Petit Four 1

 

PART ONE: Primordial Sea Salé

 

Forcefully he swallowed–Mama’s fire cheese fritters burning his smoldering thirsty throat.

 

Anxiously he flew–oily obsidian claws sticking in mossy bark as he leapt through the treetops.

 

Eight years his junior, the seven-year-old mud puppy zipped far behind him with a feral howl in panicked protest. The race to be the first to reach the dark swamp’s lighter creamy coastline was being taken quite seriously by the younger of the two adoptive brothers. It was freaking hilarious.

 

“Chains, you’re an ASS WAGON!”

 

Whatever an ass wagon was supposed to be, he wasn’t about to let the weak insult go unaddressed–no matter how weak. Crowing with elated metallic laughter, he easily dodged the enormous ball of murky mud hurled his way in near hyper speed, and swiftly retaliated with an even bigger ball of ballistic flame. The little shit was getting pretty good with his mud majík.

 

He was frothing with nauseating excitement, and so he wasn’t about to slow down. The brothers were taking their first real sailing adventure on the open sea, and there was no way to restrain their monstrous excitement. Barking with milky fangs bared and molasses cheeks blazing, Mama Chu had spent entirely too much effort trying to groom their furry bodies and pack their leathery packs. They were going out to sea for the day, which meant plenty of sudden saltwater showers and scrumptious snack barges. Or so he’d heard.

 

Blasting forth from the salty pea soup depths of the demon swamp–and unable to reliably sustain flight just yet–he dove down over a steep muddy cliff and scampered across the wide, rock slab road made glassy smooth by the countless legions of barrel-footed dinosaurs who patrolled it. The dark road and the peanut butter beach expanse were vacant at the moment, though such was ideal. He was not accustomed to exposure of any kind.

 

Like roasted almonds dropped in no particular pattern, huge pointed rock formations jutted up from the squelchy peanut butter beach from murky horizon to murky horizon. Levitating himself a razor’s width over the sloppy sand, he took in the sight and the feel of the coast with a deep inhalation of smoldering cheesy breath.

 

Out of the swamp!

 

An intense, fiery blood orange disk, Sólra was slowly dawning over the eastward intersection of creamy peanut butter beach and foamy spinach bisque sea–casting a fiery seasoning of streaky light across both. The luscious soufflés of savory cumulous clouds flanking Sólra’s ascent were the kind so thick and radiantly back-lit that they seemed like solid objects one could climb upon. Blanketing a dusky lavender twilight sky, the clouds puffed in all murky hues from zesty mustard to tangy olive to stormy blue cheese rind.

 

Hot damn I hope the snack barges are open already.

 

“Look at all that algae!” Zene breathlessly exclaimed as he screeched to a halt in the muddy sand nearby.

 

“And those weeds. Gross, we’ll be eating seaweed stew for weeks.”

 

Indeed the recently departed Monsoon Season had left behind an enormous coastal buffet of rich seaweed and salty algae. The scent–the taste–was so viscous that he could feel it coating his smoldering lungs and sizzling stomach.

 

Mud brown hair and fur freshly washed and brushed, the mud puppy shamelessly trudged through the peanut butter sand for the sheer delight of feeling it seep up between his bare clawed toes. The smooth skin of his face and neck was the exact same peanut butter color as the saturated sand, and his tiny body was blending in with the beach. Low puppy ears and thin leonine tail twitching, Zene looked to him with a sudden expression of deep concern and savage cynicism.

 

“Is that…thing…our boat?”

 

“Apparently,” he dreamily snorted–a sudden enthralling chill washing over the bare flesh of his naked torso as he studied the sumptuous sky.

 

The spaces between the cushy soufflé clouds looked like wide-open portals to heavenly sky worlds–or perhaps more like a glimpse of the sort of views one could have while visiting sky cities and cloud nations. From the civilizations at her planetary core to her bustling near space, the world of Gaia Lux was an endless enchantment.

 

Just breathe…

 

You can do this. You MUST do this…

 

“Quit your daydreaming and let’s GO!” Zene abrasively woofed from between clenched teeth–abrasively striking his big brother’s bare side with a well-placed furry elbow.

 

The command was punctuated by a most satisfying howl in prepubescent protest as Chains zipped off across the peanut butter beach–to the beached boat whose booty was bobbing in the spinach bisque sea. Next to the bitty sail boat proudly stood a scholarly man in loose burlap clothes, a smoldering molten aura, and plenty of leathery pouches full of crystals and currency.

 

Hair and fur greying only because he had suffered as a slave for fourteen years, the well-groomed man was relishing his freedom along with the churning spinach bisque sea before him. With a toss of greying burnt umber braids, their scholarly steward turned to greet the ballistic brothers with a wide fanged grin and an excited tug of his braided, greying umber beard.

 

“What took you so long?” Serpiz blazed with a wildfire in his burning feline eyes. “Never mind. I don’t want to know just how much further Mama Chu has herself worked up about you two leaving the den. Like the boat?”

 

“Does it float?” Zene immediately demanded–leaping and stomping his sandy clawed feet upon the rim of the creaky bow.

 

“Through sea and sky,” their scholarly steward assured with a flare of his warm suede feline nose. “The Deneb Kaitos is compatible with several types of majík–I made sure, Zenith. She may not look it, but just renting her for the day is costing ten thousand lore. I directed her here from the dock, but now let’s have you do a check on all the majík materials she’s made of.”

 

About nine metrons in length, the rickety-looking sail boat was strong in spirit and comprised of several majík-soaked materials in addition to its chewed but enchanted wood frame–humming hammered steel, sparking gold pegs, whispering sea whale skin, glistening amber resin, and shiny sea serpent scales. The materials were quite old–and perhaps not as powerful as the once were–but such was fitting for their star-crossed family of similar wear and tear. Like Zene’s oversized tunic, the sail boat looked patchwork in functional design.

 

Über accelerated with majík, the mud puppy eagerly performed a check on the vitality of the boat’s materials, and then they shoved her into the spinach bisque sea with howls in excitement. Plopping onto rickety wooden benches, the brothers squealed inside and out as Serpiz demonstrated skill with the sky whale skin sails. Sails unfurled and secured, they howled all the harder as they snagged the spicy wind that would carry them southwest and to their mysterious day trip destination.

 

“A fire god commanding a boat of sea and sky!” Zene feverishly shrieked against a blast of chilly saline wind–his furry butt bouncing hard on their squeaky bench.

 

“Only a true fire god knows their way around water!” Serpiz called out against a delightful spray of warm spinach bisque–suede clawed hand gripping the metallic tiller as he plopped down at the stern of the faintly glowing sail boat. “Looks like the Brachiosaurus Tribe is on the move again!”

 

It was surreal to think that, in ancient times, the Southern Swamp was a dry, arid land of minimal foliage. Now an expansive demon swamp of extreme heights and endless reach, the murky colors of the land were often reflected in the creatures who dwelt there.

 

Towering in their primeval majesty–and in all colors of the swamp–the Brachiosaurus Tribe eerily lowed in a variety of communicative tones as they trudged upon the rock slab coastal road. From a distance each dino looked to be the size of his own honey-colored hand, though as always the feel of epic dino energy rattled his being to the celestial core.

 

But the swampy pea soup shore was quickly seeming out of reach the further the Deneb Kaitos swiftly sliced through the savory spinach bisque sea. The rolling water–saturated with murky algae for a couple of kilometrons out to sea–was also rife with primordial marine life in hundreds of shades of demon and deva. Crustaceans and cetaceans, snakes and serpents, seals and cephalopods, monsters and merfolk. All were slithering around far beneath the boat, though some were breaching the surface to sneak a peek at him in all his supposed glory as a long-lost son of a Gaian noble family.

 

And as the God of Revolution…

 

Gathering his platinum and obsidian hair in his wet hands, he leaned over the edge of the softly glowing boat to stare down into the salty spinach bisque with insatiable curiosity and delicious fright. The denizens of the deep were recognizing him on many levels, and he was immediately terrified. More and more the past liberated year, his post-slavery swamp sanctuary was being yanked out from under him.

 

While the dynamic spinach bisque sea lazily rolled beneath them, high above the back-lit soufflé clouds of glowing golden mustard and dark blue cheese rind seemed like stationary sentinels by comparison. The chill saline wind suddenly swirled through sails and sinuses–forcing the brothers’ scholarly steward to quickly redirect the shimmering sky whale sails. An iridescent pale grey color while the Deneb Kaitos was beached, the sails became sparkly and translucent as they billowed with the saline wind.

 

But as the warm bisque sea was loaded with life, so too was the savory soufflé sky as it awakening in the dreamy dawn twilight. Crustaceans and cetaceans, snakes and serpents, seals and cephalopods, spirits and skyfolk. The chill, cheese platter sky was a contrast to–yet a reflection of–the warm spinach bisque sea, and the rickety little majík boat was beginning to feel incredibly vulnerable.

 

“Not quite the same as being tucked away in the trees, is it?” Serpiz deviously hissed with a subterranean rumble of laughter–steering the sea-slicing boat with a bit more caution. “The energy of the Tartak Sea is as light as the energy of the Tartak River you’re familiar with. But it’s the expansiveness and the synergy with patches of darker waters that’s making it difficult for you boys to comprehend. This sea is nearly land-locked and highly transitional. Hope we don’t get sucked into another dimension!”

 

“You forgot the part about being watched,” he found himself caustically crowing as he dizzily noted just how fast their boat was moving and how far they’d already travelled. “How about you telling us where we’re going? I can’t read your mind with all this new stuff everywhere.”

“I’ll tell you just as soon as I get a good read on our destination. Brace yourselves, boys. We’re headed out far enough that you won’t be able to sense the depths of the sea floor–much less be able to levitate while this far up from solid ground. And swimming in the sea isn’t anything like swimming in the river–”

 

“Breakfast!” Zene zealously interrupted with a smearing mudslide sneer as he withdrew a furry arm from the rolling sea–successfully directing a whirl of salty water through the moist air with a puny peanut butter paw. “Look at those barges!”

 

Sandwiched between spinach bisque sea and cheese soufflé sky, objects of endless color and whimsy were then bobbing in twilight sight as the rickety little majík boat glided high over the submerged continental shelf. Severely alarmed with the intense drop in seafloor depth that could be powerfully sensed, the brothers simultaneously became queasy as their scholarly steward laughed with spewing plumes of exhaled star weed smoke. Apparently he was skilled enough with sailing to smoke his slender gator bone pipe at the same time.

 

But the amazing Tartak Sea spread they were quickly happening upon looked immensely promising. Fantastical vessels in the shapes and colors of fish, sea creatures, and plants floated directly on the darkening water as well as through the salty air just over it.

 

Tiny, magnificently manufactured islands of sand and soil, rocks and crystals, wood and plants, or metal and majík remained stationary upon the water and bore mysterious hermitic houses of likewise enchantment.

 

Strange, mechanical dais platforms and weird lights beneath the darkening waters indicated the position of diving expeditions–whether in suits or submersibles. Farther away in the hazy southern horizon, gulls were circling the horrific undersea presence of a legendary squid gigante lurking much closer to the salty sea surface than other such beasts.

 

“Nice and busy!” Serpiz proudly boasted as their majík boat sliced through sparse spinach all the faster. “I promised you boys a big day out, and you’re going to get it. But where shall we eat? Are your noses on straight enough to sniff out a preference?”

 

“That giant floating cheeseburger!” Zene squealed and pointed on behalf of them both–ignoring his gut-wrenching queasiness as he then extrapolated intel from a distance. “Mister Melty!”

 

Flanked by only a couple customer boats of various sizes, shapes, and whimsies, Mister Melty’s Snack Station looked as delightfully cheesy at it smelled. Indeed a giant, glittering metallic replica of a cheeseburger, the peacefully floating establishment featured outdoor eating at a curvaceous metallic bar while the flame-broiling belly produced an endless menu of savory creations covered in melted local cheeses.

 

Literally drooling all over themselves, the brothers were mercurial about helping Serpiz furl shimmering sails and securing the Deneb Kaitos to designated poles at Mister Melty’s curvaceous pier. The scent of hot, deep-fried delights was so incredibly potent that he felt like he was already swallowing molten food.

They were even faster about securing three spiraling metallic seats at the curvaceous metallic bar, but the urgency of their incinerating stomachs had seriously corrupted their social cautiousness. The brothers immediately jolted in their steely seats as Mister Melty himself abruptly boiled up from the depths of the flame-broiling burger belly.

 

“BONJÚ boys!” the enormous, muscle-bound behemoth bellowed with a violent slap of a wet, once-white greasy towel upon the chilly metallic bar. “Mister Melty gonna fix you up a BIG breakfast dis fine mornin’!”

 

The toasty brown skin of his chest, neck and clean-shaven face glistened with salty sweat from cooking up the large reed baskets of deep-fried hors d’oeuvres he was then shoving at the nervously braced brothers. Like many fur-bearing chefs, the darker brown fur covering the rest of his body was sheared down to a dark brown velvet to avoid fur getting in food, and his head was likewise shaved save a forehead-to-nape crest of matted, dark brown spikes. Unlike the greasy wet towel he apparently enjoyed flinging around, his apron was fresh, crisp, and blindingly white this early in the day.

 

Brilliant,” Serpiz arduously approved in with a poof of star weed smoke–sliding waxy parchment booklets into the brothers’ meek and mystified claws. “Your menus are in multiple Djinn Jumba scripts. We’re working on learning all the languages and scripts of the empire.”

 

Clearly he was speaking of the brothers and their underdevelopment.

 

“NAW, naw!” Mister Melty boomed with a blinding, apron-white fanged grin as he once again slapped the metallic bar with his greasy wet towel. “No need for explainin’ dem iron collars and cuffs dese boys have yet to do away with! You just tell me how ol’ Mister Melty can warm yo’ bellies.”

 

Once enhanced with technology and fused to their bodies, the iron collars and cuffs remained as a strange, ironic sense of security disguised as memorials and tributes. Once freed, Serpiz himself had loosened and removed his own iron with such a quickness that it was clear he was of the prideful older faction who wished to pretend their captivity had never happened.

 

I can’t pretend since I haven’t known anything else…

 

Macaroni and Seas of Cheese,” Chains therapeutically murmured in a famished metallic croak–using a salt-encrusted obsidian claw to help him memorize all the script swimming across a waxy waterproof page.

 

“Seven Pepper Pizza!” Zene responded in seven-year-old excitement as he squat upon his tall, steely stool seat–drool literally dribbling from his parched, merlot-colored mouth and splattering upon the waxy menu parchment. “Molten Crustacean Celebration! Soft Pretzel Parade!”

 

“I’ll start the day with an iced rum,” Serpiz much more calmly interjected with a concrete request. “Then surprise me.”

 

Iced?” he snorted in jabbing jest as his heterochromic platinum and pyrite eyes waltzed around upon the same waxy menu page.

 

“Your mother always took her beverages with ice.”

 

A sudden, frightfully public revelation about a goddess yet unknown to him.

 

They ended up ordering several dishes in addition to the surprise combo platter of pasta and sea creatures Mister Melty presented Serpiz with. Macaroni and Seas of Cheese, Seven Pepper Pizza, Soft Pretzel Parade, Molten Crustacean Celebration, Chili Chicken and Waffles–it all went down their greedy gullets along with plenty of warm sarsaparilla, iced rum, and excessive paranoia as the four other diners present suddenly multiplied into a standing crowd of Gaian and offworld races.

 

He had never experienced anything like it before, and as the metallic backrest of his stool was bumped for the hundredth time, he crunched down hard on traces of fried batter and welcomed the warm suede paw then heavy upon his bare honey shoulder.

 

“Come now, boys,” their scholarly steward encouraged with protective concern then surpassing his previous delight in watching his pups’ social struggle. “Wrap up your leftovers in parchment and let us be off. Surely we will find a sweeter snack along the way.”

 

What the shit is wrong with me?

 

Why am I being such a coward?

 

“Take dis for your cravin’,” Mister Melty fiercely grinned as he squeezed their coin currency in one large paw–the other paw presenting Chains with a fresh plum fruit. “And look out for de places dat resemble sweets! Embrace who you are, boy–a sugar-cravin’, science-y mix-up meant to be!”

 

“Thanks!” he stammered with his bare honey chest puffed out.

 

His unusual cascade of platinum white hair sprouting from the crown of his otherwise obsidian mane suddenly didn’t feel quite so grotesque anymore. Nor did his abundance of exposed honey-colored skin accentuated by only pants and forearm sleeves of obsidian fur.

 

One shiny platinum iris and the other a glittering pyrite–seemingly not such a big deal. Really there was no reason to be ashamed about the fact that–as an infant–he had been subjected to genetic testing that mutated certain attributes into those of another race. At present it was just stupid hard to maintain such resolve.

 

<THANK YOU.> Serpiz could be sensed mentally communicating with the wildly grinning, firmly nodding chef giving a farewell slap of his greasy wet towel to the crowded metallic bar.

 

“Sweets!” Zene sluggishly hooted once they were back onboard their bitty majík boat–apparently inebriated by fried foods as he gulped down stomach-soothing ginger tablets. “Rock this boat a little harder, I’ll throw up breakfast, and then I’ll have room for sweets.”

 

“Such is what I am trying to avoid,” Serpiz articulately announced upon a discreet burp as he slowly maneuvered the Deneb Kaitos away from Mister Melty’s floating establishment. “But beyond the chef’s remarks on biology, realize that the Tartak Sea is vastly Middle Third Sphere–different from the Lower Third Sphere status of the swamp. You boys are ascending enough that your bodies will be a little more efficient with food, and when you are hungry again you may crave sugars. Such a craving signals ascension much more so than genetics.”

 

Their on-point professor could turn any situation into a lecture. Usually it was obnoxious, but at the moment Chains kept any crude comments to himself as he slid his sharp fangs into the chilled plum and sucked its sticky juices. The winged race that was tainting his genetics was known to have innate proficiency with ascended spheres of being. His occasional but noticeable cravings for sugary foods had been occurring throughout the past couple years, so clearly it hadn’t much to do with any dimensional acclimation that morning at sea.

 

“Where are we going?!” he impatiently, histrionically sighed in sharp interruption of the then rabid academic discussion between tedious teacher and his mud puppy pet. “Let’s turn around and go to Ibiza instead! Gnatty Bizz performs there all the time–”

 

“And would you prefer a rap concert over a haunted shipwreck?

 

“WHU-U-U-U-UT?!” the big-eyed brothers sputtered in plum and ginger unison as their shimmering little majík boat was then allowed to pick up speed through the darkening, clearing waters.

 

“Some pirates decided to attempt an escape from authorities through an amateurly, illegally manufactured portal. Their ship incorrectly exited the portal, and before any of them could react, their ship was smashed into a rock face. The survivors took what treasures they could and fled. But those whose bodies perished are refusing to allow anyone close to the wreckage.’

 

‘This happened only a few hours ago last night, so authorities have yet to resolve the situation. Meanwhile every pirate, treasure hunter, and thrill-seeker within a thousand kilometrons will be on their way to the wreckage now. Thought you boys would be interested–”

 

“DAMN YOU OLD FART!” Chains abruptly shrieked with molten pubescent passion as he lunged and violently jerked upon the loosely guarded tiller. “Can’t you make this boat go FASTER?!”

 

“You could have told us this earlier!” Zene breathlessly chimed in with a feverish yowl–almost falling into the dark, churning V-shaped wake as he leapt to his puny clawed feet.

 

“I wanted to be sure there was still something left of the scene!” Serpiz explosively roared–then erupting in rumbling subterranean laughter as the snarling brothers attempted to tackle the majík tiller away from his flaming tricentennial grip. “That what I’d read late last night was true! According to Mister Melty’s customers, there’s plenty to see but still no getting close to the wreckage. BOYS!”

 

“The Rock of Gibraltar!” Chains breathlessly gnashed upon his mental excavation of their steward’s information–then successful commandeering the glowing, spine-tingling metal tiller. “Let’s bust a move!”

 

 

 

 

 

Part Two: Rock of Gibraltar Glacé

 

 

Crisp and clear, both sea and sky took on a brilliant sugary sweetness as Sólra’s continuous ascension seemed to burn away all traces of spinach seaweed and cloud soufflé. Then a disc of delicious buttery light floating in a liquid blue sky, Planet Gaia’s life-giving star warmly saluted the churning, navy soda sea frothing with frosted waves.

 

“DAMN it, Chains!” the prepubescent pup feverishly growled as the Deneb Kaitos slammed back down onto the dark and fizzing salty-sweet sea. “Stay on the damn water!”

 

He let out a refreshed shrieking laugh and swat away a tricentennial suede paw lurking closer and closer to the metallic tiller Chains himself was gripping in a sweaty, smoldering honey hand. Launching the little vessel from the crests of lazily rolling frosted waves was über fun, and Zene was being über hypocritical. The precocious pup loved excitement, adventure, and danger–though only if HE was the one causing it.

 

“Perhaps I should have chosen a vessel without metal,” Serpiz pondered aloud upon a great exhalation of sedating star weed smoke. “One you are not able to easily integrate yourself with.”

 

I’m the majai!” Zene immediately yowled in a childish display of splattering jealousy–rather adeptly keeping his furry little butt glued to a wooden bench. “Let me sail! I can do it correctly!”

 

“Wait your turn, ass munch! And pay attention to that smudge in the horizon! THAT’S where we’re going!”

 

His croaking metallic voice was reverberating with confidence, but on the inside a great ball of blazing iron was squeezing its way down his incinerating esophagus and clunking into his quivering stomach. Beyond colorful boats, whimsical islands, and creatures of sea and sky, the Tartak Sea around the tenacious trio then included floating and flying ominous masses in all peripheral horizons.

 

The Deneb Kaitos was nearing the port city of East Tartezzos. Immense air ships and sea ships were then added to the mix of Tartak traffic, and he was quick to eyeball a route far away from them–no matter if it put them on a winding course.

 

Resembling a rainbow of plants, fish, and cetaceans–and sometimes consisting of them–the ships of sea and sky came in sizes so grand that it took ample sensory analysis to determine whether they were indeed vessels and not islands. They were like majestic island cities floating and flying through the crisp mid-morning, and he ferociously wondered what it would be like to dwell on one.

 

“We’re being followed,” Serpiz casually announced with fiery intrigue–teeth tightening around his gator bone pipe as Chains crudely jumped another frosted crest. “Predatorily. This should be amusing.”

 

By a larger vessel, he then realized. In some desperate attempt, the predator had zeroed in on the Deneb Kaitos for seemingly no other reason than the latter had gotten too close.

 

“Are they pirates?!” Zene frantically screamed against a gust of salty sweet wind–a majík-enhancing crystal orb tucked tight in a puny peanut butter paw.

 

“I assure you they are not very good ones. Furl the sails, boys. We’ve got visitors.”

 

Can’t we just ditch them?

 

Apparently there would have been no escaping confrontation, for the large vessel–surely a scout vehicle belonging to a much bigger ship–was some sort of air and sea hybrid that could skim right over the top of the water and make ninety-degree turns. It was also difficult to tell if the oncoming oddity was a manufactured vehicle or a highly trained creature. Perhaps it was a little of both.

 

The circular bowl body of the vessel was some sort of hardened amber resin amalgam coated in a thick membrane of translucent, golden gelatin substance much, much stronger than it appeared. The jiggly, resonating substance stretched up over the top of the round vessel to form a perfect bubble shield of greater translucence.

 

Rimming the bottom of the hovering vessel, a dozen or so fat, jiggling golden gelatin tentacles waved about absorbing data of all kinds. It was reminiscent of a sky or sea jelly creature–though literally made of jelly–and by some mystical means or other the delicious-looking vessel was quite sentient. It was also quite assertive as it plopped down hard onto the Tartak Sea–slapping golden tentacles snaking around the bobbing Deneb Kaitos as the brothers cursed in dizzying alarm.

 

A gooey stretching sound occurred as the translucent bubble shield fully opened and exposed the contents of the curious confectionary craft–three astoundingly flamboyant furry Gaians who looked good enough to eat. In shiny pants-and-tunic clothes of rich, luscious and creamy colors, the three were dripping with gooey, jelly-like translucent adornments sparkling with their super sweet foison energy. But there wasn’t much sweetness to the greeting that spewed forth from within the pink jelly lips of she who was apparently in charge.

 

“HOLA, swampies!” the severely endowed swashbuckler shamelessly barked downward as she stood high upon the rim of her confectionary craft–shiny, dark mocha face stretching wide into a devilish grin beneath round and ravenously red feline eyes. “You have the great fortune of crossing paths with me!”

 

“Perhaps you mean mis-fortune,” Serpiz calmly punctuated from his bench seat as he continued to languidly smoke a fresh wad of carefully dried star weed. “What is it you want, my dear–”

 

“I’m THE Razzleberry Jam!” the youthful, pompous pirate caustically caterwauled–completely aghast as she slapped a berry-bejeweled hand of berry-lacquered claws to her immense, furless dark mocha cleavage. “Captain of the Jousting Jellyfish and the Peanut Butter Booyah Crew!”

 

Peanuts were a passion of swamp dwellers, so the pirates probably had roots in the area.

 

“Never heard of you!” Zene rather bravely hooted from the presumed protection of their scholarly steward’s smoky side.

 

“THAT’S because you’re a SWAMPY!” Razzleberry was swift to reaffirm as her two present crew members joined her in a ridiculous stance upon the rim of the jelly vessel. “This your first time out to sea or something?! Just where do you swampies think you’re going?!”

 

The incredibly long, berry red claws squeezing her narrower waist slid down into a more comfortable position upon her wide hips adorned by a thick, dripping belt of sparkling razzleberry jam substance and majík not to be underestimated.

 

An immense mane of dark, berry red hair fell enviously past her ample bottom, and her berry red fur was sheared to a red velvet beneath her tight, shiny hazelnut pants and too-small matching sleeveless tunic.

Open-toed razzleberry leather knee boots revealed berry-lacquered toe claws. Her translucent razzleberry adornments–which were embedded with fruity-colored bubbles–included spiraling forearm sheaths, the thick belt with dripping accents, a dripping breastplate, and a dynamic glistening headdress that looked like a razzleberry jelly bouquet splattering the bright, liquid blue sky. Her sneering, male and female furry companions looked more like citrus jellies.

 

He’d heard that pirates and other familial crews of the sea and sky often adopted flamboyant motifs, but this first taste was simply unreal. He didn’t know whether to laugh his fiery head off or beg to try on the captain’s headdress. So instead he remained standing upon a creaking bench of the bobbing Deneb Kaitos with his smooth honey chest puffed out.

 

“So you’re looking to rob information rather than the clothes off our backs,” Serpiz moltenly chuckled as Captain Razzleberry Jam leaned over with a high-pitch growl and impatiently showed her bright white fangs. “The latter, of which, is indeed all the possessions we brought with us. Unless you’re after our lunch money?”

 

“You’re on your way to the Rock of Gibraltar!” Razzleberry tartly roared as her lackeys pointlessly aimed their yellow, banana-like majík bazookas at the tenacious trio. “Well lucky for you WE’RE recruiting tough nut swampies like yourselves to do some dirty work! You help us break through the wreck’s fire energy barrier with those fire powers I know you’ve got, and we’ll let you keep your stupid little boat! Now lead the way, swampies!”

 

An explosive shattering sensation throughout his being–so exquisite that he almost blacked out.

 

“We ARE going to the Rock of Gibraltar!” Chains abruptly experienced himself metallically roaring in return–his brother and his steward jolting in raw alarm. “And YOU are going to take us there! Or else I’ll be dumping your sticky asses down the gullet of that squid gigante out there, and we’ll be riding this jelly jar all the way to shipwreck riches!”

 

Garnishing her own banana-like majík guns, the crazed captain was fending off fire before she could implement her own paralyzing jelly-based majík.

 

Blasting all three pompous pirates backward and sprawled around their gelatinous mini ship, Chains was quick to leap up into the jelly vessel to prevent the activation of the bubble shield that would otherwise keep him out.

 

Likewise high on adventure adrenaline, Zene rushed to his side as an upward streak of flailing patchwork–nearly dumping his own scrawny ass in the churning navy soda sea.

 

But the pompous pirate captain was anything but pissed.

 

“You’re tougher than I thought, mongrel!” Razzleberry gnashed with masochistic glee as she animatedly bounced to her berry-booted feet. “Was that your breath?!

 

“You’ll be tasting my fists next if you don’t scoop up the Deneb Kaitos with those tentacles and get this blob moving!”

 

“YEAH!” Zene feverishly howled–puny fists flaring up with an extraordinary amount of majík.

 

“A mini majai too!” Razzleberry sneered with sugar-charged shrewdness–waving at her sputtering lackeys to indicate their banana bazookas were no longer needed. “I suppose the Marmalady IS much faster than that…thing. Now I suggest you get your grandpop up here before I change my mind about needing him and turn your boat into his coffin!”

 

“An unwise course of action, my dear,” the brothers’ sly subterranean steward suggested as he drifted up through the salty-sweet sea air. “If we’re all headed to the same place, and our superior skills are required, then I will indulge my boys’ thirst for adventure and allow them to commandeer this vessel.”

 

“Easier said than done!” the mini majai foolishly blurted out–his puny bare feet sticking to the gelatinous golden floor of the jelly vessel. “This thing’s alive!”

 

“She’s sentient!” the cranky jelly captain tartly snapped as she waved her slightly confused two-person crew in silent instruction regarding the tentacle seizure of the Deneb Kaitos. “And no one’s commandeering anything! Now shut up and get your stinky swamp asses out of my way!”

 

The Deneb Kaitos securely tucked within curled tentacles, the Marmalady suddenly replaced its bubble shielding and whizzed off into the western liquid blue horizon as the brothers hooted in a terrified cheer. Somehow, the bubble shield kept the force upon the passengers at a minimum, and so even though they were speeding over the navy soda sea, they could easily move around without feeling adverse effects.

 

Showing off a bit, Captain Razzleberry Jam folded her jelly-adorned arms tight as she intently glared out to sea and commanded the Marmalady with her jelly-clotted mind. The broad deck of the round vessel featured gelatinous but firm flooring and plenty of sculptural seating. But beneath the deck were resin rooms and storage spaces loaded with treasures and supplies. Apparently the leading faction of Peanut Butter Booyah never went anywhere without acquiring loot through some sketchy means.

 

“The name’s Pomelo,” the feminine, citrus-smelling swashbuckler of bleached meringue fur and grapefruit jelly costume offered them with forced politeness–a slender, tawny clawed hand resting over his heart. “Pomelo Pamplemousse. And this is my sister Tangelo.”

 

“Seriously?” Zene rudely guffawed.

 

“Chains, Zene, and Piz,” he scorched back with burning platinum-pyrite eyes shifting to the more masculine twin sister–tawny matte muscle, bleached meringue fur and hair likewise chopped short, and citrus jelly costume of deeper pinks and juicy reds.

 

“So the barrier around the wreck is fire-based,” Serpiz artfully interjected as he sat upon golden jelly seating with a full-body groan as though he was ten thousand years old. “What else do you know?”

 

“The treasure on that wrecked ship belonged to the Birds of Paradise,” the cantankerous pirate captain was quick to inject her pirated knowledge as she smoothly dance-steered the Marmalady. “Treasure stolen from Waznflügel just last night! It’s gotta be something good! And it’s all MINE!”

 

“So they were sky pirates?” the mystified brothers’ suddenly intense steward confirmed with a thoughtful stroke of his oily braided beard. “Then this fire barrier you speak of may actually be based upon electric plasma–Saint Elmo’s Fire.”

 

“Are you telling me you’re useless?!” Razzleberry abruptly splattered with a thrash of her red velvet leonine tail and a threatening glare their way.

 

“Not at all, my dear,” Serpiz moltenly chuckled as he rather contentedly sat back upon his curvaceous golden gelatin couch. “Boys, I don’t believe you’ve heard much about the Birds of Paradise beyond their anatomy. They are a large community that occupies a dozen sky islands in orbit through Gaia’s atmosphere. The name meaning weighted wing, the island of Waznflügel passes over the Tartak Sea vicinity around this time of year–Wazn being a star in the Dove constellation, and the star system Planet Gaia’s winged eirwin genetics originate from.’

 

‘The Waznflügel Tribe is the most diplomatic with the rest of the planet, and they are official ambassadors for their sub-race. In contrast to the other Birds of Paradise, they do not hesitate to descend to the surface, and may already be confiscating their stolen property.”

 

Unlike the far more populous winged race they were related to, the skyfolk known as the Birds of Paradise had wings fused to their arms like birds–that’s all Chains had known until now.

 

“A kraken is surfacing just beyond the straight,” Tangelo cleanly cut the lecture short with a crisp, commanding voice as she studied a holographic sea chart produced by the data crystal in her tawny clawed hand. “We need to avoid exiting the Tartak Sea altogether since the canal to the north is full of detour traffic. The wreck is on the west face of the Rock–above North Kalúptra–so we should definitely use the tunnels on the east face.”

 

Which explained the signs of civilization spilling around both the northern and southern ends of the Rock. Hugging the west side of the rock wedge island then before them like a huge slice of sun-soaked cake frosted in deep minty green, the town of North Kalúptra seemed to be the only significant establishment of Gaian people that could be detected on the island.

 

Creature populations were another matter.

 

“And a kraken would have surfaced due to that huge cluster of ships congregating in the Atlantean Sea,” Pomelo observed the shimmering chart with a haughty citrus sneer and an adjustment of his pale pink jelly headpiece. “Hope no one got swallowed up!”

 

“Isn’t there a South Kalúptra at the southern part of the straight?” Zene could be heard letting his academic voraciousness interfere with the adventure at hand.

 

“Indeed,” Serpiz confirmed in an uncharacteristically distracted rumble as he continued to monitor the crazed jelly captain and her vessel-directing dance moves. “The two towns form the veil that separates Tartak Sea energy from that of the Atlantean Sea. Such is considered the sacred hymen leading to the primordial womb that is the Tartak Sea.”

 

“Then where’s the vagina?” he couldn’t resist demanding in a corrosive caw–duotone eyes locked on the sweetly illuminated cake slice island as he tugged on an itchy, furry canine ear encrusted with sea salt.

“Perhaps it is the tunnel we need to take to get to the wreck as quickly as possible,” Tangelo immediately replied in a firm, business-like tone above the snorting exhalations of the swampies.

 

He decided Tangelo was the most sane and respect-worthy of the trio. Excessively practicing confidence, Chains kept his honey chest puffed out as he moved to the presumed bow of the round Marmalady.  Though not mountain status, the Rock of Gibraltar then towered over them as the golden jelly vessel slowed to a humming coast over the churning navy soda sea.

 

The sunlit slice structure reminded him of golden bee sting cake laden with honey and heavily sprinkled with sugary, crystalized swamp moss. But the enchantment was forcefully put in check as the freakishly loud sound of a hooting, screeching monkey army then reverberated in-the-round–only to intensify as the Marmalady’s hemispheric shield was retracted.

 

“The Macaque Tribe,” Pomelo calmly identified with a dismissive swoop of grapefruit-lacquered claws and a flick of the short, meringue fur ears at the hinges of his tawny jaw. “Obviously they feel entitled to the treasure. And obviously they haven’t extracted it yet.”

 

“Well the treasure did land on their island,” Serpiz hooted with broiling intrigue–then igniting his slender gator bone pipe in the open sea air. “I see we’re heading directly into the Rock’s interior. So we’ll be passing right through the Macaque Tribe’s city?”

 

“Settle your swamp ass down, grandpop!” Captain Razzleberry Jam tartly ordered with a fanged sneer and a swipe at her riotous berry red mane. “Monkeys love pirates. They love to pirate pirates. So we’ve got the Marmalady loaded up with junk they can loot as soon as we dock. I don’t mind dishing out bribes and tolls that are going to hurry me to treasure a million times more valuable!”

 

At least she wasn’t blinded by absolute greed.

 

“You’re assuming they’ll even let us pass through,” Zene muttered in a small but scolding snort. “That we’ll even be able to get the Birds of Paradise treasure, and that it’s even worth anything to us!”

 

A clever comment and a rather impressive suppression of excitement. Like his big brother, the mini majai was trying not to let himself get too worked up and inspire open competition with the leading faction of Peanut Butter Booyah. The brothers would break away from their diluted escorts the first chance they got.

 

“You will now release our boat,” Serpiz academically advised upon a massive exhalation of smoldering star weed smoke as he stood–about to sabotage the brothers’ plans for escape. “We will dock where you direct us to, and we will travel to the wreckage together.”

 

Fabricating a little trust may actually be a smart move…

 

“Like I care if monkeys sail away in your piss-poor boat!” Razzleberry scathingly smeared with a gurgling jelly giggle–mentally ordering the Marmalady to release its grip on the Deneb Kaitos and tow it into the eerily reverberating Rock.

 

The golden jelly vessel made an uncertain humming sound as it carried the pirating party into a massive tunnel that looked much too conspicuous for them to be traveling. Buttery bright day turned to dark toffee night. Their feline eyes quickly snapped into focus upon the interior shadowy river leading them straight into a maze of toffee limestone tunnels thoroughly spackled with hooting toffee macaques toting stone-tipped spears.

 

Almost completely blending in with the breathtakingly tall and vast caverns of jagged toffee limestone, the toffee-colored inhabitants managed to morph their booming hoots and shrill squeals into much sweeter monkey serenading. Like the peanut butter pirates, the macaques apparently felt Chains was the honorary pirate right for the job at hand–never mind Serpiz the Fire God.

 

In a variety of physical sizes–though mostly the size of Zene–the mischievous Macaque Tribe allowed the Marmalady to suction its tentacles to the high edge of chiseled rock flooring that looked suspiciously like a pier.

 

While the thousand-monkey Macaque Tribe currently resided within the Rock of Gibraltar, it was obvious that tribes of Gaian people had previously inhabited the Rock throughout countless ages. Buildings, statues, and other structures thrusted forth in great clusters from all rock walls. Extensive systems of sanitary plumbing, endless energy supply, crystalline lighting, and other municipal management were fully functioning. There were even amphitheaters being used for monkey performances. Moreover, the whole interior city was riddled with practical and impractical goods the monkeys had stolen from North Kalúptra and any ship that docked there. The little shits were set for centuries.

 

The swamp trio was quick about leaping forth from the Marmalady, tying up the Deneb Kaitos far away from an easy reach of golden gelatin tentacles, and stashing their modest leather packs with little concern for them. Apparently the monkeys were adept with fire, as toffee tunnels and caramel caverns were lit mostly by oil lamps and torches–fuel somehow acquired. The interior waterways looked like chilled black tea, and there was a heavy, musty metallic scent in the groaning interior air. No doubt the Macaque Tribe was hoarding much more than supplies.

 

“Now get your muddy asses moving!” Razzleberry unnecessarily barked as she and her jelly lackeys armed themselves with shiny banana bazookas. “These monkeys are pointing the way, which means I’m right about your powers!”

 

His social anxiety reached a fever pitch as hordes of monkeys clustered around to poke and prod him with a strange gentleness that was clearly uncharacteristic. He’d heard the Macaque Tribe usually deterred intruders–with violence if need be–but today they were quite hesitant. Even the noise just outside the grand tunnel was an alert to their brethren rather than a threat to the arrivals.

 

It’s because of who I really am.

 

They know…

 

Inspiring a forward stampede of bouncing monkey butts, the six visitors took to flying through the musty, salty interior air–the brothers then able to sense solid ground beneath their bodies and use it to levitate themselves a bit off the ground.

 

As they were led away from the dark water and down one winding tunnel after another, the tiniest monkeys were sent catapulting onto the swampies’ shoulders to present candies and oranges obtained from the touristy town wrapping around the Rock of Gibraltar’s western coast. The damn monkeys had even known Chains may need a sugar rush to optimize his majík.

 

He certainly wasn’t prepared for the forces that hit him once the pirating party eventually exited a grand toffee tunnel on the western face of the cake slice Rock. They were spit out onto a low toffee shelf overlooking a fragrant orange grove and the immense Atlantean Sea beyond. But as a sweet orange wind blasted the toffee dust from his face, he experience the energetic brunt of all the disorienting sights and the crazed activity taking place.

 

“Mother Gaia!” Zene appropriately howled as they beheld what had happened to her body.

 

Whatever the sky pirate’s enormous, village-sized metallic air ship looked like before, it was now a twisted silvery turd partially rammed into the Rock of Gibraltar’s sun-soaked western visage. Fires were still burning at various points on the ship, and there were traces of metallic wings and fins horrifically crumpled as though exposed to metamorphic heat–all features barely visible through the broadly encompassing shield of fiery, translucent plasma energy. The Rock continued its eerie, reverberating moan as the Macaque Tribe spilled out of tunnels by the hundreds and excitedly rushed toward the otherworldly wound in encouragement.

 

The smell, the taste of cosmic radiation…

 

The rustling, shimmering orange grove gave way to a sharp decline and the sprawling tourist town of North Kalúptra farther below. Curvaceous stone buildings washed in buttery colors and maxing out at only a few stories, the bustling coastal establishment looked like a butterscotch coral reef adorned with sea-inspired ceramic mosaics. It was rustic Tartak in concept, but with plenty of exquisite Atlantean influence.

Beyond the bustling butterscotch was a peanut butter beach with a tidy port, and beyond that a churning navy soda sea full of epic, candy-colorful pirate ships aggressively anchored in close proximity to the island they were invading. But his burning platinum-pyrite eyes only spent a few moments surveying the area before snapping back to the horrific wreck.

 

“Clearly a portal-related incident,” Serpiz moltenly bubbled in deep, subterranean thought as their party hopped and flew themselves low over the wind-waltzed orange grove. “Boys, I’m suddenly unsure that it’s wise for us to view the contents of this ship–if we can even get in there.”

 

“Are there going to be twisted people parts everywhere!?” Zene demanded in scrumptious horror as he leapt from orange treetops and gripped Chain’s arm for flight support.

 

“Perhaps.”

 

“All you swampies need to concern yourselves with is this shield!” Razzleberry roared against the sunny orange wind as they landed upon a rocky expanse lined by orange trees. “And how to get me on that ship in one piece!”

 

“Mother Gaia!” Zene shouted a second time in snorting disbelief.

 

As if a festival crowding around some sacred structure, thousands of pirates, treasure hunters, townspeople, and nosy news reporters were stubbornly camped all around the dimensional disaster–the latter group rushing about with their floating cameras and audio crystals in the former’s distraught faces. All manner of Gaian and offworld races were present in an infinite array of tenacious attitudes and adventurous costume. Whatever the Birds of Paradise treasure was, many knew about it.

 

“I see why you recruited our fire majík,” Chains dizzily crowed–digging his obsidian toe claws into scraggly salted grasses and fighting to ignore the thousands of shining souls thrashing about. “That shield is starting those fires in the ship. It definitely seems fiery, but it’s even more complicated than electric plasma. It’s concentrated cosmic radiation–too much for anyone here to come in sustained contact with. But when you came after us, you had no idea that my foison is entirely celestial…”

 

He wasn’t that great at grounding himself to his home planet in any way.

 

I shouldn’t have said that. Not many incarnate beings on Gaia have foison that’s entirely celestial.

 

“Well can you do something about it?” Pomelo urged with juicy flare as his captain turned to glare in jelly-splattered demand.

 

“I don’t know yet.”

 

“Just what kind of freak ARE you?!” Razzleberry jammed up his focus with dissonant sound ejecting from between plump, pink jelly lips.

 

“My dear,” Serpiz was quick to interrupt any sudden curiosity as he tugged upon his oily braided beard. “Those who attempted to breach the shield are severely injured, and those too close to it are becoming ill. If you are expecting my young master to handle concentrated cosmic radiation, then I suggest you allow him to refresh close by in town and contemplate how to do so.”

 

“LUNCH!” Captain Razzleberry Jam unexpectedly announced with and unexpected pink jelly sneer.

 

“Peanut Butter Booyah NEVER says no to lunch! Pomelo and Tangelo will stay here and be on the lookout for authorities or anyone who may be able to breach the shield before us. WE will go to town for lunch and investigation. I see a LOT of familiar ships anchored out there, but I don’t see ANY captains around here.”

 

“What about our lunch?!” Pomelo acidly inquired in a fruit crush call to the liquid blue sky as the four flew off.

 

In countless hues of faintly glowing greens and blues, the newly created portal could be seen as a massive soap bubble farther out to sea. Authorities had their hands full with stabilizing the whining pubescent portal and perhaps determining whether it could be properly closed–many shiny air ships were protectively clustered around it. The portal was much too close to a Gaian establishment for comfort.

 

But the caterwauling pirate captain in their company was apparently unconcerned about an authoritative presence that far out to sea. Moreover, a multitude of burnt muffin clouds was puffing up in the western horizon and signaling the pending arrival of a storm. Stabilizing the portal would be taking precedence, and so there would be hours before authorities would bother tackling the radiation-soaked wreckage. They were probably more than happy to allow pirates to continue poisoning themselves to death.

 

I’ve never experience this much cosmic radiation. It’s a far cry from what a lone meteorite gives off.

 

“Speed up,” Serpiz was suddenly muttering as he hooked the halted brothers by their furry arms and whisked them through the liquid blue sky. “And stop looking at them.”

 

“Those aren’t regular birds circling above the wreck!” Zene guffawed with mud brown feline eyes wide.

 

“Are they the Birds of Paradise?!”

 

<Not even close. Let’s have lunch while I decide if we should remain on this island a moment longer.>

 

Brilliant in cozy design, buildings of the butterscotch coral reef town blocked the chilly Atlantean Sea breeze and contained a warm, glowing atmosphere of whimsically painted signs, colorful seafaring mosaics, shiny energy orbs, and shimmering crystal technologies. Wet clay towers smoked many racks of oily fish, toasty bakery ovens popped out trays of pastry perfection, and confectioners pulled great pastel swaths of saltwater-infused taffy. Illuminating sparkles of warm and sweet energies shimmered everywhere.

 

The blindingly colorful townspeople herded sheep and wore many thin, intricately woven rainbow layers of fragrant wool clothing that could be easily removed, modified, and layered as the diverse island weather dictated. They seemed to favor artfully woven head wraps that kept their long locks from whirling around in the breezes between butterscotch buildings.

 

“No thanks,” he proudly but politely rejected the armload of woven head wraps a long-eared merchant woman enthusiastically held out to him in passing. “The one I’ve got does just fine!”

 

The faded wine gradient linen wrapped around his duotone hairline was a possession of his imprisoned mother.

 

Baby Cakes,” Zene brazenly huffed as they followed Captain Razzleberry through a loosely woven crowd and straight into a curvaceously carved clay establishment in the floppy shape of stacked pancakes.

 

“Shut up and hurry up! I’ve got more than enough favors to cash in with the Van Kuchen Sisters! PAN! Get your pancake ass out here!”

 

The café’s bustling interior looked exactly like a tall stack of syrupy pancakes had been hollowed out and filled with curvaceous, creamy ceramic furniture and décor. There was even a second syrupy level with a breezy balcony, but the swamp trio and their lame captor immediately settled at a round table near the large, arching open door. The hot, heavy scent of fried cakes and sugary pastries was a stingingly sweet dose of euphoria for his salted soul of dizzying chainsaw dubstep.

 

“Raz you’ve got SOME nerve bustin’ in here with your big friggin’ mouth!”

 

Less buxom but no less titanic in presence, what looked to be a pirate captain blasted forth from the café’s kitchen interior with all kinds of seafaring swagger. Only instead of Captain Razzleberry Jam’s sickening jelly couture, this was a work of confectionary art in swirling pastels and sprinkled tints. Not a trace of fur or feline features, she was a smooth and sleek hyumon with buttermilk skin and long, pastel pink locks.

 

“Happy Birthday!” Razzleberry enigmatically hooted–stretching out her shiny hazelnut legs and plopping red jelly booted feet upon their pristinely cleaned table. “I called for Pan, not you! Unless you’re gonna personally take my order?”

 

He let his burning boyhood gaze travel up pale pink vinyl knee boots and over slender buttermilk legs, a swirly pastel frosting bell skirt, a laced bodice of tinted sprinkles, and puffy pastel lace sleeves. Behind was a long, trailing bustle of sweet, shimmering tints, and at the belted hip was an entire family of tinted sculptural majík guns in a variety of shapes and sizes.

 

Long and silky pastel pink hair was hatted with what could only be an askew, tiered birthday cake of elaborate pastel piping. The sweetly frosted round face was twisted up into a dark snarl beneath pastel pink brows knit tight enough to fuse.

 

“Are these people for real?” Zene murmured in both awe and amusement–the stunned swampies busying themselves by perusing a holographic menu that had sprung forth from a glowing crystal cluster at the center of the toasted table.

 

“Well every scumbag on the planet is here,” the peeved pastel pirate spat in a husky drawl–bejeweled buttermilk hands to sprinkled bodice waist. “So I shouldn’t be surprised YOU showed up. Except you’re in WA-A-AY over your fat head!”

 

“YOU’RE in over YOUR fat head by insulting ME!” Razzleberry raged with pink jelly lips spread and foamy fangs bared.

 

It was like watching a peanut butter and jelly sandwich arguing with a slice of frosted cake–difficult to take seriously.

 

“I see no scumbags,” came a smooth, youthful drawl through the light din. “Only esteemed customers. Pleased to take your order, Captain Razzleberry.”

 

A younger girl in a similar bodice-bustle-bell skirt ensemble, only she definitely looked like the manager of the establishment in the patterns and colors of pancakes, waffles, and syrup. A butter pat hat rested to the side upon a sweet cascade of pale peachy hair. Only about ten years old, highly precocious Pan Van Kuchen swept around her taller sister and locked matured maple syrup eyes upon the salivating swampies.

 

As they eagerly ordered–Serpiz with immense admiration for astute youth–Captain Razzleberry Jam continued to jabber with her friend-enemy. Only she said nothing at all about the purpose of her companions, and silently threatened them all lest they decide to pipe up about their uncertain powers.

 

Stacks of waffles and whipped cream, piles of pancakes with pomegranate syrup. As Pan Van Kuchen shuffled back and forth personally waiting on their party, her ornery older sister–whose ironic name really was Happy Birthday–sat at the table to make a fierce exchange of insults and information with Captain Razzleberry Jam. The latter was actually eating slices of peanut butter and grape jelly pie.

 

It was wise not to reveal Chain’s nature and possible usefulness to Captain Happy Birthday, for she then spewed information without any concern for competition.

 

The energy surrounding the shipwreck was indeed concentrated cosmic radiation, and unless authorities intervened, the town of North Kalúptra planned on leaving the wreck well alone until the radiation was eventually dispelled by countering Atlantean winds. But it was suspected that ghosts lingering within the wreck were the ones perpetuating the shield, and that they were doing so with the very piece of technology that was the Birds of Paradise treasure–a sacred device that created planetary wormholes, concentrated cosmic energy, and executed many other space-bending feats. The treasure had somehow been stolen from Waznflügel’s famous trove of sacred technology.

 

“We managed to deflect the ship with the town’s automatic shields and avoid significant damage,” Happy Birthday abruptly cauterized the captain-to-captain discussion as she abruptly stood her sugary self. “It was a long night, and I’m sick of explainin’ it. Now me and the Birthday Cake Crew are headin’ for Shanghai. I’ve got more important things to do than playin’ tour guide–things like showin’ respect to Captain Crei and the Almadera. Do you even know they’ve been found?!”

 

A brain-boiling bit of news to them all, and they snapped their swampy eyes to the fierce, pink frosting glare as they slowly chewed. Captain Crei Nautikos and the Almadera hadn’t been in the public eye for over a year–not since he and his crew of two took down the tainted world leader in cahoots with the horrendous organization Chains and his family had been enslaved by. Perhaps they would have a juicy bit of news for their gossip-craving village that night. For certain the unexpected news injected him with a searing rush of raw courage.

 

I’m supposed to do something here on this island…

 

“Pay for your own damn lunch!” Razzleberry Jam ordered her party with a rather lackluster bark–razzleberry red feline eyes fixed upon the swishing backside of her departing rival as she slapped a mocha hand to the crystalline payment tablet Pan Van Kuchen was holding before her.

 

Baby cakes to go,” Pan sweetly explained as she handed Zene waxy paper bags of carefully wrapped mini pancakes. “Take care of yourselves around that shipwreck. The harpies may get you before the radiation does.”

 

It was a bit concerning just how much cosmic radiation was slowly leaking from the shipwreck’s shield and subtly coating the town. Whatever Chains could do to help needed to be done soon.

 

The realization–the thoroughly absorbed legends–surfaced faster and faster in his metallic mutant mind as they returned to the breezy airspace over North Kalúptra and looked to the wreckage they were slowly flying toward. Shit had just gotten real, and he was about to cast his smoldering subterranean steward an inquiring look. But Serpiz spoke first.

 

“They are a demonic ancestor of Birds of Paradise genes, yes. They also tend to be minions of your greatest adversaries, and it disturbs me how close they and their demonic energy are able to get to cosmic radiation. Initially I was going to have us dine and dash, but I believe I will let you choose what you want to do–the ferocity within you is breathtaking.”

 

“Dine and dash?!” Razzleberry sputtered as she dipped down through the air–a mocha fist thrust their way. “How dare you even THINK about thwarting me!”

 

That explosive shattering sensation throughout his being.

 

Before the cranky captain could sputter another word, he snapped through the air and halted her with a smoldering obsidian claw in her surprised mocha face and his metallic shard voice in her furry, flapping red ears.

 

“WE are in control here! We made you bring us here, and we let you obtain intel, but this is the end of the line! No more playing pirate with you! Now stay out of my way!”

 

Shoving off from the pirate captain’s shocked aerial stance, he then shot straight for the eerily humming rock face and the ominously buzzing wreckage. Immediately he could sense that the dangerous attempts to penetrate the concentrated cosmic radiation were then yielding fatal repercussions, and all assaulting adventurers had retreated in alarm.

 

“CHAINS!” Zene yelped against the orange-scented gust and juicy mist then announcing the arriving wall of burnt muffin clouds. “Wait for me!”

 

The radiation is intensifying…

 

Swiftly dragging the injured, prodding the sickened, and overall rushing away in communal retreat, thousands of colorful characters were then on the move away from the sparking, pulsating shield of liquid, translucent cosmic fire encasing the twisted turd shipwreck.

 

As he landed himself in the sandy rock clearing of the low plateau expanse running beneath the wreckage site, he braced himself against the forceful vibration then permeating every silicon-based cell in his mutant body. However, the intensifying cosmic radiation abruptly deterred his entourage and forced them back into the orange grove.

 

“Don’t push yourself!” Serpiz corrosively cried in mind and voice against the howling, orange-scented saline wind–his tricentennial grip on Zene’s shoulders as the mud puppy leaned over to violently vomit his syrup-coated lunch.

 

“HURRY UP AND BREAK THAT DAMN SHIELD!” Captain Razzleberry Jam tartly roared from the wildly swishing grove–both Pomelo and Tangelo gripping her flexed arms as she very reluctantly decided to sacrifice Chains without supervision and any guarantee she’d benefit that day.

 

He didn’t say it, but there was no way he’d be able to dispel the concentrated cosmic radiation on his own. He would have to pass himself through the shield and get to the infamous device. Perhaps then he could deactivated it.

 

Perhaps I should have stayed in bed today…

 

As he stood a few kilometrons away from the plasmid shield of cosmic radiation, the burnt muffin clouds completely overtook the liquid blue sky and scoured the scene with a dry and scathing twilight. The previous orange juice mist was nothing more than seawater being dashed across the toasted island, and the storm was likely to be one of toast crumb winds rather than orange juice rains.

 

The way in which his social anxiety had virtually vanished with the retreating crowd was of note. And even as the large, abysmally dark figures silently landed behind him–between himself and the crowd at the encompassing orange grove periphery–he remained quite calm. Having been entrenched in the demon swamp for over a year now, he was accustomed to demons of many kinds, and found them more familiar than the bombastic buzz of a thousand divine beings incarnated as a thousand garish Gaians.

 

Three female harpies towered over him with wicked, blackened purple grins and abysmally dark bird wing arms menacingly flapping into a resting position. While their lower halves were dark and scaly bird legs with sharp raptor feet, their bare torsos and faces gave way to wildly coiled dark hair.

 

The colors of their feathers, scales, skin, and hair were monochromatic, and among them ranged from deep moss to dark mud to black coffee. They were bird enough that they did not have breasts upon their intricately tattooed chests, however their eerily, frightfully beautiful faces were quite Gaian in appearance–sharp and striking as the winged eirwin race.

 

Creepy mandala tattoos and ancient gold hoops swirling with the dry, salty toast crumb wind, the harpies twisted their feminine faces, sharply focused their flashing eyes, and shrieked with demonic delight. They knew exactly who he was.

 

Demonic creatures should succumb to cosmic radiation poisoning long before any incarnate Gaians. These bitches are über powerful.

 

Though on second thought, he realized they had been flying quite high above the wreckage–away from its full effect–and their time standing close to it now was microscopically short.

 

“Looks like we’ve found him, sisters!” the dark mud harpy gleefully rasped with the finger-like claws at her wing joints grazing her blackened purple smirk–cocking her head with a snap in a very bird-like fashion.

 

“The rumors were true!” the deep moss harpy marveled with a toss of her matted moss locks wrapped in colored threads. “But he’s still just a bambino!”

 

“A juicy, delicious bambino!” the black coffee harpy condescendingly cackled as Chains calmly ignited his signature aura of fiery honey foison. “You think you can get to the Waznflügel Reactor, bambino? Retrieve it for us and we won’t decorate our roost with your friends’ hides!”

 

“THAT’S GROSS!”

 

As the airspace directly overhead popped like popcorn with several teleporting new arrivals, the rapidly sickening harpies shrieked in irritation and dashed high into the blustery burnt muffin sky. They didn’t get too far before dropping out of the sky–too sick to function.

 

Gut-wrenching anxiety suddenly returned, he snuffed his threatening honey flame aura as he spun around to take visual inventory of the seven surreal beings suspended in the dry, salty air above him.

 

Like that of a sky god, the voice once again boomed–this time in the direction of the accumulated crowd buzzing about the orange groves surrounding the wreckage site.

 

“Party’s OVER!”

 

 

 

 

 

Part Three: Triple Sec Spirit

 

 

Six of the spectacular winged beings quickly moved to the restless spectating crowd to converse with various townspeople and a few arriving authorities. Short and spiky hair, a rainbow of soft wing feathers, and abundant smooth skin in a variety of neutral toasty tones, they seemed to all be of blood relation.

 

The towering lead individual of burnt orange and burgundy gracefully landed on strange sandaled feet and executing a graceful wing-spread bow. Sure enough, his long, feathered arms and immense feathered wings were one and the same.

 

Towering over Chains with an intense burnt orange stare, the extreme eirwin seemed to hotly shimmer in a fiery sleeveless skysuit the shifting colors of a balmy sunset.

 

“Sincere apologies for our tardiness,” the sleek, smooth-faced bird man of fair and speckled complexion boomed in rich, rumbling vocals as he straightened himself with a dazzling smirk. “We didn’t anticipate the interference of harpies, though now that you’re standing before me, such presence makes sense. I am Logi Ashfall of Waznflügel. And you, my boy, are–”

 

“Chains,” he impatiently scoured the introductions as his broiling starfire soul quaked with mind-blowing anxiety. “Are you here to retrieve your reactor, then?”

 

Booming laughter as Logi Ashfall tucked his burnt orange and burgundy feathered wings. Like the harpies, he had claw-like fingers at the crowning joints of his wings, and he used them to vigorously rub his head of spikey burnt orange hair. His undulating aura of liquid flame foison was so strong that it lingered even as he relaxed in mind, body, and soul.

 

“Fair enough, kid! But be warned that some of the Elders of Waznflügel are listening to the wind day and night–listening for you. It was actually my little brother Ember who alerted them to your emergence. He’s quite a precocious little fledgling. If you don’t mind, I’d like to tell him that I got to meet you!”

 

“Sure,” he sluggishly responded in a grinding dubstep daze–suddenly realizing the complex answer to his own question as he turned back to the eerily moaning mountain and its weirdly humming wound. “So you want me to fetch the reactor?”

 

“You’re probably the best suited!” Logi flared with another excited laugh as he drifted back through the dry, toast crumb breeze. “Let’s see what you can do!”

 

“NOOO!” Zene shrieked from the shadowy periphery–having slightly recovered from his sudden radiation illness. “Don’t leave me behind! WE’RE BROTHERS!”

 

The muddy young majai was answered by a powerful, swirling gust of dry, screaming toast crumb wind that was in turn answered by the shuddering song of ravished treetops. Chains purposefully drifted closer and closer to the wreck’s broadly encompassing shield of fiery, plasmid cosmic radiation. The energy was becoming so intense that the twisted, silvery turd shipwreck was becoming harder to see in all its village-sized horror.

 

I should be cringing against this concentration of cosmic radiation…

 

But instead I’m CRAVING it.

 

Cosmic radiation was not evil. Rather, it was such an integral part of every divine being that it sought to eliminate incarnate bodies and return souls back to their cosmic collectives–their divine selves. Gaians in the higher spheres of dimensional existence on the planet weren’t bothered much by cosmic radiation, however those in the lowest Third Sphere were heavier in constitution and faced the issue of mortality. So this was some serious shit he was about to do, and he sure hoped his plan was sound.

 

The taste of a trillion sparkling stars filled all senses full as yelling and shrieking propelled him to the fiery plasmid shield enormously swirling before him. As his sweating, itchy body ignited with reflecting light and his own fiery honey foison, he slowly extended a furry obsidian arm and reached out a trembling honey hand.

 

I wish you would speak to me directly, Ragnarok…

 

But I will take the encouragement of others to be encouragement from you.

 

No distinct reply from his own divine self. Nevertheless, he continued pressing both hot honey hands against the fiery plasmid shield and letting his honey foison flesh sink into the thick substance. The intense heat of the cosmic energy was just a byproduct of its reaction with the planet’s energy, so he needed to focus on the true coolness–the frigidity of deep space beneath the flaming façade.

 

I could really use your help, Mom…

 

They call you the Ice Queen, but that doesn’t make me the Ice Prince…

 

However, his own celestial foison was already moving according to his will, and his incarnate body containing his mother’s genes was already relinquishing control. Now elbow-deep in the fiery concentration of cosmic radiation, his arms felt completely numb–like they were gone. He could see and sense them if not physically feel them, thankfully, and so with soul-squeezing fear he forced himself to make full-body contact with the shield.

 

He could survive without breathing oxygen for quite a while, however he wasn’t about to waste any time passing his body through the shield. Then completely immersed, absolute physical numbness overcame him as his sizzling starfire soul ejected from his incarnation with sublime ease–attached only to his physical body by a shimmering ethereal cord.

 

Astral travel wasn’t new to him. But usually his celestial foison shot his starfire soul straight into Planet Gaia’s near space where it was most comfortable. This time, however, the concentrated cosmic radiation in the vicinity of his incarnate body was allowing his starfire soul to more easily linger planetside.

 

Perhaps perceivable as a pulsating honey star, his sizzling starfire soul hovered high above the shipwreck and beneath the wall of burnt muffin clouds. No toast crumb wind could be felt, but for certain he could sense the relief of his loved ones as they confirmed the strength of his ethereal cord. He was not dead.

Willing his spherical, limitless perception to the interior side of the fiery plasmid shield, he located his body and began using his shimmering ethereal cord to guide his numbed flesh through the shield. While his body wasn’t in pain, it was being severely strained and could eventually give out.

 

It worked more smoothly than he had expected. The moment his fetal-folded physicality flopped onto the dry, sandy ground, he sling-shot his starfire soul back into it with perhaps more force than necessary.

Back in his battered body, he winced with a low roar as transcendental pain then washed over him. The taste of a trillion sparkling stars was now the feel of a trillion stabbing shards throughout his entire nervous system. Indeed the strange numbness he had experienced while inside the shield was deceptive, and now the damage was in full effect. It would take several moments for him to heal, and so he remained motionless and in a fetal position upon the chafing sandy ground–dry, salty sand in his mouth, nose, and eyes.

 

(I’m fine! I’m in!) he alerted his severely nervous steward and listless little brother.

 

Stillness. It was beyond eerie. Otherworldly. The shield’s interior was twilight in its darkest form, and everything seemed to waver like heat radiating up from a sun-scorched surface. Toasted sand and bits of burnt vegetation rose in the air via an energy updraft.

 

With a thrash of his obsidian leonine tail, he slowly dug smoldering obsidian claws into the sandy terrain and lifted his throbbing incarnation. The level of cosmic radiation within him was quite toxic, but his divine-based starfire foison was speedily soothing his silicon-based body. Only a few hairs seemed to be falling out, and the bruising that had occurred was already healed.

 

The twisted silver turd of a village-sized ship was about a hundred metrons away, and this rather wide encompassing space between the ship and the shield had become an eerie environment of disturbing wreckage from the ship’s interior. He tried not to focus upon the charred, twisted, and decapitated Gaian bodies he did see.

 

“How did you do that?”

 

A haunting, hair-raising ethereal child’s voice. Sound manipulated into words, but not by incarnate vocal chords.

 

A brightly glowing little figure hovered above the sandy terrain a full hundred metrons away and near a gaping hole in the twisted shipwreck. There were dozens of ghosts drifting about in absolute shock–all barely perceivable by one’s outer eyes. But the distant child-size ghost beckoning him was the only one robust enough to interact with him. Ghosts were merely fragments of transcended Gaian consciousness, though they lingered behind for various karma-related reasons.

 

Standing straight and cracking his stiff joints, he rotated his heavy duotone head and surveyed the scene with as many outer and inner senses as possible. It was difficult to breath in the stuffy, low oxygen space within the radiation shield, and so he drifted slowly through the dry, sandy twilight.

 

All this stuff blown everywhere–it’s valuable.

 

It looked like the sky pirate’s entire hoard had bled out across the sandy terrain along with plenty of equipment, supplies, and technologies. Most of the ghosts were grieving over the loss of their treasure as much as the loss of their incarnate bodies, and any items confiscated by those outside the shield would require thorough exorcism.

 

“I’m special,” he eventually uttered as he drifted with throbbing head and burning eyes rotating in all directions.

 

“So it would seem. And you are the chosen representative of the Birds of Paradise. Only to them will we return the treasure. Come along, Ragnarok. There is not much time left.”

 

Without a doubt, the ghostly girl–hovering in a visual manifestation of frilly doll-like clothes–knew exactly where the Waznflügel Reactor was located within the ship. In a way she reminded him of Pan Van Kuchen–a shrewd little doll not to be underestimated as a pirate. And the further he drifted through the eerie toast crumb twilight, the surer he became that the ghost doll was the one actually controlling the reactor.

 

She gave no warning nor any further beckoning as she vanished into the gaping black hole that lead into the twisted, village-size air ship. Following her ethereal foison seemed straightforward enough, but as he drifted through the gaping, gate-size tear, he sucked in his sandy breath hard when he realized the interior was contaminated with far more than cosmic radiation.

 

Space barnacles. Not sky barnacles–space. Glowing with extraterrestrial bioluminescence, barnacles of all shapes and sizes were affixed to the ship’s interiors like crystals to cavern walls. Feasting upon the cosmic radiation ringing throughout the ship’s inner world, large space barnacles clustered by the thousands while smaller sizes clustered by the millions. It meant the pirate’s air ship may have made a jarring trip to near space before being spit out at the Rock of Gibraltar. They may have moved in a dreadful zig-zag through several places–an exospheric space reef included. And as such, who knew just how long they’d been stuck in another reality of different time flow before ending up here. It sure looked like space barnacles had plenty of time to invade.

 

Even more frightening were the swarms of space parasites. As he drifted through massive twisted corridors with a gut full of noir nausea, he laid burning platinum-pyrite eyes upon countless twisted Gaian bodies partially stuck within all surfaces and covered with predatory space parasites eating radiation-laden flesh.

 

That guy’s still alive!

 

Ejecting a small, bulleting honey flame blast from a smoldering palm, he winced as his ballistic sliced through the screaming skull of a dismembered, dying man being assaulted by a terrifying swarm of glowing parasites.

 

Here and there, space parasites were dropping upon Chains from above, and so he fired up his honey flame aura in attempt to deter them. Having verified the possibility of people trapped and suffering, he became urgent as he flew after the ethereal foison trail of his ghost doll guide.

 

With all the interference, it was impossible for his fifteen-year-old mind to sense what was going on outside the shipwreck’s radiation shield, much less communicate with his adoptive family. He was all on his own for the first time in his life, and his space-craving soul was maintaining an aching dryness despite its current state of liquid darkness. Harpies were monstrously annoying, and Gaians gave him stomach-dissolving anxiety, but none of that compared to the blackness of playing executioner. And so he prayed to the divine being he had just liberated.

 

A silvery interior city crumpled like used tin foil. At one claw-biting point, some serious claustrophobia set in as he slithered through wreckage gaps too small for his sweaty mutant body–strange since he was a subterranean miner at his village’s lucrative swamp mine. But the complex metal amalgam of the ship’s interior was foreign enough to him that he wasn’t entirely sure how to manipulate it out of his way. There were several metals that he’d never worked with before.

 

At last he came out into a grand corridor of glowing tubes and barnacles that seemed to lead to the ship’s massive deck and the resting location of his ghost doll guide. Gaian bodies of all shapes, sizes, and races were stuck fast into the glowing walls of the corridor. It was odd that there was no bleeding from any orifices or lacerations–as if the violent journey through time and space had frozen the perpetrators in their tracks before relocating them in disturbing ways.

 

A massive deck of faintly glowing glass tubes, malfunctioning holographic displays, salvageable crystals, and twisted metallic air ship whimsy. There were enough elaborate seating pods for dozens of co-piloting crew members, except all of the crew members were silently, grotesquely embedded in seats as well as nearby surfaces. The deck was absolutely where the reactor was located, as an energy there was even more concentrated than the shield outside–solid cosmic radiation.

 

His burning eyes snapped to the distant left and the brightly glowing ghost doll. But it was the great curving back wall of pulsating barnacles and luminescent parasites that bewitched every shard of his bruised being. The wall let out a painful, urgent groan, and Chains rushed to the imprisoned being.

 

A beautiful dark-skinned hyumon woman of regal stature. Green silk clothes, shiny dark hair, and creamy hazel eyes. Her backside was completely fused with the metallic wall–to the depth of all her vital organs. Green silk panted legs painfully twisted and embedded, she seemed to hang from silky outstretched arms and fists embedded high over her head. It looked as though she had been attempting a grandiose majík dance in order to stop the transdimensional calamity.

 

“How stupid I must look. How stupid I must be. Thankfully…I am now the last one alive.”

 

Just how many days did they spend suffering in a time-warping space reef?

 

A crisp, silky voice despite a slow and agonizing physical death. Chains could only stand upon the dark, glittering ground looking and feeling as foolish as the unfortunate pirate ship captain. Obsidian toe claws digging into the throbbing floor, he looked to the glowing ghost doll then hovering around her mistress’s fatally warped form.

 

“Captain Vetiver,” the sound proficient ghost doll articulated with audio expression. “The Birds of Paradise sent him. He is the Ragnarok!”

 

Indeed she was rich soil and silky vegetation struggling forth from within the coffin confines of artificial architecture.

 

Demetria,” Captain Vetiver exquisitely winced in mind, body, and soul–painfully panting the last of her mustered breaths with harrowing hazel eyes boring into his platinum-pyrite tears. “To what power must you exponentially increase my shame, girl? Never mind! My punishment is now complete. The Waznflügel Reactor is there. Deactivate it now, Demetria, and hand it over.”

 

The size of his head, the bizarre sculpture of unfathomable composition suddenly rose from the glittering floor nearby and retracted its countless glowing spines. Once looking like a metallic spined creature of the sea, it was now a perfect celestial sphere of fluid silver color.

 

As Demetria willed the sphere toward Chains, he could immediately feel Gaia’s planetary foison rushing over the vicinity of the shipwreck and slowly but successfully soothing everything therein–irritating only the space barnacles and parasites then frantic about their waning feast. The reactor sphere itself was rapidly calming down to a migraine murmur, but Chains kept it suspended at his side and away from his sweaty body nevertheless.

 

Weeping but silent, he carefully retrieved the captain’s green brimmed hat lying upon the glittering ground. Ironically, it was completely intact and without so much as a crease amidst the dimensional devastation. He gently fitted the exotically feathered hat upon the free hanging head of lush soil locks, and noted that the plumes of accent feathers once belonged to wings of the Birds of Paradise. There was some tragic tale of unrequited love and ensuing vendetta that had brought Captain Vetiver, her ship, and her crew to meet a most frightening karmic-encrusted fate–a tale that may have begun lifetimes ago. Nevertheless, the captain’s regal hat symbolized her well-deserved dignity.

 

“You aren’t a being bound by any numbers in particular,” she huskily heaved with creamy hazel eyes boring through his smoldering skull. “But right now…you are as captive to three smothering spirits as I am to this damnable wall. They are sucking you dry…and you cannot germinate and grow as long as they are present, boy. I am meant to tell you this.’

 

‘Complacency–you of all people must not linger much longer…in the comforting childhood you’ve created to replace the one stolen from you.’

 

‘Biology–yours is exactly as you yourself designed it to be before your latest incarnation…so you only have yourself to blame.’

 

‘Anxiety–it can serve you well if you redirect it right…but until today it has been the greatest deterrent in your growth. Boy…you are needed. You are…”

 

His boiling tearful breath was juxtaposing her dry, dying gasps.

 

“I am Ragnarok.”

 

Sweaty honey fingertips stroked the rich dark lips. Obsidian claws grazed the rich dark skin. A honey kiss of death was all he could think to offer the regal captain as she struggled to express her frantic plea for the emergence of his divinity on Planet Gaia. The whooshing exhalation from her lungs was accompanied by the outward celestial expulsion of her gloriously shining soul, and so he carefully hung her limp head as he wept.

 

“Thank you,” whispered Demetria the Ghost Doll as she silently dematerialized behind him.

 

The two disembodied souls of inconceivable color and divine light moved as far away from the wreckage as possible. The ghosts outside began to come to their senses and abruptly follow as Captain Vetiver and First Mate Demetria sailed off into the stars in a cosmic ship of pure ecstasy–leaving Chains standing on the eerily quiet and darkening deck. Even the space barnacles and their ilk likewise evacuated the trembling shipwreck–flowing out from it as great rivers of glittering bioluminescent exodus returning to their heavenly place of origin.

 

With all that cosmic radiation now dissolving, there isn’t any shielding keeping the wreckage in place, and the Rock of Gibraltar is rejecting it.

 

Despite floating the reactor sphere at his side, he was able to exit the shuddering shipwreck far quicker than he’d entered–thanks to the exposed corridors no longer being blocked by billions of space barnacles.

 

The toast crumb twilight had somehow become a spookily glowing night faintly illuminated by thin traces of the cosmic radiation shield, and he had a shocking realization about the difference in the passage of time inside and outside the shielded wreckage. He had expected it to be mid-afternoon outside, yet it was actually several hours later than that. Within the wreckage, time had been flowing differently. Perhaps such was a symptom of space reef exposure.

 

<Are you all right?! You’re not hurt or ill are you?!>

 

<DAMN IT Chains quit messing around in there!>

 

Clearly their telepathic abilities had been reestablished outside the wreckage.

 

(Calm your shit down,) he sluggishly offered as he slowed his approach to the thinned radiation shield. (This area is going to be toxic to everyone for a while, so let me grab some stuff!)

 

Loaded with floating sacks hastily made from collected scraps of green silk curtains, he inhaled the crisp, cool night air as deeply as possible upon easily passing through the faintly glowing shield.

 

He had expected the crowds to be ever present at the orange grove tree line–ready to pounce upon the wreckage as soon as the shield had completely dissolved. But he was shocked to find that the vast majority of persistent pirates, tenacious treasure hunters, gossiping townspeople, and nosy news reporters had vanished from the vicinity. Apparently, the sickness all had suffered was severe enough that the majority of the treasure seekers had returned to the port and their ships to mull over a plan. Authorities had not yet left the area of the now sealed portal, but they would probably swoop in very soon.

 

There was a small crowd moving about the periphery, but while Serpiz and Zene rushed to his bulging sides, no others made a move.

 

“My extraordinary boys!” the brothers’ sizzling steward exclaimed with breathtaking glee as he violently hugged them both–maneuvering to give a satisfied pat to a bulging curtain sack. “Zene helped seal the portal by helping block the wind!”

 

“NAW!” snorted the seven-year-old majai with a peanut butter smirk. “There were, like, a thousand people helping! I just flapped my arms a bit. The Birds of Paradise did most the work!”

 

“Keep your damn paws to your damn self!” Chains caustically hooted as he swat the mud puppy away from his green silk hoard. “We open these at home, and until then…protect them with your life.

 

“GOT IT!”

 

The burnt muffin clouds and toast crumb wind had long since blown over, and the orange juice mist has ceased. The dry night sky was deep space black and completely spangled by clouds of rainbow cosmic gases and the infinite sparkling stars of the rest of the galaxy. Waxing gibbous, Lünya was quite ascended upon the scene, and glowing powdery white. The dancing shadows she cast led Chains and his relieved family to the edge of the orange grove and the place at which Logi Ashfall was patiently waiting with a dazzling bone white grin upon his lightly toasted face.

 

“You did it!” the lofty leader radiantly beamed–pushing his towering suited form away from its recline against an ancient orange tree. “We knew you could! Whether your fear would let you was a question up until you shoved your face into that shield. But I sure can’t wait to make my report back home–and hand over the reactor to my little brother!”

 

“He’s an archivist of sorts,” Chains wearily croaked as he gratefully allowed Logi to levitate the reactor sphere away from him. “Demetria LaGuardia befriended him, then managed to mimic his DNA and gain access to the reactor. Tell your little brother how regretful she is about tricking him, that she has well learned her lesson, and that she is now resting in peace.”

 

A flurry of burnt orange and burgundy feathers. A vigorous rub of spikey burnt orange hair. Strange sandaled feet shuffled, and the statuesque, sunset-colored sky god forced himself to make ready for his departure. The intense burnt orange stare dashed in a few different directions before settling back upon Chains and his crew of two.

 

“You’re something special, kid! Wish I was meant to tag along in all the adventures I can clearly see you’re headed for. My only consolation is that your arrival on Waznflügel is a current potential. So until then, take care of yourself!”

 

I’ll go to Waznflügel someday…

 

A swirling pop of space and time, and the Birds of Paradise leader abruptly vanished with the recovered treasure. What was left of the thinning cosmic radiation shield around the crumbling shipwreck was then dissolving at an even faster rate. It would be wise for the trio to depart the Rock of Gibraltar before they refreshed any attention upon themselves.

 

“Didn’t want to give us away?” Chains immediately demanded of his silent steward smoking away in the dancing orange grove shadows. “I know you were dying to gush all over that guy.”

 

“I’ve never had the privilege of meeting Logi Ashfall,” Serpiz thoughtfully replied in a chuckling rasp as he levitated their four green silk curtain sacks. “However he may have recognized me if I hadn’t kept myself in the shadows–recognized my face anyway.”

 

“That’s right!” Zene wildly grinned as they lethargically levitated over the rustling orange treetops glowing in Lünya’s powdery light. “You’re a steward of nobility! A celebrity!”

 

“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” Chains cut in with a sharp exhalation and contentedly clenched fangs. “But where’s Razzlebooty?”

 

“The port,” Serpiz confirmed with a smoking smirk as they languidly flew in such direction. “The kraken retreated, opening up safe passageway through the straight near the island, and so she brought both the Marmalady and the Deneb Kaitos to the port. Nice girl.”

 

“Nice my furry ass!” came a strained hoot from within his thirsty merlot mouth and parched lips. “She just wants to ensure that we don’t escape before she’s had the chance to grill me!”

 

“She got awfully sick,” Zene offered unexpected clarity with a muddy splash of sympathy. “And she kept saying she hoped you wouldn’t die.”

 

So as not to burden the town with any more shady business, the creamy peanut butter beach expanse near the tidy port had become a makeshift camp for those sickened with radiation poisoning. Medics were bathing people in the chilly crystalline waters of the Atlantean Sea, and forcing them to drink medicinal foison fluids.

 

Only upstanding locals had their small vessels of sea and sky docked at the piers and whitewashed towers of the port. Pirate ships remained defiantly anchored a distance offshore–yet away from the vicinity of the sealed portal and the suspended ships belonging to authorities.

 

He was surprised to sense and then see that the three harpies were on the beach and being cared for–fed, counseled, and healed. Often times people of the swamp were so overwhelmed by the most evil of demonic creatures that they had little patience or compassion for them.

 

Three harpies…

 

Complacency, Biology, and Anxiety…

 

“GODDAMN YOU SWAMPIES! Took you long enough!”

 

Splayed upon a couch of cushy golden resin on the glowing round deck of the Marmalady, Captain Razzleberry Jam fiercely glared at the trio floating down the whitewashed pier with their sacks of treasure. The shiny, dark mocha face twisted into an accusing scowl. Round and ravenous red feline eyes widened with flaming envy. Berry-bejeweled hands of long, berry-lacquered claws dug into cushy golden resin.

 

With an irritated citrus sigh, Pomelo and Tangelo Pamplemousse obligingly assisted their insane captain to her wobbly, berry booted feet. The pompous pirates were hardly a threat, yet Serpiz and Zene hurried their treasure into the bobbing Deneb Kaitos with adrenaline-laden chortles.

 

Please,” Chains ferociously scoffed with a smoldering clawed hand thrust out toward the dangerously swaying captain’s sputtering outrage. “I’ve had a very long day and I can no longer restrain myself.”

 

“You TURDS!” Razzleberry drunkenly harangued as her berry bouquet headdress toppled backward and fell from her dark, berry red head. “Hand over that treasure! It’s MINE!”

 

“Oh for the love of Gaia!” Tangelo gruffly growled in acidic mortification as she tightly gripped her captain’s red velvet arm with a fed-up tawny fist. “Give it a rest!”

 

The tight hazelnut pants and too-small sleeveless tunic streaked with a shining flash as Captain Razzleberry involuntarily collapsed backwards into her lackey’s bleached meringue arms of juicy pink adornments. Chains immediately retracted his grouchy aggression and hopped onboard the Marmalady with an idea.

 

He clapped a smoldering honey hand to the mocha forehead of the cantankerous captain once again splayed upon a cushy golden resin couch. If he was that attracted to cosmic radiation–and vice versa–then maybe he could attract radiation away from the captain’s trembling body.

 

Now that he was close enough, he could plainly sense that some of her berry red locks had fallen out, her red velvet fur was rubbing off in several places, and her mocha skin had actually taken on a greyish tone. Whereas Tangelo and Pomelo had been wise enough to retreat from the shipwreck, apparently their captain had made several attempts to get close.

 

It’s working…

 

I can remove the radiation and dispel it if I just move it through the natural foison flow of her body and out her…

 

Furless mocha cleavage slamming down upon the rounded golden rim of the Marmalady, the recovering captain violently vomited upon the golden jelly tentacles bobbing in the black licorice sea below. The berry red translucent adornments on her limbs, chest, and waist began to glow with recovered razzleberry foison.

 

“The radiation will be tolerable for you guys by midnight,” Chains generously offered with a fanged smirk in self-satisfaction as he hopped backwards onto the moonlit pier. “No one knows that now except you. I took what I could carry, but there’s at least a hundred more sacks of stuff just lying there. You three probably shouldn’t go yourselves, but you can send in your crew. Better hurry and prepare them now.”

 

A long, uncharacteristically peaceful silence as the sniffling captain wiped bile from her quivering mocha chin. Seated again, she cast tearful red feline eyes out to the starry sea and the monstrous parent of the Marmalady vibrantly glowing all shades of jelly and jam in the moonlit horizon. Pinks, purples, oranges, and reds, the Jousting Jellyfish pulsated with gigantic undulating tentacles as it awaited the return of its cartoony captain.

 

“That’s it, huh?” Zene called in awe from further down the moonlit pier. “We’d ask you for a ride, except you’d just keep on being a pain!”

 

A low, deflating laugh. A heavy, conceding sigh. Adjusting herself into a more dignified sitting position with a red booted foot resting upon an opposing knee, Captain Razzleberry Jam backhandedly waved Chains and his company away in dismissal.

 

“You guys are okay!” she generously announced with a slurping smirk as she replaced her explosive berry jelly bouquet headdress. “After we pick this place clean, we’re gonna head straight for Shanghai to pay our respects! Happy Birthday pisses me off, so that means you swampies are off the hook.”

 

Adios to you too, Captain!” Chains bid farewell with a roll of his burning platinum-pyrite eyes as he and Zene hopped down to the Deneb Kaitos.

 

A charismatic and kind citrus call as the Marmalady revved to life and drifted away from the pier.

 

“THANK YOOOOU!”

 

A dry, chilled wind whipped through his platinum-obsidian locks as Serpiz wasted no time in unfurling shimmering sky whale sails and speeding the Deneb Kaitos away from the port. The Marmalady streaked off in a perpendicular direction, and at long last the swamp trio could breathe sighs of social relief. Still, the glorious sight of the Jousting Jellyfish–along with the countless colorful ships floating and suspended out to sea–was a sight that gripped Chains so profoundly that he actually grew pained about leaving. Sailing off in a pirate ship sounded like rapturous fun.

 

“We could join Peanut Butter Booyah!” Zene offered with a sinister peanut butter sneer as he snuggled down against green silk sacks. “Then raise a mutiny and feed her captain to a kraken!”

 

He could only snort as he snuggled himself down as well.

 

Sirens bewitchingly sang as they passed through the northern canal that severed the Rock of Gibraltar from the rest of the continent–their psychedelic vocals lulling seafarers into a willing trance and connecting their waterlogged souls with primordial sea elementals. The swamp trio remained quiet well into the Tartak Sea, and with Chains too tired to care when Zene started nosing around in a green silk sack full of whimsical parts, strange pieces, and foreign metal samples.

 

Complacency–you of all people must not linger much longer…in the comforting childhood you’ve created to replace the one stolen from you…

 

Biology–yours is exactly as you yourself designed it to be before your latest incarnation…so you only have yourself to blame…

 

Anxiety–it can serve you well if you redirect it right…but until today it has been the greatest deterrent in your growth…

 

Three spirits sucking him dry. It was a morbid way to describe a fifteen-year-old’s faults, but then, while on the brink of incarnate death, Captain Vetiver had perceived Chains as the divinity Ragnarok. Her intense clarion call was not unlike the words both Serpiz and Mama Chu had spoken to him in recent months. Perhaps they knew he was only playing at being a fifteen-year-old boy, and that he knew damn right well there was no room for such play. There was no time–it was only a matter of a couple years before he’d be forced to fully emerge and take ownership of his divine mission. No amount of sanctuary swamp water could ever quench his thrice-dry spirit.

 

“Gibraltar,” Serpiz moltenly smiled as he steered the Deneb Kaitos between black seas and skies of stars. “At-Tariq. The one who knocks. The first illumination. Lucian. This was a most enlightening trip if I do say so myself!”

 

“And you do say so yourself!” Chains feverishly rebuked through the whooshing starry wind. “You taught me to fear using my real name, so shut up about it!”

 

“Come now. I was just contemplating how very far we’ve come. Do you realize how close we were today? To the place at which you and I were captured?”

 

The town of South Kalúptra at the southern point of the Strait of Gibraltar–when he was a newborn infant and Serpiz was attempting to smuggle him away from their invaded home empire.

 

“Yeah, well, you know how Mama Chu feels about using my real name this soon.”

 

“And you know how she’s EVERYWHERE!” Zene punctuated with a contagious seven-year-old laugh. “She can probably hear you right now! Glad I can’t hear her yelling about it being the Foraging Season and about how much work he have to do.”

 

So close. They had been so close to their home empire. Yet in mind and spirit they were still so very far away. It was not yet time to wander any further from the swamp than they already had. Neither Serpiz nor Chains was ready to re-enter the world from which they had come.

 

Plucking dried, bitter orange peels from his lap and tossing them into the churning black sea of symphonic stars, he ignored his hunger–and the sack of exotic dinner delights Serpiz had acquired–for a few moments longer as his burning duotone eyes locked upon an apparition far in the southern horizon.

 

A ghost ship. Fading in and out of sight, it was like a great whale of the sea or sky. In the depths of his mind, the largest fin-like sails were a cosmic indigo color. He said nothing about the apparition to his family, as he couldn’t be entirely sure if it was a true ghost ship or a vision only he could perceive. And if it was the latter, he most certainly didn’t feel like dissecting the situation with two of the most overly analytical academics on the planet.

 

Tartak. In the most ancient Gaian languages the name meant both bond and bondage. While he had formed unbreakable bonds during his short lifetime, indeed his swamp sanctuary would someday soon feel more like the bondage of a womb around a fetus far too developed to be restrained.

 

And when that time comes, I will truly be born…

 


Join the majík and mayhem as Serpiz, Zene, and Chains venture from their village to explore all the swamp nation capitol of Oroponoptra has to offer–ancient ruins, roaring road bikes, and really cute girls! Will Serpiz be able to let go? Will Chains join a biker gang? Will the boys EVER get to a Gnatty Bizz concert? Don’t miss the next epic ride in RAGNAROK: Petit Four 2!