It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted;which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted.
– Ulysses, James Joyce
A calamitous grinding of stone-on-stone rumbled through the ancient chamber. Pebbles trembled on the smoothed floors as the muraled walls began to close in. Ellice snapped her head towards the clang of a falling portcullis, their only way out now barred. Angrily she yanked the kobold bard into the center of the room.
“What the void did you do Meda?!”
Amber eyes flashed in panic over the lizardish creature’s blue-scaled snout. Meda’s lute bounced against her back as she pointed a black claw back towards the wall of carved images. A still-depressed figure of a chalice moved slowly towards them.
“I answered the riddle!” The kobold insisted, “That’s the Bottomless Cup from The Green Feast of Ongar! Never empty, sometimes full!”
Fifteen feet away Kalista rattled on another portcullis denying them passage forward, her sword clattering against her kaleidoscopic armor. She whipped her head back towards the bard and druid, golden hair roughly flipping about as she did.
“Blast it Meda, if that was the right answer then why are the walls closing in on us?”
The scaly bard only snorted in response as she wriggled free of Ellice’s grasp. Her tail swooshed up a cloud of dust as she knelt down to place one eye against the ground. Behind her, Kalista slung her pack to the floor and began rummaging through it. Ellice rolled out a yellow scroll, scanning the relevant passage over and over again.
And when barred by iron among the feastWhere fae and man stand in reliefRemember these words, oh verdant priest,That spare the wise and foil the thief:Always old, sometimes new,Never sad, sometimes blue,Never empty, sometimes full,Never pushes, always pulls.
On the ground the kobold scuttled towards the slow-moving wall on all fours, drawing a dagger as she neared it. Deftly she slid its blade beneath the wall, wiggling it along the seam. Suddenly it jumped from her hand, the blade shooting under the wall until the hilt came to rest snugly against the wall’s base with a metallic twang. The trap came to a halt.
Meda clambered to her feet, bits of dirt and dust still clinging to her scaly arms.
“See? Problem solved!” she chirped triumphantly as she brushed the dirt and dust away, gradually restoring the luster to her azure scales.
“A problem you created in the first place,” Kalista grumbled as she pulled a steel baton out of her pack. She turned the object over in her gauntleted hands. “Really Meda, how many times do we have to tell you to keep your claws off of things?”
“Relinth values my initiative,” she snapped back, “and is much better at riddles if I’m being honest. Let it forward for a bit, eh?”
“It doesn’t handle stressful situations well, you know that. And seeing as we share the same brain, I can solve riddles just as well.” The prismatic knight pushed herself to her feet. With one hand she twirled the metallic baton while the other traced through the air as she scanned along the carved figures. She stopped as her finger pointed at two figures embracing under a woven arch of leaves and flowers. “What if the answer’s marriage?”
“Marriage?!” Meda snickered at the suggested answer. “Why?”
“Because it's almost the same riddle as ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.’”
“Oh! Of course! Brilliant!” Meda’s amber eyes lit up as she began walking towards the entwined figures, her claw outstretched. Ellice lowered the scroll behind her.
“Don’t be daft, it’s not marriage.” Her green gown softly swooshed behind her as she closed the distance between herself and the tiny bard with two long strides. A firm but gentle hand wrapped around the kobold’s eager arm. Silver hair twinkled gaily in the torchlight as she turned her head toward Kalista. “And that’s not a riddle, it’s a luck charm.”
“Of course, terrible suggestion!” Meda jeered at the towering knight, her arm falling back to her side.
“Better than a fucking cup!” Kalista shot back.
“The Bottomless Cup is ancient but the waters it produces are new,” Meda explained, smugness creeping into her voice as she continued, “It’s never sad but it produces water which is blue. According to legends it can never be fully emptied but it is oftentimes full to the brim. And finally as an inanimate object it can never push anything but it can create pools of water. It’s the obvious answer!”
“Then why didn’t it work?”
“Maybe the mechanism is broken,” she suggested before turning her gaze back to Ellice who was once again examining the scroll, “Or maybe Ellice translated something wrong.”
“My translation is just fine,” Ellice retorted, her words accompanied with a green-eyed glare over the top of the yellowing document, “Your answer relies on using the incorrect version of the word ‘pull’ which, as the person who can actually read the scroll, I can assure you is wrong. Not to mention your assertion that water is blue, which outside of maps and children’s drawings tends not to be the case.”
“Ah see! Who had the stupid answer now?” Kalista sneered. Meda opened her mouth to shout something back when a snap of metal echoed through the room. Whatever hidden mechanism the bard had managed to jam minutes ago had finally won in its fight with the dagger. The cacophonous rumbling resumed as the walls moved toward each other once more.
Kalista sprang into action, twisting the ends of the steel baton she’d be twirling in her offhand. The rod telescoped outwards, extending further and further until it was a little over six feet long. She pushed one end against the nearer wall and raised the other so the pole was parallel to the ground. She held the pole steady and waited for the walls to close another five feet to clamp it between them.
Meda lunged at the portcullis. She snaked an arm through its iron grating and scrabbled at the other side of the doorway, hoping to find a way to open the gate or at least stop the trap. After a few fruitless moments she stretched her arm in further, all the way to the shoulder. A crackling sound sizzled through the air. Meda flew backwards through the chamber, the smell of burnt ozone wafting along in her wake.
“Owwww!” she screamed, cradling her injured arm, “Someone warded the gate!”
“No shit,” Kalista muttered under her breath. She felt the weight of the pole lighten in her hands as the walls squeezed against either side of it, the tension holding it in place. The metal creaked and groaned, threatening to buckle, when a sheen of magic rippled along its length and reinforced the makeshift brace. Kallista tapped it twice to check its stability and turned back towards the other two.
Ellice doused Meda’s smoldering arm with water from her flask and whispered healing words as she drew her fingers along the injury. Her eyes glowed with silvery power that glinted off the kobold’s scales as equally silver light thrummed over the wound. Within seconds the scorched scales had regained their previous healthy blue color. Meda sighed in relief.
“Please Meda,” Ellice begged her companion, “Just sit here patiently, I think I almost have it.” The little bard let out a huff but nodded her head in agreement.
Ellice refocused on Meda’s answer; wrong as it was, part of it was on the right path. The cup itself was completely incorrect, but something in her mind had clicked when Meda had said it could create pools of water. Her eyes scrutinized the carving for depictions of water: a lake, a puddle, a flooded pit; anything. Closer along the wall towards Kalista was a stream cutting along the outskirts of the fae feast, but that couldn’t be it. What she was looking for needed to be larger. It needed to be–
A smashing sound broke her train of thought as the pole Kalista had used to brace the walls split and subsequently shattered a section of the carved rock. It clunked and bounced in the newly created hole as both sides of the death trap moved inwards again.
“Ellice?” Kallista called out, more panicked than she’d ever seen her before. The green-gowned druid held up a calming hand towards her companion and flashed a reassuring smile. She was so close.
Five feet remained between the walls.
The pool she was looking for needed to be larger than the river, perhaps even larger than some lakes. For a moment she could smell the salty, briny air rolling in off the Sea of Petals, could feel her skin shiver as it flowed over her form; the recalled sensations of evenings by the bay strong enough to assert themselves as real to her senses. With an exhale they melted back into mere memories, but even as they ebbed away she felt closer to the answer she sought. There were no seas on the engraving, but her disconnected thoughts knew they were intertwined with the solution to the puzzle.
Only three feet remained before they would all be pulverized.
She unrolled the parchment again, barely looking at it as her mind raced against the enclosing stonework. The riddle definitely used “pull” instead of “pool”, so why did the wrong homophone elicit such a strong feeling of correctness? Could it be a pool that pulls? No, of course not… But what about something that pulls pools?
Her jaw dropped at the simplicity of the answer as the revelation burned through her mind. The room was only a little over a foot wide now, Kallista barely able to move in her bulky armor. Meda sat on the floor, head in her claws, awaiting the end. Ellice flung her arm out and up, fingers running along the trembling surface of the crushing stone. With two thin fingers she found what she was after and pushed resolutely inward.
The walls stopped with a rumble. Ellice smiled to herself and then to her companions as a recessed circular carving began to retreat back towards its original position.
“The moon,” she whispered to no one in particular, her hand flying to her forehead in embarrassment, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that sooner?”
The prismatic knight threw her head back in relief as the wall moved far enough away to allow her to turn fully once more. She looked at Ellice with a mixture of thankfulness and gradually ebbing terror before her sparkling grey eyes turned angrily towards Meda, still sitting on the floor.
“Meda! What the fuck have I told you about–”
She didn’t get a chance to finish before the blue bard rushed at her, throwing her arms around the knight’s waist. The fury melted instantly away as a gauntlet of shifting reds and yellows awkwardly patted the kobold on her back. The scaly snout pulled back and looked up at Kalista.
“I’m sorry Kallista,” Meda sniffled, words tumbling out, “I thought I knew the answer and I know I shouldn’t get so excited and start pushing things but I didn’t think it was going to do anything to hurt anyone else and…” The words cut off as she embraced Kalista again.
“It’s alright,” the knight sighed, “No one got hurt.” Ellice saw Kalista bite her lip to stop herself from adding the word “barely.”
“All thanks to Ellice!” Meda cried out, her usual cheeriness springing back into her voice. In a flash two scaly blue arms were suddenly around her waifish waist accompanied by two amber eyes smiling up at her pointed face. “The moon! So much better of an answer than my stupid cup idea!”
“Actually explaining your thought process helped me a fair bit,” Ellice responded, resting a soft hand on the back of the bard’s head, “I just wish you’d have done it before pushing things.”
“Next time I’ll be more patient, I swear!” Meda promised her. Behind the kobold Kalista rolled her eyes. Ellice smirked back at her as a whoosh of metal scraping on stone came from the end of the hall. She flicked her eyes towards the source just in time to see the points of the portcullis disappear into the stone lintel.
The way forward had opened.
The rooms and hallways past the crush trap were much easier to pass through. In the workshop an imp still sat beside a group of levers. It challenged them to a battle of wits from its vantage. Lazily it flicked the first lever down, triggering a burst of lightning to surge a few feet in front of the group. It’s show of force complete, it deactivated the electric hazard and began to ask a riddle. Meda didn’t even let the little devil finish before choosing to play a soothing melody on her lute. She had barely finished the first verse before it curled onto the ground and fell into a deep sleep. Quietly they passed it by.
In the hallway leading to the study Relinth detected the presence of animation magics in the two suits of armor flanking the door. It crumbled the first with a Prismatic Shatter spell before the foe had a chance to launch an ambush. The violets and indigos of Relinth’s armor lessened as Kalista’s reds and oranges came to the fore, the more martial personality spinning to parry the other animated protector. From there the three of them worked in concert: Ellice throwing it off balance with the ensnaring lash of her rose-tipped whip, Meda singing an incantation that caused the animating force to glow a vibrant green, and Kalista knocking it the rest of the way to the ground with a mighty bash from her shield before plunging her sword into the now-glowing heart of the thing. The armor jerked one last time before falling to pieces. All in all it was a much less harrowing affair than the slowly closing walls of the mural room.
“I think this is it,” Kalista called back as she entered the study, shield arm lowering slowly. Torches flared to life in the circular room as she crossed the threshold, their magics still functional after four hundred years. Meda shuffled in next, followed by Ellice. Books and tomes lined the stone shelves all around them, broken occasionally by statuettes and bottles of murky liquid.
Meda wandered towards the desk in the rear-center of the room, her claws drumming excitedly against her leather chaps. Miraculously she managed to keep them at her side, even as her brain was screaming at her to start rifling through the drawers. Ellice was soon at her shoulder, the long arms of the half-elf druid brushing past the kobold’s snout as she traced patterns in the air. A murmur of magic later and a silver light tumbled down towards the bottommost drawer on the left, highlighting the crevices of the drawer in a dim, white light.
“All but that one should be safe,” she assured the bard. Meda wasted no time in ripping another drawer open and rooting through its contents. Ellice turned towards their other companion, the final few fiery orange and red splotches on their armor melting before the encroaching shades of blues and violets. “Relinth, care to help me dispel whatever ward was placed on this drawer?”
It turned towards her, those same grey eyes so much more reserved when Relinth was in control. It moved in long, uneven paces across the room, golden hair tumbling from side to side as it examined every detail of the chamber around it. It reached the desk as Meda began unloading a clutter of items from a second drawer onto the desk’s top. Relinth knelt down silently and closed its eyes. A moment later it opened them again, a cascade of colors shining onto the closed and warded drawer. Rainbow light seeped into the crevices, magically scanning the object and transmitting information back to Relinth. It closed its eyes again and the colored lights stopped.
“Fireball,” it stated in its normal near-monotone as it returned to its feet, “Triggered on opening. Suitable countermeasures: a major dispel or the proper key.”
“And I don’t suppose you’ve learned how to perform a major dispel in the last week.” Ellice smiled weakly as she asked the question, already knowing the answer before the blonde head shook side-to-side.
“I guess that means we’re looking for the key. Meda, have you found anything?”
The top of the desk was now covered with stacks of scrolls, quills, ink pots, and alchemical components. The amber-eyed bard inclined her head to meet Ellice’s gaze.
“Plenty of junk,” she reported, a clawed hand depositing a leather pouch of bonemeal on the tabletop, “None of the scrolls so far are what we’re looking for, although I’m sure the Circle would be glad to have them. We can sell any of the components that haven’t rotted away…”
“But no tome and no key?”
“Nope.” The kobold slammed a drawer shut and yanked open another, “Not yet at least.”
Ellice chewed the inside of her cheek. She addressed her next question back to Relinth.
“And it’s not on any of the shelves?”
“No. I can look again…” Its voice trailed off as the grey eyes scanned the shelves lining the room once more. Within mere seconds the twin-souled knight shook its head again, having read every title blindingly fast. “No. Unless mistitled, no tome visible bears the moniker ‘Thorny Words and Raging Briars.’”
“Hmmm…” Ellice hummed as she began pacing in front of the shelves. With a long, pale finger she coaxed one of the books from its resting place, a smattering of dust falling loose as she did. She checked its spine and then its title page, confirmed that both matched, and then replaced the book with a sigh. If the one they were after was purposefully mistitled, it would take them hours to look through every single book in here. And that was assuming that it was hidden amongst the shelves, it was just as likely it was in the locked drawer or that their information had been entirely wrong and it wasn’t here at all.
She turned her attention from the neatly slotted books to the figurines and knick-knacks that shared their shelves. She picked up a dragon statuette and turned it over in her hands, brow furrowed, to check for hidden compartments in the bottom or the body. With a nasty crunch a section of the figure’s wing cracked and crumbled beneath her pressured prodding. There was no sign of a hidden key or secret compartment. Gingerly she placed the broken dragon back on the shelf and inspected a small tin box at the other end of the shelf.
The seven other trinkets on that set of shelves proved equally as fruitless. With an exasperated exhalation she shuffled a few feet over to the next set of shelves and stopped just as her arm reached for a triangular prism made of a dark, smooth stone. She reversed direction, taking one large step back to her left. She examined the thin pillar of stone between the shelves and, more importantly, the symbol etched into it. A grooved circle with a single engraved dot in the center sat perfectly centered on the column. The alchemical symbol for gold and the sun.
Turning about, she registered the symbols on the other columns in her mind. The symbol for air, water, and fire flanked the shelves near Meda; the kobold currently shoving handfuls of old scrolls into a bag. The symbol for earth was next around the room and then the symbol for iron, partially obstructed by the broad figure of Relinth as it studied an interlocked series of rings it had found on the opposite side of the room.
The sight of the next sigil made Ellice run a hand through her silver hair, pulling it behind her pointed ear. She crossed the room feeling almost compelled to do so, her mind racing excitedly. Hope fluttered in her heart as she neared it, a finger hovering over the grooved crescent shape. It was the symbol for silver, the symbol of the moon.
With her index and middle fingers she lightly pushed the crescent, frowning when nothing occurred. She applied more pressure to the wall and her face lit up as the section slid inward.
Inward and downward.
The crescent piece seemed to actually be part of a circular dial, movable now that it had been pushed inwards. Finger over finger she turned it, the stone grinding slightly as the interior wheel spun around. It wasn’t long before an empty space that had been cut through the circular slab appeared, prompting Ellice to grab it’s edge with her fingers and pull it the rest of the way down. When she’d finished, there was a hole in the pillar that perfectly matched the shape of the crescent.
She felt around inside the secret space, fingers clumsily coaxing something out of the concealed darkness. A short sleave of slippery, silken fabric slid out from the stone hidey hole. Ellice rolled it around in her hand, watching the silvery shimmers glint and gleam at the tips of the fingers of what she now recognized to be a wrist-length glove.
And gloves, of course, usually come in pairs.
She reached into the hidden chamber again and found the glove’s counterpart. A scraping jingle accompanied its retrieval, the clatter of something small and delicate tumbling against the stone. One last time she ran her soft fingers over the smoothed stone and swept out a tiny silver key.
“Relinth, I think found our key,” Ellice said triumphantly as she spun around to find the hulking warrior already staring at her just afoot away.
“I see,” it replied simply, grey eyes looking curiously at the gloves in her other hand, “And something else.”
“Oh yes…” Ellice held the gloves up between them, almost mesmerized by the wisps and sparkles of silver twisting slowly and magically against the near-black purple fabric. They were so light in her hands, as if they might float away at any moment. And the silk they were made from was softer than even her most lavishly decadent undergarments. She was sure they would feel even better slipped on over her hands, and her gloved hands slipping over her body.
A gauntleted hand scooped the sensuous clothing out of her hands, snapping her back to reality. Grey irises shot cones of prismatic light at the gloves as Ellice cleared her head of lustful thoughts. She could be horny on her own time; once they found the powerful tome of magic and turned it over to the Circle then she could enjoy the gentle, tactile swoosh of silk over her skin. Perhaps she could even share it with one of her companions. It wouldn’t be the first time.
No no, stop it. She had to focus on the task at hand.
“Magical. Very magical,” Relinth stated, its analysis of the item complete, “Likely holds druidic magics. Likely requires attunement. Does not appear cursed.”
It dumped the dark purple gloves back into the druid’s hands. Ellice bit her lip as she redoubled her focus and quashed her need to massage the fabric together between her fingertips. She offered the key to Relinth with her other hand. The golden-haired knight pinched it between it’s gauntleted fingers and clanged back towards the desk. Ellice felt a shiver of pleasurable sensation and realized she’d absentmindedly started to slowly rub the night-dark fabric against her index finger with her thumb. She stopped immediately even as her body craved more.
“If they aren’t cursed, then they’re safe to wear?” Her question carried far more eagerness in it that she’d expected.
Relinth shrugged its shoulders before sinking onto one knee in front of the desk. “Likely.”
“And it would be faster and easier to determine their capabilities if I tried them on…” The sentence had started out as a question but ended as self-justification.
“Correct. Full identification of capabilities via analysis and identification magic would likely take weeks.”
Ellice had already started sliding her left hand into one of the gloves after Relinth uttered the word “correct”. She shivered as the smooth silk tenderly enwrapped her fingers, as it slid and settled over her palm. Every nerve in her hand tingled pleasantly as she excitedly tugged the other one on. She was hit by a sudden headrush of ecstasy, her cheeks flushing and a bubbly smile arching across her mouth. She slid two fingers along her cheek, relishing the feeling as the magical onset of giddiness began to fade away.
“Drawer open,” Relinth reported from across the room. Meda was peeking over its armored arm at the contents within the final drawer. Ellice blissfully glided across the room to share in the moment.
<Hello> A soft, sweet voice whispered in her ears.
Ellice whipped her head around, looking for the origin of the voice. Silver hair fluttered across her eyes.
“Did one of you…” she began asking but realized she already knew the answer. The voice hadn’t been one of her companions; it was too high to belong to Kalista or Relinth and too smooth to belong to Meda. And then she realized something that confounded her further: the voice had spoken to her in Old Elvish. Almost no one outside the druid circles knew the language, and most certainly not her fellow companions.
“Did one of us what?” Meda chirped back as Relinth hauled a hefty tome onto the top of the desk. Green leaves and still-living vines fluttered and crawled across its cover.
“Did one of you… did any of you hear someone say ‘Hello’ in Old Elven?”
Relinth turned its head to raise a puzzled eyebrow. Meda shook her head and seemed about to say something before shooting her hand back into the drawer.
<Hello. I am Isaphine.>
Ellice stroked her ear with a gloved hand as she studied her companions’ lack of reaction to the sound. That’s when it occurred to her that the sounds she was hearing were a trick of the mind; the cart being placed before the horse, the cause confused for the effect, the stimulus mistaken for the response. The voice was communicating directly with her brain. The gloves were not only magical, they were sentient.
“Isaphine,” Ellice mumbled, hoping not to draw the attention of the others. Fortunately Relinth was engrossed in skimming through the tome on the table and Meda was inspecting a crooked piece of wood she’d snatched out of the drawer. The name was unfamiliar to her.
<Yes. Who are you? You are not Kethryllia.> Although the words were clipped, the tone was more inquisitive than angry or accusatory.
Kethryllia. That name was far more familiar to the half-elf. It was the name of the long-dead druid whose study they were currently in. As odd as the interaction had been so far, being able to commune with a being that was alive at the same time as Kethryllia was an exciting prospect for Ellice. There was much about the previous head of their order that was lost to history.
“I’m–” she began, before Isaphine cut her off.
<You only need to think at me to respond.>
Ellice was worried for a moment that the sentient gloves may have been reading her mind the whole time, but as she began to form her thought-speech to Isaphine she was able to feel a distinct difference in the thoughts she meant to transmit. It was hard to put into words but somehow she knew the connection between herself and the item wasn’t total. She could feel the channel linking them and in feeling it intuitively understood how to send things across it and how to hold things back.
<I am Ellice Ravenquill, Young Elm of the Tacigrove Circle.> she responded, each word easier and easier to speak through the mental channel, <Kethryllia has been dead for four hundred years and her private laboratories only recently rediscovered. Did you know her well?>
<Yes Ellice, I did. I want to tell more, but my magic is weak.>
Ellice could hear her thoughts trail off into whispers at the end.
<Is there any way I could help?>
<Continue attuning.> The soft voice wavered on the edge of hoarseness. <I can draw from unused magics.>
From what Ellice had learned of magic item attunement that seemed plausible. Some items of great magic were crafted with internal sources of power and only required a day or two of attunement to adjust to their user’s magical frequency. Others, like Isaphine, drew on the excess magical power of their user, storing it and often compounding it as time went by. The less magic she used per day, the faster Isaphine could recharge.
<Very well. I hope you’re feeling better soon.> Ellice assured her. A gentle warmth flowed back over the mental connection as a pleasant tingle tickled the nerves in her hands. She was sure she’d enjoy attuning to Isaphine as much as Isaphine enjoyed attuning to her.
“Antithetical to life. Highly dangerous.” Relinth’s voice managed to recapture her attention. “I will stow it with the tome and hand it over to the Archdruid.”
It was holding the crooked stick Meda had found, being very careful to point the end of it away from everyone else in the room. Meda sighed as she buttoned up her scroll satchel.
“Oh well. I guess I don’t get a cool new wand.” She fixed her amber eyes on Ellice. They lit up as she scrambled forward. “Oooo! Nice gloves!”
“Careful, they’re a sentient item.” The kobold’s sudden movement slowed slightly. She curled her claws away from Isaphine and gently rubbed the back of her scaly hand against the glove. Ellice shuddered at the feeling as endorphins flooded her brain.
“Interesting,” Relinth stated plainly, slinging its large pack onto its shoulders, “It’s name?”
“Isaphine,” Ellice said through a trembling jaw. Her eyes unfocused for a moment as another high of pleasure invaded her brain. She pulled her arm away from Meda’s touch in order to recover. As her vision refocused, she noticed the furrow in Relinth’s brow.
“Does the name mean something to you?”
“It is familiar, but I do not remember why.” It looked at her gloves one last time before shaking its head and walking towards the doorway. “We have the tome, let us leave.”
The afternoon sun shone gaily through the trees as the three companions emerged from the cave that hid the entrance to Kethryllia laboratory. Birds chirped in the distance, singing simple songs of repetitious warbles. Ellice stepped from the rocky ground of the cave back onto the loose dirt of the forest floor. A shadow swooped past as a white-and-gold hawk perched itself on a branch high above the emerging adventurers. Something about its patterning made Ellice uneasy.
The group had barely gotten another fifty feet before a taunting voice cut through the pleasant spring afternoon:
“Took you long enough.”
Out of the corner of her eye Ellice could see Kalista snarl as she raised her shield arm. Meda let out a sigh as she scanned the treeline and extended a black claw towards the speaker. Ellice already knew who she would find when she looked.
Half-melded into the shadow of a tree stood a familiar figure lazily cutting hunks out of an apple with her dagger. Her curly hair threatened to overrun her sharp face if not for the dark green headband holding it back. Brown eyes twinkled viciously as she sauntered forward, her uneven smile putting Ellice on edge. Her long coat shifted its dark coloration as she moved towards them, always dimly matching its surroundings and making her just a little harder to see. Ellice knew that under the Cloak of Dimness was a wide array of knives and tools… and a lithe tan body in tight-fitting leather armor.
If she was being honest with herself, Ellice found her chief rival quite fetching when she wasn’t trying to sabotage her group. And “fetching” was just the word she used in polite company to describe her; she had much naughtier ones for the leather-clad rogue on her lonely and lustful nights when her hand was working double time between her legs.
“Veera,” Ellice called to her, keeping all agitation and anger from her voice, “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“Same as my favorite Flowering Blooms, I suppose.” The dagger in her hands cut through the apple with a wet thwuk. She ate the chunk with a menacing grin as she inched towards them.
“It’s the Blooming Petals,” Meda grumbled, “But you know that, you’re just being mean.”
“It’s just such a stupid name.” Another wet crunch of steel through apple flesh, another lazy step forwards. “Sounds like you should be in town watering a garden instead of delving into ruins.”
“Stupid?” Kalista snorted, fixing Veera with a look of condescension, “And calling your group the Kickass Crew, that isn’t stupid? ”
“People at least know we’re not florists,” Veera shot back as she came to stop twenty feet away. The half-eaten apple rolled from her hand as she held it out, palm up, expectantly. “Now hand over the tome or we will Kick. Your. Asses.”
“I only see one of you against three of us,” Kalista sneered as she reached for her sword.
Ellice groaned to herself as she remembered the hawk she’d seen right as they’d exited the cave. The white-and-gold patterning had sparked unease in her for a reason that was only now becoming clear. She just hoped Kalista wouldn’t be hurt too badly.
Veera pursed her lips as if to blow a kiss and let loose a shrill whistle. A split-second later Kalista’s sword went flying from her hand with a resounding clang as an arrow smashed into it.
Ellice briefly and hopelessly scanned the treetops looking for a pretty pale face with sharp blue eyes. Somewhere amongst the upper branches Lee the Fair was sitting with another arrow nocked and ready. She craned her neck around to see the hawk watching them intently, its magical link to Lee undoubtably providing him with full sight of the area.
And if Lee was here…
“Nix!” Ellice shouted loudly, “Are you really okay with this? Since when does Belthor condone robbery?”
“Technically speaking you only have Currier’s Custody of the tome.” Ellice spun around to face the alto voice. Standing above the craggy exit of the cave was a bored-looking half-orc leaning on her warhammer. The warrior-cleric tapped her symbol of Belthor, the steel tower of rigid lawfulness ringing against her armor. “As we are both delivering the item to the same party in the interest of the common good, it is reasonable for the more talented group to relieve you of custody to ensure the safety and speediness of the delivery.”
Ellice couldn’t believe what she was hearing. More talented?! Veera and her cronies were better than the Blooming Petals in direct combat, that was true, but in artifact hunting and non-violent aid Ellice and her companions were top notch. Of course, the disparity in their skill sets was exactly why Veera was now trying to rob them.
“Unless of course you weren’t planning on delivering it to the Tacigrove Circle,” Nix mused, rocking the enormous warhammer under her grey-skinned hand, “Then you’d technically be able to claim custody, but also be breaching your adventuring contract.” Her grin revealed a pair of miniature tusks. “In which case, I’d argue, we’d be more justified in taking the tome from you. By force if necessary.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Veera purred, her hand slipping under her coat and returning with a scrap of parchment. “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement, considering the situation you’re in.”
Ellice returned her gaze to her roguish rival, frowning in expectation of whatever asinine extortion she was about to propose.
“Ten percent of the reward back to your group.”
“That’s literally nothing.” Ellice narrowed her eyes, unsure what trick Veera was trying to pull. “We took this job as a favor to the archdruid.”
“And we took it for a thousand gold pieces.”
The druid’s green eyes widened in surprise. A thousand gold coins was a lot of money. And the hundred Veera was offering her was nothing to scoff at either. Still…
“That tome is needed to help fight off Grunstead’s armies.” Her objections carried more than a little self-righteousness. “How can you bilk money out of the Circle when they’re fighting for our freedom?”
“Our realm is plenty wealthy,” Veera explained casually, “And as I told the archdruid, coin paid to us is going to go towards equipment and services that will enable us to continue aiding them in the struggle against our nasty neighbor to the west.”
“Which you no doubt will charge them for as well.” Ellice added dryly.
“Of course!” Veera clapped her hands together and chuckled. “Money makes the world go ‘round! So how about it?”
“No.” She chewed on the inside of her lip as her mind began to plan their way out of this mess. They’d have to outrun Nix as the bulky cleric wielded even more brute strength than Kalista. Fortunately what the half-orc had in raw power she lacked in speed. As long as they got a head start she shouldn’t be a problem.
“How about fifteen percent?” Veera’s hands ducked back into her coat for a quill pen, magically dripping with ink already. Her brown eyes twinkled merrily above a knowing grin.
Ellice shook her head. As for Lee… Lee was an excellent marksman but not a quick climber. If she cast a dazzling light spell back at his hawk, it should blind him over their shared connection long enough that they’d be out of his range. So far, so good. But intuitively she sensed a wrinkle in the plan. She was forgetting something.
“Ahhh Ellice, you drive a hard bargain!” Veera scratched a number on her scrap of parchment, “Twenty percent.”
Veera could pose a problem if they decided to run. Under the heavy coat was a lithe, taut body well trained in dodging from shadow to shadow and dashing to close distance between herself and her quarries. A lithe, taut, sexy body in tight leather more than capable of chasing her down and tackling her to the ground. A lithe, taut, sexy body in tight– Damnit!
She felt her cheeks redden as the realization that she was fantasizing about Veera registered with her brain. The curly-haired rogue raised an eyebrow and smirked at her.
“Twenty percent and we can get drinks sometime, my treat.”
Ellice reddened more as Veera scratched a few more words onto her slip of parchment. She opened her coat once more to tuck the pen into one of its myriad pockets and then, glancing playfully at Ellice, let the coat slide down her shoulder a short way. Just as she thought, the rogue was wearing ridiculously skintight leather armor that showed off her perky breasts and tight ass.
Angrily aroused, Ellice revised her plan: Meda could cast a starry eyes hex at the stupid bird and she’d show Veera who was boss with an entangling vines spell. They’d burst out of the ground and coil around her legs, restricting her movement. And then maybe they’d pull her down to her knees and bind around her arms as well. And she could watch and gloat as the rogue struggled to get free, powerless and at her mercy. That lithe body twisting and turning against the plant shackles, the tight leather accentuating– aggghh!
She really needed to get back to town and indulge her more… base desires.
“You! You do! Do you?!” She sputtered, flustered by the heat in her cheeks and between her legs. She paused and inhaled a calming breath. She noticed now that she had been caressing the fabric of the glove between her left thumb and palm as she’d fantasized about dominating her sultry rival. Stopping the motion of smooth silk on smooth silk, she started her sentence again.
“Do you really think that’s going to get us to just turn the tome over to you?”
Veera shook her head side-to-side as she tossed the scrap of parchment to the ground. Ellice felt the pit of her stomach drop. Something was wrong. There was a wrinkle in her plan. She had forgotten something; forgotten someone.
“No. Just stalling for time.”
Ellice spun to the side to look at her unusually quiet companions. Meda was curled on the ground, tail wrapping almost to her snout, inappropriately sleeping. The cause of the sudden slumber was currently locked in eye contact with Kalista, whispering words almost entirely inaudible from where Ellice was standing. The tiefling’s violet eyes were wide and glowing, her red-skinned arm coaxing the leaf-bound tome from the entranced warrior’s hands. Her jet-black horns curved back gracefully over her dark green hair. Shifting a step closer Ellice could see Kalista’s grey irises shrunken to pinpricks, her jaw slack except to mumble the word “yes” to her ex-girlfriend.
It had already been a month. How the void had Ellice forgotten Guile had joined Veera’s crew?
“I know dear,” she heard Guile’s seductively soft voice coo as she took another step closer, “they always make you carry all the heavy things. It would be nice to let someone else carry them for a while, wouldn’t it?”
“Yesssss,” Kalista sighed, shoulders slumping. The gauntleted hand began to loosen on the tome.
“Guile stop!” Ellice demanded. She heard a whistle from her side and an arrow pierced the ground right in front of her. Guile grinned devilishly as she yanked the book free, snapping her smug, victorious gaze towards Ellice. Her gloating didn’t last long as the ensorcelment over Kalista broke when the eye contact did. The knight grabbed at the book and clamped her iron grip on its back cover. The two ex-lovers tugged in opposite directions and the book splayed open.
“Ellice, why must you make things so difficult?” Veera chided as she dashed towards the fray. Nimble fingers were already procuring a wicked-looking knife from within her coat.
Ellice took a stutter step backward, thinking through spells in her head, just as a loud thud hit the ground behind her. She spun around to see Nix recovering from the short jump down,
<Assist> The word from Isaphine caused her to jump in surprise. A hurried relief passed over her a moment later, she could certainly use whatever assistance the gloves had planned.
<Yes. Please> She thought back. The cleric began advancing towards her, warhammer at the ready.
<Point glove and push> The words were still clipped, but at least the first part was clear enough. Ellice raised her gloved right hand and pointed it at Nix.
“Alright Ellice, just take it easy and no one has to get hurt.” Nix assured her as she trudged towards the druid.
Ellice made tiny pushing motions with her hand hoping for something to happen. Nothing did. It would have been funny if Nix wasn’t fifteen feet away and closing.
<How do I– > she thought at Isaphine, stopping herself suddenly. Beside the mental channel she used to communicate with the sentient item, she felt another strand of magical connection. She could flex it in a way, drawing it taut and pushing it out; the gloves responded to each shift with swirls of silver moving along their length. Without quite knowing what she was doing she pushed hard on that mental connection, forcing everything she could muster through it.
Silvery tendrils of moonlight flew out of her fingers and twisted together into a single beam a half-foot thick. Surprise and panic gleamed in the half-orc’s black eyes as it crushed into their armor, flinging them backwards into a tree. Winded and bruised, Nix slumped to the ground.
Ellice looked down at the twilight purple gloves on her hands, astounded. She turned about, disbelief still etched on her face, to find Kalista and Guile taking a surprised hiatus from their tug-of-war over the book to gawk back at her. Between them Veera’s mouth wordlessly moved in astonishment, taking four full seconds to find something to say.
“Well then…” Her impressed tone made Ellice tingle a little inside. Her next actions however, did not.
Gleaming steel flashed through the air amid the sickening sound of tearing pages and rustling leaves. Veera slammed her elbow sideways knocking Kalista off balance as the book tore in two. She darted towards a still-stunned Guile and shook her back to her senses, the tiefling’s full lips losing no time in muttering an incantation. Ellice watched helplessly as her two adversaries were swallowed by an ink-black, smoky cloud, vanishing with half of the tome she’d worked so hard to find.
As Kalista struggled to her feet Ellice turned back towards Nix. As much as she loathed the idea they might be able to take the cleric prisoner and barter her back for the pilfered tome. What would that even mean though? None of her companions would be willing to harm Nix or actually keep her imprisoned somewhere if Veera didn’t agree to their terms. No. They weren’t that monstrous or cruel. She’d have to let Nix go.
Nix was apparently of the same mind. Ellice laid eyes on the half-orc just in time to watch her wipe a bloody thumb over her holy symbol. Their gazes met; the green irises staring questioningly into the black facade of calm. Rocks kicked up in a whirlwind, the cylinder of air becoming opaque with dirt and stone. They whirled upwards over the half-orc, splaying outwards at the top into dusty crenelations. Then for a short moment the swirling mass froze in place, solidified into a rough tower, a larger replication of the holy symbol Nix had been wearing around her neck. With a crack and a whoosh the whole structure crumbled from bottom to top back into dust. Nix was nowhere to be seen.
Ellice shrugged to herself as she bent down to the ground to examine Meda’s sleeping form; Nix’s rapid departure was unexpected but far less awkward than the exchange between them would have been. She placed a gloved hand on the slumbering kobold’s shoulder, meaning to shake her awake. However when she felt the smooth bumpiness of her patterned scales through the whisper-soft, indigo fabric, she gave in to the compulsion to stroke gently along the bard’s arm. Each tiny bump sent shivers singing up her spine as the glove brushed over them. Her vision narrowed as blips of euphoria blurred the world around her.
It felt fucking wonderful.
Beneath her touch Meda whimpered in her sleep, a mish-mash of gurgles and short, high-pitched sighs. Ellice bit her lip as her heart fluttered and her breath quickened. Memories of nights spent with the scaly bard mingled with an intense desire to reenact their past moments of intimate love and lust right here and now. Heat rushed to her cheeks and her thigh muscles tensed pleasurably. Her other hand stroked lightly over the smooth-scaled arch of the kobold’s head, Meda’s whines increasing in pitch and frequency as the lingering pet on the head continued. Ellice’s lips parted into a perfect circle as pleasure and desire urged her to throw away her inhibitions and continue the soft, silken teasing of her slumbering companion.
After all it was a druid’s job to partake in the fullness and richness of life, and the sharing of joy and pleasure through intimate and sexual acts were no exception. In fact, they were one of her favorite parts of being a druid.
“Trouble waking her?”
Startled by Relinth’s voice, Ellice pulled her hands away from the sleeping kobold, her mind still spinning. She flexed her fingers slowly, the stretch and rub of the gloves producing just enough sensation to wean her away from the addictive pleasure spiral and back into reality. As her breathing settled the oddness of Relinth being front this soon after a battle hit her. Its three word question played through her mind again, the twinge of worry in the normally reserved voice now all too clear.
“Meda, it’s time to wake up,” Ellice said sternly, jostling the sleeping bard by her shoulders. She was ready for the tingling sensations through the gloves this time and kept her eager libido in check. Blue scales fluttered and unveiled amber eyes, the irises expanding and contracting as Meda adjusted her vision. Her shoulders rolled and her arms stretched as her mouth flexed its muscles into a small yawn.
“Wha… what…” She shook her snout back and forth as she hopped to her feet, grogginess disappearing instantly. Anger flared in her nostrils, burned through her eyes.
“Guile! I saw her creeping up on us and then she blew something from her hand and… and…” She looked down at the ground then over to Relinth. “I guess I fell asleep. Is everyone okay?”
“Well they managed to get away with half of the tome, but I don’t think anyone was hurt…” Ellice glanced over at the kaleidoscopic knight, searching intently across the shimmering armor. Blues and greens dominated the metal suit, Kalista’s brighter raiment nearly absent from the swirls of color. Only a tiny cluster of sunbright splotches huddled near the knight’s heart. Ellice opened her mouth to speak, but Meda beat her to the question.
“Is Kalista okay?”
“She will be.” The knight’s words were certain and straightforward. Ellice relaxed slightly and saw Meda mirror her relief. She hopped to her feet and looked at the forest around them.
“Do you think they’ll try ambushing us?”
“Unlikely in the case of Nix,” Relinth rumbled, “My assessment is that the spell she used to escape will deposit her at the nearest temple of Belthor, in Whitemeadow.”
“Five days away.” Ellice muttered to herself. One down.
“Lee may be pretty, but he’s fickle,” Meda chimed in, briefly looking back at where the hawk had been perched. It was long gone. “He’s probably halfway back to Brookeridge by now.”
“Yep. Veera and Guile though, they may try to stir up trouble for us on the way back to town.”
“Probability: low,” Relinth shrugged, “Neither are likely to engage in direct confrontation with fewer numbers. Proposal: Re-evaluate danger when we make camp.”
Ellice nodded, they could make Brookeridge by mid-afternoon tomorrow if they started back now. The other two looked at her to make the official proclamation.
“Alright, let’s head back and turn in what we can. Move quickly, but keep an eye out for our troublemaking friends.”
Hastily they made their way back towards town, their wary gazes constantly searching for a patch of shade just a little too dim.
“Half the tome and the wand,” Meda sighed as she began helping Relinth load its belongings back into its pack. The scholarly knight was of little help as it poked through the pages of the ivy-bound tome. “I can’t believe Guile managed to steal both.”
“Revised theory: Veera stole the wand while Kalista and Guile fought for the tome,” Relinth mused, more concerned at the moment in its correctness than about the missing items, “And we have forty-six of the one-hundred-and-eight pages of the book which is approximately forty-three percent of the book; short of a full half.”
Meda stopped stuffing things back in Relinth’s pack to shoot it a look of incredulity that dissolved rapidly into minor snorts of laughter. As she dumped a few more trinkets back into the knight’s pack, she shouted across the campfire:
“You hear that Ellice? We don’t even have half the tome! Waste of an expedition!”
Sitting on a stump by the fire, Ellice was staring at her new gloves. The short skirmish earlier had clearly worn them down, the silver threads that magically swam across their surface were far fewer in number than before. On top of that, Isaphine hadn’t made contact with her since helping her to stave off Nix. Worry was creeping through her thoughts when she heard Meda’s voice, and welcomed the kobold’s self-deprecation as a distraction.
“We’ve fared worse before.” Her voice flowed smoothly over the crackle of the fire. Her hair shimmered orange in its warm light. “Besides we still have Isaphine and Veera can’t collect on half – a little over half of a book. And you squirrled away enough other junk from Kethryllia’s study that I’m sure you’ll make a tidy sum back in Brookridge.”
“Imagine her face!” Meda jeered as she pulled the strings on Relinth’s bag tight, “Imagine when they say she won’t get her reward!”
The laughter stalled out as the blue bard realized something.
“What if she tries to steal the other half back while we sleep?”
Relinth turned its head and shoulders towards her, the verdant tome perched atop its flattened hand. It then looked towards Ellice, stern consideration plastered on its face.
“Probability: likely.” Its grey eyes darted around until finally locking in on the fire between them. “Countermeasure: determined.”
Its hand stretched towards the fire as it chanted. The orange glow flickered and stuttered before leaping towards the outstretched hand. Threads of light sliced through the dark air, weaving and wreathing their way towards the mageknight. More colors split out from the reds and oranges, the impossible airborne flames mutating into greens then blues then violets. A rainbow swirled in the air, a vortex of pulsating color centered around a growing white light. The bright center expanded and expanded until it was a foot in diameter, the hues around it collapsing into a dimension Ellice couldn’t quite make sense of. Gently Relinth slid the book into the hole, its material form nearly obliterated from vision in pure, white light.
With a flick of its hand the whole thing collapsed into a quivering ball of writhing colors suspended impossibly in the air.
“How long have you been able to do that?” Ellice asked, interested and slightly annoyed that Relinth had never told her of this capability before.
“Two weeks, four days.” She swore she saw the slightest tug of a smile on its face.
“And it will be safe there?”
“Assuredly.” Relinth paused and then amended its statement. “Unless Veera can locate and hire a Luma-paired. Probability: very low.”
Ellice nodded in relief at the assessment. The magical process that tethered a human soul to a solar spirit was only performed on a handful of recruits every seven years. The particulars of the ritual were not shared outside of the upper echelons of the Prismatic Knighthood and even the broader details were difficult to elicit from their members. Ellice had never managed to get Relinth to speak of it and Kalista had only talked about it once after a night of copious drinking. Whiskey on her breath she had confirmed to Ellice what many suspected, an open secret whispered about the powerful knights but never directly addressed out of a mixture of fear, horror, and politeness.
The ritual that joined a human to a Sunnevolk was not one of welding the two beings together, it was a complete reformation of both beings involved. It was as if a weaver asked to combine two tapestries did so not by stitching them together as-is, but by ripping every thread out of both and recreating a combined image from the threads. While the constituent parts were the same, the product was always wildly different than the two who chose to be intertwined. There was a reason each knight was never sent back to where they had once had family and friends, because that person was no more. Kalista and Relinth had not existed before the Spectral Joining; a human and a Sunnevolk had entered into a pact of annihilation to birth them.
She caught herself staring at Relinth, the grey eyes boring back into her emerald ones. Did it know, did it suspect, the questions that came to her, unbidden but insistent, about its existence? Questions about who the two joined had been and why they had chosen oblivion. Was it spurred by duty or desire? Did each participant awake on that momentous day dreading the cessation of self as they knew it, did it dangle before them as a relief from some sorrow or suffering, or perhaps did they think enough of themselves would carry forward into their new form to be a continuance of consciousness? So much about it intrigued her and yet she knew those answers were largely lost to time and magic. Moreso she understood her approach was the wrong one; that while the two beings who no longer were had been necessary antecedents for the existence of her friend, they were not necessary to love or understand them.
To appreciate the beauty of a butterfly’s wings one does not need to dissect the caterpillar. To marvel at or understand the scene on a picture window one would be foolish to scour the sandy shore.
Relinth cocked its head at her and she realized she was still staring. She flashed a smile and the knight swiveled to face Meda, the little bard plucking at her lute.
“Have you progressed in your song?” It’s voice carried an unusual eagerness. Few things truly excited Relinth; Meda’s music was one of those things. Her eyes lit up at the question.
“I’ve only got the second verse fully translated.” Meda replied, digging through her pack for a scroll, “Pontarian is a messy language and getting the whole opera into Common without breaking the flow of the lyrics is a pain. But I’m getting there.”
“Which opera is this?” Ellice asked, interested.
“Vol Karnan Reteressi.” The bard teased a thick scroll out of her bag and unrolled it, “Literally ‘The Hunter Possessed of Naivety that is Exploited’ but I’m calling my version ‘The Bitter Arrow’.”
“What’s it about?” She almost wished she hadn’t asked. As interesting as Pontarian plays were, they were often quite grim.
“A young hunter, Kyra, wishes to wed the most beautiful maiden in her town.” Meda started off slowly as she checked her notes, but as her explanation went on the delivery became more and more natural. “However her love’s father, the mayor, says his daughter will only be married to the hunter who can fell the great Thorny Stag tramping through the nearby woods. Our young heroine tries and fails twice to kill the beast, foiled by its thick hide that still carries a hundred arrows harmlessly stopped. Late at night she stumbles into the ancient, hidden, briar-covered altar of the Mother of Wolves, a two-tailed trickster who manifests under the new moon’s darkness. Initially she closes in on the hunter, offering her a swift death in exchange for the answer to a riddle. When she mentions that she’s trying to kill the Thorny Stag, the wolf backs off and offers to aid her.”
“The stag, it turns out, can only be killed by hitting an exact spot on the back of its neck marked by a patch of pure white fur. Together they gather twelve crooked twigs fallen from hazels in a nearby grove and the wolf enchants them into magic arrows in her den just before the morning light. Eleven of the arrows will hit whatever the hunter wishes them to, but one of the arrows will only do the bidding of the Mother of Wolves. The next day the huntress tests her new arrows first on a tree, then on a finch, then on a ravaging bear. Satisfied, she prepares to track and kill the stag the next day. She meets with her love that night and assures her that by the next sunset they’ll be able to be together. Her love grants her a white rose from her garden as a token of luck.”
“The next morning while tracking the stag a starving wolf stalks her in the underbrush. She dispatches it with one of her magic arrows and a howl rings through the woods. Soon after she finds her quarry and fells it with a single shot that swerves to pierce the white swirls on the back of its neck. She returns to town with her kill and the wedding date is set. Her love asks how she managed to finally fell the creature a hundred others had failed to and the huntress lies, claiming it was the luck of the white rose she had been gifted.”
“At the wedding the mayor halts the ceremony at the last minute. Another has come forward claiming to have been the one to actually fell the stag, a huntress named Maria Lupo with arrows matching the fletching and style of Kyra’s. To settle the claim she proposes a contest of skill: the first to shoot down a dove released over the ceremony will be declared the true killer of the stag. Kyra, of course, uses a magic arrow which pierces through the dove and then turns about in the sky to fly back towards her waiting bride. It punches through the white rose Kyra had pinned over her heart and she dies. The mayor runs her out of town and, stumbling through the woods, she once again meets Maria Lupo. To no one’s surprise but her own, the rival huntress is really the Mother of Wolves in disguise. She transforms the broken huntress into one of her pack and together they are pulled beneath the earth of the altar by lashes of brambles. The end.”
Silence hung over the campsite as Ellice took the whole thing in. Why Meda loved the macabre tragedies of far-off Pontaria she would never know. Amber eyes watched her expectantly, waiting for an appraisal.
“Sounds… cheery.” Ellice joked. The kobold snickered.
“Hehe. It’s a nasty tale for sure, but the theatergoers in Brookeridge need something to break up all those toothless comedies Penwell keeps forcing on them.”
“May I hear the song, please?” Relinth requested in as close a tone to begging as it could manage.
“Oh right!” Meda ruffled through her scroll and plucked at her lute as she explained the context. “This happens as the Mother of Wolves stands over the body of the wolf Kyra killed and watches her drag the stag back to town.”
She strummed her lute, cleared her voice, and sang in her warbling, troubadour’s soprano:
Her back shall be my slender new branch,It will bend, it will sway in the breeze.As the devil does a polka with a hatchet in its hands,There’s a sniper in the branches of the trees.As the vulture flutters down, the snake sheds its dove,Kyra’s cutting off her fingers so they’ll fit into the glove.For Kyra can’t wait to be mother’s hound,And the briar is strangling the rose back down.Yes the briar is strangling the rose back down.
An overly-embellished riff on the lute ended the scrap of music. Ellice shivered at the lyrics, a cold dread running down her spine. Opposite her Relinth grinned widely, its eyes shining in glee at the performance.
“Wonderful!” It said exuberantly. “Wonderful!”
“Yes Meda, wonderful.” Ellice forced up a shallow smile as she echoed the sentiments. The kobold beamed at them both and took an exaggerated bow. Ellice drummed on her leg and then looked down at the dark gloves, their fabrics swooshing gently between her fingers. The expected sensations of tactile pleasure were still there, but there was a discomfort now too. Meda’s song, one of its lines, had unnerved her. A worried voice in her head wondered if perhaps Isaphine was clutching her hand a little too tightly, if the gloves were now starting to feel more snug than they should.
“I think I’m going to turn in for the night,” she informed her companions. Two voices wished her good night before chattering over possible translations for the first verse of Meda’s horrifying song.
In her simple tent Ellice prepared her sleeping roll and channeled just the tiniest bit of wind magic into the empty canvas sack she used as a pillow. She slid her green gown over her head revealing her not-quite-skinny body. She let out an embarrassed sigh as she spotted the last remnants of a wet patch on the plain wool underwear between her legs, almost but not quite dried since her poorly timed horniness this afternoon. Kneeling down, she unbuckled her two mid-calf boots, as cute as they were practical when it came to the simpler treks in the area. She just about crawled under her fleece travel-blanket when she realized that she had forgotten something.
She was still wearing the gloves.
Wearily she reached towards her wrist to begin peeling the item off when Isaphine’s voice cracked through her mind.
She froze, startled. The sentient gloves had sounded panicked, almost scared.
<Please do not remove me yet. Until complete, the attunement process must be restarted every time I am removed.>
That sounded odd, but her knowledge of the process of item attunement was very basic. What she did know was that there was a high variance in the way objects like this were crafted and how they functioned, and Isaphine would know how her own attunement process worked better than anyone else. Besides, she was almost already in bed and to stow the gloves neatly away in her pack on the other side of the tent was more effort than she wanted to put in right now.
<Okay> she replied, <Let me know when it’s okay to remove you. I’m going to sleep. I hope we can talk a bit tomorrow.>
<Thank you> Isaphine responded, her voice sweet in Ellice’s mind, <Pleasant dreams.>
Ellice pulled her blanket over her near-naked body and nestled her head into the air-inflated pillow. Eyes closed, it didn’t take long before she drifted off to sleep. She snored softly as she slept peacefully for the first hour or two. Right as she hit the deepest part of her slumber, a voice whispered in her mind.
<Your mind still sleeps, but your eyes open>
Dreamily Ellice opened her eyes. Unseeing, they stared at the wall of her tent.
<Your mind still sleeps, but you listen to my words>
Isaphine’s voice flowed like honey through their shared connection. Sweetly it seeped into her sleeping mind, speaking softly to her subconscious.
<Your mind still sleeps, but your body obeys>
Dimly, Ellice was aware of that familiar pleasant tingle from the gloves stretching slowly up each arm. She smiled dopily and dreamily as the sensation stroked across her shoulder blades and up her neck. Bliss flooded her dreams as the phantom force wound its way into her brain.
<Raise your right arm slowly, gently. Feel yourself floating freely>
She dreamed herself rising up into the clouds, the pull of gravity no longer asserting its dominion over her. Her arm, as if tied to a small flock of gently-tugging birds, moved upwards of its own accord. Dazzling silver gleams raced excitedly along the right-hand glove as it emerged from under the blanket.
<Weightless and relaxed. Peaceful and mindless>
Further weight fell away from her slumbering mind. All cares, all worries fluttered away as she flew peacefully among the clouds. Her arm reached its apex above her slumbering form, twitching slightly as it tried to continue higher.
<When your hand drops down, your mind drops deeper into sleep. When your mind drops deeper, it’s easier to listen to me. My words make you feel so good, so relaxed, so mindless. Even as you forget them, they make you happy. Even as they control you, you forget them>
Ellice’s smile grew as her blank eyes rolled upwards. Her flying form felt suspended on strings, her dreaming mind caressed by silken threads.
<Drop now Ellice. Drop far, drop softly. Drop into blissful oblivion>
Her hand fell, slowing its descent just before impact to lay softly at her side once more. Her eyes fluttered closed as her dreaming form descended unworried into pillowy darkness. Silver streaks wrapped around her and pulled her further into the imagined night, the penumbral sea enveloped her body wrapping it in shimmering, sensuous silk. She gasped in pleasure as it enveloped her head as well, flowing in through her mouth, nose, eyes, and ears; and with one final salvo of silver light eradicating her ability to think.
Mindlessly her gloved hand began rising in the air again, the silver magics almost fully illuminating the glove. Isaphine’s voice continued its whispering, stitching its words deep within her silken mind.