by Jesse Zimmerman

Part Two 

“Welcome home,” we sisters say to one another as we step out of the archway.

I immediately recognize the scape, the slug in my brain, the one that grants me instant recollection of everything I ever learned, reminds me. We are inside the walls of Silver Coast. The splashing of fountains is the first thing I hear and the second thing I see after the immense cobbled square, the entrance of the city, as it was when we left though maybe only a third of its usual crowd. It must be because the city is cut off from itself; the four canals, as we learned before entering, are seemingly on fire, magic fire. The whole city is cordoned off into its four major quadrants; we are in the Southeast, our home is in the Northwest.

As we walk from the walls things become busier. A few crowds of pedestrians pass through markets, and I’ve counted at least a dozen carriages drawn by burdensome beasts, many belonging to merchants either heading towards or leaving these busy markets. We consider buying some food as we look upon sultry flat-breads, fruity pastes, and honeyed syrups, along with steaming pies and buttery biscuits, but we opt to instead eat the leftovers the villagers gave us back at the mountainside hamlet. As I bite into the stale-ish bread I think of the contrast between that place and here, even if the crowds are not as large as usual. As we munch Sister leads, taking a turn down a narrower way. On our left side stretches a row of two-storey buildings, and at our right side there are numerous houses, many stacked together, some four or five stories.

I can see a few of the tallest spires in the distance to the North and West-ish, beyond this quadrant. Ever since I was really little those sky-piercing towers gave me a sense of lofty majesty, especially on a clear day or at night when the lights from within make them appear as star-filled themselves. Mother’s library is among some of those towers, further to the Northwest, the campus district. I feel annoyed that I cannot now waltz in, step on through the great sunny atrium and find a desk to get lost in a tome or two, or at the very least take a long nap in my old room. Sadly, we might not even be able to see Mother for some time still. We have left the corridors between structures and are in another square. Here there are two fountains, one at either end of the wide space, each with a bronze fish-shaped spout.

“The most crowded place I’ve seen in weeks, yet I’ve never seen the place so uncrowded!” Fauna says as we move along between more market stalls. These are largely small wooden desks or portable carts that folks have set up. I see some with jewellery, others with tools, and more than a few with glass bottles, some with water, milks, and a few of bright colours, potions, all beautiful and some obviously magical.

I remember this place, recalling having come here more than once with Sister or friends, usually after classes were done. We were younger and interested in buying shiny stuff with whatever coinage we had, and then we’d go northward to a place called The Slope for some entertainment. The Slope is at the edge of this Southeast Quadrant, right where the four canals meet. There is an X shaped series of bridges that connect them all.

“Where are we going to stay for the night if we can’t get home?” I ask Fauna once we’ve reached the middle of the square. Looming over us is a silver statue of a tall javelin that rises thirty feet in the air. I recall the history, but am too preoccupied. By now the light of the sun has faded and the lights of the city are taking over.

“Have you ever slept on the street?” she asks playfully as we come to one of the many benches sprawled out around the spear statue. I place my backpack on it and Fauna does the same with hers.

“Before meeting the Challenger I wouldn’t have considered it,” I say of our ranger friend. “We’ve toughed it in the bush and mountains, but for the last few days and nights all I’ve thought about is sleeping somewhere cushy!”

“Me too! Maybe an inn?” says Sister, unfastening the strings on her pack and rummaging through coins and mushrooms. A crowd passes by, some stragglers at the back decked out fully in dark red robes. Small children play in the nearby pools, some of their nearby mothers calling them out as it is getting darker.

“Shell house?” I ask her, suddenly recalling the strange term.

“Huh?” asks Fauna, raising an eyebrow into her cap.

“Remember? The guard at the front? ‘You’re not with one of those shell houses, are you?’ she asked us? What did that mean?”

“Oh,” says Fauna, closing up her bag and placing it onto her back again. “Well, you have the slug in your head, what does it tell you?”

“Nothing,” I answer, shrugging. “I never heard of ‘shell houses’ before. They must be new, something that happened since we left.”

“Well, Qilla also told you there is another brain slug somewhere in the city, so lots of weird things going on?” Sister says. “We have some coins, maybe an eccentric innkeeper will take some glow mushrooms? Best brassy inns are in the Entertainment District, centre of town near the Slope.”

I catch the glint of emergent moonlight in the surface of the silvery javelin monument and I ask her: “Do you have any friends in the area?”

“We don’t talk anymore, she knows why. An inn looks like our best wager,” she says, flicking a curl of red hair from her face. “Unless we can figure a way over the fire.”

“If no one else has figured a way I doubt we can,” I say.

She smiles. I can read her expression: she thinks after all we’ve lived through that we can find a way and I wonder if she may be right, but I’m doubtful. I know already that magic fire that burns on a body of water cannot be doused by water, so my water rod is useless here. Maybe I can use the Mighty Magnet to bring down a massive building and squelch… no, I won’t be doing that.

“Well,” Sister says, glancing about the semi-crowded square. “To the Slope. From there we’ll figure out what to do.” With these words she mimics pulling out her sword from her belt, though not really, because it’s an unwise move in a crowded urban space. She points her arm instead to what she thinks is North.

I curtly nod, noticing, as a procession of red robes moves from my sight, a single horsed cart that is idle against a lamppost. Its conductor is slowly crawling up the side, lifting their small body shawled in black. There is a snug-looking bench positioned in the back. I look to my sister and she immediately knows what I’m thinking.

“We have coin and mushrooms, take your pick or both!” she calls as we make our way through the shifting crowd.

The cart-driver looks down, having just set down upon the front perch. This is an older one, one I cannot tell is man or woman, not that it matters. The cart-driver’s eyes are piercing and they have a withered long face that looks to be partly scowling.

“Where to?” they grumble, nodding toward the backseats.

Fauna places a handful of coins and glowing fungi aside the conductor, cautioning to eat neither as she reaches for the side rail and pulls herself into the back. I follow nearly as gingerly, ourselves and our belongings soon nestled nicely.

“To the Slope please,” says my sister.

“Why the red?” the cart-driver asks her as the horse begins to trot.

“My favourite!” she answers.

The driver conducts the horse to start galloping once we’re clear and I feel a breeze as the heads of the crowd float by like ice floes on a frozen river. We move from the square down a wide alleyway between squat buildings. There are fences in front of many of them, these open shops and lavish homes. The cart turns into another aisle, this one more cobbled than the last, sending the cart into a frenzy of tittering movements, prompting me to reach for the rail. There are stone balconies a few feet overhead, whole rows of them zipping by, dangling flowery vines smacking against our faces. Next we are moving uphill on a more even street. Overhead at the summit is a stout chocolate brown-bricked structure. The cart-driver takes us along its side for a while before scurrying around another corner.

Sister gasps. Beyond her side of the cart stands a blackened structure. We can see that the bricks are bright red where they are not charred with soot. A single crumpled chimney sits atop a collapsed roof and one wall has fallen over, revealing a smashed interior as we whiz past it.

“Shell house,” utters the cart-driver with a dry laugh.

“And what was a shell house?” asks Fauna, taking off her cap, placing it on her lap. I lower mine too.

“You two not from around here?” comes the response.

“Underground,” my sister quickly quips.

“Not been around lately,” I say. “The shell houses, there were none when we left?”

The cart driver tells us: “The shell houses have been popping up since as long as the canal fires burned. There was a bloke by the name of Sharkoo. He came when the fires burned, told the young ones not to be afraid. Some listened. Sharkoo told them the magic fire cannot hurt them, was only an illusion.”

“Sharkoo?” I echo. “Such strange named beings we’ve met already!”

“Slug-Lord, Lobster-Man, the Straw Man, Gemmok, Bub!” Sister lists some of our previous rogues’ gallery with a giggle.

“Yeah,” I agree. “So Sharkoo started these shell houses?”

The cart driver nods. “They began popping up here and there, small at first. So many were confused, angry about the fires.”

“The fires, what caused them?” Fauna asks the driver.

“Ah, you really have been gone a while!” the driver says while extending a hand to their front. We see the semi-distant wall of reddish fire. The cart turns onto a large wide road. There are some people walking along the sides here. The buildings here are larger, five storeys mostly.

“It’s said that they leaked from the Zoma warehouses,” says the driver solemnly, a hint of anger in their voice.

“Zoma?” asks Sister.

“I remember them,” I say, recalling with the help of the slug. “They were starting up when we left, delivering letters and goods throughout Silver Coast. Named after the Zoma Rainwood in the South.”

The cart-driver nods and grunts. “They are destitute after this. Everyone knows it was their mistake caused this. We traded safety for convenience, aye? You girls wanted to be dropped at the Slope?”

Fauna gets out first, thanking them for the ride and information. Here we stand in a semi-crowded square as the cart drives off. A thickly set inn is near, just across the small way. My sister tells me that she will grab us a room and negotiate a good price. I give her my belongings, save my magnet and water rod, telling her to store them beneath a bed and to meet me at the Slope. It’s nearby, across the way.

The crowd becomes a little thicker near the canal. The Slope is built on an old hill, its surface covered in flat stone. It juts upward, this large semi-circular shape that seats around thirty, into the nearby canal, the X-shaped bridges just beyond it, accessible from the sides of the Slope. It is like a raised amphitheatre, a stage. I can see the flames licking the air a fair twenty feet or so above the waters beyond. I move to stand at the edge of the canal where only a brass rail separates me from the burning waters. I’ve never seen anything like this. The flames burn high, as tall as five of me, everywhere the water flows. Beyond I can see spires and stouter structures. To my left the bridges start, and I can see the canal meeting another channel, not far from here the four of them criss-cross and that’s where the bridges also cross over. The fires, I can see, have overwhelmed the stone bridges. We cannot cross over there, no way.

“This must be some twisted magic experiment gone seriously wrong!” says someone nearby. I see there are two young boys looking to be near my age standing further along the rail. The one who just spoke has short dirty blondish hair, not unlike the Challenger. At his belt is a small bug catcher net, must be a collector. The other is a bit taller with darker hair that runs to his shoulders. Both are wearing plain brownish clothes, tunics and breeches.

“Well, I heard it was Zoma’s excess fuel,” says the lanky one, shaking his head. I look away when the first one who spoke glances over at me. I see now that there is a small crowd filling up the little stools on the wide end of the semi-circle that is the Slope.

“Come on,” he says to the other. “Carma’s show starts!”

“Flora!” my sister calls. She bears a great smile. “We got a giant-sized room! They took the rest of the mushrooms, except this one,” she says, holding a big blue one in her hand. “Also, left the weapons, can’t be out in the street with weapons, they said. Fair! At least we get a nice cushy sleep tonight!”

I feel a bit of joy erupt inside me as I thank her.

“Whoa,” she says, gazing upon the flames.

I nod in answer, and then I look over at the Slope to my right. I see there, standing with her back to the fiery river, a young woman who looks to be maybe a bit older than us. She is decked out in a short purple robe, and has bright red pants, her hair black with silver and pink strands. Like me she wears spectacles, only not as big as mine. She is speaking loudly into a broad horn that expands her voice. Fauna is looking curiously over at her as she hands me a small vial of water while holding one in her other hand, telling me that they are complimentary. We sisters walk over, finding a small set of stools in front of a little round wooden table that resembles a tree stump. The rest of the seats and tables are occupied with folks, many of them young, the two boys I saw earlier at the next table over.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome! I’m Carma!” calls the apparent host, the strangely decked out young woman, a great smile upon her roundish face. The fire burns directly behind her. None of the audience seems fazed by it, likely adjusted to it by now.

Fauna takes a drink of the water. “Ah!” she says in refreshment. “I miss this city.”

“Okay, so we’ve got some jokes, some stories, and a special guest tonight!” cries Carma, raising her free hand in a friendly wave.

“Who’s the guest?” calls the dirty blonde-haired boy from the table over from us. Some snickers rise up among the assembled.

“You came here to find out! Our guest tonight, even though he’s been called ‘the enemy of the people of Silver Coast’, and is said to be very dangerous, I thought it would be good to extend a peace token and bring him over here! Please welcome Sharkoo!”

We sisters both gasp, others in the assembled crowd following.

“Wait? What?” someone shouts from a few tables over, and then a silence overwhelms the space as I take notice of a group of red cloaked figures approaching from behind the seats—a small crowd of these along with a taller figure: this being is easily the height of three of me, he too decked in a long red cloak, towering over his underlings. He throws back his hood and I see a big crimson head, the head of a shark, its jaws set open in a frozen shriek. Between rows of knife-like teeth I see two red eyes and I realize this is only a costume.

“You know he is dangerous yet you bring him here?” my sister suddenly shouts to the one called Carma at the front of the little stage.

“Well!” she laughs in reply, speaking into the horn. “My plan is to mock him while he’s here! Hey Sharkoo! Made anyone leap into fire lately? Ha ha!”

The one called Sharkoo seems to peer beyond the fake jaws at us sisters for a moment before patting one of the shorter robed figures on the back. I just know something bad is on the verge of happening.

same shark zine, same shark website...

The whole run of Jesse Zimmerman's Challenger stories is now available in book and ebook from Amazon

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