This is a preview of the published version of Darmenzi, available January 17th on Smashwords.
Numer left his seat. For once, he wasn’t the one holding things up. He wondered where Zeth was, though. Maybe he’s still asleep. Nah, that doesn’t sound like him. That sounds like me. He probably just got distracted by something and lost track of time. That sounds more like him.
The slube wogged to the end of the platform and then stopped. He felt a slight tremor below him that grew into a rumbling quake. He wobbled on his tail and waved his arms through the air.
“What’s going on?” he asked, a welling panic surging through him just as he had one year ago.
“Are we having a tremor?” Cherry asked.
“Please, no; I was hoping today would go smoothly,” Caleco said, hanging onto a chair.
“Well, so much for that,” Cherry shouted.
The ground near the platform exploded. Numer dove to the floor, holding his arms over his head. The Transpide burst out of the ground and into the air. It crashed down and smashed half the platform.
“That was quite disturbing,” Zeth screamed as rock, dirt, and sod slid from the Transpide’s smooth hull.
“Well, that’s a grand entrance if I’ve ever seen one,” Cherry said.
As the dust and debris settled, a crawber floated out of the newly-formed hole and glared at the platform.
“Now who is that?” Caleco asked.
The crawber slowly, as if each word were a pain to speak, said, “Where is the crystal?”
“The crystal?” Cherry shouted.
“Who are you?” Caleco asked. “Just what is going on here?”
“I am . . .” A line of shadow appeared in front of the crawber and solidified into a staff twice his height. The crawber gripped the staff in a claw. “I am the . . .” He fell to the ground, fading in and out of shadow. “Can’t hold this body . . .” The crawber turned to the black crystal in the center of town. He staggered towards it, using the staff as leverage to help him walk.
“Zeth, what is going on?” Cherry asked.
“I wish I knew,” Zeth said. “I should say that’s no ordinary crawber. Something happened–” A series of blasts crashed around the platform. Fire and smoke filled the air. The platform collapsed in on itself, its supports splintered and smoking. The slubes of Nottle screamed and fled.
Please be another bad dream, please be another bad dream, Numer thought, please just let that thimble with the top hat show up and prove this is a dream. He heard a splash and looked up. Three shapes emerged from the north shore that Numer had hoped to never see again.
Twice as tall as any slube stood Wrodin, a red metal sphere split in half and connected by a black cylinder, two blue-gray eyes peering out below the top half. This machine had once been abandoned junk, and advanced technology had given the machine a one-track mind. Wrodin would blow up anything in sight so long as it served Conrad’s ends and sometimes even if it didn’t.
Half the height of a slube floated Sawn, a buzz saw with big red eyes, their spikes large enough to carve through a tree in an instant. This fast-talking tool zipped through the air and could carve through anyone near in no time at all.
Five times as long as a slube (and gasping for breath) was sinuous Sal, the striped green snake. His striped, triangular eyes sat on two cones atop his head with two more cones mirrored below. His gaping maw made his head appear in the shape of two cymbals. Unlike the other two adversaries, Sal had been an animal mutated and given intelligence, or at least some kind of half-baked substitute. “Did we really have to wait underwater?” Sal asked.
Cherry stared at them, eyes wide. “They’re back,” she said. “After so long we thought we were safe, but they were still out there.”
Why are they back? Numer wondered. Conrad’s dead—left behind on an exploding space station. “What do they want?”
“Whatever it is, they won’t get it,” Zeth yelled. He started up the Transpide but it stalled. “Gaddfern it. All that stress must’ve been too hard on the engine. Come on, you can do it.”
“Sawn! Patrol the crystal,” Wrodin shouted.
“I think you mean guard,” Sawn said.
“Whatever. Sal! Keep those three pains busy. I’ll herd the rest of the slubes away.” Wrodin blasted explosive shells into the town. The townscleeple sleeged to the edge of Nottle and hid behind houses.
“All right. Sure thing. Got it.” Sawn shot through the air spinning, fast as a bullet. The buzz saw whizzed by the crawber and flew around the crystal.
“They’re still after the crystal,” Cherry yelled.
Of course, Numer thought. He and his friends spent five days last year trying to piece the shattered crystal back together while Conrad’s agents tried to kill them. If those three take the crystal, who knows what damage they could do. What if Wrodin wants to be a successor to Conrad? That awful machine’s mean enough and weaponed enough to do it, if someone doesn’t stop them. Numer groaned. That meant him.
Cherry jumped off the platform and sleeged after Sawn. Sal crashed into her and they tumbled to the side. His mouth, big enough to swallow several slubes whole, clamped down on Cherry. She held the murderous maw open, her arms shaking.
Sal moaned out something unintelligible and, after a moment, coughed Cherry out of his mouth. “I said, did you miss me? And you’re supposed to respond with a witty remark. Come on, work with–” Cherry delivered an uppercut to his head.
“Numer!” Zeth tossed a mallet to Numer. The Mallet Blaster, another of Zeth’s devices. Now Numer could fight. “The Transpide isn’t the only thing I’ve been working on lately.” It had been a gift from Zeth last year: a metal mallet, painted to look wooden, that shot particle beams from its hammer head.
“You mean the Mallet Blaster has upgrades?” Numer asked.
“No, I made it shinier,” Zeth said. “Go on, hurry.”
Right, Cherry was out there fighting, now it was Numer’s turn. He jumped off the platform and sleeged for the crystal.
Jake jumped out from the rubble of the platform. “You’re not blowing up my town!” He sleeged at Wrodin. Caleco grabbed him and pulled him back.
“No, no! You’re much too young, and I’m much too old.” Caleco pulled Jake behind the platform rubble to hide. “I can’t quite imagine how my daughter fought off these things, but we mustn’t be rash and get ourselves hurt.”
The crawber stopped next to the crystal and pointed the staff at Sawn. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m guarding this here cargo,” Sawn said. “No one to take the crystal without clearance. I’m to guard it from enemies. Wrodin put me on guard duty so they could have their stupid fun shooting cleeple. Who the hex are you, eh?”
“I’m here to take the crystal away.”
“Hey, what do you take me for, an idiot?” Sawn asked.
“I take you for a pitiful nuisance.” The crawber whacked Sawn away with the staff. The buzz saw flew in an arc. The crawber held the staff out sideways and blocked Sawn from slicing into his shell.
Numer sleeged towards the crystal and bashed Sawn with his mallet. “You’re never getting this crystal.”
“Oh, hex, I hate you so much,” Sawn shouted.
The buzz saw flew at Numer who jumped sideways, and Sawn clanged against the crystal. Numer bashed the buzz saw away with his mallet but found himself slammed backwards against the crystal. The crawber, floating in front of Numer’s head, held the staff against the squishy slube’s neck.
“I am only going to warn you once, you slug: stay out of my way.”
Numer breathed sharply. “Who are you?” Back against the crystal, he pushed against the crawber’s staff, but it wouldn’t budge. How was that crawber so strong? He was half Numer’s size and looked halfway crippled when he had walked to the crystal.
“I am the force of chaos,” the crawber said, “and chaos has been locked up long enough. I will not be so pleasant this time, once I am again at full power. I despise your people and all the peoples of this miserable planet.”
Numer scrunched his mouth shut but then opened his eyes wide. “Wait, what are people?”
The hard, cool gem behind Numer vanished. He dropped backwards, tumbling over his own tail, and the crawber landed on him. The crystal rose suspended above them.
“Oh, the planet is not so miserable,” said a voice from above the crystal. “The cleeple need to be brought in line, but I’m sure I can do it.”
Numer looked up and gaped. “Conrad!” he shouted with a gasp, and Conrad the Conqueror cringed at mention of the name.
Overhead flew a round, gray hover-chair that seemed like a lounge chair that had been retrofitted for military service. A claw held the crystal beneath the chair’s base. Conrad’s gray, hot-air balloon-head, bigger than Numer’s entire body, sat in the hover chair, his body protected inside a metal casing. The back half of his head was shielded by a glass case with his big brain visible; from his smooth alien face two teardrop-shaped eyes glared down at Numer.
“I am The Conqueror, you worm,” Conrad said. “I’m back for round two.”
“I thought you died when your space station exploded,” Numer said. He’d hoped Conrad had died.
“You can’t take me out that easily,” Conrad said. “Now that I’m here in clerpson, the crystal is mine. You’re powerless to stop me.”
The crawber floated up beside the crystal. “None of you have the slightest imagination for what magic you deal with.” He spun the staff and aimed the end at the powerful gem where it hung beneath the chair.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Conrad said. A gun popped out of the hover-chair and fired particle blasts at the crawber who deflected the shots with the staff.
Numer shot particle beams from his mallet at the claw. “I won’t let you have the crystal!”
“Do you really think I want to waste my time with you pests?” Conrad said. “Say goodbye to–” The charged particles from Numer’s shots enveloped the crystal. It glowed in a rainbow of colors and then blew apart into three chunks as if the center had exploded. “Broken again? How fragile is this thing?”
Numer screamed and jumped back as a fragment crashed to the ground where he’d stood. Last time part of the crystal fell on him he got a black eye. He’d get more than that from a fragment that big landing on him.
Conrad turned to his agents. “Get the crystal pieces, you idiots!”
Numer saw the crawber and Conrad each grab a fragment. He stammered, unsure what to do. He looked around; neither Cherry nor Zeth were nearby. Numer knew he had to do something. He couldn’t let the crawber and Conrad get all the fragments, so he lunged for the third piece. It was almost as tall and heavy as him but he was determined to keep it away from Conrad. Cherry and Zeth could protect the other pieces. Noodly slube arms aching, Numer lugged the fragment away as fast as his tail could push him.
“Ow! My eye! You’re punching my eye! Why?” Sal screamed. After a few punches to Sal’s eye Cherry smacked the snake away with her tail.
She sleeged into the mad grab for the crystal. No time to bother dueling Sal when the crystal was in danger. Meanwhile, Sawn slammed into the crawber who dropped their fragment. Cherry slid to the crystal, grabbing it, but Conrad shot her with a particle blast and knocked her into Sal. The snake grabbed her before she got her bearings back, wrapping her in his coils, securely holding her arms and tail.
Gaddfern it, where are Numer and Zeth? She didn’t see them anywhere. She struggled against the snake.
Sawn twisted horizontally flat and lifted the fragment, carrying it on their side. “All right, I got it! Here ya go, boss.” The buzz saw floated towards Conrad like a flying platter. “Can you go ahead and take it off my eyes?”
“Two,” Conrad said, holding two glistening fragments in his long, thin tentacles. “Where’s the third one?”
“Aw, who cares?” Sal said. “I got a better gift wrapped up for you.” He held Cherry up.
She shook and struggled all she could, but Sal held on fast. She hoped Numer or Zeth had gotten the third fragment away. But why the hex aren’t they there to get the other shards, too?
Conrad chuckled. “Let’s go. As far as I’m concerned, we have all we need.”
The sound of maniacal laughter and explosions spread out across the other side of Nottle. “Hey, Wrodin,” Sawn shouted. “Get your blasting head over here already, would ya? We’re moving out.”
“What?” Wrodin shouted. “But I was having so much–” Conrad glared at the blast-happy machine. “Fine. But how are we shouting about leaving without someone trying to stop us?”
Conrad merely cast a conquering glance to shut up his minion. The four of them left Nottle, Conqueror, saw, snake, and robot absconding over the ocean, going northeast to Numer’s southeast.
Silence settled back into Nottle.
The rumble of an engine broke the silence apart. “It started! I knew you could do it! I mean, I got the inanimate object started.” Springs on the bottom of the Transpide bounced it out from the ruined platform. “I’m ready!” Zeth said. “Let’s go! Let’s . . . huh?” Zeth stared at the landscape now empty of villains or allies. “What happened?”