Joe peered through the hazy cabin at the snoring elf and sleeping reptile, who still had his pipe pinched between his lips. Despite the rain, Joe drew back the curtain so as not to suffocate in the cloud of gogo that grew in density with each passing moment. A minute hadn’t passed before the wheel beneath him struck a puddle and a thick glob of mud splattered across his face. Smearing the muk on the curtain, Joe let it fall back in place and decided it would be best to tolerate the skunk-like fumes. Deep brooding quickly took precedence in his mind over his olfactory discontent.
I saw someone die. With his eyes closed, he could see the event play over again perfectly in his head. The highwaymen came screaming from the tree line and the carriage driver stood from his perch. Grabbing the hilt at his belt, the driver yanked but the sword didn’t come free. As he fumbled with his weapon, one of the bandits climbed onto the carriage and slid his own blade through the gut of the coach. The coach fell onto his seat, coughing blood and clutching his belly, and the bandit hopped down. As a muscled oaf emerged from the buggy, the bandit charged Zalfron. Grandfather tugged Joe’s elbow, commanding him to, “Fire, now!” Joe ran into the street, his mind’s eye still replaying the scene of the dying carriage driver even as he commanded Zalfron to duck and released a ball of fire to engulf the killer.
Blinking the thought away, Joe found himself looking at his peers once again. Their lips quivered as their chests rose and fell. Their brows were relaxed, their muscles slacked. How can they sleep after…Joe’s memory once again brought imagery to the front of his mind: the bodies of the two bandits, limp and soggy in the mud, slain by Nogard moments before he and Joe met. Joe grimaced. How was he so nonchalant? Joe couldn’t chase his frown. Maybe that’s why he smokes so much…what about Zalfron? Grandfather too? He recalled the empty suit of armor piled in the corner above the stairs, back in Suinus, empty of the spirit that once filled it. No one seems to care! We just left the bodies on the road!
Joe’s lips trembled and his eyes threatened to tear up. Fighting the urge, Joe reached across the booth and snatched the pipe from Nogard’s lips. The chicken dragon stirred, grumbled something, but never woke. Joe wouldn’t have cared. Raising the pipe to his lips, he lit the bowl with a spark from his chest, and breathed in. The smoke dove into his lungs and a spasm of coughs rattled the Earthboy. As if the fit had shook around the thoughts in his brain, a new reality occurred to Joe. It was as if the tug on the Solarin’s pipe allowed him to see the situation from their point of view. They didn’t lack a respect for life, they lacked options. It was kill or be killed. Could any of those lives have been spared? Placing the pipe back in Nogard’s lap, Joe realized, Yes! Life was spared! Joe was sitting across from an example such spared life now. Still, the sickness in his heart did not fully disapate. His conclusion merely brought back to the forefront a reoccurring thought that weighed heavily on his stomach.
When will I have to kill?
Thoughts like these kept Joe awake for the rest of the ride. The rain slowed to a drizzle and the sun set before they arrived at their destination.
Portville was much smaller than Suinus, at least, it appeared to be. The city sat on level ground instead of filling out a crater so Joe couldn’t readily judge the size of the place based on his narrow point of view. However, he got a feel of the size from the streets. Suinus’s streets got narrower and narrower the further you got into the city while Portville had much broader streets no matter where you seemed to go. There were no looming towers and the buildings were no higher than three or four stories except for a select few manors, temples, and businesses. Patches of forest filled empty lots and dozens of trees could be seen, rooted in small squares of soil, rising from each of the large brick streets. People strode about in the sprinkling rain. A dreary mist seeped through the buildings and seemed to rise from the roads like steam. The sound of hoofs on the beaten cobble clapped in unison with the dripping precipitation from the roof tops.
They found a stable near the eastern gate and sold their horse and carriage for a hefty sack of gold. The buyer, a lanky earth elf, watched them with accusation in his eyes, remarking how “strange it was to see such a group with such a horse and buggy and no cargo”. However, the man seemed to be nothing more than curious, seeing as he paid Grandfather well and quickly turned his attention to cleaning out the interior.
The rain was stopping as they left the stables. They didn’t make it far before the stable owner called them back. He was standing outside the door of the stables, his dark eyes alight, a mischievous grin stretched across his lips. In his hand, he held a small wooden box about the size of a crate you could keep a pair of shoes in. It was carved with elaborate images of flames and dragons and covered in a glossy finish that protected the wooden exterior.
“You forgot something beneath the seats.” He said, raising an eyebrow.
The four exchanged puzzled glances then Grandfather walked back to the man and grabbed the box.
“You should be grateful I said something.” He continued, beaming as if to say, “I knew I was right,” before spinning on his heels and heading back to the stable.
The three strode over to join Grandfather. The Knome opened the box, looked in, then closed it back and looked up at Nogard.
“Did you know anything about this?” Grandfather asked.
Grandfather wasn’t convinced.
“Listen, mon, all I knew is dey were goin west. Dey said we’d run into trouble and dey expected my help. Das all dey told me!”
“How’d you know them?”
“I met dem at a gogo bar in Ta-Nissassa, beat em in a couple games of spades and when da boys couldn’t pay all what dey owed, I asked for a ride instead of gold.”
“You didn’t know those men?” Grandfather asked one last time.
“Mon,” Nogard stooped to look the Knome directly in the eyes, “I tell the trude. Don’tcha dink I woulda been pissed dat yall killed em if I knew dem? I didn’t know dem and I don’t know what da hell’s in dat box.”
“Is it tobacco?” Joe asked.
Grandfather shook his head, “It’s worse.”
“How bad could it bae?” Zalfron asked.
Grandfather opened the box and picked up the vial that was inside. It was small, no longer than Joe’s index finger and with a radius no more than an inch. The liquid inside was an extremely dark shade of purple, so dark that Joe found himself wondering whether or not it was black or indigo. The cork had something scribbled on the top that looked almost like scratch marks but Joe could tell they were there for a reason. Three curved marks, like parenthesis, the first in the crescent of the second and the second in the crescent of the third. Growing bigger from left to right.
“Dark marrow,” Grandfather said.
“From da Black Crown Pact.” Nogard said, recognizing the symbol.
“Dark marrow, that’s what makes you a necromancer…” Joe mumbled.
Zalfron interjected, “How’s the Pact gettin dark marra now that them and the Order are enemaes?”
“They have to smuggle it out and I think we just interrupted a Pact smuggling route.” Grandfather declared, “I’d wager those highwaymen we encountered on the street weren’t there by a mere coincidence. They’re probably Order affiliated, or at least on Skullsummon’s pay roll, and were trying to intercept the stolen marrow.”
“Creaton has insahders in the Order?” Zalfron asked.
“And vice versa I’m sure.” Grandfather nodded.
“Wonder how often dey use Portville for dat type ah ding…” Nogard thought aloud.
“Probably often,” Grandfather said, “Portville is a large enough port to get your cargo where you need it but small enough, compared to ports like Westport or Yelah, to avoid the radar of the Trinity Nation’s navy.”
“Shit, Yelah still has a bad pahracy problem.” Zalfron admitted, then he got excited, “What if wae set up a stang! Stay in Portville, catch the next band of smugglers then work our way up to the source! Then wae’d defintely get accepted to the Kou Knahts!”
“You gotta better chance stickin wid proppecy boy!” Nogard laughed.
Grandfather agreed, “Nogard’s right, let’s focus on getting to God’s Island first.”
Zalfron dropped it and picked up a frown. Grandfather lifted the vial and threw it down on the street. It shattered and the marrow soaked into the cracks between the cobblestones. He tossed the box in an alley and wiped his hands on his tunic as if the cargo had left him unclean.
“Dat potion’ll make some interestin worms…” Nogard muttered.
Grandfather looked at the chicken dragon, shook his head, then said, “We need to get ourselves a place to sleep. I’ve got a friend we can stay with.”
As evening evolved into night, the gang wandered westward through the city. The drizzle was defeated but the clouds persevered, hiding the constellations from the four. Before long, a new form of precipitation fell from the heavens: snow. The ground was too wet and not cold enough so few flakes lasted more than a moment once they reached the roof tops and roads. They walked west until the masts of great vessels peaked over lines of saloons that made a wall between the shore and the sea, then Grandfather revealed the aim of their journey.
“Sam Budd,” Grandfather said, “that’s the man’s name.”
“Sam Budd…” Nogard repeated, rubbing his scaly chin.
“Ah swear that name’s familiar.” Zalfron said.
“I wouldn’t doubt it. A couple years ago, he aided two fugitives in escaping the law and was arrested. In fact, this was back when I had a shop down here and before I relocated to Suinus…” Grandfather lost his thoughts as he began to reminisce.
Joe was confused, he asked, “We’re staying with a criminal?”
“Oh no, no, no! As it turned out the fugitives were none other than Tou Fou and Tabuh Sentry – two Mystakle Samurai. Didn’t take long after Saint’s Foretelling that word of Sam Budd’s valiant act of patriotism spread. So of course, he was released. I’ve heard that his bar has now become a hot spot for folks passing through. Though I haven’t seen him since his incarceration, he – supposedly – keeps a few rooms open for his old friends at all times! And” Grandfather added, “as an international hero, he is practically above the law now.”
“Dat be handy,” Nogard nodded, “what wid havin a mancer wid us and all.”
The boys nodded in agreement.
“What’s the place called?” Joe asked.
“Read for yourself!” Grandfather said.
The four stopped. The inn before them was by far the biggest they’d passed. It reached up nearly six stories. People shoved their way in the entrance, located on the second story, and stumbled their way down the fat stone stairs. As soon as someone left a new customer would take his or her place and the line – which stretched nearly half a mile down the street – shifted forward. From the outside, the building looked like some sort of high class hotel or expensive restaurant, anything but the bar they expected. The walls were made of pale stone cinder blocks, wedged in-between beams of wood, and each window was draped with fancy crimson curtains.
“The Barren’s Mullet,” Joe read aloud.
The name was carved on the stone façade of the stairs beneath the pair of double doors. It ran in a semi-circle above the depiction of a large horned creature that was all too familiar to Joe. The beast’s eyes were crossed and between its horns descended a greasy black mullet.
Grandfather explained, “A barren is a beast indigenous to Tadloe, famous for its strength and ferocity, it’s-”
“Oh, I know what a barren is, I’ve seen one.” Joe stated, “What’s with the mullet?”
“Business in the front.” Zalfron answered.
“Party in da back.” Nogard finished.
Grandfather said, “Now follow me closely!”
Striding forward, the Knome forced his way into the line. Immediately, all eyes in the line fell on the four – more specifically the three, seeing as Grandfather was short enough to not be seen. Ignoring the ferocious curses of wailing constituents, the boys kept close to Grandfather and shoved their way to the front of the line. There they met a suit of armor that glared through the grill of his helmet with a furled thinly-furred brow and indigo eyes. When Joe couldn’t guess the race, he asked Zalfron in a whisper.
“Moleman,” Zalfron explained.
Joe hoped the guard would lift his helmet but instead his hand slid to his hilted dagger as he awaited an explanation from the line-cutters.
“Tell Budd I’m Grandfather and he owes me and these boys a table.” Grandfather cried over the uproar behind them.
The moleman’s hand tightened around the handle of his weapon before he instructed the lot to, “Go to the back of the line.”
“This one here,” Grandfather said, grabbing Zalfron by the hips and shaking him, “Is Zalfron Sentry, brother of the Samurai who Sam Budd saved a few years ago.”
“And I am Daffeega Shelba.” The guard retorted.
“Mock me if you like,” Grandfather shrugged, “I won’t be sent back to the deserts if you’re wrong…”
The purple eyes took a moment to examine the elf then spoke through his teeth, “I won’t be the one working in a labor camp in the swamps of Inton if you’re lying, now get on inside.” The moleman released his weapon and stepped around them to stand between the next group and the door.
“What a polite mole.” Zalfron remarked.
“Bah!” Grandfather skoffed as they walked through the door, grumbling beneath his breath, “No one ever believes I am Grandfather…”
The inside was anything but what Joe expected. A layer of alcohol, thick like syrup, coated the floor and was constantly replenished as drunkards collapsed into bar maids, toppling their trays and soaking their fellow customers. Glowing enertombs dimly lit the place as they hung low over the thirty or so tables that polka dotted the room. The entire second floor of the place was one giant saloon polarized between homely hearths on one end, flocked by wet and wary travelers, and the bar on the other, populated with alcoholic natives in possession of fat tabs and skinny wallets.
Music diffused from the middle of the room where a guitar strumming chicken dragon girated to the beat, singing, “I’m an optimistic narcissist, lost in this sick farce I live!” An earth elf played base while another blew into an instrument somewhat similar to a saxophone. It was the drummer that caught Joe’s attention. Protruding out of his greasy brown hair was a pair of horns, curled like a ram’s. Joe wanted to ask what exactly the percussionist was but the rhythmic clamor and chaotic rambling would force Joe to yell so instead he had to hypothesize himself. Suddenly he remembered Ekaf’s description of Benjamin Fasthoof – horns, hooves, and a tail. Sure enough, the drummer fit the build of a gmoat.
His eyes now returned to the bar. Joe had never seen such a wide spectrum of colors in alcohol. There were more different types of beverages than there were races among the bar maids who toted them! Seductive elves strutted about in skimpy little outfits while muscled bearns and chicken dragons delivered drinks in tailored suits – it seemed that body type decided the garments, as some of both sexes were garbed scantily and formally. Joe spotted a few gmoats, molemen, chicken dragons, spirits, and even a tan, bald-headed dwarf, but the majority consisted of bearns, earth elves, and humans.
“Go get a table, I’ll find Sam Budd!” Grandfather told them.
The three slipped their way through the mass of people, eventually finding an opening beside a window near a fire place. They grabbed a table just as the previous patrons staggered out the door. With exhausted sighs of relief, the three collapsed.
“I’m so ready to go to bed. That carriage ride rubbed me raw.” Joe moaned, laying on his side across his chair and a chair reserved for Grandfather, as he massauged his behind.
“Your ass’ll toughin up.” Nogard promised.
“Ah’m ready for a drank.” Zalfron grunted.
Once his butt was consoled, Joe sat up and continued his observation of what was, at least for him, a spectacularily novel environment. He was seeing all sorts of new types of people, some dressed as if they came from a hunter gatherer tribe and others dressed as though they came from a far more technologically advanced land than his own. Suddenly, he froze. There was a spirit in the corner. The man was encased in a robust suit of armor wrapped in decorative vines of metal and topped with a one horned full helm. A translucent silver sash was wrapped across his chest, holding a quiver and bow to his back. He leaned back in his chair and observed the crowd, his eyes scanning the room back and forth as if he were looking for someone. He isn’t looking for me is he? Could he be a part of the Knights of the Light? But as quick as the panic had hit Joe, it melted away and a smile crept into its place. I’m not with Ekaf anymore. He looked away from the spirit. Calm down, Joe, you can finally relax.
“Ah’m faelin junglay, ah’ll take a gulp of fruit baer, ma’am.” Zalfron said.
A waitress had come to the table. She was huge. Her arms were as big around as Joe’s thighs, which weren’t that big around, but the fact remained that this woman was larger than the average human. Not to mention, she was furred. The low-cut blouse that rolled down her waist into a skirt gave her more of a comical look than a sexy one. As she took Nogard’s order, Joe found himself fighting the urge to laugh.
“And for you?” She asked Joe.
Joe couldn’t take it any longer. He hung his head as his body trembled with laughter. The barmaid slouched, leaning her beer tray on her hip as she batted her eyes at Joe as if to say, “I don’t have time for this.”
“Hae ain’t from round here,” Zalfron said proudly, “jus get us thrae fruit beers, ma’am, but stick the funny guy with a sip.”
The woman left the three with a disgruntled grunt.
“Ya don’t wanna make a bearn mad, mon.” Nogard warned.
Zalfron agreed, “Ah pissed off a bar tending bearn when ah’d first turned thirteen and wooh, shae let mae have it!”
“What were you doing talking to bar tenders at thirteen?” Joe scoffed.
Zalfron was taken aback, “Drankin…”
“At thirteen? I know you consider thirteen year olds adults, but alcohol?” Joe asked.
“Da state isn’t der to baby sit, mon.” Nogard laughed.
“And if ya can carray a sword, then you can drank.” Zalfron shrugged.
“But thirteen?!” Joe wasn’t having it, “Their brains are still developing!”
“If alcohol hurts da brain, don’t ya dink killin a man do?” Nogard argued.
“I never said thirteen year olds should be killing people!” Joe shot back.
“How old do ya gotta bae to drank on Earth?” Zalfron asked.
“Twenty-one!” Joe cried, “Well, that’s how it is where I’m from.”
“No way!” Zalfron and Nogard exclaimed in unison.
“And da army?” Nogard asked.
“You can join at eighteen.” Joe said.
“Do dey put an age on da gogo?” Nogard asked.
“Get this,” Joe figured he’d get a good reaction out of this one, “tobacco is legal and gogo isn’t!”
“WHAT!” Nogard jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over. No one seemed to notice his outburst aside from Zalfron and Joe who both nearly fell out of their seats. After picking his chair up, Nogard continued in a softer but still viciously offended tone, “Tell me it isn’t so, mon!”
“It is. You had a War on Mancy, we had a War on Drugs. People can go to prison for life if they get caught with gogo to many times…well, that is if gogo is what I think it is…gogo is weed, right?”
“How dare you call my babbit a weed!” Nogard cried, sitting back down and patting his chest pocket, “It’s okay babies, he didn’t mean it.”
“And you can smoke tobacco before you can drink.” Joe continued.
“Dey letcha go to war and get shot at and inhale poison but dey can’t inhale a miracle plant!” Nogard crowed.
“Can ya at least eat it?” Zalfron asked.
“Wee-” Joe caught himself, “Gogo? Nope.”
“Ah jus don’t get Earth.” Zalfron said, “Tobacco’ll hook ya and frah yer brain and lungs. If ya eat gogo, all it does is make ya goofy. That just makes no sense!”
“Alright, enough with the propaganda.” Grandfather said, grinning as he rejoined them at the table, a massive mug of ale in his hand, “This is fantasy fiction, not a criticism of the hypocrisy common in the soon-to-fall Earthen governments.”
“What?” Joe asked.
“Two gulps of fruit beer and one sip?” The bearn barmaid said as she returned to set the pitchers down on the table, “That’ll be all for you?”
“Not yet ma’am, we’ll have four chicken plates with sweet fries, bacon beans, and blood apples.”
Grandfather tossed a few coins onto her empty tray and she offered the first authentic smile the boy’s had seen from her. As Zalfron, Nogard, and Joe thanked her, she curtsied, winked at the old man, then skipped off. The “gulps” were as big around as Grandfather’s head. Joe was sure that there must’ve been at least half a gallon of beer in their glasses. As for the “sip”, it looked to be a pint. Eyeing the glass as if it were an adversary, Joe took a deep breath and then lifted the drink to his lips. I’ve never was much of a drinker back on Earth, but, then again, I was diabetic. I really couldn’t drink too much. Closing his eyes, he took a giant swig then set it down. He opened his eyes back and found the elf, chicken dragon, and Knome staring at him with wide spread grins.
“Dat ya first beer, mon?” Nogard asked.
“First fruit beer!” Joe nodded.
“How ya lak it?” Zalfron asked.
“A hell of a lot more than I thought I would!” Joe replied as he took another sip, “It reminds me of soda!”
“Careful,” Grandfather said, “I don’t need yall getting too drunk, specially with the shinanigans we been through today. Keep your eyes out for trouble.”
If any of the boys heard him, then none acknowledged it.
“My boy!” Nogard said, grabbing Joe’s hand to stop him from taking another sip, “We must toast. Give it a go, mon!”
Smiling, Joe raised the glass, “You know just a few days ago I would’ve died if it wasn’t for this Knome right here’s friend! I say we make a toast to him.”
“Screw him,” Grandfather chuckled and raised his beer, “let’s toast to Solaris.”
“To Solaris!” Joe cried.
And after the first toast came another, then another, and another, the boys had started on their second drinks before they ran out of things to toast. After praising the Emperor, the Trinity Nations, the King of Tadloe, the pub, the very Y’s in their chromosomes, they moved on to talk of girls. Nogard and Zalfron downed two more gulps before they finished barraging Joe with questions regarding the beautiful Earthen female. And Joe beat his first gulp asking the chicken dragon and elf about theirs (including questions like, “Are chicken dragons really reptiles?” to which Nogard replied, “Can’t say I’ma science mon but I tell ya dis – I can make sweet love to you skinned folk widdout da fear of fadderhood, my boy!”). Excluding Grandfather, it didn’t take the three long to get thoroughly and enjoyably wasted. Once the food came, all three boys replaced their gulps for chugs. At the rate they were drinking, one would’ve thought them seriously dehydrated. Grandfather stayed somewhat calmer than the three younger boys (despite drinking a guzzle!) and kept an eye out for danger. As the boy’s sobriety withered and died, so did the sobriety of those around them and, as the moon sunk further beneath the clouds, the pub submitted to complete rancor. People tangoed across table tops as the voices of the bar united into hundreds of horrendous hymns sung in half-hazard harmony. Joe, Nogard, and Zalfron were standing on their table, each holding their beverage (Joe had to use two hands), arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders as they bounced back and forth singing.
“Hole up, hole up, hole up……MAH BOY!” Nogard yelled the last two words at the top of his lungs then held his arms up, which incidently provided his companions with a brisk shower in booze, “I hasomedina say.”
Joe blinked and looked at the red scaled man who, although they met hours ago, seemed now to be one of his dearest friends. Zalfron, however, kept on singing, switching songs.
“Aaaah waaas born bah a Sentray and ah’m proud ta say, ah drank all naht and ah work all day!” Zalfron sang at the top of his lungs, oblivious to the fact that the people in the bar had begun to quiet, “Ah’ve got uh pale ole face and big blue ahs and ah lak mah dames with big round thahs.”
Nogard looked at Joe, gestured to Zalfron, burst into laughter, then lifted his mug to his lips. Joe grinned from ear to ear, clasped Zalfron’s shoulder, and danced with him. Zalfron continued, “If shae ain’t a blonde then shae ain’t for mae! If shae ain’t for mae, shae maht as well bae…a god damn, GOD DAMN,” he paused and a few other elves, some electric but mostly earth, across the bar chimed in, dropping it down a couple octaves, “Ipaaaa-taaaaa-vaaaay!”
Zalfron continued on alone, occupying the attention of the entire bar, “Nooow maaah momma once said ah gotta lump of a head! If ah ever hit the straet ah’d be good as dead! Ain’t no lass gone bae dumb enough, to fix mae bread and show mae love.”
Nogard began to tap his foot loudly on the table in beat with Zalfron’s chorus. People around the tavern began to clap in rhythm. The band began to jam along.
“Yas, mah boy!” Nogard said, nodding, “Sing it, mon!”
“When ah hit the straet ah knew she weren’t rat! Bet ah met a traet bah the end of the naht! Shae had rael dark hair and rael dark skin! Shit, Momma weren’t there and she were a ten. Ah’m just a pale elf with a dark elf girl. Mah momma says that make her wanna hurl, but at the end of the day ah don’t give a daaaaamn!”
“Cause unlahk momma, shae made mae a man!”
More of the reluctant electric elves chimed in along with a few chicken dragons and bearns as Zalfron finished.
“Hae-hoe! Hey let’s go! Drank til wae ain’t got money to throw! Hae-hoe! Hey let’s go! Drank and let the troubles slooow,” he slowed, Nogard stopped the beat, Joe stopped dancing, and then, “Screw Ipativy! Let Iahtro blow!”
The bar erupted with applause. Zalfron turned to Joe and Nogard with a crooked smile.
“That there’s pale elf song!” Zalfron said proudly, “Ah sang it ery tahm ah get drunk!”
“Encore, encore!” The band’s guitarist roared.
“Naw, naw, naw, ah’m drunker than a Darkblade!” Zalfron shook his head solemnly and swatted at the air, “Sahds, cain’t sang it twice, that’s bad look!”
“Look?” Joe asked, genuinely curious, as the crowd lost their appetite for Zalfron, “Where?”
“Luck.” A cross eyed Zalfron corrected himself.
“Oh,” Joe nodded as if in the middle of a dignified conversation then he suddenly jumped from where he stood off the table, “Wait! Nogard had something to say!”
As the other two stepped off the table, attention turned to Nogard. The chicken dragon hit his bare scaled chest with his fist, cleared his throat, adjust the unbuttoned robe that was draped over his shoulders, and shook his head so that his tangled tails fell down his back.
“I, Nogard Odukab,” he proclaimed, paused, then corrected himself, “I, Nogard…Ot…Ooh…Bak, had decided to consider,” he cleared his throat and winked at his new friends, “traveling on to see da Emperor wid my new brudders!”
“To save the Mystakle Samurah?” Zalfron asked, raising his chug into the air with both hands, his arms sore and shaking.
“And damn Creaton to hell!” Nogard agreed, raising his.
“And damn Creaton to hell!” Joe cried, following suit.
“Guys!” Grandfather said, “Sit down and sober up.”
It was the first time they had heard Grandfather speak in a long while and the three exchanged embarrassed glances. They’d almost forgotten the old Knome. Throughout the three’s shenanigans, Grandfather had stayed in his seat, eyes on the crowd around them as he drank down his beers. Though he had drunk as much as the three boys combined, Grandfather was still in his right mind. Most of the people in the bar were celebrating life – happy, drunk, and carefree – but not all. There was a table of elves around the center of the dining area, right in front of the band. Ever since the four had walked in, the table had their eyes on Nogard. Grandfather had watched them silently until he saw another group walk in to stand around the table in question. That’s when he told the boys to chill out.
The table was now a peculiar combination; there was a young human woman, two earth elves, and two electric elves. The woman was dressed in all black leather, with two slender swords sheathed on her back and long dark brown hair falling around her face to hide one of her eyes. The earth elves looked a little nervous and ever so often they would pull their eyes away from Nogard and scan the rest of the congregation of drunkards. The group that joined the table stood with their backs to the corner in which Grandfather and the boys sat. From what he could tell of them, two were of the nellaf race, the third was electric elven, and the last two were bearns. Many people in the tavern looked conspicuous and there was nothing especially particular about the group to make it stand out. But Grandfather recognized the long haired human female and knew something was up.
The woman was Catherine Meriam, known to most as Catty. She was a big enough character for the Trinity Nations to produce posters with her face and name along with a hefty sum of gold in exchange for her timely demise. Few veterans of the current wars wouldn’t recognize her and Grandfather wasn’t the only one in the bar that had noticed. Four ex-soldiers sitting at a table in the opposite corner from Joe and his friends spotted Catty when she and her crew walked in. They also had noticed Grandfather, Joe, Zalforn, and Nogard for few things escape the eyes of Sniper.
When the bearn, Sniper, met Grandfather with his eyes, he nodded. From across the tavern, Grandfather returned the discreet salutation. Then the bearn motioned with his hand to the chicken dragon woman sitting beside him. As Grandfather’s blue eyes met the reptile’s purple, she began to mouth and her voice spoke into his ears as if she sat beside him.
“I see ya picked up ma kin. Who he be to you?”
Grandfather had rudimentary knowledge of the Sacred Tongue, but he knew enough to recognize the spell the mage had used. She was eye whispering. Luckily for Grandfather, this was low energy spell casting requiring only a basic magical vocabulary – young students in magic schools used this spell to chat with friends during class. The old Knome muttered a sentence of the Sacred to get the spell started, “Mai kaeps ot iameh ras nock canelpeop fashi gaga iam ehdie kaeps ot miameh ras,” then he mouthed his message, “Found him on the road amongst Pact smugglers, he helped us kill the brutes.”
“You be a fool to trust him.” Was the swift and sharp response, followed by, “See you’ve caught da Cat’s eye.”
“We can handle her, though help would be appreciated.”
“No promises, mon.”
“Does she know your faces?”
“Then you might not have a choice.”
However the chicken dragon took Grandfather’s warning, the Knome didn’t know. His eyes were jerked back to the table as Zalfron shook him by the shoulders.
“Ya talkin to yerself?” The beligerant elf asked.
Grandfather took a deep breath to keep from snapping at the boy and looked back over his shoulders, in search of the purple eyes he’d been speaking with, only to see that the shadowmancer and her group of villians had risen from their seats. As Catty and the four that had been seated beside her stood, those standing around her took the empty seats. Then, Catty and the two earth elves and two electric elves made their way through the staggering customers towards the corner of the bar where Grandfather and the boys resided.
“We’ve got company.” The Knome said as he turned back to face the three, “Don’t say a word.”
Joe, Zalfron, and Nogard watched the dark clothed group approaching and sat soundly in their seats. Grandfather stood on his chair as the five neared so that the woman wouldn’t be able to look down on him when they spoke. Though only her left eye was visible beneath the long wavy black hair that spilled down her face, that single eye glared with a fierceness that would’ve been enough to silence the boys even without the Knome’s command. When she arrived, Catty glared at Nogard for a painfully quiet moment before turning her attention to Grandfather.
“Where are,” she paused, cocked her head to the side so that her hair now covered her lips aswell, and squinted at the Knome for a hot second before continuing, “the earth elves.”
“Waiting in their room.” Grandfather said.
“We watched your party enter off the street. The earth elves were not among you.”
“My friend had no business with them other than assisting them on their way to Portville. That was it. We have no business in this conflict.” Grandfather looked back to Nogard who nodded in confirmation, “When we met Nogard in the city, he parted ways with your people.”
“And yet you say they’re in their room.” Catty replied.
“They told us they would be.” Grandfather said quickly.
Nogard cleared his throat and spoke up, “Dey told me to come find dem, dey wanted to win back some of der honor after I slaughtered dem in cards.”
Catty straightened her gaze and blew her bangs away from her lips then asked, “Room?”
“Urta, Bron, go check the room.” She spoke without looking back.
The two earth elves headed for the stairs.
“Shall we take a walk?” She gestured towards the door.
Grandfather turned to the three behind him, about to ask if they were capable of “a walk” but the woman interjected before he could.
“Just you and I, Grandfather.”
Grandfather eyed her. If you were to rank the greatest one hundred warriors alive on the face of Solaris, Grandfather doubted he would have had a fighting chance to be on that list. He was brilliant in combat but when stacked against the world’s greatest he tended not to fare so well. From what he had heard of the shadowmancer before him, it was very possible she would appear on such a list. The old Knome tried to swallow but the saliva in his mouth had all dried up. Can she beat me? Of that, Grandfather wasn’t sure, but there was one thing he was sure of. She can’t catch me. However, running was not an option, not when he was encharge of protecting the drunken threesome behind him. He would have to count on Sniper and his comrades. Looking past Catty, he searched for the veteran’s table. Once he spotted it, his stomach sank. The soldiers were gone. Damn that blasted Knome for leaving me to look after his prodigy! Still, for better or worse, Grandfather complied.
“Boys, this young lady and I are going outside for a bit.” Grandfather said at last, adjusting the cone on his head.
The three watched the Knome and human woman leave then turned to look at the two electric elves in front of them. One was a hunk of muscle, not as tall as Zalfron but at least six foot and far more buff. He wore a kite-shaped shield on his back and there was a sword in a sheath at his belt, not quite as long as Nogard’s but the blade still tickled the man’s calf. The other fellow was shorter and appeared to be scrawnier though one couldn’t tell beneath the thick robes she wore. The collar of her crimson and black coat reached almost to her jaw and her hood was pulled halfway up, resting just below the pointed rim of her ears.
A nellaf woman from the table they’d left came to whisper something in the robed lady’s ears. She passed it on to her electric elf companion then the blonde haired warrior addressed the three.
“Come up stairs with us. The room was incorrect,” he said, his voice full of bass, “at least, let’s hope it was.”
Zalfron stood. Joe hesitated, looking to Nogard. The chicken dragon shared Joe’s concern but he slid his sheath off the chair and strapped it around his back, nodded to Joe, then got to his feet. Joe followed his friends and the group slowly made their way over to the stairs. When they passed the middle of the room, the nellaf messenger took her place back at the table. The two earth elves were waiting at the base of the stairs. On their way over, Zalfron lagged back with Joe.
“How drunk are ya?” He asked.
“Drunk.” Joe replied with wide, glazed eyes.
“Good.” Zalfron said, “Maht help ya do what ya gotta do.”
“I don’t know if I can fight like this.” Joe whispered.
Zalfron nodded and clapped Joe on the shoulder, “You can.”
Once at the stairwell, the earth elves turned and led them up three flights of stairs before stopping. On the way up, Joe observed that one of the earth elves had a sword and the other had a bow, strung and slung over one shoulder. Joe also noticed that all the rooms down the hall started with a three, this was definitely the incorrect floor for the room that Grandfather had lied about.
“Which one are they in?” The muscled electric elf asked.
The three exchanged glances then Nogard spoke up.
“At da end of da hall.” Nogard said.
The chicken dragon took big steps, speed walking, towards the far side of the building. Joe and Zalfron had to practically jog to keep up. The elves didn’t budge from the stairwell.
“Dey gonna kill us,” Nogard stated, under his breath so that only Zalfron and Joe could hear, “Yall drunk?”
“Yup.” Zalfron said.
“Very.” Joe replied.
“Den here we go!” Nogard came to an abrupt stop. Drew his sword and spun with a lackluster battle cry of, “Good luck brudders!”
An arrow flew past Nogard’s face and hit the window at the end of the hall, shattering it.
Zalfron and Nogard charged. Joe froze. The arrow had broken through his stupor as only fear can. Death was once more over his shoulder, waiting to sweep in. But the sobering sensation wasn’t one that instilled action, instead it froze him in his tracks. His heart beat rapidly, his blood turned cold, the world seemed to rock beneath his feet – but his chest stayed warm.
Fire! Joe closed his eyes and shut out all thoughts but one. Fire! He could feel the flames in the enertombs that lined the roof of the hall and those identical flickering embers in the building below them, even some of the fires above the streets, lighting the city. Fire! Suddenly they were all flying towards him, slipping through the wood and cender block around him to accumulate in his chest. As he filled up, the tavern fell dark.
The earth elf knocked another arrow, taking tentative steps down the hall before firing blindly in the darkness. It missed. Then, as she knocked another, Zalfron slammed into her, driving her down. Scrambling to get on top of his scrawny opponent, Zalfron grabbed her by the jaw and smashed her head against the dry wood three times, stopping when the earth elf had no struggle left in her. Hearing those two collide, Nogard brought his sword down from over his head and, though he could barely make the figure out, caught the the shoulder of the large, blade wielding, earth elf that had stood alongside the archer. The man’s sword dropped from his hand then he fell, rendered unconscious from the blow.
By then, the element of surprise was completely gone and everyone’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Between them and the two electric elves stood three totally new beings made of pale bone that nearly glowed in the blackness of the passage. There was no flesh to them, no joints and no muscles to hold them together. Lipless, they barred perpetual grins and raised their rusted daggers.
Leaping from the ground like a frog, Zalfron lunged at the nearest undead as it stepped forward. He grabbed the ulna and pushed it out of the way while the skeleton’s other arm brought back it’s dagger to swing at Zalfron’s neck. Out of drunken instinct, he raised his arm to block the swing. Thankfully, the weapon was old and dull. The edge struck his forearm but only went as deep as the bone. Still, a shockwave of pain surged up to Zalfron’s brain then back through his arm. Whether it was by alcohol, adrenaline, or pure will power, Zalfron ignored the gash, released the undead’s arm, grabbed it by the skull, and delivered a kick straight through the ribs. The skull popped off the spine and into his hand with the sound of a cork pried off the top of a bottle and the undead crumbled to the floor.
While Zalfron fought his first skeletal warrior, Nogard faced his. He thrust his sword forwards and – like Zalfron had – the undead lifted its arm to block. His sword stuck straight through the two bones of the forearm and when he tried to yank it free, the undead arm came with it. The skeleton took one look at its missing appendage then stepped forward to angrily swing its decrepit dagger at the chicken dragon. With the arm still stuck on his blade, he swung at the undead’s other arm and popped it clean off at the elbow before it could complete its attack. The undead looked down at its arms then back up at Nogard. Nogard recovered from his previous swing with a third attack, swinging up from below the skeleton, slicing through the ribs, and knocking the undead’s head clean off its body.
Zalfron strode forward, aiming a punch at the final creature’s skull as Nogard slid the arm off his blade. The undead opened its mouth and caught Zalfron’s punch in its jaws, biting down with rows of here-and-there-teeth.
“WouaaAAAAH!” Zalfron howled.
“Watch out!” Nogard cried as he sprung forward to swing at the undead.
Before he could swing it was gone. Well, most of it. The head was still biting down on Zalfron’s fist but the body had been launched across the room by a blinding light, a fireball, shot by Joe who had rejoined his friends.
The skeleton shattered on the body of the brawny electric elf as he strode forward and thrust his blade through the Zalfron’s abdomen. Zalfron’s eyes grew wide, his jaw dropped, then the man pulled his sword free. Zalfron fell to his knees, clutching the wound as he slumped against the wall. Now it wasn’t just flames that swelled inside Joe, it was rage. Pure, unholy fury.
“NO!” Joe roared
Nogard jumped out of the way as tendrils of flame burst from Joe’s chest, engulfing the hall ahead of him. Joe’s enferno blotted the two electric elves from view until Joe managed to get a grip on himself. When he did, what he saw further enfuriated him. The necromancer had stepped to stand in front of the warrior and she was holding up what looked to be a pain of purple glass which created a wall from one side of the hall to the other. It had completely protected them from the fire.
“Watch out!” Nogard declared, “My turn!”
He strode forward and brought his sword up into the transparent purple barrier. It shattered, like ice struck by a hammer, and the necromancer spun out of the way, letting the warrior leap towards Nogard. Nogard parried the warrior’s swing then swung at the man’s waist. The man blocked the attack but Nogard was ready with another assault, raising his arms and rolling his wrist to target the man’s opposite flank. This time, the elf blocked too late and Nogard managed to slice through a good portion of thigh before meeting the man’s blade.
“Duck!” Joe cried.
Nogard lowered his sword and ducked, spinning on his heels as fire shot over his shoulder. The elf was hit square in the chest. The fire rolled up his shoulders, wrapped around his neck, and torched his long blonde hair, but not before he got a hit on Nogard, cutting him in the thigh, just above the knee.
As the warrior fell down the stairs behind him, his face still aflame, Nogard collapsed onto his side. Still, the fight was not over. The necromancer strode forward. Her sleeves hung low over her hands but as she approached Joe her sleeve rolled back to reveal a long bladed dagger held tight in her fist. Joe leaned back to dodge the woman’s stab then grabbed her wrist with both hands. He stopped the elf with the dagger inches from his throat.
But Joe felt weak. He could feel the fire tumbling over and over in his chest, bouncing within his body, begging to be released, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t give it the command. His muscles twitched, his eyelids drooped. He could hardly hold the dagger away from his throat and he could see the necromancer reaching for another weapon hiding in the depths of her cloak.
“Let go!” Nogard moaned from behind him, “Let go!”
It was too late. Joe couldn’t release the woman’s arm, he couldn’t even control his own muscles. Then, as quick as the feeling had come, it left. The necromancer’s blue eyes grew wide. A bump appeared at the center of her forehead. What the? Joe released the necromancer’s wrist and the elf dropped the dagger. Cocking his head to the side, Joe reached up and touched the bump. It’s pointy and hard, almost like a-
The elf fell. Joe jumped back. There was an arrow sticking out the back of the woman’s head. Looking into the shadowy stairwell, Joe saw his savior: the armored spirit with the one-horned helmet, the one he’d spotted down stairs.
“Go get Grandfadder!” Nogard cried as he had crawled his way over to Zalfron, “He’s not lookin so hot!”
Joe turned to see. His knees got wobbly. Zalfron lay against the wall with his arms wrapped around his gut as blood continued to spill from his body. In the low light provided only by the fires that had started along the hall here and there, Joe couldn’t be sure how much blood there was but, even underestimating, it didn’t look promising. The elf’s head hung limp, his face pale as a full moon.
“Joe! Go!” Nogard commanded.
Flinching, Joe ran for the stairs.
“Don’t move.” The spirit demanded.
Joe came to as immediate a stop as he could.
“Listen, we’re here with a Knome, he’s friends of the owner-”
“Grandfather!” Joe nodded, “Yes!”
“Go.” The spirit said and he stepped out of the way.
“Thanks!” Joe said as he fled down the stairs. He ran past the face down body of the electric elf he’d slain, still on fire, but he didn’t slow. He didn’t truly realize that he had taken a man’s life, at least, it hadn’t yet struck him fully. All his mind could think of was finding the old Knome and getting him to his friends before…Joe shuddered and kept moving.
Shrowded in darkness, Joe staggered into the dining area and immediately ran into some form of a hurdle that tossed him, sprawling head over heels, onto the booze drenched floor. He attempted to scurry to his feet but caught a foot to the stomach that sent him rolling into the legs of a table.
“Joe the Pyromancer.” The kicker muttered, approaching him in the darkness. Before Joe could stand, a heavy boot pinned him to the hardwood. “Don’t you move.”
Joe wasn’t sure he had heard the voice before but he recognized the figure thanks to the light shining in his chest. It was the bearn that they had seen with three women traveling dragon back on the road earlier that day. The bearn that Grandfather had introduced as Sniper. The bearn that was supposed to be on the same side as he.
“My friends, my fuh…” Joe was so flustered he could barely put an idea together. Zalfron and Nogard are dying, get ahold of yourself! Forcing himself to take a deep breath then breathe it out slow, Joe continued, “The electric elf, the brother of the Samurai, he has been stabbed, I have to-”
The bearn didn’t seem to share Joe’s concern, “Stabbed by who?”
“Those people! Those, uh…the Black Crown Pact! The necromancers and shadowmancers!” Joe exclaimed.
Sniper withdrew his foot and Joe hopped to his feet. As soon as he was up, he bolted for the exit, where he’d last seen Grandfather go, but he didn’t make it far. A furred hand grabbed hold of his arm.
“Hey,” Sniper said, “give us some light.”
Light? Joe grumbled to himself. Yall want light? He let flames drift from his chest towards the enertombs, barely visible, that hung from the roofs. My friends are dying and you don’t give a damn. I shouldn’t-
As the enertombs began to glow oncemore, Joe saw the remains of the mayhem that had taken place in the tavern three floors below where he and his comrades had fought. Toppled tables lay on their sides amidst shards of glass and the bodies of the casualties. Sniper’s allies, the two elves and the chicken dragon, were busy finding wounded civilians and lifting them onto upright tables. Bar maids, armored bouncers, and even kitchen staff had joined in the effort. Only five bodies were left untouched to lay limp on the tavern floor.
“You’re lucky that we passed you on the road,” the bearn released Joe and gestured to the five bodies, “or we probably would’ve killed you on the spot.”
“Thank you…” was all Joe could say before he continued on towards the door in search of the tiny old man.
– – –
Grandfather didn’t speak until he was walking out the door, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but could you be Catty?”
“What’s a man like you doing interfering with the Pact?” Catty snapped.
They were standing in the street now, outside the bar. All precipitation had stopped and clouds were slowly fading into the distance. Grandfather looked at her, she wasn’t tall for a human. But short was still a good twenty-four inches more than the three foot Knome. Then again, Grandfather had fought giants and came out on top.
“What?” Grandfather scoffed, “You expect me to sit by idly as the Pact brings danger to the roads of Tadloe?”
“Is that not what you were doing?” Catty asked and stepped towards him.
“Well,” Grandfather shrugged, stepping back, “I got fed up with it.”
“Mhm…” Stepping forward again, Catty smirked, “Who’s the pyromancer?”
“What do you know of the Delian religion?” Grandfather winked while back pedaling.
“Ha!” Catty cut her laughter short and, believe it or not, offered Grandfather a legitimate smile, “You should hope their prophecies fare better than Saint’s!”
“He’s got promise!” Grandfather argued.
“Promise my ass,” Catty brushed her bangs back from her right eye to reveal the black marble that sat in the socket before letting her hair fall back into place, “The crow eye doesn’t lie. He’s no stronger than the goons I had with me.”
“Then why’d you bring me out here?” Grandfather asked.
Whiping the grin from her lips, she stiffened her shoulders, took another step forward, and her voice returned to its serious state, “Even if my little gang of idiots are capable of defeating your friends, I saw the four soldiers across the way. What was it they call the bearn? Sniper?”
Grandfather rolled his eyes. I pray those four bastards’ll stick up for my boys. Otherwise, it’s a done deal. He continued to walk backwards, keeping Catty from closing the distance between them.
“I figured it’d be in my best interest to get out of the tavern, incase I need to flee.”
“And you took me with you, because…?”
“I still have my duty to consider. Now, where is the marrow?”
“Gone.” Grandfather said, “Seeping between the bricks beneath our feet.”
She stopped. Even in the dark, Grandfather could see the anger flare up in her one visible eye. She flipped her hair out of her face and tied it behind her. Her sacrificed eye glimmered in the night light like the surface of a lake. Grandfather sighed. I’m getting too old for this.
“I respect your work,” Catty said, her voice as cold as ice, “I wish you hadn’t interfered.”
“I don’t kill pretty women.” Grandfather replied.
“Well, I kill ugly men.”
Suddenly, Grandfather was on his back. It felt as though he had just ran full speed into a stone wall. Damn shadows! Grandfather rolled onto all fours and leapt to his feet. The Suikii appeared in his right hand. Catty smiled, drawing her two Fou-style swords from where they were strapped to her back. Grandfather could just barely see the ring of shadows surrounding her, just a little darker than the night, reflecting none of the three moons’ light. It was then that he realized, during their short conversation, she’d moved him into the darkness between street lights. The darkness would be his handicap.
But as a Knomes, he was used to being handicapped.
He was about to attack when the street lights began to flicker. The flame leaked from their enertomb containers, flew towards the bar, and seeped through the walls. The Barren’s Mullet had lost its lights aswell. Screams replaced the unintelligible rancor of the inn and customers stormed the doors, trampling one another as they scurried drunkenly down the stairs. Joe! Grandfather thought, but he didn’t have time to baby sit. He had a situation of his own. As the late night partiers fled into the street around them, Grandfather charged.
Catty smirked but didn’t move. Her shadows! He noticed it at the last second, speeding towards him in a swirling ball of darkness. Swinging the Suikii up he easily cut through the ball of lightless energy then ran towards Catty. The woman was visibly surprised, barely reacting in time when Grandfather swung his black-bladed sword at her leg. She blocked the blow with one sword then swung at him with her right. Moving fluidly, the Knome spun, blocking her second attack with the Suikii then, grabbing her left forearm, he ran up her body and delivered one solid kick to her jaw before back-flipping onto his feet a yard from where she stood.
She fell back a step, rubbed her jaw with the back of her hand, then came at him. Swinging her right then her left, Grandfather had to parry one, block the other, then spin around and get ready to repeat the same. But after her third barrage, she switched it up and delivered a low-kick that swept the old Knome off his feet. He rolled to his right just as the blade of one of her swords clanged against the cobble stone. He brought the Suikii up to block Catty’s next attack then rolled back to where he had been before, using his sword like a crutch for support to help him back onto his feet.
Once again, the two were staring at each other.
“Where’s your shadows?” Grandfather asked, panting.
“I’m trying to collect more.” She snapped.
She looked as if about to charge, but stopped. At first, Grandfather was baffled but then he understood. The ground beneath their feet had begun to shake. Each took a step back. The cobble stone shuddered then exploded. Dirt and rock flew into the night sky.
“The dark marrow!” Catty and Grandfather murmured in unison.
Reaching out of the ground, like the massive arm of a zombie pulling itself from its grave, was a worm. Its body was segmented in gooey rings. Soil and roots clung to the mucus that covered it. Its head ended in a four jawed mouth that opened in an X. Rows and rows of teeth filled the jaws and for each there was a tongue that squirmed and writhed as the beast opened its mouth to scream.
“I’ll have to tell Nogard about this…” Grandfather mumbled.
For a moment, the people that had been in the doorway to the Barren’s Mullet fought their way back inside only to storm right back out as the mob of drunken customers knocked them back. The only person seemingly unaffected by the giant worm, was Catty. She used it to her advantage, leaping around it to slice at Grandfather. Grandfather stopped her first attack, ducked and ran beneath her legs. She was about to turn and pursue him when the nematode head stopped before her. It opened its jaws and shot out its four tentacle-like tongues.
The tongues grabbed her, wrapping around and around her then yanking her back towards the mouth. She didn’t budge, her heels were planted, digging in, on the cobble stone.
“You nasty bastard!”
One swing of her sword was all that it took to slice straight through all four of the creature’s tongues. With an ear-splitting shriek, it reached back up towards the sky, forgetting Catty as it howled in pain.
“Damn worm!” She cursed, observing herself and grimacing at the sight of the goopy saliva that covered her.
When she looked back up, there were two baby-sized feet in her face. BAM! She was on her back. But so was Grandfather, the kick had left him with no way of landing except on his shoulder. My back! Grandfather forced himself to get up, ignoring the wailing vertebrae of his spine. Catty had made it to her feet aswell. He took a step forward and swung for her knees. She blocked it, forced him back, then sliced towards him with her second blade. He managed to parry but just barely, he was getting forced closer and closer towards the worm.
That gave him an idea. He looked Catty in the face, winked, then turned away from her and leapt onto the giant invertabrate, his sword disappearing into thin air. Wasting no time, he began to climb, using the layer of goo to hold him to the worm’s body.
The worm stopped screaming and looked down. No longer seeing Grandfather, the only living thing in its line of sight was Catty. She crouched, barring her swords. The worm lunged, Catty turned, and Grandfather held on for dear life. She ran until she felt the warm breath of the beast behind her then leapt into the air, back flipping over its mouth. And there was Grandfather, staring at the human from where he sat on the back of the worm.
She landed on her feet, glaring at the Knome, as the flabbergasted worm looked about. Some help you were, worm, Grandfather thought as he leapt off his butt, balancing on the slimy round back of the creature, and summoned the Suikii back into his hands. Catty attacked, swinging left then right, left then right, forcing Grandfather to duck and block and slowly but steadily take steps backwards. And just as Grandfather began to seriously worry about falling into the slimy creature’s pit, he saw the face of the beast, worming up and twisting around to stare at the two of them.
Catty was focused on the fight. She doesn’t know it’s behind her, Grandfather realized, forcing himself to continue to feed her attacks. Making no more noise than quiet clicks, the creature opened its mouth and surged forward. Catty and Grandfather were launched into the air but, with a swing of the Suikii, Grandfather disappeared leaving Catty to face the worm alone.
Twisting in the air, she turned to the beast just as gravity began to pull her down. It lunged upward, jaws gaping. The shadowmancer sliced as she fell, arms spinning in circles, slicing the enormous invertebrate chunk by chunk until she landed on the cobble stone street. She stood there for a moment, surrounded by the lumps of worm, with her boots in puddles of blood, slime, and rain water.
Grandfather appeared about three yards in front, holding the Suikii. He looked around at the biological debris then his eyes found Catty and stayed.
“Not bad.” He said, “Truce?”
“In your dreams!” She hissed.
“Step away from the Knome.”
The voice came from the tavern doorway where Joe now stood with a chestful of fire. His shirt was drenched in sweat, clinging to the glowing stone in his breast. One hand was pointing at his sternum, the other was pointing at Catty. His eyes showed he meant what he said.
“Your fool’s back.” Catty eyed Joe with her crow eye, “Maybe I under estimated him.”
“I’m going to give you five seconds.” Joe said.
“Farak!” She swore then she turned back to Grandfather, “You got lucky old man, but luck runs out.”
“One…” Joe growled.
With a mock curtsey, Catty spun and began to walk down the street. As Joe and Grandfather watched her walk, she shrank. Joe blinked to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. He was. Her leather clothes grew fur as she shrunk to stand on all fours, a tail sprouting out her back and ears shooting out from her hair. By the time she reached the closest remaining street light, she was nothing but a small black cat, tail rising up into the night as she tip-toed back into the darkness.
“Grandfather! Zalfron’s dying!”
Joe’s voice tore the Knome’s eyes away from the cat woman.
“Nogard’s hurt too! Hurry!” Joe cried, hopping up and down on the stairs before the bar.
Granfather ran off the street, sprinted up the stairs, and followed Joe back inside. The tavern was in tatters. A few armored guards wandered about assisting the bar maids with picking up smashed beer mugs and flipping overturned tables. The bodies of the members of the Black Crown Pact, those that had joined Catty’s table late, lay where they’d been slain on the floor, chopped up and bloodied. The chicken dragon, earth elf, electric elf, and bearn known as Sniper were tending to wounded cutomers and employees. Sniper watched Joe and Grandfather hurry across the bar, pausing from his work of cleaning the blood off his arrows. As Joe led Grandfather past, the Knome called out to the chicken dragon he’d spoken to earlier but made sure not to slow his pace.
“Can we get a healer?”
The chicken dragon was busy reciting spells and healing an arrow wound some drunken teen had acquired on his shoulder, but the earth elf woman beside her responded to Grandfather’s request.
“Go to hell, Knome!” The earth elf cried.
“You brought this upon these people, you’re friend’s gonna have to wait.” The electric elven woman chimed in, her single glimmering blue eye expressing her outrage, “Hey pyro, you’d best ditch the old man. Knome’s are nothin but trouble.”
Joe had no intention of responding. In fact, he didn’t even hear the comment. He was hustling for the stairs. Grandfather grumbled under his breath as they climbed. Fear began to grow in the old smith’s chest as he thought about Zalfron and Nogard. How bad are they hurt? He wondered. I don’t know enough magic to heal them! I’d do more harm than good! Besides, I already used too much energy with that fight outside! Grandfather felt the Suikii animate itself in his grasp. The hilt rattled in his hand as if the sword itself whispered, Run! You can’t help these boys! This isn’t your problem! You never asked for this job! but Grandfather banished the thoughts from his head and let the sword fade from existence. Watching Joe’s sweat drenched back as they hurried towards the third floor of residency, he felt the fear begin to drift away. How dare I be afraid in the company of this boy, this alien, who has now risked his life to fight for something he has yet to fully understand. And though Joe was far more afraid than he had ever been, he gave Grandfather courage. He gave Grandfather hope.
Maybe the legend is true? Maybe he is the Sun Child. Grandfather thought. Maybe he will save us all!
– – –
The spirit with the one horned helmet bust open the door to the room numbered three-hundred-thirty-three with one solid kick. Running to Zalfron’s side, he fell to his knees then gently picked the elf up and made his way back into the room. There were six beds, three on one side and three on the other, and a door to another room that had a toilet, sink, and shower. A mild flame swirled to life within an enertomb hanging in the center of the room, lighting the spirit’s way as he placed Zalfron down on the closest bed.
“I’ll be back.”
With that, the bowman turned and ran out the door. Nogard was sitting propped up against the wall, beside the room, clutching his leg.
“I’ll be back!” The spirit cried again as he disappeared down the stairwell.
“Aye, mon, I’ll be fine.” But the spirit had left. Nogard hit his head against the wall he leaned on, moaning, “I’ll be fine but Zalfron…” He shook his head and smacked it against the wall again, “…damn it.”
Joe and Grandfather beat the spirit back, Joe in the lead by a good thirty feet. Running past the bones and bodies scattered about the hall, some of which were beginning to stir, the human and Knome rushed over to the chicken dragon.
“How are you doing, Nogard?” Joe asked.
“Okay, okay, but Zalfron-”
“Where is he?”
“Da room, da room!” Nogard replied, nodding in the direction of the door.
Joe didn’t bother to ask how he got there. He bolted into room three-hundred-thirty-three. Joe approached Zalfron on the bed then, after putting his hands to the elf’s temple, strode away, cursing beneath his breath. Zalfron was out cold but still breathing. Grandfather arrived. He gently removed Zalfron’s hand from where it covered his stomach-wound then placed it back.
“Well, that’s some good news.” Grandfather said with a sigh, “He was hit more on the right side. The blade missed the aorta. If it hadn’t, he would probably already be dead. But we still have to find a healer.”
“Don’t you know magic?” Joe said.
“Very little and healing is complicated, if you do it wrong you can easily make things worse…we’d probably both die…” Grandfather cursed, “but we really can’t wait for a healer…”
“Pardon me,” the spirit was back in the doorway, “we have a healer.”
Joe turned to see a dwarf. He was completely bald but not due to old age, for he looked to be no older than Joe. His skin was an orange-tan shade and looked to have the texture of new leather, tough and rigid. Although not as short as a Knome, he stood only a foot taller, four feet tall in all. His gut hid behind a grease soaked shirt and hung out over his dark brown pants. He smelled of garlic, beer, and cooking oil.
“Eevnun,” he said with an accent more similar to Nogard’s than Zalfron’s, “uh’ll do whut uh can.”
The dwarf waddled over to the bed and observed Zalfron for a little before slipping his backpack off his shoulders, pulling out a large purple book, and setting it on the bed beside the elf.
“Is that a dwarf?” Joe whispered to Grandfather.
“Indeed, a rock dwarf,” Grandfather replied quietly, “quite rare to see them outside of Vinnum Tow.”
Joe recalled what Zalfron had told him of Vinnum Tow during the fall of the Hundred Empire Alliance, then asked, “Is slavery still…”
Frowning, Grandfather nodded. The spirit that had saved Joe and brought the healer saw the Knome’s frown and attributed it to a distrust in the dwarven cook’s ability to heal.
“No worries.” The bouncer said, speaking in a level tone so as not to accuse Grandfather but, rather, console him, “Bold trained at the Munkloe School of Modern Healing, under Lenga Ruse.”
“Impressive!” Grandfather looked at the dwarf with new found interest. What’s a man with such an education doing cooking in the basement of a bar? Yet, he was too interested in watching the dwarf work to speak up and ask the spirit.
“Uh can hael the gut wound farst,” the dwarf turned away from his patient and looked to Grandfather as if asking permission, “but uh’ve found it best tuh start smull fore advancin to the extreme, gives me tahme tuh see how the body lahks tuh heal cause not ull bodies act the same to magical proddun and pokun.”
Grandfather strode over to the opposite side of the bed to watch as he spoke, “Do what you believe is best.”
The dwarf nodded and closed his eyes. He waved one hand over the gash in Zalfron’s forearm and the other over the open pages of his purple tome. As his hands hovered, he began to murmur. Flames spat up from the ink on the yellowed pages of the indigo ledger, burning in rhythm with the dwarf’s incantations and licking the palm of his left hand. Light rained down from his right hand, which hung above the wound. Joe joined Grandfather’s side and knelt down so he could be at the same height as the Knome. He watched as the blood rolled away from the glow and the skin pursed and resealed itself. Though Joe didn’t speak, Grandfather could feel the boy’s curiousity and decided to do his best to explain.
“The dwarf is using scripture so as to preserve some of his own energy.” Grandfather spoke quiet so as not to disturb the healer’s work, “Those who use tomes to cast spells still should meditate to keep from over exerting themselves but it’s far safer than free verse magic.”
“Like you do?” Joe asked.
“Eh,” Grandfather hesitated, “I use magic carefully. Having a weak vocabulary and little time to meditate, not to mention being an old coot, it wouldn’t take much for even the simplest of spells to wring me out. I’d much rather have a book or an enertomb before resorting to spell casting.”
Joe thought back to the tussle in the hallway and another question came to mind, “Can mancers use their energy, like bones or shadows, when casting normal spells?”
“Yes, that’s what makes them so dangerous. You see, most forms of magic have harsh limitations. Elementalists have to recharge their elgroons, mages must memorize vocabulary and meditate or constantly copy scripture to add pages to their volumes. However, mancers need only to kill to replenish their stock.”
“Except for pyromancers.” Joe said, then he remembered the sensation he’d felt when touching the necromancer in the hall, “Grandfather, if you touch a necromancer, do you go limp?”
“Not always. Many mages, especially necromancers, will recite a short term curse if they have time before a fight. The spell is called chilled marrow and it refers to the cold sensation that overcomes the victim when coming into physical contact with the caster.” Grandfather explained, “However much energy they put into the casting of such a spell determines how long it will last. Though, one can’t easily tell whether or not the mancer has used such magic so it’s best to keep your distance when dealing with necro and shadowmancers…or any spell caster for that matter.”
The last line on the page ignited into flame then the paper crumbled into ash and blew away. As the dwarf moved his hand away from Zalfron’s arm, Joe gasped. There wasn’t even a scar.
“Impressive!” Grandfather exclaimed, “We have a professional!”
The dwarf grinned and blushed as he flipped through the pages of his book and moved on to the more grievous wound. Gently moving Zalfron’s hand away from his belly, he set to work. Joe craned his neck to look in the wound and a chill ran up his spine. It felt taboo to look inside someone else’s body. Not only that but he could see tiny cords of tissue twist around and reach out to grab a thread dangling across from it. Blood beeded up and scurried out of the way like a gang of beetles suddenly revealed beneath the bark of a rotting tree. Then, the beetles returned. They crawled back into the opening to travel here and there, slipping back into the tissue or wrapping around it. Brick by brick, cell by cell, Zalfron’s body was being rebuilt.
“Since they were from the Black Crown Pact,” Joe began, trying to get his minds eye off the sight of Zalfron’s exposed organs, “Creaton wouldn’t be here too, would he?”
“You’ve got a lot to learn my friend.” Grandfather chuckled, “Creaton is locked in his fortress back in Hormarah. With both the Trinity Nations and the Order wanting him dead, he’d be a fool to leave Darkloe.”
“With all do respect, sir Knome,” the spirit chimed in, “Creaton Live is not afraid to leave his armies. He has been seen across the globe on numerous occasions.”
“Which occasions are legitimite would be a question worth asking.” Grandfather replied. To reduce the harshness of his dismissal of the spirit’s insight – after all, the Knome appreciated the respectfulness of the spirit’s statement, few strangers treated him with similar dignity – the Knome quickly added, “Yet, you are right. He does leave Darkloe, but not openly. Only those high up in the Pact might know when he leaves. There is far too much treachery between the Order and the Pact for Creaton to trust even his own men outside of his black fortresses.”
“Sounds like the Trinity Nations could sit back and let those two destroy each other.” Joe remarked.
“Without the Trinity Nation’s military preventions, the fiends would stop killing soldiers and start killing civilians.” The spirit stated, “They are terrorists, the Pact and the Order both.”
“Eh…” Grandfather gritted his teeth and wiggled uncomfortably, “That’s debatable. After all, many civilians within the Trinity Nations sympathize with the Pact or Order and some have even joined-”
“That doesn’t disqualify them as terrorists, they are terrorists because they have no legitimate goals other than chaos, violence, and destruction!” Emotion seeped through the composed figure of the armored spirit.
Grandfather continued with a twisted face, a contorted expression that made visible his discomfort, “One could argue they’re fighting for a right to use magic in whatever form they desired or-”
“Would that not be the Order’s fight, not the Pact’s?” The spirit pressed on, his voice cold and his silver eyes watching Grandfather with an unsettling stillness.
“-or that they oppose the Emperor’s concept of the Samurai’s Army, they fear a world defended by vigilante soldiers would be catastrophic in the long term.” Grandfather said, throwing on top the excuse, “This isn’t what I believe, but what I’ve heard from the mouths of Pact supporters.”
“What do you believe they fight for?” The spirit asked.
“At this point,” Grandfather shook his head as he paused to swallow his saliva, “they fight not to be defeated.”
“I agree with you, sir Knome,” the one horned helm bobbed as the spirit nodded and the coldness of his voice warmed out, “this has become a war of pride.”
“Makes me think twice about joining in.” Joe muttered.
“You weren’t brought here to join the ranks,” Grandfather smiled, “you were brought here to end it.”
Still, Joe was raised to be wary of violence. For him, it was a last resort. Yet, now that the topic of the war seemed to have run dry, he needed a new subject to keep his eyes away from the quivering entrails squirming within Zalfron’s body. Thinking back to the long haired shadowmancer that Grandfather had fought in the street, Joe found his next subject.
“Who was that cat woman you fought?”
“Catty or rather Catherine Meriam,” Grandfather said, “she’s one of the Pact’s outside agents. One of, if not the most, well known. There’s not a city in the Trinity Nations that hasn’t got her face pinned up somewhere. They say the only reason she’s yet to be caught is because every time a man or woman recognizes her, they instantly surrender to her beauty but the real reason is she’s damn brilliant with her shadows and not too shabby with a blade.”
Suddenly, Zalfron sat up, making the dwarf jump nearly as high as the roof.
“Did we win?” the elf asked.
– – –
It took a little over an hour for the cook-healer to finish up Zalfron’s wound. Zalfron managed to stay conscious through the remaining process. It took about fifteen minutes for the dwarf to tend to the cuts in Nogard’s thigh (by the time it was his turn the poor chicken dragon was delirius from blood loss). Puffing away on a fresh bowl of gogo, Nogard blabbered complete jibberish until Bold finished him up. It wasn’t until after the healing was done that the spirit and dwarf introduced themselves.
“Cull me Bold,” the dwarf said, ejecting his hand first for Zalfron to shake.
Zalfron took the hand then, squinting his eyes and tilting his head, he asked, “You ain’t Boldarian Drahkcor?”
“Uh am,” The dwarf nodded and Zalfron’s jaw dropped.
The elf’s hand went limp in the dwarf’s grasp. He exclaimed, “You can’t bae!”
The dwarf couldn’t help but grin, “The Fifth not the Fourth, lad!”
“I knew you looked familiar!” Grandfather cried, “The son of a Samurai, it’s an honor-”
“Aye, sir, the uhnor’s mine! Budd told me yar the legendary Grandfuther, forger of the Four Swords. Yar an inspuration far shart folk everywhar!” Boldarian said turning to shake the old Knome’s hand.
Grandfather smiled, clasped the dwarf on the shoulder, and said, “Your ancestors were great men. I knew the first Bold, he’d love to see that his great great grandson is a free man.”
Bold nodded solemnly, “Pity only a few of us are…”
“That it is, son, that it is…” Grandfather turned to the spirit, “And you are?”
“The lad’s named Zachias,” Bold interjected,“Zachias Shisharay. You know how spirts are with thar names and ull. They’d luk to recite thar whole family tree everytahm you ask for thar name!”
The spirit, having finally removed his helmet, smiled shyly and lowered his eyes as if embarrassed.
“Shisharay?” Grandfather asked, “Shisharay as in from the Shisharay Tribe? From Woodland Ridge?”
“He knew the Samurai fore she war a Samurai.” Bold said.
Zachias nodded, humbly.
“Dis be unbelievable, mon,” Nogard said, finally dragging his eyes from his now non-existent wounds to the two in front of him, “I’m Nogard Otubak, from da same fadder as da Samurai Sharp!”
“And ah’m Zalfron Sentry, Tabuh Sentry’s brother!” Zalfron said.
The dwarf and spirit exchanged startled glances.
“And you, lad?” Bold asked Joe.
“Joe,” Joe said, “from Earth.”
“Bones! Damn bones layin around in the hallway! Who in farakin hell do I pay to clean this place!” There was a pause, then, “Young lady, get your Pact lovin ass outa my bar!” The roar came from the hall and no sooner did the outburst reach their ears than did the owner of the voice stride into the room. The beer bellied, glossy scalped bar owner froze when his eyes found Zalfron Sentry laying in tattered, blood drenched clothes in the bed beside the door, “What in the hell? I’ll be damned!”
“Sam…” Grandfather said.
But the human had little interest in whatever the Knome had to say. He strode over to Zalfron, grabbed him by the chin, then wiped the filthy bangs away from his face, “I can see your sister in your eyes…” Releasing Zalfron, he turned to Grandfather, “You know I been answering questions with the Tadloe Guard for the last two hours? Shit, I had to pay em off with free meals once I told em a pyromancer was involved.
“We’re at war, what the hell do they care?” Grandfather asked.
Budd shrugged, “Turns out there was trouble with a pyromancer yesterday in Suinus.”
Grandfather and Joe exchanged glances.
“But those bastards are too full to care now…If you’d have told me there’d be trouble, we coulda been ready!”
“If we’d known, we woulda never came through!” Grandfather argued.
“Mhm, sure, I’m just glad nobody died – none of the folks worth a life that is. Thank heavens Natalia Peshkova was down there to heal up folks that got caught in the crossfire, not to mention the other three. They sure made short work of them mancers.” Sam Budd laughed and wiped the sweat from his temple with the back of his wrist then divided his attention between Nogard, Joe, and Zalfron, “Selu, yall made short work of the folks up here too. Yall all right?”
“Ah nearly dahd!” Zalfron exclaimed.
“Ya mon, he woulda died if not for your cook der!” Nogard added.
“Boldarian? Boy’s brilliant, a damn genius. He’s a miracle worker and if you think he’s good at healing, wait til you taste his cooking!” Sam cried and patted his belly, “Thank you Zachias for taking care of my friends.”
“It was my honor.” The spirit bowed.
“He’s a modest one.” Sam turned back to Grandfather, “So you’ve met my star employees. Bold here is my head chef and Zach, well shit, half my bouncers were recruited by Zachias. We got about six straight from Woodland Ridge and I try and have least two workin every night. Some of the best men you’ll ever meet, plus, unlike most of my other employees, they tend not to partake in the alcohol.”
“You didn’t tell me you had legendary lineage in the tavern!” Grandfather said.
“Yea, cause if I told ya I’d never get them back!” Sam said good-heartedly before turning his attention to Grandfather’s company, “Let me formally introduce myself,” as he spoke he wiped his hands on his apron, “The name’s Sam Budd, nice to meet you.”
“I’m Joe.” Joe said, taking the man’s hand and shaking it.
“Hae’s from Earth,” Zalfron stated as if that explained it, “Ah’m Zalfron Sentry.”
“I still remember the day I met your sister,” Sam said, shaking Zalfron’s hand, “she was drippin wet from head to toe but still gorgeous…shoot, that day changed my life forever…”
“And I’m Nogard Otubak,” the chicken dragon said.
With introductions out of the way, the seven sat on the beds, except for Zachias and Nogard who leaned against the wall.
“The reason we came through, as I told Sam,” Grandfather said, speaking to Zach and Bold, “was because I was taking Zalfron and Joe to God’s Island. We caught up with Nogard on the way.”
“Like I told ya before, good luck in hitchin a ride in that direction anytime soon,” Sam interrupted, “the Iahtro Storm’s been in the way for a while now.”
“There will be someone willing to sail.” Grandfather said, then he replaced his focus to Zach and Bold, “I’m planning on taking the boys to meet the Emperor. You see, we think Joe might be the Sun Child and Saint has the names of those foretold to travel with him to bring back the Samurai. It was such a bizarre coincidence that we’ve run into Zalfron and Nogard that we kinda figuring that they’re both likely to be on the list. Now here we are with the son of a Samurai and the monastic sibling of a Samurai and, well…I’ve lived on this planet for long enough to realize that coincidences tend not to be coincidental.”
“Didn’t I say it?” Budd cried, “Didn’t I say it! He’s trying to rob me of my best men! Can’t trust a Knome, never trust a Knome, all they do is steal and get the town guards on you.”
“The town guards come here every night, Knome or not! You’re always letting in the loudest lot!” Grandfather snapped in reply.
“You ain’t got no business being a hero anymore – if you ever were – look at your old ass! I heard that you nearly got beaten by some girl out front!” Budd went on.
“Some girl?” Grandfather sputtered at the comment, “That was Catherine Meriam! Catherine Meriam! You best fire the doorman that let her by!”
“Shadowmancers gotta drink too!” Budd roared before piling on the insults, “You old crusty, scrotum-faced, white haired midget!”
“Midget?” Grandfather yelped, “It looks like you fit an entire family of midgets inside that bulbous belly of yours!”
Joe watched the crossfire and couldn’t decipher whether or not they were old friends or old enemies. Everyone in the room seemed to share his confusion. Finally the insult flinging ceased as the two men panted and waited for the blood to descend from their flushed faces. Once they’d regained their composure, they attempted civilized conversation once more.
“I’m not trying to steal your employees,” Grandfather said, “I’m trying to end this war.”
“Well then, don’t ask me. I ain’t their keepers, they’re grown men, let them decide for themselves!” Sam Budd suggested. He turned to the spirit and the dwarf, “You want to go with the smelly-ass Knome or keep working for me?”
The dwarf and spirit exchanged glances.
“I’ll double your pay.” Sam Budd added.
Grandfather shook his head, muttering, “Dry-titted bum.”
“Uh’m farever in ya debt, Master Budd,” Bold said, “If it warn’t far you, uh’d be in shackles. Uh’ll go whar ya want me tuh.”
“Zach?” Budd asked.
“I am as Bold.” Zach said.
Budd turned back to glare at the Knome, arms crossed, with a triumphant smile stretched across his lips.
– – –
“I hate that fat bastard!” Grandfather roared as soon as the barkeep, cook, and security guard left, “He’s so damn stubborn!”
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” Joe shrugged.
“Hah…” Grandfather muttered.
“We’ll come back later, mon,” Nogard grinned, “who wouldn’t mind anudder night of free beer.”
“Free?” Grandfather coughed, “I payed for-”
“Grandfather, did ya hear? Nogard’s agraed to come with us!” Zalfron said.
“Woh, woh, woh, I said I was considering it.” Nogard said.
“The way you’re talking it sounds like you’ve already decided. You did say ‘we’ will come back.” Joe said.
“Pertty sure ya promised to tag along.” Zalfron said.
“Calm down guys,” Grandfather said, “I shouldn’t have let myself get so worked up. We’ll leave tomorrow by boat and go north to God’s Island. We can drop you off in the ocean, Nogard, if you still want to leave. But you boys need some sleep. It’s late and we need to be up early.”
For once, sleep came swift and easy for Joe. As soon as he laid down on one of the straw mattresses in room three-hundred-thirty-three, the weight of his eyelids doubled and the recent memories floating near the top of his mind slowly sank to the bottom. Whether it was due to the final affects of the alcohol he had consumed, returning as the adrenaline left, or pure exhaustion, Joe left consciousness and dreamed happily of Earth, of home, and of his family and friends. There was a part of his subconscious that held Joe back, keeping him from believing whole heartedly in the world constructed by his sleeping mind. Though he enjoyed the familiar places his dreams took him, it felt like a mere excursion – a short visit. He might’ve not understood well enough to express it, but Solaris was his reality now. No longer did he doubt the world in which he had entered. It was the violence of the yester day that had made up his mind.
Ever so often, his peaceful dreamstate was interrupted by the body of the face down elf, charred and smoking, lying across the stairs like a discarded marionette. This image straightened the smile on his sleeping lips and yanked him out of REM. If he was being honest, it wasn’t the fact that he had taken a man’s life that so terrified him. It was the lack of guilt that irked his soul. Shouldn’t I feel something? It was as if his conscious didn’t believe it had happened. Shouldn’t I feel wrong? He felt the opposite. The whole instance felt natural. Often, just before he would wake up, he’d find himself in the starewell, see the body at his feet, and kick the limp elf in the gut with a triumphant giggle. Is it natural? Is this the way of the world?
What Joe didn’t realize was that the very fact that a lack of guilt troubled him was evidence of the existence of his guilty conscience. Though his wary body attempted to convince him otherwise, Joe still knew there to be blood on his hands.
It was after one such instance, a dream encounter in the stairwell, that woke Joe in time to hear Zalfron whisper to him from the bunk beside his.
“Hey, Joe,” the elf said, “Ah can’t slaep.”
“That’s a first.” Joe said, keeping his eyes closed.
“Yea…” Zalfron hesitated, contemplating whether he should tell Joe what troubled him. He decided to, “…when ah took that sword to mah stomach…ah thought ah was going to dah.”
“I was worried too.” Joe admitted.
“And that’s all ah can thank about…”
Joe didn’t know what to say.
Zalfron spoke up, “Can ah continue the story of Saint? It helped mae fall aslaep on the road, ah thank it helps.”
I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the whole thing, Joe thought as he yawned but he went ahead and gave Zalfron the green light, “Sure.”
Joe’s mind, drifting in and out of consciousness, added the elf’s words to the churning bowl of dreams in his brain. Slowly, directed by Zalfron’s steady jabber, Joe slipped back to sleep, his dreams dancing to the elf’s words.