Short Extra: Mama Comforts Graenas

(Author’s Note:  This short story is not a part of the main story, but occurs approximately seven years before the main story begins.)

SewingKitEleanor Taylor had just put the final pin in place to mark the hemline for the dress she was making for Mirna Stewart when she heard the commotion outside. She thought she heard Graenas’s voice protesting.  “Would you excuse me for just a moment, Mirna dear?” she said, then stepped out the front door of her small home.  Sure enough, there was her thirteen year old son resisting the adult woman who was dragging him toward her.  “Would you mind telling me what you’re doing practically dragging my son around, Clara Baumhauer?”

The other woman let go of the boy’s arm and straightened herself. “I caught your devil of a son beating the crap out of my Steffan, Eleanor! I thought you might like to know so you can decide whether you should do something about it!”

Graenas ran to his mother and clung to her side. Eleanor reached out and gently touched the bruise that was already turning purple beneath his left eye. “It would seem to me that it was not a one-sided fight, Clara. And don’t think I haven’t noticed that your own son isn’t present for me to assess his injuries.” She forced herself not to smile as the other woman huffed indignantly.

“Do you plan on doing something about your child or not?” Clara demanded.

“Indeed.  I plan to help him get washed up and apply an ointment to his eye and any other cuts or bruises I might find. Then I will talk to him about what happened and discuss how he should behave around other children, regardless of how they treat him. And I will talk to him frankly about what I think of grown women who demean him and call him a devil in his presence and how he deserves better than that.”

“Well, I never!’

“I wouldn’t know. But I will tell you now that it would be better for you if you never talk to or about either of my children that way again. Unless you want to mend all of your family’s clothes yourself or travel to the city to have it done.”

Clara clenched and unclenched her fists at her sides multiple times. Eleanor simply looked on, knowing she simply had to maintain her resolve. “Fine! But I mean it! You better have words with your child about fighting.”

“I will have the exact same conversation with him that I’d expect you to have with Steffan. Good day, Clara.” With that, she put her arm around her son and guided him into their home. She glanced at Mirna, who was still standing there in her unfinished dress, then spoke to Graenas. “Why don’t you rinse that bruise with some cold water in my bedroom. I’ll be with you in just a moment.” As he disappeared, she turned her attention back to her customer. “I’m terribly sorry about that Mirna. I think we’re done for today.  Let me help you out of the dress so you don’t poke yourself with a pin.”

“Thank you Eleanor,” Mirna said as she waited for the seamstress to undo the clasps on the back of the dress. “I imagine that it must be difficult raising such…different children in a village like this.” She paused, then quickly added. “Because of the way people treat them, that is!”

Eleanor sighed. “No, there’s still a lot of prejudice toward half-elves among a lot of humans, I fear.”

“Have you ever considered moving to the city? I would think they might find a bit more acceptance there, given all the different races that spend time there. Plus, I’d think it’d mean more business for someone as skilled as you.”

“Oh heavens no. My customers need me here. Besides, Urizenya and Graenas would see their father even less than they already do if we moved to the city.” She paused as she helped Mirna step out of the dress, then continued as she began to spread it out on a table. “Besides, Graenas really does have a mischievous side and I worry that he’d manage to wind up in real trouble in the city.”

Mirna finished putting on the clothes she arrived in. “I suppose that’s true. Anyway, what do I owe you today?”

“Two gold pieces if you have them.”

Mirna looked crest-fallen. “I’m afraid I only have one today.”

Eleanor nodded. “If you can spare it, I’ll take it.” She took the coin as Mirna handed it over. “That makes your outstanding balance six gold pieces. You can bring that when you come back for the dress. I should have it ready in–” She glanced around the room at the various projects she had in progress. “–two weeks.”

“I’ll see you then. Thank you Eleanor.”

“Thank you for your business. You’ve always been a good customer. And something of a friend.” The two women hugged and Mirna left. Eleanor took a few deep breaths, collected her thoughts, and went to her bedroom to find her son. Graenas was sitting at her vanity, studying the bruise beneath his eye in the mirror. “It looks like it’s going to be quite the shiner for a few days,” she said as she sat at the foot of the bed, just a couple feet from where he was perched.”

“Am I in trouble?” he asked without turning to look at her.

“Not as much trouble as when you were exchanging punches, I imagine. So do you want to talk about what happened?” She reached for the small jar of ointment on the corner of the vanity and he turned to face her.

“Well, Steffan called me a name and punched me. So I jumped on him, knocked him to the ground, and started hitting him in the chest.”

Eleanor nodded and considered what question to ask him first. “Just so I get a full picture, were you doing anything before he hit you?”

Graenas shifted a little and lowered his eyes. Quietly, he said, “Well, I was trying to kiss him.” Eleanor nodded, already guessing the name the other boy had called him.

“So why did you try to kiss him?”

“Well, I was curious what it would be like to kiss him. I mean, he and all the other guys are constantly going on about kissing various girls. Especially Uri.”

“You realize she’s going to threaten to make your right eye match the left one if she hears you call her that, right?”

He grinned impishly at that. “Okay, Urizenya. But was it wrong to try kissing him?”

Eleanor again chose her words as carefully as if she were threading her smallest needle. “Well, you should have asked him if it was okay first. I mean, most boys prefer to kiss girls rather than other boys.”

“Is that why he called me a…I think the word he used was fa–”

Eleanor cut her son off. “Yes. And that was a very cruel thing for him to say. Just as cruel as his mother calling you a devil. You should never call anyone either of those names. Unless you’re actually talking about a literal devil.” Graenas stifled a giggle.

“But that other word means a boy who likes kissing other boys?”

Eleanor began to wonder if there was some wisdom to Mirna’s suggestion. At the very least, it seemed like it might be a good idea to take Graenas to Albion City every now and then so he can get to see different people and the diverse relationships they form. “Yes. They also fall in love with other boys.”

“Like how you and Father fell in love?”

“Yes, just like that.”

“But what if I fall in love with a boy that doesn’t like kissing other boys?”

“Well, then you cry for a bit and then try to find someone else to love. Someone who can and will love you back.”  She finished tending his bruise and said, “I need to go work on Mirna’s dress.  Would you like to help?”

Graenas grinned. “Oh can I? I’ve been practicing my stitches, just like you showed me!”

Eleanor nodded and led her son back out into the front room that served as both a family sitting room and her work shop. She knew it would give him something to focus on and soothe him. “Why don’t you work on the bottom hem? I need to fix the bodice a bit.”

“Yes Mama,” he said as he walked over to the spools of thread. He carefully sorted through them for a couple minutes before returning with one. She beamed with pride as she noted how closely its color matched the garment he’d be working on. He threaded his needle and began to work. She followed suit, gently humming one of his favorite songs as they worked side be side.

After a few moments, he broke the near-silence. “I don’t think I should’ve jumped on him like that. I did it because I was hurt and angry, but I don’t think it was right. I mean, he punched me once. I pummeled him several times.”

“What do you suppose you could have done instead?” she asked, her needle never stopping.

He thought about it, “I could have tried getting away from him.”

“That would have been a good idea.  Assuming he didn’t chase after you to keep hitting you.” She placed her hand on his, taking care not to jab him or herself with a needle. “Remember. He was wrong to hit you too. Don’t forget that.”

“Even though I shouldn’t have tried kissing him?”

“Yes. That was another bad choice on your part. And he had every right to be upset. But he still shouldn’t have hit you or called you that name.”

“Thank you Mama.”

“You’re welcome. So, what have you learned?”

“I shoudn’t let my anger get the better of me.”

“And?”

“Always ask a boy if I can kiss him first.”

“Good boy.”

“Just…do I have to wait for an answer?” he said, an impish grin on his face.

“You are your father’s son, you little smartass. Do you really need me to answer that question?”

“No Mama. I know now I have to wait for their answer and respect it. Even if it’s a no.” He sat there for a few moments, staring at his handiwork. “You know, the way the boys talk about kissing girls, I don’t think they ask the girls if they want to be kissed first.”

“I suspect you’re right.”

“That isn’t right either, is it?”

“No, it’s not. Have you ever heard your sister complain about stupid boys who won’t leave her alone?”

“Yeah. Is that because they do that kind of stuff to her?”

” A lot of times, yes.”

“Wow, they’re lucky she doesn’t haul off and punch them. She punches hard.”

Eleanor laughed, thinking of the conversations she’s had with parents who were angry about how hard their sons had been punched by Urizenya. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

After a few more moments, Graenas said, “Mama?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever been so angry that you had to resist the urge to hit someone?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Who?”

She didn’t answer for a long time. “Most recently, Clara Baumhauer.” Graenas hugged her and the two went back to working on Mirna’s dress, humming Graenas’s favorite song in unison.

 

Short Extra: Urizenya and Aurora

(Note:  This post is not part of the main story, but takes place roughly six years before it begins. Enjoy and feel free to leave your feedback in the comments!)

Urizenya dashed past the last few remaining hovels in the outskirts of Shadeville and toward the Whispering Forest. She could hear the shouts of the boys behind her.  “Come on, pretty elf girl! We just want to kiss you!”

“Maybe caress your skin a bit, too!” Their calls strengthened her resolve and she redoubled her efforts, pouring more strength into her already tired legs.  She moved from tree to tree, hoping to make it harder for her pursuers to spot her. Soon, she found she could run no further and leaned against a spruce tree to catch her breath.  She could still hear their calls — some of them getting more obscene about their intentions as time went by — but many of the voices seemed much fainter now, as if she had put enough distance between them.

“Stupid human boys,” she muttered to herself. “Why can’t they chase after my brother like this? He’s the one that so desperately wants their attention.”  After a few more minutes, she crept further into the forest, going more slowly in order to hide her presence.  She found a fallen log near the stream several hundred feet into the forest and sat on it.  She pulled off her pack to see what snacks her human mother might have prepared for her. She pulled out a bit of cheese and rabbit meat and began to pick it apart, eating it quickly. She jumped in surprise when a hand grabbed her left shoulder. “Aha! I knew I could track her!” a void gloated. Uri turned to find fifteen year old Jacob Hirsch standing immediately behind her. His usual buddies, Edmund, Simon, and Hektor approached from several feet away.

Jacob said, “Now seriously, little elf girl. Why did you have to make us chase you like that? Don’t you want to play with with us?” Simon leered at her when Jacob said “play” and Hektor chuckled.

Urizenya bristled. She was only a year younger than Jacob and was actually a year Edmund’s senior. She found their constant taunts of “little girl” infuriating. “No, I don’t want to play with you. You’re a nasty bunch. And quit calling me ‘elf.’ I’m half human, you know.”

“Like my pa says, half a human is no human at all,” Hektor snickered.

“Really. You should be flattered we take any interest in you at all,” Jacob said as he caressed her right cheek.

Urizenya flinched, then brought her fist up to connect with the boy’s nose. Jacob screeched in pain and she turned to run, but Simon tackled her to the ground. “You’re going to pay for that, you little whore!” Jacob snarled as he picked up a nearby stick and approached where she lay.  He raised it overhead and was about to bring it down on her when he suddenly heard a snarling sound.  He paused for just a second and went to turn to his right when a large furry shape crashed directly into him. Urizenya blinked as the scene before her registered in her brain. A dire wolf had pounced on Jacob and was now clenching the boy’s wrist between its teeth.  The boy screamed and all the other boys backed away.  After a moment, the beast released Jacob’s wrist and got off him.  The boy immediately scuttled several feet backward.  The wolf snarled, and all four of Urizenya’s attackers fled, almost tripping over one another in their haste to escape.

Urizenya remained on the ground, watching this giant wolf, who now stared back at her. “If you can understand me, I’d like to thank you,” Urizenya said, shifting a bit uncomfortably.  She wished her father or one of his fellow druids was here right now. She wondered if this beast in front of her was one of them in wild shape, but did not recognize them. “Besides, if you were one my father’s colleagues, I’d think you would have transformed back and introduced yourself by now.”

After another moment, the wolf approached Urizenya, it reached out and pawed at the girl’s left shoulder, leaving three shallow scratches. The wolf backed up a few feet and sat down. Urizenya tenderly touched the injury and said, “Ouch. That hurt.”

wolf-portrait-illustration
The picture is not mine. I found it in the public domain.

“Boys would hurt you more.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Urizenya blinked, realizing she had just understood the wolf’s guttural noises. “Wait, how can I understand you?”

“Want it. You stink of village. But smell…Lucan on you also.”

“He’s my father. You know him?”

“Know all druids here. Bless some too.”  With that, the wolf stood up and padded a few feet away and let out a long howl.” She waited a minute, standing perfectly still. A wolf howled in the distance. “Good. Lucan come.” With that, the wolf returned and sat in front of Urizenya again.

“Do you have a name?”

“Druids call me…Aurora.”

“What does your own kind call you?”

“Queen. Or mean names.  If we enemies.” Urizenya almost laughed. “Most don’t call mean names for long.”

“Because you become friends?”

“No. They quit talking.”

“Oh.” Urizenya shifted uncomfortably as the wolf’s full meaning came to her.

“Druid here,” Aurora said as she stood. Urizenya followed the wolf’s eyes. A tall elf in green and grey leathers approached the pair. As he approached, he glanced briefly at Urizenya before bowing his head to the wolf.  “You called, Aurora, Queen of wolves?”

“Found girl. Boys attack her.  Saved her.”

“I thank you for that.”

“Saved her. Marked her.” The elf’s head shot back up and he raced to his daughter’s side. His eyes focused on the red marks on her shoulder. What little blood that had been flowing from the scratches had stopped by now.

“She is only fourteen!” Lucan said.

“That your law. Not mine. Marked her.”

“I understand. But you must understand, my circle will want to wait quite some time before inducting her into our order.”

“Silly rites. No care. But you train her.”

“I will teach her what I can in the meantime.”

“Good. When time right, bring her.”

“I will, gracious Aurora. Thank you for your blessing.”

“Bless the girl. Not you. You no thank.” Urizenya wrinkled her nose, confused by the smile that crept across her father’s face.

At that the wolf turned to Urizenya. “Talk later. Bless.”  With that, she turned and ran into the woods, quickly disappearing.

Urizenya sat there for a few moments. Finally she took her father’s hand and stood. “What just happened?”

“Think about what you just heard.  Relay the conversation back to me as best you can.”

“Well, you got here. Then Aurora- That is her name, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well she told you about the boys chasing me and attacking me. Then she said that she marked me, which you seemed to think i was too young for.”

“Go on,” he pressed.

“She said she didn’t care about that, I think. Then you said something about your circle wanting to wait-” her voice trailed off. She blinked a couple times as understanding began to roll over her. “So I am to become a druid now? Like you?”

Lucan nodded. “Aurora just blessed you, making herself your first animal guide, just as Sandor, the leader of the panthers, became my first animal guide. Though I will note that Sandor did not offer me his blessing until after I was inducted into my circle. Aurora’s choice to bless you before you even declared any intention to join our circle is…peculiar.”

“She made it sound like it was a done deal. Like I couldn’t say no to it. And neither could your circle reject me.”

Lucan sighed. “In a sense, it’s all true. Yes, you can still refuse to take up the druid path. But you cannot undo the claim that Aurora has made on your life. You will always have certain obligations to her, no matter what else you do.”

“I see.  And the druid circle?”

“Technically, the circle still has the right to accept or turn down anyone seeking to be inducted regardless of whether they have an animal blessing. I suspect brother Keldan will make much noise to that effect. But in the end, no one in their right mind is going to ignore Aurora in this matter, let alone go against her wishes.”

“Because she might go to war against you?”

“Oh, I doubt even she would go that far.  But she could certainly make it more difficult for us to perform our duties in this area. I don’t even want to think about the position those she’s blessed would find themselves in.  But that’s not the only reason it won’t come to that.”

Urizenya stood quietly, waiting for her father to continue. He appeared to be choosing his words carefully. “To be blunt, refusing to train you would be cruel. It is a great honor to receive a blessing from Aurora, but she can also be one of the more demanding animal guides, too.  To be honest, if she’s picked you, you’re probably going to need all the training you can get to handle whatever she might want of you.”

“So, will you train me? She seemed to expect that.”

“I’ll definitely teach you what I can before you officially join our circle.  I suspect I’ll at least be involved with your training after that, though other members of the circle might also participate to teach you those things I’m not as skilled in or knowledgeable about.  Then of course, there will be time you spend with Aurora and her clan.”

“When time right, bring her.” Urizenya said, remembering the wolf’s command. “That’s what she was talking about.

“Precisely. But now I must ask you. Are you sure that you want to walk this path?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“As I said, to a degree. But if you start down this path, you will have not only obligations to Aurora, but obligations to the circle and to the rest of the green world. You don’t have to take those particular obligations on if you don’t want to.”

“I see,” she said, then paused as she considered everything. “I’ve always been curious about your work, father.  The natural world fascinates me. And if it gets me away from those pushy, self-centered boys in the village, I’m all for it.”

“I’m not sure those are good reasons to choose this path if they are your only reasons.” Lucan looked at her almost expectantly. She searched her feelings, then searched for the words to express her deepest desires.

“I’m not sure how to explain it, but since she scratched me, I’ve felt like I’ve been changing.” She looked at her father whose expression was interested, but otherwise neutral.

“Go on,” he prompted.

“I feel like everything around us is more real.  And my sense of it is more intense.  Especially my sense of smell. I can smell what I’m pretty sure are blackberries fifty feet west of here. And the breeze against my skin stirs something deep inside of me.” She looked to her father, who merely nodded in encouragement. “I feel like I want to run through forest and explore every inch of it. Look in every hollowed out tree trunk. Check out every hole in the ground. Feel the earth beneath my feet. I feel there’s something I will find there.  I don’t know. Peace? Freedom? The thrill of living? All of that?”

Finally, Lucan broke his silence. “All of that.  And more. That is part of the blessing. Both the circle and your animal guides — you will gain more as you travel this path — will teach you to explore and embrace that. You will become bonded with the wild places in ways that no non-druid will ever know.”

“I want that. With every fiber of my being.”

“That is reason enough to take up this path. Provided you are willing to accept the responsibilities that come with it.”

“Gladly.”

“Very well. In that case, I think we should travel to the village and talk to your mother and brother. And you should pack a few things. You will be traveling with me for the next couple weeks.”

“So you can start teaching me?”

“Yes. And to spare you from trying to sleep in Shadeville the first night after receiving the blessing.  Even as close to the edge of the as village your mother’s house is, you might find it a bit too much for your newly heightened senses.” With that, he picked up her pack and helped her shoulder it.  The two of them turned toward the village and began walking, soon matching one another’s casual pace.

 

One Statue Down

I moved toward the giant spider and swung my sickles in an attempt to catch and damage its legs.  Graenas continued to tear at the spider with a necromancy spell, his eyes showing no signs of thought beyond a desire to kill this thing.  I heard Danny struggling to free himself behind us. It took him several seconds — not helped by the fact that the spider managed to catch him in more webbing at one point — but he finally broke free. As he rejoined our battle he swung his warhammer with precision and incredible force, connecting with the spider’s head.  The creature’s exoskeleton cracked loudly as its head caved in from the impact. The whole creature flopped to the ground and twitched briefly before becoming utterly still.

second_statue_dungeon_20180818
The dungeon of the second statue as explored so far.

I turned to my brother who was still lost in icy hatred.  I could feel the crackle of energy as he raised the power to lash out once again.  I strode to his side and placed a hand on one arm.  “Graenas?” I said softly and pleadingly.

He stood staring at the corpse for a second or two longer before finally blinking. He looked at me as more reasoned thoughts returned to him. “I’m here. Sorry about that.”

I nodded and hugged him. Danny shifted uncomfortably and began to look through a pile of various items in the room. I suspect he was discomfited by what he saw in my brother’s expression as well as our moment of tenderness. I could certainly understand being disturbed by my brother’s murderous trance-like focus.  It bothered me too. As for our sibling affection, well, the human would just have to learn to deal with that.

After a few moments, we joined our fighter companion in sifting through the pile. We found quite the horde of coins, a leather talisman, some perfumed candles — I could only imagine what use Graenas might find for those — a vial of perfume, a pewter rod which Graenas identified as an enchanter’s rod, a lute, a hunter’s cap, and an idol.  We took it all.

I watched as Graenas studied the idol for several seconds. It had the general shape of a man, though the legs were reptilian and the head was that of a wolf.  Also, the arms looked more like octopus tentacles. Finally, Graenas said, “it’s clearly some sort of demonic god, though I can’t identify him or anything about the worship of him.”

“Perhaps we can find out more later in Albion City,” I suggested.  Graenas nodded as he dropped the idol into his bag.

“Any idea how we get back out of here?” Danny asked.  He had barely finished his question when we felt the dizziness of being magically teleported. When the sensation passed, we were once again in the first room into the mine.  The four remaining boulders were still there.  The passageway we had opened to find the contraption was gone, however.  In its place was a small alcove with a beautifully crafted statue.

Graenas sighed and stepped toward it.  As he approached, a magical force appeared to cover the statue in a layer of Adamantine.  Graenas reached for the statue with his right hand.  As his hand approached the surface of the protective layer, it began to glow with an icy magic, surely another gift from his abominable patron.  His touch caused the protective layer to melt away and then caused the stone statue to shatter. Danny coughed and said, “‘Tis a shame to destroy such a thing of beauty.”

Graenas stepped back before replying, “I suppose it is. But until I’m in a position to fight back against Auril, I have to basically do her bidding.” Once more, I wondered just how far my brother would take that defense. I hoped there was still a line he wouldn’t cross no matter what, though I agreed that destroying these statues wasn’t an unforgivable offense. I might prefer Tatiana to her frigid sister, but I still wouldn’t call her a grand chum. Graenas pointed to the boulder immediately left of where the statue had been standing.  “Shall we get on with the next one?” Danny and I stood behind him and each grabbed a shoulder as he once again pushed through the boulder and led us into the swirling vortex behind it.

When our sense of reality solidified again, we found ourselves in a fifteen foot square room with a stone door in the west corner of the south wall.  In the opposite corner sat a destroyed siege weapon and in the southeast corner black and white tiles made up some sort of labyrinth pattern.  Graenas tried to open the door, only to find it was locked.  Danny and I went to investigate the siege machine while Graenas checked out the tile labyrinth for clues.

After a few minutes of looking, Danny and I figured out that while the machine was mostly unrecoverable, there was a battering ram that seemed to be in good shape.  “Do you think we can pull it free and use it on the door?” Danny asked.

“I think it’s worth a try,” I said.  We worked together to pull at the strong shaft of wood.  It took several attempts, but we eventually were able to pull it free.  We heard several connecting pins crack as our hard work finally paid off. “Graenas, are you ready to help us get this door open?”

“Just give me a few,” my brother replied distractedly. “The black tiles turn white when you touch them.  I’m trying to turn them all white to see if it reveals a message.  Or maybe it actually controls a labyrinth beyond the door.  It would be a lot easier if it was just one big empty room instead.”

“Not if it means that every monster in the labyrinth can see us all at once and gang up on us,” Danny muttered. I stifled a laugh. I could see both their points. “Anyway, no disrespect to your brother, but he doesn’t seem like the brute-force type.  I suspect you and I can manage this without him.”

I shrugged and followed the fighter to the door.  We held the battering ram between us and gave it a few practice swings.  Once we were satisfied we had our timing worked out, we begin to drive the ram into the door.  The door reverberated each time we hit it. After a couple hits, a crack formed in the door.  That crack grew each time we hit it.

After a few moments, we began to notice that the light in the room kept getting dimmer.  “Hey boy,” Danny said to Graenas.  “Stop what you’re doing.  I think changing the tiles is affecting the light.”  Graenas stopped.  We waited a couple minutes and the light level remained the same. Graenas abandoned his task and rejoined us.

Danny prepared to make another assault on the door when I waved him off. “Let’s see if we’ve caused enough damage to the latching mechanism.” I reached for the handle.  As I pulled, the door crumbled. We were now looking down a long hallway into the darkness.  A pair of glowing red eyes stared back at us from the darkness.  Graenas lit a torch.  The extra light was enough to let us know that the red eyes belonged to a ghoul that was charging toward us on all fours.  Graenas cursed and hit the advancing creature with an eldritch blast.  The creature faltered briefly, but then continued toward us.  Once it reached the doorway we were gathered around, Danny and I began to attack it.  After we each delivered a couple of blows, I managed to tear open the ghoul’s midsection with my sickles.  The ghoul stood in what might have been astonishment as its rotting entrails spilled to the ground. Then it collapsed.

I poked at the remains with my boot, disgusted. “That’s one less undead thing in the world. I will consider that a great service tot he natural order.” Danny grunted in what I assume was agreement. Graenas made no response.  We slowly made our way down the hallway, checking for traps.  After 125 feet, it finally ended at another stone doorway. This one seemed to be sealed around the edges with some sort of metallic substance.

Danny glanced back toward the room we had just left. “Perhaps we should go back for the battering ram.”

Graenas shook his head.  “The corridor’s too narrow.  I doubt the two of you could work it together effectively in such a tight space.” I nodded my agreement.

“Well then, let me see if I can push this thing in,” Danny said as he leaned all his weight into the door.  After a few seconds, we heard creaking and saw as the metallic sealant appeared to be losing its cohesiveness.  A few seconds later, the door collapsed and Danny stumbled forward. We followed him into what turned out to be another room fifteen feet by fifteen feet in size.  This one had two archways, one in the east corner of the north wall and another immediately south of the first.  There was another siege weapon in the room, this one even more destroyed than the last.  On the wall behind the siege machine, someone had inscribed the phrase “beneath the statue.”

A loud voice came from the archway in the north.  “Hey! Whoever is out there, turn out that light.” The three of us glanced at each other wondering how to respond when the voice continued, “Oh yeah. What’s the password?”

We again looked at one another, unsure what to do. I glanced at the inscription on the wall, but decided against it. While the drawl in the voice suggested we were dealing with someone rather unintelligent, I doubted they were stupid enough to write the password where any intruder could just read it.  Eventually an eight foot tall half-ogre walked into the room brandishing a battle axe.  “I said, ‘What’s the password?’ Now are you going to give it to me or do I have to smash your faces?”

After a moment, Graenas plastered a cheery smile across his face and stepped toward the beast. “Hey there! You must be the front door guard. The boss told us to expect you. ‘Great guard. Great at smashing faces of people who go snooping where they don’t belong,’ he said when he hired us. That was just this morning, in fact. But you see, here’s the thing. He was in such a hurry that he forgot to actually tell us the password before sending us on our way. Easy enough mistake to make. I’m sure you understand.” I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. My brother was insane, but if anyone could fast-talk us past this idiot guard, it was Graenas.  I decided that if he succeeded, I’d have to buy him something special. Maybe even treat him to a tavern visit myself.

“Uh? Which boss?” the half-ogre said, momentarily confused. I could see Greanas trying to figure out how to keep the ruse going. Unfortunately, the creature wasn’t quite stupid enough for our purposes. “Hey! You two are half-elves. I’m gonna have to smash your faces now!”

It was worth a shot, I thought to myself as I rushed forward with my sickles.  The half-ogre managed to catch me with a swing of his battle-axe and I flew through the air a few feet and landed hard on the floor.  I was blacking out fast. As consciousness faded, I heard Graenas shout, “That was my sister, you fucking bastard!”

When I eventually came to, Graenas was kneeling over me, with my medical kit in his hands.  “I thought we had lost you.” He said, the concern in his voice palpable.

“Me too,” I said, taking my kit back from him.  I spent a few minutes taking care of my wounds, as my brother’s clumsy attempts had merely stabilized me and allowed me to regain consciousness. I glanced at our companion, who looked like he had taken a nasty blow himself. “Let me patch you up, too,” I said. Danny came over and I cleansed, salved, and bound his wounds.

Once we were in a better state to continue, we followed the archway back the way the ogre had come from.  We found ourselves in another room which expanded twenty five feet to the north and fifteen to the east.  There was an iron door in the west corner of the north wall, a stone door in the north corner of the east wall, and an archway in the center of the east wall.  There was yet another ruined siege machine in the room.  Danny and I decided to check it out while Graenas investigated the doors and archway.

“Doesn’t look like there’s much use for anything here but some extra tinder,” Danny said.

“That may be useful for fires,” I offered.  The fighter nodded and we set to work salvaging what wood we could.

After several minutes, my brother rejoined us and gave us a report. “It sounds like there’s someone or something behind each door. I’m guessing whatever is behind the iron door is another ghoul or some other kind of undead creature.  I don’t think anything living would make the wheezing and moaning sounds I heard. Whoever is behind the stone door is intelligent enough to speak. I heard it talking to itself, though I couldn’t make out what it was saying.  As for the archway, there’s definitely another room that way, but I didn’t notice anything coming to investigate or patrol.”

Danny tore another piece of wood from the machine before saying, “So what do you recommend?”

Graenas thought for a moment. “I worry about intelligent enemies. I say we deal with whoever is behind the stone door so they can’t sneak up on us if we end up facing an onslaught of zombies from the north.

“Seems reasonable to me,” I said.  “It should only take us a few minutes to finish up here.  Of course, it’d go faster if you’d give us a hand.”

“And damage my perfectly manicured nails?” Graenas said, his face showing look of horror that I couldn’t be entirely sure was in jest. I just swatted at him and went back to work.

When we were done pulling apart the weapon, we went to the stone door.  I carefully reached out to open the door.  As I touched the handle, a rune flashed on the door.  I quickly leaped backward and tumbled across the floor to the opposite wall as a burst of energy was let loose.  I stood back up and dusted myself off to find both men lying on the floor.  A voice came from beyond the door “What happened? Who’s there?” I realized I was alone if the owner of that voice came to investigate.  I crept over to Danny and examined him. I sighed in relief as I confirmed he was alive and even conscious.  But he appeared to be paralyzed.

I silently thanked my father for convincing me to study herbalism as part of my training as I pulled out my herbalism kit. I took my time recalling and following the formula to make a tonic I knew would negate even most magical forms of paralysis.  It still took me a half dozen attempts to successfully make two doses.  I poured the first one down Danny’s throat, figuring that if I was interrupted, his warhammer would be better back-up that my brother’s magic. After I saw that the human was regaining the use of his limbs, I walked over to tend to my brother.  In minutes, they were both ready to go again.  Danny said, “That may have been the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.”  Graenas nodded as he returned to the door. Danny interrupted him, “Are we sure that the same thing won’t happen again?”

Graenas paused before answering.  “That was a rune-trap.  Usually, they dissipate once they’re sprung, just like a physical trap.  All the same, I’ll understand if you want to back up a bit.” The fighter grunted and backed up ten feet. I joined him. I trusted my brother’s judgment, but I wasn’t a gambler either. After all, if I was paralyzed this time, who would create the antidote?

Graenas carefully opened the door, only to be confronted by a gray-skinned gnome holding what looked like some sort of mechanical weapon. The gnome spoke quickly and harshly, “Who are you?  Speak fast or I’ll put a bolt clean through ya.”

I felt a tingling sensation as my brother began to exude some sort of fey power. He spoke kindly to the gnome. “Hello there.”

The gnome’s face went expressionless than took on a more welcoming looking. “You’re kinda pretty,” he said. I covered my mouth quickly. I prayed that Graenas would not be too tempted to look for the love — or whatever he frequently mistakes for love — he desperately wants in the middle of this dungeon. That would surely spell doom for us all.

Fortunately, Graenas managed to control himself as he continued to work his charms. “That’s so sweet of you, old friend.  Hey, can you tell me a bit about the guardians we might find here?”

The gnone blinked.  “Guardians?  What guardians?  What are you talking about.”

Graenas paused for a moment.  “Well, I suppose you don’t think of them like that.  Who else is down here, behind all these doors?”

“Oh, there’s all sorts of people and things down here,” the gnome replied almost cheerfully.  “There are a few ghouls and skeletons, the occasional cultist, and who knows what else.”

“And how can we find the main chamber of this complex?” my brother pressed.

At that, the gnome became more agitated.  “Hey, why are you are you asking all these questions.  Who are you again?”  Graenas seemed about to respond again when I stepped forward. It was clear to me that my brother was losing this gnome and I wanted prevent any more near-death experiences, I slashed at the gnome and his weapon in an attempt to disarm him. I was successful only in ending the conversation. “Hey! I’m going to have to kill you for that!”

Graenas groaned, “I know she can be annoying, but all of you need to quit trying to kill my sister.”  With that, he blasted the gnome with his power.  The gnome managed to get a couple shots off with his bolt-throwing machine.  One missed and the other seemed to suffer some sort of misfire. I began to suspect that the device was still too experimental to rely on in battle as I slashed at the gnome.

Danny quickly ended the battle with a swing of his warhammer that turned the gnome’s skull into a small explosion of bone fragments.  The rest of the body collapsed.  Graenas sighed, “I tried to keep this from turning violent.” I wasn’t sure whether he was regretting having to kill another sentient being or just preferred to avoid a direct physical confrontation. I comforted myself on the possibility that it could actually be both.

Graenas picked up and stowed the bolt-throwing device, then searched the body.  He found a small platinum key, and a parchment.  He held out the parchment for Danny and I to inspect.  On it was a drawing of a statue.   The drawing showed what looked like might be a a keyhole in the rear part of the base, and once again the words “beneath the statue” were written on the parchment. It seemed obvious that we now knew where to use the key.  We just had to find the statue.

 

Out of the Device Chamber and Into the Spiders’ Den

The human and I stood there for a a few moments after dispatching the previous round of rats as Graenas gathered up the handful of coins our attackers had left behind. “That was a nice workout, but I’m not sure it got us anywhere,” I said casually.

Danny nodded and said, “Perhaps it’s a timing thing.  What if we were to pull the levers at the exact same time?”

My brother joined us as he slid our latest gains into his bottomless magical pouch. “I think it’s worth a try.”  With that, he reached up to the lever on the left and turned his head to Danny.  “You call it and I’ll match time with you.”

Danny nodded and reached for the other lever before beginning his count. “One. Two.  Three.  Go!”  At that, both men pulled down their levers.  The levers made a clicking sound, then there was a sound like an inrush of wind coming from the ceiling.  I glanced up, but saw no ventilation shafts or any other openings.  We still seemed to be in a completely sealed, perfectly cubic room.  The levers returned to their resting places.

“Try that again,” I said.  “I want to watch the ceiling this time.”  I stilled my mind and put my sight and senses at their fullest alert as the fighter repeated his count.  I heard the sound of the levers once again being pulled and latching into place.  Once again, I heard the sound of in-rushing air, but saw nothing.  No door opened.  No other opening appeared.  No dust or other particle gave any indication of a source of new air entering the room. Despite the complex mechanical nature of the contraption, there appeared to be a highly magical aspect to it as well. I supposed this was to be expected, given the involvement of the fey.

“Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” Graenas said impatiently.  “I say we try the next position on the dial. I silently worried that my brother’s impatience would one day get him into deeper trouble than he already was in.  In this case, however, he was right. It was time to try something different. I nodded and turned the dial back to the previous direction indicator and watched as the numeric display reset to 2.  Graenas and Danny each took a lever and pulled on Danny’s mark.  We instantly heard the same fog horn sound and shuffling sounds behind us.  We turned around to confront five spiders, each the size of an adult rottweiler.  Graenas let out a string of Sylvan profanities. I suspect that he had learned some of them from Auril, as I couldn’t make a few of those words out enough.  But my lessons with our father allowed me to understand enough to know that Mother would be reaching for the soap dish had she heard the things my brother had just sputtered.  He launched a blast of eldritch energy at the southern-most spider.  He just barely grazed it, though it was enough to make it mad.

Danny moved to engage the two spiders in the north and was immediately attacked by both of them and the spider in the middle.  The spider Graenas had attacked launched itself at him and overshot onto the contraption.  That left me to approach and attack the one remaining spider.  I hooked the sickle in my right hand around one of its legs. I heard the leg crack and tear as I used it to pull the creature towards me.  Once its body was in range, I drove the point of my other sickle between the spider’s eyes.  There was a squelching sound as more of the curved blade sunk beneath the surface and the spider screeched and shook violently for a moment then went completely still. I pulled both sickles free.  The one dripped with blood as I joined Danny to take care of whatever spiders had not yet gone still beneath the fighter’s warhammer.

Graenas soon turned the spider he was fighting into dripping bits scattered across the contraption and he began to attack those Danny and I were engaging with his bolts of power as well.  When the final spider had been almost perfectly bisected by the long sword in Danny’s off hand, I wiped the blood off my sickles and said, “I hope we figure out how this damn contraption works soon or we’ll be able to ride a wave of our attackers like they were horses. The human snorted in what I assumed was agreement and we returned to the device.

“Three?” Graenas asked.

“I feel like we’re just doing the same thing and hoping for different results, but I have no better suggestions,” Danny said gruffly. I shrugged.  Graenas reset the dial so the number on the reading was three.  The men executed their choreographed lever-pulling routine once more. We instantly knew by the sounds we heard that it was time for another battle.  This time, we were faced off against five of the largest rats I have ever seen and three iron chests that somehow managed to drool and snarl.  I had heard of mimics before through the tale-swapping that takes place in taverns at Albion City, but I had never seen one.  Their unnatural and surely magical construction unnerved me.

Graenas shot another blast of eldritch energy at one of the mimics, which immediately descended on him.  It bit him hard and my brother shrieked, “That hurt, you diabolical piece of luggage!”  Danny was instantly busy with three of the large rats.  I saw another rat headed my way, but one look at the fighter informed me that he would soon be overwhelmed by his wounds if I didn’t intervene. I silently hoped that my attacker wouldn’t inflict too much harm on me as I extended a hand palm forward toward Danny and intoned a healing incantation Father had taught me.  I smiled in grim satisfaction as the gashes on the fighter’s skin began to close and his bruises began to fade.  The renewed health and strength clearly reinvigorated him as he continued his assault on the rats now surrounding him.

I found myself splitting my attention over the next several seconds between fending off the rat attacking me and applying my knowledge of field medicine to keep both Graenas — who seemed to be getting worn down by the rat and mimic that were tag-teaming him — and Danny from succumbing.  I finally managed to kill my attacker when one of the two as-yet uninvolved mimics caught my scent and moved forward to attack me.  I quickly tucked away my sickles and drew my wooden shield and mace, figuring that a blunt weapon might do more damage to the wood and iron that made up the strange creature than a pair of small curved blades.

Danny manged to turn the small group of rats attacking him into  piles of goo and sliced meat as the third mimic attacked him.  Somehow, he managed to get the rat attacking my brother as well as the mimic engaging me to redirect their attention to him.  This allowed Graenas to focus on his mimic.  My brother shouted, “Enough!  Let’s try fire!” Then he  blasted a whole through the top of the chest that served as the mimic’s body with a firebolt.”

“Nice shot!” Danny called out as he smashed the mimic we were both attacking, sending a few more splinters into the air.  The mimic finally went still and he turned his attention to the final chest.  I came around beside him to help, smashing dents into the creature with my mace.  Graenas began attacking it with frosty rays of magic.  Soon, the final enemy quit moving.  Graenas took out his medical kit and tossed it to me, saying, “Thanks for keeping us alive, Uri.  This will make sure you can keep doing it.

Danny reached into his own pack and began to pull out another such kit, but I held up my hand to stop him.  “Hold onto it for now.  This will allow me to keep attending to all of us for the time being. And if something happens to me, one of you might need to be able to quickly stabilize me. You’ll need the means to do that if it becomes necessary.”  Danny thought for a moment, then nodded as he repacked his own kit. I continued, “At any rate, after that intense battle, I think we should rest for a bit.” With that, I undid my pack and set it on the floor, sitting down beside it.

“Sounds good to me,” Danny said as he followed suit.  “And maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what exactly is going on here.”

I glanced at Graenas, who had just finished gathering up the coins left by that last wave of attackers as well as three pieces of parchment he apparently found in the remains of one of the chests..  He shrugged as he sat a few feet from us and pulled out his sewing kit and some sort of needlework project.  I paused, then said, “Graenas’s power comes from an evil fey deity he made a pact with four years ago.  She’s the one who sent us here. We’re trying to destroy an unknown number of statues erected by her sister.”

“What?!” Danny said, his face twisting with anger as he glared at Graenas. “Why on earth would you do such a foolish thing?!”

Graenas’s needle stopped moving as he looked up. I could see the frustration and embarrassment on his face as he spoke.  “I was young and foolish at the time.  Plus I thought I was in love and my heart was breaking.  When Auril appeared, she told me that if I just agreed to do some favors every now and then, she’d make it so William….” His voice cracked as he spoke the name of one of our few childhood friends, the one Graenas had so desperately wished would see him as more than a friend.  My brother fell silent, staring at the piece of cloth in his hand.

After a few moments, I spoke.  “He made a mistake.  A foolish and costly one, but one that’s easy to make when you’re a teenager struggling with emotions and hormones.” I willed myself to accept that defense, myself.  I also hoped I was speaking the truth as I continued. “I think he’s learned his lesson.  Now he’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation until he can find a way to fix it completely. I’m trying to help him.

The fighter huffed.  “I guess I get it.  I still say it was a stupid thing to do!” I inwardly bristled. While part of me agreed with our human companion, I felt very protective and defensive of my brother. I knew what that moment of desperate folly cost him, and not just in terms of being bound to the fey Ice Queen. Graenas really had cared deeply for William, and I suspect their friendship had been ruined forever. I knew the pain of that reality weighed on my brother, along with the knowledge of how deeply he had wronged and hurt William.  I hoped his regret and anguish would remind him to make better choices in the future.

We fell silent after that and I closed my eyes, leading my mind through the exercises that would draw me closer to the natural world around me.  I briefly wondered how well that would work while we were sealed in this chamber that I suspected was separated from the rest of our world by strange magics.  Assuming it had ever been a part of our world in the first place. It must have worked to some degree, however, as I felt much more refreshed when I stretched and opened my eyes.  A glance at the rows of new stitches Graenas had made suggested that two or three hours had passed. He had a slight smile on his face.  I guessed his needlework had brought up memories of helping our mother with various sewing projects.  It was the one thing that would always soothe his troubled spirits after he had a negative encounter with other residents of Shadeville while growing up.  Granted, he also tended to cause a lot of those encounters and exacerbate even more of them. But Mother would always get him calmed down, then gently reprimand him for his own actions a few hours later. He always took her criticisms far better than he reacted to the times I would scold him.  Then again, I had neither Mother’s patience nor her compassion.  At least not when it came to childish antics.

Danny looked at both of us and said, “I can’t sit here any longer.  Let’s get back to it.”  I think he just wanted to get away from the weirdness of this place and back to something simple and straightforward, like chasing after orcs and splitting their skulls. I nodded, stood, and returned to the contraption along the east wall. I reached out and turned the dial so that the numeric display would reset and turn to 4.  As it did, I noticed a slot that opened on the front of the machine. “Wait,” I said as I pointed to the narrow opening that must have been just a couple inches long. “Did anyone notice this before?” I feared I would have to apologize to Graenas for criticizing his failure to notice the dial earlier.

“No, can’t say as I have,” Danny said, running his finger along the slot.

“I think I did briefly, but thought nothing of it at the time,” Graenas said.  But now that we have four pieces of parchment….”  He shuffled through the four square pieces of parchment and attempted to slide the one marked with the number four on it inside.  Some unseen mechanism whirred as he got the edge of the parchment started just inside.  That mechanism pulled the entire square inside.  The slot then closed and the button on the contraption began to flash.  I tried pressing it, but it woouldn’t budge.

“Perhaps the levers unlock the button,” Danny suggested.  Graenas nodded in approval at the suggestion, then reached for his lever.  The two men pulled the levers in unison and I pushed the button as the levers clicked into place.  We heard a rumbling sound behind us.  We turned to see a large set of double doors now filling most of the western wall.

Graenas walked over and examined the doors.  “There appears to be a four keyholes.  Two embedded in each door,” he said.  Danny and I were investigating the dial, which now had a piece of metalsticking out of it.  It was thin and roughly a couple inches long.

“Do you think it’s broken?” Danny asked.

“I don’t this so,” I said as I leaned over to get a better look.  “It looks like the other end is actually sticking in a socket in the dial. Let me just,” I said as I pulled on it.  I stopped mid-sentence as the piece of metal came free.  Now free of the contraption, four small teeth popped along one end of it.  “Well, there’s one key,” I said.

“We need three more and there are three more major marks on the dial,” Graenas said as he rejoined us by the contraption. “There’s an obvious hypothesis there, I think.”  Danny grunted his assent. Together, the three of us worked through the process of turning the dial, inserting the proper piece of parchment, and working the device to retrieve all four keys.  Once we retrieved the final key, the contraption pulled all of its controls inside of itself and then folded itself back into the wall.  In seconds, we were facing a blank stone wall.

Once they were in hand, Graenas took the keys over to the door and examined both them and the keyholes. He said, “There’s a face-plate containing each keyhole.  They’re all different colors: yellow, green, blue, and orange.  The thing is, each key has four teeth, each tooth being one of those colors.”

“So it’s not going to be obvious,” I said, a bit annoyed.  “Why couldn’t each key be all one color?”

Danny thought for a moment then said, “Is the first tooth on each key a different color when compared against the other keys?”

Graenas looked each key over.  “As  matter of fact, yes.”

“So let’s line the keys up so that we put them in the keyhole whose color is the same color as the key’s first tooth,” Danny suggested. I nodded, appreciating the fact that our new companion had more brains than many weapon experts I had met in the past.  While I was thankful for his skill in battle, I was also glad he had other ways he could contribute to our collective efforts.  Plus I hoped it was a sign that I wouldn’t have to worry about him leaping headlong into an unwinnable battle without any thought.

We got all the keys lined up as proposed.  Graenas said, “I think we should try turning them all at once.  Danny can you manage two keys at once?”  Danny nodded and placed his hands on the two keys nearest him. Graenas and I each grabbed the key in front of us and turned to Danny.  He counted us down and we turned all four keys in unison.  We were rewarded with a resounding and promising click.  I pulled on the doors and they swung out and open, only to reveal another set of doors behind them.  They were identical to the previous one.

Graenas grinned.  “I can see where this is going.  Sort them according to the colors of their second teeth.  We did so and repeated the process to open this door and the two behind it.  As the final door swung open we found ourselves looking into a giant chamber.  As we entered we saw a dreadful sight.  There were three more spiders the same size as the last wave we had fought scurrying toward us. The thing that caused the blood to briefly drain from my face, however, was the red spider that was approximately the size of a small hovel that stood behind them.

The three of us began to attack the middle spider of the three smaller ones, who had all descended on Danny.  Graenas, who had moved thirty feet away so he could attack from a distance, managed to strike the same spider with a blast of energy before the giant red spider managed to hit him with a stream of webbing.  My brother cursed as all his limbs became entangled and he fell to the floor. I redoubled my attack efforts with Danny, hoping I’d be able to get free to help Graenas in time.

The giant spider ambled over and was just about to attack my defenseless brother when Danny brought his warhammer down on the badly bleeding spider we had been wearing down.  The giant spider heard the crunching sound its diminutive companion’s body made and turned its attention and anger toward the fighter.  It began to shoot streams of webbing at Danny but missed, covering the wall behinds us with a white sticky mess.

Graenas struggles paid off as he finally broke free of his sticky bonds.  “That’s enough!” he snarled and I glanced at him just long enough to see the icy hatred in his eyes. I cringed at how much he seemed like Auril at that moment and longed for the day that we could free him from her influence.  Hopefully it wouldn’t be too late.  He uttered an incantation I had only heard him use a couple times before and I once again cringed as I began to smell the now-dead, rotting flesh that hung from parts of the giant spider’s body.

Graenas continued to use his power to instantly destroy the giant spider’s cells as Danny and I each killed one of the two remaining smaller spiders.  We finished our work and turned to help my brother put an end to the red monster. At that moment, the creature finally managed to hit Danny with a spray of webbing.  The fighter went down.  I stepped forward, hoping Graenas and I could hold our own with the creature long enough for the fighter to free himself.