My troubles only seem to grow the longer I remain in this town…
Odiri and I had been sitting and drinking at the Rose Shell since quite early in the morning. I was relatively deep into my sake, but Odiri was swimming in it. Oranssi had only just sat down with us. Some new additions had been made to the teahouse. Next to where the company charter had been hung on the wall, Madam Saru had installed a glass display case with a fine metal frame and large glass doors. Inside, there were many racks, but only one weapon held inside. Roth's new axe, the ancient artifact we had found in the troll cave. At the top of the case, a sign declared the contents to be property of the charter. Rather considerate of Madam Saru to make such a thing for us. We had certainly not asked for it. But it was good to know our party had her support and approval.
Naligor, who we had not seen in quite some time, entered, signing his name on the hanging charter and taking a seat at the table. He had been spending quite some time out with the farmers in the fields, making friends of them. I was willing to bet from his smug look that quite a few were women, and at least some of them were happy to host a hero in their home for the evening. He was not satiated enough, clearly, because he immediately made moves on Charka, who was more that pleased by the attention. I do not think my heart will bear it if I am forced to godfather the spawn of such an unholy union…
Odiri ordered up as much Maiden's Breath as Madam Saru could muster, though Naligor ended up paying for it, as she drunkenly explained our plan to set up a waystation at the Gaea Shrine. Oranssi cast a silence on Odiri for a brief moment to explain the plan a little more legibly to Madam Saru, over which Odiri was righteously infuriated. Madam Saru offered to purchase supplies for us at wholesale price from Elder Yen. A sound deal was made, and the materials would be ready for us the next morning. Then, we would depart on our mission.
We exited the Rose Shell and headed to Kenten's to acquire other necessities for the journey. Naligor kept plying Odiri with more booze as we walked. I asked if she should really be drinking so much. There must be only so much a body as small as hers could handle. She indignantly replied that she was just fine, while Naligor regaled to me with a story of her last serious bout of sobriety. She had vomited wildly over the side of the ship that brought them to port. Lovely.
Oranssi and I bantered on the matter of our sexual conquests, and Oranssi was rather surprised to hear that I'd never had a halfling before. Beside the fact that I'd only known a few in my entire lifetime, I had kept rather faithfully to my vows. The pause to the conversation was palpable. Ah, of course, none of them knew I had a wife. A great deal of shock all around to the revelation. Was it so unusual for a man my age to be married? Odiri had an unexpectedly visceral reaction to the information. Visibly upset, she made to run back to the Rose Shell. Oranssi tried to stop her, but Xiao reared up protectively. I'd seen that bear do serious damage before. I warned Oranssi off. It was better to let her go. To follow her would be unwise on all accounts, so we proceeded to Kenten's.
At the Forge, we placed an order with Master Kenten for a large cauldron. Having one at the waystation would be particularly useful. It would take some time to make, but he lent us a one gallon pot to use in the meantime. Oranssi seemed particularly excited. Admittedly, there is little in life that can make a soldier as happy as the prospect of a warm meal.
Kenten overheard that I had requested a letter of credit from Elder Yen and inquired as to what I would be needing from him. I requested a shirt of chain, which he was more than happy to fashion for me. Oranssi and Naligor sat by the hearth, imbibing on meat pies and drink, as Kenten took my measurements. I observed his measurement taking, and I must say that I was rather alarmed to see what had become of my figure. Not that I had much bulk to me before, but I had grown rather thin with woodland living. He set to work, linking chains here, splitting them there. I watched him at his work, comfortable and familiar. One thing I truly regret about leaving the military was the loss of custom fittings such as this, though I would sooner perish in ill-fitting armor than live in a fine suit with the crests of my old shame. In about an hour, he had fashioned a set of chain and a grey gambeson to go with it, a color of my house. I thanked him, and we departed back to the Rose Shell.
As Oranssi and Naligor went upstairs to fetch Odiri, I chose to remain at the bar. If it was my confession of marriage that had so deeply upset her, it was for the best that I not try to mediate the situation just yet. Oranssi returned downstairs shortly, joining me with the excuse that Naligor had gone to handle the situation. He'd spent a cycle in a female form, whereas neither of us had ever, so he was likely the best to converse with her. The military wasn't really the place for women. I'd had a few women among my corps, and I have heard that women were more prolific adventurers within the Republic, but my experience of them was limited for the most part to wives, servants, and whores. All deserving respect, of course, but not so easily understood. Oranssi agreed with me, and Odiri chose this rather unfortunate moment to overhear us. She seemed to be absolutely seething with anger, all directed to me. As she stalked off, gesturing rudely as she left, Naligor joined us, as well as Madam Saru. He seemed rather peeved with me as well, while Madam Saru seemed all too knowing of where I had gone wrong. Ah, Odiri had taken my actions for flirtation… Not to say that they weren't, but I had not thought the effect of them would be quite so dramatic. Naligor was ready to fight me in defense of Odiri's honor, but Madam Saru protested that the only fights she would allow in her establishment were the ones she could sell tickets for.
The following morning, Odiri was no less angry. But her anger had turned to ignoring me outright. Naligor took her side, while Oranssi tried to keep out of it entirely. An awkward start to the journey, to say the least. We retrieved the supplies from Madam Saru, loaded them up into a skid for Xiao to pull along, and set off. On the way out, we stopped to converse with some of Naligor's farmer friends, who kindly offered us a cart though we had no need of one. This put us behind enough that we were out the gates at noon, forcing us to camp on the road at nightfall. Odiri had not spoken a word to me the entire journey. She took the morning watch that night, firing back at me that apparently halflings need to sleep. I took the first watch, though I admit I was beyond focus. I spent it all pacing, considering whether or not to apologize, and for what? Naligor swapped off with me, and I went to meditate.
I was woken suddenly in the night by a sharp stabbing pain in my side as I was pierced through by the serrated blade of a kobold. There were fourteen of them, seven on the ground and seven in the sky. I recognized their heraldry quickly as the same we'd seen at the Thousand Sage Temple, an owl with outstretched wings. The hilts of their swords clicked and glinted with bone baubles, rodent sized and likely harvested from the pellets of owls. Rather morbid little detail, but there was no time to think hard on it. I quickly dispatched the one that had stabbed me. Naligor killed three immediately with the fire of a moonbeam, a ritual he must have been performing in the night, reducing them to ashes. Oranssi similarly took out the one behind him with a brilliant flash of the light of his goddess. Odiri killed the one attacking her, but we were all pelted from above by a round of boulders. Naligor transformed himself into a giant spider, causing Odiri to scream bloody murder at the sight. I took out the one above her head before it could to any damage in her distracted state. Even if she didn't care for me, I still had to care for her. Naligor dispatched the one that had attacked Charka, and all I could imagine, with a shiver, was the consequences of her gratitude to him. Oranssi healed everyone as Odiri fumbled her shot, still struck by the sight of Naligor's spider form. The kobolds flew down upon us and struck with slashes, retreating into the air again. As I dispatched another kobold with a well fired arrow, I sensed what Naligor was up to with his moonbeam, sending Charka out to the treeline as I retreated. Naligor moved the moonbeam into the path of a kobold, burning him to ash with it, then hopped up a tree. He pounced out of it and onto another kobold, taking it down midair. This only further terrified Odiri.
She continued to scream until Oranssi took out the last kobold and Naligor turned back into a more sensible shape. He knelt beside her and proffered a bottle of the Madam's finest. Naligor joked that Odiri could ignore him for a few hours if she felt she needed to. I snapped back that he should try being ignored for a full day. Odiri definitely heard me, as I hoped she would. It was childish, but I was getting antsy. All this, because I mentioned my wife? Before long, Odiri was asleep, curled into Xiao's massive form. He made a perfect bed for her, and I couldn't help but laugh at how adorable the sight was. Laughing? Wasn't I supposed to be mad?
Morning came, and we trekked nearly another full day to reach the Gaea Shrine. Being twilight, it was too late to start any serious work, but I threw my efforts into gathering materials for the next day. Odiri still wasn't talking to me. I staved off my thoughts with the force of hard labor until I could do nothing but rest empty-headedly.
I woke early for the morning watch, walking about the camp in observation. I was still drained, more so emotionally than anything. I had known what I was doing all along, playing courtship with Odiri. I dare not admit that my gestures of flower crowns and weaving were flirtation. Though they were, to make that concession would be to forfeit my vows. These games had to end if I was to keep that faith…. and yet I did not want them to. When I gifted her that crown, why did her smile fill me with such addictive warmth? Had she not given me that ounce of her interest… Had I not been so kind in the first place…
As the sun began to creep over the horizon, peeking its rays through the bamboo and illuminating the grasses, I came upon Odiri's sleeping form. She had slept again in a nest of Xiao's fur. Little drops of dew, sure to evaporate in the rising heat of the day, crested her short hair in a halo of crystalline jewels and kissed upon her eyelashes. My chest ached sharply. She stirred, and I dared not look any longer.
We spent the day setting up the waystation. A large yurt was erected, with room enough for a fire inside and a ventilation hole at the top. Naligor put down a layer of packed moss for flooring, then I cut apart bamboo and he packed it again for a more permanent solution. I toiled with the same abandon as the night prior, seeking any escape from my thoughts. By the evening, we had a decent shelter erected. There would be opportunity to improve on it further, but it was good enough for the time being. Some celebration was in order. Oranssi excitedly concocted together a stew of the last of the boar meat, and imbibements were passed about the fire.
I do not recall what set me off. Odiri had said something, of course, but it seems so silly now. In response, I took along some drink and stalked away into the woods, Charka following at my heels. I walked far enough, found a quiet place to collect myself, and Charka and I spoke at length. We did this often, but never before could Charka respond to me in a tongue I could speak. She'd always been a great comfort to me, but now we could truly converse, more so.
My thoughts were wild. With anger, with hatred, with confusion, without clarity, without aim. Something in me did stir for Odiri. She and are are much alike. Though not in species similar, we are both kin of the forest and, through that, we have bonded. Why else then would such conflicting feelings of utter vexation and care coexist? I had not meant to hurt her, but I, the fool, had so heartlessly led her on, and the mention of my wife had set her to despise me. This was not what I had wanted at all.
But was what I wanted permissible? 56 years I had not seen Allaya! 57, counting the year I had been away in the field before I departed. I did not even tell her why. I bequeathed her my estate and all of my possessions with an apology, but vague! So vague! My last kiss goodbye to her was with the promise of return, and that promise, among so many, I broke. Though my love for her never wavered, even now, how could I know that her's remained constant? I know not what hurts my soul more: the idea that she may have found another and replaced me, or that my betrayal may have driven her to despair. At first it was fear for my life that kept me from her, but now there is only shame. How could I go back now? But the hope clings desperately to the bottom of every bag of horrors is so difficult to let go of. Perhaps Allaya waits for me. Perhaps she is as forgiving as I remember her. Breaking my vows would mean forfeiting that possibility, however slim. It would be a sin. It would be wrong. Morally reprehensible. A punishable offense. The only honorable thing to do would be return, even so many years past and with my tail between my legs. Yet fear grips me, and I cannot bring myself to go.
This is all without speaking of Tannion. My son! My only son! Who knew me so few years of his life and now has only legends of scandal to know me by. He will be soon of adventuring age. I can only hope he can eke himself something good of the world that is untainted by me.
Drawing me away from that truly depressing line of thinking, Charka asked of my thoughts on my companions. Well, sexually speaking… Kodu was a good fellow, though a confused one, and certainly chaste by measures of monkhood. But I would rather have taken my knife upon myself than ever argue with him about language semantics ever again. Frivolity was absolutely out of the question. Imagining such a union was painful. Much the same for Albion, though for entirely different reasons. Naligor was the devil and, useful as he was, needed to stay the hell away from my dog. Charka didn't like that. She asked of Oranssi and I sputtered. No, certainly not him. Not that I didn't like him. He was a fine lad. Attractive enough. Loyal. Not too many hangups (lies, many hangups). I hadn't been… entirely faithful to Allaya when I was on the front. Soldiers have needs that unfortunately cannot be fulfilled by wives at homes far, far from the battlefield. It's an entirely forgivable transgression! But never again would I go with soldiers. A handful in a lifetime was enough. No-one else struck my fancy much. But of course, there was Odiri. Back to these dangerous thoughts! As truly maddening as she was, she fascinated me uniquely. Infuriating, yes, but infuriating in a good way. She kept me on my toes. Kept me interested. And why, why did I feel this need to protect her? Certainly it could not only be chivalry… could it?
Our conversation was interrupted with the sound of weeping. Drunk, undone, I drew my bow and called into the woods. Odiri's shaking voice replied. Oh. I set aside my bow and went to the source, finding her huddled with her arms pitifully about herself, face streaked with tears. I remembered the dew on her lashes…
She wouldn't speak to me at first, denying that she was there at all though I could see her clear as day. I asked how much she had heard, and the answer was much. Under any normal circumstances, I would have been absolutely livid at being so intimately intruded upon, but I couldn't bring myself to anger at the pitiful sight of her.
Her next words surprised me. She said I should go home. That I should return to my family, if only because they were my family and it was the right thing to do. She knew what it was like to leave people behind without a word, to leave them not knowing whether you were alive or dead or what without them. Her own family? Had she done the same to them? (Were we truly so similar?) She knew her own situation could not be the same as mine, but still she knew the hurt that it could bring. There was, of course, this family to consider too. Our company that we had made. A family of sorts, but not the one I'd left behind.
That shook me, and yet I found myself finding reason after reason not to go, tumbling into despair. How could Allaya possibly want me back? My name is blackened. My house is debased. I myself, so wounded, am a disgusting specimen. How dare I even think to return with my filth to her pure bed? Again, the thoughts that she had found another reeled me. Perhaps she had indeed found another and was much happier without me. And if I did go back, it would be my old post or nothing at all. How could I go back with the , looming possibility that it would be a waste? I had left for a reason. Why then return?
Odiri wept again and wrenched her hair between her fingers, covering her face with her hands. I know not what compelled me, but I put my hands to hers and pulled them away. I wanted to see her eyes. I wanted to know her in truth. I told her that I could not leave. There was so much more reason to stay than go. I couldn't leave this. "This? ," she asked, and I knew she meant us, the hands, our eyes meeting.
Suddenly, I was overtaken by honesty. A spell, I'm sure, and not of my own doing. I am incapable of such strong casting. But spell or no, I was forced to speak true my mind. Odiri seemed as much taken by it as we both eyed one another with hesitation and confusion. She blurted out that she liked my eyes and something else I didn't quite catch because she clamped her hand quickly over her mouth to muffle it. Kiss, I think I heard? Oh my. I was stunned. I'm sure I was running rather red in the face, redder still when I told her I thought her shortness of height was adorable. She took no offense to that, to my surprise.
The many flowers we stood in began to grow quite suddenly as a thin, lovely mist surrounded us. More magics, I was sure. Someone would pay for that later. The grasses about us grew so tall that they began to engulf Odiri, overtaking her stature. Instinctively, I picked her up, fearing that she would be lost in it. She wrapped her arms around my neck for support, and I could feel the warmth of her body held against mine in the cool night air. She smiled. Lightly, but my breath caught in my throat. "I'm glad you're staying," she said. I don't know what came over me, but I was emboldened. Compelled. I leaned my head in close to her, and she mirrored the motion. I felt the spell of truth break, but I did not stop for it. Our lips met. Chaste. Brief. But they met none the less.
Perhaps it is my fate to be an oathbreaker.
The "mysterious" growth of nature around us subsided and the mist retreated back into the moonlit woods. I set Odiri down. We exchanged looks. "I'm okay with this." And I was. The guilt would catch me later, but then and there, it was okay.
We walked back to the camp, silent, hand in hand, not caring if we were seen together (because Naligor and Oranssi were the most likely culpruits of the magic anyhow). Entering the yurt, both were suspiciously smiling and doing nothing at all. They asked what we were up to. The gall! We lied, but the jig was up. Ah, so it was them. Xiao lunged up to attack Oranssi, who dodged. I sent Charka on Naligor, who was pushed to the ground. Of course, Naligor said he liked his women on top and I was absolutely disgusted. (Charka wasn't. Eugh). Oranssi cast a calm over us, sitting both Odiri and I down. Embarrassed of the whole situation, I drank again and found the most distant corner to meditate in for the remainder of the night.
In the morning, Oranssi made a breakfast of porridge in his pot. He really loves that pot. It's rather endearing. Odiri had made some effort to dressing herself. She'd even done her hair some, it looking a lot less disastrous than usual. I was immediately made conscious of what a mess I must have looked by contrast. I had not even put my own hair up…
We discussed the future of Shore Blossom, Naligor and Oranssi filling Odiri and I in on what conclusion they had come to the night prior. It was clear from the day we all arrived that the town was stagnant. A sole port of trade with distant lands. Only enough farms to subsist a population, but not expand it. Or sustain it long. And the lands beyond were rich with resources, but only we few were brave enough to face the very real dangers of gathering them. If the Goblin Queen intends to claim the city, as she most certainly must with her presence here, a single magical wall would do little to stop her. I have seen the damages done at her bidding. I have seen what she has done to a well-protected lands, and I cannot bear to imagine what would be the result of an attack on a land as incapable of facing her as Shore Blossom stands now. The town must be changed if it is to stand any chance. Odiri pointed out that bringing too much change too quickly could prove disastrous. In this, she was right. Shore Blossom is an old place, founded on tradition and legend. To break those overnight is an impossible feat. Naligor suggested to go through the Council of Elders. Madam Saru and Elder Yen were already on our side. The rest could be convinced to see our side. Small steps are necessary with the public, and Oranssi suggested that Odiri, though no diplomat, could use her skills as a storyteller to benefit the cause.
We proceeded to the ruins of the mine, having discussed earlier that mapping it out clearly and ensuring it is safe would prove useful in the long run. We traveled north, encountering the Pond of Echoes halfway on our journey. Despite being warned not to tempt fate, Naligor skipped a stone across the water. A tendril reached out and dragged it under, but nothing more. We moved on quickly. The woods grew familiar with both a path previously traveled and with tall, deciduous trees. As we walked, Odiri plucked up flowers from the ground and threw them playfully at me. I paid no mind for the most part, though I did catch one bloom and tucked it behind an ear. The unusual green reminded me of the color of her eyes.
Arriving at the clearing and making camp, Naligor pulled out a clear amber stone. He explained that it was an artifact he purchased from Elder Yen, a stone from the wedding ring of Lady Hana. It was given to her by the hero Prince Yuan, and it would glow brighter when in proximity with her tomb. After exploring the mine, we agreed to use it to try and find the tomb.
The following morning, I woke with a crown of flowers in my hair, but only in mine. I cannot help but say it made me smile, and I left it there with my hair undone beneath. The favor would be returned. I imagine I'll get quite good at weaving flowers this way, though that's certainly not the point of the exercise.
We entered the mine. Oranssi took the lead, then Naligor, then Odiri, then myself. I walked with my hand on Odiri's back, protectively guiding her in the darkness. First, we encountered the giant frog. I'd been pretty eagerly looking forward to meeting him again! He seemed much the same, though a little less full and a little more digested. Naligor transformed into a fellow frog to converse with him alongside Odiri and I. We found out that the frog was rather pleased by our hobgoblin gift, though the taste was rather foul, and he had been having difficulties keeping fed. His name was Third One, as he was the third tadpole of his pod, and he'd fallen into the mine while looking for food outside his pond. The ground had simply caved under him, and he'd been stuck there since. We promised to aid him in finding a better home as soon as we could, and in return he promised us safe passage.
In the next chamber, we encountered two undead shadows who attacked Oranssi ferociously. There was not much that Odiri and I could do to help, as our arrows could do little damage to them. One was dispatched when Oranssi fired a celestial bolt into it, destroying it with a celestial chorus. The other was taken out by Naligor with an explosion of moonbeam fire. Healing up and resting briefly first, we proceeded into the next chamber, where two stalactites dropped from the ceiling, one nearly missing Odiri and the other nailing poor Oranssi. They were not stalactites, however, but writhing, disgusting, one-eyed fiends. Charka and Xiao took out one of them, and Oranssi the other. Satisfied that the mine was clear, we vowed to return with Adi so he may cast wards on the place and prevent any further such unfortunate interactions.
Returning to camp, we drank heartily that night the last of the drink we had taken along with us. Spirits were high and the evening was spent pleasantly. Charka gained a collar of flowers at some point in the drunken revelry. It definitely suited her, as much as she hated it.
The next morning, we followed the amber stone of Lady Hana as it glowed this way or that, guiding us to her tomb. First north west, then west. The trees seemed to grow as we went, taller and thicker, and the forest teemed with wildlife. Otherwise, it was absolutely deserted. We did not encounter another living soul across so many days of travel. The next day, we found ourselves in another region of the forest. Here, the trees were large, virgin trees, spaced evenly apart from one another. Wildflowers licked our ankles, while floating petals and leaves kissed our cheeks. This place was lighter, brighter, and the beams of the sun came through the canopy, illuminating floating pollen as though they were tiny, dancing, glowing orbs. For two more days we traveled through such beautiful forest, feasting on the many fruit trees and berries. Plenty of flower crowns were exchanged, of course.
Finally, we came to an orchard bearing fruit of all sorts, some of which I had never seen before in my life. Garden stretched as far as the eyes could see, criss-crossed with cobblestone paths and bright with color. Stonework stood about of fountains, benches, and statues, but all were decrepit and uncared for. The garden itself seemed overgrown, as though nature had begun to reclaim the space as her wild own. There was a palpable sense of sadness to the place. Ah, Lady Hana's tomb. This most certainly was it. I wish I had better the tools and skills to fix this place. It could be so lovely.
In the distance, we began to hear a deep echo resonating throughout the garden. Louder and louder it grew, until it was a wail. A banshee. It was the screech of a banshee. As if sensing our eminent danger, our keys began to glow. Odiri grasped my hand tightly, and in an instant, we were at the gates. She did not let go until we were well inside the safety of the walls.
Alone now and writing this, I think on Odiri. The guilt is only beginning to catch up with me, and I know not how to proceed. I fear that I am doomed. If not doomed, then at the very least I am damned.