By Jason R. Koivu
Copyright © 2016 Jason R. Koivu
All Rights Reserved
Published by C Street
Grag the Third
The Last Siren
The Misguided Spear
Mr. John M. Paulson
Laugh Potion #1
Tears of the Ancient
I like you. Do you know why? Because you’re about to read my book! That’s very cool of you. Seriously, I really appreciate it when someone takes the time to read something I’ve written.
Go ahead and file this collection of short stories under fantasy. You’ll find mystical spirits, a demon or two, treasure hunters, a pervy troll, a mad-capped mushroom cap, a goblin’s diary and a travel article. Yep, a fantasy travel article. Some of these lean towards comedy, while others are serious. One of them gets a bit punny and for that I apologize. Whatever mood these tales leave you in, I hope you find them enjoyable.
Oh, one other thing. The titular story is about some characters I’m developing a fantasy series around. At least one of them will appear in the first book and we’ll see about the rest later. I’m pretty excited about it!
Thanks for reading,
Having finished his account of the reconnaissance mission to the Desolate Uplands and the subsequent skirmish with what were being called the Green Beast tribesmen, Captain Bellard handed a roll of loose parchment pieces to Marshal Rames, Commandant of the North Wing Outpost.
“Lastly sir, these were recovered from one of the savages. They’re copied in a fair hand and not written in goblin. Stolen would be my guess, sir.”
“No doubt,” said the Commandant skimming over a few lines written upon calfskin. The more he read, the more consumed he became by what he read. The descending silence and the crimson streaking across his commanding officer’s razor-sharp cheekbones rattled Bellard and he began to babble.
“I thought they might be important. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered bringing them to your attention. I hope—”
The Commandant was too absorbed in reading to mind his subordinate any more than to catch his general sentiment.
“Did you read these yourself?”
“Well, no, sir. Only enough to see what language they were in, sir.” On the verge of breaking out in a sweat, Bellard watched the marshal hurriedly roll up the pieces of parchment and jab one end of them at his heart. Though well away on the other side of an enormous desk, Bellard winced and caught his breath as if having taken the blow.
“You have no information as to what is written herein?”
“Very well, very well.” The roll was laid aside with the mound of other papers awaiting the Commandant’s attention. Displeasure drew down the man’s naturally sour expression further and Bellard was happy to finally be dismissed. Once the captain was gone, Rames went to the door and told his secretary that he must not be disturbed. He then went back to his desk and took the roll of parchment in hand once again. After sorting out the individual pieces until he was sure he had them in the right order, he sat down by the fire and began reading.
“Remove your hands from my Willy,” I told him, but he yanked and yanked at it and just wouldn’t keep his hands off my weasel!
Sorry to cut that anecdote short, but time is of the essence and I realize I haven’t explained who I am or why I’m writing. It will have to be brief and quick as possible.
My name is Grag Grag Grag, son of Grag Grag. I prefer to be called Greg. It’s more human sounding. I explained this quite clearly to my clanmates and they told me to shut my face. I tried getting them to at least call me Grag the Third and that didn’t go over well either. Instead, they started calling me Grag the Turd. To be honest, it’s about as clever a thing as the stupid clods ever came up with.
Anyhow, I am hoping through these writings that I might showcase my better self and the level of sophistication I’ve obtained to whatever humans we come in contact with, so they might look beyond who I am and not judge me for my green and warty skin, claw-like fingernails, flappy feet and ears, phallicly long nose or my terrible posture. As you see, I have acquired the ability to write a decent prose, not to mention my superb diction. I’ve also been working on an epic poem investigating my feelings and emotions on loneliness, love and what it’s like to be a sensitive goblin, which I’m happy to share with you now…
Damn and double damn! I just discovered Ogbar wiped his backside with my poem! It would take too long now to transcribe it all again from memory, for I must continue on with my tale.
Of late I have become a veritable genius among goblins, due to what I call a brain helmet. It’s a helmet made of some kind of metal with lumpy bumps all over it, sort of like a brain, which I’ve seen plenty of due to my cohorts bashing skulls open on a regular basis.
I found it after a raid on Kunegund after getting separated from the horde and wandering lost in the abandoned ruins of the city’s ancient quarter. I was scared and not wanting to be discovered by the humans during their counter attack, I delved deep into the wreckage, trying to find some hole to hide in.
There I discovered what I thought to be an ordinary library. Of course, any library is extraordinary. What I mean is that I believe this one may have belonged to a wizard at one time. What I took for the occasional stick or branch I’d find therein was probably a wand or staff. It dawns on me now that I was perhaps handling or mishandling, items of great magic beyond my understanding. I tossed about scrolls containing strange writing and kicked smashed bottles of long-since dried and dispersed potions. But after I put on the helmet, I found I wanted to curl up with a good book and so I did just that. I dove into whatever books I could read and through them came to understand the ways of humans.
My only companions were a skeleton, probably the remains of the wizard, and countless rats. The latter provided my daily meals at first. Though we goblins take them and weasels as pets, we’re not adverse to eating them, not in the least. Whenever I got peckish, I’d pluck up a juicy one and gnaw on it while I read philosophy, history, and fairytales. I learned about architecture, forms of government, exotic animals from around the world and dancing. Perhaps one day, dear readers, I can show you my two-step!
Becoming smart was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was also the worst. After falling in love with human ways, I fell in love with a human.
You see, after reading all those human books, I became intrigued, nay, enthralled with their culture and civilization. I needed to experience it for myself, so I cloaked my hideous features in a disguise as a leper and entered the city.
The sights and smells were daunting. I cowered under the cathedrals and other huge buildings of a purpose which I had no clue. Fountains absolutely enchanted me. Drainage and gutters for sewerage struck me as highly inventive, and yet they seemed like the most common sense of ideas, so obvious that I couldn’t fathom why the goblins hadn’t thought of it. But above all, what impressed me the most were the baked goods. Oh, I could go for a loaf of bread right now! Ah, but that is not to be, not now. Will explain soon. Got to run!
As I was saying, the city entranced me, all of it I could see. Unfortunately I could only see so much. I was barred from the markets and city center. No one wanted anything to do with a leper, no one but a nunnery that is. They wished to care for me, to heal my wounds and the like. So most of my time was spent in churches and, oh, one glorious cathedral. I was given a bed in the abbey’s infirmary and it was there that I met a young woman in training to be a nun. I’d never seen golden hair such as hers. More to my heart, she had kind, smiling eyes and was the first human to lay hands upon me.
The only problem was, in their desire to heal me they wished to remove the various pieces of cloth I’d wrapped around my body like bandages. I kept from revealing my falsehood and identity as long as I could, but regrettably I had to leave the nuns and with nowhere else to stay, I returned to the ruins once more.
The timing could not have been any worse. I walked right into the proverbial arms of my old despicable comrades. They’d come to raid the ruins once more, picking through the rubble and occasionally picking off stragglers. Some of the more unfortunate humans would make temporary homes in the ruins. Perhaps they were homeless or outcasts. Those that weren’t killed for food on the spot were taken back to the lair. They were made slaves or tortured for pleasure or both. All ended up dead one way or another. I’m sorry for being so depressingly blunt, but that’s what I was heading back into, a life I no longer felt a part of, a life not worth living. The funny thing about life though is how it can change in an instant. Soon I had a change of heart.
Late one night I was awoken by a kick to the head, as usual, and told to go take over guard duty in the dungeons. The dungeons are a particularly dreadful place. Floors flooded with water and urine. Not an ounce of light, but maybe some smoky torch choking the air out of the place. Prisoners perpetually breaking free of their bonds or slipping from cells absentmindedly left unlocked. I tell you, our jailors make fence posts look sharp. So there’s bound to be some agitated peasant or disgruntled dwarf lurking around every corner waiting to decorate your head with a new lump and make an escape.
With my superior brain, I evaded an elf ambush, got down into the dungeons without further incident and began my rounds. While bundling the elf back into his cell, I took notice of a young human woman chained to the wall by the door. With her goldish hair, she bore an uncanny resemblance to the nun who was kind to me back at the abbey. Though in retrospect I realize now her eyes aren’t nearly as kind, I grew excited thinking it might be her. I asked her what her name was. She refused to answer. In fact, her only answer was a bit unkind. After fruitless attempts to get her name, I decided to call her Spitty. Although we hadn’t gotten off to the best of starts, it was she who made me value life once more.
After that, I took on more than my share of guard duty in the dungeons. At first I tried to talk with Spitty, but she was uncommunicative to say the least. In fact, I might’ve done well to name her Kicky. I resigned myself to staring at her through the barred window and daydreaming of the life we might have together. For a time that was enough, but sooner than later, I wanted more. A few nights after the elf had been barbequed and Spitty had the cell to herself, I crept inside with her. No one else was about, so I was free to do what I may. She gave me her usual wet welcome, but I would not be daunted.
‘Do what you may, it won’t stop me from giving you this,’ I said reaching into my britches and pulling out a bag of cookies. Oh, how I love cookies! They’re my absolute favorite human invention. The other goblins are not okay with that. The worst beating I ever received was for coming back from a raid with nothing but a sack filled with custard creams. I hid my obsession until I discovered I could get away with it if I told them I was eating, say, ladyfingers. Gingerbread men were acceptable too, as long as they thought they were made of real men.
Anyhow, Spitty became much friendlier after we shared some chocolate chip cookies together. I wish I’d thought of it earlier. It might have given us more time to get to know one another before things came to a head. You see, that night a gang of drunken goblins shambled down to the dungeons and I could tell they had one thing on their minds. It was going to be the same old story and this time with the woman I loved, unless I did something about it.
‘Hey fellas,’ I said to them, ‘I had a thought. How about we don’t rape this one?’ And to my astonishment, they didn’t! Instead they raped me. It’s all right, I’m used to it. You don’t live long amongst goblins as nasty as these without getting your bunghole buggered.
However, I didn’t know how much longer I could protect her, nor how much longer I wanted to put up with these cretins. Something had to change. I decided to take a chance and came up with a plan. We would escape together!
Spitty didn’t trust me and it took longer than I expected to convince her that I wasn’t trying to trick her. First we needed to disguise her hair and human features. I couldn’t just give her my things, I looked quite human myself in my cape, blouse and rakish fedora. I was still in need of pants that fit my style, but I digress.
I decided we would have to put her ensemble together on the go. Before leaving the dungeons I had her dirty up her face as much as possible. Then I took us down a back tunnel, a dead-end essentially, because it leads to another tribe’s lair. The dolts call themselves the Long Knife Clan, because they don’t know the word for sword. Same as in my clan, who don’t know the word for helmet, but do know “shield,” so they call a helmet a “head shield”. This is what I’m dealing with. Idiots!
Along the way we picked up the odd scrap of discarded goblin’s clothes, like a tunic Spitty pulled over her dress and a patch of cloth she wore to cover her hair. Then we turned away from the dead end, because those in the rival clan were as likely to kill us on sight as shake our hands. This was just a less traveled detour where we might not be discovered while disguising ourselves. From here we took the backstairs, which would take us close to a possible exit topside.
The only trouble I foresaw with this plan was Goosh Goosh, a yellow slime creature that looks like the contents of your stomach after purging a gluttonous binge upon rotten squash, jellyfish, slugs or maybe I’m thinking of hairless caterpillars, a whole lot of swamp water and someone else’s vomit, probably an ogre’s. Goosh Goosh acts as a sort of back door man, a rear exit guard. So what’s wrong with Goosh Goosh aside from his looks? He’ll dissolve the skin off you in seconds! Sometimes he wanders away from the back door for a bit and I hoped he wouldn’t be there now. We’d just barely made it to the top of the stairs when we heard, “Goosh! Goosh!” slurping from down the tunnel.
It was time to think up a Plan B, which I did and real quick. I have found brains are better for thinking rather than bashing. So, it was back to the dungeon, back up the usual stairs and, I hoped, on to our next destination without being found out.
Hope dissolved. The many feet flapping down the tunnel towards us told me a patrol was on the way and there was nowhere to hide. We might’ve run away from them back up the way we came, but fleeing goblins are suspicious goblins not to be trusted by goblins. Though a goblin can be duped, we’re a mistrustful lot on the whole. Comes from generation after generation doing one another over, I assume. I motioned to Spitty and we both pressed against the wall to let the six of them pass, only they didn’t.
“What you doin’, Lady?” That was another one of their nicknames for me.
“Well do some fing!”
“Who you,” the biggest of them asked Spitty.
“That’s Grub,” I answered. I thought that rather clever, since she was quite grubby.
“Didn’t ask you.” The big one grabbed up of fistful of my blouse at the chest and slapped my face back and forth. I’ve actually got cheek calluses because of the number of times I’ve been slapped.
“Reegrog ask your name,” said squeaky-voiced Hikkuf as his slippery fingers reached to pull back the cloth shading Spitty’s face.
“Grub,” she snarled and scratched at the fingers. It’s one of the few things she’s ever said and I cherish it, mainly because it got us out that jam. The patrol shoved us about a bit, but they eventually pushed us on our way and went in the opposite direction.
“This way. Come along,” I said jogging up the tunnel with the stream running down the middle of it. This leads to the Great Water Cave, a massive cavern with a wide, shallow pool of spring-fed water. We fell on our bellies and drank long before quenching our thirst.
With my ear so close to the ground, I could hear a small group of goblins coming, so I urged Spitty to the back of the cave just as they entered. From behind a stalagmite…or is it -tite? I never remember which is which. It doesn’t matter. From behind one of those sticky uppy rocks I spied my friend Toohoo. Well, I call him friend, but really he’s just the guy in the clan least likely to do me bodily harm. I had to restrain myself from calling out, because his brother Woohoo was with him and it struck me that it would’ve been hilarious to wave and call out to him, Woohoo! from behind the rock. I doubt he would’ve understood the humor on that level, so we waited silently hidden until they left and then made our way deeper into the back of the cave, where I knew I’d find what I was looking for.
Yellow-capped sleep mushrooms grow in a dwindling patch here. Inhaling the dust from their feathery undersides will knock you right out. I thought we could blow them into the faces of the guards or anyone who opposes us during our escape. I was afraid Aug the Ogre, who watches over our front door, wouldn’t allow us to leave the lair without bribing him. Knowing he’s got a soft spot for yellow things, I figured I’d bring him some of the yellow-caps. Even if Aug didn’t want them at least I might get a mushroom close enough to blow the dust into his face.
Honestly, I don’t know why the goblins don’t use this stuff more often. They’re so afraid they’ll accidently sniff it and knock themselves out. Ridiculous. It just takes a bit of caution—
Okay, that didn’t go as planned. As we were leaving the Great Water Cave, we were ambushed by Toohoo and his brother.
“Har! Caught ya sneaking,” they shouted as they leapt from around a corner. It looked like we were done for, but they were just scaring us for the fun of it. All the same, they wouldn’t let us go and we needed to get rid of them, so I tried the mushroom dust and it worked like a charm!
With freedom so close, we took off at a sprint and soon the way out was at hand, but so was Aug the Ogre. At first he seemed open to the idea of letting us pass in exchange for the yellow-caps.
“Pee tree!” he exclaimed and joyously bounded towards me where I held up the mushrooms for him to see. Aug bounding is a bad thing. He’s too big for his one-room cave home as is, never mind jumping about while he has guests, so Spitty got squished against the wall. I thought she was dead, but it was worse! Her head-wrap got knocked off and her golden hair tumbled free. “Ooh,” Aug cooed as he wrapped his huge hands around her and held her to his chest. If the squishing didn’t kill her, the coddling might!
“The mushrooms,” I implored, “what about the nice, yellow mushrooms? Did I mention they’re yellow?”
“Shush!” he commanded, only I didn’t realize it was a command, so I kept on trying to get his attention and redirect his focus. I guess he got annoyed, because he grabbed me and began squeezing the life out of me, starting with the air from my lungs. He should’ve gone for my brains first, but they were in perfect working order, so I was able to think and I brought up the mushrooms to my lips. The air being squeezed out of me blew the dust into his face. Just as I passed out, I could see Aug passing out, too. Luckily, I came to first with a deep, life-restoring inhale, which sucked up the mushroom dust and knocked me out again.
I woke up in the soup. Literally, Spitty and I were up to our necks in a large cauldron of soup. This was in the cook’s kitchen. It’s just an alcove really with some nooks dug into the wall for pots and jars and the like, and a narrow chimney to let out the smoke from the constant fire. That fire was heating up the cauldron, the broth and us real quick. Zegget the cook and a couple helpers were busily cutting up some roots and rats to toss in with us. If we didn’t do something soon, we were going to be dinner! With our hands and feet bound we couldn’t just jump out and run away, but I thought of something else that might work.
“Rock,” I whispered. Spitty didn’t understand until I started moving back and forth. We weren’t making much of a difference until she threw her whole body into it and tipped the thing right over. Us and all the contents spilled out over the floor. The cook threw up his hands and wept and moaned. When he saw his help fall on all fours and lick up the broth like they were afraid it would go to waste, he snatched up a spoon and beat them over the heads with it.
“The soup, you idiots! Save the damn soup!” he screamed in goblin and all three scraped at the floor with spoons, while we took a knife and cut ourselves free. I grabbed my writing implements, which were on the pile of wood ready for the fire, and then we were off!
We raced away with cries warning of escaped prisoners being taken up and shouted down every tunnel. I might evade notice, but Spitty was completely undisguised.
“In here,” I said guiding us down a side alley and hearing the flappy feet coming for us. We came upon a ledge and there was nowhere else to go. “Take my hand!” She wouldn’t, so I grabbed hers and leapt over the edge into the darkness. That’s how we ended up in the Shithole.
Some wise goblin chief about ten or twenty chiefs back came up with the idea of designating one central cavern as the place where everyone was to relieve themselves or at least dump their dumps. This hole was particularly choice, because it was deep and the refuse just disappeared when you tossed it over the edge. It was nice. Some of the tunnels didn’t smell quite so shitty for a while, but then a tough goblin decided no one was going to tell him where to do his business, so he ate the face off the old chief and was made the new chief, and the people went back to shitting wherever they pleased.
The good thing about that is that the Shithole doesn’t get many visitors anymore, so I was pretty sure we’d be safe and sound here for a while. Well, relatively safe. A wee fire-spout shot up from the mound, but it was a ways off, so I wasn’t worried. We’d been in worse danger. Lounging about waist-deep in the stuff, I took the opportunity to do some more writing and got this narrative caught up to this point.
About an hour went by when we felt a rumbling from beneath and out of the pile of feces burst this globby tentacled creature with a toothy suctioning mouth. I don’t know what it was, so I’ll call it a crap-eater, because that’s what it was doing. Covered in the stuff as I was, it looked at me like I was a piece of shit and swam through the poo for me. It was on me before I could free myself. Just when I thought it was all over, the crap-eater shrieked and backed away with a knife stuck in its face area. Spitty had apparently brought the weapon along from the kitchen. The crap-eater reared back with the knife still stuck in it and dove backwards into the hole it had come from. Neither of us were sorry to see it disappear, nor were we sure it wouldn’t come back.
I remembered there once was a passage towards the back of the Shithole before it filled up, so we dug – well, I dug while Spitty vomited – down and down until I found the planks blocking the passageway. I cleared away what muck I could, pulled back the planks and away we went!
We were in a bit of a bind now though. We had few choices of which way to go and none were good. I tried a back passage that would bypass the main hall, but came up against a jammed door. It’s never fit well anyway, but now it must have swelled and lodged itself completely. On the one hand I was heartened, because the dust on the floor had built up considerably, which meant no one came this way anymore. I know I certainly didn’t. But on the other hand, we couldn’t get through. I pushed, I shoved, I rammed that door until my shoulder about fell off, but it wouldn’t budge. To my surprise, Spitty jumped in beside me and together we worked at that door shoulder to shoulder, skin against skin. It was the closest we’d ever been. I must admit, it weakened my knees and I doubt I pushed with half the strength I could’ve mustered, until she turned her face toward mine and I could see the sweat beading upon her forehead. The strain and her obvious desperation made me realize how much this meant to her. While I was hoping for a better life, she was fighting for life itself. It’s not that I hadn’t been taking this seriously, but now I threw my whole being into it. Even if I didn’t make it, I would get this human woman out of here and back to her people. I slammed into the door with a manic enthusiasm. I wanted to break the thing into pieces. It was not to be. The damn door wouldn’t move. We had to give it up and think of a new plan.
I thought long and hard this time, yet all I could come up with was something wild and unlikely to succeed. As things stood, we had no other choice. I bundled Spitty back into the Shithole, which took some convincing. There wasn’t much chance the crap-eater was coming back, but there was no getting rid of the stench.
To her credit, she stayed put while I went off to find a barrel of wine. This would mean having to cross through the main hall. They were probably still out for my blood and the hall would be packed, but I hoped not to be recognized since the muck from the Shithole caked my face and soiled my blouse into something unrecognizable.
When I got to the main hall it was absolutely packed. My luck sucks. Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on luck. I had my brain helmet to see me through! It was still lodged on good and tight, perhaps too tight. Something makes me think Aug the Ogre or one of the goblins might’ve crushed it in a bit out of anger while I was passed out, because it was squeezing my skull. Anyhow, I used my smarts and whipped off my blouse, then wrapped it around the helmet. Hundreds of my clanmates were there drinking themselves into a stupor, buggering one another or playing Stone Head, a game in which two goblins stand face to face and hit each other on top of the head until one of the two gets knocked out or dies. Usually one dies. I scurried through with my head down and made my way to the Drink Room.
Zexxerkzen is the troll in charge of the wine and beer and whatever spirits the clan procures. He’s really possessive and will not give away his stock. I knew this going in. I also knew that he has a fetish for goblin tails. Just about everyone’s caught him doing nasty things with his so-called “rat tail”. After getting smarter, I figured out the cleverly entwined length of rope-like material wasn’t made of rats at all, but goblins!
Disturbing, yes, but it’s not the only problem. It’s said that Zexxerkzen can’t see himself in mirrors, because he’s so ugly his reflection ran away. I’ve heard he’s too frightening even for haunted houses. My nobby-long nose is like a peanut compared to his, which looks like something that should be swinging between the legs of a horse. A friend claims his skin is the putrid color it is because his mother took one at her new baby and puked all over him. Stained his skin, it did, because she never bothered cleaning him up. Must’ve figured it was an improvement. Goblins hold a suspicion that he’s hideous enough to turn a soul to stone if he made a face at you, but my new upstairs gray matter tells me that’s probably not true. Only a gorgon like Medusa can turn flesh to stone. Oh and those disgusting bald cats!
No matter. Disgusting as he is, I would have to brave the beast, as they say. Get in there, get a barrel of wine and get out. As expected, Zexxerkzen was not about to give up his goods for nothing.
“Just one tiny barrel?” I pled and he bit off my eyebrows! Thankfully I backed away in time and that’s all his snapping jaws got ahold of. No big deal. I don’t use them for much anyway. I was more disturbed by getting slapped about by his schlongy nose.
In the end I did what I knew I had to do. I gave up my tail. A quick twinge of pain and one of regret and it was done. I’ll admit it made me feel a little less goblin, but hey, that’s what I’m hoping for, isn’t it? Besides, it was worth it. Now I had my wine, which was needed to get me and Spitty out of this mess. Or is it, Spitty and I? One of the most difficult human things to understand is grammar…that and caravan timetables. Bloody wagons never arrive when they say they will.
I rolled the wine barrel back through the main hall and it was like passing through a gauntlet of greedy devils’ hands, all grabbing for my goods.
“Give it here!”
“Hand it over!”
“It’s empty,” I shouted above the tumult of their demands. That put off some of them, but before I made it all the way to the other side I was stopped by a whip-smart little fellow named Nebble, who stood in my way and slammed his heel against the barrel.
“That’s not empty,” he shouted as he stumbled back. I rolled on and he eyed me while I passed. I could tell he recognized me. “Hey, it’s that traitor, Gr—” I yanked the club from the rope tied around his waist and bopped him on the head. That shut him up. But when I turned back I found hovering over the barrel a goblin big and strong enough to be chief if he only had the brains to realize it.
“This is for the chief.” I tried to sound commanding. To add to the effect, I elbowed through the gathering crowd, and while he pondered what I’d said and the others watched to see what he’d do, I rolled the barrel out of the main hall.
“That mine!” I heard him bellow, but he never came after me and nor did the others. After one final check over my shoulder, I pushed the barrel up the tunnel towards the chief’s den.
“For the chief,” I muttered to the curious guard at the door and then scampered away before he could ask questions.
“What, what’s this? I didn’t order wine!” came the chief’s blustering complaint a moment later. He complains about everything, good or bad. “No, no. Leave it, leave it!” And that was the last I heard from him before I was out of earshot.
I went back and waited with Spitty. Without an hourglass I had to guess on when approximately two turns had passed, one for the chief and his wives and one for the guard at the door. You see it would take that fat, glutton of a chief and those with him about an hour to get stone drunk, and then once they were out, the guard would sneak in and drink up the remainder real fast. He’d be out in no time, too. Two hours would be plenty of time I assumed and I wasn’t wrong.
Slipping into the room and tiptoeing around the unconscious bodies, I grabbed the slip of a robe off one of the wives. To be honest, they’re more like concubines. They don’t wear much, but I wished to give Spitty something new to put on, something a little less covered in feces. The chief’s seldom used belt would help her cinch it off nicely at the waist. More importantly I needed to get the chief’s crown and cloak. The cloak was simple. It was just an outer garment he only wore when it was cold and it was never cold in his den, so I found that covered in dust on a hook. The crown was trickier. He never failed to wear it. I crept up to him, careful not to step on anyone, and gently lifted the crown from his head, always watching his fat face to see that he didn’t wake up.
“W-wah?” he sputtered and then snorted. One of his eyelids slid open and his eye rolled around like it was searching for something or someone. I held my breath and waited. I thought I was done for right then! But the lid slowly shut again.
“Bow before Chief Ollekbag!” I shouted in my commanding voice again as I waddled down the tunnel towards the crowded main hall with the chief’s crown atop my head, his cloak billowing around me and bulging out in front. I scrunched up my face to look as grumpy as possible and lowered my head to my chest to make the best double chin I could. When I turned the corner, everyone in the hall had their heads down. Some were even prostrate upon the floor, of course they might’ve just been asleep or drunk. As I toddled and shuffled by them, some actually kissed my feet. I didn’t think I could make it. My legs were giving out and I thought maybe my heavy breathing would give me away, but now that I think about it, it probably sold the disguise. It didn’t dawn on me until now that our obese chief huffed and puffed when he walked.
As soon as I got out of the main hall, my legs gave out and I fell to my knees. Spitty released her iron grip around my midsection and dropped from under the cloak with a light thump on the floor. She limped to her feet. Her arms and legs must’ve been spent from holding on to me that long. She looked wildly around, but seeing no goblins, her modestly returned and she straightened out the robe and covered herself once more, tightening the belt again and securing the club, Nebble’s club that is. I’d held on to it after bopping him with it and afterwards gave it to Spitty. I think it made her feel safer to hold it.
A wail of a screech from the main hall, an alarm I recognized as one of the chief’s wives, sent Spitty racing off up the tunnel for the front door without me. The very few torches lighting her way weren’t enough and she bounced off walls she couldn’t see and tripped over the uneven spots on the ground.
“The spike pit,” I screamed in my head. “She’s going to fall into the spike pit!” I ran after her as fast as I could. Behind I heard dozens of flapping feet chasing us. There was no sense in keeping quiet now. I called out to her and I know she heard me, because she turned, but that only seemed to make her run faster. I finally caught hold of her just before the hidden pit. She kicked and bit me. Our pursuers would be on us soon. I could think of nothing else to do, but wrap my arms around her tight and leap into the pit.
You probably can guess we didn’t die. The spikes, you see, are mostly in the center of the pit, so by jumping into one side, we avoided them. I replaced the flimsy hatch just in time and heard the goblins thundering overhead. They know enough to avoid the pit. That much they know. It’s one of the first things we learn. The fall made Spitty less bitey. Maybe she understands now what’s going on. She’s sitting with me in the dark listening to the goblins, while I take this opportunity to get this narrative up to date.
I just heard the goblins saying humans are on their way. It appears they’re attacking. This could work out great for us! If nothing else, it’ll distract the goblins from chasing us and if all goes well, we can escape directly into the human’s patrol or army or whatever is coming.
We’re very close to the front door and about to make a break for it. I heard Aug the Ogre growl out and charge from the cave down the hill. The humans must be close! I doubt there will be any guards at the door, but I’ve let Spitty hold on to the club. She’s capable enough with it. I’ve got enough just holding on to all my writing. Shoot. Looks like I dropped the first page somewhere. At least I have the important parts. Without it, I’m just another goblin in the eyes of the humans. Here we go!
Marshal Rames flipped over the last piece of parchment to make sure nothing else was written on the other side. He finished the notes he’d been scribbling as he read and sketched out a few rough maps of what he could glean from Grag’s descriptions of the goblin lair. Then he called Captain Bellard back in.
“Where did you find these papers? Exactly where?”
“By the mouth of the cave of those Green Beasts, sir,” said the captain looking with more interest at the pieces of parchment than he ever had.
“They were just sitting on the ground and you picked them up like daisies?” The marshal’s lack of patience was getting the better of him.
“No sir, one of those savages had the roll tucked in his trousers.”
“What else can you tell me about this savage?”
“I don’t know, sir, it was quite ordinary. Ill-fitting clothes.”
“Well sir, I don’t normally take much notice of them individually, but I did note that this one had been beaten about a good deal. It had this great lump on the back of its head and it was well behind the others, so I don’t think it was even in the fight.”
“Was there a woman about?”
“A woman, sir?”
“Yes, a human woman.”
“Why, yes, sir. As a matter of fact, we did find a woman there abouts.”
“She was nothing more than a peasant girl. Another one of those unfortunates from the outer villages that falls into the beasts’ claws.” The captain’s straight-ahead gaze fell upon the marshal’s fingers tapping rapidly upon the desk and he spat out a more thorough description as quickly as he could. “I believe she was wearing a tattered old robe and carrying a club. Oh, and she had on an old helmet, dented all to hell, sir. It does strike me as odd now that I think back on it, but in the heat of battle strange things happen, as you know sir. Anyhow, I recall she was out of sorts, but she answered all our questions smart as any peasant girl I’ve known.”
“Retrieve the helmet.”
“I want that helmet brought back to me. Now.”
“Yes, sir.” The captain’s eyes darted about as he searched his mind for the helmet’s significance.
“Thank you, Bellard. That is all.” The captain nodded and strode out. When the door closed, the Marshal gathered up the roll of parchment and threw it on the fire.
Upon a shattered rock of an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where in generations past fair-but-devious maidens of legend known as sirens sang sweet, enchanting songs to lure Mediterranean mariners to their deaths, here now resides Agnesopheme, the sole remaining siren.
Agnesopheme, who prefers to go by Agnes, is a different kind of siren than her ancestors. She sings a song that inexplicably repulses visitors from her island, so we at Leisurely Travel magazine were thrilled to get this rare opportunity to speak with Agnes.
Those expecting the vision of a siren as passed down to us from the Homeric writers of old describing utterly gorgeous sunbathing beauties will find a uniquely earthy woman akin to the rocks she resides upon. Get your cameras ready for some Nat Geo Gone Wild worthy shots!
“Get off my island!” Often do these penetrating lyrics cut through the crashing surf when visiting Agnes’ island, imbuing the natural surroundings with the full-throated diva’s warbled bellows.
When not belting out her song for discerning ears, Agnes plays a particularly piercing recorder. Some may call its tone an acquired taste, but for now it’s the only instrument at her disposal.
“I’m hoping to get my hands on a set of bagpipes someday,” says Agnes.
The beautifully barren landscape is dotted with a veritable menagerie of lounging cats. These are Agnes’ pets and only companions.
“I just wanna be left alone with my cats,” she informs any and all while grabbing one up for a thorough stroking along its Spartan mane. Our conversation only occasionally departed from the topic of cats during our recent visit.
“I’m not a bird,” squawked Agnes apropos of perhaps the glorious avian whirling above. It may also be a reference to the claims that sirens were little birds with the tiny faces of women. Others say they were sparrow-like from the chest up, while having the features of a woman from the waist down.
“I don’t know if theys a name for that kind of perversion, but it makes me sick! And like I says, I’m not a bird! I don’t have bird’s skin,” says Agnes pointing out the scaly skin upon her legs, “it’s just a bad case of psoriasis is all! And I ain’t got no wings neither!” Perhaps the coat she claims to have fashioned from the feathers of island birds is nothing more than she says it is, a feather coat, but we’ll let you judge for yourself on your next visit. Wink wink!
No longer is Agnes visited by salty sailors from Greece or Italy. “It’s nothing but Americans nowadays,” says she. Lucky us, because you too can come find a piece of the past at an affordable price through packages offered by Circus Cruises! (Miami-only departures.)
Desta sliced open the fish’s gut with her knife. She’d caught the sleek steelhead with her father’s spear. Spearing fish took skill, a skill she took pride in mastering, not to mention the pleasure she derived from providing this necessary bit of meat to the daily table.
The knife, also her father’s, was sharp and useful, but nothing compared to the spear. Though quite ordinary, it had saved her father’s life once and served him well in battle. Most importantly to Desta, out of all his children, many of them sons, he had bestowed the spear upon her for the maturity and strong work ethic she showed at an early age. He trusted her and she would not break that trust for anything in the world.
“Bark. Bark. Bark. Now you don’t just smell like a dog, you sound like one, too!” That was Desta’s friend Dejen sniping back at a bully. No one in Desta’s life was wittier than Dejen. She wished she could tell a joke as well as him and sometimes she tried. The day before she’d watched him dip his toe into the river and yank it out shivering. By this morning she’d finally conjured up something she thought halfway decent.
“Why did the master step into the river before his students,” she asked him.
“He wanted to test the water first!”
It wasn’t hilarious, but Dejen kindly laughed. He never criticized her, even when her jokes were not up to his standards.
He wasn’t laughing now though. The bully, a lanky and athletic girl named Hiwot, didn’t think much of being compared to a dog, not by one of the riverside folk, who she liked to sneer down at from her family’s spacious and comfortable dwelling high in the cliff. As much as she proclaimed to hate them, she made a habit of visiting Desta’s people daily, if only to pick on the weaker children. Short, slow and ugly Dejen was a favorite target. She would taunt him until he retaliated and then she would hurt him.
“We are not poor!”
Dejen’s defensive shout finally triggered Desta’s attention and she focused on the escalating fight while still attending to her work. She’d heard it all before, almost every day. Her friend needed frequent rescuing, but a friend who lives to make you laugh is worthy of defending. She winced at his piercing wail and bridled at the sight of him writhing on the ground at Hiwot’s feet.
That Desta would be coming was not a surprise. The surprise was in the distracting fish entrails she rained down upon Hiwot’s head with a well-aimed lob just before diving into her and knocking the wind out of the other girl as they fell to the ground. While Hiwot gasped for air, she felt her arms being twisted back.
“I give in,” Hiwot growled through her teeth when she could draw breath enough to speak. Desta saw off Hiwot and her few friends before rushing to help Dejen, who was laid out unnaturally awkward with one arm displaced.
Leaning over her screaming friend, she straightened the arm and forced it down hard with all her weight until it popped back into the socket. Almost immediately his agonized cries ceased and he sat up as if nothing had happened.
“Hey, a leba.” He pointed to where Desta had been gutting the fish and his finger followed a tubular brown dog-and-otter hybrid as it trotted away upon its short legs and slipped into the water.
Desta dove right into the river and thrashed about, sinking and sputtering as she clawed frantically at the water that the leba slithered through with a silky grace. By the time she was halfway across, the animal was already on the far bank and headed for the forest. She staggered out, shaking dry her tawny, spotted body and saw no sign of the leba or the spear.
Everywhere the soft mossy ground cushioned her bare feet as she raced through the open spaces between trees green from their roots to their highest leaves. Rock rose up from the earth at random, some boulders bigger than houses.
Though not a dense forest, there were trees enough to get lost in. Her people mistrusted the hidden places. They preferred living on the dry fringes of the river basin, only admiring the lush greenery and watching in awe the fog roll through the vast valley every day. They did not enter the forest, not without great need, fearing “the magic of the unknown” as well as the wild beasts of these lands, such as the humpback boars and bloodthirsty apes. And while the playful birds dazzled the eye with beautiful plummage, even they could do a careless observer harm. A bandy-legged mlachwaf once tore open a man’s belly, spilling his insides on to the ground. In her daily toil by the river, Desta sometimes came in contact with the animals of the valley. She’d never done them harm and so far in her life none had harmed her, though admittedly she seldom ventured even as far as the opposite bank.
Desta’s people only ventured into the valley forest in armed hunting parties and even then they walked with trepidation amongst strange trees that grew in odd arches and with twisting trunks corkscrewing up from the land, sometimes diving right back into it. Ahead and almost out of sight, Desta spied the leba’s brown rump scurry under one of these odd curling trees and disappear on the far side. She raced after it. At the tree she turned this way and that and caught sight of the animal’s long tail vanishing over a log. At the log, she saw nothing, even turning about and spinning in a circle to see all she could as fast as she could, she still she came up empty.
Fear of losing the spear sent sharp, almost debilitating pangs through to her core, but instead of seizing up, she climbed an arched tree and had a look about. The tree twisted under her feet to throw her and she lost her balance. Gripping the trunk with her long toes and throwing out her arms, she wavered and steadied. After giving the trunk a long, mistrusting glare, she scanned the landscape. There was little to be seen from here, but a few hill-sized boulders partially blocking her view. The sprawling, gnarled limbs of marula and quiver trees dotting the land seemed to float adrift in a sea of ferns larger than palm leaves. So covered and disguised was the ground, Desta couldn’t tell if she was looking at mounds of grassy earth or dragon blood trees with their domed, green canopies.
An involuntary, excited gasp caught in her throat and she nearly toppled from the tree at the sight of ferns waving about and moving in a line away from her not a hundred yards ahead. She jumped and only after did she realize how high she’d been. Collapsing upon the ground from the shock of the impact upon her feet, she reeled and clutched one of her ankles. She was fine, she told herself and began to get up when a rustling from the bushy base of a nearby clump of shrubs froze her in a crouch. The rustling subsided, but a swinish snort that followed shot her away like a wounded gazelle in a life or death flight.
Wanting nothing to do with a boar and its gouging tusks, she ran with a double dose of fear, for the trail of the leba had fluttered away with a new breeze in the chest-high field of ferns. Her lynx-like ears flipped forwards and back, twitching at every sound, but she heard nothing like four-footed fleeing. Nothing but her miserable heart thumped away in her ears.
Running seemed to be all she could do and so she did with despairing abandon, directionless and distraught right into a snarling creature with a feline’s gold-emerald eyes and a dusty, striped coat. It reared back hissing and leapt up into the branches of a tree, where it leered down on the girl, daring her to follow. Desta immediately knelt and averted her gaze. She did not turn her back on the cat, nor did she back away. She held her ground, waited for the tension between them to subside, and then sidestepped the cat, whose eyes relaxed as it looked away and began grooming.
Desta hoped to skirt the cat and find the leba’s trail again on the other side, so she backed away, turned and ran. A jolt to her neck and a plowing shove to her back tossed her to the ground, where she flopped about like a fish, flipping over and over with a weight attached to her back and fur and teeth upon her neck. She thrashed about, her face half buried in the earth, but twisted around and found herself staring into one of the cat’s eyes inches from her own. Struggling got her nowhere, so she fought her fear and as her heartbeat subsided, so did the malice in the cat’s eye. Its grip upon her neck eased and then released. It then backed off and sat upon its haunches as if waiting, occasionally licking itself, but otherwise completely detached.
What was it waiting for what, Desta wondered as she pulled herself up and rubbed her neck. It was sore, but at least there was no blood. When she stood, the cat got up and walked off a few paces, turning a lazy gaze upon her. When she didn’t move, the cat sat back down and its gaze turned quite inviting. Without fully understanding why, Desta tried a timid step forward and immediately the cat continued on its way. A few steps more and again it stopped to wait, and again Desta took more tentative steps towards it. They went on in this manner until the girl was following the cat at a steady pace.
Why she followed, she could not say, other than the connection she’d made with the cat compelled her on in a way more powerful than mere curiosity. That cat could have killed her, but it did not. Rather it seemed to want to show her something and Desta felt sure she wanted to see it. It wasn’t that she’d forgotten about the spear. In fact, quite the opposite. Somehow this game of follow the leader seemed intrinsically entwined with her search, like a voice from within urging her in a whisper to come closer. The farther she went on the louder the voice grew, right up to the moment when she saw the spear leaning against the base of a large oak.
She skipped for joy and ran ahead, passing the cat, who sat down to watch as a vine curled out of the tree, coiled about the shaft of the spear and lifted it out of reach, growing thicker and sprouting leaves all the while. Desta hopped and made running jumps at it before sizing up the tree, wondering if she could climb it and completely missing the sprouting and expanding of another vine. The oak grew a new root that pulled itself from the ground, followed by another. The tree’s bark bulged in numerous places a few feet up from the base and then grew a second trunk that pulled away from the first and ended in a melon-shaped knot. The vines and new roots began paling, turning slightly more rigid and angular, while the second trunk connected to them like a torso.
Desta stepped back when she realized what was happening. She couldn’t take it all in at once and before she knew it, she was looking at a fully formed person with hair hanging like soft Spanish moss around a body naked but for a covering of wrapped ivy. Its fingers and toes dangled like slender daikon roots and its skin held hues of green dabbed brown. That didn’t phase Desta since her own skin was spotted a faded brown like subtle cheetah markings. The whole of the creature, appearing as if from the tree, was what dumbfounded her. She might’ve run, but she held the spear. How her hand came to lie upon the shaft just below this tree being’s, she could not say, but now that it was there she wouldn’t let go even if she could.
“A dryad,” she muttered as she was pulled towards the oak and her resisting knuckles pressed into the bark. She found no fear in her heart, not while staring into the body-warming smile of the dryad. An unseen and utterly inviting pressure to follow drew her hand forward into the tree and the crushing impact and the grinding of skin ceased. Resistance dissolved and she witnessed the slow assimilation of her own skin into the bark of the tree. The bones of her hand evolved, becoming fibrous and entwining within the oak’s cork. Her arm sank in up to the shoulder and just before her head disappeared into the tree, Desta thought there was no place else she’d rather be than with this dryad. A lightness of body and spirit overcame her and everything went bright white just before it all darkened to nothing. She floated in a limbo, moving ever on, but slowing, almost timeless in her diminishing speed. The smell and then taste of sap hit her senses distastefully bitter at first, but she soon grew used to it, craved it even.
Life back home already seemed a distant memory. Her cares morphed, though her former values did not leave her altogether. Her concern for the spear was never entirely extinguished. In fact, that was the one thing that kept her grounded in the old world. However, her daily care for mundane matters such as food changed. She thirsted for water and sunlight, and could perceive both more keenly than ever before. Earth smelled sweet to her now and she wished to bury her toes in it. Days flittered by. Whether they were rainy or sunny was all that mattered.
So began a happy life with the dryad. In the beginning Desta did not understand a word said to her. Gradually pieces of the dryad’s strange language unveiled itself to the girl and they spoke together like children for days into weeks. It was a time of kindness and fun with simple pleasures and entertainments in a world Desta imagined to be much like the cliff dwellings, such as where Hiwot’s family lived. The round room they shared felt spacious and whatever Desta could need appeared as if it had always been there, though she’d never noticed it before.
Her love of nature bloomed in a way it never could have in her old life. She loved the birds and squirrels that nested in the old oak’s boughs, but it was the tree itself that was of paramount importance. If it died, she was quite sure it would be the end of the dryad and quite probably herself, so they took active measures in its care. During the winter hibernation, they spent their scant time awake helping the tree heal over wounds, like snapped limbs or assisting in coagulation of the little holes left in bark after the rare woodpecker visit.
The tree was under a constant barrage from countless fungi and leaf gall. Early summer one year Desta played squire to the dryad in what she came to think of as the Battle of the Boring Beetles. The tree had known too many skirmishes such as this to be bothered with naming them, only knowing a cold time of no bugs and a warm time of nothing but bugs. Spring meant starting it all over again.
Desta and the dryad adored spring. Newly sprouting leaves brought joy and the birth of each acorn was cause for celebration. Upon the return of the sun, when the mood struck the dryad, they would walk the forest at night in a silent sort of hazy existence. It was on these nights, whether there was cloud or bright moon, that the dryad’s eyes flashed like fireflies and Desta found herself once again entranced in her companion’s embracing, soul-fulfilling love.
However, all was not absolute contentment. Desta never fully forgot home or the spear. The dryad finally came to understand that the girl, who had not and would likely never give herself over completely to her new life, would not do as a life-long companion. And so, one day the dryad left Desta. An immediate cold, constriction attacked the girl. She felt suffocated. It was as if she was completely alone in a world she did not belong. The timing of the dryad’s departure could not have been worse, as the separation of the loved ones came during autumn when the dying leaves all around already caused an innate sadness.
But soon the dryad returned bearing a gift, a gift that awaited Desta outside of the oak. The dryad led her out of the tree and the girl went through all the sensations she’d felt upon first entering through the bark and deeper rings. In the glaring light of day, her body dragged her down with its unaccustomed weight. The ground pricked the bottom of her feet and her legs buckled under her. She would have fallen but for the tip of one finger still touching the tree. And then it was gone, all of it, the tree and her beloved. Gone and forever, this she knew immediately and fell to the ground like a jettisoned leaf.
A day and a night of tears washed over her and dried into sour pity for herself, her very existence and its meaninglessness. In the beginning she could not comprehend who she was, where she was or what she should do next, but when she could once again truly see her surroundings, she found the spear leaning against the oak. The blade had been sharpened and a new shaft affixed with an inlay of runes running down it.
Desta leaned upon the spear like a crutch and toddled from the tree a few steps, looking about her and wondering where she was. The more steps she took, the more she remembered. The time and distance of the past came back in stages and soon thoughts of home and family trickled back to her. By the time she found the river once more, recollections of the tree and dryad were already drifting away.
On the far side of the river she saw her people, some playing and some working. Crouched in the shallows, an aging washerwoman named Azmara caught sight of Desta and dropped her basin. Its value to her was great and yet it floated away unnoticed by the stunned woman, who suddenly scurried up the bank, tripped over a basket and ran away screeching some garbled nonsense Desta didn’t understand.
“Always the crazy old lady,” she said inwardly and dropped down on her belly by the river. Long she drank to quench a thirst she did not realize she had until seeing the water. After a time of scooping mouthful after mouthful, she noticed that her hands, all the way up her arms and even the skin of her whole body was a pallid green, akin to the dryad’s, but ghastly drained. When she looked up again, all of her people had vanished from the riverside.
“I don’t look well,” she thought and made for the rope bridge. Running the fingers of one hand over the frayed guideline, she was surprised she’d never noticed its age. The houses too looked more worn at this end of the village than she remembered. “Where is everyone?” All doors were closed and every window was shuttered. Here and there in the distance darted a fleeing figure. “Strange.”
Arriving home she found it likewise unwelcoming. The door was locked. She banged on it, calling out to her father and family repeatedly until it swung open. In the frame stood a man with the resemblance of her father, but this man had lines in his face and streaks of gray in his hair her father never had. No, it was him, she decided.
“Father, what’s happened to you? What’s wrong? Why is everyone hiding,” she asked, but the words came out in a jumble of mixed languages that only made her horrified father’s face cringe deeper into terror. Some young people of a vague familiarity cowering in the shadows gathered around him for strength. Her father shouted at her as he’d never done before and even though the words came out in a nonsensical mess, the force of it shocked Desta. He is sick, she thought, or perhaps mad at my foolhardiness for going over the river into the valley forest after the spear.
“I am sorry, father, but I have it! I found the spear and brought it back. See?” Her smile broadened with the hope of appeasing him as she handed over the spear. Whether he understood, she could not tell by his confused expression, but he took the spear after initial hesitation and drove its razor-sharp blade into her gut, again and again, screaming like one frightened by some unholy nightmare. Blood poured down Desta’s ghoulishly yellow-green legs and she collapsed in the doorway, unaided and untouched until long after exhaling her final breath.
Mr. John M. Paulson woke up as he did every morning with crust in his eyes, a crick in his neck and legs like stilts. He kissed his sleeping wife and stumped down the hall, passing his son’s room and grunting “morning” to the boy sitting on the toy-strewn floor playing something explosive on his own flat screen.
In the bathroom, he splashed his face and patted it down. That was when he found the bump. He brushed his hair back and near the top left side of his head at about the hairline he found a hard lump had formed just under the skin. It was skin cancer, he was sure.
His wife thought it might be a cyst and that it would soon go away on its own.
She suggested he see someone.
“I’ll go with you,” she said and added, “we’ll go as a couple.”
Go as a couple? It made no sense. This was a physical problem.
“It’s something on my head, not in it.” He laughed it off until she laughed with him.
After researching cysts, he agreed with her diagnosis and would not have bothered making an appointment, but for her eagerness.
The day of the appointment came and went.
“It’s nothing. Besides, I’m swamped at work.” John Paulson did not see his wife’s disappointment. He was having trouble reading her emotions. Soon he would find it impossible.
A second lump, springing up on the other side of his forehead, went unnoticed. No one said anything about it at work.
Work, that time-stretching plane of dreary existence, where stress alone threw off monotony. He began to feed off the stress, eventually longing for it until it identified him. He created tension and manufactured pressure, which in turn bred an anxiety that he willed into a welcome angst. This was killing time and that was a living.
At times all the stress and pressure passed forbearance and its only relief was trauma, to which he was completely blind. Marks appeared upon his son’s neck. His wife cast blame. Paulson would not listen. The only sign the accusations might be true pointed to his fingernails, grown surprisingly long as if overnight. “Like an old man who has let himself go.”
His thoughts beat loud upon his wife’s cutting blame. They’d not spoken civilly since…he couldn’t recall. If he spoke to her at all these days it was with a bitter tongue lashing hot resentment for her complaints and contempt. Her scorn was answered with a vile brew of derision recently discovered in the depths of his own personal cellar. His dwindling stock of vintage goodwill he saved for work. If he lost his job, where would they be? Where would he be?
Such worry rocketed his blood pressure to new heights. He needed no doctor to tell him what he could see in the mirror: skin flushed red as rising mercury. He wasn’t taking care of himself. His personal hygiene had slipped. Up from a scorched throat his breath billowed foul, an embarrassment if he’d still cared. He did not.
Now as never before he cared only for peace. Away from work, he wanted only solitude. Above inner gales cacophonous and piercing, outer bleating and blasted mind games, he wished for peace with the core of his wilting soul.
Then one day, he couldn’t say if it were the next day or a decade of days later, the man woke to nothing. The tempest of work and home was no more. All sound sucked into a vacuum. He slunk from room to room through charred remains of a past life, a loathsome remembrance in stasis, a regrettable interlude between an agreeable childhood and now.
What was now? His red-rimmed eyes scanned about the charred void around him and he grew immensely tired. A chair presented itself. The walls drew in around him. The light diminished. A scaly, barbed tail slithered from his backside and coiled around his feet.
In a secluded tower on the outskirts of a sprawling city resided a master of potions. Though he was not domestically-minded, the living quarters within the tower were orderly with light and airy upper rooms as well as a quite clean and sparsely furnished roof terrace, perfect for potentially explosive magic. Just as meticulous was the windowless and windless cellar, a nicely controlled environment for the crafting of potions that could not be safely left to the whims of weather.
On this night in that underground chamber all that could be heard were the soft steps of the potion master’s feet padding over the newly swept floor. To and fro he stalked about the room, knowing where to find everything he wanted for his latest elixir, despite this being his first attempt at the new magic. Such was his care in preparation.
Orderly shelves, tables and cabinets lined the walls holding ceramic pots and urns, flasks and carafes of glass, and various-sized demijohns, some encased in wicker. Chests and cases kept safe small, stoppered vials containing liquids in a rainbow of colors. From hooks in beams overhead hung tongs, clamps and spoons. Laid out upon a sturdy central table were a number of crucibles, a scale, large and small funnels, stirring rods, the book he referenced for this particular potion, and parchment with ink and pen at the ready for scrupulous note taking.
On the table next to his most prized cauldron, he placed the basket delivered to his back door yesterday morning by Lady Carbrey’s messenger. He plucked the cloth laid over the basket revealing within more than a handful of shriveling long-stemmed mushrooms with small, tan caps. Next he took down two jars, one packed with a kind of silver, hand-sized, almost oval fish with yellow stripes, the other holding a few light green toads with mustard-brown spots. All three items, in pieces and portions, would combine with other ingredients to produce a potent concoction designed to make the imbiber laugh uncontrollably.
Though seemingly innocuous enough as intended, its application and the hoped for result were quite devious. With this potion the master would destroy a man. To his mind, Lord Carbrey was a dour, bitter, spiteful, evil, malicious man, who had not only wronged him, but embarrassed him. While thinking about it, he ground his knobby little teeth and accidentally squeezed a fish so hard its eyes popped out. After disposing of the damaged remains and cleaning up, he selected another fish and dropped it into the cauldron. As he began stirring, the repetitive motion soothed him. Soon vapors rose from the mixing brew. He leaned back and averted his nose.
Embarrassment always vexed the potion master and its memory never faded. At the lord’s assembly when he deigned to laugh at a joke made by Lady Carbrey, whether out of spiteful jealousy or a need to feel superior, her husband made fun of him in front of all the nobles assembled.
“It must be wonderful to have such a simple appreciation for my wife’s mindless japes.”
The lord had been the butt of the joke and he didn’t like it. He wouldn’t retaliate against his wife openly, knowing he would surely lose that battle, but he could get his dignity back by lowering another’s, so the potion master took the brunt of his ire.
The master could not stand attacks upon his intelligence. Other slights over the years mostly derived from the lord’s mistrust of potions, his outlawing of the potion master’s particular familiar, and his bestowing patronage on all other magic arts aside from potions, made it quite an easy choice to join Lady Carbrey’s covert plan.
In fact, looking back on it, he couldn’t see why he’d waited so long. It all made perfect sense now, he thought while absentmindedly stirring faster. Before the assembled nobles, they would slip the lord a draft from this potion, which would send him into uncontrollable hysterics. A beautiful irony. And when the laughing went on for hours, perhaps even days, the assembly would take the lord for a madman. Once they removed his title in favor of his young son, Lady Carbrey would then be in control and he would have her patronage, perhaps even her love.
He let out a chuckle and immediately suppressed it, so self-conscious was he now of his own laughter. The hand covering his mouth slid over his nose as well to keep away the potion’s noxious vapors. A deep intake and he might be the one falling into potentially irreversible hysterics.
Time and toil over his malicious brew wore him down quite swiftly these days. His precision and the level of excellence he’d obtained in his craft could not overcome the fact that he resided in an all-too mortal body.
“Rogi,” he called out as his arms weakened perceptibly from the stirring. He rushed out the door to the hall and pulled a cord at the base of the stairs. A bell rang above. “Rogi!” He hustled back to the cauldron and resumed stirring. A poor constitution was his one great weakness. He didn’t have it in him to stir the pot all night.
The bright-eyes and plump face of the cheerful and rotund Rogi soon appeared at his side. Knowing just what was expected of her, his motherly cleaning lady took over at the cauldron as if she were relieving an arm-sore child from mixing cake batter.
“Off to bed with you,” said the jovial woman, “oh and I’ve left you some nice, warm milk on the nightstand. You make sure and drink that up before you slip in between the comfy blankets.”
The potion master grumbled as he dragged himself up the stairs and heard Rogi chortle behind him. His irritable side contemplated the notion of turning her into something unpleasant, but he knew he would never do such a thing. The woman was like the mother he never had.
Indispensible and utterly dependable, he could leave her to do the stirring and she would keep at it all night. Her stamina was enviable. He knew he could rely upon her from the very first time he instructed her how to stir, never touch, a potion. Simple woman that she was, she followed orders precisely, so precisely that when the fumes in the room went to her head, turning her a bit sloppy and causing one of the mushrooms to slosh out of the cauldron, she didn’t touch it.
Even if she hadn’t been one to follow orders to the letter, she wouldn’t have wanted to touch the thing. A pair of wet fish eyes and lips from a frog were stuck to the soggy cap, making for a rather comically grotesque hybrid. When the lips emitted a throat-clearing cough, Rogi’s knees buckled and she grabbed hold of the cauldron’s rim to keep from collapsing. A swoon threatened to pull the shades down on her world.
Exhaustion overtook the potion master for the first few hours of sleep, but from then on he tossed about worrying over the finer points of this scheme and the outcome of the new potion. Dreams haunted him in which Lord Carbrey’s face taunted him, at first with a condescending stare, then mad laughter. He sat up in bed damp from sweat, but joyous. Even realizing it was nothing but a dream did not diminish his elation. After all, this was a good omen. His potion would work, he was sure of it now.
He lay his head back down and drifted away again. Immediately the laughter continued in a ceaseless and hounding cackle. The demented lord smirked and leered at the potion master, who rolled around in bed half-naked and drenched.
“No,” he cried out before clamping his mouth shut. Awake at last, yes, and yet the tormenting laughter echoed on throughout the tower. There must be a rational explanation, he reasoned. “Rogi?” No answer came. “What is this devilish mischief?” He screwed up his courage, threw on his robe and tottered a few steps toward the door. Grabbing up one of his protective medallions along the way for good measure, he marched out of the bedroom. As the insane cackling grew closer, he could make out another voice. Creeping down the stairs and straining to hear, the second voice became clear though squeaky.
“Why did the claustrophobic fungi have to leave,” asked the squeaky voice and when no reply came but a gasping for air, it answered itself, “There wasn’t mushroom!” A crescendo of laughter followed.
“Why do toadstools grow close together?” Again, only gasping, and so the voice continued on, “because they don’t need mushroom!” And again, the laughter came crashing back.
This was all too absurd, thought the potion master. He burst into the room and found Rogi on the floor propped against a wall gripping her stomach and barely holding herself up with one arm. On the table stood the mushroom with the cauldron as a backdrop. Its fishy eyes and wide froggy mouth were alive with mirth while it continued its routine.
“Why was the mushroom never late for school? He didn’t want to get in truffle!”
Rogi may not have been clever, but even so, the potion master doubted she could find these jokes half as funny as her laughter made them out to be. He peered into the cauldron and as he expected, it was empty. The expense and time wasted, the plan foiled and the probable permanent loss of a good cleaning lady all pushed the master beyond the boiling point.
“Why did the mushroom have a lot of friends? Because he was a fungi!” The grinning mushroom bent over and would’ve slapped his knee had he a knee and a hand to slap it with.
The potion master leaned over the mushroom with clenched fists and a terrible scowl that even the mushroom couldn’t mistake.
“How come people don’t like jokes about fungus,” asked the mushroom, his momentary concern giving way to a broad grin. “They need time to grow on you!”
The potion master knocked the cauldron on to the floor and swept an arm across the table, shattering glass containers against a wall. He slammed his fists down and leaned against the table with his head bowed. A tense, silent moment passed before he erupted in maniacal laughter and whirled upon the mushroom.
“Which vegetable does everyone like better than mushrooms?” he demanded.
“Which?” asked the mushroom, his humor returning in a rush of excitement at hearing a new joke.
“Squash,” said the potion master as he drove a fist down upon the mushroom.
One of the many strange, ornate and quite simple entrances along the walls of a cavernous, octagonal chamber creaked open, scattering the dust of ages. Enormous iron gates, glyph-sealed portals and seemingly flimsy wooden hatches ringed the room on various levels that could be reached by the jagged steps of a number of stairways that cut into the natural rock and wound around huge stalagmites and stalactites. Footsteps echoed into the room, bouncing off the natural and sculpted walls.
Though a vast chamber with angles and nooks, all was lit by a single, central pedestal upon a short dais. A thick plate rested on top of the pedestal, making the whole appear like a kind of stone lectern. Crystals, spheres, orbs, dials and levers worked into the top of the plate glowed with varying intensity and color.
Into the chamber from the creaking gate strode a warrior clad in pieces of silvery plate armor that bounced off her substantial shoulders and thighs. Feathered strips of metal decorating her helm reflected the pedestal’s glow. A broad sword swung at her hip and she gripped the oaken shaft of a barbed spear to her breast plate.
A gray-bearded man with fingers groping the gate for its locomotive secrets until his mind followed his body into the room and groped it for its wonders, entered just behind the warrior. He wore a wizard’s cloak with shortened sleeves revealing steel armbands with radiant red lettering revolving around them like flaming comets about a metallic, cylindrical planet.
After him came a man of deep serenity. The aba cloak loosely draped over his wiry frame ended just below his knees, revealing sinewy calves and naked feet hovering an inch above the ground with each step. The golden, translucent swirling disk around this holy man’s forehead singing out a calming whir, cast to the group about him an intensifying aura of repose.
At some point a fourth member slipped into the room, not because stealth was needed, but rather it came as natural to him as breathing. Masked and dressed in a form-fitting body suit of layered protective materials camouflaged in blacks, browns and deep grays with an almost hilt-less rapier strapped to his body, this thief by profession padded upon soft-soled shoes along a sort of balustrade created by the irregular rock on the lip of the ledge before it dipped down to the stairs leading to the floor below.
All four adventurers locked upon the dazzling central pedestal with a single-minded determination and only spoke when standing about it in a circle.
“First the lever, there.” The wizard pointed and the other three agreed in unison. “Then a full twist to the crimson crystal and a half turn of the cyan sphere.”
“The cyan crystal, I believe you mean,” said the holy man.
“No. I am certain of the crystals and spheres. I noted the potential for confusion and so I committed them to memory immediately.”
“Yes, and you forgot about pressing the opal orb.”
“Damn, so I have.”
“Which is cyan?” This from the thief, a man more clever with his hands than his head.
“The blue one,” answered the wizard.
“Which is the blue one?”
“This one with the aquamarine tint.”
“Not this one?”
“That one’s closer to emerald.”
“Olive in every way, I should say,” put in the holy man.
“It’s clearly a deeper green.”
“I think you will find it’s dependent upon the angle from which it’s observed.”
All four crowded to one side and leaned back, tilting their lowered heads to one side.
“Yes,” the wizard grumbled. “I see what you mean. Still, the aquamarine is a truer blue to my eye.”
“If you believe it to be so, I will not argue.”
When all was said and done, only one of them remained unconvinced, but with the majority against him and the door they entered slamming closed, it was decided to go ahead with the twisting, turning and pressing. Instantly a loud cranking of gears clanked and the grinding of stone rolling rumbled through out the chamber.
They all turned to watch a massive iron-bound door on the ground level slide slowly open. At first they approached it in the confident way they’d entered the chamber, but caution halted their steps as each came to the same conclusion.
“I expected a portal. Something more, I don’t know, magical,” said the warrior standing before the gaping mouth of a newly revealed tunnel, “not a normal old door.”
“Yes, that’s what…what is that sound?” the holy man wondered at a boom like distant thunder from deep down the tunnel. The boom repeated and again, but closer, then louder and faster until it was almost upon them. The warrior whipped back her spear, hurled it into the tunnel and drew her sword. A green gleam from the blade encompassed her body as she arched for a vicious thrust and then was gone.
Out of the tunnel shot an all-mouth monster. That’s how it seemed from the vantage point of the other three left in slack-jawed astonishment. Like a rotund fish with legs, this gargantuan shook the chamber floor as it slammed to a stop on its stunted-though-powerful appendages, the spiny dorsal crest running down the entire length of its back contracting while it reared and gulped down its meal, a prelude to the main course, so they assumed by the size of the thing.
“A giant spinolacerta,” cried the wizard in an awed gasp that rose higher at the sight of a human-sized bulge along the monster’s ivory throat and the warrior’s glowing sword ripping through the canvas-like skin. For a moment the spinolacerta appeared just as awestruck as the onlookers. Then the massive muscles of its throat contracted with a resounding crunch of metal and bone being crushed as simply as eating a shrimp shell and all. A final jugular choke cleared the meal.
The black skin along its flank glistened an oily rainbow when it turned on the most noticeable of the remaining three adventurers. The hovering holy man stood before them, tall and brave as the warrior had done. The spinolacerta spread its mouth wide, folding it out like lipped bat’s wings decorated with clusters of jagged teeth in each corner and mashing rows along the ridges of the jaws. The mouth descended and was knocked back by a torrent of water sprayed from the holy man’s raised palms. The monster coughed and retched and the adventurers looked hopeful, even while backing away in search of better defensive positions.
As the monster recovered, the holy man called to his god to bless him with the power to repeat the water miracle, but a belch of such intense heat from the monster evaporated the water in mid-air and melted the skin off the man’s arms, torso and face. A dying shriek escaped him and he collapsed in a heap.
The thief ran to the nearest exit and pried at the edges of a handle-less door. Behind him, the monster’s webbed claws slapped and scratched across the chamber floor. Too slow to escape, the wizard smacked together his armbands just as the spinolacerta rushed him and bit down with its massive mouth. The old man fell to one knee, cringed under the expected impact, and watched the monster’s jaws snapping at the air about him. Again and again it bit at him, but to no effect. Frustrated, it gouged and gnawed at the space between them, unable to breach the invisible dome around the wizard. Its claws ripped and its tail whacked at the untouchable man. Only the fleeing footsteps of the thief stopped the onslaught and drew the monster away from its prey. With one eye on the deadly chase, the old man dug out crystals from a hidden pocket within his cloak and blew across them as he held them aloft. From the crystals a hail of ice and freezing wind spouted out in a furious cyclone that struck the monster from behind, coating its tail. At the shock of the rear attack, the monster spun around and inadvertently snapped off its own tail, leaving the end stuck to the floor.
In the midst of the spinolacerta’s pained twitching and angry hissing, the thief took off for the pedestal, hoping to manipulate the knobs and levers and open one of the doors, he didn’t care which or where it led. Anywhere would be better than this.
The wizard threw off his metal armbands to prepare another spell, drawing from his sleeve an amber rod. He raised it in his hands and muttered an incantation as the monster regained its senses and came crashing across the room. With a final word and a whip of the wrist, a bolt of lightning shot from the rod, flew at the beast, but arched away for a copper plated door, electrifying it in a dazzling web of electricity. The spinolacerta lumbered towards him, but veered away and snatched at the thief, who sensed the danger and leapt straight up to elude the deadly jaws. The extraordinarily wide mouth clamped down on a foot and whipped the thief’s body around like a ragdoll, dashing him against the wizard where he crouched hurriedly putting on his armbands. The blow knocked him down and another thrashing swing brought the two adventurers together with a sickening head to head crack and splash. The fight gone from his prey, the monster snatched up all three lifeless bodies and disappeared back into the tunnel from which it came. Crunching echoed out into the chamber until the door eventually closed and silence descended once again.
“So, now we know what not to do,” said a short, pudgy man buried in a billowy robe as he and three others peered over the edge of the balustrade to the bloody floor below. He led the others down to the pedestal with an irrepressible shuffle and an eager grin at the glowing crystals. Ever since magic had been outlawed in the city where he once studied, Daniel Goldsmith took a particular delight in getting his hands on the stuff in any form it took.
Next came a wall of muscle they called Nate. He wore a chainmail shirt, a piece of armor new to him and on loan. Other than that, his most prized possession was a rather plain but sturdy sword with a deep notch down by the loose hilt. By his side slithered Elle, a lithe, angular woman with an eye for danger and a dangerous eye. Their priest friend Will, who’d saved all of their lives at some point in their wide and wild travels, took up the rear due to a slower and more deliberate pace than the others, but also because of a giving nature that would not permit him to put himself before anyone else, quite literally at times.
They all stood at the pedestal just as their predecessors had done, but when they were done manipulating the knobs and levers, quite carefully, a different door opened than the one that let in the giant lizard. This one opened from the center and spiraled out like a tornado uncoiling. Passing through it and beyond felt to the adventurers much like traveling through any dark, downward sloping tunnel, except that when it turned steeper their steps sped up faster than they could control, the floor dissolved beneath their feet and they free-fell through a darkness that morphed into a white-blue blaze of light.
Before they had a chance to adapt, they found themselves by a steel-gray obelisk with crimson marbling sitting in a cloud-engulfed and overgrown meadow high in green mountains. Regardless of the pleasantly sunny day and protection from strong winds provided by a shallow dale, a dazed Will swayed like a tree in a gale while he tried to get his bearings. Bug-eyed and pale, Elle crouched with her arms spread wide for balance. On his hands and knees away from the rest, Nate puked like a bear after a heavy binge on bad garbage. When his inner turmoil finally passed, he sat back, turned to one side and spat out the last of the chunky bile.
“I’d rather mate the wrong way around with an angry beaver, than go through that again.”
“Listen to you. So much drama for such a little thing,” said Daniel from a reclined position upon the most comfortable rock in the area.
“A little thing? If you call getting thrown across the world in the blink of an eye ‘a little thing,’ I don’t want to know what a big thing feels like.”
On a muggy, late afternoon a week later the four adventurers returned along a white sand beach to the foot of the mountains with a few more bumps and bruises than they arrived with, but also more treasure. Nate hauled an awkward gold statue over a shoulder as well as a pack of coins and jewelry strapped to his back. Elle had the lightest, but most valuable item, a pouch of gems. The other two carried their share of the load, yet despite his burden, Daniel managed to keep an eye on Elle’s pouch.
“As much as I want to get back and stow this stuff in a safe place,” said Daniel wiping away the sweat rolling over his flushed cheeks, “there is no way we will reach the portal tonight.”
“You’re tired?” Nate liked to prod Daniel now and then. They were cousins and he meant no harm, only fun. Daniel did not understand Nate’s notion of fun.
“No, merely practical. We should make camp here for the night.”
“I won’t sleep on sand with the crawling and biting things,” said Elle. Her people lived amongst the trees, but she preferred the more comfortable city life she’d become accustomed to after being separated from her family at an early age.
“No need. Do none of you remember the shelter we passed on the way down the mountain?”
“Of course, everyone remembers it,” said Nate, who’d forgotten all about it, but hoped to nip Daniel’s self-satisfaction in the bud before it had a chance to blossom, “so go on, lead the way.”
Behind the beach and beyond a stretch of dunes into a land of sandy soil and clumped weeds where palms sprouted from the low scrub, Daniel guided them to a simple and quite small hut of branches and palm leaves.
“I’ll be quite content sleeping under the stars,” said Will upon realizing they wouldn’t all fit inside.
“If it rains,” said Nate, “you’ll get wet.”
Will smiled to see his gruff and bulky friend turn motherly.
“Cousin,” Daniel began, his exhaustion feeding his annoyance with the both of them, “you have a grating way of stating the superfluous.” Nate swelled within at the perceived compliments ‘great’ and ‘super’. Daniel turned to Will. “It is going to rain. It has rained every night we have been on these wretched islands so far and I see no reason for the weather to change its ways.”
“A little rain never hurt anyone.” Will’s pleasant tone trailed after him to a manchineel tree not more than a hundred feet away where he made his bed upon the sandy ground under the branches.
After Daniel and Elle crawled into the hut and got as comfortable as they could, Nate climbed in and lay down with his feet out the door, the only position in which he was able to get most of his body inside.
In the morning, Nate moaned and stretched himself awake and found Elle crawling over his body.
“It’d be nice if every day started like this.”
“Shut up. Listen,” she hissed. An agonized groaning not far off drifted to them above the crashing surf over the dunes.
“Wake up!” Nate shook Daniel. “Something’s out there.”
“Yes, yes,” grumbled the wizard, “Will is out there. Or had you forgotten?”
All three pushed, shoved and fell over one another until they were all out of the tiny hut. They ran with squishing steps across ground still damp from the night before to where their friend lay under the tree. Daniel’s cry caught in his throat, Elle clapped a hand over her mouth, but Nate found words.
“Are you all right?”
If Will’s blistered skin and red swollen eyes weren’t answer enough, volumes were spoken in his writhing legs and the desperate way his fingers dug at the sand in search of relief or anything comforting to hold on to.
“What happened?” Nate asked hovering over Will and looking him up and down with undisguised horror.
“It seems the evening air about these parts is somewhat disagreeable.” Will’s jest mixed with a tremble of pain as he tried to smile. A sickly pallor cast over the little of his skin that wasn’t yellow with puss around red, bursting sores. He moved slowly, if at all. How he’d sustained the injuries, he couldn’t explain and none of them had the foggiest idea.
“Take my hand,” said Nate and felt his eyes cloud when his friend waved about blindly for the proffered hand, only to clutch it to his chest once he’d found it.
“I can’t see.”
“I don’t know. It hurts to open my eyes, but I think I’m going blind.”
While Nate and Elle attended to Will, Daniel examined the manchineel tree, prodding the branches and poking at the leaves with the tip of his dagger.
“If this is the tree I think it may be,” and his resigned voice said his was fairly certain, “it is highly toxic. Its fruit makes a fine diuretic. I have heard tell of one potion so potent as to force all water from the body. A devilishly clever form of murder! The name is beyond pronouncing, even if I could recall it, but it translates to ‘the little apple of death.’ This, of course, is a misnomer as the tree, including all of its part, do not cause death so much as blindness,” he waved a hand at Will to underscore his point, “or like injuries.” He plunged the tip his dagger into a drip of watery white sap and squinted as he leaned in for a closer look. “The excretions must disperse more readily in the rain.” Nate dragged Will out from under the tree and carried him to the hut. Daniel didn’t notice the grunting. He just went on with his close study of the tree.
“Danny,” called Nate after emerging from the shelter where he’d installed Will as comfortably as could be, “come with me. I need your help.”
“Why? Whatever could you need my help for?”
“Just come.” He took Daniel by the arm as they came together and drew him away in the direction of the distant crashing surf, calling over his shoulder to Elle, “Watch after him. We’ll be real quick.”
Though she found affection mostly foreign and cared for few more than herself, Elle knelt by Will and caressed him where she could without hurting him. It amounted to a gentle pat upon a shin, but it took the edge from Will’s groans.
“That’s great you know so much about this poison tree and all,” Nate said facing up with Daniel upon the dunes, “but how’s that help Will? What are we going to do for him? There’s got to be something, anything we can do!”
“There is nothing I can do for him.”
“Nothing.” As smart as Daniel was, it was Will who performed the miracles of healing for the group. Nate folded his arms and ruminated while kicking at the sand. “Think as long and hard as you like, the matter remains the same.”
“Well, what about this. Maybe he could fix himself?”
“I know that he can, but this? Have you ever known him to cure blindness?”
Hours passed during which Will grew listless. Whether tired from being up half the night or whether from some effect of the poison, they didn’t know, nor did they dare wake him to find out.
Nate was on his way back from hunting up whatever edible crustaceans could be found under the seaweed beds and Daniel sat by a meager nest of partially charred sticks, his fumbling attempts at lighting a fire with magic, when Elle called excitedly to them.
“Come! Come fast! Now!” She leapt about by the doorway of the hut, beckoning to them until they were by her side, and ushered them to the doorway. “Hush now! Listen.” She crawled in and squatted by Will’s head. His scarred lips parted and a few mumbled words tumbled out
“Tears of the ancient. Tears of the ancient.”
“What does it mean?” Elle asked plucking at Daniel’s sleeve and drawing him stumbling into the hut.
“Wait now, hold on, give me a moment and let me think. I’m not some stone-skulled barbarian who rushes into action. So very annoying!” He found their pestering counterproductive and little else irritated him more than feeling his time was being wasted. Distractions made one liable to make mistakes, so a former master of his used to say. Flustered wouldn’t be the word he used, but flustered he was by their demands upon his intellect. “The burden of genius,” he muttered, brushing Elle’s hand away and pushing by Nate on his way out of the hut.
“Why won’t he do nothing?” Elle begged of Nate.
“Give him time. See?” He pointed to where Daniel was pacing about in front of the manchineel tree. “He’s thinking.”
Nate had faith in his cousin. “Finest brain on the market!” he’d declared of him more than once when Daniel wasn’t within earshot. Indeed Daniel did come back to the hut quite soon, but his long face foretold bad news.
“He has given us the answer, but there is little too no hope. To enact the healing prayer to cure blindness, he needs fluid from the tear duct of a dragon.”
“A dragon?” Nate’s mountainous shoulders collapsed.
“Yes or, I suppose, any similarly ancient reptile.”
“Prefect!” Nate grabbed Daniel by the shoulders and beamed into his face as he throttled him.
“Perfect? I see nothing perfect about it.”
“We can get it from that big old lizard thing back at the portal room!”
“Simple as that? You are simply mad.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t think of it!”
“I did, but I disregarded the thought, because it is frankly absurd. You saw what the creature did to those people!”
Nate didn’t stick around to discuss it further. His strength did not lie in discussion. Compared to his cousin, he was the hasty barbarian.
“Keep him calm and comfortable,” said Nate to Daniel as he and Elle got ready to hike up the mountain.
“Fast as you can!” Daniel shouted at their backs as they disappeared into the vines and sail-like leaves of the overgrown lowlands. “Temporary blindness could become permanent!”
“I said keep him calm! Calm!”
Sweaty and muscle-worn from the climb, as well as wobbly from being teleported, Nate and Elle stood at the pedestal in the chamber of portals doing their best to suppress their nerves and remember the sequence Daniel had them memorize. The problem was that Nate and Elle had the worst memories out of the four of them. If Daniel was in better shape and fleeter of foot, he would’ve come himself, but speed was vital and it would’ve taken him twice as long to ascend the mountain. The heat of the day being as oppressive as it was, there was every chance he might not have made it at all.
“Don’t rush me,” Nate snapped, running through the progression Daniel had drilling into his mind.
“If you don’t hurry, his eyes will die!” When she got nervous, Elle lost her mastery of the language’s turns of phrase and sometimes lapsed into her old, mother tongue. She fretted now more than she ever did. She’d known Will longer than them all, had a kind of kinship with him, and hated the thought of anything bad happening to him.
“I’m trying to remember!”
“Move the things!” She reached for a crystal knob and Nate slapped her hand aside.
“Stop!” He gripped the sides of the pedestal and stared hard at the board of levers and switches. While praying for guidance, he steadily began the progression, hoped for the best and unleashed the worst.
Loud cranking gears and grinding stone clanked and rumbled through out the chamber. The massive iron door from which the giant spinolacerta had emerged to destroy the valiant adventures slid open and Nate had to fight back the shakes from racking his body. The door stopped and the noise died away. Nothing could be heard or seen and no monster came barreling out of the long, dark tunnel. Nate put a finger to his lips, though he didn’t look around to see that Elle had already disappeared. He concentrated on the enormous black void in the wall before him, tip-toeing up to it and laying a supporting hand against one side of the opening, while tilting his head and putting his other hand to his ear. There was always the possibility the creature was gone or dead, he considered inclining his head the other way, as if his left ear might hear something the right did not. It was anyone’s guess what was down in that impenetrable darkness. Eventually he gave up and breathed a relieved and yet defeated sigh.
“I don’t hear nothing,” he said turning his back to the tunnel and scanning about the chamber for Elle. “Where’d you go?” He froze and then stumbled back around to face the tunnel as earth-quaking shudders shook the ground. “Run!” He dove out of the way just as the rock from the side of the tunnel smashed into the chamber and the huge lizard exploded into the room.
Nate leapt over the shattered boulders strewn about the floor, making for the nearest stairs. The monster lunged for him and smashed the steps at his feet right as he jumped to the second level. Only the narrow width of the stairs prevented the thing from climbing after him. Rearing back on its hind legs and clawing at the walls, the spinolacerta ripped apart stalagmites, tearing down rock chunks that smashed on the chamber floor. Nate backed against one of the doors, but the flying debris sent him ducking and dodging along the balustrade calling out, “Hurry up!”
Elle dashed out from behind the pedestal, running up the monster’s stunted tail and along its back, gripping on to its spiny crest even as it chased after Nate and trapped him in a corner of the chamber. One of its flippered feet tripped on a rolling boulder. It steadied itself for a lunge at its prey, but one of its domed eyes caught sight of Elle and swiveled backwards in time to see her hop on to its head and jab a wadded up sack into its eye socket. It flailed its head about. Elle clapped on to its stubby horns and held on with the tips of her fingers. The monster’s short arms couldn’t reach, so it licked at the eye with its long tongue, dousing Elle as well and then slapping her off its head. She fell to the floor at the monster’s feet and somersaulted away as it wheeled around and snatched at her. Its huge mouth opened wide for an all-consuming gulp, but Nate leapt from the destroyed ledge bellowing like a man possessed and drove his sword into its flank. While the monster reeled away toward Elle, she scurried under its belly to the far side of the room and blended chameleon-like amongst the rocks.
Nate regained his footing and took off into the monster’s tunnel. The spinolacerta went after him. Distant, undistinguishable noises echoed out of the mouth of the tunnel. A howl distinctly from Nate and the silence that followed compelled Elle to leave her hiding place and inch closer to the tunnel.
“Nate,” barely broke from her lips. The footsteps of the monster thundered up from the tunnel again and Elle backed away. “Nate?” The great door grinded into action, closing before her. “Nate!” she shouted down the tunnel. Either the door would shut or the monster would come barreling through it. The ground shook. Halfway closed, it became obvious that the monster couldn’t fit through such a narrow gap, but it might bash through, Elle feared and turned to run for the pedestal. It might be too late for Nate, but she had to get the other portal open or she’d be the monster’s next meal and Will would be doomed to a life of blindness. She froze in front of the panel of levers and knobs, unable to remember the progression that opened the portal to her friends. The door slammed shut behind her. A resounding crash that could only have been the monster hitting the other side shook the room and then Nate slid by her across the floor. Sweating and chest heaving, he sprawled out on his back.
“You got it?” Nate gasped out.
“I got it!” Elle held aloft the sack soaked with Will’s salvation, the tears of the ancient.
Travel to new lands and visit old souls in Tears of the Ancient and Other Stories, a collection of short stories filled with demons and dragons*, betrayal and tomfoolery, a whipsmart goblin and a comedic mushroom! * It's more like an oversized lizard, if we're being honest.