by Kirby Ray
A cackling maniac rides for Arboleda, and Jay and her friends make a discovery...
CHAPTER 5: THE BLACK STAR WHO LAUGHS
Deep within a hillside an hour's drive from Arboleda, there lay a round container the size of a dumpster, inside of which was a ball of cloth-like metal. It had laid there for untold eons, undisturbed even as the Earth shifted beneath it and forests rose, fell, and rose again above. Like so many ancient treasures, it had gone unnoticed regardless of the thousands of people that had walked through those woods; it was forgotten with all the other relics of the Primogenitors. If they knew the weapon that lay buried beneath their feet, they would have dug up the container and done everything they could do destroy it, lest it be turned loose on the world.
Inside the container, a millennia-old silence was shattered when the cold voice of Pyramax came through a speaker in the walls. "Activate, BS-4575! Activate, BS-4575! Heed your king's call to arms!"
The ball of black iron shifted about in its prison before it answered in a gravelly male voice, "So good to hear your voice again, lovely Pyramax. What's it been--thirteen, fourteen thousand years?"
"You are to go to a town named Arboleda, thirty-five miles due west from your present location," the droning voice continued, ignoring the pleasantry. "Someone has found a storage facility--you are to secure it and recover anything taken from within."
"Sounds simple enough," the ball rattled with a wheezing cough. "Since you are requesting my specific services, I shall assume you don't mind things getting a little bit messy."
As the ball slowly unrolled and elongated, Pyramax answered, "Correct. If you meet any resistance along the way, you are to terminate it at any cost. Once you have secured the facility, you are to hold it until we are able to send reinforcements."
"Consider it held, my frigid friend," the Black Star chortled mirthlessly as he continued to expand to his full form. "When next we meet, we shall drink to our master's victory--assuming you have a mouth somewhere on that shell of yours."
"Just do your job, BS-4575," Pyramax groaned, exasperated by her jovial agent. "Stay in contact during the job."
"As you wish, buttercup," replied the soldier. "Give my best to the other grand high muckety-mucks!"
After Pyramax ended her call, the entombed Black Star finished unfurling like a capsule animal toy in water. He was still shrouded in black cloth, but his arms and legs led to bony hands and feet made of gold. His face was similarly gold, permanently frozen in a warped comedy mask, from which came his grating voice and laugh. The agent of destruction stretched his arms and legs, the joints in his fabricated body cracking and creaking as they returned to life. It had been eons since his services were called on, and he wanted to make a good first impression for his king.
"Open says-a-me!" he grunted as he waved his hand at the ceiling of his prison.
The lid of the container trembled for a moment before rocketing away, exposing the Black Star to sunlight for the first time in millennia. He took a moment for his cold, empty eyes to adjust to the brightness before brushing away the dirt that fell on him when the container opened up. The jovial fiend trembled as he stood on legs as shaky as a fawn's, but he steadied himself against the wall of his tomb as he found his feet.
"All right, let's see if I've still got this," the ancient soldier grunted while twisting his body from side to side, joints cracking and popping like so many sticks. "It's only a twenty-foot jump--how hard can it be?"
As he would find out, it was not hard in the slightest; he even managed to land a stone's throw away from the container. The Black Star stretched his arms out wide, took a deep breath, and then hacked like a cat as fresh air filled his body. It was positively rancid to the agent, who was used to the smog-filled skies and desolate landscapes under Lord Cosmic's reign. No wonder Pyramax had called for him--they would need all the help they could get if they wanted to get the world back to how it should be.
"And I'm just the man to do it," the soldier remarked to himself, chest bursting with pride for the Black Star crusade. "To me, my Saturnights!"
The sounds of metal grinding against metal could be heard from inside the container, and a moment later, eight Saturnights leaped out to join their commander. They clicked their heels together and threw their hands up in a salute, which the Black Star returned as he sized up the foot soldiers of the army. Perhaps it was because he had been asleep for so long, but they seemed shorter than he remembered. No matter--so long as they were able to follow orders and remained as impervious as ever, they could not fail.
"All right, children, listen up! After ten thousand years, we're free, and it's time to help Lord Cosmic conquer Earth. We are marching to some Podunk town to secure a site for our king, but we're going to do it with our own style and flair, just as we've always done. If anyone tries to stop us, we are to destroy them by any means necessary--but we're not stopping there. By the time we're through, there won't be an Arboleda to speak of!"
The cloaked fiend snickered before breaking into completely maniacal laughter, though his Saturnights did not share his malicious mirth. He cast his arm out to the side, and out of his sleeve came a long, obsidian staff. When he banged one end on the ground, a long, curved blade emerged, transforming the pole into a wicked scythe. He hoisted the scythe into the air and spun it about before slamming it back down to the ground once more.
"Just remember," he reminded his goons as he pointed to his grinning mask, "when the Grin Reaper comes to town, he leaves everyone with smiles on their faces."
Answered only with mute nods, the Grin Reaper pointed his scythe westward. "Onward, my duckies! Onward to victory, glory, and destruction!"
This time, the Saturnights threw up their fists once, twice, thrice before they fell into formation and marched behind their commander, automatons that they were. Their laughing leader hummed a ditty to himself as he swung his scythe about like a child that found a cool stick in the woods. It felt good to be out and about again, especially when he had the chance to spread smiles like in the olden days. Oh, how proud Lord Cosmic would be when he saw the decimation the Grin Reaper would sow!
Meanwhile, back in the unsuspecting town, Jay and her ragtag gang were still seated around the table in the Primogenitor conference room, as Warren had called it. For the ebony girl, it was the discovery of a lifetime, but the others found it to be lacking compared to what they had seen on the news earlier. The room was barren, save for the table, chairs, and the boxes that sat in front of them, which Rosa eyeballed like a Christmas present.
"So, is anyone else going to open their box? Because I really, really want to, but I want to make sure they're not boobytrapped before I do," the girl explained as she crossed her arms over the band name on her shirt. "Come on--anyone want to take a puff of poison gas for the team?"
"You seriously think there's poison in here?" asked Warren as he marveled at the box, much in the way one marvels at a piranha or snake. That is to say, cautiously and fearfully.
"Or maybe spikes will shoot out," Rosa mused. "Maybe fire...ooh, or maybe spikes covered in fire!"
Or Pandora's box, Bian typed out for the group. What if it's not rigged with a trap, but something worse?
Davide scoffed and knocked on the lid of his box. "If anything evil was in here, it got out a long time ago. Probably just a bunch of dust, if you ask me."
"Well, there's only one way to find out," Jay told her friends and classmates, her hands going to the box in front of her. "Shall we?"
Though the others were of mixed feelings, everyone reached out and took hold of their boxes. They had already come this far, despite not knowing what lay beyond; since that had worked out so well, why not keep going? With anxious hearts, they opened their boxes and found a wristband in each one. The bands were made of some silver fabric, and in the center of each was a perfectly smooth, colorless gem.
"Well, that's anticlimactic," Rosa said with a pout while she tossed the lid over her shoulder. "What a Primo rip-off!"
"What, you wanted a trap?" asked Warren as he pinched the wristband and gingerly lifted it from the box, as though it was a dirty sock.
Davide, however, had no such trepidation when it came to the ancient artifact. Though the wristband seemed too small at first, he found that it slipped right over his massive hand and fit his wrist like a glove. He smirked and waved his hand in front of his face, asking Jay, "Hey, Scott--can you see me?"
"Of course I can see you," the studious girl answered, not getting or caring about the joke. She adjusted her glasses as she studied the wristband: the elasticity of the material, the gemstone in the center, and the weight; if there was something she could gauge, she wanted to test it. Finally, like the resident jock, she slid the wristband on and found it to be a perfect fit, despite her wrist being half the size of Davide's.
I thought it was funny, Bian replied to Davide, a bashful smile sprouting on her lips.
Eventually, the others followed suit and put on their wristbands. They felt strange: cold like metal, yet comfortable as cloth; soft on the skin, yet hard to the touch. When they tapped the gemstones, they were greeted by a not unpleasant vibration that raced up their arms, but little else beyond that. Once more disappointment set in for most of the group, but not Jay, who treated the discovery with all the reverence it deserved.
"Davide, can you take some pictures? This is huge, and I want to get as many notes as I can for my research," she told the boy.
"Whatever floats your boat," Davide answered with a shrug as he got his camera out and walked around the table, snapping pictures of everyone's wristband. It made little sense to him, but then again, he did not have Jay's pedigree. When he finished, he had a small stack of photos for his classmate's collection, which she eagerly stuff inside her box.
Once she finished packing, Jay rose from her seat and looked around the room for anything else to investigate. She glanced at her companions and asked, "Who wants to help me look for secret passages? After everything we've found so far, there's got to be even more to this place!"
Warren raised his hand and told the excitable girl, "Actually, can we call it a day here? I kind of ditched my family's chauffeur to do this, and I'm pretty sure she'll be looking for me."
"Warbucks is right, Jay," Rosa agreed, nodding to the rich young man. "Let's put a pin in this and come back after school tomorrow, okay?"
Much as she wished she could keep exploring, Jay knew the others were right. The hike up to the cave and down to the meeting room had taken some time, and her parents would likely start wondering where she had gone off to. She still had the key though, and now that Davide had torn a hole in the fence, she could get in whenever she wanted. Unless this was all a dream, everything would be here tomorrow.
"All right, we'll pack it up," the self-appointed leader acquiesced, "but I'm coming back tomorrow, one way or the other. Want to come?"
"Like you could keep me away," Rosa answered with a smirk.
I would love to! Bian texted happily.
When the two boys did not answer right away, Jay glanced their way and told them, "How about you? You guys coming or what?"
Warren and Davide looked to each other, then to Jay, and back at each other. This was the same girl that had made it clear she did not want them along in the first place, and now she was inviting them to tag along for the next trip. Whatever the case, they were not going to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity.
"That sounds like a blast!" Warren exclaimed. "I mean, I'll probably need to figure out a way to get here without needing Star, but I'd love to come along."
Davide, meanwhile, tried to play cool as a cucumber and shrugged as he answered, "I don't know. I can try to make it, but, you know, I've got football practice and all. Starting defensive tackle, you know."
"Yeah, we all heard you in class and we're all very impressed," Jay replied, rolling her eyes at the jock's nonchalance. "Just make sure you're here by 4, okay?"
When everyone nodded in agreement, Jay plucked her box from the table and made her way to the door with a skip in her step. It was going in the rest of her evidence about the Primogenitors, which she was going to update the second she got home. The thought that she could work on it out in the open, without fear of her parents' disapproval, made her feel even giddier. Maybe they would let her convert her bedroom into a study, just so she had room to work!
"Next time, I'm going to bring some garbage bags with me," Rosa suggested as she followed behind Jay. "The ol' cave could use a good cleaning."
"I'll see if I can borrow some supplies from the staff back home. I don't know exactly what they use to clean, but everything is spotless when they finish, right down to Father's ashtrays--they're so clean, you could eat your soup out of them," Warren replied before biting his tongue at blabbing so much yet again.
Davide clapped him on the shoulder and grinned at his smaller classmate. "Just make sure you're ready to get to work; nobody's going to clean for you this time."
"Hey, I make my bed every morning," the rich boy retorted, copper hair bouncing as he turned his head in a huff. "How much harder can scrubbing be?"
"Spoken like a true bourgeois," Rosa chuckled, nudging Warren with her elbow.
As the trio in the back gabbed away, Bian walked side by side with Jay while her friend could barely contain her excitement. No one knew how much this meant for her more than she did; being the only one the bespectacled girl felt she could confide in about the Primogenitors made Bian almost as well-versed in the topic as Jay herself. To see all those years of patience and determination pay off had the stout girl brimming with pride for her best friend--though she did not know how to express it. She could give a hug, but she had already done that earlier when Jay cried, so would it be appropriate here as well? Maybe saying something would be good, but words were tricky; she did not want to open her mouth and act like a fool. Finally, she settled on what felt most comfortable--a text.
Your grandfather would be proud, the silent girl typed out before showing Jay.
After reading it, Jay's beaming smile dimmed and she cast her gaze to the ground, which sent Bian into panic mode. Had she made a mistake? She meant for that to be praise, but maybe Jay did not want to be reminded of her grandfather. She scrambled to get a new text ready, only to be wrapped in a side-hug by her bosom buddy.
"Thank you," Jay whispered as she hugged Bian close. "You always know what to say."
Crisis averted, Bian sighed contentedly and returned the hug while putting her phone away. Maybe she was not as bad at communicating as she thought...
"Too small...too small...too small! Bah! Are all vehicles made for ants these days?" the Grin Reaper bemoaned as he watched cars pass down below.
The trek to Arboleda was a long one--easily a day's march, even though the Black Star and his Saturnights did not need to stop. If he wanted to get on Lord Cosmic's good side, he needed to make a strong first impression, and what better way than to cut that time down to a fraction? They could run, yes, but that would just be taking a little off the top; the Grin Reaper wanted to shave the whole thing off. Thankfully, there was a road leading into town not far from where his container, and he had watched the cars go by with bated breath. Surely, there was something out there that could hold a small battle squad in this day and age!
Finally, his patience was rewarded, as a Saturnight pointed down the road at a pick-up truck cruising into town. The golden goon exclaimed, "Well done! Now, let's get their attention, shall we?"
The Black Star way of getting attention was a simple one--lob a warning grenade at the truck. One of the Saturnights hurled the explosive rod at the road some distance ahead of the driver, which caused the truck to swerve off-road to avoid getting caught in the explosion. The Grin Reaper pointed at the vehicle as it came to a stop and ordered his troops, "Take it! Don't let him get away!"
The poor driver never knew what hit him. One minute, he had been heading back into town to pick up supplies for the house his crew was rebuilding, and the next, he was spinning out of control to dodge the explosion that tore up the road. He clenched his wheel tight as his heart pounded in his chest, but the worst was yet to come. A swarm of black-clad maniacs buzzed around his truck, pounding on it as they tried to get in. Before he could hit the gas pedal, one of them wrenched open the door and pointed a club at him.
"Look, take whatever you want!" the driver cried as he held his hands up. "Just don't hurt me, please!"
"My good man, we don't want to hurt you and we don't want much," a gravelly voice announced as the Grin Reaper approached. "All we want is your truck."
"T-Take it! It's yours!" the man exclaimed as he scrambled out of the truck.
"Much obliged," the Grin Reaper chuckled while watching the pitiful man tremble like a leaf. As the Saturnights filled the cab and bed, the masked menace asked, "Did you hear about the fire at the shoe factory?"
The driver froze and looked into the empty eyes of the cloaked invader. "Wh-What?"
"I asked if you had heard about the fire at the shoe factory," the Black Star asked once again.
"I...I don't...what?" the driver asked, fear and confusion clouding his mind.
This time, the Grin Reaper slammed the man against the truck and put the pole of his scythe against his throat. "Did you hear about the fire at the shoe factory--yes or no?!"
"No!" the terrified man choked out.
The grinning fiend was silent for a moment before explaining, "Ten-thousand soles were lost--they say a heel started it!"
At that, the pole of the scythe came away and the driver slumped to the ground, his legs too weak to keep him standing. The Grin Reaper burst into giggles that seemed as hollow as the canned laughter on sitcoms, and he howled like a wolf to the moon. When he regained some of his composure, he managed to ask, "Isn't that great? Never gets old!"
Only when he noticed that the driver was not laughing did the Grin Reaper cease his chortling. He glowered down at the man and sneered, "You're not laughing--don't you think it's a riot?"
"You're supposed to laugh!" the agent snarled as he pointed his scythe at the driver, whose eyes were wide as dinner plates. "Laugh, darn you!"
Unfortunately, the truck driver could not find it in him to laugh, not even in sheer terror. The Grin Reaper sighed and pressed a button on his staff, which released a cloud of green gas on the man. At first, it only made him cough and gag, but those coughs soon gave way to a titter that grew into guffaws and then, finally, belly laughs. The driver clutched his middle as he laughed until he was red in the face and a rictus grin spread across his lips. He had laughed hard enough that it hurt before, but this was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
"There it is! He gets it!" the Grin Reaper cackled as he hopped into the bed of the truck. "Don't worry, I'll come back and tell you another one when I get back. For now though, we're Arboleda bound! Onward!"
The Saturnight in the driver's seat slammed its foot on the gas and sped off to town, leaving the driver laughing on the side of the road. The people of Arboleda would share the same giddy fate, and the thought of all those smiles and giggles made the Grin Reaper howl with empty, deathly laughter.