The two travelers had to be careful to skirt the storm which had passed through the mountains only hours earlier, for they were going in the same direction it was.
“Well,” Eddie said, looking over her shoulder at the roiling thunderhead, “we’ll just have to be faster than it is, right, Lex?”
The queen directed her loyal steed to the northernmost shore of Promethia, and again, they made good time. Lexington set them down a good ten meters from the high-tide mark, his paranoia of water making him lay his ears back at every wash of the surf. He refused to budge from his safe spot, even when Eddie set out towards the ocean.
“You can get a bit closer, Lex,” she shouted back to him over the roar of the water, but she didn’t try to convince him any further; she had taken off her shoes and pulled the seashell out of her bag, and she continued her progress until she was standing ankle-deep in the shallows. Eddie held up the shell and blew into it as hard as she could, producing a long, clear, low-pitched note which cut over even the booming of the waves.
Eddie stood still, the cool water lapping at her feet and at her rolled-up pant legs. She was waiting, shading her eyes against the glare of the sea as she looked off into the horizon, expecting any moment to see the dark shape of a ship against the sky.
It was, in fact, a few minutes before she saw any such thing, but when she did see it, she returned her calling-shell to her satchel and turned to beckon Lexington. By the time she was facing the ocean again, the ship was already close enough to see the lanky, antlered figure of a bandanna-clad jackalope waving at her from the ship’s rail. Eddie waved back, yelling, “Good to see you, Horatio!”
“Aye,” he called, “and good to see ye, too, Yer Highness. Drop anchor, lads!” This last command was directed at his crew, a dozen or so booted black rats who were scurrying about the ship, tugging ropes and adjusting sails.
Eddie ran back to where Lexington stood planted in the sand. “Listen, Lex, Horatio’s going to be our ride to that volcano of Pripyani that Caruso told us about. You can just fly yourself over and land on the deck, alright?”
The dragon backed away, giving Eddie a baleful stare. “I’ll get wet.”
“No, you won’t.” Eddie tugged at his shoulder. “Come on, you chicken. Please?”
Lexington blew out through his nostrils, averting his eyes. “Fine.”
Eddie heard the rattle of his paper wings overhead as she raced back to the ocean, where Horatio was waiting for her in a longboat oared by two of his rats. The jackalope embraced Eddie warmly as she climbed into the boat.
“Eddie, m’lass, it’s been too long. To what do I owe the pleasure of ferryin’ ye this fine day?”
“I’m questing, Horatio,” Eddie replied, laughing. “Questing for one of the greatest treasures of the world.”
“Treasure?” The jackalope’s long ears pricked up at the world, and he rubbed his paws together. “What kind o’ treasure? Fine silks and spices from the East? Precious metals? Rich wines?”
“A trading card,” Eddie told him. “A rare one.”
Horatio shook his head at her disgustedly. “Well, I do hope ye don’t go gettin’ yerself killed over a … tradin’ card. I thought ye had a wiser head on yer shoulders, m’gal.”
“Hey, well, this particular trading card is probably worth about a hundred cargoes of your fine silks and what all.”
They were brought up alongside the ship, and climbed up a rope ladder onto the main deck, where Lexington was already waiting for them. The dragon was huddled at the very center of the deck, his head turning back and forth rapidly, as if expecting the water to sneak up behind him and ambush him.
“Horatio,” said Eddie, “this is Lexington. You’ll forgive him if he’s a little edgy, but he’s made entirely out of paper and so is rather vulnerable in this situation.”
The jackalope eyed Lexington with interest. “Well, I c’n unnerstand that. He c’n put up in me cabin, if he likes; that might make him feel a bit safer.”
Lexington agreed readily, and one of the rats led him off into the belly of the ship. Eddie and Horatio stood at the ship’s rail, looking out into the distance.
“Where are we headed, Yer Highness?” asked the jackalope. “Where’s this so-called treasure of yers?”
“At the base of the great volcano of Pripyani,” Eddie replied, “in Shastan. You know where that is?”
“Certainly I do. I wouldn’t be a mariner worth any salt at all if I didn’t.”
“Good. Let’s get there fast, alright?”
“Why, pray tell, are ye in such a hurry?”
“We’re trying to outrun a storm. And…” Eddie ruefully opened her satchel and poked around inside. “I’m almost out of trail mix.”
Horatio gave a hearty chuckle and slapped the young queen on the back. “Provisions we’ve got aplenty on the Morning Star,” he assured her, “but we’ll be sure to pull out our top speeds for ye, my lass. After all, yer the only royalty we ever see around this old bucket of barnacles.”
And, indeed, the crew of the Morning Star did manage to pull out a top speed. It was nothing natural, of course, for the ship was said to be blessed, or spelled, or possessed; whatever it was, it was the fastest ship in the Kingdom of Promethia’s fleet of privateers, and the rulers of that kingdom were always careful to keep on the good side of Captain Horatio. (You never want to mess with a jackalope.)
Scarcely two days had passed at sea, uninterrupted but for the kraken attack — which is a story for another time — when the shoreline of Shastan showed on the horizon. (It would have taken any normal ship at least a week to make such progress.) A few hours after dawn, the Morning Star was anchored in a natural curved harbor, sheltered by the swell of the great volcano. Eddie said her thanks to Horatio and promised she’d call on him again soon, and then she and Lexington came ashore.
“You didn’t say much while we were onboard,” Eddie commented, climbing up onto the dragon’s back.
“I didn’t have much to say.”
Eddie giggled, struck by a sudden notion. “Paper dragons don’t get seasick, do they?”
“Perhaps a little.”
“That’s entirely illogical.”
“You are in no position to pronounce anything illogical, miss.”
Still giggling, Eddie told him, “Let’s circle the volcano — slowly — so we can find the temple.”
Lexington obligingly took to the air, and they began a slow circuit of the base of the mountain, studying the thick jungle for any sign of their destination.
“There!” Eddie waved to their right, where a peaked stone roof was visible through the trees, and Lexington veered towards it. They landed carefully, weaving through the canopy of vegetation, and set down just in front of the marble steps of the ancient temple.
Eddie couldn’t help a shudder as she examined the stone ruin; whether it was a shudder of apprehension or of excitement, she couldn’t tell. There was a certain aura about this place which made her a little nervous. “Ready?” she asked Lexington, instinctively putting a hand on the hilt of her vorpal blade.
“Ready, miss,” came the reply.
Eddie squared her shoulders and marched straight up the steps, into the gloom of the old temple.