There was no easing into this battle, as if one were to ease into the cold ocean on holiday. There was no hesitant first shot or swing, nor did both sides line up parallel and eye each other with a mixture of awe and respect. The battle started with all the complexity and tact of a shot of gnome-grain whiskey, with Finnen leaping in an almost inhuman way into the middle of the fray, throwing out gorgon-punches, haymakers, and even once puling a squirming wisp out of the chest of the bones of a redcoat and tearing him in half like a piece of construction paper– and just like that, the battle was in full swing.
At first, it seemed that our three heroes were hopelessly outnumbered by the shambling, armored skeletons each wielding a rusted, but by no means less deadly weapon- the swords still held an edge, the maces their thorns, the spears their points– and all were thirsty for blood. This worried Petka to no end- he never traveled with a rifle- too loud- and preferred always to keep his bow as a constant companion. But somehow, in the present situation, he doubted very much that an arrow would do any sort damage, or even amount to more than a minor annoyance to the encroaching army of the ambulatory bones.
Petka gripped the repeating-blunderbuss and felt glad that Finnen had trusted him with it- the weapon had some stopping power, and the uni-horn could kill the evil wisp within. Chaim’s words echoed in his ears- “A one-two punch!” so, charging into the Fray, Raksha at his side, Petka fired a close-range shot into the chest of what was likely either a proud or foolish knight, and before the little glowing, cursing ball could escape, pierced it with the makeshift bayonet, causing the little light to collapse in on itself.
Raksha was of invaluable help. Never leaving Petka’s side, she would run headlong at an enemy, knocking it to the ground. The wisp inside, obviously caught off guard, didn’t know what to do as the enormous wolf started to pull at the bones of the flesh-less chest cavity, giving Petka time to jam his uni-horn into the glowing sphere. Additionally, using her natural sixth sense for danger and instinct, Raksha saved Petka’s life countless times during that battle in the night-locked gulch; once felling an ax wielding mountain of a former viking- she locked her jaws around the “neck” of the shambling giant, knocking it on its bony belly and removing its head. As the cursing Wisp tried to exit through the top of the armor, Petka was quick to stick it in its spherical form, and the gravelly curses disappeared along with ball itself. Even in the midst of the battle, Petka slipped Raksha a little “Bravery Bacon” and kissed her on the head.
Raksha loved her human.
Meanwhile, Finnen, with unbridled glee, continued to punch through the chests of the reanimated dead with no small amount of whirling and reckless abandon, piercing the foul mouthed wisps directly. Despite being outnumbered, it seemed that they had a winning strategy which was working better than the four adventurers could have imagined.
Chaim, it seemed, took a particularly ghoulish delight in the unfettered slaughter of the wisps who operated on the aetheric plane under control of the so called “Wisp-Queen” that he had taken such a disliking to over the centuries. Chaim was in ostensibly as much danger as his flesh and bone counterparts- the wisps being aetheric could very well harm him in their reanimated bone-suits– but Chaim’s safety ended up being of no concern due to the singular weapon he had selected just prior to their decent into the canyon.
Even in the dim light, Chaim, holding the great, metal, humming weapon- nearly four foot long, with a two-foot wide and flat barrel- could be seen with frenzied eyes and a disturbing glow around his normally calm features– the light of the deadly beam reflected upwards, giving Chaim the look of a moving-picture super-villain.
The sound of the beast of a weapon would remind one of the humming of electricity, but to a dangerous degree and an audible click could be heard before a long, undulating stream of green plasma issued from the “Big Freakin’ Gun” (Finnen’s words), evaporating or rather well-nigh obliterating all the skeletal soldiers in its path. The wisps had no time to escape as they were reduced to the same glowing pile of glowing ash as the skeletal bodies they had inhabited.
“Cheese It!” shouted the surviving dozen or so purplish spheres, abandoning their charnel, bony armor, “Evacuate your bowels, brothers, so we can book it quicker!”
They bolted straight up the cliff’s face, and much to the group’s consternation did relieve themselves, as the air was filled with the smell of mildew and burning hair, mingling with the dust and grime of a mighty, though certainly one-sided battle. But mounds of Wisp-leavings weren’t the only things the surviving sphere’s left behind- they forgot a comrade, and that of course could only be one Wisp.
Finnen was holding the bowling-ball sized, squirming ball in his unicorn-hide gloves, grinning manically– he would have been happy to (and was preparing to) pull the jiggling ball of energy apart like soft bread. Chaim, lowering his mighty weapon, stopped him.
“Finnen, I know what you’re thinking- just wait a minute- wait I said! Let’s get some answers from him before we let him go peacefully.”
“Let ‘im go? Peacefully?! He-”
“Yes, Finnen, ‘peacefully’,” said Chaim with just a slight inflection to his voice as if to say, “as peaceful as you like, big guy.”
“Foine, Foine. Ask yer questions Canid. I won’t harm a hair on his… head?”
Chaim pulled up a sizable pile of bones, and sat upon them. Calmly, he crossed one leg over the other, and shouldered his Big Freakin’ Gun. Finnen held Tim so that his square-spectacled-eyes were level with Chaim’s. There was a look of unbridled terror written across the face of the wisp- no mean feat, as they aren’t known to have exceptionally expressive faces (if they had permanent faces at all). Petka knelt down next to Chaim and Raksha- having found a massive femur- lay at Petka’s side, chewing noisily.
First Chaim said nothing; he simply smiled. This unnerved Tim to no end.
Chaim them began to laugh- not a mere snicker, but a hearty belly laugh, growing louder each passing second- Tim also began to laugh quietly and nervously at first, but then matched Chaim’s volume and mirth- and for a solid “minute” their laughter, sounding like some a choir of two damned men sitting on a pair of barrels, ricocheted off the walls of the canyon to the point where Petka took on a worried look, Raksha stopped gnawing on her victory-femur, and even Finnen began to feel uneasy. Then, without warning Chaim stopped– but Tim kept right on laughing.
Resuming his thoughtful posture, lupine chin in hand, Chaim now just stared at the laughing ball of light.
“Something funny, Tim?” asked Chaim– and though his voice was soft, his words cut right through Tim’s raucous laughter like a hot knife through butter.
“Well I just thought- I mean you were laughing fit to wake the gods and-”
“I’m your god now,” said Chaim without even a hint of humor in his voice, “Finnen, break his glasses.
The Irishman shrugged, and gingerly pulled off the square lenses which felt somewhat slimy in his hands. He dropped them to the ground, and stepped on them, where there audible crunch of broken glass surprised Finnen and Petka.
“My Specs!” shouted the Wisp, “Want do you want Wolf Spirit?”
“Oh, Tim. Can I call you Tim? Let’s do away with all the formalities. Just call me Chaim, Okay friend?”
“Good!” said Chaim with a clap, “Now we’re off to a good start. Just two friends talking, shooting the breeze.”
“I- I want to be your friend Chaim. I could-”
“Who do you work for Tim?”
Chaim’s question, accompanied with a friendly little smile, had all the sweetness of two lumps of sugar in an already sweet-tea.
“I-I don’t know.”
“He doesn’t know. That hurt’s, Tim. I thought we were friends. Don’t friends tell each other things? Gee-whiz, what to do, what to do. Finnen, remove his ponytail.”
“With a grimace, Finnen- who arguably enjoyed the battle the most of the three men and the wolf- pulled off the weird, sticky ponytail off the thing’s head with a sound that was very reminiscent of Velcro being undone. Finnen dropped the glowing length of hair to the ground next to the inexplicably broken aetheric glasses.
“My look!” shouted Tim, clearly crestfallen.
Chaim sighed, and gave the watery-eyed wisp a look of the purest sympathy.
“Oh, Tim- we’re so much alike! Hurts, right? No, not physically- we don’t usually feel physical pain, but…emotionally. Dis, I’ve been wearing the same set of clothes for nearly two millennia now- talk about out of fashion! Now tell me who you work for.”
“Very well, I’ve nothing less to lose. We work for the Wisp Queen XZMNLQQQBPNX!”
The sound, being all consonants was wholly alien to both Petka and Finnen who exchanged confused glances at the ugliness of such a sound.
“Good. Good! Tim, look’s like we’re going to get along fine, because that’s exactly the answer I wanted to hear. And I can tell you’re truthful! You are trustworthy, right Tim?”
The ball of light nodded vigorously.
“Good. Now Tim, the man that’s holding you? His name is Finnen. He lived up in that village up top. You know the village I’m talking about, right?”
Tim nodded again.
“And one day, two friends of Finnen- a soldier named Creighton and a nurse named Johannah came down the ladder. And since you and your men were the only one’s at this post, I imagine that you ran into them, didn’t you?”
“Sir! Again with the formalities, Tim? C’mon buddy. Chaim. Call me Chaim. That’s right, feel the first syllable in the back of your throat. Good. So tell me Tim, good friend, are Creighton and Johannah somewhere in this pile of bones? Is this were they met their final rest?”
Finnen’s knuckles were growing white, as the very thought of his friends dying at the hands of such repulsive creatures clearly enraged him– he was squeezing Tim very hard, causing the little thing’s face to bulge.
“No, no I swear it! We let them go! I promise!”
Finnen’s hands relaxed a bit.
“Let them, go Tim? After the rig-a-mor-al you gave us? Why should I believe you let them go?”
“No! Johannah? She scared us, so we just let them go! Didn’t think the two would even survive, let alone get to the Kingdom!”
“OK, great! Tim, you’re a good one, you know that? You’re a good one Tim.”
“Thanks Chaim I- I want to be a good one.”
“Oh and you are Tim, you simply are a good one! You’ve already helped so much- and you like to help your friend Chaim, don’t you Tim?”
“I-I like to help.”
“Of course you do. Now let’s talk about the little spot of bother on the steppe at the top of the cliffs- you know what I’m talking about, yes? Little town, bunch of people just living out their lives. Does that ring a bell?”
“Chaim I don’t k now anything-”
Tim’s words were cut off by Finnen’s squeezing of his aetheric being.
“Lying? To a friend? Tim, Why? Have I hurt you?”
“No but…But this man-”
“Yes, Finnen is squeezing me and I feel like I might burst!”
“Finnen,” said Chaim with a dismissive wave, “Be a lamb and don’t squeeze my friend Tim, OK?”
Finnen merely grumbled a reply.
“Thanks, friend. See? Finnen is my friend. Friends don’t hurt each other- I haven’t hurt you, have I Tim?”
“Exactly. And you’re not talking to Finnen are you? You’re talking to me. And I wouldn’t hurt a friend.”
“We friends, right Chaim?” asked the Wisp hopefully.
“Of course! Now I’ll ask again- maybe you just forgot- do you or do you not remember the little settlement on the steppe?”
“And what happened there?”
The Wisp’s features, which had become significantly more defined during the interrogation, were actually quite ugly, now took on a look of full on panic.
“It was our Queen! We were following orders from XZMNLQQQBPNX! She didn’t want the settlers on the steppe because she was afraid too many people would be able to push their way into her kingdom!”
“Y-yes! She deposed the original ruler with her army and we renegotiated our contract- she told us riddles were for dumb people and we should just kill anybody who wanders through here! The soldier told us about the people and the village up top and- we were just following orders! We went up and killed the lot of them…”
The wisp was now sobbing lightly, not so much out of contrition, but out of fear for his person.
“Following orders. Negotiating contracts. When did everything with the gods become a business, Tim? I even call them management! Where’s the bedside manner?” Chaim sighed, “Well I guess that bits for the pilgrims. You and me, Tim? We’re just working stiffs, trying to get by, one century at a time. I’m glad to have met you Tim. You were a good friend.”
“S-so you are going to let me go?”
“Go? Oh, heavens Tim! I can’t do that! You would just fly right on over to XZMNLQQQBPNX and tell her we were coming.”
“Th-then what are you going to do to me? Friends don’t hurt friends, remember?”
“Of course I remember, Tim! I would never hurt you! But Finnen is not you’re friend. Irish, take care of him.”
Finnen pushed his hands together and Tim, who didn’t have time to utter a syllable, popped like a balloon– to make the utterly bizarre and unsettling nature of the execution a little more festive, Tim’s body exploded with a little burst of light and a dusting of confetti along with a squeak as if someone squeezed a dog toy.
“Thanks Canid. For everything– now we know that at least Creighton and the Missus made it out of this God-forsaken Canyon. Maybe they’re already in the Kingdom…”
“Only our two feet will tell us that,” said Petka, scratching Raksha’s belly, “Best we move on?”
“In a moment Petka, Tim -my erstwhile friend- gave me something to think about. First, let’s get the name thing out of the way. The Wisp Queen’s name is XZMNLQQQBPNX. Don’t bother trying to say it, it wasn’t meant for mortal tongues. There’s not an exact name in English that correlates with it, but the closest is ‘Scott’.”
“Scott? The bloody Queen is named Scott? We’re up against a Queen Scott?!”
“Calm it, Irish- don’t let the name fool you. She is roundly repugnant and apparently values life very little. It’s a dangerous situation.”
“How did this Queen Scott overtake a Kingdom? Aren’t there steps in place to keep conquerors like her out?” asked Petka, combing soot and bits of ancient bone from his beard.”
“Not quite, Petka- it was meant to keep people like you out- adventurers from the other world, and conquering armies in our world. I think the chink in the armor was that Queen Scott was a part of the plan to keep people out of the Kingdom.”
“So she…went rogue?”
“I suppose so…when those pig monsters ousted the Cube God, folks like me became, well, redundant- purposeless, in a sense like I’ve said before. I wasn’t the only one, of course. There was the Wisp Queen- where I was to educate and guide, she was to mislead invaders or interlopers or people too curious for their own good..
“I was too, well, apathetic to do much of anything constructive ,but it seems like good old Queen Scotty’s been up to some dirty pool. It seems like she felt the need for a crown on her greasy head. Maybe partnered up with the pigs that ousted the cube god- probably ate the pig that spewed them all out. I don’t want to think that, but only someone who knows all the workings of the Peace Cries– all the steps right up to the doors of the Kingdom itself could pull it off. Only two of us outside the Kingdom knew. Me….and Scott. Seems like an inside job.”
“So what- are you sayin’ that some plump ghost made her little ghosties murderous?” said Finnen, spitting a little blood on the ground, “Then marched into a Kingdom of riches and simply took it over? Sounds like a coup to me,” said Finnen, pouring water from a skin over his head.
“I believe you are correct, Irish- I suspect we’ll get some answers from Scott soon.”
“Next Cry then?” asked Petka, petting Raksha behind the ears.
* * * * *
The penultimate peace cry seemed to have at some point taken a swerve towards absurdity over any sort of agenda; unless, of course, it were the agenda of a madman. One was supposed to “dream in the wrecks of ruins long past” and they would, the sublime having given way completely leaving only the ridiculous much to the chagrin of the four weary travelers.
Thoroughly exhausted, the four made their way through the ruins of the old gods, and it seemed that each subsequent ruin (all at least at one time, quite resplendent) was built upon the previous “administration’s” temples and cities, at least until a “amorous and enterprising couple” (Chaim’s words) said “Fisk it” and built a two story, stone inn over the whole of the abandoned ruins. Despite the utterly bizarre, and as some would see it sacrilegious juxtaposition of the candle-lit inn and the cyclopean ruins about it, the building was strangely inviting. Even from a distance, the intoxicating smell of baked bread wafted over the rubble of something once grand, bringing the three men and the wolf to the building, giving little thought to the eternity of long dead gods and their long dead believers whose spirits lingered under and all about them.
The three entered the warm little inn, sipping on some over-sweet cordial that tasted of tart cherries and honeysuckle (with just a hint of snozberries which, in case any of you were wondering, did taste like snozberries). The gang warmed themselves by the roaring fire, and ate heartily of some gamey and delicious mutton and potatoes, all drenched in a thick, succulent gravy and finished off with a delicious custard with a burnt sugar top (“a crème brulee” Finnen informed them).
Unfortunately for the gang, the inn was strictly a cash business, and would not accept barter, but they would allow Finnen to do some chores “or something” to pay off the meal and the night’s lodgings. Finnen was absolutely no stranger to hard work, and he agreed expecting to paint or plant or wash dishes. Unfortunately, the “or something” was infinitely more terrible. The Irishman, who Petka considered so strong as to be made of iron, was shaking and wide eyed, and blatantly refused to say exactly what he had to do. All he would say, from the fetal position he had curled into was, “They was making a talkin’ picture. I had to hold the recordin’ box, which was bad enough… the worse part was they failed to inform me of the…the…splash zone.”
“Ah you poor thing, “ said Chaim, “Why anybody would want to hold a live saltwater birth of a dugong this far from the sea… Well, I just don’t ask questions anymore. Anyway, who want’s a hex?”
“Yes! Oh God, yes! Burn me into ash!” Finnen stood up on his knees, pleading, hands in a prayer position.
“I was thinking that I’d put you into a restful sleep, though considering what you’ve been through, I doubt it will be dreamless.”
“Fine, fine- make with it already!”
“Your wish is my command,” said Chaim, who had been polishing his Big Freakin’ Gun gently, partly out an odd affection and part out of wise caution. He lifted one ghostly paw, made a series of strange movements, whispered something under his breath, and snapped his fingers. Finnen immediately fell into a comatose slumber, a kindness that would not be forgotten when he woke up the next “day”.
As for Chaim, the whole sleep thing was easier said than done (though he technically didn’t need to, he liked to close his eyes and enjoy the movement and lights behind them).
Between bouts of fighting and screwing, the small inn shook with husky groans, and what sounded an awful lot like a boot being pulled in and out of the mud. Accompanying this symphony of horrors was the ever-present clap of a headboard on the opposite side of Finnen’s room. It was enough to drive a man mad, and if Finnen weren’t already quite mad already, he would have surely succumbed to a level of babbling-crazy much like that of a demented, mercury swilling, finger-licking hatter.
Eventually as the proverbial “wee hours” started to creep up, Finnen- still mercifully unconscious- had, in his dreams, crept into his happy place- a beach, warmed by a kind summer sun; a cool breeze blew over the purr and crash of the ocean in one of her calmer moods, as two ancient whales humped endlessly in the bay– Finnen didn’t remember this being part of this happy place. Despite this strange dream, Finnen was able to maintain his deep, restful slumber. Madness, perhaps, was something of a blessing.
Petka Fawcett too fell into a deep slumber with the use of Chaim’s hex and because Raksha fell asleep pinned to his side– the rise and fall of her belly and her steady heartbeat, along with her gentle snoring was enough to block out the cacophony of horror that was all too close for anybody’s comfort, and his dreams were untainted by what lay writhing, one thin wall away. Sleep was and always had been Petka’s refuge– a dream- theater, if you will, and he took no small comfort in the somnolent delirium that half convinced him what he dreamed might have possibly, in some small way, been real. The night at the inn was no different. He found himself in a beautiful land with a warming sun and a cooling breeze (though it felt like home, and not all like what had been known as Creighton’s Rest), where a beautiful seraph helped him in trimming the thorns that were ever-piercing his heart. He awoke, as he often did from such dreams refreshed, though wistful, hoping that one day he might be blessed by fortune to put his ear against the breast of the black-haired, golden-eyed seraph that so often cut back the briars that seemed to ever-strangle his chest.
For sure, she- or rather, such a being was not of this world, but Petka (ever the adventurer) knew that beyond even the most mist-veiled valleys lay snow-capped peaks, and beyond them the outer wilds where the old gods were said to dance; and perhaps with a bow and extended palm, the dark, golden eyed seraph would consent to such a dance, and he would be filled with the warmth of a caring, beating heart- and one not so idle and prosaic as even the fantastic of his world had to offer.