30 Days of Darkness

An Interview with Daxänu (a.k.a. Dax)

It's taken me four years to get Dax to sit down and finish this conversation. An incident he let slip one night after a moderate amount of drinking Blackseed Rum over at The Roadkill Tavern.   I'm not even sure he's told the whole story to Chuck, especially after the manhunt the old mägo initiated when Dax went missing.   ...so if you have any questions, leave me a comment and I'll see if I can get the answers and amend this document. Until then, here's the story how I heard it directly from Dax's mouth.  
~Höbin

 

 

I don't want people to know this story.

  You're making a huge mistake, Dax. This is something people should know.  

It's not like it's history or nuthin. It was drinking gone wrong.

  Hehe...when it's you doing the drinking, doesn't it usually go wrong?  

Shut it. That ain't the point.

  Then what IS the point?  

I,...*sigh* ...nobody's gonna believe this, Höbin. It's too much, even for the likes of the old man.

  Now THAT is a stretch of the imagination. Nothing's too outrageous for Morphiophelius. We both know that.  

I'm tellin' ya--

  Look, I'm not saying this is easy--I know it's not. You were drinking...a LOT...I get that. But what I'm trying to tell you, is that there's more to your story than you realize. Trust me on this. I have absolute proof that most of the aspects you've already brought up are real.  

Phhhh--whatEVER!

  On the grave of my darling sweetheart, I swear it's true.  

That ain't funny, Höbin.

  It's not intended to be. I just want you to trust me. Please.   Trust me.   Just tell your story.  

Yer buying the booze.

  I wouldn't have it any other way.

 

Day One: Ring

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I've thought about this for most of my life, Höbin. The events just don't make sense.   It all started just after I learned how to use my abilities.   Being confined to Sanctuary for years can make anyone stir crazy--then all of a sudden, you have the shackles throw off? That's a big deal.   Plus, not having to rely on Prime Gates to get around? Sure gives a kid with a curious mind some options, if ya know what I mean.   So where would a guy go, who can teleport, is old enough to drink AND doesn't have to listen to mom and dad anymore?   Tavern hopping, of course.   Besides, I wanted to see how far I could jump before I puked my guts out.   I figured it would also help hone my skills. Before too many people freak out over my unadulterated handsomeness, I could just port away.   Might even save a coin or two in drinking tabs.   Don't laugh at me, Höbin.
I can end this before I even get started ya know...   I said I was free, not rich--and I've paid back every coin I've owed a tavern since then.
(Chuck made sure of that...)   What I didn't realize was, a ring of Ogriel had been watching me. Followed me ever since the old man started my training.   Still don't know the name of the group, but if I remember right, it turned out to be some sort o' cult. They served Mahan I'm guessing... or maybe one of my idiot brothers. Either way, they were aparently wait'n for me to leave Sanctuary.   Don't have a clue how they found me, or WHY they were planning on grabbin' me--but they did.   What THEY didn't realize, was that I might be a kid--but I'd never been defenseless in my life.
Ain't no beta-male in THESE shorts!   So when those cocky little craps snuck up on me using their little shade rings, none of them expected this young, ruggedly handsome Evolu to bite their damn finger off.   Oh, don't look at me like that. Where did ya think Chuck got his? Besides, it's not that bad of an experience--just a bit of crunch.   Wellll, after the 'pop' and the warm, salty 'squirt' anyway.   The scream that first guy made was so unsettling, it gave me time to spit out the dolt's finger, wipe the blood from my face, and slip the ring into the waistband of my shorts.   Simple.   Saved it for the old man's birthday.   (He LOVED it, by the way. Told him I won it in a game of bloodsticks, so don't say nuthin'.)   Anyway--just after I slipped the ring into my shorts, I got clocked on the back of the head.   I wonder how many of the others got nabbed the same way?  
     

Day Two: Mindless

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When I woke up, my head was splitting.   I've been knocked out before, but every bone in my body felt jarred. Who knows--maybe someone was a bit upset about losing a digit.   Should have bitten off two.   The place was dark, even after my eye adjusted. But it wasn't just my eyes.
It was the feeling.
Dark...and dank.
The scent of unwashed bodies way too close together in a summer heat.
  When I tried to get up, my legs buckled. Fire exploded from the back of my skull where I'd been hit--pain rippling across my skin causing the muscles in my face to cramp.
I'd been ht harder than I thought.   I could also smell blood.
A lot of it.   Using my fingers, I gingerly checked the bump on my skull.   ...and regretted it.
I let out a grunt of pain--and the room or chamber (wherever I was)--came alive.   Shadows shifted--hunched shapes, darting and bouncing just out of range. I could feel eyes upon me, could hear the breathing, gasping...grunting.   That's when the groaning and crying started.   I don't even know how to describe it. This was hundreds of years ago, Höbin, and I can STILL feel it through my bones. Pouring into that place, swallowing me up and thrusting me into the depths of an emotional sea.   Hopelessness.   I don't know how long the mindless wailing lasted from that point.   Hours.
Days, maybe?   Time stopped being relevant when that feeling engulfed me. I couldn't fight it, Höbin.   I just...couldn't.   So I didn't.   While I lay there, huddled and abandoned in the darkness, the reality of my life no longer let me escape where I was, or WHO I was...   My mother didn't want me.   My own people rejected me.   ...so why the hell should I care what my captors did with me?  

   
You're not alone, Dax.   Just because other people are too stupid to see your value doesn't make you any less amazing to the rest of us.   Remember that.
   

Day Three: Bait

T hanks, Höbin. Appreciate that. A lot.   Not sure how long I was there, but the wound on my scalp got infected. Then again, the hallucinations might have been from experiencing that environment. It was impossible to think with all the wailing going on.   I became obsessive with checking my wound, jabbing my fingers into the bump with the rhythm of the moaning. The crazy thought came to me that if my wound stopped bleeding, I'd join the rest of the poor souls in insanity. So I kept jabbing myself, using the pain to stay as focused.   Wanting to protect myself, I also crawled along the floor until I found a stone wall to both lean against and to cover my back.   More than once I had to beat off wandering hands in the darkness as I drifted off to sleep.   The hairs on my neck and arms went up as faces drew close--excited sounds behind putrid breath.   People looking for something to eat.   It all changed with the rattling--chains--being dragged across a hard surface.
It was faint at first, but the chinking grew louder--until it switched to keys fidgeting in a lock.   That's when the looming bodies, hungry or not...scattered into blackness.   The voices I heard next were deep. Mixed with gravel.   "They be hungry, Ämu."
"I know."
"If we not feed them, they turn on us. Painful it be!"
"I know, Kävä."
"What we do then? Master say we bring Wanderer here, so we take his flesh...but Ämu, beasts must feed also, or..."
"I KNOW, Kävä. We use one of these. Bait in deep pool, just like Master bait new flesh so Wanderer come to us. Then we get GOOD hunt."
"Oooo. OOOOH! That good ideas, Ämu. GOOD ideas, yes!"
"I guard door. You get bait."
"What? Me go in...alone?"
"Yes. Go. Now. Fast."
"But...they bite, Ämu. It hurts me. I not want lose 'nother finger!"
"You faster now. Go. Hurry."
"I no like you, Ämu."
"You like me when catch hugger and we eat too."
"Ungh. Me is hungry. Hmph. Okay."
"What you wait for? Go, NOW!"
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"What one new flesh? I no make Master angry."
"Pshaw! Go. Grab one still bleeding for smell. Master no put new flesh in pit with garbage. Master smart."
"Yes. Master smart. Okay--you hold door. Raise club and I run, okay?"
"Okay."   I'd curled up into a ball, hoping not to be noticed--but the footsteps walked right to me, huge hands grabbing me roughly.
Fingers jammed into wounds, splitting my lips again, fresh blood covering my chin.
I yelped in pain, which he ignored.   So I bit him.   Hard.   "I SAID THEY BITE, ÄMU!"
"BITE IT BACK!"   Luckily I got a fist in the face and not teeth.   Once more life went black.   I jolted awake...to incredible pressure.
The blood in my skull pushed to whatever exit it could find.
My broken nose tried to siphon air into my lungs.
...while the nasty, wet, gag prevented my mouth from doing ITS job.   Blinking, I let the faint light seep in.   Funny thing about that light--being without it for that long and surrounded by the poor souls of captivity, it reminded me of a saying Chuck used to drill into me:  
Be just as independent as Pääjuma to do good, Dax. Love mercy, eschew evil, be a savior to your family, friends, and to all the races just as much as you possibly can. Go on with your independence and do not yield yourself a servant to obey Mahan, an evil principal or an evil being of any kind.
  That's what hit me as I found myself dangling over a dank pit.   One you'd use as an outhouse by the smell of it.   The blindfold didn't allow me to look around, but I did get a good glance downward.   ...and I wasn't alone.  
   

Day Four: Freeze

Let me ask you, Höbin--have you ever been EATEN before?   As in placed on the end of a line, like some worm, and then fed to something much, much bigger than you are?

Uhhhh, No...I can't say that I have.

Well it sure as hell ain't no picnic, let me tell ya.   The beast those guards were trying to catch had more than a dozen arms! Arms that could crush a horse, sucker-cups to prevent ya from gettin' away AND an appetite that made me look like an amateur. Apparently I wasn't the only one pulled from that hell hole, to be used as bait. You could still see the faint reflection of red in the water.   ...well, and the occasional body part floatin' about.  

Ewww.

  I know!   One second I was dangling like a bull's tenders--the next--I'm slidin' down the gullet of that thing, all covered in goo and on the fast track to stomach central!  
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Look, I'd been in rough spots before and all, but EATEN?   Actual DINNER for something else?   That was a new one.   If those goons hadn't been even hungrier than the creature, I'd probably be dead.   When the monster gulped me down, they reeled the beast in, chopped off its tentacles and threw the main body--the place I was sittin'--into some cooler.   No one even checked to see if I was dead.   So there I sat, suckin' air through a hole where a severed limb used to be. I'd been able to wiggle out of my bonds thanks to the coating of goo covering me from head to toe, so I chewed through the stomach lining and inched my way forward until I saw the light.   Wasn't long before the temperature dropped and the tissue hardened enough for me to kick my way through the flesh.   I took a breath of rotten air.   The room was circular, laid stone and had to be twelve feet or more below the surface. It was cold, which is easy enough to accomplish when you dig below ground level. But there was also a tiny window in one corner. It was out of reach--but I could see a bush growing outside the bars, AND it granted me a dose of light.   Something was wrong.  

You get kidnapped, thrown in a dank, dark cell, then get used as a fishing lure...and NOW you realized something was wrong?   You live a much more exciting life than I realized, Dax!

  That's not what I mean.   Nothing I'd experienced up to this point was exactly normal, I get that--but the elements don't usually AFFECT me. It shouldn't have mattered that it was cold. I've rarely worn a shirt in my lifetime. So when I busted out of the stomach of that creature and couldn't help but shiver, I KNEW something wasn't right.  

Ah.

  Yeah. See what I mean?   I needed to escape.   The floor was covered in bones. Human, Vallen, the remains of animals I can't name--both fresh and old--so I grabbed of the thicker ones. Jamming them into the wall between the stones, I was able to provide stepping points and get to that tiny window.   Took me a few attempts.   ...but I eventually pulled myself out of the frying pan and into the fire.  

   

Day Five: Build

You got out? Where WERE you???

That's the thing,...I had no idea.   My body was shaking so hard I was surprised I wasn't caught.   The echo of my teeth chattering was so loud, it sounded like a rattlesnake at my heels.  

You didn't recognize anything?   I find that strange with all your travels.   You had to notice SOME kind of landmark, or have some hint of your location, surely...

  Nope. Not a clue.  
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Didn't help that a snowstorm raged outside, covering the landscape in a white blanket.   How long had I been unconscious?   The last tavern I'd been to was still experiencing the beginnings of fall, not winter.   For long moments, I just stood there and breathed in and out. The snow felt warm against my skin...but I knew that wouldn't going to last. Also, the smell of Mr. Warm n' Fuzzy Face Hugger clinging to my skin kept drawing my attention.   It would draw the attention of whoever would come looking for me.   Grabbing several fists of dirt and snow, I started scrubbing my skin. Not a perfect solution, but it would help.   The window led out onto a wide ledge, which dropped down and out of sight. I followed it slowly to my right--hugging the stone until I reach ground level. A large courtyard--again, which didn't look familiar.   In the distance, I could see shadows of trees still fighting the blanket of snow.   So I ran.   Didn't care where I was going. Just knew I had to get away before someone realized I was gone.   The next few hours hurt like hell.   I pushed my legs until I couldn't breathe. Sucking ice daggers into my lungs, stumbling through the forest--only stopping long enough to keep my chest from bursting.   That's when I heard them.  

Heard what?

  Horns.   First one...then others.
Coordinating efforts I guessed.   I ran faster.   My tracks didn't matter, which was one of my few advantages. The snow was falling so fast and hard, my trail was covered within moments. Unless they were using tracking spells, even the best Therrin would be hard-pressed to find me--especially since my cuts had sealed from being coated in that goo.   Thank TGII, I wasn't bleeding any more.   Don't know how long I ran, but as the last light waned, I discovered a small mound. Probably an animal den, but it was just big enough for me to crawl into.   Chuck taught me when I was a young kid how to build a shelter. We used to go camping in the Tilliman Highlands during the summer months. How to use plants around you to build a rough shelter, how to make fires in pits that diffuse the smoke--even how to make traps to get food.   So I pulled in all the branches I could find and snapping off lower hanging resources. Quickly weaving them together, I backed into the hole and covered my shelter.   ...and let Mother Nature do the rest.   Those horns sounded again--closer this time.   Within minutes, thanks to the storm, I vanished from the world.   Just wish I was better prepared for what came next.  
   

Day Six: Husky

The wind screeched in protest to the creation of my shelter.   And here I was, thinking Mother Nature was protecting me.   It wasn't enough that the tiny branches sticking me in the back and butt felt like knives to my near-frozen flesh.   Oh no.   Nature wanted a chunk of my flesh...   Good news was, recirculating air and the insulation of leaves helped reduce the loss of my body heat.
  It was a fitful sleep. Filled with shifting whispers and familiar faces...screaming in anguish.   No--don't ask me. Not part of this story.   My eyes flickered open to the sound of footsteps.
Crunching snow.
...and sniffing.   I just about wet my shorts when I heard it.   Light seeped through the layers of snow--so I knew it was day...but there was nowhere for me to run. The hole I was nestling in was barely big enough for me to turn from side to side, let alone attempt my teleportation.   So I held my breath and kept still.   Deathly still.   Moments passed.
Then minutes.   The footsteps faded.   Inching forward, I used two fingers to slowly poke through the snow at the mouth of the hole and pulled a tiny branch to the side.   That's when the anvil-sized hand burst through the surface of the hole.   Fingers of stone grabbed my leg...and yanked me out through the soil and rock.   The thing was huge, Höbin! Made vallen's look vertically challenged the damn thing was so husky. Arms the size of trunks, its shoulders and limbs looking like they were carved from granite.   Flipping and squirming to get loose, I tried to take a couple swings at it--but I couldn't reach.   Then it sniffed me.  

I'm sorry...it what?

  You heard me, dude. It sniffed me.   As in, lifted me up to his freakishly huge, scary face, leaned forward and SNORTED my skin!  

Gross.

 

   

Day Seven: Enchanted

Sooooo, you're dangling there like an air freshener on a string, and....

Har, har, har.
  I even tried to port--which normally I can do if I have enough room and strength.   It didn't work.   It was the strangest thing, too. I could feel the energy pulsing through my skin, but nothing happened.   "I wouldn't do that if I were you, my young friend," came a voice upon the wind.   Flipping my head from side to side, I couldn't locate the owner of the voice. It was a high-pitched tone, mixed with venom.   "You were never supposed to leave our keep in the first place, Daxänu. Did you think you could escape us?"   It was then I noticed the rune-inscribed bands around the wrists and neck of the thing holding me.   Curious etchings hummed with the cold blue power of mägo enchantments.   Crap.   A Golem.   Turns out I was dealing with a mägo.  
   

Day Eight: Frail

The walk back was slow and cold as hell.   I was still shivering, and the golem had pinned me over its shoulder as it trudged through the snow.   "Did you think you could escape so soon after becoming our most esteemed guest?" came the voice again.   Though I couldn't place where it was coming from, there was a much smaller set of tracks forming to the left of the golem. As the enchanted beast maintained its lengthy stride, the smaller set of prints paused, then shuffled forward to catch up, paused again and repeated the rhythm.   So he was short.   ...shorter than me.   "How was I supposed to know I was a GUEST? No one showed up to welcome me...hell, I didn't even get the customary fruit basket in my room!" I shook my head, "Your guest protocol sucks, bub. And to top it all, you're too afraid to look me in the eyes and take responsibility for your piss-poor customer service."   There was a delay, then a small chuckle.   "Even now, you're avoiding protocol. How about we cut the crap, small stuff, and call this what it is. You've kidnapped me...and I'm a prisoner to people who apparently have never heard of maid service."   Again a chuckle--this time followed by a snort.   Like the rising smoke from new fire, the air twisted above the smaller set of tracks.   Then it was me who burst out laughing next.   "You have GOT to be kidding!?"   The frail little gnome looked up at me defiantly, tiny teeth grinding together in what I'm assuming was his fierce sneer.   "Do not mock my size, Daxänu, son fo Äläriä. I am Ademal Wheelcrank, techno-mägo of the Twenty-First order, Seeker of the Rose and Dungeon Master of my creators' domain! It would be wise to keep your tongue still, or I may have to remove it..."   Now, you've known me a long time, Höbin...so you can imagine what happened next, right?  

Oh...crap.

  Heh,...guess ya do.  
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  I don't like bullies. ANY bully--and I don't give a damn how short they come. So I gave him the biggest stupid toothy grin I could manage, then tapped an index finger against my lower lip as I pondered.   "Ademal Wheelcrank, huh? Am I supposed to know you? Some magical hack who can't decide whether to educate himself in technology OR magic, so ya went with accepting a lower job in both companies. It says a lot when it took twenty rejections to get into a support group, and now you're looking for a date while living in yer mom's basement?" I looked him up and down slowly in silence, then added, "I wouldn't hold yer breath, bub."   Not my best insult, I admit that, but you should have seen this guy. He was pushing maybe thirty inches tall on a good day, skinny little arms in a robe too tight for his own good.   Seeing the wet stains around the hem, I knew it wasn't mägoweave, and he was carrying a wand.   An actual WAND, Höbin!   What magic-user worth their weight in body fat uses a wand?   Chuck always says they're for the mentally handicapped children of the magical world, who don't have a lick of actual talent.   So I looked did what any respectable person would have done in my position...   I made fun of my captor.   "Wand, eh? I get it. That's why you use golems, Ademal. You're compensating for something, huh. Mom didn't breastfeed you as a baby, I'm guessin'."   I learned two important facts at that moment.   One: Tomato-red gnomes are kinda scary looking.
Two: Golems punch REALLY hard.  

   

Day Nine: Swing

I hope you're seeing a pattern here, Dax.

  What pattern?  

When you open your mouth, you have more than a 50/50% chance of getting it punched by whomever you're talking to.

  Yeah, Wendell mention something like that to me once.  

You should listen.

  So should you, if you want to hear the rest this story.
Shut up and buy the next round...   When I came to, my wrists and ankles were shackled to a stone chair in the middle of a courtyard. The light was dim, the only source being torches hanging on the rough stone walls. In front of me loomed a set of haggard wooden doors. Things had to be thirty feet tall, at least. It wasn't that they were big that grabbed my attention, though--they were covered in words in a language I'd never seen.   "So glad you could join us, Daxänu," came Ademal's frail voice behind me.   My neck was too stiff to turn, so I didn't bother.   "I was about to have Bob give you a little wakey-wakey-shake, but the last prisoner he shook lost his head altogether." The little turd snickered at me.   "Yeah, thanks for not killing me and just using me as an emotional punching bag," I grumbled.   A swirl of smoke drifted across the sparse grass of the courtyard and Ademal took shape. He was even shorter than I thought, now we were at eye level--and he was still waving that pathetic wand.   "Oh, we are going to have SO much fun, you and I. Now that proof has been sent of your capture, we get to play!"   "Great," I scoffed, "Then go get yer dolls and teacups and we'll have a party."   With another wave of the can't-get-my-magic-up-without-a-focal-point stick, stone, dirt and grass bubbled up from the ground next to me, forming an elegant high-back chair. Ademal casually took a seat beside me, unperturbed.   "I'm glad you suggested having a party because you see up there?" he chimed, pointing overhead, "That's where I and my guests will be watching you during the competition."   I had to squint, but just beyond the haze of light, I could make out a stone lip overhead...and shadowy figures moving about. There wasn't enough light to discern any details, but there were beings there.   A lot of them.   "What competition?" I growled, letting my eyes fall upon the runt, my brows rolling forward. "Cause if you think I'm gonna..."   "Refuse?" Ademal cut me off, "Because you can just--port away?" He smiled then. For a little guy, it sure was creepy as hell. He held my gaze for a divers breath, either side of his mouth slowly slithering up his face. "Oh, I don't think you'll have much luck yet with your teleportation, Dax."   "Do I even know you? Cause you sound like someone I pissed off."   Nothing about him looked familiar. Not even his voice rang a bell--but he sure hated me. "Did I run off and leave you stuck with a bar tab, maybe? Cause ya know, I'd be pretty pi--"   "NO!" he snapped, sitting upright. Shoulders bouncing with his erratic breathing, I watched Ademal consciously force himself to calm down. "This isn't about something so trivial as a drinking bill"   I chuckled, "Yeah, not true. Cause if you've seen me drink, my tabs are closer to a national debt than trivial."   "My POINT, Daxänu," he grumbled, "is this little contest is to see just how remarkable you are WITHOUT your powers. WITHOUT the help of your precious friends and without ANYone to save your nasty, foul, inhuman butt from the natural consequences of your own actions."   "Yeah, like the natural consequence of being kidnapped, having my powers ripped form me and then being forced to engage in some psychopathic contest by a babbling moron..."   He started to do that tomato impression again.   "Wait, wait...did you just tell me my butt was out of this world?" I frowned at him, "Cause that's just sick, bub. You go ahead and torture me if ya gotta, but keep yer eyes to yerself, alright?"   A putrid green light shot from the end fo the gnomes pixie-stick.   The pain was...amazing.   I know, not the description you're probably looking for--but for all his mental shortcoming, that runt could dish out some serious hurt. The flood was instant and thorough. Every muscle in my body flexed at the same time, my teeth clamping together like a steel trap.   Trembling with convulsions, my body slid from the chair onto the ground.   Eyes as red as blood glared down at me with hatred and contempt I haven't seen since...well, probably the previous week.   Point is, he really looked upset.  
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"Do...not...mock...me," he whispered, and I watched a small dribble of spit slowly fall in a string from his bottom lip. "I am here to test your resolve to survive, you freak. Whether you choose to play or not is up to you. As for me--the more pain and greater failure I am allowed to witness, the happier I shall be. SO--"   The light vanished and my body relaxed.
I pulled myself up onto my elbows...and puked.   "Prepare yourself, Daxänu." Then looking upwards, "PREPARE FOR THE MAZE!"   That's when I heard them.
The unseen attendees burst into cheers.   When I looked up again, Ademal was gone...and the shackles fell from my wrists of their own accord.   "Complete the maze, Daxänu, and you will win your freedom!"   This whole situation was way out of my league. Ademal had his panties bunched so tight--I was sure he'd rip me to shreds with that pixie stick even if I DID complete whatever this contest was.   Tightening my hands into fists, I imagined Sanctuary clearly in my mind. Recalling the cool even temperature of the valley, the sound of birds singing and the sweet smell of plums, I willed my presence there.   Nothing happened.
No flash, no tingle down my spine...no, BAMPH!   Ademal's laughter filled the space between us, a desperate chill running wild up my spine. "I told you, Daxänu...teleportation is no longer an option."   I was screwed.   To make matters worse, the ground rumbled.   Those gigantic slabs of wood parted, scraping across dirt and grass.   Behind them, a series of hanging ropes dangled across a wide chasm. A glowing chasm, I might add.   "What the crap am I supposed to do NOW!?!" I screamed upward. "I ain't a monkey...no matter WHAT the old man may call me!!"   Another rumble erupted from behind me. A slab of stone pulling back into the wall.   ...followed by a thunderous roar.   Ademal continued to laugh.   "I suggest you SWING, Daxänu!"  
   

Day Ten: Pattern

Spitting the last of the stomach acid from my mouth, I booked it towards the first knotted rope.   It's not often I let people see my tactics in combat. You don't want your enemies knowing what you're capable of. But whatever the flip that beast was, it sounded big and mean!   So I dropped to all fours and rocked across the courtyard at top speed.   Good thing, too--cause that beast behind me turned out to be some twisted and tortured form of a mountain cat.   Well, if you took a mountain cat, packed on an extra 600 pounds, plucked out its claws and replaced them with short swords, then dipped its face in acid to provide a permanent cheerful disposition!   I'd hardly launched myself at the first rope before I felt the wind on my backside as Fluffy swiped at me.   The crowd went wild, cheering like you'll hear among the stadiums of Clockworks City.   I think a few were voting for fluffy, though.   If Ademal was trying to kill me, he shouldn't have chosen swinging--even if it was over an open lava pit.   Kicking forward, I glided effortlessly from rope to rope, leaving Fluffy in the dust. With each swing, the air thickened...a cool mist swirling around me, cutting off my vision. My dismount was flawless. Did a triple backflip and landed solid on the thick grass ledge with both feet.   Again a cheer from the crowd above, which I hoped was pissing Ademal off.  

What's wrong? Why are you pausing??

  The next part of this maze...  

What about it?

  The thing was a cheat, that's what. There was no way to get through it. Not without...  

Go on. It's not like you died, Dax. We're sitting here now, so we both know you made it.

  Some days I'm not so sure.   In the far distance, perhaps the length of a Trench Wars arena was an opening in the wall.   Dark, uninviting.   I couldn't see another way out.   Between that hole and where I stood was a huge geometric pattern of tiles.   That doesn't sound so bad--but it was the peculiar holes to either side of me that caused me to pause. Thousands of them, all various sized, yet all perfectly round.   I could still hear Fluffy howling in anger behind me. Couldn't go back, but...  
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Ripping up a clump of grass and dirt, I gave it a heft out onto the center of the pattern.   The dirt exploded, chunks bouncing across the different tiles and releasing hidden surprises.   One of the holes launched a spear--which pierced and stuck, protruding between the tiles. Another spat out a dozen metal pikes--shattering tiles--a few bouncing off and releasing even more of the traps.   Not that I minded the traps going off--especially the acid spray...but each time a tile was activated, the ground trembled. Small pieces of the ledge--the ledge I was STANDING on...fell into the lava.   It was then that I heard Ademal's laugh again...loud and clear in the silence.   Crap.   Grabbing another clump of dirt and grass, I aimed for the original spot where I'd thrown the first one. It sailed through the air and nailed the spot, dead center.   The entire ledge gave way beneath me.   Ademal laughed hysterically as I sprinted for the hole.   Little bastard knew I'd try and trip his puzzle up.  


 

Day Eleven: Snow

D iving into the darkness headfirst--I skidded, hit a bank and started falling. the hole turned out to be a tunnel, cold and dark--and I slid...well, more like rolled, down the shaft.   Why every place I go has to be so flipping dirty and unkempt, I'll never know. I think I hit a hundred or more spiderwebs on the way down.   The exit spat me outside, back into the winter storm.
At least that's what I thought it was at first.   Thing is, this time I could see above me.   A domed roof with stalactites hanging down. Fangs, ready to bite into prey.   So where was the snow coming from?   A heavy wind swirled the crystals about me as I rose to my feet.   Leg spasms sent me back to my knees.   As fast as I'd run, several projectiles had hit me. A small dagger jutted from my left shoulder, while two odd-looking barbs protruded from my right rib and hip.   The spasms increased, sending fire through the nerves of my shoulder and back, while my stomach lurched. I couldn't help but vomit into the white landscape.   The world swooned and swirled with the snowflakes.   Ya know, Chuck always says situations are a blessing in disguise. Doesn't matter what it is--if you're willing to look at it from another perspective, you can flip any situation into a positive advantage.  

What about Lady Kravitz wanting to snog you on Spring Eve, eh? Woman smiles and children cry...how was THAT for--

  NOT A TOPIC I WANT TO DISCUSS, thank you.  

Sorry.

  *ahem* I meant I was covered in spiderwebs. Bunching the things up into a thick ball, I pulled the blade from my shoulder and shoved the silk into the wound. You know as I do that it stops the bleeding...  

Smart. Very smart.

 
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Crawling over to a large stone, I propped myself up to gather my breath.   As far as I could tell, the cavern was shaped like a boat. Oh don't look at me like that, Höbin--you're the writer, not me, so spruce this up if ya have to, but the damn thing DID look like a boat. Narrow at either end, wide in the middle. That's a BOAT.   I leaned against a single cluster of rocks, dead center between the two ends of the cavern.   One end had a giant open mouth, while the other side was completely covered with a thick weaving of vines. Leaves lush and green, seemingly giving a middle finger to the snow.   I wish I'd been tough enough to do the same.   Especially when the dragon started growling.  
   

Day Twelve: Dragon

Not many folk have seen an actual dragon.   I'm talking about the little annoying beasts here. The kind most trappers a few skins shy of a payday go looking for and never come home.   Even fewer have seen one of the great serpents...like Bränn, who serves The Drak Lord. Chuck's told me stories about the Verrdrä and how huge they get when in their natural state.   That's exactly what I thought this beast was.   My shoulder had gone numb by this point, and the webbing had stopped the bleeding. The rest of me wasn't so sure. The world was still spinning and I wanted to get off.   Whatever chemical those darts were dipped in, my muscles continued to spasm while my skin burned from the inside out. Sweat trickled down my brow as the first burst of dragon flame hit the rock I was leaning against.   It was also the first clue: No warning.   The blast hit the rock. Flames melted snow, making mud around me. I dropped down a little too late and got one of my brows singed.   It gave me my second clue: Heat.   Shaking my head to get into the game, I threw my body into the mud, rolling as fast as I could to the next biggest rock cluster.   A slab that had a gradual ramp formation.  
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"Yer gonna have to do better than that, short stuff!" I cried out.   Wasn't sure if Ademal could hear me, but it didn't matter--defiant banter is useful when you're forced to act in dangerous situations.   It also let me get a good look at my new friend.   Sparky looked bigger than any living creature I'd ever seen. With a wingspan filling the whole of the cave and skin dark as coal, Sparky brandished two limbs sporting powerful claws, each talon bigger than me. Unlike the Verrdrä, its hindquarters took the form of a large snake. Its smoothe sheen reflected the odd blue light being magically produced for the show.   Clue number three.   Another burst of flame hit the new cover I'd taken--which deflected all the heat.   Dax 1, Sparky 0.   Unable to get me, the ground rumbled as the dragon moved closer.   Exactly as planned.   The other thing most people have rarely seen--is me when I'm truly angry.   I'd been kidnapped.
I'd been knocked out cold. Repeatedly.
I'd been drugged, chained up, thrown around like a sack of root veggies, thrust into a life or death game I didn't sign up for and worst of all...
I'd had my powers of teleportation [i[taken from me.
  Oh, I was angry alright.   Biting my lip, I welcomed the taste of blood.
...and sprinted up the rock face as fast as I could manage, lunging upward.   To punch Sparky in the nose.  

   

Day Thirteen: Ash

People have always underestimated my strength.   Always.   Especially when I'm ticked off.   I've shattered the main gate of Til-Thorin Keep with a single blow. Just ask the kid. So when I lunged through the air and socked Sparky in the kisser, I'm guessing Ademal wasn't expecting the front half of the dragon's muzzle to crack and completely fall off.  

Wait. What? You literally punched a dragon...in the face?

  Well, I wasn't gonna punch it in the butt, now was I?   I just told you there were some specific clues.   Unlike most adventurers, I've been around great serpents. They make noise when they move, including a deep breath right before a belching flame.   This beast didn't make a sound.   Dragon flame is also so hot, it'll melt stone to molten lava, Höbin.   Crap, I could hardly feel the heat from behind the protective cover of the rocks--which should have been rendered to slag.   Lastly--that odd light in the cavern? It happened to be the magical glow from runes covering the dragon's neck and skull.   This wasn't a real dragon. It was another golem.  

Ahhhhhhhhh....

  Exactly.  
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So when I punched the thing with everything I had, it cracked its hardened clay form. She flipped her head back and tried to bite me, but I'd jumped to another rock formation and was already lunging again through the air.   My second strike snapped its head in two.   The cavern erupted in yellow flame. Sparky reeled her head back, slamming its face against the stalactites. Not sure if golems are made with the ability to feel pain, but it sure looked like it. She bashed the ceiling of the cavern repeatedly, giving me enough time to sprint up its long body.   I slid behind the shell of her cranium and grabbed her secondary horns at the base of the creature's skull with both hands.   Ademal was turning out to be an amazing mägo...but one that underestimated angry Evolu.   Apparently he didn't know I'd been raised by the greatest mägo alive...and that included learning the basics of magic. Magical incantations, symbols AND animation, which included golems. That's what you get when your pop is the world Olen champion.   Sparky's body was one part of the enchantment, the flame was another. The magical flame this thing was unleashing against me, was held back, most likely, through specific runs engraved on the inside of the dragon's mouth.   ...without those magical symbols to keep the flame contained--it had to go somewhere.   So I simply grabbed those horns, held on for dear life, and pushed up with all my might. That forced Sparky's face at the opposite end of the cavern. It wasn't actually dragon fire--but it was hot enough to burn the dense foilage blocking my way out.   A few solid blasts and the vines were as good as ash.   With a way out, I just needed to end the dragon, before it could end me.   So I pulled.   Hard.   Over and over, Sparky rammed her head into the ceiling.   ...knocking the stalactites free.   Each scrape marred the glowing runes, breaking the enchantment...and Sparky went down.   Permanently.   It was official: Ademal was trying to kill me.   I don't LIKE people trying to kill me.   It ain't polite.   So I decided to return the sentiment.  
   

Day Fourteen: Overgrown

I was exhausted, wounded, mad as a hornet and completely in the dark as to where I was, or how I was going to get out of this madhouse maze.  
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How was I supposed to know when this insanity was over?   Not like my captor was going to tell me.   Why would anyone want to kidnap me in the first place?   It didn't make sense, Höbin.   I wasn't wealthy.   My own blood didn't care about me, so it wasn't like Ademal would get any sort of ransom payoff.   Those were the most obvious reasons--but truth be told, I'm not even connected. You can't get to other people through me.   Sure, I was cared for by Morphiophelius and I'd also been employed by the Iskari High Council as a messenger. But it's not like I'm irreplaceable or nuthin'.   Plus, I wouldn't betray them.   So if Ademal had done his research, he'd know I was a hard case.   If he thought I'd turn on my friends, he was a damn fool.   So why snatch me?   It wasn't something I'd figured out yet--but I would.   The tunnel progressively grew smaller as I walked its length.   It ended in overgrown vines, several feet thick...and far too dense for me to squeeze through.   I pulled, yanked and grunted with all my might--but the blasted things wouldn't budge.   There was no gas left.   I was stuck, in the dark.   Alone.  


   

Day Fifteen: Legend

 

You know you're never alone, right?   That's what Mahan would have you believe, but you're...

  It's okay, Höbin.   Really.   S itting in that tunnel was a turning point for me--in more ways that one.   Chuck's always looked out for me.   He's defended me, protected me, taught me, and though I hadn't admitted it up to that point in my life--he loved me.   I was dropped off on the ol' coot's doorstep by the Wanderer with nothing more than a note and a dirty diaper. Yet that thousand-year-old bachelor set his life aside to become a father to an orphan--wrapping his world around me.   Who DOES that?  

People with class.

  While shivering in the mud, I could hear his words reverberating in my mind. His unwavering conviction bolstering each word spoken:  
I don't give a cow nipple what other people think, Dax. You're MY boy. MY child.   MY pride and joy.  
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So when people can't use their hearts to see you for who you truly are, you remember this:   You were not born to fail. You were built for success, Daxänu!   Yes, I'm calling you 'An Unsolvable Problem', because I believe your mother meant it as a problem OTHER people would never solve--not that you WERE a problem to be solved! You are a living contradiction, proving that it's the character of a being that matters, not his or her skin color, nationality or connections.   The universe doesn't make mistakes. It only creates opportunities for those WILLING to recognize them.   Opportunities to learn, try, fail, stumble, fall on your face..   ...and opportunities to pick yourself up.   To rise to greatness.   You wanted to know why I have so much confidence in you, Dax?   It's because I can see in you what you can't yet see in yourself.   Once you realize and accept that you are MORE than you THINK you are, nothing will stop you from becoming who you were meant to be.   A Legend.
 

Wow.

  Yeah.  

So what did you do?

  The unthinkable.
I decided to believe him.   Then I ripped the damn plants out by the roots.   ...cause I had an appointment with a nasty little gnome.  
   

Day Sixteen: Wild

 

What happened next--once you broke out of the tunnel?

I can't remember what I was expecting, but it wasn't a jungle.  

I'm sorry, did you say...a jungle?

  Yeah! It was insane, but it was also confusing. Moving from a cave to what I assumed would be another cave, or if I was lucky, breaking outside into the winter storm. But that's not what I found.   Trees and vines and the sound of a rushing river behind lush, full plants...and sunlight. That's the TRULY weird part. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face--even though I couldn't see it in the sky.  

Could you SEE the sky? jungle?

 
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YES! Bizzare, huh.   There were clouds, birds flying everywhere, creatures dashing about the roots of massive trees and chittering along their limbs.   The immediate challenge I saw, was not having a single clue where to go! The moment I stepped into that wild jungle, I was lost.  

Then what did you do?

  I decided to go up.  

Up?

  Yeah, I mean--think about it Höbin. Who knows how far and wide that jungle was--but if that truly WAS a blue sky, I should be able to go up and over the trees, mountains--get SOME kind of bearings, right?  

Right. Good idea.

  So that's what I did. Started climbing trees, to ledges, to cliffs and up, up, up I went.  

How long did that last?

  Well,...that's when it got exciting.  

   

Day Seventeen: Ornament

I f I had to guess, I would say I climbed for hours. Then again, when you're exhausted and focused, overexertion can FEEL like hours. My mind started drifting at one point.
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Started wondering what I was doing, ...not only doing there but why was I exerting myself and using up my energy to get to who knows where?   When I finally pulled myself up over a nasty little ravine, I took a breather.   It was beautiful up on the hillsides. The breeze rolled over my skin, cooling me down from the intense exercise and before I knew it--looking out over this massive valley that just didn't make any sense at all, I drifted off to sleep.  

Probably from sheer exhaustion...

  I don't know about that, bud. Yeah, I was tired, but I was also feeling pretty good.
Calmer. More peaceful.   ...then I had a dream.   There was screamin' all around me. Fire, gunfire, roaring.  

Gunfire? Roaring??

  Never said the dream made sense, but yeah--there was gunfire. Now that I think of it--it reminds me of the Trench Wars competitions. S.L.A.G.G.E.R.S and the suits we wore during the competition. The roaring came from Vallen and other creatures that fought at their sides.   War. That's what I saw.  

Where were you?

  Strapped to some machine.   No, don't think about it--just hear me out, Höbin. I was in some machine, and it felt real. So real in fact, that I know it had to be some sign of the future.  

That's...rediculous.

  Is it though?   Do you doubt anything Chuck tells you? No matter how looney he may sound--DO YOU DOUBT his word?  

No. But that's because he usually says something that can be proved in reality.

  Well I saw the kid. Right there, in front of me, duking it out in hand to hand combat with that freak o' nature Mahan.  

What?

  And my job was to do something with this machine I was stuck in. To...I don't know, OPEN it or something like that. It was supposed to help Wendell in his fight.  

So what did you do?

  Nuthin'. Cause I woke up.  

Blast.

  Yeah, some little rodent with big freakin teeth bit my dang toe and ran off. Drew blood, the little monster, so I got up and dashed after him. I was hungry after all--and that thing gave me an excuse.  

Eww.

  Next thing I know, I'm jogging into a clearing and I find this glowing necklace hanging from a tree. It was an ornament with massive jewels--looked like opals, but purple. They were all held together by interwoven vines.  

So you...

  Phhhh! I ripped the blasted thing down and tossed it over my head.   ...I mean, it looked like it could pay for quite a few rounds of Blackseed Rum once I got home and hocked it.  
   

Day Eighteen: Misfit

You really are a piece of work, you know that, right?

O f course I do. It's why poeple like me so much. My irresistable personality and all that crap.   Look, do you want to hear this story or doncha? Cause I have more important things to do today than sit here arguing with you about what I experienced and you DIDN'T.   ...like taking a NAP.
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Har. Har.

  The moment I plopped that necklace over my head, the air erupted with the most hideous screaming.   "Don't take that," came a voice.
"He mustn't takes it!" came another voice.
"I knows this," replied a third voice.  

???

  To my complete surprise, the craziest looking misfit tumbled out of the bushes, arms waving wildly in the air.   I spun, throwing my hands up in defense.   ...to which the misfit screamed in utter fear and threw himself to the ground, face buried under his arms.   "PLEASE DON'T HITS US!"
"WE ARE WEAK AND SMALL!"
"YOU ARE SO BIG AND GREAT!!!"   Now funny as it sounded at the time, I got a better look at this guy--and he was really small. Droopy ears, one less finger than me, dressed in rags. What made it worse, was that this little guy had sores and wounds all over his face.   The poor kid'd been beaten.   Badly.  

Oh boy.

  Exactly. So I knelt down and helped him up.   He didn't want to at first--and he flinched hard the first time I touched him.   "He, bud...it's okay. I ain't gonna hitcha, I swear!" I told him.
He gulped loudly, "You no hit Yoma?"
  I tried to get a smile on my face, but it was hard, seeing the massive cuts and bruises over his skull. Heck, I thought he had huge bulbous eyes--and it turned out the kid had been punched repeatedly in the face. His eyes were SWOLLEN.   "Yoma, who did this to you?"   His eyes kept going to the necklace around my neck. "Please, Great One,...please put ornament back. Porka must have it." His fingers trembled as he pointed to the necklace, "Please put back--I no want get hit more."   Then he wept.   Never seen anything like it. Such a tiny, frail-looking thing and all he wanted was to be safe?  

I know where this is going...

  Cause you know bullies just ain't right.  

So you...

  Asked Yoma where this 'Porka' lived.  

?Of COURSE you did.

  Thing is, Yoma didn't have to tell me. The idiot showed up for a butt-kicking all on his own.  

Oh boy.

 

   

Day Nineteen: Sling

W hatever race Yoma was, he had to be the runt.   That or Porka was a literal freak o'nature, cause that sucker was HUUUUUGE!   Guy had to be twelve to fifteen feet tall. If I could guess, he had to weight a good 500 pounds or more, with arms like tree trunks and massive lower canines that could probably flip a gnome motorized vehicle. Yeah, that big. Head the size of a watermelon, but a third of that face was the nose.  
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  A nose that was sniffin' all around, and grumbling like a dog.   Thing is--I don't care HOW big you are when you're a bully.   You're still a bully.   ...and if I have ANYhting to say about it, you're still gonna get yer butt kicked.   Preferably with steel-toed boots.   "HEY PORK-BUTT!" I yelled, stepping away from Yoma, making motions for him to hide. "I think you n' me outta have a little talk!"   The laughter was unmistakable. The ground shook, his head went back and he actually did a Santa maneuver, holding his jiggling belly with both hands.   "Me no talk with bug," was his replay once his laughter died off. "Porka squish you, though!"   ...and that's when he lumbered towards me, ripping a small tree from the ground as he did so.  

You sure pick 'em, don't you!?

  What can I say? People love me.   There wasn't anything around me I considered truly useful. Plus, picking up a stick and swinging it at the brute would probably just piss him off.  

So what did you do then? Run?

  Hell no. I started tearing my boxer shorts.  

Excuse me?

I tore off a portion of my boxer shorts and created a crude SLING.  

You didn't.

  Oh yes I DID! ...and it was a good one too.
Porka-butt had it coming anyway. He reminded me of those amazing stories from Earth, where the little guy used a sling to fight the giant monster, and defeated him.  

Oh, David and Goliath?

  Naw, I've never heard that one--I'm talking about Trump and the Democrat.  

Huh. Don't know that one.

  Well, I took a page from that tale, grabbed a rock at my feet, put it in the sling and spun that sucker with all my might.   Then let it go.  

And?!?

  ...Yoma never had to worry about Pork-butt again.  

*ouch*

 
   

Day Twenty: Tread

W ith Pork-butt down, I walked up and over his face and up to the path he'd come from.   Yoma screamed again in terror, "NO GREAT ONE---YOU NO GO THERE, IS PORKA'S CAVE!!"  
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  I looked over my shoulder, raised an eyebrow and then pointed to the body of his tormentor. "Uh, Yoma, kid--Porka ain't gettin' up again."   Don't know what went through Yoma's little skull, but he looked at Porka, shrugged his shoulders and quickly waddled up to me.   There was a sign beside the path that said, 'BEWARE!! DO NOT TREAD!!'  

Kinda funny considering the owner.

  Hehe, that's what I thought.   So I kicked the sign over and strutted up to the cave with my new friend and a nifty new necklace I wouldn' have to give up after all.  

     

Day Twenty One: Treasure

T he path wound up around croppings of rocks, which continued to get bigger and bigger, the closer we got to the cave.   Not only that, but the smell in the air dramatically changed.  

Changed?

 
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  Yeah, the air smelled increasingly sour.   Yoma slowed his pace, but at this point, unless there was a Mrs. Pok-butt, I didn't care. That smell was the only thing in this whole adventure that smelled familiar to me, and I wanted to find out exactly what it was.  

Did you find what you were looking for?

  Better. I found a cave of unspeakable treasure.  

SERIOUSLY!?! What KIND of treasure.

  *slurrrrrp*  

Dax?

  The kind of treasure we're enjoying right now...  

What.

  IT WAS BLACKSEED RUM!!!  

Oy.

  Oh, come ON! It was an entire cave, as in a lifetime SUPPLY of Blackseed Rum.  

That's it. Give drugs to a druggie...

  HEY! I resemble that comment!!  
   

Day Twenty Two: Ghost

Y oma wouldn't come into the cave at that point, but I didn't care. What I wanted was complete and total control over the consumption of this nectar of the gods.  
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  What I didn't expect, was a ghost protecting the place.  

I--I'm sorry, did you just say GHOST? As in, 'Boo, gonna get you', kind of ghost?

  One and the same.   The moment I touched the first barrel, I heard the moaning of the ghost behind the barrels of rum.   Turns out the ghost wasn't actually moaning for any other reason than he was drunk and had a splitting hangover headache!   Barron Ethnis (the cool ghost I met) explained that when you hear a spirit moan, it's because they were involved in a LOT of drinking before they kicked off--so don't be afraid. He was lucky enough to be the ghost overseeing the treasure of the Gnolaum.  

Woah. Woah. Woah. Hold on. Treasure of the Gnolaum? As in...

  As in the kid, I KNOW...   He explained it all to me as we walked to the back of the cave.  

   

Day Twenty Three: Ancient

D on't say anything about this Höbin.   No, seriously--shut yer mouth. Don't make a comment, reply--this is gonna be hard enough to admit without feedback.   That and I don't know how mad Chuck would be if he found out what happened next.   So the ghost-- Barron Ethnis-- leads me further into the cave, and he's being casual about it.   "Been waiting for you to show up, boy," he says to me.   Now, the whole experience was weird enough, but then to be told that I was expected?
Yeah, I'm not buying that part.   "You gotta have the wrong guy, pops..."   He stopped and raised a lazy eyebrow at me. "Pops?" he scoffed, "Well somebody's a cheeky little turd, now aren't they." He turned and kept walking. "I may get it wrong from time to time, boy, but you ain't one of them times.   "You're Daxänu of the Evolu, son of Alaria, the Omä-es." He stopped again, turning to me with a huge grin on his face. "Oh, I know most folk think you're the son of the Omathä, but we both know that's your grandmother's position, not your mothers. Your grandfather just couldn't bear to fill that position as the Law required, so he had your mother fill that royal position for the people."   Don't say it. I know.
Scared the hell out of me too. The old bugger knew things.   Secrets.  
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Then I saw it.   We walked around a bend in the cave, thousands of barrels of Blackseed Rum lining the walls and I skidded to a halt in my tracks.   At the very back of the cave, stood a massive statue, Höbin.   It had to be nearly a hundred feet tall. The head was up among the stalactites jutting out of the ceiling.   ...and it was Wendell.   Ah. Ah. AH!   No talking. I know. I know. How could it possibly be the kid?
I have no freakin' clue.   Now, I had no idea at the time who this person was, so it didn't matter. I just had to stand there and listen to the rambling drunk specter.   "There he is, Dax," which he said with a 'TA-DA!' kind of enthusiasm.
"There who is?"
"The hero."
I snorted. "What hero."
"THE hero, you slow-witted buffoon! THE hero that will come to save this world and everyone on it!!"
"...and you're telling me this...why?"
Barron rubbed the bridge of his node with his fingers. "BeCAUSE, you dolt--it's going to be YOUR responsibility to watch over him and make sure he doesn't get killed...or kill himself...before he learns the full powers of the Gem!"
"Gem. What gem?"
  That guy spinned on me faster than an addict playing a game of Bloodsticks.   "Doesn't that crusty old wizard teach you nuthin!??! The GEM. GEM! GEM! GEM! Ithari ...kept by the Iskari High Council?"   I grumbled and folded my arms, "Hey, don't talk about Morphiophelius that way...and yeah, he taught me about the lady-gem. Said someday someone would put the thing back on and fight Mahan once and for all."   "That's why he's still alive, yes," he cut me off. "And you're here to help THAT boy do the very same thing!"   I looked at the statue, then back at the ghost--who was hyperventilating at this point.
   

Day Twenty Four: Dizzy

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I don't know what I didn't notice this before.   ...no, don't say anything. There's nothing I can explain. My attention was jumping between this massive chunk of stone looking down at me, and a drinking man's fantasy.   That's when my legs buckled.   I reached out to steady myself--grabbing one of the barrels.   "You alright?" asked the Barron.   "Yeah, I'm...." but I wasn't. Something rolled in my gut. A light tremor that gently scratched at the walls of my stomach. Again my legs gave way, and this time I had to grip the rim of a barrel with both hands.   "You don't look so good," he added.   When I looked up, it wasn't hard to see the concern on his face.   ...or his nervousness.   Barron Ethnis was up to something.   Somethin' shifty.  

   

Day Twenty Five: Tasty

Took me a few moments, but I got there.   As I struggled to get my feet squarely under me, the Barron kept shifting uncomfortably. His eyes darted between the huge slag of stone staring down at us and the barrels.   Yet he wouldn't look me in the eye.   "What's up old guy," I panted, trying to catch my breath.  
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That tiny interruption in my gut slithered its way to my lungs. A sharp pressure forcing the air from my lungs with a deep WEEEEEZE.   "You...don't look so hot, kiddo. Maybe you should take a rest."   I grunted, fingers turning lighter from gripping the barrel so hard. "Maybe you should tell me what's going on."   "I don't--," he started to say, but I shook my head.   "There are many things I've been accused of, Ethnis, but stupid ain't one o' them. You're looking like a kid who just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Spit it out."   "You wouldn't understand."   Pushing my knees to straighten my legs against the cool wood helped me stand upright. "Try me."   "It's time for you to go," he said in a perfectly sober tone.   "What, you gonna knock me off now?" I wanted to run, mind you--but my body felt so trampled, there was no way I could take more than a few steps, let alone escape where I found myself.   "No, no," he shook his head, "nothing like that. It's time for you to go back where you came from."   "I'm not starting this maze over again..."   Barron looked at me then. His eyes were cold. Not ghost cold--but cold-hearted. "You're not gettin' it, kid. This isn't real. None of it's real. It's time for you to wake up now. You're coming too close to the edge."   At the end of my grip, a clay mug appeared atop the barrel I was leaning against. I could smell the alcohol, mind you. That light, fermented scent of happiness filled my nostrils.   "Drink that," Barron said matter-of-factly. "It'll send you on your way." Then he winked at me, letting a sly grin escape his face. "And I have to say, the whole experience is nice going down."
   

Day Twenty Six: Dark

 
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  He just stood there, staring at me, letting his eyes dance between my gaze and the mug.   The frith of the drink defied gravity. Almost like clouds covered the rim, dancing just above the surface.   "It won't drink itself," he nudged.   Figured it couldn't get any worse than what I'd experience duo to that point.   So I drank it.   As good as it tasted, my vision hazed, shadows creeping in all around me until I found myself in darkness.   If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that things can always get worse if you're not careful.   Mahan owns a damn shovel.

   

Day Twenty Seven: Coat

Not sure how long I was out.
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  Hours, maybe. Could have been days.   The first sensation was the feeling of something scratching my skin.   It was an incessant scratch against my shoulders and cheek. Fibers poking me over and over, a lot like when you rub the surface of your skin until it gets raw.   It made me twitch--and that's when I felt the heaviness. When I tried to move my head, it felt like a ton and I couldn't do much more than slightly roll my head on the surface beneath me.   Took me a while, but I got an eye open, then the other.   The clop-clop of the hooves of whatever beast pulled us along gave me something to focus on. A rhythm to help me center my attention and focus on sitting up.   I had a giant coat draped over me.   It was warm, but heavy. Made for a freakin giant by the size of the sleeves.   Near impossible for me to shift my arms or lift my chest off the surface.  
   

Day Twenty Eight: Ride

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I was in the back of a wagon.   A rustic, old, hard wagon.   I blinked a few times to help my eyes to focus. I was lying face down in the midst of clean straw.   Thank goodness it WAS clean. Too many times when I'd been out drinking until dawns light, I'd end up with....well, you get the point. No need to incrimination myself.   Someone gave a short whistle. High-pitched--and the wagon veered to the side. The sharp turn causing me to roll around and bang my head.   I grunted, which got a reaction from my driver.   "Looks like someone's up!" came a soft chuckle. "Don't try to move too fast, son--I think you have some head injuries.  

   

Day Twenty Nine: Injured

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I blinked the stars from my eyes and forced myself to sit upright against the side of the wagon.   My driver looked older than dirt, with a dingy yet nicely trimmed beard and mustache. I couldn't tell what he looked like from where I was sitting, but his voice was calm and kind.   "Where am I," I asked.   "About half a day's ride from Southshore," he replied.   It just didn't make any sense. When I'd started drinking, I had made sure I stayed close to Andilain, porting to an outlying village. What the crap was I doing two weeks ride south?   When I tried to shift in place, I flinched when my right hand griped the sidewall.   I think I actually yelped for the first time in my life.   Blasted hand was busted to crud.   "How did I get here?"   The driver snorted. "Hell if I know how you got here. I'm just a root farmer. Maybe you like the seaside?"   "I MEAN how did I get into your wagon," I snarled. Not the best idea, considering I was at this guys mercy at this point.   "Ah. I apologize. That would be me. I put you back there where I saw you wandering about, bleedin' and talking crazy." He paused, then, "I got me a boy that's...not quite right in the head. Sweet boy, but people don't act kindly towards him." Another pause. "Just didn't want no one to do more to you that what obviously already happened."   Felt a bit like a heel. "Whose coat is this?"   "That'd be mine also. You were shaking so badly, I thought you have to be cold, seeing as you were all naked and such."   Yup, a total heel. Here's a stranger, doesn't know me from Mahan and to make it worse, I ain't human--yet this guy picked me up to make sure no one abused me?   "Thanks."   His tone perked up. "Welcome! So where can I take you?"  
   

Day Thirty: Catch

Before I could answer, the wagon skidded to a halt.   "What's going on?" I asked   "Military in the road."   "What?" Not like I was worried. Hadn't done anything wrong down south for the military or guards to be looking for me.   Then again, I had no clue how I'd ended UP down south--so I guess anything was possible. But the soldiers deemed to be dealing with a figure in the center of their circle.   In the middle of the road.  
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"YOU HAVE NO PROOF!" squealed a very familiar voice. "LET ME GO!!"   "Hey pops, help me up," I grunted, trying to turn myself around, so I could lean against the wagon easier.   As we pulled closer, guiding the horse and wagon across the grass, I watched the soldiers wrestling with a gnome! A little greasy-looking fella, just outside what looked to be the local tavern.   Took four of the bigger humans to get chains on that guy, who kept snapping his teeth in an attempt to bite them.   Actually bite them.   And then I realized why the voice sounded familiar.   "Does anyone here know this gnome?" called the soldier. "Can anyone vouch for him?"   There were twenty or so people standing around, half of them looking rather drunk. While in the middle of the circle, at the feet of the gnome, was the soldiers superior. The captain was unconscious, on the ground, one of his hands clutching the handle of a broken mug.   "I can vouch for him," I called out. It was more of a knee-jerk reaction than a desire to volunteer.   The humans spun around to look at me, and half of them took a step back. The gnome, on the other hand, took one look at me and scowled.   "His name is Ademal Wheelcrank, techno-mägo of the Twenty-First order, Seeker of the Rose and Dungeon." I took a deep breath and let it out, wincing as I did. "But all you really need to know is that he's a devious little crap that shouldn't be trusted."   The guard smirked. "Is that so?"   I nodded. "Yup. Little sucker drugged me and tortured me for days." I nodded at my driver, "If this nice gentleman hadn't found me and picked me up, I would probably be dead out in the wilderness."   Ademal growled at me. "You're scum Daxänu! You still haven't worked out who I am, have you?! Moron!"   "I know who you are, gnome," and with that, clicked the chains over both wrists. "You're under arrest for the poisoning of Captain Waylan, of His Majesty's Guard."    

   

Day Thirty One: Ripe

I had the farmer help me down to the ground, so I could go over and inspect the Captain.   The guards moved in front of me, spears and swords pointed.   "Woah, guys. I know, I know--I look like a vallen. I get that. Not true though. Birth defect. Was sick when I was a kid and it deformed me."   They stared at me without flinching.   I sighed. "Magical illness."   Weapons slowly lowered as gazes glanced at one another in confusion.   Oh don't look at me like that, Höbin. It's a hell of a lot easier to spew out a tiny lie if it'll help everyone else in the room deal with Mr. Handsome, alright?   I motioned to the Captain on the ground. "I wanted to check on your boss, if I may. I have some experience in healing magics."  

Seriously?

  Hey, it was simple in my mind--either the guy was dead, for which I would say was beyond my ability--OR he'd be wounded badly, to which I'd say he'd be fine and get away before anyone was the wiser.  

Good grief.

  Well, it worked, alright? Poor guy was sick as could be, but his breathing was solid and other than having one hell of a hangover, it looked like the guy would be alright.   The soldier in charge of sending Ademal off with his comrades asked, "Will he live?"   I nodded. "Keep an eye on him though---whatever Ademal was doing to us, it's nasty."   "Thank you, stranger. I'll make sure Captain Waylan is properly cared for. As for the prisoner, we found large portions of blackseed run tampered with at this tavern and two more further north over the past two weeks. Nearly a dozen villagers have been poisoned, including two deaths from the liquid." He politely motioned towards the tavern, and I followed him in.   "Just blackseed rum?" I asked.   "Aye. Seems this Ademal was tampering with its fermentation process, and distributing it before properly ripe. This has been causing intense hallucinations in those partaking of it." We sat down at a table in the far corner while the evening continued to bustle about in its regularly intoxicated fashion.   "How did you even know to check for something like that?"   "Excuse me?"   "Checking for contaminants and specifically in blackseed rum is awfully specific. I'm not trying to insult you here, but I've never known our soldiers to be the overly investigative type. That was usually left to the University of Magic or the Castle Guard."   He smiled at me, then waved the barmaid over. "True. But we received news from the capital that we were to watch for strange events at the local taverns and other watering holes. Apparently there's some famous wizard named Morphiophelius who lost his boy at one of the places. Seems he has friends in high places and has the military out on alert--both to catch whoever is hurting people and hopefully find his child."  

But wait. If the soldiers received orders from the capital, that would have taken more than a week, even by express messegner to reach...

  Exactly.  

Uhhhhhh.

  Yeah. That's what went through my mind too. So I asked him, "How long ago did you get your orders?"   He pondered for a minute, then said, "Nearly three weeks."   I choked.   "Are you alright?" he asked. "If it wasn't for you just now, we'd still be looking for the villain who did this."   Had I been gone for a month? That's what rattled through my mind. The soldier chatted with the barmaid, but I didn't hear anything. My mind kept reeling, trying to trace the steps I'd never remember.   In the end, I'd been gone 31 days.   No trace of how, or where...   31 days missing from my life.  

Did you ever find out who this Ademal was to you--or why he had it out for you?

  Nope. No clue.  

Wow. So what happened next?

  Well the soldier was so grateful for my help, he did what any decent man would do for another.  

You have got to be kidding...

  He bought me a drink.
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