This is part 4 of the tale. Don’t forget to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. All three of the ring keepers crowd inside Mayor Holtz’s office. Even the Oldest Deep has shown
All three of the ring keepers crowd inside Mayor Holtz’s office. Even the Oldest Deep has shown up instead of sending one of its acolytes. Their mess of tentacles are coiled up into a ball of yarn made from a sailor’s nightmares. A litany of open eyes dot the lengths of the appendages, each open and nearly all turned toward me. Magical stones embedded near the pupils shine brightly in an attempt to keep Oldie from drying out. A coating of slime glimmers off their body, falling into an expanding puddle on the carpeted floor. Terry’s going to love that.
I fail to completely mask my grin as I move to the chair in front of the desk. Emmett catches my eye and hides most of his smirk beneath his beard. Of the three representatives of the Accords, he has the best chance of passing as human. His ensemble consists of his usual tattered jeans, a worn-flannel, and a faded cowboy hat. Like all dwarves, he’s well short of most humans, and the shirt bulges against his disproportioned muscles and hairy chest. His beard is the only remnant of Old Folk living, braided in elaborate knots and patterns that I’m sure has some significant meaning I can’t decipher. With its seven alphabets, dwarvish is a bit easier to speak than to read or write, but only a bit.
“Constable Brown. So glad that you finally deigned to join us.” Iymira says as I sink into my chair.
She would have a better chance of passing in town than Emmett if she didn’t cling to the old ways. Pale-skinned and so beautiful you might miss the points of her ear against her long silver hair. But her clothes look like they’re somehow woven out of pearls and radiate against her skin. The constant frown she wears doesn’t even take away from any of her good looks, but I’ve been around Iymira enough to know that real beauty is skin-deep. So is aggravation, it turns out.
“Well, you know, it’s been one of those nights.” I take off my hat and run a hand through the cold sweat in my hair. “But while you’ve been catching up on your beauty rest, I’ve been having a tag-team match with a couple of trolls who I don’t think really understood the concept.”
Teresa Holtz raps each of her fingers on her desk, one by one. Such a casual motion, but she’s always been able to command a room, even back in high school. Terry’s come a long way from the girl who used to swipe smokes from her papaw and run in the woods barefoot with me. There are a few new wrinkles in the corner of her eyes and spots of grey are starting to sprinkle her short-cropped hair, but she wears authority so well that her cheap business skirt looks like it was tailor-made.
She doesn’t say a word, but I recognize the command. The keepers do too. No one interrupts, and I lay out the events of the night so far for them, keeping out the part where I shot myself in the head.
“Shake my bones, trolls.” Emmett shakes his head. “I didn’t really believe it when I heard.” He turns up one of his hands as I frown at him. “No offense meant to you, Haze, but to your messenger. Billy Bee ain’t always the most reliable source.”
“For once, we agree,” Iymira says.
“Yeah, well,” I shrug, “desperate times and all that.”
Another tap of Terry’s fingers silences us, she stands from her chair, and walks to her window. Around her are portraits of every mayor before her. Each of them is a grandfather or uncle with several greats attached to the relationship. A Holtz has always held the office of mayor in the hollow, but Terry stands out from the sea of dead white men that encircle the room, her skin just a couple shades lighter than the mahogany of her desk.
“We have an understanding of the problem,” she says before turning back to us. “What about solutions?”
“I would think it’s obvious.” Iymira turns toward me. “This is a hostile incursion from another realm. Do your duty, close the ring, and pray that those were the only trolls that got loose.”
“Incursion?” I frown. “That’s a mighty strong word to be tossing about so casually.”
Iymira’s eyes narrow. “Unlike others here, I do not take my responsibilities lightly.”
Terry steps toward her desk, but I talk before she can tap us into silence again. “They got drunk and started a brawl at the Roost. Hell, half the town’s done that.”
“And the other half ran off before you got there,” Emmett muttered.
The Oldest Deep stirs in the corner. Several of the limbs part, making a hole in the ball of tentacles. A deep rumbling fills the office followed by several deep belches. A bubble rises from the opening, pushed out by several others.The first drifts over to us followed by the others.
“Be that as it may,” a voice echoes with the pop of a bubble. Slime splashes on the ground. Another bubble floats by and pops into a fresh mess of liquid and words. “This is not the actions of familiar tides.” Terry’s lips twitch at the mess, but he remains diplomatically unfazed even as the next bubble pops. “But new waves.” Pop, splash. “The waves must be broken.” Pop, splash. “Before they swallow and drown us all.”
“Yeah.” I lean back in my chair. “So just to be sure, and sorry if I don’t get the metaphors right, the trolls cannonballed in without any of y’all inviting them to the pool?”
Terry sighs and Emmitt chuckles quietly again. Oldest Deep sits soaking in the corner, indecipherable as ever. Iymira though shoots me an icy glare that I’m sure would freeze me in my spot if we were in a realm with more powerful magic.
“You would accuse of us opening a ring? Without the consent of the other Keepers of the Accords?”
“Taking your advice and doing my job, Keeper Iymira,” I keep my tone as diplomatic as possible, but judging from her glare, I guess not diplomatic enough. “Part of my job is asking questions, often uncomfortable ones. Got to check all my boxes.”
I go around the room, everyone answers in the negative, but only Iymira seems openly hostile, and not without reason. Emmett was born on this side of the rings. Dwarven blood aside, he’s as American as apple pie. Most of his folk have acclimated well-enough to Holtz Hollow, and only a few grey-beards in their lot rouse rabble every now and then about reclaiming a new realm.
The Oldest Deep is hard to get a bead on. I only see them about once a year, and most of their folk dwell in the deepest parts of Crater Lake. One thing’s for sure, if they were ever going to hop a ring to somewhere else, it would be underwater, and the trolls didn’t strike me as particularly good swimmers.
Of all the keepers, that left just the one. And given the fresh blaze of anger that Iymira tried to contain, she knew exactly who my question was directed at.
“Your pointless questions have been asked,” she says, her dress beams even brighter. “Now follow the directives of the Keepers of the Accords.”
“First off, not all the keepers have spoken,” I say. “Second, I need a little refresher on my ring-lore. Now, way my mamaw told me a ring gets opened two ways. One, a keeper goes poking holes from one realm to another—”
“Those drunken vagabonds?” Iymira sneers. “No respectable keeper would send the likes of them as their representatives.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so either.” I try not to smile after Iymira makes my point for me. “Which means the second option.”
The room goes quiet again. There are basically two ways to open a ring to another realm. The safest way involves a keeper opening a portal from one side to another, but it’s not the only one. Most of the time that comes in the form of cataclysm in another realm; one of world-ending proportions with enough force to rip a hole from one realm into another. The same way all the first keepers had made their way to Holtz Hollow.
“We cannot afford to open our borders to the unknown.” Iymira turns from me to Terry. “The fact that these trolls may be desperate is even more reason to bar their entry. Your constable had enough trouble with just two of them, by his own admission.”
“So, you’re saying we should turn our backs on them?” I look toward the Oldest Deep. “Why? Because they’re big and scary? You’re just as mean as the trolls, Iymira. Not their fault they ain’t as pretty.”
“Our knight has a point.” Emmett strokes his beard. “Hate to think what would’ve happened to my folk if they hadn’t been able to hop the ring because they weren’t clean-shaven.”
“That is not the point.” Iymira turns away from Terry.
“Not the main point, but still a point,” Emmett says. “My vote’s not to close the gate. Not until our knight here can take a better look at it and get a hold on how the ring came to be and if there’s folk needing our help.”
Good ol‘ Emmett. I knew I could count on him to have my back and see reason before we do anything hasty. It may have been a vote for my idea, but the votes are just tied. I’m the Accords’ muscle, not one of its mouthpieces. I can offer advice, but I don’t get a vote. All of us turn to the Oldest Deep as he rumbles and belches out a couple of bubbles. I hold my breath, waiting for the bubbles to pop.
“A school must come before the fish. And our school must come before others.”
My heart drops with the slime from Oldie’s words. Two against one, and I’ve known Terry long enough that she won’t split a vote between the Keepers of the Accords. Most of the by-laws are a bit archaic, and last I checked, a tie results in a duel to the death. Terry sits back in her chair and looks at me.
“Then it’s decided.” She crosses her fingers. “Constable Brown, you will find this unauthorized ring and close it. If there is no other business, then this concludes our meeting.”
Iymira bows to Terry then spins on her heel and is out the door as fast as that self-righteous rod up her ass will allow. The Oldest Deep rocks back and forth on itself, its runes growing brighter until it vanishes in a flash and a splash of water. Emmett stands and pats my shoulder before leaving without a word. I remain sitting and stare at Terry until she lets out a sigh.
“Playing up the appearance angle for the Oldest Deep. You did that on purpose.”
“Been hanging around politicians too long, I guess.”
Terry doesn’t say a word but pulls out a drawer on her desk and fishes out a pack of cigarettes. She strikes a match and lights one, takes a long drag, drains nearly a quarter of the white length in a puff of red, and hands it to me. I inhale slower, savoring the burn on my tongue, then hand it back to her as she exhales a heavy cloud of smoke above her head.
“We’re not in a place to help right now, Haze.” She takes another long drag. Smoke accompanies her next words. “Times are hard, and with my uncle stirring up trouble, we can’t afford to turn our backs on allies.”
“Or take risks on strangers?” I take the cigarette from her. “Funny. Thought that’s what the Accords were all about. Folk helping other folk. Despite their differences.”
“Simpler times,” Terry lets the mask drop and rubs the temples of her head with both hands. “People don’t remember what this town was like before the Old Folk came. And with times getting harder, they need someone to blame.”
“One way of looking at it.” I take another puff on the cigarette. “Another is us turning our back on people who need help.”
Terry sighs. “We don’t even know if it’s a disaster that opened the ring. Mark the location after you close it. Maybe we can open it again once things have settled down back here.”
She reaches for the cigarette, but I drop it into one of the pools of slime left behind by the Oldest Deep’s words. “Sure.” I stand up and head for the door. “Just hope if it’s an emergency their folk can wait until ours get our shit together.”
To Be Continued…