It was night when they emerged from the Tarot. They decided to make camp just outside of the entrance and remained under the watch of the woman they learned was the Queen of Swords. Megette fell asleep fast and began to snore lightly holding her sword like a comfort. She had practiced with it for a while before lying down. Partially due to the sword and partially due to the few lessons she had gotten from the Jack and Eldham, one of the cards who later betrayed them, she proved quite adept with her new blade.
The Jack squared off with his baton and the two parried back and forth for a while. Khamet thought they might injure each other at first then saw that the Jack might be the one injured if he wasn’t quick enough.
Once Megette was fast asleep the Jack spoke to Khamet. “Do you recall the orchard?”
“Yes,” Khamet said. “Where I encountered you and the Princess of Hearts the first time?”
The Jack stoked the fire, “It seems so long ago.”
“Almost like yesterday for me.”
“I arrived there to seek employment from the Suicide King so that the King of Spades could have an infiltrator on the inside of the Heart’s kingdom.”
Khamet sat up and looked at him.
The Jack looked ashamed as the orange glow of the fire flickered across his face. “I was there to spy because he was certain the Suicide King was planning an invasion. The dinner party was already set and I was to be trusted and on the inside, just in case. My father recruited me for this task as it was outside the realm of the Kingdom of Spades and an unknown rogue.”
Khamet remained silent.
“I arrived in the orchard five days before that.” He said dropping another piece of wood into the fire and watching for it to catch. “I was famished when I arrived the first day and I began to eat tomatoes and apples together.”
“The far end of the orchard is set against the Datamancer which in and of itself was the most strategic position for the Suicide King to set up his castle. It is the one direction one would not suspect anyone to arrive from.” The Ace of Spades told this to his son the Jack of all Trades when he explained his mission. He also expressed that great caution should be used as the Datamancer was not a place to take lightly. “There is nothing edible and anything drinkable would surely infect you, so you must remain on your guard.”
Exactly how one might be infected was unclear, but after traveling through the Datamancer the Jack understood. The Jack saw all manner of creatures that had once been… alive was not the word for it for they were still alive, but they weren’t. The Datamancer Plain was the harshest and coldest forest one might ever encounter. Everything crackled with shock and hum. The plants all grew with a strange smooth coating that was sharp and impenetrable like metal. It was a wonder how anything grew at all. There was no wind and the sun had trouble breaking through the tops of the trees at mid-day. In the places where the sun came through it was extremely hot, but all else was cold shadow. Some places had tubes that released wafts of foul smelling gas and smoke from the ground itself.
Near the edge, where he’d first entered, he saw a Dragon Fly slip in. It landed on a plant and breathed fire on the thing, but the flower didn’t burn. Suddenly all the flowers turned and spat a pungent yellow waft of something that coated the dragon fly and hardened around its whole body. The dragon fly released a scream as it stiffened and froze for several moments. Then the mechanical sound of ‘whirring’ started and the dragon fly wings began to beat, now with a hum rather than a buzz. It rose up spitting fire as it did so and flew into the Datamancer. It still looked very much like a dragon fly and it was still alive, but a true dragon fly it was no longer. It had become part of the Datamancer.
The Jack encountered many animals like this on the day it took to cross, including one caterwaul. The Jack wondered how exactly a caterwaul had found itself this far out. If the caterwaul were menacing before, this beast was leagues beyond horrendous. The Jack was agile and had to avoid most everything as there were numerous sharp edges. He had to avoid the gasses that were emitted and the flowers spat what he came to think of as venom. The trails were mostly clear, but as an added precaution he tore a strip of cloth and wrapped it around his mouth and nose.
The Jack arrived at an overgrown portion in the path ahead and could see there was a clearing just beyond. Using his baton the Jack charged and vaulted to the nearest cold tree branch. He checked the ground and leapt to the clear path beyond the overgrowth. The sound of his impact on the hard ground caused something to stir, a large something that backed out of the shrubbery where it had been foraging. The Jack had no place to turn or to hide and halted as the caterwaul spotted him. This one had eight sets of eyes. Two on the upper right had been put out, but the other six were a metallic grid of onyx with a red center glow. They regarded the Jack who stood with his baton at the ready. It was feet from him and the size of a giant Bear wolf. A Bear wolf he could handle and often made for a good meal after they were killed, but a caterwaul… he could see the nose searching for his scent, but either it could not or would not find him.
The eyes looked all around and he was close enough that he could see them focus. From its throat the caterwaul made a whine like several swords crossing with each other. The Jack thought this was at first its teeth, but then realized that it was growling. It sounded like no caterwaul he’d ever encountered. Its ears remained perked, but they too twisted mechanically and as it moved closer the Jack realized that it was not breathing. The nose apparently sniffed out of instinct. The smell of caterwaul is an unmistakable scent, and this thing smelled like no caterwaul. If anything it was like the toxins he had been breathing. Its mouth opened and the Jack could see its teeth chattering a bit, hungry. Still it made no move to attack. It turned and took a step to the side brushing against the sharp foliage which had no effect on its tough hide.
Believing he was in the clear the Jack released a loud sigh of relief.
The caterwaul’s ears shifted in his direction and the thing was in motion almost before the Jack could react. The scraping sound became a heavy roaring whine and it turned its mouth wide with the clawed teeth moving like a grating of its own accord.
He leapt to the side and the caterwaul barreled past and buried itself in the overgrown metallic foliage, the sound of its teeth grating leaves and flowers as it went. The Jack ran forward, his feet pounding on the hard ground. The caterwaul removed its head leaving a sizeable hole in the foliage and turned towards the sound of the footfalls.
The Jack stopped and shifted with a parry. He threw one baton and leapt with another. The first went into the caterwauls mouth. It snapped and was ground to nothing. The caterwaul spat bits of leaf and flower that struck the ground like glass breaking.
The Jack made it back to a high cold tree branch and waited for the caterwaul to attack, but it had stopped. It was searching sniffing and looking. It seemed it only responded to sound.
The Jack saw an opportunity to escape and leapt back down landing as lightly as possible behind the caterwaul. The caterwaul turned its head left and right in the foliage and then turned down the path. The Jack froze as its gaze fell upon him. It was staring and trying to sniff, but it seemed that if he didn’t make any sound it remained confused.
The Jack took a cautious step backwards making no sound as he did so and the caterwaul continued to regard him with its red eyes. The two that were out were damaged and black from a slash which must have taken place when it was still “alive.” The Jack took another step and the caterwaul took one as well, but it made no charge. It opened its mouth and the claw teeth unfolded. In the mouth the Jack saw all the way to the back of the throat. The soft pallet was nonexistent. What he could see were the red lights of its eyes, and a small electrical section of mechanical parts that crackled and spit little bits of lightening.
The Jack began to wave his arms. The clawed teeth drew themselves in as the mouth closed and the caterwaul, very animal like stopped at the gesture. It cocked its head to one side in curiosity. Then the head darted forward and the Jack lay flat on his back as it did so. The caterwaul missed him completely and stepped forward looking around.
Beneath the caterwaul the Jack looked for anything that was vulnerable, but the underside was just as hard as the plants. The caterwaul moved forward and once clear the Jack stood and leapt onto the caterwauls needle hair back. The caterwaul gave no reaction and didn’t seem to know the Jack was there.
From his pouch the Jack drew a few stones, took aim and threw one as far as he could down the path. The reaction was instantaneous and the beast shot forward searching for the source of the sound. The Jack smiled and began to throw the stones ahead of them and soon they were moving at an intense hopping speed, pouncing every so often through The Datamancer Plain. The Jack made note that nothing impeded this great beast in the slightest. In fact he was almost thrown off once or twice as it moved through particularly thick shrubbery. The sharp leaves sliced into the Jack as they passed.
There was actually a large gathering of wildlife in the Datamancer. While they traveled, the Jack saw all manner of birds and insects. One bird came down to regard them as they moved and the Jack could see wheels and such spinning where the things chest should be. There was a sharp click of feathers as it flapped its wings. The Jack watched the bird’s terrible mistake as the caterwaul turned and leapt into the air chomping it and leaving a wing to fall to the ground.
The Jack leaned over as far as he could and used his baton to pick up the wing and place it into his pouch. The wing made a light clink as it folded and the Jack held fast as the caterwaul stopped. Its ears twitched and then the head turned around completely to face the Jack with a mouth that could easily chomp any bit of him into mush.
From ahead the Jack could feel warmth and as he peered through the foliage saw what must be sunlight. The caterwaul was frozen and staring at him. Ahead warmth struck him and he could see where the sun was breaking through again. The Jack slowly raised his baton and the mouth on the face in front of him began to open. The nose twitched, picking up the scent of nothing. The clawed teeth uncurled and the Jack caught a light scent of burning, oil and what not, and saw the lightening again.
If the tongue was just as hard as the rest of it, he thought to himself and threw the rest of his stones right into the mouth and leapt up. The caterwaul snapped its head forward, baring its clawed teeth when a spark shot from the back of its throat. There was the sound of something sizzling and the caterwaul’s head snapped forward. All the needle hairs stood out and the Jack felt several penetrate his calf as he leapt to the nearest tree. His leap was short and he landed on a large bush with a loud crunching metallic crackle.
The caterwaul turned at the sound, but froze. It tried to step forward and it shuddered. There was another sizzling crackle and then its shoulders convulsed in a shudder as its head was suddenly engulfed in lightening. It lowered its head to the ground and froze.
The Jack was in a lot of pain. He slowly removed himself from the bush, trying not to cut himself any further. There was a whine and a small explosion as stones were ejected from the caterwauls mouth one by one.
The Jack doubled his efforts to get free and untangle the last bit of the bush as the caterwaul raised its head and its red eyes refocused on the Jack of all Trades. The Jack took a silent step back and the caterwaul took a step forward. He took another and the caterwaul did as well. He waved his arms and the caterwaul didn’t react. The Jack reached into his pouch and removed the bird wing. He threw it into the foliage and the caterwaul didn’t even pause. The Jack drew his baton, took one last step back, then braced himself and screamed at the top of his lungs as the caterwaul shot forward. Its mouth opened wide and the Jack dived.
The Jack gripped the baton and waited several minutes until everything was black. There were no more sparks or hums and nothing glowed with any sort of illumination. Carefully, he crawled out of the caterwaul’s mouth avoiding the sharp black spiked teeth that lined the opening where he huddled inside.
The caterwaul was balanced and frozen in its charging position, with its mouth wide and aimed at where the Jack had been standing. Once he was free the Jack took hold of his baton, which was wedged into the crackling brain area of the caterwaul’ skull, and pulled it free.
The Jack relaxed and looked to the edge. He checked his wounds as a whine began. There was a sizzle of electricity from the frozen caterwaul’s mouth as it began to repair itself, but it still remained frozen.
The Jack needed to get out of the Datamancer now. It wasn’t very far. He ran.
Ten minutes later he broke through the last of the hard sharp shrubbery and before him laid the king’s orchard. Apple trees, tomato plants and rose bushes. He made camp, doctored his wounds and ate his fill of apples and tomatoes before he fell asleep.
A distant rumbling of something large giving charge woke him and the Jack grabbed his baton and made ready thinking the caterwaul had found him. He climbed the nearest apple tree for a good vantage point and waited for whatever was coming. Then he saw it moving down one of the rows shaking the earth and the trees.
Enormous long fluffy legs, with thick nailed claws good for nothing more than stomping were visible. He leaned down through the branches until the enormous head came into view. It was two rows over, but it saw him, the Jack was certain. The great beast gave a honking grunt of alarm before its head was turned back by the reigns.
“Hansa por shulsa,” the command came in a woman’s voice.
The beast honked again and the Jack crawled up into the apple tree as far as he could to watch. He remained still.
The beast took a step and shuffled its legs, then another and the Jack saw the folded reigns and delicate light hands with brilliant red nails that held them perfectly. He followed the arm up to the fold of her elbow which had a fleshy pink heart. The reigns shuffled again and he followed the arms up to a great long tress of billowing jet black hair, highlighted with strands of deep bright red. The rider turned and he saw the back. Her head had a large red heart that seemed to be dyed right into the back of her head. He wondered if it grew like that or how it was maintained with such elegance.
His own heart had stopped and he waited a breathless moment for her to turn. The beast shuffled and in the next instant the Jack was lost. In one instant he dismissed his mission and instead saw a future that he, living the life as a nomadic rogue, had never imagined.
“Cat,” the Jack turned from the fire. “I don’t know if your like can relate, but my fate was chosen in that moment. If my father had me enter the kingdom by any other route, it might not have befallen me the way it did, but when I saw her…” he choked. “I was acutely aware of her pain, sadness, joy and happiness and all other things about her that she had and could have had with me and I with her. Was it the sun, the sky, the Sphinx she rode, my fatigue or the combination therein?” he choked again and Khamet saw a tear fall. “I gave no protest to the Tarot and the things they were saying. Only one knew my truth. That devil, he knew my mind like none of the others. He knew that I would not turn from this quest. He knew that my quest, my obsession began that moment in the orchard, and I would most happily die for her. Because in that moment my life was no longer mine, my heart was no longer mine, but hers to do and have as she wished.”
Khamet thought back to when he first heard them speaking and the cold way she treated him. Then again the looks she continued to give when they left and thereafter at the banquet. Khamet felt that she loved him as well in that moment, though she would never admit it.
“When she rode off,” the Jack continued. “I remained in the orchard for the next few days watching for her. It seemed she had her own language with the Sphinx and since the orchard was hers I thought there was no guard.”
“Kimset has da nagun bligot,” the Sphinx turned and trotted for a moment allowing the lady to get a firm hold then it shot fast. Its six hooves sounded remarkably like thunder tearing over the ground.
The Jack climbed to the highest point of the tree and watched as the lady rode through the field of rose bushes, apple trees, and tomato plants with her hair flowing like a great black comet on fire. There was a small lake and the Jack learned she went there every day. He would watch as the Sphinx grazed and drank while she sat and sometimes would cry. How to approach her he thought?
“Hansa, digga tella namas greeg,” The Sphinx stood from the grass and came over. She was on the great beast in a moment and they rode away.
The Jack stepped out of the orchard and found the impression where she had been laying. He could still smell her scent. He lay on his back and watched the water as she did, wondering what she was thinking about. After three days of this he decided it would be best if she caught him wandering about the orchard, after all she had no guards, he would be safe.
The Jack started laughing at the fire and Khamet’s ears perked up.
“I already know my fate cat. And I have no say in changing it.”
The Jack rolled over with that. Khamet considered everything for a moment, watching the fire and the Jack. He waited for the Jacks breathing to become easy. Then he looked about for the Queen of Swords, concentrated on something and vanished.