At first, Tunic was not really responsive to my kiss. I suppose I must have surprised him. He wavered indecisively, probably because I had nearly slaughtered him with insults moments ago. But when he kissed me back…
I wouldn’t have said I have kissed a lot of guys, just Cade and Ladd and a few others here and there. And, with Cade at least, I had felt that surreal bliss which fills the head with wonderful tingling sensations. But when Tunic kissed me, it was as if I had never been kissed before. It was not that he had technique or anything; it was probably his first. But, Tunic was genuine, passionate, and responsive. Cade, who I had once thought was perfection, seemed greedy, intrusive, and insensitive in comparison. I suppose it was my own infatuation with the idea that Cade desired me that had skewed my perspective.
There was only one thing to be done to make the kiss perfect. I placed my hand on Tunic’s face to erase the imprint left by Felina’s hand. I gently ran my hand up the side of his face, mimicking her motion. My fingers traced over his ear and… It was arched peculiarly. Almost as though it came to a point.
Tunic instantly pulled away from me. I was confused with his sudden withdrawal. He tugged his hat down further on his head.
And then I understood. He had spent his life hating what he was. Humans and elves are almost identical in appearance except for elves’ inability to grow facial hair and their pointed ears. The long hair and hat had been worn to hide his most distinct feature.
“Don’t,” I instructed him as I closed the distance he had placed between us. He frowned as I raised my hand to his face again. He was clearly fighting the desire to move my hand. I didn’t expect him to undo years of self-preservation so suddenly, but I wanted him to know his being an elf did not change our relationship. So, I put on my most sympathetic expression and said to him, “I understand. You weren’t expecting me to be such a talent kisser. It may be shocking at first, but I think we can get you accustomed to it.” And then I flashed him my cockiest grin.
He rolled his eyes, like he always did when I said something so foolish.
“The important thing is practice,” I continued.
This set him into motion. And not the sort that Cade would have taken… No, Tunic patted me on the head sympathetically and then walked around me to retrieve my pack. He tossed my possessions at me and gestured that we should depart.
It felt wrong, on one hand, to be so cavalier after so monumental of a quarrel. I wanted to speak further about what had happened, but it was always my habit to talk. Yet, I was content perceiving that Tunic was attempting to hide a smirk. It was not the smile of amusement from my jest either; it was his attempt to conceal his contentment. Though I wished to, now was not the time to address his discomfort with his heritage. I chose to be content that I had given him a reason to smile and so, on the jest went. He had, after all, just jilted me.
“Alas, I finally understand rejection,” I mimed my heart being stabbed. I was going to continue on in my melodramatic act, but had an epiphany halfway through delivery.
“I understand!” I cried out. “You,” I shouted, pointing at Tunic. “You are the one who can kill the monster. That’s what Imena meant; she said a human could not kill the monster. But, you are an elf!”
Tunic had already figured that out apparently. He grabbed my elbow and pulled me into motion, leading us out of Kiho’s valley. How he navigated in the fog, I will never fathom.
“It is curious,” I thought out loud, “That she would send me though. I mean, if all she needed was an elf, why not just send you? She saw you before me. I suppose my purpose was to exert enthusiasm for hunting the beast. I don’t suppose you would have gone off on your own to do so. You needed my passion to motivate you.”
I thought Tunic would find my self-importance amusing, but he met my humour with a grimace. He shook his head, denying my statement.
The gravity in his expression drained the cheer from my voice. “What do you know?” I asked.
“Ezebel, our monster, considers herself the mother of the elves. Apparently, she promised that if any of her ‘children’ require protection from their enemies, that is, the humans, she can be awakened to unleash destruction on them,” Tunic detailed.
“And, what does that have to do with me?” I did not understand the connection.
Tunic grimaced. “The summoning requires human blood.”
“Oh,” I pressed my lips into a line. “I see…” I was to be a blood donor. “And this is what Kiho told you?”
Tunic nodded his affirmation.
“What that old man said then, was true. Whoever sought after the monster spilled their blood and they were unable to defeat it. I suppose the vindictive faerie then destroyed their hometown. Or, perhaps, she is limited only to destroying the home of the one who has summoned her. Though, that does not explain why the monster was first awakened.”
Tunic’s brow rose in surprise that I had not already figured it out. I frowned in thought. It should have been evident though, and I felt a fool for not having conceived of it earlier. “Felan and Felina,” The twins must have found the monster’s concealed cave (for it had been sealed and hidden generations ago) and brought a hapless victim with them. Shedding the human’s blood, they awakened the monster and then would-be heroes like me had foolishly sought the monster. They did not need many victims, just one from each settlement. These desperate humans, like I would have if I had not had Tunic, would likely have been delighted with the company of two others claiming to want to defeat the monster. “That’s why Felan wanted me to fight you!” I realised. “He didn’t expect me to win; he wanted you to strike back at me.” Apparently, the misconception that I was a stout mercenary did not extend beyond the garment maker and his driver. They had perceived Tunic was the true strength between us… or perhaps had a reason to favour him over me.
I remembered Felina’s familiarity with Tunic and her wandering hand. “They knew you were an elf,” I realised. “That is what Felina was saying to you when Felan poisoned my mind. Does that mean they are also elves?”
Tunic nodded, unable to hide his disgust.
“So they first awakened the monster and they wanted to use me to bring it out again,” I summarized.
It was distressing news. Neither of us doubted the despicable twins meant me harm (and perhaps, Tunic).
“We must use all haste,” Tunic warned me. “They may try to ensnare others or have some plot against you.”
I glanced at the foggy abyss above us. It had darkened considerably. “Yes,” I agreed, “Haste is necessary. But I think, perhaps, we should pause for the night. If I am not mistaken, we are near nightfall and the fog may conceal us if that pair are still after us.”
Tunic conceded, but on the condition that we retire immediately. I did not, however, drift to sleep easily. Tunic’s estimation that my blood would be required to awaken the monster did not bode well. Kiho had required Tunic’s blood as a proof of friendship, but the monster used it as a tool for vengeance. How much blood would it require to awaken the faerie? Would she drain my veins or be sated with only an aperitif. Whatever illusions I had about heroically besting the monster transformed into eerie predictions of how my ineptitude could worsen the situation. My optimism and confidence struggled under the weight of decreasing hope. Nevertheless, I did not waver in my decision to try. The wretched images of that desecrated village seared my mind with purpose. Although each passing day seemed to bring further disappointment and revealed greater incompetence on my part, I had not forsaken my decision.
“Besides,” I thought to myself, “You have Tunic accompanying you.” And it was with thoughts of his qualities that I finally found ease and the ability to rest.
We rose early the following morning and were out of the fog by about nine in the morning. We agreed to speak no more of our knowledge of the monster lest we were overheard. Whatever mirth had lingered from the previous day remained concealed as adrenaline began its course. The gravity of our undertaking began to settle.
To my disappointment, the humidity did not decrease when we exited the fog of Kiho’s valley. The air was tense, as though the heavens, which were blackened by heavy clouds, strained under their weight.
“A storm is coming,” Tunic commented.
I nodded my agreement and glanced to the skies. A distant rumbling disagreed. The storm had begun, though it had not reached us. “We should hurry,” I suggested, beginning to jog.
Around us, rumbles of groaning clouds and distant crackling thunder foretold our fate. I tried to smile reassuringly at my companion, but found my face fixated in a grimace.
Our course was in a northwestern direction and though trees still dotted the sky, Keegan Heights began to shape. The heights were not the greatest mountains in the land, but they were the largest I had seen. Unlike the landscape to the south, the Keegan Heights were bereft of vegetation. They stood as dark blue spears into the horizon.
We jogged and walked for, what seemed like, an age. The heights grew gradually nearer and the vegetation declined. The heavens, still struggling with their load, began to loose. Drops landed on my face and hair, but we continued without comment.
Our road took us up a small hill and when we reached the apex, we sighted the terrible siblings who had been the cause of so much destruction. They stood apart from each other, by some distance. Felan’s arms were crossed and Felina had one hand on her hip. Neither moved as we came into view.
“At last we found you,” Felan exclaimed in mock relief.
“We had feared harm came to you,” Felina smirked.
Tunic snatched my arm, pulling me to a halt. I had forgotten how imposing Felan was, how malicious Felina was. My hand reached for my father’s knife, but I kept it sheathed.
“We would have been sorry had harm come to you,” Felan continued.
“Before you were brought to Ezebel’s fountain,” Felina corrected.
I cleared my throat and felt my heart tremor in fear though our opponents did not advance. They smiled at each other like a pair of kitsune.
“By all means, continue,” Felan gestured for us to come forth.
“We do not mean to waylay your progress,” Felina assured, mimicking her brother’s gestures.
“You can do the job as easily as we,” Felan addressed Tunic.
“Bram,” Felina looked to my companion, “Just remember what I told you.”
Tunic slipped his fingers through mine and slowly led us between them. My eyes fixated on our road, not daring to look at the fiends who wished to use me to unleash hell on my family and friends.
“Come find us brother,” Felan told Tunic.
“When you have finished,” Felina added.
“We will celebrate,” Felan concluded.
We passed between the twins carefully and confidently, but once they were out of sight, I began to tremble. Though we had not told Felan and Felina about the arrows which could slay the faerie, their haughty display caused me to fear any attempts we would make would be futile. I concealed my fear by increasing our pace. We were doing exactly what they wanted us to and I could not help but doubt our course.
If we failed, if Tunic could not kill the monster, then we would be dooming Kennbridge. But, if we fled now, other settlements would likely perish. It was too much to consider, so I focused on the weather.
The skies, which had gently been painting us with dark splatters, thundered. The nearly tree-less path ahead was streaked with the hazy lines of rain. As if responding to my notice, the heaven above us opened and drops, so constant that they seemed as streams, descended upon us. There would be no comfortable barn awaiting us this time.
When the northwestern course ended in a sheer cliff face, Tunic requested Imena’s map. Thankfully, it had been waxed, or the dampness would surely have ruined it. He steered us west to an ascent that was less treacherous. Water streamed down the cliff making it a slick, black horror. We might have been able to climb it if it had been dry, but even then, I would have doubted our chances. Now, with water flooding down, it was impossible.
The severity of the incline decreased as we circled to a different approach. Eventually we stumbled upon a path.
A bolt of lightning struck the mountain. Three seconds passed and then thunder roared around us. I leapt at the sound, but refused to succumb to fear.
I led us up the path, concentrating on each step. Lightning struck again and after two seconds, the thunder boomed. Tunic’s hand tightened on mine, stopping my ascent. “We need to find shelter,” he shouted above the pounding rain. It was then I realised I had never let go of his hand. I nodded dumbly as he searched about for a suitable location. “There,” he pointed to a cave-like opening. We sprinted off to it as another flash of lightning struck the mountain.
The cave was not really a cave; it was more of an alcove. We pressed our backs to the concave wall, taking advantage of the small amount of shelter. At least the wind was lessened in our alcove. I released Tunic’s hand to brush back the hair that had stuck to my face and wrung out dampness from its strands. Then I braided the stringy bangs and tossed them to the back of my head as I had done when I first sheared my hair. I attempted to squeeze some of the water from my garments as well, but found them too soaked to make any difference.
The lightning lit up our alcove and thunder sounded almost immediately. It was deafening.
To keep my mind off the frightful storm, I spoke. “Tunic,” I addressed him, “Not that I don’t trust you, but would you be so decent as to inform me what the plan is when we get to the monster’s cave?”
“There is no plan,” Tunic replied.
“Do you think it will take long to reach the cave?” I asked, withdrawing Imena’s map.
“Not long,” Tunic promised. “You can see the cave from here.”
“What?” I asked. He pointed in the direction and I poked my head out of our shelter to follow the line of sight. It was not immediately evident, but there was a small opening in the mountainside that poured forth a crimson light – the faerie light Felan and Felina had mentioned.
“We will go no further tonight,” Tunic made the decision. “Rest as best as you can, I fear tomorrow will be more than we can handle.”
I trembled at his words and moved to sit beside him. Lightning flashed again, the wind swirled the beating rain, and thunder crashed. It was really happening. I had come to the door of the monster and tomorrow we would knock. It was a battle I could not fight, even if I had been armed. And Tunic, who had to slay the beast, was as frightened as I. We had no advantages on the colossal faerie; she was more powerful, older, and wiser. But, even though I quavered in fear, I would not retreat and allow others to be destroyed. Someone had to stop the monster forever and I was not going to skirt the responsibility.
Tunic stared forward, nearly unblinking. His mind, obviously, lost in another place. I leaned my head on his arm, a physical reminder that we were not alone. Though he did not cease his blank, forward-looking stare, his arm rose and wrapped around my shoulders. I nuzzled into his chest the way I had so often done to my father when I was a frightened child.
I must have drifted for the next moment the sun beat on my face. I stretched the tension out of my muscles only to find Tunic already awake, not having moved. I wondered if he had slept.
His expression asked if I had rested enough.
I ignored the question, from the sun’s position I could tell I had slept too late. I dug into my pack and found I barely had enough rations for breakfast. I passed Tunic his half.
Our garments chafed, still wet from the downpour, as we ascended the mountain. Even in the daylight, the faerie light could be seen. It must have been about an hour away from our alcove.
Though it was sunny, and all traces of clouds were gone, the air was cold. My fingers ached, but I could provide them no solace. There was not a dry or warm part of me. To make matters worse, the last stretch before the cave was so steep, I had to use my hands to claw forward. My feet slipped on the loose gravel that the fiendish twins had loosened from the rock face concealing Ezebel’s cave.
The entrance to Ezebel’s cave was so small we had to crawl, like infants, through it. I was about to enter when Tunic halted me. “You must not utter a sound when we enter,” he demanded. I had never heard him so insistent and hastened to affirm. He looked me over, from head to toe, and then his gaze settled on my father’s knife. He drew it from its sheath and dropped it to the ground.
Then, he gestured for me to go first and as he did, his countenance grew dark. I had never seen such an alteration in him before. I regret that, for a second time, I remembered Felan’s warning about Tunic. I swallowed and refused to allow that devil to tempt me again. Tunic was my friend and I would trust him.
I began to enter the hole, but could not fit with my pack. I had to strip it and my cloak off before venturing forth. Tunic emulated my actions, but his pack he tied to his leg, dragging it behind himself. He would need the quiver and bow after all.
It was agonizing to crawl through the rocky passage with frigid hands and crimson light blinding my sight. But I held my curses to myself, having promised not to make a noise. The tunnel entered into a massive cave, triple the size of Imena’s.
The walls and pendentives were bedizen with such intricate panache that it must have taken a hundred sculptors a hundred years to complete. At the foot of Ezebel’s pool stood two marble simulacrum faeries that were as large as Imena had been. Their hollow eyes gazed down on my diminutive form with utmost contempt. I swallowed my frisson of fear.
Tunic crawled from the tunnel and secured his pack. I turned my gaze back to the room and noted the lack of a font for the bloodletting.
I felt Tunic’s hand grasp the back of my tunic and shoved me into the room. I stumbled forward, scraping my freezing hands on the gravel that had tumbled onto the smooth floor. I bit my tongue, unwilling to voice my pain. I turned to communicate my confusion to him, but the man who I looked to was not my friend.
I mean, it was Tunic. But it was not. He glared at me with such disgust that I shrank in fear, not of the faerie, but of his wrath. He came forward and grabbed my tunic again, hoisting me to my feet. I choked at the violence of his movements. My feet could barely keep pace with his as he forced me forward. We came to the edge of the pool and he released my collar with a shove. I stumbled forward again, landing with a groan.
I looked to the man who had been Tunic. His hand reached back to his pack and a knife appeared in his hand. He gestured to a placard fixed to the faerie simulacrum. In a harsh tone, he read the hieroglyphics.
I trembled at the scorn in his voice. Who was this? For the third time, I pondered Felan’s warning.
A malicious smirk appeared on Tunic’s face as he translated the message for me. “To her children, Ezebel will appear, when blood, from human hands, is forcefully taken.”
His hand snatched my left wrist, though it was the one furthest from him, and sliced into my palm with his delicate blade. I had to look away as my life seeped through my flesh. My only consolation was that he had grabbed the less dexterous arm. He folded my hand into a fist and held it over Ezebel’s pool. Blood dripped down my fist and into the water below.
I worked up the courage to sight my crimson droplets, though I dared not see Tunic’s expression.
Tunic backed from the pool, taking six or seven steps and then knelt, to await Ezebel. I watched the blood continue to drop into the pool. At first it merely dispersed into the water, disappearing. But it soon became apparent that a reaction had been triggered. The droplets started to swirl, and instead of disappearing, grew until the whole pool was crimson. In a horrid explosion, a geyser of ruddy water burst from the center and Ezebel appeared.
She was massive! She towered above her statues. Her crimson hair matched the hue of my ruined palm and her taloned, squamose wings would have better suited a dragon. There was no gossamer or silk to beautify this faerie.
Her head tilted to the side as she considered Tunic’s humble posture. He did not lift his head until she spoke. To my surprise, she spoke in Andra. “Welcome my son,” she greeted Tunic. He rose to address her, speaking in his native tongue. I understood nothing, but thought I discerned Felan and Falina’s names.
“Speak in the tongue of the human,” Ezebel replied to whatever he said. “For I do enjoy seeing them squirm as we pronounce their doom.”
“Very well,” Tunic agreed.
“With her blood, you have bought destruction for her home. And you, child, will be avenged for all the animosity you have been subject to because of those vile humans.”
Tunic nodded solemnly.
“One thing remains, and then I will depart,” Ezebel continued. “Slay the human, for by her destruction, the fate of her home is sealed.”
I leapt to my feet attempting to get in a defensible position. The colossal faerie lurked above me menacingly. She merely needed to extend her leg and I would be crushed. Ezebel, seeing my motion, stepped forward and elicited a spell that allowed her body to reduce to a smaller size. She was still enormous, but she could grasp me without crushing me.
“I allow you the honour,” Tunic bowed.
What was that!? Tunic wanted her to kill me? I didn’t want to, but I panicked. He could stop his own blow, but he could not stay her hand. Did he really wish my death?
“Sweet though your intentions may be,” Ezebel returned, “I cannot slay the human whose blood summoned me. You must do so.”
I struggled to be free of Ezebel’s horrid grasp. Her hands were icy cold, even to my frigid arms. I wanted to cry out, but remembered Tunic’s insistence. I elected to trust him, though he seemed impartial to my fate.
Tunic withdrew his bow, that beautiful carved instrument of destruction. His hand reached to his back and pulled an arrow from his quiver. I gaped and shook my head in denial. The arrow he drew did not glow with Layla’s sprite magic. It was an ordinary arrow pointed at my heart.
Ezebel laughed as I tugged and pulled and squirmed from her grasp. I told myself repeatedly that Tunic was my friend. But I could not see my friend in that cold glare. I wondered if, perhaps, Ezebel’s cave had awakened some intrinsic hatred in him. Maybe I was mistaken.
Tunic drew back and let fly. The arrow shot high above my head, right for Ezebel’s heart. I felt her grip loosen and I knew he had shot true. I scrambled from her, afraid her falling form would crush me. Sprite magic exploded in the cavern, blowing out part of the ornamental wall.
“You fool,” Ezebel’s unwavering voice ended my triumph. I turned to see her pull Tunic’s arrow from her hand, snapping it in twain.
Tunic gritted his teeth but did not betray fear. I scrambled for the protection of his presence, hiding behind him.
“I see,” Ezebel snarled. “Imena has sent you, has she?” Her eyes narrow as she allowed herself to return to her original height. “I am disappointed in you, my son. For you know how we have been persecuted by the humans. How could you side with them? I will forgive your foolishness if you slay the girl. If you do not, I will be forced to punish you.”
My hand, which had rested on Tunic’s shoulder, released. I stepped back.
When Tunic did not move, Ezebel haughtily tossed her crimson hair over her shoulder. She snapped her hand at him and, as though she had lashed him with a whip, his clothes and skin split. Five times, she beat him, until he collapsed to the ground.
“Stop!” I screamed, breaking my vow. I put my body between the monster and Tunic. “I won’t let you strike him again.”
I couldn’t do much, but I could delay Tunic’s agony and, perhaps, his death. I’d never be able to make the shot with the second arrow (assuming I could even figure out which of the normal looking arrows was the blessed one). Not that it would have mattered; Imena had said a human could not kill the mosnter. But I would not watch my friend die.
Ezebel’s hand hesitated.
“I’m a soft human,” I taunted. “A single strike might kill me. Are you willing to risk that?”
With a cry of anger, Ezebel dropped her hand. Her eyes flashed at me as she executed a silent spell. Her hair danced furiously around her as her body reshaped in the spell. “I may not be able to kill him or you, but I will destroy your home. It beckons to me, awaiting the hell I will unleash upon it.” As her words ended her body finished its transformation, and she, now a dragon, rocketed upward through a chimney.
As Ezebel disappeared I realised I had doomed Kennbridge. Tunic had not succeeded and the monster had slipped from our reach. All our efforts had been in vain. “No,” I shrank to my knees, weeping.
Tunic moved and the sound reminded me of his condition. “Tunic!” I wailed as I turned to see how grievous his injuries were. It was a miracle he was still alive! His shaking hand pulled a vial from his side pocket. He moved it toward me and I plucked it from his hand. It was the vial of purple fluid that had healed me. I popped the cap and moved to empty the remains of its contents on his wounds, but he cried out, “No, in the pool.”
“What?” I asked. “This will help you.”
“It must…” Tunic gasped, “Go in the pool.”
I bit my lip and obeyed his instructions. I jogged over to the crimson fluid and allowed the last drop to fall into its depths. The purple fluid disappeared into the pool, as my blood had at the start, but grew in size. As it spread, it drained the unnatural hue from the water, returning it to a clear fluid. I did not understand the significance of it, but Tunic had insisted.
I turned back to Tunic and saw his eyes closed in a rictus. “Tunic!” I wailed as I returned to his corpse. “Tunic, come back to me. Tunic!” Tears streamed down my face and onto his brow as I leaned forward to kiss his forehead. “Please Tunic,” I pleaded. I kissed his lips next, imploring him to awaken.
At that proximity, I heard the ragged draw of a strained breath. “You’re alive!” I shouted in bittersweet celebration. “I have to get you out of here,” I vocalized. “We’ll get you to a faerie,” I told him, in case he could hear my voice.
I leapt to my feet and dragged Tunic across the floor, wishing I had some way to bandage his wounds. The effort, though, I feared, would take too long. Besides, the wounds were not deep. It was more likely that the lashes had a magical consequence, perhaps a vampiric effect. It was not within my skill to deal with.
“It’s a good thing you’re not heavier,” I remarked. “Or else I might not be able to pull you,” I decided that perhaps hearing my voice would help him fight to stay alive while preventing me from thinking.
It would be impossible for me to find Kiho’s misty pool. I would have to take him to Layla’s and that was days away. And I would have to do it dragging Tunic across the ground as I could not carry him.
First, though, I had to get us through the tunnel. Unfortunately, I had to tie Tunic’s pack to his ankle, rather than my own. Backwards I entered the passage, moving myself two paces and then pulling Tunic along. I could not imagine the agony of having his back scraped along those rocks, but I had no other method of exiting the cavern.
I allowed myself to think of the plan to save Tunic, not because it was the valiant thing to do, but because if I did not, I would remember how I had sentenced my entire village to execution. How had everything turned out so wretchedly? Surely, there should be some recompense for trying to do the right thing. Surely, salvation was to be found yet. But no, Tunic’s arrow had been caught. A turn of events neither of us could have predicted. From that range, from the suddenness of his release, the fiend should not even have realised his altered target. But Ezebel had bested Tunic and now he might die for it. The fault lay with my insisting we be the ones who slay that wretched monster. In the end, it would be Kennbridge and Tunic that paid for my arrogance.
Forgotten was the shame that had caused me to seek this foolish adventure. I envisioned my parents and friends and was overcome with grief. “Tunic,” I choked, “Don’t die. You’re all I have left.”