Chapton yawned, and shaped his mouth into his "secretary" voice. "Why doo you keeep dropping bellls down mye well?"
"O Secretary of the Great and Wise Chapton, we are in need of your wisdom and justice. A gilman and a land-dweller cannot resolve their dispute, and the surveyors must judge."
Chapton leaned his head out into the well, and checked the sky. Eight o’clock.
"Hee will be oout sooon."
"Thank you, O Secretary. We shall meet him at the North Pillar."
Chapton took his time over breakfast — new-fangled tomato, well accented by garlic — then flew off to meet them.
Wildflower & Vinnie
They gazed at the house across the street. Pan’s house.
"What are we waiting for? We need to know what Pan’s up to!"
Narsifiette dashed out of a back room. "I can’t find my glaive."
"Did you look beind the couch?"
"Is it under the icebox?"
"How late were you and Vinnie’s gang up last night?"
"They didn’t take it. It was in my room this morning morning."
Vinnie and Wildflower searched as thoroughly as they could, but neither the couch, the icebox, nor the room had much space to hide a seven-foot weapon.
Eventually Wildlfower spied a fluttering tapestry. Behind it, there was a person-sized hole.
Narsifiette found tracks in the alley.
The disputed land was on a river bank. Four people stood in the mud, arguing: two Strix, a gilman woman, and a feline figure in a tall hat.
When Chapton landed, the gilman drew herself up to her full height. "I am Nadia Alanatanil, and this is my land! Ever since our ancient treaties, the Gilmen have claimed the land within one pole of the river. The boundary wall may have been washed away by the meteor floods, but our claim is clear. Give us the land that is our due!"
The other figure doffed his hat. "That is not true. Upon square land, I built my flat. My land was square; my wall was there. The river gap was thin, not fat."
Chapton raised his eyebrows at the surveyor who’d led him here. The other Strix shrugged.
The tracks led north and east. Through the Noble Quarter, through the bustle of the Forge District, and towards the Mining Hills. From what Vinnie had heard, there was an old hermit who lived out in these mines.
But right now, there was a cluster of Strix, gilmen, and … someone arguing in front of him. "Which of you took my fiancée’s glaive?"
Several blank looks.
"One of you must have taken it, because it’s gone now." Vinnie stood straighter. "Speak up!" Dawnbreaker popped into his hand, blade glistening in the sun
Chapton took a step away from the sword, and raised his hands. "Vinnie, you were very drunk last night, right?"
"So was my sword."
"You carry a lot of stuff around with you, right? Could you have picked up the glaive by mistake?"
Things popped into the air around Vinnie and rained to the ground. Bedding. Bottled soup. Soap. Dried soup. ("Why is there so much soup?!")
Moths fluttered over the pile.
The glaive wasn’t there, but they did have a trail to follow. Vinnie picked the most distinctive set of footprints: bird-like ones leading through the muddy floodplain, then north. Then west. Then back to Chapton’s feet.
"Did you steal the glaive?"
"For the last time, no!"
While Vinnie was yelling and carrying on, Wildflower focussed on the other argument.
"So you can’t figure out who owns the land? Why don’t you just wrestle for it?"
Vinnie looked up from a pile of junk. "That’s a great idea!"
The Gilman woman shook her head. "The records should be registered with the lands office. The land is clearly mine."
One of the Strix rolled her eyes. "Not when we checked."
"Look, why don’t you just split the disputed land in half?"
"Because — "
"Actually, that may work. We can put in a new border post."
Wildflower, Vinnie, and Chapton
With that settled, Chapton agreed to help the other three look for the glaive. Luckily, the tall-hat wearer knew where to find the hermit:
"Go east ten steps. Spot one sharp rock. Go south. Turn left. Pass two tree stumps. Due east, then north."
Vinnie’s eyes were blank.
Chapton translated the directions into multi-syllable words.
"Who’s there?" A breathless voice rose out of the mine. "Go away!"
"We won’t hurt you. We just want to know if you saw a person with a glaive come past."
"Don’t ask me about — about that guy."
"Are you OK? You don’t sound good."
"I’ll be right. They fell from the sky, OK; don’t ask me how. Went to the temple of Ae’ and O’." The voice took several deep breaths. "I’m not coming out until I’m sure they’re gone."
They let the hermit be.
The Temple of Aei and Oe was half shrouded in shadow, and half lit by unnatural pink sunbeams.
"Race you in!" Vinnie launched into the air. Chapton was already aloft and ahead of him.
Behind them, Wildflower moved — and was at the entrance.
They walked in. The outer chamber of the temple was lined with couches and cushions. A play-room, but for now empty and silent.
A severed hand fell onto Vinnie. He looked up.
"Gullible" was written on the ceiling.
Blood still dripped from the letters.
Wildflower spotted something under a couch: a leg. The rest of the body was buried under cushions several feet away, along with another leg.
Vinnie did what he could, but the dismembered heads and torsos were past saving.
A cold gust blew out of the temple’s inner sanctum. Four heads turned towards the inner doorway.
Wildflower stepped in first.
The room was full of children, sitting quietly in their seats. Wildflower was giving a presentation to them, about being a wrestler, and a hero. About the face behind the mask.
Quenton wasn’t wearing a mask.
Vinnie lived on a farm, tending the goats as his father had. There was Narsifiette, and a vague sense of children; but he spent most of his spare time immersed in the books of his youth.
Tales of adventure, all of them.
Chapton entered the sanctum. It was full of children.
They all lay there, quiet.
Quenton woke up.
It was the day of the school presentation. They had to get ready. Wildflower couldn’t find their mask.
Vinnie grew old. Grass turned from green to yellow, then from yellow to bare dirt. He wrote of his time as Paladin. Memoirs, or perhaps fiction.
Wildflower woke up.
The presentation wasn’t real. The stage wasn’t real.
Exit, stage left. But the wall there was solid. Wildflower hit it, and was rewarded with a crack. They pulled their first back again…
There was a crack overhead. Marble fell from the ceiling.
Chapton looked up. The sky outside was dark.
At the end of the drought, the fires came. Vinnie soaked the thatch with water, then they sheltered inside as the embers started to fall.
Had there been something else? Vinnie reached out, and held Dawnbreaker just as Paladin had. The sword’s eyes were shut.
A bundle of burning thatch fell in front of him…
Wildflower struck one last blow, and the temple collapsed. The sky outside was clear.
Chapton, Wildflower, and Narsifiette stood in a pile of rubble. They dug out who they could.
Vinnie was bruised, but still breathing.
Many of the children were less fortunate — scared to death before the heroes had arrived. Wildflower healed the ones who were still breathing.
Whatever had attacked them was gone.
A set of bloody footprints led towards the river, but it would take a moment before the heroes were ready to give chase.
The idol of Aei and Oe was missing, as were the priests. Rebuilding the temple, and burying the dead, would take time.
Afterwards, Wildflower found the time to write.
Vinnie sat, nursing a bottle, but Narsifiette pulled him to his feet. She led him through the hills, silent. When she turned around her face was white: “It’s starting.”
To Be Continued