After the six and a half hour mark, flying on a jet-pack gets really really old. Especially when there's nothing to look at except like rock, desert, rocky desert, and the occasional pod of Nomadic Desert Squids- and even the squids are boring cuz you don't even see squids, you just see the ground where they burrow.
"Are we there yet?" I said.
"We weren't there when you asked five minutes ago, and we aren't there now."
"But I'm boooooo-" I flew around Anja in a circle. "-oooooooooooo-" I kept circling her, going around and around while she just kept flying straight. "-ooooooooooooooored."
"I can't help that," she said.
I stopped circling her and started kinda like going in like lazy swishy zig-zags of my own.
We were somewhere over the Charred Broiled mountainside and the landscape was dull. Like, really dull. Like, nothing but black dirt from that time all those dragons exploded. (it happened a gazillion years ago- we learned about it back in school. Somebody slipped alkaseltzer tablets into the dragon's water supply and then BOOM. The whole place went up in fire and burning dragon innards. Every so often people still find fossilized body bits). Maybe on the ground it coulda been cool if I had like my motorcycle so I could jump off shit and do sick wheelies, but in the air everything was small and boring and laaaame.
"Anja," I said. "Anja. Hey. Hey Anja."
"What?" she said.
"Let's go back to the castle and blow something up."
"That was hours ago," she said. "It's all probably over and cleaned up by now."
"Aww man. It feels like its been years. Like four years. Like almost four of them exactly."
"That's oddly specific," she said. "Listen, my father's kingdom is--"
I tuned her out cuz I saw some commotion up ahead. A bunch of angry specks were running up against some other angry specks, then falling back to joining their own speck team, only to get angry and go at the other specks again. I surged forward towards the specks. Anja said something, but I didn't hear her over the sound of my thoughts going WOOOOO!
As we got closer, the specks solidified into angry people.
"Let's stop there!" I said.
"That's a battlefield," she said.
"Yeah I know, awesome, right?"
Before she could be lame and tell me no, I cut the power to the jetpack and free-fell a bajillion feet until I was right over the action. I turned the pack back on and flew around above the action, investigating. I couldn't tell which side was the good guys and which was the bad because the uniforms were green and gray instead of black and white (seriously dudes, you've gotta CLARIFY these things or else people will just get confused. Duh.) so I did eenie meenie miney mo and was just getting to the part with the tiger's toe when some asshole in a gray uniform shot me with a blasting laser. Several hundred volts of electric "eat shit jackass" kicked me in the face, and because I'm so awesome and strong I didn't die or start puking or anything, I just got pissed.
The blast fried my jetpack- which was also NOT COOL because now I would have to walk everywhere unless Anja wanted to give me a lift- and knocked me to the ground. I'm pretty much made of steel and TOTALLY RADICAL AWESOME so it didn't hurt too bad and I TOTALLY didn't scream (I'll super-falcon-kidney-punch the spleens of anyone who says otherwise). But now the moral quandary was cleared up and I could kick ass with clear conscience.
I grabbed the closest guy in gray and stole his gun. He didn't want to give it to me, but I two good reasons why you do NOT get in the way of me and a sweet looking blaster.
THE REASONS ARE MY FISTS.
Also, I didn't notice it before, but all these guys were short. Like, not midget short, but like the tallest one only went up to my shoulders. Also, they were all kinda scrawny, now that I was looking. And also, they all had pattern snake skin instead of regular skin.
I wondered if that changed anything, and then thought "nah" and started blasting anything in gray.
It was awesome. My head never feels right unless I'm ankle deep in blood and shooting some asshole's brains out. Yeah, THAT'S WHAT YOU GET FOR BLASTING ME, ASSHOLE. You get a whole heaping portion of DEAD.
So there I was blasting everything I could until I ran out of blasts, then I had to pick up another blaster off a dead guy and use that to make more dead guys. Eventually that one ran out, and I was just about to get another charged blaster off a different dead guy when one of the not-dead guys in green came up to me.
"Sir!" he said.
I aimed the blaster at him. I wasn't gonna shoot him, jeez! It was just habit. He moved, I pointed. He dropped to his knees and put his hands in the air. The group of other dudes a few yards behind him that I just noticed did the same.
"Yeah?" I said.
"You have saved us!" said the little dude. "Thank you!"
"Oh. Sure. No prob, man," I said. I holstered the blaster. "You gotta spare jet pack around here? Mine kinda got busted."
"You have saved us!" said a dude in back.
"You have been sent by the gods!" said another one.
"The Oligarchon will wish to see you!" said the dude by me.
"He gonna have a spare jet pack?" I said
The little dudes all shrugged. One said, "he's the ruler of the three Draconian desert nations. He's bound to have something for you."
"Cool. Lead on."
"Erik!" said Anja. She flew in and hovered by me, away from the little dudes. She was all bloody and was holding a sword. I guess she'd been fighting too and I hadn't noticed it in my awesome violence-filled haze of maddening blood lust.
"Yeah?" I said.
"You can't just go walking off with strange lizard men! We were attacked by lizard men at the castle, remember?"
"Uh. Wow. Racist, much?" I said. "Firstly those were Dinopauds, not Draconians, and secondly how dare you assume like that? I mean 'strange lizard men'? Dude, Really?"
She blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry--"
I patted our guide's shoulder. "This here is a fine upstanding Desert Draconian citizen. They're nothing like those filthy stinking good for nothing Dinopauds."
"Damn straight," said my draconian buddy. "Come along, Sir Erik. I will show you the way."
So we both followed him and his buddies through the desert and at first I was like, "fuuuuuuck, this is gonna take forever" cuz there was nothing around for miles and the desert was all flat so I could SEE that there was nothing around, but then they stopped at like this big flat sandy rock I didn't notice before. One of them must've been a lizard wizard, cuz he said something reptile sounding and the rock slid away under the dirt to show us a giant spiral staircase creeping along the walls of a giant hole going straight down.
"This way," they said. "We go to the underground fortress of the Draconian Oligarchon."
"SEEYA AT THE BOTTOM!" I said.
I took a running into the middle hollow of the staircase where there was no steps and fell like a bajillion feet. Not joking; it took forever to land and after the first minute of falling I was like "okay maybe this was not a smart thing to do." But I looked so cool jumping that I figured it was worth it.
The ground came up and before that bitch Gravity could try to get her greasy Newtonian hands on me, I did a killer flip and landed in a perfect superhero pose! Blended knee, hunched over, one fist on the ground. The pavement cracked under me and I held still for a bit to give any onlookers time to appreciate how fun awesome it was.
When I did finally look up, it turns out it was a waste of a perfectly good move. There was nobody around. Turns out the bottom of the stairs led to a giant underground stone city that was carved into the rocky cavern walls of a massive underground cave, but everybody was off the street. I glowered and did the logical thing. I went back to the spot where I landed and crouched again and waited for Anja and the others to show up because SOMEONE was going to see my cool pose DAMMIT.
It took them forEVER. When they got down, Anja ran down the last steps.
"Are you okay?" she said.
"Yeah, I'm cool." I stayed put. "WELL?" I said after a second.
She sighed. "You look very cool, Erik."
She didn't sound like she meant it, but I still said, "I know," and jumped to my feet. "Where to now?"
"This way, please," said my little draconian bud. "I'll lead you to the palace. There the Oligarchon will see you."
So he led us through the city and it was pretty okay I guess. Like I've been to worse giant underground cities filled with the descendants of ancient dragon-human hybrids. My bug led us to a giant palace made of rock and when we got there, two guards and a little messenger came out.
"His Effulgence has been expecting you!" he said to me and Anja. To our little dude, he said, "Thanks, Steve. I can take it from here."
"Okay, Jack." To me, he said, "That was totally killer how you jumped into a hole like that."
"Thanks, bro!" I said. Finally, some recognition.
He ran off and we went inside. We went down the hall and past some rooms and through a big fancy room and passed more fancy rooms until we got to what was I guess a waiting room. The room was all posh and full of books 'n shit. Our guide told us to hang tight for a second while he went to go check something or something, and we were left in the room alone.
"This is certainly extravagant," Anja said, looking at the walls and ceiling.
"It's Baroque," I said, only giving half a shit. "Or at least Baroque-inspired. It's got the tell-tale interplay of light and void, the emphasis on colonnades and high domed ceilings as a focal point, and the use of grandiose embellishments as both a means to evoke emotion from the audience while also serving to demonstrate the wealth of the church." I yawned. "Though looking at it closer, it looks more like the tranistionary period to the fullblown Rococo movement; you can tell because they're beginning to embrace asymmetry and use more decorative flourishes; look how nearly none of these chairs have straight legs. They've all got them swirly bits on. See that? That there's the merging of form and function. "
She was staring at me.
"What?" I said.
"I'm surprised you knew that," he stammered.
"Pfft. C'mon, this is simple shit."
Our guide came back. "The Oligarchon will see you now!" The little dude squeaked. He led us through the doors, then left.
Inside the even bigger and fancier was a big priest looking dude and a little one. They both had those fancy Draconian priest robes with the swirls and the gold stitching and the big robey sleeves, but the bigger one also had like ten other layers of robey looking clothes and jewelry and shit, and a big hat thing that made it look like he was wearing a big shiny cake on his head. The littler priest dude had a hood instead of a hat.
"Ah, the saviors of the hour," little priestdude said. He took Anja's hand and kissed it.
"Gnarly," I said. She still had blood all over her hands from the battle.
"You exaggerate, sir," said Anja. She took her hand back and tried to wipe it on her dress all discreet like she didn't want anyone noticing. We all did.
"Not at all," he said. "You two have overwhelmed the infernal enemy's army and won the day for our fair land. The battle is done, and the war is over!"
"That was it?" she said. "Don't wars usually have more than one battle? And involve lots of diplomatic meetings and political maneuvering and treaty signing before they're done?"
The priest beamed. "Nope! One battle, it's all over."
"You hear that Anja?" I said. "We won!"
"I mean no disrespect-" Anja said. I groaned because people only say that when they're about to be disrespectful. She glared at me. "Meaning no disrespect, but I do not believe we have been properly introduced to everyone."
"Of course, of course," said little priestdude. "I am Minor Luminary Virgil. He is the Grand Luminary, the Oligarch of the Draconian Desert Nations. He bids you welcome into his palace."
Luminary dude didn't look at us, just kinda kept his nose up. Probably focused on balancing his stupid hat.
"Doesn't look welcoming," I said. "Rude."
"I assure you he is most welcoming. He is delighted to have foreign travelers in his court to regale us all of tales from the outside nations."
Luminary dude was doing that nail thing. The thing where snobby people want you to know how snobby they are, so they pretend to look at their nails even though nobody in all of history has ever actually looked at heir nails by holding them out like that. I was about to call him out on this bullshit, but Anja cut me off.
"Why isn't he speaking to us himself?" she said.
"He is too important for that," Virgil said. "Only vassals such as myself are fit to commune with mortals."
"Bullshit," I coughed.
"What was that?" snapped Priestdude.
"Sorry," I said. "I coughed. I was trying to say 'BULLSHIT.' Dunno why you're getting hung up on mortals. I saw like fifty of your dudes get splattered like twenty minutes ago. Looked pretty mortal then."
"Erik. . . " said Anja.
"Anja. . . " I said back, copying her bossy voice.
Before she could start yelling at me and before I could start smashing walls and turnignt he interior design into exterior design, the Oligarchon caught on that the not-talking holier-than/thou shit wasn't gonna fly with us, cuz he said, "I believe we may dispense with the Pure Silence, Virgil."
"But sir!" said Virgil. "These are impure mortals--".
"If they have been sent by the gods to save us in our hour of need, then surely they must be sanctified in the eyes of the lords?"
Virgil bowed his head. "You are wise, great one."
"Suck his cock already," I said. Anja elbowed me in the ribs. My ribs are coated in muscle played muscle, but her elbows are pointy and hurry.
The Oligarchon ignored that. "Ms. Anja," he said. "Am I to assume you are the same Anjanaharad from the Kingdom of the Northern Mountains?"
"Yes!" she said. "How did you know?"
He smiled. "The makers provide knowledge to those who seek it. I understand you are trying to return home?"
"Then we will gladly help you return to your kingdom," said the Oligarchon.
"Great!" I said.
"Thank you!" she said.
"Just after you destroy the evil snow wizard to the south of us.
"What," we said.
"The Abominable Snow Man's what we call him. Silly wizard who's got himself a magic ice wand and has been conjuring snow armies and ice soldiers to wreak havoc on the locals."
"But you're in the desert!"
He shrugged. "I didn't say it was a lot of havoc. But the puddles are annoying to slosh through. The wand is all he has going for him, really. Get rid of that and he ought to calm down. So will you help us?"
What I really wanted to do was blow up this pop stand and book it out of town, but the problem there was that I was totally lacking any way to blow it up. Like, I used to be able to blow shit up willy nilly with the sheer awesome might of MY DICK (haha ladies?) but these days I had no guns, no bike, and a lady nagging me all the time about "responsibility" and "not being a psychopathic murderer." Pchaw, shows how much she knows. I can't be a psychopath because I can't read minds, Anja. Gawd, learn some dictionaries already.
So the long and short of it is that instead of flipping the bird and walking backwards out of the room, I let ANja do the talking.
"Of course," sh said. "We'll help."
"Excellent," popedude said. "This shouldn't be difficult for someone of your. . .uh. Skillset." He went to the desk behind him and took a big paper thing.
"Whazzat?" I said. We went over to him.
"A map," he said. He rolled it up and handed it to Anja. "One that has been blessed by the very Makers themselves to lead the righteous unerringly to their holy purpose."
"So it's magic?" I said.
He scowled. "Magic is an unholy aberration in the--"
"Magic, got it."
He was probably gonna say something else but Anja said, "will we have an escort?"
"i'll send a guide with you, but from what I've gathered you two don't seem to need much in the way of assistance when it comes to the more aggressive arts. If you look at the map here, you'll find the path-"
Then he and Anja were talking about stuff that I found boring like tactics and shit, so I poked around the room. On the other side of his desk was a display cabinet, and in that there were loads of wands, all different colors and with different carvings and patterns on them. I opened the case and took one at random and started making tiny trees start sprouting on the floor.
"You'll have to be careful coming up the ridge," said the Oligarch. "Reports have indicated that he has an ice-pit that- oh for the love of Gods will you stop doing that?"
I put the wand down. "Jeez, popedude, I was just sprucing up the place."
Anja glared at me. "What did I say about puns?"
"Leaf me alone, Anja. You don't need to be such a beech about it." I grinned and looked at Oligarchon, but he was just as lame as Anja was and wasn't even smiling. "Fuck you guys, I'll be in the hallway. Call me when you need shit blowed up."
So I pretended to put the wand back and walked out and waited for Anja to get done.
It took like an hour for us to get to the Abominable Snow Man's place. We knew we were close because the sand started to first get wet, then get slushy, then covered with ice. The camels couldn't handle it, so we wound up hoofing it until we finally came up on a giant ice castle made of ice. It was all castley with turrets and spires and a drawbridge and sit, but the drawbridge wasn't over anything; it was just open and lying flat on the snow-covered-sand.
"Do you think that thing even goes up and down?" I said.
"Doubt it," said Anja. "Unless he does it by magic. I don't see any ropes."
"WELCOME TO YOUR DOOM, FOOLISH MORTALS!" boomed a voice above us.
"THANKS!" I boomed back. "GREAT TO BE HERE."
There was a second of silence. Then the voice said, "Uh. I wasn't actually welcoming you."
"Too bad, man!" I said. "You invited us."
There was a flurry of snow in front of us. Anja got her sword ready.
The wizard appeared. He was taller than me, but shorter than Anja. He was sorta on the chubby side, and was wearing a floofy kicking-around-the-house kinda robe that had snowflakes on it.
"Listen," he said. "I didn't mean to actually invite you. It was just a dramatic thing, y'know?"
"Too bad, bro," I said, crossing my arms. "Magic rules. You invite us. You feed us."
He sighed. "Okay. I actually just put some pasta on. I can still add more before it boils over. COme on in. Keep your shoes on, please. The floor is made of ice and its really cold." He vanoshed in another tiny snow storm.
"Welp, let's go." I started inside.
"How did you know that would work?" Anja said.
"Magic rules," I said. "If you invite someone in, you're not supposed to kill them until they leave. Technically we're not supposed to kill him either, but I'm not magic, so I do what I want. Look at this place, though!" The walls were carved up bricks, but they were ice. There were giant columns and high domed ceilings. Everything was all blue and white and sorta clear and so neat looking.
We found what I guessed was a diningroom. The wizard was there.
"So," he said. "What do you think?"
"Bro," I said. "Your pad is rad."
He beamed. "Really?"
"Totally!" I said.
"Thanks!" he said. "Those Draconians are always complaining about it. 'An affront to nature' they call it. 'Snow shouldn't be in the desert' they say. Well what is magic FOR if you can't build an ice castle or two, right?"
"Right!" I said. "Like, if you're gonna fly in the face of reality, do something killer with it. I'm Erik, by the way. This is Anja."
I went in for the hand shake. He did to.
"Ice to meet you," I said.
"Coldn't agree more!" he said. His whole face like broke out into this bigass grin, so I knew he'd been waiting for this.
"I gotta say, this place is pretty cool."
"Thanks!" he said. "It took a hail of a lot of time to finish. I'm glad you're so chill."
"Snow problem, dude."
"I'm glad to see you're both having fun," Anja said. "But Mr. . ."
"Lawrence. Laurence Lawrence. Just call me Larry, though."
"Alright, Larry, we have been sent here by the Oligarchon of the Desert Draconian Nations to stop you from . . .uh." She looked at me. "What was he doing wrong again?"
"Not a damn thing," I said. "Look at this place. This place is fuckin' sweet, bro."
"Thanks, man. If you don't mind me asking," he said, "Why exactly are two outsiders working for the Oligarchon?"
"He was going to help us get to Anja's place," I said. "My jetpack shit the bed."
"Oh, if that's all you need. . . " He went rummaging through the cupboards. "Here," he said. He handed me a jetback. It was sleeker than my old one and looked like it was made of glass. I could see blue liquid fuel gushing around inside.
"Is this made of ice?" I said.
"Yep," he said.
"Won't it heat up and melt?" said Anja.
We both looked at her. At the same time, we both said "Wizard."
"Dude," I said. "Bro. I don't know what to say."
"Say no more, my man. I'm just glad SOMEBODY finally appreciates the hard work I put into this place. If only those Draconians would leave me alone. . "
"I can-" I started.
"No," said Anja before I could finish.
"It's fine," Larry said.
"Wait," I said. "Here." I dug the wand I stole from the Oligarchon out of my pocket. "Here."
"A wand?" he said, taking it. His eyes went wide. "This is very powerful! Where did you get it?"
"Stole it from an asshole. Can you find any use for it?"
Hang a sec," he said. He walked out of the castle. We stayed in the room. We heard a RUMBLE and THUNKING and TEARING and CRUNCHING and all kinds of BIG NOISES. The ground below us shifted and I thought for sure the ice castle was going to smash us, but everything stayed in one piece. He came back a few minutes later.
Problem solved, he said.
"What did you do?" Anja said.
He held up the wand. "I created a protective forest around my castle. No way they'll be able to get in now!"
"Awesome!" I said. I slipped on the jetpack.
"Thank you for your help!" said ANja. "We really appreciate it."
"Snow trouble," he said. "Thanks for the wand."
We took off. In the sky, the castle went from looking like a big castle to looking like a small batch of blue-white inside a bigger patch of white-white surrounded by a thick wall of brown-green.
"D'you think the Oligarchon is going to be mad?" Anja said.
"I hope so," I said. "I still want to kick his ass."
"You'll have plenty of ass to kick once we get to my kingdom," Anja said.
"Promise?" I said.
"Promise," she said.