Eliden Theorycrafter lay in recovery. His health weighed on Pasho in ways she struggled with even now. Master Holnleigh had informed her that he was doing well, and she had seen so with her own eyes. Still, a lingering doubt and guilt hung from the young mage like a shroud. Her melancholy fit the low light of the Ossuary in the Understudies of the Chroniclers’ Tower.
It was a dark place, rough-hewn in its perimeter. Tall support columns kept the ceiling from caving in, but Pasho wouldn’t mind. Eliden’s health and Grokthnar’s punishment weighed heavily on her. Her ordeal to clean the hall of the dead meant little in comparison.
She stopped, leaning on the broom in her hand to look around. The floor was littered with skulls in such a macabre fashion that she grew unnerved. The empty eye sockets all seemed to be watching her too. A shiver ran down the girl’s spine, which she ignored and returned to her sweeping of the dusty, uneven ground.
Candelabra provided light with candles set to each prong. The orange glow cast long shadows, particularly where two beams intersected. After battling Demons at Erudane, the dark felt insurmountable and feral. The sooner she finished here, the better.
In the hours between her presentation to the council and now, Pasho had cleaned herself up. She had her robes tended to, removing the stains of demon gore and human blood. She had been fresh and cheerful when she entered this foreboding hall. Now, she was dusty, like the skulls and bones around her. They lay in alcoves, each bearing a plaque to note the soul who once occupied the long-forgotten flesh.
The large, wooden door at the entrance groaned and creaked, then whined. Someone entered the Ossuary. Pasho’s spine went rigid. Her brown eyes shot toward the portal, narrowing on a pale wisp of a man in black robes. One of the necromancy school, she was certain. A master, most likely, as an equally thin and much shorter girl in brown robes like hers, trailed behind him.
Where he was tall, she was small. His hair was blonde and cut short, looking out of place in the dank understudy hall. Hers was long, hanging to her waist, and an appropriate midnight black. Each strand seemed straight as an arrow, hanging free like an onyx waterfall from the center of her scalp. That line was skunk white, her skin so ivory it might as well have been translucent.
“Locate our subject, Cassiana,” said the male, breaking from his pupil to walk for the central summoning pit. A well of stacked stone that Pasho had finished sweeping around moments ago.
“Eginloch!” The male snapped, his tone terse. A small creature skittered through the doorway with a sack upon its back. It was emaciated like the other two. Its nose was unnaturally long and pointed, its face hollow at the cheeks. Large, sunken eyes gleamed like bleak jewels under a red felt cap. The tip was bent back behind its head. The redcap’s abnormally long ears twitched, and it struggled with the big, burlap sack on its hunched back.
“Here, master. Eginloch is here. Have no fear. I bring the items you did request. Carried dutifully at your behest.” The fae folk wheezed.
Pasho watched the man open the sack as soon as Eginloch reached him. It stood its best height at the tall necromancer’s hip. The creature bore the weight well. It endured the methodical and slow way the man withdrew each item. A folded cloth of russet brown. A large stone club. An ornate wooden box made of cherry wood and a black tapered candle half burnt.
The girl, Cassiana, had moved to the walls. Her dainty gait left Pasho feeling as if she floated more than walked between the skulls on the ground. Indeed, every step she took seemed like a dance. Every motion, from the bend at the waist to the turn away to the next alcove, reminded Pasho of a ballerina on a stage.
The club thudded on the ground beside the well, startling Pasho. She looked back at the man and his little servant only to find both of them staring at her too. Pasho feigned a cough, then bowed her head to the tall, thin wizard.
“I am tending to the Ossuary today, do excuse me,” she announced, surprised by the echo of her words.
“Do not interrupt us. This spell casting takes great…precision,” the black wizard said, his words oozing smug arrogance. His servant reached up to the red cloth cap on his head and drew it down, performing a sweeping, flamboyant bow.
“W-,” the redcap began to say, but the snap of the wizard’s black-sleeved arm down in front of its nose made Eginloch clam up.
“Heeeeeeere!” A singsong, innocent note echoed through the chamber from Cassiana.
“Excellent, do bring the skull, and we will begin,” remarked the wizard. He turned aside to open the wooden box and place it on the edge of the well. Though its lid lifted, the box was positioned away from Pasho, and she could not see its contents.
“Cooooooomiiiiiiiiiiing,” sang Cassiana. The musical clatter of bones followed as the tiny girl pulled a bleached skull as big as her torso from the alcove. She hefted it like a large bowl of water. Arms and hands tucked underneath while the bulk rested against her body. Pasho smiled as the slender girl, years younger than her, waddled toward the well.
Eginloch drew the empty sack off his back, rolling it up tightly around itself. He stuffed it into his cap, down so far that it should have burst out the tip or refused to fill any more space within. Instead, the sack vanished. Another enchantment like Grokthnar’s harness. Pasho’s smile faded as she thought about the Hob.
The wizard and Eginloch had completed their preparations. Pasho broke free of her thoughts to observe again. Each object from the sack sat on the well in the four cardinal directions. Opened box at the north, club to the east, folded cloth to the west, and the black tallow candle was affixed at the south.
“Remember, Cassiana. Only release the skull at the correct moment. Drop it, and our ritual is ruined.” The wizard reminded her, oddly gentle and even friendly to Pasho’s ears.
“I remember, Bleys,” Cassiana replied in her sweet, high voice. She adjusted the massive cranium in her grasp, teetering slightly.
Bleys Kandratus began his ritual with a chant. He spoke in a tongue that Pasho did not understand. She was skilled with language. In fact, she excelled at most rote skills. Language, Mathematics, Physics, and even Metaphysics came as easily to her as breathing. Whatever the black wizard spoke, she could not decipher it.
She watched him throw his arms out wide, the sleeves fluttering and dropping off his limbs to the elbow. His forearms were so thin and white that Pasho could see the veins and arteries running down his flesh. Barely any muscle padded the bones beneath. It was disconcerting to look at.
The Ossuary trembled. The well began to glow an eerie green from its depths. A green that grew brighter and brighter the more Bleys fed it his alien words. The shadows cast by this growing illumination overtook the candlelight. It turned the odd but fascinating redcap servant at Bleys’ side into a menacing nightmare. Even the fae’s smile seemed wicked when bathed in the unnatural light.
What erupted from the well was not flame, though it looked like a flame. It was virulent green with swirls of ebony running through it like black rain. The well contained this dark energy up to its lip, where the four items awaited.
“Now, Cassiana. Throw the skull! Lest the spell be broke and null!” croaked Eginloch.
“I know!” Cassiana sneered, shocking Pasho more than the palpable unease that filled the Ossuary. Her lyrical voice was replaced with a hissing, gravelly tone. She hefted the skull up over the edge between the club and the candle.
It rolled about like a rubber ball in a puddle, floating atop the swell of power from the well. With each roiling turn, Pasho could see the green power fill the inside of the skull, starting with the teeth. Its horrid light spread across its petrified chompers outward across the rest. Soon, it filled the nasal cavity when next the skull turned Pasho’s way.
Bleys Kandratus continued to chant, his eyes closed and his posture firm. Eginloch clapped its bony, long-fingered hands. Pasho swallowed a gasp as the brilliance revealed crimson staining on the creature’s fingertips. Its fingernails were short yet sharp.
When the skull filled with the well’s dark power, Bleys motioned to the redcap. The fae creature scampered up to the edge of the well where the black tallow candle rested. It snapped its wicked index off its thumb. The candle’s wick popped, and a small flame flared at its tip.
Pasho watched Cassiana bounce like a toddler waiting for their favorite snack. Her midnight mane bobbed, fluttering about. She thought the girl’s hair reminded her of a swimming jellyfish. With its spread, the waifish young necromancer’s face was revealed. Pasho found her sickly. Made of hollow high cheekbones and lily-white flesh stretched over bone and sinew. Her eyes were huge, giving Cassiana an alien appearance.
The well erupted. A column of what looked like black smoke engulfed the skull until only the green glow shone through. It created a horrid face in the cloud akin to a jack-o-lantern. The hazy shape of a humanoid appeared above the smile. Bleys lowered his arms. Cassiana clapped excitedly.
Soon, Pasho could see the figure in the smoke clearly. Like an imprint raised, it came to the forefront of the column and glowered angrily down at all. It was a Hob, which Pasho should’ve assumed, given the size of the skull. A giant like Grokthnar, the image was round in the middle yet more muscular. Scars peppered its arms, legs, torso, and face, particularly where it had lost its right eye. Unlike Grok, this Hob did not have the kindly jowls and bulbous nose. Nor was its left eye warm and friendly with childish innocence. It was hot with rage.
“The Land of the Dead belongs to the Dead!” Its voice boomed, which Pasho expected. Still, the intellect behind the voice unnerved her. Hobs were simpleminded. This apparition was not. She gripped her broom more tightly.
“Martokra! We beseech you!” cried Bleys. “Open the gates of the hereafter and grant us an audience, great guardian!”
And then, Bleys turned on Eginloch. Without warning, the skinny wizard punched the redcap in its cheek. Eginloch screeched, angry and surprised by the attack. Martokra smiled, revealing rows of jagged, uneven teeth behind its lips. Cassiana giggled and clapped.
“You are the Hoshmapar, then?” Asked the ghostly Hob. Bleys faced it, standing tall and firm.
“Whom do you seek?”
“I shall drag the condemned from her cage,” spoke Martokra. The apparition turned away and, in doing so, vanished from the column of smoke billowing up from the well. In the silent waiting, Pasho gazed up at the ceiling. She marveled at how the well’s smoke dissipated rather than filled the Ossuary with stifling char.
Eginloch recovered from being struck with a mutter, rubbing its bruised cheek. “Hoshmapar in Hobspeak, you may be. A fool for striking fae-kind is all I see. Cross not the children of Mab, mortal man. We take our pound of flesh quick as we can.”
“SHH!” Snapped Bleys, ignoring the warning. Eginloch’s eyes narrowed to deadly slits.
Cassiana started to hum to herself, rocking on the balls of her feet with impatience. She didn’t wait long. Soon, the apparition of Martokra returned. Clasped in an iron collar and shackles before the giantkin, a woman in black robes dropped to her knees. Martokra squeezed the chain that led from those irons in his great fist.
Bleys swelled with pride, his chest puffing out. Pasho looked over the bound woman with instant compassion. She was no older than forty by the looks of it, though she seemed as emaciated as Cassiana. Indeed, Pasho thought the woman looked drained of her essence. It was as if her very life force had been ripped from her. Nineva Ninestones was sickly weak, her head bowed low and her manner one of submissive defeat.
“Nineva! It is I, Bleys Kandratus!” called the tall, blonde wizard outside the perimeter of the well. Upon hearing that voice, Nineva raised her head. Pasho’s heart ached at the faint flicker of hope in the ghost’s eyes.
"My son...my beautiful boy," moaned the bound ghost. “Have you come for me?” she whispered, her voice so soft and weary that Pasho leaned forward without thinking.
“Come for you?!” Bleys scoffed, drawing Pasho’s brown-eyed gaze. “Never. Traitor.” Sneered the conjuring wizard. “Look at me.”
The phantasm remained still, save for what Pasho thought was a shuddering.
“LOOK AT ME!” roared Bleys, leaning forward himself to slap his hands down hard on the well’s stone. Martokra yanked on the chain. Nineva raised her head and set her sunken, pained eyes on the man.
“I summoned you to remind you, to bring you more pain than you brought me with your betrayal. Look upon the living, Nineva. We thrive while you rot for eternity…”
Pasho gasped. Her heart cried out to the dead woman. Bleys Kandratus's face was bathed in the greenish glow of the well below the smoke column. The shadows cast enhanced his malevolence, drawing dark lines under his eyes and nose. Eyes that were hard and cruel. Cassiana cackled, dancing up beside the vicious wizard.
“...my children…” Nineva moaned when she recognized her youngest, lowering her head again.
“No!” Bleys screamed, pounding a fist on the stone before him. “Make her look at me! I command you!”
Martokra jerked the chain again, forcing Nineva to face the blonde man once more. The dead woman’s face was drawn in sorrow, yet no tears trickled from her face. The dead cannot cry.
“Now that I have the means, I will torment you,” Bleys went on through bared teeth. “I will parade our accomplishments before you. I will call you from your eternal prison only to feed you the succulence of seeing life beyond your reach.”
Pasho couldn’t help herself, stepping forward.
“Stop it! Please!” The young mage begged, unable to fathom how anyone could be so cruel.
Eginloch’s eyes set on the spectacled girl, but it was Cassiana who hissed at her like a riled cobra.
“Stay out of it!” she snapped.
“Why? Why would you be so heartless? She’s your mother!” Pasho sobbed.
Bleys pushed up, stepping back from the stone. “Heartless? You think me heartless to torture the woman who condemned us?” He asked, motioning to the black-maned girl at his side. “She betrayed the Black Unicorn! I have fought tooth and nail, endured the biting whispers of our order, and swallowed my rage to get here. To bring us both here! It’s her fault!”
Nineva slumped. The chain Martokra held went rigid and kept her from toppling completely. Pasho angrily wiped tears from her cheeks with a sleeve, throwing down the broom. It clattered loudly on the rough stone floor among the skulls.
“And she suffers already! Look at her! Bound to eternal hell, crushed endlessly under Martokra’s heel! But that’s not enough for you? Is it? Now, her own blood haunts her from the living plane? You…you’re…HORRIBLE!”
“Shut up,” snarled Bleys, dismissing Pasho Pyr with a wave. “This is family business. It has nothing to do with you.”
“I almost lost my best friend! I almost killed him!” She let loose, throwing her arms out. “It was an accident, but it was MY fault! I made a mistake. Should that be a reason to torture me? We’re human!” Pasho balked, looking up at Martokra’s one good eye and the eyebrow raised up. “Err. and Hob and Fae too.” She amended, adding Eginloch since he was present. “We screw up. It is better to forgive, even if we cannot forget.”
Bleys snorted. Cassiana crossed her tiny arms defensively over herself. Eginloch’s efforts to hide his smile failed him. The redcap’s lips spread wider. The blonde wizard shrugged.
“I will do as I like. It is my right.”
“You’re a fool.” Pasho snapped right back.
Cassiana let out a strangled growl of frustration. “How dare you!” She wailed. “Who are you? Some ugly girl kept in the dark to clean the understudies. We are Black Unicorn! You’re nobody. Nothing!”
Pasho’s resolve cracked, personally insulted. She wasn’t 'nothing.' She was a Chronicler like them, a member of the great wizarding order. Her pride ignited inside her. She was Eliden’s apprentice. She’d fought demons and stopped catastrophes. This girl didn’t know her! Who was she to judge?
And then, it hit her. Pasho stepped back as if Cassiana had slapped her. She drew in a trembling breath, held it for a count of three in her mind then exhaled loudly.
“You’re right. My apologies…” Pasho said, forcing her body to bow at the waist. “It’s not my place.”
Cassiana’s stance eased, her head raising with smug satisfaction. Bleys seemed appeased, the anger draining from his face. He glanced at Nineva at Martokra’s feet, hesitating for only a moment. Pasho saw it. A glimmer of understanding.
“Enough. We’re done. Go back to your cage and rot,” he said, though the mad fury was lost. Cassiana huffed, shaking her head.
Martokra glowered down at the blonde wizard, who sighed and swept his arms out wide. He then stepped back and bowed to the ghastly Hob. “We thank you for the audience, great guardian.”
“I hope to get my chains on you…” Martokra said with a wicked smile. He pulled Nineva Ninestones back into the black column with him. She went willingly, with no resistance, no hope.
Pasho shuddered. She bent down to pick up her broom once more. Bleys and Cassiana whispered amongst themselves as they worked the Hob skull out of the well. Once disconnected, the column of smoke vanished, and the green glow was snuffed out.
It was awkward for all four of them. The silence between each was a field before the war. Eginloch pulled his cap from his head, retrieving the burlap sack from inside. He shook it open, then went about collecting the items on the well’s ring.
Bleys and Cassiana ignored Pasho as they replaced the heavy skull in its alcove. They snubbed her with great intention. Despite how much the two annoyed her, their blatant snobbery struck her. Pasho found herself growing angry and hurt by the dismissal. She couldn’t help it.
“Come along, Eginloch…” Bleys finally said as he and his sister turned their backs on Pasho. She endured the persistent insult, fists clenched at her sides. The Black Unicorns strode to the exit.
Eginloch pinched the tallow candle out, the last of the items to store in his sack. He lifted it and pushed it down into the depths with the closed box, the club, and the folded cloth. Bleys and Cassiana left the Ossuary. Pasho thought they were talking about her in the hallway, consumed by the wicked poison of ego.
Before he left, Eginloch hoisted the burlap sack onto his back with a grunt. He then looked over at the girl with the broom. One beady eye winked when she felt his gaze on her and turned his way.
“A rare treasure is compassion. Anger and hate is simpler fashion. Worn by the weak, who flaunt their power. Great strength lies in the corpse flower. Born of the dark, fed on the dead, it blossoms and brings beauty instead. We know you now, the faerie do. Until our roads cross again? Remain true.”
Pasho stood stunned, working out the rhyme while Eginloch waved his red felt cap. He plopped it atop his head.
“EGINLOCH!” Bellowed Bleys through the open doorway.
“Coming, Master!” called the redcap, sparing Pasho a grin. “Worry not. Eginloch is faster!”
She watched the little fae man scamper through the skulls to the door. He carried the sack on his back like it weighed nothing now. Some sort of prank. Soon, he was gone. Pasho stood alone in the Ossuary.
There, at her booted feet, sprouted a small, moon-white flower of five unfurled petals. Two pink filaments curled up from its purple center, under which a healthy green stalk lay.
Pasho smiled, crouching down to admire it.
Munchy the Sand Rat chittered on Grokthnar’s powerful shoulder. Its whiskers twitched about at the black tip of its long snout. The furless tail protruding from its behind wiggled and waved about. The rodent unloaded whatever was on its mind as if the giantkin that it rested upon could understand.
Grokthnar lifted a boulder under his great, big arm from the ground outside the tower’s stone wall to the west. The land here was pockmarked by craters now, thanks to the Hob’s toil. Still, there were at least a hundred more stones to pull. Grok dutifully carried out the orders given to him. Sometimes, he carried two boulders at once. Most weighed over two hundred pounds.
The rat kept him company, and he enjoyed the squeaky noises it released into his ear. Grok imagined he understood everything the creature told him. It helped to pass the laborious time. He dropped the first of two on the rest of the pile stacked up against the westerly wall of the tower’s defenses. The second one was worked into both of his large hands before he propped it atop the other. Grok wiped his arm across his face to clear the sweat pouring down his jowls.
Hands set to his hips, the mighty Hobgoblin stood and surveyed his progress. Over a hundred stones had already been placed here, stacked in cascading rows from bottom to top. Five, then three, then two, then one. Over time, he’d built a buttress of natural rock along the wall. It made him happy.
A hand lifted and ran through the stringy long hair on the top of his head, smoothing it back behind. He then opened a pouch on his harness chest and dug out a waterskin made for a human with two fingers. Just enough to be a sip, but it would do. He pinched the cork off and squeezed the liquid into his mouth. The dryness went away when he swished and swirled, cheeks puffing back and forth.
“I say. A stonewright couldn’t form a finer reinforcement.”
The familiar voice made Grok’s eyes widen with excitement. The Hob dropped the waterskin without thinking, twisting around quickly. His large gaze settled on Eliden Theorycrafter, nestled in a wooden chair with wheels. One of his favorite humans was still ash white but awake, and the man looked cheerily up at the sweaty Hob. He wore his green robe, folded over himself for warmth.|A plaid wool blanket laid on his lap to cover his legs.
“Well done, Grokko.”
Those three words sent the giantkin into a jubilant dance. Grok’s flat, bare feet thumped the ground as he spun about. He waved his arms (and jostled Munchy, who hissed at the disruption). After a full turn, Grokthnar let out a booming laugh and ran at the human in the wheeled chair. Yaro Tai, the red wizard behind Eliden, threw his hands up to halt the charge.
“Peace! Peace, Grokthnar!” Cried the easterner, clamping his hands down on the handles protruding from the back of Eliden’s seat. The chair began to jostle and rock, which worried Yaro Tai.
The Hob slowed, a look of confusion and concern overshadowing his broad smile. He trundled closer at a slower pace, then lowered to a deep crouch before the two smaller males. Between his bent knees, Grok’s big, round belly sank nearly to the dirt.
“Eliden is alive,” said the Hob, as if it needed to be spoken.
“Hail and hearty,” replied the green wizard with a wider smile. “It is good to see you, my dear friend.”
Grokthnar beamed, turning the saggy, hound-like countenance into a joyous expression. He extended a muscular arm, fingertips as big as Eliden’s fist reaching to touch the man. He hesitated, curling them back until Eliden raised his own hand and grasped the longest digit’s tip.
“Full glad am I that you are well, Grok.”
“Grok is sad,” said the giantkin, his face falling.
“Grokthnar let Eliden get hurt.”
“No…” Theorycrafter replied, shaking his head. His graying hair fluttered in the faint breeze that blew by. “You have nothing to regret. I know that you would fight with your last breath to protect Pasho and me. I give you the very same. My life to spare yours. For we are the greatest of companions, dear Grokthnar. Without you, the Kingdom of Erudane would have surely fallen. Without Pasho’s interference, you would have stayed.”
Munchy hissed down at Eliden. Grokthnar snarled aside at the rodent on his shoulder. Eliden chuckled.
“Your rat better not have gotten into my confections…,” he teased.
Grok shook his head wildly. “No! Grokthnar not let Munchy eat sweets. Sweets for Eliden.”
Eliden’s smile softened. “It’s quite alright. I’ll be more than happy to share them once I’ve recovered fully.”
“Which should be soon,” mentioned Yaro Tai. “Another day of rest, according to Holnleigh.”
“Aye, in which time we shall return to our duties,” said Eliden with a nod back over his shoulder to the red wizard. “Assuming you and Pasho have served your sentencing.”
Grok’s eyes lit up, and he began to bob his head up and down. “Yes! Grok want to go with Eliden!”
Eliden’s smile remained, releasing the Hob’s fingertip from his grip. “We shall, in due time. Poor Pasho has been relegated to the understudies. I know she has a fondness for Phloom and his mathematics, but being cooped up all day in the dark Ossuary takes its toll. I do hope she’s alright.”
“She will be fine,” Tai said. “Let’s return you to your room. The more you rest, the quicker you will heal.”
Eliden sighed. “Yes, yes. Of course. I suppose we must all suffer a little while longer, eh? Pasho in the dark. You out here picking stones,” he said to Grokthnar, who shrugged massive shoulders. “And me? The most harrowing punishment for me is being confined to that infernal bed. I abhor listlessness.”
Grok didn’t understand the big words, but the Hob did grasp Eliden’s sentiment. Soon, they would be finished with their penance. Soon, the three would reunite and journey on to adventure again. Like they were meant to be. Together.
Yaro Tai pulled on the chair’s handles, dragging Eliden backward so he could wheel the seat around again. Grokthnar reached for his beloved friend, but Eliden turned sideways to wave a hand to the Hob.
“I will see you soon, Grokko.”
Grokthnar pulled his hand back, his loose-skinned face trapped between sorrow and happiness. He didn’t like being separated from Pasho and Eliden. He wanted to walk with them forever. For now, the giantkin had to endure it.
He looked back at the field of boulders and holes with renewed vigor. Yaro Tai pushed Eliden’s chair along the outer wall to return to the tower. Grok made a fist, punching his other palm twice as he raised up to stand once more. A hundred or so stones to go. He’d count down each one if he had to.
Nothing would stop him. The Chroniclers, Eliden, Pasho, Munchy, and Grokthnar would travel again. The giantkin hurried. His heavy feet thudded on the ground as he marched to the next stone jutting from the earth. Powerful hands slapped against the sides of it. His strong arms flexed tight as he yanked the stone from its mooring in the dirt and grass.
Munchy rested its rump on his shoulder, overseeing the work. It chittered relentlessly at Grok’s nearby ear. Grokthnar wasn’t listening anymore. He tucked the boulder under one arm, turning to a slightly smaller rock close by. He palmed it like a ball and tore the stone from the ground to carry as well.
Two steps closer to being with his friends again.