Alden looked at his reflection in gold, wearing a silken suit from Salenth Castle. He, Top, and Ropak sat on a soft couch, examining their golden medals. Well, Alden and Ropak did; Top chewed on theirs.
They sat in a room bigger than the entire shack where Alden had lived most of his life, and it was only a guest room. At one end sat a king-sized bed, and along a wall hung a television as big as Alden. The closet was the size of his old bedroom and an adjacent balcony was bigger than the shack’s den.
Even if Alden lived in a place like this he would miss the old shack.
They’d returned to the Salenth Kingdom and attended a private, informal ceremony in honor of the rescue team. Brigadier Frenell had escaped with his team after suffering a broken leg.
Alden couldn’t help but wonder where the gold had come from. With all the precious metals in the Thraundlus Kingdom, it could have originated there.
Man, don’t be a downer, Alden.
It seems like a happy ending to me.
“Well, we did it,” Ropak said. He threw his arms up. “We’re finally in.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Alden sighed. He looked out the open windows. They were high enough to see past the lush forest to the barren Thraundlus Kingdom. “I can’t say I’m entirely pleased. We only made our names because we had to fight a hostile power.” He walked to the balcony across the plush carpet.
“There can be no good without evil. Many people in history have said that. Maybe they’re right. But if they are, can’t we just have ‘pretty okay’? I’m sure we could have that without evil.”
“Are you getting all philosophical on us?” Ropak asked.
“Guys!” Top whined. “My medal broke in half.” They held two halves with bite marks on them.
“You’re the one who was biting it,” Ropak said.
“They shouldn’t have made it so tasty.” Top tossed the halves in their mouth.
Alden smiled and rolled his eyes. “As I was saying–” The door opened.
“There you guys are. Congratulations!” Evelyn, Thad, and Steven entered the room.
“Hey, guys.” Ropak jumped off the couch.
“Why’d you leave the celebration?” Thad asked.
“We wanted some time to think,” said Alden.
“Well, Alden, you were completely unexpected,” Evelyn said. She smirked. “You come out of nowhere, fall in love with Princess Serani, and then manage to be essential to rescuing her from the Thraundlus Kingdom. You’re like some nonsense storybook hero.”
“He’s got heart, too,” said Steven. “Fighting to get those prisoners a chance to escape and make a new life for themselves, even when there’s something more pressing for him.”
“Yeah, he may have heart,” Evelyn said, “but most of it is for the princess. Heart, brains, and they’re both crazy.”
Alden dipped his head and smiled. “Thanks, guys–”
Ropak shoved him aside. “Hey! What about me? I did stuff, too.”
Steven cocked his head. “What did you do, Ropak? I don’t think I ever saw you in the castle.”
“I stupidly joined the Thraundlus army is what I did,” Ropak said. “Then I quit and beat people up. You know, like a hero.” He placed his arms akimbo and beamed.
“So, Alden,” Thad said, “what were you thinking about up here? Are you okay with sharing?”
Before he answered, the door flew open. “Alden!” A scalago jumped on him in a big hug and he stumbled back. Her green skin was just a few shades lighter than his.
“What? Oh, Olivia.” Alden smiled. “You made it.”
“I did, I did!” Olivia said, hopping up and down. “And it’s all thanks to you. Thank you!” Now that she was no longer wasting away in a dark dungeon, had a wash, new clothing, probably got a decent meal, Alden could see her clearer. She really did look his age, and though she still shrank a little was most likely his height. Her hair, though cleaner and more vibrant, still sprawled everywhere.
“It wasn’t all me,” Alden said. “In fact, it was hardly me. It was the soldiers, as well as Steven.” He pointed to the cyborg. “He’s over there.”
“But if you hadn’t stood for us, we never would have been given a chance,” Olivia said. “So thank you.”
“Well, you’re welcome, then,” Alden said. “Did everyone else make it?”
Olivia released him and looked down. “No. Linwood didn’t make it. He was the one who told you where the princess had been taken.”
“Oh . . .”
“He almost made it, too, but he got shot at the end,” Olivia said. She looked at Alden. “We managed to carry him outside to see the sky one last time, though, and he was happy that we were safe. He said he had taken his chance, and he didn’t regret it.”
“A better way to go than rotting in a dungeon,” Evelyn said.
“We’re going to try and find his relatives,” said Olivia. “We want to give them some closure, let them know what happened to Linwood.”
“Hah! Linwood? Did you say Linwood, lass? Linwood Amea?”
A familiar boisterous scalago burst into the room and Randolph marched to Olivia.
“Er, yes,” Olivia said. She shrank from him to Alden.
Randolph laughed. “I never thought I’d hear it. He was an old friend of mine, stellar reporter. You’ll have to tell me all about it, we can meet over at Top’s Pizza one day. Speaking of which—” He shook hands with Top and Alden and Ropak until Alden’s arm was sore. “Excellent job, you three! I’ve heard all about it, just fantastic.” Top squealed and climbed onto Randolph, who held the ball with one arm. “A fantastic chef, a fantastic friend, and a fantastic fighter all in one.”
“Wait, Randolph, you know what happened?” Alden asked.
“That I do, Alden.” Randolph introduced himself and shook hands with Thad and Evelyn and Steven and Olivia.
“I thought you’d retired,” Alden said.
“Sure, sure, but I always told them I’d be ready for more action if they need me,” Randolph said. “Though here they just needed me to help keep a lid on what happened. Don’t want to send everyone in a panic, after all.”
“Oh yeah, you seem like you’d be great at that job,” said Ropak.
“You bet,” Randolph said. “You don’t spend two decades as an officer without learning to keep secrets. But I have to say”—he shook their hands again—“you all handled yourselves splendidly.” He grinned. “After that disaster at the party Norma and I were going to speak with Princess Serani, put in a good word for you, but then the other disaster happened—but anyway, you more than took care of it yourselves.”
“Thank you,” Alden said. “It’s an honor to hear that from you, I think.”
Randolph turned to Ropak. “And Ropak, I’d heard you did something ridiculous, foolish, and bold.” He laughed and put an arm around him; Ropak pulled away but Randolph’s grip was stronger. “I approve, my lad, I approve!” He looked at everyone in the room. “Now, sorry if I interrupted anything, but I just had to come and see the heroes and tell them they had a bright future here. I’ve got to run, but we’ll have to meet again soon.”
After Randolph left Olivia sighed. “That was a bit much.”
“I guess you aren’t used to meeting people, especially someone with so much energy,” Alden said.
Olivia hugged him; she was warm. “Yeah.” She stammered. “Well, I really just wanted to come by and thank you for getting us free.”
“Of course, I’m glad to do it.”
Olivia walked out waving to him. “And maybe I’ll see you around sometime.” She stumbled out the door. “Oh! Sorry about that. I was just heading out.”
“Alden, my boy.” Orville poked his wrinkled head through the doorway. “Congratulations!” He and Xavier entered.
“Hey, uncle. Hi, Xavier,” Alden said.
“Hi guys!” Top said.
“Quite the hero, you are,” said Orville. “You’re getting rather popular around here too, eh?” He nudged Alden and looked out the door.
“Hey, I’m a hero, too,” Ropak said. “Where are my girls?”
“They’re on Zhop,” Top said.
Ropak looked down. “Yeah . . .”
“I’m just glad you’re safe,” Xavier said, hugging Alden. “So much has happened in the past year; I almost never stop worrying.”
“Me too,” Alden said. He looked at the sky out the window. “Do you think Spenk and Jamal are okay?” He hadn’t seen them in almost two years now. Did the Zhopian Guard know their location? Were they in trouble? Had they escaped to safety, perhaps to the vast ocean of Zhop or even off the planet like he did? Alden worried he’d never know. He worried the only way he would know would be if the news was bad.
“I’m sure . . .” Xavier shook his head. “I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all. But I can hope. As much as I worry about them, I know they’re capable. Spenk can keep running. She could keep running and never stop. Jamal . . . he would probably stay and fight.” He gave half a laugh. “Fight against an entire planet’s army.”
He smiled and looked at Thad, Evelyn, and Steven. “But I’m sure they’ll find friends. They won’t be alone. They can make it.”
“Do you guys want some time alone?” Thad asked.
Xavier sniffed. “No, I think we’re fine.”
“Well . . .” Alden looked at the balcony.
“Don’t worry,” Xavier said. “I’m sure you have a lot on your mind still. Just come downstairs when you’re ready.”
Alden nodded, and the others left him, Ropak, and Top alone. He walked onto the quiet balcony and placed his hands on the rail. His friends followed; Ropak leaned on the rail while Top nibbled on it. A cool breeze blew, but from the direction of the Thraundlus Kingdom came a stale wind.
The Thraundlus Kingdom. So far off, yet right next door. Is this our place in the world? Protectors of Princess Serani? Well, I can’t think of many better places to be.
“I guess New Zhopolis isn’t the only pit in the universe,” Alden said.
“What, the Thraundlus Kingdom?” Ropak asked. “Yeah. Probably. The Zhopian Guard is still worse, though.” He looked at the sky. “Which way from here is Zhop?”
“I think in that direction,” Alden said.
Ropak shook a fist in the direction Alden pointed. “This isn’t over, Chillone. I’ll see to it you and your guard pays for what they did. We have royal friends now.”
“And a good thing, too.” Behind them walked up Princess Serani, her green dress sparkling in the sun.
Alden smiled and nodded. “Hello, Princess Serani.”
“I told you, you can just call me Serani.”
“Right, of course, Serani.” Alden blushed; it still felt like a dream to him.
The princess looked across the landscape with them, arms behind her back. “Yeah. The Thraundlus Kingdom never liked us. We never liked them, either. But Zhop is a whole other monster.”
Ropak shook his head. “You don’t have to tell us.”
“The worst of it is,” Serani said, “the Thraundlus Kingdom and Zhop have had close ties for years, even though Zhop always turns their back on them. We just tried to maintain neutral ties with Zhop, but knowing a mafia pretty much runs that planet changes things.”
Ropak stood up. “You’d move against them?”
“I’d push the Planet Peacekeeping Power communities to, make it an issue,” Serani said. “No matter what, though, just know that you’ll be safe in the Salenth Kingdom. I’ll make sure you have immunity here.” She held Alden’s hand. “I can’t have them hurting my hero, after all.”
Alden and Serani smiled. They’d planned their first date for that evening, but Alden felt they’d already made a connection. Serani leaned close and kissed him, and he kissed her back.
Top cried out. “Alden! What are you doing? Why are you trying to eat the princess? Only I’m allowed to eat the princess!”
Serani kicked Top off the balcony. Alden pulled away and looked after the ball.
“Should you have done that?” he asked, rubbing his cheek. “I hope Top will be okay.”
“Yeah, they’re fine,” Ropak said, peering over the edge. “It looks like they fell on Herbitan. So maybe not wanna go down there for a while.”
But how did the date go? Did they have any shared interests? Was Alden able to deal with meeting Serani’s parents who were literally the king and queen of a country?
Find out in chapter 38?
Nah, we’re done here. This is the closing credits.
Duth Olec: director.
Wally Plotch: narrator.
ALFALFA: special effects.
Top played by Top.
Alden played by Alden.
Ropak played by Top.
That’s the end? We never saw Serani’s parents, we never learned the fate of Spenk or Jamal, and what about all the others?
Shh, Wally, keep that up and the readers will start asking questions, and then I’ll have to actually show this stuff.
But I want to see it.
Good! But this story is over. Our heroes found a place in a world, though not the world they started with, and escaped with their lives and overcame adversary. We all learned a valuable lesson about nougat and discovered that the treasure was inside us all along. Well, inside Top.
That’s it, then? Nothing more on these guys?
Once upon a time I had you document a story about slugs. Then I had you document another story about them. This universe is big, Wally, much too big for just one or three or fourteen stories.
All right, then. Do we get to see what Alden and his friends are up to next?
Actually, we have a darker fellow to meet next time.
HOW ARE YOU, GENTLEMAN?
Who do you think you are, interrupting a conversation like this?
I think I’m you.
Good answer. So what do you want?
Just saying hi. Noticed you were nearby.
Can one of you tell me what’s going on?
Anyway, you’re either my past or my future, so either you have done this or will do this.
AS YOUR FUTURE SELF I’M GOING TO INFORM YOU THAT EVERYTHING YOU DO IS WRONG AND STUPID.
ALFALFA, can you explain this?
Glad we still remember the old references.
I mean, yeah, of course.
It seems we have neared another instance of The Cloud along its timeline, and that version of Duth saw fit to contact us.
So what are you up to, anyway?
But we’ve seen The Cloud before and that Duth didn’t contact us.
I’m about to head to a super important meeting. All hush-hush and like. Gotta clean up some stuff I left behind.
Just because we pass another instance of The Cloud does not mean he will contact us. Only when he is particularly stupid.
Screw you, ALFALFA.
Fig you, ALFALFA.
Anyway, looks like all you’re doing is hanging around watching Alden and Serani kiss.
What, no! I was just leaving when you showed up. I’m about to go see an old friend on Zhop.
Man, I considered them a friend?
I dunno, I guess.
Well, I’m leaving. I’ll let you get to your totally super important and not at all just stupid work meeting stuff.
Sorry about that, Wally. Where were we?
Does that happen a lot?
Not really. I talk to myself enough without crossing the time barrier to do so.
So who is this friend we’re going to see on Zhop?
Name’s Kil. He’s a stone-cold bad dude with just one goal in mind.
And that is?
Saving his family.
Doesn’t sound stone-cold bad.
You’d be surprised. Dude is out for revenge, resolution, and revival. He’ll look for a way to do it, whether in the seedy world of Zhop, the mystical world of Derantu, or the madcap world of Mintop.
All right, we’re returning to Mintop, then!
Strap yourself in, Wally—and that’s just a phrase, I know you don’t have a seatbelt, stop complaining about it—because we have places to go. I don’t have a name for this story yet so this end here will change. yay