DARMENZI PREVIEW Chapter 1: Old Awakenings

This is a preview of the published version of Darmenzi, available January 17th on Smashwords.


Blink, blink. The world existed again.

Numer stared at the black-cherry-red ceiling. He lay in his bed, the literal tail end of his long slube body sticking out from the woven grass bed sheet. He rubbed his soft, round, toothless snout with limp hands at the ends of thin, noodly arms. He looked around the dark bedroom. His first instinct to check the clock faded as his brain caught up with his life—it had been years since he lived in a town that used clocks. The pale blue sky outside his window showed him it was morning. Numer heard a few tweets of morning birds, as well as the occasional glob of an afternoon bird woken early like him. Very little sunlight shone in since the window faced east, and on Mintop the sun rose in the west. This prevented the sunlight from waking Numer him until midday. The sun wasn’t full in his eastern window. He shouldn’t be awake yet.

He slapped his face. Now he remembered. He had become used to waking earlier due to being pestered awake by . . .

Ugh, I want to go back to sleep!

Numer covered his head with the bed sheet. He knew the clerpsonal wake-up call would come at any moment. He clenched his eyes shut. Any second that loud noise would come and she would . . .

Numer peered over the bed sheets. Where was she?

“Come on, Numer, time to wake up!” This shout, accompanied by a hammering clang-clang-clang!, burst through Numer’s window. He would always rather do without the banging, but even her voice felt like sandpaper on his nerves in the morning. Any other time she sounded melodious, but not when so loud and the first thing in Numer’s day.

He sat up in the bed and looked out the window. There she stood: Cherry, wearing a red skesh, the loose tunic that covered from the chest to above a slube’s tail. Against that cherry red her sunny complexion looked vivid and smooth, as if it had never known a blemish. Her eyes were bright and sparkling, as if they could outshine the sun. Her mouth was round and suppl, as if formed from a delicious soft pudding. Numer thought her beautiful every day, every time of day, even when she was banging a clay stick on a metal sheet to wake him up.

“Hello, Cherry,” Numer said. He tried to smile, but his own soft slube mouth felt more like it formed a grimace.

“Wake up, sleepy-tail,” Cherry said. “You don’t want to be late.”

“How many times have you woken me up like this now?”

“Three hundred ninety-eight,” Cherry said, smirking as if it were a joke.

“That’s a lot,” Numer said, frowning in the face of a joke he didn’t get.

“It’s how many days are in a year, if you aren’t awake enough to realize.”

Numer’s big eyes widened. “A year? Wait–Wait a minute, that means . . .” Cherry smirked wider as he stammered. “It’s the big day, isn’t it?” In the stupor of his sleep he’d completely forgotten about the day’s celebration.

“I said you don’t want to be late,” Cherry said.

“Right, I’ll be out in a moment.” Numer squirmed over the bed. “I just have a few things to do. I just need to–” Numer yelped as he tumbled onto the grass-carpet floor, the bed sheet twisted around him. He grabbed the windowsill and tugged himself up until his round, squishy eyes could just see out over the sill. “I’m coming,” he said. “Don’t worry about me . . . I’m fine.”

Cherry smiled and left the window. Numer fell back to the floor. His heart fluttered and he jerked his arms up across his chest. His heart wasn’t failing from lack of sleep, was it?  He’d heard of that happening. Or was it something that happened to crawbers, not slubes? No. He took a deep breath. The fluttering was normal. It always happened when Cherry smiled at him.

Numer jumped onto his tail and wogged—

 

Duth_Olec

Definition! Wogging: A slube version of walking that is not like walking at all because slubes push themselves along on their tails making all us leg folk look like chumps.

Wally_Plotch

Good definition to have.

Duth_Olec

Definition! Sleeging: Is to running as wogging is to walking.

Wally_Plotch

Sleeging hasn’t come up yet, but also good to know.

Duth_Olec

Definition! Uniformitarianism! The scientific principle that natural processes worked in the past the same way and rate as they do today.

Wally_Plotch

That . . . I mean, a good word, I guess, but I don’t think it’s relevant?

 

Numer wogged to the closet. He threw on a skesh, but then he pulled it off. He carefully put on his best skesh, though he only had two, both blue.

He pushed aside the slube-sized hanging leaves that covered the bedroom exit and entered a room lit by a round skylight. Below that stood a table on which sat a large bucket of water. Numer dipped in his hands and splashed lukewarm water onto his face, running his fingers around his eyes to wash away the night-accumulated gunk. Scooping some water with cupped hands he swished it through his mouth, expelling it with a splurt into a bucket on the floor. He prodded the spit bucket with his tail. It was nearly full; he would have to toss it out soon. Tomorrow. He’d do it tomorrow. At the moment, Cherry was waiting for him.

Numer hurried out the washroom to the front door. He felt anxious to start the day but it was mixed with a new eagerness. How could he have forgotten? Today was the big celebration! Today was one year after they had defeated Conrad the Conqueror and saved their planet, Mintop. Numer opened the front door to Nottle and breathed deeply the warm, salt-tinged ocean air.

Today’s the day I’ll finally tell Cherry I love her.

Nottle was a village not even a quarter-mile across on the western peninsula of the island Hackney. A thick, ticklish cushion of soft, wavy grass covered the ground on most of the island. When the wind blew it about, it looked like it came from a dream. Ninety-one slubes called Nottle home and had put their hearts into rebuilding it after the disaster

Hard to imagine that just one year ago devastation had rained down on the village.

From the front of his house, Numer could see all of Nottle over the flat land. To the right, a row of clay houses lined the eastern and northern edges of town. Although Nottle’s houses looked much the same as they have always looked, they had been built and rebuilt many times over thousands of years; by now the only original structure of ancient Nottle was an underground shelter.

Beyond the town, on all sides but east, rolled a pale magenta ocean. To the east there was a sea of green leaves and rainbow fruits atop the sturdy goldenrod trunks of trees making up the community’s orchard farm. The ripe fruits were picked and stored in six clay-walled storehouses at the southwest side of Nottle, also rebuilt from the destruction that had fallen a year ago. The town stored all supplies in these structures—fruit, fresh water, building clay, leaves, grass, air . . . although air was also available outside the storehouses and pretty much everywhere on the planet.

On a small isle in southern Nottle stood a tall house twice the size of the other houses. This was the home of the merag, the town’s leader, whose overly ornate house stood as a reminder, at least in Numer’s mind, that simple was better.

In the center of town stood a dark crystal as tall as a slube. A symbol of, well, if anything, nobody actually understanding things. It had stood in Nottle longer than anyone remembered and no one knew why, what it was made of, or where it came from. Yet powerful energy contained inside it had made Nottle a prime target one year ago.

Numer saw the slubes of Nottle wogging about, some carrying fruits and wooden planks. Most of them clustered around a new structure in the north side of town, a wooden platform at least half as wide as a house. Wood had been imported from Gelago City in the east. It was a stage around which Nottle’s slubes would gather for the grand celebration.

One year ago, Numer, Cherry, and Professor Zeth had risked their lives to rebuild the crystal, save Nottle and the world, and defeat Conrad the Conqueror.

The Conqueror. Someone Numer would be glad not to see again. Conrad had been an invader from outer space, a ruthless ruler of many worlds who was vanquished by three ordinary slubes. Numer put that awful alien out of his mind. Today was a day for happy thoughts, and that left no room for Conrad.

Numer headed to the stage. Along the way, slubes greeted him with tidings of the morning. Some joked that it was the earliest he’d ever been up; others congratulated him for being honored. Numer saw Cherry on the stage and hurried to meet with her.

“Hi, Numer!” A short slube girl jumped out in front of Numer, causing him to yelp and stumble back. “Isn’t it a wonderful morning?” she asked, arms up in the air.

“Good morning, Gern,” Numer said, catching his breath. That crazy friend of Cherry’s liked to jump out and startle him. She must have gotten a lot of joy out of it. Numer sure didn’t.

With a bright smile on her smudged yellow face, Gern said, “The sky’s bright and beautiful, the ocean sparkles like candy, and Paige wants to complain to you.”

“I do not,” said a taller slube girl standing a few tail-lengths away, arms crossed. “I just want to congratulate him on going an entire year without saying anything.”

Numer tilted his head. “What do you mean?” He never knew what either of them meant. Gern was crazy, and Paige said everything except what she meant.

“Oh, nothing,” Paige said, smirking. “It’s been a whole year since that big mess. Since then you’ve hung out with Cherry more than you’ve probably ever dreamed. One could almost get the idea that you two were in love.”

Fig, does she know? screamed Numer’s mind, his eyes wide.

“Well, that’s—you mean, you might think—I mean, that is,” Numer stammered, wiggling his fingers together, “actually, I’ve got to—that is . . . Yes, good morning, Paige, but I really must be going.” Numer sleeged to the stage before he blurted out anything else. He wanted to tell Cherry his love first, and that meant mustering what little courage he had to say it sensibly straight to her face. He couldn’t let it slip away now, or at that vital moment, by becoming a puddle of nervousness.

Numer wogged up a ramp to the platform; a thick grass carpet, easy on one’s tail skin, was spread over the wood. A species that moved by wogging, the tail sliding along the floor and rippling like ocean waves, could get a lot of splinters from bare wood. The carpet was just as lush as the waving grass in the ground but much more compact. Still, building with wood was useful for its quick construction and temporary usage. A clay platform would be heavy, and how would they remove it? Just push it into the ocean? At least they could take apart this platform and reuse the wood.

As Numer wogged up the ramp a slube half his size sleeged past him, sending Numer leaning over the edge. “Hey, be careful, Jake,” he said to the young slube as he reached the platform in a yellow flash.

The young slube laughed. “Hiya, Numer. Today’s the party, huh?”

“Yeah. Today’s the big day,” Numer said.

Jake sleeged around the platform and into Cherry’s open arms. She lifted him up and spun a few times, laughing with him. “Hello, Jake,” she said. “How are you today?”

“I’m doing great,” Jake said. “Today’s the party for you and Numer, right?”

“Yep. Me and Numer. Numer and me,” Cherry said, looking at Numer.

“A–And Zeth. Zeth, too,” Numer stammered. “Zeth was there, too.” He cleared his throat and looked down, rocking back and forth on his tail.

“Hey, do you think I could be up on stage with you?” Jake asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Cherry said. “After all you were on the adventure for a bit. You’re part of my family, too.”

“All right, cool!” Jake said as Cherry put him down. “I’ll be back when it all starts.” He sleeged off the platform to a group of romping slube children.

“He’s so brave,” Cherry said. Numer looked up and watched Jake sleeg around with the other young slubes. “I can tell he tries so hard not to show his sadness.”

“Even if it is a celebration, it also marks the day those tragedies . . .” Numer’s voice trailed off. He had almost locked up that day, frozen where he crouched, but Cherry kept him going. When it had all been over, fourteen slubes had died, but Jake had been the only kid to lose both parents in the attack—in Conrad’s awful attack on Nottle.

“He’s adapted so well to living with me and dad,” Cherry said. “And I feel like you’ve rubbed off on him, Numer.”

“Gee, I hope not,” Numer said. Anyone he rubbed off on would become a pile of frayed nerves.

A shadow passed over Numer and a familiar, stern voice spoke from behind: “I think you’ve rubbed off on my daughter, too, my boy.”

Numer flinched but stopped himself from cowering. The voice of Cherry’s father often did that to him. That voice was as strong and sturdy as a mountain.

“Really?” Numer asked, pushing away the feeling that the merag was going to toss him out of town on his tail. “I mean, I’m not sure what you mean.”

The merag of Nottle, Caleco, stood between Numer and Cherry, beaming. His suit and face looked creaseless today. “I mean my daughter seems to have relaxed,” Merag Caleco said. “I don’t mean to sound like my old, overbearing self, but I haven’t worried about her once in the past year.”

“Dad, c’mon,” Cherry said, rolling her eyes. “I think Numer actually rubbed off on you.”

“Wait a minute,” Numer said, “if I keep rubbing off on cleeple, my skin’s going to get sore.” The three of them laughed. “But really, I think Cherry has rubbed off on me. I mean, I have been more active, what with all that training she’s had me do.”

“Please don’t phrase it as training,” Caleco said, squeezing his hands together. “It makes it sound like you’re preparing for another disaster. Just call it, I don’t know, physical activities.”

From off the side of the platform Paige shouted, “If you knew what cleeple were using that phrase for nowadays, you wouldn’t call it that.”

Numer looked away and blushed as green as the grass.

Gern broke out laughing like a lunatic. She held onto the platform and gasped out, “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.”

About ten minutes later, Numer pulled the stem off a shepa, a hard, red fruit from Hackney, and drank the juice inside. Caleco announced to the townscleeple that the celebration would soon begin. Slubes sat on the grass around the platform, some carrying fruit from a pile to share with others. Once everyone quieted down, Caleco wogged to the front of the platform.

“My friends, I have been your merag for twenty-four years now. In those twenty-four years, we never had such a major crisis as that of one year ago. It was a crisis that could have engulfed our entire world, but while we pulled through here in our town, three heroes went out to put a stop to it for our town and all of Mintop.”

He put an arm out to four thatch chairs behind him. “The heroes that put an end to an invasion: my daughter Cherry, Numer, and . . .”

Numer, Cherry, and Jake were each sitting in a thatch chair on the platform, but one chair remained empty.

Where was Professor Zeth?

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Cherry said. She shut her eyes and slapped a palm atop her snout. The audience murmured and laughed.

“Maybe I wasn’t the only one to sleep in today?” Numer said. “I’m surprised we didn’t notice he wasn’t around.” He was silent for a moment, waiting like everyone else. Cherry exchanged a glance with him. Someone would have to get the silly professor. “I guess I can go get Zeth.” Numer got out of his seat and wogged to the west side of Nottle.

***

Off the west edge of Nottle, a grassy bump stuck out of the sea. That was it. It couldn’t even be called a hill, just a bump of green a few tail lengths from the shore. On this bump, though, stood a wooden door, and through that door, an elevator led down to the laboratory of Professor Zeth. Before the stage was set, before the cleeple awoke, and before the sun rose, something was afoot in Zeth’s lab.

 

Duth_Olec

Whoa! Something can’t be afoot in Zeth’s lab.

Wally_Plotch

What do you mean?

Duth_Olec

Slubes don’t have feet. Something can’t be afoot. Maybe atail?

Wally_Plotch

Well, how about we move on?

 

Zeth’s lab was a mess. It was always a mess. Inside a cave located below Nottle, it was a wonder that the ocean didn’t leak in. Blueprints and scrap metal lay everywhere, and spilled chemicals stained the brown rock floor walls. In the middle of this mess and taking a quarter of the space sat a round, metal machine. It was fitted with four wheels and contained two seats, a single in front and a bench in the back, and no roof. A slube lay sprawled on the padded front seat; a blueprint hung over his head; a splotched, patchy lab coat hung over his teal skesh. The blueprint fluttered slightly with his every exhale. As Professor Zeth slept, the lab began to vibrate. What started as a tiny rumble grew into a quake that knocked books and containers to the floor. Singed and dented boxes fell out of a closet, spilling paper, tools, and equipment.

Zeth screamed and sat up. “What is going on?”

He pulled the blueprint off his head and adjusted his thick goggle-glasses. The lab is shaking, he noted, looking around at things wobbling and tumbling. That is what is going on.

A clock on the wall showed the time at roughly four in the morning. The sun would not even be out yet. He’d fallen asleep some five hours ago, around twenty-one last night, and now this malarkey was happening, whatever it was. Zeth pulled himself out of his machine, but with all the vibration, he fell to the lab floor in a yellow, lab coat-covered heap.

A low grinding sound like a blender trying to chop rocks echoed up through the floor. Zeth placed his head against the cold, hard stone and listened to the sound rumbling up through the rock. It sounded like a drill. Perhaps someone was digging deep underground below the lab.

Zeth threw off the lab coat and gathered an armful of tools. The vibration and sound were fading. He’d have to be quick if he wanted to follow it. He tossed a handheld digging drill and some scanners into the vehicle and then pulled aside a thick curtain at the back of the lab. Behind it, a tunnel led deeper into the cave system that the lab sat atop.

“What do you say, Transpide?” Zeth said, hopping into the round vehicle. “Let’s go for a ride before the big celebration.” He stopped and stared at the dashboard with its dials and mechanical devices. He’d made a habit of talking to his vehicle lately and needed to stop. It wasn’t alive nor was anything voice-activated. “Right, whatever. Let’s go. I mean. I’m not talking to an inanimate object.”

Zeth pulled the safety straps over his thin, sloped shoulders, pressed a button to power on the Transpide, and closed the glass bubble dome over the top. He placed his hands on the steering globe and tapped the accelerator panel under his tail; the Transpide drove out of the lab and into the cave system below.

When Zeth first realized the cave system existed early last year it filled him with hope and worry. He lived in Nottle to research the crystal in the middle of town and the power contained inside it, and most of all to understand how it might be utilized. He researched alone, sending occasional (and lately very occasional, he’d admit) reports to his colleagues on the northern island Interp, for fear the crystal could be dangerous. Zeth had wondered if the cave happened to contain smaller amounts of the same type of crystal, though so far he’d found nothing. He then hoped for material he could use in building machines and upgrading the Transpide, but he had found nothing of that sort either. Quite frankly, so far the cave had bupkis.

Someone else thought there was something in the cave, though. The sound echoed off the walls, but the loudest drilling sounds came from below. Zeth traveled through the cavernous tunnels, switching on the Transpide’s lights to see his way through the shady stone corridors of crag. He made notes at junctions he hadn’t explored; the cave sprawled down further than he had originally thought. He would look into the other tunnels later. For now he followed the drill sound to a rocky dead end.

Zeth grabbed a handheld drill and exited the Transpide. The mystery drill had surely made its own tunnel somewhere near. He dug into the rock wall. It immediately crumbled to reveal a smooth vertical shaft, the sounds of drilling echoing from below. Zeth peered down, but darkness shrouded the bottom.

Perhaps I should go back. How long have I been down here?

Zeth cursed himself for forgetting to bring a timepiece, as well as forgetting to set the clock in the Transpide that he had never managed to make work anyway. He stared down the shaft for a bit. Eventually he got back in the Transpide and started it up.

He drove into the shaft.

The Transpide crashed at the bottom, the jolt throwing Zeth out of his seat. He lay on the floor a minute, shaking, and looked up the long shaft gloomy with darkness he’d dropped down.

Perhaps I should have gone back.

Zeth pulled himself upright. He yelped and ducked back behind the dashboard. He switched off the Transpide’s lights and peered out into the tunnel ahead. There stood a machine about the same size as the Transpide, though longer; a large drill attached to the front was boring through the rock wall. Two smaller drills were attached to arms extending from the sides, and eight thin legs grasped the rough stone floor. A dim light from the machine illuminated the tunnel.

The drilling stopped. A flat voice from the machine said, “It’s open. It’s freed.” The machine’s tail arced above it and the clawed pincers at the end thrust into the stone. A hole in the rock crumbled open, and black smoke seeped out. “It’s coming.”

“Okay, cool, cool. Now what?” asked a lighter voice that really, behind the words, seemed to ask, “Why did I agree to come down here?”

A figure appeared from the machine’s cockpit under the tail. Zeth gasped. He recognized the blue headband and ribbons on the wide head that thinned to the bottom. She was a shiffle, identifiably female from the lack of hair showing tan skin. Zeth remembered her from a year ago when they had clashed in a race. Chee was her name, and she was vicious.

“This,” Chee said. She picked up the compact crustacean half her size beside her and tossed him into the smoke.

The crawber arced to a stop in midair and screamed as the smoke flowed into him. His scream changed, shifting from the scream of one punctured by thousands of hot needles, to the scream of one shooting thousands of hot needles at his enemies. The force of the scream pushed Zeth back.

With a grunt the crawber dropped to the ground. The black, beady eyes on the head-torso blinked. The red exoskeleton gleamed, though the shape suggested the phrase “tiny mountain”. The pointy cave of a mouth shuddered, and the claws scrabbled against the floor.

 

Duth_Olec

In short, the crawber’s appearance looked unchanged.

Wally_Plotch

That it did.

 

“You are free–”

“Where is it?” the crawber screamed, interrupting Chee. If his voice was a shallow pool before, it was now the ocean floor splitting apart. He scowled and winced as if in pain. “My magic is weak here. I need to know where it is.” His voice became strained, as though he was weak and hadn’t eaten in ages.

“Where is what?” Chee asked.

“The crystal!”

“The crystal?” Zeth shouted. The crawber meant the one in Nottle, no doubt. Zeth studied it alone to keep its power from becoming common knowledge and falling in the wrong hands, and Zeth doubted the crawber’s claws were the right hands.

What does he want with such a powerful object? And what’s Chee doing here, anyway? What was that smoke? What happened to the crawber?

A light shone in Zeth’s face. “You.”

“Oh, dear,” Zeth said. Chee turned her machine to face him, her big, glaring face more wrinkled than Zeth’s slept-in shirt. She stared at him with arc-shaped pupils.

“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” Chee said. “You’re not getting in my way this time.” The tip of her machine’s tail shot a rocket at Zeth.

Zeth hit a button and springs shot from out the Transpide’s bottom to bounce over the explosions. He drove out of the shaft and bounced over Chee and the crawber. The Transpide’s trajectory shifted violently upward and Zeth screamed as the cavern dropped away below him. The Transpide shuddered as it crashed up through the roof of the cavern. A cloud of dust blocked Zeth’s view of everything. His instruments showed him ascending, though. He was about to hit the surface.


Chapter 2 preview

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