Glad you could join us for the next heart-pounding episode of Elliot’s Adventures. If you’re new here, you can catch up by returning to the beginning, and reading really fast…
The activity in the hollow below became a still life for three beats of dead air. The messenger shaded his eyes and laughed.
“Randall! It’s good to see you,” he called, his voice slick as lava glass. “Come in, come in!”
Slowly, Randall picked his way down the wall, slipping on loose gravel that rattled to the ground.
“Easy there, friend, or you’ll bury us all,” the Stinger joked. “It’s been so long since we last met I was afraid some misfortune had found you.”
“I’m here now, and I want to see the General,” Randall responded as he jumped the last foot and a half releasing another trickle of rocks and landing well outside the circle of Stingers.
“Of course you do. As it happens, he’s in. Follow me.” His fellow Stingers closed in behind Randall.
Squeezing through a slit between boulders at the base of an ancient rock slide, Randall waited just inside till his eyes adjusted to the dim torch light. Smoky shadows wavered on the walls, and scritching noises bounced off the ceiling making it impossible to locate their sources. Stingers of all sizes sat on random succulents sprouting from the sand. He would have found comfort in the stale dampness the plants created if it hadn’t stunk of rot.
General Hai glowed like an ember in the center of the room.
Grinding across the floor to grate in Randall’s ears, the General’s voice silenced all other sound.
“You want to see me? Why?”
“I’ve done what you asked.” Randall clenched his jaw to contain his voice’s quiver. “I’m here to get my son.”
Addressing the messenger, General Hai said, “Remind me of the terms of the agreement.”
“Randall would free Madam Duggla from jail, and little Teddy would go home.”
“Ah, yes. That was several days ago. We were down south at the time. I met with Madam Duggla almost immediately afterward, so I know that part went well, but why,” he asked fixing Randall with an accusatory stare, “has it taken you so long to report back?”
The terrified frog had rehearsed this moment in his head, but struggled now to calm his heart. “I was delayed.”
“You mean, caught?”
Swallowing hard, Randall held firm. “No, sir. I’ve never had to… hurt anybody before, and I needed some time to recover. I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
“You left no witnesses?”
“Hm. Yet the Crone told me you only knocked the guard unconscious.”
“I… I went back after she left.”
“You’re saying you took care of him?”
“Did you bring any proof?”
Looking at his feet, Randall shook his head.
“I see. Well, we’re all gentlemen here, so I’ll take you at your word. Bring out little Teddy.”
Someone took a torch and vanished into a hidden chamber at the back of the cave. He came out moments later carrying Randall’s son to put him on a plant next to the General. He held the torch close to the boy.
“Daddy?” his dry little voice squeaked.
“I’m right here, Teddy. We’re going home.”
“As you can see, he’s fine,” General Hai said. “However, there is one small matter left. I did host him longer than I’d planned. How do you propose to compensate me for that?”
“Um…” Randall stammered, “…with whatever you think is fair.”
“Excellent. How about a little training in the art of political expediency?”
Randall’s throat tightened. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“The harsh truth, Randall, is that sometimes, in order to accomplish one’s goals, it’s necessary to remove troublesome obstacles. Permanently.”
“You mean…” Randall swallowed hard, “…killing?”
“When we talk about politics, we use the term ‘assassination’. That won’t be a problem will it? The first time is the hardest, and you’ve already crossed that threshold… haven’t you?” His glare held no forgiveness.
“No… yes. No… it won’t be a problem, but could I take my son home first? You can send someone with us to make sure I come back.”
“I think I can accommodate you. Anthony!” he called. The messenger took a step forward, “Would you please escort Randall and Teddy home?”
Anthony smiled, “My pleasure, sir.”
“Come on, Teddy.” Randall reached for his son’s hand only to have Teddy grab his leg.
“No, Daddy,” Teddy insisted as he watched Anthony pass beside them. “Pick me up. Pick me up!”
Carrying his son, Randall followed the messenger into the sunlight, blinking in the glare. As his pupils contracted, he saw Anthony’s tail rising over him in a deadly arch as the Stinger’s silky tones flowed into his brain.
“I hope you feel honored. Your first lesson in assassination is from the Assassin himself. The second lesson will be your son’s.”
Randall froze. As the Assassin approached, Teddy squirmed frantically trying to climb over his father’s back, crying, “Don’t let him get me again, Daddy!”
Randall’s blood turned to fire. He took a step back and braced to defend his son.
The rough crunch of stones rolling down the rockslide demanded their attention. Flashes of orange and green darted across the scree, staying just above the rockfall crashing down on them. Directly above them, a boulder as big as Teddy tipped over to hang on the edge for an improbable instant before diving into their terror.
Randall tore his eyes from the coming doom to focus on his target. The Assassin was still looking up. Randall sprang forward with one arm around Teddy and the other reaching for the killer. He grabbed one claw and pulled it to his side as he twisted out of the missile’s path.
The Assassin screamed his pain when the boulder landed, severing his arm from his body.
Gert caught Randall’s eye, “Run! Run!”
To be continued. . .