The snow crunched loudly beneath our feet. Spuckler Boach was out in front, whistling a cheerful little tune, while Mr. Beeba huffed and puffed along, great clouds of breath trailing behind his bright yellow tufts of hair. Poog, his custom-made coat snugly concealing most of his round little body, floated steadily by my shoulder like some kind of alien bodyguard. And just behind me, rolling and squeaking over the surface of the snow on his four rusty wheels, was Spuckler's robot, Gax. We must have made a pretty funny-looking group.
The morning sky was a bright, cloudless blue. It stretched from snow-covered hills on one side of us to jagged purple peaks on the other. Judging by the steep incline of the road, we were heading into the mountains. A bracing cold breeze blew directly into our faces, making me wish we could head in the opposite direction and somehow still get where we wanted to go.
"There ain't nothin' like fresh mountain air," Spuckler said. "Really gets the blood curdling!"
"Curdling?" Mr. Beeba wheezed. "I don't know what word you're searching for, Spuckler," he added, gasping for breath, "but it's surely not curdling."
"Yeah, whatever," Spuckler replied.
Lacking the energy to join in the argument, I stayed quiet and just let my thoughts roll around in my head. I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I decided I'd try to figure out how many days I'd been here on the planet Smoo.
Let's see, now . . .
Bip and Bop came to get me at my bedroom at eight p.m., and I arrived at King Froptoppit's palace in the middle of the night, so I figured that didn't count as a real day. Maybe a quarter of a day?
The first real day was when the journey began. That was when the King introduced me to Mr. Beeba and Poog, and we picked up Spuckler and Gax, and then we flew off in the ship and got into all that trouble with the Sky Pirates. Man, what a crazy way to get started. Me, Akiko, face to face with a fire-breathing lizard! The kids in my fourth-grade class back on Earth would never believe it in a million years.
Okay, so that was one day.
The next day, hmmm . . .
. . . Oh yeah, we got swallowed up by the giant water snake on our way to the Sprubly Islands. That was the same day Mr. Beeba and Spuckler went off into the forest and left me all alone with Poog and Gax. Wow, that already seemed like ages ago.
That made two days.
Okay, so the next day we went to the palace of Queen Pwip in the morning and then climbed the Great Wall of Trudd in the afternoon. That made three. And yesterday we crossed over that superlong bridge, ran right smack dab into Throck, and wound up sleeping around a campfire.
That was four days all together. That meant today was the fifth day.
Five days? Was that all? I don't know, it didn't even seem possible that we could have done so much in just five short days.
"We're comin' up to some kind of a ridge here," Spuckler said.
My mind snapped back to attention. Spuckler was ten or fifteen feet ahead of me, quickly marching to a point where the white road met the bright blue sky. I moved my legs as fast as I could to keep up with him.
"This might be it."
It? Alia Rellapor's castle?
A shiver ran through me. Part of me wanted to turn around and run back downhill as fast as I could, but I forced myself to keep moving forward.
Calm down, I told myself. This is no time to panic.
My mind was spinning with questions. Would we be able to rescue Prince Froptoppit? Would we even be able to find Prince Froptoppit? Would we run into that creep Throck again? And then there was Alia Rellapor. Would we finally confront her in person?
"Yeah, guys," said Spuckler. "I'm almost sure this is it."
"Don't get our hopes up, Spuckler," Mr. Beeba gasped out between noisily drawn breaths. "You said the very same thing at the last ridge, and all we came to was several more miles of snow-encrusted road!"
"I'm tellin' ya, Beebs," Spuckler called back as he quickened his pace, "I got a feeling about this!"
"You and your feelings!" Mr. Beeba griped. "If we still had my maps, we'd have much more to go on than your feckless, fickle feelings!"
"very impressive alliteration, sir," Gax's tinny voice announced from the back of the group.
"Why, thank you, Gax." Mr. Beeba grinned, turning his head back to give Gax a wink. "I was rather pleased with it myself!"
I craned my neck, trying to get a peek at what lay beyond the ridge. All I could see was a range of mountains, purple and white in the distance. But as we plodded forward, I saw something tall and pointy, too perfect-looking to be a simple outcropping of stone.
"Spuckler," I called, pointing with an icy finger. "What is that?"
"I dunno, 'Kiko," he answered. "It's kinda funny-lookin', ain't it?"
We kept moving, gradually speeding up in our eagerness to figure out what we were seeing. As we made our way to the top of the ridge, the tall, pointy thing revealed itself to be a stone tower. It was covered with detailed carvings, like the surface of a Mayan temple. The closer we went, the more we could make out. Eventually we saw a second tower a little farther to the right. Then two more towers over on the left. Every step we took seemed to reveal the top of another tower, until finally it dawned on me: All the towers were part of a single building. Alia Rellapor's castle!
Spuckler was the first to get to the top of the ridge. He rested his hands on his hips and shook his head slowly back and forth.
"Hot dang!" he cried, following it up with a prolonged high-pitched whistle. "That is one heckuva place she's got there!"
I took the last few steps up to stand beside him and stood there gaping at the sight. Rising majestically from the side of an enormous snow-capped mountain, the castle was the size of an entire city. It was a mass of towers and walls, covered with alien decorations and ornate, soaring windows like the ones in a Gothic cathedral. It was scary and inviting and ugly and beautiful all at the same time. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I'm sure I never will again.
I glanced over at Poog, who was gazing at the castle with a strange, distant look in his eyes. It was almost as if he'd been there before and was familiar with every nook and cranny of the place. He wasn't smiling, but he wasn't exactly frowning, either. He was just really . . . I don't know, serious.
"Astonishing!" Mr. Beeba wheezed, bent over with his hands on his knees. "I don't believe I've ever seen such a hideous mishmash of architectural styles!"
"It's . . . ," I began, struggling to come up with a decent adjective. I gave up after a minute, sighed, then just said, ". . . amazing."
"All right, folks, we didn't come all this way just to enjoy the view," Spuckler said. "Let's march on down there and find a way inside."
"you make it sound so easy, sir," Gax squeaked, rattling a bit in the frigid wind.
"Yes, Spuckler," Mr. Beeba agreed. "It won't be a simple matter of strolling up to the front door and ringing the bell. There's no telling what sort of sentinels Alia has dispatched to guard this fortress. We'll be putting our lives in peril merely attempting to go anywhere near the place."
"Yeah, well, we've managed to get this far," Spuckler retorted with a grin. "No sense gettin' cold feet now."
I swallowed hard and followed Spuckler as he strutted down the road leading to the castle. Mr. Beeba, Poog, and Gax joined us, looking no more eager to get inside that castle than I was.
The mountains with their snowy peaks rose menacingly all around us as we moved farther and farther down toward the castle. I stumbled once or twice on the stony path and found myself thinking of something my dad once told me about mountain climbing. He was born and raised in a small mountain village in Japan, and he always claims he had to climb a mountain every day just to get to school. I find that a little hard to believe (especially because my mom gives me a wink every time he says it), but he swears it's true. I don't know, maybe it was just a small mountain.
Anyway, he told me that climbing down a mountain is just as hard as climbing up one, and that sometimes it can be even more dangerous. People going down a mountain can start to move too fast if they're not careful. Then if they take just one bad step—
"Spuckler!" Mr. Beeba called out, interrupting my thoughts. "Look down there to the right. Those are Torg patrols, aren't they?"
"Good eyes, Beebs," Spuckler answered, stopping in his tracks.
I tried to get a look at what Mr. Beeba was talking about, but all I could see were these little gray dots in the distance.
"Torg patrols?" I asked.
"The word Torg is an acronym, Akiko," Mr. Beeba explained. "It stands for Turbo Obtuvian Retramodular Gigatron."
There was a very long pause.
"Torg patrols?" I asked again.
"They're general-use robots," Spuckler said, as if he were translating for Mr. Beeba. "They can be programmed to do almost anything. Why, this whole castle was prob'ly built by Torgs."
Suddenly we heard a loud mechanical sound coming from somewhere below us, the sound of a gigantic piece of machinery. From behind a large boulder to our left, an enormous gray robot lurched out into the middle of the road only fifty or sixty feet ahead of us.
"Heavens!" Mr. Beeba squealed. "A T-t-torg!"
Spuckler hurried us all off the road to a spot behind an enormous slab of stone. We crouched down and huddled together, hoping we weren't visible from the road. The noise kept getting louder.
Spuckler had his head poked out so he could keep an eye on the thing.
"It's gettin' closer," he whispered back to us.
"Get back here and keep quiet!" Mr. Beeba whispered. "Maybe it didn't see us."
"I never been much for hidin'," Spuckler whispered back through gritted teeth. "Makes me feel like a sissy."
"Come on, Spuckler," I said, reaching out to grab him by the arm. "Stay here and hide with us, just this once."
"Sorry, 'Kiko," Spuckler said as he pulled himself free. "Gotta take her on face t' face. It's the only way I know."
Mr. Beeba groaned as we watched Spuckler swagger out into the middle of the road. I couldn't see the robot yet, but I could tell it was pretty close. Spuckler folded his arms and stood in the middle of the path like a
statue. Gax shuddered and wheezed a little. I wondered if he'd ever had to deal with a Torg before.
Just then a bolt of yellow light shot past Spuckler and struck a boulder a few feet behind him. My jaw dropped as I stared at the enormous hole it left in the rock. Spuckler wasn't fazed a bit.
By now the Torg had come into full view. It was about thirty feet tall, with two enormous legs and six spindly mechanical arms hanging off its body. The entire surface of the robot was pale gray, with spots of white frost. It leaned forward and raised an arm, a
double-jointed one with a smoking laser gun at the end. There was a rapid clicking sound as it prepared to shoot again.
Spuckler leaned over and picked up a small stone. He snapped his hand back and chucked the stone up at the robot's body.
There was a tinny whistling sound like a ricocheting bullet in a Western movie. Spuckler grimaced and leaped to one side as a second bolt of yellow light shot past him, this time missing by just a few inches.
"Heavens," Mr. Beeba whispered to me. "One more shot and he'll be vaporized for sure!"
"V-vaporized?" I gasped.
"It's actually not such a bad way to go, Akiko," he whispered. "Virtually painless, in theory . . ."
Spuckler flipped backward, just barely dodging a third laser bolt. He reached down and picked up another rock. This time he paused, like a pitcher trying to throw his best fastball. He let the rock fly.
Suddenly there was a horrible groaning sound, followed by a series of loud pops. Little orange sparks shot out from the spot where the stone had hit, dropping to the snow like brightly colored confetti. The giant robot heaved and shuddered, rocking violently from side to side. Then, all at once, it simply screeched to a halt. A second or two later its six arms twitched briefly, then just hung there, squeaking quietly in the chilly breeze.
"Nice shot, Spuckler!" Mr. Beeba said, rising to his feet.
"You did it!" I cried, running out to give Spuckler a big hug. Poog smiled, and Gax buzzed happily. He seemed very proud of his master.
"Tell me, Spuckler," Mr. Beeba continued. "How did you know where his weak spot was?"
"Well, I used to work in a Torg repair shop when I was younger," Spuckler answered, brushing snow off his arms and legs. "They ain't nearly so scary when ya know how lousy the engineerin' is."
We all stepped out into the middle of the path to get a better look at the giant, motionless Torg.
"Hang on now, everybody," Spuckler said as he fumbled around in Gax's little junk container. "I gotta make sure he's permanently deactivated before we move on. Don't want him springin' back to life later on an' alertin' the other Torgs . . ."
He pulled out a pair of wire cutters and squeezed the handles. They made a rusty scraping sound.
"Yeah, these'll do the trick," Spuckler said. He tucked them behind his belt and began shinnying up one of the Torg's legs.
"sir, if i might make a suggestion," Gax said as politely as he could.
"Gax, I know it ain't easy to see a fellow machine bite the dust like this," Spuckler said as he hoisted himself on top of the robot's body, "but I gotta do what I gotta do."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor by Mark Crilley. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Crilley. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.