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.
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 the target-oriented girl aren’t you, 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 undesired attractions, and hence, 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 to tell me, 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 contracts 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..
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 cuffs and hisses at her with an extremely angry, tight voice ) You idiot!
Lilly Venom:(sigh) Well, bugger..
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 a good advice when it’s given to them and do stay silent. How about you, Venom, how would you like your reception? The same, perhaps? Or 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 contracts nor clients, 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, obviously.. 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, making him quite brave. He didn’t cry once during our plight from Arashkan, nor on our way to here on the ships.. 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 anymore 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?
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.
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: La-yu-ka.. Law-ka.. 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?
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:(sumgly) Yup!
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 knew Master Cathber personally and deeply revered him. Now.. Master Aager, and 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: !
✱ ✱ ✱
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 Grandaleren Feymist and Rise Nadine Graciousward, again, by proxy.. Our Senior Temple Guardian Lady Magella, and by her proxy, Master Argail Smitefast and pretty much all her extended family at Scowling Hills, 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! The Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, here, and ‘The Celestial’ girl, Merisoul Xyrotwu, never got mentioned 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, in your form, 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!
Sheriff Standorin: You can’t be serious!
Agent Largo: I have been. For quite some time, now.
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!
Sheriff Standorin:(sigh) Go get the Temple Guardian Thomas here to officialize and formalize their wedding, if you will Master Aager.
(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..
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 the way you and Inshala are.
Aager Fogstep: What way would that be?
Lilly Venom: Wierd?
Aager Fogstep:(snort) Huh!
Lilly Venom: To be honest, I wouldn’t want to, either.. 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 TOTALLYhis 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: (quietly, and after a pause) 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: 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.
Aager Fogstep: It’s alright, really. We will take our rest in the temple dormitories, or more likely next to some campfire —it’s a bit too crowned in the temple for my taste. We still have a lot of work until the day’s end, though. Inshala has to coordinate and make sure the ground stays warm and the weather mild for the refugees 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 time.. Nights in particular—
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.
Aager Fogstep:(strained voice) You.. aren’t 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.. I can’t even tell you how many of my friends, my co-workers, and their families were assassinated in the past thirty years.
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!
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: (finally speaks, 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, even more 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.
Inshala had woken up early that morning and snuck around the single-room house —her home, tiptoeing so as not to wake up the man sleeping soundly on the hard, threadbare mattress they shared and sneaking in a twenty by fifteen ‘room’ was a dare, all on its own, without waking up the most guarded and wary man in perhaps, several hundred miles in any direction.
But Inshala was just that good!
Having lived all her life mostly alone and in the wilds, a person learned to be quiet.
Or die quick.
Very silently, she snuck to the only door of the house, carefully opened it, and peaked outside to make sure there wasn’t anyone around to see her, as she wore only a simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown, which did look more like a man’s shirt, really, and pretty much displayed her skinny legs, all the way up to her slender hips..
Satisfied, she slipped out of the house and into the garden behind. There, she very slowly drew water into a rickety wooden bucket using the old, squeaky pump, which wasn’t as easy as it sounded, considering how skinny she was, and how it shrieked every time she pulled at its lever!
When the bucket was full, she went back in and returned with a basket holding two apples, four green peppers, two hand-full of grapes, two tomatoes, half a dozen tiny onions, and two potatoes. All of these, she washed using the water from the bucket and quite vigorously.
Not content, she washed all of them again..
With an obsession that went all the way back to her younger days when she’d thought she was some unclean demon-spawn and had thought, or perhaps, zealously believed washing herself over and over and over again until her skin was rashed and likely bleeding, now.
In later years, her thoughts had become of two, in this matter. After she’d met Aager, who was hopefully still sleeping inside, however, she had finally concluded that perhaps —like, maybe— she wasn’t so unclean and not really a demon-spawn.
In all candor, she hadn’t yet attained that level of clarity, or wisdom, where she just wouldn’t care even if she was, in fact, a demon-spawn and it was what one chose to do, and consequently became, that mattered, rather being born as something that one’s opinions was never taken into account, nor were you ever confided.
That wisdom would come in time.
Like, many years later..
Just not yet.
Suffice to say, the idea of she being unclean had faded, drastically so, but her obsession for cleanliness and washing things over and over and over had, apparently, stuck!
Hence, with cold, weary, and shriveled hands, she returned back into the house and put all the fruits and vegetables on the small but sturdy table next to the tiny fireplace. She gave a cursory glance at the pots and pans that were available at hand, which weren’t all that many, really; a small jar full of cooking oil, two crock-pots containing some butter and some white cheese, a number of tin containers with coffee, various teas and herbs, one small iron pot for stew, a dingy copper pan, a small, water boiling pot, and her own addition, a set that comprised of two, flat, wooden plates which were called dinner plates, as she’d found out later when they were in Durkahan, two wooden bowls, and two wooden cups, all of which she herself had painstakingly carved in secret after she and Aager had come to better know one another, and when they were back at Arashkan, and a pair of forks and spoons, and several knives.
She picked up the smallest of the knives, the wooden-handled one, and peeled one apple, and sliced it in four. She took the other apple and sliced it in eight, but without peeling it. She also peeled the potatoes and cut them into very neat and very thin slices and cleaned the tiny onions then went over to the tiny fireplace and with a small wave of her hand, she lit the fire. She picked up the copper pan, careful not to make any noise, she poured some of the cooking oil in it, then lined the sides of the pan with the sliced apples, followed by potatoes, and in the very center, she put the onions. And with equal care, she placed it on the grate of the fireplace. Then she returned to the table, took out the two dinner plates, and spooned some butter into both and a rich slice of the white cheese as well. With sharp, practiced motions, she cut the tomatoes without letting the juice —one of the advantages of being mated to Aager; all his knives, kitchen or otherwise, were always very, very sharp, and placed them next to the cheese. Then she speared the green peppers with one of the longer knives, walked over to the fireplace, and held them in the fire, one pair a bit more than the other because Aager liked his food a bit on the burnt side. She placed the green peppers, now spotted with black charrs, and lay them next to the sliced tomatoes, and held her breath!
Aager had just stirred!
Hastily, she went back to the fireplace and withdrew the pan, and put a bit more than half the onions and the potatoes, and all the four slices of peeled and fried apples into his plate, and the eight, not-peeled ones into her own because Aager liked his apples peeled and once peeled, apples turned mushy when you tried to fry them, hence the slices had to be larger. She, on the other hand, liked her apples with their peels! As an encore, she placed the grapes, in a sort of pyramidical formation, and next to the green peppers.
Then she took out the two wooden bowls, turned them upside down, and placed them over the dinner plates to keep dust and bugs out of the now ready breakfast, cleaned the table off the peels, took out the water boiling pot, ghosted back out, filled it with water, skimmed back in and hung the pot over the fire and dumped a spoon.. no.. two spoons.. wait.. was it one, or two spoons?
This was the one thing she could never remember;
The number of spoons of coffee that went into the small pot.
Possibly because she never drank coffee. It smelled wonderful, like awesome-wonderful, but once, and only once had she drank it. Back when her Father, Cathber had still been alive.
Turned out, coffee had quite the opposite effect on her, than it had on her Father —or any other human for that matter.
It had made an eleven-year-old Inshala totally, unimaginably, and roaring drunk!
It had been a learning experience for both herself and her Father that day.
Hence, Inshala preferred her herbal teas in the mornings but she wouldn’t make a fuss if they weren’t available. Aager, on the other hand, would forgo his breakfast, but not his coffee!
All done and ready, she quickly heated her slender hands near the fire, then her tiny feet, and with a very self-conscious blush, she turned around, pulled up her simple, cream-white, hip-high shirt-gown she used while she slept, and heated her embarrassingly small, cup-sized, bare butt as well, because Aager tended to get riled when her hands, her feet, and even perhaps her butt, was cold, as one never quite knew where hands went when the mind was asleep, usually ending up where they wanted to be without bothering to ask the mind!
Just the other day, she had woken up with one of her slender hands in his hair, and the other in his shirt, touching his lean, spring-coil chest marred and marked with whip marks and numerous stab wounds!
She had been so embarrassed.
But with a very guilty and a very, very red but decisive face, she had kept her hands where they were.
The deed had already been done, right?
Inshala had figured, should Aager decide to trash her for it, she’d at least have fully earned it!
That’s how her mind worked; if she was going to get trashed, she should do her best to thoroughly deserve it.. as odd, somewhat scary, and illogical as that sounded.
Back to the topic at hand, then?
When Aager found her hands, feet, and possibly her butt, were cold, he spoke in his ‘quiet’ voice because he thought she wasn’t taking care of herself.
That was one of the very few things he did not tolerate when it came to Inshala.
It seemed like everyone had their perks, quirks, and oddities and it mattered very little how much you loved and cared for them, or how desperately they loved and cared for you.
But all of that went only as far as one could find a way around them.
With her hands, her feet, and her butt comfortably warmed up, she snuck back to the threadbare mattress and slithered her way into his arms, and started to watch his face..
With quiet, excited anticipation..
..and inadvertently, she breathed, softly, into his face.
Perhaps he was having a bad dream again.
Aager often had bad dreams.
Inshala had watched him ever since they had met in the woods, some six or seven months ago, and knew when he was having a bad dream.
Then his eyes opened.
They didn’t flutter.
They opened suddenly and alertly, without any sign of sleep or grogginess.
It was quite creepy, really.
But Inshala had found it amazing.
Possibly because when she woke up, she was much like this silly bear that’d just woken up from his winter sleep; dizzy, groggy, confused, stupid, and at times, panicked, even.
Because she wanted him to see ‘this’, the first thing he opened his eyes..
“You have pretty eyes.”
Aager said solemnly.
After quietly staring at her.
“Yeesh!”, thought Inshala.“Totally worth a trashing.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Meet you at the Guest’s Inn at, say, when the town bell hits twice afternoon?”, Aager asked. He had cleaned out his perfectly prepared plate and was now sipping his hot, bitter coffee, quietly wondering at what point had the little girl slipped out of their dingy mattress and prepared the breakfast and returned back into his arms and whether or not to tell her she didn’t have to prepare the breakfast because he didn’t think she was some serving maid.
“I don’t prepare anything because I am a serving maid, my Aager.”, Inshala said with a flushed smile, as if having read his mind, which, in all likeliness, she had.. “I prepare them because I do not think you should go to work to keep us all safe and do it hungry.”
“Some would argue your point.”, Aager mused.
“You are not ‘some’ to me, my Aager. And I prepare it because you have asked me to care for myself. Which is what I am doing. Caring for you is caring for myself. And I like cooking.”, she replied with an even bigger smile. “Besides, this is our home. And ‘some’ has no say here. Only you, and me, get to speak in our home.”
“Well, when you put it that way, someone just lost the argument!”, Aager smiled.
“As for the hour, I think we should meet here and go to this Guest’s Inn, place.”, she said.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When we return here..”, Inshala explained. “..we have returned ‘home’ where we are at our best. We are filled and refreshed with our ‘home power’ here. And we shall go and meet them fully armed, with the least taint of the day, hanging on us.”
“That is.. a rather deep perspective of looking at it.”, Aager admitted a bit astonished.
“Will you fight the Summer Knight?”, she asked a bit tentatively.
“I have no desire to fight anyone. We have enough enemies on their way.”, he growled. “But I shall not bow to any demands, should he be foolish enough to make them. What will you do today?”
“I have been asked by the elves of High Woods to kindly meet with their druids and the druids, shamans, and witches of Ritual Forest to lead them.”, Inshala said unhappily. “I don’t want to lead anyone. I am too young for that. But the request was made by your mayor, Artanboss—”
“Arthandos, love.”, Aager corrected her kindly.
“Yes, him. He sent word to our Bremorel to find me and tell me about this. What should I do? I have more than enough work, bargaining with Mab and Titania so they would cooperate..”, she said like she wanted to cry. “I mean, they can barely tolerate one other in even in my secret Silent Forest. Now I bargain with Mab so she would refrain from her usual winters, and beg Titania so she would breathe life and warmth to these lands so the refugees will not freeze and die, and neither wants to give consent without wanting something from the other! They only agreed thus far because I told them, should either refuse, Mab can live her best winters when the Orken bring their destruction and kill all her Winter Feys and I told Titania that she could enjoy her summers once the same Orken totally burn her Perch and kill her nymphs and dryads who live there.”
Aager splurted some of his coffee!
“You threatened Mab and Titania?”, he stared at her, somewhat aghast and about to laugh.
Inshala’s face went red.
“I.. might have.. just a little..”
“That was awesome, love.”, he said happily. “But I think you should lead all the druids and witches and whatnots of both parties as you are the only one among them that have seen the bigger picture and look out what’s best for the world and the people in general, rather than their individual self-interests. Though I think you should make sure you have their oaths that they will follow your lead, should they want you to lead them.”
“I don’t want any more responsibility and you want to bind them to me with oaths?”, she pouted.
“We all must do what we must, love. And we are all running out of time.”
Inshala pouted some more and Aager put his bitter coffee down, leaned over the small table, and kissed her pretty pout.
“I am off, love.”, he said with one of his rare smiles. “It has been a wonderful night, a delicious breakfast, and even a better kiss. I will meet you here at the second toll of the bell, afternoon.”
Inshala stood where she sat, a demure, happy smile on her face.
Then she blinked.
“Ow no..”, she moaned. “I forgot to ask him if the coffee was alright.”
“I forgot how many spoons I put.. Again!“
✱ ✱ ✱
Will you honor us, Lady Inshala?”, asked an elderly elf in some old and saggy brown robes.
“I will honor everyone who comes in peace.”, replied the little girl, blushing furiously, for the elf bowing before her was at least one thousand five hundred years older than her. “Sir. Please. I am the Ritual Guardian, for the forest has spoken. But I lack the years and the wisdom for such respect.”
“No, Ritual Guardian. The forest has chosen you, precisely for those reasons. Mortals may choose as their wont. Nature chooses to her need.”, said the elderly elf and there was a rumble of agreement among the other druids, both elf and human, young and old, and the few shamans, all standing in a huge, rune laid circle, far out of the town, and all staring at her in wonder, something Inshala found quite uncomfortable and rather embarrassing.
The witches at the back, a score or so in number, all wearing masks or veils, however, stood silent.
Inshala looked back to make sure the two rangers were still there; Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel and Ranger Master Moorat, who had been assigned to her for the duration of this meeting, though whose idea it had been to assign them to her in the first place, she didn’t know, though she had some implicating suspicions about it. She and her hubby, Aager, would have words about this later, at length..
“It wasn’t me, love.”, she heard Aager whisper in her mind.
“It.. it wasn’t?”, she asked a bit baffled.
“As much as I would claim my hand in this, I have no jurisdiction over the rangers of Serenity Home. Yes, they are bound to report to me, but I can not give them orders, and I can even prove it!”, Aager said and gave Inshala the impression that he was smiling.. sort of smugly.
“I would like to see how you can prove that, all the way from the sheriff’s office, my Aager.”, she replied with a little sniff.
“Morel.”, Aager said.
“What about her?”, she asked a bit confused.
“Is she scowling and fuming?”
“Well. No. She looks.. happier than I remember her from our time at Themalsar.”
“There you have it, love. Had I given her the order, she’d be glaring and breathing fire, because both she and her cousin, Laila, very much dislike me and hate it when I order them around.”, he said, the impression of his smugness more apparent now.
“They would have liked you if you hadn’t inperodated.. incarocated.. imperomated—”, she said and faltered.
“Uhhmm.. Interrogated them?”
“Yes, that..”, she said blushing furiously. “In that tent when they were wounded after their fight against the wolves, all those years ago.”
“Wait a minute.”, Aager said. “How could you possibly know about that?”
A long, ‘oops’ sort of silence settled over the conversation.
“You.. you got your knife back that evening, didn’t you?”, she mumbled, her blush turning into a very hot flush now.
“That.. that was you!”
“Yes.”, Inshala replied with a very small voice.
“I knew it!I KNEW IT! AND THOSE IDIOTS INSISTED ON NOT TELLING ME ANYTHING!“, Aager fumed. “And you were there all along..”
“Well, I only joined the attack against the wolves when they both were hurt because they didn’t know me and I was in my saber-tooth tiger form and feared I would either be a distraction or a source of fear causing them to attack me as well.”
“And it was you who healed them and washed and braided their hair!”
“My master did most of the healing. But yes. I did wash their hair and braided them as well. I am sorry my Aager, but they were wearing their hair wrong!”
“And.. you were at the tent afterward as well?”
“Well.. not inside the tent.. Just outside. They were hurt so badly and I know hurt very well and felt so sorry for them and wanted to be sure they were alright. That’s when you came and started intorodating them..”
Inshala got the distinct impression that Aager was ‘victory dancing’ in her head!
“Umm..”, she said. “If I’d known you were this curious about it, I promise, I would have told you about it before. But many things happened after we met in the forest years later, and..”
“And I didn’t want to scare you..”
“Well. I did follow you around when you and my Father, along with the hunters and rangers had gone to kill the rabid wolves, and later, when we were following those bad men that had killed my Father and burned your town. It.. makes me look.. scary.. I would have been scared if someone snuck around behind me like that..”, she said, a bit mortified.
“Love. Being followed around and stalked by you was one of the better things that has ever happened to me.”, Aager admitted freely. “As for why Bremorel and Moorat are there, I might have an idea as to who sent them to safeguard you.”
“That was very nice of him but.. he wouldn’t have known about this meeting..”
“I might have mentioned it to him and insinuated that keeping the Ritual Guardian —our Ritual Guardian— safe and sound was of utmost importance..”, he replied, not without a small amount of smug.
“Ow, my Aager.”, Inshala sighed. “You could have just told me, you know. I am not a disagreeable girl, after all.”
“No, love. You are not. But that meeting isn’t only a happy gathering between druids and witches. It also concerns the rest of us. Think of Bremorel and Moorat as representatives of Serenity Home.”
“I do not mind Bremorel is here, my Aager. But Ranger Master Moorat is.. scary.. And he is scowling at everyone!”
“That’s Moorat for you. But he is a good man at heart. I think. His sister was Sheriff Standorin’s wife, and Udoorin’s mother. She became very ill when Udoorin was at a very young age and died. Moorat and the sheriff are always scowling because they still miss her.”, Aager said quietly.
“Owww.. That is so sad. I shall speak of this matter with him after this meeting. I sense he has words to say and they have been inside him for many years now.”, Inshala promised.
“Do be careful, love. Moorat might be a good man, but he doesn’t have all that good manners and his mouth is rather foul.”
“I doubt he can add any more to what I have already heard from the woodsmen in my youth, my Aager, but I shall be careful.”
A moment of smoldering silence fell and Inshala immediately regretted what she’d just said.
“One day, love, and soon, I believe you and I are going to visit those woodsmen up north.”, Aager said with a too steady voice.
“No need, my Aager. Really. Nothing good can come from such a visit. What is done is done. I did what I did and went near their homes to fix their broken and hurt animals when my Father clearly warned me not to. And just as he warned, I made their sins, my sins. I do not regret my choices, nor the consequences of my choices. I do regret theirs, for I was the cause of it. The woodsmen there always live in fear because their lives might end at any time and without warning; the tree they cut might fall on them and crush them, a wild animal might attack and eat them, a marauding band of orcs or goblins, or worse might raid them and slay them.. They suffer the harshest of winters and could easily die, frozen and brittle.. Being so far away from help has made them wary of everyone and everything that isn’t them. Yet they still are there, because there, they are free and no one tells them what to do. Vengeance, my Aager, is merely a lazy form of grief..”, she said mutely.
Aager did not reply for some time. When he spoke, his voice was kinder, though as steady and even as it had just been.
“You, my Inshala, are a wonder, you are. I shall not go after them. But should they come after you as they did before, I shall not allow you to suffer their sins again.”
That said, Inshala felt Aager’s presence leave..
She sighed and turned to the men and women, elf and human, all much, much older than she.
“I shall accept your offer to lead, but not your offer to command. We, druids and shamans, are free. From nature, we take only what we need, and we return back to her willingly. That is who we are. And that is what makes us, and no ill-begotten Orken nor their foul demon masters may take this away from us. Should you acknowledge my lead, I shall require your consent. We are free. But we must work and work in concert to stay free. Will you all concur on this?”, she asked quietly.
There was a murmur of awed surprise as the druids stared at the little girl in wonder.
Yes. The forest had chosen her as her guardian, and this was the reason. Her wisdom was merely the excuse.
One by one, they approached her and bowed, declaring their devotion and allegiance.
“Thank you all.”, Inshala said, looking down at her own small palms, very much embarrassed. “Let us all, then, gather our collective wisdom and put them to words at the first toll of this very night, and see what knowledge we have, where we are most needed, and what we may do about them.”
The druids and the shamans all nodded and quietly left.
When they were gone, only the witches remained.
Someone grunted in disgust behind her and that was the only sound she heard from Ranger Master Moorat.
One of them, a very elderly, crooked old hag of a woman with a gnarled old cane took a few steps forward.
“We are not some tree-hugging druid or some simple-minded shaman, little girl.”, she said and Bremorel’s soft, throaty voice immediately riposted!
“Careful, witch. Should you try and insult the Ritual Guardian, I shall personally make sure it’s the last thing you do.”
“We are not afraid of you, nor your kind, Bremorel Songsteel.”, spat back the old witch.
“I do not require your fear of me nor my kind, hag. You can frisk or frolic while I cut you for all I care. Know this, however, you might get away from the Ritual Guardian, for she is kind and forgiving and has a great heart, but there is no place on earth you can run nor hide from me nor my kind. And should you want to test us, you shall never see us coming. Only die by our steel. And we shall bring the full might of the Temple Guardians upon you, also!”, she replied coldly.
A grim silence fell over the witches, for nothing the ranger lieutenant had said was bravado. She had pronounced exactly what she would do. Period.
“Ranger Lieutenant.”, Inshala said quietly. “Please. We are all here under the threat of total annihilation by the Orken. We need each other, more than ever.”
The old witch stared at her for a moment, her veil shuffling rapidly.
“Your master, Cathber, did us great disservice by banishing our kin from the Ritual Forest. This needs to be addressed.”
“My master banished your kind from Ritual Forest because your elders sided with Themalsar during the first war. And along with his warlocks did they bind the spirits of the fallen, tormenting them and driving them mad and sent them against the elves, the humans, the dwarves, and the gnomes.”, Inshala replied mutely. “Those spirits, bound and mad, stayed there for eight hundred years, howling in despair. I felt them all, as I brought down that mad priest’s temple down. And after so many centuries, were those poor spirits finally free.”
“What’s done is done. We can not be held responsible for the deeds of our ancestors. We must be allowed to return to our lands.”, the old witch snarled.
“The land is not yours. It never was. Land and sky belong to nature.”, Inshala said. “We all are mere guests, here.”
“Then there is nothing to speak here. We shall take our leave and return to our homes in exile.”, the witch declared.
“Return or stay. That is yours to decide. But should you persistent on the mistakes of your elders and join the enemy as they did before, I shall make sure you will be the last of your kind for nature hates demons because they are foul and they are evil, yet they are also not of this world. You and your kin, however, are, and nature abhors more, that which so thoroughly betrays her own world.”, Inshala said and there wasn’t a trace of a threat in her voice. She said it as it was and as a matter of fact.
“You give us nothing, yet want everything. You give no carrot, yet you show us the stick.”, hissed the hag.
“I do not do carrots, nor do I do sticks. I am nature. I balance. And balance does not offer bribes nor favors. Should you want to live in a world free of demons, you must bleed for it, just like everybody else, for I have offered nothing to the druids, nor the shamans, much like nothing was offered to me.”
“A challenge!”, another witch said from behind.
A murmur rippled among the witches.
“Yes. A challenge, then.”, said the old hag.
“A challenge for what?”, Inshala asked.
“A challenge of yield to see if you are fit to be the Ritual Guardian!”
Inshala paused for a moment.
“I did not choose to be what I am. I was chosen.”
“So you say. Face one of our kind and prove yourself!”, cried the old witch triumphantly. “Should you lose, you shall step down and will no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”
“Nothing of what you just said made any sense, and the fact that you do not understand what being a Ritual Guardian is or the workings of the world around you, is proof that you shouldn’t be dabbling with any magic, let alone with spirits. But it is apparent you will not understand even should I explain it to you because you are not here to understand. You are here to make demands for the things you want but do not deserve and without wanting to bleed or sweat for them. So I will ask only what would entail should I win?”, she asked calmly.
“What would you want?”, the old witch asked.
Inshala didn’t miss a beat.
“You, all of you, shall join our fight against the Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare any spirits to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits. This is my carrot!”
A dead, choking silence fell over the witches and Inshala heard a pair of elated snorts from behind her.
“Girl, if that was the carrot, I don’t ever want to see what you would do with a stick.”, snarked Bremorel.
“We.. we shall decide whom to send..”, the old witch said with a deflated voice.
“I shall await your choice. Now, I have other matters to attend.”, Inshala replied and calmly rose, and left the circle.
“I am not sure what just happened, girl, but what you just did was dangerous.”, Bremorel said with a frown. “Witches are bitches and not a good lot. I’d rather they didn’t help us.”
“If they do not help us, they will help the enemy, dear Bremorel. Yes, witches can be bothersome, and dangerous, but they must know their place. And for them to know that, they must first learn it, then earn it. My Father had very good reasons for banishing them and it would seem, after all these centuries, they still haven’t learned neither their place nor any humility.”, Inshala replied.
“Lady Inshala is right.”, Moorat said with a vicious scowl. “As much as I detest them, you don’t want them hating you more than you hate them. In his very long life, Master Cathber did many great things. Kicking the witches out of Ritual Forest was one of his best, though.”
She didn’t know this Moorat and he was a scary man.
“Would you give us a moment with Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel? I must consult him on a personal matter.”, she said tentatively.
“Of course.”, Morel replied, though she did give her a queasy look.
Moorat was a broad-shouldered man but not very tall and he still looked down at the little girl. His ranger outfit seemed harassed and make-due, but a closer inspection would reveal, they were, in fact, immaculately kept, just like his bow and great sword he carried across his shoulder.
He did, however, have a truly evil-looking face.
“You display wisdom beyond your years, young lady. I am impressed. Reminds me of someone I knew, once.”, he said in his harsh voice.
“Thank you, sir.”, replied Inshala a bit shyly.
“Ah. I merit a ‘Sir’, now do I?”, grinned Moorat and his already evil-looking features became even more sinister. “This should brighten Stan’s day!”
Inshala flinched again.
“I.. I don’t think you are as you seem.”
“No, little girl. I am exactly as I seem.”, growlaughed the ranger master!
“Would you say dear Bremorel is a good person?”, she asked.
“A bit silly at times. And can start a fight in the blink of an eye, but yes, I would say she is a good girl. The best greenhorn I ever had. Well, not anymore. She’s a lieutenant now.”
“Greenhorn?”, Inshala asked, inadvertently reaching up to touch her own horns.
“Ahh. Bad choice of words there. I meant student.”
“There you have it, then, sir.”, she replied.
“There I have what?”, Moorat asked a bit confused.
“At the hands of a decent man, good becomes better. At the hands of a lecher, bad becomes worse. I heard people tell of her sad story and how she lost her parents and how she was after that. I look at her now and I see a dear sister; smart, full of life, and fiercely loyal to her friends and I would like to think you had a hand in that.”, she said quietly.
Moorat stared at her..
“Well.. maybe.. no one needs to know, though. Are we clear on that, young lady?”, he said flustered and uncomfortable.
“Your secret is safe with me, sir.”, she said and very quietly, she added. “I.. am sorry about your sister.”
“I.. yes.. well.. thank you for your concern..”
“You must miss her dearly.”, she said with the same hushed tone.
“Many who knew her, miss her dearly.”, replied Moorat with a similarly low voice.
“Udoorin was my friend and was always kind and polite to me. I do not remember my mother. She died when I was barely born. But I would very much like to hear who his mother was. I.. would be much in your debt and be honored if you would tell me your sister, Limnia Karya.”
“You know her name?”
“I did not, sir. But to those who know how to listen, the earth we walk.. she speaks us certain names for she does not forget those who do much harm and trample it in hubris, nor does she forget those who are much loved and softly have walked it..”, she replied.
“Limnia.. my dear sister.. did walk it softly..”, whispered Moorat, staring far into the distance. “..and was something else. And I couldn’t even tell her how much I loved her before she died..”
It was long past the first toll of the bell that afternoon when Inshala returned back to the town, accompanied only by a silence Bremorel.
When they entered Serenity Home, the ranger lieutenant gave her a hug and told her to come over for dinner some time, and if she really must, that she could also bring her hubby, Aager, along too, but that it was perfectly fine and she wouldn’t be vexed at all if she didn’t..
Inshala smiled at her and simply said, “We belong.”
Bremorel stared at her with this look on her face and said, “Well, that must suck!”
Inshala smiled again and started towards home.
It was nearing the second toll afternoon and she didn’t think she should keep her hubby waiting.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan of action, here?”, Aager asked in his growling voice.
“Plan of action? Those are too big words for me, my Aager. I am but a simple girl who needs ranger escort to find her way to a meeting. Perhaps we should stop by the temple and ask Bremorel to join us, again.”, said Inshala with a mischievous spark in her eyes.
Aager fumed a bit but didn’t bite back.
“I am sorry.”, he said. “I wasn’t trying to be bossy nor was it my intention to patronize you.”
“My Aager. I never mind it when you want to boss me, nor patronize me. Because you never do them out of whim, nor to feel good about yourself. But I need your respect and your trust as much as I want your love and your care. I have your love for I can feel it. I have your care for I see it. But you must show your respect and your trust by your deeds. It is true I am not as smart as you are, but if I must fall, then I should fall because one day, I surely will. It is the nature of Mortals to fall and hurt themselves. That is how we learn to look where we are going. I am young and silly and have fallen many times, and still, I forget to look where I step, so to speak, but if that is the only way for me to learn, then I deserve to keep on falling until I don’t.”, she replied kindly.
“That is asking a lot, love.”, Aager said, still fuming.
“To ask for your respect and trust?”, Inshala asked a bit baffled.
“No. To let you risk so many falls..”
Inshala smiled at him.
“Sometimes, I will fall, my Aager. And sometimes you will. We both are still very new at belonging and have a lot to learn. As for the matter at hand, I think it would be better if you do all the talking since this is a matter between the Winter Knight and the Summer Knight. I will only speak should you require some vital information perpaiming.. perkaiming.. per—”, she sighed with a flustered resignation. “I forgot the word!”
“Pertaining?”, offered Aager.
“Yes, that.. perpaiming the fey and the courts..”
They walked in amiable silence for a bit and Inshala looked up to see the vague visage of the Gull’s Perch, lost in the distance and mists. It was several days travel away, but still looked beautiful; a single vertical rock-like mountain, some half a mile at its base and climbed up and up and disappeared in the clouds.
She sighed and Aager nudged her.
“What’s up?”, he asked.
“The Gull’s Perch.”, she replied simply.
The Winter Knight looked up too and stared at the majestic scene.
“What of it?”, he asked.
“It’s been quite some time I haven’t been there. The last time I was, my Father was killed because I was busy playing with the fey that live there. Things could have turned out very differently had I been at home and not there.”
Aager didn’t really know what to say to that. It appeared, guilt was something that logic just couldn’t wash off. So he did the next best thing; he reached and held the little girl by the waist and pulled her tightly to himself, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Give it some time, love. It won’t fade, but it will be tolerable.”
Inshala leaned closer to him and the Guest’s Inn came into view.
“Should something start here, I want you to leave and go home, please.”, he said in his growling voice.
“And you truly think I will abandon you?”, Inshala replied with a frown.
“You won’t. But you can’t be seen, nor be part of a direct conflict between the two opposing knights. I am thinking neither Mab nor Titania will appreciate that. I don’t want you to lose all your good standing with either court.”, he said seriously.
Inshala did one of her funny snorts!
“I love it when you try to get me out of harm’s way using this thing you call logic. Has it ever worked?”
“Every time.”, Aager said blandly. “Because you are a smart and sensible girl.”
“Ow.. I like where this heading.”, Inshala smiled.
“And I am not the sort of guy who falls for just any pretty face. The girl I love must also be sensible, logical, and can see reason when it’s offered to her..”
“..and has the strong will to ignore it when she deems it necessary!”, she finished smugly.
Perhaps it was time for Aager to sigh.
So he did..
“Do not worry my Aager. You know I shall do my best not to hinder you. Just like I know you will do your best not to bind me, and just like we both know neither shall abandon the other, no matter the cost. I may live with the wrath of Mab and Titania. But I have no desire to live alone nor to live without you.”
Aager pushed the door of the Guest’s Inn and scanned the large room full of tables, chairs, and stools, to see the inn was void of people. Even the bar and the bar attendants were gone. He looked up to made sure the stairs leading up were clear, and entered.
It was perhaps the only time he had seen the inn this empty.
Accept for the one table near the center and next to one of the shuttered windows. The inn’s saloon was not dark, per se, but it was decidedly dim.
He looked at the occupied table and saw a figure in dark brown robes, a hood, and a full face mask. The man didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons on him, though Aager knew robes could be deceiving and could hide any number of nasty and pointy things. The man didn’t seem to be large nor tall, but only gave the illusion of size due to the robes, the hood, the mask.
And he wasn’t alone.
A lithe figure say next to him. She wore a tight, dark purple dress-skirts, a polished steel bodice-girdle emphasizing her rather shapely breasts, several necklaces, all accessorized with dozens of multi-colored beads, any number of bracelets with similarly colored grains, and her long, slim fingers were decorated with more rings than she had digits and though her face was covered with a heavy veil, she gave the distinct impression that she was the kind of girl who was comfortable with her own figure but very much liked to be further appreciated for it..
Without further due, he pushed the door wider and stepped aside as Inshala walked in and gave the inn a quick glance herself. She silently nodded at him and they both ghosted towards the only occupied table.
Aager let Inshala slide into the double bench and took his place next to her where she would face the well-accessorized girl, and he would face the man in his dark brown robes, pulled up hood and mask —the Summer Knight.
The four sat there for a long moment as everyone tried to assess their counter-part.
To Aager’s surprise, though, it wasn’t the man in the dark brown robes who spoke first.
“What’s she doing here? Why is she even here?”, asked the girl sitting next to the Summer Knight.. quite viciously.
“I am the Ritual Guardian. I am here as the moderator.”, Inshala said simply.
“I do not recognize this self-imposed title. I do not recognize the Ritual Guardian!”, she hissed.
“Your recognition is neither required nor deemed. Your ignorance of the world you live in, however, is a bit worrisome.”, Inshala replied quietly.
“I doubt you are in any position to lecture me, little girl.”, the girl spat waspishly.
“You are a small as I am.”, Inshala said, trying not to snort.
“I am older than you are!”, the girl hissed.
The Summer Knight sighed.
“And your age has not brought you the wisdom it has promised. Perhaps you should wait a few more years?”, Inshala smiled happily.
“I could take you any day, any time!”
“I don’t think so, Witch!”, Inshala replied calmly.
A choked silence fell over the spat.
“Perhaps we should go and come back some other time.”, Aager said in his ‘quiet’ voice. “As much as others might enjoy a good catfight, I don’t, and neither do I have the time for it..”
“I am sorry, Sir Knight.”, Inshala said, a bit flushed. “I was not name-calling her. Merely defining her for what she really is; a witch! And she is trying to rile us so she could bring her spirits into play and axe this meeting which she knows she is not a part of. She is not fey, she is not a vassal of either court, let alone Summer, and is recognized by neither, and hence, unhappy, which is understandable. By refusing to recognize my title, she hopes to gain a seat at this table as someone who does not have a title herself. What she does not comprehend, is the importance of this meeting. She wants recognition, yet she defies the same from others. Much like the rest of her kind, she turns a deliberate blind eye to the title of Ritual Guardian, which I did not bestow upon myself, as it is not a Mortal whim, and hence, can not be self-imposed, as she is also ignorant of what it entails, much like she is interfering a business between forces as great as Mab and Titania, for each knight here represents one or the other, while she represents no other than her own self-interests.”
Aager did not turn to look at her, though he very much wanted to. That had been one awesome smack-down and he could literally feel the veiled girl seething with hate.
He just stared at the man sitting across from him.
“You asked me why I was here and I have given my reason. Why are you here?”, she asked the girl in the dark, purple dress skirts. “If you so wanted to be part of this meeting, all you had to do was to ask nicely.”
“I am here to make sure you stay out of this meeting and do not cheat!”, the girl said viscously.
“Unlike you, I am actually part of this meeting. You may consult the Queens on this matter if you like. I hold Mab’s personal favor and am bound to Titania due to my druid’s circle. Also, I carry fey blood. Hence, I do not cheat, nor do I require it. Had you known fey, you would also have known it is quite not possible for us to lie. We leave such despicable acts of vile deceit to Mortals.”, Inshala replied with a prim little sniff.
“I.. am sorry for that last part, my Aager.”, she said abashedly.
“No, no. By all means do what it is you are doing, love. Smack her down to your heart’s content. I am enjoying this.”, came Aager’s mirthful voice.
“Please, my Aager. This is important. I have to learn this witch where she belongs amongst us and that she and her ilk are not above others and neither are their actions beyond consequences. A something they have failed to learn after all these centuries when they sided with Themalsar during the first war. Should they want back into the ‘fold’ they must earn it. And to earn it, they must first respect the living and the spirits they enjoy tormenting.”
“I am content, love. Really. By destroying her, you are destroying the summer boy for me.”, he replied smugly.
“Aager Fogstep!”, she replied reprovingly. “He is not the summer boy. He is the Summer Knight.”
“A knight, he may be. A boy, he certainly is. Something about him tells me I should know him.”
“When will Mortals ever learn to use their noses?”
And that little reprimand hit Aager over the head and he suddenly figured out what it was that he had sensed about the boy;
The boy smelled of flour.. and pastry!
“Dervel Stratler..”, he stated.
And noted the man in the dark brown robes, the hood, and the mask stiffen.
“I.. beg your pardon?”, he stammered.
“How is your father?”, Aager asked with an amused tone, from behind his own half-mask.
“I have no idea what you are talking about!”, the Summer Knight stammered some more.
“I challenge you!”, hissed the veiled girl.
“On what grounds? You hold no title of your own. You represent no one other than yourself, and you have nothing to bargain that I would want, should you lose.”, Inshala said a bit baffled.
“I represent the witches of Ritual Forest!”, snarled the girl.
“You want to interfere?”, Aager asked the very young Dervel, mildly. “Or would you rather I did. Because as much as I am the Winter Knight, I also represent the law here and will not have an open fight on my watch. I will take her and you into custody and throw you both to jail and keep you there until such time you are both brought before the mayor whilst he rules a judgment for causing public disturbance during a time of war.”
The Summer Knight didn’t say anything.
But Aager got the impression he wanted to be anywhere but here at that very moment.
“Should I win, you shall accept the same stipulations to step down and no longer be the Ritual Guardian, and we will be allowed to return to Ritual Forest.”, the witch bit savagely.
“What is a spupilation?”, Inshala asked quickly.
“Stipulation, love. It means, condition.”, replied Aager.
“Well, why doesn’t she just say that?”, she fumed.
“Love, she really wants this fight and isn’t going to back down. She is vicious and really wants to hurt you. Should that happen—”
“No, my Aager. You may not interfere in this matter. At this moment, you are the Winter Knight. Should you interfere, Mab will not be happy. And this is something I must do. We need all the help we can get. Including the witches. Because if we don’t get them on our side, the enemy will get them on theirs, exactly the way it happened at Themalsar. I want them to see and to recognize the excuse I am presenting to them to give them their place amongst us.”, Inshala said desperately. “Please..”
“Very well. You have my love and my care. Now I ‘deed’ to show my respect and trust.. by doing nothing..”
“You are here, my Aager. That is something all on its own.”, she replied with a smile.
“Then I put forth the same stipulus.. stickilus.. stimelus..”
The veiled girl laughed.
“You can’t even pronounce a simple word, yet you claim to be the Ritual Guardian?”, she snarked.
“I claim nothing. But I can pronounce your full name, Be’heire Crowfeather, the daughter of an outcast wood elf witch, much like yourself.”
The veiled girl, Be’heire Crowfeather, shut up!
“It shall be a duel to yield and you, all of you, shall join our fight against Orken and their demon masters for so long as they remain a threat and be bound to someone of my choosing, and never shall you ensnare another spirit to torment them ever again. Should any of you break this agreement or fail to uphold it, you will die, all of you, by your own spirits —these were the exact conditions I put forth earlier and they still stand and you and all your kind will abide by these stipumations. Should I win but your ilk refuses to acknowledge you as their champion, I shall assume they have broken the agreement and will call upon all the elves, the rangers, the dwarves, the ogres, the wild, and the fey to bring down their judgment upon you!”
Be’heire froze where she was.
“Honey, please.”, said Dervel. “This really is unnecessary and quite pointless.”
“I disagree..”, Be’heire hissed between clenched teeth.
The Summer Knight signed again.
“Let’s go!”, the witch sneered and got up.
“Very well.”, agreed, Inshala, and also rose.
“Not in my town.”, Aager said quietly.
“Have your precious town, Knight!”, Be’heire sneered and stalked out of the inn, followed closely by Inshala.
Dervel sat where he was and his shoulders slumped noticeably.
“Well..”, he said. “That went well..”
“I have never blamed another man for his choice in women, young man.”, Aager noted. “But yours seems to have issues.”
“She is normally a very kind and sweet girl. She is an outcast, though, both from her own people and Ritual Forest and by no other than Lady Inshala’s master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig himself. I would agree that his reasons were very much justified, but his banishment did leave behind many discontent witches, all of whom have a chip on their shoulders. Be’heire is young. Very young, even by elf standards, but quite powerful and always feels the need to prove herself. I really hope this does not turn any uglier than it already has.”, the young man said honestly.
“If she hurts my Inshala, I will kill her. You know that right?”, Aager said and there wasn’t a tint of a threat in his tone. He had merely stated a simple fact.
“That’s why I am here, I suppose. To make sure that does not happen.”
“I will kill you too, then.”, Aager said, with the same exact tone.
“I suppose you will try. But I must warn you. Starting a war between the courts is not a wise course of action. Not now, anyway.”, Dervel said carefully.
“I care little for the courts, and this is not a Winter-Summer issue anymore. It is one man avenging his woman. If you can’t do that for yours, then you are not much of a man, young Dervel.”
“You represent the law, Aager Fogstep. You are not above it—”
“You misunderstand me, boy. I shall slay her and you, then sit happily in my jail for the remainder of my life!”, Aager replied coldly.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala came to a stop in the center of a clearing, somewhere not too deep in the Ritual Forest. The trees surrounding the clearing were brittle with cold, and snow blanketed everything in sight. A large boulder stood, sticking vertically out of the frozen ground somewhere a bit to one end of the clearing and she went and stood near it and waited.
Soon enough, Be’heire appeared on the other side of the nearly fifty feet long and forty feet wide relief, scowling at her.
“Go ahead, Ritual Guardian. Let’s see what you got!”, she sneered at the half-fey.
“Very well, Be’heire. I would have wished we settled this peacefully. The true enemy approaches as we speak and they will not care if I am a druid, and neither will they show mercy because you are a witch. They will slaughter us with equal abandon.”, Inshala said sincerely.
“We are past talking, little girl.”, Be’heire spat.
“No. We are not. There have been no crimes done between us. No notable insults have been lashed that demands a retribution or rebuke. We are, at this very moment, at an agreeable standstill.”, Inshala corrected.
“You are just like your old master. Talk and talk and talk and nothing else. He was a fool. And so are you!”, the witch said with vehemence.
Inshala frowned a bit.
“Why would you bring my Father into this. He is not here.”
“I could summon his spirit anytime and—”
Be’heire Crowfeather never got to finish that particular sentence.
In the blink of an eye, giant grasping vines stabbed out of the ground sending dirt and debris and covered everything, a hundred feet in every direction, and they kept growing!
Be’heire yelped and jumped to avoid being ensnared and yelped again as she stepped on sharp, thick thorns, three inches each, sticking out of the frozen ground. She gritted her teeth and summoned her bound spirits and sent them after the fey girl she could barely see through the cacophony of wild growth.
The angry spirits shrieked and speared at Inshala, who just stood there staring angrily at the witch.
“You and your ilk never learned when to stop at foolish. I may not tutor all your ilk, but I shall do this one favor to you. You may not respect me when I am done, but you will respect the world you live in and the spirits you bind..”
..and stepped right into the large, vertical rock!
The spirits slammed the boulder, shrieking and clawing at it to no effect..
..just as Inshala got out of the other side of the rock and released another spell.
The spirits went after her again but she stepped back into the rock!
One of the trees, right behind Be’heire came alive, and with a wide swing of its branches, it struck the witch, sending her sprawled deeper into the gnarling, thorny vines. Be’heire shrieked in pain as her head spun from the savage attack of the tree coupled with all the stabbing thorns and one of the entwining vines had gotten a very painful grasp of one of her ankles and had started twisting it at a very disorienting angle.
“Yield, Be’heire.”, Inshala said sternly, as she stepped out of the rock. “I could bring much lightning and great fires upon you, right now, yet I have not.”
Be’heire cast a spell and flew!
Just to be slammed, very hard, back down and into the frozen ground by the thick, thorny vine twisting her ankle. Something snapped and she howled in pain as her eyes teared and she lost control of her spirits.
With shrieks of mad triumph, the spirits went after their tormentor!
“NO!”, snapped Inshala. “You may leave in peace and be free, but you may not afflict your madness upon another Mortal, even though she may deserve it.”
The mad spirits hovered over the tear-streaken witch, clawing at the air, an inch away from her face.
But slowly, they drew back..
..and faded away.
And Be’heire pointed a finger at Inshala and snarled.
A beam of pure, black darkness shot out of her finger and slammed at Inshala..
Far away, back at Serenity Home, and in the Guest’s Inn, Aager Fogstep felt an awful sense of dread wash over him.
For a long, dreary moment, he felt his own heart stop!
He tried to breathe but nothing happened.
His vision blurred and the inn’s dim saloon darkened..
..then the dim returned, his vision cleared, his heart fluttered and started to beat again, and the sense of dread was gone.
Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight..
And the Summer Knight never knew what hit him..
One moment he was calmly sitting across the man in his dark leathers, the next, he was hurled across the room as a savage blast of sonic winter slammed him right into the wall, at the far end of the inn!
And the Winter Knight was upon him, a shimmering, ghostly blade put to task right at the Summer Knight’s throat..
“Wha— What are you doing?”, Dervel exclaimed.
“You have broken faith between the courts!”, he snarled, his eyes burning with blue, arctic flames. “Your woman cast a death curse upon the Ritual Guardian during a duel of yield! I warned you what I would do should she harm my Inshala. Hence shall I start with you!”
Young Dervel started, quite horrified as the Winter Knight drew blood.
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala staggered as the tree of life she tendered deep in her soul shuddered and trembled and many of its beautiful, purple-green leaves shriveled and died.
She gasped for breath and felt her heart flutter and the afternoon sun dimmed down to a pin’s point as she felt herself drown.
“INSHALA!”, screamed a voice in her mind and she thought she knew that voice.
And with something akin to panic, she held on to that voice, her Aager’s voice, and pulled herself up..
..and the light returned back to the forest.
“You.. you cast a death curse in a duel of yield?”, she asked the bleeding and squirming girl, shredded in the thorny vines.
“I.. am so sorry, Inshala.. I swear.. I didn’t mean to!”, she whimpered.
“You did mean to, Be’heire. You can not cast a death curse without intent, for one is the prerequisite of the other. You broke the agreement, the rules of the engagement and you broke faith. And now, not only your life, but the life of your beloved man hangs in balance.”, she asked unable to comprehend what the girl bleeding in the thorns had just done.
“What was it that was so important that you would want to take the life of another, Be’heire? What did I do to you or your ilk that you would release your death curse on me?”
“Your.. your master ruined us. He and his druids leveled our homes and burned our fields. He banished us from our lands.. We were left homeless.. We were made outcasts..”, the witch moaned bitterly.
“You never learned. Only blamed. Your ilk sided with the vilest of men and the foulest of fiends and demons and caused death by the thousands and brought unimaginable suffering upon Mortals at Themalsar. Yet you still refuse to face the consequences of your actions. Your ilk must learn to own their sins, should you want a place among Mortals. But you, Be’heire, what you did had nothing to do with what your ilk did. You are too young to have seen nor lived their suffering. Your reason is merely an excuse for your misdemeanor and that excuse has nothing whatsoever to do with you for none of the witches that were ousted are alive today. You never suffered, and never were you troubled as an outcast, seeing as how you live, quite comfortably, in Serenity Home, for which the rest of us shall fight for, bleed for, and die for, and only you and your ilk will not..”, Inshala replied, her voice not unkind, but she hammered the stranded witch with them.
“What.. what would you know of suffering, girl?”, Be’heire sneered at her.
Inshala just looked at the witch.
Silently and still.
Then, she undid the thin straps of her dress and let it fall on the frozen ground, displaying her skinny, gaunt form.
Be’heire ogled at the little, naked girl.
Slowly, Inshala turned.
And the witch stared, quietly horrified, at the little half-fey’s whip riddled back..
“What.. what is this?”, she gasped, her eyes wide open.
“This is called suffering, Be’heire. The kind that speaks for itself. The kind that does not need to be aired and used as an excuse for my own self-interests. I made mistakes and came too near ignorant Mortals and met the consequences of my folly at their hands. I learned, at the age of eight, that everything we do has consequences, and that we must face them and own them. And so must you. I am the Ritual Guardian, Be’heire, yet those that left these abhorrent scars upon me still live, as do their sons and daughters because I chose it so even though I had the right to extract my vengeance from them. You, Be’heire, you spurned your misplaced hate upon me. You deliberately tried to kill me by leveling a death curse at me and in a duel of yield without cause nor reason.. Thus I call upon you to face your own judgment, Be’heire Crowfeather. You and all your ilk will join us and fight against the Orken and their demon masters so long as they remain a threat. And just like us, shall you bleed and die for this cause.”, she said with a steely voice and a long, thorny whip made of vines appeared in her hand. “Or I shall return your misdemeanor in kind and you shall die by my hand, right now.. And so shall your beloved mate, at the hands of the Winter Knight.”
Be’heire Crowfeather stared at the skinny, naked girl in total fear.
And Inshala’s voice cracked like a whip.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s up, girl? You look beat!”, asked Bremorel when the little girl found her near the forest, training a new batch of Arashkan survivors.
“I need your help to find Ranger Master Moorat, dear Bremorel. And I need you to be there so he doesn’t.. get too angry with me..”, she said and she sounded as tired as she looked.
“Sure. But why? Did he say something to hurt you?”, Bremorel asked. “If he did, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. He says things, but he doesn’t mean them.”
“No, no. He was very kind to me.”, Inshala said hastily.
“Huh.”, the ranger girl said with some surprise. “Sorry I missed that. Come, he should be on the other side of the river.”
“Tis alright, gurl.”, Bremorel said, giving her a big grin.
Then she blared!
“MAL! TAKE OVER! AND THAT BLOODY TARGET DUMMY HAD BETTER BE RIDDLED WITH ARROWS WHEN I GET BACK!”
And grinned again.
“I so love smacking rookies..”
“Ranger Master Moorat, sir. The Ritual Guardian would have a word with you.”, Bremorel said after a crisp salute.
“What are you doing here, Bree? Don’t you have a batch of your own to train?”, scowled Moorat.
“I do, sir. But Lady Inshala, here—”, she began.
“Just, Inshala, please.”, Inshala said in a small voice.
“I am sorry, girl. Between us and when we are among friends, just Inshala will happen. When you are in your Ritual Guardian-thingy, you are Lady Inshala, and I’ll bash in any face that says otherwise!”
“Told you Bree was my favorite student.”, grinned Moorat. “Now. What can I do for you, young lady?”
Inshala paused for a moment before she spoke as if deciding on how she should phrase what she wanted to say.
Then she took a deep, pained breath and spoke.
“Ranger Master Moorat. The witches have agreed to join us in our fight against the Orken.”
“That was quick. And great news.. I think..”, Moorat said dubiously.
“I have given their command to you.”
A dead silence settled and Moorat displayed the ugliest face, anyone, in a thousand miles in any direction had seen!
Bremorel held her breath for as long as she could, then snorted.
“Why.. would you do this to me?”, he asked Inshala with a blackened face.
“You, sir, know the witches. Well enough to hate them and be wary of them. You are also the best qualified to know where to make the best use of them. You will sweat them, and bleed them, and be it necessary, kill them, should they stray from their given oaths. They have many skills, not unlike yours, and they know how to curse and to bring down destruction. They will be under your command until they learn ‘respect’ and earn their place amongst others.”
Moorat stared at her, feeling a bit freaked.
“Learn respect? They will never learn respect!”, he scoffed.
“Then they shall stay under your command for a very, very long time, sir.”, she said with a wan smile.
“And I believe one of them will have something to show you.”, she added quickly.
“You don’t do anything by half, do you, young lady.”, Moorat said in a deflated tone.
“No, sir. I don’t. And I pity the other half.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala woke up to something. She wasn’t sure what it was and she felt groggy and sleepy and stupid and very, very tired. Apparently, a save from a death curse left one a lot to be desired.. As opposed to outright dying..
She had come home late that night, arm-in-arm with her hubby, the Winter Knight, and just collapsed on the threadbare mattress and curled into a little ball.
Aager had stared down at her, thinking just how close she had come face to face with death, and how he had very nearly killed a seventeen-year-old boy!
He pressed his lips together in a grim expression as he pulled off his dark leather hood, his half-mask, his armor, and his weapons and put them neatly on one side of the mattress where he could easily reach for them. Then he picked up the sleeping girl and sort of pulled the blanket from under her, laid her back on the mattress, and covered her with the itchy thing.
Then he went over to the fireplace and lit it using the flint and iron sitting next to it, grabbed the small iron pot, got outside, drew some water using the old, squeaky water pump, and filled the pot, returned inside, and set the pot over the fire. He peeled some potatoes, a large onion, and several carrots and killed them into small pieces, and dumped them into the pot. Then he pulled at the cooking oil and poured some of it into the pot as well, sprinkled a few pinches of various herbs and the one Inshala called Kumse Beetles, though he wasn’t sure if she was making a pun or if she was being literal. Aager thought, perhaps not every single thing had to be known between mates and lovers. A girl should have some secrets, right?
He sat next to the fire, and the red-orange light from the fireplace danced and gave a harsh, angry cast on one side of his face and hid the other as he stared at the curled shape of the girl sleeping drained just a few feet away..
..and he thought about the events of that day and what they would entail in the long run.
Indeed, Aager hadn’t made any friends that day.
He had very nearly sliced open young Dervel’s throat, from ear to ear in his madness..
He signed and checked in on the now boiling pot. Just a few more moments and the carrots should be soft enough. Potatoes were easy. It was always with the carrots.
Silently he rose, picked up the two, hand-carved bowls and checked each for any chips or cracks. Carving plates wasn’t an easy job and certainty hadn’t been for the skinny little girl. Yet she’d carved them, just for him and herself. Aager had never been a materialistic type, but for some reason, these bowls, and the other two wooden plates had turned out to become precious to him.
He unhooked the iron pot out of the fireplace and dumped some of it into either pot, produced two spoons, and dug into one while he waited for the other to cool off. He tended to ignore the blistering heat of the food he ate, but Inshala became whimpery and teared up and pouted when she burned her mouth.
He slurped the last of the juice of what remained of the stew, got up, and went over to the threadbare mattress with the other bowl, still steaming.
He sat next to the girl and set the bowl next to himself and carefully, he picked her up and sat her in his lap and close to his lean, spring-coil chest and with a small nudge, he whispered.
“A bit of a bite before you totally wink out, love. C’mon. Open up.”
When she didn’t wake, he gave her another gentle nudge.
This one got a response, though not very intelligible.
“Iam hngry but Iamalso vrysleepishhh!”, she whimpered, her words slurred.
“Yes, yes, I know you are, but you shouldn’t sleep with an empty stomach, either. Open up. C’mon. Just a few spoons..”
Inshala opened up and mechanically chewed as the Winter Knight spoon-fed her..
..until the bowl was empty.
Apparently, Aager didn’t like doing things by half, either.
He settled her back down, went outside with the bowls, the spoons, and the iron pot, and in the dead of night, and the freezing cold, he gave them all a quick wash and returned back inside and put them all in their proper place..
..and slumped under the blanket himself.
And with some innate instinct, Inshala squirmed a bit and nudged her little butt until she was comfortably snuggled up to him and he enclosed her in his arms and now, her skinny back was leaning against his chest..
It had been a few hours later that Inshala had come around, not quite sure what it had been that had woken her up. She was still lying next to Aager but was facing him..
..and both her hands were in his shirt, one touching the spring-coil muscles of his lean chest, the other, running down his marred back!
Inshala blushed a bit and looked up at Aager’s face to see if he was awake and was going to be mad at her but he was still asleep and seemed.. at peace..
“The deed is done.”, she thought happily, tinted with a certain sense of guilt and shame.
“The hands want what the hands want and go where they want!”, she said nodding with confirmation at her own, very ‘logical’ explanation in her mind.
It was then she realized.
What it was that had woken her.
It hadn’t been the warmth she felt inside the palms of her slim hands as she held them in his shirt but a certain other, ‘calloused’ warmth that spread, like some deep, smoldering fire, from her own chest, and around her once buxom, now sad and small breasts, and down.. way down the small of her back
Inshala gasped with petrified astonishment and with unyielding, throbbing exhilaration..
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 ‘laFey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Mistress of The Grove, the wont of MabandTitania, 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 why there is 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 the outpost and safeguard the valley as 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.
“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 knock more and hallow blood for blood soul for soul and life for life trade and be king freely given and ascend
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..
“No.”, replied Tonic. “At least I don’t think so. We had to go ‘down’ before we went up. That implies a certainty of ‘up’. We went down.. Now we go ‘up’..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Well, well, well..”, drawled Cora, looking at the pair of furtive, midgety, figures approaching as she, quite lady-like, sipped her tea from a pink, porcelain cup. “What have we here? The eloped pair have returned.”
“Indeed.”, said Seressa as she also sipped her tea from a piece-of-the-same-set cup. “Had fun together, did you? We certainly did. Didn’t we, luv?”
“Hell, yes!”, snarled the barbarian girl.
“Hell, yes?”, asked Seressa, turning to her. “My dear girl, that wasn’t the line! We had a perfect reception speech..”
“I am sorry Seressa. I am so wroth, I forgot the lines.”, Cora snarled even more as she scowled at the two.
One gnomic girl and one hobbit scurried to a halt, not unlike a pair of kids about to be grounded by mom and dad, trying to assess just how much of a trouble they were in.
And Tonic suddenly pointed at the hobbit and blurted..
“He did it! He did it! It was all his fault—”
“Tonic..”, mumbled Brom with a resigned tone.
“Don’t talk to me! Don’t talk to me, criminal! I have done nothing bad in my entire life! Hey, look, I am still a virgin! Ok, I might have downloaded a couple of thousands of songs but who hasn’t? Who hasn’t?”, shrieked the little gnomic girl!
Brom sighed, and turned to the angry, tea-drinking pair.
“—It’s done.”, he simply cut in. “We can go up, now.”
There was a distinct silence as the two parties stared at one another.
Then everyone burst out loud talking all at once!
“What do you mean, it’s done?”
“That’s not what we agreed on, dammit!”
“What the bloody hell is going on, here?
“I am sorry, but I am not going to deceive her and jeopardize my life..”, he said, pointing at Cora, “..and I certainly am not going to lie to her and play with her trust.”, he added, carefully not looking at Seressa.
Both parties froze to digest what they had just heard, then burst out again..
“Why would you play me?”
“So her trust is important to you.. Hells Bells, boy, why don’t you just tell her that?”
“I am going to hurt someone if neither of you starts making any sense!”
“Is there any more tea?”
The four sat down, facing one another with scowling frowns, furtive glances, confused expressions and diffident casts as Seressa produced another pink, porcelain cup with tiny flowers and set it before..
..she paused, still looking a bit confused, her cup hand going back and forth indecisively between the two.
“I only have the third cup. This set had four, but I lost one of them a long time ago. I sought for a replacement, when we were back at Arashkan, but couldn’t find any matching my set. Though, in all candor, I never thought the day would come and we would all sit down for some tea.”, she said looking extremely abashed and oddly on the verge of panic.
“Give it to him. He wants the tea.”, sighed Tonic.
Cora sipped her tea.
“It’s alright. Give it to her. She looks like she could use a cup of tea, right about now. She hates it when things derivate from her plans.. apparently.”, mumbled Brom.
“How the hell are you going to drink your tea, if I get the cup, boy?”, blazed the gnomic girl.
Cora sipped her tea, some more.
“I have cup!”, Brom said and pulled a small wooden box out of his pack. Carefully, he opened it and produced an antique, porcelain, pink cup with tiny flowers, along with its saucer, and set it in front of himself.
“There we go. We now have four cups.”
“Hells Bells, Brom! You carry an antique teacup with you? Who does that?”, glared Tonic.
“I carry an antique sword, an antique mace, albeit a bit warped and skewed now, and an antique lyre with me, also.”, grinned the hobbit.
Cora sipped her tea, again, feeling a tint of guild about the antique mace.
Seressa, however, stared at the antique teacup Brom had just produced with undisguised chagrin.
“Where.. where did you get this cup?”, she asked with a choked voice.
“It was a gift. From some very nice, very old people I met during my travels. About a year and a half before I reached the Great Northern Tundra’s where I first met Cora. Why?”, Brom asked, noting her distress.
Cora took another sip from her tea.
Slowly, Seressa held out the cup she’d just gotten out of her pack and turned it upside down, and showed them the bottom end of the cup.
Just inside inner rim of the cup, Brom could see a recursive handwriting..
..and recognized it as Seressa’s, though he had seen her script only once before. This one, though, was much smaller in size and it read;
Property of Seressa Wraiven
Then she reached, and very gingerly, she picked up Brom’s cup, and turned it upside down to show the same inner rim at the bottom of his antique cup, without checking it herself..
Brom’s mind kindled!
For there was the same recursive handwriting, albeit quite faded, and some of the letters lost, declaring the same ownership.
Pr p rty of Sere sa Wraiv n
“How? How have you come by this cup, Master Brom?”, Seressa whispered deploringly.
Cora stared at her own cup, then at Brom’s, then at Seressa’s, then back at her own, and slowly set it down, nudged her butt and hips and shuffled a few feet away from all the cups, and stared at them with freaked eyes.
“I am sorry Seressa. But I can not divulge the identity of the people who gifted it to me, because I gave them my solemn oath of silence. But I can assure you they were very old and honorable people. Quite noble too, in an aristocratic sense, I might add. And they assured me it was a highly prized heirloom passed onto them from generation to generation for several centuries, relative to our time.”
The four sat in dark, quiet contemplation as they drank their tea.
Well, at least three of them did.
Cora wasn’t really the superstitious type, but she was not going to drink any more tea. Not from those cups. And not for a good long while if you could avoid it. This time jumping was starting to freak her out as it was, without adding a little, pink teacup that reached over centuries and counter-centuries to catch up to its set!
✱ ✱ ✱
To say Seressa Wraiven was put out was like saying the sun rose from the east and was high at noon! No. She was not just put out, she was, in fact, quite wroth. One would think the returning of her missing teacup and to have completed her set after unknown, relative, centuries would have given her a certain sense of elation, and in all likeliness, it did, but the way it was returned, did nothing to her sense of equilibrium.
And, apparently, such equilibrium was at the core of her being. Particularly if the said person was known for her, often funny, and endearing, klutz, which was quite the opposite of any equilibrium.. or pertaining balance..!
Someone was going to suffer for her distress.
Seressa Wraiven, however, was also a very considerate and mature young lady, and would never deem to take her pouting out of her pair, and certainly not out of her friends.
Hence, she projected her wrath upon the fiends, demons, and other, not so lucky monsters, they started encountering on their way ‘up’.
She laid waste to everything in her sight, all the while fuming and muttering darkly to herself.
It was a bit mesmerizing to watch, really..
..and downright scary.
Cora had tried to keep up, cutting, hacking, lopping, and disemboweling anything that tried to get past her to reach the very tall, very dark girl raining doom upon her foes, but she’d reached her limit and she felt her arms about to fall off.
Tonic and Brom had silently scurried behind the towering girl and had tried to insert what they could without being noticed by her so as not to further her wrath.
Indeed, it was mesmerizing..
..and quite scary.
“Alright, stop!”, Cora Sleet finally hissed.
That was how the barbarian girl put her foot down. Unlike what was to be expected of a zerker such as herself, Cora did not roar, nor did she foam at the mouth when she ‘zerked’. She settled upon her foes like a silent but deadly sleet storm. She didn’t howl, she didn’t blare, and nor did she so much as shout. She hissed, if that, at her enemies, in her low, throaty voice.
Cora Sleet was ‘cool’ like that.
Arcantonic Palecog was the one that roared. At least that’s what she thought she was doing. And because her pair and her friends were thoughtful of her feelings, they never countermanded her.
Telling an already traumatized girl that she looked like a maniacal squirrel in heat or some similar rodent squeaking like she was caught between a closing door or drawer was just cruel..
Brom Bumblebrim, however, did none of these. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t come from a military family, but a happily lazy hobbit community where nothing was, and nothing certainly wanted to be out of the ordinary. Which is why most hobbits tended to be quite self-aware. A curse that Brom himself was also afflicted with.
Hence, at moments of dire action, if not contemplation, he sort of did this.. ‘commentary’ thing.. Hopefully in his mind, and not out loud, which would have made him look a bit odd. No one, after all, wanted to be on the receiving end of ‘those’ looks. The ones that say, you have just been declared ‘mad’..
..which would have been rich, coming from just about anyone in this particular group, but much like no one told Tonic what she really, and quite hilariously, looked like, Brom did not want to be told he was ‘politely mad!’
Seressa Wraiven, on very rare occasions such as now, became this unreachable, unfathomable, darkly majestic astral witch who would also turn ghostly incorporeal as the pinks in her hair and her frilly skirt dress would drain away and so would the black of her smooth skin, not unlike watching ink spreading over white, cotton parchment, in reverse, leaving her something semi-transparent and a single shade of mid-gray, afloat a foot or so above the ground.
It was an awe-inspiring sight to behold. And downright scary..
..which was when Cora Sleet put her foot down!
“Alright, stop!”, she hissed and pointed at a side room full of hacked, hexed, and disintegrated corpses that seemed to have quite a few exploded heads!
“In. All of you.”, she ordered briskly, waited for them to enter, then irritably kicked a corpse out of the way and slammed the door shut.
“What is going on, Seressa? I don’t mind the fact that we have cleared our way to the top at record speed, but really, now.. You are supposed to be the smart one among us. The maturely foresighted one. Not the zerker. When you ‘zerk’, you start pouching in my woods! It isn’t like we are on a deadline..”
Seressa did not reply. She just stood there facing the far wall as she had entered the bloody room, silently seething and simmering.
Brom threw a warning glance in her direction, but the gnomic girl missed it.
“She made a funny; deadline. Get it? DEAD line!”, she snickered.
Brom shook his head and murmured.
“Bad timing, girl.”
Which turned out to be true.
“Shut up, Tonic!”, snapped Cora. “Your pair is troubled and you are making a pun?”
“There is no need to get snippy..”, pouted Tonic. “Seressa does not like being left in the dark —ironic as that might seem, and not because of her appearance, which has nothing to do with it other than adding some ecstatic flavor, but because of how much she’s into prophecies, and hence, the unknown —which is basically being constantly left in the said ‘dark’, in a purely philosophical sense.. I don’t get worked over such things. I just stagger, look stupidly at it, then move along, which is understandable, since there is no discernable ‘mechanics’ to prophecies, though I suspect there is a certain reasoning, and hence, a logic, of sorts, behind them.. I feel at home dissecting the workings of mechanical objects which are all about physics. Seressa, on the other hand, takes delirious, and almost demented, you might say, pleasure in dissecting the unknown that has barely any physics in them, and the parts that do, are merely the ‘end users’ —the mortals who are inevitably involved, per se!”
Cora stared at the little gnomic girl.. morosely.
“Whot?”, asked Tonic.
“Girl. You don’t start a sentence with a pout, and end it half a mile away, and with an explanation like that. I think you broke Cora’s mind.”, said the hobbit with an amused tone.
“I am sorry.”, said Tonic honestly. “But I thought you guys already knew this and that I was merely repeating —and reminding— the obvious. Most pairs are made up of ‘more of the same’, hence exponentially increasing what they already have. Seressa and I, are not such a pair. We are the rarer, ‘compensating’ kind.. I have some stuff and lack some stuff. She has some stuff, lacks other stuff.. We don’t really compliment each other’s ‘haves’, but ‘cover’ for one another’s ‘have nots’.. Then there is the ‘we both lack the stuff’, but that is a whole, different can of worms, and not all that pertinent to this topic.”
“Sooo?”, drawled Brom. “Meaning what, exactly?”
“Ow!”, exclaimed the gnomic girl in a surprised voice. “You actually want a genuine, plausible, rational, logical, and valid explanation!”
“Yesss..”, grinded Cora.
“Guys. I am just a glorified grunt who likes bangs and bombs. Seressa is the real deal. But should you want to venture a guess, sort of in the way of a solution, I would begin by telling her where you got that teacup. She’s been complaining about its missing fourth since time immemorial!”
“Grunts don’t use words like immemorial”, scoffed Cora.
“Never said I was a grunt, dear Cora. I said I was a glorified grunt. Massive difference!”, she replied with a smug expression etched all over her diminutive face. Then she frowned slightly at Brom. “Go ahead, Master Brom. Just tell her and get it over with.”
Brom stared at the gnomic girl with a very frosty expression.
“I. Can’t. I gave my word. My oath of silence. That mean anything to you?”, he said between clenched teeth.
“Of course. I am an agent of the Academy of Melshieve. Our oaths are our honor.. Or more like, they are binding, than they are in any way, our honor.”, Tonic replied, then added. “Whether we want it or not.”
“Then you know what is at stake.”
“Yes. And more than you think I do. But do weigh your ‘stake’ against the knowledge of ‘pertinence’ in relation to what we are doing, and how it might be important in general, and for Seressa personally.”, Tonic said with another smirk.
“Alright then, why don’t you tell her, Miss Tonic?”, he very nearly spat!
“Me? Why should I tell her? I don’t even know what the hell is going on. Hello, Glorified Grunt, here, remember?”, she said, smirking some more.
Brom scowled at her even more fiercely.
“You know precisely what I am talking about, Arcantonic Palecog..”, he hissed.
Tonic stared at the hobbit as if taking a quick, mental inventory of what the bloody hell he might be talking about, found nothing there, then shrugged.
“Nope. I have absolutely no idea, whatsoever, about what you are talking about, boy!”, she sniffed.
Brom lowered his voice down to a barely audible whisper.
“Tinker Hills, not ringing any bells, Miss Tonic?”
“Nope. Never been there..”, replied Tonic.
“How about Silent Town?”
“Nope. Never heard of it.. So, nada..”, said Tonic.
“Still, nope. At least nothing other than what everyone else here likely already knows. What? Am I supposed to know all about Silent Hills just because I am a gnome? And it isn’t nice of you to bring that up like this, Master Hobbit, considering my.. personal interest in a certain gnome prince!”, Tonic said in a supremely imperious tone.
“So you have no idea about any famous queens of Silent Hills?”, Brom asked, feeling awkwardly less sure of himself.
“I am a historian by default, Master Brom, seeing as how I have a PhD in Archeology, of course, I know of Silent Hills.. And it’s past, and about the events that led up to its current disposition. The particulars of how ‘the fog’, colorfully known as ‘the Demon Fog’ happened is unknown, though. There are walking rumors that one day, an heir to Silent Hills shall arrive and set free the denizens of those hills. But said rumors are, after all, just rumors. And as far as I know, there has been inconclusive reports of one such famous queen, though no one has ever reported to have found any name attached to her, which I find quite impossible, really, if there was such a famous queen..”, she said with a perfectly straight face.
Brom stared at the gnomic girl.
It seemed, apart from the little adventure they had shared late that night in Arashkan, she did not seem to have any inclination about how the antique, porcelain pink cup had come into her possession in the first place, then passed down, generation to generation as a prized heirloom and to have finally been gifted to him, along with a riddle poem, that he had shared with the ‘child’ Tonic, down in the dungeons.
Brom Bumblebrim felt a distinct headache coming his way..
“Be right back.”, he said and turned to the one person he, inadvertently perhaps, cared deeply.. and hence, had avoided for the past several weeks.
Cora moved and so did Tonic.
“No.”, Brom said sternly. “This is for her ears, only.”
“What?”, scowled Cora.
“Why?”, frowned Tonic.
“Look.”, said the hobbit with the same dedicated, grim and unyielding sternness. “You wanted her to stop what she is doing so she does not get us and herself killed, this is me doing that. You don’t have to know the particulars. Neither of you. If you are not okay with that, by all means, try your way. Go hug her, smother her in love, or tickle her.. All the things I can’t do, whether I want to or not. What I can do, is tell her certain truths. I will already be breaking my oath of silence just by telling her what she needs to hear. Please don’t add to my dishonor.”
Cora stared at Brom for a moment, then shrugged and took a sudden interest in her double-bladed polearm, checking it for nicks and dents.
“Just like that, eh?”, Tonic scowled at her.
“No. Just like this.”, she said and took a sharpening stone at the blades.
“That is a double-bladed elven scimitar, girl. Its blades are enchanted and mithral edged. They won’t nick, bend, or blunt. They literally don’t need, nor require sharpening.”, she scoffed.
“I know.”, Cora said coolly. “I also know something else it doesn’t need.”
“Whot?”, asked Tonic gullibly.
Tonic stared at the barbarian girl in total shock!
“That’s.. that’s a swear word. You never use swear words, Cora. And it wasn’t nice of you to say it to me.”, she blubbered with a trembling lower lip.
“Girl. I do not swear ‘outward’. It does not mean I do not swear at all. I am a zerker. At which point did you assume I was a polite barbarian berserker? I am a hundred and six years old, possibly more than double your age, and my mother is dead, hence she can’t come at me with her scissors, so I can swear however the hell I want. So there!”, Cora said..
..and with the same cool tone.
“You are mean.”, mumbled Tonic.
“Perhaps.. But at least I know where to draw the line. I trust Brom and will not jeopardize his honor. Neither should you.”
“But.. whatever they are talking about, it’s obviously about me..”, Tonic said in desperation.
“Me. Me. Me.. You really should stop with that, you know..”, Cora said mildly.
Tonic gave her an even look.
“You know perfectly well, what I am talking about, Cora.”
“Yes. But I also know it is about me.”, replied the barbarian girl softly.
“You? This has nothing to do with you, girl.”, Tonic said with an exasperated voice.
“Ow? Must have come here accidentally, then?”, Cora said lightly.
Tonic scowled at her.
“You like taking my words, using their alternate meanings, and then throwing them back at my face, don’t you.”
“A bit, yes.”, Cora said with a barely discernable smile. “For a smart, artificer-whatsit girl, you do catch them very well.”
Tonic scowled at her.
“And while we are here waiting for those two, perhaps you can fill me in on what the two of you really did ‘down’ there?”, Cora asked.
“Can’t. It’s a ‘Need To Know’ only.”, Tonic said promptly.
“Oh, I see how it is. You can pout and make a scene when you are kept out of this, ‘need to know only’ thingy, but it’s perfectly alright for me to be kept ignorant and blind.. Maybe it’s because I am just a dumb zerker. Perhaps I should upgrade to ‘Glorified Dumb Zerker’.. a bit like you. That way I could also demand this ‘need to know’ thingy.”
Tonic scowled at her, some more.
“Fine.”, she very nearly spat. “I will tell you what we did.”
“And you will also tell me of what the two of you brewed together that time, back at Arashkan?”, asked the barbarian girl, a bit too pleasantly.
“Fine.”, repeated the gnomic girl. “I will also tell you about that!”
“Why?”, asked Cora.
“Because you asked me to?”
“So you are going to reveal me information that was deliberately kept from me, just because I asked you to?”, Cora smiled and there was a distinct edge in her eyes.
“Well..”, said Tonic, suddenly feeling the trap closing in on her.
“Girl. You are so easy. Don’t you think I am aware many things are not shown to me? Just how stupid do you think I am? And that isn’t a rhetorical question. Things are kept from me, not for a laugh. A man can make demands from other men. This I can understand, even if I find it most annoying and foolish. Do you even know just how arrogant it is to make similar demands from the Heavens? Mortals don’t get to make demands from Angels, nor the Celestials, which includes ‘answers’.. The things that are kept from me are done so for a reason, and I don’t get to throw a fit, nor a tantrum just because I am not privy to certain facts or knowledge.. Now I may not know as to the nature of these reasons but think for a moment, girl. Think about what we are doing. At what we are dabbling with. This is not a game. You have no idea how much of a risk I took by giving that sword to Krush’s son, and took the spear for myself to be handed over to its rightful owner. By doing just that, I changed some things. Like, monumentally massive things. And it cost me many lives, and cost others even more. By that one, single act, I did not just let Ironfrost be destroyed again, girl, I ultimately became the cause of its destruction.. and the Wyrm Horde. But of all the four of us, only I could have figured out which weapon to give, and which one to take, let alone figure out the fact that there was another weapon —the spear, because as educated as you and Seressa are, neither of you could have known about the differences and nuances of archaic elfish. Because we, tundra elves, are cut off from the rest of the world, our elfish is still old, and archaic. So when I say, there is a reason for me to know, or in this and several other cases, not to know, I know exactly what I am talking about. And by now, so should you.”
Arcantonic Palecog ogled at the ‘zerker’ barbarian girl.
“You are a barbarian? Why?”, she spluttered finally.
✱ ✱ ✱
Brom Bumblebrim tethered near the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, with nothing short of trepidation.
“You have been avoiding me, Brom Bumblebrim. Why?”, she said without looking at him.
Brom didn’t answer. Not that he didn’t have anything to say, but he was just too scared to say any of it.
He just.. looked down.. at his own bushy feet..
“I know for a fact this avoiding of yours is not my doing for I have treated you to the best of my abilities and with the highest of regards.”, she whispered.
‘Damn.’, he thought. ‘She is so awesome!’
“You have even stopped looking at me. Am I suddenly thus repulsive to your eyes, Master Hobbit, that you wouldn’t care to so much as gaze upon me anymore, even though I have never shown you any rebuke nor displayed any animosity in any form for having done so before.”, she said and there was a tender tremor in her soft, illustrious voice.
‘Damit.’, thought Brom. ‘You are making this so much harder for me, girl..’
“The fact that I have never warned you, should have given you the clue that I did not mind being the focus of your attention. Even someone as traumatized as my Tonic understood this, and has stopped harassing you for doing it.”, she hissed savagely.
Brom tried very hard to send down the lump that suddenly appeared in his throat.
“I wash and clean regularly and I keep my personnel hygiene intact at all times, so that can’t be it. I do not use artificial smells but natural soaps. I always have. I do not do make-up. Perhaps I should, though I doubt it will show on my tone of skin. Not unless I use overt and horrid colors making me boorish and consequently defeating the purpose of elegance and make-up.. Is it my pink skirt dresses? You didn’t mind them before. Do you suddenly mind them now? I have nothing else to wear. Perhaps you find my pinks overdone, now. I might be able to tone down the pinks of my dresses and my undergarments, but I don’t want to dye my hair. This is how I came to be. This is me.. So tell me, Master Brom. What changed?”, she asked hoarsely.
“Nothing has changed, my dear girl.”, replied Brom finally, for it broke his heart to see her thus suffer. “And you are as beautiful as ever. More so, the more I get to know you.. which is the core of my problem.”
Seressa Wraiven looked down at the bushy little hobbit with her deep, astral eyes.
“But that is a matter for another time. You are rattled because of a little teacup. I am rattled because of something much, much more significant. But again, not a matter for now. What I shall reveal now must stay with you, and you alone. It must never be written, nor repeated. Not to Cora, not to Tonic. Not to anyone, dead or alive, down in the ground, or up in the sky.. If these terms are agreeable with you, I shall break my oath of silence at my own risk.. and expense..”, said Brom, in a low, lost, somber voice and still, without looking up.
“You refuse to look at me even as we speak. What is it that I have done, thus do I deserve such treatment?”, she said looking down at him with dejected and shimmering eyes.
“Nothing. You have done nothing, my dear girl.”, stammered Brom.
“You shall not even speak my name. Very well.. Thus, we shall stay as comrades, Master Hobbit, and I shall not endanger a comrade’s honor and risk his expense by authoring the ruination of his oath. Thank you for your candor, sir.”, she said and something seemed to have cracked in her voice..
..and just like that, her ghostly demeanor faded, color returned to her long, braided hair, vivid and alive, and her frilly dress was pink again as darkness spread around her hands, her arms, her face, and her legs, and she was merely a girl again, albeit very tall, and very dark.
Seressa Wraiven turned and quietly left, her tall, dark, and willowy form slumped and slouched as she joining Cora and her pair, leaving Brom gaping and aghast in total chagrin.
“No..”, he whimpered.
Cora Sleet walked up to the little hobbit, deliberately scuffing her boots on the way.
“Go. Away.”, mumbled the hobbit into the wall he was facing.
“Just wanted to know—”, began Cora.
“—Whether I was alright?”, finished Brom.
“Ow, I know, you are not alright. Came here to offer..”, she said.
“Offer? Offer what?”, mumbled the hobbit.
“Offer my help incase you’d need it to bang your thick head into that wall.”
There was a restless silence.
“You are not funny, girl.”, he mumbled.
“No. What I am is, angry. You broke her heart, you know.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Just what did you tell her, Brom Bumblebrim?”, Cora asked frowning at the hobbit.
“Didn’t tell her anything.”, came the hobbits muffled voice.
“Thought so. And that tells me something.”, the barbarian girl said harshly.
“That I am a coward?”
Cora shrugged again.
“I am not here to tell you the things you already know, Brom.”
“Still not funny.”
“You lost someone. I get it.. My guess is, it was a girl.. Someone precious to you.. Someone you didn’t only love and care for, but someone you also truly respected and treasured. And now you don’t want to live that loss again.. with Seressa..”
“Aren’t you full of wisdom today..”, came the hobbit’s muffled, surly mumble.
“I don’t blame you. We are in a dangerous line of work. Any one of us could die at any given time. Why start something that can end at any moment, right?”
“This is going to end with me agreeing with you and you bludgeoning me with some outlandish, tundra logic, isn’t it?”
“You are bludgeoned as it is. I came here to agree with your choice. I fully approve. What could anything remarkable come out of a beautiful and mystifying girl and a little, hedgehog of a hobbit? We should concentrate on the task at hand.”, Cora said coolly.
“What? You think I am not good enough for her?”
“No. I think you think you are not good enough for her, which makes what I think sort of irrelevant..”
Brom scowled at the wall..
“But like I said, better this way. No complications. No sad separations. No breakups. No losses. All of which will happen no matter how long either of you lives, anyway.. And obviously, no more heart breaks for you. That’s a bonus, right there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say!”, she said.
“You know that you just ruined your whole point with a contradictory line, right?”
“And who is going to refute me? You? You can’t even get over one heartbreak. Your doors are shut and well fortified. You give all these awesome advices to Tonic, but heed none of it yourself. So.. who is going to refute me?”
“What do you want, Cora?”
“From you? Nothing. You can’t even dare to reach out for something you clearly want, nor dare to give into it.. What can you possibly have, that I’d even want?”, she replied and there was much contempt in her voice. She took a long breath, as if to clam down, and continued. “I think I have made up my mind about what I want to do after we are done with this jump. I shall go back home and start a whole new Ironfrost.. and I shall call it.. New Ironfrost! Alright, maybe, that didn’t sound as dramatic as I had intended, but who cares. There’s not one left to refute that, either.. The girls, I suspect, will go back to either pestering the Ice Wolf Clan, posing as demons, or go back to that Academy of Melshieve of theirs. I believe Tonic has a job waiting for her there as a mecha-thingy something-something professor and Seressa is going to be a Storm Kite test pilot, though I have absolutely no idea what that is. Whatever it is, I sure hope she wears her safety belt and a helmet.. and a pair of pants!”
“You are just pulling at random stuff and stream broadcasting them here!”, spluttered Brom.
“Maybe. Accept I don’t know what you just said.”
Brom snorted bitterly.
“Well. We had better get started, hadn’t we? Thanks to you and your little teacup, we have but the one floor left. Funny how that turned out.”, Cora said merrily.
“Yea. Funny how that turned out.. Thank you for putting me up to this, Cora. You have been of great help.”, he said with wrathful sarcasm.
Cora stared at the bushy little hobbit.
“Do not make me the devil, here, Brom. I told you to go and talk to her, here and back at Arashkan.. You didn’t then, you didn’t now.. I told you to tell her what you felt. You didn’t then, you didn’t now.. I also told you to accept whatever came your way, where she was concerned. And guess what? You didn’t then, you didn’t now, either.. The only thing I told you not to do was to make her choices for her.. and you did that, now and then!. You want to blame someone that desperately, by all means, keep staring at that wall.”, she said, paused for a moment as if thinking, or perhaps weighing some things against odds. When she spoke again, however, her voice was with a cooler, and a more, distant. “You have been a great friend and great company, Master Brom. But I am not taking a deplorable coward with me. Between the three of us, I believe we girls can handle the rest from here. I am sure you have enough skills to get out of here quite untethered.”
And just like that, she too turned around and left.
Brom stared at the wall some more while fuming and simmering. That had gone well, alright.
“So who is next? Tonic, isn’t it? Do send her in.. Might as well get it over with while I am on the roll..”, he said bitterly.
“Ready, girls?”, he heard Cora say.
“Whot? What happened? Is the hobbit not coming with us?”, asked Tonic baffled.
“What is going on? Seressa? Did he say something bad to you? No. He said something dumb.. He said something dumb and foolish, didn’t he? Want me to go and beat some sense into him? Because, I totally can!”, Tonic flared.
“No, luv. He did nothing of the sort. He wouldn’t do that and you know this.. We also don’t beat friends just because they don’t see things our way..”, he heard Seressa’s drained voice.
“Silly little weasel! Men can be so stupid and dense sometimes.”, Tonic mumbled.
“So can girls, luv, and quite apparent, in my case.. Tonic, baby, this is not a gender issue. Not in that sense. Please don’t take it there..”, Seressa quietly admonished her pair.
“Then what’s the problem? And why are you so pale and trembling, girl?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all..”
“Coming, Master Brom?”
..came the offer and from Seressa, of all people, from the other side of the room. Her voice, very neutral, and totally void of any implications. A voice spoken to a stranger; carefully polite, inexpressive, inanimate, soulless, and matt.
“On my way..”, replied the hobbit with an equally lifeless and very much lackluster tone.
Perhaps Cora was right and it was time he started looking for something beyond this little group.
✱ ✱ ✱
What’s the plan here?”, whispered Tonic, and there was a distinct presence of fear in her voice. “Just so you all know, if my dear uncle is in there, I am going to bail.”
“You’d run off? Just like that?”, asked her pair, her voice somewhat listless.
“Of course. And so should you.. All of you.. We are no match for him.”, squeaked the gnomic girl.
“How do you know?”, asked Cora, more out of curiosity than any belligerence.
“Ever wonder why there are this many untethered demons here, all defending one little midget of a wizard and his tower? And why Arashkan and High Woods are just a weeks distance away but no one dares to come here to put a stop to him and his deranged madness?”, she asked.
“Yes. That did cross my mind.”, admitted the elf barbarian.
“The fiends and the demons, among many other things do his bidding willingly because here, they can run amok and freely. This bloody tower is a heaven for them. And because they all fear him. I am not even sure Ri Grandaleren of Bari Na-ammen could take him out on a one-on-one.”, Tonic said in a dejected tone.
“But someone did take him out at the end, though, didn’t they?”, Cora said.
“Yes. But their timing was not random nor a coincidence. When you think about it, you have to admire how well, or perhaps, how delicately it was chosen, and how that timing had been at the core of their plan of action in the first place.. Lord Delia lead the company, certainly, but I am inclined to give Nadine Graciousward the credit for having figured this out. Seems like the kind of thing she’d do.. People think her beauty is her only quality. I think not, though. You can’t be that awesome just by having a pretty face and some nice breasts and *cough* well, you get my drift.. What I am getting at is, the Demon Gate my uncle constructed in the center of the ruins just north of Durkahan had failed because it had malfunctioned. Suffice to say, his masters, the Demon Lords, were extremely put out by his consecutive and conclusive failures, considering all the backing he had from them. Hence they pulled most of their forces, along with the majority of their support from him.. and his tower.. This tower. So yes. When the paladin Delia Karakash Hooman, the sorceress Nadine Graciousward and at least six others came here to confront him, this tower was much more empty. I guesstimate, it is around twenty-five to twenty-eight percent of its capacity at the moment. This number will rise exponentially and likely surpass its maximum capacity when he is near the completion of his gate but will drop drastically once it fails.. I think that is when Delia and Nadine hit my uncle and they still lost more than half their number. You must understand, aside from being a megalomaniac, a lunatic, and an irreplaceable arse, my uncle, Arcanton Mordenon, is a dedicated evocationist. When he nukes, he has the capacity to deliver his wrath at its maximum gauge, gage, caliber, scale and dial! To this day, it still isn’t clear just how many professional bounty hunters or enterprising adventurers my uncle killed because he disintegrated quite a few, as opposed to merely charring them. I can only guess just how Nadine was pissed when he did the same to her friends, but I am thinking, A LOT! Which is why she banished him to hell in stasis.. That way, only she can release him and bring him back, which I doubt she will ever do. So when I say, if my uncle is here I will bail, I mean exactly that. He won’t know who I am, and I am certain he won’t care even if he did, seeing as how he treated the three-year-old me.”
“You are aware..”, Brom said quietly from behind. “..If we do face him, I plan on leaving a mark on him.”
Cora looked back at Brom.
It was the first time he had spoken since he had said ‘nothing’ to Seressa.
Seressa on the other hand, hadn’t faded away in total silence.
She’d just been.. void..
When she spoke, it was with this glassy and brittle cheeriness.
It probably made Tonic bleed from the inside, even though she too refused to show it, nor did she display any outward animosity towards Brom. Just a tad.. formal.. and minutely critical in her exchanges with him..
..and very much disappointed in him.
Hence Cora and Tonic ended up having this odd and awkward commentary going between them.
“Why?”, Tonic said without so much as looking at him, and sort of in a rhetorical way.
“Said I’d do it, remember?”, Brom replied.
“I remember. I also remember never agreeing with you, either.”, she said with a shrug.
“Your agreeing was not part of my promise.”, mumbled Brom.
“I am over it, Master Brom. Nothing’s going to change the past. Might as well not add to his murder tally. Besides, I don’t think he is home. I mean we have been here, killing his fiends, his demons, and his whatnots, and he hasn’t once come down to investigate, which is quite unlike him. The Arcanton Mordenon I remember was a militantly control freak!”
Brom did not reply nor did he object. Talking about anything at the moment seemed like putting more strain on a thread stretched too tight, as it was.
Cora on the other hand was a barbarian. She didn’t notice such subtleties. Or perhaps she did, and even though she was very much wroth with him, she was still kinder than she let on and she didn’t think the bushy little hobbit should be ousted anymore than he already was..
..and it didn’t make much sense torturing him any more than what he had already managed to bring upon himself.
“Just out of curiosity, why would you want to leave a mark on him? It isn’t like you to collect trophies.”, she said lightly.
“I have no interest in collecting any part of him. Other than perhaps his head.”, replied Brom with a listless tone.
“We should collect his head. Back in Arashkan, I saw many wanted posts and his name was on it. With a very generous five hundred thousand gold attached to it.”
“Didn’t know that. I was never really all that interested in bounty hunting.”, he replied with the same tone.
“Ow? We did start our adventures with a wanted post, and hence, bounty hunting, if you recall.”, Cora said with a reminiscing voice.
“True, now that I look back. But I came along because of you, really, rather than the money. And because there was something about your tundra’s that appealed to me even though I am not a winter person and very much dislike the cold.”
“You came because of me, did you? That’s just sad.”, she said slightly amused.
“Yes. You seemed.. don’t get me wrong, Cora, but kind of lost.. and desperate.. as if wanting to join your lost ones in a hurry.. I didn’t want that to happen.”
“How could you possibly know those? It was much later I opened up about my losses.”, she asked curiously.
“Also true. But it takes one to know one, I guess. I.. saw myself in you.. Not in a creepy way, mind you.. Something about your mood.. or perhaps your state of mind.. Like I said, takes one to know one..”, replied Brom dispiritedly.
“Who did you lose, Master Brom?”
The question came too suddenly.
And from the one person, the lost hobbit would have least expected just then. And tenderly it came, soothing through all his mental defenses, his barriers and his barricades, and gently pushing them aside!
Without even thinking, as if by muscle reflex, he blurted.
And with shock, he just stood where was.
So did Cora, for this was the first time she had heard the name of his loss.
Tonic was staring at him with a slight frown.
Seressa Wraiven, however, was there, and on her knees right before him. She stood where she was, kneeling and staring into the depths of his soul with her unfathomable, astral eyes. Whatever she sought, she must have found it, because she reached at the petrified hobbit and collected him into her bosom..
.. and wow!
Brom lost all senses..
That single embrace was the warmest, softest, and life-inducing thing he had ever experienced in his whole life. It was a ‘best’ on so many levels, he thought he had no words for far too many of them.
And Seressa Wraiven smelled so nice. Something with phloxes, cherry blooms, and.. something else.. something unique..
And with an unexpected display of insight, considering his emotional wreckage and his current standing —in Seressa’s arms, and far too close to her soft, pretty breasts that he was literally breathing right into them, Brom knew, there was only one creature in the verse that possessed this smell, and she was it;
“You loved her.”
It wasn’t a question so much as a simple, tangible statement. A statement not for her benefit, but for his.
“She was.. special.. and extraordinary.. and artlessly innocent.. and she gave her life, saving one, stupid hobbit, because that is what she thought was required of her, and for me to understand what it was, that was required of me..”, he croaked.
“I understand you now, dear Brom Bumblebrim. More so than before. And do I now understand your fears, also. I revoke my previous, and quite inconsiderate and impulsive declaration, and apologize to you for my impromptu selfishness.”, she said to his ear as she hugged him tighter.
“There is nothing to apologize for, sweet Seressa Wraiven. You did nothing wrong. And I just did nothing..”, he replied hoarsely.
“Nevertheless, I should have been more considerate of my friend, Brom Bumblebrim.. Henceforth, you shall not be only my comrade, but my companion and my friend for life. Should you ever need my company, I shall be there.”, she whispered back and Brom felt a tingling sensation run down from the tip of his ears, all the way down to his toes.
“I think you should let go of me now, dear Wraiven. Because if you hold me any longer, I won’t be able to let go of you. Your.. warmth is murdering me and your smell is simply intoxicating!”, he said in a desperately embarrassed voice.
Seressa parted, barely, but still knelt where she was and still held him in her dark, slim, long arms as she ran her delicate hands through his thick, bushy hair.
“And whatever gave you the idea I would want you to, Master Brom?”, she said with her awesome smile.
Brom’s heart lurched..
“I think I heard something.”, snickered Tonic.
“So did I.”, murmured Cora with a poorly concealed smile.
Seressa Wraiven leaned in, and lightly kissed the petrified little hobbit.
It wasn’t a submissive kiss, nor a demanding one.
It was a carefully applied, tender and.. well.. scrumptious kiss..
Brom was a bard, and words were his thing, after all, and that was the only thing he could think of;
“I shall ever be envious of your loss, sad as it may be, Master Brom.”, she said, gave him another of her awesome smiles, and gracefully rose to her feet.
She then looked at Cora and her pair, Tonic, then back at Brom, and said, “Before, I thought I had something to die for; a prophecy to fulfil and save humanity.. Now? Now, I have something to live.. Shall we?”
“Let’s.”, agreed, the elf barbarian with a slightly victorious tint to her voice.
Funny how a dispirited and dejected four could suddenly dash forth with a light and merry skip to their pace merely a short embrace and a kiss later.
That had been the first time since Gull’s Perch, Brom Bumblebrim had such a silly and concussed expression on his face..
✱ ✱ ✱
Arcanton Mordenon was not at home. His fiends, his demons, and his numerous whatnots, however, were, and they came charging at them the moment the four stepped into the mad evocationist’s vast workshop at the top of his tower. Cora held the door, trying her best to keep them out as she spun her double-bladed elven scimitar, jabbing, slashing, hacking, dismembering, and disemboweling any that came within her reach, while Brom strung his lyre, sending dissonant scores at them, driving them mad, confounding them, leaving them confused or dropping them shuddering on the ground, their heads bloomed and their brains splattered everywhere.
Seressa sent her ghostly hands at them, pushing them, pulling them, and dislocating them whenever they tried to overcrowd the barbarian girl as she smothered them in maddening darkness.
Tonic, on the other hand, scurried around her uncle’s vast chamber, trying to figure out why they had been sent here in the first place!
There were strange, unidentifiable machinery, artificed objects, gimmicks, and gizmos of various shapes and sizes everywhere in the shelf riddled workshop, along with flasks, vials, tubes, and spiraling glass appendages containing oozing, bubbling, and frothing potions, poisons, and chemicals on the many work tables and benches. Glowing braziers, old candle holders with dripping waxes, rust-brown cages with dried and dead things hung from the high ceiling, attached to long, petrified chains. And at the far end of the workshop was the main table, a heavy and sturdy structure made of solid oak and studded with thick leathers and steel nails. The surface of the table was perhaps once polished and smooth, but long had it been abused with dark, chemical burns, blade lines, and possibly, claw marks and other stains that declared many years of harsh use, where piles of drawings, sketches, diagrams, and many numerical lists and spreadsheets lay, rolled up or stretched and held in place by old iron weighs. Similar sketches and drawings also covered the walls wherever there were no shelves.
The whole place spoke of hard, obsessive work, riddled with depression, desperation, frenzy, and not a small amount of deranged madness.
“Status Update!”, Cora called from the door, holding a vicious gash at a point just above her hip.
“This place is a mess! Just look at it! It’s dowdy, ratty, slovenly, and simply hazardous! I guess they didn’t pay him enough to hire a maid or two!”, Tonic squeaked in towering and abhorrent disgust.
“I can’t imagine a maid or two here wearing those skimpy maid outfits, and waving one of those fluffy dusters..”, noted Seressa with a slightly amused tone as she sent a spectral scythe, screaming into another fiend.
“A bit rich, you calling a service maids’ uniform, ‘skimpy’..”, she retorted derisively from the other side of the room trying to see the names of the books in the shelves, written on their spines.
“I beg to differ, my dear Tonic.”, replied the very tall, very dark girl in her illustrious and cultured voice.
“How so?”, the gnomic girl asked as she scurried to the adjacent set of shelves.
“I am not a service maid!”, Seressa replied simply.
“Can we hurry this along?”, Cora called from the door as she slashed down one end of her weapon, sliced open a demon, counter swung the other end of the weapon, and opened a symmetrical gash. The demon groaned and collapsed, splattering its frothy blood everywhere.
“I need to more time. This place is huge and there must be thousands and thousands of books, gadgets, and drawings, any of which could be the reason we are here!”, the little gnomic girl’s voice fizzled in near panic.
“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.
“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..
“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.
“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’sif 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!” —it’s a reference to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
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..
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..
ArcantonicPalecog 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..
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;
Seressa Wraiven User Manual
—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 becomeTonic!
“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 title.
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 SeressaWraiven’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 maidens 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
One cauldron One spoon 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 Three cauldrons
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.
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 was.. 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 pseudodragon. 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 necessary 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 incoming 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..
It isn’t the life-threatening moments that makes us realize the value of those we love..
Sometimes it is the silly things..
..such as coloring pictures in a children’s book..
This story takes place several days after The Oathbreaker (Part Four) and after Aager Fogstep and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane defeat the tyrannic oathbreaker; Lord Tarakadahan Karkashi in a very bloody duel to the death.
Aager Fogstep held Inshala close and tightly to himself for she was in mourning and because her soft warmth was the only thing that kept him from screaming in pain. The little girl held a sad, broken piece of dry twig in her small, delicate hands —the only discernable part left of what was once a giant walking tree; Snare! True, Snare had never been a ‘nice’ tree, but rather a vicious, sour, and one old cuss of a monster. He had, however, kept the little girl safe and company during their stay at Arashkan, before the city’s fall, hiding in plain sight among other trees, deep in Heaven’s Park, and had helped both her and Aager in their numerous encounters.
This last fight, however, had just been once too many for him. The tyrannic lord, Tarakadahan Karkashi, had come down on the grumpy old bark like ten thousand axes and smashed him into the ground. And now, his tiny mistress held the only bit of what was once a grumpy, eighteen-foot tall monster..
“When we.. get out of this stupid.. arena..”, Aager grinded his teeth. “I want you to go with Lady Alisia and Moira..”
Inshala looked up at him through her tear blotched face.
“No. You are hurt. I need to—”, she started.
“Inshala. Don’t argue with me. Not now.”, he cut in harshly. “This is an excellent opportunity for someone to take advantage of and make an attempt on your mother’s life.. Or Moira’s.. Or yours.. You must watch over them as they watch over you.”
“But.. What about you?”, she asked with a pleading voice.
“I hold no power in this city, love. I am a nobody here. I am not of the nobility and I carry no titles. I am not even a squire, let alone a lord. Not that I would want to be one. Ever..”
“..The only person that would have benefited from my death is dead! Anybody else coming at me will gain nothing from my demise. You, on the other hand, hold the city in your hands and it will take but one fool to ruin everything we gained today should he attack you, your mother, or Moira.”, he said through his gritted teeth.
The pain of his dislocated shoulder was getting at him and trying to rationalize why he wanted her to go, rather than to stay and watch him suffer was taking every ounce of his remaining strength.
“Please. Do this for me.”
The great gates leading in and out of the arena parted with a booming echo, smoldering any objections the little girl might have said, and Lady Alisia, followed closely by Lady Moira, Captain Fardashi, and half a dozen guards came running at them.
“Okay. I am going to let go of you now. You mustn’t show them any tears because everyone is watching you. Be strong and go with your mother.”, he hissed quietly.
“Sir Aager..”, Lady Alisia called as she stared at him, and at the little girl holding a piece of twig, with unveiled awe.
“Lady Alisia..”, Aager greeted the First Lady of Durkahan with a barely contained voice behind his leather half-mask. “..Lady Moira. If you would be kind enough to escort Lady Inshala to your quarters whilst she could rest. She has had a trying day.”
Lady Alisia ogled at the bloodied, sinister-looking man in his dark leathers.
“Please..”, added Aager with emphasis and giving a quick glance at the watching crowd.
Lady Alisia’s face lit with comprehension.
“Of course, Sir Aager. Daughter, please come with me. We must get you out of those bloody clothes at once. I believe a nice hot bath, a meal, and sleep will do wonders to you.”, she said as she held the little girl close to her, nodded at Aager.
And with Moira on the girl’s other side, they started back towards the arena gates as the guards fell in formation around the women.
For a moment Aager was left behind and he gave some serious thought to whether he should just surrender to gravity and fall where he stood.
..said a gravelly voice from behind him.
The fact that he hadn’t even heard that someone was actually standing behind him without his notice was definitive proof that the man in dark leathers was about to lose it soon.
“I’d love to give you a hand and carry you out, but that would totally ruin your ‘cool’.. And I am not sure I’d even get the hand back!”, he recognized Fardashi’s amused voice.
“That was one hell of a fight, young man. Hard to be impressed when you get to a cussed old age like mine but, what can I say, I am impressed. Good thing I didn’t tell you to buzz off the night you two came at the city gates. Will you be able to make it until we get out of here? People with nothing better to do love watching the victor drop dead after a good show!”, the old captain said lightly. A bit like the way he spoke right before he had smashed in the castle guard commander’s face in, about a week ago.
“I think so.”, grinded Aager, and took a stubborn step forward.
✱ ✱ ✱
Stand guard here.”, commanded Fardashi at the guards, pointing at the door. “I must see to the Ladies than make sure the rest of the city is all well and good.”
Just before he left, however, he paused, gave a thoughtful look at the door, frowned a little, and quietly added, “Whatever happens, don’t enter the room!”, he warned.
The guards looked at their captain, then at the door, and hastily nodded.
Aager stood in the darkness of his room. The one he had been given shortly after their arrival at the inner castle of Durkahan city. It was barely ten strides in either direction with two, separate, single-beds, a small chest at the feet of each bed, a decent-sized cupboard, a high, rectangular table complete with a large washing pan, two blocks of soap, and several neatly folded rough, gray towels and one, slit of a window that seemed to stare gloomily at the arse end of a rigid, stone tower rather than at the city, but it still seemed cavernous compared to his tiny, one-room house back at Serenity Home. That house at least had had a larger window —two, in fact, now that Aager had a moment to think about it. Not that he preferred large windows —or any window, and he certainly had never fancied homes with scenic views, but that house —his home— had had them anyway; an easy to climb in and out window with a view to one of the town’s mildly busy streets. The other, he’d boarded the day he had moved in, years ago, because it had provided too big a security flaw for his taste, and because it was a window, it also provided a natural security ‘gap’.
He grimaced in pain at the jarring irony there;
Security Gap – Open Window!
Apparently, Aager thought, he had a bit too much free time in his hands, since he had the luxury for such delinquent ironies. But there was a point to that irony.. and the boarded window now. It used to open to a rather picturesque view of the back garden. Not so much picturesque since Aager had moved in, as it was full of dead plants and ugly, barbed, and thorny weeds. But should his Inshala come to Serenity Home, he could open that window while she did some things nice with that garden. And perhaps they could share responsibilities at that point as well; he could keep an eye on the street side window like he always had, and she could cover the garden side!
Alright, the man in dark leathers, hood, and mask thought. There was something genuinely wrong with that thought!
He doubted anyone in that town ever ‘covered’ their windows with the metaphorical fanaticism as he did.
Or rather, no one else..
He shrugged —his other shoulder.
At least with both windows open, his home would be ‘sunny’.. Unlike how this chamber would ever be..
This chamber was dark at noon, pitch at night, and was slightly on the musty side.
More like a lair.. or a den, really. Men like him did not have suits or chambers.. They had lairs!
Just how he preferred it..
..just how he should have been preferring it, as awkward as that phrasing sounded!
But for whatever reason, however, he did not.
Yes, he had come here every night, washed off the day’s dirt here, slept here, and ate here, quite laconically, too —many times. For the same, ‘whatever reason’, however, that just didn’t seem to ‘cut’ it anymore. He felt ‘blank’.. more than empty, here. A blank he had come to recognize very slowly and growing recently.
He stared at the dark walls of the chamber, all the while sweating profusely in pain.
Carefully he chose a specific stone.
Not that it mattered, but focusing on something, in particular, had always given him a sense of purpose. And that purpose, now, was not going to be fun..
Slowly, he walked up to the stone he had selected and stared at it with baleful eyes.
“I am sorry, love.”, he growled with pure, unadulterated self-loathing, swung his shoulder once, twice..
..and smashed it into the stone and wall!
A horrid, meaty crack was heard by the guards outside followed by a feral roar of pain..
..and something stumbled over and the room fell silent.
Somewhere two floors above, Fardashi ran back into Lady Alisia’s quarters, his sword drawn, when he heard the single, shrill scream of a girl in savage pain!
✱ ✱ ✱
And what do we have here?”, asked Aager, entering his chamber/lair/den, late one night, several days later. The proceedings, the meetings, the strategic plannings, and the secretive, impromptu ‘hallway’ chats on how they should mobilize the Durkahan Army, and which route they would take to reach Serenity Home in time were taking their toll on him. He felt like the sore merchant of some vast trading company, bargaining for rights of free passage through man-eating local’s lands.. without getting et!
..or possibly the CEO of some bank trying to stay afloat during an economic crisis!
“I am coloring this book that Master Cümeyt was kind enough to give me.”, Inshala replied from where she lay on the thick, pale beige carpet. Aager knew it was pale beige because the guard who had brought it had told him so like it held some significance and in all likeliness, it probably did. Just not for Aager..
..in any way that would be significant.
But then, this whole carpet thing was a new addition to his chamber/lair/den and seemed disturbingly out of place.
Feral beasts like him did not do carpets, nor cushions or loveseats..
Alright, there weren’t any loveseats in his chamber now either, and Aager did not really want to know what a loveseat was, but there were any number of colorful cushions, thrown on the said, pale beige carpet.
Aager scowled at the thick, soft, comfy thing and its fluffy little companions, and they scowled back at him..
..with compounded smug smirks because they knew they had won, and there was not a buggery bum he could do about it!
He certainly wouldn’t have asked for them, had it been up to him. But the young girl had taken a habit of bringing things her new brother, Cümeyt, or her new sisters Madine and Maira, and even Moira would give her, to here, and either play with them or draw pictures —on the cold, stone flour.. Hence, Aager had asked one of the guards if he would be kind enough to bring in a carpet, for Lady Inshala’s benefit.
And a cushion or three, while he was at it..
Or even if he weren’t kind enough!
Aager did not recall having put any such emphasis, but the thick, soft carpet had arrived within ten minutes followed by the half a dozen or so cushions..
And now, said Lady Inshala was here, lying flat on her little tummy, her skinny legs swinging up with lazy contentment and coloring what appeared to be some sort of flower in the book with little, colorful sticks scattered around.
“Crayons”, Inshala had told him with knowledgeable accomplishment.
They were called crayons.
The sinister-looking man in dark leathers thought that sounded suspiciously like a fancy name for some kind of deathly and dermal poison!
Then there was this coloring-book-thing!
Aager had never seen a book that could be, or even should be, colored before. Would have been a surprise if he had. He wasn’t sure if anyone back at Drashan had ever seen one, either.
Drashan aside, why would he?
And what was the point of buying a book, and books weren’t cheap, then doing all the work by coloring it yourself, anyway? Apparently, some smart artisan was making a lot of money by openly cheating his customers!
The nerve some people had in this world..
What kind of a demented idiot would even buy—
Aager opted to stop making combustive, mental commentary at that point.
Whatever he was about to say about said idiot, one of them was already here, and apparently, he was about to be the other by joining her!
“Would you like to join me for some? Before I am called back to sleep in my room?”, she asked smiling up at him.
It was quite obvious this coloring thingy was something she had liked a lot, Aager noted, because not only did the young girl seem happy, but she also appeared content. And there was a distinct sense of serenity about her, which made her glow in an altogether new kind of beautiful.
“Maybe..”, smiled Aager as he pulled off his dark, leather hood, undid his mask, and tossed them both on his bed. Then unbuckled his leather armor, and his belt, ridding himself of his swords and daggers, and carefully set them aside.
“You want me to pout, don’t you?”, asked the girl honestly.
“Very much.”, replied Aager in kind. “You could win just about any argument with me using only the pout.”
“But.. I do not want to argue with you. Arguing is not nice. It tarnishes some things between people. And I think it becomes a habit in time and people start doing it without noticing anymore.. They argue about everything, and they do not recognize, both love and respect are now gone!”, she said..
..with a pout!
Aager was astounded, once again, at the depth of the young girl’s insight. Particularly when taking into account that this girl never had anyone to have argued anything in her past, save one, venerable old man, to have observed, and consequently, gained such insight.
“We are not doing this on the table, why? Seems easier on the knees.”, he asked as he knelt down across the little girl and on his stomach, pulled off his heavy leather gloves, stared at the flower in the book, which he assumed was some kind of a rose, picked up one of the red sticks, and carefully started to fill one of the pedals.
“I am not sure.”, Inshala replied.
Aager cocked an eyebrow.
“When.. when we sit around a table, the table is standing between us. That makes me feel like I am alone.”, she said, frowning slightly.
“We could sit next to one another, perhaps?”, he offered.
“We could. I suppose. But.. that feels like we are only friends.. Like Ranger Corporal Laila, or even Master Gnine are my friends.. I like friends and I like that they are my friends. And I like that Alor’Nadien ne and Udoorin are my friends. And how Lady is my friend. And Merisoul and even Anglenna are my friends. I want you to be my friend too, but not like them. I do not know the words. You should not be my friend like they are my friends. When we lie down on the floor like this while doing things or talking, however, it feels like we are actually sharing something.. and more than just these pictures and more than just words..”, she said, struggling to correctly phrase her mind.
Then she went a bit pink.
“And.. and our faces are much closer when we are lying down and coloring these pictures.. And I can watch you from this close, as well!”, she said with a blush.
And now Aager had both his eyebrows cocked up, for this insight did not belong to a little girl.
They colored the flowers and some other things that Aager was not always sure as to what some of them were. But they did it anyway and in content silence..
..for two hours straight.
He asked what color he should use when he wasn’t sure and the girl would look around for the appropriate stick, pick it up, hand it over to him, and say, “This!”, every time, with a happy, accomplished smile.
It was during those two hours Aager had the opportunity to think, or perhaps, contemplate on certain things.
He threw careful glances at the girl as she savagely colored the flowers, the stems, and the leaves, the sun, the clouds, the bees, and the bugs, and the dears, and the houses in the coloring book with child-like fervor.
He looked down at his own workmanship and noted his seemed more like he was dissecting the flowers, the sun, the clouds, the bees, and the bugs, and the dears, and the houses with jugular accuracy, waiting to be labeled and placed into their corresponding jars!
It was just about then, a number of things dawned on him.
The little girl was deliberately, or maybe the correct word would be, ‘inadvertently’, acting like a little girl because for the first time she had a genuine mother, a grandmother, three sisters, and a little, overtly smart, mischievous brother and hence she could afford to.. let go?
Or perhaps, drop her guard.
A something, Aager thought, was quite encouraging to see, yet altogether sad —in a way.
Thanks to young Master Cümeyt and the emo girl Madina, though Aager still did not quite understand what the buggery bum an ’emo’ was, she, Inshala, was catching up to everything she had missed during her own childhood, both because such entertainments had never been available to her, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if they had been, seeing as how solitary and dangerous a life she had lived.
He himself was pretty much in the same rickety boat as she was, dammit! When people looked at his Inshala, they saw a traumatized little girl, all the while thinking he, Aager, was the steady one and that at least he was ‘alright’.
Lying face down, coloring silly flowers and dears and bees and bugs, Aager Fogstep realized he was not alright. He realized he had never been alright, but always skirted at the edges of suppressed, angry insanity all his life. Coming to Serenity Home had been a blessing, certainly, but in a way, and unwittingly to be sure, that had merely diluted his very unhealthy mental status. Or camouflaged it, to put in a more astute perspective.
This little girl, Inshala, had come to his room, much like every other night, and shared everything she had seen, learned, felt, and experienced that day with him until late hours, in effect, making sure he healed as much as she did. Bit by bit, she was freeing herself from her fears, her desperations and her losses, all the while seeding her desolations with her mom, her grandma, her sisters and brother, while making new friends, and learning and experiencing the things left missing all her life. And by coming here, she was sharing her joys with him, in affect, bringing whole new norms into his life as well, even if only by proxy.
The beauty of it was, there was never been any deliberation in her actions at all. Only instinctual need to make him feel as good as she was feeling, and the irony in all of that was not lost on Aager.
Inshala was giving him surcease, just by being here and being herself!
Aager loved it!
Without any doubt.
All of it.
And knew, at that very moment, why he had felt thus ‘blank’ of late.
For he had just recognized, with quiet fervor, that he could no longer tolerate her being just a ‘part’ of his life..
He wanted to be all of hers!
“You seem.. odd tonight. Lost in thought and distracted and your hands are drawing without consulting you.”, whispered Inshala, staring into his eyes.
“I am odd every night.. And distracted much of late.”, replied the man in dark clothes, a tad gruffly.
“A gold coin for your thought?”, she smiled. “I have a gold coin. I think.. I could go and get it if you like.”
“I doubt my thoughts are worth a gold, love.”, Aager said quietly. “But I will share them with you. Just as soon as I understand them myself. I promise.”
“I could ‘pout’ them out of you, you know!”, giggled the girl.
“I think you have been with Master Cümeyt for far too long, love..”, mourned Aager.
“He has shown me so many interesting things. Did you know there is more gossip going on here, in this place, than among the fey at Gull’s Perch? You would think a city full of paladins would have a bit more honest people!”, she said a bit disturbed.
“Ow? Is there some theft going on? That kind of behavior should be discouraged.”, said Aager with a frown and felt no guilt or shame, whatsoever, at the fact that being a thief was what he had started his long line of an uncouth carrier in the first place. But thieving had never really been any more than a stepping stone for him. Sort of something he’d had to endure in a ‘just do it’ sense until better options had presented themselves. If anyone he’d known had been an outright thief, it had been that Darly Dor kid —which did also explain why he had disliked him so much..
“No, no.. Nothing like that. It’s just something I learned, that many people are sleeping in someone else’s room and few wake up where they are supposed to!”, mumbled the girl as she slapped her tiny feet together for emphasis as she totally drowned a sunflower in dark purple with vehemence.
“People are strange sometimes. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. And I am not sure that’s the color for that picture, love.”, said Aager, pointing at her page.
“It isn’t. I am just angry. That is why it is purple. My sunflower is angry too!”, she said unhappily.
“Ow? Why are you angry? Did something happen?”
“I do not know.”, came her frowning voice in his mind. “I am sorry. You are tired and have been keeping me company when you should be sleeping and now I am afflicting you with my silly!”
“True. I am tired. But doesn’t ‘keeping company’ work the other way around as well? And let’s not go to ‘silly’, please. I haven’t even begun my daily ranting yet!”, he replied in an amused tone. “Now tell me, what has gotten you riled up?”
“I do not know.”, she repeated. “I am put out that people don’t wake up where they should, yet I am doing the same thing. I go to sleep in my room, but wake up here all the time.. Is something wrong with me?”
“Uhhmm..”, said Aager, not sure as to what he should say or how he should respond, really, so he tried for a casual sort of tone. “I.. do not think what you and they are doing is quite the same, love.”
“How so?”, she asked glumly.
“Well..”, he began but faltered. “..Possibly because when you come here every night, I call your name, every time, but you don’t hear my voice. You truly are asleep. You come, you stand before my bed, hold out your arms, and just.. stay there. Took me by surprise the first time you did it, and even more, when I finally figured out what it was you demanded.”
“I.. I demanded something from you? I shouldn’t be making demands from you! That is not nice! And in my sleep, too? What did I demand?”, she asked in a depleted voice.
“A hug.”, replied Aager kindly.
Inshala’s face turned bright pink.
“I..”, she stammered. “I thought I came here and just slept in the other bed, to keep you company, though I honestly do not remember ever getting up, nor walking here..”
“That.. might have been partly my doing. Not the coming here. The waking up in the other bed.. After I’d give you your silent demand, you wouldn’t move but make this funny noise.. like when cats see a bird or a squirrel..”, said Aager honestly and Inshala dropped her coloring sticks and just buried her face in her skinny arms..
“I think, or felt, to be more precise.. you wanted to.. cuddle up and sleep next to me.. But something about your base, honest character wouldn’t let you.. Not without my express permission.. And because you weren’t really awake, I wouldn’t give you that permission because it would be wrong.. Which is why I would pick you up, and tuck you away in the other bed. You’d make a bit of a fuss in there but eventually, go still.”, he said kindly.
“This is so embarrassing. I do not remember the last time I was this—”, she mumbled in a muffled and horrified voice.
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about, Inshala. We both want, what we want. Apparently, you decided to actually do something about it, without ever knowing.”, he said thoughtfully.
“But.. what do you want?”, she asked, her face still buried in her arms.
And, there it was..
The simple question that was the core of what they had been, what they were, and what they would become for one another.
To simplify that even further; what they had, and what they could have..
What did he want?
What did he want?
And what did he want?
The small nuances in the same question made all the difference, to be sure, but the only thing he was certain of was the answer to the question that actually preceded this one;
Did he want?
To that, he said, yes.
Not because he was mentally sure of anything.
But because the blank in him was telling him exactly that.
Or rather, he had the blank, because he no longer could tolerate the lack of certain things..
..or a certain someone.
And something clicked in his mind.
Aager decided, then and there, to shut up..
..and do something about the blank in his soul.
“Come, love.”, he said with a deliberate, casual tone. “It’s getting late. I’ll escort you to your room. I believe most of our plannings and meetings are done, but a few crucial details are left. They will need me wide awake for them in the morrow.”
The young girl accepted his offer to take her to her room gracefully.
Not that it would matter.
She’d be back in a few, anyway..
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager dropped off the strangely beautiful, deeply sincere, shyly honest, and unconventionally his Inshala to Moira’s former room with a gentle kiss, then left..
But not back to his own room.
He decided to have one meeting before going there and for some oddly existential reason, this one would be much more important than all the meetings he had done for the last eight or ten days.
He dashed silently through the torch-lit corridors and long halls of Durkahan’s inner castle and skid to a halt before the one door he would have never expected to have knocked.
“Aager Fogstep to see Lady Granma on an important matter —if she is available.”, he said quietly when a young, feminine voice asked who it was, upon knocking on the door.
A moment of surprised silence ensued, but it didn’t last long.
“Come, boy..”, he heard the old, cackling voice of Granma.
Aager slowly opened the door and entered the dimly lit room of the very old woman —the mother of Lady Alisia.
The room was comfortably decorated with many chairs holstered with velvets in subdued colors, a long, comfortable-looking, dark maroon divan, and cushions, several deep, soft rugs, a large, old wardrobe, any number of shelves with books, delicate porcelain cups, vases, and many other delicate curios, and a small table covered with cream-colored laces, all of which gave the distinct impression of ‘been there, done that and I have the aged wisdom to prove it’ feel to them.
The old woman was sitting in a large, rocking armchair, delicately holding a cup with something steaming in it.
“Tea, boy?”, she asked in her wheezing voice but didn’t wait for him to reply. She motioned a hand and Moira’s younger sister, Lady Maira produced another cup from the shelves and poured him his tea, while the Granma watched the sinister-looking man settle down.
“Sugar? Honey? Milk, Sir?”, Lady Maira asked politely, though it was apparent she was not very comfortable with the idea of being just her and her grandmother in the same room with this man.
“None for me, Lady Maira.”, Aager growled with his gravelly voice, inadvertently making the girl flinch.
“Honey. Put honey in his tea, girl. Methinks he will need it.”, snickered the old woman.
“Ma’am..”, said Aager, sort of as an excuse to start from somewhere.
The old woman snickered again.
“You didn’t come here to Ma’am me this late, boy. ‘Granma’ will suffice. I have heard it enough many times to respond to it by now.”
“I came.. to..”, stammered Aager. “I was hoping for a private talk.. on a private matter, Lady Granma.”
“Well, now.. Lady and Granma.. You truly must be desperate, boy. But polite. Good qualities to start a conversation. Maira, dear, why don’t you take the night off. You don’t have to sit up late every night for my sake, you know. Do tell Alisia I said that, if you would, please. I am old. Not invalid, nor senile. She can attend to me personally when I am, rather than send her daughters..”, she huffed.
“Are.. are you sure, Granma?”, Maira asked tentatively, giving a sidelong glance in Aager’s direction. “Will you be alright?”
“I am alright, dear. And quite safe with Sir Aager here, seeing as he is the only trustable man left in Durkahan.”, she said steadily.
“I shall not keep Lady Granma up for long, Lady Maira.”, promised Aager quietly so as not to scare the girl any further.
“Then I leave my grandmother in your tender care, Sir Aager.”, she replied politely, bent down, kissed her granny, curtsied Aager, and regally left the room.
“I hope I didn’t scare her too much.”, mumbled Aager.
“My daughter and my grands don’t scare too easily, boy. Managed to give them that much at least. Though they did botch the job when Tarakadahan happened.”, said Granma, staring at him thoughtfully. “Now, what’s on your mind, young man? You truly must be desperate to have come to me for wisdom. People seldom do, anymore.”
“Their loss, I am sure..”, Aager said. “It is true that I am desperate, but I do not believe my choice of wisdom was faulty.”
“Very good, young man. Polite, and honest in his praise. No wonder that poor, skinny girl cares for you so deeply.”, she replied. “I suspect this has to do with her?”
“Uhhmm..”, stammered the sinister-looking man and.. squirmed.
“Speak, boy. Wisdom must be given direction to make sense.”, said the old woman sternly, surprising Aager a bit.
The man in the dark clothes took a slow sip from his honeyed tea, sort of to wet his throat, then started talking..
“I.. am not sure where to begin.. I.. deeply care.. for Inshala..”, he whispered. “Before I met her, my life was only about work. And the safety of the people who I knew nothing about, and who knew nothing about me. But I did it anyway.. As payment for my past sins. Then I met her.. while tracking the miscreants in the vastness of Ritual Forest, who ran and hid inside the old Themalsar ruins. We spent weeks in the cursed halls and dungeons of that mad man’s temple, fighting and bleeding on a nearly daily basis.. Then we faced Themalsar himself.. I almost died when he cursed me, Inshala got banished and then he dropped his demons on Lady Moira and the others.. We were.. desperate.. Dying, really.. But somehow, possibly by sheer stubbornness and a good dose of dumb luck, we did it.. We slew the mad priest who had plagued those lands for over eight hundred years., though we still couldn’t do anything about his deathly ruins, which would always be a gathering place for evil, as it did on at least four occasions, causing the death of tens of thousands of people.”
Lady Granma did not say anything, nor did she interrupt the whispering narration of the man sitting merely a few feet away. Silently, she listened to his desolate recollection of the historical event that had, perhaps unwittingly, changed the world.
Aager had just remembered what had happened after that.. and the ten days he had spent watching over the girl he’d come to love and honor, constantly making sure she was still breathing and still alive, every moment of those ten days, day and night..
Inadvertently, he shuddered.
One day, it was likely he would get over the terrors of those ten days..
But not anytime soon.
Slowly, he took another sip and continued.
“When we got out, she, Inshala, just stared at us and smiled, and just like that, she took the responsibility of kings and queens, great generals and armies, and buried the sins of men and the ruins of Themalsar, deep into the earth, and brought forth life —a whole forest of it, upon the dead and desolate land that was Themalsar, sacrificing everything that was precious for her. Everything that defined her.. She gave away what she was.. for the sins of men..”, whispered Aager in a desperate voice. “And now, I feel lost.. She comes to my room and together we color these silly pictures with colored sticks —with crayons, and I have never felt anything thus fulfilling in the entirety of my life, Lady Granma. What’s worse, we are going to a desperate war and she will follow me there, right into the bloody field.. I.. I do not know what to do, yet I feel so empty.. so blank.. without her.. I want her to be with me, for the rest of my life, and I want to be there, with her, for the rest of her life.. And yet, she is so young.. Do.. do I even have the right to ask such a selfish wont from her?”
The room seemed to hold its breath as Aager fell silent again.
Then Granma took things into her hands and dismantled everything!
“You are aware, that you are speaking to a woman who married at the age of fourteen, right, boy?”, she said with a toothy smile.
Aager ogled at her.
“And the same woman whose mother married when she was twelve! My father was barely sixteen himself and could barely hold up a shield.”, she continued with a cackle. “My mother was playing hopscotch with her friends when my grandfather called her inside and they wed her with my father who was nursing a bloody nose because he had just been fighting with some other boys at the time. Then the wedding was done, in under ten minutes, my mother returned to her game and my father went back to return the compliment done to his nose and had his lip split for his efforts!”
“Life is not how we define it, boy. That is base arrogance. Yes, they fought and so did I and my beautiful man, who had the soul of a shark, and was a brigand in bed! We did all sorts of silly things and fought over even sillier things and it took us years to understand what being married truly meant. But when we did, we were thick as thieves after that. Children marry at an early age in Durkahan, and for many reasons varying from the need for soldiers to farmers and artisans because we constantly feed our troops who safeguard the vast lands around the Demon Plains just north of here and Heavens Hand to stave off the evil that is constantly trying to overrun the Demon Wall, with logistics, soldiers, masons, and both armor smiths and weapon smiths, knowing should we fail, Heavens Hand will fail, and then the kingdom will fall. Other cities might have the luxury to live otherwise, but we do not. Boys and girls tend to marry quite after their twenties at Koruxan, while it varies greatly in other cities, and our dear little Inshala is not a human girl. Judging her by our standards is a poor way to repay her due respect. Not to mention the fact that she is a bloomer. I could see what she sees when she looks at you. You might see a little girl when you look at her and try to be honorable for all you like, but she sees a ‘mate’, when she looks at you! True, she has not grown in a society, hence, she lacks the things she should know and do, which refrains her from fully blooming. But you should also note; none of that is her fault.
Think of this when you are deciding whether she is too young or not; she sleeps in her room, wakes up in yours!
I am guessing, she does not do this because she needs a father figure. It is possible you filled such a gap, before, and at the beginning. But that is not the case anymore and has not been so for quite some time now, and I believe the delay was only due to her lack of social mingling; she just couldn’t correctly define what you were to her because she never had the appropriate social references. When it came to boys and men, that only meant being chased, caged, and whipped!
It is commendable and quite remarkable that you have managed to be as honorable as you have and never taken advantage of her, seeing as how honest, sincere, earnest, and pretty she is. Just for that, you have my respect. Methinks, however, playing with fire every walking moment of your day, and ‘not walking’ moments of your nights, and not expecting to eventually burn, or burn out, is foolishness, and you don’t look like a fool to me, boy.”
Aager stared at the old woman with astonishment. He had expected her to be mildly straightforward, certainly, but what he had gotten was a whole herd of Moxes trampling over him!
“You think.. I should ask for her hand?”, he asked carefully.
“And here I thought you were a smart man.”, muttered Lady Granma with exasperation. “We are past hands, boy. Ask her whole, already!”
Aager dropped the cup!
“Tell me, boy..”, the old woman asked. “When is the correct time to kill? You should know. It’s quite your area of expertise. Right up your alley, as they say..”
Aager paused for a moment.
This was something quite off-topic, and not exactly a ‘table conversation’ kind of thing to ask, nor answer, for that matter..
“I.. do not understand what you mean, Lady Granma.”, he replied carefully.
“Let me dummy that down for you then, young man.”, she said with a slightly disappointed tone.
“What happens when you stab too late?”
“You have missed your opportunity and are likely bleeding to death now.”, he replied.
“And what makes you think love is any different when it’s too late?”, she asked, staring deep into his eyes.
Aager Fogstep picked up the porcelain cup off the thick carpet, slowly rose, and spoke in his gravelly voice.
“Thank you, Grandmother. Your wisdom, it would seem, is quite sharp and well earned.”, he said a bit flustered.
“Sit, boy. We are not done yet!”, Granma ordered.
For a moment he wasn’t quite sure what to say. Finally, a low, harsh, and bitter whisper escaped him.
“I can not think of a life without my Inshala. I shall ask for her hand from Lady Alisia. I dearly hope she gives her to me, and with her blessing..”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Alisia, young man. She yearns for a wedding.”, replied Granma with a snicker.
“Thank you for the tea.. and your insight..”, he said honestly.
“Do not wait for a day or three. Ask her hand in the morning, and have the wedding afternoon. The moment you forget to mention that, Alisia will turn the whole thing into a parade. Thrust me, boy, you don’t want that.”, Lady Granma warned with a smile. “Nothing short of an ambush will save you!”
“You have a very interesting way of laying things out, Lady Grana Maarva!”, Aager said, quite intrigued.
“I do, don’t I?”, she replied with another snicker. Then her face turned serious all of a sudden. “You will take care of my granddaughter, yes?”
“As tenderly as I can.”, replied Aager.
Granma stared at him and something deep inside her squinting eyes lit up..
“Tender is good.. But do not overdo it. Inshala is a flower, but not a wilting one. She will cry easily because she has never had the benefits of social moderations in her life. She also knows pain intimately and does not fear it. She has, methinks, figured early in life that, much like being tired after a long, happy run, being hurt and suffering pain is merely one of the natural outcomes of any venture —as sad as it is that she has come to that conclusion, and at such an early age, really is.
What she fears is not pain, but one of two things that very much matter to her. This, I have seen in her. She listens to everyone around her, and carefully asks the things she does not understand, even things that are trivial or just silly. I am guessing my mischievous grandson Cümeyt and my hair-brained granddaughter Madina are giving your Inshala a crash course in many things she has missed, and possibly on things it would have been perfectly alright for her to have totally missed.”
“Yes. Buggery bum!”, said Aager with a short snort.
“Heard that, did you? Madina’s favorite for this month. Drives her mother crazy every time she uses it. And now she has learned it to young Inshala, who, willy-nilly, also uses it when her mother is there and is totally innocent of her deed. You can imagine the snickers all around, and there’s nothing much Alisia can do about it. I haven’t had this much fun in the last three decades..”, cackled the old lady.
“Her responses are oddly early or late, though. It is like she is miscounting her turn to speak, but eager to blend in..”
“Huh.”, grunted Aager. That had never happened when she was with him.
It dawned on him that it hadn’t because she trusted him to see her flaws and correct them appropriately, and for some reason, that made him feel happy.
Funny how it was always the little things!
“..For whatever reason, your little Inshala absolutely fears not being comprehended!
This she dreads mindlessly and can not shrug off nor ignore. My guess is, it is because she has been judged, and consequently punished for being something she is not —her whole life, precisely for that reason.
Somehow, she sees the absence of respect not so dissimilar to being misunderstood, hence, she fears this also. It is possible she strongly believes; ‘the misunderstood’ can not have respect.. Ignoring her wonts and desires —and likely her strengths as well— for the sake of your own conformity and providence and for something she can, and is willing to bear and endure will do her injustice on both accounts and give her the impression, quite clearly, I might add, just how little you really understand her, thus, how little respect you have for her! My man had faults. Too many to name here and now. But one thing he was never at fault nor lacking was, he showed me his love the way I wanted it, and I laughed every time he did a funny, even though he was a lump when it came to humor! Give her what she wants, boy. And let her give you the love you need to fill in your blanks.. Life is too short for stupid, and we are all going to war and some of us are not going to come back! Live with the regrets of loss. Not with the regrets of never having had the balls!”
Aager stared at his feet.
The sinister-looking man in his dark clothes felt singed.
That had been one, classy thrashing he’d just received from Lady Grana Maarva, and she hadn’t even been trying!
Also, she wasn’t done yet..
“Being polite and honorable is good and well. I am guessing, is how you have been treating her all along. Polite and honorable are indeed, good qualities, boy, but not at the expense of the people around us. Delia did the honorable thing, and good thing he did too —got himself killed by his own. Don’t get me wrong. I adored and respected that boy. He made my Alisia deliriously happy and I am sure that was a mean trick for him.. My Alisia was quite the petulant girl when she was young. Then my Moira did the honorable thing; landed herself in the dungeons. And then my Alisia decided to be honorable and good, and almost married the animal who killed his own brother and her husband. No one sought the wisdom of this old woman, which would have been; hire cutters, put a bounty on his head, poison his well, hex him, drop a loose flagstone on him, push him down the stairs, or whatever.. just kill him, already!“
“My Alisia did disappoint me, back then. Of all the things she could, and should have done, she chose defeat because that animal had threatened her with her children.. You see, boy, when someone threatens you and yours, you do not bargain to bed them. You simply have them killed! “, she finished pleasantly.
Good thing this old lady had been on their side.
“What you and your pretty little girl did was more than save our collective sorry hides. You, Sir Aager, and Inshala, in particular, remembered Alisia what it was to be a noblewoman, and the First Lady of Durkahan again. And when I say ‘Inshala in particular’, I do not emphasize it because you were less than her, but because she came here as not as a savior like you, but as the scared little sister, the lost daughter, and the awesome granddaughter!”
The old lady fell silent after that as if telling him she was done learning him her wisdom.
Aager stood up, respectfully nodded at the old woman then ghosted to the door.. and paused..
..as a moment of unexpected, and quite a retrospect insight dawned upon him.
“Would you..”, he asked, looking at Granma over his shoulder. “..know a Lady Daniella, perchance?”
Grana Maarva stared at him for a piercing moment.
“Now why would you ask me about Daniella?”, she asked sharply.
“No particular reason. Overheard a conversation between a young man, Udoorin Shieldheart, and Lady Moira once, right after we had come out of the Ruins of Themalsar and before my Inshala permanently sank it into the depths of the earth.”, he said.
“Why would Daniella’s name be mentioned at all?”, Granma asked intently.
“From what I gathered, she is the great-great-something-grandmother of the young man..”
“That so? And never did they figure, he and my Moira were cousins, then?”
Aager turned and stared at Lady Grana Maarva.
“You see, Daniella was my mother’s younger sister and a fiery, rebellious girl she was. She detested the nobility and married a promising young captain named Samdorin Shieldheart and together they left Durkahan and settled somewhere far off to the east..”
“Serenity Home!”, Aager blurted..
“No one will blame the beautiful Princess of Bari Na-ammen to have taken a simple country oaf for a king!”, said Lady Grana Maarva with a check-mate snicker.
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep lay in his bed, staring blankly at the stone ceiling, back in his ‘lair’..
..and quietly waiting.
It was past midnight and he was exactly twenty-five years and one month old now. Normally, that wouldn’t have been remarkable for him. People who lived on a daily, ‘today, I have survived again’ basis, cared little about their age.
This particular night seemed special, however.
Or rather, this particular day.
There seemed a sense of freshness, and perhaps that of ‘expectation’, in the air. Much like how children felt when they learned their father was alive and coming home..
..from a long, depleting war.
“Huh.”, mumbled Aager. “That was a bit dramatic. Couldn’t have related to something brighter, something happier, could you?”
The door to his den opened and in a particularly pretty, pale lavender nightgown with white, frilly fringes that barely covered her slender hips and nothing else, Inshala walked in.
She didn’t wait at the door to look inside, nor pause for her eyes to adjust to the dark chamber.
She entered as she’d opened the door.
And with silent, naked feet, she ghosted around Aager’s bed until she bumped her, somewhat knobby knees, to his bed and just stood there with little to no expression on her face. What was there, however, seemed on the bare edges of distress.
Slowly she rose her skinny arms and held them outstretched and with her palms facing one another.
She had been like this ever since Moira had given her room to her, and gladly, but Aager suspected the whole idea had been Lady Alisia’s.
True, she had done it to preserve her new daughter’s dignity and avoid possible, slandering gossip. But she had, perhaps unwittingly turned ‘the girl who hangs around that sinister-looking man all day’, into ‘the girl who sneaks off into that sinister-looking man’s chamber at nights!’
Aager sighed and put the esteemed Lady Alisia aside, sat up, and stared at the girl.
He stared at Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane and quietly called her name.
The girl’s brows crested slightly, then she made a small, distressed noise.
She looked so very pretty, but sad..
..or perhaps ‘unhappy’, was closer to defining her distress.
She seemed like someone yearning to be somewhere, was allowed to come thus near, just not permitted to touch her wont.
It was a cruel way to punish someone, and unwittingly as it may have been, that was exactly what was being done to her.
Silently, he got out of his bed, came around behind her, pulled her to himself, and enfolded her, and her outstretched arms in his.
She seemed so small in his arms like that and Aagerwasn’t a large man, to begin with. A stab above average in height, and an edge broader at the shoulders, certainly, but altogether, a lean man, really.. A man, made of tightly woven, cord-like spring-muscles. More so since he had accepted Mab’s offer and taken the Winter Mantle.
Everything seemed more vivid, detailed, and alive since the Mantle, including his deadly attire, and his not-so-dissimilar desires..
In fact, everything was more since the Mantle!
His moments of happiness, and consequently, his moments of wrath. Which was exactly what he had dished out on Karkashi, in the arena..
And Inshala had found her solace in a man like him, of all people.
A good-for-murder, only Mab would have deemed worthy of her Mantle..
Inshala, on the other hand, had found her peace with him and in her beautiful gray eyes, he saw her storms, and her demons back off and scatter.. and he only needed to be near.
Was it, then, too much for him to ask just as much of her?
To stave off and scatter his demons?
And perhaps find solace too?
And certainly not for his demons.
For he had already found his solace in her and that had happened before the Mantle.
The scattering of his demons was merely ‘collateral damage’, per se.
Because Aager Fogstep was always honest with himself.
With her, he had been nothing less.
Slowly, and with great care so as not to wake her, he picked the little girl, as he always did, and tenderly lay her in the other bed. And with nothing less than honest desire, he looked at her tiny feet, her smooth, bare legs, her slender, naked hips, her small, palm-sized butt, her slim waist, her little tummy, and her appealing, nubile, baby-pink breasts, quite visible under her revealing nightgown, and her diminutive, somewhat angular face, her long eyelashes, her slightly frowning brows, her cute, perky nose, her plush, cherry-red lips, her beautiful, curving horns, and her long and scattered silky hair..
And he wondered.
For an inevitable moment.
Whether this little girl knew.
Just what kind of a stirring effect she had on him..
But that was it, wasn’t it?
Other than some vague insight at an instinctual level, the little girl truly had no idea.
Only suppressed hope that the man, Aager, somehow found her appealing.
And that was also his fault.
Both that she didn’t know, and that she would think so little of herself..
Perhaps it was time, he thought, he really ought to tell her.
With a destitute sigh.
He reached down.
And covered her tiny feet, her smooth, bare legs, her slender, naked hips, her small, palm-sized butt, her slim waist, her little tummy, and her appealing, nubile, baby-pink breasts, still visible, still calling from under her revealing nightgown, all the way up to her skinny, bare arms, slender neck and her diminutive, somewhat angular face, with his own blanket.
He watched as the girl did a sad little whimper and struggled to free herself from under her covers.
Inshala, it would seem, displaced her blankets quite frequently. A something he would look forward to tending in the near future..
..and mayhap, in the far future as well.
He bent down and kissed her forehead, then her beautiful, curving horns, and soothed her long, silky hair until she calmed, and with a depressed sigh, went still.
For a long time, Aager listened to her sated breaths, then gave a similar, depressed sigh of his own, silently ghosted to the large wardrobe, pulled out a spare blanket, and went back to his own bed.
Lying in the dark, and staring at the ceiling of his den, he asked.
“Do you want me thus much, Inshala?”
No reply came.
Only soft, steady breathing..
..and a barely discernable, sleepy little sigh.
It was possible he had a barely discernable smile of his own on his face when he finally drifted off to sleep. He was twenty-five years and one month old now, the girl he loved was barely an arm’s length away, and today seemed to promise a whole new beginning.
✱ ✱ ✱
And what do we have here?”, asked Aager, entering his chamber/lair/den, late that night and stared down at the little girl lying on her tummy and on the pale beige carpet with her legs swinging lazily as she furiously colored what he thought was a woodsman’s lodge with a garden full of flowers, bushes, trees, a raccoon, a dear, a bear, and an eagle, or maybe it was a hawk, or likely a crow. A picture, he thought, was a bit on the pretentious side and would likely end with the bear killing the dear and raccoon destroying everything in the lodge and possibly knocking down a candle and setting the whole thing on fire!
“I am coloring this new book that Master Cümeyt was kind enough to give me.”, she said, looking up and smiling at him from where she lay. “He insists I am getting better so he gave me this one and swore on his ancestors that this one was for pros!”
“I could see how this one is indeed for pro’s.”, said Aager with a straight face, as he pulled off his dark, leather hood and mask off and tossed them on the bed.
“I told him he did not have to swear at his ancestors and that I would have believed him anyway because brothers and sisters never lie to one another.”, she said happily. “But he just stared at me with this funny face and he was like, ‘Ow, like never ever?’, and I said, ‘Of course, never ever, because brothers and sisters must trust one another, and he was like, ‘Well, that’s a buggery bum. Where’s the fun in that?'”
“That boy..”, growled Aager, while he undid the buckles to his dark leathers, pulled them off, and put them neatly on the bed as well. “..will either go far or go to jail, someday..”
“Then he tried to explain what pros meant and I asked him why he cut the other half of a perfectly nice word, and he said, ‘Cuz that’s what pros do, sis!'”
Then she sighed.
“The rules of cities and families are confusing and many.”
“That they are.”, he agreed and loosed his heavy belt and removed his swords, daggers, and knives, and carefully set them aside.
“And of course, I am confused now. I wanted to ask you, then and there but decided against it. You were in a meeting with the pigwigs.. or maybe it was the bigwigs, I am not sure which because both Cümeyt and Madina started laughing and giggling when I said pigwigs and neither of them made any sense after that and I was like, ‘This is a buggery bum of a situation only my Aager could untangle’, but you were at the meeting with the pigwigs.. So then I was like, ‘Girl, you must stop, like, now! You are like this clumsy bear cub that just stepped on a wasp’s nest and is now running around in silly circles with all the angry wasps on your tail!’
I did tell him, I would rather he never cut the other end of my name, though. Or anybody else’s. Can you imagine Inshes, Cüms, Mois, Mais, and Mads and Fards running around all day? I mean, we wouldn’t even have to be running, and we would still look funny and silly!”
“I would rather you all didn’t run around all day as Moi’s, Mai’s, Mad’s, Fard’s, and Insh’es, either. That would be awkward, indeed. And funny. And silly.”, he said with a smile, settled on the thick, pale beige carpet and on this stomach, pulled off his heavy leather gloves, grabbed a brown coloring stick, and started one all the tree trunks, and the lodge.
Inshala giggled again.
“Master Cümeyt thought it was funny, and silly too. So he laughed. In fact, he laughed so hard, we had to stop playing for a while. But his laugh was also very squeaky and funny, so I laughed too. Then Madina laughed because she thought we were funny and because I make this snorty noise from my nose when I laugh. Then mother came and grounded us because there was an important meeting going on with the pigwigs and we were making so much noise and being irresponsible! That sort of annoyed Granma so she and mom started arguing. Granma told mom the pigwigs wouldn’t even be having their buggery bum meetings if it hadn’t been for us and we could hear them all the way from our room and Cümeyt, Madina, and I thought that was a bit unfair of mom to have grounded us when they were making so much noise themselves.. I did also wonder why we had been grounded. I mean, we were already sitting on the ground. But I decided to let that pass too, as things were confusing and funny, and silly enough as they were and I thought maybe not asking would make me look more like this ‘pros’, rather than the clumsy bear cub! After all, I thought, I could always ask you.. when you are not in a meeting, and not busy, and not resting..”, she finished with a pout, as she picked three shades of blues and started on the sky!
“You could ask me now.”, he offered.
“No..”, Inshala said with a happy, yet slightly distracted voice. “..You are busy in a ‘resting-meeting’ now, with me.”
He just couldn’t help himself.
Yes, the story Inshala had just told was mildly entertaining, but it was the artlessly innocent, earnest, and seamless ‘commentary’ way she told it, followed by the unexpected conclusions that made it cute, adorable, and funny. What was more, was that Inshala was not telling her stories with the intention to entertain.
She was just telling them.
The way she saw them and comprehended them. It wasn’t all about her stories and how entertaining, or even fascinating they were.
It was how she delivered them..
When Aager told a story, he said it like he was giving an intelligence report; short, succinct, to the point, and with professional deliberation. It would start at point A, and end at point B, using the shortest, straightest, two-dimensionally linear path, and A would always keep B in his LoS —Line of Sight because that’s how much his A’s would trust his B’s!
Inshala’s recollection of events never went from point A to point B. They certainly never followed a straight nor a linear path because there were C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s, and a whole flock of other letters both related and sometimes, not so related, to consider, hence, were all brought into her telling, because outright discarding them was obviously not nice, and probably rude as well, as she told the events of her day in her soft, seamless, and ‘slightly confused’ narrative voice where she took point A into her small, delicate hands and bloomed it!
From there, things could only branch or ripple out, seeming to go every which way without any purpose or destination. She would reach point B, but never in an ‘eventually’, sense.
Her point B’s were neither here, nor there, but stressed in her telling and you just had to be deliberately dense or outright lacking any form of sentient perception or insight to have missed it thus thoroughly, or it came from an angle that had little to do with what she was talking about in the first place but ended up being oddly relevant.
The curious part of it all was the fact that things THUS FAR FROM THE POINTandLINEARLY NON-TWO-DIMENSIONAL were the very same things Aager Fogstep had truly, and unequivocally hated..
..until he’d bumped into one, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane.
The counter-amazement to this was in the dilemma of how Inshala would rather be straightforward, to the point, and succinct like Aager had been all along, only if she could.
Aager certainly wished to never see that!
“I didn’t want to tell Master Cümeyt, but the real reason why I thought he shouldn’t cut names in half like that was because names have protective power of their own, and cutting them in half removes that protection..”, Inshala said after a while.
“I didn’t know that.”, admitted Aager.
“Not many do. This is why it is unwise to name certain evil beings. It might irk their interest and bring them upon us. Not something anyone would want, and it will give them power over us. This is also the reason why we shy from calling those we love by their name, I think. We already feel helpless against them and we fear we might succumb to them all the way, should we call them by their name, “, she explained quietly.
“Huh.”, said Aager. “Is that why you didn’t use to call me by my name before?”
“Yes.”, she replied honestly.
“But you are saying it now.”, Aager stared.
“Yes.”, she said again, her voice a bit smaller.
“What changed?”, he asked.
“Nothing changed.”, she answered in a tiny, abashed voice. “I have decided to succumb all the way..”
In silent contemplation, the two turned the picture around as per need and colored the lodge, the garden, the bushes, and the trees, the raccoon (who, against all expectations, behaved itself), the dear, the bear (which indignantly refused to kill and eat the dear), and the hawk, in unified trans, passing the crayons back and forth for the next two hours.
“You once asked me when I would see you as a girl and not a baby —like a woman..”
“Would you like to be my woman? My wife?..”
“..And be stupid together for life?”
Just like that.
Aager Fogstep proposed.
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager Fogstep, the silent, sinister-looking man in his dark leathers, hood, and mask, the Winter Knight of Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane Bolgrig Hooman, the Lady of Durkahan, the Ritual Guardian, the Mistress of The Grove of Titania, the Queen of Mother Earth and Summer, married the very next day, just a bit after ambushing Lady Alisia and asking her blessing, and for the hand of her new daughter.
The wedding took place in Lord Delia Karakarsh’s own small, private chapel in the inner castle of Durkahan City where Ladies Moira, Maira, and Madina happily attended, while the young Master Cümeyt held the tail end of the pretty bride’s long skirt, merrily skipping and hopping behind her and punching the air with a victorious fist and shouting;
“Yeesh! You go, girl!”
Seated at the rear, one Lady Grana Maava smirked while her daughter, Lady Alisia, dabbed her eyes as she watched her Inshala join, in health and in sickness, up in the sky and down in the ground.. and for life, with the silence, spooky man, Aager Fogstep..
The ring Aager gave Inshala was handcrafted by the best gold and glass smiths Durkahan had to offer and was made specifically for her; a slim, extraordinarily elegant circular glass, quite indestructible, with a forest of very tiny, life-like flowers and vines, and even tinier motes of what appeared to be fireflies captured in it and smoothly framed with gold —all intricately molded and flecked with emerald, ruby, and diamond dust, and with both red and green copper.
Inshala’s ring to him was a simple, very dark, quite thick, blue-black thing with two fiery orange bands running around it’s surface. And between the seemingly burning bands, was a poorly scrabbled etchings that must have taken the skinny little girl hours to have carved.
To • My • AAGRR • I • Belong
✱ ✱ ✱
Far, far away to the east and in the dark, silent depths of the vast Ritual Forest was a rundown and abandoned derelict. Standing right outside that small, sad, and desolate hovel was an ancient oak with less than half her leaves and weighted down with snow.
A warm, happy breeze soothed unseasonably from the west and caressed the brittle branches of the old, nearly-petrified tree and the ancient oak shuddered, felling more of her remaining leaves. A sharp, precipitous crack echoed in the forest and the ancient tree split in two. With a great sigh of relief, Tamara whispered.
“She is safe, she is loved, and she belongs. You may rest in peace now, my love..”
And after some three fulfilling millennia of breathing life into her forest, the ancient oak toppled over and crashed with a resounding boom, adding to the derelict..
Tamara gave another sigh.
“You be good, now, Ritual Guardian..”
Tamara was the beloved wife of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig who was Inshala’s surrogate father and master. Tamara was killed some eight hundred years ago, during the first Themalsar War. At least on one occasion, Master Cathber was known to have called or referred to the great old oak tree standing mighty in front of his tiny hut as Tamara.. Whether he was calling the oak, Tamara in reference to the day they met and right in front of the old tree, or he is being literal is unknown, as the only two people involved, Master Cathber and Lady Tamara, are both dead.
What Inshala etches on the dark, blue-black carbon-alloy iron ring may, or may not be a misspelling of Aager. She does know the secret runes and glyphs of druidic, and perhaps a spatter of elvish, but does not know how to read nor write common. Cümeyt and Madina are tutoring her some (possibly on Lady Alisia’s orders) and she has come far. Interestingly, the first word she asked to be taught how to write was not her own name.
Whether she does a typo mistake on the ring, or she has etched it so with deliberation is unclear. She does confess, much later (in the story: A ‘Warm’ Warning) how Aager reminds her of her saber-tooth tiger, Katana.
Moira: Wow.. I can’t believe I played the role of ‘the damsel in distress’ in this story.. Way to go, paladin girl!
Lady Alisia:(sigh) You were the damsel in dress, daughter. I literally ended up in the role of the ‘princess that had to be saved from the evil overlord’!
Maira: At least the two of you ‘got’ a role.. I barely spoke two lines.. I feel like, ‘collateral damage’!
Grandmother:(snicker) I got to snicker at the lot of you, and I don’t even need a role to do that..
Madine: You guys suke!
Lady Alisia: Madine! What did we say about that kind of language?
Madine:(sigh) ‘We’, didn’t say anything, mother. ‘You’, said something’s.. a lot of things!
Lady Alisia: And apparently you didn’t listen.
Madine: If I listened to what you all had to say, I couldn’t find the time to breathe, mom!
Moira: Well. At least there was no Prince Charming’s.. That would have made it a total cliché!
Madine: It WAS a cliché, Moira.. ‘The Beauty and The Beast’, cliché..
Lady Alisia: Madine Hooman! You will NOT refer to your elder sister Inshala as a beast!
Madine: Eh? Whot? No, mom.. She was the awesome beauty, in the cliché!
Lady Alisia: What? Then who is the beast— Ow.. well.. that’s not nice either.. I am sure the boy has his.. good qualities.. Since my Inshala deemed him fit for herself..
Lady Alisia: .. though I can’t imagine what. They are like day and night!
Moira: You mustn’t judge him, mother.
Lady Alisia: Judge him? I am in no position to judge him, dear. I am just trying to understand.. and want what’s best for my ‘daughter’..
Grandmother: You just want them to wed A.S.A.P..!
Lady Alisia:(tight blush) Well.. gossips are bound to happen. Though they use separate beds, they still sleep in the same room. The girl will not sleep anywhere else. Not even after Moira gave her, her room!
Madine: She does sleep in Moira’s room, mother. Just wakes up in his! (snicker)
Lady Alisia:(sigh) And she is surprised every morning as to how she got there and I am inclined to believe her. She has an uncanny habit of speaking the truth.. At least the boy is headstrong. And.. well.. he will not let her get hurt.. in any way!
Moira: No. He will not, mother. The details of his past is unknown to me but as far as I have learned, he did not grow in a friendly neighborhood, and that is putting it extremely politely.. He was born, and in the streets at a very nearly half the age of Cümeyt and was forced to survive Drashan. I can’t imagine anyone to have lived through that and come out of it undented.. When we were camped outside of Themalsar waiting for poor Inshala to recover, he never left her side. He fed her, cleaned her, comforted her, took care of her.. It was creepy! But it was also beautiful as well because when we first met her, she was wild.. feral to be more honest about it. When he carried her out of that tent ten days later, however, it was like she was a whole new person, yet she wasn’t.. What came out was her all along, but it was him that brought that girl out of her.
Grandmother: Tsk, tssk! Poor boy.. Drashan is not a good neighborhood to grow indeed, Alisia. Leave the boy alone.. You have three other daughters. Have one of them wed off to quench your wont!
(sudden, deadly silence!)
Madine:(snicker) —As I was saying.. I was very nearly the side-sick in the story.. Missed it ‘cuz I was listening to ‘Queens of Srÿche” —the new album!
Grandmother: Continue listening to that devil’s trash, and you will melt what little brain you have through your ears, girl. You should listen to the classics; Moth Darth or Beetle Hoffen or Yohan Pah!
Madine:(eye roll) Ok, gramma, I am going to go now and eviscerate myself and then defenestrate off the main tower!
Cümeyt:(giggles from under the table, and whispers) Told you. Stick with me, Fey Sister and you will learn everything you want to know!
Inshala:(blushes, also from under the table) But.. but we are secretly listening in to a private conversation, little brother Cümeyt. Is this all together ‘right’?
Cümeyt: No, Fey Sister. This is a secret ‘family’ conversation. And since we are both also family, we can listen to it. Besides, you have the awesome power of ‘NEW’!
Cümeyt:(snicker) Yes. You are new! You can get away with pretty much everything. AND, you also saved my mom and my eldest sister, Moira, and I love them so much, I can’t let you miss ANY of the fun you should have!
Cümeyt: Yup! And there’s more.
Cümeyt: Tomorrow, I get to show you another and this one’s a ‘totally-secret-private conversation’..
Inshala: You are scaring me, little brother Cümeyt.
Cümeyt:(giggle) Tomorrow, we get to listen to Madine have a kiss-chat with this new boyfriend she’s got! I found out she sent him a love letter (eww!) and the boy replied. Said, he didn’t know what ‘evisceration’ nor ‘defenestration’ meant, but he was fine with the rest.
Inshala:(a bit distressed) I.. don’t know if we should.. I mean— What is a ‘kiss-chat’?
Cümeyt:(smirk) It is a chat that ends with a kiss! Do you have kiss-chats with your boyfriend?
Inshala:(furious blush) I.. I am not sure if my Aager is my boyfriend. We.. belong..
Cümeyt:(disappointed) Ow.. that sounds.. a bit boring..
Inshala:(bright smile) I like.
Later that evening..
Inshala: Aager Fogstep?
Aager: I am here.
Inshala: I learned many new social things today.
Inshala: Yes. And I would very much like to kiss-chat them with you!
Adalar Krallığında ürkütücü bir sesizlik hakimdir.
Elf’ler, Dwarf’lar, İnsanlar, Gnome’lar ve adı geçmeyen diğer bütün ırkların hepsi sanki nefeslerini tutmuş, ölüm ve felaketin ön habercisi olan bu sessizliği dinlemektedir.. zira sessizlik sonrası gelecek fırtınanın adı bellidir.
Bir araya gelip hazırlık yapma zamanı gelmiştir.. yada bunun için biraz geç kalınmış da olabilir çünkü ‘düşman’ çoktan harekete geçmiş durumdadır. Bunun ilk göstergesi, gerçekte Büyük Arashkan Şehrinin, hemen sonrasında da kadim elf şehri Bari Na-ammen ve High Woods’un yok olması değildir. Bu iki ‘cinayet’in kendileri başlı başına hayret verici ve kahredici olsa da, en nihayetinde ve ‘büyük plan’ açısından iyimser bir şekilde sadece birer dip nottan ibarettirler.
Kötümser olarak ifade etmek gerekirse;
Bu bir başlangıçtır..
Ve uzaklarda bir yerde, unutulmuş binlerce yıldır bütün bunları ‘keyifsizce’ bir şekilde, Büyük Kuzey Tundralarının en ücra batı köşesindeki muazzam şatosundan seyreden Gullem bulunmaktadır..
Bu hikayenin ne zaman yer aldığı kati olarak bilinmemektedir.
Kapkara bulutların arasında, kızıl yıldırımlar vahşice çatallanarak harlamaktadır. Kara bulutların altında ise belki bir zamanlar koyu mor olan, ancak artık grinin ürkütücü tonlarıyla kirli pas renklerinin karıştığı devasa, demir bir şato bulunmaktadır ve şatonun büyüklüğü, ancak ‘göz alabildiğince’ ifadesi kullanılarak tarif edilebilirdi. Şatonun muhtelif yerlerinden, rastgele serpilmiş izlenimi veren ve daha çok kanlı birer mızrağı andıran sivri kuleleri ise, gökyüzünü kaplayan kirli bulutların arasında kaybolmuştur. Şatonun devasa, girintili kapısı dışında bir başka girişi görülmediği gibi, ana kulesinin kara bulutlara yakın bir noktasındaki tek delik dışında da herhangi bir penceresi yoktur. Bu pencereden ise, dışarı kızıl-sarı bir ışık süzülmektedir. Gecenin karanlığında duyulan sesler, şatodan gelen çığlıklar, vahşi havlamalar ve ne olduğunu kimsenin bilmek istemediği seslerden ibarettir..
Burası yaşlı, mel’un ve şer kelimelerinin gerçek sahibi olan lanetli Gullem’in şatosudur ve buraya canlılar ayak basmazlar. Ama cansız bir çok şey buradan sürüler ve tümenler halinde ayrılır ve güneye, Demon Wall adı verilen, insanların, elf’lerin ve dwarf’ların korumaya çalıştığı İblis Duvarına doğru yollanırlar.
Şatonun ana kulesinin tepesindeki, kızıl-sarı kötürüm bir ışıkla aydınlanan kemerli pencerede bir gölge belirir. Uzun, sıska ve uğursuz bir gölgedir bu.
Gölge, bıkkın, isteksiz ve kataraktlı gözlerle güneyi süzer. Güneyde, demir şatonun iki buçuk üç günlük mesafesinde Demon Gates/İblis Kapıları vardır. İblis Kapılarının ilerisinde ise uçsuz bucaksız, yarıklar ve çatlaklarla dolu, keskin kayalar ve zehirli gazlarla hayata dair hiçbir şeyin yaşamasına imkan vermeyen Fiend Pits/İblis Çorakları, onun da ilerisinde, yüksek uçurumların altında, Demon’s End/Sonsuz İblis vadisi bulunmaktadır. Bu vadide bir zamanlar belki bir medeniyet var olmuş olsa da, söz konusu medeniyetlerden geriye kalan şeyler sadece yüzlerce, daha gerçekçi bir tahminde bulunmak gerekirse, binlerce yıl önce yıkılıp talan edilmiş harabelerden ibarettir ve bu harabeler ise artık, adı konulmamış on binlerce yaratığa ev sahipliği yapmaktadır. Bu vadinin sonunda ise, Gullem’in görüyormuş gibi baktığı Demon Wall/İblis Duvarı durmaktadır ve yaşlı, uğursuz adamın keyifsizliğinin kaynağı da bu duvardır..
..son, yüzlerce, unutulmuş ve umutsuz yıldır!
“Bıktım..”, diye kendi kendine mırıldanır yaşlı adam yılgın bir sesle. “Ama ölümlüler bıkmadılar bir türlü..”
Melanet adamın arkasından bir inleme sesi gelir.
“Sen hala yaşıyor musun?”, diye arkasını dönmeden sorar Gullem.
“Ce.. cehennemde yanacaksın..”, der inleyen sesin sahibi anca duyulur bir fısıltıyla.
“Hayır, evlat. Ben cehennemin ta kendisiyim.. Hiç merak etmiyor musun ailene ne oldu, yada şehrin güvende mi, diye? Ben olsam merak ederdim..”, diye kendince kıkırdar lanetli adam.
“Onları.. bir gün göreceğim.. Ama seni bekleyen.. hiç kimsen yok..”, diye bitik bir şekilde hırıldar sesin sahibi.
“Benim kimseye ihtiyacım yok. Asla da olmadı..”, diye çirkefçe cevap verir Gullem. “Ve sana bak. Bütün sevenlerine rağmen buradasın. Aslına bakılırsa, sevdiklerinden ötürüburadasın..”
“Bu.. dünya nasıl biterse bitsin.. seni bekleyen son aynı.. İblisler def edildiğinde.. senin de sonun gelmiş olacak. İblisler bu dünyayı.. ele geçirseler de.. senin sonun.. yine gelmiş olacak.. çünkü efendilerinin.. seninle de işleri bitmiş olacak..”, diye zorlukla fısıldar ses. “En nihayetinde sen.. insanlığını ve insanları satmış bir.. hainsin.. Ve kimse bir haini sevmez.. ve ona güvenmez.. Bu dünya ile işleri.. bittiğinde, senin de defterini dürecek ve ipini kesecekler.. ve seni hayatta tutan güç her ne ise, o da son bulacak..”
Gullem arkasından gelen sese döner.
Yüzünde çirkin bir ifadeyle, kızıl-sarı kötürüm ışıkla aydınlanmış demir kulesinin devasa zindanında, karanlıkta kaybolmuş tavandan sarkan bir zincire tutturulmuş havada asılı duran dikenli kafesin içindeki erimiş tutsağına bakar..
..ve yüzündeki çirkin ifade yerini tamamen çirkef bir ifadeye bırakır.
Gullem bir omzunu silker ve pis bir kahkaha atar.
“Ama sen bunların hiç birisini göremeyeceksin..”
Demir dikenli kafesin içindeki bi deri bi kemik kalmış tutsak acı bir şekilde ‘hıh’lar.
“Verebildiğin.. en iyi cevap buysa.. bahsettiğim sonu.. zaten sende biliyorsun.. Sadece.. duymak istemiyorsun.. o kadar..”
Gullem bir elini pençe yapar ve kötürüm, kızıl-mor yıldırımlar kafesi ve içindekini vurur.
Kafesten acı içerisinde inleyen sesler yükselir..
..ama çığlık gelmez.
Dakikalar boyunca melanet yaşlı, demir dikenli kafesi, ve içindeki tutsağını kaynatır.. Kan ter içerisinde yıldırımları kestiğinde, kafesin demirleri kor halinde harlanmış, içindeki ‘şey’ ise yarı yanmış bir şekilde tütmektedir.
“Belki bu cevap daha çok hoşuna gitmiştir.”, diye horlayan bir sesle mırıldanır lanet Gullem ve tekrar tutsağına ve demir kafese arkasını döner ve kulenin penceresinden dışarıyı, İblis Duvarını seyretmeye başlar.
Aradan ne kadar süre geçer bilinmez. Bununda gerçekte çok da bir önemi yoktur.
“Teşekkür.. ederim..”, diye inleyerek gelir tüten ses.
Gullem nefret dolu bir ifadeyle başını kafese çevirir.
Gullem demir dikenli ve paslı kafesin içindeki yarı kömür olmuş ‘şey’i oracıkta öldürmeyi düşünür. Ölümün eşiğine getirdiği ‘şey’den istediği bilgilere ihtiyacı olmamış olsa, onun buraya getirtilmesi için verdiği emeğe de, planlara da gerek kalmış olmaz, onu öldürüldüğü yerde bırakması yeterli olmuş olurdu.. Yada özellikle acı çekmesini istiyor idiyse, onu aşağıda, yerin çok derinliklerindeki zindanlarından birine tıkar, ve beyin emici iblislerine yedirmiş olurdu çoktan. Ama Gullem’in bilgiye ihtiyacı vardır ve tutsağında o bilgilerin var olduğundan da emindir. Sorun, onun cinsinin kati inançları vardır ve kırılmaları da oldukça zordur.
“Sorun değil, sorun değil..”, diye söylenir içinden habis Gullem. “Burada çok uzun bir süre kalacaksın.. Çooook uzun bir süre.. Seni ve inançlarını kırıncaya kadar.. Dünya da bir çok şey değişebilir, ama senin için bu gerçek değişmeyecek..”
Yaşlı melun adamın odasının kapısı tıklanır ve içeri, pıhtılaşmış kan kırmızısı cüppeler içerisinde bir ‘şey’ girer. Giren şey her ne ise, ancak genel hatlarıyla bir insanı andırmaktadır ancak sırtında koca bir kamburu, ayaklarından birisinde yenmiş, pırtık bir çizme, diğerinde ise öküz toynağı bulunmaktadır. Yaratık içeri girer ve kapüşonunun içinde olması gereken yüz yerine sadece karanlık bir boşlukla, kıpırdamadan Gullem’e bakar.
“Ne var?”, diye hırıldar yaşlı adam.
Ve sanki adamın emri, yaratığı canlandırmış gibi hareketlenir ve garip, yankılı, derinlerden gelen, bir hortlak ulumasını çağrıştıran, ve herhangi bir vurgu yada duygu içermeyen bir sesle konuşur.
Yaşlı adam tiksintiyle yaratığa bakar.
“Söyle geliyorum.”, der kısaca ve odasının köşesinde duran bir sandığa doğru yönelir.
Yaratık, kendisine verilen emri duyup duymadığına dair herhangi bir tepki göstermez. Bir anlığına yerinde kıpırdamadan durur, sonra sektiren adımlarla ‘tok’, ‘tok’, ‘tok’, diye toynağının yankılarıyla geldiği gibi çıkar odadan.
“Lanet Renfield’ler..”, diye neredeyse tükürür Gullem ve sandığı açar. Yaşlı, mel’un adam bir süre sandıktaki eşyaları süzer, sonra uzanıp, çarpık bir asa, kömür karası bir çubuk, iki yüzük, bir madalyon, ve ne oldukları anlaşılamayan bir-iki eşya daha alır ve sandığın kapağını kapatır.
Kapıya yönelmeden önce madalyonu boynuna geçirir, yüzükleri takar ve diğer eşyaları kirli cübbesinin muhtelif yerlerine saklar, kömür karası çubuğu da kemer niyetine kullandığı altın ve gümüş simli sicime sokuşturur sonra bir elinde asası olduğu halde kendisi de odasından ayrılır.
Yaşlı Gullem tam kapısını kapatacakken demir dikenli kafese, ve içinde hala tütmekte olan bitmiş tutsağına bakar.
“Benim canımı sıkmayı başardın. Sırf bundan dolayı, duvarı yıktığımda Korduba’s Watch’ı kuşatacağım, ama almak için özel çaba sarf etmeyeceğim. Ana ordularımla önce senin şehrine gideceğim ve ilk katliamımı orada yapacağım.. Bunu da senin ailenle başlayarak kutlayacağım. Bunun için sana tarih bile verebilirim. Ama bilmemen daha iyi. Merak kediyi öldürmüş derler. Seni öldürmeyecek ama delirmen için kâfi gelecek.. Herkesin bir kırılma noktası vardır. Bu da seninkisi olacak..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Face!..”, diye saygısızlığın ancak kıyısında denebilecek bir tonla hırıldar mel’un Gullem, devasa, loş ve boş salona indiğinde. “Hangi rüzgar attı seni buraya? Gelebilmen için harcamak zorunda kaldığımız büyü gücü ile yarım düzine iblis müfrezesi çekebilirdik cehennemden.”
Kardax’Trakxa “The Face”, ölümcül bir sükûnetle yaşlı adamın salona girişini seyreder. Aradan geçen onca yüz yıldan sonra yaşlı bunağın hala yanına bir güç asası, kendince kendisini koruyabileceğini sandığı bi düzine oyuncakları ve sihirli çubuğu ile gelmiş olmasına hem şaşırır, hem de bu durumu komik bulur.
Şaşırması, beceriksiz adamın her geldiğinde oyuncaklarıyla gelme noktasında gösterdiği azminden kaynaklanmaktadır. Ahmak bunak, aynı azmi Demon Wall surlarını yıkmak için değerlendirmiş olsa, ölümlülerin ‘Adalar Krallığı’ diye kibirle adlandırdıkları toprakların tamamı zapt edilmiş olurdu çoktan.
Komik bulmasının sebebi ise, bunağın kendisine karşı oyuncaklarının herhangi bir işe yarayacağını sanıyor olmasındandır.
“The Face”, içinden tiksintiyle ‘hıh’lar.
Bir ölümlüye yirmi altı bin yıl verseler dahi, kibrinden, ahmaklığından ve aptallığından hiçbir şey kaybetmemiş olmasını hayret verici bulur.
Ruhunu eline alıp sıktığında, yaşlı ahmağın surat ifadesini görmek pek keyifli olacaktır ve Kardax’Trakxa, bunağa neden kendisine “The Face” dendiğini o zaman hatırlatacaktır..
..iş işten tamamen geçtikten sonra —ki bu da an’ların en güzelidir, Trakxa için!
“Senden beklendiği gibi göndermen gereken raporlar gelmediği gibi, gelen düzensiz raporlar ise en iyi ihtimalle yarım yamalak, eksik, kusurlu, tutarsız ve yanlış yönlendirmelerle dolu.. Neredeyse bilinçli bir şekilde öyle hazırlanıyormuş gibi.”, der “The Face”.
“Rapor edilecek bir şey olduğu zaman, ve gerekli gördüğüm kadarını paylaşıyorum.”, diye kibirli bir kinle cevap verir mel’un adam.
“‘Gerekli gördüğüm kadarını..'”, diye düşünceli bir ifadeyle yaşlı bunağın cümlesini tekrarlar “The Face”. “Sanıyorum, Efendi Gullem cehennemle yaptığı antlaşmasını tamamen yanlış anlamış görünüyor.”
“Cehennemle yaptığım anlaşmamda sen yoktun, Trakxa. Yanlış hatırlamıyorsam o zaman sen daha basit bir iblis müfreze komutanıydın.”, diye hatırlatır Gullem küçümseyen bir ifadeyle.
“Eskiyi yad ederek kendine mutlu anılar oluşturma zamanın sona erdi bunak, zira işler artık değişti. Buraya gelme sebebim, sana bunu kati olarak hatırlatmak içindi, zira sen istediğimden biraz kıt çıktın ve bu döngüde geçen 7,600 yıl seni bu gerçeğe ayıltamamış belli ki. Önünde sadece iki seçenek var, ölümlü! Bunlardan birincisi; benden sana gelecek olan emirleri harfiyle yerine getirmen ve kati, özlü ve dakik bir imtina ile sonuçlarını rapor etmen, ikinci seçeneğin ise benim seni yok etmem.”, der “The Face” sakince.
“Buna cesaret edemezsin, Trakxa.. Tahtımı bana sen vermedin, Krolum’da Xora vermişti. Ve kendisiyle yaptığım antlaşmaya göre de ‘sonsuza’ kadardı..”, diye hırlar Gullem.
Kardax’Trakxa “The Face”, gerçek tiksintiyle bakar melanet Gullem’e, zira bu ahmak tam olarak tahmin ettiği kadar geçmişte takılıp kalmış bir sürüngenden ibarettir.
“Bu konuyu istersen Krolum’da Xora ile konuşalım. Kendisi acaba ne diyecek senin beceriksizliklerin hakkında.. Aaa.. sanırım Krolum’da Xora ölmüştü.. Ad Ara onu öldürdüğünde ben oradaydım, bunak. Bunları sana söylüyorum çünkü bu sana vereceğim son şans ve tek uyarı. Ve açıkçası Cehennemin, senin gibi bir fazlalığı beslemesi için herhangi bir sebep görmüyorum. Ama Xora benim eski kumandanımdı ve ondan ‘aptallığın’ ne olduğunu öğrenmiş olmamdan ötürü küçük de olsa bir boyun borcu hissetmiyor değilim.. Her ne kadar kendisini defalarca uyarmış olmama rağmen kendi aptallığının kurbanı olmuş olsa da..”, der “The Face” aynı sakin ve ‘alttan alan’ gibi görünen yanıltıcı sesiyle.
“Siz ölümlülerin ‘hayat’ dediği şey gereçekten kendi ironileriyle dolu. Sana ölümsüzlük vaad eden acımasız Krolum’da Xora, kendi ölümünü bile ön göremedi. Onu ‘merhamet’ meleği olan Ad Ara öldürdü. Ve ben de Ad Ara’yı öldürdüm.. 1,600 yıl süren, adı konulmamış işkencelerden sonra. Önce onun kanatlarını kırdım. Teker teker. Sonra onları yoldum. Ve köklerinden kopardım. Bir daha kaçamayacağını anlaması için.. Ve kaçabilse bile bir daha asla Göklere geri dönemeyeceğine ayılsın diye.. Sonra onun parmaklarından başladım. Onları kırdım, kopardım ve iblislerime yedirdim.. Kolları.. Sonra kollarını omuzlarından yırtıp kopardım. Canı o kadar yandı ki, çığlıkları bütün şatomda bir sanat eseri gibi yankılandı.. O güzel saçlarını yolup hatıra olsun diye kendime bileklik bile ördüm. Göğüslerini, onun gözlerinin içine bakarak kestim. Pek sevdiği ölümlülere benzerliğini de bu şekilde gömmüş oldum. Ve bacakları.. Evet bacakları en keyifli yerleriydi. Onları yüzerken o kadar çok ağladı ki, yanlış hatırlamıyorsam gözleri yuvalarından akmıştı. Ve ben bunları ona çok uzun bir süre yaptım.
Halbuki ondan hoşlanmıyor değildim bile.”
..diye anlatır “The Face” sessiz ve korkunç bir sükunetle.
Yaşlı Gullem dehşet içerisinde önünde duran Cehennem Komutanına bakar.
“Şunu çok iyi anlamanı istiyorum, Gullem.”, der Trakxa, bir eğitmenin, biraz kıt bulduğu bir öğrencisinde kullanabileceği bir üslupla. “Ben ondan sanıldığı kadar nefret etmiyordum. Ben Ad Ara’dan sanıldığından çok daha fazla nefret ediyordum. Ama hoşlanıyordum da. Çünkü o becerikliydi. Giriştiği bütün mücadeleleri başarıyla ve en önde idame ve idare ediyordu. Ve asla bir melek olduğu için kendisini ‘garantideymiş’ gibi düşünmüyordu..
Kardax’Trakxa “The Face”, ilk defa yaşlı ahmağa bakar —gerçekten bakar.
Ve o bakıştaki tiksinti ve nefret o kadar yoğun ve derindir ki, bir ölümlüde asla görülemeyecek derecededir.
“Ve sen, Gullem.. Sen onun yanında tam anlamıyla bir ‘hiçbir şey’sin ve ona duyduğum saygıyı da sana karşı hissetmiyorum..”, diye sessizce tıslar.
“Ba.. bana bir şey olursa bu şato çöker ve yerle bir olur.. Ve Sonsuz İblis vadisindeki bütün iblis ve yürüyen ölü saldırıları durur. Bu dünyadaki tüm girişimleriniz de sekteye uğrar..”, diye kekeleyerek ve sırılsıklam terlemiş bir şekilde cevap verir Gullem.
Kardax’Trakxa “The Face”, ona acınası bir şekilde bakar.
“Ne kadar aptal olduğuna karar vermeye çalışıyorum, ama her ağzını açtığında bana yep yeni bir tavan seviyesi gösteriyorsun, yaşlı, ahmak, çürümüş bunak! Bütün bu toprakları yerle bir etme pahasına seni gözden çıkardım zaten. Sana bunu anlatmak için geldim bugün. Ama görüyorum ki sen gerçekten aptal ve kıtmışsın ve bir türlü sana ‘nazikçe’ anlatmaya çalıştıklarımı anlamamakta ısrar ediyorsun. Sen, Gullem, gözden düştün, ve gözden de çıkarıldın. Senin defterin son sayfasında ve ben sadece o sayfayı okusam mı, yoksa okumayıp ‘sobaya’ mı atsam diye düşünüyorum. Dediğim gibi. Bu sana olan tek ve son uyarım ve önündeki seçeneklerde belli.”. der..
..ve harekete geçer.
“The Face”, olağan üstü bir hızla ve hiçbir ön uyarı olmaksızın gelir ve melanet Gullem ne asasını, ne her bir yerine gizlediği büyülü eşyalarını, ne de belindeki sihirli sopasını değerlendirme fırsatı bulur.
Cehennem Komutanı onu gırtlağından tutmuş, içi saman çöpleriyle doldurulmuş bir bez bebeği kaldırır gibi havada ve gırtalağından tutar.
“Bu dünyadaki ‘bütün girişimelerimizi’, senin kadar beceriksiz bir aptala bırakacağımı düşünmeni de şahsıma yapılmış bir hakaret olarak görüyorum. Ben buraya çeki düzen vermeye geldim, bunak. Bunun için de sana ihticayım yok. Bunun için ya varlığınla yolumu açarsın, ya da sereceğim yolun altında kalırsın!”
Yaşlı Gullem, kan ter içerisinde kalmış ve morarmaya başlamış bir suratla bir elini beline götürür. Titreyen eliyle belindeki sihirli çubuğu çekip çıkartır ve kendisini gırtlağından yakalamış Cehennem Komutanına doğru yöneltir ve..
..ve tetiği çeker!
Sihirli çubuktan uzun, ince, ve kötürüm bir hale, muazzam bir hızla “The Face”e isabet eder..
..ve İblis Komutanının göğsünde, kısa bir anlığına, girecek bir delik arayan kertenkele gibi oynaşır, sonra da kaybolur.
Kardax’Trakxa “The Face”, sırıtmaz, gülmez, yada küçümseyen herhangi bir şey söylemez. Dipsiz ifadesiyle, kendisine hayret.. ve korkuyla bakan mel’un adamı süzer.
“Vurduğundan emin misin, bunak? Bir daha denemek ister misin?”, der sakince.
Gullem bir daha dener, ancak bunun sonucu da ilkinden farklı olmaz.
“The Face”, diğer eliyle sakince uzanır ve yaşlı adamın elini, elinde tuttuğu sihirli çubuğu ve neredeyse kolunun tamamını kavrar..
..sonra da acımasız bir sükunetle sıkar!
Gullem en son ne zaman canının bu kadar yandığını hatırlamaz.. On bin? Yirmi bin? Yirmi altı bin yıl önce belki..
Bir önceki döngüde..
Kardax’Trakxa, yaşlı, lanet adamın çığlıklarını duymaz. Aynı sükunetle sıkmaya devam eder.
Aradan ne kadar süre geçtiği bilinmez ama kendi acı sümükleri, göz yaşları ve silik inlemeleri duyulan mel’un adamı “The Face”, akıl almaz gücüyle fırlatıp attığında, Gullem’in sol kolunda kullanılabilir, değerlendirilebilir, yada iyileştirilebilir hiçbir kas, tendon yada kemik kalmamıştır. Kol, dirsek altından itibaren çamura dönmüş, kanlı bir balçıktan ibarettir artık ve sihirli çubuktan da geriye, birkaç acınası kıymık dışında hiçbir şey kalmamıştır.
“Yarın yeni bir kapı aralayacaksın.”, der “The Face” sakin bir şekilde elindeki yaşlı adamdan geriye kalan kanlı pise bakarak. “Buraya üç komutanımı gönderiyor olacağım. Onlardan çay, kahve, kurabiye.. —hürmetten hiçbir şey esirgemeyeceksin. Burayı hizaya getirmek ve gerekli değişiklikler için öngörülen.. siz ölümlüler nasıl diyorsunuz? ‘Performans değerlendirmesinde’ bulunacaklar ve istenmeyen, eksik yada gereksiz görülen her şey ‘shred’ edilip ‘çöpe’ atılacak.. Umuyorum atılanlar arasında sen de olursun.”
Kardax’Trakxa “TheFace” bir omzunu silker ve yerde inleyen habis Gullem’e bakar.
“Ama bu da senin ‘elinde’..”, diye ekler soğuk bir şekilde gülümseyerek.
✱ ✱ ✱
Gözleri acıdan kanlanmış ve faltaşı gibi açılmış bir şekilde odasına döner habis Gullem ve sessiz bir kinle elinin olması gereken yerdeki kanlı ‘şeye’ bakar.
Yirmi altı bin yıldır var olan uzvu artık yoktur..
Zorlukla ve ayaklarını sürterek sandığının yanına kadar gelir, sonra olduğu yere çöker.
“İnlemeni.. uzaklardan duydum.. Gullem..”, der demir dikenli kafesin içindeki ses. “Efendilerin.. senden memdun değiller mi yoksa?”
“Değiller..”, diye acıyla itiraf eder yaşlı mel’un.
“Bunu.. bekliyor olman.. gerekirdi.. halbuki..”
Mel’un Gullem acıyla ‘hıh’lar ve kıvranarak sandığını açar, içini biraz karıştırır ve aradığı şişeyi bulur. Şişe, yuvarlak, koni şeklindedir ve bir buçuk – iki karış boyundadır ve muallak, çamurumsu yeşil bir sıvı içermektedir.
Lanetli adam şişenin tıpasını dişleriyle açar ve kafasına diker..
..ve sonuna kadar içer.
Uzun bir süre sonra elindeki acının ‘tahammül edilir’ bir hale geldiğini hisseder ancak elinde herhangi bir gelişme olmaz ve hala iğrenç bir balçığa benzemektedir.
“Belki bir birimize yardım edebiliriz..”, der neden sonra mel’un Gullem.
Demir dikenli kafesten boğuk, anlaşılması zor bir ses duyulur.
Kafesteki her kimse, ‘kıkırdamaktadır’..
“Sen.. Mel’un ve Hain Gullem.. Benden.. sana yardım.. etmemi mi.. istiyorsun?”
“Hayır.”, diye cevap verir sızlanır acıyla Gullem. “Kendine yardım etmeni istiyorum. Heavens Hand ve gerisindeki şehirler ve kaleler hakkındaki bilgin azımsanmayacak kadar çok. Bana istediğim bilgileri ver, beraber ikimiz de ‘Efendilerimizden’ kurtulmuş olalım..”
“Ben.. ‘Efendimden’ memnunum.. Sen.. olmasan da.. Benim.. sonum belli.. hain.. Bu.. değişmeyecek.. Kendi hayatımı kurtarmak için.. bu dünyada yaptığım en son şey.. bana güvenenlere ihanet etmek.. olmayacak..”, der fısıltılıyla demir dikenli kafesten gelen ses.
“Bu sadece kendini kurtarman için değil. Aileni kurtarmak için de bir fırsat.”, der mel’un adam.
“İnsanlığına.. ve insanlara.. ihanetinden sonra.. şimdi de adına ihanet ettiğin efendilerine mi.. ihanet edeceksin..?”, diye hayretle inler sesin sahibi. “İhanetlerinin.. bir sonu yok mu senin?”
Habis adamın kaşları çatılır. Büyük bir kinle demir dikenli kafese, ve içindeki yarı kömür olmuş ‘şeye’ bakar ve hırlar.
“Ben senin aklının alamayacağı kadar uzun bir zamandır bu dünyadayım. Ben kadim ejderlerin ateşinden kurtulmuş kadim bir zatım. Ben iki döngü arasındaki boşluktan kurtulabilmiş tek kişiyim. Ben—”, diye çığlar aynı kinle.
“—Sen.. sadece çok.. uzun bir süre iblislerle yatıp.. kalkmış bir hainsin, Gullem..”, diye inleyerek araya girer demir dikenli kafesin içinden gelen ses. “Kadim ejderlerden.. kurtulabilmiş tek kişi olman da.. sana hiçbir onur kazandırmamış.. Kendi kibrin ve müritlerin.. sana.. ölümsüz.. olduğun sanısı vermiş.. Ama bir gün.. bir anda.. elin gibi.. sen de kuruyacaksın.. Şunu.. anlamalısın.. habis.. Gullem.. Yaşadığın bütün.. bin yıllarına rağmen.. gerçekte.. hiçbir şeyin yok.. Varlığının tamamı.. iblislere.. ait.. Ve senden istediklerini.. hasat edecekleri gün.. geldi..”
Yaşlı, melanet Gullem’in suratı daha da çirkinleşir ve demir kafese, ve içindeki tutsağına kaynayarak bakar. Ancak medeni tutabildiği bir sesle ona hırlar.
“Bana oldukça sınırlı bazı tercihler verildi bugün.. Şimdi ben de sana benzer bazı tercihler de bulunacağım. Ya bana yardım eder ve buradan kurtulup tekrar halkına ve ailene dönersin, yada yok olursun.. Evet.. YOK OLURSUN! Seni Oblivion’a gönderirim ve oradan da pek kıymetli Göklerine hiçbir geçiş kapısı da yoktur!”
Note: Only Brom Bumblebrim knows and has lived the story “a Bir of a Bite”, Lady Magella is vaguely aware of it, though she already knows who Rumulus “Mad” Ussa is (her elder brother). Cora Sleet, Seressa Wraiven, and Arcantonic Palecog (in particular) are clueless about it.
Seressa Wraiven: I see we have some items the dwarves have left for us to pick. I believe these were found on Rumulus “Mad” Ussa..
Lady Magella:(growl) Yes. That armor was certainly his. And his battle axes.. Having seen them up close.. The smarmy bastard!
Seressa Wraiven:(cough) Lady Magella. Willy-nilly, he was your brother, nonetheless. I think it should be you who makes the first bid if any..
Arcantonic Palecog:(mumble) Why? He wasn’t much of a fighter, much less a brother. Good riddance, the ugly bastard! The only thing I resent is not having to have bitch-slapped his sorry arse down the crack like the others.
Lady Magella:(shrug) To be honest, I don’t really care. I do not honor him enough to want to bury his possessions along with his carcass!
Lady Magella: I will take his armor. Mine sort of got busted. Going to have to bleach this thing thoroughly to get his stink off though.
Arcantonic Palecog:(cackle) That’s dwarf thinking for you; take the enemies armor —because it certainly helped him!
Seressa Wraiven: Alright. Then we have these two Battle Axes, each +2 to hit and to damage and each in pristine condition, A Ring of Protection..
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Brom Bumblebrim: I could use the Ring of Protection.. Almost lost concentration in that fight when I got singed by that fireball.
Lady Magella:(shrug) Don’t really care. I already got the armor.
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Seressa Wraiven: Here you go then, luv. Then we have these rather beautiful Bracers of Defense..
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Cora Sleet: I could use those. I am a bit tired of wearing this metal contraption. I need to feel the cool, tundra winds on my skin.. I do better without armor and those bracers will compensate for the loss of AC!
Lady Magella: Good choice, girl.
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Seressa Wraiven: Excellent. Now we have this pretty little Ring of Invisibility. I am surprised Rumulus “Mad” Ussa forgot to make any use of it.
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Seressa Wraiven: Perhaps Tonic could use it. She was running around a bit vulnerable back there..
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Brom Bumblebrim: Seconded.
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Lady Magella: Sounds fair. She did knock any number of those henchmen down the chasm. My brothers are still climbing down to retrieve their corpses.
Arcantonic Palecog: I.. Ow.. Ok.. I guess..
Seressa Wraiven: Now we have a rather juicy item here; made of genuine Dark Forest Bat fur and leather, sewn by enchanted Misty Forest Spider silk and..
Arcantonic Palecog:(mumble) Really, now, girl? You just need a bloody door, and you’d make an excellent salesman.. girl.. person! WTF and frigging politically correct crap shyt!
Seressa Wraiven: ..clasped at the throat by pure, electrum-silver and studded with platinum hammerings and 0.8-inch black pearl inlaid brooch. I give you: Cloak of Flying!
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Lady Magella: Can’t imagine my brother with such delicacies.. It looks quite exquisite.
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Seressa Wraiven: Indeed, luv, indeed..
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Brom Bumblebrim:(filthy scowl) I remember that cloak.. I remember it very well.. (spits on the floor with a very, very unhobbity vehemence.)
Arcantonic Palecog: I..
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Arcantonic Palecog: I.. WANT!..
Seressa Wraiven: You do?
Brom Bumblebrim: You do?
Lady Magella: What the—!
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Lady Magella: Why? If you don’t mind me asking.
Arcantonic Palecog: For the pleasure of wreaking havoc by the simple expedience of bombarding everything from above!
Seressa Wraiven: !
Brom Bumblebrim: Huh..
Lady Magella: Hmm..
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Seressa Wraiven: That.. actually made sense!
Brom Bumblebrim: I believe it did.. in a depraved and creepy way.
Lady Magella: Hear, hear..
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Arcantonic Palecog: Yesshhh.. (rubs the cloak on her face.)
Seressa Wraiven: And finally, we have the winner’s prize of the contest.
Arcantonic Palecog:(mumble) Girl, you are killing me.. I don’t know who you are anymore!
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Seressa Wraiven: The Stick of Destiny, the Arm of Mighty Storms..
Arcantonic Palecog:(mumble) I wonder how much commission she is receiving. Is it per item or is it performance-based? I hope it is the latter. She fully deserves it.. apparently! Wonder if she will do ‘pon pon girl’ as an encore? She has the butt-displaying skirt, all color-coded, for it already..
Seressa Wraiven: The Soul Focus of Might and Power..
Arcantonic Palecog:(mumble) I don’t know her, guys. I am disavowing her as of this moment!
Seressa Wraiven: The ULTIMATE ITEM OF DESTRUCTION—
Arcantonic Palecog:OMG! —WANT!
Lady Magella: What is it, young lady?
Brom Bumblebrim: Well?
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Seressa Wraiven: The Awesome Wand of Lightning Bolts!..
Arcantonic Palecog:>>> WANT! <<<
Brom Bumblebrim: Hmmm..
Lady Magella: Humm..
Cora Sleet: Mmmpphhhh..
Seressa Wraiven: Any bids?
Lady Magella: You took nothing for yourself, child.
Seressa Wraiven: My bad luck, there Lady. Nothing much I can use in this bunch.
Lady Magella: Perhaps you can take the wand and make good use of it.
Seressa Wraiven: I suppose. But let’s see what the others have to say first, shall we?
Seressa Wraiven: Let’s not be too hasty, shall we, Tonic? Perhaps dear Brom and Cora might want it too.. I despair every time she shoots an arrow!
Brom Bumblebrim: I am good for it. I like my own Wand of Magic Missiles. But it lacks some luster and is single-target.. But I also have this Staff of Storms, hence that covers my AoE damage need..
Cora Sleet: That hurt, Seressa. My shooting is acceptable.
Seressa Wraiven: Yes, luv. It is acceptable.. by my standards, but not yours.
Cora Sleet: !
Brom Bumblebrim: OMG, girl.. You are like a kid in a candy store..