Making Friends

“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.”

An old fox woman sat on a crate by the side of an old oak tree. She was knitting herself some socks, and smiling at the two acolytes from behind her silver fur and horn-rimmed spectacles.

“Now who might you two be?”

Greta pushed herself in front of Rafe. “Greetings. I am Greta von Hammersmit, and that is Rafe Cauley. We’re with the Order of the Flawed Snowflake, an organization that…”

“Puts its nose into everyone else’s business,” The fox woman said. “Specially if we mention the gods.”

Greta’s face blanched, but she regained her composure. “Ma’am, we don’t dismiss deities…”

“You just don’t want anyone to believe in them.” The fox woman smiled. “Don’t pay me no mind. I’m just an old fox doing some knitting.”

“Well, actually, maybe you could help us,” Greta said. “We’re actually looking for an old legend. A small cave or tomb, located somewhere around here.”

The woman frowned, and thought about it. “There are more than a few hollows in the forests, but nothing legendary.”

Rafe sighed, and looked at her. “Could we maybe speak with some of the fae around here? Someone who was around maybe a century ago?”

“A century? Oh, no.” The fox smiled. “No fae live around here. Haven’t for decades.”

“No one?” Greta asked.

“Not a one.” The fox leaned forward. “Too many humans, you know.”

“Of course.” Greta leaned forward, and whispered in the woman’s ear.

“I’m not quite that old, little one,” She chuckled.

Greta shuffled so Rafe couldn’t see, and flashed something else. The fox’s eyes narrowed, and she pushed Greta away.

“I don’t know nothing about what you’re talking about!” She said. “Now let me go back to my knitting.”

Rafe chuckled as they walked away, Greta dejectedly.

“What’s so funny?” Greta asked.

“You really are something,” Rafe said.

“I was just trying a softer approach than shooting everything!” Greta said.

“How?” Rafe asked. “Letting everyone know you’re a secret spy?”

“How did…” Greta started coughing, and rolled on the ground. She stood up, calmer. “I, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Not at all?” Rafe said. “So I didn’t see your special secret spy-in-training badge in your bag last night?”

Greta gasped. “That was private!”

Rafe shrugged. “Then find a better hiding spot.”

He smiled. “So. Trying to join the Seekers on a probation period. That’s a big jump for a secretary.”

“Receptionist.” Greta said. “And this was going to be field experience.” She sniffed. “Not that I’m confirming anything.”

“Of course.”

Greta walked faster, and pointed at him. “I don’t like you.”

“Likewise.”

“Bully.”

“Boring.”

“Thug.”

“Bad Spy.”

“Mean!”

“Don’t go out to the caves my dear, the gods are feeling wild…”

“Bad hair.”

“Bad fashion sense.”

“Wait!” Rafe held up a hand. “What was that?”

“They need some faith and a little blood…”

The two looked around. There! The children dancing around another tree, laughing.

“Specially from a young child.”

Greta opened her mouth, but Rafe beat her to it.

“Hey, kid!” He shouted. “Which way are the caves?”

“We’re not supposed to go to the caves, mister!” One of them shouted.

“Yeah, but which way are they?” Rafe asked.

They pointed west. “Down a ravine, and over the stream you’ll find it.” One of them said.

“You HAVE been there!” Someone else shouted. “I’m telling mom…ow!”

Rafe smiled. “We have the caves.”

 

Thelonius Bricklebook may have been a loquacious and brilliant badger for his species. Eloquent, loyal to a fault, and self-conscientious enough of his personal hygiene to keep it from becoming a nuisance. A perfect badger familiar, in his own opinion. However, he did not fully count on the necessities of working with an eight-year-old girl, or even the cutest little death goddess of vengeance. Case in point, trying to journey back to the Murky Meadows.

Theolonius stuck his nose back into the hole, preparing for the trudge back to the Murky Meadows.

“We’re going that way?” Bethany asked.

“Absolutely,” the badger said. “We have a couple days of travel before we get back to Clissandra, so we really should get a move on.”

“Not getting in.” Arlyle said.

“Ari!”

Bricklebook stood on his hind legs, and stared.

“You said you were going to help.”

“Bethany did.” Arlyle said. “And if we go, we aren’t going that way.”

Bricklebook started, and stopped, and started again. “Do you know the way to Murky Meadows?”

Arlyle’s mouth barely opened before Bethany interjected.

“No crossing planes without permission!” Bethany said.

Arlyle folded her arms, and huffed. She did promise, but she wasn’t going to like it.

“And we need to find a way to get to the Murky Meadows…” Bethany trailed off, and smiled weakly to Thelonius. “Though, maybe not something so small, Mr. Bricklebook?”

“Small?” Thelonius sniffed and tucked his head further in. “I may admit to a certain, well, snugness to my method of transport. But I assure you, there is comfort, there is warmth, there is…”

“Down.” Arlyle said. “No going down. No going in.”

“But…how…you, dear madam, are a goddess!” Thelonius exclaimed. “Make it work!”

“I’ll make…”

“Mr. Bricklebook.” Bethany patted the badger on the head, smiling. “Can Ari and I talk? Alone?”

He bristled, but relented. He inspected his tunnel as the goddess and her worshipper wandered off. The badger muttered about structural support and a host of architectural words that may or may not have been homonyms of each other.

Bethany laid a hand on her goddess’ shoulder. Calm, understanding. She looked at Arlyle, concern on her face.

“No underground,” Arlyle muttered.

“No underground.” Bethany agreed. “No more caves?”

Arlyle looked up at Bethany, and gripped her hands. She squeezed tight, not letting herself nod. The girl could not imagine. Could not comprehend centuries, millennia passing by in one’s own tomb. Trapped, losing one’s own self-identity. All the while the drip, drip, drip of the caves echo in her clay jar.

Not underground. No caves.

If Bethany understood any of this, or even thought of it, she didn’t let on. She hugged Arlyle like she always did, and whispered close. “We’re having an adventure, best friends!”

The girl turned to Thelonius, and kept the smile up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Bricklebook, but we cannot go in the tunnel.”

Thelonius sighed, and waved his tunnel goodbye. “Then how do you expect we reach the Murky Meadows?”

“Which way are they?” Arlyle asked.

The badger scrunched his snout, and thought. He pointed west, and a little north. “Maybe a league?”

Arlyle cracked her knuckles, twisted the crick out of her neck, and nodded. “Okay, hang on to Bethany’s hand.”

“Why?” Thelonius asked, even as Bethany grabbed his claws.

“If we cannot go down, and walking overground would take too long…” Arlyle’s eyes darkened, and she finally smiled.

“Then we must go up.”

Badgers are actually notorious for their screams. In battle, as children, in parental moments that children are not supposed to know about. They are loud, and occasionally obnoxious in their exclamations. This was something that Theolonius Bricklebook personally strove to be personally above. He was a familiar, and intelligent, he had something that other members of his race did not have. He must persevere and better himself.

But when a death goddess of vengeance has taken your grip on gravity and spun you willy nilly through the very skies above, a scream or two is called for. It may even be called the measured and appropriate response. And Theolonius Bricklebook was notoriously measured and appropriate.

“Wheeeeeee!!!!” Bethany’s screams of delight were a perfect counterpoint to the badger’s terror. She clutched tight at Arlyle’s hand, laughing at the wind rushing above and below her. The girl loved flying with Arlyle, and now they had a new friend to enjoy it with!

Arlyle kept smiling. She had to endure other beings right now, and that was a terrible turn of events. But Bethany was happy, and that made everything better.

They flew past the lake, past the great trees. Passed the long, rolling hills, to the mountains of the west. Arlyle sped towards the frozen peaks ahead, and stopped just before them. There, tucked between the mountains the broke the clouds, and the hills that swept low, were white grasslands. The fields were shrouded in a thick fog, completely covering everything.

Arlyle touched down just outside the Meadows, letting Bethany and Thelonius catch their breath. To some, this new land may have looked malevolent. To Arlyle, it was just odd.

“Welcome to Murky Meadows,” Thelonius said. “The fog settles in most of the year. Clissandra likes it that way.”

“A witch that doesn’t like the sun.” Arlyle looked to Bethany, checking her over. “Doesn’t seem nice.”

“Or maybe she has one of those skin conditions where too much sun is just not good for her.” Bethany said. “Or all her plants are fog plants, and even her magic. Maybe that’s it.”

Arlyle shrugged. They were here for an adventure.

Thelonius nodded to the center of the fog. There, jutting out of the murk, was a single stone spire. Green moss and trees dotted around it. And as Bethany and Arlyle walked up to it, the spire shuddered, and split open.

The Witch of the Murky Meadows strode from her spire clothed in pale purple. An apron was over her great cloak, the hood obscuring her face. She shuffled forward, dipping her gloved hands into a basket and pulling out dark seeds. She spread a few along her path as she went along her day.

Bethany took a deep breath, and called out. “Witch of the Murky Meadows?”

“Not today, children,” The Witch said. “I’ve too much to do.”

Bethany frowned, and ran up to her. “Witch, my name is Bethany. I am eight years old, have been to Fairyland and like my fog to be a bit more yellow, though your purple in the white is very pretty too. And I am here to spend time with you on an adventure!”

The Witch looked at her, and pulled back her hood. She was old. Lines crossed over her face. She had golden eyes, though the left eye was much paler than the right. Her mouth was set in a thin line, looking over the young girl.

“Would you…like a cookie?”

Bethany squealed, and ran over to the Witch. Arlyle’s eyes flashed, and she appeared next to the Witch before Bethany could grab the cookie. Arlyle sniffed the basket once, and nodded. No poison today.

Bethany accepted the cookie, and pointed to Arlyle. “This is Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell, and my bestest friend. We are here to help you.” She made a yummy sound. “Also, you make amazing cookies.”

The Witch looked around, searching, and she spotted Thelonius. Her face set further.

“Thelonius, what have you done?”

 

“Why did you join the Order?”

Rafe pushed a branch out of his way, and stepped further down the ravine.

Greta ducked under an outcropping of rock and hurried to keep up with him. “Look, you can keep trying to ignore me, but I am going to keep asking questions.”

“And writing the answers in reports for your little spy training?” Rafe snorted. “No thanks.”

“But we are supposed to be working together!” Greta said. She leapt over a bush. “Two acolytes of the Order, striving for good. And I wanted to know why you would join an Order without borders.”

Rafe kept moving in silence.

“A half-dwarf, half-elf. The two fae races who really don’t like each other, and have strong traditions and roots in community. Growing up one foot in either side must not have been easy. And then you find out that neither would let you fight to defend a country. You tried hiring on to mercenary groups, but your nationalism and pride kept showing up in interviews, and the captains would question your ability to fight against either race.”

Rafe stopped, and looked at her. “Please, will you shut up?”

Greta smiled, and moved on ahead of him. “I knew I was right. You’re a fighter, Rafe Cauley. You want to be out there, defending the weak. And the Order was the best chance you had to actually do that.”

Rafe nodded, and kept moving onwards.

“Am I supposed to analyze you now?”

Greta shrugged. “Being a spy was my best option for advancement. I’m not a leader, or a fighter. And there are more than enough researchers in an Order dedicated to mortal intelligence. I look fairly useless.

“But nobody suspects a gnome.” Greta smiled. “We’re always just there. In the background, doing background things. I figured being a spy could really work to my strengths and talents.”

“And the reason you joined the Order?”

Greta stopped at the edge of a stream, and looked at the cave they sought. It yawned open, a gaping mouth that promised death and destruction.

“The gods are petty, they are cruel, and they must be held in check.” She nodded to the cave. “The Scourge proved that the gods cannot be trusted.”

A believer. Rafe could appreciate that, but it might make her unstable. This mission needed to be over yesterday and this spy fanatic gone from his life.

He stepped up to the cave. “What did they say we were supposed to do once we got here?”

“Generally the Scourge tries to tempt us to break it free,” Greta said. “The Order just wants us to make sure that the thing is still here, still contained.”

She leaned into the cave. “Hello? Is the Scourge of Darrenfell still there?”

No response. Greta pulled out an amulet from her pocket, holding it up. It glowed a soft silver, a low sound emanating from it.

The gnome frowned, and put it back.

“What does that mean?”

“The Order gave me that amulet to check if the Scourge is there. A bright white light would have said yes, black no. Silver is…I’m not sure.”

“Which means?”

Greta stepped behind Rafe. “We go check, soldier guy.”

“Damn it.”

 

The Witch snapped her fingers. Sparks flew towards her fireplace, starting a blaze. She set a tea kettle on the spit, getting it ready to boil.

“As that waits,” she looked to the girls. “Can I interest either of you in a glass of water?”

Bethany nodded, her mouth currently full with another cookie. The witch drew some water from her well at the pump in the corner, and gave it to the girl.

“It is so nice to have visitors,” The witch said. “My name is Clissandra, though many call me the Witch of the Murky Meadows.”

“And you are in some trouble,” Arlyle muttered. She looked out the spire windows, back into the quickly darkening night sky.

Clissandra’s face fell. She looked at her kettle, and took it off sooner than she would have liked.

“It is not too much trouble. What kind of tea would you like?”

“Shaeryan Jade,” Arlyle looked at the witch. “Your familiar thought things were bad enough to find help. Even had a spell all set up to find us.”

Clissandra looked harshly at Thelonius. “You took the emergency spell?”

Thelonius grimaced. “It is an emergency, Clissandra.”

“It is nothing I cannot deal with.”

“They are hurting you,” The badger persisted. “They are hurting the Meadows.”

“Just a few rowdy kids.”

“Kids?” Arlyle and Bethany looked at each other. “We’re here to defeat kids?”

“You are here,” Clissandra filled two cups with tea, handing them to the girls. “Because I enjoy the company of two wonderful young girls who are also tea enthusiasts.”

Bethany smiled. “That’s us.” She laid a hand on Clissandra’s shoulder. “And good girls help those who need it.”

Clissandra sighed. “It is just a few kids, who seem to like being a bit rambunctious.”

“With a propensity for magic in their “rambunctious” mayhem,” Bricklebook muttered. “They have torn through the Meadows, and have a particularly potent desire to bring this spire down.”

“Why?” Bethany asked.

Clissandra started to answer, but Arlyle cut her off. “Because they’re mean, stupid kids.”

“Ari!”

“Am I right?” Arlyle asked. Clissandra did not have a satisfactory answer, and said nothing.

“You have a bunch of kids running around, just discovered they can use magic, and now they get to do whatever they want,” Arlyle muttered. “They are out where no one can tell them no. And the weird old lady by herself isn’t going to tell on them or make them stop.”

“It is not that bad.” Clissandra said.

“It can be worse.” Thelonius said.

“Well, we’re helping you, so it will get better.” Bethany smiled to Arlyle. “Right, Ari?”

“Sure thing. I’ll take care of it.”

“We, Arlyle.”

“Uh-huh.” Arlyle set down the empty tea cup, and stood up. “Now I need you both to stay inside with the annoying badger, and stay out of this.”

“Both?”

“Stay inside?”

“Annoying?”

“They’re here.”

There is a certain time when children cease to be cute, and instead become truly despicable wastes of resources, in Arlyle’s opinion. When they have lost the charm of innocence, and have instead become nothing more than pests, which shall not change with maturity, grace, or even the inevitable onslaught of death.

While many would find this a harsh assessment, young teenage magic users can very much fit this description. These five children in particular, riding towards the Witch’s spire, were apt examples of such terror.

They rode in on elemental spirits. Captured essences of air, earth, fire, water, lightning. Most likely tamed by their parents and teachers before given as pets, evidenced by their lack in care and maintenance. Even now as they dismounted, the spirits clashed with each other, cooped up and in close proximity to spirits anathema to each other.

The children did not care. They had spirits, the latest in fashionable robes, staffs that were top of the line, and an attitude that came with such riches. They sneered at the puny tower, another easy target for them.

The leader stepped forward, and spat. “Little witch, stupid witch, come out and play!” He shouted. His clothes were a bit finer, hair immaculately coifed to look like he just rolled out of bed, with a shiny new amulet to protect against anything Clissandra could have sent his way.

“They’re just kids.” Clissandra said.

“Who are going to hurt you.” Arlyle said. “Bethany, stay here.”

“I want to help!”

“Not right now. They’re big, they’re mean, and I can’t protect you if they all start attacking.” Arlyle said. “Please.”

Bethany smiled, and hugged her close. “Okay. Because you said please.”

Arlyle walked out muttering curses and threats to the niceties of language. Being nice twice over. What was she thinking?

The leader pointed at her. “Look at the dumb little grey girl!”

Arlyle debated ripping his soul apart then and there. But be nice, Bethany is watching. She took a deep breath, and nodded. “My name is Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell. Go away, or risk the wrath of a goddess.” There. She said the threat before doing anything. She was being nice.

The five kids laughed. “Dumb little spirit thinks it can mess with us.” The leader said. “With me?!? Bergsten Calombine the Fourth?”

“Witch thinks she found something fancy.” Rowinda taunted. Her sister Gallopy snickered.

The remaining boys, Erovin and Bob kept laughing. They kept a tight grip on the spirits, ready to turn them loose at a moment’s notice.

“I don’t know why she thought you could stop me, tiny thing.” Bergsten said. “But go back wherever you came from, and we might not hurt you too bad.”

Arlyle took another deep breath, and tried being nice again. “The witch gave us tea and cookies. You five are mean and stupid. Last chance, le…”

Bergsten lashed out with his staff. A bolt of magical energy shot out, slamming into the goddess. She disappeared in a burst of light.

“Wooo!” He shouted. He danced back to his friends, smiling. “You see that? Did you see that? I got her good, right smack dab in the kisser!”

His friends crowded around him, slapping him on the back. “That spirit is toast!” “Not a chance against you.” “Go Berg!”

“Not nice.”

Bergsten stopped cheering, and looked back. Arlyle stood where she was, seething. Her clothes were singed, and curls of smoke rose from her skull crown.

Nobody.” She snarled. “Touches. The skull crown.”

 

“Why are there traps?” Greta asked. The gnome danced forward, slipping past a burst of fire. “We are in a tomb that no one is supposed to know exist.”

“And if no one can tell of its existence, then it remains a myth.” Rafe said.

Greta spun on one heel, and ducked under a saw blade. “But the expense, Rafe! The spells, and the maintenance of such securities, that are supposed to last a century or more.

“And further, it is not like any of these traps could impede a freed goddess like the Scourge. She could wipe all of this away without even a glance. It is inefficient, ineffective, and somehow still infeasible.”

The gnome stamped her foot. “And why are you not dealing with these traps, soldier boy?”

Rafe shrugged. “Simple answer.”

“Why?”

“You were dumb enough to go first.” Rafe stepped down into the system. Greta was balanced on one foot, careful to not disturb one more mite of dust. Rafe knelt down in front of the traps, and hummed in tune with the whistle of spells and blades.

They continued for a minute, expending their power. Rafe was confused, and his face showed it. These traps looked fresh, extremely so. The nursery rhymes and myths on the caves seemed to have worked, preventing anyone from coming even close to the entrance, let alone down here.

So why was Greta’s amulet showing inconclusive results?

“Any ideas as to who could have released the Scourge?” Rafe asked.

Greta stumbled, and landed flat on her bum. She was up in a flash, arms at the ready to take on any trap. When none came, she relaxed.

“None. I looked over some of the supposed curses and defensive measures the Order established when they entombed the Scourge. This was built to withstand armies, or great liches. This entire cave system would collapse upon itself before these defenses would fold.”

“So we should just go home,” Rafe said. “If the traps haven’t been set off…except by us…then the Scourge must not have been released.”

Greta managed to pull the amulet out and hold it aloft. “No white, no good, archer boy. We keep going.”

And so they did. With a little pushing, and the promise to fill out the paperwork, Greta managed to convince Rafe to join her in navigating through the traps. With Rafe’s archer eyes and Greta’s knowledge of the files, they were able to push through without incident. Until they reached the pool of water.

Greta looked into the water, and dropped a pebble into it. It quickly sank, before turning red a few feet down and disappearing into the depths. “Any clue about this? The records did not mention a water hazard.”

Rafe thought about it. There was something about jumping six times in the children’s incessant rhyming, but that must have just been some of their own rhetoric. The lake that extended before them must have almost been a quarter mile across. Not exactly six jumps.

It was time to do something that Rafe hated.

He set his bow down, and started to draw runes in the earth beneath him. He muttered elven words under his breath, keeping his spell in concert with his rune work. Before Greta even thought to look down, he had drawn a bronze knife from behind his back, and cut the both of their hands. He slapped their blood upon the last rune, causing it to burst into white light.

Greta yelped, and almost jumped backwards. Rafe grabbed her wrist, before she jumped backwards into the lake.

The gnome looked on in wonder, now on the other side of the trap. “How. How?”

Rafe stuck the knife behind his back. “Lot of studies, too much experimenting, and not enough friends to play with.”

The great underground lake was a gaping maw, inviting everyone further in. sink into the depths, wash all troubles away. Responsibilities, duties, families…life, all gone beneath the surface.

Greta was not tempted. But then again, she was on the other side, away from the traps. She was running the nursery rhyme through her head, trying to discover some sort of clue as to the next trap.

“Jump six times, turn around three. What could that possibly mean? The gods might kill or invite to tea?”

“Terrible writing,” Rafe agreed. “Whoever came up with the idea should be drawn and quartered by his own pen.”

Greta frowned. “He…or she…was most likely a member of the Order.”

“I stand by my statement.”

Greta could not find a proper response to that. She was too busy analyzing what might come next. There was the remnant of a spell, though something was missing. The spell was asking for something in particular, something that could not be known.

“Have you ever tried to ask a question you weren’t sure of yourself?” She asked. “You knew it was important, but you couldn’t actually properly define what it was?”

“Not really.”

“Of course not. You’re simple enough to always be sure.” Greta looked into the open space before them. It led up towards a great structure, but it was this space in between that Greta was scared of. It needed something, and someone, to start it off. If there was none, then the magic would find other ways of being brought to life. Probably in a most violent fashion.

Greta took out her insignia. A single snowflake, one stem broken off, another faded into nothingness. She held it aloft, letting the air take it in.

“We are with the Order of the Flawed Snowflake!” she called out. “We seek the Scourge. Not to harm her, or to help. We are just checking on her. We have no designs, no machinations, and no schemes beyond sight, sound, and peace of mind.”

The ground rumbled. A piece of rock cracked, and fell to the ground.

Greta turned to Rafe. “Tell what you’re doing here!” She hissed.

“Same.” Rafe said.

The rumbling grew louder, angrier.

“And I want to show the Order I’m not an idiot!” Rafe shouted. “That I can actually be a soldier!”

“And I want to prove I’m a good spy even if I say it too often!” Greta added.

The rumbling subsided, sated.

Greta put the symbol away. “There, a little truth was all we needed. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“I would like to hurt you.” Rafe muttered.

 

“Arlyle, the Scourge of Darrenfell, and my best friend…stop it!”

“What?” Arlyle looked at Bethany, questioning. “What’s wrong?”

“You know very well what’s wrong, and you should stop it this instant!”

“It” was currently chasing Bergsten and his cohorts across the Meadows. A pair of old bears, dark forest green and covered in strange runes, lolling across the ground on their great legs.

Bergsten and his crew had laughed at the bears. Even tried to shoo them away. But it wasn’t until their second attempt at casting spells fell flat that they realized they were really five children up against two very perturbed mother bears. That was when Arlyle got to enjoy the show.

The goddess herself was enjoying her tea, with some lovely biscuits that she partook alongside Thelonius Bricklebook. The badger nibbled alongside, trying unsuccessfully to hide the unadulterated glee on his face as the bears swiped a claw a mite too close to one of the children.

Clissandra sat in the stone spire. Waiting, perhaps, or preparing a spell of her own. Who could tell?

And Bethany? Bethany was dismayed. “This is not how we solve our problems, Ari!”

Arlyle pointed at the children. “They were unruly, disgusting little snots that were going to set a witch ablaze for being different. Now they are enjoying a change of character.”

“You set a pack of bears on them!”

Arlyle shrugged. “I’ve learned that mauling builds character.”

“It does not, and you know it!” Bethany shouted.

As if to demonstrate her point, Erovin managed to escape long enough to cast a spell. Seeing the argument between girl and goddess, and deducing that Bethany held power, he tried to conjure a cage of fire around the girl. That was most likely the last straw.

Arlyle dispelled the conjuring with a glance. A snap of her fingers had the boy bound in chains, and a harsh word felled the other four, who were soon gazing upward at roaring bears.

“Look at them, Bethany.” Arlyle glared balefully at each child in turn. “They do not understand compassion, or reason, or logic. They have enjoyed the bounties of life, and have used them to further grind their heels into the necks of those they would deem unworthy of life. If we seek to merely punish, or distract, let alone reason with, they will respond with force and destruction.”

With a wave Arlyle brought the children forward. She glowed with a dark light, her skin a soft green, as dark flames manifested, licking around her and her prey.

“Well, look upon a true power, little specks. Look upon someone who will not forgive, or excuse, or make amends for your chaos. I am the Scourge of Darrenfell, the death goddess of vengeance that made the gods quake in fear. I am back, and I do not suffer those who slight me.”

She held a ball of green flame aloft, ready to find her first victim.

“Who shall it be?”

“Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

Bethany grabbed Arlyle and held her close. The goddess gasped, her light out in an instant. The flame was snuffed before it could do any damage to the young girl.

Bethany was crying. Crying. Tears ran down her eyes as she looked at Arlyle.

“You’re supposed to be my best friend, Arlyle. We’re supposed to have tea parties, and, and go fun places…and have adventures! We aren’t supposed to let anyone be hurt just because I wanted to go on an adventure.”

Arlyle hugged her friend close. “Bethany, please,” Arlyle said. “Just breathe, it will be all right.”

“All right?” Bethany looked at the children. “You’re about to hurt them, or worse!”

“And they deserve it.” Arlyle looked too. “You see children, just a bit older than you. I see new villains, ready to hurt the world for the fun of it. If we let them go free, what will happen to Thelonius? Or your new friend Clissandra?”

Bethany blinked tears away. The badger was standing next to the spire, looking expectantly at the proceedings. He stayed silent, not wanting to interject with his own biases.

“They were going to hurt her, and if they don’t get that, they’ll hurt her even worse because their… their fun,” Arlyle spat the word at the children. “Was ruined.”

Arlyle set the girl down, and walked over to the children. She seemed to grow taller, fairer. Her skull crown darkened, stretching into the heavens. “If I do not stop them now, then all their crimes they shall ever commit will be on my head for allowing it to happen. Our heads.”

“Is that bad?”

Bethany looked at Arlyle. “Is that so bad, to let other people make mistakes?”

“These are not mistakes, child.” Arlyle started to seethe. “This is malice, plain and simple. They want to hurt people.”

“And that needs to stop.” Bethany pointed her finger at Bergsten. “You are mean. And Arlyle was right to scare you. But the other stuff, I don’t know.”

“We will never hurt anyone again.” Bergsten breathed. “We will not set one foot on these lands, not even look at it wrong.”

“He lies.” Arlyle said. “They all will.”

Bethany nodded. “I don’t want anyone to be hurt. Anyone. Either by feeling bad by doing bad, or having done something terrible to stop something worse.”

The girl stamped her foot. “Why can’t we all just be extra nice to everybody? Just try really hard to do good, and when you try to do bad stuff, you have to stop and say sorry?”

Arlyle shook her head. “The world doesn’t work that way, dear friend.”

 

“We are in so much trouble.”

The winds from the outside spun through the great caves. Howled up through the temple of the death goddess of vengeance, swirling around the Acolyte’s clothes. Rafe stood off to a side, looking at the altar. The half-dwarf hadn’t cowered in ages, decades even. But he thought about it now, and his trembling knees were in agreement.

“Maybe not.”

Greta held up the clay prison of the Scourge of Darrenfell. The clay jar rang hollow, and looked the part. The gnome had a curious expression on her face, contemplating two ideas. One, that the embodiment of chaos and destruction, the foundational calamity of the Order, could be held in such a container. And two, what it must have been like.

“Maybe not? The Order has kept the Scourge locked away for thousands of years. Protected the world from her wrath, locked her away in secret. And now we, because we are the ones who found it, are the ones who are going to be blamed for her release.”

“If we hadn’t investigated,” Greta said. “And instead trusted a simple silver amulet, we would be on our way home, none the wiser. And it could be a hundred years before the Order thought something was wrong. That is, of course, assuming Arlyle had not destroyed the world in that time.

“All in all, I think we did a remarkably fine job.”

Rafe nodded. “Great. Wonderful, even. Absolutely fantastic. I’ll make sure to be in a different country than you when you give that particular report to the Masters, but good on you, Greta!”

“Good on us, Rafe.” Greta said. “And we are not going to the Masters.”

Rafe stared. And then he started back down the great temple steps. “Nope!”

“Rafe. Raphael!”

“Nope nope! Not doing that, not at all!”

“We have the freshest trail there is going to be. If there is even the slightest chance that we could find her, then we have an obligation…”

“To be obliterated out of existence when she discovers who we are.” Rafe started to take two stairs at a time. “Not my idea of a fun Thorsday, but you do you.”

“What would they do for the people who found the Scourge…” Greta trailed off into thought. “Spy training would be the least of it. And you, well, you could have your very own command!”

“They’d all be trained in hand-to-hand combat, have perfect aim from five hundred yards, and be able to float on a bee because they’re imaginary since it would never happen!” Rafe said. “Good day!”

“I’ll fill out your paperwork for an entire year!”

“Three!”

“Two!”

“Let’s find us a death goddess!”

Greta followed him down. All the preparations were running through her head. The messages to be sent to the Order, supplies and horses would need to be requisitioned. And then start developing contacts, and informants. Back alley deals by the light of a sliver of moon, all while chasing down the most hated enemy the Order ever had! Greta von Hammersmit, secret agent, on the case!

Rafe made it to the bottom. “I still don’t like you!”

 

Bergsten knocked on his mother’s door.

“Mother?”

The woman stood at the other side, cautious. Her son had not been there in weeks, more used to what her ex-husband called “strong manners.” Bergsten had in fact left when she pleaded he stick around, and help his poor mother around the house.

“Mother?” Bergsten tried again. “I’m home.”

His mother opened the door, just enough to peek out. “This is home, now, is it?” She asked. “I thought you declared this the worst place on earth.”

Bergsten nodded, bowing his head in shame. “And I’m really sorry about that. And a lot of other things too.”

“Oh?” She opened the door further, and crossed her arms. “And what would those be?”

Bergsten stuck into the ground with his toe, trying to look away. “When I was five years old…I was starting to learn fire spells. And I lit the doily set on fire that stupid Aunt Begonia sent you that you never used, and lied and said that dad had done it. I’m sorry about that.”

His mother’s eyes bugged out, but he continued. “And, and two months after that? I said that my pet lizard had finished my vegetables, and that’s why I didn’t eat them, but I threw them in the garbage instead. I don’t think we even had a lizard. I’m sorry about that too.”

He kept continuing a list to his open-mouthed mother, in chronological order, of all the things he had to feel sorry for. Just down the street, Rowinda and Gallopy were with their own parents, telling of the pranks they had played on the town, on the family, on the familiars, even on each other. Erovin was bawling to his father, unable to hold it all in. Bob apologized once for hanging out with those friends, before setting back out to the Meadows to more thoroughly apologize to Thelonius Brickleboook.

All the onlookers were too stunned to notice the new rings on their left pinkies. Green stones, with a solid black band, wedged tightly on. The friends knew they were never going to come off, and that it would be a long while before they were done apologizing. They all agreed they had the better end of the deal, and fell into the enchantment with enthusiasm.

Arlyle and Bethany watched it all. They had already promised the evening to the Witch and badger, filled with cakes and dancing, and Arlyle even promised to play a game or two which caused no end of delight to the other three. But she watched Bethany, amazed at the smile on her friend’s face.

“Saying sorry isn’t enough,” she muttered.

“It’s a start.” Bethany hugged the goddess. “And I get to be with you.

Arlyle pushed her away, the first time she had ever done so. “I can’t just ignore this, Bethany. I deal in vengeance, this will happen again. Especially if we keep doing adventures.”

“And I’ll keep doing this again,” Bethany promised. “Happy vengeance. We’ll have adventures, and dole out justice with kindness, and be back in time for supper.”

Arlyle smiled this time. Wistfully, hopefully, or painfully, who could tell?

“What’s next?”

copyright 2018 Jack Holder

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