Marko and Alana are in the sewer system, after surviving the firefight between Marko’s people and the winged soldiers and Baron TV Head. Marko seems to be generating his own light source, a blue flame balanced above his right palm.
Alana says, “I thought she’d never quit crying.” She’s holding their swaddled newborn baby.
“Can you blame her?” Marko asks. “So far, her life has been comprised primarily of firefights.”
“Well, mama will be ready for the next one.” Alana is brandishing a firearm in her right hand.
“You took a firearm?! Are you insane?! Do you have any idea what the statistics are for parents who keep one of those in—”
“Easy, it’s just a Heartbreaker. They’re nonlethal.”
“Have you ever been shot with one?” Marko says. “Because I have, and it hurt like the day my dog died . . . “
“Wait, you had a dog? I didn’t know you had a dog!”
“Rumfer. He was run over by my school bus when I was twelve.”
“You called your dog Rumfer? We’re never gonna agree on a name for this kid, are we?”
“Let’s just keep moving,” Marko says.
“To where, exactly? That mechanic didn’t leave us a deed to a new safehouse, did he? A safehouse with a soaking tub?”
“Surprising no one, he died for nothing. It’s just a worthless old map.” Marko hands the scrolled parchment over to Alana.
“Wait, a map? Like, to treasure?”
Alana unrolls the parchment and looks at the map. It looks like most of the maps you’ll find at the beginning of a fantasy novel. There’s RIVER TRANQUILITY, which leads to SENTINEL FALLS, that drain into MURDER VALLEY. There’s a DESERT to the north. To the east of the valley, there’s THE FORT & MOUNTAIN. To the south, the valley is spanned by THE UNCANNY BRIDGE, while to the west are LAVA SWAMPS and to the east, ROCKETSHIP FOREST. Just south of the river are THE WOODS, as well. You know, familiar fantasy terrain.
“I told you,” Marko says, “It’s nothing.”
“‘The Rocketship Forest,’” Alana reads. “Are you kidding me? This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for!”
“Alana, it’s not real.”
“Says who? Most of this planet is still uncharted, even by the natives. And we’ve both seen weirder shit out there.”
“Even if spaceships did grow on trees,” Marko says, “Where would we take one? There’s no escaping this war. It’s poisoned every last inch of the galaxy.”
“Then we find another galaxy. I’ve heard about draft dodgers getting offered sanctuary . . .”
“We’re not draft dodgers. We’re deserters. There’s a difference. Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n—-”
“Don’t!” Alana says, pointing a finger angrily at Marko. “Don’t you ever say those words to me!”
She turns away from him. “Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers. My old man threw his life away working a job he hated so he could ‘take care of his family.’ In the end, it just turned him into a monster who treated us like crap the few times he was actually around.”
“So what is it that you want, Alana?”
She turns back to face him. “I want to show our girl the universe.”
NARRATOR: He just couldn’t say no to her.
NARRATOR (Continued): But if he’d known what wheels had started spinning over on Wreath, my father never would have left those tunnels.
We watch an aircraft that resembles a helicopter land on a rocky promontory. A man with a shaved head gets out. He’s accompanied by a cat. The man is wearing a cape and what could be a uniform of some sort. His boots come to mid-shin and the tops of the boots are flared out. The cat appears to be blue, at least when we first see it, and is wearing a wide golden collar with some sort of sunburst emblem and a couple of dangling charms. The man is smoking a cigarette.
He takes a drag on the cigarette, and, as he exhales, says, “Anybody home?”
A massively large horned creature comes out of the cave. It appears to be the color of granite and has a large, downturned mouth that looks like a gaping wound. It roars: “RAAAAR!”
From this angle we see that the cat has some sort of scales, or perhaps armor, along its spine, and appears to be decorated with golden flames.
“I’m here to see somebody named Vez,” the man says, discarding his cigarette. “I have an appointment.”
The huge, horned monster breathes flame in their direction, which the man tries to avoid with his cape. “Okay,” he says; then, to himself, “Think think think.”
He removes a gunpowder pouch from his belt and tosses it towards the creature’s open maw, still roiling with flames. The creature’s head blows apart in a spectacular fireball.
Chunks of the creature are still raining down when a feminine voice says, “You’re the man they call The Will?”
The Will turns to see a female approaching him. She appears older, with white hair, dressed all in white, with a single white unicorn-like horn on her forehead. What skin is visible appears gray in color. She’s balancing a blue flame above her right hand the same way we saw Marko doing earlier. A magic-user, then.
“I’m Vez,” she says. “You’re hired.”
The Will is angry. “You wasted a beautiful creature like that on an audition? I don’t give a fuck who you are, my union rep is gonna—”
“Hush,” Vez says, stopping The Will from getting closer to her with a blue shield.
“Bad enough I have to taste your language in my mouth,” Vez says. “I don’t need it burrowing into my ears. For the record, I detest Freelancers.”
“Then why the hell did you call one?”
“Because the man I want you to find shares your appalling sense of moral relativism. His name is Marko. The Tablets of Prophecy have just revealed that he’ll soon be responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent souls.”
“LYING,” says the blue cat.
“I’m sorry,” Vez says. “Did your animal just call me a liar?”
“She’s not an animal, she’s a Lying Cat. Her kind isn’t big on . . . ornamentation, so I’d keep it plain.”
“Plainly then. On the planet Cleave, Foot Soldier Marko chose to renounce his oath and betray the Narrative by . . . fraternizing with an enemy combatant. To protect troop morale, my superiors want both Marko and his whore eliminated by a discreet subcontractor before word of their coupling spreads to the rank and file.”
“If you’re not handing out wanted posters,” The Will says, “that could take time. Just because your lovebirds are on Cleave now doesn’t mean they’ll stay there.”
“Which is why we’re keeping you on retainer. The White Card will cover all expenses for the duration of your job.”
“Not exactly incentive to finish fast.”
“Which is why you’re not the only Freelancer we hired. Or am I lying about that?” Vez looks at Lying Cat as she says this, who responds only with a “HNF!”
“One last thing,” Vez says. “If our intelligence is accurate, your targets many have already sired offspring together.”
“And? You want me to drown the mongrel after I do its folks?” The Will lights another cigarette.
“Of course not. Regardless of the parentage, we’re talking about an infant. In order to collect your completion payment in full, you’ll need to deliver us their orphan alive and unharmed.” Vez turns and begins to walk away. Over her shoulder, she says, “Good luck, The Will.”
The Will breathes smoke out of his nostrils, turns to Lying Cat and says, “What kind of assholes bring a kid into worlds like these?”
Marko and Alana emerge from the sewers. Alana is still studying the map. Marko has his hood up now and is carrying the infant.
“Boom,” Alana says.
“Looks like a regular old forest to me,” Marko says.
“That’s because it is. But if I’m reading this thing right, the Rocketship Forest should be just beyond the next valley, on the other side of something called the Uncanny Bridge.”
“Excellent, so we’re trusting our future to the map a disreputable snitch likely tore out of the back of some overdue library book. Honestly, we shouldn’t be traveling after dark. This is when the Horrors come out.”
Alana says, “So you think rocketships are make-believe, but you’re scared of the imaginary monsters of Cleave?”
“The Horrors aren’t imaginary. A scout in my platoon saw one his first night here, watched it devour a dozen men. He said it had glowing red eyes and teeth like a thousand needles.”
“You know what my idea of horror is? Nine months of forced sobriety. If I could survive that . . .”
“Quiet!” Marko says, suddenly. “Listen.”
“To what? My ears are still ringing from our last adventure.”
“It sounds like . . . Do you hear screaming?”
“Relax, you big girl,” Alana says. “There should be a clearing dead ahead, and that’ll lead us straight to the Uncanny . . .”
They come to a cliff overlooking the valley. The Uncanny Bridge has been demolished, and a fiery battle rages below. There are flying craft and winged warriors in the air. There are soldiers on the ground below. There’s a giant, fire-breathing creature that looks like a mutant turtle with long legs and a long neck.
Marko and Alana both look crestfallen.
“Thought I heard something,” Marko says.
“It’s not fair,” says Alana. “The frontline was on the other side of the planet last year. How are both of our armies already fighting here?”
“Alana . . .”
“I know, okay? I was stupid to think we could ever outrun this retarded fucking war!”
“Alana, you were right. That bridge might be down . . . but it’s exactly where the map said it would be. Maybe that means our rocketship is, too. All we have to do is find an alternate route.”
“It’s not a traffic jam, Marko.”
“No, but you and I have survived worse scrapes together. And this time, we have something else on our side. We have Hope.”
“If you think I’m calling my daughter that, I want a divorce.”
NARRATOR: My name is Hazel
“Seriously?” Marko says. “Too corny?”
HAZEL: I started out as an idea, but I ended up something more. Not much more, to be honest. It’s not like I grow up to become some great war hero or any sort of all-important savior . . .
“Well,” Alana says, “I do like something with an H.”
“We’re getting close. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Marko and Alana move in close to share a kiss.
“My breath is atrocious,” Alana says.
HAZEL: . . .but thanks to these two, at least I get to grow old. Not everybody does.
END CHAPTER ONE