Holy cow, it’s finally here. It’s about time that Matthew Matherne fellow got back to work, right? Jeez, what a lazy bastard.
Chronicles of Koeleth
“It’s going to happen again, Tommy Boy,” a voice called seductively, menacingly.
Tom knew the voice; he knew it well. She had haunted his dreams since…well, he did not want to think about then. He tried to ignore her—tried and failed.
“I know you can hear me, Tommy Boy. You look so cute when you’re trying to forget me. It’s going to happen again, darling. You know that, don’t you?”
The voice grated on his nerves, stirring up old memories, breathing life into new horrors. He saw visions of the past, of lost comrades and fatal mistakes. Blended in with them were foreboding images of a future yet to come, of great suffering and the fires of death.
“Do you see them, darling? Do you hear the shrieking? Do you feel their pain, Tommy Boy? Revel in it, as you once reveled in my affection.”
“No. No, no, no. No! NO!” Tom screamed, rousing himself from his restless slumber. “No…”
The nightmare was so real, so vivid. For a moment, he thought he was actually there, watching those horrors, reliving them, unable to change what happened. The warrior had little time to ponder this, however, as he became acutely aware of an unknown entity watching him from the shadows of his moonlit room. Carefully scanning the eerie darkness around him, his vision finally set on a pair of predatory eyes glimmering in the doorway. He was briefly unnerved by this visitor’s intrusion, until he remembered the youngest of his guests.
“Rydia, is that you?”
A timid whimper confirmed his suspicions.
“I’m sorry, did I scare you?”
Another squeal of affirmation.
“I just had a bit of nightmare. Yes, it can happen to adults, too. Now, what’s the matter? Why aren’t you with Grace and Dennis?”
The golden wolf let out a morose howl.
“Can’t sleep, huh? Well, you can stay here, and we can chat if you like. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep myself,” Tom admitted, throwing off his covers, throwing on the clothes hanging off the bedpost, and sitting at the edge of his bed.
The pup, illuminated by the light of the stars, cautiously approached Tom. After convincing herself that he was safe, she hopped up on the bed next to him.
“Look at you! I’ll bet one day you’ll be a real beauty! A natural heartbreaker, what with your lovely hair and gorgeous blue eyes! You’ll have to beat the boys off with a stick. And a few girls, I imagine. Or you could hit them with a war hammer, too,” Tom mused aloud. “Whatever suits your fancy, I suppose. I know a guy who makes great war hammers. Quality stuff, I’m telling you.”
Though she didn’t quite understand everything that Tom said, Rydia felt the kindness in it. She curled up beside the man, feeling very much at ease. Tom stroked her fur, trying to further reassure her—and himself—that everything would be fine.
“You know, you’re part of the reason I joined this adventure. You remind me of another little girl I made a promise to. In fact, you two could be twins. She’s a couple years younger, but other than that, she’s the spitting image of you. Same blonde hair, same blue eyes. Same timid disposition, even. Why, if I didn’t know better, I would say you were sisters.”
The wolf pup perked up her ears at this news. Another little girl that looked just like her? How much fun would that be?
“You might get to meet her, too! I managed to convince Dennis to let us run by Stonewall before we get on with the main journey. Assuming she hasn’t been adopted, she’ll be at the orphanage there. Won’t that be fun?”
Despite the encroaching weariness, the child began to wag her tail as vigorously as she could manage.
“You like the sound of that, do you? Well, that’s good. I think you two will get along famously.”
Tom talked with the little girl for a little while longer until he, too, began to feel the clawing demands of sleep.
“Well, little missy, my eyelids are getting heavy and my muscles are aching, so I think I’ll be getting back to the business of sleeping. It’d be best if you ran off to your room, I think. If you want to stay longer, I won’t stop you, but I’m getting back under the covers and studying the backs of my eyelids.”
Tom tucked under the blankets and rolled onto his side, accepting the warm embrace of the bed. For a few moments, Rydia contemplated going back to Grace and Dennis, but she was exhausted, and the bed was quite comfortable. She curled up in the crook of Tom’s legs, right behind his knees, where it was warm and inviting.
The next morning Tom awoke to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl laying sprawled across his chest. By some miracle of nature, he managed to safely escape without disturbing the child.
“Guess you didn’t quite make it back to your own bed last night,” he yawned. “I imagine this will cause a bit of a ruckus.”
He went about the business of preparing for his day, and, by the time he left his room, Rydia was beginning to stir. Walking into the hall outside his room, he heard a commotion coming from the door ahead of him. Just as he reached for the doorknob, Grace barged in, nearly breaking down the door in the process.
“What’s wrong?” Tom inquired, already having an inkling of an idea.
“We can’t find Rydia!” Grace shouted in panic.
“Rydia’s fine,” Tom said as he yawned.
“How do you know that? How can you be yawning at a time like this!?”
“She couldn’t sleep last night, so she wandered into my room. As luck would have it, I wasn’t sleeping either, so we chatted for a while. After a while, I decided to go back to sleep. She decided that the trip back to your room was too long, so she just curled up next to me. She’s still there now, if you doubt me.”
“By the guardians, you didn’t do anything to her, did you!?” Grace screamed in a panic.
The words were blurted out in fear, with no true conviction behind them, but Tom could not help but feel slightly insulted at the accusation.
“What!? No! Look, you can go check on her yourself.”
Tom had barely gotten these words out of his mouth when Grace shoved him aside and dashed towards the room. She discovered Rydia sitting on the edge of the bed, squinting in the sunlight. Grace ran up to her and hugged the confused little girl, right before collapsing from relief. Fortunately, the bed broke her fall.
After she had recovered, and everything calmed down, the company began to prepare for the day accordingly. Aside from a line for the bathroom, which Tom quickly resolved by allowing the use of his private bathroom, the morning went smoothly. Tom dragged Aaron along with him on his mission to collect his new gear and his companions. The rest of the company set about preparing for the journey ahead. By the end of the day, they were all gathered around the dinner table, sharing one last home-cooked meal before their long travels.
The next morning they found themselves loitering outside the gates of Ramsthrone, almost ready to embark. They were still waiting on one person, the only companion Tom could find to join them. With the clanking of armor and the shuffling of papers, two guards rushed towards the group.
“Halt!” the shorter, black-haired female commanded.
“Yeah, what she said!” the brown-haired male gasped.
“Um, okay. Wasn’t going anywhere anyways…” Tom muttered to himself before switching to a more cordial tone. “Is there something wrong, sir and dame?”
“You bet there is!” responded the man. “You were gonna leave without us, bro!”
“That’s a problem? I was unaware that you were a part of our company.”
“What this idiot failed to mention,” the woman responded, holding out some papers, “is that we were sent by none other than Captain Flowermaiden herself. She ordered us to join you for your mission.”
“Lilly sent you? How did she find out about our journey anyways?” Tom asked, flipping through the papers and eyeing Aaron suspiciously.
“Our deal contains certain…clauses concerning the exchange of information,” Aaron admitted cryptically.
“I see. Well, we appreciate your company, then. It might be helpful to know your names.”
“Absolutely,” the woman said. “I am Diane Shipswain, at your service.”
“And I” began the man, “am Arthur Foresthare, at your service. You can call me ‘Artie,’ though, bros and gals.”
“Nice to meet you, Diane and, uh, Artie.”
“Wait,” Dennis demanded. “How do you know we can trust them?”
“Lilly is utterly unconcerned with politics that don’t influence Ramsthrone. Either she is sending us these guys to help out a couple of friends, or, by helping us it either helps or prevents harm to Ramsthrone. Lilly knows me, she knows I have a blessed weapon, and she knows I can handle it well. She also knows Aaron, knows that Aaron would immediately recognize any deception, and knows that he would stop it if it were to his benefit. So, the chances of any trickery are low. Besides, do these two really seem like spies to you? I don’t think they even know what subterfuge is, much less how to use it.”
“True,” Dennis agreed.
“Hey!” Diane blurted out. “Rude!”
“Not cool, brotaku!” Artie exclaimed, turning to Diane and whispering, “What does ‘subterfuge’ mean?”
“…I am pretty sure we’re safe from subterfuge,” Grace sighed. “But are they any good in a fight?”
“We are former members of the Ramsthrone Castle Guard. We know how to fight, bro. Or is it ‘sis?’”
“Former? Why former?” Colin inquired.
Since Artie was still pondering the important questions about life and the universe, Diane answered.
“As you may have noticed,” Diane said sheepishly, her face the hue of a tomato, “we are lacking in tact and decorum, so there may have been an incident concerning a guest of Lord Ramsrest.”
“I heard about that,” Aaron interjected. “That was funny.”
“You can’t tell them!” Diane declared desperately.
Before Aaron could continue the story, another man approached the group, a big smile adorning his face; Tom recognized the man immediately.
“Theo! What took you so long?”
“Sorry, Tom. The man in charge had a few words for me before I left,” the man bellowed.
“But I’m here now!”
“I’m telling you, man, you should freelance with me.”
“What is he talking about?” Dennis inquired.
“Ah! My apologies!” the man said. “I am Lieutenant Theodore Mapleleaf of the Adventurers’ Guild, Ramsthrone Chapter.”
“He’s my best friend from the Guild. We go back to when he first joined the Cradle-of-the-Moon chapter, and he’s perfect for this mission,” Tom explained.
The man grinned again, his smile as large as the rest of his features. Though he was not much larger than Tom, his larger frame and overall appearance made him look like a giant. Standing an inch taller than Tom, and being a good fifteen pounds more muscle-bound, he definitely made an impression. The brown mane that framed his face was similar to Tom’s black facial hair, but Theodore’s head hair was notably better groomed. The warrior’s eyes had a unique mix of brown and hazel hues. His travelling robe was a clean, beige equivalent to the ratty, weatherworn black robe that Tom wore. The sleeves fit tightly on Theodore’s arms, in contrast to the loose sleeves on his friend’s, but that was due to his size and not a difference in style. A small pin on the neck of the robe indicated his rank in the Guild, and the shadow of one could be found on Tom’s robe, if one looked hard enough. The seasoned warrior carried a falchion on either side of his waist, indicative of his prowess as a dual-wielder.
“Good to meet you all!” Theodore announced in a booming, happy-go-lucky voice. “I assume this is only part of the company?”
“You assume correctly,” Dennis answered, shaking the man’s hand. “I am Dennis Starcurse, pack alpha.”
“And I am Grace Nightstalker, the neck that turns the head.”
Theodore dignified her with a bow.
“Your name fits you, fair lady.”
“Smooth as a landslide, Theo,” Tom jested.
“Oh, and your many relationships have been so successful?” Theo readily countered.
“Joking aside, we have business to attend to, don’t we?”
“Yeah, let’s get that over with.”
The four of them discussed what little business there was left to discuss, and soon enough the journey truly began.
“Wait, you’re Theodore Mapleleaf? The Theodore Mapleleaf?” Artie asked, upon discovering Theo’s identity.
“The one and only.”
“Theodore the Sabertooth?” Diane eagerly pressed.
“Theodore of the Twirling Blades?” Artie continued.
“Theodore the Twin Fanged Warrior? Theodore the Nightprowler!? The Hero of Blackfalls!? The Beast of—“
“I see you are fans of mine. Yes, yes, I am all those things,” the merry soldier interrupted.
“He’s not that great, guys,” Tom jabbed. “In fact, the reason for the title ‘Theo of the Twirling Blades’ is more humorous than it is heroic.”
“Yes, well, Thomas Riversedge the Golden Wall isn’t all that flattering either.”
“Wait…you’re the Thomas Riversedge?” the two fans said in unison. “Thomas the Bulwark? Thomas the Bloodless? Thomas—“
“The Hero of Shoreland, and many other titles, yes. Just titles, guys.”
“So you two are the famous Thomas and Theodore of the devastating duo, ‘The River Brothers?’”
“Yep, that’s us!” Theo laughed.
“I didn’t know you were famous, Tom,” Amelia declared in shock.
“I’m not. You earn a title for every mission you complete above a certain level in the Adventurers’ Guild, and I was really good at my job. So was Theo. These two are nerds just for knowing them all. Now let’s head out.”
The two star struck soldiers continued to babble on about the accomplishments of their idols as they left the city walls behind them. The company decided to push late into the night to reach the camp, arriving just in time to see most of the camp off to sleep. Gabriel remained awake so he could ensure that the newcomers were trustworthy. After a lengthy conversation, he was convinced that they were reliable enough to join them. Not that he had the power to make that decision, as Dennis reminded him. Agreeing that it was in the camp’s best interest to set out a guard overnight, they eventually decided on Theo, who was eager to do the job, despite his long day of travel.
The morning arrived without incident, and the camp packed up for travel. Aaron and Collin, who were unaccustomed to travelling with large camps, were shocked at how quickly they could pick up and leave. After another couple days of travel, with a quick stop at Pasture’s Edge to let Tom say goodbye to Cleo, the camp settled outside of Stonewall, as Dennis and Grace promised they would. While Tom had a promise to keep here, there was another valid reason to rest here. The whole of Darwin’s Expanse lay before them, and it was a harsh land. They would need to be as prepared as they could be, because it would be some time before they could rest in a safe place, near a well stocked town. After some discussion, the group decided that the camp would be safe enough near Stonewall that a few people would be better off staying in town, gathering supplies. Tom set up a few rooms at the local inn for himself and the other non-abominations. Grace and Dennis also rented a room, which they shared with Rydia, who refused to be left back at camp. They decided to use what was left of their first day in town to adjust their plans and to rest. The next day, while the others set about gathering supplies, Tom, Grace, and Rydia went to the orphanage. Tom knocked on the thick wooden door.
“Hello, welcome to—Tom!” Angela started, but was shocked by the face she saw. “I wasn’t expecting to see you for some time. I figured you would be off on one of your jobs.”
Tom detected a tinge of bitterness in that last remark, but Grace seemed oblivious. Nevertheless, she gave him a brief friendly hug while she said it.
“It’s funny you should mention that. I’m actually on a job now. I’ll be gone for a while, probably a couple months, so I figured I should drop in before I left.”
“Oh? What job are you on now?” Angela asked with genuine curiosity.
“I’m escorting some villagers to a new location. For reasons I’m not at liberty to discuss, they’ve been driven from their homes.”
“Oh, that sounds interesting. You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back. By the way, you haven’t introduced your two companions yet,” Angela mentioned, motioning towards Grace and Rydia.
“Oh, man, I totally forgot! Angela, this is Grace. She’s one of the people I’m escorting.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Grace said politely.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Angela replied.
“And this is Rydia,” Tom said, introducing the abnormally excited little girl.
“Hey, there, sweetie! How are you today?” Angela leaned down and smiled at the little girl.
Rydia simply smiled in response, wagging her butt back and forth in a very doglike manner.
“Umm, I’m Angela, Rydia. You can call me ‘Miss Angie.’” Angela’s response rolled out awkwardly.
“Oh! Sorry!” Grace exclaimed, snapping to attention. “She’s mute. She can’t speak.”
“Oh, okay! Sorry, I didn’t realize,” Angela blushed at her own mistake.
Rydia kept smiling and wagging a non-existent tail, oblivious to the young woman’s mistake.
“Well, I imagine Tom brought you here because of your strong resemblance to Anna. Let me take you to her, and you’ll understand. And have a new friend, I imagine.”
Angela led them to a large open playroom where several of the orphans were playing. She called to a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Anna was bashful and hid behind Angela at first.
“Wow!” Grace blurted out. “The resemblance is beyond surprising. Aside from the age, they could be twins!”
“Right? It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Tom said.
“I was shocked when I first saw Rydia myself,” Angela admitted. “I thought Anna
had run away.”
“Well, thank goodness she didn’t,” Tom expressed, “because it would be difficult for me to keep my promise to a person who wasn’t here.”
“Mister Tom! You’re really here to tell us another story?” Anna asked hopefully.
“You bet, but Rydia’s been waiting to see you, so I’ll tell it after you two get to know each other, okay?”
“Yeah! Okay! Hi, Rydia! Wow, you look a lot like me! What do you like to do for fun? I like to play with dolls, and I like Mister Tom’s stories, too.”
Anna’s quick change of attitude made Rydia ecstatic, and she began to “talk” back. Despite Rydia’s muteness, Anna seemed to understand her perfectly, and the two doppelgangers chatted for quite some time. When the two girls had become the best of friends, Tom and Angela gathered the children around them, and the young man began. As promised, the tales were much better than the last time. After several fairy tales and adventures, Tom drew his session to a close. Angela and Anna followed Tom, Rydia and Grace to the door.
“Bye, Rydia! Come back soon!” Anna gleefully exclaimed.
Rydia excitedly waved back.
“What, no goodbye for me? I’m crushed!” Tom declared with mock insult.
“Bye, Mister Tom!” Anna said, hugging him tightly.
“Bye, Anna,” he replied, hugging her back.
With a final smile, Anna darted back into the orphanage.
“Hey, Tom,” Angela spoke in a serious tone. “Be careful out there. I’ve heard that some dangerous criminal escaped from the Vanguard Prison. They don’t know where he headed.”
“Alright, thanks, Angela. I’ll keep my eyes out for anyone suspicious. And you take care of yourself, too. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“I’ll do my best, Tom. Don’t forget about us here in Stonewall while you are on your journey.”
“Don’t worry. I couldn’t do that if I tried.”
Tom and Angela shared a brief hug and said their farewells. Grace jostled him a little bit about “cheating on” Amelia, but it was all in good humor.
“So, how did the visit go?” Dennis asked when they had reunited with the group.
“It went really well,” Grace chimed. “Rydia made a new friend. Didn’t you?”
Rydia nodded vigorously.
“Good for you,” Dennis replied. “We’ve gathered everything we can for now, so I guess we should head back to the inn.”
After a few minutes of walking, however, Rydia’s ears began to twitch, clearly in pain.
Even in human form, her hearing was sensitive.
“Is a noise coming from the camp?” Theo asked, his acute intuition coming into play.
Rydia morphed into her wolf form and ran under Tom’s legs to hide from the sound.
“Let’s go!” Tom said, scooping up the wolf pup in his arms.
Upon reaching the city gate, they all heard it: an ungodly screeching sound like nothing else.
“Alistair!” Dennis and Grace announced, locking eyes with each other.