Runic - Heart of Spoils

All life's a game for those who thrive in a world filled with them. In the wonderfully bleak realm of Sitic, a small band of misfits dwell in the only form of civilization where fun reigns as top priority, even if a little madness slips in unannounced. They explore the rabbit holes no sane soul would ever venture, much less find enjoyment in. They’re not the most stable group by any means, but making bliss from absurdity is quite a common practice among those who go about in crazed solitude. Outside, phantoms roam about seeking to enter their home and ruin what amusement bides within. Tensions are strung as the threats grow more and more lethal and the intruders become more and more dangerous. Life long friendships are tested. Battles commence. Something must give at one point or another, and slowly, losing one’s mind is become a better option as the days draw on.

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8. Chapter 8 - Bottom Lathe



“Goody goody me, a new unlife.”

-A Tiken Cybermage-

A sense of dulled hysteria burdened Zafer’s mind. The game his lover had commenced had finally been brought closure. Unsettled affairs were deadly, capable of putting others in bitter instability if not dealt with some time or another. It was a miracle everybody had lived without killing each other this far in the run of things. Making sure the small body count of five souls stayed as such was what kept his wicked fire streamlined to its most efficient form. At any point, this realm’s population could suddenly be hacked off by a whole fifth.

Creen watched from behind. They were nearing the location where Barben and the others said a dark gaping hole was carved into the wall. Being heroes to the odd children was always amusing, rightly so, but this time, this threat had made home within these walls for, well, no one knew.

“I had a thought,” she said. “What if these new arrivals were actually here before we were?”

Zafer turned and his eyes flashed green. “Before our castle was built? That’s a tall order.”

She matched Zafer’s stride to walk close beside him. “That may be so, yet It was as if these intruders knew exactly how to send Sigit’s life into a temporary spiral, and they seemed to know exactly where to hide to avoid our scavenger hunt.”

The man just looked at her.

Creen embraced him, her face being a moonlit plate with eclipse-like eyes. “All that aside, perhaps know we can put all this trouble to rest. Barben stated this place was the ‘super master control center of the undead’ after all. Barben loves exaggerating, but now that he has some decent company, he’ll be more inclined to get along with others, now having real “servants”, just like yester century.”

They came across the blindsided moon painted solid black, with a glint of violet someone far down its center. The couple stopped short of their next step and stood still, realizing how colossal this cave was, and how the perfect darkness appeared nearly fake, fabled from an equally empty imagination. What a miserable artwork, if not for its depth.

Creen watched Zafer crawl in using the tables Sigit had set up early on. They were stacked unevenly and disjointed trails of blood lined the wall top to bottom. The unicorn must have been in terrible pain when rescuing Vixie, her nails bending into their respective fingers like small leveraged knives. It was all to make sure her lifelong partner was brought away from danger. Thankfully, neither of them were permanently wounded beyond repair, but this time, they had gotten awfully close.

Turning her attention above, Creen adored that his husband always wore archer’s rags and clothes, dark baggy pants and that clover colored hooded cape. Zafer once said it was cosplay, and from her understanding, that meant he was dressing up as another. Who? Who was he dressing up as?

The woman simply chuckled. “Wearing another’s wardrobe. What a fascinating idea.”

Zafeer heaved up and over the edge with hands hardened with clenched muscles, and a heart that began ascending its rhythmic tempo. A solid night flood poured in his vision, with a glimmer farther off, there, dim and leading into a space where bones and ghastly bodies moved. Through a bare black cave the man treaded, one hand feeling the walls that were dry and laid bare of water, like dust. But he was safe, Sigit said so. Here, they laid dormant, in deep slumber. One could venture close and never fear trouble. Now add a pinch of worry, a snitch of anxiety, and a smidge of anger, then you get a man whose brain is haywire with what waited ahead. He took a bottle mana, drank up, and then let free that warrior's smile that had been begging to escape.

This was going to be fun. The Falchion blade belted on his waist sash hadn't been used in over a week.

Zafer's steps were calculated as he entered the chamber. Just like the others said, the place was stocked with skeleton piles that had each bare limb wiggling around. Each mound was a grotesque superorganism of mutated majesty. In one corner, dried blood stained swathed the ground where Vixie was taken, smelling of stale black ice. It was a lot, enough to fill a bowl if gathered and re-liquefied.

Finally, I can take care of this. Zafer’s hand opened to welcome a neon emerald fireball in his palm. He reeled his arm back ready to toss the blazing orb and swallow the cave in conflagration. Prepare for asunder, and for the family to be calm again.

A tempest-like ribbon wrapped his hand tight like a haunted lasso, stopping the pyre from exploding forth. It came from above, from a specter’s long tattered sleeve. All the other specters hovered down. The skeletons untangled themselves and stood like dolls. Zafer’s Falchion gleaned. The ribbon tore. He stood firm raising the weapon centered, ready to tear so much more. More ribbons slung forward as bone filled dolls scrambled on. The man’s sword arched around with burning trails that set fire to those who went too close. Instead of having focus, he pretended to be a warrior hero in charge of keeping trespassers from causing havoc. Hold up the castle walls. Behead these thieves and watch the townsfolk gasp as the guillotine turns red.

Let those arrows fly.

He was a shining knight.

There was no better way.

Zafer’s next stab seared through a skeleton’s forehead at the same time another one gashed his side. Hot blood seeped out, stinging. An oncoming specter rapped its fabric around the man’s ankle and pulled hard. His body rattled when it thudded the rock. They were coming in fast, about to tear away his skin like pulling thick rubber slabs. But the knight wormed around even when ten or so all piled on top, their hands reaching for his fragile eyeballs, or his vulnerable throat. He broke free and sent a few flying across the cavern. Some of them burned, others didn’t. It didn’t matter. He struggled a bit more, enough to break free from the maelstrom hands and ribbons, though his body was stained with wounds and red.

Actually, Zafer want hurt at all. He really wanted to fool these skeletons in front of Creen and make her laugh, but unfortunately she didn't view everything as a chance to have some fun. Maybe next time.

Bleeding was just a sign of a task being prolonged beyond its needs. With a lazy wave and decent amounts of focus, he made the surrounding pyre expand until it over took the harsh purple atmosphere with hot emerald lambency. The spirits who flew rained down like heavy bioluminescent rags. Those who walked on dead feet went up in neon burning flames where they charred black, toppling down as brittle set pieces made from fragile calcium. Green, his favorite hue, it was everywhere, burning and decaying the unwanted guests so fast it was as if they never existed. They were flattened out in ashen lumps, some glowing from ghost blood.

But then, someone walked out from the smoldering whirls, a female, a creature whose color palette ranged from light bubblegum to a hot pink so saturated it stung his vision, which was why her long feathery hair and eyes were nearly impossible to look at for too long. What in devil's name? The flames seamed to quell their anger as she passed through then. Her appearance matched that of an adolescent Fae colored by a violent toddler left with the girly makers. A pair of short thick horns curved up her head, both being taffy colored. Her silk wrap dress was white with fuchsia outlines. Even her skin was filled with a very light pink.

Zafer was verged on making some obtuse remark, but she was already walking even closer, as if being fireproof was just another perk of having a magic-like complexion. Flames riddled her body though her clothes never burned, and her skin never blistered.

She took another step.

Zafer swiveled his Falchion to glint in her eyes. “Let’s not get any closer than that. You certainly don’t look like a skeleton, or a ghost.” Once their standstill had lengthened, he inched back. “What even are you? Where did you come from? You know the drill. Talk.”

The faerie girl’s face first slid into confusion, then annoyance, then disdain. “For one who uses magic on a whim,” she said, “you look pretty surprised when a miracle comes appears right before you.” With blush pink hands she brushed a few swathes of fire off her shoulders; it was just lint. “Only this isn’t a miracle, and that’s saying a lot coming from a misfit like me.”

Her words were scrambled embers through Zafer’s brain, cindering hot and glittering through a previously unforeseen murk. “Guess you don’t know how this works. But it looks like you don't burn easily.” The man was about to cleave his blade once more, to engage a searing arc that would swallow this undesired myth into the forgetting blaze. Yet before the torrent consumed her, the Fae became a cotton candy blur heading straight for him with lethal intent. His body smacked the floor back first as small tapered nails bore into his chest like wedged chiseled knives. Zafer’s cry was cut off as the bubble gum Fae pressed his head sideways, exposing the neck in full.”

“You swine,” Zafer winced. “I’ll kill you!”

She was on top, gazing down, a sweet round face and dense purple eyes lined with plump lashes. “Oh Mr. Quabolt, that threat’s about all you can do right now. So stay still.” Her head dipped and her mouth gaped open, revealing two tiny needle-like teeth, shining bare white against the rising inferno.

“Great. You’re a vampire too.”

“Pipe down. I don’t want to miss.” She pressed harder on the man’s face and added. “My name is Tervia, in case you were wondering.”

It took only a moment to know that her teeth were fangs, not feeling the drain of blood leaving his artery, but rather, a near solid venom slowing filling in and burning as the fluid spread under his skin. Every drop was sliding around like molten glass from the two bite marks. What a shame, to be outdone so quickly by some child’s cute but deadly imaginary friend, a fake friend who was grotesque yet enticingly charming. The rapid tingling current going up his bones made movement impossible, paralyzed as Tervia reared up and curtly winked to make this scene all the more bazaar and embarrassing, wiping blood drizzles from her mouth.

An awkward bride -Creen was already halfway crawling up the table stack when the smoke animating form the cave’s mouth had nearly swallowed the hallway. Something had gone wrong, either an injury or worse. Her fingers creased white as she wobbly heaved over each splintered ledge. Finally reaching the top, she pushed through solid clouds of smog carrying a strange stench of marrow, and, to a lesser extent, candy?

Her breaths were ragged and her gown was stained with ash, but farther down the cave’s throat a figure laid in a heap, motionless. Zafer’s clothes were splotched in gore and his face was calmly sedated by a viper’s springtide glamour. Through burning eyes she pulled him free from the darkened grey. At the cave’s mouth, where the smoke was less painful, she stopped, begging her husband to come back to consciousness, crying out, realizing the holes in his chest were partly filled with pompous strawberry alloy, and two more were punctured in his throat.

Creen shook him again. “Don’t tell me this is some joke you idiot! Please, wake up!”

The body responded with nothing, not a stir in its bones.

There was just one option left, a piece of advice given by Vixie one time during a gathering at dinner. She uncloaked her gown and pressed it on his injuries, hoping that it would absorb enough venom to make the man’s body alive again. Though naked to the heated clouds, it was such the price of saving the one who had been close to her from the start. Seeking help would be fruitless now. Vixie had joined Sigit and Barden and taken shelter in the castle’s underground complex, away from this very problem.

After all the venom had been drawn from Zafer’s wounds, the wait thereafter was slow, waiting for his eyelids to flicker. It was a blessed thought, but it was false hopes, because they needed solace from this cave to be truly safe, away from shambled spirits who had an appetite for souls.

It was simply a matter of getting him down to the floor and making headway to their bedroom. Simple, yet an endeavor. Creen’s body ached as she threw her husband’s body over her shoulders. Using the tables as downward stairs proved a slow juggle of motionless limbs and tired hands. Each step threatened to give out as they wobbled. She took a rest when her feet touched the hallway floor, already drained, panting, skin bare and buckled under the pressure.

A unicorn, a maid, and a monster, all of them headed down a harrowed hall to a place where their bodies would never grow. Barden had invited the girls to his dungeon in hopes of finding shelter from those ghosts who would enjoy making their lives miserable. They descended many flights of stairs that twirled them deeper into a place where the castle's pure white paint subsided to reveal its cobblestone under skin. The wall mounted torches were scattered thinly so that each interval between darkness and light lasted long enough to build suspense.

Sigit carried Vixie like a bride, and her arms were starting to ache. They had been at this for half an hour. Vixie herself had mostly been asleep during their trek, though at times her eyelids would lift, silently, and drift about to absorb the changing scenery, not focusing on anything for too long yet long enough to realize that her entire world was transforming, slowly turning unfamiliar.

Barden glanced back when the footsteps behind him silenced. Sigit had stopped to gently lay Vixie down as to not disturb the wounds painted on her shoulders.

“What’s up girly? Too tired already?”

Sigit’s eyes and muffs were dull against the glow coaxing her, though her expression was duller, sodden, and there was a defining pause before she replied. “Sorry, must the stupid air down here or something. But, I was just thinking... thinking about how our home has changed so damn fast lately.”

“Oh come on,” he said. “Can’t you walk and talk about your thoughts?”

“It’s a pain alright!” The unicorn’s face flashed sternly. “Not sure if complaining about all of it will help anything, but nobody else is bringing it up, so I will. How are we gonna deal with the ghosts? So far they’re playing us like virgins!”

“Oh dear.” Vixie was going to run a hand on her frown to sooth it away, only that was impossible. “Dwelling on it will only make things worse. We’re all fine, for now. Let’s just get to safety.”

“The ice girl has a point.” Barben wheeled back around on one heel. “Speaking of ghosts and spooky things of the sort, I want to have a little chat once we step foot in my place, got it?”

“What’s there to chat about?” Sigit’s tone was strung tight. “What do you have down there, a campfire? Sorry, scary stories won’t help anything.”

“You’re still joking at a time like this?”

Her eyes tilted down at Vixie before slowly veering back up, wordlessly saying sorry. “A chat? Yeah, alright.”

The dungeon’s chambers greeted them with no doors, but with unoccupied chambers where candles silently doused the walls and piles of riches held hostage within them. There were plenty of areas to sleep, either on the many vacant beds or on the blood silk cushions scattered like flung strawberries about the rooms. It was a welcoming world for those who enjoyed places that saw few souls enter its mouth, never to see the light casted by the upper floors.

“Now this is paradise!” Barben plopped on one of the lavish sofas and grabbed the wine glass nesting in its cup holder. “Just the right place to hide from monsters, don’t you think? By all means ladies, make yourselves comfortable.”

Sigit gently laid Vixie in the nearest room’s queen sized bed. Finally, her companion could sleep and get well knowing that nothing bad could ever happen, in theory. “Are you hungry, thirsty, bathroom?” she asked, kneeling by the bedside.

“Just sleep will do for now, thank you.” Vixie’s face softened into snow with two sharp Zircon crystals for eyes, and she smiled. “But please, take some time to take care of yourself. Your earmuffs and horn are looking rather oxidized.”

She touched them over, feeling their cold smooth surfaces. “Yeah, guess it's that time again. I’ll be back later. Just rest for now.”

Barben was slouched on his makeshift throne when the unicorn entered back in. Her face was worn thin with tension, as if a turmoil had scathed through her and left nothing but a placid wasteland of brass. Although, she was likely weary from her recent rescue attempt. “Looks like you’ve simmered down, a lot.” he hunched over, the torchlit gloom forming shadows among his features. “Well, now that we’ve all nestled in some well deserved peace, I’m going to break that peace with a thought that’s been rattling in my head as of late.” He took a swig of wine. “It concerns this whole mess we’re in.”

Sigit huffed.

“Now hear me out! I know you’re tired of this crap by now and just want some shut eye. But let my words sink in before you do, alright?”

Sigit didn’t huff. Instead, her shoulders relaxed, and she laid on the couch opposite to Barben’s. She turned to side, facing him. She scratched her stomach. She held a pillow to her chest. Indeed, she was making herself at home.

“Good.” Barben set his glass away. “So I’ll start with a question. When did all this happen? The intruders I mean.”

She searched the ceiling a bit. “About two weeks ago, since our last get-together supper.”

Yes, but narrow that down to a more specific time.”

“Well, guess it all started, maybe, a little while after we departed from dinner. We all went our separate ways. Then I found Vixie chasing the skeleton.”

“Gold star. Now, in all the time we’ve lived in this castle, there has been no intruder, living or dead, that has ever stepped into these walls. We have many magical barriers, tons of traps to make sure any unwanted outsiders stay just that, outsiders. But when did that change? Could you tell me tha-”

“Enough with the rhetorical questions. Just get to the point!”

“You are tired, aren’t you?”

Sigit rolled over, mouth muffled in the couch rest. “Two sentences tops, hit me.”

Barben’s stature lowered, seemingly to pull his listener in with eyes alone as they glinted like dull yellow fireflies with bleeding outlines. As if picking up on the sudden rise in suspension, Sigit turned over, more or less alert. “Well,” he said, “my idea is actually very simple. I pretty sure that someone in this castle is responsible for our haunting predicament of sorts.”

“One of us?” Sigit’s hands cupped around the pillow. “Yeah, the thought has crossed my mind every now and then. Sounds a bit far-fetched though.”

“Oh but do take heed to my idea. This whole realm is considered farfetched in the eyes of this universe, this world alone in the cosmos. It’s not that difficult to believe that someone among us is setting up a ploy.”

“But why do that?” she asked. “There’s only five of us on this whole rock. Don’t we want to preserve life until our population takes an uptick?”

Barben thought on it, then more. Then he stood, yawning, stretching. “Beats me girly. But now that my little idea has been brought in the open, I’m heading off to bed. I’ll let you have this room to yourself.” His feet turned towards the adjacent room, smaller yet more opulent. The fire flickered light that crawled over his outlines, his figure, like an eclipse. “Oh, and if for any reason you or Vixie want to adjourn to the upper floors, I would do so cautiously, very cautiously.”

An oozing unease swept over Sigit when Barben distanced out of view, leaving only the still warm air for company. With her body nestled and curled in the soft couch fabric, it was unnerving to realize that sleep wasn’t coming easy. That jerk vampire guy had wedged more worry in her brain. A turncoat in the flock - the notion itself was like tasting a new poison disguised as healing tonic.

There could be one turncoat.

There could be many.

It could be everybody.

Or I’m just too cluttered in the brain right now. Her eyelids pressed shut. Maybe sleep would come better that way.

Gradually, painfully, Zafer’s consciousness came to. Creen was absent, but he was in their bedroom. The first memories were ones of candy venom coursing through his veins, thick and burning, perhaps lethal if he would have not been saved. The room’s bookstands and scroll racks bleed bright paper into his vision. He would never understand why his wife loved all these stories so much, why she had not discarded them into the deep storage chambers.

He had on a different attire, a dull green shirt and pants, and medical wrappings striped across his chest. It hurt to sit up, so it was best to stay still in the bed, and let the blanket provide its covering warmth. Though, even if the ache was still heavy, he somehow felt lighter.

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