Not the final version. Book version may vary.
Ropak knocked a Thraundlus Kingdom soldier into the wall. After the soldier slumped over he pulled off their hard helmet and stared at it.
Yeah, that’s not fitting over my head.
Ropak ran to the Thraundlus troops’ barricade and crouched next to it. A soldier looked over the stone blocks and steel plates at Ropak.
“Hey newbie, what are you doing out there, freak–” The wrallot punched the soldier back over the wall.
“Hey! What’s the big idea?” Another soldier climbed over the barricade. Ropak pulled out a heavy plate and the wall collapsed, knocking the soldier to the floor. He jumped to the other side and knocked over another soldier.
“He’s a traitor!” The soldiers opened fire on Ropak and he ducked under the dense plate he’d grabbed. It shuddered with each shot. It wouldn’t last more than a few hits.
“I’m not a traitor,” Ropak said.
“A spy, then.”
“Not a spy, either. I’m just stupid.”
The soldiers screamed and fell—with their attention on Ropak the Salenth soldiers gunned them down.
“Hey, thanks,” Ropak said, running to the Salenth soldiers. “I was kind of at a loss to–”
“Don’t move.” The soldiers aimed their firearms at Ropak and he raised his arms.
“Whoa, hey, what’s that for? I’m on your guys’ side now.” Ropak looked at his leather Thraundlus uniform. “Oh, hold on.” He pulled it off and threw it to the floor. “There. That’s better. I don’t know how you guys deal with wearing clothes all the time.”
“Who are you?” the tallest soldier asked. They stood in front of everyone—maybe the leader.
“I’m a friend of Alden’s,” Ropak said. He waved in the direction Alden had gone. “Go on, get after him. You’ve got a princess to save, I’ll bet. I’ll get back there shortly. For now I’ll help clear out the surrounding areas so you have a clearer path from the dungeon to the exit, right?”
The soldier looked at the others and nodded. “All right. You’d better be square or you’re not leaving this castle.”
“My head’s more of a crescent shape, but who cares? Hurry up!” Ropak ran into the break room Alden had found him in and pushed past flimsy tables and chairs. No doubt swarms of soldiers fought in the adjacent hallway. Ropak skidded to a stop. His sandwich from the vending machine sat on a counter, abandoned when Alden had opened the door. He grabbed it; he’d need to keep his energy up.
He hadn’t expected any of this to happen, but at least it worked out. He probably shouldn’t have trudged out into the forest in the dark night until he fell down a cliff, but when he’d run into those Thraundlus Kingdom scouts, joining their military had seemed like a logical plan. He’d had experience, after all, but in retrospect it was a stupid idea. At least serendipity came through. He really should have realized something was up when everyone started shouting about a princess, but he’d just assumed one of the royals was sick or coming to visit.
Fine, I’ll admit it. I can be a total bonehead sometimes.
After Ropak stuffed the sandwich down his throat he peeked out the flimsy door on the other side of the break room. He heard gunshots and shouting in the hallway. It was a war zone out there.
Ropak shut the door. He stretched and took a deep breath, and the door swung open. An armored Thraundlus soldier burst in and slammed the door before them, panting.
The soldier didn’t seem to notice Ropak yet. The wrallot slowly lifted a plastic chair, hardly more than a stool with a plate stuck on the back. The soldier sighed, turned, and Ropak walloped the chair over them.
He stared at the soldier’s armor. I really wish that stuff fit me. Then again, I need to stay constantly on the move. Armor like that would just be a hindrance.
Ropak threw open the door and charged into the hall. A ball bashed his chest and slammed him back onto hard stone. He groaned, certain something shot him dead until he heard a familiar squeal of delight. Stubby rubber arms hugged his torso.
“Ropak! You’re back!” Top said.
“Top! You’re here, too,” said Ropak.
“Ropak, where’d you go?” Top asked. “I missed you.”
“I took up temporary residence in stupidtown,” Ropak said.
“Oh, I know that place,” Top said. “I visit it quite often. It’s where I got some of my pizza ideas from.”
“All right, enough talk,” said Ropak. “We have soldiers to fight and Alden to help. Let’s show them some tag-team Top and Ropak action.”
Top bounced in place. “My name is first.”
The two pals charged into the hallway. Ropak kicked Top into a group of Thraundlus soldiers. “Bite their armor off, Top!”
Top shouted and chomped at the soldiers. Any swords were snapped off in Top’s teeth. They jumped onto a soldier and bit their head but the helmet stopped them.
“Ha! You can’t bite through steel that hard.” The soldier’s grin froze into a grimace as the helmet creaked. Top’s mouth closed into it. “Oh Gourd!” The soldier threw off their helmet with Top on it and shuffled away.
Top swallowed the helmet. “Thanks for all the tasty minerals! Who’s next?” They leapt at the soldiers.
Ropak grinned as he watched that hyper little ball of chaos. The floor shook and he heard a stomp. He ducked and a spiked ball shot over him. It crashed into the wall and left a hole as big as Ropak’s head. A chain from the ball led to a bulky, scab-faced scalago with armor as big as a car.
“Feel like playing some ball, shorty?”
“Go for it, tall . . .ahassee,” Ropak said. “Yeah. Good luck figuring that insult out!”
The soldier threw the spiked ball and the wrallot jumped aside. As they yanked the weapon back Ropak pulled on the steely chain.
The scalago grinned misshapen teeth. “You think you have the strength to pull against me?” They pulled the wrallot closer.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Ropak said, releasing the chain. The spiky ball bashed into the soldier. “I’ll let you handle it.” The soldier’s rusty armor split open and they toppled to the floor. “Oh. Maybe not. I’ll take it, then.”
Ropak dragged the iron ball by the chain but it hardly budged. He shouted for Top and the beach ball ran back, feet stomping as though injected with pure caffeine. With each stomp they shouted, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah?”
“Here, eat this.”
Top stretched their mouth over the spiky ball but couldn’t open wide enough.
“Here, let me help.” Ropak grabbed Top’s mouth, pushed it open with a foot, and scooped the spiky ball inside. “All right, pull!” They pulled the chain apart until it snapped and Top swallowed the ball. “Now go beat up those other soldiers.” Ropak kicked Top to the other end of the hallway. They bounced off a soldier and spat the spiky ball onto them.
Ropak ran after Top. He whipped the chain around the arm of a soldier and pulled them close. “What do you say to a little dancing!” He swung the shouting scalago around as they pulled away. With a spin Ropak slammed the soldier into the wall.
A soldier charged at Ropak with sword drawn but he tripped them to the floor. Ropak grabbed their tail and swung them around until momentum whirred them into a twister.
“Swing and a . . .
“Wait for it . . .” Ropak spun on one foot and kicked the other to hop towards a crowd of troops. “Hit!” He hurled the scalago and knocked down the crowd like a set of bowling pins.
With this Ropak and Top had razed the Thraundlus defenses in the hallway.
“Go! Go! Charge ahead! The hallway is clear!”
Salenth soldiers charged down the hallway. A light blue scalago with thick shoulder-length hair shouted orders to them. Ropak waved to her.
“Hey, so, how’s it going?” he asked. The scalago snapped a hand fan an arm’s width from his face. “Whoa. A little jumpy, aren’t we?”
“Who are you?” asked the scalago, eyes narrowed.
“I’m Ropak. Look, I think I can–”
“Oh, you’re that friend of Alden’s.” Herbitan crossed her arms. “I see he found the time to find you. What are you doing here?”
Ropak smirked. “Helping you out. Listen, this place is a maze, but I toured it and I know exactly how to get to the dungeon.”
Herbitan raised her brow. “You took a tour of this castle?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Ropak clasped an arm around Herbitan; she pushed it off. “Listen, I’ve got a green friend out there working to save the love of his life, who happens to be the same girl you’re here to save, so what do you say I point you in the right direction so we can help my friend and the princess?”
“How exactly did you get here?” Herbitan asked.
“Look,” said Ropak, “maybe I made a really stupid decision, and maybe that really stupid decision turned out to be an ingenious chance of retrospective working out, but the point is”—He pointed down the hall—“onward!”
“Onward!” Top hopped forward.
“We don’t have time for stupid questions,” Ropak said with a wide-open grin. “We only have time for stupid fighting! Let’s go rescue your princess.”
* * *
The troops reached a junction, one hallway forward and one to the right. A soldier stuck a sword with their hat on the end around the corner. A flurry of gunshots tattered the hat.
“Aw, that’s so sad,” Top said.
“No doubt they’ve set up a barricade in that hallway,” Herbitan said. “We’ll have to find a way past them. We won’t be so lucky with you two showing up this time.”
“Yeah, you’ll be even luckier,” Ropak said, “because we’re already here.”
Top reached into their mouth and pulled out a periscope. “Side periscope!” They peered through it around the corner. A rain of gunfire hit the curved spyglass.
“See anything?” Ropak asked.
“Lots of fractured glass,” said Top. “It’s really kinda trippy.” The top of the periscope fell off.
Ropak stood with arms akimbo. “What say you, General Herbs and Spices?”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” Herbitan said. “We need a distraction to–”
“Ooh, ooh! I can do that.” Top ran around the corner screaming.
“No, stop, you–” Herbitan grimaced as gunfire rained out. Ropak shrugged. Through the bangs and pops Top’s scream continued unchanged.
Ropak took a chance and peered around the corner, Herbitan following. Top ran forward as gunfire sprayed into them from a barricade halfway down the hall.
“What the hex?” Herbitan asked. “Are they bulletproof?”
Ropak peered closer. “I think Top is bulletproof. Puncture-proof, not so much.” Top was definitely full of holes by now.
“Just what are they, anyway?” Herbitan asked.
“Don’t play games with me,” said Herbitan. “I’m being serious.”
“So am I, General Herby.”
Herbitan smacked Ropak with her stiff-as-stone fan to the actual-stone floor.
“Seriously,” Ropak said once he got his bearings back, “they were apparently made by some magic mask guys on Zhop.”
Herbitan shook her head. “Zhop. I will never understand that place.”
Ropak shut his eyes. “I wish I didn’t.”
Top reached the barricade and crunched into the stone and metal as they shouted chomping sounds. The thought of teeth on rock and steel stung Ropak’s bones. Top’s persistence and teeth chewed through the barricade and they ran, still screaming, down the hallway.
The Thraundlus soldiers stared after Top until their scream trailed away. They hauled stone and furniture to plug the hole.
Herbitan pointed to a soldier. “Call that ball. Tell them to reverse course, now.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Ropak said. “At this point Top’s not even going to notice over the ringing in their head.” He rubbed his palms. “But hey, no problem! Top isn’t the only one who can be a distraction. I mean, I used to distract girls all the time. Just look at me.” Ropak flexed his skinny tube arms. Everyone stared at him.
“What are we looking at?” a soldier asked.
Ropak grumbled over the lack of wrallots on Derantu.
“Anyway, ignoring that, I’ll distract those soldiers. Just keep a watch out for me.”
Ropak stepped to the hallway juncture then grinned and dashed back into a doorway on the right, slamming the heavy door behind him.
“That Alden has some idiots for friends,” Herbitan said.
Ropak opened the door. “I heard that, General Herbal Tea.” He slammed the door before Herbitan could smack him again.
Dusty clay chests filled the old storage room, and Ropak sneezed. A grimy cellar carved into the wall led to another storage room, and he inched open a rough door to the hallway. He was behind the barricade, past the soldiers.
He shoved the thick door open and shouted, “Hey! Military dopes!” The soldiers turned to Ropak, who stuck his tongue out. “Nyeh, nyeh! I got past your stupid wall.” He slammed the door shut and heard gunfire outside. He ran back to the first storage room and opened a door to the same hallway. “No, not there, here! I’m over here now.” He swung the door shut and returned to the other room. “I’m back over here.” Ropak continued back and forth. “Over here!” “Here I am!” “Just try to get me.” “I’m over here!” He opened the door behind the barricade and a soldier threw him to the middle of the hallway. “Okay, I guess I’m here.”
He rolled away and nabbed a sword. “Haha!” Ropak waved it at the troops. “I’ve got a sword–” A soldier struck and the sword clattered out of his grip. “I mean. Words. Yes. I’ve got words.” Ropak pointed at the soldier. “I challenge you to a debate.”
The soldier thrust at Ropak and a gunshot cracked through the hallway. Ropak toppled backwards. The scalago’s limp body fell on him and fuchsia blood from their neck trickled down. Ropak screamed and flailed. The castle disappeared—he was outside—he was covered in blood—bloody images flashed before him.
After what seemed like hours—yet before he knew it—the soldier’s body was pulled off Ropak. He stopped mid-flail. The Thraundlus soldiers and barricade were downed by the Salenth troops.
Ropak stood up, still moaning. His arm was blood-stained. He stared at it, unable to see anything else.
“Would you stop that?” Herbitan said. “This is war. You’re going to encounter dead–”
Ropak snatched a soldier’s cap and scoured the blood off until his arm was raw.
“Do I have to hit you again?” Herbitan asked, waving her hand fan.
Ropak tossed the bloodied cap behind him. He glared at Herbitan, and for once her eyes widened. “Look, there’s differences. You can shoot a guy, yeah, that’s fine. It’s far away. You might as well have not even done it. The bullet did it. But . . .” Ropak sighed and turned around. “Have you ever killed somebody with your bare hands?” He stared at his splayed hands. “Their blood all over what you rely on for everything. The tools of your body sullied by death. All because you couldn’t control . . .”
Everyone stood silent, though not the same silence from when Ropak had flexed. Before was a silence of not knowing what to say. This silence was of knowing exactly what to say but not wanting to.
Ropak inhaled heavily and turned back around. “Okay, enough of that. Come on, I’ve got a friend in need. And a friend in need needs a friend, indeed. Or something.”
Herbitan blinked. “But you were just–”
“No I wasn’t.” Ropak pointed ahead. “Onward and forward and not to the past. Go!”