The Puzzled Isles: Chapter Two

As I mentioned before, I’m supposed to write a bit, then QuadL, and so on and so forth. However, with school, work, and everything else stacked on her plate, she has not been able to. Finding myself bored one day, I wrote this, the second chapter to the Puzzled Isles.

Chapter Two
As Keane blinked his eyes open, he was startled to see Todd’s face sitting inches from his own. He scrambled backwards, sitting up as he did.
“Sorry. Some ole’ man came in and told me to wake you up. Had a twin with him, I think.”
“The firebox twins? What are they..?” Keane trailed off as he realized what was going on. “Oh, Pa’s going to be so angry!” he shouted, tossing off the blankets. The next hour was a blur of loading passengers, mostly Cleo and her retinue, and preparing to fly.
“Just stay in here,” Keane ordered Todd, pulling on a freshly cleaned black vest over his starched white shirt. Pulling on his ever-present tweed cap, he ran down towards the engine, bumping into Boris as he did so.
“Sorry!” he called as he continued on his way. “I’m in a bit of a rush!”
“You’re always in a rush,” Boris laughed. Keane grinned at the jibe, bursting into the engine with a breathless body.
“You’re late,” Fergus said, glancing at him. “I don’t need you here, though. I need someone making sure everyone’s seated.”
“We’ve got Ferdinand for that,” Keane complained, turning around. He knew it was useless to argue with his father, but the words had just slipped out. Instead of getting angry, however, his father just looked at him sadly. Keane let out a sigh of exasperation and walked sadly towards the passenger compartments.
Ferdinand, the ticket collector, was delighted to see him, his fat face lighting up. “Listen, Keane, I need to deal with this compartment. But the dignitaries need special looking after. Could you go back and help them?”
“Forcing your work on me?” Keane asked, clapping the big man on the shoulder. “Of course I’ll go.”
Keane unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt, rolling up the sleeves. The train had started to move, but the compartment between him and the dignitaries was full. People were even standing in the aisle. Instead of trying to force his way through, Keane grabbed a harness from the wall. He pushed the door open and stepped onto the swaying porch.
With practiced ease, he stepped into the harness, cinching it tight. Then he grabbed the ladder, pulling himself up so he could grab the roof. Fumbling for the hook, he looked out past the ladder. The desert stretched underneath him, then suddenly cut off were the Acid Sea swept against it’s shores. He noticed the house on the edge, half eaten by the rolling waves.
Keane attached himself to the runners on top of the car, then pulled himself onto the roof. He crept along slower than a turtle, as the cable was made to tighten up if he went faster than a certain speed. He inched along until he reached the other side, disengaging himself and dropping onto the platform. He pushed the door to the car open, listen to the buzz of activity.
Before him, two men were arguing, their voices competing to rise above the other. Sighing, Keane cleared his throat. “Can I help you gentlemen?”
“You could tell this idiot that he’s wrong,” one man said, the same instant the second man said something along the same lines.
“And what’s the issue?”
“The Puzzler,” another dignitary said in a tired voice. “McCall thinks that he’s coming back to help us, and Oates doesn’t. There’s nothing you can say that’ll change their minds.”
Keane walked to the men, his face showing his anger. “Fighting is dangerous up here, do you realize that? Over an Isle, you might have a chance of survival, but dropping into the Acid Sea? You’d be dead before you even touched the bottom. If you would like to have a discussion, please do so quietly, without shouting.” He stared both of them down in turn, then turned to the rest of the car. “Now, if there’s anything you need, I’ll be sitting up here.”
Keane sat down in the front of the car, listening to the hum start again. The seat trembled as another person sat down. Keane looked over and was surprised to see Todd. “What in the Puzzler’s name?” he shouted, jumped up from the seat.
“I got bored, so I came to find you,” Todd said, shrugging.
“I would have seen you come through the front entrance,” Keane said, pointing to the door.
“I got in through the back,” Todd explained, tipping his had back. “Can I sit somewhere else? This seat is a bit uncomfy.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Keane said, watching the boy stand up and walk a few rows back. He looked back to the front, catching sight of himself in a polished bronze plaque proclaiming the car’s maker. His shirt had been darkened by the smoke he had crawled through, and a couple of embers had landed on him, causing slight fraying, but not completely ruining it.
“Pa’s going to kill me,” he said, shaking his head. His father was convinced that they had to portray themselves as presentable, but Keane was of the opinion that he needed to get work done, and he could work done better without the fancy duds.
The seat rumbled again as Cleo sat down. “I didn’t see much of you in Curridin,” she said softly.
“My pa kept you occupied, I’m sure,” Keane said, smiling vaguely.
“Listen, Keane, do you want to talk about that? Your father and me, I mean.”
Keane half turned, looked her up and down. “No.” With his brief answer, he turned back to staring in his mirror and began playing with his hair, pulling off his hat and trying to make his hair stay down.
“That’s fine. But I need to talk about it anyway. I know you’re angry at him because he’s seeing me, but right now, we’re just friends.”
“Oh, that’s not what’s bothering me,” Keane said. “I’m perfectly fine with him finding another wife. So long as he doesn’t try and find another mother. Also, I couldn’t care less if he married you, I just wish he would hurry up and do it.”
Cleo nodded, sympathizing with how he felt. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t want to take your mother’s place,” was all she said, then stood up and walked back to the place her retinue rested.
Keane dropped his hat on the seat next to him and ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up even more than it usually did. A hand touched his shoulder, and he jumped.
“Sorry ‘bout that, sir,” Todd said. “I was just wonderin’. Who’s that pretty girl back there?”
Keane half turned, and saw hundreds of what an eleven year old boy might consider pretty faces. “Which one?” he asked.
“That ‘un, there,” Todd said, pointing the girl out. In Keane’s eyes, she was rather plain.
“I have no idea,” Keane said. “Why don’t you go up and introduce yourself?”
“Is that a good idea?” Todd asked. “I don’t think it is.”
“I was joking, Todd,” Keane said, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You’ve gotta be careful with girls.”
“Speakin’ from personal experience, sir?” Todd asked, but Keane shook his head.
“No. My best friend though, he knows about that kind of stuff.”
“‘oo’s your best friend, sir?”
“Alex. He lives in Cordwich. I don’t see him much, though. He’s a bit of a loner, and I’m on here all the time.” He motioned to the train.
Todd was silent, then said, “Maybe that girl’ll be my best friend.”
Keane laughed. “Don’t count on it, Todd.” He turned around to his mirror once again, but not before he noticed the girl staring at them.
~~~~~~;
####==^>
Stephan Perls, grand chef of the Ad Hoc, was in a spot of trouble. He had completely blanked on picking up pepper for the trip to So-Terri. “We’re in trouble now, boys,” he told his kitchen crew as they hurried around, making their courses.
“Why don’t you just make something without pepper?” Arnold, the newest recruit, asked.
“That’s not the problem. The problem is that we only have ten pepper shakers, and those not even full, when there’s twenty-five tables!” That quieted Arnold. For a while, anyway.
“Why don’t we put the tables together?”
“Because,” Stephan said, then paused. “Actually-”
He was cut rudely off by another member of the kitchen. “No, the tables are bolted to the floor, remember? That way we don’t have them flying to the ceiling every time something bumps.”
Stephan nodded, finally deciding what had to happen. “Here’s how it goes. You will wander around, asking anyone whether or not they want pepper. If they do, you give them a shaker.”
“And if we run out of shakers before we pass through the tables?”
“You wait until that person is finished.” Stephan continued his explanation until he noticed Keane standing in the doorway. “What is it?”
“Am I taking my food in here, or-”
“Get out!” Stephan ordered. “You can eat with the rest of them today for all I care!”
Raising his hands in defense, Keane backed out of the room. “Guess we’re eating with the passengers, Todd,” he told the boy. The freckled face grinned back at him.
“That’s okay by me. I’ll find a seat next to that girl.”
Keane rolled his eyes, pushing into the dining car. It was already halfway full, most of the guests wanting a good view of the Acid Sea. Why, Keane had no idea. A view of the thing that was about to destroy their lives? But people were odd like that, Keane supposed.
“Let’s sit there,” Todd said, pointing out a table, at which sat the object of his infatuation. Keane looked to the roof, as if support were to be found there, then followed the boy to the table.
“Mind if we join you?” Keane asked, Todd to dumbfounded to say anything. Keane gave him a slight kick with his foot.
“Please?” Todd asked, smiling his broadest.
Keane rolled his eyes, waiting for the girl to say no. He would. After all, creepy little guy with a dirty face? Definitely trouble. To his surprise, however, the girl smiled and nodded.
A stupefied expression his face, Keane pulled out a chair and sat down, Todd doing the same next to him.
“I’m Keane, by the way,” he introduced himself, putting his hand forward.
“Alexandra,” the girl replied, accepting the handshake.
“I’m Todd.” The statement was met with a smile in his direction. “You’re pretty,” Todd continued. “I think I-”
Keane gagged Todd with his hand. “Shut it, Todd. If you’re going to be like that, I’ll throw you in with your uncle.”
Todd tried to bite his hand, but Keane pushed it in farther, causing his jaws to break apart. “And don’t try that again, Todd. It’s extremely annoying.”
“Thank you for the compliment anyway, Todd,” Alexandra said. Todd grinned at her and stuck his tongue out at Keane, who smirked in response.
Alexandra turned her attention to Keane. “Your father runs the train?”
“Aye. He’s the engineer, so to speak,” Keane said.
“And this is your brother?” Alexandra asked, glancing at Todd.
Todd laughed. “I’m not ‘is brother. If I was, ‘e’d be in trouble.” He looked at the doorway. “My uncle’s ‘is brakeman.”
“My pa’s brakeman. The Hoc isn’t mine yet.”
There was an awkward silence, then Alexandra spoke up again. “What are your thoughts on the Puzzler?”
“He’s a crazy old coot who created the thing that’ll bring about our destruction,” Keane said, shrugging.
“‘E’s crazy all right,” Todd muttered. “Anyone who changes land into puzzle pieces must be.”
“Do you think he’s going to come back and help us?” Alexandra continued. “That’s what the fight was about earlier.”
“The Puzzler was really angry, and was starting to go loopy. I think we’re on our own here.”
“There’s a legend, in Clete, that if you beat a Hydra, you can get a clue to where the Puzzler disappeared to.”
“They say that about any place. Except most people say it’s just treasure that the monsters are guarding.”
“They’re not monsters,” Alexandra said. “They’re guardians!”
“She’s going crazy, too, sir,” Todd said. “She’s even better for it!”
“Todd, shut it,” Keane ordered. “Alexandra, the problem with your idea is that they don’t care about us humans. It’s not a guarding thing, it’s a simple, explainable monster.”
“If you were a guardian, you’d kill anyone who got close to it, right?”
“Personally, I think you’re both wrong,” Todd said. “We’re not on our own. The Puzzler’s sent help. Don’t know who, but ‘e’s here, somewhere.”
Keane shrugged. “I think all we can do right now is what we’re already trying to do. Work out a solution to stop the acid.”
“It’s magic. We’re not. There’s no way to stop it,” Alexandra said.
A server came over, putting a platter of food in front of them. “Would anyone like pepper?” he asked.
“No, that’s fine, Arnold,” Keane said, nodding his thanks.
“All right, Master O’Fergus.” Arnold walked away, asking others the pepper question as he went.
“The Puzzler is still out there,” Alexandra said. “His private house disappeared. So he must still be alive.”
“Unless ‘e’s with us now,” Todd said. “‘e’s a Wizard, right? So ‘e could be anyone of these people ‘ere.”
“He’s got a point. A Wizard can do almost anything,” Keane said. “Anyone could be the Puzzler.”
Alexandra thought about it for a second. “Maybe. I guess. I don’t know.”
“No one does,” Keane consoled her, opening the platter. The smell of roast beef filled the air, Keane grinning with anticipation. Before he could take any, however, Todd snatched a slice and started chewing it. “Um, Todd,” Keane said, glancing at Alexandra, “You’re supposed to use a knife and fork.”
“Takes too long, sir,” Todd said, his mouth emptying to make room for the words. Keane closed his eyes and counted to ten.
“You’re hopeless,” he finally said, taking his own piece of meat.
“I hope Todd’s right,” Alexandra said thoughtfully as she took the meat. “That the Puzzler’s sent someone back to help us.” Todd grinned at Keane through a full mouth.
“Hopefully, it’s not Todd. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.” The comment earned a kick from Todd and a disapproving glare from Alexandra. “Seriously, though,” Keane continued, rubbing his shin, “There could be someone out there, but even if there is, what does it matter? Are we going to save the Puzzled Isles? No. We’re going to live out our lives hoping that the Acid Sea doesn’t destroy our homes. And when it does, we’ll fly around on the Hoc until it can’t go any longer.”
“I’d like to think that there is a way,” Alexandra said.
Keane looked at his plate, considering. Then he looked up, making eye contact and speaking softly. “Listen. When I was five, my pa got a crazy idea. He figured that the Puzzler was still out there, on an island somewhere. So he loaded up the train with as much wood as he could, and flew out, towards the place the sky and sea meet. But he couldn’t. He flew as far as he could with still having enough fuel for a return trip. He covered miles of acid, and turned up with nothing. He even made to the Everysky, he went so far.”
“That’s ridiculous. No one can touch the Eversky. It’s too far off. It’d be like touching the bottom of the Acid Sea.”
“What’s the Eversky?” Todd asked, looking hungrily at the meat on Keane’s plate.
“Where do you come from?” Keane asked. “The Eversky is the bubble that surrounds us. You know, the thing that lights up in the morning, then dies down at night.”
Todd nodded, looking out the window at the mentioned object, which was emitting a pale yellow light. “I thought that was the Lumin-sphere,” he murmured.
“What was that?” Alexandra asked.
“The Lumin-sphere,” Todd said. “It just made sense in my brain, that’s all.”
Keane took another bite of his food. “Either way, my pa touched it. But the point is this. The Puzzler, if he’s still alive, and didn’t just sink his palace, is probably out past the Eversky. It’s the only place no one could get past. My pa said that it was one of the hottest things he’s ever been that close to. He barely touched it, and had gloves on, too. We have the gloves. They’re petrified, as hard as rock. It’s hot, but magic, too.”
“That’s strange,” Todd said. “You going to finish your food, or what?”
Keane looked at him, then sighed. “No. You can have it.”
Before the words were out of his mouth, his food was in Todd’s. “That’s a bit disgusting,” Keane said, looking away and shrugging in Alexandra’s direction. “But he is a stowaway after all. We can’t expect perfection.”
“That’s true, all right!” Todd said.
Two long blasts echoed through the hall. “We’re going into descent,” Keane murmured. “I’d better help my pa. Nice to meet you Alexandra.”
“I’m staying ‘ere,” Todd said. “I ‘aven’t got desert yet.”
Keane laughed and pushed away from the table. “That be as it may, I’ve got to get back to my pa. I’ll find you later.”

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