Point -Oh Two, Difference!
Fate, it would seem, has its own plans..
And an odd, dry sense of humor.
One might even call it ‘backhanded’..
Cora Sleet, Brom Bumblebrim, Seressa Wraiven, and Arcantonic Palecog are sent through time and place to the one place the little gnomic girl, Tonic, would dread most;
Arcanton Mordenon’s Tower.
And to a time where the sinister tower still stands.. along with her evil master, Tonic’s despicable uncle.
It isn’t clear at what year the events in this particular story takes place, but it is likely before another group has finally arrived here to put an end to the evil engineering gnome. As in, before the Paladin Delia Karakash Hooman has killed Karkas the Dreaded Red Dragon and has become the Lord of Durkahan, Nimbletyne Tinkerdome has parted ways with the group and Nadine Graciousward has banished Arcanton in their final confrontation, also parting from the group and later becoming the Rise of High Woods and Bari Na-ammen.
From a strictly ‘relative’ sequence of events, if not in a linear chronological order, this story takes place shortly after Loot Dispute.
From a historical perspective, however, it is likely the events here take place some 42 to 45 years ago, just before Arcanton Mordenon finally manages to engineer his first (and final) functional Demon gate, around the years 7563 and 7566 PAD.
(Post Apocalyptic Days)
We need a spot to rest. Seressa is wounded, Cora is wounded, you are wounded, heck, I am wounded.”, whispered Brom Bumblebrim. “I didn’t even know I could hurt in so many places.”
“Well come to my uncle’s crèche!”, growled Tonic as she cradled her pair’s head in her lap. Then she looked down at her and felt something shred her heart. Seressa was a happy girl with a happy soul. At least that’s what she always projected. She’d always been smart when it came to conversing with others and in fights too. Tonic knew she was much more intelligent than Seressa, her pair, but when it came to making friends, and then keeping said friends, she, herself, was the klutz one! And in fights, her own mobility and her skills were a lot more limited. All she would do was ‘bangs’.. The louder, the better. Or she’d just disintegrate her enemies down to indiscernible goo.. Seressa on the other hand did everything exquisitely. A bit like how the bard-boy, Brom, played his lyre. Seressa danced around her enemies, she positioned herself, and her enemies to the needs of her companions, and she kept them busy while Cora and Brom slowly reduced their number. She excelled at being both a friend and a team player. Tonic only excelled at cussing, irritating her friends, knocking her hand-made kaboom grenades around and basically behave like an irritable, stupid grunt!
And now Seressa was down.
This bloody tower had turned out to be much, much more dangerous than they had anticipated. Too many fiends, demons, monsters, and other weird things had come at them, and they kept on coming. Cora had fought as hard as she could, cutting one horror after another while Brom had laid down any number of them with his innumerable bardic magic. It had been Seressa, however, who had kept it all together and filled in all the blanks and gave respite to any who’d need it.
And Tonic had hurled her grenades and acid vials..
Yep. That’s about it.
Now, Cora was hurt. Brom was hurt. Tonic felt bruised all over. And Seressa was knocked out.. beat into the ground, really, and was lying on the ground with her head on Tonic’s lap and the little gnomic girl just watched her and saw tears slide down her smooth, charcoal-black face.
Her pair was unconscious and she still wept in pain!
“Damit!”, blurted Tonic. “Please live!”
“You are not helping her, Tonic. Make her drink one of your healing draughts.”, Brom said harshly.
“Don’t you think that never occurred to me?”, she replied with equal fervor. “She already took one of them.”
“So? Give her another one.”
“I can’t. Those draughts are good only once every day or so. Consuming more will have either little to no effect or outright poison her.”, snarled Tonic.
Cora Sleet gingerly smoothed near them as she limped and pulled out a long, slim tube from her pack.
“Here. This should help.”, she said with her soft, throaty voice. “Been saving this for emergencies. Seems pointless to save it anymore.”
Tonic looked up at the barbaric tundra elf and at her bloody arm, leg, and, judging by the way she held her other arm close to her chest, she probably had some cracked ribs as well.
“No. You use it. She needs rest.”, mumbled the gnomic girl.
Cora scared Tonic.
Cora scared Tonic without trying.
And Cora was scowling now.
Cora had an impressive scowl.
“Girl, you are going to argue with me, now?”, she breathed under her nose.
“Just what do you think will happen if we get jumped again? Who will hold them back and buy us time to do anything?”, replied Tonic. “And you can barely stand on your feet, let alone swing that double-bladed-whatsit!”
“She’s right, Cora.”, inserted Brom. “I can do all sorts of things, but fighting hand-to-hand just isn’t one of them. I mean, I can, and I will, if I have to, but if it’s come down to me and my sword skills, I think I would make an excellent ‘epilogue’ for our little endeavor, whatever it may be.. Tell me again, why we are even here? I am not renowned for my historical studies but didn’t it take a famous paladin called Delia Karakash, the most stupendous sorceress, Nadine Graciousward, and their company to take down Arcanton Mordenon?”
“We are not here to take down my uncle, Brom. Not that we can. Hells Bells, boy, we can barely take down the grunts on the first level of this bloody tower.”, scoffed Tonic.
“I agree.”, said Cora softly as she carefully settled herself down. “We are not assassins. And looking back to all our previous ventures, we were expected to fight things, but never to outright assassinate a particular foe.”
“We did kill a particular foe, in our last ‘jump’.”, disagreed Brom and not without a certain amount of implied hate.
“That.. was not.. an.. assassination.. dear Brom.. It was.. fair combat..”, whispered a dead tired voice.
“Seressa, baby.. You are awake!”, squeaked Tonic, her eyes blurry.
“I feel.. dizzy.. luv..”, came back Seressa’s voice.
“Hush, baby. Rest.”, Tonic almost blubbered. “I will take care of you.”
“Who.. will take care.. of you?”, she whispered back.
“I’ll take care of us both. Don’t worry. Sleep now. Please sleep Seressa..”, pleaded the little gnomic girl.
“She’s right. Our last ‘jump’, as you call it, was indeed a fair fight. And in the end, from what I gathered, it was basically a ‘punishment’.. Isn’t that so, Brom?”, asked Cora, carefully wrapping her leg with a long strip of white cloth.
Brom didn’t reply. He just looked.. elsewhere..
..with a stony face.
“Seems like you have left a few things untold. Quite a few things, actually.”, Cora said tightly between clenched teeth as she knotted the cloth.
“There are a lot of things I haven’t told, Cora. Let it be.”, replied the hobbit in a silent, even voice.
“This is all my fault.”, said Tonic suddenly.
“I would let it go, accept I bled for it. So did everyone else, here. And some who aren’t here.. How is it all your fault, girl?”, Cora said calmly once she was done with the knot.
“Some things are done and gone, Cora. And there is nothing that I can say will make it otherwise.”, said Brom with the same voice.
“You gave your best. So did Brom. And Seressa did too. All I did was hurl ‘pots and pans’ and make a lot of noise.” mumbled Tonic.
“Exactly how I thought before. But it appears, nothing is done and gone anymore, Brom. Those pots and pans kept us alive while keeping the demons dead. How does that seem like a small task to you, Tonic?”, asked the barbarian girl as she took out another strip of white cloth and started wrapping the wound on her arm.
“We don’t really ‘fix’ anything in our jumps, Cora. We only make minor changes.”, frowned Brom.
“Had I made bigger bombs, I could have made a difference.”, said Tonic in anguish, still cradling Seressa’s head in her tiny lap.
“We cleared the goblin trenches, hence making it possible for Durkahan paladins and the Koruxan knights to reach the battlefield in time when we were sent back to Themalsar. Then we made sure the Wyrm Horde’s Krush’s son stole the ‘right’ weapon from Dreadmaw, making it possible for us to obtain an Archangel’s lost spear, and subsequently giving us the chance to return it to its rightful owner. Then we fought and won against a villainous dwarf, bringing him to justice, making it possible for a mother to keep her promise to no other than Titania herself and bringing peace among the dwarves.. How are these ‘minor’ changes? If you’d made bigger bombs, girl, you’d have brought the roof of this tower on us, and that’s a lot of roof above us. Like three or four more levels of roofs!”, Cora replied coolly as she knotted off her arm as well. “Now then. Brom, you are on guard duty for a bit. Turn around and go and guard something. Tonic, pillow your pack under Seressa’s head and cover her with a blanket so you can at least preserve some semblance of her modesty and honor. Sitting there and moaning isn’t doing her any good. Then come here and help me.”
Brom stared at Cora.
So did Tonic.
Cora had never been this talkative nor had she ever dished out orders the way she’d just done and quite briskly too.
“What?”, said Brom, sort of flabbergasted.
“Why?”, asked Tonic, with a similar tone of voice.
“I need Tonic to wrap my chest for the cracked ribs. For her to do that, I need to take my furs, my leathers, and my shirt off. And I need you to turn around and go, Brom!”
“Ow..”, said a bit abashed. “I could wrap your—”
“I know you can, Brom. But I just don’t want you to. I want Tonic to do it. Hence; TURN AROUND AND GO! LIKE, NOW!“, Cora very nearly snarled.
Brom turned around and left, to the other end of the rubble-filled room.. pouting.
“Why have you not covered your pair yet, Tonic? Does her dignity mean so little to you?”, Cora asked evenly, as she undid the clasps holding her thick furs and heavy leathers and with a grimace, pulled off her shirt.
Tonic half blushed, half scowled as she took out her own pack and placed it carefully under her pair’s head. Then she opened Seressa’s own pack and pulled out her neatly folded and rolled blanket, flipped it a few times, and covered her, and snuggly wrapped her in it.
“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now take this roll of bandage and wrap it around my chest, staring from just above my belly, up to my breast line —tightly if you will, please.”, ordered Cora with a mild tone.
“Won’t.. won’t that make it hard for you to breath?”, stammered the gnomic girl as she took the roll of bandage from the tundra elf.
Cora smiled at her.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Tonic. I doubt you have enough strength to wrap me that tight. Not unless you want to pull out your mecha-thingy.”
“It is not a mecha-thingy!”, replied the gnomic girl indignantly. “It’s MECHABER!“
“Ahh.. I am sorry. I wasn’t aware you named your toys.”, Cora smiled even more.
“Mechaber is not a toy! He is a—”, sputtered Tonic.
“Ow. It’s a ‘He’, then? My bad.”
“He is a mechanical bear, and a very delicate work of steam-chunk technology and pure gnomic ingenuity, at that!”, scowled Tonic.
“I have no idea what you just said, but he looks nothing remotely like a bear!”, said Cora.
“How would you know?”, scoffed Tonic.
“This..”, replied the barbarian girl, pointing at her thick fur cloak. “..is a tundra bear’s fur, dear Tonic. It was a near ten-foot-long and five-foot-high beast.. I hunted it, killed it, skinned it, and ate some of it too. Then took the rest back to my village.”
Brom’s snicker was heard from the other side of the room.
Tonic scowled some more, but shut up! She sort of.. tethered near the half-naked barbarian girl with trepidation.
“Boo!”, said Cora suddenly, causing the little gnomic girl to jump, and Brom to snicker some more.
“That.. that wasn’t funny Cora.”, mumbled Tonic with a flushed face.
“What’s really not funny is that you think I am either a total savage or unsettled enough to jump you at any time, Arcantonic Palecog. One would think we’d been together long enough for you to know better. Your inability to figure out the ‘base friendship’ concept is exasperating.”, coolly replied Cora.
“I.. I am sorry..”, mumbled Tonic in an even brighter red face.
“I don’t need you apologizing, girl. I need you to trust me. As I have trusted you, even though you keep tossing your acid vials and ‘bang-thingies’ right over my head.. and even hitting me on occasion.”, replied Cora, calmly.
“I do trust you. I swear!”, spluttered the little gnomic girl.. very fast!
“Do the ribs, Tonic. I am sure our esteemed bard is egging for a peek. Let’s not give him the satisfaction, shall we?”
Tonic started wrapping the very nearly white belly of the barbaric Cora with an abashed expression on her face.
“You can make comments if you like. Seressa would. Since she’s out, you could cover for her.”, smiled Cora with a tight and clenched grin, as the bandages drew tighter.
“You are awfully white!”, spluttered the little gnome. “I mean, I am pale, but I am a deep gnome by heritage. You are just.. very nearly white!”
“Stands to reason. I am a tundra elf by heritage.. Some like to call us ‘Snow Elves’, but I find that a bit too girly.”, Cora hissed conversationally as the gnomic tightened the bandages even more.
“You have.. muscles everywhere, too. I didn’t even know girls could have abs like yours.”, blushed Tonic. “I mean, I have a small tummy which tends to become a ‘pot belly’ whenever I over eat. And Seressa has a flat belly. Yours are just.. awesome! I could crack nuts between your abs!”
“I suppose you could. Just not now, Tonic. My abs, along with the rest of me, hurt.”, smiled Cora grimly.
“Can I ask you.. a personal question?”, Tonic asked carefully as she wrapped higher and the back of the tundra elf.
“Well, bummer. I just said we were friends so I can’t even say ‘No’, to your ‘personal’ questions, now can I?”, admitted Cora with another smile. A smile Tonic couldn’t see from her current position.
“No. No.. It’s alright if you don’t want to. I have been known to ask impertinent questions. Seressa can ask them too, but she can word them correctly and make them sound cool. I can’t.”
“Well, ‘impertinent’ me to your heart’s content, girl.”, said Cora.
“Your scars.. The ones on your back.. Do they hurt?”
“Yes, and no. They hurt whenever I remember them. They sizzled all the time until after I met Brom. Hurts a lot less since after I met the two of you and we teamed up. Funny how that went.”, Cora answered with a.. brittle sort of smile.
“A decent surgeon can probably do something about them.”, offered the gnomic girl quietly.
“No. I want them to stay. They remind me of my Ironfrost. Of happier times. Of my mother, my father and my friends.. and a debt I need to settle with Dreadmaw!”, replied Cora with a steely voice.
“You.. you are going to go up against Dreadmaw?!”, spluttered Tonic. “Mortals don’t go up against beings like Dreadmaw. Please don’t go up against Dreadmaw!”
Cora didn’t reply.
“And you don’t really need these scars to remember your happier times. That’s what memories are for.”, Tonic mumbled. “Leave your pictures on, though. They look awesome too!”
“Picture? What pictures?”
“The pictures you got all over you.”
“They are not pictures, girl, they are my beautiful ‘Storm Tattoos!'”
“Ow. Okay. If these are not pictures but ‘storm tattoos’, then my Mechaber is a bear!”, smirked the gnomic girl!
“Your head is broken, girl.”, growled Cora.. and continued without turning a hair. “Should we get the opportunity, what would you feel if we were to kill your uncle? He is your blood relative, after all.”
It took a moment for Tonic to catch up to the sudden change of topic.
“I would feel satisfaction. No.. I would feel BLOODY SATISFACTION!”, replied the gnomic girl with seething hate.
Cora didn’t say anything else for some time and Tonic continued to tightly wrap the bandage around her chest and back.
“Try to finish the knot anywhere other than my back, or under my arm, if you can, please. Lying down with a lump on my back or side is bothersome.”, said Cora quietly.
Tonic finished her work, knotting the wraps somewhere around the front side of Cora’s waste.
“Thank you.”, offered Cora with the same voice.
Arcantonic Palecog didn’t say anything for a while as she checked her handy work. Then, wordlessly, she hugged the barbaric tundra elf.
“Should the occasion arise and we face my uncle, please run.”, she whispered as she hid her face in the elves’ snow-white braids.
Cora hugged the little gnomic girl, back.
“We shall see.”
Tonic drew back and stared at the glacial blues of the elf and only saw determination there.
“Are you feeling up to carrying Seressa for a short climb?”, she asked.
“I suppose so. Seressa is a big girl and I don’t want to manhandle her without her consent. Seems like a rude thing to do.”
“I am her pair. I can consent for her.”, Tonic said, then pulled a long, coiled rope out of her small artificer’s satchel and tossed it vertically into the air. The rope uncoiled as it ‘climbed’ up and held there, ending in an open, horizontal ‘window’, looking down at them.
“What’s this?”, asked Cora as she stared up at the odd phenomenon.
“It’s a small hidey-hole. We climb it, pull the rope behind us, close the window and no one’s the wiser.”
“That.. is just downright creepy!”, said Cora, still ogling at the window.
“Help me with Seressa, please. I can’t move her, let alone carry her up there. Let’s hurry some, shall we? It won’t last long. Merely an hour or so. Just enough for a short breather.”
Cora frowned but went over to the very tall, very dark Seressa and carefully picked her up and slowly put her over her own shoulder, checked the rope then started climbing up. Soon enough, they were both through the window and gone out of sight.
“Brom!”, Tonic hissed.
Brom came over, looked up, nodded at her, then started up the rope as well.
Tonic grabbed her pack, Seressa’s blanket, and her pack as well, gave a cursory glance around making sure they hadn’t left anything behind, then she too squirreled up the rope and disappeared in the window.
Her two, tiny hands came out, grabbed one side of the open window each, and pulled them shut, leaving nothing but the dark room’s ceiling to be seen behind them.
An hour wasn’t much.
But it would be enough for her to snuggle up to her pair for a short nap, and keeping them both warm and cuddly.
If that’s what it took to bring her Seressa Wraiven up and cheery again, Tonic thought it would be well worth it.
✱ ✱ ✱
There are stairs leading up.”, whispered Brom, as he carefully peeked around the corner and watched for any signs of life.. or unlife, as some of the things that they had faced had been.
Brom didn’t mind the fiends, the demons, and all the other monsters.. per se. But undead gave him the creeps for some reason.
Brom didn’t like the undead.
Undead scared him.
Well.. undead were scary things, sure, but no more than fiends and possibly less than demons. One could easily argue that by comparison, the undead were not all that high, where ‘risk factor’ was involved.
But nothing, not the reality, nor the logical explanations managed to ebb away Brom’s ‘irk’ for the undead.
“Get it together, damit!”, he growled at himself.
“Talking to yourself, already?”, came the merry voice of Arcantonic Palecog from just behind him.
Brom scowled some more.
“It’s alright, boy. This place can do that.”
“What’s with the ‘boy’s again, girl?”, said Brom, feeling irritated. “Does your perception reset at every ‘jump’?”
“No. But ‘boy’ is shorter than ‘Brom’.”, said Tonic with a smirk.
“Yes. And ‘Tonic’ is shorter than ‘Arcantonic’ and ‘Nic’ is even shorter than ‘Tonic’. But you don’t see me calling you ‘Nic’, now do you? Which does sound quite like a ‘Tick’..”, he deadpanned with a snort.
Arcantonic gave the hobbit a baleful stare.
“If you ever call me ‘Nic’, I will hurt you, Brom Bumblebrim!”, she snarled.
“There. My whole name!”, smiled Brom. “Now go tell Cora and your pair, we got stairs up ahead.”
“So, it’s ‘your pair’, now, is it? No more Wraiven’s or even Seressa’s?”, said Tonic, giving the hobbit a look full of disdain.
“What is it to you, what I call her?”, shrugged Brom.
“She’s my pair. Of course ‘everything’ is to me.”, she replied almost scornfully.
“Which is what I said; your pair! I am not even sure what you are objecting to?”, smirked the hobbit.. a tad on the brittle side.
Tonic scowled at him.
She felt she’d just been had. But she wasn’t quite sure how.
“You are avoiding and dodging, Master Brom. You know this, I know this.”, she fumed, turned around, and left.
“Inserting the last word: Check!”, grumbled the hobbit after the pesky little gnomic girl—
—which is when something happened. Something that hadn’t happened to Brom for some time now; he got bit!
Probably because it hurt, but more likely because he had been caught totally off guard, and likely because.. well.. it had been a while.
“Damit!”, ouched the hobbit as he rubbed his butt cheek and calf, at a point just where he couldn’t see.
“What, damit? WHAT? We are already here, doing your bloody job for you. What else do you want from me?”, he very nearly blared in fury.
And got bit, again!
For some reason, Brom got the feeling the whatsit that kept biting him had just bitten him the second time out of sheer spite!
“What? I can’t even complain? Why don’t you come out and play for once! Bet I can beat the cra—”
And he got bit.. harder this time!
“Ahhaa! Thought you were a gutless, spineless, heartless chicken!”, he sneered.
“I can do this all day–”
“Pwahahaaa.. Just you remember what happened the last time—”
“That’s the best you got? I didn’t feel a thing. You must be a dentist—”
“Yowza! That, I felt, and still I laugh at you with colossal scorn—”
“I am not the sniveling hobbit you dragged out of the comforts of his home anymore—”
“Eeep! Stop it—”
“Ow! You think you can do this all day too, do you?! That leg is going to start to bleed any time now. It’ll be interesting telling the rest about you—”
“Now there’s a topic to chat over dinner; Hey everyone, I have a bug that likes biting arse! That’ll be an absorbing conversation, that’ll. I am sure of it—”
“What are you doing, Brom?”, came Cora’s voice from behind.
“Umm.. Nothing.”, said the hobbit.
“What’s up with that face?”, asked Tonic, peering at him. “You look like you just swallowed a whole bug and it’s still alive in your belly.”
And then Seressa appeared behind the two. She said nothing. She just stared down at Brom with her unfathomable, incomprehensible, and inscrutable gaze like some dark, majestic queen of the Astral Voids.
Brom looked up at her eyes and saw many things in there. Some that he could understand and even relate, but many others he just couldn’t even put names to.
“You seem possessed, Master Brom.”, she said with her memorable voice.
Brom ogled at her some.
Then cleared his throat and mumbled.
“No, i am not. It’s one hundred percent just me.”
“Sooo..”, Cora said, dragging the word over the sudden, awkward silence. “Do we go up?”
“Do we?”, asked Seressa Wraiven, still staring down at the hobbit, her face, and the rest of her very nearly lost in the darkness. Only her frilly pink skirt dress and the pinks of her fringes were discernable.
‘Stop it, damit!’, snarled Brom from inside.
“Umm.. why are you asking me? I am not the guide of this tour. Uhhm.. Isn’t that your job?”, he asked with a guilty sort of voice.
“No, Master Brom.”, the darkness of Seressa said. “I am not the guide of this tour.. I am merely the Voice. Cora is the Anchor.. and the Shield..”
“I am?”, murmured Cora.
“..and Arcantonic is the Enabler.”, she continued.
“Yay.. Whot?”, squeaked Tonic.
“I don’t even use shields.”, mused the barbarian girl.
“You, Master Brom.. You are the Guide.. That. Is. Your. Job!”, Seressa said in her clear, yet unbending voice, still staring down at the hobbit with her deep, ‘astral’ eyes. “So again, Master Brom; Do we?”
..and gave up.
He felt no issues nor any reluctance objecting to the bloody whatsit all day and getting bit innumerable times for his efforts. But he just didn’t feel any compulsion to argue with Tonic’s pair.
“Damit..”, he spat inwardly.
“Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit!”
“Do we, dear Brom?”, repeated Seressa once more, and with a barely audible voice.
“No.”, he said quietly.
“What?”, Cora asked with some surprise and looked at the hobbit.
“What?”, exclaimed Tonic, even more surprised. “Why?”
“Because there’s somewhere else we have to go before we go up.”, he replied in a deflated tone.
“Where?”, asked Cora.
“Why?”, asked Tonic again, sudden fear clearly etched in her face.
“We must go ‘down’, before we go up.”, replied Brom even quieter, giving a carefully disguised glance at the little gnomic girl.
“Down it is, then.”, said Seressa in her unbending voice. It was, however, tinted with a barely discernable pinch of sadness thrown into it, as she gave a similar glance at her pair.
Tonic did not see the covert looks the two had given her, but for some reason, she seemed freaked.
“There is no ‘down’. This is the entrance floor..”, she objected, almost pleading.
“What’s going on?”, asked Cora. “What’s down below us and why is Tonic here telling us there is no down?”
Tonic crossed her arms under her breasts, turned her paled face away from them, and shut up.
Seressa stared at her, but not unkindly and as if she desperately wanted to reach out to her little pair and hug her.
She did not, however. She just stood there and silently waited.
So did Brom.
“Tonic?”, inquired Cora softly. She wasn’t sure just what the hell was going on here, but it seemed detrimental for the little gnomic girl and even though she could be a monumental pain in the arse at times, Cora had no intention for her to get hurt. “What is down there?”
Tonic did not reply for a long moment.
But as time passed, her diminutive face drooped, her shoulders slumped and her back hunched, even as she held her eyes closed, and her tiny fists clenched at her hips.
Finally, a tiny voice of defeat, acceptance, or perhaps, of penance escaped her.
✱ ✱ ✱
Me? Me, what? I don’t understand.”, said Cora, staring at the deflated, dejected, and ‘at her final throes’, girl.
Tonic did not reply.
Neither did her pair, nor Brom.
Apparently, either the barbarian elf had to figure it out, or the little gnomic girl had to speak the words.
Or just neither did Seressa, nor Brom had the heart to say it.
“What do you know about my uncle, Cora? What do you know about Arcanton Mordenon?”, Tonic said finally.
“You didn’t really say all that much, Tonic. But if I were be polite about it, I would go for ‘a great gnome with greater issues’, but I just don’t feel like being polite about him, so I will sum it all up as ‘an inscrutable, degenerate, power-hungry, megalomaniacal ass’..”, she replied seriously.
Seressa kept to her silence, but her eyes blazed at the accuracy of the words.
Tonic stared at Cora, and she had this, funny expression on her face as if it had gotten stuck somewhere between a destitute laugh and wanting to cry.
“Alright.”, she said. “Perhaps I should rephrase that. Why am I the way I am, Cora? Why am I broken?”
“You are not broken, girl. Merely ‘irritably challenged’, maybe.. We all have some issues.. I could name some of mine but I don’t think we have that kind of time.”, Cora said.
“Really, Cora? You see absolutely nothing wrong with me?”, she asked.
“I see a lot of things wrong with you. I have some of them myself. So does Brom. So did a lot of my friends, back at Ironfrost. Seressa also has some issues. But she seems to be at peace with most of them, so she’s cool.”, shrugged Cora.
Tonic just stared at the barbarian girl, her mouth open.
Brom had to admire his barbarian friend. If she was being deliberately dense, she was very convincing. If she was actually this.. well.. ‘gullibly innocent’, it was perhaps understandable. Cora did have the tendency to blame herself for things even when they had nothing to do with her. She never went as far as openly voicing said blames, but Brom thought he could see them in her eyes.
“No, Cora. You have issues. But you are not broken!”, Tonic hissed harshly.
“You do not know how I was before Dreadmaw, Tonic. At which point did you decide you got a handle on me?”, Cora asked in her calm, cool, and decidedly frosty voice.
“I am sorry, Cora. But you were not taken from your parents by an inscrutable, degenerate, power-hungry, megalomaniacal ass of an uncle to be thrown into a little cage surrounded by demons at the age of three and kept there for years.. That’s what is ‘down there’.. MY CAGE! I AM DOWN THERE, RIGHT NOW, CORA. I AM DOWN THERE, SCARED WITLESS, CRYING, ALONE, IN THE DARK. AND SURROUNDED BY DEMONS WHO ARE GNAWING AT MY CAGE, TRYING TO GET TO ME EVEN AS WE SPEAK. NO CORA. YOU HAVE ISSUES. BUT YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS ‘BROKEN!’. YOU ARE HURT, AND LIKELY THAT HURT IS THERE TO STAY, BUT YOU ARE NOT BROKEN, I AM. MY UNCLE TOOK ME, PUT ME DOWN THERE, AND BROKE ME, CORA. AND THOROUGHLY!“, the little gnomic girl gnarled savagely.
A disturbing silence settled as the barbarian elf and the little, gnomic girl faced one another, while Brom and Seressa held their breath.
“Dear Tonic..”, said Cora in her soft, throaty voice. “I can only imagine how much that must have hurt coming out. I am sorry I pushed you into it. But I am grateful you said what you had to and got it out. There is no ‘fix’ until we admit to ourselves that we are broken.. and come to the conclusion that we need fixing and decide to do something about it.. You guys helped fix me. You have no idea how much I hurt when Dreadmaw first happened. And neither could you contemplate the kind of hell I went through, living it again, and in greater detail. Does it surprise you to see me smile and laugh and talk more, and even make a funny every now and then, since then? I do not believe our ‘jumps’ are for just minor changes. They are there to give us respite.. or relief, as well. I believe, ‘that’ is the true reward of our troubles. And I believe, this will be yours.. We are not here to fix you, dear Tonic. Friends don’t fix friends. That’s just base arrogance if you ask me. What they do is, keep you company, hold your hand, pick you up or even smother your with hugs if need be, certainly.. but it must be you who must fix you. What is given is never as valuable as what is earned.”
Tonic ogled at the barbarian girl as if she’d just slapped her awake.
Seressa also had a similar expression on her face, but more relieved and viscously happier.
Brom looked at her as if seeing the barbarian girl reborn. Stronger, not in arm, or back, or leg, but decidedly at heart.
‘Well, now..’, he mused as he smiled at her.
Brom stood where he was.
And quite unmoving.
As a certain sense of dread washed over him.
Cora had been fixed, perhaps, in her own way, as she seemed to have found some form of peace.
And maybe Tonic was about to as well.
He, on the other hand, had faced his mortal enemy and prevailed, to be sure, but he hadn’t found his peace.. yet.
Brom really didn’t feel like going through anything even remotely like what Cora had, and what Tonic was perhaps about to now.. He remembered, inadvertently, of Aremela Berrybush.. The only girl he’d felt love as immensely tangible as he thought he would ever feel. He gulped down a few harsh breaths to send back the lump that had just gotten stuck in his throat.
Then he felt a pair of eyes on him.
And saw the very tall, very dark girl watching him from the darkness that hid her.
He did wonder what she, Tonic’s pair— No, not Tonic’s pair, damit, Seressa.. Seressa Wraiven was going to suffer to make peace with.. whatever her demons were. For some reason, though, he really didn’t want her to suffer.. At all..
Silently, he snarled down at the pestering whatsit that kept biting him at the most inconvenient and certainly inconsiderate moments.
“If you hurt her. I will hunt you down to the end of days, you little bugger!”
Brom Bumblebrim does not know at this point, and neither could he have known that Seressa Wraiven would face her demons much, much later.. Some 180 years or so later. And perhaps because he could not let go of his guilt over Aremela Berrybush, he wouldn’t be there for Seressa..
The sentient mind is complex and is comprised of many small, seemingly unimportant, and usually inconsistent things. But it is, in truth, much like words are made of letters, and letters are, one way or another, the culmination of linear drops of ink. Such drops string together to form the said letters, in return giving us words, which conform sentences, paragraphs, pages, and finally, books, conveying our thoughts, our ideas, and our hopes, consequently shaping, establishing, and even, at times, ‘marshaling’ literature, poetry, law, science, and religion. Whatever the final outcome is, though, everything starts with words. And words start with small, seemingly inconsequential drops of ink. But it is the ‘will’ that picks up the quill, dips into the inkpot, and draws the ink. And it is ‘choice’ that births, gives rise and consequently, breeds the ‘will’, per se. In a way, ‘choice’ is the origin or even the genesis of ‘will’. One could easily come to the devastating conclusory finalé of awareness that it is ‘choice’ that is behind all. Ultimately, if there is any sentient action to be had, a choice to do so must take precedence.. and be made, hence it is ‘choice’ that inadvertently, and, perhaps, fundamentally, rises civilizations..
..or brings them down.
From a decidedly narrower point of view; choices save friends, or, willy-nilly, abandons them.
Suffice to say, the ‘nilly’ that postcedes the willy, is also a choice, after all, though it be a disregarded, or even a discarded one..
✱ ✱ ✱
There are more coming. Just how many are there?”, hissed Cora as she slashed open what she hoped was the thorny demon’s vitals, spun the ancient and massive, double-bladed elven polearm, and stabbed its other end into the creature’s face! The creature screamed as it stumbled back as another took its place.
“A lot.”, squeaked Tonic as she aimed another of her acid vials and tossed it over the barbarian elf and hit one of the huge, quadrupedal fiend with the long tail and covered with hard, pointy thorns. The thing roared in pain as a large, gaping hole appeared on its chest and spilled its lungs onto the ground.
“Well. That’s a gruesome sight.”, Brom said, then overstretched the one string on his lyre, causing a distinctly disturbing, dissonant chord. The demon with the gaping hole in its chest snapped its head up as if some invisible spike had struck it from right under its elongated maw. For a bare moment it stood there staring blankly at the ceiling, then one of its eyes slid up and disappeared into its skull while the other turned down and pointed somewhere on the ground. Its face drooped.. and all at once, it exploded; the monster lost its head!
“And you think mine was gruesome?”, gawked the little gnomic girl, trying very hard not to retch.
“A bit gruesome, yes. But you have got to admit; it was effective!”, replied the hobbit in a sort of apologetic way. “They are immune to fire and quite resistant to most of our cold attacks and impervious to charm, fear, and poisons.. Might as well go for the source, their minds, and just blow it up from the inside!”
A ghostly, skeletal hand moaned amongst the demons and struck one in the heart. The creature stumbled back. Two more ghostly hands moaned and grabbed the same creature by its throat and squeezed. The demon gagged and tried to free itself from the ghostly hands, but it just couldn’t hold them. The demon stumbled, choked, and died, its uncanny, goat-like eyes bulging.
“By all means, Master Brom. Do more!”, said Seressa Wraiven calmly in her sultry and cultured voice.
“Your choice of words are mind-breaking, girl!”, whispered Tonic with a slightly flushed face, from just behind the very tall and very dark girl.
Brom coughed. His face was more than just flushed.
“Whot?”, Seressa asked as she prepared for her next spell. “My wording was grammatically correct. So was its referential focus.”
“Girl, you just—”, began Tonic.
“If anyone explains it to her, he or she will have words with me, right after this fight, when I am still very much in rage!”, snarled Cora as she lopped the head of the next demon, clean off its shoulders.
Tonic shut up.
Brom wasn’t planning on explaining anything, so he didn’t have to.
He did flinch though.
When he got bit.. once again.
With a very surly expression, he turned around and looked behind..
..and saw the barred door on the far side of the large chamber they had just entered, and subsequently ambushed.
“Tonic.”, he said quietly.
“Whot?”, replied the little gnomic girl without looking at him as she tossed another vial over the raging tundra elf.
“Behind us, there is a barred door.”, he said, again in a low voice.
“Yeah, so?”, she said, panting while she pulled a tightly packed, leather-bound fire-clay sphere out of her artificer’s satchel.
“Where does it lead?”, Brom asked.
“How the hell should I know, boy? I wasn’t given free rein last time I was here. I never wondered the halls of this bloody tower. Not that I would have. I was locked, in a cage, down in the dungeons for all my tenure, remember? Look, I am a bit busy right now, Master Brom. Can we have this conversation later? Or never?”, she hissed and tossed a heavy leather-bound, fire-clay hardened and packed ball over Cora, and into the crowding fiends.
“Fire in the hole!”, she shouted.
Cora spun around facing them with her back hunched, her eyes tightly shut, and her head lowered.
Tonic did the same.
Seressa jumped back and spun in the air like a dark, astral dancer and landed facing the opposite direction and covering her ears with her slender hands.
Brom groaned and just turned around, closed his eyes and ears but opened his mouth all the way.
The room shuddered as the sphere detonated with an eye-searing and ear-cracking explosion!
Cora spun back and started butchering the fiends right and left, all stunned, bleeding in the eyes and ears..
“Tonic!”, hissed Brom once again.
“Whot, dammit? I told you, I don’t know anything about this place!”
Brom grabbed the gnomic girl by her shoulders and made her face him and looked her in the eyes.
Very quietly and calmly he asked, “When you finally got free, you said Nadine Graciousward carried you out in her embrace. Was that the door you saw over her shoulder?”
Arcantonic Palecog stared at him, and at the barred door.
“How the hell should I know, Brom? That happened nearly forty years ago!”, she hissed at him.
Brom ogled at her.
“Yes, boy, I am forty-eight! And quite young for a gnome and probably double your age and very nearly double Seressa’s age as well!”
“Damn.. If you are still down there, in the dungeons, we must have been hurled at least forty, forty-five years back, then.”, Brom said, a bit freaked.
“Egad, Master Brom. Your powers of deduction are mind-staggering!”, Tonic spat with sarcasm.
“Why didn’t you tell us, this?”
“Why would I? I don’t even want to be here.”
“Don’t you think that information might be pertinent?”
“It would, had I known my little self was still down there, which I didn’t, and hoped, wouldn’t. It only came to me when you said we had to go ‘down’, before we went up!”
Brom frowned. The little gnomic girl had a point, of sorts. He did have to change his perception of her though. Up to this day, he had always thought this cute, irritable girl was around his age, if not younger. Certainly not ‘at least double’ his age!
He drew a long, suffering breath to ask once more for her to think back and carefully, but the gnomic girl beat him at it.
“It is..”, she said mutely. “Your wording of how I must have seen it is inspired! I did see that door, but once, when Nadine Graciousward was carrying me out, and over her shoulder. It was all hazy and I was crying and shivering and terrified beyond sanity. But I remember that door. And this is it.”
Brom didn’t bother asking her if she was sure or not. He knew Tonic had an uncanny memory. Once she saw, heard, or read something, she would remember it. Period.
“Very well.”, he said. “I am going to have to go down and through that door. Tell the others they are going to have to hold this room, no matter what.”
“Why don’t you tell them?”, asked Tonic.
“Because I have to go alone and Cora won’t let me. And just what do you think your.. uhh.. Seressa will do when she sees the little you down there, scared and crying?”
“She will take the little me, promptly coin-purse her, then spend the next one thousand years dismantling this place along with everything in it down to this planets’ molten core!”, Tonic said without even thinking.
“Right.”, agreed, the hobbit. “Give me a three hundred count to get out of their reach, will you?”
“Whatever you do, don’t give me your name, when you go down there. I remember very little of the things in the dark because I went out of my way to forget it all. A name is something to dwell on, though. And something to remember.”, she said quietly.
“Alright.”, Brom nodded.
“And.. don’t turn on the lights.”, she mumbled.
“Between the two of us, Seressa is the one with imagination. That’s why everything about her is exquisite, and the reason why her illusions appear so vivid and realistic. I have a linear sort of imagination. That’s always been true for me. Which is why I am a good artificer. My mind works in a ‘causality’ direction. As long as I am in the dark, down there, I can only imagine so far about the horrors lurking around me. If you turn the lights on, I will see them, and I will know what truly wants to eat me. I shouldn’t have to know that..”, she said looking down at her feet.
“Understandable.”, the hobbit replied, feeling a bit sick.
“One last thing, Master Hobbit.”, Tonic whispered. “Do not give her anything sharp.”
“There is only one thing she wants, Brom. And has wanted for quite some years, while sitting in the dark.. And it has nothing to do with life, but ending it.”
Brom Bumblebrim just stared at her.
Something must have shown on his face because the little gnomic girl gave him a broken smile and said, “Do not mourn me, Master Brom, for I am here. And so will she..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I hope they give us a breather. My hands and my arms hurt just for swinging this weapon and that’s saying something, considering I have been a zerker for nearly two decades.”, breathed Cora Sleet as she set her two-yard long polearm with beautiful, and equally brutal-looking, nearly thirty-inch blades on either end on her lap as she settled down on the ground, just a few steps from the bloody carnage.
“Indeed.”, agreed, Seressa as she also sat, gingerly, next to her. Then she held up the shredded fringes of her frilly skirt dress and mourned. “They could at least give us time to wash and change. Just look at my dress. I can barely call it pink anymore.”
Cora laughed. She just couldn’t help it.
“The fading and shredded condition of my dress is not a laughing matter, dear Cora. I am quite put out with you.”, pouted the very tall, very dark girl as she took the end of her long, pink hair and studied it. “There are things on my hair I don’t even want to know what! I will have to undo them, wash them thoroughly, and re-braid them. Do you know how long it takes to do my hair?”
“I am sorry, Seressa.”, chuckled Cora. “I wasn’t laughing at you. Nor your dress. I could wash and do your braids if you like. Provided you do mine.”
“Ow.. I would love to..”, exclaimed Seressa happily. “You have lovely hair.”
“Huh. I do?”
“Ow, yes. It’s soft, silky, and very submissive.”
Cora cocked an eyebrow.
“Don’t get me wrong. Submissive is a good quality for hair when you want to bun, wrap, give shape or just braid them. And they won’t stay curly when you undo them, making them much easier to comb and brush. Mine is also soft and silky, but not as submissive. I have to wash them with hot water if I want to have them straight, once I unbraid them.”, she explained.
“Huh! I didn’t know that. But then, I never go around with my hair down. Too many threats with big scissors by my mother from a young age. I am afraid to even unbraid them now. I could just imagine my mother’s ghost coming at me with her scissors and moaning, ‘Cora Sleet, braid that mop you call hair and out of my stew or you won’t have to!’.. And you never wear them straight either.”, Cora said.
“I never wear them straight because I don’t want them getting in the way. And I like them neat and tidy when I have to go into fights. Otherwise, I would have them down as much as possible.”, replied Seressa with a dreamy expression on her beautiful face.
“How about we heat some water and do that right now.”, offered Cora, which sort of surprised even herself.
“You.. you really want to? I wouldn’t want to impose upon you.”, she asked even more surprised.
“No, no.. You never impose, dear girl. You are too kind and cultured for that.”
“Well, now. You will receive the best performance out of me, just for that praise.”, smiled Seressa with glowing eyes.
“Let’s get Tonic to draw us some water from that magic pot of hers and put our esteemed hobbit on guard duty. Otherwise, he’ll just ogle at us. I mean, I don’t mind him ogling at you. But it gets awkward when he does it to me too.”, Cora said.
“He has stopped ogling at me. For quite sometime now.. I am sure I didn’t tell nor imply in any way that he should. And since I didn’t, I don’t think Tonic would have said anything to him on this matter, either.”, she said a tad mournfully.
“Huh. He did, did he? That’s weird.”, murmured Cora thoughtfully.
“Yes, he did. I was very much planning to have a sit down with him and ask him if it was something I did or said. Don’t get me wrong. I do love my freedoms, Cora, but I do not appreciate it when just anyone stares at me. I am quite selective about who I don’t mind staring at me and he has always been on that list.”, Seressa said with a confused little frown. “But we kept rushing from one place and time to another, ever since we left Arashkan, I just couldn’t find the appropriate time. Come to think about it, his change in attitude started sometime after we time-jumped to Arashkan itself.”
“Perhaps you should.. have a sit down with him, I mean.. But I don’t know. Some things are a tad too complicated for my taste and I personally don’t really like complications. For me, if and when someone feels or wants something.. uhh.. or someone, they should just go ahead and say it.. Not drag it out. Life is too short for complications and that coming from an elf who has the potential to live over one thousand five hundred years, is saying something.”, Cora said a bit evasively as she wondered, indeed, why had her little hobbit friend changed his attitude towards this strange and gracefully beautiful girl. It seemed rather obvious about what he felt for her. Had he backed away, perhaps? If so, why had he?
‘Ow, you little daydreamer.. Did you chicken out?’, she thought.
“Uhhmm.. What do you think of.. uhh.. our Brom?”, she asked the very tall, very dark girl sitting next to her, sort of tentatively.
“I think a lot of things about him. He is brave, smart, cultured, observant, caring, loyal and he bothers..”, Seressa replied with a mysterious smile on her face.
“Yes, well, he does tend to bother me at times, too..”, stammered Cora.
Which was odd, and interesting.
Cora did not do stammer!
“Ow, no, my dear Cora. You misunderstand me. He does not bother me in the least. When I say, he bothers, what I meant was, he bothers with things he could otherwise easily ignore, knowing full well it would make him miserable at the end when he wouldn’t ignore them. He bothers to get up and do them anyway because it will make the other person happy —at his own expense.”, Seressa said in her illustrious voice.
“Huh. Like I said. I like things simpler. This is way too complicated for me.”, Cora mumbled. Then she looked around and suddenly noticed the silence. “Where is he anyway? And your Tonic?”
“Tonic is my pair, luv. But she is not exclusive to me, and hence, is also your Tonic..”, smiled Seressa. Then she too looked around searching her pair and for the hobbit.
Another confused frown appeared in her brow when she couldn’t see either.
“Damit!”, fumed Cora suddenly.
“Whot?”, asked Seressa still looking for the two.
“I will tell you what! Brom ‘bothered’ —again— and Tonic ‘enabled’ him. That’s why he is not around and that’s why she is hiding behind that rubble over there, making herself scarce!”, growled the barbarian girl, pointing at a distinct pile of debris.
Seressa’s eyebrows shot up.
“Tonic? Luv? What’s going on?”
No reply came from the scruffy-looking red mop of hair with the scrunchie, barely discernable behind the said rubble. Tonic just sat there, quite motionless, not unlike a furry little ball!
“Not even bothering answering your calls now, girl? Really?”, she fumed.
“Tonic, luv? What is going on? Where is Master Brom?”, Seressa asked, concern etched in her voice.
Tonic refused to answer.
Cora picked herself up and groaned her way to the pile of rubble where the little gnomic girl sat and looked down at her. One of her white eyebrows slowly rose. Then she looked back at Seressa.
“Whot? Is she alright?”, asked the very tall, very dark girl.
“When you said, she’s your pair, but was also my Tonic, just how comprehensive was your meaning?”, she asked her coolly.
“All the way, I suppose.”, replied Seressa a bit confused. “Why?”
“Because I am going to hurt Brom. And hurt Tonic too.”, she said with a frosty expression on her face as she reached down, grabbed Tonic, and tossed her at her pair!
Seressa yelped and made a grab for her..
..and landed, face down, with a burlap sack full of hay and cotton, and a whole tuft of scruffy looking reddish-brown hair entertaining one of Seressa’s own scrunchies attached to it!
She stared at the burlap sack with a stoned expression.
“What in all that’s good and not, is this?”, she exclaimed, looking at the ‘head’.
“I am guessing, that idiot hobbit had to do something, and your Tonic decided to cover for him with this half-baked plan!”, scoffed Cora with a horrible scowl on her own face.
Seressa continued staring at the burlap, totally lost for words..
..then she vanished!
And a ghostly raven appeared where she’d just been.
The raven flapped its winds twice, then took off at an incredible speed.
“Well..”, Cora murmured after the grayish, semi-transparent raven. “..that’s kinda cool!”
The ghostly raven sped in every direction, flying up above and skirting low, near the floor for a few minutes, covering every corner, every possible hole or spot that could be used as cover, and returned back to Cora and settled next to her.
“You can settle on my shoulder if you like, girl. That way, we’d look cool together.”, she said.
“Perhaps later, luv..”, replied Seressa as she reappeared where the ghostly raven had landed. “..She is here. I just can’t find her.”
“You can’t?”, asked Cora with some surprise.
“No..”, replied Seressa with a dejected tone.
“Thought you pairs knew where each other were all the time.”, she said.
“It is not such a definitive bond, luv. That would be against King’s Citizens Rights and Privacies Act.”, she mourned.
“King’s Citizens Rights and Privacies Act. It is one of the core constitutional laws of the Kingdom of Isles, set down by the first King Barakan Heavenswill and his queen, Arael Ashanelath Fae Erunanne Tel’Lóna —known commonly among humans as Arael Tellona.. Everyone is allowed to their own privacy and non may be spied nor scried upon without a magistrate’s express permission and with legally acceptable and plausible cause.”
“I didn’t know such a law was in order. Odd law..”, she mused.
“A bit odd, yes, but totally necessary. Can you imagine the kind of abuse there would be if just about anyone with the ability to do so would, without any repercussions?”, said Seressa quietly.
“I suppose so.. I wasn’t aware the first King of this kingdom took an elf for a wife. But then, my home and my tundra’s are far and wild, and seldom does news of events and happenings are heard there. I am not even sure if the tundras are within the kingdom.”
“They aren’t. Neither technically, nor jurisdictionally. Though the elves of Tranquil in the central and near Heavens Hand in the western tundra’s are, but the dwarves west of the Celestial Mountain are not. Communications and treaties have taken place among the barbarian tribes and the kingdom. The town, Shakehands, was originally built for such an occasion when they called them to war upon Themalsar, but the town grew to become a center for everyone to come and sell their fur, cattle, gold, iron, silver, and copper ores, and the highly sought and prized walrus tusks, among many other things, and buy all sorts of things that are otherwise unavailable in the tundra’s.”, explained Seressa, her eyes still searching for her pair.
“Huh. You are quite a treasure for knowledge, girl.”, Cora said with a certain amount of admiration.
“No, luv. I am merely a repository for trash and trivia information. My repertoire is mostly due to.. well.. I had nothing else to do back in the Academy —no friends, you see.. Only my phloxes to keep me company and a whole lot of years spent in the academy library.”
“Arael Ashanelath Fae Erunanne Tel’Lóna.. The Grace of the Islands, and the Heart of Year One! That is a very powerful name.. Even by elf standards..”, mused Cora.
“She was very much loved by her husband, the human king, and beloved by her people as a queen, by many accounts and sources. She was also the daughter of the Greater Elf, Terandel Solace who founded Solace, the niece to Sinderel Tranquil who founded Tranquil, and Elorellen Feymist who founded Bari Na-ammen in High Woods.”
“Wow. This is.. kind of fascinating.. Though it explains little about where our furtive little friends are.”, said Cora.
Seressa’s shoulders slumped.
“I feel.. alone.. I have been with my pair nearly every day since we left the academy. I feel.. distressed.. when she is not around. Even when we didn’t get along all that well at first, I found comfort in her presence. Funny, isn’t it? And pathetic on my part..”
“Bit funny, yes. Pathetic, not so much. I find the bond you two share and the relation the two of you have very much endearing and something only friends and sisters would have —put together!”
“That.. is very sweet!”, exclaimed Seressa.
Then she sighed and went for her pack and pulled out a pot, and a skin of water. Then she frowned just a little, and a small bone fire appeared at a corner, far from the broken door they had entered.
“Why don’t you pile up some sort of barricade while I heat up the water, luv..”, she said. “Then we’ll start with your hair.”
“What about your hair?”, asked Cora as she carefully picked up one of the stinking corpses of the thorny demons and started dragging it to the door.
“My hair is mostly dust, dirt, and stray blood. You were the one who got most of the gore. It’s not even healthy for all that to be on you..”, she said and placed the pot on the fire, emptied the water in the skin into the pot, and produced a block of pink soap.
“What are we going to do about the two?”, the barbarian girl asked as she dragged another corpse.
“Nothing we can do. Unless they eloped together, they will come back. Master Brom knows what he is doing. I hope. And Tonic can’t be found when she does not want to. She is an artificer and a deep gnome. Even if we ‘be damned with the king’s law’, I doubt I could divine her location.”, she said and her shoulders slumped even more.
“What about that door?”, Cora asked, nodding at the barred door at the far side of the room.
Seressa didn’t answer for a moment.
When she did, there was an utter loss on her face.
“That door leads to somewhere we can’t go, dear Cora.”
One of Cora’s eyebrows shot up.
“Down.”, the very tall, very dark girl replied. “That door leads down and to my baby Tonic.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Brom, as a whole, did not like dark places. Brom did not like undead either. Brom liked undead in dark places even less. And now he stood in the dark, facing a whole.. What the hell was a group of undead called, anyway? A mob? A swarm? A drags? An appetite? Or was it a plague of undead?
Alright. Perhaps the little hobbit did get carried away at times, where undead were concerned..
His only consolation was he could ‘see’ in the dark now. Of course, ‘see’ was a relative term, really, meaning he could discern objects in a gray spectrum.. as opposed to being mole-blind. The irony of how he could ‘see’ even this much was not lost on the little hobbit; the goggles Tonic herself had given her back when they had time-jumped to the Great Arashkan city to deliver the Spear of Light to a certain angelic being, and later when the two of them had snuck out of the inn they were staying for an unexpected, somewhat prophecy-induced, venture.. The true nature of the irony was, he was using the same pair of goggles that Tonic had given him to find another Tonic —just from another time!
Brom considered his options and decided to go for the easiest one. He’d try the others should his first option fail.
Moving carefully and unseen, he slunk past the heavy breathing, yet unmoving, ghoul-like creatures, step by step, sweating profusely all the while. By the time he had left the monsters behind, he felt light-headed and noted he’d been holding his breath.
“Phew.”, he said hoarsely. “That was tense.”
He followed the long, dark hall until he heard the growls, the barkings, the eerie shrieks of demons, and the slamming of some things big and heavy upon steel bars..
..and a tiny, terrorized, spluttering voice.
“Please. Leave me alone. Please.. Noooo!”
“Ow, Great Heavens!”, exclaimed Brom and started down the hall with all haste.
He wasn’t sure for how long he ran. It all was too dark and musty and everything seemed blurry. He ran until slid to a stop in front of another barred door, much like the one he had come through. He noted the large crossbar holding the door firmly shut, reached up to it and knocked it down, and shouldered the door open..
..to see one, small cage, surrounded by nearly a dozen very large cages, all holding demons of various shapes and sizes, all much larger than him, and certainly much, much larger than the little girl, curled into a pathetic ball, crying in the center cage!
And the door to one of the larger cages had been forcefully opened and was missing its demon..
..a demon with long, barbed tentacles standing over the little cage, reaching for the little girl.
The girl screamed in mindless terror and pain as the demon grabbed one of her feet and started dragging her to the bars, and to its self, blaring with bloody hunger.
Brom did not wait.
He made a sharp, wrathful gesture around the small cage and the air shimmered for a moment, then exploded!
It wasn’t a fiery explosion. In fact, there wasn’t a single spark and nothing tangible shrapneled, nor did any preceding smoke appear.
It wasn’t visible at all..
It was pure, psychic pain!
But the demon froze where it stood.
Then its massive, hideous head opened like an axed melon!
And just like that, it dropped dead, its long, thorny tentacles shivered for a moment, then shriveled down to a mordant stillness.
Several more of the demons in the other cages also collapsed, their heads either split open or simply smashed like dry pumpkins.
The hobbit looked up at the remaining demons banging at their own cages, all the while barking, blaring, shrieking, and howling, and his eyes blazed with even more hate.
He took out a single knife from his belt and tossed it up into the air.
The knife disappeared five or six feet above him.
A series of metallic slashing and slicing sounds were heard, and the remaining demons also crashed in choired screams, their bodies shredded and bloody exposed.
“There.”, he said softly as he approached the small, single cage in the middle. “That bunch won’t be bothering you again, my dear Tonic..”
The little girl did not respond. She just blubbered and sobbed, her eyes shut, her hands tight around her ears. All she could do was to pull her bloodied foot to herself and cry more.
Brom stared at the sad, heart-breaking sight before him as tears rolled down his eyes as he saw the depths of Arcantonic Palecog, and what she meant when she’d said, I AM BROKEN!
Slowly, he took out his lyre, strummed a few, soft tones, and started to sing..
Why he sang what he sang, he wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t even something he’d composed.
But he sang it anyway.
Because the song related to this, tiny little gnomic girl more than possibly anyone else in the world..
into the hills
silent and hollow
chase the path
and through the fog
find the door
blood for blood
soul for soul
life for life
trade and be king
How many times he repeated the song, he wasn’t sure. But the little girl was humming it with a sad, sobbing mumble, lying as she did by the time he was done.
“Do.. do you have knife, sir?”, she asked in a tiny, pipsqueak voice. “Please, sir, give me knife.. A small knife will do..”
“Yes, my dear Tonic. I have knife.”, replied Brom hoarsely.
“Give it to me, sir. Please.. I only need one.. I promise.. You can have it back.. It won’t take too long..”, she whispered from where she lay.
“No. My dear girl. I shall not give you knife, for I have given you song, and I have given you hope.”, said Brom, desperately trying to swallow the lump in his throat.
“I don’t want hope, sir. There is no hope here. I need knife. Please give me knife.”, she said as she held onto the bars of the small cage and dragged herself up, pulling her bloody foot behind her.
“Someone will come for you. And they will take you away from here. Far away. To a happier place where you will find friends. Good friends. Friends who will love you, and care for you.”
“I smell demon, sir. I always smell demon. I only have demon. Demon can’t have friends, sir.”
“No. No, they can’t. But you are no demon. You are a strong and brave girl. Hence, I will not give knife. I give you song. A song of hope. A song that will save more than you. And one day, soon, that someone will come and save you. To her, you shall give this song.”
The girl slumped down.
And curled back into her sad little ball and started to cry again.
“No knife. No hope..”, she moaned.
“No knife. Only song, dear Tonic.”, whispered Brom, and started to sing once again..
He sang until the little girl drifted off, murmuring to herself..
“..silent and hollow.. chase the path..”
“..the door, knock, more and hallow..”
“..freely given and ascend..”
Then, slowly, he reached through the bars and into the cage.
He scoffed at the stinging bite at his calf just where he couldn’t see, and reached down..
..and tenderly touched the tiny, shredded, and bloody foot.
✱ ✱ ✱
The slim rope came slithering down from a dark, slit of a barely parted window in the ceiling, and Brom climbed up and disappeared inside the hollow space inside. A pair of tiny hands pulled the rope back up, then quietly shut the slit between the windows, displaying nothing but the ceiling its self.
“Done?”, Arcantonic Palecog asked Brom who lay on his back, staring at the void of the ‘hidey-hole’.
“What happened? You look.. tired..”, she said morosely.
“I am tired. I.. saw..”, he began.
“You don’t really have to tell me what you saw, Master Brom. You will recall, I did try very hard to forget about my.. ‘tenure’.. here.. I believe I have moderately succeeded at it too.”, Tonic said quietly.
“Have you?”, he asked, forcing himself up to a sitting position. “Succeeded?”
“All things considered, I believe I have. Some things must be forgotten, Master Brom. Not faced and overcome. And I am happier now. Not happy that I am here. Just happier than I ever was. I even have friends.. as small a repertoire of them as it may be, but they are mine for keeps. If someone had told me that I would make friends just a few months ago, I would have laughed at their faces.. in a very scornful way, then hit them with something deserving.. possibly my artificer’s wrench. Hells Bells, I couldn’t even stand Seressa, back then, and she is my pair!”, she said with a brittle smile.
Brom looked carefully at her.
And saw the shards of her broken pieces still jabbing at her and bleeding all over her..
He’d done all he could for the girl.
To both of her!
But pushing never really helped.
He was sure time would present more opportunities and he would do what he could then too, as per opportunity.
“What’s with the clandestine meet?”, he asked, changing the whole topic.
“Well.. I.. didn’t.. or rather, couldn’t tell Seressa or Cora what you were up to. So I bamboozled them and hid here while I waited for you.”, she stammered with a flushed face.
“You mean, you chickened out!”, smirked Brom.
“Rich, coming from you, Master Brom!”, scowled Tonic.
Brom made a face and shut up.
“The meet is so we can get our stories straight.. You know, so there aren’t any discrepancies..”, she explained, still a bit flustered.
“You are aware that whatever we say, and no matter how plausible our story will be, they aren’t going to believe it.”
“Tonic. You and I know, the moment Cora scowls at you, you are going to start spilling everything. And the moment your pair.. uhhmm… Seressa asks me, nicely, as she always does, I won’t be able to lie to her..”
“Yes.”, said the gnomic girl. “All of which I have taken into consideration.”
“Ow? So what is this story that is discrepancy-proof?”, asked Brom and not without a certain amount of skepticism.
Tonic smirked and rubbed her hands together with a dramatic, conspiratorial way.
“I am going to blame it all on you!”
Brom stared at the gnomic girl.. evenly..
“Really? That’s your plan?”
“Yes. I will also tell them that you threatened me with a prophetic doom.. That way, I will be on the clear.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you, Tonic. Accept Seressa will roll over me, and not in a pleasant way, the moment you tell her I threatened you!”
“But that’s the point, see?”, Tonic smiled even more as she rubbed her tiny hands together even more, looking very much like a villainess cliché!
“No. I don’t see, girl..”, replied Brom with an exasperated tone.
“One, Seressa will never roll over you.. Okay, that didn’t come out right. What I meant was, she will never roll over you in an unpleasant way—”, she said, digging herself in deeper.
“Yes. That sounds so much better, now.”, retorted the hobbit with an unamused tone of voice
Tonic coughed, then bulldozed on.
“—And two, you will tell them the prophecy made you do, whatever it was that you did, and I was part of the elaborate scheme to act as your side-kick and backup, and if neither of us did as the prophecy told us, we’d all be doomed for eternity. Seressa will be fish-hooked when you use ‘prophecy’, ‘doom’ and ‘eternity’ all in the same sentence. And once she is out of the picture, Cora will have no gainsay about it!”, she replied in a very ‘told you so’ voice.
Brom sighed again.
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”, he asked
“Well, sure..”, smirked Tonic.
“What are they doing now? How pissed off are they?”, he asked.
“Very. Before.. Now they both have this stupid and concussed expression on their faces and are just drinking tea from a pink, porcelain tea kettle Seressa produced out of nowhere.”, she said irritably.
“What?”, exclaimed Brom. In his mind, he certainly could imagine Seressa drinking tea out of pink cups, and in the middle of a bloody carnage, but all his efforts failed when he did the same for Cora. Try as he did, the whole concept just collapsed in on its self!
“And that’s after they heated water and bubble washed, brushed, combed, and re-braided each other’s hair!”, she said in disgust.
Brom felt sick.
Just how many more wonderful things those two would do together and he’d end up missing them because he’d have to venture one doom-induced prophetic avenue after another..
“Damit..”, he spat inwardly.
“Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit. Damit!”
He sighed again.
“I wonder if we are done here.”, he murmured.
“No.”, replied Tonic. “At least I don’t think so. We had to go ‘down’ before we went up. That implies a certainty of ‘up’. We went down.. Now we go ‘up’..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Well, well, well..”, drawled Cora, looking at the pair of furtive, midgety, figures approaching as she, quite lady-like, sipped her tea from a pink, porcelain cup. “What have we here? The eloped pair have returned.”
“Indeed.”, said Seressa as she also sipped her tea from a piece-of-the-same-set cup. “Had fun together, did you? We certainly did. Didn’t we, luv?”
“Hell, yes!”, snarled the barbarian girl.
“Hell, yes?”, asked Seressa, turning to her. “My dear girl, that wasn’t the line! We had a perfect reception speech..”
“I am sorry Seressa. I am so wroth, I forgot the lines.”, Cora snarled even more as she scowled at the two.
One gnomic girl and one hobbit scurried to a halt, not unlike a pair of kids about to be grounded by mom and dad, trying to assess just how much of a trouble they were in.
And Tonic suddenly pointed at the hobbit and blurted..
“He did it! He did it! It was all his fault—”
“Tonic..”, mumbled Brom with a resigned tone.
“Don’t talk to me! Don’t talk to me, criminal! I have done nothing bad in my entire life! Hey, look, I am still a virgin! Ok, I might have downloaded a couple of thousands of songs but who hasn’t? Who hasn’t?”, shrieked the little gnomic girl!
Brom sighed, and turned to the angry, tea-drinking pair.
“—It’s done.”, he simply cut in. “We can go up, now.”
There was a distinct silence as the two parties stared at one another.
Then everyone burst out loud talking all at once!
“What do you mean, it’s done?”
“That’s not what we agreed on, dammit!”
“What the bloody hell is going on, here?
“I am sorry, but I am not going to deceive her and jeopardize my life..”, he said, pointing at Cora, “..and I certainly am not going to lie to her and play with her trust.”, he added, carefully not looking at Seressa.
Both parties froze to digest what they had just heard, then burst out again..
“Why would you play me?”
“So her trust is important to you.. Hells Bells, boy, why don’t you just tell her that?”
“I am going to hurt someone if neither of you starts making any sense!”
“Is there any more tea?”
The four sat down, facing one another with scowling frowns, furtive glances, confused expressions and diffident casts as Seressa produced another pink, porcelain cup with tiny flowers and set it before..
..she paused, still looking a bit confused, her cup hand going back and forth indecisively between the two.
“I only have the third cup. This set had four, but I lost one of them a long time ago. I sought for a replacement, when we were back at Arashkan, but couldn’t find any matching my set. Though, in all candor, I never thought the day would come and we would all sit down for some tea.”, she said looking extremely abashed and oddly on the verge of panic.
“Give it to him. He wants the tea.”, sighed Tonic.
Cora sipped her tea.
“It’s alright. Give it to her. She looks like she could use a cup of tea, right about now. She hates it when things derivate from her plans.. apparently.”, mumbled Brom.
“How the hell are you going to drink your tea, if I get the cup, boy?”, blazed the gnomic girl.
Cora sipped her tea, some more.
“I have cup!”, Brom said and pulled a small wooden box out of his pack. Carefully, he opened it and produced an antique, porcelain, pink cup with tiny flowers, along with its saucer, and set it in front of himself.
“There we go. We now have four cups.”
“Hells Bells, Brom! You carry an antique teacup with you? Who does that?”, glared Tonic.
“I carry an antique sword, an antique mace, albeit a bit warped and skewed now, and an antique lyre with me, also.”, grinned the hobbit.
Cora sipped her tea, again, feeling a tint of guild about the antique mace.
Seressa, however, stared at the antique teacup Brom had just produced with undisguised chagrin.
“Where.. where did you get this cup?”, she asked with a choked voice.
“It was a gift. From some very nice, very old people I met during my travels. About a year and a half before I reached the Great Northern Tundra’s where I first met Cora. Why?”, Brom asked, noting her distress.
Cora took another sip from her tea.
Slowly, Seressa held out the cup she’d just gotten out of her pack and turned it upside down, and showed them the bottom end of the cup.
Just inside inner rim of the cup, Brom could see a recursive handwriting..
..and recognized it as Seressa’s, though he had seen her script only once before. This one, though, was much smaller in size and it read;
Property of Seressa Wraiven
Then she reached, and very gingerly, she picked up Brom’s cup, and turned it upside down to show the same inner rim at the bottom of his antique cup, without checking it herself..
Brom’s mind kindled!
For there was the same recursive handwriting, albeit quite faded, and some of the letters lost, declaring the same ownership.
Pr p rty of Sere sa Wraiv n
“How? How have you come by this cup, Master Brom?”, Seressa whispered deploringly.
Cora stared at her own cup, then at Brom’s, then at Seressa’s, then back at her own, and slowly set it down, nudged her butt and hips and shuffled a few feet away from all the cups, and stared at them with freaked eyes.
“I am sorry Seressa. But I can not divulge the identity of the people who gifted it to me, because I gave them my solemn oath of silence. But I can assure you they were very old and honorable people. Quite noble too, in an aristocratic sense, I might add. And they assured me it was a highly prized heirloom passed onto them from generation to generation for several centuries, relative to our time.”
The four sat in dark, quiet contemplation as they drank their tea.
Well, at least three of them did.
Cora wasn’t really the superstitious type, but she was not going to drink any more tea. Not from those cups. And not for a good long while if you could avoid it. This time jumping was starting to freak her out as it was, without adding a little, pink teacup that reached over centuries and counter-centuries to catch up to its set!
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Seressa Wraiven was put out was like saying the sun rose from the east and was high at noon! No. She was not just put out, she was, in fact, quite wroth. One would think the returning of her missing teacup and to have completed her set after unknown, relative, centuries would have given her a certain sense of elation, and in all likeliness, it did, but the way it was returned, did nothing to her sense of equilibrium.
And, apparently, such equilibrium was at the core of her being. Particularly if the said person was known for her, often funny, and endearing, klutz, which was quite the opposite of any equilibrium.. or pertaining balance..!
Someone was going to suffer for her distress.
Seressa Wraiven, however, was also a very considerate and mature young lady, and would never deem to take her pouting out of her pair, and certainly not out of her friends.
Hence, she projected her wrath upon the fiends, demons, and other, not so lucky monsters, they started encountering on their way ‘up’.
She laid waste to everything in her sight, all the while fuming and muttering darkly to herself.
It was a bit mesmerizing to watch, really..
..and downright scary.
Cora had tried to keep up, cutting, hacking, lopping, and disemboweling anything that tried to get past her to reach the very tall, very dark girl raining doom upon her foes, but she’d reached her limit and she felt her arms about to fall off.
Tonic and Brom had silently scurried behind the towering girl and had tried to insert what they could without being noticed by her so as not to further her wrath.
Indeed, it was mesmerizing..
..and quite scary.
“Alright, stop!”, Cora Sleet finally hissed.
That was how the barbarian girl put her foot down. Unlike what was to be expected of a zerker such as herself, Cora did not roar, nor did she foam at the mouth when she ‘zerked’. She settled upon her foes like a silent but deadly sleet storm. She didn’t howl, she didn’t blare, and nor did she so much as shout. She hissed, if that, at her enemies, in her low, throaty voice.
Cora Sleet was ‘cool’ like that.
Arcantonic Palecog was the one that roared. At least that’s what she thought she was doing. And because her pair and her friends were thoughtful of her feelings, they never countermanded her.
Telling an already traumatized girl that she looked like a maniacal squirrel in heat or some similar rodent squeaking like she was caught between a closing door or drawer was just cruel..
Brom Bumblebrim, however, did none of these. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t come from a military family, but a happily lazy hobbit community where nothing was, and nothing certainly wanted to be out of the ordinary. Which is why most hobbits tended to be quite self-aware. A curse that Brom himself was also afflicted with.
Hence, at moments of dire action, if not contemplation, he sort of did this.. ‘commentary’ thing.. Hopefully in his mind, and not out loud, which would have made him look a bit odd. No one, after all, wanted to be on the receiving end of ‘those’ looks. The ones that say, you have just been declared ‘mad’..
..which would have been rich, coming from just about anyone in this particular group, but much like no one told Tonic what she really, and quite hilariously, looked like, Brom did not want to be told he was ‘politely mad!’
Seressa Wraiven, on very rare occasions such as now, became this unreachable, unfathomable, darkly majestic astral witch who would also turn ghostly incorporeal as the pinks in her hair and her frilly skirt dress would drain away and so would the black of her smooth skin, not unlike watching ink spreading over white, cotton parchment, in reverse, leaving her something semi-transparent and a single shade of mid-gray, afloat a foot or so above the ground.
It was an awe-inspiring sight to behold. And downright scary..
..which was when Cora Sleet put her foot down!
“Alright, stop!”, she hissed and pointed at a side room full of hacked, hexed, and disintegrated corpses that seemed to have quite a few exploded heads!
“In. All of you.”, she ordered briskly, waited for them to enter, then irritably kicked a corpse out of the way and slammed the door shut.
“What is going on, Seressa? I don’t mind the fact that we have cleared our way to the top at record speed, but really, now.. You are supposed to be the smart one among us. The maturely foresighted one. Not the zerker. When you ‘zerk’, you start pouching in my woods! It isn’t like we are on a deadline..”
Seressa did not reply. She just stood there facing the far wall as she had entered the bloody room, silently seething and simmering.
Brom threw a warning glance in her direction, but the gnomic girl missed it.
“She made a funny; deadline. Get it? DEAD line!”, she snickered.
Brom shook his head and murmured.
“Bad timing, girl.”
Which turned out to be true.
“Shut up, Tonic!”, snapped Cora. “Your pair is troubled and you are making a pun?”
“There is no need to get snippy..”, pouted Tonic. “Seressa does not like being left in the dark —ironic as that might seem, and not because of her appearance, which has nothing to do with it other than adding some ecstatic flavor, but because of how much she’s into prophecies, and hence, the unknown —which is basically being constantly left in the said ‘dark’, in a purely philosophical sense.. I don’t get worked over such things. I just stagger, look stupidly at it, then move along, which is understandable, since there is no discernable ‘mechanics’ to prophecies, though I suspect there is a certain reasoning, and hence, a logic, of sorts, behind them.. I feel at home dissecting the workings of mechanical objects which are all about physics. Seressa, on the other hand, takes delirious, and almost demented, you might say, pleasure in dissecting the unknown that has barely any physics in them, and the parts that do, are merely the ‘end users’ —the mortals who are inevitably involved, per se!”
Cora stared at the little gnomic girl.. morosely.
“Whot?”, asked Tonic.
“Girl. You don’t start a sentence with a pout, and end it half a mile away, and with an explanation like that. I think you broke Cora’s mind.”, said the hobbit with an amused tone.
“I am sorry.”, said Tonic honestly. “But I thought you guys already knew this and that I was merely repeating —and reminding— the obvious. Most pairs are made up of ‘more of the same’, hence exponentially increasing what they already have. Seressa and I, are not such a pair. We are the rarer, ‘compensating’ kind.. I have some stuff and lack some stuff. She has some stuff, lacks other stuff.. We don’t really compliment each other’s ‘haves’, but ‘cover’ for one another’s ‘have nots’.. Then there is the ‘we both lack the stuff’, but that is a whole, different can of worms, and not all that pertinent to this topic.”
“Sooo?”, drawled Brom. “Meaning what, exactly?”
“Ow!”, exclaimed the gnomic girl in a surprised voice. “You actually want a genuine, plausible, rational, logical, and valid explanation!”
“Yesss..”, grinded Cora.
“Guys. I am just a glorified grunt who likes bangs and bombs. Seressa is the real deal. But should you want to venture a guess, sort of in the way of a solution, I would begin by telling her where you got that teacup. She’s been complaining about its missing fourth since time immemorial!”
“Grunts don’t use words like immemorial”, scoffed Cora.
“Never said I was a grunt, dear Cora. I said I was a glorified grunt. Massive difference!”, she replied with a smug expression etched all over her diminutive face. Then she frowned slightly at Brom. “Go ahead, Master Brom. Just tell her and get it over with.”
Brom stared at the gnomic girl with a very frosty expression.
“I. Can’t. I gave my word. My oath of silence. That mean anything to you?”, he said between clenched teeth.
“Of course. I am an agent of the Academy of Melshieve. Our oaths are our honor.. Or more like, they are binding, than they are in any way, our honor.”, Tonic replied, then added. “Whether we want it or not.”
“Then you know what is at stake.”
“Yes. And more than you think I do. But do weigh your ‘stake’ against the knowledge of ‘pertinence’ in relation to what we are doing, and how it might be important in general, and for Seressa personally.”, Tonic said with another smirk.
“Alright then, why don’t you tell her, Miss Tonic?”, he very nearly spat!
“Me? Why should I tell her? I don’t even know what the hell is going on. Hello, Glorified Grunt, here, remember?”, she said, smirking some more.
Brom scowled at her even more fiercely.
“You know precisely what I am talking about, Arcantonic Palecog..”, he hissed.
Tonic stared at the hobbit as if taking a quick, mental inventory of what the bloody hell he might be talking about, found nothing there, then shrugged.
“Nope. I have absolutely no idea, whatsoever, about what you are talking about, boy!”, she sniffed.
Brom lowered his voice down to a barely audible whisper.
“Tinker Hills, not ringing any bells, Miss Tonic?”
“Nope. Never been there..”, replied Tonic.
“How about Silent Town?”
“Nope. Never heard of it.. So, nada..”, said Tonic.
“Still, nope. At least nothing other than what everyone else here likely already knows. What? Am I supposed to know all about Silent Hills just because I am a gnome? And it isn’t nice of you to bring that up like this, Master Hobbit, considering my.. personal interest in a certain gnome prince!”, Tonic said in a supremely imperious tone.
“So you have no idea about any famous queens of Silent Hills?”, Brom asked, feeling awkwardly less sure of himself.
“I am a historian by default, Master Brom, seeing as how I have a PhD in Archeology, of course, I know of Silent Hills.. And it’s past, and about the events that led up to its current disposition. The particulars of how ‘the fog’, colorfully known as ‘the Demon Fog’ happened is unknown, though. There are walking rumors that one day, an heir to Silent Hills shall arrive and set free the denizens of those hills. But said rumors are, after all, just rumors. And as far as I know, there has been inconclusive reports of one such famous queen, though no one has ever reported to have found any name attached to her, which I find quite impossible, really, if there was such a famous queen..”, she said with a perfectly straight face.
Brom stared at the gnomic girl.
It seemed, apart from the little adventure they had shared late that night in Arashkan, she did not seem to have any inclination about how the antique, porcelain pink cup had come into her possession in the first place, then passed down, generation to generation as a prized heirloom and to have finally been gifted to him, along with a riddle poem, that he had shared with the ‘child’ Tonic, down in the dungeons.
Brom Bumblebrim felt a distinct headache coming his way..
“Be right back.”, he said and turned to the one person he, inadvertently perhaps, cared deeply.. and hence, had avoided for the past several weeks.
Cora moved and so did Tonic.
“No.”, Brom said sternly. “This is for her ears, only.”
“What?”, scowled Cora.
“Why?”, frowned Tonic.
“Look.”, said the hobbit with the same dedicated, grim and unyielding sternness. “You wanted her to stop what she is doing so she does not get us and herself killed, this is me doing that. You don’t have to know the particulars. Neither of you. If you are not okay with that, by all means, try your way. Go hug her, smother her in love, or tickle her.. All the things I can’t do, whether I want to or not. What I can do, is tell her certain truths. I will already be breaking my oath of silence just by telling her what she needs to hear. Please don’t add to my dishonor.”
Cora stared at Brom for a moment, then shrugged and took a sudden interest in her double-bladed polearm, checking it for nicks and dents.
“Just like that, eh?”, Tonic scowled at her.
“No. Just like this.”, she said and took a sharpening stone at the blades.
“That is a double-bladed elven scimitar, girl. Its blades are enchanted and mithral edged. They won’t nick, bend, or blunt. They literally don’t need, nor require sharpening.”, she scoffed.
“I know.”, Cora said coolly. “I also know something else it doesn’t need.”
“Whot?”, asked Tonic gullibly.
Tonic stared at the barbarian girl in total shock!
“That’s.. that’s a swear word. You never use swear words, Cora. And it wasn’t nice of you to say it to me.”, she blubbered with a trembling lower lip.
“Girl. I do not swear ‘outward’. It does not mean I do not swear at all. I am a zerker. At which point did you assume I was a polite barbarian berserker? I am a hundred and six years old, possibly more than double your age, and my mother is dead, hence she can’t come at me with her scissors, so I can swear however the hell I want. So there!”, Cora said..
..and with the same cool tone.
“You are mean.”, mumbled Tonic.
“Perhaps.. But at least I know where to draw the line. I trust Brom and will not jeopardize his honor. Neither should you.”
“But.. whatever they are talking about, it’s obviously about me..”, Tonic said in desperation.
“Me. Me. Me.. You really should stop with that, you know..”, Cora said mildly.
Tonic gave her an even look.
“You know perfectly well, what I am talking about, Cora.”
“Yes. But I also know it is about me.”, replied the barbarian girl softly.
“You? This has nothing to do with you, girl.”, Tonic said with an exasperated voice.
“Ow? Must have come here accidentally, then?”, Cora said lightly.
Tonic scowled at her.
“You like taking my words, using their alternate meanings, and then throwing them back at my face, don’t you.”
“A bit, yes.”, Cora said with a barely discernable smile. “For a smart, artificer-whatsit girl, you do catch them very well.”
Tonic scowled at her.
“And while we are here waiting for those two, perhaps you can fill me in on what the two of you really did ‘down’ there?”, Cora asked.
“Can’t. It’s a ‘Need To Know’ only.”, Tonic said promptly.
“Oh, I see how it is. You can pout and make a scene when you are kept out of this, ‘need to know only’ thingy, but it’s perfectly alright for me to be kept ignorant and blind.. Maybe it’s because I am just a dumb zerker. Perhaps I should upgrade to ‘Glorified Dumb Zerker’.. a bit like you. That way I could also demand this ‘need to know’ thingy.”
Tonic scowled at her, some more.
“Fine.”, she very nearly spat. “I will tell you what we did.”
“And you will also tell me of what the two of you brewed together that time, back at Arashkan?”, asked the barbarian girl, a bit too pleasantly.
“Fine.”, repeated the gnomic girl. “I will also tell you about that!”
“Why?”, asked Cora.
“Because you asked me to?”
“So you are going to reveal me information that was deliberately kept from me, just because I asked you to?”, Cora smiled and there was a distinct edge in her eyes.
“Well..”, said Tonic, suddenly feeling the trap closing in on her.
“Girl. You are so easy. Don’t you think I am aware many things are not shown to me? Just how stupid do you think I am? And that isn’t a rhetorical question. Things are kept from me, not for a laugh. A man can make demands from other men. This I can understand, even if I find it most annoying and foolish. Do you even know just how arrogant it is to make similar demands from the Heavens? Mortals don’t get to make demands from Angels, nor the Celestials, which includes ‘answers’.. The things that are kept from me are done so for a reason, and I don’t get to throw a fit, nor a tantrum just because I am not privy to certain facts or knowledge.. Now I may not know as to the nature of these reasons but think for a moment, girl. Think about what we are doing. At what we are dabbling with. This is not a game. You have no idea how much of a risk I took by giving that sword to Krush’s son, and took the spear for myself to be handed over to its rightful owner. By doing just that, I changed some things. Like, monumentally massive things. And it cost me many lives, and cost others even more. By that one, single act, I did not just let Ironfrost be destroyed again, girl, I ultimately became the cause of its destruction.. and the Wyrm Horde. But of all the four of us, only I could have figured out which weapon to give, and which one to take, let alone figure out the fact that there was another weapon —the spear, because as educated as you and Seressa are, neither of you could have known about the differences and nuances of archaic elfish. Because we, tundra elves, are cut off from the rest of the world, our elfish is still old, and archaic. So when I say, there is a reason for me to know, or in this and several other cases, not to know, I know exactly what I am talking about. And by now, so should you.”
Arcantonic Palecog ogled at the ‘zerker’ barbarian girl.
“You are a barbarian? Why?”, she spluttered finally.
✱ ✱ ✱
Brom Bumblebrim tethered near the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, with nothing short of trepidation.
“You have been avoiding me, Brom Bumblebrim. Why?”, she said without looking at him.
Brom didn’t answer. Not that he didn’t have anything to say, but he was just too scared to say any of it.
He just.. looked down.. at his own bushy feet..
“I know for a fact this avoiding of yours is not my doing for I have treated you to the best of my abilities and with the highest of regards.”, she whispered.
‘Damn.’, he thought. ‘She is so awesome!’
“You have even stopped looking at me. Am I suddenly thus repulsive to your eyes, Master Hobbit, that you wouldn’t care to so much as gaze upon me anymore, even though I have never shown you any rebuke nor displayed any animosity in any form for having done so before.”, she said and there was a tender tremor in her soft, illustrious voice.
‘Damit.’, thought Brom. ‘You are making this so much harder for me, girl..’
“The fact that I have never warned you, should have given you the clue that I did not mind being the focus of your attention. Even someone as traumatized as my Tonic understood this, and has stopped harassing you for doing it.”, she hissed savagely.
Brom tried very hard to send down the lump that suddenly appeared in his throat.
“I wash and clean regularly and I keep my personnel hygiene intact at all times, so that can’t be it. I do not use artificial smells but natural soaps. I always have. I do not do make-up. Perhaps I should, though I doubt it will show on my tone of skin. Not unless I use overt and horrid colors making me boorish and consequently defeating the purpose of elegance and make-up.. Is it my pink skirt dresses? You didn’t mind them before. Do you suddenly mind them now? I have nothing else to wear. Perhaps you find my pinks overdone, now. I might be able to tone down the pinks of my dresses and my undergarments, but I don’t want to dye my hair. This is how I came to be. This is me.. So tell me, Master Brom. What changed?”, she asked hoarsely.
“Nothing has changed, my dear girl.”, replied Brom finally, for it broke his heart to see her thus suffer. “And you are as beautiful as ever. More so, the more I get to know you.. which is the core of my problem.”
Seressa Wraiven looked down at the bushy little hobbit with her deep, astral eyes.
“But that is a matter for another time. You are rattled because of a little teacup. I am rattled because of something much, much more significant. But again, not a matter for now. What I shall reveal now must stay with you, and you alone. It must never be written, nor repeated. Not to Cora, not to Tonic. Not to anyone, dead or alive, down in the ground, or up in the sky.. If these terms are agreeable with you, I shall break my oath of silence at my own risk.. and expense..”, said Brom, in a low, lost, somber voice and still, without looking up.
“You refuse to look at me even as we speak. What is it that I have done, thus do I deserve such treatment?”, she said looking down at him with dejected and shimmering eyes.
“Nothing. You have done nothing, my dear girl.”, stammered Brom.
“You shall not even speak my name. Very well.. Thus, we shall stay as comrades, Master Hobbit, and I shall not endanger a comrade’s honor and risk his expense by authoring the ruination of his oath. Thank you for your candor, sir.”, she said and something seemed to have cracked in her voice..
..and just like that, her ghostly demeanor faded, color returned to her long, braided hair, vivid and alive, and her frilly dress was pink again as darkness spread around her hands, her arms, her face, and her legs, and she was merely a girl again, albeit very tall, and very dark.
Seressa Wraiven turned and quietly left, her tall, dark, and willowy form slumped and slouched as she joining Cora and her pair, leaving Brom gaping and aghast in total chagrin.
“No..”, he whimpered.
Cora Sleet walked up to the little hobbit, deliberately scuffing her boots on the way.
“Go. Away.”, mumbled the hobbit into the wall he was facing.
“Just wanted to know—”, began Cora.
“—Whether I was alright?”, finished Brom.
“Ow, I know, you are not alright. Came here to offer..”, she said.
“Offer? Offer what?”, mumbled the hobbit.
“Offer my help incase you’d need it to bang your thick head into that wall.”
There was a restless silence.
“You are not funny, girl.”, he mumbled.
“No. What I am is, angry. You broke her heart, you know.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Just what did you tell her, Brom Bumblebrim?”, Cora asked frowning at the hobbit.
“Didn’t tell her anything.”, came the hobbits muffled voice.
“Thought so. And that tells me something.”, the barbarian girl said harshly.
“That I am a coward?”
Cora shrugged again.
“I am not here to tell you the things you already know, Brom.”
“Still not funny.”
“You lost someone. I get it.. My guess is, it was a girl.. Someone precious to you.. Someone you didn’t only love and care for, but someone you also truly respected and treasured. And now you don’t want to live that loss again.. with Seressa..”
“Aren’t you full of wisdom today..”, came the hobbit’s muffled, surly mumble.
“I don’t blame you. We are in a dangerous line of work. Any one of us could die at any given time. Why start something that can end at any moment, right?”
“This is going to end with me agreeing with you and you bludgeoning me with some outlandish, tundra logic, isn’t it?”
“You are bludgeoned as it is. I came here to agree with your choice. I fully approve. What could anything remarkable come out of a beautiful and mystifying girl and a little, hedgehog of a hobbit? We should concentrate on the task at hand.”, Cora said coolly.
“What? You think I am not good enough for her?”
“No. I think you think you are not good enough for her, which makes what I think sort of irrelevant..”
Brom scowled at the wall..
“But like I said, better this way. No complications. No sad separations. No breakups. No losses. All of which will happen no matter how long either of you lives, anyway.. And obviously, no more heart breaks for you. That’s a bonus, right there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say!”, she said.
“You know that you just ruined your whole point with a contradictory line, right?”
“And who is going to refute me? You? You can’t even get over one heartbreak. Your doors are shut and well fortified. You give all these awesome advices to Tonic, but heed none of it yourself. So.. who is going to refute me?”
“What do you want, Cora?”
“From you? Nothing. You can’t even dare to reach out for something you clearly want, nor dare to give into it.. What can you possibly have, that I’d even want?”, she replied and there was much contempt in her voice. She took a long breath, as if to clam down, and continued. “I think I have made up my mind about what I want to do after we are done with this jump. I shall go back home and start a whole new Ironfrost.. and I shall call it.. New Ironfrost! Alright, maybe, that didn’t sound as dramatic as I had intended, but who cares. There’s not one left to refute that, either.. The girls, I suspect, will go back to either pestering the Ice Wolf Clan, posing as demons, or go back to that Academy of Melshieve of theirs. I believe Tonic has a job waiting for her there as a mecha-thingy something-something professor and Seressa is going to be a Storm Kite test pilot, though I have absolutely no idea what that is. Whatever it is, I sure hope she wears her safety belt and a helmet.. and a pair of pants!”
“You are just pulling at random stuff and stream broadcasting them here!”, spluttered Brom.
“Maybe. Accept I don’t know what you just said.”
Brom snorted bitterly.
“Well. We had better get started, hadn’t we? Thanks to you and your little teacup, we have but the one floor left. Funny how that turned out.”, Cora said merrily.
“Yea. Funny how that turned out.. Thank you for putting me up to this, Cora. You have been of great help.”, he said with wrathful sarcasm.
Cora stared at the bushy little hobbit.
“Do not make me the devil, here, Brom. I told you to go and talk to her, here and back at Arashkan.. You didn’t then, you didn’t now.. I told you to tell her what you felt. You didn’t then, you didn’t now.. I also told you to accept whatever came your way, where she was concerned. And guess what? You didn’t then, you didn’t now, either.. The only thing I told you not to do was to make her choices for her.. and you did that, now and then!. You want to blame someone that desperately, by all means, keep staring at that wall.”, she said, paused for a moment as if thinking, or perhaps weighing some things against odds. When she spoke again, however, her voice was with a cooler, and a more, distant. “You have been a great friend and great company, Master Brom. But I am not taking a deplorable coward with me. Between the three of us, I believe we girls can handle the rest from here. I am sure you have enough skills to get out of here quite untethered.”
And just like that, she too turned around and left.
Brom stared at the wall some more while fuming and simmering. That had gone well, alright.
“So who is next? Tonic, isn’t it? Do send her in.. Might as well get it over with while I am on the roll..”, he said bitterly.
“Ready, girls?”, he heard Cora say.
“Whot? What happened? Is the hobbit not coming with us?”, asked Tonic baffled.
“What is going on? Seressa? Did he say something bad to you? No. He said something dumb.. He said something dumb and foolish, didn’t he? Want me to go and beat some sense into him? Because, I totally can!”, Tonic flared.
“No, luv. He did nothing of the sort. He wouldn’t do that and you know this.. We also don’t beat friends just because they don’t see things our way..”, he heard Seressa’s drained voice.
“Silly little weasel! Men can be so stupid and dense sometimes.”, Tonic mumbled.
“So can girls, luv, and quite apparent, in my case.. Tonic, baby, this is not a gender issue. Not in that sense. Please don’t take it there..”, Seressa quietly admonished her pair.
“Then what’s the problem? And why are you so pale and trembling, girl?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all..”
“Coming, Master Brom?”
..came the offer and from Seressa, of all people, from the other side of the room. Her voice, very neutral, and totally void of any implications. A voice spoken to a stranger; carefully polite, inexpressive, inanimate, soulless, and matt.
“On my way..”, replied the hobbit with an equally lifeless and very much lackluster tone.
Perhaps Cora was right and it was time he started looking for something beyond this little group.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan here?”, whispered Tonic, and there was a distinct presence of fear in her voice. “Just so you all know, if my dear uncle is in there, I am going to bail.”
“You’d run off? Just like that?”, asked her pair, her voice somewhat listless.
“Of course. And so should you.. All of you.. We are no match for him.”, squeaked the gnomic girl.
“How do you know?”, asked Cora, more out of curiosity than any belligerence.
“Ever wonder why there are this many untethered demons here, all defending one little midget of a wizard and his tower? And why Arashkan and High Woods are just a weeks distance away but no one dares to come here to put a stop to him and his deranged madness?”, she asked.
“Yes. That did cross my mind.”, admitted the elf barbarian.
“The fiends and the demons, among many other things do his bidding willingly because here, they can run amok and freely. This bloody tower is a heaven for them. And because they all fear him. I am not even sure Ri Grandaleren of Bari Na-ammen could take him out on a one-on-one.”, Tonic said in a dejected tone.
“But someone did take him out at the end, though, didn’t they?”, Cora said.
“Yes. But their timing was not random nor a coincidence. When you think about it, you have to admire how well, or perhaps, how delicately it was chosen, and how that timing had been at the core of their plan of action in the first place.. Lord Delia lead the company, certainly, but I am inclined to give Nadine Graciousward the credit for having figured this out. Seems like the kind of thing she’d do.. People think her beauty is her only quality. I think not, though. You can’t be that awesome just by having a pretty face and some nice breasts and *cough* well, you get my drift.. What I am getting at is, the Demon Gate my uncle constructed in the center of the ruins just north of Durkahan had failed because it had malfunctioned. Suffice to say, his masters, the Demon Lords, were extremely put out by his consecutive and conclusive failures, considering all the backing he had from them. Hence they pulled most of their forces, along with the majority of their support from him.. and his tower.. This tower. So yes. When the paladin Delia Karakash Hooman, the sorceress Nadine Graciousward and at least six others came here to confront him, this tower was much more empty. I guesstimate, it is around twenty-five to twenty-eight percent of its capacity at the moment. This number will rise exponentially and likely surpass its maximum capacity when he is near the completion of his gate but will drop drastically once it fails.. I think that is when Delia and Nadine hit my uncle and they still lost more than half their number. You must understand, aside from being a megalomaniac, a lunatic, and an irreplaceable arse, my uncle, Arcanton Mordenon, is a dedicated evocationist. When he nukes, he has the capacity to deliver his wrath at its maximum gauge, gage, caliber, scale and dial! To this day, it still isn’t clear just how many professional bounty hunters or enterprising adventurers my uncle killed because he disintegrated quite a few, as opposed to merely charring them. I can only guess just how Nadine was pissed when he did the same to her friends, but I am thinking, A LOT! Which is why she banished him to hell in stasis.. That way, only she can release him and bring him back, which I doubt she will ever do. So when I say, if my uncle is here I will bail, I mean exactly that. He won’t know who I am, and I am certain he won’t care even if he did, seeing as how he treated the three-year-old me.”
“You are aware..”, Brom said quietly from behind. “..If we do face him, I plan on leaving a mark on him.”
Cora looked back at Brom.
It was the first time he had spoken since he had said ‘nothing’ to Seressa.
Seressa on the other hand, hadn’t faded away in total silence.
She’d just been.. void..
When she spoke, it was with this glassy and brittle cheeriness.
It probably made Tonic bleed from the inside, even though she too refused to show it, nor did she display any outward animosity towards Brom. Just a tad.. formal.. and minutely critical in her exchanges with him..
..and very much disappointed in him.
Hence Cora and Tonic ended up having this odd and awkward commentary going between them.
“Why?”, Tonic said without so much as looking at him, and sort of in a rhetorical way.
“Said I’d do it, remember?”, Brom replied.
“I remember. I also remember never agreeing with you, either.”, she said with a shrug.
“Your agreeing was not part of my promise.”, mumbled Brom.
“I am over it, Master Brom. Nothing’s going to change the past. Might as well not add to his murder tally. Besides, I don’t think he is home. I mean we have been here, killing his fiends, his demons, and his whatnots, and he hasn’t once come down to investigate, which is quite unlike him. The Arcanton Mordenon I remember was a militantly control freak!”
Brom did not reply nor did he object. Talking about anything at the moment seemed like putting more strain on a thread stretched too tight, as it was.
Cora on the other hand was a barbarian. She didn’t notice such subtleties. Or perhaps she did, and even though she was very much wroth with him, she was still kinder than she let on and she didn’t think the bushy little hobbit should be ousted anymore than he already was..
..and it didn’t make much sense torturing him any more than what he had already managed to bring upon himself.
“Just out of curiosity, why would you want to leave a mark on him? It isn’t like you to collect trophies.”, she said lightly.
“I have no interest in collecting any part of him. Other than perhaps his head.”, replied Brom with a listless tone.
“We should collect his head. Back in Arashkan, I saw many wanted posts and his name was on it. With a very generous five hundred thousand gold attached to it.”
“Didn’t know that. I was never really all that interested in bounty hunting.”, he replied with the same tone.
“Ow? We did start our adventures with a wanted post, and hence, bounty hunting, if you recall.”, Cora said with a reminiscing voice.
“True, now that I look back. But I came along because of you, really, rather than the money. And because there was something about your tundra’s that appealed to me even though I am not a winter person and very much dislike the cold.”
“You came because of me, did you? That’s just sad.”, she said slightly amused.
“Yes. You seemed.. don’t get me wrong, Cora, but kind of lost.. and desperate.. as if wanting to join your lost ones in a hurry.. I didn’t want that to happen.”
“How could you possibly know those? It was much later I opened up about my losses.”, she asked curiously.
“Also true. But it takes one to know one, I guess. I.. saw myself in you.. Not in a creepy way, mind you.. Something about your mood.. or perhaps your state of mind.. Like I said, takes one to know one..”, replied Brom dispiritedly.
“Who did you lose, Master Brom?”
The question came too suddenly.
And from the one person, the lost hobbit would have least expected just then. And tenderly it came, soothing through all his mental defenses, his barriers and his barricades, and gently pushing them aside!
Without even thinking, as if by muscle reflex, he blurted.
And with shock, he just stood where was.
So did Cora, for this was the first time she had heard the name of his loss.
Tonic was staring at him with a slight frown.
Seressa Wraiven, however, was there, and on her knees right before him. She stood where she was, kneeling and staring into the depths of his soul with her unfathomable, astral eyes. Whatever she sought, she must have found it, because she reached at the petrified hobbit and collected him into her bosom..
.. and wow!
Brom lost all senses..
That single embrace was the warmest, softest, and life-inducing thing he had ever experienced in his whole life. It was a ‘best’ on so many levels, he thought he had no words for far too many of them.
And Seressa Wraiven smelled so nice. Something with phloxes, cherry blooms, and.. something else.. something unique..
And with an unexpected display of insight, considering his emotional wreckage and his current standing —in Seressa’s arms, and far too close to her soft, pretty breasts that he was literally breathing right into them, Brom knew, there was only one creature in the verse that possessed this smell, and she was it;
“You loved her.”
It wasn’t a question so much as a simple, tangible statement. A statement not for her benefit, but for his.
“She was.. special.. and extraordinary.. and artlessly innocent.. and she gave her life, saving one, stupid hobbit, because that is what she thought was required of her, and for me to understand what it was, that was required of me..”, he croaked.
“I understand you now, dear Brom Bumblebrim. More so than before. And do I now understand your fears, also. I revoke my previous, and quite inconsiderate and impulsive declaration, and apologize to you for my impromptu selfishness.”, she said to his ear as she hugged him tighter.
“There is nothing to apologize for, sweet Seressa Wraiven. You did nothing wrong. And I just did nothing..”, he replied hoarsely.
“Nevertheless, I should have been more considerate of my friend, Brom Bumblebrim.. Henceforth, you shall not be only my comrade, but my companion and my friend for life. Should you ever need my company, I shall be there.”, she whispered back and Brom felt a tingling sensation run down from the tip of his ears, all the way down to his toes.
“I think you should let go of me now, dear Wraiven. Because if you hold me any longer, I won’t be able to let go of you. Your.. warmth is murdering me and your smell is simply intoxicating!”, he said in a desperately embarrassed voice.
Seressa parted, barely, but still knelt where she was and still held him in her dark, slim, long arms as she ran her delicate hands through his thick, bushy hair.
“And whatever gave you the idea I would want you to, Master Brom?”, she said with her awesome smile.
Brom’s heart lurched..
“I think I heard something.”, snickered Tonic.
“So did I.”, murmured Cora with a poorly concealed smile.
Seressa Wraiven leaned in, and lightly kissed the petrified little hobbit.
It wasn’t a submissive kiss, nor a demanding one.
It was a carefully applied, tender and.. well.. scrumptious kiss..
Brom was a bard, and words were his thing, after all, and that was the only thing he could think of;
“I shall ever be envious of your loss, sad as it may be, Master Brom.”, she said, gave him another of her awesome smiles, and gracefully rose to her feet.
She then looked at Cora and her pair, Tonic, then back at Brom, and said, “Before, I thought I had something to die for; a prophecy to fulfil and save humanity.. Now? Now, I have something to live.. Shall we?”
“Let’s.”, agreed, the elf barbarian with a slightly victorious tint to her voice.
Funny how a dispirited and dejected four could suddenly dash forth with a light and merry skip to their pace merely a short embrace and a kiss later.
That had been the first time since Gull’s Perch, Brom Bumblebrim had such a silly and concussed expression on his face..
✱ ✱ ✱
Arcanton Mordenon was not at home. His fiends, his demons, and his numerous whatnots, however, were, and they came charging at them the moment the four stepped into the mad evocationist’s vast workshop at the top of his tower. Cora held the door, trying her best to keep them out as she spun her double-bladed elven scimitar, jabbing, slashing, hacking, dismembering, and disemboweling any that came within her reach, while Brom strung his lyre, sending dissonant scores at them, driving them mad, confounding them, leaving them confused or dropping them shuddering on the ground, their heads bloomed and their brains splattered everywhere.
Seressa sent her ghostly hands at them, pushing them, pulling them, and dislocating them whenever they tried to overcrowd the barbarian girl as she smothered them in maddening darkness.
Tonic, on the other hand, scurried around her uncle’s vast chamber, trying to figure out why they had been sent here in the first place!
There were strange, unidentifiable machinery, artificed objects, gimmicks, and gizmos of various shapes and sizes everywhere in the shelf riddled workshop, along with flasks, vials, tubes, and spiraling glass appendages containing oozing, bubbling, and frothing potions, poisons, and chemicals on the many work tables and benches. Glowing braziers, old candle holders with dripping waxes, rust-brown cages with dried and dead things hung from the high ceiling, attached to long, petrified chains. And at the far end of the workshop was the main table, a heavy and sturdy structure made of solid oak and studded with thick leathers and steel nails. The surface of the table was perhaps once polished and smooth, but long had it been abused with dark, chemical burns, blade lines, and possibly, claw marks and other stains that declared many years of harsh use, where piles of drawings, sketches, diagrams, and many numerical lists and spreadsheets lay, rolled up or stretched and held in place by old iron weighs. Similar sketches and drawings also covered the walls wherever there were no shelves.
The whole place spoke of hard, obsessive work, riddled with depression, desperation, frenzy, and not a small amount of deranged madness.
“Status Update!”, Cora called from the door, holding a vicious gash at a point just above her hip.
“This place is a mess! Just look at it! It’s dowdy, ratty, slovenly, and simply hazardous! I guess they didn’t pay him enough to hire a maid or two!”, Tonic squeaked in towering and abhorrent disgust.
“I can’t imagine a maid or two here wearing those skimpy maid outfits, and waving one of those fluffy dusters..”, noted Seressa with a slightly amused tone as she sent a spectral scythe, screaming into another fiend.
“A bit rich, you calling a service maids’ uniform, ‘skimpy’..”, she retorted derisively from the other side of the room trying to see the names of the books in the shelves, written on their spines.
“I beg to differ, my dear Tonic.”, replied the very tall, very dark girl in her illustrious and cultured voice.
“How so?”, the gnomic girl asked as she scurried to the adjacent set of shelves.
“I am not a service maid!”, Seressa replied simply.
“Can we hurry this along?”, Cora called from the door as she slashed down one end of her weapon, sliced open a demon, counter swung the other end of the weapon and opened a symmetrical gash. The demon groaned and collapsed, splattering its frothy blood everywhere.
“I need to more time. This place is huge and there must be thousands and thousands of books, gadgets, and drawings, any of which could be the reason we are here!”, the little gnomic girl’s voice fizzled in near panic and fumbled through the books and compendiums, and noticed one, quite large, rather tattered old tome in particular;
“Holy crap!”, she hissed, looked around fugitively, “Screw you, Melshieve!”, she cussed silently..
..and pocketed the book!
“If it’s one of the books, we can switch places.”, called Seressa. “I have decent WPM count!”
“WPM?”, asked Brom.
“Words Per Minute!”, shouted Tonic from the other side of the workshop with sneering triumph. “And no. If it’s WPM, no one beats Arcantonic Palecog! I had the highest score in all the Academy history ever to be recorded! And that isn’t speed reading either. It is comprehensive reading!”
“Ow?”, asked Seressa.
“960 WORDS PER MINUTE! YEZZZ, YOU HURD MEH! THAT’S A NINER SIX OH, FOR YOU, GURRL!”
“Ow..”, came Seressa’s voice.
There was a pregnant moment of dawning silence.
“What’s yours?”, Tonic asked carefully.
“1024..”, replied the very tall, very dark girl evasively.
“IMPOSSIBLE!”, Tonic exclaimed, quite shell shocked.
“Improbable, yes, my dear. Impossible? Not so much.”, Seressa said with mirthful eyes and a sweet little smile on her face.
“I would have known..”, said Tonic with a decidedly dejected tone. “There was no record of it anywhere.”
“I didn’t even know they kept records for WPM’s. Don’t feel bad, luv. I had nothing better to do in my six years tenure in the Academy but to read in the library.. Other than tending for my phloxes, I mean.. I was bound to get good at both.. I have a chair crafted from cherry wood dedicated solely to me there.. I am sure it’s got the shape of my butt imprinted on it!”, Seressa tried to explain.
“I can’t believe the things I am hearing..”, he muttered to himself.
“Can’t I beat you at anything, damit?!”, she snarled.
“You beat me in everything that matters, luv. My ‘betters’ are merely the inconsequential and items of trivia.”, replied the very tall, very dark girl, as she lit the whole hall leading up to the door with a sickly, yellowish-green light.
“Don’t go into that, dear Cora.”, she warned the barbarian girl.
“What is it?”, she asked.
“Pain. Lot’s of it.”, Seressa said softly.
“Name me one thing I am better, damit!”, shouted the little gnomic girl as she scrambled up the sitting bench and started inspecting the drawings, sketches, diagrams, lists, and spreadsheets on the large table.
“You want to do this now? Really, girl, your priorities need some working!”, mumbled Brom.
“Shut up, hobbit. You frolicked and kissed Seressa in the middle of a demon-infested, mad midget’s tower!”, she spat hotly.
Brom blushed furiously.
“He didn’t frolick me, nor did he kiss me, luv.”, said Seressa with a barely discernable blush of her own. “I frolicked him.. and I kissed him..”
“Didn’t seem like that at all.. Not from where I was standing. He definitely hugged AND kissed you, girl! Cora saw it too, didn’t you, Cora?”
“I AM NOT GETTING INVOLVED IN THAT!”, shouted the barbarian girl.
“Alright. It was a pleasant, mutual frolicking.. and kissing, then?”, she offered, her face a bit brighter now.
“Yea, I bet it was..”, scowled Tonic. “Now stop deflecting and tell me, damit.. Name me one thing I am better at?”
“You, luv, are my pair. The rest is trivia.”, replied the very tall, very dark girl simply, and with no small amount of zeal.
Tonic shut up!
“Not the hugging and the kissing.. Those weren’t trivia, Master Brom, I swear!”, she added redundantly with a tiny and rather abashed voice.
Brom cleared his throat and spoke in a gruff sort of voice.
“Let’s concentrate on what’s at hand, shall we?”, he said.
“Yes. Let’s..”, agreed, Seressa hastily.
“Stupid bean poles, stupid bushy little weasels and stupid midgety wizards of high grandeur..”, came the muffled voice of Tonic from the large, leather and steel studded oak table.
As pissed off as Tonic was at that particular moment, and wroth with hate at her deranged uncle, she admired Arcanton Mordenon’s focused commitment, his rigorous diligence, his studious preciseness, and his meticulous attention to detail in his diagrams and sketches, if not his workshop, of what she thought was the Demon Gate itself!
She looked down at the left-hand corner of each drawing and noted that each was also dated, stamped with a version number and their status of success. Most weren’t. Hastily, she picked up the thick spreadsheet book and opened a random page..
22.10.7535 – v.30.3 – FAILED
03.04.7536 – v.31.1 – FAILED
16.07.7536 – v.31.2 – FAILED
09.10.7536 – v.31.3 – FAILED
20.01.7537 – v.32.1 – FAILED
05.04.7537 – v.32.2 – FAILED
18.07.7537 – v.32.3 – FAILED
It seemed it had taken three to three and a half months to prepare and ready for a new version of the Demon Gate and the list seemed to go up and down a long way!
She knew she could get obsessive at times, particularly where her MECHABER was concerned. But this.. this went off her charts!
“Well.. That explains from which side of the family my stupid monomania’s and fixations came from.”, she muttered darkly.
Every once in a while though, the tests would skip a to a whole new version marked as SOME SUCCESS, or PARTIAL SUCCESS..
Tonic flipped all the way to the very end of the thick, stubby spreadsheet book and there it was..
08.03.7566 – v.111.1 – PARTIAL SUCCESS
29.06.7566 – v.111.2 – FAILED
14.09.7566 – v.111.3 – PARTIAL SUCCESS
06.11.7566 – v.111.4 – SUCCESS!
“Hells Bells..”, she whispered with awe. “The maniac did it! He actually did discover how to build a functional Demon Gate.. 111 versions? Damn.. And that’s not even counting the sub-versions! That is one sick obsession, that is! Uncle Mordenon, I shall forever hate you from the bottom of my groin up to the tip of my nipples, but you have managed to garner my respect, you sick son of a motherless goblin’s bastard-midget!”
Then she started looking for the sketches for version 111.4!
A deep, reverberating bell rang somewhere up and down the whole tower..
..and the demons scathing in the sickly yellow-green light Seressa had cast froze.. just for a moment..
..then, with a grotesque roar, they all attacked with undisguised zeal!
“Ow crap!”, shrieked Tonic.
“What? What was that?”, Brom squeaked as he felt something sink in his belly and the trepidation of doom spread across the tower.
“My uncle Mordenon! He’s come back! And likely with his Demon Lords..”
“For all that’s good and not!”, exclaimed Seressa in despair.
“Whatever it is you have to do, do it now, girl!”, shouted Cora as she swung a wide cleave across several frenzied demons, receiving any number of cuts and gashes in return. “Hurry, damit!”
Tonic froze for a moment, then started running around in panicked circles;
“My uncle’s coming.. He’s coming! He’s coming to stick me into that cage again! He’s—”, she spluttered.
“SOMEONE SLAP THAT GIRL BACK!“, roared Cora and brought her double-bladed elven scimitar down, cutting one of the demons in two —vertically!
“Master Brom!”, yelled Seressa. “I can’t take my attention away from my curse.”
Brom scurried to Tonic, dipped his foot forward, and tripped the little gnomic girl.
When she rose back to her feet, her face was all bloodied and she was entertaining a grotesquely broken nose..
“Uhhmm…”, murmured Brom.
The look Tonic gave him was nothing less than baleful.
“Why the hell did you do that, boy?”, she screamed.
“I.. I am sorry, Tonic, but you were in a full-blown panic attack so I tripped you. It was that or slap you back to sanity.. And.. I didn’t feel like slapping you..”, he mumbled.
“So instead of slapping me and giving me a shiner, you decided to trip me and break my nose?!”, she glared at him with disintegrating eyes.
Brom shrank back.
“TONIC! DO WHATEVER IT IS YOU HAVE TO DO, AND DO IT NOW, DAMIT!“, Cora roared again.
Tonic sniffed and wiped the blood in a very unladylike manner, smearing it all over her face, then, in a low, threatening hiss, she spoke.
“There will be a reckoning, Brom Bumblebrim, should we live to get out of here.. Now, look around and find me a sketch, a diagram, or drawing.. One with a version 111.4 written on the bottom left corner of it!”
The two dashed and started rummaging everywhere and all the sketches, drawings, and diagrams and checking their versions as more and more demons came pouring into the hall, illuminated by Seressa’s spell.
Cora hacked and slashed as Seressa desperately sent her ghostly hands at the rushing fiends and demons, pulling and pushing them to make sure they stayed in the sickly and deadly light and slowly burned.
“Nothing..”, gasped Brom as he came up to the little gnomic girl.. “None of my findings match the version number you want.”
“Damit..”, swore Tonic.
Then she blinked and a small “Ow..” escaped her.
“What?”, asked Brom urgently.
“Why didn’t I think of it before. Of course, he is not going to leave it around just for anyone to find.. That particular version must be several cities worth!”
Hastily, she reached into her artificer’s satchel and rummaged for a moment, and produced a little, hooded lantern. Carefully, she skimmed the elegantly made lantern with her slim fingers until she found what she was looking for; a well-concealed runic button hidden at its base. She lightly tapped the button, setting it to MODE B…
..on the other side of the vast workshop.
She might not be much of a sneak, nor have many of the quirky talents her pair did, but she was an artificer and that meant compensating what they lacked by way of substituting them with pure ingenuity and dedicated craftsmanship..
“What’s this?”, Brom asked looking at Tonic, her evil smile, and the little hooded lantern..
“This is a top-secret device of my own crafting, boy!”, she sniffed more blood in an ‘I look down on ye little bugs’, attitude.
“Horse..” —cough— “..turd!”
“If you must know, it’s a Lantern of Revealing. It reveals invisible, and sometimes hidden objects..”, she growled at the hobbit, then padded over to a certain section of the wall, covered with what seemed like an oil painting of Arcanton Mordenon himself, framed and hung, and lording down upon unseen subjects.
“Nice.”, said Brom ogling at the frame. “Seen the portraits of important men and women framed in officious courts, but hanging a painting of yourself? How jaded is that?”
“This isn’t jade, boy. It is outright megalomania and monumental levels of inferiority complex competing —and sorely falling short of his low, midgety self-esteem!”, spat Tonic.
“Wow. Couldn’t have put it better myself. I think you missed your calling, girl. You should have been a poet.”, he smirked.
“Don’t mock me, Brom. I have good reasons for being the way I am.”, she said quietly.
“I am sorry. I am terrified at the moment and my mouth just starts running without counseling me..”, apologized Brom.
“Tis alright. I forgive you.. just not for the nose.. Now hold this end of the frame, quickly.”
The two grunted and lifted the frame off its hook, and carefully lowered it down. The frame was a lot heavier than it seemed.
“There is nothing here!”, exclaimed Brom, staring at the blank wall behind the frame.
“Never said there was.”, replied Tonic, frowning down at the frame, and at the oil painting of her deranged uncle.
“Tonic, Brom, hurry.. I don’t think I can hold them any longer. Too many piling up here. Seressa is burning them by the lot and they don’t even seem to care!”, shouted Cora as more and more demons ravaged her.
Seressa was sweating profusely by now. Yet, she was staring at the sickly illuminated hall with burning intensity as she sent one shrieking ghostly hand after another, pushing the demons back and trying to buy a moment of respite for the barbarian girl.
Tonic ran back to the large table, shuffled around the cluster, found what she was looking for, and dashed back to the frame of her deranged uncle. Over the howls, the roars, the barkings, and the yowls of the demons, she silently contemplated the image of her uncle.
Then, she produced the little inkpot she’d just gotten from the table, dipped the quill, also from the table, bent down over the frame, and carefully made, what appeared to be a very short, single vertical line.
Brom stared at the portrait of the megalomaniac, Arcanton Mordenon, and saw the line disappear even as Tonic drew it.
“What the—”, he began.
“Not now.”, hissed the little gnomic girl as she carefully studied the portrait, then slashed a similar, vertical line somewhere across and below the first one.
Brom watched as that line also disappeared.
Tonic frowned and looked intensely at her uncle for a bit more, dipped the quill into the inkpot, and for the third time, she scratched the portrait.
“Done..”, she said.
“Done? What’s done?”, asked Brom, totally baffled.
“Later. Help me put this back on the wall. Hurry..”, she said harshly and yelled. “Seressa..”
“Whot?”, Seressa gasped as she trembled, her concentration on the sickly, devouring light, waning.
“Prepare to get us out of here, if you will, please!”, Tonic yelled at her.
“Are you.. are we.. done?”, she very nearly moaned under the pressure of her spell.
“Almost.. Get ready to pull us out, when I say, ‘Cherry Blooms’..”
“Cherry Blooms?”, Seressa asked, an amused smile appearing on her tightly clenched teeth.
“It was either that or some long, unrelated tirade about my retarded uncle..”, Tonic mumbled under her breath as she and Brom forcefully lifted the heavy frame of Arcanton Mordenon, and hung it back on its hook.
“Now all it needs is a final touch.”, she said, staring at her uncle with a very evil and very filthy stare, and opened an empty palm at the hobbit. “Alright Master Brom, gimme knife.”
Brom looked at her.. evenly..
“I am NOT giving you knife, girl!”, he said stiffly.
Tonic stared at him.
“This is not the time for a funny, boy. Give me knife!”, she fumed.
Brom stared at her, some more.
“Hells Bells, boy, give me a damn knife, already..”, she said in an exasperated voice.
Brom produced a small knife and gave it to her, handle first.
Tonic took the knife..
..and stabbed her uncle.
..in the face!
“Die biach!”, she spat.. and with child-like glee and slow satisfaction, she sliced his face in two!
“Alright.”, said Brom carefully. “I am sure there was a reason for that.”
“YEZZZ!”, replied the little gnomic girl with one of the evilest smiles Brom had ever seen on any face.
“Girl, you are freaking me out..”, he mumbled. “You look like a cat who just stole a whole barrel of cream from a rat mafia!”
Then she turned to Seressa and yelled.
Seressa sent a fiery comet down and into the sickly lit hall, sending the fiends and demons slamming into the ground and stunning them..
“Cora.. Shut the door.. It’s time to go!”, she yelled at the barbarian girl.
Cora spun around, carved a wide cleave out of the whole front row of demons, belly danced right out of their frustrated and bloody reach, and in a seamless string of lithe steps, she slammed the door into their face, rammed the heavy bar behind it into its counter latch, and heaved down the nearest bookcase, totally blocking the door.
“Done.”, she said coolly and stepped up next to the very tall, very dark Seressa and held up her hand.
“Girl, you are just so awesome!”, Seressa cheered at her, then turned to the other two. “Tonic, luv? Master Brom?”
Brom didn’t waste any time.
Brom felt no inclination to waste any time..
He hurtled next to Cora and took her hand as Tonic scurried right after him with a grinning display of satisfaction etched all over her face. She came to a stop right next to the hobbit and reached up to hold Seressa’s hand.
Seressa looked down at her pair.
“Done, luv?”, she asked.
“Done, luv..”, Tonic grinned.
“You look happy.”, Seressa said.
“Profusely.”, admitted the little gnomic girl, her grin spreading even wider.
“Any regrets?”, asked the very tall, very dark Seressa.
“Many.”, said Tonic. “But none today.”
Seressa smiled at her, then looked at the barbarian girl and the bushy little hobbit.
“My friend Cora and my dear Master Brom. Thank you both.”, she said solemnly. “Today you have given my pair, surcease.”
Then she looked up and whispered..
“My Queen.. Your maiden pleads.. We are ready..”
A ghostly light appeared around the four as some things big and nasty slammed on the door, sending bits and pieces of wood and nail every which way..
..as Tonic drew a round, heavy, leather-bound, fire-clay hardened and tightly packed ball with a little pin at the top out of her artificer’s satchel and handed the thing to Brom.
“What do you want me to do with this?”, Brom asked, holding the ball like it was a live snake.
“You wanted to leave a mark, didn’t you?”, the little gnomic girl said.
“Yes, of course.”, Brom replied still staring at the tightly packed ball.
“Well, this will leave a mark!”, she said with a vicious grin. “Pull that pin, and toss..”
Brom returned her grin with his own.
“Fire in the hole..”, he hissed with a vengeance, pulled the pin..
..and lazily tossed it.
“Close the circle!”, yelped Seressa, and the very happy gnomic girl forcefully grabbed the hobbit’s hand..
The workshop of Tonic’s uncle, Arcanton Mordenon, shuddered as the grenade detonated with eye-searing savagery..
..just as they disappeared.
✱ ✱ ✱
A cool, pleasant wind was blowing when Brom opened his eyes. He lay where he was to see a brilliant and vividly blue sky.
‘Wow..’, he thought to himself. ‘That’s a pretty sky..”
“No, really, it is but a small flesh wound, Sir.”, he heard Cora say.
‘Sir?’, wondered Brom. ‘Just who could have garnered enough respect from Cora Sleet? Enough for her to actually ‘Sir’ them..’
It wasn’t because Cora was an abrasive or disrespectful girl or anything. It was, Brom figured, possibly because ‘Sir’ just didn’t seem to fit the whole, ‘Barbarian Theme’..
“I apologize for my foul mouth, Sir. Bad habits die hard. And I have many..”
‘What the..’, thought Brom, now that just didn’t feel right at all! An apologizing Tonic? Really, now, that was just absurd..
“Deep down, am I an evil creature?”, Brom heard Seressa ask. “I carry odd blood, Sir!’
‘Girl, if you are an evil creature, I would suggest you get in line.. quite a ways behind me!’, thought Brom a bit irritably.
“Welcome to the Celestial Mountains, young Brom Bumblebrim.”, he heard a deep, masculine voice reverberate all over his soul. “Are you well? You seem scarred. It is possible to remove this scar from your heart and soul, and set you free, should you but will it.”
“It is my scar, Sir. And it is there to stay. I carry it as a badge of my failures. We are what we are, but we can choose to be who we want to be. And I choose that scar to be part of me.”
✱ ✱ ✱
A cool, pleasant wind was blowing when Brom opened his eyes. He lay where he was to see a brilliant and vividly blue sky.
‘Wow..’, he thought to himself. ‘That’s a pretty sky..”
“You up?”, Tonic appeared in his line of vision, nudged him with her foot, and generally messed up his pretty sky. Could have been Seressa, but no.. It just had to be the pesky little gnomic girl..
“Don’t nudge him like that. That isn’t nice, Tonic. He deserves better from you.”, came the soft, illustrious, and cultured voice of Seressa, from somewhere off to his.. well, it came from somewhere!
Tonic grinned, then scrunched her face and said, in a low, harsh, miming voice;
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it!”
Brom ogled at her.
“Get it?”, asked the little gnomic girl, then lowered her voice again and repeated;
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it!”
Brom ogled at her, some more.
Tonic’s face drooped and she sighed.
“There went a perfect reference..”
“He didn’t attend to the Academy, Tonic. He might easily be unaware of such, ‘bullboy’ or ‘jestern’ cultures.”, Seressa said.
“How can he be not aware of it, girl? Hells Bells, he’s a bard for Heaven’s sake, how is it he doesn’t even know this? It’s a classic!”, Tonic squeaked with exasperation.
“It’s a classic amongst its peers, luv. Which makes it relative.”, Seressa tried to explain.
Then she nudged the hobbit once more with her foot and said, “Get up, boy. Seressa, Cora, and I are going to take a dip to wash all the dust, blood, gore, and mildew off of us and we need you to stand guard.”
Brom frowned, and slow