The steam-filled air made it hard to breathe, and the sweat from my brow ran into my eyes making it increasingly difficult to see as I made my way down the corridor. Well, at least I know I’m going the right way.
The strength in my legs seemed to lessen with each step as I trudged forward. The tunnel was still dark where I was so I knew I still had a ways to go.
I stopped for a moments rest and considered my options. I could either die trying to carry the orb out and maybe save a little more of the city, or I could possibly save myself and abandon the whole of the city by turning around and going back. Either way, I knew the price would be too high. I’ve already come this far, too far to turn back now.
I picked up my foot and continued. Sweat was running from my hair down to my back and legs, right into my sandals, and the sound of the water rushing at my side echoed off the walls of the tunnel right into my ears deafening me.
I walked, hunched over to keep from bumping my head into the ceiling. The weight of my soaked clothing wore on me and my pack became a monstrous burden until I could barely lift my head enough to look forward. The world teetered and my vision swam. I thought it funny that the world could swim and burn at the same time.
My feet burned. I felt the heat rising from the floor into the soles of my sandals. My sweat dried into salty cakes that cut into my feet as I marched to my death.
As if in response to my fated doom, I saw movement a few feet to my side. I looked to my left, over the water, and I saw my mother there. She was smiling as she walked to me, brushed the salt of a would-be tear from my broken, scalded face, and took my hand as we walked on together. She was prettier than I thought she would be. No wonder Jonathan had fallen for her.
* * *
“Rickter… Rickter, wake up. You need to WAKE UP!” Mara’s voice echoed weakly through my mind as I opened my eyes. The sound of rushing water slowly began to creep back into my consciousness as I took in my surroundings. The walls and floor of the tunnel had seared smooth and had begun to run like melted candle wax. Somehow, it had cooled before collapsing. The ceiling had begun to melt as well, and had cooled in a loose arch over this portion of the structure. The air was quite warm, but tolerable. I sat up.
“He’s not dead?” Jonathan’s voice was further up the tunnel as he spoke. I quickly found myself surrounded by the whole of Stumpton’s survivors as well as Mara and the elder’s son, Dane.
“We thought you were gone for sure!” Dane smiled boyishly as he punched me in the arm.
“So did I.” I responded. “What happened?
“We were hoping you’d answer that for us.” Jonathan’s voice shook a little but did not hide the irritation in his manner. “You didn’t even tell me where you’d gone! Then I get a message from her,” Jonathan stabbed a finger in Mara’s direction, “saying you’d gone and done some fool thing and needed help.”
Mikel’s stomach growled as he continued the story from his point of view. “Steam was spouting out from all over the place in Bridgeton and even where you had entered. We had to wait for several hours before it was even deemed safe to come down here!”
I sighed. Better to be alive and in trouble than dead, I guess.
Standing to my feet, everyone gasped a little. Turning to where they were looking, I noticed what they saw, and froze.
The imprint of my body was set into the floor as the floor had melted, and though I knew it was impossible, a second impression was next to that made by my head.
“Was there someone else down here with you, Rickter?” Jonathan asked in a whisper.
I thought back to the specter of my mother I had seen before blacking out, and shook my head.
“No. I…I must have rolled in my sleep.”
Rat’s laughter echoed past in response. “Remind me never to be the one tasked in waking you up if molten stone only gets you to roll over!”
Henny just stared the entire time, her eyes betraying nothing of her feelings. I finally looked away, pretending to dust myself off, which was a mistake.
I watched in horror as my burnt clothing and pack crusted off and fell to the floor, leaving me with naught but my sheathed blade, my hands and a bit of soot to hide my nakedness. Mara laughed as she turned and walked away, pulling a slack-jawed Henny from the scene.
All I could manage to say in response was, “Umm…”
Mikel, who was still wearing his cloak, untied it and I wrapped it around my waist like a towel.
“Thanks, uh, I’ll make sure I wash it before I give it back to you.” I said, unsure of what else to say.
“Yeah, don’t bother. I was going to buy a better one anyways.” Mikel smirked at me. A moment later, his stomach growled again. “But first… dinner.”
“Yes, let’s got out of here. I’ve spent enough time in here for two lifetimes,” Jonathan added.
* * *
A crowd had gathered outside the millhouse, and they cheered as we exited from the building. My cheeks flushed hot when, still wearing nothing but a wool cloak around my middle, I was quickly surrounded by several men and women from Bridgeton.
The cool of the night kept the crowd from standing around too long. While the rest of our party rode into town in a carriage, I was set up in the back of a wagon. I quickly accepted when they offered me a few coarse blankets to stave off the cold.
The carriage made better time than I, as more people were curious about me than the relatively normal-looking people that had come out with me. I wish I was small enough to ride in the carriage with Jonathan. Oh well, at least I’m not being treated like some kind of monster.
The ride back was short, but as the wagon jerked and jostled its way down the unpaved road, I felt the muscles in my back begin to relax and I breathed a sigh of relief. I looked up and saw a girl walking behind the wagon a few feet behind. I would have looked elsewhere, but her gaze lifted from the ground to meet mine and she smiled. I’d seen her smile before. The moon in the sky above us lit on her hair and for just a moment I was in the tunnel again holding my mother’s hand, but the girl’s smile shone at me from the specter’s face.
“You’re…” I started.
Raising her index finger to her lips, she shushed me silently. I suddenly felt something of a shiver as cold rushed down my spine, my jaws clapped shut and my mouth ignored me.
You are going to give me away, silly! A decidedly girlish voice suddenly played through my mind.
I cringed. What have I gotten myself into this time?
Just play hero for them until we get to town and then we’ll talk, boy.
The last few blocks of the trip raced by as I tried not to look at her. The worst part was that I had a difficult time thinking of anything else, and so I always ended up looking back at her.
I looked away again briefly as the wagon pulled around and parked in front of the town hall. When I looked around again, she was gone.
I got out from the wagon, looking around to try and spot the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. The townspeople then escorted me into the hall, where some simple food and some watery beer had been set out.
Mikel, cheeks full of bread and cheese grinned across at me lifting his beer mug. I walked over, joining him with a mug and some rolls I’d procured.
He swallowed his mouthful and grinned at me. “You’ll need to save the village more often if it means free food for me.”
Mikel’s laughter was interrupted when he was smacked in the back of the head by Jonathan.
“You deserved it for a comment so foolish. Egging him on is only going to make this a harder habit for him to break. He’s worked hard all his life to fit in and now he’s right back in the public eye again,” Jonathan growled.
“I did what I thought was right,” I commented before Jonathan could continue.
“You didn’t think at all.” Jonathan turned to me, his eyes red. “A thinking man would have let the authorities know what was happening. Before stomping off and acting like a fool.”
“Actually…” A familiar voice sounded from behind me. “He did just that, and then he did precisely what was asked of him.” Dane’s father stepped up to my side and between Jonathan and I.
“Who’re you?” Jonathan’s tone was brusque.
“I am Elder Indriss, Senior Chairman of the Bridgeton Town Council… Your son has acted quite nobly this day. First by aiding in the extermination of a werewolf this morning, and now by, quite possibly, saving the entirety of our city.”
“So you sent MY son off, quite possibly, to his death. Convenient,” Jonathan replied, mocking Indriss’s slight accent.
Elder Indriss smiled patiently.
I wondered for a moment if that patience is what earned him his place as an elder.
Jonathan opened his mouth to continue, but thought better of it, allowing Indriss to speak.
“My son, Dane, was with him as far as the millhouse, and would, no doubt, have gone with him had he thought it a necessity. Of that, I am sure, but come, the refreshments are only the beginning,” the elder said as he motioned the majority of us, excluding Mara and I, to sit down on the provided pews.
I watched as the remaining nine members of the council took their seats at the front and prepared to address each other as well as the people assembled.
Indriss stood from his seat in the middle of the table and spread his arms saying, “Thank you all for coming so late this evening. Citizen’s and councilors, we have survived.”
Applause and shouts of relief echoed through the hall in response.
After a moment, Chairman Indriss continued. “Earlier today, these fine, young people slew a werewolf… A werewolf that at one time had been one of our own, Sheriff Pedge. Pedge, as most of you know, carried the only key to the millhouse to the north of town. I suspect the same man who infected Pedge was responsible for unlocking the mill and placing the device in the aqueducts.
“That’s a pretty large assumption, Chairman,” the councilor to his right said.
“If you have any more information to further illuminate our situation feel free to share, Councilor Redman.”
“Actually, I do,” Redman said as he stood.
Indriss took his seat allowing Redman to address the crowd.
“I have been collecting information for quite some time on our friend, Sheriff Pedge. Some things have come to light that throw his character into question. For example, Pedge has been seen several times meeting outside the town proper with a certain individual. This character is most obviously Bloodborne…”
A murmur coursed through the crowd at the mention of the word.
The councilors’ comments turned to meaningless noise as I reflected on what little Timney had told me of the Bloodborne.
“…covered in scales, but not so reptilian so as to be unattractive. To the contrary, Bloodborne are nearly always lithely muscular and gracefully featured. But despite their physical appearance, their greatest strength lies in their arcane lore and magic…”
Redman was sitting down as I looked back up at the front of the room. The crowd was quiet as they waited for something as the council leaned over the table conferring with each other. Indriss eventually stood and continued.
“These are the matters currently before the council. Should anyone have further information we encourage them to come forward at their earliest convenience.” He stopped for a moment and looked at the crowd before going on, once again motioning to Mara and I. ”As for the actions of these two, it has been decided that they will be remunerated in accordance with the city’s regulations, and with consideration to the scope of their services.”
With that the assembly rose to their feet and with little talking, left the building.
“The arguing between those two Elders really brought the people’s exhaustion to bear tonight,” Mikel opined as we walked down the road toward the house.
“Yeah, seemed that way.” I yawned.
“What were Jonathan and that elder talking about before the assembly?” Rat asked, careful not to be heard.
Jonathan clicked his tongue to let him know he had.
Feeling ready to be done with it, I answered Rat anyway. “Well, you see, Jonathan likes thumbing his nose at people of authority, like mayors and such.”
Jonathan’s glare was palpable, but I didn’t care. At least, that’s what I told myself.
Henny walked with us until we got to the new smithy. I wanted to talk this out with her, but when everyone went in, she turned to walk to her uncle’s. I had to act quickly.
“Henny?” I called out. She kept walking. “Henny, wait up!” I jogged to her side.
“What?” she spat.
I paused, attempting to order my words to her. I knew she wouldn’t give me much time.
“I-I’m worried about you,” I managed to speak. “So much has happened. I…We’ve already lost so much. I don’t want to lose you as well.”
She looked through me as she spoke with an icy calm, “I don’t know you anymore…I don’t think I ever did. How can you lose something you never had?”
“B-but I thought we–”I started.
“You’re father…no. Jonathan was right. You haven’t been thinking. You’ve just been acting on instinct. You’re no better than the trolls who raped me.”
“I…” I thought I was going to die right there. My heart seemed to have stopped and try as I might I could not breathe enough to form a reply.
Turning toward the road, she spoke as she walked. “I hope your little barbarian girl can keep up with you, though I have no idea why she’d want to.”
The night’s bitterly cold hands gripped me by the shoulders as she turned her head just long enough to add, “Maybe that’s why she’s interested… I’ll bet she’s looking to collect on you, too.”
With that, she continued around the corner and out of sight. I looked to the ground.
Did I… Am I…
Are You what? The girl’s voice was in my head again.
“Go away.” I whispered.
They’ll think you silly if you keep talking out loud to someone who’s not there, she teased.
“Go away!” I yelled.
Mara’s laughter behind me echoed the girl’s laughter in my mind.
“My, my… you are a prize. Chasing two girls off in one day… That’d be a record in some places,” she said as she walked to my side. “And trying a second time with me, too? Or perhaps you were just trying to get the last word in with her. Looked like she gave you about this much space to speak.” She raised her hand pressing her thumb and forefinger tightly together to demonstrate.
“No… Neither, but you’d just–” I stopped mid-sentence. No need to include her in that. Why does my life have to be so complicated?
“Two days left… will you be ready in that time?” She turned to me, her face suddenly more serious.
“Two days? ‘til what? …oh, right.” I sighed as her deadline loomed over me once again. “Listen. I have a couple questions for you.”
“Ask, but do so quickly. I have to get some sleep tonight.” She tilted her head to the side impatiently.
“What exactly am I to you… just some half-monster with no worth except to act as a stud for the continuing of your clan?” I growled at myself for letting my aggravation out on her. “Sorry, that was… not the way I wanted to say it.”
While obviously frustrated, she swallowed her pride and answered with surprising patience. “No. I realized that’s what it sounded like after we spoke yesterday. I will be glad to release you from this obligation when the time is right, but I have to survive until then. Until then, the husbandly position of bodyguard is a role I feel you may fill quite well.”
“Who would you need protection from? You even had me cowed yesterday!” I exaggerated.
“Gred. He is responsible for destroying my clan. I narrowly escaped, myself. You might be enough to tip the scales in my favor.”
She dropped her voice a bit and added, “…plus, I’ve noticed your blade and realized it to be the mate to mine. I’d be curious what you know of it.”
I shook my head. “Very little, sadly. It’s all my mother left to me. I know it belonged to my father, a troll by the name of Shard Terrin.”
She replied, her eyes wide. “You’re of Terrin stock? That explains much. My father was befriended by one of yours. It is from him that he received this sword.” She pulled the sword from its scabbard.
It was then I noticed that the blade was quite ill-fitted to her. Despite considerable strength in her arms, she had to work too hard to hold it aloft. Two or three good swings and she’d be winded with that weapon.
“You want it, don’t you? You can consider it yours if you come with me. It doesn’t suit me anyhow.” She offered me the hilt of it.
“I’m a half-troll bastard. What would stop me from taking the sword from you and slaying you right here to save me the hassle?” I queried.
“You’re no fiend, Rickter. If you knew a bit more of your heritage, like I do, you’d not question yourself so much. I can offer you that as well.” A bead of sweat fell from her brow as she kept the heavy blade from tipping towards the ground in her grasp.
I reached out to the sword and hefted it by the hilt.
She sighed with relief as she dropped her tired arm.
“Where to?” I asked as I held it in front of me to test its balance.
Visibly cheered, she replied. “First north to Evincere. From there, who knows? Depends on what I find out there.”
I turned my attention back to her. “What are you looking for?”
“Not what. Who. I’m looking for Gred,” she corrected. “I’ll never be safe until he’s gone.”
I swallowed hard. “Um… I hate to break it to you, but I don’t have the experience you’ll need for a task of that difficulty. I’d end up dead and then so would you.”
“If we ran into him tomorrow, that would, no doubt, be the case, but if what all happened today is any measure of what we have to look forward to, I’m sure you’ll have all the ‘experience’ you’ll need when… and if we can find him.” She removed the large scabbard from her back and handed it to me as well, readjusting the longbow and quiver on her back to fit more comfortably. “Let tomorrow worry about itself.” She said as she walked into the night.