Bill woke with a start, instantly regretted that choice, and groaned at the pain that ricocheted around his body. Lifting his head, he grimaced and ran a hand across his bandaged chest, noting the stain of blood seeping through the gauze.
Theron was still better than him, it seemed. He wished he could have been surprised by that. Facing him alone had been foolish, but with the state of things, Bill hadn’t seen any other option.
His brother had a mind to kill the woman Bill loved, who just happened to be the mentally broken Queen of the Elves, and held the essence of a God with in her. It wasn’t as if his life wasn’t already full of foolish things. What was one more?
Laying his head back, he took a deep breath, grimaced again at the flare of pain that brought, and blinked a few times, trying to clear his fuzzy vision so he could get a look at where he was. Not a prisoner, of that he was already sure. Theron didn’t take prisoners, and had no use for him alive.
He paused to consider that a moment. It wasn’t entirely true, as Bill would make excellent bait to lure Kris in. Without him, she was vulnerable, and either catatonic, or worse. Unless Bollin, April, and Scarlet had done their part, and taken her to safety, it was possible he was Theron’s prisoner.
Ignoring the pain as best he could, Bill pushed himself up and swung around to sit on the small cot he found himself upon, taking in the dimly lit room around him. Several other cots lined the wall he was against, while cabinets and work tables filled the other side. At one, a tall, powerfully built, ebony skinned Half Elf sat on a stool, mixing and grinding powders.
“Mora,” he called, hating how weak his voice was.
“Shut up, and go back to sleep, Wick,” she replied, not even turning to face him.
“Can’t,” he sighed. “Got work to do.”
Mora stopped what she was doing, glancing over her shoulder at him. “Try standing, then, and see how far that gets you.”
Bill frowned. “That bad, huh?”
“Worse,” she admitted, returning to her work. “You were dead.”
“Sorry I missed it,” he said, leaning forward to rest his face in his hands. “Guess I owe Argorand a favor, then, do I?”
“No,” Mora told him. “She considers this repayment for betraying you the way she did.”
“Hmm…” Bill mused.
They sat in silence for a while, until Mora finished the mixture she was working on, and set it over a small flame to condense. Turing to stand, she strode to Bill and pushed him back into a sit so she could look him over. “The Mistress’s power is not infinite, however. Returning your soul to your body drained her severely, and she has been recovering while your body overcame the shock of being brought back to life. If you ask me, you do still owe her a debt.”
“Your bed side manner sucks,” he commented as she poked at him, drawing more than one hiss of pain out of him.
“Be glad you can experience it at all,” she scolded, giving him a harsh look that faded after a moment. “We thought we’d lost you for certain.”
“There’s always next time,” Bill said with a smile.
Mora cuffed him upside the head. “This is not a joke, Wick.”
“Believe me, I know.” He shook his head, then sighed, and planted a hand on her broad shoulder, forcing himself to his feet. “It’s the fate of the world.”
Mora frowned as she rose to steady him. “Not that you care about that, of course.”
“No, I really don’t,” he agreed. “I only care about her. Everything else is above my pay grade.”
“Then do yourself a favor, and rest. If you strain yourself, you could leave her alone, and defenseless.”
Bill considered that for a moment, and finally relented with a nod, allowing her to ease him back down. It killed a part of him to do it, but he knew, Mora was right. Pushing himself to hard right now would only lead to the opposite result of what he wanted.
For Kris, he would rest.
“Good,” Mora said softly, running a hand through his hair. “Besides, it’s already been a week. There’s not much more you could do at this point.”
“A week,” Bill exclaimed, forgetting everything else and trying to stand again.
Mora stepped back, crossed her arms, and watched him sway. When he fell back onto the cot after only a moment, she nodded.
“Fine,” he groused. “I’ll stay put.”
“Not that you have a choice,” she told him with a wry grin.
“Seems that way.”
Mora shook her head and returned to the work table, removing the concoction she had been preparing. “The Mistress has already gathered what information about your love she could, and she is well, it would seem. It would appear Bollin has taken her to safety. We are not certain where, but as we could not find her, it stands to reason it is a place only his children would know.”
“Theron was one of his children,” Bill pointed out.
Mora gave a small laugh as she poured the mixture into a cup and returned with it. “No, my old friend, that man was never one of Bollin’s children. He wasn’t worthy of it. Not like you, and those fine women you call sisters. He couldn’t be.”
Bill couldn’t help but smile at that as he accepted the cup. “That’s most kind of you to say, Mora, considering the number of times Scarlet has bested you in battle.”
Mora smirked and waited for Bill to drink before saying, “Perhaps, but I have always left her defeated in the bedroom.”
Bill managed not to spit the medicine up, gave her a dark look, and drained the rest as she smiled. Things he didn’t need to know.
“I’ll inform the Mistress you are awake.”
Bill ended up waiting another day before Argorand came to see him, Mora letting him know she was still recovering as well. He spent the time thinking, replaying his battle with Theron over and over in his mind, looking for all the things he had done wrong, and finding many. The first, obviously, was in taking him on alone.
That hadn’t been necessary. It was pride that had made him do that. Foolish, arrogant, pride. Help had been plentiful. Perhaps not from Bollin, or April. Certainly not from Scarlet. Argorand’s mercenary army, however, had been standing right there, and he had ordered them to stand down.
That was the thing he found he regretted most, and resented himself for. Each of them was as capable in combat as he was, something he well knew form the numerous times he had fought along side many of them. Had he but asked, they would have waded into the fight without hesitation.
He had seen Christina in the hall, and knew her daggers were as deadly as April’s. He had seen Thalia, her twin enchanted maces at the ready. He had seen Ophelia, her greatsword in hand. He had seen Rin, the two eastern style longswords at her hip already half drawn.
There had been more, too. Many more. As he revisited the fight, examining every detail, he found that every woman in that hall had been ready to come to his aide. They had not, out of respect for him, not just as a fellow mercenary, but as a friend. They had wanted to, however. He could not ignore that.
In their eyes, on their faces, had been their desire, to help him kill his brother.
Fool that he was, he had refused them, and missed his best chance to end this. Possibly, his last chance.
By the time Argorand came, Bill Wick was ready to beg her help.
Mora entered first, lowering the already dim light. She said nothing, and Bill didn’t ask. The brawny Half Elf had said her Mistress had been weakened, and Bill had a fair idea of what that meant. Argorand was as prideful as he was, and wouldn’t want to be seen in such a state.
Out of respect, Bill accepted that.
Once Mora had gone, a door on the opposite side of them creaked open, and the brief flare of a cigarette burning lit the doorway. Bill waited patiently as light footsteps made their way forward, and the soft sound of a stool moving reached him.
“So, you aren’t dead,” Argorand’s voice came in the near dark. “Guess that’s something.”
“You didn’t have to save me.”
“No, I didn’t,” she admitted. “But, I only agreed to put you and Theron in the same room. I never actually agreed to help him kill you.”
“You and your loopholes,” he chuckled.
“The art of the deal is in the wording,” she said, voice light with mirth. “Of course, I didn’t expect him to fuck you up as badly as he did. Bringing you back wasn’t easy.”
“I owe you,” Bill acknowledged. “Thank you.”
Argorand snorted int he dark. “You don’t owe me anything, William. All debts are paid, on both our ends. Or so I hope.”
“They are, yes,” Bill agreed. “We are still on equal footing, and can part as friends.”
Argorand was silent for several moments, and Bill felt a sense of melancholy wash his way. “We shouldn’t be. I betrayed you.”
Bill shrugged. “That’s the life we lead. We are mercenaries after all.”
“There are things that should hold above that, though,” she said softly. “Friendship should be worth more than any amount of money.”
“It is,” Bill replied slowly. “I don’t blame you for what happened. It was my own foolish pride that brought me to this point. I knew there was a chance Theron had already paid you to betray me. It was a risk I took, without thinking. You were just doing your job, nothing more.”
“Nothing more,” she snorted, voice thick with disgust. “I’m sick of this job. I’m sick of this life. I’m sick of all of it. Everything.”
“Argorand,” Bill started.
“No, William,” she cut in, anger lacing the air between them. “You’ve never done me wrong. Not once. There’s many of my girls who wouldn’t be here today, had you not been by their side in battle, watching their back. They are no different than you, either. Strays, the world had cast aside, that I gave a life, a home, and a family. I owe them better than to betray the one who was there, keeping them alive. I owe better to you. I owe better to Bollin, who has been a friend to me, when no one else was. I owe all of you better than to hide behind the thin lie that it’s just the job. That it’s just the life! I fucking owe better to my friends!”
Bill sat quietly, hearing the tears in her voice, and not knowing what to say. The silence returned to linger between them.
“I don’t blame you,” was all Bill could find to say.
“Maybe you should,” she shouted, the sound of the stool falling reaching him, as her vague form in the dark stood. “I blame me! I do! I didn’t ask any questions! I just took the money, and betrayed you, Bollin, and her! Fates curse me to hell, William, I betrayed the one person I never should have! Again!”
“Argorand,” Bill whispered.
She was on him in a blink, hands closing around his shoulders with inhuman strength, pushing him back, face contorted into a mask of self loathing and rage. Even in the dim light, the pale green of her skin, and dark green of her hair, was obvious.
“I did! I betrayed Ar’Verum! Again! My chance, William, to make right what got me cast out in the first place, and all I do is shit all over it! I deserve the blame! All of it! I should have killed him the moment he came to me and brought you his head! I should have been standing by you, all these years, as you protected her! What did I do instead? Huh? I got rich, and fucked! That’s what!”
Bill rested a hand on her arm. “You saved a lot of lives. You gave a lot of orphans a home. You gave them purpose, and family.”
“I made them killers! I gave them permission to betray anyone and everyone for profit!”
“They were ready to cast that profit aside and stand by me in that fight,” Bill told her. “I saw it, on their faces. If I had but asked, they would have said damn the profit. That is what you made them. Noble souls, far more than me, who would put friendship above any profit, even yours. It was my foolish pride that cast their offer aside.”
Argorand stared into his eyes, her own wide and shocked. “I told them to stand down, too, William.”
“Do you really think they would have listened, had I asked them to join me?”
Slowly, her face fell, and a sad smile crept over her lips. “No. Of course not.”
“Why is that?”
“Because friendship means more than money.”
“Then how did I fail so badly?”
“I’m alive. I’m still alive, and I have another chance. I don’t see the failure here.”
Argorand collapsed against him and wept. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Bill held her. “I know. It’s okay, I forgive you. She would to. Probably.”
“How could she?”
“She’s like that, sometimes, when she’s close to being herself. When her and the other one are in agreement. For you, saving me, they would be.”
“I promise, to all the Fates, I will make this right.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Bill said, pushing her back and wiping her tears. “Maybe it means I can get a discount, when I hire you to help me kill Theron, and whoever he’s working for.”
“No discounts,” Argorand said, her smile thin, and tired, but humor in her eyes. “For a friend, though, whatever you need. Free of charge. For her, me and my girls will do whatever you need.”
“We’ll make him pay.”
“Yes, we will,” she nodded.
Bill wrapped her in his arms, and held her for a time, allowing her to spill her grief, her sorrow, and her regret onto his chest, where his own wound still healed. She was a friend, and it was the least he could do.
The fallen Nymph vowed, as she did, to avenge the Goddess she had once served, and make right what she had put wrong.
A day later, and Bill was again sitting in Argorand’s bedroom. Unlike before, she was dressed this time. It was in supple leathers that hugged her body, showed skin, and a generous amount of cleavage, but still, dressed, so Bill felt a little better.
Nor were they alone, Mora hovered near her Mistress’s side, and at Bill’s request, Rin, Thalia, and Ophelia had joined them. Of all of the women in Arogrand’s service, they were the three Bill had fought beside the most, and trusted completely. His battle with Theron had shown him his folly, and this time, he wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
This time, he was gathering all the backup he could find. First, however, he knew, they had to be aware of what the fight they were entering was all about. They needed a lay of the land. He had to tell them the whole story, of who Kris was, how they had met, and what had lead to her being so broken.
He owed them that.
As he finished telling the story, Argorand leaned back on the bed, and stared at the ceiling, her green hair and skin still plain, the magic she had expended to return Bill to life not fully recovered. By her side, Mora quietly seethed, as the others simply looked thoughtful.
“The bastard,” Argorand said at last. “Burning Shana’Thar. Unforgivable.”
“More than,” Mora intoned, her hands clenched at her side.
“This is bigger than that act, however,” Rin put in, looking to Bill. “If what he says is true, and I’ve no doubt it is, then Theron aims to kill the last God this world has. Considering it is Ar’Verum, the mother of nature, we cannot know the effect it will have.”
“It could possibly destroy the whole world,” Ophelia told her. “Let’s not sugar coat any of this, yeah? We are talking about what could well be the end of the world here.”
“No, it would be,” Thalia sighed, going to sit in the chair next to Bill’s. “Mina just got back a bit ago. She said that her search for Bill’s family lead her to the inn he told us about, or rather, where it was. The whole area was devastated, and people in a town not far away said there was some kind of catastrophe recently. They said they saw mountains turning to dust.”
“Kris,” Bill whispered.
“There was no sign of her, or Bollin and your sisters. There were bodies, or at least, remains, but none were familiar,” she added quickly. “We are certain they escaped with their lives.”
“I know they did, if what Mina found is even half as bad as I’m expecting,” Bill said, but still offered her a smile of thanks for her efforts in sparing him worry.
“Ar’Verum awoke,” Argorand said, still staring at the ceiling. “Seems she woke up on the wrong side of the Elf, too.”
“She’s angry, over the desecration of Shana’Thar,” Bill replied. “She has been since it happened. The only thing that holds her back is Kris, and how broken her mind is. She can’t focus, so Ar’Verum can’t wake up enough to do anything.”
Rin shorted at that. “I suppose we should be thankful, then.”
“Not really,” Mora warned. “Her anger is that of a God. It doesn’t fade. It just grows stronger.”
“Well, shit,” Rin managed after a moment.
“Basically,” Bill agreed. “Sooner or later, Kris will come back to her right mind. I’ve seen signs of it trying to happen already. It is just a matter of time. When she does, I’m pretty sure she’ll be able to placate Ar’Verum, and keep the world from getting blown apart by a pissed off Goddess.”
“Or, considering what happened, she may just help her,” Thalia put in, drawing looks of annoyance. “What? I’m just saying.”
“Well, don’t,” Mora snapped.
“No, she’s right, that is a possibility,” Bill said, waving Mora to be calm. “I’ve got a contingency plan in place for that, as well.”
“Such as?” Ophelia asked.
“Take all the blame on me.”
“Bill, that’s nuts,” Rin shouted. “She’d erase you from existence!”
“Better than the world,” Bill said pointedly. “I was there. I failed to stop what happened. If I can get her to blame just me, then she’ll vent her anger, and it’ll be done. It isn’t much of a plan, I admit, but it’s the only one I’ve got.”
“No,” Argorand sighed, finally looking at him. “That’d work. Ar’Verum is a nature deity. She’s quick to anger, and violent when she is, but just as quick to cool off once someone has paid the price for riling her up. That’d probably work, though I can’t say I care much for it.”
“Can’t say I do, either,” Bill admitted. “My first time managing an angry God, though, so I’m kinda making it up as I go.”
“I’d say your doing pretty well so far,” Argorand smirked. “Worlds still turning after all, so at least you haven’t cocked it up.”
“Pat on the back time,” Bill joked, drawing a chuckle from the others.
“So, what is it you’re going to need from us, then?” Ophelia asked. “Besides killing the people responsible for making this mess, that is.”
Bill nodded, turning back to business. “The thing is, we still don’t know who Theron is working for. I’ve got a fair notion that this goes beyond just starting a war for profit now, though. Theron seemed pretty invested in the idea that Kris, and by extension, Ar’Verum was a genuine threat to the world, and specifically, to the Verithorn Empire.”
“Yeah, he was saying the Seven Realms could use Kris to enslave us,” Thalia nodded.
“Which I can see being scared of,” Rin nodded. “I mean, she is a God, basically.”
“She is only wrathful when provoked, though,” Mora cut in. “So, why provoke her?”
“We don’t have enough information,” Bill said, spreading his hands. “Which is a problem. It’s hard to form any kind of a counter offensive, when you have no intel. So that’s the first thing we need to do. We need to know the lay of the land.”
Argorand shrugged. “I’ve been working on that for a while. Riza’s been looking into it, but whoever it is, is playing things close to the vest.”
“If it’s Riza, she’ll find the answers, sooner or later,” Bill nodded. “So, for now, all we can do is wait and see what she turns up. In the meantime, we need to start planning how to keep Kris alive until we know who we are going after.”
“I’ve got a thought on that,” Thalia said. “But you won’t like it.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Theron knows she’s alive now, so we can’t put that cat back in the bag. Instead, we flood the gossip channels with news of her being all over the place. Keep his resources so divided chasing down false leads, he can’t find the real her.”
Bill mulled that for a bit. “You’re right. I don’t like it. A lucky break could put him right in front of her.”
“He needs less than that now,” Argorand pointed out.
Bill frowned, knowing she was right. “Who are you going to have handle it?”
“Dominica,” Thalia said, as if it was obvious.
Bill nodded. “Okay, that’ll work.”
“Which just leaves us with the question of how we are going to get Kris out of the country,” Rin sighed.
Bill grimaced. “Yeah, we can’t do that.”
“Uh… why the hell not?” she asked, dumbfounded.
“Because, the only place I could take her, where I know I have some leverage, is back to the Seven Realms. That’s not a place she can go right now, though. Not without a lot of risk of her remembering before she’s ready.”
“Didn’t you tell Bollin to take her there if it came to that?” Ophelia asked.
“Only if it came to it,” Bill countered. “Which, knowing Bollin, it hasn’t, and won’t. There’s no certainty she’ll remember things if she goes there, but that risk does exist, so I’ve avoided it, just to be safe.”
“So, go to Kondameir,” Thalia shrugged.
“There’s history there, and I’m not overly welcome,” Bill admitted with a chagrined look.
Every woman in the room rolled their eyes, but it was Mora who said it. “That time you accidentally kidnapped the Princess.”
“Can we not talk about this?” Bill begged. “I was young, and stupid.”
“Okay, so running is not a good option, but is still an option,” Argorand chuckled. “Doesn’t make things easy, William.”
“Who ever said life was going to be easy?” he laughed.
“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Still, it puts us at a big disadvantage, especially since we don’t even know where she is.”
“I know right where she is,” Bill said. “So, what I need right now, is for you guys to help keep Theron off my back, and gather information. Once we know what’s what, we’ll make a battle plan, and put an end to this. After that, it’s up to Kris, really.”
They all nodded, save Rin, who stared at Bill doubtfully. “There’s something else, isn’t there? Something you aren’t telling us?”
“What makes you say that?” he asked, keeping his face neutral.
She scowled at him. “Because I know you, Bill. You always like to keep an ace in the hole. This isn’t the time for that, though. We need all the cards on the table here.”
He sat for a bit, considering that, then sighed, and rubbed his eyes. “Okay, yes, there is one more thing. The real reason we can’t leave Verithorn and just hide out somewhere else.”
“Which is?” Argorand asked.
Bill told them.
They all agreed it was a really good reason.
With the full weight of what they faced before them, the small gathering set out to try and save the world.
“Leaving?” Argorand asked.
Bill glanced up, saw she was back to her human coloring, and nodded with a smile. “I can’t wait any longer. Bollin really will try to smuggle Kris into the Seven Realms if I don’t show up soon.”
Argorand nodded and crossed the room, the soft tick of her heels on the wood the only sound. Bill got the feeling she had something to say that she didn’t want to, and nodded slightly as he straightened up from pacing his equipment.
“You know, those aren’t very effective in combat,” he told her, gesturing to the stiletto heels of her knee boots.
“When your as good as I am, everything is effective in combat,” she snorted, pausing to strike a sultry pose.
Bill admitted, it was damn sultry. “If you say so, Mistress.”
“Watch it now, William,” she smirked. “You’re getting on my good side.”
“Plan to stay there, too,” he chuckled.
She laughed at that, then grew serous again. “I wanted to thank you, before you left.”
“You know what for.”
“You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?”
“No idea what your talking about.”
Argorand stepped up to him, caressing his cheek. “For giving me a chance, to earn a measure of forgiveness. For forgiving me yourself. For letting me help. For not taking your anger at me out on my girls. For being a good man, in a world that doesn’t want them. For everything.”
Bill nodded slowly. “You are welcome, my friend.”
She returned the nod, kissed his cheek, and stepped back, clearly relieved, grateful, and a bit unsettled. “I’ll have a squad watching your back all the way to Bollin’s cabin. They’ll keep their distance, but they’ll be there, covering you. When we learn something, I’ll let you know. When you need us, give the signal, and I’ll bring everything I’ve got to bear.”
“Thank you,” Bill said.
Argorand shook her had quickly. “Please, don’t.”
Determined, he grabbed her hand, and squeezed it. “Thank you.”
Flustered, she finally nodded, her eyes bright with tears she forced herself to hold back. He saw she understood, though, and that was all he needed.
They were good. All debts were paid. All wrongs forgiven. They could part as friends.
With that, Bill set out, to go home.
“One little, two little, three little piggies,” Kris sang as she lounged over the low fence that keep the small group of pigs in their pen. “Cute little piggies, too!”
“Be careful, sweetie,” Scarlet called from where she was hanging laundry to dry. “Don’t fall in. You’ll get dirty.”
“I’d be a dirty girl!” Kris announced, waving a hand, before losing her balance and almost falling in. “A really dirty girl!”
“Yes, you would,” Scarlet laughed. “Then I’d have to give you a bath. Again.”
Kris giggled, and swung back to the ground, then jumped up onto the fence, landing with perfect balance. “It’s okay. I’m not actually that clumsy. I just like to pretend I’m a dog sometimes. I’m actually a cat, though, so piggies don’t scare me.”
Scarlet shook her head as she hung a shirt. “Still, be careful. Bollin won’t like it if you track mud into the house again.”
“Okay!” Kris cried as she walked along the fence. “One little, two little, three little piggies, all safe from being bacon!”
April stepped out onto the porch, scanned the area for a moment, spotted Kris, and frowned. Scarlet caught her eye and shook her head, making the Halfling’s scowl deepen. Still no sign of Bill, but none of anyone else, either.
It didn’t surprise her. The cabin was pretty remote, after all. Considering the number of switchbacks the trail took to reach it, and cliffs that trees ran right up to, it was unlikely anyone was going to find them this far out in the mountains. Though, Theron wasn’t just anybody, and they had all been in on their guard since they had arrived.
“Bacon, bacon, who eats bacon?” Kris sang as she circled the pen. “Nobody right in the head, that’s who!”
April shook her head and stepped back inside, where Bollin and Roberta waited. Gilly had already left to do the task Bollin had given him, though Scarlet had to admit, she missed the old innkeeper a great deal. He was easily the best cook of them all, and as it turned out, a rather enjoyable person to have around, with a quick sense of humor, and plenty of stories to tell.
“Nobody I know likes to eat bacon,” Kris kept singing. “Except maybe Billy, and he’s not here.”
Scarlet froze, eyes cutting to Kris quickly. The Elf stood, on the fence, staring at the sky sadly. Dropping the trousers he was holding, the Half Elf darted towards her charge, but only made it halfway there before Kris began to cry.
It was the worst part. It happened often, too. Kris would realize Bill was gone, and simply collapse into tears. When it happened, the small group had already learned that no one could calm her, save Scarlet. While nobody said anything, they all feared the worst at this point, and were at a loss as to what to do about the situation.
Sooner or later, they knew, Kris would lose control again, and next time, even Scarlet may not be able to bring her back.
“I want my Billy!” Kris wailed, still standing atop the fence.
Scarlet was to her at a dash, and grabbed her hand. “He’s coming, sweetie, I promise. Look at me, okay? See me.”
Kris sobbed uncontrollably as she turned her eyes to Scarlet, and in them, the Half Elf saw the flickers of green energy. “Where’s Billy? I need him!”
“I know, baby, I know. He’s hurrying, I swear. Just stay with me, okay? I need you to lean on me until he gets here.”
Kris wailed again,the sound cutting through Scarlet’s heart like a knife. She was no replacement for Bill, something she well knew, but for him, and for Kris, she had to try. To fill those impossibly large shoes was no easy task, and one she wasn’t cut out for, but still, she had to try.
“Billy!” Kris screamed.
“Baby, please, calm down,” Scarlet begged, squeezing her hand.
“Heya, babe,” Bill called.
Scarlet felt her entire body tense, going cold, and warm, at the same time. Kris was already gone, hoping over her and running towards Bill. Slowly, Scarlet turned, eyes wide as she dared to hope it really was Bill, and not some trick of magic.
She heard the cabin door open, and knew, April was already aiming a dagger. Jsut as she knew Bollin was grabbing his axe, and Roberta was doing whatever it was she did. All of them, for the sake of a mad Elf, were ready to kill a man with Bill’s face, if he even so much as twitched wrong.
It was for family. They would do far worse for that.
Kris flung herself at Bill, and he snatched her up, hugging her tight. In his eyes, Scarlet saw tears, and relaxed. Waving a hand, she gave the clear signal, and was running before she knew it, grabbing them both, and hugging them tight.
“I’m home,” Bill whispered to them.
“Did you bring me anything?” Kris asked.
Bill sighed heavily. “That’s the first thing you ask me?”
“I wanted to know,” Kris pouted.
“Yes, I brought you something, but you can have it later,” he muttered.
“I want it now,” Kris cried, squirming in his arms and waving about.
“Kris, behave,” Scarlet chastised.
To Bill’s shock, Kris settled down, leaning into Bill. “Okay, but only if I get a cookie for being good.”
“Always,” the Half Elf smiled, tousling her hair.
“Well, I’ll be the son of a Dwarf,” Bill said softly.
“You are, you damn fool,” Bollin roared as he headed across the yard, April and Roberta in tow.
“Yeah, Lawrence,” Kris said.
“Stop,” Bill pleaded.
Scarlet was laughing before she even knew it, and turned away, to keep Bill from seeing her tears. She failed, and knew it, as she felt his hand on her shoulder, and glancing back, saw the warm smile on his face. Nodding, she leaned into him, and was hugged tightly, his whispered words of thanks drifting to her.
Then, the rest arrived, and chaos ensued, and it always did when they were together.
Bill was hugged, squeezed, threatened, chastised, and hugged again by his father, and his sisters, for far longer than he thought necessary, all while Kris clung to him, her words and actions silly, but in her eyes, he saw such relief, it made him want to block out the world, and just hold her for eternity.
When everyone finally had enough, Bill stepped back, holding Kris by the hand, and just admired them. His family. How lucky was he, to know such love, and acceptance?
Damn lucky, he felt.
“Roberta,” he finally said, nodding to the towering immortal. “Do I even want to know how Bollin dragged you into this?”
“By accident, love,” she chuckled, stepping over to give him a warm embrace. “It’s good to see you in one piece, still.”
“Wait, hold up,” Bollin barked. “How do you two know each other?”
“It’s a long story, but I did a favor for the Archmage of Ryfell once,” Bill shrugged. “We got to talking, and well, I know more about you than I want to now.”
“Nonsense,” Bollin huffed. “You acted like you didn’t know him back at the inn.”
Roberta shrugged. “I’m thousands of years old, darling. Forgive a girl for being a bit senile.”
“More like she didn’t want you asking too many questions about what she told me,” Bill chuckled.
“That, too,” Roberta admitted.
Bollin huffed about it, then waved the whole thing off. “Whatever. Where the hell you been, boy?”
“An even longer story,” Bill sighed. “But, not an entirely bad one.”
Bollin arched an eyebrow. “Some good news to bring back, then?”
“Not exactly, no,” Bill said. “But not bad news, either. Just news.”
“Well, did you find that worthless cur, or not?” April snapped, tired of them dancing around the issue. “And how dead is he, if you did?”
Bill glanced at Kris, but she was picking her nose. He moved her hand away, saying, “I did, but he got away. Learned a few things, though, which we’ll get into later. For now, it’s enough to say I’m back, and found some reinforcements.”
“I don’t see any reinforcements,” April scowled.
Bill raised a hand, and snapped his fingers. Figures appeared, as if by magic, emerging from shadows and behind trees, silent as fog, and twice as inscrutable. All wore dark leathers, and masks, save one.
“Hey, guys,” Rin nodded, putting a sword to April’s throat before the Halfling could even reach for her daggers.
“Fucking shit,” April growled.
“Rin!” Kris howled, running to the woman and, for no apparent reason, grabbing her breasts. “I haven’t seen you in forever! How are you?”
“Good,” Rin replied, looking a bit nonplussed as she put her blade away, seeing April had understood her greeting well enough. “How’s you?”
“Lonely,” Kris admitted.
“So I see,” Rin nodded.
“Kris, stop that,” Bill begged.
“Stop what?” Kris asked, blank as a slate.
“This?” she asked, massaging Rin’s breasts.
“Uh,” Rin managed, turning red.
“Kris!” Bill and Scarlet both snapped.
“I’ve been lonely,” the Elf wailed, burying her face in Rin’s cleavage.
Rin turned a violent shade of red, and whimpered, “Help”
“Not on your life,” April smirked.
“In a minute,” Bollin coughed.
“Only if I can get in the middle,” Roberta grinned.
“Kris, for crying out loud,” Bill groaned.
“Stop that,” Scarlet snapped, hauling the Elf off of the other woman. “You only do that to me, dammit!”
“Sorry,” Kris pouted.
“Yeah, no,” Bill grumbled, pulling his lover to his side.
“I guess things went well with Argorand, then?” Bollin asked.
“Damn well,” Bill agreed.
“There’s lots of armed ladies around,” Kris observed. “Can I play with them?”
“No,” Bill told her. “We’ll talk about it later. For now, rest assured, Rin and her team are watching the perimeter, so we’re secure.”
“I was watching the perimeter,” April muttered.
“And now, the big girls are handling it,” Rin told her, patting her head.
“Bitch,” April snapped.
“Don’t forget it, half pint,” Rin shot back.
“Ladies, can you indulge your rivalry some other time,” Bill groaned. “Priorities.”
“Fine,” they both sulked.
“Fates save us,” he moaned.
“We’ll be here,” Rin nodded, and waved a finger in the air. With that, she and the others melted back into the shadows.
“Ooohhh,” Kris oohed. “Ninjas!”
“I get the feeling there’s one hell of a story to tell here,” Roberta said, admiring the departing view.
“Shitty story,” April muttered.
“Long story, and it’ll get told, but for now, I’ve got some catching up to do with Kris.”
“How far did you throw me?”
“Nope. Not doing it.”
“It’s out gag!”
Bill wrapped an arm around her and headed for the cabin, his family in tow, his friends watching is back. Come what may, he knew, for the first time in years, he could handle it. Not by the strength of his arm, but by the strength of the bonds he shared, with better people than himself.
“Can Scarlet take a bath with us?”
“But I’m a dirty girl!”
“What the hell?”
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No piggies were harmed in the writing of this short story.