The Summer Heroes

Session 21.5

In which Kurt provides a fanfic

Mina was throwing pebbles at the wall like she did every night. She would throw it up, nice and easy, and then try to time a trick with lights that she can do so that the pebble seemed to make sparks when it hit the wall. She had become very good at this. I was leaning back against her cell door—like I did every night—watching the sparks light up the madman snoring in the cell across the corridor.

We had not talked for many minutes. After so many weeks, even I had run out of stories to tell. So I asked her to tell me the story about the chimera again.

“I told that one an hour ago,” she said. “You make me tell it every night, you know that? I’m sick of the chimera story.”

“But it is a good story,” I said.

“Yeah, well, it’s also a once-per-night story. You tell one this time. You keep hinting at something about a giant squid.”

I laughed. “Yes, that is a good one, but it is too long for tonight.”

“Oh, come on. The guy’s only come by two or three times. We have plenty of time. Stop making excuses, Venju, and tell me about the squid already.”

We were counting the patrols that Winifred’s men made past Mina’s cell. That was the only way to mark the hours down in the cells. We needed two more to pass before we could begin, and two patrols is not enough time for the story of the squid.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Mina said after a while. “Maybe I’ll just stay down here after all. I’m only just starting to get the hang of this pebble thing, and the straw isn’t so bad to sleep on once you get used to it. I think I could really make a home down here.”

One patrol went past, then a long silence, and then the second patrol and it was time.
The door of Mina’s cell was made of thick, black iron with rust like dead barnacles clinging to the top. The lock was a solid block nearly the size of my hand that could not be picked because it did not have a keyhole; it only opened if you held a heavy black stone up against it, and I did not have the stone.

So instead I grabbed two bars and began to pull. The door held firm, but then slowly the iron began to sing a deep, soft groan like a whale that echoed down the corridor. The sound made me smile and I pulled harder and suddenly with a crash like lightning striking the mast of your ship the door burst open, stone crumbling to the floor from the hole left by the lock.

Now we moved fast. I went to the madman’s cell, just across from Mina’s, and reached through the bars as far as I could, straining until I could grab his shirt and pull him toward me, lift him to his feet, and then drop him into a heap against the door. His snoring never changed.

Footsteps were pounding down the stairs now. Mina pulled a few shards of stone and iron from the broken lock before pulling the door closed again. The wall around the lock was a ruin but when I sat back down, my shoulders covered most of the hole. We had to hope that in the corridor’s dimly flickering light the men would not be able to see the cracks shooting through the stone behind me.

Two of Winifred’s men, one tall with a face like a talon and the other short with saggy cheeks and eyes that glared even when he was happy, burst through the door at the end of the corridor.

“That one, the saggy one, he’s actually very funny. He was there when I worked for Uncle, too—been with her forever. He’s a real bastard to the other side, but around us he just did all these funny voices. And he was decent to me while they kept me prisoner, which is more than I can say for the other one.”

The Summer Heroes were sitting at a round table on the beach. The trolls of Zacthar’Zaqara had wasted no time: while the elders were still finalizing their alliance with the sphinxes, dozens of sailors were already setting up tables around a makeshift tavern counter on the beach. That was months ago. Many of the trolls still slept on Zacthar—Hathar trolls tended to avoid sleeping on solid ground whenever they could—but they spent their evenings on the beach.

And many of them were now surrounding the Heroes’ table, listening to Venju’s story. The crowd of trolls smelled very strongly of the sea, and nothing else. It could have been much worse, Darion thought.

“Did they see the cracks?” Erlindar asked.

“No, they forgot to even bring a torch,” Venju replied. “I told them the madman ran into his bars again. He did that sometimes, to get away from the monsters, he said. They believed me, of course. Then they told me to finish telling my stories fast if I wanted any dinner before they ran out of stew.”

“And then they just left?”

“As I said, they believed me. I worked with them for many months, so there was a trust. Once they left, we had to get upstairs—”

“But not before the big softie just had to give me a hug,” Mina said. “Lifted me right off the floor.”

Venju laughed and wrapped an arm around her that made her almost disappear. “It was a good moment! It is good to celebrate such moments,” he said. She curled her face into an exaggerated grimace and jabbed him in the ribs until he let go.

“So then how’d you get out of the building?” Erlindar asked.

“The catacombs,” Mina said. “Balin—

“No, no, we’ll get to that. We cannot rush the story, Mina,” Venju said.

She rolled her eyes and drank her beer.

We waited for the guards’ footsteps to fade away before following them upstairs to find Winifred’s office. Mina hoped that she would find her dragon sword there. It was a small hope—I told her that Winifred probably had the sword with her, that she kept it nearby all the time—but Mina refused to leave without looking for it. She had become more and more restless as the day of the escape approached, and now as she walked out of her cell a wildness came into her eyes like a predator set free.

We only had to go up two levels to get to the surface, where we came out into a huge warehouse full of dyed wool hanging from the ceiling in strands like tattered sails. We crept along the wall to a staircase that led up to the second floor, where Winifred’s office looked out over the rest of the warehouse. Mina pulled out the pieces of rock and iron from her broken door and began to pick the lock; I put my hand on my sword and prepared to stand watch while she worked, but the lock clicked open right away.

Mina turned to look at me and smiled. “What, you thought you were the only one who can open a door?”

Inside it was very dark. Half of the far wall was a large, open window that looked down on the warehouse. It was after midnight but there were still men patrolling below, so we could not light a lamp. We had to be careful. Mina was desperate to find the sword and did not want me in the way, so I leaned against the door and tried to listen for movement outside.
The search took much longer than the lock. The room was large and full of heavy, expensive furniture rotten with secret compartments. Mina found and emptied them all, along with at least three or four large chests hidden beneath stacks of cloth, but she found nothing but coins and paper inside. The sword was not there.

I had stopped paying attention to the sounds in the hallway until a key scraped into the lock from the other side. It clicked open and then the door jerked forward against my back.

“Is…is someone in there?” a voice—the captain—asked. Mina and I looked at each other.

“Just me, ma’am,” I said.

“Venju? What are you doing in there? Let me in.” Mina ducked behind a mannequin covered with Winifred’s clothes.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, stepping away from the door.

The captain was tall and thin, with small eyes and a chin that just barely stuck out from her neck. She was usually a little jittery; some of the men said that she had been using greysalt for years, but I do not know. Even if she did, she was still a good captain.

“What in the hells are you doing in here, Venju?” She had a lamp and she began walking quickly around the room with it, stopping in front of the mannequin and shining the light into the thick shadows behind it.

“I am helping Mina escape,” I said.

She spun to look at me and Mina sprung onto her back, one arm across her neck and the other covering her mouth. The captain dropped the lamp, its oil splashed fire across the rug, and then the room swelled with orange light that made Mina’s eyes blaze like coals.
The captain flailed her arms trying to reach Mina, her face an ugly purple. She tried to stagger away from the flames but tripped and fell to her knees, eyes wide with pain. The fire was small but hot and it splashed me in fear, but the Mother was with me and I stepped into the heat to pull them out. The captain had fainted and Mina dropped from her back.

“She’ll only be out for a few seconds, so tie her up right away,” she said, pulling her sword from the scabbard and tossing it near the door. Then she started emptying chests full of coins onto the fire.

We did not have any rope, of course, but the floor was covered in rugs and only one was burnt, so I laid the captain down and rolled her up in one and then wedged the bundle between the desk and the wall. I took a handkerchief from the desk and waited for her eyes to flutter open before stuffing it into her mouth.

“I am sorry, captain,” I said. She groaned.

We could hear someone running from the far end of the warehouse below, shouting something we could not make out. We were out of time. Now we had to make it back to the tunnels and then to the docks, where a ship was waiting for us. I touched my sword and smiled; the docks would be swarming with Winifred’s guards, it would be almost impossible get past them without battle. After months without blood I longed for a good contest, and I could feel the joy of death stretch itself awake inside me.

“Well,” Mina said, “I guess we owe you a ‘thank you,’ Captain.” I turned and saw her looking at the wall above the office door, where three stones were hanging on plaques like trophies. “I never would have seen them without your lamp. Though I do wish my sword was up there, too.”

“They’re just rocks, Mina,” I said. “Come, it is time to leave.”

“Those rocks are the keys to Temples, Venju. One of them is probably for the watery one Winifred showed you.”

“But she said she did not have that key.”

“That Temple will take us right back to your people on the island, you don’t think she might have lied about it? It doesn’t matter, just grab them and we’ll sort it out in the tunnels.”
The man in the warehouse sounded like he was almost right below us, so I pulled the stones off the wall, Mina grabbed the captain’s sword, and together we ran. We reached the bottom of the first staircase at the same time as the shouting man. He was very young, barely past boyhood.

“Did you put out the fire?” he asked, frantic.

I did not know what to say, so I shrugged. I am no good at the sneaking and lying parts, unfortunately.

He waved his hand angrily and tried to push past me up the stairs, and that is when he finally saw Mina. He froze. This was a bad idea, but you must remember that he was very young. I shoved him against the wall, covered his mouth with my hand, and lifted him under my arm. Mina squeezed past me and I followed her down the second staircase, back to the prison cells.

Mina burst through the door at the bottom of the stairs and took off down the main corridor. The walls were smooth, carved long ago by nobody-knows-what, and the floor sloped unevenly down, deeper into the island. Empty cells of all sizes and narrow hallways lined the way, some leading up and some steeply down. Everything was stone and iron and very dry, but the air felt like thick summer fog.

I could not keep up with the boy under my arm and Mina was pulling farther and farther ahead, so I chose an open cell and dropped him to the floor inside. He tried to stumble away, but he was slow and my arms are long. I grabbed his leg with one hand and brought the other down, fast, on his shin. There was a snap like rope breaking, and then he screamed.

“I am sorry,” I said, “but do not worry. It is a clean break, it will heal well.” I pulled a bottle of rum from my bag and pressed it into his hand, then I ran after Mina.

After a moment I saw her standing at one of the branching hallways, listening. When I came to her side, I heard a voice echoing up from below, too faint to tell what it was saying—or if it was saying any words at all.

“I didn’t know there were other prisoners down here,” Mina said.

“Just one, I think. A woman. I do not know her name, I never saw her. Come, we must keep moving.”

Mina hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, before following me toward the exit.
The corridor curved to the right and then I could see a door up ahead, heavy and banded with iron. I lowered my shoulder and did not slow down—there was no time to be quiet now. The door splintered around me and I almost fell down the stairs behind it as a loud grinding erupted from the ceiling. There was a wave of heat and then Mina crashed into my legs and I fell back, cracking my head on the steps. She was shouting as we slid down the stairs all tangled together and when I looked up I saw blazing hot metal raining from the ceiling outside the door and pouring down the stairs after us.

We scrambled like crabs down the stairs, hitting the floor and stumbling away just before the metal reached the bottom. It did not spread far across the floor before it became solid again, a frozen waterfall emptying into a small pond of dimly glowing bronze.

“Two doors to one,” I smiled to Mina. “You must keep up!”

Venju stretched and said something in the trolls’ gently tumbling language. The message rippled back through the crowd and a moment later large mugs of beer were being passed overhead through the crowd to replace the empty ones on the Heroes’ table.

“Were either of you hurt?” Pirro asked.

“My arm got burned, but not too bad,” Mina said, rolling up her sleeve to reveal several long, bright pink scars. “It hurt like something else, though. The big softie didn’t even get singed, of course.”

Venju laughed and slid a new mug to each of the Heroes, then raised his and shouted, “To Mina!”

“O’mbi Maztamba!” the trolls rumbled in response.

“May we all have friends who will take the burns that we cannot, and may those friends never regret that they know us!”

After everyone drank, Erlindar said, “You made me a little nervous with that leg-breaking bit.”

“Yes, it was not a nice thing. Next time I will have rope. But the rum that I gave him would cost a full month of his salary. So I think that he felt better after drinking it.”

“Yes, I imagine that would do the trick,” Darion said. “So where were you at this point?”

“It was hard to see anything at first because there were no torches in the room and the glowing bronze was very dim. Then Mina made her false lights and the walls came into view…”

The room was round and not very large, with only the one door and a ceiling like an upside-down bowl. The walls were full of small, deep nooks all full of jumbled piles of bones, each with a skull in front, the eyes dark and huge. I drew my sword and knocked the handle against the floor three times, and then we had to wait. We could not leave the room on our own, and if Winifred’s men came down before help arrived, there was nothing we could do.

Soon there was a scraping in the ceiling above, and then a stone near the middle disappeared into gloom. Balin’s face appeared in the hole that it left.

“Need a lift?” he asked, smiling.

At least one of Winifred’s men was secretly working for Balin, and as soon as he heard of Mina’s captivity he contacted me and offered to get her off the island. He risked many things helping us; if Winifred learns of what he has done, Balin will be hunted down and killed. We owe him a very great debt.

A very thick rope dropped down through the hole and we climbed up into another tunnel, this one wide and clean and almost perfectly square. Balin and six others were holding the rope.

“This thing weighs a fucking ton,” Balin said, dropping the rope. “Next time I’m just leaving you two down there.”

“Don’t listen to him,” one of the others said as they pulled the rope up and put the stones back into the ceiling. “He made us carry it the whole way.”

We laughed and began to walk down the tunnel when Mina told us to stop.

“Balin, can you take us to the All Hall instead of the docks?”

“Sure, you can get anywhere from these tunnels. But there’s no time for that, we need to get you to the ship.”

“I don’t think we’ll need the ship,” she said, turning to me. “We’ll use the Temple instead.”
“But we do not know that one of these stones opens the Temple we need,” I said. “And what happens if they are the wrong stones after all? The All Hall is far away, by then Winifred’s men will all over the docks. We would never make it to the ship.”

“Then we’ll hide out for a few days and try again, like we planned. Making it to the ship tonight was always going to be a long shot, at least this way we might be able to just skip the whole ordeal. And it’ll be safer for Balin’s connections since they won’t have to risk smuggling us out of Winifred’s reach.”

“I admit that trying the Temple does sound less risky for me and my guys,” Balin said. “But we’ll get you where you need to go either way.”

“Come on, Venju. What’s the worst that could happen—a fight?” She smiled, her eyes glinting like sparks on stone. “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”

No, I thought, that would not be so bad at all. So I nodded and Balin turned to guide us back down the tunnel in the opposite direction.

This tunnel looked very different from the prison, larger and much more even. They tell me that the Skrozi built their city on the rockiest part of a very rocky island, and they had to quarry for stone beneath the city itself to make their buildings. Then when they ran out of space in the buildings above the ground, they just moved into the tunnels that the miners left behind. Shops, taverns, warehouses, whorehouses—people of all sorts moved down there. The upper levels became just another neighborhood, very nice places to live and work, but the lower levels…the lower levels are a different sort of place.

We came to the first turn in the tunnel, and up ahead we could see a bustle of activity.

“I need to leave you here,” Balin said, motioning to one of the others to come forward. “Too many people would recognize me down here, and all of them would sell that knowledge to Winifred in a heartbeat. Tryna will guide you the rest of the way instead, and if the Temple is closed she’ll bring you somewhere safe.”

The woman who appeared at his side was very tall and her skin was very dark. Beneath her short braids her face was grim, though her eyes were large and kind.

“Tryna was born down here in the tunnels, she knows them better than anyone. You’ll be in good hands.”

“Thank you, Balin, for everything,” Mina said. “I’ll put in a good word with Abajeet for you about this.”

Balin laughed. “I’m not sure how much good that’ll do me, she’s always hated me. Where is the little bugger, anyway?”

“Oh…she’s around. You know.”

“Well, give her my best, I guess. And take care of yourself.”

Tryna told us to stay close by her side and we followed her out into a tunnel as wide the city’s main street, lined with vendors and swarming with activity. It seemed like nobody had anything legal for sale. Some vendors had stolen goods and these stalls were nice to look at, full of silks and gold and beautiful art. Others sold more gruesome things and these we hurried past. Some even sold people, elves and humans and gnomes. These usually had a single slave chained to the stall, to show the quality, but the rest were always locked away in a distant chamber.

Some of the chambers that opened off the main street had doors but many were left open or were only curtained off. From one we heard a groaning chant and when we passed we saw that it was full of bodies, naked and twirling faster than you could see. In another, a man and a woman faced each other in the middle of a small crowd. They were seated cross-legged on the air, floating and bleeding from their ears. Then the man cried out and fell to the floor and did not move again, and the small crowd cheered.

Everywhere we were jostled by little carts pushed by hunched-over old men and women selling salted fish and pickled meats covered in bright, hot spices. We saw a gnome leading a very small elephant through the crowd and a phoenix, filthy and beaten, chained inside an apothecary’s shop. A pile of black sludge moved slowly down a narrow alley, dissolving everything around it but the stone, and packs of mangy goblin dogs skulked through the emptier tunnels gnawing at whatever they found. There was even a troll, neither Hathar nor feral, whose eyes were wild as he fought a man in a makeshift arena. The man had a torch but the troll did not seem to notice the burns that covered his arms. He crushed the man’s head in his hands.

Almost every time we entered a new tunnel, Tryna stopped and spoke to someone at the entrance. Many she shook hands with, to others she gave gold, and to some she gave something that was not gold, though I could not see what it was. After almost an hour, maybe more, we finally arrived at a door that looked much newer than anything around it.

“This is it, folks,” Tryna said. “These stairs open up right in the All Hall, down in the crypt level. I’ll stay around here for twenty minutes and keep an eye on this door. You can’t get into the Temple, just come back down and we’ll find somewhere safe for you to hide.” We thanked her and then she was gone, swallowed up by the crowd.

The All Hall is the main temple on Skroz, dedicated to all of the gods. The top floor is for the Seven and the bottom floor is for everyone else—and I mean everyone else. The top floor is just one great chamber with seven sides but the bottom is like a circular maze, with many narrow hallways filled with shrines all wrapped around a central chapel. The stairs let us out into one of the narrow hallways between two statues covered in dried flowers, one of a crocodile with a thousand hands and another of a crab-centaur with turquoise eyes.
The door to the Temple was in a hallway on the other side of the central chamber. The upper hall would be empty at this time of night but the lower hall is always full of people, and when we came to the end of the hallway we saw two- or three-dozen worshippers circling the chapel, pausing here or there to offer their brief prayers. A small, silent crowd milled about in the center of the room.

I am ashamed that I did not notice who the men in this crowd were until the air rang with the sound of twenty swords drawn from leather scabbards. At least half of Winifred’s guards were there and I counted at least four archers with arrows already knocked. The murmured prayers around us fell away into silence and captain stepped out from the crowd.

“You really are too soft, Venju,” she said. “Big and strong, but soft. You should not have let me see you take those stones. If you’d just let me die, you both might have made it out.”

“Ah,” I said, “but maybe we have already made it out and you just do not realize it yet.”

The captain smiled. “And you’re a cocky bastard, I’ll give you that. Now why don’t you step away from the prisoner so we don’t have to kill you both? Who knows, do it quick enough and I might let you get some dinner when we get back.”

At this, I confess that I laughed. The longing for battle that stirred within me in Winifred’s office had been scratching and pawing at my insides for more than an hour. In my time on Skroz there had been a little brawl here or there, perhaps, but very few people stood up to Winifred’s men. Those days were like a shallow pool at low tide, warm and calm for children to play in, but now a storm was breaking and waves were towering up to crash around me. So I laughed and I looked to Mina and saw that she was smiling, and together we drew our swords and charged into the storm.

The archers fired together. Two missed but two hit their marks in my shoulder and thigh, good, clean lines of pain shining from the wounds. The archers were fast and they fired again but their aim was even poorer, their best shots only grazing us. Then we were in their midst and they could not fire again.

Mina was a blur around me. She had no armor, just the baggy canvas of a prisoner, and since she could not avoid the blades entirely she spun and twirled between them, turning deadly blows into slices across her arm, her leg, her face. She had the captain’s sword but it was large and ungainly, a weapon for a showman, not a warrior. I lost her among the waves and when resurfaced the sword was gone, replaced by two long daggers taken from one of the men.

While Mina swirled, I stood still in the center of the crowd and let the tide break upon me, hoping to take the blows that Mina could not. One blade bit into the plates of my armor and the poor man could not pull it out, and then my forearm crunched his elbow into a new angle. Another guard thought me distracted and wound back to take a mighty blow, at my neck perhaps, or my head, but I was faster and I cut her long and shallow across her chest so there would not be much blood but a great deal of pain.

We had agreed from the beginning to kill as few of the guards as possible, if we could help it. Mina knew many of them from her earlier life, and I had been with them for many months. Most were not evil, though some were cruel and ugly of heart. They did not deserve to die. So instead we broke their noses so they could not breathe, we broke their hands so they could not hold their blades, and we sliced at their legs so they could not stand. At each new cut across my body I laughed and felt stronger, but these were mere humans and they did not grow strong with pain.

The captain had two lieutenants, a brother and a sister, cruel sorcerers of elemental magic from the Great Rainforest. They were the exceptions to our mercy. While bodies crumpled around us, these two threw lightning and ice that bit at my skin and made me strong. But then when all the others had crawled away on trails of blood, these two threw fire that nearly blinded me with agony. They showered me with unclean torment and I bellowed with fury but could not move.

And Mina was gone. I looked for her desperately through the curtain of flame but she was nowhere. Darkness blurred everything around me and I called to the Mother, asked her for the strength to cast of the pain. Then in a flash Mina was at the brother’s side, her blade slicing across his neck. In the same motion Mina fell, tumbled to the side, and sprang up behind the sister, thrusting her blade up to the hilt through the sorceress’s forearm and twisting it behind her back. The sister howled in shock and then Mina’s other blade appeared at her throat, still coated in the brother’s blood.

That left only the captain. My skin was blistered and charred but I could feel the Mother’s healing begin and it calmed the pain to a dull smolder. Mina was bleeding from many shallow cuts, but she looked steadily at the captain without fear or fury.

“Let us go now and there will still be time to heal your men,” she said.

The captain paused for only a moment before dropping her sword.

“Which hallway is it, Venju?” Mina asked.

I thought back to what Winifred had told me about the Temple. I wanted to drift away into the Mother’s peace flowing like cool water in my veins but I could not afford to, not yet, so I closed my eyes and focused on the pain glowing beneath my skin until it filled my mind like boiling water. My memory blazed like coals amid the pain and I remembered where the Temple was hidden.

I walked across the chamber and Mina followed me down the hallway, pushing the sorceress in front of her. Malice radiated from the sister like waves of heat but she did not make a sound from the pain.

Eventually we came to the shrine we were looking for: a shallow alcove in the wall containing a mermaid large as life, sculpted from what looked like solid bone. The alcove was framed by a thick ring of wood with every kind of hideous beast carved into it. Near the top I saw a sort of toad covered in long hair, its toothless mouth open and screaming. I pressed my hand against it and the ring began to turn like a wheel around the alcove. Then the entire shrine, alcove and ring and all, swung out from the wall like a door to reveal an ancient staircase leading down into darkness.

Mina pulled the blade out of the lieutenant’s arm and pushed her hard against the other wall, and together we began to back down the stairs.

“We have your girlfriend, you know,” the sorceress snarled, stepping toward us. “Uncle’s mouthpiece? You remember her. She’s been rotting away nicely in our deepest cell. So I hope you enjoyed this,” she said, raising her ruined arm, “because I’m taking it out on her.” Then she slammed the door closed.

The trolls had become raucous during the tale of the battle, murmuring in excited horror when the flames covered Venju and exploding in cheers like a rockslide when Mina thrust her dagger through the sorceress’s arm. Now they were silent, their eyes turned respectfully away from the dark cloud swirling around Mina.

“I threw the daggers at the door so hard I think I saw sparks,” she said in a low voice. “I should have just killed her when I had the chance.”

“Killed who, Uncle?” Thalion said, confused. “I thought you two were friends.”

Mina smiled slightly. “No, the sorceress. Uncle and I were friends. Still are, I hope. After all this, though, after what my sister’s done to her—all these things only happened because of me. I hope we’re still friends.”

Another long silence passed before Venju spoke. “We could not help her then, she was too far away. We had to keep going. At the bottom of the stairs there was a very small room with a well full to the brim with water. We climbed in.”

We came out on a tiny island of white sand surrounded by an endless sea, like a pile of salt on a dull steel plate. Mina sat down heavily on the lip of the well while I drew my sword and dipped my foot in the water. I had heard evil tales about the creature that guarded this place, and I hoped that I had the strength left to face it.

After only a moment there was a brief ripple and then an enormous head rose gracefully from the water on a massive, oily neck. The head was the size of a small boat, thick and shaped like a rounded spade. There were no eyes that I could see but the mouth was huge, a gash filled with hideous teeth that wrapped almost entirely around the head.

I focused on the pain throbbing like a drum in my head until I felt the wave of one last battle swell within me.

“Is that really necessary?” the serpent asked, its voice a deep, hissless rasp. It sounded tired, somehow, or bored.

“We need to get to the other island,” I answered, tightening my grip on my sword. “Now.”

“Yes, I should say that you do. But if you insist on resuming this tiresome fighting business, I am afraid that our arrangement will come to a very abrupt end.”

“Our arrangement—”

“No, no, that is enough from you. Call off your man, Winifred, or I will be forced to rebuke him in the strongest possible terms.”

Mina lifted her head and glared at the serpent.

“Oh, put it away, Venju,” she sighed. “Now, will you please just take us to the other side already?”

“As you wish,” the serpent answered. He coiled his body against the sand and we climbed onto his back, then he began to slither over the surface of the water. I did not trust him but I could not resist the Mother’s healing light any longer, so I closed my eyes and let the pain drift away into the sea. I soon lost myself in Her embrace, feeling each wound close at Her touch. I do not know how long we stayed like that, but eventually I felt Mina shake me awake and saw the other island, another tiny pile of salt on the horizon.

“Thank you for your help,” Mina said as we climbed awkwardly onto the shore.

“It was, as always, a pleasure, madam.” The head was drawn back beneath the water without making a ripple.

And that was it. We had made it.

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