Lilann watched as Ceolfric and Ermes departed, and Kyreth buddied up with the odd woman who had leant him her cloak. It seemed she meant to let him keep it, which was almost as baffling as his agreeing to it. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled worriedly, but she managed to keep herself from grimacing. Of course, she didn’t trust Eila one bit; expressed or not, there was surely some
cost or scheme behind her kindness. She only hoped Kyreth would leverage it well. Enough dallying,
she thought. You’re burning daylight.
So, she gathered herself and made for the blue-skinned elf. A part of her wished she still had her mask on, this being their first conversation, but they were past that now. Besides, he’d been the one to first assure her there was no need for it—a sentiment almost comically broken by the lady Silventria’s appearance shortly thereafter. Donning it now, for him, would have been an offense. A subtle one to be sure, but something told her Cerric had a penchant for subtly despite his…overt
” she said, bowing pleasantly as she came to him. “Might I bother you a moment?
Cerric had but a moment ago decided procrastinating any longer on his duties would likely grate on the Lord's nerves but at the sound of his name in someone else's mouth, he found himself obliged to engage. "A creature as lovely as you could never be a bother."
Cerric beamed at the question before offering a sweeping bow. Had he a hat, it would have likely swept the floor. "What do I have the pleasure of assisting you with this wonderful day?"
Lilann met his smile with one of her own. “Nothing major,
” she said. “Just, with the rest of the day open, I was planning to look into this local ghoul of yours—the one that might have been leaving those claw marks. I believe you called it: ‘The Rancor of Morn Og’? I must admit, I was unfamiliar with the tale before today. Would you happen to have anything else to share about it, or perhaps a direction you’d point to, should someone be interested in learning more?
”"Our local ghosty caught your fancy, hm? According to the locals, The Rancor isn't something to be trifled with. Some claim it stands nine feet tall, twists its heads in grotesque ways, and tempts good gods fearing men with mirage of carnal pleasure before revealing the horrors behind the masquerade. But if you are truly interested…"
Cerric considered his answer carefully, tapping a finger against his chin as he leveled an expressionless gaze at Lilann. It took only a moment for his mind to be made and he broke out a sly, curled grin."Oh very well. I certainly put no stock in this tale but perhaps you'll find something to spin prettier than the rumors skulking in the shadows. The husband of our foreman while the construction was happening vanished one night on his way back from Soft Haven. He came back days later, disoriented and confused and with a touch of frostbite on his fingers. He claimed there was a monster that dragged him away, somewhere color feared and warmth fled. He mentioned an abandoned mansion in the woods, surrounded by fallen Finnagund soldiers, but when we investigated, we couldn't find anything."
Cerric offered with a shrug. "I guarantee he got lost in the woods, crossed a bear, and managed to get away with his life but if you think it's worth the story, follow the path back out towards town and take a right halfway to the main road. Head due north until you find a crumbling stone arch then head west another hour. That's supposedly where he encounter The Rancor."
Lilann listened intently, and as Cerric continued to speak, she retrieved a small journal from her satchel as well as a leaded stylus, and began to jot down the most important details. She hoped it didn’t appear rude, perhaps he’d understand.
Speaking to the foreman’s husband would have been ideal, but tracking him down would surely eat up most of of her day, and besides, there was no guarantee he’d talk to her anyway. Despite the general hospitality of the Bounty House, Lilann knew there were more Aeowyn’s in Soft Haven than there were Eila’s. No, she had hearsay to work off of, and directions to follow—which was more than she often got. It would do.
Smiling, Lilann stuffed the journal back into her bag. “Then with fortune’s favor, it’s where I’ll encounter it as well. Thank you greatly, Mr. Liadon, you have been exceptionally helpful. Hopefully I can repay your kindness with a good story.
”"I eagerly await your tale. Though, do be careful wandering about! These woods are full of far more mundane dangers."
Cerric bade her farewell with another extravagant bow and spun on his heel to climb the stairs, humming a tune reminiscent of the strange music of the Snakeburrow woods.
The path from House to forest was more serene than entering, the colorful cast already departed during Cerric's brief conversation. The music of bird and insect resumed as the House and its strange, still waters vanished behind the curtains of foliage and the quiet harpsong lingered even softer still. Following Cerric's instructions was easier still, axe marks in the surrounding trees of a poorly cleared path deeper into the woods suggesting someone carved their way in on the same path. It meandered towards the heart of the woods, bushes and shrubs having yet grown back but plenty still underfoot to trip an unwary traveler, and soon enough a weathered and vine covered stone arch came into view, framed by dappled sunlight but missing it's keystone and the few remnants of a larger structure poked out from amongst the surrounding bushes, stones here and there worn away by decades.
The air here was cooler than the rest of the woods and the music, once subtle and soft, again near impossible to hear.
But Lilann heard it still. Whether on the word or the wind, she had an ear for subtlety, and a mind keen enough to recall that she’d heard music just like this earlier, on her way to the Bounty House. Then, she’d failed to find its source, but now…
Orienting herself west, as Cerric had instructed, Lilann continued onward. She had half a mind to lay her hand on her sword, and walk with whatever comfort that afforded her. But if there was someone else out here, Rancor or not, she’d have better liked to meet them peacefully. She didn’t have the height or, likely, the experience that Ceolfric had to introduce herself sword-first. But she certainly had her own sort of boldness.
Lilann took the lyre from her belt and gingerly tested its strings. She hummed them to tune, and listened still, intently, to the music that was as mist in the air. With practiced effort, she infused the little instrument with aether, and as she had learned to do, sectioned off a portion of thought to mind after plucking its strings. She let go, and the lyre remained in the air, hovering at her side while she walked.
A soft, gentle melody was left in her wake–an impromptu harmonization with the mysterious music around her. Rivalry is droll,
she thought, as though she were facing the musician right there. You learn so much more from a duet.
The path from the arch grew more treacherous by the hour, gnarled roots and grasping, throne vines reaching out to snag unaware travelers. Few had reason to wander so deeply this late in the year and so impromptu paths and guide marks had retreated under the forest's advance. The air grew cooler and cooler in the depths of the woods, almost unnaturally so for the amount of sunlight that filtered through the trees.
Of course, that was the smallest problem as the forest turned to ash.
One moment, the woods was full of greens, oranges, reds, and yellows and then next, everything was gray. Evidence of fire presented itself in charred bark, a soot covered floor, broken branches still shouldering. And yet, no color touched the embers, simply a plain wite glow in various shades of gray and black. Long drag marks sullied the soot's blanket, trailing footprints that a large dog could lay in. It was difficult to tell what manner of creature left such strange footprints bit by the size, it was either giant or troll.
The sound of snarling and tearing came from further ahead, hidden behind the still dense dead wood. The fetid stench of death and decay filled the air and the music that once played along aide the lyre had fallen silent.
It seemed the show as over, then.
Lilann plucked her lyre from the air and clipped it back to her belt. She wouldn’t have been able to keep her thoughts split to play it anyway–not with how the woods had changed around her. The further she tread into the colorless, immolated ruin, the slower her steps became, and the more her fingers twitched for her sword. She felt like a signal fire on a moonless night, a blue smear of paint on a black-and-white canvas.
Blessedly, it wasn’t difficult to make herself smaller. She hunched low, nearly eclipsed by her hat, and crept through the monochromatic wood. Though, calling it a wood any longer was folly. It was now at best the immolated corpse of a wood; most of its trees were ash beneath her feet, and it stank like true death. If people had lived here, they did not live any longer.
White embers danced by her like the first flakes of a snowstorm, and now and then one would graze her cheek to remind her of the difference between snow and fire. She drew closer to the horrid sounds, at once both deeply afraid, and unstoppably curious.
Beyond the immediate tree line, all life vanished. Only barren dirt remained and the shattered remains of a stone monument that clawed at the monochrome sky. Bits and pieces of armor lay scattered about stone, the occasional Soft Step and Finnagund crest visible in the larger chunks. Bones poked out from among the armor, large bite marks in each of them. The stench was strongest here, almost tangible in its strength.
In plain view stood a towering monster gouging on the flesh of a dead stag. It easily stood ten feet, heavy, sinuous muscle bulging under scarred and tattered flesh. It crouched on two legs but had four arms, each ending in three razor sharp claws. It's head was melded with its shoulders and it seemed to lack eyes, instead four large openings set above a mouth as long as Lilann's arm full of rows of razor sharp teeth. It paused its feast, the holes in its head flaring as it scented something new in its domain. Well,
Lilann thought. Shit.
She all but dove behind a broken pillar of stone, pulling in the sides of her hat to make herself slimmer. Heart racing, she briefly tried to rationalize that, no, the thing chewing through a stag like it was an ear of corn couldn’t possibly be a monster. The Rancor was a drunken cover story, there wasn’t meant to be anything out here but…well, drunks, she supposed. Then again, drunks didn’t carve those claw marks in the graveyard.
And drunks hadn’t killed all these soldiers.
Inching around her cover, Lilann tried to angle herself to see around the corner.
The Rancor of Morn Org had dropped its meal, crouched with its lower to arms helping support it. Its mound-like head turned left and right, the holes flaring. It paused for a moment and then leapt with astonishing speed, closing the gap between it and Lilann by half and then charging at the statue as it ran with all six limbs, leaving great gouges in the dirt as it let out a deafening roar.
Lilann threw herself away with a shriek, but almost on reflex, a hand went to her sword. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt and poured aether into it, drawing it cleanly up–and then promptly tossing it away.
Heavy thing, and the beast already had speed and size on her. A good look at its hideous face made it appear blind, but clearly it had located her somehow
. This isn’t a study, it’s trying to kill you.
Distancing herself from the pillar, she pulled her eyes from the Rancor just long enough to scan the charred ground.
Ash, dirt, and useless hunks of metal and stone surrounded Lilann, nothing of much use against the monster that was nearly upon her. The stone pillar was torn from the earth and tossed with the ease of a child throwing a doll, earth and stone erupting at the impact. The beast towered behind her, a clawed hand nearly at her nape.
At the corner of her vision, a flicker of color. A silhouette bright against the monochrome world flickered in and out of view, like the world around it was trying to kill it. One word entered her mind:Listen
Distantly, the sound of harp music wound its way through the trees.
She could take a hint.
Whirling, Lilann broke into a sprint for the smoldering tree line. She tried not to think about the beast behind her, at least not enough to let the unimaginable terror
bubbling up within her to stay her feet. Instead, she only spared a glance over her shoulder, where her sword lay. She could feel it, or rather, she could feel her aether–like she’d left behind a piece of herself. And, really, it was rude to leave her things just lying around.
With a motion as practiced as her spell with the lyre, Lilann flung her arm out, let out a sharp whistle, and then closed her fist and yanked her hand back in. As if on a string, her sword launched from the dirt in a puff of ash, and with a turning of her palm, reoriented itself point-first as it flew at the Rancor’s back. Perhaps it would land, perhaps it would miss. Perhaps it would strike the thing’s immense hide and shatter into pieces. At the very least, she hoped, it would buy her precious moments to follow whatever mysterious voice had beckoned to her.
The Rancor let out an inhuman shriek as the sword buried itself in its hide, the monster whirling around with an open claw to rip at whatever struck it. When it found nothing, it tore the weapon out of its back, brought it to its face, and then let out an earth shaking roar as it realized it'd been tricked. It launched itself again towards it's fleeing prey, all the more intent on devouring the trespasser.
The flickering silhouette grew sharper and more defined the further from the ruins it got. It fled to a point nearly over the horizon, wings of white sharp against the endless dark. The silhouette stopped and held out its hand, straining to help someone far beyond its reach as the familiar harpsong of the Snakeburrow Woods poured out around it.
Delayed as it was, Lilann knew the Rancor would be back on her soon, and she couldn’t outrun something that big and that fast forever. Hiding, she guessed, would be worse; if the creature truly was blind she was certain it would find her one way or another.
The music was loud, the luminous figure clearer. It reached out, perhaps urging her on.
” she hissed, leaping crumbled stone and broken, ashen earth as best she could. One hand had dedicated itself to keeping her hat secured firmly to her head. “You’re welcome to come down and lend a hand!
The Rancor was gaining and gaining fast, the earth trembling with its weight as it leapt through the dead forest. It did not care as it crashed through tree nor branch, it did not care about the nicks and cuts adorning it, it did not care about the quickly closing wound Lilann's blade had inflicted. It could smell the fear and frustration of its prey and it could taste its blood on its tongue, fresh and warm and delicious.
The luminous figure did not move nor react, it stayed steady at its spot with one hand reaching for Lilann. The Rancor slammed into the ground right behind Lilann, three claws catching at her back and another set swinging for her head…
Lilann reached the figure and like a snake, it snatched her away from the beast and exploded, filling the world with light and song and warmth and relief.
Instead of the bland, monochrome world, the luminous figure had vanished, replace by a large wooden harp with vines and flowers carved into the edges. The strings plucked themselves and the familiar melody of the Snakeburrow Woods filled the garden. Rows and rows of herbs, vegetables, and flowering bushes filled the space, meticulously labeled and separated, clearly well maintained. Beyond that, a towering tree dominated the horizon with a headstone marking a grave beneath its boughs.
Lilann blinked, heaving down breaths and clutching the great harp like it were a buoy in a maelstrom. She looked around wildly, blinded more by the sudden explosion of color than the light, but the Rancor was nowhere to be found, nor was her spectral savior. Slowly, achingly, she climbed back to her feet and let go of the harp. Only then did she realize it was playing of its own accord, and though she’d made her own lyre perform countless times before, something about this seemed…odd.
” she thought aloud, shoulders slumping. “Oh shit. Am I dead?
The sound of her own voice was jarring, and she reined her thoughts back into silence. No, not dead, couldn’t be. This place was borderline pleasant, if a bit eerie, and she very much doubted that the afterlife would be anywhere near so calm for a Tainted. Besides, she could still feel where the beast had caught her in the back. Surely she wouldn’t have carried her wounds with her into the great beyond.
Garden. Lush, thriving, tended
. This place belonged to someone. Her savior, perhaps? Rolling her shoulders with a wince, she started hesitantly onward, towards the great tree and its little gravestone. Not dead,
she thought, half-expecting to find her own name carved upon it anyway.
An adventure's spirit is never lost but always missed
Lilann exhaled with relief. She wasn’t dead—or at least, no one had buried her if she was. She crouched down before the headstone, tracing her fingers gently first across the name, and then the epitaph.
” she muttered, brow furrowed.
Hawthorne as in…Soft Haven
’s Hawthorne? Agitha Hawthorne? Surely it had to be, else she was somewhere very far away from where she ought to have been. But how? She’d walked that broken path all the way to the ruins, how could she possibly be—
Lilann shot up, looking around again. Where was she, exactly
? Was this Soft Haven? The outskirts? It wasn’t the cemetery, so was she on Lady Hawthorne’s property? Gods, she hoped not—if a quarter of the stories about that woman were true, the absolute last thing Lilann wanted to do was offend her.
Backing away from the shady grave, she retreated into the garden, searching for some sign of an exit, or a building, or perhaps a trace of her light-borne ‘friend
Beyond the edge of the clearing, forest stretched in every direction. A well-trodden path did make itself known, meandering away from the grave past the rows of plants and the harp and out into the forest. It was like a wagon trail, two thin strips of dirt with grass between them, though the wheels were much closer together than any sort of normal cart. The garden was warm and inviting, pleasant with a faint breeze and calm music but there was no one else present.
No pitchforks, it seemed. Another sigh of relief. With her exit spotted, and her life no longer immediately
in danger, Lilann returned to the harp. She placed a hand upon it curiously. If there really was no one else around, then what was
She reached out tentatively with her own aether, probing the strange instrument for arcane currents. She wasn’t exactly well-versed in such things, but perhaps there was something to be gleaned from an aetheric touch.
It was blinding in its radiance. Visions of places near and far consumed her mind, dancing leaves and blooming flowers, vast oceans and frigid depths, a mortal's last breath and a child's first all racing into her from just the briefest touch of aether. The harp magic never stopped or stilled but something akin to concern filled the clearing.
Lilann gasped, stumbling backwards and onto the ground. She gripped her hand, feeling it for burns, or cuts, or something
to evidence the fact that whatever she had just touched, it was not
a simple harp. Something like worry reached her, and it took a moment for her to realize the feeling was alien. Something else
was worried, and Lilann looked around again to confirm that, no, no one was here with her.
“What is this place?
” she mumbled to the air, getting back to her feet. No longer worried about being found by some disgruntled tender, she raised her voice. “Hello? Are…are you still here?
The concern faded away, amusement taking its place, but no one answered her. A few birds called out in the distance and the plants rustled as the breeze picked up. A rabbit hopped from around the tree and paused when it noticed the person in the clearing, nose twitching with curiosity.
Lilann cocked a brow down at the little thing. “Ah, sorry to intrude. Don’t suppose you know what’s going on here, do you?
” she mused, and turned her attention to the sudden, jovial shift in the air. Something about it eased her own nerves, too. If whatever had pulled her from the Rancor’s clutches could bring itself to relax, then perhaps she really was
“I take it that was you I heard this morning,
” she said to the air. “It’s a lovely song. I suppose I ought to be thanking you for saving my life—or maybe apologizing for imposing a rescue upon you. You have my thanks, regardless.
Her eyes flicked back towards the gravestone, and her lips pursed. A silly thought came to her, but then again, until minutes ago the Rancor had been just a silly thought as well.
” she asked. When there was no reply, she only shrugged. No answer didn’t mean ‘no
’ per se, but when it didn’t, the line of questioning was likely unappreciated regardless. “Well, not like I’ve much right to pry–just can’t help it sometimes. Part of the job. I came out here looking for that wretched beastie, if you can believe it. Didn’t think I’d find anything, mind you, just after a good story, something to pass the time for…hah, look at me, jawing the ear off a spirit. If that’s what you are–I’m not particularly well-versed in these sorts of things. More of a speculative…curious compulsion.
Her attention returned to the harp, and for a moment her heart beat as rapidly as a rabbit’s. “This, for instance,
” she said, making her way back to it, and placing a single, careful hand upon its arch. “I find this particularly compelling.
”Please don’t let me regret this too much.
As she had before, Lilann pushed just a bit of her aether into the harp, only this time she braced herself, both with a sturdy footing, and a steeled mind. She hoped that would be enough.
This time, for the briefest of moments, a young elven woman sat at the harp, deft and practiced fingers dancing across the strings. With wild hair and features a mismatched pattern of animals, she laughed with the sound of hurricanes and tidal waves before a final flick of her fingers found the garden vanish, replaced instead with the familiar arch of the Bounty House gate.
” she blinked, the fading image of the woman still burned into her eyelids. She looked around madly, confused, then lost, then confused once again. “Huh?
She’d been moved again, this time much farther than she would have thought–though, she supposed she still didn’t know exactly where the garden had been. As her eyes settled on the Bounty House, she felt her heart sink.
” she muttered, turning skyward. “No no no. Dammit! Hey! I’m sorry! I didn’t–well, I shouldn’t–
” Lilann pinched the bridge of her nose, sighed. Serves you right, touching other people’s things.
Almost automatically, she moved for the Bounty House, though she was entirely unsure of what she would do. How long had she been gone? It was still light out, at least, though in the back of her mind she feared it might not be the same day. But before she could spiral too far down that
rabbit hole, she pushed the doors open and made her way inside.
Aleka sat on one of the couches, perusing a track of documents with the help of a Dwarven man in Mystralath finery. At the sound of the door opening, Aleka looked away from his work. "Is everything alright, Ms. Storyborn? You seem stressed."
“Ah! Mister Doneka–
” she halted, noticing the Dwarf, and remembered herself. She felt suddenly quite exposed without her mask, but once again wasn’t in much a position to don it. Instead, she bowed her head obligingly. “My apologies for the rude interruption. If you’ll forgive just one inch more, would you mind…do you have any idea how long I’ve been gone?
Aleka glanced outside briefly. "Hm, the sun is soon to set, so a healthy handful of hours."
He looked her up and down. "Is everything alright, Ms. Storyborn? Would you care to take a seat and gather yourself a moment?"
A handful of hours? That didn’t line up, either. She made her way to a chair nearby the table, but only leaned against it. If she sat down, she feared, she may lose the will to get back up again.
“Thank you for your concern, Mister Doneka, you’re too kind.
” She ran a hand through her hair, thinking. How was she possibly meant to explain herself? Lying about fantastical things was easy enough, but convincing someone of something that was exactly as real as it was strange was quite outside of her wheelhouse. “I’m quite alright,
” she said at last. “I went for a walk on Cerric’s advice and managed to get myself turned around, is all. Say, you’re a well-informed man; would you happen to know a woman by the name of Hannah Hawthorne?
Aleka considered the question a moment, though the only indication was the brief pause and his unfocused eyes. His expressionless face remained neutral. "No, I don't recall anyone by that name. Only Miss Agitha Hawthorne and her apprentice, Bruno. A relative perhaps?" "If it's quite alright, I know of the woman."
The dwarf chimed in. "She passed some 30 odd years ago, the adventurous sort who sought trouble like her life depended on it, my mother always said. Back then, they were having some nasty bear attacks and Hannah went to deal with it. Agitha didn't want her to go, threw a right fit that got real nasty at the end, but Hannah was the only one Agitha couldn't keep under her thumb. Turns out Agitha was right. They say Agitha buried her heart that day along with her wife. I was barely 10 so I don't remember much but the older folk like to chat about the old days."
Lilann frowned. She had expected sad news, but that didn’t make it any easier. Of course, this didn’t necessarily mean Hannah was connected to the thing that had saved her, but at the mention of ‘bear attacks’
, the hair on the back of her neck prickled up. Just how common were bear
attacks in a place like Soft Haven?
“I should go,
” she said, rising. “Thank you both, sincerely.
And with a final, polite bow, she left the Bounty House, hurrying across the bridge back towards Soft Haven, to Agitha’s apothecary. She tried to put out of her mind the fact that she was about to impose upon a widow, though it was hard. Grief didn’t always weaken with time.
The setting sun cast long shadows over the town, quickly packing up in the reddish sunset on the horizon. Only those traveling merchants who claimed home near the town walls lingered in the deepening dark. The market was mostly empty and abandoned, the last children called home to their parents and the unfortunate and downtrodden wandering away in search of generous souls or shelter for the evening. The Hawthorne Apothecary's lights were still on downstairs but light had been lit upstairs as well, signaling it was nearly time to close for all those without an urgent request. A young Tainted, curled in on himself and silent, opened the door and started sweeping out the store.
That was a surprise, though she supposed even in Soft Haven people could find jobs they’d rather hand off to their kind.
“Ah, ‘lo there,
” she said, casually. “Is Lady Hawthorne in?
Bruno startled and dropped the broom, taking a healthy step back. It seemed he’d been deep in thought and he trembled, barely able to bring himself to peak up at the person addressing him. He caught her eye, looked back down, his tail whipping back and forth wildly, fidgeted with his hands as his mouth moved silently, and looked back up at her. He still didn’t quite make eye contact but instead looked at her hat. “Short, blue, big hat.”
He murmured quietly to himself more than once, like he was double and triple checking. “Um, di-did Kyreth send you?”
Lilann recoiled. “Did–no, no he didn’t. Was he by here? Did he behave?
” she shook her head. “Sorry, nearly started rambling there. I’m not here on any business, just…wanted to speak with Agitha, if that’s alright. You can tell her it’s about…ah, her garden. Could you do that, please?
Bruno stared at Lilann. He looked left and right, making sure no one was particularly paying attention to them and flipped the little hand carved sign in the window from open to closed. “Come inside, quickly.”
The shy stuttering had turned into something sharper, more intense as he all but hauled Lilann inside and shut the door quickly, softly, behind her and locked it. “Um, sorry but you can’t talk about the garden in public, okay? Yo-you shouldn’t have ev-even gotten there. Oh, she’s going to be so upset.”
He started pacing, wringing his hands.
The apothecary was what one would expect, warm toned wooden shelves host to a myriad of plants, bottles of dried herbs, and polyjuices and ointments. A single set of wooden stairs broke the long cabinets on the right wall, leading up to a second story where a door sat open and to the right of the counter at the back, a strange platform with various ropes and sandbags suspended around it was carved into a small alcove in the wall. However, the spots of light visible from the outside were not candles or mirrors but rather crystals hovering through the store, swaying in a phantom breeze. Magical items were a rarity even with so much dedicated study on aether and its secrets; even one of these would cost a fortune, much less the ten that hovered in the shop. “Bruno? Aren’t you a little old to be hiding dirt under the rugs?”
A croaking voice called down the open door. “Today was a little rough for you but that’s the last chore you have to do so do it properly!”
Bruno made a distressed sound, not loud enough to carry upstairs but still something was rolling across the floor upstairs. He turned to Lilann, panicked behind wide eyes.
Lilann hadn’t resisted, and she felt just a bit silly for having mentioned the garden in public, despite not knowing any better. She was glad she’d at least held her tongue back at the Bounty House.
She nodded appreciatively at the quaint little shop, before exchanging looks with the boy–Bruno, it seemed. She knew that look well enough, and no matter what her urgency she wasn’t keen on putting the heat on him.
” she called back up. “Apologies for the late visit, and for distracting the boy! My name is Lilann Storyborn. I was hoping we could talk? I believe I…ah…found something of yours. I promise to be as brief as I can!
She looked back to Bruno, as if to ask: Was that okay?
Bruno buried his face in his hands in response as indecipherable grumbling drifted down the stairs. “Bah, fine! You’ll join us for supper.”
Agitha called downstairs. “If you’re insistent on bothering us, you may as well make yourself useful. I have plates and no hands to move‘em so hurry up!”
More grumbling carried down the stairs and the sound of rolling drifted further away from the open door.
Bruno peeked up the stairs, mouth agape. “She didn’t make you leave.”
He whispered reverently. “Uh… good luck.”
He scrambled to snatch the broom and returned to his sweeping, vigorously sweeping the dirt and dust of the day out the door.
Lilann couldn’t help the little smile that inched onto her face as she watched Bruno scurry back to work. At least part of it was the offer to stay for dinner; she expected that hospitality to wither away once Agitha got a look at who exactly she’d invited to her table. But for now, she went along.
” she said to Bruno, before making her way upstairs.
The second floor of the Hawthorne Apothecary was a cozy affair, the door spilling into a moderately sized space that housed a comfortable couch and a well-loved coffee table across from two bookshelves filled to bursting with heavy, leather bound manuals, interspersed with hand-drawn pictures of varying skill: some seemed like something a child would draw and others were well detail technical drawings of various plants and animals. The one most prominently displayed was a younger version of the tainted downstairs, tongue poked out where he ground something in a simplistic mortar and pestle.
To its right, another set of stairs, rickety and shoddy looking, wrapped up and around and further right was a door facing the living room area. Left of the bookshelves, the room transitioned into a cooking area where a small dining table sat with a few chairs scattered around it. The aroma of foreign spices filled the air, bubbling from a pot over the cooking fire at the end of the room. In front of a low table, where herbs hung drying and various vegetables and unwanted meat cuts sat in a lonely pile on the side, a woman sat in a wheeled chair. Agitha Hawthorne spared the newcomer a brief glance, a brief roll of wrinkled eyes and a sigh, before she gestured at the plates, bowls, and cutlery on her other side. “I don’t have the energy to lay into you properly but don’t upset Bruno or I’ll find the energy.”
Agitha grumbled as a greeting.
Lilann appraised her as briefly, though not for a lack of interest. Rather, her interest was pulled sharply and fixedly upon the portrait of young Bruno. She drew close to it, brow heavy on her eyes. Suddenly she was very confused, and as her gaze peeled away from it, and back to Agitha Hawthorne, that feeling only deepened.
All of the stories she had taunted Ceolfric with about this woman came back to her then, the ones she’d mentioned, and the ones she hadn’t. All of them, in her mind, were exaggerated to some degree. She had prepared herself to meet a jaded, wilting hero in the twilight of her life, mourning its dawn. Heroism, after all, aged bitterly and begrudgingly. And she was, to some extent. She was curt, and had the demeanor of someone who would not have appreciated her stories, were they to have met in a tavern. But she also seemed pointedly defensive of the boy.
” she found herself saying. “Skittish as they come, but nice. I would hope I didn’t upset him. Has he worked for you long?
”"His apprenticeship has only been official for two years but the boy grew up here. Adopted him the day after I found him wandering the shitty alley next to The Treant. That was…"
Agitha frowned as she portioned out bowls of soup and handed them to Lilann. "Eight years ago, nine years ago? Bah, they all blur together after a while."
Lilann balked. “You adopted him? Just like that?
”“Stop standing there with your mouth wide open like the village simpleton. Get this to the table, now! I didn’t offer you dinner as charity.”
Agitha snapped, waving a hand at her in exasperation. She reached under the table and brought out a wide glass bottle with amber liquid rolling with flecks of red and purple. “You take a proper drink with your supper or you still drinking milk?”
Almost instinctively, Lilann snapped back to attention. She took the bowls from Agitha and brought them to the table, just like she used to do back in Dranir.
“Ah–hm? Oh, right. A proper drink will do just fine. Whatever you can spare, I’m not picky.
” She took a moment to inspect the soup, and though she wasn’t much of a cook herself, it smelled about as good as anything she’d had since she left the mountains behind. “And you’re…sure you want me to stay for supper?
Agitha gave her a disapproving look as she pulled out two short glasses from under the counter. “I get it, persecution complex and all that. Shut your trap, sit down, enjoy a drink, and then you can tell me why I could hear Bruno figuring out how he was going to shield you from my temper.”
Agitha’s tone left no room for discussion as she poured the alcohol into glasses and wheeled herself over to the table, placing them down and fetching a glass of milk for Bruno.
The sound of quiet footsteps echoed up the stairs as the light dimmed from downstairs. Bruno hesitantly poked his head around the corner and, upon finding everyone alive and healthy, closed the door behind him. His nose twitched as he took in the smell and he darted for the table. Agitha whipped around, fixed him with an unimpressed stare. “Wash up first. Gods above, just because it’s your favorite doesn’t mean you can forget your manners.”
Bruno instead beelined for the small basin in the corner, scrubbing as quickly as he could get away with. Agitha snorted and shook her head before wheeling herself into the empty spot.
Lilann hesitated. Snappy for an old woman, wasn’t she? But that was fine–good, even. A sense of humor might help with..whatever their conversation would become. As Bruno joined them, she found herself smiling again, and nodded.
“I fear I’ve never been good at keeping my trap shut,
” she said, sitting down. “Though I’ll gladly accept the drink before you decide whether or not I deserve that temper.
She took one of the glasses, tipping it gratefully towards Agitha, before taking a sip. She wasn’t much of a drinker, in truth, despite having all but grown up in a variety of taverns. Slurred words could ruin even the best stories, and so she decided to drink slow and tempered.
“I understand a friend of mine stopped by, earlier. Tall fellow by the name of Kyreth. I hope he didn’t cause you any trouble?
” “Kyreth is the one who told me about you.”
Bruno spoke softly, clearly nervous again with the new person at the table. He settled in the chair next to Agitha. “He’s the first other Tainted I’ve met. He told me to say hi to you if I saw you around and that’d you’d be my friend too.”“I owe him and the girl, Eila, a favor. Got Bruno out of some trouble he didn’t deserve.”
Agitha admitted, sipping at the soup. “Still, the boy needs a spine. Do him a favor and give him some. They’re going to eat him alive here, otherwise.”
Lilann smiled again. “Well, you can never have too many friends, and Kyreth’s good folk.
” She didn’t mention Eila, cautious as she still was about the woman. “Granted, he and I are only recently acquainted, but, you remind me of him, just a bit. I’d say that’s a good thing.
She took another drink, just a bit more than she ought to have, but it felt warranted going forward. “As for a spine, well, she’s right. A little courage does you good–but too much does you worse. Nearly cost me my own spine today, which, actually, is what I came here to talk about.
” She took the hat from her head, set it down beside her chair, and shook the hair out around her horns. It soaked in the lamplight, growing just a bit more blue than before.
“Lady Hawthorne, have you ever heard of the Rancor of Morn Og?
Bruno gasped, eyes wide as he looked at the glowing hair. He reached out to touch it but caught himself. “It’s so pretty.”
Awe was in his tone and stars were in his eyes. “Can I have a piece of it? Can we use it? It reminds me of Fire Flores from Za’hira. Could we use it as a substitute?”
He wondered, food forgotten for the moment.“Bruno, you can’t just ask people if we can use their hair. That’s rude. Focus on your food.”
Agitha sighed, putting her socially awkward child to the side for now to focus on Lilann’s question. “Yes, I know the ghost story. Big, bad orc was angry he got beat so he made a big, bag ghost that haunts the woods. It’s a children’s story, meant to keep them from playing too deep in the woods.”
Lilann nearly cracked another grin at Bruno’s question, and she turned to him. “It’s alright, I have quite a lot of it, don’t I? Well, you’re sharing your favorite meal with me, so it seems only fair I share in return. You can take a lock, if you like,
” she said, and winked, tone turning conspiratorial. “And you promise you won’t cut me.
With that she turned back to Agitha, and nodded. “I heard as much from Cerric Liadon this morning, at the Bounty House. I tell stories for a living, you see, and if I’m being honest, I woke up just today beside claw marks that had me…less skeptical than I would have been, otherwise. So I went looking. I followed a path out of town, north for a ways and then west. I came upon ruins eventually, and…
” she trailed; was she really about to tell this woman she’d seen a monster
? But there really wasn’t much of a choice. Taking another drink, she pushed past that unfamiliar urge not
to keep talking. “I found it. I found the Rancor, and it was less happy about it than I was. I…don’t suppose you believe me thus far?
Bruno beamed at Lilann’s permission, happily digging back into his meal after he promised he’d be extra careful for her. Agitha fixed Lilann with an unimpressed stare. “Of course, I don’t. Why in the world would I believe a world of that nonsense. What ruins? Nothing like that exists in these woods.”
Agitha dismissed irritably. “Did you come just to spin tales and interrupt our meal?”
” Lilann said, setting her drink down. “Though I hope you’ll forgive me if I can’t help doing the former—professional habit. To be frank with you, Lady Hawthorne, I’m…not really sure yet what I came here to do, I just felt I needed to. Hair aside, I know I’m not much to like at, and certainly not much to fear. If I’d have fought the beast, I’d be dead—and I did try, before I ran. But it’s faster than it is ugly, which, if you saw it, would be even harder to believe. But I digress—
“I came to you because I was saved. Yes, I think…I think that’s the word for it. I was saved by a creature even more incredible than the Rancor. It was light, and wings. And music.
” She paused, and wondered if she might hear it now, if she strained hard enough. “Right as the beast was upon me, it took my hand and whisked me away somewhere I…don’t believe I ought to have been. A place I now think belongs to you. A garden, with a harp that plays itself, and a headstone beneath a tree, engraved for a woman named Hannah.
The room went still, with the exception of one last slurp from Bruno who very gently put the spoon down. “May I be excused with my food?”
He asked Agitha meekly. The woman’s face was inscrutable as she stared at Lilann. She only offered Bruno a curt nod, who didn’t hesitate to scramble from his chair, almost stumbling over where his tail was still tangled around a chair leg, and slipped into the door at the far end with bowl in hand, shutting it as quietly as possible.
There was a tension in the room, heavy and boiling all the same. “That is not a place you should have trespassed. You had no business defiling my wife’s resting place.”
Agitha ground out through clenched teeth. Everything in the old woman trembled with barely contained rage. “The next part of your story better be an explanation of everything you touched, anything you stole, and an oath on the Gods you haven’t exaggerated or lied about any damn detail because if I find out you are, I will tear your soul from you body and burn it for the whole town to celebrate.”
Strangely, Lilann felt herself ease beneath Agitha’s barely-bridled fury. It was decidedly more natural than hospitality, and the feigned niceties of entertaining an unwanted guest. She wasn’t used to be welcomed into people’s homes to converse like friends, or even acquaintances. But she was
used to threats, and indignancy, and especially anger.
She took a breath, met Agitha’s burning eyes with cold blues, and a level voice. “I touched the stone, I touched the harp. I took nothing. If I believed I had wronged you, Lady Hawthorne, I would not be here. Quite plainly, you frighten me, and I don’t make a habit of putting myself at the mercy of frightening people. I didn’t come for forgiveness, though I’ll ask it if you like. But the presence there saw fit to save my life, before it returned me to Soft Haven. Am I right to think you know what I’m speaking of?
” “Of course I know, you insolent child! I have been protecting that presence for decades and for you to stumble across it, potentially expose it to that thing that prowls the forest, all in pursuit of a damned story to turn some coin is utterly irresponsible!”
Agitha fumed, pointing her finger furiously at Lilann. “But that I can forgive. I can fix that. I can strip you of every memory leading up to that, take every thought, every wonder, every drop of fear and uncertainty, and replace it with your favorite dream, whatever illusion would best persuade you nothing was wrong. What I cannot forgive is you barging in here and bringing my son into this.”
She spoke in a furious whisper. “I have kept him out of this because the burden of that secret is too much for you, let alone a child. I swore an oath before the Gods themselves not to use my abilities on him and now, I have to lie instead. I have to weave you, someone he’s so excited to meet, into some deranged lunatic who believes in ghost stories and somehow managed to slip into my garden without being torn to shreds by the hundreds of layers of aetheric wards I’ve wrapped the place in. You absolute-”
She caught herself, took a calming breath and released it. “We won’t have any constructive conversation here.”
She grumbled. Agitha chewed her lip for a moment. “Dream.”
Agitha commanded and the walls of the house fell away, warm summer light filtering into the space, grass grew up from the floor and the table turned into water and seeped into the earth. The faint strumming of a harp came from behind Lilann and Agitha now sat next to Hannah’s headstone. The garden Lilann trespassed upon was around them, the house they were once in gone. “We can speak more freely here. I’ve put you to sleep and projected my mind into yours.”
Agitha explained gruffly. “What was the point of coming to me, girl? You brought up my dead wife, you trespassed on sacred ground, and involved my child without understanding the burden this place bears upon the soul. You already admitted I frighten you so I cannot believe you are fool enough to think you can take this from me. So spit it out. What do you want?”
Lilann’s stony façade quickly crumbled, and while Agitha’s anger had slipped easily off of her in the house, here, in the dream, she found it hard to ignore her. It was like the woman’s voice was inside her head—which, all told, seemed like a fair enough guess.
She looked down at Agitha, but then her attention turned to the stone. Hannah Hawthorne
. Adventurer. Dead to bears, they said. She tried to hear the harpsong again, but if it was playing, her thoughts were too much of a flurry to hear them. It took some time for them to still.My dream, is it?
she mused, glancing around at the rest of the garden. Were it they could all be like this.
“I took nothing,
” she said at last, firm but not cruel. “I was given my life. Perhaps there are some who would take that mercy for granted, but I have not forgotten its worth. You frighten me Agitha, yes, and I fully believe that you can do everything you threaten me with, and more. The Empress herself may blush at the machinations of your fury. I believe it. Understand then, that you do not frighten me more than ignorance, or ungratefulness.
She could feel herself getting worked up, and honest as she spoke, she still did not wish to provoke
the woman to prove it. So she took another breath, tried to look at her evenly.
“Your ‘presence’ saved me, and asked for nothing. What I want is to say ‘thank you’. And to know why.
”“Damn. You’re plucky, I’ll give you that.”
Agitha clicked her tongue, her shoulders still holding the tension from earlier but the rage faded away. “Bah, I suppose I’ll give you something. Not many have the courage to stare me in the face in their own mind, let alone the real world. Bah, fine.”
She pursed her lips, tracing the name on the headstone.“The presence of which I spoke and the one who saved you are two separate existences. Although they are tied together, one is far greater and the other is a kind soul who would rob you blind after saving your life. Extortion, technically. But I’ve always had a soft spot for trouble makers.”
Agitha softened as she spoke, clearly seeing days far past. “Hannah was a wild sort, a creature of wind and storm alike. She couldn’t ever settle down and when I found a reason to stay put, she still flew as high as the sky. It was difficult at times but we found a balance. She’d travel a month, stay home a month, and then set out again. Sometimes a month would turn into more but I couldn't blame her for the restlessness under her skin. Her freedom made her radiant and I couldn’t bring myself to tarnish that light.”“She was always in someone else’s business, jumping in when someone was down on their luck. That isn’t to say it was always on their behalf but she was kind when it counted, blunted when she had to be, and exactly the person she wanted to be.”
She patted the headstone before giving her attention fully to Lilannn. “I cannot tell you why she saved you. Only that she did. I’d count all your coin when you wake up though. She never did break that habit.”
Lilann listened carefully to story of the woman who had saved her life. There were parts that sounded familiar, parts that she had told herself in stories of many kinds of heroes. Gold-hearted thieves, gentle rascals. Most, she knew, were much crueler than they ever let on, and in her heart she knew that, had Hannah been alive today, Lilann would not have believed her motives anywhere near as pure as they sounded.
But she wasn’t alive. She had no glory to covet, no riches to hoard—harmless trickery or not—and no thralldom to impose upon her. Agitha had no answer for her, but in a way, Lilann was alright with that. She was confused, but it had been a long time since people
had confused her.
” she said quietly, bowing her head. She had meant it to Hannah, but she had said it to them both. “I believe I’ve intruded enough. I’d…like to keep these memories, but they’re yours. If you choose to take them back, then all I ask is you leave the feelings behind. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to respect someone for their character. Unless you plan to kill me.
She looked back down to Agitha, shrugging. “In which case, I suppose Bruno can have all the hair he wants.
Agitha snorted, amused. “Has anyone told you something’s wrong with your head? Don’t go offering your hair to people you just met, child or not.”
Agitha scolded half heartedly. She let out a tired sigh and fixed Lilann with a solemn look. “Of all the aetherborn who have visited me today, you’re the only one I give a damn about. Bruno may have attached to the other two but bah, spineless and airheaded. One is too terrified of the word to do anything about it, the other has aspirations but no real thought into how to achieve it. And the mutt and the ghost boy? They’ll soon find the power they pursue will kill them before it aids them.”
Agitha waved dismissively. “But despite the mask you put on, you know where you stand in the world and you know how to change it, you only need the tools to do it. It’s been too long since I’ve seen that in an aetherborn. Most of them are too wrapped up in their little fantasies of ruling the world, shaping reality to their will or whatever drivel they spout at the academies these days.”“I may be old but I haven’t lost my touch. I know potential when I see it. I cannot let you keep what you have learned but as a sign of my respect, I can offer you a path to what you need to reach a future only you can realize. Would that suffice?”
Lilann frowned, and something tugged within, like nostalgia for a memory she’d only just made. But perhaps it was enough to have had it at all. She nodded to Agitha.
“A future for the past?
” she said, managing a smile. “How could I refuse?
The dream shifted, Agitha and Lilann sitting at the table. Darkness crept into the edges, dissolving the scene and moving further and further back through the day. Lilann appearing in front of the Bounty House, the brief flash of a woman at the harp, the sense of connection with all living and dying things, Hannah’s headstone. The garden disappeared from her memory, leaving a vague emptiness after her encounter with the luminous being in a world unknown, being chased by a monstrosity she thought only a story.
In its place, she dreamed of golden sands and verdant grasses, of people at play with no regard for race. Of towering structures unknown to mortals and winged creatures to beauty and horror. Of boundless water and endless imagination and wonder eternal, truth and fiction became one in the same.
Beyond the wonder and the awe, three beasts stalked their prey. Violent and vicious and hungry
. Jealousy and loathing and despair made manifest and dangerous. They cared not for form or shape, only dread and death.
Golden sands turn red, verdant grasses wither. Death and decay come for people and towering structures topple. Fire flashed and ice erupted and then there was nothing.
A flash of light, a luminous silhouette, winged and small, gave way to verdant plans once more but far below. Instead, Lilann found herself on a platform of marble high above the rolling hills and the scent of daffodils filled the air. Looping golden circles lay embedded in the stone and for a moment, the only sound was the gentle wind in the plush grasses. “Remember, we are the change we want to see. That is where our power lies.”
The voice, lacking vitriol, was familiar but distant and hazy. A fondness ran through it and the comfort of time spent together made it all the better. Footsteps echoed on the marble, the brief flash of a snow white dress and daffodils in her hair. A dainty hand outstretched, waiting for Lilann to take it.
A broken mask worn on a face on fire. The word trembled before her but with one single thought, it went white once more. A blank canvas, a new world to paint, a new power to tap.