A long, stinking network of sewers stretches under the ruins of the once glorious city of Arashkan, now smoking in smoldering ruins. Though it is winter with cold, dirty-gray snow on the ground outside, down in these sewers, the temperature is mild. Less water than usual drains from the sewer tunnels now, as there is no populace left in the city. What’s there is mostly melted snow blotched with sticky and sickly reddish-brown color due to the seeping blood from the streets above and the settled soot, carrying away with lazy indifference, burnt and charred bits of wood, and every once in a while, a bloated corpse..
Through these tunnels, young Udoorin Shieldheart, Princess Lorna, and her cousin, Anglenna Sunsear, slink and sneak, and at times, fight their way to the magically cordoned and entombed area where years ago, the younger thief, Darly Dor, had stolen from Lady Felishia Fremeir, the prized gifts allegedly sent by Ri Grandaleren of Bari Na-ammen to the First Lord Kaladin of Arashkan;
THREE DOG CURSE..
This story is the continuation of the series;
The Malediction of ‘Rellen.. (Part 3/3)
“Three Dog Curse”.
It takes place on the same night as
We Are Not Your Dogs.
We Are Not Your Servants.
We Are Your Masters!
and shortly after
The young, burly man pulled the bloated Orken floating face down and slowly down the sewer with one of his long-shafted great axes, using its curving edge as a hook. With a low grunt, he grappled the huge creature ‘ashore’ and poked it to make sure it really was as dead as it seemed. Then, carefully, he turned it over and peered at it.
“A little light, please, Auntie Lenna?”, he rumbled.
“I would very much appreciate it if you would make up your mind, young Udoorin.”, said Anglenna mildly.
“Uhhmm.. I am not quite sure what you mean, ma’am?”, he said.
“Auntie H., Auntie Lenna, Ma’am? Make up your mind. I despair every time you call me something I was never called in all my one hundred and seventy-eight years on this earth! And why am I even your ‘Auntie’, anyway? There is no blood relation between us whatsoever, and although the age disparity between us is mild at best, I certainly am not old enough to be your aunt! And might I add that I am quite young by elf standards.”, she replied.
Princess Lorna snorted!
But perhaps because she was a girl of natural grace and ‘polite’ palace training, she had never had the opportunity to ‘snort’ enough to know how it was supposed to be done. Hence, what came out a bit like a.. well.. it came out like something, just not how a snort should be..
..out of her cute, elegant nose.
Udoorin, on the other hand, coughed.
“I wouldn’t have called, one hundred and sixty years difference, ‘mild at best’.. Wouldn’t ‘mild at best’ be like three or five years? Ten at most?”, he thought. Then he shrugged. Obviously, the numbers were different where elves were concerned and because his Lady Lorna might also be involved in said elf numbers, he decided not to even bring it up.
For men, age was just a number that marked the time passed between one’s birth and the current date —in terms of linear years. For women, maybe it meant other things.. Something along the lines of; ‘the time left until one died’, perhaps?
Udoorin shut the door to that particular thought and decided to never bring it up!
Young as he may be, Udoorin was wise like that.
“I.. don’t know the proper.. uhhmm.. protocol?.. To be perfectly honest.. Since you are somewhat elder to Lady Lorna, it seemed like, dunno, the polite way to refer to you was to call you ‘Auntie’..”, he mumbled.
“That’s what you figured, huh? To call a young elf girl, Auntie? And thought that was the polite thing to do, did you?”, asked Anglenna staring at him with one arched eyebrow.
“Can we.. sort of do this some other time, perhaps? Or you could just tell me what you would like me to call you? Please?”, Udoorin asked plainly.
“‘Anglenna’ will do. It is my name, after all, hence, I am bound to recognize it..”, said the elf girl, her tone amused.
“Impossible!”, said Udoorin, shaking his head.
The princess inadvertently smiled but hid it behind one of her slender and elegant hands.
“What? Why?”, Anglenna asked, a bit perplexed.
“Bad manners to call people who are older than me by their first name.”, the young, burly man said stiffly. “And also just rude!”
Lady Anglenna just stared at him.
“Young man, you are killing me!”, she said with despair.
“I certainly am not!”, Udoorin said indignantly.
“Did you ‘Auntie’ Lorna, here, too? When you first met? She is older than you as well, after all!”, Anglenna said, having a go at logic.
“I certainly did not!”, the young man said, even more hotly. “It is extremely rude to ask a girl or a lady, her age.. Which is why I never asked!”
“You mean to tell me, you did not even know the age of the girl you had decided to spend your life with?”, Anglenna stared at the young man astounded!
“It is a girl’s prerogative to reveal her age, along with any other things she feels she honestly has to mention. It is not nice to spring surprises on a man who loves you with unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary things, after all. I told Lady Lorna all my bad habits on the get-go and she told me all hers, along with her age before we decided to engage. Didn’t care then, don’t care now. Her beauty, her grace, her elegance, and her wisdom make what she thinks she lacks, very much irrelevant..”, mumbled Udoorin with a scowling face that said, he would argue this to the end of days!
“You have no idea how to talk to girls.. or women, do you?”, Anglenna asked, totally astonished now, but not unkindly, which was a bit, unlike her old self.
“I haven’t had many opportunities.”, admitted the young man. “Only had Laila and Bremorel as friends when it came to girls, but they were more like sisters. I mean, they never looked at me that way, and I knew Laila was interested in someone else and for Bree, it was always Thomas, though she never went and said it out loud.. Not that it mattered, since I just never saw them that way, either. After my mother died, it was just my father and myself, all of which is beside to point at this very moment, isn’t it?”
“I am at dire straights with you, young man. Call me Lady Anglenna, if that will make you feel any better. But should you want to make me happy, drop the ‘Lady’, and certainly the ‘ma’am’, and just call me by my name.. Bari Na-ammen is gone and I am a Lady no more. And every time you ‘Lady’ me, you remind me of my blood-relation to my mother. Something I would very much not be afflicted more than I already am.”
“Fair enough, ma’am.. uhhmm.. Auntie.. uhh.. Lady.. Anglenna..”, replied Udoorin a bit flustered. “Though I have never believed being a lady is in any way related to the existence of a certain place, as important to you and my Lady Lorna as it may be.. Now, if we could have some light, perhaps?”
Anglenna signed again. The boy was incredibly.. she refrained from saying, ‘dense’, possibly for her cousin’s sake.
She didn’t feel any animosity for him or anything. Quite the contrary, and contrary to her mother’s indoctrinated upbringing.. And he had made her cousin genuinely happy, and safe, and.. content.. and she seemed much more relaxed as opposed to her usual serious aura. But he did need to get over some of his habits if he was going to be a king someday. And the boy was just too.. plainly honest? A something she was sure her cousin, the princess, had found adorable, sure, but that kind of honesty just wouldn’t survive palace politics and she didn’t want him to suffer a ‘rude awakening’. It seemed, not only did she have to look out for the well-being of her future Rise, but she also had to train her future Ri/King from the ground up!
But, she thought, that could all wait for a little while longer.
Hence, with a small wave of her hand, the dark, stinking sewers lit, as a glowing orb of golden light appeared in long, slender fingers.
Udoorin squinted at the bright light and mumbled.
“I feel like a blind dwarf that’s just come out of his hole.”
“We don’t have to repeat I said that to Lady Magella, do we?”, he asked carefully. Then bent down and carefully inspected the bloated Orken.
“Hmmm..”, he mused. “Doesn’t seem to be one of our kills. No hack or cleave wounds, nor any burn marks. Only a little gash at the base of its skull, just where the spine ends —probably paralyzed it instantly. Then there is the puncture mark in its kidney. Only one person I know of would have done this kind of precision strikes and he is not here..”
“Who?”, asked Lorna, coming near the dead creature and looking at the wounds.
“Aager Fogstep.”, Udoorin said.
“Master Darly Dor? Perhaps?”, she offered. “Or maybe even Lady Lilly? They both are still here, in the city, after all. And they both have the skills for this kind of precision.”
“Possible, I suppose. Though Darly tends to be a bit too flamboyant and showy for this kind of delicacy. His would be a full thrust, through the ribs and into the heart, and all the way to the hilt, like he had something to prove.”
He paused again, though this time as if to gather his recollections.
“As for Lady Lilly, I do not know. I haven’t seen her in action enough to make any educated guesses, though I suspect her’s would be less like Dary’s and more like her brother’s, which stands to reason. They were both born and raised in Drashan and under constant threat of death. One tends to abandon theatrics when they know it will get them killed!”, he replied clinically.
“So, what does it all mean?”, asked Anglenna.
“It means, one; we are not alone down here, two; some of the Orken have managed to find alternative ways to enter the sewers, and three; someone down here is making sure the sewers stay off-limits of the Orken army above!”, he said as he slowly rose and took out his other great axe.
He paused for a third time, then added.
“Isn’t that true?”
There was a choked silence and for a moment, only the slow, sluggish sound of the draining sewer and the dripping of water was heard.
“Surprisingly astute.. for a country oaf..”, came a muffled, gravelly voice from the darkness.
“Awesome timing, I’d say..”, said the young, burly man grinning. “Made me look good!”
Princess Lorna also rose, turned in the opposite direction, and with a swift, beckoning gesture, summoned a pitch-black ‘darkness’ before her, and out of the darkness, she drew a nearly three-yard glaive with thirty-inch sharp steel.
Anglenna took a few, short steps back, giving herself and the two, some room to maneuver as she tossed the glowing globe of light into the air and started to draw energy. In a matter of seconds, she was almost glowing with an eerie, red, smoldering, and wroth fire.
“Well. Now that the ‘theatrics’ is out of the way.. “, rumbled Udoorin with a gruffness that would have made his father proud. “..show yourself if your intentions are honorable!”
“Odd choice of words, young Master.”, replied the muffled, gravelly voice. “Shall we hide, if our intentions are not honorable? How does that work, exactly? What happens if we are men of questionable honor?”
“I am not here to pass judgment on your honor. That isn’t really my problem. It is yours.. I am here on a specific mission. If you—”, he said.
“There are seven of them.”, whispered Lorna. “The one that’s speaking, two behind him, two to the far left and three to our far right, blocking our way.”
“—and yours have business elsewhere, by all means, we wouldn’t want to keep you waiting.”, continued the young man seamlessly. “It’s either that, or I swing my axes, the lady standing behind me cleaves with her glaive, and seeing as we have plenty of room, she will do so quite freely. And let me tell you, gentlemen, I just hack things and am not very particular as to where I really hit. Should she have a go at you though, you will lose everything you have between your legs, all the way up to your eyebrows. If that won’t be to your satisfaction, the other lady can incinerate what’s left of you down to pretty, sparkling cinders.”
“Your bargaining technics need some refining, but it does seem to save time.” replied the muffled voice. “We are not here for you, or yours. We were hired, as a guild, for a job far to the east of here, quite some months ago. We were, however, betrayed. The Whispers have a reputation to uphold. Hence we have come to this dead city, seeking for the one who betrayed us and caused the death of many of our brethren. He was last sighted near the great Orken pavilion propped at the north end of The Rundown. We have been using these sewers to get a closer glimpse at him. Close enough for a dagger or seven!”
Udoorin’s thick brows shot up.
“The Whispers?“, he asked tentatively.
“Our guild..”, said the gravelly voice as if that explained everything.
Udoorin tried from another angle.
“This.. job.. you mentioned.. The one you were hired for.. Was it perhaps in a town called Serenity Home?”
It seemed like the dark, stinking tunnel ‘stiffened’ for a moment.
“And you would know of this, how?”, asked the muffled voice, though it sounded like it had been asked through clenched teeth.
“Quite by chance, really.”, lied the young man glibly, possibly making Aager proud as well, had he been here. “Met a charming young man in an inn who claimed he was from that town. He’d gone too deep into his drink and didn’t know how to shut up! But if what he was telling me was actually true, didn’t that job end with nearly burning half the town and occur like, six months ago? You guys seem a tad lax on your pursuit and quite unprofessional at what you do. Burning half the town? Really, now.. Seems a tad accessive, don’t you think?”
“The burning of the town was not part of the job. We were misinformed about.. quite a number of things.. As for time, it is irrelevant and only gives the prey the false impression of ‘having gotten away’.. But since you seem so.. informed.. perhaps you may also know about the one we seek.”
“I doubt.”, replied Udoorin as he clenched his axes a bit more tightly. “Seeing as I am not really the ‘clandestine’ type. I mean, just look at me.. I have ‘country oaf’, written all over me!”
The man hidden in the dark was silent for another moment and this time, he seemed to juggle his options. For whatever the reasons were, however, he opted to take a risk and spoke, giving young Udoorin the impression that maybe the ‘muffled’ man in the dark was desperate for information.
“He is a man of slightly above average height, lean built, wears a heavy, deep brown robe, and always has his hood up.”
“That’s not much of a description, is it? Slightly above average is pretty much everyone who is not average. Brown robes are quite common, and I am not a historian for fashion, mind you, but I am guessing hoods have been around since Year One! The fact that his hood’s always up, makes him impossible to identify and makes him easier to blend as nobody will know who he is when the hood and robes are off, yes?”, he rumbled, not relaxing his hold on his axes.
“You three are not an ordinary lot, are you?”, the man’s muffled voice came.
“I doubt anyone ordinary is left in this city.”, Udoorin replied with an easy grin.
“Saw a pickney just yesterday. Wouldn’t have placed him more than six, down in these sewers..”
“Bet he was extraordinary, having survived what’s outside for all this time.”, said Udoorin carefully.
“Gave him some food and sent him off..”
“Guess that makes you extraordinary too..”, the young man said blandly.
“Is this verbal duel going to take any longer?”, fumed Lady Anglenna. “We do have a job to do ourselves, after all.”
“That we do, lady.”, agreed, Udoorin without taking his attention from the muffled voice. “This.. large pavilion.. you mentioned. I have seen it. Surrounded by, I suspect, at least two, maybe three thousand of the Orken. What is it? Do you know?”
“Yes. It’s the tent of no other than the Orken Mother, herself, which makes her the very top dog, or bitch, among the Orken, along with her head Orken Blood-Shaman. The infamous rebellion, the seeker of justice, and the backer of the poor, Gar Thalot is there too, though he isn’t seeking any justice, nor backing the poor, now. Guess he’s done with his rebellion.. The lady here can’t nuke that tent from far enough, can she? Would save the kingdom a lot of trouble, and avenge about a million or so people along the way, I think.”
“The nuking is not the problem.”, smiled Anglenna, giving the muffled voice a thousand-yard-stare. “The Orken, however, have rather thick hides. And I do not believe that tent to be unwarded.”
“You are a perceptive lady.”, the muffled, gravelly voice said, returning the smile. “The Blood-Shaman knows his works, I’ll give him that.”
“I did see..”, inserted Udoorin. “..a tall, skinny woman, skulking near the pavilion, though. Had white braids for hair. She was accompanying someone. It was dark and the torchlights of the Orken play games and cast false shadows, but it is possible the man you are looking for was the same man the tall woman was escorting. I couldn’t hazard a guess about the color of his robe, but he did wear a hood. A tall, deep hood. I mean, who wears his hood up at night? It’s not raining, nor snowing outside.. not at that moment, anyway. Perhaps his ears were cold. Or he had a face to hide..”
The seven men seemed to prick their ears like some old Basset Hounds at the mention of the tall, deep hood, as that was a detail they hadn’t revealed.
“I see.. Perhaps you have some ill feelings for the tall, skinny woman with the white braids and wish to use us against her?”, growled the muffled voice.
But his reply burned..
“I have ill feelings for many who sided with the Orken and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians, brought devastation to a peaceful city, desecrated their lands, and mutilated what remained.. The Orken, I can understand, to a point. They want the land. Just the land, mind you.. Any elf, human, dwarf, or gnome who made it possible for them to attain their bloody slaughter, however, shall never suffer a moment’s peace.”
“Now I see.. better..”, said the muffled, gravelly voice and fell in silent contemplation. Then as if waking from a long, droning sleep, he spoke again and there was some, barely discernable heat in his voice as well. “Men such as we are beyond peace. But perhaps we may be of some use to you after all.. We have thus cleared most of the sewers as far as we have come. I suspect you have done the same from your end.”
A careful, metallic tingling echoed in the sewer tunnels and something glittered next to Udoorin’s feet.
“Take this, young Master. It is a token of our.. appreciation, per se.. I gather both of our time is short, but perhaps we can make better acquaintances at a lengthier time and atone for our end of the sins..”
That said, Udoorin heard a swift shuffling of silent feet and..
“They are gone..”, said Princess Lorna quietly.
“You.. handled that exceptionally well, young Udoorin.”, complimented Anglenna as she stared at the big, burly man with a slightly puzzled expression.
“I did?”, asked Udoorin, with a similarly puzzled face. Then his face lightened. “Yes. I suppose I did.. “
Then he bent down and carefully picked up the curiously glittering object thrown at his feet.
It was a round, coin-like object, though almost palm-sized and quite heavier as if molded by lead. It certainly looked like lead. And its edges were chiseled and while one side of the coin was flat and bare, the other side had a strange, almost symmetrical, rune-like shape on it. Udoorin had never seen a rune like this before, though that didn’t mean much. The young man had never been the scholarly type to begin with. But he got the impression that it wasn’t dwarfish, and certainly not elvish.
“Anyone seen one of these before?”, he asked.
Princess Lorna stared at it for a long time. Then, with her browns slightly frowned, she said, “I may have.. though years ago..”
“I did as well.. Any number of times.. Mother had one of these..”, said Anglenna quietly.
“She did?”, asked both Udoorin and the princess.
“Yes. Carried it with her at all times. I am surprised you saw it too. She was careful never to reveal it to anyone, let alone share a ‘look-at’ with you, of all people, cousin..”, she replied.
“But I didn’t see it from your mother, and neither did she show hers to me.”, said Lorna, frowning even more. “Auntie Angrellen was never.. very sharing with me.. I don’t suppose that has changed over the years.”
“No, dear. It hasn’t.”, replied Anglenna mutely. “Where did you see yours?”
“Inside a jewelry box.. My mother’s jewelry box!”
Udoorin stared at the princess with astonishment.
So did Anglenna.
“Huh!”, she said. “Seems Auntie Nadina Graciousward had her own share of secrets as well.. What would she be doing with one of these tokens, I wonder?”
“I don’t know, cousin. Nothing is as it seems anymore. Too many secrets. Dark ones too.”, Lorna replied.
“I am sure your mother had a good reason to have one of these. Hey, look, we got one as well, and we have a good reason too, though I have no idea as to what it may be..”, said Udoorin brightly. “Much like we do not know why Lady Nadina had hers, we also don’t know what these tokens are, really. For all we know, it could be a membership to some secret cheese tasting club!”
“Secret cheese tasting club?”, asked Anglenna, staring totally confused at the young, burly man.
“You have no idea about the kind of weird things one can overhear while undercover in various inns and taverns! I have a whole months’ worth of city gossip!”, replied Udoorin cheerily.
“That’s very kind of you to say, Dorin. But if you recall, when the Orken came and we were all running out of Bari Na-ammen, my mother took us through many secret passages. Passages I was never even aware of. How did she know them?”, said Lorna, her eyes filled with doubt and.. tears.
Udoorin looked down at the woman of his life.. and felt despair.. He then looked up at Anglenna, beseeching for her help.
Anglenna came up to her cousin, held her by her slender, narrow shoulders, and turned her around to look directly into her eyes.
“Princess Alor’Nadien ne. You will cease this line of thought, and you will do it now. I suspected the existence of possible secret passages leading in and out of the palace, but I was never told where they were, nor did I find any myself. It is quite possible, only the Ri and the Rise were to know of their existence and their whereabouts. Doesn’t make much sense if just anyone knows about them, does it? Yes, you are a princess, a Riserin, but from a strictly official point of view, that title does not hold any ruling power and is only a name in protocol. Much like many government intelligence and military secrets, only the Ri and the Rise would be made aware of said secrets or may have had access to them. Do not second guess things you do not know. You are the Rise now, as unofficial as that may be. You do not have the luxury to be so chivalrous with the lives and the deeds of others, nor to mope about it. Now gather yourself. I am sure we will have plenty of time to ask Auntie Nadina, just like I am sure she will have a good explanation for having one of these tokens. Then again, she might not. Either way, it might not even be our business to know. People have the right to their own privacy, and to be professionally honest about it, I doubt your mother had anything up her sleeves.”
“But.. how do you know?”, Lorna asked in despair.
“I understand, the events of this past year, particularly those that led to your leaving the palace and your home, and the horrible things you have seen thus far, and the destruction of Arashkan, then your home and your people at such a young age, and with your.. soft.. upbringing, has made you weary and worn out. Hence now you feel hard-pressed in trusting even those around you. I wouldn’t either.. But trust me when I say, had your mother truly did have some sinister plots of her own brewing behind the scenes, my mother would have found out about it and delightfully used it to besmirch her. She spent a considerable amount of her fortune, and her last thirty years seeking damning information about her. And when that failed, about you!”
“She did?”, asked Lorna even more downed.
“Yes, she did.”, said Anglenna. “Seeing as how I helped her get it!”
“I.. knew..”, Lorna whispered quietly. “All along.”
“Yet you chose to put your trust in me. And at first, I thought you were just as foolish as my mother perpetually said you were. But as time went by and you grew, I thought your trust in me would diminish. But it didn’t. Your trust grew with you. You opened up to me. You told me things that you shouldn’t have. And like the fool that I was, I passed all those secrets you divulged upon me in confidence, on to my mother, leading to the events that caused you to abandon your home and your rightful throne, just to avoid a conflict with your father, Ri Grandaleren. I.. am sorry, Lorna.. There is nothing I can possibly say to encapsulate just how sorry I really am for the things I did to you.”, Anglenna said, her beautiful face burning with shame. “And the bitter irony of it all is; I wanted to say all these to you, but in a better setting. Yet here we are, under a burning city, and in some stinking sewers.. Speaks quite loudly just exactly where I belong. But then, here you are as well, trying to fix what my mother did and still trusting me.. Know, though, I shall stay with you and your man for the rest of my life. I shall also be with your line, advising them and protecting them. My only consolidation is, one day, you truly will forgive me for all my transgressions against you, because at the end of the day, it wasn’t my mother who destroyed you, it was me.”
Lorna looked up at her very tall, regal cousin..
..and simply hugged her.
“It is so much easier to hate, my dear Lenna. I chose not to. Because you were always smart. And you would always play with me even though no one else would because I was a ‘half-breed’. And you always ate the horrible things I cooked. You were ‘blood’ and you were always my elder sister. And.. when you were with me, I noticed your grim face wasn’t grim. You laughed when we were together. I never saw you laugh any other time. The short few weeks we spent together on our way to High Spires and back, years ago, was one of my merrier days. I am happy you are with us, sister cousin, even though I can see you are sad, and how things turned out between you and your mother. I.. truly wished we could have made peace with her. But I am afraid she has her own agenda, and that agenda does not involve me, nor my people. As for you, my sister cousin, only two people in this world I would wish to always be with me, and both already are.”
“Do not fret about my mother, princess. I don’t. Not since I understood the extent of her ‘agenda’, which didn’t include me either. I was merely a backup plan for her. Nothing more. Part of her, ‘grand plan’, per se. And that plan was set before either of us even came to be. Like, by seven or eight hundred years.. It will take years, decades, possibly, for me to get over my mother and what she did to me. And likely centuries before I am not called to task any more because of her machinations and her betrayal.”, said Anglenna and hugged her cousin even tighter.
Udoorin coughed a bit uncomfortably.
“Uhhmm.. Ladies? Perhaps we should move on? We still have a bit of stinking ground to cover. And I don’t even know what we’ll do when we get there, or how we will get out of this city, once the deed is done. We have already used one of the two days that ARIS guy, Largo, gave us before they abandoned High Spires and the city.”
“Let’s get a move on indeed, then, young Udoorin.”, smiled Anglenna, and she seemed very much..
Such as she had never felt before.
That the once High Lady of Bari Na-ammen, Anglenna, had made her choice and faced her princess with her past sins. Also true that the details of said sins were not covered as yet, but where there had been uncertainty, there was now a steady, beating surety. And where there had been ominous doubt, there was now feather-light and elating trust.
She no longer saw only a dark, smothering future for herself.
She saw a dark future that failed to smother and was worth fighting for..
For she saw the bright existence of her Rise Alor’Nadien ne there.
And she would be sure to guard her and hers, no matter the cost.
✱ ✱ ✱
Still here, my darling?”, came the insinuating voice of the former High Lady Angrellen. “Makes one wonder, just what are you doing here, my little dove?”
“What do you want, mother? I would have thought our last conversation had covered pretty much everything I wanted to say to you.”, she finally replied after a fuming moment.
“Want? Nothing, my sweet baby girl. I am merely inquiring about your health, that’s all. This place is, under siege, after all. Well, it was, under siege. But the details of its current condition are a tad moot, don’t you think?”
“You really want to push this as far as it will go, don’t you, mother?”, grinded Anglenna.
“Why, whatever do you mean, daughter?”
“My darling? My little dove? My sweet baby girl? You have never called me any of those in the past one hundred and seventy-eight years, mother. Never once! And suddenly I am your darling? Your little dove? Your sweet baby girl? Your choice of pet names for me are not just believable, they are also grossly fake, crook, and fictitious, and just gross. The only thing you have been sincere thus far is how you truly perceive the world around you; moot!”, she said and did something she never wished to have done, ever since what she had seen in the dream of what had really happened in the Arena and had, conclusively, chosen her side, and chosen to change..
..at her mother.
“I am sorry you had to endure some minor hardships, my dear. You must understand, however, everything I did, I did for you..”, said Angrellen’s voice, a bit desperately.
“Minor? You call what you did to me, to Bar Na-ammen and to Arashkan, minor? You, mother, are walking over the corpses of people who were alive merely two weeks ago, and you call that minor? Mother, I am tempted to call you mad, but what truly is moot is me calling you that.. And no, mother, nothing you did was for me. Everything you did, you did for yourself. I was merely a part of your great scheme. A tool, an accessory, and no more. And you know what? No more, indeed. This day forth, you are my mother no more. You are a traitor and no more. You are the greatest unholy calamity this world has seen and no more. You, mother, are a butcher and no more.. This, you will understand in time, during your endless millennia of lonely and miserable immortality!”
“Darling. The road to greatness is always paved with ‘minor’ people. You must understand this. And given enough time, you will —when you have reached the end of your one thousand five hundred years of life.”, Angrellen said with a relaxed tone.
“And what will you accomplish in your immortality, now, mother? What will you do with it that you haven’t been able to do in your last one thousand five hundred years?”, her daughter asked acidly.
“Ow, I’ll think of something. I am totally free now. I can do anything, and whatever I want.”, Angrellen replied merrily.
“You will always be you, mother. And ‘Betrayer’ will follow you wherever you go.”, Anglenna said cooly.
“No, my daughter darling. Come next millennia or two, no one will remember Angrellen as a betrayer, for any and everyone who thinks so, shall long be dead!”, laughed her mother.
“No, mother. That particular aspect of you is there to stay and no amount of centuries or millennia will wash that off you.” Anglenna said quietly.
“Ow?”, her mother asked.
“Yes, mother. Because everyone and everything around you may change, but you are you, and that is also there to stay.”, Anglenna said and felt sad for the truth her words held.
“People do change, daughter mine.”, Angrellen said somewhat diffidently.
“You had a millennium and a half for that. Tell me, mother, how did that go for you?”, Anglenna asked with bitter shame.
There was a moment of silence and she felt, for the barest of moments, the tiniest flutter of regret in her mother.
“I wasn’t always like this, you know.. I was young too, once, and happy. I was the Riserin of my people. I was going to be their Rise. Then my father, the great and wise Lienierre Moonlight, saw fit to take that away from me. And gave it to my idiot and incompetent brother. What did my brother possess that I didn’t? Look what he did to our Bari Na-ammen? None of this would have happened had I been the Rise..”, she replied bitterly.
Anglenna didn’t wait to slap in her reply for she had no wish to reminisce with her mother..
“Grandaleren held nothing above you, mother. Whether he was an incompetent fool or not was irrelevant for he was never going to be the Ri, either. Selendenien Sindarin, your sister, the youngest of the three.. She was going to be the Rise, had she not been slain in the Themalsar War, leaving my grandfather to make a choice between a mad, psychotic, power-hungry daughter, and an incompetent fool of a son.
But you, mother, you wouldn’t have accepted her either, even though we both know, you would never have made a ruler as beloved and great as her. Just like you would never have bowed to Selendenien’s rule, you never had any inclinations to submit to Alor’Nadien ne, who is so much like her youngest aunt..
You used her ‘half-breed’ status as an excuse and milked it for all you were worth.. The outcome of your leadership would have been the same no matter how things turned out, for you would have ruled with a nefarious and bloody iron fist, and you would have used fear, terror, and carnage to your cause. In this aspect, you are the linear opposite of both your sister and your niece, which is why High Woods chose your sister, and after a thousand years, She chose your niece as its heart and never you, which is also why you let the Orken burn our forest. You couldn’t even bear the ‘soul-sight’ of an as sacred a being as High Woods.
You, mother, let those unholy beasts destroy the very being that defined who we were, out of spite!
Had you been in reign, you would have attacked Arashkan and consequently, and conclusively, brought the destruction of Bari Na-ammen, no matter what, because all the other cities; Vodgar, Durkahan, Koruxan, Palantine, Endless Watch, and even armies from as far as Malis, Kronor, and Devien would have banded against us, causing Solace and Tranquil elves to start a war against them in return, bringing the fatal destruction of Demon Wall and Heavens Hand at the hands of the hording demons they are guarding against, all of which would have started the end of our world and we both know this to be true..
You, mother, made pacts with the demons for the sake of your pathetic immortality!
You, mother, are a blight, and right there is the problem, sitting in plain sight and you never saw it, which is why my grandfather denied you your right to rule and the reason why High Woods never chose you as Her heart; neither High Woods, nor Her people are yours, mother. They are not your property or your possession nor are they your servants. Their existence is not for the benefit of your sufferance. They never were. Yet, you saw them as such even when you were a ‘happy’ little Riserin. You thought they were there for you to do as you pleased and that their lives belonged to you like they owed you their very existence.
Well, guess what, mother. They aren’t, and they don’t. Barely fifteen and Alor’Nadien ne saw this, knew this. And when she grew up to the mature, solemn woman that she is, she abandoned her title and her heritage for her people, hence there would never be a rift between them, should she dish out with her father. She knew, should she become the Rise of a divided people, she would be so for a mere century or two and believed her people deserved a better, longer, steadier, and a united reign.
But you, mother, you destroyed them all. You let our sacred forest be burned to the ground. You let our holiest place, our Bari Na-ammen be leveled to the ground because you thought you had such a right.
You, mother, were despicable then, you are despicable now. You did not change. Your follies, your arrogance, your murderous appetites, and your betrayals are indeed, there to stay, and no amount of millennia are going to wash those off you.
You, mother, killed your husband —my father, because you thought he had done his job and provided you with a toy you could mold as you pleased, then discarded him, selling his soul to the highest bidder!
You, mother, brainwashed me for one hundred and seventy years and made me help you as you destroyed our homes and our lands.
You, mother, have people no longer.. You have no home, you have no lands, you have no family, you have no children and no love.
You, mother, are all alone and will stay alone.
You, mother, are damned and will stay damned.
Back then, at least you were a High Lady, respected and honored, if not loved. Now you have neither, and will have neither. And by the Heavens, I shall make sure you are remembered as the mad, traitorous bitch that you are, always, even if I have write it down on every single bit of parchment, scratch it on every available stone, rock or pebble, or mark it on every tree from Rollins Woods to Tranquil Woods, just like I shall make sure the centuries and the millennia to come also remember you for what you are —and elves, as you very well know, mother, are excellent haters..
The only thing I wish for your is to live one thousand desolate years for every single life you caused to perish!”
Anglenna pulled just this side of total and hysterical raving.
But it sure felt good!
To have laid it all out, and without any reservation, nor having to tiptoe around her deranged mother anymore. True, it hurt her, and deeply. So much so that she felt her heart burn. But nothing she had said had missed their mark.
She knew, even as she’d spoken, that her mother, Angrellen, was now her mortal enemy, and one day, and in the not-too-distant-future, she knew she would have to face her..
..if she expected any form of peace for her cousin, Rise Alor’Nadien ne, her burly, young husband-to-be, Udoorin, and their possible line, if not for herself.
And just like that, she heard her voice.
Not her mother’s.
But that of someone else..
Someone.. big —at an existential level.
thus I accept your oath
you are the protector of mine heart
and thus are you
the guardian of her line also
Thus I accept your Oath,
You are The Protector of mine Heart.
And thus are you
The Guardian of Her line, also.
Anglenna Brightleaf heard the voice of Quarlani Ath Tel’Ora, the Spirit of High Woods, accepting her pledge as the protector and the guardian of Her Heart, Alor’Nadien ne, and her line to come..
And then, a vision She showed her..
Not of the past.
Not of the present.
But that of a fertile and pregnant future..
A vision, where Anglenna saw the image of her blushing cousin, looking demurely at her big, grumpy husband, who rampaged with mock wrath after a tiny, giggling boy and three squealing little girls pitter-pattering in the great halls of a new and bright Bari Na-ammen.
And that vision rocked Anglenna to the very foundations of her existence. Because right behind the princess, she saw herself, quite vividly, smiling at the sight of her cousin, blessed and content, her bearish husband, older now, grinning foolishly, with autumn leaves; green, orange, and yellow sweeping freely around them she saw their son, and three daughters —her nieces, as they stared at her, all happy, and all safe..
It is the lost hours of the night and three figures slink silently among the devastated remains of the once glorious city of Arashkan, deep in the dirty-gray snow.
Young Udoorin Shieldheart, the beautiful Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, and her regal cousin, High Lady Anglenna Sunsear ghost through the dead streets of the city, heading in a particular location; the old hideout of the Thieves Guild in search of a curse..
There are Orken warriors, scouts, hunters, and raiders everywhere, roaming the streets in platoons, seeking possible survivors. It is possible, there are more dangerous places in the world. From a ‘versus’ point of view, however, it is unlikely this place, at this moment, will fall short of the Citadel of Gullem the Damned!
Fate, it would seem, indeed has its own plans..
And an odd, dry sense of humor.
One might even call it ‘backhanded’..
For at this very moment, two Sunsear’s roam the carnage of this dead city; Mother and daughter, each working for quite opposite ends.
This story takes place on the evening of
The Malediction of ‘Rellen.. (Part 3/3)
“Three Dog Curse..”
and shortly after
We Are Not Your Dogs
We Are Not Your Servants
We Are Your Masters!
Here..”, said the large man as quietly as he could, though it mattered little. His ‘quiet’ was like a rumble at best, as he handed a not-so-clean, heavy fur cloak to the slim girl ghosting behind him. “..put this on, if you will, please.”
The slim girl, Princess Alor’Nadien ne stared at the filthy fur cloak questioningly.
“To cover your scent.”, Udoorin Shieldheart rumbled again.
Lorna Feymist arched her eyebrows in amusement.
“Do I smell, Sir Udoorin?”, she asked, the signs of mirth playing around her small, cherry-red mouth.
“I..”, stumbled the young man.
“I sense a nostalgic ‘Deja Vu, here.”, she smiled at him.
“You smell beautiful, my lady..”, he said with a flushed face, recalling his first, not conversation, per se, but interaction with the pretty princess, many months ago, in the depths of the ruins of Themalsar. “..which is the problem.”
“Do dig your own grave, young Udoorin.”, smirked High Lady Anglenna from somewhere in the darkness. “I have heard tell of how you destroyed our princess here, with a similar remark.”
“Please, Auntie H. I haven’t gotten over that particular blunder, yet. Princess Lorna smells wonderful. And anyone who gainsays that will do so only once. But the Orken have a keen sense of smell, unlike the dogs they are. Should they pick up her scent, there will be no getting rid of them.”, he tried to explain.
“Ahhh..”, said Anglenna with comprehension. “Though, for future reference, you should work on giving your reasons early on, preferably before telling us what to do —to fend off misunderstandings, yes?”
“Duly noted.”, Udoorin replied honestly. “Look. I am not good at.. interacting with ladies. I can’t claim any knowledge, nor experience in that area. A bit of understanding my way would be greatly appreciated.”
“Not good at interacting with ladies? I couldn’t disagree with a single sentiment more. You have garnered the affection, and the life-long bond of the heart of High Woods, young man. Suffice to say, ‘Not good with ladies’, is quite the understatement.”, she said with her own, stinging amusement.
So did the princess.
“So, where is my fur cloak, then? Or do I not smell wonderful, too?”, continued the high lady, causing the young man to squirm.
“I.. wouldn’t know, ma’am. You.. will have to find someone else to confirm that!”, Udoorin said with a cough.
“Cousin.”, said Lorna reprovingly, but with a small, quiet laugh. “Why don’t you take mine. I am sure we can find another from a dead Orken, as uncouth as that sounds.”
“No, no.. Young Udoorin here has selected that one specifically for you. We wouldn’t want to find any personal notes in it somewhere. That would really make us all blush, now, wouldn’t it?”, Anglenna teased in a tone, not at all like her usual self.
“I would not put any such notes that would embarrass Lady Lorna’s nor her reputation”, Udoorin said indignantly.
“Ow?”, asked Lorna a bit.. disappointed?
“I would tell it to her.”, mumbled the young man with a horribly failed straight face.
“Ow..”, Lorna said, with a failed straight face of her own.
Anglenna sighed in despair, turned around..
..and a sleety, frigid ray of frost stabbed out of her forefinger and something grunted in the dark. The high lady did not wait for a reaction. She sent a second beam..
..followed by a third, and a fourth!
And a large Orken stumbled out of the night and fell, face down, into the dirty-gray, slushy snow, with a burning-cold hole pierced right through its heart, its stomach, its forehead, and in one of its lungs..
Lorna dashed past her cousin and in black, swirling smoke, a glaive, nearly three yards long and ending in a thirty-inch blade with burning greenish chemical fire appeared in her hands, just as Udoorin rammed into another Orken and hacked it with his two, great battle-axes with unsuppressed fury.
“It would seem, the idea of covering our scents was a good one..”, said Anglenna as she sent a fist-sized bolt of fire flying right over Lorna’s shoulder and struck the Orken trying to come at the princess from her side. “..albeit a tad too late. The dogs are upon us.”
“Sir Udoorin..”, hissed Lorna as she swung her brutal glaive and struck the great Orken facing her, splitting it from groin to hairline, spun around as she ducked under the swing of the Orken that was trying to flank her, and jabbed it, belly first, then pushed the butt end of deadly glaive’s enchanted blade up and through its throat as it stumbled back. “..we had better finish this batch with haste. We lack the time to entertain ourselves with such frivolities.”
“Agreed.”, growled the huge young man, struck one Orken on its shoulder with one of his axes, opening a horrible, diagonal gash, as he head-butted the next, and brought down his other axe when it dropped on the ground. The creature had a bare moment to scream before it fell silent.
By the time they were done, Udoorin was holding Lorna’s hand and rushing down a long, dark alley, followed closely by Anglenna.
“I think we lost them.”, said Udoorin as he breathed harshly. It didn’t matter how strong you were. If you were not born in the wild Northern Tundras, running in full armor and through icy snow wore you down. Then he looked down at the slim girl, who was nursing her hand and wrist. “I am sorry if I was a bit abrupt with your person, Lady Lorna. We just had to get out of there and fast, before more of them arrived.”
“It is alright Dorin. It only hurt a little and only because I was taken by surprise when you grabbed my hand and started running.
“..and nearly dislocated her shoulder.”, added Anglenna with a clearly disapproving tone. “You are aware that the princess can run faster than you, right? Considering she is wearing lighter armor than you are, and because she is a feymist..”
“Uhhmm.. Yes.. She’s better than me in everything she does.. But I like to hold her hand when we run. We can’t get separated that way and it makes me feel she is safer that way. It’s a guy thing!”, said Udoorin a bit flustered.
“A guy thing? Young man, you can’t do your guy things around a princess. And you really should be a bit more gentle with her. The fact that you and she are now bonded and plan a life together, should not diminish that capacity in you, but enhance it, hmm?”
“It really is alright, cousin.”, Lorna tried to object.
“No, dear. It is not. Our young man here is strong. Neither of us has any doubts about that. But uncontrolled strength is harmful.. to your wrists if not to your dignity. One day this war will end, hopefully in our favor. We will then return to High Woods, replant our trees, and rebuild Bari Na-ammen. And young Udoorin here will be sitting next to you in his own throne as Ri.. or King.. I would hazard a guess, it would be rather disgraceful of him, if not awkward, should he manhandle you in public the way he just did, don’t you think?”
“The war is long from over, Anglenna.”, Lorna said quietly. “And we can think of such tender details when their appointed time arrives.”
“No, dear.”, repeated Anglenna and not unlike a harsh matron, who was dismantling a particularly pigheaded and foolish child. Or perhaps, quite like her own mother had done to her, when she, herself, had been particularly dimwitted. “Somethings must be put to practice as early as possible, hence they take hold and such embarrassing accidents are avoided because they never occur. You know what my mother thinks of humans, dear. You certainly know what your father felt about them despite his wife —your mother, and we both know their view was not all that uncommon among the elves of High Woods. Do not give your people any excuse to let your future husband and king besmirch himself, and you, by proxy.”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Auntie H. is right.”, came Udoorin’s voice from the darkness. “Personally, I do not care what anybody but you would think of me, one way or the other. But since you have your mind all set on making me a Ri.. or a king.. certain protocols must be observed, for your benefit, if nothing else. Like I said. I do not care what anybody thinks of me, other than you, but I will not have you accused of having a stupid Mox for husband, either.”
Anglenna stared at the large young man who favored big, brutal axes over longswords and rapiers, and whom she would have kindly described using words like ‘lump’, ‘oaf’, or even ‘boorish’.
Lorna also stared at him, but with elation.
“I could handle a bit of rough.”, she said with a small voice.
“In private, perhaps. And only if you want to. But you shouldn’t have to handle any ‘rough’ in public. You are what you are, love. And you shouldn’t be less than that to make me appear more. I should raise above, and make you more. When your people look at us, they should say, ‘They go well together and complete one another..'”
“Well.”, said Anglenna, with a voice that sounded surprised and a bit perplexed. “Very good, young man. It is decent of you to see what is right and proper for our princess and act accordingly.”
Young Udoorin grinned.
“But of course, Auntie H.. Henceforth, I shall grab the princess by the waist and carry her off whole! Less chance of wrist injuries that way.”
✱ ✱ ✱
The three stood still and silent as another platoon of heavily armed Orken trampled by. For the past near-six hours, they had made their way from High Spires to what was left of the Lights Temple where they had witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of civilians —men, women, and children— guards, priests, and temple guardians slaughtered and stacked into horrible and ghastly heaps. They had given a wide berth to the shattered and broken First Lord’s Palace where it seemed, some people had remained and were still willing to fight to the inevitable end. Though very much burned down and still smoking, they had traveled through Heaven Park, ran, snuck and cut their way past the totally destroyed Officers District, scathed through the looted Merchants District, and had just dashed past the collapsed Alls Temple where a very large boulder, possibly from an Orken mangonel had landed.
They had ended up backtracking their steps many times to find negotiable paths due to collapsed or still burning walls, homes, and towers, or because there were just too many of the savage Orken troops blocking their way.
The comparison to the many times they had wandered around in this city during their earlier stay as opposed to now was heartbreaking. For Udoorin, the besieging, and consequently, the capturing of a city was understandable and there was bound to be extensive damage to the city walls and some damage to the structures near the city walls due to stray catapult boulders. No one really blamed a catapult operator for being overtly accurate, after all, and when one spoke of mangonels, the word accuracy sort of became moot, as a boulder fired from a house-sized contraption not only crushed its mark but also leveled the block as well, which, by definition, was what ‘collateral damage’ pretty much meant.
This city, however, hadn’t been besieged. Not with the intention of subduing it for political, economical, or even some malignant ideological reasons, nor had there been any punitive intent behind it..
It had been utterly destroyed.
And with her people.
There were indeed no political, economical, and/or ideological reasons —or excuses— behind this destruction. The populace here had never discriminated, suppressed, or exploited the Orken, nor had they, in any way, tried to assimilate them —seeing as their whole existence had hardly even been known to the general populace, and those that did know about them were an extremely small and specific percentage of the said populace.
The Orken had come.
And the Orken had taken..
They had taken the land.
Not Arashkan, not High Woods, nor Bari Na-ammen.
Just the land.
The fact that over a million lives were already living there, and that they had families, homes, and fields had not even been of a moment’s shrug for the Orken.
The Orken had merely cleared the weeds..
..to phrase it in the most brutally inhumane and crude way!
Udoorin’s face turned black at the comprehension of that sinister attitude. And yes. That is exactly what it was. A purely sinister attitude.
Historically speaking, people with low self-esteem did have a tendency to claim a certain superiority in their existence by arrogantly attaching ideologies that always seemed to involve some form of divine favor on their part that, interestingly, never entailed honest, hard work, and then went ahead and tried to justify the whole debacle by way of buffing it further with some form of convoluted philosophies.
However the whole thing was laid out or phrased in a politically correct manner, and at the end of the day, it was a farce; a matter of not high ideals, but a matter of low self-esteems and attitude disorders.
The nuanced difference here was, although the Orken did what they did, and with very bloody and nearly impartial savagery, they hadn’t done it to elevate any such petty existential reasons as ‘low self-esteems’ on their part.
They had done it all with a certain attitude, sure. Just not for low self-esteem.
Udoorin found it quite difficult to correctly describe the difference mainly because it was just too inhuman. Had it been humans who had done this atrocity, he could have easily called it cruel and ‘inhumane’, but that was it, wasn’t it? The Orken was not human in any way to find a common, relatable point.
Which was why, he surmised, they looked upon humans —along with elves, dwarves, gnomes, and other races— as weeds..
True, that young Udoorin himself had entertained every encounter he faced with loosely controlled fury. And also true that he did have a tendency to cut down his opponents to quite a number of unnecessary pieces. But he never went as far as mindlessly chopping any and everyone down to indiscernible parts with such indiscriminate savagery.
For Udoorin, the defining line was clear; if anyone, or anything, came at him or his friends with drawn weapons, claws, or started shooting arrows, bolts, spells, and/or any other bodily or non-bodily parts, or they just needed to be stopped from causing harm to others, namely civilians, he butchered them..
..down to indiscernible parts.
And for the young man, that was quite a philosophical distinction; there was, after all, and obviously, a conflict of interest there, as he strongly believed that he was protecting humanity, and not limited to said race, per se, and that he also represented the law, as loosely as that actually was true.
“Let said blades, claws, or great axes, in his case, decide!”
For the Orken, however, none of such distinctions or definitions existed. They came, they swept the lands of its occupants by way of total and brutal economy and moved on!
Young Udoorin remembered their first true encounter, or rather, their first time being at the recipient end of an ambush by the Orken several months ago somewhere in Two Day Woods. He recalled what the last remaining Orken had said —spat, really— even though he’d been captured, disarmed, and bound by a spell Maser Gnine had cast. He had shown absolutely no fear whatsoever, but rabidly frothed at the mouth as he had cast his spiteful madness at them with pure, unadulterated hatred;
I shall rip out your arms, and shall I watch the face of your pain. Whilst I see, you have thus suffered enough, shall I tear off your legs and gnaw upon them even as you watch. And unto the day I have broken your will and your spirit, thus shall I cut the flesh off your bones! When you have witnessed how thoroughly we have risen above you and yours, shall I know, you are now truly broken. Then, and only then, shall I burn what remains of you, alive, and shall I allow you to die!
And he also remembered, subsequently, how the otherworldly girl, Merisoul Xyrotwu, had stabbed the creature where it lay on the ground with cold and deliberate precision, right through its heart, and very, very slowly.. as she’d explained, in succinct detail, just how these creatures, the Orken, perceived the world; not in black and white, but ONLY IN BLACK!
Udoorin scowled and tried not to show any of his findings on his face. The ladies were troubled enough as they were. Also, the finer points of it all were sort of moot at the moment anyway and the night was almost over. Either they would need to find a very secluded place to hide come dawn, which seemed unlikely, or they really needed to get to the old Thieves Guild’s entrance before said dawn.
Udoorin had never been much of a tracker, nor a pathfinder as he’d never had any such training. He had, however, visited many of the inns in the past months, while he had gone incognito, a bit on Aager’s ‘polite’ orders, trying to learn the whereabouts of the infamous rebellion, Gar Thalot. In the end, they had found the half-orc insurgent.. and played right into his bloody hands..
Pushing Gar Thalot aside, the young man did recognize the area even though it had been leveled downed and into the ground; they were very close to the inn they had stayed in, at The Rundown!
And the area was crawling with Orken..
..or rather trampling.. or even stampeding!
And in the dark, where he and the two ladies stood, silent and still, he rumbled to himself.
“Perhaps Gar Thalot need not be pushed aside..”
“Hmmm?”, asked Lorna whispered from right behind him.
“Gar Thalot.”, Udoorin whispered back. “Just saw him sulking off into that big tent where there is a lot of Orken.”
Both the princess and Anglenna looked at one another with grim, one-thousand-yard stares.
“Bad idea, love.”, inserted Udoorin hastily, showing unexpected wisdom, quite above his usual self. “I would like to hack at him with an axe or three myself, but I do not think it is practical, nor feasible. Not at the moment anyway.”
“If we can kill that murdering bastard..”, hissed Anglenna with vehement heat. “..we could avenge a whole city of people.”
“I very much agree with my cousin.”, added Lorna, her green eyes burning with an uncanny fire of her own.
“Or we could get butchered and neither avenge anyone nor be able to do what we came here to do.”, said Udoorin carefully.
“I think we should ambush him the moment he comes out of the tent.”, said Anglenna, her long, elegant fingers fidgeting with the urge to set something ablaze
“Sir Udoorin could charge him while I could feymist right behind him and skewer him like a stuck pig and cousin Anglenna can burn him where he stands, quite unmoving!”, hissed Lorna, as she summoned her great hexblade!
“Uhhhmm..”, the young man said somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the two ladies.
“Yes.”, agreed, Anglenna looking eagerly at Lorna. “If you drop everything you got on him—”
“—I can. I am not one hundred percent at the moment but what I do have should suffice.”, said Lorna eagerly.
“Ladies..”, Udoorin said weakly as he scratched his head.
“Once you do skewer him, I can immolate the pig.”
“Nice.. While he burns, I can also curse him. He will be much more susceptible to attacks then!”
“If he still manages to live through that, I could always banish him. When he returns, we can rinse-repeat!”
“I can’t believe this!”, said Udoorin in a slightly freaked tone. “I, of all people, am calling both the ladies here to see reason! Really, now. There is no way we can catch him unawares and bring him down in time before anyone else notices us or he calls for backup. Girls, please!”
“I am slightly put out with you, young man.”, Anglenna said with pursed lips and frowned at him, slightly disappointed.
“As am I, dear Dorin. I would have thought you would shown a bit more brevity on your part.”, Lorna said, clearly heartbroken.
Udoorin’s face went red.
“That.. was very much uncalled for, Lorna. When have you ever seen the lack of courage or brevity on my part?”, he fumed angrily. “We are here to make sure this city becomes uninhabitable by the Orken, not to entertain ourselves by getting sidetracked. And you, Lady Anglenna, of all people, are supposed to be the voice of reason. I know you dislike being made a fool of, but Thalot did not deceive just you, he tricked everyone. Now. I am going to go and look for the entrance to the old Thieves Guild. I would much rather have the two of you come with me, and before dawn, which should happen in less than forty minutes by my estimation because I can’t get to, nor release that ‘Three Dog Curse’ without either of you. And we have yet to find the entrance!”
There was a moment of shameful silence as the two ladies stared at their own feet.
“I apologize, young man.”, Anglenna said after a while. “You are right and admirably task-oriented. We do have a job to do.”
With that, she turned around and silently started towards the alleged entrance to the old Thieves Guild.
“I have shamed myself by shaming you, my Rin. I will make up to you in whatever way I may.”, said Lorna softly and in a barely audible voice.
“Stay focused and stay alive, my Alor’Nadien ne. That is all I wish of you.”, said Udoorin.
Then, with an unexpected show of ‘brevity’, he reached down at the slim girl, and carefully bear-hugged her, and landed a kiss on her surprised, cherry-red mouth.
“And that..”, he said with a flushed face. “..was for questioning my courage!”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are not picking up your calls, daughter. You really shouldn’t ignore your mother..”, came the voice of High Lady Angrellen.
“I am not picking up your calls because you have shamed me, mother. You have shamed us all..”, fumed the high elf girl in silent wrath. “No. You have DAMNED us all, mother!”
“A fine, noblewoman such as yourself, does not get to talk to her mother like that, my daughter. Not after all the trouble, I went through in giving birth to you, raising you, and training you into becoming the strong woman that you are now..”, replied Angrellen with a slightly petulant tone.
“I am shunned and looked upon with spite, and a whole horde of people want me dead wherever I go at the best of times. You think you have given me a life to live for? No, mother. You have ruined everyone against me.”, Anglenna seethed.
“Don’t be naive, my daughter. You are a sorceress by birth because it was I, who chose the correct bloodline for you. You are what you are, because of my blood and because of the father I chose for you. I have made you independent and free of all yokes. You answer to no one, and that is my doing. You have an affinity to fire and that is because of my contacts and my contracts to the Lords of Hell. You blaze like the sun when you bring down your wrath, and that wrath is also my doing. I gave you my own profound knowledge of the arcane arts and made sure you received the best education Bari Na-ammen had to offer, and that too was my doing. You are barely a mature elf girl and look how far you have thus come. Tell me, my daughter, which of those were truly your own doing?”, the voice of Angrellen hissed in her daughter’s mind.
A long pause ensued after that, where Anglenna thought about a suitable answer.
Then it all came to her.
This was what her mother had done all her life.
She had made her feel like she owed everything she had done, every accomplishment and achievement she had attained to her. And she had made her feel like she was nothing, and would stay nothing had it not been for her.
Anglenna let go of her mother’s hook and line, for she woke up to the fact that she had made up her mind, and her choice and she was done with her mother and her machinations..
“Tell me, mother.”, she sent her thought quietly and calmly. “Did you kill my father?”
Apparently, this was not something the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen had expected to be confronted with.
“Let’s not go there, dear.”, replied Angrellen.
“We are there, mother. Did you kill my father?”, repeated Anglenna.
“Your father was a decent man, as men seldom are, my daughter. I think we should leave it at that, why don’t we?”
“No, mother. Let’s not leave it at that. Did you kill my father, or did you not?”
“You are not mature enough to face certain facts of life yet, dear girl. Suffice to say, he did his job giving me a progeny. Beyond that, he was quite useless, and would surely have become an obstacle for my plans..”, sniffed Angrellen.
“To which facts of life are you referring to, that I am not mature enough to face, mother? That you spent your last thousand years plotting and scheming against your own father, then against Alor’Nadien ne’s father —your King, and seeing as how you would refuse to answer a simple question and talk about him as an obstacle, I could safely assume you murdered my father as well because everyone knows what High Lady Angrellen does to things that get in her way.. You, mother, caused the ultimate ruination of High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, the sacred lands of the first high elves since Year One. You, mother, caused the destruction of our homes and our lives. You, mother, annihilated everything that which was sacred and holy and that mattered to us. You, mother, have forever damned the elf race with your selfish machinations. And thanks to you, mother, no one shall ever trust an elf ever again. We shall always be looked upon with mistrust and be forced to seclusion.. and die out alone in this world. You, mother, are a disgrace and an unholy traitor.”, Anglenna burned with hate.
“I would rather you did not talk to me in that tone, my daughter. Come far, you have, but you do not want me seeking you out and reminding you your manners.”, said her mother lightly, though she could not hide the ominous tone in her voice.
Angrellen was angry.
“No, mother. This is the only kind of manners you shall ever receive from me. You have destroyed and murdered everything I valued. From this day forth, my soul purpose shall be making sure the one person you wanted ‘gone’ the most, even more than Grandaleren, is alive, well, and happy. Should the day come and she faces you, I shall be there —between you and her!”
“Should that day come, you too shall die then, my daughter.”, Angrellen’s resigned voice came.
“Then it shall be a good death, for once I am dead, you truly will be alone, and in every sense possible, for whatever promises your demon lords gave, they shall not keep, because you are you and you will make a mistake that will bring their rebuke upon you..”, Anglenna said, trying very hard to stay calm but she couldn’t hide her own smoldering hate either.
Another pause ensued and for a moment, she thought her mother had cut the connection.
“This can all be fixed, you know?”, said Angrellen unexpectedly. “All you have to do is kill that pretty little creature for me.. You don’t even have to do it yourself. Accidents do happen, after all.”
“You are despicable, mother. That ‘pretty little creature’ saved my life knowing full well that it would end hers. That ‘pretty little creature’ has been the only person that has ever shown me honest and genuine affection, kindness, and friendship. People who would have killed me do not because that ‘pretty little creature’ demeaned herself and begged them not to.. I shall never betray her.”
“You misunderstand your relation with that half-elf mongrel, my daughter.”, Angrellen said. “The sheep serve. That is their sole purpose in life. And the lion does not owe to the sheep.”
“You are not a lion, mother.”, hissed her daughter.
“I beg to differ, my dear..”
“You, mother, are a jackal, and the last of the Sunsears shall die with you, for I have ceased to be a Sunsear. From this day forth, I shall be known as a Brightleaf, like my father before me.. You, and the line of Sunsears shall be abhorred wherever you go, but the line of Brightleaf shall be honored as the guardians of Rise Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and her line for as long as I live, and through me, for as long as my father’s line shall live..”
The silence that followed was vicious and Anglenna thought she heard her mother breathing harshly as if seething and couldn’t help but feel a certain, child-like elation. She would have given quite a bit to see her mother’s face just then, preferably from a far and safe distance.
“You really want me to come and find you, don’t you, dear?”, said Angrellen finally and it was very clear she was very, very angry now.
“Mother, why?”, asked Anglenna.
“To teach you some manners. Being away from the refined has apparently made you coarse. You really should be a bit pickier about the company you keep.”
“You misunderstand my question, mother.”, Anglenna said, reflecting her mother’s choice in words. “Why? Why have you done, what you have done? What was lacking in your life that you went thus far to destroy everything and everyone around you to achieve? You had a daughter who loved you. You had a husband who adored you. You had wealth and you had status par to Grandaleren.. What was it that was worth more than all of that?”
The high lady did not immediately give her answer. It seemed she weighed it against some possible weakness she might inadvertently reveal.
Then, as if giving an uncaring shrug, she spoke with calm and distant deliberation.
“Found it!”, came Udoorin’s rumbling voice from just ahead, and in the shallow, pre-dawn light.
We Are Not Your Dogs.
We Are Not Your Servants.
We Are Your Masters!
War comes as we speak.
The folk of Serenity Home, along with the refugees of the deceased Arashkan city and burned Bari Na-ammen work day and night, and desperately, through winter to prepare for what’s coming.
Where the enemy is, and what they are doing, however, remains a mystery..
..to those who do not know!
Rumour has it, a large chunk of it has..
The man in the deep, dark, hooded robes stared at the smoking ruins around him with mild disinterest. There wasn’t a foot’s length of flat, clear space to be seen anywhere. Mass rubble; broken bricks, shattered tiles, splintered and charred wood, glass shards of thousands of broken windows, bent and deformed metal shafts, and upheaved cobblestones littered the ground —all that once used to be houses and homes or public buildings and temples, inns, schools, restaurants, merchant stalls and artisan workshops, hospitals, and mansions —the things that made a great city, turned it all into something that was now sad and indiscernible, making it impossible for a foot to find any flat and clear landing.
The man in his deep, dark hood, raised the guttering torch in his hand, but not to much effect. Even the torch seems unable to breathe at the ghastly sight that went in every direction.. It would have been, he surmised, quite better had the Orken not done such a mess as they had. The brutes, he thought, did nothing without leaving a bloody carnage behind them. And they were despairingly independent and lacked base discipline.
The hooded man also thought perhaps he should count his blessings that they had all moved in the same general direction and that Arashkan just happened to get in the way of their general direction!..
..And that it was night ..and winter ..where slushy, filthy-gray snow covered everything and the darkness hid what the snow couldn’t, and the air was still filled with choking smoke, hiding the sight of thousands of butchered, mutilated, seared and bloated corpses that lay everywhere, and smothered their scent of rotting meat!
Had this been a regular army, he surmised, the city would have been intact, more or less, and they would have had many, many more live and able prisoners put to work fixing the city walls and made some of the buildings habitable again..
But then, had this been a regular army, in all likeliness, the once-great Arashkan would still be here, standing..
The brutality of the Orken was something one just couldn’t dismiss.
When horded together in tens of thousands, it would seem, their brutality was bested only by their savagely..
The hooded man held his steps as another platoon of the beasts trampled past him in harsh grunts, holding tall glaring torches of their own in one hand, jagged-edged axes, frightfully curving arakhs or seemingly similar, but hooked khopeshs in the other..
..and without so much as a cursory glance in his direction.. nor anything that resembled any form of a military salute.
The man in his deep, dark, hooded robes felt.. casually dismissed..
He had no doubt they had recognized him. Those they did not, were all dead, after all..
Not that he cared, but the city, this city had fallen due to his planning, his foresight, his machinations, and his secret, behind-the-scene political maneuvering, hence, being deliberately and so impudently ignored.. not so much bothered, but irritated him.
“Savage brutes..”, he fumed.
“Yes. They are.”, said a cold, imperious feminine voice from somewhere down a dark side-alley. “It would seem your planning has a lot of glaring holes in it.”
The hooded man held his breath for a still second, then breathed.
“High Lady Angrellen Sunsear..”, he said with unveiled disdain..
..and in long, dark blue velvet dress embroidered at its fringes with silver threads of curving and swirling designs, came out the very tall high elf woman, her white-blond hair braided and done up and into an intricate bun, behind and on top of her long, somewhat delicate face. A face that spoke many words varying from hunger that had little to do with nurturing, to lust that had nothing to do with passion.
Perhaps, once, some very, very long time ago, this tall, beautiful, regal woman might have been pretty, in terms of a soul. That soul, however, was long gone. Only said hungers and lusts etched the face of the very beautiful woman now..
“..Or should I just call you Angrellen the Betrayer? That is what you are, after all, aren’t you?”
“No more than you are.”, replied High Lady Angrellen as she strode out of the alley. “Or should I call you—?”
“—You are damned as it is, woman. Should you name me, you shall be dead as well!”, cut in the man in the deep hooded robe.
High Lady Angrellen paused.
But not for long.
As an evil and infuriating smile stretched across her, otherwise coldly beautiful face.
“I do not fear you, mortal.”, she hissed at the man.
“And I care that you do or don’t?”, replied the man with a barely veiled sneer. “Perhaps, by having sold out your own, causing thousands upon thousands of your kin to die and being the architect of the ruination of Bari Na-ammen and High Woods has gained you some small favor in the eyes of my Master, and quite unrestrained airs, apparently.. Should I remind you, however, a betrayer is, and always be just that; a betrayer. Never trusted, never reliable, and always loathed.”
“I have gained my immortality. Hence your petty remarks are just that; petty!”, retorted the high lady viciously.
“No, girl. You have merely gained longevity, not immortality. You can and will still die.. The outcome of your damned soul is sealed.. Do not despair, though. Your long centuries to come will, I am sure, give you much time to contemplate on your long line of betrayals.. I was against the idea of letting you live, and I still believe you should be summarily beheaded and everything about you should be burned with scourging Hell-Fire. I detest harlots!”
“I would have a care to what you say if I were you.”, said High Lady Angrellen ominously. “You are not indispensable.”
“And neither are you. I am ready to face my Master’s wrath. Are you?”, replied the hooded man, and not so diffidently. “Oh wait, you don’t have a master. You, my dear girl, are an ephemeral and glorified tool!“
“No, boy, we serve the same master!”, very nearly spat the high lady.
“I serve.. and as His High Priest, I might add. You, on the other hand, serve only yourself.”, said the man calmly and in a matter-of-fact voice.
Angrellen tried for a shrug, but it was apparent she was much taken by the man’s disgust.
“I can serve me more, should you test my tolerance any further. The Master has many priests, high or otherwise. He has, but only one of me.”, she fumed.
“With nothing more than the Orken —beasts one could hardly do anything that requires surgical precision, I have managed to orchestrate the downfall of the greatest city in the Kingdom of Isles, and in less than fifty years of effort. It was I, who created the whole Gar Thalot concept, his rebellion, and the civil unrest. It was I, who played the political animals of this city with my machinations to make sure the Arashkan army stayed in their own base instead of defending the city walls even though their ARIS had serious suspicions of the potential of an imminent attack. The destruction of their mangonels, the murdering of the First Lord Kaladin, his son and his daughters, and much more that I care to list here, were all my doing. You, on the other hand, had more than a thousand years to work with and unlimited personal funding at your disposal.. One would think you would have made yourself the Rise of Bari Na-ammen by then. But no.. You couldn’t rid your lands off a human strumpet that your Ri took for a wife. Not only did you fail to rid us of Grandaleren in time to be of any significance, but you also allowed his human whore to escape along with his daughter and her daughter’s companions.. You failed to even take High Spires under your command, resulting in thousands of Arashkan civilians and military assets to take refuge there and consequently escape the city via ships. No, wait, allow me to reiterate that for you; you had High Spires under your command, yet you let it get bested out of your hands by your niece —an eighteen-year-old girl! Dammit, woman, you were given a curse to lay waste this entire city, and you let that get stolen. You were supposed to have come to us with your own daughter, yet rumor has it she was sighted in the city —this city— in the company of a large, brute of a man and a certain Princess of Bari Na-ammen, no less, fighting the Orken! Not to mention, you had the one job here and that was to find the last surviving heir to Arashkan, an eight-year-old boy, Prince Korodin, and you botched that job as well, while he escaped right under your nose. I am trying very hard to come up with a polite way to phrase your consecutive, cumulative, and conclusive incompetence, but it just isn’t coming! So do tell me, high lady, to which unique aspect of yourself are you referring to? Other than being a monumental failure, I mean..”, said the man with his calm voice. Yet the loathe in that calm was so palpable, one could almost reach out and hold it.. Then, under his deep hood, he smiled. “Do not despair, though. Your long centuries to come will, I am sure, give you much time to contemplate on your long line of failures, also..”
The face of the once high lady turned dark and ugly. Her slender hands clenched into fists and dark shadows gathered around them.
“By all means, girl, try your ‘hands’ on me.. Succeed to slay me, and you shall fail when you face my Master while you try and explain why you slew His High Priest. Fail to slay me and you shall add ‘A Failure’ to your tombstone, right next to ‘The Betrayer Of Her Own Kin’.. And trust me when I say, I shall end up having to explain nothing to my Master should I smite you down and bring your broken corpse to him for display.. or your ashes.. To be honest, I don’t really care, which. Either will do fine. Or perhaps I shall keep you alive and take you to him barely breathing. I know for a fact, He does enjoy mortal wenches screaming bloody in his bed as he rips their legs apart!”, the man said, with barely contained mirth.
For a long, wrathful moment, High Lady Angrellen contemplated murder, High Priest or not.
Then, just like that, she calmed down.
“Your attempts to rile me shall have its consequences, High Priest. But I shall decide when and where.”, she said with an almost pleasant smile.
The hooded man grunted with open disgust.
“Coward.”, he spat.
“You are confusing planning ahead with cowardice.”, she replied with a shrug.
“No. I am not. You. Are. A. Coward..”, he seethed. “Something I truly wished you weren’t and actually did try your hand on me.. But I guess you are just another stupid elf bitch.”
“You really shouldn’t try so hard. You will strain something.. Now, if you are done, perhaps we can go and talk to the Orken Mother and tell her to stop butchering everything they find in this bloody city. We will need many mortal’s souls to summon some demons should we want to conquer the east coast of the kingdom, come spring, and that tends to work better when they are still alive before being sacrificed for the summoning rituals! It’s fine with me though. I gave the Master what he wished of me; High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, even though it took me a thousand years, as you say. My further contributions here are purely voluntary..”, Angrellen said, not reserving her infuriating smile.
“You never do anything that isn’t self-serving, Angrellen. So you can skip with the ‘voluntary’ nonsense.”, growled the man with the deep hood.
The high lady shrugged.
“Perhaps. But I guess you will never know, seeing as you will die of old age, if not in some stinking ditch, slain by your enemies.”, she sneered at him.
“I disliked elves before. I loath them just by knowing you, wench! But I know what you are truly after.. You want Gullem’s spot..”
“That information, I am afraid, is quite above your pay grade, priest. Now, you will either come with me and explain to the Orken Mother why she had better stop the butchery, or you can explain to your Master why we still haven’t started summoning his Infernal Troops into this world yet.”, she replied disdainfully.
“Why don’t you talk to her?”, asked the high priest, and not without spite. “I am sure that conversation will go perfectly well. I can just about imagine the Greater Orken Mother being extremely cordial with the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen.”
“Don’t be senile. I doubt she knows who I am, and I hardly think she will listen to me. You, on the other hand, she knows, and very much dislikes.”, said Angrellen viscously.
“And I need you why, then?”
“I am here merely as your.. how do you humans say? Wingman? Or was it back up?”, she said with an evil smile.
“You? You are going to back me?”, scoffed the hooded man.
“But, of course.. Not! I am here to watch you humiliate yourself!”, she said with lazy laughter.
✱ ✱ ✱
The human with the long talks, the demands, and the machinations is here, again, Mother.”, growled the huge Orken warrior with the many scars on his hands, arms, shoulders, and face. His one eye glared with an unholy light while his other eye, a milky, slashed, and dried mess, stared ahead, quite unmoving and petrified.
“Has he brought us any gifts?”, came the grating voice of the Greater Orken Mother, from the dim canopy of her tribal pavilion, set amongst the ruins of what was once an inn, and behind the shattered Alls Temple, in the slums of the decimated Arashkan city. The pavilion itself was quite large and wide, with many brazers burning fitfully here and there and thick, rich carpets that probably belonged to some fateless noble once, were rolled out on the cleared debris of the inn, and several divans and many colorful cushions gave the ‘tent’ a somewhat ‘deliberately’ over-done appearance.
“It is possible, Mother..”, replied the scared Orken. “..He does have a skinny elf loshka with him.”
“Huh.. Perhaps he thinks my appetites go that way.”, rumbled the voice of the Orken Mother. “Let him in. I tire of his demands and his machinations. But he has proven his mettle and has helped us conquer this great city.”
“You are hoping he will have outlived his ‘mettle’, Mother..”, grinned the milky-eyed Orken.
“Yes. Yes, I do..”, growled the Orken Mother from the dimness of her pavilion.
The scared Orken grinned again and left.
“Humans..”, snorted the Greater Orken Mother in disgust. “..And their endless demands like we owe them something.”
A few moments later, the scared Orken returned, pushing the pavilion’s heavy flaps aside with his large, powerful hands but did not hold them open for the ‘guests’.
The heavy leather flaps swung back and closed..
..right into the the hooded man’s ‘face’ and the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen just stared at the whole thing.
“The lack of base courtesy in your beasts is astounding.”, murmured Angrellen with the slightest sign of irritation.
The hooded man shrugged and pulled the flaps open..
..and let them drop right into the high lady’s face!
“Really? You will go that low?”, fumed Angrellen and pushed the flaps herself and entered the pavilion, seething at the clear disrespect. “This is intolerable.”
“And who gave this runt of an elf loshka, the leave to speak, I wonder?”, said the deep, rumbling voice from the depts of the tent. “I did not. Did you, Kadar’ka?”
“I did not either, Mother. Perhaps, a bit like the human, it too believes we owe it something.”, replied the scared Orken, staring at Angrellen with one glaring and one, milky-white, eye.
“Shall we ask it, then?”, said the Greater Orken Mother..
..and rose from her divan, pushing the lush cushions aside.
What came out of the dim end of the pavilion was..
A hugeness not merely in size, nor in the depth and breadth of her massive arms, shoulders, torso, and legs.
Her hugeness was in her eyes and what they telegraphed;
Unrefined brutality and primeval savagery untouched by anything remotely soft, nor civilized.
This was not a creature that took by the strength of her arms and will.
This was a creature that took.
And when she looked upon those around her with the uncanny intensity of her eyes, she told them, clearly as if by words, should they stand in her way, they would only contribute to ‘collateral damage’ and nothing bloody less.
Seeing as what she had done to Arashkan, a city that had stood for over a thousand years, and in under a week or two, she was probably right.
Angrellen Sunsear arched her brows and cooly gazed at the massive creature..
..and shut up!
The man in the deep, hooded robes coughed.
“Orken Mother. I have come to ask you to seize the butchering of civilians. We need them—”, he began.
“—Your needs are not mine, human.”, cut in the Orken Mother, showing little to no emotion on her brutish face. “We killed and we died to conquer this land. The lives of everything in it are now ours to do as we please. Thus we were promised. And thus shall we reap. Until then, you may either watch the slaughter or be part of it.”
“My Master has His orders given, Orken. Do not get above yourself. You conquered these lands because I willed it so. You won this city because I planed it so. Had you not been given the device to hide you and yours, and the city’s defenses downed, I doubt your victory would have been thus great. Must I remind you just who is in charge, here?”, gritted the man from inside his deep hood.
“And do you feel in charge? Perhaps you are under the misguided impression that because you did what you did, you own us?“, stared the Orken Mother balefully at him.
Then she rose to her full height and gave him, and the skinny elf loshka, her uncanny gaze.
A gaze that said, your lives shall depend on how well you listen..
“You must understand, human, for these are the words of I, Guntha’Shar, the Orken Mother;
We are not your dogs.
We are not your servants.
We are your Masters, now!
Should you want to test us, by all means, do.
Tell your master, the Orken are here to stay. Not here to be pawns. If he wants sacrifices for his rituals, perhaps he should overrun the Demon Wall and conquer his own lands. The humans here, however, are ours. We shall have them for pleasure, we shall work them for labor, or we shall slay them for food and for entertainment. They are all ours to do as we please. And come spring, we shall have more.. They shall see us coming and they shall not, and they shall despair, for we shall stretch from one horizon to the other, and we shall be around them, above them, behind them and among them, for we are!
I shall go forth and make my own and I shall leave a kingdom to rule for my son, Guntha’Gar..”
And a tall, well-built man and orc also stepped out of the dimness of the pavilion.
A man and orc made of harsh, tight, cord muscle, keen, cunning eyes, and a cruel, sinister face..
A man and orc, no other than Gar Thalot himself!
With his cunning gaze, he stared at the hooded man and the high elf noblewoman.
“Indeed.”, he said with his low, gravelly voice. “I believe we should add them to the pile of corpses we have prepared next to the First Lords shattered palace to match in height. I am sure the wench would make excellent tallow!”
“Have a care, Thalot.”, sneered Angrellen. “Should you raise your hand against me, you will find, I am not one of your usual easy marks.”
“It speaks. And it makes threats.”, Gar Thalot observed with mild amusement. And slowly drew a long, ugly-looking dagger from his belt.
“No, son..”, growled his mother quietly. “Its time will come, for it is shunned by all, disdained by all, and loathed by all.. and no matter where it runs, no matter where it hides, death will find it in due time.. It shall never have a tent to its own, it shall never have mates nor cubs, for its heart is dead and its womb is cold and the only thing that can come out of it are squirming, poisonous bastards. Little pity have I felt for any beast as I have felt for it, for it shall not even have a stone to mark its death. Such is the destiny of betrayers!”
Then she turned to the hooded man.
“I have said my piece, human. Should I want your counsel, I shall summon you.. Its counsel, I doubt even your master shall ever seek. Otherwise, should you and your loshka be here come dawn, you and it shall be tallow.”
For a long moment, the deep, hooded man in his robes stood silent.
When he finally spoke, it was in hushed tones.
“Very well.. I shall convey your words to my Master, Orken Mother.”
Then, without further due, he turned around and left, followed closely by the skinny elf loshka..
✱ ✱ ✱
You know, I disliked humans before. I loathed them after Nadina came to High Woods. Knowing you, I actually pity them now. Your lives are worth nothing, yet you walk this earth as if you own it. You stare at the horizon like it owes you something. And then you look at the heavens and make demands.. Your idiocy is bested only by your base arrogance.. And of all the humans I have thus met, I pity you the most..”
“..You punned me for my failures, but at least Nadina Graciousward was a power in her own right and had strong ties to many known and unknown, yet equally powerful allies all around the kingdom..”
“..And yes, I might have been bested by her eighteen-year-old daughter, back then, considering she comes from a human mother and an incompetent fool of a father, and hence, against all expectations, is in truth a girl of heightened grace, honest elegance, devote sincerely, an iron will, and, young as she may be, a woman of innate insight and wisdom for people.. When that girl speaks, people listen.. When she beckons, they follow.. She could have been the Rise of her people had she so much as sniffed in her father’s direction. But she chose to leave, rather than to confront, overthrow and disgrace him, and both the people and the nobles loved her for it, and so did my own daughter; tossed one hundred and seventy years of indoctrination aside and joined her.. I lost to that!”, the once high lady of Bari Na-Ammen, Angrellen Sunsear, said, openly admitting her failures.
Then she looked at the man in the deep, hooded robes with genuine pity.
“You? You got owned by an animal!”
Loshka: Orcish word for someone that has no home or clan, and hence, is subject to all forms of ridicule and use. It is also a word commonly used among Orcs and the Greater Orken for a whore.
A ‘Warm’ Warning
Sometime in near future.
And back at Serenity Home.
Early one evening..
This story takes place a bit over a month after
The Oathbreaker (Part Four)
and sometime between
Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”
a witness or two..
Aager Fogstep, the right hand of the town sheriff, the head of SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service, and unbeknownst to any but the willing few; the dreary Winter Knight and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Mistress of The Grove, the wont of Mab and Titania, the Lady of Durkahan and the Ritual Guardian walk side-by-side, indeed, arm-in-arm, worn and tired of a long day’s hard accomplishments.
The quiet young woman, somewhat abashed and with the small smile of an unspoken achievement clearly etched on her face, walks with light steps next to the silent, spooky man in his dark, sinister-looking leathers, hood, and mask. The girl inadvertently does this little skip-and-hop thing every once in a while for she has her hair down and her awesome rams horns are in full display; the source of her smile, her skip, and her elation.. and one of great consternation, fear, dread, dismay, and anxiety —each distinct, now, and finally overcome, accepted, and acknowledged.. The man on the other hand seems alert and distracted at the same time. His steps are steady, careful, and ready to pounce. His distraction, hidden under the hood and mask, is perhaps due to the unaddressed nature of the hope he hankers, as they head for the little, single-room lodge assigned to him years ago, and that the girl with the light, happy steps next to him would also call, ‘home’..
“Thank you.”, he whispers in his growly and gravelly voice.
The girl turns and gives him a look of shy elation.
“You are welcome. But, why?”, she asks.
The man clears his throat.
Fighting and consequently bleeding, many times, has never been a matter of trepidation for him.
This little girl, and trying to express his feelings, for her or otherwise, however, has always felt like an uphill battle for him.
A battle he knows he would win, should he but dare.
She certainly wills, with all her heart and mind, that he would.
Dare.. and win..
“I suspect you know why..”, he says carefully.
“I do. But I like it more when you voice it. Reminds me of Katana, my saber-tooth.”, she replies quietly.
“You like my voice because I sound like a cat?”, he asks a bit amused.
“My cat was not just any cat.”, the young girl retorts with mock fire. “She was a great, six hundred pound tiger, with a massive jaw that could take a man’s head whole and still have room for dessert, and awesome paws that could cave in an ogre’s belly, flat! And I find the viscous similarities between the two of you quite.. intoxicating! I am sure, or at least I very much hope you find something in me that makes you remember things you liked. Perhaps that is why we find something akin in one another.”, she says happily.
“How do say things like that and claim not to understand people?”, he asks with unveiled wonder.
“I claim nothing other than you, my Aager —for as long as I can.. Some things are clear to me. People.. and this.. social-thingy.. is just not one of them.”, she replies with resigned remorse.
“Fair enough.”, somewhat agrees, Aager. “Though you are wrong about my finding something akin in you that reminds me of something else that I once liked.”
“Ow.. How come?”, asks Inshala with a small pout.
“The answer to that is quite elementary in its simplicity.”, he says with a well-hidden smile.
“You are unique!”, Aager admits, and freely.
And without even needing to turn, he feels, through their bond, how the young woman blushes.
“That.. is beautiful to hear.”, she stammers.
“You like?”, he asks, with a very un-Aager like tone. A tone that he would never, like never ever, use with anyone but the girl in his arm.
“I.. love!”, she smiles, blushing even more.
“I thanked you..”, Aager says, rewinding a bit back. “.. because of your brevity. And for not hiding what you are, for I wish you never to be my personal secret, but known to all, and that we belong.”
“I must thank you for that, even though I know you will not let me. But we both know I would never have come here, let alone display myself the way I have, had it not been for you.”, she admits and smiles even more.
“Perhaps. But this is your moment. Not mine. And..”, he says and freezes in his pace.
As if on cue, so does she.
“What is it?”, she asks peering into the night.
“I.. am not sure..”, admits Aager with a slight frown. “I sense.. an equal.. but not.. at the same time..”
“You sense quite correctly.”, says a deep, muffled voice from the night.
“Show yourself, if your intentions are honorable!”, grows Aager Fogstep, his hands clear and at his sides and Inshala standing, not precisely behind, but with the exact amount of space and distance he would need to draw his swords for a swing, a parry or an unrestrained thrust..
“That, coming from you, I find a bit ironic, Sir Knight.”, says the muffled voice.
“I sense.. Summer.”, whispers Inshala, a bit baffled.
“I greet you, Lady Inshala, and I mean you no harm.”, comes the voice.
“But you mean harm to whome I belong!”, she says staring hard into the night.
“That is but for him to decide.”, declares the muffled voice with an intense and implied voice.
“What is this?”, asks Aager in her mind.
“I am not sure, my Aager. I have a guess, but I would rather he introduced himself, lest I give him power he may not have.”, replies the young woman in his.
“Dammit!.”, very nearly blazes Aager with frustration. “Apparently, running around all day fixing issues and defacing potential political outbreaks, training three different parties for the upcoming battle, and corking security gaps as an encore, is not enough.. I would like one moment.. ONE SILENT MOMENT IN PEACE with you and alone, dammit!”
“I am sorry, my Aager. This is my fault.”, whispers Inshala guiltily.
“How is this your fault?”, he asks, still frustrated.
“You are the Winter Knight because of me.”, she says in a small voice.
“Inshala.. To this day, I have done many things that I have come to regret, and shall likely end up doing more.. Dying for you to live, however, was never one of them.”, he almost lashes back.
“But..”, Inshala tries to object.
“Also to this day, never have I banned nor barred you of anything, have I?”, he steams.
“No, my Aager. Never.”
“Well, now I have. Never shall I hear another word of regret to the choices I made with regard to you. Because when you cast doubt in my choice, you cast doubt on what I feel for you.”, he says, and not without wroth.
Inshala falls silent, whether it is perhaps due to shock of how her Aager has just addressed and admonished her, or because she is afraid, is not clear. When she speaks, however, it is due to neither.
“I.. am sorry, my Aager. It was thoughtless of me to question you and your feelings, for I know it isn’t easy for you to speak them, yet you have.. For my sake.”, she says with shame in her voice.
“Inshala. Please. There really isn’t any reason to go there.. Much like you have made peace with some of the things in your life, your past, and your choices, I have thus done so. If being Mab’s hatchet man is the way to keep you and safe, peace, then, is upon me.”, he says, though not unkindly.
“You want me to cry, don’t you, my Aager..”, pouts Inshala.
“Not for me, and not tonight..”, he says as he smiles..
..and turns to face the man, hidden in the night.
With a low, distant, and arctic voice, the Winter Knight growls..
“Who are you, and what do you want? I have run a full day of petty mortal errands and am tired. I have another long day full of such errands waiting for me tomorrow, which is in mere few hours, and hence have I but little time to spare for late-night theatrics, and none for drama. Either come out and spill your wont, or go. Suffice to say, move or I shall move through you, should you truly want to test me tonight, for you are between myself, my lady, and my home, in the middle of the night, and in my town..”
“Oh, my.”, giggles Inshala and mimes a tiny, virtual fist into the air —in his mind.
“I think he just ate earth! You go, Winter Knight!”
“You go, WHAT? Where did you even hear that?”, asks Aager both surprised and amused.
“I am sorry. I have no idea what I just said.”, bubbles the young girl a bit embarrassed. “I heard young Master Cümeyt say it, but I am not sure what it means! He did make it sound like a ‘cheer’, though!”
Aager laughs.. silently..
“It is ‘dirt’, by the way, love..”, he inserts, stifling another laugh. “Not, ‘earth’..”
“But.. isn’t dirt, well, dirty?”, wonders Inshala a bit confused.
“The best thing about dirt, you never want to eat it more than once, love”, Aager says, not without a certain amount of vicious satisfaction. The man in dark leathers, hood, and mask wears what he does for three, rather distinct reasons, and none of them has anything to do with drama;
One, the obvious reason; for better cover in the dark.
Two; Aager has an astute sense of smell, particularly for bad ones..
And three; a dark hood, along with the mask, has the practical capacity to fend off fools.
There is a moment of chagrined silence and Aager gets the distinct impression that whoever it is hiding in the night, is perhaps a tad new at whatever he is at..
“Very well.”, the muffled voice says. “Meet me at the Guest’s Inn tomorrow at noon.”
“Afternoon!”, Inshala counters.
Another silence ensues.
“Why? Why would you back this evil man, Lady Inshala?”, he asks quite perturbed.
“My Aager is no evil man. He has proven his mettle. Yours is yet to be seen, Sir.”, she replies the young girl with stern command.
Aager’s eyebrows shoot up.
It isn’t the first time his Inshala has gone out of her way to defend him, and it certainly feels.. surprisingly ‘awesome’.. to be.. safeguarded?.. by someone you dearly loved, but the verbal dual here is a subtle one and in a realm, he is not yet accustomed nor has had much privy to.
“Afternoon, then. I shall consent to this request for your sake, Lady Inshala.”, the muffled voice says.
“You shall do no such thing, Sir. I owe you nothing and have promised you nothing. And I shall owe you no debt! ‘Afternoon’ is a neutral time, neither too warm nor too cold.”, Inshala says, equally sternly.
A sigh of resignation is heard followed by the slightest shuffle of feet and the muffled voice is gone.
“Alright.”, Aager muses, staring into the night. “That wasn’t odd or anything. Your thoughts, love?”
“I.. I am not certain..”, Inshala frowns slightly.
“It’s alright. Your halves are better than my nons!”, smiles the sinister-looking man.
“You are in an unexpected mood this night, my Aager. And I can’t even claim any crafty skills on my part.”, smiles back the young girl.
“First of all, I apologize, wholeheartedly, for my harsh words earlier. You deserve better than that. But I would much rather we put my choices and their reasons well behind us. They are done and gone. Going over them makes neither of us happy, but puts both of us in despair. Agreed?”, he says quietly.
“And I apologize for bringing it up in the first place, though I got what I deserved for it. I shall submit to your wishes on this matter, my Aager, hence, yes. Agreed.”, she replies staring somewhat at her own feet.
“Please, don’t do that.”, Aager says.
“Don’t do what?”, she asks.
“You did nothing wrong. Don’t look down. As a matter of fact, never look down!”, Aager pleads.
Inshala looks up, her face is slightly pink.
“You will not even let me suffer my own follies.”, she says with a flustered pout.
“The pout can stay. It looks sweet on you.”, smiles the man in dark leathers.
Inshala does a very unladylike snort, causing Aager to laugh.. out loud!
“Well. How about that. I laughed. Can’t remember the last time I did that. I guess I do owe my mood to crafty skills on your part.”, he says with an amused tone of voice. “As to what that was all about, I believe you do have some thoughts on the matter.”
“Yes. And deep down, I believe you have as well, my Aager..”, replies the young girl, suddenly looking at him with intense eyes.
Aager cocks an eyebrow and thinks..
..and the thing that has had him itching somewhere at the back of his mind suddenly dawns.
“Yes, my Aager. Nature is balance. Winter will follow Summer and Summer dies when Winter arrives. Much like Summer will melt and defrost Winter upon her arrival..”, she says softly.
“Damn..”, he blurts. “He is.. double damn.. the Summer Knight? My opposite?”
“That is my thought. I believe he wanted to keep that to himself and perhaps use it as a levelidge.. lefedirge.. leafer—”, she blunders and her face turns pure red in self-disgrace.
“Leverage?”, Aager offers kindly.
“Yes. That..”, says the young girl, her face still burning with frustrated shame.
“But he gave himself away.. Ahhh, that’s why you argued about ‘noon’. It is likely he will be at the peak of his power at noons and at summer times. That was very ingenious of you the way you refused him and moved the time of the meet to afternoon.”, says Aager admiringly for even though the young girl hadn’t quite won him an advantage, she had, instead, stripped any his opposite might have gained, just by changing something that had seemed so trivial.
Inshala blushes some more.
“I suspected.. the moment you said, ‘sensing an equal, but not, at the same time..’, and when he called you, ‘Sir Knight.’ Only fey would know you for what you are.. And the vassals of either court. I felt no fey vibes from him. He seemed.. mortal.. and something else.. perhaps some sort of affiliation I am not aware of.”
“How come there is suddenly a Summer Knight now and what does that entail?”, asks Aager, with a ‘should-I-be-concerned?’ frown.
“Nature is balance, my Aager. Both Winter and Summer have a ‘Mother’ known as Mother Winter and Mother Summer, and then they have the Queens, Mab as the Winter Queen, and Titania as the Summer Queen. Both courts are also supposed to have a ‘Lady’, but there hasn’t been a Winter Lady for ages forgotten After she lost her own daughter some unknown millennia ago, Mab refused to take another as the Winter Lady, causing the Summer Lady wane, and eventually fade away.. There was the potential for a new Summer Lady, but she was slain at Gull’s Perch by some ruffians a year or two before I was born, which is why there has been a ban on mortals, and a dwarven outpost there, guarding the Perch’s entrance ever since.. I believe there were some dwarves among the ruffians and Titania blamed their kin at Scowling Hills and forced them to build and safeguard the valley as a payment for their kins’ sins against her daughter. Whether the death of her daughter was a coincidence, or it was because Mab would still not take a new Winter Lady, I do not know.”
Aager listens to the young woman in amazement as she explains the monumental goings-on that no mortal would know.
“There also hasn’t been a Winter Knight since the last one was slain by a mighty wild fey, who was actually a noble in Mab’s court once, many, many millennia ago. And Summer failed to produce a knight of their own during that time. It isn’t a coincidence that they would do so now, almost the moment you chose to become Mab’s Winter Knight. For there to be balance, nature compempates.. compendates—”, she pauses, her face flushed with embarrassment again. “Help me, please..”, she pleads..
“Compensates?”, offers Aager as he puts one hand over her small shoulder and gently turns her to face him.
“Conpendates.. That..”, blubbers the girl, her face burning red. “I hate this. I am so stupid. I lack so many important words, and I am supposed to be the Ritual Guardian and fill my Father’s shoes..”
“Hey.. Don’t be like that.. Please.. We promised to be stupid together, remember? At least you know what you are talking about. I don’t even know where to begin to even understand.”, he says kindly, and gently pulls her into his arms.
Inshala just stands there, burning with embarrassment on any number of levels now.
“You are so awesome.”, he adds quietly.
“Awesome like.. Madina? Or awesome like Moira?.. Or perhaps awesome like Laila? Laila is awesome and cool, though I am not sure what that means.. I mean, she has a nice, warm heart. And I think that De-De-Dexter boy likes her. I saw him give her as an example of how his trainees should act and behave, just the other day.”, she mumbles.
“Madina, Moria, D.D. Dexter and even Laila aside, I would say, awesome like Inshala.”, he says. Then thinks for a moment, nods, and repeats. “Yep. We shall thus call it, Inshala-Awesome!”
Slowly he releases her, and they are once again, arm in arm, walking in the night, towards ‘home’..
. . .
“She is pathetic.”, says the skinny, vixen girl, hidden further in the night, and quite waspishly.
“She is what she is, love. And she holds great favors from both the courts. It is not wise of you to speak ill of her, nor to go out of your way to taunt her. She is good people..”, replies the man with the muffled voice.
“And the man. His attitude. Such arrogance.. Perhaps a nice hex will fix that for him..”, she sneers after the two.
“You shall do no such thing, love. There is no point in starting a war here when there is another war right on our doorstep. I merely wanted to meet him and warn him not to abuse his powers. We shall meet on the morrow.”, he says sternly.
“You are afraid of him.”, sniffs the girl with disdain.
“No one in his right mind would be uncautious of him, love. Mab chose carefully, as she always does. Don’t let your pride get the better of you.”
The girl sniffs again, and haughtily, with her small, perky nose.
“I bet, I could best her!”, she declares.
“Perhaps.”, says the man. “But you will not go up against her. She is the Ritual Guardian.”
“Suppose you best her. What then? Who will take up her burden?”
The girl shrugs.
“Will you?”, the man asks, looking at the skinny girl.
“Why would I? It is a folly burden that offers little to no reward. She is as foolish as her Father was..”
The man with the muffled voice signs. The slight girl standing so agitated next to him is a fun, life-loving girl, but she does have her moments of pique, and they did tend to get the better of her indeed, and she is quite a single-minded girl who lives for silly challenges..
..which was how they had met, really.
“Come. We have much to do ourselves..”, he says, in hopes of distracting her. “Thousands of mouths to feed..”
“I think I want to know what they talk when they are alone.”, she says, squinting after what little she could make of the two, distant figures walking away, arm-in-arm.
“No.”, says the man even more sternly this time. “You don’t..”
..And picks up the skinny girl, by her waist and carries her off, literally, as she kicks and squirms and laughs with delight..
“Will you feed me too, Sir Knight?”, she snickers viciously..
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, 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.
“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 hugged and kissed Seressa in the middle of a demon-infested, mad midget’s tower!”, she spat hotly.
Brom blushed furiously.
“He didn’t hug me, nor did he kiss me, luv.”, said Seressa with a barely discernable blush of her own. “I hugged 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 hugging.. 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 slowly sat up. The landscape around him seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon and was covered with what appeared to be very pretty, pale green grass that seemed to emanate a strange sense of serenity.
He frowned some more and turned to look what he thought was to be north and there, far away, was a village of some sort and thin, light purple-gray wisps of smoke rose lazily from the wood and hay-roofed lodges.
He turned the opposite direction and his hobbit mind reeled. There, even further away, was a series of great, majestic mountains with snowy caps. And at the center of them all, a single mountain rose grandly and Brom saw a single shaft of golden light stab at the sky from it. Or perhaps the golden light was coming down from the brilliant and vivid blue sky and was polishing the mountain top.
It was the Celestial Mountain itself.
This was indeed a sight to behold.
For it was said, Angles came down and visited the mortals here!
The bushy little hobbit cleared his throat and turned away from the mountain.. it was just too much to harbor, in too little time.
“If you three are going to take a dip..”, he said, “.. I am going to watch!”
Tonic scowled at him something furious, as a chuckle was heard —Cora.
“Told you.”, she said.
Brom frowned even more.
“You told them I’d watch if you all took a dip? That was uncalled for, girl! I have never watched anyone taking a dip. That’s just rude.”
“Yep.”, said Cora with a grin. “Told them you’d say that, too.”
“Now that’s just mean..”, complained the hobbit.
“Come on, Seressa. Let’s wash up while we can. Tonic can keep our esteemed hobbit company while we do each other’s back!”
Seressa did a happy little whoop and gave Brom an ‘I am sorry’, look, then took off with the barbarian girl.
“You got any more of that pink, bubble soap-thingies?”, Brom heard Cora ask the very tall, very dark girl.
“Yes. Yes, I do, luv. You like?”, wondered Seressa with a slightly surprised but pleased voice.
“I like.”, said Cora.
“This is just so unfair..”, moaned Brom. “So unfair..”
“Unfair’s got nothing to do with it!”, mimed Tonic in a low, harsh voice!
“Girl, really, now!”, groaned Brom.
Tonic giggled with delight.
With genuine delight.
Which was sort of a first!
“C’mon, Master Brom.”, she said. “We can take our own dip elsewhere.”
“I am not taking a dip with you, Arcantonic Palecog!”, declared Brom with pure indignation.
“I am hurt, Master Hobbit. But unlike Seressa, I entertain no such fantasies with you. What I meant was just a dip. Literally. Just the feet.”, she said.
“Seressa has a fantasy to—”, Brom started with awe.
“—Been running back and forth for so long in that bloody tower, my feet are itching for a warm wash.”, she said.
Brom scowled furiously at the gnomic girl, but she merely gave him a pleasant ‘sneer’, turned around, and went to sit next to a little, happily running stream.
She took off her right clobbering boot, and her thick, woolen sock, followed by her left clobbering boot and sock then dipped both her feet into the stream and groaned with happy ecstasy.
Brom came up to her and stared at the little stream.
“We are in the north end of the central part of The Great Northern Tundra’s, girl. How are your feet not frozen?”, he asked curiously.
“Your guestimation of our location is quite accurate.”, Tonic said.
“It isn’t a guestimation, girl. The Celestial Mountain is right there. We are staring at it, like, right now!”
“True.”, agreed, the gnomic girl. “And we are also not wearing any winter gear, you’ll note. Yet here we are, not freezing our midgety little arses, either. I don’t think physics work correctly here. The water is fine, by the way. A happy sort of warm, to be precise.”
“A happy sort of warm, by definition, is not something you can use when you are going for precision, girl!”, mumbled Brom, but didn’t bother taking off his boots, nor his socks. He was a hobbit and hobbits used neither. Everyone knew that. Hence he merely rolled up his pants and carefully dipped his bushy feet into the happy stream..
..and also groaned with ecstasy.
“Do describe how the water is, if you will, Master Brom.”, she said.
“A happy sort of warm!”, he replied, groaning some more.
“Two, quite dissimilar people describing the same thing, using the same words, is called ‘precision’, Master Brom. Not in a mathematical sense, perhaps, but I am an engineer and an artificer and we go for practicality over some theoretical but unlikely perfection.. Accuracy by way of numbers is mere ‘convenience’, and not always the proof of the existence of precision, nor perfection, ironic as that may seem..”, she explained mirthfully.
“You are in a happy mood.”, Brom said. “Just how much am I going to get hurt at the end?”
“Why would I hurt you? Unless you are referring to my nose..”, she said.
Brom did not reply.
IT’S A TRAP! —something shouted in his mind and thought that made an even better reference to something he’d read called Scar Wars, as opposed to whatever the little gnomic girl had..
“It’s alright, Master Brom. Took one of my syringes at it. Hurt like a son-of-a- well.. suffice to say it hurt.. A lot.. But in retrospect, you did the right thing back there. I wouldn’t want you to make a habit of it though. Had I stayed panicked the way I was, in all likeliness, we’d be dead. So.. I suppose a thank you, is in order here; Thank you!”
“Uhhmm.. You just thanked me for breaking your nose, girl. Who the hell are you and where is Tonic?”, Brom said, looking at the gnomic girl in wonder.. and trepidation.
“I suppose you want to know what happened back there?”
“Want!”, exclaimed Brom, mimicking to gnomic girl’s voice.
“You know, it is alright to mime the classics. Not so much when you mime me..”, she fumed.
It seemed like it was Brom’s turn to snicker.
Hence he did.
But apparently, her need to explain the things she’d done overcame her wont to destroy the bushy little hobbit then and there, so she set her tiny feet even deeper into the happy sort of warm stream, ignoring the fact that her pants were soaking now.
“The frame we pulled down from the wall, back at his workshop had two things, Master Brom; my deranged uncle’s painting and something else on top of that. The technical schematics of his finalized and only successful version of his famous Demon Gate.. The one we were looking for; version 111.4! The idiot had put it up and hid it in ‘plain sight’, and quite literally, I might add, for the schematics itself was invisible! You couldn’t see it, but I could, thanks to my Lantern of Revealing, but I am afraid that lantern only works for me because it’s attuned to me and to me alone. A bit like the goggles I gave you, but with a lot more prejudice. All I had to do was de-attune the goggles before I handed them over to you. It is now attuned to you because that’s how it works, which is beside the point.”
“I saw you draw some things.. Small lines, I think they were..”, said Brom, as he tried to digest what he’d just heard.
“I might have made one or three little modifications to his finalized, v.111.4, yes..”, Tonic said happily.
“I changed three ‘sixes’ to three ‘eights’..”, the little gnomic girl purred.
Apparently, there was something to purr, here, but Brom just couldn’t see it.
“Do you know what triangulation is, Master Brom?”, she asked.
“That it might have something to do with triangles? Maybe?”
“Yes.. I suppose that is true.. though totally off the mark, which is ironic, really, in its accuracy, when looking at it from an end-result point of view.”
“Alright. I officially have no idea what you just said.”, Brom frowned.
“Let me try to explain this to you in a way you might understand, Master Brom. Please point at the Celestial Mountain, if you will.”, she said and Brom got the district impression that there was going to be a quiz and harsh grading at the end.
He stared at the little gnomic girl.
“Humor me..”, she said.
Brom sighed and pointed at the majestic mountain.
“Now, baring some rather impressive illusions or mental projections, or some demented insanity on your part, or you are dreaming of me explaining triangulation to you —which would definitely tantamount to some kind of demented insanity on your part, you know, with relative certainty, that the Celestial Mountain is there because you are pointing right at it.”
“Can I just straight up plead insanity and get away with it?”, he mumbled grumpily.
“No, you can’t. Only I get to use that card! Now shut up and pay attention!”, wasped the little gnomic girl savagely.
Brom decided to keep his mouth shut.. for now.. It wasn’t like he would understand any of it anyway.
“Now point, say, one degree to your left.. or about half an inch or so.. Now you are still pointing at the Celestial Mountain because it’s so big and we are so close to it. Let’s assume you know exactly where Celestial Mountain is, and someone asked you where it was, and both of you are at Shakehands, the barbarian trade town way off to the east, and then you moved your finger half an inch to either side, would you still be pointing at the Celestial Mountain?”
“Well..”, said Brom a bit befuddled. “Relatively, yes, I suppose. Though that kind of accuracy is sort of moot, from as far away as Shakehands and considering all the mountains and other geographical obstacles along the way. But if he were to truly follow where I was pointing, sort of in a crows flight, and in a strictly straight line, I am thinking he’d totally miss the mountain and fall off a cliff!”
“Precisely!”, agreed, Tonic. “Now assume you are pointing at the same mountain for someone else, let’s say, a fellow hobbit who lives in your Bowling Hills.. with a similar, ‘half an inch off the mark’.. Where do you suppose he will end up?”
“I am not sure, but I think he will hurt himself and not really praise me for it, not to mention he will blame me for inaccuracy..”, Brom said.
“Now let’s take the same example to the location of the Academy of Melshieve..”
“I am not taking anything to your Academy of Melshieve. You guys are too pricey for my taste and are just weird!”
“I am not sure they would even be able to arrive at the central northern tundra’s if I pointed all the way from your Academy.. He might end up at the Citadel of Gullem the Damned, and doing that to anyone is just mean!”, frowned the hobbit.
“This is where triangulations come in.”, she said.
“Ow, we are just coming to that..”, mumbled Brom.
“If let’s say, three of you pointed at the said mountain—”
“Three of me? Girl, the world can’t even bear just the one of me, let alone three!”, inserted Brom.
“—one pointing from Shakehands, one pointing from, say, the Great Arashkan city, and one pointing from Heavens Hand Keep at the same time and you crossed all three lines, you would, with a certain accuracy, arrive at the Celestial Mountain.. and not fall off a cliff.”
“I beg to differ, but please, do go on..”, said Brom with some exasperation.
“This is called, Triangulation, and it is particularly important when you are calling, or summoning things, such as demons, from a distance that is infinitely further away, such as Hell or Abyss itself, not that Hell nor Abyss can truly be quantified in terms of far or close in a linear sense because they are, in actuality, another planes of existences, but you get my drift.. What I did, when I changed three sixes to three eights, I changed the parameters of the Demon Gate’s triangulation, making them point in three, very different directions. That point-oh-two difference will cause all the energy being poured into that gate to fluctuate and overload, rather that point at the same spot to crack open a hole, per se, to Hell, causing it to malfunction at the very least, or to explode at best!”, she finished happily!
Brom stared stunned at the little gnomic girl.
“Ow. My. Good. Heavens.. We.. No, you were the cause of the destruction of the Demon Gate that’s already happened?”
“Not the destruction, merely the ruination. Yes, one could argue that for all intents and purpose they amount to the same thing, from a practical point of view, I suppose. Also, it hasn’t happened yet, Master Brom. Or rather, it hadn’t happened yet. Not bad for a glorified grunt, now is it? Not to mention the colossal irony here; the great Arcanton Mordenon, ruined by no other than the little girl he stuck into a dark, little cage, surrounded by his demons.. Had he never snatched me from my parents and brought me to his tower, I would have been just another, happy little girl and likely still playing with my dolls, never been to the Academy, never met my pair, Seressa, never met you guys, never been to the tundra’s and pretty much never time-jumped.. Indeed, the irony is so tangible, makes me want to whoop and dance. Even now, I can barely contain my cool!”, she snickered.
Brom just ogled at her.
“But I dare not take all the credit. Had you not been there, or Cora, or my Seressa, there would have been no way I could have been able to pull that off.. Considering how I panicked by just the mention of my uncle’s arrival.”
“But.. why did you stab his portrait then?”
“Diversion, mostly. My uncle had to think we were just some enterprising marauders looking for loot. Powerful enough to slaughter our way to his room, but not subtle enough to find what was most precious to him.. And because we couldn’t find any loot in his workshop, we got pissed and vandalized his property, enforcing that very idea in him.”, Tonic explained smugly. “Otherwise, he would have looked closer at his ‘portrait’, and noticed the changes I made. He is going to come rushing in there wondering only about one thing; his greatest feat, his life’s accomplishment, his ‘baby’.. He will see his workshop in wreck and see that his hidden plans have actually survived with a mere slash, which will not deter him, but elate him and make him think us as fools who missed the great prize.. And also because it was fun as Hell, slashing at his face like that! But because I was too absorbed in defacing his face, I totally forgot your wont to leave a mark of your own on him, so I let you blow up his room, making sure you kept to your promise without endangering your bushy little self and saving my Seressa from a whole slew of sad, slobbering nights in return.”
“Girl.. what you did was..”, Brom stammered.
“Awesome?”, Tonic offers with a very pleased snicker.
“Awesome..”, finished Brom.
“Why are we here, though, as opposed to freezing in a tent full of old, scowling hags?”, he mused, looking around.
“I am not complaining. This is rather nice..”, Tonic said, also looking around. “Do me a favor?”
“Sure.”, Brom said.
“I am going to go and join those two so they can both do my back! After the stunt I pulled, I fully deserve a duel back scrubbing.. And a decent hair wash, and a concubine hair brushing!”
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it..”, Brom mimicked the gnomic girls’ previous mime.. with a compounded smirk.
Tonic squinted at him with her thousand-yard stare.
“Half of either of them can do your, pint-sized back, girl”, noted Brom.
“Yes. But I want both of them to do it. And you know why?”
“Because you are Datman?”
“Oh! Didn’t know you were an EC fan..”
“I am not. But their trilogy was awesome!”
“Which what I am; AWESOME!”, she said massively.
“So, what do you want from me? I ain’t doing your back too, girl!”
“I don’t want your midget hands on me, boy!”, she sniffed disdainfully. “I want you to stay here and not peek!”
“I don’t do peek, Tonic. Ogle, yes. Peek, no.”
“Not much of a difference there, boy!”
“There is a ‘horizon to horizon’ difference.. Ogling implies a certain amount of involuntary staring, and likely at something with awe and that is in plain sight.”
“Like Seressa’s skimpy pinks?”, snickered the little gnomic girl.
“No. Like Wraiven’s glorious pinks..”, corrected the hobbit with slight indignation. “Peeking, on the other, hand implies sneaking and looking at something without their knowledge, hence, lacking any form of consent, and that is just rude! Which is why I don’t do peeking without consent..”
“How is it even peeking, if it’s with consent?”
“Go, Tonic.. Just go.. I am not in the mood to explain the higher nuances of how certain things work, such as just how captivating peeking is, even though consent has been granted.. Especially when the said concessions have been given, because it is now no longer something despicable, deranged and rude, but playful and intriguing —for both parties..”, he said glumly.
“You are the weirdest boy I have ever met, Brom Bumblebrim, and I am not even sure if I am saying it in a good or bad way!”, said Tonic a bit baffled.
“Alright. Let me try to explain this to you in a way you might understand, Miss Tonic..”, he said, using her exact words.
“Do I need to point somewhere?”, she snickered.
“No. No pointing or triangle-whatsits are required in my explanations.”, Brom shrugged.
“By all means, Master Brom. Enlighten me..”, she said.
“When you and your prince, the Gordigon boy were sneaking off secretly in the woods..”, he said with a certain amount of badly concealed amusement.
Tonic’s face flushed in a very hot shade of pink..
“..you chatted, yes?”, he asked.
“Yes. So?”, the gnomic girl blurted.
“Was he looking at your face?”
“Yes. So?”, repeated Tonic.
“All the time?”, he asked with a certain emphasis.
“I don’t really remember. I.. was kind of ogling at him.. He looked so.. yummy!”, she admitted, blushing even hotter.
“So he only stared at your face, then?”, Brom pressed.
“I don’t know. I certainly hope not. I mean, I probably had smudges all over my face. Hells Bells, boy, he could stare anywhere he wants, as long as it’s in my direction!”, she replied with a defiant and savage tone, all the while burning bright red now.
“There you have it, Miss Tonic. You were ogling at him, and he was peeking at you with your implied consent, and apparently, your savage blessing.. He was, I am sure, extremely happy that he could gaze upon the girl he found lovable and took everything he could by means of politely peeking, to his heart’s content. And he didn’t do so overtly, but covertly, making it a pleasurable, and memorable game for the both of you. He enjoyed the peeking and seeing as how happy your face is now, I’d say you enjoyed being peeked at, too. Being admired the way you want to be admired, by the person you admire, and want to admire, is one of the greatest pleasures one lover can offer to another, my dear Miss Tonic.”, he replied, gazing not at her, but somewhere off, and to someone he couldn’t see.
It took a while for poor Tonic to unblush and return to her norm and neither did Brom ogle nor peek at her during that time. He just stared off, where he had, then with a sigh, turned to gaze at the distant Celestial Mountain..
When the gnomic girl came around, she cleared her throat in an, ‘Ok. I am back now’, sort of way, so Brom picked up where he’d left..
“—So instead of unconsented peeking, I shall sit my sad, lonesome arse right here and contemplate on the finer points of the philosophical ramifications of your triangulation-whatsit!”
Tonic inadvertently cackled.
“No you are not.”, she said heartlessly.
“No, I am not..”, agreed, the hobbit, deploringly.
Tonic cackled some more, pulled her tiny feet out of the happy warm stream, smacked them together with child-like delight, then put her right sock, and her clobbering right boot on, then put her left sock—
“Need a hand with that?”, Brom offered.
“Need a hand with what?”, asked Tonic.
“Your boot.. Need help putting it on?”
Tonic stared at Brom with this funny expression on her face.
“I wasn’t aware you had a fetish for my feet, Master Brom. I appreciate the sentiment, but I am afraid I just don’t go that way.”
“Are you alright?”, he asked her, with a frown.
“Yes, why? Are you alright? What is this sudden interest you got with my foot, Master Brom?”
“It doesn’t.. hurt?”, he asked tentatively.
“Hurt? Why would it hurt? Did you put something in my boot, Master Brom? If you did, I swear there will be a reckoning—”, she threatened.
“—No, no.. Nothing of the sort.”, he said hastily.
“This is some kind of convoluted scheme you cooked up to keep me from going, it isn’t it?”, she squinted at the hobbit.
“No. No, it isn’t”, denied Brom.
“Well I am telling you, boy, it isn’t going to work!”, she said with a slight frown as she put her remaining boot on..
“By all means, go, Miss Tonic.. And have fun..”, he said quickly to fend off any real threats.
“I will.”, Tonic declared and stomped off in her heavy, clobbering boots, and without a hitch.
When she was perhaps ten yards away though, she paused.
“Please, don’t!”, said Brom.
“Please don’t, what?”, she asked a bit baffled.
“Please don’t insert the last word and go. That is such a cliché!”, grumbled Brom.
“What you just said. About being admired the way one would want to be admired, and by whom I would want to be admired..”
“That was a masterpiece, Master Brom. I shall convey this to a certain person, hence she could put that into her Book of Awesome Deeds, also.. That pleasurable line shouldn’t be wasted on me. “
“You liked it, then?”, asked Brom.
“Well, sure..”, Tonic said. “It’s a good line.”
“Than it’s not wasted, Miss Tonic, and it has gone to the highest bidder!”
“Why, thank you. But I still think she should write it down.”
“I would rather you didn’t tell her, Tonic.. What I said was for your ears. Should I want to tell her such ‘awesome’ things, as you say, I would rather she heard them from me..”, Brom said softly.
The little gnomic girl looked at Brom, thinking how she should phrase her next words, so as not to sound like an ungrateful ass!
“PLAN B— PLAN B— PLAN B—”, choired her inner Tonic suddenly!
“Plan B, it is, then.”, she murmured to herself, took a deep breath, and spoke her piece..
“I am the last person to give advice or lecture on matters not pertaining engineering or artificing, Master Brom. And least of all, to you. So when you hear what I have to say, please take that into consideration and note my despair that she does not mind when people make her choices for her. My only consolidation is the definitive recognition that she does this, not out of diffidence, but out of trust in those people. It is, however, perhaps time we let her, my Seressa, be the judge of her own choices and we stop abusing that trust.”, the little gnomic girl said with a tiny, underscoring frown.
Brom felt his shoulders sag.
Arcantonic Palecog looked at him for a moment longer, nodded at him in salute, then left, with a certain, energetic skip to her pace..
Brom stared after the skipping little gnomic girl, Arcantonic, who had just destroyed Arcanton Mordenon’s over one hundred and forty years of delirious labor with mere three, tiny, and practically indiscernible lines and a vengefully murdered portrait, as she disappeared off in the distance where he could, to his mournful despair, vaguely hear the girly shrieks and splashing delights of Cora and Seressa..
“Huh..”, he grunted. “She could skip now. Odd..”
When Tonic says;
“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?” —is a reference to Transformers, Interrogation Scene.
Also, when she says;
“Reserve’s got nothing to do with it!” —its’ a reference to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
A long stream of refugees disembark from the damaged Arashkan ships to the shores of Serenity Home town, adding to the already unmercifully overcrowded town and the lands surrounding it. From the last ship, a pair; one handsome but tired-looking blond half-elf, the other, a boldly beautiful young woman walk down the ship’s plank and follow the last remains of what was once The Great and Glorious Arashkan, towards the town that’s offering more than it has.
This story takes place a week or so after
The Stab In The Back
and sometime after
Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig;
“A Debt Father to Daughter Passed..”
Agent Largo: This is a bad idea. My guestimation is one of three outcomes..
Lilly Venom: That so?
Agent Largo: Yes. (a) He will suffer a traumatic shock and runoff, shouting how much he hates me. (b) He will undergo some form of angst, followed by an episode of a not so unexpected breakdown, accuse me of letting his mother get killed, and very likely result in him punching me. (c) He will outright defy me, saying I wasn’t there when he was growing up and when he needed me, and that he’s all grown up now, doesn’t need me at all, and will refuse to see or talk to me..
Lilly Venom: Angst, huh? Never thought you a man for high drama, Agent Largo. But here you are, proving me wrong.
Agent Largo: You pun me.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) I pun a lot of people, Agent Largo, and you still owe me a dinner. I hope this town has a decent inn.
Agent Largo: You came here before, Lady Lilly. You should know.
Lilly Venom: The key to being a good assassin, Agent Largo, isn’t the kill, no matter how effective or efficient you are at it.. It is knowing your target.. and their habits.. And of course, never being noticed. The Temple Guardian, Demos, never visited the inn, hence neither did I. Thinking back, good thing I never did visit the inn.
Agent Largo: Ow?
Lilly Venom: Inns are a good source for local gossip, news, and information.. and finding out who is who. Had I visited the inn, I definitely would have left this town with at least one corpse.
Agent Largo: You know someone in this town, then? On a personal level?
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) That’s none of your business, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really enjoy calling me ‘Agent’, all the time, don’t you, Lady Lilly?
Lilly Venom: More than you like ‘Lady’ing me.
Agent Largo: (side glance) You are in a mood, today.
Lilly Venom: I am in a mood, every day, Agent Largo. Have you decided on what to do? About your Dexter, and about your job? At the moment, you have neither.
Agent Largo: That was a tad harsh, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: I have never fallen head-over-heels for any man, Agent Largo. But I am willing to give you a shot—
Agent Largo: Coming from you, that sounds ominous. I am not sure if I should feel elated, or I should start wearing full body armor.
Lilly Venom: —And I don’t like distractions.
Agent Largo: You are quite a target-oriented person, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: I am a Drashan girl, Agent Largo. Everyone is someone’s target there. And if you are a girl, that number rises exponentially. But I have always believed in celibacy. It removes the option of unwanted distractions and complications.
Agent Largo: That’s a bit.. lonesome..
Lilly Venom: Any self-respecting Drashan marries only once, Agent Largo. That being said, there is no such thing as a ‘self-respecting Drashan’, and the only thing we truly marry is ‘death!’
Agent Largo: You make it sound like it’s a proverb.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) It is.. Have you decided what to do?
Agent Largo: I was hoping to get killed in the upcoming battle and save everyone the hassle.
Lilly Venom: No.
Agent Largo: No?
Lilly Venom: No, Agent Largo. You owe me dinner and I refuse to dine with a coward.
Agent Largo: Now, that really was harsh, Lady Lilly. And totally uncalled for.
Lilly Venom: Then go to the boy, knock on his door, or knock it down and say ‘Hi..’, sit down, and explain all your reasons for having done what you did. He might get angry, he might pout, or he might be happy. I would be happy if my mother rose from her grave and came to visit me.. though I doubt she has a grave.. Unclaimed bodies are usually just dumped into the sea with the rest of the derelict, in Drashan..
Agent Largo: That’s.. sad..
Lilly Venom: You don’t really have to act the ‘understanding type’, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: I am not the ‘acting’ type of spy, Lady Lilly. I am the ‘orchestrating’ kind of agent. Though I see nothing to orchestrate, here. Well, actually there is.. with a lot of potential.. but I just don’t want to..
Lilly Venom: By all means, Agent Largo, do!
Agent Largo: No.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Agent Largo: You are a girl with a very special and specific set of skills, Lady Lilly. But you have honor and, diverse as it may seem, you also have integrity. I am afraid, I just don’t feel like playing with and consequently destroying either. Whatever sins I may have done, I have done for my Arashkan. I never wanted you to be part of that even before we met for the same reasons I mentioned above. The only reason I called upon you was because High Lady Angrellen left me little to no choice and I needed help.. desperately..
Lilly Venom: Do I sense ‘tender care’ in all of that?
Agent Largo: (replies with silence)
Lilly Venom: (after an extended, counter-silence, and a sigh) Neither my honor nor my integrity will save me should I ever be subjected to the law, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: Arashkan is destroyed, Lady Lilly, therefore I am no longer the law.. And hence, I feel no obligation whatsoever to turn you in. Funny how that turned out.
Lilly Venom: (more silence) You will likely end up an outlaw too..
Agent Largo: I have been in and out of said law for longer than I can remember but never for personal gain. If for once, I end up doing that, I don’t mind doing it for you.. At all! I will do whatever job I can find, once this war is over and provided I am still alive. As for my son.. He will accept me, perhaps in time, or he will not. I did what I did, to preserve his life. He will either understand this too or not. But if you are willing to be with a fool like me, I am willing to do what it takes, Lady Lilly..
Lilly Venom: My contract with you was—
Agent Largo: —Your contract with me got voided at least twice.. back in Arashkan.. when you saved my life in the tunnel and then again after High Lady Angrellen trampled over us.. And possibly any number of other times I am not even aware of, when you watched my back on our deadly plight to get the civilians and the remaining guards out to the docks, and aboard the ships, Lady Lilly.. So when I say, you have my gratitude, I mean it at its maximum capacity. Many people who are alive now owe their lives to me. Funny how they fail to see, they actually owe it to you..
Lilly Venom: (stares ahead and does not say anything)
Agent Largo: ..We will have to take Prince Korodin in with us, though. Quite unavoidable, really. I did, after all, give my word of honor to Lady Ferrara, and the boy needs training from the best..
Lilly Venom: (snort) A wanted assassin and a former ARIS Agent..
Agent Largo: Like I said; The best..
Lilly Venom: (back to serious) Someone’s bound to notice me eventually, you know.
Agent Largo: I thought all you assassins were good with disguises.
Lilly Venom: We usually are. It’s part of our basic training program.
Agent Largo: There you have it then.. A good handlebar mustache or a chevron, along with a brett, and no one will ever recognize you.
Lilly Venom: (snort) Yes. I am sure no one will recognize me, but everyone will notice you, constantly arm in arm with a guy!
Agent Largo: So you want it to be ‘arm in arm’ and constantly, then?
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) Depends on the dinner, Agent Largo.
Agent Largo: You really have your mindset on that dinner, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Yes. I do.
Agent Largo: Why? I don’t mind a dinner.. many dinners with you, Lady Lilly, but why indeed?
Lilly Venom: Because it will be a first, for me.
Agent Largo: (blink) You mean you have never had dinner with anyone in your life?
Lilly Venom: Agent Largo.. Just who would dine with a wanted fugitive such as myself, let alone an unaffiliated, freelancing assassin?
Agent Largo: Apparently, me..
Lilly Venom: That is yet to be seen.. and I think we are here..
Agent Largo: I suppose we are.
Lilly Venom: There are guards at the town gates and they seem to be questioning everyone before they let them in.
Agent Largo: Let me handle the guards, if you will, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Handle away, Agent Largo. I have no issues with a capable man. I have nothing to prove, and neither do you.
Agent Largo: I must disagree. Every man has something to prove, where a pretty girl is involved. If you can accept that, we can move forward.
Lilly Venom: I suppose I must. Since you think me ‘pretty’.. So, yes, I am willing to take that risk.
Agent Largo: (smile) Forward it is, then..
✱ ✱ ✱
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Good afternoon, sir.
Agent Largo: Good afternoon.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: What can I do for you, sir?
Agent Largo: We are Arashkan refugees, to see Dexter Summersong.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: And what business do you have with the town bard? He has a full schedule, training the platoon assigned to him.
Agent Largo: He.. he has?
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Yes, sir. Anyone with any skill sets is expected to train others for the upcoming battle. Any kind of training is of use. You can fill in this form over here, take a number and you will be assigned somewhere, or be assigned to someone..
Agent Largo: I see. I will fill in the forms, but after I see Sir Dexter..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Very well, sir?
Agent Largo: Largo.. Largo Summersong.. And this is Lady Ferra and the young boy is my distant relative, Rodin.
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Alright, sir Largo. I shall send a runner and see if our bard, Dexter, is available. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can not let you in until there is some sort of vouch —security protocols, you understand..
Agent Largo: Of course..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Perhaps you can take the time to fill in your forms in the meantime, sir? It may take a while for Sir Dexter to get here..
Agent Largo: (sigh) Very well..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: ARIS Agent? Really? You are actually going to write that?!
Agent Largo: Well, why not? For once in my life, I actually don’t have to lie about my job!
Lilly Venom: Then I guess I will just have to write ‘Assassin For Hire’, in my form, then.
Agent Largo: You.. might not want to do that, Lady Lilly.. For my sake, if not yours..
Lilly Venom: I don’t do lies, Agent Largo. Perhaps you might have noticed that.
Agent Largo: I have.. And it’s made me wonder..
Lilly Venom: A good assassin does not do lies, Agent Largo. Lies constantly require attention to keep track and that clusters the mind. And because I study my contacts very well and plan my exit strategies accordingly so I never have to lie. O.P.G.G.. Observe. Plan. Get in. Get out..
Agent Largo: You really never cease to amaze me, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Also, it is immoral to lie!
Agent Largo: (stares at Lilly)
Lilly Venom: What? Just because I am an assassin, doesn’t mean I lack moral codes, Agent Largo. I kill because it’s my job, not because I enjoy doing it. That is what was available for me to learn to stay afloat at Drashan, so I learned it well. Had I enjoyed it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because you would have been dead and I would have been elsewhere, busy cutting throats.
Agent Largo: Touché.
Lilly Venom: (shrug) It’s the truth.
Agent Largo: Write, ‘Security Advisor’, then. I am guessing you can do that very well.
Lilly Venom: I suppose..
Agent Largo: It won’t be a lie..
Lilly Venom: (sigh) It had better be a very good dinner, Agent Largo..
✱ ✱ ✱
Agent Largo: Here you go, sir. Two forms.. One for me, and one for the lady..
Serenity Home Gate Guard: Thank you, sir Largo. Sir Dexter should be here soon.. Ow.. and here he is.. Sir Dexter. These are the two who wished to see you; Sir Largo and his lady, Ferra..
D.D. Dexter: (stunned) Dad?
Agent Largo: (flustered) Uhhmm.. Hello, son..
D.D. Dexter: (still stunned) You.. You are not dead!
Agent Largo: (still flustered) I.. can explain..
Lilly Venom: (snort)
D.D. Dexter: Who are you?
Lilly Venom: I am the girl your father owes a dinner to!
D.D. Dexter: (stunned and shocked) You have a girlfriend? She is younger than I am, dad!
Agent Largo: (flustered and blushing now) I.. can explain that too..
Lilly Venom: (snort) Your father is alive and well, and you are worried about my age?
D.D. Dexter: (splutter) What the heck, dad?!
Agent Largo: (going down in flames) I…
Lilly Venom: (briskly) Your priorities are mind staggering, boy.
Agent Largo: (dead because of fighting in two fronts now) Uhmm.. Lilly..
Lilly Venom: (mildly agitated) What? After some twenty-odd years, he sees his father, ALIVE, and he is making an issue of my age? Really, now.. I thought bards were a polite bunch, if not smart!
(many footsteps approach)
Sheriff Standorin: (Udoorin’s father) (stern officious voice) Lilly Venom. You are under arrest and wanted for the murder of Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch. Please do not resist. Master Aager, please arrest this felon, if you will..
D.D. Dexter: What the..
Agent Largo: Ow crap!
Aager Fogstep: (approaches Lilly with cuffed and hisses at her with an extremely angry, tight voice ) You idiot!
Lilly Venom: (sigh)
Agent Largo: (more than flustered) Sheriff Standorin—
Sheriff Standorin: (with a heavy club in one hand) And you, former Agent Largo.. You are also under arrest for aiding and abetting a known fugitive. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. I suggest you keep to your silence!
Agent Largo: Sheriff Standorin. You know who I am. You know what I do—
Sheriff Standorin: —There.. I appreciate it when criminals heed to good advice when it’s given and stay silent. How about you, Venom, how would you like your reception? The same, perhaps, would you rather exercise your right to silence?
Lilly Venom: (shrug) No, I’m good..
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: How are you?
Agent Largo: I hurt. The good sheriff has a heavy hand with that club of his..
Lilly Venom: (heartlessly) I wouldn’t know, Agent Largo. I did not resist.
Agent Largo: (sigh) Well.. That certainly went well!
Lilly Venom: This is sort of embarrassing for me, to be honest. The first time I come to a town with no ill intent, and I am detained and put to jail. Remind me again why we are here?
Agent Largo: The boy.. Where’s he?
Lilly Venom: Which one?
Agent Largo: Both, I guess?
Lilly Venom: Your Dexter was with the Sheriff the time I saw him, though he did come in to check in on you once. You were still out so he just stared at you.. and me as well, I guess, since your head was on my lap.. He was furious and was looking somewhere to lash out. I told him if he tried that in my direction, he would lose everything he thought was dear to him. I might have threatened him with evisceration and death by choking on poisonous darts as well.. We had a small chat after that, though only I spoke. Told him everything you did for him and why.. He didn’t say anything, but he listened, then he left..
Agent Largo: I should have been the one to tell him those.. Not the evisceration and death by poison darts, part.. The other things..
Lilly Venom: Probably. But you were making such a lousy job out of it.. And the boy needed to know.. Hearing it from a third person is sometimes better. Gave him something to think about besides pouting, at least.. He might come around, or he might not. It’s on him now.
Agent Largo: (sighs) Thank you.. Lilly.. What about the prince?
Lilly Venom: They took him elsewhere. I suppose they will question him first for some kind of leverage.
Agent Largo: Korodin won’t tell them anything except that his name is ‘Rodin’ and that I am his distant uncle. And he will keep repeating that.. unless they hurt the boy.. And if they do that, I will get out of here and really murder someone!
Lilly Venom: (a bit surprised) You care for the boy!
Agent Largo: Well, sure.. He is my prince.
Lilly Venom: True. But you personally care for him..
Agent Largo: (sigh) Yes, Lilly.. I personally care for him. He’s young but I suspect he understands what’s going on around him a lot more than he lets on. And we read The Amazing Adventures of Blom Bundlebim Hobim. Anyone who reads that book together, are bro’s for life!
Lilly Venom: (snort) Boys!
Agent Largo: Don’t pun the ‘bros bond’, Lilly. It’s a real thing!
Lilly Venom: (slight frown) I am no longer a Lady, then, Agent Largo? Why am I suddenly not a lady anymore?
Agent Largo: (sigh) We share a cell and that’s as close to any woman I have been since my wife was murdered, and that was more than two decades ago. I believe that calls for a bit of honest sincerity. I don’t think this was the dinner you had in mind but here we are, in a quiet and dim setting.. just like you wanted. We even have candlelight. I am in your hands.. and your lap, quite literally, I might add.
Lilly Venom: (stares down at the face in her lap, studying it, perhaps to finalize a decision)
We have no dinner, Agent Largo..
Agent Largo: Jail food is never really all that good, but it’s always on time. Should arrive soon enough..
Lilly Venom: Very well, Agent Largo.. Will you propose now?
Agent Largo: I was really hoping for better conditions, Lilly.. You deserve better conditions..
Lilly Venom: I think I will be receiving ‘what I deserve’ on the morrow, Agent Largo. I wouldn’t fret about it too much if I were you.
Agent Largo: You could get away, you know.. I am sure these bars can’t keep you..
Lilly Venom: Could say the same thing for you, Agent Largo, but you won’t.. Because of your son and because of the damage it might do to his reputation.. For similar reasons, I won’t either. Just.. not for a son or daughter.. (pauses for a moment, then sighs) And I gave the good sheriff my word that I wouldn’t try to escape, provided he let me stay in the same cell with you.
Agent Largo: Huh! A wasted bargain, if you ask me, though I can’t complain about my current disposition; your lap is surprisingly.. intriguing. Enough to want to know what’s on either end.
Lilly Venom: (amused) A foot on one end, and a hip on the other, Agent Largo, among other things, and you don’t have rights to any of them.. At the moment.. Not unless you want to embarrass yourself more than you already have.
Agent Largo: (snort) Fair enough. I am guessing the other reason you stayed has to do with the person you know in this town?
Lilly Venom: (silence)
Agent Largo: Very well, then.. If I will have more of your breath.. and perhaps get clubbed every once in a while knowing I shall wake up to your lap, then I would very much like to propose. Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me, Ferra Ferrea? To be my wife, my companion, my partner, possibly in crime, and my friend?
Lilly Venom: Yes. I would, Largo Summersong. The rest of my life, short as that maybe, I would like to spend it with you.. Same conditions!
Agent Largo: The name is Lauca, actually.
Lilly Venom: Lauca?
Agent Largo: Means, ‘warm‘, in Elvish, though I have no idea what my mother was thinking when she gave me that name. It is supposed to relate to ‘A Warm Summer Song’.. But I have been using Largo since a bit before I joined ARIS because they sound similar and Largo was easier to pronounce. This, however, is a definitive occasion, so I thought at least you should know.
Lilly Venom: Lauca.. Sounds intriguing.. Means, warm?
Agent Largo: Please don’t make too much pun of it. Half-elves tend to get touchy when it comes to certain things.
Lilly Venom: Lauca.. Am I pronouncing it right?
Agent Largo: Do you want to pronounce it right?
Lilly Venom: I would, yes.
Agent Largo: Why bother?
Lilly Venom: Why bother with Ferra Ferrea?
Agent Largo: Touché.. and point taken, I suppose.
Lilly Venom: I shall call you by this name, from time to time, so we remember a warm summer song!
Agent Largo: That.. actually sounded poetic. Much better than I ever thought it would.
Lilly Venom: I think, I like it..
Agent Largo: Alright. Now we’ll need a witness or two..
Lilly Venom: I believe we have.. a witness or two..
Agent Largo: We do?
Lilly Venom: Yes, we do.. Don’t we, Aager?
Aager Fogstep: (sighs and comes out of the shadows) You really are an idiot, Lilly.. What possessed you to come here? This place is going to burn, and very soon.. and you came here?
Lilly Venom: Hello, Fogstep. Good to see you too.. Less than I wanted to, but here I am..
Aager Fogstep: This isn’t a game, Lilly. I have no authority over the sheriff, and certainly not over the mayor. I thought you were a survivor.
Lilly Venom: I am tired of just surviving, Aager. I have done it all my life. Took a page from your book and I have decided I want to ‘live’ now..
Aager Fogstep: And you came here.. For that.. Just how stupid are you?
Inshala Frostmane: (comes out from behind Aager) That is not nice, my Aager. I do not think Lilly is stupid. I think her to be extremely smart. Certainly smart enough to make all the correct choices, when we were back at Arashkan.
Lilly Venom: And, here is our inseparable second witness..
Inshala Frostmane: Hello, Ferra.
Lilly Venom: Hello, girl.. You have grown some. And you glow more..
Inshala Frostmane: (blush) I.. I do?
Lilly Venom: Yes. You were scared all the time, the last time I saw you. Now you look.. free!
Agent Largo: Don’t mind me. I’ll just lie down here and nurse the bump on my head.
Lilly Venom: (to Aager) Do you want to introduce yourself, or should I?
Aager Fogstep: (shrug)
Agent Largo: I know who he is. He is SIS —Serenity Intelligence Service; pseudo-named, Aager Fogstep. Single. Real name; unknown. Mother; unknown. Father; unknown. Siblings; rumored to have one, though his or her gender is unknown and presumed dead. He is also a former Drashan convict.. His ‘apparent’ job is being the right hand of Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart. He was one among others to have brought down Themalsar. There are any number of murders attributed to him, though none of them have been proven, nor verified.. The girl, I do not know. None of the spies I sent could get any information about her, back when she, sir Aager here, and their diverse other companions first came to Arashkan and started asking questions about Gar Thalot.. We found out who all her friends were.. Just not her and the one other girl who slept on the roof of the inn they were staying. It’s like neither of them ever existed before. We couldn’t even put a name to them. Heck, we couldn’t even scry them! It was like.. they both were off limits!
Lilly Venom: I am inclined to be impressed, Agent Largo, though I don’t think Aager here qualifies as single and his sibling’s name is ‘me’.
Agent Largo: (confused) Me?
Lilly Venom: (silent smile)
Agent Largo: (somewhat horrified expression) YOU?
Lilly Venom: (smile) ‘ME’..
Agent Largo: (stunned silence)
Lilly Venom: Yes, Agent Largo, he is my elder brother.. I am not at liberty to divulge who or what the other one is, but this cute little girl, here, is Inshala Frostmane. Aager’s girl, woman, mate.. I have thus failed to put a name to what they are, to one another. Nothing seems to sufficiently cover their relation.. In all candor, though, it is likely she is the best thing that’s happened to me in my life and I am happy to call her my sister.. Other than that, I am not aware if she has any other title.
Inshala Frostmane: (beam) I am here in my ‘Ritual Guardian’ capacity, dear Ferra..
Lilly Venom: I do not know what that means.
Agent Largo: I do, and it is an immense ‘capacity’.. I thought the good Master Cathber was killed in his sleep. I wasn’t aware he had any students in training.
Inshala Frostmane: (quietly) He had me. And I had him. He was my Father and my Master since I was a month old.
Agent Largo: I am sorry, young lady. I revered Master Cathber. Now.. Master Aager, Ritual Guardian, if you would be kind enough to put in a good word for Lady Lilly here, I would be grateful. I shall suffer my punishment, whatever it may be.
Lilly Venom: How very noble of you, Sir Agent Largo! I wasn’t aware I was getting a knight in shining armor when I asked for that dinner.
Agent Largo: I apologize, Lilly. But it comes as part of the package!
Inshala Frostmane: (beaming) I have no idea what you just said, but it sounded so sweet. And I didn’t know you were a knight, Sir Largo. I will ask them to release both you and my elder sister Ferra and also to kindly return your shiny armor.
Agent Largo: !
Lilly Venom: (snort)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin: You seem to have left out quite a bit of your personal life, Master Aager. I thought you said your sister was dead.
Aager Fogstep: I thought she was dead, too. Her unexpected appearance in Arashkan did take me off guard.
Sheriff Standorin: I see no mention of this in your reports. Are we making private exemptions, then?
Aager Fogstep: (cooly) Yes and no, Sheriff. Some of the things that happened at Arashkan never got mentioned for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Suffice to say, putting them in writing would have been too damning for the people involved, which includes our esteemed Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane, and by proxy, Ranger Master Davien Hart. Master Nimbletyne Tinkerdome’s niece, Master Gnine, and by his proxy, back to his uncle. Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and High Lady Anglenna Sunsear of High Woods and Bari Na-ammen, damning Ri Grandeleren Feymist and Rise Nadine Graciousward, again, by proxy.. Our Senior Temple Guardian Lady Magella, and by her proxy, Master Argail Smitefast, and the deceased Demos Lightshand. Then we have Udoorin Shieldheart, your son, who also happens to be the betrothal of Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, hence damning her again. And since he’s your son, that would be damning you, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart of Serenity Home town, by a similar proxy. Last but not least, myself, and by my proxy, damning you again! I shall not mention The Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, nor ‘The Celestial’ Merisoul Xyrotwu here as neither of them are within our kingdoms’ jurisdictions.. The title of ‘Ritual Guardian’ is not bestowed by the king nor his vassals, but by the Ritual Forest itself and I shudder to even contemplate just who has any jurisdiction over Merisoul Xyrotwu, other than ‘The Great Heavens’.. What was put into writing, however, was done so from a distinctly ‘relevance’ point of view.
Sheriff Standorin: (amused) Nicely done, Master Aager. You have threatened damning everyone of note in this town and people of the highest status among our neighbors. Not to mention damning my own son, my future daughter in law and myself —twice, I might add..
Aager Fogstep: (coldly) You didn’t bring me here from Drashan to play ball, Sheriff. You brought me here to be the solution!
Agent Largo: (snicker) I did offer to take him off your hands years ago, Sheriff..
Sheriff Standorin: (ignores Agent Largo and glares at Aager) Just how damning are we talking about, here?
Aager Fogstep: (total silence)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh and turns to Lilly Venom) Says here, you are a ‘Security Advisor’, Miss Ferra?
Lilly Venom: Ferra is my given name, Sheriff Standorin. And that would be ‘Mrs.’ Not, ‘Miss’..
Sheriff Standorin: (cocked eyebrow) I wasn’t aware the infamous Lilly Venom was married.
Lilly Venom: I would have been surprised if you were. It happened just last night!
Agent Largo: (cough)
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
Lilly Venom: (smile)
Sheriff Standorin: What the hell do they put into the prison food?!
Agent Largo: I resent that.
Sheriff Standorin: (irritated) What am I expected to do now?
Agent Largo: (shrug) That’s up to you, Sheriff Standorin. This is my home, but it’s your town.
Sheriff Standorin: I suppose you will spill everything should I try to send you to the gallows, Mrs. Lilly?
Lilly Venom: (shrug) I am an Assassin —or a ‘Security Advisor’, if you will, Sheriff. I kill people for a living and I am very good at it. Whether I shall keep doing that is up to consideration at the moment, but I don’t do two things; lies and blackmail.
Agent Largo: I do.. And yes, the irony in that is sort of disturbing, but in this case, I shall uphold Lady Ferra’s wishes.. and honor..
Sheriff Standorin: (scowl) This is a mess, Master Aager. Please tell me the ‘solution’ in all this.
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Hire Agent Largo as part of the Covert Ops team and let him do what he’s good at doing. Hire Lady Ferra, here, as a Security Advisor, as written in her form, and let her do what she’s good at doing. This town can’t stay a town any longer, Sheriff, even should we win the war. You know this to be true. We have tens of thousands of refugees of all races and The Ritual Guardian is doing everything she can to keep the weather ‘mild’ and the ground warm so they don’t freeze to death and so there’s is still some crops growing and hence, food available for the all those hungry mouths. It is also because of her and the druidic elves that survived High Woods we assigned to her that there haven’t been any breakouts.. All those refugees will, however, and eventually, require a roof over their heads, and said homes will require a much, much larger security team.. I am guessing Yuleman already knows this also. Everyone is working hard now and for a common cause because there are a hundred and fifty thousand Orken coming this way. But that’s all going to change, should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone. Especially should we win the day and the threat of imminent death is gone..
(silence for a long, smoldering moment)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh) Very well, Master Aager. I shall take this up to Mayor Yuleman. In the meantime, Master Largo and Lady Lilly will stay in your residence, Master Aager. They may get out into your garden, but they shall not leave the premises. Agreed?
Agent Largo: Agreed.
Lilly Venom: I suppose so..
Agent Largo: I need some rest, anyway. Been running back and forth for weeks now.
Lilly Venom: (cooly) Not tonight, you aren’t!
Agent Largo: (stammer)
Sheriff Standorin: (sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
Aager Fogstep: (quietly) Yes, sir.. And.. Thank you, sir..
(after Agent Largo and Lilly Venom are escorted out)
Sheriff Standorin: Is she as good as they say she is?
Aager Fogstep: (slight frown) She killed me, once!
Sheriff Standorin: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: That was one hell of a speech you gave back there. I am impressed. This place has done you good.
Aager Fogstep: The good sheriff might be a harsh man, but he isn’t unreasonable.
Lilly Venom: (after a moment of pause) Will you give me away, Brother? When your Temple Guardian comes to officiate our marriage?
Aager Fogstep: Bit late to be asking me that question, don’t you think?
Lilly Venom: (quietly) I am.. I am trying, Aager.. This is me, taking those steps..
Aager Fogstep: (silent stare)
Lilly Venom: (returning the silent stare)
Aager Fogstep: Where’s your.. Largo?
Lilly Venom: Outside. Behind the house, talking to his son.
Aager Fogstep: You are okay with him having a son? Not that it should matter and Dexter is a decent man. But the fact remains; both are quite older than you. Agent Largo in particular.
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like the age disparity is all that much, you know. Well, it is, but he’s a half-elf. By the time I am old and crooked, should I see those days, he will still be of mild age.. And to be honest, his age never bothered me, considering how much I dislike fools and loath men in general. I think, being forced to work in Madam’s brothel when I came to age, back in Drashan did that to me.. Do you even know, or have any idea what it feels like to be groped or fondled by a total, filthy stranger who is leering at you with unwanted desire when you are barely twelve?
Aager Fogstep: (in pure, silent wrath) No.
Lilly Venom: You are naked. In all kinds of ways. You are shivering. Not because it’s cold, but because you are so scared. You have no idea what you are expected to do and everyone and everything is looming over you and they are all so much bigger than you.. All you know is you are about to be used and it’s going to hurt and you are going to cry because you are just a small, skinny, powerless girl.. You are going to cry and it will not matter because it won’t change the fact that it’s still going to keep on hurting in places that you shouldn’t be hurting.. Not at that age.. All you have is a tiny knife that you are allowed to use if the man likes beating his girls.. I was so scared that I couldn’t even move.. He became angry.. I don’t know at which point I sliced him open! But when I woke up, I had a cracked head and a bloody face, and he was dead. That was my first kill.. Then I decided to do the same for the next half dozen or so men as well. I just stood there, unmoving, and I was scared all the time.. Eventually, though, it would anger the men and they would slam me around and I would slice them open! That is when they sold me off to the Cutters Guild.. (sigh) I don’t think I could have found someone my age that fit my tastes since I really, truly, and quite mindlessly loathed men.. All men.. Still do, really. Largo.. He has.. seen things.. Bad things.. And over the course of years longer than either of us seen put together.. It has made him mature.. And serious.. Yet he still clings to that lame sense of humor of his. It is pathetic, really.. But I find it.. endearing.. if you could believe that. Yes, I freely admit I like those qualities in him. I.. I don’t think he will grope me like those animals. I think he will treat me.. right.. and alright..
Aager Fogstep: So you love—
Lilly Venom: Aaaaaaa! La, La, La, La, La, La, La !!!
Aager Fogstep: (confused) What?
Lilly Venom: I don’t want to talk THAT with you! I don’t like you that much yet! Or rather, I don’t know you that much yet.. Brother..
Aager Fogstep: Fair enough.
Lilly Venom: (sigh) I don’t think we will ever be like you and Inshala are. And to be honest, I wouldn’t want to.. Too much effort, too much work, too much pain.. and too many emotions for my taste. I just want honesty, care, and reliance —both ways.. But I also want a certain amount of privacy reserved for ourselves too..
Aager Fogstep: Also, fair enough. I am happy for you.
Lilly Venom: You.. you are?
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Yes.
Lilly Venom: This conversation went.. better than I expected!
Aager Fogstep: Just what kind of a beast do you think I am, Lilly, to mess up your happiest day?
Lilly Venom: (carefully suspicious) I am sorry. Hard to change everything, all at once.
Aager Fogstep: (straight face) Besides. You are TOTALLY his problem now!
Lilly Venom: (scowl) I knew it!
Aager Fosgstep: But I would rather you took your man and left. Gone.. Far away..
Lilly Venom: Why don’t you?
Aager Fogstep: I can’t.
Lilly Venom: Why?
Aager Fogstep: (silent moment) This.. is my home now. And my Inshala’s forest.. I won’t give up my home, she won’t give up her forest..
Lilly Venom: Largo will not go. They destroyed his home. He does not show it, probably for my sake, but it’s tearing him apart. I strongly suspect he wants to die in as bloody a way as possible in the coming war.
Aager Fogstep: Why marry him then?
Lilly Venom: Because I.. want him.. per se.. And to give him another reason not to do what he foolishly wants to do.. Besides, we will likely go into the battle together. I’ll just have to watch his back..
Aager Fogstep: You are going into a battle.. because of an idiot?
Lilly Venom: No, brother. I am going to war because I want to preserve what’s mine.. And to earn my own ‘home’..
Aager Fogstep: You are an idiot too, then!
Lilly Venom: Perhaps.. Wonder what that makes you?
Aager Fogstep: The elder brother of an idiot!
Lilly Venom: (scowl)
Aager Fogstep: (snort)
Lilly Venom: Where’s your pretty girl? Where’s Inshala?
Aager Fogstep: She’s up the tree in the garden, trying to convince it to bloom.
Lilly Venom: Do I even want to know why?
Aager Fogstep: The tree is supposed to have very pretty pink flowers. She wants you to share them with your Largo.
Lilly Venom: (stunned) What? I am..
Aager Fogstep: Speechless?
Lilly Venom: Well, yes!
Aager Fogstep: She loves you.
Lilly Venom: I am flattered but how can she love me? Considering how little she knows me, and how horribly I treated her back in Arashkan.
Aager Fogstep: She has a great heart. And it seems she has a distinct affinity to seeing the depths of the souls in people. I can’t imagine what, but it appears she has found something she finds lovable in you.
Lilly Venom: You are not as funny as you think you are.
Aager Fogstep: I am funny?
Lilly Venom: What will you do? We.. seem to have barged into your home.
Aager Fogstep: (shrug) Sisters’ prerogative, I suppose.
Lilly Venom: (scowl)
Aager Fogstep: It’s alright, really. We will take our rest in the temple dormitories or next to some campfire. Too much work until then, though. We still have a lot of things to do before the day ends.. Inshala has to coordinate and make sure there are no frictions between us and the ogres and I have two teams I need to continue training. One in the afternoon, which I should be heading soon, and the other at night and will take all night. ‘Infiltration, Blind Fighting, and Ambush!’
Lilly Venom: Oww.. Ambush! I could help you with that.
Aager Fogstep: No.
Lilly Venom: Why not?
Aager Fogstep: This one is an advanced group of former Bari Na-ammen vets and rangers, hence we will be using live weapons and I don’t want you bleeding back to your.. husband.. Besides, you should make good use of your nights—
Lilly Venom: La, La, La, La, La, La, La —I am not listening to you..
Aager Fogstep: (snort) See you tomorrow morning, then.
Lilly Venom: (quietly) Aager?
Aager Fogstep: Hmm?
Lilly Venom: Thank you.
Aager Fogstep: Thank me when this is over and the ones we love are still alive.
Lilly Venom: (hug)
Aager Fogstep: (strained voice) You.. are not going to try and stab me are you?
Lilly Venom: I just might..
Aager Fogstep: Care for a slice of advice?
Lilly Venom: From you? No.. But say it anyway. I might listen.
Aager Fogstep: Lose some, to win some.
Lilly Venom: What the hell kind of an advice is that?
Aager Fogstep: The kind I gave to myself, though mine was, lose all, to win all! You are a smart girl. I know because my Inshala said so! I am sure it’ll come to you in time. Now, go on to your hubby, baby sister!
Lilly Venom: …
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: Are you done?
Agent Largo: Almost.
D.D. Dexter: I still can’t believe this.
Agent Largo: I am sorry Dex. After what happened to your mother, I wasn’t going to trust anyone from ARIS where you were concerned. This town was the safest place I could think of and still give you a happy life. You know what is coming. You know the score.. I was ARIS and I had to do something for Arashkan without a constant threat on your life..
D.D. Dexter: I know the reasons, father. It’s just..
Lilly Venom: (briskly) Give it time. You’ll get used to it.
D.D. Dexter: You are.. intense.. If you don’t mind me saying so, Lady Lilly.
Lilly Venom: Just ‘Lilly’ will do.. Considering all the effort I gave to make your father quit calling me that. As for intense.. Guess Agent Largo here will find out soon enough.
Agent Largo: (fluster, flush and blush) Lilly.. Please.. This is my son, for Heaven’s sake!
Lilly Venom: (heartless laugh) And he isn’t nine, Agent Largo. He’s older than I am!
D.D. Dexter: (cough)
Agent Largo: (blush some more)
Lilly Venom: Are you ashamed of me, Largo, that you keep blushing?
Agent Largo: No. Never that. It’s just.. a bit of an uncomfortable topic, that’s all..
Lilly Venom: There you have it, Dexter. He loves you enough to be embarrassed in front of you. Which is the only time I have seen him actually blush like this. You, Dexter, must understand; he did what he did to you, knowingly and deliberately because he had to. And now he has decided to share a life with me, knowingly and deliberately. Your father is a smart man, Dexter. I don’t think he would have been fooled by my approaches, because I am not really a ‘girly’ girl.. He accepted me because he wanted me. Considering just how loyal he has been to your mother’s memory for the past twenty years, I would say he deserves a break, wouldn’t you? Take that into account before you dish out judgments. We just came from Hell itself. There is no name for the blood and carnage we saw in Arashkan. We didn’t watch it from a distance, Dexter.. We were there.. On the ground, fighting, bleeding, and saving lives.. At least your father was.. All I did was to try and stay alive, and watched his back.. Your father needs respite and I hope he finds it with me. Will you not allow him to have that much before we go back into that Hell? Because whether we want it or not, Hell is coming our way as we speak!
D.D. Dexter: (stare with open mouth)
Lilly Venom: Now. If you would please, I would like to have a few, private moments with Agent Largo..
D.D. Dexter: Of course. I will see you later today, or perhaps in the evening when my duties are over.. (pause) On the other hand, tomorrow will be a better time.
Lilly Venom: Tomorrow will be fine. Thank you for being considerate.
D.D. Dexter: (mumble) Not like I was given much of a choice.
Lilly Venom: Best kind of choice offered. Which makes sense, since this really isn’t anything you should be making a choice over, should you think about it with an open mind. The only thing that concerns you is whether you will honor the choices your father had to make to keep you safe and alive and wish him some happiness and that he finds it with me.. or sulk about it.
✱ ✱ ✱
Lilly Venom: I am sorry if I was a bit abrupt with your boy.
Agent Largo: I won’t complain. Had you not said the things you said, when I was still out, I don’t think we would have made any headway today.
Lilly Venom: I just didn’t give him the time to do or say things you both would have regretted, by making myself the target of his possible ire.
Agent Largo: You didn’t have to do that, Lilly.
Lilly Venom: But I did it anyway. I saw enough sad and stupid in my life, Largo. And I am tired of it. We can either carry that particular baggage into our lives or keep it out. This.. this is something I learned.. or rather, ‘was shown’, really, by my bother, Aager, and his skinny little woman.. But he.. they proved to me it could be done and I want to give it a shot. I will sweat for it, bleed for it, war for it, but want you to be there for it..
Agent Largo: (smile) We are back to ‘shots’? Where is the boy, Prince Korodin, by the way?
Lilly Venom: He is with Inshala.
Agent Largo: I don’t really know Lady Inshala. Can she be trusted?
Lilly Venom: More than either of us. She will ‘care’ for him like no other.. Now, quit dodging. Will you go for it?
Agent Largo: I am here, aren’t I?
(pale pink flowers start to fall all around them..)
Agent Largo: (surprised) What’s this? Cherry blooms in the middle of winter?
Lilly Venom: (looks up at the thousands of pink, cherry blooms flaking down with a glowing face and shimmering eyes, and whispers)
Inshala, baby girl.. Thank you..
✱ ✱ ✱
It is the first few days of December and evening has settled over a white Serenity Home. It is quiet and kind tonight and a barely discernable warm wind seems to blow from Gull’s Perch as if Mab and Titania have come to a rare understanding. There is a great, awe-inspiring, beautiful cherry tree in bloom in a garden in this town and there is a small ‘home’ next to this tree.
A home where people ‘belong’..
In this home, there is a young woman with a boldly handsome face and she shivers even though there is a cheery fire crackling in the small grate. Carefully, she takes off her long, brown leather trench coat, revealing an exquisitely made dress; a pale green loose blouse, a very dark royal green tight bodice with many laces complimenting her narrow hips, her slim waist, her slightly gaunt belly, and her pleasant-looking breasts, hiding in her blouse. A long skirt of the same color embroidered with delicate, silver threads and slits on either side flow down her hips to her bare feet, carefully displaying parts of her slender, naked legs..
The young woman shivers again, her hands in tight fists by her hips, and has trouble looking up at the maturely handsome blonde man standing a bare foot in front of her. The man has a slight frown on his face as if trying to discern a last-minute vex, for the small, single-room home is thread-bare to be sure, but it is warm.
The young, boldly handsome woman, however, is as if knot, and her lovely dark eyes seem to be staring only at his hands.
Lilly Venom: Will you have me now?
Agent Largo: Lilly? What’s wrong—
Lilly Venom: If you are, I would like you to take my daggers, all my knives, my darts, and my shark teeth away from me.
Agent Largo: Why? If you won’t mind me asking—
Lilly Venom: (looks up at her husband’s face, then at his hands again and whispers in trepidation)
I am scared.
And I do not want to kill you..
The boldly handsome young woman is as if staring down at her own bare feet as she speaks in a low, hoarse, throaty, and barely audible voice, her face burning with defiant rage and with a kind of a lost shame. She fidgets as she speaks but her eyes are in fact affixed on the blond man’s hands as if expecting them to move for an assault at any time.
Lilly Venom: You are the first man I have liked. And been this close to. And that almost includes my brother. I have loathed men all my life and killed many because they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. If this is an issue for you, I will try to understand, even should you want to leave.
Agent Largo: (stares at the girl, silently)
Lilly Venom: It isn’t like I am the only girl around.
Agent Largo: (continues to stares at the girl silently)
Lilly Venom: I can’t claim I am much of a catch, either.
Agent Largo: (still silent)
Lilly Venom: You are a handsome man, after all. I have seen any number of girls looking in your direction on the ship while we were sailing here..
Agent Largo: (persistently silent)
Lilly Venom: And yes, I am aware I should have said something about this before. But in my defense, it isn’t something I wanted myself to remember, let alone admit to someone else. It is not exactly table conversation; hey, I loath men, and I tend to slice them open when they come too near!
Agent Largo: (absolute silence)
Lilly Venom: I would rather you said something.. or left..
Agent Largo: (in a dry, gravelly voice) I don’t really know what I should say and still stay safely unbleeding..
Lilly Venom: (scowls while still looking down)
Agent Largo: That you think so little of yourself, and by doing so, you think so little of me, since choosing one another was consensual and you are basically accusing me of having bad taste! That you would notice the girls staring at me, but not notice the constant scowl I had for all the young men ogling at you on that same ship, and why I never returned the wonts of any of those girls but stayed as close to you as I could, while trying very hard not to crowd you. That you think I would leave because you have some issues, serious as they may be. And last but not least, that you would want me to strip you of your weapons, yet never asked me to remove mine..
Lilly Venom: (stares at the man)
Agent Largo: No one is ‘just right’, Lilly. We all have our issues. I will not belittle yours. But at least it is a relatively tangible problem that has its own solutions. I carry the guilt of Arashkan, dear Lilly. The blood of thousands are on my hands because of my failures and there is neither a cure and nor any redeeming salvation for that.
Lilly Venom: You can’t blame yourself because of what happened there. Everyone was at fault for that failure. Everyone ‘failed’.
Agent Largo: True. But I am the only one left alive to have to live with it. The dead feel no guilt!.. But that’s another, and certainly not a ‘tonight’ matter, for you have worked hard to give me some respite and I shall not let that go to waste.
Lilly Venom: Very well. I shall do more, if I must, to carry that guilt with you, only if I can’t wash it off you. What.. solution do you offer?
Agent Largo slowly takes off his coat, folds it neatly, and puts it aside. Then, very slowly, he reaches for the girl and smoothly strips one of her daggers from her.. and cooly tosses it aside and out of reach.
Agent Largo: There. Your turn!
The boldly handsome girl ogles at the man for a frightened, breath-held moment, then, and inadvertently, she smiles, for suddenly she knows this is a game. A game she is certain to win.. She does a quick, mental inventory: the other pair of the long, close-quarter combat dagger, sixteen short-range throwing knives, half a dozen shark teeth, any number of garrotes, and two dozen poison darts!
Lilly Venom: (smirks) You will run out of ‘steel’ before I do!
Agent Largo: (smirks back) And what are you willing to bet on that?
A red glare appears over the Gull’s Perch to the east, and very slowly, the sun starts to rise and Serenity Home stirs with a lazy and reluctant yawn. The night, though, hasn’t all gone to waste;
Lilly Venom loses some and wins some..
It is not altogether clear just when the origins in this story take place. Somethings just can’t be quantified in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even years, but by incantations. The chanting of said incantations might take a lifetime.. or take the life itself, after all..
The part that we can quantify, however,
takes place right after
A Shift in Perspective (18+)..
I am not sure about the total, catastrophic failures,” said the little gnome finally, with the same subdued voice, “..but I think I can help with the big, blooming explosions. Provided, you run faster!”
“And..”, she said, “..that’ll be ‘Tonic’ for you, girl.”
The little gnome felt something shift inside her.
A point in perspective, perhaps?
Whatever it was, it would come to her in due time. But she had this pinching feeling that it seemed like it was high time she got off her high horses and stepped up to her end of the pair.
To that end, she turned and hastily gathered all her tools; her hammer, her wrench, her drivers, pliers, nippers and cutters, the numerous gadgets, spare bolts, and coiled wires and put them to their proper places inside her large, portable toolbox. She sat down and took off her clobbering boots, ignoring the freezing cold biting at the soles of her naked feet as she opened the little hood of the lantern and pinched the life out of the candle in it. Cast in darkness, 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 ancient, bitter cold cave, where the curvy form of a very tall, pitch-black figure —her pair— slumbered..
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..
There was still time, and she was going to make things right with the only person who had bothered to get to know her, damit!
She reached up and twirled a small knob on her goggles, turning the black darkness into shades of blue and gray as everything became oddly distinct for her..
Arcantonic Palecog quietly faded in the darkness to do some burglarizing of her own; it was going to be a long night and hopefully, an even longer, FAQed and color-coded, read..
(from the end of A Shift in Perspective (18+))
✱ ✱ ✱
Arcantonic Palecog scurried back with a manic cackle, nearly waking up the very tall, very dark girl sleeping close to the ancient cave’s entrance.
It was unlikely the little gnomic girl would ever make a good sneak thief, for she hyped too easy.. Much like a sugar overloaded bunny! But she’d certainly enjoyed it, while it lasted.
She slid the last few feet, grabbed her thick, woolen socks and her boots —first things first; the cave was arctic cold, and losing toes was a poor payment for the success of having burglarized her pair. With her socks, her cup-sized boots, and the dossier; the object of her theft, she hid behind the monstrosity she’d grandly named; MECHABER!
She slid her socks on and one boot, but her left got stuck and refused to slip on.
“Damit!”, swore Tonic. “Of all the bloody times, you want to do this to me, now?”
She pulled, pushed and she was sweating profusely by the time the boot finally settled around her crippled ankle —just another memento, a souvenir, per se, from her retarded uncle, Arcanton Mordenon, because, obviously, the emotional dents and traumas weren’t enough.
She took a deep breath, and slowly counted to 1,048,576 by way of 2-bit squaring! Not that it helped, but the alternative was cussing.. out loud.. VERY loud.. and Tonic had a VERY rich and quite an extensive repertoire when it came to cussing. But doing that would have made all the skulking and ‘theft’, sort of moot, hence the 2×2=4, 4×2=8, 8×2=16, 16×2=32.. well.. you get the picture..
Her hands trembling slightly, Tonic gazed upon the treasure she’d just liberated;
—and yes, that is exactly what was written on the dossier!
“Hells Bells, girl.. Really?”, frowned at the title on the dossier.
She stared at the dark green cover of the dossier and noted the elegant, or more likely, the pompous symbol of the Academy of Melshieve embossed on it. Carefully, she opened the dossier and saw the first page.
It was blank.
Perhaps it was due to the poor lighting she couldn’t see it at first, which is why Tonic had to look again to see Seressa’s handwriting there.
It was a recursive, delicate script, very tenderly inked, like it reflected the inside, the very soul of the owner of the hand that had written it;
To my bestest and awesomest pair:
Days will always be better because we will have you..
Arcantonic just stared at the beautiful words, and the depth of their meaning.. and..
..her eyes teared.
Tonic couldn’t remember when it was the last time she’d teared up just by reading something. Tonic just didn’t do ‘romance’, nor was she ever into any kind of stupid, sentimentality crap.. Thanks to her uncle, again, she’d had any kind of empathy washed out of her system by the time she was ten!
But here she was, staring at what her pair, Seressa, had written, some two years ago, before they had had a chance to even speak.. While she’d been sulking and cussing darkly as she’d bulldogged around the academy corridors when she’d found out she’d just been assigned as someone’s pair, Seressa was struggling for her life, stuck in a ventilation shaft, trying to get to know her!
And because that wasn’t enough, she’d then sat down and prepared this.. silly dossier in light of everything she’d learned about Tonic..
Tonic suddenly felt.. ‘funked’..
As silly and somewhat giddy as she thought her pair was, Seressa Wraiven had an iron-clad will, and her sense of ‘just’ always pointed north. And, apparently, once she was paired with the little gnomic girl, her ‘north’ had all but become Tonic!
“Damn, girl..”, gulped the little, gnomic girl, wiped her eyes and turned the page.
And, so be noted, the fact that the pages used in the dossier were all first-grade, cotton-silk paper, not parchment. Tonic knew just how expensive first-grade papers were, which is why she never used them.. Yes, she had about a dozen or so in her artificer’s sachel, tightly rolled and inside a protective case, but they were there because, well, an artificer just had to have some of everything in their sachel! It must have cost the girl an arm and a leg to buy all these cotton-silk papers. It was likely she’d blown away all her student’s savings, just so she would hand her pair something ‘worthy’ of Tonic.
“Damn, girl..”, she repeated mutely.
“Seressa: 182,734,659 – Tonic: ZERO.. Good job, girl.. You have the bestest friend in the world —someone people would kill for, and literally, and this is how you have treated her thus far.. Like an ass!”
Tonic turned to the second page.
It was a neatly prepared, clearly written, easy-to-read list;
A Table of Contents.
Seressa hadn’t used her recursive handwriting here, but a deliberately ‘book classic’, sort of mono-space script. Tonic herself much prepared and used blocky and ‘true’ mono-space fonts in all her notes, diagrams, and schematics. She could just imagine Seressa struggling to comport with Tonic’s style and preference but unable to use those ‘just-too-ugly’ fonts here, hence she’d settled for this one.
Then went for the one thing that she thought defined her pair;
9. Pinks I prefer & their color codes, Page 29
She quickly shuffled to Page 29 and there, she saw, quite a number of pinks, carefully water-colored and coded. Tonic didn’t even know there were this many pinks in the world. When someone said, ‘Pink’, it meant, ‘Pink!’
Not according to Seressa Wraiven!
And noted under each were their hex-codes and ‘grades’. The grading system seemed to comprise of a complex combination of (a) how much she liked that particular shade, (b) how frequently it was found in nature, common cities, and the Academy of Melshieve, and (c) how well they got along with certain other colors and their shades!
- A shade that should be sent back to the abyss whilst it came!
- A total abomination.
- Very much disliked. I could slice myself open just by staring at this!
- I feel.. ill..
- Go away, please!
- Perhaps. Maybe. But only under very special circumstances such as a date that is likely to go wrong!
- Promising. Has some potential.
- Oh. This one makes me giddy.
- I.. WANT! ALL OF IT!
- I will not comment on this one, dear Arcantonic. Some things just can’t be put into writing without constituting highly damning and quite embarrassing evidence against myself should I describe the effects of this grade of pink on me.
And then she’d also put a P.S. at the very bottom of the whole, three-page long water-colored and graded ‘pinks’;
“Okay. Now it may seem like I have some sort of a fetish for pink, dear Arcantonic. I, however, assure you such is not the case, as seen on these pages. I merely am susceptible to ‘certain’ shades of the color and am sort of a fan.. in an obsessive way.”
Tonic stared at the postscript.
“Really, now, girl.. ‘I merely am susceptible to ‘certain’ shades of the color and am.. sort of a fan.. in an obsessive way?’ —that is what a fetish is, in the most practical sense!”, she snickered.
Then, inadvertently, she flipped the page and came to the next topic:
10. About my body and my anatomy, Page 33
“What the..”, Tonic ogled at the tittle.
And there, right under the title was an impossibly slim girl’s stretch.
Written under the sketch was her sentiments about herself, in her recursive handwriting.
“I will be the first to admit; this is not me! I saw this in a book when I was doing research in my freshman year about various cultures and their relative daily lives. But I was enthralled by the whole subject and this sketch in particular. This is supposed to be some sort of exotic princess named Yasmine who meets a street urchin named Valaddin. According to the story, the kid finds a genie trapped in a rum bottle —if you could believe that, which I don’t, who uses the genie to gain the favor of the princess and eventually marries her. The story is logically faulty and incommensurate in it’s accuracy to facts. First of all, rum is commonly consumed by sailors and Drashan pirates in our kingdom. It is not the choice beverage for the average consumer and deemed ‘lowly’ even by the middle-class, let alone the aristocracy, and the story does not take place in a sea-port city. I would also like to point out that a genie’s ‘home’ tends to be extremely illustrious and rich. Again, not a rum bottle. And lastly, I can’t imagine a genie getting trapped in a bottle and be unable to free itself. That’s just silly!”
“What’s silly is, you making an ‘anthropologistic’ case against a children’s story, girl!”, she snorted.
“Aside from the unlikeliness of the story, however, I did appreciate their clothes. They were not meant to be only revealing, but gave a certain amount of freedom of movement, which I am sure is essential to both attract the attention of boys, and should the occasion arise, fight better in close-quarters without any restraints, though I must admit, it does not provide much in the way of protection. Comporting one’s self in the said way is a fact I know to be true because, in many cultures, men have been known to go to war clad in only lion-cloth or nothing at all.”
“Yea. I am sure those wars were quite short and bloody. Must explain why said cultures aren’t running around wearing ‘nothing at all’, anymore!”, snickered Tonic.
“To the reason why I inked the stretch here, then; I am fully aware my waste isn’t this slim and I am not even sure it is anatomically possible to have a waste as thin as this and still be able digest any food, but that’s another matter. I am also aware that my hips aren’t this narrow, though I believe mine are relatively proportionate to the rest of my body. I do wish they stay at their current dimensions, though, as I do not like wide hips. My the breast line, shape and cup-size seems about right, when compared to this illustration, and I have a similar length of hair.
I require air to breath, water to stay hydrated, and some form of vitamin, protein and carb-based foods to function, though I prefer a high protein diet with some vegetables and lower carbs and coffee makes me loose all my inhibitions —id est, I get drunk! Human beverages have little to no effect on me, though I must admit, I can’t stand the smell of beer, ale, ‘rum’, and any number of ‘rotten fruit’ based wines, explaining the reason I would rather not go into ratty inns or taverns —they smell horrible!
I have very good eye vision, hearing, taste and a nose acutely sensitive to smells. I wash regularly to keep my personal hygiene and very much dislike dirty environments, even though I won’t make a fuss should we require to go and stay in such places, provided we do get a bath at the end, much like any decent and self-respecting human ought to.
Should the day come and I conceive, I will be delivering exactly the way any human would. And breastfeed my child using my own breasts.
Whether my sensual senses are exactly the same as humans, I do not know. I do suspect, that they are much more heightened in regard to ‘touch’ and appears not to erode by the passage of time as it would in a common human female, though, again I am not absolutely sure of this, as I have never had any friends, back in the Academy, and hence, never really had the opportunity to compare.
My skin color is the result of, very much natural pigments, and not due to any artificial applications, nor to any ‘infernal’ reasons.
My horns are also a natural growth and my tail functions similar to that of a feline and neither are they in any way ‘demonic’..”
“Why are you telling me these, girl?”, mused Tonic quietly. “Yes, I have never really said a nice word to your face, not that I said any good ones behind your back either, but, again, why would you write these?”
Then it hit her.
This dossier was meant to be given to her shortly after they were paired. Not ‘burglarized’ some two years later. She had thought, as her pair, Tonic would be afraid of her appearance and was trying to assure her that she was ‘normal’.
Just like humans!
“Hells Bells, girl. I am happy you aren’t some stupid human. Yes, I am happier you are not a gnome, either but you are fine exactly the way you are. I might have called you, ‘dump’, ‘idiot’, ‘foolish’, and ‘silly’, among many, many other things, especially about your pinks and those silly and frilly dresses that reveal more than they conceal, but never have I made any remarks about your ‘being’. That is just.. EVIL!”
Then it hit her, again!
She, Seressa, had been treated thus, for as long as she’d been in the Academy. Tonic knew absolutely nothing about her pair’s origin, nor her parents, but she had seen the very tall, very dark girl many times, and always alone, back in the Academy.
Tonic was certainly not a good person. She had flaws.. No.. She had deliberate flaws you could fit a Drashan armada! But she’d never made any remarks nor questioned anyone due to their race.
Apparently, someone had.
Enough to leave a deep-seated need to have to explain herself about things that didn’t need to, and certainly shouldn’t have to need to!
Yes, she, Tonic, had called people, “You stupid dwarf!”, or “You stupid elf!”, or “You stupid human!”, certainly. But that was a pointer to the fact that the said person was being accused for their stupidity, not their race.
The race was basically interchangeable in her ‘accusations’.
‘Stupidity’ was the constant!
For some reason, the whole idea of her pair even having to need to explain that she was ‘normal’ pissed Tonic something vicious!
Then she felt shame.
What right had she to feel anger to anyone.
Hells Bells! The girl was her pair and she’d treated her worse than a tyrant would treat his subjects!
Then her eyes read the next few lines..
“And of course, I love to dance. I mean, The Great Heavens must have given us girls a lithe belly and a spine built for grace for a reason, now, right?
I am afraid, however, I never had the opportunity to go to any parties at the Academy —no dates!
Still, though, I sometimes danced. Many times, actually. When I was alone with my phloxes in my ‘Pink Garden’, which was pretty much all the time, really. Or in this secret cave I had discovered in the woods behind the Academy. That cave had nice, soft aucustics and singing there was awesome. It always made me feel like there were two others there, singing along with me.. Remind me to show you that cave, when we get back to the Academy with our findings of the real world. Ow.. this is going to be AWESOME. We are going to have so much fun together!”
“Well. I certainly must have deflated that ‘awesome’ hope out of her system!”, said the little gnomic girl and she truly felt awful about everything she’d done to her pair.
“I feel like a bastard!”, she blurted.
And something.. sort of irked her..
She wasn’t sure if ‘irk’ was the right word for it, but she didn’t dwell on the choice of word, either. She quickly flipped back to the Table of Contents page ran her tiny, pink finger—
And stared at her finger.
Then she did an even quicker, double-speed, rewind to page 27, 28, and yes.. 29..
..and carefully ran her finger across the three-page-long shades of pinks..
..and there it was.
#F8CDD2 — Arcantonic Pink — Grade 9
“Ow. My. Gosh! I am like.. her best candy color!”, blushed Tonic. “She even named the bloody shade after me! Damit. I really wonder what Grade 10 is, now!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Tonic returned to the Table of Contents and ran down the list —without using her finger! It was as if her fingers had been made the butt of a particularly memorable joke and now, whenever she saw her own small, pink fingers, or even have them mentioned, they would relate, and subsequently, remind her of the joke, making it impossible for her to un-relate the two!
“Hells Bells, girl!”, she growled.
Then she found what she was looking for.
18. My origins, Page 62
To her surprise, the page was mostly empty and only had a short few sentences inked in her recursive handwriting, but it seemed as if there was the faintest.. ‘tremor?’, in the letters.. as if her pair had written it on a slow-paced camel. Not totally jumbled, but inadvertently missed spacing or the right amount of curves per letter..
I was planning on not writing anything down on this particular subject. I was looking forward to talking this with you face to face, but since I had read pretty much everything about you that was written, reported, and/or noted, it only seemed fair that I should say at least a few words about myself —and my origins, in particular.
Who or what my parents were, I do not know. I was born quite far away from the Academy of Melshieve and received an anonymous sponsorship and was called upon to study and learn. When I first arrived at the Academy with my sponsorship papers and my invitation, I was summoned to the dean’s room and, although he didn’t say much, he did seem.. I am not sure what the correct word here is.. Scared? Cautious? Equanimitic?.. Or perhaps all three.. Suffice to say, he told me to attend my classes most diligently and stay out of trouble.. You know, the way he spoke in his low, raspy voice; ‘Stay straight and narrow, young lady!’. I know you know because you were sent to his office at least 48 times! The way he said it to me was a tad.. ‘funny’, though, and altogether something I found to be sort of ironic, really, since I am straight, and was certainly quite narrow, especially when I had first arrived, back then.
To this day, I haven’t been able to find out two things; my parents, and who my sponsor was..
“Damit.”, she fumed.
She’d really wanted to know about her pair’s background. For it was likely the most important piece of information she would need in understanding her.
She felt she was sorely cheated.
As if she was handed a machine and expected to reverse engineer it without any schematics, any plans, not even some bloody sketches!
Then she saw the fine print at the bottom of the page.
“Hells Bells, girl. How in the blazes could you even write that small? I can barely see it, let alone read—”
Tonic held her breath.
This dossier was specifically prepared for her. But it did have the remote possibility of falling into wrong, or merely unwanted hands. No one would want everything about themselves found and divulged for just about anyone to read, after all..
She smiled and dug her hand into her artificer’s satchel and rummaged for a bit until she found what she was looking for;
A palm-sized magnifying glass.
She moved the page closer to her diminutive face and read the minute fine print with the help of the magnifying glass;
Pls. see Index: “Ritual Summoning.”
My dear Arcantonic, if you can read this, you now know that you will have to find the index page. To find the index, however, you must solemnly note that you have my highest confidence. Beyond this, there is nothing more I can trust you with that really matters for me. Should you still want to see the said index, please recite the words;
“Remember me..” —trice!
These words have been keyed to you, as my awesome pair and as my ‘partner in crime’, per se.
“Holy Crap!”, spluttered the gnomic girl, horrified. “She even installed a bloody, embedded security system into the dossier!”
And that was when she was tested;
The curiosity of an artificer —a gnomic artificer, no less, and wondering if she truly did deserve Seressa Wraiven’s confidence, honestly given to her..
This made Tonic particularly guilty since the dossier was.. well.. stolen, really, even though she was the sole recipient of it..
..Aaaand her gnomic curiosity won!
She squinted around and into the darkness where the very tall, very dark girl slept restfully, with furtive eyes and hissed;
“Remember me..” —trice!
✱ ✱ ✱
Page 62 split!
Not horizontally nor vertically, but ‘facially!’ It was the oddest thing to behold. One moment there was just the Page 62, and the next, there were two, separate pages; 62 itself, and 62 index, bound to the same spine, and yet..
..it unfolded out and down once, twice, thrice, and done!
“Damn, that’s some fine and elegant magic there, girl. You spared no expense. I am truly funked and very much impressed.. This is seriously delicate and awesome work. I have GOT TO learn me how to do this!”
And then she looked at the unfolded Page 62 index..
Near dusk and out of the mo’rs,
Doth arriveth in threes
Parting mists, their silent steps,
Dareful in the woods
One lady fair
One maiden fine
And one damsel doth sway
T is yet to be seen
Which is which
Is the witch
In the darkness of the woods
Three wolves howl
Three ghouls gnarl
Three will-o’s gloweth
Dash and hideth, spook’d, f’r
Cometh they, the Three Sist’rs
Which doth lust, charm, and harvest the
Souls of fools, lost in the woods
One lady, white
One lady, not
And one lady, foxy red
Witches of a coven
Doth they reveal the fare hideth
Deep in the hoods, whilst they step
Bold and brazen in the depths of the woods
Three aflame and
Three quite quaint
They were, and woe
To any man or beast who
Doth standeth in their way, whilst
They gage their lot in the dires of the woods
One lady wise
One maiden fi’rce
And one damsel she doth lust’r
Thus was their wont
Yet their wont was what was
Putteth to task, yond f’rsaken night
Hath shown them the p’rtents in the woods
Three stars in
Three circles and
Three runes each
They didst lay with chalk and twig
Didst they marketh, the hour
Whilst the night, did turn
Dreary and haze, in quiets of the woods
And one sickle sharp
F’r each they hath brought, for
The p’rtents doth not forswear, even
Bethought those did wish, as they mourn’d
Their wonts, in the darkness of the woods
Three beauts doth setteth
Three cauldrons upon
Three fires burneth
To boileth, and
Bubbleth in mindless heat
Doth their cackles heard and
Spread, in the farthest end of the woods
One she doth screams, afear’d
One she doth laughs in manic
And one she doth moans in bliss
Ov’r the cauldrons
Boiling there, f’r the time to
Thus face their lot hast cometh
Upon them in the wilds of the woods
Three daz’d ov’r
Three cauldrons holdeth
Three sickles sharp
Stareth and down at
The ragg’d dram doll, brewing thus lifeless
In the cent’r of it all, unmoving
And still in the silence of the woods
One she doth laments
One she doth hums
And one she doth weeps
Ov’r the cauldrons three
Yond smoketh and slusheth
And bubbleth f’r what they must
Gift in grief, in the silence of the woods
Three witches with
Three sickles liketh
Three Grims and riseth
To bringeth those cruely
Down, harsh and ghastly
And with pain and hath paid, their
Screams doth shed farthest in the woods
One, the hazel of h’r eye
One, the plush of h’r breast
And one, doth untouch’d of h’r womb
Rake’d, slash’d, and spill’d
With the bloody sickles done
Their wonts task’d and won, thrown
Into the cauldrons in the dreary of the woods
Three witches f’r
Three nights ov’r
They chanteth and doth calleth
Upon the one yond deems
The moth’r of all the witches doth the
Raven’s Eye in the endless of the woods
One laments, blindeth
One hums, madden’d
One moans, f’rfeit
Ov’r the bloody soup
The deed is not thus done and neither
Art the gifts, one from each is not
Enough in the witching hours of the woods
Three witches, crippl’d
Thee days, gone
Three nights, desp’rate
Doth they didst cast, incant and off’r,
Much liketh moths art daz’d
’round the fires burning m’rry, and dancing
Shadows longeth in the middle of the woods
One cat slinks, black as the night
One raven caws, fi’rce as the light
And one goat bawls, cuss’d as a mite
Arriveth upon the summons
And doth the witches toss ’em,
Into to the cauldrons three to broil, thus
Satisfyeth the wonts of the hunger of the woods
Three witches, one, blindeth and daft
Three maidens fair, one, only half
Three hath lost and one, she shalt nev’r has’t
Spineth and danceth and swayeth
And doth stomp quite unending
’round the fires burning alive
And high, in the dimness of the woods
One white, and dim
One not, and sickly
And one red, slump’d ov’r
Droop, with’r and vade
Doth those yet begeth, pleadeth and craveth
F’r the die hast thus been cast to rolleth
And tumbleth, in the silence of the woods
Three nights, f’r
Three maidens, stout
Three cauldrons, ov’r
Thus doth they giveth
Not only their wonts and vains
But also yond which is which maketh
Them a witch, in the serenity of the woods
One, h’r sight and mind
One, h’r heart and love
And one, h’r pash and future
To season their soup in the cauldrons
Doth boileth, and doth watcheth The Eye
Shouldst they faileth, still they chanteth and doth
They danceth, in the oppress of the woods
Three dawns wend
Three dusks cede
Three et’rnals ov’r and done
Doth they topple, turneth and tumbleth
Their stew’d cauldrons ov’r
To seeth what they doth wrought, the fires
Cracketh and hisseth, in the stillness of the woods
One she doth taketh the h’rns
One she doth taketh the tail
And one doth taketh the spirit of the raven borne
And doth they infuse
The ragg’d dram doll, brewing thus lifeless
In the middle of it all, opens h’r eyes to seeth
The witches dieth, in the middle of the woods
“What the f—”, spluttered Arcantonic Palecog in utter incomprehension, riddled with total confusion and spook..
For a long, long time did she stare at the ‘Ritual Summoning’ thing, and at the silhouette of the very tall, very dark girl, sleeping in her restful slumber at the far side of the arctic cave —a restfulness composed, perhaps, of having achieved a small perchance that for the first time in the two years she had been paired to a certain little gnomic girl with Grade 9-Class ‘Arcantonic Pink’ fingers, there appeared an ickle glimmer of hope that they might actually be friends..
If Tonic thought she hadn’t been concussed earlier by the things her pair had said and done to get to know her, she certainly knew she was concussed now.
She felt her mind swirl, dance, and tumble, not unlike a cauldron, in the vast and creepy implications of what she’d just read..
The Orken Horde have arrived on the doorsteps of Serenity Home. Many have gathered to defend the ‘serenity’ of this once peaceful and quiet town but it is doubtful they will be enough.
The heroes scatter all around the kingdom to find those allies. Some go to other cities, some to their own people to get help.
And some go where they shouldn’t..
Gnine Tinkerdome, Laila Wolvesbane, and Merisoul Xyrotwu travel to Silent Hills and quietly enter the Demon Fog to find a way to pass the slithering fog and enter the Silent Halls. The only clue they have is the strange riddle that Nadine Graciousward gave them.
With the help of unexpected allies from Hell itself, the three have gained access into the long-forgotten, dusty and silent vaults under Silent Hills.
This story takes place a few days after
The Fog, The Path, And The Door.
Knock, More And Ascend..
And, here they come again!”, swore Gnine Tinkerdome as he took a step back and to the left, making room for Laila Wovesbane and her great bow.
“Persistent, aren’t they?”, replied Laila cooly as she huffed her bangs out of her eyes and drew a pair of long shafts from the quiver buckled to her back. “Don’t they know, these arrows cost money!”, she added mournfully.
“Perhaps these will pay..”, scowled the gnome as he started weaving his fingers into some strange, cross-over knot and started incanting.
“Persistence is the herald of victory. This they know. This they will use, always..”, came the soft, alluring, and vague voice of the unearthly beautiful girl with the raven black wings, and the dark, crowning horns, Merisoul Xyrotwu, from behind them. “..and they are likely bored!”
“I hate being the butt-end of relieving the boredom in demons!”, grimaced Gnine, and released his spell..
..and a faint, barely visible giant hand appeared in front of the half dozen fiends howling and charging in their direction. The fiends, barely humanoid in shape and size, otherwise black, spike riddled and bearing long, ugly-looking claws, smashed into the hand and stumbled back.
Laila ‘loosed’ her arrow, cocked the second, and sent that one as well, as she drew more arrows from her quiver and sent them one after the other —all in seamless, fluid motions.
Looking at the pretty ranger corporal, one would think she was knitting, rather than raining arrows into demons!
In all candor, it was quite rare for any talented bowyer to shoot half a dozen arrows in under a few seconds. What made the Ranger Corporal Laila Wolvesbane particularly unique, was the ‘cool’ in her deliberation, anticipation, and application.
“Want me to nuke them?”, asked the alluring voice from behind. “Or save it for later?”
“Save it for later..”, growled Gnine as he gritted his teeth. Holding back the demons with the very-nearly invisible hand was a tasking chore and beads of sweat had started gathering on heated his face. “I believe Laila’s got these.. You got these, right?”
“I got these..”, confirmed Laila as she riddled more and more arrows into the dark, and angry fiends pushing the giant hand, step by step closer to them.
“Now, I am bored..”, said Merisoul with an unhappy voice and released a pair of erratic, brilliant purple shafts of force sending two of the fiends smashing into the ones coming from the rear.
“Three down. Three to go..”, reported Laila, and hung her bow, drew her two long blades, and dashed into the remaining fiends.
“What. Are. You. Doing?!”, half shrieked Gnine.
“Arrows are expensive.. Thought I told you that..”, replied Laila as she rammed into one of the fiends, slashed it open with one sword, and stabbed it with the other. The fiend let loose a horrific scream, then fell back dead.
The remaining two rushed the ranger corporal!
Another pair of sizzling, erratic shafts of bright purple lightning-like beams cracked in the dark tunnel and struck one of the fiends, pushing it some twenty feet away, and buying just enough time for Laila to get into a defensive stance as Gnine sent a flaming bolt of fire, hitting the third and causing it to yowl like something that could barely be called feline.
Laila didn’t give the third one time to recover.
She lept forward, slid under the creature’s claws, blew her bangs out of her face, sliced open its belly with one sword, and half gashed open the demon’s scaly leg with the other.
The demon shrieked in pain, stubbled, and fell facedown onto the ground.
Laila stabbed it in the back of its neck, severing its spine.
The ranger corporal did not like half-dead enemies.
She liked them dead.. all the way!
Another pair of jagged shafts of purple lightnings jazzed right past her and the last demon crumbled, its chest caved in.
“Well..”, said Merisoul, merrily. “That went well!”
“Damit.”, spat Laila when she bent down to inspect the corpses. “Two more arrows, broken beyond repair and are now totally unsalvageable. I really hope I get paid. Or I am never going to be able to replace these.”
“You will get all the arrows you need.”, said Gnine, looking down at the dead fiends. “I will personally pay for them. Or have them crafted for you.. If and when I get my throne..”
“Ow? That’s generous of you.”, smiled Laila —a something she rarely did.
“Of course, my dear girl. You are risking your all, coming here with me.”, replied Gnine.
“Actually, I am here just to make sure you come back and in one piece.. As for your promise, I would like the same deal for ‘Bree’ as well!”, she smirked.
“Why? She’s not here..”, scowled the gnome.
“She’s my cousin. She gets what I get.. Unless you want to explain why she’s not getting the same generosity from the prince of the gnomes.. To her face!”
Gnine Tinkerdome sighed.
“And something for Merisoul as well. If anyone is risking anything, it’s her.”, she added.
“It’s alright, love. I don’t really need gifts. What I need has long been forfeit from me and can not be procured. Only comprehended, earned and merited.. Something neither my old master can give, nor my new shall ever deign to bless upon me..”, said Merisoul, with her own sigh.
The hour was early.
And it had been four days since they had entered the silent vaults under Silent Hills.
Early or late, it didn’t matter. Fiends, demons, and.. other ‘things’ came at them constantly, relentlessly, and mindlessly..
And always insane!
As if the Demon Fog had driven everything in it, fiend, beast, and even the occasional walking corpse, insane..
They would come at them and just charge them.
Like some endless stream of rotting debris being carried off in some nightmarish, swift-running river.
Other than what they had offered thus far, the vaults themselves were barren, silent, and bereft of cognatious life. Gnine hadn’t minded it at first. As a matter of fact, he’d marveled at the geometry of it all. In a very non-human, defiantly gnomish way, the structural design of the vaults under the hills were.. beautiful! After four days —and nights, however, he’d started having doubts, for they hadn’t seen or met a single other soul.. The unearthly beautiful half-born, Merisoul, had inspected everything she could with mild interest, pointing at this or that —things she thought were… well… interesting. Laila had found the lifeless halls depressing at best. ‘Spooky’, was the word she thought was more fitting. Perhaps, if and when ‘life’ came back to these halls, vaults, and vast chambers, it might make these hills ‘spectacular’, though, even then, she thought, she wouldn’t have stayed here even if she were being paid for it.. Laila loved nature. And trees, and the sun.. None of which, she would ever find here. She looked down at her little friend, Gnine, with sympathy as she huffed her bangs out of her eyes. From her point of view, he was genetically predestined to like such depressing and dreary places.
There was something about this place that Laila truly found.. intimidating?
She was not really sure.
These vaults, great as they were, were also silent. Too silent. Much like the tombs under Serenity Home temple. Laila had been down there, but only once. Sort of as a private ‘dare’. It was cool, dark, not musty or moldy, nor did the place stank of death or anything.. just.. ‘still’.. and unmoving. And this place, these halls, and the vast, empty chambers they had left behind, were just like how those tombs had been. But with much, much more dread and certainly at a larger magnitude.
It made her feel diminished, sparse, scared..
Laila inadvertently shivered.
Yep, her forest, her trees, and her sun, out there, was much, much more preferable than here and now.
What truly hit her was the thing she secretly feared most. That she was likely going to lose one of her oldest friends; Gnine Tinkerdome, to these halls, even should they survive and succeed in their endeavor, for here would be his home and his kingdom, and not Serenity Home anymore, and just the thought of that, brought a knotted lump up to her throat she found trouble sending back down..
She sighed and tried to remember their happier times. It was something she often did, for she knew it was important to keep one’s spirits up. If they fell to despair, likely the next encounter would be their last.
“Now there’s a gloomy thought!”, murmured Laila.
“Happy thoughts, girl, happy thoughts.”
Then she thought of ‘Bree’ —Bremorel, her cousin and wondered what she was doing right now. She remembered the voice call they had received from her some months ago and inadvertently smiled.
So.. Thomas, that skinny boy, had finally garnered enough courage to be able to speak with her cousin, let alone go on some mission with her. Who would send that kid on any mission? The boy was a bookworm! And suddenly he was sent all the way to Dim Woods on some dangerous mission? With her ravishing and equally raving cousin, Bremorel Songsteel?
Laila liked Thomas.
Yes, they had never really had much in the way of interaction, other than the rare times she’d visit the town temple and he would greet her with his serious but generous smile.. And when they’d see him scurrying behind them like someone’s lost puppy whenever they returned to town in hopes of finding some desperate opportunity to speak, or at least get a glimpse of Bree.
Laila thought he was a good boy even if she found his quite mindless and very nearly melancholic obsession with her cousin a bit creepy..
Then, perhaps because they hadn’t seen each other for some time, Laila felt she should amend her perspective.
Thomas was not just a good boy, he was a good young man. Good, decent, calm, well-mannered, and well educated, but never condescending the way most ‘well educated’ tended to become. And both the orphans and the other children of the town loved him, as he’d somehow find the time, among his overcrowded temple duties and his studies to engage in all sorts of games with them, particularly the one called hog-ball even though he would end up losing in most.
Hog-ball; a game that involved a rough, ragged ball wrapped and knotted with strips of leather thongs, and lots of pulling, pushing, kicking, and tripping. Laila had played it a few times before, but only after she’d become a ranger novice. It was too rough a game and seemed to have one basic rule; if you ended up with lots of scratches, scrapes, a black eye, preferably two, and likely a bloody nose, you won —in a personal achievement sense.
Gnine had played it too. Gnine played everything that would get him hurt, for some reason. And when he played hog-ball, he chose to be the goalkeeper; the sole person where EVERYONE pulled, pushed, kicked, and tripped! Kids on their teams wanted larger boys to stand in front of their goal. Someone who could take the heat, AND block the big barrel; the goal. And Gnine would defiantly be their team’s goalkeeper and take all the heat.. just not block the goal. Once, the opposing team had simply picked him up and stuffed him, head first, into the barrel, along with the leather ball!
Her cousin, Bree, had participated in them since she was six and always came back with black eyes, a bloody nose, split lips, skinned knees, ankles, and knuckles. But she would also return triumphant and likely laid waste the whole playground!
The children of Serenity Home had heaved in collective and popular relief when she’d been drafted off to be trained as a ranger!
Another time, some years back, when they had come to town after a particularly long patrol, they had chanced upon one such game. Bree had elbowed her and both had entered the fray where they had ended up in opposing teams. Thinking back, Laila conceded that her cousin had deliberately joined the side where Thomas had been.
He had run in front of her cousin the whole time, screaming like a lunatic and literally throwing himself on anyone who would try to tackle her! It had been a mindless, selfless, totally unnecessary, and endearing brevity on the boy’s part, leaving him massively scraped, thoroughly grilled, heart-breakingly bleeding, and outright concussed, but had given Bree the opportunity to score an epic goal!
Her cousin, however, had NOT found his ‘protective’ approach amusing..
She’d raged down upon him, hissing and screaming at his witless attitude all the while, until she’d found him lying knocked unconscious—
—with a stupid smile on his face!
Bremorel hadn’t talked for two days after that. She’d just steamed with confused furry and equally puzzled and somewhat scared expression on her face. Laila had kept her company with badly concealed amusement, triggering further frustration from Bree.
Funny how the stupid things people did in life had such devastating effects on others.. More so than the smarter choices they made.
Thinking back, she could still remember what Thomas had said, when she’d asked him why he’d acted so.. ‘rashly’.. rather than be the smart person that he was..
The boy had said, in his calm, serious voice;
“The smart choice was the stupid choice; no one is going to hurt Morel so long as I am around.”
The stupid things people did, indeed!
But then, Laila wasn’t one to complain either.
She entertained bangs!
The girls back in Serenity called them ‘fringes’ but Laila liked to call them ‘bangs’. Sounded more.. well.. ‘rangery!’
Rangery? Was that even a word?
Laila snorted. Like that made a better word!
She deliberately dismissed both words and returned her attention to the issue at hand;
Bangs were bad in fights..
Bang kept getting in her eyes..
Bangs made seeing near impossible when swinging swords while dancing among fiends, demons, and crazed corpses..
Bangs made aiming a problem too..
But there she was.. persistent with her bangs perpetually biting into her eyes..
The things people did to impress others.. Even when they weren’t there to be impressed!
Laila huffed her bangs out of her eyes and plucked another arrow out of one of the dead fiends.
The arrow splintered.
“Damit!”, she murmured in frustration.
That was the third arrow now, totally destroyed!
✱ ✱ ✱
It’s a big room.”, whispered Whimsi Lola.
“Big? How big?”, asked Gnine, to his sprite familiar in hushed voices.
“Big..”, replied the tiny, ‘less-than-six-inch’ girl as she hovered next to Gnine’s head.
“Big like.. a farmhouse?”, asked Gnine.
“Big..”, repeated Whimsi Lola.
“The farmhouse and the barn?”
“Ok.. the farm itself, then?”
Laila just stared at the two as they ‘haggled’ about the size of the room with the eerie light, at the end of the hall, some two hundred yards away.
Merisoul though seemed much amused and caressed and stroked her own familiar, Jay the little pseudo dragon. Jay purred and made happy croaking noises as he sent his pretty mistress mental images of the room ahead and indeed, it was..
“Four farms? Geez, how big is that room?, Gnine asked in an exasperated voice.
Whimsi Lola shrugged.
“Great Heavens, girl. Don’t you have a word to describe just how big it is?”, fumed Laila finally.
“No.”, replied Whimsi simply.
“Well, is it ten farms big?”, she asked.
“Dunno..”, said the sprite vaguely. “How big is ‘ten farms big?'”
“And this is why I never have pets!”, she glared at the minute girl.
“I am not a pet.”, replied Whimsi Lola with pure indignation and added with a disparaged huff, “I am an indentured cooperative auxiliary! I would have thought a big girl like you would know the difference. Apparently, I was mistaken!”
Laila glared at the minute creature buzzing in the air.
“I don’t think you even know what you just said, means.”, she growled back.
“Of course I do. All fey know about debts and what they entail, and we very much stick to them, once owed, Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane!”, replied Whimsi Lola, buzzing higher and staring down at the ranger corporal with a distinctly superior tone.
“Don’t you look down on me, young lady! And it’s ‘Ranger Corporal’. Not lieutenant.”, scowled Laila.
“Not from what I heard, you aren’t!”, sniffed the ‘not-even-six-inch’ fey girl with admirable disdain.
“What?”, stared Laila up at the tiny, buzzing girl.
“We fey always correctly define things so we are not called upon our mistakes that would lead us to more debt. Don’t you know anything? You had Mistress Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, the Ritual Guardian, for months with you to learn you all this!”, piped down Whimsi Lola in disgust. Then she turned to Gnine and gave him a look of pure exasperation. “How do you mortals even manage to live as long as you do, not knowing anything that goes around you?”
Laila just ogled at her.
The little creature turned to Merisoul and scolded her as well.
“You are not fey, ‘Soul Keeper’, but you are aware of the things I speak. Why have you not learned them these things?”
“It is a mortal thing, dear Whimsi Lola.”, replied Merisoul. “It takes time for them to be adequately equipped with the nesessary wisdom to start to notice such things. And by the time they do.. well.. they run out of time!”
The tiny Whimsi Lola glared down balefully at Gnine.
“You had better not run out of time soon, Master Gnine Tinkerdome! We just started having some decent fun!”
“I.. will make a point not to..”, replied Gnine a bit deflated.
“So.. I am a Ranger Lieutenant now? When did this happen?”, asked Laila a bit shaken.
“One month, twenty-four days, and the time since we entered this horrible Demon Fog! The Fey do not come here so I do not know exactly. It happened after your mothers’ oath-sisters’ daughter, a Bremorel Songsteel and the Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood returned back to the mortal town you know as Serenity Home. They had both you and your cousin change ranks!”
Laila ogled at the tiny creature, some more..
“Wow.”, said Gnine. “That must have been some mission those two went to. I wonder what happened?”
“They fought many very big creatures there, with the elves and some dwarves. Creatures that have no respect, called Greater Orken. The elves warned us not to come near, so the details of what happened are a bit sketchy.”, shrugged Whimsi Lola.
“The Orken attacked the elves, again?”, Laila asked feeling a bit sick.
“Yes. But the elves were ready this time. And were backed up by your cousin and the Temple Guardian. Many elves still died, but then the dwarves from Elder Hills came and together, they defeated these Greater Orken.”
“But.. why would the Orken attack the elves again?”, frowned Laila. “..unless they wanted the north of Ritual Forest cleared to move in their main forces without hindrance when the time came.. And I think the time finally did come! Dammit. We had better get moving and fast.”
“So we are back to the room ahead, then.”, said Gnine, staring down the two hundred-yard tunnel-like hall.
“Big!”, prompted Whimsi!
“She is right, you know.”, said Merisoul from behind them. “The room is rather big. Possibly bigger than your Serenity Home itself, though its purpose escapes me. Why do the little races want to always build things so much bigger than they are? And certainly bigger than they need?”
“Well.. we like to..”, stammered Gnine.
“..compensate for something, perhaps?”, smiled Merisoul.
“We just like to emphasize things, that’s all.”, replied the gnome sternly then shut up.
The unearthly girl smiled at him again then started down the long tunnel.
“I think you just got served.”, snickered Laila.
“Yes. Yes, I did..”, agreed Gnine, then he smirked at the ranger lieutenant. “But at least I got served by something otherworldly..”
Laila scowled at him, then up at the little, buzzing ‘indentured cooperative auxiliary’..
✱ ✱ ✱
Gnine Tinkerdome gazed down the eerily lit room. But to call this place a ‘room’, was like calling the gigantic monstrosity of a T-Rex they had fought months ago in the Arashkan Arena, a rock lizard! It seemed to go on and on and on forever and it was not empty. Rows and rows of tall, stone boxes were laid out and aligned both vertically and horizontally in military precision so much so that it was downright creepy.
“Wow..”, said the Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane from behind in hushed awe. “What is this place?”
Gnine looked up to see the succubi half-born, Merisoul Xyrotwu flap her wings overhead, with unveiled envy as she glided past them again, doing a wide circle in the great hall. It seemed like she was having a lot of fun while doing it. Fun, Gnine thought, that he would never hope to achieve. The gnome had many weak spots in his life. His unquenchable desire to be the things he saw, pretty faces, and to be able to fly, at will, and free of constraints. He secretly gave a side-long glance at his closest friend, Laila, and saw similar envy in her eyes. But there was a distinct nuance in how they viewed the half-born’s flight. Laila viewed it as something unique and perhaps wanted to try it out of thrill, and because it would make travel much easier on her feet.. Quite a practical wont, really. Gnine, on the other hand, much preferred the immense pleasure he could only imagine it would give him. The kind of pleasure only ‘total freedom’ would give. He watched Merisoul, a magnificent creature; her raven black wings stretched, her arms wide open, her honey-brown hair whipping among her dark, crowning horns, her very nearly black-purple strapless dress fluttering, and her tiny, baby pink feet tickling and who had a distinct dreamy expression on her face, disappear in the distance.
“Wow..”, repeated the Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane from behind in hushed awe. “I feel jealous, now. I mean, you have got to admit, that’s just awesome!”
“Yes. Yes, it is.. It is almost a sin, watching her like this and know how hard she tries to be a mortal. She must truly want honest love and compassion.”
“She’s an idiot!”, fumed Laila.
“What? That’s a bit harsh, now, don’t you think?”, asked the gnome, taken aback with her sudden vehemence.
“That girl already feels love. And she certainly feels both passion and compassion..”, replied the ranger girl, frowning after the succubi half-born.
“How do you know?”, asked Gnine, a bit surprised because Laila wasn’t one to open up easily, nor give her opinion about ‘feelings’ and ’emotions’. On this score, he thought she was more catatonic than her cousin, Bremorel had ever been. As a matter of fact, he knew Bree displayed her emotions, like, all the time. Yes, it was mostly limited to anger, but Gnine knew it was to hide her real feelings. Laila, on the other hand, was always.. well.. ‘cool’.. Which is how she hid her emotions..
“Gnine.”, she said sternly, looking down at the gnome. “You do not sacrifice your own blood the way she keeps doing to ‘heal’ others, without some sort of genuine feelings. No one can be that ‘chore oriented’. I mean, look at Lady Magella. She healed us so many times, I can’t even come up with a number, and she still snapped at the end and she doesn’t even have to bleed to heal us.”
“Huh..”, grunted Gnine.
“That girl..”, Laila said, pointing at the general direction of the succubi half-born, “..does that every time she thinks any of us are in danger. I have yet to see her flinch when she is being attacked. I mean, she’s all like, ‘meh’, when a demon trice her size in coming at her, yet she very nearly panics when we are. That just can’t be ‘chore’!”
“Hmmm..”, mused the gnome, also looking in the direction where Merisoul had disappeared.
“Yes, she has issues. Issues I could only define using words like, monumental and otherworldly.. But she feels love, passion, and compassion. I can not imagine a girl who does not have those and do the things she does.. Have you seen her face? Actually seen it, when Princess Lorna said, ‘I thought you were my friend..’, back when we had just ran away from High Woods and were hiding in that cave? And the time when the two of us declared her as our friend when we were stumbling in that bloody Demon Fog? She very nearly broke down and cried. Had we been just a bit less nonchalant, or a bit more formal in our impromptu declaration of friendship, I fully believe she would have fallen apart.. Like, really fallen apart.. I was half afraid we had, inadvertently dismantled her! That girl lives for things we have and take for granted.. The things every ‘mortal’ has. Her problem isn’t the total lack of the things she wants. It’s connecting what she has, to her heart.. and mind.. She can’t relate.”, she said, and not without a certain amount of rage.
“Damn..”, Gnine whispered. “That’s.. that’s just sad..”
“When she says, she is broken, she actually means it. And until WE, her FRIENDS, find a way to make her relate to things she already has, she will STAY broken.”
“That’s going to be one, hard task, that is.. And I must admit, I am impressed AND pleased you opened up, the way you just did. Thank you.”, said Gnine happily.
Laila just stared down at the gnome.
“Just which part of anything I said, gave you the impression I was talking about me, let alone opening up, little man?!”
“Ahhaa..”, smirked Gnine. “..Anger! You always get angry when I am right.”
“No, I don’t.”, scoffed Laila.
“Yes, you do.”
“No. I. Don’t!”
“Then what’s with the name-calling?”, snickered the gnome.
“It’s the pre-warning you get before I knock you out of your socks!”, Laila fumed.
Gnine snickered, some more.
“You know, you really should go and have a long sit-down with that pretty boy, D.D. Dexter!”
Laila’s eyes blazed!
“That. Is. Non. Of. Your. Business. Dead. Man!”, she hissed at him.
“The well-being of my oldest and closest friend is non of my business? Just what world are you living in, girl?”, asked Gnine, still smirking. “If you are going to smack me, by all means, do, but my stance in this matter isn’t going to change.”
Laila glared down at him even more. Lucky for her though, or perhaps for the still smirking gnome, Merisoul appeared and did a stunning dive in their direction, swung up at the last moment, then gently settled down next to them!
“Wow, girl. That was truly spectacular, amazing, mind-boggling, and simply awesome.”, admitted Gnine.
And both Laila and Gnine noticed it.
That.. had never happened before.. Merisoul never showed any emotion other than perpetual sadness in her otherworldly beautiful face. Yet, here she was blushing..
Gnine ogled at her.
Because a blushing Merisoul was a whole new definition of ‘otherworldly beauty’!
Laila cleared her throat as a certain heat washed over her.
The half-born was unprecedentedly beautiful and Laila just now understood what would have happened had the girl actually used her succubi heritage over them the whole time she had been with them.
She also got a glimpse of what the girl truly meant, when she’d said, she was ‘hungry’ and hadn’t ‘eaten’ since she’d been forced to switch masters!
‘She must be starving!”, she thought, more than unnerved. ‘How does she even stay sane?’
“Tha.. thank you, Master Gnine.”, stammered Merisoul, still blushing in a baby pink-red color.
Gnine tried to clear his mind but failed.
Laila stepped on his foot and asked with a somewhat hoarse voice, “Uhh.. What have you seen?”
“Tombs..”, Merisoul replied. “These stone boxes are tombs.. All of them.. Thousands upon thousands of them.. It goes on for as far as I dared to fly..”
Gnine reeled back in desolate horror.
“Tombs? What the..? Why?..”, he spluttered.
“Relevant questions.”, Merisoul replied, all business again. “I suspect they all contain someone in them.”
“How do you..?”, the Gnine shuddered.
“They all have similar-dissimilar names, carved on brass plaques at one end of each box.”, she said.
“How do you mean, ‘similar-dissimilar’?”
“The names are all unique, but have a similar phonetic function, meaning they are likely all kin or of the same race and familial clan, Master Gnine. I believe we found your Silent Gnomes. I am, however, afraid it might be a bit too late for them.”
Laila suddenly felt sympathy for her little friend when she saw the sick expression on his face..
✱ ✱ ✱
Gnine, Laila, and Merisoul examined the ‘tombs’ for hours only to find very little more than they had expected to find. And now, Gnine was sitting on the cold, smooth floor of the immense hall of tombs with his back on one of the stone boxes and seemed very much on the verge of breaking down when the succubi half-born silently came and sat next to him.
Quietly, she put one arm over his other shoulder and hugged him closer to herself, and spoke in whispers. “I am sorry Master Gnine. I did the best I could to bring you here.”
“Tis alright, dear Soul. None of this was your fault, nor your doing. We were a couple of centuries too late.”, sniffed the little gnome.
“I know all seems lost, but I am not certain, nor do I know if they are actually dead or in some kind of suspended animation or cryo-sleep. If so, then there must be some way to deactivate it. Otherwise, It doesn’t make sense, preparing all these stone boxes, just to lie down in them and die.. Besides, the logistics behind it all doesn’t add up, either.”
“How do you mean?”, asked Gnine with a hoarse voice, stifling another sniff.
“There must have been a considerable number of gnomes left behind who were not put to ‘sleep’. Gnomes that had to ‘activate’ these ‘sleep-stones’, to care for them, and to make sure they were left unscathed.. Basic logistics and maintenance.”, she explained.
“She’s right.”, Laila said as she appeared between the stone boxes, further down the hall. “Other than the wear and tear of ‘time’, I noticed pretty much all the containers, or coffins, are still in pristine condition. So I checked for tracks. The floor is not marble, but very smooth and tightly fit stone, much like the walls. There is, however, quite a bit of dust. I found many tracks. Most of them belong to the demons we have slain on the way here. I found some small bootprints too. Seeing as you are one of my oldest friends, I could easily say, these prints also belonged to gnomes, though they are old. Very old. I happened upon many dead demons as well. Having looked closer, they all seem to have been ambushed. I suspect that Temez girl and her friends came through here. She did say they cleared all they could on their way to the Door.. The ones we met thus far were likely wandering around, rather than stationary sentries. We should move on.”
“We could be just wasting our time, you know..”, Gnine said in a depressed tone.
Laila looked down at the little gnome.
She felt a fluttering pang in her heart, for him.
But she refused to show any sympathy.
Her brows crossed and her gaze turned hard.
“Get up.”, she said with an unmerciful hiss.
“Wha—?”, gapped the gnome at her.
“I said, get up. Or I will hurt you. This is no time for your sorry feelings. We didn’t come all the way here, and through Hell, just to go back empty-handed. My town.. Your town needs you.. And I have no desire to see it go to waste by the Hell-Spawn Orken. I have seen firsthand what they did to Arashkan. I have seen what they did to High Woods as well, and so have you. Will you give up now and let our town, our homes burn because you are feeling sorry?”
Merisoul tried a poor attempt of a cough.
“Well, now. That was a bit harsh, girl, don’t you think?”, Gnine said taken aback. “‘Get up’ was more than enough. You didn’t have to beat me into the ground.”
“I don’t do ‘half ways’, little man.”, said Laila sternly. “Nor do I like doing repeats, re-do’s, begs, or pleads.”
“Apparently you don’t!”, mumbled the gnome. “I think you have hung around Bree for a bit too long.. All her bad habits seem to have rubbed off on you.”
Laila scowled even harder.
“Okay, okay..”, said the gnome in defeat. “There.. I am up! Geez, girl, you can be harsh at times..”
“Quit whining, Gnine!”, scoffed the ranger lieutenant.
“I think she’s right.”, smiled Merisoul.
“By all means, chose her side..”, grumbled Gnine.
“Well, yes. You are cute. But she’s prettier, and she has bangs!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Finally.. That was one, big, room.. We must have walked for.. How many hours?”, wondered Gnine Tinkerdome.
“More than five, closer to six.”, came Laila Wolvesbane’s voice, off to his left.
“How do you know, girl? There’s no sun here to determine—”, wondered the gnome.
“She’s been counting her steps.”, said Merisoul Xyrotwu simply, from his other side.
“Easier than counting steady heartbeats, I must admit. But I have wings and skip a step or three, now and then..”, the succubi half-born replied a bit abashed.
“You have been counting your heartbeats?”, asked Laila, with a surprised tone. “Won’t that be a bit.. inaccurate? Considering it changes when sleeping or in exertion such as running or even prolonged walking, as we have been doing.”
“Yours does. So does Master Gnine’s. Mine?.. Mine only changes under particular conditions? Otherwise, it’s much like a metronome swinging on even surface.”, replied Merisoul, with a reluctant voice.
“That is ..remarkable; a truly metronomic heart!”, admired Laila.
“Not as much as you make it sound.”, Merisoul answered with the same tone.
“How so? And how do you do it?”
“I don’t do it, dear Laila. It has to do with emotions. More like the lack of them in my case. Hard to have a hyped heartbeat when you can’t feel love, fear, anger —or any other form of excitement.”, she said in a monotonous voice.
“But you said, yours does, under particular—”
“—When I feed, dear Laila.. My heart rate changes only when I ‘feed’..”, came the half-born’s defeated voice.
“When you feed?”, asked the ranger lieutenant a bit confused. Then it dawned on her. “Ow.. when you ‘feed!’“
Laila blushed furiously and shut up.
Gnine cleared his throat after several silent moments.
“Ahem.. Back to the issue at hand, then..”, he offered.
“The thing you are actually wondering..”, said Laila in a subdued and flushed voice. “We came just over 30,000 yards. Each stone box/coffin/crate/or whatever you want to call them is two yards long and one yard apart. There were twelve rows, each row has four lines of crates grouped together. You do the math. I did the steps!”
“Fair enough.”, Gnine said and did a quick calculation in his mind but voiced it for the benefit of the girls. “That’s 10,000 crates per row..”
“How did you come up with that number? I said 30,000 yards..”
“Well..”, said the gnome. “..Each box is two yards long so we can reduce 10,000 yards off right there and another for the length of each crate.. Then we have twelve rows, each row with four crates, making the lot 48 actual rows in total. Now we time that with the 10,000 crates and we’ll get 480,000 crates in total!”
“That.. is a lot of crates!”
“It is indeed..”
“You reduced 10,000 yards, twice, right at the start. Why?”, she asked.
“Because, my dear girl, 10,000 yards of it is just empty space between each sequential crate, and the second was because 20,000 is in ‘yards’. It is not the number of crates per column.. Each crate is two yards long, so that’s 20,000 divided by two..”
“Ow.. right..” *cough* “Well.. Let’s just get moving, shall we?”
Gnine did not laugh. He did not even snicker. A friend never laughed at his friend, and certainly not at a girls’ blindside or folly. But that wasn’t really the reason.
The Heir to all the gnomes of Silent Hills had just come to a stunning realization.
These.. were not crates..
These.. were tombs containing his gnomes, his people!
The adventures of the Wizard Prince Gnine Tinkerdome, the Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane, and the sad, otherworldly creature, Merisoul Xyrotwu will continue as they travel deeper into the demon-infested vaults of Silent Hills, desperately seeking answers and allies, and the original denizens of the hills..
Sometime in the near future..
..and distant time to come.
It has been some time, little one. Many a things have I heard since you left. Of big happenings.. Of things moving; beast and man, elf and dwarf.. I hear the voices of the long-lost, waiting to be heard again.. Waiting in anticipation. Yet I hear another voice. Stronger now.. Louder. The one I warned Yours —the former Ritual Guardian.. It calls to us.. And it is not the voice of a mortal.. It is a dark voice.. Dark like untended, besmirching smoke.. I hear, also, whispers among the trees.. and the leaves.. and the winds.. and they say a new Ritual Guardian is among us.. And I sense the tender touch of a little girl in many of these big happenings. There is also a new grove, to the far north and east, where the mad mortal’s temple once was.. My ogres went there only to find.. peace! They lost all their bloodlust and all their hunger for hurt when they wandered it. They said the grove has an owner, little one..”, growled the nearly fourteen-foot tall giant of a woman, an ogress, with a harsh, vicious face, wild hair thickly braided many times, with arms and legs and body untoned and bearing awesome muscles and many scars; Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stared down, a looming monstrosity, over the little girl with an adorable face, and beautiful, even horns.. and at the cold, silent man in his dark harness, emanating a certain, ‘wintery’ death..
“I have returned, mother Ganiste.”, very nearly whispered the little girl —her voice abashed and barely audible.
“If you will have me..”
One would never expect such frightening agility from Chieftain Grulganiste, and certainly not from a monster of her size..
Aager Fogstep almost dished out everything he had, when she moved.
One moment, she was standing and glowering, the next, she had the little girl, Inshala, in her massive arms and pressed against her impressively large breasts.
“No, my little one.. I will never have you because you never left. And my heart has ached since that unfair day.. This, you must understand.. This, your father tried so hard to learn you..”, she said with tears running down her brutish face.
“This, I understand now, mother Ganiste. I am so, so sorry.. I am not wise, but a foolish little girl..”, Inshala hugged the ogress back with a sob. “And.. I am so, so sorry for having hurt you and blamed you for my father’s demise..”
“Ow, no, my little daughter. You will not get away with one apology. Come.. I have food, and Chihuahua has missed you.”, smiled the giant ogress, leaned down, and carefully put the girl back on the ground.
“That was an awesome speech, by the way.”, said the little girl, somberly.
“It had better be. Been revising and revisiting it for quite some weeks, now..”, growled the massive figure.
She thundered a few great steps and opened the flaps of her tent and bid her, and the cold, dark man in.. the one she’d kept in her peripheral vision at all times and learned what she sought, the moment she’d grabbed for her little Inshala!
‘So. My daughter has found something that cares and savagely.. Yet.. in control.. barely..’, she mused as the two entered her tent, followed them in, and closed the flaps after her.
“Chihuahua!”, shrieked Inshala and grabbed a rather tinny dog with short legs and a pointy little muzzle, as it jumped on her, its butt waggling crazy.
This was followed by a lot of giggles and happy laughter as the tinny dog nuzzled and licked at her hands, her face, and her small feet.
Aager Fogstep stood watching the giant ogress, his Inshala, and the hyped little dog while he stood at one side of the tent flaps, the side that would likely be pushed open first.
Chieftain Grulganiste turned to her pots and pans, and started slicing some potatoes, onions, carrots and dumped them into a large pot, then dropped large chunks of meat, followed by various spices, then hung the pot over the large fire pit, close to the center of the great, hut-like tent.
It took a moment for Aager to realize the ogress was staring at him. Watching her preparing food with fluent, hypnotic motions as he stared at the fire in the pit, he’d drifted off.. He was standing and awake, but his awareness had gone, leaving his body on total auto-motion..
The ogress had also addressed him something and he’d missed that too!
That.. had never happened to Aager.
And the more interesting part was..
..realizing it hadn’t even bothered him.
What else he’d realized was, albeit, and yes, this was an uncivilized, barbaric tent, its interior was..
Aager Fogstep failed to come up with a word.
For he’d never really had it.
And it was the realization of this fact, that had come to him in shrapneled.. hurt?
..he heard Inshala’s small, breathy voice in his mind.
“This is home, my Aager. Not mine. Not yours. But a home. Her home. Mother Ganistes’ home. Here, she cooked. Here, she gave birth. Here, she laughed, and here, she mourned.. Here, she has fire, and here, she has Chihuahua..”
“The boy seems distracted.”, noted Grulganiste.
“I think so too.”, replied Inshala. “It is good that he is, mother Ganiste.”
“Yes. He is always alert. Always watching. Always fighting, and always bleeding. He needs respite.”, replied the little girl softly.
“And found it here, has he? In my tent. The tent of an ogress.. My my.. He must truly need this respite, you speak of.”, smiled the ogress. “Well, bring him back from wherever he’s gone to. I wouldn’t want the sheriff to accuse me for letting his man go hungry nor for inhospitality.”
“You know the sheriff of Serenity Home?”, suddenly asked Aager.
“Yes, boy. And for quite some time now. Has an itchy hand with his blade when it comes to my ogres, though I can’t say I blame him. Everyone’s got to protect their own and my sons and daughters can get out of hand at times.”, replied Grulganiste, without breaking a smile.
Aager stared at the giant woman with reassessing eyes. This.. ogress was a lot more than what she appeared to be, and that was saying something.
“Come, boy.”, repeated the giant woman as she brought huge, ogre-sized bowls and spoons and settled near the fire pit where the tiny Chihuahua and the little girl, Inshala waited with equal anticipation.
Aager Fogstep stared at the scene.
A giant monstrosity of a woman sitting cross-legged; their host, a girl that could barely reach up to her caft if she were standing on her toes, sitting across her; her guest, and a dog that was ‘small’ even by Inshala’s standards, let alone the great ogre!
It looked so unreal.. And hilarious.. But he kept his mouth shut and settled himself next to the little girl.
The chihuahua have him a warning growl, made sure the man in the dark leathers would behave himself, then promptly dismissed him when Chieftain Grulganiste put a cup the size of a respectable-sized bowl with some potatoes and a large chunk of meat in front of him. The chihuahua started to ‘wolf’ it all down with a mindless fervor!
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
Aager took a careful spoon of the food and only after he’d smelled it first.
Funny how that went.
Aager Fogstep, the cold, sinister man. The Winter Knight, a peer to the Winter Court, had a sensitive nose and bad food churned his stomach!
“You are a guest in my home, boy. It is polite to just eat it, you know. It is vegetables, potatoes, and cow!”, rumbled the ogress with an impressive scowl.
Inshala giggled as she ate hers with delight.
“He is a sensitive soul, mother Ganiste. Happily, I cook well and have had much practice.”
“Sensitive, is he?”, snorted the ogress. It seemed at first, she was about to make a pun remark, but for whatever reason, she must have changed her mind. “Sensitive can be good. My daughter is alsa sensitive. Will you smell her carefully, before you taste her too?”
Aager’s food came out of his nose!
“Mother!”, gasped Inshala, suddenly burning bright red.
“What?”, asked Grulganiste seriously. “It’s a pertinent question. Or perhaps he already has and that is why you are so skinny now!”
“M.. Mother.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala with steam rising from her ears.
*chomp* *chomp* *chomp*
“This is what mothers do, little one. Ask impertinent questions. I am sure your father would have approved.. and snickered.. though not obviously. He was a thoughtful old man, particularly where you were concerned, after all.. Sour though he was.”, said mother Ganiste briskly.
“She smells like something wonderful. I lack words. And the ones I have, fall short.”, Aager said quietly, after wiping the food off his face.
“Does she, now?”, asked Chieftain Grulganiste with an awesome scowl.
“Yes.”, replied Aager simply.
“A.. Aager.. Please.. Stop!”, begged Inshala burning even brighter if that was even possible.
Apparently, it was!
“And she tastes like ‘Life’.”
“Not ‘beautiful’, not ‘delightful’, not ‘passionate’, not even ‘enjoyable’, but ‘life’.. Your choice of word is intriguing, if not impressive. And correct, for life has the potential of encompassing all.. You do not speak the words of a young fool, as fools are often young, much like their base wonts and shallow understandings. You will keep her safe, content, and desired, always, then? Or shall we break spoons, now?”, said the giant woman with a certain, implied menace.
“Your food smells and tastes good, Chieftain Grulganiste. I see no reason to break spoons.”, replied Aager formally.
Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at the man in dark leathers.
“You wish not to talk about this, then?”, she asked.
“You may, as you would, Chieftain. This is your home and I am a mere guest. My Inshala is where I belong. I desire nothing more from her. But by the Great Heavens, nothing less, either.”, he replied calmly and succinctly.
Grulganiste, though, recognized that ‘calm’.. For it was the calm she felt only after she’d let her bloodlust have its way. Accept, this.. man’s ‘calm’ was before the bloodlust and there seemed no respite from it anywhere in his near future.
And then it hit her.
This man.. ‘danced’.. and perpetually, at the edge of insanity.. always.. He was as a feral wolf; savage, hungry, cunning and bloody mad!
And her little Inshala, was the lamb to that wolf..
‘Ow, my dear, dear girl. What have you done? To whom have given your beautiful heart?’, wondered the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Foot in dread and hopeless fascination.
She stared fiercely at the cold man in dark leathers for a bit more.
“Very well.”, mother Ganiste said finally. “We shall put this issue and the breaking of spoons aside for the anon. Now, we shall take part the merry wisdom of my chihuahua to heart and eat.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Now, then. You came here at quite a critical time. Your enemies gather and in great numbers. The dwarven forges have been smoking non-stop for months, the foolish woodsmen carve spear shafts and great wooden stakes by the thousands, the elves enforce their woods with pits and traps as they fill quivers with arrows by the numbers I shudder to even assume. The humans to the south build walls and dig trenches day and night like their very lives depended on it, and by all accounts, it does!”, briefed the ogre chieftain in a low, rumbling growl that would have made any cave bear with a shred of sense to back off.
Aager Fogstep was, yet again, astounded at the accuracy of this giant woman’s astute perception. He had, and only once before, come to Oger’s Foot, some years ago, when a savage ogre called Cabot had come down from these hills and had started ravaging the lands. Serenity Home ranger masters Davien and Moorat had gone after him, but the ogre had been fast on his feet. He had gathered his followers and had made a run for it.. to the ruins of Themalsar, forcing the ranger masters to retreat. Then young Udoorin’s father, Sheriff Standorin, along with Davien, Moorat, Aager, more than half the guards of the town and no other that Lady Magella herself had come here, to these hills to give a harsh lesson to the ogres to behave themselves. They hadn’t met, nor seen Chieftain Grulganiste then. Looking back, now, Aager woke up to the fact that they really hadn’t seen all that many ogres at all!
‘Damn..’, he silently fumed. ‘We were played.. by ogres!’
Once again, he was harshly reminded that ‘the stupider’ something seemed, the more they ‘fooled’ the human’s ‘higher’ intellect!
Aager had never assumed, in any given time, that he was smarter than those around him. He prepared to stay silent and observe, hence at least give some semblance of ‘smart’. But being conned by one ogress?
That did nudge his self-esteem a notch or two down!
“If you are here to warn us not to join your foes, I have no desire to. Some of my more foolish sons and daughters might.. It is hard to curb the bloodlust when it comes. Particularly when their air stinks of it.. I shall resist ‘the call’, for as best as I can, for as long as I can., and will have nothing to do with this conflict. Should you see me and mine on the field, and waring against you, you may, by all means, slay me and mine, for it shall mean that I have fallen to ‘the call’. I would rather die with some semblance of honor on my own, than to rampage mindlessly for another..”, she rumbled calmly.
“We have not come to warn you, Chieftain Grulganiste.. Nor have we come to threaten you. Certainly not in your home.”, replied Aager carefully.
“Smart of you, not to.”, smiled Grulganiste terribly.
Aager paused for a moment before he spoke again, for whether this would be an official offer by Serenity Home, or a personal favor would be determined by what he would say next. Then he thought about the oncoming slaughter, and his pragmatism kicked in. He didn’t care how something got done, provided it wasn’t downright heinous. He cared that it did get done, and at this point, that was all that mattered.
Hence he looked at the little girl, Inshala..
He wasn’t looking at her like she was a little girl anymore, even if her mind worked and prompted her, at times, to do things that would make her seem like one.
He was looking at not just the ‘person’ he belonged but at the daughter of Lady Alisia and the late Delia Karakash Hooman, the surrogate daughter of the departed Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, the daughter of the chieftain of all the ogres of Oger’s Hill, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig, the mistress of The Grove, The Ritual Guardian and by defacto, a citizen of Serenity Home and Gull’s Perch, the wont of both Mab, the Winter Queen and Titania, the Summer Queen and..
..he was looking at the young woman he loved and cherished by her mere existence.
Just when had that shift in his perspective occurred, Aager Fogstep couldn’t say.
The fact that it had, told him some things..
Carefully, he kept his composure and nodded at the young woman.
“Ritual Guardian..”, he spoke. “If you would.”
Chieftain Grulganiste cocked an eyebrow at him, then at the young woman.
“Respect..”, she said. “Good. For it’s there, only if it’s there.”
“Mother Ganiste.”, Inshala said softly. “We shall not confine you with demands. We come as beggars.”
“Ow?”, said Grulganiste.
“Yours can not stand, while the blood of the innocent spills by the thousands. Your own blood shall boil in wont and willy-nilly, the madness of its lust will drive you to war. We only beg, you choose when and where to release your blood and your lust for it..”, said the young woman, her eyes wide and pleading.
“What are you asking of me, girl?”, demanded Grulganiste.
“Join us, mother. Your daughter, and your forest of whom you have shared her bounties for centuries.. we need you.. Now, more than ever..”
“You are asking me to join with the elves and the dwarves and the humans who have hunted us for the said centuries and in our forest? You have gone mad!”, she roared and the hut-like tent tremored.
“Mother.. Chieftain Grulganiste..”, she said solemnly. “We go to this war with the intent of not coming back because we will not retreat, nor run, or hide.. These are choices, just not ours.. If your choice is to stay here as we bleed and die, then this shall be the last you shall see of your Father’s daughter.”
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig just sat there, cross-legged and quietly petrified.
“You come here, to my hills and to my home, you eat my food and dare to threaten me? With your demise?”, she thundered with a horrible, torturous voice.
“No, mother Ganiste. I only speak my truth, as I always have.”, replied Inshala, bowing her head.
Grulganiste turned and with burning eyes, she very nearly burned Aager where he sat with her glare.
“Has this one put these foolish thoughts into your head, girl?”, she snarled.
“Mother, please. He spoke so I would go away, far away, when the slaughter began.”, replied the young woman quietly again.
“Then why will you not listen to him?”, snarled the ogress with much fury.
For a moment Inshala paused. Then, slowly she lifted her head, then herself. Step by step, she came at the giant woman and hugged her. One sitting, the other on her toes, and the young woman still looked so very diminished as she clung to the ogress.
“Because the running cannot belong, my beloved mother Ganiste.. You must know, for the first time, I belong.. Will you deny this one wealth, from me?”, she replied Inshala desperately, as she sobbed.
“You belong to this man?”, Grulganiste asked in some surprise.
“I belong to this man, mother Ganiste.”, she whispered again. “He is my hills. My trees. My garden. My day. And my night, mother. He is my land and my forest.. And my home..”, said Inshala in a voice that sounded so lost, yet so happy.
“And what has he promised you? What does he give you in return?”, asked the ogress, somewhat freaked!
“His life, mother. This, he has already given..”
Chieftain Grulganiste pushed Inshala away at arm’s length and just stared at her, then at Aager like a mother was looking at her foolish children whose excuses were worse than their deeds..
“But know, mother, the Orken shall not leave you at peace, should they trample over our corpses. You know this to be true, for you recall what they did when they first came.”, Inshala said softly. “They shall come in number and trample over yours as well.. And take your hills, and your sons and daughters away from you, and push them into service of nothing less than darkness!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig stood up. With tangible wrath visible and plainly etched on her face, she stormed out of the tent, though not too far, for both Aager and Inshala could hear her great strides trample back and forth as if trying desperately to blow some steam, but failing horribly.
“What now?”, asked Aager quietly.
“Now we wait, my Aager Fogstep. We have told her our wont and given her choices. It is up to her now. She must do what she thinks would best serve her and hers because she is the chieftain of her people.”, replied the young woman.
“She must love you much, my Inshala. I saw fear once, and only once in her eyes. And that was when you said you would not go away, but join the slaughter.”, noted Aager in a hushed voice. “I would have a word to say about your decision to stay, love. My inner voice says, send her away, even should it break her heart. There are many Aager’s in the world.. There’s but one of her! Please, my Inshala.. If I have one wish, I would wish you to go.. and live.”
The young woman stared at Aager with a broken expression.
Then, large, shimmering tears swelled in her eyes and slid down her small face.
“You.. wish to break our bond?”, she asked in a voice that could only be called; ‘desperation’.
“I would wish, that you lived.”, replied Aager and bowed his head, unable to look at her.
“And did you live.. before?”
“No. I did not, my heart.”
“And you think I lived? You wish me gone, knowing I shall die some, every day? You hope to preserve me while you die, knowing I shall not? Why? Why would you do this to me? We.. we promised to be stupid together. Does this promise falter at our first trial?”
“No, Inshala. We have had many trials together. You know this to be true.”
“Yes. I do know this to be true. But you fail to reason; distance will keep me safe, and perhaps assure my survival. But it will not keep me alive.. Not really.. If you truly want me gone, however, I shall.”
Aager cursed himself.
He had never wanted her hurt. But he had.. What else he had done, was to have made her choices for her. Did he really have the right to that? Yes, they belonged. But was he, perhaps unwittingly, abusing the ‘trust’ of their bond? And a tad too casually?
Then he figured..
..the monumental arrogance he was displaying without even knowing because he thought he knew things, and life better..
Keeping her away was just as selfish as telling her to stay.
It wasn’t up to him in the first place.
His Inshala had desperately wanted his love, certainly, but she wanted his respect more.
Yes, she looked so little, but she was not all human.
She was little.. and yet she was more..
Aager finally figured out what it was, his shift in perspective was telling him; that he should quit treating her by his stupid, narrow, quite conventional, and mortal standards, but by hers..
“No. To stay, or to go, is a choice you must make. I.. I do not want you to go.. I never wanted it.. I want you to stay, always.. Will you? Please?”, he asked silently.. and desperately..
..and she was in his arms.
“I never left.”, she whispered. “And stay, I shall. We.. we promised, my Aager, we PROMISED..”
The tent’s flaps pushed open and Grulganiste stood there, glaring down at the two.
“You..”, she said. “..truly love this man?”
“I do.”, replied Inshala, still in Aager’s arms.
“You..”, she said, glaring down at the man in dark leathers. “..truly love my daughter?”
“I do.”, replied Aager simply.
“And should something happen to either of you..?”, she asked and there was nothing but a baleful storm in her face.
“The other shall die.”, Inshala quietly.
“Why? Why would you make such a pact? To what purpose would you make this pact, girl?”, she thundered.
“Purpose? None, mother. Only to belong. It is a feeling like no other. It transcends.. This, you must accept, mother Ganiste.”, Inshala replied tenderly.
“Very well, Inshala.. I shall join you and yours in this slaughter.”, she said very, very harshly.
“Thank you—”, began the young woman.
“—In return..”, cut in the vastly angry ogress. “..you will uphold your father’s promise to me.”
Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane stared at Chieftain Grulganiste Grimtooth Bolgrig with a horrified expression.
“No, mother Ganiste. I beg of you. Do not ask this of me.. Anything but this..”, she pleaded.
“It is not a choice I am giving you, Inshala. It is a debt; Father to Daughter Passed..”, she replied with a frosty expression. “Will you honor it?”
“Will you honor it?”
“Will you not honor your father’s debt? His promise?”
“WILL YOU HONOR IT, INSHALA?”, roared the giant ogress.
“..I will..”, replied Inshala in a small voice.. and Aager held her fast as she burst into uncontrolled, unhinged tears and wept..
She wept with a terrible loss..
Aager held her and stared at the giant ogress.
“What debt have you tasked her to honor, Chieftain?”, he very nearly snarled.
“Her father, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, promised to slay me when my time came, young man.. He failed to do so, for he was slain ere he could.”
“I shall honor this task for her.”, he spat, without even thinking.
“No, boy.. You are not part of the debt, nor the honor. I do not know you and you are neither my respected enemy nor my loved one. This is not something that is covered in whatever pact, bond, or accord you have made with one another.”, she replied harshly.
“Will you not respect the Winter Knight, then? And spare my Inshala —your daughter, the pain?”, he asked, suddenly desperate.
“I respect Mab, and I respect the Winter Mantle. A heavy and dreary burden it is, and will likely drive you mad in the end and get my daughter killed as well.. But I do not know you.. Again, this is not your trial, nor your debt..”, replied and her voice was calm again.
Aager inadvertently staggered.
This ogre not only knew of Mab and of her Winter Knight she also knew of the Winter Mantle!
“Why? Why would you do this to her? She is ‘daughter’.. She loves you..”
“Because, the bonded of my daughter, love is beautiful. And it is harsh. It is not a word to be spent with ease. It demands.. always demands.. And is tested upon death.. Hence we ask this of only the enemy we respect or from the ones we love..”
Chieftain Grulganiste stared down at the two of them and something shimmered in her eyes, but for a mere moment.
“Now go.. I have many preparations to make. We must all make a pilgrim to The Grove to cleanse our souls.. Then gather.. For humans with false words, I lost my mother, my father, my greats, and many kin.. This time, I shall go to slaughter on my own accord. We shall make these Orken scream in pain, for they shall receive nothing less from us. Do not mourn your debt, my daughter. Perhaps I shall fall in the coming slaughter and free you of it..”