With the carnage of the Big Foot behind him, Spratt entered the jail and found himself all alone in a small courtyard. There was a broken down cobblestone path, but a few shabby bushes were the only cover. There were two doors to choose from. One was on the far left and another on the far right. He still had no idea how much of the jail stretched into the mountain, how many guards were inside, or much of anything else about the fortification. Topping that off, two different front doors made for a game of roulette he wasn’t anxious to play.
Suddenly, the relative silence was broken as the door on the left creaked as it began to open. The chaotic cacophony of countless battles had never affected him, yet this slow scrape was extremely disconcerting. When the right hand door started moving moments later, he almost panicked. With both doors opening at once, Spratt tucked and rolled behind one of the scraggly bushes. He desperately hoped the hiding spot would offer a few brief moments for threat assessment before the necessary fight with every ounce of his being. He didn’t want to kill anyone but couldn’t allow himself to be captured either.
As Winter eased through the doorway, she noticed her second-in-command sliding into the shrubbery. Peripherally, she caught sight of Biggs being led by two guards through a doorway to her left. Winter whistled a short bird-like sound that gained both men’s attention. The three separated warriors looked in awe at one another for a moment.
The shock melted into a call to action. Although his hands were tied behind his back, Biggs sprang sideways, which knocked that guard off balance. The other had faster reflexes than his mate and was ready to unload with a club. Biggs ducked. This caused the guard to drill his partner into unconsciousness. The guard that waylaid his comrade immediately made up for his miscues by doing a 360-degree spin and trying to sweep Biggs’s legs.
Biggs had hit the ground too many times recently and leapt over the sweeping leg with dexterity. Without the use of his bound arms, he landed awkwardly and stumbled against the jail wall. The momentary distraction was enough time for Winter to make it across the yard. After spending several days in a cell, Winter’s timing was a bit off. Like a junior varsity linebacker taking out a quarterback on Friday afternoon, she hit the second guard with a sloppy but effective tackle. It wasn’t pretty, yet the guards were crumpled in a heap.
Spratt hadn’t yet moved from the bushes. He stood and threw his arms in the air in an unmilitary fashion. “Together again!”
Biggs said to Winter, “You’re not gonna hit me again. are you, sir?”
“You’re a brat, but I almost got us all killed.” Winter punched his shoulder playfully.
Spratt was surprised his look of elation was greeted by terrified looks from Biggs and Winter. If Spratt had been glanced back he would have seen the Big Foot climbing the prison’s wall. At first, all that was visible were the furry clawed hands, which were soon followed by an inquisitive face. Nobody moved for a few moments, allowing the surreal scene to play out further. Spratt realized something was wrong. He turned in time to see the monster perched on top of the wall with its arms spread.
“Run,” yelled Winter and Biggs in stereo.
Big Foot leapt from the wall and landed with savage grace. The three adventurers were effectively separated again. The monster stared intently at the dark skinned man. Spratt gave a head fake to the right that got the creature leaning in that direction. He juked and darted the opposite way, which allowed enough of a head start to extend his life a few seconds. Biggs and Winter took advantage of the monster’s distraction and each snatched a guards’ club from the ground. Without a second thought, the two raced towards the towering Big Foot.
The creature wasn’t fooled for long, and Spratt couldn’t believe how fast it was. With a terrifying roar, it closed in for the kill. His back against a wall, Spratt turned and was repulsed as saliva oozed from the beast’s slavering mouth. The vague humanity he once saw behind those eyes was long gone. Spratt knew it would all be over if he didn’t find a weakness in the next couple of seconds. Like a scrap of light at the end of house of horrors, an opening dawned between the monster’s legs. Spratt knew that this was his one chance to escape. As the monster’s arms came toward him, Spratt dove through the legs.
Spratt popped up between Winter and Biggs. At last, the three were side-by-side again. Winter slammed her club into Big Foot’s knee joint which caused the beast to howl as it doubled over. Biggs used the moment to jump and smash it in the right eye with the club. As if the beast wasn’t worked up enough, now it was whipped into a literal blind rage. Having no conception of pain relief techniques, Big Foot punched at its eye. Through the agony, it caught sight of the three travelers from its good eye.
Winter grabbed Biggs and hauled him towards the far side of the courtyard. “Move it, junior,” she said in mid-run. Spratt wasn’t far behind as they all ran for the left door.
Spratt half jokingly said to Biggs, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you nothing’s more dangerous than an injured animal?”
The two prison guards were coming to their feet as Big Foot closed in. Surprising everyone in the courtyard, the creature leapt over their heads and landed with cat-like grace. Instead of Winter, Biggs and Spratt being between the guards and Big Foot, the beast had dropped down as the ‘monkey in the middle.’ Big Foot slammed a mammoth fist into a guard. This sent the screaming man careening across the courtyard into a tangle of shattered limbs. The beast snatched the other up in its giant paws.
Finally, several more guards stumbled through the outside entrance of the jail. They held back as none seemed anxious to engage Big Foot again.
Winter picked up a chunk of cobblestone the size of a softball. She took a moment to test its weight, and then hurled it at the beast. The rock smashed into the creature’s temple knocking it to the ground in a stunned heap. The guard that the Big Foot was holding tumbled through the air and landed at Biggs’ feet.
Winter snatched another piece without waiting to see where her first projectile made contact. It was unnecessary. Big Foot sputtered one last breath then didn’t move anymore. “That was unlikely,” she offered.
Biggs slapped her on the back. “You must have cleaned up at the carnival.”
Winter dropped the other piece of cobblestone. “Never won a thing.” Winter sighed as dozens more guards filled the courtyard. “Apparently, I still haven’t won a damn thing.”
Looks of malice on the guards quickly evaporated into reverence. Before anything could be said, they dropped in unison to their knees, bowed their heads, and hummed in unison. The guard Big Foot had dropped crawled right up to them and took turns kissing their boots.
Spratt put his hands on his hips then said, “Anyone feel like we just awed some Ewoks in Return of the Jedi?”
Biggs quipped, “Nah, that’s a ‘you’ thing.”
Winter smiled and said, “Fortunes change so quickly.”
The old man who signaled Spratt outside the jail strutted into the courtyard with a full-toothed smile. He was wearing a flowing white robe, dark sandals, and had a goatee tied into twin braids. His scraggly, gray hair was in a ponytail. “Ah, recognition comes for those that could be the Triptych!”
Spratt smirked. Somehow they faced ridiculous odds, continued to escape, as if they were part of some grand scheme. For a moment, he felt invincible.
* * *
Spratt was relieved they weren’t confined in the jail any longer. Regrettably, their current whereabouts weren’t much better. They were in a tavern, an extremely dusty and decrepit tavern. He’d spent his share of time in bars, so that wasn’t the bad part. The fact they were locked in was his main bone of contention. He couldn’t help but steal from Shakespeare and mutter, “A jail by any other name…”
“At least we’re together,” offered Winter.
While their situation wasn’t vastly improved, they did have plenty to eat and drink. Twelve steps be damned, Spratt seriously pondered finding out how much wallop the booze packed in these parts. His sensible side knew the alcohol would calm his nerves for far too short a time. He realized the booze would dull his senses and make him act irrationally. He couldn’t allow that. “You ready to bust out, Major?”
“You know, I was giving that serious thought. We seem to be local heroes, so I don’t think fleeing helps.”
Spratt cut her off. “Heroes don’t usually get locked up!”
Winter gave a slight nod to show she’d taken his comment into account. Then she continued, “We need serious information gathering before we behave rashly.”
Biggs talked through a mouthful of food. “Hard to admit, but I think she’s right.”
Spratt pointed a finger at Biggs and said, “She is in command! Whether you agree with Major Winter or not, just shut up and do as you’re told.”
Biggs retorted, “I know who she is.”
Winter slid between her subordinates. She tilted her head towards Spratt and said, “Mike…let’s chat.”
Biggs looked concerned. “You leaving me out for a reason?”
Her tone softened as she said, “Just squaring things.”
Biggs watched intently as his companions walked to the far side of the bar. Winter glanced over at Biggs one last time then looked deeply into Spratt’s dark eyes. In a very low voice she said, “We’re in deep and have to make due with the kid.”
Spratt couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to Winter. “He nearly got you killed!”
Winter and Spratt were inches from each other’s faces. “I lost my cool and endangered all of us.” She paused a moment. “We can’t afford to do anything else stupid. This is no longer a military engagement. Let’s consider ourselves independent contractors until we get home.”
“We aren’t selling our services,” she paused and diverted her gaze, “We’re just in our own service.” Winter let out a long sigh. “Wherever we are, the U-S-A doesn’t seem to factor in. None of us is thinking like ourselves, so listening to options can’t hurt.”
Spratt said, “You make a fair point.”
Winter slapped Spratt on the shoulder. “Now let’s get the kid on our side.”
Without warning, the old man from the village strolled into the room like he was thinking about what to order. He took stock of the three soldiers. After a few moments, the old man raised his hand to his mouth and spoke in a whisper. “Let’s not tell anyone I caused that beast’s escape.”
Spratt pointed a finger at the old man. “I knew you had something to do with it.”
“Was that not obvious?” He let out a soft sigh before continuing. “Obtuseness aside, it was the best opportunity to show the Kiroans their mistake. Had I not intervened, your friends were due to be flogged in the town square.”
“For having a bit of a fistfight,” asked Winter.
“They don’t take kindly to malcontents in Kiro.”
With a mouthful of food, Biggs said, “Hey, I just thought of somethin’. You speak English!”
“Picked it up during my travels.”
Biggs continued, “Oh, is that the native tongue on the Westside of the land of Tolkien?”
The old man chuckled. “Tolkien, eh? The man could write but so longwinded!”
Winter said, “I knew we were still on Earth! An odd corner perhaps, but frigging Earth for sure.”
The old man pointed a bony finger at Winter. “This isn’t Earth, although we are in a dimension sharing space with your home.”
Biggs said, “What’re you like Gandalf or something!”
“You may call me Kamalli. Rest assured that I have no relation to Mr. Tolkien’s fantasies.”
Biggs was still excited. “Then you’re a Jedi like Obi-Wan Kenobi, or something.”
The old man looked at Biggs with a blank stare. Then the blankness turned to anger. His voice boomed through the tavern. “I am not a character!”
The entire room shook then several bottles and glasses fell off the shelves. The old man’s smile quickly returned, more radiant than ever. “Listen if you want to understand, and be prepared to accept what I say, without question.”
Biggs didn’t seem fazed by the display. He said, “How can you know about Lord of the Rings, but you’ve never heard of Obi-Wan Kenobi! I’m not a movie guy, and even I love Star Wars.”
“What nonsense!” Kamalli sighed then said, “A friend brought me books from your Earth, but I have no clue what a film is.”
Spratt chimed in, “Your loss, the original trilogy were masterful.”
“I’m devastated to have missed them. May I change the subject back to something of import?” There were no dissenting words, so Kamalli continued. “As I stated before …you are on another plane of existence. This is the world of Taru.”
“Taru,” repeated Spratt.
“That’s right,” said Kamalli. “For thousands of years many of your people and animals have emigrated to our realm and lowered property values.”
Winter was clearly offended by Kamalli’s crack.
Sensing Winter’s anger, the old man softened his tone. “Ma’am, I meant no disrespect. Many have come and had what I consider a negative impact.”
“I am an officer in the United States military. Please refer to me as Major Winter, not ma’am.”
Winter and Kamalli offered one another their finest poker faces. Finally, the old man spoke. “I do not wish to argue semantics, Major, but you are all acting like children. Your military doesn’t generally wage campaigns in Taru. You’d best forget your silly codes of honor and the pomp you still cling to. You’ll need to adapt with haste to find your true calling.”
Winter slammed a fist on the table. “My true calling has nothing to do with Taru, you geezer!”
Spratt said, “I’m sorry about this.”
Fire burned in Winter’s eyes. “Are you in charge now, Spratt?”
Spratt slammed his own hand on the table. Consequences be damned, Spratt decided that he needed to take command of this situation or just go over to the bar and get obliterated. “Mary, what did we just discuss? Why are we still playing games?”
Winter regained her composure and dropped her chin a bit.
Spratt continued, “Before you continue, can I ask one question?”
Kamalli’s body language made it clear he was not thrilled with the most recent interruption, but he opened his hand in a welcoming gesture.
“What’s your connection to our world?”
The old man gave a slight shake of the head and said one word, “Arnalda.”
“Gezuntheit,” joked Biggs.
Kamalli stared Biggs down like a teacher dealing with an annoying student. “Arnalda is a person. I have known others from your world. She is the only one that came with answers and not the endless questions that you bring.”
Spratt asked, “What happened to these others?”
“Oh, they are about, but none were ever quite the same as they were on your Earth.”
Spratt nodded. “So, you’re saying that Taru changes people?”
Kamalli smiled broadly. “Finally, a deduction! Taru is not entirely unlike your Earth but it has different effects on people. The days are longer and brighter. Plus, we are a world rife with magic and mysticism. These factors enact physical and mental outcomes on even the most cunning. Arnalda is the one visitor who changed Taru more than it changed her.”
Spratt continued, “So, these two could be acting surly as a consequence of being here?”
The old man smiled as he nodded. “Oh yes. All three of you have begun to change.”
“I’m not acting differently,” offered Spratt.
Winter gazed into his eyes and chimed in. “You seem like you’re finally ready to take what you desire.”
Spratt looked at Winter for a moment but didn’t respond. There was innuendo in what she said, but he didn’t want to explore what she meant.
Kamalli offered, “You cannot possibly live unaffected here. If you are at peace then perhaps you can develop beyond even Arnalda.”
Winter said, “Will we be normal when we go home?”
“Traveling back is difficult. Some might say impossible!”
Winter almost shrieked as she said, “You mean we’re stuck here?” The old man nodded. “Send us back this instant.”
“Do I appear to be a vortex?” Nobody was sure if he was joking or serious.
“You must know everything about this world. Where everything is, how everything works,” said Spratt.
Kamalli threw back his head and guffawed long and loud. He wiped a tear from his eye before speaking again. “Arnalda told me Taru is twice the size of your Earth, and my travels have mostly been local.”
Spratt wanted information, so he tried asking another question. “How exactly did we get here?”
“How anyone gets to Taru is inconsequential. Why is my concern!”
Winter calmed her voice. “We’re here because of a very evil man.”
A warm glow came across Kamalli’s face. “Oh, evil! So scary. Still, nothing is accidental here. I sense you were brought intentionally and a harrowing path lies before you. After acting heroically for those of Kiro, they are convinced the Triptych has arrived in Taru.”
“Triptych? That’s a Greek word for a three-paneled painting,” said Biggs.
Spratt and Winter looked with surprise at their younger colleague’s odd knowledge.
Kamalli nodded. “Perhaps. In Taru, the Triptych’s arrival has been prophesized for ages, although their calling is debated. Some feel the Triptych will save our world from the End Times. Others, feel the prophecy is clear that these three will launch us into those same End Times.”
Spratt said, “Stop with the riddles. Do you think we’re the Triptych?”
“I am but a simple man offering the only help that I am able. Like you, I have no answers, but a burning desire to improve my station. Do I think your arrival was prophesized ages past? I find it difficult to believe in such fairy tales. Even Tolkien wasn’t a good enough writer to pull that one off.” They all just looked at one another for a few moments.
Biggs interjected with exactly what Spratt was thinking. “I don’t think any of us is exactly looking to be the heroes of your world. We just want to get home. Arnalda seems like she can help us.”
“You should seek her out in Oklani. She may be able to solve your problems.”
Biggs scoffed. “That’s what I just said.”
“Get some rest now. For in the morning I will help you take the first step on your great journey,” said Kamalli.
Kamalli grinned then snapped his fingers. Without any other notice, he phased out of existence, and left Spratt, Biggs, and Winter gawking at the empty air.
* * *
They didn’t bother to have a conversation about Kamalli’s disappearing act. After all they’d seen, a man vanishing into thin air wasn’t so strange. Winter checked the lone doorway; as she expected it was barred from the outside. They were still prisoners. While there was annoyance at being locked up, the need for rest outweighed the necessity to escape. Each of them hastily gathered some sacks and tablecloths and made crude accommodations along the far wall.
Biggs now argued limply about escaping before dawn, but Spratt won out when he said they should wait to see what Kamalli offered in the morning. Spratt reasoned that Kamalli could have harmed them already if he so chose. Biggs seemed like he would continue the argument for a moment. Then he quietly removed his boots, neatly placed them by his side and curled up on his pile of filthy “bedding.” Spratt took Kamalli’s words to heart about Taru having weird effects on them. Why had they changed their stance on escape so quickly?
Spratt shook it and chuckled. “He’s all kinds of something.”
Winter shrugged. “Kids. All they want to do is go, go, go. Yet, if you sit ‘em down, they’re out like a light.”
“It’s almost a game to him,” said Spratt.
“Scary, isn’t it? He’s operating on adrenaline. There’s not much thought in that brain, but can he ever fight.”
Winter sat Indian-style in the corner picking at the remainder of handful food they’d been left with. The large silver tray was loaded with non-descript salted meat and bread products. Spratt thought it was about as good as anything he’d ever eaten. It wasn’t just because they’d gone a couple of days with almost no food. It must be one of the spices that was absolutely euphoric.
The pair sat quietly while they ate. Their brains were inundated with questions and thoughts of the future. Spratt held back an apology to Winter for his insubordination. Disobeying orders in a combat situation was an offense punishable by court-martial, which would be a rather ignominious ending to his career.
Winter, as if sensing Spratt’s internal dilemma, finally broke the ice. “Sorry I melted down. I made a number of lousy calls.” She threw her arms up in exasperation. “This has taken a bigger toll on me than the two of you.”
“I’m feeling it same as you.”
She dumped her plate off to the side, wiped her hands clean on her pants, and sat up straight. “I don’t care what Kamalli said. The reason I’m acting strangely has nothing to do with,” she paused and then said “Taru” like it was the strangest word ever. “There’s this hideous regret gnawing at my insides. I never looked back at any decision in my life. I haven’t had time to worry over mistakes. Now, all of a sudden…”
Spratt could see the weight of the world dropping off Winter’s shoulders. Spratt was ashamed to even think it, but he was relieved she was apologizing for their problems.
“I threw away my marriage and a relationship with my son, so I could stay with the Aces. I gave my family up to serve my country.” She raises her hands in supplication. “Don’t make this place the final wall of separation.”
Although he felt severe misgivings, Spratt smiled as warmly as he could muster and attempted to project a sense of genuine hope. “We’ll make it back. Your husband’s a good man, so he’ll understand. And your child will just be thrilled Mama’s back. But, we all need to worry about fixing our old lives later.”
“If we don’t get home, my son is going to grow up wondering if I’m alive or dead. M.I.A. would be nothing more than a cursed life lacking closure. He’ll always wonder if I’m going to walk back in the door. Why didn’t I think of what my lifestyle could do to him before?” A single tear gathered in the corner of her eye.
Spratt leaned over and used his hand to wipe at the tear before it ran down her cheek. He stared into her eyes. “No matter how long it takes, no matter what we have to do, we’ll make it back. That’s our only goal in this crazy world.” Spratt’s hand lingered on Winter’s cheek.
He pulled the hand away before the situation grew too awkward, but still locked eyes with Winter. “The way I look at it, the best thing we can do is forget about home for now. We need to put everything we have into finding Arnalda. The reason is to get home, but keeping that on the outside will make the journey more difficult. We have to bury the hurt deep!”
Winter said, “Agreed. It’s about the three of us until we get home.”
Winter offered a loving smile to Spratt then turned on her side. Spratt sat thinking for a few minutes about his own regrets. Then he passed those regrets to the back of his mind. When the sorrow was needed he would use it to be stronger. For now, the only necessity was sleep. More answers would come tomorrow, and then, maybe, they could make strides toward their goal. With that thought, Spratt too was fast asleep.
The three soldiers slept soundly for more than twelve hours.
* * *
They awoke well into the morning. Two guards opened the door, gave them more food and quickly departed. Thirty minutes later, the guards returned and beckoned them to follow. Neither Spratt, Winter, or even Biggs uttered a word as they paraded through downtown Kiro. Everywhere they looked the citizens were standing with their heads bowed. Again, the singsong hum they heard in the prison courtyard reverberated through the area. They were led to the edge of town near the entry to the valley. The guards walked a short distance away but soon stopped and joined the chorus of humming.
They clearly weren’t to go back, so the three soldiers stared ahead at the shining light in the lush valley. Biggs took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and let the intense daylight bathe his face. “It feels good to see the sun, but this reverence garbage makes me want to lose it!”
Spratt nodded in agreement. “Loafing in the shadows for a few days trying to get you guys out of prison was enough to make me crazy. Used up all my smokes too, talk about wanting to lose it.”
Winter placed a hand on Spratt’s shoulder. “Bright side, you’ve finally kicked that filthy habit.”
Kamalli’s voice startled them. “I see you’re nearly ready to take the first bona fide step in your new world.”
“Just point us in the right direction,” entreated Biggs.
Spratt interjected before Kamalli could reply. “I was actually hoping you’d accompany us.”
Kamalli shook his head. “I cannot be your guide. There is simply too much for me to do here.”
Spratt wanted to insist Kamalli come along, but the firm glimmer in the old man’s eyes quickly shut down the thought. “Fine, then what help can you offer us?”
“Firstly, accept these amulets.” In Kamalli’s extended hand were three brilliant, red gemstones strung on golden chains. “These talismans will eliminate the tribulations you have understanding our local tongues. Speaking English is a sure way to get you killed, so these gems will camouflage that foulness as well!”
Spratt said, “Like the universal translator in Star Trek?”
Kamalli looked at Spratt incredulously, “For one that begs to lead, you have a screw loose. Focus! Let me add that these baubles may well offer you extra benefits.” Kamalli stated seriously. “But only if you believe in it and yourself!”
Biggs snatched one of the talismans and gazed at it with awe.
Kamalli raised a single finger in the air. “These items are irreplaceable. If you lose them your journey will soon end.”
Winter looked with scorn at the stone she now held. “I hope you have more utilitarian items.”
Kamalli smiled broadly. “Oh yes. I have weapons, directions, the perfect tool of guidance, and the necessary disguises to blend into Taru.” Kamalli waved his hand and an array of objects appeared from nowhere spread across a table.
Spratt, Winter, and Biggs scanned the contents anxiously.
Winter said, “I don’t get it. All that’s here are brown robes, swords, a couple of daggers, and a compass.”
Kamalli smiled. “If you recall that’s exactly what I promised, save one piece.”
Winter gave a visible sigh.
Kamalli pointed past the soldiers. “Head through the valley, and as long as you don’t behave foolishly, you should reach the sea town of Garvin in less than a day. With a bit of diligence, you can find a guide willing to procure passage across the Sea of Timin. That is the next obstacle in your journey to Arnalda.”
Spratt sighed. “I guess that’s it, huh?”
“Let me offer you a last bit of advice.” Kamalli did not seem to notice Spratt’s icy stare. “Until you’ve procured a guide, I recommend minimal contact with the denizens of Taru.” With that, Kamalli waved goodbye and once again disappeared.
The old man provided them information, but they still seemed lost. Spratt felt he was in a television murder mystery, like Columbo, where the audience knows who did it from the start, but has to watch painfully as the hero figures things out.
Biggs was furious. “That old son of a…”
Kamalli’s disembodied voice echoed through the clearing. “That’s not nice, Mr. Biggs. I recommend you are kind when I’m absent, for I may be lurking closer than you realize.”
“At least the guy has a sense of humor,” snapped Biggs.
Winter said, “His help is still suspect in mind. As far as jokes, well my sense of humor seems to be missing right now.”
Biggs couldn’t help unleashing another quip. “Did you ever have one, Major?”
Winter poked a finger in Biggs’s chest. “You’d be surprised at what I’ve got.”
Spratt felt relief that Winter didn’t hound Biggs for the latest outburst. Her slight playfulness gave Spratt hope that camaraderie was forming.
A few minutes later they had each donned their new robe. Spratt was surprised the fabric wasn’t itchy at all. It was heavy like wool but there wasn’t an annoying itch.
Biggs hefted the sword and balanced it like an awkward baseball bat, “Either of you feeling like Conan? I’m ready to battle it out with some bare-chested bad guys.”
Spratt actually chuckled. “You call me a geek.”
Biggs smiled. “Lifting weights would make this sword look even cooler. I bet there are a ton of babes on this world, just waiting to meet the Biggsinator.” Biggs swung the sword about lamely.
“I’m thinking his sword arm looks a bit limp,” said Winter with a smirk.
All three soldiers laughed as they headed for the valley.