"I do not know," the big cat said, as blue flames burst through his skin near his shoulder on his front left. The flame burst didn't bother the cat in the slightest, and other than burning away all the fur, it did nothing to harm Ts'ui. "What I have done child is not something that will ever be forgotten, and it will be several generations at least before forgiveness is considered. So I think I shall be here a good long while," he said and then opened his massive jaws and yawned.
"But the Ogin made you a slave! It's not like you wanted to help him."
"You are, of course, right. But you will find as you grow older that two-legs rarely care about such things. To them it is the action, and only the action that matters."
"But it is not fair!" Gale said bunching up her fists and stamping her foot.
Ts'ui began to purr a little at that, and then he picked Gale up by wrapping his tail around her. The big cat set her gently on his back and said, "Fairness is a luxury that few are afforded during their life. Remember that child, for while two-legs go to great lengths to convince themselves otherwise, it is a truth as enduring as the stars in the sky and the pounding of the waves of the ocean. No magic will alter it, and no technology will change it."
"Well that's stupid," Gale said. "If something is unfair, people should change it."
"They should," Ts'ui agreed, "But it is hard for anything to go against its nature. Maybe even impossible. So do not judge too harshly. The world is ordered as the Great Creator deemed it to be, and that is enough."
"The Great Creator?"
Ts'ui was about to answer when there was the screech of a metal bar being thrown back. "Good Lady, your presence is requested in the throne room, immediately," said a voice that was equal parts terrified, and equal parts awestruck.
Before Gale could answer, Ts'ui wrapped his tail back around her and set her down on the floor. "Go. I will tell you more when there is time, but it does not do to keep a king waiting."
"Even if I think he is stupid," Gale said.
"Particularly if you think him stupid. You never know what notion will take root in the head of a simpleton, so be quick about it."
Gale grinned at that, then hurried from the room. Outside the dungeon door, she found a tall guard with bad acne, round shoulders, and a crooked nose waiting for her. As soon as she stepped through the door, he shut it and slammed the metal bolt back into place. She almost laughed when she saw the bar. Ts'ui had entertained her for an hour by shooting jets of fire out of his mouth and nostrils. "So much better than a dragon," she said to herself.
"What was that my lady?" The guard asked.
"Nothing," Gale said.
The guard looked like he was going to say something to this, but then thought better of it and set off through the mighty fortress, with Gale following in his wake. They moved quickly through the castle, which had changed drastically over the past four days. Many of the rooms that had been filled with treasures had been cleaned out, and all the wealth locked away in treasuries, and every able-bodied person that had awaken from being a statue was put to work cleaning. Torches now blazed in every hall and in every room, and from the kitchen came the smell of bread, roasting meat, and tea.
Up and up the solider walked, until at last he stood outside of a massive pair of double doors that now had a set of guards standing in flanking positions with large, bolt-action rifles with fixed bayonets that gleamed sinisterly. In unison they lifted the butt of their rifles off the ground and slammed them back down twice and with a click of their polished boots they turned to face one another as the huge doors were pulled open from the inside. Gale heard someone boom her name, and was swept inside.
The throne room always took the young girl's breath away. Starting at the floor and rising fifty feet above her head was a blue and white tiled mural that covered the wall for the full circumference of the throne room. Above that was a narrow band that had lamps set into wood. Each lamp depicted an animal: there a wolf, here a vole, there a frog, to its left, a dragon, and to the left of that a crane. Each animal was spewing fire from its mouth, throwing light into the dome that rose over 500 feet into the air above the flames. The inside of the dome was covered by huge mirrors reflecting the floor below, which unlike every other room in the palace had a marble floor that was a deep purple, except for the very center of the room, which gleamed with a massive star-burst made out of pure white marble. Upon that white marble, there stood the only bit of furniture in the room--a throne that rose up seamlessly out of the star-burst below. What was different about the throne now as opposed to when Gale had first seen it was the man sitting upon it.
On her first visit, the Ogin perched on the throne. The Ogin had been a blight. A creature that stole its power from Ts'ui and used it to take over the castle and turn what had once been a prosperous kingdom into an ice covered waste. The king on the other hand...well Gale could not decide what he was exactly.
A handsome man with a narrow face, eyes that always seemed to be fixed on some point just over your shoulder, and an almost sing-song voice, he was not someone that projected authority.
As Gale entered the room, the king straightened up in the throne a bit and said, "Ah, just the person we were talking about. Please, come join us," and he indicated a group of people all standing in a semicircle in front of the throne. Among the people there were Gale's older sister, Samantha, and Ahmed, who looked like a rhino crossed with a man. His bulk drew attention no matter where he was, particularly when combined with the javelin head embedded in his horn. Next to him, almost lost among the crowd, was another cross between a man and an animal, in this case a hedgehog. Mr. Bristle was present, still wearing his parka, which had multiple holes punched in it by the spines that grew out of his back. Neither Mr. Bristle nor Ahmed looked pleased, and Samantha looked downright angry.
"We have noticed," the king said in his sing-song voice, "that you have been spending a lot of time with that creature."
"Ts'ui," Gale corrected the king, which caused the assembled courtiers to gasp, but which the king ignored.
"Whatever its name, it will not possess it much longer. We have decided that for its many crimes, it is to be executed tomorrow, and as one of the great liberators of both myself and my people I would like you to attend."
Gale saw the lines on her friends face tighten, and she knew why they were so angry. Ahmed had told her that the only reason that both he and Mr. Bristle were alive was that Ts'ui had chosen not to eat them. Instead, he had transformed them into statues like the rest and lied to the Ogin about what he had done. Ahmed had told her in his deep, calm voice that "A debt is now owed. It must be repaid."
"We're sorry. Is there a problem?" the king asked.
"Yes. There is. You want to kill Ts'ui, when he did not do anything wrong."
At this the king gave a lazy laugh and said, "Then how do you account for the two hundred years my people and I spent as statues? That is not the action of someone who is innocent. And," the king said, cutting off any response, "even if he was a slave while he did it, it does not change his outcome. Before you ask, it is because it only mean that he can be controlled, and all it would take is someone like the Ogin to figure how how to enslave him again, and then we would be right back to where we were. Therefore, we have decided that the creature will be executed. You will all," and the king cast a glance at her friends, "be witnesses at sundown, and until that time none of you is to have any contact with the beast." As soon as he finished speaking, the king turned to one of his courtiers and began speaking behind his hand, in a clear dismissal.
Samantha, Gale, Ahmed, and Mr. Bristle, were escorted out and politely told by the guards that they would not be allowed below the ground floor. They were then escorted back to the lavish rooms that Samantha and Gale had been given and left alone. As soon as the door clicked shut, Gale, on the edge of tears, said, "It's not fair. We have to find a way to get him out."
"But we don't have time," Samantha said. "They are going to kill him tomorrow, and even if they don't they are not going to let him out. What we should do is leave now. We still have to get to the ocean and cross it somehow."
"I have never heard of anyone coming across the Endless Ocean," Ahmed, said, as he stood up to his full height in the room, puncturing the silk coverings that adorned the roof.
"Indeed," said Mr. Bristle as his quills lacerated an overstuffed couch. "The edge of it is less than two days from here on foot, but I have never heard of anyone crossing it. It's endless after all!"
"Is it?" said a soft, female voice as gently as dew gathers on a flower petal. If there is a shore line here, then it is hardly endless, is it?
Everyone in the room whirled around to find themselves facing a woman they had all heard Samantha describe but whom no one had seen. She was tall, had bronzed skin, sandy-brown hair, and eyes the color of a storm ravaged sea. In one hand she held a spear and in the other a book that was covered in strange runes similar to what they had seen on the Ogin's bludgeon.
"Who are you?" Ahmed said, his nostrils flaring and his massive hands curling into fists the size of boulders.
"I shall not say who I am, but I am what the Ogin was seeking in this place."
"That can't be right," Samantha said. "I walked by your statue. He would have gone right by it as well when he was searching the castle. If not when we were looking for Gale, then at some point. You were right out in the open."
"True," the woman agreed, "but even as a statue, I was not without power. You see?" and suddenly she vanished. "I could still appear and vanish as needed. I showed myself to you," and the woman reappeared, "in case you beat the Ogin, and many blessings upon you for doing so."
And what makes you so dratted special that something as repulsive as the Ogin would spend so much time looking for you," Mr. Bristle asked, as his quills stood on end.
"There are many things that make me special, but let us just say that the Ogin had a special interest in me because I have accumulated thousands upon thousands of lifetimes worth of experience. Hence there is little that ever surprises me, which I do not recommend. Life becomes rather boring when that is the case."
"You told the Ogin how to enslave Ts'ui, didn't you?" Samantha said looking directly at the woman, but she was impossible to see. It was like every time her eyes focused on her something changed: her hair color, the shape of her nose, the width of her jaw. Nothing looked as it had when she first appeared, and even as they talked, her face shifted again.
"I do not know that told is the right word. More like hinted at, and I shall now give all of you two bits of knowledge. First, the afternoon guard changes just before sunset, and even though he does not know it, the man guarding Ts'ui is going to be called away. His wife is going to go into labor. Not far from this place to the north is a vehicle. I'm not sure what kind it is, but," and the woman turned to look at Gale and Samantha, "I know it came from whatever world you two come from. It is large enough to get all of you and Ts'ui away from this place." Then, just as quickly as she had appeared, the woman vanished.
For a few minutes nobody said anything, and a few of them held their breath, waiting to see if the woman would come back. When she didn't, everyone began to breath normally again and looked at one another. It was Mr. Bristle that broke the silence. "Well, even with that information, I don't think we have any choice. There is nothing we can do for Ts'ui, and I think we need to just move on from this place."
"But If we can help Ts'ui, we must," Samantha said. "He saved all of our lives in one way or another."
"I agree" said Ahmed, as he touched the tip of his horn with his thumb. "If it were not for him, none of us would be alive. It is a matter of honor that we rescue him."
"But there is only one guard that will be gone. How do we get past all the rest?" Mr. Bristle wondered.
Ahmed was about to say something when one of the walls opened in the same corner where the woman had appeared. Behind it was a circular stairwell, much like the one that Samantha ran down during her race against the Ogin.
"Any other questions?" Gale asked happily.
"Now that you mention it, yes," Mr. Bristle said. "Did you not tell us that Ts'ui could break out of his cell at any time? If that is the case, and he is still there, then he must want to be judged by these people. Why should we interfere with that?"
"Because, he doesn't think they will kill him. Just keep him locked up," Gale said. "Now that things have changed, he will want to leave."
"That does not seem right." Mr. Bristle said, as he shifted his position on the couch, sending a few wayward feathers into the air.
"You would be surprised what one will do to keep their hide," Ahmed said, and as he did Samantha noticed for the first time that he had several faded scars on his arms and legs. She wanted to ask him about it, but before she could he continued. "Come. We have much planning to do and we will need sleep and full bellies, because we do not know when we will eat next."
When nobody argued, Ahmed had them learn how to open and close the wall, and then he called one of the servants and had a feast sent up. After they had supped, the girls and their two companions went to sleep. They all wrestled with their own private phantasms as the night wore on, and none of them awoke too refreshed. They ate a large breakfast, and again a large lunch, and at each they snuck extra food and wrapped it in their silk pillow cases. Finally, it was just about time.
They met in the same room. Ahmed opened the wall, and the four crept down the stairs as quietly as their feet would carry them. Around and around and down and down they went. Gale started out counting steps, but lost interest when she got over six-hundred. Eventually the four friends reached the bottom, where they cracked open another door hidden in a wall and found that they were facing Ts'ui's cell. There was a guard there, leaning lazily against the wall, whistling a song with no melody. This was suddenly interrupted by the click of hard heels on stone as another guard came huffing to a halt outside.
"Titus. It's your wife. The baby is coming," the new guard wheezed.
"What, now? Can you watch my post?'
"No. Got to go get ready. We're all supposed to be at the courtyard in five minutes, but I'll tell them where you are. No worries."
Titus smiled, slapped his friend on the shoulder and said, "A baby. By the creator, a baby," and then he ran up the stairs, quickly followed by his out-of-breath friend.
"Now's our chance. Go Gale."
Gale nodded. As the one who had spent the most time with Ts'ui, she had been given the task of running into the room and getting him. She scampered out into the hall, followed by Ahmed, who moved the large iron bar back for the small girl, and then pulled the heavy door open. Gale ducked inside while Ahmed stayed where he was, looking for signs of anyone coming. A few terse minutes ticked by, and then suddenly the door swung all the way open, nearly sandwiching Ahmed between it and the wall. Ts'ui came padding out, with Gale on his back. He took one look around and then said, "I know both Samantha and Mr. Bristle are here. Come out, and get on my back. I can move much faster than you." Then, swinging his massive head Ts'ui said to Ahmed, "Can you keep up? I cannot carry all four of you."
Ahmed bowed his head and replied, "I am fast, but probably not as fast as you. So try not to lose me. Now, let us go before someone finds out you are free."
"Oh, it's too late for that," said a sing-song voice that caused five heads to turn around and look. There coming through the main entrance was the king, followed by several of his guards. "I sent a detachment of my men to collect you for the ceremony, but they could not find you. I suspected you might be here, so of course, I came straight away. Now, I will give you one chance, and one chance only. Get off that creature, and surrender, and nothing will be done to you. Continue to try and protect that," the king said contemptuously as he pointed at Ts'ui, "and you will share his fate today."
Ts'ui's eyes flickered to the wall with the secret passage, and Ahmed nodded just a fraction of an inch. In the next second, the great rhino was through the secret door, and right behind him was Ts'ui. They slammed the door, just as a crash of rifles sounded followed by the pinging of bullets off stone and the tramping of boots. "Open the door. Don't let them get away," the king shouted, but Ts'ui didn't give them the chance. Opening his mouth a little he spat a huge, blue tongue of fire at the latching mechanism, melting it, while at the same time, fusing the door the shut.
"Come quickly," Ahmed said. "It will not take them long to raise the alarm," and then he started running. Both Samantha and Gale were shocked by how quickly Ahmed moved. Even Ts'ui seemed pleased, although it was clear he could have run faster. Not more than three minutes later they burst out into the guest room they had come from earlier. As they reached the top, Ahmed manged to call out, "I don't know the way, you lead. I will follow."
Ts'ui nodded and took off. Ahmed struggled to keep up, but Gale had to pound on Ts'ui's back and scream "slow down. He can't go that fast!"
Down three different corridors they went, and to Samantha it seemed like they were heading the wrong direction, and she was just going to say so, when all the sudden the big cat yelled, "Hold on! Ahmed, the chandelier." Without further adieu, the massive cat plunged through a large window. The girls and Mr. Bristle all screamed in terror as the huge cat sailed out into open space. He plunged forty floors and landed with hardly a sound in the middle of the grand entrance and on top of a knot of guards. With a roar, the huge cat spewed fire again at the rest of the troopers who all fled in terror. Ts'ui looked up, and as he did the girls and Mr. Bristle looked as well. Ahmed had also jumped, but had grabbed a chandelier. He was currently suspended high over their heads, holding on for dear life. Ts'ui took off again, and ran to a nearby wall, where a winch controlled the height of the light fixture that Ahmed clutched.
"Mr. Bristol, if you please," said the big cat, as he turned so the hedgehog could operate the machinery. Mr. Bristol was up like a shot, and quickly released the break on the winch, which let out a sound like a fishing line being pulled out by a marlin and caused Ahmed and the lights to plummet. Ahmed cried out in terror as the ground rushed up to meet him, but Mr. Bristol began to reengage the brake so that the falling fixture began to slow. Soon it slowed all the way, and a very queasy Ahmed dropped the last ten feet to the floor and vomited.
As he did, the sound of more boots striking the wooden floors of the palace reached them. "Come" Ts'ui said, "There is not much time. They were all upstairs looking for us, but they will be here at any moment."
Ahmed just nodded and stood up. He still looked pale, but picked up a rifle one of the soldiers had dropped along with some ammo and threw it to Mr. Bristle. Taking one for himself, he started running towards the door, which was closed. Putting his head down he let out a great yell and ran into the door. The spear in his horn was driven through the wood, and then Ahmed barreled through after it, causing a shower a splinters to fly outward. When the girls saw him next, part of the door was still stuck to the point of the spear. Still, he did not stop. He just called back. "Come on then. The vehicle is not far."
Ts'ui nodded and followed. Out into the snow they plunged and while everyone had on thick coats, they all instantly regretted having to flee the warm confines of the castle. Still, cold freedom was better than a warm prison, so they pressed on.
They had not gone far when they heard what sounded like dogs. "They are tracking us," Ahmed said.
"True," Ts'ui said, "But we are moving fast, and it is not much further. We should make it."
"I hope you are right," the rhino said as he picked up his pace a little.
Through a narrow pass they ran, where car-sized icicles hung, ready to come plunging down and crush whoever was unlucky enough to be there. A mean wind picked up snow from off the ground and whipped it around, making it difficult to see, but Ts'ui seemed to know his way, and the flames that seeped out the cracks in his skin made him easy to follow. They exited the pass and found themselves on a windswept glacier surrounded by mountains with no way out.
"We're trapped," Mr. Bristel yelled.
"Maybe not," Ahmed said. "Look," and he pointed in the distance to where a steam locomotive pulling both a tender and several passenger cars hitched to it was frozen to the ice. No sooner had the sight of the train brightened the faces of Gale and Samantha, than the echoing crack of rifle fire reached their ears followed by the whine of a bullet passing not more than a foot from the three passengers on Ts'ui's back.
Both Gale and Samantha screamed and Mr. Bristle yelled, "They're shooting at us. We saved them, and they are shooting at us!"
Ahmed suddenly pulled up, but yelled out, "Keep going, I will hold them back," and then he dove onto his belly and sighted down his rifle. A few seconds later, he returned fire, and they heard screaming behind them. But it was impossible to tell if Ahmed had hit anything or if he had simply scared the pursuers.
Reaching the train the girls jumped on the engine, while Mr. Bristol pulled himself up the ladder that hung off the side. But all three of their faces fell when they looked at the different levers and gauges. Even worse, it didn't look as if the train had run in years, and the boiler was ice cold. Gale didn't know that, but she did know that the train needed fire to move, so she yelled at Ts'ui. "Is there anyway, you can light a fire in the train? We need it to move!"
The great cat leaped up onto the tender and as best he could stuck his head in the engine. "Of course," he said, "but where? There is no place for a fire here."
"There should be a door somewhere," Samantha said and started looking frantically, but in her panic, missed it. But as soon as he heard the word 'door,' Mr. Bristle began a complete inspection, looking only for that. Eventually he found it, by their feet, covered in ice.
"I think it is here. But I can't tell with the ice. We need to clear it."
PING! A bullet struck the side of the train. Ts'ui nodded and said "Move," and then with a short burst of flame he melted the ice covering the door. As soon as it was gone, Mr. Bristle leaped forward and opened the door, to the insides of the boiler. Again, Ts'ui let loose a torrent of blue flames. More bullets struck the side the train, while the sound of rifle fire grew closer. Still the great cat pumped magical flames into the boiler. Then with a groan, there was a hiss of steam and a clang as one of pistons tried to spin the wheels, but the ice outside had done its work as well. Still, Ts'ui blew, and suddenly the metal of the engine itself began to get hot and melt the ice inside the cabin. Soon there was a steady shower of water from the ceiling that drenched the girls, and that began to fog up all the windows.
Suddenly, Mr. Bristle said, I've got to go out there. Ahmed is alone, and you girls are safe here. Don't leave Ts'ui He will watch you, and taking his rifle, the diminutive hedgehog jumped out of the train. Soon the girls could clearly hear the sound of his rifle firing just outside the train.
Both Samantha and Gale looked at one another. Without knowing why, Samantha said over the roar of the fire that Ts'ui was still pouring into the boiler, "They'll be OK. Ahmed is tough and Mr. Bristle is smart. They will be all right." Just as she finished speaking, the train gave a lurch, and with a mighty CRACK, the pistons broke the ice and the wheels started turning.
"We're free!" Gale said, as Ts'ui stopped breathing fire.
"Yes, but what about tracks!" Samantha said, her stomach dropping as she realized that they could not go anywhere. But even as she looked out the window to see what was going on, something else started happening. The pistons began to belch more steam that solidified into track underneath the wheels, and with a lurch, the train began to move. As soon as it did, Gale turned to Ts'ui and yelled, "Get Ahmed and Mr. Bristle!"
The big cat nodded and then sprang from the tender car onto the ground. Outside the rifle fire picked up to such a degree that it sounded like a machine gun, and both Samantha and Gale clutched one another worried. Then suddenly Mr. Bristol came sailing through the engine window and landed in a heap on the floor. As he came to, the girls felt the train give another lurch, as it jerked free the cars behind it, and now they really began to move. Gale looked at her sister, fear clearly etched on her small face. "Where are they?"
Samantha shrugged just as the whole engine shook. Ts'ui was there, with Ahmed in his mouth. He dropped the rhino on the floor and started to say "Let's go," but never got it out. A bullet struck him in the eye and with a yell the great cat with the wolf's fur and fire escaping from his body fell off the train.
Gale screamed and ran forward, trying to save him, but Ahmed, half-conscious grabbed her and said, "No little one. He is gone."
"He can't be," Gale said as she struggled and fought, only giving up when her sister held her and the train put on a burst of speed that blasted it up one of the mountains, heading for the Endless Ocean.
It took a lot of work, but eventually Gale, Samantha, Ahmed, and Mr. Bristle made their way back into the train and found several passenger cars and a dinning car stocked with fresh food and a note that read:
If you are reading this, then you took my advice and saved your friend from the executioner, but he has passed on nevertheless. For that you have my sympathies, but know that you saved him the indignity and ignominy of a criminal's death and gave him the gift of helping you in your time of need. It may not sound fair, but for Ts'ui that is a far kinder fate. Otherwise, I have taken the liberty of provisioning this car. The Endless Ocean is not exactly endless, but it is still much larger and dangerous than you can know. Be careful, watch over one another, and be wary of my mother.
The note was not signed, and while it was mostly straight forward, nobody could guess what the part about her mother meant. But as the train continued on, it blew it's magical tracks over the first of the waves, and unbeknownst to those on the train, that one action alerted one of the oldest creatures in all of Thurftlas. She rose up out of the ocean to face the light that only she could see. It was a light made by a train engine that would bring untold change with it. The woman smiled as she thought of that. Change was something that did not happen enough in her option, and as the water that made her dress flowed back into the endless ocean, she smiled. The next week or two would be very important indeed.