There was a heavy thud from behind Flippant. He cautiously stole a glance. Two men had entered from a side door and deposited Sir Roan Byrd onto the floor. The former knight looked rather bruised and bloodied as he groaned.
“Roan,” Flippant whispered painfully. His eyes shot back to Marz. “What is the meaning of this?”
Marz sniffed. “A little bird told me you were missing a princess, Master Wizard. You should really be more careful with such fragile things.
“Fortunately, my men are scouring the countryside for dear Princess Maria—in fact, as soon as my messenger hawk returns, I imagine we’ll have good news!”
Marz clapped his hands together. “And then, to answer your question: Yes. There are a few very specific things you can do for me.”
By Mikel Andrews
FOR A SLIM MINUTE, Maria had time to worry whether or not her heart was still beating. It was, very rapidly in fact, pounding a panicked plea. Although it was barely audible over the sound of Cutter’s whirling whipdrill.
The young man with the too-perfect raven hair brought the sword-like device down in a sweeping motion, blindingly fast. The three ruffians that had been caught snooping around Cutter’s strange geological anomaly—had he called it his workshop?—looked to each other, trying to hide their nerves. The three were much bigger—and dirtier—than Cutter, but Maria guessed they had never seen such a thing as a whipdrill.
Since Cutter had invented it, she was sure most people hadn’t. He had also said it was a tool, although he didn’t seem to be using it as such presently.
“Now I will tell you again—for the final time—depart, fools!” Cutter shouted, mustering all his strength and bravery into a bark. “Or I will, erm…depart your limbs from your bodies!”
Maria quirked an eyebrow at this. The ruffian on the far right swallowed loudly, watching Cutter’s whirling, conical blade. He was the one with the bird, Maria recognized. But the bird was gone now. Maria searched the skies for the fierce looking avian, but it was long gone back towards Ralafus.
And then where?
“Our captain just wants the girl,” the Bird Ruffian muttered, pointing a skeletal finger at Maria. “You don’t need to get hurt none in the process, boy.”
“Unless you wants to, of course,” grumbled the red-headed thug at the head of the trio. For effect, he ground his hammy fist into the opposite palm like a mortar and pestle.
Cutter just answered, “You’re not taking her anywhere.”
“Alright, lads,” the Red Ruffian said with a grimy smirk. “The fun way it is.”
He drew a dagger from his hip; a short sword with a decorative handle. Maria staggered back, still watching her surroundings for a fourth attacker. She held the heavy Demosynthetic Process book like a shield.
Too confidently, the Red Ruffian tried to parry away Cutter’s whipdrill with his short sword, and drove a fist at the young man’s face. But the whipdrill ground against the sword with a metallic growl, catching the attacker off-guard. The redhead let out a squeal of surprise and lost his bearings, giving Cutter an opportunity to drive a hard knee into his gut.
Wind knocked out of him, the Red Ruffian tried in vain to grapple with Cutter and wrestle him to the ground. The other two men moved in for an ambush. Maria tried to cry out but found she had no voice.
In place of her warning, Cutter let out a shrill whistle. The furry, yellow bounders…well, bounded from his shoulders. They had been so inconspicuous that Maria had forgotten the two spiders weren’t actually part of Cutter’s once-immaculate garb. With hisses and clicks, the fierce looking bounders were on the faces of the Bird Ruffian and his sucker-punching partner. The men scrambled, clawing at their faces, screaming as though they were having a nightmare. Their collections of jewelry and chains jingled whimsically, and Maria couldn’t help but laugh.
Quickly, Cutter took the hilt of the whipdrill in both hands and dropped it like a gavel onto the Red Ruffian’s back. The man lurched and groaned and then shrieked when Cutter brought his knee up into his chin with a painful crunch!
The Red Ruffian staggered back, holding his jaw, his face as red as his hair. Wasting no time, Cutter leveled the whipdrill horizontally and, using the hand-guard of the thing as an iron fist, fired a cannonball punch right alongside the man’s cheek.
The Red Ruffian’s eyes rolled back in his head and he toppled backward. The second thug cast away one of the bounders in time to catch his falling cohort. The yellow spider returned to Cutter’s shoulder.
Maria gasped. Never had she seen such a feat of daring-do! Such heroics! At her expense, no less! The whole thing had lasted only a few moments, but Cutter’s movements were so impossibly graceful and fast, it was like she was watching a dream play out.
Not sparing a second, Cutter was on the Bird Ruffian. He jumped like a bounder onto the man, knocking him to the ground. The whipdrill was still humming as he brought it to the man’s throat. For the first time, Maria noticed the slack cord that connected the device to Cutter’s hip had shortened. His second bounder retreated from the man’s face back to its respective shoulder.
The Bird Ruffian winced. “Please, no! Not my head! Anything but my head!”
Cutter spoke through gritted teeth. “Who sent you? Who’s hawk was that?”
The hawk? Maria wondered, remembering the bird. Then her face grew solemn. A messenger hawk.
“Don’t tell him, Voss!” the second ambusher warned, still struggling to hold the unconscious Red Ruffian off the ground.
“You better speak up, Voss,” Cutter said hotly, “while you still have lips.”
“Captain Alven sent us!” the Bird Ruffian—Voss—squealed. “From the Skyhammer Guild.”
“Skyhammer Guild?” Cutter said. His maniacal grin restrained itself into a tight-lipped slit. “You’re a pirate. A sky pirate.”
Voss nodded furiously. “He heard the princess was missing, thought he could shave a few toadies off the king’s coin purse—nothin’ else, mate! Honest!”
Maria could hardly believe her ears. This—all of this—was about her. She knew it was wrong to wander off, to follow Cutter, but she never imagined this could happen. Practically the entire foundation of Estham was crumbling because of her!
Against her better judgment, she stepped to Cutter’s side, coddling the book. She peered over, staring down into the perspiring face of the criminal Voss.
“Your captain,” she managed to whimper. “He’s at the royal palace then?”
There was a mechanical click and all eyes turned to the other man that carried the Red Ruffian. The man still hoisted the out-cold pirate with one arm, but his other hand held a strange device that Maria hadn’t seen before. It curved out of his grip and pointed at Voss like some kind of wand. At the end was a pair of vertical rods pulled back tight by wire.
A nocked arrow was aimed at the Bird Ruffian’s throat.
“Not another peep, Voss,” the man said.
Between shallow breaths, Maria noticed the cord of the whipdrill was about to run out entirely; it had finally wound itself up, coiling in the spiraling metal cone, no doubt. With a grunt, Cutter peeled himself off the pirate called Voss.
Voss crab-walked backwards, never taking his eyes off the whipdrill, even when he returned shakily to his feet.
Cutter let his invention hang limp at his side. “Go. Get your bird and tell your captain that you failed. Do I make myself clear?”
Voss nodded. Quickly, he scampered to join his partner in carrying the unconscious third mate back towards Ralafus. Cutter watched them until they were out of sight.
Dropping the book, Maria let out a relieved laugh and threw her arms around Cutter. She didn’t know why exactly, but she felt it was the proper thing to do. She could feel his heart pounding nearly as fast as hers; it sang to her and warmed her like a tingly, fluttery furnace.
“You were incredible!” she found herself saying.
Cutter’s hand eventually found the small of her back and patted lightly. “Yes, well…”
Maria finally caught herself and pulled away from the young man. Clearing his throat, Cutter tugged at the base of his scuffed, many-pocketed vest straightening what didn’t need to be straightened.
“Brilliant,” Maria said wistfully. “Simply brilliant.”
The red glow in Cutter’s cheeks finally began to fade; he grinned the only way he knew how, big and bright. “I told you it was a rescue, didn’t I?”
Maria suddenly turned worried. She glanced back the way the pirates had retreated. “Do you think they’ll keep their word? They are pirates after all.”
Without another thought, Cutter barked, “Shanks! Moorfellow!”
The toxic-looking bounders detached once again from Cutter’s shoulders and lighted alertly on the ground.
Cutter knelt in front of them. “Follow those men. Keep your distance, but let them know they’re being followed.”
Maria thought she detected a slight bow of understanding from the bounders before they raced off into the woods after their quarry. A good idea, to be sure, but she couldn’t shake a feeling of dread. A worry that things wouldn’t truly be fixed while she was outside the palace walls.
Perhaps this was why she had never really left her family’s castle. Deep down, she had always felt like the keystone of the whole kingdom. She turned again to her surprising rescuer.
“That’s all very good, Cutter, but perhaps I should return to my home. My father must be worried ill.”
Cutter nodded. “Perhaps you’re right, Princess. But what if there are more of Alven’s men still searching for you. I will escort you, of course—it is my duty—but I may not be able to defend you as I did against these three.”
Maria shook her head, sending her caramel ringlets of hair into a frenzy. “Then what do you suggest?”
Cutter did not answer right away. He simply bent down and picked up the copy of The Demosynthetic Process and Other Abominations that she had discarded. Dusting off the cover, he secured it under one arm. With his other, he presented her with an upturned palm. An invitation to once again take his hand. To trust him.
It was an invitation Maria was becoming too comfortable accepting.
“If you please, Your Majesty,” he said in that soothing way of his. “I may have something that can get you home safer.”
“What is it?” Maria asked cautiously, though still taking his hand.
“What I wanted to show you all along,” Cutter answered vaguely, stealing her breath with another of his grins.
She followed him, but doubt began to nibble at the edge of her thoughts. Maria had assumed that the view of Estham across the valley was what Cutter had been trying to show her. Just his usual theatrics, she figured.
But now the boy was leading her towards his workshop. And workshop was a term to be used lightly, Maria knew, because what she was nearing was the strange rock formation that Cutter had initially gone to war for against the pirates. Closer to it, she found it wasn’t so much rock that seemed to grow around the metal structure within, but heaped, hardened earth. Moss, weeds, and wildflowers grew in odd patches over the north face.
And the metal portion wasn’t exactly what Maria had assumed it was either. From a distance it appeared to be a buried statue, carved and cohesive. Now she could see it was a lot of scrap iron and wire twisted around itself, overlapping. Cutter led her to an exposed porthole; an entrance, albeit an awkwardly angled one.
“Pardon my lack of chivalry on this one, Princess,” he said shyly, “but I must insist that I go first.”
Maria gave a polite grin. “After you, then, Master Cutter.”
This seemed to melt him. He looked relieved, justified, and empowered all at once. He scooped himself swiftly into the porthole.
“Watch your step, Princess!” His voice was echoed and tinny.
Sucking in a deep breath, Maria took in the warm forest and setting sun of her kingdom, then followed Cutter—again—into the cold, metallic depths of his workshop.
Just as she did so, a loud, snagging rip startled her. Glancing behind her, she found it to be her cupcake-domed dress, slit at the waist.
“Not your fine dress!” Cutter cried, coming back to her.
Maria laughed. “It’s alright. Cutter.”
With that, she tore away what was left. It took her a few strong tugs, but finally the flouncy thing was free from her waist, leaving only a sliver of olive flesh between what was left of the upper half and her canvas slacks.
Maria felt as though the dress had weighed a thousand pounds. At first, she thought she might float away.
Giving a quick nod, she continued after Cutter. Down, down, down into the interior of the strange hill.
“So dark,” she commented.
“How completely daft of me,” came Cutter’s voice. There was an electrical spark from somewhere below her and a lantern—similar to those in her own palace—came to life. Then another. And another. Soon she could actually see Cutter below her. And her surroundings.
They weren’t climbing down a ladder like she assumed, but layers of metal shelving, housing gears, cogs, and sprockets. All intertwined, teeth locked, waiting to turn.
What was this thing?
Maria continued climbing down until the next step just wasn’t there. With a squeal, she lost her footing and dropped into an empty void. Her real shriek only began its first notes when she was caught.
By Cutter, of course.
At least she hoped it was him. She couldn’t exactly tell in all the darkness.
“Got you, Princess,” came his reassuring voice. “Now for a little illumination.”
That spark came again, a blue-white static. Only this time, to Maria’s surprise, the room was cast in a warm golden glow. They were in a spherical chamber. New lights ignited, the room growing brighter and brighter. More coiled wire and gears of all sizes became visible, but restrained by the concentric rings that formed the chamber.
Maria swirled, awed. Not even in the palace was there a room like this!
She continued to twirl—almost losing her bearings and loving it—until she found Cutter pulling his hand away from a circular port. Electric static shimmered between the port and his fist, surging up his arm and fizzling out at his elbow.
“Cutter!” Maria cried. She wasn’t quite sure where to go with it next. “Your arm! You—you did this?”
“Uh, well,” he stammered, quickly rolling down his sleeve. “I can explain this—”
“Hey!” grumbled a rocky voice. “Hey-hey-hey-hey! Warn a guy before you go pumping all this light in here!”
Maria’s eyes darted around the room, looking for the source of the disembodied voice. Cutter seemed to take it as a chance to change the subject. Typical.
“Quell? Is that you?” Cutter laughed. “Sorry, old chap. Come out and meet our guest!”
“I’m looking for my lenses!” came Quell’s response hotly.
Cutter snickered. “My apologies, Princess. He hates the light.”
“It’s not that I hate the light.”
Maria turned to the much closer voice and her jaw dropped. A slimy, bluish creature stood nearly to her knees, wearing a pair of oversized black goggles. To Maria, it resembled a hairless fox on hind legs, but there was also something slug-like about it, with a little salamander thrown in for texture. A tiny tool belt was slung across its torso.
The creature went on grumbling. “I’m allergic to it. My eyes anyway.”
“Yes, yes, Quell, we all get it,” Cutter said, shushing him. “This is Princess Maria.”
Quell lost his rigidity and looked to Cutter for confirmation. “P-princess?”
“Well, that changes everything, don’t it?” Quell said with a big grin. With a massive blue tongue, he licked his entire three-fingered hand and smoothed back a pair of ears—antennae, maybe?—and then offered Maria the same slimy hand in greeting. “Your Majesty. It’s an honor.”
Maria took it. Reluctantly. “It most certainly is.”
“Quell is my p—” Cutter started.
“Ahem,” growled Quell.
Cutter put his hands on his hips. “I was going to say partner.”
“I bet,” Quell spat.
Cutter waved him off and turned his attention back to Maria. “Quell is a Bogwynke. Very agile and can see in the dark. Tends to come in handy down here. He can make repairs deep within the frame and keep working when I can’t.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, I see,” Maria lied. “Very good.”
Quell sighed. “She don’t get it. You did tell her why she’s here, didn’t you, Cutter?”
“I-I was getting to that,” Cutter said hotly, never taking his eyes from hers. “Princess—Maria, I have to be honest: our meeting was not entirely by chance.”
Maria’s voice nearly caught in her throat. A wave of fluttering panic wafted through her body. Cutter’s hand suddenly felt cold against hers.
“I sought you out,” he continued, “to see if you could awaken this.
“You see, Princess, we are inside a demosynthetic device. An automaton. More precisely, a Ferrous Golem. Very old.”
Maria heard only one word.
“Demosynthetic?” she repeated. “Like the book?”
Cutter nodded. “Precisely. The Demosynthetic Process is a process by which organisms create energy from moonlight. It can power machines.”
Maria had only the basic understanding of Cutter’s words. Though they were cold and frightened her, she nodded along, afraid to question him.
“It can also empower people, like a conduit,” he said solemnly. “Demosynthetic energy is what gives wizards their magic abilities. Some wizards anyway.”
“Wizards?” Maria asked. She was almost afraid to push it further. Her mind flashed to familiar pale, porcelain skin and an annoying aversion to sunlight. “You mean—”
Cutter nodded. “Master Flippant, yes. Which is exactly why I was hoping for his tutelage! I figured if I could learn the trick to demosynthetic magic, I could get this thing running!”
Maria pulled her hand away hotly. “So that’s why you ‘rescued’ me, is it? To use me as leverage against Old Flip so he could get your big toy working?!”
“No, no!” Cutter pleaded. He looked genuinely hurt. “Never for leverage, Princess. I truly wanted to give you a taste of adventure.
“But I also discovered this.”
He led her to a sort of podium, or console. In its surface was a metal circle and a strip of five rings each about the width of a finger. There was writing around the circumference of the circle. An inscription.
“Do you know how to read Old Ruxu, Princess?” Cutter asked.
“The Language of Mirrors?” Maria asked. “Some. Not much.”
“Do you know what this says?” Cutter gestured to the inscription. Maria leaned in for a closer look.
do ploxi nu
“A gentle wing?”
“Like an angel’s,” Cutter said, grin spreading wildly. “And this?”
He twisted the metal ring and the inscription rotated, changed. Maria squinted to read the new phrase:
nu ixold op
It took her awhile to translate. When she did, it brought a hand to her chest and a gasp to her lips.
“A royal hand.”
Cutter took both of her hands in his and twisted her to face him, just like he had with that mysterious ring. His eyes were beaming bright and wild, his grin overtaking most of his face.
“You’re the key,” he whispered. “Finding that book was no coincidence.”
* * *
MARZ ALVEN, CAPTAIN OF THE SKYHAMMER GUILD, sat at the head of a long table the king reserved for his fellow royals during tea service. His luxurious red coat, brass-buttoned and gold-chained, barely creased as he took his knee-high black boots off the tabletop. Looking concerned, he frowned beneath his wiry, black goatee and grabbed the ornate, silver teapot from its holder and brought its reflective surface to his face.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he murmured. Angrily, he looked up at one of his men and rubbed at a smear of black on his cheek. “When were you going to tell me I had engine grease on my face? Hmm?”
The sky pirate standing guard looked ruffled.
Marz shook his head, disgusted. “Go find me a hot towel. This simply won’t do for tea with the king—will it, Your Majesty?”
King Elias sat to Flippant’s left, his stony face barely acknowledging the scoundrel that had taken over the monarch’s private chambers. To be honest, Alven had seized much of the castle. Just how was still a mystery to the old wizard.
To Flippant’s right was Sir Roan Byrd, his old friend, still unconscious but forced upright in a chair to attend this mockery of a tea party. Roan’s eyes were so bruised, Flippant wondered if he’d even be able to open them when the retired knight actually came to.
“Oh come now,” Marz huffed. “There’s no reason to act so downtrodden. We’re going to find your wayward princess, Your Majesty. You know, the one your royal wizard so absentmindedly misplaced?
“And all I ask, good King Elias, is a due reward,” the captain of the sky pirates went on. “That’s not so much to ask, is it?”
Flippant ignored the question, stroking his sterling beard. “How’d you do it? How did you get into the castle?”
Marz smiled as though he was being flattered. “Wondering why your little garden of Piperscorn failed, are you, Master Wizard? Here’s a hint: you should really keep an eye on that South Lookout tower of yours; someone with an airship might just be able to pipe in a pirate army.
“Cedric, where’s that warm towel?” Marz called towards one of the chamber doors.
Flippant felt lost. Sickened. Empty. Could he have failed the Arezza family anymore than he already had today?
A piercing cry came through the king’s open picture window a second before the large, brown hawk did. Flippant knew it was the messenger hawk Alven was waiting for.
“Perfect timing,” the captain said, rising to his feet. His sheathed sword took a gouge out of the table as he retrieved a piece of parchment and an inkwell for his avian friend. Without much ado at all, the hawk hovered awkwardly a moment, first dipping its talons in the shadowy ink, then its beak, and proceeded to stamp out a message on the paper.
Hawkscry, Flippant thought angrily, the code of sky pirates. He strained to read it but it didn’t matter. He cursed himself for not learning the code. He’d meant to for years, but why? It’s the language of common footpads and thieves. Of—
Instead of trying to read the Hawkscry, he tried to read Alven’s face. Searching for any gestures or tells that might indicate the Princess’s safety. Flippant couldn’t be sure, but as Marz’s eyes flicked across the parchment, he thought he saw the corners of the man’s grin droop subtly into a sneer.
Marz picked up the paper and read it again. He glanced at the king, then pivoted sharply and made to exit the royal chambers. “If you’ll excuse me a moment. This requires some…clarification.”
Moments after the pirate’s exit, King Elias spoke up. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble, Flippant.”
Flippant had little time to waste on apologies. He cut right to the chase. “Your Majesty, you must listen. If Alven’s men have found Princess Maria, you must pay them whatever they ask for her return. No arguments.”
“Obviously. The safety of my daughter comes—”
“It’s more than that,” Flippant interjected. He sighed, thinking carefully how to phrase what he needed to say to the king. “I know you must be upset that I took Maria from the castle walls, but something came up. I needed to get something from Sir Roan here. I needed to get this.”
From beneath his sleeves, Flippant withdrew the flat, round object that came from Byrd’s Books and Whistles and handed it to the king.
“What is this?” Elias asked hotly. “Some toy flute?”
“Sire, I commissioned Sir Roan to craft this whistle—he and I served under your father, King Alexa. Roan was the finest knight and metallurgist and…well, a few other things as well. The point is, your father trusted us on a specific subject—and I need you to do the same.
“When the three of us were very young—your father was but a prince at the time—we discovered a prophecy. A legend hidden in the Arezza family crest concerning the fall of the Estham. It wasn’t very clear and most of the words escape me now, but it led us to investigate the prophecy. The only thing we were ever able to trace back to it, was the construction of this whistle,” Flippant went on. “I don’t know what it is used for, or how—but I do know we are going to need it. Soon.”
“How do you know?” the king asked, looking troubled.
Flippant groaned. “I said most of the words of the prophecy escape me now, but some I remember fiercely:
“Princess, The Eve of Crickets, and Moonlight.”
“The Eve of Crickets,” the king repeated. “That’s coming very soon.”
“Exactly, Your Majesty,” Flippant said. “And every year since your daughter was born I have watched this season come and go with nothing but worry and fear. Now, I’m not sure what moonlight means in this instance, but if it has anything to do with the energy that gives me my power…well, we may have a problem.”
Elias’ face grew cold. “And what problem is that, Master Wizard?”
Flippant’s eyes darted back and forth. His fingers twiddled. He shifted in his seat.
“As you know, Sire, I have taught Princess Maria the basics of wizardry in hopes of steering her away from demosynthetics. Keeping her mind on, well, lighter aspects of magic.
“But a boy from Ralafus—Cutter, they call him—took an interest in demosynthetics. When I refused to teach him about it, well, then he took an interest in Princess Maria,” Flippant explained.
“An interest in the princess?” Elias sneered. “To what end?”
“I’m not entirely sure. But when I lost Princess Maria in the city today it was because she ran off with this boy, Cutter,” Flippant admitted. “And they also stole a book from Sir Roan’s shoppe.”
“The Demosynthetic Process and Other Abominations.”
“Sire, that is precisely why we must hope that Captain Alven’s men find Maria and bring her home. Away from this boy. Away from that book. If these pirates have found her, you must pay them whatever they want. No bartering or bickering. Whatever it takes to get her back within these walls!” Flippant cried.
“Then, Master Wizard,” Elias spoke evenly, coldly, “Your fate rests in the hands of thieves. You had better pray to all your gods that nothing stops the Skyhammer Guild from finding my daughter.”