Voice Recognition: Verified!

Timeline:

Deep down the rabbit hole,
one gnome, one half-elf, and one..

 

..something else,

 

..move in silence,
as though honoring what was,
what is..

 

..and what might!

 

This story is the continuation of;
The Fog, The Path, And The Door.
Knock, More, And Ascend.

and
Deep in Silence..

 

 

The girl in her strapless skirt dress flew fast and straight overhead. With her raven-black wings feathered lightly, her skinny arms spread out and wide, her long, honey-brown hair rippling, ruffling, scattered and wildly and around her dark purple crowning horns, her naked, slender legs, smooth and lustrous, moved subtly as though swimming, and her tiny, darling feet tickling under the wind of her flight, she was an otherworldly beautiful creature. She carried herself over the long, endless, soundless, and muted halls carved deep under Silent Hills with her small, cherry-red mouth, just a tad pouting, and with sad, solemn, and mournful eyes.

 

Eyes that bespoke;

I have seen the end of times.

It is dark, it is bleak and it is lonely.

 

Damn..

 

Merisoul Xyrotwu landed gracefully next to the gnome, Master Gnine Tinkerdome, and the Ranger Lieutenant, Laila Wolvesbane.

 

“Another great hall. Not as great as the one we left behind, but quite cavernous, and occupied.”, she said in her calm, remote, soft, and somewhat breathy voice.

“Occupied?”, asked the gnome. “What’s occupying it?”

“A demon.”, the otherworldly girl replied.

“Dammit.”, hissed the boldly pretty half-elf, Laila. “At least give us a variety. I mean, other than fiends, demons, and undead.”

“The undead are the variety, dear Laila.”, said Merisoul, in her hushed, soft, breathy voice. “I am guessing they are the collateral side effect of having too many demons pend up in one place for thus long, though I’ll admit, the ‘one place’ in question is quite large, deep, and lengthy. Tell me again, Master Gnine, why do gnomes need this much space?”

Gnine shrugged.

“Give a gnome enough time, buoyance, and rock, and we can dig forever.”

“So can dwarves.”

“True. But we do it neatly!”, he said with a smirk.

“I see. Well, your kin has had rock and said buoyance, but seem to have run short on time, to our relative consolation, as doleful as that sounds. Otherwise, we would be here for your ‘forever’.”, replied the raven-winged girl.

“You said one demon.”, Laila said, staring at Merisoul questioningly for she had learned, the otherworldly girl had an odd, unintentional habit of, not quite disregarding, but.. dismissing? absenting? abstracting? Laila wasn’t sure which, but the raven-winged succubi half-born girl did it anyway and you had to ask her for details or you were likely in for unexpected and unprecedented surprises where she would just look at you and say, “I did tell you there was one demon, did I not? Must I use your imagination for you?”

“Yes.”, Merisoul said with a small smile.

“What is it? Is it big? Is it dangerous? Why one? Why here?”, Laila asked.

“What’s in there?”, added Gnine.

“Ow.”, said Merisoul with a surprised expression on her diminutive face. “You actually want details! Of course! And understandable.”

 

And paused! Long enough to for the gnome, Gnine, and the half-elf ranger girl, Laila, to look at one another, then back at the succubi half-born.

 

“If you are waiting for dramatic effect, you are just about due, I believe.”, said Gnine.

“Almost.”, said Merisoul vaguely.

“Almost? Almost for what?”

“Almost ready. I was preparing a visual pamphlet; a presentation, if you will! I am just about done with the texts, the spreadsheets, the tables, and the 3D pie-charts and running it all through the spell-checker. If you would give me but a minute, I will have imported the images and linked the videos. Thought I might add in a gloomy sort of background music as well.”, she replied happily.

Laila ogled at her while Gnine looked up at the unseen sky and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“And done!”, she said, smiling at them. “I apologize for the delay, but I haven’t prepared a corporate presentation for quite some time now. My last was about two years ago, and as part of my graduation thesis, though that was strictly PG18+ and not quite for mortal eyes!”

And with a wave of her hand, the image of a red, barren land appeared, right then and there! The land seemed to go forever in every direction and comprised only of sharp, edgy rocks sticking out of the dry and dead land like shark’s teeth. The sky appeared as though it was some hazy, diaphanous, gauzy, scarlet tulle and no clouds nor any birds flavored it. Other than the spurting of bubbling, molting lava, yes, this land was barren, in the most literal and infernal sense.

Gnine just stared at the casual display of enhanced and vivid imagination with despair.

Laila looked at it with mild interest, coupled with a certain amount of skepticism. Then she bent down and whispered at Gnine.

 

“Can you do that?”

“I might..”, replied Gnine deploringly.

 

The image rumbled and the jagged rocks tumbled and tossed and with a sharp, brittle clap, a crack zigzagged across the barren wasteland. As the endless, red landscape quaked, the crack widened and a halo of deep, infernal fire spewed out of the crack as the rocks and dirt crumbled into the gaping fissure.. And a hand, big, broad and mighty came out of the fiery depths of Hell, and with tremendous force, it slammed onto the sides of the lava spurting fissure and gauged the dirt.

 

“Wow. It’s animated too.”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”

“I might..”, Gnine replied with a deflated tone.

 

Great and charred, bat-like wings spread out of the infernal crack as another arm came out and slammed down, slowly pulling and dragging something magnanimous, out of the abyss below. A pair of heavy, curved, at-least-six-feet-each bull’s horns appeared, followed by a face, hideous and cruel, shoulders like ox carts, a grotesquely enlarged torso that defied physics, and legs, thick and mighty, and ending in with black, burning hooves.

 

“I like!”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”

“I am being chastised and tormented for something I don’t know what!”, Gnine replied with a destitute voice.

 

The nearly twenty-foot monstrosity took a step forward, rose its mighty arms, holding a long, burning scimitar in one titanic fist, and a crackling, thorny whip in the other. The demon took another earth-shaking step and bellowed as the first notes of a violin were heard in the background, followed by a depressing piano!

 

“Ow.. It’s got audio too! Eno Moricane! I love that.”, whispered Laila, cracking one of her rare grins. “Can you do that?”

“Maybe. I can mathematically calculate the notes!”, replied Gnine resentfully.

 

The demon raised its powerful arms into the hazy, red sky and bellowed with hot, furnacing fire jetting out of its maw. It brought its great, burning scimitar down, sending a blast of fire. Then with a mighty heave, it cracked its whip, and long, slithering tendrils of jagged lightning crashed from the sky. And the image froze!

There, in big blocky fonts, a title appeared over the demon followed by an explanatory subtitle in smaller relief;

 
 
Regnalog
BALOR
Class X Demon.

 

 

And a whole string of spreadsheets started running, punctuated with comparative charts and diagrams, comprising of size, relative hit points, resistances, and immunities, to hit and damage stats, and special abilities.

 

“Damn..”, whispered Laila in a concerned voice. “That’s going to be hard to kill. We’ll need like four of me, three of you, and at least another one of Soul. Should it spot us, and it can, it’s got Truesight, we can’t even run away from it, even if we wanted to. It can run faster than any of us. I mean, I might be able to stay just ahead of it if I used my Longstrider, but it can also fly, making how fast I run, sort of a moot point.”

“No, we can’t. If’s down to our running skills, we are done for.”, Gnine replied, carefully inspecting the demon’s stats.

“Well? How did you like my presentation?”, Merisoul asked, displaying something she almost never did, a pretty, and vague grin.

“I loved it!”, Laila admitted. “Didn’t know you were Moricane fan.”

“He’s a bit depressing for my taste, really, but he does do justice to his craft, per se. His tunes are quite famous in Hell!”, she said happily.

Gnine coughed at the implications of that!

“Why is this Balor named Regnalog?”, he asked.

“Well, he’s a rare specimen even among the Balor. ‘Grumpy’, if you will. Hence, they usually give him guarding assignments, if any. He doesn’t mind sitting in a lonely cave for centuries and cracking his whip. No one really knows why, or what goes through his mind, for that matter, but he is quite strong, resilient, and cunning. Many young and foolish demons tried their hands against him. —for bragging rights.. He is here but they are not, so I guess that answers the question of, who won, I guess.”, she replied.

“Can we take him? If we unloaded everything we got, I mean.”, asked Laila.

“I doubt.”, said Gnine glumly. “The old cuss is quite buff. More so than what’s written here, I think, if he is sort of unique among the Balor.”

“Dammit.”, hissed Laila. “What now, then? We have to move forward.”

“There isn’t much we can do, really. Regnalog will be immune to all my fire-based spells, resistant to pretty much everything else I got, and will see right through my illusions and likely any of my mental assaults as well.. Doesn’t seem like we got many options left. We can’t even get near him without catching fire!”, said the gnome, still frowning at the frozen image.

“Can’t you use that invisible hand-thing? The one you used in Tempest Temple when we were still back at Arashkan. You did pummel a stone golem with it.”

“Laila.”, Gnine fumed. “That golem, as tough as it was, was still subject to many elemental attacks. And had a limited amount of life force. This.. thing.. is HUGE! I mean, boxing it with that hand will be like a love tap. IF we had about a score of people casting as many hands, then yes, we’d bring the demon down.. eventually. Provided he stands still and does not retaliate.”

“Ow.. It did seem impressive when you had smashed the golem, the way you had. Perhaps you need a bigger fist?”, she offered.

Gnine glared at her.

Laila grinned.

“Not my fault you have small fists, my friend.”

Gnine glared at her some more.

“Is there anything else there?”, asked Laila.

“Maybe we should all go and see.”, Merisoul said. “I am certain I missed things. I have noticed, I don’t always see what might or might not be relevant for you two. I perceive people, creatures, and objects by their possible level of interaction, and whether they may present themselves as an obstacle, or help achieve a certain objective, which might or might not always be conclusive, as what may be insignificant for me, might be quite significant to you.”

“Alright.”, agreed, Gnine, taking a last look at the odd, otherworldly girl’s presentation, and the technical readings of Regnalog.

“Quietly.”, inserted Laila. “Maybe I should go ahead. Follow me at thirty feet distance and be ready to run.”

That said, she picked up her long, elven bow, drew an arrow out of her quiver, and with her bow now half-drawn, she silently ranged out. By the time she got near the end of the long, quiet hall, it had already become almost unbearably hot and she was sweating profusely. She edged her way to the exit and gave a quick peek and went absolutely still.

The chamber ahead wasn’t huge as she’d expected. Or perhaps it was. She estimated a stretch of at least five to six hundred feet across, making the chamber cavernous, just like Merisoul had said. But the main ‘walking’ area was perhaps merely fifty feet in radius. The rest was all empty, pitch-black darkness as if the walking area were some center platform that stood in the middle of a very large, very deep fissure or a bottomless chasm. And in the middle of the center platform, the was a ring of furnacing flames, reaching up to forty feet.

 

And in that column of flame was something.. BIG!

 

Laila had always known, heights, widths, and depths given in numbers and units could be misleading, as they were, after all, just numbers and hence, could be quite abstract. Thus, even in her early years as a ranger novice, she had been specifically trained to recognize what numbers in inches, feet, miles or individual objects meant. How far and how many were probably the most important aspect of being a ranger, really, as they ran for miles, or were expected to guestimate how far something was; i.e. a pack of fifteen wolves, a family of three bears, a single dear, a roaming band of twenty-four goblins, or an ambush of eight Orken, since she was going to have to adjust the angle of her bow depending on said distance, preferably before the ‘how many’ enemies reached her.

Staring at the forty-foot reach of flames, and something twenty-foot high charring in it was.. a hair-raising experience.

She gulped down her very parched sense of fear, withdrew, and motioned the two to come —quietly.

 

Gnine also stared at the flames and the more he stared at it, the more he seemed to deflate.

Laila touched his shoulder. When that didn’t help, she put her hand on it and slightly squeezed.

Gnine stared at her and the ranger lieutenant gave him an encouraging smile and whispered. “We came this far, didn’t we?”

Gnine returned her smile with his depressed one.

Then he pulled them aside and spoke with a hushed, serious tone.

“Alright. What do we have here, then? Tell us what you can see, other than the obvious.”

“The central platform where the demon, Balor, is, is perfectly circular, meaning it was likely—”, Laila began.

“—Gnome crafted.”, inserted Gnine.

“Yes, maybe, I don’t know. It is, however, surrounded by a chasm that goes down as far as—”, she continued.

“—the very molten core of the earth.”, prompted Merisoul.

“Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. Wait! Really?”, asked the ranger lieutenant in astonishment.

“Likely. Which is why Regnalog has been here for so many centuries without getting bored. He must be feeding off the very core of the world!”, replied the succubi half-born with some consternation.

“Okay.”, Laila said. “Is that in any way significant?”

“Yes.”, mused Gnine. “Not immediately, but in the long run. The more he stays perched here, the more powerful he will become. And, I am guessing, because he will have devoured too much of the world’s essence, he will be as if he is part of this world, hence become unbanishable! He will be able to return to Hell and back, here, at will, without the need to be summoned. He will also act like a conduit, an anchor, if you will, for other demons to be summoned as well. Much like Themalsar was. Accept Themalsar was an old man when we faced him. I doubt this guy has any sense of time, in a Mortal sense..”

“Very astute, Master Gnine.”, said Merisoul admiringly. “Which is also why there are half-borns like me. We were made for this very reason. The variety in our kind is merely due to necessity of ‘as per need.'”

“Made?”, asked Laila with some bafflement.

Gnine, however, understood the whole implication of that simple statement, and suddenly, a great many things about this strange, otherworldly beautiful girl clicked in his mind.

“Damn..”, he said hoarsely.

“I am.”, replied Merisoul with a brittle, cheery voice.

“What?”, asked Laila. Then, it dawned on her as well. Not the whole picture, and certainly not as broadly as Master Gnine had, but the fringes of it. For Laila, however, that was more than enough.

Quietly, and boldly, she stepped up to her and took her into her embrace.

“We are who we are, my dear Merisoul Xyrotwu. But we can be who we choose to be. I love my father, but I can’t even remember my mother’s face anymore. Of her, I only have the memory of her beautiful, sad voice, and nothing else. I do remember how they loved one another and how they loved me. Or rather, I remember that warm feeling.. But unwittingly and certainly without ill intent, they made me; a girl who is a human, and an elf, yet neither a human nor an elf. Accepted among humans, tolerated, at best, among elves. My best friends are Gnine, a mischievous, all-ways-in-trouble, gnome, Bree, who is human, who is my cousin and also a troubled, social outcast, Udoorin, who I became friends, but only after beating at each other, Lorna, another half-elf, and also an outcast, Inshala, another weird girl, who is also an outcast.. and you! I do not make enemies out of whim, Soul, but I choose very, very carefully who my friends are because as much as I love and care for my friends, I do not want too many of them in fear of losing them. That is how much I care and love them!”, she said, drew back to stare at the succubi half-born in the eyes, just to see her face blotched.

“Do you understand me?”, Laila asked and for some reason, her voice had steel in it.

“I do not.”, Merisoul said. But she had started shaking like she was suddenly cold, which was odd, considering the oven heat coming from the cavernous chamber ahead.

“Do you understand me?”, Laila repeated, her voice even harder.

“I do not know!”, whispered Merisoul, trembling uncontrollably, now.

“Uhhmm.. Laila? I think she’s losing it!”, warned Gnine.

“We can be who we choose to be, Soul. That is ours, and no one can take that away from us. Do you understand me?”, she hissed at the half-born.

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I understand the words and what the words mean, but I do not understand what they are supposed to make me feel!”, she said, as she quaked and with large tears coming down her beautiful, sad face, and fading in the heat of the hall.

Laila was not a book philosopher. She was a ranger, and like all rangers, she was a practical girl with practical solutions because if something was not practical, it wasn’t a solution, but a bad excuse for sloppiness and a lazy mind.

She grabbed Merisoul’s right hand with her left..

..and placed it on her own left breast, right over her heart, as she raised her right hand and placed it right over the half-born girl’s left breast.. and over her heart, and looked her in the eye.

“You, of all people, should feel what I feel. And through me, what you feel. Now tell me if you still don’t understand me!”, she said harshly.

“Uhhmm, Laila?”, asked Gnine a bit flustered.

“Shut up, Gnine. And don’t interfere. This is a girl thing!”, she hissed, never taking her eyes off the savagely shaking girl.

 

 

Merisoul..

..crumbled!

 

 

Gnine stared at her, then jumped to help her.

“No!”, Laila hissed again. “She has felt love, friendship, care, anxiety, fear, loss, happiness, victory, failure, and the Great Heavens know what else in me, and through me, she has felt herself and everything she carried but never felt for all her years! She has genuinely and truly felt them. Now, she knows, and now she can relate!”

“Wow, girl. You.. you fixed her!”, stammered Gnine.

“No, Gnine. Fixing a broken soul is not like fixing a broken arrow. I only showed her what it is she felt. I pointed at the door. The rest is up to her. It is she, who must decide what to do with the door. Now she has something to start and something to build on.”, Laila replied, looking down at the unconscious girl with compassion. “And it’s going to hurt.. a lot.”

“Did you feel what she feels, as well?”, asked Gnine in wonder.

Laila didn’t say anything for some time, still looking down at the succubi half-born, and there was a slight frown on her face.

“Yes.”, she said finally. “I did.”

“What did she feel?”

“That’s none of your business, gnome! Suffice to say, her kind of intense is insane!”, replied Laila, scowling down at him.

“Ow, I am suddenly a gnome, now, am I?”, grinned Gnine.

“Gnome was kinder than ‘midget’!”, smirked the half-elf girl.

“Harsh.”, Gnine said, shaking his head. “Very harsh..”

Laila snorted, then turned back to the big, cavernous chamber.

“Didn’t know you felt all those things, girl. Not to mention, what you just did was very, very risky and dangerous.”, Gnine said.

“We all feel such things, Gnine. One way or another.. I just don’t feel the need to make a spectacle of myself in public. As for the risk, becoming your friend was a risk too. Don’t think for a moment I didn’t know about your pranking reputation when we first met. But I took the risk and I did become your friend.”, she said, still gazing ahead.

“Yes. And look where that got you..”, scowled Gnine.

“..to the Halls of the King of Silent Hills!”, she finished and gave him a smirk.

Gnine snorted.

“I see burnt.. or charred.. corpses.”, Laila said and pointed at some, rubble seeming things at the far side of the center platform. See?”

“Are you sure?”, Gnine asked in a sick voice.

“I have excelling eye vision. Those are charred corpses, and likely belonged to some gnomes.”

“Gnomes?”, Gnine exclaimed.

“Or perhaps kobolds. But I have not seen any tracks nor traces of kobolds ever since we came here. And kobolds have tails. Those don’t seem to have any.”

“Nice of you to notice our primary difference relied on the lack of a tail!”, scowled Gnine.

“Yes..”, replied Laila merrily. “As opposed to both races being mischievous, having the potential for great trouble and catastrophe, and dig deep underground and live there.”

Gnine scowled some more.

“See that?”, she said pointing at something.

Gnine squinted.

“Nope. What am I supposed to be seeing?”, he asked.

“Hmm..”, mused Laila. “Perhaps it has to do with elevation.”

 

There was a distinct moment of smoldering silence.

 

“That.. was truly uncalled for, girl!”, Gnine fumed.

Laila snorted.

“I am sorry, Gnine.”, she said.

“No you are not!”, Gnine replied, still fuming at the ranger lieutenant.

“No, I am not.”, agreed, Laila with another snort. “But I was being literal when I said it might have something to do with elevation. There is a very long, very slim, bridge-like path leading away from the central platform. Just like the one we have here. And maybe there is a third one on the far side, to our left. Sort of like a triangle, though I can’t see it through the flames. Maybe we can make a run for it? I mean, if the Balor doesn’t take flight, I can make it to the other end of where the charred corpses are and over that bridge. I am guessing, if there are any live gnomes, that’s where we’d find them.”

“That’s a big pair of ifs, Laila.”

“She.. she is right..”, came a small, devastated voice, and both Gnine and Laila turned to see Merisoul sitting, her legs pulled up to her chest, her slender arms loose limply at her sides. Her face wasn’t quite a blotchy mess, but something told Laila that had she been a ‘mortal’ girl, it would have been. Or perhaps not, because Merisoul seemed like one of those naturally classy, elegant, and delicate girls that didn’t make a blotchy mess when they cried or ‘lost it’ in public. A bit like the princess, Lorna.. and linearly opposite of her cousin, Bremorel!

“Are you alright?”, Gnine asked with consternation.

“I do not know. I have never.. felt.. before!”, she replied with the first facial expression, other than her usual sad, solemn one; awe!

“How.. how do you even cope.. with all this?”, she asked Laila in a desperate, frightened voice.

“We don’t, Merisoul. Not always. That is why we break down at times. And why our friends hold our hands and pick us back on our feet, or offer a shoulder to cry..”, replied Laila kindly. “I have no idea what you went through in your youth, or if you were even allowed to live, or even have, a youth, but I suspect you had a lot of pent-up emotions. Mortals live them by the day and carry them along with them. In time, we either choose to let some of them go or seeth with them.. very seldomly, we choose to nurture them. The ones that ought to be nurtured, which is what forms good friends.. and sometimes.. new life..”

Then, as if remembering, or perhaps, awakening to something, she turned the little, pint-sized sprite, hovering around the gnome; Whimsi Lola.

“You! Pint-Size!”, she said, pointing at the sprite.

Whimsi Lola turned to her, very slowly, and gave the ranger lieutenant a glare that could only have been baleful!

“How dare you?!”, the tiny sprite hissed. “Unlike YOU, I am NOT pint-size!”

“What?”, said Laila, a bit baffled.

Gnine grinned.

“YOU..”, the tiny sprite girl spluttered. “..ARE NOT EVEN A FULL ELF! I, ON THE OTHER HAND, AM A FULL SPRITE!”

“What?”, asked Laila, even more confused. “What are you talking about, girl?”

“I AND ALL MY ANCESTORS WERE SPRITES! I AM NOT A PINT-WHATSIT!”, the sprite girl hissed.

Gnine started to cackle.

“Pint-whatsit?”, Laila asked totally confounded. Then it dawned on her. “Girl..”, she fumed. “I was referring to your size. NOT your origin!”

“Ow!”, froze Whimsi Lola. “Is that what pint-size, means?”

Gnine’s cackle turned into a silent, vindictive laugh.

Laila glared at both of them.

“Well..”, said Lola. “In that case, I apologize for my outburst about your origin. I spoke out of turn, hence I owe you now, and must complete a task to even the scales and attain balance!”

Gnine stopped laughing and sighed.

“There is no need for that, Lola.”, he said. “We are all friends, here.”

“No.”, she objected. “We are not. I am your indentured cooperative auxiliary. That’s all. They are nothing to me, and I am nothing to them. We owe nothing to each other.”

“True. But we have shared food. You have also looked out for me, and by proxy, you have looked out for them. You have sat on Jay, and together you had fun. And both Merisoul and Laila have fought for me, and by proxy, they have fought for you and your safety.”, Gnine explained.

Whimsi Lola scowled at him.

“Let me put it this way, then.”, said Gnine. “You are not my pet, or my servant, my slave, serf, vassal, attendant, retainer, or maid, and certainly not my familiar, yes?”

Whimsi mulled over that a bit.

“No. I am not.”, she consented, though dubiously.

“I suppose that makes you, my friend. Other than an indentured cooperative auxiliary. And by my proxy, that makes them your friend as well.”

Whimsi signed.

“Why do you mortals always want to complicate things, and not leave them as they are? Alright. I will concede that the ranger lieutenant and the soul bearer are my friends because thinking about this is giving me a headache and I don’t want to ask Mab if your logic is sound or fallacious and end up owing her again!”

Laila just stared at pint-size!

“Well? What do you want, Friend Ranger Leuitenant Laila Wolvesbane?”, the little sprite sniffed, a tad disdainfully.

Laila shook her head, then asked her. “You said you knew what had happened to my cousin, Bremorel Songsteel, and how she was made a lieutenant, and why..”

“Not personally, no. I overheard it mention in the Fey RSS!”, Whimsi said.

“Fey RS-what?”, Laila asked.

“Fey RSS —Rather Simple Snitching! Don’t you mortals know anything?”, she said exasperatedly.

Gnine snorted again.

“Apparently not.”, said Laila, looking up and pinching the bridge of her nose.

“Can you tell us more about what they are doing? Or how my cousin is? Do you know who she is?”

“Of course I know who she is. All fey in Ritual Forest knows all the rangers and the druids and the witches so we do not get in trouble with them.”, Whimsi Lola scoffed.

“What is she doing, then? How is my cousin?”, Laila asked excitably.

“How should I know?”, Lola asked irritably.

“But you said you knew her.”, Laila said a bit deflated.

“I know her, I don’t know what she is doing. We do not go into that place you have named Serenity Home because it is surrounded by dead trees, it has nothing but stones and iron in it and it is full of very boring mortals. Now that everyone wants to make war with everyone and kill one another, there is even more stone and iron there! And I am cut off from the Fey World ever since we entered the evil Demon Fog. I thought I told you that already. My Fey RSS is offline and I can’t even check my fe-mails!”, Whimsi explained exasperatedly.

Laila’s shoulders drooped. Just for a moment there, she had thought she could get a glimpse of her cousin’s and what she was doing and how she was..

Gnine came up to her and patted her on her hand.

“They’ll be alright, Laila. I am sure of it.”, he said kindly.

“How do you know? We are running out of time and literally stuck here.”, she seethed, her hands balling into fists.

“I know..”, said Gnine very, very seriously. “..because they had better be alright.. and because I don’t know what I’d do if they aren’t.”

✱ ✱ ✱

Perhaps Merisoul can carry you?”, Laila offered, looking down at Gnine. “I mean, even if I cast a Longstrider on you, it still won’t be enough.”

“I can’t carry him.”, Merisoul said with a confused and subdued voice. “I have managed to attain my ability to fly just recently. My wings were broken when I.. was at a very young age.. I started to work on them when I was on the roof of that inn we were staying.”

“Is that why you were always up there?”, asked Gnine.

“The rooms were crowded already. Princess Alor’Nadien ne, Laila, Lady Magella, Inshala, Sunsear.. When I entered the room, they started bumping into each other because of my wings, so as not to bump into me. So I spent most of my time up there and only came down when necessary. I did a lot of things up there. One of them was constantly moving my wings so as to strengthen them.”, she explained. “But I can dive into the chasm and come out from the other side, though if Regnalog sees me and decides to come after me, he will overtake me, and the feathers on my wings will catch fire and I will drop right into that bottomless chasm.”

“Sounds too risky, then.”, Laila said.

“Tis alright..”, she said wanly, “..and an acceptable risk. I will be only visible for but a moment as I jump down from this end. I will be totally in his line of sight when I come out on the other side though. But then, all of you will.”

“Don’t worry about me.”, said Gnine.

“Ow?”, asked Laila, staring down at the gnome with a frown and wondering just what kind of a convoluted plan he’d just come up with.

“I can simply teleport myself there.”, he said with a smirking shrug.

“You can do that?”

“Well, yes. I just said I can, didn’t I?”, he smirked some more.

“That leaves only you, dear Laila.”, Merisoul said softly.

“Whimsi can make you fly!”, offered Gnine and grinned happily.

“Thanks, but no thanks. No offense Lola, but I have seen the two of you dabble in that and how you land people. I’d rather not entertain broken arms or legs.”, she said in clear rejection.

“I wasn’t my fault!”, exclaimed Whimsi. “I told Master Gnine not to clench, but he just wouldn’t listen.”

“Clench?”, Laila asked with one arching brow.

“His butt!”, scoffed Whimsi with an exasperated voice.

 

Laila hurt herself.

Merisoul just stared at the tiny pint size, then at the furiously blushing gnome.

 

“Okay. Perhaps we can act like neither of you heard that?”, he pleaded.

“Ow, Hell no!”, smirked Laila triumphantly. “I now know all the dirty little secrets of a King!

“Damit!”, Gnine scowled. “I am not even a king yet, and I already have blackmailers! At least let Whimsi put invisibility on you, girl!”

“What for? Balor can see invisible creatures.”, Lorna pointed.

“Yes, but he has to be near enough, you know. His Truesight skill isn’t horizon to horizon!”

“It’s alright. I can make that run in under thirty seconds!”,  she smiled.

Gnine ogled at her then made a quick calculation in his mind and ended up with a claim of twenty-five feet per second on her part! Over seventeen miles an hour!

“Wow, girl. That’s around four miles more than an average human or elf!”

“Yea. I knew I was faster than the average elf, but it feels good to know just how much.”, she said happily. Then she looked at Whimsi Lola. “Can you make me invisible?”

The pint-size stared down at her with silent disdain.

“I suppose you can, then. I saw an archway at the end of the bridge. That’s where we must get to, though I do not know what will happen if Balor sees us, and decides to come after us. He might try and bring down the wall and enter, or the bridge.”, the ranger lieutenant said.

Gnine frowned a bit.

“We can’t let Balor on the bridge, no matter what. If a fight occurs and he is on that bridge, he will bring it down and that is our only sure way out, and likely the only exit for any gnomes that might still be alive. If we end up facing him, be sure to fight in that central platform.”, he said intently.

One half-born, the other half-elf, nodded at him.

“Merisoul, you are at go. I am thinking you will have to dive deep to arc back up there without Balor hearing your wing flaps, so go, now! Then it’s you, Laila. I’ll be last.”

Merrisoul walked up to the edge of the hall, turned around, and faced them. With a weak smile, she said, “I will meet you on the other side, then.”

 

And let herself go..

..arms spread..

..and vanished in the pitch-black chasm.

 

“Damn. That is just so beautiful, scary, and awesome.”, whispered Gnine.

“Yea. Some people can do clichés and still make it look awesome.”, admitted, Laila.

“Whimsi. Are you ready?”, Gnine asked.

“Wait.”, Whimsi said. “We are NOT fighting that demon?”

“No. We are not. He is way above our pay grade. And I am not wasting the lives of my friends on a fiend.”, Gnine said grimly.

“Ow poo!”, pouted the pint-sized sprite. “Why don’t you just smack him with that fist of yours?”

“Again with the fist. I can’t just smack this guy, Whimsi. He won’t even feel it!”

“Well, perhaps you need bigger fists, then!”, she said disdainfully.

Gnine scowled at her.

“Whimsi, please. Do your thing and let’s get a move on, shall we? Merisoul will be out of that chasm soon.”

“Ow, alright.”, she said and flung a tiny hand full of her own pixie dust on Laila..

..and Laila vanished.

 

Gnine didn’t even hear her go.

“Laila? You still here?”, he asked just to be sure, but got no reply. “Right. Whimsi. On my shoulder, if you will?”

Whimsi landed on the little gnome’s shoulder and held on tight.

Gnine mimed drawing a tall, vertical rectangle, chanted a few words, reached out, and pushed the ‘door’ he had just drawn.

The ‘door’ opened, Gnine stepped through, and the door closed.

Another identical door opened, some five hundred feet away, about fifty feet before the archway, and Gnine stepped out.

He didn’t look back.

He just cast another spell and disappeared from his spot, to reappear thirty more feet away.

And ran the last twenty feet as Merisoul piked out of the chasm, her slender arms stretched and her wings flapping and thrashing furiously..

 

The two slid past the archway when a deep rumble, followed by the sharp cracking of a giant whip echoed..

..from behind!

 

Laila appeared, some one hundred feet away and still on the bridge, fear etched on her face. She turned around and saw the furnacing flames rise higher..

..and Balor, Regnalog, stepped out of the flames.

 

For an infinite second, she looked back at Gnine and Merisoul.

And whispered;

“RUN, YOU FOOLS!”

 

Then.

Laila ran.

Her elven bow, Gracious Warning, drawn.

At the demon!

✱ ✱ ✱

WHAT IS SHE DOING?!”, shrieked Gnine!

“What a ranger should; To be the first to face evil, and the last evil has to face!”, replied Merisoul. “We have been had, Master Gnine..”

Gnine started back at the bridge, quite mindlessly, and without a moment’s thought of self-preservation.

Merisoul jumped after him and toppled him over, face down, her black, raven wings beating hard to keep him down.

“Let me go, Soul! She is my friend! She needs my help!”, Gnine snarled.

“She is my friend. And she needs your mind!”, Merisoul replied hoarsely as she tried to bring some semblance of thought to the little gnome struggling to escape from under her as she pleaded desperately. “Your spells will not help against Regnalog! Please, Master Gnine. You must go! Go and find your gnomes. Find help! Make her sacrifice worth the cause!”

 

Gnine lost it!

He snarled and kicked and almost squirmed from under the otherworldly girl.

Leaving but little choice for the succubi half-born..

 

“YOU MUST NOT!”

..she heard a thundering voice crack, sharply in her head.

 

“I shall do what I must to save my friends!”, she replied, quite calmly, though her heart seethed, a something that had never happened before.

 

Merisoul Xyrotwu recognized it for what it was.

After years and years of wondering and toiling,

scheming, failing, and crying, she finally..

..felt!

 

“..AND SUFFER THE SAME RETRIBUTION AS BEFORE!”

 

“Suffer me your best! I shall not abandon my friends..”, she smoldered..

 

..and did something she hadn’t done for a good, long while. Against all warnings, she used her heritage;

 

She bit the squirming and struggling gnome.. by the ear.. drew the tiniest bit of blood.. and whispered in her soft, sad, and quaking, yet mesmerizing, throbbing, and enthralling true voice..

 

“Go, Master Gnine. Find your gnomes. Or find help. Go and never come back without either.

 

..and let go of the gnome.

 

Gnine jumped on his feet and spun around in circles, his eyes white and wide.

 

He spun once..

..twice..

..trice..

..and darted off into the only hall leading out.

 

Merisoul looked up and at the unseen sky and spoke harshly and in defiance.

 

“I am ready. Bring me down your retribution and smite me.. I only ask for the brief duration of a delay to save my friends. This, I am sure, I have thus earned. This I ask, in the name of Compassion!”

“WHO ARE YOU TO SPEAK OF COMPASSION?”

“Someone who was born with it, lost it, then found it again.”

 

The Voice of Wrath fell silent.

 

“STILL TRYING TO ATTAIN YOUR ASCENSION THROUGH FOLLY?”

 

Merisoul Xyrotwu..

No.

Arezme Ara Serraphyn spoke.

 

“Have your precious Ascension, Priceptine. I care little anymore. Judge or Speak, but either way, I will save my friends, for they have given me something you never bothered; a heart!”

✱ ✱ ✱

Regnalog rose out the incinerating flames, and with a thunderous boom, he stepped forth, a monstrosity, some twenty-five feet high with thirty-foot wingspan wielding a fifteen-foot, burning scimitar in one, great, scaly and clawed hand, and a long, barbed, and crackling whip in the other, and all of him reeking in his own sheets of flames.

With a powerful beat of his enormous, bat-like wings he launched himself..

..and with a thunderclap, he landed before the tiny-looking mortal girl, defiantly running at him!

Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane did not wait nor pause for any dramatic effects, nor for any challenges or counter verbal spat, no thundering, righteous demands of ‘yield or die’s.. She was a ranger and rangers had little use for stupid!

She had but a single mission in her mind;

Keep the demon off the bridge, keep it busy and stay alive.

The last part was important. And not in just a self-preservation sense, but dead people were dead and could not help their friends.

Laila was a practical girl like that.

She drew her long, elven bow as she ran. The legendary bow of Silendenien Sunlight, Princess Lorna’s long-deceased aunt, murdered during the first Themalsar War some eight hundred years ago by the mad priest himself, and the youngest of the three siblings; High Lady Angrellen Sunsear and Ri Grandaleren Feymist, Gracious Warning, started to glow and radiate. It was not burning with fire, but that of brilliant golden light.

“The ‘Warning’ is over..”, she whispered in exhilarated fear. “Time to be ‘Gracious!'”

Laila loosed the arrow as she ran and cocked a second, almost seamlessly, and loosed that one as well.

The arrows, burning bright and gold, streaked through the air and struck home..

The monstrosity barely noticed them as they hit, one on its massive chest, one on the shoulder.

But then they bloomed!

With a searing, radiant light, the arrows bloomed and burned the demon.

 

Regnalog roared..

..and brought its smoldering sword down.

 

Laila dashed..

..and she never stopped.

 

The fiery, molten scimitar sliced and the whole platform quaked as large rocks and boulders came crashing from above with choking dust and debris.

Laila stumbled, for a mere brief moment, regained her balance, and once more, she was on the run as she sent two more arrows; one burned and winked out in cinders, but the second struck.. and also bloomed with brilliant, radiant light before it too burned and turned to ash.

 

“Those arrows cost money, dammit!”, hissed the half-elf girl, and loosed two more.

 

Again and again, her Gracious Warning sent blooming arrows and sparked on the Balor, each causing the great demon to howl and roar, bringing more rubble and rocks down.

 

Regnalog roared..

..and with a thunderclap, brought his whip.

 

The whip cracked like nothing Laila had experienced before as long, jagged streaks of lightning jabbed at her and the barbs of the whip crashed, opening a sharp fissure in the platform that crawled and branched, sending bits and piece of rock, shrapneling in every direction.

Laila crumbed on her knees in pain, bloodied and bruised, and smoke boiled out of her scarred leathers. “No, dammit.”, she snarled and rolled on broken, jagged rocks as the thundered whip and came down again, followed by the screeching wind of the burning scimitar!

✱ ✱ ✱

Gnine Tinkerdome ran as he’d never ran before. It was like he was under some mindless compulsion or even a geas. Deep down, something told him it was the touch of the succubi half-born that had driven him into such dire straights, but the voice was subdued, and for some unknown reason, seemed to agree with her.

So he ran, for how long, he couldn’t discern, but the stabbing pain at his side told him he was tethering at the end of his endurance. Still, he ran because the voice, the other one, the soft, sad, and beautifully enthralling voice had told him to go and to never come back. Not without his gnomes, or help!

It was then, he stumbled into the large, circular chamber at the end of the hall. The room was perhaps one hundred feet across and eighty feet deep and for a bare moment, he did wonder why gnomes built rooms, chambers, and halls always so much larger than they would possibly need. Even the hall he’d just ran through had been at least thirty feet wide and possibly sixty feet high.

With haste born of desperation, he looked around and noted the room was not empty. There was strange machinery of one kind of another scattered everywhere, consisting mostly of consoles with odd, blocky buttons, arms, levers, and knobs, and many, many small screens and displays, though they were all dead, blank, or just cracked or smashed.

The main display, the one in the center, however, was huge, perhaps sixteen feet wide and nine feet high. Though it too was somewhat cracked at one corner and chipped on its dusty surface, it had somehow remained intact.

And there, right under it, was an elegantly molded, brushed steel, double-handled circuit breaker. And right under that was a label embossed on a brass plaque in some strange, cryptic letters, and in elder gnomish;

 

 

“if you are”

 

 

Gnine had no idea what that meant. But he grabbed at the circuit breaker and pulled it down.

Because at that moment, a deep, thunderous roar and the crack of lightning echoed down the hall and he was just that desperate.

He heard a sudden, whining sound coming from somewhere under his feet followed by numerous large, clanking, metallic noises, the lights on many of the panels burst alive making odd, jarring sounds, and most of the unbroken smaller screens and displays lit, scrolling some green, mono-space texts with a lot of alpha-numerical jibberish..

..and that’s it.

 

Nothing else happened!

 

“Are you kidding me?”, Gnine cried deploringly. “We came all the way, and bleeding along, here, and that’s it? Some weird whining and clanking and some creepy light show in retro, steamchunk theme?”

Then he heard, quite clearly, a matronly voice, though a bit on the squeaky side;

 

> Voice Activation: Verified!

> Welcome, Gnine Tinkerdome.

> You are now in the HQ of Silent Vaults.

> Please select from the choices presented on the main display using the GID – Gnomic Interaction Device and press the [ENTER] key!

> You will receive a verification code for confirmation which you must also enter, using the GID.

> Should you wish to listen to the instruction again, please press 1..

> Thank you and have a nice day.

 

And with ogling fascination, Gnine stared as blocky gnomish texts that came scrolling down the big, main display.

 

> [1] Listen to the Instructions.

> [2] Security Cameras and Alarms.
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

> [3] Cryo-Sleep/Hydration Chamber.
> Current Status: ACTIVE.

> [4] Sentinel Turrets (Caution).
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

> [5] Power Lines and Ventilation.
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

> [6] Water Lines and Aqueducts.
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

> [7] Sewers and Recycling.
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

> [8] System Updates (Admin Status Required)
> Current Status: 2,793 Pending Updates.

> [9] ULTRABER! (Extreme Caution).
> Current Status: OFFLINE.

 

As dumbfounded as he was, Gnine’s mind worked at an incredible pace as he ran down the list and promptly hit the number [2], on the GID —Gnomic Interaction Device!

Whatever this all was, it wasn’t just magic and gnomic engineering at its best, it was base, mad, ingenuity. Something only someone like him would have admired and found genuinely appealing.

 

A tiny, pipsqueak voice buzzed in his head.

 

> Verification Code for Security Cameras and Alarms

 > 4-8-2-1

 

Gnine quickly entered the four digits into the GID and while many of the smaller screens stayed dark or had random dots and lines of static, some did show live images in black and white. And in one of them, he could see the great, very nearly endless vault of tombs they had seen. And in the image, he saw dark, clawing figures creeping in their direction. In another display, he saw Laila crash into the ground, bloodied and bruised as something huge raised its seething sword!

“Regnalog!”, hissed Gnine and hit [5], [6], [7], and then [4]!

 

He was suddenly spammed by a number of tiny, buzzing squeaks!

 

> Verification Code for Power Lines and Ventilation

> 3-8-7-5

 

> Verification Code for Water Lines and Aqueducts

> 1-2-1-5

 

> Verification Code for Sewers and Recycling

> 5-6-8-3

 

> Verification Code for Sentinel Turrets (Caution)

> 0-9-1-1

 

He entered all the codes, one by one, through the GID and the whole room lit by some sourceless-seeming ambient light. Through the security screens, he could see more tunnels, halls, and chambers light up. He wasn’t sure what Water Lines and Aqueducts, and Sewers and Recycling had done, but the list had refreshed and they now showed their current status as; ONLINE!

The effect of the cautioned Sentinel Turrets turned out to be quite a bit more distinct..

On the tiny screen, displaying the tomb room, many contraptions sprung from the floor and walls, and in a bloody rain of deadly projectiles, the demons there were all nothing but indiscernible heaps!

“Alright.. that was a bit gruesome..”, he said in a sick voice. “Effective though!”

Then he slammed the console and screamed with despair.

“All of this is nice and cool but they aren’t helping Laila!”

 

Then he saw it.

He didn’t pause, he didn’t hesitate.

 

He hit his own number: [9] —ULTRABER!

 

> Verification Code for ULTRABER! (Extreme Caution)

> 0-9-9-9

 

Another loud clanking noise came and this one just to his right. A section of the wall dropped down and disappeared into the ground, revealing something.. HUGE!

It was perhaps eighteen feet high, made out of steel and perhaps some kind of carbon alloy with an elongated, egg-like head, a round, tubular torso, long, segmented arms that very nearly reached down to the floor and ended with three-fingered, pincer-like hands. It seemed old because it was covered in dust and rust all over.

With a sharp hiss, the front of the tubular torso opened, not unlike a window shutter, revealing a tiny, compact room with many buttons, arms, levers, and knobs, and a small, gnome-sized armchair.

 

Gnine cackled with glee.

“Larger fists, did you say? Larger fists, INCOMING!”

 

And as if on cue, a rope ladder rolled down and all fell silent again, waiting..

 

Gnine slithered up the rope ladder and hopped into the seat and noted the inside of the.. whatever this thing was.. was quite clean and dust-free. He poked his head out and looked a bit more closely at the paint job and noticed..

“Damn. It’s retro-paint! Someone’s gone to some serious trouble to give this a steamchunk-look. Obsession, much?”

Then he looked around him and noticed all the buttons, arms, levers, and knobs were neatly labeled. There was even a bundled user manual!

“I’d say, someone really wants me to use this!”, he cackled some more.

 

He grabbed the user manual and skimmed through it. By the time he was done, in under two, short minutes, he was amazed.. and somewhat scared..

This.. thing.. ominously named ULTRABER, was not a toy. It was a weapon of potential mass destruction!

 

“Looks like someone was preparing for a rainy day!”, he murmured, then turned to the little sprite, Whimsi Lola, who had been silently hovering just over his head with a frightened expression on her tiny face and said in a low, growly voice.

“You will wait here, my little friend. Balor is not something you can fight. This, I think you already know. I am aware that you don’t owe Laila Wolvesbane anything, but should I not come back, I would like you to stay with her and keep her safe and happy, just like you did with me. And should.. neither of us comes back, you can stick with Miss Merisoul, or you may return to your forest and unindentured. You owe nothing to anyone anymore, my little friend. Savvy?”

Whimsi Lola stared at him.. with a running nose!

“I have no idea what savvy means, but I will honor this last bequest of yours, Master Gnine.. I shall wait here, a year and a day. And should you or Friend Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane have not returned by then, I shall take my leave and return to.. Mab.. Dammit! I was this close to having escaped her!”, she sniffed and drifted off and perched herself in front of one of the security displays and started slurping something out of a tiny little can!

“Right.”, said Gnine grimly and slapped the big HATCH button, shutting the doors of the DOCKPIT, oddly named as it was, and pulled at the STARTUP lever, and smashed down the foot paddles..

ULTRABER lurched forward, taking a giant step, followed by another as Gnine paddled the mechanical monstrosity using his feet and spun the torso and the arms using the two, steel, circuit breaker levers.

Then he punched another button labeled;

 

T.O.N.I.C
Terminal Output Neuro
Interface Coefficient!

 

“Hold on, girl.”, he hissed through gritted teeth. “Never just ended! I am coming..”

✱ ✱ ✱

Laila tumbled and rolled, barely keeping a step ahead of the lightning whip and the molten blade but Regnalog never gave her the chance. He roared and bellowed and smashed his fiery scimitar with the fury of Hell and sent streaks of lightning each time he clapped his whip.

Laila felt her strength drain as she bled from numerous cuts, burns, and wounds as exhaustion settled in.

“Not gonna give in! My friends depend on me, dammit. My father doesn’t even know where I am! I can’t let him suffer the same thing he did after my mother died. Not again..”, she squeezed the words and sent another blooming arrow.

Then, just for a moment, Balor stumbled.

And Merisoul appeared, high and above, and a long spear of brilliant golden light streaked out of her hands and struck the monstrous demon. Then she sent another beam of the same golden, radiant light.. and another!

Laila had seen the odd, otherworldly girl mime that same way before. Many, many times. It had been her go-to spell! Much like shooting arrows was hers. But always before, it had been a dark, purplish, lightning-like thing. Now it was this brilliant, golden, radiant, streaking beam.. The change was significant, Laila was sure of it. She just couldn’t figure out what.. or why? Or perhaps she was just so hurt, bloodied, and tired. Nevertheless, she didn’t waste the opportunity. She held her breath, carefully aimed, and loosed two more arrows.

One struck Regnalog on the temple, causing it to howl and roar, and inevitably turn her way, a something Laila had anticipated. Her second arrow struck him..

..in the eye!

 

Balor froze, for just a moment, and the arrow bloomed!

With a searing golden explosion, Regnalog’s eye turned into a gaping, cavernous, empty hole!

 

The wrath of Balor knew no bounds after that. A wave of molten flames burst out of him, burning everything in its path. The fire spread along the platform leaving nowhere to hide.

Laila’s last thought was, “Totally worth it, bitch!”

Then the flames washed over her, and swept her away, not unlike a tsunami.

With one short cry of pain, Laila Wolvesbane was gone and over the edge.

Her whites visible with fear and terror, she disappeared in the bottomless chasm..

✱ ✱ ✱

Good afternoon, Gnine Tinkerdome.”, said a raspy, tenoric voice.

“Gimme all the specs on this ULTRABER thingy!”, he barked.

“ULTRABER; The Ultimate Mechanical Bear—”, started T.O.N.I.C.

“Bear? This thing looks nothing even remotely like a bear!”, scowled Gnine.

“—is totally corrosion-proof and can stay up to five hours underwater and is airtight, effectively making you immune to viral, bacterial, and/or fungal infections and diseases and poisons in gaseous forms for the duration. It can stay functional in arctic conditions and can stay in pressurized lava for up to thirty minutes before the DOCKPIT is ruptured. It has a wide variety of weapons; one AEARFGL —Area Effect Air Propelled Fire Grenade Launcher on the right and one STAGL —Single Target Acid Grenade Launcher on the left shoulder, one ASGL —Area Stun Grenade Launcher on the lower turret, one stationary FRBC —Focused Radiance Beam Condenser right above the DOCKPIT, and two HVPARGs —High-Velocity Projectile Auto Reloading Guns, one on each arm! The ULTRABER can punch through an average enforced siege wall at a rate of one foot of seamless stone per ten minutes. Its pincers can eviscerate a dragon’s hide with little trouble, and has ALG —Auto Leveling Gyro to move its legs automatically to avoid tumbling or falling. And of course, the built-in USDS —Ultimate Self Destruct System that can level a half-mile radius and an EEM —Emergency Ejection Mechanism!”

“Girl, whoever you are, you sure like your acronyms, don’t you? Lost a lot of sleep over them, I am sure!”, mumbled Gnine, and stepped on it.. figuratively..

 

ULTRABER moved at an impressive speed and agility and Gnine figured out why the halls, the tunnels, the corridors, and the rooms of Silent Hills were so big, wide, and high..

 

“Damn. They must have thought of making multiple numbers of these monstrosities!”, he frowned as he carefully inspected all the other labels under each button, arm, lever, switch, and knob, and there were a lot of them!

Most of them were self-explanatory, others were left without any explanations but sounded more like names.

One punch-button read; [CORA] and Gnine’s fingers itched to hit it.

The itch won and he yelped when the DOCKPIT was suddenly filled with cool, arctic air and the temperature inside dropped drastically.

Another such button read; [BROM] and Gnine stared at it suspiciously but punched it anyway and a strange tune began to play in the DOCKPIT..

It was a savage tune. A beastly, intriguing, itching, rapid, and very nearly asynchronous tune.

It was a tune that reached Gnine at his most, basic level. It was a tune that had been created by someone who had suffered the toils of the Great Northern Tundras and it was a tune that was the culmination of that frozen land as he’d seen it, beheld it, and understood it; wild, free, endless, and tormentingly beautiful!

And it seized Gnine, hit him over the head, concussed him, and left him stunned and bewildered..

“Damn, girl!”, Gnine said, a bit awed. “This is one good song to go to war!”

 

Then he noted the third button with another name; [SERESSA]!

Somewhat elated by the previous two buttons, he mindlessly hit this one as well.

Gnine thought he heard a very faint hiss, but nothing else happened.

“Perhaps this one is broken.”, he mused as ULTRABER clanked arduously down the hall.

Then he picked up the scent!

It was a beautiful, brushing scent, perhaps of ripe strawberries, or cherry blooms, or.. phloxes?.. and something else.. something intimate.. and tender.. and feminine.. and soft.. and..

Gnine blushed furiously.

“Alright.. Apparently, someone had some interesting fetishes! Better mark this one off as ‘off limits’..”, he coughed.

Whatever this SERESSA was, it definitely was an.. exhilarating.. yes.. honestly exhilarating.. chemical!

 

Then there was the [DIE BIACH!] button and Gnine had no intentions of ever touching that one!

 

Red lights suddenly lit inside the DOCKPIT and the raspy, tenoric voice of T.O.N.I.C was heard again.

 

“Warning! Warning! High-temperature heatwave signature detected! UEA —Unknown Extraterrestrial Anomaly sighted! Analysis Reports: Balor; Class X Demon. Extremely Dangerous.. Arming STAGL, ASGL, FRBC, and the HVPARGs.. Distance: 700 ft. and closing.. Route: Civilian Bridge..  Status: Damaged Infrastructure.. Suggested Exit Strategy: Full Thrusters!”

“Full Thrusters!”, barked Gnine and ULTRABER bursts forward and Gnine felt himself flatten against the DOCKPIT armchair! At an accelerated speed, the hall suddenly ended and ULTRABER rammed right through the wall, and over the bottomless chasm!

✱ ✱ ✱

Merisoul watched her friend get flung over the edge and disappear in the chasm with unadulterated horror as she heard her tiny yelp over the roaring fire.

She wasn’t quite sure which hurt more, that her friend, Laila had just vanished into the bottomless chasm, or that her wings had caught fire and she was slowly but ultimately burning.

“So be it.”, she murmured.

 

Slowly she tilted..

..and piked down and after the ranger lieutenant!

 

She felt every single one of her feathers simmer, shrivel, and disintegrate by the fire of Balor, and tears of pain streaked out the side of her sad, solemn eyes. Her slender arms stretched before her, she made herself as small as possible and beat her wings savagely to attain a speed faster than terminal velocity, otherwise, there would be no catching up to her friend no matter how far down they fell. The gaping distance between them just would never close..

With a burst of sparkling cinders, her wings burned out and she saw Laila, her eyes closed, her boldly beautiful face pinched in pain and horror, her long, soft, brown hair lashing wildly and her beloved elven bow clutched tightly to her chest, she portrayed a figure who knew she had done all she could but it just hadn’t been enough.

 

“Your eyes.. Open them, my friend..”, Merisoul sent her thought at her.

“Mm.. Merisoul?“, Laila mumbled with fright.

“Yes. I am coming.. Open your eyes, for they are pretty and I must see!”, Merisoul whispered.

“Don’t come. There’s no coming back! Help Gnine. At least he should get to be king and save my home..”, she whispered back.

“Together. We agreed on this. When we first went into the Fog, did we not?”

“Yes. We did. But I am done and you can’t carry me out.”

“No. I can’t. Regnalog burned my wings.”, Merisoul said sadly.

“Then, why come?”, Laila asked and opened her eyes to see the odd, otherworldly girl rushing at her.

“Because no one should die alone..”

“Go back, girl. I am sure you can save yourself. You excel at everything you do.”

“I have never used a bow like you. And never had a heart like yours.”

“Take the bow. Gracious Warning shouldn’t be lost in the debts of some bottomless pit. As for the heart, I believe yours is the greatest one there is. No one has suffered what you have, and still did the things you did for any mortal. Yet you have.. Take the bow and go back.. Tell Gnine.. and my father.. and my cousin.. I am sorry..”, Laila said and closed her eyes again as pain engulfed her.

 

 

“Sacrifice..“, Merisoul whispered..

“..Should not be wasted thus gratis!”

 

Soul Bearer closed her eyes and mind..

And she turned off the world.

The wind rushed fiercely.

Tears ran and free.

And her heart..

Stopped.

.

 

 

I submit.


I am not a taker, my dear girl.
I do not take.
I give.

 

You gave.
Now, is my turn to give back.
Please. I must save my friend.

 

You plead a bargain with me
to save a mortal, at the expense
of your own life?

 

My whole life, I sought a heart.
This mortal learned me mine.
And for the first time, I ‘felt’.
It is beautiful!

 

Thus, you are..
Rejoice!

 

I have attained my merry soul, at last.
Nothing more have I wanted.
The purpose I set for myself,
and my existence is done and done.

 

Nay, dear girl.
Your existence has just begun.

 

She has love and loved ones. I do not.
Few will shed tears after me
and forgotten shall I be soon enough.
Her father and her friends shall mourn
for many long years, and many mortals
shall die because she has..

 

You undervalue your existence.
You have friends and a BFF, do you not?

 

My mirima Temez is strong.
Unlike me.

 

No, dear child.
She is strong, because of you.

 

Please..
Please, just do it!

 

You are bonded.
I must but ask Priceptine.

 

No.. He does not understand..
A silly and foolish girl is all I am to Him.

 

Perhaps you think Him silly and foolish,
missing the point where He isn’t?

 

He has been nothing but cruel to me.

 

He has been everything but cruel to you.

 

He will never consent to my Ascension!

 

It was never up to Him,
nor was His concession ever required
for your Ascension.

 

He hurt me and pummeled me,
like a drunkard upon his woman!

 

He was trapped in that locket,
because of your former master!

 

He.. he knew?

 

Of course, dear.
How could he not?
Did I not know who you were,
when we first met?

 

He—

 

—Saved you!

 

Can’t you just do it?
Before He comes?
I gave you my hand when you asked.
You owe me..

 

You gave me your hand
because you are kind.
Yet you want to bargain your existence
for the sins of your former master?

 

Yes!

 

Why?

 

Because she is my friend.
She learned me my heart..
I feel now. It is beautiful.
And I am scared..

 

My dear Merisoul..
Live up to your name and live a merry soul.
Offer yourself the time to attain that, at least,
before giving up. Do not deny this of yourself.

 

I have attained all I wanted.
I am free of Hell.
My BFF is free of Hell.
All my kind are free of Hell
and thus
we have ‘life’, we have ‘heart’,
and we have ‘choice’ now.
And this is mine.
Please.. Honor it..

 

For one thousand six hundred years
have I suffered the vilest sins at the hands
of your former master.
Gladly would I suffer more and a like amount
for the single beat of your heart.

 

My heart has beat enough.
Her’s must more!
Please.
Ad Ara.

 

Very well.
Priceptine, if you will..

 

 

AHHH, AD ARA..

IT HAS BEEN TOO LONG AND THE MORTAL COIL
HAS SUFFERED YOUR ABSENCE.

 

This merry soul would wish to trade her
existence for mine to save her friend.
You must agree on this, and free her
of your bond.

 

HOW MANY MORE TIMES
MUST SHE BARGAIN FOR HER FRIENDS?

*SIGH*

SHE CAN DO AS SHE PLEASES.
FOR SHE IS MORTAL NOW!
SHE HAS HEART!

 

I.. I am?

 

YOU TRULY ARE
A FOOLISH AND SILLY GIRL!

DO YOU NOT HEAR
THE MORTAL BEAT OF YOUR OWN HEART, NOW?

CRUEL, THOUGH, YOU HAVE THOUGHT I BE,
YOU MUST KNOW, A HEART MAY NOT BE GIVEN.
IT MUST BE REALIZED. FOR WHAT IS GIVEN
CAN NEVER BE AS PRECIOUS AS WHAT IS EARNED.
AND A HEART THAT DOES NOT BEAT, IS BUT A DEAD HEART.
OF ALL MORTALS, I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT
A FOOLISH AND SILLY LITTLE GIRL SUCH AS YOURSELF
WOULD HAVE NOTICED THIS,
FOR IT WAS YOU, WHO STOPPED YOUR OWN,
TO START ANOTHER’S, ONCE, DID YOU NOT?

AND SHOULD THE SAID HEART WANT TO BEAT, IT MUST BEAT ON ITS OWN, AND WILLINGLY, AND MUSTN’T EXPECT OTHERS TO SQUEEZE IT TO KEEP IT ALIVE! THAT WOULD BE A RATHER SLOTH EXPECTATION, WOULDN’T YOU AGREE?

YES, I AM THE ARCHANGEL OF WRATH AND THAT IS MY PRIMARY ASPECT, AND TIME AND AGAIN, I HAVE WATCHED THE FRUITLESS EFFORTS OF MORTALS SIN ONE ANOTHER OVER AND OVER, OVER THE CYCLES,
HENCE I HAVE GROWN WEARY OF THEM
AND MY WRATH UPON THEM IS JUSTIFIED.
BUT I DO NOT LACK COMPASSION.
IT IS TRUE, COMPASSION IS NOT MY PRIMARY ASPECT,
BUT ONE CAN NOT BE AN ANGEL AND LACK IT!
THIS TOO, I THINK A GIRL AS FOOLISH AND SILLY
AND AS DEAR AS YOU WOULD HAVE RECOGNIZED, YES?
CONSIDERING THE CARE AND COMPASSION YOU HAVE THUS SHOWN, NOT ONLY TO YOUR MORTAL FRIENDS
BUT SAVING YOUR BEST FIEND FRIENDS AS WELL.
I AM WRATH, TRUE, BUT MY CLOSEST AND DEAREST FRIEND
HAS ALWAYS BEEN COMPASSION!

SUFFICE TO SAY, AREZME ARA SERRAPHYN
(INSERT ALL YOUR OTHER SILLY NAMES),
THE CHOICE IS YOURS.
IT ALWAYS WAS..

 

Then..
..I choose her life,
over my existence..
Hoist her from this bottomless pit.
For here, she does not belong..
Here, it is dark, it is bleak
and it is lonely..

 

✱ ✱ ✱

The walls shattered like eggshells and ULTRABER burst out! And with a great, graceful arc, it arched over the bottomless chasm, and slammed into Regnalog!

The monstrous Balor roared and grabbed at the giant mechaber and struck, hurling ULTRABER back.

ULTRABER’s ALG —Auto Leveling Gyro kicked in and it landed on its legs and a shaft of brilliant, searing light burst from its chest and struck Balor, leaving a gaping hole on his giant torso.

And with a series of plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk sounds, a volley of Acid Grenades launched from one shoulder, leaving marred, molten, fleshless scars on the bellowing Balor.

“You.. you son of a.. You killed Laila.. my best friend.. the only person who was always been with me! And you killed Merisoul.. the only person who never judged me.. You.. They.. They were my friends you bastard!”, spluttered Gnine, in the DOCKPIT, his eyes ablaze and burning with hate..

“DIE BIACH!”, he screamed..

 

..and hit the [DIE BIACH!] button!

 

The tenoric voice of T.O.N.I.C screeched in the tubular DOCKPIT;

 

“DIE BIACH Protocol initiated!”

“Warning! System Overload in 3.. 2.. 1..”

 

ULTRABER..

UNLOADED!

EVERYTHING..

ALL AT ONCE!

 

The STAGs (Single Target Acid Grenades) hissed wildly with mad, chaotic, arching fumes as every single acid grenade volleyed forth, and all at once.. The ASGs (Area Stun Grenade) plunged —all of them— and with ear-bleeding and eye-searing thunderclaps, detonated around Balor. The FRB (Focused Radiance Beam), stabbed and speared right through him like the wrath of Shal -ah Galad, the Spear of Light, itself! And with a roaring Ratta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta staccato, the two HVPARGs (High-Velocity Projectile Auto Reloading Guns) zapped and zigzagged like thousands of fist-sized angry hornets buzzing with red-orange trail-lines, and left bloody cloud puffs wherever they hit, and ULTRABER emptied the whole content of its destructive payload!..

 

Not satisfied, Gnine spun the ULTRABER at a wide, ultra-speed velocity, and struck with one eviscerating pincer followed immediately by the other..

Over and over and over again, like some crazed desert dervish..

 

And with a tremendous and resounding crash, Regnalog’s massive head smashed into the burning platform, right next to its shredded, molten, seared, riddled, and ravaged body!

✱ ✱ ✱

Gnine slammed at the [CORA] button and flushed the overheated DOCKPIT, then hit the HATCH button and ULTRABER’s tubular torso split open. He tossed the rope ladder and scrambled down and ran to the side of the platform, tears running shamelessly down his pinched and distorted face.

“LAILA! LAILA?”, he shouted down the bottomless chasm and his tenoric voice echoed through the Silent Vaults, perhaps the only live gnome’s voice to have been heard since the Demon Fog.

“No, girl..”, he wept and fell on his back fisting his hands. “It was supposed to be me! Not her! Why? Why, dammit? She was nothing but a good, brave girl, and the only person to have bothered to be my friend! No kingdom is worth this.. No kingdom can replace her.”

 

It took him a while to notice the screaming wind.

 

When he did, he noticed the brilliant golden light rising out of the bottomless chasm.

He stared at it with hopeless abandon and with incredible speed, the golden radiance came out of the chasm, and lo..

 

Gnine Tinkerdome beheld the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sight he had ever seen.

A tall, slim figure in some ancient but delicate golden plate armor, her face luminous and serene, her eyes lost in the far distances of eternity, her majestic, snowy-white wings stretched far and wide, an Angel rose!

 

No..

 

Ad Ara rose..

 

And in her arms, she held Laila Wolvesbane.

 

“Behold, young Master Gnine Tinkerdome, for I gift you, your friend back. Love her, care for her, and cherish her, for she has fought bravely and valiantly and against a foe much disproportionate to herself for you, your people, your Silent Vaults, and the cause of decent men. Had there been but a few more of her brave and arduous kind, this world would have been a merrier place..”, Ad Ara said, her gentle voice echoing and reverberating in vast halls of Silent Hills, and gently, she settled the depleted form of Laila on the platform.

 

Gnine just ogled at her.

 

“Merisoul?”, Gnine chocked in a hushed voice.

“Dear Merisoul Xyrotwu has parted. Her last wish was of sacrifice; the life of her friends for her existence. Cherish that, also, for methinks that is the greatest of sacrifices and par to Ascension.”

“No..”, mumbled Gnine and saw Laila too was awake and silently crying where she lay. “She.. she is one of us! She belongs to us.. She is our friend!”

“Thus you are, and thus you, Gnine Tinkerdome, and you, Laila Wolvesbane have fought, time and again against the sins of men and that of foul fiends and demons, risking your lives in return, did you not? At any time, could either of you, or your beloved company could have perished. Knew you this risk, and still took it, did you not? And willingly did you still sweat, and bleed and oft times, endangered your very lives for such noble a task.. Thus has she.. Mourn not, for her sacrifice was not in vain nor was it a folly loss; she saw the merit of her friends, because of her friends.. She weighed the value of your friendship and the worth of your lives, so much dear to her, as she saw it, understood it, and felt it, and against her very existence and deemed it a worthy exchange. Know though, her choice was well informed and done willingly. Her last and only bequest was that you, Laila Wolvesbane, keep her ever-loyal familiar, Jay, and comfort him, for he will not understand sacrifice, but only live its consequences.. Farewell and rejoice, for she and I are now, Xyrone..”

 

And with that, and with a brilliant, golden, radiance, Ad Ara, the Archangel of Compassion streaked up, and up, and was gone!

 

And the only thing that remained was the sound of smoldering flames of what was once Balor, Regnalog..

..and the croaking whimpers of a tiny dragon.

✱ ✱ ✱

Are you ready?”, Gnine asked with a subdued voice and hiccuped, when he heard little Jay’s whimpering croak again..

..and broke down, once more.

Laila sniffed loudly as she came up to him and held him tightly in her scarred embrace.

“I don’t even..”, she began and faltered. “I don’t even know what to tell the others..”

“I don’t even know what to tell myself!”, mumbled Gnine as he sobbed. “She was so nice. Always there for me, for you, for the others.. She was nice even to Aager and Anglenna and no one is nice to those two!”

“Accept Inshala.”, Laila said and sniffed again.

Ow. My. Good. Heavens! Inshala! What are we going to tell her? She will be devastated!”, Gnine’s muffled and broken voice came from Laila’s embrace.

The Ranger Lieutenant did not reply.

Silently, she wiped her eyes and reached over to the GID-thingy, Gnine had shown her.. and finished what they had come for; quietly, she pressed [3], then looked at the gnome, with tears running down her eyes again.

 

> Verification Code for Cryo-Sleep/Hybernation Chamber

> 2-8-0-8

 

..buzzed the tiny, tenoric voice in Gnine’s mind.

“You do it..”, he mumbled.. “2-8-0-8.. It’s the day when the bloody Demon Fog first settled on Silent Hills.. 28.08.7316!”

..and cried some more.

 

The war hadn’t even begun yet and they had already started losing friends!

 

Her face pale, soot smudged, bloody, tear blotched, and drawn, Laila Wolvesbane tapped in the numbers and hit [ENTER]..

 


 

1 Comment

  1. Writing this particular story was quite the challenge, and trying for me.

    I had to balance the interactions, the actions scenes, the emotional stress, the funny, the whole concept of ‘steamchunk Theme’, and the mystery..

    ..not to mention art the bloody acronyms, and I honestly dislike acronyms and believe they reduce the power of word and meaning, as nesessary as they may be, from a practical sence..

    Thank you for all that TONIC! (Please repeat that with heavy sarcasm).

    As you might recall, Merisoul met Ad Ara when she was just a little girl.. The time she had first arrived to her demon master’s ‘home’, and gotten lost in the dungeons, and Ad Ara ‘breathed’ her last breath, and her soul into Merisoul.

    And willy nilly, she has been carrying that soul for many years as the Soul Bearer. When Laila gets blasted off the platform in the final battle against Regnalog, Merisoul jumps after her in hopes of saving her ‘friend’.. In the end, she is left with hopeless options, for she is ‘wingless’ herself, and Laila goes unconscious due to her injuries as both are falling down the bottomless chasm.

    Merisoul, being the selfless girl that she is, very smart, very intelligent, and at times, very scheming, also lacks any form of ego, for she lacks feelings.

    And Laila, being the practical girl that she is, uses a rather simple method to make her ‘feel’..

    Hence Merisoul now truly understands the meaning of friendship, and what it ultimately entails; Sacrifice!

    She gives up her soul, there for her existence, and lets Ad Ara take over to save her friend.

    All the while Gnine gets to ride Arcantonic’s awesome ULTRABER, which looks nothing remotely like a bear, dammit!

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