[ Contents | XII. Dark Heart | XIII. Tremors | XIV. Quiet Before the Storm ]
Darkness, lit only by luminous green flashes like lightning, settled over Niflheim. The very air grew still; howling winter winds fell silent, snow ceased its eternal fall. A dreadful anticipation hung over the frigid underworld. Only one thing moved, a bright golden flame that hurtled through the air towards the mouth of the Gioll river.
Then it began: tiny wavelets criss-crossed the Gioll, an irregular chop that mirrored not the absent wind, but a vibration in the earth itself. Soon the banks and hills shook with that vibration, banks collapsing into the river, hills rippling like sea-waves, shedding themselves in landslides. Snow and ice that had frozen in place since the dawn of time roared down in avalanches. Here and there, the ground cracked open; soon the very air seemed to groan. The World Shift had begun.
Vegeta's eyes widened in dismay as he beheld the dark, nameless sea heaving and tossing in chaotic disarray, dark spray breaking high up on the bone-white beach. His gaze ran up and down the length of the barren island at the mouth of the river as he hovered, Princess Kadru in his arms. Where was the damned ship?
Ah, there it was! Beyond the snake-walled Hall of Torment, on the ocean shore of Naastrand--as he'd expected, but had almost missed it as the waves washed high on the shore. Nailfarer Naglfar, the boat of dead men's nails, was nearly awash in the seething dark tide. Vegeta frowned as he descended; the pale gleaming ship had a crew.
Dead men lined its deck, some black and bloated with decay, some the glistening white of the long drowned--all red-eyed and baleful. Axes and swords lifted as Vegeta approached. The dead prince smirked, and stretched out his one good hand--
--and fell! He'd circled over the sea, and the instant he passed over the water, the power of flight left Vegeta, and he plummeted into the icy dark water, hair fading to black again. Kadru splashed down beside him.
COLD! The shock of it would have killed him, were he living. Only the warmth enfolding him from the wolf-fur, and the wolf-blood within kept Vegeta moving; the dead prince surfaced, sputtering seawater and shivering with the bitter cold. Kadru..
..was being dragged onto the deck of Nailfarer Naglfar by red-eyed corpses. She thrashed and struggled in her human form, but to no avail. "Here's something to warm a dead man's bones!" "I saw her first, she's mine!" "Share and share alike, lads!"
Hmmph. With any luck, they'll tear each other apart over her. Vegeta swam quickly to the ship of dead men, and hauled himself out by the bowpost. His brief climb took him out of view of Kadru and her undead captors; in that time, they fell suddenly silent, and there came a great sigh, like an indrawn breath. What the hell?
Vegeta pulled himself over the side onto the deck. The dead men all backed away from Kadru as she reared up, transformed into a Naga-woman. She hissed at them, fangs bared; Vegeta marked the terror in her eyes. "Aiyeee! A snake demon!" "'Ware her venom!" "I wanted to kiss THAT??"
Oh, this is good! They are as scared of her as she is of them--and everyone is ignoring me! Not so good. Vegeta scowled and stepped forward.
"The snake-woman is with ME! If you don't like her, leave! If you like her, leave--I don't like you on MY ship!" Vegeta scowled; he hadn't meant to say it quite that way.
The dead warriors turned as one to stare at the diminuitive Saiyan prince. "Who's the runt?" "Got nerve, ordering us off our ship like HE'S the captain!" "He's not Loki, that's for sure!" "Doesn't look so tough!"
A tall, red-bearded wight stepped forward, wielding an axe in his right hand and carelessly dangling a shield in the other hand. His armor and decayed flesh showed the marks of many swords and axe blows; the warrior had not died easily. He glared at Vegeta, burning red gaze locked into intense dark Saiyan eyes.
"Well, goblin?" the dead Viking growled. "Your words are empty boasts, runt--you've not a mark on you. Died in your sleep, did you? Probably poisoned by a woman," the warrior sneered.
Vegeta's eyes went wide, and his brows lowered with anger. The veins stood out on the side of his head. "SHUT UP, YOU FILTH!" Faster than anyone could see, the dead prince lashed out, and the red-bearded warrior's head tumbled from his half-skeletal corpse. Corpse and head hit the deck, and slowly crumbled to dust as a high-pitched wail marked the passing of the broken spirit.
Vegeta did not stop to watch; he charged through the throng of evil dead, breaking and shattering them before they were more than barely aware of the first warrior's fate. He stood, panting; the deck was clear of all save himself and Kadru.
He looked quickly around, and cursed. More dead men were coming from all around the shore. In the other direction-- a great dark wave filled the horizon.
"Hurry!" Vegeta called to Kadru. He raised one hand, and blasted the cable tying the baleful ship to Naastrand's shore. "Get the sail up on this wretched excuse for a boat, and hang on! If we're not well out to sea when that wave hits, we're done!"
"How? I do not know how to sail a ship!" Princess Kadru wailed.
"Useless idiot snake!" Vegeta cursed as he gathered energy in his right hand. He squinted at the dark shore; a single figure was clawing and fighting its way through the pack of dead men toward them. Vegeta frowned; something familiar about that one..
He glanced over his shoulder; the wave was closer! No time to worry about the stranger now--Vegeta lifted his hand and flung energy in a steady, powerful blast that scattered the walking dead warriors--and, with a grinding lurch that nearly knocked him off his feet, sent the ship surging out to sea.
The dead prince noted with some curiousity that the stranger managed to dive out of the way of his blast, and was running.. now leaping into the waves and grabbing something.. the mooring rope! Nailfarer's severed mooring rope trailed in the water behind the baleful ship, and the stranger was hauling himself along it hand over hand. Vegeta smirked, and raised a hand-- and Kadru screamed behind him.
Prince Vegeta whirled--the great wave was on them! Nailfarer's bow rose with the wave, up, up and up until Vegeta thought the whole ship must surely fall over backwards. Kadru coiled tightly around the mast, clinging with the same dogged tenacity that had marked her climb up Yggdrasil's icy root; Vegeta braced himself against the sternpost. The whole ship seemed to climb to the summit of a dark watery hill, the bow hanging over nothing but air--and then over, and Nailfarer crashed down!
Now Vegeta clung to the sternpost with both arms and all his strength as Nailfarer plunged down the slope of the wave as steeply as it had risen. His eyes widened as the ship plunged down and down; surely nothing could stop it from diving deep into the sea behind the wave!
* * * *
Nothing stopped it; the bow drove deep into the dark water, and the icy torrent poured over the deck, drenching Kadru and Vegeta both. The flood dragged at Vegeta with frigid fingers, trying to tear him loose and pull him under the waves forever. He defied it with all his will and spirit, and stayed with the ship.
For endless moments the ship staggered under the black water; Vegeta began to wonder if they would hit the bottom of the dark ocean first, or return to the surface someday. Finally, Nailfarer shuddered and broke the surface, wallowing in the dark waves. Vegeta opened his eyes, and shook the water from his hair.
Kadru clung weakly to mast, coughing up water. She looked bedraggled and miserable; most of her bridal gold had been torn away and lost by the fierce current. Her wolf coat was sodden and torn; Vegeta's hadn't fared much better. Only the wolf blood within still kept him warm.
Well, well! That peach did her some good--she would have drowned or frozen, probably both, if she were still purely mortal. "Stupid snake! What did you think you were doing, interfering with me at Elivagar?"
Princess Kadru looked up from her own misery, and looked, in turns, puzzled, thoughtful, then finally indignant. "You promised to find me a suitable husband! I thought you were going to leave me with that ugly worm! I don't know what you thought, not-husband, but a dumb corpse-eating worm that chews tree roots is NOT suitable!"
"Snake-woman, I--" Vegeta broke off abruptly, sensing movement behind him. His head snapped around, and he raised his good hand, gathering energy.
One skeletal hand already gripped the gunwale, and as Vegeta watched, another joined it, and a helmeted skull rose into sight as the long-dead warrior started to climb aboard.
"I thought we lost you when the wave hit," Vegeta snarled, as he held his hand out--and stopped abruptly. His eyes widened; he recognized the long blond braided hair hanging from the otherwise bare skull. "Modgudh! What??"
A ghost's hollow chuckle; "That large, out-of-place demon you were looking for? He showed up," Modgudh said very dryly. "Perhaps I should ask permission to come aboard, first," the undead guard answered. "May I?" Hollow eyesockets regarded Vegeta's outstretched hand.
"Hmmph! Come aboard, then! I want to hear why the guard of the Gioll Bridge is here, aboard my boat." Vegeta lowered his hand, and Modgudh resumed climbing aboard.
"YOUR boat?" Modgudh laughed. "Them as built it might think different, but piracy is a fine old tradition in the North, so 'tis yours by right of possession, indeed." She seemed very amused. "I didn't mark you as one to be going a-viking, but I don't argue with reality, either. Stealing Nailfarer! Ah, this is rich!"
Prince Vegeta folded his arms, and waited, scowling. The incongruity of Modgudh's rich, feminine voice coming from the bare bones of a long-dead warrior maid disturbed him, and her laughter even more so. Presently, Modgudh stopped laughing.
"Your large, out-of-place demon has made one hell of a mess--crashing his way out of Elivagar, splintering Yggdrasil's root.. oh, and destroying the Gioll Bridge on the way past. No bridge, no need for a guardian, and I am freed from my geas. You're on your way out of Niflheim, so I followed, and here I am." She looked around at the ship. "That may have been a mistake."
"What??" Vegeta looked around, suddenly aware of the condition of the ship. The mast ended a few feet above Kadru's head, snapped off abruptly. Sections of the gunwale and thwarts appeared partly crumbled, and the ship wallowed broadside to the waves. The saiyan found the alternate sinking and heaving up, combined with a certain lurching to and fro, very unpleasant. From the look on Kadru's face as she hurriedly slithered toward the rail, she found it more than unpleasant.
This is what humans put up with before they learned to build real ships and aircraft?? For such fragile creatures, they have extraordinary tenacity and courage!
"You're going to have trouble going anywhere--no sail, and looks like you lost your steering oar," Modgudh observed. She lifted up one of the planks laid between the thwarts, and peered into the bilge. "You're taking on water; she must be holed somewhere. I always did think dead men's fingernails was a stupid material to build a ship out of. No strength to it, and it crumbles at the joins between nails."
"Taking on water?" Vegeta's eyebrows arched, and he looked worried. That did not sound good, nor did 'missing a steering oar', whatever THAT was.
"As in, 'we're sinking'. Slowly." She looked down in the bilge again. "I suggest that you find the hole and patch it, and then someone start bailing." The skeletal woman finally let the plank drop.
"Bailing?" Vegeta looked puzzled.
"Yes, bailing. You know, scooping the water out of the bilge and tossing it back over the side where it belongs?" Her bare skull tilted a bit to the side. "You're not a sailor, are you?"
"Saiyans FLY, we don't float around on driftwood like lizards! And why can't I fly here?" Vegeta snarled.
"Hel's curse; what she gets, she keeps. She does not permit the spirits of the dead to simply flit across the Endless Ocean and escape her realm and their punishment. Nor may any ship made of wood or hide sail from Niflheim's shore--that is why the evil dead built Nailfarer Naglfar, this ship of dead men's nails."
"Hmmph! So find the hole, and get Kadru to fix it before we're all swimming--she seems good at that sort of thing. I'll worry about how to get this barge moving!" He leaped to the top of the sternpost, and looked out across the sunless sea.
"Why do 'hell' and 'too dark to see your hand in front of your face' seem to go together?" Vegeta growled to no one in particular. He lifted his arm, and a ball of white light began to form in his cupped hand. It blazed brighter and brighter until no one could endure looking at; then Vegeta lowered his arm, wound up, and pitched it high into the non-sky above the Endless Ocean.
It exploded into a slowly expanding disk of light, illuminating the ocean for countless miles. Even the sea turned translucent under that relentless glare, and nameless fish-things dove deep, fleeing the terrible light.
"Ah!" Vegeta exclaimed as he looked across the ocean, sheltering his eyes from the glare. "Look!" he shouted, pointing. Modgudh and Kadru looked up from their task.
In the distance, a small black-hulled ship cut through the waves, a single black squaresail driving it before the wind. It was not so long as Nailfarer, but rounder and stouter. Prince Vegeta squinted; a single figure stood at the stern, gripping a great oar--so that's what a 'steering oar' is!--guiding the ship. As Vegeta watched, the ship came around, and bore straight for them.
Kadru was bewildered, "I can't see anything!"
Modgudh lifted a skeletal hand to shade empty eyesockets. "A knarr of sorts, though I don't recognize the design. Who sails this sea?"
"We'll soon find out," answered Vegeta. "Is that hole fixed yet?"
"Holes," corrected Modgudh. "And I think there's a weak spot in the hull that may split entirely before long." At Vegeta's look of annoyance, Modgudh snapped, "it takes more than thirty seconds to find and fix these things!" Modgudh looked under the planking again. "Vegeta, give me that fur cloak of yours; we've already used Kadru's."
"WHAT?" Vegeta scowled, eyebrows lowering.
"Would you rather swim?" Modgudh doffed her helmet and tossed it to Kadru. "As soon as you seal the other big one, start bailing," the undead warrior maid instructed the naga princess.
Vegeta scowled even more fiercely, but took off the wolf-cloak and tossed it to Modgudh, who promptly handed it to Kadru in the bilge. "At least I know a better way to get rid of the water than laddling it with a spoon!" He furrowed his brow, concentrating; suddenly, the whole ship lurched as a single huge blob of water rose out of the bilge into the air. Vegeta gestured, and the amorphous thing tipped over, and slid into sea. Modgudh's jaw dropped; Kadru sat up, wide-eyed.
"Now, let us go meet that black ship!" Vegeta faced the stern and held his one good hand out, concentrating. The pale ship shuddered, and surged forward; the waves flattened astern as the force of Vegeta's will beat against them.
* * * *
On Earth, Sinhika smiled to herself, pleased. She sat quietly waiting in the outer office of Capsule Corp's personnel director, filling out the paperwork for her new job. Sean had come through with flying colors, helping her put together a plausible resume, and she'd supplied the requisite references from memory--all Night Wanderers, who would know her name and happily attest that the Princess of Lankha was whatever and whoever she claimed to be, and good at the job, too.
Sinhika felt no qualms at the deception; illusion and deception were survival to the Rakshasas--and she did have the skills she claimed. She simply hadn't acquired all the major languages of India, and deep knowledge of its customs and ways in quite the way her resume claimed she had.
Capsule Corp needed an expert translator and "cultural advisor" for Marketing's Indian subdivision; Sinhika needed a job, and knew better than to argue with Fate. In a short while, she would be Capsule Corp's newest employee. She turned in the completed paperwork to the fellow behind the desk--pleasantly young, but a bit too plump to interest her as a man, and too nice to interest her as dinner.
"Miss Manohara?" the nice, plump young man handed her another folder full of forms. "You need to take these over to Security, and get your badge. I hope you enjoy working with us," he smiled.
* * * *
Raditz frowned as the building shook again. Another minor earthquake! That had to be the fifteenth one in as many hours; what the hell was going on? Even the people who worked here who had dismissed the first few as "just the usual tremors" were starting to look rattled.
The big Saiyan growled and glanced at the sheaf of paper in his hand: the criminal records of the four kidnappers he'd disposed of. He'd known that humans were insanely fond of records and forms of all kinds, but keeping performance records on criminals struck him as downright odd. Of course, on Vegetasai they'd simply have been executed the first time, and wouldn't need records after that.
Hiregumi claimed to be old-fashioned; he preferred to brief all of his security force--including Raditz--in person. Raditz wasn't quite sure what was old-fashioned about that--in the Royal Guard, he'd have been briefed personally about all the usual suspects to keep an eye on, but humans seemed to go out of their way to find the most impersonal way possible to do things. He'd seen some of Bulma's flunkies spend half an hour sending electronic messages across the same damn room, instead of getting up off their lazy butts and taking the ten seconds to walk over! Idiots.
Hiregumi had come through, using whatever connections he had for tracing licenses and names. Goten and Chi-chi's kidnappers turned out to be even slimier than Raditz would have believed possible--Saiyans might be brutal killers, but this kind of depravity--never! Well, perhaps there had been a few, in history, who were insane enough to do once the kinds of things these four had been suspected of doing repeatedly for years. Raditz couldn't remember hearing of any such, though.
Now I have to find out why these filth were hooked up with that demon, and why they went after Goten. And what the hell is that demon-dinosaur, anyway? Does it have anything to do with the thing that killed Vegeta? Musing over these thoughts, Raditz made for the bare corner office that officially belonged to him, but that he actually used for about five minutes, once a week at most.
As he walked, Raditz barely noticed the shapely black-haired clerical assistant bent over a bottom-row filing drawer, short skirt hiked up to an indecent height by her current position, even though he had to squeeze past her. He closed the door to his office, completely oblivious to the frustrated glare she gave his departing back--or rather, hair.
She stood up abruptly, and viciously kicked the filing cabinet closed. She returned to her desk, and her co-worker, a pert short-haired brown-haired girl wearing glasses.
"Well, Lina?" the short-haired girl asked anxiously. "Did he?"
"No--Nezumi, he didn't even LOOK at me! My skirt was hiked up to THERE," Lina drew a line on her thigh with her finger, "and you know how low this blouse hangs when I bend over--he just ignored me! This is the fifth time either you or I has tried to catch his eye, and nothing! Nada, zip, zilch, zero, strike out! Just our luck--the one good-looking new guy in the whole place, and he's gay!"
"Maybe he's married, or already has a girl.." Nezumi suggested.
"Nope, no ring. I looked. Besides, Kidoru is married, and that doesn't stop him from looking and grabbing, the pig! And if he had a girl, there'd be clues, and he'd act.. different. Bad boys will still show interest, and nice guys with a girl will show strong non-interest, if you know what I mean. Either this guy is gay, or utterly clueless, or dead--and he moves around too much to be dead," Lina pronounced with finality.
Nezumi sighed, a forlorn, bereft sound. "Well, at least there's hope if it's just cluelessness."
"If it's cluelessness, he's terminal! I think I could lounge naked on his desk and he'd probably push me aside to look at the computer or something!" Lina snorted in disgust.
* * * *
Kidoru jerked his head up, startled, when Lina knocked on his office door. He hurriedly shoved the magazine he'd been reading (a title Master Roshi would have recognized at once) into the top drawer and straightened his tie. He was a thirty-something man with crooked teeth and slick black hair, badly cut. His clothes were equally unfashionable.
"Yes?" He asked his assistant somewhat harshly, and then frowned. There was someone with Lina, a woman--his eyes widened--a gorgeous woman with orange hair!
"Mr. Kidoru, this is Sinhika Manohara, our newest employee. Personnel just sent her over to get her badge and clearances taken care of." Lina smiled a nice plastic smile for her boss.
Kidoru didn't even look at her; his eyes were entirely on Sinhika. "Come in, come in, Miss Manohara. Won't you sit down? You can leave now, Lina," he added absently.
* * * *
"Who's the new girl?" asked Nezumi.
"See for yourself," Lina said as she passed Sinhika's resume and application forms to her friend. "She got that Indian Division marketing spot that was open."
"Oh, so she won't be stuck here with "The Fastest Hands in the East"? Lucky girl!" Nezumi made a derisive gesture in the direction of Kidoru's closed door.
"Looks like she'll be reporting directly to the VP, or maybe the Boss Herself." Lina raised an eyebrow, impressed.
"I wish we did--the Boss would never put up with Kidoru if she saw what he was like." Nezumi sighed.
"The trouble is, he's actually competent enough at his job to keep it, and he doesn't act like a pig when anyone whose paycheck he doesn't sign is around. Hmmm.. well, Mr. Gay-or-Clueless there," Lina pointed down the hall at Raditz's office door, "is the Boss's personal bodyguard; he reports to Her all the time. I wonder..."
* * * *
Sinhika decided that if Kidoru tried to grope her one more time, he was going to be picking his teeth up out of the corner of the room, job or no job. Besides, she could always re-apply for the job under another name and face. First, she thought, let's try the playing the "customs and manners" card.
"Excuse me," she said frostily. "In my country, it is not customary for a man to be so.. forward to any except his wife--in the privacy of their home. Is this your way of proposing marriage?" Sinhika managed to look innocent and puzzled.
"Um, er, I.." Kidoru stammered, turning red. "It was just a joke, sort of. I'm sorry; just fill out these forms and take them to..." he paused, casting around for someone to dump this embarassing young woman on. "Take them to Raditz-san, his office is just around the corner and across the hall."
Sinhika raised one eyebrow, then left the office. Kidoru wiped the sweat off his brow; thank the gods! If she'd reported his behavior as some kind of proposal--he didn't want to think how much troubled he'd be in. Especially with his wife, and that old battle-axe mother of hers! Besides, he smirked, time that long-haired weirdo Raditz pulled his own weight around here! Kidoru didn't care what Hiregumi or Bulma Briefs said about him being Mrs. Brief's personal bodyguard, it wasn't fair that he didn't do his share of the regular work! Personal bodyguard--huh! Kidoru could guess what kind of personal services Raditz provided--look at how all the office girls drooled over him. Shameless!
* * * *
Raditz started at the sudden knock. What the hell? No one but Hiregumi had the temerity to interrupt him when he had the door closed. Was something wrong? He put away the book he'd borrowed from Gohan ("Introduction to World History, 5th Ed."), curled his tail back around his waist, and growled, "Come in! What the hell is it?"
The door opened part way, and the beautiful dusky face of Sinhika Manohara peered around the edge of the door. "Raditz-san?" she asked uncertainly, holding up a folder full of papers as she pushed the door the rest of the way open. "Mr. Kidoru sent me to--"
Raditz stood up abruptly. His huge, knee-length mane of hair added to his imposing six-foot-plus height seemed to overwhelm the small office; Sinhika stepped back involuntarily. He folded his muscular arms and frowned slightly.
"Kidoru has overstepped himself," the big man said in a soft, fierce voice. "I am a warrior--er, guard, not a clerk!" Sinhika barely heard him; her nostrils flared, and one eyebrow went up; there was something.. familiar about his accent, and the shape of his face.. Then her gaze fell on the brown fur "belt" wrapped around his waist--an odd ornament for the simple dark jeans and grey shirt Raditz wore--and her eyes widened.
She smiled, and ducked her head bashfully under his fierce gaze. "I'm sorry, I'm new, I must have misunderstood. Perhaps one of the ladies can help me..." Sinhika looked at Raditz again, her voice full of innocence, her smile and eyes wicked as sin. "Again, I am very sorry that I disturbed you." Her voice and smile suggested that she wasn't the least bit sorry as she backed away, and gently closed the door behind her.
Raditz blinked; he'd missed something! That face--that orange hair! SHE was the girl who danced in the street, the one with power, the one who had.. desired him. Well, one of several, he smirked to himself. So.. Damn! What an idiot he was!--he hadn't even bothered to learn her name! Well, if she was working here, he'd run into her again--he was sure she'd make sure of that. Heh.
* * * *
Nezumi finished typing up Sinhika's paperwork after she left. She sighed. "It's hopeless. He must be gay--he chased HER out of his office? No normal man could be THAT clueless!"
Lina frowned. "Maybe not," she said. "He IS a professional bodyguard, not a clerk--Kidoru shouldn't have sent her to Raditz, he did that just for spite, I'll bet. Maybe the big guy's cluelessness is professionalism--you know, he concentrates on protecting the Boss, doesn't have time for stray femmes like us." Lina smiled wryly.
Nezumi snorted in disgust. "Listen, I'm the ex-cop here, and most of the cops I knew behaved like professionals on the job--and the only cops I knew who would ignore women like he does were either gay or serious family men." She shook her head. "No, I'm starting to think you were right the first time. What a shame!"
* * * *
Late that evening, Kidoru parked his car, locked it, and hastened down the dark street toward his apartment. Working late at Capsule Corp. was one thing, but coming home late was not so good; Jade would be angry again, and scream at him about spoiling dinner. Preocupied with these woeful thoughts, he didn't know anything was wrong until something grabbed him from behind, and a strong hand was clapped over his mouth to muffle his cries...
* * * *
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER XIV. QUIET BEFORE THE STORM
[ Contents | XII. Dark Heart | XIII. Tremors | XIV. Quiet Before the Storm ]
Disclaimer: See Credits.
Copyright 2000 by Dragoness EclecticLast Updated: Mar 8, 2009