Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Top strummed a banjo as they, Ropak, and Alden strolled down a New Zhopolis street. Ropak carried a bucket as Top played the banjo and sang.
“Well, we’ve been down here in the city for a couple weeks,
“We’ve been looking for jobs and so far we’ve had solid no-win streaks.
“Now please don’t think we want to complain, we’re not going to crash,
“But if you like our performance here, consider giving us some cash.”
As Top sang Ropak held out the bucket to cleeple. Sometimes they tossed in a few coins. Others only tossed in complaints, such as, “What if I don’t like your performance?” or more commonly just, “Shut up!”
“As fun as this is, it’s not long-term, and we’re searching for a job, no I’m serious,
“We check the papers and online for capers and search until delirious.
“So we’ve spent our time around, but it’s not all work and no play,
“Because we do have friends, and to their ends, we hang out with them some days.
“And now for money, let me stop, it’s time to advertise,
“Because we get paid a rather decent grade to suggest you come on down to Lillesi’s Hungry Bites Restaurant, ‘Where the food is cheap but the servings are not.’
“Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera and so on,
“Give us money ‘cause I’m singing songs and I’m hungry.”
This lasted for several days until a snowble grabbed Top’s banjo and smashed it, ending the ball’s music career. Top had a trumpet, but when they tried to play it they bit the end off.
Top sure sings a lot. I wish anyone reading this could hear it.
Alas, the only technology that exists to communicate events that have already happened is via the written (or typed as the case may be) word, which only communicates sound and sight via this marvelous new technology called “adjective”.
All right, I get it. But then why don’t you just record the audio and video or something?
What’s that, young feller? You know of some magical new technological technology that can record sound-o-vision?
Okay, I think I really get it now. Never mind.
Other than that the trio tried to find a job, but it never worked out. Alden was turned away as too inexperienced, Ropak was turned away as too wrallot, and Top was turned away usually after they ate a desk or slapped a customer with a ham.
As dusk approached the three friends sat on a bench at a secluded square. The bench paint was chipped, the street was cracked, and many buildings seemed empty, although signs advertising real estate showed someone tried to rent them out. The abandoned square was quiet and peaceful compared to most of the city. It reminded Ropak of home, if only slightly. He watched a nest of furry rodents at the corner of the square—ilkets, Alden called them—each no bigger than his hand.
“This city is so big,” Ropak said. He looked at Alden. “Surely there’s someone out there who would hire you.”
“Yeah, we can’t give up,” Alden said. “Wait, you mean hire us, right?”
“Well, that I’m not certain of now,” Ropak said.
“I have a question.” Top looked at Ropak and Alden. “Can we give up now?”
“Okay.” Top stared at them. “How about now?”
Ropak dribbled Top’s head. “Never change, Top. Except for the better.”
Alden stood up. “Hey, it’s Accordiono.”
Across the street, Accordiono floated along. The strange appearance of the illusionist made it easy to notice them anywhere. Alden called out Accordiono’s name, and the illusionist turned to them and waved. Ropak flinched as Accordiono appeared next to them as if they’d crossed the street without going through the intervening space.
“Good day, welcome to the next chapter of your lives.”
“Whoa, that was quick,” Ropak said. Accordiono always seemed to pop out of nowhere.
“I am quick when it is not expected,” said Accordiono. “What are you doing in this segment of the city?”
“We tried another job offer nearby,” Alden said. “They didn’t take us.”
“They said I wasn’t an expert on teeth,” said Top. “Look at me! I have the best teeth. I’m better than an expert.”
“We thought we’d take a little walk,” Alden continued. “What about you, Accordiono? What are you up to?”
“Ah, well, I’m just off to one of my common performance areas,” Accordiono said. “I do rather okay out there.”
“Why don’t we go with you?” Alden said. “We’ve never really gotten to see much of your illusions.”
“Ah, thank you, but I perform better with smaller crowds,” said Accordiono.
“Well, there’s hardly any crowd here,” Alden said, waving out to the empty square. “Could you show us one here?”
“Certainly,” said Accordiono. They floated up, arms out, and then sank into the ground as if melting.
A dragon burst from the ground as wide as a bus and as long as—well, it just kept coming! Its red scales glistened in the faint sunlight, a green, grinning mouth along the length of its head, blue hair trailing behind it. Its tail thinned as it emerged from the ground, at least as long as a city block.
“That’s amazing!” Ropak shouted. It had to be fake, but it looked so real—he wondered if he touched it he would actually feel scales. He ran after it, Alden close behind.
This magic isn’t going to interfere with The Cloud like before, is it?
What makes you think this is magic?
Well, it’s… Is it magic?
Yeah, but it’s pretty pathetic compared to the Micagox. It’s just illusion.
So I won’t have to worry about any furry animals dropping on my head this time, right?
I didn’t say that. I’m also definitely not fingering any “drop ferrets” lever.
The dragon rolled and coiled, and it bellowed a prideful roar. At least, prideful until it became a gurgle as the dragon appeared to melt in the air. It dropped to the ground as if a soap bubble that popped.
The resulting goop coalesced to form Accordiono, who rose from the ground.
“Was that supposed to happen?” Ropak asked.
“Ah, no.” Accordiono tilted their head and chuckled. “I rather lost control of the illusion at the end.”
“Does that happen a lot?” Alden asked.
“For the bigger illusions, yes,” said Accordiono. “Some days are better than others. I also have more control if I’m right at the center of the illusion.”
“All right, I guess we should let you get going,” Alden said.
Accordiono nodded. “I will see you tonight–” Top smacked into Accordiono and knocked the illusionist to the ground.
“Top? What?” Ropak spun around at the sound of snarky, derisive laughter. Three dankoms watched them, the tallest with Top under their foot. The ball waved their arms and feet and shouted at the daknoms to let go.
“What a loser.”
“Can’t even keep up fake appearances.”
“Probably ‘cause of all those drinks the freak has down at Tanker’s Tavern.”
Ropak facepalmed. Oh no, it’s those jerks from the subway. He pointed at the dankoms. “Hey, you losers!”
“Hey, that’s my line.” The tallest dankom kicked Top to the middle-height dankom, the ball requesting them to cease their tomfoolery.
“Don’t think we’ve forgotten about how you treated us on the subway, crescent-head.”
“Hey, hey, pass it to me, pass it to me,” the shortest dankom said, hopping about. The middle one passed Top to them, and they kicked the ball up and bounced them off their head to the tall one.
“Stop that!” Ropak shouted. “Only I get to kick Top.”
“Then kick it.” The tall dankom kicked Top at Ropak. He kicked the ball back, and Top slammed into the dankom, knocking them to the ground.
“So you want to play rough, do you?” The short dankom grinned, showing their sharp teeth. “Come at me, dinner roll.”
Ropak ran at the dankom to give them a swift kick in the face. The dankom ducked and the middle one swiped at Ropak. The wrallot pulled back, spun around the dankom, grabbed them, and whirled them into the short one.
“Give us back Top and I won’t have to beat you senseless,” Ropak said.
“You want the little twerp?” the tall dankom said, holding Top over their head. “Then go and get it.” They kicked Top across the square and down a set of stairs.
“Top!” Ropak ran after Top as the dankoms fled laughing. The stone steps were cracked and broken, so Ropak slid down the middle railing. The rusted metal snapped off and he tumbled onto the rough stone, his skin burning for a moment.
“Ropak!” Alden stepped down the stairs, pausing at each broken step. “Are you okay?”
Ropak pulled himself up and rubbed his scraped hands and legs. “I’m fine. These stairs have seen better days. Did you see where Top went?”
“Come on.” Alden slid past Ropak and down the stairs. Ropak hurried after him, then stopped as Alden went slower than him, then hurried after him, then stopped as Alden went slower than him, then groaned at how slow Alden went, and then they both hurried off the stairs and across a street.
The street looked worse than the Crumb District, fractured and covered in holes, in some areas entire strips of street missing, exposing gravel underneath. The cracked, grimy buildings leaned every which way and looked like they stood only from spit and habit, and one end of the street was blocked by rubble, a few chunks of brick walls hardly taller than Ropak the only evidence of a former building.
“In there,” Alden said, pointing to a dark alley. Ropak couldn’t see more than a few feet in as if it blocked out light.
It’s probably just the sun’s angle. Sunlight was rather faint, as far north as they were, and half the time it was behind buildings. Plus the alley looked like someone had painted it with dirt and slime and who knew what other muck.
“I saw Top bounce in there,” Alden said, “but–”
“Then let’s go.” Ropak sprinted into the alley, but Alden grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “What? If Top’s down there, let’s get them.”
“That…” Alden looked at the alley. “That alley leads into where Walter said the Schalindra District was.”
Ropak stared into the alley. It seemed darker than before.
Walter had only told them that the seediest of the seedy lived there; sordid, squalid, sleazy, seamy. Seriously, Walter had grabbed a thesaurus and read out the synonyms for seedy. Add squeamy and squicky and scrummy and sickening: that was the Schalindra District.
“We have to go in there,” Ropak said. “Top might be in trouble. And, well, Top probably couldn’t find their way out of a paper alley.”
Alden glanced at Ropak. “Yeah… We could get help. We could get Walter and the others. There’s strength and safety in numbers.”
“And Top’s number is one,” said Ropak. “Besides, there’s also visibility in numbers. The more cleeple go in there, the more likely we’ll be seen. If we rush in and rush out, we might not be noticed.”
“Then maybe I should stay here with Accordiono,” Alden said.
Ropak looked around. “Where’d they get to, anyway?”
“Ah, right here.”
Ropak spun around, fists up, but only Accordiono was behind him.
“Fig, you’re really fast,” Ropak said, breathing sharply. “Don’t do that.”
“You okay?” Alden asked.
“I’m fine,” said Accordiono. They frowned and pointed into the alley. “Er, Top didn’t end up down there, did they?”
“We’ll be in and out in a minute tops,” Ropak said.
“Oh dear,” Accordiono said, gloves tapping together. “You know, I am quite fast. I could hurry and get help. Besides, this is your story.”
Ropak started to ask, “But are you fast enough before Top is noticed?” but Accordiono had already disappeared.
“Huh, maybe they are. But I’m not going to wait.” Ropak turned back to the alley.
Alden groaned. “You’re right. Let’s hurry and get Top out of there.”
They stared at the alley.
No, they couldn’t stand there in fright of something they hadn’t even seen. Ropak took the first step. He also took the second, third, and fourth through seventh. Finally, Alden took some steps, and they entered the sordid, squalid, sleazy, et cetera Schalindra District.
Ropak and Alden tread through the alley, peering around for signs of movement. Cobwebs littered the walls, some big enough for a net, and the ground felt sticky and gooey.
I’m going to put some serious consideration into finding a tailor to make shoes for me, Ropak decided.
They reached the end of the alley, which opened to a vacant lot so muddy as to look like a swamp. Ropak and Alden looked at each other. Top was nowhere to be seen. A crashing bang shattered the quiet and they fell over each other as the wrallot’s thoughts screamed that they were found.
The lid of a trash can popped up, and Top looked at them with a grin.
“Hey, guys,” Top said. “I found this neat metal hat.”
“Quiet!” Ropak whispered in a scream. “Don’t you even know where this is?”
Top stared at him. “Metal hat alley?”
“This is the Schalindra District,” said Ropak. “Remember? Seediest of the sleazy whatever?”
“Nah, it’s totally abandoned,” Top said.
“Come on,” Alden said. “We found Top, so let’s get out of here before–” He cried out. Ropak turned to see Alden face-down. Where he’d stood, a sewer cover rose.
Ropak groaned and gagged at the sight under the sewer cover. A splotched brown face nearly as wide as the sewer hole emerged speckled with dripping hairs. Two sickly red eyes peered out, each as big as Ropak’s head and with slit pupils. Their deep, grinning mouth was as wide as Ropak was tall and full of crooked, yellow teeth, while the thing’s skin looked crusted with grime. A smell emerged from the sewer like sick eggs.
“Ooh! Guests,” spoke the brown creature in a deep, sticky voice. With two thin arms holding the sewer cover, they put two more to their maw and whistled, the sharp sound echoing through the alley. “We have company!”
Bangs, scraping, cracks, and scuttling sounded throughout the area. Ropak grabbed Top and Alden and ran for the exit, but a black monstrosity as tall as a house landed before them.
“Monstrosity” was all Ropak registered at first. He had to blink before he understood what it really looked like, which was worse than monstrosity. The monster’s head was pointed in the front and two compound eyes sat atop it, each half as big as Ropak’s entire body. Their musclebound torso stood erect, and two arms long enough to reach halfway along the alley ended in thick talons. Six legs thick as lampposts rose from the torso and then bent to the ground, and black specks swarmed around a cone at the bottom of the torso.
That wasn’t the end of the disturbing arrivals as all manner of monstrosities appeared. One seemed only a head surrounded by pointed legs, a bulbous nose at the center. Spikes and white goo obscured a creature that carried a spike-petalled flower. Yet another creature floated from above, threads swaying all around them while a compound eye stared at Ropak. The hairy, brown creature in the sewer grunted as they pulled themself out with six arms.
“Out of the way, fatass.”
The fat brown creature popped out, revealing hindquarters roughly the same shape and twice the size as their head. A spindly-legged creature emerged after them, the tail end like a pair of scissors. A creature no bigger than Top looked like a pulsating heart that a horned insect had made a shell from, legs bursting out the sides. They flew down with vibrating wings and landed on the huge black creature. All these and more horrible abominations surrounded the trio.
“Oh, Hy, honey,” the heart creature said, lying on the black monstrosity. “We have guests.”
“So we do, Corbluten. What do you suppose we should do with them?”
“Oh, there’s so much. One of them appears to be some sort of ball. Perhaps we could give it to the children?”
The buzzing cone at the end of Hy’s torso shuddered. “Ah, good idea. They could make it into a new nest, perhaps. The old one is getting rather tiring.” They pointed a talon at Alden and chuckled. “And here we have a scalago. In this city, no one’s gonna miss you.”
“Not least of all us,” said the brown, bulbous creature, adding a dopey laugh.
Ropak felt clammy as sticky feelers brushed over his head.
“I’m rather interested in this fascinating specimen,” said a creature twice Ropak’s height that looked like a thin green vegetable left in a jar of mayonnaise in the sun for a few weeks. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one before.”
Ropak smacked the creature off him. “Listen, you things,” he shouted, glancing quickly among them. “Keep off us. We’re leaving. Our friend was kicked down here, and we just came here to…” He stared at Hy.
The monstrosity leaned their head close to Ropak and grinned, revealing broken, dark green teeth. Ropak stumbled back from the smell, like stinkweed boiled in a slurry of rotten eggs and sludge. Every hair on the monster seemed to say “soap doesn’t make me clean—I make soap dirty”. Saliva dripped from the creature’s mouth.
Ropak, Top, and Alden backed away as Hy stomped forward, pushing them further from the exit.
“You’re in the Schalindra District now, punk. Once the schalindra have you, there’s only one way you’re getting out: dead.”
Ropak and his friends backed into more schalindra, and they turned until they backed into a wall.
“So, the question is,” Hy said, “how is it you’re gonna reach that state?”
“And will we get a last meal?” Top asked.
Ropak gulped. “How about old age?”
Hy scoffed. “Funny guys, huh? We’ll see how funny you are when your lungs are filled with liquid.” They grinned. “Not saying what liquid, though.”
“No, wait, I have a better idea,” said a schalindra. “Let’s bury them alive.”
A spiky schalindra crawled down the wall above them. “We could paralyze their limbs. Trapped in their own bodies. Or would it be more fun to watch them squirm?”
“They could be left in a cave,” said a red-eyed, white schalindra the size of Ropak’s arm. “Left to suffocate.”
“Although it seems like such a waste,” said a long-fanged schalindra with arms like scythes. “Such life and vibrancy left to wither away. Perhaps we could suck out their fluids.”
“Of course. Keep them alive as long as possible; let them feel their bodies slowly empty out of everything until there is nothing left.”
“Excuse me,” Ropak said, “but you’re all crazy.”
“Oh, we are, are we?” Hy said.
“Yes, they are.” Top looked at Ropak. “Are they?”
“Then perhaps we should do something really crazy,” Hy said, “like let you go.”
The schalindra received this with silence. They looked at Ropak, Alden, and Top, and the trio looked back.
Hy chuckled, their laugh growing louder. The other schalindra joined in. Before long the entire group roared in raucous laughter.
Ropak faked a laugh to join the schalindra. He nudged Alden and Top, and they joined the fake laughter—probably. Top’s laughter sounded a little too real to Ropak. As they laughed, the trio sidestepped away. If they could just get–
Hy slammed their leg down, blocking Ropak and his friends’ way. The laughter ceased.
“No,” Hy said, baring crooked fangs. “Cleeple must know we are not to be trifled with. We are not to be stepped on, to be swept aside. We are the schalindra. We have no great expectations. We have the worst expectations, and those expectations will be adhered to.”
Hy thrust a talon-ended arm at Ropak. The wrallot flinched back. The alley echoed with a bang, and the schalindra’s arm erupted in a surge of black. With a scream Hy stumbled back, staring at the arm. Corbluten cried and hugged their mate.
Ropak stared, trying to follow what happened. Hy turned to the alley entrance and growled. There stood a scalago, cappipoto, kudeso, and sharl dressed in matching gray uniforms (the sharl only wearing a hat that slid down his head, tipped up so as to not obscure his eyes). The cappipoto aimed a rifle at the schalindra, while the others aimed handguns.
“Step away from the civilians, you putrid horrors of abomination against everything good and decent,” the kudeso shouted, her handgun held in a raised foot.
“Look at this,” Hy snarled, “those deluded, self-righteous guards have joined the party.” The schalindra stomped between the guards and Ropak, Top, and Alden. “You’re no heroes. Before you can even try to gun us down, we’ll tear these three apart.”
The schalindra and guards stared each other down, Ropak and his friends in the middle. Well, not quite the middle: still behind the schalindra. Even the middle would be preferable to that. Ropak looked for an escape route, but he saw none.
He noticed Top still wore the trash can lid on their head.
Ropak snatched the metal lid. He slammed it into the eyes of the black schalindra, who screeched and fell backwards. Ropak shouted at Top and Alden to run. He hurled the metal lid at the other schalindra and followed his friends to the exit.
All the schalindra howled and snarled as a mob of terror and chased them. The guards shouted as guardians of justice and charged into the alley. Behind Ropak, horrible terrors of death snapped at him. Claws, feelers, tentacles, and talons reached out to pull him away from freedom.
Halfway through the alley Ropak, Top, and Alden passed the guards. The guards then opened fire into the crowd of monsters. A tentacle reached for them. The kudeso grasped a knife in her other foot and hacked it away. The guards pulled back towards the alley exit. With a buzzing roar a thick cloud swarmed at the guards. The scalago hurled a grenade, and they ran to the exit. The blast wiped out the oncoming swarm.
They escaped the Schalindra District in one piece.
As the sky darkened from dusk, Ropak and his friends stopped with the guards several blocks away. Ropak felt he could have hugged them, but Alden did that for him. Instead he shook their hands (or foot in the kudeso’s case) and thanked them.
“A quick word of advice,” the kudeso guard said: “don’t go down there.”
“We never wanted to,” Alden said. “Our friend here was kicked down there by some dankoms.”
“Yeah, dankoms,” said the cappipoto guard, her arms akimbo. “The only thing worse than those guys are the schalindra.”
“I guess on the bright side,” Ropak said, throwing up his hands, “we won’t see anything worse around here.”
“That was pretty slick, the way you slammed that lid into that freak,” the kudeso said. “Can’t say I expected a wrallot to do something like that.”
Ropak inwardly groaned. Here it comes. They’ll realize I’m a wrallot and mock me in some way.
“I guess that shows how much we don’t know about them,” said the scalago guard.
Hey, maybe not.
“Never seen one in the city,” said the kudeso. “What’cha doing up here?”
“We’re trying to find our place in the world,” said Ropak.
“Make a name for ourselves,” Alden added.
“Eggs and bacon,” Top said.
“I gotcha, I gotcha,” the kudeso said. “That’s why I joined the Zhopian Guard. You only live once, you know, so make a name for yourself and you’ll live on in history.”
“I know why I joined,” said the sharl guard. “See this shell color?” He pointed to his yellow shell. “Yeah, I’m at the bottom of the barrel chain. But the Guard don’t care. They’ll take anyone who can pass their test.”
“Anyone?” Ropak leaned forward. “Anyone?”
The kudeso smirked. “You thinking of joining?”
“We’ve had an extreme lack of luck getting anywhere in this city,” Ropak said.
“Oh, hey, we’ve got to get back on patrol,” the scalago said.
“Right.” The kudeso looked at Ropak and his friends. “Consider it. North headquarters are east of here near the north subway junction. Big complex, you can’t miss it. You can sign up there. Consider it!”
As the guards left, Ropak, Top, and Alden looked at each other in the evening light.
“What do you guys think?” Ropak asked. He knew what he thought: they should go look into joining immediately, or at least tomorrow.
“It would be a good way to help clean up the more, well, ugly parts of the city,” Alden said. “Protecting cleeple from thieves and violence and cruel cleeple in general.”
“And I am the Guardian,” Top said. “Zhopian Guard? Zhopian Guardian? It all makes sense.”
“Plus, if they’re not so biased,” Ropak said, “maybe we could actually join, unlike everywhere else in this city.”
“What better place is there to find our fortune?” Top asked. “After all, according to the philosopher Claydoo’s theory of class structure, there’s the rulers, there’s the guardians, and then there’s the workers. We probably can’t make ruler, but we can still ascend from workers to guardians.”
“Wait a minute,” Ropak said, “we’re not even workers right now.”
“Oh, right.” Top smiled. “There’s the rulers, there’s the guardians, there’s the workers, and then there’s the lousy bums like us.”
“Well, strictly speaking we wouldn’t be bums,” Alden said. “We’re actively looking for work, for one.”
“No we’re not,” Top said. “We’re standing around talking about dead cleeples’ ideas of how society is structured.”
“I mean we have been looking for work,” Alden said.
“So we have,” said Top.
Alden looked at Ropak. “Anyway, I think it’s agreed. We’ll try to join the Zhopian Guard.”
“Let’s go.” Ropak pointed forward. “To our fortune and our future.”
Top looked around. “You’re pointing west. Didn’t that birdie say the headquarters is east?”
Ropak smiled. “Shut up, Top.”
Spoiler alert: their future is nowhere near there. For the next several chapters you may engage in dramatic irony.