“Do not be fooled. This creature is not some petty, insignificant thing. She has not been reduced to nothing by the ravages of time. Even now, after all these centuries, we must treat her like she is. She is vengeance. She is death. She is a goddess.”

Acolyte Rafe Cauley rolled his eyes. Someone was listening a bit too hard to the Masters’ lectures.

“We have been chosen,” Greta Von Hammersmit announced. The gnome woman strode forth, caught up in the rapture of her quest. “The Order of the Flawed Snowflake has given us this arduous task. In recognition of our years of service, and dedication to the tenets of the Order…”

Rafe gave a harsh cough, and bullied his way through another particularly dense patch of trees. A century of disuse was apparent in this little backwater area. Everywhere there was forest, followed by even more forest. He had to scrunch up and think tiny thoughts moving through a thicket of bramble. Being half-dwarf, half-elf, this was not exactly easy.

Rafe did not look like he was half-elf. Beyond the particularly green eyes, and the compound bow strapped across his back, he looked like a typical dwarf. He was taller, standing well over five feet. He preferred hardened leather over the more scholarly robes the other acolytes wore. And his dwarven heritage allowed him to touch iron, a boon that many of the fae did not have.

However, he was not blessed with an extraordinary amount of patience. So when Greta started to list the achievements of the Order, he did snap.

“Greta!” He shouted. “The Order does not care about you listing their accomplishments when they’re not there to revel in it!”

The gnome woman quailed. While Rafe was large for a dwarf, she was small for a gnome, barely gracing four feet. Her slight stature and pale orange hair only further diminished her appearance, as did the ornate spectacles.

“Don’t know why I’m stuck with someone who hasn’t left the reception desk in six years,” Rafe muttered. “To go tramping through the woods to find out if our myths are still where we left them.”

“Acolyte Cauley,” Greta said. “I can assure you that this mission is of the utmost importance. And as to questions about my personal character and ability…”

“Duck.”

The young acolyte dove to the ground. Rafe kept walking, and had well over a hundred meters of blessed silence before the gnome caught up to him.

“You’re a jerk!”

“Bookworm,” Rafe muttered. This was going to be an excruciating trip into nowhere with this woman. The boredom would be punctuated with busts of manic rage at her incessant babbling.

“Do you think what we do has no merit?” Greta asked.

“I think I’d be better suited at one of the major cities,” Rafe said. “Working with a city watch, or perhaps studying up on defense.”

“This is defense,” Greta said. “This is the greatest job you could be given with the Order. Do you even know who we are securing?”

Rafe shrugged.

“The Scourge of Darrenfell.”

Rafe snorted. That myth.

“Don’t be crass!” Greta shot back. “This monster is the very reason for the Order’s existence. Without her cataclysmic past, there is no Flawed Snowflake. And the world very well may be lost to darkness.”

The half-elf wanted to retort. Or, more likely, he wanted to sigh and continue on in silence. But even he could not pretend to be bored about this. It was the foundation of the very Order that he believed in.

The Order of the Flawed Snowflake. The greatest collaboration of intellectuals the modern world had ever seen. Scientists, mages, engineers, scholars, even politicians. Those of merit and worth paid some measure of success to the Order and its continued efforts toward life’s progress, renewal, and defense.

Its acolytes ranged from those who studied the depths of magic and science, to those who sought to defend all life like Rafe Cauley, regardless of race, nationality or creed. If one was mortal, and in need of aid, the Order was there to help in some way, shape or form.

These tenets were what Rafe believed in. Despite his gruff personality, and stubborn refusal to accept anything from scholars, he did believe in the Order. It allowed him to help everyone, and train for a world beyond borders and petty differences.

The Order was old. Centuries, even millennia had passed and the Order survived. But it started because of this myth. A death goddess of vengeance that had almost broken the world. She had raged against gods and mortals alike, seemingly invulnerable by all efforts to quell her power.

Finally, she was captured. Trapped by the combined efforts of all living creatures, and condemned to an eternity of imprisonment. The Order of the Flawed Snowflake arose, both to strengthen the resolve of those who shuffle along the mortal coil, and to defend against the ever-present danger that the Scourge would pose if she rose again.

That was what Greta and Rafe were tasked with. Every century, the Order sent two of its acolytes to the prison. Its existence and location were shrouded in mystery, known only to select members for the protection of secrecy. For Greta, this was a Big Deal, something truly important that could only mean new and wondrous tidings for her life in the Order. For Rafe, it was another hassle, but at least it was another part of his life he didn’t have to talk about.

“We are going to witness one of the founding secrets of the Order!” Greta squealed. “The tomb of the Scourge is shrouded in so much mystery, they could not even give us an actual location!”

“Lazy bums,” Rafe agreed.

“Lazy!” Greta put her hands on her hips. “The Order has given us a tantamount mission! Just think what would happen if we were not there to check on the prison, and the Scourge were freed?”

Rafe shrugged, and suppressed a scowl at the misuse of “tantamount.” If the Scourge escaped, they’d probably all die and the world would be consumed by ten thousand years of darkness, lorded over by the most vile thing that had been birthed by this world’s anger and vengeance. Or they’d deal.

 

Several hundred miles away, Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell, was chuckling. It was an evil chuckle, or at least as evil as she could manage in recent days. To passerby it might sound just a tiny bit malicious, or only kind of evil. It did not help that she was three feet tall, and was best described as the cutest death goddess of vengeance one could ever see. Still, she chuckled.

She was going to destroy the world.

…after lunch time.

Lunch was a particularly delicious affair of jam sandwiches. The berries were collected from seven different realms of existence, while the bread had been baked by a lovely couple just on the other side of a local lake. Arlyle had tried to intimidate the bakers with a plague of ten thousand weasels, but was stopped by her worshiper, who insisted on some strange concept called “good manners.” Instead, Arlyle grudgingly blessed their wheat field for a good harvest, and they had lunch.

Her worshiper was annoyingly insistent on good manners. Even as she stuffed her little face with jam and bread, she managed to smile. Her sticky hands were sure to be washed in the lake, and she would say please and thank you for the delicious meal. Arlyle found it sickening, but Bethany was…adorable…

“That might have been the best sandwich ever.” Bethany said. “Thank you, Arlyle!”

“It might have been better,” Arlyle muttered. “The screams of the weak can add to the flavor and crunch of sandwiches.”

“Really?”

“Ye…” Arlyle trailed off, and sighed. “So I have been told.”

Bethany gave her goddess a long, hard look, making sure Arlyle knew exactly what she wasn’t saying before looking over the lake.

“What do we want to do today?” Arlyle asked.

“What’s the next adventure?” Bethany replied.

Arlyle did not know. There were so many options that they could go with. Go beneath the lake, to see if there was a passage into the sea. There were several realms of fancy that Bethany could not even grasp yet. Or maybe they could just sit there, and play pretend for a while before making a fort out of pillows, then think about bedtime and how they would conquer it.

“Pardon me.”

Bethany looked down, and saw a badger. A badger with particularly green eyes, poking his head out of the mud. He whuffed and sniffed.

“Again, pardon me. Mud does not agree with my sinuses. Could I trouble you with an egress and a moment to compose myself?”

With no dissent from Bethany or Arlyle, the badger wriggled out of his hole. He shook himself off, and meticulously checked his coat for any blemishes. Thankfully, the mud had just been concentrated around his snout, and he was presentable.

“Much better,” He said. “Now, then. I am looking for the most powerful being in the land.”

Bethany smiled. “That’s my Ari!”

Arlyle frowned. While the accolades were appreciated, a badger seeking a power was unusual.

“Well, Ari,” The badger extended a claw towards the goddess. “My name is Thelonius Bricklebook, the fourth, if you please. I have been summoned here to this place for one question.

“Are you willing to go on an adventure?”

Arlyle held up the badger, glaring at him.

“Who are you? Who sent you? How do you know I exist?”

“Ari!” Bethany gasped.

“He wants something!” Arlyle snapped. “And seems to know who I am. He even knows my nickname!”

“I said it!” Bethany said.

The badger gurgled something. Arlyle looked at him, and realized she was squeezing too tight for him to breathe. She loosened her grip, and he repeated.

“Thelonius Bricklebook, the fourth. I was sent my the Witch of the Murky Meadows, my adoring little witch for whom I am employed as familiar. And as to how I know you exist, if would be so kind as to let me reach my hole.”

Arlyle was going to obliterate him out of existence, but Bethany’s disapproval quelled that notion immediately. She released Bricklebook, who promptly scurried into his hole.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to persuade the most powerful being in six counties, but really!” He scrambled through the hole, looking for his accoutrements. “I made it here posthaste, and yet retained my high standards of cleanliness!”

“You did!” Bethany called down the hole. “You’re one of the best-looking badgers I’ve ever talked to!”

Bricklebook stuck his snout out of the hole. “Little ma’am, I am a familiar, not an ordinary badger. I am almost certainly the first badger you have talked to.”

“Fifth, actually.” Bethany said. “The Raspthickets were nice, but not really clean-minded.”

As Arlyle thoroughly calmed herself, she noticed the spell trinket now clutched in the badger’s paw. She snatched it out of his grasp, and stared at it.

“A power attractor. Measuring magnitude and magical force, set over a distance of…a league or so?” When the badger nodded, she felt much better. He wasn’t looking for the Scourge of Darrenfell, just the most powerful being. That was manageable.

Bethany crouched next to the hole, and patted his head. “We’re sorry, Mr. Bricklebook. Ari doesn’t really like being snuck up on, and it seemed that way.”

“Announcing my presence without our intention was perhaps obtuse of me,” The badger admitted. “I will attempt to clarify.

“My employer and closest friend, Clissandra the Witch of the Murky Meadows, has been set upon by a horde of vandalous spellcasters. They are tearing apart the grasslands, disrupting her spellwork, and being a general nuisance that is bordering on dangerous. They are more than she can handle, and getting worse. She sent me to find the most powerful being in the county to deal with them.

“Would you please aid us in this quest?”

Arlyle looked at Bethany.

“Is the Witch a nice witch?” Bethany asked.

“Indubitably.”

Bethany frowned.

“That means yes,” Arlyle clarified.

“OK!”

 

The two acolytes trudged even further down the trail, now in relative silence. Greta had tried to restart conversations, which were rebuffed by Rafe with ease.

“I just want to find out where this damn tomb is, and then we can go back to doing real work.” Rafe cleared through the last of the brambles, and shuffled forward.

“So you think this doesn’t matter?” Greta asked.

“How often does the Order check on the Tomb?” Rafe asked. “Once a century? Not exactly a high priority for them. I’d rather be out, training…”

“Making another failed attempt at joining the Corps?”

Rafe stopped, and turned towards the gnome.

“You…gnome,” he snarled. “How did you even find out?”

“Gnome receptionist,” She said. “Applications come across my desk, and your name has been on a lot of applications. Thirty-eight?”

“Thirty-four!”

Greta shrugged. “Always the same sort of condolence response. Try applying next term, we are currently full, come back with different references.”

Rafe glared at her for a moment. He blurred, and the bow was in his hands. He drew, nocked, and shot three arrows before Greta could blink. She felt the shafts whistle in the air past her, and thunk into a tree behind her.

The gnome turned, and stared in awe. The three arrows were within a hairs breadth of each other, stuck into the knot of a tree. The gnome could swear the tree was a good hundred yards away from Cauley, and he couldn’t have picked his target more than a moment ago.

Rafe walked over to the arrows and collected them.

“I can shoot, I can move through the forest,” He put the arrows back in his bag. “And I am damn good with a knife or sword should anyone who threatens the Order make the mistake of coming too close. But no matter what, I am not suitable for anything better than this.”

He pushed past the gnome. “The Order said there was a settlement close by.”

Greta ran to keep up with him. “I can do stuff too!”

Rafe snorted.

“I can! I know you think I’m just some receptionist, but I swear that we were picked for a reason.”

“We were,” Rafe muttered. “We were available, and sending us wouldn’t take important people away from their duties.”

“That’s a really pessimistic view of the Order.”

“Nope, just how they view us.” Rafe kept moving forward. He loved the Order, loved what it stood for. But its constant degradation of his abilities just made it impossible for him to do his job.

“And where is this settlement?” Rafe shouted at the sky. Greta cowered. “We’ve been searching for three days and still found nothing!”

“Because you haven’t asked.”

copyright 2018 Jack Holder