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Wrapped in clouds, Athropolis rocked gently back and forth in the choppy ocean. Falling chunks of ice, loosened from the weakened and broken walls by the movement, disturbed the otherwise peaceful morning with thuds and thumps. The rain fell steadily, and after completing its work of slowly and gently wearing away the ice and snow, the water scurried into the cracks and crevices.
Sharp crisp edges were becoming rounded and smooth, and flat shiny walls were beginning to look wavy and rippled. This cast an unusual reflection to anyone walking by. Fat Throps became thin, and then fat again. Short Throps would appear unusually tall, much to their delight, even if this appearance only lasted until they moved along. Then they would become short again, or fat, or perhaps just very wiggly looking.
And the beautiful story carvings on the walls throughout the castle were beginning to melt and change - drip by drip by drip. What would the history of Thropdom become if the stories melted and then refroze into new stories? Past heroes could become villains or fools! Great events could become disasters!
But Kevin was puzzled. Where was Jason? He was the curious one - was he off exploring the castle? Had he gone on an early morning patrol with the Throps? Sara did not appear to be very concerned, but it wasn't like Sara to be so quiet, and it certainly wasn't like Jason to go off without telling anyone where he was going.
Finally, as midday neared, Sara could keep quiet no longer.
"Kevin! I can't keep quiet any longer! Jason went out during the night - alone! I'm getting worried. Something must have gone wrong!"
"ALONE? WRONG?" Kevin shouted. "I should have gone with him! Without me to protect him - those Squallhooter guys will get him!"
"What are we going to do?"
Kevin was already running out of the room. "We've gotta get help fast! C'mon! Let's find Ludi!"
Ludi and Crystal walked down the stairs from the south tower of the castle. At least it was the south tower a few moments ago, but as Athropolis drifted, it also turned. This morning's south tower could very well be this afternoon's east tower, or west tower. Would the trouble never end? First an ice-quake, then a war, and now the castle was spinning in the rain!
"Will the rain never stop? Everything is melting in this drownpour!" Ludi looked out the window. "The direction signs can hardly be read!"
Crystal shrugged her shoulders. "They don't work anyway - we don't know where we are."
That's right! What was he thinking of? They were still lost. "We need a plan, fast!"
"The - the peller thing!"
"Yes! The propeller! Let's find Jason! Where can he be?"
Sara and Kevin rushed down the hallway. "Ludi! Crystal!" they called as they slid by, unable to stop on the icy floor.
"What's wrong?" asked Ludi as he spun around.
Sara slid to a stop and caught her breath. "Jason is - huff - huff - GONE!"
"GONE?" Ludi had now forgotten all about the plan. "But WHERE?"
"And WHY?" added Crystal.
"He went to find the Squallhoots!" Kevin blurted out.
"THE SQUALLHOOTS?" Ludi and Crystal shrieked out together - their eyes wide with horror.
"Yes," said Sara, now becoming even more worried.
"He - he'll - he'll be eaten! Or WORSE!" Ludi sputtered. Why would Jason want to go and find Squallhoots?
Crystal jumped up and down and couldn't stop talking. "But we TOLD YOU about the Squallhoots! They'll gobble him up in JUST ONE BITE! They'll eat on his head! They'll spit out his bones! They'll..."
There was no time to lose. Ludi rushed down the hallway. "SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE ALARM!"
The shouts echoed in the passageways as the Throps shouted the alarm throughout the castle.
"WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP!"
Scrambling feet clattered up the stairs. First Leader and a troop of Throps stood in the doorway. Fourth Leader shuffled along behind.
"The General is here! Huff! Puff! What's wrong? What happened?"
"What? The who?" Ludi looked at First Leader - and then around First Leader - then behind First Leader. "Where's the 'General'?" he asked, bewildered.
"I'M the General," First Leader announced very proudly. "Jason said that in his land, I would be a general - so - that's what I am! He said that the best generals have five stars on each shoulder - but LOOK!" He pointed very proudly to six stars on each shoulder.
"But..." Ludi began.
Sara didn't wait for him to finish. "Jason is gone! He..."
Crystal didn't wait for Sara to finish either. "He went to find the Squallhoots!"
"He WHAT?" The General couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Why - those greedy Squallhoots will be fighting over his bones! It'll be chomp - chomp - spit - spit - and NO MORE JASON!"
Sara was terrified by the General's words. How could he even THINK that! "Don't SAY that!" she protested.
"They - they wouldn't dare!" Kevin shouted.
Fourth Leader turned his head to hide the evil grin that was spreading across his face.
"Attention Throps!" commanded the General. He turned to the troops standing by the doorway. "Send out the searchers! Quickly now!"
The troops jumped to attention. "Yes, Sir! Right away, Sir!"
The General glared at his troops. "What did you say?" he bellowed.
"Right away - GENERAL!" shouted the Throps all together.
"Much better! Now GO! GO! GO!"
The General was very happy with his new name.
The Squallhoots scrambled to move anything of value to the safety of higher places. One by one their pieces of equipment, their favorite objects, and their own valuable tablets and records were snatched up and carried away.
As the water crept higher and higher up the walls, it covered the maps of the constellations and the scratches of scientific observations that had not yet been put to tablets. All this would be lost forever.
As the Squallhoots worked and passed one another, they talked in low whispering tones.
"Where'll we go?"
"What'll we do?"
"Where are we going to hide?"
"If the water keeps on coming - pretty soon we'll be outside!"
"What are we gonna do if the water gets too high? Yeiii...yeiii...iiee....iiee!"
The whispers continued to the beat of squishing wet feet - splashing in the water that covered the floor.
"What do you think?"
"What was it he said?"
"Do you think the creature's right?"
"We can't move up much further - the light will be too bright!"
"Oh, what are we gonna do if the water gets too high? Yeiii...yEiii...iiEE...iiEE!"
Snort watched and listened as the voices faded up the passageways. He was in very deep thought. If someone didn't help them - how WOULD they survive? Would those Throps really help them? Naw! No way! Never! He growled to himself as he watched water still flooding into the now empty and abandoned cave.
POW! Chunks of ice blew out of the wall like bullets! Streams of water blasted out into the cave! A leak! Snort gave a startled yelp and scrambled up the passageway - shouting the leak alarm as he ran.
"AU-OOO-GAH! AU-OOO-GAH! AU-OOO-GAH".
He looked down. He was standing in water - almost to his knees!
He quickly climbed back onto the chest and looked around. Things were beginning to float! The old wooden barrel upon which the candle sat was starting to wobble. Jason's hand flashed out for the candle holder, but not fast enough! The barrel tipped and the candle rolled into the water.
Plonk! With a short sizzle, the cave plunged into darkness.
For a moment, but only for a moment, Jason wished he was a Squallhoot - then he could see in this dark hole. He could hear the water gushing into the cave and he blindly stepped off the box and tested the depth. The water was almost to the top of his leg - soon it would be right up to the ceiling!
He was trapped! Trapped in an icy cold cave that was filling with freezing cold water!
"HELP! HELP!" Jason shouted as loud as he could. "GET ME OUTTA HERE! I'M GONNA DROWN!"
He listened for an answer. In the darkness, his hearing seemed to be better. Far off, like the eerie sounds of ghosts, he could hear something. Was it his imagination, or was somebody calling his name?
The name rebounded back and forth across the ice as the Throps searched. Time and time again they called out and listened for a reply - but time and time again there was none.
Search parties combed Athropolis all day. Even with the war still fresh in their minds, some brave Throps crept dangerously close to the dark shadows and deep cracks in the ice where entrances to the Squallhoots' caverns were known to be. Others crawled to the edges of the deep crevices and peered down, down, down into the cold dark holes. Nothing! Nothing but the sound of water running deep into the caverns that the Throps knew were down there somewhere.
Up in the highest tower, the lookouts searched high and low through the powerful ice-escope, being careful to protect the gigantic ice lens from the damaging rain. They searched every spot for any sign that Jason might have been there, but even though almost every bit of ice and snow on the surface of Athropolis was inspected time and time again, there was not a single footprint to be found. Everything was turning to puddles and slush.
As twilight approached, search parties - tired, wet and hungry - straggled back into the castle dragging their long shadows behind them, and new searchers were quickly sent out in their place. There was no time to lose. The Throps were now venturing out into danger time, but nobody wanted to think of what might happen if Jason was gone another whole night!
Finally, the last searchers returned, but nobody had any good news. The only place that Jason could be was in the caverns. The Squallhoots had him - that was certain.
The General was very tired and leaned against the wall, exhausted by the day of searching. "There is nothing more we can do now," he said with a sigh. "It is getting too dark."
Sara rushed up to the General "No! No! We can't stop!" .
"The Squallhoots are probably already back out on the ice. If we stay outside - there could be another war!"
"But you've got to find him! You've just got to!"
"Yeah! Ya gotta find my big brother! Ya gotta! Ya gotta!" shouted Kevin.
Ludi put his arm around Sara. "Sara. Kevin. Come with me. The General is right. We all need some rest."
The heavy ice doors creaked and then slammed shut. The bolts clacked into place and the door was secure. As the last Throps began to leave the great hall, Sara stopped them with a shout.
"Listen! What's that?"
"I hear nothing," sighed the General. He was very tired and wanted to go to sleep.
Sara put her finger to her lips. "Shhhhhh!"
The hall became very quiet as everyone listened carefully.
Knock! Knock! Knock! There was a pause.
Knock! Knock! Another pause. Some bits of ice fell to the floor.
"It's nothing!" Fourth Leader called out. "Let's go!" He waved his arm to beckon the other Throps to follow him, but nobody did.
The General barked his orders. "Someone is at the door! Keep it locked - it is NOT the signal!" Fourth Leader again tried to get everyone's attention. "It's not the signal. Let's go to sleep. C'mon. Hurry!"
"Yes it is!" shouted Sara as loud as she could. "It IS the signal. That's OUR signal! Everybody listen!"
Knock! Knock! Knock!
"That's OUR signal!" Sara rushed to the door. "Three - two - one. It's Jason!"
The General peeked through the peep hole. "Nobody! There's nobody there at all!"
"But it MUST be Jason! That was our signal!" Sara insisted.
His club gripped firmly and held ready to strike, the General slowly slid the bolts back on the great ice door. "Are your clubs ready?" he asked the Throps. "Now - carefully."
The light from inside spread out across the ice as the door slowly scraped open. Curious eyes peeked through the opening.
"Look! Fresh Squallhoot tracks!" the General warned as Throps peered over his shoulder. "I KNEW it was a trick!"
"But look! It's a message!" A tablet of ice was propped against the wall.
"It's a trick! Don't read it! Don't read it!" shouted Fourth Leader, jumping up and down behind them - safely away from the door. "C'mon! Let's go to sleep!"
The General snatched the tablet from the ice and jumped back inside. The door slammed shut behind him and the bolts hammered securely into place. He read aloud the message that was scraped on the ice as the other Throps gathered around him.
TO TOOT AND THE GENERAL.
MEET ME AND THE SQUALLHOOTS TOMORROW AT THE PLACE THAT WAS SQUALLHOOT CANYON. COME AT TWILIGHT. I HAVE A PLAN. JASON.
"It's a TRAP!" the General shouted.
Sara shoved her way in to see the writing on the tablet. "But that's..." she began.
"They've eaten Jason - and now they want to eat us too!" The General angrily threw the tablet of ice into the air.
It smashed to the floor - shattering into a thousand pieces.
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