Back on Earth, all the way up Creakylid’s entrance ladder, and deep within the mountain temple, Nikolo Spinner finished the final report from his ‘most important’ pile, picked up the customs report, and started reading.
His eyes widened. Trunk Expansion! Alarm bells rang in his head. Just like Creakylid itself! He quickly scanned the rest of the report, shot to his feet, flung open his door, and rocketed down the hall, passing several startled aids as he went. He bolted through the customs queue, rushed past the surprised documentation ladies, shoved past the line waiting to climb into Creakylid with the strength of an ageing but still fearsome bull, and, with the assistance of the guards, scrambled down the ladder and onto the beach below.
“Grand Mage?” asked a shocked dock master.
Nikolo didn’t pause to catch his breath. “Richard Struggle. Has he left yet?”
The dock master checked her papers. “Yes, Grand Mage. He caught the boat twenty minutes ago.”
Nikolo tutted, ran a frustrated hand through his shoulder-length red hair, took a deep, recovering breath, and turned to an aide who’d had the presence of mind to follow his breakneck dash across the temple. “Make me out a top priority letter to be sent to Samuel Peterson, dock master of The Second Island.”
The aid produced a clipboard.
“Samuel,” Nikolo started dictating, “Please see to it that Mister Richard Struggle doesn’t leave The Second Island until I’ve had a chance to speak to him. I will be visiting the island for business next Thursday. Signed Nikolo Maximillian Spinner.”
The aide looked up. “Should we give Mister Struggle a reason for his waylayment?”
Nikolo tugged thoughtfully at his short beard. “No… I don’t think so, just keep him there.”
“As you wish, Grand Mage.”
“Mmm… and do we have any good woodworking tools or anything of that nature lying around?”
“Oh, yes, Grand Mage, many.”
“Then please see to it that a care package is made up for our hopefully soon-to-be new friend.”
“Yes, Grand Mage.” The aide finished the letter, folded it up, and waved it at a nearby, cheerful-looking female mage.
The mage deftly plucked it from the aide’s fingers, shoved it into a waterproof satchel strapped around her body, ran to the end of the pier, took a running jump off the edge, and transformed into a dolphin mid-dive, hitting the water with a splash and a series of delighted dolphin clicks and whistles.
“Dolphin!” Elizabeth pointed over the railing, causing an interested murmur from the other passengers.
The dolphin shot out of the water, clearly displaying the satchel it carried, did an enthusiastic double jump aside the boat, and surged forward again, passing the boat’s helm and vanishing into the water ahead of them.
The passengers clapped and cheered around them. One man hoisted a little girl onto his shoulders for a better look.
“Oh,” Elizabeth said, looking slightly disappointed. “A whisperer.”
Richard chuckled. That explained the letter-holding dolphin sign back at the village. He watched the trail in the water made by the retreating mage. “Still awesome though.”
Elizabeth nodded then drew back sharply, apparently startled by something. She leaned in towards him. “Richard,” she whispered urgently, “your trunk is glowing.”
Richard jerked his head down. There was indeed a faint glow coming from his trunk. His stomach lurched.
“Is it supposed to do that?” she asked with narrowed eyes.
“Err… it’s probably nothing,” he said, opening up the trunk and rummaging around inside. That glow was familiar. He’d seen it once before, three years ago, and hadn’t thought he’d see it ever again. His fingers closed on ‘the book’ and withdrew it from the trunk, focused now on nothing else.
Somewhere near him, someone said something.
Another message from his mother? He opened it up and found that a new page had been filled in.
You should now have left Earth and entered Creakylid. Well done! Creakylid has so many amazing things to discover. I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time. You know where might be particularly interesting to explore? North! I hear there’s a lot going on that way. Why don’t you go in that direction? 🙂
What the fuck? Richard stared at the words in confusion. North? His mother wanted him to go north? He wasn’t going north. He was going east. He wasn’t even sure you could go north. He hadn’t even heard of any boats that went in that direction. It was supposed to be un-navigable.
“Richard?” Elizabeth’s voice finally filtered through to him. He looked up to see her looking at him with mild suspicion.
Opps. He must have looked quite troubled to get that response. “It’s nothing,” he said, putting the no-longer glowing book back in his trunk.
She didn’t look convinced, but didn’t pursue the matter.
Richard tried to put the strange request out of his head, but found it difficult. Really, who did his mother think she was? Well, his mother, obviously, but she’d never even been in his life before. He didn’t know anything about her. All he had were two small messages written in a magic book. On the other hand, her first message had been incredibly helpful and he was grateful for it. But he already had plans and going north was not in them. He really wanted to meet Susie and see the dragons. That was what he wanted.
The boat continued to plough through the water, gently rising and falling to the waves and the wind. The island, previously only faintly visible in the distance, was much closer now. Exotic trees covered the gently sloping land, rising all the way up to a small hilltop in the island’s centre.
“Oh, look there,” Elizabeth called.
Richard glanced at her before following her pointing finger. “A shipwreck?” he asked. What looked like a half-decayed shell of a boat lay tilted on its side, stuck on a much smaller patch of rock now distinct from the main island. He looked questioningly towards the nearest nitrogen elemental — a brown-haired woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties.
“Yeah,” the woman said, her hands still held up in the air, “We messed that up a bit.” Her expression looked somewhat sheepish. “Not that it was my fault.”
“Oh, was it not?” called a playful voice from the other side of the boat. The elementals’ one male mage grinned at his colleague. “So, it wasn’t you that was hungover?”
“That had nothing to do with it, and you know it!” She looked back to Richard. “Ignore him. I just happened to have had a long night beforehand. It was the captain who didn’t call out the correct directions.”
Richard nodded and leaned back against the railings again. That was exactly the sort of reason why heading north would be a bad idea.
Soon enough, they left the shipwreck island behind and sailed around the tip of a long peninsula. He couldn’t help notice that as soon as they hit the peninsula’s tip, the tree line stopped as abruptly as the wrecked ship must have, to be replaced by flat fields filled with waving wheat.
His gaze slid from the untouched forest to the now visible bay.
A murmur of appreciation sounded around them.
“Wow,” Elizabeth said.
Wow was right. The bay stretched off in a long graceful curve, white sanded and dotted with wood buildings and small piers. Most of the buildings lay towards the centre of the bay, and, at the very middle, stood a tall wood building with a bell tower. It looked like something from a fantasy painting.
The bell tower bell donged five times as they neared. The sun was starting to fall.
“Welcome to The Second Island!” shouted the lone male nitrogen elemental. “Please enjoy your hopefully short stay!”
Once down the gangplank, Richard offered Elizabeth his hand to help her off.
She looked away again. “I have working feet and hands, thank you.”
He withdrew the hand and smiled politely instead. Was that a faint blush on Elizabeth’s cheeks or was she just hot from wearing so much?
“Right,” he said, once they stood on dry land. “What shall we do first? Find out about tickets out of here?” He remembered the glowing message from his mother. “Tickets going east,” he added in a firm voice that caused Elizabeth to give him an odd look. All around them, their fellow passengers bustled off in different directions.
“Yes.” Elizabeth nodded her head. “Let’s do that.”
Just to make life easy for them, the ticket office was located all the way on the other side of the docks. Several boats apart from theirs were also unloading cargo at the piers scattered along the waterfront — mostly food by the looks of it.
The town appeared to be laid out like a large T. The docks ran along the coast and a single long street speared into the island from the middle, possibly all the way to the island’s central hill. Along the way they passed all sorts of interesting things — inns and taverns by the dozen, the large wooden bell tower that had welcomed them to the island, a dozen young mages all helping to carry a long wooden beam to one of the unfinished buildings, and a large open space with all manner of stalls set up — a market.
After three years of hunting vintage tools in such places up and down the country, Richard couldn’t help but drag both his eyes and his feet as they passed.
One stall sold metal cutlery. Another seemed to sell nuts and seeds of every type imaginable. Yet another happily took old Earth money and converted it to Creakylid’s new currency — the chad — at rates that made Richard insanely thankful he’d only brought trade goods.
Richard spotted the man from the boat with the dolphin watching daughter haggling with one of the stall keepers. Much like many of the other stall keepers, he held himself like a big fish in a small pond — puffer fish, in his case — round like a sphere of polished stone, much like some of the bosses Richard had worked for back at the builders’ yard. All around the man lay all manner of wooden objects — spoons, bowls, coffee tables, and many others, all immaculately carved into works of art that took Richard’s breath away. One object in particular drew his appreciation — a chair with a sleeping dragon carved all along the backrest, looking eerily like the dragon he’d seen in Susie’s crystal ball memory. Around the back of the stall, Richard noticed a middle-aged woman wearing a red, long-sleeved shirt that had been rolled up to her shoulders, whittling away at a block of wood with a wickedly sharp looking knife. Was she the one who did all those carvings? Maybe they could have a chat about them… he’d always wondered about—
“C’mon, Richard,” Elizabeth called impatiently back to him. “We can do shopping afterwards.”
Richard reluctantly tore his gaze away from the stall and back to the dockside. Elizabeth was right, of course, and quickly proven even more so as, by the time they got to the ticket office, there was already a small crowd surrounding it.
They examined the large sign outside.
Priority tickets to Ophelia Island [East] and Coral Island [West] — 150 chad.
Please note: Once you have left The Second Island, you may NOT return until after the great migration is complete. Tickets are NON-refundable.
If you cannot afford a priority ticket, you may sign up to the daily lottery. Seats not yet sold will be awarded to winning individuals at 10:00 am each day at the ticket office.
Richard frowned. That made no sense.
“A lottery?” Elizabeth asked next to him. “Why? Why not a waiting list instead? Having a lottery is just dumb.”
Richard shrugged. “I guess they must have a reason.”
Elizabeth caught his eye. “Are you getting a priority ticket?”
Richard chuckled. “Sure am. I’m not waiting around here for who knows how long. Besides, I’ve got places to be.” He made to head back to the market — the one place they could get money for the tickets, but hesitated. “What about you?”
Elizabeth sniffed and turned to catch up with him. “As it happens, yes, I also intend to buy one.”
On closer inspection, most of the market stalls were little more than aluminium frames covered with rough cloth. The throng from the boat had grown since they’d last past, but it still had the feel of a lesser known country fair back on Earth. Richard and Elizabeth stood at the entrance over which a banner had been hung which proclaimed, ‘The Second Island Market — Buying all Earth goods! Selling all Creakylid wares!’
They made their way through the stalls until they found the one that changed money — the one that Richard had spotted before. Above the stall was a large symbol of a tree surrounded by a circle.
“Pounds, dollars, euro, or other?” asked the woman behind the counter.
“Pounds,” Elizabeth said.
Richard then watched in pain as Elizabeth forked over several thousand pounds and received a bag of just under one thousand chad in return, along with a much lighter bag filled with their new smaller currency, the wick.
“Well, not all of us can carry a literal crate of stuff across their shoulder,” Elizabeth grumbled, clearly catching his pained expression.
Richard nodded in sympathy. It couldn’t be helped, of course. Earth money had to be all but useless to everyone except the council, and would be useless even to them, once the great migration was over.
They made a quick tour through the market, making notes on the prices of various goods, before finding their way to one proclaiming itself as, ‘The Creakylid Trading Company.’
“I wasn’t aware the council had set up laws for limited liability companies,” Richard said to the man standing behind the stall’s counter.
The man grinned a sheepish grin and rubbed the back of his head. “Ah — they haven’t — not really — not yet, anyway — just a nod to Earth really. I was an accountant — but hey.“ He rubbed his hands together. “This is a new world, yes?” He grinned another wide grin that seemed just a bit too eager and leaned towards him and Elizabeth. “My name is Amid Mastafud. Do you have goods to sell?”
Richard and Elizabeth glanced at each other before Richard answered, “Cigarettes.”
The man rubbed his chin. “I can buy cigarettes, certainly. Two chad a pack is what I can do.”
Elizabeth scowled. “That man over there sells them for ten.”
Amid’s smile faulted somewhat before he continued, a little more tired and a little less jubilant. “Four then.”
The back and forth continued for a while until they’d nailed Amid down to eight chad a pack. Since each chad was supposed to be equivalent of one US dollar, that put Richard at a little under double his original investment — not bad.
“And how many do you have to sell?” Amid asked.
“125,” Richard said, and at Amid’s look of mild confusion, added, “125 packs.”
Elizabeth shot him an appraising look.
Amid whistled. “Did you bring nothing but cigarettes?”
“Oh, no, I brought quite a bit more.” Richard grinned as he opened his trunk, stuck his hand in up to his elbow, found what he was looking for, and withdrew a large eight-pack of cigarettes.
Amid’s eyes widened in shock. “How did you do that?”
“Blood bound spell.”
“Blood bound… you make these?”
Amid’s eyes narrowed. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You might want to talk to a man called Mister Offwood. He’s at the front of the market. You can’t miss him. He’s the large round man who sells carved wood items. He’ll be very interested in this.”
“Was that the guy selling the dragon chair?”
“Yes, that is him. He also supplies all the trade wood for the island.”
Richard whistled and nodded. He wasn’t sure if anything would come of it, but he certainly remembered the large, round man from when they walked past the market earlier. It sounded like this Mister Offwood was also who he’d need to talk to about buying wood for his trunk project if he had time before leaving.
But it didn’t seem like Mister Offwood was the only one who might be interested in his work. As they finished up their business with Amid, many people had gathered around, most if not all pointing excitedly at his trunk.
“We should be going,” Elizabeth whispered. She’d been watching the reaction of the crowd and trader with a thoughtful expression that Richard hadn’t yet seen on her.
“Maybe you should be a bit more careful showing off that trunk,” Elizabeth said, as they made their way back to the ticket office. “You wouldn’t want it stolen. It would be a tempting target, considering just how much stuff you must have in it.”
Richard nodded. “Yeah.” One of his hands firmly grasped the trunk at his side as though someone might run off with it right there and then. Suddenly having a lot of money made the threat seem a lot more real — even if losing his tools and books would be far more devastating. “Yeah, that wouldn’t be good.”
Elizabeth’s countenance had changed since they’d returned from the market. She seemed slightly less quick to glare, slightly more willing to catch his eye. Despite his sudden worry over his trunk, that, at least, felt kinda nice.
A friendly looking man wearing a faded baseball cap ambled up to them from the direction of the ticket office. “You couldn’t spare us a coin, could you? Only need a few more to get out of here.”
Elizabeth snorted. “Oh, I’m sure.”
Richard shot his new friend an amused look before flipping the man a two chad coin, still careful to keep his hand on his trunk. The silvery coin sparkled green and blue in the sun, landing in the man’s grateful outstretched hand.
“Thanks, mate,” the man said before disappearing back into the crowd.
Elizabeth frowned. “I’m not sure you should have done that. If there are more of them, they’ll be all over you.”
Richard shrugged. “I’m sure he was probably what he said he was. He looked decent enough.”
Elizabeth didn’t say anything in response except to give him an odd look. They were soon back in the queue at the ticket office, and not long after that, at the stall window buying two tickets for Ophelia Island.
“The day after tomorrow,” Elizabeth said, inspecting her ticket. “Well, that’s not too bad.”
Richard looked down at his ticket in indignation, his previously good feelings quickly evaporating. “I’ve got one that doesn’t leave until next Friday, what the hell?” He looked up at the clerk on the other side of the window.
“I’m sorry, Mister Struggle, but that’s your ticket and that’s final.”
“Please make way for the next in line, Mister Struggle. If you wish to complain, please do so to the dock master’s office.”
Richard swore and together he and Elizabeth walked away a few steps.
Elizabeth, he thought with surprise, looked a little disappointed. “That’s a shame,” she said.
Damn. He liked being with his new friend, despite her being a bit reserved. He certainly didn’t want to part ways now just because some tiresome clerk couldn’t be bothered to make sure their tickets matched up. Not only that, but if he had to wait so long, he might miss the dragon egg-laying season Susie’s grandfather spoke of. His jaw firmed. “Well, let’s go talk to this dock master, then.”
The dock master, whose desk nameplate proclaimed him to be Samuel Peterson, gazed at Richard over the top of a pile of paperwork with a bored expression. “I’m sorry, Mister Struggle, but the boat schedule is extremely tight. We’re having to deal with a growing backlog caused by having one less boat than we should — one of them crashed six months ago, you know — and we still don’t have a replacement yet. I understand you were hoping to travel with your lady friend, but you’ll just have to wait.”
Elizabeth stood to one side, leaning against a wall with her arms folded.
The dock master’s expression flickered with a momentary glint of amusement. “Of course, you could always go and take up this matter with the local sheriff, but, well, he and I go way back, and I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time if you do. Heh-heh-heh.”
It was the laugh that did it. It burned through Richard’s brain and ignited every ounce of indignation and hatred he’d ever felt. Here was a man who wasn’t the victim of a system that made people into criminals like the boys he and Thomas had sometimes protected their orphan brother and sisters from back on Earth. No, this man was someone in a position of power who simply used that power to bully others without caring a wit for their plight — someone who actually took pleasure in other people’s pain.
His fists balled.
“Richard?” said Elizabeth.
He looked at her and saw a flicker of concerned warning in her eyes. He took a long shaky breath, stood up, waited for her to join him, and, not looking back, walked out of the office.
Once outside, Richard took another long deep breath.
“Are you okay?” Elizabeth asked, her voice making it clear she thought he wasn’t.
Richard looked out across the crystal clear waters of Creakylid. The sun was setting a brilliant orange and the shadows were lengthening. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. It’s just more than a little bit frustrating.”
“We still have a day and a bit before I have to leave,” she said.
Richard turned and smiled at her. In the setting sun, Elizabeth really did look stunning, even if what she wore seemed strategically chosen to try and persuade him otherwise. Somewhere along the road it seemed, she’d gone from, ‘not wanting to travel with him,’ to, ‘wanting to travel with him,’ and that had to count as a win at least. That he could live with. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s go find a place to stay and then go shopping.” He chuckled. “I certainly have no intention of wasting six whole days.” He patted the trunk by his side again. “I have a real trunk to make.”