The Pulver Chronicles – 7. Meet Me In The Woods Tonight


“This one, I got in Porto Corvello,” Enita said, showing the stylized raven on her right wrist. “It represents my wanderlust.”

Jackson took her wrist and turned it delicately. The two of them were sitting on a stone bench in one of the parks of the city’s richer neighborhoods, at the bottom of a very large tree whose foliage shielded them from the zenith’s rays. Only breadcrumbs were left from their lunch, which consisted of some kind of fish cake. There was also a bottle of cider, with one third of its content gone. He pointed at a tattoo that looked like a red jaguar, near the raven.

“And what’s this one?”

“That’s a C’fan jaguar. I saw one when I visited the Rainbow City; he was in a cage on the harbor. I guess he had been bought by one of the maliks. He was so beautiful…”

“What does it represent?”

“It represents… my liking of jaguars,” she said.

They both laughed.

“So you’ve traveled a lot, huh,” Jackson said.

“You could say that. What about you? You seem to be a long way from home.”

“You have no idea,” he said as he took another gulp from the bottle. “Well… I didn’t move around that much, actually. I lived in a small town when I was a boy, then in a farm when I got older. I barely even went to school.”

“You went to school?” Enita said, befuddled. “Were your parents rich?”

“Ha! Not really,” Jackson said with bitter laughter.

“Did you have a patron, then?”

“A what? Err, I don’t think so.”

“How could you afford school, then?”

“Uh? School is free where I’m from.”

Enita nodded, but didn’t seem to believe him.

“Your land must be very different,” she said. “No wonder you seem like a bird fallen from the nest.”

“What about your land? What’s it like?”

“It’s called Leyl. It’s a big archipelago off the Eastern Empire’s coast. A couple of centuries ago, it was a collection of kingdoms. Then, one of the kings swore fealty to the Emperor -I think it was Wiltan II, then-, and in exchange was made sole ruler of all the islands, and received the military assistance necessary to back his claim.”

She went on to describe Leyl. The archipelago was made out of ninety-seven islands, but its people mostly inhabited the six biggest ones. She showed great passion and a bit of nostalgia as she spoke of the beaches of white sand, the jungles, the prairies, and the small green mountains of the island where she was born, Atl. It was hot all year round, according to her, although the winters were rainy and the falls stormy. Enita then described her people, tall and thin, with black hair and dark skin. She clearly loved telling stories. Her face lightened up as she did, and pimples appeared at the corner of her mouth as she regaled Jackson with a few tales from her homeland.

“Sounds like you really loved that place,” Jackson said when she was finished. “Why did you leave?”

A hint of sadness marred her smile as she drank from the bottle. “In part because I always wanted to travel, to see the world.”

“In part?”

She was a quiet for a moment, and Jackson said: “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“I do want to,” she said. “Well, as I’ve told you, I’m a sorceress, which is very rare among Leylen, even more so than among Hastadish and Narrians.”

“Why’s that?”

“It has to do with the fact that we lived in isolation for so long, I believe. I don’t truly know.”

“So what makes you different?”

“Well… my parents,” she said. From the way she said it, Jackson assumed he was supposed to infer something, but he wasn’t sure what.

“Are your parents sorcerers too?”

“No. My father was Human and didn’t have the Talent at all.”

By “Talent”, Jackson assumed she meant magical powers.

“But my mother… Well… She was a Thunder Child.”

“What’s that?”

“Never met one? It is true they’re uncommon. They’re magical creatures, said to be born of the lightning when it strikes the earth.”

“Oh, that is… awesome! We don’t have those where I live, I don’t think.”

Enita did a double take, evidently surprised by Jackson’s reaction. “I… You are taking this better than I feared.”

“What’s the big deal?” Jackson said, shrugging. “So your mom’s a Humanoid. I’ve known a few of them. There was an Elf in my unit. Hell, my bunkmate was a Lizard.”

“Yes, but…” she said, frowning. “I’m a mongrel. That is no bother to you at all?”

“A mongrel?” he repeated, stunned. “Is that what you call people that have a Humanoid parent? “Mongrels”? That sounds pretty fucking offensive.”

“You really come from a faraway land,” Enita whispered. Out loud, she answered: “Yes, that’s what we’re called around here, especially near the Empire.”

“I didn’t realize there was that kind of attitude around here. I mean, there are plenty of Humanoids, so…”

“The Humanoids don’t seem to be the issue,” Byron said. “Only the miscegenation.”

Jackson withheld a gasp, startled. He had been so focused on his date he had almost forgotten Byron existed. A bit embarrassed, Jackson mentally told him to leave him and Enita alone for a while.

“Atvello is a free city with lots of travelers coming and going,” Enita said. “Mongrels are more common here than anywhere in Varda, as a result, but even here we’re only tolerated. And with the Inquisition having a commandery nearby…”

“Let me guess: the Inquisitors aren’t big fans of… crossing boundaries?”

“The Black Book calls it loathful. Fortunately, these days, they have bigger concerns.” She shook her head. “Anyway, my mother naturally had the Talent, and I inherited it from her. A mongrel sorceress… The townsfolk would never have accepted such a thing. So my parents tried their best to hide me, but when my powers manifested, I was found and made an outcast.”

“And your parents?” Jackson said softly.

Enita’s mouth quivered a little, and she didn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“And that’s how my journey began,” she said. “I lived off my Talent, trading spells for coins, and traveled around until I met Marrmad.”

Jackson was glad to see that she was smiling again.

“Did he throw you into a lethal trap to test you, too?” he felt compelled to ask.

“Yes, but don’t judge him too severely. He likes to put on the mask of a cold and uncaring trickster, and while I’ll not tell you that he’s a paragon, he truly does have a heart. Had the situation with the bandits turned against you, he would have intervened.”

Jackson made a skeptical grunt.

“Oh, you would have failed the test,” Enita added, “but you would have survived it.”

“I guess you’d know him better than I would. By the way, you look very Human for someone with a Humanoid mom. If you don’t mind me saying.”

“Let’s just say… I have my moments.”

She had a clever look in her eyes.

“So, you’re a sorceress,” Jackson said. “What’s that, exactly?”

“You don’t have sorcerers in your land?”

Jackson shook his head.

“A sorcerer, simply put, is a magi whose Talent is innate, raw. They don’t develop it through the study of arcane knowledge like witches, through trades with outerbound spirits like the shamans, or through the spirits of nature like the druids. It is simply… there.”

She punctuated her sentence with a snap of her fingers. In the blink of an eye, a spark appeared between her index finger and her thumb, then disappeared into thin air. Jackson gasped, then laughed.

“Of course, many take a dim view of people who can wield magic without having received any proper tutelage.”

“Power without training,” Byron said. “It’s not hard to see why people would take exception to that.”

“Go away, already!” Jackson thought-said.

Byron disappeared again.

“There’s no denying some sorcerers have been dangerous, some even monstrous,” Enita said. “But then, so have witches, and shamans, and druids…”

“Or even regular folks without magic powers,” Jackson said. “There are bad apples in every bunch.”

“You have the drolliest sayings!” Enita said, and she laughed.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t care how you’re born, or that you can do magic. Hell, I hope I can do magic.”

“You hope? You told me you have been to school. At no point was it offered to teach you magic?”

“It wasn’t exactly in the cursus,” Jackson said.

“What kind of magis do you have in your land?”

“Uh… The quack kind, I guess.”

“Eh?” Enita frowned.

“You probably won’t believe it, but we don’t really have magis, where I’m from.”

“You don’t?” Enita said, bemused. “None at all?”

“Well, if there are, I don’t know any.”

“What of your parents? Perhaps you have the Talent in your blood, same as I.”

“I don’t really know my parents, actually.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said.

Jackson shrugged and sipped some more cider.

“Hey, can you use your power to tell if I’ve got the Talent?” he asked.

Enita stared at Jackson for a moment, twisting her neck to get a good look from every angle. Then, she closed her eyes and mumbled a continuous “mmmmmh”. She put her hands on his temples and approached her face from his. Jackson’s stomach felt very light, all of a sudden. He closed his eyes as well.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I see something.”

“What?”

“I see…”

Jackson sensed something warm and wet against his mouth, and realized she had just given him a quick peck on the lips. He opened his eyes again.

“I see good fortune in your future,” she said, smirking and poking out her tongue. “They say it’s good luck to be kissed by a Leylen.”

“Oh, so you want to play, huh?” Jackson said, faking anger.

“Possibly. Do I need to teach you the rules for that game as well?”

She reached for his lower stomach, both taunting and teasing him. From the corner of his eye, Jackson saw Byron appear, sigh, and make himself scarce once more. The young man’s lips stretched into a toothy smile, and he grabbed the woman by the hips, dragging her close to him.

“Oh, now you’ve done it,” he said.

He pushed her down on the bench, got ahold of her wrists, and pinned them above her head.

“Why, you lout!” she fake-screamed theatrically. “To impose yourself upon an innocent maiden! And in public, too.”

Jackson quickly glanced around. A few people were passing by, along the gravel paths that criss-crossed the garden. The young man decided that, with the bushes surrounding them, and a bit of discretion, it would be fine. He grabbed the piece of cloth that concealed the sorceress’ chest and pulled it up. Both her breasts were indeed tattooed like the rest of her body. The left one was covered in straight stripes beginning at the nipple; Jackson decided it was a solar pattern. The right breast was inked with green and red wavy lines, in some sort of abstract drawing.

His lips ran along the woman’s bust until they met with her nipples. He licked and nibbled, eliciting a few moans, then moved on to the other when he felt it become erect. Meanwhile, his hands massaged her shoulders, caressed her back, then settled for her butt. He found it a bit small, with just enough fat to fill his grip. He sensed her getting more antsy, her gestures more anxious as she removed his vest and opened his shirt. As he felt the warmth of her hands on his bare torso, he decided to jump to the next step, and kissed her as he took off her pants.

Neither of them paid any attention to the bottle of cider as it fell to the floor, spilling what remained of its contents. Jackson was too busy removing Enita’s pants, and the latter was too focused on feeling his hands, his lips and his breath on the most sensitive parts of her lower body.

Enita tasted sweet and sour, and her musk was a mixture of perspiration, iodine, and fruit. She fidgeted with every move of his tongue, fluttered her eyelashes with every one of her folds he explored, and squealed every time he sucked on her little button. Jackson would have loved nothing more than to savor the moment -and Enita- for the rest of the afternoon, but the nearby sound of footsteps on the gravel enticed him to wrap this up quickly and nicely.

Electricity ran through his nerves as he devoured the young woman. Wait. He blinked. That “electricity” wasn’t a figure of speech: he actually felt little shocks over his skin, emanating from Enita’s skin and delightfully running along his nerves. Jackson looked up to stare in her eyes. They had turned into a deep blue, and in their globes flashed white currents of light. He guessed that this was one of these “moments” Enita had alluded to earlier.

A spasm shook the sorceress as the young man pushed her past the edge with the tip of his tongue. A high-pitched, nearly inaudible squeak escaped her mouth despite the barrier of her hand, and the nails of her other hand left three red lines on Jackson’s neck. He leaned back and sat on the floor, while she remained motionless on the bench, out of breath.

“So?” he said. “Do I need any teaching?”

She giggled, still panting.

“What in the Abyss?!” yelled a voice behind Jackson.

He looked above his shoulder and saw a man and a woman, both dressed in flashy, expensive clothing. The man was red in outrage, while the woman paled as if she was going to pass out. Jackson and Enita rushed to stand up, adjusting their clothing as best they could. The man stomped towards Jackson, shaking his fist, as the red of his face turned purple.

“Churls!” he screamed. “Doxies! This is no place for such…”

Whatever adjective he was going to use to describe their tryst died in his throat. Any other man would have judged it wise to show tact, or possibly to keep his mouth shut. Jackson, however, thought it amusing to say:

“Just giving a public demonstration, dude. Try it on your wife, I promise she’ll like it.”

“Get out of here before I call the guards!” the man said, so loudly his voice broke.

Enita grabbed Jackson by the arm and they ran away, guffawing like a couple of childish pranksters. They took a turn at the corner of a house, then another, then another, until they reached an empty back alley.

“You’re touched in the head, you know that?” Enita said, keeling over a crate.

“I’m what?” Jackson said.

“You’re mad, Greenleaf,” she said, standing up and wiping the sweat off her bald scalp. “Completely, utterly mad.”

“I don’t remember you pushing me off, Enny. If I’m crazy, what does that make you, then?”

Enita wrapped her arms around his shoulders and brushed her nose against his. “That makes me… in your debt.”

She took his lips again, and at the same time undid his belt. They both laughed when Jackson’s pants still held without it, their front having been caught by… something. Enita knelt down and finished removing them. Her lips parted and she gave him a kiss that sent a shiver up his spine. Then came her tongue, and Jackson almost swallowed his. Finally came her throat, and it was like he had lost control over his muscles.

Enita decided not to take too long either. She took him almost whole, caressed him with a curl of the tongue, and released. Jackson exhaled, his knees turning to cotton.

“When was your last time?” she asked as she contemplated the mess on the floor and on her knees.

“It’s been a while,” Jackson breathed out, sliding down the wall he was leaning against. Thank God sex is the same in this world.

When was his last time? Jackson frowned, trying to juggle his memory. The strip club? No, he was thrown out before he could do much. Then, probably that last night with Clara, which was… damn, over two years ago, now. Jackson initially struggled to push back the memories, but then the alluring comfort of nostalgia lowered his defenses. He remembered those times in the barn’s attic, on that old mattress which reeked of mold. Clara shaking in anticipation and anxiety. Jackson fidgeting like a dog told he was being taken on a walk. That little wooden skylight where some bird (Clara swore it was a cuckoo, but Jackson thought it looked more like a raven) once observed them as they had their teenage hormonal fun. The clumsiness that made the act both awkward and enjoyable. That little trapdoor through which Jackson made his escape more than once when Clara’s father barged into the barn, calling for his wayward daughter and muttering all manners of threats, both material and spiritual, against that “damn boy” if he were to catch him within ten feet of her again.

Jackson cleared his throat, stood up, and pulled up his pants. It suddenly came to him that he had been wearing the same trunks ever since he left the army camp, a few days ago. He had traveled in them, fought in them, and even slept in them. Now that he had new clothes, wouldn’t it make sense to get an entire wardrobe, including underwear? Except… Did they have underwear in the Middle Ages? Enita hadn’t appeared to be wearing any, but maybe that was just her.

“I’m fairly sure people in the Middle Ages had genitals too,” Byron said, reappearing as soon as Jackson was decent. “Yes, they had underwear.”

“Okay, good.”

“What are you thinking about?” Enita said.

“Nothing. Hey, your eyes are back to normal.”

“And so am I,” she said with an impish smile. “For now.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind seeing them again. Maybe if we…”

“Ah-ah,” Enita said, shaking her finger. “All in due time. I don’t let just any man dip his brush into my chalice, you know.”

The expression made Jackson cough out a laugh.

“Well, I’m not just anyone, Enny,” Jackson said, kissing her halfway between her lips and her cheek.

“And you will have the opportunity to prove it, I’m sure. For now, let’s go back.”

 

Marrmad greeted them with a knowing smile when they made their way back to the hideout. Jowallan was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, their eyes closed, their hands raised before him at shoulder level, as if they were holding a plate. From the noise and the shouting, Jackson guessed Durnin and Argyro were trading blows in the training room.

“Ah, everyone’s here,” Marrmad said. “I was about to call a gathering for tonight, but we might as well have it now.”

He placed two fingers between his lips and whistled sharply. Seconds later, Durnin and Argyro came out through the curtain. Both of them were sweaty, Durnin a lot more so than his sparring partner.

“Gather round, you lot,” the Goblin said.

Everybody sat at the table. Jackson took a chair next to Enita, and took the opportunity to place his hand on her thigh. She smiled, but took his hand off.

“We’ve got some work?” Durnin asked.

“Indeed we do,” Marrmad said. “One of the Prince Merchants is in need of armed assistance. One of his caravans was attacked recently, in the Edlon forest.”

“Redthroats?” Argyro said.

“That’s right. The survivors identified them quite clearly. They have never been known for their subtlety.”

“So close to the city,” Durnin said. “They’re getting audacious.”

“With the war coming and the refugees flowing in, the militia and the Prince Merchants’ personal guards are getting overwhelmed,” Marrmad said. “The roads are less safe with each passing day. An ideal situation for bandits.”

“And for us,” Durnin said.

“Quite. Our task is twofold: find where the Redthroats hide their base of operations in the Edlon forest, and recover one of the things they stole in the caravan.”

“What thing?” Jackson said.

“I’m afraid the Prince Merchant wasn’t very descriptive. He only stated it was contained in an ornate box made out of painted metal, with his family sigil on it.”

“Fat lot of good it does to us, knowing that,” Durnin said. “No doubt the Redthroats pried it open as soon as they got their muddy hands on it.”

“The Prince Merchant is confident they did not.”

“What makes him so sure?” Enita said.

“He didn’t bother explaining, and only reiterated that the box was intact, and that we were to bring it back to him in the same state.”

“That’s not ominous at all,” Jackson said.

“I’m of a mind with Greenleaf,” Durnin said. “The job sounds like there could be more danger than we’d expect. This had better pay well.”

“Does five hundred gold oxen sound like a good reward?” Marrmad said.

“That it does!” Durnin said, clapping and rubbing his hands together. “What’s the plan?”

“Wait a moment,” Enita said. “Which Prince Merchant are we talking about?”

“What’s it matter?” Durnin said. “Their coin is good all the same.”

“How are we supposed to recognize his family sigil if we don’t know what family he’s from?”

“It’s Voldus Nechido,” Marrmad said. “His sigil is four golden trouts on a blue field.”

“Nechido the Fat?” Argyro said.

“This is why I do the talking with our would-be employers,” Marrmad sighed. “Yes, Nechido the Fat.”

“One of the richest men in the Marches, maybe the continent,” Durnin told Jackson. “They say the only thing bigger than his belly is his purse.”

“Sounds good for us,” Jackson said. “So how do we do this?”

“Here’s what I suggest,” Marrmad said. “We go to the place where the caravan was ambushed, and try to find any clue that will lead us back to the Redthroat’s encampment. Durnin, do you still know how to follow a trail in the wild?”

“I still have a few of my old tricks. What of you, Greenleaf? The way you dressed until today, you looked like you’d know your way around the woods.”

“Uh, I mean… Yeah, I had some training,” the former soldier said, trying to remember everything he had been taught in the US Army.

“As have I,” Byron said.

“Very well,” Marrmad said. “Any objections to this plan? Any questions? Good. Then let’s get ready. We’re leaving tomorrow before dawn.”

Ugh. I thought being a mercenary meant I wouldn’t have to wake up early anymore. As he grabbed the deck of cards left on the table and started shuffling them, Byron said:

“You’d do well to spend the rest of the day training.”

“I already trained yesterday. And apparently, I can just rely on your skills. And worst case scenario, I still have my little friend here.”

He patted the pistol in his satchel.

“Don’t you think it’d be better for you if you developed your own skills?” Byron said. “Unless you actually enjoy it when I control you.”

Jackson grimaced. The veteran wasn’t wrong; the very thought made him uncomfortable.

“And anyway, you could use the exercise. You’ve been really splurging, lately.”

“I have nearly two years of military food to make up for.” He sighed. “Oh, fine. But not for long.”

And so Jackson trained on his own; or rather, under Byron’s tutelage. The veteran proved quite the taskmaster, to the point where Jackson was reminded of his old drill sergeant -although with much less screaming and swearing. The young man picked up a sword again, and was made to practice the same few moves many, many times. And then some more. After his first series of a hundred stabs, he groaned and protested:

“I think I got this. Why don’t we move on to the next thing?”

“Because you only think you got this. You need to master it perfectly for when you’ll need it.”

“What’s the point of perfectly mastering stabbing?”

“It can kill your enemy as much as any other move. Better, even, if your enemy’s got a suit of armor on.”

“Fine… How many more do I have to do?”

“Another hundred.”

“What?! You want me to do this two hundred times?

““I don’t fear the man who practiced a thousand kicks one time, I fear the man who practiced one kick a thousand times”,” Byron said.

“Did one of your instructors tell you that?” Jackson said, dismissively.

“Bruce Lee said that.”

“Oh… That’s pretty cool, actually.”

Luckily, Jackson didn’t have to practice that particular move a thousand times, only enough times that he and the muscles in his right arm got sick of it. Next were the slashing motions. First, a hundred vertical slashes, then, a hundred horizontal slashes, and finally, a vertical slash followed by a horizontal slash, repeated a hundred times. In addition to the physical strain, Jackson felt mentally drained by the fact that Byron found something to correct or criticize more often than not.

“You’re not doing this right. It’s all in the wrist, not in the elbow.”

“I am using my wrist!” Jackson said.

“Use it more! If this was a real fight, you’d be dead already.”

When it wasn’t the way he moved his wrist, it was the way he was standing. When it wasn’t the way he was standing, it was the way he moved his legs. And when it wasn’t the way he moved his legs, it was some other thing having to do with his breathing, the manner in which he held his head, the way he turned his torso, or all of those simultaneously. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the training session ended early with Jackson feeling like he hadn’t progressed at all; worse: feeling more incompetent with a sword than before. Cursing under his breath, he threw away his weapon and stomped back to the main room. Byron didn’t say anything.

He sat at the table where Durnin, Argyro, and Enita were drinking. Enita and Argyro were talking in low voices -or more accurately, Enita was talking and Argyro was listening. The sorceress raised two fingers in a V before her mouth and mimed licking between them, then giggled. Durnin took one look at Jackson and wordlessly poured him a cup. Jackson muttered a thanks and drank the whole thing in one gulp. This proved to be a terrible mistake. What he assumed would be beer or some other light alcohol turned out to be something more closely related to whisky. He coughed out about half of it, and choked on the other half, his throat burning as if he had been guzzling fuel. Durnin laughed out loud at the show, Argyro snickered, and Enita visibly struggled to contain her hilarity.

“What the hell is that?” Jackson muttered.

“That’s springwine, that is,” Durnin said as he refilled the young man’s cup. “The Vertrisian Elves make it with water from their mountains.”

“Delicious,” Jackson said, wiping his nose -some of the damned liquid was coming out of his nostrils.

“It’s tradition for the Children of Nayros to drink some on the eve of a big job,” Enita said.

“Ah, right, the job.”

“Nervous, Greenleaf?” Argyro said.

“I don’t know, I guess.”

The correct answer was yes. The training had had the positive effect of pushing tomorrow’s job out of Jackson’s mind, but now that there were no more distractions, he was starting to feel stressed. This was completely new territory to him; he was excited, sure, but also unsure of what to expect.

“Good,” the Orc said. “Means you’re taking this seriously.”

“You’ll do fine, lad,” Durnin said. “Keep your wits about you, and trust in your brothers and sisters.”

He knocked back his own drink, then let out a loud exhalation of satisfaction. “Right, you lot. Best go to sleep now if you want to be fresh and early tomorrow.”

One at a time, the Children of Nayros left the table. Marrmad left the basement, apparently having his own place to sleep in. Jowallan stayed up a while longer, once more reading a book. A bit emboldened, and wanting to clear his mind, Jackson went to Enita’s side and said in her ear:

“Want me to keep you warm tonight?”

“Rein it in, filly,” she said with a smile that showed her slightly yellowed teeth. “I need my rest, and you need to learn some patience.”

“Not before the big game, huh? Okay, I get it.”

She pinched his buttcheek, and laid down on her cot. Jackson took off his new outfit, and carefully placed it on a barrel, with his backpack in between to keep his clothes from getting dirty. With a yawn so powerful he hurt his jaw, Jackson went to bed; sleep came in a wink.

 

He was walking through a tunnel. It was dark; good thing Jackson had a torch. The tunnel’s walls were made out of dirt, looking wet and a bit slimy, with stone beams that looked old and burned. Eventually, he reached a crossroad. After a bout of eeny, meeny, miny, moe, he decided to go right. He walked for about half a mile, and reached a dead-end. Jackson swore in a mixture of frustration and surprise: it had seemed like the wall had popped up out of nowhere. He turned on his heels.

Jackson walked for maybe a couple of yards until the tunnel took a sharp turn to the right. This surprised him again -and scared him a little-: he was absolutely sure there had been no turn there the first time. He continued to follow the only path, now moving with more caution.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

He hadn’t walked even twenty steps before a deadend appeared before him. He kicked the wall, mostly out of anger, but also to test its materiality. He turned back again, and this time he counted thirteen steps before he met with yet another deadend.

“Why?!” he screamed out.

Then, as if to answer his rhetorical question, scriptures began to appear on the wall. The characters looked like they were being burned into the stone, letting out a bit of smoke as they were drawn.

Turn on the dark, I’m afraid of the light

What the fuck does that mean? Jackson thought, touching the blackened letters. Is it some kind of joke? He looked around for more writings, but the walls to his left and to his right were both blank. As to the wall behind him… Wait, he couldn’t see it anymore. That was weird. Granted, his torch didn’t have much reach, but he should still have been able to distinguish it.

Afraid of the light, Jackson pondered. Wait… Following a sudden intuition, Jackson threw his torch behind him. He staggered a bit when the other deadend appeared in the torch’s halo. There was no mistaking it: it was close enough that Jackson should have made it out when he was holding the torch.

“Wait… Wait a minute…”

Jackson closed his eyes and held out his hand to touch the wall in front of-

There was no more wall in front of him. The tunnel now continued forward. Jackson’s logical mind dictated that he didn’t step out of the light of his torch, but something in the darkness… called out to him. He rationalized that it was probably the only way out of here anyway, and continued, in violation of his survival instincts.

Almost as soon as he stepped into the shadow, his torch disappeared. All was dark around him. Yet, strangely, he was not afraid. Part of the reason why was the temperature. Initially cold, it was becoming warm, and seemed to increase with every step he took. But mostly, it was because of the voice. It was a strange voice, coming from further away; it was unintelligible, yet somehow filled Jackson with the confidence to move ahead.

So ahead he went, his left hand held out in front of him in case he reached another wall. He had no idea how long it was when he finally touched something. It wasn’t a wall, however. It was softer, much warmer, and more importantly: it moved. Jackson almost yelped. It was a hand. It had long fingers, terminated by long nails. Jackson couldn’t tell whether it was a man or a woman, but his intuition told him it wasn’t Human. The unknown hand caressed Jackson’s fingers, then closed around his wrist, who, to his own shock, didn’t make a move. It held him gently, but firmly. 

Then, the young man felt a breath on his fingers, light like a leaf. He shuddered, but still didn’t try to withdraw his hand. What the hell am I doing? he thought. Why am I not moving? Or talking? Or freaking out? After the breath came two lips, wet and cold. They opened around Jackson’s ring finger, and kissed it. Okay, I should be doing something right now. But he continued to stay perfectly still; it was as if his fight or flight reflex had been removed from his mind.

He shuddered again. After the lips came a tongue, and by its length there was no mistaking it: whoever he was with was not Human. It rolled around Jackson’s finger like a snake. It was cold, and had a rough texture like a cat’s.

Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the tongue, the lips, and finally the fingers disappeared, leaving Jackson completely alone. More than a little disoriented, he looked around him. From the corner of his eye, he saw his torch, still burning against the paved ground, as if it had always been there -which maybe it had. He picked it up, and found himself face to face with yet another wall from out of nowhere. Letters had been burned into it:

Find her

Find who? he thought. Suddenly, the tunnels began crumbling around him. No, not crumbling. Melting. Jackson wanted to run, but he had no idea where. The very floor under his feet was melting as well, along with the ceiling. The flame of his torch flickered as if it was dying, and its light dimmed. Darkness invaded the space around Jackson once again. The last thing he saw before everything disappeared into the dark was some strange, black, spheric object, about the size of his fist.

“Oi, Greenleaf!”

Jackson blinked and grumbled. Something poked him in the stomach, first gently, then more firmly. He grumbled and opened an eye. Above him stood Argyro, her hands on her hips, her foot tapping on his torso.

“Wake up, or by Tewiz, I’ll aim lower.”

“I’m awake,” Jackson said, sitting up with great effort. “I’m awake…”

“Good. Start packing up. Marrmad already went for the horses.”

The young man crawled out of his cot, moving maybe an inch an hour. He got dressed up, indifferent to anyone’s stare (he was so out of things he only realized he was alone in the room a few minutes later) or to the fact that he hadn’t washed. Joining the others -sans Marrmad- in the main room, Jackson drank some eyelet milk. While it was certainly not as effective as caffeine, Enita had not lied about its stimulant properties.

Marrmad had rented six horses from a stable outside the Crow Gate. All but one of them were regular horses, the kind Jackson assumed one would find on any roads; Argyro’s was noticeably bigger and sturdier. After everyone had saddled up, Durnin called out to Jackson, and threw him a sword in its scabbard. Jackson barely caught it.

“Do her proud, Greenleaf.”

Durnin himself was equipped with a similar sword, hung on his belt, as well as a bow and arrows, both attached to his saddle. Marrmad had a dagger, and Jackson noticed two bulges at chest level beneath his frock coat. As to Jowallan and Enita, they didn’t seem to have any weapons at all.

The Goblin whistled, and the Children of Nayros began their trek, heading northeast. The weather was gray and cloudy, and a bit of rain drizzled in the late morning. The group rode between crop fields for most of the day, following a large road. They met with a few travelers and a couple of caravans, evidently merchants looking to trade their goods in Atvello. Marrmad talked with some of them, asking them if they had had any trouble along the road; all answers were negative, save for one Lizardwoman whose horse was attacked by a boar. No one had seen any sign of a single Redthroat.

“It would be rather stupid of them to attack twice in the same spot,” Durnin said.

“True,” Marrmad said. “And perhaps they were only interested in the one caravan.”

“You think they were after that box,” Jackson said.

“Quite possibly. I doubt Nechido would pay that many oxen for a boxful of rags.”

“What d’ye think is in it?” Durnin said. “I’ll bet it’s some rare spices from C’fan. Some nobles from the Empire would give half their fief for those.”

“I think it’s a magical artifact,” Enita said. “Possibly something from the Hexacracy. There’s been a few skirmishes at the border; might be one of their mages lost something in battle. What do you think, Marrmad?”

The Goblin pondered the question for a little while. “Knowing Nechido as I do, I’d wager it’s something that would grant him influence over some powerful people. Intelligence, possibly. Some sort of shameful secret. The Prince Merchants are always after more leverage over the other Prince Merchants, or the marquesses. Each one of them cares only for two things: for Atvello to remain free, and for them to remain its most powerful figure.”

“Aye, I suppose that makes sense,” Durnin said. “What about you, Argyro?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the Orc retorted sharply. “Whatever’s in it, the Fat will have made sure it can’t be opened by anyone but him.”

“True, true… Still, you have to wonder.”

They reached the edge of the Edlon forest while the sun was still shining. From then on, Marrmad instructed the group to remain cautious. The path bifurcated at some point, and the group went left, towards the north. They rode in near-complete silence until the early evening, watchful of their surroundings, before they finally encountered the remains of the ambushed caravan. Two carriages were found on the side of the path, one of which had a broken axle; both had been looted, leaving little behind. Several bodies -Humans, Humanoids, and horses- littered the ground. Dozens of arrows had been shot. Flies buzzed around the scene, and the process of decomposition had already started, burdening the air with a faint but nagging stench of death.

“All right,” Marrmad said, pulling up his scarf above his nose. “Durnin, Greenleaf, see what you can find that can lead us to the Redthroats. Argyro, Enita, Jowallan, keep watch.”

Jackson jumped down from his horse, and tied the reins to a tree. He cracked his knuckles and approached one of the carriages.

“Okay, special forces,” he said. “See anything?

“Give me a moment,” Byron said.

The veteran kneeled beside one of the corpses, investigating his wounds. It was a Human male, evidently a guard. An arrow stuck from the side of his chest, and a very dark red spot stained his leather armor. Yet, it seemed that hadn’t been enough to kill him, as he had another wound near his heart, inflicted by some kind of piercing weapon -a spear, Byron guessed. After a bit of searching around the “crime scene”, Byron declared:

“They ambushed the caravan from both sides. The initial attack was very quick: a volley of arrows from this side,” he pointed at the west side of the road, “aimed at the horses and the drivers. The goal was to stop one of the carriages… Likely this one.” He pointed at the one which didn’t have a broken axle. “The caravan moved to defend themselves, when the other group of ambushers came out of hiding on this side,” he showed the east side of the road, “and attacked as well. The defenders quickly realized they were in a bad position, and very possibly outnumbered, and made a run for it with the carriages they had left. One of them broke its axle on a stone in the confusion. Its driver either fled or was captured; there’s no trace of blood or struggle, so if the bandits killed them, it wasn’t here.”

Jackson was impressed, and didn’t mind letting it show. “How the hell can you tell all of this?”

“Let’s just say I have experience with this sort of thing.”

“With solving ambushes? Or setting them up?” he asked with a smirk.

“Yes,” Byron answered in his usual, irritatingly laconic manner.

Jackson thought then that if Byron was purposefully teasing him with crumbs of his mysterious past to make him more curious, he was certainly succeeding. Of course, the most likely explanation was that Byron didn’t want to reveal anything he didn’t have to. But that too only made Jackson more curious: what kind of stuff had this special ops type done during his previous service? So far, Jackson knew that he had been to West Point, had been part of Delta Force, and had been trained in medieval fencing. Then, there were the glimpses he had gained through their bond, which he couldn’t make much sense of. The Byron puzzle only had a few pieces put together, nowhere near enough to see the big picture.

The young man went back to the others to relay “his” findings. Durnin concurred, surprised that Jackson had come to the same conclusions as him, and faster too.

“How’s that for Greenleaf?” Jackson mused.

“Wait until we get to their camp before you start bragging,” Durnin retorted.

“Oh, I will.”

He turned to Byron again, and thought-said: “What now?”

“Do I really have to do everything?”

“Well, I’m learning from you. Plus, it gives you something to do, instead of just creeping around like an introvert at a party.”

Byron shook his head and massaged his jaw. He left the trail, venturing through the tall grass and the bushes -literally through them: he traversed them without touching or moving them. Byron crouched, then put a knee on the ground, and pointed at something. Jackson got closer to see it.

“Footstep,” Byron said.

Jackson squinted. There was a very small hole in the dirt, between two patches of grass. Then, Byron found another, a couple of feet further away from the path.

“Looks like a Human,” he said. “He or she seemed to be in a hurry, which is probably why they didn’t cover their tracks well.”

“You’ve really got an eye for this,” Jackson said.

“It’s all about paying attention to details that don’t fit. Speaking of which, where did you get that ring?”

“Huh?”

Byron nudged his chin towards Jackson’s left hand. The latter did a double take as he looked down at it. On his ring finger was a rather large gold ring, with an embossed seal on top. It looked like the sort of thing a well-off noble would wear.

“I know for a fact you didn’t have it yesterday,” Byron said.

This was true. Jackson was never one for jewelry, and this particular ring he found heavy, gaudy, and rather ugly. Four wavy lines were embossed on it. As he stared at it, he started remembering that dream he had the night before. He remembered the hand picking his, he remembered the lips kissing his finger… this very finger, in fact. And he certainly remembered the tongue, encircling his finger like… well, like a ring. He shuddered. Magic -which this clearly was- had just gotten a little bit weirder, and a whole lot creepier.

“Did you find something?” Durnin called out.

Jackson emerged from his thoughts.

“Yeah, some footsteps.”

“Ah, good. There’s nothing on this side.”

Durnin confirmed Jackson’s -well, Byron’s- discovery, and the both of them quickly found a trail and went after it. The rest of the team followed them, still on horseback, leaving some distance between them and the two scouts.

As they advanced through the woods, Byron became more energetic, more driven. He was clearly in his environment. Jackson noticed he paced his steps, and hid behind trees or in the shadows whenever he stopped, even though he didn’t need to do any of that. His old reflexes were taking over. Interestingly, Jackson felt them too. When Byron told him to poke some pebbles on the floor, he somehow knew the veteran was trying to find out if they had been moved recently by checking whether they were wetter on one side. When Byron inspected some kind of wet stain on the side of a tree, Jackson immediately understood that someone had relieved their bladder there not too long ago. 

Stars had begun to appear in the sky when Byron stopped.

“We’re close,” he said.

“We’re close,” Jackson repeated.

“Aye,” Durnin whispered. “Probably was a Redthroat patrolling that took that piss on that tree over there. I’ll stay here. You go tell the others.”

Jackson nodded and went back, laying low and trying to make as little noise as possible. The rest of the Children had stopped near a stream, to fill up on water and give the horses some rest.

“Right,” Marrmad said after being informed. “We’ll get into position. Take Jowallan and infiltrate the camp. Your priority is that box. The Redthroats have probably put it away somewhere safe; my guess is their leader is keeping it close. Try to retrieve it without getting noticed. If anything goes wrong, Jowallan will know what to do.”

Jowallan dismounted and followed Jackson without saying a word. Durnin had taken position behind a large tree stump, aside from a thick bush, on top of a hill. He was holding his bow in one hand, and was snacking on some berries he had found with the other. Without a word, he pointed at something on the other side of the bush. Watching cautiously, Jackson distinguished a flickering light, like a flame. He and Jowallan moved to get closer; Jackson paid extra attention to his feet, making sure not to step on any branches.

The forest had gotten quite dense. With the sun having almost completely disappeared beneath the horizon, Jackson could barely see ten feet away. Jowallan tapped on his shoulder, then made a gesture signifying they wanted to take the lead. The not-Demon moved with great ease through the woods, not the least bit hindered by the now near-total lack of light. Guess they’ve got night vision or something.

After a bit of skulking, the duo caught sight of a cave. Two people were standing in front of its entrance, including the one carrying a lantern; he was most likely the one they’d been following. That one was a man, who had the ears and the silhouette of an Elf, but had darker skin and was taller. The other was a tall and large woman, though less so than Argyro, and had ram-like horns on the side of her head, as well as a lot of dark brown fur covering most of her visible skin, including parts of her face. Both had weapons (the man had a sword, the woman a spiked hammer), as well as a large, distinctive red scarf around their necks.

“How are we going to do this?” Jackson whispered, so low he barely heard himself.

“We will walk in,” Jowallan said.

It was the very first time Jackson heard their voice. It sounded… off, otherworldly -if such a word made sense, given the setting. Neither masculine nor feminine, a soft contralto that seemed to reverberate, but maybe that was just because of the environment. Jackson found it off-putting and strangely alluring at the same time.

“Walk in?” Jackson repeated.

In lieu of clarification, Jowallan closed their red eyes, and their face frowned in focus. Then, they stood up and, true to their word, began nonchalantly walking towards the bandits. Jackson cursed under his breath. What was this idiot doing? A couple more steps and the bandits would see them clear as day in the light of their lanterns.

But… no! Even as Jowallan marched right to their faces, the two highwaymen seemed completely oblivious to them. Jackson’s jaw dropped. Okay. Magic just got cool again. Jowallan looked over their shoulder and gestured their head in a way Jackson took to mean: “Well? Are you coming?”.

“No… freaking… way…” Jackson muttered.

In disbelief, Jackson left his hideout as well and walked towards the bandits. He moved as carefully as if he was treading on a minefield and expecting to lose a leg at a moment’s notice. He kept his gaze focused on the bandits’ eyes, ready to react should they turn to him. But they didn’t. Dumbfounded, Jackson stood for a moment in front of the Elf, who totally ignored him. On an impulse, he waved his fingers right in front of the bandit’s face, but there was once again no reaction. Jackson turned to Jowallan with a large smile and about a thousand questions and exclamations. Jowallan placed a finger on their lips, and Jackson understood that being unseen didn’t mean he would necessarily be unheard.

Jowallan and Jackson slipped between the two guards, and entered the cave. From what Jackson could see, the place had probably once been a mine: the natural corridors had been artificially widened and shored up. After a few sinuous turns, the two arrived in a large chamber, three or four floors tall. At the bottom, eight or so shacks had been built, in a combination of wood, stone, and cloth; it looked like a favela or a refugee camp. Torches were lit here and there, their smoke leaving through several holes in the ceiling. Jackson counted over fourteen people, all wearing those red scarves which were evidently their signature. For most of them, it was apparently dinner time, and they had gathered around a large cooking pot with their plates and bowls. A few more were sleeping in the shacks, and one more was using a grinding stone to sharpen some metal instrument. Over half of them were Humans, most of them young. They all carried weapons, from simple knives to large axes, of rather poor quality. Many of them had rust, and quite a few didn’t look like they were sharpened.

There were two other passages leading to the grand chamber. Jackson and Jowallan went to investigate them, starting with the closest one. The passage was rather short and led to a scale descending into another chamber, about a third as big as the main one. There were several holes in the floor, about twelve feet deep and three feet large. Jackson picked up a faint stench from one of them. Peering down, he saw a Demon woman, naked and covered in dirt, curled up in a fetal position. Jackson’s first instinct was to look for a rope to help her out of here, but as he paid more attention to her vacant eyes and her perfectly still chest, he realized she was beyond saving.

“Must have been down here for days,” Byron said.

With a gloomy feeling in his chest, Jackson looked away. Jowallan continued to lead the way as they went for the second passage, Jackson sticking close to him in case whatever magic they were using to keep the two of them invisible had a maximum range. They got to another chamber, about the size of a bedroom. Whoever was in charge of those bandits had clearly taken up residence here: the place had furniture -a desk, a chair, a bed, and a chest-, a couple of moth-eaten draperies, various decorative baubles, and even an actual floorboard. Two iron lanterns lit the place in an orange glow.

Someone was already present. A man, sitting behind the desk, counting coins and ruminating under his breath. When told he would go after the leader of a band of highwaymen, Jackson’s imagination had gone wild: he had pictured a seven feet tall giant of a man, with broad shoulders, prominent chest muscles covered in scars, long black hair -or no hair at all, he couldn’t make up his mind-, and clothes made out of the hide of various animals (mostly felines and ursids). The real deal was a bit of letdown, compared to that, as was often the case with Jackson’s imagination. This man seemed about the same size as Jackson, had short, dirty, blonde hair, and while he was muscled, his gut was more prominent. He had a large, unkempt, graying beard, and matching bushy eyebrows that almost joined at the center. The man had no visible scar. As to his clothing, it was nothing out of the ordinary, save for his boots: they were clearly made of superior leather, and their buckles were made out of gold. Jackson actually wondered if stealing those would qualify as petty. He then realized they were probably already stolen.

An ax hung by the chief’s side, and he was holding a dagger which he used to split his coins. Jackson turned to Byron and mentally said:

“Try to find the box.”

“On it.”

Byron started wandering around the room, obviously not worried to be seen or heard -or smelled or anything else, for that matter. Jackson turned to Jowallan and raised his eyebrows to mean: “what’s the plan?”. Jowallan gestured to the chief, then at themself: “I’ll deal with him.”. Jackson nodded, then thumbed his chest: “what about me?”. Jowallan pointed at the young man’s eyes, then moved his index finger in a circle over his own head: “watch over me”. Jackson nodded again.

Jowallan moved very slowly towards the chief, his clawed hands raised at shoulder level and ready to strike. They were only two feet from their target when Jackson heard noise up in the passage. Footsteps, and the clinking of metal. Thankfully, he was still in Jowallan’s eyesight, and managed to warn him just in time. Two seconds later, a Redthroat entered his chief’s room. Jackson only then noticed he was in his way, and quickly stepped aside. In doing so, he stepped on an uneven part of the floorboard. Not content with making a creaking sound, it threw Jackson off-balance. He managed to grab onto the wall, but accidentally bumped into the newcomer.

“What the blazes?” the bandit yelled.

“There’s somebody there?” the chief said.

Fuck! Why couldn’t they be the dumb kind of criminals? Jackson thought as the two Redthroats pulled out their weapons.

“Go sound the alarm,” the chief cried out.

Jackson barely had time to react before the bandit turned on his heels and started to run back to the others. He barreled into the man, slamming him against the rocky wall. Jowallan entered into action one second later, wrapping his arm around the chief’s throat and blocking his mouth and nose with the other hand. The other bandit fell to the ground, blood pouring out of a wound over his right eye and clearly dizzied, but still conscious. Jackson grabbed the handle of his sword, pulled it out of its sheath, and after a brief hesitation, plunged its point in the bandit’s throat. The blade entered deeply, perforating the esophagus before hitting something hard. Jackson quivered when he realized that was probably the man’s spine. The bandit croaked in shock and agony. His hand rose in the air, futilely trying to reach his invisible enemy, before dropping.

His heart bumping against his rib cage, Jackson turned his attention away from the corpse and to Jowallan. The Redthroat chief was struggling against Jowallan’s hold, his ax swaying wildly before him until he accidentally let go of it. With a choked roar of anger, he moved to grab his dagger on the desk, but only managed to send his piles of coins flying. Finally, his eyes became glazed and bloodshot, and his whole body went limp. Jowallan held him for a minute more before releasing him. Jackson breathed in relief.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

Jowallan didn’t answer, nor did they seem to acknowledge his apology. They retrieved a purse from the chief’s pocket, and started gathering the coins on the desk and on the floor. Meanwhile, Byron, who apparently hadn’t let the brief fight interrupt his search, crossed his arms and said:

“I can’t find it anywhere. It has to be in the chest.”

Jackson tried to open it, but, predictably, it was locked. Before he could even ask, Jowallan found the key around the late chief’s neck. As he turned it into the lock, Jackson let his imagination wander about what he would find inside the chest. He remembered those cartoons he saw as a kid, where a character would open such a chest, revealing a wealth in golden coins, along with a great beam of light illuminating their faces. Once again, sadly, his imagination overestimated reality. The chief’s loot amounted to about a dozen steeds, half as many gold oxen, and some clothing. Jackson rummaged through the contents, until his fingers bumped into something hard. It was shaped like a square, and had pointy angles.

“Found it,” Jackson said, as he retrieved what was indeed the box.

He examined it from all sides. It was made out of some kind of orange-painted metal. As expected, the top was decorated with a sigil consisting of four fish on a blue background. Its ridges and its hinges were made out of iron, or maybe steel. The lock was a small, round gap, less than an inch large and deep, and, curiously, had no visible mechanism. Some figures were carved inside.

“Wait a minute,” Jackson said.

The shape of the lock… its size… Jackson looked down at his hand. His mysterious ring had the same dimensions. And those four wavy lines, evoking the sea… Holding his breath, Jackson pressed the ring against the lock. Something sprung inside the box, and the lid opened on its own.

“Oh, what the fuck…” he whispered, unsure whether to be amazed or scared that it had worked.

Inside the box was a small, black orb, somewhat bigger than the fist. The strange sphere contained some kind of very dark, gaseous substance. It was as if someone had found a way to trap darkness inside of a big pearl. Jackson was divided between dread and awe as he gazed into it, trying to discern something in the perfectly black mist it seemed to hold. An urge to hold it birthed in his mind.

“Don’t touch it!”

The call had come from both Byron and Jowallan, the latter of which hurtled towards Jackson, but too late. Before he knew it, his palm pressed against the orb, and his fingers closed on it.

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