"Would you care for more coffee, sir?" the dwarf asked.
Eddie stared out the porthole window, watching the ocean waves ripple by. He sat at the small table in his cabin, his breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast barely touched.
"Sir? More coffee?"
Eddie turned to the dwarf. The little man looked like a Tolkien character at a spa retreat, his long hair and beard clean but tangled, his bushy eyebrows combed to the sides, wearing a white tunic, leggings and comical elf shoes. He held the carafe expectantly.
"No, thank you, Magnus," Eddie said.
The dwarf bowed. "As you wish, sir. Shall I take your dishes?"
The dwarf bowed and turned to the cabin door.
"Uh, Magnus. When is the next stop?"
"The Treladines are twenty minutes away. We will begin deceleration shortly."
"The Treladines? Is it a nice place?"
"Tropical paradise, sir."
"Thank you, Magnus."
As the dwarf exited the cabin, Eddie turned back to the window.
How far away were Ruby and Bryce now? Bryce's car was fast, but the duck? Five minutes after it left each stop, the duck would rumble from the sonic boom.
When he'd boarded the duck the day before, A female dwarf welcomed Eddie on the ramp. She wore a simple white dress, her hair in a braid down her back. She showed him to a cabin, then offered to give him a tour of the upper decks. Eddie thanked her but declined. He hadn't left his window since then.
The first few stops were over landscape that Eddie recognized—the prairie lands he and Bryce had driven after leaving Holcomb. In the evening, he'd seen lights to the north that might have been Graden.
He'd also seen a column of snake warriors marching across the plain, approaching a small village. The scene passed quickly in the twilight. Eddie wondered if he'd really seen it or if his guilty mind had only imagined it.
When the moon rose, the duck passed over a wall of cliffs and descended to the surface of a vast sea. Eddie watched the black void beyond his window long after the sun set, the stars providing the only illumination in his little room. He slept in his chair.
In the morning, the duck made two stops over another continent, a tropical forest with unfamiliar creatures darting through the shadows. At one stop, Eddie stared down at a group of dog-faced men in loincloths, staring back up at the duck with undisguised wonder. None of them approached the vessel. After the last stop, the duck returned to open waters.
Eddie wondered whether he'd already missed his destination. What was he looking for? A hovering egg of land above a mountain off the coast? Should he be on the upper deck, looking out for it?
But he didn't want to leave the cabin. He was afraid to find more evidence of the destruction he'd caused.
The snake warriors .
Did he really see them? Were they really attacking people?
His fault. Eddie couldn't shake the gloom of knowing he'd unleashed a supernatural army on the world. It sickened him. He wanted to hide forever. Maybe he could stay in this cabin and never leave.
Someone knocked at his door.
Magnus stepped in. "We have received a message for you, sir."
Magnus held up a small slip of parchment. "'To the spiky haired boy who won't leave his cabin,'" he read. "It came over our wireless." He laid it on the table in front of Eddie.
Eddie read the parchment as Magnus waited.
Your stop is the Treladines. Sorry about the payment.
He read it three times. G.A. Gretchen Atwater. And what did it mean about the payment?
"I guess I'm getting off at the next stop," Eddie said.
"Very good, sir. I'll inform the captain. We'll make arrangements for your departure." He turned to leave.
Magnus turned back.
"How does my payment work?"
"It's a simple arrangement. I'll be back in several minutes."
Eddie watched the waves as he waited. What answers would he find in The Treladines? Who was Gretchen Atwater, and what was so important that he had to travel so far? Was this some kind of trap?
But what else could he do? He was of no use to Ruby and the others. He couldn't fight like her, and he had no technical skills to assist Chandra and Basha. To make a difference in this world, he'd need to take a chance.
As the duck decelerated, Magnus returned. "Follow me, sir."
He led Eddie down the same corridor he'd taken before, down three flights of stairs and back to the receiving room above the ramp. Three dwarves waited, one sitting at a small table, making notes in a ledger.
"It is time to discuss payment," said the dwarf at the table, not looking up.
"Yeah, about that. I've got a credit card."
"Gold or flesh?"
The dwarf looked up. "We accept gold or flesh."
"My credit card is good. I've been flagged as a criminal, but I don't know why. Anyway, I should be able to..."
"You do not have gold?"
Eddie felt sick. "Uh, no."
The dwarf leaned down and lifted a box. He placed it on the table. It was metallic and gray with a hole in one side. "Please place your hand in the box."
Eddie stared at the device. "I don't want to."
The other two dwarves opened their vests and pulled out pistols.
"You will comply, sir," said the dwarf at the table.
"What is the box going to do?" Eddie asked, his panic rising.
"It will be fast, sir."
A dwarf cocked his pistol.
Eddie stared at the dwarves. They all stared back. Magnus offered him an apologetic shrug.
A hydraulic whir caused Eddie to jump. One wall of the receiving room withdrew, admitting daylight. The gangway lowered out the door with a mechanical buzz.
"That door will only be open for two minutes. You will comply, or you will miss your stop. The payment increases the longer you remain on board."
Eddie moved slow, breathing shallow. He eased his left hand towards the box.
"Your right hand, sir," the dwarf with the ledger corrected.
Eddie took a deep, shaky breath, then pushed his right hand into the box.
At first nothing happened. He wondered if this was some kind of joke—a hazing ritual for passengers without gold.
The box made a click, almost too subtle to hear. Eddie felt a tug at his hand. For a second, he thought nothing had happened. Then the pain shot up his arm.
Magnus approached, extending a long white cloth. "A bandage, sir. We need to wrap that up."
Eddie shook, the pain unbearable. He yanked his hand back and caught only a split-second look at the damage. Where his right pinky had been, there was now a bloody wound. A thin jet of blood shot out before Magnus caught the hand in the cloth. He bound it tight, wrapping Eddie's entire hand.
"Welcome to the Treladines, sir."