Wrapping Things Up
The company rested for the rest of the day and night in the cavern in the Desperation, and headed back north in the morning. During that first day of travel, they spoke little and ate from the canned goods they’d taken from the diner back in Tarenloll. The food was eaten cold, and none of the members of the band seemed exceptionally healthy or vital. To Timothy’s senses, Stockholm seemed somehow less than he had been at the beginning of the whole journey, an assessment that the Red Tribesman would have agreed with.
Late in the evening, they approached and crossed the northern border of the desert, and once again Bradley Ashford and Ignatious Stockholm took the first watch while the mages tucked into a bedroll under the stars and fell quickly asleep. The night air held much of the radiant heat of the desert south of them, and Stockholm found that he was starting to miss the temperate climate of the city of Desanadron a good deal. An hour into their watch, Ashford approached the Red Tribesman with a curious look on his face.
“What you thinking about, boss man,” the Marine asked Stockholm.
“Home, actually,” Stockholm said. “We’ve got to go all the way across the continent, a task that we made easier before by using Hina’s Haste spell on the horses and myself.”
“Why didn’t we do that when we were headed for the last rift,” Ashford asked, perplexed.
“I don’t understand the exact mechanics of it, but Hina told me that if you use a spell too much, you can eventually lose control of it. The magic runs wild, something like that,” Stockholm said. “I didn’t want to chance it with a fight ahead of us.”
“But the fighting’s done for a while, isn’t it,” Ashford asked, laughing a little and shaking his head. “That’s not so bad, I suppose. My rifle’s dead, I got fourteen bullets in the clip for this,” he said, patting his pistol. “And I’m not sure I’m very skilled with this thing yet,” he added, hefting the mace he now carried in his left hand. “Give me time, though, I’m sure I’ll get a handle on it.”
“I’m sure you will,” said the Red Tribe Werewolf. “So, are you coming back the long way with us?”
“I was thinking about that today, actually,” said Ashford with a hint of regret. “You know, I think I need to settle down for a while, get a better hang on my new reality. I was thinking you guys could take me to that big city north of here you were telling me about.”
“Ja-Wen,” said Stockholm. “Yes, actually, we can probably find an Alchemist or a magic shop that can teleport us back to Desanadron from there. That’ll mean leaving the horses behind, but I can reimburse Tim and Hina for them. Anyway, it’s only about another full day to Ja-Wen. You sure you want us to just drop you off there? You don’t know anybody in this world, after all.”
“No, I don’t, but I do believe I’ll manage. What’s their policy on joining the police department,” Ashford asked.
“Well, they’ll want to put you through academy first, but other than that, they just check with the local bounty office and state prison to see if you’re name is on either of their listings. If not, they’ll give you some forms, you fill them out, and then away you go. They won’t pay you through academy, but they’ll give you room and board, and the training’s free.”
“Not a bad deal. In my world, you got to have a college degree before you can enter police academy. Do you know that word, college?”
“Yeah,” Stockholm said, plodding along next to the former Marine colonel as they made their perimeter march around the camp. “Most of the major cities have one or two, but not a whole lot of people use them. They’re mostly government-run institutions, but a lot of people get their education in the workplace or in the various guilds throughout the realm.”
Their shift ended without incident, and they awoke the mages for their watch. Timothy and Hina rubbed their eyes and got up, both still feeling drained from their recent conflicts and trials. They agreed, however, that if anything threatened during their shift on watch, they’d be able to handle it without too much trouble. Arm in arm they walked the perimeter, neither really paying too much attention to their surroundings.
The night before had been a good one for Timothy, as he’d been too tired to dream when he fell asleep. However, this night also had passed without a visit from the apparition of his father. He wondered if this had anything to do with that last nocturnal encounter. But he only wondered for a few minutes, as the crisp night air blew a gentle breeze like a soothing touch across his face. He could smell the sweet lavender of Hina’s perfume, feel the inner strength in her grip around his waist, and best of all for him, he could sense her essential vitality.
Hina had never suffered the sort of dreams of which Timothy was victim, but she had experienced the same dream for two nights running, and it confused her greatly. In her dreams, she and Timothy lived together not further than up the road from her parents, and they were discussing wedding plans. These dreams gave her heart a bit of a shock, and yet at the same time, she welcomed the sweetness of these dreaming moments. However, in each instance, something happened in the center of the city, and her parents came rushing to her and Timothy for help. Some great battle erupted in the center of the city, and her parents came to her and Timothy for aid and shelter, her father fully outfitted for combat, her mother hysterical with fear. Shortly after their arrival in her home, the dream faded to an end, and then started all over again.
She said nothing of these visions to Timothy or Stockholm, though she thought it might be worthwhile. The problem she faced, however, lay in the fact that she did not herself believe in prophecy of any kind. At least, not under normal circumstances. So for the time being, she would simply enjoy Timothy’s company, and invite him to come with her to her parent’s home in Blackwood. Oh crap, she thought then, I still haven’t done that! “Tim,” she said, looking up into his once soft and now slightly rugged face. The traveling had given him a few traces of windburn from days of hard riding with a Haste spell attached to his horse, and the battles they had fought had hardened him as well. Still, his face still showed mostly through with youth and innocence, and he smiled down at her.
“Yes dear,” he said, giving her a kiss on the forehead.
“I was thinking maybe you could come with me back to my folks’ place after this,” she said shyly. “You know, to visit and stay with us for a while.”
“Not a problem. But you’ll have to meet my mother eventually too, and that might be a strange situation,” he said with a chuckle.
“I’ve never brought a girl home,” he said, still laughing, but a bit nervously now. “I don’t know how she’s going to react. I mean, she still does my laundry!”
“Oh for the love of the gods, she’s one of those kinds of mothers, huh,” Hina chided, elbowing Tim lightly in the ribs. “Should I buy some better armor before meeting her?”
“No, she’s not that bad,” Timothy said.
“Good. You may want to invest in some headgear, though. Like I said, my dad’s a city guard, and he’s rather fond of clubbing boys who look at me the wrong way,” she joked. Timothy swallowed hard, and she patted him on the back. “Take it easy, he’s not really that bad. Besides, I can’t remember the last time he actually had to bury a boy in the back yard.”
“What,” he exclaimed as Hina laughed raucously at the fevered look of terror on his face. “Oh, very funny, love. I should tell him that you make him out to be a monster when I meet him.”
“Go ahead! What’s he going to do, ground me?” They embraced for a quick moment, and then continued their watch arm in arm. The sun poked its head over the far horizon, and they awoke the two sleeping gentlemen to prepare for another day of travel.
As dusk approached that day, the travelers closed within eyesight of the city of Ja-Wen, the second largest city in all of Tamalaria. The farms between the desert and the city fell away under the horses’ hooves and Stockholm’s paws, and they found themselves stepping onto the outermost cobblestone streets an hour or two before evening.
Timothy and Hina had at first protested leaving the horses behind at lunch, when Stockholm had brought the subject up, but he told them both that they could sell the horses to the local stables in Ja-Wen, and he’d pay the remainder of their original purchase price to the two of them if they couldn’t get more than that from the local stable owners. That had pretty much made up their minds, and they agreed to see a magic shop in town to teleport them back not to Desanadron with him, but directly to Blackwood, in the Elven Kingdom.
The quartet headed to the nearest stables and Timothy and Hina both turned out to make a few gold pieces worth of profit by selling the Lizardman in charge of the stables their horses. “Fine beasts these be,” the reptilian humanoid had said with a smile. “Good and strong! You been working ‘em just fine, haven’t you?”
“Indeed we have,” said Hina, glad to have made a tiny profit, but slightly saddened to leave the animal behind. “Well, what do we do now,” she asked the group in general once they were outside and on the streets of the bustling city once more. She addressed this question mostly to Stockholm, who would be purchasing their teleportation back west. He pulled on the coarse fur on his chin, twisting it this way and that, lost mostly in his own thoughts.
“Well, first, I’m going to have a chat with our friend Bradley,” Stockholm said. “Then, we’ll head to a nice little diner, and have one last good meal together, as a group. I’ll treat, of course,” he added. “After that, Brad,” he said, turning to the ex-Marine. “You’ll head to the police academy and start the whole process. They’ll put you up at the hotel down the street from them for the night, and you’ll likely start training tomorrow. Then Timothy, Hina and I shall be heading to a magic shop, where the three of us shall part ways,” he said, and there was no small amount of regret in his voice as he said this last.
Stockholm missed the Hoods, he missed his talks with Anna and Flint, but he had made good, reliable companions of these three, especially young Timothy. He and the Void Mage shared one of the powers of the gods, and that linked them inextricably. He found himself fond of Hina because of her quick wit, her vast knowledge on academic studies, and her dry sense of humor. Bradley Ashford had come from another world, and wanted to become part of this one, a true resident of Tamalaria. Stockholm respected the sort of man who could, at least a third of the way through his natural life, decide that he needed to leave his comfort zone and embrace something new. He’d make a fine constable in the city-state of Ja-Wen.
Yes, he thought, one last good meal together, and a few good laughs. That’ll set us right, and with that, I’ll have to be content. Then, it’s back to the sewers, and back to business. He took a moment to worry about what sort of state his office would be in when he returned.
That night, Bradley Ashford lays sleeping peacefully in a hotel room in Ja-Wen, down the road from the large police academy where he would begin his training in two days’ time. The dean of the academy agreed to give him a voucher to the hotel for two days, and so he rested well, knowing that he had already established for himself a way to survive in this world.
While Bradley Ashford rests, Hina Hinas opens the door to her parents’ home, and when they look up from the kitchen table, her father flies through the living room to embrace her as tightly as he can. She laughs aloud and tells him he’s going to smother her, but he cannot tear himself away. Her mother is making her introduction to young Timothy Vandross, and he returns the gesture. His last name sends a minor tremor through her heart, but she smiles at him, because she does not sense that this boy is anything like his name implies. Mr. Hinas takes the boy’s measure, and grins as he shakes Tim’s hand, pleased by the firm shake that is returned. And of course he can stay with them for the time being, he says. He seems a good lad.
And Ignatious Stockholm? He sits at his office desk, cleaning up the few bits of business that awaited his return. He sits alone, and thinks about the business so recently put behind him. “Some fucking vacation,” he grouses aloud. Yet he is happy to be back among the familiar sights, sounds and smells of the underground base of the Hoods. When a knock comes at his door, he says, “It’s open.”
Anna Deus, William to the rest of the Guild, stands in the doorway and looks at him with a puzzled gaze. “Hey there, big guy,” she says, closing the door as she steps in. “How you doing,” she asks, turning back to face the big Red Tribesman. She is shocked, because he has moved silently from behind his desk to right in front of her. She fears for a moment that the time has finally come, and he’s going to toss her right out of his office for some reason she won’t understand. But he reaches down gently, and gives her an easy hug. She blushes, and returns the gesture, patting him on the back after a moment. He pulls away, and then heads back toward the desk. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing, boss,” he says. “It’s just good to be home, that’s all.”
“Did you miss us that much,” she asks with her own smart-ass grin.
“Actually, yes,” he says in all seriousness, which further stuns Anna Deus, who would never have said she’s seen her third-in-command looking so open, wounded, and happy all at the same time. “I missed this smelly old place, Anna. I missed Flint’s cocky attitude and incessant habit of cleaning his claws with that damned dagger. I missed growling at people for doing stupid things against our rules. I missed our little chit-chats, and hearing about your husband, Harold.
“I missed the whole routine, boss,” he said with a grin. “I think what I missed most, though, was feeling like I’m needed openly,” he confessed. “You’ve said it yourself. You need me here. And the boys and girls in our employ know what would happen without me here.”
“This place would fall apart most likely,” Anna said.
“That it would,” he said, getting up from his desk chair and heading for the couch he kept in the office, for the few times he slept there. “I’ll officially get back to work tomorrow night, boss, if that’s okay.”
“Sure thing, big guy,” she said. “Good night, Stocky.”
“Good night, Anna.” Anna Deus headed out of the office, and Stockholm laid down on the couch. He’d earned a good long sleep, and he was going to have it, by the gods. That night, and a good part of the next day, however, he had a peculiar dream indeed, one that he would not think of again for a while yet. In his dream, he sat at his desk, filling out various reports for Anna and Flint, when the Wererat himself sprinted into his office, Anna hot on his heels. The two of them locked and barred the door of Stockholm’s office, panic playing across their faces, their eyes filled with terror.
Stockholm asked them, in his dream, what the problem was. Both started bantering at once, and he told them to calm down. When they did, he finally got the message, and the message was grim indeed. The members of the Guild had started acting like raving lunatics, fighting with one another and babbling utter nonsense in their native tongues, regardless of what language that was. Then a pounding started on the office door, and the Human and Wererat flew behind Stockholm, who grabbed his axe and prepared to do battle. The door broke open, men poured in, and Stockholm loosed his battle cry.
Then the dream faded, and started all over again. It cycled like this the entire time he slept, and repeated itself the next two nights before coming to stop. He did not know what it meant, but he wondered, briefly, if Hina or Timothy had been similarly haunted. In time, he would find out.