The Emperor Rises
The moon shone bright over the swamp at the edge of the jungle. The stars glimmered coldly in the night sky. Crickets chirped. A bright blue parrot fluttered down carrying a scroll in its bill. It alighted on a piece of driftwood by the swamp and a bright, green girl slithered out of the mud to meet it. She was a swamp girl. Femurids was the proper title for her people. They could walk on two legs, and also fold their arms and legs together then slither across solid ground. The seal on the scroll showed the swamp girl's name, 'Mintani.'
Another green girl slithered out of the swamp. The silver moonlight shone off her nose and cheeks. The lank green tendrils that Femurids had for hair hung limply around her shoulders. "What have you got there, Minty?"
Minty showed her friend the scroll. "Hey Phradni. It's a message from King Gabriel."
Phradni flicked a strand of her lank hair away from her green face. "Ahhh, yes. You two have been pen-pals ever since he visited our swamp. That was when he was just the Prince."
Minty smiled, feeling warm and fuzzy inside. "Yes. We'd had human visitors before, but never such a perfect specimen of human beauty. I'd never seen anyone so dreamy. His auburn hair, blue-green eyes, like opals, his freckled nose and his royal profile…"
"Heard it before," said Phradni.
Minty held the scroll to her chest. "He's so kind and sensitive. When he visited eight years ago, he talked to me – just a regular swamp girl – and he said it was sweet how inquisitive I was. I begged him to write and he kept his promise to do it. We've been writing letters ever since. I know that I love him."
Phradni rubbed her green cheek. "You think you love him because of your letters?"
Minty grinned and unraveled the scroll. "Eight years of letters. We tell each other about our lives in the palace and in the swamp. I told him about fishing, hut building and the Sun Shrine. He told me about Royal politics. I remember how I was so sad when he married the Queen. I actually thought he might marry me someday."
Phradni smirked. "You'd take him to live in the swamp. Bit of a change from a palace."
Minty sighed. "I know a Prince would not want to marry a swamp girl. He married well, and he has a beautiful son now too."
Minty was reading the scroll and as she did so, she felt a stab of anxiety. "Bad news. A rebellion has begun, led by some nutter nicknamed 'Mad Eyes.' He has crazy ideas about leveling part of the jungle and draining all the swamps. The Dracons have joined forces with the rebels." The Dracons were giant, flesh eating lizards from another part of the jungle.
Phradni's black eyes went wide. "Are we like, in real danger? The humans would turn against us?"
"Only the rebels, obviously," snapped Minty. "The humans loyal to our King are all good, like he is."
There was a piercing cry high above them and a bright purple shape fluttered down. It was Ciaww, the king's monkey-bird. Shaped like a monkey, but with wings and a big and the ability to speak.
He fluttered down to alight on a log beside the swamp girls. "Awooga! Emergency!" he cawed. "I've had to fly on an empty stomach."
"That's an emergency?" said Phradni, her rubbery green features forming a sneer.
"No. Ciaww's always thinking with his stomach. Aren't you, feathered friend?" said Minty. She reached into the swamp and grabbed a tiny mudskipper and held it out. Ciaww snapped it up and swallowed before opening his beak again to speak.
"I bring tidings of an emergency. The King is doomed."
Minty felt a chill to her stomach. "What! What do you mean? Explain now!"
Ciaww flexed his wings. "It's the rebels. Serious business. They've overthrown the King. A squad of trident men and Dracons took over the palace and they've taken the Royal Family a prisoner. Their leader calls himself the Emperor now. We're in an Empire. Not a Kingdom anymore. King Gabi said only you can save him, Minty."
I breathe hard to calm myself. I know what I must do. "I have to try."
"That's suicide," said Phradni. "Don't you know how dangerous Dracons and evil humans are?"
"There may be a way. In the Sun Shrine. I'm going to get the Sun Jewel. Ciaww, come with me."
Minty swam across the swamp, Ciaww flying low over the surface. They reached the island on which the Sun Shrine had been carved into the living rock. There was a hole in the wall under the water that Minty could swim through, but there were also Guard Frogs on patrol at the entrance. "Please distract them," she murmured to Ciaww. "All you have to do is tell them what they're supposed to be doing. Frogs are pretty simple."
Minty waited under the water while Ciaww addressed the frogs. "You're not to allow anyone to enter the shrine."
"Not to allow anyone to leave the shrine *croak*" replied the Guard Frog.
"No!" snapped Ciaww. "You're not to allow anyone to enter!"
"Wait. Can anyone leave with us?" croaked the Guard Frog.
While they were bickering, Minty swam through the hole in the wall of the shrine and surfaced in a cavern cut into the living rock. The walls shone with bio-luminescence. On a stone plinth, there was a necklace with a glowing yellow gemstone. Little green spiders, jewel-bright, scuttled around the necklace in an unbroken circle. Quickly, Minty stretched out her rubbery green arm and seized the necklace. The spiders scuttled towards her, so she dived back under water and swam out of the shrine.
Ciaww was still distracting the simple Guard Frogs.
"Wait, are you saying I have to guard him?" exclaimed one of the frogs, pointing at his fellow who had no interest in the dispute. On the contrary, he was eyeing a tasty fly, which he then caught with his long, sticky tongue.
"No, all you have to do is guard the shrine," squawked Ciaww, ruffling his feathers. Minty waved at him and he shook his feathery head and flew up into the air to follow Minty.
The Royal Palace was an elegant building made of a unique blue sandstone. Now that the Royals were overthrown, it had become tainted by the evil of its new ruler – Emperor Akklax, nicknamed 'Mad Eyes.'
Flanked by hissing Dracons, the Emperor loomed over the Royals who were chained in a bare stone cell.
"Your decrepit house has fallen!" he sneered. "Now you will bow before your Emperor."
Queen Thea stood up as much as she could, her chains clanking. Her face flushed as red as her hair as she glared at Mad Eyes. "We will never bow before you, you vile pretender!"
Mad Eyes struck her hard across the face with his gauntleted hand, splitting her lip. Little Prince Alfie whimpered and his father hugged him. "Better do as he says, dear," said the King timidly.
"I will not bow before this lunatic!" snapped Thea, her blue eyes flashing.
"Very well then…" said Mad Eyes smirking. He walloped King Gabi across the cheek instead.
"Stop that! Alright…" Thea bowed quickly.
"See that you remember who your Emperor is. If you can't, I may decide you're not worth ransoming to your relatives and instead feed the prince to the Dracons. They're always hungry." Mad Eyes smirked as Thea turned white and with a swish of his cape, he turned and left the cell to meet up with his lieutenants.
Mad Eyes second and third in command were the Dracon, Lessh Frilldur, and the trident warrior Brutus Bloodcut.
Lessh was a giant even among his own kind. A great brown lizard with fishy eyes, vicious slashing claws and sharp, carnivore's teeth. Brutus was armed with a trident and a weighted net, like all his fellow trident men.
"Perimeter secure, there will be no insurgency around the palace today," said Brutus, saluting with his trident.
"There had better not be, or it'll be your head."
A faint frown line appeared between Brutus' brows. "Also, the ruffian gangs who assisted us in the rebellion are demanding their share of power."
Mad Eyes gave a twisted smile. "That can be sorted. Lessh!"
"Yaar, mightinesssss?" The lizard's forked tongue flickered as he spoke in a hissing parody of a human voice. The more intelligent of the Dracons all had the power of speech.
"The ruffians should be gifted the Royal merchant ships which they can turn into pirate vessels. As pirates, they can raid the defenseless coastal regions of the Western Isles. Just as we discussed."
"And how has it gone with poisoning the frog swamp?" demanded Mad Eyes.
"It isss done. We dumped the barrel into the swamp and they all died and the sswamp went black. As you ssaid."
"Good work, my strong right hand. Or should I say, my strong right set of vicious claws?" The Emperor gave a twisted smile. "But I've no doubt the swamp of the slimy green vermin, the Femurids, will give us more trouble. We will have to attack them with greater force."
Brutus' frown deepened.
Mad Eyes clapped his hands together. "Anyhow… Follow, both of you. You will both see why you should fear your new ruler."
Mad Eyes led them to the Royal Treasure vault. The vault was a bare, stone room, lit by flickering torches. There were mounds of gold, piles of silver, little chests of jewels… Suddenly, there was a terrible hissing and Brutus gave a start and Lessh's blunt head jerked uneasily from side to side.
A bright silver snake with a gold diamond pattern slithered out of a crack in the corner. Its markings showed it to be highly poisonous! The trident man and the lizard edged to the door in fright.
"Stay!" Commanded Mad Eyes, glaring at them. He knelt down and fixed his glare of his dark eyes on the snake. "Oh frightful guardian of my wealth, be silent and still," he crooned. The snake reared and swayed its head, returning the evil man's glare. Mad Eyes swayed his head, not breaking his gaze. Lessh and Brutus watched transfixed. Finally, the snake coiled up and its eyes filmed over in sleep.
"There! Did you ever see such power? Do either of you have such a gift with poisonous snakes?"
"No, my liege."
"I have appointed this dreadful guardian to guard my wealth. It could take either of you out with a single bite, but it is no match for me. Let this sight burn forever in your memories. I am deadlier than any serpent and all should fear me."
Minty and Ciaww pressed on throughout the night to reach the frog swamp, which they had to cross to reach the palace. Minty could slither very fast across the ground, although she could walk on two legs when she was not in so great a hurry. From a distance, she could sense something wrong… a foul smell of decay… not of vibrant life, like a swamp should smell…
She rose to her feet. The first, faint streaks of dawn had appeared on the horizon. She saw that the surface of the swamp was black, oily and lifeless. She staggered. "N-No… it's all dead…"
"Contaminated by the evil Emperor," said Ciaww gravely. "His depravity knows no limits."
Salty tears rolled down Minty's cheeks. "Those poor, poor frogs." She knew she had to pull herself together. She could not leave the Royal Family in the Emperor's clutches. "There's no way to swim across…"
Suddenly, she became aware of to points of glimmering scarlet in the oily surface of the swamp. They were fixed on her like eyes. Then they disappeared. "There's some kind of evil presence here... could the pollution the Emperor put into the swamp somehow be sentient?"
"Hope not," squawked Ciaww. "Regular pollution would be bad enough."
"We cannot cross on the surface, but there are tunnels under the swamp," said Minty. She led Ciaww into a dark cave which opened into a passage that led steeply downwards into the caverns beneath the swamp. There was contamination here, too. An oily river trickled pass the stone ledge they stood upon. The only light was from the Sun Jewel around Minty's neck. A thin tendril of pollution arose from the oily river.
"That's no friendly handshake!" burbled Ciaww.
Minty crouched and held the Sun Jewel up to the oily tendril and it dissolved.
"Don't be afraid, Ciaww," she said, stroking his head. They crept along the fetid passageway until it opened out into a cavern that was lit by an eerie light all of its own. They both stopped short in amazement. There was a tiny rocky island in a lake of black sludge and on it stood a figure they could both recognize. The King!
Minty blinked. "Your Highness?"
Ciaww squawked. "How did you get down here, your Majesty?"
"Minty! At last!" He spoke, but his voice sounded hollow and echoey. Minty was getting a giddy, unreal feeling as if she were dreaming.
"Did the Emperor put you down here? Don't worry. We can get across. Please Ciaww, you have to fly me. I can't swim through that muck."
Ciaww dug his talons into her green arms. She gritted her teeth, but Femurids are resilient and the wounds would soon heal. The monkey-bird beat his wings and flew her across the pollution lake. On the little island was a rough rocky pillar that they could now see led up through a hole in the cavern ceiling.
Minty bowed low. "Your Highness… Gabi… I was worried sick."
He ignored her. "Come… there is an evil presence here… the pollution is alive and sentient. It is coming back. Follow." He scrambled up the pillar with astonishing agility. Superhuman agility in fact. Agility that rivaled Minty's own. Ciaww flew after them as they slithered up into the next cavern.
Gabi turned to Minty. "The Sun Jewel. Give it to your sovereign, slimy creature!"
Slimy creature?! The truth dawned on Minty. "You're not the King. You're an impostor!"
The impostor's eyes glowed red and his form dissolved into an oily smoke that formed the outline of a demon – the evil sentience of the Pollution.
"There's no stopping my poison!" growled the specter. "Now you will die!"