what he will forever be."
"What? No, no, we came here and saved you so you could fix him, to make him human again. So fix him."
"He is not broken."
Osgood pointed at his brother. "Look at him. He can barely breathe."
Vespia lowered her head to Osgood's height. "He is a Spirit Bearer. He will never know death. His right hand is power. His left hand is knowledge. And he will watch the world end."
"Okay...uhm...can you just make him human now?"
Vespia shook her head. "He is struggling with the spirits inside his body. He must choose to control them or to fear them. One choice will lead to his own destruction. The other will lead to the world's destruction. I cannot free him from that burden. He must choose."
Osgood heard rustling behind him. He turned. Ysmay hugged him tightly. "You're alright," she said. "Thank the troll mother." She looked at Vespia and smiled.
Vespia bowed her head. "Thank you young half-breed."
"Please, can you help him?" Ysmay was looking down at Otto.
Vespia smiled. "I will calm the spirits in his body and he will awaken." She kneeled down and kissed Otto on the lips. Nothing seemed to happen.
Osgood was about to speak, but she interrupted him. "It will take time." She stood. "Come, you must be tired and hungry. I will give you food and tell you how I came to be a prisoner of the vulgats.
Osgood, Ysmay and Vespia sat around a fire at the center of the temple. Otto was lying near them, wrapped in blankets. He still hadn't awakened. There was a large tray full of berries and vegetables. Osgood was taking handfuls. He looked at Ysmay. "What? I'm hungry."
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Save some for your brother."
He yawned and stretched his arms. "There's plenty. Besides, we don't know when he's going to wake up."
"It will be soon." Vespia said. "I can feel the energy in his body slowing down."
"Whoa," Ysmay said, looking down at Otto and then back at Vespia. "You really must be powerful. Not even my grandpa can do that."
"Do what?" Osgood said, still chewing.
"She didn't need to touch him to sense the spirits in his body."
Osgood shrugged. "Oh."
There were still patches of missing feathers and dried blood around Vespia's legs and neck. She began licking some of the feathers near her hind leg.
Osgood stared at the cut or bite marks on what was left of her front leg. "Were they trying to eat you or something?"
Ysmay's eyes got wide and she hit him in the arm.
She looked at Vespia. "I'm sorry."
"No," Vespia raised her head. "He is correct. The creatures you saw," she looked away, toward the stone floor. "They were cutting parts-" she paused.
Ysmay could see the pain and anger in her eyes. "You don't have to tell us."
"I do not know how long I have been bound in those chains. The creatures came here many, many years ago. I welcomed them and offered them shelter. They were very afraid and I thought my kindness would soften their hearts, but they were not afraid of anything in this life." She closed her eyes and let out a sad and slow breath. "All the homes outside this temple were full of life once. I would watch the smoke rise out of the chimneys, but, I see there is no smoke now." She picked up a small log with her mouth and threw it in the fire. "The creatures took advantage of my kindness. I could tell their spirits were troubled, as if they had been split into many pieces. I tried to heal them, but they were much too afraid."
"Afraid of what?" Osgood blurted.
"Afraid of death." She said, lowering her head and licking the bite marks on her leg. "To heal the spirit, you must first detach it from the body. The thought of this frightened them and they became violent. The five of them seemed to have a shared conscious and together they were able to surprise and bind me. They locked me in the darkest corner of the basement in this temple. I do not know how long I spent there. I could not see the sun. I could only hear the screams of my people as they were eaten alive.
"I had hoped some of them would have survived, but where could they have hidden?" She continued to lick her wounded leg.
"You should have just killed the vulgats when you had the chance." Osgood said.
"That is not my way."
"Maybe it should be." Osgood leaned back and rubbed his belly. "Maybe your people would still be alive."
Ysmay hit him in the arm again. "He didn't mean that."
Vespia sighed. "All creatures fear death. That is their nature. Should I hold a creature accountable for a desire they cannot escape?"
Osgood shrugged. "Sure. Why not? Just because it's a mosquito's nature to steal my blood doesn't mean I won't kill it when it pricks my skin."
"Has it been so long? Do all humans view life in such a way?"
"You have given me much to think about." Vespia laid her head on the floor and closed her eyes.
Ysmay glared at Osgood. "What are you doing?" She said, trying to whisper.
"You're being rude. Can't you see how much she's been through?"
Ysmay's mouth dropped in surprise. "So? So? That's all you can say?"
Osgood laid down with one arm under his head. "Alright, how about you're welcome."
"Ha." Ysmay said, "I'm surprised you even know what that word means."
"And what is that suppose to mean." He rolled onto his side and stared at her.
"You've been rude, and mean, and, and, stupid this whole time."
"Stupid? I saved your life."
"Since we got to the top of this stupid mountain. If anything, I'm the brains of this group."
"What? Every one of your ideas almost got us killed."
He pushed himself up and leaned a few inches from her face. "That's right. Almost."
"Ha." She laughed and pushed her finger against his chest. "If it wasn't for me you'd be dead."
"No," he got a little closer, "if it wasn't for you I would have gotten that water to the queen and none of this would have happened."
"That water didn't even belong to you." Ysmay was so mad she thought she could feel her cheeks turning red. She squeezed her hand into a fist. She was going to punch him, but then she heard something behind her. She turned. It was Otto. "He's waking up."
Osgood jumped to his feet and sprinted three steps toward his brother. "Otto. Otto, can you hear me?"
Otto yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Hey guys."
Osgood grabbed his brother and hugged him tightly. "I'm so glad you're not dead."
"What happened to my arm?"
Ysmay looked at the floor. "The Queen, remember?"
"Does it hurt?" Osgood asked.
"No, but it kind of itches."
"Well," Osgood said, letting go of his brother, "now that you're better get back home."
"Home?" Otto gazed at the purple fire and the stone pillars and the high decorated ceiling. "Why, where are we?"
"Nowhere fun. Hey Vespia, wake up."
"Wait, maybe we should let her sleep."
"Whoa," Otto said, staring at Vespia. He walked toward her. The edges of her feathers were a dark and vibrant purple. Otto reached out to touch them, and as he did, blue streaks of static connected her body to his hand. His hair stood straight up and the purple edges of her feathers began to glow.
Vespia raised her head. "Hello Spirit Bearer."
Otto gently rubbed her feathers. He saw that one of her legs was missing. "Did something bad happen to you too?"
"Yes." Vespia nodded.
"I hope you feel better." As he combed through her feathers with his hand, they seemed to become brighter and more full. "I've never seen anything like you."
"Nor I you." She said.
"Since you're up," Osgood interrupted, "how about you fly us back down to the foot of the mountain."
"What?" Ysmay said, stepping in front on Osgood. "No, no, you don't have to do that."
Vespia bowed. "I am as eager as your friend to leave this mountain. We will go now." She kneeled and arched her back. Osgood smirked and stepped up onto it. He pulled Otto up. Ysmay curtsied, "thank you," she said and climbed onto Vespia's back.
Vespia stood and walked out of the temple. She took a deep breath and when she exhaled, a soft purple mist covered the ground underneath them. The ground began to crack and splinter. A fissure opened and they began to fall. Purple smoke clouded Vespia's eyes and mouth. Her feathers sparkled and glowed, lighting the dark tunnel as they fell.
Ysmay grabbed a hold of Osgood tightly. Suddenly there was a burst of purple smoke from beneath them. They slowed and Vespia gently put her feet upon the ground.
Osgood looked up. The tunnel was closing in on itself and then it was like it had never been there.
Ysmay let go of Osgood, slightly embarrassed to have grabbed him in the first place. "This is the tunnel that we used to get here. My grandpa should be just outside."
Vespia kneeled and the three of them slid off. "I am still in your debt young human and half-breed. I will not forget the kindness you have shown me."
Ysmay bowed her head.
"You know," Osgood said, "We could use some-" Ysmay elbowed him in the side before he could finish the sentence. He lurched forward.
Vespia bowed and then walked into the darkness of the tunnels.
Osgood rubbed his side. "What was that for?"
"Come on," Ysmay said, not bothering to look at him. "Hopefully my grandpa has a stew brewing. I'm getting hungry."
They exited the tunnel. The cooking pot had been knocked over and the bags had been cut and burned. "Oh no," Ysmay said, "Where's my grandpa?"
Osgood smiled. "Maybe something ate him."
"Don't say that." Ysmay said, searching the bags for some kind of clue. The money was still there and the food.
Otto tilted his head. "Do you guys hear that?"
"Over there." Otto ran past them through a patch of trees. They hurried after him. He stopped and pointed. "See."
Ysmay could see her grandpa, but he was bleeding. There were nine knights surrounding him. They were from the castle. She could tell by the crest on their shields. Without thinking she ran at them. "Res navi," she yelled, a burst of wind erupting from her hand. The closest knight flew into the air and hit a tree in the distance.
The largest knight made a few gestures with his hands. Three knights kept their swords drawn on her grandpa. Four others began to circle her position. "Res navi," she shouted again. Wind burst forth. The knight swung his sword. The wind split, chopping two trees in half. The knight lunged forward swinging his sword.
"Ecteo victus," Ysmay yelled. Roots shot up from the ground and wrapped around the knights leg. He fell forward, dropping his blade. His metal armor clanged against the hard ground.
"Behind you," her grandpa shouted.
She turned. The sword was already swinging down. She fell back but the sword never cut her. She opened her eyes. Osgood was on top of the Knight, beating him with a large rock.
The two other Knights came at her. She rolled, "Ecteo victus." A huge grass wall grew between her and the knights. She saw her grandpa's staff a few paces to her left. It was broken in half. She sprinted to it and grabbed both pieces.
"Ex solvo," she shouted. A burst of blue fire erupted from the tip. It hit the largest knight in the center of his helmet. He somersaulted backwards and slid across the ground. A large hole had burned through the metal of his helmet. She could see his face. He had dark blue eyes and light blond stubble and there was a scar across his upper lip and part of his cheek.
He growled and pushed himself onto his knees. One of the knights left her grandpa and ran toward her. "Ex solvo," She yelled.
The knight lifted his shield. The bolt ricocheted off, scorching the ground. The knight spun, keeping his balance and momentum. He swung his sword upward.
Ysmay stepped back and parried the sword with the other half of the staff. The knight adjusted his balance and bashed her with his shield.
She slid across the ground. The knight came at her again, even quicker. She grabbed the staff with both her hands to use as a shield, but she never felt the weight of a blade.
She opened her eyes. Bright blue smoke had wrapped around the blade. It was Otto. The smoke had grown out of his right shoulder like a new arm. The knight struggled with the blade, pushing and pulling on it. Otto's face remained calm.
The knight let go of the sword. He clenched his jaw and swung at Otto with his hand. Otto took a hard blow to the face, and dropped the sword.
The blue smoke swirled around the knight's breast plate. Otto pivoted and swung his body hard. The knight bolted through the air, hitting the remaining knight guarding the troll.
The blue smoke wrapped around Ysmay, pulling her to her feet. She was stunned, but only for a second. "Come on," she said. Otto followed her to the troll. "Grandpa-"
"I'm fine. We need to go."
Ysmay looked back for Osgood. He was still bashing the same knight with a rock. "Osgood," she shouted.
He looked up. He hit the knight two more times, then stood and started running toward them. The blond knight with the scar blocked his path.
Ysmay tried to help her grandpa up, but he could barely stand. "Otto," she said, "can you take my grandpa?"
The blue smoke wrapped around the trolls legs and body and arms. Otto grunted, but the troll managed to stand."
"Start heading for the woods," Ysmay said, "I'm right behind you." She turned and ran toward Osgood and the knight.
The knight had drawn his sword and removed his helmet. Osgood stood about ten paces from him. He was still holding the rock. The knight sprinted toward Osgood. Osgood threw the rock. The knight ducked and spun, swinging his sword upwards. Osgood jumped and rolled, just barely missing the blade.
Osgood looked down at his shirt. The fabric was cut almost in two. "Hey," he said, glaring at the knight. He took a step forward than stopped, realizing he didn't have a weapon. Ysmay grabbed his arm. "Come on," she said. "We need to go now." He nodded and they both ran toward the troll and Otto.
The knight pulled a small knife from his boot and flung it at Ysmay. The troll grabbed her. "Res navi," he said, struggling for breath. A small gust knocked the knife to the ground. The knight snarled.
"This way," the troll said.
"But," Ysmay slid under his shoulder. "That's where the Owalikin live."
"Yes, and it's the only place they won't follow us."
"Great," Osgood said. "This just keeps getting better."