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Despite the devastation wrought after 196 years of battling trolls – killing two-thirds of the Commonwealth – the united army of Liraehne cleared the lands. The great Fanaal Emperor Tian’Tal pushed the trolls to the edge of the Frontier, making a stand at the outpost of Tarn, but it was the leadership of Queen Kalynn Wytestarr who led the final victory within the Crax. Of those who went to war, many would never return home, some not because death claimed them but because their wounds made travel impossible, and the outpost swelled into a city.

As Tarn grew, with farmers and families restoring a sense of normal after so much loss, the great heroes and leaders began to pass into legend and new powers began to arise to fill the voids left behind. 

This is the story of one of them.

Author Chuck Sperati Writing Distracted Logo
Onvical
Cariss Mesila
Torgin

Part Thirty-Three: The Lock

Drifting further back on the game trail, Cariss let her gaze wander over the craggy mountainside, looking for movement among the gray, brown, and black boulders. She’d done the same with the tall, pale green grasses growing along the trail’s edge, bowed by the constant wind. When that didn’t work, she searched the graying clouds for figures and shapes, a game she used to play with her brother as children.

Each time, her eyes returned to the forced movements of the walking corpse.

With its top half hidden under a blanket, arms hanging limply at the sides, the green-brown of dead elfin flesh showed at the forearms and hands. In her experience, nothing died well. Hunted animals, speared fish, slaughtered enemies, defeated monsters, she’d never found any grace in death, but few compared to the elfin. Where human flesh paled and dwarven flesh pinkened, elfin skin darkened, exchanging dull gold for a color better found at the bottom of a privy.

A shiver ran up her spine as Ambyr’s dangling hands flopped with each lurching step.

No, that’s not Ambyr, she told herself, ignoring the questioning voice that wondered if it were true.

When she’d joined Torgin at the mouth of the troll cave, he’d been sitting on a stone, running his fingers over a pouch held in his hands. Tears dripped off his nose onto the brown leather, which he rubbed with the end of his thumbs. Based on the size of the wet discoloration, he’d been at it for a while.

Unlike most other races, Braidon didn’t try to hide their emotions, displaying anger, joy, and sadness as they experienced it. In some ways, that innocence made it refreshing to deal with them, but that childlike quality also them unpredictable and easy to underestimate. A lesson the Mer learned the hard way during their crusades.

When she’d tried to comfort him, he’d turned away.

“Should burn Ambyr,” he stated, his voice unusually muted. “What she wants.”

Her attempt to explain the situation ended with him shouting, “What she wants,” and stomping away. The Braidon’s actions only gave strength to the questioning voice in her mind. And when the Magis appeared at the cave opening with Ambyr’s body in tow, an out-of-proportion skull with graying torn flesh sitting atop her shoulders, her world went sideways. Unable to pull her eyes away from the figure or draw breath into her lungs, Cariss felt like she could drown in that moment.

“Don’t worry,” Onvical had said, one corner of his mouth going up in a grin as he held up a sack, “I kept her head so we can give her a traditional pyre.”

Imagining Ambyr’s head in that sack somehow made the gruesome sight even worse.

After croaking out a plea to cover it up, the Magis tossed a blanket over her head. The same blanket that had covered her corpse. It didn’t help. She couldn’t unsee the image of Elis’ torn-up skull on Ambyr’s bloody body.

Pushing her gaze past the blanketed corpse lumbering along the trail, her focus went to Torgin. Striding far ahead, hands balled into fists, they’d had to call him back each time the corpse changed direction. And each time, he rushed to get back in front, turning his head away to avoid looking at it. The Magis, on the other hand, stayed right alongside, pendant in hand. At times, he’d speak to it, often grinning as if telling a joke at dinner, but she stayed too far back to hear anything he said.

No matter what happened at Caracklin’s Lair, she and Torgin would go their separate ways. This, she knew, would be where their friendship ended. “It’ll be okay, though,” she mumbled to herself, eyes flicking to Onvical, “so long as I kill him.”

Turning abruptly, the corpse moved off the game trail and wandered straight towards a boulder.

“Torgin!” the Magis shouted, one hand held up high and waving in the new direction.

Glancing back, the Braidon strode into the high grasses and broke into a jog. Passing the boulder, he disappeared out of sight.

“I think we’re here,” a shill voice whispered in her ear.

Throwing her arm back in that direction, she hit nothing but used the momentum to turn with a long dagger in hand. Standing several steps back, arms crossed over his chest, they locked eyes. “That’s it,” she growled. “Do it again, and I’ll cut your tongue out.”

“Uh-huh,” he replied, one corner of his mouth turning up in that cocky grin.

“Try me.”

“I look forward to it, but for now,” he nodded behind her.

Glancing back, she saw the covered corpse standing next to the boulder. “I thought you said you couldn’t stop her once you set her on the path to his lair.”

“I didn’t stop her.”

“So we’re here.”

“I loath repeating myself.”

“Not as much as I loath working with you.”

“For me.”

“What?”

“You work for me, not with me. We are not companions and most certainly not equals. You are a tool, and when a tool ceases to be useful, it gets discarded. It would be best you not forget that.” Moving past her, certainly close enough to stab, Onvical started towards the boulder. Disappearing in midstride, he completed the step next to the blanketed corpse.

“You don’t scare me,” she whispered to herself, once again ignoring that questioning voice in her mind.

*              *              *

Standing on the ridge, Cariss stared into the shallow valley filled with tree-sized grasses and enormous flowers. Growing up with the tales of Alcom’s Wonderland, she couldn’t help but search for Tody, the grasshopper, no doubt lying on his back under a bright yellow flower instead of watching for ants. Behind her, Torgin gathered wood for the pyre.

“It’s ironic,” Onvical stated, standing several steps away.

“What?” Cariss did not try to hide the annoyance in her voice at being disturbed. Noting that he chose not to do his whisper trick, she did resist a satisfied grin.

“The gnomun garden.”

“What about it?”

“Do you not see the relevance?”

Turning to the Magis, she crossed her arms over her chest. “You mean in that Caracklin hid the entrance to his lair behind a hidden garden. I’m not sure that’s irony.”

“It’s more than that,” Onvical stated, his cocky, one-sided grin spreading across his face as he spread his arms to encompass the valley. “The garden is the lock that seals the entrance.”

“Um, what?”

“What do you know of the gnomun?”

“They’re little people who hide from the rest of the world in elaborate gardens.”

“Little people?”

Reaching down to place her hand at the height of her hip, she nodded. “Yeah, little.”

“In this world, maybe, but in the Backlands, they stand as tall as our highest mountains. Unlike us, the gnomun exist in two realms simultaneously. They don’t need to hide from us because we can only see them when they want to be seen. Their gardens are manifestations of the Realm of Life incurring into our world.”

“Sure. Okay. If you say so. How does that make it a lock?”

“I’m sure you know the tale of Alcom’s Wonderland.”

“A children’s story,” she stated, putting as much derision into her tone as possible.

Turning to her, that cocky, one-sided grin returned. “What happens at the end?”

Pushing out a breath, she considered not playing his game, but her curiosity had always been stronger than her stubbornness. “At the end of the story, Tody shows them the one path out.”

“And?”

“They got out and went back home. The end.”

Looking away, the Magis shook his head. “You disappoint me, Cariss. At every point in the story, there is a particular path. One that leads to the grasshoppers, another that leads to the ants. The magic pond. The cave. It’s always a path.”

“You’re saying that there’s a path that leads to Caracklin’s Lair?”

“Precisely. The garden is the lock, and the path is the key. To put it simply, in deference to you, the only way to find the entrance is to locate an overgrown path in an abandoned garden.”

“Pyre ready!” Torgin’s voice shouted from behind.

“Fine. How do we find the path?” Cariss asked, one hand balling into a fist.

“That, my dear, is why you’re only the tool.” His form began to fade, bits of it stretching in the breeze. “Let’s us go pay our respects to the dead elfen—”

Watching him disappear, the warrior woman pressed her lips together. “I can’t wait to kill him.”

Maps
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