Not All Is Done
“What Stirs Under Croaking Mire?”
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weakening their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”
Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras stared with stunned admiration at the ship sailing in their direction. It was huge, though it seemed so delicate at the same time. Its sails were not on its mast, for it had no mast. Like some strange, bizarre fish with gauzy, triangular fins, they were on its port and starboard, and a creature carved in great detail, had been mounted, on its bow; a griffon, or perhaps even a dragon, she wasn’t sure which because the ship was yet at least five, possibly six miles away. It had a massive, oval-shaped, mushroom-like thing, colored in red and white stripes hanging over it, or perhaps the ship was hauled to the thing and Cora watched the ship grow larger as it sailed..
..across the sky, for it was flying!
“Quite impressive, isn’t it?”, asked a slightly raspy, and somewhat ‘smoky’ voice from beside her.
“I do not know.”, she replied with a hushed and possibly awed tone. “It is like nothing I have ever seen before and have nothing to compare it to.. I saw ships before. At a place called Arashkan even if only briefly.. And those ships had been sailing on water, just like they should.. This is very new to me. Had I known this was the reason dear Seressa wanted our interview so much, I wouldn’t have made such a fuss. Look and learn, as my father always used to say.”
“Your father must have been a wise man, Princess Cora Sleet. I mourned when I heard what had befallen Ironfrost, for it was a uniquely beautiful place.”, the owner of the raspy voice said.
For the brief, surprised moment, the tall, athletic girl turned and faced him; Mervlin, the dean of the Academy of Melshieve.
“You have been there? You have visited the tundras and my Ironfrost?”, she asked.
“I have, albeit somewhat briefly, and a long time ago, in my younger days. Your Rive was kind enough to invite me to his home and kinder still, to have shared his food and his fire in particular. It was a dreadfully cold day!”, Mervlin replied, nodding his head with amiable reminiscence.
“How come I don’t remember you?”, Cora asked with a frown.
“I would have been surprised if you had. I hear, it is considered impolite, if not rude, to dabble with the age of a woman, but young Seressa informed me, you are somewhere between ninety and a hundred and twenty, making you a very, very young lady, by elf standards. To give her credit, she refused to go into the specifics. Not without your consent, anyway.”, the old dean said kindly.
The tall, pale barbarian elf stared at him.
“But you are human!”
“Yes, and no..”, he said. “One of my grands was quite the enterprising young man and he married a beautiful, merry elf girl, hence introducing elf blood into our family. Admittedly, it was quite many years ago. But I guess my great, great, great grandmother’s heritage must have trickled all the way down to me, though not enough to make me a half-elf. That or one of my alchemical experiments has had an unexpected, but a happy side effect. Much like your young friend Arcantonic Palecog, here, I too dabbled in that area, though I preferred to work on potions and elixirs rather than bangs and booms. Suffice to say, I was there some two hundred and fifty years ago, traveling the world as an agent of Melshieve in the hopes of discovering and unearthing new sights, places, unknown and possibly unique cultures, and races to add to the vast archives of the academy, which should explain why I was so eager to meet with the sole survivor of your beautiful Ironfrost.. How dear Seressa found out about my private interest in the Great Northern Tundras, the barbarian tribes and hordes, and Ironfrost, in particular, I do not know. She is as great a mystery in person as she is about her origin.”
Cora was mulling over the things she’d just heard when the scruffy little gnomic girl, Arcantonic Palecog, followed closely by the bushy little hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, came skipping and hopping towards them.
In all candor, the little gnomic girl was skipping and hopping, and not without quite apparent excitement. The hobbit only had what could best be described as ‘dread’ etched on his face.
“The Chimaera has turned course and is heading directly towards us now.”, Arcantonic reported with an accelerated enthusiasm. “Seressa must have reached it after all. We’ll be up and on it soon enough!”
“Yay!”, Brom croaked from behind her with a decidedly pale and equally unenthusiastic tone.
“I can’t believe you are afraid of heights, hobbit!”, she smirked at him heartlessly.
“I am a hobbit, Tonic. That tells me, I am as close to the ground as I can, and should be!”, he replied direly.
“And I am a gnome, but I still want to get on that airship. What does that tell you?”, she asked, giving him one of her best infuriating grins.
“That you lack even common sense?”, he said sourly, then added. “But then, as you said; you are a gnome so common sense is optional for you!”
Tonic glared at him.
“Chicken!”, she said with admirable disdain.
“Yeah.. And proud of it!”, he replied with a grin of his own.
“Young Arcantonic seems to have changed. Quite a bit since the last time I saw her.”, noted Mervlin.
“She could be a handful, yes. Or even an arm full.. But she’s alright. She does get on one’s nerves at times, but that’s what little sisters do, I guess.”, Cora mused in reply.
“Interesting.”, the old dean murmured.
“Yes. Very interesting..”
“What is interesting?”, she asked, turning to look at the old man once again.
“That she has changed at all, and that you would own her follies. Don’t get me wrong. It is admirable that you do. What is interesting, is the fact that she has changed and, sans her pair, that you, or anyone, would come to her defense at all. You might have noticed, I have a close relationship with our dear Seressa. But that is mostly because we both spent a lot of time in the Academy Library. Oft argued about the things we read. It was during those years spent in the library that I found out that she has one of the sharpest minds I have ever had the pleasure to debate, not to mention her impeccable memory, including but not limited to long-forgotten trivia. She is a kind and enticing young woman to converse. Young Arcantonic, on the other hand, was.. well, to put in the best of terms, quite, but not very quietly, bitter.. and stubborn, argumentative, noisy, obsessive, aggressive, and a permanent thorn between my toes! The number of times she was detained and consequently put to detention is lost to me. Suffice to say, besides dear Seressa, she was the second student I most conversed in my entire time as the dean of Melshieve. Where Seressa brightened my day, young Arcantonic only and always brought in the rain and thunder. Had it been another student, I am sorry to admit, but they would have been long expelled. But her tuition was paid in advance and enforced.. well.. let’s just say, by someone I just couldn’t say no to.”, he said in his quiet and rusty voice.
“Nadine Graciousward?”, Cora blurted.
Mervlin’s eyebrows rose as he turned to look at the pale, lithe, barbarian girl.
“Impressive, though curious as to how you would know that? Not even Arcantonic knew who was sponsoring her..”, he asked with an inquiring glint in his eyes.
Cora shut up!
Mervlin continued to stare at her, not going as far as scrutinizing her, but with a decidedly interested squint.
Cora did not sweat, nor deliberately shy away from the old man’s stare, but she did go pink a little.
“Very well.”, Mervlin said finally. “I suppose everyone has the right to their own secrets and privacies.”
“It isn’t a secret as much as it is just not my place to say it. And then, there’s the more pressing fact that I simply can’t..”, she replied, her face burning more now with an unexpectedly feminine color.
Then she ruined that rare, effeminate cast by her usual, slightly puffy scowl.
“Ah..”, said the old dean, though what that ‘ah’ entailed was not clear.
It was a mere few minutes later, the time it took the airship to cover the distance of five miles, and was now suddenly filling the whole of their southeastern horizon as it slowed down with bells clanking, wood and sails creaking, and it stopped, right above them, hovering some fifty feet above the ground.
For whatever reason, it never occurred to Cora that the impressively massive ship might drop on top of them. She just stared up at it, ogled, even, with her pout slightly open.
Such a possibility, however, must have hit the hobbit for he was running, dashing, really, to get out from under the bulk of the ship with the gnomic girl laughing, quite mercilessly, after him.
When the ship settled to a full stop, a long rope ladder came rolling down its port side until it hit the ground, then lashed out and further rolled away from the ship causing Mervlin to sigh in no less than resignation and not without a small amount of despair.
“Do you not trust your own ships?”, Cora asked, slightly surprised.
The old dean sighed again.
“As much as one could trust over-hyped gnomes..”, he replied in a deploring tone of voice.
“Gnomes made this?”, she blurted.
“No man in their right mind would want to fly a ship, Princess Cora. And I don’t expect that kind of insanity will come to humans for eons yet, though the dwarves at Dwarwick have one or two airships of their own. Having seen them, however, I would hardly call them ships, but more like floating fortresses.”
“I heard rumors, the elves of Tranquil also have ships that fly..”, she mused.
“Allow me to tell you what each race calls their flying ships and let you decide what they have, perhaps?
“The ones built and backed by the Academy of Melshieve were designed and built mostly by gnomes, and some overenthusiastic human engineers, are called ‘airships’.
“The dwarves of Dwarwick call theirs, ‘gunships’.
“And the elves at Tranquil name theirs, ‘falcons’. What does that tell you?”
“That all races have issues?”, she replied, then promptly added with an unexpected, and quite out-of-character grin. “Accept for the elves, of course!”
“Of course..”, chuckled Mervlin. “However, just the way each race perceives their handy work also gives an insight into their character.”
“Such as, gnomes build out of curiosity. And what they built, they do so, perhaps unwittingly, to further satisfy more of the same. One could almost say their curiosity is interchangeable with anxiety, hence they name their flying coffins, airships, because they wondered what was up in the air, so they built a ship to go up there, and because once they are up in the air, they can now look at the world from a totally different angle, which, in turn, triggers more wonders and, at times, disasters on their part.. The dwarves, on the other hand, build theirs out of practical need. In this case, they just wanted to bombard their foes, hence their gunships.. Don’t misunderstand me. They have been guarding the Celestial Mountains, and by proxy, the rest of the kingdom, even though they are not part of the Kingdom of Isles, and they have, thus far, never wanted to be, at the cost of their own lives for thousands of years now, and need everything available to them to further defend their lands. It does, however, give us a certain perspective of their race. Out of the three, only the elves name their ships, and very much everything else, with something that they find akin to in nature itself, hence their falcons, which in return, does tend to put them ‘apart’, make them seem somewhat arrogant, and unavoidably conceited —from, perhaps, an uncharitable perspective, but men are oft uncharitable..”, the old dean said.
Cora frowned over that. She wasn’t sure what the old man was getting at, or if he was trying to tell her something and expecting her to figure it out. His tone was pleasant enough but she did note how he was looking at her from the corner of his vivid blue eyes.
“Sir..”, she said after a moment of fruitless consideration. And yes, she actually did ‘sir’ the old man, even though she barely knew him, and even though he was the ‘chieftain’ of this Academy of Melshieve thingy which she had never been to. To say her view of the academy-whatsit was somewhat biased would have been a gross understatement for everything she knew about that mysterious place had come from her two friends, Seressa and Tonic, hence it was for that, she thought the place was akin to a very much arrogant and abusive person. The proof to that could be seen, also on her two friends; the scruffy and already traumatized little gnomic girl, Tonic, had become somewhat even more catatonic, in an emotional sense, during her tenure in the academy and the beautiful, very tall, very dark Seressa had gone from a cheery and blooming soul to a guarded and deeply wounded girl during the same years.. The actions of her fellow students towards her had made her suffer greatly and consequently isolated her in a school teeming with thousands of students of all races.. Hence she had abandoned humanity, in an almost literal sense, and cordoned herself off in the academy library.. and the pink garden she’d loved and nurtured there..
And the recognition of this, seemingly unimportant discovery in her two friends, came as an altogether surprise to her; the Cora Sleet, as she’d known herself, would never have thought this deeply. Not about herself, and unlikely about others, and not because she’d been a selfish, vain, or self-oriented girl, but because she just wouldn’t have. Not less than a year ago..
And it also dawned on her, quite clearly, that Arcantonic Palecog wasn’t the only one to have changed, and assuming so was base arrogance all by itself!
“You were saying, my dear?”, the old dean prompted kindly in his rusty voice.
“I am not a dear girl!”, she replied a bit more harshly than she’d intended. She didn’t know why but for some reason she felt irritated and frustrated.
Cora, as the barbarian girl that she was, had never been the center of attention in her whole life. She’d never wanted it, and never had she gone for it. Not because she was, not precisely a modest or an unassuming girl, but because she just didn’t like attention..
..and possibly because she thought the whole, attention-thing was stupid!
And now she was the sole focus of this old dean person of Seressa’s Academy of Melshieve!
“I beg to differ, Princess. I have defined you by the very same words dear Seressa has defined you. If you have something against that, you could take it up to her, I suppose. I must say, however, good luck trying to win that argument!”, the old man said with a genuine chuckle.
“Sir, I am not a philosopher. I am not a learned girl. I have never been to any academy, nor to any other school.. What I know, I have learned by personal experience, and by sweating and bleeding for it..”, she began.
“Which would make you the most knowledgeable person in this company.”, Mervlin inserted.
Though she kept a seemingly moderated face, Cora silently fumed some more and in her mind, she was suddenly swinging a giant club all the while raging, “Just tell me what you want to tell me, dammit!”
As if reading her mind, or likely because the old dean had tutored many students in his time, he smiled at her as he spoke..
“You have an uncommon and quite an uncanny ability to make friends of some of the strangest, if not unlikely people. Seressa is quite taken by you. Even though you have lost your people, I suspect she, in a singularly unique sense, is one of a kind! I have yet to see Miss Arcantonic docile, yet she is, albeit cattish at times, still stops cold where you are concerned. The irony in that is lost upon many, however.. Between those two, you would think it would be her, who would never submit to any authority but missing the point where it is actually dear Seressa who would never have submitted to anyone, and not because she is in any way an anarchist. True, that she very much appears to be a quiet, and submissive girl, the reality that is Seressa Wraiven, is; she is quiet, but not submissive. I suspect she just doesn’t like to make a fuss and has low regard for high drama.. And then there is your hobbit friend who, much like his fellow halflings, is also here.. Now you might not find that odd, but perhaps I can help you put him into perspective; in all the history of the Academy of Melshieve, the lowest rate of attendance has always been hobbits. Would you like to know why?”
In all candor, Cora would never have wondered why hobbit attendance to the academy was so low. But something about the way the old dean spoke suddenly made her wonder.
Silently, she nodded.
“Because they just can’t be bothered to leave their happy little hobbit holes!”, Mervlin admitted, and not with a good doze infuriated frustration. “We offer them some of the highest sponsorships available in the kingdom but they just won’t budge! Yet here is one, a Master Brom Bumblebrim, who is likely a very sensible hobbit much like his peers, with you.. along with Seressa Wraiven, one of the rare mysteries of this world, and with the most argumentative, socially catatonic, Arcantonic Palecog.. Why is that? Why are they following you?”
She didn’t say anything for a while because she couldn’t find anything tangible to say.
Before she could say anything, however, Mervlin spoke again..
“In all history, there have been only, and only two occurrences where the barbarians of the Great Northern Tundras have officially interacted with other races in numbers and come to their help. The first was during the first Themalsar War. Ri Grandaleren himself had to make many concessions and send many priceless gifts and hefty gold to barely call upon the few Bear Claw Tribe warriors, even fewer members of the Ice Wolf Horde, and a hand full of Ironfrost Tundra Elves totaling just over two thousand warriors, and all they were asked for was to guard the southern edges of their own tundras whilst Themalsar couldn’t make a getaway through that direction. The other occurrence is you! I am sure there are many reasons, and certainly a history there, but you have managed to garner the affection of not only of the Bear Claw and the Ice Craig Tribes but pretty much the whole of the Ice Wolf Horde as well. I am guessing you did not do so by gifts nor gold, so again, my dear Princess, why is that?”, Mervlin asked, turning to stare at her through his spidery spectacles, and his vivid blue eyes.
Cora didn’t quite understand where the old man was going with this. She certainly didn’t like it. It was as if the more she tried to get out from under the spotlight, the more people, and events, pulled at her and dragged her back under the bloody thing!
“Mutual survival.”, she finally mumbled.
Mervlin gave her a crooked smile as he squinted at her.
“An astutely practical answer, yet cunningly evasive!”, he replied.
“I don’t even know what that means..”, she scowled. The old dean guy was infuriatingly frustrating and he just wouldn’t let go!
The ‘dean-guy’ was chuckling now.
“I believe you do, Princess.”, he said merrily.
“I thought this was supposed to be an interview-whatsit! I have already told you about my past.. most of it at least..”, she said angrily.
“But this is the interview, my dear girl. Had I wanted merely your past, I am certain I could have found out about it using a combination of back-breaking research and divination. But none of that would have told me anything beyond flesh and bone. It certainly wouldn’t have shown me the unique person that stands before me nor what truly entailed Cora Sleet; the Barbarian Princess of the Great Northern Tundras! Willy-nilly, you are part of ‘history’ that is happening right now, and that is yet to come, and your unwillingness to give yourself the credit that’s well overdue will just not do, I am afraid. King Barakan Heavenswill, Terandel Solace, Sinderel Tranquil, Elorellen Feymist, Arael Tel’Lóna, Ri Grandaleren Feymist, Rise Nadine Graciousward, Delia Karakash Hooman, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist, King Udoorin Shieldheart, and an Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, along with Gullem the Damned, Themalsar the Old, Arcanton Mordenon, Angrellen the Betrayer —for good or for ill, these are names history has taken notice of and will further take interest. And now, a Princess Cora Sleet shall partake a seat amongst the famous and the infamous.”, Mervlin said and he wasn’t merry anymore, but quite serious.
And now Cora was truly frustrated for the old dean-dude was dragging her precisely where she didn’t want to go, dammit!
Then it dawned upon her. Not sure how it had but she was sure that list; the famous and the infamous, was missing one, a very important name..
“You have missed the most important name, sir..”, she heard herself say.
“Ow?”, the dean asked curiously.
“I would really rather you didn’t say, dear..”, she heard a soft, kind, and feminine voice!
“I would really rather you’d stayed!”, she replied mutely.
“And who would that be?”, Mervlin asked.
Cora stared up, not at the massive airship; the Chimaera, which was, she inadvertently noted, was what it was that’d been carved, in great detail, on the bow of the ship, but at the clear, somewhat gray, winter sky and up at the Heavens..
✱ ✱ ✱
The Chimaera was a very big ship, by Cora’s standards at least, as the only other ships she had seen had been the ones anchored at the Arashkan city harbor before the city was laid to waste. It was big, yet surprisingly clean, and it certainly did not smell of sea or seaweeds and its hull didn’t have any barnacles nor any scrapes or signs of ever being beached. It had a wide and long deck, elevated front and back decks with stairs leading down to many cabins, a large mess hall, a moderate-sized kitchen that seemed somewhat over luxurious, a cargo bay, several spacious and well-illuminated rooms designated to many gnomes, and a few young and excitable men looking over strange devices, gadgets, books, and scrolls —onboard labs, as Tonic had defined them as she gave Cora and Brom an earnest tour as if she’d spent her life onboard the airship.
One had to admire her knowledgeable enthusiasm. After all, she had never set foot on Chimaera, or any other airship owned by the Academy of Melshieve. Yet, somehow she’d done a lot of research on them, or possibly pestered someone enough to have gotten her hands on their schematics and plans, back when she’d so desperately wanted to be an operator on one of the ships.
“The ship seems to be missing, I don’t know, some things it should have.”, mumbled Brom.
“That’s expected.”, Tonic replied with a smug smirk. “This isn’t your average ship so it does not need many of the things other boats have or need, such as rows, sails, masts, lot’s and lot’s of smelly sailors, and the necessary supplies that tend to go bad over time because they would have to sail for months on end without making port. This awesome airship can drop anchor pretty much anywhere for resupplies.”
“I do see quite a number of your kin.”, he noted.
“They are not my kin, Master Brom. Most are from all over the kingdom, but they are, as a whole, surface or hill gnomes.”, she replied, then lowered her voice a bit and added. “I am a deep gnome. Or at least my ancestors were..”
“I like it.”, Cora said with an approving tone. “It’s clean and tidy. My mother would have certainly loved it. She ever despaired when my father and I came home with muddy and slushy boots. It is also nice and bright and not cramped. Even down here in the cabins.”
“Melshieve spared no expense when they finally agreed to start building these airships.”, Tonic explained. “There were some accidents at first, of course. Some of the earlier models crash-landed. Some of them went up in big, blooming explosions, and some of them had their keels broken because of miscalculated or misused equipment.”
“Tonic. Please, shut up!”, Brom grumbled.
“Whot? Why?”, she asked a bit surprised.
“I don’t really need to know that the flying coffin I am walking on can, at any time, drop out of the sky and explode in some big, fiery mushroom!”, he said with a sour face.
Tonic snickered at him.
“I can’t believe the kind of fear you have for heights, Brom. Considering the kind of horrible things we have faced and overcame.”, she said.
“My fear for heights is perfectly sensible, logical, and healthy and I am not ashamed to admit it. I feel like I am inside the belly of a dragon about to be pushed further down its bowels.. and end up somewhere the sun never shines and I certainly never want to see that!”, Brom replied sourly.
Tonic snickered some more.
“As long as you come out alive, what matters where you have been through?”, she said showing him all her teeth.
“Dude!”, Brom exclaimed. “Really?”
“Where is Seressa?”, Cora asked, sort of to stop the two of them from bickering.
“She should be on the port side of the cargo bay strapping on her Storm Kite. There are sliding doors on each side of this airship to allow easy access to the cargo area; the Storm Kites, in this case, so they could drop down and hopefully return back once they unleash their payload.”, the little gnomic girl said excitedly.
Brom looked ill..
“Already?”, Cora said somewhat surprised.
“Well, yes.”, Tonic replied. “For the first time in her history, Melshieve is going to war, so everyone is excited. And we already have a target. Besides, you saw how elated Seressa was even at the remote possibility of her flying one of those kites. Now that she will, she is totally all over it! I haven’t seen her this excited since we were paired.”
“Uhhmm.. will we be required to.. Storm whatsit, as well?”, Cora asked carefully.
“That’s up to you. I certainly am gonna do it!”, she said happily and picked up her pace.
“Aren’t you even afraid of plummeting into the ground?”, Brom asked.
“Of course I am. I am friggin terrified of it. So is Seressa. But we will do it anyway.”, she replied and she was literally hopping as she jogged down to the cargo bay.
“Great Heavens, girl!”, Brom exclaimed. “Why?”
Slowly she turned around to face the bushy-haired hobbit and there was a serious and determined expression on her diminutive face.
“Brom..”, she said sternly. “Have you never had that screaming feeling you knew would send you to certain death, but you were so curious and were so excited to try it that you just didn’t care about its possible deadly consequences and just wanted to attain that vivid elation you knew only taking that deadly risk would give you?”
“Okay. That went right by me..”, Cora admitted.
Brom, however, got exactly what she’d meant.
He also figured he had been thus wildly curious, and been madly excited even by the mere thought of its remote possibility.
Yet, he had failed to take the next step..
..and let that opportunity slide.
He wasn’t sure whether Tonic had meant to strike him there or not. But that didn’t matter because she had hit him, she had hit him hard, and she had hit him where it did matter..
“No..”, he mumbled quietly. “I let that moment go..”
The little gnomic girl didn’t say anything else. She turned around and started jogging down to the cargo bay once more, even as she started to shiver in growing anticipation.
✱ ✱ ✱
Perhaps for the first time, Cora and Brom saw Seressa out of her pink, skimpy, and frilly dress skirt. She was wearing a very white, skin-tight.. well.. Brom just couldn’t put a name to what she was wearing. It wasn’t a dress. It certainly wasn’t an undergarment either, though he couldn’t think of anything that could be thus ravishingly arousing! Whatever it was that she was in, had her wrapped more like a second skin, rather than a glove, and she had it on all the way from her toes, to her extraordinarily shapely legs, over and around her curving hips, climbing up and hugging her buxom breasts, her slender shoulders and throat and ended just under her slightly pointy chin! The contrast of the pure white ‘skin-dress’ against her very dark face was a mesmerizing sight to behold. She also had her long, pink hair wrapped and bunned up to a pretty knot on the back of her head, giving way to pure visual joy that was her striking figure!
Cora was somewhat dumbstruck.
Tonic also ogled.
Brom was petrified!
“Wow, girl!”, chirped Tonic. “They are giving you the full treatment, then?”
Unlike her pair, however, Seressa was not shivering in anticipation..
She was trembling, quite violently, where she stood, making certain things around her body move.. well.. suffice to say, juggled rather deliciously!
She had her slender hands clutched together, her long, slim tail standing on its end, and she was staring off somewhere with her large, beautiful lavender eyes that seemed somewhat glazed.
Upon hearing her pair’s voice, she gave out a small, whimpering yelp!
“Tonic, Tonic, Tonic, Tonic! I am so scared!”, she blurted!
Then she saw Brom standing behind her, quietly petrified, and promptly made a beeline to him!
The poor hobbit could hardly let out a terrified ‘eeep!’ before she swooped him up all the way to her bosom and fiercely enfolded him in her phloxen embrace!
Brom died instantly..
Several times over!
There was just too much soft, electrifying bosom there..
..as his face was smothered between the very tall, very ‘white’ girl’s.. nipples.. per se!
“There is nothing between her breasts and my face but a skin-thin bit of cotton!”
It must be said, and strictly speaking, Brom was a decent sort of hobbit. Yes, he was curious about certain things as much as the next man, certainly, but he never stooped down to unwarranted snooping or peeking. Certainly not to someone he dearly admired, cared for, and respected, such as he did for Seressa Wraiven. But, bloody Hell, this was awesome! It certainly felt awesome!
Then, his admiration, his care, and his respect for the very tall, very ‘dark’ girl kicked in..
..even to his own deploring disappointment!
“Uhhmm.. please don’t do this, Seressa..”, he mumbled, though it wasn’t quite clear what he was asking her not to do.
He felt her stiffen, just a little, and immediately amended..
“You have nothing to prove. You are, in every possible and conceivable way, awesome, and I don’t want you to fall and hurt yourself!”
She stared down at him even though he was pretty much trapped where he was.
“You are so sweet, Master Brom.”, she said, giving him her bestest and sweetest smile. “I am doing this, not because I have anything to prove, but because I find it immensely, and savagely enthralling; the whole idea of flying without turning into something, but with pure, Mortal-crafted ingenuity. For the brief moment of this flight, I shall be free of all bonds and constraints. For that short, swift sortie, I shall be only me, and I shall not care what anyone thinks of me..”
“Well said.”, Cora murmured. “Now I want to try it as well..”
In the next hour or so, Cora was expected to remove all her furs, her leathers, her bracers, her pauldrons, her numerous weapons, and was to strip down to her breast wraps and her loin-cloth, whereas Tonic only had to switch her shirt and trousers for a green, tight-fitting, fish-scaled outfit that she wore not unlike a glove. Apparently, there was any number of premade gnome-sized suits hanging on racks just for this occasion. The scruffy little gnomic girl had only to remove said shirt and trousers, pick the one she had found to her own taste, and put it on.. Unfortunately, there weren’t any larger-sized ones readily available at hand. The one Seressa wore was a hand-sewn ‘spandex’, whatever that was, right there on the airship.. after taking all her measurements!
And now Cora was furiously glaring down at the old gnome who was demanding to remove her everything, and that they would have to take her measurements as well, just like they had taken ‘that very tall, very dark, and very pretty girl’s height, which, as it turned out, had become a real challenge; they couldn’t find a ladder tall enough onboard the airship, along with her butt size, cup size, hips, waist, and the length of her arms and legs, giving the barbarian girl the implication that the old gnome probably knew more about Seressa’s various sizes and measurements now than the girl would likely ever know herself! As if that wasn’t enough, he wanted to find out all about hers as well..
“The Hell, you will!”, she growled at the old gnome, her face burning red.
“Girl..”, the gnome said very patiently. “..I am a happily married man. I have four daughters and three sons. I even have grandchildren. I am pretty sure I have seen everything there is to be seen..”
“What does, you being married or how many sons and daughters you got, have anything to do with you wanting to strip me down?”, she further growled.
“Ow, nothing.. I merely wanted to point out the fact that they might miss me, in case you want to run me through with that very big knife you got strapped across your back!”, he replied with a grin.
Cora just stared down at him!
“Why do I even have to strip down?”, she snarled.
“Because you can not wear those..”, he said, pointing at her furs, her leathers, her weapons, and the rest of her gear. “..if you want to fly on a Storm Kite. It has limited carrying capacity and requires the pilot, that’s you, by the way, to wear low friction, aerodynamically pliant clothes —just like your tall friend is wearing now! I do not understand why you are making such a fuss? She certainly didn’t!”
“We come from very different cultures..”, Cora fumed.
“Look, young lady. Either I get your precise measurements and have a suit sewn specifically for you, or I can call a younger gnome, or human —your choice, who can take them, or you are not flying any Storm Kites!”, the old gnome said sternly.
“I can hold your hand if you like.”, Brom offered from the side.
“Get out, hobbit!”, Cora blistered at him. “I don’t need an audience while I have my body measured!”
“Chill, girl..”, he grumbled. “You don’t have to be so harsh, you know.”
“I am sorry, Brom.”, she said honestly. “I didn’t mean to burn you like that. I just don’t understand the necessity of this.. suit thingy..”
“It isn’t all that different from a blade, my dear girl. A dull blade will make a poor weapon as it will not cut as it should. A sharp weapon, on the other hand, will. As I understand it, you are playing the role of the blade when you pilot those kites. Your furs and leathers make you ‘blunt’, per se. The one they will sew for you will make you ‘sharp’, and you will have better time cutting through the air..”, he explained.
Cora cocked one of her white eyebrows at him as she mulled over that.
“That’s actually a rather accurate assessment, from a practical sense, Master Hobbit.”, the old gnome said, nodding at him approvingly. “Have you ever considered applying to that Academy of Melshieve? I hear hobbits receive very good sponsorships.”
“Perhaps I will. Some day. Just not now. I think we had better push the Orken off our doorstep first, wouldn’t you agree?”, Brom replied.
“Very true, young master, very true.”, he said, then turned back to the tundra elf. “Now, then, have you made up your mind, young lady?”
Cora silently smoldered for a bit. Then gritted her teeth and spoke.
“I will do it.” she said then gave the hobbit a stern look. “But you are still leaving, though..”
“Well, bugger.”, mumbled Brom, left the cabin, and closed the door firmly behind him.
Hence, Cora Sleet stood, barely in her breast wraps and loin-cloths, her face burning with a very bright shade of red, her powerful arms, her shapely legs, her tightly clenched abs, her swirling, dark blue tattoos, and the horrible scars on her back full-on display as the old gnome took all her measurements with diligent accuracy..
Then, wrapped in her fur cloak, she sat down on a short stool and watch the old gnome work, and not without a small amount of fascination as he cut long strips from rolls of pure white cotton with his large scissors, made careful marks on them with tiny pins, cut some more, and then started sewing with practiced efficiency.
Albeit being quite old and seeing how smoothly he worked, she inadvertently noted; the old gnome here was a man and he was sewing like he’d done it all his life. Not only was he sewing, but he was also doing it by using a strange machine that made this oddly, soothing sort of ‘nicky’ ‘nicky’ ‘nicky’ ‘nicky’ ‘nicky’ sound.
Cora found herself drifting off, quite dazedly, with a happy and content smile on her face..
As a young storm herald, Cora had tried her best to avoid doing household chores, not because she was lazy or deemed herself above such work, but because she had been a ‘teenager’, relative to her race, and hence tried to avoid said chores with unspoken dread much as her peers did. Her father had been a zerker, true, and much like her, he had also disliked doing house chores and had tried to rage about it any number of times. Unfortunately, his rage had meant little to nothing where her mother had been concerned, who had been quite the fiery tundra tracker in her time and hadn’t been above a healthy dose of very scary raging, herself. Both Cora and her father had loved the woman that had been the sole pillar of their home, but never did they forget the fact that you never messed with a tundra tracker. After all, it was possible one could get away from a raving zerker, or a raging storm herald. You were not going to get away from a tundra tracker.. ever!
To the matter that was relevant at hand, then?
What fascinated the young, half-naked tundra elf sitting with her furs around her shoulders was that this old gnome was sewing.. The men in her old Ironfrost never did sewing. Yes, they mended armor and bound leathers, but not clothes. Women tended to such tender chores and thinking back, Cora figured it hadn’t been due to some macho thing on men’s part, but merely a simple matter of delegation of chores..
..as in, the women of Ironfrost didn’t want to pound iron or cut toughened leather all day, and the men didn’t want to sew or fletch! Cooking, fishing, hunting, cleaning your own mess, guarding the town, patrolling the surrounding lands, and going to war, however, had always been a shared task.
It was also possible the women of Ironfrost just didn’t trust the men and their clumsy fingers where such tender chores were concerned. Seemed like something her mother would have told her father.. in brisk, and quite blistering, terms..
Even after all the years she had lived with her parents, more so after having lost them, Cora still couldn’t believe how her mother had eloped with her father, which, to be fair, mustn’t have been much of an eloping considering how small Ironfrost had been, and through the centuries, all the way to that ill-fated day Dreadmaw had struck, they had loved each other with truly uncanny obsession. And to this day, Cora had never considered love, nor settling down. Not really. But if she was to ever come across someone and fall for him, she wanted what her mother and her father had; to be just as stupidly in love..
“You miss your home.”
..aaaaaand she got pulled right back to her present-day and moment to that!
Her face flushed and for some reason, and she felt like she had just been ambushed, having been caught totally off guard the way she had, hence she suddenly felt frustrated as well.
“Easy, my dear girl. Easy. I didn’t mean to disturb you, seeing as how peaceful you seemed. Peaceful and pretty.”, the old gnome said.
“Pretty?”, Cora blurted, giving him one of her better scowls.
“Very much so. Perhaps you should scowl less and smile more. You are young, but in time you will discover, ‘pretty’ is relative to those around us. I am old, true, but not senile, and certainly not blind.. Your hobbit friend obviously adores you, and so does your very tall, very dark friend who is also quite fascinated by you, seeing as she talked, nonstop about her pair, about your hobbit friend, and about you.. ‘Whatever you are sewing, I want it to make me look cool like my friend Cora..’ —her exact words.. You do them both a disservice by giving them less than they deserve..”, he said.
Cora scowled at him some more..
..and felt somewhat mortified.
The old gnome, however, seemed quite unperturbed.
He held up his handy work and said, “We are done, by the way.. You will have to remove your undergarments as well before you put this on. You can go behind that partition for some privacy if you like.”
With aghast amazement, she stared at the old man, the tiny little bit of white cloth in his hands, then back at him.
“I think you mismeasured my body.”, she said, giving him, and the tiny outfit a meaningful stare. “Are you sure this one isn’t for you?”
“I doubt that, my dear. My measurements were quite accurate, and I must say, you have a very proportionate figure.”, the old gnome replied confidently.
“How in the blazes am I supposed to fit into that little thing, then?”, she said with an exasperated tone.
“Ow, no, my dear.. You will not fit into this suit. The suit will stretch onto you!”
Cora ogled at him.
“I don’t understand.”, she said.
“The point of an aerodynamically pliant suit is to make sure there are as few wrinkles as possible on the person wearing it. Hence, the suit is made from a fiber that is smooth, can stretch to perfectly embrace, or hug, the body of the pilot, and is as impervious to wear and tear of harsh winds as possible while giving them the freedom they would need to operate their Storm Kites. This particular suit is cotton-based, but it also has certain other chemically altered fibers in its threading. After all, cotton is nice and soft, but it doesn’t quite stretch to our satisfaction nor is it durable for our purpose.”, he explained.
Cora mulled over that, though she didn’t quite understand any of it.
“And how am I supposed to get in it?”, she fumed.
“Very carefully..”, the gnome said as he pointed at something on the back of the suit.
Cora came closer to look and saw a long, sort of zig-zagging something there, delicately hidden on the inside of the seams.
“What am I looking at?”, she asked.
“This, my dear girl, is called a Doodlebellz’ Manually Operating Buzzer Gadget.. Or D.O.M.O-Buzzer for short!”
“That’s short, is it?”, Cora said with an amused tone and figured, giving odd names to odd inventions was not a trademark particular to her gnomic friend, Tonic, but a racial flaw peculiar to all gnomes..
“Don’t mock me, girl, this is one of my personal inventions.”, the old gnome frowned at her.
“I am sorry.”, Cora apologized hastily.
“You will be, once you see what it does!”, he sniffed at her. “You see this tiny pin here? You can pull it down, gently mind you, and as you can see, the back of the suit will part away. When you pull it back up, it will come together and become whole again.”
Cora stared at the DOMO Buzzing-thingy, quietly mesmerized! She had seen many strange and odd things, usually very scary and horrific, during her ‘time jumps’, but some of them had been very beautiful and enthralling as well. Nothing in her adventures, however, had made her grin with such a silly expression!
“What is this bewildering witchcraft?”, she asked hoarsely.
“Ow, no, my dear. This is not witchcraft. Nor is it magic.”, he replied with a tiny grin. “It is pure and simple physics and gnomic ingenuity, of course!”
“Why have I heard that phrase before?”, she asked with a frown.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t, my dear. Your tall friend did mention her pair was a gnome and was part of your company who is an artificer.”, he said as his grin widened.
Cora reached out and carefully took the tiny suit, which was at best, as long as her forearm, and tugged at the pin and with a curious buzz, the D.O.M.O-Buzzer came apart. She tugged at it again, and it buzzed back up and closed.
She gave out an involuntary laugh and gleefully tugged at it some more..
“Now, now, let’s not play with it too much. It is a delicate piece of work and like everything else, it is also prone to falling apart.. eventually. Why don’t you go behind the partition and change? Then we can fine-tune your suit to perfection.”, the old gnome said.
The barbarian girl walked over to the partition, paused for a moment, then blurted..
“You won’t come and look when I am changing, will you? I react badly to surprises.”
The old gnome sighed..
“My dear girl, as old as I am, I too yearn for the sight of a pretty figure, much like every other man out there. But I also respect the wishes of those around me.” he said, then added with a chuckle, “Particularly the ones that carry very big swords..”
“I wouldn’t draw a sword on you, Master Gnome. That would be just rude..”, Cora said mutely as she dropped her fur cloak on the cabin’s wooden floor.
“And I wouldn’t do my beloved wife, my sons, and my daughters any favors by peeking at every pretty face. That would also be rude.. Not to mention, I would be dishonoring their very memories..”, he said..
..a bit too calmly.
Cora undid her breast wraps and unknotted her loin cloth and let them fall on the floor as well..
“How do you mean? I thought you said you were happily married.”, she called from behind the partition as she gave the tiny suit in her hand a dubious look. “And how am I going to slip into this?”
“Once you have the D.O.M.O-Buzzer down —dammit, I really should work on that name.. It’s a bloody mouthful! Anyway, once you pull it down, put one foot through it and all the way into the suit’s corresponding leg’s extension. Then carefully pull it up until your leg is snugly in it. Don’t worry, it will stretch to your size. Then put your other foot in and rinse repeat. Once you have pulled the suit all the way up to your hips and waist, carefully put your arms into it like you were wearing a glove and stretch them both until the suit has stretched nice and tightly around your belly, your chest, and all the way up to your shoulders. Once you have done that too, I will come and buzz you up and you will be all set. And yes, I did say I was happily married. My beloved wife, my little boys, my beautiful daughters, and my grandchildren, however, are all dead..”, the old gnome said.
Cora paused with one shapely leg in the tiny suit.
“I didn’t know. I am sorry. I would have been more mindful of my words had I known..”, she said quietly.
“My dear girl, why are you sorry? You did not take them away from me. You didn’t even know them..”, the old gnome said, his voice brittle.
“No, I did not. But I do know how losing loved ones, feels like.. Intimately.. It.. breaks you.. and changes you.. and only if you are very, very lucky, you have good friends that help collect your broken pieces back together and make you whole again..”, she replied mutely.
An inevitable silence settled after that as Cora gently pulled up the leg of the suit and to her unmitigated surprise, it did stretch and held on to her leg just as the old gnome had said it would. Then she slipped her other leg it and pulled that up too, and with an intriguing dance of her hips, she further pulled the suit up to her waist. She then slipped her arms followed by her head into it and looked down to see the suit holding on to her breasts, her belly, her hips, and her legs much like a second skin, and she felt her face burn..
The suit did not show any skin whatsoever, but it was bloody revealing.. literally every curve of her body!
For a brief, unprecedented moment, she got a snap-shot insight of just how much Seressa might be enjoying herself in the same, spandex-whatsit-suit-thingy that had been tailored to her unique measurements, and what she had meant when she’d said, quite some months ago, ‘Every part of me likes their freedoms individually!’“
And damn, if it didn’t feel.. sensual?
As an individual, Cora had never really been too much into romance, nor the things it would, perhaps inevitably, entail.. Some of the girls back at Ironfrost had been totally into that sort of thing but she had found the whole mooning over, the dramatic sighs, the secret glances, or the giggling a bit silly.. or even ‘frivolous’, as Seressa would have phrased it.
She did, however, note, and quite suddenly, that she was not the pouting girl back at Ironfrost anymore, either. True, she did pout, but not as a reaction to anything but rather her pout was due to the shape of her mouth.
She could imagine, only now, why Brom had always thought her pout had been so cute, and why Seressa was enthralled by it and had wished she could pout just like her.
She also noted that this revelation, as tiny as it was, would never have come to the former Cora Sleet..
Very secretly, she admitted, just to herself, that she very much liked the whatsit-suit, and the elusively sensual sense that came with it, and the way it set some things tingling in every inch of her body.
“I am done here, Master Gnome. You can do my zipper, sorry, I meant, buzzer-thingy, now.”, she said gruffly, her face burning red.
“ZIPPER!”, the old gnome exclaimed suddenly, and jubilantly. “That’s it! What a perfectly descriptive and easy-to-pronounce name for my D.O.M.O-Buzzer gadget!”
He was almost hopping up and down with delight as he came around the partition and beheld the lithe form of Cora Sleet in her pure white, skin-tight outfit and with her long, snow-white hair flowing down the small of her back and slender waist, free and unbraided.
“You, my dear girl, are a masterpiece.”, the gnome admitted expansively.
Cora blushed even more.
“And you remind me of my grandaughter, Terrah Doodlebellz. She was also beautiful, kind, caring, and she was ever mindful of her manners.”
✱ ✱ ✱
Wow!”, was the only thing that came out of Brom when Cora came out of the old gnome’s cabin. The young tundra elf gave him a rather self-conscious little smirk and silently walked past him to join Seressa and Tonic who would likely be strapped into their Storm Kites and ready to fly.
“Please don’t stare at my butt, Master Brom. Or I will hurt you..”, she whispered as she walked.
“I am staring front and center, just like Tonic always tells me to. And no, you will never hurt me and we both know it.”, the bushy little hobbit said with a broad grin.
Cora didn’t look back, nor did she scowl or frown. She only sighed and tried very hard not to pout.
“This isn’t easy for me, Brom.”, she said quietly.
“To be so open? And when I say, open, I mean it in a graceful and revealing your vulnerable side, way?”, he prompted.
“Yes.”, she admitted simply.
“Always thought you should. It suits you.”, Brom said honestly. “So does your flight suit, by the way..”
Cora sighed again.
“It’s no wonder Tonic is pissed off at you all the time.”, she said.
“Tonic doesn’t need much reason to get pissed off, my dear girl. Only excuses.. But then, you should have seen her face when I complimented her suit!”, Brom chuckled.
“I bet we are all going to regret putting these suits on and you are not helping with your ogling, Brom..”, Cora said with a resigned sort of voice.
“No, you will not regret it, my dear. None of you will. Not in the long run, anyway. As for helping, I did offer to hold your hand, back there.”, he said with a grin.
Cora, followed closely by Brom, entered the cargo bay once again and saw many other young and slender-looking girls, most of them gnomes, and not a few humans in various, tight, fish-scale outfits just like the one Tonic wore.
“This is a bit of heaven, I have fallen into.”, Brom said smugly.
“Who are all these girls?”, Cora asked, staring at them.
“They are also Storm Kite pilots. Trained ones..”, he replied.
“Why only girls?”
“It has to do with the carrying capacity of the current Storm Kites, I think. Boys could also fly them, I suppose, but by the time they are of age to even be on an airship, let alone become a Storm Kite pilot, they outgrow the maximum weight capacity of the bloody kites.”
Cora shook her head in an, I guess, that makes sense, sort of way.
“Though, from what I have gathered, they have never made any jumps from an airship before. Only from controlled heights and with safety ropes attached and with lots and lots of cushions piled at the bottom of their jumps. And they have never carried anything during their test jumps either. Now they each will be carrying two, Class-C Type Naphtha Grenade-thingies as ammunition.. They are all scared witless and are waiting for Seressa to make the first sortie. They are all eager, but not as eager as our Seressa, apparently.”, Brom continued, giving all the girls in the room a careful, ‘not-ogle’ look. Then he saw Seressa in all her white, and very pretty glory, and started in her direction.
Seressa saw him coming and gave him her best, and terrified smile, and ran for him..
As much as the very tall, very ‘white’ girl was excited, she was also very much beside herself in fear, so much so that she was visibly trembling.
The other girls were all around her, trying very hard to comfort her, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Master Brom!”, yelped Seressa as she came down on her knees right in front of him, and fiercely hugged him. “I am so excited and so scared. I am of second thoughts.. Please tell me not to do this!”
And against everything he would want for the very tall, very dark, and very dear girl, Brom countermanded her..
“No, my dear girl. As much as it terrifies me that something might happen to you, you must do this. You must do it because you find it immensely, and savagely enthralling.. You must do it because, of all people, only you find the whole idea of flying without turning into something, but with pure, Mortal-crafted ingenuity to be a beautiful thing. For the brief moment of your flight, you shall be free of all your bonds and all your constraints. For that one, short, and swift sortie, you shall be only you, and you shall not care what anyone thinks of you.. Live that moment, my dear Seressa, because of all the people I have known, only and uniquely you will get to truly understand it, comprehend it, appreciate it, and forever treasure it. And among the rare mortals who will do what you are about to do, only you will find something beyond the exhilaration of swift and cool air rushing and brushing you, and that, my dear girl, is you!”, he whispered at her.
As it turned out, all the girls heard what he’d just said, since they were all huddled in on them, wondering who this cute little hobbit was, and why the very tall, very dark girl cared so much about what he thought, so much so that she sought comfort in him..
..and a chorus of ‘owww’s and ‘awww’s echoed throughout the cargo bay, and not a small amount of sniflings of suddenly running noses, and ‘wow’s, and ‘that was awesome’s..
Brom did his best not to blush any more than he already was, being in Seressa’s vast embrace, and he could just imagine Tonic scowling furiously at him and Cora whacking him over the back of his head!
“That.. that was the most beautiful return of one’s own words, Master Brom.”, sniffed Seressa, and with beggared eyes, she asked, “May I?”
Seressa kissed him..
..tenderly, but deeply.
And the whole carbo bay went up in ‘whooping’ girls!
✱ ✱ ✱
The whole idea is to bank in the direction you want to turn.”, Seressa was saying as she and Tonic helped strap Cora’s Storm Kite on her. “A bit like swimming in a downhill river.. So remember, you can not turn left or right when you are swimming in running water. You can only bank and sort of steer yourself to one side.. You must mentally calculate how much you will need to bank to end up where you want against how much you can bank without losing control of your kite..”
The Storm Kites, as they were so fancifully named, were basically deltoid-shaped objects with two bars, one running down, the other running horizontally, which was the extent of the kite’s skeleton. The bars themselves had been molded out of some very light, metal-like alloy. Stretched firmly over the metal skeleton was a white, cotton-like canvas, not unlike the fabric Cora and Seressa was wearing, but harder, and each kite was at least six feet wide and possibly twice as much in length. As it turned out, strapping the kite on the pilot was interchangeable with strapping the pilot on the kite! Suffice to say, and in either case, strapping one on the other meant, binding the pilot’s outstretched arms, chest, waist, and ankles to the leather cuffs attached to the bars by others as the pilot herself would lie quite still on the kite. Then, they would pick the kite, along with the now bound pilot, and sort of dump her, facing down, out of the cargo bay’s sliding doors!
Apparently, the ‘launching system’ for the kites needed some creative improvements..
“How do you mean?”, Cora asked, feeling quite excited and queasy as if something was crawling somewhere around and inside her tummy.
“You can’t turn left or right in running water because the water is constantly rushing you forward. That’s how it will be with the Storm Kite. There will be no stopping, no pausing, and no time to mull things over. From the moment you jump off the airship, it is, in fact, one, seamless flight until the moment you return.”, she explained.
“Or until you crash into the ground.”, added Tonic.
“How am I going to get back up here, if I am constantly moving forward and likely going down?”, Cora asked.
“That is where ‘banking’ comes into play, luv.”, Seressa said. “First you need to go way down, and fast, so you can gain enough acceleration to be able to rise again, but not too fast to unable to rise back up.”
“Or you will crash into the ground.”, mumbled Tonic.
“So I lean sort of forward for a dive, or lean backward to rise?”, she asked.
“Yes, and no, luv. You don’t so much as ‘lean’, as you ‘lean into’. You must feel the wind, much like you would feel the current in a river, and lean with the wind.. with your whole body, not just your arms or legs or your back. To be honest, it is more of a hip work, really. And you must always be aware of the winds around you.”, the very tall, very dark girl tried to explain.
“Or you will crash into the ground..”, murmured Tonic.
“Alright, let’s do this..”, Cora said gruffly. She thought she got the gist of the whole storm kiting thingy and she would find out if she was right, soon enough.. or crash into the ground! “Where’s Brom? I would have thought he’d fare us all goodbye..”
“The unscrupulous little weasel said something about needing to wash his face and get some fresh air..”, Tonic snorted.
“I think I smothered him a bit too much.”, Seressa admitted with bright eyes.
“Huh.”, Cora said noncommittally.
Seressa rose, once she did Cora’s final straps, handed her a pair of foot-long ropes that ended in green, plum-like, bulbous objects.
“Careful with those, luv. Whatever you do, do NOT land..”, she cautioned.
“..or crash..”, added Tonic.
“Or crash..”, she confirmed, “..with those still in your hands. You might survive a crash. You will not survive a crash and the explosion followed by the roaring fire of those naphtha grenades.”
“You are taking this, ‘no pressure’, thing a bit too seriously.”, Cora said lightly.
“Please, Cora. This is very serious. Those grenades make Tonic’s acid vials look like health potions.”, Seressa said sternly.
“I am tempted to resent that, but she is right!”, Tonic said.
“Duly noted.”, the tundra elf girl promised.
“You are in a odd mood today, luv.”, Seressa said, as she stared down at her.
“Girl, I am about to be thrown off a flying ship strapped to a bit of cloth, wearing nothing but a bit of the same cloth, while holding two, very dangerous kaboom-thingies and you are surprised I am in a strange mood?”, Cora snorted.
“Well, when you put it that way..”, the tall girl smiled then turned to her pair. “Alright. Time for you to strap me in as well. It is getting late and night flights will make poor aiming..”
✱ ✱ ✱
IT WAS AWESOME!”, half shrieked, half cried Seressa Wraiven when she whooshed through the cargo bay’s open sliding doors and soundly crashed into one of the support beams and her kite promptly turned into a derelict pile!
The Chimaera had diligently risen to a two-thousand-feet ‘launching height’ and dropped anchor there, metaphorically speaking, to give the Storm Kites, and their pilots, a smooth glide, and time enough to gain the necessary acceleration they would need. Her pair, Tonic, had very nearly chewed out her own liver in fear and anticipation when the very tall, very ‘white’ girl, along with the kite she was strapped to, had been tossed out of the airship by two, gruff-looking gnomes; the Kite Launchers! It was likely the scruffy little gnomic girl would have run around in circles with a full-blown panic attack, had she not been strapped down to a kite that was several times bigger than herself and lying on the floor awaiting her turn to be tossed out, much like Cora and the rest of the girls..
“Are you alright? Speak to me, girl?”, she yelled with her hyped, shrill, squeaky voice!
“I am not alright, luv.. I am blasting at the moment!”, Seressa’s jubilant voice came from the pile.
“How was it?”, Tonic shrilled.
Cora also tried to turn and look, but the only thing she could see from where she lay strapped was the foot of another girl strapped down much like she was.
“It. Was. Aaaaaawesome!”, she said like she meant it with every inch of her body. “I could die today and I would still be happy!”
There was a stunned sort of silence in the bay, then a whole crowd of girly whooping cries of exhalation was heard!
“As long as you don’t panic when you are tossed out, all should be fine. There is enough distance to the ground to catch the wind and even stay up long enough for sightseeing.”
An excited ‘ahhh!’, came from the strapped girls.
“Just be careful on your return trip. There is a point where the airship blocks the wind. That’s why I had to circle around it twice to gain enough acceleration and make a dash for it into the bay.”
Several sturdy gnomes and some young, geeky-looking humans came bustling into the cavernous cargo bay. They froze at the sight of the crashed Seressa, then went for her. Carefully, they disassembled what remained of her kite, unstrapped her from her leather bindings, and helped pick her up.
Seressa had a brand new shiner on her upper left cheek and a trickle of bright red blood was leaking down from a cut hidden somewhere in her slightly disheveled pink hair.
And she wobbled.
“Medic!”, shouted one of the young, geeky men excitably.
“Tis alright, luv, I have been graced by worse..”, she said happily.
“Bad excuse for a concussion, First Dare Seressa. You are bleeding.”, another voice said, this one a few years older and gruff. “And do move aside, boy. You can ogle at the pretty lady on your own time!”
“Yes. Do get away from the First Dare, boy!”, one of the human girls snickered.
“This is none of your business, Mallary!”, the young man flared.
“Neither is it any of yours, William..”, the girl sneered back. “You are here just to ogle at girls!”
“I am a Storm Kite engineer. And that’s First Engineer Officer William to you, girl!”
Several sighs and disgusted sounds of resignation echoed in the bay and Cora heard ‘siblings’, among those sighs.
“Boys aren’t allowed in here, and that’s First Pilot Mallary to you!”, the girl sniffed back.
“Shut it!”, Cora said quietly and a stunned sort of silence settled in the cargo bay.
Then the girl flared!
“Who is this?”, the girl, Mallary shouted from where she lay strapped to her kite. “Who speaks to the First Pilot with such impunity? Say your name and rank! I shall have you demoted!”
Another silence befell and the rest of the girls were all staring up, now.
“I am Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundra Hordes! By all means, demote me for all I care! But if you two don’t shut up, I will tear these silly straps off me and toss both of you out that door without any kites, and I shall sleep well at night. Now, First-whatsit William.. Go get a medic for my friend.. As you said, she is bleeding.. And First Pilot-thingy, you should be thinking about how you will be doing your approach on your return back to the ship. This is war. Not a game. People are likely dying, at this very moment, and there are an unknown number of Orken moving through the tunnels under the fissures below us. Should they succeed, it is over for everyone.. So I suggest you all get your priorities in order..”
The silence that followed this was simply smothering..
“At least we know who the drill sergeant in this falcon, is.”, a rusty voice was heard and Mervlin’s face came into Cora’s vision and there was a distinct, merry glint in his vivid blue eyes. “Medic Liam, if you will, please.. And while he is checking her injuries, perhaps First Dare Seressa Wraiven can fill us in on the viability of our plan, along with the cons and pros of piloting a Storm Kite?”
Medic Liam was a moderately young man, possibly in his early thirties, with a calm and somewhat reassuring face. He sat Seressa down, then, with a gentle push, lay her on her back. And as he knelt over the very tall, very dark girl, she blushed a bit and stuttered some things about how she was just fine and that the bleeding would stop on its own and that there really was no need to make such a fuss. Medic Liam also had a deep, low voice and he responded to her seamless objections with non-committal, ‘Uh-huh.’, ‘Yes.’, ‘But of course, my dear.’, ‘How very true.’, and finished his examination by adding, ‘You have beautiful eyes.’, causing her to blush even more.
Then he rose, walked over to the dean, and said, ‘She has a superficial scalp wound and a minor concussion. Her eyes are dilated, but that could be due to her current excitement. She should be fine for piloting. If she starts vomiting, shows signs of dizziness or vertigo, however, let me know immediately.”
Mervlin nodded at him and Medic Liam turned to leave but paused for a moment as a slight frown appeared on his face.
“As a side note, sir, you might consider telling the engineers to bring some cushions, a lot of them, down here to avoid similar or worse concussions and possibly broken limps, which isn’t science but common sense. You might also want to tell them to bring down some blankets for the girls. I know they are all hyped and excited now, and hence, might not feel it, but it is winter and we are some two thousand feet above the ground. It will preserve their dignity if nothing else. Being strapped down the way they are probably isn’t doing any favors to their already scrambled emotional state.”
Mervlin gave him a carefully level gaze, then nodded. He turned to First Engineer Officer William and nodded at him as well, which was enough to get him, and all the other engineers, to go and fetch lots of cushions and blankets.
“Medic Liam seems to have some problems with your authority..”, Cora noted quietly.
“Medic Liam has many problems, least of all my authority, however, since I have none!”
Cora stared at him.
“Perhaps I should rephrase that. As the dean of the Academy of Melshieve, I have the authority, and the power, to command and to utilize any and every asset that belongs or is bound to the Academy including the airships. While on the airship, however, the captain rules, and not unlike their seafaring peers, his commands are law, provided said commands do not conflict or countermand King’s Laws. While not an officer himself, in a military sense, the medic of an airship holds the second-highest rank. And while he may not order anyone around the way any officer can, such as tell the crew where to fly the ship, he does hold the power to declare who is and who is not fit for duty.. or command.. Suffice to say, thus far above the ground, power and command is a delicate balance, much like the ship itself.”
“The rules of men and their cities are complicated and many. Methinks the rules of ships and the fools who sail them are worse.”, Cora noted.
“True, but necessary, my dear, and although Medic Liam’s abrasive nature toward me, in particular, is misplaced, I do not blame him for it. His younger sister, a dear girl by the name, Gizelle Adorine, was a Storm Kite pilot. For reasons attributed to faulty manufacturing, her kite fell apart during one of her test flights and the wind carried her off beyond the safety of the cushioned landing. She died in the crash, to all of our sorrow.. Such a terrible and tragic loss, for she had such potential and was so full of life. Her elder brother blames me for it because it was I who approved the Storm Kite Program in the first place. But as much as he blames me, I suspect he blames himself more. Hence he works on this airship as a medic to make sure other girls do not suffer a similar fate.”, the old dean said.
“A sad story. I wish not to sound insensitive but it would seem everyone has the capacity to blame wrongly, but never own up to the consequences of their own choices, nor respect the choices others have made for themselves. I can understand his anger. But his sister was not forced into being a pilot.. Was she?”, Cora asked.
“No. We go out of our way to inform the young women of suitable age, weight, and temperament just how dangerous Storm Kiting is, and how badly it could all go wrong. Some heed our warnings, some don’t. In the end, Medic Liam must come to terms with the fact that the girls that want to fly are never restful souls. Dear Seressa is a perfect example for it and so are you, for that matter.”, Mervlin said with a bitter smile. “Now, then. Are you ready to lead these girls?”
“What?”, Cora blurted! “I know nothing about flying. It will be a miracle if I could stand airborne at all.”
“I have absolute confidence in you, my dear girl. You have more experience in calm judgment and assessment than anyone on this ship, sans, perhaps, your own companions, if that.”, he said merrily, then nodded at someone she couldn’t quite see. To her horror, the two gruff-looking gnomes picked her up by her Storm Kite, ignored her silent splutters..
..and tossed her over the port side!
Perhaps it was because Cora had always been a silent soul, or all her past experiences had led her to be ‘cool’, she didn’t shriek.
This did not, strictly speaking, mean she wasn’t terrified. She stared at the ground, some two thousand feet below her, with unadulterated horror as a full-blown panic almost hit her into diving straight down to certain death. She was so terrified, in fact, that she almost snapped her straps off!
It was around then, her calm, assessing side kicked in. The side that had been drilled into her from the moment she had chosen to become a storm herald instead of a tundra tracker like most of the other girls preferred back at Ironfrost.
Still terrified, still very much scared, the freezing winter wind rushing at her brought her the wit she needed..
..and she leaned back, just a tad.
And her kite responded!
Sluggishly at first, then a bit more responsive, and finally to her satisfaction as her Storm Kite made a long, graceful arc and started running horizontal to the ground some five hundred feet above the fissures.. And just about then, she suddenly understood what Seressa had meant when she had said it was like swimming in swift running water, and about feeling the current..
..and also about it being more of a hip work!
Cora Sleet gave a high, shrill shriek, not unlike that of a tundra hawk and grinned!
As she fully comprehended when Seressa had said, ‘IT WAS AWESOME!’
Because it bloody was..
With the torturously freezing winter winds screaming all around her, she dived..
..all the way to a mere fifty feet and let go of the naphtha grenades, caught another ‘current’, and banked up.
It was when she was about four hundred feet away and perhaps two hundred feet above the ground when she finally started swirling around and around, all the while spiraling up higher and higher. At around one thousand feet, she dared to look down and she saw, far down below, the red, orange, and yellow flames clutching at the air and the ground like some bizarre, scary hands constantly clawing every which way!
She grinned again, and with a tiny motion of her hips and butt, she started her ascend towards the Chimaera. She took her bearings and made a wide circle around the airship before she made a lung for it..
..and slammed right through the open doors!
To her happy surprise, however, the cargo bay was now full of scores and scores of cotton-filled cushions and she only scraped a tiny bit of her dignity, rather than receiving any disabling cuts or bruises or possible concussions.
“IT WAS AWESOME!”
..was all she could say when she was relieved of her straps.
✱ ✱ ✱
What?”, Cora exclaimed in surprised shock.
“I know, right?!”, Seressa said with a blooming grin on her beautifully exhilarated face.
“How is that even possible?”, the tundra elf said, her mouth open and with a distinctly depleted expression. “I am sure I was out there for at least ten minutes!”
“I am sorry, luv. But it was closer to two!”, Seressa corrected her. “Would have been much less if you didn’t need to spiral to get back at the airship, which was still thirty seconds more than me. Lucky you!”
“Muh huh hah hah haa!”, Tonic laughed at them both, and with a disdainful grin, she added, “I was out there for four minutes and forty-eight seconds!”
“How do you know?”, Cora asked her.
The scruffy little gnomic girl gave her an even bigger grin.
“Unlike you sissies, I did not panic, and was actually able to count my flight time.”
“Sissies?”, Cora asked mildly with one eyebrow raised.
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it!”, the scruffy little gnomic girl said immediately.
Seressa let out a merry snort..
“I am a bit disappointed, really.”, Cora fumed a bit. “All this fuss for less than two minutes?”
Both Seressa and Tonic stared at one another.
“My dear Cora, we are just getting started.”, the very tall, very dark girl said with amusement.
“Ow?”, Cora said, trying very hard to keep an indifferent sort of expression.
“But of course. We, as in, all the pilots here, shall be doing sorties until late into the night. That way, we will have gained night flight experience as well.”, she replied happily.
“Ow..”, the tundra elf said, in a noncommittal tone, trying to suppress her elation. “Is that altogether wise, though? The gnomic girls will be able to see in the dark, I suppose. but won’t the human girls be flying blindly once the sun goes down?”
“All Storm Kite pilots are trained, not only physically to keep in shape but are also required to study certain arcane arts as well, such as, they all know spells like Darkvision, Feather Fall, Fog Cloud, and Invisibility. The girl you trashed, First Pilot Mallary, also knows any number of nasty evocation spells such as Fireball and Ice Storm. Her place as the First Pilot is well earned, which does make her somewhat insufferable at times, I am guessing.”, Seressa explained. “I talked to her earlier and she is a good girl, really. A bit inexperienced, but that gap will be closed by the time our sorties are done, I think.”
Cora grunted, then smoothed her way into what she really wanted to know.
“So. When are we going for our second.. Uhhmm.. Sortie-thingy?”, she asked coolly.
“As soon as Medic Liam gives us the ‘OK’. It’s the flight protocol. He must check all the pilots before and after every single sortie. Then the kite engineers must make sure each and every single kite is structurally sound and flight-worthy, again, before and after every single sortie.”, Seressa said.
“Someone seems to have liked the rush of the wind.”, Tonic smirked as she gave the barbarian girl an appraising look.
“I liked it.”, Cora replied calmly. In her head, however, she was whooping crazy! “I wouldn’t have called it, rush of the wind, though. You can get that on the ground on a windy day, and do not have to be Storm Kiting.”
“What would you have called it?”, Seressa asked?
Cora mused over her disappointingly short flight as a tiny frown appeared on her face.
“Riding the wind. That’s what I would have called it..”, she replied after a while.
Seressa stared at her.
Hell, so did Tonic.
“You are recording this, right?”, Tonic asked in an awed tone.
“Just did, luv. I shall write it down and have it memorialized once we are done here. In fact, I shall have it notarized!”, she said with a similarly awed voice.
“What?”, Cora asked, with both her eyebrows raised.
“My dear girl. Every historical event needs a memorable phrase and you just found it. Henceforth, the Storm Kites shall be remembered as, ‘They went to war, and did they ride the winds!'”
Cora gave both of them a sidelong glance.
“Bit over dramatic, don’t you think, Seressa?”, she said.
“No, luv.”, she disagreed. “Considering how each girl here is putting their lives and limbs, quite literally, on the line, it isn’t dramatic, it is warranted!”
Then she nipped over to Medic Liam who was staring deep into the eyes of a tiny gnomic girl, who was, for some reason, blushing furiously, checking her pupils for over-dilation and possible concussions.
In all her, very feminine, white, and curving glory, Seressa gave him her best smile and chirped, “Medic Liam, I am good to go?”
Liam did not stop staring into the gnomic girl’s eyes until he was satisfied, gave her a nod, and said, “Do try to aim for the cushions, my dear. That’s what they are there for and we don’t dish out extra points for missing them.”
“Yes, Medic Liam, sir.”, the little girl piped and dashed off to her kite with a flushed grin etched all over her tiny face.
Apparently, Medic Liam had some unintentional celebrity among the girls on board the Chimaera, possibly because he was older than most of the human officers but still a bit young for the position of an airship medic. It was also likely due to his calm, somewhat reassuring presence, his care for their well-being, the unintrusive compliments he reserved only for them, and his silent, intractable attitude against authority figures had left a distinct mark on each and every one of them. Even First Pilot Mallary seemed to dither around him. The interesting part that even Cora would note, was, as he had come over to her for inspection, he never once used his status as a medic to threaten, nor admonish the girls. If he thought one of the pilots was not looking after herself to his satisfaction, he would speak to her, quietly inquiring about her health and ask if she was feeling unwell and wondered if she needed him to remind her of her responsibilities to her own mental and physical health and kindly put her to shame without juggling with her dignity or pride.
Medic Liam was an odd sort of man.
Upon her crashing return, and against all her objections, he gave her a look that vaguely reminded Cora of the times when her mother would just stare at her, telling her she was being silly without uttering a single word. And for Cora, silly was something she wouldn’t step on if it were her mortal enemy!
Back then, silly had been everything that was not ‘cool’, after all..
Hence with a flushed face, she’d shut up and let him examine her, quite thoroughly, checking her arms, her legs, her head, her neck, her fingers, and all the way down to her toes followed by a series of questions that Cora thought she hadn’t gotten a single one of them correctly as he’d stared deep into her eyes. And then he’d given her a handsome smile and told her she looked absolutely ravishing with her hair braided up the way she had for her flight, as opposed to her usual thick braids that ran down her chest and back.
By the time she had come to stand next to Seressa and Tonic, she had a baffled, ‘what the heck just happened?’, sort of expression on her flustered face.
“First Dare Seressa. How may I help you?”, Medic Liam said when she had skimped up to him in all her, very feminine, white, and curving glory.
“Medic Liam, I am good to go?”, Seressa chirped and gave him her best smile.
“You have a lovely smile, First Dare. As much as it elates me to see you sharing it with me, my answer is still, no. The wound on your scalp is not life-threatening, but I still can not, in good conscience, allow you to pilot a Storm Kite at this moment.”
“But you said I was fine for piloting.”, Seressa objected with a trepidatious voice.
“I did. I also said if you vomited, I should be informed immediately, which you did not. Clearly, your concussion is a bit more serious than I had anticipated. The sorties will go on hours, and likely the whole of tomorrow as well. I suggest you take a good, long sleep. Should your condition improve, I shall be happy to change your no-flight status to eligible.”, Liam replied.
“But.. I am fine.. I really am..”, Seressa said pleadingly.
“First Dare Seressa. You are a grown, responsible, and I dare say, a very sensible young woman. You are also, however, not an official member of the Chimaera, which means, should you insist, I shall have no say over your actions and you would be free to take this up with the captain, who will, in all likeliness, allow you to fly —at the cost of being a terrible example for the other young ladies who look up to you, your brevity, and your sensible and mature presence.”, Medic Liam spoke calmly.
Seressa also returned next to her friends, her face burning with shame.
Tonic cackled at her flustered frustration and said, “Girl, you knew he was not going to change his mind. Why did you even try it?”
“Because I want to fly..”, she said almost in tears and stomped one foot on the floor.
“How does he do that?”, Cora mused.
“He is a medic with the devastation of a dead sister. Nothing’s going to beat that kind of determination. Seen his type before, back at the academy when I was sent to detention. He is the kind of man you can not win over with words. They usually are harsh and heavy-handed. But at least Medic Liam has the heart of all the girls here, so I guess he’s cool..”, Tonic said.
Seressa slumped down, crossed her arms, and pouted.
“It will be alright, my friend.”, Cora said kindly to her. “Come on, get up. Let’s find Master Brom. I am sure he is worried sick to see you. Then we’ll find a decent room and bed for you so you can get a few hours of sleep.”
“Ow, alright..”, she grumbled, though her eyes lit at the mention of the hobbit. Apparently, she had a whole lot of new things to tell him about Storm Kiting!
✱ ✱ ✱
For the following hours, Cora, Tonic, and the eighteen Storm Kite pilots led by First Pilot Mallary were tossed out of the Chimaera, and like a flock of angry falcons, they swooped over the ‘battle zone’, dropped their devastating armaments, spiraled back up, and landed into the airship which was a definite improvement to just crashing into the cargo bay.
And at the end of each run, Medic Liam would inspect each and every single girl and either sign them off as non-flight status for reasons varying from dislocated ankle upon landing to minor frostbite to exhaustion-based fatigue.
As hours wormed deeper and deeper into the night, the only thing visible for miles in any direction was the persistent, red, orange, and yellow flames of the naphtha grenades licking the night sky that stretched for miles of the burning fissure, and for Cora, it was a deeply disturbing sight for this was destruction at a level beyond her barbaric senses. For her, war was about two sides going up against one another with swords and axes and spears and arrows. This, however, was mass destruction at a very impersonal level. When her people, back at her old Ironfrost had to go and fight, they would look their enemys in the eyes. Here, they never even saw the enemy. Only fire, and come morning, they would see thick clouds of black, oily, reeking, and choking smoke rising out of Serpent’s End!
“Don’t think in terms of what we win or lose, luv.”, came Seressa’s voice as if she’d read her mind as she leveled her Storm Kite next to her’s as they flew in the dead of the freezing night. “Think of what of it in terms of what we save.”
Cora didn’t say anything to that, but it did, in a way, ease her mind. The very tall, very dark girl truly had a beautiful perspective and she certainly had a talent for its delivery..
Then First Pilot Mallary dropped in next to them and nodded for the airship and shouted over the wind. “We are done for the night. The weather is getting too cold for flight. The only reason we have been able to continue our sorties as we have was due to the hot air rising from the fires below and helping our ascent. That will change drastically soon enough. I do not want to explain Medic Liam why I lost my pilots to irresponsible leadership.”
“And First Engineer Officer William has been badgering you to please stop?”, Seressa grinned as she flew.
Mallary didn’t reply for a while as the cold wind rushed past them.
“Yes.”, she finally admitted angrily. “He has been pestering me to no end. Such a nuisance!”
Tonic had broken a toe when she’d stumped her foot during one of her landings several hours ago and Medic Liam politely told her to take off her boots so he could have a look at it. Then Tonic made the mistake she had warned Cora and Seressa, possibly because of her contrary nature, and told him she could just stab her foot with one of her medical syringes and be done, and received only a long stretc of silence from the medic for a reply, followed by his killer word or two..
“I heard some gnomes like their girls with nine toes!”
When Cora landed, she didn’t go immediately to her. Instead, she walked over to the First Pilot Mallary who was huddled against a wall and shivering as she held a thick blanket around her shoulders and tried very hard to avoid being seen by Medic Liam.
“As annoying as he may seem, you should be happy you have a brother who cares, First-whatsit Mallary.. The people you lose, stay lost forever.”, Cora told her quietly and nodded at the young First Engineer Officer William who was coming their way holding a large mug of hot soup!
Then someone let out a low, polite cough and Cora looked down to see Brom holding up a similar mug of steaming soup for her. He was trying not to be obvious about it but he did seem to have another such mug sort of hidden in his other hand.
“Good idea. Cold is my thing, being a tundra elf and all, but she could really use a hot sip right about now.”, she said with a smile.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, elf!”, Brom mumbled, handed her the mug he was holding up to her, then silently walked over to where the very tall, very dark girl in tight, white, storm suit was sitting huddled, also with a blanket around her shoulders.
Seressa seemed surprised to see him come and offer her the steaming mug. Surprised but very, very pleased. She gave him a very sunny smile, displaying a row of pristine white and even teeth and a pair of sharp canines.
The hobbit didn’t seem to know what to do once he gave her the steaming mug, so he stood where he was, feeling a bit awkward and inevitably noted, once again, that he was barely as tall as she was sitting huddled!
Seressa, on the other hand, patted the empty space right next to her, offering him the spot where she thought he ought to be and without telling his bushy feet to move, Brom was sitting next to her.
“You don’t have to be so formal with me, Master Brom. As a matter of fact, you never have to be formal with me. Your place is always where you choose to be. I only offer my own, selfish opinion on the matter.”, she said, then opened her arm and placed a bit of the blanket over his shoulders as well.
Brom froze for a moment.
Then he felt her body heat, literally radiating like smoldering fire so close..
..or perhaps that was just him.
She never touched him, nor pulled him to herself. She merely shared her blanket with him and for a silent few minutes, she sipped the steaming soup with a slightly dreamy, accomplished, and content expression on her face.
“I won’t bite, you know. I have never been accused of biting hobbits.”, she said merrily.
“Though I could!”, she added, smiling again.
“Today..”, he mumbled. “..you lived the dream of your life. You became a Storm Pilot. Not only that, you became the First Dare! The first person ever to fly a Storm Kite out of an airship without any safety nets and from a two thousand feet altitude. That is the bravest thing I could think of, considering I shiver every time I remember I am even on a bloody ship that flies.. For what it’s worth, I have never been so proud of anyone in my life as I was with you today. You were.. magnificent!”
“I have had the best of friends and willy-nilly have they brought me here to be what I am now. Thank you.. Natheless, my dream is incomplete..”, she said quietly.
For a bare moment, Brom was about to ask why. Then, and with insight not unexpected of him, he chose not to.
He only sighed..
..and leaned into the fire.
✱ ✱ ✱
The Chimaera sailed over from the central fissures of Serpent’s End where it had picked up the company, all the way to the very east end of its cracked and crumbling end. As much wild excitement she felt, Cora had not lost sight of their primary objective; to reach the Croaking Mire and hopefully in time for whatever reason they had been sent there for in the first place.
She didn’t know what that reason might be, but for some daunting wisdom, she sensed, more then she knew, and as Tonic would oft describe as, that unscrupulous little weasel, certainly did!
Under no circumstance did Cora think she would call Master Brom a weasel, let alone an unscrupulous one, though he did seem to dance, and quite often skirt at its fringes at times. But then, being the realistic and stoic girl that she was, Cora didn’t really blame him. The bushy-haired hobbit had been stuck with three girls for a very long time, after all. True, she’d never thought of herself as beautiful, or even pretty, but maybe she did have a cute pout and certainly a striking figure. As physical labors went, being a barbarian and an elf was bound to give her an appealing shape, if not curves. As bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, and aggressive as she was, Tonic was a pretty girl too.. in a scruffy and obsessive way! Then there was the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa, whose very presence bespoke of delicious curves, frilly dresses, and an honest, tender heart..
And all three in tight-fitting, overstretched storm suits with their hair braided and bunned up the way they were, probably hadn’t done the poor little hobbit any favors either.
Then there was the fact that when one looked at Master Brom, they saw a little hobbit and oft mistake him for an underage human boy which was a mistake of some great magnitude; Brom Bumblebrim was not a little boy. He was a fully matured, young hobbit!
It was easy to dismiss his attitude towards the girls that he was stuck with as unscrupulous, but Cora didn’t think that was being fair at all. This, she had figured quite recently; much like he did to all the other Storm Pilots, before and after each sortie, Medic Liam had come to examine her and with thorough professionalism too. Perhaps, and especially, because of his nonintrusive manner and without showing any favoritism other than diligent care he displayed to all the girls, they had, perhaps inadvertently, been infatuated by him and most, if not all, probably also had a crush on him.
..a little bit!
Hey, the man was handsome, in his own way, and was caring, and was also the first and only male to have checked her out, and so thoroughly in her whole life, and as stoic as she was, Cora was not a heartless girl made of stone!
When put in correct perspective, Cora could understand her friend, Brom, a lot better now..
..and why he could, and would love and shy from Seressa at the same time..
..and understand why she thought the bushy little hobbit probably knew what was at Croaking Mire, yet chose not to say anything about it.
“I believe you need more sleep.”, said a calm, slightly bass voice.
“Eh? What?”, Cora came out of her reverie!
“You have dozed and drifted off where you are sitting, dear girl. That or I must truly bore you.”, Medic Liam said with a tint of amusement.
“Ow..”, Cora blurted, suddenly blushing furiously. “I am sorry, sir. That was very rude of me.”
“Sir?”, he said and tiny smile appeared at the corner of his mouth as he held up her left foot, and checked her ankle, her heel, and her toes, making Cora blush even more. “You don’t have to ‘sir’ me, you know.. I am not an officer. Medic Liam will do. Or just Medic. But I hear you are not much for titles, so I suppose Liam will suffice..”
“I didn’t doze off, Liam. I merely.. came to the realization of an unexpected but totally unrelated insight, that’s all. And do you really have to check all of me every time I return?”, she asked a bit hotly.
“What you girls are doing here is a first, in a historical sense. I would rather we go down to writing as a success, rather than just go down. Perhaps in all the excitement, you are not as aware as you should be that you girls are the key to that success and I am here to make sure you all are fit for it. I have seen too many accidents occur that could have been avoided had the pilot been honest with herself, if not with her medic, and been a little forthcoming about her broken fingers or frostbitten toes. My job is to make sure you all are available to do yours, trouble-free and unhindered. I am not asking too much to do my job, now, am I?”, he said without any implications or reprimands as he put her foot down and picked up her other foot and continued to do the same there.
Cora blushed some more and fell quiet.
“I am sorry about your sister. I only heard about it recently.”, she mumbled as Medic Liam started on her knees, checking them for possible strains and bruises.
Medic Liam didn’t respond for as long as it took to finish examining her. He spoke only when he looked deep into her glacial blue eyes, seeking signs of possible clotting or concussion.
“How badly do you want to talk about your own losses, fair Cora Sleet of Ironfrost?”, he asked steadily.
Cora clamped her mouth shut and Medic Liam prescribed a two-hour, dark room sleep for her and left.
“Bloody icicles!”, she murmured, and with somewhat pinked cheeks, as she climbed the stairs leading up to the dark, soundproof sleeping quarters reserved for the Storm Pilots. “I feel singed and he didn’t even shout at me. He is worse than my mother ever was!”
✱ ✱ ✱
It was on the noon of the fourth day when Cora, Brom, Seressa, and Tonic went up to the captain’s cabin to speak with Mervlin, the dean of the Academy of Melshieve. Though the three girls had had much fun, it had been a deploring and decidedly stressful three days for the bushy little hobbit in all kinds of ways and he was very happy that they would be getting off the flying coffin soon enough.
At some point during the late hours of the second night after all the Storm Kites had returned back to the ship, the Chimaera had dropped several Class-A Type Naphtha armaments; man-height barrels that had been very carefully rolled around on the main deck, their fuse lit, then with frightening haste, dumped from the starboard side, on several wider cracks along the furnacing fissures.
As it turned out, the idea of not using the airship to bombard the fissures in the first place had been an extremely good one. Even at a descending altitude of one thousand feet, the armaments had exploded with low, rumbling, and night illuminating devastation. To the collective dismay of the Chimaera’s engineering crew, the fissures had acted not unlike a natural chimney, sending aggressive, clawing sheets of fire and bellowing, pitch-black smoke all the way up to the ship, leaving charred, smoldering blisters and dark patches of soot on its hull, all the while rocking the airship at an alarming rate. Two of the dozen, one point four-inch-thick ropes chaining the big, mushroom-like balloon right over the ship had snapped, causing even more panic.
Cora had watched with unadulterated despair as the gnomic crew and engineers had started running around in panic-induced circles!
To her exasperated frustration, though not quite to her surprise, Tonic had also joined them like it was the right thing to do.
Brom had given the tundra elf a sidelong glance, his bushy hair standing on its end and said, “I think I will join them. Seems like fun!”, and promptly started running in circles as well, all the while waving his hands and arm and screaming like Tonic!
“Wait here, luv.”, Seressa had said calmly. “I will go and see if the balloon is damaged. As long as it is intact, we are not in as much trouble as we could be.”
Cora hadn’t bothered to ask just how much more trouble they could be in if the balloon-thingy was damaged.
“Ow, and if anyone tries to jump off the ship, feel free to knock them out. Better if they hate you for a headache, then to plummet down into the ground!”, she had added with a grin, then turned into her spectral raven and took off into the night. Cora hadn’t made very many friends that night and had ended up enduring numerous squinty scowls and filthy glares by many of the gnomic crew for harsh bruises and mind-dipping headaches the next morning who, unanimously claimed they certainly were not trying to jump off the ship, but bravely climbing down to check the damage on the keel and hull —without any of their safety nets or harnesses!
The captain of the Chimaera had appeared right about then, a tall, slender man with a sour, granite-like face holding a thick oak club in one hand and a curved cutlass in the other, and with his officers scurrying behind him. He had given the panicked gnomes a disgusted look, then started barking orders left and right. The orders hadn’t set the airship straight, it had, however, set the crew and the engineers straight and working in diligent concert, they had climbed the rope ladders Cora hadn’t noticed before, leading up to the balloon and tossed new ropes to replace the snapped ones. The tundra elf barbarian girl didn’t know where it was, but she’d learned that the captain had been a former Koruxan knight, which hadn’t really meant anything to her.
Later, on their way to their sleeping quarters, however, Tonic had let loose a long, blistering tirade about the infamous Koruxan fortress-city and her knights, and how they had destroyed Nimblecorg, which had, according to her, been the greatest and only civilization of all times!
Seressa had carefully shaken her head at Cora and Brom, silently warning them not to countermand her pair.
Cora hadn’t planned on disagreeing with the little gnomic girl since she didn’t know anything about Koruxan or her knights other than having met some of them, along with the Durkahan paladins very briefly during their first time jump, back at the first Themalsar war, not to mention, she hadn’t even heard of this Nimblecorg before. Brom had let out a short snort, then bid them all good night and made his way to the cabin he’d shared with some of the gnomic engineers.
As a side note, and although he hadn’t said anything nor had he complained, not out loud anyway, Brom was really put out with his sleeping arrangements and thought he had received the short end of the stick. True, the girls had certainly deserved it, they were given dark, soundproof rooms with deliberately soft mattresses where they all sprawled and slept soundly while he had to endure gnomes blabber about one gadget or another, or when they finally slept, he would end up listening to their rumbling snores!
It had been on the third night the Chimaera had, once again, dropped altitude to one thousand feet, but with a few, curt orders from the stone-faced captain, had stretched its gauzy, wing-like sails on each side of the airship and picked up speed. Apparently, and after severe reprimands from the unyielding Koruxan captain, the gnomic engineers had made some calculations and had come to the conclusion that the man-sized naphtha armaments could be rolled off the main deck while the airship was on the move, thus making sure the previous night’s near-fatal and almost-disastrous mistake could be avoided. Now there were three teams of gnomes per armament; the first team was to measure the current wind speed and calculate the speed of the airship in response to the wind, make some more calculations, then inform the second team, which was a one-man team, really, something about time lag! The single gnome that was the second team was holding what appeared to be a curious, circular magnifying glass about thirty inches in diameter that had a thick, wooden frame. Two threads had been attached to the wooden frame, one horizontal, the other vertical and both threads crossed each other at a right angle and in the center of the framed magnifying glass. The gnome ‘aimed’ at the spot where he wanted the armaments dropped, counted down the time lag difference, then shouted, ‘LOOSE!’, to the third team, a crowd of multiple gnomes that rolled the barrel and off the starboard!
To everyone’s delight, and surprise, the barrel had actually hit the spot it was meant for!
“Wow. The gnomes actually made something that works!”, the First Pilot Mallary had exclaimed, not hiding her genuine surprise, which had seriously offended any number of gnomes, both from the crew and the engineers, her brother, First Engineer Officer William, and Tonic!
Brom had also been surprised, but he was a much wiser person than young Mallary to say anything about it. Not out loud, anyway.
A tiny bit of trivia known only to Brom had been about the ‘LOOSE’ command given to release the armaments. While the poor little hobbit had been trying to sleep after returning to the cabin he’d been sharing with several gnomic engineers, a heated argument had broken out making it impossible for him to sleep. The gnomes were trying to figure out the command that would have the third team roll the massive barrel overboard and, apparently, this was very important for them as it had to be written down on official protocol which was pinned down on the clipboards each held and were waving at each other, not unlike impromptu clubs! As the night started turning, the gnomes had suddenly realized the presence of the bleary-eyed hobbit, who was, by now, sitting up and with a haggard expression on his face.
“Master Hobbit!”, one of them had piped. “Would you perhaps like to insert your opinion on this matter?”
“I would rather not get involved, Master Gnome.”, he had said, quite promptly. “This sounds like a technical matter that I have no proficiency in. I am a mere bard, not a learned engineer such as yourself.”
With that little flattery, he had hoped, rather feverishly, that they would nod, perhaps in an appreciative way, and leave him alone.
The moment he admitted his own profession, however, they were all staring at him as bloodhounds would stare at a morsel!
“Excellent!”, the gnome had said excitedly, rubbing his hands together. “The very person we need.. What say you, shall the command be, ‘Fire’, ‘Roll’, or ‘Drop’?”
Brom had given the gnome(s) an exasperated and defeated look and, unable to find any good excuse to weasel his way out, he had said, “None of the above!”
The gnomes had looked at him, then at each other, then started squabbling among themselves again.
To Brom’s happy despair, thIs one had lasted only about ten minutes when the same gnome had shouted the others down and turned to him, and in a polite tone, he had asked, “Would you elaborate as to why, Master Bard?”
Brom had sighed.
“Very well.. ‘Fire’ could be a command to release the armament, or you could be trying to tell everyone that there is a fire, which I am guessing, would be a very distracting and distressing thing to do. A command as important as releasing a bloody barrel that has the potential to disintegrate a whole town cannot have more than one meaning. Once offered, it must mean only one intention and everyone hearing it must understand the same thing.”, he had explained.
The gnomes had just stared at him. Ogled, really.
“Same goes for ‘Roll’. More so because I have heard it used many times as in, ‘Roll the barrels down to the cargo bay’, or, ‘Roll them here..’ When you say ‘Roll’ and some tired and bleary-eyed crew member misunderstands, he could be rolling the armament elsewhere and cause it to explode, as unlikely as that might sound.”
The gnomes had nodded at that in an ‘I suppose that is possible’, sort of way, and started taking notes on their clipboards.
“What about ‘Drop’? It isn’t a common command and is unlikely to be confused for something else.”, the gnomic engineer had asked.
“True. But ‘Drop’, to put it simply, has no flash or flair! It has no trademark. It is, in a sense, a ‘sleepy’, and ‘drowsy’ word. Not something you would want to use when you are going to drop a five hundred pound naphtha barrel on someone. Ultimately, what you are doing will culminate in the burning and ending of lives. Many, many lives. Even if said lives are Orken. Your command must be making a statement. Sort of like a manifesto, just not as garishly dramatic.”, he had said and the gnomes were all boring into him with captivated silence.
“What would you say the command be, Master Hobbit?”, the gnome had asked, his voice a bit hushed.
“I wouldn’t know. I am a mere bard, sir. Not a military personnel. But elves use, ‘Loose’, to release their arrows. So do humans. The dwarves use it as well, though usually for bigger and uglier contraptions. It means the same and relates to the same order, even if the thing that is being offered to the enemy might be different. Should you, perchance, have Endless Watch personnel onboard this or any of the other airships, and with the coming war, that might be quite likely, they will know what ‘Loose’ means without being educated, since they use the exact command to launch the very same armaments from their catapults and mangonels on raiding Drashan pirates.”
The gnomes had frozen quite stiff by now. Then they had looked at one another, silently mulling over and digesting the little hobbit’s words.
“Loose.”, one of them had said, sort of to get a sense of the word, not unlike a gourmet testing a new dish.
“Loose.”, another had said, mulling over the word.
“Loose.”, had nodded a third in satisfaction.
“The bard knows his words.”, the fourth had grinned.
Then they had all bent over their clipboards and started scrabbling over ‘Fire’, ‘Roll’, and ‘Drop’, and wrote ‘Loose’ instead!
“We shall have to Copyright the command. Since Master Bard found it, it should be his name written as the owner.”, the first gnome had offered.
“That is totally unnecessary, Master Engineer. Besides, ‘Loose’ can’t be copyrighted because it has been around and in use for thousands of years.”, Brom had objected.
“Well, we have to put someone’s name here.”, the gnome had said, then squinted at him. “Are you trying to weasel out of your offer, or your responsibility, Master Hobbit?”
Well, when phrased that way, Brom could do little but to bow down to the inevitable, and with a great sigh, he had submitted, both his name and to the gnomes!
After giving his name, and having it put into writing as the copyrighted ‘owner’ of the command word, ‘Loose’, and as the gnomes claimed, once it was notarized, it would be totally his!
The first gnome, however, wasn’t quite done with him, apparently. He had frowned thoughtfully as he had stared at the name on his clipboard, then at him, and finally asked..
“Are you, perchance, related to a Blom Bundlebim Hobim, the famous adventurer, Master Brom?”
✱ ✱ ✱
This will cause a great delay in our plans, First Dare Seressa. By the time we get back, the other airships will have arrived and when they do, one of two things will happen; they will either drop anchor and wait for our return, exposing themselves to scrutiny and possible attacks, and causing the fires to diminish and die out, hence giving the Orken troops down in the fissures to escape, or they will start bombarding without any of the previous experiences we have attained in these past four days and will likely lose any number of their Storm Kites, their pilots, and likely their ships as well..”
The captain of the Chimaera, Sir Karadune ‘Jagged’ Storming, was a severe man and, to phrase it politely, a bit on the obstinate side. And much like his countrymen, he neither liked nor trusted other races which included the elves, the dwarves, and certainly the gnomes with which he was stuck with —to his very much dismayed disgust..
..and the very tall, very dark girl, Seressa, made all his other prejudices seem like a mild insect bite!
He stared at her, his mistrust and dislike clearly etched on his, otherwise, grim face and although he never went as far as sneering at her, or displaying open hostility, he did grind his teeth whenever she said something, leaving the beautiful girl in some confused and hurt dismay.
It was at that point, Mervlin, who had been in the captain’s cabin, cleared his throat.
“It was I, who promised Agents Seressa Wraiven and Arcantonic Palecog, along with Princess Cora Sleet and Master Bard Brom Bumblebrim that the Chimaera would drop them at their destination, Captain Karadune.”, he said in his rusty voice.
The look Captain Karadune gave the dean of the Academy of Melshieve was very stern.
“Dean Mervlin.”, he began. “As much as I revere you and your station, you do not have the right to give orders on my ship. Much like you shouldn’t have given any promises without informing me.”
“And as much as I agree with you on the matter of not giving orders on your ship, I do, however, reserve the capacity to order where each ship should go and without needing to ask permission from their respective captains.”, the dean replied calmly. “These ships, after all, are the property of the Academy of Melshieve, not unlike the Endless Watch flotilla who answer to the lord’s of that city.”
The look Captain Karadune gave him now was a very angry one.
“Perhaps I should remind you that you are here and bombarding this location upon the findings of our agents, the Princess, and Master Bard. They have informed me, as much as they could, that they have a much more pressing matter elsewhere. Now please consider just how important clearing Serpent’s End from the Orken is for the overall survival of the kingdom and weigh it against the possibility of something much more important and vital.”, Mervlin continued.
Karadune gritted his teeth.
“And what is this so important and vital thing?”, he asked, glaring at the four of them.
“We are not at liberty to say at the moment, sir.”, Seressa replied quietly.
“That so?”, the captain said, and this time, he did sneer.
“That so..”, came a voice and it wasn’t the ‘coolly’ boiling barbarian girl, nor the very tall, very dark girl’s glaring pair.
It was Brom..
..and he was giving the captain a look that was very unhobbit-like; challenging, daring, and even threatening!
“Perhaps I should just toss the lot of you off my ship and be done with..”, Karadune said, his lips pressed.
“And perhaps I should just go to the nearest magistrate and inform him about a certain captain threatening to toss two agents of Melshieve, a foreign dignitary that has come to fight our war for us, and a bard, off his ship without any legitimate reason!”
A stunned sort of silence settled in the captain’s cabin as Dean Melshive coughed into his hand. The bushy little hobbit, however, wasn’t quite done yet..
He took a few steps forward and said his piece!
“You have no idea, whatsoever, about the goings-on in this world, do you, Captain? You have absolutely no idea at all what we went through to get here, and what we did for this kingdom. And you are clueless about the kind of Hell, Lady Seressa—”, he rampaged on.
“Master Brom, please..”, he heard Seressa whisper from just behind him.
Brom turned around and almost hissed at her.
“No, Seressa, better he knows what he is dealing with, and judge it against his petty prejudices!”, he said harshly. Then he turned back to the captain. “You have no idea, whatsoever, the kind of Hell, Lady Seressa, here, went through to make sure humanity survived, which, in truth, is an unwarranted privilege you all enjoy, yet never work, nor sweat, and certainly never bleed to attain but milk for free. You do not know it, and it is highly unlikely that you ever will, but you, all of you, are here, right now, because of her!”
The silence that followed was smothering, if not painfully strained.
Mervlin coughed, politely, into his hand once more, as he stared at Brom through his spidery spectacles and there was a certain glint in his vivid blue eyes.
“I believe that settles it, wouldn’t you agree, Captain Karadune? Or would you rather stand before some magistrate? I feel I should remind you that most of the magistrates on this part of the kingdom are hobbits, due to their renowned impartial rulings.”, he said, carefully hiding his mirth.
The Chimaera dropped off a few select engineers and Storm Kite pilots to wait for the other airships as they now had the only experienced crew. First Engineer Officer William and his sister, First Pilot Mallary had been among them, and to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible, Dean Mervlin was also ‘put to shore’, per se, to the much relief of the captain who had tactfully sent some of his burlier men to safeguard them as well in case some of the Orken had somehow survived and climbed out of the fissures.
Then, with a few brisk commands from Karadune, the Chimaera had picked up anchor, slowly turned rudder east, then about twenty degrees northeast and started towards Croaking Mire making what would normally have taken them two weeks to reach on fast foot, would now take them only three days or less, if the wind held steady.
And at a speed unseen by anyone short of Melshieve, the Chimaera sped east and over Serpent’s End and all four of them were standing on the foredeck staring ahead and at the white, misty clouds or down at the zigzagging fissures spreading and stretching as far as the eye could see.
Wherever they looked, however, it was a whole new experience for them all, even for Seressa, who could turn into a spectral raven, and for Tonic, who had taken the bellowing cloak from Rummulus ‘Mad’ Ussa, the greedy, deranged, and power-hungry dwarf, and also the brother of no other than Lady Magella and whom they had killed at Scowling Hills for his crimes against the fey at Gull’s Perch, and against Titania, the Summer Queen, who had waited, quite patiently and quietly determined, for over sixteen years to take her vengeance and balance the scales.
Not quite satisfied with the cloak, however, the scruffy little gnomic girl had gone ahead and artificed herself a Broom of Flying, just to whiz around and cackle with manic delight while she dropped her acid vials and fire grenades on her foes like some mad witch!
Tonic was like that sometimes.
For Cora and Brom, it truly was a unique experience. Brom had ended up admitting that watching the sunrise from the foredeck or the sunset from the aft was beautiful indeed and was sadly reminded him of his devastated moments when he’d stared at the same sunset at the top of the tall, single-column mountain that had given its name to Gull’s Perch while holding the silent and still form of Aremela Berrybush. Just like that time, he had stared at the great, fiery-orange ball that gave light and life to their world. The look on his face now, however, also had a content and accomplished sort of smile as well. More so when Seressa had come and silently sat next to him, once again in her pink, frilly, and somewhat skimpy skirt dress. Her only concession for a difference was, she had not braided her hair like she always did, but let it loose, making her look like some otherworldly, obsidian statue, and she also had a similar smile on her face.
Tonic had snuck off and left them alone with a show of unexpected tact, taking Cora with her.
Tonic was like that too, very, very rarely..
Neither Brom nor Seressa had said anything to one another. They just sat in silent company.
Later, when the sun had set on their second day, she had turned to stare at him, not scrutinizing him, but carefully examining his face.
“It is the same face you saw back at the tundras, you know.”, Brom had said quietly, still staring at the spot where the sun had disappeared, leaving orange, dark purple, and lavender ribbons behind.
“No, luv. It is not.”, she had said, and his face had pinked a little for it was the first time she had ‘luv’ed at him.
“How so?”, he’d asked, turning to look at her and he was a bit amazed to find out her eyes were shimmering a little.
“When we’d first met, Cora fought with everything she had and with the brevity of ten lions. So did you, but you did it smartly. But then, you always played it smart.”, she’d said.
“No, I didn’t. Not really. But that’s beside the point.”, he had murmured, perhaps more to himself than to her. “And now you think I am different?”
She stared at him. A tiny, reminiscing smile playing on her lips.
Then she changed!
One moment she was dark as the night sky, and the next, it seemed as if the night withdrew its inky-black and dawn arrived inside of her, leaving behind a fair skin that had a very faint pink cast to it..
And with her color, all her silly, all her klutz, and all her girly diffidence was gone as well, leaving only a young and beautifully mature woman sitting next to him.
“Yes. Back then, you seemed lost.”, she’d whispered, still smiling at him.
Brom had never figured out why she was smiling, or what it was that’d made her happy, but she looked so beautiful just then. Her new appearance seemed, for some reason, irrelevant, for as maturely beautiful as she was now, the dept of her eyes was the same.
Unavoidably, he gulped.
“Now, you seem found, and waiting to make up your mind.”, she had said.
“I am?, he’d croaked.
“Your lack of confidence in yourself on matters that are pertinent and the guilt you are beholden to was not the lesson you should have learned from Gull’s Perch, luv.”, she’d said quietly.
Brom didn’t say anything to that.
He just couldn’t.
Because something was suddenly climbing up is throat and no matter how much he tried, it just refused to be pushed back down.
“Why?”, he’d blurted. “Why would you bring this up now?”
“Because, my dear Brom, as much as you are found, you do not want to be found.”
His nose had suddenly become runny.
His sight had gone blurry too, for some reason.
“Willy-nilly, Master Brom, you can not heal if you don’t want to heal, nor can you be free if you do not want to be free. And you can do neither until you forgive yourself. Perhaps you think it is not my place to offer my opinion on this matter. Perhaps you even believe you should not be helped and allowed to suffer, not unlike dear Cora lives with her scars, which did baffle me for quite some time for I had found, to my happy surprise, that she is a lot smarter than she wants the people around her to find out. I believe she does this so people would underestimate her —a wise and cunning choice of strategy on her part, which made me come to the inevitable conclusion that, in time, she will also understand that her scars were never there to remind her of her losses because neither the presence, nor the absence of those scars will ever bring back her loved ones, and deep down, I suspect she knows this with absolute certainty. Her scars are not her medal of honor either because we wear our medals where people can see them. Yet she never shares her scars with others. I believe she takes comfort in their presence, but only because she believes they are part of her identity, much like her storm tattoos. I shall not debate this with her and demean her losses. I love and care too much for her to do that.
“One day, however, she must come to the inescapable conclusion that she will have to let go of those scars and come to terms with her losses. Otherwise, she will never be able to rebuild her New Ironfrost. The best she could hope to achieve would be to build the old one merely rechristened as ‘new’, and it would mean little more than it would, in a chronological sense, for you can not build something else when you are stuck with what and where you are.”, she’d said softly, and kindly, and never once taking her eyes from him.
Then, without any warning, she reached for him and hugged him, harshly, and savagely, as she breathed into his ear.
“You are a dear, dear man, Brom. What is selfishly more important on my part is that you are dear to me. Hence I shall now tell you something I have been meaning to for quite some time; never once have I judged you by how close you were to the ground, nor how low I had to go down to reach and to get to you, but by how high you were willing to look up! It is easy for me to look down for I am tall, hence it is also easy for you to forget that I did not ask to be who and what I am, nor was I ever consulted on this matter. I just am the way I am! Remember this snippet when you want to decide to be found..”
And then, she let him go, and her color, her silly, and her klutz returned..
✱ ✱ ✱
Corpses ahead and below! Distance, one point four miles at eleven point two degrees north and east, and twenty-eight degrees relative Z-coordinates!”, a gnome lookout shouted, peering through a long, tubular object. Several more of the lookout crew shuffled to where he was and they also peered down through their tubular thingies. “Many of them! They are big and seem to be well cooked!”
The Chimaera did not stop, but it did slow down as Captain Karadune came down the aft deck and next to the lookouts. He opened his hand and several gnomes immediately pointed their tubular objects at him. He grabbed one with a dissatisfied grunt and peered down below. Then he sent for the four of them, and when they arrived, he gave Cora the thingy and spoke in a neutral sort of voice.
“Are these the Orken you spoke of?”, he asked.
Cora looked at the long, brass object with a dubious expression on her face and ask, “What is this, and what do you want me to do with it?”
Captain Karadune stared at her but Cora shrugged.
“We do not have such fancy toys in the tundras, Captain. Everything we own has the sole purpose of surviving the wilds and the harsh winters, which is twelve months of the year if we are fortunate.
Captain Karadune silently seethed at her.
The other three didn’t say anything. They opted to wait for one of the gnomes to offer an explanation. The offer came in multiple and overlapping numbers which essentially was, ‘Put this end against one eye and point the other end to where you want to see!’
“This is a delightful thing.”, she said in a voice, not as excitable as the one she had given when she had first seen the zipper-thingy, but this also had its own, unique use; it somehow brought faraway objects closer to her eye. She gave the object a curious look and stared through it several times before she pointed it down and below where the ‘well cooked’ corpses were.
“Yes. They are the Orken we spoke of. Whether these were the individual Orken that was down in the fissure or not, I couldn’t say, though I believe they are. All of them seem to have died of injuries caused by fire. It is possible some of them escaped before our sorties hit them and got singed and were able to make it this far before they finally succumbed to the pain and died where they were. If you look carefully, you can see their corpses stretching in single or in small groups all heading north and east..”, she said, still staring through the thingy. “What is this thing called and where may I attain one?”
“It’s called an ‘Eye Zoomer’, one of the gnomes piped.
“No, it is a GATBRIFON —Gadget That Brings Far Objects Near!”, objected another.
“That is the silliest acronym I have ever heard. And it doesn’t bring far objects near at all.. Your definition is monocular and quiet faulty!”, scoffed a third. “It is called a ‘Zoom-O-meter!”
“Perhaps you can save the name for another time?”, growled the captain and all the gnomes quietened down. Then he looked at the still delighted, white elf girl and added, a bit grudgingly, “And maybe gift a spare to the representative of the Great Northern Tundras?”
Several zoom-o-whatsits were suddenly pointing at her!
“Uhhmm.. Thank you, but one will be more than enough..”, she said to them, her face a little flushed.
“Take mine!”, squeaked one, a particularly young gnome. “Mine can do four different zooms, can macro and micro see, and can collapse!”
“Eh?”, asked Cora with a confused tone.
“It means, you can change the power of the zoom up to four hundred percent, you can look at both very far objects and see details of very near objects. And when you are not using it, you can collapse it into a much smaller size and put it into your pocket!”, he said earnestly.
The other gnomes glared at him grudgingly.
“That is ingenious, that is.”, Tonic said, very much impressed. “Did you artifice this all by yourself?
“But of course, pretty lady! I can even show you the blueprints!”, he piped with eager enthusiasm.
“Master Efelen.”, Karadune growled. “Perhaps you can show your blueprints to the agent of Melshieve on your own time? All lookouts to their stations!”
Young Efelen’s face turned red.
“Ye.. Yes, sir!”, he said, handed his zoom-o-meter to the white tundra elf, smartly saluted the captain, and took off..
“What do you think these Orken are doing here, agents?”, Captain Karadune asked Seressa and Tonic with a sour expression.
Neither Seressa nor Tonic said anything to that. They looked at Brom. Apparently, they too had come to a similar conclusion as Cora had. And just like her, they hadn’t pushed the bushy-haired hobbit, but politely expected him to come forth.
Captain Karadune cocked an eyebrow and stared down at him as well.
“I am not at liberty to say.”, he finally said.
“What do you mean, you are not at liberty to say?”, the captain growled.
Cora did not growl. She stood with the easy stance of a cat ready to pounce the captain, and possibly toss him overboard if necessary!
Tonic didn’t scowl, either. She very well knew she was not good at reading people. She had admitted that to the hobbit before. But the hobbit, for all his seeming indifference to her, and against all her rather aggressive and certainly negative attitudes towards him, had chosen to adopt her as his friend. So she just shut up.
It was Seressa who had, perhaps, figured out what it might be, the little hobbit was hiding. Not the particulars, certainly, but something in her eyes said she had an idea, even if vaguely.
More important, however, she understood why he wouldn’t, or perhaps, couldn’t reveal it..
Hence, and just before the hobbit tried to explain why he couldn’t, she jumped in..
“He can’t say because he has taken the Agent’s Oath, Captain Karadune.”, she blurted.
Tonic hiccuped at that, then stared at her.
“I am sure you know what an Agent’s Oath is, Captain.”, it wasn’t a question but a statement.
“Yes.”, Karadune said in a disgusted tone. “I do.”
“Then you know what will happen if he breaks such an oath?”
Captain Karadune stared at her, then at Brom, and very nearly spat.
“I’ll be in my cabin until the four of you are off my ship!”, he snarled, then stalked off, muttering to himself about weird creatures, oaths, and something about horse turd!
Brom felt.. hurt..
For the first time since he and Cora had met the Academy pair, all the way back at the Great Northern Tundras, never once had he ever heard Seressa lie.
Tonic hadn’t lied either, but not because she didn’t or wouldn’t, but because, well, to put it in correct perspective, if not polite, she sucked at it! She would try to squirm her way out of saying the truth, shift the blame, cause a ruckus, or even mangle things, certainly. But when push comes to shove, she just blurted it all out!
Seressa did none of those.
She either told the truth or she told you why she would not say anything on the matter at hand.
Yet, here she was, and she’d just lied to the captain of the Chimaera.
Outright lied to him.
And with the use of something as important as an Agent’s Oath..
Brom did not know the particulars of such an oath, but he got the impression that it held all the power of Melshieve to back it!
Nobody said anything about what’d just happened and the only one that showed any apparent emotional outrage was Cora.
She too didn’t know what an Agent’s Oath entailed either. But it was an oath. Period.
And Brom had just forced his friends’ hands to lie for him!
That much, she understood.
She was just about to come down on the little hobbit with nothing short of a blizzard storm, her face burning with fury, a hand lightly tapped her on the shoulder and when she turned around to look, she saw Seressa, her other hand over her mouth, her eyes shimmering, she shook her head, silently pleading her to stop.
Cora stared at her face and her eyes and saw something there. Regret? Maybe. But not quite. Shame? Certainly. Loss? Definitely.. There was also something else there..
Seressa had just lost her virginity where her absolute devotion to truth was concerned, yet she was proud of it because of whom she’d sacrificed it!
“Efelen?”, Brom said, sort of to skim over the whole oath thing, and a bit gruffly. “Odd name even for a gnome.”
“It is a numerical name, Master Brom. A bit rare but not unheard of among very old families.”, Tonic replied with a strained sniff. “He is likely the eleventh child in his family.”
“Not crowded much are you, gnomes?”, he snorted forcefully.
“More gnomes mean more ideas, Master Brom.”, she glared at him. “No gnomes means, no ideas!“
Brom snorted again, though this too, was glaringly forced.
“You gnomes are incredible, you are. Gadget That Brings Far Objects Near? Really? I wonder how much of his brain did that fellow cook to come up with that?”, with sarcastic mirth.
“I liked the other name they gave it.”, Cora inserted, though it seemed like she was biting each word. “It sounded about right.”
“Ow?”, Tonic said. “Which one?”
“Don’t remember. Mono-something..”
“Ahh, monocular. I don’t think that was one of the suggested names. I believe the one that said it was punning the other, since monocular means..”, she said, then paused.
And her eyes widened.
“Holy crap!”, she exclaimed! “That’s it! MONOCULAR!“
With much excitement, she turned to Cora and said, “Gurl, you are a genius, you are! I’ll be right back..”
And with much more enthusiasm, she took off to where the young gnomic lookout, Efelen, was carefully studying the land, the dead and well-cooked Orken, and the wetlands of Croaking Mire far to the north, and far below..
✱ ✱ ✱
The attack on the Chimaera came suddenly, and from a direction, no one could have anticipated. It didn’t come from below, but from right above them. Seduced by the idea that they were over two thousand feet above the ground, the crew had resorted to the relaxed sense of ‘beyond reach’. It had been a cruel awakening for them when the airship was suddenly swarmed by dark, spined creatures with long, skinny limbs and sharp, pointy claws. They dived upon them, their leathery wings folded on their jagged backs, and when they came, they did it without warning or sound.. not until they were on top of the airship..
Several of the lookouts, officers, and the engineers dropped dead on the spot or were flung off-board when twenty-inch spikes rammed right through them!
And then the screaming began.
The creatures were all over the deck, slashing and clawing at the gnomic and human crew, who had started running around in total, untrained panic, and soon enough, there were many dead or dying as the deck became smeared in slippery blood.
“All hands on deck! All hands on deck! Officers, grab hold of those under your command and get unessential personnel off my deck!”, Captain Karadune started bellowing as he came up the stairs with a long blade in one hand and a large, kite-shield in the other, his club and his cutlass hanging on his belt. He hadn’t had the time to don any armor on, and with the screams and death all around him, he hadn’t bothered. A dozen officers followed by burly men and gnomes poured out behind him and they clashed with the spined creatures.
For a moment, they seemed to have won the deck back from the creatures, but then, the ship rocked dangerously and everyone was hurled down as if the deck itself had been pulled right from under their feet. The Chimaera groaned as several of the taut ropes bound to the big, mushroom-like balloon snapped and whipped down, knocking several defenders off the ship, sending them screaming to their death!
Then Cora appeared on the deck.
Like a savage, tundra sleet, she was on the creatures, spinning and dancing among them, swinging her great blade with both hands, serving nothing but cold, frigid death.
The creatures tried to crowd her, when one of them screeched and its head opened, not unlike a pumpkin smashed by a ten-pound maul. Then another screeched, clawing at its own head to no use.. In a puff of disgusting, dark green, meaty cloud, its head cracked open as well, sending its brains and splattered bits everywhere!
“Do you have to do that every time?”, Cora snarled as she kicked at the creature that was on top of the captain, clawing on his shield. As the creature fell back, she swung her blade in a straight, ‘upper-cut’ slash, opening the creature from groin to chin.
“As opposed to that?”, Brom said with a terrified excitement, then overstretched his lyre and sent another discordant note. One of the creatures who had grabbed a particularly small gnome whom he recognized to be the young Efelen and was carrying him off suddenly dropped, quite headless. Efelen scrambled to his feet, pulled out a tiny object, and pressed what seemed like some sort of button. With a series of quick ‘snap’, ‘snap’, ‘snap’ sounds, a slender blade appeared in his hand. With the savagery of an over-hyped bunny, he ran to where Cora was and started attacking the creatures trying to crowd her once more.
“What are you doing, boy?”, murmured Brom, more to himself, and with exasperation. “You should be running below deck and taking cover.”
“Don’t worry Lady Cora!”, piped Efelen. “I have your back!”
“Good.”, Cora said as she sliced open another creature. “Go for their wings or try to hamstring their ankles. That way they won’t be able to fly, and when they land, they won’t be able to stand.”
“You are so awesome!”, the little gnome piped as he slashed at the creature’s legs.
There was a big bang, and suddenly Tonic was there, hurling her grenades left and right and cackling with manic glee!
Seressa appeared behind her pair, and she wasn’t alone. The whole Storm Kite falcon was with her.. They looked around, fear clearly etched on their youthful faces, but Seressa assured them with her calm, luxurious, and mature voice..
“Split into groups of three’s. Each group, pick a target. Start from the one closest to you and all three concentrate on that one. Once it’s dead, move on to the next closest. Keep an eye on the other groups and remember, this battle is three-dimensional. Keep close contact with each other and call out what you are doing just like you practiced during your flight training. You are the elite of Melshieve! You can jump from an airship at two thousand feet and fly a Storm Kite! A gaggle of spined devils is no match for you!”, she told them excitedly, then started sending her signature, ghostly skeletal hands into any creature that came near, as if showing the girls by example. The skeletal hands moaned with hallow choir and pierced, clutched, or clawed at the creatures.
The girls suddenly found courage in her calm, cool presence, and in small groups, they started sending small, fiery bolts of fire, freezing splinters of ice, or greenish beams of.. something at them as well..
The Storm Kite pilots were not magicians nor sorcerers. They had, however, all been a student at the Academy of Melshieve and had received the training they had applied for. They had also been trained to use some cantrips and minor spells to give them a fighting chance should they fall from the sky and somehow survive, a protocol put in motion by no other than Mervlin himself, right after he’d approved the Storm Kite Project.
And as Cora cut and cleaved her way through the spined creatures like a silent, deathly storm, she had inevitably rallied everyone and given them the courage to fight back. And suddenly, the deck was alive with both human and gnomic engineers, clubbing any creature they can get at. One of the gnomes was smashing the head of a creature with a zoom-o-meter, now bloodied and dented! The pilots were yelling and screaming with overly youthful and girlish shrieks as they called out their targets and sent more of their fire fists, ice splinters, and something rays at the monsters.
Then the airship rocked again and everyone felt the sense of diminished gravity as it suddenly started losing altitude with an accelerating speed..
“Cora..”, the very tall, very dark girl shouted over the fight. “Tonic needs to fly up to the balloon. The spined devils are shredding it apart. If the balloon tears open, there is no escaping and we’ll all plummet into the ground below. She can mend the tears, but she can’t do that and protect herself at the same time. I will have to go with her and watch her back.”
“How in the blazes is she going to fix that thing?”, Cora shouted back.
“Hello! Artificer here!”, Tonic said indignantly as she pulled her two-yard long gnarly broom of flying out of her artificer’s satchel, hopped on it, and with another manic giggle, kicked off the deck.
“One day, she is going to have to explain to me just how she can stuff a broom into a tiny little bag.”, Cora scowled as the scruffy little gnomic girl flew right over her head. Then she shouted again.. “Go. Keep her safe and mend.. whatever it is you have to mend.”
Seressa turned into her spectral raven and took off after her pair and up to the slowly deflating balloon above the airship.
Cora loped the head of a spined devil and kicked its corpse off-board as Brom brushed one hand over his lyre as he selected half a dozen of the wounded crew including Captain Karadune with his gaze and released his spell-song. A series of sunny yellow lights came shimmered with his tune, danced for a moment, then the bloodied and squirming crew stared at their wounds in amazed astonishment. Then, with grim expressions on their faces, they rose, grabbed anything they could get their hands on, and attacked the creatures, screaming like lunatics.
Medic Liam was there as well, followed closely by a terrified-looking skinny blonde girl in white skirts and apron and two gnomic girls in similar outfits. The medic made quick, careful dashes between the fallen all the while waving one hand at them, telling them to keep their heads down. Each time they made to it to one of the crew members lying on the deck, he gave the girls one of three orders in quick curt tones; Whatever was needed to be done. Gone. Or morphine!
With tear stricken faces, the girls did as he ordered; they mended broken bones, padded bleeding cuts, with thread and needle, right there and on the spot, they sewed in eviscerations the medic thought were salvageable, or simply stuck a syringe into the leg of a squirming young man or a gnome, and though it wasn’t part of any protocol, kissed them on the forehead, and moved on to the next..
Brom dashed over to Karadune who was still staring at the bloody gash he’d had just a moment ago. The blood was still there, but the gash was gone. He didn’t lean over to him though. He just grinned at him and gave him his hand.
“Your crew could use the commanding presence of their captain right about now. We bought you the time. But this ship is yours and you are her captain.”, he said.
“What.. what did you do to me, hobbit?”, he gasped.
“Healed you. I mean, you could heal on your own, given enough many months and provided Medic Liam thought you were salvageable, but I am not sure this ship has that kind of time.”, Brom told him.
“Status update?”, he mumbled.
“Many of your crew are down. Cora, that’s the barbarian elf chick with the big arse sword over there, managed to slaughter enough many of the monsters to give the remaining crew time to rally and pick up arms. Or arm themselves with whatever they could pick up! For a former knight of Koruxan, you seem to lack quite a bit of fighters on your airship, Captain.”
“This ship was never meant to go to war. It is basically a flying research lab!”, he replied furiously.
“Be that as it may, it is only prudent to have some warriors on board. Just for cases such as this.”
Karadune’s frown turned into a scowl.
“The ship. It is losing altitude..”, he said as everyone on board the ship staggered when the ship rocked and wobbled again.
“Yes. Some of the creatures went for the balloon. I do hope you had it made out of something that’s got some resistance to sharp, pointy objects like knives, arrows, and.. claws..”, the hobbit said in a deliberate, calm tone.
“It is made from eight layers of compressed and high-density spider-silk sandwiched between six laters of copper-fiber cotton designed and manufactured specifically for the balloon surrounded by Mox hide processed in boiling oil under extreme pressure! It is fire, lightning, cold, and tear-proof. It will keep off most arrows and even ballista bolts shot from a relative distance but probably not against deliberate knifing. Particularly if it is applied multiple times on the same spot. We will need engineers up on the balloon to mend it if we want to stay afloat.”, he said as he looked at the tiny hand of the hobbit that was offered to him and added a bit stiffly. “Master Hobbit, I do not think you can pull me up on my feet. You lack the height for it. But I appreciate the gesture.”
“Then bloody accept the gesture, captain. It is the polite thing to do, or do all Koruxan knights lack base knightly standards?”, Brom said, displaying a sardonic grin.
Karadune fumed at him, took his hand, and pulled himself up with some minor help from the hobbit.
He coughed out a few sharp orders and several of the gnomic engineers started climbing up the rope ladders leading up to the balloon.
“This will be a very short trip down into the ground if they can’t mend that balloon. Particularly if the engineers get snatched off by those bloody devils.”, he frowned as he craned his neck just to see his fear come true; one of the gnomes got eviscerated by the devils, let loose a short, painful gasp, then dropped down past the deck, and disappeared far below..
The same spined devil went for another gnome when a ghostly hand clutched at its gnarly neck and start strangling it. The creature tried to break the grasp of the skeletal hand as it frantically flapped its wings to stay afloat, which is when another ghostly hand came at it and slammed into it, clawing into its ribcage! Then two more hands came howling, one punched right through one of its wings, the other scratched at its eyes. The creature gurgled a scream that got cut, and it dropped down, dead before it hit the ground far below.
“What the..”, Captain Karadune exclaimed.
“That would be Lady Seressa, Captain.. Miss Palecog recognized the danger while you were down, so she went up there to mend the balloon and her pair followed her to make sure she did it without being molested by the devils. Good to know she is doing more than her share of the job.”, Brom said happily.
“You do not have to hit me over the head with my prejudices, Master Hobbit.”, growled the captain. “Koruxan has good reasons to dislike and distrust other races. Gnomes in particular. Perhaps you should visit Shattered Lands and find out what they did there, and why it is called Shattered Lands, in the first place!”
“I am sure you mentioned your prejudices in your job application, Captain.”, the hobbit said with mild amusement then calmly high strung a chord on his lyre and sent a very disturbing note at a devil swooping down on the barbarian girl. The spined devil shuddered even as its head belched open with a meaty sound and the monster came down in bloody gore.
“Koruxan’s prejudices of gnomes is well documented, Master Hobbit, and requires no mentioning. I was only told I would captain an airship and that it would basically be a floating lab of some sort for flight simulations and weather forecasting and that there would be a lot of overtly smart kids on it that I might have to put up with. It all sounded like a novelty so I accepted. These airships were never meant for war. Hell, they didn’t even have safety railings at the sides when I was first given this ship. We had gnomes and kids getting wind-drifted right off the deck! I had had my fill of sea battles when I was the captain of my own ship at Dires End. Gave it all up for this job just to be stuck with a lot of kids and a whole gaggle of mad gnomes!”, he said sourly. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get this bunch in order —what the! What are all these girls doing on my deck!”
It was then, the spined devils suddenly let loose a chorus of shrill shrieks and scattered, and a deep, basso roar echoed, causing everyone on board to freeze. And then, with unprecedented terror, a red sheen was cast upon the sky!
“Cora!”, the tundra elf heard the voice of Seressa in her mind. “Something is coming..”
“What is it?”, she asked in her calm, cool voice.
“I can’t see it clearly but it is coming fast. Ow, for everything that’s good and not, it’s a Red Abishai.”, Seressa gasped.
“Alright. Good to know its name but that doesn’t tell me anything, girl.”, Cora said with a frown.
“Heavy hitter. Very strong. Very powerful. Hard to hit and harder to kill..”, Seressa said, her voice coming with trepidation. “Luv, you have got to make sure it is on you. Otherwise, it will be on the balloon. If that thing comes at us, it will pierce right through the balloon and no amount of patching will help and we will drop right out of the sky like a rock!”
“So we are back to flying coffin, after all, then?”, Cora replied with a bloody amusement as she wiped the gore off her face.
“Flying coffin?”, Brom exclaimed. “What flying coffin?”
“You must keep it busy, luv. I hope I am wrong, but I suspect the remaining spined devils will swarm us when he comes..”, she said hastily.
Just then, another roar came, this one, much closer. It was accompanied by the flapping of great, leathery wings and the rush of hot, scorching wind.
“I shall keep it busy here on the deck. You do your thing, girl. I am sending Brom up there to help you.”, Cora informed her.
“What? No!”, Seressa objected.
“What? No!”, Brom exclaimed.
“Brom, tell the captain to clear the deck. I will need room for this one and I mean to swing wide. Also tell him to have lots and lots of buckets of water brought up here because we will need it —now!”, she said calmly, but there was a cold blaze in her glacial eyes.
Brom stared at her and gulped.
“Girl, you got that crazy look in your eyes again.”, he said.
“What look?”, the tundra elf asked.
“That look!”, Brom said.
“I always look like this, Master Hobbit!”, Cora grinned and there was, indeed, a crazy glint in her eyes.
Brom ‘Ho boy’ed..
“Well.. don’t just stand there, go! Get everyone moving. Have them dump loads of water on the deck and then get everyone cleared out!”, she said sternly.
Brom mumbled something about girls gone wild and ran through the sudden silence as everyone held still as if holding their breath.
“Captain!”, he hissed at the man
“What is going on?”, frowned Karadune.
“We have incoming. Order all your people off the deck immediately.”, Brom urged him.
“What? Why? Who is going to fight, whatever it is that’s coming, if everyone is off the deck?”, Karadune scowled down at the hobbit.
“Captain, when I say, clear the deck, I do not say it to dispute your standing as the captain of this ship. I say it because anyone who stands on it will be dead.”, Brom snarled at him.
Captain Karadune stared down at him.
“So get all your men below deck. The barbarian girl will be picking up the tab on this one. She will need your people to bring up as many buckets of water as they can and dump it on the deck, though.”, the hobbit said harshly.
A sudden wave of heat washed over the deck, the railings, the ropes, and the ships ‘wing’ sails started to smoke!
Karadune did not waste any more time. He bellowed orders and everyone, including the Storm Kite pilots ran below deck and formed a long line leading down to the stock bay; the area where all the food, the barrels of water, extra ropes, sandbags, access tools, and spare ship parts were kept, two levels below the cargo bay. Young men and skinny girls stood, side by side with the gnomes passing buckets of water from there, all the way up to the main deck where the water was sloshed on the deck and the empty buckets were sent back down for a refill.
And then, Cora Sleet, the sole survivor of Ironfrost, and perhaps the only tundra elf to be alive, started to chant..
It was a soft chant. Much like that of a whispering wing and her voice cascaded over the deck. Hers was a beautiful voice. Artless and pure. And it begged tears from the little bard who stood petrified as he watched her, for her mesmerizing chant called the spirits of her ancestors and that of The Endless White and her eyes turned deep, deep blue, and they reflected the debts of floating floes or great, glacial icebergs and her storm tattoos started to whirl as they came alive, for she was not a simple barbarian warrior, nor a zerker.. She was a storm herald and that exactly is what she beckoned and cherished..
..and all around the airship, clear mountain mist gathered..
..and the more she chanted, the more mist congealed and slowly turned cold and frigid..
..and then settled everywhere.
“Great Heavens!”, Brom said in a hushed, awed voice. “You are full of wonders, you are..”
As the tundra girl chanted, the mist turned even colder and solidified, turning the whole deck into frozen ice.
The little hobbit stared at her and saw a thick layer of frosty sheen had formed around the tundra elf as well. She stabbed her greatsword into the deck and turned to face the monster coming at her.
“Master Hobbit.”, she called without turning at him. “Time to pay for your crimes..”
“Crimes? What crimes?”, he spluttered.
This time, she did turn to look at him and Brom would have preferred she hadn’t!
“You owe Seressa Wraiven a debt of honor for the lie she told to cover for your silence, and your folly..”, she said coldly.
“I never—”, the hobbit began, but that’s as far as he went.
“That, was a crime, Brom Bumblebrim. And it was low. Making others lie just so you could keep your word? I doubt that girl had ever lied before in her entire life. Yet she did it for you. And she did it without even thinking. That is the value she gives you. Hence you will find the courage, and climb up there, and help my friend, who is overwhelmed and fighting, even as we speak..”, she said and her voice was as cold as the ice she stood on.
“I will do anything for that girl, Cora, and you know it! But please.. do not make me do this.. You know how much I fear heights—”, he begged in terror.
“Balls, Master Hobbit..”, Cora’s voice echoed over the ice.
“Balls?”, Brom spluttered, his face aghast.
“Yes, balls, Brom.. Go and find yours!”
In retrospect, relative to many years to come, Brom Bumblebrim never quite forgave Cora for that bit of scalding rebuke.
But then, Cora never asked for forgiveness for her choice of words. To her mind of thinking, honor was important, but never important enough to cause someone else to lose theirs to save yours..
Brom gulped, and with dreaded anticipation, walked over the iced deck, slid, fell, and crawled to the nearest rope ladder, blubbering and with tears of total fear running down his face, he reached and grabbed at it, then said goodbye to life, and started climbing up!
Now to be clear, it is rumored that hobbits are impervious to fear. And indeed, there have been many occasions noted where they have been seen to be running from certain danger. But not out of mindless, panicked fear, but merely because it is common sense to run when you see, for instance, a dragon swooping down on your village. It must also be made clear that fear is not a definitive sense and can be easily quantified, compartmentalized, and limited to certain occasions, events, objects, or people. Hence, being impervious to fear means little when you are about to be caught by your mother while pocketing those cookies you were told not to touch. Or the moment you saw the stone you threw to an annoying, cawing crow broke your neighbor’s window. Or unadulterated terror you feel while climbing an eighty-foot rope ladder that swung every which way in wild winds to reach the top of a giant balloon that was, perhaps, a thousand feet above the ground while spined devils clawing at your face!
Poor Brom’s only consolation to the latter, if any, was that he never quite saw the bloody devils because he had his eyes tightly shut and because his hands and legs were trembling to the point of going totally limp as he climbed, and all he could do was to cling and..
Everyone had their private fears they couldn’t readily overcome.
Brom’s fears were of undead and heights.
And as fear went, his selection of choice(s) was nothing to sneeze at!
Then he felt pain in his chest..
A chilling sensation even though many sharp and pointy things pierced at him and he blubbered, “This is it. This is the end. Thanks, Cora, for putting me up to this.. I hope you’ll be happy to collect what balls I have left when you scrape me a thousand feet on the ground!”
Then he felt the pain again, this time clutching at his arm..
Then again, holding his other, like a steel vice..
He felt his hold on the wildly swinging rope ladder slip!
With full-blown, unadulterated panic, he inadvertently opened his eyes to see, in horror, that he was falling and something spectral —a ghostly, skeletal hand was howling as it hurtled towards him!
“So that’s what they look like from the receiving end!”, he mumbled numbly.
And he felt a fourth pain, this one on one of his legs, as several things clicked in his hindbrain..
..that the pain he had been feeling was not from the spined devils because they were falling short of him for some reason..
..that for whatever reason, Seressa had attacked him because the spectral, ghostly hands were her go-to spells, and four of them had him dead to right, and he heard himself mumble to himself, “Guess I finally made her hate me. Way to go, Cora!”
..and with bemused incomprehension, that he was falling.. UP!
“You got him?”, he heard a raspy voice.
“I got him, luv.”, replied another voice. This one was rich, voluptuous, cultured, mature, and very feminine. The kind of voice one would turn their head to want to see her owner..
“What the bloody Hell is he even doing here? He can’t stomach being three feet off the ground and he decided to climb up here? Just how stupid is he?”, scowled the raspy voice.
“Please, Tonic. I am sure he has his reasons. He can be quite chivalrous at times. Perhaps he thought we could use some help. Seeing as we do, I am happy he is here.”, replied the voluptuous voice.
“Well, he’s an idiot, climbing up a rope ladder one thousand feet in the air with his eyes closed like that!”, sneered the other.
“Tonic, luv, please don’t be like that.”, said the other. “We owe him for a great many deeds.”
“Yea. And look what that bought him!”, snarked raspy voice.
“It bought me a load of pain and..”, Brom said and noted he was lying on the flat of his back, staring at two things. One was the brittle winter sky and the other, a Seressa Wraiven bent all the way down to an inch from his face and smiling at him in all buxom “..glory.”, he finished.
Brom rose and Seressa held him steady, for his mind further reeled when it clicked where they were;
On the very top of the great balloon!
“Ow. Great. Heavens..”, he said in awe, his eyes wide open as he stared at the flat surface of the balloon, the winter sky, the misty clouds, and the waning sun, and the whole, panoramic view of the Kingdom of Isles, from one horizon to the other, as far as the eye could see, in every direction..
The bushy little hobbit felt goosebumps all over his arms as he sipped in the moment, and engraved it into his mind, adding it to his repertoire of eternal mementos..
“Isn’t it, though?”, Seressa agreed with luminous eyes. “We might bleed, we might hurt, and suffer too, we might, but for these beautiful moments, we live, and thus we are blessed..”
“Ow, do savor the moment why don’t you, while I try and patch this bloody balloon all by myself!”, Tonic’s sour voice came from behind the very tall, very dark girl..
..and reality unpaused the beautiful, majestic moment, and the spined devils came jarring into view with their unholy shrieks!
“Seressa, Brom, I need help!”, eeped Tonic as she shied from a swooping devil and suddenly, a ghostly, skeletal hand latched itself on to its throat and yanked it away from her, and towards the very tall, very dark girl, then another moaning hand cast from her slender fingers and this one tore at the creature, sending it flightless, and off the balloon.
“Ahh..”, Brom said with comprehension. “You can also pull with those spectral hands. That’s why you sent them at me.”
“But of course, Master Brom.”, Seressa said as she sent more of the howling hands at the swarming fiends. “I apologize for that. They must have hurt. But you lost hold of the rope ladder and started to fall and this was the only way I could have pulled you up.”
“Perfectly alright, girl.”, Brom replied as he pulled out his lyre. “Though it did give me an insight as to what our foes must face. It was uncanny, to be sure.”
Back to back, or perhaps, back to butt, to be more precise, Seressa Wraiven and Brom Bumblebrim fought the spined devils, one sent her ghostly hands, the other, his dissonant tones, and Tonic crouched over the rips in the balloon, feverishly trying to mend them..
“Cora?”, Seressa asked after she knocked two more fiends out of the air.
“Down on the deck, hopefully, busy slaughtering the Abishai.”
“I hope she’s alright. Perhaps one of us should go down to help her.”, she offered.
“Girl, I just got here. And I am not going down until I am old and dry!”, the hobbit said with a determined tone..
..and the Red Abishai swiped at the lithe, barbarian elf with its great, two-handed sword!
✱ ✱ ✱
Cora Sleet had never joined a battle with more clarity than she did before. The deck of Chimaera groaned under glacial ice and the railings and even some of the flour boards went brittle and with sharp, crystal-like tingling snap, they shattered and shrapnelled as the Red Abishai, a vaguely humanoid monstrosity landed with another basso roar.
The Abishai was not a large creature, though it reached some twelve feet in height, it did, however, bear all semblance of some demented concoction of a demon and a red, scaly dragon with broad shoulders, arms that reached past its sinuous tail, its strong, lionic legs and almost down to his clawed feet. It had a horned, reptilian head with a maw riddled with sharp, serrated teeth, dark yellow slits for eyes, and hanging on his back like some royal cloak were a pair of thick, leathery wings, and when it landed on Chimaera’s deck wielding a great, two-handed, oddly curved sword, a wave of dragon fear washed over the ship, sending many of the gnomes and the humans, be it crew, engineer, or Storm Kite pilot, even though they were below deck, running around in total, blind fear, or squirming on the floor, trembling with it.
And it washed over Cora as well..
“I believe this is what they mean when they say, making an entrance.”, she said with a vicious smile, as her storm tattoos whirled and more frigid cold spread from her.
The Red Abishai stared at her with its serpentine eyes, opened its maw, and a forked tongue slithered out of it. It licked its blunt nose once as if trying to get her scent..
..then it spoke!
“Ahh, a snow elf.”, it rumbled and it had a very deep, resonating voice that called for attention. “You are far from your home, little girl.”
“And you are far from.. everywhere..”, Cora replied. “You are not even supposed to be here, fiend.”
“Straight to the name-calling.”, the Abishai coughed out a laugh. “How typical of Mortals. Tell me, little girl, are you so eager to die with these arrogant and tinkering gnomes and humans? What place do they have in the skies?”
“Yes. They like to tinker. But their arrogance is no more than yours. You think they do not belong to the skies, yet here they are. You do not belong to this world, yet here you are as well. Methinks, that is arrogance plenty.”, the tundra elf countered.
“I guess I shall just have to burn this ship from under your feet. Mayhap you all learn a lesson.”, the seething, half-demon, half-dragon growled.
“I guess I shall just have to kill you, but I doubt you will learn your lesson. The dead never do.”, Cora said as she pulled out her greatsword from the deck. She was not the type of girl who did pre-combat monologues or even taunts. It just didn’t go with her ‘cool’ but she had needed the time to do what she had started, and now it was done.
“Shall we?”, she offered.
“Ow, if I must..”, sighed the Abishai and charged as its massive claws dug into the ice-covered deck, sending webs of cracks and splinters, and it swiped at the lithe, barbarian elf with its great, two-handed, oddly curved sword!
Cora had never planned on facing the demon-dragon head-on. She was strong for her kind. But time and pain had taught her, strength was not in the arms, but in the mind. The creature was much more powerful than she was. She was sure of it. But it had to split its attention to its footing in that charge. She didn’t. Her dash was as supple as her figure and she was standing on her element for she was born into ice, and snow, and the frosty nights of the Great Northern Tundras. She dashed and as the great sword of the Abishai screamed at her, she dropped on her knees with heels tucked under her butt..
..and slid past the monster!
And she swung her own blade; a wide, back-handed arc, just like she’d said she would, and sliced open its leg.
Then, she rammed her sword into the ice and into the deck, and with seamless use of her momentum, she spun around her own blade and kicked herself up to her feet as she pulled the blade out and swung again even wider.
There was a studded, meaty ‘chunk’..
..and the Abishai toppled over with a wet, splurting sound as its reptilian head rolled and slid away.
“Told you, you didn’t belong here. Yet you insisted on blabbering about mortals. How arrogant is that?”, she murmured coolly as she let go of her inner storms and with a sharp, irking crack, the ice on the deck shattered and turned into tiny motes of frigid floes..
“That was amazing.”, said an exhilarated voice, and Medic Liam came up the stairs.
“I am perfectly alright!”, Cora blurted!
“Can never be too sure, young lady. Now. How about you sit down and have a breather. You are all hyped and it’s natural you would feel alright.”, Liam said with the same, exhilarated tone, coupled with a tint of awe, as Captain Karadune also appeared, followed closely by dozens of gnomes and humans alike, and they were definitely staring at her with open-mouthed awe.
Captain Karadune seemed like he wanted to say something but the barbarian girl was suddenly surrounded by the Storm Kite pilots and Cora was bombarded with girly cheers!
“Been busy, have you?”, she heard a raspy voice, and Tonic skid-landed next to them and got off her gnarly broom. She turned to the still stunned captain and said, “The balloon is all patched up but you will have to get some engineers up there to recoat them with leather mendings, and possibly apply some tar as well, then rekindle the fuel and fill it with some hot air to cover for the loss.”
Karadune finally came around and started barking orders and what remained of his crew jumped to life. Soon enough, the deck was cleared of dead fiends and the debris, the dead and any wounded still alive were carried below, the railings and the rope ladders were replaced and gnomic engineers were climbing up the balloon with buckets of tar and to rekindle the fuel.
“Alright, girls.”, Medic Liam finally said. “I am unable to do my job while all of you are flocked around our hero. Why don’t you all go down and see if the nurses can use some help? There are only three of them and so many of the wounded. I am sure they can use the extra hands.”
The girls all waved at Cora one final time and filed down to the infirmary in subdued but elated whispers.
“You are amazingly unhurt.”, he mused at her.
“I have been doing this for a while, Liam.”, she replied, her face slightly pink. “Seressa, Tonic, Master Brom, and I have been on the road for a very long time. I know when I am hurt. And I never go out of my way to seem otherwise, if and when I am. That is not a winning strategy and it is not an honest way to be with friends.”
“Amazing, indeed. My sister was a bit like you. Cool and reserved. Brave too. More so than I ever was. Do not misunderstand me. I am just as grateful and awed by what you did, saved our collective hides.. My sister’s loss, however, was more than a tragedy and the world became less after her. Remember that, next time you want to dance with a demon. The dead are gone, and hopefully at peace. The ones we leave behind live to suffer.”, he said as she stared deep into her glacial eyes. Then he turned and to Tonic, who was chewing on a finger a few feet away with a smug expression on her face, he said, “Agent Arcantonic, I would like you to accompany your friend, here, to one of the dark rooms and make sure she gets a good, long sleep. Seeing as how blue you are, I would suggest making good use of the same sleep yourself. It must be freezing up on the balloon.”
To Cora’s surprise, Tonic did not argue with Medic Liam. She promptly grabbed her by the arm and dragged her below deck and to one of the empty Storm Kite pilot’s cabins.
“I think Medic Liam likes you.”, she said smugly.
“I think you want me to thump you on the head.”, Cora replied with a pink sort of frown.
“Whot? He’s calm, and cool, and handsome, and polite to boot. I mean, I am a gnome and even I find him nipable!”, she smirked.
“Nipable?”, Cora asked with a confused expression.
“You know, to nip at something? To take small, favorable bites?”, she explained with an even bigger smirk.
Cora stared at her.
“No, I do not..”, she flared. “..want to nip at him.”
“Even though he is cool and handsome?”
“Even though he is cool and handsome.”, she fumed.
“Ow. Alright then. My mistake. I mean, I have known you for months now, or even for over eight hundred years in a non-linear chronological sense, and never have I seen you go pink before. Must be the lighting.”, Tonic said smugly.
Cora fumed some more.
“Where are Seressa and Brom?”, she growled, as if wanting to change the subject.
“They are still up on the balloon.”, Tonic replied jubilantly.
“They are, what?”, Cora exclaimed.
“Up and on the very top of the balloon, to be precise. Master Brom refused to come down, on account of fear-induced panic, and Seressa refused to leave him there all alone.”, the gnomic girl said.
“They will freeze up there.”, Cora said with an exasperated tone.
“Not for a good while, they won’t. When Brom stubbornly refused to budge, I flew down and got them some blankets.”, she cackled gleefully. “Now Master Brom is stuck on the balloon with nowhere to run, or weasel out, and with only Seressa to keep him company. And let me tell you, she has a very warm and cuddly sort of body and either Master Brom will let her cuddle him, or he will refuse to let her cuddle him and die freezing!”
“That.. was not nice, Tonic.”, she said, though a snort did escape her.
“Yea.”, the scruffy little gnomic girl agreed shamelessly. “It must be so hard, being Brom Bumblebrim these days.”
✱ ✱ ✱
The Class-A Type Naphtha barrel landed into the wet, stinking, and muddy waters of Croaking Mire and sunk below its surface. Then, with a detonation that sent the stinking and muddy waters some fifty feet into the air and a shock wave that flattened everything in two hundred yards in every direction, it coughed with a low, angry rumble, as Cora Sleet, Seressa Wraiven, and Arcantonic Palecog, accompanied by a dozen other Storm Kite pilots, swooped down like a cloud of angry hornets and dropped their own naphtha grenades on top of the hundreds of Orken sloshing through the stinking swamp.
The Chimaera had sustained quite a bit of damage and lost over third of her crew in the aerial attack by the spined devils, but under the stern command of Captain Karadune, the living had picked up the slack and like people who had suddenly awakened to the deathly perils of war and just seen their friends and comrades getting killed, they had worked hard and diligently to make the ship air-worthy again. And with grim expression etched on every face, The Chimaera had ‘dogged’ after the trail of dead and well-cooked Orken only to discover whole platoons of them marching through Croaking Mire.
Captain Karadune had sent three Storm Kites to scout ahead, but the Orken were not without their own resources. The first scouting girl had fallen, both her kite and her body shredded down to a bloody mess by numerous, thirty-inch steel spikes and plummeted into the muddy waters of the swamp. The remaining two had banked, one to her left, the other to her right to make a quick getaway. One of them got her kite torn apart and dropped from fifty feet, but was able to save herself by the use of a quick spell and she had floated down, not unlike a feather..
..into a platoon of Orken.
And everyone was forced to watch in silent horror, for the Orken had not simply slain the poor girl.
They had torn her apart!
The last scout had crashed onto the deck and had never gotten back up. To his furry, Medic Liam had reported the girl had had two spikes in her; one through her chest and heart, the other through her abdomen. Terrified with fear, she had made it back, never aware just how short a time she’d had left to herself.
Captain Karadune had stared down at the skinny girl and the bloody spikes sticking out her and had growled, “I may have my faults. But these are my crew. No one takes from us and gets away unscathed.”
Then he had barked to his crew, his eyes ablaze, “I want all available Type-A Class Naphtha barrels rolled up to the deck, NOW! I want a carpet bombardment over those animals and have them burned down to smoking crisps! And I want all the Storm Kites out. First Dare Seressa, First Bomber Cora, and Agent Arcantonic will lead them in three teams. They will make sure none of them make it out of these swamps! I want a lookout at every ten feet intervals, reporting everything in all three dimensions! GO! NOW!”
And now, Medic Liam was beside himself in his own burning fury as he watched the Storm Kites swoop in, drop their armaments, bank up, and settle back on the deck rather than the cargo bay, grab new grenades, and jump off deck once again.
Soon enough, the air on the ship had become unbearable due to heat and overwhelming smoke and the stench of burning flesh, rotting vegetation, and sulfur, as Captain Karadune ordered more barrels of Type-A onto the deck, have their fuse lit, and loosed off the sides as it sped over the swamp.
“Master Efelen!”, he roared over the ruckus and the tiny gnome scrambled up to the aft deck.
“Yes, sir, Captain?”, he piped, breathing heavily over the smoky haze, his face smudge smeared.
“You are in charge of lookouts. You shall report any findings you deem of value to me. Look for enemy movement patterns. Find out where these animals are heading.”, he ordered the little gnome sharply as another low, shocking rumble was heard and the Chimaera rocked and bobbled in the air.
“Yes, sir, Captain!”, Efelen snapped to attention.
“Did you receive your basic communications training, Master Efelen?”, he asked, scowling down at the little gnome.
“Didn’t need to, sir. I had the skilled ere I applied for a job on the Chimaera..”, he replied promptly.
Karadune scowled at the little gnome some more.
“Very well. Get in touch with First Dare Seressa, First Bomber Cora, and Agent Arcantonic. Have them coordinate the remaining Storm Kites. I want them to concentrate all firepower on scattered platoons. I want as many of them dead and burnt before sundown. Is that understood? You are in charge of the Storm Kites as well now, Master Efelen. Don’t lose them, don’t get them killed.”, he barked at the smudge-covered young gnome.
“Yes, sir, Captain!”, Efelen piped, saluted the captain, and ran back down to the main deck as he drew a small, box-like gadget out of his pocket, scrambled with it for a moment, pulled a bug’s antenna-like something from the top of the gadget and started talking to it;
“First Dare Seressa, report!”, he called.
“First Dare Seressa reporting; Orken platoons on the east.”, came Seressa’s garbled and scratchy voice.
“First Bomb Cora, report!”, he called.
“What the— who is this?”, Cora’s scowling voice was heard from the tiny gadget!
“First Bomb Cora, report!”, Efelen repeated.
“A lot of Orken to the west. They are preparing counter measurements of some sort. It’s hard to see through all the smoke.. Who is this?”, Cora’s scratchy voice came.
“Agent Arcantonic, report!”, he called once more.
“Uhhmm.. Efelen? That you? Look, this is a private Storm Channel, boy. How did you even hack into this frequency?”, the splitting voice of Tonic was heard and there was the sound of roaring fire coming from the background.
“I have been assigned as the Storm Kite Director, Agent Arcantonic. Please report!”, the young gnome piped urgently.
“What? Which idiot made you the S.K.D.? You are too young for that kind of responsibility, boy.”, Tonic’s scolding voice was heard from the gadget.
“The captain!”, replied Efelen with a flushed face.
There was a moment’s silence, then Tonic’s raspy barks were heard.
She was laughing!
“Well, that explains a lot.”, she said merrily.
“Please, Agent, report!”, the young gnome said urgently.
“Very well. My team has just burned and sunk another platoon to the south. We are on our way back for a refill..”
“First Dare Seressa, I want you to bank west to where First Bomber Cora is. Do not fly low! When Agent Arcantonic reloads, she will join you. I want all three teams clearing out the west end of the mires. The Orken must not be allowed to leave the swamps and gain access to the king’s road or they will hit Serenity Home and Tinker Hills from the rear. Is that understood?”, he said urgently.
“Copy that.”, Seressa’s warbled voice came from the gadget.
“Copy what?”, Cora’s scratchy voice asked.
“It means, affirmative, luv.”, Seressa explained.
“Ow. Alright. Affirmative and copy-whatsit-thingy..”, Cora also complied.
“Be there in four.. three.. two..”, Tonic said and with a series of thumbs and scrambling noises, several Storm Kites landed, skidded, then came to a stop, nearly running over the little gnome.
They did not wait long; they were handed a pair of Type-C Class grenades each and were just about to jump off the deck when someone shouted, “Wait!”, over the ruckus and Medic Liam appeared followed closely by his three nurses, all carrying several water skins in their hands.
“Here, drink this. Slowly but at least a mugs-full worth. You are not doing yourselves any favors flying in that heat nor breathing in all that smoke.”
Agent Arcantonic and her team drank as they were ordered, then jumped off the deck and disappeared in the smoke. The day was running out of light and there were still many Orken platoon likely unaccounted for.
As it turned out, young Efelen had a very good head for virtually imagining the lay of the burning landscape below. With the information he received from the three teams led by Cora, Seressa, and Tonic, along with every report passed on to him by the lookouts on the Chimaera, he steered the kites like a conductor, concentrating their firepower on the west and northwest of the swamp, and along the edges of king’s road while having the captain steer the airship through the center of the swamp and dropping the naphtha barrels there, thus cutting further infiltrations in that direction.
For some reason, however, he did not send anyone east of Croaking Mire. He had thought of an idea and he did not want to risk the Storm Kites by putting them into more danger than they already were.
And then, the fiends came..
Scores of them!
They appeared out of the sulfurous smoke and swooped down on the Chimaera and the Storm Kites!
“One, two. One, two. Calling the Hammer. Please respond.”, he whispered into his tiny gadget after he’d sent all three teams, once more, to reconnaissance the king’s road leading to Serenity Home and bombard as necessary. He had crouched in a relatively secluded corner under the aft deck and was speaking in low, urgent whispers to his gadget.
“One, two. One, two. Calling the Hammer. Please respond!”, he hissed a bit more urgently.
“This is Melshieve Airship, the Hammer, Communications Officer, Lieutenant Narwick Brasscog at your service. Please identify yourself.”, came a mellow, and somewhat bored voice.
“Storm Kite Director of Melshieve Airship, the Chimaera speaking..”, replied Efelen hastily.
“Speak, Chimaera.”, said the bored voice from the tiny gadget.
“Please inform your captain to change course to thirty-eight degrees north, forty-two degrees east to new designation; Croaking Mires. Numerous Orken platoons have escaped the bombardment at Serpent’s End and are now traveling through the mires to hit possible target; Serenity Home. We are under attack! I repeat we are under attack, and are currently engaged with the enemy, and have suffered multiple casualties. Arrive at said destination A.S.A.P. and at full throttle! Please inform the Basilisk to follow your lead to the same coordinates. The Adamant, the Gauntlet, and the Manticore are to proceed to the original rendezvous point and start their bombardment without delay. The Adamant is to pick up ground group and the dean before engaging. Please confirm!”
There was a brief, choked silence and young Efelen’s hands were shaking by now.
“PLEASE CONFIRM!”, he hissed urgently into his gadget!
“Inform captain and the Basilisk. New target acquired at thirty-eight degrees north, forty-two degrees east. Under attack. Multiple casualties. The Adamant is to pick up ground group and the dean at the original location then commence bombardment!”, the other voice replied and with a stunned sort of tone.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Narwick Brasscog. Your efforts on behalf of the dean shall not go unnoticed. Chimaera, out!”, Efelen said excitedly, then hastily disconnected.
The little gnome knew the Mervlin had no idea what was going on here and now, and he certainly had not given any such orders. If things turned out for the better, Efelen thought he might just get away with a simple reprimand. Or a few days in the brig. If things didn’t, well, the Chimaera was damaged and burning and required extensive repairs, they had used up almost all their naphtha stock, at least a third of her crew was dead or dying, they had lost nearly half their Storm Kite pilots, and they were also down to a few barrels on their current water supplies because they had hauled almost all of it earlier and dumped it on the deck upon Lady Cora’s demand!
He looked all around him as the lookouts were screaming ‘incoming’s or just screaming as the fiends came clawing into them!
The crew, the officers, and the engineers were fighting against them with anything they could get their hands on and he could hear the captain right over his head, on the aft deck, cussing and cursing as he bashed or cut down one fiend after another with his club or cutlass.
He could hear the shrieks of terror coming from his gadget as the spined devils chased after the Storm Kite pilots and tore into them!
“Only one last thing left to do.”, he murmured to himself and clicked on the tiny gadget once more..
“One, two. One, two. Gull’s Perch Dwarven Outpost!”, Efelen whispered.
“Gulls’s Perch Dwarven Outpost! Hellow? Is anyone out there? Does anyone hear me?”, he hissed urgently, no, desperately, into the tiny box in his hand.
He waited for the duration of a five-count for a reply, then repeated his plea.
It was perhaps on his sixth try when a very itchy, crackling, and very surly voice came from the tiny gadget.
“This is G.P.D.O. —Gull’s Perch Dwarven Outpost speaking. Who the Hell are you and why are you on this frequency?”, the surly voice asked.
“Ow! You can hear me! Great!”, the little gnome almost cried in great relief.
“Who is this? What is your handle, boy?”, the voice asked harshly.
“This is the Storm Kite Director of the Melshieve Airship, Chimaera, Efelen Tinkerdome speaking!”
In short, curt sentences, he relayed their current position and their status and then told the G.P.D.O. what he wanted them to do.
Then he switched channels and screamed into the gadget, ordering all surviving pilots to ‘drop everything’ and return back to the Chimaera, post haste! When he was done, he put the tiny box into his pocket, pulled out another gadget, and with a series of ‘snap’, ‘snap’, ‘snap’, sounds, a sharp, slender blade ‘snapped’ in his hand, and with the brevity of a lion, and the shriek of a sugar-loaded squirrel, he charged into the fiends!
✱ ✱ ✱
The hull and keel of the Chimaera were burnt and black, covered with inky soot, and tiny motes of glowing cinders were further chewing into the airship’s hull. Its side sails had shriveled and burned, and with a madly elated expression on Captain Karadune’s face, the ship gave the impression of a great and glorious phoenix going down in flames.
It terrified everyone except Tonic, who was, apparently, all about going down in ‘blazing glory’s, as overdramatic as that sounded.
While Cora was trying to summon her storms to put out the fires, Seressa and Brom, along with the remaining Storm Kite pilots and the crew ran around with buckets of sand and sloshed what little remained of their water supplies, trying desperately to put out the fires, all the while fighting off the fiends.. Tonic, on the other hand, was standing on the aft deck chanting, quite madly, “Mwahahahaha! Burn! Buuuurn!”, as she raised her hands and arms into the night sky as if conducting some demented orchestra.
“Well. Good to see someone’s enjoying herself..”, gasped Brom as he looked around and at the desperation of the people around him. Then he stumbled over to the tundra elf and whispered, “What’s the matter, girl? Why aren’t you calling your storms? We really must get these fires under control!”
“Don’t you think I am trying?”, Cora snarled.
“I don’t know what you are trying, girl. All I see is, you standing there with this constipated expression on your face!”, he replied with a very slightly bemused glint in his eyes.
..offended the tundra elf!
“That.. was uncalled for, hobbit!”, she hissed at him, her eyes blazing.
“No more than when you sent me off to ‘find my balls.’“, he smirked at her. “Now, what’s the problem here?”
Cora glared at him, her face burning with anger and..
“I have been running around all day and flying all the while, and fighting in between! My storms are not limitless!”, she snarled at him.
“So, you are out of juice!”, Brom said.
Cora’s face darkened.
For some reason, that seemed to have offended the barbarian girl even more and she was a bare inch away from tearing the little hobbit apart then and there!
“Easy. Easy, girl.”, Brom said in a placating tone. “It doesn’t mean, whatever you think it means.”
She glared at him.
“Well, these fires aren’t going to put themselves out. We seem to have run out of sand, and water..”, he said, mentally going through his repertoire and his spell-songs and coming up with one option. “Tell everyone to clear the deck.”, he said as he pulled a short, stubby wand out of his belt. It was a simple wand, really, though its wooden handle seemed to have a blueish hue and it had a fairytale-like snowflake at its tip.
Cora saw the wand, then she squinted at him and hissed.
“We are not done talking about my constipation and juice, hobbit!”, she said threateningly.
“Are you sure you want to talk to me about your bowel issues?”, he asked blandly. “I mean, it’s not exactly table conversation but, hey, if you want to really talk about it, i’ll listen, but perhaps you should see Medic Liam for that.”
Cora’s face turned even darker when she realized what she’d just said, as opposed to what she had meant. Her face became manic for a moment, then she blared!
“Everyone! Clear the deck! NOW!”
And everyone did clear out the deck!
Captain Karadune stared down at the main deck as the crew, the engineers, the Storm Kite pilots, the medical staff, the lookouts, the very tall, very dark girl, and the barbarian elf ran for the stairs leading below deck until only the hobbit stood.
“Bloody Hell!”, he spat and ducked behind the rostrum and the helm. Then he noticed the scruffy little gnomic girl still standing in plain sight and chanting and laughing like an idiot!
“What the—?”, he spluttered, and made a grab for her just as a blast of cold, arctic wind washed over the Chimaera!
✱ ✱ ✱
You did well, Master Brom Bumblebrim.”
The Hammer and the Basilisk had arrived at dawn and nearly two score Storm Kites were immediately launched out of their cargo bay, each carrying two, Class-C Type Naphtha Grenades as both the airships started rolling their own destructive payload off their decks and nuking the mires and the swarming Orken platoons below. Although the Chimaera was quite severely damaged and roughed up, three airships, each over two hundred feet long with Storm Kites swooping down like angry hornets in long, graceful arcs, was indeed an impressive, if not a majestic sight.
It had come sort of as a surprise to the captains of both the Hammer and the Basilisk, and Captain Karadune that the order for the other two airships to change course and arrive here as they had, has not come from Dean Mervlin, and certainly not come from him!
Under the fuming glares of all three captains, a deflated looking young Efelen had been detained, cuffed, and thrown into the brig, a calculated risk he had taken on his part to save the Chimaera and her crew.
The three captains had come down to visit the little gnome once more when they were further surprised by the unexpected arrival of nearly two thousand gnomes from Tinker Hills, all armed to the teeth under the leadership of a gnomic general called Whatsit Silentcog, accompanied by five thousand Bari Na-ammen high elves under the command of one, Lord Armathelius Riverblade, from Serenity Home by way of king’s road..
..and ten thousand outragiously armed dwarves from Elder Hills led by a Margaret Madish and Dridges Motherswolfie, had somehow arrived at Gull’s Perch Dwarven Outpost and via scores of Drashan pirate ships had made a beeline south past Miasmire and Tinker Hills, and made landing north and east of Croaking Mires and pincered the vast stretches of the stinking swamps from that direction!
And then, both armies had congealed on the remaining, scattered Orken platoons and slaughtered them wherever they found them.
“We were getting picked clean.. I did what had to be done to save our ship and our crew, and made sure the enemy was halted before they hit Serenity Home and Tinker Hills..”, Efelen had said through the bars, while staring down at the chains around his ankles..
Saved as it was, the Chimaera had suffered extensive damage, and after a near twenty-four-hour aerial, and air-to-surface battle, was now quite silent. Her crew, the engineers, the lookouts, what remained of the Storm Kite pilots, and even her captain lay sprawled on the deck, wounded and bloodied, soot-smudged and singed, tired and sleeping or staring at nothing with glazed eyes.
Cora was sitting on the cold, scorched wooden floor as well, or perhaps she’d just slumped there, her back leaning on the wall of the aft deck. She had a morose, or even a dazed sort of expression on her tired and weary face as she watched Medic Liam, blood all over his hands and arms, and his otherwise immaculately white medic’s apron and limping slightly and with two of his gnomic nurses following close by with tear-stricken eyes.
Liam seemed furious and had trouble keeping his calm even as they force-fed, per se, a few sips of water into everyone, awake or asleep, and making sure they were all covered with blankets.
Cora couldn’t blame him for his seething ire.
One of his nurses, the skinny one with the blonde hair, Laetitia, had been snatched right off the deck while she had been preoccupied nursing the captain himself.
She had screamed, once.
A small, barely audible, terrified scream.
Then it had been a shower of bloody mess, and whatever had been left of her, had been lost in the night and down in the burning inferno.
“Poor girl.”, Cora thought wearily. The skinny, blonde nurse had been a sweet little thing. She had tended to her wounds and had given her a brilliant smile thinking she was giving her encouragement by way of that smile even though she herself had been terrified and literally shivering in fear.
And the last thing she had felt at the end of her brief tenure in this world had been the apex of that fear..
Cora sighed and looked down at the small, diminutive, and scruffy-haired face resting on her lap. Tonic had settled between her and Seressa, talked excitably about how awesome the ship had looked all ablaze and something about phoenixes, for ten minutes straight, then, for whatever reason, she had drooped to one side and started sleeping, her head on Cora’s lap, with cooing little snores.
She looked adorable when she was like this, Cora thought. She certainly wasn’t going to pocket the little gnomic girl, but she could understand why the very tall, very dark Seressa would want to.
Seressa was asleep too. Or perhaps not, Cora wasn’t sure. She had her eyes closed but there was a lingering little smile on her face as well. Maybe she was dreaming about something nice. Or the likely reason for her smile was sleeping right next to her other side, his head resting on her lap.
All Cora could see from her vantage point was a whole lot of bushy hair on that lap!
She could imagine the little hobbit struggling to stay awake, even as he sat next to the beautiful dark girl.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have glared at him the way I did. That way, he would have been sitting next to me like he always did. Did I scare him off?”, she mused to herself.
But then she disputed her own opinion on the matter when she inevitably came to the conclusion that the hobbit had a very stubborn streak in him where his friends were concerned, and in the event that she would be stupid enough to assault him, she knew, with absolute surety, that the bushy little Brom would stand his ground and take whatever she would throw at him..
The story from the bushy little hobbit’s perspective, however, had been a little bit different though. After all the things they had been through in the past few days, all he had wanted, had been a good meal, perhaps cider on the side, and an even better sleep. But just then, he had seen the three girls sitting there on the cold deck. Cora had seemed lost for some reason. Her face hadn’t been grim, not exactly, but neither had it seemed quite relaxed. Tonic was sitting between her and Seressa, and she was telling them some things in her seamless, exhilarated, and rapid tone while gesticulating and miming at the same time, though Brom hadn’t been sure what it was she was so excited about.
“Go to sleep, already, girl.”, he had mumbled a bit irritable. Seressa had been nodding at whatever she was saying, and she was also nodding off. Then she had seen him and something in her eyes had lit. And without even thinking, he’d found himself drifting in her direction and sitting next to her. She hadn’t said anything except let out a soft and perhaps relieved breath. Or maybe it had been a sigh. Then sleep had overtaken him and he felt he was sliding to one side..
Why he had slid in her direction, he never knew.
Maybe it had been due to the steady warmth she seemed to radiate that had tugged at him to fall in her direction. Or even her phloxen scent.
Suffice to say, whatever it had been, it had caused the bushy little hobbit to defy gravity, and ‘sort of’ lean, and eventually fall in her direction..
And now he was sound asleep, and with his bushy head all over her lap.
“You did well, Master Brom Bumblebrim.”, came the voice then. It was a deep, not quite rumbling, but reassuring voice. And it echoed in the depts of his sleeping mind.
“I did?”, Brom asked, a bit surprised.
“I am quite sure you did, Master Brom Bumblebrim.”, replied the reassuring voice.
“How are you holding up?”, asked another deep, calm voice, and Medic Liam appeared in Cora’s vision. She hadn’t noticed him come. Looking around, she noted there was a blanket covering the hobbit, another blanket over Seressa, a third one stretched on Tonic, and he was holding a forth in his hands as he knelt before her and stared intently into her eyes.
“I am fine. Do I look otherwise?”, she replied, her face going slightly pink again.
She wasn’t quite sure why, but something about this human, who was likely less than a third her age, yet older than her, seemed to intrigue, or even irk her, and make her go pink!
“You seem lost, Master Brom Bumblebrim. I sense your sorrow.”, said the voice.
“I am no ‘Master’. I am just a little hobbit. A Master would have prevented all these deaths. Just look at this mess?”, he mumbled bitterly.
“I sense your sorrow.. I am so sorry about Laetitia. She was a good, kind girl. She was so scared, yet she never abandoned her calling.”, she said, her voice choked.
“Do not feel sorry for dear Laetitia, for she was a true angel and angels never die, Cora Sleet of the Great Northern Tundras..”, replied Liam and there was an unmistakable shimmer in his eyes.
“What has happened today, was not your doing, Master Brom Bumblebrim. That you saved the world from the horror that lies under these mires, however, was your victory to claim. Know, though, the war has just begun. We face the end of times and total annihilation. By coming here in time and in force, you bought the Mortals time to rally and make a stand.”, said the voice kindly.
“Then why don’t I feel victorious? Why do I only feel sorrow?”, he said harshly.
“..and I suspect, by the time we are done with this war, even should it be in our favor, many other angels will have departed this world.”, Liam said and tears ran down his face.
“Only good men feel sorrow, Master Brom Bumblebrim.”
Cora never quite knew what prompted her to do what she did next.
She reached up to the man kneeling before her and pulled him down and stared into his eyes.
Medic Liam had deep, deep blue eyes. But unlike her glacial blues, his was of a cloudless summer sky.. and they were dilated. There was worry in those eyes. And loss in the plenty. And helpless frustration.
And there was honestly there as well.
“You should get a haircut.”, she told him softly. “I am sure this quietly-rebellious thing you got going has all the girls infatuated, but it doesn’t really suit a medic..”
Cora held him there for a moment more, leaned in..
..and kissed him, her soft, pouting lips itching and tingling as they brushed his. It was a bittersweet kiss for she had just tasted his tears.
Then, without any wont or demand, she held him to her bosom.
For a bare, silent moment, Liam stared into the depts of her..
..and a heart-rending sob escaped him.
“Why didn’t you come to our aid? We were dying up here..”, Brom said vehemently.
“I am not an Angel, Master Brom Bumblebrim, but a mere Guardian and the Orken were cunning. They sacrificed thousands of their kind to keep you busy up here, while their Blood Shamans battled my kin to free what lies chained under the murky waters of these mires. Had you not arrived the way you had, and in time, we would have been facing all of them at once.”, replied the voice.
“Tis alright to mourn for angels, Liam. I lost almost all the Storm Kites pilots that were entrusted to me today. I feel the rage and the sorrow of my command. You were entrusted the lives of everyone on this ship. You cared for them, yet many of them still died. I admire the concern you have shown to those under your care, but not your command for it is a heavy burden only you can bear..”, she whispered down to the man shuddering in her arms.
“What is more, you kept to your oath as well. And kept my presence, and what lies down below a secret..”, the voice said.
“To what end? Seressa ended up lying for me. And now, she will suffer the pain of that lie. It will eat at her, one day at a time, every day!”, he berated.
“Rejoice! Thus you have friends that value your oath more than they value their moral integrity!”, said the voice.
“It’s.. It’s like losing my sister all over again..”, came Liam’s muffled and broken voice.
“We suffer what we love most. Hence we fight. For them, and for others.”, she whispered to him. “I.. I lost everything that was dear to me. My mother, my father, my friends, my village.. everything.. in one, single afternoon.. My comrades wonder for whom I fight, having lost everyone that was everything to me, missing the point, that I now fight for them.”
“And still, no one will know why we fought and died here. And they will think this war, and this fight was in vain.”, Brom said, feeling lost all over again.
“Ahh.. Perhaps you think no one knows what is down here? If that were the case, how is it that the enemy was here? Perhaps, it is time you told your friends as well..”
“I.. can’t.. I gave my word.. I gave my oath!”, hissed the hobbit disparagingly.
“True, that you did. And your word does you credit. But not at the expense of your friends, Master Brom Bumblebrim. Not anymore. You do them a disservice by keeping to your word, seeing as the enemy is already here..”, said the voice. “To that end, I believe I must release you from your oath..”
“I need to go. And make sure everyone’s alright. I must get them something to eat and make sure they all have blankets. It’s freezing out here.”, mumbled Liam, trying to get a hold of himself and rise.
Cora did not let him go.
Carefully she steered him so he would sit right next to her, hip to hip. She took the blanket he was still clutching, flung it once, and let it fall on him, and on herself.
“There are no children here anymore, Liam. Anyone who is still alive has proven their mettle and is a battle-tested adult now. If they are hungry, they will wake up. And I am sure they all know where the kitchen is..”, she said a bit gruffly.
Then she noted the two gnomic nurses ogling at her with diffident expressions on their faces.
“You should go down and get some rest, as well. Both of you look beat.”, she told them. The girls ogled at her some more, then gave her a polite sort of nod, and left. “And you should also get some sleep, Liam. You will do your command little favors should you fall apart, or fall asleep, when you are most needed. You can rest your head on my shoulder if you like, though I don’t expect it to be as soft as some of the other girls’ but I am sure it’ll be better than the cold deck which is where you are going to drop if you don’t sleep.”, she told him in her hushed voice.
“This.. this is highly irregular..”, he stammered, his face flushed and his voice hoarse, but the white elf cut his words.
“I am not under your command, Liam. I am not even a member of this crew. The regulations of people who claim to be civilized mean nothing to me. And come tomorrow, I shall be gone..”, she said.
“You could stay, you know. You’d make a great Storm Kite Commander.”
“Perhaps. But I can not stay.”
“Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”, Medic Liam asked, raising his head to stare at her profile, her pouting lips, her delicate elven ears, her slightly pink cheeks, and her luxurious, quite disheveled white hair.
Cora Sleet had a lot of hair!
“Because..”, she said. “..Not all is done.”
Then she smiled.
It was a determined sort of smile.
The kind that could be seen, quite clearly, in her glacial blue eyes..
“There is much work to be done before we set things right.”
Not All Is Done
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
“The Spark of Mathilda”
The ground rumbled and heaved and a part of the ceiling, along with a support beam, a wall, and a column crumbled down as cracks and fissures spread out, not unlike a spider’s web and settled only with a grudge and chocking dust..
“Well. Here we are. My dear psychotic mother’s estate and manor..”, Anglenna Brightleaf said with bitter sarcasm.
“Appears clear.”, Udoorin Shieldheart noted standing next to her and coughed into his fist, trying to muffle the noise as he waved away the dust.
“I am surprised that it is, my Dorin. This place should have been crawling with Orken.”, Lorna mused, standing on her other side, and with a frown, as she covered her face with an elegant, silver embroidered gauze veil matching the dress she wore under her armor.
“It is clear because the Orken ransacked this place and mother didn’t appreciate it. Apparently, she told them not to and they didn’t heed her. Hence she slaughtered the lot of them that were here.”, replied with a grim expression on her face. “I expect we will come across any number of their rotting corpses on our way out.”
Udoorin and Lorna looked at each other, then at the tall high elf girl.
“Is there something we should know, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin asked carefully.
“There are many things you should know, young man, just nothing that concerns you at the moment..”, Anglenna replied briskly.
“Lenna?”, Lorna said, more than inquired, and she said it softly and kindly.
Anglenna turned around to face them both, her face drawn, tight, and flushed with visible shame..
“I am sorry, young Udoorin. I apologize to you, as the good man you are, not as my King. You have been on your best behavior with my cousin at all times. I know it must have been hard for you.. or even Hell, seeing as how pretty and alluring she is.”, she said.
Lorna blushed at that and so did Udoorin.
“There really is no need for that, Lady Lenna. We are all friends here, and practically family now.”, the young man replied gruffly.
“True. But I do owe you an apology for a great many things..”, she insisted, then she turned around again and took a careful step forward through the rubble of the basement of her mother’s manor, and her, once, home.. “We should still have care. I was never allowed down into these cellars nor into her study. She spent most of her years —centuries, really, down here studying and, as it turns out, scheming her betrayal!”
“I do not want to step out of line and sound insensitive but what I do not understand is how Ri Grandaleren let this happen.. I mean, it was quite obvious what she was up to, all these years.. She was constantly plotting against him, and Rise Nadine.. and Lorna, when she came of age, and possibly even before that..”, Udoorin rumbled carefully.
There was a strained silence after that and he noted Anglenna’s shoulders and spine stiffen.
“That is not the elf way..”, the former high lady fumed finally.
“I do not understand.”, Udoorin said honestly.
“She is right, Dorin.”, Lorna intervened. “Elves.. elves are not like humans.. Their point of view of life is different. They do not have the aspirations of humans. When there is a ruling Ri, or a Rise, they do not plot or scheme against them. Such concepts are alien to them, hence, quite incomprehensible, for the line of ascension is not chosen by simple heritage nor popular vote. In is a sense, it is a choice made by the world around us. In other words, the very line of ascension is chosen by mother nature itself. What my aunt and her followers did was not a norm. There must have been some very powerful external influences involved. That is why Lord Armathelius and his Sworn couldn’t go up against their Ri, my father, Grandaleren Feymist, even though they knew my mother, Rise Nadine Graciousward, was right about how the elves of High Woods had become sedated and gone stale, and all of Bari Na-ammen was slowly rotting away in their private isolation. In all our history, only two people have ever acted against an elven crown, though each for very different reasons; my aunt Angrellen, and myself —a sad and bothersome irony all on its own..”
Another silence settled over that as young Udoorin mulled over that.
“Then how come you and..”, he began.
“My aunt made pacts with some very evil and dark beings, my Dorin, that required her to sacrifice more than her husband’s life. I suspect she broke her own self as well, somewhere along the way. If you play in the mud, you will get some of it smeared on yourself.. As for me, I am only half an elf. My other half is human. Seeing as how my mother tossed her crown without turning a hair, quite the rebellious one, at that. One could even say, like mother, like daughter.. in temperament.. She never wanted the crown. She never wanted to be a Rise. She was, I suppose, impressed by my father, who could be quite charming at times.. In the end, she never truly got my father. Instead, she got a crown she never aspired. As it turns out, it was the same crown she tossed, proclaiming two things; one, what she thought of the high elves and their stale and foolish ways, and two, she sent it spinning at my feet, telling them to whom it really belonged, though I suspect no one really noticed that since I didn’t pick it up because I didn’t want it either.”, she said with a sad smile.
“I am so tempted to say, you people are so messed up, but that’d be impolite..”, Udoorin murmured. Then he looked around at the debris all around and added. “..and insensitive!”
“We are past impolite and insensitive, young man.”, Anglenna replied. “The matter of fact is, we are no more.. The sooner we, the high elves, accept that, the greater chance we will have to survive and become something once again.”
“And you all want to dump that wake-up call on my Lorna?”, he mumbled unhappily.
“Ow, no, my King.. That would be your job. Hers is to bring them together, reunite them, and rebuild a new kingdom!”, Anglenna replied with a tight grin.
“You people don’t ask much, do you?”, the young man grumbled.
“It isn’t a matter of asking much. Willy-nilly, she too had a hand in Bari Na-ammen’s downfall. When she defied her father, Ri Grandaleren, she opened a door that was never there before. Wasn’t that how Lord Armathelius formed his sworn in the first place. It also gave my mother the excuse she was looking for.”, the tall elf girl said, once again turning around to face them.
“That’s a bit harsh, Lady Lenna. You can’t dump what Angrellen did on my Lorna”, Udoorin frowned.
“No, young man. That would be wrong on so many levels. The Betrayer will pay for her crimes. One day. But the fact remains; not once in Grandaleren’s seven hundred years of reign did my mother dare to openly defy her brother. The moment his own daughter rejected her father’s command to turn away from her choices and left the palace, however, my dear Alor’Nadien ne also ended up publicly defying her Ri. Do not misunderstand me, young Udoorin. The end of Bari Na-ammen was well and pre-planned centuries ago and now there is the chance of a new kingdom only because she defied her father..”, Angrellen said firmly, her steady gazing boring into his. “I regret that this, once beautiful city, this serene country is now in ashes and ruins, but I do not resent my cousin’s choices, for I remember, quite clearly, the day she was born, the whole of High Woods held her breath then sighed in relief, as if the one she expected and been waiting for, had finally arrived.. You might think my choice of words to be a tad exaggerated perhaps. Should you think so, I want you to fully understand and recognize from whom this statement is coming..”
Another silence settled as the three of them started moving and made their way through the cumbled dungeons beneath Angrellen’s manor.
“Lenna..”, Alor’Nadien ne said finally, her tone and her face rather abashed. “I would rather you didn’t make me something I really am not. It is true my choice to abandon the palace, and my home does seem like a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision, but the fact is, I was given little choice in the matter. Either I would submit to my father and defy my wont, and inevitably seem weak in my people’s eyes as the little girl who couldn’t stand up to her own choices, or I had to defy him and be myself. There were no good choices to be made that day. Only that I either reject his command openly, or I left quietly. I chose the latter because I did not want to give my aunt a reason, nor those who secretly sided with her a reason to rebel openly against the crown. Because I left quietly, I took away their excuse to openly go up against my father, but rather focus their ire solely on me. Did my actions truly help my people? I wouldn’t know.. But it bought them nearly ten months to decide what they truly wanted.”
“Fools..”, Anglenna snarled with spite. “..they never knew what they had to understand what they wanted. The only thing they did have, the thing that they thought that defined them is gone!”
“Yes, it is, cousin. But now we have a chance to redefine ourselves. We lost a lot. But we gained some as well.”, Lorna said quietly.
“I am sorry, my Nadien ne, but you truly are naïve at times. I can’t think of a single thing that we have gained thus far. Great Heavens, girl, look around you. Do you see anything that seems like we have gotten anything in exchange for this destruction?”, the tall high elf woman fumed vehemently.
“I see you.”, Lorna replied simply and honestly.
Anglenna stopped in her track, turned around again to stare at her young cousin. It was not clear as to what crossed the high elf lady’s mind at that moment. There were just too many thoughts and emotions playing in conflict there..
“My beloved sister and cousin.. What I and my people gained when you decided to be on my side, only the future will tell. But I can tell you what the Betrayer lost, and I can do it without any doubt..”, Lorna told the tall high elf woman.
“Your mother lost everything, when she lost you!”
Anglenna just stared down at her cousin. Her eyes softened somewhat and an unexpected, and uncharacteristic shimmer appeared there. She pressed her lips together, quite tightly, and seemed like someone struggling to keep something crawling up their throat.
“You.. you truly are naïve, my Nadien ne, and I love you all the more for it. I only hope your kindness, your forgiving heart, and your trust in the worst kind of people will not be the end of you. That would indeed be a sad day for this world. As for all the things my mother and I did to you, I shall never stop loathing myself for them. It makes me feel like I want to run away.. To be somewhere else..”, she said with a drawn and lost voice.
“You can’t get to somewhere else because the thing you want to run away, you take it with you. Where you go, it goes. So before you run away, why don’t you give yourself a moment of surcease and help us with what must be done, for we have a kingdom to make, and it starts here..”, Lorna replied, then she stepped up to her and hugged her fiercely. “And you will never loath yourself again, dear Lenna. Because you are here, against all odds and all your indoctrinations. You are a far greater person than I shall ever be. The only thing I did was to stubbornly stick to my ideals and runoff from home. Had my route taken me somewhere other than Themalsar, I would never have been here and now.”
Anglenna stared down at the girl holding her in her arms for a bit more, then gave a long sigh of resignation and defeat, and hugged her back.
“Uhhmm.. I am not required to hug you as well, am I?”, Udoorin said uncomfortably. “I mean, I could, I suppose, but that’d just look kind of weird.. and awkward..”
“No, young man. You may hug your Queen to your heart’s content, but I will hurt you if you try and hug me.”, Anglenna replied with a smile.
“My point, exactly. Now then, shall we get a move on?”, he offered tentatively.
“Yes. Let’s.”, she said and parted from her cousin. “And I think we will all need a long, hot bath after we are done here.”
“That was a bit uncalled for, Lady Lenna. There’s no way you could possibly smell me from there.. Not through all this unsettled dust!”, Udoorin complained, his face a bit flushed.
“Who said I was talking about you?”, Anglenna smiled at him again, then down at her cousin.
“Well, now. That truly was uncalled for!”, Lorna also complained, her face flushed bright red.
✱ ✱ ✱
They are everywhere.”, reported Udoorin hoarsely as he skidded back down the tall heap of rubble that piled all the way up to the tiny hole in the ceiling. “Like, everywhere!”
“That is unexpected. And more than disturbing..”, Anglenna mused with a golden-platinum frown.
“How so, cousin?”, Lorna asked in her low, soft voice, staring at her.
“I would have thought the Orken would have given this manor, and the estate, a wide berth, let alone crawl all over it.”, she replied.
“Ahh, my bad there, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said brightly. “When I said ‘all over the place’, I meant, they are all camped all over just beyond what’s left of the estate walls. The hole in the ceiling isn’t all that big to see clearly, but it isn’t too difficult to guess how things stand at the moment..”
Anglenna gave him a questioning look.
“There are only some in the estate grounds itself but they are stationed in specific places such as every corner or perched up on high walls that are still intact.. and all of them are facing the manor..”, he explained quietly.
“Why would they do that? As opposed to not taking advantage of what remains of this manor against the cold. I can’t even believe it could get this cold here in High Woods. It wasn’t this cold even when we were up in the south end of the Great Northern Tundras.”, Lorna said with a chilled whisper.
“My mother..”, Anglenna fumed grimly. “..did not take it kindly the way the Orken destroyed her manor like the way they destroyed the rest of Bari Na-ammen. I guess she expected festive treatment from them, being the special snowflake that she thinks she is..”
“That’s the nicest thing you have ever said about your mother, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said lightly.
Anglenna glared at him.
“How should we proceed, cousin? This is your home. You know it best.”, Lorna said.
“This is not my home, Nadien ne, for it was never a home, to begin with. Let’s carefully make our way upstairs to my mother’s study. Then we can reach the ground floor and see what the Orken are really up to..”, she replied.
“Why don’t we just climb up this hole?”, Udoorin offered. “It does go all the way up to the ground floor. Yes, I will have to do some clearing and possibly some breaking to enlarge it, but it should save us a bit of time then . Once I can fit through it, I am sure it would be roomy enough for the two of you.”
“No. We must get to my mother’s study first.”, Anglenna said sternly.
“Uhhmm.. Any particular reason we should? I don’t want to intrude but everything there is probably ransacked or destroyed by now.”, the young man asked.
“There are a few things I need from there.”, the tall high elf woman replied and her tone suggested she did not want to be questioned about it any further.
“Perhaps we should go and see what is in my aunt’s study. It is possible she might have left some things behind, notes perhaps, that might give us clues as to what else she had in mind.”, Lorna agreed with her cousin.
Udoorin gave her an inquiring look but she returned it with a barely discernable shake of her head.
“Right. Of course!”, he said, picking up on her offer. “Sure. Sounds like a good, solid plan. We can’t climb out from here anyway. It leads up to a mere crack. There must be tons of rubble above it. We’ll have to figure another way. Lead the way, Lady Lenna.”
“You two are horrible at guile.. This way, if you will!”
✱ ✱ ✱
It took the three of them several hours to find a safe passage through the destroyed manor of the once high lady of Bari Na-ammen, Anglenna Sunsear. The Orken had spared no expense at destroying the great city of the high elves and they had not spared the Betrayer’s home either. Many dead Orken, burnt, blasted, and now, dried down to gray-green husks, lay in heaps and clusters like broken toys; testimony to the wrath of the lady of the manor. Whatever agreements or promises were given to the Betrayer, the Orken had not felt the need to uphold them and had destroyed her home, along with the rest of the great city of the elves. And young Udoorin had had to open a clear path leading up to her study by means of sheer brute strength as Lorna and Anglenna followed him closely.
The young man was sweating profusely by the time they had reached one floor above and he was mumbling to himself with an angry frown.
“What is the matter with you, young man?”, Anglenna asked finally with an exasperated tone. “You have been mumbling to yourself for the past hour.”
“Nothing.”, Udoorin replied shorty as he picked up a very large bit of broken wall and with a strained face, placed it aside, revealing a rubble-filled hall.
“Out with it!”, she said a bit irritably.
“I said, nothing..”, he replied firmly.
Lorna reached up and gently touched his arm.
“What is it, my Dorin? What is wrong?”, she asked.
Udoorin looked down at the young, beautiful girl who was, technically, older than him by ten years.. It seemed like he very much wanted to continue scowling but the sight of her face and the care, and the love he saw in her grass-green eyes totally ruined it; as the young man that he was, or the hero of Serenity Home, or the King of the elves, under no circumstance was he ever going to show the young woman he loved, his ugly, scowling face..
He turned his face and stared into the dark, rubble-filled hall, then he looked up, took a deep breath, and very slowly, he let it go from his nose.
“I am angry.”, he said finally as he further fumed from his nose.
“I know, love. But what has you vexed?”, she asked.
“All this..”, he said, waving all around him. “..I do not understand..”
Lorna did not say anything. She opted to wait, patiently, for him to elaborate. The young man she had come to love and entrust her life and soul was not a very talkative or voluble man and he always paused long before talking to her as if afraid to say anything that might hurt her, break her heart, or be misunderstood by her. Strictly speaking, the young man she loved wasn’t precisely the silent and closed kind of man, but he wasn’t particularly outward to others either, except perhaps where the ranger lieutenants Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel were concerned and, interestingly, Master Aager. He was never hurtful to anyone when he spoke, nor did he ever go out of his way to break anyone’s heart, but it was that final nuance that made all the difference;
Udoorin Shieldheart had reserved his fear of being misunderstood only for her..
It was so sweet, it made her heart lurch and her face burn for some reason whenever she saw him struggle for the right words the way he did now.
It also made her want to scream with exasperation at times, though. As a princess, she had been raised and educated with all the tender delicacies that demanded of her stature. But she was not a wilting flower even though she very much gave that distinct impression. At this, she admired the two ranger lieutenants, Laila Wolvesbane and Bremorel Songsteel because no one treated them like ‘ladies’, but always as rangers.
Had it been some few years back, she would have been more awed by the two girls and thought they were ‘hardcore!’
She still thought they were hardcore and had always liked them. And then, there was the simple fact that you just did not mess around with rangers..
Back to the young man at hand, then?
Lorna opted to patiently wait..
“This..”, he said still fuming. “..must have been a very big and very beautiful house once. I mean, I have never been into woodworking, or stone masonry, or fashion, for that matter, so I can not say I am an expert by any stretch of the meaning, but even I could see the details in the floral designs carved into the wood, the stones, the slender pillars, the drawings and the paintings, and the tapestries even though they are all destroyed. What I can not understand is, what was it that Angrellen lacked in her life that she would sacrifice a whole civilization of such beauty? I can not understand just what was missing in her luxurious life that she let tens of thousands die to attain?”
Then he turned and stared at the tall, high elf woman and his scowl had returned once again.
“I am sorry Lady Lenna, but I just don’t bloody understand it!”, he growled.
Anglenna stared at the young man for a moment as if considering whether to actually try and explain it to him. She must have decided on something for she replied, calmly, coolly, and somewhat distantly.
“I would tell you, young man, but I doubt you would understand, for you lack the necessary point of reference.”, she said.
“Cousin..”, Lorna began but Anglenna raised her hand.
“I speak the truth, Nadien ne. He just can’t understand. And neither can you, for that matter.”, she said with the same calm, cool, and distant tone.
“I never claimed to be a smart man, Lady Lenna, but that was a tad harsh, don’t you think?”, he said.
“You misunderstand me, young Udoorin. This has little to do with how smart you are. The simple matter of fact is, you, both of you, lack the point of reference to understand my mother, Angrellen the Betrayer.”
“And what is this point of reference that you think she has and that we apparently lack?”, he asked.
“Insanity.”, Anglenna replied quietly.
There was another moment of silence as both Udoorin and Lorna tried to work their way through what she had just said.
“You are trying to understand something that makes no sense because you have sense, young man. You are trying to put this destruction into some form of comprehensible or intelligible perspective because you have some perspective. You desperately wish to give some meaning to the things my mother did, hoping to find something you might relate to, which is my point; you can’t, because my mother has neither.. You are trying to grasp the things she has done, whilst they fall within the bounds of sanity all the while missing my point.. again; my mother has none!”
Udoorin ogled at her.
Lorna, on the other hand, fidgeted uncomfortably.
“I am sure there are some mitigating circumstances..”, she tried to soothe her cousin.
Anglenna gave her a cold, distant stare before she replied.
“I did say you were naïve at times, Nadien ne. To give you credit though, you are young therefore you have the luxury to be naïve about a great many things. This, however, is not one of them. Should you make that mistake, my mother will destroy you for she hates you like she hates no other. You represent everything she is not, and everything else she will never be, nor ever have. She is Hell-bent on killing you and the happiest thing she wishes for you is that you die screaming as your flesh melts right off your bones!”, she said viciously.
“That’s a bit graphic.”, mumbled Udoorin with a disturbed tone but the former high lady of Bari Na-ammen ignored him.
“Should she ever see you, she will come down on you like the fires of Gehenna itself and you will die. Please don’t do that! You bear the hopes of so many you know, and so many more that you do not, cousin, all of whom depend on you, and should you die, they will all die as well, along with everyone you love, and everything you care about. Do I make myself clear?”, she said very coldly. Then she looked at both of them and her tone became even colder. “So when I say you lack the reference point, and just how my mother is insane, I mean it at its greatest extent possible, and then some!”
An odd, oppressive sort of silence settled between the tall high elf woman, her cousin, and the young man. It seemed like her queen very much wanted to object, but the young man carefully cleared his throat and shook his head at her. Lorna’s shoulders slumped a bit as she recognized his wisdom and conceded.
And now they were standing, very still, with trepidation, in the shattered doorway of a vast, circular, half caved-in room, some fifty yards across. It was the only room left relatively intact and it was at the end of the hall they had entered. The other rooms, whatever their use or purpose had been mattered very little now, and although their doors were missing, either smashed and splintered, nothing but high rubble and debris was visible piled inside them. Perhaps once the room, along with its content had been an organized one. Considering the obsessive mind frame of its previous owner, it likely was. Now, however, there was nothing but chaos, and everywhere they looked, it was all in shambles..
“Is it safe to even enter?”, Udoorin asked staring into the dark and dusty chamber. “The far ceiling has caved in and the walls appear to have lost their structural integrity. I can see some of the support columns are missing and there are cracks and fissures on the ground tiles..”
“I do not understand how they managed destruction of this scale. Can’t be catapults.”, Lorna said sadly. “If they did this to your mother’s manor, I shudder to think what they did to the rest of the city. “
“Likely mangonels.”, Udoorin mused. “Catapults would have destroyed the upper floors and likely damaged the ground floor, but they do not fire the kind of weight necessary for this kind of devastation. Though I can’t imagine how they dragged mangonels through the woods. Must have been pure Hell.”
Anglenna did not comment. She chose to close her eyes and in high elven dialect, she whispered..
broken and scattered in the dark,
hidden under this decedent arc,
lies the lies and in there I seek,
show me, however, it be bleak..
Udoorin stared at her, wondering what she was doing. Lorna, however, knew the higher elven dialect as it had been part of her education though she had never truly had had the opportunity to use it.
They both watched the high elf woman sweep the whole of the vast chamber with one of her arms stretched, palm facing out, and her fingers apart. Meticulously, Anglenna probed her mother’s study, for this was where she had learned herself the darker aspects of necromancy and arcanum. Just like this was the very room where she had cursed her husband and slain him, planned her betrayal, and schemed her treachery and it was unlikely she had left it unguarded.
“There.”, she said after a good long ten minutes. “And there, there, and there, also.”, she added, pointing at various locations around the chamber.
“Wards?”, Lorna asked.
“Wards, magical traps, alarms, and likely disintegration runes. You name it.. Mother always did like her disintegration spells. Got her the most out of a curse without leaving a mess behind..”, her cousin replied.
“Except for a pile of dust.”, Lorna fumed angrily. “There is a reason why death curses, scrying into private homes, and disintegration spells were banned. A person should have a grave and that spell robs them of that, and of all their dignity.”
“My dear Nadien ne..”, Anglenna said to her with a brittle smile. “..just which part of insane, do you not understand? She killed her husband, my father, from this very room, while he and I were out on a picnic together. I was eight at the time. It’s been one hundred and seventy years and still I remember that very moment, and my father’s face, when he realized he was dying. His last words to me as he tried to hug me were; Ista en siilen eath’she aestar var..”
Lorna’s eyes shimmered.
“Know that I shall always love you..”, she quoted. “That.. that is so sad..”
“Well, it should explain my bitter disposition.”, she replied with the same brittle tone.
“I understand many things now.”, Udoorin murmured. “And feel for both of you.”
“You do, do you?”, Anglenna asked.
“Yes. Unresolved father issues.”, he said simply.
The tall high elf woman arched a platinum-blond eyebrow at him.
So did Lorna..
Udoorin gulped uncomfortably when he was suddenly confronted by two, beautiful women, one of which was the girl he loved very much, the other, her very cousin!
“Uhhmm.. well.. yes..”, he said lamely. “When you think about it..”
“You seem to speak out of experience, young Udoorin.”, Anglenna said with a dangerous, amused expression on her face. “Had a lot of issues with your father, did you? I was under the impression that Sheriff Standorin was a stern, but also a kind man at heart.”
“Yes. I suppose he was. Stern and kind at heart, I mean. But I did not suffer any father issues, no.”, he said with a flushed face.
“I had.. uhhmm.. Aager issues!”, he blurted, his face going even brighter red.
So did Anglenna.
“Don’t snort, Nadien ne.”, she said, stifling a belly laugh. “It is very unseemly for a queen to snort.”
Lorna snorted again.
“I am a mere cousin to one and a wife to another, here. I believe I may be given the moment’s luxury for a snort in such company.”, she said with a smile.
“The world has corrupted you, my dear Nadien ne. You were a beautiful, delicate, tender princess when you left Bari Na-ammen. Now you are a beautiful, delicate, tender, and snorting queen!”
Lorna gave out a delicate little laugh..
..then they all went silent and stern, as they stared at the vast, dark chamber.
“You two wait here.”, Anglenna said finally. “It is possible my mother excluded me from her ‘trigger’ list for the traps in case I came down here out of curiosity when I was little. Or they might ignore me out of kinship or direct blood relation.”
“Then I should be able to come in as well.”, Lorna said.
“No!”, Udoorin rumbled harshly.
“No.”, Anglenna said sternly.
Lorna stared at both of them.
“Angrellen hated your mother, Nadine Graciousward, remember?”, he reminded her kindly.
“Very true, dear.”, Anglenna said, looking down at her. “She did, and very much. I wouldn’t be surprised to find at least some of the traps here are attuned specifically for her.. and your father, Grandaleren, seeing as one of them was a renowned wizard and the other was one of the most famous sorcerers in the kingdom, making them the very two people who would have had the greatest potential to come in here. And your mother was also known to have entered another wizard’s tower; Arcanton Mordenon, and pretty much rubbed his sorry face all over his own tower. Mother might be insane and a Class-A psychopath, but she was always thorough. Let me go in and have a look around while the two of you guard the door.”
“You are aware that should something happen to you, the two of us are going to be stuck here, in these ruins, and in the middle of the whole High Woods Orken army, right?”, Udoorin said carefully.
Anglenna stared at him for a fickle.
Then she smiled.
“That is a tortuous way to tell me to be careful and that you care, young man. It’s sweet.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, Lady Lenna. I don’t even know what ‘tortuous’, means!”, he said with a straight face.
“I am sure you don’t.”, she replied, giving him another smile, this one clearly bemused, and took a step into the room. Soon enough, she was merely a dim silhouette, walking deeper and deeper into her mother’s study..
“Uhhmm.. What does ‘tortuous’, mean?”, the young man whispered at Lorna.
✱ ✱ ✱
One careful step after another, Anglenna walked further into her mother’s study, her arm stretched out just like before, as she probed for hidden wards and magical traps. Other than the few she had already sensed before, which were a basic variation of her mother’s favorite disintegration spell, she found only three more.
One of them was meant to entrap or perhaps even entomb an unsuspecting intruder in a magical prison far beneath the surface of the ground, effectively making him or her jailed there for eternity. Anglenna suspected this particular trap was prepared for her cousin’s father, Ri Grandaleren, seeing as how he had, in her mind, usurped her throne from her, she would just love to put him into such a prison and keep him there for eons, all the while tormenting him with the knowledge of what she would do to his wife and daughter.
The second trap was a bit more elaborate. It was a simple ward, really, likely meant to be found —barely! Its complexity was in the fact that it would be found by only one, rather specific person, and only that person would be affected by it.. and it would spring at the moment of its discovery! A cunning, devious, and heinous way to dispose of Nadine Graciousward, really.. As to what it would do to her was an altogether different level of deranged insanity; it would, at a very slow but unstoppable rate, rot away Lorna’s mother, starting with her beautiful face, her hands, her feet, her breasts, her arms, and her legs, leaving her lungs and her throat for last just so she would die screaming to her final breath!
Angrellen stared at the ward with beads of sweat running down her drawn face.
“Mother, your psychotic madness has no bounds indeed. The fact that you were preparing me to be more of the same is a clear indication that you should have been sliced open at birth and had your womb removed just so you would never have a single offspring! And that I have just said that, tells me just what kind of mentally deranged children they would have been..”
She found the third trap quite a bit later.. when she arrived at the broken benches and heavy tables of what remained of her mother’s study. Much like the rest of the vast room, her ‘workshop’ was also a mess of rubble, broken furniture, toppled over bookshelves, scattered books, tomes, torn parchments, and scrolls. Many bottles, utensils, flasks, and urns lay on the ground, most either cracked or totally smashed, along with strange items of indiscernible purpose also lay scattered among the rubble; long, delicate chains, tiny, half-a-palms sized bird cages or, when at a closer inspection, revealed them to be more like a torturers spined and barbed starving cages, pendants, medallions, amulets, and charms.. There was also any number of sealed and locked boxes, chests, and crates, though most of these were also broken and splintered.
Anglenna stared around her, and at the derelict that was her mother’s lifelong work of madness, and it somehow seemed proper, appropriate, and even fitting that it was all in such a state of chaos and shambles. Much like the Betrayer’s mind and life, now..
“I didn’t even know mother was into potions and alchemy, let alone relic crafting.”, she mused to herself as she carefully picked up various items, all broken or mangled beyond recognition or repair, from the rubble and the derelict. It was there she noticed a long, very delicate chain hanging loosely between some of the larger bits of what was likely the far wall and the ceiling. Apparently, when they had both collapsed, they had landed on several hardwood tables, taking them down and burying them along. Whatever the chain was, part of it had slid through the gaps between the bricks and the debris, not unlike water that seeped to form a little brook and Anglenna felt the magic it possessed before she touched it.
For a long moment, she stared at the chain, her hang outstretched as if in contemplation. Finally, she reached for it and held it in her hand to feel the extreme delicacy of the links. Even by elven standards, it was beautiful beyond words and Anglenna gasped as she marveled at the way the long length of the chain ‘poured’ from one of her hands to the other. Very carefully, she dug at the debris and nudged a few of the larger bits, and unearthed the rest of the chain to see there was a tiny, about one inch tall, barred, seemingly empty cage..
“What is it with you and cages, mother? There are any number of these tiny cages you have been working on, lying around. Is this the perfected version? Is this why you were so upset when the Orken leveled and ransacked your manor?”, she mused in a whisper.
The more she stared at the tiny, rectangular, box-like cage, the more insight she perceived into her mother’s treachery..
“This isn’t a birdcage at all! It is a jail.. literally! I can feel the cold, mind-numbing necrotic energy emanating from it..”
And she froze as several things clicked in her mind..
Her mother had prepared traps specifically for Grandaleren and Nadine Graciousward, expecting a possible, uninvited visit or even an incursion from either or both.
Her mother had hated Princess Alor’Nadien ne from the moment she was conceived, yet Anglenna hadn’t found anything her mother had prepared for her in specific. True, the room was in shambles and if the Betrayer had, in fact, prepared something for her niece, it could easily be under all the rubble. Or she could be carrying it in her person at this very moment but..
The little mental talks her mother had had with her back when she, Lorna, and Udoorin were down in the Arashkan sewers seeking for the old thieves guild for the Three Dog Curse, had revealed her mother hadn’t turned a hair at the burning of High Woods nor the destruction of Bari Na-ammen, yet she been extremely put out when the Orken had destroyed her manor, consequently causing her to lash out and slay any number of them just to demonstrate her displeasure. It was during those ‘chats’, her mother had berated about having wanting to retrieve some personal effects and how she hadn’t been able to.
Her mother had prepared traps for possible intruders, but it would be quite unlikely her very young niece would have ever come down here. For her, she had to have crafted something special. Something personal. Something that would land all her spiteful vex on the princess she hated. Something very delicious, elegant, and beautiful..
That weird, very tall, very dark girl, Seressa Wraiven, had told her to ‘Find it. Change it. Gift it..’
Much like she had also promised atonement should she do so..
The very same weird girl was the bonded maiden of the Raven Queen, who was the safe keeper of lost souls, items, and secrets.. and the speaker of prophecies, though, admittedly, usually ill ones.
Her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had bonded herself in the service of the Hex Lords of Shadowfel to fight against demons in hopes to preserve her people.
The Raven Queen ruled Shadowfel!
The Raven Queen also hated demons..
Her mother, Angrellen the Betrayer, served demons and had likely bonded herself to one of their greater lords.
And this delicate, intricate, very elegant, and beautiful necklace was it; the trap her mother had prepared for her niece, Alor’Nadien ne..
..and was supposed to have given it to her as a gift! Just like she had prepared The Three Dog Curse as a gift to be given to the First Lord, Princeps Kaladin of Arashkan city..
Anglenna pulled out a clean, white, laced, silk handkerchief from inside her robe and spread it on the floor, pushing aside stones and splinters. Carefully, she placed the necklace in the center of the handkerchief and wrapped it, knotting all four of its corners together, and tucked it safely into her bodice. She would have to study it carefully and extensively to figure out the ‘curse’ her mother had placed on it for her niece. Then she would have to ‘change’ it, and finally figure out whom to gift it to..
Just not now.
Then she went after what she had come for in the first place..
She tossed and trashed every chest, every box, every possible container she could find until she discovered it..
Rolled and tucked inside a long, hardened leather scroll case that had somehow escaped the destruction by the simple means of tumbling and rolling away from the crashing wall and the caving ceiling and settling, quite comfortably, on the other corner of the vast room, and in plain sight!
Anglenna hiccuped a funny sound between an elated happiness and whimper of relief..
She pulled out the content of the scroll case and unrolled it. Then, with a gesture, a small, flickering flame appeared in one of her palms and she stared at what she beheld with shimmering and yearning eyes. Her lips pouted and trembled as she drank upon what she saw and finally, the tears that she had held back for a hundred and seventy years ran down her face..
“She killed you, father. She shall no longer get to have you..”, she whispered at the portrait of Selvius Brightleaf. “I shall not even leave her the satisfaction of a reminiscence. Now, she truly is alone and damned..”
✱ ✱ ✱
You seem.. relieved sister-cousin.”, Lorna said quietly when Anglenna reappeared before them.
“I am relieved, my Nadien ne.”, the tall high elf woman replied and indeed, there was a languished air about her; her shoulders seemed relaxed and so did her spine. There was a few strands of her platinum-blonde hair hanging loosely from her otherwise rigidly bunned knots, giving her the framed appearance of, not quite disheveled, but ‘just woken up from a deep, sound, and restful sleep’, and the creases around her squints were gone. Her grimly pressed lips were slightly apart too now, and lo..
Anglenna Brightleaf had a pretty mouth!
“You found what you were looking for, then?”, her cousin asked.
“I found what I was looking for..”, Anglenna replied, nodding at her with a surprisingly bright, happy, and satisfied smile. “Thank you for understanding, and sparing the time to come here. Thank you both..”
“That’s what friends and family do, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin rumbled seriously. “We help the ones we love and care by means of removing the rubble to their happiness or bashing in the heads that stand in their way.”
Anglenna let a tingling laugh..
..which was quite the unique thing for her to do!
“Shall we start climbing up to the surface, then?”, the young man said, just so they could avoid another hugging session between his Lorna and her cousin. Things were uncomfortable as it was without him staring at two girls hugging one another and crying while he stood awkwardly on the side, chewing at corners of his digits!
“Yes.”, Anglenna agreed, turned around to give her mother’s study one last look..
..then they were gone.
It took them several hours to find a relatively safe opening; a mountain of more rubble and debris that climbed up to a tight hole in the ceiling that surfaced to the ground floor. It had been a tight push through the hole and young Udoorin ended up climbing back down to strip off his plate armor, bundle it into a large rucksack, tie it to one foot and drag it up behind him. He also lent his broad and powerful shoulders to the two ladies, helping them climb as well. Anglenna had apologized for the necessity while Lorna had blushed, quite furiously, as she climbed on top of him, though she did take advantage of the situation by giving him a chaste kiss on the mouth.. Udoorin didn’t complain.. Not once.. He merely grinned happily as he helped them; holding the tall high elf woman by her ankles and raising her up and over his head while he locked himself in the vertical shaft using just his powerful legs. He did not, however, hold Lorna by her ankles to help her up. He helped her up by the simple expedience of grabbing her by her slim waist, then pushing her up by cupping her shapely butt!
Which likely explained why he was grinning even more and she was blushing so furiously..
And now they were lying on some freezing debris and with the ruins of High Lady Angrellen Sunsear’s once beautiful manor all around them, staring through a long, gash-like crack on one side of the little, dark ‘room’ that was actually several collapsed walls leaning on each other, forming the said room! And through the crack, they could see the rest of the devastation of Bari Na-ammen just beyond of the remains of the shattered walls that bordered the Betrayer’s estate.
“There..”, Udoorin rumbled quietly, pointing at something in the distance. “..and there. They are all huddled together and hidden but the broken walls offer little concealment and the Orken are not exactly delicate creatures, to begin with, though they do know how to ambush surprisingly well. I strongly suspect there are similar groups hiding beyond our peripheral vision.”
“I see them.”, Lorna confirmed.
“So do I, young man.”, Anglenna said, “And yes, there are likely more out there that we can’t see from our vantage point.”
“Yes. The moment we assume to have figured them out, they show us just how wrong we have been.”, Udoorin agreed as he untied the rope from his foot, dragged the heavy rucksack up the shaft, unloaded his armor, and started strapping it back on. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones we can see are mere bait just so the ones we haven’t been able to spot can jump us. As I said, the Orken do love their ambushes. The question is, what do we do? What’s the plan of action here?”
Lorna sat up slightly in the relatively cramped space they were hidden and mulled over that question as a tiny frown appeared on her brows.
Anglenna stared at the Orken some more but came short of finding a solution. She also sat up and frowned.. She was good at affairs of state and short-term planning where combat was inevitable. Long-term tactical planning was not quite her forte.
“Why is Thelius never around when I need him?”, she grimaced heatedly.
“You told him you didn’t want to see his face if she had any days to live.”, Lorna replied bemusedly. “I thought that was a bit harsh, considering he lives for the sight of you, cousin.”
“Thelius?”, Udoorin asked.
“He certainly does not!”, Anglenna hissed.
“Who is Thelius?”, the young man repeated as he did the final straps and buckles of his armor.
“Does, too! Should see his face every time he sees you coming.”, Lorna smiled.
“Who is Thelius?”
“I have no desire to see his face!”, the tall high elf girl very nearly spat through her gritted her teeth.
“Who the bloody Hell is Thelius, dammit?”, Udoorin asked again with exasperation.
“Lord Armathelius Riverblade..”, Lorna replied with delight.
“Ow.. Ow?”, the young burly man said as he cocked an eyebrow.
“Didn’t you know? Our dear Lenna and Thelius are, infact, childhood friends.”, she added with more of the same eager delight.
“Lenna was a child?”, he blurted.
Lorna slapped her hands over her mouth to muffle a burst of quiet laughter.
Anglenna, however, gave him a very cold, arctic gaze.
“I.. very much apologize, Lady Lenna. That didn’t come out the way I wanted.”, Udoorin said with a burning face.
“And what did you want to mean exactly, young man?”, she asked him with a brittle voice.
“Ok. I am going to shut up now.”, he replied hastily. “But just so you know, that man is dying for a few kind words from you.. and would likely kill for your affection!”
“I find that highly doubtful, young man..”, Anglenna said with a very sour face.
“Why? You are a the daughter of a high lady. He is the son of a high lord. You are pretty. He is pretty. He obviously likes you. And you obviously find his affection bothersome, even irksome, but not loathsome enough to burn him on the spot. So, what’s the problem?”, he asked innocently, not realizing he had just walked into a pit full of very nasty and very painful things waiting at the bottom!
Anglenna ogled at him, quietly stupefied.
“Whatever there is going on between Lord Armathelius and me, is none of your business, young man.”, she literally hissed at him.
“I think it is.”, Udoorin replied with a shrug. “Not the details, of course, but the matter of fact is, I need both of you for the coming war. And should we survive, for the new kingdom we plan on building here.. And I can’t do that when I have only half of either of you.”
Lorna stared at her husband with an exhilarated expression.
Anglenna also stared at him, but her expression was not unlike someone who had just been hit over the head with a club!
“Now.. To the matter at hand, then?”, the young man bulldozed on. “Why do you need Lord Armathelius here? Other than his over-calm, and somewhat reassuring presence, I mean..”
Anglenna could only reply after a considerable mental effort, and when she did, her face was burning, though whether it was due to anger or embarrassment.. or both, wasn’t clear.
“Because he is an excellent tactician, my King!”, she hissed hotly. “And would have figured out a way to get us through the Orken army and to the possible location of the Grunt General and his Blood Shamans..”
“Ahh..”, the young man said as comprehension dawned on him. “Good call, Lady Lenna, though quite unnecessary.”
“Quite unnecessary?”, she exclaimed exasperatedly. “Young man, there are likely eighty to one hundred thousand Orken between us and the Grunt General and his Blood Shamans in High Woods! Just how do you propose we get through them?”
Udoorin stared at the tall high elf woman for a moment, then grinned at her.
“Quite elementary, Lady Lenna.”, he replied, still grinning at her. “We walk right through them, and in plain sight!”
Lorna didn’t say anything. She hadn’t the slightest idea what her husband had in mind but she thought his point of view and solutions to problems were quite a bit more grounded and practical than hers. Not long after she had first met him, she had figured Udoorin didn’t like, nor did he do complications. When there was a problem, he went at it with simple honesty and stabbed directly at its core, rather than taking any detours —a something she very much admired about him.. And that her cousin’s reaction to his way of particular solutions would be amusing if nothing else.
Her cousin on the other hand, and quite expectantly, was fuming through her nose now..
“And they are just going to let us through, are they?”, she said, giving him a smoldering look.
“Not only are they going to let us walk through them, but they will eagerly move aside.”, he replied.
“By all means, do elaborate, young man. Preferably before I lose my patience..”, she further fumed.
“But of course!”, Udoorin said smartly, then pointed at the cluster of Orken, poorly hidden among the ruins of the outer walls of her mother’s estate. “Tell me, Lady Lenna, what do you see there?”, he asked.
Anglenna stared in the direction he was pointing at, through the long crack, and saw the hidden Orken again. She frowned a bit in contemplation just to be sure she wasn’t missing anything that the irritatingly smug young man had noticed but she still saw nothing but the Orken..
“I see six Orken from where I am sitting in this filthy and freezing rubble.”, she finally said.
“I see the same thing, and that’s the point!”, Udoorin nodded at her as if stating the obvious.
“If there is actually a point here, young man, I am unable to see it.”, she said with a frustrated tone.
“Look.”, the burly young man tried to explain. “When you look at the Orken, you just see a bunch of big, ugly beasts. It is pretty much what everyone who has encountered them and lived to tell the tale sees which is expected. An average person is not prone to details. Particularly when they are fighting, or running, for their very lives. Had we had the time, or if it mattered, I could tell you more about each individual Orken hiding in those ruins. I don’t bother because at this very moment, that information is not practically useful, or relevant, to the success of our mission. When we first came here, to Bari Na-ammen and right before it was besieged, I just saw a lot of tall and pretty looking elves. To be honest, from afar, I could only differentiate whether one of them was a man or a woman and only by the way they walked.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the way we walk?”, Anglenna asked, a bit curious.
“There is nothing wrong with the way you walk. But all women do ‘sway’, which I am sure you already know, and which is something no man can truly imitate, nor should they try, but that’s my private opinion and not really relevant to the matter at hand.”, he said seriously.
“This is very interesting, young Udoorin. Do go on..”, the tall high elf woman said with a dangerous glint in her pale green eyes.
“I think it has to do with the shape of their hips, though I can’t be sure. Should you really want to know, I am sure Gnine could give you a better explanation..” he continued, not noticing Lorna turning bright red and covering her face in her hands.
“I can’t believe the things I am hearing, Dorin.”, she moaned with embarrassment. “Have you been staring at my hips all these past months?”
“Well, I didn’t do it on purpose, love. I promise. To be honest, though, it was quite unavoidable for me. You have very beautiful hips! Please don’t get me wrong. You are the only girl I have ever ogled at in my entire life. Dammit! I am digging myself in, aren’t I?”, he spluttered.
“Very much so, young man, very much so..”, Anglenna replied, struggling not to laugh.
“Look, my point is, all I saw was a lot of the same when we first came here. I am sure Laila picked out certain differentiating details such as height, weight, and broadness of each individual elves’ shoulders.. In short, things that would have clued her into certain facts. For example, if a person has broad shoulders, it would likely mean they train and work out, particularly if they also had thick thighs. Or she would have figured they practiced archery if their muscles were concentrated mostly around their arms and shoulders. I am certain Bremorel would have looked for similar details in each individual elf too, had she been there with us. Master Aager, on the other hand, would always look into peoples’ eyes and their hands to figure out their intentions, and hence, decide what kind of precautionary actions he would have to take.. I have been trained, quite forcibly, by Aager himself, but I am nowhere near his level of perception. Now, if any of us were to suddenly drop in the middle of Scowling Hills, or worse, Elder Hills, we would only see multitudes of dwarves and barely be able to perceive their gender, let alone their individual differences.. Not immediately anyway.. To bring the rooster home, I highly doubt the Orken have given any particular interest in any race, seeing as how they kill everything in their path with the same sinister attitude. For them, it is very likely all elves look the same, much like all humans or dwarves or gnomes look the same.. which, at this point, works for their bloodthirsty advantage; they get to kill us all without having any morel dilemmas which is ironic, really, since we will be doing the exact same thing to them!”
Both Anglenna and Lorna were staring at him now, a bit confused, and more than a bit surprised at the complex explanation he had just laid out.
“Very well, young man. I understand your point better now, but how does it help us? If you are suggesting we dress up like the Orken, I highly doubt that would work. You are a large man, but even you lack their height and weight, and there is no way either I or my cousin would pass for one of them no matter how we dressed up. And if you are considering illusions, my talents don’t go that way. If I had to, I might be able to change my face a bit, but that’s as much as I can do which still isn’t enough. Perhaps if that disrespectful little gnome of yours were here, he could have pulled it off..”, Anglenna said, pointing out the flaws in the young man’s plan.
“Illusions?”, Udoorin said somewhat surprised. “Didn’t even occur to me. What I had in mind was, we walk out.. exactly as we are!”
“I don’t understand.. At all..”, the tall high elf woman said, totally giving up.
“Dorin, dear, what will stop them from attacking us?”, Lorna asked kindly.
“Ahh, my bad, love. Forgot to mention that part.”, Udoorin replied and he was grinning again now. “They won’t attack because of the ‘elf witch’ they fear that owns this house. After all, she did kill scores of them, and she did it right in the middle of their army. That is why the Orken are out there, watching this place. They are there in case she comes back! You see, Angrellen didn’t just kill a few scores of them. She insulted them right in the middle of their home base.”
“This is not their home!”, Anglenna hissed.
“Doesn’t matter what we think, Lady Lenna, it matters only what they think at the moment, and they guard this manor against the possibility that she might return.. I suggest she does return and demand to see their Grunt General!”, Udoorin replied, then paused for comprehension to dawn on the two ladies.
A long silence settled as the recognition of what the young man had in mind slowly seeped through. And when it did, it didn’t come quietly, nor kindly..
“I LOOK NOTHING LIKE MY MOTHER! I AM NOTHING LIKE HER!”, Anglenna hissed with savage self-loathing and through tight lips and gritted teeth!
“No, Lenna, you do not.”, replied Udoorin, and his rumbling voice was low, slow, and there was a distinct tint of sympathy in it. “And I could have told you that, even before Arashkan. You see, you have three things your mother never had, and will never have; you have compassion, you have conscience, and you have a heart.”
Anglenna stared at him and it seemed like something broke inside of her. Her cousin, Alor’Nadien ne, had told her similar things in the past. So had Lord Armathelius. Why the words of this brawny man hit her so hard, she just couldn’t understand. Perhaps it was due to his simple honesty.. She did, perhaps for the first time, get an insight as to what it was that had drawn her Nadien ne to him like a moth. It also dawned on her the recognition of another feeling surfacing for the boy. Something she had displayed, though admittedly, a bit superficially, but never truly felt..
Lorna had reached over to her from where she sat and squeezed her hand, for support or for perhaps to ratify the words of her husband, it didn’t really matter. Her Nadien ne had always been there for her even though Anglenna was supposed to have hated her..
“I.. don’t know what to say to that, my King.”, Anglenna croaked.
Udoorin’s face flushed.
“I.. do not like complications, Lady Lenna. And I am horrible at lies. Master Aager tried to teach me how, among many other things, as part of my training, you know, in case I would have to, but it just didn’t take hold. To the matter at hand; you can be your mother and stroll down there and demand to see their Grunt General, and we can be your bodyguards.. or your bruisers.. I never did bodyguard duty, but I suspect I’d make an excellent bruiser!”, he said with a broad grin.
“No one is ever going to believe Nadien ne to be a bruiser, young man.”, she objected.
“I shall be your servant, then? Or your handmaid?”, offered Lorna.
“You are a Queen, Nadien ne. You will be a servant to NONE!”, Anglenna said very sternly.
“I am the queen, yes. I am also the servant of my people, cousin. And you are my people as well!”, Lorna replied happily.
“That is the worst use of logic, and metaphors, I have ever heard of!”, fumed the high elf woman.
“And here I thought I was the queen..”, she said, smiling at her. “I can’t even have my own cousin to accept my wishes!”
“That was uncalled for, Nadien ne..”, Anglenna said angrily.
“If it will take us to the Grunt General’s tent, I do not mind playing your maid, cousin. My Dorin’s plan is a sound one.”, she countered pleadingly.
“But I do not look like my mother!”, she insisted.
“That doesn’t really matter, Lady Lenna.”, Udoorin said. “The Orken will hardly recognize your facial differences. They will not see the Betrayer’s daughter. They will only see a high elf woman coming out of her manor with her bruiser and her handmaid making demands. After we butcher the few that object that too loudly, I am sure the rest will see things our way, provided you can act your mother. They might miss the details of your appearance, they will not, however, miss your mannerism if they see you hesitate.. I expect Angrellen was a cold, ruthless woman?”
“Young man, the words ‘cold’ and ‘ruthless’ were invented for Angrellen the Betrayer! But I am not sure I can do the things she can. What happens if I am expected to perform her role and I just can’t?”, she asked vehemently.
Udoorin looked at the tall high elf woman. This was the first time he was seeing her lose her usual, self-assured stance. It wasn’t hard for him to figure Lady Lenna was very much afraid of her mother, or even dreaded her and now she was expected to impersonate and become her..
“Lenna.”, he rumbled at her. “I have been thinking over this plan ever since I and Lorna decided on these missions to kill the Grunt Generals and the Blood Shamans. We chose the locations and their corresponding groups with careful deliberation and not out of convenience, nor at random. I sent Lilly Venom with Aager and Inshala to Oger’s Foot, to Dim Woods, and then to Stinking Shacks because the ogres would only listen to that little girl and only she would be able to enforce cooperation between them and the woodsmen of Dim Woods.. I sent her even though I never wanted to because that little girl had suffered enough already. I wanted her to stay behind and be happy. I saw Aager’s face when I mentioned her in their group and if anything happens to that girl, I am very sure he is going to slice me open! I sent Lilly with them because those bloody bandits at Stinking Shack will show respect only to someone worst than they are; a wanted Drashan assassin!
I sent Perigren Ostlanna Temez, a totally unknown entity, with Bremorel and Thomas to make it through the wilderness, just to get to know her and to learn her true intentions in case she had some ulterior motives behind her actions because we had to know!
I sent two more of the half-born to Misty Woods —with my father.. Yes, he is a very sturdy and experienced warrior, but he isn’t as young as he used to be. I sent them together to make sure the job got done at the risk of losing him. I also sent a bloody Drashan captain to meet them at the south of Tar Pits so he could sail them across Arashkan Lake..
I have no idea how and why they were where we met them, and how they got ahead of us to organize the tundra tribes and hordes, but I sent that barbarian girl, Cora Sleet, south so she would see more of the kingdom outside her tundras and know our plight. And because we simply need those barbarians! I sent the little hobbit, Brom Bumblebrim, so he would sing our plight and make it a legend. And I sent the two girls from the Academy of Melshieve, Seressa Wraiven and Arcanton Palecog in the hopes that they would somehow persuade the Academy into joining us for the coming war..
As for the three of us, we were all eager to jump to immediate action together. I certainly was, and so was Lorna and you.. and it all seemed ‘right’ in the wake of what’d happened to Arashkan and High woods. But after what we went through down in the sewers while seeking for the Three Dog Curse, I never wanted Lorna to come and face the kind of dangers she did. Not again.. I wanted her to take a break and rest if nothing else. I wanted to spend some time together with her. To be honest, I wanted her to stay behind and not come here at all but she made her wishes known to me even against mine. I also did not want you to come. Don’t get me wrong.. It wasn’t due to any inadequacy on your part, or dissatisfaction with your abilities nor was it because I didn’t trust you. It was because I saw how you were on the very brink of a total breakdown. It wasn’t hard to recognize your personal and intimate conflicts, even before the events that occured at Arashkan. You had suffered one emotional trauma after another, over and over, and without even a breather in these past several months, and those were only from the things that I know of.. I wanted you to stay and have a few weeks of peace.. at least untill the Orken arrived..
Here is the thing though;
Who else could do what must be done? Who else would you entrust to do what we must?”
Anglenna stared at the young man in the dim and cold confines of the rubbles and her shoulders slumped down even more.
“I shall do it.”, she whispered finally. “And I must say, the way you tasked people, even the ones you knew and cared for to certain death was quite ruthless.”
“Cousin..”, Lorna objected.
“No, love. She is right.”, Udoorin said. “It was ruthless and I loath myself for having to have to do it. But there are so many lives at stake and the ones I knew and cared for, the ones I tasked, are the only people I could trust to get the job done..”
“I am impressed. I despaired how you would ever make a king.. Apparently, there was little to worry. You are more a king now, than Grandaleren ever was.”, Anglenna observed.
Then she rose up to her full height, straightened her spine, pushed back her shoulders, and stared down mercilessly at him, and at her cousin. “Come, then, and witness the arrogance of Angrellen the Betrayer..”
✱ ✱ ✱
With a great heave, Udoorin pushed out one of the fallen walls and it came down with a quaking rumble. He stood there, in plain sight, and on to of mountain of rubble, holding his massive black axe.. He glared down and around menacingly, taking in the devastation and the Orken.. and roared!
“Come forth, yee wet, scurvy dogs! My Mistress desires to speak to your Grunt General and yee shall take us to him, or many of yee shall end this day and be fodder for rot rats.. I shall slaughter the lot of you, one by one, or by the dozen, I care little. But I will enjoy myself in doing so, and until her wish is done!”
A stunned silence ensued in the courtyard of Angrellen’s manor..
And then, the Betrayer herself stepped out.
Tall, slender, and cold as the arctic winds, she stared down at the Orken with unadulterated spite and dissatisfied arrogance.
Behind her, another slender figure appeared. This one with long, raven-black hair whipping in the frigid winter breeze, and other than her burning green eyes, her face was void of all expressions..
“THE ELF WITCH!”
..grunted the Orken, then they charged, without hesitation, wielding cruel-looking jagged swords and spiked axes, and the burly young man with the giant black axe replied in kind.
He showed neither mercy nor finesse. With an indifferent swing, he lopped the head of the first to come, axed the chest of the second, shattering bone and cartilage with equal ease, opened the stomach of the third, spilling his innards..
..then he was among them!
He never paused, he never stopped, and like some frightening, enraged pendulum, he swung right, and he swung left, and he cut them down.
“HALT! FALL BACK!”, grunted another voice from far behind and the Orken froze..
The enraged ‘pendulum’ did not!
He slaughtered every single one of them until he was covered in black, oozing blood and stinking and steaming gore..
“I said, halt, human!”, growled the same voice, and a seemingly older Orken came into view. He had a dirty-gray beard and long, bushy brows. A part of his nose was missing and his face was wrinkled. Smeared clots of once red blood marked his forehead and his wrinkles. He wore a tattered, brown robe as dirty as his beard and several human and perhaps, elf skulls hung from his braided twine rope for a belt..
“I do not take orders from the runt of a Loshka!”, Udoorin sneered at him. “I take my orders from Lady Angrellen..”
“Should you not hold, your witch mistress shall have to find herself another pet to entertain herself.”, the old Orken spat back, then turned to the tall effigy standing coldly at the top of the rubble of the manor. “Speak, witch! What do you want? You gored yourself in Orken blood the last time you were here. We no longer owe you any debt for the destruction of your manor. These are our lands now..”
Angrellen did not reply.
With a tensile, disgusted expression, she stared down at the old, filthy Orken.
“The Mistress of Sunsear Estate does not do peons, nor a diseased rot rats!”, Udoorin snarled.
And brought down his great, black axe!
There was a shuddering thud and the axe bit deeply into the Orken’s shoulder and worked its way down his torso.
“Do you.. even know.. who I am?”, croaked the old Orken as thick, tar-like blood gushed out of his mouth, his half nose, and his split corpse.
“Yes.”, sneered the blood-covered young man with disdain. “You are dead!”
He stared at the old, wrinkled Orken, and as the light of life faded from his eyes, he learned him something he thought the dying monster ought to know;
“And these are not your lands. It never was. It never will be..”
“Bit on the bloody side, wasn’t it?”, Angrellen said as she appeared next to Udoorin, and staring down and around at the slaughter.
“Less than I wanted, really.”, the young man grunted with an angry, flushed face. “The last time I was here, there was a living, autumn forest and a beautiful city teeming with elves.. I can smell death in the air and it was there before this dead lot!”
“That was a Blood Shaman, by the way.”, she noted, looking down at the bloody mess of the old Orken.
“Yes. And good riddance.”, rumbled the young man.
Lorna was staring at him with undisguised amazement though. Her eyes were still ablaze, but there was also a tiny shimmer of fear in there now and young Udoorin saw it.
“Please, Lorna. Do not hate me for what I just did, and what I must yet do.”, he said a bit too harshly.
“I do not hate you, my Dorin. I never could. It’s just.. I have seen you fight many times before, but never did I ever witness you kill so freely and dispassionately. It.. disturbed me..”, she replied, bowing her head.
“I know, love. But this is the kind of behavior they expect from Angrellen and I am giving them exactly that.”, he said and a note of pleading could be heard in his voice.
“Do not dwell on what has happened, Nadien ne. It is pointless, only painful. Now, stand up straight. We have more incoming and the Betrayer’s handmaid does not brood.”, Angrellen snapped.
A whole platoon of Orken approached them, their steps steady, their hands on their weapons, sheathed or hanging from their belts. Against their glaring hate towards the Mistress of the Sunsear’s Manor, they showed remarkable discipline or restraint and they did not draw them. When they came within fifty yards of the three, standing in plain sight, the large Orken leading the platoon rose his fist and they all stopped. He stood his ground for a moment, staring at the them, then calmly he stepped forward and came as close as ten feet before them as Udoorin took a few steps forward himself and intercepted him, forcing the Orken to stop there.
“Elf witch!”, he growled. “I am the platoon krush and this is the second time you have come here to distract The Greater Orken.. We have much work to do and many preparations to make. And we have little time to spare for your private amusement. Take what you wish from your former home and leave. You are no longer welcome in our lands.. This shall be your only warning—”
Udoorin did not let him finish that sentence. He simply swung his great black axe from below, in a straight, perpendicular line and the platoon krush collapsed, squirming while holding his ruined groin! He screeched once, shuddered, then died..
“Mistress Angrellen Sunsear does not do peons, and neither does she take kindly to threats..”, he snarled.
Then he stared, quite boldly, at the Orken platoon and roared.
“You shall do as Mistress Angrellen demands and take her to your Grunt General, or you shall also die.. Choose!”
Silently, the Orken platoon parted.
✱ ✱ ✱
It took them the rest of what had remained of the day, another full day of hard traveling, and two nights, of only one they had taken a rest to reach the great, canvas and leather tent with odd, tribal patterns erected at the center of Orken army, somewhere on the west side of the ruins of Bari Na-ammen. Surrounded by the same Orken platoon, they pushed their way through multitudes of other platoons, and the burnt-down woods.
The Orken had left nothing green standing; the trees were all black and charred, the ground was covered with sooty, slushy, and muddy snow, and a steady haze of smoke clung like a filmy, gray-purple blanket over the whole of the once beautiful forest and Alor’Nadien ne felt her heartache at the sight, for deep down, she could hear the groaning and dying slumber of the great spirit that was once High Woods.
To further their distress, they also saw tall, horrifying pyramids of rotting and broken bodies of elves; men, women, and children, heaped on top of each other, cut, mutilated, torn apart, and burned..
Their only consolation was, the winter had not been kind to the Orken. Whatever the skinny little girl, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, had done, it had left thousands of blackened and petrified Orken in its wake, all frozen to death everywhere. The survivors of the brutal winter had left them where they had died as if wanting to further befoul and besmirch the very soil of the forest. The odd and creepy part of it all was, the forest had refused to let them into her bosom as she would any other; elf, human, or beast.
And Lorna felt the shallow breaths of her woods. She could almost see her adamant, but futile struggle to keep the Orken corpses off herself, but she knew that wouldn’t last. Once her already withering strength finally ebbed, the Orken would rot and sink into the soil and that would be the end of it because unlike elves, humans, dwarves, or beasts, the Orken had demon blood coursing through their veins and whatever demons touched, they killed. But this was worse, for their blood would soak into the very soil of the woods and who knew what kind of horrors would rise from that!
“We must hurry. Tell the Orken to keep going and not to stop for rest.”, she had whispered to Anglenna.
“Why? What is going on, cousin?”, she had whispered back.
“We must end this war, and we must do it soon.”, the beautiful half-elf girl had said pleadingly.
“Nadien ne, tell me what is going on?”
“Quarlani Ath Tel’Ora is dying!”, she had replied with a desperate voice and tear-stricken face.
“How.. how do you know?”, her cousin said incredulously.
“I can feel her, Lenna.. I can feel the Spirit of High Woods as she ebbs away.. She is dying, cousin.. My forest is dying! If she dies, our forest and our lands will turn into another Demon Plains and only the dead will roam it!”
Anglenna had just stared at her with a horrified expression.
And now they were standing before the great tent, tired, in trepidation, and seething with silent wrath with thousands upon thousands of Orken stretching as far as the eye could see in the hazy, purple-gray smoke..
The leading Orken that had replaced the platoon krush Udoorin had killed, pulled open the heavy canvas flaps of the tent, stepped aside, and stood there without a word or a gesture. Angrellen followed him inside, swaying her hips more than she normally did, imitating her mother, and was confronted by a horrible stench that could only be the gross, stomach-churning combination of stagnant sweat, dried blood, and meat gone bad. She almost retched at the horrible smell barely able to maintain her role. Her big, burly bruiser gave the Orken behind them a menacing look as he let the high lady’s handmaid in, then he let himself in as well. They too were confronted by the disproportionately ghastly smell and Lorna couldn’t help but sway where she stood.
There was a large, heavy oaken table sitting in the middle of the tent, a pit dug on the far end with something staked burning in it. Many once beautiful elven rugs were tossed on the ground muddy and filthy ground and several braziers hung from chains, giving the tent the illusion of a dim light..
There were also a dozen Orken in the tent, gathered around the heavy, oak table. Most were likely rank officers, much like the krush Udoorin had killed, acting as lieutenants, captains, or perhaps even majors, if the Orken had such ranks. There were three Blood Shamans, their outfits filthy and there were smears of cracked and dried blood on their faces, very much like the one that had also died at the hands of Lady Angrellen’s bruiser.
And in their mids, across the table, sitting on a beautifully carved throne, was the largest Orken they had ever seen. He was perhaps twelve or thirteen feet tall, with arms and legs that looked like he could snap a young tree in half without breaking a sweat or kick a siege walk down. He stared at them with the calm of before a storm, or a well-fed lion. It was his eyes that gave him away, however.. There was a deep-seated menacing and unholy glitter reflecting from them and they projected, quite clearly, exactly what the owner of those eyes was; a creature untainted by compassion or empathy, or even slightest understanding of the base things that turned an animal into a ‘human’, and with a shared insight, all three of them suddenly knew that this was the Orken that had given the order to burn down High Woods. It was his words of command that had caused the total ruination of Bari Na-ammen. It was his orders that had slaughtered thousands of elves then piled them into disgraced and degrading pyramids. It was because of him Quarlani Ath Tel’Ora, the Spirit of High Woods was dying.. and it was on his imminent command that there was a permanent, stinking, purple-gray, and choking smoke lingering over the charred forest..
Angrellen gave the tent and the dozen Orken, the Blood Shamans, and the Grunt General inside a deliberately disdainful look before she spoke.
“It would seem, you lack nothing less than the other races when it comes to arrogance.”, she said with a cold, distant voice. “With what you did here, you merely doomed yourselves and I am here to correct that.”
Nobody said anything, nor did anyone reply.
Every Orken in the tent; the krush, the Blood Shamans, and the Grunt General just stared at her.. silently.
It was the giant Orken sitting on the throne himself that finally responded and he did it with calm, succinct deliberation..
“You were warned never to come here into our lands, elf witch. Mother sent word that should you ever be sighted, you were to be seized and dragged, by the hair, through barbed bushes until you no longer held flesh on your back, and begged for death. Only then would you understand; what Mother wants, she gets, and when she warns, she does so only once and that her word is the law. And her law is; upon apprehension, that your arms be torn out of your shoulders without the use of a blade, hence you never raise your hands against the Greater Orken again, your legs be pulled apart and blazing irons be thrust between them and into your womb before they be ripped out of your hips so you will never have runts to avenge you and will know, there is nowhere you can go and that your fate is sealed. Then your arms and your legs are to be hung, from chains, where you would see and right next to what remained of you, also be hung from a chain skewered to the cap of your skull and be put on display, whist you be an example to those who dare rise against us in folly arrogance. But do not be dismayed, elf witch, my Blood Shamans assure me you shall live long enough to suffer through your sentence, and that you would entertain us with the pleasure to sing to your screams!”
The silence that ensued this had all the earmarks of the nauseating horror it was intended for.
The true dread came a split second later; the Grunt General had not said what he’d said to intimidate. He had merely passed on the Orken Mother’s sentence, possibly verbatim!
“Good Heavens, mother, what did you do that would warrant such distaste even from these filthy beasts? Is there anyone you have not offended in this world? ‘Blazing irons thrust between the..’, really, now?”, Anglenna thought with a sick sense clutching somewhere down her breadbasket!
She showed no reaction nor any expressions of outburst on her face, however. She simply stared at the Grunt General and smiled.
“You have missed your calling, Grunt!”, she said, deliberately refraining from calling him a general and with a clear sneer on her cold face. “You should have been a poet. Tell me, do you always do as your mother tells you? Sad, really, seeing the whole High Woods Orken legions is led by a mother’s darling boy.. Are you a mother’s darling boy?”
The Grunt General did not respond to her attempt at provocation. It was a superb display of personal discipline never seen in another sentient creature, particularly taking int the fact that she had done so in front of his subordinates. Or perhaps they were not so sentient after all, in the sense that they were ‘made’ and ‘bred’ with total lack of ego, which, ironically, was what made other races ‘normal’.. The only display of any emotions was that of the menacing glitter in his eyes..
It had deepened indiscernibly darker..
“Witch..”, he rumbled, staring at her with open disgust. “You have one breath of words to spare before I bring Mother’s Law upon you. I suggest you use it wisely.”
Angrellen stared at him with equal loathing, then her expression turned into a splendid smile..
She pointed at him and with affront she spoke..
“One breath of words, is it? Then one breath of words you shall have..”
..and she shrieked!
It was a mind-shattering scream that blasted out from her in jabbing and jarring waves of psychic pain as if chalk and nails were scraping on hardwood, multiplied exponentially and to bone shattering levels and every Orken in the room shuddered, their faces turning into grotesque, pinched expressions as blood gushed out of their mouth, their nose, their ears, and their bulging eyes.. They coughed and gurgled in their own blood, and then, one of the Orken held his head with both his powerful hands as if trying to keep it together..
His head exploded, not unlike a melon smashed by a heavy sledgehammer, as blood, brain, and shattered bits of skull splattered everywhere.. and he dropped, quite headless, with the tip of his spine jabbing out of his bloody neck, on the ground!
Soon enough, the Orken on either side of him also dropped, sharing the same fate. The death of some of the others was not as dramatic. The Blood Shamans had shuddered also, spitting blood, but they had not fallen down..
The Grunt General hadn’t even turned a hair at the horrific scream. He had sat, calmly, as his subordinates toppled over, one by one, dying in bloody gore.
Slowly, he rose from his throne, dragging a great, dark, blood-caked, saw-edged sword from his back and rumbled.
It was then, one of the Blood Shamans grunted and toppled down, a long, bloody gash opened down his spine, displaying his lungs and innards, and Lorna stood there!
She had ‘misted’, as she oft did, behind the Blood Shamans, and started cutting them down the moment her cousin had let loose her harrowing scream.
The Grunt General was upon the tall high elf woman so fast, it was unnerving. It was also a bit too fast for her to react. He slammed into her, then struck her with the fist of his sword hand, sending her stumbling, stunned, and bloodied.. She moaned as she stared up at him dazedly from where she lay., blood gushing out of her broken nose and shattered cheekbone and when he brought down his blade to end her, she yelped, a bit girlishly, losing all her mother’s pose and with untrained reflex, she inadvertently rose her arms in defense and the giant monster of an Orken brought down his massive saw-sword..
There was a sharp, screeching clank of steel followed by a shower of biting sparks and the jagged sword was stopped cold and inch from her terrified, paled face by a great, black axe!
“Rising your bare hands to defend yourself against a two-handed sword? Really, now, Lady Lenna.. I shall have to reprimand Lord Armathelius quite strenuously for his lack of concern for the girl he desperately wants, leaving her without any combat training..”, Udoorin said as he frowned at her, his face strained..
The Grunt General was bloody strong!
“You shall do no such thing, young man!”, Anglenna slurred at him through her bloodied mouth and glazed eyes..
Udoorin slowly turned to face the Grunt General, the monster’s great saw-sword traped in the crook of his giant axe! His teeth gritted and sweat came dripping down his face as he stared at the deep, dark eyes of the brutish Orken, who was grinning at him.
“You are not a match for the full might of the Orken, boy. I must thank you though. You have cleansed our ranks of the weak and the runts. Only the strong shall stand. There is no place for the weak in our ranks.”
Udoorin snarled as he struggled to hold against the Grunt General as Lorna cut down another Blood Shaman. She spun around to face the last when a sense of dread washed over her..
The last Blood Shaman had just started casting blood magic on her!
“Lenna..”, gasped the young man. “Get up! The Orken will come pouring into this stinking tent soon enough.”
Anglenna struggled to her feet, stumbled, and fell over. She struggled again and straightened with blood dripping from her broken nose and split-mouth. Her eyes were still very much glassy; a clear indication of a concussion. She wobbled in her place for a moment, and then closed her eyes for a spell, and murmured..
I have no wish,
nor desire, nor have I any claim,
For the fires that burn in me
only with shame,
To repent and to cleanse the
dreads of my past,
Shall I bleed and break
and be free at last!
There was a moment of pregnant expectation in the air, and then, with a low rumble, the outside of the tent lit up with a blazing, orange-red fire, some twenty feet high!
The fire roared and cut right through any that was too near as it dashed forth, not unlike some bizarre, fiery hound, and around the tent, totally encircling it and causing an uproar among the Orken..
The interior of the tent, however, went dim as if all the torches and the braziers had just been snuffed out.
Dark, flame-like shadows wreathed the Queen of the elves and the darkness spread out and into the tent..
..just as the Blood Shaman released his black magic upon her!
Within the shadows, Lorna moved, silently and unseen, and something bloody and terrible clawed at her. She did not wait. Once more she ‘misted’, in the shadowy darkness, and appeared behind the blinded Blood Shaman, who was pointing here and there and ordering the horror he had summoned to attack.
There was a low, ominous hiss, and the near three-yard long glaive with thirty-inch blade of the hex queen struck!
The blade burst out of the Blood Shaman’s chest.
He squealed in pain as he stared down, unable to see the blade that’d just killed it in the dark.
With a hoarse sigh, the last of the Blood Shamans dropped on the ground, face down.
“Done.”, Lorna said quietly as the darkness around her dissipated..
..and suddenly Udoorin grinned back at the Grunt General and twisted his axe. The saw-sword that was caught in the crook of the axe shrieked in protest..
..and snapped in half!
The Grunt General stared at it in disbelief as the burly young man slammed into him..
..and knocked him down with a meaty head-butt!
The Grunt General fell back, his nose smashed in and with what remained of his sword clattering to one side. The young man did not wait for any final words. Not until the deed was done..
He simply brought down his massive black axe and into the Orken’s chest!
Bone, rib, and cartilage split and splintered as the savage axe bit deep into the monster. He lay stunned, gasping and wheezing for breath but his own, dark, tar-like blood had already started filling his lungs..
“Just so you know..”, Udoorin said, deciding this was just about the right time for the postponed ‘final words’ part, as he stared down at the dying Grunt General. “..you may think strength lies in what you can take from the weak. Perhaps I should disillusion you off that misconception before you go, hmm? The person who killed thousands and thousands of your Orken before the fighting even began was no other than a skinny little girl.. Choke on that, before you choke in your own blood!”
The Grunt General stared at him, gurgling and coughing black blood as more of it seeped and splashed out of the ghastly gash on his chest as his heart pumped frantically to keep him alive..
“I.. don’t.. understand..”, he croaked..
“I don’t expect you would.”, Udoorin replied. He then reached over to one of the braziers and pulled out a hot and glowing-orange poker with tiny red sparks playing on its tip. He gave Anglenna a quick glance and noted the high elf woman was still wobbling where she stood, her face bloody, her eyes unfocused, and there was a certain vagueness about her expression.
“Would you like the satisfaction of a vengeance, Lady Lenna?”, he asked politely
“Hmm..?”, she murmured groggily.
“He did say something about you and blazing irons… Perhaps he should find out exactly how that feels?”, he offered.
“No, my Dorin..”, Lorna said, as she appeared silently next to them. “No matter what they are or what they have done, we must never forget two things; who we are.. and that they are not our mentors..”
Udoorin looked at her, then dropped the searing poker on the ground.
“You are right, they are not our mentors. Thought I would offer it to Lady Lenna, that’s all.”, he said to her with a nod. He turned to the dazed high elf woman again and asked.. “Lady Lenna? I believe we are done. Are you well enough to get us out of here? I am not sure those flames outside will hold the Orken off any longer. It is possible they will find a way in, even if they have to throw a couple of their own on it..”
“He is still alive, young man..”, she murmured, staring at the Grunt General.
“I doubt that will last much longer.”, he said lightly, looking down at the graying Orken.
“Never leave a job unfinished, young man. It is a slovenly habit to pick.”, she said grimly as focus started coming to her eyes.
She took a few unsteady steps towards the Grunt General who was making guttural noises now and asked him..
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake?”
The Orken was now merely glazing with black blood bubbling out of his mouth..
“Anyone can make an error.”, she said. “But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. Your error was to think, that throne belonged to you. Your mistake was to have the arrogance to believe in that error..”
..And with a low, angry hiss, she pointed a long, slender finger at the dying Orken.
Wrath you sought,
And wrath you bought.
Now my fires, high and hot.
Nothing shall I leave of you
The Grunt General lit with incinerating flames! His arms, legs, chest, and face cracked and burst open with searing fire, but the Orken refused to scream or perhaps he just couldn’t.. He only moaned as his eyes bubbled and popped out of their sockets and came down his face like tears, his bones charred and crackled, and his sizzling flesh came off him like molten wax..
Both Lorna and Udoorin stepped back because the heat had become unbearable and the choking, greasy black smoke stank so bad, their faces had turned a tender shade of green..
“NOW YOU KNOW.. THIS IS THE LEGACY OF ANGRELLEN THE BETRAYER.. SAVOR IT, AND DIE IN IT!”, the tall high elf spat with burning, hateful eyes.
Both Lorna and Udoorin stared at one another somewhat freaked and a sense of dread settled over them..
For the fires encircling the tent had died down because the high elf woman, in her anger, had forgotten to keep it alive..
“Lorna. Bring Lady Lenna around.. The fun time is over. We must get out of here, and we must do it now! I shall hold them back for as long as I can..”, Udoorin said sternly and stepped in front of the first Orken to appear at the tent’s flaps!
A bloody exchange ensued just inside the tent as the young burly man started butchering Orken as they tried to push past him.
“Cousin!”, Lorna called as she dashed next to her cousin. “Enough of this. We must leave. Now!”
But there was no end to Anglenna’s anger. She was locked on the charring Orken and she was spluttering with her eyes blazed..
“Tear out my arms and make me suffer, will you? You fancy splitting my legs and shoving blazing irons, do you? Hang me by the skull cap, limbless and helpless? I don’t think so, you sick, murdering, arrogant son of a bitch!”, she spat with infuriated wrath!
“COUSIN!”, Lorna shouted, perhaps for the first time in her life to her, or to anyone else, for that matter. “You will stop this madness at once!”
Anglenna came around and suddenly, a surprised and slightly hurt expression on her face.
“We are not them, my dear, dear Lenna. And you are not your mother.”, the queen of elves whispered at her.
“Am I not? Seems quite clear where I get my wrath.”, she hissed back with self-loathing.
“You stopped.”, Lorna said. “The Betrayer would never have. Not until she had her fill of spiteful anger. You, Anglenna Brightleaf, are a better person than your mother ever was.”
“That’s not saying much, cousin.”, she replied mutely, her face burning now.
“I beg to differ!”, came Udoorin’s strained voice, who was busy hacking at the growing number of Orken pouring into the tent now. “Get us out of here and I will further detail you as to why..”
Anglenna stared at the now burnt and charred Grunt General, smoldering and smoking, then at the throne he was sitting.
“The throne.”, she said sternly. “It must be taken away from here, or be destroyed.. It can not stay in Orken possession, and certainly never fall into my mother’s hands..”
“I do not think we can carry it, cousin. It means so little, now. And it belonged to my father..”, Lorna whispered, also staring at the throne, her face drawn.
“Don’t be naïve, Nadien ne. That throne is ‘power’ and ‘the right to rule’..”, Anglenna said, her expression turning severe. “Eons of elf Ri’s and Rise’s sat on that seat. That is the throne of Elorellen Feymist, the founder and the first Heart of High Woods. Do you not see the significance of that? Can you imagine what my mother might do with it, should she claim it? Given the slightest chance, she will gather a following using just that throne, and there are always the foolish and the greedy who shall be tools to her machinations. That must never be allowed!”
“What shall we do, then?”, Lorna asked.
“For Heaven’s sake, girl, sit on it!“, her cousin said sharply. “I shall take you, the boy, and the throne with me.”
“Are we back to ‘boy’, again? Whatever did I do to you to warrant that, Lady Lenna?”, Udoorin called lightly as he made a wide cleave, trying to stave off several Orken at once..
In the mids of an Orken army, and right before the crusty corpse of a mortal enemy, Alor’Nadien ne Feymist sat on her throne and became a Rise and a Queen!
The same throne her father, Grandaleren Feymist had sat for over seven hundred years..
The throne upon which Elorellen Feymist had ruled, some seven thousand years ago after she..
..her younger brother, Sinderel Tranquil..
..and her elder sister, Terandel Solace..
..who had left her own and only child, Arael Ashanelath Fae Erunanne Tel’Lóna to be the wife and queen..
..of Barakan Heavenswill, the founder and the first king of the Kingdom of Isles..
Terandel Solace had gone west and founded Solace while the younger of the three siblings, Sinderel Tranquil, had traveled north to rise Tranquill, ever guarding against the demon infestation sent by Gullem the Damned.
Elorellen Feymist had come east, and she had brought her elves to High Woods and founded Bari Na-ammen, the Garden of Peace..
“Fitting.”, said Anglenna with a sigh of great relief and solemnly she bowed her head at her Queen..
“You look awesome, love!”, Udoorin turned to give her a quick grin, and almost lost his head for his effort!
Anglenna stared down at the charred Grunt General one final time and very coldly she proclaimed..
“The mistake that you are, has now been corrected..“
And deep down, she gave a very Angrellen-like smile. It was a satisfied, evil smile..
“Though you have no idea, mother..”, she murmured happily. “I just made sure there will forever be an enmity between the Orken and you.. Not only will you be hunted by the elves and the humans, you will also be shadowed by one of the most ruthless and unholy of monsters this kingdom has yet to see; the Orken Mother.. And when she finally catches up to you, she will not be coming at you alone.. She will bring her whole bloody horde with her.. I doubt even your demon master shall help you then, for you are now officially, more trouble for him than you are really worth it..”
..and then, the tall high elf woman, the queen of the elves, her young burly king, and the throne of Elorellen Feymist..
“You can’t get to somewhere else because the thing you want to run away, you take it with you. Where you go, it goes. So before you run away, why don’t you give yourself a momen…” —was taken from the series, Major Crimes, and said by the Police Captain, Sharon Raydor..
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake? Anyone can make an error. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” —was taken from the original Star Wars books by Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire, and was said by Grand Admiral Thrawn;
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake, Ensign?”
The entire bridge had gone deathly still.
Colclazure swallowed again, his face starting to go pale.
“Anyone can make an error, Ensign. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”
The elven incantations cast by Anglenna Brightleaf are as follows. All the incantations here were written by the author of this story;
Broken and scattered in the dark,
Hidden under this decedent arc,
Lies the lies and in there I seek,
Show me, however it be bleak..
I have no wish, nor desire,
nor have I any claim,
For the fires that burn in me
only with shame,
To repent and to cleanse
the dreads of my past,
Shall I bleed and break
and be free at last!
Wrath you sought,
And wrath you bought.
Now my fires, high and hot.
Nothing shall I leave of you to rot!
Not All Is Done
“The Spark of Mathilda”
Upon extended experiences, both on a personal and professional level, Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist and King Udoorin Shieldheart have come to a certain, definitive conclusion;
Defense can not win wars.
Hence, a daring and extremely dangerous plan is formed to seek and destroy the Orken Grunt Generals and their Blood Shamans in hopes of bringing dissension and chaos among the coming Orken ranks and weaken their march against Serenity Home and the Kingdom of Isles.
This story begins shortly after
Not All Is Done..
“The Storm Kites of Melshieve”
Well, finally!”, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel hissed when her hubby, the senior temple guardian, Thomas Dimwood came crashing into the bush she and the half-born girl, Perigren Ostlanna Temez, were hiding. “You certainly took your time, and made enough noise that if there are any Orken around, they certainly know we are here now! What took you so long?”
“Be nice, love.. It’s a long run from Last Hope to these swamps, and certainly not in plate armor! And the good general is not a man easily convinced.”, the young man replied, gasping for breath.
“I told you not to wear that trash! It stinks, it makes a horrible noise, and it will hardly save your skin from a good swing! What did you tell him that needed convincing, anyway?”, Bremorel scowled at him.
“Nothing all that important. Just a few cautionary words, that’s all.. And, yes, my armor does smell rather bad, and bruises the wearer at places he doesn’t need to be bruised, ever, but it does save my skin from the occasional swing.”, he said merrily, and with a very sweaty, and flushed face. “From the good swing, I was hoping you would intervene..”
“Ah haa.. You finally reveal the real reason you married me! To watch your sorry hide!”, she said, squinting at him.
“My hide is indeed sorry, but for sweating, and then freezing inside a plate armor!”, Thomas replied grinning at her.
“Is there a pattern to your madness?”, Temez asked, staring at the two of them. “Or is this a Mortal quirk unique to just the two of you? Either way, it is creepy!”
“It is likely a unique pattern of madness, just not all that unique to mere mortals..”, she replied. “Let’s get a small fire going. Temez, why don’t you find some dry wood.. anything that is not reed will do. Swamp reed makes horrible smoke. Thomas, get out of that armor or you will catch a cold and this is a bad place to get sick. You will need to change all your clothes as well. While you do that, I’ll dry the inside of your armor.. The Orken have a heightened sense of sight, hearing, and scent. We can’t sneak when they can smell you coming from a mile away..”
“That was a bit harsh.”, Thomas mumbled as he started unbuckling the thick leather straps holding his armor together.
“Life is harsh, my Thomas. The truth is even harsher. And the truth is, your armor stinks! I will go find some herbs that we can use to stuff into it that will cover your scent once you put it back on.”
“You are in a mood today, Morel. What is the problem?”, her hubby asked as he dropped his chest plate, followed by his massive shoulder bulks, his vambraces, and finally, his leg pieces..
“Nothing..”, Bremorel replied evasively as she eyed him stripping off his armor.
“Morel, please..”, Thomas said. “We don’t share only our good moments, we share our problems as well.. And it is clear you have one.. And stop watching me when I am getting undressed.”
“Why? You watch me get undressed all the time.. and with a silly grin on your face.”, she retorted.
“The silly grin is fully justified, love. You are beautiful to behold!”, Thomas said honestly.
“I can’t believe some of the things you say! You are a temple guardian, for Heaven’s sake!”, she replied with a frown.
“As you said, the truth is harsh.”, the young senior temple guardian said with a smile.
Bremorel’s frown turned into a scowl.
“And to you, I am only a man. I try not to bring my title into our relationship.”, he added. “Are you riled up because of what you did to Randorm?”
The ranger lieutenant didn’t reply immediately, and her scowl turned forlorn.
“Yes.”, she finally mumbled. “I have slain bandits before. But that was the first time I outright executed someone. It was not as satisfying as I thought it would be.”
Thomas had been busy unbuttoning his shirt and was quite shivering now. He stopped what he was doing, walked up to his wife, and hugged her.
“Had you taken satisfaction in that, you couldn’t have been a ranger. And certainly not the woman I loved. The fact that it is torturing you shows how high your morals and your standards really are, and I am so proud of you. He was, however, a traitor. And not one betraying his king and his people, but betraying all humanity to the enemies of our world. The Orken are not merely enhanced orcs, my love. They do not take lands for the sake of owning them. They take it to remove all the other races that live there in hopes of clearing the way for their demon masters. Foolish, really.. For when their masters come, they themselves shall be subjected to the same genocide..”
Bremorel didn’t say anything. She just clung at him, her hands inside his shirt, running them over the broad of his back.
“I am sorry that you had to do what you did. But not sorry that you did it.”, Thomas continued. “To be fair, it was a clean kill.. More than what he deserved. His partisanship with the enemy cost over five hundred Palantine soldiers.. That is five hundred widows and at least a like amount of orphans, love. And you gave them all a sense of justice.. and possibly some closure.. There will be a whole generation of Palantine soldiers honoring you in their prayers..”
“I feel like I have sinned. And I have sinned many times before..”, she suddenly hissed as if trying to suppress something crawling up her throat. “This one.. why does this one hurt? He was a bloody traitor. Caused hundreds to die for his treachery and likely killed the former mayor of Last Hope as well..”
And just like that, a low moan escaped the young woman in his arms and Bremorel sobbed.
Thomas carefully held the young woman he loved and stared into her shimmering eyes. It was rare seeing Bremorel cry. Quite rare. And Thomas thought he didn’t like it and he certainly never wanted to see it again. Some people cried with grace. Some made a blotchy mess.
His Morel cried silently shaking and broken..
“You are only as sinful as I am. I watched what you did, and did not interfere. As shocked as I was, I still could have.. Yes, it was brutal. But not why you did it. It was brutal because it came without warning, though even that is not correct. You did warn him, twice, as I recall.. I found your application brutal, but never abhorrent.”, he said kindly.
“I am not sure if it is my place to speak on this matter, Ranger Lieutenant Bremorel Songsteel..” Temez said as she approached, carrying two arms full of dry and gnarly twigs.. Her voice was hoarse and muted. “..but if you think what you did was wrong, I would like to point out that the human you slew served my former Master. It is possible he was not aware of it, but he must have known the folly of his actions. He must also have expected to garner a sizable reward for betraying your peoples —all of them. He knew what the Orken did to Arashkan and to Bari Na-ammen, and expected nothing less for your Serenity Home. Had he been given to my sisters, we would have devoured him, body and soul, and without forsaking our Oaths. We, the half-born, care little for Mortal justice. We swore to help you and yours in the dire hopes to thwart my former Master and perchance, attain our Ascension. How we accomplish that matters only so long as we do not revoke our Oaths. You, on the other hand, feel remorse, something we do not yet understand. But it is painful, and it is beautiful, and it is the extension of compassion. This is something my merry soul taught me ere she departed from the Mortal coil. Heed it, and take solace in it, for I speak in Heaven’s tongue!”
Both Bremorel and Thomas stared at the ravishingly beautiful half-born girl and they saw her face drawn, and lost, and seemed to barely contain something boiling inside her.
“What she said, I guess..”, Thomas murmured, as he wiped the tears away from the young woman he held in his arms.
Bremorel snorted, wiped her eyes, gave her husband a light kiss, turned around, and disappeared off into the swamp..
Silently, the half-born girl built a small fire and Thomas didn’t dawdle. He got out of his sweaty clothes, put dry ones on, then propped the wet next to the fire using some of the twigs while Bremorel sought certain plants and herbs that would have particularly strong scents. When she returned, she dumped all the odd-smelling plants into the small pot she pulled out of her pack, filled it with snow, and left them all to boil on the fire. Then she took her husband’s armor and scrubbed them all down; breast and back plates, the paddings, the shoulder bulks, the vambraces, and even the leg pieces, and quite thoroughly too. Apparently, the ranger lieutenant didn’t like ‘half-ways’.. Once the pot boiled, she took the pot out of the fire and left it to simmer for about five minutes then emptied the pot. She rummaged through the slushy ‘stew’ and picked out the herbs and plants, laid them near the fire, and waited for them to dry. Temez watched her with mute and curious fascination, while Thomas tried to ease his shivers sitting next to the fire, arms out as it trying to hug the tiny fire.
When the herbs dried, Bremorel carefully braided them together, then lined the inside of her husband’s armor with them, got up, walked over to the fire and held up the chest piece for a few, took a short step, and knelt where he sat shivering, and mumbled.
“Stretch out your arms.”
Thomas wordlessly stretched out his arms and Bremorel pressed the heated chest piece on his torso. Then she repeated the same for his back piece and buckled them firmly together over his shoulders and sides. Then she brought his large shoulder bulks and carefully strapped them in place. With similar silence, she wrapped his vambraces, and finally, when he rose without being prompted, she buckled on his leg pieces. When she was done, however, she stayed there, on her knees, with her shoulders slumped and staring down.
“Please get up.”, Thomas said quietly. “A woman should never kneel before a man. You, Morel Songsteel, certainly should never.”
“You do it all the time.. kneel before me..”, she mumbled.
“That’s different.”, the young man replied kindly.
“Why is it different?”
“Because I am awed by you. All the time..”, he said simply.
“I am nothing to be awed, Thomas. Please don’t make me something more than what I am.”, Bremorel spoke and her voice turned harsh.
“I have never interfered with how you see me. I would like to enjoy a similar jubilance. Please don’t ruin how I perceive you, love.”, he said, leaned down, and gently pulled her up.
“I have turned my gaze elsewhere, and hence, I am not looking. You may kiss the bride!”, prompted Temez from the other side of the fire.
Thomas kissed Bremorel and deeply.
“Thank you.”, Bremorel said with a flushed face. “You are a good man, and a good husband..”
Then, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, she added, “..and you stink a lot less now!”
“Well, that was rather harsh too!”, her husband mourned.
. . .
It took them the better part of four days and nights, which otherwise, should have taken them an afternoon stroll to reach the southern edges of Hobs End; a once beautiful, rolling chain of green hills that had homed a dozen or so small gnomish and hobbit villages, now barren, burned, abandoned, desolate..
..and teaming thick with Orken troops, patrols, and clustered tents.
They were everywhere and the situation here was worse than they had anticipated. True, the winter had been particularly savage, but, once again, the Orken had proven just how resilient they were. It was possible they had lost thousands of their numbers, but that only meant the ones remaining were the strongest —a rather depressing thought all by itself..
Bremorel had led them in wide circles, snaked through enemy troops and patrols, and on common occasion, hidden them in bushes, trenches, and holes filled with freezing cold, filthy, and slushy mud, and at times feces! The ranger lieutenant hadn’t complained once but it was clear she could barely stand it and none of her ranger training had really prepared her for this. Thomas couldn’t complain because his Morel wouldn’t. As for the half-born girl, Temez, she just smiled and said, “Feels like my birth pit!”, while standing chin deep in shit!
On the evening of the fourth day, they crept on, all muddy and freezing until they managed to get near enough to take a look at the main Orken camp; a vast array of tribal tents erected in uniform, circular formation, and with a half a dozen of the creatures huddled around each campfire stretching as far as the eye could see.
“That is quite a lot of them.”, murmured Bremorel.
“Indeed. There must be fifty thousand down there.”, Thomas whispered with a slightly awed tone.
“Twenty thousand.”, the ranger lieutenant corrected. “The way their tents and campfires are set is quite deliberate and is meant to give the impression of such great numbers.”
“I’ll take your word for it, love. Not that it matters for us either way. This is not going to be fun..”, he replied.
“No, it isn’t, and I can’t think of a way to get you there without being seen, Thomas..”, Bremorel said in a low voice.
“We will need a distraction.”, Perigren Ostlanna Temez offered mutely.
“Girl, we will need a like army to distract this one. Even if Thomas brings down Heavens’ flames all night, it will not be enough to open us a viable gap from here to the central tent where the Grunt General is likely stationed. In fact, that will just make all of them turn to us!”, the ranger lieutenant said with a frown.
“I was thinking of something a bit more simple, and less elaborate, Bremorel Songsteel. Perhaps the esteemed senior temple guardian can call aid?”, she replied calmly.
Thomas gave the half-born girl a sidelong glance.
“What do you have in mind, Temez? The Heavens do not take lightly when mortals call upon them so casually.”, he said carefully. “They may even frown upon us for the blatant use of our powers. And I am not even sure how any of them will respond to being summoned callously.”
“All true, young Thomas Dimwood. Hence we shall summon one that we know will answer, and look upon our plea with kind understanding..”, Temez replied with a brittle, and very fragile smile.
“Who?”, Thomas asked.
“The Archangel of Compassion!”
The young man ogled at the beautiful half-born, and an odd, sad expression cast over his face.
“Holy Heavens!”, Thomas exclaimed. “She was lost thousands of years ago. Betrayed by the mortals She loved and cared. She was taken prisoner by one of Hell’s vilest commanders. Rumors have it, the demon lord tortured Her for eons before he cast Her to Oblivion. Hence then, there has been little compassion in this world.”, the senior temple guardian added with a truly mournful tone.
“If that were so, tell me, how is it you, Thomas Dimwood, opened your doors and accepted half-demons into your temple and gave them sanction and sanctuary? Tell me, then, how is it your Serenity Home accepted the burden of eighty thousand Arashkan refugees and over twenty thousand of their regulars and militia? How is it you accepted the arrogant and much conceited high elves of Bari Na-ammen? How is it the dwarves came to help them all, as well? And how is it the ogres joined your ranks? True, there are many explanations for their individual actions, most and foremost being mutual survival, but the fact is, the dwarves would have helped the Arashkan refugees, but they would not have been so willing to help the high elves. As much as their chieftain adores the Ritual Guardian, Inshala ‘la Fey’ Frostmane, she could have taken her people and joined her brothers and sisters at Rook Mountains and certainly not opted to protect the northern flank of dwarves at Elder Hills, which they very much hate, giving the same dwarves the opportunity to send more of their numbers to help Serenity Home.”, she said seamlessly and paused for a breather. “No, Thomas Dimwood, the occurrence of all of those and more, all at once, is compassion. I am a demon. I have no heart. I sense some things, but I neither know nor understand what they are. All I have are the definitions for words, and compassion, by its very nature, has a willingness to understand embedded in it, which in turn births empathy; the thing that is at the very core of compassion itself.”
Thomas struggled to say something but nothing coherent really came out.
“She’s right, you know. I have never seen dwarves care much for elves. Not even the wood elves and they are practically neighbors and have been trading with each other for centuries. Yet they were the first to send mass-produced military-grade tents, utensils, and utilities, supplied food and provided security for them since the day both the Arashkan refugees started dribbling in, followed by the high elves. There is no way Serenity Home could have covered the expenses nor had the means to cover all their needs, and we both know, first hand, how hard the town and your temple have been working just to keep them alive on a daily basis. Even I cooked more cauldrons of bean stew than I can eat in ten lifetimes and I am not even in logistics! Hell, even Inshala and Lilly cooked. I don’t mind cooking for you. Inshala loves cooking for everyone. But Lilly absolutely abhors house chores! When you look at things from a narrow-angle, it is easy to chalk all of these nuances off as diligence. When you study it from a wider angle, however, you can see, quite easily, what dear Temez is talking about.”
Thomas mulled over that, but of all people, it was perhaps hardest for him to see what the half-born girl was talking about, ironically, for he was a temple guardian, after all, and the ‘diligent’ service he and his temple had been providing seemed very much like ‘business as usual’..
“I will give you one more clue, Thomas Dimwood..”, said Temez. “My BFF tried to eat you. Your beloved Morel caught her on the act. She was so furious, she meant to cut her down. Yet she did not.”
“I sure was bloody angry! The slutty little minx!”, Bremorel said hotly. “Always wondered why I didn’t. I mean, sure, we had shared a whole ‘Themalsar’ together, but I remember just how pissed off I was when I saw her trying to seduce you, Thomas. You might have noticed, I don’t do ‘sharing’..”
“No. No, you don’t, love.”, Thomas smiled.
“The true revelation for you, Thomas Dimwood, should have been the moment you opened your doors to her brothers and sisters despite what she tried to do to you.. Does that sound ‘business as usual’ to you, or does that seem more like unprecedented empathy and.. compassion?”
The young temple guardian frowned now. And he was more than irked.. and intrigued..
Perigren Ostlanna Temez gave him one of her rare smiles. Rare ever since she had found out about the loss of her BFF.
“Call Her, Thomas Dimwood. These lands require cleansing.. not by wrath, but by compassion.. Call upon the aid of Ad Ara and see with your own eyes to whom you truly serve, and for whom you truly fight!”
. . .
“Hello, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. May I come in?”, said a very thick, breathy, feminine, and lustrous voice from behind the door, in the dark silence of the night, and somewhere under Serenity Home Temple. Whoever the voice was, she opted to wait for a response, rather than casually open the door and enter. There were some very important protocols that needed to be observed here, and she had no wish to overstep her boundaries..
..not even by an inch.
The door opened and a young man in his early twenties with long, flax, wavy blonde hair, a strikingly angular face, and intelligent blue eyes came into view of the single candle held by the decidedly delicate hand standing in the dark hall. Temple Guardian Derek squinted into the candle, then at the hand, and inadvertently followed it to the fragile-looking ankle, then at the long and smooth arm that curved to an enticing bare shoulder, a slender neck, a beautiful, innocent face, a full and blooming mouth, a delicate round nose, a pair of glowing yellowish eyes with exciting slits for pupils, downcast and sad brows, and short bull-horns framed by long, charcoal-black, slightly disheveled hair..
And that was only when he looked up!
The generous, buxom breasts hiding under her white linen nightgown promised the wildest dreams of any young man.. and made them wonder just what the rest of her looked like.. lost in the darkness..
Temple Guardian Derek gulped.
“Lady Mathilda..”, he said in a choked voice. “..what brings you here at this hour?”
“I would like to divulge a matter of great importance to you, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. I very much wished it wouldn’t have come to this, but I can no longer avoid the inevitable. May I come in?”, said Mathilda Ravish Demure of the half-born and she was breathing slowly but deeply, making her delicious-looking breasts stretch her linen nightgown at the seams..
Derek gulped again but with an unexpected display of will, if not wisdom, he cleared his throat and said, with a croaking voice, “Lady Mathilda, I am not sure this is altogether wise, or proper. We are inside temple grounds, after all.”
“I am a half-born, Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald. I am also a woman. And young Mortal males are oft very handsome. My brothers and sisters wish to live with your kind. And we wish to find mates that would love us and share lives with us. Some of them have already chosen such mates. I.. can not help but chose you.. and I believe you have had your eyes on me for quite some time as well. This is the matter I wish to discuss with you. May I come in?”
“By all means, do.”, Derek said and a glint of fire appeared in his eyes when the young, beautiful, buxom girl glided into his tiny dormitory room, for her nightgown was not skimpy, but it did reveal her full-figured frame even with the single candlelight.
“I..”, he began but his voice was lost when Mathilda turned around and let her gown slide off herself.. The half-born girl did not haggle with her beauty. She simply enfolded the young man in her warm, smooth arms, and pressed her delicious mouth, her soft bosom, her unearthly curves into the young man, and Derek lost all his inhibitions.
For him, it was all some confused and throbbing bliss now..
..and he never noticed the other three figures standing silently right outside his room.
“What’s taking her so long?”, said the particularly ravishing girl with the short red hair. Though she was a knockout, she also seemed gaunt, tired, and in pain, and had very recently suffered a great amount of physical and emotional trauma. Her quite revealing dress skirt hid many ugly stab wounds still on the mend, but not the ones on her arms, her otherwise shapely legs, nor the barely closed gash on her throat!
“Patience, love.”, replied a heavy, baritone voice and the handsome man took the young, fiery girl in one arm, and the arm that seemed to have been charred just recently. Most of his hair was also missing, and the part that was visible was singed, curled, and crumbled away. He had a distinct limp and he was also just as gaunt, tired, and in pain as the girl he was holding..
“I am not your ‘love’, Hal Mali!”, she hissed, glaring up at him!
“I am sorry, Demelze, but that ship has already sailed, as the Mortals say. You are, literally, my ‘love’, now. Do not despair though, for I am yours too.”, the once handsome young half-born replied, and tried to emphasize his point with a grin, which looked more like a grimace, really, for half his face also appeared charred!
“Eww, gross, stop grinning at me like that! You weren’t much of a looker, to begin with, and now you are just this rictus!”, Demelze said with a disgusted tone.
“You would know. You are the one who did it!”, Hal Mali replied happily!
“I did it because you stabbed me in my boob! Who stabs a girl in the boob, anyway?”, she spat!
“Hard to aim when you suddenly lose an eye by fire..”, Hal Mali replied with a shrug. “I was aiming for your jugular.”
“Which you totally missed and got me in the throat!”, she snapped. “It took me days to speak again!”
“Hence the blessed silence. I received at least a dozen thank you notes, just for that..”, chuckled the half-born man.
The look, the fiery girl gave him was nothing less than scorching.
“..but it was also the best silent snuggle I have had in my entire life..”, Hal Mali added. “..As much in pain as we both were.”
Cee Lingerith Demelze’s ravishing face changed at that and the look she gave him was that of comprehension of a chagrined defeat, but not of total loss nor absolute frustration.
“You two have a spark now.”, murmured the third person standing in the dim hall outside the door. This one gave the impression that he spoke in quiet, hushed tones all the time. There was also a certain vague quality about that tone.
Both Demelze and Hal Mali looked down at him.
“Why did we bring Dar Derune? He is too young to see what’s going on in there! This is very irresponsible of you, Hal Mali!”, Demelze hissed unhappily, though it wasn’t clear what she was unhappy about.
“I know, my little fire. But we will need him to see.”, Hal Mali replied. Then he turned to the little boy and asked him in a low, kind voice. “It is true then? Have we succeeded? We both have a spark now?”
“Yes, Hal Mali.” the boy, Dar Derune, said with the same vague tone. “You already had one aching to burn for sweet Demelze. She may have had one, but she had it buried too deep. Some of the things Auntie Irine did to her caused her to shun many of her feelings, despite her nature. Dear Demelze loves to touch and to be touched, and Auntie Irine ripped that right out of her. It is up to each of you to figure out what else our tormentor drowned out of her. You must be kind, understanding, and very patient with her, Hal Mali. And sweet Demelze must be brave and accept the help.. It is the only way she can attain what she truly wants.. and needs..”
“I will do everything to help my mate.”, Hal Mali said with a charred, determined face.
Demelze ogled at him, then at the little boy, moaned with a forlorn voice..
..then crumbled down to a tiny ball and started crying like the broken girl that she was.
Hal Mali bent down and scooped her up and looked at her blotchy face, lost in her disheveled, fiery-red hair, then at the little boy.
“I will have to take my little fire to our room. Neither of us has recovered enough and she has a lot going on, both in her mind and in her heart. Will you be alright? I shall send one of our sisters as soon as I can.”, he said.
“There really is no need, Hal Mali. There is no darkness for me to be afraid of. I do not see in the dark like our brothers and sisters. I just see.. And all I will do is to look into the Temple Guardian’s memories. You go and take care of our sweet Demelze, for she needs much caring now.”, Dar Derune replied with a monotonous, dreamy voice.
“Very well.”, Hal Mali said, gave the boy, and the door a quick glance, and added. “Please don’t go in there without knocking or being called in. You really shouldn’t be here at all.”
“I will wait until your conditions are met, Hal Mali.”, the boy replied mutely.
The charred half-born gave the boy another look, then vanished.. literally..
One moment he was there, with the moaning Demelze in his arms, the next, a churning cloak of shadows gathered around him and he simply disappeared in it!
It was perhaps an hour later the door creaked open and Mathilda appeared. She had her soft and white linen nightgown on her again, but her hair was very much disheveled now. Her eyes were dilated, but her frown projected shame that had little to do with what she had done, but more to do with how she had done it, or even why she had done it..
Then she noticed the boy lying face down on the cold stone floor and carefully piling small, colorful wooden cubes on top of each other to form a tower.
“Dar Derune.”, she fumed. “What are you doing here at this hour, love? And where are Hal Mali and Demelze? They were supposed to be here.”
Dar Derune looked up at her with vague recognition and smiled.
“Sweet Mathilda Ravish Demure..”, he said. “You are sad.”
It had been a clear, simple, succinct, accurate, and factual statement, and it went straight through her heart.
And caused the beautiful, buxom girl to drop on her knees, take the little boy in her soft and warm embrace, and just like that, she started to shiver and cry..
“I broke my blood oath..”, she said with a destitute voice. “I lusted over a Mortal with wild abandon and there was no love in it!”
“There, there, dear Mathilda.”, the little boy said soothingly, while patting her on the back. “I do not think you have broken your oath. You went for him because you found him to your liking. I believe that is why Temez chose you. And the temple has not retaliated and struck you down, which means the liking was mutual. And you did it for the good of Mortals; he is a member of this Tempest school we were recently warned about and therefore under suspicion. Senior Temple Guardian Thomas Dimwood asked us to make sure whether he was involved in their treachery.”
“If he is, I am doomed to devour him!”, the beautiful half-born girl sobbed.
“I am sure Hal Mali can arrange some other means to make him go away. It is sad, but he can not be allowed to stay here when the Orken arrives. We do not know what he can do if he is an enemy.”, Dar Derune said, and still, his voice was sort of dreamy and ‘not altogether there’..
“No. I liked him. If he is to disappear, I shall do it. I shall shoulder this sin.”, she sobbed some more.
“You were the most pious of us all, sweet Mathilda. You have no idea how much that particular aspect of yours drow Auntie Irine angry. Come. Let’s see if he is good.. or gone..”, he said, gathered his little colored wooden cubes, put them all in a pouch, kissed Mathilda on the cheek, held her hand, and together they went into the room.
Temple guardians were well trained in many aspects to face all sorts of things, both day-to-day matters and the supernatural. They had a good education, a good head on their shoulders, a strong will, a dedicated mind, and a steady heart. With the exception of Demos Lightshand, all Serenity Home temple guardians were also young, and not quite battle-tested, and nothing had prepared them for a succubi half-born’s full-blown, mind-numbing, and very much arousing assault! Not against a race created specifically for such a purpose and Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald had not been an exception.. He lay there, sprawled, even, on his tiny dormitory floor, dazed and spasming in utter ecstasy!
To give Mathilda credit, she had not left the young temple guardian in disgrace but had shown the care to carefully cover him with a blanket she had pulled off the young man’s own bed. She had even rested his head on a pillow, in case he would hurt himself during his erratic spasms and the beautiful half-born girl just stared at him mournfully and with shame.
“He is much confused and he can not think clearly..”, Dar Derune said, after seeing the uncontrollably jerking man. “..but his happiness is real.”
He took a few small steps forward and knelt beside him and Mathilda did the same to the young man’s other side.
“I took Lady Anglenna’s consent to do this to her when we went to ask her about the possible whereabouts of the queen of the high elves, but Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald is beyond consent at the moment. You will have to hold him down and still, sweet Mathilda, while I sift through his memories..”, the boy said, reached down and held the young man’s temple with both his small hands and closed his eyes.
Mathilda Ravish Demure held down Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald, and Dar Derune read him..
. . .
When he opened his eyes, Thomas Dimwood had an awed expression on his drawn face. His hands and his whole body were shivering quite uncontrollably, and only after a few failed attempts was he able to say anything coherent.
He stared at his wife and with a scared expression, he asked her;
“Am.. am I good to you, Morel?”
Bremorel stared at him with amazement. Then, with the comprehensive wisdom she rarely showed while there were others around, she reached up and hugged her man..
“Yes, my Thomas, you have been good to me for as long as I can remember.”, she whispered.
“And have I made you happy and whole? Have I given you the satisfaction of life? Are you content with me?”, he asked with genuine concern.
“Yes, my darling man, you have made me happy and whole. You have given me the satisfaction of life, and I am content with you. But if this is some prelude to leaving me, I am not letting you go..”, she replied and from her savage tone, it was clear she meant it.
“Then why did She ask me if I was treating you right and if I had been right by you, and that if I was kind, understanding, and compassionate to you? I promise, I have tried my best to treat you like a fragile flower, but you are the strongest person I have ever met, in all aspects..”, he mumbled.
“Had you treated me like a fragile flower, I think I would have hurt you, Thomas.”, Bremorel snorted. “And who is she, you are talking about?”
“Ho.. Holy Ad Ara.. I just talked to the Archangel of Compassion! She referred to me by name! She asked me if I was treating my beloved Morel Darkmaine Sunstrider, right, and if I was kind, and understanding to her, and told me that I should, if I wasn’t, for you are dear to Her as the kind, fragile flower that you are..”
Bremorel Songsteel pulled back from her husband with thunderstruck amazement. The names, Darkmaine and Sunstrider had never been attached to her before, even though they had been here to claim. The moment her mother and father had died that ill-fated night when a marauding band of Orcs had raided their tiny village, which had been more of a cluster of few families, really, and had slain them while she’d been forced to watch from the inside of a little closet, she had become Morel Nameless or just Morel..
It was years later, when she was drafted into Serenity Home rangers and when she had become a young woman, when she, her cousin Laila, Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, ranger masters Devien and Moorat, Master Aager Fogstep, along with a good number of town guards and other rangers had gone to Dim Woods to ‘do something’ about the wolf attacks that had been plaguing there for the past two decades, that she, and her cousin, had finally received their well deserved and individual name; her cousin had become Laila Wolvesbane, and she had become Morel Songsteel..
For whatever confused reason, Morel, as a traumatized little girl, then as a sullen and very much aggressive and angry teenager, and finally, as a young woman, had never made mention of those names, nor had she owned them. It was like, so long as they were kept buried, she didn’t have to face that bloody and painful night that had forever ended her life where she still had her father, Aramsis Darkmaine, and her mother, Seleina Sunstrider.. and where she still had a warm home that was small, yet cosy and where she was the beloved daughter.
Funny how, after even fifteen years, and in the middle of a frozen, slushy, and muddy enemy encampment, you figure you have gotten over.. nothing!
..and the enterprising part of it all was, an Archangel knew of her birth names, her losses, and her follies..
With a swift, storming, and possibly raging flash of thousands of thoughts and memories, she came to the ultimate conclusion that the ‘Mortal coil’, as the half-born liked to call it, and the Heavens were not so divided, nor were they thus aloof of one another as ‘Mortals’ thought they were, but were, in fact, much, much more intertwined than anyone could have guessed. And in a somewhat unique and practical sense, only she, Morel, had figured this out both because she was a ranger and thus she was much attuned to the world and the nature around her, and because she was a temple guardian’s mate, giving her the chance to take a glimpse at both sides of a spectrum known simply as; Life!
Later, much later, when they would compare notes, as they always did, she would find out that her cousin Laila had also come to a similar conclusion, but had approached it from a totally different route; much like her, she too, was a ranger, and possibly more attuned to nature than she was, due to her part-elf ancestry, but her singular ‘eye-opener’ had been the sacrifice, and subsequently, the witnessing of an Ascension in the form of no other than Merisoul Xyrotwu!
“Tell her how you found a stubborn, angry, and broken girl, and gave her your best and fixed her. Tell her I am happy and content with you, my Thomas. Tell her your love for me was there to keep me going, even before we ever became as one. Tell her I wish nothing but to be with you in life and in death..”, Bremorel said with blazing eyes.
“I am thinking, you will get the chance to tell her yourself, my love..”, Thomas croaked..
And the night sky flashed with an eye-searing radiance from one end of Hobs End to the other!
Thomas, Bremorel, and Temez stood stunned.
The reaction of the Orken was a lot more apparent. Thousands upon thousands of thick, gurgling, gutteral grunts and screams let loose into the night and a slender figure in an ancient and intricate golden armor with great, snow-white wings came down from the burning sky.
And once again, Ad Ara, the Archangel of Compassion, walked the Mortal coil!
“Linger not, heroes of Mortals. The Orken are resilient beasts. Make thy way and do what needs to be done. Sloth is not the aspect of the believer..”, her voice echoed in their minds and her fire grew even brighter..
“Now or never!”, Bremorel hissed with immense elation as she pulled her greatsword from her back and charged down the hill!
“Right..”, Thomas agreed and pulled his shield off his own back, and unhooked the heavy flail hanging from his belt, and charged down after his mate.
“I am alive. And unsinged.”, mused Temez with curious interest, staring at her hands and arms. Then, somewhat bewildered, she reached up and twisted one of her antler-horns —the steel one with the serrated edges, and also dashed down the hill..
. . .
There is unlikely to be more prospects in Serenity Home at the moment, Storm Hierophant.”, a very young Derek J. Herald said. “The current senior temple guardian, Demos Lightshand, entertains too great a celebrity. But he is also quite elderly, which, I am afraid, only adds to the respect the people of the town, and the dwarves of Scowling Hills have for him. So much so that he already has a dwarf, a very stubborn, mule-headed, and short-tempered woman, set to be his progeny, and a young man by the name Thomas Dimwood, to be her junior temple guardian. Had the Serenity Home Temple been a Tempest Temple, you could have intervened, your Grace, but that temple has always been a free temple, with members of any number of different schools living, teaching, and serving there.”
“Heresy.”, the Storm Hierophant spat. He was a large, towering man in his late fifties with a granite, bold head with no facial hair whatsoever. His stone-hard face, his forehead, and the dome of his skull were covered with mystical tattoos, some of them carved, quite literally.. and his dark, storm-gray eyes spoke of little emotions, only adamant determination and ruthless deliberation. He was wearing a very expressive, heavily embroidered gray cassock trimmed and lined with gold and bore more of the same mystical symbols he entertained on his granite skull..
“There has never been a free temple in the kingdom.”, he said in disgust. “Every single temple is a member of one school or another, and most of them belong to us! But the founders of that town were all-powerful and well-connected people, hence no one ever dared to voice any arguments against their odd rules and heretical laws, and it has been a blight in our eyes for a very long time.”
“What would you have me do, your Grace? Demos is well-liked, but he is also a trusting and foolish man. He sends his potential students to various big cities to have them better educated. He sent me here, to Arashkan, in hopes that I would broaden my vision..”, the very young, junior temple guardian said.
The large Storm Hierophant snorted.
“Stay here with us for a week or so, young storm. I shall have one of our junior dormitory rooms prepared for you. Attend our sermons and visit our extensive library. There, you will find many educational scripts and doctrines to our tempest call.. Then return back to your town and tell the senior temple guardian how educational you found Arashkan. I, on the other hand, have an idea.. It will take some time in the planning, but the execution of it shall be flawless.. Quite flawless indeed..”, he rumbled, not unlike low, distant thunder.
Derek J. Herald bowed before his superior, the Storm Hierophant of the Tempest Temple of the Great Arashkan City, and left.
He opened the door to leave but was affronted by a tall, powerful figure who stared down at the young and somewhat skinny junior temple guardian. The huge figure gave him a quick once-over, grunted with a sour and disgusted distaste, and entered the Storm Hierophant’s chambers.
“Ahhh..”, the young Derek heard the hierophant’s voice boom. “Gar Thalot. Just the man I was looking for..”
“That doesn’t look so good.”, a small voice said with a slight frown. “Let’s look into him some more..”
“We, who serve the Storms of the Heavens, stare down on the follies of mortals. Only through our will do they live in peace, for it is the wrath of our storms do they fear and shy. We, who are above petty mortals, and their petty kings, and their petty queens, and their petty lords, and their petty lordlings, know that the time for our storms to rage is nigh. The voice of the oppressed and the restless rise, and they shall first be heard from our temples!”
The thundering rumble of the Storm Hierophant echoed high and mighty and the great, arching dome of the Tempest Temple of Arashkan churned and rumbled, and with a sharp, earth-shaking thunderclap, the masses of young novices got slammed into the ground, their faces filled with awe and fear..
..and among the young novices was a familiar face; a slightly older Derek J. Herald..
“That wasn’t helpful either..”, mumbled the same small voice.
“What? What did you see?”, asked another voice, this one was thick, breathy, feminine, and quite lustrous, and there was fear in it as well.
“Always hard to see the memories of a confused mind. And you have dazed him well, sweet Mathilda. He floats in a deep sea of emotions and lost memories, hence, you must be patient. I do not want us to make any misplaced judgment calls. That would make you sad..”, said Dar Derune, and his voice was a bit vague and his use of emphasis was slightly off or misplaced.
“They have brought in a stranger, Holy Storm Hierophant. A Drashan convict. He serves the sheriff of the town as his right hand.”, murmured a Derek J. Herald, this one somehow gave the impression it was a year or two later than the previous. It wasn’t clear where he was for his surrounding was dark. How he was speaking to the hierophant of the Tempest Temple of Arashkan wasn’t clear either, but he was speaking into a simple, seemingly unadorned stone hidden in his palm..
“That town has gone to the dogs, it has, and needs a thorough cleansing!”, spat the hierophant’s voice and it seemed to come from the stone in the young man’s hand. “First, a raving drunkard became its mayor, then a runaway boy became its sheriff.. One made a pact with one of the vilest low-lives this world has to offer, the other actually brought one of them over! And what does the great Demos think of all this?”
“He thinks this is a mortal affair and not really any of his or our business. Your Grace, the man he brought is truly dangerous and adamantly loyal to the sheriff. He has already made plans to hit Dim Woods, though I do not know what his ultimate goal is.”, the young man said to the stone.
“What?”, hissed the hierophant. “Have our cult members there been discovered?”
“I do not know, your Grace. But he is taking many of the town guards, the rangers masters, and their rangers, and I think they will meet with Master Cather along the way as well, so it must be a big operation.”
“Lightning strike them all, and foremost that old fool Cathber! His presence for the past many centuries has blunted many of our works in that region.. We must inform our members to disperse immediately.”, snarled the Storm Hierophants voice. Then it paused for a moment and spoke again, but this time, there was a certain purring quality to his words. “And since the sheriff, most of the town guards, and the rangers will be gone, I believe this will give the opportunity we were looking for..”
“Your Grace?”, Derek asked a bit confused.
“It has been some time we have been considering retiring that doddering fool, Demos. We shall be sending someone over to take care of him. When the time comes, you shall make sure the person in question has a free reign into the temple.”, said the hierophant with satisfaction.
“Uhhmm.. is that altogether wise, your Grace? Wouldn’t he be connected directly to you should he be caught?”, Derek asked, his voice said he was clearly scared.
“No. She is a freelancer and a thorough professional and has an excellent reputation. She was the one who assassinated Lord Trimdel Kandara of Endless Watch!”, the Storm Hierophant said contentedly. Then a chuckle was heard through the stone. “And she is also from Drashan.. Ahh, the irony!”
“Your Grace, even should Demos be removed, I still will not rise to the rank of senior temple guardian. There is the she-dwarf, Lady Magella in line and has seniority, then Thomas Dimwood.”
“Patience, young storm, patience.. One step at a time.. When the time is ripe, we shall remove her, then the orphan. Then you will be the senior temple guardian and you will have the legal power to declare the Serenity Home Temple as a Tempest Temple and no one, not the mayor, nor the sheriff will be able to gainsay you because it shall be a temple affair..”
“Yes, your Grace.. One step at a time..”
“This does not look good.”, mumbled the small voice of Dar Derune.
“What happened? Is.. is it bad? Must I devour him? I don’t want to devour him!”, moaned Mathilda with her thick, lustrous voice.
“I is bad, sweet Mathilda.”, Dar Derune replied with a sad tone.
“No! Look again!”, she begged with desperation. “We came to this Mortal coil in hopes of never using our heritage. “Look again, please!”
“Don’t cry, sweet Mathilda. Please don’t cry.. I feel sad when you cry..”
Encrypted letter from Storm Hierophant;
(For your eyes only)
Fare storms, young Derek. I am hoping you are well and the monthly tempest scripts we send you are keeping your mind and heart busy, while otherwise you are not busy gathering followers for our cause. Thanks to the information you have been sending, our congregation amongst the rural Dim Woods’ heretics flourishes. Soon enough, we shall have purged and scattered the locals far enough to have gained full controll of the lumber provided from the trees peculiar to that area. Then we shall work on the dwarves to the south and drive them out as well, hence obtaining their mines. Our only apparent obstacle is, once again, the old blasphemous heathen, Cathber Gwet’chen Bolgrig, who worships animals, trees, and idols.. and to our unexpected findings, frolics with the demons of the wilds and has, even as we speak, fathers a horned demon offspring!
But despair not. We have arranged means to rid him, and his counterpart in Serenity Home, Demos Lightshand. The thing we talked about during your former visit has finally been put to motion and will arrive to your town soon enough. It is of utmost importance that you provide the asset every means available to you, should she require it, though it is highly doubtful she will. We have it at best authority that she is a professional, and is very good at what she does.
I feel the need to warn you, young tempest, that you do not, in anyway hinder her, for she is also a Drashan!
Should all go as planned, you will never see her. Only visit the results of her profession the next day.
I shall eagerly await your report once the deed is done through the usual channels.
Fare storms, for the future is ours.
Storm Hierophant of the Tempest Temple.
P.S. This letter will incinerate itself. I suggest you do not hold it in your hands.
“Ow, dear.”, the little boy said morosely. “This not good. Not good at all.”
“No..”, moaned the beautiful half-born girl as she pulled at her own hair.
“I am sorry, sweet Mathilda. But Temple Guardian Derek J. Herald has not been a good man.”, he said unhappily.
“Jeremiah. The ‘J’ stands for Jeremiah! He told me so. He said it meant Heavens Shall Rise! Why would he have such a beautiful name? Clearly, he was meant for greatness! Why would he tell me his name if he wasn’t a good, trusting man?”, Mathilda moaned frantically, clawing at her own blotchy face. “Please. Look again. Look again!. I don’t want to devour him!”
Dar Derune stared at her with his sad, soulful eyes.
“Please, my dear Dar Derune. For me..”, she begged.
The little boy sighed.
“For you, I would look again and again and again, sweet Mathilda because you are nice and my Hamna Vir always said I could stay with you, should anything happen to her.”
“So.. That’s how it is..”, said a barely audible and rusty voice, though not due to deliberation, but because the owner of the voice was just old.. Very old..
“Yes, sir.”, Derek J. Herald nodded mutely. “I suspect she will arrive soon.”
“Do not mourn for me, young man. I was bound to die one day. This way, I know I have stepped on some important people’s feet and ruffled their feathers. Not too shabby for an old temple guardian, wouldn’t you say?”, the barely audible voice chuckled.
“Sir.. please.. this is not a laughing matter. These people do not mess around.”, Derek said with a drawn face.
“Ahh, but neither do we.”, said the old voice.
“Perhaps you think what we do here, in this very temple, and to all the people living in this town and the surrounding lands is not a serious one? We save lives. We find the needy and the poor. We educate the children and care for the orphans here. Those, I believe, are much more important in the eyes of the Heavens than scheming for power.”, the old, rusty voice said.
“None of those will matter once they turn this place into their temple, sir.”, Derek said glumly.
“They can’t.”, replied the whispering voice. “Even if they tried..”
“How so, sir?”, Derek asked with a confused tone.
“The fact that this is a free temple is not some void manifesto, dear boy. It is in this temple’s very founding tablets.. When Serenity Home Temple was built, it was consecrated as a free temple; each and every stone, every brick, every bit of wood used during its construction was sanctified and in those prayers, the purpose of this temple was very clearly named and defined. Had the esteemed Storm Hierophant spent more of his time studying than scheming, he would have known about this. Famous as they were, the founders of this town were also wise and foresighted. They wanted a town where they would have the serenity and peace they wanted, as far from politics and schemes of fools they left behind as they possibly could get. That is why they made this temple ‘free’.. in all the literal meanings.. and Tempest Temple charges its congregation for all its services. We do not. Whatever is brought or bought, is done with charity, or by the revenues from the lands that were imparted for the use of this temple centuries ago by the forefathers of Serenity Home. It is against this temple’s foundation to change its identity as the temple itself will simply refuse to accept such a yoke.”
“I am certain they will find a way around that, sir. Please, we must warn the sheriff.. We must place guards around you, and the temple..”, Derek begged.
“When it’s time, it is time, my dear boy. Now, attend to what I have to say.”, the rusty voice said. “Let this assassin in as you were told. Your cover must not be blown. You are young and must live your life. That will never happen if they find out where your heart truly lies.”
“You loved the Light, sir. Yet you never imposed your choice of school upon us. Thomas was into War. He wanted to learn about War to avoid Wars.. And Lady Magella was all about Life.. My heart always wanted the Storm..”
“I do not judge your choice, young Derek, though I did warn you about the corruption in the Tempest Temples, and my suspicions..”, the old, rusty voice said sadly.
“Yes. You did, sir. And that is why I wanted to infiltrate their ranks; to cleanse the Tempest from the filth of corruption.”, the junior temple guardian said with a determined tone.
“I admired your resolution, but not what you wanted to do. What’s more, we have nothing to take up to the king. Nothing but the words of a scheming, ambitious man.. And the king will not act against a temple without irrefutable proof. Particularly one as widespread and powerful as the Tempest. I fear they have crossed many lines where even they can not return. But all that is another matter. Now. Should something happen to me—”
“Sir, please!”, Derek begged.
“No, boy, listen to me.. Should something happen to me, I want you to keep your cover. With the exception of two people, do not tell anything to anyone on this matter. One is Sheriff Standorin Shieldheart, and the other is Argail Smitefast. They are the only two you may trust.”, the old voice said seriously.
“Sir, the good sheriff will club me senseless and throw me to his dungeons should I ever tell him of the things I have done. And they do not call the esteemed leader of Scowling Hills, Argail Smitefast for no reason. He will not club me, nor throw me to some jail, he will simply smite me! He only trusts you, sir. For Heaven’s sake, sir, he literally gave you one of his granddaughters for training!”, Derek exclaimed.
The rusty voice chuckled.
“Very true. But it is possible the Storm Hierophant of Arashkan might decide you know a bit too much and want to dispose of you as well. I am old and my time has neared its end. You, on the other hand, are young and must live a long and happy life. You have much potential and much more good to do for the people of this town and the world in general.. You will live that life, and you will not do anything foolish to try and avenge me..”, he said kindly.
“But, sir!”, Derek objected.
“My dear Derek, do I have your word on this?”, the rusty old voice said and it was perhaps the only time there was a distinct tone of stern command in it.
A long and suffering silence befell the memories of the young junior temple guardian. When he spoke again, his voice was destitute and not without a small amount of self-loathing.
“You have my word on this, Senior Temple Guardian Demos Lightshand..”
“That was unexpected.”, said Dar Derune.
“What? What did.. what did you see? Please tell me!”, pleaded Mathilda.
“I saw a good man.”, the little boy said vaguely, looking down at the still spasming temple guardian.
A low, happy, and vastly relieved moan escaped Mathilda Ravish Demure and she took the young man in her arms and wept.
“Ahh, sweet Mathilda, you have a spark in your heart!”, Dar Derune piped, staring at the joyously crying girl..
. . .
Thomas Dimwood spun his single-chain flail and slammed the diamond-shaped bulk of the heavy cast-iron right into the face of a stirring Orken that had somehow noticed their presence. There was little finesse in the young man’s swing, other than aiming where to land it. The huge creature collapsed with his head caved in, leaving behind a bloody, twitching mess.
Bremorel Songsteel, on the other hand, was a superb swordswoman, and although hers was not a slender long blade, nor a rapier, but a near-two-yard long heavy greatsword that glowed with a deep blue glacial light, her swings whistled as sharply as its edge and sliced, dismembered, and killed with enthralling accuracy.
What made her swordplay so mesmerizing, however, was not that she killed with deadly efficiency. It was how she danced and wove through the enemy. It was like there was an invisible, predetermined route she would take, certain dance moves she would make, and the enemies would always end up at the end of her great blade! In this matter, only one other person showed similar traits in combat;
Queen Alor’Nadien ne Feymist! But where the queen danced, she did it with the grace of a belly dancer and her deadly glaive was merely an extension of her flowing, supple body. And should anyone watch only her, they would immediately come to the conclusion that she was, indeed, dancing. Bremorel, however, danced to a tune only she could hear, and her lithe moves dictated that her sword was not an extension of her, but it was the other way around. For Alor’Nadien ne, it was all about the dance. For the ranger lieutenant, it was all about the song and the steel..
..and her song drow her a path right through the ranks of the Orken while her steel left the said Orken dead or dying.
It was no wonder she left the poor senior temple guardian, Thomas, in a state of perpetual awe.
Then Perigren Ostlanna Temez came into view..
She was on top of an Orken, slamming her steel antler-horn into the back of its skull. She was slicing another open at its waist. She was pushing her horn into the face of a third, savagely puncturing the kidneys of fourth, with a swift run, she was climbing up a fifth just to open multiple holes in its throat, and she was running right next to the senior temple guardian, making sure he remained unharmed..
..all at once, and at the very same time!
“What the..”, Thomas spluttered as he watched Temez all over the enemy camp.
“Focus, Thomas Dimwood.”, she warned him. “This is not a good time to ogle. Your beloved mate shall never leave this field should you fall and I have no desire to return back to Serenity Home Temple without its senior temple guardian, nor with the absence of his beloved ranger lieutenant.”
Thomas stared at the Temez running lightly next to him, then at the half a dozen others she was currently applying her bloody butchery!
“Are they all an illusion?”, he asked inadvertently.
“I do not do illusions, Thomas Dimwood. Some of my brothers and sisters have an affinity for it. I am not one of them. What I do have are some very powerful feelings —as limited in number as they are.”, she said, pointing at her duplicates. “That one is Wrath. That one is Anger. Those two are Loss and Sorrow. The one at the far back is Lust! I had Joy too, once. She died when my BFF died.. I am hoping one day I shall overcome my Anger, my Wrath, my Loss, and my Sorrow, and my Lust shall blossom into Love, hence I shall become one and whole and mayhap, bring my Joy back.. Pray that day does not come too soon, for we have many enemies to murder!”
The brilliance of Ad Ara held true and they reached the large tribal tent at the very center of the Orken army, leaving scores of the monsters at their wake. Then Thomas brought down his flame strike..
..and a tall, forty-foot high column of fire came roaring down from the brilliant night sky and flattened the tent, charring it instantly and leaving gaping, singed holes on it.
With a defiant bellow, the largest Orken they had ever seen came charging out of the burning tent; the Grunt General himself, and he was perhaps twelve feet tall with trunks for arms and legs and he held a massive, two-handed warhammer in his powerful hands and with unexpected dexterity, he charged at the young temple guardian..
Thomas cast a spell to hold the monster in place but the great Orken shrugged it aside and slammed down his hammer. The senior temple guardian immediately brought up his shield, and just in time, as the hammer came down.
The steel-rimmed shield screeched and splintered and Thomas dropped on his knees, his teeth gritted, his face pinched in pain, for his arm had just been shattered and his shoulder had been dislocated!
Temez dashed forth, ducked under the Grunt General’s swing, and stabbed his shins with her serrated steel antler-horn.
Then another Temez dashed in and climbed up his back, trying to reach the base of his skull where he would be vulnerable.
And another Temez appeared, followed by two more, each going at the Grunt General from a different side and a different soft spot, while the last half-born girl grabbed Thomas from behind and tried to drag him away..
“Eager to show your battle prowess to your mate, senior temple guardian?”, she said brightly, as she pulled at him. “You must know by now, Thomas Dimwood, it isn’t your strength she admires. Smart girls seldom admire more of what they already have.”
“Always something to remind you there’s someone much stronger than you are, and I wasn’t even trying..”, Thomas said through his clenched teeth. “Great Heavens, that thing is strong! Destroyed a perfectly good shield.”
“Your priorities are a tad off, dear boy. He destroyed your arm..”, Temez snorted..
..then gave out a painful shriek and dropped to her knees..
..as a very bloody mess crashed right next to them.
Whatever it was, its face and its chest had totally caved into a bloody, unrecognizable thing, but what remained of her white shirt, her bodice, her loose trousers, and her short, tanned hair told them both who it had once been.
Thomas stared at the remains of what was once the beautiful half-born girl, Perigren Ostlanna Temez..
Then he turned to look at her and saw that she was on her knees, her face was drawn, and she spat out a mouth-full of red, hot blood!
“Are.. are you alright?”, he asked.
“No, Thomas Dimwood. I just died..”, she replied as she got up, just to drop back..
..as they heard a gurgling crack and the Grunt General snapped the slender neck of another Temez he had just managed to grab.
Thomas didn’t wait any longer.. Nothing in his life had affected him nor pierced him down to his very core as what he had just witnessed. Whatever the half-born truly were, however they were conceived, or what sins they had done in their previous lives, they were now, all under his protection and he was not going to let this monster kill Temez one by one.
“Stay down.”, he snarled between his gritted teeth as he struggled to get up.
“I am down, Thomas Dimwood!”, Temez said as she coughed another month-full of blood and the Grunt General slammed one more of her into the slushy ground, ignored the other girls crawling and stabbing at his back, and swung down his massive warhammer..
..and crushed Temez!
The thing that remained had no back, nor any discernable skull..
“That’s it!”, the young man spat with anger and cast another spell, but like the first, the Grunt General shrugged this one off too.
“Whatever you are doing, you had better come quick, Morel. This thing is killing us!”, he snarled again and released a third spell, causing the great Orken to grunt in mere discomfort as he reached back with surprising speed and grabbed the girl on his back by the ankle.
Temez did not panic, nor flail around, even though she was held upside down. She did let loose a long, horrible shriek as the Grunt General grabbed her other foot, and with slow, cruel deliberation, tore her in two!
“Will I have attained my Ascension if I die here, Thomas Dimwood?”, Temez whispered hoarsely from behind. “Will you vouch for my deeds and plead the Heavens on my behalf? I haven’t returned the soul I ate, though. I really wanted to do that before I died..”
“No, half-born. You will live, and you will further sweat and suffer for your Ascension, and there shall be no shortcuts for you!”, Thomas replied as he cast another spell just to see it bounce off the giant monstrosity.
The thing gave him a disgusted glance, spun around, and smash his fist into the last girl. A sharp snap was heard and Temez dropped, her head resting on the ground at an odd, irksome angle. The monster looked down at her..
..and stomped her face with one, giant foot..
..until nothing but a bloody puddle remained.
“IT DIED.”, the beast said with a sneer as he took a massive step towards Thomas.
“Done.”, a soft voice replied to that and a cold blade, glowing with glacial blue light came out of the monster’s chest as Bremorel Songsteel appeared behind the Grunt General.
The creature let loose a great, pained grunt and the ranger lieutenant danced..
..as Thomas prepared another spell.
“And that is how pain feels.”, was all she said, took a dive to her right, suddenly reverted, and spun left, misleading the monster to swing down his great hammer into empty ground.
Thomas released his spell..
..and a shrieking wall of blades, perhaps twenty feet high, all spinning savagely, appeared before him..
..just Bremorel sliced open one of the Grunt General’s legs.
The monster grunted as he dropped on one knee.
She spun back, darted in again, and sliced open his other leg!
The Grunt General moaned, dropped his giant hammer and fell on his hands, all the while staring up at the girl with hateful eyes..
The ranger lieutenant did not pause for dramatic effect.
She sliced one of his trunk-like arms all the way to the bone, used the swing’s momentum as she spun around and did the same to his other arm as well..
..and the Grunt General fell face down into the frozen, and muddy ground.
He heaved and struggled, and sat up on his haunches to give her a defiant, spiteful glare.
“Your ilk may conquer us and even slay us all. But you will never see those days, and neither will you ever taste victory, or even know how it all fared.”, the ranger lieutenant told him in her low, soft voice..
..and kicked him in the chest.
The Grunt General fell back..
..into the wall of mincing blades!
. . .
What a mess..”, Bremorel complained in disgust as she wiped the thick, dark, dripping Orken blood off her face. Then she looked down and saw ‘wiping’ wasn’t going to cut it. They would need the flow of Arashkan River to wash that gore off them!
“My bad.”, Thomas grimaced.
“I suppose it would be churlish of me not to accept some of the responsibility. When I saw your wall of blades, I couldn’t resist, so I guess its a mutual bad!”, she said waving her hands and splattering some more blood..
“I would be the last to complain, love, but what took you so long?”, Thomas said hoarsely in pain as he held his broken and dislocated arm. “Temez got slaughtered, and is now totally out! I shudder to think what that girl went through to buy you some time..”
“I am sorry, my Thomas. I really am. We suspected there would be Blood Shamans here, and we were right; there were three of them but they were well hidden. Finding them while dashing through an army of Orken wasn’t easy, even though they are mostly stunned and blinded at the moment. The problem was they were all hiding in three different locations, busy with whatever foul rituals they were casting. I suspect it was due to them your spells never took hold on the bloody Grunt General and the same reason why Temez was so ineffective as well. Once I found and killed all three Blood Shamans, he became vulnerable. Good thing he did too.. How’s the arm?”
“Totally busted.”, Thomas replied, staring at his disfigured arm. “You are going to have to put my shoulder back in before we could even cast it.”
“Ouch. That’s going to hurt.”
“Yes. Yes, it will.”, he said sourly.
“Told you that armor of yours was trash.”, she said heartlessly.
“Harsh, love. Very harsh.”, Thomas sighed with resignation.
“I guess I will have to carry Temez.”, she said, looking down at the half-born girl.
“I would have, but not with this arm, I can’t..”, he mumbled in pain.
“No, you weren’t, Thomas. Under no circumstance are you to carry any girl but me. Are we clear on that?”, she said sternly.
“Apparently, we are.”, he said somewhat surprised.
“Don’t get me wrong, Thomas. This isn’t a matter of trust, nor the lack of it. It’s a matter of principle. She is, after all—”
“—a succubi half-born?”, finished Thomas.
“No. She is, after all, a girl! The fact that she has the blood of a succubus running in her veins and possesses their powers as well, is a moot point. And I secretly suspect all girls are part succubus! My point is, some things should never be tested, Thomas, and never should they be put to trial. There can never be a good and doubt-free outcome of that. And if one plays with fire, they will get burned. I burned once with you. I would like to keep that fire going..”
“I would like that fire going too. And you are right. Gather her here. I have one final spell to cast and we’ll be done..”, he said.
Bremorel scooped up the half-born girl to find out that she was surprisingly light-weighted for a girl who was taller than average, slender but certainly not skinny.
“Come, love. Bring her here and form a circle..”, he said.
Bremorel brought the half-born girl over and lay her down to form a circle.
“Holy Ad Ara. With your grace, we have finished what we have come here to do. Thank you.”, he murmured as if in prayer.
“Well done, young Thomas of Dim Woods. Long and hard trials further await you and yours. Know, though, only the resolute prevails. I shall ask one boon of you if you will..”, said the voice of Ad Ara in their minds.
“I shall do as you please, Holy Ad Ara.”, Thomas promised.
“Be kind to mirima, for her and her kind have suffered much in the hands of the foulest of fiends and Mortals sunk too low in sin and debauchery. Yet mirima suffers the most, for she has lost the most; her hope!”, the voice of the Archangel of Compassion said, and there was a tint of regret in it.
“We shall be kind to her, and to all her brothers and sisters, and my home and my temple will be their home and their temple for as long as they wish to stay.”, he replied with his head bowed.
“Thank you.”, she said with a relieved sort of voice. “Now depart these befouled hills, for the cleansing shall begin here..”
The young senior temple guardian sighed, feeling sad, elated, and for some reason, lost..
Then he reached back and struggled with his pack but he just couldn’t get it to open. Bremorel came to his aid, gave him a chaste kiss, then took his pack and opened it.
“What am I looking for?”, she asked, looking into the neatly folded clothes and the well-organized items inside it with no small amount of flushed guilt and shame. True, Bremorel was not all that messy girl, but her husband turned everything he did into some sort of an art display.. including packing his bags!
Bremorel pulled out a long, cylindrical object as thick as her ankle with a curious-looking fuse at one end and a long, slender stick tied to its side. She stared at it, then at her husband.
“Why do you have a flare in your pack, Thomas? More to the point, why do you have a Palantine scout’s signal flare in your pack? Carrying one of these without a license is illegal. Callous use of it is worth serious fines and jail time.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I was warned by any number of Palantine soldiers already. That flare is the reason I stayed back. I needed one of them and I needed to talk to Palantine Militia General, Gerald Cornfield..”, Thomas said.
“Why would you..?”, Bremorel began, then her eyes widened.
“You like?”, the young temple guardian asked, grinning at her despite the pain of his ruined arm.
“Damn. That was a bold thing to do, my Thomas. I am impressed.. And yes, I like..”, she said with a tiny, appreciative smile.
“I sort of hinted out what we were up to, and what to expect should we succeed. I am sure their scouts have already seen the Grace of Ad Ara lighting up these hills but they wouldn’t know what to do or what to make of it. This flare will tell them ‘what!'”, he explained with satisfaction.
“I could so jump you right now!”, Bremorel said with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“Well, fire it away, love. Tell the esteemed Palantine general he is free to assault these hills with a preemptive strike, now that Orken Grunt General and the Blood Shamans are dead.. Might as well make good use of the confusion. And I am sure the sight of an Archangel will sway the heart of even someone as stubborn as Gerald Cornfield for the better..”
Bremorel stuck the flare into the slushy and muddy ground and lit its fuse. The flare shot up with an eagle’s shriek, made a long, graceful arc over the sky, then exploded, showering down scores of brilliant red sparks..
“Done.”, she said, staring up at the beautiful silhouette of Ad Ara, glowing with incandescent light high up in the night sky, and the scores of bright red motes raining down.
“And Done.”, her husband said and cast his final spell..
Thomas bowed his head once more towards the Archangel, then recalled them all; his awe-inspiring Morel, the downed half-born girl, Temez, and himself, back home, and back to his free temple.
. . .
Temple Guardian Derek Jeramiah Herald crouched, not behind the creaky door of the pitifully small dormitory room of Demos Lighthand, but in the corner of his own, similarly small room. His face was haggard and his hair tousled, and the evidence of dried streaks was there, on that face.. It was a face filled with self-loathing and shame and the terrible sense of loss he knew was about to happen, was also clearly etched on that face..
He sniffed once and closed his