"A little help here, Rongar!" Doubar grunted in annoyance as he slammed two of the assassins' heads together. The men groaned as unconsciousness soon followed. Doubar unceremoniously dropped them and went on to tackle the next few. He looked up to see the Moor about to be ambushed from behind, with no time to assist Doubar bellowed, "Rongar look out!"
The Moor was too busy trying to understand the engraving on the wall to assist his friends in their continued fight with Sahid and his mercenaries. But when serious danger threatened Rongar turned and drew two dirks from his bandoleer. He wasted no time chucking them out at two charging assassins, striking them both in the chest. They fell to the ground and remained still. Satisfied that they were out of the fight for good, Rongar returned once again to his position by the boulder.
"Just perfect," the first mate muttered as he kicked an incoming assailant. "Now, he decides to use his brains instead of his knives."
"Give him a chance," Mustapha grunted before disarming his opponent. He turned to the Moor, "My friend, are you sure this is a wise choice? An extra man in an uneven fight makes all the difference."
The familiar sound of a hawk's screech and a man's scream cut through the air before Dermott once again ascended into the air. One man was certainly not going to be looking forward to tangling with them again, if he could look at all.
"Or a hawk," Doubar guffawed loudly.
"It's a good idea," Sinbad called to them as he and Sahid traded blows. The lead mercenary was by far the most formidable of the group and the two had personal scores to settle. Sinbad swung high before continuing, "In an uneven match, an added sword may help but a way to escape is better."
"You're not going to escape before I slit yer throat!" Sahid screamed and lunged at an opening in Sinbad's defense.
"Why? Don't like my conversation?" Sinbad jibed and deflected the blade, using Sahid's momentum to push him fully though the lunge. The captain pivoted to avoid the sword's edge when beside him, tripping Sahid by his feet. "I'm truly hurt."
Sahid rolled from where he lay on the ground and swung wildly to literally cut Sinbad's feet out from under him. The captain jumped away and Sahid stood up again. Both returned to their previous fighting stances with swords wavering and stamina eroding.
Sahid muttered a word under his breath that Sinbad couldn't discern, but was probably sure it was directed towards him and involved lots of blood and pain. The mercenary growled, "I won't let you make a fool of me like you did at Azabajar."
"You didn't need my help." Sinbad replied.
Sahid muttered another curse and kicked the dust of the forest trail at Sinbad. The captain didn't anticipate the move and cried out as dirt blinded his eyes. Sinbad's free arm tried to wipe the grit out of his vision while the other arm tried to fend off an assailant blindly. But Sahid would not let an advantage like that go unanswered and swung his scimitar with all of his might to send it careening out of Sinbad's grip.
The captain finally got the dirt out of his eyes, only to find he was weaponless. Without further warning, Sahid lunged and swung at Sinbad's chest, causing the captain to leap back into a crouch.
"You wouldn't mind me taking a break from this unfair fight, would you?" Sinbad panted breathlessly as he tried to sidle near his sword.
Sahid screamed and swung where Sinbad's hand was reaching. The mercenary leader was zealously keeping Sinbad from retrieving his sword, trying to take off any of Sinbad's limbs in the process. Sinbad looked around for another, catching Rongar's attention. Sahid screamed again and started to swing his executioner's blow from where Sinbad was crouched.
A glint of steel flew across the forest as Sinbad caught Rongar's sword and used it to block the oncoming fatal blow.
"Thanks Rongar, I owe you one," Sinbad muttered and pushed Sahid's blade off of his.
A light of sudden understanding seemed to spark in the Moor's dark eyes and Rongar turned back to the boulder. He hurriedly picked up the reed and began to scratch the number one on the outside circles of the pyramid. Rongar's hands became a blur as he continued to scratch the numbers, hitting each circle with precision and quickness like he was throwing his darts again. Like he knew exactly what he was doing.
The rows soon were filling up in orders of, six, fifteen, twenty, fifteen, and on. They grew to twenty-eight, thirty-six, and seventy. Every passing second seemed to let Rongar move faster as he discovered the secret and proceeded to the lower rows. After a minute the entire slate was filled with numbers, random at first glance and then the awareness that there was some code beneath it. The Moor reached up on his tiptoes and scratched the final number one on the apex of the riddle’s pyramid.
As soon as the reed lifted off the stone a loud grinding was heard. The clash of rock against rock made Rongar step back in surprise as the numbered circles descended into niches behind their markings, leaving empty circular holes. The pyramid seemingly collapsed in on itself with the lines connecting the holes, swallowing the remaining granite and left an open triangular passageway. Rongar smiled in satisfaction and waved to Mustapha who had just finished his previous opponent.
The scruffy sailor turned to his companions and shouted, "Hey you guys! Rongar opened the passageway!"
The mercenaries still standing from the conflict seemed to lose whatever resolution they had on continuing the fight. Those that could still run did so in haste, leaving the dead and unconscious behind. Sahid screamed in fury calling taunts and curses to his deserted troops.
"You cowards! Sons of goats who still suckle your mother's tits!" Sahid ranted, "A thousand deaths be upon you for deserting your leader!"
"Still want to fight?" Sinbad asked, his own sword in hand, with the rest of the crew flanking him.
Sahid turned back, a rabid snarl on his lips. "Those superstitious cowards have deserted me in fear of our patron for good reason. If you enter that passageway, you won't survive." The mercenary leader picked up a dagger from one of his dead men and chucked it at Sinbad's feet. Sinbad didn't flinch. "But if you do manage to survive like the lucky mongrel you are, count on seeing me again."
Without another word Sahid turned and ran, disappearing into the trees the same way his men did.
"I wish you had finished him off, little brother," Doubar muttered and moved through the passageway first. He set foot down in a gravel entrance, the cavern opening to a larger vein. "People like that always come back to haunt you."
Sinbad looked up and let Dermott fly through to perch on an outcropping. The bird chirped as if to tell them to hurry and Sinbad smiled faintly at the sight. "What's more important? Making sure that man is dead or our two friends are still alive?"
"I know, I know," the large man conceded, "I would do anything to get those two out first, but I still can't help but hope that he gets in the way of my sword as we do. He's too dangerous to be left free."
"Understood," Sinbad said and continued to lead them down the passageway. The cavern's rocky surface began to smooth out, and the surroundings became distinctly man-made. The walls were smoothed down and polished. A level floor of panels was constructed underneath the disappearing gravel that spiraled upwards to a lighted opening.
"Whoever lives here has a lot of gold to spend," Mustapha remarked at the tapestries that began to cover the walls more frequently. Rongar stepped beside his friend and looked warily at the pictures on the cloths. The Moor shook his head and turned Mustapha away from it.
"What I want to know is why those mercenaries left us in the lurch," Doubar mumbled. "They work for this guy but they don't even go inside to collect their payments? It doesn't add up!" To emphasis his point the first mate banged on the nearby wall.
A loud echoing band resounded through the hallway. The rest of the Nomad crew stopped in their tracks. Sinbad and Doubar exchanged looks as the echo became louder.
"What the blazes is that?" Doubar remarked.
"You probably set some alarm off, big guy," Mustapha grumbled, "Why can't you ever learn the meaning of the word 'discreet'?"
Rongar inched forward and unsheathed a dirk. His face was set in a solemn stare, the one preparing for battle. It was silent reaction of his friends to draw their swords in turn. The clanking still rang, new strikes against the floor increasing so the crew could barely hear over the din. A glint of gold against metal as something rounded the corner aroused their suspicions and all the men took cover. It was a good thing they had already hidden themselves in shadows for what sight greeted them made every one of them stand still in shock.
The metal soldiers that had taken Maeve and Firouz clanked down the hallway with their eyes glowing in that unholy light. Suddenly, the battalion stopped in front of the corridor the Nomad crew was hiding in. The leader turned and picked up his pace, heading straight for where Rongar stood.
"Now men!" Sinbad shouted as the four charged into the ranks.
The Moor started first by ramming a dagger into his opponent's left eye. The machine whirred distractedly in response. Rongar smiled faintly before he felt the automaton's hands reach up and grab his arms, one eye still glowing balefully as it pulled him close and rammed him against the wall.
Mustapha slipped away from the one machine he was trying to keep at bay with his sword and ran to Rongar's aid. The shorter man threw his weight into the machine's knee joint. He was hoping to catch it off balance and topple it but it proved about as useful as throwing yourself against a metal pole. The remaining machines grabbed Mustapha from his vulnerable position on the floor and picked him up in their inescapable clutches.
"Get off of me you scrap metal rejects!" Mustapha growled and tried to squirm his way out of their hold, prying the immovable metal fingers on his arm. "I'm going to tear you apart just on principle when I get out of this!"
Doubar would have laughed had he heard it, but the burly man caught a deafening blow to his ear and one side of his face was beginning to leak out blood. Three of the machines were ganging up on him in what looked to be a strategic move since Doubar was supposedly the biggest threat of the crew for his strength.
The first mate took out Firouz's satchel and began to swing it around like a sling. He caught one of the machines on the head and it staggered back from the loss of balance. Doubar chuckled despite the blood trickling over his left eye. "Now this is an invention of Firouz's I can understand!"
Sinbad looked on to see his crew decimated by the machines in such easy strides. The captain had flung himself deepest in the imbroglio, throwing kicks and swings trying to provoke them away from his friends. But they didn't follow his bait the way other opponents did, and he soon found himself able to only defend himself.
"Big brother!" Sinbad shouted in concern to where the three automatons had backed Doubar up into a corner. He had given up in swinging the satchel and now resorted to the force his broken cutlass could do against their armored skin.
Darting away from the machine trying to grab him, Sinbad leapt with a two-footed kick to knock one of the machines down and give Doubar a way out. The ploy worked, and Doubar ran through the temporary opening. He took one of the machine's arms and swung it hard into the wall, hearing a satisfying clang as the collision left the machine staggering.
"Get back," Doubar ordered in one of the rare moments he let his big brother instincts take over. The first mate was in more pain than his movements let on as he pushed Sinbad back from the close quarters the machines were corralling them. Sinbad was about to push through his brother’s defense in order to try and rescue the unconscious Mustapha but Doubar held him fast.
Realizing it would do no good to fight his brother in addition to their enemies, Sinbad relented. "We can't take them in these close quarters. We better go back and pull them out in the open if we're going to do anything…" his voice trailed off and he stared at Rongar and Mustapha as they were hoisted to be taken away.
Doubar forcefully yanked his brother back, taunting the machines to follow. The first mate resolved that he would not let them take his little brother, even if Sinbad disagreed.
Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain, Arlin had just arrived to the open passageway and the corpses of dead mercenaries scattered on the forest floor. He scowled in disgust and put a cloth to his face as if the festering smell had already begun to overwhelm him. The cloth also managed to partially conceal the informant’s fearful trembling. Not fear that the ruthless gang of Sahid had been beaten with no casualties on the other side, but what his master might do to him since the men made it past the cliff. Who could have guessed the damned silent one was a mathematician?
"Milord will not be pleased. Not in the least," he whispered aloud, voicing his fears in a huge understatement, as he moved inside the cavern. Arlin automatically turned around and waved his hand along the surface and spoke aloud, "Erase."
The boulder rolled obediently back into its previous spot covering the opening. At least he would be credited for sealing their way back. He was the only one who could leave the fortress if he so pleased. So even if they managed to break away from Lord Cognito's guards, a huge improbability anyway with the witch and upstart already taken, the crew of Sinbad would be trapped inside.
Arlin almost felt a pang of sadness for the people before shaking it off. He might be late and Lord Cognito demanded punctuality in the strictest sense.
"We should have been able to see the tunnel's opening by now," Sinbad said as the brothers continued to run. Sinbad stopped and looked as if he would turn back before colliding with a figure who was keeping to the walls. The man stumbled to the floor, shedding some light on his figure.
"Arlin?" Doubar questioned and picking the man up. "What are you doing here?"
"I-I-I-I was j-just…" the man stuttered.
Sinbad looked back at the closed passageway and it finally sunk in. The captain snatched Arlin from Doubar with a strength the first mate didn't know he had. "You sealed the passageway! You sold us out, traitorous wretch!"
"I'm just his scout, I swear!" Arlin whimpered. "I find magic users for my lord! Lead them to this castle and lead the others astray! It was for my life!"
"You lead him to Maeve…" Sinbad seethed and cocked his fist back. A metal gauntlet latched on before he could follow through and tore him away from ripping Arlin apart.
Sinbad hit the floor and rolled, he gained the wherewithal to bring his momentum into a tuck and land crouching. Doubar had already barreled into the ranks with a thunderous growl, throwing his brute strength into keeping them away. But he couldn't hold against so many for so long and they forced him back, separating him from Sinbad and pushing him back to the closed passageway.
"Take these, little brother," Doubar grunted and tossed the satchel into Sinbad's arms before one kicked the first mate down. Sinbad moved to save him and an automaton moved to catch him, but Doubar would have none of it. The first mate leapt and threw his arms around the machine's shoulders, trying to pull its head off. Doubar's eyes, one covered with blood, turned to his little brother with a scolding glare. "Go or I'll pummel you myself!"
Sinbad felt his chest tighten as he turned away from the sight. He slid under the legs of the remaining guards with the precious exploding sticks and ran to the open passage that led further into the depths of the fortress. The captain couldn't bring himself to look back.
Firouz was bent over the scrolls, reading the formulas with an urgent zeal that surpassed his regular enthusiasm for knowledge. Being in a life-threatening situation always drove you a little more. But the surprising thing was that they were not the scrolls that contained Lord Cognito's designs. They were something that Firouz would have never dreamt of examining before his capture. The magic spells.
Using deductive reasoning, Firouz assumed Lord Cognito was smart enough to realize that he would try something to escape. Certainly he would, staying helpless was something you learn never to do in Sinbad's crew! He had checked to make sure, and all the plans Cognito gave him were purely formula and hypothesis, nothing viable. But one thing Firouz learned was that the chaotic variable in an experiment always proves the most trouble. In translation for the layman, doing what your enemy never expects you to do always yields better results than the predictable.
The inventor glanced to see if the guard was reacting to his actions. A moment ago the machine's eyes lit up in response to an unspoken order, but it remained standing in front of him. Firouz decided he would be prepared for the eventuality when it would come and snatch him up. And since he was without his exploding sticks, left in Doubar's care, and his new acid, taken to who knows where, the only materials he had left to use were the clothes on his back and his wit.
The spell Firouz was examining was a basic one. He recognized Maeve performing a variation of it in the beginning of the voyage for a refresher course after Dim-Dim was lost. The spell just required a focused mind and a linguistic tongue to pronounce it, no innate magical talents. And since his body was obviously not adapted to magic usage, Firouz was very happy about that. It basically allowed a person to invoke natural magic into some sort of object for use. Nothing major could come from it, and no complex spells could be cast, but it was something he could use better than his sword.
Provided that it actually worked.
"Tinkerer," Lord Cognito's voice sounded, causing Firouz to jump and roll the scroll up frantically. The armored figure stepped through the door with an air that made even the mechanical guard seem attentive of him. Firouz swallowed a lump in his throat and prayed fervently that he wasn't her to announce Maeve's demise.
Lord Cognito leaned over to examine the scrolls, all science related except for the one Firouz was reading. "I see you've been working...good. All the more beneficial for the welfare of your friends."
"Friends?" Firouz said, his face turning ashen.
Cognito turned and Firouz could have sworn he saw the mask contort in a smile. "Oh, you weren't informed yet. My guards have just arrested some trespassers, members of the Nomad crew correct?"
"On the contrary, I'm always truthful. Lies impede finding the correct solution." Cognito threw the shattered blade of Doubar's cutlass on the table, sending papers flying. "Proof for my doubtful assistant."
"What do you want?" Firouz murmured and squeezed his eyes shut to the evidence on the table.
"Everything," Cognito replied with relish. "I want every invention, every idea that ever crossed that curly head of yours...or your friends will be the recipients of one of my experiments. I have many so you needn't worry that they'll all die in the same manner. Their deaths will be quicker than the sorceress's demise, so you better hasten with your compliance before I loose my patience."
"What's to stop you from killing my friends once I've told you everything I know? And once your experiments are finished what's to stop you from killing me?"
"Nothing tinkerer," Lord Cognito replied with no emotion whatsoever, "that is precisely what I will do if you cease to be of use."
Firouz whirled around to face his captor. "Then I won't cooperate with you! Why bother if all you are going to do is kill us all?"
"Because I know about your petty little concerns for the others' lives. You would do as I say if it bought your friends more time to elude death. Hope is part of your irrational flaws that prevent you from becoming a true scientific genius like myself. It's what makes you disappointingly emotional. You may serve a purpose for me right now but I can make do without you. It's just more efficient this way."
"You monster…" Firouz fumed in a soft voice. The inventor's hand clenched in anger, flexing as if to attack. "You perverted, twisted form of everything science stands for!"
Lord Cognito shook his head like a reproving mother might to a child. "For your intelligence in science you are profoundly stupid when it comes to reality. I am the only one who sees the purity of it all, who is unrestricted by your foolish notions of morality and ethics. That is why you serve me and I rule you. Because you are still closing your eyes and ears to the truth of my words."
Firouz could not stand his cruel pragmatism any longer. An unexpected cry of bravado came from his mouth as he awkwardly charged forward in an attempt to throw the man to the ground. Cognito sighed and sidestepped the infuriated inventor, grasping one of his hands in his gauntlet and squeezing tightly as Firouz stumbled beside him.
The curly-haired man screamed in pain and crumpled to the floor. He felt the bones of his knuckles yield to the powerful iron grip. Firouz clawed at the hand in desperation before Cognito relinquished it with an air of distaste.
"There is no need to grovel before me," Cognito said calmly before withdrawing his hand back into the folds of his cloak. Firouz whimpered softly to himself, cradling the crippled limb in a defeated heap. "Your service is enough for now. Now I must leave and check on my subjects, clean up the lab while I'm gone. Then I will see if your friends are up to my experiments."
All Firouz could do was lie there as Cognito left him to watch helplessly while the armored lord attended to the rest of the crew's fate. He clutched his medallion, the first honor he ever received from his work on science and tried to remember the incantation Maeve spoke, the words slow and clumsy on his lips, "Inficio materia cum magus cessum timor."
The medallion began to glow dimly in response.
Sinbad kept running down the corridor. His blue eyes never left Dermott as the hawk swerved through the small enclosure. Partly, he knew, because if he looked behind him Sinbad most certainly would have turned and gone back to save his friends. Doubar's wishes be damned. But there were other things spurring him on, the satchel filled with Firouz's exploding sticks banging against his shoulder with every alternate step.
'I could have used them back there,' Sinbad berated himself, 'Could have saved them.'
The captain blinked back any tears he might have and focused on the task at hand. He looked up at Dermott, knowing the hawk was feeling the same way he was about all of this, if not more so. "Dermott," Sinbad called out, "can you find Maeve?"
The hawk chirped, tucking his wings in tightly to veer off to a corner. Sinbad followed only to see Dermott stop and perch on a torch's brace, staring with his piercing gaze at the wall. The captain stopped as well and looked where Dermott was staring. It was just a stone wall, no door or anything to hold someone in. "Dermott, why did you stop? What's the matter?"
Dermott chirped again, more insistently this time. Sinbad neared closer to the wall and placed his hand against it. There were no hidden catches or trappings that he could make out anywhere. It was a completely ordinary wall. Sinbad looked back at the hawk questioningly and Dermott screeched to him. The captain was about to open his mouth to protest when he overheard a faint noise, like scraping.
Sinbad knelt against the wall and placed his ear to it, listening attentively for anything else. The scraping became louder and there was a faint ringing that made Sinbad recoil in confusion. Dermott screeched again, definitely in warning this time. Sinbad caught a small beam of light seeping through a crack in the wall that wasn't there a moment ago. Normally, he would have investigated this further but some instinct told the captain that now would be the more opportune time to retreat.
Another crack split through the rock and Sinbad stumbled back. The slashes of light became brighter and soon grew to a blinding intensity that had the captain raise his arms to shield his eyes. The light pushed against the stone and Sinbad spun around, realizing that something 'explosive' was about to happen. He stumbled out of range just as the wall blew up, sending chunks of stone flying.
Dermott chirped from where he was perched and sailed into the dust cloud that was created from the explosion. Sinbad looked up to see a familiar silhouette standing in the rubble with Dermott on their arm. "My sweet Dermott! Have you come to rescue me?"
If the dusty outline of the person didn't give her identity away the voice did.
"Maeve!" Sinbad cried in relief and ran to where the sorceress was standing unsteadily by the remains of the wall. The captain coughed in the loose dust of the rubble but he didn't care as he raced to her, stopping only within arms reach. "Are you all right?"
"I wasn't going to wait around for you and the others to save me now was I?" Maeve replied breathlessly with a wry grin, her usual bravado for any dangerous situation coming to the foreground. Dermott, satisfied that his mistress was fine, flew off of her wrist to give them some space. "Nothing for you to worry about."
Sinbad stared at her in concern, blue eyes meeting brown for a moment before Maeve swayed from fatigue and halfway collapsed where she stood. The captain instinctively moved to catch her in his arms, holding her up alongside him. "You're not fine, Maeve. That escape must have taken more out of you than you originally thought."
"I know what it took out of me," Maeve replied and looked up at him. Her face flushed before she pushed away from him when she regained her balance. "It's the fact that none of it seems to be returning to me that's what has me worried."
"I don't understand."
"I used magic to escape, Sinbad. And though it takes a lot out of me, I can always feel it returning to me. Using magic is like catching your breath after running for a long distance but this time..." The Celt trailed off.
"Is it permanent?"
Maeve cast her eyes down. "I don't know. It could be…"
"I—" Sinbad stopped, thinking the words he might say would only offend her. Comfort was not something easily held by the spitfire sorceress. She glanced up at him with her brown eyes in wait. The captain gulped and tried to get off the subject. "Where's Firouz?"
"He isn't with you or the others?" Maeve asked worriedly.
"We met some of those metal guards in the hallway," Sinbad recalled in bitter tone and looked off down the empty corridor. "I was the only one to escape."
"We have to go after them," Maeve announced and began to walk down the hallway.
Sinbad caught her arm and pulled her back with a tug. "Not just the two of us, and you without your magic."
Maeve shrugged off his grip and sent him a baleful glare. "I can still handle a sword can't I? Or do you believe me incapable of helping our friends without my magic and spells?"
"It's not like that Maeve!" Sinbad tried to explain. "Those mechanical monsters took out Doubar, Rongar, and Mustapha without breaking their pace. We don't have that much of a chance against them just the two of us in this state! I say we find Firouz and use his exploding sticks to do some damage against them. We can free our friends and then find the grandmaster of this whole nefarious plot."
"Let's just hope they'll still be alive when we find them," Maeve murmured and slipped her broadsword in its sheath. Her eyes clouded over at the thought of seeing her friends go through the same torment she went through.
"They will, Maeve." Sinbad smiled, trying hard to give her some amount of assurance he didn't feel as they began to make their way down the stone corridor side by side, not knowing where it would take them. "I promise you."
Lord Cognito watched the exchange between Maeve and Sinbad as the started to make their way through his labyrinth of halls. He sighed and shut off the light coming in through his viewing screen. "I loathe such statements of affection," he murmured in disgust, "and I especially hate it when it is coming from a specimen that should still be in the chamber if not for the incompetence of my associate who gave her the means to escape."
Arlin felt his stomach churn as the armored figure turned to face him. "It-it-it's not my fault. I was merely trying to gain her trust with that spectrum scope of yours. I did not possibly think she could find out about the…"
Arlin's explanation quieted as Lord Cognito's piercing black eyes—the singular human aspect in his façade of cold machine—bore into the informant. "You remember what I said about failure, didn't you my courier? That there were rewards for your shortcomings that I would have to compensate for?"
"N-n-no sire. Please don't kill me, I beg of you!" Arlin shouted frantically and knelt before the impassive scientist.
"Begging appeals only to emotion," Lord Cognito intoned and grabbed Arlin by the jaw, forcing the man to stand again as his gauntlet gripped tightly around the bone, "--and I have none to appeal. But do not fear, I have not the time to dispose of you in the manner I would be satisfied with." Arlin sighed in relief and relaxed to Lord Cognito's hold. In that split second of relief the armored dictator squeezed the jaw, causing bone to snap under such pressure and silencing Arlin's scream with a inundation of blood that gurgled from his throat.
Lord Cognito dropped the corpse from his hand, letting it fall into a gory mess on the floor.
"But that does mean I will dispose of you nonetheless. This is an alert to all mobile units. There are intruders on the premises. Execute on sight."
Without fail, each of his guards would leave their posts to track those two down. Overkill by statistical means but the specimens were beginning to vex him and he had only so much magnanimity, which Arlin had been sorely depleted in his neglect in alerting him to the redhead's...uncooperative actions. Now, two meddlesome test subjects were loose in his maze with Firouz soon to be discovered. Cognito sighed. If there was something to be done it would have to be by his own means.
He looked back to see the two being guided by the hawk, an aimless choice but unfortunately one that would inevitably lead to Firouz's discovery. It would be a waste, but Nomad’s scientist would have to be destroyed along with his friends the way things were shaping up. The blank face didn't reveal Lord Cognito's suppressed frustration to it all. A rare desre crossed his mind at the prospect of letting them see each other before he killed them both, savoring in the cruelty of the situation. He would most likely—what was the word? –enjoy personally disposing of Firouz.
It was a curious predicament for Firouz to see the metal guard that had been immovable in blocking the door retreat from his post with no warning. One moment there the gargantuan behemoth was there, the next it had opened the door as if to excuse itself and leave Firouz alone to study.
The inventor moved to the door warily, fearful of a trap set if he reacted. The recited spell Maeve used earlier--was it really just this morning?--to take out an automaton was coming along well. He wasn't sure that the incantation was right but then he never had a chance to properly test it.
Of course he didn't have a chance as Lord Cognito stepped in with that stifling arrogant air he seemed to cover with himself the same way the armor did. "I'm afraid I must terminate you because of the complications," Lord Cognito stated quietly with his arms crossed behind his back. "Unfortunately, because of the mischief making your friends are doing and your own uncooperative manner, you are becoming more of a burden than an asset."
"Dealt with momentarily," the metal man dismissed. He pulled one gauntlet out from the folds of his robes and flexed the fingers as he approached Firouz. "I will miss what knowledge you could have provided for my revolution, Tinkerer. Good-bye."
Firouz ducked as his adrenaline kicked in to help him escape. His friends were still alive and he could get out with the help of his spell. The inventor reached down and brandished his medallion at Lord Cognito. "Increpito caeci et productim!"
Nothing happened. Lord Cognito chuckled, "Perhaps if you conjugate the verb?"
Firouz felt a wave of despair fall over him. He would die now because he never paid enough attention to the magical counterpart of the world, too wrapped up in his own interests. Maeve's scolding look burned in his memory. Firouz held his medallion back up again, and chanting in a voice that mixed with the memory of the sorceress's cried out, "Increpito caecus et productum!"
A blinding light shot out of his medallion and shone in Lord Cognito's eyes. The villain screamed and covered his eyes with his hands as Firouz darted out of the room. Firouz turned the corner sharply, tripping over something lying beside it. There was a breaking sound and when Firouz scrambled up he saw his foot catch on a leather strap. His inventions!
The tinkerer fumbled to pull the bag over his shoulder. It was cumbersome; already clinking with the shards of broken glass and dripping wet from the acid as it began to eat away at the leather. Judging from the remains there wasn't much he could use.
Firouz got up and ran anyway.
"Where do you suppose this leads to?" Maeve asked, as Sinbad trust the ready-made torch into the dark entrance. It was the Celt who moved first, as she demanded during their search, to explore the place.
The sight she saw made Maeve regret her stubborn decision. Maeve turned away in disgust, her brow twitching to control her horror. The sorceress put her hand up to her mouth to contain anything that she couldn't keep down. In the short time she looked, she knew who it was.
"Arlin?" Sinbad seethed and held the torch up to see the gory remains of Lord Cognito's assistant. His blue eyes turned to Maeve who was obviously trying not to show her discomfort. At once, the hate he had for the man subsided to what her memory of him was, and knew he wouldn't shatter that image, no matter how false, needlessly. Sinbad gently put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Maeve."
Maeve nodded silently. "We better keep going." She pulled out a little black box, triangular in shape, and laid it on the man's chest before turning to walk away. "Thanks for the use of your gadget. I wish it could have helped you as much as it did me."
Sinbad lingered in the dark room, stepping back to let Maeve pass him by. The sorceress made it just out of the doorway when another figure collided into her. Maeve reacted first, swinging the form into the ground so she could trap them. The sorceress pulled her fist back when she heard a muffled groan that sounded suspiciously familiar.
Sinbad lifted his torch up. "Firouz?"
"Sinbad..." the inventor groaned in a mixture of pain and relief. "Under normal circumstances I would be happy to see you again—likewise with you, Maeve." He paused for a moment and did a double take. "Maeve! Thank the stars you're all right!"
Maeve hastily got off of Firouz and pulled him up. The sorceress still looked shaken, but relieved as well. Sinbad moved between them, pulling the bag filled with the exploding sticks and handed them to Firouz. "I think these belong to you."
Firouz looked down at the bag along with his damp one. "Thank goodness these are safe! I knew Doubar would take good care of them, despite his impatience with my explanations."
Sinbad coughed a little and Maeve gave him a sympathetic look. "That's a problem--"
"Oh! Dear me, I can't believe I forgot in the excitement!" Firouz stammered, "We have to get out of here now!"
"Guards on your tail?"
"Worse," Firouz tugged on both their arm's with a fearful pleading in his voice. "It's Cognito himself. We have to leave, now! Please!"
Maeve took a step back and her eyes widened. The sorceress immediately drew her hand to the hilt of her broadsword in a sign of assurance. Sinbad caught the action out of the corner of his eye.
"Maeve, is Dermott still scouting around the area for guards?" Sinbad asked.
"Yes. Of course he is, what's that got to do with anything?"
"I want you two to go and find the others. I'm going to confront this 'Cognito' and blow him sky-high with Firouz's exploding sticks." Sinbad winced at the automatic protests coming from both of them and held a hand out to silence them. "It's my decision. I can work this out alone."
"These are my inventions, Sinbad," Firouz pressed, "I have the right to come along and I will not be sheltered from any battles you plan on facing!"
"Well, I can't stop you, can I? And you have the exploding sticks." Sinbad mused, tilting his head. "Just promise me, old friend, that you'll keep back and out of harm's way."
"Hey!" Maeve cried, indignant. "You are not going to leave me behind either!"
"Wrong Maeve," Sinbad turned around. "Only Dermott could find them in time, and you're the only one with a direct link to him. You will find Doubar, Mustapha and Rongar. That is a direct order."
"Don't you dare try to protect me!"
"I'm not protecting you! I'm deciding how I can best help my crew! Now, I expect you to find them quicker than we can, so get going!"
Maeve fumed, but despite her resentment she knew some part of Sinbad's speech was right. Goddess, she hated when he was right. The sorceress spun around on her heel and marched to follow Dermott, calling out, "Och! You better be alive when I see you next sailor because I'm going to kill you for that!"
Firouz chuckled faintly. "One day Sinbad, you are going to push Maeve past her patience for you and she's going to knock you unconscious or worse."
Sinbad laughed, trying to relief some of the tension at the parting. He kept his eyes on Maeve for just a second longer. "Perhaps, but I can't think of a better way to die."
"How about not at all?" Firouz offered.
Dermott chirped before circling around the domed ceiling. Maeve looked down from the parapet to see her three friends bound on some experimenting tables with, thankfully, no guards watching over them. The merry chase she and Sinbad led must have persuaded Cognito to risk unguarded prisoners.
Maeve made her way down the passage to where they were kept with the same care just in case a guard could stumble in unannounced. When she reached the open space, the Celt ran beside Doubar's table, the one closest to her, and pulled out a small pick to open the lock. "Boy, am I glad to see you."
"Lass!" Doubar cried happily as he turned his head, "We were so worried about you!"
"Likewise with that gash. What happened to you?" Maeve asked in astonishment to the already dried blood that marred his left side. She reached over as if to touch it but then decided to focus on her friend's manacles.
"Nice to see you too, Maeve. We're fine by the way," Mustapha called out sarcastically.
"Oh I'm sorry," Maeve said in concern as she finished picking the first of Doubar's locks. She moved over to the other side where Rongar and Mustapha lay and turned to the Moor. "Rongar? Are you okay my friend?"
The Moor smiled in appreciation and nodded as Maeve worked on his shackles while Doubar strained to pull the rest of his own off with brute strength. Mustapha shot his friend a dirty look but Rongar shrugged to tell him that it wasn't his fault.
"Where's Sinbad and Firouz?" Doubar grunted, tugging at his other arm restraint.
Maeve's face fell. "Hurry up and get yourselves out of there. They're trying to buy us some time while they fight Cognito."
"Alone?! In the seven seas what possessed you to leave them!"
"Sinbad ordered me to!" Maeve snapped angrily, not wishing to go into details of the rest of her ordeal. "And he's a stubborn fool when it comes to orders, as you well know."
Doubar tugged off his leg shackle in one effort. "Then what are we waiting for?"
"Why is it that the revolutionary thinkers are so misunderstood?" Lord Cognito sighed and threw a blast of explosive pellets from his hand for the first attack. They were small as ball bearings but had the same destructive force of Firouz's sticks, as proven by the mushroom cloud of flame against the wall.
Sinbad jumped away from the explosion and drew out his sword. "If they're absolutely insane, I can't imagine why—Firouz get your inventions out here now!"
The inventor fumbled with the two bags, trying to separate them from where they tangled on his shoulders. He tried to pull out one of his glass balls to throw but cut himself on one of the shards.
"Firouz, hurry!" Sinbad called out as his blade clashed between Lord Cognito's fingertips.
The insane scientist pulled the blade towards him and swung a gauntlet at Sinbad's head. "Attacking me directly is most ill-advised. I am more formidable than my guards despite my being outnumbered by your paltry defenses."
"Science is never paltry!" Firouz shouted and tossed a whole glass ball at Lord Cognito's shoulder.
Cognito released Sinbad from his grip and threw up his arm to let the ball shatter on impact. The vapors of the acid started tearing off his armor and Cognito howled; a howl that soon turned into a maniacal laugh. "You expect a little alkaline to deter me? This only damages my polish. I'm stronger than your mere playthings, fool! I'm the fulfillment of your potential. Potential that you to achieve because of your weakness!" Cognito ranted and pointed down at Sinbad, who was backing away. "Which I will break to show you how frail it is!"
"Try something with more force then," Firouz intoned and grabbed the torch along with his exploding sticks to intervene.
The inventor charged Lord Cognito with his torch, sending a trail of flame where the swings finished. Cognito deftly maneuvered away from them before he took hold of Firouz's vest and the satchel hanging under its cover. Firouz brought the torch's handle down on the place where the shoulder and arm met, but the villain remained unharmed. Cognito merely snatched the bag with the exploding sticks inside and threw it behind him. Firouz just barely managed to pull away before his arm got tangled up with it and send him along for the ride. The inventor fell on the ground just beside Cognito with a sickening crunch of glass underneath the man's body from landing on the remaining satchel.
"Time to crush you like the insect you are," Lord Cognito intoned and brought his metal boot up to Firouz's head. But the inventor moved quickly, pulling up on his opponent's cape and swiveling out of the way before his foot dropped. Sinbad charged in the moment of weakness and swung the flat of his blade at Cognito's head to nudge him off balance while Firouz pulled back.
"You're not done with me yet," Sinbad grinned and flipped his saber in his hand. "I still have to teach you some manners about kidnapping people's friends."
"You are becoming a nuisance."
"That's me, a regular thorn in your proverbial tin side," Sinbad quipped and swung his saber at the man's neck, which a metal gauntlet blocked.
Cognito narrowed his eyes and threw his arm back to break their lock. "Insignificant creature. I cannot be beaten, certainly not by the likes of your primitive weapon. As an adversary, you are less than nothing to me."
"My friend is more than you'll ever be!" Firouz shouted and threw his last glass ball straight at the armored man's eyes, the only uncovered part of his whole body.
The glass shattered, most likely sending shards into Lord Cognito's vulnerable eyes. But it was the acid that did the trick, burning up the armor's varnish with a bubbling noise that was drowned out by the man's scream of pain. Cognito tore at his face with his metal fingers to remove the mask that was holding the acid inside. He stumbled over the stone floor, knocking his body into the wall and jarring loose the lighted torch that adorned it.
The torch fell, sparks catching the purple cloak and setting it ablaze. It moved like wings of fire as Cognito writhed in pain. Firouz looked on agape at the horrific sight before Sinbad pulled him away.
They were already running down the corridor when Firouz turned back. "No, wait! My exploding st—"
The sentence was cut off as a huge explosion threw the two down with a force that shook the entire fortress. Firouz could feel the fire's heat burn against his skin as he saw the gleaming figure of Lord Cognito's metal body. The armor once used to protect him was now roasting the despot inside. His screams were drowned out as another explosion engulfed the man in a conflagration of chemicals, metal and the man’s own designs.
Sinbad only now opened his eyes to see the remains of the madman shatter, releasing lights of all spectrum colors, which exploded from his armor and flew out in all directions The captain drew back defensively as some of the glowing orbs flew around both of the sailors like fireflies, their glow softening now that they were free from Cognito’s form. The rest flew off, leaving only a trail of light in their wake.
It would have been beautiful if they didn't think they were going to die in a few minutes from suffocation or burning.
Firouz coughed from the smoke as the two stumbled in a vain attempt to escape. "There's no exit out of here, Sinbad. We're trapped."
"What was that?" Doubar bellowed as the loud noise was followed by a tremor that shook them off balance. Rongar signed that it came from the northern part of the tower and shook his hands.
"Sounded like an earthquake," Mustapha concurred.
"Magic," Maeve whispered in fear. She didn't need her sensory powers to know when supernatural forces were at work. "Something's happened to them."
The rest were still looking at Maeve explaining to them when all of a sudden a beam of light pierced Maeve right through her heart. The sorceress screamed.
"Lass!" Doubar cried and ran to catch her as she collapsed.
Other orbs followed, circling the crew in curiosity. Mustapha pulled out his sword and swung at one of them just as Maeve cried out.
"Maeve?" Doubar said as he cradled the redhead in his arms. "You're okay?"
She smiled. "Never better. Don't worry, Tubby, this magic can't hurt me because it's my own."
Maeve stood up and approached the orbs that levitated to her eye level. "Cognito stole my magic for his own purposes as he did to countless others. These quasi-fireflies are the magic inside of every sorcerer or sorceress he'd ever taken." Her eyes darkened, "My guess is not many of the corporeal counterparts survived the separation from their own magic."
Another explosion made the room tremble. Dermott chirped uneasily and flew down to perch on his mistress's gauntlet.
"We have to get out of here," Mustapha growled.
"Silence," Maeve shushed the first mate. "There's only one possible chance to make it out with all of us alive." She looked up at the floating orb right in front of her that bathed the air in a luminescent glow. "Please great sources of magic and your practitioner's spirits. Please help my friends and me escape the same tyrant that enslaved you. Grant us freedom."
The specs of light bounced amongst themselves and began to circle them. Rongar looked down at his hand to find it glowing with the same radiance of the orb that set down on im. The whole crew took one last look of their surroundings before they found their vision washed out in bright lights and then disappeared.
Maeve faltered as she found herself on the ground of the forest floor. The freed magic had given them all a rough landing, with Doubar slipping and falling on his rump. Just as they fully materialized the last and greatest explosion rocked the fortress, exploding in the fury of all the souls its creator kept.
"No," Maeve cried softly, watching the smoke curl up into the sky. She looked around frantically for the missing bodies of her friends. "Please tell me they... it can't end this way..."
The rest of the crew paused. A moment of grave silence hung over them as they all realized what just happened. Maeve felt tears of guilt creeping into the corners of her eyes when--
"What? No happy reunion hug?" a jovial voice asked.
The crew turned to see the same light that transported them to safety shine around two figures. They stepped out of the swirling lights, one sure footed and with the same cocky smile, the other hesitant but no less welcomed by the crew.
"Little brother!" Doubar crowed from where he was trying to get up.
But Maeve beat the first mate to the bear hug, grabbing the two by their necks and pulling them close to her. "I swear if you leave me behind again, I'll kill you personally." She muttered.
The others rushed up to them, Doubar lumbering behind. Maeve pulled away from Sinbad as he was pulled into a rib-crushing hug from his older brother. The sorceress moved towards the inventor where they stayed apart from the others. She hugged her curly-haired friend a little longer this time, a little tighter. Sinbad looked on as Mustapha clapped him on the back in congratulations.
"Is he dead, little brother?" Doubar asked.
Sinbad looked up at the smoldering remains of their nemesis's stronghold. He pulled out a twisted gold sheet that once could have been mistaken for a human face from his sash. The captain analyzed it with disgust and tossed it on the ground. "This is all that's left of him."
"Maybe now those that fell under Cognito's control can finally find peace," Maeve spoke quietly. The sorceress closed her eyes and lifted up her head to the sky, letting the breeze wind through her red hair in a gesture of mourning for the lost souls.
Firouz merely looked down at the ground. "Maybe all of us can find some peace."
"Firouz?" Maeve's voice murmured through the closed door. When no answer followed she opened it to let her head poke through, a look of concern crossing her face. It had been days since they left Cognito's castle, and she had not spoken to him since they were reunited. "Are you okay?"
Firouz buried his face into his hands. "I'm fine. I'm fine. Just need some time alone, that's all."
The inventor heard the door shut, but instead of being rewarded with sweet silence he heard Maeve's footsteps come closer and the creaking of his bed as she sat down on it. He peered through the space in between his fingers as Maeve's face looked back expectantly. "What's the matter?"
"I said I was fine, Maeve," Firouz grumbled and suddenly found the parchment on the desk to be fascinating.
"Hm-hmm, and I've said that enough times to know when someone is fine and when they're really not," Maeve said in a matter-of-fact tone. "So either you tell me what's making you 'fine', or I hang around until you really are fine."
"Nothing for you to worry about. Just some niggling equation that's been at the back of my mind."
Maeve leaned forward. "Look, I know you haven't really been the same since that mechanical megalomaniac incident. I wouldn't normally pry since I understand working your problems out by yourself is usually best," she chuckled ruefully, "Believe me, I understand that very well. But I'm worried about you, Firouz. I don't know what he did but you can talk to me." The sorceress grinned and shrugged her shoulders. "I'll even try to understand the complicated scientific jargon."
Firouz smiled faintly and stared forward at the wall. "He didn't hurt me, Maeve. At least not the way he hurt you. It was what he said, everything about how science has no room for anything but facts, that I would never be a great scientist because my emotions always got in my way. I guess it struck a chord."
"You're a great scientist because of your emotions," Maeve argued passionately. "You always worked best when someone's live was on the line. Remember Princess Gaia and how you worked to save her? Or the crossbow when we were trapped by the Vorgon? And there was that blowing thingy that defeated Kris Kattah. The best ideas come because you want to help and protect others."
"And what about the times I've harmed someone?" Firouz cried sadly, "Like when we were at Corizar and I nearly went to war with my Ruby Beamers?"
"Oh, so you made a few mistakes like gluing Sinbad's boots to the floor," Maeve said flippantly and placed her hand on his shoulder, "It doesn't change that you designed those things for good."
"But it was so easy to use them for the wrong reasons!" Firouz cried and threw her hand off him and stood up. He paced back and forth, as if trying to find some way to release the rage that had been festering in him since Lord Cognito placed it there. "It's so easy just to manipulate everything I've ever made to hurt and destroy! Everything science has ever accomplished, every contrivance, every improvement, has probably done more harm than good in its creation. Maybe Cognito was right, maybe the only reason why I am the way I am is because I'm a naïve fool for thinking science was man's way of making the world better. We just make it easier to destroy."
"That's not true and you know it Firouz!" Maeve said angrily. "Science isn't merely a tool or some method used by scientists. Even if anyone can use your technology, it was created and imagined by people like you who seek to help. Although Arlin did not mean to, his spectrum scope and your explanations was how I managed to escape that cell when I couldn't use my magic. Your science helped me, Firouz. And I wouldn't believe in the good of science if I didn't believe in you."
Firouz looked up with surprise in his face. He never knew the proud and stubborn sorceress to feel that way. She chuckled slightly, not losing a depreciating edge in the laughter. "Who knows? Magic probably will become an arcane art with the way your science is continuing to spread. Everyday another is looking at things logically, not magically. Maybe you're right, Firouz, the advancements of science will one day revolutionize the world, leaving magic to lay dormant in the pages of fairy tales. A passing idea, remaining only in the imagination. Perhaps it's meant be..."
Firouz swallowed and shook his head. "Not feasibly possible. After all, a sorceress like you is hard to forget, Maeve. And even though I may look for the logic behind a conjurer's spell, there will always be what I can't explain. Miracles, wizardry, the phenomenon that surpass learned men's knowledge. Magic will never fade to science while there are those like you. And you want to know what I've concluded Maeve?" The inventor clasped Maeve's hand in his and smiled in his awkward way. "I don't really think I'd want it to. The world would be so dull without you."
Maeve chuckled softly, happy this time. She leaned over and placed a chaste kiss on Firouz's temple. The inventor flushed red as her hair as she pulled away, embarrassed and grinning in a very undignified way.
"And without you. But now that I've explained my point, I think I'll leave you to your work, esteemed scientist," Maeve addressed him, a mischievous smile on her face.
"Thank you for visiting, honored sorceress," Firouz stammered in his comical way with a mock bow. The two paused in the moment where it seemed two different worlds managed to coexist--if only for a moment without something blowing up. Then Maeve shut the door, leaving him alone again.
Firouz sighed happily, content to find security in the unlikely friendship he had forged with the firebrand sorceress. Maybe their friendship would be the starting point for the melding of science and magic for future years. Not joining the twisted way of Cognito's designs, but a better way for everyone involved. After all, he thought, the world was constantly changing and evolving. Maybe there was hope.