The Kainoi Stanzas
Strofa Uno: Gli Stagioni
(Stanza One: The Seasons)
Book One: Spring’s Reckoning
Brian E. Cody
Copyright © 2016 Brian Edward Cody. All rights reserved.
Maps of the Continent of North America, circa 143 Terra Nostra.
The mountains were wrong. For as long as Drake had sat on the swing outside of his house and looked past the valley on Eastwing Township’s southwestern border, he could recall that thought. With the tops of his soles pricking the blades of grass in front of him, he looked to the forested and fielded distance and examined those peaks.
The mountain to his far left was not just asymmetrical, but missing half of its slope, as if—as his mother once explained—a giant cat had cut it in two and taken one half away. The mountain across from him and some untold miles off was marked by a barren crater halfway up its slope, as if—as his mother once explained—a humongous dog had shoveled out innumerable tons and forgotten to bury anything. The mountain to his far right, the farthest from the other two, had a flattened top, as if—as his mother once explained—a colossal bird had ripped off the peak to wear as a hat.
Drake didn’t turn at the wailing cry behind and above him, and he only squinted his honey-yellow eyes as a twig slammed into his right ear and caused the eight-inch auricle to flicker. He ignored the short, chuckling burst occurring after the impact, but he groaned as the chuckles were supplanted with the rending of another stick.
Drake squinted as a second twig slammed into the top of his right shoulder and he looked down to it sliding down his red shirt and plopping into his seat. Groaning, he then looked back to the mountains, while his seat was nudged by a zephyr that also carried drawing breaths. Drake turned to the road, while his isosceles ears perceived hurried gasps and skittering paces beyond view.
“Bombs away! Direct hit!”
“What?” Drake looked back and winced as a second twig crashed along his forehead, slid down his face—where it blended with his short, reddish-brown fur—and bounced against his small whiskers. Growling, Drake watched the twig fall onto his blue shorts and then hit the ground. He then looked up to the oak tree holding the swing and to the figure slinking behind a branch.
“The beast has been wiled!” the figure howled while peeking into view.
“Riled”, Drake murmured.
“That’s what I said!” the figured growled as he reared out with another twig in hand. “Die, big-eared monster!”
Drake rolled his eyes as the twig crashed into his shirt, and he looked to the road as the gasps heightened. Sprinting from the tree line was a fox whose orange-red fur flashed against the surrounding greenery and whose yellow shirt reflected the afternoon sunlight and drove Drake to squint. Drake humphed, while the fox started up the winding, dirt path leading to his home and nigh-vanished within the yard-high grasses if not for his peaking black ears. Though Drake’s ears winced from another twig’s impact, he forsook it as the fox reappeared in front of him, bowed, and breathed. “So?” Drake murmured.
“Drake!” the fox barked as he reared up, his exhaustion seeming to vanish as he jumped back and looked with his brightened, cyan gaze. Drake grimaced, and his ears twitched, while the fox, hopping in place, flashed his teeth in a widened smile. “Guess what!”
“You found another ant nest?” Drake inquired.
“No!” the fox gasped. “Actually, yes, and something cooler, but not just those things!” he cannoned. “My brother’s home!”
“What_?” the fox looked up and shook as a twig slammed into his white snout and crashed beside his orange tail. “Joseph, stop throwing sticks, or I’ll tell your mom!” he screeched, bringing Drake to tense.
“You know that never works”, Drake mumbled.
“You started it!” the bombardier howled as he pivoted into view, his teeth flashed and his small, equilateral ears pulled back along his cougar’s head.
“Nuh-uh!” the fox retorted.
“James”, Drake grunted.
“Right!” James coughed as he spun to Drake. “My brother’s home!”
“Okay?” Drake mumbled, his eyes inching back to the mountains.
“Don’t you wanna meet him?” James inquired, his smile stretching farther than what Drake considered normal bounds.
“Pretty sure I have”, Drake mumbled.
“But not like this!” James howled, his black hands flailing by his brown shorts. “He’s got a uniform and a cool stick!”
“I wear a uniform for school, and trees have sticks”, Drake retorted.
“Come on, you gotta see it!” James exclaimed as he pulled on Drake’s shoulder. Drake, though limp against the fox’s grasp, held the swing’s ropes, extracted his felid claws to latch into the fibers, and only relented after a minute of James’s persistence. Hopping from the swing, Drake stumbled and reared up to James’s height.
“I’m coming too!” Joseph blared as he maneuvered around the branches, with his blue shirt and green pants—already covered in wood slivers—being pricked and pulled by growing buds. He lunged from the branch holding the swing and, as James and Drake stepped apart, he landed between them and reared up, his dull-brown eyes level with Drake’s chest.
“No lighting fires this time!” James ordered while poking Joseph.
“Don’t shock me!” Joseph screeched as he pushed James’s hand aside.
“I won’t if you don’t start anymore fires!” James retorted with matching tone.
“You started the last one!” Joseph blared.
“You did”, Drake averred as he scratched his left ear.
“That’s not the story my mom believed!” James retorted as he stepped into the grass.
“Mom, we’re going over James’s house for a little bit!” Drake blared as he looked back to the white, two-story cottage and the open windows lining its front.
“Okay; be back before sundown!”
Drake’s ears pivoted towards the right of the house and to the open window from where leaked the scent of boiling stews. “Okay!”
“Okay, hurry, let’s go!” James called. He dashed for the road, gasping after only a few paces, but maintaining his speed until he hopped onto the pathway, looked back, and stopped. “Come on, hurry up!” he called as Drake and Joseph wambled through the shaggy yard. “Come on, hurry, hurry! Sundown’s in an hour!” James howled as he hopped in place. Drake and Joseph stepped onto the road and looked to him, Drake with visage unshaken and Joseph with hands scratching at the slivers in his fur. “Come on, let’s go!” James ran behind them and pushed, driving them along the road for ten feet before stumbling out of a collapse and coughing from uplifted dust. Finding the two felines unmoved, he jogged in front of them and grinned. “I bet I can get there fastest!”
“You probably can”, Drake replied.
“Nuh-uh!” Joseph screeched, his long tail jerking from side to side.
“Let’s prove it!” James blared. “On your mark_!”
“Go!” Joseph caterwauled as he bolted.
“You cheated!” James howled as he darted after him. “Drake, we can’t let him win; he cheated!”
Drake sauntered on as James and Joseph sped down the road.
“I win!” Joseph howled, his spotted, chestnut fur covered in splotches of dirt and mud as he stopped beside the open, wooden gate and grabbed its topmost rung.
“Because I helped you out of that ditch!” James retorted as he stopped beside Joseph. “So much for gratitude!”
“You snooze, you lose!” Joseph coughed.
“Drake, hurry! You can still earn third!” James blared as he looked back to Drake turning onto that road from one hundred yards off.
“I would get third regardless”, Drake called back.
“What if there are invisible people running with us?” James asked.
“There aren’t”, Drake replied.
“You’re losing!” Joseph gasped.
“Hurry, Drake!” James barked. Drake groaned and accelerated into a slow jog, moving with bounds strengthened enough to be perceived as running while maintaining his original pace. “Ninth place!” James exclaimed. “Sixth place!” he added as Drake slowed. “Third, you did it!” James yelped as Drake stopped in front of him. “Wait until my brother finds out!” James exclaimed. “Come on, come on!” He ran past the gate and along a short path outlined by sunflowers and leading to a one-story, light-blue cottage and an adjoining, two-story barn.
Drake and Joseph followed as James sprinted ahead. Along the cottage’s porch and in front of the open door sat an adolescent fox with red hair parted down its center and just above his eyes. He wore a green shirt striped with black and black shorts striped with green and sat with one leg crossed and a circular mirror in his lap, which he wiped. Propped against one of the porch’s columns to his left was a yellow staff, a little over a meter in length, with the width and shape of a two-by-two block of wood, and two matching protrusions a foot from its apex.
That fox looked up and grinned as James slowed in front of him and hopped in place. “Back already; that was fast”, Steven spoke as he lowered the mirror aside. He looked to James but then to two parallel stalks rising behind his head. “Those ears—I couldn’t miss them if I tried!” he exclaimed as Drake and Joseph walked towards him. “Drake, you’ve grown…or your ears at least.” Drake stopped and grunted, while Steven smiled and stood, his 5'4" prominence towering over the youthful triplet. “I’m joking…somewhat.”
“Hi!” Joseph blared as he hopped in place.
“Loud cougar covered in dirt—you must be Joseph”, Steven spoke.
“What’s that?” Joseph blared as he pointed at the mirror.
“That is a mirror that my mom asked me to clean”, Steven replied.
“This a uniform, but where I work, we call it Down”, Steven replied as he pointed at his shirt.
“What’s that?!” Joseph coughed.
“That’s my staff”, Steven replied.
“Tell them what the uniform’s for!” James blared.
“School?” Drake suggested while crossing his arms.
“No”, Steven replied, “but I am taking classes, so good guess. It’s so people know that I’m an—drumroll please.” James tapped his hands against the porch. “I’m an ARK officer.”
“Ta-da!” James howled as he spun to Drake and Joseph. Though Joseph grinned, Drake stood with brow raised and arms crossed tighter.
“That’s it?” Drake asked.
“‘That’s it’?” Steven repeated with tilting gaze.
“What’s that?” Joseph asked.
“ARK officers help to keep the peace”, Steven replied, “like how my dad’s a sheriff, but our area of influence is wider and we deal with a lot more things—though, we usually end up helping sheriffs and constables.”
“So you hunt bad guys!” Joseph exclaimed, while Drake humphed.
“Sometimes”, Steven replied.
“Tell them what else you do!” James blared.
“Well, okay.” Steven sat and crossed his legs. “I’m in what’s called the Vanguard—one of the three divisions of ARK.”
“Sounds cool!” Joseph blared, while Drake humphed again.
“The Vanguard is the coolest!” James proclaimed.
“Not necessarily”, Steven replied. “Dad and grandpa were both in the Guard Proper, and some of our cousins are in the Rearguard. The Vanguard just have an air of mysteriousness since they’re not usually interacted with by civilians. All of the Guards are equal and equally important. As a brief summary, the Vanguard look for things about to happen. If they’re bad things, they try to stop them from happening. The Guard Proper look for things already happening and aid them to come to a conclusion that’s good for everyone. The Rearguard look for things which have happened, and, if they’re bad, they work to clean up any messes left behind.”
“Cool!” James blared.
“Boring!” Joseph called, while Drake humphed a third time.
“No it’s not! You just weren’t paying attention!” James retorted.
“It seems boring at first glance”, Steven reasoned. “But it’s a very interesting harmony that works to keep the peace in the_”
“Boring!” Joseph cackled as he twirled, while Drake humphed a fourth time.
“Okay, you explained it! Now come on!” James called as he grabbed his brother’s arm.
“What?” Steven asked.
“I have something cool to show you!” James exclaimed.
“Another ant nest?” Steven asked.
“No, but that too, but we won’t have time for that today!”
“Okay, okay”, Steven replied as he stood, “but we’ll not go too far, since there have been_”
Steven looked to the open door. “Yes, mom?”
“I need you to help me move furniture to the barn”, she called. As Steven grabbed his staff, James released and stepped back, and Drake and Joseph looked to each other.
“On it”, Steven replied. “You guys can wait for me or go on ahead. I should only be a few minutes. Just don’t go too far; there have been mantis sightings in this area.” Steven grabbed the mirror and jogged into the house before turning out of view.
“What do you guys want to do until he comes back?” James asked.
“He’s a goner”, Drake muttered, his eyes gaped.
“No, he’s not”, James countered.
“Rest in peace!” Joseph blared.
“He’ll be moving things for forever, James”, Drake added.
“Not for forever”, James replied.
“Remember when your mom made you clean your room on Sunday, and we didn’t see you until Tuesday?” Drake asked.
“I was doing other things during that time too; I just didn’t have time to come over”, James replied.
“We knew him well!” Joseph blared.
“Okay, it might take a while”, James sighed. “We’ll go and bring him back something cool! Wait right here; I need to get my new invention!”
“No!” Joseph shrieked.
“Does it hurt?” Drake asked while stepping back. “I don’t want to be near your invention if it hurts or makes you conduct electricity.”
“Remember, I’m not allowed to make those kinds anymore. It doesn’t hurt, you guys; I swear!” James jogged into the house and ran to the right. The sounds of him hopping over furniture and then shuffling through crates echoed from the open doorway until he reappeared with a small brown sack in hand. “Okay, let’s go!” He hopped down the steps and started along the path in a slower jog, while Drake and Joseph walked after him.
“Maybe I’ll join ARK when I get older”, James spoke as he stepped around a slender tree and hopped over a log. “They’ll accept you when you’re ten if you’re nice enough, but mom wouldn’t let Steven join until he turned thirteen.” James scratched his chin and then looked back to Drake peering groundward to evade roots, sticks, and shallow dips and to Joseph lobbing small rocks at the tree trunks—some thin, straight, and tremorous from breezes, and others massive and bulging. “Or maybe I’ll be a scientist! Or maybe I’ll be a doctor! Or maybe I’ll be all three!”
“Well my dad once said that ‘ARK officers are useless and a waste of community resources’”, Drake recited.
“Yeah, that!” Joseph exclaimed.
“Nuh-uh!” James howled.
“Yes-huh”, Drake replied. “He said that the Guilds are more important and would be more effective at keeping orders if they were allowed to.”
“Oh yeah!” James hocked as he pivoted about. “Well, my dad once said that Guilds-beasts are just a bunch of elitist bug-letters!”
“Bug-letters?” Drake humphed.
“What do they let the bugs do?” Joseph asked.
“I don’t know, and I wasn’t really paying attention”, James replied. “But he also said they only enjoy spilling bugs on the battlefield.”
“But who cleans up the bugs?” Joseph pondered.
“That’s a good question; maybe ARK does that”, James spoke as they passed into an isolated, gravel field. “It’s over here!” he called as he jogged to the center of the field and to a short rise on the ground. He grabbed a metal bar protruding from the mound and turned it thrice, with the bar groaning under his hold and then letting off a sharp clap. He pulled, and a metal hatch flung upward. As Drake and Joseph stopped beside James, they looked down to a metal stairwell descending into a piceous chasm. “I found it yesterday!” James exclaimed.
“A hole in the ground?” Drake asked.
“Not just that!” James hopped onto the steps as they shook and moaned. “Come on; it’s fun!” Drake and then Joseph started onto the steps. As they descended along the shaft of sunlight, the stairs jostled with added vigor, while James slowed, his arms spreading as he tilted rightward. “Watch out; these stairs aren’t too strong.”
“You don’t say”, Drake mumbled, his legs shaking with each pace.
“I’m in first!”
Drake looked to his left as Joseph’s tail hovered past, and he looked ahead to James turning to Joseph who, hanging on the outside of the railing, flung himself around James. “Joseph, if you fall, it’s your fault!” James blared, his voice echoing within the darkness.
“You’re just mad because I’m winning!” Joseph called as he hopped off of the steps and kicked his feet along damp stone. “It’s wet down here!”
“It’s because of the underground river”, James replied as he dropped behind him. “Now for my new invention!” James blared as he reached into his sack. Both Drake, still on the steps, and Joseph, across from James, lunged away. “The last one barely burned!” James grunted. He extracted, from his sack, an octagonal, transparent crystal which was attached to a metal cylinder and which, revealed to the darkness, flashed with yellow-white light and beamed a midday’s radiance into the cavern. “It’s a portable light-stone!” James exclaimed.
“Boring!” Joseph howled.
“You didn’t invent that, you bought it”, Drake accused as he descended the steps.
“No, they’re too expensive”, James replied. “I found an old model’s husk by the road a few days ago and picked apart some of the wires from the electronics I got at the flea market. Getting the crystal to delay its light release only took a day or two, but I haven’t figured out an activation switch, so it turns on automatically when it gets dark.”
“Nerd!” Joseph called as he hopped out of the water.
“It doesn’t burn, and now we can see!” James spoke as he scanned the concave ceiling and its stalactites and then the cavernous walls, draped in white with faded black markings. “Come on, let’s find something to show to Steven!” James next aimed his light at the river’s yard-deep waters and then towards a lane of stones leading to the river’s left side. He hopped across them, bounding with the spring-loaded thrusts of his digitigrade legs, landing on his toes, swaying and becoming unbalanced, but not falling as he reached the wall. “Careful”, he called while looking back, “some of those rocks…” He silenced as both Drake and Joseph landed beside him from swifter and more limber motions. “Right.” James looked ahead and started along a path of uneven and cracked pavement.
“What are we looking for?” Drake asked as he trailed, his nostrils flaring as he pulled in the stale and damp odors permeating that space.
“Something cool, I guess. I also want to find all of the possible entrances”, James replied as he looked around. “Look over there!” He pointed to the right side of the river and to the adjoining wall where protruded a three-story building, of broken and battered brick, that teetered against another building beside it. “Underground buildings are cool!” James spoke as he ran to another set of stones, hopped across the river, and landed beside those structures.
“We can’t carry that whole thing!” Joseph exclaimed as he landed beside James.
“Does anyone hear that clicking?” Drake asked as he landed after Joseph, scratched his left ear, and looked farther into the cavern.
“No”, James replied as he shined the lantern along the building to examine its windowless sills. He then angled to any alleyway cutting between the two buildings and found greens, blues, oranges, and whites painted along the next building’s side. “What’s this?” James asked as he jogged into the alley. Joseph followed, but Drake, his left ear twitching, looked farther into the cavern.
“Can you hear the clicking yet?”
“No”, James replied as he lowered his light. “Drake, come look at this!” Drake stepped into the alley, first looking to its termination some yards ahead, where a third building lay overturned, and then turning to the target of James’s light. Along the bottom of that wall, marked in scuffed but still perceivable writing were the words:
1952 WAS A GOOD YEAR UNTIL THE SKY FELL
Drake then looked up to a painting of a plain, a city of dozens of buildings, and then, above them, a triangular, white shape as large as the city’s center, surrounded by a fiery aura, and breaching through the clouds.
“Why is there an orange tooth falling towards those buildings?” Joseph pondered.
“Maybe the sky was hungry”, James suggested.
“I don’t think the sky has…” Drake’s words trailed as rapid clicks filled his ears and drove him to ball his hands. “Do you hear the clicking_?”
“Yes”, James gasped as he lowered the lantern and gaped at Drake.
“What is it?” Joseph asked.
James stepped out of the alley. Then, while raising his lantern, he looked farther into the cavern. As Drake and Joseph stepped out, the light shined upon a six-legged, lime-green form, elongated to nine feet and topped by a small head with bulbous, orange eyes and a chattering, compound maw. “Mantis”, James whispered as he looked to the two forelimbs tipped by scythes.
“What?” Joseph asked.
“Mantis”, James whimpered as the creature skittered along the river and fluttered its wings. The mantis, after several moments, ceased its clicks and hissed. “Run!” James blared as he lunged onto the stones and bounded across the river. Drake and Joseph followed, and the mantis, clicking once more, bolted after them. As the trio landed and fled, the mantis landed behind them, with its scythes raised and sliding against one another and its legs skittering in a multipart cadence.
“It’s getting closer!” Drake blared as he splashed along the water and lunged up the steps. Joseph bounded after him, and James trailed, but as Drake, reaching the top, looked back and pointed, James stopped and spun. The mantis slammed into the base of the steps, throwing Drake, Joseph, and James from their feet, and clawing its way up. James screamed and kicked as the mantis’s scythes crashed a yard from his tail, and he scampered upward as the mantis thrust its mouth. James was grabbed by Joseph and Drake, and, while he was pulled and as the mantis thrashed, he swiped and whipped his lantern. The mantis lunged, but James, with a screech, batted his lantern against its head. The mantis stumbled and bounced down the steps, while its tremorous impacts threw Joseph and Drake from their feet.
“No, you need to throw it!” Joseph exclaimed, while Drake hoisted James to stand.
“I can’t!” James blared as he spun.
“I can do it!” Joseph replied as he snatched the lantern from James, pouted at the mantis, and wound back.
“Joseph, no, I mean_!” James tensed as Joseph pitched the lantern at the mantis’s feet. “Cover your eyes now!” James roared as he grabbed Joseph, shielded his eyes, looked away as Drake did the same, and held his breath as the lantern slapped against the ground, cracked, and erupted. A blinding and all-engulfing light zoomed from the shattered lantern, illuminated the cavern, and beamed into the sky. The light vanished a moment after, and James, Drake, and Joseph, opening their eyes, found their surroundings blurred, while, below them, the mantis writhed on its back. They fled.
They staggered onto the field, and as their gazes steadied, they ran, but Drake slowed at subterranean clangs and looked back as the mantis zoomed from the cavern and landed behind them. “Keep going!”—as he looked ahead, his foot slammed into a rise and was stopped. As he inhaled, he leaned, and, as James and Joseph ran past him, he toppled.
“Drake!” James stopped and looked to the lunging mantis. As Drake pushed to his knees, James charged the mantis and called, “I don’t want to hurt you!” Then, while flashing his teeth, he tightened his fists and conjured, from his limbs, bolts of electricity.
“James, no, your mom said not to_!” Drake squinted as an electric flash surged through James and threw him to the ground. “James!” Drake blared as the mantis turned for James. Drake pushed up as James shook along the ground, Drake stood as the mantis pounced, and Drake stepped as the mantis was struck by a stone.
“Direct hit!” Joseph blared as he pitched a second stone and then, with Drake, charged headlong. The mantis, while hissing, batted its right arm at Drake and Joseph to throw them to the ground. It then backed away, turned to James, then to Drake, and then to Joseph. It slighted its hisses and reinstated its clicks, turning between the three and examining each one, as if searching for the surest and most filling meal. It backed away for six paces as Drake coughed and rolled onto his knees, and the mantis, with a droning chorus, beat its wings and lunged.
Yet, the mantis slowed as a linear object sped through the air, and it stopped as a yellow staff slammed into its head. The staff then spiraled away but was caught by Steven’s lunging form. While landing, Steven spun the staff in his left, and while gasping, he charged.
“Here, over here, me!” Steven howled as he held his staff and bolted past the downed trio. The mantis skittered to him and flailed its scythes. Steven swung, and swiped, and speared his staff, but the mantis countered, stepped, and then batted with the outside of its scythes, pitching him across several yards. Steven winced as he slammed back-first, and he grunted as the mantis crashed atop him. The mantis hammered and jabbed at his torso, but with his staff halting the pernicious limbs, Steven held firm. Then, with the mantis’s scythes six inches from his chest, Steven exhaled and tensed; three inches, and Steven tightened the grip over his staff while inhaling; one inch, and he spoke:
“ArcLight, wake up, please!”
His staff flared. With pulses of electric energy, it lengthened to five feet, then, its peak widened into a foot-long, double-edged blade and its perpendicular knobs jutted to a five-inch cross-guard. With javelin held firm, Steven pushed back, nudging the mantis’s scythes six, ten, and then twelve inches from his chest. He heaved, and his javelin erupted with an electric burst that spread through the mantis. The mantis staggered away.
Steven hopped to his feet, spun his javelin in his right, and lunged. He swung, and the mantis parried. He blocked right; then countered left; ducked, and sidestepped right, but shook as the mantis cut his left shoulder. Then, though grunting, he bowed, and, as the mantis thrust its right, Steven slashed through that limb and launched it aside. With one arm, the mantis shrieked and batted its left, but Steven blocked, and, though thrown back, landed on his feet. The mantis then stepped to him, but Steven aimed his javelin and tensed.
An electric surge beamed from his javelin’s cusp and into the mantis. The mantis shrieked but, though writhing, lunged at Steven with a beat of its wings. Steven kicked off, with a surge zooming from his feet and blasting him across ten yards. The mantis swung, but Steven countered while midair, and, while landing next to it, pushed its remaining scythe aside. The mantis thrust its compound mouth, and Steven, though blocking, teetered back. The mantis swung its left, but Steven leaned under it. Then, while balancing on his right side, he roared and swiped his blade through the mantis’s neck to launch its head away.
Steven then balanced on his knees but blocked a swing from the headless beast. Thrown aside, he cartwheeled to his feet as the decapitated mantis thrashed its left with hapless motions. Steven then lobbed his javelin into the sky and charged. He raised his right hand as he knelt, and he called “Strike!” as he lunged. His javelin, hurtling over him, straightened its path and plunged with electrified speed to impale the mantis’s thorax. Landing atop the mantis, Steven clasped his javelin, inhaled, and tensed, with a fulgurant blaze pouring through the mantis.
Steven hopped back as his blaze ended, and, as the mantis’s incinerated frame fell slack, he ripped out his javelin and staggered back. “Hibernate.” His javelin, with a slighter flash, retracted into his staff. Steven then bowed and breathed, forsaking the malodor of burned, insectoid flesh; then, with straightening ears and gaping eyes, he spun. “Guys, are you_?” He found James, Drake, and Joseph standing in line, and he ran for them, throwing down his staff and kneeling before them. “Are you hurt? Is everyone okay?” He grabbed James’s shoulders, then patted Joseph’s head, then squeezed Drake’s ears. “Guys?”
“That was amazing!” James screeched as he hopped in place.
“What?” Steven coughed.
“Yeah!” Drake barked. “You…you…!” Drake flailed his arms and kicked his legs to mimic Steven’s motions.
“Do it again!” Joseph howled.
“Yeah!” James and Drake cheered.
“I can’t”, Steven hummed, “There’s no other mantis, and are you guys_?”
“Let’s find another one!” Joseph blared. He started for the cavern and James and Drake followed, but Steven lunged in front of them and outstretched his arms.
“No, no, guys!” Steven barked as he held them firm. “Stay out of the Old Lands; those are off-limits, understand?”
“You cut its head off!” Joseph blared as he hopped back. “And then you stabbed it and then…kablow!”
“Yeah, mantises can survive without their heads”, Steven replied. “It’s weird.”
“Do you fight monsters all the time?” Drake gasped.
“Not a monster, just a very aggressive and cunning hunter”, Steven replied. “And usually once a month where I’m stationed, but I mainly encounter spiders and mosquitoes.”
“Do all ARK officers do that?!” James barked.
“Vanguard and Guard Proper do it most often, I think, but yes”, Steven replied.
“Let’s be ARK officers!” Joseph exclaimed.
“Yeah!” Drake and James barked.
“Can we become ARK officers, Steven?!” James asked as he stepped to his brother.
“When you’re old enough, sure”, Steven replied as he scratched the back of his head, “but the entrance exam is pretty difficult.”