The distant clattering of trays on marble floors awoke Rum. He jolted upright in bed, drenched in a sweat, frantic eyes searching his room. Outside, crickets chittered peacefully in the balmy Galantian air. His room was silent, his manuscripts untouched on his desk. From somewhere down below in the kitchens, came the sound again, clanging pots and cabinets being rummaged through.
Still wiping the sleep from his eyes, Rumma von Adilstan slipped on a pair of cushion-soft slippers. He'd had a busy day of walking up and down flights of stairs- well, really one staircase if he was being honest. His joints ached from all the exercise, and the soft slippers were a comfort for his worn and tired feet. But it was as the commoners said- no pain, no gain.
Quietly, Rum padded his way down the stairs towards the kitchens. Who could it be, in the middle of the night no less? Still, the voice was familiar... it was almost as if he'd heard it long ago...
Sneaking toward the flickering lantern-lit kitchen he could just make out the imposing figure at the counter, butcher knife high in the air. With a heavy thwack, violent enough to make the tiles vibrate beneath Rum's feet, the figure brought the blade down.
Rum blinked, standing in the doorway. The bulky figure turned to face him.
Theo von Adilstan, warrior-poet, chiseled-bard, slamming hunk of man-meat with a beard, turned to look dismissively at his son. In his fist he held a juicy drum-stick, fresh from a very probably endangered animal. The bard, over six feet tall, wavered drunkenly on his feet for a moment before his eyes adjusted, taking in his weedy son.
"Oh. Rumma," Theo began, tearing a chunk of meat from the bone. "I didn't know you'd be here at this hour."
Rum looked around at the ransacked kitchen. "But... this is our home. It's where I sleep?"
"Yes, well, you're getting to the age where I thought you'd be spending nights abroad. Perhaps with a broad. Do you see what I just did there?" Theo tapped the drumstick against his forehead for emphasis. "Wordplay."
Rum nodded uncomfortably. His father had already forgotten him, turning to roam around the kitchen in search of more food. "I uhm, thought you were still abroad?"
"I just got in. Do you know if there's any more wine? I had a poem in my head that's been coalescing since my hike through the peaks of Kitkatmandu. I need a strong red, to bind it together." Theo paused. "Or a white, if we're all out of red. Really, any intoxicating substance will have the binding properties I'm after."
Rum watched his father stumble around the kitchen. Not for the first time, he felt a heaviness between them, an uncomfortable distance. It reminded him of having to ask a stranger for directions, or writing a card to a sick friend. A general fumbling in the dark made all the worse by the awareness that tons of other people weren't fumbling in the dark with their close family members.
"Dad?" Rum asked the question only a decibel above a whisper, but he knew how good his father's hearing was. His last epic poem had been transcribed while riding on the back of a red rhino within the Screaming Jungles of Skreel, at the very edge of the sprawling Yellow Haven Empire. A jungle of life or death, where your fate could rest entirely on differentiating the buzzing of flies from the roar of a cannibal chainsaw-dwarf.
Theo heard and ignored him, stuffing his face with food. Rum tried again, a bit louder. "Uhm, Dad? How was the trip?"
"Trip? Oh, it was fine. You'll read all about it soon. Everyone will."
"Do you think... maybe the next go, that is to say, if I'm not being too presumptious..." Rum swallowed, getting the words straight in his head. "Maybe I could come along?"
There. It was out in the open. The desperate wish that had been kicking around inside his head for the past year as his father's exploits filtered back from abroad. Theo turned and gave his son a good look as he chewed, a found goblet of wine in his hand.
"Well..." Theo began. His voice had a particular, negative timber. Rum braced for impact. "It's not that you can't come along. It's that you aren't ready, Rumma."
He'd prepared counters and run the conversation through his head over and over. He'd expected this exact scenario- but it was still disheartening to reach it. "Honestly, I think I'm really not retaining anything new in Bard School. I need to be out there, in the field! How am I supposed to learn my craft if it's limited to the classroom?"
Rum had prepared this as the opening salvo in what he'd assumed to be a long, drawn-out battle. But his father deflected it almost instantly, waving the drumstick as if to blow his words out of the air. It was almost as if he'd achieved the exact opposite of his intention- his plea had been so bad he'd suffered an instant loss.
"Listen, Rumma. I get you want to go out, see the world- but it'll eat you alive. It very probably will ALWAYS eat you alive, considering your muscle mass." Theo said decisively. He seemed to consider the despairing slouch of his son's shoulders, and continued. "Listen. There's an old von Adilstan challenge. Find the answer and I'll consider bringing you along with me."
Rum was more attentive than he'd ever been in his life. His tongue was poised, assuming the ready position. What would he need to do? Spit a sonnet? A limerick? He braced himself as his father breathed in deep.
"There are five words to describe a sunset. Proper words- the only RIGHT words to use. So answer me, Rumma von Adilstan. What five words should you use to describe a sunset?"
Rum's lips retreated back into his mouth for fear of stuttering out the wrong answer. Still pulling himself from half-sleep he felt his body trembling under the sudden pressure. But this was what it was like out in the real world. You didn't get a week to study for a test, arrange your poetry, write draft after draft. It was all in the decisive moments like this- life by the knife's edge. It was a good thing he knew just what to say. He was, after all, the son of Theo von Adilstan, one of the greatest warrior-bard's to ever sail the Foggy Ocean. A wordsmith of unmatched manly energy, of chiseled chin and heart-breaking sonnet.
Yes, it was a good thing he... absolutely knew what to say...
Rum crouched low in the bushes, bottling his knees up close to his chin. It made him feel very small and tiny. He tried very hard to not think about the burning pirate ship, and everything else that would burn on a pirate ship. Like people.
It wasn't working. He tried some deep breathing exercises. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in the smell of smoke, breathe out. Breathe in the scent of a dragon, breathe out.
"Wow, real mess you got in here, huh?" came a voice. Rum blinked and looked up.
Floating before him was the cyclopean ghost. Rum didn't know how- but even with one eye, the ghost looked smug. "Bet you wish you hadn't stabbed me, huh?"
Rum gaped. "Are you... dead?"
The cyclops rolled its eye. "Yes. I know this is a bit of a surprise, but I've actually been dead this entire time. Hence the floating. And being see-through."
"But didn't I kill you? I stabbed you!"
"Just let that concept, of killing a ghost sink into your brain for a minute. Let it just marinate, so you can truly appreciate how dumb you are."
Rum felt the urge to stab the ghost again but batted it away. The ghost sighed and gave him a disparaging look. "I can't for the un-life of me understand why the sword picked YOU of all people."
Rum's eyes grew wide. "What do you mean? Pick me? No I just- I wandered in-"
The ghost shrugged. "The chamber was locked tight and hidden from sight. We burned maps, let our island drift alone in the Foggy Ocean. We ignored every passing ship, letting the jungle overtake our island, destroying all trace except our temple city beneathe the sand. We were stuffed down in that place like it was a bunker meant to withstand the end of the world, and we stayed like that until rumors were all that remained of the sword. Still, our enemies came. Our priests and wizards were tortured and slaughtered in search of it. Pirates and scoundrels tried to beat it out of us, but no one told where the chamber was. They couldn't! Magics would obscure the chamber from your mind- someone unworthy of the sword would walk by its door and never know it was there. It doesn't matter if you have a map, or a key- what does any of that matter if you can't find the door? While I lived I never found the room- but in death, as the guardian of the chamber, I watched you stumble into it. And then you stabbed me."
"I really am sorry about that," Rum said apologetically. "But what about the dragon?"
"Long ago, the last owner of Foam-Cutter came to our island. He'd had enough of the bloodshed, enough of the killing. The weight of the sword was too much for him- as was the weight of his sins. The sword once attached refuses to leave its owners side, but that man found a way- driven mad, driven to his death, aye, but he left the sword with us even knowing that which awaited him. Zayldrieranth was one of his travelling companions. Loyal to the sword, disgusted at the pacifism of his master, he swore to sleep until a new master was found."
"Oh..." Rum said in a squeaky voice. "So he's-"
"Part of the whole package, yes."
"And he wants me to-"
"-continue to lay waste to the rest of the Foggy Ocean I imagine. Wholesale slaughter, that whole deal."
Rum goggled at the thought. Well. I asked for a better bodyguard. Molotov certainly isn't very capable. Isn't this a better decision in the long run? I'll certainly be safer. Unless... unless wholesale slaughter really IS his deal. I don't have the stomach for that... what if he kills me and takes the sword? Can dragons even carry swords? They'd look rather silly with one. Oh, my head...
It was nearly impossible to comprehend, but Rum had to admit it. He'd found an even worse travelling companion than Molotov. Molotov was not very sane, not very smart, not very cool. But he was also not very big, not very violent, and not very scary.
There came a sudden crack, and the shade above Rum vanished as the trees were torn in two. Rum popped his head out in the new sunlight and blinked. Zayldrieranth loomed above him. The dragon's eyes narrowed.
Rum tried a smile. "Oh! Zayl... buddy! Thanks for dealing with the ship! I just uh, came over here to take care of some business. Number two. I'm a shy pooper."
The dragon did not respond. Behind him, Rum could hear the cyclopean ghost laughing. "Alright, just had to pop back to the mortal plane to see this with my own eye. Absolutely worth it. Take care, idiot! Try not to stab anyone else!" The ghost vanished in a puff of ectoplasm.
Rum quivered in place. It was hard to imagine how things could get worse.
Rum peaked around the edge of the dragon. There was a figure making its way down the beach towards him- a figure clad in nothing but a pink speedo, hands and feet tied up with heavy chains. Molotov hopped forward, a dumb look on his face. Rum felt his heart lurch in his chest. Oh no.
Before he could do anything, say anything, the dragon was moving. It whirled around, bringing its head down close to the sand, breathing in deep. Rum was running, hands waving wildly in the air- but it wouldn't be enough.
The dragon let out a breath, and enveloped Molotov in flames.