The undead were relentless. They came at them moaning, howling, and did they come at them shrieking!
And side by side with the dearest man of her life, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, fought, tooth and nail, and did she deny herself of her heritage, for, at that very moment, she was not the princess of the high elves, but the Queen of Death, herself..
And behind them, her cousin, Anglenna Sunsear, rained her own kind of death and destruction and she was immaculate at it, as she had been in everything she did. Deep down, Alor’Nadien ne had always admired her cousin’s cool and somewhat aloof demeanor as she had, when she had been, but a tiny little thing, yearning to go and knock at her aunt’s door in Bari Na-ammen and beg her to give permission so her cousin would play with her.
The irony in that was lost to all but herself.
Alor’Nadien ne had never yearned to actually play with Anglenna, so much as she wanted to observe her..
..and be awesome like her!
The games had been a mere excuse and sort of a bonus..
..and she had had the chance to make someone eat her cakes, her cookies, and her pies, though, looking back, said cakes, cookies, and pies shouldn’t have had raw onions because she’d thought they made her pies crunchy. Her cookies also shouldn’t have had baby powder because she’d thought cookies ought to have that white thingy on them, nor should her cakes have had her mother’s hand cream because she’d strongly believed all cakes just must have whipped cream on them..
Yet, her cousin Anglenna had eaten them anyway, which, in later years, told her several things;
That her cousin had preferred her, quite horrible, hideous, even, cooking skills, coupled with her highly creative ingredients, than to spending time with her own mother..
That she must have enjoyed her little baby cousin’s presence, even against the prodigious, one hundred and fifty years age disparity..
That deep down, she had, in fact, been fond of her and cared for her, looked out for her, and perhaps most important of all, believed in her, even against all of her own mother’s indoctrinations..
That she would make her the queen she, Alor’Nadien ne, had never yearned to be, whether she wanted it or not..
And that she had, at some point, stopped seeing her as merely her cousin, but started viewing her and ‘that young man’ as one, and had started protecting them both..
Alor’Nadien ne was not sure why all these had crossed her mind at that point, but at some subconscious level, she felt that they all meant something.. something more that changes in characters, or choices, or perspectives, but change..
..in a sense that could only be defined as ‘total’.
And that was when she had come face to face with the Draugr, the undead monstrosity her cousin, Anglenna had warned her about. Unwittingly she’d stared at the soulless creature’s voids, where there were supposed to have been eyes and seen..
Alor’Nadien ne blacked out.
But she did not back down.
With the savagery of a High Woods lynx, she slashed and hacked her way through the undead until there was only the Draugr.
She did not hesitate.
With her near three-yard long glaive and the thirty-inch deathly steel, she stabbed it..
..in the heart.
And for a bare moment, she felt the death throes of that heart carried all the way from the deathly blade, down the long shaft of her glaive, and in her hands.
She thought she felt something familiar about that final tremor in that heart..
And then she came around.
Staring in horror at the fallen and bloody form of her Udoorin.
It all went sideways after that and try as she might, Alor’Nadien ne just couldn’t remember anything.
Only that it had been she, who had slain her love.
And in her post-madness insanity, there had been that howling scream of some churning wind, followed by a brilliant flash of light..
..and that’s it.
She was no longer down in the stinking sewers of the once glorious city of Arashkan.
✱ ✱ ✱
Sheriff Standorin stood silently as he stared down at the rickety bed, and the tall, alluring figure lying in it with a horrible expression on his face.
Much like all the other dormitories in the temple, this small room was also comprised of a single bed, a chair, a nightstand with a washing dish, a lockless box for personal effects, and..
The only variation to these had been the addition of extra beds in most of the other rooms since the arrival of the half-born, making the already small dormitories rather cramped, though the new, otherworldly guests never complained. For them, this was Heaven, as opposed to their previous ‘Hellish’ pits..
The tall, alluring girl, Constance, had tiny beads of sweat on her contorted face, her brows frowning, her bright red lips pressed together and though her eyes were open, there was a glossy shimmer about them; pained and somewhat glassy, as tears ran down and disappeared in her long and disheveled black hair.
She was trying, very hard, to put on a ‘happy’ front, but was failing quite miserably.
As much pain as she was in, she still managed to be quiet and dignified about it and the only other sign that would have given her apparent pain away, was her fisted hands, blessedly hiding under the itchy blanket that covered her up to her chest.
She managed to turn her head to make sure they were alone, then unclenched her lips and tried for a smile.
“There.. really isn’t any cause.. for such ruckus, dear Sheriff.. Standorin.. Shieldheart.. And.. I do not believe.. my actions merit.. such a scowl..”, she whispered.
Sheriff’s face became even more horrible.
“What did you do?”, he growled in his deep rumbling voice.
Constance stared at him, her gaze glassy and a bit off.
“We gave an oath.. Sheriff. To sweat.. to bleed.. and to die, to attain.. our Ascension. I have bled.”, she said with a forced smile.
“And now.. I am sweating..”
“I am not very good with levity, Miss Constance.”, scowled Standorin, as he fumed.
“Then I shall refrain.. from it..”, she smiled even more, though she had closed her eyes tightly and her frown bespoke of much pain.
“Sheriff Standorin..”, said a shy, soft, earnest voice from the door. “You should go. Constance needs rest and time to mend.”
Standorin turned to the door to see the small Inshala standing there. He inadvertently scowled at her as well, causing her to flinch, but she refused to back down. Blushing furiously, she held her ground. “Sir. Please. What she is going through is a delicate matter and requires tender care. If you are willing to give her that, you may stay. If you wish is to intorodate her, you really should leave, because she is hurting and is in much pain.”
“Intorodate?”, the sheriff asked a bit baffled.
“My Aager knows what it means. You may ask him later if you wish.”, she replied, blushing even more.
“I only want to know what is going on here. She was fine two days ago when she suddenly disappeared and this evening she was found, lying unconscious and beat, in the dirt, several miles away from the village. If there is a crime done against her, the felons must be found and face the harshest of punishments!”
“No crime was done here, Sheriff, sir.”, Inshala said, quietly. “What has befallen her, is something she has brought upon herself.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”, the sheriff growled.
“I.. I am very sorry, sir. That is the best I can explain.”, she struggled. “I do not have the right to say any more for.. certain other.. people are involved.. Should she wish it, she may share it with you. But her sacrifice is not mine to reveal. Now, she needs to rest and mend.”
“People? What other people? What sacrifice? What the heck is going on here?!”, Sheriff Standorin very nearly blared.
“Sherif Standorin.”, said a young, sharp voice, and Thomas Dimwood appeared behind Inshala. “You will refrain from such demanding attitudes and you will not raise your voice in my temple. And you will respect the privacy and sanctity of my guests and those under my care. Must I remind you that the Temple of Light is not under your jurisdiction? You, on the other hand, are in mine, now, as you are not even a guest, but a visitor. I do not want to have to remove you from my grounds, but if I must, I shall.”
The room’s temperature suddenly plummeted and an ominous silence spread.
“That was a tad uncalled for, young man.”, Standorin growled.
“So is your attitude towards my guests, the Ritual Guardian, Liaison Constance, and your free reign of my temple.”, replied Thomas cooly.
“Old Demos would never have taken that tone with me—”, the sheriff said scowling fiercely.
“You would never have done what you just did, had our Father, Demos were alive, Sheriff. Perhaps you imagine his absence gives you some leeway?”, Thomas said and his tone had taken a frosty edge now.
“Dear, Thomas..”, came the brittle voice of Constance as more tears came down her closed eyes. “..please. Friends should not fight over such technicalities. I and my brothers and sisters are new, here, in this Mortal coil, but we watch and we learn; I am certain the esteemed sheriff means no disrespect to your, your guests, nor your sanction. He.. he is merely worried.. Which is understandable and was my doing.. I shall.. tell him.. what he wants to know, and what he needs to know, also.”
“I agree.”, came Inshala’s small voice as she stared at her own feet. “I really am sorry, sir. I can say some things, I can not say some other things. There are forces in this world and.. other places.. that are beyond understanding and mustn’t be put to words on a whim for they may hear, and bring their retribution upon us. Please, sir. You must accept what I say, and stop there. I apologize for making this harder for you to understand but I am young and silly and I lack words.”
Standorin stared at Constance, then at the little girl, Inshala, then at Thomas, who was staring back at him, not quite as coldly as before, merely as adamant and immovable as him.
“I apologize for my attitude, Temple Guardian. I overstepped my boundaries in my moment of pique.”, the sheriff rumbled, though it was rather obvious, he was quite furious the way the young man had ‘man-handled’ him the way he had.
He then he walked over to the door, dropped on one knee before Inshala and with a much softer voice, he said, “And I apologize to you as well, again, and twice; once to the Ritual Guardian, and once you, dear Inshala. You have been nothing but good to this town and the refugees and probably doing more than I can see and comprehend. It would seem I am out of my debt here and trying to understand things quite beyond me, much like, it would seem, I am doomed to kneel before you and apologize, time and again, every time I turn around.”
Inshala’s face smoldered.
She was so embarrassed, she seemed like she was looking for some tiny hole to hide in.
So she did the only thing she could think of.
She hugged the huge, kneeling, man and hid her face there!
“Please do not kneel like this again, sir. Not to me, not to anyone. Decent and honorable men should bow to no one. Your son, Udoorin, never did, accept that one time when he was trying to learn me what it meant to love. He was always nice and polite to me. My Aager shows respect to everyone but feels only for very few and you are one of those few.”, she spoke from where she hid her face.
Sheriff Standorin blushed.
“Well, I—”, he faltered.
“—Lost?”, offered Thomas with a grin.
“I suppose I did..”, he sighed.
Then he kindly parted with the little girl, got up to his feet, and looked at the two of them.
“I would like to stay here with our Liaison until she gets better and is able to return to her duties. Lady Inshala, I would be grateful if you would go and inform Master Aager, that until such time as I am able to return to my duties, he will take over my duties as the acting sheriff, effective immediately.”, he said.
“Uhhmm.. Your sheriff is telling me somethings to tell you, but I have no idea what he just said, my Aager.”, Inshala whimpered in her head.
“What did he say, love?”, came Aager’s voice.
“He told me to tell you that you are something something acting something sheriff, escaping immediately!”
“Shit!”, Aager cursed vehemently. “As if I didn’t have enough on my plate..”
“AAGER FOGSTEP!”, gasped Inshala.
“I am sorry, love. Not in a very good mood today. I just can’t seem to teach this lot why we go for the jugular instead of the kidney in an ambush. I guess some people just like the drama of watching a violently struggling victim in an abhorrent amount of pain who is likely to manage a scream while he is kicking around in massive spasms as opposed to silently lowering him down with the least struggle while he quietly bleeds out!”
“Ow.. Tigers always go for the jugular! Nature is the best killer!”, Inshala said enthusiastically. “But I think your sheriff just wants to stay with Liaison Constance until she gets better.”
“Ahh.. that sounds.. familiar..”
“Ow, my.. I suppose it does, doesn’t it? Where are you? He told me to GO AND TELL you, so I think I must go to you, mustn’t I? I mean, I can’t just tell him, I just told you!”
“Yes, that would be hard to explain. Might as well come, love, perhaps we could take an early break and go home?”, Aager offered.
“I’d like that.”
“Alright. I guess I will go now, then?”, Inshala said with an exaggerated and guilty sort of tone and left.
Standorin stared after her, shook his head, then turned back to Thomas.
“Liaison Constance is a member of my office.”, he continued. “I must make sure she stays as part of my office, well and healthy, hence I invoke my right to sanction, Temple Guardian Thomas, and I believe anyone who invokes such sanction must be admitted without question or hindrance.”, he said and grinned at Thomas.
The young senior temple guardian frowned.
“I see you have been reading jurisdictional and temple laws, Sheriff. A bit out of your way, isn’t it?”, he mused.
“The esteemed Liaison has made me aware, I have been lacking in that area. Hence I took the time to remedy it. Now, if you will..”, the sheriff said and let it hanging..
“Very well, sheriff. I shall send some food to both of you soon enough.”, Thomas conceded.
“I would like to pay for them.”, Standorin said.
“We do not charge here, sheriff.”, reminded the young temple guardian.
“No, you don’t. But as small an amount as it may be, I am sure it will go somewhere better than where I’d have spent it. Accept it as a tithe, if you will. Unless you want two of your guests under your care to starve.”, Standorin said sternly.
“What is it about you Shieldhearts and your obstinacy, I wonder.”, he said.
“It’s all about the Heart, really. The Shield, we use to bash out the obstinacy from young men! Now, if you will, I have a young Liaison to care for.”
✱ ✱ ✱
She is waking up.”, whispered a petulant voice.
“She is an early riser. But then, she’s been falling asleep where she kneels, crying all day.”, replied another voice, also in a whisper, though this one was soft and sounded like she laughed a lot in her normal merry voice. “It breaks my heart seeing her like this, day after day and it’s been weeks. I’ll admit, her boy is sort of cute, in a puppy-eye way, but the bushy thing he’s got on his face irks me.”
“Ow, yes, Temessa. It totally creeps me out! Did you bring her something to eat? I brought her my best peaches yesterday, she didn’t touch them.”, the petulant voice said.. petulantly.
“It is possible she might not like peaches, Yamara. Some Mortals do not and it even irks them. It has to do with the hair on the peaches, I think. A bit like how the boy’s bushy face irks us.”, explained Temessa in her hushed voice.
“That was not a nice thing to say, Temessa. My peaches are delicious. She didn’t eat your apples, either, if I recall.”, Yamara said in a hurt voice.
“True. But my apples are always dark and red and sweet and juicy. Just like me! Some Mortals prefer the hard and sour kind.”, shrugged Temessa.
“She didn’t touch Cherriot’s cherries, Shyad’s grapes, Kardenymp’s quinces, nor Veraminks’ berries. She is Mortal. She must be hungry by now. She will suffer scary visions and horrible dreams and die if she doesn’t eat soon.”, Yamara said a bit freaked.
“Maybe that’s why she is so skinny?”, Temmessa mused. “I wish Aremela were here. She’d know a way to make her eat and stop crying. She was the only one among us to very nearly understand Mortals.”
“It has been nearly twenty years since she’s been gone, Temessa.”, Yamara reminded her, though she said it with a very slight tremor in her own voice.
“Yes. But she was my friend and we always had the bestest fun when she was with us.”, Temessa signed.
“That’s true.”, Yamara admitted grudgingly. “Even though she snitched me to Mother, once.”
“She didn’t snitch you, Yamara. She told Mother, yes, you were being rude to everyone and, yes, you did charr Cherriot’s cherries because I snitched you to Mother and Mother asked her if this was true!”, Temessa replied simply.
Yamara made an unhappy noise.
“Did you know Mother was thinking of talking to that Blom Bundlebim Hobim so he would write all his adventures? That way, everyone will remember Aremela Berrybush!”, Temessa said suddenly.
“Ow, wow! Will we be in it, too?”, Yamara asked eagerly.
“Probably. I mean, we were there when they met, weren’t we?”
“Yes, we were. We are going to be so famous!”, Yarama beamed.
“Shhh! She is opening her eyes.. She has lovely eyes. Like dew grass after a spring rain.”, Temessa said with an adoring tone.
“Yes. But she also has dark circles around them and her face is swollen. She must eat.”, Yamara observed critically.
“Good morning, Yamara. Good morning Temessa.”, whispered Lorna..
..because that was the only strength she had left in her;
Temessa and Yamara just stared at her.
“Sweet Alor’Nadien ne. We have brought you new apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, and berries this morning. We give these to you freely and Mother knows this.”, Temessa almost pleaded.
“Yes, she does, even though she told us we could bargain for them if we wanted to. Please accept them. We already lost many of our sisters here some time ago to some villainous dwarves and it has made us very sad. We do not wish a pretty Mortal to die, as well.”, Yamara begged.
“I am sorry for your loss, dear Yamara. But it’s alright. Once my beautiful Udoorin is gone, I shall take my leave and die elsewhere. That way, I shall not ruin the sanctity of your beautiful valley.”, Lorna replied hoarsely.
“Please, pretty Alor’Nadien ne. Eat at least one peach or one apple, or even some grapes and cherries and even some berries. Before Mother comes and asks you again.”, Temessa said, this time actually pleading.
“I thank you both and your sisters. You have been nothing but kind and generous to me. My answer to Mother will be the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that, and I shall carry your kindness to my grave.”, Lorna breathed rapidly..
..and vaguely realized this rapid breathing was a new symptom.
Yes. Her time was coming to a close and.. rapidly..
The fact that she had survived as long as she had, was likely to her connection to the Spirit of High Woods. But like her woods, she too was ending.
At least she would get her moment to say farewell to her Udoorin one last time before she crawled out of Gull’s Perch.
And with that thought, she looked down at the strange, quartz-blue, crystal-like coffin she was leaning where she lay, and where she’d woken, day after day, and fallen asleep, night after night..
..where, under layers of the quartz-blue crystal, lay the young man she had slain in her moment of insanity.
She could see his unmoving face, peaceful, yet oddly faceted and fractured in the crystal and the bloody hole that was his heart.
She remembered that moment they had first met.
In her anger, she had charged at the people that had come bursting into the room, down in the dungeons below the ruins of Themalsar, her dark, smoking glaive raised.
Whether it had been a matter of luck, initiative, skill, destiny, or fate, the young man had reached her before she could swing her blade.
He had reached her with both of his great battle-axes already at the end of their radius, and just about to cut into her slender neck.
But in his moment of madness, he had stopped, both blades nicking at her. He had stopped and opted not to slay her. And furiously blushing, he had grinned at her and said;
“Uhhmm.. Hello. I am Udoorin.”
She hadn’t.. In her madness, she had stabbed him, in the back and in the heart..
Inevitably, her eyes teared.
“I am so, sorry, my Udoorin. Today, I shall beg her again; mine life for yours. Perhaps today she will see reason.”, she whispered. “For if she will not, I am afraid you will be staying here for a while, but I shan’t. I feel the claws of death and I am all but spent. I deserve what is upon me. Should you wake, please think not too unkindly of me, for I loved you..”
“With all my heart..”
And that single word broke her all over again.
“Dear child. How long shall this mourning last?”, asked a rich, throaty, mature voice asked.
“Will you not see reason?”
“Oops. Mother is here!”, hissed Yamara. “Better scram!”
“Right..”, agreed, Temessa and the two girls, one dryad, the other a fire nymph, took off in a haste.
“Your offer is beyond me, Mother Summer. And isn’t a choice I may adopt on my own. It involves him, his life, his future, and his line. Should I make that choice for him, never shall he gaze upon my face again. But at least he shall stay here and.. live.. forever..”, Lorna sobbed.
“My dear child, he may stay here, but not forever. One day, he may rise. Mortals have always been thus unpredictable. Have you given any thought as to what he will do, should that happen? His father, his friends, and you, the spark of his life, all gone and past, centuries over. Perhaps you think this a wise course of action and a mercy on his part. I do not. Mortals do not cope well when their loved ones leave. But in time they learn to live with it, for time prepares them for such losses and fills the gaps they leave. However, they never cope when they are suddenly made aware, all their loved ones are dead and gone and centuries ago. I have witnessed this before. And he was not even a Mortal, but a fey. It drow him mad; a once noble of a Court became the vilest of us all. I believe he haunts this world still.”, replied the rich, mature voice.
“Mother Titania. I beg of you.”, Lorna pleaded, her eyes tear-stricken, her voice already near hysteria. “Take mine life and give it to him. Give my beat so he would live..”
“My dear, girl, you did not do this to him. The madness of Draugr-kin is not a fairy tale. It is as infectious as it is corrosive.”
“But it was I who did this to him.. I stabbed him in the back. I destroyed his beautiful heart. I do not deserve to live when he is dying.. Take my beat. Please. Take it, and give it to him..”, Lorna wept.
“I do not take lives on a whim. And never from a Mortal who has done me no wrong. This is something the Queens may not do. This is the Law of Nature. Much like I may not give, without balance. This is who we are, and this is what we are.. A life for a life was my wont. But not yours for his. Mortals always do rush to give what they do not know. But then, how could they? You have never lived it all!”
“M.. Mother, please.. Just take it.. I give it freely..”, the beautiful princess of High Woods begged.
“You will give your life for him, and expect him to accept that, do you? Perhaps you think too little of him, after all.”, mused Titania.
“Give it to him. He does not have to know..”, Lorna cried.
“You wound want a Queen of the Fey to lie? Will that not destroy my own reputation?”, the Queen of Summer asked mildly.
“You will not take my life for his, but you would take the life of my unborn child?”, Alor’Nadien ne wept. “What will he think of me when I have given away his child?”
“Your child shall live long and happy, dear girl. She shall be the Summer Lady. The time nears when Mortals shall require all the help they can get. I am summer, and I may not mingle among Mortals. The Summer Lady can. She will have her Summer Knight to defend and protect her. And she will be much loved and honored among us. Your daughter will help shape the world and aid Mortals free us of the foul demon infestation. I have seen it. And have I also seen, how the lack of the two Ladies has caused the end of one cycle after another. This, you must know, and this you must understand, for this was why your great ancestors, Terandel Solace, Sinderel Tranquil, and Elorellen Feymist abandoned their homes to come this far and settle where they did; to prepare the Mortals for the day they would grow and gather to fight and end the demon infestation. Know this, young Alor’Nadien ne; the demons are coming. Gullem the Damned is preparing to move against the Humans at Heaven’s Hand and the elves at Tranquil even as we speak. And they will bring the numbers to overrun them.”, Titania said calmly, then paused as if considering, and arriving at some monumental realization herself.
“Know also that your arrival here was not by chance. Of all the Mortals that have ever come to my sacred sanction, only two did appear by the whims of fate. One, to cleanse my valley of uncouth Mortals bent on lustful greed and to make it whole again, for which both he and I paid a terrible and costly price. You, dear child, are the other.”
“He.. If he must know. He must agree..”,Lorna moaned.
“No, he must not know. He can never know..”, the Queen of Summer said kindly.
“Why? Why shouldn’t he know?”, cried the princess.
“My dear, dear child, as much as he loves you, cherishes you, cares for you, and honors you, he is still Mortal and can not see beyond his years. Not now, not in his lifetime. Humans are not mentally equipped for such impartial decisions, hence they must not be put to task with such a verdict. Know though, shall he be long gone by the time I come to collect my charge. Willy-nilly, this bargain is between you and I, dear child.”
“And should I fail to make a choice?”
“Then he will rise, one day, and mourn, for the first thing he sees, shall be your remains and thus he shall rage, for there shall be nons he has known left; his home and his town and everyone he has thus loved and cared and cherished shall be long gone and beyond his reach and beyond his comprehension, also. He shall come to realize that he is not mere alone but in a world forever gray for him. He shall roam the lands, never to feel love, nor luster, for what he feels, he feels only for you. Thus shall his rage be without equal, and in his unquenching madness, shall he sin and slay, and thus shall he be hunted, slain over, and thrown in a pit where there shan’t even be a stone to mark his grave..”, Titania said with a certain finality.
Lorna’s vision darkened, her heartbeat hammered harder than she could ever remember, her mind swirled, she was breathing harshly now.
“Dear child. I would ask you to take my offer. Should you prolong it any further, I am afraid, there will not be anything of you left that can regain any health. The things you feel now are the accumulation of your self-imposed hunger, fatigue, irregular slumber, and your heart-felt devastation over the course of weeks. It is time, child. Know, though, I do not make such an offer lightly, nor have I ever made this offer to any Mortal in this cycle and not because I have deemed Mortals unfit, but nons have I found a Mortal worthy.”
Alor’Nadie ne never realized a whole day had passed just in that single conversation.
✱ ✱ ✱
What is wrong, love?”, said Berete Hamna Vir, her voice very worried, as she came and sat next to the little boy. “You have been sitting here in the dark all night. I know it is quiet and serene down here, but you should come and play with us.”
The little boy, Dar Derune didn’t move. He just sat where he was and staring off somewhere, far, far away, and beyond the cavernous crypt.
“Here. I brought you your favorite sam-wish. And I managed to grab two sugar canes for you.”, the girl with the sharp features said in hopes of raising some kind of response from the boy.
“I am not hungry Hamna Vir.”, mumbled the boy and sniffed.
“You.. Have you been crying, love? Yes, you have. I can see the streaks on your face. Why are you crying, my baby mate? Did someone hurt or upset you?”, asked Hamna Vir and a frown appeared on her face.
The boy sniffed again, then, just like that..
..he climbed into her arms and started to cry with heartbreaking sobs.
“Ow, my dear, dear baby. What is wrong? Please tell me. You know you can. And we two have never had any secrets.”, HamnaVir pleaded as her own eyes blurred as she fiercely hugged the little boy.
“She.. she..”, sobbed Dar Derune. “She’s gone!”
“Ow, love. She was gone but she’s back. Constance is back. Yes, she is hurt, but she will be alright.”, soothed Hamna Vir.
“No.. Arezme.. She is gone!”
Hamna Vir froze.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”, she whispered.
“I have been looking in on her every day to make sure she was alright, ever since she entered the Door.”, sobbed the boy.
“But.. why?”, asked Hamna Vir.
“Because.. because I can see, Hamna Vir. And I saw a spark in her heart that day when we walked out of the Door and gave our oaths, and she went in.. The spark all Mortals have, yet none of us do. The spark of a Mortal’s heart! That is how I knew she was the first amongst us! And this evening, when I looked at her again.. I saw her spark.. bloom! Then the bloom spread and spread and became incandescent. It.. its light was so bright, it almost burned me. And just like that, it was gone. I can not see her anymore, Hamna Vir..”
“I can not see Arezme, I can not see our Merisoul.. There is only light.. Brilliant, burning light.. She’s gone!”
..and Dar Derune broke down in her arms and cried, uncontrollably, like the little boy that he was and spluttered.
“What are we going to tell mirima Temez? They were BFF!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Are you feeling any better?”, Sheriff Standorin asked.
“Will you return to your duties if I said I was?”, replied Constance with a weary smile.
“Master Aager is a trustable man. I am sure he is handling things just fine.”, Standorin said, trying for a smile himself, but not quite getting there.
“It has been days you have been here, dear sir. What ails me will wear off, given enough time.. Just not in my lifetime, I am afraid.”, the tall, alluring girl said. “Apparently, some things end up being much more costly than we ever anticipate. I feel almost Mortal in my folly.”
“You speak in words I do not really understand, Liaison Constance.”, Standorin said with a frown. “But I will ask you one thing because I am hoping it will be something I shall comprehend.”
“You wish to know why I asked you out.”, Constance said. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a statement, really.
“Well.. Yes..”, the sheriff admitted with a flush. “I mean, I am quite older than you. Shouldn’t you find someone your own age, perhaps? Someone young and.. handsome?”
Constance closed her eyes, drew one of her slim hands out from under the itchy blanket and placed it on her forehead, and sighed.
“What is it about you Mortals and age? It is merely a number that signifies how many years ago you were conceived and absolutely nothing else. It tells me nothing about who you are, about what you have done in those years, nor about what entails you. Tell me, sir, does that number truly encapsulate you? Does it tell me your accomplishments? Or how decent and caring and how honorable you are? Would it matter if I were to tell you it has been five hundred and thirty-two years since I was conceived?”
“I.. wouldn’t have thought you were a day older than twenty-five, ma’am..”, he mumbled. “Are you really—?”
Constance sighed again.
“Years pass differently where I come from, Stan. Yes, by your Mortal years, I guesstimate I am five hundred and thirty-two. By our standards, I am twenty-eight— which still tells you nothing about me. Not of my sins nor my deeds. Nor why I and my kind chose to abandon the only place we were perpetually abused but would never stand out. And it certainly does not tell you why I chose to date with you, does it?”, she asked wearily.
“No. I suppose it doesn’t.”, Standorin conceded.
“I promise, I will tell you. Only if you would but help me get out of this bed and wash up, as I am, very likely, quite unseemly, and perhaps even help me change. And then maybe you could take me out for lunch, or dinner? I honestly do not know what time of the day it is as these rooms have no windows. I must admit, I am quite famished. Perhaps you would go as far as a dare and we could eat at your place? I have studied Mortal cooking some. Maybe I could try my hands on it. Should you honestly like it, we can eat that. If I fail, I suppose we can go someplace where I can embarrass myself less. We can then sit there and talk or perhaps take another long walk, though, as tired as I am, you might end up carrying me back.. I leave the choices to you. In the end, I shall never take what you are unwilling to part. All I would ever want from you is to know I have someone to lean on, and that someone would make me feel mildly wanted. Should you agree, however, I would like you to expect, and accept, similar trust and care from me.”
Standorin gulped again.
“We.. could eat at my place.. though it hasn’t been touched by a woman for many years. But only if I cook while you rest. I.. can’t invite you and make you cook. That would be just wrong.”, he said, both flustered and abashed.
“I am in your care then, Standorin Shieldheart.”
Sheriff Standorin was a man of his word. As embarrassed as he was, and with a very flustered face, he helped the tall, alluring girl out of the rickety bed and sat her on the simple wooden chair, brought the washing dish over and with strong, calloused hands, he washed her slender hands and arms, her very appealing face, her slim neck, ran his wet hands over and through her long, silky black hair, and went as far as washing her proportionate, narrow feet, all without any sensual implications, but with tender care, and Constance silently watched his face with a demur blush but refrained from even the smallest smile.
The tall, alluring girl was a surprisingly perceptive and considerate creature.
Then, he went over and opened the door, and to the red-headed, bewitching little girl who had been silently sitting there with a naughty smirk on her face and an ear on the door, he said, “Young Demelze.. It isn’t nice to eavesdrop. But since you are here, I would consider it kindness on your part if you would bring the esteemed Liaison a brush, a pair of shoes, and a dress appropriate to her station.”
The smirking girl blushed furiously, jumped on her feet, and took off, while she mumbled to herself;
“Blistering Bloody Imps!”, she cursed. “Busted!”
He turned around to see Constance smiling at him.
“Uhhmm.. Is there something amusing?”, he asked a bit gruffly.
“No, no.. Merely admiring how aware you are of your surrounding even under duress.”, she replied. “Demelze won’t be able to decide whether she should be embarrassed for getting caught or feel happy you remembered her name, even though you met her only once.”
“Occupational hazard, I suppose. And I have been a lawman for quite a number of years. And.. I wouldn’t define.. uhh.. washing you a matter of duress, really.”, he replied uncomfortably.
There was a knock and the sheriff turned around and opened the door again to see the same red-headed, bewitching girl holding a long, elegant dress, a pair of high pumps, a hairbrush, and an odd expression stuck somewhere between a flush, a wicked smile, and a pout as if the girl just couldn’t decide on which one she should settle.
“Thank you. I would be happy if you would also compile a detailed progression report on the Pixie Project and have it ready by tomorrow morning.”, he said as he took the dress, the pumps, and the brush, but left her expression where it was.
Demelze squinted at him and the wicked smile on her face disappeared.
“Homework? Really?”, she said in disgust.
“You are a fully grown woman and require no homework, young lady. But Master Aager will need said report as soon as possible, and you seem like a person given to details. Unless I am totally mistaken, of course.”, Standorin said with a straight face.
Demelze’s squint turned into a distinctly deploring pout. With seething vehemence, she spun around and started marching away, all the while stomping her tiny feet!
Constance gave out a refrained, bubbly laugh.
“You have a unique way to deal with people, sir.”, she said.
“Let’s get one thing straight.”, the sheriff frowned a bit. “I would rather you didn’t ‘sir’ me when we are alone.”
“But we are in a temple, and your official standing puts you in a ‘sirly’ disposition, as silly as that sounds.”, she replied with a smile. “Though I am open to suggestions as to what you would rather I call you on a regular basis, other than Stan.. sir.”
Standorin fumed a bit.
Limnia Karya, his beloved deceased wife, had never played these games with him. She had been a ranger, and a decidedly practical, no-nonsense sort of woman, though, in all candor, she did act like a much younger girl when they had been alone. Then he remembered something Aager had told him about never to compare and once Standorin gave it an even cursory thought, he came to the conclusion that the young man had been right; one, they were not some fruit, vegetable, or furniture, but people, both distinct and both unique, and two, comparing was doing them both much disservice.
Silently he put the brush and the pumps on the bed and came near the young woman and just stood there.
It took a bare moment for the tall, alluring girl to comprehend the pause. With a shy blush, she turned around and..
..let her dress fall.
Standorin stared at the rather slender, curving back of the tall woman, gruffly cleared his throat, then, with decidedly clumsy hands, he helped her put on the new dress, from head to feet.
Then, while he was down there, he reached over to the bed, grabbed the pumps, picked her feet, and put the high-heeled shoes on them, each and one at a time, as Constance watched him, silent and still.
“I would like to touch your hair.”, she whispered down at him. “A girl may not be tortured thus thoroughly and not be given even a crump of surcease.”
Sheriff Standorin didn’t say anything.
He just stood kneeling where he was, as he did the tiny clasps on the pumps and long, slender fingers ran through his hair and a sensation he hadn’t felt for nearly twenty years rippled down his spine.
“Stan.. Stan will do, for now, Constance..”, he whispered back.
✱ ✱ ✱
Something woke Sheriff Standorin from a deep slumber. He felt slightly groggy and looked around to see he had fallen asleep on his couch that was facing the fireplace in his two-room home.
The fire had died down to a smoldering kindle, giving a low, red-orange cast and gave the young, beautiful face sleeping peacefully on his chest a whole, different kind of glow, as Constance breathed quietly at his face, her body limply sprawled across his.
Standorin tried to recall at which point he had fallen asleep but failed. He remembered having cooked something that involved diced beef, fried onion rings, and mashed potatoes, along with some chilled apple cider. Then he and the tall, alluring young woman had taken their plates and drinks and sat on the couch and quietly talked, while they stared at the fire dancing in the grate.
The sheriff had been quite surprised and had felt not a small amount of embarrassment coupled with some guilt when he’d found out how much he’d had to say.
Standorin had never really been the talk and laugh, type.
She, on the other hand, had kept silent most of the time and had only spoken to inquire about things she couldn’t quite understand or relate because she would lack the individual reference points.
At some point, though, she had fallen completely silent and with a certain sense of frustration, the sheriff had noticed, she’d dozed off.
He berated himself on a number of levels at that point, foremost for being a boring man to have made a girl literally fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.
Then he came to the ultimate, logical explanation; Constance had gone out of her way, for the past few days, and quite beyond, to put up a ‘good’ front for his sake, making light of her pain and extreme fatigue until they both had come crashing down on her with compounded interest.
Ahh.. that was when he had taken her into his arms, and sort of leaned back..
..and had fallen asleep, with her pillowing her head on his broad, rumbling chest.
Then he remembered something had woken him.
He wasn’t quite sure what it had been, but he thought it sounded like an animal in pain.
It was then he heard a careful knock on his door and very carefully, and with no small amount of unexpected revelation and resignation, he slid the young woman off himself and stretched her on the couch and into a more comfortable pose.
For a man his size, he padded over to the door with surprisingly quiet steps and opened it to see Aager Fogstep standing there and behind him, his little mate, Lady Inshala.
Standorin immediately knew something was wrong for the young man lacked his leather hood and half mask, his face was stricken, contorted, even, and the little girl was holding on to him from behind and sobbing into his back.
“What is it Master Aager?”, he asked in his low, rumbling voice.
“You.. you had better come, sir.”, Aager growled through clenched teeth.
Standorin cocked an eyebrow.
“Where are we going?”, he asked.
Aager paused for a moment before speaking again.
“Is.. is the Liaison here, sir?”, he asked.
“Yes. She is.”, Standorin said with a frown.
“We.. we will need her as well, sir.”, Aager replied with a decidedly determined voice.
“Why? If I might ask. She is still recovering from her.. predicament and is sleeping at the moment. I would rather we didn’t wake her.”, the sheriff said, his frown deepening.
“She is the Liaison, sir.”, Aager grinded his teeth. “And we will need her to do her job, right now, and fast.”
“What is going on, young man?”, Standorin asked, fuming a bit now.
Aager paused again. When he spoke this time, Standorin was astonished, for he heard a certain tremor in his voice.
“The leader of the Escape, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, has gone.. feral, sir. She.. and quite a number of them are breaking and burning everything that gets in their way. Thomas, Morel, and the other temple guardians have managed to get as many of the children out as they can but they are fighting amongst themselves now and against Thomas, Morel, and the temple guardians. Thomas has asked you to bring their Liaison to speak in our steed and perhaps find a way to defuse the situation before it goes any further and make sure the remaining children are not injured or worse.”
Standorin stared at him.
“They gave their word. Their oath. Why would they break their oath and risk everything they have forsworn?”, he fumed angrily.
“They.. they didn’t break their oaths, sir. They merely received some quite distressing news and.. they are hurting.. Apparently, they do not know moderation when they are upset.”
“What news? What could possibly have happened to have riled them enough to risk everything they gave up to come here?”, Standorin asked harshly.
“Perigren Ostlanna Temez just found out she lost her BFF, sir.”, Aager replied quietly and Inshala hugged him even tighter and her sobs grew louder.
“BFF?”, asked the sheriff, a bit baffled.
“Best Fiend Friend, sir. You see, Perigren’s BFF was no other than Merisoul Xyrotwu, and she and Ranger Lieutenant Laila and Master Gnine had all gone to Silent Hills together. I don’t know how, but they just found out that Meriso.. they found out.. that they..”, he said as he tried to gulp down the lump rising earnestly up his throat. “That Merisoul is gone!”
“I.. see..”, said Standorin silently. “I.. did not know her very well. But she was the nicest felon I apprehended in my entire life.”
“She was my friend..”, came Inshala’s sobbing voice. “She was always nice and always alone. She saved me. She helped and saved everyone!”
It was apparent, nothing else intelligible was going to come from her anymore and not any time soon.
Aager turned around and hugged her tightly and held his scourging stance for as long as he could as a low, infuriated scream escaped him.
WHAT DID YOU DO AGAIN, YOU STUPID, STUPID GIRL!
I DIDN’T SEND YOU WITH GNINE AND LAILA TO KEEP THEM SAFE.
I SENT THEM WITH YOU TO KEEP YOU SAFE!
..with rage unseen in Serenity Home,
..he howled at the night sky..
..and winter spread in jagged, sharp, spiking icicles..
..as cobblestones popped, cracked, and shrapneled..
Two figures stumbled into view two days later from the east and up the banks of Arashkan River, both leaning on the other and both with severe, grim, lived, suffered, and ‘paid in full and done’, expressions on their faces.
Liaison Constance Alure Smithen with a happy, serene face standing next to a grim and relieved Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart..
..and an eager and joyous Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane standing next to an also grim, but relieved Aager Fogstep was waiting for them.
Right behind them, another pair stood, Anglenna Brightleaf, her face drawn and on the very verge of an emotional breakdown and an awed Armethelius Riverblade..
..and another; Bremorel Songsteel, relieved, smiling, and wanting to scream with elation and Thomas Dimwood, calm and adamite.
AND JUST BEHIND THOSE, FIFTEEN THOUSAND HIGH ELVES STOOD IN RIGID, SILENT, SOLEMN MILITARY FORMATION, AND BURNING WITH RIGHTEOUS EXALTATION, AS THEY WAITED FOR THEIR KING AND THEIR QUEEN.
And Princess Alor’Nadien ne Feymist came with Udoorin Shieldheart..
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 last 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 crowded 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.
The girl in her strapless skirt dress flew fast and straight overhead. With her raven-black wings feathered lightly, her skinny arms spread out and wide, her long, honey-brown hair rippling, ruffling, scattered and wildly and around her dark purple crowning horns, her naked, slender legs, smooth and lustrous, moved subtly as though swimming, and her tiny, darling feet tickling under the wind of her flight, she was an otherworldly beautiful creature. She carried herself over the long, endless, soundless, and muted halls carved deep under Silent Hills with her small, cherry-red mouth, just a tad pouting, and with sad, solemn, and mournful eyes.
Eyes that bespoke;
I have seen the end of times.
It is dark, it is bleak and it is lonely.
Merisoul Xyrotwu landed gracefully next to the gnome, Master Gnine Tinkerdome, and the Ranger Lieutenant, Laila Wolvesbane.
“Another great hall. Not as great as the one we left behind, but quite cavernous, and occupied.”, she said in her calm, remote, soft, and somewhat breathy voice.
“Occupied?”, asked the gnome. “What’s occupying it?”
“A demon.”, the otherworldly girl replied.
“Dammit.”, hissed the boldly pretty half-elf, Laila. “At least give us a variety. I mean, other than fiends, demons, and undead.”
“The undead are the variety, dear Laila.”, said Merisoul, in her hushed, soft, breathy voice. “I am guessing they are the collateral side effect of having too many demons pend up in one place for thus long, though I’ll admit, the ‘one place’ in question is quite large, deep, and lengthy. Tell me again, Master Gnine, why do gnomes need this much space?”
“Give a gnome enough time, buoyance, and rock, and we can dig forever.”
“So can dwarves.”
“True. But we do it neatly!”, he said with a smirk.
“I see. Well, your kin has had rock and said buoyance, but seem to have run short on time, to our relative consolation, as doleful as that sounds. Otherwise, we would be here for your ‘forever’.”, replied the raven-winged girl.
“You said one demon.”, Laila said, staring at Merisoul questioningly for she had learned, the otherworldly girl had an odd, unintentional habit of, not quite disregarding, but.. dismissing? absenting? abstracting? Laila wasn’t sure which, but the raven-winged succubi half-born girl did it anyway and you had to ask her for details or you were likely in for unexpected and unprecedented surprises where she would just look at you and say, “I did tell you there was one demon, did I not? Must I use your imagination for you?”
“Yes.”, Merisoul said with a small smile.
“What is it? Is it big? Is it dangerous? Why one? Why here?”, Laila asked.
“What’s in there?”, added Gnine.
“Ow.”, said Merisoul with a surprised expression on her diminutive face. “You actually want details! Of course! And understandable.”
And paused! Long enough to for the gnome, Gnine, and the half-elf ranger girl, Laila, to look at one another, then back at the succubi half-born.
“If you are waiting for dramatic effect, you are just about due, I believe.”, said Gnine.
“Almost.”, said Merisoul vaguely.
“Almost? Almost for what?”
“Almost ready. I was preparing a visual pamphlet; a presentation, if you will! I am just about done with the texts, the spreadsheets, the tables, and the 3D pie-charts and running it all through the spell-checker. If you would give me but a minute, I will have imported the images and linked the videos. Thought I might add in a gloomy sort of background music as well.”, she replied happily.
Laila ogled at her while Gnine looked up at the unseen sky and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“And done!”, she said, smiling at them. “I apologize for the delay, but I haven’t prepared a corporate presentation for quite some time now. My last was about two years ago, and as part of my graduation thesis, though that was strictly PG18+ and not quite for mortal eyes!”
And with a wave of her hand, the image of a red, barren land appeared, right then and there! The land seemed to go forever in every direction and comprised only of sharp, edgy rocks sticking out of the dry and dead land like shark’s teeth. The sky appeared as though it was some hazy, diaphanous, gauzy, scarlet tulle and no clouds nor any birds flavored it. Other than the spurting of bubbling, molting lava, yes, this land was barren, in the most literal and infernal sense.
Gnine just stared at the casual display of enhanced and vivid imagination with despair.
Laila looked at it with mild interest, coupled with a certain amount of skepticism. Then she bent down and whispered at Gnine.
“Can you do that?”
“I might..”, replied Gnine deploringly.
The image rumbled and the jagged rocks tumbled and tossed and with a sharp, brittle clap, a crack zigzagged across the barren wasteland. As the endless, red landscape quaked, the crack widened and a halo of deep, infernal fire spewed out of the crack as the rocks and dirt crumbled into the gaping fissure.. And a hand, big, broad and mighty came out of the fiery depths of Hell, and with tremendous force, it slammed onto the sides of the lava spurting fissure and gauged the dirt.
“Wow. It’s animated too.”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”
“I might..”,Gnine replied with a deflated tone.
Great and charred, bat-like wings spread out of the infernal crack as another arm came out and slammed down, slowly pulling and dragging something magnanimous, out of the abyss below. A pair of heavy, curved, at-least-six-feet-each bull’s horns appeared, followed by a face, hideous and cruel, shoulders like ox carts, a grotesquely enlarged torso that defied physics, and legs, thick and mighty, and ending in with black, burning hooves.
“I like!”, whispered Laila. “Can you do that?”
“I am being chastised and tormented for something I don’t know what!”, Gnine replied with a destitute voice.
The nearly twenty-foot monstrosity took a step forward, rose its mighty arms, holding a long, burning scimitar in one titanic fist, and a crackling, thorny whip in the other. The demon took another earth-shaking step and bellowed as the first notes of a violin were heard in the background, followed by a depressing piano!
“Ow.. It’s got audio too! Eno Moricane! I love that.”, whispered Laila, cracking one of her rare grins. “Can you do that?”
“Maybe. I can mathematically calculate the notes!”, replied Gnine resentfully.
The demon raised its powerful arms into the hazy, red sky and bellowed with hot, furnacing fire jetting out of its maw. It brought its great, burning scimitar down, sending a blast of fire. Then with a mighty heave, it cracked its whip, and long, slithering tendrils of jagged lightning crashed from the sky. And the image froze!
There, in big blocky fonts, a title appeared over the demon followed by an explanatory subtitle in smaller relief;
BALOR Class X Demon.
And a whole string of spreadsheets started running, punctuated with comparative charts and diagrams, comprising of size, relative hit points, resistances, and immunities, to hit and damage stats, and special abilities.
“Damn..”, whispered Laila in a concerned voice. “That’s going to be hard to kill. We’ll need like four of me, three of you, and at least another one of Soul. Should it spot us, and it can, it’s got Truesight, we can’t even run away from it, even if we wanted to. It can run faster than any of us. I mean, I might be able to stay just ahead of it if I used my Longstrider, but it can also fly, making how fast I run, sort of a moot point.”
“No, we can’t. If’s down to our running skills, we are done for.”, Gnine replied, carefully inspecting the demon’s stats.
“Well? How did you like my presentation?”, Merisoul asked, displaying something she almost never did, a pretty, and vague grin.
“I loved it!”, Laila admitted. “Didn’t know you were Moricane fan.”
“He’s a bit depressing for my taste, really, but he does do justice to his craft, per se. His tunes are quite famous in Hell!”, she said happily.
Gnine coughed at the implications of that!
“Why is this Balor named Regnalog?”, he asked.
“Well, he’s a rare specimen even among the Balor. ‘Grumpy’, if you will. Hence, they usually give him guarding assignments, if any. He doesn’t mind sitting in a lonely cave for centuries and cracking his whip. No one really knows why, or what goes through his mind, for that matter, but he is quite strong, resilient, and cunning. Many young and foolish demons tried their hands against him. —for bragging rights.. He is here but they are not, so I guess that answers the question of, who won, I guess.”, she replied.
“Can we take him? If we unloaded everything we got, I mean.”, asked Laila.
“I doubt.”, said Gnine glumly. “The old cuss is quite buff. More so than what’s written here, I think, if he is sort of unique among the Balor.”
“Dammit.”, hissed Laila. “What now, then? We have to move forward.”
“There isn’t much we can do, really. Regnalog will be immune to all my fire-based spells, resistant to pretty much everything else I got, and will see right through my illusions and likely any of my mental assaults as well.. Doesn’t seem like we got many options left. We can’t even get near him without catching fire!”, said the gnome, still frowning at the frozen image.
“Can’t you use that invisible hand-thing? The one you used in Tempest Temple when we were still back at Arashkan. You did pummel a stone golem with it.”
“Laila.”, Gnine fumed. “That golem, as tough as it was, was still subject to many elemental attacks. And had a limited amount of life force. This.. thing.. is HUGE! I mean, boxing it with that hand will be like a love tap. IF we had about a score of people casting as many hands, then yes, we’d bring the demon down.. eventually. Provided he stands still and does not retaliate.”
“Ow.. It did seem impressive when you had smashed the golem, the way you had. Perhaps you need a bigger fist?”, she offered.
Gnine glared at her.
“Not my fault you have small fists, my friend.”
Gnine glared at her some more.
“Is there anything else there?”, asked Laila.
“Maybe we should all go and see.”, Merisoul said. “I am certain I missed things. I have noticed, I don’t always see what might or might not be relevant for you two. I perceive people, creatures, and objects by their possible level of interaction, and whether they may present themselves as an obstacle, or help achieve a certain objective, which might or might not always be conclusive, as what may be insignificant for me, might be quite significant to you.”
“Alright.”, agreed, Gnine, taking a last look at the odd, otherworldly girl’s presentation, and the technical readings of Regnalog.
“Quietly.”, inserted Laila. “Maybe I should go ahead. Follow me at thirty feet distance and be ready to run.”
That said, she picked up her long, elven bow, drew an arrow out of her quiver, and with her bow now half-drawn, she silently ranged out. By the time she got near the end of the long, quiet hall, it had already become almost unbearably hot and she was sweating profusely. She edged her way to the exit and gave a quick peek and went absolutely still.
The chamber ahead wasn’t huge as she’d expected. Or perhaps it was. She estimated a stretch of at least five to six hundred feet across, making the chamber cavernous, just like Merisoul had said. But the main ‘walking’ area was perhaps merely fifty feet in radius. The rest was all empty, pitch-black darkness as if the walking area were some center platform that stood in the middle of a very large, very deep fissure or a bottomless chasm. And in the middle of the center platform, the was a ring of furnacing flames, reaching up to forty feet.
And in that column of flame was something.. BIG!
Laila had always known, heights, widths, and depths given in numbers and units could be misleading, as they were, after all, just numbers and hence, could be quite abstract. Thus, even in her early years as a ranger novice, she had been specifically trained to recognize what numbers in inches, feet, miles or individual objects meant. How far and how many were probably the most important aspect of being a ranger, really, as they ran for miles, or were expected to guestimate how far something was; i.e. a pack of fifteen wolves, a family of three bears, a single dear, a roaming band of twenty-four goblins, or an ambush of eight Orken, since she was going to have to adjust the angle of her bow depending on said distance, preferably before the ‘how many’ enemies reached her.
Staring at the forty-foot reach of flames, and something twenty-foot high charring in it was.. a hair-raising experience.
She gulped down her very parched sense of fear, withdrew, and motioned the two to come —quietly.
Gnine also stared at the flames and the more he stared at it, the more he seemed to deflate.
Laila touched his shoulder. When that didn’t help, she put her hand on it and slightly squeezed.
Gnine stared at her and the ranger lieutenant gave him an encouraging smile and whispered. “We came this far, didn’t we?”
Gnine returned her smile with his depressed one.
Then he pulled them aside and spoke with a hushed, serious tone.
“Alright. What do we have here, then? Tell us what you can see, other than the obvious.”
“The central platform where the demon, Balor, is, is perfectly circular, meaning it was likely—”, Laila began.
“—Gnome crafted.”, inserted Gnine.
“Yes, maybe, I don’t know. It is, however, surrounded by a chasm that goes down as far as—”, she continued.
“—the very molten core of the earth.”, prompted Merisoul.
“Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. Wait! Really?”, asked the ranger lieutenant in astonishment.
“Likely. Which is why Regnalog has been here for so many centuries without getting bored. He must be feeding off the very core of the world!”, replied the succubi half-born with some consternation.
“Okay.”, Laila said. “Is that in any way significant?”
“Yes.”, mused Gnine. “Not immediately, but in the long run. The more he stays perched here, the more powerful he will become. And, I am guessing, because he will have devoured too much of the world’s essence, he will be as if he is part of this world, hence become unbanishable! He will be able to return to Hell and back, here, at will, without the need to be summoned. He will also act like a conduit, an anchor, if you will, for other demons to be summoned as well. Much like Themalsar was. Accept Themalsar was an old man when we faced him. I doubt this guy has any sense of time, in a Mortal sense..”
“Very astute, Master Gnine.”, said Merisoul admiringly. “Which is also why there are half-borns like me. We were made for this very reason. The variety in our kind is merely due to necessity of ‘as per need.'”
“Made?”, asked Laila with some bafflement.
Gnine, however, understood the whole implication of that simple statement, and suddenly, a great many things about this strange, otherworldly beautiful girl clicked in his mind.
“Damn..”, he said hoarsely.
“I am.”, replied Merisoul with a brittle, cheery voice.
“What?”, asked Laila. Then, it dawned on her as well. Not the whole picture, and certainly not as broadly as Master Gnine had, but the fringes of it. For Laila, however, that was more than enough.
Quietly, and boldly, she stepped up to her and took her into her embrace.
“We are who we are, my dear Merisoul Xyrotwu. But we can be who we choose to be. I love my father, but I can’t even remember my mother’s face anymore. Of her, I only have the memory of her beautiful, sad voice, and nothing else. I do remember how they loved one another and how they loved me. Or rather, I remember that warm feeling.. But unwittingly and certainly without ill intent, they made me; a girl who is a human, and an elf, yet neither a human nor an elf. Accepted among humans, tolerated, at best, among elves. My best friends are Gnine, a mischievous, all-ways-in-trouble, gnome, Bree, who is human, who is my cousin and also a troubled, social outcast, Udoorin, who I became friends, but only after beating at each other, Lorna, another half-elf, and also an outcast, Inshala, another weird girl, who is also an outcast.. and you! I do not make enemies out of whim, Soul, but I choose very, very carefully who my friends are because as much as I love and care for my friends, I do not want too many of them in fear of losing them. That is how much I care and love them!”, she said, drew back to stare at the succubi half-born in the eyes, just to see her face blotched.
“Do you understand me?”, Laila asked and for some reason, her voice had steel in it.
“I do not.”, Merisoul said. But she had started shaking like she was suddenly cold, which was odd, considering the oven heat coming from the cavernous chamber ahead.
“Do you understand me?”, Laila repeated, her voice even harder.
“I do not know!”, whispered Merisoul, trembling uncontrollably, now.
“Uhhmm.. Laila? I think she’s losing it!”, warned Gnine.
“We can be who we choose to be, Soul. That is ours, and no one can take that away from us. Do you understand me?”, she hissed at the half-born.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I understand the words and what the words mean, but I do not understand what they are supposed to make me feel!”, she said, as she quaked and with large tears coming down her beautiful, sad face, and fading in the heat of the hall.
Laila was not a book philosopher. She was a ranger, and like all rangers, she was a practical girl with practical solutions because if something was not practical, it wasn’t a solution, but a bad excuse for sloppiness and a lazy mind.
She grabbed Merisoul’s right hand with her left..
..and placed it on her own left breast, right over her heart, as she raised her right hand and placed it right over the half-born girl’s left breast.. and over her heart, and looked her in the eye.
“You, of all people, should feel what I feel. And through me, what you feel. Now tell me if you still don’t understand me!”, she said harshly.
“Uhhmm, Laila?”, asked Gnine a bit flustered.
“Shut up, Gnine. And don’t interfere. This is a girl thing!”, she hissed, never taking her eyes off the savagely shaking girl.
Gnine stared at her, then jumped to help her.
“No!”, Laila hissed again. “She has felt love, friendship, care, anxiety, fear, loss, happiness, victory, failure, and the Great Heavens know what else in me, and through me, she has felt herself and everything she carried but never felt for all her years! She has genuinely and truly felt them. Now, she knows, and now she can relate!”
“Wow, girl. You.. you fixed her!”, stammered Gnine.
“No, Gnine. Fixing a broken soul is not like fixing a broken arrow. I only showed her what it is she felt. I pointed at the door. The rest is up to her. It is she, who must decide what to do with the door. Now she has something to start and something to build on.”, Laila replied, looking down at the unconscious girl with compassion. “And it’s going to hurt.. a lot.”
“Did you feel what she feels, as well?”, asked Gnine in wonder.
Laila didn’t say anything for some time, still looking down at the succubi half-born, and there was a slight frown on her face.
“Yes.”, she said finally. “I did.”
“What did she feel?”
“That’s none of your business, gnome! Suffice to say, her kind of intense is insane!”, replied Laila, scowling down at him.
“Ow, I am suddenly a gnome, now, am I?”, grinned Gnine.
“Gnome was kinder than ‘midget’!”, smirked the half-elf girl.
“Harsh.”, Gnine said, shaking his head. “Very harsh..”
Laila snorted, then turned back to the big, cavernous chamber.
“Didn’t know you felt all those things, girl. Not to mention, what you just did was very, very risky and dangerous.”, Gnine said.
“We all feel such things, Gnine. One way or another.. I just don’t feel the need to make a spectacle of myself in public. As for the risk, becoming your friend was a risk too. Don’t think for a moment I didn’t know about your pranking reputation when we first met. But I took the risk and I did become your friend.”, she said, still gazing ahead.
“Yes. And look where that got you..”, scowled Gnine.
“..to the Halls of the King of Silent Hills!”, she finished and gave him a smirk.
“I see burnt.. or charred.. corpses.”, Laila said and pointed at some, rubble seeming things at the far side of the center platform. See?”
“Are you sure?”, Gnine asked in a sick voice.
“I have excelling eye vision. Those are charred corpses, and likely belonged to some gnomes.”
“Gnomes?”, Gnine exclaimed.
“Or perhaps kobolds. But I have not seen any tracks nor traces of kobolds ever since we came here. And kobolds have tails. Those don’t seem to have any.”
“Nice of you to notice our primary difference relied on the lack of a tail!”, scowled Gnine.
“Yes..”, replied Laila merrily. “As opposed to both races being mischievous, having the potential for great trouble and catastrophe, and dig deep underground and live there.”
Gnine scowled some more.
“See that?”, she said pointing at something.
“Nope. What am I supposed to be seeing?”, he asked.
“Hmm..”, mused Laila. “Perhaps it has to do with elevation.”
There was a distinct moment of smoldering silence.
“That.. was truly uncalled for, girl!”, Gnine fumed.
“I am sorry, Gnine.”, she said.
“No you are not!”, Gnine replied, still fuming at the ranger lieutenant.
“No, I am not.”, agreed, Laila with another snort. “But I was being literal when I said it might have something to do with elevation. There is a very long, very slim, bridge-like path leading away from the central platform. Just like the one we have here. And maybe there is a third one on the far side, to our left. Sort of like a triangle, though I can’t see it through the flames. Maybe we can make a run for it? I mean, if the Balor doesn’t take flight, I can make it to the other end of where the charred corpses are and over that bridge. I am guessing, if there are any live gnomes, that’s where we’d find them.”
“That’s a big pair of ifs, Laila.”
“She.. she is right..”, came a small, devastated voice, and both Gnine and Laila turned to see Merisoul sitting, her legs pulled up to her chest, her slender arms loose limply at her sides. Her face wasn’t quite a blotchy mess, but something told Laila that had she been a ‘mortal’ girl, it would have been. Or perhaps not, because Merisoul seemed like one of those naturally classy, elegant, and delicate girls that didn’t make a blotchy mess when they cried or ‘lost it’ in public. A bit like the princess, Lorna.. and linearly opposite of her cousin, Bremorel!
“Are you alright?”, Gnine asked with consternation.
“I do not know. I have never.. felt.. before!”, she replied with the first facial expression, other than her usual sad, solemn one; awe!
“How.. how do you even cope.. with all this?”, she asked Laila in a desperate, frightened voice.
“We don’t, Merisoul. Not always. That is why we break down at times. And why our friends hold our hands and pick us back on our feet, or offer a shoulder to cry..”, replied Laila kindly. “I have no idea what you went through in your youth, or if you were even allowed to live, or even have, a youth, but I suspect you had a lot of pent-up emotions. Mortals live them by the day and carry them along with them. In time, we either choose to let some of them go or seeth with them.. very seldomly, we choose to nurture them. The ones that ought to be nurtured, which is what forms good friends.. and sometimes.. new life..”
Then, as if remembering, or perhaps, awakening to something, she turned the little, pint-sized sprite, hovering around the gnome; Whimsi Lola.
“You! Pint-Size!”, she said, pointing at the sprite.
Whimsi Lola turned to her, very slowly, and gave the ranger lieutenant a glare that could only have been baleful!
“How dare you?!”, the tiny sprite hissed. “Unlike YOU, I am NOTpint-size!”
“What?”, said Laila, a bit baffled.
“YOU..”, the tiny sprite girl spluttered. “..ARE NOT EVEN A FULL ELF! I, ON THE OTHER HAND, AM A FULL SPRITE!”
“What?”, asked Laila, even more confused. “What are you talking about, girl?”
“I AND ALL MY ANCESTORS WERE SPRITES! I AM NOT A PINT-WHATSIT!”, the sprite girl hissed.
Gnine started to cackle.
“Pint-whatsit?”, Laila asked totally confounded. Then it dawned on her. “Girl..”, she fumed. “I was referring to your size.NOT your origin!”
“Ow!”, froze Whimsi Lola. “Is that what pint-size, means?”
Gnine’s cackle turned into a silent, vindictive laugh.
Laila glared at both of them.
“Well..”, said Lola. “In that case, I apologize for my outburst about your origin. I spoke out of turn, hence I owe you now, and must complete a task to even the scales and attain balance!”
Gnine stopped laughing and sighed.
“There is no need for that, Lola.”, he said. “We are all friends, here.”
“No.”, she objected. “We are not. I am your indentured cooperative auxiliary. That’s all. They are nothing to me, and I am nothing to them. We owe nothing to each other.”
“True. But we have shared food. You have also looked out for me, and by proxy, you have looked out for them. You have sat on Jay, and together you had fun. And both Merisoul and Laila have fought for me, and by proxy, they have fought for you and your safety.”, Gnine explained.
Whimsi Lola scowled at him.
“Let me put it this way, then.”, said Gnine. “You are not my pet, or my servant, my slave, serf, vassal, attendant, retainer, or maid, and certainly not my familiar, yes?”
Whimsi mulled over that a bit.
“No. I am not.”, she consented, though dubiously.
“I suppose that makes you, my friend. Other than an indentured cooperative auxiliary. And by my proxy, that makes them your friend as well.”
“Why do you mortals always want to complicate things, and not leave them as they are? Alright. I will concede that the ranger lieutenant and the soul bearer are my friends because thinking about this is giving me a headache and I don’t want to ask Mab if your logic is sound or fallacious and end up owing her again!”
Laila just stared at pint-size!
“Well? What do you want, Friend Ranger Leuitenant Laila Wolvesbane?”, the little sprite sniffed, a tad disdainfully.
Laila shook her head, then asked her. “You said you knew what had happened to my cousin, Bremorel Songsteel, and how she was made a lieutenant, and why..”
“Not personally, no. I overheard it mention in the Fey RSS!”, Whimsi said.
“Fey RS-what?”, Laila asked.
“Fey RSS —Rather Simple Snitching! Don’t you mortals know anything?”, she said exasperatedly.
Gnine snorted again.
“Apparently not.”, said Laila, looking up and pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Can you tell us more about what they are doing? Or how my cousin is? Do you know who she is?”
“Of course I know who she is. All fey in Ritual Forest knows all the rangers and the druids and the witches so we do not get in trouble with them.”, Whimsi Lola scoffed.
“What is she doing, then? How is my cousin?”, Laila asked excitably.
“How should I know?”, Lola asked irritably.
“But you said you knew her.”, Laila said a bit deflated.
“I know her, I don’t know what she is doing. We do not go into that place you have named Serenity Home because it is surrounded by dead trees, it has nothing but stones and iron in it and it is full of very boring mortals. Now that everyone wants to make war with everyone and kill one another, there is even more stone and iron there! And I am cut off from the Fey World ever since we entered the evil Demon Fog. I thought I told you that already. My Fey RSS is offline and I can’t even check my fe-mails!”, Whimsi explained exasperatedly.
Laila’s shoulders drooped. Just for a moment there, she had thought she could get a glimpse of her cousin’s and what she was doing and how she was..
Gnine came up to her and patted her on her hand.
“They’ll be alright, Laila. I am sure of it.”, he said kindly.
“How do you know? We are running out of time and literally stuck here.”, she seethed, her hands balling into fists.
“I know..”, said Gnine very, very seriously. “..because they had better be alright.. and because I don’t know what I’d do if they aren’t.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Perhaps Merisoul can carry you?”, Laila offered, looking down at Gnine. “I mean, even if I cast a Longstrider on you, it still won’t be enough.”
“I can’t carry him.”, Merisoul said with a confused and subdued voice. “I have managed to attain my ability to fly just recently. My wings were broken when I.. was at a very young age.. I started to work on them when I was on the roof of that inn we were staying.”
“Is that why you were always up there?”, asked Gnine.
“The rooms were crowded already. Princess Alor’Nadien ne, Laila, Lady Magella, Inshala, Sunsear.. When I entered the room, they started bumping into each other because of my wings, so as not to bump into me. So I spent most of my time up there and only came down when necessary. I did a lot of things up there. One of them was constantly moving my wings so as to strengthen them.”, she explained. “But I can dive into the chasm and come out from the other side, though if Regnalog sees me and decides to come after me, he will overtake me, and the feathers on my wings will catch fire and I will drop right into that bottomless chasm.”
“Sounds too risky, then.”, Laila said.
“Tis alright..”, she said wanly, “..and an acceptable risk. I will be only visible for but a moment as I jump down from this end. I will be totally in his line of sight when I come out on the other side though. But then, all of you will.”
“Don’t worry about me.”, said Gnine.
“Ow?”, asked Laila, staring down at the gnome with a frown and wondering just what kind of a convoluted plan he’d just come up with.
“I can simply teleport myself there.”, he said with a smirking shrug.
“You can do that?”
“Well, yes. I just said I can, didn’t I?”, he smirked some more.
“That leaves only you, dear Laila.”, Merisoul said softly.
“Whimsi can make you fly!”, offered Gnine and grinned happily.
“Thanks, but no thanks. No offense Lola, but I have seen the two of you dabble in that and how you land people. I’d rather not entertain broken arms or legs.”, she said in clear rejection.
“I wasn’t my fault!”, exclaimed Whimsi. “I told Master Gnine not to clench, but he just wouldn’t listen.”
“Clench?”, Laila asked with one arching brow.
“His butt!”, scoffed Whimsi with an exasperated voice.
Laila hurt herself.
Merisoul just stared at the tiny pint size, then at the furiously blushing gnome.
“Okay. Perhaps we can act like neither of you heard that?”, he pleaded.
“Ow, Hell no!”, smirked Laila triumphantly. “I now know all the dirty little secrets of a King!“
“Damit!”, Gnine scowled. “I am not even a king yet, and I already have blackmailers! At least let Whimsi put invisibility on you, girl!”
“What for? Balor can see invisible creatures.”, Lorna pointed.
“Yes, but he has to be near enough, you know. His Truesight skill isn’t horizon to horizon!”
“It’s alright. I can make that run in under thirty seconds!”, she smiled.
Gnine ogled at her then made a quick calculation in his mind and ended up with a claim of twenty-five feet per second on her part! Over seventeen miles an hour!
“Wow, girl. That’s around four miles more than an average human or elf!”
“Yea. I knew I was faster than the average elf, but it feels good to know just how much.”, she said happily. Then she looked at Whimsi Lola.“Can you make me invisible?”
The pint-size stared down at her with silent disdain.
“I suppose you can, then. I saw an archway at the end of the bridge. That’s where we must get to, though I do not know what will happen if Balor sees us, and decides to come after us. He might try and bring down the wall and enter, or the bridge.”, the ranger lieutenant said.
Gnine frowned a bit.
“We can’t let Balor on the bridge, no matter what. If a fight occurs and he is on that bridge, he will bring it down and that is our only sure way out, and likely the only exit for any gnomes that might still be alive. If we end up facing him, be sure to fight in that central platform.”, he said intently.
One half-born, the other half-elf, nodded at him.
“Merisoul, you are at go. I am thinking you will have to dive deep to arc back up there without Balor hearing your wing flaps, so go, now! Then it’s you, Laila. I’ll be last.”
Merrisoul walked up to the edge of the hall, turned around, and faced them. With a weak smile, she said, “I will meet you on the other side, then.”
And let herself go..
..and vanished in the pitch-black chasm.
“Damn. That is just so beautiful, scary, and awesome.”, whispered Gnine.
“Yea. Some people can do clichés and still make it look awesome.”, admitted, Laila.
“Whimsi. Are you ready?”, Gnine asked.
“Wait.”, Whimsi said. “We are NOT fighting that demon?”
“No. We are not. He is way above our pay grade. And I am not wasting the lives of my friends on a fiend.”, Gnine said grimly.
“Ow poo!”, pouted the pint-sized sprite. “Why don’t you just smack him with that fist of yours?”
“Again with the fist. I can’t just smack this guy, Whimsi. He won’t even feel it!”
“Well, perhaps you need bigger fists, then!”, she said disdainfully.
Gnine scowled at her.
“Whimsi, please. Do your thing and let’s get a move on, shall we? Merisoul will be out of that chasm soon.”
“Ow, alright.”, she said and flung a tiny hand full of her own pixie dust on Laila..
..and Laila vanished.
Gnine didn’t even hear her go.
“Laila? You still here?”, he asked just to be sure, but got no reply. “Right. Whimsi. On my shoulder, if you will?”
Whimsi landed on the little gnome’s shoulder and held on tight.
Gnine mimed drawing a tall, vertical rectangle, chanted a few words, reached out, and pushed the ‘door’ he had just drawn.
The ‘door’ opened, Gnine stepped through, and the door closed.
Another identical door opened, some five hundred feet away, about fifty feet before the archway, and Gnine stepped out.
He didn’t look back.
He just cast another spell and disappeared from his spot, to reappear thirty more feet away.
And ran the last twenty feet as Merisoul piked out of the chasm, her slender arms stretched and her wings flapping and thrashing furiously..
The two slid past the archway when a deep rumble, followed by the sharp cracking of a giant whip echoed..
Laila appeared, some one hundred feet away and still on the bridge, fear etched on her face. She turned around and saw the furnacing flames rise higher..
..and Balor, Regnalog, stepped out of the flames.
For an infinite second, she looked back at Gnine and Merisoul.
“RUN, YOU FOOLS!”
Her elven bow, Gracious Warning, drawn.
At the demon!
✱ ✱ ✱
WHAT IS SHE DOING?!”, shrieked Gnine!
“What a ranger should; To be the first to face evil, and the last evil has to face!”, replied Merisoul. “We have been had, Master Gnine..”
Gnine started back at the bridge, quite mindlessly, and without a moment’s thought of self-preservation.
Merisoul jumped after him and toppled him over, face down, her black, raven wings beating hard to keep him down.
“Let me go, Soul! She is my friend! She needs my help!”, Gnine snarled.
“She is my friend. And she needs your mind!”,Merisoul replied hoarsely as she tried to bring some semblance of thought to the little gnome struggling to escape from under her as she pleaded desperately. “Your spells will not help against Regnalog! Please, Master Gnine. You must go! Go and find your gnomes. Find help! Make her sacrifice worth the cause!”
Gnine lost it!
He snarled and kicked and almost squirmed from under the otherworldly girl.
Leaving but little choice for the succubi half-born..
“YOU MUST NOT!”
..she heard a thundering voice crack, sharply in her head.
“I shall do what I must to save my friends!”, she replied, quite calmly, though her heart seethed, a something that had never happened before.
Merisoul Xyrotwu recognized it for what it was.
After years and years of wondering and toiling,
scheming, failing, and crying, she finally..
“..AND SUFFER THE SAME RETRIBUTION AS BEFORE!”
“Suffer me your best! I shall not abandon my friends..”, she smoldered..
..and did something she hadn’t done for a good, long while. Against all warnings, she used her heritage;
She bit the squirming and struggling gnome.. by the ear.. drew the tiniest bit of blood.. and whispered in her soft, sad, and quaking, yet mesmerizing, throbbing, and enthralling true voice..
“Go, Master Gnine. Find your gnomes. Or find help. Go and never come back without either.“
..and let go of the gnome.
Gnine jumped on his feet and spun around in circles, his eyes white and wide.
He spun once..
..and darted off into the only hall leading out.
Merisoul looked up and at the unseen sky and spoke harshly and in defiance.
“I am ready. Bring me down your retribution and smite me.. I only ask for the brief duration of a delay to save my friends. This, I am sure, I have thus earned. This I ask, in the name of Compassion!”
“WHO ARE YOU TO SPEAK OF COMPASSION?”
“Someone who was born with it, lost it, then found it again.”
The Voice of Wrath fell silent.
“STILL TRYING TO ATTAIN YOUR ASCENSION THROUGH FOLLY?”
Arezme Ara Serraphyn spoke.
“Have your precious Ascension, Priceptine. I care little anymore. Judge or Speak, but either way, I will save my friends, for they have given me something you never bothered; aheart!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Regnalog rose out the incinerating flames, and with a thunderous boom, he stepped forth, a monstrosity, some twenty-five feet high with thirty-foot wingspan wielding a fifteen-foot, burning scimitar in one, great, scaly and clawed hand, and a long, barbed, and crackling whip in the other, and all of him reeking in his own sheets of flames.
With a powerful beat of his enormous, bat-like wings he launched himself..
..and with a thunderclap, he landed before the tiny-looking mortal girl, defiantly running at him!
Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane did not wait nor pause for any dramatic effects, nor for any challenges or counter verbal spat, no thundering, righteous demands of ‘yield or die’s.. She was a ranger and rangers had little use for stupid!
She had but a single mission in her mind;
Keep the demon off the bridge, keep it busy and stay alive.
The last part was important. And not in just a self-preservation sense, but dead people were dead and could not help their friends.
Laila was a practical girl like that.
She drew her long, elven bow as she ran. The legendary bow of Silendenien Sunlight, Princess Lorna’s long-deceased aunt, murdered during the first Themalsar War some eight hundred years ago by the mad priest himself, and the youngest of the three siblings; High Lady Angrellen Sunsear and Ri Grandaleren Feymist, Gracious Warning, started to glow and radiate. It was not burning with fire, but that of brilliant golden light.
“The ‘Warning’ is over..”, she whispered in exhilarated fear. “Time to be ‘Gracious!'”
Laila loosed the arrow as she ran and cocked a second, almost seamlessly, and loosed that one as well.
The arrows, burning bright and gold, streaked through the air and struck home..
The monstrosity barely noticed them as they hit, one on its massive chest, one on the shoulder.
But then they bloomed!
With a searing, radiant light, the arrows bloomed and burned the demon.
..and brought its smoldering sword down.
..and she never stopped.
The fiery, molten scimitar sliced and the whole platform quaked as large rocks and boulders came crashing from above with choking dust and debris.
Laila stumbled, for a mere brief moment, regained her balance, and once more, she was on the run as she sent two more arrows; one burned and winked out in cinders, but the second struck.. and also bloomed with brilliant, radiant light before it too burned and turned to ash.
“Those arrows cost money, dammit!”, hissed the half-elf girl, and loosed two more.
Again and again, her Gracious Warning sent blooming arrows and sparked on the Balor, each causing the great demon to howl and roar, bringing more rubble and rocks down.
..and with a thunderclap, brought his whip.
The whip cracked like nothing Laila had experienced before as long, jagged streaks of lightning jabbed at her and the barbs of the whip crashed, opening a sharp fissure in the platform that crawled and branched, sending bits and piece of rock, shrapneling in every direction.
Laila crumbed on her knees in pain, bloodied and bruised, and smoke boiled out of her scarred leathers. “No, dammit.”, she snarled and rolled on broken, jagged rocks as the thundered whip and came down again, followed by the screeching wind of the burning scimitar!
✱ ✱ ✱
Gnine Tinkerdome ran as he’d never ran before. It was like he was under some mindless compulsion or even a geas. Deep down, something told him it was the touch of the succubi half-born that had driven him into such dire straights, but the voice was subdued, and for some unknown reason, seemed to agree with her.
So he ran, for how long, he couldn’t discern, but the stabbing pain at his side told him he was tethering at the end of his endurance. Still, he ran because the voice, the other one, the soft, sad, and beautifully enthralling voice had told him to go and to never come back. Not without his gnomes, or help!
It was then, he stumbled into the large, circular chamber at the end of the hall. The room was perhaps one hundred feet across and eighty feet deep and for a bare moment, he did wonder why gnomes built rooms, chambers, and halls always so much larger than they would possibly need. Even the hall he’d just ran through had been at least thirty feet wide and possibly sixty feet high.
With haste born of desperation, he looked around and noted the room was not empty. There was strange machinery of one kind of another scattered everywhere, consisting mostly of consoles with odd, blocky buttons, arms, levers, and knobs, and many, many small screens and displays, though they were all dead, blank, or just cracked or smashed.
The main display, the one in the center, however, was huge, perhaps sixteen feet wide and nine feet high. Though it too was somewhat cracked at one corner and chipped on its dusty surface, it had somehow remained intact.
And there, right under it, was an elegantly molded, brushed steel, double-handled circuit breaker. And right under that was a label embossed on a brass plaque in some strange, cryptic letters, and in elder gnomish;
“if you are”
Gnine had no idea what that meant. But he grabbed at the circuit breaker and pulled it down.
Because at that moment, a deep, thunderous roar and the crack of lightning echoed down the hall and he was just that desperate.
He heard a sudden, whining sound coming from somewhere under his feet followed by numerous large, clanking, metallic noises, the lights on many of the panels burst alive making odd, jarring sounds, and most of the unbroken smaller screens and displays lit, scrolling some green, mono-space texts with a lot of alpha-numerical jibberish..
..and that’s it.
Nothing else happened!
“Are you kidding me?”, Gnine cried deploringly. “We came all the way, and bleeding along, here, and that’s it? Some weird whining and clanking and some creepy light show in retro, steamchunk theme?”
Then he heard, quite clearly, a matronly voice, though a bit on the squeaky side;
> Voice Activation: Verified!
> Welcome, Gnine Tinkerdome.
> You are now in the HQ of Silent Vaults.
> Please select from the choices presented on the main display using the GID – Gnomic Interaction Device and press the [ENTER] key!
> You will receive a verification code for confirmation which you must also enter, using the GID.
> Should you wish to listen to the instruction again, please press 1..
> Thank you and have a nice day.
And with ogling fascination, Gnine stared as blocky gnomish texts that came scrolling down the big, main display.
>  Listen to the Instructions.
>  Security Cameras and Alarms. > Current Status: OFFLINE.
>  Cryo-Sleep/Hydration Chamber. > Current Status: ACTIVE.
>  Sentinel Turrets (Caution). > Current Status: OFFLINE.
>  Power Lines and Ventilation. > Current Status: OFFLINE.
>  Water Lines and Aqueducts. > Current Status: OFFLINE.
>  Sewers and Recycling. > Current Status: OFFLINE.
>  System Updates (Admin Status Required) > Current Status: 2,793 Pending Updates.
>  ULTRABER! (Extreme Caution). > Current Status: OFFLINE.
As dumbfounded as he was, Gnine’s mind worked at an incredible pace as he ran down the list and promptly hit the number , on the GID —Gnomic Interaction Device!
Whatever this all was, it wasn’t just magic and gnomic engineering at its best, it was base, mad, ingenuity. Something only someone like him would have admired and found genuinely appealing.
A tiny, pipsqueak voice buzzed in his head.
> Verification Code for Security Cameras and Alarms
Gnine quickly entered the four digits into the GID and while many of the smaller screens stayed dark or had random dots and lines of static, some did show live images in black and white. And in one of them, he could see the great, very nearly endless vault of tombs they had seen. And in the image, he saw dark, clawing figures creeping in their direction. In another display, he saw Laila crash into the ground, bloodied and bruised as something huge raised its seething sword!
“Regnalog!”, hissed Gnine and hit , , , and then !
He was suddenly spammed by a number of tiny, buzzing squeaks!
> Verification Code for Power Lines and Ventilation
> Verification Code for Water Lines and Aqueducts
> Verification Code for Sewers and Recycling
> Verification Code for Sentinel Turrets (Caution)
He entered all the codes, one by one, through the GID and the whole room lit by some sourceless-seeming ambient light. Through the security screens, he could see more tunnels, halls, and chambers light up. He wasn’t sure what Water Lines and Aqueducts, and Sewers and Recycling had done, but the list had refreshed and they now showed their current status as; ONLINE!
The effect of the cautioned Sentinel Turrets turned out to be quite a bit more distinct..
On the tiny screen, displaying the tomb room, many contraptions sprung from the floor and walls, and in a bloody rain of deadly projectiles, the demons there were all nothing but indiscernible heaps!
“Alright.. that was a bit gruesome..”, he said in a sick voice. “Effective though!”
Then he slammed the console and screamed with despair.
“All of this is nice and cool but they aren’t helping Laila!”
Then he saw it.
He didn’t pause, he didn’t hesitate.
He hit his own number:  —ULTRABER!
> Verification Code for ULTRABER! (Extreme Caution)
Another loud clanking noise came and this one just to his right. A section of the wall dropped down and disappeared into the ground, revealing something.. HUGE!
It was perhaps eighteen feet high, made out of steel and perhaps some kind of carbon alloy with an elongated, egg-like head, a round, tubular torso, long, segmented arms that very nearly reached down to the floor and ended with three-fingered, pincer-like hands. It seemed old because it was covered in dust and rust all over.
With a sharp hiss, the front of the tubular torso opened, not unlike a window shutter, revealing a tiny, compact room with many buttons, arms, levers, and knobs, and a small, gnome-sized armchair.
Gnine cackled with glee.
“Larger fists, did you say? Larger fists, INCOMING!”
And as if on cue, a rope ladder rolled down and all fell silent again, waiting..
Gnine slithered up the rope ladder and hopped into the seat and noted the inside of the.. whatever this thing was.. was quite clean and dust-free. He poked his head out and looked a bit more closely at the paint job and noticed..
“Damn. It’s retro-paint! Someone’s gone to some serious trouble to give this a steamchunk-look. Obsession, much?”
Then he looked around him and noticed all the buttons, arms, levers, and knobs were neatly labeled. There was even a bundled user manual!
“I’d say, someone really wants me to use this!”, he cackled some more.
He grabbed the user manual and skimmed through it. By the time he was done, in under two, short minutes, he was amazed.. and somewhat scared..
This.. thing.. ominously named ULTRABER, was not a toy. It was a weapon of potential mass destruction!
“Looks like someone was preparing for a rainy day!”, he murmured, then turned to the little sprite, Whimsi Lola, who had been silently hovering just over his head with a frightened expression on her tiny face and said in a low, growly voice.
“You will wait here, my little friend. Balor is not something you can fight. This, I think you already know. I am aware that you don’t owe Laila Wolvesbane anything, but should I not come back, I would like you to stay with her and keep her safe and happy, just like you did with me. And should.. neither of us comes back, you can stick with Miss Merisoul, or you may return to your forest and unindentured. You owe nothing to anyone anymore, my little friend. Savvy?”
Whimsi Lola stared at him.. with a running nose!
“I have no idea what savvy means, but I will honor this last bequest of yours, Master Gnine.. I shall wait here, a year and a day. And should you or Friend Ranger Lieutenant Laila Wolvesbane have not returned by then, I shall take my leave and return to.. Mab.. Dammit! I was this close to having escaped her!”, she sniffed and drifted off and perched herself in front of one of the security displays and started slurping something out of a tiny little can!
“Right.”, said Gnine grimly and slapped the big HATCH button, shutting the doors of the DOCKPIT, oddly named as it was, and pulled at the STARTUP lever, and smashed down the foot paddles..
ULTRABER lurched forward, taking a giant step, followed by another as Gnine paddled the mechanical monstrosity using his feet and spun the torso and the arms using the two, steel, circuit breaker levers.
Then he punched another button labeled;
Terminal Output Neuro Interface Coefficient!
“Hold on, girl.”, he hissed through gritted teeth. “Never just ended! I am coming..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Laila tumbled and rolled, barely keeping a step ahead of the lightning whip and the molten blade but Regnalog never gave her the chance. He roared and bellowed and smashed his fiery scimitar with the fury of Hell and sent streaks of lightning each time he clapped his whip.
Laila felt her strength drain as she bled from numerous cuts, burns, and wounds as exhaustion settled in.
“Not gonna give in! My friends depend on me, dammit. My father doesn’t even know where I am! I can’t let him suffer the same thing he did after my mother died. Not again..”, she squeezed the words and sent another blooming arrow.
Then, just for a moment, Balor stumbled.
And Merisoul appeared, high and above, and a long spear of brilliant golden light streaked out of her hands and struck the monstrous demon. Then she sent another beam of the same golden, radiant light.. and another!
Laila had seen the odd, otherworldly girl mime that same way before. Many, many times. It had been her go-to spell! Much like shooting arrows was hers. But always before, it had been a dark, purplish, lightning-like thing. Now it was this brilliant, golden, radiant, streaking beam.. The change was significant, Laila was sure of it. She just couldn’t figure out what.. or why? Or perhaps she was just so hurt, bloodied, and tired. Nevertheless, she didn’t waste the opportunity. She held her breath, carefully aimed, and loosed two more arrows.
One struck Regnalog on the temple, causing it to howl and roar, and inevitably turn her way, a something Laila had anticipated. Her second arrow struck him..
..in the eye!
Balor froze, for just a moment, and the arrow bloomed!
With a searing golden explosion, Regnalog’s eye turned into a gaping, cavernous, empty hole!
The wrath of Balor knew no bounds after that. A wave of molten flames burst out of him, burning everything in its path. The fire spread along the platform leaving nowhere to hide.
Laila’s last thought was, “Totally worth it, bitch!”
Then the flames washed over her, and swept her away, not unlike a tsunami.
With one short cry of pain, Laila Wolvesbane was gone and over the edge.
Her whites visible with fear and terror, she disappeared in the bottomless chasm..
✱ ✱ ✱
Good afternoon, Gnine Tinkerdome.”, said a raspy, tenoric voice.
“Gimme all the specs on this ULTRABER thingy!”, he barked.
“ULTRABER; The Ultimate Mechanical Bear—”, started T.O.N.I.C.
“Bear? This thing looks nothing even remotely like a bear!”, scowled Gnine.
“—is totally corrosion-proof and can stay up to five hours underwater and is airtight, effectively making you immune to viral, bacterial, and/or fungal infections and diseases and poisons in gaseous forms for the duration. It can stay functional in arctic conditions and can stay in pressurized lava for up to thirty minutes before the DOCKPIT is ruptured. It has a wide variety of weapons; one AEARFGL —Area Effect Air Propelled Fire Grenade Launcher on the right and one STAGL —Single Target Acid Grenade Launcher on the left shoulder, one ASGL —Area Stun Grenade Launcher on the lower turret, one stationary FRBC —Focused Radiance Beam Condenser right above the DOCKPIT, and two HVPARGs —High-Velocity Projectile Auto Reloading Guns, one on each arm! The ULTRABER can punch through an average enforced siege wall at a rate of one foot of seamless stone per ten minutes. Its pincers can eviscerate a dragon’s hide with little trouble, and has ALG —Auto Leveling Gyro to move its legs automatically to avoid tumbling or falling. And of course, the built-in USDS —Ultimate Self Destruct System that can level a half-mile radius and an EEM —Emergency Ejection Mechanism!”
“Girl, whoever you are, you sure like your acronyms, don’t you? Lost a lot of sleep over them, I am sure!”, mumbled Gnine, and stepped on it.. figuratively..
ULTRABER moved at an impressive speed and agility and Gnine figured out why the halls, the tunnels, the corridors, and the rooms of Silent Hills were so big, wide, and high..
“Damn. They must have thought of making multiple numbers of these monstrosities!”, he frowned as he carefully inspected all the other labels under each button, arm, lever, switch, and knob, and there were a lot of them!
Most of them were self-explanatory, others were left without any explanations but sounded more like names.
One punch-button read; [CORA] and Gnine’s fingers itched to hit it.
The itch won and he yelped when the DOCKPIT was suddenly filled with cool, arctic air and the temperature inside dropped drastically.
Another such button read; [BROM] and Gnine stared at it suspiciously but punched it anyway and a strange tune began to play in the DOCKPIT..
It was a savage tune. A beastly, intriguing, itching, rapid, and very nearly asynchronous tune.
It was a tune that reached Gnine at his most, basic level. It was a tune that had been created by someone who had suffered the toils of the Great Northern Tundras and it was a tune that was the culmination of that frozen land as he’d seen it, beheld it, and understood it; wild, free, endless, and tormentingly beautiful!
And it seized Gnine, hit him over the head, concussed him, and left him stunned and bewildered..
“Damn, girl!”, Gnine said, a bit awed. “This is one good song to go to war!”
Then he noted the third button with another name; [SERESSA]!
Somewhat elated by the previous two buttons, he mindlessly hit this one as well.
Gnine thought he heard a very faint hiss, but nothing else happened.
“Perhaps this one is broken.”, he mused as ULTRABER clanked arduously down the hall.
Then he picked up the scent!
It was a beautiful, brushing scent, perhaps of ripe strawberries, or cherry blooms, or.. phloxes?.. and something else.. something intimate.. and tender.. and feminine.. and soft.. and..
Gnine blushed furiously.
“Alright.. Apparently, someone had some interesting fetishes! Better mark this one off as ‘off limits’..”, he coughed.
Whatever this SERESSA was, it definitely was an.. exhilarating.. yes.. honestly exhilarating.. chemical!
Then there was the [DIE BIACH!] button and Gnine had no intentions of ever touching that one!
Red lights suddenly lit inside the DOCKPIT and the raspy, tenoric voice of T.O.N.I.C was heard again.
“Warning! Warning! High-temperature heatwave signature detected! UEA —Unknown Extraterrestrial Anomaly sighted! Analysis Reports: Balor; Class X Demon. Extremely Dangerous.. Arming STAGL, ASGL, FRBC, and the HVPARGs.. Distance: 700 ft. and closing.. Route: Civilian Bridge.. Status: Damaged Infrastructure.. Suggested Exit Strategy: Full Thrusters!”
“Full Thrusters!”, barked Gnine and ULTRABER bursts forward and Gnine felt himself flatten against the DOCKPIT armchair! At an accelerated speed, the hall suddenly ended and ULTRABER rammed right through the wall, and over the bottomless chasm!
✱ ✱ ✱
Merisoul watched her friend get flung over the edge and disappear in the chasm with unadulterated horror as she heard her tiny yelp over the roaring fire.
She wasn’t quite sure which hurt more, that her friend, Laila had just vanished into the bottomless chasm, or that her wings had caught fire and she was slowly but ultimately burning.
“So be it.”, she murmured.
Slowly she tilted..
..and piked down and after the ranger lieutenant!
She felt every single one of her feathers simmer, shrivel, and disintegrate by the fire of Balor, and tears of pain streaked out the side of her sad, solemn eyes. Her slender arms stretched before her, she made herself as small as possible and beat her wings savagely to attain a speed faster than terminal velocity, otherwise, there would be no catching up to her friend no matter how far down they fell. The gaping distance between them just would never close..
With a burst of sparkling cinders, her wings burned out and she saw Laila, her eyes closed, her boldly beautiful face pinched in pain and horror, her long, soft, brown hair lashing wildly and her beloved elven bow clutched tightly to her chest, she portrayed a figure who knew she had done all she could but it just hadn’t been enough.
“Your eyes.. Open them, my friend..”, Merisoul sent her thought at her.
“Mm.. Merisoul?“, Laila mumbled with fright.
“Yes. I am coming.. Open your eyes, for they are pretty and I must see!”, Merisoul whispered.
“Don’t come. There’s no coming back! Help Gnine. At least he should get to be king and save my home..”, she whispered back.
“Together. We agreed on this. When we first went into the Fog, did we not?”
“Yes. We did. But I am done and you can’t carry me out.”
“No. I can’t. Regnalog burned my wings.”, Merisoul said sadly.
“Then, why come?”, Laila asked and opened her eyes to see the odd, otherworldly girl rushing at her.
“Because no one should die alone..”
“Go back, girl. I am sure you can save yourself. You excel at everything you do.”
“I have never used a bow like you. And never had a heart like yours.”
“Take the bow. Gracious Warning shouldn’t be lost in the debts of some bottomless pit. As for the heart, I believe yours is the greatest one there is. No one has suffered what you have, and still did the things you did for any mortal. Yet you have.. Take the bow and go back.. Tell Gnine.. and my father.. and my cousin.. I am sorry..”, Laila said and closed her eyes again as pain engulfed her.
“Sacrifice..“, Merisoul whispered..
“..Should not be wasted thus gratis!”
Soul Bearer closed her eyes and mind..
And she turned off the world.
The wind rushed fiercely.
Tears ran and free.
And her heart..
I am not a taker, my dear girl. I do not take. I give.
You gave. Now, is my turn to give back. Please. I must save my friend.
You plead a bargain with me to save a Mortal, at the expense of your own life?
My whole life, I sought a heart. This Mortal learned me mine. And for the first time, I ‘felt’. It is beautiful!
Thus, you are.. Rejoice!
I have attained my merry soul, at last. Nothing more have I wanted. The purpose I set for myself, and my existence is done and done.
Nay, dear girl. Your existence has just begun.
She has love and loved ones. I do not. Few will shed tears after me and forgotten shall I be soon enough. Her father and her friends shall mourn for many long years, and many Mortals shall die because she has..
You undervalue your existence. You have friends and a BFF, do you not?
My mirima Temez is strong. Unlike me.
No, dear child. She is strong, because of you.
Please.. Please, just do it!
You are bonded. I must but ask Priceptine.
No.. He does not understand.. A silly and foolish girl is all I am to Him.
Perhaps you think Him silly and foolish, missing the point where He isn’t?
He has been nothing but cruel to me.
He has been everything but cruel to you.
He will never consent to my Ascension!
It was never up to Him, nor was His concession ever required for your Ascension.
He hurt me and pummeled me, like a drunkard upon his woman!
He was trapped in that locket, because of your former master!
He.. he knew?
Of course, dear. How could he not? Did I not know who you were, when we first met?
Can’t you just do it? Before He comes? I gave you my hand when you asked. You owe me..
You gave me your hand because you are kind. Yet you want to bargain your existence for the sins of your former master?
Because she is my friend. She learned me my heart.. I feel now. It is beautiful. And I am scared..
My dear Merisoul.. Live up to your name and live a merry soul. Offer yourself the time to attain that, at least, before giving up. Do not deny this of yourself.
I have attained all I wanted. I am free of Hell. My BFF is free of Hell. All my kind are free of Hell and thus we have ‘life’, we have ‘heart’, and we have ‘choice’ now. And this is mine. Please.. Honor it..
For one thousand six hundred years have I suffered the vilest sins at the hands of your former master. Gladly would I suffer more and a like amount for the single beat of your heart.
My heart has beat enough. Her’s must more! Please. Ad Ara.
Very well. Priceptine, if you will..
AHHH, AD ARA..
IT HAS BEEN TOO LONG AND THE MORTAL COIL HAS SUFFERED YOUR ABSENCE.
My dearest Priceptine. Much have you frowned upon the follies of Mortals and shied from their greatness. Yet here is one that is beholden to you and thus she has proven my point, cast eons ago;
Had we only given them better options, this world would have been a merrier place.
Behold thy testament;
This merry soul would wish to trade her existence for mine to save her friend. You must agree on this, and free her of your bond.
HOW MANY MORE TIMES MUST SHE BARGAIN FOR HER FRIENDS?
SHE CAN DO AS SHE PLEASES. FOR SHE IS MORTAL NOW! SHE HAS HEART!
I.. I am?
YOU TRULY ARE A FOOLISH AND SILLY GIRL!
DO YOU NOT HEAR THE MORTAL BEAT OF YOUR OWN HEART, NOW?
CRUEL, THOUGH, YOU HAVE THOUGHT I BE, YOU MUST KNOW, A HEART MAY NOT BE GIVEN. IT MUST BE REALIZED. FOR WHAT IS GIVEN CAN NEVER BE AS PRECIOUS AS WHAT IS EARNED. AND A HEART THAT DOES NOT BEAT, IS BUT A DEAD HEART. OF ALL MORTALS, I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT A FOOLISH AND SILLY LITTLE GIRL SUCH AS YOURSELF WOULD HAVE NOTICED THIS, FOR IT WAS YOU, WHO STOPPED YOUR OWN, TO START ANOTHER’S, ONCE, DID YOU NOT?
AND SHOULD THE SAID HEART WANT TO BEAT, IT MUST BEAT ON ITS OWN, AND WILLINGLY, AND MUSTN’T EXPECT OTHERS TO SQUEEZE IT TO KEEP IT ALIVE! THAT WOULD BE A RATHER SLOTH EXPECTATION, WOULDN’T YOU AGREE?
YES, I AM THE ARCHANGEL OF WRATH AND THAT IS MY PRIMARY ASPECT, AND TIME AND AGAIN, I HAVE WATCHED THE FRUITLESS EFFORTS OF MORTALS SIN ONE ANOTHER OVER AND OVER, OVER THE CYCLES, HENCE I HAVE GROWN WEARY OF THEM AND MY WRATH UPON THEM IS JUSTIFIED. BUT I DO NOT LACK COMPASSION.
IT IS TRUE, COMPASSION IS NOT MY PRIMARY ASPECT, BUT ONE CAN NOT BE AN ANGEL AND LACK IT! THIS TOO, I THINK A GIRL AS FOOLISH AND SILLY AND AS DEAR AS YOU WOULD HAVE RECOGNIZED, YES? CONSIDERING THE CARE AND COMPASSION YOU HAVE THUS SHOWN, NOT ONLY TO YOUR MORTAL FRIENDS BUT BY SAVING YOUR BEST FIEND FRIENDS AS WELL. I AM WRATH, TRUE, BUT MY CLOSEST AND DEAREST FRIEND HAS ALWAYS BEEN COMPASSION!
SUFFICE TO SAY, AREZME ARA SERRAPHYN (INSERT ALL YOUR OTHER SILLY NAMES HERE), THE CHOICE IS YOURS. IT ALWAYS WAS..
Then.. ..I choose her life, over my existence.. Hoist her from this bottomless pit. For here, she does not belong.. Here, it is dark, it is bleak and it is lonely..
THAT IS A SAD CHOICE TO MAKE. PERHAPS YOU WOULD WANT SOMETHING IN RETURN..
LOVED YOU HAVE, TO ALWAYS WANT TO BARGAIN..
Yes. I want a Cup.
A Cup; Four parts sugar. One part salt. And five parts bitter..
THAT IS A GOOD CUP.
✱ ✱ ✱
The walls shattered like eggshells and ULTRABER burst out! And with a great, graceful arc, it arched over the bottomless chasm, and slammed into Regnalog!
The monstrous Balor roared and grabbed at the giant mechaber and struck, hurling ULTRABER back.
ULTRABER’s ALG —Auto Leveling Gyro kicked in and it landed on its legs and a shaft of brilliant, searing light burst from its chest and struck Balor, leaving a gaping hole on his giant torso.
And with a series of plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk sounds, a volley of Acid Grenades launched from one shoulder, leaving marred, molten, fleshless scars on the bellowing Balor.
“You.. you son of a.. You killed Laila.. my best friend.. the only person who was always been with me! And you killed Merisoul.. the only person who never judged me.. You.. They.. They were my friends you bastard!”, spluttered Gnine, in the DOCKPIT, his eyes ablaze and burning with hate..
“DIE BIACH!”, he screamed..
..and hit the [DIE BIACH!] button!
The tenoric voice of T.O.N.I.C screeched in the tubular DOCKPIT;
“DIE BIACH Protocol initiated!”
“Warning! System Overload in 3.. 2.. 1..”
ALL AT ONCE!
The STAGs (Single Target Acid Grenades) hissed wildly with mad, chaotic, arching fumes as every single acid grenade volleyed forth, and all at once.. The ASGs (Area Stun Grenade) plunged —all of them— and with ear-bleeding and eye-searing thunderclaps, detonated around Balor. The FRB (Focused Radiance Beam), stabbed and speared right through him like the wrath of Shal -ah Galad, the Spear of Light, itself! And with a roaring Ratta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta staccato, the two HVPARGs (High-Velocity Projectile Auto Reloading Guns) zapped and zigzagged like thousands of fist-sized angry hornets buzzing with red-orange trail-lines, and left bloody cloud puffs wherever they hit, and ULTRABER emptied the whole content of its destructive payload!..
Not satisfied, Gnine spun the ULTRABER at a wide, ultra-speed velocity, and struck with one eviscerating pincer followed immediately by the other..
Over and over and over again, like some crazed desert dervish..
And with a tremendous and resounding crash, Regnalog’s massive head smashed into the burning platform, right next to its shredded, molten, seared, riddled, and ravaged body!
✱ ✱ ✱
Gnine slammed at the [CORA] button and flushed the overheated DOCKPIT, then hit the HATCH button and ULTRABER’s tubular torso split open. He tossed the rope ladder and scrambled down and ran to the side of the platform, tears running shamelessly down his pinched and distorted face.
“LAILA! LAILA?”, he shouted down the bottomless chasm and his tenoric voice echoed through the Silent Vaults, perhaps the only live gnome’s voice to have been heard since the Demon Fog.
“No, girl..”, he wept and fell on his back fisting his hands. “It was supposed to be me! Not her! Why? Why, dammit? She was nothing but a good, brave girl, and the only person to have bothered to be my friend! No kingdom is worth this.. No kingdom can replace her.”
It took him a while to notice the screaming wind.
When he did, he noticed the brilliant golden light rising out of the bottomless chasm.
He stared at it with hopeless abandon and with incredible speed, the golden radiance came out of the chasm, and lo..
Gnine Tinkerdome beheld the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sight he had ever seen.
A tall, slim figure in some ancient but delicate golden plate armor, her face luminous and serene, her eyes lost in the far distances of eternity, her majestic, snowy-white wings stretched far and wide, an Angel rose!
Ad Ara rose..
And in her arms, she held Laila Wolvesbane.
“Behold, young Master Gnine Tinkerdome, for I gift you, your friend back. Love her, care for her, and cherish her, for she has fought bravely and valiantly and against a foe much disproportionate to herself for you, your people, your Silent Vaults, and the cause of decent men. Had there been but a few more of her brave and arduous kind, this world would, indeed, have been a merrier place..”, Ad Ara said, her gentle voice echoing and reverberating in vast halls of Silent Hills, and gently, she settled the depleted form of Laila on the platform.
Gnine just ogled at her.
“Merisoul?”, Gnine chocked in a hushed voice.
“Dear Merisoul Xyrotwu has parted. Her last wish was of sacrifice; the life of her friends for her existence. Cherish that, also, for methinks that is the greatest of sacrifices and par to Ascension.”
“No..”, mumbled Gnine and saw Laila too was awake and silently crying where she lay. “She.. she is one of us! She belongs to us.. She is our friend!”
“Thus you are, and thus you, Gnine Tinkerdome, and you, Laila Wolvesbane have fought, time and again against the sins of men and that of foul fiends and demons, risking your lives in return, did you not? At any time, could either of you, or your beloved company could have perished. Knew you this risk, and still took it, did you not? And willingly did you still sweat, and bleed and oft times, endangered your very lives for such noble a task.. Thus has she.. Mourn not, for her sacrifice was not in vain nor was it a folly loss; she saw the merit of her friends, because of her friends.. She weighed the value of your friendship and the worth of your lives, so much dear to her, as she saw it, understood it, and felt it, and against her very existence and deemed it a worthy exchange. Know though, her choice was well informed and done willingly. Her last and only bequest was that you, Laila Wolvesbane, keep her ever-loyal familiar, Jay, and comfort him, for he will not understand sacrifice, but only live its consequences.. Farewell and rejoice, for she and I are now, Xyrone..”
And with that, and with a brilliant, golden, radiance, Ad Ara, the Archangel of Compassion streaked up, and up, and was gone!
And the only thing that remained was the sound of smoldering flames of what was once Balor, Regnalog..
..and the croaking whimpers of a tiny dragon.
✱ ✱ ✱
Are you ready?”, Gnine asked with a subdued voice and hiccuped, when he heard little Jay’s whimpering croak again..
..and broke down, once more.
Laila sniffed loudly as she came up to him and held him tightly in her scarred embrace.
“I don’t even..”, she began and faltered. “I don’t even know what to tell the others..”
“I don’t even know what to tell myself!”, mumbled Gnine as he sobbed. “She was so nice. Always there for me, for you, for the others.. She was nice even to Aager and Anglenna and no one is nice to those two!”
“Accept Inshala.”, Laila said and sniffed again.
“Ow. My. Good. Heavens! Inshala! What are we going to tell her? She will be devastated!”,Gnine’s muffled and broken voice came from Laila’s embrace.
The Ranger Lieutenant did not reply.
Silently, she wiped her eyes and reached over to the GID-thingy,Gnine had shown her.. and finished what they had come for; quietly, she pressed , then looked at the gnome, with tears running down her eyes again.
> Verification Code for Cryo-Sleep/Hybernation Chamber
..buzzed the tiny, tenoric voice in Gnine’s mind.
“You do it..”, he mumbled.. “2-8-0-8.. It’s the day when the bloody Demon Fog first settled on Silent Hills.. 28.08.7316!”
..and cried some more.
The war hadn’t even begun yet and they had already started losing friends!
Her face pale, soot smudged, bloody, tear blotched, and drawn, Laila Wolvesbane tapped in the numbers and hit [ENTER]..
The cup Merisoul Xyrotwu asks as her wish is a reference to her own description of Love that she gives (four parts sugar, one part salt, and five parts bitter), when Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane bursts into the girl’s room in the inn they were all staying back at Arashkan before its destruction, pleading any and everyone to tell her what love is, in the story; Lilly & Shala
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 Maarva 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
And now Aager stood, for once out of his dark leathers, hood, and mask, wearing a loose black shirt, a medal of valor with the emblem of Durkahan engraved on on it pinned over his heart, and carefully not too tight trousers.
A tastefully decorated dagger hung from a tight leather belt; Moira’s wedding gift to him possibly because he had no relatives nor family and hence, she had opted to fill in for their absence and perhaps because she didn’t want him to feel less for it..
His dark hair was slightly standing, and with a dumb struck and somewhat overwhelmed expression on his face, he ogled at the furiously blushing girl standing before him.
Clearly, Lady Alisia has gone out of her way to make her skinny little daughter even prettier and Inshala was starting back at the young man she had bound herself, her dress, a tender shade of pale, dew-green, flowing down all the way to her tiny and naked feet but leaving her small, scrawny shoulders bare. A pair of pink, pearl earrings were clipped to her delicate ears, for she had never had them pierced. She wore a thick, worn, and quite masculine ring with the coat of arms of the city she had saved and it gave the distinct impression it was many sizes too big for her very slender fingers. Other than the earrings and Delia’s ring, the only other thing she wore as a jewel was a silver band, perhaps two inches wide with thorny vines, cawing crows and bloody ravens engraved on it, likely a wedding gift from her emo sister, Madina, decorated one of her horns.
And she stood before her Aager, refusing to stare at her own feet even against all her flustered instincts because he was now her hubby, and they truly belonged..
✱ ✱ ✱
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.
The Tundra Elf; Cora Sleet, The Bowling Hills Hobbit; Brom Bumblebrim and the younger sisters of no other than the dwarven Temple Guardian of Serenity Home, Lady Magella of Scowling Hills; Lillias Absentwhot and Jeina Blond have set forth to find the daughter of the barbarian Bear Claw Tribe’s chieftain, who was kidnapped by the foul and evil creature, ominously named; Red October.
For days and nights, Cora, Brom, Lillias, and her sister, Jeina travel through the snow and ice-covered Lost Mountains and find the layer of the sinister Red October. On the eve of their descent into the deep, cavernous layer, the whole extended family of the two dwarf sisters arrive to take them both back to Scowling Hills. The dwarf sisters, Lillias and Jeina refuse to abandon their elf and halfling companions compelling their family to help. Hence a plan is formed; the dwarves are to lure the foul creature out of its lair and make a run for it down the mountains, and back to Scowling Hills while Cora and Brom are to quietly enter the beast’s lair and save the chieftain’s daughter.
The plan works, more or less..
And Cora Sleet, followed closely by Brom Bumblebrim, runs into the deeps of Red October and finds the barbarian chieftain’s daughter, abused and severely traumatized, among many other women.. all dead and gnawed upon.
In horror, the two search the cages set into the walls of the cave to find more survivors and lo!
Another woman, deep inside one of the further cages, thought horribly abused, malnourished, and bruised, is still alive..
That was the last thing Cora Sleet and Brom Bumblebrim saw of the dwarves before they stumbled and ran out of the dark, gnawing cave..
Then came the wind.
A cold, fetid wind..
A wind that did not belong to the fresh, breezy October mountains.
This was a frigid wind that stank of rot and festering mold..
This was the wind of a Red October!
“Run, you fools!”, bellowed the head of the dwarves; an old, very nearly ancient of his kind known all the way from The Great Arashkan City to Endless Sea, and from the heights of Rook Mountains to the ends of Tinker Hills; Argail Smitefast.
And the dwarves ran..
Down the sliding, frozen and misty valley and to the cliffs that would make a harsh and steep climb down the face of Lost Mountains.
..everything was harsh and steep in the Great Northern Tundras..
The creature that burst out of the yawning cave was nothing the elf, Cora, nor the hobbit, Brom ever saw.. and neither would wish to ever see again.
For but a very short moment, they caught a glimpse of something large, but not in size as it was large by its frightful speed.
Something large, fast, and dark.. Like a thick draft of smoke, inky at its center. It blurred past the two hiding behind fallen boulders.
Cora clutched her great blade with both her fists like she wanted to make a charge or a ‘run for it’, Brom wasn’t sure. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she did make a run for it. He had seen some horrible things in his long sojourn since that fateful night he’d left the comforts of his warm home and this.. inky black thing that had just hissed out of the cave would likely give him nightmares for the next couple of months..
Brom gritted his teeth and hoped the snow elf would run, should it come to that, though he knew she wouldn’t.. She’d charge the evil, shunned creature while trembling in fear, but not run from it. They hadn’t known each other for that long, but the short few months they had been together had shown him the core of the girl; grim, fierce, loyal, silently angry, and in quiet, desolate mourning.
“What are you doing?!”, they heard the below of the old dwarf echo up the frozen valley.
“Arkanian nian fer Ferra!”, squeaked a voice and something boomed in a great, fiery bloom.
“Damit, Lillias..”, growled Cora. “..Run!”
More booms followed by some knock knock knock knock rattling sound as if something brittle and heavy was hammering on an anvil.
A few thick bolts, the size of short spears slammed into the walls with a tremendous force near the maw that was the cave of the creature and sharp, crackling shafts of lightning came down from the sky at a sharp angle, crashing into the valley with jarring screeches and frozen ice and broken rocks shrapneled everywhere.
Something roared but it was not the roar of a bear, a lion, nor a dragon. This was like the roar of a waterfall filled with loose rocks, rotting lumber, and debris.
“Down the cliffs.. Jump if you must!”
“Marideth; to the left.. riddle it.. Bruden, Goric hold the rear and ready the rocks. Harakoon, Lamark, take the right.. Distract it with more arbalest. Grandfather; go.. down.. NOW! Mom.. Da.. You two are next.. Britney; grab Lillias. Dritmey; get Jeina down.. Knock her out if you must.. What is Aunt Petunia even doing here? Aunt Yulanda.. are the charges set?”
“Yes, dear. Charges are set. You want a timer or simple, dumb fuse?”
“Timer, please. I want it to go off on its back, not in its face.”
“If it blows on its face, it will bring the cliffs down on us as well, knock it back and possibly block its pursuit.”
“Other than the first, the other two aren’t so bad.”
“What will happen if it goes back?”
“Ow.. right.. would make this whole thing sort of moot.”
“On my last quiver..”
“Down, then. Save the quiver. Make sure grandpa makes it.. Do not wait.. Keep everyone running Auntie Marideth..”
“Who is making sure you are going down, Dridges, love?”
“I will be going down last.”
“Hell no, you aren’t”
“Stick to your post uncle! I am the youngest here and the fastest. Once the charges are set and blown, the creature will be knocked down the cliff and its way back will be blocked enough to give the elf and the hobbit time to do what they came to do.. I don’t want a crying Lillias nor a frothing Jeina all the way back to Elder Hills!”
“Dremda Limka bim bala poom!”, squeaked the voice of Lillias again and red, angry beams crisscrossed the misty valley and someone else shouted more in ancient dwarvish;
“Morkaban Fal an burnandie!”
..and tall columns of burning light came down in harsh, vertical slaughter..
Another roar echoed up the valley and something slammed against stones.
“What are you doing?”, screamed Lillias.
“Time to go, baby sister!”, said a voice and took off with Lillias.
“No! They need more time!”
“Nope. We just ran out of that.. and Dridges gave the signal for retreat.. Drit?”
“She wouldn’t listen, so I knocked her out! Dridges gave the order..”
“Bet you enjoyed that.”
“You bet, I did.. The idiots.. That was a month’s walk from home to here, and another month back —if we survive!”
“Now you are going to have to carry her.”
“Changed her diapers when she was a babe.. I am sure I can carry her as well!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Leave me, please.. I beg of you..”
“This is not a safe place for you and you are due soon..”
“I am the daughter of a woodsman. I am used to harsh weather. I can not stay here. He will come back.. Please.. Take the other girl, and leave.. I shall climb down and make my way home..
Cora looked at the young human girl. She was horribly battered, pale, dirty, and bulging.. The baby must truly be due soon..
Then she looked down at Brom, but the hobbit was too busy with the chieftains traumatized daughter, who was trashing and moaning in the frigid snow.
“Here. There is enough food in this to feed you for some time. And take this as well. I am not sure if you can—”
“—I can. I am no warrior, but I have broken enough logs to know how to swing an ax down.. Thank you..”
“There are no favor here, young girl. Leaving you on your own, and in your condition, is just wrong..”
“I must get out of these mountains and back to my home and my husband. That is where I belong. I thank you for no favors. Only for saving me from that creature, and letting me go.. A woodsman must be free.. This, I am sure you understand.”
“This, I understand..”
For another moment she looked at the withered girl, a limping shade of what she once was..
..And she was a small thing to begin with, really. Small and skinny.. Yet, even having suffered the horrors and indignities of her impregnation and the whole time of her captivity and pregnancy, she showed remarkable resilience to the odds stacked so much against her..
Then, Cora looked at her bulging belly..
“I am sorry to ask.. but.. do you even know what’s inside you?”
“I am afraid even to ask—”
“Your.. how do you—?”
“She does not kick.. She hugs and she sings..”
Cora just stared at the broken young woman, because that’s exactly what she was;
“I bid you, farewell, then. Be good..”
“Farewell, then.. Stay good..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Mom? Why do you weep? Are you in pain?”
“My beautiful baby. I am afraid I shall not be here for long. I so wanted to see you grow.. and play.. and be happy..”
“Why is there red in your face, mom? Did you fall?”
“..I wanted you to wear pretty, laced, dresses.. You have such beautiful eyes..”
“Mom.. You are shaking. It must be cold. Hold me closer to you. I will warm you..”
“We must run, my sweet love. I can hear them again..”
“Mom. You look tired. And you are crying.. Why are you crying, mom?”
“Just.. a bit.. further.. I think.. they will stop.. chasing..”
“I hear your heart, mom. You are afraid. Why are you afraid, mom?”
“I.. can’t.. go.. any further.. Too tired..”
“Let’s stop for some. You are shaking. Why are you shaking, mom?”
“This.. this is as far.. as I can go.. my baby..”
“You are crying again, mom. Why are you crying?”
“Too much.. blood.. Lost too much.. blood.. I am afraid I won’t.. make it, my sweet..”
“Don’t be afraid. I am here. I will protect you, mom..”
“I will sit and rest.. for a bit..”
“You are calm now, mom. And warm..”
“I so love you.. my little.. baby.. I am so sorry..”
“Mom? What happened, mom?”
“Farewell, my sweet, sweet baby..”
“Don’t be afraid, mom. I am here.”
“I love you.. Never forget it..”
“Are you sleeping, mom? I will sleep too, then. I will keep you warm and safe.”
“You are cold again, Mom..”
“Please speak, mom..”
“Please wake up, mom.”
“I am afraid..”
“I promise, mom. I will be good. I will always be good..”
“Please wake up.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Gotcha, you little demon! Been seeing you festering these woods. Da.. Daaa! I got her!
“Please leave me. I did nothing to you.”
“You’ve been sneaking around our home for days now. Saw you again the other night, crawling into the barn. Trying to steal the goats, are you? Daa, come quick!”
“Nanny goat is sick.”
“Sick goat is it?!”
“Yes. She has a nail in her foot. It is burning her heart..”
“You friggin little liar. A good lashing will do you good.”
“But the nanny goat..”
“What’s going on here, boy?”
“Got her, daa.. Told you I saw a little demon sneaking around our house. Look at her.. She’s got horns, just like a demon.”
“I am not a demon. I am a girl!”
“What are you doing here, demon?”
“Your nanny goat. She’s ill. She has a nai—”
“Bring the cane, boy. I will not have this fiend around my house, nor my goats..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Am I a demon? Why am I a demon?”
“You are no demon, my beautiful little chestnut.”
“Then why does everyone say I am a demon? Am I so ugly? Am I so filthy? I must be, because everyone runs from me, or throws rocks at me.”
“Some people are not very bright, my sweet child. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid. Their faults are not your fault, because you are not ugly and you are not filthy.. And certainly, you are not a demon.”
“But I have horns..”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“I healed their nanny goat and they hit me with a cane.”
“People fear the dark because they can’t see what’s in it. Yet they need the dark to rest and to sleep.. Does that make the dark, really a demon? They fear you because they can’t see just what a wonder you truly are..”
“I am no wonder. I am just an ugly and dirty thing..”
“What is your name, my sweet chestnut?”
“And do you know what that means?”
“It means; Heavens Willing.”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Neither do I. But the Heavens do not make things without a reason.”
“I think they wanted people to know what ‘ugly’ and ‘filthy’ was.”
“I doubt. There is enough ugly and filthy in men without putting it in one, beautiful little girl.”
“Maybe I am broken and I just can’t be fixed.”
“If you are broken. Then I would not want you to be fixed, because you are perfect the way you are.”
“Maybe you are broken too..”
“I am, broken.And perhaps you were sent here to fix me!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“My dear child, neither do I. But the Heavens gave you to me and here you are loved, you are safe, and you are cherished.. Now, let’s go find some berries and some of those mushrooms you love so much.”
“And Kumse Beetles?”
“And Kumse Beetles..”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to.. It just happened!”
“My, my, my.. What have we here? That you, girl?”
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to.. Please don’t send me away!”
“Send you? Please, girl. I wouldn’t send you if the skies came falling down on me..”
“But.. You shouldn’t have the skies falling on you..”
“It’s a metaphor, my sweet chestnut.”
“What’s it for? Are you going to hit me with it?”
“My dear child. When have I ever hit you?”
“Never, Master. And I do not understand why you wouldn’t. Everyone else does.”
“I didn’t think you thought me as silly as everyone else. Now, come on and come out from under the table and let’s have a look at you, shall we?”
“I look horrible.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Let’s see; nice healthy paws, curious ears, brilliant vivid eyes, good strong back, and long balanced tail. Turn around. Let’s make sure everything is where they should be in the tummy.. Yes. very nice, strong muscles. Very nice and strong indeed. This is.. incredible! You have it all in one!”
“You will not hurt me?”
“My dear daughter. Please do not afflict me with the sins of fools. This is your home. Home does not hurt, nor punish. Home only has love and care, though not much of anything else, I must admit.. Woa.. Easy there, tiger! *chuckle* And careful with the claws. This old man will bruise easily.”
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry..”
“Well, now. Let’s see if you can actually use those claws. Are you up for a good climb?”
“I think so, Father.”
“How would you like to chase an old, skinny squirrel up the old oak just outside?”
“You must give this old man a head start, though.
“It’s only fair, Master.”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are taking a bath again?”
“Yes, Father. I am scrubbing the dirty away.”
“In the middle of winter? In the frozen pond?”
“Yes, Father. I am dirty. And the dirty will just not come off!”
“Did you not take a bath, just yesterday?”
“I did, Father.”
“And the day before that?”
“Yes, Father. I did.”
“And the day even before that?”
“How are you not freezing?”
“I am filthy. And broken, Father.”
“Hmmm.. Perhaps I can help you with that.”
“I believe so..”
“Uhhmm.. Why did you dump pond mud on me, Father?”
“Now you actually are dirty and have something on you to wash!”
“I do not understand, Master.”
“Wash and see if it comes off..”
“It all came off.”
“There. Now you are all clean!”
“Come on and out now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you inside and by the fire before you catch a cold. And no more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather.”
“But I will be filthy again tomorrow.”
“Then you can bathe in the big barrel we have inside. And with hot water too.”
“Perhaps you should bathe too, Father.”
“Why? Do I stink?”
“Well, now.. That was a bit harsh..”
“Do you know how long it takes to dry all this beard?”
“My hair is longer than your beard, Father.”
“Alright. I will bathe. If you say I stink, I must stink.. Tomorrow then. Or maybe the day after.”
“Not the day after, then..”
“Not even tomorrow?
“Good and Great Heavens, child.. NOW?”
“Now is good.”
“We don’t even have hot water!”
“We have pond.”
“Why would you do this to me?”
“You won’t mind I bathe every day in the pond, then?”
“What? How did you even come to that conclusion, girl? I said nothing of the sort.”
“If you don’t want me to bathe in the pond, but bathe at home, you should bathe as well. Since you won’t bathe at home, you must bathe in the pond!”
“That is not even close to what I said!”
“That is what you said; No more bathing in the pond. Not in this weather..”
“Which is the opposite of..”
“I do not understand, Father. Your house rules are complicated and many..”
“Yes, yes.. I suppose that is.. what I said.. How do you even remember, that? No child ever listens to their parents! They roll their eyes and ignore us..”
“You are my Father. Why would I roll my eyes at you? That is not nice.”
“Very well. I shall bathe..”
“In the pond?”
“In the pond.. Go get my towel..”
“And your scrubbing stick.. And your soap..”
“..And my scrubbing stick, and my soap..”
“And your comb..
“I.. what? I haven’t used a comb for over three centuries. I don’t even have hair!
“..For your beard.”
“Really, now, girl?”
“I comb my hair. Stands to reason you should comb your beard. I think it would look pretty. You say I look pretty when I comb my hair.”
“I am going in now.. But only for a moment. There is ice floating in this pond.. Literally..”
“A moment will not even be enough to soak, Father.”
✱ ✱ ✱
That is the last time you fools touch this girl. Do I make my self, clear?”, growled Master Cather as smoke and haze clouded town.
“She is a demon who infests our lands. She must be cleansed—”, screeched the scowling man in fervent zeal.
“Boy, you have got it all wrong.. These are not your lands.. at all! These are the King’s lands, then the elves, then mine..”, replied Cathber with a threatening vibe in his voice.
“She is a demon!”, screamed the man.
“You must have seen many demons to know what to look for.”, Cathber spoke with a deadly whisper.
“She has horns!”, the bigotic man shouted, pointing at the little girl, hanging stripped naked from a thick branch, her tiny back, a bloody, whip-laced mess.
“So does my goat..”, said Cathber and clawed at the air, making a horrible beckoning gesture..
..and a stone spike, the length of a yard suddenly shot out from the ground and rammed right through the bigot’s foreleg!
The man shrieked in pain, tried to double over, but couldn’t.
“This.. is heresy!”, the man screamed in pain.
“No, boy.. This is punishment.. This is my forest.. Here, you do not play your heresy games..”
..and he clawed with his other hand.
Another stone spike shot out of the dirt and nailed his other leg with a wet, sickening tear!
“We.. we did not touch the girl, Master Cathber.”, trembled the other lodgers.
“No.. You did not. You just stood there and watched as he tore into an innocent little girl’s flesh!”
And he rose both his arms..
you shall suffer the curse of the innocent”..
Thus shall you suffer the punishment of silently watching the pain of an innocent..
..his voice boomed and thorny vines shot out of the ground in all directions, grappling anything and everything in their path..
The woodsmen ran..
The thorny, gnarled vines chased.
The fires already burning several of the homes spread.
you shall tremble with the pain of the innocent..
And tremble shall you, with the pain of the innocent..
..heralded the old man.
And the ground trembled.
Large chunks of earth and stone tore out and into the sky, just to land some tens of yards away.
A barn collapsed.
A house creaked in terror and fell apart.
Another barn collapsed.
And another log-house bust in flames..
“You are.. the hand of the devil, old man.. You can not silence the truth!”, groaned the spiked zealot.
“Tell me, boy, how many souls have you saved with your bigotry? Are there two? No? Not even one? But I see you are very free with that whip.. particularly on little girls who will not defend themselves even against fools like you.. You see, she could have slain you many times over. Yet, she chose not to, because she does not like to hurt. She likes to play.. and sing.. and feed the animals.. and heal them when they are sick.. When was the last time you healed anything? Never? Well.. that explains so much. I shall not relieve you of your torment. You may free yourself. That will be at least one person you will have saved in your entire pathetic life. I shall, however return. And should you be in my forest when I do, we shall rinse and repeat this education, until you learn some manners, if not any sense.. But by all means, stay. If not for my daughter, this little girl you so freely whipped, I would beg you to stay, just to repeat this over and over again.. Either way, we shall see just how zealously stuck you really are to those ‘truths’ you seem so fond of..”
“You.. are evil!”, the bigot screamed in pain.
“No, boy. I AM BALANCE!“, replied the old man, his voice truly dreadful now. “Do not force me to summon the ‘Wyld Hunt’ upon you with your name attached to it. The last time I did, was over seven hundred years ago and it very nearly dismantled Themalsar down to rubble.”
The old man gently cut the leather thongs binding the skinny arms of the little girl.
But the old man held her and carefully took her into his gentle embrace.
“Told you, did I not, my beautiful chestnut? Some people are not very bright. Some are superstitious. Some are afraid of what they do not understand. And some are just stupid.. And you have found the worst of them; the bigots! Now, you have made their fault your own.. No matter, no matter.. I shall fix you..”
She opened her eyes and stared at the old man with a vague, groggy stare.
“Why did you come here, my dear child? Did I not warn you to stay away from them?”, the old man asked, tears streaking down his crumpled face.
“Their.. nanny dog.. she was in pain.. her heart was burning.. because she stepped on a garden tool.. she has puppies.. and they need their mommy..”
“Yes, my lovely chestnut.. they need their mommy..”
“I.. cured her..”, she whispered, giving him a bloody smile.
“I am sure you did, my beloved.”, smiled the old man.
“No iron cage this time..”, she whimpered..
..and went limp again..
✱ ✱ ✱
She stood at the edge of the cliff, quietly mesmerized, looking down at the waves gently lapping at the shore below, and at the sea that stretched from one horizon to the other like some endless, blue-green blanket.
And she absolutely loved it!
It was the first time she had seen the Endless Sea. It was also the first time she had come this far and alone from her home.
“I just must make sure, Father sees this. It is so beautiful!”, she whispered in awe as she stood, quietly petrified as the late August sun decided to impress her even more..
Like a dancer stretching out her skirts, and with a mighty display of yellow, orange, and red, the sun spread wide and great and settled on the horizon.
The little girl just stood there.
The sun was almost done showing off, but the sea, apparently, was not..
With slick splashes, a family of oddest looking fish sprang out of the sea, glided across the setting sun in some magnificent, graceful arcs, skimmed the surface over the waters, then disappeared into its depths once again..
The little girl wept.
Because she loved pretty.
And what she had just witnessed was just that.
Then she heard the groan..
It was a very ‘huge’ groan..
It echoed wide and reverberated across the sea, the sky, and the shore and the girl slid down the cliffside, her little heart aching with sorrow, for she knew that voice..
..it meant something was in pain.
That is when she saw the great whale, lying on its side, beached on the shore. She ogled at the thing, a creature, once mighty and over two hundred yards, now looked deflated and sad.
The little girl tiptoed near the creature and tenderly touched it, feeling its heart like some giant drum, beating ever so slowly..
“Great and might fish.”, she wailed. “Why do you not swim? The land is not a good place for you to sleep. The sun will scorch you, and the birds will peck at you.. Please return to the sea..”
“Who are you, little thing? And why do you care?”, the creature moaned in more pain.
“I am just a little girl, great fish. And I care because life is nice. It is precious. And you have so much life..”
“No, little girl. I had much life.. Once.. Now, I wither, for my time is near. I shall die soon, scorched by the sun, and pecked by the birds.. though I surmise, I shall make a merry feast..”
“Please.. return back to the sea.. Sea is life.”
“Yes.. Sea is life.. But mine is quite over.. I am sad, but content. I have lived since this sea was young. I have traveled it many times. I have seen its depths and the heavens above it. I have witnessed the corrals grow, new life form, and men do war upon one another upon it.. Yes. My time has long arrived little thing. Long arrived indeed..”
“But so much you have seen and so much to tell.. They will die with you.”
“That is how it is, little girl..”
“Perhaps you can come with me? I am small.. and not very smart.. and know very little.. but I have room for more..”
“Do you? You seem so little..”
“I am.. But wisdom found, should not be lost, dear big fish.”
“Well.. Since you want to insist on calling me ‘fish’, you must have much room to spare..”, the great whale.. chucked!
“What would you have me call you, dear big fish?”
“Shala.. I was called Shala.. A long time ago.. It used to mean, He Who Sails The Deepest Seas. But I am afraid, much like myself, that word is long gone and forgotten.”
“And I am called Inshala; Heaven’s Willing.. and I shall show you my forest and you can learn me your wisdom..”
“Ahhh.. Forest.. That, I have never seen.. This shall be an interesting journey, little Inshala.”
“I shall show you my forest, and more, big Shala.. I shall make you a big pond. Big enough for you to play!”
“I haven’t played since I was but a little babe, and that was quite some eons ago..”
“We shall travel far and wide together and you shall live inside me for as long as I live, small comfort though that may be.”
“Tis alright, little one. Wisdom is; finding life where there is none..”
“You thank me, little one?”
“Yes. For accepting me and accepting life.”
“You truly are an amazing one and your passion for life is bested only by your compassion for it. I sense we shall have great and extraordinary days together.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am Inshala. And am here because of the call.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come. How did you even get past the short-mortal post?”
“I do not know, what this ‘short-mortal post’ is.”
“Dwarves. They have guard post here to make sure no mortal enters the valley beyond without permission.”
“I am sorry. I did not see any dwarves. I felt a soft, pulsing call, hence I came.”
“Who is this, Temessa, and why is she here? How did she even get past the short-mortal post?”
“She says her name is Inshala and was telling me why she is here, Yamara. Must you always jump into everything?”
“I did not jump. I walked.”
“I have introduced myself. It is polite to introduce yourselves back..”
“Ow, yes. My apologies, Inshala. I am Temessa. A dryad.”
“A dryad? You are so pretty!”
“Ow, wow. You really think so?”
“Yes. I mean so.”
“What about me? I am Yamara and I am a fire nymph!”
“A fire nymph? This extraordinary! You are so, so beautiful!”
“I think I just fell in love!”
“What is this wonderful place? I sense.. something, though I do not know what. It.. it’s calling me..”
“Would you like some of my peaches, sweet Inshala?”
“Or my apples?”
“I would. But I have nothing to trade..”
“You can stay and play with us for a year and a day..”
“Owww.. I would love to. But that might make my Father sad.”
“How about a month and a day?”
“I would really love to. But my father is old. I can’t stay away for that long..”
“A day then? Please? It has been a bore since Mother put a ban on mortals..”
“A day, it is..”
“Do you like swimming?”
“I love swimming and I love ponds”
“How about fire hopping?”
“Fire hopping is awesoooome!”
“You sound like a fey..”
“You look like a fey too.. Are you sure your father is a mortal?”
“I think so. Though he is very very old. Are we going to swim and fire hop?”
“I saw her first, Yamara, so we swim first!”
✱ ✱ ✱
You are in the pond again. Why are you in the pond again?”
“I came across some men in the forest. They threw rocks at me and told me I was a filthy demon.”
“Did they, now..”
“I tried to explain that I was just a little girl and was wandering in the forest. They waved their iron axes at me and told me, I didn’t belong here..”
“Is that so?”
“I am in the pond because I am washing the demon filth off me, but it just won’t come off, Father.. It just won’t come off..”
“It will not come off, my beautiful little chestnut..”
“It won’t? Why?”
“Because you have no demon in you, nor any filth. You can’t scrub what isn’t there, my dear child. You must know this. And you belong.. right here.. You have a home..”
“But how do you know I have no demon in me?”
“Because demons do not care for other life. They CAN NOT care for other life. That is why they are demons. And you know what else demons never have?”
“Because ‘Home’ means love, warmth, care, compassion, and belonging. The moment you have those and feel those, you stop being a demon. You simply can not have those and still be a demon.”
“Perhaps it’s because I am small yet. Or because i am only half-demon.. Or just broken!”
“No, my sweet chestnut. I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you have four legs, you are not a human. If you are a tree, you are not an animal..”
“I have horns.”
“And I have a hunch back!”
“But your hunch is because you are very old, Master.”
“And you have horns because you are beautiful!”
“I find your logic, quite inconsistent and misplaced, Father.”
“Well, now, really?!”
“You also have sharp ears, my sweet girl. Do you know who else has ears like yours?”
“Precisely. Perhaps you should look for ‘similarities’ around you, rather than ‘differences’ elsewhere.
“Perhaps I am a Half-Elf then?’
“That is possible, my sweet chestnut. But whatever you are, you must know that you are loved.”
“Love. I do not understand this thing you call love, Master.”
“You have grown quite a bit since I found you, my sweet chestnut. And because you have, I try not to mind you taking off to wandering around the forest.”
“But you always scold me when I come back, Father.”
“And have you ever wondered why I scolded you so?”
“Because I forget to tell you?”
“That, and because I am worried every time you do not come back. And you are worried about me when you realize you haven’t come back..”
“Yes, Father. I stop what I am doing and cry.”
“That is called, ‘Love’, my beloved daughter. Because we only worry for those we love and we care..”
“And you always come back, my sweet chestnut. Why is that?”
“Be.. because this is my home..”
“And that is called, ‘Belonging’, my sweet, sweet girl.. and demons have neither, nor will they ever have either; Love and Home. They CAN’T.”
“Now come on and out of the pond. You have bled yourself with your scrubbing again.”
“I am so, so sorry I made you worry, Father. I will never leave again.”
“Let’s not make promises we can’t keep, my sweet chestnut. Of course, you will leave because you are curious about the world around you. But promise me two things; That you will remember this old man will worry, and to come back home, will you? Please?”
“I promise, Father.”
“How would you like to come with me on a long, long trip?”
“Owww.. Where are we going, Master?”
“We shall start doing something I haven’t done and neglected to do for quite some time, my sweet chestnut and it’s called, ‘Storm Hunting!'”.
“Storm Hunting? How can we hunt storms, Master?”
“Very carefully and by running a lot..”
“What is, storm hunting?”
“Storm Hunting, so colorfully named by an old friend of mine, quite some years ago, before you were born.. and.. well.. when I say, ‘old’, I merely mean it as, someone I met a long time ago. Between the two of us, I think I was the only old one.”
“You are always the old one where ever we go, Father.”
“Well, now.. That hurt, little girl!”
“Come now, my sweet chestnut. Let’s get you dry and warm and put some ointment on those scrub bleeds, and I will tell you all about Storm Hunting..”
“Your ointments smell funny, Father.”
“Funny enough to make you laugh?”
“You are making ‘father jokes’, again, Master.”
“Is it working?”
“Because you are doing it wrong, my little chestnut.”
“I do not understand, Father.”
“You are supposed to roll your eyes, and then say, ‘No..’ —like every other teenager.”
“I am not going to roll my eyes at you, Master. That is very rude!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I am blinded! I can’t see, Father.. I am deaf too.. Help me.. And I hurt everywhere..”
“There, there, my love.. I am here..”
“I can’t see.. I can’t see, Father!”
“It will pass soon, my dear. I did warn you to close your eyes, though, did I not?”
“I.. what? I can barely hear you, Father..”
“There, there.. you will be fine soon enough. Storm Hunting is dangerous work and it demands our respect. We must follow her rules, for she has a heavy hand.”
“I just wanted to see, Father.”
“Well. I can’t blame you for your curiosity, but we must have a care, my dear child. Curiosity is a good thing. But we must be sure, which is leading which? You leading your curiosity, or your curiosity leading you, for one will teach you many things, while the other will get you into trouble.”
“I will make sure, I lead the way, Master.”
“That makes this old man, so very happy. Now, can you see again?”
“Yes, Master. But there are still some small, tingling lights flying everywhere.”
“That will pass too, soon enough. Now that we have caught our first storm, let’s make camp, shall we? And cook some fish, some potatoes, some eggplants, and some corn..”
“I.. I am sorry, Father..”
“Yes, Father, I am..”
“Why are you sorry, my sweet chestnut?”
“I.. I ate all your strawberries!”
“That’s alright, dear one. I put them there, many years ago, for someone else.. But he refused to touch them..”
“Ow.. Did I eat his strawberries, then?”
“No.. If he’d wanted to eat them, I believe he would have. Time heals many things, my sweet chestnut, but it does take.. time!”
“I am not quite sure I understand, Father.”
“Never mind, never mind.. Let us get the fire started, shall we?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Why are we here, Father? This place is not nice. The ogres are cruel creatures and will try to eat us.”
“So they are and so they might. But they also live in our forest and share its bounties. We must learn to get along.”
“Because we are never alone in a forest, my sweet chestnut. And we never know to whom we might end up turning for help someday.”
“I can not see how the ogres will help anyone. They can not even get along among themselves.”
“The world is big and wide, my dear child. And is not bound by the rules we inflict upon it. Or we shall end up like those ignorant men, who call you names and want to banish you.”
“That is correct, Father. The men in the forest are incompetent.”
“Yes, Father. Had it been me, I could have caught and banished me years ago, when I was much littler!”
“Now, now.. That is not good thinking.. They couldn’t have banished you even if they had caught you and no matter how hard they tried. And they did catch you any number of times..”
“True. But they are incompetent..”
“They are.. But their failure to banish you wasn’t because of incompetence on their part, but because you can only banish demons. You can not banish pretty little girls.”
“You are just telling me that to make me feel good.”
“I am telling you this to make you feel good and because it is true, my dear child..”
“What will happen if they attack, Father.”
“If they attack, you are free to attack back, my dear. Try to avoid their clubs and axes, though. They hurt.”
“It is alright, Father. I know hurt. I know hurt very well.”
✱ ✱ ✱
And who is this, old man?”
“This, Ganiste, is my dear daughter Inshala.. Inshala, this is an old.. uhhmm.. friend of mine; Grulganiste. She is the chieftain of the ogres of Oger’s Foot.”
“She is pretty, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is..”
“Hence, she can’t be your daughter, you sour old man!”
“Well, now.. Really? That was a bit harsh, don’t you think, Ganiste?”
“Harsh is when I say; you are an old and sour man!”
“That was indeed, rather harsh..”
“Tell me, little girl, what wrong did you do for your mother to have dumped you on this old man?!”
“Ow.. I am sorry. My mother died too..”
“Do you miss your mommy?”
“Yes, little one, I miss her every day.”
“I miss mine every day too..”
“Would you like to come inside my tent? I have big, soft pillows you can jump and a little chihuahua.. You two can play while I make some food. Your old man becomes grumpy when he talks while he is hungry.”
“Yes. Yes, he does.”
“What is a chihuahua?”
“It is a small dog.”
“You have a puppy?”
“I have had him since he was a puppy. But he grew up very fast and is still a very small dog. Barks a lot, though. Want to see him?”
“She is extraordinary, Cathber.”
“Yes. Yes, she is, Ganiste.”
“What is she?”
“I am not quite sure. And to be honest about it, I don’t really care.”
“You? Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig? Have you finally found a soul to have attached yourself to?”
“You are making me sound awfully cold and heartless, Ganiste. I do have a heart, you know.”
“That is up to debate… Yet here you are, with this little thing, and quite attached to her as well.. Not something I would have expected to see from you..”
“Not something I expected to have happened to me, either.. Like, ever. It’s as if.. I have finally paid for some crime I did centuries ago and she is my gift!”
“Or curse.. Children tend to go either way..”
“Yes. Yes, they do, Ganiste. I am sorry you had to exile Cabot.”
“Not more than I am. But it had to be done. We have plenty of room in these hills to grow and flourish many times over and he was fervently trying to gather a following.. I have no desire to have my people killed for false words. Should men, elf or dwarf come to our hills seeking trouble, we shall crush them with our clubs, hack them with our axes, and smash them with our boulders..”
“Now there’s a gruesome image.”
“..but we will not go seeking for trouble. We have learned to grow our own food and animals for a long time now. So much so that we seldom need to even go down into the forest for foraging. When we do, it is mostly to release some of our bloodlust.”
“Accidents happen, though.”
“Unavoidably so.. Are you going to keep her?”
“For as long as she will let me.. I..”
“Say it, old man. For once in your life, say it. I am sure it will hurt, but I am certain you will survive..”
“You truly have a cruel streak in you, do you know that, Ganiste?”
“Telling an ogre she is cruel isn’t much of an insult, old man. Quite foolish, though.”
“Yes. I love her. Dearly, I might add.. And she is growing so fast.. She is full of wonder and an unquenchable curiosity that takes her further and further away from home every time she leaves.. It’s killing me to see her go and I can’t even say, don’t, because I know she must..”
“Well, now.. After three hundred years and some change, I finally get to see Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig in tears. I shall mark this day..”
“You pun me, Ganiste..”
“Owww, I certainly would love to.. But no, my dear Cathber.. I honor you.. You have finally grown..”
“You think living as long as you have or seeing the things you have, you have grown? Old man, you are so much more naive than I thought you could ever be.. Love.. Felt for one other than yourself, and for someone who is still alive, and particularly that for a child, is what makes a man or a woman truly grow.. And being forced to letting them go, is what really kills us.. For that, which you must do, you have my sympathy.”
“Do we have to leave so soon, Father?”
“You liked it here?”
“Yes. Mother Chieftain Grulganesti is a wonderful host.. And I want a chihuahua!”
✱ ✱ ✱
This will be dangerous, my sweet chestnut. Quite dangerous indeed.. There will be many woodsmen and they will be armed to kill on sight. There will be elven archers and not a few rangers from Serenity Home town. Their sheriff and their two master rangers will be joining us as well.. If one of them sees you, they might make.. mistakes.. Please stay at home just this once..”
“I understand your concern, Father. But there has been something in my mind for some time that I do not understand.”
“What is it, my sweet chestnut?”
“That? That, what?”
“You have been calling me ‘sweet chestnut’, for as long as I can remember, but I do not understand why you do so.”
“I.. what? All these years I have been calling you by that name and you don’t know?”
“No, Father. I thought it might not be polite to ask, but since this place you are going is very dangerous, I would want to know.”
“I.. I call you that, because.. well.. chestnuts are hard on the outside.. And quite resilient. But can be soft and sweet on the inside.. They are small and pretty to look at.. and..”
“And.. well.. because I like chestnuts!”
“There, there, child. What do I always tell you, when you do not understand something?”
“To.. to always ask..?”
“Yes, my dear child. It is polite not to ask only if you feel it is inappropriate at that moment. But it is always better to ask than not to..”
“Can I ask something else then?”
“Of course, my dear, anything..”
“Are you a boy?”
“Am I a.. what?”
“Well.. I am.. or rather, I was.. once.. some eight hundred years or so ago.. I am more a man now, than a boy..”
“And I am a girl?”
“Yes, yes you are, my dear child. And a very pretty one at that.
“What is the difference between a boy and a girl?”
“And why are you a man now and not a boy? Is it because of growing up? Will I become a man, when I grow up?”
“No, you will become a woman, when you grow up..”
“What is the difference between a man and a woman too, then?”
“I.. perhaps we could talk about this later? After I return? Please?”
“Then I am coming with you, Father..”
“Yes. I must make sure you are alright. Otherwise, who will tell me all this?”
“You can not be seen, though.”
“I would like to see the one person who could see, let alone find and catch me, Father. I can become a much larger tiger now. Larger, yet I am also much better at prowling.. I haven’t been seen, nor caught since then. I brought down a fully grown deer with a single pounce, once!”
“But I let the deer go.. She had a little baby deer.. And I also apologized after for scaring her..”
“You let go of your catch?”
“Well. Yes, Father. I do not like killing. And I do not like sad creatures. There is enough sad, without me adding to it.”
“And to see fools calling you a demon and to hurt you! I carry the shame of all humanity, my dear, dear child..”
“Everyone should learn to carry their own shame, Father. You carry many things already.”
“I will go and meet with the sheriff and the two master rangers of Serenity Home town. They will coordinate with the woodsmen and the elves and hunt the wolves that come down the mountains and attack people.”
“Will you not speak with the wolves? They are smart hunters.”
“Yes, they are. But when I tried, they did not hear me. They have been.. taken by something else.. Now the wolves are like they have gone rabid. They blindly attack.”
“That is not right, Master. Wolves do not behave that way. And they never keep rabid ones near them..”
“My dear child. I would really rather you stayed. Whatever it is that is causing the wolves to behave the way they are, will not be an easy enemy. It is cunning and very, very dangerous. I am not sure even I can fight it and survive.”
“Then you need me more than ever, Master. I will protect you. This vile creature will not touch you.”
“There will be others there to protect me, my sweet chestnut.”
“Who among mortals, love you as I love you? Who among mortals care for you as I care for you? And who among mortals will mourn for you as I shall mourn for you, should something happen to you, Father?”
“When shall we leave, Father?”
“Tomorrow morning, my child..”
“Good. I will go and bathe in the pond, Father.”
“Again? You took a bath just yesterday.. And the day before that.. And the one before that!”
“Yes, Father. And I am bringing your towel, your scrubbing stick, and your soap as well. If you are going to meet with all these people, you should be clean!”
“I am clean..”
“I washed just..”
“..last month, Father.”
“It’s been a month already? Where does the time go?”
“It has been thirty-four days and today, since you last bathed, Father. And time goes only forward!”
“Are you keeping a track of my bathing days?”
“Of course, Father. You keep forgetting these important things.”
“I am hurt.”
“I could scrub your back if it is too much work for you, Father.”
“Well, now, really?! I can very well scrub my own back, thank you very much, young lady!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Master Cathber never quite heard the silent footsteps that came very near him until the owner of the silent steps decided to be heard. The old man was poor at hearing, true, but to be honest with himself, and old Cathber certainly was, he knew would have been an easy game for the sinister-looking man in dark clothes..
The silent man was a bare inch above average and was neither fat nor skinny.. Perhaps a bit on the malnourished side but lean and wore his dark, leathers in tight straps. Like someone who never wanted to be caught, nor grappled.. He had dark, penetrating eyes and seemed like he knew how to make good use of his peripheral vision. The lower end of his face was covered with a thick, leather mask and the whole of his head was hidden in a hood made from a similar material. Old Cathber couldn’t discern what his color was either, for the man had chosen the time of his arrival to coincide with the dusk; the time where visibility was still available but drained everything of all color..
This man, whoever he was, was dangerous not only at an intellectual level but also instinctually wired to sense his surrounding.
“Master Cathber..”, he said and there was a distinct growl in his voice.
‘Good and Great Heavens’, the old man thought. ‘He growls and he is not even trying!’
“Good evening, young —?”, trailed off Master Cathber.
“Aager, sir. Aager Fogstep.. The sheriff of Serenity Home sent me to find you, and perhaps to keep you company, seeing as how I am a happy chat.”, he said, and there wasn’t any pun, irony nor any traces of sarcasm in his voice.
“Sheriff Standorin has always been a thoughtful boy.”, grinned Cathber only to see it bounce right off the man in dark leathers.
“Yes, sir.”, the man replied, though he wasn’t looking at the old man, but rather gazing somewhere off in the distance and into the darkening forest.
“Is there a problem, young man?”
“I am not sure..”, replied the young man, Aager.
“I wouldn’t be bothered too much with any feral animals luring in the bush, Master Aager. I lack what they want; meat!”, said the old man and chuckled.
The old man’s pun also bounced right off Aager as a dry pea would from a wall.. He kept his gaze at a specific spot for a bit more and then he looked at the old man.
“Shall we? It is quite a walk to the camp the woodsmen and the elves have set up.”
“Get away from him, you evil, evil man!”, growled the giant cat.
In all candor, calling this beast a ‘cat’ was a mistake, even when referring to it as ‘giant’.
It was monumentally big. A magnificent feline specimen, very nearly topping six hundred pounds. She had great, skull-crushing paws, strong, powerful hind legs, a vicious glare, and a maw that could probably take a man’s head and whole, right off his shoulders without so much as a bother.. Probably after eviscerating him with its nearly foot-long, saber-like teeth that hung down her maw!
This was a creature that did not belong to this forest, but to the Great Nothern Tundras.
The savage beast wondered what her ‘father’ would say when he figured she had sneaked off into the tundras to actually find and study such a beast to have taken its shape.
Inshala was certainly not going to volunteer for that trashing!
She looked around and noticed in panic; the evil man was staring at the forest!
“No way!”, she hissed. “There is no way he heard me! Humans are deaf, blind, and stupid. There is no way you could have heard me.”
She lowered her great mass closer to the ground, making sure where she placed her paws.
“Go away, little boy! And leave my Master alone. I will eat you if you touch him..”
“Ow-My-Heavens! He is staring right at me.. Can he even do that? Humans are not allowed to do that.. That’s not fair..”
“Maybe he is half-demon.. Like me!”
“My Master is gone.. Why is he standing alone?”
“Whatever you are, come out!”, the man in dark leathers growled.
It was a good growl, Inshala thought.
A very scary growl, even..
And he really had heard her, though he couldn’t see her!
Deer were the keenest when if came to hearing predators in the forest and she could catch any one of them off guard, at any given time.. And this.. boy? man? wasn’t even a forest dweller… He smelled of.. leather, metal, a bit of sweat, some kind of oil —probably to keep the rust off his iron weapons and.. something else, Inshala couldn’t say. It was a curious smell. Frightful but intriguing at the same time.
It was his smell..
The smell that was uniquely particular to every single creature. The one that made it possible for hunters like herself to track any single man or beast among many..
And his smell was much of death.
Yes. This man in his dark leathers had killed, and many..
He reeked of it..
But he didn’t smell like the rabid did. He smelled like he had been among or surrounded by many rabid men, and had killed many rabid men. And the smell of ‘rabid’ clung to him like the after taste of bad meat.
She had been intrigued by him, but now she had to kill him.
She knew, animals who hung around the rabid, always ended up rabid.
The man in the dark clothes dropped something..
..and left, following her Master, and soon fading in the dusk.
Inshala very patiently waited for a full ten minutes before rising from her hidden spot. Then she circled around all the way to where the evil man and her master had gone.
She wasn’t satisfied.
She felt uniquely intrigued as if a whole, different side of her had just awaked.. The non-human side of her. Her senses stretched forth and wide as she doubled back and circled the area from the other side.
Still not satisfied, she pounced up to a tree overseeing the area and glared down..
There.. something glittered in the ghostly light of the newly appearing moon.
She waited another ten minutes sweeping the area and the surrounding forest.
This was a trap.
She had been caught a few too many times in the past not to recognize one, but she just couldn’t find it.
A low, frustrated growl escaped her as she carefully, and silently slinked down the tree, and placing one giant paw over another giant paw, she came to the clearing where the evil man and her Master had been, her ears prickling every which way to catch signs of hidden ambushers.
In her past, she had found out rangers had been extremely hard to catch. But for some reason, none of them had ever hunted her down. Not in her small, diminutive, girl form, and not in her great, saber-tooth tiger form. Why, she had never been sure. Perhaps her father had told them about her and rangers respected her father. Genuinely respected him and by proxy to her Father, Inshala respected rangers in return. This evil man, however sneaky he was, was NOT a ranger. He hadn’t smelled like a ranger, for one. And two; rangers were.. Inshala was not very sure but the word ‘good’ seemed fitting.. This man was not, good. No.. He definitely was not a good man. And should the opportunity present itself, she was going to tell him exactly that!
Carefully, she snuck near the glittering thing she’d seen, watching the ground for possible hidden bear-traps or some such, as she ghosted on. Humans, as she’d learned many times over, were extraordinarily creative when it came to creating devices that killed. The irony, not that the little girl, Inshala, knew what the word ‘irony’ meant, was not lost on her, that the same humans were equally poor and unimaginative when it came to creating anything that actually saved lives!
Then she saw it.
The glittering thing on the ground.
Inshala took a step closer and paused, staring at the long, slim object with unadulterated confusion.
It was nothing but a long dagger, sheathed in its scabbard.
Nothing ornate, nor pretty. Just a long, slick weapon, made for practical accuracy.. and for killing.
Six hundred pounds of feline aggression settled down near the dagger and just stared at it. After a few moments, she pawed it..
..and yowled in total surprise, jumping some massive ten feet into the air and very nearly fifteen back, as the dagger bounced once, then settled again!
Inshala giggled at her own reaction.. which sort of made her look odd, in her giant, saber-tooth tiger form.
Alright. So it wasn’t a trap.
But why then, had the evil man dropped it?
Had it been a careless folly?
Inshala knew, more instinctually than anything else, that the evil man had not dropped it by mistake.
He had left it there with deliberate deliberation.
He had also made sure that she had seen him..
..seeing as how he hadn’t ‘left’, but had ‘carefully dropped’ it there..
The next question was why?
Why had the evil man leave a dagger..
No.. Not just a dagger.. a SHEATHED dagger for her to find.
Had he left just the dagger, it would have meant one of many things.. and perhaps even none of them.
A sheathed dagger meant..
A ‘careful’ peace offering?
He had parted with something he would need while going to battle and knowing its absence might cause him his death. Yet he had taken that risk.
Not to mention the nuance; because the dagger was sheathed, it could safely be carried by the receiving party, without cutting themselves by mistake or foolishly stabbing it under one’s belt!
This.. evil man had offered peace, in his own, perhaps a bit creepy way. He showed respect to the creature he couldn’t see, yet felt was there, hiding in the bush, and he also respected the ‘weapon’, because both, her and the dagger, had the distinct quality to take life.
It had been an intriguingly subtle.. and double-edged message..
..and Inshala, both girl and tiger, absolutely LOVED it!
It had been, perhaps the first time ever, someone had recognized her as someone who had the means and the skills to slay, but also the conscience to choose not to, and showed her, not hate, nor fear and certainly not love, but respect..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth snuck deep in the woods, carefully under and over heavy bushes and foliage as she watched her master walking between the two young and pretty ranger girls. That had surprised Inshala. She had never seen armed girls —or women, Inshala wasn’t sure which one of them, these rangers were. Her master had been quite evasive when she had asked him about the difference between a girl and a woman, and now she couldn’t decide what these two were. She felt she was a girl. And she also felt she had no idea, whatsoever, what, how, or when she would become a woman. Human language was diverse and its rules were complicated and many, and Inshala felt a headache threatening to inflict her. The two rangers did look all grown up if that is what it took to be a woman, but they also looked.. young too, at the same time. Though they moved with that careful, steady pace all rangers seemed to possess, they also had a ‘fresh’ step to their gait which suggested ‘youth’. Inshala wasn’t sure how she recognized these nuances or subtleties, but it seemed she only did so at an instinctual level than any learned or attained wisdom.
The one leading was a tall human girl. Taller than herself and had pretty green eyes, fair skin, and long, free-falling, coarse black hair. Or perhaps she had braided it at some time but because she kept playing with it, they had drooped and finally gone free of their braids. She had a very long, very heavy bow in one hand and a wicked-looking greatsword strapped across her back.
The other one was an elf, yet also not an elf.. “A half-elf”, exclaimed Inshala. So that’s what a half-elf looked like. She was a tad shorter than the human and leaner. Her dark brown hair was also free but had two, pretty little braids on one, and a single braid on the other side of her otherwise comely face. A face that wanted to laugh, but was trying very hard to appear serious by means of a scowl.
The half-elf also had a very long, very heavy-looking bow in her hand and a pair of swords hanging at her sides.
Yup. These two rangers definitely looked competent.
And she loved them! They looked brave and strong. Perhaps she might not have to show herself at all, after all.
She watched as the two rangers and her master stop, near a very sheer cliff face and the ranger girls rolled some boulders, forming a barely protective half-circle where they placed her master and as the human girl took her place in front of the boulders, the half-elf climbed up a large rock and prepared her bow and her arrows.
What were they doing?
Why were they just standing in the middle of nowhere waiting for the wolves?
They were brave alright.
But not very bright!
And then the air suddenly got cold.. Very cold and very fast and Inshala saw her master raise his skinny arms and started a very complex incantation. One she had never seen him perform before..
And then she understood.
Not the content, but the implications of what was going on..
The ‘enemy’ had picked up on what was going on, and was trying to use the weather by altering it enough to freeze everyone near its den!
Ow.. this was a cunning and powerful enemy!
Then she heard them.
She heard them even before the rangers..
And they came down, very nearly hurling themselves off the cliffside.
Their enemy had sensed her master and had sent his pet wolves to eliminate him.
Inshala was not going to let that happen.
But she waited. As big as she was in her saber-tooth tiger form, going up against a pack of some forty-odd wolves was a losing fight.
Inshala had never had any battle training. Hers was all about instincts.. The same instincts that told her to wait..
..and hit where it would have the greatest effect.
She had no illusions about her abilities nor that she could best a pack of wolves that size. What she did know was, when struck with overwhelming brute strength and suddenly, it would break the wolves will and scare them off.. And once a few of them started to run, the rest would follow. That was how a pack worked. And so long as she made sure the wolves couldn’t go for her throat or hamstring her hind legs, she could best them with ease.. One paw from her strong arms could shatter a wolf’s skull, without even the need to use her claws. That was the one distinct advantage felines had over canines; the ability to use their paws in a lateral direction. A swipe or a swing, per se. Dogs, or wolves, could only move their paws vertically, effectively removing the option of using their claws. The ‘batting’ or ‘swatting’ of a cat would be ‘playful’. The same action used by a six hundred pounds tiger was altogether a different proposition. Hence the skull-cracking.. Or the snapping of a spine, which was easier than the skull, but harder to reach when they were all facing her. Which is why, Inshala thought, she had to either strike from the rear, which was unlikely to succeed since there was no cover there or charge in from the flank, where she would have the opportunity to break many spines!
And that’s when the half-elf girl started ‘loosing’ her arrows..
Inshala just stood there, quietly dumbstruck as the ranger-girl started killing wolves at six hundred yards!
That.. was not fair!
The human also started shooting but she missed some. Then she drew her awesome big sword and charged!
“Alright.”, thought Inshala. “That one is pretty and stupid.. and pretty stupid!”
What was she doing?!
You don’t charge a whole pack of wolves..
But there she was, suddenly in the middle of the ravaging wolves and.. she was laughing, and Inshala seriously thought she was a bit ‘wrong in the head’, and dancing among the wolves, and where she swung, she laid waste a wolf.
That’s when Inshala noticed the alpha.
It had circled around, taking advantage of the chaos —a something far too cunning for a wolf, and was now rushing..
..at the half-elf girl from behind her.
The half-elf girl screamed.
And Inshala saw the human girl disappear under a whole lot of wolves.
A tad too late, for she had positioned herself for the pack, not the half-elf.
The alpha struck the half-elf from behind, sending her off the rock she was standing. Inshala heard a meaty crack when the half-elf fell on the ground and hit her head.
Then alpha went for her master!
“Not going to happen..”, hissed Inshala.
And six hundred pounds of feline aggression pounced the alpha, and with a sharp, unsettling crack, broke its spine. Inshala did not bother with subtleties. No one was ever going to touch her Father and Master; with a mighty swing of her awesome paw, she sent the alpha’s head, clean off its shoulders, and rolling some fifteen yards away!
Then she was among the remaining wolves.
Yes, she fought with the instincts of a killer predator, but she still had the mind of a human and.. something else guiding those instincts.. She never, for any given instance, stayed in one spot to allow the wolves to crowd her, nor hamstring her. She crushed the skull of one wolf, smashed the muzzle of another, gracefully arched over a third, broke the spine of a fourth, hopped over a charging fifth, raked open an unsuspecting sixth.. It was a mesmerizing scene, to see such a magnificent, but equally large animal dance and so nimbly among the wolves. It looked like a sand-colored smoke whifting among black and white fur..
It didn’t take too long.
The half-elf girl with her insane accuracy and the human girl with her insanity had killed much more than half their numbers to make a decent feast for the saber-tooth.
The last few tried to make a yelping run for it.
Inshala did not let that happen.
What she did do, however, was not vengeance, nor punishment.
It was a simple matter of ‘balance’.
Whatever had inflicted these wolves, had done it at a terminal level and they had all tasted human and elf flesh and many times. Enough to make a habit of it and certainly enough to lust for more. The imbalance here was very well defined; willy-nilly, these wolves had gone over the edge and crossed the line.
A line where there was no sanity.
And there were no cures here.
Which is exactly what she’d did.
She left none!
“You were extraordinary, my sweet chestnut.”
“Ow my child. If only we had Master Brom Bumblebrim here, he would have sung an epic, just for you..”
“Ow.. who is Master Blom Bundlebim Hobim?”
“An acquaintance of mine. A bard. Met him many years ago.. Wait. How did you know he is a hobbit?”
“I am not sure, Father. It just came to me.”
“Well, I must say, you truly were magnificent. And your new form. It really is much bigger than your first tiger. I wasn’t aware there were any saber-tooth tigers in Ritual Forest.”
“It’s alright, my dear child. I do not mind you quenching your curiosity. But I would like to be informed. I am an old man, yes. But I have traveled far and wide.. And know my forest well. If you feel you have to keep certain things from me, I am fine with it. But never fear me. That would truly hurt.”
“I am sorry I kept this from you. Father. You are the only one that has scolded me honestly. I can’t bear to see you worry any more than you already do for me.”
“That is what fathers do, my dearest. We worry over our daughters.. But now, help me with these young and over-enthusiastic rangers.”
“They were good, Father.”
“They were exceptionally good, my sweet chestnut. This one shoots like no one I have ever seen. And this one.. scared me more than she scared the wolves, I think.”
“I think she is angry.”
“Yes, Father. She was laughing while she was fighting. But she was also crying. But not out of fear. In fact, the moment she drew her big sword, she left all her fear behind. I do not think she was laughing because she was happy. That would be.. scary.. I think she was laughing to hide her anger.”
“You have a gift, my dear; an astute level of perception and insight.”
“She is also bitten. Many, many times.”
“Yes, she is. I believe I can heal most of it. I am sure she will truly cry when she wakes up, but from pain. At least there will be little scaring. This one however has a cracked skull.”
“I tried to reach her, but I was positioned wrong. Can you fix her? I think she’s cute. Just look at her pretty eyelashes.”
“Come, my dear, help me with this one first. It is not healthy for her to lie in all that wolf blood and.. insides..”
“She is pretty too. But she smells of woodsmen. I do not like woodsmen, Father.”
“Come now, my dear, they very nearly gave their lives trying to protect this old fool.”
“Speaking of fools. Was there a particular reason you all just stood there, right out in the open? Is there a significance to incanting at such an indefensible spot just so all the wolves could see you, that I am not aware of? I mean, there are so many trees, after all.. You could have cast your spell, sitting comfortably on a branch while these two pretty rangers could have shot at the wolves while they piled at the bottom of the trees!”
“Well, now, I.. never really thought about it..”
“You all did look awesome though..”
“Well, really, now. You are just making fun of this old man.”
“People are coming, Master. Time for me to go, I think.”
“Yes, my sweet chestnut. I believe it is..”
“Take these, Master, and have the humans make pretty earrings for these two. I think they deserve them.”
“Yes, Father. These are the alphas fangs. I do not like looting animals, other than what I honestly need.. But I sense.. a certain balance here now..”
The old man stared at the little girl and suddenly the dawn of a realization brightened his astonished face. Slowly, and carefully he looked at the unconscious girls, then studied the half-elf a bit more closely.
Good and Great Heavens..
The little girl, his little girl, was right!
Informed by her, he recognized who the half-elf was; Laila.. The daughter of Darien Darkmaine and his beloved Seraphim Silverdûne, both long deceased. And in a chain reaction, he also recognized who the other, the human girl was too; the daughter of dear Seleina Sunstrider and Aramsis Darkmaine, both also long gone..
“You are so much more astute than I could have imagined, my dear, dear child.. Your ability to sense balance around you is astonishing. And certainly much more finely tuned than mine.. You truly are a wonder..”
Inshala blushed furiously and glowed with genuine pride.. then took off..
Master Cathber stared after his ‘gift’, then back at the unconscious girls.
“Well. I believe some well-earned titles are in order, here.. ‘Wolvesbane’ for you and ‘Songsteel’ for you, I think sounds fair and quite fitting.”
“And perhaps ‘Frostmane’ for you..”, he added with a whisper, glancing after his saber-tooth daughter..
✱ ✱ ✱
The great saber-tooth wept silently.
She crouched behind the trees and thick bushes, staring at the large camp full of elves, woodsmen, and rangers laughing and drinking merrily in celebration of having finally gotten rid of the mad wolves infesting Dim Woods and Nurturing Heaven for over two decades. Inshala wasn’t among the merry lot and she wept. Not for having to miss the party, but for the two, pretty ranger girls moaning in pain, in their tent.
Inshala knew pain. She knew it intimately. She had been born with it. Hence, when she saw pain and suffering, she did not offer sentiments because she felt the pain. And those two had fought so bravely, so valant.. varrant.. so.. virulent? What was the word?
Yes, they had fought so bravely and valiantly, and they were now paying the price for it.. cashed in pain.
Then she saw the dark, evil man skulk..
Skulk had a.. Inshala was not sure exactly what, but the word ‘skulk’ didn’t fit the evil man.
Skulk had a certain ‘cowardice’ attached to it.
Sneak, then, perhaps?
But he wasn’t exactly sneaking either, per se.
Well, that certainly fit, but Inshala didn’t think it did the evil man justice nor give it the dramatic touch she felt it needed.
Walking silently seemed more like a ‘side effect’ to his gait, rather than the cause.
And why was she so hung up on how the evil man walked anyway?
It was just a walk!
Inshala, however, loved correctly defining things. It seemed to satisfy her at a fundamental level.
Or perhaps it was because she had been misunderstood or misinterpreted a few too many times in her past.
Being thought you were a demon all your childhood, and consequently being chased, stoned, caged, and whipped would do that.
An ungrateful, or perhaps, an uncharitable person would probably call her ‘obsessive’.
However she was looked upon, Inshala did not mind, so long as there were no name-calling, chasing, stoning, caging, or whipping in the end.
She still did obsess on correctly defining things, though.
The only, and major issue with that was, the little girl was quite and quietly isolated and had only one old man to talk to. The man she loved and adored.. and didn’t want to perpetually pester him. Hence she lacked ‘words’..
She exclaimed.. Yes, the evil man ‘ghosted’ towards the tent where the two, pretty ranger girls moaned and groaned in pain!
Or rather, he had already ‘ghosted’ there by the time Inshala found the correct word and she’d totally missed it!
That bothered the little girl.
It bothered her a lot.
She knew she could obsess over words, her bathing schedule, certainly her Father’s bathing calendar, her hair, her clothes, her nails, and her.. horns.. But over a boy? a man? She wasn’t quite sure what this one was, but sending a ‘boy’ to fight a whole pack of wolves sounded genuinely wrong to Inshala.. though, when she thought about it, she was here and she’d fought the wolves and she was a girl. So were the two, pretty ranger girls!
This particular, boy/girl, man/woman dilemma was really getting out of hand!
What’s more, why had the evil man gone to a tent where two, pretty ranger girls lay resting?
.. Inshala found it extremely disturbing for some reason and she was totally clueless as to why!
Perhaps the evil man liked one of the girls. They were both pretty, after all..
Perhaps the evil man liked BOTH the girls! They were BOTH pretty, after all!
A low and savage growl escaped the saber-tooth.. She wasn’t sure which of those she found more disturbing, but both made her want to pounce the tent and shred things.. in a rather bloody way.. Starting with the evil man!
On a side note, Aager Fogstep never knew just how close he’d come to getting shredded that evening!
And just like that, Inshala calmed down.
Because she remembered something— ⊗
The massive, six hundred pounds of feral egression molded down..
There was no smoke, no crunching of bones, no disgusting body fluids gushing out of any orifice, nor any spectacular, sparkling effects.. at all..
One moment a giant of a cat with a great maw, foot-long sabers for teeth, spine snapping massive paws and man-height shoulders, the next, a skinny little girl.
The lack of drama was a bit disappointing perhaps, but the beauty of the change was in fact, in its quiet subtlety.
⊗ —the sheathed dagger.
The two, pretty ranger girls did not possess anything that belonged to the evil man. But she did.
And the evil man did not have the smell of either of the two, pretty ranger girls on him.
Funny how ‘relative reason’ found its way through impossible odds at times. Particularly when you desperately wanted it to!
The little girl, Inshala, did not ‘ghost’ in the night. She didn’t think she would ever be able to do that. Not in her ‘girl form’, anyway. She felt that seemed something unique to the evil man for some reason and that thought made her frown.. and put a tiny little smile on her small mouth at the same time.
Hence she snuck.
Inshala did not do skulking, either!
Quietly, she placed the sheathed dagger near the entrance of the tent.
To this day, she was never really sure why she’d returned the dagger. Perhaps it was because she thought he might need it and its lack might cause him harm. Or perhaps it was a matter of simple ‘balance’; take something, give something. Maybe it was about returning the ‘careful peace’ offering in-kind.. though, in all candor, she might have thought it was something of a game. A bit like hide-and-seek..
Whatever her reasons or reasonings were, it felt ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ to have returned the sheathed dagger because when she snuck back into the woods, the frown on her diminutive face was gone.
And only the little smile was there.
✱ ✱ ✱
Let me get this straight, old man. You want me to teach your daughter the differences between boys and girls, and men and women? Am I correct?”
“Yes, Ganiste. That is exactly what I am asking you to do..”
“This is incredible. The great Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig blushes and can’t talk about men and women to a little girl?”
“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“more heartless laughter*
“Very, very much. But what I don’t understand is, you told me all this when I was a girl. Why can’t you tell her?”
“She is my daughter, Ganiste. I.. can’t, alright. A father should never have to tell these things to his daughter. To a son, perhaps, but not his daughter. That is the mother’s prerogative, if not her job. Yes, it doesn’t sound nice when I say it like that, but to be honest, I don’t care. When it comes to fathers and daughters, there should be some sort of unspoken privacy between them. The same privacy that creates the incomprehensible but special bond that is called father and daughter. Yes, I have washed her, bathed her, clothed her, looked after her, fed her, taught her, and comforted her the best I can. And whenever she does these by herself and in the future, she will remember me and smile. This.. ‘topic’, however, relates to a possible third person by its nature I am hoping she will find in time.. Someone who loves her, cares for her, attends to her needs in all aspects, comforts her, and keeps her safe. And I should never be part of that equation. Only her and that person, whoever he may be.. If I told her about these, I will ruin the mystic of the whole thing..”
“And embarrass yourself..”
“And embarrass myself..”
“You never cease to amaze me, old man.”
“I honestly am not trying.. But I can not go to the woodsmen for their support on this, seeing as how they treated her all these years. Elves.. well.. I am NOT going to the elves with this.. Dwarves are not even aware of her existence and I’d like to keep it that way. They make horrible gossip! You are the only woman I know and trust.. Ironic as that may seem..”
“Yes.. rather ironic, indeed. An ogress teaching the ways of boys and girls, men and women to an old codger’s little, non-human daughter. What could possibly go wrong there?”
“Old codger? Really, now, Ganiste..”
“I resent that!”
“Well, now, you are just being mean, Ganiste. I never called you any names.”
“By all means, do. You are so out of your debt here that I can pluck you clean and you will just sit there and take it all!”
“Do it, then. For her, I will sit still and ‘take it all’..”
“You are serious..”
“Ganiste.. When have you ever seen me otherwise?”
“Very well, old man. This is quite unprecedented, but I will do this for you. And for her.. I hear certain ‘talks’ form special bonds between girls. Never really had the chance here. Ogres aren’t much when it comes to intimacy. At least I and the future Ritual Guardian will have such a special bond..”
“Are you done talking privately with my Father, Ganiste? Chihuahua is hungry, and so am I..”
“Yes, I am done talking with your father. But not quite done talking privately with you..”
“You want.. to talk privately with me?”
“Yes, child. I am afraid this will be one of ‘those talks’..”
“Cathber! You never had any of ‘those talks’ with her?”
“Uhhmm.. Nope! Thought I’d leave it all to you and in your tender care..”
“You are incredible, you are.. How is she even alive?”
“That was a bit harsh, now, Ganiste. I did the best I could..”
“Come, little one. Help me prepare dinner and I will tell you all about boys and girls..”
“You.. you will?”
“Yes, little one, I will..”
“Yessh! It has been in my mind for some time now. But I do not understand why my Father isn’t telling me this and you are..”
“Because he is a wuss!”
“Well, now, really, Ganiste?!”
✱ ✱ ✱
Tell me little one. What do you know about boys?”
“They are mean. They try to catch me, they pull my hair, my ears, and my horns. They hit me with sticks, they throw stones at me and call their parents who beat me more, put me into cages, and whip me. I do not like them, mother Ganiste.”
“And.. why did you not hit them back, child?”
“Because I do not like hurting. I am used to pain, but they are not. If I threw a rock at them, they will die. If I hit them with sticks, they will die. If I whip them, they will die. I only kill to eat. And when an animal has become sick in the head..”
“Hmmm.. Alright. Perhaps one day you will meet a boy who will not do any of those to you.”
“I do not look forward to it, mother Ganiste. Humans are all same. They are ignorant, stupid, they only want to kill things and they do not smell nice. Why would I want any of them.”
“But you are human too, child.”
“No, mother Ganiste. I am not. Father says I am. And at first, I wanted to be as well. If being human will make me do all the evil things they do, I do not want to be human. Perhaps an elf. They at least never throw stones at me, or call me names or hit me with sticks. But they do avoid me and that hurts. I have done nothing to them.. I just watch them play and dance from far away. They will not mind that. But they will not let me come any closer. They are a closed-minded people.”
“Life hasn’t offered you any favors, has it, child? And this coming from an ogre makes it all the more sad.”
“I did not even want to be, mother Ganiste. At all.. But no one asked me, so I am here. Only my Father has been good to me.. And you, mother Ganiste. But he is old. I can see him wither away, every day now and I do not know what to do? If only I could find a way to give him my days, I would. No one wants a dirty little demon like me. But everyone needs him.”
“No child. We do not get to give our days to others. And even if you had the chance, you shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Why? I have no future. There are no happy days for me other than what my Father gives me..”
“Child. I am an ogre and even I haven’t given up thus thoroughly. And I lost everyone I know to humans, because of humans.. Yet there are some that can be spoken to, bargained with, and expect some respect. Your father is one such human. Should have seen me when I first saw him. I literally tried to catch and eat him! But he bested me and still did not slay me. Instead, he offered to take me along and show me the world beyond our hills and our ways. Now he is your father and still doing the same. In time, you will find someone, perhaps a human, or an elf, or someone or something else, who will be like your father but who will not be your father. To him, you will tell all your secrets, all your worries, all your fears, all your bad habits and it will still be alright. You will open your heart to him and he will love you for it. And he will do the same to you and it will be alright with you and you will love him for it, as well..”
“I find your confidence in humans enthralling, but misplaced, mother Ganiste..”
“That is for time to show you, child. But either way, you must know what boys are and what men are. You must also know what being a girl means and how they become women.”
“Tell me about the girl and the woman, mother Ganiste. I have no interest in boys nor men. They have brought me nothing but suffering, and given me nothing but pain..”
“Let’s not be too hasty, child. For there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men..”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. What do women have that men want, and what do men have that women need?”
“Living in the wild, have you never noticed how there are always two, to make more?”
“I have, mother Ganiste. Animals are kind, for they hunt only what they need. And are bonded to their mates. The mate fights and savagely, so the mother can run and take its cubs, puppies, and babies to safety.”
“Yes. But why does it take two, to birth the cubs, puppies, and babies?”
“I do not know, mother Ganiste. It just does, I guess.”
“It doesn’t ‘just does’, child. It is needed. The girl needs the boy, for the girl to make more. And the boy needs the girl, for the whole of their kind to grow. Neither is better than the other, and neither is the stronger. To think so is folly and an elementary mistake.”
“Because there can be no men without women and only empty and desolate women without men, dear child.”
“When boys grow, they become men. When girls grow, they stay a girl. For a girl to become a woman, she needs to mate.”
“What is to mate, mother Ganiste?”
“The details of that is something you will learn in time, I imagine. Suffice to say, the boy gives his seeds to the girl, and the girl turns those seeds into new life! What you are here for is, when boys grow, they grow also in size and muscle, though not particularly in their mental capacity. This is also true for women, really, but that’s beside the point. When a girl starts to grow, her body changes much more profoundly than boys. Our hips grow wider, and our breasts grow larger.”
“For many reasons. One is to attract the attention of men, I suppose, the other is for both to carry and deliver our babies, and to feed our young ones..”
“I.. do not understand, mother Genista.. You mean to tell me I will look like you?”
“In essence, yes. Do you remember how flat you were just a few short years ago?”
“You certainly were, the last time you came here. Now you have ‘hips’, and ‘breasts..”
“Will they not stop growing?”
“They might. But I doubt. Not yet anyway. You are different from humans and different from ogres. But I believe you are not quite done with your growing just yet.”
*blush some more*
“But.. I do not want them to grow anymore. Can I not stop them?”
“No. And neither should you want to. Never, and I mean, never interfere with your natural growth. That is not just wrong, you will ruin your body. There is no going back once it’s done, child.. Besides, no girl ever wants them to stop growing. The larger they are, the more men like them.. boys too, for that matter, and I don’t expect that particular aspect in males to be any different in humans.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste. I do not want to grow anymore. If I grow more, so will my horns..”
“Child.. What am I?”
“An ogress, mother Ganiste.”
“I have the face of a bull that’s smashed into a wall running at full speed. I have a flat nose, thick, uneven horns, and canines that stick out of my jaw..”
“Yes. You look awesome, mother Ganiste.”
“You look awesome!”
“I.. I do?”
“And very impressive. I was enthralled the first time we met.”
“Girl.. You are ruining my speech and my point!”
“I am sorry, mother Ganiste. But I speak my truth.”
“Your truth is pretty. But my face is not. Which is, or was, my point.”
“I feel lost, mother Ganiste.”
“As much as I dislike many of my aspects, this is me. This is who and what I am. In time, I will become more, and I will become less, yet, whatever and however I turn out to be, I will accept that, and so must you.”
“You belong, mother Ganiste. Here, and among yours.”
“Where do I belong?”
“I have no place among humans and I have no place among elves. You belong to your people, and your hills, mother Ganiste, because you have people.. I have no hills and no people.. I have no place in this world, mother. I do not belong!”
“You belong, where you feel you belong, child. To your father and to your home.. And as long as I am here, you belong to these hills as well.”
“I thank you, mother Ganiste. You are kind and wise. But you and I know, in the end, I will live alone, and die alone. I will always be shunned, stoned, caged, and whipped for as long as I live and my best chance is to run.. Always run.. Should I settle and be found, I will be driven and my home burned. The running can not belong,mother Ganiste..”
“Did you learn the answers to your questions, my sweet chestnut?”
“Yes, Father. Thank you for bringing me here to mother Ganiste. She is wise as she is pretty. I would like to visit her again in the future if it’s alright.”
“I am sure Ganiste wouldn’t mind. I believe she truly adores you.”
“She adores many things, Father. The smaller they are, the more she adores..”
“And have you any further questions to ask on the matter you talked?”
“No, Father. I found it was a matter that was not significant, nor pertinent and quite unrelated to my life.”
“Boys and men will always stay and far away. And I will always stay, here and a girl. I am alone, Father, for I have no kind. I belong nowhere and there will be no mate waiting for me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You have been rather quiet of late, my daughter. What’s ails you? Are you unwell?”
“I am well, Father. I am merely thinking.”
“Thinking. Thinking is good, my sweet chestnut. But too much, however, could befuddle —unless shared.”
“The Wyld Hunt, Master. That is what I have been thinking.”
“Now, why would a pretty little girl such as yourself ever think of a dreadful thing such as the Wyld Hunt, my daughter. It is not a wise matter to dwell upon. Not for an old man such as myself, let alone a pretty little girl..”
“You do not have to say I am pretty all the time, Master. That elk has escaped.. I no longer find interest in being pretty. I have accepted my lot..”
“Perhaps you should look into all your options before you call upon your lot, my daughter.”
“It is alright, Father. It really is.”
“My dear fair girl.. Ever since we met, have I ever mislead, muddied the truth, or lied to you?”
“There you have it, then. If I say you are loved, it is because you are loved. When I say you are pretty, it is because you are pretty.. Unless you want to call this old man a fool for a pretty face.. which would sort of make my point!”
“I thank you for your love and your care, Father. It has meant a lot for me and sustained me all these years. It is time, however, I stand on my own feet, then on your shoulders.”
“My shoulders are fine, my sweet chestnut. You weigh little!”
“I weigh more than my little. This I think you already know, Father.”
“Why don’t we both go to the pond and take a dip? It is a beautiful day..”
“I took a dip last week, Father. I will take another if I need.”
“Soo.. why were you thinking about the Wyld Hunt? If I may be so bold as to ask..”
“You are bold, Father.”
“Well, really, now? That’s just being nasty.”
“I am sorry, Father.”
“We shall see how sorry you are then, shall we, young lady? The Wyld Hunt..”
“Perhaps I could call it and join it.”
“Call it and join it, Father. That way, I will belong.”
“First of all, young lady, no one ‘just calls’ the Wyld Hunt. Second, the Wyld Hunt is not something you can ‘belong’ to.. like ever! The Wyld Hunt is not a nice thing, my daughter. It is very, very, VERY dangerous to call it.. Once, and only once did I call it and that was over 750 years ago during Themalsar War, and it took a full circle of druids to barely steer it towards that mad old priest’s temple! They destroyed the temple and brought it down to a stunted rubble.”
“But I heard he still lives, Father. Themalsar still lives.”
“Yes. He does. As far as I know. The fool made pacts with unimaginable things we could not even put names to. The best we could do was to lock him up in his stinking dungeons and put the strongest wards we could muster.. All of us; what remained of the druids, any Temple Guardian we could get our hands on, any elf wizard or sorcerer, and even Angels from the High Heavens and powerful Fey from either Courts..”
“So you called the Wyld Hunt and they were unable to destroy this Themalsar?”
“There you have it then, Father.”
“There we have what, child?”
“You sent them to do a task and they were unable to finish it.. The Wyld Hunt ‘owes’ you, Father!”
“Now you could call them and ask them if I could join them as a payment to their debt! That way, they will be happy for having finally paid off their debt, I will have gone and joined them and ‘belonged’, and you will be free of me and will no longer be forced to endure my weight!”
“No? But why, Father? Seems like a good solution.”
“Solutions are for problems.”
“Yes, Father. And I am the problem.”
“No, my daughter. The problem is you questioning my love for you. The problem is where you do me the disservice of questioning my love, my care, and my fondness of you.”
“I.. I thought..”
“Go? Where shall I go, Father?”
“Go.. and take a bath..”
“I do not need a bath, Father. The dirty does not come off.”
“Go, Inshala. NOW! AND NEVER TALK ABOUT THE WYLD HUNT AGAIN!!”
“You shouted at me, Father..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Ganiste! I need your help!”
“Cathber? That you, old man?”
“Yes, yes.. How many others do you see in your dreams, girl?”
“Do you really want me to answer that question, old man?”
“You really shouldn’t ask questions you do not want the answers for, old man. But, I wasn’t really sleeping. Just staring at something dreamily.”
*heavy, fuming breaths*
“Are you done?”
“How could I be? You are the one with the problem. But let me guess; it’s about your little one, isn’t it?”
“How could you even know that?”
“Only two things that I can think of could have riled up a sour old man like you; one would be a whole village of bigots to have finally banded together and come down to that howell you call home with torches and pitchforks, or it’s a daughter.. But I doubt you would have called me for the bigots. I hear you take particular delight when it comes to entertaining yourself with them.”
“You are having fun, aren’t you, Ganiste?”
“Every time you call, old man. But that is beside the point. Now, what seems to be the issue?”
“Yeees, old man, seeing as she is your daughter. But what is the problem?”
“She said she wanted to call the Wyld Hunt!”
“She can do that?”
“I don’t know. She surprises me at every turn. She is destroying everything I thought I knew about the fey and the wild fey!”
“Daughters can do that. Destroy everything we thought we knew. Why does she want to call the Wyld Hunt? Perhaps she is finally tired of your precious woodsmen. I certainly am.”
“No. She said she wants to join them and finally ‘belong’..”
“Ahhh? Ahh, what?”
“It is of no importance, old man. It is a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand. Besides, joining the Wyld Hunt isn’t so bad. My great-great-grandfather joined it.. during Themalsar War. Wasn’t it you and your doddering old friends that called it, then?”
“It was a desperate play, Ganiste. You of all people should know this.”
“Perhaps.. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it..”
“You are not being of any help, Ganiste.”
“Was that a requirement of me? Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?”
“Well.. ‘Please’ always helps.. But like I said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.”
“And why is that?”
“Told you. It’s a girl thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“By all means, try me, Ganiste!”
“No point. You have to be a girl to understand. But if you feel you are that desperate, by all means, turn into one. I know you can.. with one of your polymorph spells..”
“I have done many foolish things in my time, Ganiste. But I am NOT going to turn myself into a girl. Not now, not ever.. I am what I am and people should accept what they got, then try to be something else.. Particularly when it comes to things such as this —a something that is certain to end in depravity.”
“Time will come when your point of view might be questioned, old man.”
“And what gave you the idea that I would ever care, Ganiste! I am not a public figure that needs a popular vote for some foolish election. I do not require to appear ‘cute’, nor be politically correct. By all means, girl, you know what I do, what I fight, and what I defend.. But I see none of those idiots out there lending a hand, let alone bleed for humanity!”
“Alright. I will help you try and understand.”
“Inshala is how old now?”
“Should be close to her fifteenth. I am not quite sure of her exact day of birth. I estimated about a month or two before her mother was driven out of her village and into the woods then stoned to death.. The fools thought she’d died and left but she picked herself up, and her baby and ran.. She was overcome by fatigue and blood loss, however, and finally died. I found them a few days later quite by chance really. Buried the mother and adopted the baby.”
“And you let those animals get away with this?”
“No, Ganiste, I did not. I.. someone let slip the news of what happened to the authorities in Serenity Home.. and the good sheriff, along with his guards and a platoon of rangers came down on them like an avalanche.. I don’t think they ever forgot what they did to that poor young girl since then..”
“How very you, old man. But if we are to return to the essence of your problem, your beloved daughter, Inshala, is a teenager now, and has been for quite some time. I am surprised she hasn’t done anything odd and creepy at all..”
“So what if she is a teenager?”
“Do you even know what girls go through during their teenage years, old man?”
“Of course. They grow!”
“You are incredible, you are, old man.. How is that poor girl even alive with you?”
“That was a tad harsh, Ganiste. I did my best.”
“It is not your fault you are such a dork, Cathber.”
“Well, now, really?”
“Don’t misunderstand me, old man. All men are.. when it comes to truly understand girls.. or women, for that matter.. and what we go through while we are growing and what we suffer in life.”
“I am sorry, Ganiste. I have been running around this forest for over eight hundred years dealing with the sins of men, the fouls of monsters, and the fel of demons to make life livable and safe for others. I was bound to miss a thing or two.”
“You are a good man, Cathber. A foolish man, but still a good man.”
“Well, thank you very much for seeing fit to give me that much credit, Ganiste.”
“Don’t be like that, Cathber. It does not become you.. Look, I am a tad busy with a poacher at hand so I will try to make this simple; men do not understand what we go through while we are growing. You literally can’t because you never go through it.. You can nod your heads and claim to understand but never truly comprehend.. We are awash with all sorts of wild chemicals as our bodies change and become ‘birth ready’. This is what she is going through.. just like any other teenage girl does, resulting in odd behavior changes, mood swings, laughing and crying for no particular reason, falling in love with foolish, older men..”
“I resent that.”
“It will last for some time and will call her to do all sorts of odd drama, though I must admit, the idea of joining the Wyld Hunt is a bit of an overkill..”
“How long? How long will this last?”
“For however long it takes for her to adjust to these changes and until she adapts to her new self..”
“Yes, old man.. Larger breasts, wider hips, swaying walks.. you know..”
“No, I don’t.. Not really..”
“Hey, I met my beautiful Tamara when she was done with her growing up, alright.”
“In short, she must go through with this and there is nothing you really can do about it.”
“Nothing? There is absolutely nothing I can do about it?”
“Absolutely nothing, old man. The only thing you can try is to offer understanding, patience, and kindness..”
“She has those and more, Ganiste. She can have all my understanding, patience, and kindness.. ALL OF IT!“
“No, old man. You thought you gave her those. What she needs now are the real ones.. What’s worse, for you is, she might not even be in the mood to accept any of them!”
“This is.. unprecedented..”
“You have a daughter and you think this as unprecedented? You truly are naive, Cathber.”
“You are punning me again, Ganiste.
“Yes. Yes, I am, old man. But what you need now is a hug. I could give you a hug.”
“Uhhmm.. I apricate your offer, dear Ganiste. But the last time you hugged, it took me nearly three months to recover.”
“Such is love, old man.. Always painful!”
✱ ✱ ✱
I see you are in the pond again.”
“Yes, Father. You told me to go and bathe in the pond.”
“Yes. Yes, I did tell you that, didn’t I..”
“Inshala.. My dearest daughter—”
“—I am sorry Father. For making you shout at me..”
“I am sorry, my sweet chestnut, to have shouted at you..”
“You have been nothing but good to me..”
“And you have been nothing but a sweet daughter to me..”
“I will do my best not to put my weight on you.”
“And I will try to carry more of you.. My only wish of you is that you would accept what I give and never question it.”
“I will never question it, Father.”
“Now, where is my towel, my scrubbing stick and my soap? I think I smell a bit too.”
“Are you saying, I smell?”
“No. I am saying, you smell. A whole week without a dip in the pond? Really, now, girl? Who are you? And where’s my daughter?”
“But.. but I am your daughter and I am right here!”
“Well, we shall see about that. My daughter always cooks a wonderful dinner. And will take another bath tomorrow as well..”
“Where are you going, girl? And do put your towel on!”
“Towel can wait! I am going to cook a wonderful dinner and prove that I am your daughter, Father!”
✱ ✱ ✱
And how have you been of late, young one? You certainly gave my ogres a fright, when you came the way you did. Your cat is indeed quite impressive. “
“I am sorry mother Ganiste. It was not my intention to scare your people. I was on my way to Gulls Perch to play with some of my friends there and I was in a bit of a rush. But I didn’t want to be impolite so I decided to come here and visit you first.”
“That was very thoughtful of you, dear child. Come, let’s get into my tent and while I make you some cookies, you can play with chihuahua and tell me all about what you have been doing.”
“Cookie and chihuahua! How can I say, no, mother Ganiste?”
“I didn’t know the fey let outsiders into their valley at Gull’s Perch. They were all banned quite some years ago.”
“They still are, mother Ganiste. But they don’t mind me and let me in.”
“We swim and play in their big ponds for hours and hours. And when the sun sets, we fire hop and we play hide and seek in the woods. But I think the dryads are cheating.”
“Ow? Why do you think so?”
“Playing hide and seek in the woods with dryads is a game you are never going to win, mother Ganiste. Every dryad is paired with one tree or another. When they hide behind a tree, they just ask the tree and the tree opens up, and hides them!”
“Well, that’s a bummer.”
“Not anymore, mother. I have been studying and working hard and I can speak with trees now.”
“Yes, mother Ganiste. So this time I will just ask the trees.”
“Will they give away their own dryads, though?”
“But I will not be asking them about their dryads..”
“I will be asking them why are they so fat, and were they always this fat!”
“They will think it’s the dryads that are making them look fat and try to explain it to me!”
*happy, thunderous laughter*
“You are an incredible little girl, you are..”
“Thank you, mother Ganiste..”
“And you look amazing too!”
“I.. I do?”
“Yes, girl. Barely a year has passed since your last visit and look at you..”
“Why, mother? What’s wrong with me?”
“Wrong? There is nothing wrong with you girl, but Good Heavens you’ve grown..”
“I.. I have?”
“Yes.. I don’t think I should call you ‘child’ any more.”
“But what will you call me then?”
“You have grown and are no longer a child, but a ‘young lady’ now. You were pretty before, but now your breasts are larger, your hips are wider and your walk has a sway..”
“M.. mother, please, stop!”
“Now, now, young lady.. This is girl talk. When we are alone, in this tent, we have less rules.”
“I.. I don’t really feel any different now, then I did before, though.. Just a bit strange.. and akwak.. arward.. awkard..”
“That is to be expected. You body has grown and flourished, but your mind hasn’t caught up to that fact yet.”
“I do not understand, mother Ganiste.”
“Before, you were a pretty little girl. Now, you are a beautiful young lady..”
“But.. how can you be sure?”
“Your fey friends..”
“What about them?”
“The fey-folk like ‘pretty’. This is something they can not help, nor avoid. But they absolutely adore ‘beauty’..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Is this true? Did you see it with your own eyes?”, growled Ganiste and there was murder is her burning eyes.
The large ogre standing some three yards tall shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took an undiscernible step back.
“Yes, Chieftain Grulganesti. His door and windows were smashed in and he was lying in his bed with many stabs in his chest. Too small to be our swords or axes. They were done by human knives.. They hid their steps well, but I sought much and found some. Large for elf, soft for dwarf. But they moved carefully and swiftly. His house was much ransacked, Chieftain. They were looking for something.”
Ganiste went pale. She could barely keep her composure. She did a harsh swallow of the bitter taste that came to her clenched jaws.
“Send the signal.”, she said in a growl. “I want triple sentries on watch. Anything that is of suspect is to be reported to me. Send also one fast runner to the elves, one to the dwarves and one to the human town to inform them of what has befallen.”
“Chieftain..”, replied the ogre dubiously. “The elves barely tolerate us at the best of times and will likely shoot us. The dwarves will shoot us. The humans.. if we chance upon one of their sensible rangers, they may listen. Otherwise they will also shoot us.”
“Do tell me something I do not know! All couriers will carry white flags-poles on their backs at all times. Should they still shoot at them, I will personally go there, break their bows and shiv it up their intestines for display!”, she replied with a horrible hiss..
“An educational riposte, Chieftain.”, nodded the ogre thoughtfully.
“Also.. send another courier to Gull’s Perch.. His daughter must know of this.. Prepare a full platoon. We shall leave within the hour. We must get to his home before anyone else comes to ransack it. I.. we must also make him ready for burial. She must not see him ravaged. There is a limit to what a girl could tolerate..”, she said, though it wasn’t quite clear as to which girl she was referring to. With a wave of her hand, she sent the ogre with her orders..
For a long moment, Ganiste just stood there staring at her empty tent. And then, the Chieftain of the all the ogres of Ogre’s Foot and Ritual Forest, Grulganesti Grimtooth Bolgrig dropped on her knees and cried like a little girl..
“You old fool..”, she moaned. “Who shall slay me now?”
✱ ✱ ✱
Inshala, stop! They did not do this. They are here only to make sure no one else comes and to prepare him for his funeral”, screamed Ganiste, but the giant, near six-hundred-pound saber-tooth tiger standing over the fallen, bloodied ogre didn’t care. Her great maw open, her two, foot-long sabers for teeth shown with mindless wrath!
Chieftain Grulganiste did not wait for another warning.
With an unexpected agility from the near fourteen-foot ‘woman’, she rammed the saber-tooth tiger and flung her off the bleeding ogre on the ground. The saber-tooth spun in mid-air, bounced off a near-by tree, shot herself using her powerful hind-legs and came at the ogress, her skull-crushing paws extended.
Grulganiste ducked just enough to let the tiger sail over her, then jumped her from behind, grabbed her and with a mighty heave she locked her in her awesome grip. A roar of surprise and madness escaped the saber-tooth as she trashed, leaving long, ugly, and bloody scars on the chieftain, but Ganiste ignored them..
She just squeezed more.
The other ogres picked up their great axes, clubs and swords and moved in.
“NO!”, screeched Ganiste.“STAY YOUR GROUND! NO ONE TOUCHES THE RITUAL GUARDIAN!”
The saber-tooth struggled more, but something snapped and suddenly, Ganiste was no longer grappling a giant tiger, but hugging a little girl!
“Stop, girl.. Please, stop..”
“He trusted you, mother!”, screamed Inshala.
“As should you, girl. If you do not cease this, by the Great Heavens I will beat you until there’s some semblance of sense in that thick skull of yours.”, grated Ganiste.
“You hurt him! And now you hurt me! Why did you do this, mother?”
“I did not do this to him. You must understand this. And neither did my ogres. We revered your father. We do not know who did this, but it was not us..”, scowled the chieftain of the ogres.
“Who? Who did this then?”, screamed the little girl.
“Men. Some men came at him while he slept. They killed him with knives and low honor, ransacked his home and ran east..”
Running foot steps came and two ogres appeared in front of the battered home of old Cathber.
One of ogres was heavily wounded and the other was limping.
“Chieftain..”, grunted the limping one as he slowly lowered his wounded comrade.
“Who did this?”, hissed Grulganiste.
“We are not sure, Chieftain. They were swift and strong. They killed six of us and we didn’t even see them. Only the two of us made it and barely. They looked like orcs. But much bigger. Much stronger. Much.. something.. And there was many of them. Over thirty strong, at least.”
“Where are they headed?”
“East, Chieftain. They were all heading east. They also burned the elf village, Nurturing Heaven, down to the ground.. And they didn’t even bother to ransack it.. Dead elves.. Dead elves every where. They tried to put up a fight, but these.. things, attacked them in the middle of the night, either last night or the one before that, and slaughtered all they could find.”
“Are there any survivors?”
“We do not know, Chieftain. We tried to get near and that is when we got attacked. There were signs of possible survivors though, heading towards Dim Wood.”
Chieftain Grulganiste’s face was black. And with unveiled anger, she turned to one of her other ogres.
“Go to base. Alert everyone. Then bring two platoons here, and six platoons to the elf village to find possible survivors. If there are any, they are to be escorted to the woodsmen villages. The platoons are to station outside their villages to make sure these beasts do them no harm. I detest the woodsmen, but I shall not bring my people blame for their deaths.”
“Also, send more couriers to the dwarves and the human town to carry this news and what we are doing about it. We do not need any misunderstanding. Let all my ogres carry white flags on their arms and on poles on their backs.”
“What shall we do about the humans that slew the old Ritual Guardian?”
“Nothing. This is a human matter and we can not interfere. Anything we do other than what we have already done will only complicate things. As for the beasts—”
“—I shall hunt them down. I shall hunt them down and rip them apart.. Then I shall go after these humans as well.. and gnaw their bones!”, hissed Inshala.
“Your anger is understandable, but misplaced, girl. You cannot do either of those, because you are not ready. Actions done in wrath, never ends well..”, replied Ganiste quite sternly.
“You will either move, mother Ganiste, or I shall move over you.”, hissed Inshala and there was none of the sweet little girl that the ogress chieftain new. There, standing before her was something else. Certainly human. But not all the way and Ganiste knew not what and she was suddenly..
Yes, it was possible if she stood her ground and tried her brute force, her shamanistic skills, along with what ogre guards she had here, she could stop her.. but that was just it.
She wasn’t sure and she was not keen on finding out.
She had her own people to care, and a funeral to burry.
“At least bid your farewell and say your goodbyes to your father, girl. He deserved that much of you, for truly, he loved you.”, she whispered sharply at the little girl.
“I shall bid him farewell, mother, but i shall never say goodbye to him. He shall live with me, always..”, she replied hoarsely, turned around and went to the, now quite shriveled body, wrapped tightly in white, funeral cloth, placed upon a flimsily and hastily prepared pier.
Inshala knelt down next to the pier, reached out and tenderly touched her father’s wrapped face. And with blurry eyes, she spoke.
“I should have been here, with you, Father. You were, when I needed you and I was not. I shall carry this blame until the day I perish and join you. There, I shall ask your forgiveness. Now, I must go. I know you would have me stay. But I can’t. Not anymore. I could be a little girl as long as you were here. Now the little girl is over. I have showed kindness and got only hurt in return. I shall no longer show, what is not given freely. I shall only reap what is sown.. I shall no longer be the little girl, but be the harvester.. For this, I shall beg your forgiveness as well.. I shall bid you farewell, Father, but no goodbyes, for I shall not keep you waiting for long.”, Inshala said, softly kissed the old man’s forehead and sobbed.
For long moments, she wept, lost and broken.
When she rose, her face was wet and pinched, but the little girl was indeed gone.
What stood there was only inhuman determination and wrath.
She raised her head, faced the ogress and looked her in the eyes..
“Call upon the woodsmen. And the elves. Call the dwarves and the humans, mother Ganiste. My father deserves a proper funeral. He helped those who lived in his forest. Should they have honor, they shall come. Tell them also, I shall not turn a blind eye to those who do not..
Chieftain Grulganiste just stared at the skinny little girl.. No.. the ‘something’, standing like some cold, unreachable being trapped inside the body of the little girl and she felt her own heart tremble.
“I shall send word to all, and more, Ritual Guardian.”, she promised solemnly. “Please.. do not make decisions with anger. Your father—”, she began.
“—is dead.”, finished the little girl, harshly.
“But I am not.”, said Ganiste and for a moment, a kind and tender shadow cast upon her face. “Your father was a dear, dear man for me. And he was not the only one who loved and cared for you. Please, remember that. Remember, also, do not do things which you will regret.”
“Worry not for me, mother Ganiste. I go where I belong now.. As for regret..”, she said, then looked down at the sad form of her father. “I am regret!.. And I bid you, goodbye.”
“What are your intensions, Inshala?”
“I intend to wash the green off this forest with red..”, she hissed.
And just like that, she was gone.
In the form of her majestic saber-tooth, and a groaning roar, she disappeared into the trees.
✱ ✱ ✱
In the depths of Ritual Forest, the little girl raised her hands into the air. And called upon the old and the ancient, and called she upon a debt..
The sky darkened as dreary grays gathered. A long streak of lightning arced from one horizon to the other as though heralding the doom of the living.
In deep soft tenor, she sang, a long lost ritual, calling one horror, to judge another..
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? The father it is, with his infant so dear; He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm, He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
”My son, wherefore seek’s thou thy face thus to hide?” ”Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side! Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?” ”My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”
”Oh come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me! Full many a game I will play there with thee; On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not hear The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?” ”Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives; ’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
”Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there? My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care; My daughters by night their glad festival keep, They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
”My father, my father, and dost thou not see, How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?” ”My darling, my darling, I see it aright, ’Tis the agèd gray willows deceiving thy sight.”
”I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy! And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.” ”My father, my father, he seizes me fast, Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild, He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child; He reaches his court-yard with toil and with dread,— The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”, she shouted and the skies thundered in reply.
“A depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, and the dirty clouds churned.
“Once upon a task were you called..”, she hissed, and the trees of Ritual Forest shuddered.
“To slay, to burn and to smother..”, she cried and the peoples of Dim Woods suddenly ran in unadulterated fear.
“To crack, to crush and to grind..”, she whispered and the ogres of Ogre’s Foot fell on their knees and howled.
“To chase, to drive and to hunt..”, she screamed and the dwarves of Elder Hills and Scowling Hills froze, as dread washed over thirty thousand souls.
“To cut, to stab and to maim..”, she cried and the denizens of Serenity Home fell flat, their faces pale, their eyes as ovals..
“For a depth you owe, from Father to daughter, passed..”, she cast and the lightnings crashed, splitting trees, tearing the earth, and the fey creatures of Gull’s Perch turned north, their faces drawn in horror.
“Erl-King, I summon thee!”
“And Erl-King, thrice said and done..”
“Thus I have been summoned.. by a mortal. Bold. And foolish.. I knew, should I wait but a millennia, some naïve would eventually call, and pit his will against mine. I must admit, crushing the dim-witted is a tad demeaning but, I shall be set free on the mortal coil, and unrestrained..”
..said the giant of a man in deep, melodious, echoing voice.
“It is I, who has summoned you, Erl-King, to call you upon a task left unfulfilled.”, very nearly moaned Inshala, for the great figure’s presence was not immense in terms of physics, but his spiritual presence was vast and beyond!
Tears filled her eyes and she shut them tightly, focused on one thing, and one thing alone; her Father, and how small he lay on his pier.
“This truly is a sad day.”, mused the Erl-King.“I have thus been called to task by a.. little girl! No matter, no matter.. Crush fast and be done, I suppose.”
“I am Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig, and I am the daughter of Master Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, whom you owe a debt of honor for the failure of a task given!”, said Inshala, through her clenched teeth.
“Owe a debt of honor.. Failure of a task given.”, murmured the Erl-King.“Very big words for a very little girl. And what task is this, you dare claim the Erl-King has failed?”
“Many centuries ago, he and his, summoned you to lay down waste Themalsar. YOUFAILED! For Themalsar endures..”, said Inshala harshly.
“You dare afflict a failure upon me? You? A sniveling little—”, thundered the Erl-King and suddenly fell silent, staring at the little girl with an incredulous expression on his face. “—fey? How is this possible? Only the Queens of the fey may call me, the Erl-King, to task.. or their greatest of vassals. How is it that you could summon me, little fey girl?”
“I.. I am fey?”, faltered Inshala and opened her eyes.. a something she probably shouldn’t have done.. and saw the Erl-King!
The figure standing before her was some eighteen, or possibly twenty feet tall and had massive arms and shoulders. He wore a hideous, masked helmet with great, horned antlers, shoulder pads, some kind of strange plate armor that seemed like it was forged from blue-brown metal down to his waist and wore dark, blue-black leather trousers and heavy high boots. An old, patchy fur cloak hung over one shoulder, revealing the two-foot-long pommel of a cruel-looking, slightly curved and jagged-edged great sword that could probably cut an ogre in two with a mere nudge.
The little girl just ogled at him, her eyes wide open.
“Like what you see, then?”, smirked the Erl-King as he pulled off his helmet, letting loose a main of long, slightly curling, dark hair and displaying a, not-quiet symmetrical face that was both ugly and somehow handsome.. in a rugged way.
“You look awesome, sir!”, spluttered the little girl.
“Well, now. I can’t remember the last time anyone, or anything for that matter, ever complemented me. This is rather unprecedented.. in a pleasant way.”, smiled down the hideous king.
“I can not imagine why they wouldn’t, sir. You are pretty!”, said Inshala in an awed voice.
“Pretty, am I?”, replied the Erl-King, quite surprised. “You truly must be young and alone.”
“I am alone, but I am sixteen years of age!”, replied the little girl like she was saying sixteen hundred!
“Aaahh..”, smiled the Erl-King.“The burden of all those sixteen years must be weighing heavily upon you, then.”
“They are.”, said Inshala solemnly. “But not relevant to your debt, Erl-King. Will you not honor it?”
“Careful, girl.”, growled the massive figure. “I have come to liking you. Let’s not besmirch that. Monsters like myself do not take matters of honor lightly.”
“Then you accept your debt?”, pushed the little girl.
“You are a persistent one, aren’t you? Not easily distracted, nor swayed.”, mused the Erl-King.
“I have lost the only thing precious to me, sir. There is nothing left to sway.”, replied Inshala and there was an unexpected quality of savagery in her voice.
“Ahhh.. Wrath! That is something I know. Something I know very well.”, replied the Erl-King.“Very well. What would you have me do to quench your lust for vengeance, little one? Who must die, to ease your pain?”
“Nothing can ease my pain, Erl-King. For nothing can bring back what was taken from me..”, she replied and tears swelled down her small face.
“Nothing, is something you can do on your own, little one. You do not need me for that. And I fear I would make poor company for consolation.”
“I do not want, nor require consolation. I must suffer my folly day and night, and for a lone life.”, she said, her voice trembling.
“A sad way to spend a life, me thinks. But again, you may do that on your own.”
“No, Erl-King. I need you to call upon the Wyld Hunt and avenge your debt!”
The Erl-King just stared at the little girl weeping before him.
“The Wyld Hunt is not some small favor anyone to just call upon, little girl.”, replied the Erl-King, and a bit harshly.
“Such was your debt to my Father. Eight hundred years and your debt has endured, Erl-King.”
For a long moment the massive figure looked at the little girl, Inshala. And when he spoke again, there was no trace of ‘merry’ in his voice.
“No, little girl, I owe nothing to your Father. But I do owe a debt unfulfilled, to the mortal who adopted you! And should you truly want me to call the Wyld Hunt, a price must be paid; Join, Hide or Die.. those are the rules of the Wyld Hunt!”
Whether Inshala understood the implications of what the Erl-King said, was not clear. She stood silently, her face tear stricken and on her knees.. But when she spoke, her voice was low and it smoldered.
“I will ‘Join’, then.”
The Erl-King cocked one bushy eye brow at her and said, “No. You may not. Should it come to that, it is possible I could best Yours. But I have no desire to waste my hounds to His slaughter.”
“I do not understand.”, cried Inshala.
“And that is not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King, but strangely, not unkindly.
“Then slay me!”, shrieked Inshala. “I choose to ‘Die’..”
“Also, not my prerogative, little one.”, replied the Erl-King.
“I shall not run and ‘Hide’, while the killers of my Father live!”
“And I thought ‘tigers’ always ran and ‘hid’.. before they pounced their prey, little one.”, smiled the Erl-King hideously.
..escaped the small mouth of the little girl.
“Now. To the task at hand, then?”, laughed the Erl-King and the trees around them shuddered.
“Creatures. Large and uncouth. Some thirty or more, travel East. They slew the elves of my Father’s forest. They must be punished. And the slayers of my Father, men with knives and low honor, also running East. They must be hunted down and slain. And what they stole from my Father must be returned..”, said Inshala with a vicious voice.
“Recovery expeditions aren’t quite my forte, little one. My hounds may track and run down the uncouth and the men, but recover what was stolen, me thinks this is something you must do.”, replied the Erl-King.
“Very well, sir. Should You and Yours avenge my Sire by slaying the uncouth and these sinful men, I shall relieve You and Yours from the debt and done.”, said Inshala.
“You drive a harsh bargain, little one. Stay close. This shall be a merry chase and mayhap will quench your luster for blood.”
“My lust for blood shall never quench. For the one I cared most and only, is dead. Mortals saw a monster when they came at me. I shall give them monster, hence!”
✱ ✱ ✱
A long, dreadful howl echoed through Ritual Forest. Lightning flickered and streaked down, gorging spades of earth. Trees shuddered and splintered. Beast and buck ran or fell. And men, elf, dwarf or ogre.. far and wide, it did not matter.. felt terror like they had felt only ages and eons ago. Before iron, and before tools.. Before the domestication of land and ox.. This was the kind of fear at its most primitive and primordial level where thought got smothered and left only primal, reptilian instincts..
A fear that left them only two options;
Hide or Die!
And ahead of that howl, was a viscous, giant of a man, some eighteen feet tall, wearing a horned helmet and swinging a massive, jagged-edged great sword, riding a mind-boggling stead that had red, glowing cinders for eyes, a massive rump and powerful legs that ended in long, brutal claws..
The Erl-King led.
And the WyldHunt followed..
..a dark, gray-black smoke with barely discernable ghosts that resembled horse-sized hounds and the reaped souls of long-forgotten, primordial warriors..
And Inshala ran..
..at the center of that inky fog!
The savage, uncouth beasts never new what hit them. They were great and strong beasts that resembled orcs. But orcs were to infants, what these creatures were to men. They were powerful in arms and swift in legs and they wielded sharp, brutal implements of war..
..and yet, they died in two’s and four’s!
But never did they flinch nor ran. With inhuman savagery, they attacked the Wyld Hunt even as they died; their flesh torn and gnawed, their bones snapped and shattered, their skulls crushed like shells, and their tendons ripped and shredded..
It was a gruesome sight.
..thus was the Wyld Hunt!
The bloody saber-tooth ravaged the last of the beasts, her furry face red and dripping with blood and Inshala rose to her full height and coughed an echoing roar into the night.
“What a merry hunt!”, laughed the Erl-King.“Though a tad short for my taste.”
“These were the beasts.. But not the men!”, growled the saber-tooth.
“No. The men you seek are no more. These beasts have already hunted them down and slain them. I sense foul-play at hand, here.”, replied the Erl-King with distaste.
“NO! MY VENGEANCE HAS NOT BEEN QUENCHED!”, shrieked Inshala.
“You vengeance is not part of the debt, little one.”, reminded the giant figure.
“No. It isn’t. But the death of the men, were!”
The Erl-King stared down at the vicious tiger.
“That.. is true..”, he finally conceded, but there was the threat of a storm in his voice. “There is, however, nothing I can do to repay that.”
“THIS WAS NOT OUR AGREEMENT, ERL-KING”, shrieked the saber-tooth. “YOU WERE TO SLAY THESE MEN. NOT TO LET OTHERS DO IT FOR YOU!”
“Your mind is muddled, little girl. I do not let others pay my debts, nor do my killings for me. I would have a care, where it came to accusing me..”, spoke the Erl-King in a low and dreadful tone. “Non the less. The men are dead, and the debt remains unfulfilled.. again!”
“Then I shall call upon you one more time, Erl-King when I have found the true culdips!”
The Erl-King gave a long, suffering sigh. This millennia had turned out to be not only stale and boring, but with pestering, debt-demanding mortals.. and now, a not-quite-mortal-but-fey girl!
He gave the savage saber-tooth girl a long, steady look.
“Very well, little fey-girl. I shall come, once more, when you call and upon having unearthed the true culprits. I shall need a full name to bind this deal..”, he said, breathing from his nostrils.
“Inshala Frostmane Bolgrig.”
“No, girl. That is not your name.. That can not be your name..”, replied the Erl-King, staring into the tigers eyes. “Bolgrig was your attender.. of sorts.. But was he was not your Father, and certainly not your Sire!”
“I do not understand.”, replied Inshala, afraid now.
“No.. No you don’t. In time, perhaps, you shall. It is not my place, however, to learn you that information.”
“Whose place is it, then?”, asked the little girl.
“Again, not my place to learn you that, either. But I believe my work here is quite done. Unless you want me to slaughter the humans to the south, the ogres to the east, dwarves to the west or the.. woodsmen to the north. I sense a great hate you have for them.”
“I desire much misfortune for them, Erl-King. But I shall not spill their blood. Not today. Today, the elves need them..”, whispered Inshala.
“Very well. For the said task we have set, and the afore mentioned conditions, I, the Erl-King and my Wyld Hunt shall come, once more when called by you, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane..”, declared the Erl-King, turned around, and with one, swift motion, mounted his great beast.
“I fare thee well, young ‘la Fey’. Which by itself is quite unique, for the Wyld Hunt never fares well..”, laughed the gigantic form of the Erl-King, dug his heels into his mount and rode off, the inky black fog of his hounds and lost souls chasing after him.
And in a short, hoarse breath, he was gone.
The saber-tooth stared as the ghosts of the Wyld Hunt screeched and faded into the night. She licked her long, foot-long teeth edging down the sides of her maw. Her savage face pinched into a ugly glare and a low, thundering rumble escaped her throat.
“My Father..”, she hissed. “..will always be my Master, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig. Not the beast that sired me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Broken and bloodied, Inshala prowled the night, seeking something, anything that could curb her blood lust. It seemed the loss of her father had forever killed the former, young, pretty, innocent and frail little girl and left behind a wretched wreck that just couldn’t rid herself off the searing fire boiling her insides.. She ran this way and that, jumped over bush and boulder to no avail.. Her blood just wouldn’t cool off..
Which is when she stumbled upon the corpse of a human, lying face down in the dirt.
Inshala slid into a halt.
The man, whoever he was, was a corpse indeed. Dead for possibly half a day over. He wore dark leathers and similarly colored clothes. His head and face were also covered..
..and he was missing an arm.
There were other cuts and gashes on him. Inshala didn’t think the man would have lived, even had he kept his arm..
She also noted a long, bloody trail leading up to the corpse. Apparently, someone had dragged him all the way here, then left him to die, or left him because he had died.
Inshala came to the two natural conclusions; this was one of the lowly men who had slain her father for he smelled, no, he reeked of her father’s blood.. and someone had dragged him. Someone still alive.
A low rumble escaped the saber-tooth and she sniffed the ground.
Yes. There were others —two others. The scents told her that.
Slowly she took a step in their direction. Then another. And soon enough, she was running —dashing, really, at an unprecedented speed.. What would change would not be that they would die.. Only how.
And Inshala did not intent to show any mercy whatsoever, for they had shown none to her father. For her, killing one old man in his sleep, was as low as it got..
✱ ✱ ✱
The saber-tooth ghosted through the forest. The trails were getting cold and she did not want them to be lost. Day and night, she ran until she faltered and could go no further. She didn’t push. It would make a poor hunt if she caught her prey, but failed to kill. That’s how the hunt was; you crouched, you hid, you snuck, and you waited, patiently, and watched. And when the moment was ripe, you struck! For her, stupidity was also a poor excuse for letting the prey escape. And certainly not the way of a true predator. Inshala might be little in size and shape, and perhaps frail in soul, but the saber-tooth was not. And she’d always loved it. The strength, the freedom, the innate savagery and the feeling of being the supreme huntress.. there just was no substitute for it.
She rested and licked the caked blood of the big, uncouth beasts off her face and her great paws. And when she felt ready, she dashed again.. Today promised a good hunt because there was a storm gathering to the east and it looked like a good pour was due.. Rain always made it easier for her on the hunt. It hid her own scent and her steps even more. It did not help her prey, though.
A snarling grin stretch across her maw and her rumble matched that of the incoming storm.
Yes.. a good hunt indeed..
Inshala found them.
Huddled around a poor fire were a small crowd.
The fools had actually lit a fire!
Their number was more than she could readily dismiss, but they were cold, wet and blind under the stormy night. The more, the merrier.. They would make a great feast, but she was not here for food. If there was one thing she had learned from her Master, it was eating human flesh drew you insane.. No.. She was not here for food. She was here to kill. And she’d have to act fast. They had horses and sooner or later, the horses would pick up on her scent and panic, warning their masters.. Horses always panicked.. Quite the inconvenience they were. She had to act quickly and decisively. Dash in, kill one, dash out, and circle.. Rinse and repeat.. By the time she’d killed three or four, they would panic and run, because that’s what prey did.. They panicked and they ran, making them easy pickings.
Now only if she could devise a diversion..
Inshala stared up at the pouring storm..
..and her a new smile stretched across her maw.
Yes.. why not turn a simple rain, into a devastating lightning storm?
Inshala shifted and molded down to her little, pretty form. No, she thought. Not pretty.. Her ‘frail’ form!
She raised her arms into the night and chanted;
oh, storm, ye great in form harken me in this maidenform ye weep and moan when you can be much greater in sky and sea bring down your rain and your wrath upon the fool and the folly rath
And as if on cue, the night exploded!
A long, brilliant streak of lightning flickered, followed by a mind jarring boom, and landed very nearly on top of the huddled group..
And the group scattered!
“Ow, no..”, whispered Inshala. “..my sweets, no fleeing, no running.. Not yet. You are going to burn and char before you flee..”
Another streak of lightning flickered down, sending one of them, a huge, bull of a man, crashing into a tree.
Then another flicker, sending a girl,Inshala thought, panicking into the bush.
A midgety little gnome went running into the night, followed by another girl —an elf!
A man in dark cloths was still standing his ground, a sharp, short iron sword in one hand and a knife in the other.. A KNIFE!
This was definitely her query.
And there was a tall one, in plate armor.
“Who wears plate armor in a lightning storm?”, mused Inshala merrily.
She watched as the plate armored one heave and push a dwarf, up on a horse..
What was this? Humans, gnomes, elves, and dwarves? Was the attack on her Master a byzantine plan among the elves, humans, dwarves and gnomes all along? A collective effort?
Perhaps she had acted in haste when she had sent the Erl-King and the Wyld Hunt away.. He had offered to slaughter them all..
No matter, no matter..
She would start the slaughter right here.
But first, she had to kill the dark one. The one with the knives. He still had his wits about him and given enough time, he would rally the others..
She pointed at him..
..and the night raged and sent down another brilliant lightning.
Inshala just stared at the smoking patch of earth, where the dark man had just been, then at the man running in another direction.
So she called down lighting upon him once again..
..but the man took a sharp turn and rolled on the ground, and the lightning struck the tree behind him, sending it down in a mess of splinters.
Inshala heard a grunt followed by a low moan.
Yes! The dark, evil man had evaded the lighting, again, but apparently the tree had fallen on him.
Good enough for now.
The one in plates had butt-slapped the horse, and sent the dwarf to safety. Then he stood where he was and called into the night.
“We are not enemy. We are not foe. Ye who brings the lighting and storm, know, we mean no harm..”
“Mean no harm?”, fumed and hissed Inshala. “You can’t doany harm, and begging will not help you. You came into my forest for ill, and ill you shall receive!”
“Nay.”, replied the man.
And fell on his knees.
Then he raised his arms into the night as if in supplication and called;
“Ye, who hast called thus storm upon us, shall look and see into our souls. Should you still see dark and foul, bring more and char us all..”
Inshala gawked at the man..
..and a single beam of light lazily came down from the night sky and pushed the darkness away. It was a bright, golden light. A beautiful light. A light that bespoke of High Heavens and Angels beyond..
And she noted.
The man in plate armor, down on his knees, was no man, but a tall, broad at the shoulders, slim at the waist, long, rust-red-haired young woman.
Inshala’s eyes teared.
She was.. boldly beautiful.
And she was a paladin!
Sent here to end her..
“Finally..”, she whispered. “The Heavens have sent their fires to cleanse the demons out of me! I shall be free. I shall belong.. Father, I come..”
And just like that, the storm ceased, the rain stopped, and silence settled into the night.
The young paladin girl stood rigid, as if petrified, on her knees.
And Inshala curled up into a ball, lay prostrated before her, moaning and crying like a little girl.
“Burn me. Please burn me. I want to be free of my demons.. Burn me..”
✱ ✱ ✱
Aager? You alright?”, the huge man asked as he picked up the broken bits of the tree. “You seem peevish.”
“Peevish?”, rasped the evil man in the dark clothes from under a whole pile of thick branches and a large, splintered tree trunk. “Just how many years did you wait to use that on me, Udoorin Shieldheart?”
“Many.”, smirked the big man and with a mighty heave, he lifted the trunk, giving enough room for the evil one to slip out.
“We have a visitor.”, the big man said with a slightly exaggerated voice.
“I am concussed, Udoorin. Not deaf.. Report!”, the dark man said.
“Bree, Laila, and the midget are back. Still waiting for Lady. I expect she will either get control of that big war horse and turn it around, or hold on to it until she reaches Arashkan, or decide she’s had just about enough and throw herself off the horse and limp all the way back here and make us all suffer for it. As for Lady Moira, I don’t know. She is just sitting there.. well, kneeling actually, with her hands in the air and.. that’s it! She isn’t moving or responding. She’s in a.. I dunno.. ‘catatonic’ state, I suppose, you could say.”, replied the Udoorin guy, pointing somewhere in the night.
“Who is the merry visitor? I suspect he’s responsible for the mess..”, the dark man asked, holding a hand at a tender spot on his forehead.
“She..”, corrected Udoorin.
“He is a she.. A pretty one too.. With funny hair..”
“Like we didn’t already have an overabundance of women in this group..”, growled Aager.
“And they all are pretty..”, smirked the big one. Then he lowered his voice. “Please don’t tell Bree, I said that. I still carry her bite mark!”
“Guess I’ll just have to save it until I need a favor.”, replied Aager without even a smile.
“That’s not funny.”, scowled Udoorin.
“What’s the ‘visitor’ doing? Who is watching her?”, asked Aager, totally ignoring the big man’s plea.
“No one, really. She seems as catatonic as Moira. She has prostrated herself at the paladin’s feet and begging her to burn her!”
“I know, right? We have all the prettiest girls and all of them are off in the head.”
“And now you owe me two favors.”, said Aager, and this time, he did snort.
Udoorin scowled at him, some more.
“Why’s your armor off?”, Aager asked him as they walked towards the paladin and the newcomer.
“Figured, lightning and metal armor.. You know.. Bad combination.. A bit too late thought.. Got singed pretty good.. It’ll leave a mark.. I hope it doesn’t leave a mark..”, said the big man with a worried expression.
“I am sure all the marks you have already, along with the ones you will get won’t add to your beauty.”
“That was not nice, Aager. I know I am not pretty, but you didn’t really have to hit me in the face with it.”, grumbled Udoorin.
“You never cease to amaze me, Udoorin.. Your priorities are truly mind-staggering.”, replied Aager blandly.
Udoorin’s face darkened even more.
Aager gave a perfunctory check on everyone in the group. Bremorel, the human girl, seemed a tad wild-eyed. She had rekindled the fire and was now holding her big bow in her hand. The bow was cocked and almost half drawn and she stood with her back to a tree, facing the newcomer. She also entertained an ugly shiner on her left upper cheek.
Gnine, the troublesome little gnome was whispering something while gesticulating rapidly at the half-elf girl standing next to him, who was also holding her bow in one hand with an arrow ready on the string.
“Well.. At least two people here are paying attention.”, scowled Aager.
Then he called to the half-elf girl.
“Ranger Laila. Go and track down the horse, and bring the Temple Guardian back, if you will, please.”
“Why me?”, Laila asked.
Aager did not reply. He just stared at her.
Laila also scowled at him, then took off into the night.
It seemed Aager wanted to make sure everyone around him was somehow scowling at him.. Or at least a few of them should be, at any given time..
He silently approached the paladin girl, Lady Moira, who stood unmoving on her knees and with her hands in the air, just as Udoorin had described.
And then he saw the ‘visitor’.. The person responsible for very nearly dismantling the whole lot of them, in under a few short moments.
To be honest about it, she could have, had she not stopped, and that made the man in the dark clothes wonder.. They certainly hadn’t been able to do anything to her. She had literally played with them like a cat would game with a mouse.
Why had she attacked them in the first place, and then stopped her assault when she was almost winning? And who was she?
All pertinent questions.
But the girl.. Aager couldn’t really make out if she was pretty or not, as young Udoorin had claimed.. Not that it mattered, nor that he cared. She did have ‘funny’ hair though. Tightly wrapped and braided on both sides of her head like some kind of cones.. Aager did not question the demented mentality in that. Girls did all sorts of strange things with their hair.. among other things.. He just nodded, when the occasion arouse and moved along..
The girl had knelt face in the dirt, covering and moaning in unmitigated terror;
“Please burn me..”
“Free of my demons..”
“Please burn me..
Aager wasn’t one for emotions, let alone for the subtler ones like ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’.. If someone asked him what they were, he’d probably just stare at him blankly.
But something about this girl nudged at him.
Without knowing why he took a few steps back.
“Udoorin.”, he called.
“What?”, replied the big man.
“Put your armor back on.”
“Why?”, asked Udoorin.
“Because I said so?”, growled Aager.
Udoorin grumbled some, looked up at the night sky as if checking for signs of new lightnings, then put his armor back on.
“Now what?”, he said as he approached Aager.
“Now go and pick the girl up.”
“We need to question her and we can’t do that while she is doing.. whatever it is she is doing now..”, replied Aager.
“I am not touching her.”, said Udoorin hastily.
Aager stared at him.
“You know what she did, man. Not to mention, you don’t just go and touch a girl. That is just rude.. and not right..”, Udoorin defended himself.
“When did I ever give you the impression I cared for any of that, young Udoorin?”, fumed the dark man. “You can either do what needs to be done, or go back to town and explain yourself to your father.”
“That’s way out of line, Aager.”, growled Udoorin.
“We are not out here for a polite stroll, young man. We are here to do the ‘dirty work’, so the rest of the people can sleep without a care. You volunteered to come. You wanted to come.. This is the part of the job that needs to be done; we interrogate prisoners and that is exactly what she is now. She is Lady Moira’s prisoner. And since she is otherwise busy —or incapacitated, that duty falls on us!”, replied Aager and he seemed to bite each word before he spat them out.
Young Udoorin’s back stiffened. But he still gave Aager a very nasty stare.
Then slowly, he came at the girl still prostrating before Moira.
“Umm.. ‘cuse me.. lady.. But we need to ask you some questions. Are you unwell? Perhaps you need some help. You really should get off the ground.. It’s wet, cold, and probably muddy..”, he stammered, then reached down and tried to pick the girl up.
“Don’t touch me!”, hissed the girl and bit his hand!
And with unexpected haste, she skipped once, twice and was very nearly a dozen feet away, crouched on the ground, showing all her teeth at the big man.
“Crap!”, swore the big man. “Why do girls keep biting me, dammit.. I can’t be that tasty!”
Then he turned and slowly approached her again with his hands open while making soothing sounds.
The girl hissed at him, some more..
“I think that will do, young man. You should be ashamed of yourself, touching a girl without her permission. You have shamed your father..”, snarled a voice in the dark, and heavy footsteps was heard. Then, a heavy set she-dwarf appeared, and there no mistaking about the scowl she had on her face.
“Lady Magella..”, stammered Udoorin. “I.. was merely..”
“You were merely what, Udoorin Shieldheart? Abusing an already traumatized little girl? Look at her.. It’s clear she’s had some rough time.”, she snarled again.
“I.. You got me all wrong.. I was just..”, spluttered the big man, trying to explain himself.
“Go. Just go.. Boil some water, cut some wood, peal some potatoes.. Just go and make yourself scarce but useful!”
Udoorin stormed away, fuming..
“This is all your fault, Aager.”, he very nearly spat, as he walked past the dark man.
“No. It’s all yours.. ‘Own’ your folies, young man. But I learned what I needed to, anyway.. For the time being..”, replied Aager calmly.
“You. Girl!”, ordered Lady Magella. “What’s your name and what are you doing here?”
The girl hissed at her as well.
“I am the Temple Guardian of Serenity Home and you will NOT hiss at me like some wild beast.”, spoke Lady and there was a distinct no-nonsense quality to her voice.
And the girl lost all her ferocity.
“You.. you are.. a Temple Guardian?”, she asked with her eyes wide open.
“Yes, I am. And I have twenty some odd years under my belt to prove it!”, Lady replied sternly.
“Have.. have you come to burn me?”, the girl asked.
“Burn you? Now why would you ask such a silly question?”, replied Lady in disgust and a totally offended tone.
“Burn me.. Please..”, the girl said and suddenly prostrated herself, once again..
“Burn me.. Burn me and free this world off me!..”
Udoorin, Bremorel, Gnine, and Laila stared at the wretched site before them.
Lady Magella’s eyes teared, for her first assessment of the girl had been correct.. Too correct. The girl was unbelievably traumatized.
Aager only looked at the girl with an unfathomable and barely-contained expression.
He remembered Drashan and his own childhood, not that he’d had much of it. He remembered his mother, whose name he couldn’t even place anymore. Having remembered her, he inevitably recalled his sister. The sister that had been entrusted to him. And then taken from him, sold to some brothel, and burned alive in a horrible, unquenchable fire. He remembered all the vile people he’d cut there. Every single one of them. And he remembered the beatings and the whippings.. and the guillotine..
..and how he came to Serenity Home; secretly broken, hiding in his own traumas, untrusting, very nearly and murderously hateful.
Serenity Home had helped..
Enough to have suppressed his base hate to everything that had to do with life..
It hadn’t been enough that all these children, sans the dwarf, had been entrusted to him..
And now this?
He was never one to truly believe the greatness of the Heavens, but this.. This had been a step gone too far..
He felt like someone was having a great time punning him from the high above!
Then he looked down at the girl.
She seemed young and small, but her form, although somewhat battered, looked quite mature with ‘pleasant to look at’ sized breasts, a slim waist, ‘could use a pound or two more’ body, very dark, ‘funny’ hair (who would bun up their hair like that, anyway?) and a diminutive face, printed with slightly sharp and angular features..
Young Udoorin had been right on one point though; the girl was, indeed, quite pretty.. More so, Aager suspected, if she’d not been in the condition that she was now.
Many questions inevitably crossed his mind. Who was this girl? Again, why had she attacked them and why had she stopped? Why was she hissing and spitting like some pissed-off, feral cat? And why the bloody hell did she beg to be burned?
Then it dawned on him.
Why he had so unexpectedly felt some semblance of sympathy to the girl..
For he had, unwittingly perhaps, found the one person who was worse off than he was.
✱ ✱ ✱
The jarring, panicked whisper of Inshala spiked Aager in the middle of the night.
“Aager Fogstep! I need your help! Quick!”
Aager went from zero to full battle-mode in under two seconds; a shimmering, ghostly blade appeared in one hand and another, an excruciatingly sharp one in the other, to see Inshala missing..
“Where are you? What’s wrong?”, he sent his thoughts back tinted with his own panic.
“I am in Madina’s room. We.. uhhmm.. she said we could hang out together, talk trash and eat bad food and get scolded for doing it in the morning by mom. She said all teens do this but I don’t know why, and neither does she.. Apparently, it’s a ‘thing’!”
Aager frowned and breathed out slowly.
“Okay.”, he said evenly. “What’s the problem?”
“She says there’s this boy and she says she sort of likes him. But she is asking me if she is too much of an ’emo’ and that perhaps if she ‘toned it down a little’, the boy might notice him. I don’t even know what the buggery bum an ’emo’ is!”
Aager cocked an eyebrow even though he was alone and in the dark.
“Yes. Madina says that’s the new word around here. Would you like to know what the old word was?”
“Uhhmm.. Not really, no..”, replied Aager carefully.
“Good. Because I don’t think I can repeat that to you. But it starts with an ‘F’! Madina said, there’s this Academy of Melshieve, far away, and that they have the best words there.. I am confused. The rules to being an elder sister are complicated and many..”
“Huh!”, snorted Aager as he let go of the ghostly blade, causing it to just vanish, and sheathed the other.
“What is the urgency?”
“She.. she says she has been watching you and me and thinks I know love and wants me to help her compose a.. uhhmm.. love letter to that boy..”
“Okay.. What seems to be the problem?”
“I can’t think of another single thing that could totally go wrong than this.. I can’t even think why anyone would put love in a letter! You don’t put love in letters. You just give it and dearly hope that person gives it back! Besides, I do not know this boy. All the boys I have known have tried to catch me, called me crooked names, or thrown stones at me. Boys are bad for girls! I don’t know if she really wants this boy as I want you, either. And I don’t even know how to draw words.. This is a buggery bum of a nightmare for me.. Help me? Please?”
The cold, sinister-looking man, Aager Fogstep, the Winter Knight, stared blankly at his, now empty bed and at Inshala’s empty bed..
“Well, buggery bum, indeed..”, he whispered..
Sleep just wasn’t going to happen any time soon that night..
Back in the dark, quite room..
Aager lay on his back in hopes of catching a bit of sleep before dawn. Tomorrow, or rather, a few hours later, was going to be a very trying day.
The rot-hearted Tarakadahan had decided to turn the whole thing into a show. Aager would have much preferred the dispute between the old fool and Moira be settled in some quiet, back alley setting.. He wouldn’t have minded even open fighting in the castle corridors. But no.. The idiot had decided to turn it into a parade. In front of the whole Durkahan nobility, no less.
The stupidity of people, baffled and confounded him.
“Very well..”, thought Aager darkly. “You want a show? I shall give you a show.. And I shall remind the whole lot of you just how archaic and foolish you all really are. And that no one really gives a ‘buggery bum’, about your honors, your prides, and your foolish ways.. The world is going down and this is what you still desire? To watch a drama queen in the arena?”
Tomorrow was going to be a harsh awakening for them all. Aager was a pragmatic man. He never went as low as being heinous, but otherwise, he cared little about the way things got done.
And he fully intended to show Durkahan, how things ‘rolled’ in Drashan..
“Are you still awake, Aager Fogstep?”, came a whisper from the other bed in the room.
“Yes.. no.. maybe?”, replied Aager.
“You are wroth with me?”, she whimpered.
“Wroth? Why would I be wroth with you?”, he asked.
“I scared you when I woke you the way I did. And I kept you up very nearly all night. Now you are tired and angry.”, she said in a small voice.
Aager loved Inshala.
He loved her more than anything he’d loved. Or perhaps, to put it into correct perspective, he loved her more than anything he could have wished to have loved anything, or anyone..
On occasion, though, he loved her more..
Particularly when she became.. ‘smaller’, yet ‘greater’, when she thought she’d hurt him.
Great Heavens, no one cared whether they hurt Aager Fogstep.
And this girl, his Inshala, cared.. Enough to actually worry and to get worked up about it.
“You surprised me, love. That’s all.. Besides, Madina seems to have gotten a certain liking to you. I can’t say, nor do I claim to be knowledgeable about these things, having never truly experienced it, but I heard teens can be insufferable.”
“I am a teen.. I think..”, mumbled Inshala.
“You and I, love, do not qualify for many ‘norms’. We either missed them, or they never applied to our lives..”, shrugged Aager. “When I was a teen, I was too busy trying just to stay alive in the freezing streets of Drashan. Never really had the luxury to throw tantrums, nor write love letters. I am guessing yours wasn’t any better..”
“My poor Aager.”, came the girl’s unhappy voice.
“No, Inshala. I am the richest man in the world. I have the one thing no man, dead or alive, has ever had, nor will ever have.. For, I. Have. You!”, he whispered and he did it without any particular implications nor innuendos. He said it with the voice he used when he was stating the facts. And nothing but the facts..
“You think.. too highly of me..”, came the small, blushed voice of the girl, lying in the next bed.
“No. I think only of you.”, he replied, and he meant it.
Inshala was silent. Aager did not nudge her, nor check her through their bond. If she’d gone to sleep, apparently she needed it.
But just in case she hadn’t, he kept up the conversation, though toned down to just above a whisper.
“Besides, between the two of us, I think we managed a rather decent love letter back there.. It had everything a growing boy needs; Madina’s feelings, the threat of evisceration and defenestration, quite unveiled implications of ‘you better behave yourself’ and a decent description of just what would happen if he ever broke the girl’s heart. I can practically see the boy brimming with happiness. I mean, what could possibly go wrong, there?”
The silence persisted and Aager knew now, she wasn’t asleep. Furthermore, she was worried about something. Something important for her not to have gotten a ‘snort’ out of her with that retelling of the letter they had sat down and written all night long.
Yes, thought Aager, that had definitely merited a snort!
Aager liked Inshala ‘snort’.
His Inshala snorted ‘cute’.
It was so unladylike.
Aager couldn’t put his finger on it, but the phrase, ‘freely given’, sounded just about right.
And it always left her face adorably, maturely, and, rather unexpectedly sensually pink and abashed.
Funny how it was always the little things in others we cared about that made us adore them even more.
Aager secretly wondered what were his little things that the girl lying in the next bed found ‘adorable’, but he just couldn’t imagine anything. Then he remembered the time they were back in Arashkan, still seeking the infamous rebellion, Gar Thalot in the Tempest Temple where they had all found out how the princess, Lorna, ‘adored’ young Udoorin’s beard.. Really? That scruffy patch of.. Aager stopped there. It didn’t matter what he thought about the boy’s beard, even if it was a scruffy patch. It was what the girl, Lorna, thought that mattered. End of story..
“Aager..”, he heard her say, bringing him back from Udoorin and his scruffy beard —of all things!
“I am here..”, he replied.
Then he heard a soft, shuffling noise, and suddenly, her beautiful face was a bare inch away from his and he was very much awake now.
“Do.. do I belong?”, she asked tentatively, tenderly, even, as she looked deep into his dark eyes. And in those eyes, Aager saw, everything she had been, everything she was, and everything she would be.. was there. All of it. With all her eternal losses, all her crummy gains, all her vast strengths and her suffered weakness’s in pure, unadulterated nakedness..
Aager looked back at the girl reflecting hers with his, stare for stare.. Inshala, he thought, had truly beautiful eyes..
“You belong.”, replied simply.
Slowly, carefully and tenderly she reaches up and held his face with two, warm and slender hands. For a silent moment, she studied his face, as though looking for something. Aager dearly and desperately hoped she found it.
Quietly, in her soft melodious voice, she spoke. A voice that carried all her losses, her pains, and her desperations, yet her determination and her tenacious will, also.
“Then, I am Inshala. And I belong.”
i was born but no one told me why
when i was gone no one told me where
always chased always caged
then i learned the running cannot belong
i rose up to fall back down
up among the clouds and back on the ground
and there i found among the lost and found
dead among the living
living among the dead
too lost to care
careful not to lose
i held up my pocket watch
time’s to stop the times
lost in time found this time
what i gave freely cost me drearily
did not know it would demand so much more
i burned and smoldered in the depths of fire
buried and frozen deep in snow
just had to go lower to rise higher
and just like that i figured
i am inshala and i belong
The original Erl-King poem was written in German, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later composed into a musical by Schubert.
The English version (the one used here) was translated and adapted by Edgar Alfred Bowring..
The elfish spell Inshala chants to summon the lightnings down the storm was written by myself. It translates to English as:
oh, storm, ye great in form, harken me in this maidenform. ye weep and moan when ye can be, much greater in sky and sea. bring down your rain and your wrath, upon the fool and the folly rath.
Rath: a strong circular earthen wall forming an enclosure and serving as a fort and residence for a tribal chief.
Bu hikaye, Brom Bumblebrim adındaki, Bowling Hill’de yaşayan kendi ırkının diğer bütün üyeleri gibi ‘normal’ ve hayatını olabildiğince keyifli ve tembel geçiren bir hobbit’in, beklenmedik bir şekilde ne idüğü belirsiz bir şey tarafından ısırılmasıyla başlar.
Genç hobbit’i her ne ısırdı ise, o günden sonra Brom bir türlü yerinde duramaz ve en sonunda, gecenin alakasız bir yarısında, eski arkadaşı ve aile dostu olan Gamwise Samgee’ye evini ve gülleri emanet ettiğine dair bir not bırakarak yollara koyulur. Uzun bir gece boyunca nereye gittiğini bilmeksizin, öylece, istikametsiz bir şekilde yürür durur..
04.05.7589 B.Y.S (-18 Yıl) Mayıs başı. Tinker Hills..
Sen iyi misin, evlat? Biraz hırpalanmış gibi bir halin var..”, der yaşlı gnome han sahibi Brom’a.
“Biraz hırpalanmış bir haldeyim zaten.”, diye cevap verir Brom acıklı bir sesle ve yaşlı gnome hancının getirdiği sıcak, etli çorba kabını sımsıkı tutmuş ve sesli höpürtülerle yutkunurken.
Brom Bumblebrim, Croaking Mire bataklığından kurtulduktan sonra, korku ve panik içerisinde bataklığın hemen kuzeyindeki ormanlığa kaçmış ve günlerce bir o yana, bir bu yana koşuşturmuş, yorulup takati bittiğinde ise bulduğu bir ağaç kovuğu, devrilmiş, içi boş bir ağaç kütüğü yada çalıların yoğun olduğu yerlere sürünerek girmiş ve pestili çıkmış bir şekilde uyumuştu —uyuyabildiği gecelerde..
Bataklığın buz gibi soğuk, çamurlu, bulanık sularında karşılaştığı ‘kız’ ve akabinde konuştuğu ‘Muhafız’dan sonra zavallı hobbit’in bütün dengeleri altüst olmuş gibidir. Bu ‘küçük’ gibi görünen olay, Brom’a kati olarak bir şeyi öğretir;
Yaşadığı dünyada pek az şey göründüğü gibidir ve her an, her yerden beklenmedik bir şeyler çıkıp onu öldürebilir..
Zavallı hobbit, bir anda panik ataklarla tikleyip ve titreyerek ormanda kendisini kaybeder.
Gündüzleri sessizce sinerek ve evinden ayrıldığı günden beri yanında taşımasına rağmen hiç kullanmadığı, babasının eski kılıcı ve amcasının antika denebilecek gürzünü sırt çantasında çıkartır ve hayatında ilk defa elinde silahlarıyla dolaşır.
Brom, Croaking Mire bataklığından kurtulmasından sonraki günlerde tam olarak ne yaptığını, yada o günleri nasıl geçirdiğini asla tam olarak hatırlayamaz. Yıllar sonra bile, o günleri hatırlamak için de herhangi bir çaba göstermez. O günlere dair isteksizce hatırladığı az şey, her mantarın yenilemeyeceği ve nasıl pişirirse pişirilsin, sıçanların tatlarının iğrenç olduğudur!
“Nereden geliyorsun böyle, delikanlı? Buralara hobbit’ler pek uğramaz.”, diye sorar yaşlı hancı.
“Ben uğradığımdan dolayı pek mutluyum, hancı efendi. İnanın bu şey, aylardır yediğim en güzel yemek.”, diye etli çorbayı şapırdatarak kasesinden içmeye devam eder Brom.
“Evlat. Benim yemeklerimi beğendiysen, ya başına çok kötü bir şeyler gelmiş olmalı, yada gerçekten hayatından bıkmış olmalısın.”, diye gülerek cevap verir yaşlı gnome.
“Her ikisi de, hancı efendi.. Her ikisi de.”, diye acıklı bir sesle söylenir Brom.
“İstersen birkaç gün kalabilirsin. Bakla, bezelye, enginar ve kabak için hasat zamanı. Bu yüzden gündüzleri hanım boş oluyor. Çiftçiler ancak akşam saatleri uğruyorlar. Bakladan ne kadar nefret ettiğimi bilemezsin ve burada gururla o şeyden yetiştiren ahmaklar var.”, der gnome hancı yüzünü buruşturarak.
“Evet, bakla yemesi de, pişirmesi de zor bir sebze. Aç kalmakla bakla arasında bir tercih yapmak zorunda kalmak istemem doğrusu.”, diye cevap verir Brom ve kendisi de yüzünü buruşturur.
Hancı buna kahkahayla güler.
“Ne işle uğraşırsın, delikanlı? Konuşmalarına bakılırsa kitap okumuşluğun var gibi.”, diye sorar hancı.
“Brom. Adım Brom Bumblebrim, efendim ve ben bir ozanım.”, der genç hobbit ve bir anda, aylardır Lir’ine dokunmamış olduğuna ayılır.
“Bir ozan!”, diye ünler yaşlı gnome. “Bu harika. Bak ne diyeceğim. Neden sen burada birkaç gün kalmıyorsun? Akşam olduğunda bu hanı şenlendirirsen, yemek ve yatak benden. Canın sıkıldığı zaman tekrar kendine eziyet etmeye geri dönersin.”
“Kabul!”, der Brom ve içinden, olur olmaz zamanlarda onu ısıran şeye lanet eder ve birazcık olsun yakasından düşmesini diler.
“Anlaştık o zaman, Efendi Brom. Tanıştığıma memnun oldum. Bende Kimbletyne.. Kimbletyne Tinkerdome. Buralarda herkes bana Kimble amca der.”
“Ama ben size Efendi Kimbletyne, diye hitap edeceğim.”, der Brom ve sırıtır.
Yaşlı gnome, Kimbletyne Tinkerdome, genç hobbit’e takdir eden bir ifadeyle bakar.
“Şimdi. Sizden üç şey rica edeceğim. Öncelikle, bu akşamki gösterime başlamadan önce bütün müşterilerinizi kaçırtmamı istemiyorsanız, sıcak bir banyo, su ısınırken, bu harika yemeğinizden bir kase daha, ve uyuyabileceğim sessiz bir de oda. Biraz dinlendikten sonra Lir’imi bir gözden geçirmem ve performansım için hazırlanmam lazım.”
“Tabii, tabii, genç efendi. Hemen bir kase daha getiriyorum ama korkarım sizin kalibrenizdeki bir şahsiyeti tatmin edecek taş küvetimiz yok. Sadece yıkanma fıçılarımız var. Yukarıdaki odalardan istediğinizi alabilirsiniz.”, der hancı mutlu bir şekilde.
“Fıçı olur, Efendi Kimbletyne.”, der Brom anında. ‘Fıçı da olur, küçük kum kovası da.. Gökler adına, bardak bile olur!”, diye geçirir içinden.
. . .
Brom odalardan hiç birini istemez. Onun yerine, uyurken de, akşamları söyleyeceği şarkılar için hazırlanırken de rahatsız edilmeyeceği tek yeri tercih eder; tavan arasını!
Hancı Kimbletyne’in onun için hazırladığı, içi sıcak suyla dolu fıçı, Brom’un düşündüğü gibi gnome boyunda bir fıçı değildir. Daha doğrusu boy olarak gnome’lara uygundur —ki bu da Brom’un işine gelir, eni ise.. aynı anda en az beş cüceyi içine alabilecek genişliktedir. Belli ki gnome’lar suda oynamayı seven bir ırktır ve bu bakımdan kuzenleri olan dwarf’lardan ciddi bir şekilde ayrılırlar.
“Evladım, sen yıkanırken ben de bunları yıkayıp getireyim.”, der yaşlı, tiz bir ses ve Brom neredeyse ‘bi kaşık suda boğulur’!
Başını sudan çıkardığında, yaşlı bir gnome teyzenin, elbiselerini almış, klinik bir ifadeyle onları incelediğini görür.
“Uhhmm..”, diye afallar Brom.
“Seni ürküttüm mü? Kusuruma bakma, evladım.”, der yaşlı kadın tiz sesiyle.
“Sorun değil, teyzeciğim.”, diye cevap verir Brom nazikçe.
“Sen nerelerde dolaştın, evladım. Çamurda mı yattın? Bu elbiselerin hali ne? Ben hobbit’leri daha temiz sanırdım.”
“Özür dilerim teyzeciğim çamurda yatmadım ama çamura düştüm..”, diye cevap verir Brom.
“Nereye gittiğine dikkat et evladım. Çamur düşmek için iyi bir yer değil!”, der yaşlı gnome teyze.
“Haklısınız teyzeciğim. Size zahmet olmasın, ben de yıkardım.”, diye utanarak cevap verir genç hobbit.
“Eyvahlar olsun!”, diye ünler teyze. “Hanımıza bir ozan gelecek ve elbiselerini kendisi yıkayacak.. Duyulmuş şey değil!”, diye dizlerini döver gibi söylenir ve elbiseleri aldığı gibi gider.
Brom teyzenin bu tepkisine hayret eder. Evet, bir ozan olarak Bowling Hills’de de saygı görmüşlüğü olmuştur ama bunun daha çok rahmetli anne ve babasının tanınmış ve hürmet edilen şahıslar olmalarından kaynaklandığını düşünmüştür daha çok. Teyzeden —ve geri dönüp baktığında da— hancının kendisinden gördüğü ‘hürmete’ bakılırsa, ozanların dünyadaki yeri oldukça saygındır. Biraz izcilerin, gittikleri her yerde gördükleri saygı gibi.. Sadece biraz daha ‘kültür’ içerikli.
Brom o gece iyi bir performans göstermek için elinden geleni yapmaya karar verir.
Genç ozan, sıcak suyla dolu fıçının içinde, fıçının hemen yanına bırakılmış iri sabun kalıbı ve sert keçe ile neredeyse bir saat oyalanır. İşi bitip sudan çıktığında, su soğumuş ve rengi de kahverenginin pek de hoş olmayan bir tonuna bürünmüştür.
Brom hızlıca kendisini havluya sararken utanç içerisinde karamış suya bakar ve huysuzca söylenir.
“Bu hep senin suçun!”
. . .
Brom, sessiz bir beklentiyle kendisini süzen, bir han dolusu bakla çiftçisine bakar ve tırsar! Evet, Bowling Hills’de daha önce bir iki defa gnome görmüşlüğü olmuştur ama şu anda en az otuz, kırk tane, ellerinde dolu maşrapalarla bekleyen huysuz görünümlü gnome ona bakmaktadır.
‘Hay shit!’, diye geçirir içinden. ‘Beklenti olayını biraz abartmış gibisiniz, sanki.’
Brom yıkandıktan sonra odasına, (tavan arasına) çekilmiş ve yaşlı hancının büyük bir nezaket göstererek süpürdüğü, havalandırdığı ve çarşaf, yorgan ve battaniyesiyle serdiği koca yer yatağına yüzü koyun kapaklanmış ve akşama kadar uyumuştu.
Genç hobbit’i, tavan arasına çıkan merdivenin başında durmuş, elinde derin çukur tabak dolusu yemek ve soğuk elma şırasıyla ‘psst’layarak küçük bir gnome uyandırmıştı.
Brom uyandıktan sonra, yatağının yanına bırakılmış yıkama kabında ellerini ve yüzünü yıkamış, sonra da küçük gnomu’un getirdiği yemek ve şıraya dalmıştı. Yemeğin tamamını temizledikten sonra, hiç vakit kaybetmeden aylardır sırt çantasında duran Lir’ini çıkarmış, zavallı antikayı utanarak bir güzel temizlemiş sonrada tellerini akort etmeye başlamıştı.
Genç ozan Lir’iyle uğraşırken, küçük gnome onu baştan sona kadar sessiz bir ilgiyle seyretmiş, sonra kalkıp yanına oturmuş ve hobbit’i daha yakından incelemeye başlamıştı.
Küçük gnome gerçekte şirin bir çocuktur ancak bu şekilde Brom’un neredeyse burnunun içine kadar girmesi, genç ozanı biraz irkitir ama yine de çocuğa sesini çıkarmaz.
Brom, Lir’in akorlarını son bir defa daha kontrol eder, sonra o gece söylemeyi planladığı şarkılarını seri bir şekilde zihninden geçirir ve peşinde küçük gnome ile aşağı iner..
..’Hay shit!’, diye geçirir içinden Brom. ‘Beklenti olayını biraz abartmış gibisiniz, sanki.. Kimbletyne amca naaptın sen? Bütün Tinker Hills’i mi davet ettin buraya?’
“Merhabalar..”, diye açılışını yapar Brom.
“Bu güzel bahar akşamında nasılız?”
“Uhhmm.. Keyifler yerindedir umarım?”
“Peeeki.. Sanırım şarkılarım için sabırsızlanıyorsunuz..”
“Öhöm! O zaman sizleri daha fazla bekletmeyelim..”
Brom iyice tırsmış bir şekilde hanı dolduran gnome’lara bakar ve bir anda terlemeye başlar. Temkinli bir şekilde tekrar boğazını temizler, Lir’ini alır ve bir yandan çalar, bir yandan da söyler..
Ozanların canı yanmaz Hiçbir şey hissetmiyorum, ne zaman öğreneceğim Acıyı sindirmeyi
Parti olduğunda çağırdıkları benim Çağırmak için kapıma dayanırlar, tokmağını kırıncaya kadar döverler Sevgiyi hissediyorum, sevgiyi hissediyorum
Bir, ki, üç, çak Bir, ki, üç, çak Bir, ki, üç, çak
Sızıncaya kadar çalalım, oynayalım
Avizeden sallanacağım, avizeden Sanki yarın yokmuş gibi çalacağım Sanki hiç yokmuşçasına bir kuş gibi gece boyunca öteceğim, dökülen göz yaşlarım kururken hissedin Avizeden sallanacağım, avizeden
Canımı dişime taktım, hayata tutunuyorum Gecelerimi doldurun sabaha kadar çünkü bu gece zor tutunuyorum Yardım edin…
Brom bu şarkısını en son Bowling Hills’de, Greener Kasabasındaki handa söylemişti ve o zamanki seyircileri çıldırmış bir şekilde “Tekrar! Tekrar!”, diye ıslık eşliğinde bağırmışlardı.
Şu anki tepki ise..
“Evlat, senin ciddi sorunların var..“
Brom fena halde bozulmuş olmasına rağmen bunu gizlemeyi başarır. Brom kendi duygularını gizlemeyi iyi bilen bir hobbit’dir..
Lir’ini tekrar kaldırır, “Evet.. o küçük performansımızla ısındığımıza göre artık başlayabiliriz..”, der ve tam kendi kasabasında pek sevilen bir başka şarkıya geçecekken karşısında hobbit’ler gibi hayatlarını tembelce bir mutluluk içerisinde geçiren bir kalabalık değil, bir han dolusu bakla çiftçisi olduğuna ayılır ve sebebini tam olarak kestiremese de, içsel bir içgüdü ile taktik değiştir..
Seni bana getirsin diye bir şarkı yazdım ki Beni sana götürsün diye bir şarkı yazdım ki Bunu bu akşam saatinde çiçeklerine söyledim ki Gülümse de yanına geleyim..
Olduğun yerde canın sıkılmasın ki Diye, söyledim sana bu şarkıyı ki Ben hala buradayım ve seni düşünüyorum ki Üzülme de yanına geleyim..
Benim adımı sen koydun ki Çağrıldığım da gelebileyim ki Mutlu olasın diye bu şarkıyı sana yazdım ki Hadi beni çağır da yanına geleyim—
Brom’un daha önce hiçbir seyirciye sergilemediği, rahmetli annesi dışında da kimseye söylemediği bu şarkı bir tepki alır. Bu tepki istediği yada beklediği tepki değildir, ama yine de bir tepkidir işte..
Tavan arasındaki odasından indiğinden beri sessizce bekleyen gnome’lar, benzer bir sessizlik içerisinde ellerindeki maşrapaları kaldırırlar ve iri yudumlarla kafalarına dikerler!
Yaşlı Hancı Kimbletyne Tinkerdome, elbiselerini yıkamak için gelen yaşlı teyze ve küçük gnome çocuk, ellerinde dolu maşrapalı tepsilerle masaları gezerler ve boşları dolularla değiştirirler!
‘Nasıl yaa?!’, diye hayretle gnome’ları seyreder Brom.
Brom bunu takip eden iki saat boyunca, kötü kafiyeli ama yazarken içten duygularla yazdığı bütün şarkıları sırasıyla söyler ve o şarkılarını söylerken yeni maşrapalar, yemekler, meyveler ve tatlılar gelir, boşlar gider.
Boğazı kurumuş bir şekilde ayağa kalktığında bütün gnome’lar da ayağa kalkar, son maşrapalarını ona doğru kaldırırlar, sonra onları da kafalarına dikerler..
..ve sessizce handan ayrılırlar!
. . .
Günaydın, Efendi Brom”, diye yüzünde mutlu bir ifadeyle karşılar Brom’u yaşlı gnome hancı. “Dün akşamki performansınız harikaydı. Mesleğinizin hakkını verdiniz..”
“Teşekkür ederim, Efendi Kimbletyne.”, diye nazikçe cevap verir genç ozan ve boş handa, pencerenin yanındaki bir masaya ilişir.
Yaşlı Kimbletyne Tinkerdome, elindeki uzun saplı süpürgesiyle ortalığı süpürürken, bir yandan da sırıtarak genç ozanı süzmektedir.
Genç Brom ise dışarıdaki bakla ve kabak tarlalarını, ve aklı hala karışmış bir şekilde tarlalarda çalışan çiftçi gnome’ları seyreder.
Brom dışarıyı seyrederken, “Buyur, evladım. Dün geceden sonra acıkmışsındır.”, diye tiz, titrek bir ses duyar hemen yanından ve genç ozan yaşlı gnome teyzenin, elinde bir tepsi içerisinde beyaz peynir, kaşar, çam balı, kabak reçeli, tavada sucuklu yumurta, fırından yeni çıkmış bir somun taze ekmek ve kremalı çilek turtasıyla durduğunu görür. Brom ister istemez yine irkilir. Teyze yaşına rağmen yine dibine kadar sessizce sokulmuştur!
“Uhhmm..”, diye biraz afallar, biraz da utanır. “Zahmet etmeseydiniz, teyzeciğim.”
“Zahmet, kıymetin göstergesidir, evladım.”, diye dişlek bir sırıtışla cevap verir yaşlı gnome teyze. “Dün gece söylediğin, annenle ilgili şarkını, bu gece de söyleyecek misin?”
“Uhhhmm.. İsterseniz, tabii ki söylerim.”, der Brom ama genç ozanın içine bir kurt düşer. Yani.. Evet, o şarkı içten yazılmış bir şarkıdır ama hiçbir şekilde ‘müşteri’ amaçlı yazılmamıştır ve kötü kafiyeler ve zorlama anlamlarla doludur. Brom, şarkının ‘eğlenceli’ ve ‘mutlu’ temposuna rağmen herhangi bir seyirciyi coşturabileceğini düşünemez. Zaten şarkının mutlu temposu da gerçekte Brom’un, acısını örtbas etmek ve kendi kendisiyle alay etmesi amacıyla düşünülmüştür.
“Çok isterim, evladım. Çok hoşumuza gitti.”, diye gözleri dolmuş bir şekilde cevap verir yaşlı teyze, sonra yavaşça, kırış kırış olmuş, titrek elleriyle genç hobbit’i yanaklarından tutar, kısa bir anlığına gözlerinin içine bakar, eğilir ve Brom’u başından öper, sonra da dönüp tekrar muftağına gider.
Brom tamamen tırsmış ve kafası karışmış bir şekilde yaşlı teyzenin gidişini seyreder.
“Nooldu şimdi yaa?”, diye kendi kendisine sorar afallamış bir şekilde.
Yaşlı Hancı Kimbletyne, elinde bir fincan, bir de kupa dolusu sıcak çayla gelir. Sırıtarak fincanı Brom’un önüne koyar, kupadan da kendi çayını hüpletir.
“Ten Ton Wressa’nın kusuruna bakmayın, Efendi Brom. Bazen böyle içlenebiliyor.”
“Bakmam, efendim.”, der Brom ve bir tepsi dolusu kahvaltılığa hiç utanmadan dalar. Bir sonraki yirmi dakika boyunca muhteşem köy peynirlerini, kaşarları, balı, reçeli, sıcak ekmeği sucuklu yumurtaya bandıra bandıra yer ve fincanı keyifle yudumlar. Tepsiyi boşattığında, evinden ayrıldığından beri ilk defa kendisini bir hobbit gibi hisseder.
Yaşlı hancı kalkar, bir tepsiyle geri gelir, boş tabakları toplar, turtayı Brom’un önüne bırakır ve gider. Tekrar döndüğünde, yüzünde mutlu bir ifade, elinde tazelenmiş fincan vardır.
“Bu.. hayret verici..”, der hancı gnome sırıtarak. “En son ne zaman Wressa’nın yemeklerinin bu kadar seri bir şekilde silinip süpürüldüğünü hatırlamıyorum bile!”
“Rahat bırak çocuğu, Kimbletyne. Beni oraya getirtme!”, diye yaşlı gnome teyzenin tiz sesi duyulur mutfaktan.
Kimbletyne tekrar sırıtır.
“Uhhmm.. Teyze..?”, diye temkinli bir şekilde sorar Brom.
“..Kendisi ablam olur ve bu hanın da, gördüğün bu toprakların da gerçek sahibi o dur.”, der yaşlı gnome mutlu bir ifadeyle.
“Teyze beni ilginç bir şekilde sevmişe benziyor, Efendi Kimbletyne. Genelde insanlar küçük ırklara biraz kuşkuyla bakarlar.”
“Sorunun cevabı, kendi içerisinde saklı, Ozan Efendi.”, der Kimbletyne ve daha da sırıtır.
“Uhhmm.. Nasıl yani?”, diye sorar Brom, aklı iyice karışmış bir şekilde.
Yaşlı Kimbletyne Tinkerdome içten bir kahkaha atar.
“..Biz ‘insan’ değiliz..”
Brom kendi salaklığına ayılır ve istemsizce ‘fırk’lar.
Çayından bir yudum daha alır ve işte o anda, daha önce gördüğü, ama uyanamadığı bazı küçük şeylere daha ayılır genç Brom ve bunu tetikleyen şey de yudumladığı çay fincanının ta kendisidir.
Fincanın üzerinde, ne olduklarının anlaşılması zor, ancak imtina ile hazırlanmış ve muhtemelen bir zamanlar çok ince, zarif, altın ve pembe renkleri kullanılarak çizilmiş çiçek desenlerinin olduğu bir fincandır ve bunların kümülatif olarak bir araya gelmesi ona bir şeyi açıkça söyleyiverir;
Fincan çok eskidir.
Yüzlerce yıl, eskidir!..
..ve her ne kadar kendisi, göreceli bir şekilde saygın bir ozan olsa da, olağan bir sabah kahvaltısında böylesi paha biçilemez bir antikayı hakketmediğini de kati olarak bilir.
Dahası, fincan onun önüne spesifik bir amaç için konulmuştur. Hobbit kültürlerinde fincanların ‘yadigar’ anlamda önemini bilecek kadar onları tanıyan, yada bu konuda bilgisi olan birisi tarafından..
Brom, kendisini sessizce izleyen yaşlı gnome hancıyı, varlığını hissettirmeden yanına sokulan teyzeyi ve önceki akşam sergilediği performansı ürkütücü bir sessizlik içerisinde seyreden diğer gnome’ları düşünür ve dış dünyaya dair bildiği kıt tarih kırıntılarını bir araya gelir..
“Haklıydın, Wressa..”, der yaşlı gnome sırıtarak. “Sanırım çözdü.”
Yüzünde mutlu bir ifadeyle, yine Brom’un yanında peyda oluverir yaşlı teyze.
“İlk gördüğümde akıllı olduğunu biliyordum. Akıllı.. ve farklı..”, der Wressa teyze tiz, titrek sesiyle.
Yaşlı teyze, elinin bir hareketiyle kardeşini oturduğu tabureden kovalar ve onun yerine oturur. Hancı Kimbletyne yan masadan kendisi için bir tabure kapar ve ablasının yanına çömer.
“Evet, evladım. Bizler Sessiz Gnome’larız.”
“Ama.. bu nasıl olabilir ki? Rivayetlere göre Silent Hills’e o garip sis çöktükten sonra bütün Sessiz Gnome’larını da oraya hapsettiği, sonrasında da hepsinin neslinin tükendiği yönünde.”, diye hayretle konuşur Brom.
“Sevgili annem, Seressa Ton Wraiven..”, diye başlar yaşlı teyze. “Annesinden —benim anneannemden— aldığı bazı talimatlar çerçevesinde, böyle bir şeyin başımıza gelebileceğine dair uyarılarda bulunmuştu ve bizler için gizli kaçış yolları hazırlattı. Buna rağmen çoğumuz yine de o mebus sisin içinde takılıp kaldı.. Ama bazılarımız kaçmayı başardı ve güneye, Endless Watch ve oradan da Standalone Fortress’i geçip büyük Sulking Woods ormanlarına yerleşmek için yola çıktık.
Burada olanlar, o gruptan gizlice ayrılanlar, onların çocukları ve torunlarıdır.. Bizler buraya yerleştik çünkü plan buydu. Herkes, hepimizin güneye kaçtığını sanması gerekiyordu ve öyle de sandılar. O mel’un sisi başımıza indiren düşman, onların peşine Orken denen, kıyım için özel yetiştirilmiş yaratıklarını gönderdi ve en sonunda da onları yolda yakaladılar ve hepsini öldürdüler. Bu, o kaçanların bilinçli olarak yaptığı büyük bir fedakarlıktı ama Silent Hills neslinin devamı için yine de bunu yaptılar. Düşman onları öldürdükten sonra, Silent Hills’in neslini kuruttuğunu düşündü ve bu da, sebepleri olmasa da, sonuçları olarak rivayet halinde bütün krallığa yayıldı.
Bizler.. Bu köyde gördüklerin, Silent Hills’den kalma son halkız.”
Brom duydukları karşısında daha da hayrete düşer.
“Ama.. ben bile sizi bulabildiysem, başkaları da sizi bulabilir!”, diye ünler.
“Aaaa.. İşte bu yüzden sana ‘farklısın’, dedim. Çünkü bu köy, özel koruma büyüleriyle çevrili ve kimse buraya elini kolunu sallaya sallaya giremez. Deneyen çok oldu, ama muhafazalara takıldılar ve akılları karışmış, neden burada olduklarını da unutmuş bir şekilde de geri gittiler. Ama sen.. Sen bir anda burada peyda oluverdin.”, der yaşlı teyze gnome.
“İnanın bende buraya nasıl geldiğimi bilmiyorum. Günlerdir, kendimi kaybetmiş ve korkmuş bir şekilde buranın doğusundaki ormanlarda dolanıyordum.”, diye açıklamaya çalışır Brom ve zihninde, onu olur olmaz zamanlarda ısıran ne idüğü belirsiz şeye tekme atar!
“Hmmm..”, diye düşünceli bir şekilde masanın üstüne koyduğu yaşlı ellerine bakar Wressa teyze. “..O zaman vakit yaklaştı..”
“Vakit yaklaştı..”, diye onaylar aynı düşünceli, ama ağzı açık bir ‘hayranlıkla’ karışık hayretle mırıldanır yaşlı Kimbletyne. “Ve en sonunda..”
Yaşlı Ten Ton Wressa teyzenin gözleri dolar.
Kardeşi ona sarılır ve kendisi de mutlu göz yaşlarıyla fısıldar.
“Evet abla.. en sonunda..”
“Torunlarımdan birisi hakkı olan tahtına oturacak.. en sonunda..”, diye ağlamaya başlar teyze. “Biz göremeyeceğiz ama Silent Hills’in tekrar sesi duyulacak. Halkım tekrar bu dünyada özgürce yürüyebilecek. Tekrar..”
“Tekrar, abla.. Tekrar..”, diye onaylar Kimbletyne sessiz bir hayranlıkla.