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Ankama Trackers

The Smile of the Strawcrow

By GrimackReapum - MEMBER - March 04, 2012, 12:00:35
Prologue

It was a particularly dark night in the city of Brakmar. The Brakmarian Royals were pushing the weapon’s manufactory to its limits in the hopes of winning the arms race against Bonta and becoming the only political superpower in the ravaged World of Twelve. That night, one of the larger weapon production plants had dumped too much debris into the lava and the volcano was spewing out more smoke than usual, reducing the visibility in the streets to arm’s length. Most of the city’s inhabitants knew what this meant and stayed inside, while only the bravest and dumbest of the citizens ventured out into the smoke and ash-riddled streets. In one of the more remote alleys of the city, a Crawly of the latter category stumbled to find his way through the smog, completely unaware of the two Srams trailing him from a distance. “Oh man, just my luck,” the little demon stammered, “why did he want to meet in Brakmar, of all places?” He stopped for a moment, trying to recompose himself. “All right, Slick, nothing to worry about. Just give him the goods and get out of here. The Master was restoring his strength, so by time he’s done, you’ll be back and he’ll be none the wiser.” “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” a voice whispered through the smoke. The Crawly spun around, drawing his knife: “Who’s there?!” Silence. “I have a blade and I’m not afraid to use it!” Still silence. Slowly he tried to back out of the alley when he suddenly felt a presence behind him. “Boo!” He spun around again, ready to attack, but before he could use his weapon, his face met with the fist of one the Srams, catapulting him back into the alley. While the horned imp tried to regain his bearings, the assassin’s laughter echoed in the veiled street. “You… you don’t know who you’re messing with!” he tried, but this only resulted in the laughter turning into a sarcastic chuckle. “Really?” one of the voices spoke, “then enlighten us. Who is it that we should fear? Your momma?” Before the cornered Crawly could reply, the sound of a soft clicking started to fill the alleyway. From the other end of the alley, the second voice whispered: “What the heck? A wind-up Wodent?”

The next instant, the entire scene was engulfed in the blast of a powerful explosion, emanating from where the voice was just before. The shockwave from the blast knocked everyone down and blew away the smoke, revealing the second Sram, surrounded by several small wind-up Wodents wobbling over the pavement. “Oh my Gods…” the skulled robber swore, “What kind of sick joke is this?” As a response to his rhetorical question, a high-pitched giggle resonated from the rooftops. On the ridge of the highest building, a scrawny-looking figure dressed in a strawcrow outfit waved at them: “Hello down there! How do you like my toys?” Trying to get up without touching the Wodents, the Sram yelled back: “You maniac! Who do you think you are, blasting innocent robbers with these walking bombs?!” With erratic jumps, the masked man descended from the rooftops like true acrobat, pouncing from drainpipe to window, cackling all the way, landing right next to one the hopping figurines. “Who? These sweet little things?” he mocked, picking up the Wodent bomb, “there’s as innocent as a fresh-born Gobbly.” He gave the toy a peck on the cheek through his mask and with one swift motion, pulled out the wind-up key. “See,” he gloated as he juggled the Wodent in his hand, “completely harmless,” after which he hurled it at the nearest building. Both the Crawly and the Sram ducked for cover, expecting another blast as the figure hit the wall, but were surprised to find that it just bounced right off and fell on the floor, motionless. “Are you kidding me?” the Sram scowled as he picked up one of the stuttering toys and grabbed it’s key. “It’s that easy? You really are…” But before he could finish his sentence, the alley was once again filled with the sounds and sights of violent explosions, knocking the Crawly unconscious this time.

When he regained his senses, his head was still ringing from the blast, but in the back he could hear voices of what he assumed were Brakmarian guards and the soft giggling of the mad bomber. “Oohh, my head,” he uttered as he tried to figure where he was. After a few moments, he jerked as he realized that he hung on the ridge of one of the rooftops surrounding the alley. He clung to the roof tiles and stared into the deep where the guards were investigating the murder scene of two innocent Srams. He slowly crawled away from the ledge when he suddenly felt a foot on his back, pinning him down on the roof: “Well, that was fun,” the Strawcrow giggled, “Now for business: did you bring the goods, shorty?” The Crawly tried to face him, but the masked man pushed him back down. “Y-y-yes, My Lord,” the demon stammered, point at his chest, “I have the plans right here.” “Wonderful!” he exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” He lifted his foot, but before the horned dwarf could move, he grabbed him by his cowl and lifted him so they were eye-to-eye. The Crawly nervously searched the inside of his vest and after a few seconds, produced a cylindrical leather container: “He-he-here you are, M-M-My Lord.” “Perfect!” the Strawcrow laughed as he grabbed the cylinder and tossed the hooded little man as if he were a ragdoll. The Crawly tumbled down and was barely able to hang on to the edge of the rooftop. While he was clawing his way back to the ridge, the masked man studied the contents of the container: “Well, well, this sure looks like the real thing.” He rolled up the scrolls and put them into his haven bag. “So that loony loner actually did it. Ooh boy, this is going to be good!” The scrawny figure was bouncing up and down out of pure excitement, when a weak voice sounded at his feet: “My Lord, we must make sure that the Master doesn’t find out about this.” “You again?” the Strawcrow grunted and he picked up the Crawly by his collar this time. “If the Master learns of my betrayal,” the little one continued, dangling over the rooftop, “he’ll have my head for sure!” “Oh, but don’t you worry,” the Strawcrow said surprisingly soothing while digging through his haven bag with one hand, “I’ll never let awful mister crackpot take your tiny little head…” “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, My Lord,” the Crawly started, but the masked man continued, suddenly vicious: “…because there won’t be enough pieces of you left to fill a flower pot!” He pulled a little stuffed Tofu from his bag, jammed it into the demon’s hands and propelled him back into the alley. On street level, the guards looked at each other as they heard a terrified screaming sound approaching. They then looked up just in time to see the Crawly and his Tofu-bomb explode, filling the alley with a blazing inferno for the third time that night.

The deserts of Kalf-Cil-Fel, a barren wasteland located on one of the many islands that form the remains of the World of Twelve. None of the existing kingdoms had tried to claim this territory, as it was all but sand and rocks from coast to coast, with no natural resources. No life could thrive here, yet in the middle of this no man’s land, a band of three slowly marched through the desert sands to an unknown location: they were the Rho family, consisting of father Pocso, mother Ria and their newborn son Egol. They were Pandawa fugitives ever since their homeland sank beneath the waves of Ogrest's Chaos. With all certainty gone from their previously carefree life, they had adopted the life style of the drifter, always looking for a new safe haven to call their home. But with the birth of their son, doubt had filled their hearts: "Would they ever find a new Pandala? And could they provide for themselves and their son until they did?" That's why they had decided to do right by their son and insure his future in the ever-changing World of Twelve. They had heard of a congregation of Xelors who were dug in deep in the mountains of Kalf-Cil-Fel and who had weathered out the Tempest since the Age of Dofus. This would be the perfect shielded environment for their son to grow up in, but since they themselves would not be allowed inside the monastery, it would mean they would have to abandon him there. And it was this feeling that was starting to sink in as they approached the monastery's main gates. "Are we sure we're doing the right thing?" Ria asked her husband, "Maybe we should still try to raise him according to the ancient traditions?" Pocso sighed: "Pandala is gone. The old masters have disappeared. Our way of life as we knew it has ceased to exist. We alone are not enough to instruct him, Ria." "But if we leave him here, they'll turn him into one of them. He’ll never learn our drinking songs, the exhilaration of a good brawl or the quiet contemplation of a hangover.” Pocso turned to his wife and son and gently embraced them in his arms. As he gently caressed her, he whispered: “I know it’s hard, but we must do what’s best for Egol. Everywhere you look, people seem to struggle for life. We ourselves don’t even know what the next day will bring. This monastery is no KanoJedo, I’ll admit that. But at least it is a place of peace and order away from the chaos of the world. And isn’t that what we want that for our son? A stable home where he can play without having to worry about starvation, floods or roaming bandits?” Ria wiped away her tears as she looked at her baby boy, sleeping peacefully in her arms, amidst his parents’ embrace. “He deserves a better childhood than we can offer him, doesn’t he?” she sniffled and looked pleadingly at her husband, knowing that her bleeding mother’s heart was no match for the overwhelming arguments of a world in ruin.

She fought her oncoming tears and nodded to Pocso, who waited a few more moments before ringing the monastery’s bell. With a subtle flash, the bell transformed into a Sinistro, a small flying Xelor summon. Its eyes flashed and the Pandawas heard a far-off voice seemingly coming from the mouthless creature: “Who are you, strangers, and what business do you have with the Hand of Xelor?” “W…we are Pandawa fugitives and we’ve come to ask a favor of you, good sir.” The eyes flickered some more, but no sound was heard. After a few heartbeats, the Sinistro’s eyes extinguished and it transformed back into a bell. The Pandawas waited a little more and just when they thought they had worn out their welcome, the gates slowly opened. A lonely figure in brown habit, with only his blue glowing eyes visible underneath his cowl, approached them: “Greetings, strangers. Welcome to the Hand of Xelor. Please, come in, before the desert sun breaks through the clouds.” The couple grabbed their few belongings and followed the cloaked figure into the dark corridor of the monastery.

The Pandawas followed their guide uneasily through the many narrow hallways, scarcely greeted by other cloaked monks. Ria and Pocso looked at each other, feeling the other’s doubt growing with every obscure turn they took. But as the approached the central part of the complex, their worries started to wane as the narrow hallways were replaced with open atria filled with indirect sunlight and with many uncloaked monks, practicing the Xelor arts. On one of the squares, Xelors were levitating and teleporting, while on the other one, they were manipulating objects from a distance, making them float or launching them at set targets. After another corridor, they passed by a large room where everything seemed to move in slow motion as several monks were honing their time manipulation skills. From here, their silent guide led them into a large refectory, where most of the tables had been stacked on one end of the cafeteria to make room for another class. The Xelor pointed them to one of the few tables still standing: “I suppose you two are starving. I’ll ask the kitchen to prepare you a meal and see if they can whip something up for the baby.” They tried to protest politely, but the monk continued as if he hadn’t noticed their attempt to interrupt him: “The abbot will come and greet you as soon as possible. Please make yourself comfortable, but do not disturb the lesson.” He made a small bow as only a Xelor can (almost like an automaton) and exited through one of the many doors. The Pandawas sat themselves down on the bench and for the first time since debarking from the ship, they truly relaxed. They leaned against the refectory’s back wall and while Ria tried to soothe little Egol, Pocso observed the class at the other end of the room.

The Xelor had just unrobed and put their habits neatly at the side of the room. Lining up 4 by 4 monks in a perfect square, they faced their instructor. “Very well, brothers and sisters,” the instructor started, “we’ve been training on the one handed combat for some weeks now. It is time to move on to two handed, as the Great Xelor Himself intended us to.” Pocso grinned. He remembered that when he was young, the Xelors’ weapon of choice was the hammer, because it was the weapon the god Xelor wielded and had used to create time. But for some reason, this bunch decided otherwise. “All right,” the teacher continued, “the time is now: summon your weapon!” The Xelor pupils started gesticulating stiffly and with amazing synchrony, 16 almost identical weapons came into existence right before their owners. These weapons, spear-like in appearance, could only be described as the hands of a clock, stuck on 6 o’ clock, with a handle inside the central axis. “All right, first, let’s repeat our exercise from last lesson.” In unison, the Xelors took hold of the floating weapon with one hand and started a pattern of movements with the spear, consisting of swirling, jabbing and blocking. “Hm, not so different from the KanoJedo from back home,” Pocso thought to himself. When all students had finished the exercise, the teacher instructed: “Now, let’s see how good you practiced the new techniques we gave you. Time for Split Second!” On this cue, the Xelor monks grabbed their weapon with both hands and in a short flash, the weapon was turned from a one-handed spear into two separate weapons, with the minute hand being wielded as a sword and the hour hand as a dagger. With both weapons in hand, they turned to the monk next to them and started a second series of exercises, with one attacking the other and the other using one of the hands to block and the other to counterattack. This spectacle of movements was an impressive sight to behold, certainly because all 8 Xelor pairs were performing the attacks synchronously, making them look like copies of one another.

When the clattering of weapons ceased, the instructor held the tension for a few seconds before addressing his pupils: “Very good. You all remembered to synchronize your attacks with the temporal waves from the Great Clock. Excellent work! Now, for today’s lesson, we’ll learn how to use these weapons to compliment our other skills.” He stretched out his hand and called: “Hora Prima!” resulting in a similar spear to appear in his hand. The weapon was obviously more detailed than those of the students and looked like it had seen its fair share of excitement. He held it in front of him with both hands: “As you already know, true manipulation of time and space requires your mind to be completely focused, so it cannot be bothered to spend any of its energy on the wielding of your weapons. Therefore the two hands must become extensions of your body, extensions of your mind. Just like you don’t think about how to use your hands or feet all the time, so should it be with your Hora Prima. Allow me to demonstrate.” With a small flash he disappeared, only to reappear moments later in the same spot, but this time levitating with his arms crossed over his chest and his two weapons rotating around his body as hands on a clock. With another flash, he teleported to one of the corners of the refectory where a straw training dummy stood waiting for him. With a few simple gestures, the weapons started spinning faster and glowing. Then, in what only seemed a second to Pocso, the hour hand extended, pushing the doll into the air, followed by the minute hand that was launched and pierced the doll’s chest. Before anyone could blink, the hand lodged in the straw man started to glow and dissipated, leaving only a few ice crystals and causing the doll’s descent to slow down to a crawl. Simultaneously, the minute hand reappeared in orbit around the Xelor while the hour hand fired an energy beam at the falling dummy, accelerating it back to normal speed and propelling it against the wall. When the remains of the doll hit the floor, the instructor teleported in front of his students with both feet on the ground and his weapons gone again.

Pocso rubbed his eyes, hardly believing what he saw: “Well, that is something else. Maybe the old masters could learn a thing or two here.” “Good day,” a warm but at the same time metallic voice spoke through his train of thoughts, “my name is Kimota. I am the abbot of this monastery. I have asked the kitchen to take your meals to a more serene location. Please follow me.” The abbot guided them back to one of the atria they had passed with their previous guide, with the only difference that it now was devoid of monks. “It is the hour of prayer at the Great Clock,” the abbot explained as they sat down under the porch surrounding the courtyard. “Here, we take the commitment to our God very serious. Now, I’ve been told that you had a request...” Savoring the sober meal the monks provided, Pocso and Ria told the abbot about the disappearance of their land, their search for a new home and the hardships they endured on their path. The Xelor listened politely, nodding from time to time, until the couple finished their tale with their arrival at the monastery. “The World of Twelve has indeed become a most chaotic place to live in since the Ogre’s ascension of Mount Zinit. Thank the gods that they’ve tried to provide for us survivors to the best of their extent.”

“Yes,” Pocso continued uneasily, “now that’s where our request comes in.” Ria squeezed her husband’s hand. “You must understand,” he gulped, “it is with a heavy heart that we ask this favor of you. We feel that we no longer can provide for our little boy in this pandemonium of a world.” “That’s why,” Ria cut in, “we would appreciate it very much if we could leave our little Egol in the secure care of your order.” The abbot seemed to consider this for a moment: “This would not be the first time that we would take newborns into our ranks, but most of the time, they are left at our doorstep, with no proof of who they or their parents are.” He stared at them intensely: “you do realize that we will teach him in the way of our order? He will become a full-fledged member of the Hand of Xelor and a follower of our god. There will be no way back later. The path of Pandawa will be forever closed to him.” The Pandawas looked at each other and nodded: “We understand. But the survival and happiness of our son are more important than the continuation of our religion or traditions.” “You most love your son very much to make such sacrifice,” the abbot commented, “And I promise you that we will take good care of your son. The Hand of Xelor does not forsake its followers, but we are no secretive cult either, so you are welcome to contact or visit your son as much as you like. We have missionary posts all over the World of Twelve, so if you want to write, they will make sure your letters reach him here.” The abbot got up and stroked little Egol, who had fallen asleep again: “I will send for two of our sisters to accompany you to Egol’s living quarters. They will be responsible for his care the first years of his life, so do not hesitate to question or advise them.” The old –as far this is applicable to Xelors– monk bowed and left the couple to enjoy the company of their son for a little longer.

Gnashville, a run-down town located on the outer edge of the Brakmar volcano. While most of the town was built on the white cliffs rising high above the ocean’s waves, there were a few houses and docks constructed at the bottom of the cliff, serving as one of the harbors supplying Brakmar with the necessary goods from other islands. As farming is a rare profession in the volcanic kingdom, the importance of its harbors grew exponentially with the increase of the Brakmarian population and a lot of effort and kamas were put in the expansion of these makeshift docks. The Brakmarian builders, in their enthusiasm, had gone as far as excavating the bottom of the cliffs. This resulted in the collapse of a part of the rock formation and the disappearance of a few of the Gnashville residents, temporary bringing the harbor expansion to a halt and separating the newly built piers underneath the town from the rest of the docks. These desolate docks quickly became a safe haven for the local rodent population and were swarming with rats, ratous and even skeleton rats. The critters had a found a way through the debris and used the cave-like space to take a moment’s rest from the incessant hunting of their kind by just about everyone above them in the food chain. But it seemed that even their new lair would not offer them the peace they sought, as the sea water suddenly started to glow and bubble, softly at first, but more intense by the minute. Not knowing if the bubbles were friend or foe, the rodents did what rats do best and hightailed out of their compromised sanctuary as fast as they had entered it.

Just as the last rat left the docks, a metal pod the size of a small row boat breached the surface, featuring an illuminated porthole on its front, a hatch on top and a rudder-propeller combination on its rear. After bobbing aimlessly between the docks for a few minutes, the light from inside extinguished and the hatch opened with a loud squeaking noise, revealing a young green-haired man wearing a blue naval uniform with white hems and a little pince-nez. He scanned the environment, apparently looking for something specific and after a while, started to grumble to himself: “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that fool. How could I be so stupid to trust a man in a mask?” He was about to re-enter his pod when a soft chuckle was heard above the sound of the waves: “Shame on you, Ye of little faith!” The pod passenger spun around and revealed a Feca gear on his right arm, summoning a bubble of water around him and his vehicle. “Now, now, Professor, not so jumpy,” a voice jested from the shadows. The Feca dismissed his magical shield and composed himself: “It’s merely ‘assistant’ for now, Strawcrow, as you very well know. But that might all change in the very near future. That is, if you held your part of the bargain, of course.” He disembarked and approached the figure in the shadows when suddenly two figures fell from the ceiling onto the pier, blocking his path. They both were about as tall as the strawcrow man but certainly not as scrawny. They were dressed in similar rags, with the only difference that one of them wore a Pumpkin head, as seen on Al Howlin, and the other one wore a Shafer cranium instead of the jute strawcrow mask. “So where do you think you’re going?” the Pumpkin head spoke as he produced a large hammer from behind his back. “Yeah,” the Skull head spoke, wielding a formidable axe with both his hands, “no one talks to the boss without first talking to us.” Before the Feca could react, a loud cackle was hear from behind the bodyguards, followed by the Strawcrow jumping in between them and shoving them both from the pier. “Heckle! Jeckle! You lugnuts!” he shouted as his henchmen hit the water, “Doctor Knarf is our friend. He is the one that will make all our dreams come true,” he continued in softer tone. “And besides, talking to you two is about as useful as petting a rock.” The two masked men splashed and fluttered in the salty water as they tried to remain afloat without losing their weapon.

“I dare not imagine what your dreams are,” the spectacled man said disdainful as the strawcrow man put his arm around his shoulder. “Oh, you know, doc, I just want to put a smile on everyone’s face.” With his face only inches from that of the Strawcrow, the Feca noticed for the first time that where the mouth of the mask was stitched, its wearer had painted a thin, red smile over it. “Is that… human blood?” The masked man almost seemed flattered: “Oh, you like it? I thought: if you want to change the world, start with yourself.” Knarf looked at him disgusted: “You truly are insane.” “Maybe so,” the Strawcrow laughed, “but at least I’m a strawcrow of my word.” He produced the cylindrical container from his haven bag and dangled it before the Feca’s eyes. “Isn’t this what you were looking for?” Knarf snatched the container from his hands: “Give me that!” As he went through the scrolls, he’s eyes gleamed with delight. “This is it! This is the missing piece I was looking for! Now, with a few adjustments, we…” As he noticed the three strawcrow men staring at him, he recomposed himself, trying to hide his obvious excitement. “I must say, Strawcrow, this certainly exceeds my expectations. It would have taken us decades to come up with these solutions.” “Oh, I’m glad to hear that, doctor. After all, we had to take quite some risks in acquiring these scrolls,” the Strawcrow said in a serious tone of voice. The Feca sighed: “Is this were you start haggling and tell me that is worth twice the kamas you were promised? Because really, Strawcrow, I…” But before he could finish his sentence, the strawcrow man leapt at him in sudden rage, grabbed his vest with one hand and lifted him a few inches of the ground. “Money?!” he almost screamed, “You think I’m in this for the money?” He hoisted the startled man over his pod and dropped him in the hatch. “You pitiful, narrow-minded human!” He jumped on the pod and leaned inside. “You know our deal” he hissed while the Feca tried to recover from his fall, “And if I find you backing out of that deal…” He let the silence linger for a few heartbeats, then slowly retracted his head. “Well, let’s just say you do not want to go there.” As sudden it came, the threat from his voice vanished again: “Now, I suppose you have lots of tinkering to do, so don’t let us hold you.” He slammed the hatch shut and jumped back on the pier, while inside the Feca franticly tried to lock the hatch and start his submarine simultaneously. After a few failed attempts, the small pod lit up and disappeared in a cloud of bubbles and gurgles. The Strawcrow watched the light and bubbles of the pod slowly disappear in the murky depths of the ocean, then turned to his soaked henchman and said in a cheery voice: “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”

Chapter 1

In the monastery, Egol grew up to become a fine young man, unaware of the Tempest that still razed the world outside. He learned the way of the Xelor and regulated his ‘inner clock’ to the ever present tick and tock of the Great Clock of Xelor, buried deep in the mountainside, in the deepest levels of the monastery. According to the scriptures, the Clock had run continuously since the dawn of the order when the first monks witnessed the god Xelor himself sculpt the Great Clock out of the mountainside rock with his divine hammer. The first time Egol had been allowed to behold the Clock in its all glory was at his mummification ceremony. This is a ritual in the order which all novices have to go through before they are allowed to pray at the Great Clock. It consists of the novices being completely mummified, face and all, by the other monks. They are then led by their brothers and sisters to the hall of the Clock where they have to prove their devotion by offering a day of their time to the clock. This is achieved by transferring enough of their time into the great Needle, effectively freezing themselves in time. What seems like a mere second to them is 24 hours for the rest of the world. This experience can be very daunting the first time, so that is why the novices are blindfolded with their newly acquired bandages. If they succeed, their faces are cut free and they receive their Xelor armor. If they fail, they’re guided back to the monastery blindfolded, are freed from their bandages and are allowed to try again with the next mummification ceremony. Egol was only ten when he participated in the ritual and was one of the youngest novices ever to succeed on their first trial. This feat gained him much respect in the congregation and by the time he reached the age of twenty, he was one of the most gifted pupils the Hand of Xelor had in their ranks. Therefore it did not take the Elders long to select Egol Rho to become one of their missionaries, the next step to becoming a senior monk in the order. His mission: to head out in to the World of Twelve to convince others to change their ways and join the Hand of Xelor. Normally, most monks would stay at the monastery until they were at least thirty years of age before being sent into the world, but the abbot believed they could not ignore Egol Rho’s abilities. For his mission, he was appointed a personal Sinistro called Platine as a companion and a communication link with the Monastery, as Sinistros are able to travel the corridors between time and space. The rest of his equipment issued by the Order consisted of a Haven Bag, a brown cowl against the desert heat and a large pocket watch which was able to store small amounts of time, similar to a Xelor Dial. All the followers of the Hand of Xelor use it to ‘collect’ time and offer it to the Great Clock of Xelor. The only personal belongings Egol took with him for his journey were all the letters his parents had written him and the drawing one of the sisters had made of him with his parents when they last visited him, almost 5 years ago. After that, Egol had received no more letters or no more Sinistro-calls from them. Fearing the worst, he secretly hoped to find out more about their sudden disappearance on his mission through the World of Twelve.

Egol started his journey with great anticipation, as he had not seen the outside world since his arrival at the monastery and he was very eager to show the inhabitants of the World of Twelve the Way of Xelor, so he could enlighten them just as he had been. But nothing in the monastery could have prepared him for what he met there: the scorching trip through the desert was but the tip of the iceberg that is the World of Twelve. Imagine his surprise when the desert suddenly halted and became an ocean. His path blocked by the endless water, he looked around him and noticed a small shack a bit further down the beach. Before checking out the little hut, he told Platine to conceal herself, as she could scare the locals. With one little affirmative click, the Sinistro transformed in a Tofu, undistinguishable from the other pudgy yellow birds populating the World of Twelve, except for the ticking sound she made. As he approached the hut, he noticed different wares on display and a white banner with a big blue W hanging lifelessly on the side. It had all the appearances of a small stall, but with no other signs of life anywhere to be seen, it look rather out of place. When he came within arm’s reach of the goods, a strange little man suddenly popped up from inside the cart: “Welcome, valued customer, to BMW! Beach Market Wally, that is, part of the Wally Maart Corporation, where we have low prices, always!” With his cheap knock-off pioneer costume, hat and all, and his big red beard, the storekeeper looked a bit like a leprechaun that had outgrown his brethren. “So, what can I interest you in, my good man? Maybe some fresh fish? Such a trip through the desert would make even the most ascetic monk a bit peckish. Or maybe a sip of ‘Essence de Chardonnay’? It will fix those dried lips and throat for you and will make the mirages to come look that much more appealing.” Egol tried to intervene, but the man was obviously on a roll. “But hey, if you’re not in the mood for a picnic, why not work on your style? The cowl and cloak combo is so last year. So why don’t you add some class to your looks with this nifty straw hat, with the added bonus that it will guard you from the sun’s blistering heat, because, boy, it sure is hot here! Speaking about hot, what about this necklace? It’s adorned with a beautifully cut Kralamulet, letting the ladies out there know that you’re a man who wears his heart on his chest. Beware, this works on female Kraloves as well.” Egol and Platine looked at each other and decided that there was no further point in staying. Egol politely pushed away the necklace the shopkeeper was dangling it a few inches from his face and started to walk away.

But before they had made one step, the man had slipped out of his shack and was standing next to Egol: “Oh, come now. Is there nothing old Wally can sell you? I even have maps of the desert.” He pulled out a blank scroll and showed it to the Xelor smilingly. “No, really,” Egol tried again, “the Hand of Xelor has provided me with everything I need. By the way, I don’t have any kamas on me.” Wally’s tone and expression suddenly changed: “Oh. Well, if that’s the case, I won’t hold you any longer. Happy trails and don’t forget Wally’s Market when you have earned some money.” Egol tried to respond, but the Enutrof was already back in his shop, putting back the wares he had shown. “No, wait,” Egol suddenly realized, “there may be one thing you could do for me.” “Without any kamas?” Wally grumbled, “I don’t think so.” “That fish you showed me. Where did you get it?” The shopkeeper stared at him for a few seconds in disbelief. “Boy, look around you. We’re on an enormous beach, right next to an even bigger ocean. You do the math.” “No, what I meant,” Egol said as the Enutrof resumed his work, “is that I’m looking for safe passage to one of the three nations.” “Three?” Wally raised his eyebrow, “little monk, how long have you been locked up in that monastery of yours?” Egol considered this, but Wally did not wait for his answer: “Oh, never mind. If you keep following the shoreline towards the east, you’ll find a small fishermen’s village. Maybe there you can convince someone to take you on board, for free.” These last words obviously left a bitter taste in the Enutrof’s mouth as he gave a little shudder before continuing with setting up his shop. Egol started to leave, but then thought of something: “Say, mister Maart, why does anyone decide to set up shop…” “No more freebies!” the shopkeeper yelled and smacked his shutters shut. For a moment Egol considered apologizing for not buying anything, but not seeing the point, he started to follow the desert beach until he reached the small outpost, just as Wally had told him. It consisted of several small huts and one rackety pier. The little harbor was deserted, but the huts seemed as they were being lived in from time to time. But judging from the clutter, the inhabitants were more interested in keeping their food within arm’s reach of their hammock than in tidiness and personal hygiene. Egol, exhausted from his daylong walk, sat himself down by the pier and promptly fell asleep in the peaceful glow of the setting sun.

Unlike the calm beach, the air of the Sufokian war room was rife with tension. This kind of meetings had been occurring with increasing frequency of late, but with decreasing efficiency. They all knew the problem at hand, but none knew the answer. Sufokian King Beesmark stared at his council, eyeing each of them individually for a heartbeat before moving on to the next. They were his most trusted advisors, ready to give everything they’ve got for their nation, but for the moment they looked more like little schoolchildren about to be punished, not daring to meet his gaze. Only his son, the young Prince Adale sitting at his right hand side, kept stirring his cup stoically. “So, this is it?” he asked into the silence, “This is how the toiling and hardship of the generations before us will be rewarded? Not with a shining city above the waves, but with a drowned ruin in the deep?” Koky Seinjack, the treasurer of Sufokia, was the first who dared to respond, albeit with a slight quiver in his voice: “Now, Your Majesty, our situation is not that dire. The numbers just state that if we maintain our current energy consumption,” he pointed at the papers spread on the central table, “we will run out of resources in more or less 9 months time. But if we cut back on all non-vital activities, we might be able…” “Cut back?!” Admiral Belvu intervened, “What would you have my men do? Empty all our submarines’ Stasis reservoirs and start paddling?” General Mofette tried to calm his friend: “Come now, Omar. He was not referring to the navy in particular. We will all have to make sacrifices to keep our kingdom up and running.” “Up and running?” King Beesmark, obviously agitated by the general’s choice of words, remarked. “Our goal, dear General, is not to keep Sufokia dangling by a thread over the abyss of oblivion. The sea levels are dropping for the first time since centuries, our former kingdom is rising above the water again and we are not there to nurture and guide it. Soon, if we would try to reclaim our former land, the New Sufokians will see us as invaders and repel us! We must be present at this rebirth of our nation.” “Your Majesty,” Prime Minister Buya Beize calmly spoke, “as you all know, first contacts have been made with the current government of New Sufokia and without revealing too much about our city’s predicament, we’ve been able to secure some guarantees about our migration to the main land.” The admiral protested: “But that would be as refugees! Not as the proud Sufokians that have survived for centuries beneath the waves, preserving our culture, our heritage!” Buya nodded politely. “Indeed, Admiral, but the alternative would be to tell the whole world that we had an entire city on the bottom of the ocean for years but failed to preserve it. And now, after a millennium of hiding from the world, we come knocking at their door, pleading them to take us in. Where is the honor in that?”

Next to him, Prince Adale felt his father tremble with rage. “We did not fail!” the king thundered as he slammed the table with the flat of his hand. “And Sufokia does not beg! We will raise this city and regain our former place in the world!” The prime minister, together with the rest of the war room, were taken aback by this reaction: “No, of course not, Your Majesty. This exodus is but a contingency plan for the worst case scenario.” Seinjack came to his college’s aid: “As we speak, Your Majesty, we are putting all our efforts in finding new sources of Stasili. We have even started up trade routes to import the mineral from other nations.” “Trade routes,” General Mofette grumbled disdainfully, “more like a smuggling network. If the other nations would learn that we are robbing them of this precious ore, it would give them reason enough to start an outright war against us! And who could blame them? We should concentrate our efforts on our own excavation. Our deep sea mining has been producing Stasili at a constant pace lately and the latest reports indicate that our scouts are on the verge of unearthing a new vein.” The treasurer grabbed one of the papers on the table and pointed to a graph showing a sharply ascending line crossing a steady climbing line : “That won’t be enough, General. Our numbers show that it is not only the acquirement of new fuel that poses a problem, but also -and maybe even more so- our energy consumption. This has gone up exponentially in the last years while the inflow, as you stated yourself, General, remains more or less the same, with a slightly stronger growth the last year due to our own underwater mining operations. Simply put: our energy demand is too high for our current supplies.”

“Now that’s a problem we’ve been addressing for some time now,” Admiral Belvu said with renewed vigor. “Our research department keeps spewing out fancy new technology without taking into account their massive Stasis consumption.” “But that’s only side of the story,” Vidar Mofette intervened, “The flipside of the coin is that these new devices have also allowed us to explore new regions and even enabled us to find Stasili on the bottom of the sea. Ten years ago, this was unthinkable. I’ve also read in their rapports that they did not ignore our advice: for the last months their focus has shifted towards alternative energy sources and the renewal of energy. I still have faith that our greatest minds will find us a way out of this impasse.” “But will it be enough?” Koky Seinjack sighed, “As the forecasts are now, this research seems too little, too late.” “And we must not forget, over the years our city’s systems have been augmented with their inventions,” Buya Beize continued, “to improve our life’s standard, for sure, but now they’ve become such an integral part of our infrastructure that removing them is nigh impossible. We cannot reduce our city’s energy consumption, even if we wanted to.”

“All right,” the king said, seemingly calmed down, “we won’t find the solution to our problem here today, as was to be expected. But now we have learned that there is not one clear-cut path out of this threatening storm, but rather several different routes, all veiled in doubt. But we would be foolish fishermen should we concentrate on only one of them. Throw out all our nets and let us try to catch as many as we can!” He turned his gaze towards Belvu and Mofette. “Gentlemen, all military activity is to be reduced to the bare minimum and all spare soldiers are to be assigned to the mining operation. We must double our efforts to uncover those new Stasili veins. General, I want you to coordinate this mission. Do not come back before every grain of Stasili has been extracted from the bottom of the sea.” “Yes sir, Your Majesty,” Vidar saluted in his seat. The admiral tried to interject, but King Beesmark beat him to it: “Admiral, I’m putting you in charge of our research department. You are free to use whatever means disposable to further and speed up their developments. Make sure that they do not put all their effort in this energy consumption problem though, because when the time is right, our city must be ready for ‘Operation Breach’ as well. The importance of this vital part of our plans cannot be underestimated.” Omar Belvu saluted, but Prince Adale noticed that he slumped slightly in his chair. He obviously did not agree with the king’s approach, but this could not dampen Beesmark’s spirit: “Prime Minister, you will contact New Sufokia’s governor and start negotiations through him with the other nations and kingdoms. Maybe we can convince some of them to aid us in our plight or at least solidify our trade network.” “This might not be so easy, Your Majest…” “No one said it would be easy, Mister Beize,” the king interrupted, “As I stated before, we do not expect to reel in every fish, but if we don’t cast our hooks, we’ll be shark bait for sure.” The prime minister nodded concededly. Next to him, Koky the treasurer gave the king an expecting look. “For you, Mister Seinjack, my orders are to fortify and expand our import of Stasili. We must address every available source to its fullest extent.” General Mofette stirred again in his seat: “Your Majesty, are you honestly saying that on one hand, we must try to contact the other nations to get them to trade their Stasili with us, while on the other hand, we’ll keep smuggling it out of their countries? This move could blow up in our faces faster than a Don Puffnando on a hot beach.”

“We cannot risk to play it safe, old friend,” Beesmark said in an almost melancholic voice, “our nation’s future hangs in the balance. We will pay the piper after we have preserved our way of life for future generations.” He stood up from the table and walked to the curtain covering one side of the room. He pulled it away, revealing a large porthole looking out over the sunken city of Sufokia. The city was riddled with lights and portholes, illuminating the bottom and the surrounding waters and attracting many kinds of fish and plant life. “It’s hard to imagine that now almost a thousand years ago, our forefathers fought against the upcoming waters of the Ogrest’s Floods and managed to keep our city alive, even when it was swallowed whole by the violent torrents. And how they kept its heart beating with pumps and bellows, not fed by this devil’s ore, but powered by the people themselves, who worked around to clock to preserve their nation rather than abandon it and flee to safety.” The councilmen looked at each other, not daring to interrupt their monarch. “No, gentlemen, we cannot allow their legacy to be swallowed by the deep. We’ve fought the sea for a millennium now and we cannot let it win! Even if it costs us our very souls, Sufokia will rise!” All men except the prince stood up and shouted: “Hail Sufokia!” The king stared at his advisors, recognizing again the men who had done anything to support him and who would go to great lengths to protect their kingdom. He knew in his heart that this was not the honorable way out, but as a Snapper caught in a net, they were struggling with every last ounce of their strength to escape their seemingly inevitable fate. “Thank you, my friends. Now, go forth and save Sufokia!” The men bowed or saluted and left the war room, each with their own impression of the decisions made that meeting.

As the general closed the door behind him, Prince Adale took a last sip from his cup of now lukewarm beverage: “Stirring speech, Father.” Beesmark was staring out the porthole again and did look away, but only asked: “You disapprove, Adale?” The prince stood up: “Certainly not, Father. I just don’t know if each of your confidants will fulfill his assigned task with the same enthusiasm.” “You are referring to Admiral Belvu?” “And Prime Minister Beize as well,” Adale explained as he joined his father by the window, “Neither of them seemed very eager with the instructions you gave them.” “Omar and Buya have served Sufokia with extreme loyalty and zest all these years. I trust them to do right by Sufokia, even it goes against their own judgment. They understand the sacrifice I requested from them. Don’t go doubting your subjects, my son, or you will end up paranoid and alone.” The prince bowed as his father strode out the door, leaving him alone with this latest bit of parental wisdom. “Don’t trust your friends blindly either, Father, or you will end up with a knife in your back,” he answered into the silence.

Awoken by the blistering heat of the desert sun and subtle prodding of Platine, Egol discovered that he had slept all through the night at the pier. Judging by the temporal waves coming from the Great Clock of Xelor, it was about 10 in the morning. Sadly enough, except for the sizzling sound of the sea evaporating on the hot sand, the village looked exactly the same as the day before: still no sign of the inhabitants. Egol’s stomach was growling: in the monastery, you could set your watch with the serving of the meals. Or rather, the meals were set to the tick of the Great Clock. Exactly on the tick of 6:00 a.m., 12:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., the meals were teleported onto the tables (the cook was Xelor too, naturally). Not willing to risk stopping in the middle of the desert yesterday, Egol had skipped both his meals. This may seem a trifle matter, but for a Xelor it requires a great deal of will power to ignore his daily routine. As he had also skipped the tick of breakfast, he decided to collect some time from the local fauna. Luckily, the beach beneath the pier was swarming with crabs and the fish populating the shallow waters attracted some Albatrociouses. The animals hardly noticed it as Egol slowed them down for a few seconds, collecting their ‘time’ in his pocket watch.

The young Xelor got so enveloped in his task that he didn’t even notice the small barge approaching the settlement. “Hey hoodie!” someone suddenly yelled, “What do you think you’re doing, messing with that Albatrocious!? You want to bring misfortune on our hovel?” Egol jumped so hard that he tripped over his own feet and fell flat on the sand, scaring the birds away. As he collected himself, he heard a few voices coming from the boat, laughing out loud. Dusting all the sand from his cloak, he approached the ship as it was moored to the pier. Its crew consisted of a few scruffy looking men, still laughing in their sleeves, and one burly female, singlehandedly tying the boat to the bollards. She gave him one sideways glance and muttered under her breath: “Great, one of them zealots again.” She jumped back on board, grabbed her duffel bag and jumped off again. Egol gave her a questioning look (which is very hard to do when you’re wearing a face covering mask) as she passed him and kept staring at her as she entered one the huts. “Don’t mind Ega,” said the Osamodas while grabbing his own bag, “she may a bit tougher than your run-of-the-mill Sacrier, but somewhere deep inside that busty chest is buried a heart of gold.” “But don’t you think of digging up that treasure,” the Iop added, slapping his Eniripsa crewmate mockingly, “little Sekito here tried it once and he’s still recovering from his bruises.” The Eniripsa pushed him away: “Only because you shoved me, Thur! I couldn’t help it that I landed face down on her bosom!” The Iop burst once again into laughter as the Eniripsa stroked his chin grimacing: “My head is still ringing from the beating she gave me.” As the two crewmates kept bickering, the Osamodas captain put his hand on Egol’s shoulder and guided him towards the huts: “Never mind them either. They’ve been on the sea for too long. So what’s your name, stranger?”

While Egol told him of the monastery and his mission, they entered the largest of the huts. The dimly lit interior was filled mostly with fishing equipment, but in one of the corners, kept clear of nets and harpoons, there stood a wooden table with some small stools and a cabinet. As they sat down at the table, the Iop stormed in, carrying the squirming Eniripsa over one shoulder and their two duffel bags over the other one. “Thur, you blundering blockhead!” scowled the captain, “take your business outside! We’re trying to have a civilized conversation here!” “But, cap’n,” the Iop tried, but one glare from the Osamodas was enough for him to drop everything and leave, followed a little later by the Eniripsa, who had picked himself from the floor. While the Osamodas searched the cabinet for his hidden stash, he told the Xelor that his full name was Captain Cin O’Card and that he and his crew were Sufokian fishermen who earned their kamas by selling their catches to merchants in Bonta and Amakna. This puzzled Egol, as he had learned that only three nations had survived the floods: Bonta, Brakmar and Amakna. According to legacy, Sufokia had been swallowed whole by Ogrest’s Tempest. “Well, don’t believe everything you read in books, son,” Cin started to explain, “in the last decades, a few peninsulas of our former nation have resurfaced and the Sufokians have started to build their villages anew on the ruins of their old kingdom. We’re a peace-loving fisher folk with no real interest in politics, so that’s maybe why our nation hasn’t attracted much attention from the other nations yet.” Egol found this all very fascinating: “I would love to see the resurfaced buildings of a 1000-year old civilization. And these new towns would be a perfect place to start preaching the Word of Xelor.” “Well, I don’t know if you’ll find many interested souls among us fishermen. We have our own gods to believe in. And besides, except for fishing, our favorite pastime is centered around our hammock. The villages have already attracted a few craftsmen and farmers, but they’re all too busy with their daily lives to have any time for … time! Time keeping may be interesting in big cities or science, but on Sufokia, we don’t really live by the clock.”

The captain gave him a little grin as he swilled his drink and refilled his glass. “I suppose you Xelor don’t drink?” Cin asked as he noticed the untouched glass on the table. “Oh no,” Egol explained, “it is strictly forbidden in the monastery as it is told to hamper your ability to sense the temporal waves coming from the Great Clock. You know, at home, the ticks and tocks resonated in my head loud and clear, but here, only a day’s march removed from the Clock, they are but subtle clicks in the back of my mind.” He let out a soft sigh. Being a missionary was not going to be as easy as he had anticipated. “No wonder so many of your wrapped-up buddies go bonkers,” the captain remarked, “if I had a ticking in my head all day long, I’d throw myself overboard. Or drown it out.” He swiveled his drink before gulping it down with one swift motion. “But hey, if you want to go to Sufokia, we can take you. But mind you, I’ll have no idle hands on my ship. Every man, woman and pet has to pull his weight on my boat,” he said while glancing sideways at Platine, who clicked nervously on Egol’s shoulder. Egol confirmed the captain that both he and Platine will do their best to aid the crew on their trip. “That’s the spirit, lad!” Cin exclaimed, slightly intoxicated, and he slapped Egol on the shoulder. “We’ll stay here for a day or two to recover and then we’ll be setting sail for home. So gather your strength these next days, because you’re going to need it.”

Egol left the captain to his drinking and went to look for a suitable place to stay until their departure. He noticed Sekito sitting on the porch of one of the smaller huts, healing his wounds as only Eniripsas can, and approached him. “Oh, hello,” he said when Egol greeted him and put away his brush/wand. “We haven’t been formally introduced. My name is Sekito i Bitna, cabin boy and general punching bag,” he winced. The Xelor sat himself down next to Sekito on the porch. “Don’t let the others intimidate you, though. Thur Becrofal and Ega Wutat may be the ‘punch-first-think-later’ kind of types, but they’re the best crew mates you can imagine. Once you’ve earned their trust, they would take on a Bwork for you… and they’d probably win too,” Sekito smiled. “So, what brings you to this remote part of the world?” Again Egol told the tale of his upbringing and the mission he received before his departure from the monastery. “Ah, you’re one of those cult guys,” Sekito joked, “Ega told me that they took a female member of your order on board a few months ago. Apparently, she didn’t like him one bit.” “That I noticed,” Egol said, “she gave me a rather cold stare on your arrival. But I think I might know that Xelor personally. Did anything happened that trip that made Ega so resentful against us?” “Not that I know of,” Sekito admitted, “she just said that her praying freaked her out and that it was bad luck to take ‘one of their kind’ on board. She told me that she went on shore in Bonta and they haven’t heard from her since.” “Quanti…” Egol mumbled staring at the horizon. As Egol fell silent, the Eniripsa tried to cheer him up: “She friend of yours? From what I heard from Thur, she was quite a looker. Maybe you can look her up when we arrive in Bonta.” Sekito nudged his companion with his elbow. This brought Egol back from his dream: “Bonta? I thought we were going to Sufokia? The captain told me you guys would drop me of at Sufokia.” “Oh, that strange. Normally, we first pass Bonta and Amakna before we...” Suddenly, Sekito was grabbed by long, black tendrils coming from within his hut. “Oh no…” was the last thing the Eniripsa could utter before the tentacles pulled him into the hut. Egol stared into the hut and heard the soft sound of beating, but before he could react, Ega appeared in the doorway: “You ask too many questions, mummy.” Egol tried to defend himself, but his voice got stuck in his throat as she loomed over him. He jumped off the porch as she was about to walk over him. Not giving him a second look, she walked over to the captain’s cabin. Egol watched her a bit longer when Platine suddenly clicked from within Sekito’s hut. He then remembered the poor Eniripsa and headed inside, where he found Sekito slouched in a corner, knocked-out. He tried to wake him but to no avail, so he picked him up and dragged him to his hammock. When he finally got him in, he heard the Sacrier shouting in the captain’s hut. He caught a few of the words, but decided it was not worth the trouble and sat himself down next to the Eniripsa’s hammock.

He dug into his haven bag for his first meal since his departure as he felt the temporal wave of twelve o’clock resonate inside his head. As a Xelor’s face is completely covered with a mask, they use their powers to teleport the food inside their mouth. This is more complex as it sounds, as the slightest miscalculation of the size or position of the morsel of food can lead to serious damage to the Xelor’s mouth. But a full-fledged monk prefers this to lifting his mask, an integral part of their outfit. He then thought of something. “Platine?” he called out to his familiar, “can you contact the monastery?” The Sinistro clicked affirmative and transformed back into her original form. Her eyes started to glow more intensely when a voice sounded from a distance: “Egol?” Egol’s heart jumped at the sound of a familiar voice: “Master Q, is that you? Am I glad to hear you.” Master Q was one of the senior monks of the monastery. His real name was rumored to Quentin Artz, but since he disliked that name, he had adopted the acronym Q at his mummification ceremony. He had been one of Egol Rho’s tutors and had become one of his closest friends in the order. “Are you all right, Egol? It’s only been a day since your departure. Are you already homesick?” “No, Master, don’t worry,” Egol confirmed him, “but I was just wondering about something. I’ve run in some fishermen on the shores of our island who claim to have met Quanti. They even gave her a lift to Bonta city.” “Really?” Q’s voice sounded distrustful, “we have not heard from Quanti since her departure here at the monastery.” “That’s what I thought,” Egol said, “but could you do me a favor and contact our congregation in Bonta. Maybe she’s been there, but just didn’t contact us. She always was a tough nut.” It was obvious from Q’s voice that he didn’t quite believed this, but he went along anyway: “Very well, I’ll contact our brothers and sisters in Bonta and I’ll let you know as soon as I find something.” Thank you, Master. I would greatly appreciate it.” “Now be careful, Egol,” Q advised, “remember that there are many dangers in the World of Twelve. And not all of them bare their fangs at first sight. Some of them wait until you reveal your weak spot and then they strike. Do not let your guard down, my brother.” “Don’t worry, Q,” Egol comforted him, but before he could say anything else, Thur’s voice boomed through the door: “What did you do to my buddy?!”

Startled by the roar, Platine turned back into a Tofu with a little flash right before the Iop came barging through the door. “You knocked him out?! That’s my job!” Egol jumped up and held out the palm of his hands, trying to calm him down: “Now listen, Thur, I wouldn’t touch Sekito. We were just talking when Ega dragged him in and gave him a thrashing.” The brute was snorting inches away from Egol’s face, when slowly his expression changed as his brain caught up with the Xelor’s words. He smiled: “That sounds like Ega all right! The little shrimp was staring at her chest again, ey?” he grinned. Egol shrugged as the tension in the room slowly unwound. Thur plumped himself down on a heap of duffel bags and fishing nets and stretched himself noisily. “So, what are you eating?” he asked, looking at the ceiling. “Oh, these are just some rations the Hand of Xelor gave me to get through the first days.” “Smells nice. Can I have a bite?” Egol scaled the size of his rations, then the bulk of Thur Becrofal and sighed uneasily: “Sure. But I don’t know if Xelor food will be to your liking.” He gave him a morsel of meat which the Iop carelessly grabbed and threw into his mouth. He seemed to chew on it forever before he was able to speak again: “ … man, that meat’s tough. Do you mummify your meat as well?” “Oh no,” Egol told him, “but we believe that if you don’t take the time to enjoy your meal, it is a waste of time. Therefore our cooks make sure that we have to spend a lot of time on food and are not tempted to rush through.” Thur got up as he finally swallowed his piece of meat. “Man, that cost me all my spit,” he said lip-smacking, “Time for a beer!”

Egol quietly continued his lunch while the big sailor started rummaging through a pile of stuff in the corner of the cabin. The Xelor and his Sinistro disguised as Tofu had to duck and cover several times as Thur launched the clutter all over the room in search for his liquid treasure. “A-ha!” he shouted and lifted a beer keg over his head, “here it is!” He dumped the little barrel in between Egol and Sekito, but even this ruckus wasn’t enough the wake the latter. Thur picked up a beer mug from between some harpoons, blew of the dust and filled it at the keg’s tap. He gulped down the mug in one big swig and finished by wiping the foam of his big Iop smile: “Aahh, now that’s what a man really needs after weeks at sea! Well, one of the things he needs.” He grinned at Egol, but when he got no response, he turned his attention to the knocked-out cabin boy. He grabbed him by the back of the neck and held him under the tap, pushing the tip in Sekito’s mouth. “This will get you back on your legs, little man,” he laughed and he opened the faucet. Beer was already trickling out of the corners of the Eniripsa’s mouth before he came to, almost suffocating in the beer. By the time Sekito finally managed to stop coughing and sputtering, his eyes were already glazed over and a dumb grin adorned his face. “Buddy!” he blurted out and he fell into Thur’s arms.

Egol decided that was a good time to leave the friends to their drinking and headed out again. Back on the beach, he noted that Ega had apparently calmed down as well, because the captain’s hut had gone silent. He wondered to himself if she had beaten him to a pulp as well: The expression ‘punch-first-think-later’ type did not even begin to subscribe this female Sacrier. Egol could not shake the impression that there was more to her then she let on. But whatever it was, she was obviously not content with his presence in their settlement or him being a passenger on their ship. Maybe she knew more about what happened to Quanti. But Egol had had enough of detective work for now and went down to the pier for some praying and time collecting in the hope this would clear his head.

Crusty Road: a fortified town amidst the rolling fields of Amakna. The combination of a relative safe haven within the town walls combined with a small harbor and an abundance of natural resources right outside the walls have made this town into a thriving trading center, attracting many artisans, cooks and bakers. The streets are always buzzing with activity and from within the many taverns, the smell of freshly baked bread and cooked dishes lure in the many customers. In between the crowd looking for a nice meal or a good buy walked a tiny, hooded man about the size of a four-year old. But despite his stature, the man seemed to stand out, because although no one really noticed him, no one bumped into him either. He navigated through the crowd with great ease, not distracted by the daily commotion going on around him and, with an obvious goal in mind, entered a tavern named ‘The Blibli Barbeque’. As it was around noon, the place was packed and the barkeeper and his maids had trouble keeping up with the orders coming in. The small traveler found a free stool in the corner of the room, placed his log-like backpack next to him and sat himself down. A few people around him seemed to recognize him and started to whisper to each other : “Hey, did you see that guy?” “Yeah, isn’t that.. Master Joris?” “I think so, but what’s he doing here?” “Isn’t he supposed to be in Brakmar?” The hooded dwarf ignored the soft humming of wild guesses and sat quietly at the table. A large man in an apron and a grease-stained shirt waded through the whispering patrons, distributing plates and mugs on his way. Placing the last mug on the table next to the little customer, he took his platter under his armed and turned to face him: “So what can I do you for?” Joris gave him a placid look and said: “Actually, I’m here to see Miss Pelvus.” The barkeeper gave a disappointed but understanding grunt, headed back to the bar and shouted over the murmur of the crowd: “Nirena! Customer for you!” Behind the counter, an Ecaflip girl with long blonde curls and a typical barmaid outfit giggled loudly and took of her apron. She beckoned her tiny customer and ascended the staircase at the back of the tavern. The Bontarian representative gathered his things and followed her up the stairs.

Upstairs he found a long hallway with many doors, all closed but one. Through this one door a soft humming was heard and as he entered the room, a female voice from behind a folding screen greeted him : “Hello there. Be a dear and close the door behind you. It’s letting in a draft.” The little man closed the door and sat himself down on the stool in the corner of the room. He scanned the room and saw nothing out of the ordinary from any run-of-the-mill girl’s room. “Impressive,” Master Joris said softly to himself, “not a single flaw to be detected.” At that moment, the soft humming slowly changed in deeper mumbling: “Damn brassieres… how do they ever…” followed by a soft thud that can only be described as a bag of sand hitting the wooden floor. For a moment, the messenger of Bonta considered to check if everything was all right, but before he could take action, a slender, good-looking Ecaflip male appeared from behind the screen: “Greetings, Master Joris. Good to see you again.” “Good to see you too, Sulpa Venneir. Still the master of disguises, I noticed,” Joris responded, pointing at the maid uniform hanging on the screen. Sulpa involuntary scratched his chest: “Yes, not my favorite one, I may add, but if you want to find out anything in Amakna, the taverns are the place to be.”

“And did you discover anything new?” Joris asked while searching for something in his belongings. The Ecaflip opened his dresser, pushed the dresses aside and revealed a haven bag from within a hidden compartment: “Why, yes. It seems that the one incident that got me assigned here has taken on epidemic proportions. But only to the keen observer.” He produced some notes from his haven bag and handed them to Master Joris. “Since the first victim was found fourteen isolated incidents have been reported, all with the same symptoms, but spread very thin over the country. First two farmhands in Farle’s Fields, then a shepherd on Gobbalfield Country, a family of Puddlies in the Singing Fields, a drunkard in Traff Algar Square and so on. It seems that whoever is doing this doesn’t want us to find out when and where he is going to strike next.”

“And what about the victims? Can they be cured from their condition?” Sulpa sadly shook his head: “They called for the best healers in whole the World of Twelve, but none of them were able to do anything about it. They even claimed that the victims were in excellent physical condition, better even than the average human.” Joris seemed to consider this: “That would explain why the first victim required three guards to restrain him. What curse could be causing this insanity?” “If it even is a curse,” Sulpa Venneir added, “the Eniripsas had never heard of any kind of magic that would invoke this kind of… happiness.” The Bontarian raised an eyebrow under his hood: “Happiness? That seems a rather cruel word for people who have had their minds wiped and who walk about aimlessly, laughing madly and assaulting anything and anyone they encounter.” “I know, Master Joris, but this is how the doctors described it: the victims suffer from an overdose of happiness, to such an extent that they lose all control over their body, their emotions and their thoughts. This has made any kind of questioning or examination nearly impossible.” “This seems very serious indeed, Sulpa. We must stop this menace before it can spread any further. Where was the last incident?” Sulpa Venneir took out a map of Amakna: “Here, in the forests of Emelka. A little girl went in the woods alone to pick some flowers and was found a few days later by the search party organized by the mayor to retrieve her.”

“Very well,” Joris said, “than that’s where I’ll start my research.” This time Sulpa looked at him quizzically. “The king has requested for you personally, my friend,” Joris smiled as he gave Sulpa a parchment with his new assignment, “Something big is happening in Bonta City and we need our top spy there to unravel the web. Jonk Lees is personally awaiting your return and will brief you once you reach the city.” “Lees himself?” Sulpa groaned, “that man is about as subtle as a battering ram.” “Maybe so,” Joris replied, “but he is very close to our king and Our Majesty would not involve Jonk if it was not important.” “You’re probably right,” the Ecaflip admitted, “Very well, no point in keeping Captain Lees waiting then.” “How do plan on telling your current employer that you will be leaving his establishment?” Master Joris asked curiously. Sulpa Venneir slung his haven back over his shoulder and opened a window: “Oh don’t worry,” he said with a lopsided smile as he crawled out on the windowsill, “I’ve left him a touching goodbye note… and some kamas to compensate the loss of his best waitress.” Joris looked out of the window and saw the Ecaflip leap from rooftop to rooftop before jumping down and heading towards the Zaap of Crusty Road.
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Chapter 2

Sue-Ann Il Sulorac sighed softly as she ticked another box on her checklist. Sometimes she wondered what the point was of her daily routine. It was not that she minded the repetitive job of checking all progress daily, but lately it seemed that none of their experiments produced any results at all. Even her own horticultural experiments had not born any fruit and as a Sadida, that felt as a personal failure. She never did thrive very well between all the steel walls of their city, but true to her heritage, she did manage to create a small garden in the back of the laboratory where she grew several rare kinds of plants. Here, she could perform small plant-related experiments of her own, train her Sadida skills and retreat to recharge when the pressure became too much. Lately, she had been spending more time here as the atmosphere in the lab had become much grimmer.

It had been like this ever since the king’s council had instructed them to focus all their attention on energy consumption and recuperation. They had not been able to produce a single result since then. The art of inventing all seemed so simple back when they were designing new technology like the Steamflex or the powerful energy beam emitters now used in the undersea mining industry. Professor Nietzschen Knarf, their leading scientist, was a genius in all fields of Stasis-technology and came up with new ideas faster than the laboratory could produce and test them. It was largely thanks to him that Sufokia had grown as much as it had in the last ten years. Stasitech had revolutionized their way of living and had made Sufokia a prospering kingdom again. The next step in their research would have been the rise of their city above the waves, but then came the news of the Stasili shortage and the fear that the kingdom would end up dead in the water if their main power source would dry out. Under the constant pressure of the politicians they had almost worked day and night to produce a possible solution for this new problem, but where the design of Stasitech seemed to come naturally to Professor Knarf, devising new ways of energy consumption did not. This scientific failure had made him more and more frustrated and these days it was no pleasure working with the professor on any kind of task. For that reason Sue-Ann was glad that he had been called to Admiral Belvu’s office. This gave her a moment of peace alone in the laboratory. She really did like her job as lead assistant to the professor, but she did hope for a breakthrough very soon. Not only for her, but for her colleague’s health as well: his hair had turned from grass green to a bright white in just a few months. She had done all possible efforts to calm Nietzschen down, but as the political demand grew, so did his stress. And as his stress level rose, his tantrums grew more frequent and more hysterical by the day. According Sue-Ann, it would not be long before the Feca’s nerves would snap and finally break him.

She approached the final point on her checklist: the hourglass of Wakfu, one of the professor’s oldest experiments. The professor had set this up to try and prove the Stasis theory of Cedric Arnotte which claimed that if Wakfu was given enough time, it would reduce to Stasis. Back then, it was a much anticipated experiment as this would prove an important theoretical principle and deliver them with an up until now untouched source of Stasis. Sue-Ann had always wondered how professor Knarf had been able to isolate pure Wakfu as this was almost unheard of in the scientific world. He claimed it was distilled from weapons imbued with tiny portions of Wakfu, but for some yet unknown reason he had not been able to reproduce the process afterwards. Back then, this was not a big setback as the Wakfu proved too powerful and too uncontrollable for them to use in any kind of technology, in spite of archeological evidence that there used to be entire civilizations running on Wakfu. So the only thing they could do with it then was to store it in the professor’s newly invented energy containers and use small portions in all kinds of experiments. It had been very useful in creating Sue-Ann’s garden as well. But now, almost ten years later, it was still glowing with the same light blue splendor as it was when they started the experiment. Not a single drop of Stasis had formed at the bottom of the hourglass. Next to it stood a rack with several test tubes containing different Wakfu-Stasis mixtures that were set up in the hope that the infused Stasis would ‘infect’ the Wakfu and increase the process, but this had proved futile. The two energies did not mix and only hours after the infusion, the Wakfu came floating on top of the heavier Stasis and their ratio remained the same ever since.

Her musing was disturbed by the panicked squeaking of one of her veggie-dolls. Since Professor Knarf had grown so unpredictable and she herself was easily startled, she had installed her own ‘security network’ of veggie-dolls that would alarm her if he was approaching. She finished her checklist, straightened her lab coat and braced herself. The silence lingered for a few more seconds before Nietzschen Knarf stormed in, almost slamming the lab door to bits in his fury: “How dare they?! Who do they think they are?!” Sue-Ann silently stood at attention in the center of the laboratory as the professor raged around her, throwing the paperwork he was carrying against the wall: “That pompous blowfish thinks he order me around? Does he really believe that he can do a better job than me?!” Sue-Ann slowly walked to the thrown papers and started to clean up the mess. She momentarily cringed when the clattering of metal filled the room but then continued her cleaning as she knew that he was taking out his rage on the pieces of experimental armor at the other side of the lab.

“Ten years! Ten years of bringing this city to a technological level unparalleled by any other nation in the World of Twelve! If they had followed my advice, we would have ruled those medieval peasants by now! But no, what does our king do? He sits on his throne, remembering the olden days when the Sufokians were still a proud people! Ha! A proud people! Scared sailors and fearful fishermen hiding in their bubble on the bottom of the sea, not even once thinking of escaping their predicament!” “Please, Professor, not so loud,” Sue-Ann tried to shush him, “people don’t like it when you talk like that.” “What do I care?” Nietzschen screamed, “They should be grateful for the cushy lives I’ve provided for them! Especially that fat admiral! If it weren’t for us, he would still be leading an armada of leaky diving dinghies instead of the state-of-the-art Stasitech submarines he has now!” “Yes, I know,” his assistant whispered soothingly, “but remember that you must bear it only a little longer. When you raise Sufokia up into the open air, the whole world will learn what a brilliant scientist you are.” “If we live to see that day,” the Feca scoffed, “at the current pace, Adale’s great-grandson will announce Sufokia’s return to a world no longer welcoming the long-lost nation.”

Nietzschen leaned on the table, physically trying to calm himself. The Sadida stood a bit helpless next to her colleague and for lack of anything better, presented him her checklist: “There’s some good news. It seems that our new Stasis combustion engine is running 2.8% more efficient now than before our alterations.” She knew very well that this was not the progress they were hoping for, but it was the only result on her list that wasn’t exactly the same as the day before. “Wonderful,” Professor Knarf sighed and he let his head hang between his arms. “It’s hopeless, Miss Il Sulorac, I don’t even have any ideas in my head on how to get out of this inventor’s block. And if we do run out of Stasili in the next year, all of our inventions and even our laboratory will be useless. We’ll be set back to the time of my predecessor, fumbling in the dark again.” She put her hand on his shoulder: “Don’t worry, Nietzsche, you’ll come up with something spectacular again. Remember, you are the inventor of Stasitech. There’s nothing you can do! You did it back then, you can do it again.” For a moment, he didn’t look like he was going to respond, but then he recomposed himself: “You’re right: I cannot waver now. I will go down as one of the greatest minds of our time. I will dredge our scared civilization out from under the shadow of Ogrest! No matter what the cost! History will reward me for my actions.” Sue-Ann found this an awkward choice of words, but she didn’t get the time to respond because Nietzsche Knarf grabbed the key to his personal submarine and stormed out the door again. “I hope he’s not going to do anything dumb,” she said to one of her veggie-dolls coming out of hiding, “he had an eerie look in his eyes.” The doll squeaked questioningly and tilted its head. “Oh, never mind,” Sue-Ann said, “it’s probably just my imagination. Professor Knarf has not let down once. In his heart, Sufokia is still very dear to him. He will not let the light of our city extinguish without a fight. But enough work for today,” she said as she put down the ordered stack of papers, “how about some nice quiet time in our little garden?” The doll gave an excited little peep and followed his mistress into their green oasis.

The days before their departure were ones of quiet tension and subtle avoidance for Egol Rho with each of the crew members going about their own business. This business apparently alternated between hanging about, drinking and preparing their boat and fishing gear for the next trip. The times he did interact with the crew were mostly with Sekito, as the healer seemed a bit more level-headed then the rest of his crewmates. He helped him with the repair jobs on the huts and during these little tasks, the Eniripsa had told him that not so long ago, he was still in boarding school in Bonta, studying to become the doctor his parents planned him to be. Seeking more thrill and adventure than his books could offer him, he had fled his boarding house and had while looking for a way of the island found Captain O’Card in the harbor unloading his cargo. The Osamodas was quick to welcome him in his crew and hours later he was already sailing the high seas to lands unknown. At first it looked like Thur and Ega weren’t going to accept him, but his care-free spirit and his ability to take a punch –or at least heal it afterwards– was greatly appreciated by the two sailors. Egol was amazed at the amount the knowledge Sekito had amassed through his studies and his short life as a sailor. He even took notes several times. But yet for all his knowledge, he could not explain Ega her behavior. According to him, she had been her friendly self up until their arrival. It was the very sight of Egol that triggered this bad side of her and it hadn’t waned since then. Even the captain avoided her presence if he could.

Once Platine had recorded a conversation between Ega and Cin, but Egol couldn’t make any sense out of it. It was almost as if they were speaking in code, but it did confirm him that they were heading for Amakna and Bonta before heading to Sufokia. This had puzzled Egol because the ship’s hold was empty, so they had nothing to sell. So that would mean that they were going to have to catch all their fish on their way there. But Sekito assured him that this was normal because they could not store fresh fish for long, so the closer to port they fished, the fresher it was and the more kamas they got for it. “But why don’t you guys just stay near Bonta or Amakna and fish there? That seems much more lucrative than coming over here or Sufokia all the time.” “But if we want to fish the territorial waters,” Sekito explained, “we would have to join the fishermen’s guild and they charge you an arm and a leg for fishing in their waters. Now we’re just traders, bringing in fish from the high sea.” This seemed to make sense to Egol, but it still contradicted the story captain O’Card had told him on their arrival. The Xelor decided to let it be for the time being and enjoyed the rest his quiet time on the deserted beach.

Mei de Prac, a female Pandawa bounty hunter, slowly advanced down the dark mining tunnel. She slowly let her eyes adapt to the darkness as she could not risk igniting a torch and being spotted. She knew that following that shopkeeper had been a good idea. Otherwise she would never have discovered the hidden entrance in his cellar. She never had heard of the existence of a mining operation beneath the city of Bonta itself, but it seemed like a perfect hide-out for criminals on the run. At the back of the tunnel she heard the muffled sound of picks and voices, with a few of them apparently moving in her direction. In the approaching light, she searched for an acceptable hiding place and in a few heartbeats decided that the nearby stalagmite formation was the most suitable candidate. She crouched down behind the largest of the stalagmites and kept absolutely still as the approaching conversation became audible: “…go any deeper and we’ll end up in the ocean.” “Don’t be daft. If the vein runs dry, they’ll just move us to another mine.” “Yeah, but that don’t seem the case right now. There’s still more than enough ore in there to keep us busy for a month.” As the party passed Mei, she noticed it consisted of three men pushing a primitive mining cart filled with purple-colored ore which she didn’t recognize. “Still, this is our last one for today. The transport will be here tonight and we still have to prepare the goods for shipping.” Mei waited until the trio’s idle banter was but a whisper in the narrow hallways before moving again. She got the feeling that she got herself into more then she bargained for, but she kept her eye on the price and continued further into the mine. After a while, the narrow hallway opened up into a large mining gallery, lit by several lanterns whose light was reflected by the many purple shards lodged in the rock walls. Scattered over the room were several teams of miners hard at work to excavate every bit of purple ore they could reach, with even a few of them on scaffolding to reach the ores higher up. Mei stuck to the side of the wall and scanned the room for familiar faces, but to her disappointment, none of the miners fit the description of any of the wanted posters.

She took a swig of the bottle of bamboo milk strapped at her hip and prepared for her return to the surface, when suddenly the gallery was filled with the thundering sound of an explosion, launching several of the miners into the air. The rest panicked as their brethren hit the ground and rushed to their aid. Mei de Prac hid behind one of the mining carts and observed how several armed thugs burst through the smoke and dust of the explosion and surrounded the astounded mining crew. The miners begged and screamed for mercy as they were driven into a corner when suddenly one of the gun-wielding rogues yelled: “Quiet, you worthless maggots! Your lives mean nothing to us so if you don’t shut up now, we’ll start blasting you one by one!” Mei recognized his voice: it was Nos Mirc, the oldest of a criminal trio consisting of three Mirc siblings. On his head was one of the biggest bounties, even bigger if he could be brought in with his brother and sister, which would not be hard to do as the three always worked together. Mei tried to identify the other rogues in the commotion when suddenly a vile laughter echoed through the hall: “Now that’s what I call an entrance in style! You sure have a flair for the dramatic, my friend.” In the opening caused by the explosion appeared a Masqueraider wearing a long black cape topped with a very peculiar mask which can only be described as a stylized version of a Bwork face with one menacing third eye in the middle of its forehead that moved on its own. The masked man was accompanied by a blonde female rogue: “We rogues do everything in style, Sarojam. You Shushus could still learn a thing or two from us.” The eye on the mask stared at her: “When you’re as powerful as us, human, there is no need for style or tactics.” “That’s enough you two,” the mask’s wearer spoke, ”Lani, prepare our message for the true owners of this mine. The rest of you, rally up the prisoners and take them back to the base.” “You heard the boss,” Nos scowled at the miners, “time for a little walk. Get up and get moving!” As the miners were guided out of the mine, Mei observed the female rogue closely. “So that’s Lani Mirc,” Mei thought to herself, “That’s two out of three. Now only to find her twin brother and the sets complete.” Suddenly, she heard a soft click behind her: “Well, well, well. Eavesdropping, my dear. That’s not very nice. Now raise those pretty hands were I can see them and slowly get up.” Mei swore under her breath as she slowly got up with her hands in the air.

“Lenny, what’s going on?” the Masqueraider called from the other side of the room. “We have ourselves a pretty little spy, Boss!” the voice behind Mei called back. Mei saw this opportunity and gave her assailant a back kick, slamming him against the wall. She turned around to face him, grabbed the bamboo barrel from her back in one fluent motion and used it to disarm the rogue. She didn’t give him the chance to recuperate and blasted him with a squirt of bamboo milk, smacking him for a second time into the wall. “Brother!” Lani screamed for the center of the gallery and started to run towards Mei, firing her pistols alternately at the Pandawa warrior. Mei hid herself again behind the mining cart as Lani’s bullets ricocheted on the cart and the walls of the mine. She had to find a way out of there and quick, before she was completely pinned down. She was suddenly startled as one of the shots caused a small explosion in the wall of the mine. “What kind of bullets is she using?” she thought to herself when she noticed the purple dust mixed in the pulverized rock. “An explosive mineral? That gives me an idea.” She grabbed some of the small shards lying under the cart, took a swig out of her bamboo barrel and prepared herself. She waited patiently and after a few moments the gunshots died down and her assailant shouted: “If you’ve hurt my brother in any way, teddy bear, I’ll personally tear out your filling!” She used this moment of cease-fire to leap over the cart and throw the purple shards at Lani Mirc. She started to fire again, but Mei countered with a flaming burp, igniting both the shards as the approaching bullets. The bounty hunter was prepared for the result of her daring action and braced herself for impact. The rogue on the other hand was not so lucky: the force of the blast threw her of her feet and catapulted her away. Mei didn’t wait for her to get up and sprinted towards the exit.

With none of her attackers near enough to stop her, her escape seemed assured. But right before she reached the exit, a powerful force hit her from the side and smacked her against the wall. She tried to remain conscious as she hit the floor, but her sight slowly blurred and the voices around her became distant. She blinked a few times to regain focus and noticed the caped Masqueraider looming over her: “…fools. You almost let her escape.” Lani and Lenny joined him, obviously still licking their wound: “I thought you wanted to get the message out into the world? Wouldn’t she be a perfect candidate for that?” “Stick to your specialties and leave the thinking to us, kiddies,” the mask spoke. “Maybe you should stick to your specialty and play the silent mask again!” Lani countered. “Quiet,” the Masqueraider intervened, “This is not the right channel. We do not want Bonta to know of this little mining operation. Only the true proprietor of this excavation must learn our demands.” “And who might that be?” Lenny asked. “One step at a time, my friend.” Mei saw the discussion above her head continuing, but could not find the strength to remain focused and blacked out, thinking with her last thought that she really was in over her head now.

Once they left for Bonta, he almost missed the uncomfortable silences of the beach, because in contrast to the village there was never a dull moment on their boat, the Creaky Kraken. Cin had his hands full the navigation and steering of the ship, Ega and Thur were almost constantly throwing out or reeling in the nets and Sekito was responsible for keeping the meals coming and the ship tidy. The captain had assigned Egol to assist Sekito where possible. During their short stay in the settlement, Cin had noticed that the little monk was quite handy with tools, so besides the normal cleaning jobs, he also assigned Egol to make small repairs on the ship. It took Egol less than a day to realize why they had named it the Creaky Kraken and that it was a small miracle this vessel was still afloat. He did his best to complete as much of his chores as he could with the tools at hand and this kept him busy for most of the days. He even forgot about the ever-present ticks and tocks of the Great Clock and took on the pace of the other crewmates. For example, while on the beach he ate most of his meals in private, but on the little boat he joined the crew in the daily fish meals Sekito prepared. The work obviously did wonders for the spirits of the Kraken’s crew as well as even Ega was in a better mood after a hard day’s work on deck. Egol laughed and joked with them as if he had been part of the crew for months.

One day Egol was hanging off the ship’s starboard bow, trying to fix the ship’s anchor when suddenly the Creaky Kraken was overshadow by something large. Egol looked up and was overwhelmed by the sight of a Bontarian Navy vessel guarding the nation’s maritime borders. The three-master loomed over the little fishing boat as a Crackler over a Piwi and the sailors on board looked just as threatening as their ship. “Who goes there,” a voice sounded of the ship while Egol climbed back on board. “This is Cin O’Card, captain of the Creaky Kraken,” Cin called back, “we’re fish traders on route for Bonta City.” “Prepare to be boarded,” the voice replied as simultaneously two ropes were thrown on deck coming from the military vessel. Thur and Ega tied the ropes to the railing of the Kraken and after their signal, a boarding ramp was lowered on deck. The ramp was hardly stabilized as a squad of Bontarian soldiers descended onto the fishing boat forming a single line on the starboard side of the ship, left and right of the ramp. When they stood to attention, a Bontarian officer slowly walked down the ramp, followed by what seemed to be some sort of military clerk, carrying several scrolls and a foldable writing table. “What’s going on?” Egol whispered to Sekito. “Standard procedure. All ships going in or out of Bonta’s waters are to be thoroughly checked to prevent smuggling.” Egol tried to add something, but was startled when he found the stern eye of the Bontarian captain fixated on them. “Ahem!” the officer cleared his throat, “You know the drill, captain. Produce the necessary paperwork and give my men full access to your ship for inspection.” Cin mockingly gave him a little bow: “Of course, dear colleague. Mi barco es su barco.” He donated a few sheets of paper to clerk who had just set up his little table and smirked confidently. “Right,” the captain grunted and snapped his fingers, causing the soldiers to disperse and search the Creaky Kraken.

“The Bontarian hospitality is still legendary, I see,” Cin said while the clerk went through his paperwork. “Don’t play coy with me, Sufokian,” the Bontarian captain replied, “This is not the first time we go through this. And you knew the conditions when you decided to trade with Bonta. There is no room for criminals and smugglers in our nation!” “Really now?” Cin smiled, “So then I assume that the rumors of the Mask of Shushu are all greatly exaggerated?” Egol involuntary cringed as the Bontarian captain spun around, a controlled anger burning in his eyes: “You have some nerve, Sufokian. Your archipelago is swarming with the greatest scum the seas have ever known and you dare to lecture us on our crime management? Bonta is the safest country in the World of Twelve and no wannabe crime lord will soil that name!” “Wannabe crime lord?” the Osamodas repeated, “My, my. So you you’re telling me that it was a wannabe who broke into the Bontarian Bank of Twelve? Or a wannabe who organized the large-scale jailbreak from the most secure prison in the World of Twelve?” Egol thought the Bontarian could not become any redder, but this last taunt pushed his complexion into the purple range. If it were not for his soldiers resurfacing from below decks, Egol was certain he was going to explode: “All clear, captain. The cargo hold is filled with fish and nothing else, sir.” The captain recomposed himself, but was obviously still simmering as he turned to his clerk: “Well?! Does it add up?” The clerk was so enveloped in his work that the captain’s crude question dropped him smack into reality and off his stool. “Y-y-yes, sir,” he stammered as he got up again, “all seems to be in order.” Clearly disappointed, the captain spun around and marched back to his ship: “Right! We’re off! There’s no point in wasting any more time on piece of driftwood!” The soldiers followed single-file with the clerk bringing up the rear, still shook up by the captain’s demeanor. Thur and Ega untied the ship again while the Bontarian sailors retracted the ramp.

“Was that true, captain?” Egol asked Cin as the two ships sailed away from each other, “About the Mask of Shushu?” “Well,” Captain O’Card admitted, “they still don’t know who is behind those crimes, but rumor has it that they’re all the work of this new Masqueraider crime lord known as the Mask of Shushu. He supposedly rallied all small time crooks still at large in Bonta under his flag and then used them to break the rest of the Bontarian crooks out of jail. The authorities are still looking for a lot of the escaped prisoners and have recently put out bounties on each of their heads, bringing every adventurer and bounty hunter to the city of Bonta.” Cin chuckled. “Safest nation in the world indeed.” Egol stared a little longer at the navy vessel slowly disappearing towards the horizon as Cin snapped him out of it: “Hey, sailor! That anchor is not going to fix itself now, you hear!” “Right, yes sir, captain!” Egol saluted and enthusiastically went back to work.

Captain Jonk Lees readjusted his belt for the sixth time as he peered over the masses filling the Bontarian streets. Being Lees’ size could be quite bothersome indoors or on a battlefield, as a giant is a prime target for all kinds of projectiles, but in the busy streets it was really an asset. He stood in the middle of the crowd as a rock breaking the stream with the citizens harmlessly flowing past him. From time to time he saluted to the passing guards, making sure that he didn’t knock anyone out doing so, or humored some fans by signing their cloak or hat. Jonk was a celebrity in Bonta, famous for his kindness to new citizens and infamous for his prowess on the battlefield. Jonk Lees had earned his captain’s hat by being an exemplary Bontarian, going above and beyond to serve his king and country. But if he had one fault, it was his lack of subtlety. He was a welcomed guest in the king’s court, but even the king knew to keep him out when the politicians and councilors gathered. Jonk could not bear the slithering politician’s tongue and his ‘argument’ had already broken many tables and fingers of unfortunate men who did not know Lees’ debate skills and thus hadn’t retracted their hands fast enough.

It was therefore that Captain Lees did not look forward to his next meeting: Sulpa Venneir was one of their best agents, but the mere use of spies and assassins disgusted Jonk. It was not the way to run a country. “Alms. Alms. Alms for the poor.” Jonk looked down and saw a beggar almost completely cloaked in rags extending a metal cup. Alms for an unfortunate citizen, good sir?” Jonk sighed. Part of being a celebrity and close friend to the king was that people automatically assumed you were packing kamas, but the truth was that Captain Lees had always remained a simple man, going out into the fields to gather herbs for the barracks’ apothecary and performing manual labor whenever he could, not asking for a single kama. The army provided for him and he felt he did not need any more. But inside his chest of steel beat a heart of gold, so Jonk never missed a chance to help the less fortunate than him. “Here you go,” he said to the beggar and dropped three coins in his cup. “Thank you, kind sir,” the beggar replied while checking his cup, “Ecaflip will reward you.”He rattled his cup as he continued down the main street: “Alms. Alms. Alms for the needy.” Jonk Lees resumed searching for Agent Venneir when he realized that he still had some of his lunch left in his bag. He should have given that to the beggar as well. But when he reached down to search his pouch, he suddenly realized that his Jonk’s bag was missing. He was robbed! The beggar!

With the fury of a Gobbette missing her Gobblies, he spun around and drove through the masses in the direction the beggar left. The people who saw Jonk approaching spontaneously jumped aside while the other less fortunate were mowed down by the power of Captain Lees’ rush. When he did not detect the beggar, he asked some startled citizens where he went and they all pointed to an alley to the side of the road. Jonk stormed into the narrow street only to find a dead end filled with a stack of crates. He was about to dig through the stack when a confident voice sounded from behind: “Looking for this, Captain? Very sloppy for the captain of the guards.” Over his shoulder Jonk saw the beggar from before balancing on a clothesline a few feet above his head, holding out the stolen bag. Before the rope-dancer could continue his monologue, Jonk grabbed his billhook from the hook on his belt and hurled it at the side of the clothesline. The beggar tried to jump away, but before he could push himself off, the rope was cut from the wall, causing him and the laundry to plummet down onto the street. To Captain Lees’ surprise, the beggar landed neatly on his feet and recomposed himself in seconds: “Impressive, Captain,” the ragged man said as he removed his cloak, “The Giant of Bonta does not disappoint.”

The removed rags revealed a strapping black grey Ecaflip with a confident smirk on his face. “Agent Venneir?” Jonk boomed, “What’s the big idea?” Sulpa signaled the captain to lower his voice: “Please Captain, keep it down. We don’t want the entire city to know of my return. That was also the reason of this ruse: It did not seem wise to meet you in the middle of the main street.” Jonk pulled his billhook out of the wall and grunted: “You could have at least given me a little warning.””No time for that, Captain. By the way, our little play is not over yet, I’m afraid. Soon our startled masses will start to wonder what’s keeping you. Let’s meet up outside the prison and continue this conversation.” “The prison? Why there?” “Because last I heard, it’s pretty deserted since the Mask of Shushu’s little stunt.” Jonk snorted: “Don’t remind me. We even had to resort to bounty hunters to reel in all the escapees.” The Ecaflip handed Jonk back his bag: “Yes, I’ve noticed the posters. Could you give me a little hand, Captain?” Jonk groaned quietly as he grabbed Sulpa by the back of his cloak and hurled him towards the rooftops. Almost noiseless the cat-man grabbed the ledge of the roof and disappeared out of sight. As the first curious bystander started to peek in the alley, Jonk headed back out, claiming there was nothing to see, thinking to himself that this was another reason why he did not like spies.

Master Joris repeatedly readjusted himself in his seat and tried to hold on tight as the carriage rattled over the bumpy forest road. The Drago-Express was not known for its comfort, but it was the fastest connection between Crusty Road and Emelka, certainly since the Zaap at the remote village was still being constructed. He was personally surprised that Drago-Express had decided to connect the village with the rest of the nation because it consisted of no more than an inn and a few farms. But apparently their newly chosen mayor had made a great effort in attracting the travel agency’s interest. “It must have been some offer,” Joris thought to himself, because the road to Emelka led straight through their current location, the Holey Forest, one of the most dangerous places in all of Amakna. Ever since the Magic Riktus, an ancient clan of robbers, had made their headquarters in the mines underneath the trees, the forest became known as the quickest way to lose your kamas and your head, if the first wouldn’t suffice. That was also the reason he was the only passenger left except for the two Cras who had joined him and the coachman as body guards right before entering the forest. One of them sat next to the driver while the other was positioned on the roof of the coach, constantly watching the rear. “It’s suspiciously quiet today,” the Cra on the roof said almost whispering. “They must have found a bigger Snapper to fry,” her partner responded, “but spur your mounts just to be safe, Daniel.” The coachman gladly obeyed and whipped the bridle of his Dragoturkeys, rattling the carriage even harder. Then suddenly the two animals stopped and stared into the dark woods, together with everyone on the coach except the driver. “Betsy, Misty, what’s going on?” he said to his pets, but the Cra next to him, who was already standing up with his bow drawn, signaled him to be quiet. The entire company stood still as a statue in the middle of the forest for what seemed like an eternity. “There!” the Cra on top shouted and started to fire at the darkness, immediately followed by her partner. Master Joris peered in the direction the arrows were flying and saw something approaching at high speed.

He heard the male Cra shout: “Daniel, get us out of here!”, but realizing that a collision was unavoidable, somersaulted out the other side of the coach. Before the Bontarian even hit the ground his ride exploded in a firework of splinters and steel, catapulting the remaining passengers into all directions. As the remains of the coach were scattered over the forest floor, Joris could hear the cart driver’s voice fading in the distance: “Betsy! Misty! Hoo! Stop! Please…” “That man is really attached to his animals,” Joris thought as apparently Daniel had refused to let go of the reins. “Sadjih, are you ok?” sounded one the Cras’ voice. “I’m over here, Darius,” a female voice sounded from above Joris. He looked up to see the Cra sitting on one of the lower branches, her bow already aimed at the remains of the couch. That’s when Joris first heard a soft moan from within the debris that was their ride. Backed up by the two Cra guards, he slowly removed some of the pieces. To their surprise, the projectile that hit them was still alive: it was a Badgoat, a member of the Magic Riktus clan. Joris slapped him in the face to wake him: “Who are you? What happened to you? What force launched you at our coach?” “Probably a distraction,” Darius said as he joined him, “Prepare for an ambush.” The three of them stared once again into the dark forest and could now here the faint sound of voices, of clattering weapons and even of explosions. Sadjih jumped down: “We better get moving. There’s no use in waiting here like sitting Piwis. We have to get to high ground.” Then the Badgoat tried to speak: “N…n…No, Boss… P…lease d…on’t… hurt me.” Joris stared at the Cras puzzled when they suddenly heard a deep rumbling laugh drown out the other voices in the forest, followed by an approaching scream. “Duck!” the Cras shouted and over their head another Magic Riktus hit one of the larger trees at high speed. “Who is doing that?” Sadjih wondered, “Who can launch bandits at that speed?” “We won’t learn that by staying here,” Master Joris answered, “let’s find out!” and the trio set off into the woods.

Still not pleased with the choice of their next rendezvous point, Jonk Lees crossed the courtyard of Bonta castle. He approached one of the larger towers embedded in the castle walls and grunted uneasily upon seeing the burn marks left by the daring attack of the Mask of Shushu. The fact that their dungeon lay within the most fortified keep of their nation had made the jailbreak all the more painful for the proud Bontarian guard. Scanning the walls for Agent Venneir, he was saluted by the guards flanking the entrance. He saluted back and entered the tower where he was greeted by the jailer: “Who goes there? Ah, Captain Lees, it’s you. Still looking for clues?” Jonk scanned the room before answering: “Not really, no. I think there was little mystery in their attack involved. More guts than tactics, I believe.” “Hmph,” the jailer responded, “the next time they try this kind of stunt, I’ll show them the color of their guts. Nobody sets my prisoners loose. Isn’t that right, you sewer rats?” he yelled down the cell blocks as he hit the floor with his oversized hammer. Continuing his scan, Jonk ignored the shouted response of the prisoners: “How much of the escapees have been brought back in?” The jailer started counting on his fingers, but gave up rather quickly: “Well, since the bounty hunters hit our shores, numbers have been rising steadily. I think we now have a quarter of the original inmates back where they belong.” Jonk looked him in the eyes for the first time: “Only a quarter? There were over a hundred prisoners before the escape!” The jailer shrugged: “Hey, I just keep ‘m, I don’t catch ‘m. That’s your job.” Jonk gave him a disgruntled rumble: “Yeah, just make sure you keep them put this time,” and exited the prison again. The jailer always rubbed him the wrong way. The man was dedicated to his job, that much was sure, but he also was as thick as the walls surrounding him, making any kind of conversation rather pointless.

Jonk Lees sniffed in the cool evening air and overlooked the courtyard. It was the changing of the guards, causing some quiet and orderly commotion on the square. Behind him, the one of the two soldiers flanking the door to the dungeon left his post and was replaced by a fresh guard. Jonk still saw no sign of the Ecaflip when suddenly the remaining guard behind him spoke: “Captain, permission to speak?” Jonk turned around and saw a familiar sparkle underneath the guard’s helmet. “Right,” Captain Lees sighed, “Walk this way, Private.” Jonk and the guard slowly walked to the center of the square. “What are you playing at, you blasted Bow Meow?” Jonk said with a controlled anger in his voice, “Where is the guard who was supposed to fill that post?” “Don’t worry, Captain,” Sulpa Venneir answered, “he’s just taking an extra long toilet break. I’ve assured him that I would fill in for him until he was… ready.” Jonk stared at the first stars appearing at the evening sky, still trying to retain his calm: “Right, let’s get this over with, because I just about had enough of your little games, Agent Venneir. Did Master Joris give you the mission specifics?” Sulpa saluted as a true guard: “Indeed I have, Captain. I’ve read something about a large scale smuggling operation, but since we’ve yet found any proof, we cannot intervene. I just have one question, Captain: how did we learn of this smuggling ring without proof?” Jonk looked around just to make sure none of the guards got suspicious of their little conversation: “The word on the street is loud and clear: someone is smuggling large quantities of valuables out from under our noses. But every time we’ve tried to bust their operation, there was no contraband and there were no smugglers. All the tips we received were useless or our informants work both sides of the fence. Whatever the case, up until today we have not caught one smuggler red-handed. Even the navy is now searching every ship entering or leaving our nation’s waters and still nothing.” Sulpa repositioned the guard’s spear: “So what you want from me is tangible proof. A valuable lead to the smugglers’ den.” “I want you to find out everything there is to know about these smugglers, Agent Venneir. Who they are, what they are smuggling and where they’re smuggling it to. We’ve included a list of possible suspects and contacts, but approach them with caution. If these rats smell a trap, they’ll crawl back into their hole and won’t show whiskers for weeks to come.” “Don’t worry, Captain,” Sulpa Venneir grinned mischievously, “catching rats is my specialty.” At that moment, the delayed guard approached them with an uneasy air and saluted them both: “Captain, I apologize for my delay. I…” Jonk Lees raised his hand: “Say no more, Private. Just assume your post and all is forgotten.” He glared sideways at Sulpa Venneir as the soldier saluted him and marched to rejoin his colleague next to the prison door. “You’re dismissed as well, Private Venneir. And never let me see you in this outfit again, do you understand?” “Sir, yes sir!” The Ecaflip in disguise clicked his heels, saluted and set course for the barracks. Jonk did not take his eyes of the master spy until he had entered the building. After Sulpa was gone, he was about to leave when he noticed a small thistle on one of the perches, so he flicked out his billhook and cut the herb at the root with one swift motion. He put his harvest into his Jonk’s bag and feeling invigorated by his passion, decided that the evening was too young to retire and headed out the castle gates.

Chapter 3

The rest of the Creaky Kraken’s trip through Bontarian waters went by rather uneventful. Egol did notice a steady increase in ships as they approached one of the many harbors on the coast of Bonta. The relative safety of the territorial waters apparently attracted a lot of fishermen. As Egol remembered that all these vessels had to pay the guilds to fish within the boundaries of Bonta, he came to the conclusion that this guild had to be quite rich and powerful to maintain such a system. Cin set course for the docks of 5th Bond Avenue, situated right next to one of the busiest commerce centers in the city of Bonta. After having to wait two hours for one of the other ships to set sail, the Creaky Kraken’s crew finally set foot on solid ground again.

As Ega and Thur started to unload the fish and Cin headed to the port authorities, Egol leaned on the rail and stared at the grand city before him. “So, what now?” Sekito asked from behind him, “You’re going to look for your girl?” He joined his new-found friend at the railing. “Don’t know yet,” Egol said staring into the distance, “we have a congregation here, but according to my friend back at the monastery, she never passed there. I was hoping to gather some information about her in the city, but when I now see the size of it, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea anymore.” “Yeah, and you’ve got to make sure you don’t get lost in the winding streets and alleyways.” “Oh, that doesn’t worry me. Platine here is a perfect guide and will never lead me astray.” On his shoulder, the Tofu clicked proudly. “That I believe,” Sekito smiled and scratched the little Tofu’s head, “but although Bonta is claimed to be the safest city in the World of Twelve, even she is not free of rogues and robbers hiding in her folds, hidden from the ever-watching eye of the guards. You’ve got to be careful out there.”

“All right, you lazy larvae! Get your dirty feet of my ship and on shore! Everybody needs to shake off those sea-legs!” Cin shouted from the pier. He was accompanied by some sort of harbor official and two guards for another inspection. “They really take security serious here,” Egol thought to himself. “You know what,” Sekito said as they got off the ship, “I’ll join you in your trip through the city. Can’t let you wander around alone your first time here, now can I?” “Won’t Thur mind you leaving him behind?” The Eniripsa waved his hand: “Ah, don’t worry, he and Ega will be busy the next few hours with transporting and storing the fish. And afterwards they always hit the local pubs, so if we just make sure that we’re back by that time, they won’t mind.” “Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it,” Egol said as he put his robes back on, “All right, Platine, show us the way!” The Tofu clicked excitedly and flew into the streets.

Master Joris and his Cra companions heard the voices getting louder as they approached the source of the rumbling laughter. The voices sounded panicked, lost and chaotic, as a bunch of people caught in a burning building with no way out. With regular intervals they saw Riktus bandit flying by, propelled as if they were little pebbles. When they got within range of the source of flying bandits, they noticed a large band of Magic Riktus surrounding one larger bandit. A lone Badenalty, a hovering wizard variation of the Magic Riktus, was shouting instructions from the side of the rabble: “Restrain him, you runts! No, don’t use your weapons! We can’t harm the Boss!” “The boss?” Darius whispered as the trio crouched behind one of the fallen trees. “Yes, the big one in the middle,” Joris explained, “it’s Baddoboss, the leader of this Riktus faction. But something seems wrong.” “I’ll say,” Sadjih commented, “It looks like his pummeling his subordinates. And liking it too, because it seems he’s the source of the laughter.” The giant bandit was indeed laughing madly while attacking the other Riktus. If he got hold of one, he used it as an improvised club on the other members before launching him into the forest at tremendous speed. “Where did he get such power?” Darius wondered, “I heard rumors about his strength, but this is ridiculous.” “I also heard rumors about his prowess,” Joris added, “Baddoboss is supposed to have a brain to match his brawn, but this looks more like the actions of a dumb brute than a tactical genius.”

At that moment, the Badenalty was knocked back by one of his flying compatriots and hit the tree the heroes were using as hideout. “This is our chance,” Joris pointed out, “Grab him!” The Cras grabbed the dazed bandit his arms and dragged him behind the log: “What the…? Who are you? What are you doing to me?” “Quiet,” Sadjih ordered with her bow armed after they dropped him on the other side of the tree. “You thugs,” the bandit spat, “making use of our moment of vulnerability to strike at us.” “You struck at us,” Darius replied, also with his weapon drawn, “one of your flying comrades wrecked our ride.” Before the Riktus could reply, Master Joris intervened: “What is going on here? Why is your boss attacking his own people?” “None of your business, Bontarian!” the Badenalty replied. Joris sighed: “Right. If we help you subdue your leader, then will you answer our questions?” “You’re just looking for an excuse to claim the bounty on his head!” the bandit screamed after which he was knocked out by Sadjih’s bow: “He’s not going to be of much help. Then we’ll do it ourselves.” “What about the other Riktus?” Joris asked. Darius put his hand on his shoulder as he revealed two windy beacons in his other hand: “Don’t worry, we have a little tactic for that.” He looked at Sadjih: “Disperse and conquer?” She smiled: “Disperse and conquer,” and revealed two similar beacons. “This will blow them away. All right, on my mark… Go!”

With great synchrony, the Cra couple jumped up from behind the fallen tree and threw the beacons amidst the brawling Riktus. Before they could react, the archers followed up with a few well-aimed shots at the thrown beacons, activating the four of them almost simultaneously. This caused a small tornado blowing away the smaller bandits in all directions, leaving only the Baddoboss in the eye of the storm unharmed. Before the Riktus bandits had time to realize what had happened, Joris and the Cras moved in on the big bandit, riddling him with magic arrows. The light arrows seemed to bounce right off the bandit leader as he remained laughing through the shower of arrows, but it distracted him enough for Joris to approach him. The little hooded man jumped up, grabbed his log-like backpack with his one hand and with one smooth motion slammed it into the head bandit’s face. Baddoboss staggered for a moment but soon resumed his laughter, swinging wildly at Master Joris. The dwarf barely evaded his fists and regrouped with the Cras out of his range: “He’s beyond tough. Any ideas?” “New tactic,” Sadjih suggested, “let’s go for the Shake ‘n Bake.” “Right,” Darius replied, “prepare yourself, Master Joris, we’ll create you another opening.” The mad giant was already storming in their direction when the two Cra moved in opposite direction. Darius jumped up into the air and fired an arrow at Baddoboss’ feet, causing a small quake while Sadjih fired a shining arrow at his eyes that dissipated in a flash. Temporary destabilized and blinded, the giant almost tripped himself up while still moving towards Master Joris. Not waiting for him to recover, Joris went straight for his knees and with one single blow fell the towering rogue. The Cras followed up by nailing Baddoboss to the ground with a few dozen arrows.

They heard the Riktus boss’ muffled laughter but for the moment, he didn’t move a muscle. “So now what?” Sadjih wondered, “This won’t hold him forever.” “I think our next step is explaining it to them,” Joris said as he pointed at the recovered Magic Riktus bandits. “I knew you just wanted to take down our leader!” the Badenalty floating above the other bandits yelled, “You’ll pay for this dirty trick!” Both parties prepared to attack when Joris struck the ground with his log: “Hold it! Your leader is not dead. And we have no intention of bringing him in, as promised. The only thing we want to know is what exactly happened to him.” The bandits seemed taken aback by this and looked hesitant at the floating bandit above them. He seemed to consider all options and then slowly descended before the Bontarian representative. “Prove it. Step away from our boss.” Joris complied silently, not taking his gaze of the Badenalty. “All right men,” the wizard screamed, “escort our glorious leader away from here!” The other Magic Riktus huddled around the pinned down Baddoboss and lifted him from the ground together. The sorcerer-bandit waited until his comrades were well on their way before speaking again: “Very good, Bontarian, have it your way. The reason our boss is acting so out of character is that rotten strawcrow character who barged into our lair. He did… something to Baddoboss that made him act this way. Before we could seize the masked man our boss went on a rampage, almost wrecking our hideout and everyone in his path. We chased him all the way here, but we were unable to subdue him.” “And what about the strawcrow man?” Joris asked. “What do I know?” the bandit said annoyed, “He could still be in our lair, laughing maniacally. I hope he is, because when we get back he’ll pay for this!” “Very good,” Joris finally took his gaze off him, “thank you for this information and pray we do not meet again. Next time we will bring you in for the crimes you’ve committed.” The rogue snorted as the heroes turned around and set course for the Riktus hideout: “If we get back our boss, we’ll crush you, you little vigilante.” “Uh, Lieutenant?” one of the Riktus tapped him on his shoulder. “What is it?” the Badenalty snapped. “We seem to have a little problem.” The bandit pointed at Baddoboss towering over them, holding two struggling Riktus in each hand and laughing softly. “Oh crap…”

Platine happily guided Egol and Sekito through the crowded streets of 5th Bond Avenue. The Sinistro Tofu effortlessly fluttered over the stream of people, but the Xelor and the Eniripsa had a hard time keeping up, not only because of the dozens of people on their path, but also because Egol couldn’t get enough of all the new sights and sounds of the big city. When he noted that none of the passers-by seemed genuinely surprised at the sight of a hooded Xelor monk, Sekito explained him that there were stranger things in this city to jump at. And with their congregation well settled-in, the monks had become a part of Bonta City just as everybody else. Platine led them through streets lined with carts and stalls trying to sell the strangest things. Sekito regularly had to ignore a pushy vendor trying to haggle, but Egol was left well alone. “They must have already learned in these parts that we don’t carry around any kamas,” he smiled under his mask, when suddenly a familiar voice sounded over the crowds: “You there, with the cloak of gloom, step this way!” Before he could react, Egol was pulled by his arm towards one of the bigger carts.

“Welcome to WOAH, my friend! You look like just the man who could use a fine walking staff to keep you company on your long pilgrimage.” Egol lifted his cowl and found himself staring at a very familiar face: “Wally? Wally Maart?” The shop owner briefly interrupted his sales rant: “That’s my name! And you are lucky enough to be standing in front of my prized little shop: WOAH. Wally’s, Open All Hours, part of the Wally Maart Corporation and keeper of the lowest prices this side of Bonta! Now, about that cloak. Don’t you think it would look much nicer in shade of purple? Indigo gives that much more class to a garment. And for the fast decider, I have here, only today, a fresh batch of purpurple, harvested only yesterday from the finest breed of Piwis.” “Don’t you recognize me?” Egol said through his sales pitch. The Enutrof dressed as a pioneer stared at him for a few seconds. “But of course I do! Wally always recognizes a good customer! That’s why I’ll throw in this bottle of rered if you buy the entire crate of purpurple, just to make that cloak of yours that much more vibrant!” “No,” Egol continued, “it’s me. We met on the beach back on Kalf-Cil-Fel. You pointed me towards the fisherman’s village, remember?” Then the Enutrof understood: “Aah, you must mean my colleague at Beach Market Wally! Fine man, one of the WMC’s boldest adventurers. He has set up shops where no man had set up shops before.” “But…but… you look exactly alike?” Egol stammered. Sekito, who had finally caught up with his friend, laid his hand on Egol’s shoulder: “Don’t bother, Egol. Come, let’s go and find your friends.” Wally wanted to continue, but was distracted when a Cra warrior asked him about one of his bows. “But of course, my good man! The string of this bow was spun out of actual wool from the mythical Celestial Gobball!”

The sailors left the salesman to his business and waded on through the crowd. “I swear, Sekito, he looked identical to the Enutrof back on the beach,” Egol said after a minute or two. “I know, buddy. Wally Maart and his chain of shops is one of the biggest mysteries in the World of Twelve,” Sekito smiled, “He has carts, stalls and shops in all corners of every nation and each one of them is run by an identical Wally Maart, dressed as a pilgrim. Many have tried to figure out his secret, but to this day none has been able to figure it out. Some say he’s just one man, using recall potions non-stop to jump from one shop to another. Others say they are brothers or the result some sort of cloning experiment or some kind of powerful magic spell. Truth is that nobody knows for sure.” “And nobody has ever just asked him?” “Oh, don’t worry,” Sekito said, “his reputation even had Wally arrested by the Bontarian guards on suspicion of black magic and fraud, but even their interrogators got nothing out of him. He was released after a while by lack of evidence, or even lack of crime, for that matter. He may not look like it, but that red-bearded Enutrof is a shrewd business man. You’re better off avoiding him if you can.”

Platine led them into a broader boulevard and clicked excitedly. Egol stared down the street and saw why: halfway the boulevard stood a small podium with a few followers of the Hand of Xelor preaching the Word of Xelor to the masses. Granted, none of the people seemed to heed them and most of them even walked around in a big arch to avoid the little stage, but that didn’t faze his friends. The front monk spoke in the typical metallic voice: “Regulate your inner clock. You are all slaves to the rush of the big city, swept away by its chaotic currents. Learn from us how you can create your own rhythm, your own time. We can show you… brother Rho!” Egol gave them a small bow as he approached the stage: “Greetings, brothers and sisters. The Hand of Xelor be with you.” “And with you, my brother,” the front monk replied and he bowed synchronously with the other monks. “Master Q informed us of your departure and your intention to visit us, so we have been expecting you.” “So Egol”, a female monk spoke, “you already have a follower?” The Xelors all looked at Sekito standing a few feet away from them. “Oh, forgive me,” Egol said as he signaled his friend to approach, “This is Sekito i Bitna, part of the crew that brought me to Bonta and a new friend of mine.” “Hi all,” Sekito waved uncomfortably, “How’s business?” The front monk sighed: “The Bontarians don’t seem to realize that even in the City of Order, chaos is all around. Without the steady tick of Lord Xelor’s clock people tend to give in to their erratic desires, leaving behind all structure and order. But that’s why our work is never done. Please, follow us.” One of the monks at the rear opened a door behind the stage.

Egol, Platine and Sekito followed the monks through a dimly lit corridor into a small antechamber filled with a large wooden table and some stools. While most of the monks continued down a second door, the leading monk pointed to two stools: “Please, have a seat.” In the background, the sound of clicking gears was prominently present. When the other monks had left the room, their host joined them at the table with a pitcher of water and two cups: “I suppose you must be thirsty after your long journey.” He filled the two cups and continued: “My name is Ethan Imala and I’m the senior brother here in our Bonta congregation. So, you are the legendary Egol Rho?” Sekito swore that he could see Egol blushing underneath his mask “Come now Brother, isn’t that a bit exaggerated? I know I wasn’t the worst in my class, but… legendary?” “Your modesty becomes you, Brother. But Master Q spoke very highly of you in his last communication. He also asked some questions about sister Quanti.” “Yes, I asked him to,” Egol said uneasily, “Apparently my friends here gave her a ride to Bonta, but since then we’ve lost every trace of her and I found it strange for her not to report in here at the congregation.” “Yes, I understand,” Ethan nodded, “and what is worse, she has not once offered her stored time to the Great Clock of Xelor. Nor have we been able to contact her Sinistro. It was for this reason we assumed the worst and have inquired with the city guards. But they informed us that there had been no incidents reported concerning a female Xelor.” Egol slumped on his stool: “So you think she’s…” “We don’t know, Brother,” Brother Imala sighed, “we’ve asked the other congregations to be on the lookout for her, but for the moment there’s nothing more we can do for her. It still is a dangerous world out there, Egol.” Sekito patted his friend on the back as he gave a deep sigh: “Don’t worry just yet, buddy. My experience has taught me that the females are far more resilient than we give them credit for. Let’s head back to the port and see if any of the sailors has seen her after she debarked.” Sekito saw a small sparkle of hope in the illuminated Xelor eyes.

“Maybe you want to pray with us, Brother, before you depart? Xelor will give you the strength and wisdom you need to continue.” Egol stood up: “Good idea, Brother. Please, lead the way.” Sekito got up as well, but Ethan raised his hand: “I’m sorry, friend, but this for initiates only. Please be so kind to wait here.” “Oh, okay. No problem.” Sekito sat back down, feeling awkward. “Don’t worry,” Egol reassured him, “I won’t be long. Platine will keep you company.” The little Tofu landed on the Eniripsa’s shoulder and clicked cheerfully. “Right, we’ll manage,” Sekito smiled lopsided as he scratched Platine under the beak. Egol bowed gratefully and followed Ethan down the second door. This led them through the dormitories and into a larger room filled with gears turning and clicking at their own pace. In the center, a bigger gear adorned with a large abstractly decorated needle seemed to power the entire contraption. The other monks had positioned themselves around the central gear and hovered in quiet meditation, slowly letting their time flow into the needle. Before they joined them, Ethan took Egol by the arm: “Brother, tell me, how well do you know your newfound friends?” Egol looked at him surprised: “What do you mean by that, Brother?” “Nothing. It’s just that for the moment they are the last ones to see sister Quanti alive. I understand that they have been kind to you, but before you’re absolutely sure, you cannot exclude them from the suspect list.” Egol stared at him for a few seconds before letting out a sigh: “You’re right, Brother. It’s been bothering me every since I’ve met them. A few of them are rather rough around the edges, but I just don’t see them capable of coldblooded murder.” “That’s because your vision has been tainted by the secluded years in the monastery, Egol. Not everyone has the best intentions at heart.” “Master Q warned me about this as well,” Egol admitted as they took their positions around the needle. “Heed your brethren’s wisdom, Egol. We don’t want to lose you as we did sister Quanti.” Egol thought about this for a few moments, but then decided to let it go for the time being and slowly froze himself in time next to the other monks.

The Riktus hideout was a maze of mining tunnels and caves spread out under the entire Holey Forest, allowing the bandits to move unseen or escape unharmed. Foolish adventurers trying to apprehend the criminals had learned that the Magic Riktus had more than one surprise in store in the deepest recesses of their tunnels awaiting unwanted visitors. In the center of the tunnel complex, a larger hall served as main base for the bandits and was their leader’s throne room, adorned with several flags and torches. Normally this place was filled with the laughter and shouting of Baddoboss and his lieutenants, but now it was silent but for one high-pitched giggle. In the center of the room, the Strawcrow had draped himself in Baddoboss’ throne and held up a smiling Riktus mask: “Well, this feels just like home! All those smiling faces on the walls eying us, all the weaponry spread on the floor, the entire room spattered with blood. Wonderful!” He put the Riktus mask over his own strawcrow mask and stood up in the throne: “What do you think, boys? Want to join the Riktus?” Heckle and Jeckle, his two masked minions, looked up from the Riktus corpses they were rummaging for loot, looked at each other and then at the Strawcrow: “You serious, Boss?” The Strawcrow jumped off the chair and pranced towards the Pumpkin mask wearing goon. “Why not?” he asked, his smiling Riktus mask inches away from Heckle’s face, “Don’t I look better now?” “Well…” Heckle tried, “you do, but it’s just not you.” Strawcrow stared at him for a few seconds and then suddenly yelled: “And you think this is me?” He pulled of the Riktus mask and pointed at his strawcrow mask, slowly advancing on the masked thug. “You think this bag o’ bugs suits me better than this one-eyed hood? That I’m more at home in a field of barley than in a dark, dank thieves’ hideout?” Pinned between the cave wall and his master, Heckle desperately tried to save the situation in his own intelligent fashion: “No, of course not, Boss, I mean, it’s just, you know.” Jeckle wanted to come to his friend’s aid, but then noticed the threat leaving Strawcrow’s voice: “Oh, don’t worry, you pumpkin head,” Strawcrow said amiably while patting him on the head, “I do know what you mean. These are all facades,” he said waving the Riktus mask, “which we will be able to drop soon. Why, the Professor has given all the necessary tools to complete our mission and now it’s only a matter of time before we can reap what we have sown all these years!” “But eh…” Jeckle interjected, “Shouldn’t we be collecting more, Boss? At this rate, it’ll take years before we have enough.” “Patience, my hollow henchman,” Scarecrow laughed as he headed back to the throne, “Victory should be savored like a nice wine: first let the vintage breathe and afterwards nip it down. Not in one gulp, but in small, ravishing portions, making the experience last as long as possible. I’ve worked years to get where I am now,” he said while slumping back into the Riktus throne, “and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it!”

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut your little party short.” Strawcrow jumped up in his seat: “What the?! Who dares to enter my lair?” but immediately calmed down again when he saw where the voice came from. In one of the entrances off the great hall Master Joris stood defiantly, flanked by Sadjih and Darius with their bows drawn: “So you are the one who put a spell on the Baddoboss.” The Strawcrow sat himself back down: “Well if it isn’t the honorable Master Joris. To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence, o untouchable one?” “I am here to stop you, villain! I have no doubt in my mind that you are the cause of this madness plaguing Amakna and I will make sure that you have infected your last victim!” “Infected?” Scarecrow laughed, “my incorruptible friend, I have done no such thing. I have cleansed them. Freed them of their vices! They have become better people since I treated them. You should be thanking me…” His voice became more menacing again: “and you will, soon enough. Heckle, Jeckle, get them!” From the side of the room, Heckle and Jeckle stormed the three-headed party, screaming and brandishing their weapons. In a split second, the Cras turned their bows towards the two henchmen and focused their fire on them while Joris darted towards the throne. Strawcrow laughed madly as he backflipped behind the throne, avoiding Joris and his log-hammer. Before Joris could prepare a second attack, the throne exploded into a smokescreen, knocking the little Bontarian on the floor. As the smoke engulfed Joris, he heard his Cra friends shout in the distance: “Master Joris!”

He tried to get up but then heard a faint click and found himself staring into a plunger/funnel-like device. As the smoke cleared, he saw that the plunger was mounted on a primitive harpoon-like gun and connected to Strawcrow’s backpack with a thin tube. “Allow me to demonstrate,” the Strawcrow giggled, defiantly aiming his gun at Joris, “how I intend to purify this world. How I alone will turn this chaotic cesspool into a peaceful pond.” “And how could one man quell the conflicts that have been raging for ages?” Joris swore he could almost see the Strawcrow smile through his mask: “I’m glad you asked.” The masked man suddenly pointed his gun away from Joris and fired the plunger-projectile at Darius who had just subdued one of the henchmen and was coming to Joris’ aid. Taken off guard by this reaction, the Cra reacted to late and took the plunger straight in the face. “Now let’s turn that frown upside down,” the Strawcrow explained as if he was giving a demonstration in a classroom. He flipped a lever on his backpack and for a moment, the tube connecting the plunger to the backpack glowed bright purple. Before anyone could react, the plunger detached from Darius’ face and was retracted onto the gun at high speed. Everyone in the room seemed to stare at Darius as he just stood there, motionless, with a blank stare and a broad smile chiseled on his face. After a few moments of absolute silence, the male Cra slowly started to laugh. Softly at first, but then louder and louder, until he was laughing as madly as the Strawcrow, who joined in.

Joris seemed to snap out of the spell of the moment and stared at the villain: “You… monster!” He jumped up and swung his weapon at the strawcrow man, who avoided it almost effortlessly, laughing all the way. “Oh come now, Bontarian Knight, can’t you see the improvement?” Joris didn’t respond and continued to attack while the Strawcrow kept avoiding his blows. As the Strawcrow backed up towards the previous location of the throne, he almost tripped over the elevated platform. Using this moment of distraction, Joris swung his log as hard as he could and hit the masked man straight in his stomach, catapulting him over the throne platform and hard against the back wall. Strawcrow slumped forward on his hands and knees and tried to regain his breath, letting out a strange mixture of coughing and laughing: “That’s… not very… stoic of you, my hooded hero.” Joris readied his weapon for the next attack: “I will give no quarter to monsters like you. What have you done to my friend?” Strawcrow slowly got up and wagged his finger: “Ah, ah, ah, it’s too soon for major plot revelations. Now it’s time for the villain to make a clean getaway and leave the heroes in distress.” The strawcrow man pulled a large cord dangling against the wall and before Joris could reach him six life-size Magic Riktus marionettes fell from the ceiling, blocking the path between the two adversaries. “Is this a joke?” Joris asked as the puppets seemed to come alive and brandished their wooden weapons. “Why don’t you find out for yourself?” Strawcrow laughed from behind his army of puppets. Joris prepared to attack them when he suddenly noticed the marionettes twitching as if they were trying to fight the grip of the strings: “Those… those are no puppets!” “Oooh,” Strawcrow moaned, “you found out too soon! It would have been much more fun had you found out after you had beaten them to a bloody pulp! But don’t worry, I’ve built in a fail-safe.” He pointed at the ceiling were the strings were attached. Joris looked up and saw a rickety wooden construction serving as pulley for the cords loaded with bombs and explosive devices. “Should my puppets become untied,” Strawcrow explained, “that little platform will tip over and rain fiery destruction on this hall, bringing down the forest on top of us!” “You are truly mad,” Joris replied, “now that you’ve told me of your plan, we’ll be able to foil it.” “You might,” the Strawcrow shrugged, “but what about your friend?”

Only then Joris became aware of Darius’ laughter becoming louder, accompanied by Sadjih’s screaming: “Darius, stop! Don’t do it!” Joris spun around and saw the maddened Cra firing his bow aimlessly, causing magical arrows flying through the big hall. Heckle and Jeckle were already hightailing out of the room when he laughingly charged another arrow, chuckling: “He, he, he. Shake ‘n Bake.” Sadjih tried to reach her friend but couldn’t stop him from firing his arrow at the ceiling of the cave. The impact caused the cave to shudder slightly but the rock formation didn’t crack. Joris exhaled in relief, but learned from the commotion behind him that the gagged-up puppets did not share his relief. He looked up again and saw a few of the bombs balancing on the edge of the plank. He shouted at Sadjih: “Sadjih! Up there! We have to prevent those bombs from falling!” The female Cra turned her attention away from her ailing friend and looked just in time to see the first bomb falling: “Too late!” She fired an arrow at the falling bomb, causing it to detonate mid-air. This cleared the present threat, but the blast had severed the ropes of the puppets, causing them to fall on the floor and releasing the other bombs who were still lying on the shelf. Joris instinctively jumped at the puppets, pushing them clear of the rain of bombs. He realized that this would make little difference as the combined explosion would kill them all, but it was all he could think off at the time. His Cra companion on the other hand had one more trick up her sleeve: she hurled a windy beacon at the bomb avalanche, followed seconds later by a magic arrow aimed at the beacon. The arrow hit the beacon at the exact moment it passed underneath the bombs, causing a violent wind burst amidst the bombs, propelling them to all corners of the hall. “Run!” Sadjih shouted while she grabbed her brother by his sleeve and headed for the nearest exit. The hall was filled with the thunderous roar of dozens of bombs exploding almost simultaneously as Joris herded the freed puppets to the exit in the back of the room as quickly as he could. Only moments after they headed through the door the entire room came crashing down, filling the hallways with dust and darkness.

As the dust settled down, Joris revealed a small luminescent rock from his haven bag, lighting up the hallway: “Is everybody all right?” In the faint glow of his makeshift lantern, he saw the puppets come to life, shaking and jerking, trying to take off their cords and masks. To his horror Joris saw the same frozen smile and blank stare as with Darius when they revealed their faces. And the moment they removed their gags, they started chuckling and giggling, moving around spastically, pushing each other around. One of the smiling zombies noticed Joris and decided he looked fun to play around with, but Joris had no intention in joining his little game. He threw his glowing rock in the center of the Strawcrow’s victims as a distraction and grabbed one of the discarded ropes as a weapon. Before the grinning puppets noticed what was going on, Joris encircled them with the rope and retied them in one group. Unable to move, they started laughing uneasily and tried to break free from their predicament. While they struggled wildly, Joris grabbed a small flask from his sack and lobbed it in the middle of the entangled group. Slowly the laughter died down and a few moments later, the zombies sagged almost in unity. “Thank Eniripsa,” Joris whispered, “If they had decided to turn on me as Baddoboss had, I had been in trouble. Now, let’s take care of them and then find us a way out of here.”

The previously bristling Bontarian boulevard had grown quiet in the soothing moonlight when Egol and Sekito said their goodbyes to the little congregation. “Xelor be with you, my friends,” Ethan bowed at Egol and Sekito, “and never forget that we’re but a Sinistro away, my brother.” Egol bowed back respectfully: “Do not worry, my brother, you will hear from me again soon when I have recovered our sister.” Ethan bowed again and slowly closed the door, leaving the two friends out in the streets by themselves. “Well, it’s too late now to do anything, so I suggest we head back to the ship,” Sekito finally spoke. “Oh… right,” Egol said distantly, “Yes, that seems like the best thing to do. Platine?” The Tofu had perched herself on one of the nearby street signs and clicked affirmatively. “Please take us back to the harbor.” The two companions walked silently next to each other through the torch-lit streets of Bonta. It was after their third turn that Sekito finally broke the silence: “Are you all right, Egol? You haven’t said a word since we left the congregation.” “Yeah, I’m sorry, Sekito. I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.” “Did something happen back there that got you worrying like this?” Egol seemed to consider this: “No. No, not really. We just prayed to Xelor for a little while in silence. It’s just that seeing the Order again has got me thinking. I’ve only been gone for a few days and already I seem to have forgotten all about our beliefs, our rules,… I was perfectly content in being a part of the Creaky Kraken’s crew. I even almost forgot about them…” “Them?” Sekito echoed, “Who are you referring to? Your fellow monks?” “Uh, no… yes…” Egol tried, but quickly gave up: “No. I meant my parents. They have gone missing for some time now and one of the reasons I was so eager to accept my mission was my hope to find some clues of their whereabouts.” Egol sighed and tucked his hands in his sleeves. “My word, Egol” Sekito commented, “you’re a one-man missing persons agency. But it’s a big world out there, how you plan to find three people in this sea of souls drifting about on Ogrest’s Floods?” This only seemed to depress Egol even more: “I… I don’t know, Sekito. In the monastery, I had high hopes that I could find them, believing that Xelor would guide me in their direction, but out here Xelor’s influence seems far weaker than it felt back home.”

Suddenly, Platine fluttered a few inches from his face, clicking and ticking encouragingly. Sekito jumped back: “What’s her problem?” Egol extended his arm, allowing the little bird to perch on his wrist. “You’re right, Platine, I can’t abandon my faith for every little bump in the road. Xelor works in mysterious ways. As long as I live by His Hand, I will succeed eventually.” “You understand your Tofu?” Sekito asked with a little doubt in his friend’s sanity. “Platine and I share a… special bond. And she’s no ordinary Tofu either. Show him, Platine.” The Tofu flew off Egol’s arm, checked both ends of the street and then hovered in front of the two friends. Her eyes started to glow and with a small flash, she transformed into her Sinistro form. “Wow!” Sekito exclaimed, “What’s that?” Platine hovered a little closer to the Eniripsa. “This is a Sinistro,” They are special envoys of the God Xelor. They can transport themselves through time and space and allow us to communicate with each other through them. They can even manipulate the time stream a bit. Every monk leaving the monastery is assigned one so we can keep in touch.” Sekito carefully tried to touch Platine’s pendulum tail. “We didn’t want to deceive anyone, but we’ve learned that the sight of one little Sinistro alarms a great many people, so the clever little creatures have found a way to conceal themselves as everyday objects and animals.” “Fascinating,” Sekito murmured, “I’ve heard about these creatures before, but never witnessed one for real.” “Now I hope our secret is safe with you?” “Off course, off course,” Sekito affirmed him, “You don’t have to worry about that…. So, what else can she do?”

After a short demonstration of Platine’s abilities, the trio continued their journey back to the Creaky Kraken in a lighter mood than the one they had departed in at the congregation. When they took another turn down one of the deserted streets, they noticed one of the carts was still illuminated by a single lantern. It was the WOAH-cart of Wally Maart. “Wow, when he says ‘open all hours’, he really means open all hours,” Egol remarked, “And he even has customers at this hour!” Sekito squinted his eyes and said: “Aren’t that… Ega and Thur? Hey, Ega! Thur!” The Eniripsa waved enthusiastically at their fellow crewmembers. The Sacrier and the Iop on the other hand didn’t seem very pleased to see them as they acted as if they were caught red handed. Ega immediately approached them obviously not pleased by their presence: “What are you two doing here?” “Um, hi Ega,” Sekito tried, “we were just on our way back to the ship. We’ve been visiting…” “I don’t care,” she interrupted, “you two have no business being out here this late. Even the streets of Bonta aren’t safe at this hour for two whippersnappers like yourselves!” “I..I’m sorry, Ega,” Sekito reacted surprised, “we didn’t want to worry you guys.” “Never mind, just get back before I lose my patience!” She didn’t need to say that twice, so Sekito and Egol got out of there as fast as they could. When they passed Wally Maart’s cart, Egol noticed that Wally’s outfit was a bit messier than it was in the afternoon.

It was not until after they passed the corner that they both slowed down. “Phew, that was a close call,” Sekito sighed, “Just our luck to run into Ega in a bad mood.” “I wonder what got her into that mood,” Egol pondered, “Wally Maart didn’t seem too happy with his late-night customers.” “Well, if he managed to swindle one of them, I wouldn’t be very happy either, knowing what was coming,” Sekito joked. “Yeah well, let’s make sure we’re not around when they’re done with him. I wouldn’t like to become Ega’s punching bag.” Laughing and joking, the pair reached their ship without any more trouble. Platine flew ahead to check the ship and came back with the report that there was no one on board. “The captain’s probably getting wasted in his favorite tavern, the Sea Dragon. We better go and pick him up. Last time, the bar keeper was not very pleased with the mess he left.” “Really, Captain O’Card? He seemed more like a… quiet drinker to me,” Egol remarked. “Yeah, until he’s provoked. And in these sailor bars, that happens more than often.” They both sighed “I really could have used a good night’s rest after this eventful day.” “Yeah, I know, but with Ega and Thur still in town he has no one to take on -and deal- out the punches when push comes to shove.” The two friends slumped their shoulders, turned around and headed for the Sea Dragon.
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Great story! Keep going.

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Chapter 4

Sulpa pulled his beggar’s outfit a little more over his face as he approached the tavern known as ‘The Last Resort’ in search of his next lead. The streets of Bonta held little secrets to a top spy as Sulpa Venneir, so it had taken him only a day or so to find out that a mystery man was recruiting miners in this tavern under very lucrative conditions. But with the nearest mines nearly a day’s ride away and more importantly, the request not posted in the bigger taverns, Sulpa had a hunch this was the best place to start. He draped his ragged cloak over his shoulders and opened the door. Next to the usual lowlifes the bar was filled with several uneasy-looking strangers. Sulpa guessed they were the applicants and approached them: “Hey, you here for the mining job?” Most of them turned their backs on him, but one scruffy-looking Enutrof grunted affirmatively: “Yeah, but we’ve been waiting here for hours with nothing to show for it. I think we’ve been had.” “Oh, I guarantee you, good sir, that you have been anything but had,” a melodious voice sounded from behind them. The men turned around and found a woman almost entirely wrapped in robes. But even with barely any part of her body visible, the clothing could not hide the woman’s obvious beauty. Her eyes alone were the deepest blue Sulpa had ever seen and it took him some effort to take his gaze off them. “So, you’re here to take us to the mines?” he asked casually, “I hope you brought a big enough cart.” “Oh, don’t worry, mister…” “Virennes, Paul Virennes.” Sulpa was a sucker for anagrams and couldn’t resist thinking out clever names for his pseudonyms. “Mister Virennes,” the lady continued, “I assure you we’ve thought of everything. But before we discuss the practicalities, please follow me.” The mysterious woman slowly stepped into the backroom of the tavern, closely followed by the enthralled men. Sulpa was about to follow them when he heard a painful sigh. Apparently not all interested parties were of the male gender. In the corner, a few female Enutrofs, Iops and Fecas slowly got out of their seat and followed the rest of the group. “Hello, ladies,” Sulpa tried, “You all here for the mining job as well?” “What are you suggesting, young man?” one of the Enutrof women spat out, “That we’re not fit for such physical labor?” The Ecaflip recognized a losing battle when he saw one and withdrew quickly: “Of course not, ladies. Let’s find out what our mystery woman has to say, now shall we?”

Sulpa and the rest of the gang entered the backroom where the men were already crowding around the veiled woman. “Ladies and gentlemen,” their hostess began, “I am very pleased to see so many of you here today. Now before I explain the nature of your job you must all sign this contract swearing absolute secrecy.” The dazed men stirred but didn’t react, but the women were obviously not so complacent: “What is all this about a contract? We came here to mine and excavate, not to sign paperwork!” The cloaked woman seemed unfazed by the sudden uproar in the female part of the population and produced a stack of papers from underneath her robes. “We are in a very delicate business, my dears. We cannot risk that our competitors learn our trade secrets. That’s why we have these standard SLA-contracts to assure us you won’t run and tell.” One of the female Fecas took the top piece of paper and investigated it: “What in Feca’s name is a SLA-contract?” “Sram’s League of Assassins’ contract” As if to reinforce her words, four Srams appeared out of the shadows of the room, surrounding the miners. “Understand this: we do not force you to sign or participate, but if you want in, you will be sworn to secrecy. Anyone who breaks this contract will have to deal with the League… and trust me, you do not want that.” All the miners, even the men, looked uneasily at each other and at the assassins staring at them silently. Sulpa was impressed: the SLA was one of the most prestigious clans of Srams in the World of Twelve and they didn’t come cheap. Whoever was funding this operation spared no expense to remain invisible to the Bontarian authorities. It took a few moments to sink in but after a while the miners started to sign the contracts one by one. Sulpa didn’t want to raise any suspicion and signed the paper just like everybody else. The lady collected all signed contracts and handed them over to one of the Srams.

“Now that formality is out of the way, let me commence by giving a small sample of our gratitude.” She signaled one of the other Srams and he started to hand out small pouches to every miner. Sulpa opened his and found it filled with Kamas. Judging from the gasps and contained squeaks of joy coming from the men and women around him, the others were just as surprised as he was about this little gift. “Secrecy is highly valued in our business and this is just to show you that we do appreciate your commitment. Now, on to the business at hand.” The two remaining Srams rolled out a large map and held it up behind the mystery woman. It portrayed the layout of a mining complex with several smaller tunnels all coming together in the center in a large gallery, indicated with a gemstone on the map. “We are now here,” she pointed at the drawing of a beer mug at the end of one of the tunnels. “In a moment, you will depart towards the main excavation site where you will be digging up these.” She pulled out a small purple shard and held it out for all to see. “This is Stasili, a very valuable but very volatile ore abundantly present beneath the city. Our clients are most interested in these gems so we must make sure they reach them intact. That’s why all excavated stones are to be loaded into carts and transported here.” She pointed to a small ship drawn at the end of another tunnel.

“We have another team already actively searching for new veins, so your job consists solely of excavation and transport. Are there any questions?” A scruffy-looking Ecaflip slowly raised his hand. “Should we be… worrying? You know, about being caught and all?” The entire room stared at him in silence. “Well,” he continued hesitantly, “We all know we’re doing something illegal, right? So should we be on the lookout for guards or something like that?” The silence lingered for a few more seconds before the hostess intervened: “I assure you that none of our activities are illegal, sir. If you were hoping to break the law, you are in the wrong place, I’m afraid. All this secrecy is required to keep our competitors guessing to where we’re acquiring our goods.” “Yeah right,” Sulpa Venneir thought to himself, “if this is a legal mining operation, then I’m a Brakmarian Bow Meow. But I never knew that the Bontarian underground contained this much Stasili. No wonder those Foggernauts invaded our shores a while ago. I must make sure to take a little sample back to the lab.” The masked woman scanned the room: “No more questions? Very good. Then let me introduce you to your foreman: Mister W.” A skinny looking man wearing a complete Black Zordfish-outfit concealing his recognizable features entered the room through a back entrance and greeted his new employees: “Hello, guppies! You all ready for some digging? Then follow me, I’ll hand you your equipment and point you towards the richest veins in the mine.” Mister W was obviously a man of little words as he turned after his little speech and headed back out the backdoor. The miners followed him in a single file, not really knowing what they had gotten themselves into.

Egol Rho slowly awoke when he felt the click of 6 o’clock in the back of his mind. He yawned and stretched in his hammock before checking in on his crewmates. Thur and Sekito were still fast asleep, but that didn’t surprise him. It had been a short night for all of them as it had taken quite some time to get Captain Cin back to the ship. It was not until Thur and Ega had joined them at the Sea Dragon that they had been able to lift the Osamodas off his seat and steer him towards his cabin. Egol was surprised at the strength Cin O’Card had displayed at the tavern: even Thur Becrofal had to give it his all to drag the Captain out of there. Above him, Platine clicked softly, apparently also awoken by the temporal wave of the morning hour. Egol quietly teleported himself outside their cabin onto the ship’s deck, directly followed by his Sinistro. When his feet touched the wooden floor, he lost his balance for just a moment. “Wow,” he said as he took hold of the railing, “what’s that? That doesn’t normally happen when I teleport.” He looked at his companion and saw Platine struggling as much as he did. Once he regained his balance, he allowed her to perch on his wrist and petted her on the head. “You too, Platine? Our adventure from yesterday must have gotten to us more than I thought. We better take it slow today.” Platine clicked faintly and they both stared at the Bontarian harbor slowly awakening. Many of the ships were already bustling with activity, preparing to leave for open sea. “I guess the early Albatrocious catches the fish,” Egol thought to himself. “I think we better take care of the breakfast today, Platine,” Egol said out loud, “Sekito didn’t look as if he was going to wake any time soon.”

It took another three hours before the first member of the Creaky Kraken’s crew joined Egol in the galley. “Good morning, Ega,” Egol said softly, “Do you care for some breakfast?” Ega muttered something under her breath and sat herself down at the table. Egol knew the Sacrier’s morning mood, so he prepared her plate and placed it in front of her. Before he could retract his hand, she grabbed him by the wrist without looking at him: “Where did you two go yesterday?” Egol was startled at first, but relaxed a bit when he felt she didn’t really squeeze his arm. Well, at least not very hard and that was being friendly in Ega’s world. “Well, we went and visit the Hand of Xelor’s congregation here in the city of Bonta. I wanted to learn if they had seen my friend Quanti after she had left the Creaky Kraken.” “And?” she grumbled. “They hadn’t heard or seen from her since her departure at the monastery on Kalf-Cil-Fel.” As Ega didn’t respond, Egol assumed their conversation was over. But when he tried to move his hand, she tightened her grip: “Why do you want to find her?” Egol was rather surprised by this question coming from Ega: “Well.. she is my friend. I worry about her. Why shouldn’t I be looking for her?” “Do you know how many people have gone missing during Ogrest’s Chaos? If you had to look for all of them, you would need a hundred lifetimes.” “But I don’t want to find them all, just Quanti,” Egol replied honestly. “And have you ever thought about the possibility that her disappearance wasn’t an accident? That maybe she doesn’t want to be found.” Egol considered this as Ega slowly loosened her grip: “No, she wouldn’t do that. Quanti was eager to preach the Word of Xelor.” But then he thought about his experiences in the World of Twelve and how he also almost forgot his calling and slowly doubt crept in his thoughts. “No… she wouldn’t… would she?” “They’re all the same, Egol,” Ega grumbled, “just forget about her and move on. Life’s too short and too dangerous to be constantly worrying about others.” “That was an unexpected bit of wisdom coming from Ega,” Egol thought to himself. But he couldn’t stop worrying about his friend. He just couldn’t imagine Quanti leaving the Order like that.

An hour or so later the entire crew was up and after a hearty breakfast, Captain Cin gave the sign to head out to open sea again. Thur, Ega and Sekito got everything ready for departure, but Egol just stood on deck, staring at the horizon. He still felt as miserable as he did this morning and Ega’s comment hadn’t improved his mental health either. He just felt like a train wreck, not capable of much more than just standing there and staring. And Platine felt no better as she sat on the railing next to him, lifelessly staring into the distance.

“What do you mean, he’s gone?!” Admiral Belvu tried his best to remain calm as the ensign repeated his report. The Admiral rose from his desk with an air of controlled rage: “So you are telling me he took one of the mini-subs and left? After I specifically had instructed him not to leave the city?” The ensign replied with a quick ‘yessir’. He knew that none of this was his fault but he also knew that the phrase ‘shooting the messenger’ had a slightly more literal approach in the military, certainly with men like Omar Belvu. The Admiral was a strategic genius and a great leader but with an ego the size of a Squidwhale. In his own mind Belvu’s commands were absolute and to be obeyed by all, so when civilians as Doctor Knarf blatantly disregarded them, it struck quite a nerve. For a moment, his pale face turned a shade of indigo, but then faded again. He turned his back towards the ensign and waved his hand: “Dismissed.” The soldier scurried out of the office, leaving Omar alone with his thoughts. “This is disgraceful,” he said into the silence, “I should not be here, babysitting some half-baked scientist. I should be out there, at the spearhead of the military operation. Mofette is not cut out to lead our fleet, I am! I don’t know what the King was thinking when he assigned me to ‘Operation Breach’.”

“Maybe he wanted to avoid another debacle like your invasion plan, Admiral.” Admiral Belvu spun around and found himself staring straight at Prince Adale standing at the other end of his desk. “The ensign must have let him in when he left the office,” Omar thought to himself. He quickly recomposed himself and straightened himself up to his full height: “May I remind His Highness that I had his full support in the realization of that plan? It was His Highness’s idea in the first place to combine our Stasitech with the ancient Foggernaut technology.” “It was an experiment worth undertaking, Admiral,” the Prince said coldly, punctuating each word, “but there is a large difference between sending a scout troop of those new Foggernauts to the surface and launching a full-scale invasion! Hundreds of Foggernauts were lost to us because of your impetuousness.” “We can build more,” the Admiral countered, “We made the initial mistake to underestimate the perseverance of the people topside, but we won’t make that mistake again.” “Indeed we won’t, Admiral,” Adale said in a still monotone voice, “Father will not have it. He wants to keep walking the road of peaceful resurfacing and not of aggressive invasion.” “You have seen the ferocity with which they attacked our Foggernaut army the moment they surfaced! You think those land-dwellers will hesitate one moment to show us the same ‘kindness’ when we finally breach the surface?” “Admiral,” Adale sighed, “we invaded their lands. Their ‘ferocity’, as you call it, was purely out of self-defense. We would react the same should they one day decide to attack our city.” “Even those treacherous New Sufokians joined in!” Omar Belvu was pressing his argument, but felt he was waging a losing battle. “How could they have possibly known that those machines were our doing?” Adale asked, “When even most of us down here were unaware of the ongoing events? No, it’s better this way.”

He grabbed one of the chairs in the corner of the room and sat himself down in front of the desk. “It’s a good thing the people up above believed the little fairy tale we made up about the body modifications and technomagical surgery, but it won’t take long before they’ll start looking for our long lost city of Sufokia. You’ve surely twisted our arm, Admiral: resurface now or be discovered and disgraced.” The Admiral sat down in his seat and got ready to rebut the Prince’s story, but Adale raised his hand to shut him up: “Not to mention the enormous amount of Stasili that was wasted on this invasion force. Should we have used these supplies to keep our city running, we would not be in this precarious situation. Your mistake surely cost us dearly, Admiral.” “My mistake?! You…” “Not to mention all the loose ends we have to tie up,” Prince Adale continued. “Not all Foggernauts were accounted for. There must be a number of them still at large in the World of Twelve. Wicky Leeks’ story should convince most of the population that these Foggernauts are faulty prototypes not to be trusted, but we can’t take any risks. So, taking all that into account, it is not illogical that my Father confined you to the city.” The Admiral gazed at the Prince, waiting to make sure that he wouldn’t be interrupted again in his defense. After a few moments of staring, Belvu spoke: “Your Majesty, you and I both know that if our little invasion had succeeded, we would have been hailed as the new heroes of Sufokia, forever going down the history as the liberators of our fair nation. We took a gamble and we lost. And since history is written by the victors, I’m now being pictured as a selfish egomaniac, thinking only of my personal glory, while I have done nothing other than my very best to keep this city afloat, so to speak. I care for Sufokia, my Prince, and your Father knows this. As for these loose ends, let me arrange a strike team to hunt them down and eliminate them. Soon the Foggernauts will be nothing but a fading memory to the World of Twelve. And as for those adventurers coming down here to search for the mythical lost city of Sufokia: our defenses are ready for them. No one will return to the surface to tell the tale until we say so.”

“Spoken like a true soldier,” Adale commented. “I’m not saying your ideas are not… commendable, Admiral, but I don’t think you were paying close attention at our last meeting. Our Stasili supplies are running dry and so are our funds, so we can only invest our efforts in the most vital operations. True, the Foggernauts are a risk, but one we can’t afford to spend any resources on. We must just hope that nothing too detrimental will come of it. You must concentrate your attention on ‘Operation Breach’.” “And do what exactly?” the Admiral countered bitterly “Check up on our dear Doctor every two minutes? The man hasn’t come up with any viable idea to raise our city to the surface. Even if he comes up with a plan, time and resources will probably be too few to realize it.” “See the bigger picture here, Admiral. If raising our city isn’t an feasible option, we must examine other alternatives.” Omar Belvu stared at the Prince intently. Last time Adale had made such suggestion, it had resulted in him being scoffed for leading a failed Foggernaut invasion. Prince Adale stood up and walked to a world map attached to one of the walls. “I’ve read some of the long range scout reports and one of them mentions an archipelago with ‘unusual readings’. They suspect it’s full of Stasili.” Adale pointed to an empty region on the map. “But that’s almost on the other end of the world!” the Admiral replied. “I’m just suggesting, Admiral.” Adale said. “You are free to wait here in your office for Knarf’s solution, but for the good of Sufokia, it might be better to think proactively.” Smiling lopsidedly Adale gave Omar a small nod and walked towards the door. “It’s up to you,” he added before he exited the room, closing the door behind him.

Admiral Belvu locked his hands and stared in silence to the door. After a minute of silence, he spoke: “Well, that was close. For a moment there I thought he had seen you.” “Not to worry,” a metallic voice spoke from the far corner of his office, “my receptors had already noticed how he had slipped in. That is why I didn’t respond to your earlier statements.” Out of the corner of his eye the Admiral noticed a small robotic spider with a single purple eye scuttle away towards his file cabinets. A purple glow appeared from behind one of them as it slid open, revealing a bronze colored Foggernaut glowing with Stasitech technology. With one hand, he brought a cigarette holder with a glowing orb of Stasili to his mouth/grill, making it glow by drawing on it. “I told you to stop that, Gaspard,” the Admiral said without looking at him. “I provide you with enough Stasili to keep you up and running. No need to waste any more on that filthy habit.” Omar never understood how the robot had picked up on that strange habit, but whenever he had the chance, he ‘smoked’ a chunk of Stasili. “I am afraid it is the only thing that keeps me sane in my cramped jail cell.” “Can’t you shut down or something? That would spare Stasili and pass the time.” The Foggernaut took another puff as he walked towards the Admiral’s desk: “I’m afraid not, Sir. I told you before, we are no mere machinery. We cannot be switched on and off as you people please.” As Omar kept staring in silence, Gaspard walked on passed the deck towards the map on the wall. His Stasili pipe lit the map as he studied the area Prince Adale had indicated. “Hm, not much there, now is there?” “He’s trying to set me up, I just know it. Just like he did last time!” “Now I wouldn’t say that, Sir,” Gaspard said sarcastically. “At least you have an entire new division for your Navy.” He pointed at himself with his cigarette holder. “For what good it will do me! The King was quite clear that there would not be a single Foggernaut enlisted in our forces.” “Of course not, Sir, not in our proud and visible military forces. But every nation has its covert operations, its spies, its secret agents.” The Admiral looked at him: “We don’t even have enough Stasili to keep our own city up and running, so there certainly isn’t enough to maintain an entire squad of energy consuming mechanical agents.” “Now we don’t, no. But if those islands are as rich as the Prince claims, maybe we can finally hoard enough of the precious ore to keep this city -and your private army- running for an indefinite period of time.” The Admiral snorted. “Your thinly veiled attempts to preserve your own existence are pitiful, Gaspard.” “Maybe so, Sir, but as His Majesty said so eloquently: maybe we should start acting proactively?” Omar Belvu pondered these words, muttering to himself: “What else can we do?”

Several hours and another Bontarian Navy inspection later, the Creaky Kraken crossed over into international waters. All this time, Egol and Platine hadn’t left the railing of the ship, still feeling miserable. “What’s the problem, sailor?” Cin O’Card asked while slapping him on the shoulder, “Don’t feel like working today?” “I’m sorry, Captain, but I’ve been feeling terrible since this morning. I hardly can keep myself standing.” Cin grinned: “Yeah, the Sea Dragon can have that effect on greenhorns.” “But I haven’t drunk one pint, Captain,” Egol protested meekly. “Yeah well, whatever the case may be, you’re still useless to me in this state. Get down to your cabin and I’ll send Sekito to check up on you.” Egol tried to refuse, but the Captain’s orders were final. He went back to his cabin and laid himself down in his hammock, trying in vain to get some sleep. His head was bursting and every temporal wave felt as if Xelor himself hit him on the head with his hammer. Somewhere in the dark of the room, Platine clicked softly. “You can’t sleep either?” Affirmative click. “Me neither. I don’t know what happened yesterday, but it sure messed us up.” Another affirmative click. “You think it had something to do with our visit to the Bontarian congregation yesterday?” A clear negative series of clicks. “But then what? We didn’t drink at the tavern, ate anything unusual or been to places that didn’t look healthy.” After a few heartbeats, Platine clicked tentatively. “Wally Maart? No, I don’t see how he could do this to us. Except for his strange doppelganger back on Kalf-Cil-Fel, he looked completely harmless.” Another series of clicks. “Yeah, I know Sekito warned us about him, but it’s not within an Enutrof’s power to curse anyone. Not like this, anyway.”

“Hey guys, you talking about me?” Sekito i Bitna joked as he opened the door. “Hi, Sekito,” Egol greeted his friend, “It’s nothing like that. Platine and I were trying to figure out how we got so sick.” “Yeah, the Captain told me you looked miserable. Well, his exact words were that you probably looked miserable, but he couldn’t see with all the bandages.” The Eniripsa chuckled as he sat himself down in the hammock next to Egol’s. “So, what seems to be the problem?” “I really don’t know. Both me and Platine have just been feeling awful since this morning.” “Well, let’s see if we can fix that,” Sekito said as he pulled out his brush, “Some general healing should do the trick.” He mumbled some unintelligible words and drew some figures with his wand, generating small sparkles that slowly descended towards Egol. He kept doing this for a minute or two before putting his brush away again: “Any noticeable difference?” “Not really, sorry.” “Hey, no need to apologize. And besides, we’re not done yet!” Sekito rolled up his sleeves and pulled out all the stops. Sparks and flashes filled the room as the healer performed his most advanced healing spells, requiring more and more complex gestures and even more muttering. After a while the Eniripsa slumped in the hammock, panting heavily. “Well, do you feel any better now?” Egol examined his body as the last sparkles slowly faded on his Xelor armor. “Sorry, Sekito. Maybe this is a side-effect of being away from the monastery for so long. I don’t know.” “Well, buddy, then the only thing I can prescribe is rest. I’ll let the Captain know you won’t be up for a few hours at least.” He let himself slide out of the hammock and almost swooned as he got up. “Wow,” he said while holding his head with one hand as to prevent it to fall off, “really took out all the stops on that one.” He slowly waddled towards the door, trying desperately not to hit anything on his way out. Egol watched as his friend slowly closed the door and resumed his effort to get some sleep.

At the same time, Mei de Prac woke up with a droning sensation in her head. She immediately felt she was chained to the wall as her vision returned to her. She heard voices in the distance, but her first priority was to asses her situation. She was inside some dark cave with the subtle scent of sulfur and magma: Brakmar! So the Mirc siblings had brought her back to their homeland. But what for? And what were they planning with all those miners? Another voice came through, more clearly this time, answering her question. It was Nos Mirc, the oldest of the trio: “I’ve released the miners as you told me, but I still don’t understand why. Why do we kidnap them in the first place if we’re just going to release them later? Weren’t we going to use them as hostages?” “No, Nos,” a second voice responded. Mei recognized this one as Kzam, the Mask of Shushu, the one who presumably knocked her out back in the Bontarian underground. “Their abduction served simply as a warning to their employer that we know about their little operation and that we want our share of the profits. But it seems to have had little effect as they are already digging with a new crew.” “How do you know this?” the voice of Lani Mirc sounded through. A low, nasty voice replied: “Haven’t you learned yet to trust us, little Rogue?” “That must be the Shushu inhabiting the mask,” Mei thought. “No,” the Mirc sister replied flatly. “Well, though luck, little sister. You are on our payroll, so you’ll just have to trust us,” the Shushu mocked. “That’s enough, Sarojam. They are our associates, remember? Let me show you a little secret.”

Mei heard them approaching her prison and quickly pretended to be unconscious. She heard the door open and felt the bandits walking right past her. Suddenly she felt a finger stroke her face. “What do we do about her?” the voice of the second brother Lenny sounded right in front of her. Mei swore she could hear the soft sound of a dagger being unsheathed. “Shouldn’t we just eliminate her? If she wakes up, she’ll be a threat to us.” Mei felt the weapon hovering inches away from her jugular. “Let her be for now,” Kzam instructed. “She may still be of some use to us later. Come here, so I can introduce you to our secret weapon.” Mei was relieved when she felt Lenny’s presence fade but was curious what this secret weapon was. She peeked very subtly just to make sure no one was paying attention to her and saw them all standing in front of a large object covered by a cloth. “Allow me to introduce…” Kzam began while pulling away the curtain, “our magic mirror!” Mei was as surprised as the Rogues seeing the large, oddly shaped mirror with three large eyes on top. “Hello, Igor,” Sarojam greeted the mirror. “Hello there, Sarojam,” the Shushu mirror replied with a slight Slavic accent. “How have you been? Still serving these puny humans?” “Hey!” Nos retorted as he pulled out his gun, “who are you calling puny, you piece of furniture?” “Never mind him,” the demon in the mask spoke. “You know my point of view on this, Igor. They are not as useless as our great King believes them to be. They have a natural knack for destruction and mayhem.” It seemed as if the third eye on the mask was grinning. “Suit yourself. What can I do for you?”

“Show us the Stasili mine beneath Bonta again,” Kzam answered in his stead. “As you wish,” Igor said stoically. Their reflection on the mirror swirled and transformed into a view of the digging site in Bonta. “Incredible,” Nos muttered, but Lani was less impressed: “Son of a Stalagmote! They’ve already replaced every miner we took from them! They just ignored our threats and went on with business as usual!” “Indeed,” Kzam said in a cold voice. “They clearly didn’t get the message the first time. Time for more… drastic measures. All right, bring as much explosive devices as you three can carry. We’re making another little trip to Bonta tonight.” “We’re going to blow up the mine?” “No, but we’re going to make sure that the Bontarian authorities can’t miss it!” Kzam and Sarojam let out a villainous laughter echoing through the caves. Mei’s mind was racing in trying to find a way to stop this mad plan when she suddenly noticed a familiar face in the mirror. “What’s he doing down there?” she thought to herself, “The last time I saw him, he was serving drinks at Crusty Road.”

Egol awoke in the middle of the night, a strong buzzing sensation filing his head. He obviously had fallen asleep somewhere during the day as the room was pitch dark and he could hear the snoring of Thur and Sekito somewhere nearby. But then he heard something else, a soft mixture of ticks and clicks coming from the direction of the door. “Platine?” Egol whispered into the darkness. “Is that you? Be quiet or you’ll wake everyone up.” The clicking continued, more urgent this time. “What are you talking about,” Egol whispered as he slipped out of bed. “Who’s in the hallway?” The Sinistro fell quiet and disappeared with a subtle flash. Egol tried to remain upright as his legs shook underneath his body and the Creaky Kraken softly bobbed on the waves. He didn’t risk teleporting yet and softly opened the door of their cabin and stepped into the hallway, his eyes slowly getting used to the darkness of the ship. “Platine?” he called into the hallway, which was immediately responded by a series of clicks coming from behind him. When he turned around, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A few feet in front of him a ghostly looking Xelor girl was sneaking through the hallway. “It… it can’t be. Quanti?” The slightly transparent girl didn’t respond and slowly crept further away from him. Platine fluttered in front of her, trying to get her attention, but she just pressed on and went straight through the Sinistro. “Platine, what’s going on? Is that… Quanti’s ghost?” Platine clicked negatively. “You’re right. We had ghosts at the monastery and they could see us just as well as we could see them. Then what is this?” His pet shrugged, but clicked nervously as the blue specter almost disappeared out of sight. “You’re right, better follow her first and ask questions later.” Egol slowly followed her at some distance with Platine perched on his shoulder. “Where is she going? That way’s a dead end.” As Quanti reached the end of the hallway, she squatted down and started to scratch at the wooden wall. Egol approached carefully and saw her pulling up a ghostly version of one of the planks. “This is a recording of some sort, Platine. Some kind of temporal image that lingered on the ship. I don’t know how she did it, but…” Suddenly, the ghostly Quanti spun around like a startled animal, looking terrified. “What’s going on? It almost looks as she’s discovered.” The female Xelor held her hands in front of her face as if to guard herself from an incoming attack, when suddenly her arms were grabbed by two ghostly tendrils and the entire image dissipated. For a moment Egol stood there thunderstruck as the faint blue glow disappeared, leaving him in utter darkness again.

“Did you see that?” Platine readjusted herself on his shoulder, but kept suspiciously quiet. “Those tentacles that grabbed her… that was Ega!” For a moment Egol felt all his self-control smolder away. He grabbed the board which the ghost of Quanti had forced open and gave it a strong tug. The plank broke off, revealing a purple glow beneath it. Egol calmed down as he felt his headache intensify again. “There’s an entire hidden room behind this wall,” Egol said while peering into the newly created opening, “filled with some kind of purple gemstones. And according to me,” he got up again as his head flared up with pain, “are they the cause of our sickness, Platine. There’s doing … something to the temporal waves around the ship. Since we didn’t get sick on the way to Bonta, they must have been loaded into the ship last night. And that’s why Quanti’s image didn’t appear before! The previous distortion must have caused her temporal presence to linger on this ship and now that the distortion is back, so is the image.” Egol almost leapt at his discovery, but suddenly came to realize something: “But that must mean… Quanti was with them when they transported these purple rocks… and since the ship was empty when I got on board…” “See, I told you he was trouble,” an angry female voice echoed through the darkness, “just like his girlfriend!” Two silhouettes became visible as a torch was lit on the other end of the hallway. “Ega. Thur. What did you do to Quanti?” Egol yelled at them. “What we do to all nosey rats: exterminate!” To punctuate her statement, Ega launched her tattoo tentacles at the Xelor and his pet. But Egol was prepared: he slowed time a little bit, allowing him to dodge her attack while Platine vanished in a flash. “Hm, at least you have better reflexes than her. But let’s see you dodge this: Thur, crush him!” The Iop stormed at him with a feral roar, readying his fist to reduce the little monk into a bloody pulp. Egol braced himself for impact, but just when Thur’s punch was about to hit, teleported away, sending the unstoppable force crashing through the back wall. Unable to stop himself, Thur Becrofal landed head first into the large pile of purple ore while Egol reappeared seconds later in the same spot, completely unharmed. “Thur, you oaf! Be careful around that Stasili! That stuff can blow up with the slightest spark!” Ega shouted. “Stasili?” Egol thought to himself as he turned around to see the big giant floundering in a pile of the mineral. The Sacrier used this distraction to her advantage and launched another attack at Egol. She grabbed his wrist with her tentacle and catapulted him through the hallway towards the exit. Egol hit a floor a few times before he rolled to a stop in front of the staircase leading to the deck. His entire body was aching, but he got up just in time to avoid Ega Wutat’s next volley of tattoos. He summoned the hour hand of his Hora Prima just in time to launch an energy blast at the advancing Sacrier, hitting her straight on the chest. This was enough to halt her momentarily, but certainly not to stop her. Egol got up quickly as he saw the rage burning in her eyes and teleported to the deck.

Materializing on deck, Egol summoned both his weapons and joined them into a spear. He held out the weapon in front of him and focused his powers on it, causing its center, gear-like handle to glow. Down in the hallway, a similar gear with two hands appeared before Ega and the now recovered Thur. “Ogrest’s Thunder!” she swore, but before they could move the hands on the floating gear turned towards them and fired an energy beam, propelling them back into the hallway. Egol closed the hatch and looked around on deck. The sea was pitch black but calm and the skies were clear. At the horizon he could see the first sign of a sunrise while below deck he heard his hydrant firing nonstop at his assailants. For a moment Egol let down his guard when another voice came from the ship’s rudder: “Well done, boy, but you’ve run out of places to hide.” Egol peered into the direction of the voice and saw captain Cin O’Card stepping out from behind the steering wheel. “So you are part of this conspiracy as well?” Egol called out to him. “Our employer is very clear on this: no one is to know of our little operation. All snoops are to be eliminated.” As he descended from the stairs towards the main deck, a Gobgob appeared from behind him, hovering close to Cin. Egol split up his weapon again and prepared for combat: “So what did you do to her? Just killed her in cold blood?” “You make it sound so cruel,” Cin said almost mockingly. “The sea has no mercy, son. It’s eat or be eaten and I have no intention to become someone’s snack. It’s too bad, you were a good pair of hands to have around.” Egol pointed his minute hand at him: “I’ll make you pay for what you did to her!” “You are welcome to try, boy,” the Osamodas said as his little demon attached himself to his back, “but few have ever succeeded to lay a hand on me!” As he spoke these words, Egol watched in horror as his entire body slowly started to change. His arms and legs became more muscular and grew spikes, his hands and feet developed claws, his face slowly turned more draconic, with his nose and mouth becoming a snout and on his back sprouted two large wings. After the transformation was complete, he beat his wings once, lifting him into the air. There he kept hovering a few feet above the deck and growled at Egol: “Show me your worst!”

Egol tightened his grip on his weapons and prepared to attack when Cin suddenly let out a brutal roar, almost knocking Egol of his feet. “Ha,” the Osamodas scoffed, “You’ll need to be faster if you want to beat me, son!” The Xelor glared at him, but then vanished, only to reappear in the same spot, levitating above the ground, his two weapons hovering in from of him. “I will show you fast.” The discs on Egol’s armor started to glow as he made a few jerky gestures. To Cin, Egol suddenly seemed to speed up, but to the rest of the world it was actually the Captain who was slowing down. Egol brought his minute hand floating in front of him, it’s point aimed at Cin O’Card as it slowly started to glow. For a moment Egol seemed to hesitate, but then squinted his eyes and launched the hand-sword at Cin. Like an arrow out of a bow the weapon soared towards Cin, who seemed to be accelerating to normal speed again. He gave his wings a powerful beat and avoided the hand just barely. While the weapon disappeared behind him, Cin flew higher and started to bombard the deck with Crobaks. “I’ll show you how shoot someone!” Cin shouted over the explosions. Egol’s armor glowed again as he tried to slow down as much as the birds as possible, but he couldn’t hold them all and before long he was hit several times by the incoming Crobaks, bringing him back to the ground. Egol summoned his weapons to his hands again before they hit the deck, ready to counterattack. But before he could even get up, Cin hit him with a powerful gust of air, knocking him flat on his back, sending his two weapons skidding over the deck. The Xelor tried to get up but was knocked to the floor again by another blast of the flying Osamodas. “You’re not getting up anymore, boy!” Egol cringed in pain as blast after blast pinned him to the floor. “And now for the finishing blow!” Cin cried as he readied his talons and dived straight for Egol. “Let’s see what color you bleed!” Egol slowly lifted his head and saw him approach like a screaming harpy. He was about to close his eyes and accept his fate when he suddenly felt a familiar presence: “Platine!” Egol saw his trusted companion flutter not far from his assailant, her eyes glowing brightly. Cin’s descent had decelerated to a crawl, giving Egol one final chance. He mustered all his remaining strength and teleported out the way seconds before Cin’s claws reached his chest. “Whaaaaat?!” the Captain yelled in slow motion as Egol appeared behind his back, eyes glowing. Cin tried to stop himself, but with an outstretched arm Egol send out a single pulse of energy, accelerating him again and smashing him right into the deck.

He lay there motionless as Egol slowly descended and summoned his weapons back to his hands. He reattached them and pointed with the minute hand at his struck down opponent: “Now, Cin O’Card, I will punish you for your crimes against the Hand of Xelor and against Quanti, my friend.” The weapon started glowing with a red hue as Egol’s hand trembled with fatigue. He got ready to fire when suddenly Platine started clicking franticly. “A what?” Egol managed to utter before he was struck down by a giant rock fist from above, causing him to collapse on the floor. “Did you really think a young whippersnapper like you could beat me?” Cin growled as he slowly got up from the deck floor. He walked over to the slumped Xelor, batting away Platine who tried to protect her friend in vain. He grabbed Egol by the bandages of his throat and lifted him off the ground: “You filthy bilge rat, you should have kept your little nose out of our business.” Cin flapped his wings, taking them both high above the ship. Egol took hold of the Osamodas’s wrist and tried to break free from his suffocating grip. “You could have been part of our happy little crew, living the sweet sailor life. But no, you had to ruin it! You had to start digging, just like your girlfriend!” “You are insane,” Egol gurgled, gasping for breath. “No,” said Cin stone cold, “I am a winner.” On this final word, he released Egol and simultaneously beat his wings, creating a small tornado that catapulted the Xelor out into the darkness of the surrounding ocean. With a smug grin Cin landed back on the ship where he and his Gobgob separated again, reverting him to normal. At that moment, Thur, Ega and Sekito open the hatch: “Captain, are you alright?” “No need to worry, sailors. That mummy was no match for me,” Cin gloated while petting his demon companion. “What’s going?” Sekito screamed, “Where’s Egol?” The grin faded from Cin’s face and he put his hand on Sekito’s shoulder: “I’m sorry, boy. It seems these monks can’t stand being away from their monastery for too long. Egol went nuts and we had to take him down, just like his girlfriend.” Realization flashed over Sekito’s face: “Wait, so you knew what happened to Quanti all this time?” “Well…” “Captain, look! Pretty lights!” Cin was saved by Thur calling them over. In the darkness of the ocean several white discs lit up. “What? No, it can’t be!” the Osamodas growled. Egol’s armor glowed as he used his last bit of strength to keep himself afloat above the waves. Next to him, Platine clicked anxiously. “Don’t worry… about me…. Just… get… Sekito… out of there,” Egol forced out each word. The Sinistro hesitated for a moment before she vanished, leaving her friend alone above the ocean. “Forgive me, Xelor, for what I am about to do,” he muttered to himself. He stretched out his arms towards the ship and summoned the pocket watch given to him at his departure from Kalf-Cil-Fel. He then joined his hands and started to focus all the time he had collected in the watch floating in front of him. As he began to do so, he and the watch became engulfed in a transparent red flame.

On the Creaky Kraken, the crew stared at the visual spectacle unfolding in the middle of the ocean. “What is that little runt doing now?” Ega snarled. “I don’t know and I don’t care!” Cin responded. “Thur, grab a harpoon and take out that will-o’-the-wisp!” “No!” Sekito intervened, “There has to be another way! Let me talk to him. Maybe I can talk some sense into him?” “Ignore that, Thur!” the Captain ordered. “That Xelor’s dangerous and must be taken out.” Sekito felt utterly helpless when he suddenly heard a familiar ticking behind him. “Platine!” The little Sinistro hovered over the railing on the other side of the ship. Luckily the rest of the crew hadn’t noticed her as they were too focused on Egol’s display of power. “We have to do something. They’re going to pierce Egol!” Platine started to click and tick frantically as Thur got ready to hurl a harpoon at Egol. “Oh no!” Sekito squeaked and he flicked out his brush/wand. Thur drew back the harpoon, aiming carefully (for a Iop), when he suddenly felt something tugging at the back of his weapon. “Huh?” he uttered when he saw a cute Coney dangling at the end of the harpoon. Ega and Cin gazed in unison at Sekito while Thur kept staring fascinated at the bunny summon. “What’s the big idea, pixie?” Cin called out, but Ega replied in his stead: “That’s what you get for taking wimps on board!” She suited the action to the word and launched a tattoo attack at the Eniripsa. But Platine’s eyes flared up once more, slowing Ega down to a crawl and allowing Sekito to avoid her attack easily. “Come on, Ega, you really would off me just like that? After all we’ve been through?” “No need for sentimentalities, son,” Cin interfered. “The truth is real simple here: either you’re with us or you’re against us. Can’t be both!” He grabbed the Coney still hanging on to the harpoon and chucked it into the ocean. “Thur, you dunderhead! Quit your daydreaming and bring down that glowworm!” “Sure thing, Captain! Take down the… Oooh, pretty.” The entire crew turned around again to see how the flames surrounding Egol got sucked up into the watch’s dial, making it light up as a flare. Cin scoffed: “What does he hope to accomplish by that? Take out an entire ship with one shot? Ha!” Egol stared over the glowing watch at the Creaky Kraken and its crew, but then turned his gaze towards the stern of the ship. He unlocked his hands, gesticulated rigidly which caused the dial to flare up even more, followed by a powerful blast of energy. The blast headed towards the ship as a big fireball as Egol and his watch plunged into the ice-cold waters. Sekito jumped in after him while Cin O’Card suddenly became pale as he saw the ball’s trajectory: “Wait… no. No! Stop him!!” But it was too late: the attack hit the ship right above the waterline. Right on the hidden compartment full of Stasili. The following chain reaction of explosions ripped the entire rear-end of the ship to sunders, sinking it faster than a burning brick.

Deep beneath Bonta City, Sulpa was amazed at the size of the mining operation: he had only seen one of the tunnels on their entrance, but the cave in which they excavated the ore was huge on its own and from it left at least a dozen tunnels. The little map the mystery woman had shown them obviously hadn’t done these subterranean complex any justice. The first hours the Ecaflip had scanned the cave for any signs on the true identity of their employer, but this had turned up nothing. He had found the reason of their hurried recruitment campaign though: one of the entrances had been barred and during his digging he had noticed marks of explosions. Either there had been a freakish mining accident or someone had decided to crash this party. Either way it was worth investigating later on, Sulpa thought to himself. But for the moment he had seen enough, so he managed to be moved to hauling duty and soon was on his way with the first mining cart full of the mysterious Stasili ore. He and two others were pushing the cart while the mysterious Mister W lead the way. At the end of the tunnel they had to shovel the ore into inconspicuously looking unmarked wooden barrels. When they were done, the foreman instructed them to put them on a wooden elevator and then sent them away, leaving him alone with the barrels. On their way back, the Bontarian spy suddenly said: “Oh drat, I’ve lost my lucky die. I must have dropped it while filling those barrels. I’ll be back in a second!” “Yeah, leaving us to do all the work here,” one of the miners muttered, but Sulpa was already gone. He silently sneaked back towards the end of the tunnel only to find Mister W and the barrels gone, just as he had expected. He looked upwards in the shaft in which the elevator had disappeared and saw a small flicker of light in the distance. “Right,” he muttered to himself, pulled out a tarot card from his deck and looked at it as it lit up dimly. “Hm, Fickle Dice. At least that’s a good way to start.” Sulpa squatted on the floor, calculated the distance in the dark and pounced upwards. He leapt from wall to wall, sinking his claws almost silently into the cracks, swiftly moving upwards.

When he reached the top of the shaft, he halted right beneath the elevator and listened for any activity on top. After a few moments of absolute silence, Sulpa Venneir slipped up, ready for any surprise. The scenery he found there was rather disappointing: it was a small storage room with no windows, filled with crates and barrels and with the newly filled Stasili barrels in the center of the room still on the elevator. He did notice the Black Zordfish mask lying on one of the crates near the exit, so that meant Mister W felt safe enough to unveil himself. Sulpa heard some rummaging in the other room, so he hid behind some crates, but no one came in. He got ready to move into the other room, but not before first drawing another tarot card. This time it depicted a black Bow Meow on a red background. “Oh craps,” Sulpa muttered, when he suddenly felt something moving from behind. He jumped out of the way just in time for the approaching Sram’s dagger to land in the crate next to him. He spun around and found himself face to face with a female assassin. “SLA-insurance, I assume?” The Sram didn’t respond but got out another dagger and swiped viciously at Sulpa Venneir. The spy backflipped onto one of the crates and got out his deck of cards, wielding them like a fan. But before he could launch his own attack, the Sram was already within range for another swipe with her dagger. Sulpa guided her attack with his fan of cards, causing it to go harmlessly past his arm. This created an opening on the woman’s side for a powerful kick in the ribs from Sulpa. The attack made her drop her weapons and propelled her into a stack of crates. Sulpa prepared for an attack when he noticed the Wheel of Fortune card glow for a moment on his deck of cards. “Now that’s more like it!” he said to no one in particular and snatched two dice out of his pocket. “Hey, sweetheart. How about a little game?” While the female Sram was still trying to free herself from the pile of crates and contraband, Sulpa squeezed the dice and hurled them at the assassin. She was too late to avoid them and took them right between the eyes, knocking her back down. She hit the floor together with the two dice who started to glow intensely once they had stopped rolling. “All right, lucky seven!” Sulpa exclaimed as the two dice exploded in front of the Sram, knocking her out.

Sulpa walked up to the fainted assassin and picked up his dice who were strangely unscathed after the explosion. “Sorry dear, but never mess with a true player.” He spun around when he heard hurried footsteps coming from the other room, followed by a door slamming shut. “Craps!” Sulpa swore and rushed into the other room. After a quick scan, he found only one door and ran through it, up some stairs and through some narrow hallways. He was about to enter a larger room when he saw a shadow on the floor. Not able to stop on time, the Ecaflip used his momentum and rolled into the room, thus avoiding being beheaded by an Enutrof shovel. He rolled to his feet and spun around, his cards in hand, ready to attack. But he relaxed a little when he saw Mister W trying to unlodge his shovel from the side of the door: “Well, well, well. If it isn’t the most notorious merchant in the World of Twelve? Can I give you a hand, Mister Maart?” With a final tug Wally Maart, still in half a Black Zordfish-outfit, pulled his shovel out of the woodwork: “Humph! Bonta must be getting desperate if they’re calling back their top agents from their assignments to look for little old me. Isn’t that right, Agent Venneir?” To substantiate his claim he slashed the air in front of him with his shovel, its edge glowing with a blue hue. Seconds later, Sulpa’s beggar disguise fell apart and hit the floor, revealing his true identity. “You won’t escape us this time, you scoundrel!” Sulpa said and started to fling his playing cards at the Enutrof one by one. Wally parried most of them with his shovel, but couldn’t help being cut by a few of them. He slowly backed up in the hallway from which they came when he heard a sharp hissing sound behind him. Sulpa stopped throwing his cards and showed a glowing Hairy Moon card to Wally: “My little Kittikaze doesn’t like it when people run from a fight, Mister Maart.” Wally Maart only then noticed the angry-looking black Bow Meow at his feet. He turned towards Sulpa again: “Well, that’s a coincidence. My Eduarf doesn’t like it when people attack me.” “Eduarf?” the Ecaflip repeated, followed by the loud crash of a mature Drheller crashing through one of the wooden walls of the room. Sulpa couldn’t react on time and was pinned to the floor by the hairy beast, but managed to push it off with his feet.

By the time he got back on his feet he heard the yelp of his kitty summon meeting the sharp end of Wally’s shovel. He wanted to resume his pursuit, but the door was blocked by the Enutrof’s protective pet, growling menacingly at Sulpa. “I’m sorry boy, but I have no time for you. Let’s go all in.” He pulled out a card portraying the god Ouginak and rubbed it between his fingers, causing it to glow. Eduarf didn’t wait for Sulpa’s next attack and launched himself at the cat-man. At the last moment Sulpa hurled the glowing card at the beast, preparing himself to jump over the temporarily stunned beast when something unexpected happened. The moment his attack hit the Drheller, it exploded in a slimy goo that hit the Ecaflip right in the face. “By Ecaflip, what’s this?” Sulpa said out loud as he wiped the mucus from his face. He examined the slime dripping from his fingers when the sound of an explosion came through the hallway. “What is that sneaky Enutrof up to now?” Sulpa headed back through the door from whence he came, following the sound of several muffled voices nearby. This brought him to the front entrance of the warehouse where Wally was facing off against three Rogues and a Masqueraider. “I told you before, Mask, the Wally Maart Cooperation does not give into threats!” Wally shouted, pointing at the Masqueraider with his shovel. “I don’t care about your little façade, Enutrof,” the Mask of Shushu answered, “I just want to make clear to your employers that we mean business. If they don’t give in to our demands, we’ll expose them to the entire World of Twelve, starting with this little operation!” He signaled the Rogues, making Lani and Nos Mirc open fire on the shopkeeper. But Wally reacted with lightning speed and planted his shovel in the ground at his feet, causing a large rock to rise from the floor guarding him from the incoming shots. Sulpa ducked back into the hallway to avoid any stray bullets and saw how Wally launched a counterattack from behind his rock. He formed two small orbs of water in his hand and catapulted them towards his adversaries with his shovel. This didn’t impress the Mask of Shushu: “Lenny, do your thing! Nos, Lani, you two lay down suppressive fire!” The two siblings opened fire on the little rock formation while Kzam took a battle stance. Sulpa saw how he made a few fluid motions before he slashed the air, creating a powerful shockwave aimed at Wally’s location. The attack pulverized the rock and knocked the Enutrof back. But before the Rogues could focus their fire on him, two Srams appeared from the shadows and attacked the gunners. “Damn, bodyguards!” Lani shouted as they turned their attention towards the new threats. The Masqueraider remained unfazed by this turn of events and slowly marched towards Wally Maart. Sulpa wanted to come to his aid when he suddenly noticed the younger Mirc brother slipping away. In the meantime Wally was back on his feet, attacking Kzam in full force. “He doesn’t need my help,” Sulpa thought to himself and he went after Lenny, avoiding the Sram-Rogue fight that went on in the background.

Outside he found Lenny and one of his boombots placing a load of bombs against the wall of Wally’s warehouse. “Planning a little firework, Lenny?” Sulpa jested. “Mind if I join in?” Lenny didn’t respond, he just pulled out his boomerang dagger and hurled it at the Ecaflip. Sulpa flicked out a single die and threw it at the approaching weapon, altering its trajectory ever so slightly so that it spun harmlessly out of the way. “You’ll have to do better than that,” Sulpa commented and took out his deck of cards. “You’re too late, pussycat,” Lenny grinned as he lit a small bomb in his hand. “When I drop this, the entire warehouse will be blown sky high.” “With your boss, your brother and your sister still in there,” Sulpa replied. “You’re bluffing, Lenny. I on the other hand…” He revealed a tear shaped crystal from under his deck and smashed it on the ground. The crystal exploded in a sparkling fireball that soared into the sky where it exploded in a beautiful firework display. The Rogue stared at the sky for a few seconds before looking back at Sulpa with puzzlement in his eyes: “So what was that supposed to do? Scare me into submission?” “No, not really. But what it did do was signal the entire Bontarian army of your presence.” The visible part of Lenny’s face became deathly pale as he heard the voices of the first guards coming down the street. He hurled the bomb at Sulpa and ran back into the building: “Boss, the guards are coming!” While Kzam was holding Wally up by his throat, Sarojam scolded him: “What did you do this time, you blundering Blibli?” “We can blame each other later,” Nos said while avoiding one of the Sram’s incessant attacks, “Now we just have to get out of here.” “We can’t!” Lani yelled from the other side, “They seem to coming from all sides!” “No need to panic,” Kzam said coolly, “we’ll move through the mines.” He then turned towards Wally again: “But we’re not through yet, Enutrof, so you’re coming with us.” He lifted Wally from the ground with one hand when he was suddenly struck with a playing card, forcing him to release his victim. “He’s not going anywhere, Mask,” Sulpa said, “and neither are any of you. I’m sure Captain Lees would love to have a few words with you about some missing prisoners.” As Wally hit the ground, he saw his chance and darted toward the hallway, but not before tackling Kzam with his shovel. This surprise attack didn’t faze the Masqueraider: he landed on his hands, propelled himself back up and somersaulted towards the hallway, landing clean on his feet: “Move, you Moogrrs! He’s getting away!” The Rogues broke off their individual fights and followed their leader while the Srams disappeared back into the shadows. Sulpa was too far away to reach the Mask of Shushu, so he focused on one of the Mirc siblings. He pounced on Lenny as he ran past him, causing them both to hit the floor. “You rabid fleabag, get off me!” The duo wrestled on the floor while the Bontarian guards streamed passed them into the warehouse. After a while, the Ecaflip ended on top with Lenny lying flat on his back. “Sorry Lenny, but I’ve got a black and white suit with your name on,” and he punched the bandit right between the eyes.
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Score : 212

^ What's up with the above spam?

Anyway, I still have two x [The Fire of Love] from opening the Bonta chest twice. They are undeletable, undroppable, uncrushable, untradeable, un-anything. They are taking up space. I saw this issue in above posts. Please fix.

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Score : 142

Edit. I have no clue how i got into your thread. Sorry.

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Score : 4672
Chapter 5

Sekito splashed around in the open water between smoldering planks and splinters, trying not to be sucked down by the rapidly sinking Creaky Kraken. Platine fluttered over his head, pushing aside the burning debris with her tail. Sekito gasped for air: “Platine! Where’s Egol? Can you see him?” The Sinistro scanned the surface but saw no sign of her companion. “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to save him. Where did he go down?”

Sekito took hold of one of the larger, non-burning boards floating around and peddled after Platine as she flew into the direction where Egol had hit the water. After a few strokes he had reached the spot where Platine was zigzagging over the surface, staring into the murky depths. “Here? Right. Hold on the board for me, Platine,” Sekito instructed as he took a deep breath and dived.

Underwater he soon learned he was almost completely blind. Only the top water layer was lit by the fading fires of the ship while in the deep he could see small lights, probably from some school of fish. But in between was only darkness, with no sign of his friend. He quickly resurfaced, trying to think of a better way to find his friend. “Platine, I can’t see anything down there. Can’t you light up his armor or something like that? Like it did when he attacked the ship?” Platine clicked negatively.

“We’ve got to be able to do something! Egol is drowning!” As the Eniripsa was desperately trying to devise a plan of action, he didn’t notice that the water around him started to bubble, slow at first, but soon intensifying. Platine saw this and tried to alert Sekito. “What is it Platine? We don’t have time for…”

He looked around and saw how the water was becoming more turbulent and even seem to light up. “What in Eniripsa’s name is this? Something’s going on below, I’ve got to check it out!” He took another deep breath and dove under, but he was hardly submerged when he was blinded by bright lights and hit a hard surface, pushing him back up.

Seconds later he was above the waves again, lying flat on a large metal surface. “Ow, my face… What is this thing?” Platine pulled him up with her tail, directing his attention to a mechanical hatch opening on the far side of the metal island. Out of the hatch several masked men appeared all wearing the same blue naval suit with white hems and wielding a strangely shaped rifle.

Sekito jumped up and pulled out his soaked wand as the men advanced towards them. “Put down your weapon!” the man in front yelled, “ Or we will open fire!” On these words the other masked men aimed their rifles at Sekito and Platine. Platine growled softly, sounding more like a rusty gear then an actual animal, but Sekito calmed her down.

He put away his weapon and raised his arms: “We surrender!” The front man approached while the others stayed back and kept Sekito and Platine at gunpoint. “Please, you’ve got to help us,” Sekito pleaded. “My friend has fallen into the ocean and is drowning. We must…” But before he could finish his sentence, the man grabbed his wrists and cuffed them behind his back.

“We have to do nothing,” said the masked man threateningly and he forced Sekito to his knees. Platine squeaked, but vanished before the masked man could grab her. The rest of the squad lowered their guns and stood to attention as the hatch behind them opened once more. The man pressed hard on Sekito’s shoulder as he tried to see who was coming out this time.

He didn’t have to wait long to find out, because a loud female voice boomed over the deck: “Who is responsible for that direct attack on my vessel?” A black-haired woman in a similar naval costume stepped passed the men standing at attention. Sekito noticed the strange purple makeup around her eye before the man behind him pressed him down and saluted the woman: “Captain Mofette, we’ve captured this survivor of the shipwreck as he was trying to breach our submarine.”

“What?!” Sekito protested, “I was doing no such thing! My friend is still out there, I need to…” “Silence!” the Captain shouted, “Now tell me: where is Captain O’Card? And who is responsible for almost crashing his ship into my submarine?” “You know the Captain?” Sekito asked her, but this resulted in more shoving from the soldier: “Answer the question!”

Behind the Captain another female in naval suit appeared: “Captain, report from our Steamflexes: they’ve recovered another survivor from the wreckage.” “Any of the contraband left?” “No, Ma’am. It seems their entire cargo has gone up in smoke.” Captain Mofette swore under her breath. “Very well, take this one to the brig together with the other survivor. I’ll question them on our way back to the city.”

The female soldier seemed hesitant: “Captain, are we taking them with us? Instructions are…” “I know very well what our instructions are, Ensign! But we’re running on a minimum of fuel and I am not going to waste another grain of Stasili on some second-rate smugglers. We’re taking them with us! The Admiral can sort them out there.”

The ensign saluted and headed back in. The soldier pulled Sekito back to his feet and followed the Captain and the rest of the squad as the submarine started to submerge again. “I hope Egol is the survivor they’ve recovered,” Sekito thought to himself.

“Well, I hate to admit it,” Captain Jonk Lees began, “but you surely delivered, Agent Venneir. Shutting down a smuggling operation of that size is quite a recommendable feat. Our troops are still busy investigating the tunnels of this huge mining complex. Who knew there was such a large system of caves beneath Bonta?”

“Any sign of the Mask of Shushu or Wally Maart?” Sulpa asked. “No,” Jonk sighed, “those slippery devils got away again. We did apprehend most of the miners and even two Srams of the Sram’s League of Assassins.” “The miners won’t be of any use to us, I’m afraid,” Sulpa said, “They knew as much about the smuggling as I did.” “And the Srams won’t talk. The League’s code is clear on that. But that doesn’t matter, because we’ve got the little Mirc brother. He will talk.”

“Rogues don’t betray their family, Captain.” “Oh, we have ways to make him talk,” Jonk said in a lower tone of voice, punching his own hand. “I’m sure you do,” Sulpa said, smiling faintly. “But it seems that only the Mask and Wally know who the real sponsors are of Wally’s mining operation. Were you able to look at the samples I gave you?”

“I delivered them personally to our science department. Miss Kamargent was going study them further but already had some initial thoughts on them. Maybe you should pay her a visit, Agent Venneir.” Behind them the large wooden door opened with a soft creak: “Maybe we can visit her together? Then we can brief each other on the way.”

“Master Joris,” Sulpa greeted his friend with a little bow, “so good to see you again. Already finished your inquiries in Amakna?” “Yes, with some disturbing observations. Please, walk with me.” Joris guided the Ecaflip into one of the hallways as they said their goodbyes to Jonk Lees.

When they turned a corner, Sulpa asked: “Is there something the Captain shouldn’t know?” “Oh no, it’s nothing like that. He was present when I briefed the King. But I’m afraid we have little time to waste, my friend. Both we and the King believe that whoever is behind this operation will not hesitate to destroy all evidence leading to his or her identity. So we must make sure that we can catch this snake by its tail before it slithers under its rock again.”

“Now that I understand,” Sulpa said, “but what has this to do with your assignment?” “I don’t know yet. But in Amakna I came across a masked madman who had singlehandedly… ‘disabled’ Baddoboss of the Riktus clan. With the involvement of the Mask of Shushu in this mining operation, it could be possible that this Strawcrow character is a part of his plan for domination of all criminal activity in the World of Twelve.”

“So you believe the reason for the Mask of Shushu’s latest appearance here in Bonta was to take out the competition?” “Well, all signs point to Wally Maart running an illegal smuggling ring from Bonta, so unless he swindled the Mask as well, I see no other reason for the Masqueraider to come after him personally.” “Well, he does seem to have a knack for drama, being present at every major action his gang has undertaken in the city.”

“But there’s something else that is bothering me: when he was threatening Wally, he mentioned Wally’s employers, indicating that the Enutrof is but a pawn in this game.” The duo walked down a flight of stairs towards the dungeon levels of the castle. “His network of shops is spread over every nation in the World of Twelve,” Joris pondered. “It would be the perfect cover for a worldwide smuggling operation.” “Then the question of who is behind this network remains.”

“Yes, but now we’re closing in on him, Wally will probably relocate his other shops beyond our borders where we can’t reach him.” “I assume we will still try to apprehend him before he leaves the country.” “Of course. Captain Lees has already contacted the garrisons of the towns where Wally had set up shop. But no one has seen him since yesterday.”

“Maybe the Mask of Shushu did take him out?” Sulpa wondered as they opened a heavy wooden door. “I wouldn’t worry about that, Agent Venneir. Wally Maart is a slippery little Snapper,” a female voice echoed in the dimly lit chamber. “Ah, Miss Kamargent, how lovely to see you again,” Master Joris responded. The brown-haired woman greeted her two guests.

“Judging by your conversation, I assume you are here for the samples you collected, Agent Venneir?” “Indeed, Miss Kamargent. I must admit that I’m surprised at the swiftness of your conclusions. I only delivered them yesterday.” “Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t performed any invasive tests yet, but my first analysis did confirm my suspicions: the ore you’ve retrieved from the mine is indeed the fabled Stasili, the gemstone sought after by those robotic Foggernauts.”

“This is what happens when pure Stasis seeps into the soil and is compressed over many years time. It is soiled with little particulates over time, so it is not as pure as real Stasis, but because of its crystalline structure, it is much more manageable than the original. The Foggers must have found a way to distill the ore back into its original form and use it as a power source. Quite ingenious, I must say.”

“And dangerous,” Joris added, “those ancient technomagical devices razed our shores and nearly invaded our city. We are still rebuilding what they have ruined.” “Yes,” Miss Kamargent said dreamily, “concentrated beams of pure Stasis, Stasis mist, Stasis converted to flames for attack and propulsion, Stasis mixed with minerals to create weaponry,…”

“Miss Kamargent!” Joris interrupted her reverie. “Oh… Yes. Now what was I saying?” “You were explaining that this was indeed Stasili as Wally Maart had claimed,” Sulpa reminded her. “Right. Right. Now how Wally found out that there was so much of this mineral beneath the city is still a mystery to me, but I think it’s no coincidence that we uncover a huge Stasili smuggle only months after the invasion of a Stasili powered army of robots. There must be a connection.”

Joris looked at the piece of ore held by Sulpa: “So you think the Mask of Shushu or Wally is in league with these Foggernauts?” “Or at least has gotten his hands on their technology. The Stasili ore has absolutely no other known use than powering the Fogger technology.”

Sulpa turned the stone towards the lantern and looked how the light was refracted and absorbed by the mineral: “Is there any way to scan for the presence of Stasili? Because judging by the size of the mine, they must have amassed an enormous amount of this stuff already.” “Drhellers are tested in Wally’s mine as we speak on their ability to pick up the scent of the Stasili.”

“That reminds me: do you have any explanation for Wally’s Drheller turning into a pile of goo?” “Ah yes. I haven’t studied the sample intensely yet, but it seems to resemble the remains of a Bellaphone bulb, so my first conclusion would be that the Drheller was actually a Bellaphone clone.” “A Bellaphone? Those charming witches from Brakmar?” Joris wondered.

“Yes,” Miss Kamargent replied matter-of-factly, “besides charming their prey, they can also duplicate them by planting their bulbs near them. From these pods an identical copy of their opponent will hatch, ready to fight on their side. It’s really quite an ingenious ability.” Suddenly Sulpa realized something: “Of course! The mystery woman at the Last Resort! Her eyes were so intriguing. She must have been a Bellaphone.”

“So, Wally has recruited one of those witches in his ranks.” “And since those creatures are almost unique to the Brakmar environment, this is the first place we start looking.” Joris and Miss Kamargent both stared at Agent Venneir: “Brakmar is a big place, Agent. Where do suggest we begin?”

“The Clan Member of that area, Jaffacrack, owes me a few favors. I might be able to squeeze some information out of him.” “Very well, Agent,” Joris said, “you follow that lead while Miss Kamargent and I try to find out where Wally has taken all his Stasili.” Joris and Miss Kamargent turned back to the table filled with scientific equipment.

“Is there any news from the Strawcrow’s victims?” Joris continued as he took some papers from the table. “I’m afraid not. Their illness remains, so we have put them in individual patted cells so they can’t hurt themselves… or others. How are your wounds, by the way?” “I’m healing fine, Miss, don’t worry about me. I’m more worried about those poor souls trapped in their insanity.”

“Did you take a look at my report from the Riktus cave? Especially the part on the Strawcrow’s weapon?” “I assume you’re referring to the purple glow emanating from the tube?” “Yes. With all this Stasili business, I started thinking about the Stasis-Wakfu balance within every living creature. Now imagine that the Strawcrow somehow managed to disturb that balance, could that result in these symptoms?”

“What are you suggesting? That he extracted the Stasis from his victims? Stasis and Wakfu form a delicate balance within living creatures. I can’t imagine what the effects would be should one of the two be removed, if it is even possible to begin with.” “But they do exist in pure form, so it must be feasible?” Joris argumented.

“They only leave the body on death and even then it’s very hard to capture them as they dissipate together with the body. But you’re now suggesting that these victims were deprived of their Stasis? Becoming pure Wakfu-filled beings? It would explain their unnatural physical health, of course.” “But not their mental health,” Joris countered.

“I’ve seen people in perfect harmony with nature, reaching very high levels of Wakfu, but they never go insane like this.” Miss Kamargent seemed to ponder this: “Well, these people still have a residue of Stasis in them to maintain the balance, of course. And besides, if the Strawcrow’s weapon really does extract their Stasis at such an alarming speed, it can’t be healthy for the human mind. It probably can’t cope with such a violating act.”

Joris took the piece of Stasili from the table again: “What is going on, Miss Kamargent? First this robot invasion looking for Stasili, then a madman presumably extracting Stasis from people and now this smuggling ring exporting Stasili to some unknown destination. All these things must be connected. Maybe we didn’t repel these Foggernauts as thoroughly as we thought.”

“You think they are behind Wally and the Strawcrow man?” Joris walked towards the back of the room, followed by Miss Kamargent: “What do have on these Foggers? I know you studied them intensely after the invasion.” Miss Kamargent pressed one of the stones on the wall in front of them, revealing a hidden door. “Yes, and they were very fascinating subjects indeed. Most of my findings I’ve written in the report I presented a while ago.”

The room they entered was filled with all kind of items related to the Foggernaut invasion: entire deactivated Foggernauts, pieces of Foggernauts and a wide range of weaponry and robots. “Their technology is amazing, being a mixture of the old Foggernaut technology sporadically found on the bottom of the ocean and some sort of unknown Stasis-powered mechanism.”

“It’s because of that mechanism that Stasis forms the heart of their technology: as you can see around you, nothing works without it.” To prove it, she took one of the futuristic looking guns and fired it at the wall, only to result in a soft click.

“And what about this Wicky Leeks’ story of them being rebuilt Sufokians from the bottom of the sea?” “I have read stories about the amazing technological abilities of the old Foggernauts, so maybe they could have found a way to rebuild their bodies, but what bothers me is the soul.” Joris stared at her as she put the gun down on one of the tables: “The soul?”

“Yes. The models you see before you have not one once of organic component left in them. Only a large canister filled with Stasis resides within their chest. Wicky Leeks told of a way to transfer the soul from the living flesh into this canister of Stasis, but it is common knowledge that Stasis is detrimental on any tissue, alive or dead. So I don’t know how a soul would react being inserted into pure Stasis.”

Joris examined one of the dissected Foggernauts and saw how the central soul receptacle had been pierced. Miss Kamargent joined him at his side: “But on the other hand, Stasis isn’t a life force on its own, so a Foggernaut couldn’t become a sentient being just by Stasis.” “Maybe that’s the main question, Miss Kamargent: were they sentient to begin with? Boombots also appear to be alive, but are completely controlled by their owners.”

“It’s still a possibility that the entire Foggernaut invasion was orchestrated from afar and these shells were really nothing more than mindless drones.” “It may be possible, but is highly unlikely. The Foggers displayed complex actions and tactics way beyond any remote control technology we can imagine.” Joris sighed softly: “Maybe a personal appointment with Mister Leeks will clear some of these things out.”

“Do we actually know where he is? Because no one has seen hide nor hair from him since his official apology. Maybe he has gone back to their sunken city?” “No, our sources tell us that he has temporally settled at the governor’s mansion of Sufokia. So I think that will be my next destination. If the Foggernauts are at the center of this mystery, Wicky Leeks must have some of the missing pieces of the puzzle.”

“Let me know as soon as you find out,” Miss Kamargent added as Master Joris headed towards the exit. Joris turned his hide and simply smiled before disappearing back into the hallway.

Sekito sat in a small cell, still dripping with sea water as he felt the submarine slowly descend towards the bottom of the ocean. He was worried what these navy-types were planning to do with him and the other survivor, but he was also impressed by their vessel. Sekito had never seen such a beautiful piece of technology. He had heard of the ancient Foggernauts, who had all kind of submersibles, but these were made mostly of wood and iron, not this stainless steel.

The entire surrounding also buzzed with power: cables and pipes ran against every wall and Sekito could feel them humming. “I wonder what they use as fuel,” Sekito thought to himself, his precarious situation completely forgotten for a moment. He laid his hand on one of the pipes and slightly shuddered: “Wow, what’s that? I could have sworn I felt a malignant presence in there.”

He looked at his hand and wanted to pull out his wand to soothe the tingling sensations, but then remembered the magic jamming device. “Oh drat, what use is an Eniripsa without his healing?” “Hey, quiet in there!” a voice boomed from the other side of the bars. Two of those masked sailors carrying a gun appeared after a few seconds: “Ok kid, time to meet the Captain. Assume the position.”

Sekito was cuffed by the soldiers and lead out his cell through the submarine’s hallways. During this escorted walk, Sekito looked around, trying to find any clue on his kidnappers’ identity, his destination or who of the Kraken’s crew had survived the explosion besides him. But he hadn’t learned anything new by the time he reached the bridge.

There he was amazed by the view through the large forward portholes: the ship was travelling a few meters above the ocean floor, its searchlights revealing the remains of the old world, washed away by Ogrest’s Flood. The houses and other constructions were overgrown with sea weeds, barnacles and coral, but their shapes were still vaguely recognizable, giving the scenery a ghastly atmosphere.

In front of the portholes sat a crew of similar looking females, all wearing the same naval outfit as the men Sekito had met up until then. “So, little Eniripsa, we meet again,” a familiar female voice sounded from behind him. Sekito’s escort turned him around to face Captain Mofette seated at the command station above the bridge’s entrance.

“Lieutenant-Commander, you have the bridge,” the Captain said to one of the female naval officers behind her. She took the Captain’s place with a quick “Yes Ma’am” as the Captain descended towards Sekito. The entire bridge remained quiet as Captain Frida Mofette approached the prisoner. Sekito gulped when she halted a few inches from his face: “Well, little man, start talking.”

“What would you have me saying, Captain?” Sekito said uneasily, “I’m just as dumbfounded as you, Captain. I don’t know what went on before I awoke, but when I did, I found my Captain and crew trying to murder my crewmate.” “And who was this crewmate?” “Egol, Ma’am, a Xelor from the order of the Hand of Xelor who had recently joined the Creaky Kraken. A very nice guy who was looking for his lost friend, who I believe was also killed by the Captain.”

“If he was such anice guy,” Captain Mofette said with obvious sarcasm, “why would Captain O’Card try to kill him? According to my records, Cin is a trustworthy Osamodas with no violent temper. He doesn’t seem like the man who goes around killing random Xelors.” “Well, no, Ma’am, I hadn’t seen the Captain like this either, but he seemed a completely different person when fighting Egol. Almost malicious…”

The Captain ignored this subjective interpretation and continued the interrogation: “So it was during this fight that the boat got hit?” “More or less. Thur Becrofal was about to harpoon Egol when he launched an attack at the stern of the ship, causing the chain explosion that sank the ship. I still don’t know how he managed an attack that powerful.”

“I do,” said Frida Mofette while staring out the porthole. “The Xelor must somehow have been aware of the large amounts of Stasili stashed in the cargo hold. He deliberately aimed at the volatile ore to trigger that chain reaction.” “Stasili? What are you talking about? We were fishermen, heading out to our international fishing grounds.”

The Captain ignored him again and addressed one of her officers: “Lieutenant, has the Xelor regained consciousness yet?” “Yes!” Sekito thought to himself, “It is Egol that survived! Now I only got to find him.” “No, Ma’am,” replied the lieutenant in the meantime, “he is still recovering in the sick bay.” “Inform me the moment he wakes up. He is obviously a covert agent instructed to reveal and cripple our network.”

“What?!” Sekito exclaimed, “Are you nuts? What network are you talking about?” The two soldiers flanking Sekito grabbed him by the arms, restraining him from approaching the Captain. “I’ve heard enough. Take him back to the brig. He is of no use to me.” “Wait a second; you just can’t accuse people like that!” Sekito protested while the guards dragged him back into the hallway.

As he was slowly dragged out of the bridge, Sekito suddenly got an idea. He noticed there was no magic jamming device on the bridge, so while the guards were distracted by his squirming, he summoned a flask from his magical Eniripsa pouch and stashed it in his sleeve. He gave up his struggle and let the guards drag him back to his cell. Entering the brig, he felt the magic jamming kicking in, sealing off his healing abilities and magic pouch again.

Back in his cell, Sekito waited for the guards to leave before he produced the phial from his sleeve: “Thank Eniripsa that you didn’t break. That would have left a nasty burn. Now where are you, jamming device?” He scanned the hallway through the bar of his cell and found the technomagical ball floating a bit farther down. “Right,” Sekito said to himself, “got only one chance at this.”

With careful aiming, he lobbed the flask at the device. It hit the ball in the center of one of his eyes, exploding on impact. The magical jamming device was blown back, hit the back wall and fell apart in a dozen pieces. Sekito let out a quiet “Yes!” as he felt his magical abilities returning to him.

But before he even could utter one incantation, Platine appeared in his cell with a little flash. “Platine!” Sekito said excitedly as he hugged the Sinistro, “I thought they had left you on the surface.” Platine started clicking and ticking as if she was telling her own story, but Sekito interrupted her: “I’m sorry, Platine, but we have to move quickly before the guards come back. Can you sense Egol?”

The summon clicked affirmatively, transformed into her Tofu disguise and flew out into the hallway. After a few moments, she returned as if to ask Sekito why he wasn’t following. “Give me a moment. I don’t think I have a potion strong enough to eat through these steel bars… but maybe I can burn through them.” He pulled out his wand and started mumbling to himself in a strange language while he drew several symbols in the air between him and the bars.

Platine saw how the symbols vanished slowly into thin air but reappeared on the bars themselves, where they made a slight sizzling sound as they burned into the metal. “Ok Platine, that should have weakened them enough. Let’s see if we can wiggle them out.” After a few attempts, they got out a few of the bars and Sekito was able to break out.

“All right!” he whispered, “Now Platine, to make sure we’re not detected, I’m going to go to a higher plane. So don’t worry if you can’t see me, I’m still here. Just lead the way to Egol, ok?” Sekito muttered another set of unintelligible words as his aura slowly started to glow. After a few sentences he slowly vanished, becoming almost invisible. “All right,” Sekito’s disembodied voice sounded in the hallway, “let’s go and rescue our friend from these unjust accusations.”

Platine clicked once and fluttered out the doorway, leading the invisible Eniripsa through several of the submarine’s hallways, careful to avoid the few guards that patrolled there. When they arrived at the sick bay, she halted as the door was guarded by one of the masked naval soldiers. The Eniripsa materialized behind her and hid behind the corner before the guard could spot him. He swore under his breath: “This is going to complicate matters. Platine, can I ask you a favor?”

The sick bay guard sighed as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “Do they really think someone is going to break out a soaked Xelor inside a submarine?” But the soldier knew Captain Mofette’s reputation and didn’t dare to leave his post. She was nothing like her father, General Mofette. While the General was a calm and collected leader under every circumstance that had earned his men’s respect through experience, his daughter was more of a loose cannon.

Cool and collected on the surface, she was a true berserker at heart. And when she unleashed that hidden fury, you had better stay clear. There were rumors that in the academy she had taken on her entire class in a close combat exercise and had won, laughing madly all the way. Frida was not the strategist her father was, but on the battlefield she really shone. But as the sailor knew, if you got on her bad side, it didn’t matter if you were friend or foe.

His thoughts were interrupted when he felt something pressing down on his helmet. He looked up and saw a little Tofu hover above his head. “What the…?” he uttered before Platine pecked him right between the eyes of his helmet. “You little pest! How did you get down here?” Platine fluttered in front of him for a few seconds before she darted into one of the hallways. “Get back here!” the guard yelled, “If the Captains sees you, she’ll have a fit.”

He readjusted his grip on his rifle and headed after the little yellow bird. Sekito waited a few more moments to make sure the guard was around the corner before he headed towards the sick bay. There he found a little room with only a few beds, one filled with a still unconscious Egol Rho. “Egol,” Sekito whispered, “It’s me, your buddy Sekito. Can you hear me?” The Xelor didn’t respond. “Hm, he really looks out of it. Well friend, I don’t like to do this, but I’m afraid I have no choice.”

He closed his eyes and muttered silently to himself. Again his aura began to glow but now only around the little demonic wings on his back. Soon they were enveloped in light which seemingly started to grow. After a few moments they looked like glowing angel wings, lighting up the entire room. Sekito did not open his eyes, but pointed his wand at Egol. The Xelor’s aura glowed in a similar fashion for a few heartbeats before all light vanished again.

Sekito’s wings were back to their original size and Egol still lay perfectly still on the bed. But only for a moment, because the next moment he jerked up, coughing intensely. Sekito came to his friend’s aid and supported his back as Egol was about to slump back into the bed. “Sorry buddy, you must be feeling miserable now. That’s why I don’t like to use my Eniraser skill: It’s a quick fix for most ailments, but it leaves the patient feeling like a wreck for hours.”

“W…where are we?” “We’re inside some kind of submersible boat heading for destinations unknown. These guys picked us up after you sunk the Kraken.” “I sunk the Kraken?” Egol echoed. “How?” “Don’t you remember? You launched that fireball from your watch at the stern, causing a huge explosion.” “Explosion? I must have passed out before that. I remember charging all the time I had stored in my pocket watch for one final temporal burn, but after I unleashed the energy, I only remember hitting the icy waters.”

“Yeah well, these guys emerged moments after we both had hit the water and took us prisoner. They believe you are some kind of agent on a mission to expose and cripple their network!” Sekito helped Egol sit up straight as he tried to get his bearings. “Agent? Network? What kind of mess have we gotten ourselves into this time?” “I really don’t know, but I do know they knew about Captain O’Card and a secret stash of… Stasili, I think they called it.”

“Stasili! The purple ore that Quanti had discovered!” The Eniripsa stared at him: “What are you talking about, Egol?” “I saw a temporal image of Quanti discovering the secret room filled with that Stasili, right before she was discovered by Ega and Cin.” “So you’re telling me the entire fishing operation was a cover up for Stasili smuggling?” “It’s starting to look that way.” “That means the guys on this ship were the recipients. Oh boy, we’re in more trouble than I thought, Egol.”

The Xelor tried to stand up, his legs still shaking from the Eniraser spell: “We have to get out of here, Sekito. Who knows what they want to do with us.” “Whoa, not so fast there, buddy. You’re in no shape to be running around. And by the way, we’re sailing on the bottom of the ocean. We can’t just get out and walk.” “Then what would you have us do? Await our recapture here in this little hospital room?”

Sekito supported Egol as he got up to his legs: “No, of course not. But I think it’s a wiser course to hide for the moment and see where this crazy captain lady is taking us. But first things first: Platine can’t distract the guard forever, so let’s get out of here before he returns.” “Platine is here too?” “Yeah, she helped me to find you and distracted the guard while I got you back to your feet.”

“Thank you, Sekito. I don’t know where I would be without you guys.” “Hey, this is no time to get all mushy. You can thank us when we get out this steel sturgeon. By the way, maybe we should mask your absence by placing a dummy in the bed in your stead.” Sekito let his friend lean against the sick bay’s doorframe while he filled the bed with pillows and sheets to make it seem as if Egol was still lying there.

“I hear someone approaching.” The duo limped into the hallway, looking around for suitable hiding places and finally ducked into a storage room nearby. They tried to close the door as much as possible before the approaching person appeared around the corner. “Hey, where did that lazybones sneak off to this time? Sleeping in the storage room, I bet!”

Sekito and Egol held their breath as they heard the man approaching their hiding place when suddenly a second voice sounded from the back: “Lieutenant!” “There you are!” replied an obviously annoyed officer, “Snoozing on duty again, sailor? This is a dangerous prisoner we have in here! You can’t let him out of your sights even for a minute, do you understand!”

“Yes, Sir! But I was assaulted by a Tofu, Sir, and gave chase to the little intruder. I had it cornered near the engine room, Sir, but there it just disappeared into thin air, Sir.” “A Tofu that can disappear? Have you been drinking again, sailor?!” “No, Sir, but…” “Then get back to your post and report the moment that mummy revives, do you understand?!” “Yes, Sir!” In the storage room, the two friends exhaled as quietly as possible. “Ok”, Sekito said, “Now all we can do is wait and hope for the best.”

San Telen: a small, inconspicuous yet lush island somewhere in the vast oceans of the World of Twelve. From afar it looks like a floating green ball with its tropical forest covering everything but the beaches. It looked like a perfectly peaceful scene when suddenly some seagulls flew up as Nietzschen Knarf’s little submarine breached the surface.

It sailed straight for the beach, but instead of stranding in the shallow waters, the little boat revealed four crab-like legs that allowed it to walk right up to dry land. It crawled further until it reached the first trees where it then waited for some time. “What’s taking them so long?” the professor muttered to himself.

But then one microbot appeared, soon followed by another and another, until the walking submarine was surrounded by them. “You know the drill,” Nietzschen said through the boat’s speaker system, “Now let me in.” On this command the little spider bots all vanished between the trees, leaving the crab-sub alone again. After a few moments a purple gas started to appear from beneath the trees, causing them to shrivel and wither within minutes, leaving only the microbots.

Behind them stood a man whose features were hidden beneath a large straw hat and an outfit made almost completely out of straw. He stood before a long narrow path cut out between the trees leading to the center of the island. The submarine stirred again and walked over to the man, right over the little mechanical spiders. There Knarf halted his ride and shut it down.

In the meantime the straw hat man sewed some seeds between the microbots where the trees were before. Each of the little robots extended a claw towards one of the seeds and seemed to zap it with some purple electrical beam. This caused the seeds to sprout and grow at alarming rate. By the time Nietzschen was out of his submarine the trees were almost back to their original height.

The Feca smiled faintly at this before he turned his attention towards the straw hat man: “Now listen here: I didn’t come here to waste my time, but check up on your progress. So take me to the Oktapodas immediately.” The man gave a little bow and pointed towards the road ahead of them: “Yes, Sir, as you wish.”

After a short walk through the cut-away jungle, the duo arrived at a small village. Unlike typical tribal villages, this one had huts constructed with steel tubes and metal plates who were then covered with straw and grass to camouflage their unnatural appearance. Between them crawled some microbots and clawbots with glowing Stasis bulbs on their backs, moving back and forth between the huts and the men working at the edge of the village.

They all wore similar clothing to Professor Knarf’s guide and were chopping down the trees surrounding the village. When they saw the professor approach, they stopped what they were doing and saluted him. One of the men came forward and saluted again when he reached the Professor: “Greetings, Professor Knarf. We are very honored by your presence.”

“Greetings, Sub-Commander. How goes the harvest?” “Very well, Sir. Our experiments have shown that chopping down the trees is the most cost-benefit effective method of removal, giving us a 43% margin of pure profit.” “Very good, Sub-Commander. That must mean your stocks are completely replenished?”

The Sub-Commander invited Knarf into one of the metal huts as he continued his report: “I’m afraid not, Sir. The work on the Oktapodas has proven far more costly than we had anticipated and with our current time table, we’re hard-pressed to reach break-even.” The inside of the huts was completely different from the outside: with no effort put in camouflaging the interior, they looked like the interior of the Sufokian submarines, with pipes, dials and valves everywhere.

This particular hut had a large circular staircase in the middle leading downwards. The Feca halted in front of the staircase. “Break even?” he said agitated, “You’ve been harvesting Stasis for months! Your tanks should be bursting with pure Stasis by now!”

The man took off his hat, revealing the metallic features of a Foggernaut with the glowing purple eyes and the skull-like head: “We have to sustain ourselves as well, Sir. If we shut down, the Oktapodas project will fail for sure.” “You don’t have to explain Foggernaut technology to me, Sub Commander,” Knarf spat out, “it was me who dragged your empty shells from the ocean floor and gave you life through Stasis technology.”

“It was also me who arranged that mockery of an invasion and allowed you and your crew to escape to this backwater island. And it was me who gave you all the necessary means to survive and to hide from the Sufokian Kingdom. The only thing I ask in return from you is that you build me the Oktapodas!”

The Stasitech robot looked at him with his hollow eyes: “We are doing the best we can, Sir. And the Oktapodas is nearing completion, so we are on schedule. Only the collection of Stasis is running behind.” “But you’re entire Foggernaut division is equipped with my Stasis extraction technology. You can drain this entire island of Stasis in no time!”

They continued their descent downstairs. “You have seen my men, Sir. They are doing their best to chop down the Stasis-drained trees so we can replant them as soon as possible. It is not your technology or the extraction that is most time consuming, it is cleaning up afterwards. The flora brimming with Wakfu is quite resilient.”

Knarf halted again and retraced his steps, muttering to himself: “How is this possible? I create an army of high-tech Stasitech cyborgs and they can’t even handle the weeds!” He revealed his Feca-gear and touched the red orb, causing it to glow like a flame. “I would advise against that, Sir,” the Sub Commander said in monotone voice.

“Pardon?” Nietzschen spun around and glared at the Foggernaut. “Areyou telling me what to do, Sub Commander?” “Of course not, Sir,” the robot replied, “but we have learned from experience that the Wakfu weeds burn long and hard, developing a lot of smoke that could attract nearby vessels.” Nietzschen Knarf stared into the Stasis-filled eyes with disgust and disappointment: “All this power and yet still not the ingenuity of a true living being.”

He walked back up and exited the hut towards the men cutting down the trees. “You!” he shouted, “Stand down and move out the way!” The Foggernauts in disguise stopped their weeding work and turned around just in time to see how Feca activated his gear and made the small shield on his arm glow with a deep red glow.

The robots moved out of the way as the ground beneath their feet began to glow in the same color. Strange glyphs appeared from beneath the plants seconds before the ground started to rise and crack, revealing hot magma slowly rising to the surface. The nearest plants already caught fire when the Professor activated his gear a second time, this time summoning small clouds above the smoldering plants.

These clouds rained down several local thunderbolts on the vegetation, accelerating the already growing wildfire. The Sub Commander joined at Nietzschen’s side: “Sir, I must again warn you. If the fire grows out of control, we will attract unwanted attention.” Professor Knarf didn’t look at the Foggernaut, but charged his gear again: “That is the difference between you and me, Sub Commander. You are only built to destroy. I, on the other hand, know how to heal as well.”

His gear glowed blue this time as he raised it into the air. The next moment a large wave of water appeared behind the burning plants. It came crashing down on the vegetation and put out most of the fire with one blow. Then Nietzschen Knarf summoned several small bubbles of water which he lobbed at the remaining flames, dosing them with a few fluid moves.

He hid his gear beneath his sleeve again and turned towards the Foggernaut next to him: “That’s how you do it, Sub Commander. Now if there are no more questions, take me to the Oktapodas, please.”

Sulpa Venneir readjusted his latest disguise as he left the Brakmar village of Weapons Bridge. He gazed over the barren landscape and remembered again why all poets had left this country: not only did Weapons Bridge have to be one of the least original names for a village full of weapons’ salesmen located on a bridge, the view from the village was also anything but inspiring: dark and desolate plains formed by the magma from Brakmar’s volcano.

There were a few patches of green in between, untouched by the Brakmarian miners, but most of the plain was riddled with holes leading into small mines or straight into the boiling lava below. Why the Brakmarians even called it MourningWood was beyond Sulpa’s comprehension: the trees here were few and far in between and the entire scene had more of a burned savanna look than anything resembling a forest.

Yet the local fauna somehow managed to thrive in this dismal environment. Even the Gobballs imported from the rich Amakna fields long time ago had found their niche here and grazed contently on the patches of grass. But these docile herds were not why Sulpa was here. His target was the most dangerous predator of the plains: the seductive Bellaphones.

They seem harmless, scarcely dressed girls, but this is but a fa?ade they use to lure in their unsuspecting victims. Records state that they have learned to imitate human speech patterns, giving them even a more human appearance. They charm their victims, mostly males, until they become as docile as little Gobblies, ready to obey the Bellaphones and even die for them (which they mostly do moments later).

They hate to get their claws dirty, so if their prey does break free from their spell, they use his own powers against him by creating a double that fights in their stead. These copies are made up entirely out of a sort of green mucus, similar to the Bellaphones’ ‘hair’.

Sulpa took a vial from his haven bag containing the slime that used to be Wally Maart’s Drheller and held it against the faint sunlight. “Wally must have found a way to harvest the Bellaphones’ abilities for his own benefits,” the Ecaflip thought to himself.

Then he thought he heard the soft sound of women singing over the bleating of the Gobballs. “No time to waste,” he said out loud in a feminine voice and pulled his skirt a little higher. His latest disguise was that of a female lumberjack named Raven Supline. She had long, flowing black hair, wore a typical checkered red-and-white shirt and a very short skirt.

Normally the Ecaflip couldn’t risk showing too much fur with his female guises, but for a burly woman like Raven it wasn’t odd to have rather muscular legs. Besides, it sure helped when talking to his next informant: Jaffacrack, the Sadida clan member of the Mourning Wood, had been so smitten with her that Sulpa went against his own rule of reusing his alter-egos.

He got his oversized axe out of his bag and slung it over his shoulder. In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a movement in the shadow of the trees, but he decided to ignore for the time being and headed towards the volcano. While Sulpa slowly disappeared into the scenery, something shortly glistened in the shadows before disappearing again.

A little later, Raven Supline ran her fingers through her hair before entering a small grove at the foot of the volcano. As she entered the little forest, she heard a deep voice chanting some strange lyrics: “Oh, kama, kama, kama, kama, kama chameleon. You come and go, you come and go-o-ooh…”

“Hello, my big tree trunk,” Sulpa said in his most seductive voice to the big Sadida meditating on a tree stump in the middle of the grove. “I know that voice,” Jaffacrack said with his eyes still closed. “Is that my little twig Raven?” He opened his eyes and got off his stump to greet his friend. “Well, well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” he chuckled as he slapped Sulpa’s buttocks.

“Watch it, Jaffacrack, or I’ll have to chop down your tree as well,” Raven said with a slight menace in her voice after she had grabbed her axe and aimed it right between the Sadida’s eyes. The big man just chuckled. “Now that’s the spicy Cinnamon tree I remember. How have you been, my Chestnut?” Raven slowly lowered her axe but kept her eyes on the lumberjack: “You know, the usual. Travelling the world, chopping down trees in every land.”

“That’s my girl. So what brings you back to this neck of the woods? You finally want to see what wood I’m made of?” He jiggled his eyebrows, but Raven just sighed: “I thought you had enough girls in these woods to keep you satisfied?” Jaffacrack stared at her for a few seconds before Sulpa’s remark got through to him: “You mean the Bellaphones? Oh come now, you know I’m not into those weed wenches.”

“Only real wood interests me,” he said while eyeing Raven’s legs. “I know,” Sulpa Venneir conceded. “But it was one of these ‘weed wenches’, as you call them, that got me thinking of you again. I saw her in Bonta City, accompanying an Enutrof called Wally Maart.”

“Wally Maart?” Jaffacrack scoffed, “It’s been years since I’ve seen that swindling Strangleweed in these parts! But he better not show his ugly face around, because I still got a score to settle with him.” “So he scammed you as well?” As a response to her question, one of the trees opened up behind her, revealing a rusty axe stuck in its center. “That Thistle sold me this second-rate butter knife as a premium wood axe! I can hardly cut down a sprout with this rusty spoon!”

“Yeah, same here,” Sulpa lied, “he traded me a pair of worn-out boots for a golden tip on where to find some first class wood.” “Never give away your trade secrets, my Api blossom. I would never reveal such information!” “So did he want from you? Kamas? I thought you didn’t give those away either?” “Certainly not!” the fat Sadida replied offended.

“He just wanted every bit of knowledge I had on the Bellaphones. Guess he wanted to train one or something… Well, if you saw him with one, he’s the first man to succeed in taming one. Those shrews normally answer to no man. Or woman,” he added when he stared at Raven’s chest again. “So you never saw him here again afterwards,” Sulpa tried one more time.

“Nah. You know those Enutrofs: once they pilfered you of everything you’ve got, they disappear like a Sram in the night. But why so interested in that miserable Mistletoe? Didn’t you come back to see your old pal Jaffacrack again?” the Sadida said as he rubbed his gut against Raven’s side. She just pushed him away: “Not really, no. I just wanted payback against that little weasel.”

“Well, than we have something in common,” a second female voice sounded from the shadows. Sulpa and Jaffacrack both watched how a Sram literally emerged from out of the shade of the tree as if it was a pool of water. “Good to see you again, Agent Venneir. We still have a score to settle.”

Sulpa felt his heart skip a beat as he recognized the female assassin: she was one of Wally Maart’s body guards. She was the one that had attacked him in the storage room and had been knocked out by his lucky dice. He couldn’t risk letting her reveal his cover, so before she could say another word, he pulled out three playing cards and hurled them at the blue-haired woman. But before the projectiles could reach their target, she vanished in a cloud of smoke, causing the cards to disappear harmless in the bushes.

“I won’t be so easy this time,” her voice sounded in Sulpa’s ear and he felt her dagger at his throat. Jaffacrack got ready to defend his friend, but the assassin already loosened her grip, releasing the agent in disguise. Raven spun around and saw how the woman held up one of his playing cards displaying his deity.

“Ecaflip must be smiling on you, pussycat, because this is your lucky day. It seems we are on the same side now.” She flung the card back at him, which he caught between two fingers and aimed at the Sram again: “What do you mean, ‘the same side’?” “Wally Maart has gone and…” she thought a moment about the right euphemism, “let’s say: displeased our employer, so he is no longer under the League’s protection.”

“But rather one of its targets,” Sulpa added. “He has indeed become a liability to our employer’s operation and you should know what that means.” Jaffacrack looked back and forth between the two women: “What is she talking about, Raven? Have you gotten yourself mixed up with this Sram scum?”

The ninja girl ignored him and approached Sulpa: “As I see it, cat man, you have two options.” Again she pulled out two of Sulpa’s cards she had somehow pilfered from him moments earlier. She revealed the first card, showing the Hairy Moon: “Either we join forces in hunting down our common target or…” She showed him the second card, depicting Meowtyrdom: “We can go our separate ways and the next time our paths cross, one of them will end.”

She came almost face to face with Sulpa and whispered:”And trust me, Agent Venneir, they will cross again. The SLA has never missed its mark.” Sulpa pulled out a die and threw it at the Hairy Moon card, knocking it out of her hand: “There’s a first time for everything, my dear.”

The fat Sadida forced himself between the two woman, driving them apart with his bulk and faced the Ecaflip in disguise: “Who is this Agent Venneir, my Cherry Blossom? And what does he have to do with you?” “Oh, you don’t know?” the Sram said into his ear with suppressed joy in her voice. “Allow me to enlighten you.” Jaffacrack spun around, but by then the girl had already disappeared into her own shadow.

Sulpa knew what was coming and also turned around just in time to see her slash him with two daggers. He kicked her straight in the chest, propelling her backwards, but the damage was already done. Sulpa felt his wig sliding off his head and Raven’s chest falling out of his shirt. “What in Sadida’s name?” Jaffacrack’s voice sounded from behind Sulpa’s back, “You’re a… a tomcat?!”

Sulpa slowly turned around and saw how Jaffacrack’s eyes flared up and his face turned a green-red. He backed up slowly, trying to calm down the fat woodman: “Come now, Jaffacrack, remember the good times we had?” “Good luck, Agent. I’ll leave Wally Maart’s corpse for you to pilfer… if you survive this lovers’ quarrel.” The Sram disappeared again in the shadows just as Jaffacrack’s brambles broke through the ground around Sulpa Venneir.

The green thorny tentacles came at Sulpa from all sides, so the Bontarian pulled out Raven’s axe and simultaneously struck at the plants and jumped around to avoid them. “You lying Pine!” Jaffacrack roared and he stomped the ground with his feet, causing small quakes in the entire grove. “You will not leave these woods alive!” Sulpa cut off another branch right before he landed next onto one of the lower branches of a nearby tree, giving him relative safety from the vines.

“Jaffacrack, be reasonable: killing me won’t make it better.” But the Sadida was too enraged to even hear his arguments. “My trees won’t help you!” he barked and he clenched his fists, causing the branch supporting Sulpa to become limp and dropping him straight to the ground. The cat landed nicely on his feet, but his ankle was soon grabbed by one of the surviving brambles and hoisted him into the air.

Hanging upside down Sulpa saw how Jaffacrack focused on the tree with the rusty axe in. The tree opened up and spat out the axe straight at the hanging Ecaflip. Sulpa stretched out his entire body for a second and then crouched, causing the axe to miss him by an inch and cut down the bramble stalk instead. He landed on his hand and veered away from the approaching Sadida.

He landed at the edge of the grove and immediately had to dodge a few lumps of fertilizer that Jaffacrack launched at him. “If you want to play dirty,” Sulpa said, "then we’ll dirty.” He took out two dice and held them next to his ear, ready to throw them. But before he did, two fleas hopped on the dice and dug in their claws. Sulpa Venneir felt the grass at his feet wrapping around his ankles as he threw the dice at the Brakmarian clan member.

They bounced almost harmlessly off the Sadida’s gut as he approached Sulpa. “Your little toys are no match for me, tomcat!” The Bontarian spy squatted and cut the grass with his claws just in time to avoid Jaffacrack’s incoming punch. Jaffacrack got ready to pull another punch when his expression suddenly changed and he started scratching his sides.

“What in Sadida’s name?” He soon forgot about Sulpa and was scratching everywhere, making the plants in the grove become docile again. “What did you do, you nefarious Nettle?” The Ecaflip grinned as slowly walked away: “I gave you just what you needed, Jaffacrack: a little love… in the form of a few love fleas.”

Professor Knarf and the Foggernaut Sub Commander continued their descent into the underground of the village, leaving the hut-like fa?ade behind them and entering a large underground complex filled with tubes and glowing with the purple shine of Stasis. Further down the sound of blowtorches and hammers could be heard while on the walls Microbots and Clawbots continuingly scurried to and from the pit.

The duo halted at a control panel filled with gauges and meters looking out over the dimly lit pit. Nietzschen Knarf studied the board before he spoke again: “So what is the Oktapodas’ status?” “We are implementing the specifications you sent us last week as we speak, Sir.” “How about the modifications based on the Sire Flexington model?”

“We were able to extrapolate the shields for the Oktapodas’ size, Sir, but the propulsion is still not strong enough for airborne travel.” “Yes, I read your report,” the Feca said while staring at the dials. “The feedback from the invasion told us that Sire Flexington was unable to travel long distances over land without depleting his entire Stasis supply,” he explained while turning some knobs, “That’s why I’ve been thinking about giving our ballast tanks a secondary purpose.”

The Foggernaut stared at him in disbelief: “And how will that remedy our transportation problem, Sir?” Professor Knarf grabbed the Foggernaut’s left arm and uncovered the three Stasis vats attached at the robot’s wrist. “This is how,” he said while giving one of the vats’ neck a quick turn, releasing a small amount of purple gas.

“Aynaloxide,” the Professor clarified, “This gaseous form of Stasis used by you and the Microbots as defensive mechanism is lighter than air. If we fill the tanks with enough of this gas, we might be able to lift the Oktapodas of the ground.” The Foggernaut Sub Commander stared at the purple whiffs of gas as they evaporated in the air: “You know, Professor? This just might work…”

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Sorry, gotta use my alt to be able to continue my story

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Chapter 6

“Egol, wake up,” the hushed voice of Sekito I Bitna sounded in the darkness. “Wake up, something is happening.” Egol slowly opened his eyes, only to see just as much as he did with his eyes closed: “Where are we again?” “In a storage room in submersible boat, remember?” “Oh, right, right. It’s coming back to me.” He tried to get up, but bumped his head on something hard. “Shht!” Sekito shushed him, “Somebody might hear us.”

“But I can’t see a thing. Platine, a little help?” With a little flash the Sinistro appeared at the edge of the room, her lit-up eyes shedding some light on their situation. “There you are,” Sekito said to the summon, “I was worried sick about you.” While Egol got up from underneath some storage shelves, he comforted his friend: “Don’t worry about her, Sekito. Sinistros are not of this world. They cannot die here. They can only be forcefully sent back to their own plain of existence.”

Platine’s eyes flickered as she let out a series of clicks in dismay. “Yes, I know it’s not a pleasant transition,” Egol replied, “But it sure beats dying.” “How would you know?” Sekito jumped in, “Have you done either of them?” “Is this really the time or place for this discussion?” Egol said sternly.

Before any of them could reply, the boat shuddered slightly. “We must have reached our destination,” Sekito guessed. “That felt as if the ship was being moored.” “Then they’ll come for me very soon. We have to devise a plan.” “A plan? This is boat is filled with soldiers. How do you want to get past them?” Platine hovered next to Egol and started clicking and creaking at a rapid pace. “You can turn yourself invisible?!” Egol asked his friend after the Sinistro grew quiet again. “Well, not really invisible. I can temporarily transport myself to a higher plane where my healing powers increase and I become less noticeable to bystanders.” “That’s just what we need. We just need to time it perfectly. But with a little help…”

The Xelor and Sinistro looked at each other for a moment when suddenly the voice of the lieutenant sounded outside: “Right, time to go. The Captain wants to present her prisoner to the Admiral right away.” “Yessir,” the guard replied and they both entered the sick bay. “All right, get ready. Sekito: when they find out I’m gone, they’ll start searching every room. When they enter here, go to your other plane and stay there until they’re gone. Understand?”

“But what about you?” “Don’t worry, I’ll use a similar trick. Your turn, Platine: Double time.” Sekito watched in bewilderment as the Sinistro blinked its hollow eyes and two more Sinistros appeared beside her. “What? How did you do that? Which one is the real Platine?” The three Sinistros clicked in unison. “They all are,” Egol responded, “Temporal images of the same entity.”

By then the voices sounded a bit more panicked in the other room: “That can’t be!” “You fool! You let him escape!” “But, Sir, how could I know that he replaced his body with pillows?” “Just shut up and search the nearby rooms. I’ll sound the alarm.” The friends heard the lieutenant run back into the hallway while the sailor started opening and closing every door nearby the sick bay.

“Get ready…” Egol said as the entire group stood poised for the sailor’s entrance. The moment the handle on the door moved the Sinistros’ eyes all started to glow, slowing down the opening of the door. In the meanwhile, Sekito became ethereal again as he switched planes and Egol first started to hover and then simply teleported out of the room, followed seconds later by the Platines. Sekito saw how the soldier scanned the room with a slight fear in his eyes before closing the door again.

When all was dark again, Sekito materialized again moments before Egol and his summons appeared back in the room. “Where did you guys go?” Sekito said with a lowered voice, “I didn’t know you could vanish just like that.” “We didn’t vanish,” Egol said as his feet touched ground again, “We just teleported to sick bay next door. We knew they wouldn’t search there anymore, so it was the perfect hiding place. And because we had been there before, we knew the room well enough not to teleport into any object.”

The three Platines clicked again and in a single flash, two of them vanished again. “And what was that good for?” Sekito said in a higher pitch indicating that there was a bit too much weirdness going on for him to grasp. “Simple math. Three Sinistros can slow down more than one.” “But… but… there weren’t three. There was just Platine.” “Yes,” Egol said in a soft tone of voice, “but every Platine has the same power.”

“That just doesn’t make sense,” Sekito finally gave up. “It doesn’t, if you consider just one space-time continuum. But the great Xelor allows his disciples to touch several space-time streams and use them to their advantage.” “I’ll just believe you on that,” Sekito sighed, “But we’re still not out of here.” “No, we’re not,” Egol confirmed as they heard the alarm bells ringing through the ship. But I think our best option is to keep doing this until they believe we’re not on the ship anymore.” “Let’s hope the great Xelor and the god Ecaflip are still on talking terms then,” Sekito joked as they settled down again, waiting for the next guard.

Mei de Prac, still in chains at the Mask of Shushu’s hideout, was awoken from her uncomfortable slumber by a heated argument moving in her direction. The door to her prison room swung open and Kzam stormed in, saying nothing, closely followed by Lani Mirc: “Great going, oh formidable leader! A little trip to Bonta to scare off an Enutrof and what do we have to show for it?! Our brother behind bars and a large pile of snot!”

She hurled a blob of green goo at the back of the Masqueraider’s head. But instead of hitting him, it smacked to pieces on an invisible shield inches away from his backside. “That was not Wally Maart,” he replied menacingly without facing her. “Igor!” the Shushu possessing his mask shouted towards the large mirror in the back of the room, “Have you completed your search yet?”

“But of course, Sarojam,” the Shushu mirror replied placidly, “I searched the underground as instructed and found what you were looking for.” “Good work,” Kzam complimented. “Now I will have my revenge for the humiliation we suffered at Bonta!” “Show us!” the mask almost screamed. “I really didn’t need to look far,” Igor told them as the image in the mirror changed.

“His hideout is actually not far from here. An underground complex not unlike this one right here in Brakmar. The entrance to his ‘lair’ lies hidden in the cellar of a little jeweler store on Scara Pass named ‘The Darth Mussel’s Pearl’.” “Yes. Yes!” Sarojam cheered, “Nos, Lani, prepare yourselves, we’re heading out for…” But he was interrupted mid-sentence by three clicks coming from behind them.

The Masqueraider turned around and he and Sarojam found themselves staring in the barrels of the two Rogues’ guns. “We ain’t going anywhere before we spring Lenny from jail!” Nos threatened him. “Yeah, family always goes first,” Lani added. “You two can have your little revenge afterwards.”

Mei stared at the criminals’ standoff and wondered who would free her from her bonds should they finish each other off right then and there. “You miserable pond scum!” Sarojam spat out, “Is this your thanks for all the power and riches that we delivered?” “Riches mean nothing if you don’t have your family to share them with, Shushu,” Lani said while aiming one gun at Kzam’s mask and one gun at his chest, “But you wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”

“We have no time for this,” Kzam said ice-cold but still calm, “How will you free your brother from Bonta prison without our help?” “We’ve always got by without you before, Kzam,” Nos replied, “Why shouldn’t we be able to do so now?” “You little, pretentious humans! Do you know who you’re talking to? I am Sarojam, major Shushu and right hand to Lord Rushu himself!”

The argument was then interrupted by a high-pitch cackle coming from the shadows at the other end of the room: “Right hand? Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Don’t flatter yourself, snake! You’re hardly worthy enough to clip Rushu’s hooves!” “What!?” Sarojam’s eye flared up as everybody turned around to see where the voice was coming from. Then a scrawny figure in a Strawcrow outfit revealed himself from behind the large mirror: “You always thought too highly of yourself, you little worm.”

“Who the Shukrute are you?!” the Shushu in the mask called out. “Oh come now, Sarojam,” the Strawcrow jested, “don’t you remember me?” “Maybe if we see your face…,” Kzam said and with a single blow of his fist, launched a shockwave at his masked opponent, but he just cartwheeled out of harm’s way.

As the rock wall behind him shuddered from the impact, he pulled out a club resembling a small Scarecroolate on a long stick: “You stay out of it, Shushu lover. This is just between me and Sarojam!” “And us,” Nos and Lani added in unison, “No one enters our hideout unwanted and lives to tell the tale.”

“Oh, but you didn’t think I came unprepared, now do you?” He snapped his fingers and through the door next to Mei his two henchmen barged in, swinging their weapons menacingly. “What kind of circus is this?” Nos asked when seeing the two masked men approaching them. “One of the short variety,” Lani replied, “All right, fearless leader, you take on the scarecrow, we’ll deal with pumpkin and bone head here.” “My pleasure,” Sarojam and Kzam said together.

The Rogues opened fire on the henchmen while the Masqueraider slowly but menacingly walked towards the Smiling Strawcrow. “When I’m done with you, you bug bag,” Sarojam spoke, “there won’t be enough of you left to scrape the dirt of Rushu’s hooves. Let me show you the true power of a major Shushu!” The mask started to glow crimson red as thick, black smoke came spewing out of all openings.

Kzam let out a feral roar as his body slowly started to change, becoming black and snakelike. His arms and legs became shorter, but he grew a long, slender tail. On his back several small craters formed that started to belch out more smoke, enshrouding him almost completely in the black mist.

Finally the mask itself became alive and bared its teeth at the Strawcrow. Its eyes glowed like fire and the next moment, it seemed as if the smoke around him became alive. It twirled around his body and formed to enormous black wings on the back of the possessed Masqueraider, giving him the appearance of a winged dragon. “I am Sarojam, the Shadow Serpent, the Scourge of all Srams, the Snake of Shapeless Smoke! Witness my power and despair!”

He roared again, spewing black smoke from his mouth as if it was a flame. “Now it’s you and me, you cheeky little…” But before he could finish, a soft squeaking noise sounded beneath his feet. “What?!” The Shushu looked down and saw a cute, little stuffed Tofu moments before it exploded.

The Mourning Wood plains. Sulpa Venneir sat on top of one of the larger boulders in the area, still recovering from his fight with Jaffacrack. He had specifically chosen this rock as a resting place as he didn’t completely trust the local flora anymore. He had ditched his female disguise and was pondering his next move. His suspicion about Wally Maart using a Bellaphone in his organization seemed more and more plausible, but it had not given him any usable clues on the Enutrof’s whereabouts.

He sighed softly and got ready to head back to the Zaap, when he heard a soft humming coming from the tall grass near the rock. It were the same female voices he had heard when he had arrived in Mourning Wood. “Bellaphones!” the spy thought to himself. He pulled out his cards and got to his feet, ready to strike. “Show yourselves!” the Ecaflip called out. When all remained silent, he pulled back his arm, ready to launch his throwing cards.

But just before he attacked, a soft female voice answered: “Ok, ok. Hold your fire. I’ll come out.” Sulpa saw how one of the slimy witches revealed herself at the bottom of the rock. But to his surprise, she didn’t look as vile or seductive as tales had pictured her kind. True, her hair seemed was made of translucent green slime that flowed behind her like real hair, but the rest of her looked like a sweet young naked girl, shy and cautious instead of hot and pleasing.

“Sorry,” she said in a sweet voice, “Didn’t mean to startle you. But I’ve been following you since you came to the plains.” “So I’ve noticed,” Sulpa said as he jumped down from the boulder, still wielding his cards to be safe. He made a mental note to improve his skills to blend in as seemingly everybody in Brakmar had noticed his presence here.

“Why are you following me? Looking for your next victim?” The white skinned girl almost seemed to blush: “Oh goodness, no.” She hesitated for a moment. “I had heard you were inquiring about our long lost sister and was hoping you could bring us some information about her whereabouts.” “Long lost sister…” Sulpa echoed, “Oh, you mean the Bellaphone accompanying Wally Maart?”

“So that is the name of the Enutrof who abducted her? Such an awful man… We’re used to being hunted by the Osamodas for our unique skills, but never an Enutrof. These Kama hungry creatures don’t know the first thing about tending to such delicate flowers as ourselves.”

Sulpa put in his cards back in his pocket as he relaxed a bit: “Well, I can reassure you: she’s still alive and in good health the last time I saw her. And from where I was standing, she was enjoying her time in Wally’s service.” The Bellaphone scooted a little closer: “Oh, I reassure you, kind Sir, we Bellaphones can fake and pretend very well. It is the only trick we know to stay alive when in captivity, as our frail physique doesn’t allow us to fight our captors.”

Sulpa looked at her questioningly: “Well, that’s not what I’ve heard. But never mind that. You know now your sister is still safe and sound, so if that is all…” “Yes, I’m very grateful for this, but I was hoping I could lend you a hand in finding her captor and returning her to us.” This turn of events genuinely surprised Sulpa Venneir: “What? She’s been missing for so long and just when I happen to pass by, you decide you want to rescue her?”

“It’s not nearly as simple as make it out to be, Sir. Me and my sisters have been trying to locate her for some time now, but since we are bound to this plain, we are limited to travelers and passersby as sources of information. But lately we may have found a way to circumvent this handicap.”

“You have decided to send out missionaries into the World of Twelve?” “No, we’ve found a window into the world: a demon mirror located right beneath this very soil.” Sulpa raised his eyebrow in disbelief, but the Bellaphone girl grabbed him by the arm: “Follow me, I’ll show you.”

She led the Bontarian spy with her gentle touch to a small inconspicuous opening between the rocks not far from the boulder where they had met. “So what you’re telling me,” Sulpa recapitulated, “is that this is the entry to a Rogues’ lair in which I would find a mirror possessed by a Shushu allowing me to see anything I want in the World of Twelve?”

“That is indeed the rumor,” the Bellaphone confirmed, “but none of the adventurers we’ve enlisted have returned to confirm us this tale.” “So actually you’re sending me into a possible deathtrap with only a rumor to guide me?” “I’m afraid so, but I’m convinced you’re as motivated to capture her abductor as we are to retrieve our sister. Such passion cannot be withheld by the insignificant scoundrels lurking in these caves. But if you fear to go down there alone, I can breed you some help…”

“No, thank you. I think I have better chance alone down there.” The Ecaflip pulled a lantern out of his Haven bag and cautiously entered the unlit cave. The monster girl waited by the entrance until the glow from the lantern had disappeared from her sight. Then she walked away with a mocking grin on her face.

“So, he fell for it?” another female voice sounded from the bushes. “Of course. Males are so gullible,” the girl replied as she threw her hair back. As she did so, her body seemed to grow more mature, becoming that of a voluptuous adult woman no man could resist. She joined a few other Bellaphones who were waiting for her behind the rock formation.

Between the slimy witches a Rogue was sitting with a dazed and love-struck look in his eyes. “Let’s hope this one is a bit more resilient than the previous meat bags we sent in there.” “Oh, I’m quite sure of it,” the transformed Bellaphone said, “The pussycat doesn’t know he’s under our spell. He still thinks he’s trying to achieve his own petty goals.” “Maybe for the better,” one of the other replied, “because they become so useless once they’ve complete fallen for us.”

The original walked over to the Rogue, grabbed him by the chin and squeezed his cheeks: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Because when the time is right, you will walk right in there and kill them all, won’t you, my pet?” The Rogue replied to her question with an enthusiastic nod. “See girls, they do have their use,” she said, smiling menacingly.

Sulpa carefully lit the way as he advanced into the supposed Rogues’ nest. He realized very well that the Bellaphone’s story could have been completely fabricated, so he advanced with extreme caution. But after a few minutes the first signs of human presence started to show themselves and it didn’t take Sulpa much longer before he reached the heart of the hideout.

A larger cave lit by several torches was filled with crates, stools and tables. The walls were adorned with a multitude of crude banners and flags. To his surprise, Sulpa recognized the coat of arms depicted on them. “Bless Ecaflip,” he thought to himself, “I’ve found me the Mask of Shushu’s lair! Captain Lees would give a fortune for the location of this place. But I wonder why I still haven’t run into anyone.”

The gang that had accompanied the Mask on his raids on Bonta, except for the last one, consisted of a rather large number of Rogues, so Sulpa expected to run into at least a few of them. He pulled a Hairy Moon card out of his card deck and at his feet a black Bow Meow appeared. He softly petted it on her head and whispered: “Ok, girl, let’s see if we can find some bad boys.” The feline rubbed his legs for a few more seconds before she darted off into the one the open doors.

Sulpa continued to scan the main room, but found nothing but the usual stuff: alcohol, explosives and guns. Then he heard his Bow Meow meowing from the other room. He went to check it out and as he walked through the door, he noticed a distinct smell that almost immediately gave him a slight headache. The room was obviously a dormitory and was filled with sleeping and snoring bandits.

“What is going on here?” Sulpa thought to himself as he tried to fight off the intensifying dizziness. The Bow Meow meowed again. She was sitting next to what looked like a plush Puffnando with a plume of green gas coming from his mouth. Sulpa Venneir tried to get closer to the toy, but felt himself losing consciousness real fast. He fell to his knees and was about to pass out when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his leg. He jerked up and got out of the room as soon as he could.

Back in the main hall he felt his head clear again. He rubbed his leg and saw the claw marks left by his Bow Meow. The kitty followed him out a bit later with the toy Snapper in her mouth. Sulpa accepted the gift and petted her again: “Good girl! If it wasn’t for you, I’d be snoozing there as well.” He studied the plush fish his pet had given him: “This at least explains why no one has come out to greet us. But who dropped it here? And with which purpose? Criminals normally aren’t so kind to their kind, so any rival clan would have just plain killed them.”

Sulpa was about to take the toy apart when he and his pet were startled by the muffled sound of an explosion. “It looks like not everyone’s asleep,” he said out loud, but the Bow Meow had already vanished. He pulled out his playing cards and headed in the direction of the sound. It wasn’t long before he came up to a large, reinforced door. Behind the door he could here several muffled voice beneath the clattering of weapons and gunshots.

It seemed like the gods Xelor, Eniripsa and Ecaflip had all met up at Pandawa’s bar that day and had struck a deal, for Egol and Sekito were extremely lucky and had managed to stay hidden during the entire search of the ship. They had remained on their guard for some time after the last visitor, but decided it was time to make the next step.

“So now what do we do?” Sekito whispered as he slowly opened the door of their hideout. “I suppose they placed guards at the main door, so that’s not an option.” “Indeed,” Egol replied as the sneaked into the hallway. “And I don’t know if there’s any other way out of this submersible.” “Maybe a back door? The bridge and main entrance are that way, so I suggest we check the other end.”

“Well, for the moment, I think that is our only option,” the Xelor conceded. “Platine, you see if you can find schematics of the ship somewhere. They might give us a clue on another way out.” The Sinistro flickered her eyes affirmatively before she vanished into the time stream. “Ok, Sekito. Lead the way.”

They crept through the eerily quiet submarine with almost no guards to avoid. They left the more decorated main halls and went down into the engine room. Here there were a few technicians running some checks on the engines. Sekito and Egol made sure they stayed out of sight, but this didn’t require too much effort as the mechanics were very enveloped in their work.

When they reached a quiet corner between the running engines, Sekito looked back at the mechanics and said: “What is driving this boat? I’ve never seen such technology anywhere in the World of Twelve. Even the ancient Eliatrope contraptions look nothing like this.” Egol let his hand run over one of the pipes: “Whatever it is, it feels very powerful.”

“I know. I felt it too, back in my cell. It almost feels… evil.” “And I know why. Look!” Egol pointed at a pair of mechanical claws that grabbed chunks of the purple Stasili ore and dropped them into a funnel leading towards the engines. “This boat is powered by Stasis!”

“What evil mastermind is behind this madness?” Sekito wondered out loud as Platine reappeared next to them. “Ah Platine, any success?” The Sinistro clicked in excitement as her eyes lit up and projected the schematics of the entire vessel. It seemed the boat had roughly the shape of a whale with the bridge and crew quarters in the bow while the entire stern was filled with engines and other strange machinery.

Egol studied the projection and pointed at one of the larger engine rooms: “We should be… about here.” “That’s great,” said Sekito a bit sarcastic, “but I don’t see any way out of this infernal vessel on that end.” “Maybe not,” Egol squinted his eyes and paused for a moment. “Then again, maybe there is. Look over here.”

“What am I looking at?” “Not far from here there should be something named ‘escape pod’. I’m not quite sure, but from the look of it, I would say it’s some sort of underwater lifeboat. It seems completely detachable from the ship and should be accessible through this hatch.” Sekito looked around the cramped room and saw the hatch not far from their location: “Over there. That should be it.”

“Probably installed to evacuate the engine crew during an emergency. Ok, thanks Platine. It looks like you saved our hides again.” The Sinistro creaked with pride as her eyes dimmed again and she transformed in a Tofu again. She landed on Egol’s shoulder and together they crept after Sekito who had already reached the escape pod.

Meanwhile on the bridge, Captain Mofette listened to the lieutenant’s latest status rapport with thinly veiled annoyance. Frida waited for him to finish his report before she got out of her command chair and leaning on the railing, barked out at her subordinate: “So what you are telling me is that the prisoners escaped both our brig and our sickbay, both guarded by your men, and afterwards managed to elude your search party on a closed submarine?! I’m seriously starting to doubt the competence of your squadron, Lieutenant!”

The lieutenant knew that this was hardly the time or place to start arguing with his superior. There was an emergency that was more important than his personal pride or honor. He just replied: “We will redouble our efforts, Ma’am.” “See that you do. They cannot have escaped this vessel without us knowing. Now see to it that…”

She was interrupted by one of her officers standing by the all female navigational crew at the helm of the submarine. “Ma’am, we’ve just launched one of our aft escape pods!” “What?!” the Captain shouted and she grabbed the radio communicator located next to the steering wheel: “Engine room, who authorized that escape pod launch?”

A panicked engineer sounded through the speaker: “We didn’t authorize anything, Ma’am. We’re all here and accounted for. It must have been someone else who snuck in here without us knowing.” Frida Mofette slammed the communicator back onto the control panel and turned towards the lieutenant again: “Time for your squad to prove themselves, Lieutenant! Man the Steamflexes and retrieve that pod at all costs. But I want them alive, do you understand?” The man clicked his heels and saluted: “Yes, Ma’am!” before he stormed out the bridge.

On the other side of the door that Sulpa Venneir had reached, Nos and Lani Mirc were having serious difficulties in holding back Heckle and Jeckle. “These guys just won’t take a hint!” Nos shouted as he blocked Heckle’s incoming attack with his longsword. The sword almost bent under the hammer’s blow, but Nos put his weight into it and pushed back the masked attacker.

A bit further his sister continuingly dodged Jeckle’s axe as she tried to get some distance between her and her assailant: “You’re telling me! And what’s keeping the rest of the gang? Are they snoozing on the job or what?” She fired another volley at the cranium wearing crony, but he reflected them with the blade of his axe and used the handle to counterattack.

Lani was knocked back against the wall, right next to where Mei De Prac was still chained to the wall. “Set me free, Lani,” the Pandawa said, “You can’t take these guys on your own.” The female Rogue wiped the blood from her chin and glared at the bounty hunter: “It will a cold day in Shukrute before I let a stuffed bear tell me what to do.”

Their little conversation was cut short as Heckle planted his axe in the rock wall between them. “Two girlies to play with,” the henchman chuckled as he pulled his weapon out of the rock. “Let’s have some fun.” He pulled back his weapon for another blow, but Lani beat him to it. She took her boomerang dagger from her belt and hurled it at Jeckle’s head.

He dodged it just in time, but that gave Lani enough time to roll between his legs and get back on her feet behind him. There she pulled out both her guns again and fired at the masked man at point-blank range. Jeckle reacted with lightning speed and shielded is head from the blast with his axe. “Ha! You missed!” Jeckle mocked.

“Not quite,” Mei’s voice sounded from behind him. The ricocheted blast had cut one of Mei de Prac’s bonds, giving her enough room to maneuver closer to the skull wearing criminal. Jeckle turned around, but before he could respond, Mei kicked him hard in his side, propelling him towards Lani. She moved out the way and tripped the masked henchman, causing him to fall right on top of Heckle. Nos used this opportunity and knocked them both down with one swoop of his sword.

“Now will you cut me loose? Together we can take them,” Mei proposed to the Rogue. Lani directed one of her guns at the Pandawa: “I wasn’t born yesterday, Missy! You’ll hightail out of here once I free you. So I think I better take care of you now before you become a liability.” Nos kept the Strawcrow’s henchmen at gunpoint, but they obviously weren’t very impressed and were getting ready to attack again.

“Lani, will you get over here?” he called over to his sister as he started firing. “Too bad for Lenny,” Lani said between her teeth as she started to fire on the masked men with one of her guns, “He’ll just have to find a new toy.” But before she could pull the trigger of her second gun, the door behind the recovering henchmen was blasted out with by a huge explosion.

The door itself hit Heckle and Jeckle and the shockwave that followed the explosion knocked down the Mirc siblings. Through the smoke of the explosion sounded the voice of Sulpa Venneir: “I think the lady said to release her!” Before the Ecaflip even became visible, one of his cards flew through the room, cutting Mei de Prac’s second chain, finally releasing her from her prison.

A few seconds later the cat man entered the room and pounced over the Rogues, joining Mei. “Good thing a Rogues’ den is always full of explosives,” he joked. “Hello there, Miss de Prac, long time no see. I believe this is yours?” He handed her the tube-like bamboo barrel so typical for all Pandawa warriors. “Yes, thank you. Good to see you too, Agent Venneir.”

She slung the barrel on her back and together with Sulpa turned her attention towards Lani and Nos Mirc who were back on their feet. “Look what the Bow Meow dragged in,” Lani scolded. “He’s that tomcat that took out Lenny!” Nos added, “Time for payback!” “Come and get it, boys and girls,” Sulpa Venneir taunted them as the Rogues opened fire on Mei and Sulpa.

Meanwhile in the back of the room Kzam possessed by Sarojam flew around on his smoky wings to avoid the Strawcrow’s bombs, all the while attacking him by spewing pitch-black smog. “You never were more than hot air, Sarojam!” the Strawcrow screamed over the sound of the last explosion. “You think you’ll impress Rushu by terrorizing these puny humans?” “Puny humans?” Kzam’s voice sounded through Sarojam’s growl, “And what might you be?” The Strawcrow smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know, mask boy?”

Kzam-Sarojam landed in front of the masked criminal, its smoke wings changing into two large arms that lunged out at the Strawcrow. He waited until the last moment to somersault backwards, causing the smoke claws to dissipate on the cave floor. “Stand still, you arrogant grasshopper!” Sarojam growled.

The arm smoke reformed itself as four large tentacles on the Shushu’s back. With them, he picked up small boulders lying about and started hurling them at his opponent. The Strawcrow deflected the first few with his club, but after a while the rocks got bigger and he barely avoided being squashed by them. Sarojam laughed out loud as every boulder he threw came closer to hitting the masked man. “Not so tough now, are you?”

The Strawcrow looked at him and smirked. “Maybe not, but neither are you,” and with a single motion hurled four Wodent bombs at the smoke creature. The Shushu-human roared in anger as he was blasted by the force of the combined explosions. He hit the rock wall of the cave, causing his smoke tendrils to evaporate temporarily.

The smokeless lizard got back on his feet and hissed at the Strawcrow as his body started spewing smoke again: “You truly are mad, aren’t you?” You know you have no chance against a demon with my powers!” The masked man just chuckled as Kzam-Sarojam’s entire body glowed crimson red and the fresh smoke spiraled around them as a huge twister, soon reaching the ceiling of the cave.

Sarojam roared as the top of the smoke tornado changed into a huge snake’s head with glowing red eyes. “Now let’s get serious!” The smiling Strawcrow readied his Scarecroolate club as the smoke snake dived towards him. He evaded the head and struck at the body with his weapon, but it simply went harmlessly through the smoke. They repeated this little dance a few times, each time enraging Sarojam more and more: “You really think you can hurt us like that?!”

“Time for playing games is over,” Kzam’s voice sounded through and with a flick of his tail, the Shushu tackled his opponent from behind. But before he hit the ground Kzam-Sarojam grabbed him with one of his smoke coils, now suddenly very solid, and squeezed him good. They brought the squirming criminal closer to the huge snake’s head and gloated: “Not so tough now, are we? But before we crush your very bones, let’s see who’s beneath this pathetic mask.”

They grabbed the top of the mask with the tip of their smoky tail when the Strawcrow laughed out loud again: “You still haven’t figured it out, have you?” “You’re still mocking us? Even now, at the brink of your destruction?” “You really never were the smart one, Sarojam. Father should have smashed you when he had the chance.”

“What?” At that moment a strong sucking noise was heard at the bottom of the cave: there a dozen Don Puffnando toys activated all at once, inflating themselves while sucking in the black smoke. Kzam and Sarojam swore in unison as their entire snake body quickly dissipated, dropping them and the Strawcrow amidst the inflated Snapper toys.

The Shushu possessed human quickly crawled to his feet and hurled himself at the Strawcrow in a fit of rage: “WHO ARE YOU?!” “Sorry,” the man said pinned to the floor, “Your time is up.” At this cue all the Don Puffnando toys exploded in unison, engulfing both Kzam-Sarojam and the Strawcrow in their blast.

In the escape pod Egol was trying his best to manage the alien steering mechanism and guide them out of the docking bay. “Look out for that wall!” Sekito screamed behind him as he covered his eyes. “Try to keep calm, Sekito,” Egol said in a shaky voice as he pulled the leavers controlling the rudder and propellers of their little ship.

“I’m doing my best to get us out of here, but I’m not used to this technology.” “Over there,” the Eniripsa pointed, “There’s the exit.” The little pod skimmed past the bottom of the basin and propelled towards the gate. “There, we’re clear off the docking bay,” Egol said in relief.

“Wow, would you look at that,” Sekito said in amazement. “It’s an entire city under the sea!” The two friends marveled at the impressive view of the sunken city of Sufokia lighting up the sea bottom with countless floodlights and portholes. It consisted of many steel domes connected with short pipes, all riddled with lights. Egol slowly set course towards the city as they kept staring at the marvelous display.

“This must be the long lost city of Sufokia,” Sekito said in awe. “The one that sunk beneath the waves because of Ogrest’s Flood?” “Yes, the very same.” “But how can they have survived this long?” Egol wondered, “And with such advanced technology?” “The Foggernauts were already quite skilled in submersible technology before Ogrest’s Chaos, so if anyone could have survived such a catastrophe, I would have been them. And about being so advanced: where were you when those Foggernaut robots invaded our land? They were unlike anything we had ever seen.”

Sekito suddenly realized something: “Hey, that’s funny: according to Wicky Leeks, most of old Sufokia’s population was turned into these mechanical creatures, but I didn’t see one of them on the submarine. But now I do see the resemblance: the Foggernauts were brimming with Stasis and so is this submarine technology. Egol, don’t you see? We have an unique opportunity to explore this lost civilization! We can’t just let that slip through our fingers.”

Egol looked at his friend in disbelief: “May I remind you that this lost civilization captured us, imprisoned us and was about to bring us to justice for crimes we didn’t commit?” Sekito felt a bit embarrassed and slumped back into his seat. “And I don’t think they’re giving up that easy either,” Egol added. “Look over there: several small pods are launching from the docking bay we just left.” Sekito squinted his eyes: “What are they? They look smaller than our little boat.”

“Yeah, and a lot faster too. Hold on tight, I’m going to try and pull out all the stops.” Sekito was thrown back into his seat as Egol pulled back all levers and their mini-submarine accelerated towards the city. “Let’s hope I can shake them!” Back on the bridge of the submarine, Captain Mofette and her crew listened to communications of the Steamflexes in pursuit of the escape pod.

“They’re heading back towards the city.” “The sub is too fast. We can’t beat it when it comes to speed.” “Stay in formation.” Frida took the communicator in hand: “Lieutenant, remember that the fugitives are probably inexperienced and not familiar with the terrain or our technology. Use this to your advantage.” “Understood, Ma’am. All right, boys, this is just like hunting Kralamores. We just have to drive them in the right direction. Sharks 3 and 5, break off and move towards the south of the city to intercept. The rest of you follow my lead.”

Sekito looked through the backward porthole of their sub and saw how their pursuers were losing ground fast. “We might just make it!” he called out to the front, when suddenly a muffled explosion was heard and the boat rocked violently. Sekito lost balanced and fell between the chairs: “What was that?!” “Looks like they’re shooting at us.”

Egol regained control of the sub and made a sharp turn just in time to avoid a next volley of Stasis shots. “They’re firing pure Stasis, just like the Foggernaut robots!” Sekito remarked. “That’s all very interesting,” Egol said slightly annoyed, “but there firing pure Stasis at us! If we don’t get out of their range soon, they’ll blow us out of the water.” He made another sharp turn, causing the incoming blasts to harmlessly hit the sea bottom, scaring some Bernardo dia Reya.

As Egol got the hang of the controls, he tried to zigzag more and more to avoid the energy blasts. This seemed to work, but at the cost of their speed. The Steamflexes weren’t hitting them, but they were closing in on them. “Don’t want to alarm you, Egol,” Sekito said slightly nervous, “But they gaining on us.” “I know, I know! Just hold on, I’m going to try something.”

Egol leveled the submarine again and continued in a straight line next to the submersed city. Sekito felt the boat accelerate again, but saw how the robot-subs got ready for another volley. He turned around to warn his friend, but held his tongue when he saw how his Xelor armor was glowing brightly.

He looked outside again where he could almost see the bubble in time created by Egol formed around their boat, causing it to move faster than its surrounding. The Stasis shots aiming for them missed their mark and Sekito saw the Steamflexes struggling to keep up.

“What in Osamodas’ name?” sounded through the speaker on the bridge, “How did they do that?” “What is going on?” Captain Mofette said into the microphone. “The mini-sub suddenly accelerated to an unseen speed, Captain. There is no way we can keep up.” “The Xelor,” Frida grumbled under her breath. “Lieutenant, don’t let them out of your sight! I do not want them leaving this city!”

Slowly decelerating to normal speed, Egol turned their escape pod towards the sunken city of Sufokia, using its structure as a cover. He maneuvered around a few pipes and glass domes before setting the ship down in a dark corner on the ocean floor. “What are you doing?” Sekito panicked “We’re losing momentum!” “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t last any longer. But I’m sure we couldn’t outrun them for long. They must know these waters and this technology much better than me. We got to wait for them to move on so we can slip away unseen.”

The two friends kept quiet as they saw the searchlights of their pursuers lighting one of the larger dome nearby, but they let out a sigh of relief when the turned around before noticing them. “Well, that seemed to have worked,” Egol sighed as he slumped slightly in his chair. “But for how long?” his friend wondered. “And how much oxygen do we have left in this metal barrel.” The Xelor looked around and said: “If I am correct, this little gauge is telling us that we have about two hours left. That should be enough to wait for them to leave.”

“You don’t know that,” Sekito countered. “We haven’t got the slightest clue how long it will take us to reach the surface again and…” Sekito was interrupted when their sub rocked violently. Two bright lights emerged from both sides of the sub, blinding its passengers. A crackled voice sounded through the speakers as the two Steamflexes grabbed the escape pd with their claws: “End of the line, boys!”

Everyone in the cave stopped their fighting as the blast from the toys made the entire hideout tremble. “Kzam!” Nos called out, joined in by Heckle and Jeckle: “Boss!” “What is that madman doing?” Lani added. “What’s going on?” Sulpa asked Mei.

“These three masked men had entered the hideout to challenge Kzam and his Rogues. Then Kzam let himself be possessed by the Shushu in his mask to become some sort of hideous smoke creature to fight the leader of the intruders. Now I think the fighting is officially over.” The six fighters approached the scene of the blast and found the two leaders unconscious on the floor, seriously battered by the explosion.

Sarojam was separated from Kzam again and lay next to him on the floor, back in his mask, still smoking softly. The Strawcrow’s henchman wanted to move in to help him up when everyone heard a soft giggle coming from his body. As the laughter got louder, he slowly pushed himself off the ground, still trembling. His outfit was seriously tattered, revealing his body through the rips and tears.

Mei de Prac gasped: “You’re… you’re one of those robots. Those Foggernauts!” The Strawcrow’s laughter slowly turned into a chuckle as he faced the onlookers: “Close, but no cigar, my dear. I’m made of something stronger.” He took off his Strawcrow mask, revealing what looked like a prototype Foggernaut. His face looked more like a battered skull than the refined visages found on other Foggernauts, but it was also brimming with Stasis.

Sarojam’s voice sounded: “A puppet? We were beaten by a tin shell?” “Oh Sarojam,” the Strawcrow said in a mocking voice, “You never could see beyond the end of your vile nose.” He walked over to the Shushu in the mask and picked him up. “You still have no idea, do you?” “I don’t know any copper cronies, you cretin! You are nothing but a failed attempt of a long drowned people to augment themselves into something they’re not!” The Strawcrow laughed and threw the mask into the direction of the still unconscious Masqueraider.

“I think you need further evidence. Igor!” The Shushu mirror had kept quiet during the fight, but now responded as if nothing had happened: “Yes?” “Show me … my father.” The Rogues and Bontarians looked puzzled at each other while Heckle and Jeckle cringed in fear. Igor on the other hand simply replied: “As you wish, my Lord.” The image in the mirror twirled and faded until it revealed the fearsome face of the demon god Rushu, Lord of the Shushus and Ruler of Shukrute, realm of Shushus.

The huge demon seemed to be snoozing and didn’t notice he was being watched. “Lord Rushu,” Sarojam said in a trembling voice full of awe and fear. Rushu seemed to wake up: “Huh? What? Who dares to disturb my destruction?” His voice boomed through the cave, causing small pebbles to dislodge from the ceiling. “Hello there, Daddy. It’s me,” the Strawcrow said in a sarcastic tone of voice.

The huge demon stared at him in disbelief, so the battered robot continued. “Don’t you recognize your own son?” “My own son?” To illustrate his point the Strawcrow opened his vest, revealing a canister similar to that in a Foggernaut’s chest. Only this one contained a small gear with glowing green eyes interlocking with other gears leading into the robot’s body instead of pure Stasis.

Comprehension crept over Rushu’s hideous face. “Jushu? Jushu! You posy picking pansy! What kind of dainty disguise have you donned yourself in this time?!” “Oh, a Shushu must do what he must to survive, Father. Certainly after a certain demon god had ordered to bury him on the bottom of the deepest ocean!” Rushu almost seemed to smile: “And yet you persevere, like the true Bow Meow Fish that you are.”

“Oh, I will do more than just persevere, big guy. I’m going to do what you never could: I’m going to take over the World of Twelve! With the Gods still recovering from Ogrest’s spanking and you locked in your desolate sandbox, there will be no one here to stop me!”

This seemed to enrage the huge demon: “You pathetic Piwi! You really think the heroes of that puny world will just sit and look how you take over their homeland? They’ll reduce that little can you’re riding to rubble before you even can make a move.” The gear in the middle of the chest raised his glowing eyebrow: “If they wanted to stop me, they should have done so earlier. I’ve come too far now to be stopped by those demigod-wannabes.”

In the back, Sulpa and Mei were looking for a way out of their predicament. “Shouldn’t we put a stop to this?” Mei asked. “If that Shushu in the shell is really the son of Rushu bent on ruling the world, we’re in way over our heads.” Sulpa kept his eye on the conversation, but tried to calm his companion: “Don’t worry about that yet. The only thing we have to do now is get out of here alive so we can get this information to the right people.”

In the meantime Rushu approached the screen until his face filled the entire mirror: “Even so, my little larva, my power is not contained in this realm. My reach goes far beyond that. Sarojam, you worthless worm, prove your loyalty to me and take out this traitor!” “Yes, my Lord!” the mask screamed, mounted back on Kzam’s face. “Oh please,” the Strawcrow sighed as he took out his plunger gun from his haven bag.

The Masqueraider stormed the battered robot, yelling in unison with his mask. His fists started to glow with energy as he got ready to strike. But right before he could launch his attack, the Strawcrow fired his gun, planting the plunger in the middle of the Shushu possessed mask. This broke Kzam’s momentum and after a few seconds of status quo, the Masqueraider and his mask glowed purple.

Sarojam and Kzam simultaneously screamed in pain as the purple glow left their body and went through the tube connecting the plunger with the Strawcrow’s haven bag. Kzam, writhing in agony, tried to take off the mask, but it was too late: the mask exploded in a million pieces, propelling him backwards against the cave wall.

Jushu’s robot body retracted the plunger and revealed the backpack containing the extracted Stasis to his father. “As you can see, oh Lord of Lunatics, I have found a way to suck the Stasis out of all life forms, giving me an almost limitless supply of Stasis to power my plans. And guess who’s a prime source of delicious Stasis?” The Strawcrow held up the container next to his robotic face.

“You bastard of a Bow Meow!” Rushu roared, “You would turn your own kind into Stasis?! Just to further your own goals?” He grinned. “I’m starting to see the resemblance.” “Yeah, well see all you want, Pa, because I will rule this backwater world like none has done before me. And I’ll make sure you can watch it every step of the way!”

He turned around towards his onlookers and raised his gun into the air: “Who’s with me?!” Heckle and Jeckle cheered while the humans just stood there, rooted to the spot by the series of events. “What’s in it for us, gear boy?” Lani suddenly spoke up. Jushu chuckled and turned around as his father roared: “You would chose to ally yourself with these pathetic humans rather than with your brethren? You will regret that decision, just like that soft smoke-trail of a Sarojam did!”

“I think you need a time-out,” the Strawcrow said and the mirror’s image blurred over again. “I think this is our cue. You ready for a diversion?,” Sulpa whispered to Mei. “Just leave that to me,” the Pandawa grinned as she got a hold of her bamboo barrel. She jumped behind the Rogues and the henchmen, spun around with her barrel, hitting them off guard.

Then she planted the barrel in the floor in between them. The barrel started to tremble as the villains turned around to face her and just when they were about to attack, it exploded in a frothy fountain of bamboo milk, knocking them all down. She grabbed the barrel and slung it on her back again as she and Sulpa Venneir headed for the exit.

Lani swore under her breath as she got up and got ready to pursue the escapees when the Strawcrow grabbed her by the shoulder: “Let them be. We don’t have time to waste on Mooflies like them.” “But Boss,” Jeckle tried, “they know of your identity. If they reveal it to the World…” “I didn’t say we were going to let them live,” the Shushu interrupted him.

“Right now there’s an entire Rogue’s lair waking up, finding two unwanted intruder in their midst. Guess what they’ll do?” The sound of shouting and guns firing sounded from the central hall. “Right,” Nos grinned as he nodded in understanding. Meanwhile in the hall, Sulpa and Mei were doing their very best to survive the horde of angry bandits pouring from the sleeping quarters.

“Just our luck!” Mei shouted over the roar of battle while knocking down the approaching Rogues with her barrel. “Luck has nothing to do with it,” Sulpa answered back as he flung card after card at their assailants, “He must have known. Otherwise he wouldn’t have let us go.” He jumped up, avoiding the incoming gunshots. “We have to think of something or we won’t get out of here alive.”

Another Rogue met with Mei’s barrel. “Are there any of those bombs left you used to blow down the door?” Sulpa’s dice ricocheted from one Rogue to the next, disarming two of them: “There should still be a pile of them near the dormitories.” “Right,” Mei grunted as she pulled a flask from her belt and struck it against the cave floor, lighting the cork.

“Heads up!” she called as she lobbed the flaming flask over the crowd of crooks straight on a pile of bombs. The flask exploded, causing a chain reaction with the bombs, launching several Rogues into the air. The cave trembled from the explosion and filled up with smoke. Sulpa and Mei made use of this distraction slip away towards the exit and relative safety.
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Score : 3

how to fishing?

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Score : 4672
kasperomaster|2014-05-12 18:04:56
how to fishing?
Pardon?
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Score : 34

wow you people really can write

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Sulpa Venneir and Mei de Prac ran for their lives through the dark hallways of the Rogue hideout with the bullets of their pursuers ricocheting off the walls around them. “We can’t keep outrunning them,” the Pandawa bounty hunter yelled at Sulpa. “Just a little more!” the agent replied, “We’re almost at the exit!” “And then what? We’ll be sitting ducks out in the open!”

“That depends!” Sulpa shouted back. “Depends?! On what?” Sulpa stopped as they reached the entrance to the lair: “Depends if your ability to cause collateral damage is still up to par.” Mei looked at the rather tiny entrance between the rocks and immediately knew what to do: “Right. Leave that to me.” She took her bamboo barrel from her back, made sure the cork was secure and then started to shake it violently.

“Anytime you’re ready,” Sulpa said slightly uneasy as he saw the torches of the approaching bandits light up the cave walls. “Don’t rush me,” Mei de Prac scolded, but before Sulpa could reply, she yanked off the large cork of her barrel, causing the bamboo milk to spout out in a frothy fountain. Before the milk could actually hit the rock formation, Mei struck a match and used it to light up the bamboo milk.

This turned the white fountain into a fiery red explosion which blasted the boulders above the entrance into pieces. The entire structure caved in and came crashing down right in front of the approaching mob. “That’s my girl,” Sulpa said with a smile as the dust cleared and the voices from inside the collapsed cave were only a whisper. “But it won’t hold them long,” Mei said matter-of-factly. “They have explosives too, you know.”

“Yes, but now we have a head start. And the Zaap is not that far from here.” As an unwanted reply, the first muffled explosions sounded from within the cave. “Right then,” Mei said as she refilled her barrel with one of her flasks, “Let’s not burn any more daylight then.” She slung the barrel back over her shoulder and followed her Ecaflip companion into the bushes.

They ran for some time and only held their first, necessary break when they were certain the Rogues had lost their tracks. “Ok,” Mei said slightly gasping, “Now tell me how you got involved in all this. The last time I saw you, you were in the mines beneath Bonta and now you’re here, rescuing me like the true hero that you claim to be.”

“You saw me in the mines?” The Ecaflip stared at her in disbelief. “You were there too?” “No, the Mask had a Shushu possessed mirror that can show you any part of the world you desire to see.” “So, the Bellaphones weren’t lying after all,” Sulpa mused to himself. “Bellaphones? I knew you were a ladies’ man, Agent Venneir, but those monsters are dangerous.”

“Dangerous as they may be, it’s thanks to them I was able to find both the hideout and you. I was actually here on a mission to question Jaffacrack. Finding you really was Ecaflip’s work.” “Don’t give him too much credit, Mister Pussycat,” a seductive voice sounded from the tall grass. “Luck had nothing to do with this. You did exactly as you were told to do.”

Mei and Sulpa took a battle stance as three Bellaphones revealed themselves, all looking stunningly beautiful. “Except for one thing,” the middle one continued, “You didn’t deliver the mirror to us.” “You can get it yourself,” Sulpa countered, “If you can wrest him from the Shushus’ claws.” The Bellaphones smiled maliciously as several clicks sounded from grass around them.

“Oh, no, no, no. You don’t understand. We never do anything ourselves. We let the men do our dirty work.” Sulpa and Mei looked around and saw how several Rogues emerged from the grass, their guns trained on the duo. Mei grabbed her barrel again and aimed it at the three slimy witches: “Well, then it’s time we show you what emancipation means, ladies!”

The Bellaphone leader glared at the Pandawa girl. “Oh really? Let’s see if you’re still so emancipated when you’re on your own, my dear.” She turned her attention towards Sulpa and changed her tone to sultry sweet: “Don’t you agree, Mister Pussycat?” She put her hand to her lips and blew a kiss towards Sulpa Venneir. The kiss formed a swirl of pink smoke that evaporated on Sulpa’s face.

“Ha!” Mei scoffed, “It will take more than your charms to sway this top agent, witch!” The Bellaphones smiled mockingly: “No man can resist us, honey, not even super spy Sulpa Venneir.” Mei de Prac noticed from the corner of her eye that Sulpa had indeed dropped his battle stance and had a vacant look in his eyes. “Sulpa, snap out of it! Don’t let these…”

But before she could finish her sentence, Sulpa grabbed her by her jugular. Mei could almost feel his nails bore in her skin as he stared at her with a blank expression. “No,” she gasped, “can’t let it end this way.” The Bellaphones laughed in unison: “Oh, but this isn’t the end, sweetie. It’s just the beginning. Now, Mister Pussycat, make her suffer.”

“You can wait here, Master Joris. Mister Leeks will join you in a moment.” The Sufokian aide opened the door to a brightly lit room filled with a large, wooden table surrounded by matching chairs. Both the room and the furniture were adorned with Sufokian flags, banners, pillows and linen. The baby blue, white and purple colors brightened the already light room and gave it the typical tropical atmosphere that dominated the islands of Sufokia.

It was only when he headed for the table that he noticed what made the room so bright: an entire wall was missing and replaced by a wooden balustrade. “Also typical Sufokian,” Joris thought to himself. He walked to the railing and took in the sights. The warm breeze touched his face and the sun reflected on the large parts of still submersed Sufokia.

The palm trees rocked gently on the beaches and here and there people were lying under them, fishing the shallow waters or simply enjoying the weather. Closer to the palace Joris saw how two crews of Sufokian soldiers were hard at work uncovering parts of the structure still buried beneath the white sand.

On the one hand Joris found it recommendable that the Sufokians wanted to preserve and restore their original culture by reusing the old buildings and constructions buried years ago by the Great Cataclysm, but on the other hand he couldn’t help but suspect them of laziness. Why else would they rather reuse the already existing, yet seriously damaged infrastructure without so much as fixing or replacing it?

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” a soft but warm voice sounded from the room’s entrance. “It sure is, Mister Leeks,” Joris acknowledged as he turned around to face his host. “I’m not as acquainted with Sufokia as I am with the other nations because of its only recent resurfacing, but I would love to explore these expanding lands as soon as I find the opportunity.”

“Yet for the moment politics are keeping you busy,” the Sufokian historian read between the lines. Joris remained silent, but studied Wicky Leeks for a moment. He immediately noticed more resemblances with the Foggernauts than with the current Sufokian house. His robes dark blue, adorned with gold and copper, gave it a much darker tone than the more care-free colors of the Sufokian flag.

The man himself wasn’t as old as one would stereotypically expect from a librarian and historian: he was mid-thirties, pale complexion -certainly compared to the sun tanned Sufokians- and white blonde hair. Joris suspected him of wearing some kind of armor suit beneath his clothes as his hands were covered with metal gloves and some tubes were protruding from under his garments.

“I’m sorry, that was rude of me.” He gestured to one of the chairs: “Please, be seated. It’s not every day I get to meet such a surface dwelling celebrity.” “Yes, but you are a hard to find man as well, Mister Leeks. I know of many scientists and adventurers who would love to talk to you about the sunken city of Sufokia.”

This remark seemed to annoy him ever so slightly: “Yes, but my Masters have requested not to unveil too much at once. They believe the World of Twelve is not ready yet for such knowledge.” “Indeed we were not. That technomagical invasion caught us quite off guard. We had never seen such technology before. Quite destructive.”

“Yes, a most unfortunate event. I hope you will forgive us one day for this mishap.” “I think the Nations will be much more reassured if they knew what else was waiting for them in the depths of the oceans.” A knocking on the door seemed to interrupt their conversation, but Wicky Leeks continued as he opened the door, revealing a Sufokian aide bringing them some refreshments.

“Now, now, Master Joris, you make it sound as we have an entire war machine waiting for you at the bottom of the ocean. I assure you, it is quite the opposite: the prototypes stole most of our technology to make their move. We were left quite helpless down there.” He took one of the cups on the tray that was left on the table and offered the other to the Bontarian representative.

Joris nodded in gratitude as he accepted the cup: “Then why won’t you let anyone accompany you back to your city? The other nations are very willing to help a nation in need.” Wicky grimaced as he sat back down: “That is where our King’s pride comes in. Our city is still much in ruin after decennia of civil war. It would be a disgrace to our proud heritage and history to receive guests now.”

Joris took a sip and nodded in understanding. “Very well. But then at least allow me to ask some questions about these new technomagical forms and the power that drives them.” Wicky Leeks walked silently over to the balustrade, obviously pondering Master Joris’ question. He stared out over the sea for a while before he continued.

“Yes, about that: your letter spoke of Stasis smuggling and crime syndicates. Those are hard accusations coming from ‘friendly nations willing to lend a hand’.” "They weren't certainly intended that way, Mister Leeks. We have no inclination to believe that the sunken city of Sufokia is in any way involved in this network. But since you are the only ones who can actually put the Stasili to good use, you might be able to help our inquiries along."

Joris explained himself: "Before you came, we never even knew of the existence of this strange ore or its uses in technological advancements." Wicky Leeks stared into his cup as he gently swirled his drink. "Yes, of course. But you must realize that it took our people generations to discover the purple gem's usefulness. It is not unthinkable that someone topside could have done the same."

Joris joined him by the balcony. "No, not impossible, but you must admit: very unlikely. Isn't there any possibility that some technology of yours has reached the surface before you have? Maybe by trade or by accident?" The Sufokian historian looked down to meet Joris' gaze: "I can assure you, there has been no trade whatsoever with the world above."

"If our technology should have left our city, it was through clandestine channels, as contact with the surface dwellers is strictly forbidden." "Yes, by order of the King, I suppose?" Joris added. "Indeed. Our royalty still harbors deep shame for how our fair city has gone downhill these last generations. Although we have peace now, His Majesty is still not inclined to let his 'altered' subjects leave the city."

Joris noticed the librarian was very uneasy at the subject, but he wasn't about to let this opportunity slip away: "Yet you speak of decennia of civil war and unrest, with your city becoming a battle ground. Even now this peace you mention is but a fragile one. How can you maintain your city and be sure nothing left the city without you knowing? You must have been unaware of the technomagicals' doing all these years?"

"Very simple, Master Joris," Wicky said with restored confidence, "the royal house of Sufokia maintained control of the navy. The largest part of the fleet remained under their control and was used to prevent any attempts to escape the city." "It truly must have been a war of attrition," Joris said in a far-off voice. "I can understand why his Majesty would like to bury these pages of sunken Sufokia's history."

"Yes," sighed Wicky Leeks, "And just now, when all things had finally started to settle down, the incident with the prototypes reopened all kinds of old wounds. Even worse, this time we've dragged the entire World of Twelve into our petty little conflict. This too is the punishment for thinking we were greater than the Gods and could create life ourselves."

“You mustn’t focus on the mistakes of the past, my friend,” Joris comforted him, “We must look to the future. If your people want any chance at reintegration, we must clear Sufokia’s name as soon as possible, starting by unraveling this Stasili mystery. Can I count on your cooperation?” Wicky smiled thinly: “Of course, Master Joris. We will do whatever we can to bring forth the real culprits of these crimes.”

Egol and Sekito looked at each other with a defeated look as their disabled escape pod was brought back to the docking bay from which they had escaped almost an hour ago. “So what do we do now?” Sekito asked as their Steamflex escorts steered them towards the entrance. “They won’t be fooled twice.” “No,” Egol admitted, “it will be a miracle if we get out of here again.”

“Maybe we need to make our own miracles,” Sekito mused as he pulled out his wand. He flicked it once and a cute Coney appeared on the floor in between them. “What are you going to do?” Egol asked, “Drown them in Wodents?” “No, but together with Platine, she might be able to do something to spring us.” “Remember, Platine can’t go where there are magic jammers.”

“Let’s worry about the details later, ok?” Sekito said slightly annoyed as the pod breached the surface of the docking hangar. “All right, Conny, you and Platine hide in the back and make sure you’re not found, ok?” The little rabbit-like creature squeaked enthusiastically, bouncing up and down before it hid in the back of the pod, followed by Platine in Tofu-form.

“I hope we’re not making a big mistake,” Egol mumbled just before the hatch of their pod was ripped open by one of the Steamflexes. The two were hardly able to move before a squad of the familiar masked sailors poured into the tiny pod and pulled them out. They were groped, cuffed and pushed on their knees in the middle of the docking bay.

As they looked up, they saw a very irritated Captain Mofette looming over them, visibly containing the rage boiling inside of her. “Who is she?” Egol whispered. “She’s the captain accusing you of sabotage,” Sekito whispered back. “Silence!” Frida barked out. “I’ll show you the price of humiliating the Sufokian Navy! When I’m done with you, you’ll wish my Steamflexes had sunk your little boat back there on the bottom of the ocean!”

To enforce her words, she grabbed both men by their collars as one of the men suddenly shouted: “Admiral on deck!” The soldiers stood to attention as Admiral Belvu entered the docking bay, his gaze fixed on Frida Mofette and her two prisoners. The Captain unhanded them and saluted her superior as he approached her in utter silence.

“What is the meaning of this, Captain?” the Admiral growled between his teeth. “It is strictly forbidden to bring any outsiders to the city!” “My primary orders were to preserve Stasili and to return with a new load of the ore, Sir. I could not risk my vessel and crew becoming stranded in the middle of the ocean because of a lack of fuel.”

The Admiral was only inches away from her face, seething with anger. The Captain on the other hand had become icy calm and stared straight at him. “I just about had it with your insubordination, Missy! If you think you can get away with this just because daddy is a general, you’ve got another think coming. I’ll have you court-martialed for this!”

Frida pointed at Egol Rho: “This Xelor is suspected of blowing up the entire supply of Stasili we were ordered to pick up and to intentionally sabotage our trading network. I had time nor resources to question him on the scene so I made a judgment call and brought him back with us. He probably won’t leave this city alive anyway.”

Sekito and Egol gulped in unison as Omar Belvu’s gaze jumped from them to the Captain and back. “Then you should have made the call back there and executed him on the spot. Now our entire city is compromised.” Frida snorted: “It’s been compromised ever since you launched that invasion force…” “You mind your tongue, Captain!” the Admiral bellowed, but Frida just finished her sentence: “…, Sir.”

The Admiral seemed like he wasn’t about to let that comment slip, but then decided that there were too many bystanders to let this escalate any further. He signaled the sailors behind Sekito and Egol: “Take them to the holding cells.” The men were about to act on the order when Captain Mofette stepped in: “I would suggest taking them to our high-security prison, Sir.”

The Admiral glared at her, but calmed down soon as she explained about their earlier prison break: “Really now? Almost escaped the great Captain Mofette’s grasp?” He looked back at the prisoners: “You two must be real menaces to manage such feat.” He allowed himself a slight smirk as he changed his orders: “Very well, take them to maximum security prison. I will deal with them later.”

The Admiral and the Captain continued their conversation quietly as Egol and Sekito were carried off by the masked guards. “This doesn’t look good,” Egol sighed as they entered the long hallways of Sufokia. “For a moment there I thought they were going to kill each other,” Sekito commented. “No talking,” the soldier ordered and the two friends shut up as they were shoved and pushed deeper into the underwater city.

On the Mourning Wood plains, Mei de Prac was struggling to break free from the entranced Sulpa Venneir’s grip. She grabbed his arm as he lifted her into the air. “Sulpa, you can’t do this! Think of your mission! The fate of the entire world is at risk.” This only made the Bellaphones laugh even louder: “Aren’t they cute when they squirm?” “Yes, pleading like a little girl.” “Not so tough now, are we, panda bear?”

Mei wanted to rip their slimy hearts out when she suddenly heard a faint whisper: “Get ready.” She looked back into Sulpa’s vacant expression and saw how he winked at her. She nodded softly as she felt her feet touch the ground again. Then Sulpa let go of her throat and with a powerful tug, launched her at the three Bellaphones.

The slimy monster girls were caught off guard as the Pandawa warrior crashed into them, knocking all three of them to the ground. In the meantime Sulpa launched several playing cards towards the Rogues. Most of them exploded into a pile of the familiar green goo, leaving only the real one standing, entranced and disoriented. Sulpa quickly dispatched of him with a volley of dice to the forehead.

Mei in the meanwhile was subduing the Bellaphones with some well-aimed punches. The slimy monsters tried to fight back but were no match for the Pandawa’s brute strength. And when Sulpa joined Mei’s side, they screamed out of frustration: “Curse you, you hairy worms! We rule these plains! We will never be defeated by the likes of you!”

The three white-skinned women let out a deafening scream, making Sulpa and Mei cover their ears in pain. “Damn you slimy serpents,” Mei swore under her breath as she grabbed hold of her barrel. She winced in pain as the sound waves pounded her eardrums, but endured long enough to swing her bamboo barrel as a club and knock the three Bellaphones over.

“Right,” Sulpa said, his ears still ringing, “Time to shut you up for good.” “We’re not defeated yet, alley cat!” one of the creatures hissed, followed by a sound that can only be described as the popping of a series of huge warts. “I think she may be right, Sulpa,” Mei said as all around them newly born Bellaphones and slimy clones of their previous victims rose from the grass.

The original Bellaphones laughed triumphantly as the green-white slime army surrounded the furry duo. “You will pay for that humiliation, you sewer rats! No one messes with the beautiful Bellaphones and lives to tell the tale. Now, my pretties, feast your claws on these wretched beings! Tear them to sunder for…”

Before the Bellaphone could finish her sentence, it was drowned out by the sound of several combined explosions filling the field around them. The Bellaphones and clones around them were being blasted to slimy bits by these sudden explosions. The original trio stared in disbelief: “What? No! How can this be?”

“Up there!” Mei shouted, pointing at a squad of flying Dragoturkeys filling the skies above them. “It’s the Mask of Shushu’s gang,” Sulpa added. “Great, so they’ve got an entire air force,” Mei mumbled sarcastically. “This is your doing,” the Bellaphones shrieked hysterically. “You’ve lead them here. You’ve ruined everything. You...”

But before she could finish, one of the Rogues’ bombs hit the ground right in between them, engulfing the sinister trio in its blast. “That shut them up,” Mei remarked. “And gave us a window of opportunity,” Sulpa added, “Time to get out of here.” “We’ll never survive this bombardment. We need to get higher up.” She grabbed Sulpa by the wrist. “Your time to fly, pretty boy.”

The Ecaflip caught on to her intentions and took a running start as Mei de Prac launched him into the air. He knew of the Pandawa warriors’ strength, but was always amazed at their incredible throwing skills. Like a cannonball Sulpa soared towards the closest Dragoturkey and its two Rogue riders.

One of them noticed the approaching Ecaflip and tried to shoot him out of the sky, but Sulpa beat him to it. He launched a couple of dice at the Rogue, quickly knocking him off the flying beast. The remaining bandit tried to steer his mount away, but was too late. Sulpa flipped over just in time to hit him full-on with his foot, dispatching him with one powerful blow.

He buried his claws in the saddle to secure his grip as the scared Dragoturkey started flapping around aimlessly. He tried to get on the saddle as quickly as he could, because several of the surrounding Rogues had noticed their comrades’ unwilling descent and were moving in to intercept him. They started firing at the panicked mount, causing it to move even more erratically.

On the ground Mei de Prac was doing her best to supply cover fire with spurts of bamboo milk, but she had a hard time trying to evade the still incoming bombs lobbed down by the flying Rogues. One of them landed too close and knocked the Pandawa of her feet. She rolled clear of the blast, but was unable to fend off the next barrage of bombs heading her way.

Luckily by that time Sulpa had gained control of the flying reptile and dove in just in time to snatch her up, clearing the blast zone before all hell broke loose. “You okay?” he called to her. “Just barely,” she said as she climbed up the Dragoturkey, “but let me drive. You have card tricks to perform.”

The two switched places and while Mei spurred their steed to climb to new heights, Sulpa started to fling his cards and dice at their pursuers. “Over there,” Sulpa shouted over the howling winds, “we can take the Zaap at Weapons Bridge!” “I think they figured as much.” Sulpa looked down as saw how several Rogues were already surrounding the portal with explosives.

“Okay, bad idea. Any alternatives?” “Let me worry about our destination,” Mei commanded, “You do something about that rain of bullets!” “Right,” Sulpa said, “Leave them to me!” But when he turned around, he was just in time to see a grappling claw heading for them at high speed. He managed to block it before it could get hold of their Dragoturkey, but got grabbed himself in the process.

“Not good,” he uttered before he was yanked out of the saddle again. Mei grumbled as she glanced over her shoulder and saw the Ecaflip swinging towards the flying mob: “What are you playing at, Venneir?” On the other end of the cable carrying Sulpa Venneir the Rogues Bonde and Clynie noticed their unwanted catch: “Looks like we got a live one, Clynie!” “But it’s just a small Bow Meow Fish, not worth the effort. Throw it back, Bonde.”

“My pleasure,” Bonde grinned and with a click reopened the claw holding Sulpa by the arm. Luckily he got hold of the cable and quickly started climbing upwards as the nearest Rogues started to concentrate their firepower on him instead of Mei. “Bloody cat won’t let go,” Clynie swore as Sulpa began swinging from side to side to avoid the shots, rocking their Dragoturkey in the process. “Cut him loose!”

The felons were too preoccupied with cutting Bonde’s cable to notice how Mei had made a 180 degree turn and was now heading straight for them. “Just unhook your launcher from the harness!” Clynie shouted. “Are you mad?” Bonde retorted, “And loose a perfectly good cable shooter?” “I’ll steal you a new one, you daft fool!” “Look out!”

Like a bowling ball hitting the pins at full speed, Mei’s Dragoturkey rammed the two Rogues full on and knocked them off their ride, leaving Sulpa once again dangling on an uncontrolled mount. The riderless Dragoturkey quickly swooped towards the ground, making the swinging Ecaflip hasten his ascension towards the top of the cable. He got there just before the beast could land and pulled up with all his might.

The flying reptile skimmed the surface as Sulpa tried to steer it in the right direction. Mei brought her Dragoturkey alongside him: “Next time warn me before you pull a stunt like that!” “It’s not like it was intentional,” Sulpa shouted back. “But that is!” Mei yelled as a bomb hit the ground in front of them, forcing them to break formation to avoid the blast.

The Rogues above them had decided that bombs were better suited for hitting low flying targets and had resumed their bombardment of the Morning Woods. But when their quarry reached the edge of the island, their tactic became unusable as the bombs just sunk into the ocean.

“At this rate we’ll never get to Bonta in one piece,” the Pandawa remarked as they zigzagged over the waves to avoid the Rogues barrage of bullets. “Then we’re not going to Bonta,” Sulpa answered. “The closest nation as the Crobak flies is Sufokia and I know of a powerful ally there that will surely help us.”

Mei de Prac raised her eyebrow. “An ally? Between those laid-back fishermen? I hope you know what you’re doing.” Mei wondered out loud, but between dodging bullets and following Sulpa, she had no time to question his decision. She only hoped that Sulpa’s ally would be there and ready to take on a flock of fully armed Rogues.

Conny ventured a soft squeak to Platine as they heard several voices approach their hideout. “Man, the Steamflexes sure did a job on this one.” “Yeah, ripped it clean open.” “Well, not that clean. There’s no way we can fix that.” “Orders from High Command: we can’t waste any resource.” “Ok, I can understand that, but can’t we better dismantle it and reuse the parts?”

“Right, break it up. This is no tea party. Take it to the repair shop and see what you can do. Right now it’s cluttering up my docking bay.” “Yes, Sir,” it sounded in unison. “All right, Telo, suit up.” “Sure thing, boss,” the youngest of the voices answered enthusiastically, followed by hurried footsteps away from the boat.

“You want to use the Stasitech to transport it through the city? Why not just take it outside? It’s much faster and easier.” “And flood the entire interior?” Platine and Conny gulped. “The salt will eat away at the controls and damage them beyond repair.” “Be honest, what else is it good for than melting down for the metal?” “We’ll see, ok?”

The Sinistro and Coney felt the escape pod shake softly as heavy metal footsteps approached the little boat. “Ok junior, nice and easy,” sounded from outside as the pod moaned and creaked as it was pulled out of the water. “Right, let’s go. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us,” one of the voices said when the submersible hung stably above the deck.

As the escape pod slowly left the docking bay, the two summons sneaked to the front viewport to get a better view of their heading. There they saw how the young Telo Maelk controlled a rudimentary technomagical walking armor that was carrying their little boat deeper into the underwater city.

Platine and Conny saw how their transport slowly navigated through several large hallways. All of them were sparsely lit, hardly populated and only here and there decorated with worn flags or posters. Not exactly the picture of a prosperous high-tech city they had expected, but more of a ruin still running on ancient technology.

This picture became complete when Maelk’s ride suddenly shuddered and stopped, much to its escort’s dismay. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” “Not again! Check the fuel tank.” “Nope, still one third full.” “Pull the choke, Telo.” “No use, it’s not budging.” The men sighed and grunted in unison. The Tofu and Coney stared at one another as they heard distant banging and creaking.

“Found it,” one of the older voices sounded before he started swearing. “It’s the Stasiliquefier.” “I’ll run to the shop,” Telo Maelk said, but the old man stopped him: “It’s no use. I know for a fact that we don’t have them anymore. And I have no idea how to fix it either.” The third man sounded as if he was almost panicking: “Oh no. Does this mean we have to get… the Professor?”

“Don’t worry about that,” the older mechanic comforted him, “no one has seen or heard from him in a week.” “Maybe his assistant can help us?” Telo said with an unmistakable glee in his voice. “You still into that flower girl?” the third man joked. “Remember, these Sadida love their plants above all and everyone else.” “None the less,” the eldest interjected, “we need someone with Stasitech knowledge to fix this. All right, you go get her, pup, but be quick about it!”

Platine saw how the boy disappeared into the dark hallway and clicked softly at the Coney. The little summon was genuinely worried that they would never reach Egol and Sekito at this pace. But Conny just shrugged. There wasn’t much they could do about it now and with a little smile she tried to comfort the mechanical bird.

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