With a final glance over his shoulder, Sludge stepped onto the shack’s dilapidated porch and knocked on the twisted door. When no Crone appeared, he tried the knob. “Locked. Of course.”
Expecting this, he pulled out the key he’d made. A year or two back, when the Crone was in the kitchen making worm tea, he’d grabbed the key on the wall and pressed it into a block of clay in his pocket. Later he’d taken it to an Artanian blacksmith he knew he could trust who forged a new one.
“Crone?” he called inserting the key in the lock.
No answer. She was probably meeting with the Mud Princess. She often did to scheme and plot. Sludge allowed himself a moment to imagine a dance with that alluring creature, torchlight illuminating their wreathing bodies as his minions looked on in envy.
Yes, the Shadow Swine will long tell tales of my glorious dance. He stared at the door. His lips curled up and serrated teeth glinted in the firelight.
A splash behind him made him turn. He glanced back at Swallow Hole Swamp where larvae hatched. Even before he’d bowed before Lord Sickhert on the banks of the River of Lies, he’d practiced dream draining on his fellow nymphs there.
A dark worm crested the swamp, its segmented back rolling in and out of mossy waters.
“Swim, nymph, swim. Into shadows below,” Sludge whispered before stepping over the threshold. “Are you here, old one?”
Her shack was as quiet as a death.
“I’m coming in,” he said to the air.
Once inside, he turned right toward the exact room he wanted. While each held a boiling pot, some forged like serpents or krakens, with others as round as witch’s kettles, the one he needed was misshapen and warped.
This one held answers.
The view inside looked the same as it had weeks earlier when he’d stood there with the Crone. The firepit still lit the room in. The three-legged cauldron still held a long ladle and flames continued licking the bent and twisted iron.
Here he’d seen that human’s face floating in mist long ago. The artist who had gloriously drowned in mud months before young Bartholomew was born. Oh, the nightmares he’d sent Hygenette after that. They ensured that she would forever turn from art.
This had gained him recognition and put him in Lord Sickhert’s favor. But now the Crone suspected the truth and just a few choice words could strip all of that away.
If he wasn’t careful.
“Are you investigating me, Crone?” Sludge said stepping closer to the kettle.
The boiling surface was misty at first. No images. Not even the slightest hint of a human or Artanian. But as Captain Sludge looked deeper, a faint outline began to appear.
He leaned in closer. A sandy beach emerged. Melting clocks. Cliffs. Some hazy forms took shape. Two of the animated figures gesticulated wildly while a third with red hair paced nearby.
“New humans in Surrealia? How can that be?” Sludge gasped and stumbled back.
He mused for a moment. What was going on? Only the Chosen Ones should be able to enter portals. That’s how it had always been. Had Thinker done this? If so, it made no sense. Artania’s leader was known for safeguarding humans. Only calling upon Alex, Bartholomew, and Gwen when necessary.
Maybe Crone had shown Lord Sickhert their new powers and now could open larger portals. Sludge straightened two of his hair spikes, thinking. But no, she often ranted and raved about him being too strong. She would never share such powerful knowledge with their lord.
But she might take some for herself and leave Sludge behind.
Whatever the reason, he had not slogged through the marshes of Swallow Hole Swamp to waste this opportunity. When he first set out, he’d hoped to find what the Crone was up to. But never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that vulnerable humans would now be in Artania.
He nodded. This turn of events just might work in his favor.
He rubbed his hands together. “I think I’ll craft a bit of amnesia to send your way.”
Taking a deep breath, Sludge blew a long stream of black mist over the simmering liquid. The dark smoke entered each gurgling bubble before rising on the steam. Sludge smiled and blew more.
The hazy image of four teens on a beach rose higher over the kettle as the outline of a brain took shape in the boiling waters. A moment later it ascended, and Jose and Zach’s faces materialized in the air. Licking his lips lasciviously, Sludge blew harder, and all images sharpened.
“Blankness, oblivion, shade,” Sludge chanted between panting blows. A cloud filled the brain image then darkened and drifted toward the teens’ faces.
Jose and Zach’s mouths dropped open.
“What do you think you’re doing?” an ancient voice cried from the doorway.
Sludge didn’t turn. “Capitalizing on an opportunity.”
“I didn’t give you permission.”
“Yet here I am.” He blew again. “Watch.”
The floating image enlarged until it filled the room. Then Jose and Zach’s eyes clouded to milky white. An instant later there was a loud pop, and the smoke cleared.
Sludge ran a claw-tipped hand over where the image had been.
The Crone nodded approvingly and slapped him on the back. “Well perhaps you are not quite the pupae I took you for.” She began to cackle.
Sludge joined in and their screeching voices filled the shack and floated toward the quivering nymphs of Swallow Hole Swamp.
About Laurie: The author of the recently released Finding Joy as well as The Pharaoh’s Cry, Portal Shift, Kidnapped Smile, and Dragon Sky of the fantasy series The Artania Chronicles, and Forests Secrets. Laurie Woodward is also a screenwriter who co-authored Dean and JoJo: The Dolphin Legacy. Her poetry has been published in multiple journals and anthologies and she was a collaborator on the popular anti-bullying DVD Resolutions. Bullied as a child, Laurie is now an award-winning peace consultant, poet, and blogger who helps teach children how to avoid arguments, stop bullying, and maintain healthy friendships. She writes on the Central Coast of California. More about her work can be found at Author Laurie Woodward — Next Chapteria.net