Petka never quite saw “red”- he usually had no reason to be that angry. At time perhaps annoyed, frustrated, miffed- you get the idea– maybe it was the numerous, stinging gnome-wounds, or the lasting and well-nigh nauseating imagine of the matriarchal Over-Gnome, and her bare-rumped kin, but Petka felt like he would very much like to throttle the Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, knowing all along of course that he was unable to, considering Chaim’s aetheric construction. So, instead of losing his calm, to took a few deep breaths, dropped his head and slumped his shoulders, and spoke in a voice that, while not intending to show anger, revealed that he was indeed quite upset, and that the pummeling he wished upon the aether wolf-man was only barely leashed.
“Chaim,” began Petka from the depths of beard, in as even tone as he could muster, “What brings you here?”
The facade of etiquette did little to convince Chaim that Petka was at ease in the slightest. Still, believing that honesty and conflict resolution were the two best policies, he said in as professional manner as he could muster, “Why, I came to warn you of the gnome-cave.”
“I see. Chaim, you typically warn somebody of danger before they encounter it- it’s really the one flaw in the system. Now, you’re not totally to blame- that sadistic elephant didn’t quite prepare me either, but I figured something was wrong when I found I was up to my waist in dusty bones. Can you, perhaps see why I would be upset?”
“Okay, okay,” said the Spirit, “But I got caught at the elephant too, didn’t I? The rocky ponce kept asking me to display a ‘jest’, which- well, you know what his definition of ‘jest’ is- anyway, I kept telling him, ‘listen guy, I’m incorporeal, I can’t kick anybody anywhere, unless they are also on the aetheric plane. So, wouldn’t you know it, the behemoth gets up and delivers a dead-on dragon kick to my testicles- dirty pool, I might add, because I received no warning, and never expected a ele-rock or rock-o-phantic sadist could move so swiftly.
“Anyway, my vision doubled and I could barely speak. I crawled on my belly– damned if the gnomes just left me alone- I mean, there was little they could do anyway- I’m not tasty enough to warrant the effort- it was more like, ‘Gods-damn, is there anything we could even do to this guy that life hasn’t already done?’ Oh, and don’t be fooled- they still threw bottles of their foul piss at me, but at that point I didn’t care. I drug myself out of the cave, and into the bushes, and passed out, assuming that you had already made it here. I only awoke when you two started firing, and I could feel my lower half again.”
Petka’s temper cooled slightly. Sure, he had been bitten, his clothes torn, and his blood sucked, but all this seemed to pale in comparison to an elephant kick to the fellas.
“Okay, Chaim. I understand. I’m not so much mad, as just… well, disappointed.”
“Oooooh, Canid, that’s da worst! Worse than angry is!” Finnen let out a hearty laugh and added, “But seriously, Fawcett, count yer lucky stars. Those little bastards don’t take prisoners- only the parts they like the best.”
“The bones?” interrupted Petka.
“Aye, and all the meaty bits- don’t like the heart for some reason,” replied Finned, a shade more somber, then after a moment he added, “They’re not smarter per se then their non-cave cousin’s, just a bit more… organized. You see, whoever created the little verrucas got lazy on us, and their threat level is determined by their respective biomes and color, which give them an arbitrary level of strength.”
“Oh.” Said Fawcett.
“Oh.” Replied Finnen, quite sardonically. “Well the good news is, Fawcett, that they don’t like the daylight, and typically won’t gather en mass if they think someone’s watchin’- an’ someone is!” Here Finnen pointed to the strange feat of engineering that allowed the sad, lone bony patrolmen to keep his eternal vigil.
“Let me introduce ya to Freddy Pickle-Finch! Not much of a talker, but keeps the braver of those conical-capped-creatures from their bloody capers an’ carnage!”
“Nice alliteration!” chimed in Chaim, which only elicited a dark look from Petka.
“Was Freddy Pickle-Finch his name when he was alive?” asked Petka in a supremely tired voice.
“What? Oh, fisk no Fawcett- dat would just be ridiculous! No, ‘is real name was Charlie…Somptineroder- can’t remember. Right prick, that one. Recognized him by his missin’ teeth- one night he got to grabby with a lass, and I slid him across the bar like silk on glass! Living God above, I fed the fairy that night!” Here he bellowed (alone- although Chaim faked a little laughter, nervously looking at Petka, who merely raised an eyebrow and shrugged).
Wincing from the pain of treating his numerous wounds with alcohol and linen bandages, Petka directed his eyes tot he Irishman who now seemed mesmerized by the clicks and whirs of his own labors- and Petka could hardly blame him- it was almost like white noise, and compared to the cave, the scenery now (no matter how lonely the buildings seemed) was like a slice of paradise, no matter how battered. The sun was still sinking below the distant cliff, spilling it’s light across the plains, much like the runny yolk of an egg. A cold breeze wended around Petka’s aching form, and the combination of the two was enough to lull him into a deep slumber, which he fought tooth and nail- little pin pricks started to injure his heart, and his palms and crown began to burn- he wasn’t used to being inert, and the adrenaline cocktail of his latest cave-adventure had simultaneously exhausted and panicked him.
“Mr. McKinnon,” started Petka
“Finnen, Fawcett. Call me Finnen.”
“Finnen, just what the hell happened to this place…and where or when are we? And could you kindly tell me why I had to wade into a mound of dusty bones to find this little…village?”
Chaim, whose his sense of comedic timing left much to be desired, said aloud, “Well, I imagine the story would have started with inebriation- that is to say, Irish over here was drunk.” Here he mimed drinking from a bottle.
“Oh, bollocks to your stereotypes, you flea ridden-cur! Don’t ya have a rump ta sniff, or territory ta mark?” here, Finnen went to grab Chaim by the collar, but merely fell through him, feeling a whoosh of icy cold air.
“Aetheric! Aetheric!” Chaim mocked, “Petka, it’s great- there’s not a thing he can do to me!” and with a broad, wolfish smile, he sat upon a stump– his joy, however was short lived; grinding the toe of his boot in the viscous gnome-goo, he delivered a hearty kick to Chaim’s rear-end, sending him flying headlong off the stump, only to crumple into a pile a few feet away. Petka, feeling bad for Chaim’s knack for receiving injuries, smeared a little gnome-blood on his palm, and helped the wincing spirit to his paws.
“Animal!” spat Chaim, smoothing out invisible wrinkles in his translucent, brown shepherds coat, “You don’t go kicking Spirits of the Lonely Hollows! It’s just not something you go around doing! This aggression will not stand, man! What if I were to cast a hex on you, here and now!”
“Oh? And what have you got? Hit me with yer best shot, Canid!” here Finnen’s attitude was less of aggression, and was a tad more jovial. He took a linebacker’s stance, green eyes now determined slits; his feet were planted firmly in the ground, muscles and paunch likewise bulging and jiggling, respectively. His smile was eerily wide in an “I double-dog-dare you fashion”. The man had been the victor (or perhaps the loser- Petka wasn’t sure) of many fights- it seemed second nature to the man, who was now oddly enough waiting for proverbial the iron paw of justice, courtesy Chaim and his hexes.
“Well, this is a bit of a kerfuffle,” said Chaim, defeated, shoulder’s drooping in low.
“Why’s that?” asked Petka, rubbing his sore left shoulder, where a gnome had been particularly effective in accessing his blood.
“Well- and yes, Irish, I do have hexes- two, to be exact, you salty old bastard!”
Finnen stood up, arms folded, head cocked in curiosity. Petka merely yawned, and watched with tired eyes and an aching form as the strange play unfolded before him.
“Well, the first hex is called, ‘A Kiss of Bliss and Apathy from a Purple, Midnight Goddess’.”
“Quite poetic,” mused Finnen, “What does it do?” Here, he wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Oh, it’s quite wonderful really,” said Chaim with pride, “It will put anybody into a deep sleep for eight, restful hours. They may or may not dream, but will wake up fresh as a springtime meadow.”
“Oh, it sounds wonderful Canid, but it doesn’t seem to exactly serve a ‘regain my honor through swift vengeance’ vibe that I think you are looking for.”
“I agree,” said Petka, again slinking into his own beard, adding, “It’s more of a boon than anything else. What else have you got?”
“Well this one’s even better,” said Chaim, leaning on his staff, “I call it the ‘Feral Flame from the Wyrm of Ageless Embers’.”
“Even better!” said Finnen, nodding in approval, “It says pain… action… with just a hint of forbidden esotericism. What does that one do?”
“Ah! Quite brilliant as well!” said Chaim, standing upright, as if giving a lecture to an eager student, “It will near instantaneously reduce any monster or man into little more than a smoldering heap of ash.”
“Again, I can see the use,” replied Finnen, his palms having audibly hit his face, “But I’m a busy-ish man, and wouldn’t particularly fancy being turned into ah smolderin’ pile o’…”
“Ash,” said Chaim, finishing Finnen’s sentences in a dejected tone.
“Haven’t ya got anythin’ in between sweet dreams an’ complete annihilation?”
“Well, I guess I could strike you with my staff,” said Chaim, eyeing the timeworn-hook that he had been carrying for millennia.
“Alright, go ahead- really! I don’t want any bad blood here, so swing away!”
Finnen smiled, looked up, closed his eyes and opened his arms, as if expecting a hug from some long-lost lover instead of a staff to the jaw. Chaim’s first swing was apparently not up to snuff to the somewhat masochistic Irishman.
“What are ya, swingin’ at a t-ball? Jay-sus Tapdancin’-” but he was unable to finish the oath as it was silenced by the sickening crack of staff-on-head violence– Finnen’s head jerked to sharply to the right, then he fell over like a ragdoll.”
“You killed him, Chaim!” shouted Petka, “Overreacted, didn’t you!?”
But Petka’s shouts and worries were silenced by a low laughter which emanated from Finnen’s body as he stood back on his wobbling feet.
“Not bad Canid- I say we’re even,” he spat out a silver molar into his hand.
“How are you conscious?” asked Chaim, shaking at the thought of having hit a “home run” in all the wrong ways.
“Canid, ya had a fair swing- but I’ve been punched, bitten, kicked- hell, one time I was hit by a movin’ train! Cow catcher saved me from evisceration, but damned if I couldn’t sit down fer a month. Anyway, now that the scales are again balanced, back to business…Fawcett? Sleepin’ now? Up!”
Finned flung a gory, silver souvenir at Petka who had, by all appearances , sunk fully into both his long, red beard, and a deep sleep. Though as if unconsciously aware, he managed to lift a hand up automatically to catch the tooth; he stirred briefly to look upon it, then sighed in resignation as if he had no choice but to hold onto the grizzly souvenir.
“And why Finnen, pray tell, would I want this gross thing?”
“Well you an’ I guess the Canid are guests! That’s ‘gross thing’ will give you free meals, drinks an’ a room at the inn down the way!”
“We’re the only one’s here, and have to follow you directly to the inn- why do we need the tooth?” asked Chaim, cocking an eyebrow in disbelief- he had seen many things over his expansive lifetime, and indeed many currencies- teeth, however, had never been one of them, namely because people need them to chew.
“So,” began Petka, roused momentarily from his hypnogagic reverie, “What are the odds of two identical people- one being a spirit-wolf- sauntering out of that charnel cave, and taking our places?”
“I admit, Fawcett, the odds aren’t great- but if we forfeit the rule of law, then are we not only truly lost as a society, but also as a species as a whole?”
Here, Chaim attempted to prod Petka in his aching ribs, though his elbow pierced directly through, sending a bitter, arctic chill through Petka’s bones.
“Be a gra-cious guest!” said the spirit-wolf in a harsh whisper.
And, with Petka’s empty belly, parched throat, and aching bones, he had no choice but to smile and nod. The three, meandered past the remnants of what was once, by all appearances, a bustling town- but decay and disuse had invited some form of emotional entropy which left the houses, though completely intact, soaked with a sadness, and an almost palpable form of isolation. Each home was devoid of life, though candles burned within.
“I like to keep a certain homey veneer,” said Finnen proudly on the way to his pub. The lit candles, flames swayed slightly in the breeze, and did little to illuminate the darkened rooms behind them. The little lights struck the huntsman as little more than a sad remnant– like a tattered piece of a grand tapestry that only hinted at prior vitality and liveliness. It was a sad sight, especially in the sun, which seemed to oddly refuse to set– it still hung in its pre-dusk position, low and orange, painting the sky with a beautiful cascade of colors but the star never quite seemed to dip below the distant cliffs of the plateau where the village was built, nor the forested hills beyond. Purple eventide was still only just pushing on the soft, dripping torchlight that was the sun’s retreat, though never seemed to overwhelm the obstinate sun fully into the realm of night.
And though no matter how beautiful, there was something a bit upsetting to Petka, as it seemed as if he was looking more at a painting than an actual heavenly body; he quickly, however, forced these strange thoughts out of his head. As they approached the only lived-in building in the little hamlet- a pub and inn, which (at least Petka hoped) would offer him cold water, a warm meal, and place to lay his head, which was wrapped in anxieties of the worst kind- little ghosts of things that never where, but wailed nonetheless.
Finally, the three entered the Finnen’s Inn, which was much like any Petka had entered (though typically eschewed) during his travels- a two story stone building with a solemn brown roof, which he would find boasted an ample dining room, a time-smoothed bar (complete with individual water-marks of long-forgotten mugs of ale and mead), and several rooms upstairs where one could lay their head, and retreat into the realm of dream within dream. Petka couldn’t help but wonder what dreamers dreaming dreamed in their dreams. Though the strange thought made him slightly nauseous, it could merely have been a lasting remnant of facing gin-nosed death and collapsing at the feel of a hinged skeleton and an unhinged man.
As the door closed behind them, the sound of “Freddy Finch-Pickle’s” endless rounds could only just barely be heard, the squeaky contraption keeping the long-dead man on endless rounds with nothing but rusted armor and hollow eyes. Too tired to argue -though Chaim and Finnen seemed as spirited as ever, and were going through a daring game of “Would you rather”– Chaim, it seemed would rather marry the gnome matriarch than take another deadshot to the grapes- Petka handed the bloody, sliver tooth to Finnen, who non-nonchalantly put it back in his mouth.
“Okay, Finnen, what do you have to drink?”
“Well, if ale be your fancy, the closest I have is Ice-cold, fermented unicorn milk- smooth to the palate, and will leave you pleasantly buzzed. And if not, I have water.”
“Water please,” mumbled Petka.
“Aright one water- drink it down Fawcett- looks like ya need it. Oh no, Yer not getting’ off that easy, Canid. It’s fermented unicorn milk fer you- don’t give me that look, just drink it down… there we go…Is it not aetheric, liquid bliss?” Finnen lifted the bottom of Chaim’s glass much the the ghost-wolf-man’s chagrin, ensuring every drop of the undoubtedly foul liquid had been ingested.
Petka drained his glass, and afterwards his brain decided to make the executive decision to make his body go to sleep, and it did so with the thud of Petka’s head on the bar. The bickering between the Irishman and the Spirit of the Lonely Hollows faded into a pleasant buzz, and was soon replaced by a song hummed lovely by the thin figure of a woman with golden eyes, black hair, and three pairs ravenesque seraph’s wings. Petka didn’t know who she was- he didn’t care- he only wished to be wrapped in that melody, as ephemeral as it had to be, until he awoke the next day- if indeed a new day could come to a place that seemed to be locked in eternal dusk.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, while the inn was busy for the first time in recent memory, a man and a bipedal spirit-wolf exited the gnome’s cave- they looked about for a minute, shrugged as if lost, and returned to the darkness of the grotto.