Part 6: Chapter 5You can go crazy and grind through multiple encounters. I'm pretty sure you can fight the Soot Dumpling as many times as you feel like and turn Flint into some kind of demigod.
Flint and Alec walked through the Sunshine Forest, taking no detours and sparing no moments to get to his log cabin all the way on the other side as quickly as they could. A large chunk of the forest was surprisingly docile and clear after the fire; there were few obstructions and the path was considerably more visible now that all the shrubbery and overhanging trees had been cleared. Not to say that it was preferable that way.
They both tried to leave the wildlife to its own devices, and for the most part they succeeded...but the sudden, drastic increase of those weird winged mice definitely caught them both off guard.
The closer they got to the camp from last night, the more the wildlife began to become more varied and aggressive towards them. From Spud Bugs travelling in groups of three and four...
...to some of the more dangerous Crag Lizards disguising themselves as large, clunky boulders in the mountains.
Among them were the Walking Bushies as well.
They could easily blend in with their surroundings by planting themselves and staying as still as possible. They were indistinguishable from the average bush just off to the side of the road, and just as well, since they had no actual means of offense. They were shy, but they were very friendly towards anybody that displayed affection towards them.
Their leaves were fresh mints, as well, giving Alec and Flint something to chew on while they traveled.
Wild boars were also back on the paths, having calmed down from the fire last night and resumed their lives as best as they could. Still, they were aggravated easily, so they both took their time to leave the beasts be.
They called Claus's name occasionally as they walked through the desolate mountains towards Alec's log cabin. There wasn't anything on the path the two of them hadn't seen before; it was all unchanged and untouched during the blaze. The claw marks on the ground and the destroyed trees from a rampaging Drago continued into the mountains with them, putting them both on the edge.
The constructed bridge (which was little more than a few planks of wood nailed together) had survived the entire ordeal, luckily.
But the Drago marks and telltale signs continued on. Apparently, the creature fell into the ravine, then simply climbed back up the other side. A creature like a Drago could probably have jumped, or simply stepped across if it was large enough. So why would it go through the hassle? It must have been horribly confused, or enraged, to make a mistake like that.
At the next fork in the road, they both took the right path, and from there it was a smooth walk to Alec's place. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Claus - not so much as a shoeprint anywhere. To Flint, that was at least better news than finding a patch of his shirt flapping on a tree branch...
"Now that we're here, Alec," Flint said gruffly, "what's the plan? How do we find Claus?"
Alec looked right into Flint's eyes, a look of dire seriousness in his face. "You'll think me senile when I say this," he said slowly, "but,
Let's head there right now!"
Flint wasn't amused. "Froggy intelligence," he echoed.
"Frogs work for my friend as messengers. I got a guy who can talk with frogs, lizards, boar, moles, and even Drago."
Flint looked right into his eyes in turn. There was no way he was buying this answer just with Alec's word. "Is it Reggie?" he asked, his voice implying seriousness but the question was sarcastic.
"I'm serious!" Alec insisted. "Flint, I just lost my daughter, and I might lose my grandson. Why would I joke about this?"
Flint had to give him that. Talking to animals was a little out of his...league, but he trusted that Alec hadn't lost his mind yet. The mountains on the islands spanned for miles and miles everywhere, and Claus could be anywhere on them. If talking to critters was going to point them in any direction, it was better shot than just picking a trail and following it forever. "Fine, I'll give it a shot," he sighed. "Men in pig costumes, flying saucers, rats with wings and caribou half-made of metal...what's one more fantasy shoved in my life?"
"I know how far-fetched it sounds, but trust me on this." He looked a little over Flint's left shoulder, and Flint turned, following Alec's gaze.
They approached the funny lizard with an arrow-shaped head, when Alec felt he needed to fortify his insistence on his 'friend'. "My friend," he started, then immediately pausing. "No, sorry, my 'friends', are known as 'Magypsies'. They've lived isolated away from civilization for a very, very long time."
"I think I can see why." He bent at the knee to bring himself down to the lizard's level. He couldn't believe he was doing this. "Show us the way to Alec's 'friend's' place," he said to it.
"Please," Alec immediately tacked on.
The lizard looked at them both, and it seemed to understand what they wanted. But its reaction to their request was far from what Flint had expected.
Flint turned around, glaring into Alec. "Are you serious, Alec?"
"Just watch!" he irately instructed, implying he was pulling rank with his age. Flint rolled his eyes and turned back to the lizard, spinning wildly in place again and again. As silly as it was, Flint had to admire how it never managed to lose balance or become dizzy.
After a moment of spinning, the lizard stopped itself immediately, pointing back south, the way they had came from. Since this side of the mountains was a dead end, Flint hadn't expected it to say anything else, but it also didn't prove this lizard could do what Alec said it did.
Peculiarly, more of the arrowhead lizards began to show up through the mountains. Not all of them were a great deal of help; some would point the two in an obvious direction.
Flint didn't know where these things were taking him, but he was a little irate that they had to walk all the way to Alec's just to start back tracking.
But he had to admit, the little things were curious: they only started appearing after Alec had mentioned the Magypsies, and they understood exactly what Flint asked of them each time. Maybe there was more to Alec's story than he was giving credit for.
"You're walking a bit slower, Flint," Alec smiled knowingly. "I see my talk about the Magypsies has made you a bit curious."
"Like I said, what's one more fantasy?"
"The Magypsies have magical powers, and have protecting something here for a very long time." Alec seemed swept up in his own storytelling. "They're neither human nor beast, neither man nor woman. And I can't even guess how old they are." He laughed to himself. "Basically, they're strange. All of them. Every one. But they are good-natured. Wouldn't hurt a fly."
Flint decided to humour him, since he was really getting into it. "And what is it they're protecting?"
"Not a clue," Alec said whimsically. "Every time I ask, they won't tell me."
The pattern of simply backtracking through the mountains towards Tazmily continued with the lizards for a little while. They each had the same method of staring at Flint and Alec for a moment before spinning wildly and simply stopping in a direction they had already come from. But finally, one of them pointed someplace different: where the trail back led south and into the forest...
This one pointed straight into the neighbouring river. When they both went to investigate, there was a pair of pale-coloured frogs that were simply...sitting there.
It was kind of unnerving, actually, but what was more peculiar was how these things were just showing up now, like they knew that Alec was talking about the Magypsies.
Flint had gotten into the habit of asking these small critters for their help, so right off the bat he asked the closest frog what direction they should take next. And to his shock, it spoke back.
Spinning lizards were just weird, but a talking frog was enough to convince Flint that these Magypsies were real. A little apprehensive, he asked the second frog the same question, hoping it would draw a better answer.
"I am the right frog!" it yipped happily, and immediately let out a massive croak. Then there was a bit of silence, the sound of the running water their only ambience, when a second croak sounded. Then a third and a fourth, each of them coming from the river. Flint and Alec looked across the water's surface, to see...
Four frogs had aligned themselves just right so they could be used as stepping-stones. The one closest to them looked at them expectantly, and Flint, knowing that he wasn't that great of a swimmer anyway, accepted their invitation.
Flint realized that he had never actually gone beyond this side of the river. There was never really a point to build a bridge over the rushing waters since only Alec lived as far out as far as he did. Just past the bend in the mountains was an enchanting sight: a beautiful, pristine lake in the middle of the mountains, with an enormous conch shell fashioned into a house resting in the middle. A line of smaller, pink-ish rocks formed a bridge from the land to the house.
The area also housed a natural hot spring, and, interestingly, a single grazing cow.
"That's their house," Alec said, pointing over the lake, like there were any other houses in the middle of the water for Flint to confuse with. "One of them has got to know where Claus is."
They could hear some light music playing through its walls, and they could occasionally hear the sound of someone laughing jovially over the music. It sounded like they were having something of a party. Flint didn't want to interrupt, but if Alec was right, at least one of them knew something about where his son had gone to.
He didn't know what to expect as decor for the shell's interior, so the colour scheme and the furniture weren't particularly surprising. But the people inhabiting the shell were...different.
All six looked like men with very accentuated five-o-clock shadows, with masculine statures and broad shoulders. One of them looked burlier than Bronson. But they all had long, flowing, well-maintained hair and their faces were covered in mascara and typical feminine accessories like lipstick and eye shadow. Their dresses were all different; one wore thick overalls and nothing else, and another wore a long, beautiful gown reaching down to their ankles. Flint was receiving so many mixed messages from these people.
One of them, wearing a green dress in the far corner, seemed to recognize Alec immediately. "Is that Alec?" it asked, leaning forward and squinting, trying to identify the person standing in their doorway. "It is, it is!" it squealed, clasping its hands together and tapping its ankles on the floor happily. "It's so good to see you, snookums!"
So far, these people didn't seem very enchanting or magical to Flint.
The one sitting in the centre chair in the back eyed the two newcomers, sizing them up.
It turned to the one in the green dress. "Don't be rude, Ionia! Introduce us!"
The one apparently named Ionia spun to the one in the chair, its face all flustered from its forgetfulness. "Of course. Where are my manners?" It stretched out a hand, pointing passively to Alec. "This is a good friend of mine. His name is Alec." It faced Flint, staring curiously into his eyes. Flint was unnerved, but he kept up his poker face as well as he could. "And who is this with you, darling?"
"His name is Flint. He's my son-in-law." Alec seemed to be absolutely collected in front of these 'people'. Given how fondly he spoke of them earlier, Flint wasn't surprised.
"Let's not keep the others waiting, hmm?" it asked delightedly. "Let's get you properly introduced to all of us Magypsies. And you're in luck, too! We're having a party today, and nearly all of us are here." It pointed to its friends, going clockwise around the room, naming them off one by one. "First we have Aeolia," it began, gesturing to the one sitting in the chair, "then there's Doria, Mixolydia, Lydia, and the lazy one in the bed is Phrygia. I'm afraid the only one that couldn't make it was Locria. And you can call me Ionia." It finished with a wink; Flint responded by adjusting his hat.
"It's been a while!" Alec said happily, nodding to Aeolia. "I'm happy to see that you're all doing well, but I'm afraid this isn't a social call. I heard from the grapevine that you helped my grandson Claus. Any idea where he might have gone?"
Aeolia casually uncrossed its legs, shifting its right on top of its left, deliberating on its answer.
"Then I suppose this Flint fellow must be his father." It smiled at Flint, analyzing him. "I can see the resemblance. You two have the same eyes. Energetic little kid you got."
"You don't know the half of it," Flint replied, figuring that the Magypsies might not have known what Claus was planning.
"So, what about Claus?" Alec asked hurriedly. "I don't mean to sound impatient, but this is sort of important. Where is he?"
Aeolia hummed to itself. "He took off," it replied casually.
"I was feeling generous at the time, so I sent him on his way with a Magypsie super-power PSI technique. He seemed to appreciate it, although I doubt he'll be able to use it very easily."
Alec looked around the room worriedly, looking at all the others. "So, he left, then? And you didn't stop him?! What if something happens to him?!"
"Oh, get over yourselves," said Mixolydia condescendingly, quickly getting everyone else's attention.
Phrygia added into the conversation, taking Mixolydia's side, while still laying on the covers of the bed. "You poor things barely live for 100 years, if that! That's a blink of an eye to us Magypsies. Why difference does it make if this 'Claus' was a little kid or an aging old man? Why should we care either way?"
Flint was visibly becoming aggravated with their attitude - they sent Claus to fight against an adult Drago and they didn't give a rat's behind. He was about to convince Alec that these 'people' weren't going to help them when Doria decided to say its piece. "Now, now!" it heralded, trying to calm them all down. Doria's voice was considerably deeper than even Lighter's. "Mixolydia! Phrygia! Humans may not live long, but it's important to them! If one of their newborns is missing, they can't help but feel worried." It turned to Alec, who was getting just as flustered at the two as Flint. "Right, Alecy-poo? I understand how you feel, I really do."
Alec turned to face Doria, his temper having already risen from having to hear those two not care about poor Claus's fate.
"The boy headed for the Drago Plateau," Aeolia said with finality. "He's quite dashing and rambunctious, I might add. Barely seemed concerned for his short little life. Quite the gall he has, running straight into the belly of the beast like that! If you leave now, you might just catch him in time."
"The Drago Plateau?" Alec confirmed. "Makes sense, in hindsight. We have to hurry, Flint!"
"How?" He knew where the Drago Plateau was, but he never visited it - the path going straight up the mountain was too dangerous for humans to climb unassisted, and the Drago had destroyed the rock bridge connecting the Plateau to the Sunshine Forest. "It would take at least a day, and Claus could be anywhere by then."
"There's a shortcut to the Plateau just behind the house," said Ionia. "Go through the caves and you'll find yourself in the Plateau in just a little bit. You better hurry!"
"Thanks." And without another word, they both left the shell in the middle of the lake, heading for the far cave and towards the Plateau.
The cave was almost pitch black; Flint could barely see his hand in front of his face. He hadn't brought a torch, or anything to make fire with either, but he had to press forward. His son had gone through here, so he could as well.
"It's pretty dark," said Alec, "but never fear. Ionia's brought me through here so many times that I know my way around like the back of my hand." Flint chose not to comment on the idea of Alec being led through a dark cave with one of those Magypsies. "There's a left about ten paces ahead that we need to take."
Alec was proving himself correct for a good deal of the cave: he gave accurate distances and directions through most of it, and while Flint couldn't tell exactly where they were headed or where they are, he hadn't been lead to a dead-end or in circles just yet.
He had to work for it, though.
And Alec wasn't exactly the most enthusiastic of fighters.
Nor was he the most reliable of navigators, apparently.
"I'm pretty sure it was north," he said. Well, what did they have to lose? They both turned north.
This was hardly the time to lose track of where they were or where they were going, but Flint sighed; what could he do? At least Alec had been mostly right up until now.
After that one mistake, though, Alec was confident in the rest of his navigation, and sure enough, after scaling some walls thanks to the overgrown vines flourishing in the moist cave, they managed to pull themselves out of the cave and onto the Plateau.
But there was still no sign of Claus.
They pressed forward, desperate in their search. They were led into another cave: this one was considerably better lit, and was only a few paces large, serving as a small barrier of sorts separating the forest from the Plateau. Flint had never been here before, but Alec had, and he insisted on moving forward. They were going to simply pass on through when they heard a quiet commotion in the hall above them.
There was a small set of ledges going straight up right next to them, and above, they could spot something that looked like a leg swinging idly over the edge. It had a huge black boot and thick, pink pants, and immediately Flint was reminded of those people in the pig suits from before. Bringing a finger to his lips to quiet Alec, they proceeded up the ledges quietly.
The men in the suits were talking in their own hushed tones, relaxing simply with a small setup of machines just to their side, with a larger one placed in the corner. It looked like they had stopped what they were doing for some lunch. They hadn't expected to see Flint and Alec climb up the small hill after them, and, without their weapons, opted to retreat.
Flint wasn't too concerned; it was a three story drop from there, so the only safe way down was through him and Alec. But to his surprise, those things simply made the leap, and kept running without pause.
They didn't waste any time, chasing after the men in the suits.
Just outside the exit of the cave was another of those large saucers he saw fly away when he was with Duster and Boney. Flint knew this one was probably capable of the same thing and he raced to prevent those people from using it to escape him again, but by the time they managed to even get close, it was already off the ground.
It was playing a weird, peculiar tune as it flew, like some kind of anthem, before it zoomed away over the cliffs.
"We'll have to worry about them later," said Alec. "Claus has got to be somewhere nearby." Flint reluctantly agreed, only because he didn't know if he'd get another chance to talk to one of those things. He could use some answers right now.
Flint had never been this far into the cliffs himself. The rock face was split into so many branches and pathways from the rushing mountain water, it was difficult to get a solid foothold on anything.
He found an assortment of wildlife he had never encountered before, and none of them were particularly hospitable. Some were larger variations of the common animal he could find almost anywhere else on the island.
Others weren't so much.
They both kept their eyes peeled on the surroundings, searching high and low for any sign of Flint's boy, calling his name occasionally. There was nothing to find, though; there were no footprints or marks or anything to indicate Claus had gone through there.
This far away from Tazmily, Flint couldn't help but feel a little homesick. He had no idea what Claus could be feeling, and poor Lucas was probably at home with nobody to care for him. He hoped that Tessie had the good idea to visit Lucas while he hiked up and down the mountains for his son.
Finally, after nearly an hour of searching the Plateau, they got themselves a lead on Claus's whereabouts.
The baby Drago continued to play with the blue shoe until it heard approaching footsteps to its flank. Immediately, it dropped the shoe, facing the people that approached it, and began to roar its little voice out. After it felt it was as imposing as it needed, it quickly hopped off, farther into the mountains.
Once it was safe, Flint and Alec approached the shoe that the Drago was playing with. It was undeniable once Flint picked it up.
"This belongs to Claus!" harked Alec. "And that was a baby Drago just now, meaning an adult's gotta be somewhere nearby. Claus must be around here somewhere!" Flint agreed immediately, but Alec stopped him before they continued. "Look, Flint, I, ah, ran into Wess before I met you at Hinawa's funeral." He began digging in his pockets for something. "He offered me something to help me with my walks between my cabin and Tazmily, but I think..." He paused, withdrawing his hand. He held a small ball of red and yellow, adorned with an electric emblem of a lightning bolt across its diameter. "You might find a better use for it up ahead. Just in case."
Flint knew what it was, and knew that Wess was fairly stingy with his bombs, and accepted it. He only hoped to find Claus and bring him back, but it could come in handy, just in case. He took it, and they doubled their efforts. As soon as they began to clear into the mountain's peak, the scenery began to change - it was still as rocky and barren as ever, but the telltale claw marks of an adult Drago were littering the walls and the ground as they proceeded.
They came upon another of those platforms like Flint saw earlier. The one that those people used to reconstruct that caribou and got it to attack him, Duster and Boney.
This one had seen better times, though. He didn't know what could have destroyed it so thoroughly, but, to his and Alec's astonishment, they knew what they were working on.
They brought the trees themselves to life, aggression and all.
And they didn't like being attacked.
As they approached the far end of the Drago Plateau with no other sign of Claus, Flint was about to suggest they begin circling the area, disregarding the obvious dangers of an adult, aggravated Drago somewhere in the area...
When they found his other shoe...