Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Let’s do the time skip again! Do do do… I don’t actually know this song.
As Alden worked in the Zhopian Guard, he grew in strength and agility, proving to be a swift fighter. But he was also a smart guy! He was quick on the uptake and learned, maybe even learnéd, and so he put his book smarts to use, having information that helped in surprising situations. Yes, that’s normal for nervists. No, in fact, snowbles do not like being turned into snow cones. That act is part of their culture, so while it is technically illegal, it is allowed under this circumstance.
In fact, Alden was sometimes sent on special missions to gather intelligence or meet a representative from a group. He was polite and sociable, and he made a name for himself as a clever Guard member. The months went by, and the year went by. Alden spent most of his evenings reading in the Guard library instead of going out (like a big nerd!!), although he made time to hang out with Top and Ropak, whom he didn’t see as often. Sometimes they worked on opposite sides of New Zhopolis. He worried about Top staying in line—the beach ball was technically his responsibility, after all. He hoped Top wouldn’t cause too many messes. It was hoping against hope.
He and his friends did buy cell phones, though. Now Alden could not only stay in contact with Top and Ropak but call his uncle and brother anytime. He heard that Spenk and Jamal had arrived at their destinations, and he chatted with them, too.
Anyway, skip skip skip, let’s get to where the party’s at. New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, 1000! One thousand years ago the planet Derantu advanced their space travel enough to reach Zhop, and this connecting of the worlds was chosen as the date to begin the new cross-planet calendar. Nobody cared though because they were too busy partying!
I’d like to party.
Too bad, Wally! You got work to do!
I figured as such. Good enough for me, I’m excited to see where things go from here.
Not for long.
That doesn’t sound good.
Alden entered the gymnasium in the Zhopian Guard headquarters. With everyone squeezed inside, Alden figured the entire Zhopian Guard was there, as were enough balloons and streamers to pack several busses. Music boomed, lights flashed, cleeple danced, and the buffet was under assault by a beach ball.
“Top!” Alden strode to the buffet Top gobbled down. The scalago had swapped his usual gray guard uniform for a red silk suit and jacket to his knees. Top still wore their guard hat.
“Alden!” Top jumped off the buffet to hug him. “It’s been too long.”
“I had a feeling you’d be here,” Alden said.
“Some things never change, do they?” Ropak strode to them—he had swapped his usual gray guard uniform for going nude. The three friends embraced one another.
“I guess we finally have some time to catch up, huh?” Alden said. “I haven’t seen you guys in at least two weeks.”
“I wish we could work together more often,” Ropak said.
“At least we’re doing good things, right?” said Alden.
“I caused another food fight,” Top said.
“Do you like the cleeple you’ve been working with?” Alden asked, ignoring Top’s remark since, honestly, he wasn’t surprised.
“Yeah, they’re cool, but not as cool as you guys,” Ropak said. “Doesn’t mean we’re not awesome, though. We brought down a couple thieving schalindras the other day.”
“Great,” Alden said. “I helped stop some counterfeiting operations recently.”
“And I caused a third food fight,” Top said.
“Things are looking up, then,” said Ropak.
“You said it. Actually, I’m in another raid to root out some conspirators tomorrow night,” Alden said. “Like I said when we joined, we’re cleaning up the uglier parts of the city bit by bit.”
“Soon the city will sparkle and glitter,” said Top. “Wait, the snow already does that.” They grinned. “We did it!”
Alden laughed. “Yeah, we’re on our way. I think we’ve found our fortune here.”
Oh yeah, and everything from then on was totally hunky-dory and perfect and nice and if you want to believe that stop reading right now! No, Wally, that doesn’t mean you can stop writing.
Of course. My excitement is turning to fear.
The next night, the evening of Quankle 1st, Alden joined a troop of thirty guards on a Zhopian Guard bus to west New Zhopolis. He was dressed in a thick uniform to protect against the biting cold, and he carried the common rifle issued to guards, a handgun holstered. The team was composed of a variety of species, their uniforms dark to hide them in the night. A rackye and snowble briefed them—they were after a group of conspirators planning to overthrow the government and replace the Zhopian Guard with their own army. Pretty standard conspirator stuff.
The bus stopped and they marched down a street, most of the snow and ice cleared away save for what was crusted in corners. The rackye called them to a halt and pointed to a building down a side street, their target. In the light of all three full moons stood the brick building, smaller than those around it, a porch and mailbox like a house.
“Team R will circle the building. Try to find all the entrance points.” The snowble pointed to two rackyes. “Johnson and Jonathon, sneak into the front and scope the entrance. If all’s clear, give the signal and we’ll follow.”
Alden watched four nervists fly over the building and circle it. He followed the rest of the troops outside. Before he expected, they crept inside—the two rackyes had entered the building so silently he hadn’t even noticed.
The interior was dark, the only light around a corner to the left. In the dim light Alden saw the shapes of couches and chairs. His shoes sank into the carpet. He thought he could hear someone speaking but didn’t recognize the language. Another voice was too muffled for Alden to make out, though maybe it wasn’t a voice since it never stopped. The snowble gave them signals to move deeper.
Alden and fourteen other guards slunk up the wooden stairs and found a hallway with eight doors. A rackye listened through each. They reported sounds only through the two at the end, so the team split up. Alden aimed his gun at the door on the left side of the hallway. Depending on the conspirators he wouldn’t need to fire—the threat of force could be enough. For that matter, if this was a house, not everyone may have been a conspirator. They’d still need to be brought in for questioning.
He heard the signal to start—gunshots downstairs. Well, if that’s not the signal, what else would be? Something that wouldn’t alert everyone in the building?
Two cappipotos bashed open the doors and shouted for the occupants to stand up. A rackye and scalago on a lumpy couch spun around. A lamp before them provided the only light in the room. The scalago had to reach up to peer over the couch, his skin green like Alden’s and wearing leather armor. He looked half Alden’s age, just a kid, his red hair—a rare trait in a scalago—parted to one side. The rackye’s fur was in patches exposing wrinkled skin.
An old rackye and a kid. Alden could see under the lamp a map of what looked to be New Zhopolis, other papers around it. He kept his gun steady.
The rackye stood, arms raised. “You have the wrong place.” His drooping face made him look, if not annoyed, disinterested. “There’s nothing evil happening here. There’s nothing illegal, either.” He stepped forward, but the cappipoto shouted for him to halt.
In the other room came a shattering sound. A Guard kudeso exited. “Something in there escaped out the window. It’s quick, but Red is chasing after it so–”
The old rackye shot a bluish-purple stream from his hand at the cappipoto and froze half his body in ice. The cappipoto screamed. A Guard scalago shouted that the rackye had an ice gun and opened fire. The rackye disappeared in a flash of light, though his outline moved through the room.
“It looks like magic,” Alden said. He’d only ever heard of Micagox using magic, though.
“An ice gun and cheap parlor tricks.” A nervist hurled a barrage of sting grenades into the room. The young scalago screamed and the lamp shattered, throwing the room into darkness. It was dispelled by the rackye glowing a bright white. Alden clenched his eyes and backed up as the room flashed. The half-frozen cappipoto flexed to shatter the ice and charged into the room. Alden kept his gun aimed at the glowing rackye, but he moved erratically and the light made it hard to focus.
A short figure rolled out of the room and Alden trained his gun on it. The young scalago dashed through the hallway, but a Guard kudeso swiped their talons at him. With a short sword the scalago clattered against the guard until a nervist whacked the scalago against the wall with a foot.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” the scalago yelled, glaring at the guards. “We’re trying to fix this world.”
“That’s what we do,” Alden said, approaching the scalago. Though half Alden’s size his eyes were sunken and he appeared to have healing scars, and Alden wondered if he was a kid or just short. Regardless, if he really was trying to do good—or thought he was—maybe he was mistaken. “We’re the Zhopian Guard. Our job is to fix the city.”
“No it’s not, you idiot,” said the scalago. “Your job is to keep things how they are.”
Alden flinched. Well, that was rude.
“Like we’re going to listen to a conspirator,” the nervist said, leaning close. “Save your nonsense for the interrogator.”
A flash of light knocked everyone against the walls. The rackye ran past, carrying the young scalago to the stairs. Alden aimed his gun at the rackye’s legs to stop his escape. As he slipped his finger over the trigger, a door swung open and knocked a sharl into him.
Shadows emerged from the opened room until the hallway was pitch black—Alden couldn’t see his own nose. The cozy, if musty smell from the hall carpet disappeared—he couldn’t smell anything.
“Yeesh, not even my flashlight is shining in this darkness,” someone said.
Six yellow dots in a pentagon appeared. A serpentine head thick as a pillow followed, connected to a figure towering past where the ceiling should have been. A few guards screamed. Between them and the staircase—now hidden in shadow—stood a glowing monster, the black body hazy but solid like a mossy boulder. Four legs thick as tree trunks stomped forward. Seven waving serpentine heads emerged from the front, glaring at the guards with six eyes each. The mouths glowed orange as if a fire burned within.
Alden shook, but he clenched to steel himself. This looked no worse than the schalindras he’d faced.
“What the hex has been going on here?” shouted a scalago.
“I don’t know, but we’re gonna end it,” a rackye said.
Alden opened fire with the others. The beast roared and a mouth expelled a blue flash. The guards scattered as the flash exploded, and the light felt like gelatin slapping Alden.
“Don’t stop!” shouted a cappipoto. “This thing has to go down somehow.”
The kudeso screamed and unsheathed a hilt. A sword of charged particles buzzed to life, cutting through the darkness like a solar flare. The wild bird charged at the beast. “Die, you unholy monstrosity!” With a quick slice they slashed one of the beast’s necks but the sword phased through it. The monster grabbed the kudeso in a gaping maw.
Alden shouted and ran to the bird. He couldn’t let a fellow soldier die to this beast. He grabbed the kudeso’s feet and pulled.
Another head of the monster’s approached and stared at Alden. He screamed and clenched his eyes shut. What felt like several minutes passed as he waited to be chomped. He heard an explosion, and something feathery lifted him. Alden opened his eyes to see a nervist dropping him with the other guards.
“The kudeso,” Alden shouted. The beast swallowed the bird.
“They’re gone now, the foolhardy lunatic,” said the nervist. “Don’t get near that thing.”
The beast advanced on the guards one quaking step at a time.
“What if it gets near us?” a sharl asked.
The guards opened fire but still the creature stomped forward.
“We need a plan,” Alden said.
A few guards dropped their weapons and ran to the rooms. They shouted that there was no way out.
“I don’t like that plan, you cowards!” a rackye yelled, still shooting at the heads.
The room chilled as if the shadows of the monster poured down Alden’s throat and pierced his heart. He wanted to run away, but he had a duty to the Guard. He had to prove himself worthy. He couldn’t let the shadowy fear beat him.
He aimed his rifle. The heads were pointless. There were too many. Hit the center. Hit where they converged.
Alden fired. The beast stared at him.
It slumped to the floor, and its heads crashed down after it. It wavered like a reflection in rippling water then melted like receding shadows until nothing remained, the hallway visible again. The kudeso lay where the beast had stood.
“Holy Granoly,” said a rackye.
“Looks like you did it, kid,” the nervist said.
“I did?” said Alden. Did I really? Take down that thing with a single shot? He shook his head, wondering what he’d just fought. He hoped it was over. It looks like that rackye and scalago are gone, though. Did they escape? Or maybe the guards downstairs caught them?
Alden sighed and leaned against the wall. He needed a breather, anyway.
Hey, he made it! From the way you talked, Duth, I thought something much worse would happen.
Oh, me too. I’m glad everything’s okay.
It was over. The official count was one conspirator dead, three captured. The others escaped, including the rackye and scalago, but the Guard would track them down. The mission for the night was over. Somehow, the kudeso survived.
Alden and the others sat in the bus as other guards searched the building. Heavy snow had fallen since they’d entered and already covered the street.
“Just what was that thing?” asked a scalago.
“The past,” said the kudeso, wrapped in a blanket. “Let’s leave it there. I would rather not discuss it further.” They shuddered.
“It was like nothing hampered it,” said Alden. “It was–”
“I said to not discuss it,” the kudeso said, their beak scraping together. “It’s over. Let’s forget about it.”
Alden stood up. “I’d feel better forgetting about it if they hadn’t escaped.” He hopped out and walked through the soft snow.
What were those conspirators doing in there? That rackye looked like he used magic. That creature could have been created through magic, or maybe it was a schalindra. Maybe they were harboring schalindras.
Alden’s thoughts scattered as he stumbled. He looked behind him—he had tripped over a shell hidden by the snow. It looked like an arkent shell. Smaller than Top, cracks covered the bottom, two blunt spikes on the sides.
Wait . . .
Alden picked up the shell for a closer look. No, it couldn’t be. He stared at the conspirators’ building. Realization of the house design hit him like a train and he fell to the ground. He scrambled into the house. He stared at the couch. The stairway. He ran upstairs, pushing aside other guards. Second door on the left—he swung it open and staggered into the room, stumbling on the yielding carpet as snow trickled off him.
The room was freshly furnished, thick blankets on the bed, blocks and action figures and other toys scattered on the floor. Someone had lived in it since. Alden sat on the bed and looked around, lost in his thoughts.
He had no idea how long he sat there, but it was already obvious to him. He just couldn’t believe it.
Something sat obscured between the bed and the nightstand. Alden reached to pick up the smooth paper square and stared at it—stared at himself, his siblings, his uncle, Top, and Ropak. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten it behind. It was the photo he’d taken with him, what seemed like a lifetime ago, when he left home for New Zhopolis.
He was at the Place for the Placeless.
That shell was Walter’s.
What? That . . . Oh.
Oh . . .
Why did the Guard have us attack this place? Alden wondered. What happened to Walter? Why was his shell down there? Was Walter dead? What happened? Where are the others? That monster, what was that monster I fought? Was Walter really doing—
Accordiono. They could create illusions. The way that monster melted, just like that dragon illusion melted long ago. It had been an illusion.
Tears slipped from Alden’s eyes into his nose. He didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. He helped destroy the Place for the Placeless.
But why? Why did the Zhopian Guard want to take down this place? Was it a mistake? Did we just destroy a place on accident? Was Walter really up to something? Was it false pretenses? Was this why Walter didn’t want us to visit? Why did the Zhopian Guard attack this place? Why did . . . I attack this place?
Alden buried his head in the mattress. All those questions did nothing for him. The place was gone. Walter was gone. Everyone was gone. Through the tears, through the repressed sobs, through his wish to find Top and Ropak, his wish to go home, his wish to have never left home or joined the Zhopian Guard . . . Through the stinging in his head. Through the desire to curl up on the bed—curl up under the bed. Through the nauseated cramping of his stomach. Through everything—everything that made his head feel like fireworks lit inside an orphanage . . .
That question. Why? It kept coming back. There had to be a reason behind it.
Alden looked up. He needed sleep. He couldn’t think straight. But more important than that . . .
He needed to know why this happened.
He would find out why this happened.
Chapter 17: Ride of the Domestic Device Drover, but I Guess There Are More Important Matters at Hand (coming soon) | Table of Contents