Mors Funebris Ch. 4, P. 1.

Stepping In, by Dieter Schwertberger

Mors Funebris Chapter 4 Part 1

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“You said, Never!”

Mara turned and looked over her shoulder. She was shocked to see who it was that called out to her.

“Boto?” She gaped. Seven steps away, standing next to Mara’s beach chair was her adopted Vadhagh daughter; Boto. She was crying so hard, that tears were streaming down her face.

Mara’s first instinct was to go and comfort her distressed child.

But as soon as she turned away from that delightful castle, its music rapidly dissolved into the roar of the surf. Perplexed by its abrupt absence, Mara stopped and began to turn her head back.

 “Never!” Boto wailed loudly enough to cause Mara to forget the castle and its music.

“Boto?” Mara asked. “What are you doing? You shouldn’t be here!” she chided. Then Mara stopped and goggled at the incongruous tableau before her. First was that Boto was dressed inappropriately for a day at the beach.

‘A nightgown?’ She wondered. “Young lady, where’s your swim,…?” she demanded, then stopped.

Stopped because in that ephemeral moment, Mara’s sense of unreality grew when she realized that Boto wasn’t alone. Then her heart skipped a beat when she saw what was standing next to her.

A couple of feet to Boto’s right, there was a man who almost wasn’t there. He was an indistinct, almost nebulous person. He, for Mara somehow knew it was a ‘he’, focused most of his attention on something that seemed more real than he was.

She focused to see what it was. ‘A pocket watch?’ she goggled, ‘What’s so special about that?’ Yet that weird person’s proximity to her daughter wasn’t the only thing that unnerved her.

It was the fact that he wasn’t alone.

Suspended over the sands behind him, were three increasingly dimmer versions of him. That shadowy trio echoed in a line pointing backwards to the thunderstorm enshrouded Iron Foundation complex.

“Get away from her!” Mara raged at the abnormal stranger, suddenly afraid for Boto’s safety. The nearest one briefly shifted his attention towards Mara. Then he placed his head close to Boto’s. Almost as if he were talking to her.

“Mama please!” Boto shouted out, “Come back!” she pleaded, tears still streaming down her eyes.

Mara’s confusion grew when she noticed that the pitch of Boto’s voice was inconsistent with her distance.

Physically, she was only a few steps away, just on the other side of the beach chair. Yet she sounded as if she were a dozen times more distant. Mara could only just hear her over the roar of the ocean.

“Boto? What’s wrong?” Mara fretted. “Why are you crying? Has that person hurt you?!” she demanded.

‘How dare he!’ She thought. Infuriated by the notion, she took a step towards him. Determined to show him what for, and immediately regretted it.

“Ah!” she yelped, and stumbled when every single one of her burn-wounds flared slightly.

‘What’s going on?’ she demanded, her eyes darting back and forth searching for the cause. The pain wasn’t much, she felt more surprised than shocked.

Then

“MAMA!” Boto cried out once more. Mara jerked her head and frowned when she saw that Boto was reaching out to her in desperation. As she watched, Boto began to rush past Mara’s beach chair. She only took one step before the stranger put out a restraining hand on her shoulder and silently mouthed a ‘NO!’.

“Mama! Please come back!” Boto cried again as she vainly struggled against the stranger’s grasp. Then she looked up at the stranger and mouthed a question, Mara couldn’t hear.

From afar, Mara saw his pocket watch fall to the ground, as he kneeled in front of her upset daughter. He then gently placed both his hands on her shoulders, and shook his head regretfully.

“Please!” Mara heard Boto begging of the nebulous stranger. Mara couldn’t hear what his reply was. Yet judging from his body language; he was cautioning Boto from advancing further beyond. Boto frowned as she looked morosely at the chair. After a second Boto nodded her head and bowed her head.

Then the stranger stood up and retrieved his pocket watch. Then he resumed his vigil alongside Boto. Behind him, all of his echoes continued to remain motionless, as if waiting.

‘For what?’ Mara wondered.

 “Mama!” Boto began again. “Come to me! Please?” she said as she reached out an imploring hand towards her. Mara stared at it indecisively for several wave crashes.

Then, moved by her daughter’s tears, she forced herself to stand up and take another step.

“AAAH!” she cried out painfully as her wings suddenly felt seared in hundreds of spots.

‘My wings! Why are they hurting so? All I did was take a step.’ she thought, perplexed.

“Ooww!” Mara moaned. Then she recalled that relief awaited her only a couple steps back.  She began to turn.

“NOOOooo!” Boto cried shrilly, loudly enough to give Mara pause.

“Don’t look back Mama!” Boto shouted.

“What?” Mara replied, confused.

“Don’t Look Back!”

“Boto.” Mara replied, ‘Why is it so important I not look back?’ she wondered, puzzled.

“PROMISE ME! PROMISE THAT YOU WON’T LOOK BACK!” Boto screamed hysterically, shaking both of her hands up and down.

“All right, all right, I promise!” Mara called out. She still didn’t comprehend what upset Boto so. But she was willing to do anything to keep her happy.

Mara almost smiled when Boto began to settle down.

“Come to me Mama.” Boto called out, this time more calmly.

“I can’t.” Mara panted. “It hurts too much. Why don’t you come to me instead?” Mara shot back as she presented an inviting hand.

“It doesn’t work like that, Mama. You have to come to me!”

“What doesn’t work?”  Mara asked confusedly, trying to comprehend.

“You’ll understand when you get here.” Boto paused. “I know it’s painful for you Mama, and I’m sorry. But that’s just the way things are!” Boto shook her head and blinked away some tears.

“Explain it to me now.” Mara demanded firmly. Boto’s face screwed as she began to think about it. Then her face lit up.

“It’s like when I was down in the Tunnels. Do you remember then?”

“I,…no.” Mara paused as she tried to think about it. For some reason those memoires had faded, almost to nothing. Yet they hadn’t occurred that long ago.

‘Why can’t I remember that?’ she wondered. Then, suddenly she did remember, the more she searched her memory.

“Yes.” She replied.

“What was it you told me? When I said I didn’t want to go up?”

Mara shook her head, perplexed.

“The-way-things-are! You told me that, because I couldn’t stay where I was anymore. Remember?”

“Yes.” Mara replied, mostly to herself, she did remember something like that. She had said it when she was trying to convince Boto to come up out of the tunnels underneath the Iron Foundation.

“Yes. YES! I was so scared then, it was painful! Yet you held me close every time it became too much. Didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Mara said firmly, smiling as she finally remembered. “Yes, I do remember. I was so proud when you faced your fear.”

“That’s right Mama. I faced my pain. I did it because you asked me to.” Boto smiled haltingly as she held out her hand.

“Now I’m asking you to do the same for me. Please?”

Looking back at her daughter, Mara began to recall all of the times she’d spent with her, the good, the not-so-good, and the bad times..

‘I could have more times with her.’ She realized. ‘I shall.’ She decided.

Resolute. Mara stood up and took another step. She grimaced when her pain flared. After a momentary hesitation, she did it again.

“Ah!” a moan slipped past her control. She did her best to push away the rest that threatened to emerge.

“Yes Mama, that’s right! Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” Boto cajoled.

Mara had to pause then, as her wings suddenly felt as if they were on fire. Mara flipped her right wing forward to figure out why. She gaped in shock at the sight.

“No!” she cried in dismay, “Why are my wounds coming back?” she demanded. As Mara watched, what had been a long scar a few seconds ago. Opened up and began to drip blood.

“Why?! How?” she goggled at the sight.

“MAMA!” Boto shouted. “I know it hurts! But don’t focus on that! Focus instead on me!” she demanded.

Mara stared confusedly at Boto for a long moment. Then she shrugged her wing back into place, swallowed her fear and confusion. Then advanced another step, and her pain incremented up another level.

“NNgggh!” she grumbled, and panted a couple of times to steady herself. ‘Stop this! Go away!’ she demanded of her pain.

“Just a little bit more Mama, Please.” Boto implored tearfully. The sight of her tears motivated Mara like little else could. She forced herself erect, and resolutely set her shoulders back. 

‘Nothing will keep me from my daughter!’ she decided, as she focused on Boto. She took another step, and then another, then two more. With every step her pain hammered at her, yet she did her best to keep it at arm’s length.

When Mara looked up at the last. She smiled when she realized that Boto was almost within arm’s reach.

‘I can do this!’ Mara decided, as she took another step. Then she heard Boto say something odd.

“Just a little more?” Boto begged.

Mara was so close to her daughter, that she sounded normal now. Not at all far away. But she was also close enough to hear the blurry man’s voice over the sound of the waves crashing.

“I am sorry. The allotted time ends.” He apologized not to Mara, but to Boto.

“But she’s so close!” she begged frustratedly. The blurry man leaned over and shook his head.

“The peril grows. We must return.” He stated resolutely, as he took ahold of Boto’s hand. Then he firmly turned her around, and began leading her back towards the distant thunderstorm

As she began, Boto looked over her shoulder and reached out as if she could grasp Mara from afar.

“NO!” Mara screamed out. ‘Don’t take her from me!’ she thought, as she pushed back against her pain, and started running towards the pair.

Mara staggered when she made it past her beach chair.

‘What the,…?’ she wondered. ‘It felt as if I passed over a barrier.’ She thought, then she resumed her running.

‘Hey,…?’ she sputtered when suddenly, despite the flatness of the sand, she felt like she was climbing uphill!

It seemed as if she was getting heavier with every footstep! Until a half dozen steps later, she slowed to a walk. It felt as if she couldn’t lift her feet anymore. And as always, she did her best to push back her pain.

‘rest.’ Mara panted, as she fell to her hands and knees, shaking with fatigue. After a couple of breaths, she realized she felt an odd sensation. ‘Why does it feel like something is pulling me back?’ she wondered,

“Mama!” Boto cried out from somewhere ahead. Somehow, Mara found the strength to raise her head and stare at what lay beyond.

Boto and the stranger were now at the outer edge of the Thunderstorm. As Mara watched, Boto broke free of the stranger’s grasp. Then she began to run back towards her adoptive Mother.

Mara’s flicked upwards and saw something that drove her sense of unreality into overload. For far out beyond Boto, the Stranger, and even beyond the Iron Foundation, was a gigantic old-fashioned clock. It was so large it dwarfed the thunderstorm.

Its left edge reached out of sight to the left, then it arced up to above the heavens and then plunged down to an unimaginable distance to Mara’s right.

Its face held two massive hands seemingly frozen in place, poised a few seconds from Midnight. As she stared, lightning flashed once in the thunderstorm. Almost simultaneously, the longer of the two clock’s hands ticked one-step closer to midnight.

‘,..and to the end of my time.’ Mara realized. ‘My doom.’ She quavered in realization. Scared beyond measure.

“MAMA!” Boto howled. “DON’T GIVE UP!” Mara could see the indistinct stranger attempting to take ahold of Boto, but she fought him off and ran towards Mara once more.

“KEEP MOVING!” Boto screamed, tears of desperation in her eyes. Mara tried to get up, but her back, wings, and tail protested mightily every time she moved. Until finally, Mara couldn’t move anymore.

“I can’t. I’m sorry Boto. It hurts too much.” She sobbed despairingly.

By then the blurry stranger had caught up to Boto. Who looked up and asked him something. After his reply, she turned around and faced Mara, her demeanor indecisive.

“My first Mama,” Boto began slowly, quietly, “wanted to stay.” She paused and swallowed.

“But the Bad One didn’t give her a choice.” She sniffled. Mara’s breath caught in her throat. She didn’t like where this was going.

“You do.” Boto whispered plaintively, in a tone that tore at Mara’s soul.

“Boto,..” Mara whimpered.

“Are you tired of me now?” Boto demanded.

“Noooo.” Mara moaned.

“Have I been a bad girl?”

“Boto, NO! Of course not!” Mara cried, shaking her head.

“Then come and be my Mama again.”

“Why don’t you come to me?” Mara countered.

“I would come to you. But I can’t” Boto said tearfully. “I can’t, because it’s not my time. It doesn’t have to be yours either. Please Mama, do what you have to do! Just KEEP MOVING!” she begged one final time.  Then she turned away and took the vague man’s hand.

Mara watched in increasing desperation, as the unlikely pair resumed their trek back towards the Iron Foundation.

“Boto!” Mara bleated helplessly, but she was too far away to hear. Mired in loneliness and fatigue, Mara collapsed.

As she lay on the sand, the darkling sky above her swirling by the thunderstorm’s edge, Mara allowed herself to remember.

A time when her Mother, the Great Maou, had turned away from her. She always had ‘Big-Plans’ for Mara, just not that night, or as it turned out. Any other.

There was always one excuse after another. The most common one?

‘I’m too tired.’ Mara remembered, and clenched her eyes tight with the pain of rejection. The pain that still hurt her, years later.

Then as Mara remembered her time as child/Imp, she discovered something that she hadn’t truly believed existed anymore.

Her innocence.

Somehow, in some unknowable way, Mara had held onto a portion of her innocence. An innocence that resonated with Boto’s.

Mara marveled at it for a short while. For some reason, the knowledge that yes, she did indeed have some.

Gave her strength.

Mara looked up at the retreating pair, now dwarfed by their nearness to the foundation buildings. She made her choice.

“Boto.” She said firmly, resolutely.

Then she stood up, her face set into an iron mask.

‘Boto.’ She thought.

She took a step, and winced. Winced, because her wounds clawed against her. She countered that pain with a thought: ‘Boto’.

Another  step, another wince, ‘Boto.’

Overhead, the lightning flashed, and the minute hand moved another tick Dimly Mara was aware that she had less than ten seconds left.

That knowledge scared her, but she didn’t let it stop her.

With every painfilled step, she countered that pain with her motivation, ‘Boto.’

‘Boto.’,

‘Boto’.,

‘Boto;’.,

‘Boto.’,…

Then, before she was aware of it, just as her wounds began storming in equal measure to the thunderstorm above. Somehow, she had stumbled past the Foundation’s access gate.

Shaking and quivering from near exhaustion, Mara paused and marveled at her progress.  Before her, just a couple steps away, lay the open vestibule doors of the Foundation’s entryway.

Beyond the vestibule lay a wondrous sight. The sight of her adopted daughter. She was stretched out in sleep, lying atop,…..

‘Arawn?’ Mara goggled in surprise. ‘I thought she was afraid of him!’ she wondered, as a kernel of jealousy began to form within her.

‘What’s going on?’ she chuffed. Before she was aware, she took those steps, and encountered an invisible wall.

One that held her momentarily, and caused her to feel every pain she’d ever experienced in life- All at Once!

“AAH!” Mara screamed as she stumbled backwards.

“What?!” She panted, “What is this?” she demanded, as she reached out a hand and tried to gently explore the nothingness before her.

Then, just a few inches away, the tip of her leading finger pressed against a softly yielding surface. When it contacted, Mara felt a sharp stab of pain that lanced all the way up her arm.

“Ah!” she yelped and snatched her arm back.

Confused and surprised, she kept poking at it. Doing her best to find a way around this unseeable barrier. All too soon it became clear. It covered the doors in their entirety.

“NO!” she screamed furiously, as she beat her hands onto the unyielding barricade, ignoring the pain that stabbed back at her every time.

‘no.’ she sobbed. ‘why now?’ she wondered as fell to her knees in despair. There she kneeled for what seemed the longest time, as another peal of lightning flashed overhead.

She reached out towards the glass paned front door, only inches from her fingertips. But it as may as well have been miles.

Mara closed her eyes in frustration.

“Boto!” she whisper/wailed, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do!” she said, ready to give up.

“Then let me help you.” Came a soft, unfamiliar voice. Mara’s eyes slowly opened, and then stared up at whoever it was standing before her.

It was a woman, but not a human one.

No, that cast of eyes and the purplish sheen of her skin could only belong to one folk.

‘A Vadhagh!’ Mara realized. She roved her eyes around this sad-eyed stranger.

“Who are you?” Mara asked hoarsely.

The stranger didn’t answer at first, as she stared forlornly down at Mara.  Then she opened her mouth, and spoke.

“I am she who would endure a thousand years of the world’s pain. If only I could have one more minute with her.” The stranger replied cryptically. Mara felt humbled, somehow.

“I who violate so many rules with my presence,…” the stranger began to herself, and then stopped. “Alas, all has been taken from me, save only my gratitude.”

“Wait!” Mara replied, as she recognized this stranger. “I think know you now. In Boto’s memories. You’re Aezieli. Her mother.”

Aezieli didn’t reply, save only that she smiled with a sadness that nearly broke Mara’s heart, and nodded once.

“Why are you here?”

“I stand vigil for her time. As my mother did for me. And she hers.” Aezieli finished replying. Then she opened her mouth as if to say something else. Then she closed it without another word.

“You look like you wanted to ask me something.” Mara asked, Aezileli smiled.

“I ask only that you be there for her. As I can no more.”

“I want to, but I can’t!” Mara cried. “Something is stopping me. It hurts too much for me to get through it.”

“That something is the Veil of Life. Your life-strength that would allow you passage, has ebbed. You tarried too long near the Quiet-Betwixt.”

“The what?” Mara asked, confused. “What are you talking about? I don’t understand!”

“It is the threshold to Sorrows-End. Where Pain is no-more. Even now you can still come forth.”

“How?” Mara implored.

“Banish your desire.” She whispered. “To return to your castle.”

Mara opened her mouth to deny it. But stopped when she realized that she’d be lying if she did. She licked her lips as she looked to Aezlieli.

“Anything else?” Mara demanded shakily.

“Cease the denial of your pain. Embrace it instead.”

“WHAT!?” Mara cried, aghast.

“Life is Pain, Mara.

“I’m supposed to suffer?

“Only Pain is mandatory. Suffering is your choice.”

Mara shook her head in confusion, her mind didn’t understand Aezieli’s words. Yet, strangely, another, deeper part did. It called to her.

“I don’t know if I can do it.” Mara quavered. “Not alone.”

“You are never alone Mara. For have you not made it this far? Inspired by the words of Boto and the actions of her companion?”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Mara realized as she thought back. “What must I do?”

“Take my hand.” She replied. As she held out her hand. It was only inches away from Mara’s outstretched one.

“That’s it?”

“Yes, but do it soon. As neither of us has much time.” She said as another peal of lightning flashed overhead. “You have but one second left.”

Steeling herself, Mara raised her hand and lightly pressed it against the barrier. When it stung her fiercely, she pulled back.

“Do it.” Boto’s mother demanded.

“I can’t.” Mara panted.

“You must! If you do not succeed in the here and now? Then I will have to collect her before her allotted time!” Aezieli growled, her eyes flaring.

“Take my hand Mara! If not for me! Or for yourself? Then take it for HER!” Aezlieli snarled as she opened her fingers wide, ready to receive Mara’s grasp.

Staring back up at her, Mara began to push once more, and tried to ignore the pain. In response, the barrier began to harden.

‘No!’ she realized. ‘Accept it!’ she realized. So instead of trying to push back against her pain, she allowed it access.

“YES!” she heard Boto’s mother, not quite shout.

Somehow, Mara found a well of strength deep within; she opened herself to her pain. It blazed as it bore into her. Suddenly, Mara’s hand sunk into that barrier a fraction of an inch. But it sunk in none the less!

“Continue.” Aezieli commanded as Mara panted. The pain on her wings began to burn with a fury she’d not encountered since the Atrium.

The rain of the thunderstorm began to rage around her, as she continued to push and accept, over and over! Pushing out towards that distantly close hand, and allowing her pain to melt into her.

As she did, she began to remember her most painful moments. But as she remembered, she also remembered the joys that followed.

“Yes!!” Aezieli grinned, “You comprehend!” Mara goggled, when she realized her hand’s passage had begun to accelerate.

Mara shook with the effort, as she managed to sink her knuckles further into the barrier.

‘It’s like tar!’ she thought then. Then, Mara felt a surge of accomplishment when she felt Aezieli’s fingertips pressing against hers.

“Never Give Up Mara!” Boto’s mother encouraged.

To Mara’s dismay, she felt her every one of her hairs stand up.

‘Static charge!’ She realized. ‘My last lightning will strike soon!’ Mara closed her eyes in negation and pushed and accepted her life’s pain into every remaining bit of her existence.

“NEVER SURRENDER!”  Aezieli shouted, as Mara accepted all of her frustration, all of her rage, and all of her pain into a single focused scream.

‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!’ Mara howled endlessly until her entire existence coalesced on the goal of reaching Aezieli’s hand.

As she did, she felt as if she were falling through an endless void that stretched out to infinity! Obscure forms and scenes flashed by her on all sides.

Then, as the last of the barrier finally give way. She felt Aezieli’s hand begin to take ahold of her own.

The lightning thundered overhead, dazzling Mara’s eyes, leaving her blinded and deafened.

Then Mara blinked and shuddered in confusion as her hand grasped,…

At nothing.

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“what?” she muttered in the sudden quiet, panting. Tears of exhaustion in her eyes.

After a short while of rest. She tried to look around herself.

Her eyes were still dazzled by the last lightning flash. She couldn’t see anything. Then she realized that her hand was now dangling in the air,…below her?

‘I feel like I’m suspended in the air.’ She determined, her eyes moving back and forth questioningly.

Mara could hear a rhythmic beeping sound nearby, along with a slight ticking sound. Followed by what could’ve been someone sighing despondently.

As it did, she felt a zephyr of air blow against the entirety of her flanks. Mara felt those parts of herself begin to relax into some cushioning.

Slowly, as her eyesight began to return. Off somewhere nearby, she still heard the sound of rain furiously beating a staccato. This time, against a window pane.

She finally blinked away the last of the lightning’s dazzlement and looked around in the darkness.

Slowly, she recognized where she was.

‘The infirmary,…no!’ she realized, then stopped.  I’m in the I.C.U.! Why am I here?’ she wondered. Then,…

‘My wings, they’re stretched out! Why?’ she demanded. Then she cried out when she tried to move them.

“Aaah!” she bleated, when all of her burn wounds flared once more. Her pain slowly faded when she remained still. Finally, her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she carefully began to examine her situation.

As she did, somewhere behind her, an electric whining began and she felt her entire body shift. She only moved a few inches backwards, but it was enough for her arm to bump against something cold and unyielding.

Cautiously, she tried to move her right arm. But all she could manage was a slight shifting.

“Huh.” She breathed, and began to pant once more. Why am I so weak?’ she wondered. ‘I can’t remember being so tired before.’

She was surprised, when she noticed that there was some Velcro encasing her left arm, preventing it from moving. Then, after she looked to her right arm.

‘Velcro restraints!’ she realized, ‘I’m inside that specialty bed made for that centaur with the broken leg. That would explain why I can’t move my wings.’ She concluded.

Just as Mara began to cast her eyes about the darkened room, was when someone turned on the overhead lights.

Mara shut her eyes tight, as the lights blinded her again. She heard someone walking in, and coming close to where she lay. It only took a few seconds, but her eyes adapted.

She observed a dark-haired slight woman dressed in an EMS uniform. She shifted a chair and placed it in front of Mara. Then she gingerly sat herself down upon it, facing her.

For the next several minutes, she repeatedly looked to Mara and opened her mouth with either an “I,…!” Or a “Mar,…!”, and then close it without finishing..

“I’m sorry.” She said quietly, sniffling. Mara was thunderstruck when she recognized the person’s voice.

‘Juanita?’ she goggled. ‘What’s wrong?’ She wanted to ask, but she was too weak to even open her mouth.

“I’m sorry,…that I didn’t come sooner.”  Juanita bowed her head and crossed her arms.

“I know I’ve been using the excuse of, ‘How busy everything is’ in the weeks since the attack.” She chuffed.

‘What?! Weeks? How long was I out?’ Mara wanted to ask, but couldn’t.

“I kept assuming that you’d simply,…Snap out of it. You know; Wake up.”

“But you never did.” She whispered. “Doctor Horace just told me that if I didn’t come now.” *sniff* “Then I’d probably not get the chance.” Juanita swallowed. Then she got off the chair and knelt close to Mara.

‘Chance? Chance for what?’ Mara wondered. Juanita

“Oh!” Juanita said concerned. “Your restraint came undone. Well we can’t have your arm flopping about, now can we?” She asked rhetorically as she leaned close enough to touch.

Just before she took ahold of the Velcro restraint, Juanita paused and bit pensively at her lip.

“I’m sorry, that I gave you such a hard time, Mara. Particularly after,…you know.” Juanita smiled once, remembering. “When you nearly sucked the life out of me.”

“I was so angry with you then. But what I’ve not admitted to anyone, even to myself. Is that I liked it. I still do.”

“In fact, I often thought about you and I. Maybe getting together again? Doubly so, after you learned to control yourself. I guess the Quest conventions really did you some good. Huh! Didn’t they?”

“But that’s not going to happen now.” Juanita sighed and took a shaking breath. “Ever.” She whispered hoarsely.

With one hand, she began to reposition the right-hand Velcro restraint. With the other she grasped Mara’s arm and began to gently guide it back in.  

Desperately, Mara used every last bit of her strength, and grasped at Juanita’s arm.

“AH!” Juanita gasped sharply as she let go Mara’s arm, and jerked violently backwards. Violently enough to knock her chair backwards and scratch across the tiled floor.

Her eyes widened as she looked straight at Mara questioningly. Juanita blinked a couple of times when their eyes met.

“Mara?’ she said hoarsely, desperately.

“Ermrph.” Mara replied as best she could. She then realized why she couldn’t speak. Her mouth was so dry!

Juanita’s slowly approached close enough to put her face inches away from her.

“Mara? If you’re really there. Please answer me by blinking twice.” Juanita hesitated, as she raised one hand and lightly pressed it to Mara’s temple.

‘What is going on?’ Mara wanted to ask. But she did what she was bade.

‘Blink. Blink.’ She went.

Mara began to feel vaguely embarrassed as Juanita’s face screwed up and then firmly pressed her forehead to Mara’s.

“Gracias Dios!” Juanita whispered as she began to sob.

‘Why are you acting so strange?’ Mara couldn’t ask then. But that was when Juanita pulled her head away and spoke.

“Dar una buena acogida!” she sniffled, as she blinked away some tears. Mara could see a stream of them running down her cheeks.

“You’ve been missed.” She sighed as she got to her feet.

“Stay here! I’ll go and fetch the doctor!” she declared, completely unaware of the irony. She turned and ran off.

Ha ha.’ Mara grumped then, as she watched the retreating form of her one-time lover/Chupacabra.

Then something else before her caught her eye. For there across the room. Underneath an overly large hospital clock, lying atop a guest couch was Boto and Arawn.

 Both were seemingly asleep, and much to Mara’s dismay. She was stretched out on Arawn’s chest, her saliva pooling into the fabric of his waistcoat.

‘Hmph!’ she thought angrily, still resenting the notion.

But just as that thought occurred. Boto suddenly took in a deep breath in her sleep. almost as if she’d not taken one in a long while. Then she slowly opened her eyes.

She let out a small cry of protest when she looked up, and grimaced at the brightness of the overhead lights. Then she sighed with annoyance, as she sat herself up and began to rub at her eyes tiredly.

‘Boto.’ Mara thought then. Boto froze, dropped her hands and shot her head to look over at Mara. Her mouth dropped in surprise. Then as she stood up, her mouth turned into a delighted grin.

‘Ma,..!” she thought joyously, as she moved to Mara, but she was interrupted.

Unfortunately, Boto had forgotten that she’d been lying several feet up on Arawn’s chest. Not on the couch they’d both been sleeping upon.

Mara was surprised when she saw Boto disappear from view. Then she heard the sound of Boto impacting the floor with a thud.

“Ahp!” she yelped in surprise. Loudly enough to waken Arawn. Who then started blinking his eyes in confusion, and patting his chest, searching for the now absent Vadhagh child.

Mara couldn’t help it then. The sight of Boto falling off Arawn’s chest and hitting the floor! It reminded her too much of those 3 Stooges films, she’d watched seemingly ages ago.

“snnrkk!” she snorted. Boto got to her feet with a hurt expression forming on her face. She then turned and glared up through her bangs at Mara.

‘Not funny!’ she thought/frowned, as she folded her arms and pouted. Behind and above her, Arawn yawned mightily. Then he too sat up and blinked his eyes languidly.

Mara couldn’t help it anymore, the sight of the pair of them was just too comical for her control.

“Haha,..Ow!” she started. Then whimpered, as every one of her burns flared.

‘Mama! Are you all right?’ Boto thought worriedly.

‘What the? I can hear your thought better now.’ She wondered. Mara opened her mouth to reply, but the sight of Boto standing there with her hair all disheveled. Reminded her of her recent mirth. She tried to fight it, but she lost.

“Ssnnnrrrkk.” Mara snorted, this time managing to suppress her laughter,…barely. Boto stuck out her chin and resumed ner pouting.

‘Still NOT funny!’ Boto thought fiercely at her. However, at the far-right corner of Boto’s mouth, Mara thought she saw a tiny bit of quivering.

‘Are you sure?’ Mara thought cheekily, as she projected a mental image of a forefinger and a thumb a fraction of an inch apart. Boto refused to acknowledge it.

‘Not even a little?’ Mara continued prodding. Just then, the quivering corner of Boto’s mouth slowly begin to part. A second later she produced a grin, even as she clamped her eyes down.

‘Ok!,…Maybe just a little!’ Boto thought/projected.

Mara’s own smile turned into one of triumph when she felt her daughter’s mirth. Then Boto’s humor rapidly transformed, as she started to sniffle and looked up at Mara with the most woeful expression.

She raised her arms up and towards Mara, demanding a hug. But all Mara could do then was reach out in vain.

 Luckily, by then, Arawn had woken up enough to take note of the exchange. He swooped Boto into his arms. Then he stepped forward, just enough, to allow Boto to take ahold.

Once within reach, Boto grabbed Mara by her neck and hugged her as tightly as she dared. Then she started quivering.

Soon her sniffles grew even heavier, as Mara felt a spot of wetness forming on her shoulder.

“Boto? Are you crying?” Mara inquired. Boto, not letting Mara go for an instant, nodded into Mara’s neck.

“Are you sad?” Boto shook her head.

Then she leaned back and looked Mara in the face, her lower lip quivering. She reached out with both her hands, and placed them alongside Mara’s head. She looked deeply into Mara’s eyes

‘Gratitude.’ She felt/projected, as she sniffled once, ‘Promise kept. You returned.’ She thought.

“Yes, I did. It wasn’t easy.” Mara replied. “But it was worth it. I came back for you.” She smiled. Boto smiled languidly back for a second. Then she began to droop, as a sleepy look began to form on her face.

Boto leaned in and rested her head against Mara neck. Mara’s smile turned thoughtful, when she heard Boto open her mouth and give out an overly large and drawn out yawn.

Then, seconds later, Mara heard a barely perceptible snore.

“Someone’s sleepy.” Mara grinned and looked meaningfully towards Arawn.

“Exhausted.” Arawn nodded. Carefully he tugged the now saggy Vadhagh toddler from Mara, and lay her head upon his shoulder.

‘Mrmph.’ Boto protested once weakly. Then relaxed into his arms. Arawn opened his mouth to say something else. But that was when the door to the ICU opened.

In walked a wildly grinning Juanita. Behind her was Dr. Horace. Juanita came to stand next to Mara’s suspension bed and nervously began to fuss over her restraints.

“I,…..” Dr. Horace, didn’t say, shocked. Then he gave her a relieved smile.

He stared thoughtfully at her for several seconds, and then he turned his attention to Arawn. When he did, his smile vanished. Then it went neutral as he gave Arawn an intense stare.

‘What’s this?’ he thought, when his eye caught ahold of something dangling from Arawn’s rumpled waistcoat. With two quick steps, he crossed the intervening distance, and snatched hard at it.

Arawn jerked/flinched when he did, and almost tried to snatch it back. Whatever that something was, Mara didn’t know. But it seemed significant to both him and Horace.

Horace studied the object intensely, for what seemed for far too long a time. Then, without letting go, he raised his head and bored his eyes into Arawn’s.

“My office. Twenty minutes.” He said coldly.

Arawn’s face paled as he looked away, then nodded silently. Mara felt a chill pass over her soul.

Frowning, Horace released the object and stepped out of Arawn’s way.  Who began shuffling to the room’s door, his head bowed, his face pale.

Just before he exited, he stopped, and turned around. then came over to stand by Mara’s side.

“It is good to see you again, Mara.” He said quietly, not quite looking at her. Mara stared back at him, afraid.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, nervous.

“Nothing!” Arawn replied a little too quickly, and forced out a strained smile.

“There is nothing wrong. Now that you have returned, everything is fine.” He said softly. Mara wasn’t buying it.

‘What’s wrong?’ she tried to ask him telepathically. But he blocked her. ‘You stubborn fool.’ She continued, anyways.

“Arawn, you’re scaring me.” She warned. Before she could form another sentence, Arawn reached out, and gently took ahold of her free hand. Then he gripped it tightly between both of his own.

When he did, Mara her nascent empathy activated.

‘There’s a part of him missing.’ she realized.

“Arawn,…What have you done?” she quavered, as a cold dread began to grow within her.

“It does not matter.” He evaded as he refused to meet her eyes. He then paused and took a shaking breath.

“I,…uh…” He began to speak, then stopped, closed his mouth and swallowed. He then set himself.

“What matters. Is that you came back.” He said as he forced out another smile. Mara’s heart began to pound in her chest. She wanted to ask him a dozen more questions. But, before she could even try, he cut her off.

“Now, my apprentice. Let us speak of other matters.” He emphasized coldly. Mara felt shocked at his rapid change in manner. After a bit she nodded.

“Very well then,” he began tersely. “It appears that you have been remiss in your duties young lady.”

“I’m,…I’m sorry.” She rasped, perplexed. “I’ve been rather tied up of late.”

“I understand that Mara.” he continued, “You do have a good excuse after all. Considering the circumstances.”

Mara couldn’t reply.

“Your paperwork has been steadily increasing, during your convalescence.” He frowned. “I still expect you to attend to it, when you are capable.”

“I,…I…I…” Mara tried to reply, but couldn’t. Left speechless by his callousness.

“However long it may take you to accomplish.”

“Uhhmmm,…..ok?” Mara replied, shocked.

“I am afraid that an ‘ok’ is insufficient.” He frowned.

“What do you want me to say then?” Mara demanded, feeling awfully put out.

“What I require is this:  Swear to me. Swear to me, that no matter how difficult life becomes for you. You will find a way to complete that paperwork.”

“That’s it?”

“Affirmative.” He nodded once. Mara swallowed, and then she nodded. Arawn shook his head disappointedly.

“I need to hear you say it.” He ordered her gruffly.

“All right!” Mara shot back, annoyed. “I swear to complete my paperwork, No matter what gets in the way! Satisfied!?” she frowned angrily.

“Yes. I am.” Arawn whispered sadly.

“Thank you.” He added quietly, as he stepped back.

“I am afraid that I have taken up too much of your, and Dr. Horace’s time. If you will please excuse me?” he queried.  Mara nodded dismissively. Yet that nod also held an equal measure of confusion and hurt.

Arawn didn’t reply, he merely nodded once towards her and bowed to Dr. Horace. Then he walked briskly out of the room. After the closing door cut off her view of him, Mara’s trepidation increased.

‘Why did it feel? That he was saying goodbye?’ she wondered.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>< 

Outside the room, Arawn listened in as Dr. Horace formally introduced himself to Mara, and the ensuing conversation. Including such matters as:

How long she’d been unconscious? (Nearly two months).

How badly damaged she’d been? (Very).

And worst,…

What she could expect in the future; concerning her long road to recovery? (Quite a bit).

‘And perhaps one day Mara,…’ Arawn thought as he continued to listen in, ‘someday,…far in the future,…you will be able to forgive me for what is to come.’ He sighed quietly and then began walking towards what awaited him inside Dr. Horace’s office.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>< 

20 minutes later.

More or less.

Arawn looked up and turned around at the sound of Horace’s office door opening. Horace stepped in, but he wasn’t alone. Behind him were two others.

The first was Joel, the current bearer of the Extremus-gun.

He was an incredibly skinny man, almost as emaciated as Ms. Augustine; a balding male with a shiny crown of skin atop his head.  Arawn judged by his large smile. Joel seemed to be in the best of spirits, despite the lateness of the hour.

Just as the door closed, in flitted the second, Stinker. The Foundation’s resident LeAnan-Sidhe. Arawn silently noted that she looked particularly annoyed.

‘Of all the times I had to take a potty break!’ Stinker groused, ‘Just before she wakes up! It’s not fair! I’ve been sitting vigil longer than anyone else!’

When Joel stepped into the center of the room, he came to a stop.

His smile vanished when he caught sight of Arawn. He then began looking between Arawn and Dr. Horace; who was in the process of sitting down at his desk.

“What’s up?” he asked cautiously, suspicion crossing his face.

Silently Dr. Horace pulled a tape recorder out of his desk, turned it on and placed it on the center of his desk.

“Pay attention all of you! I’m calling a Formal Inquiry.” Horace began sternly. Both Joel and Stinke looked momentarily surprised

. Then, as Joel came to attention, Stinker chose to land herself on Horace’s desk, and sat down next to the tape recorder.

“Crap!” She muttered dejectedly, directly into the recorders microphone as she put her chin in one hand. Horace frowned at her, and sighed.

“Have I done something wrong?” Joel asked, his eyes darting between Arawn and Horace.

“Negative.” Arawn countered. “It is I who am the subject of the Inquiry.” He sighed. Joel’s mouth opened in shock and alarm.

“Indeed.” Horace replied coolly. “Now Iron, if you would be so kind. Please present your little memento to Joel.”

Speaking nary a word, Arawn did as he was bade. He detached and then presented his strange looking pocket watch to the hesitant Joel.

“What is it?” Joel asked as he flipped it repeatedly.

“It’s got some writing on it, doesn’t it?” Horace quizzed. Joel held it up underneath the overhead lamp, and nodded.

“Yes it do,…” he began, and then pulled it closer to his face. “It looks familiar!” he said as he continued looking. “I believe the script is Enochian.”

“Ah!” Horace smiled for the first time. “It’s good to see that at least one person, stayed awake during that class.” Joel smirked at him once and then went back to studying the device.

“I’m not sure, as my Enochian is rather rusty,…” he began. “But I believe it’s written in late 1500’s English-style script. The sigils,…” He paused as he shifted the device, “seem to be oriented for some sort of communication….”

He frowned as he got to a particularly difficult passage. “…between a living soul, and,….” He stopped as his eyes widened.

Slowly his hand holding the object, dropped to his side as he straightened up and stared balefully at Arawn.

“Ah, here we go.” Horace quipped. “Comprehension begins. All right Stinker, this is where you step in.” He said as he directed his attention to the Punk-rock Leanan-sidhe.

She looked up and huffed as she threw her dreads over each shoulder. Then she stood up and flew over to hover herself between Joel and Arawn.

“Now Doctor Iron? Please state loudly and clearly for the recorder. What is that device that Joel received from you?”

Arawn sighed loudly once before beginning.

“It is a Talisman of Necromancy.” He replied resignedly.

 As Horace nodded, and Stinker looked shocked, Joel pocketed the Talisman, and swiftly pulled out the Extremus gun. He chambered a round and pointed the gun a foot from Arawn’s face.

“Ah!” Arawn gasped, his eyes focused down the barrel of the Extremus gun.

“I’m sorry sir.” Joel began, blinking furiously as he stared down at Arawn. “Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive Joel.” He replied shakily. “You are doing precisely what you are supposed to.” Arawn hesitated, then nodded approvingly.  Joel swallowed once. Horace snorted.

“Sir.” Joel glanced at Horace and frowned at him.

“Just about a half hour ago. “Horace began, “I had Mara’s death certificate almost all of the way filled out.” He continued as he held up a sheet of paper.

“Why? Because I’d seen this before. You don’t need magic to know when the Angel of Death is fluttering about.”

“I was waiting to fill in her time of death.” He paused. “Then, Low and Behold!” Horace gritted his teeth as he held up both of his hands. “She wakes up! Hale and Hearty, relatively speaking.” Horace rasped.

“And it’s just an amazing coincidence? That you, Iron! Happened to be in the same room, while wearing a Necromantic talisman.”

“I can explain,..” Arawn began.

“CAN IT!” Horace shouted, which caused Stinker’s holding pattern to falter, and Arawn to stiffen guiltily.

“The only thing you will do right now Iron. Is answer my questions. Nothing more. Do you understand?” he demanded quickly.

“Affirmative.” Arawn sighed, as he tried to not stare at the gun. Joel noticed that Arawn was now sweating bullets.

“All right then.” Horace cautioned as he leaned back in his chair. “You may yet get off the hook Iron.”

“How do you figure that?” Joel piped in. “The Fifth Law of Magic is rather clear on that, isn’t it?” he asked shakily.

“There is some wiggle room, Joel. There is a precedent for Necroscopy.”

“I’m not familiar with that.” Joel stated, as he shifted his stance. Horace noticed.

“You holding up ok? Horace asked.

“I’m fine. Continue.” He stated firmly, nodding once.

“All right. Necroscopy is where one can talk to the dead. Usually for the sole purpose of saying farewell. Even Merlin himself refused to condemn that.” He paused and turned to Arawn.

“So, Iron. Was it Necroscopy?”

“Negative.” Arawn replied sadly.

“Ra Damn It, IRON!” Horace yelled as he jumped to his feet and slammed both fists onto the desk loudly, knocking the tape recorder over noisily.

“Do I pull the trigger, Sir?” Joel asked then.

“NO! Not Yet!” Horace yelled, and then began breathing deeply. “Give me a second to calm down first.” He stated as he replaced the recorder to its proper position.

“All right Iron, There’s still a chance you get to see another sunrise.” He cautioned.

“Did your device once belong to Edward Kelly?”

“Affirmative.”

“SHIT!” Horace hissed.

“What the big deal?” Joel demanded. Horace glared at him for a second. Then relaxed and spoke.

“According to lore. In order to use Kelly’s eponymous talisman. Requires a sacrifice.”

“So, what if he sacrificed an animal?”

“A human sacrifice.” Horace corrected. “Doesn’t it?” he asked Arawn.

“Affirmative.” Arawn whispered hoarsely.

Joel’s face froze, and then his lips peeled back in disgust. The tension in the room mounted. Sensing it, Stinker began to flutter herself about the room nervously.

“You’re walking on thin ice, Iron.” Horace rasped.

“But even so. You may still have a chance. Was the name of the person you sacrificed, GRENDEL?” he breathed, his nostrils flaring. Arawn sighed and looked down.

“Negative.” Arawn replied quietly.

Stinker gave out a cry of dismay and shrunk back from him.

‘How could you?!’ Joel demanded quietly as his face got even colder. “YOU! OF ALL PEOPLE!!” He groaned as he repositioned the Extremus-Gun to rest on his left wrist.

Arawn licked his lips as he gazed at Extremus-Gun, closed his eyes and held his breath. Joel looked to the now thoroughly infuriated Doctor Horace.

“Sir?” He asked. “Shall I?” he said, almost eagerly.

“Standby.” Horace hissed coolly, as he stared at Arawn with no small amount of loathing.

“Iron. Before you die, I want to know that person’s name. I want to know so that I can find their relatives, and hopefully give them some sort of closure. Who was it?” Arawn looked back at him as dispassionately as he could manage.

“Tertius.” He replied, matter-of-factly.

Horace’s jaw quietly dropped in surprise, as Joel shifted in preparation.

Suddenly Horace quickly placed a restraining hand atop the Extremus-gun and gently lowered it.

“WHAT!?” Horace shouted. “You sacrificed one of your Not-Brothers?!” he sputtered. “More importantly, why him?”

“To your first question. Affirmative.” Arawn replied with a sigh. “As to the second. He was already in a permanent vegetative state.”

“Wait, what? What are you two talking about? A not-brother? What is that?” Joel sputtered.

“Stand down Joel! And put that gun away.” Horace replied shakily as he carefully sat himself down in his chair.

“Sir?”  Joel demanded, confusedly.

“Just do it.” He barked, “Iron? I’ll leave it to…” he then waved at Arawn.

“You may wish to sit down Joel. This will take me a while to explain properly.” He said, trembling. Then he turned and found a spot to sit. Joel followed his lead.

Taking his cue, Arawn then began to patiently explain to Joe,l what precisely he meant by‘Not-brothers’. It took him several minutes. Long enough for him to get his breathing under control.

During which, Joel finally put the E-Gun away, and Stinker sat herself back down on Horace’s desk. There, she too trembled for a while. Not once looking at anyone or anything.

At the end, Joel contemplated Arawn’s explanation. After a bit, he spoke.

“I’m not sure if I follow it all. But from what I understand. That wasn’t really much of a sacrifice for you. Was it?” He asked, still somewhat confused. “You can regrow him again, right?”

“Under normal circumstances, I would. This time I cannot.” Arawn said regretfully, catching Horace’s attention.

“What do you mean?” Horace queried, confused.

“What I mean Horace, is that I cannot now. Nor can I ever again. Recreate a replacement Tertius.” Arawn mourned, as he shuddered for a second. He steeled himself by taking a deep breath, and then continued his explanation.

“That was the toll demanded. Before the Charon of Kelly’s Talisman, allowed uh” he paused, “,…me,…access to the Silent-Amidst.” He finished, then he made eye contact with Stinker.

She almost let out a squeak of anger at him.

‘You’re not telling the complete truth.’ She noticed. ‘But technically that’s not a lie.’ She glowered back at him challengingly. Arawn saw it.

‘Please do not mention.’ He begged silently.

After a second, she gave him the barest perceptible of nods, and he closed his eyes, relieved. No one noticed the exchange.

“Shit Iron!” Horace complained. “I don’t believe this! You’re that fond of,…?” he began and paused, once he realized what he was about to reveal to Joel.

“Yes. I am THAT fond of Mara.” Arawn replied, coming to his rescue. Joel gaped at the revelation.

“Damn it Iron!” Horace apologized, looking lost.  “I really need a smoke.” He declared, as he pulled out his Zippo and his box of ‘Coffin Nails’.

As he did, Stinker looked up and saw it. She jumped up in surprise when she recognized it.

“SQQUUEEEEEE!” she went, as everyone else there winced at the ear-piercing shriek. She then immediately leapt into the air and began to fly circles around Dr. Horace’s head.

“YOU GOT IT!! YOU GOT IT!! YOU GOT IT!! YOU GOT IT!! YOU GOT IT!!” She squealed delightedly, as she began to dive in repeatedly at Horace’s cigarette box. Horace, utterly taken aback by this uncharacteristic display, froze in place.

“GIMMEE!! GIMMEE!! GIMMEE!! GIMMEE!! GIMMEE!! GIMMEE!!” she continued as she swooped down. Grabbed ahold of the box and tried to wrestle it away from him.

Numbingly, Horace casually relaxed his grasp. Whereupon Stinker flew it over to the now bemused Arawn and began to beg.

“CHANGE IT!! CHANGE IT!! CHANGE IT!! CHANGE IT!! PLEEEEASSEEEE?!”  She demanded in a near ultrasonic tone. Arawn smiled indulgently.

He reached out to touch the box with one finger. After he made contact, the box’s normal configuration of a placid red and white, started to luminesce with an internal purplish glow.

Once it finished changing, Stinker started giggling madly as she snatched the box away from him. Then she took it over to Horace’s desk and managed to extract a single overly-stuffed ‘cigarette’.

Wobbling, she managed to keep it aloft using both hands. Despite it being nearly as long as she was tall.

She kept one end pressed to her mouth, and the other pointed directly at Horace and looked up at him expectedly. After a second of waiting, she blinked her best puppy dog eyes.

When Horace realized what she wanted. He sparked his Zippo alight, and lit the far end of Stinker’s blunt. No sooner than the lit end was fully alight, than Stinker began to suck. As she did, the lit end flared brightly and stayed that way.

It did because Stinker continued to inhale, never once pausing. As she did, her body began to balloon outwards. It started from her normal ‘Anorexic’, then it swiftly became ‘Lithe, then ‘Rubenesque’.

After a few more seconds, she began to resemble a Volleyball, both in size and shape. She kept going until the entire length of the blunt had burned into ash. With just the blunt’s twist-tip clutched in one tiny hand. She began to tremble as she held her breath, for the better part of a minute.

Then, all in a rush. She exhaled the entire contents of her hyper-extended lungs.  As she did, a rapidly expanding fogbank of stinky-smoke, knocked over the tape-recorder, blew aside several of Horace’s paperweights and obscured her from view.

Thankfully, that stinky smoke cleared within only half-a-minute. As the last dregs of it dispersed. Horace stopped waving away at it. He saw that Stinker was now sitting down, her head tilted to one side, tongue lolling, staring at nothing.

“Stinker? Are you all right?” Horace asked as he waved a finger in front of her face. After several seconds of not receiving an answer, he cautiously reached out, retrieved his cigarette box and began to examine it.

“Xanadu Blew?” he said aloud. “What the hell is up with this,…?” he began to ask while waving the box around. Then he stopped, and looked over at Arawn.

“Never mind!” he groused, “Let me guess? “It’s ‘complicated’, isn’t it?” he frowned.

“Actually no.” Arawn replied, smiling. “It is fairly straight forward.”

“Really?!” Horace replied, as he grinned relievedly. “This, I’ve GOT to hear!” He said as he settled himself into his chair.

“Give! I want to hear something that hopefully, makes at least a little bit of sense.” He sighed eagerly. “For once.” He added.

Just as Arawn opened his mouth to speak, was when Stinker piped up.

“I’mmmm soooo hiiiigggghhh!” she gushed out loud to no one in particular. Then her eyes began to turn red.

Everyone around Horace’s desk leaned in and waited for her to continue. But after several seconds, it became clear that she was done.

“Now as I was about to say,,..“ Arawn began, with a glance down towards the now thoroughly baked Stinker.

“What you have, Horace. Is something Magical in nature.”

“Oh really?” Horace quipped sarcastically. “How precisely?”

“Precisely? Technically speaking. That box of cigarettes does not exist.”

“iron!” Horace whined. “I thought you said it’d be straight forward? How can this?” Horace asked as he shook the box a couple of times, “Not exist? It’s right here!”

“It is the magical equivalent of a Holographic-Placebo. They were created to help a person quit smoking. As I recall, you did mention that you needed to.” Arawn replied. Horace looked skeptically at Arawn for several seconds.

“How precisely, is my smoking something-that-doesn’t-exist? Supposed to help me quit?”

“Since you’ve started smoking these. Have you felt a desire to return to your previous brand?”

“No.” Horace replied slowly, “I can’t say that I do. No desire to really. I feel that these are much nicer.”

“Have you noticed any improvements to yourself?” Arawn asked innocently.

“Now that you mention it.” Horace replied. “I have. I’ve noticed that my sense of taste has improved dramatically. That, and I’m not coughing quite so,…” He paused and blinked for several seconds, and then straightened up in his chair.

“Damn!” he smiled. “Those are the textbook examples of quitting.” Arawn smiled back by way of reply.

“Hold on here!” Joel interjected, “If they don’t exist, then please explain her.” Joel said as he pointed to Stinker. Who, by now had begun to slowly lean backwards to lie on the desk’s surface.

“Are you familiar with Fairy-Gold?” Arawn inquired.

“Uhhhmmm. Yes.” Joel replied, and then looked thoughtful. He pointed to the cigarette box questioningly.

“Affirmative.” Arawn nodded. “The Xanadu Blew-configuration mimics a strain of Marijuana exclusive to the Fairy Lands.”

“How many more configurations are there?” Joel asked as he looked speculatively at the box.

“At least a hund,…” Arawn began.

“Wait! Hold on! Time out!” Horace injected as he made a ‘T’ with his hands. “I think we’re getting a little off-topic here.”

“Indeed,” Joel replied, “There is still the matter of the formal inquiry into Arawn’s use of Necromancy.” Horace sighed deeply and steepled his fingers in front of his mouth.

“Well, technically speaking,…” he began as he stared at Joel. “Wouldn’t you say that the crime of Necromancy? Isn’t so much the speaking to the dead part, as it is the method used to gain access to them?”

“I think that you’re starting to tread a fine line.” Joel replied neutrally.

“Perhaps you’re right,…” Horace conceded with a sad sigh.

“However!” Joel interrupted. Both Horace and Arawn looked to him. “Arawn? Was Mara actually well and truly dead? When you did, whatever it is you,…?” he inquired, shifting his finger back and forth.

“Not quite, no. Though, if I had managed to get there any later than I had. Then that form,” Arawn stated as he pointed to Horace’s death certificate, “would be filled in by now.”

‘Well, there you have it.” Joel replied, smiling.

“He did sacrifice another.” Horace pointed out.

“Did he? It sounds more like he gouged out a portion of his own soul.” Joel shot back. Horace’s felt embarrassed by that conclusion. Arawn frowned and looked away.

Horace sighed.

“All right. I hereby declare this inquiry at an end. Though technically Doctor Iron, did not in fact commit the crime of Necromancy. His intention was clear.” He turned to Arawn.

“Do NOT ever do anything like this again. Do you hear me?” he growled.

“I hear you, and I promise that I will never do so again.”

“So be it!” Horace stated as he thumbed his tape recorder off. “The only thing left now is this: Can we all agree to keep this conversation, and its revelations, under wraps? Never to be spoken of again?”

“Aye!” Joel piped up. “Agreed.” Arawn nodded. “So do I.” Horace stated, completing the triad. “Oh, one other thing.” He said as he reached out a hand to Joel. “Hand it over.”

“Oh, yes!” Joel remembered as he reached into his pocket and handed the Talisman over to Horace. Who then took it and held it up before him.

“Hmph!” Horace snorted once.

“What?” Joel asked. Horace glanced at him.

“This!” he said as he held it up for a second, and then transferred it to a jacket pocket. “If the Olde English Hunters had found it back in the day. Mr. Kelly would’ve lost more than just his ears.”

“I don’t suppose you had anything to do with that?” He asked as he turned to Arawn.

“That was before my arrival to this world.” He shot back. “Though, I have to admit, that the Talisman was rather expensive to obtain.”

“I would imagine so.” Horace grinned. “I’ll ensure that it’s properly disposed of this time.” Horace’s grin only got wider when he saw Arawn wince.

“Shall we go then?” Horace gently prodded.

“Uhhhm. What about her?” Joel asked as he pointed to the still quiescent Fairy.

“It would be best if she were left in one of her nests.” Arawn suggested.

“It’s ok to leave her unattended?” Joel asked dubiously.

“That is where I left her the last time. If my memory serves me correctly, she will be out of commission for a couple of days. Though I will have to mention it to Chef.”

“Why’s that?”

“Back then, Chef reported a number of food,…” Arawn began.

“FOOD?” Stinker yelped as she sat up and began vibrating agitatedly. “FOOD! I’M HUNGRY! YES! FOOD!” she declared as she suddenly shot randomly off up into the air in a curvy arc.

“FOODIE-FOOD! FOODIE-FOOD! FOODIE-FO,…” she warbled as she bounced off Joel’s chest, and nearly knocked him over.

She then did an unintentional back flip, as she buzzed the surface of Horace’s desk, and managed to knock over a jar of pencils. Horace had to dodge himself out of her way, as she passed him then bounced off of the wall near his diplomas.

“This is Red Five I’m going in!” she shouted, as she scraped the ceiling, and then dove underneath Horace’s desk, then zoomed up and out. Unfortunately, she smacked herself loudly into the lintel over the closed door.

Where she hung for a moment, then slowly peeled backwards and began a spiral plummet to the floor. Joel was quick on his feet and managed to catch her deftly in his hand.

“Stinker?” he asked, “Are you all,…?” he began, but was interrupted.

“OOPSY!” she shouted, “I fall down and go…BOOM!” she crooned.

“Give her to me please.” Arawn asked as held out a hand. After Joel had gently transferred her, Arawn carefully placed her inside a side jacket pocket.

‘ECHO! Echo! echo echo!” She called out from within Arawn’s pocket. Whereupon she began to giggle madly.

“Well she certainly seems to be enjoying herself.” Horace noted dryly, as Joel suppressed a laugh.

“WHHHHHEEEEE!” Stinker squealed, “I JUST LOVE CAROUSELS! ROUND AND ROUND, WE GO!!”

“What was it you were going to say about Chef?” Joel asked as he kept one eye trained on Arawn’s pocket.

“The last time Stinker was like this. Chef reported that a significant amount of food went missing.”

“I can’t imagine how a tiny little fey like her; could make a noticeable dent in the food supplies.”

“According to Chef’s records; Half a steer went unaccounted for.” Arawn smiled dryly.

“What?!” Joel shot back, surprised.

“Whhheeerrrreeee’s the Beef!” Stinker cackled from inside Arawn’s pocket.

“Ahem.” Horace coughed. “So, that box of cigarettes?” Horace said as he turned back to Arawn, “Did you create it?”

“Alas no. I cannot take the credit for that. Unfortunately, I have also been unable to reproduce them. What you have in your hand is the only known version.”

“Ah! Too bad.” Horace sighed. “So, who did make it?”

“A contemporary of Edward Kelly. A mister,…excuse me. Doctor! John Dee.” He replied.

“Why’d he do that? I wasn’t aware he smoked.”

“As far as I am aware, he did not. However, he was commissioned to by a Mrs. Elizabeth Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh’s wife.”

“Ha!” Horace exclaimed, as both he and Arawn grinned at the thought.

“Iron.” Horace began, as a thought occurred to him. “I know that you’re not human. Which probably explains why you’ve managed to live so long.” He stated. “I’m not going to ask if one has anything to do with the other.”

“But?” Arawn asked.

“Yes, but.” Horace smiled briefly. “I’ve seen you in action, and I’ve heard the stories. That you’re one of the coolest fellows in combat. You’ve faced some truly unimaginable foes with equanimity.”

“Such has been noted before, yes.” Arawn replied, wondering where he was going.

“I also noticed that when you had that Extremus-gun pointed at you? You were scared, horrified even.”  Horace demanded. Arawn sighed.

“Affirmative.”

“Why?”

“Because of a prophecy.”

“What prophecy?”

“The prophecy made by the one I contracted with. After the creation of the Extremus-gun, and its bullets.”

“What did he say?”

 “That one of the bullets has my name written on it.”

“What? Oh!” Horace stopped and thought about it. “How many bullets are left?”

“Two.”

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