A Tale of Unlikely Magic and Wonderful Adventures
Chapter 5: The Coming Cold
Every awake head in Pete’s living room swung toward Rahhh.
“I’ve lived at the edges of Promethia my entire life,” she growled in explanation. “My family…time beyond time, all of them, have lived away from the hustle and bustle of the humans, so we might hunt in peace. I grew from a pup to a lupa on the stories of the countryside, stories of the dangers of the humans and their magic; the night stories of my species. But one — one — would brought fear into the coldest of the wolves, and it is a tale to which my own ancestors bore witness.” Rahhh paused, licked her lips nervously with her long red tongue, eyes darting around the room as if in fear of being heard. When she spoke again, her voice was but barely a whisper. This is quite hard to do as a wolf. Don't believe me? Try and hear a regular dog whisper. Then imagine how much less likely it is for a wolf.
“When my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was but a pup, the pack lived far north, where the winter nights were long and the moon shined clear and large, and the prey were many and fat. One year, the snows came early, and the ice pack lasted late into the summer. Many voices in the pack were lost that unnatural winter. When finally the cold broke and the freeze melted so the hunt could begin again, they found the world around them had changed.”
“Wait, I remember that,” Steve said, running a hand over his sleek ninja topknot of hair. Ninjas don’t like to look messy. You understand. “I nearly died that year on the mountain.”
“Yes,” Rahhh agreed. “That alone would be worthy of stories, that winter. But when the winter broke, the pack found itself amidst a sea. But it was not the sea of ice and water and seal. They were among a sea of chained, hateful human souls.”
Pete and Steve drew in their breaths quickly.
“The Army of Souls,” Steve said, disbelief crawling across his face as he shifted uneasily. “It exists?”
“Since the time of my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother none of came into contact with them. The pack was killed, except for three. Only a portion had survived the harsh winter, and then the rest but my grandmother and her two playmates were killed, their family suffering their bodies to be polluted with evil magic and enslaved . My grandmother and her friends escaped by the fur on their necks only, and fled southward. The story is known amongst all packs, lest any dark winter fall upon us again, and that dreaded hosts descends upon the realm once more.” She paused, licked her paw in an unconvincingly nonchalant way, then looked back up to Adele. “They are brought from the dark holds of the world for one purpose: to hunt the one the Necromancer’s map seeks, for only that creature can hold back their tide evil that will break open this realm and every other.”
“I remember the tales of the Necromancer’s rise to power,” Steve said quietly, Pete’s living room fading from his ninja-clad eyes until he saw before him his parent’s quiet cottage near the sea, at the dinner table, heaps of potatoes and fish steaming before him as his father drilled him on history of the realm. “He was a good man, once, powerful and kind — he did not seek the throne, but it came to be bestowed upon him all the same.” He lost himself in thought.
“Our stories say the same,” Rahhh agreed. “It was then the map was created, when the Necromancer, still in the height of his magic and unpolluted by power and evil. The map,” she said with a jerk as Adele pulled it from her back pocket and unrolled it (it was slightly crumpled from being sat on, but then it was a magic map and could withstand that sort of thing) “leaves it’s master’s grasp when it senses the realm is under great threat. It uses its own magic to seek out the one who can restore what has been turned evil, to good.”
At that moment, Adele really wished she’d paid more attention to the cursing habits of her local playground; she really felt like this whole thing was worthy of a solid swear word. But though she was ugly, she was noble, and she didn’t have much practice with that sort of thing, so she sat there, huddled and buglike in her seat.
“What do we do?”
“We?” asked Steve in surprise. “With the map, you mean? We do nothing. We want nothing to do with it.”
“But…Mrs….Olwitch….”started in Pete.
“Oh, I know, I know,” said Steve, flapping his hands so hard his red ninja suit sleeves flapped too. “ But what I mean to say is, we take care of the other part, the getting-Adele-and-the-witch-to-the-Necromancer part, not the Necromancer or the map part itself. That’s Adele’s quest. Not mine. Not anybody else’s.”
And he looked so stubborn and truthful that everyone awake simply had to agree.
“So,” Rahhh said finally, with a yawning growl, “we’ll just set out tomorrow, ehh? Best get some sleep.” When she yawned, her fierce blood-stained teeth gleamed in the half-darkness. It was one of the last times Adele would ever feel safe.
“It’s so cooold,” Shaaaraa whined, shaking herself from her small nose to her small tail in the predawn light. The boy pups laughed and guffawed at her and boxed her on the ears, but their whiskers were already tipping with the morning’s frost and they weren’t fooling anybody. Boys are like that, you know, no matter what species. “Why couldn’t we wait till later in the day?” she whined again.
Rahhhh merely snapped her muzzle at her. Wolves don’t drink coffee, you see. But perhaps they should. Or tea. Or Mt. Dew. Something for the sake of the youngsters. The pups, first out of Pete’s hidey hole, began to bound around as the remainder of the party climbed above. Adele stretched herself tall.
“Beautiful day,” she said, reaching nobly one way, then the other. It really was too, eve in the Land of Pain and Suffering, palely bright with the three moons just setting and the dawn just rising.
“Beautiful cold day,” Steve replied.
“Let’s go.” Rahhh flicked her tail as Pete locked his hidey hole door, Mrs. Olwitch clumped junkily at his side.
Hours passed. More than hours passed. So much more time passed than hours that Adele grew afraid to ask, because that awful road trip feeling was building deep behind her chest that said no matter how much she wanted to ask, she didn’t want to know how long they’d been travelling, nor how long they had to go. The last time she’d felt that, she’d been stuck in Kansas, or maybe Iowa. If she were in a car, Adele would have opted for sleep.
But no. Noble girls didn’t ask for naps in situations like these. Not that she could nap—errr, I should say, not that she wanted to nap. Defeats the purpose of waking up, after all. Adele drew the fur she’d borrowed from Pete up around her mouth and nose.
“There.” Rahhh’s voice.
“I see,” Steve added steadily. “I said it was a cold day.”
Pete started sniffling.
“Adele, hide the map,” Rahhh instructed, “and turn into a table.”
“Shut it!” Steve snarled to both Adele and Pete. “Do as Rahhh says.”
Before she could even process, Adele dropped to her hands and knees, straightening her back as flat as she could. The others draped Pete’s cloak atop her and then arranged themselves around her, sitting around her on the ground. Ugly, Noble Adele, on all fours, panting at a cracking deserted ground of the Land and Pain and Suffering. You’d think it would be funny but it wasn’t. For she could now feel why the disguise, feel it in the shudder of the ground under her palms. It was cold; the ground quaked with uncanny footsteps of unknown numbers. She studied the sand in the shadow of the cloak; Steve broke some cheese upon her back. The ground grew colder and colder, until her palms and kneecaps and fingertips stung, and she had to keep her eyes closed from the icicles dripping down her eyelashes.
And then there came the rattling breath.
“Whhhhhat busiiiiiness hhhhhhave youuuu hhhhhere?” drew the breath. It clanked to the very inside of Adele’s bones, frozen into plank position.
“Just some weary travelers, breaking sup on the road to the sea,” broke in Steve smoothly. “I’m having a retirement party there next June,” he added.
“Rhhhetiremeeeeent…” said the lost soul, rattling still, “I do not knowwwww thhhhhis wooord. Whhhhat doeeees it meaaan?”
“Retirement.” Steve chomped noisily on some cheese above her. “You know. From my ways of death and evil and so forth. They’re giving me a big send off. Lots of presents and food.”
“Preeesents?” said the rattling breath. The clanking of chains that Adele hadn’t even known she was hearing stopped. “I like preeesents.”
“Who doesn’t?” quipped Rahhh amicably, nibbling a spare claw into sharpness somewhere above the folds of cloth handing about Adele. “Thing is though, times as they are, you can’t just go around giving unnecessarily. Got to retire or something to get presents.”
She sounded so knowledgeable Adele had to wonder if it were true in her own world.
“Anyway,” Steve said, “I worked long and hard, killing people right and left and dyeing ninja suits until I thought my hands would just fall off. So it’s time for a nice long party, and then a goodbye.”
“Paaaarrty? Goooodbyeeee?” rattled the breath.
“Yes,” Steve said. Adele tried very hard to remain still, which, considering how odd it must look to see a troll with a dead wicked old witch, three wolf pups, a she-wolf and an Red Ninja sitting Indian style around a suspiciously human looking table in the middle of a vast and horrible wasteland, and the very blood in each and every one of their veins and hearts was pumping slower and slower, and colder and colder, was a very hard try indeed. She wished Steve would hurry up. “I’ll have my great big party, I’ll retire, and then…then I’ll go on.”
“Yes, on. I will no longer be alive, and the Red Ninja shall cease to exist once and for all and for ever.”
Adele was so very, very cold. There was a thick layer of frost all around her fur that Pete loaned her.
“Foreveeer.” There came a great, rattling sigh, and a serious clanking of chains. “Thaaaat wooooulld beeeeeee welcoooome….”
“Oh, well of course I’d be delighted to have you!” Steve said brightly, chomping either a piece of bread or cheese. When he spoke again, the sounds of food rolled around the words enthusiastically. “What other ninja in the history of ninjas could say they had the fierce Commander of the Army of Souls at their retirement party? I’ll go down a legend! And that way, you can have a look at modern retirement parties, you know, see if one is your sort of thing. Oh yes, delighted to have you!” And the food noises overtook the talking.
So very, very cold.
“Hoonnnnnnorrred, Iiiiiiiiiiiii’m suuuuure,” said the rattling Commander of the Army of Souls, which was very polite, Adele thought. The thought felt thick in her mind. Like it had trouble being thought. Still, her slow brain wondered, who knew that hateful chained souls knew that manners mattered. There came more clanking of chains with the definite sound of bowing involved. The group on the ground made a chorus of general “Oh, how wonderful!” and “We’ll be sure to see you there,” and “Oh you must remember to try the punch!” and somesuch other things. Then the ground began to warm, and the ice began to melt off Adele, and suddenly she was drenched, shivering, and freed from the shadows of the cloak.
The Army of Souls had vanished.
“I can’t believe it, but I think that worked,” Rahhh growled weakly.
“Come….on…” said Pete, drawing himself to his feet. “We’ve…got…to…get…to…the…Necromancer.”
And Adele tried to stand, pushing herself up first one side, then the other, shivering so violently in her damp, once-ice clothes that her bare toes twitched all over the sand. Rahh wasn’t sure, but Adele’s skin had a bluish look to it, blue like a fish. Or blue like ice… altogether, not a good look. But maybe it was just the lighting; Adele was very ugly, after all.
“I—I think,” Adele began, creaking slower and slower as she struggled to straighten, “I think,” she said again, and then—
She fell to the ground.