To read the previous adventures of Sabine, click here. The story continues below. *** At sunset in a meadow behind a small, thatch-roofed cottage in western Serekson, a girl just on the edge of adolescence
To read the previous adventures of Sabine, click here. The story continues below.
At sunset in a meadow behind a small, thatch-roofed cottage in western Serekson, a girl just on the edge of adolescence sat on a warty, overgrown pumpkin and sobbed next to a circle of mushrooms. She’d come to this place many times, more and more as the years had gone by. Her stepmother and stepsisters all said such hateful things to her, and in that glen, she sought her only comfort.
Out from the dusk came a pale, gentle hand that wiped the tears from her eyes. “Oh, my sweet Eleanor. What have they done to you now?”
“It’s horrible, Godmother,” the girl said with a burble. “It’s always ‘clean this’ and ‘clean that’ and ‘stitch this’ and ‘polish that!’ They wish only to treat me like a slave, just as you have always said. I should never have given my father’s judgement the benefit of the doubt.”
“Indeed, you shouldn’t have, my child. Your father was a fool with his romantic life, but you musn’t judge him too harshly.” The spirit in the fungal circle raised the weeping girl’s face so they could look one another in the eye. Though she was light of complexion and black as obsidian in her hair, the girl’s companion bore a radiant countenance and wore a dazzling dress that looked to be made of many bejeweled flowers. The only incongruity in her appearance was a tiny red blemish on one cheek. “Have you made your choice at last then?”
Eleanor nodded. “I wish to leave this place and these terrors behind.”
“Very well then,” her godmother said. “Do you remember the words I taught you? The pact will bind all”
Eleanor had gone over them in her head repeatedly in anticipation of this day. Without hesitation or fear, she recited, “Oh pumpkin hear/Please hear my shout/I’ve had enough/Let’s get the hell out!/I’ve seen enough/I seek to be free/Oh please, oh please, save me!/All to you now I give/In my trust I place no other./Take, oh, take me, oh, take me from here/My sweetest fairy godmother!”
Her audience of one showed a warm smile. “That was excellent, my dear. As you wish.”
The pumpkin under Eleanor shimmered and rumbled with some unseen magical force. A grin crossed the little girl’s face, and she shut her eyes tight in anticipation. It was time to be whisked away to the home she’d always wanted.
From its center of the pumpkin ripped open with a mighty roar, and the child fell into its maw. The gourd then rolled over as its stem extended into many dozens of tentacles and shapes like a carved face formed on its front until it bore a wicked sneer.
The godmother laid a hand atop the demonic pumpkin and cooed. “That’s a good boy.”
Within her confinement the girl screamed in confusion and terror.
The godmother stepped out of the circle of mushrooms and called into the forest, “You see, holy man? That’s how you do it.”
Out from the trees stepped a lanky, middle-aged man with silver hair, dressed all in black save for the white collar around his throat. “It’s impressive work,” Deacon Struct said. “But years of manipulation for just one capture?”
The child in the belly of the pumpkin screamed something unintelligible, and the godmother smacked it with the back of her hand. “Quiet down in there, girl, the screams will get you nowhere.” She turned back to the deacon. “It wasn’t just for one. There are five other girls with stepmothers they hate spread across this kingdom. The only secret is keeping them far away from one another so they can’t form bonds with anyone else.”
“Still,” Deacon Struct stroked his chin. “That’s fourteen years for six.”
“We’re not building a congregation for the Indolent One.” She turned and walked deeper into the forest, gestured, and the pumpkin beast and Struct followed just behind her. “We’re preparing a sacrifice.”
For one of the first times since Sabine started coming to the Stubborn Ass, she noted a sudden, unnerving quiet overtake the tavern. The patrons and her fellow mercenaries usually only shut up when desperate folk made dramatic entrances and shouted about a job that needed doing. But this time quiet came, and quiet was maintained. Halfway through her mug of Ableman’s Cider, she turned toward the entrance, and she too froze up.
Dahkhal pressed his little jellyfish face against the edge of her ring. Is that the Mercenary Captain-General? What’s he doing in this pit?
Indeed, Cecilio On’Leah Halfblind walked into the tavern garbed in pristine leathers and his black eyepatch. A few seconds after he was acknowledged some of the older mercenaries started to jeer and joke among themselves again, but all of the less-experienced warriors still paid him deference.
Even Slizzer appeared to show some modicum of respect when he gave the captain a nod and said, “Evening, Halfblind. You got a rule breaker you need to execute?”
Cecilio smiled. “You know I can’t tell you that, Herb.”
The nervous external energy rushed its way internally to Sabine. She looked, wide-eyed, down at Dahkhal’s ring and whispered, “Wait, they can execute you for not following guild policies? I don’t remember, I barely read the paperwork!”
The barman’s name is Herb? Dahkhal asked. Is Slizzer his last name? We’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never once heard of Herb.
“The usual then?” Slizzer set a dram on the bar.
“That’d be excellent. Then I’ve got business.”
Slizzer poured out a thumb of vodka, cracked an egg, and dropped it into the center. The resultant gastronomical abomination appeared to stare back at its drinker.
A Glass Eye, Dahkhal said. Of course, he needs a Glass Eye.
Cecilio raised the drink in thanks and turned back toward the rest of the bar. Every fresh-blooded mercenary shrank and tried to avoid his line of sight. Within seconds he found what he sought and walked toward Sabine’s table.
“Crap, crap, crap!” she said through grit teeth. “Oh Gods, what did I do? Whose authority did we undermine now? Is this about that crazy bird lady—”
Know any weaknesses? You did used to be married to his brother.
Cecilio laid down his glass on her table. “Sabine?”
“They were making sausage! Man sausages!” She raised her hands in defense. “I didn’t have anything to do with that, the bird woman flew down the chute herself!”
The two were silent for a few seconds before he asked, “What sausage?”
Sabine looked away and scratched at the back of her head. “Err… can I help you? Sir?”
Cecilio drank his shot and laid down a scroll of parchment. “You’ve got a commission.”
Embarrassment filled Sabine’s cheeks with red. “What? But—but I’ve never seen you come here with one of those before.”
“Strangest thing, the guild had to fire all of its messengers last week.” Cecilio sighed. “We got numerous complaints about them telling lies and raving about conspiracy theories. None of them can even remember why.”
“… Huh. I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“It was an odd night for everyone. I had a dream about this annoying, redheaded brat of a sister-in-law I couldn’t stand. Then I woke up and remembered I don’t know anyone like that.” Cecilio laughed as Sabine absentmindedly brushed a red strand of hair from her face. “Anyway, no one’s ever asked for you specifically before.”
Sabine, relieved of her fear and now frustrated with the reminder, grumbled, “Oh?”
“But you checked all the boxes in this case,” he said. “I recommended you personally.”
As she punctured the wax seal, Sabine perked up. “Oh?”
“Indeed. Give it a look.”
Printed at the top of the scroll was the statement: CASE OF THE MISSING STEPDAUGHTERS- Seeking unassuming, hopefully unimpressive looking she-mercenary to serve as bait for an evil witch. If she comes cheap, that’s all the better.
To Be Continued…