The village was still being put together. I ran through the semi-erect structures being hammered and roped together, frantically searching for any signs of a small dog-like creature.
I didn’t expect to see him, but I couldn’t help but check to make sure every time I spied a furball under three foot.
Within a few seconds of arriving I ended up in the middle of the village where an assortment of creatures placed barrels on top of each other behind a large bar. They had to take down and put up this large drinking establishment daily—seemed a lot of unnecessary work. Where did they even put the barrels during the day?
These and other questions didn’t bother me for once. I had other matters on my mind.
“Have you seen Attica?” I asked the wolfgirl. She was behind the bar sorting out some cups and bowls.
She gave me a dead-eyed glance that suggested she had better things to do, and went back to stacking cups without saying anything.
I took out my sword and struck the tower of cups sending them flying. “Attica, little guy, have you seen him?”
The workers, big and small, stopped in the middle of whatever they were doing and glared in my direction. I had their attention, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“The sooner you tell me where he is, the less of a mess I’ll have to make.” I slashed a vine and there was a twang high above us. A long pole fell out of the branches, sending those underneath it scurrying out of the way.
Between them, the assembled workers could have torn me to pieces in seconds. Wolfgirl didn’t look like she needed their help. She was about the same height as me, but around fifty pounds heavier. All muscle, by the look of it.
She narrowed her yellow eyes and growled. Teeth forced her lips apart. Her colleagues looked like they wouldn’t mind getting in on the fun side of a one-sided fight.
At this point the reality of the situation seeped into my inflamed mind. It was all very well charging in and waving a sword about, but I wasn’t going to do much rescuing if I was dead. I didn’t even know if they had the slightest idea what had happened to Attica. This could all be a massive waste of time.
What I needed to do was calm things down.
“Look,” I said, and then she sprang.
It was an impressive jump, full of power, speed and teeth. The teeth were what gave it that extra ‘wow’ factor. I couldn’t even move.
The magnificent leap was rather crudely cut short. A scaly, green hand grabbed wolfgirl’s airborne foot and yanked her back, swapping her snarl for a goofy ‘Huh?’ look.
She clattered to the ground, but rolled into a crouch, ready to pounce again.
“No need for fighting,” said the owner of the hand. “I’m sure we can resolve this over a drink or two.” He smiled, which made me think wolf teeth weren’t so bad. “My name is Vamalyn.”
Vamalyn looked a bit like a lizardman, only fatter and with a longer snout. Much longer, like a crocodile’s. His legs were short and he only managed to remain upright because his voluminous backside acted as support, scraping along the ground. A tail slithered from side to side behind him.
I lowered my sword. “I just want to know if you’ve seen Attica. He’s a little kobold.”
Vamalyn interlaced his fingers and rested them on top of his stomach. “They brought him around earlier. I am considered something of an arbitrator in these parts. When problems arise, this is where people come to have the matter settled. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, you can’t go around teaching magic to whoever you please. It upsets the balance.”
“He’s just a kid!”
“That makes little difference where the laws of nature are concerned.”
“What about me? I can use magic. Are you going to cut off my hands too?” Only after I said it did I think maybe putting the idea in his head wasn’t so wise.”
“You… are a special case.”
“Oh, so there are some exceptions, then? The laws of nature makes allowances, just not for children—good to know.” I was too late, I knew that. “Is he okay? Can I see him? ”
“The knowledge you gave him wasn’t just in his hands, it was up here.” Vamalyn tapped the side of his head, drawing my attention to his small, multi-coloured eyes. They shimmered from red to green to yellow. “Sad to say, there was only one solution to this particular problem.”
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying. And then it hit me in a very strange way. I began gasping for air, like I’d just been for a run. I couldn’t say anything, the only sound out of my mouth was panting, louder and louder. I slowly sank to the ground and sat there trying to catch my breath.
There was a flicker of pain in my chest. Not big—in fact the opposite. Tiny. But so sharp it made me close one eye. I’d never felt anything quite like it before. It was so precise, so contained, I would call it exquisite. If I focused on it, everything else faded away.
There was nothing. No Attica, no monsters, no panic. Only the pain.
I think it was grief.
I can’t say for sure because I had no experience of it. I would have thought grief would be more, “Oh, how I miss him…” and a dull ache as you watched the sun set, cue violins. I hadn’t expected it to feel like acid drilling through my fucking solar plexus.
When my dad died, there was none of this. He and my mother got divorced when I was young, though. Other than presents for Christmas and birthdays, I spent very little time around him, so when I suddenly had to get dressed up and go to his funeral, it was strange more than sad. And a bit scary because of all the people staring at me. No big emotions. The only thing I really felt was inconvenienced. Saturday mornings were the only time I got to watch TV by myself.
Attica I had known barely two days, yet my sense of loss was overwhelming. The pinpoint of pain in my chest began to grow. Wiggling toes in the surf quickly turned into finding myself waist deep and the water rising. I used the sword to push me back to my feet, like I could make a run for it before I drowned. But there was no where to go.
I looked around at the strange creatures fixedly staring at me and all I could think was, “They did this.”
“He didn’t suffer,” said Vamalyn. “After death there is nothing to fear.”
His words sparked something in me. Anger.
Vamalyn shook his head and snorted derisively. “What do you think you’re going to do with that? Light one of your farts?”
I followed his gaze down to my hand, which was covered in a pale blue flame. Like the time in the Pickled Gherkin when light had burst from my hand, I hadn’t done anything to create this magic, it had just appeared.
No one looked particularly concerned by it. As beasts they probably knew just how weak and ineffective it was. Lighting my farts was probably the biggest threat I posed, other than not lighting them.
“You didn’t have to kill him,” I said in a quiet voice.
“We did,” said Vamalyn. “It is our way.”
“Then your way is stupid.” I sounded like a child.
“You know very little about our way of life, or our way of death, yet you are so quick to judge.”
“That’s because I put in a lot of practice.”
I closed my eyes. My hand was beginning to hurt. It felt good.
There are different types of pain. There’s the scream-inducing type when you get your leg amputated without anaesthetic, and then there’s the type where your leg is so mangled, you beg for someone to cut it off, and the bite of the saw into your flesh and bone is nothing but sweet relief.
The tide was coming in.
I opened my eyes and everything was shaking. The trees, the ground, the terrified creatures. It was like an earthquake.
Only they weren’t shaking at all. The only one shaking was me; so hard I couldn’t see straight.
I looked down at my hand. It was burning with a white flame. Not like the lights I created, this was burning white hot. My hand felt like it was melting. The pain was searing. It wasn’t enough.
The gathered monsters didn’t look so sure of themselves now. They began to move away from me, behind Vamalyn.
“There’s a lot of alcohol here,” I said. “The stuff we have back home is very flammable. I’m guessing this stuff is too.”
Healing beyond my abilities had taken a couple of months from me, I wondered what burning an entire village to ash would cost. A couple of years? I could afford it. It wasn’t like I had big plans for the future.
The heat in my hand intensified.
Vamalyn wasn’t smiling any more. “You would kill us all.”
“After death there is nothing to fear.” I started laughing. If they were so cool with death, let them prove it.
“It won’t bring him back.”
And just like that the fire went out. The one enveloping my hand and the one consuming my mind. The pain was gone too. I felt nothing but numb.
He was right, it wouldn’t bring him back. And what was the big deal with living anyway? He would have probably died one way or another. Me protecting him was hardly a guarantee of safety.
They had their way. It was a horrible way, but what way wasn’t? The person who fucked up here was me. I did this. I got him killed.
I looked down at my hand expecting to see bones with all the flesh burned off, but it was just my regular hand.
I put my sword back in its scabbard. “This was my fault. I see that now.” Everyone stared at me nervously. I could see the fear in their eyes. “I’m going to go now. If you see my friends, tell them…” I had no idea what he should tell them. “Tell them I said hey.”
Not the most dramatic of parting speeches, but I’m sure they appreciated me keeping it short and bitter.
I turned and took two steps, not really knowing where I was going. I stopped at the sight of an approaching carriage. It was a fancy affair with lots of intricate designs and carvings, although the most notable aspect was probably the unicorn pulling it.
Normally, seeing an actual unicorn would be a cause for some excitement, but having learned how horns work over here, I wasn’t all that thrilled to see a horse with a giant cock on its head.
The carriage hurtled through the narrow gaps between tents and shacks, knocking things over and sending people flying in all directions. They didn’t seem to mind. I guess it was their way.
The driver was a kobold. He looked very different to May-May and Attica, but I still found it uncomfortable to look at him. He brought the carriage to a shuddering halt in front of me and the door flew open.
My missing teammates bundled out all done up in brand new clothes and giant smiles on their faces. With them they brought boundless energy and enthusiasm, and a joy for life that burst forth like confetti.
I should have set myself on fire when I had the chance.
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