Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
For the next week, Top, Alden, and Ropak hiked through the grainy-colored forests of northern Zhop. At night they built a fire and Alden and Ropak unfurled the thin sleeping bags strapped to their backpacks. During the day Top ran ahead, and Alden voiced his concern to the ball—half their supplies were stored in Top (sadly for Top, none of the delicious ones). When they found fruit trees, Ropak kicked Top up to the branches to eat, saving the supplies they brought for him and Alden. Well, in theory. Top was always hungry anyway. When an animal crossed their path, the ball chased it to eat. Alden reproached Top; Ropak encouraged them.
The encouragement probably didn’t help when they reached the edge of the forest.
“Gee, the trees are starting to thin out a lot,” Top said. Whereas before they passed a tree every few steps, now Top took at least a dozen steps between trees, and light scattered through the thin leaves over the forest floor. On the other tooth, more sepia bushes and other low-lying plants grew. “Was there a forest fire? Or maybe a giant plant monster is eating them all.”
“We’re just nearing the edge of the forest,” Alden said.
“If you’re not going to put forth any serious theories,” Top said, “don’t even bother.”
Ropak pulled at the backpack straps on his shoulders, dragging the two leather bags he carried along the ground. “Come on, Top, even I know there are places where trees don’t grow everywhere.”
Top lifted their arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, trees grow everywhere.”
“Top, I’ve told you before about places with few trees or even no trees,” Alden said. “New Zhopolis is probably like that.”
“I thought that was just one of your silly fictional stories,” Top said. They grinned. “Clearly only non-fictional stories, like the one we’re in, matter.”
Ropak tilted his head. “Is this really a story?”
“Everything can be a story,” Alden said. “We’re journeying from the only home we’ve ever known to a strange, new place. That’s definitely a story. None of us have ever been outside the forest, at least not since I can remember.”
“That’s because the forest is the universe,” Top said.
“Your universe is about to expand,” Alden said.
Top puffed up and shook their head. For a smart guy, Alden sure had some silly ideas sometimes. ‘The world isn’t a forest.’ ‘You shouldn’t eat stuff from a dumpster.’ ‘Strapping fireworks and launching yourself to the top of a tree is a bad idea.’ Scoff.
A few minutes later everything changed. Top reverse-gasped and stared at the scene, mouth open to the ground.
There really were no trees. They gave way to a world that carried on until it ran out of land. The purple sky expanded to the ground, clouds rolling by bigger than Top ever dreamed of, while far ahead the sky darkened to twilight. The crusty ground, colored like rainbow puke, was cracked everywhere, overgrown with ashen shrubbery and mosses in reds and oranges and yellows. It looked like a burnt, moldy, stale pie crust. Tasteless, too; Top spat out some ground they’d chomped.
The world descended sharply, rising and falling in the distance like huge pies. Alden called them hills. Top decided to call them…
Well, okay, Alden’s smart, and I can’t think of a better word, so hills works.
Beyond the hills was the edge of the world. “Where’s New Zhopolis?” Top asked.
“Still past the horizon,” Alden said.
“Whoa, what, it’s floating out in space?” Top asked.
“I told you this, too,” Alden said. “The world is round, the horizon— You thought this was fictional too, didn’t you?”
Alden looked at the darkening sky. “We’re getting pretty far north now. As much as didn’t like it, I guess feeding Top with whatever we found in the forest was a good plan, because here on out–”
“Yeah, it would’ve been, if they ever got full,” Ropak said.
“Speaking of feeding, when do we eat?” Top asked.
“Should we set up camp here?” Alden asked. “It might be a good idea to keep going. It’s going to get colder and the days shorter. The sooner we get to New Zhopolis, the better.”
Ropak kicked a rock. “I can’t say I like the idea of sleeping on this ground.”
Top peered into the distance. A hazy building stood a few hills away.
Something’s off about that building.
The ball inhaled a great gulp of air. They smelled…
Top broke into a run down the hill, and Alden and Ropak shouted at the ball.
“Food!” Top screamed. “Food ahead! Food, food, food!”
Alden and Ropak ran after, yelling at Top to slow down. The ball sped up. Food ahead. There is food ahead. Top shouted, “Gobble!” repeatedly as he saw a holding pen next to the building. Long strands of stiff, jagged wire surrounded the pen, held up by black wooden poles. Inside stood a few dozen brown birds with fat torsos twice Top’s size. Their thin and fleshy necks looked like scaly poles and doubled their height to Alden’s.
It was a farm, and Top was ready to harvest.
A farmhouse stood nearby, painted a grungy red, but Top gave it no more than a passing glance.
Alden and Ropak shouted louder for Top to stop. Ahead, the farm birds hobbled around. Top rolled down the last hill before the farm, still shouting. The birds turned in Top’s direction and muttered. Top dashed up the hill and to the farm in less than a minute. The birds scurried about and made throaty squawks. Top leapt over the fence and landed in the pen. Now the farm birds scampered around and shouted in a frenzy.
Mouth chomping, Top jumped onto a farm bird. The ball stopped still as a statue as a voice shouted over the panicked squawks:
“Let go of that glounus, you little freak.”
In the doorway of the farmhouse stood an entirely different bird that looked much less tasty but twice as big as a glounus, covered in thick, brown feathers. The bird glared at Top with two scowling marble-like eyes, the scraggly gray beak longer than the head, a thin, bony neck straightened out. They held a shotgun in gray, boney arms under their wings. The shotgun’s barrel looked big enough to fit Top’s arm into, while the bird’s wings looked vast enough to enfold Top, Alden, and Ropak into them.
“Psst, hey, pop,” whispered a voice from behind the door, “how’re you gonna shoot it if it’s on that glounus?”
“Quiet, boy,” the bird said, eyes fixed on Top. “Get back inside.”
Alden and Ropak ran to the farm. “Oh no. Top!” Alden shouted. “Let go of that glounus right now.”
The bird turned the shotgun to Alden and shrugged a wing towards Top. “This thing yours?” Alden stared wide-eyed at the shotgun, pale and trembling.
“Yeehaw!” Top jumped off the glounus and landed on Alden, knocking him over.
Ropak muttered. He poked Alden and then looked at the bird. “Look, we’re sorry. This little appetite ball is always hungry. We were just traveling past, heading to New Zhopolis.”
“Travelers, eh?” the bird asked. “To New Zhopolis? Quite a ways to go. Quite a place to go. What are you heading up there for?”
“Seeking our fortune, making a name for ourselves, that sort of thing,” Ropak said.
The bird raised an eyelid. “Really? A wrallot going out and doing something like that?”
Ropak rolled his eyes and waved his hands up. “Yeah, I know. Wrallots never go anywhere or do anything.” He nudged Alden with a foot and whispered to him to get up.
The bird cleared his throat. “Right, sorry.” He looked at them each in turn. “How long have you been traveling?”
“Seven days,” Ropak said.
“A week, huh?” The bird nodded. With a twist of his wing he flipped the shotgun and placed it against the wall. He appeared to shrink to Ropak’s size as if releasing bags of air hidden under his feathers. “Guess that’d make anyone hungry.”
“Don’t I know it,” Ropak said. Alden stood up, his eyes watery and his mouth wobbly.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry for Top’s behavior,” Alden said. “Please don’t shoot us; we were just passing through–”
The bird laughed as if Alden told a joke. “Aw, hex, this old thing doesn’t even work anymore.”
“It doesn’t?” Top asked. They jumped into the pen, but Alden pulled the ball back before they landed.
“Been hearing reports lately of thieves in the area,” the bird said. “Stole a trio of plabens from the next farm over. Thought you might’ve been them.”
“Nope, we’re just passing through,” Ropak said. “We wouldn’t steal a chirbug.”
“Who would steal a chirbug?” Top asked.
The bird looked up. “Getting dark. Getting cold. We don’t get a lot of travelers around here. You’re welcome to stay for dinner.”
“Really?” Ropak asked. “Even with the bottomless ball here?”
“If you can keep them under control, sure,” the bird said. “Hex, where’re my manners? Well, I guess I left them inside. Anyway, my name’s Nolan.” Top, Alden, and Ropak introduced themselves. “We got room in the attic if you’d like to sleep inside tonight.”
Ropak pointed a finger up. “Did I mention I didn’t want to sleep on rocky ground? I’m coming in.” He ran into the house.
Alden turned Top to face him. “Are you going to have good behavior tonight? It’s fine at home, but here we’ll be guests. If your behavior isn’t good, you’ll have to sleep outside.”
“Does this mean I can’t make fun of their beaks?” Top asked.
Top scoffed. “Fiiine.”
They were nervists, a species originally from the east. Nolan introduced himself as the father. His wife’s name was Livia, his son’s name was Tobias, and his father’s name was Grandpop. Well, not really, but they just called him that.
Of the four nervists, Grandpop’s head was bare of feathers, revealing dark red skin, though a straw hat partly covered this. Overall Tobias’ body feathers looked much thinner (another half a decade to full maturity, they said, and another full decade before all his feathers would grow in), but he seemed to have enough messy feathers atop his head for the rest of his body. Tobias also stood a bit shorter than his father, while Livia and Grandpop stood at least a full head taller than Nolan.
In the kitchen, the shelves and counters overflowed with cans and jars. The fridge was a little shorter than Alden, but thick plastic boxes topped it to the ceiling. The kitchen was humid with cooking and soaked with fresh smells to set a mouth watering, and it took most of Alden’s and Ropak’s strength to hold Top from charging in until dinner was ready. A soft tablecloth covered the dinner table, which the nervist family covered with dishes. Everyone sat on a stool at the dinner table, the nervists crouching in a sort of huddle.
Top stared at the sizzling meal of juicy roast glounus, biscuits, and kukurez, a red, squishy vegetable the size of Top’s eye that the ball could probably eat by the shovelful, although that could be said for all the food. More than once Alden held Top down in the seat—the booster seat, to be exact, which the ball grumbled about. They wouldn’t need a booster seat if Top could sit on the glounus.
Grandpop leaned towards the guests, head sideways. “So, heading for the big city, are ya?”
“That’s right,” Alden said. “We’re heading to New Zhopolis to find our fortune.”
“And good food,” Top added. Once more, Alden held the ball down before they sprang onto the glounus.
Livia smiled. “You’re all so vibrant and enthusiastic. You’ve got a real gusto for this, don’t you?”
“Not like my son.” Nolan laughed. “Never gone further than an hour from here.”
“Aw, c’mon, pop,” Tobias said. “It’s not like I wanna leave here. I like staying on the farm.”
“I’m just messing with ya, boy,” Nolan said. “I’m glad you want to stay here. Not like my brother.”
Grandpop scowled, his upper beak sliding out of place. “The scoundrel.”
Livia lifted a wing. “Now, Grandpop–”
“It’s true,” Grandpop said. “Left us here while he went off into business at the city. Never writes, never calls. We could be dead as far as he knows.”
Nolan shook his head. “The city changes cleeple, it does. Ever been to New Zhopolis?” He pointed to Top, Alden, and Ropak with a fork. They answered in the negative. “Didn’t think so. Especially— Well, you know, never seen a wrallot up this far. Can’t say I can imagine one in the city, to be honest—it’s not a place big on cooperation.”
“Is it really that bad?” Ropak asked.
“Only been there once, myself,” Nolan said. “You might think it’s hard to live out here. It’s twice as harsh in that city, no matter what modern conveniences you may have. You slip up, and you get trampled.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Alden said.
Nolan looked at his plate as if he saw into another world. “I saw my brother trample cleeple.” He snapped his head back up. “Not literally, of course. Though he might actually do that in his spare time. The point is it’s a dangerous place. Stick together, you three. You’ll have to be on your guard.”
Top grinned and waved their arms. “Oh, I can guard. I’m the Guardian. I was made by–”
Alden shut Top’s mouth and whispered to the ball, “Don’t tell them you were made by you-know-who.”
Nolan smirked and leaned to the side. “How many times is they gonna try to jump onto that glounus?”
“I’m sorry about Top,” Alden said.
Top grumbled; they weren’t trying to jump onto the glounus anymore. The ball wondered if they could have the bones, though.
Livia beamed. “Well, it’s always nice to see cleeple enjoy my cooking.”
“You know who else enjoys your cooking?” Ropak raised a hand. “Me!” He lifted his plate. “How about some more?”
Livia laughed. “Yes, of course, dear.”
“I’d just like to thank all of you for your hospitality,” Alden said. “If I may be honest, I’ve read books about nervists–”
“Then don’t.” Nolan glowered. “The world is a lot more complex than a book can hold. We’re painted in a far more sinister light than we really are. Yeah, the famous ones are nasty, but most of us are just like everyone else.”
“Except your brother.” Grandpop smirked and waved a wing. “Ha!”
Nolan glared sidelong at Grandpop. He flashed a smile and shook his head. “Anyway, we like to show some hospitality to travelers. Especially those heading for New Zhopolis. We just might be the last nice folk you see for a while.”
“I’m sure we can find someone nice,” Alden said.
“I’m sure we’ll see each other every day,” Top said.
That night, Top, Alden, and Ropak slept in an attic just big enough to roll out their sleeping bags. The floor and walls were solid, unlike Orville’s hole-covered attic, and the walls were insulated, so the attic was almost as toasty as the dinner biscuits. The wooden floor may have been hard, but, as Ropak said, it was better than sleeping on rocks. Then again, Top had eaten some tasty rocks before, although the tastiest ones in the river sometimes punched the ball away when Top tried to eat them.
Top slept, dreaming of kukurez that played instruments and a roast glounus the size of a house big enough to live in and eat for all their days.
A series of strangle squawks punctured the dream and broke the night silence. The real-world living glounuses sounded panicked.
Alden groaned and, muffled by the sleeping bag, asked, “Top, you’re not trying to eat those glounuses again, are you?”
Top opened their eyes and coughed out a few feathers. They then coughed up a pillow. “No.”
The attic was shrouded in darkness, lit only by moon and starlight through a round window just big enough for Top to fit through. The ball gulped air. There was the tasty glounus smell, the nervist smell… and new smells, dirty and furry, smooth and musty, like a colony of rodents emerging from a flaming cave. Something was definitely going down.
Top jumped onto the window frame. Ropak opened the window, and chilly night air burst into the attic. Alden followed, wearing fuzzy pajamas down to his ankles with a fuzzy tube over his tail.
Nolan’s voice trailed up from below: “Let those glounuses go, or I’ll shoot.” Defiant laughter and dares for Nolan to fire followed. Down near the glounus pen sat a machine bigger than the attic, four wheels attached to the bottom. An open pit in the back looked wide enough to carry five or six full-sized glounuses.
“Nolan mentioned thieves,” Alden said. “That might be them. But he said that shotgun doesn’t work anymore.”
Ropak leaned against the window frame. “Yeah, he’s sunk. We’d better get him some help.”
“We can’t get down there fast enough,” Alden said.
“Top can do it.”
Top looked at Ropak and leaned their head to one side. “I can?”
Ropak kicked Top out the window. “Get down there!”
Top screamed as they plummeted to the ground. The two thieves looked up. Top crashed into a gray-furred bandit and bounced onto the back of the rusty machine. It vibrated and hummed like a mountainside with a bad cough that smelled of musty fire.
Top lifted their arms and smiled. “Here I am!”
The bandits stood just a bit taller than Alden and Ropak, and their dark snouts stretched nearly as long as their arms. The red-furred bandit pointed a pistol at Top at point-blank range, a black claw poking out around the trigger. She glared at Top with yellow, green-bloodshot eyes. “You just landed yourself in a heap–”
Top bit the gun and pulled it out of the bandit’s hand, swallowing it. “Guns are dangerous,” the ball said, “but also tasty.”
The bandit jumped back, crouching on her knobbly legs. “You ought not’ve done that, twerp.” She fired another pistol at Top at point-blank range. The ball stared at her, mouth wide-open in a smile.
“Mine!” Top grabbed the gun with their mouth. The bandit wrenched it away. The ball held on and with a crunch chomped the gun in half.
“You damned little… ball!”
“Damned?” Top asked. Hey, maybe I am damned. Would that mean I get fangirls?
The gray bandit climbed through a door near the machine’s front and turned back to the red bandit. “Get in the damn truck already, Annette,” he shouted.
Top chomped off a wheel from the pickup truck, and the vehicle sunk to the corner. The gray bandit shook a knobbly arm and swore at Top as the ball chomped through more of the truck.
What had started as a way to stop the bandits became a new taste sensation, bitter but with a hint of sour. Top bit through the engine like a crusty bread. A crunchy bread. The crunchiest-crackliest-hardest-metaliest bread you’d never bake!
The truck turned silent and settled as if taking a final breath. “Gaddfern it.” The gray bandit jumped out of the truck. “I’m gonna throttle you little–”
With a bang, the bandit fell over—Nolan walloped him over the head from behind with the shotgun, shoving the bandit’s pointed ears down further and bending the gun.
“Take that, ya thieving rackye bastard,” he muttered.
“Looks like your glounuses are going free,” the red bandit said, opening the gate to the pen. The glounuses scampered out, squawking and gibbering as they scattered.
“Gaddfern it.” Nolan flapped his wings down and lifted into the air. He fluttered the tips of his wings and hovered over the ground, speeding past the glounuses. As he shouted at the panicked birds he jabbed his sharp feet at them and waved a wing in the direction of the pen.
Top jumped ahead of the glounuses and stood in their paths. They’re out of the pen. They’re fair game!
The ball chomped their teeth at the glounuses and shouted, “Chomp!” repeatedly. The birds spun around and fled back into the pen. Nolan shut the gate.
“Damn rackye thieves,” Nolan muttered. The bandits had run off, the red one carrying the gray one. “They’ll probably be back.” He looked at the truck. “At least their ride is dead.” He rubbed Top’s head. “Now that was something else, I’m telling you.”
Top laughed. “Can I eat a glounus?”
“Top!” Alden ran outside, Ropak behind him. The scalago lifted Top, his eyes wide. “Are you okay?”
“Never better,” Top said. They grinned from arm to arm.
Alden spun Top around. “But I thought I saw you get shot.”
Top coughed a few bullets to the ground. “Not very good nuts.”
After all, someone created by the Micagox? Mere bullets weren’t about to stop them. Even Top wasn’t sure what was in that bottomless mouth of theirs.
The next morning, Nolan and his family saw the trio off. “You’ve more than given us back in hospitality,” Nolan said. “If it weren’t for you, those bandits would’ve made off with some of my glounuses.”
“They’ll probably be back,” Alden said. “Maybe you should get the police involved.”
Nolan waved a wing. “Bah, they’re no help. ‘Out of our jurisdiction,’ they say. Then whose jurisdiction is it?”
Ropak leaned his head to the side. “Then get something to fend them off with other than a broken shotgun.”
“Too bad we can’t get our own Top, huh, pop?” Tobias reached down to Top. The ball leaned up and opened their mouth wide, and Tobias quickly pulled away.
Livia beamed and rubbed her wings together. “Enjoy the food we gave you. After all, you deserve it.”
“I’ll double enjoy it once I carry it in my stomach instead of these bags,” Ropak said, lifting the now-three leather bags he held.
“Thank you,” Alden said. “If we come this way again, we may stop by.”
“We’ll be waiting,” Livia said.
“See ya, folks,” Nolan said, waving a wing.
As they walked off, Grandpop called out. “Hang on, shorty. Want you to have this.” Grandpop placed his straw hat on Top’s head.
“Yessss!” Top shouted. “I knew saving those glounuses was worth it. Hat get!” The ball grinned and posed their arms akimbo. The hat fell off, far too small to fit on Top’s wide head. “Wait, wait, I got it.” Top placed it back on their head. The hat slowly slid to the side, and the ball leaned over to keep it on.
As Top, Alden, and Ropak walked to New Zhopolis, Top constantly tottered about to keep the hat balanced on their head.