Garvin was a sprawling metropolis covering fifty densely-packed square miles. Thousands of ships dotted the azure blue ocean landscape. A vast swell of vessels were in the process of unloading, queuing, docking, or departing the area. It was mega commerce of the highest degree. Winter figured the city wasn’t as large as Earth ports like San Francisco, New York City, or Singapore, but the sheer magnitude of ocean craft was probably greater.
When Winter took a longer look at the city, she was amazed at how immaculate everything seemed. The city didn’t have the look of wide assortment of cultures or ages. It appeared like the entire place was built around the same time. The buildings and other infrastructure were built on a massive scale as well. The city wasn’t a marvel of what Earth would consider modern science, but it was far more technologically advanced than anything they had encountered to this point in Taru. There were thousands of factories on or near the shoreline accommodating the tremendous volume of shipping. The docks were littered with intricate cranes that operated on counterweight systems which made their mechanized Earth counterparts pale in comparison.
Moving away from the shipping area, the city was sheared into a dichotomy of rich, middle class, and poor neighborhoods. There were areas clearly designed for shopping, numerous outdoor markets that accommodated the farmers living outside of Garvin, not to mention a stretch of gin mills and clubs which rivaled Hoboken, New Jersey for bars-per-square-mile.
For all the size, scale, and grandeur, the only vehicles were drawn by animals, or in some cases, teams of humans that were obviously on the lowest rung of the class system. Many structures were wide enough to span several city blocks, but there was nothing built higher than ten stories.
There didn’t appear to be any form of electricity combustion engines, or even steam power , yet the Garvinites had obviously harnessed fire.
There might not have been power lines or cellphone towers, but some strange occurrences were afoot from their vantage on a hilltop less than a quarter-mile from the city’s outskirts. One building was surrounded by a pulsing amber glow that had no identifiable source. There were work areas that employed no people whatsoever, yet boxes floated around in an endless stream. This appeared to the human eye as magic or a sort of technology mimicking magic.
Winter spent a moment pondering how a Native American propelled forward from the fifteenth century would view current worldly conveniences. No matter what she saw in Taru she felt foolish to bandy around the word “magic.” She believed in scientific logic above all!
Spratt muttered, “Sails and oars. So much for getting back in time for Phase 2 of the Marvel films!” He hurled a rock at a dilapidated wooden sign with indecipherable faded words. Spratt sighed then spoke in a distant voice. “As obvious as it was that we weren’t on Earth, I have to tell you…” Spratt reached down and grabbed another rock and fumbled it from hand to hand before going on. “I still hoped this was some hoax, and we’d walk out of the damn forest into some town in Kentucky.”
Biggs nodded. “No argument. Much as I like playing sword-and-sorcery with you all, I didn’t have it in mind as a career.”
Winter drank in everything she could about the city. The aerial view offered an opportunity to map the city in her mind. Winter finally spoke with a forceful tone. “Put those hopes to the side. If this is some sort of hoax, or better yet, a crazy dream, the better for us. Let’s just get down to business.”
Spratt continued to roll the rock from hand to hand. He glanced at Biggs who seemed to be completely focused on his commanding officer. Spratt whispered, “New tricks.” Then he threw the second rock towards the sign.
A high pitched squeal followed the throw. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Spratt, Biggs, and Winter’s eyes darted around for the source of the voice. It only took a moment to spy a bulbous, short man dressed in a white uniform. He waddled up the hill with his puffy arms in the air.
The Michelin Man sprang to Winter’s mind, and she immediately threw a menacing eye towards Spratt. “Watch what you say!”
Biggs chortled. “You think he’s local law enforcement?”
Biggs chuckled back. “I doubt pudgy enforces anything but dinner time.”
Winter said, “Don’t you realize we can’t keep judging a book by its cover?”
Winter looked at Spratt. “Let me do the talking.” Then her gaze settled on Biggs. “Got it?” Biggs nodded.
The chubby man took in a big breath before speaking again. “I will not be ignored!”
Winter smiled as warmly as possible. “We’re not ignoring you. To be honest, I was making sure my friends didn’t say or do anything stupid.” Winter’s smile seemed less forced as she pointed a thumb over her shoulder. “These guys have been known to do that in the face of authority figures as imposing as you. I must say, we’re very sorry about your sign.”
The pudgy man laboriously tried to squat. He finally hunkered down enough to scrabble a few of the “rocks” together. “Not the sign I’m worried about. It’s the Waneta. They don’t take kindly to being thrown about.” The pudgy man stroked the rocks and small, bowl shaped heads moved around.
Biggs snickered. “The critters are lucky to have a policeman to defend them.”
The pudgy man snickered. “You are wrong on both counts, my young friend. The Waneta can expand to forty times their size if you levy an assault on their kind. And, I’m no policeman, as you call it. I am but a simple game warden. Here to protect the precarious wildlife in and around the seaport of Garvin.” He smiled. “You wouldn’t believe the effect the recent changes in the city have wrought on the local animal life.”
Spratt gave a final glance at the Waneta in his hand. Then he gingerly placed it down near where he’d picked it up. “Trust me, we know all about the effect people can have on the habitats of animals.”
“You are clearly scientists of fabulous repute,” He opened his hands wide.
“We’re not exactly scientists, just citizens concerned…with animal life great and small,” added Winter.
Biggs smirked, “Other than those dinosaurs a piece back. I’d kill those suckers again in a heartbeat.”
Spratt and Winter gave Biggs a dirty look.
The man looked befuddled for a moment then a light seemed to go off in his eyes. “Aye, you speak of the giant lizards! They are not a problem on our side of the valley! And feel free to slaughter them if you must. You are noble sorts, so I will ask you to partake in food, drink, and if you need it, lodging for the evening.” The man simply turned and walked off.
Winter, Spratt, and Biggs exchanged glances. Winter shrugged and followed along. Spratt immediately joined the new entourage.
Biggs looked around one more time. He gave a short little kick at a Waneta. The creature vibrated and expanded more than double, but quickly reverted to its original form. Biggs hustled after his comrades without another peep.
While they walked through the city, their guide talked rapidly and pointed out various places and people.
Spratt looked at the necklace Kamalli had given him. The red gemstone hanging from it pulsed with a deep shade of crimson each time the man spoke. Spratt held the stone so his companions could see. “This thing really works.”
Biggs and Winter looked down at their own stones which were also glowing with the unnamed man’s words.
Spratt continued, “When I said the Universal Translator, I was right.”
Winter said, “Just ‘cause you keep saying it, doesn’t mean I have a clue what you’re talking about.”
Spratt was clearly excited to speak about something that he loved. “In the original Star Trek, didn’t you find it weird that every time Kirk and the crew reached a new planet the indigenous folk could speak English?”
Winter said, “I never gave it much thought. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Star Trek. That’s the one with Darth Vader, right?”
“Not even close. Anyway, eventually the writers decided to explain the convenient use of English away with a little deus ex machina called the ‘universal translator,” Spratt pulled the stone out of his pocket. “This little stone is not only translating everything said to us, but everything we say too. It’s like a plot contrivance. Only real.”
The streets were a labyrinth-like series of twisting, turning alleyways, cramped to bursting with an unending amount of people. Winter was quite certain where they were and about how far they were from the sea. Winter figured she could lead the group out of the city or further in to their real destination if this bulbous man proved untrustworthy. For the first time in a while, she felt secure in their path.
They were in a lower-middle-class neighborhood east of center. It soon seemed clear that their guide had no taste at all. He was making a beeline for what was the ugliest home on the entire row. The outside of the house was sloppy and shared almost no symmetry with the dozens of other houses. There were eight different colors at play on the exterior coating of the abode and junk was strewn on the decrepit porch.
The man raised his arms in a triumphant gesture. “Would you believe there was recently an attempt by the governor to remodel the outside of the homes on this row? Only I held out against the horrible changes.”
Winter and Spratt kept their commentary to themselves. Nothing they could say would be complimentary. Biggs on the other hand was just beginning a mocking dialogue when Spratt drove an elbow into his stomach.
Seemingly none the wiser, the man slid a rusty key into the front door’s lock then stopped and turned suddenly. “Oh, the epitome of disrespect exhibited today.”
Spratt sucked in a gulp of air then whispered to Biggs. “Your big ass mouth!”
Winter attempted to play peacemaker. “Forgive our rudeness.”
“You shouldn’t be sorry. It is my shame that I invited you in but didn’t offer my name.” The soldiers relaxed muscles they didn’t realize were tightened. “I am Keb.” He threw the door open with an ostentatious shove. “Welcome to my modest domicile!”
Winter followed directly behind Keb. Biggs and Spratt brought up the rear. Biggs looked at Spratt. “Said the spider to the fly.”
Spratt shook his head. “You just don’t learn, do you?”
“Come on, he never bothered to ask our names. This has got to be some kind of trap. Look at that belly; he’s probably eaten quite a few tourists in his time.”
“There is no man better than Keb walking the streets of Taru.” Spratt and Biggs watched as a furry, bi-pedal creature jumped onto the railing of the porch. The creature was slim but powerful looking and nearly six-feet tall. She had smooth feline features, sleek black fur, white whiskers, and piercing yellow eyes.
Biggs couldn’t help but stare at the giant feline. His first feeling was revulsion at seeing an immense talking cat. Then he was drawn in by the sultry eyes and lustrous facial appearance.
She raised a clawed hand and pointed one nail towards the men. “For your sake, you best not intend harm to Keb.” She winked. “Otherwise we may become allies.”
“Are you his pet,” questioned Biggs.
The feline hissed. “I’m nobody’s pet!”
Keb popped his head back through the front door. “Ah, I see you’ve met Kafira. She is also staying with me. Come in! Come in! Let’s become better acquainted.”
Kafira leapt from the railing and bounded past the two soldiers.
Spratt grabbed Biggs by the collar of his cloak. “I think we need to have a man-to-man later.”
Biggs was unfazed by Spratt’s threat. “Just wondering where they keep a litter box big enough for that.”
Spratt didn’t say a word and simply left him alone on the porch.
* * *
The interior of Keb’s home was no less gaudy than the outside. The walls were covered with an odd cacophony of colors, dozens of paintings, and other odd bits of “artwork.” Keb seemed to be a collector of almost everything. The dining area was small and cramped, but there was just enough room for everyone to dine comfortably. Keb sat in the groove of the kidney-shaped table as the soldiers and Kafira sat around him like students in a reading group.
There was an almost endless supply of courses throughout the three-hour meal. Nothing was familiar, but most of it bore some resemblance to earthen foods. There was soup, salad, and meats that were similar to poultry, seafood, and beef. Though it was unfamiliar, the travelers each found something to their liking.
There was light conversation as the courses unspooled. Mostly Keb spoke of himself, and Kafira made playful quips. As the meal came to a close, Winter hoped there would be time to garner useful information. Still, she didn’t want to be rude and push a potentially inappropriate topic.
Finally, Keb turned the conversation in a promising direction. “So, what’s your destination?”
“We seek Arnalda of Oklani,” offered Biggs.
Keb pondered a moment. “Arnalda? That is a long and potentially unattainable quest. She lives a great distance hence, and her exact whereabouts are hazy.”
“Can we reach Oklani directly from Garvin?” questioned Spratt.
“Travel across the Sea of Timin is not to be taken lightly. I nearly lost my life on a similar journey,” purred Kafira.
Winter questioned Kafira. “Where we can secure transport across the sea?”
Kafira’s response was matter of fact. “I can help with that.”
Keb interjected. “Timin is a waterway fraught with danger. If you hire a good sailing vessel with an honest crew, you may live through your transit. Then, of course, you’ll have to traverse the Lava Fields of Dukker to even attempt to ascend the mountains to summit at Oklani. There you may find Arnalda.”
“May?” questioned Biggs.
Keb smiled. “Arnalda lives a quiet life near the peak of Oklani’s highest mountain. She does not often welcome strangers into her home.”
Spratt responded, “A friend told us that we should secure an excellent guide.”
“No true friend would send you to that place. The dangers far outweigh any possible reward you can reap.”
Winter replied, “It’s imperative we reach Oklani!
Kafira began, “Perhaps I can…”
“You may bring them to the Palti Tavern on the oceanfront. They can then find a guide and book passage.”
“Let’s go,” said Winter.
“That area of Garvin is dangerous in daylight. After nightfall you are begging for trouble. Wait until morning.”
Biggs interrupted. “I’m with you, Major.”
Winter cut Biggs off. “Then you agree with my changed mind. I accept our kind benefactor’s words of wisdom.”
“I offer one final condition. No matter what she says, Kafira will not be joining your quest. She’s not to leave the city,” Keb stared at Kafira. “Do you understand as well, dear?”
Kafira nodded her ascent.
“Then we shall retire to the roof for dessert and some of the finest drinks in the region.” Keb wiped his mouth with the tablecloth. “Come, my friends.”
* * *
Keb’s house was located near the top of a high hill, so there was a magnificent view of the sea to the north as well as the wide open farmland to the south. The chilly sea breeze mixed with a roaring fire pit made for a pleasant evening. They looked cozy in mismatched chairs that were huddled close together.
The rooftop conversation returned to the lighter tone of earlier in the evening. Keb didn’t seem open to discussing any further plans. While he was courteous, Keb seemed distracted. He pronounced himself ready for bed not long after they finished their second cup of liquor. Keb peered at Kafira as he said goodnight. Kafira followed with a cursory nod.
Alone for the first time since meeting Keb, the soldiers took a moment to relish the serenity of a full belly and relative tranquility.
After a few minutes, Biggs broke the quiet. “Is it just me, or is something going on with Kafira?”
Spratt nodded but didn’t speak since he had a mouthful of after-dinner cookies.
Winter nodded too. “Keb’s a nice guy, although there’s something he’s not telling us about Kafira.”
“I think she’s his slave,” said Biggs. “We should bust her chains of bondage!”
Winter sipped her beverage then leaned back and sighed. “Phil,” she didn’t like referring to Biggs by his first name, but she decided approaching as a friend might prevent another stressful exchange. “We don’t know Taru and its customs.”
“So you want to be an enabler of slavery,” asked Biggs.
“Look, let’s see what tomorrow brings. We have a place to stay. Our hosts have been nothing but friendly. Kafira doesn’t seem to be in any sort of duress. Remember, she loafed around while Keb made dinner. Not exactly the normal master/slave relationship.”
“I guess that’s a solid point,” replied Biggs.
“Now, I’m glad you questioned me. We have to make this a more democratic process. So, let’s think long and hard before making a decision, especially one that will put us at odds with a seeming ally. From now on we’re a team of equals.” Winter looked Biggs in the eye. “Your point is fair too. Let’s lie low and see what develops. Can you live with that?”
”Sure can. I just want to have my say,” said Biggs.
She nodded. “We all will,” She looked towards Spratt. “Good with you, Mike?”
“We’ll probably be the only democracy on this crazy world, but I’m good with it!”
Winter declared, “I’m sure tomorrow will offer more surprises. So, let’s get some rest.”
“Amen to that. At least we’ll be moving ahead with our quest,” said Spratt.
“I’m sure the day won’t be boring,” chuckled Biggs.
Winter stood and stretched. “I doubt we’ll see another boring day for a long, long time.”
* * *
Prior to dawn, Keb walked into the small room where the soldiers bunked. By the time their rooftop celebration concluded, they only had six hours to sleep. The accommodations were fairly comfortable, the time uninterrupted, and each awoke ready for action. The three listened to Keb’s final bits of advice, yet they didn’t take too much stock in his warnings. They had all had fought through warzones, so it was difficult to believe that Garvin’s “rough” section could offer a major hurdle.
The streets hadn’t been the site of a firefight, but the signs of unrestrained revelry and criminal ventures were quite evident. Drunken wrecks were laid out on the pavement, but far worse were a variety of injured and even a few must surely be dead. Considering the after effects, Keb’s advice to avoid this area at night appeared sound.
Winter had to admit Kafira knew the world of Taru quite well. Her intimations of what they would face once they left Garvin also seemed to imply that she would be the absolute perfect guide for the journey ahead. Not to mention, they already had gotten to know the girl. Winter hadn’t mentioned it to her compatriots yet, but she figured at some point, especially if the pickings were slim, she would have to broach breaking their promise to Keb. Breaking a promise to someone that was kind wasn’t her way, but keeping the three of them safe was her only goal. Kafira seemed to be the most likely way of doing that.
“How much further do we have to go,” asked Biggs.
“Not much longer now,” purred Kafira.
Winter decided to do some prodding. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from?”
“A distant kingdom, but I wandered from there many moons past. Keb’s kindness finally allowed me the opportunity to settle down for a while.”
Biggs said, “So what’s the old guy to you?”
“Let us call him my uncle,” smiled Kafira.
“Judging by the lack of family resemblance, he’s obviously not a real uncle. Are the two of you, you know?” Biggs winked to drive home the insinuation.
Kafira bore her fangs and spoke in a thick rasp. “You should not make such implications. I am proud, but not stupid.”
Spratt interceded before Biggs dug a deeper hole. “The only stupid one here is this guy.” Spratt put Biggs in a headlock and rumpled his hair. “He’s young and foolish.”
Kafira spat as she replied. “I am only in my sixth year! Yet I am not as foolish as him.”
“You’re only six? That’s amazing considering the travels you mentioned! I am thirty-nine, Spratt is thirty, and the child,” Winter smirked as she pointed to Biggs, “is twenty-two.”
Kafira seemed confused as she said, “You must have lived sheltered lives. Were you locked away in a religious retreat?”
“Why would you say that,” asked Spratt.
“You are quite old to be so naïve of the ways of Taru. You lack the necessary skills for survival, behave like children, but are all essentially relics,” Kafira rubbed her chin in contemplation. “Interesting.”
Winter doubted Kafira would understand the intricacies of the dimensional planes that Kamalli spoke about. It seemed best to let the topic rest. She couldn’t help, but feel aghast her latest attempt to probe for information made them look foolish. It seemed no matter who spoke or made decisions, they were always the wrong ones! She promised herself to be even more careful with future choices.
An ear piercing scream suddenly filled the street.
Kafira raised her arms and turned around; distress lining her features. “Don’t even think about investigating!”
Kafira’s advice fell completely on deaf ears as the heroes had already deviated from the main road and were bounding into the alley where the sound had emanated. Winter drew her sword and led the way. Spratt and Biggs followed closely with their own swords ready. Winter figured they looked fairly impressive with their weapons three abreast.
“The sound came from this alley,” yelled Winter.
Winter tore around a corner into a dead-end alley expecting to break up a life-or-death struggle. All she found was a lone person crouched against the wall with a cloak pulled tightly over their head. Winter assumed it was a woman as luxurious, curly, blond locks of hair sprouted from where the lump’s head should be. She reasoned they might have run off a scourge like Jack the Ripper. She got an amazing almost sexual rush of adrenaline! It simply felt good to be a hero.
Winter laid down her sword and leaned near the woman. “Are you alright?”
A terrible cackling reverberated through the alley. The seemingly small form slowly rose to an impressive height.
“That chick would dominate the WNBA,” sniggered Biggs.
“Miss, are you in some distress,” asked Spratt.
Inexorably, the seven-foot form turned. With a glance at the creature’s profile, Winter knew they had made a huge mistake, perhaps a tragic one. It was not a human female that looked back at them. The being had glowing yellow eyes, sooty grey skin, and an ivory horn protruding from its head. A furious billow of smoke issued from its nose as it glowered down at them.
“Don’t you know better than to wander in alleys?” The being rubbed its hands greedily. “It’s so easy to become enslaved.”
Winter snatched her sword with a white-knuckled death grip. She stood and felt confidence with Biggs and Spratt flanking her.
Kafira came around the corner and screamed, “Nedra, leave them alone!”
Biggs ignored the advice as false confidence swelled in his gut. He said, “Too bad the trap you’ve laid is to be your own undoing.”
Kafira charged towards them. Nedra waved her hand. Suddenly Kafira crashed into an imaginary wall and toppled to the ground.
Winter ignored Kafira’s situation. She held her sword high above the right shoulder and burst towards Nedra. She was not weak by any stretch, but it wasn’t easy to heft the seven-pound weapon with accuracy. Winter was certain that she didn’t telegraph her charge and felt excellent about the speed of her attack. As she drew closer, she was even more impressed that the creature had not yet drawn its own weapon.
Biggs followed her charge. “I’ll take this thing from the right, Major,” barked an exuberant Biggs.
Winter saw the wisdom in the dual attack and was going to thank Biggs for his fast thinking in a few moments. Then that sense of overconfidence smacked them down like a twelve-year-old boy facing a nun’s ruler in a 1950s Catholic school.
Winter was upon Nedra. She swung her sword for the creature’s center mass, but it leapt high into the air, forcing Winter’s sword to whoosh well beneath its feet. Nedra thrust with a short kick as it came back down and sent Winter staggering several feet backward.
Winter was stunned. She knew it was essential to collect her senses and press the attack once more.
Nedra landed nimbly and produced a massive machete from beneath her cloak. The behemoth pressed her advantage, and Biggs looked to be wide open for the killing blow. He was barely able to bring his sword up in time to parry a vicious attack. Unfortunately, the blow was so overpowering it sent Biggs flying against the wall. He crumpled in a heap.
Before there was time to counter, Nedra slammed the butt end of the machete into Winter’s face. Winter careened into a puddle of muck on the ground. Her head bounced off the pavement as she skidded to a stop near Biggs. She nearly lost consciousness but struggled to stay awake. Winter watched in horror as the creature snatched Biggs by the scruff of the neck.
Spratt had remained transfixed as the carnage unfolded. With Biggs in such dire straits, he finally interceded. He moved with blinding speed and cut the scruff of Biggs’s collar free from the creature’s grip. Biggs fell back to the ground and didn’t move. The red stone around Spratt’s neck shone with crimson brilliance. Winter was awed as Spratt threw a punch with one lightning motion that literally blurred the air. He jumped like a video game character and caught the behemoth in the jaw with a crushing blow.
Nedra smiled, rubbed her chin then charged at Spratt. The foes clashed swords at an amazing rate. Winter tried to pull herself up but was still too dizzy to rejoin the fight. She was not certain, but Spratt actually seemed to be winning. She couldn’t get over how fast their swords were moving. You could barely follow the weapons as they clanked and smashed together. The sound in the alley was like a freight train careening through a tunnel. Nedra’s look of confidence melted into terror as she was forced backward.
Spratt moved forward and the beast was nearly pinned back to the wall when Spratt’s red gem ceased glowing. He leapt to deal a crushing blow, but his jump was like that of a child. A predator’s gleam returned to the creature’s eye. The worm had turned against them in Taru yet again.
The monster plowed forward and drove her elbow into Spratt’s skull. He fell to the ground in a heap.
Kafira’s smashed her paws against the imaginary field. “Nedra, release him,” she growled with a thunderous voice.
“I would love to stay and dance with you, but that will have to wait for another time.” Nedra drew blood as she ran a long black fingernail along Spratt’s cheek.
Kafira unleashed a booming roar and smashed her shoulder into the field.
“We’ll meet again.” Nedra rolled Spratt into her cape and corkscrewed for a several seconds. When Nedra stopped spinning the field blocking Kafira was gone. She rushed to her companions’ side. Biggs and Winter had also regained their feet. All three stood staring at nothing but the empty alleyway.
“Where’d she go,” spat Biggs.
Kafira bowed her head and spoke solemnly. “You have quite a knack for heaping further complexities upon your ample difficulties.”
Winter had a gleam of power in her eyes. “We’ll get him back!”
Kafira appraised Winter before she spoke again. “Finding Nedra is but our first problem. More difficult will be retrieving Spratt in one piece.”
“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” said Winter.
“Spratt was in my care. Either we shall all go forward in our respective quests or our ends come together. That’s the code my people live by!” The look in Kafira’s eyes went from fear, to anger, and back to fear. “If only you’d stayed out of these alleys, you could have been on sailing ship before nightfall. Now the most important quest must wait for another day and time.”
Winter sheathed her sword and placed a hand on Kafira’s shoulder. “Tell us what we must do.”