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Warden Ch 11

Alwyn picked his way over the rockpools to the cavemouth that the sailor’s trembling finger had pointed to. His hands shook, and he tightened his grip on his staff, regaining his composure. The magic had come back easily – it was always just a whisper away, there beneath the surface ready for him to reach out and grasp. Magic was his companion, his connection to the world, as familiar to him as his shadow. It had come back to him so easily that he barely felt exerted, despite the feats he had just performed, the lives that he had just snuffed out, albeit monsters all.

He paused at the cavemouth, let the wind whisper across his skin and carry the scent of seaweed and rotting flesh to his nostrils. These harpies must have their pick of the regular air- and sea-traffic that passed close to their domain. Culling this clan would be of benefit to the Kingdom. How many lives would be saved without these screaching beasts luring sailors to their deaths?

On the one hand, he was glad that he apparently felt the need to convince himself that killing these creatures was the right thing to do. It reassured him that he was not who he used to be. On the other hand, killing was killing, and he hadn’t the taste for it.

Enough lingering at that particular cavern of memories. He set his jaw, drew back his shoulders,and stepped into the darkness.

The lilting melody bounced off the cave walls, echoes upon echoes that made the sound all the more haunting. Without the magical ability of the tune to seduce him, all the song did was make his stomach churn. His nose wrinkled in distaste.

Shafts of light piereced the darkness, allowed entrence into this vile place by the passage of time and the crumbling of the cave roof. He was about to stride straight through the revealing light, fueled by angry bravado, but checked himself – while he had no qualms about being seen and attacked by this harpy queen, the queen had Dain in her grasp, and he had to consider the possibilty, however unwelcome, that she might take his life if she felt threatened.

Instead, he picked his way around the pools of sunlight, and grew a carpet of moss to cushion his steps. The narrow passage soon opened up into a larger cavern, where enough sunlight broke through to allow saplings to ek out a tenuous growth from the slippery walls. There, in the middle of the cavern, dominating the space, the huge and cackling harpy danced and cavorted, oblivious to his presence.

Alwyn caught sight of Dain through the fluttering of the queen’s wings. He was sitting cross-legged on the rocks behind her, gazing up at her grotesque, twisting form with utter adoration, his mouth agape.

A wave of fury burned at his chest. His one hand balled into a tight fist, his other gripped his staff so tightly his nails dug into the wood. With barely a thought he summoned a mass of twisting roots to spring from the ground, from the walls, and even down from the crumbling ceiling, to form a solid wall between Dain and the harpy queen. With a shriek she turned on him, barely focusing her eyes on her atacker before more roots erupted from the walls and stabbed through her wings.

Her screams of pain fueled him. He roared and the pebbles at the enourmous harpy’s feet erupted into piercing shards that nicked her flesh in a flurry of razor-sharp edges. She swatted the air, flapped her wings frantically trying to get away, trying to stop the onslaught. Vines snaked around her wrists and ankles, and Alwyn pulled his arms apart, mimicing the movement that spread the queen’s limbs wide and held her in mid-air, squealing with fury and terror, her feathers and her putrid grey-pink skin awash in her own blood.

The Warden flicked his wrists, and the vines completed the movement, ripping her limb from limb. Her severed torso fell with a sickening splash into the sandy-wet ground.

***

“No!” Dain screamed at him, crawling across the rocks to the harpy’s decemated form. “No! What have you done? Oh, my love! What did he do to you?”

“…Dain?” Alwyn crossed the distance between them, stepping over jutting rocks and roots and bloody feathers.

“You… You killed her!” Dain looked up at him, his eyes glossy.

“The harpy queen that had you enraptured? Yes, I killed her, as I killed all the other harpies that had captured the airship sailors and were leading them to certain death.”

“H… Harpy?” Dain’s eyes flicked to the harpy queen’s corpse, his handsome features painted with pained confusion. “No, not… She was my love, my one, my only…”

Alwyn swallowed a surge of anger. “She was not your love. She was a harpy and she was going to eat you and pick her teeth with your bones.”

“No, she wouldn’t…” Dain struggled to his feet. “Harpy? No, she… “

Alwyn took Dain’s arm to steady him but Dain pulled away. Alwyn’s eyes prickled and stung.

“Why would you…?” Dain whispered, his eyes scanning the cavern and taking in the utter destruction that Alwyn had wrought up on his captor.

“Feathers?” He pointed at a dismembered wing. “Is that… Is that a wing? Oh lords,” He looked across at Alwyn. “Harpy?” He wretched, and covered his mouth quickly.

“Come on,” Alwyn took Dain forcefully by the elbow and led him out of the cave and into fresh air.

The sailors were pulling themselves to their feet and shaking off the dregs of the hypnosis. Some of them were recovering quicker than others and helped those struggling get their bearings. At the other end of the ravine, the airship’s captain was shouting orders, gathering her crew.

“What in seven hells happened here?” Dain scanned the scene, the dead harpies stuck in the sand where Alwyn had left them.

“I happened,” Alwyn mumbled, and led Dain across the sand towards the captain.

“One, two, three… seven… nine… How many were there? Ten, twelve…” Dain counted harpie corpses as they passed.

“I don’t know. How are you feeling?”

Dain scowled at the ground for a moment, and took a breath to answer him, but was interrupted by the captain jogging over.

“Now I see why some airship captains invest in hiring Wardens to guard their vessels,” She beamed up at Alwyn, no small measure of reverence in her eyes. “Incredible. Absolutely incredible. And not a scratch on ye – nor on any of my crew!”

Alwyn shrugged, noticing that Dain had taken a few steps away and was standing with his back to them.

“And modest too, are ya?” She clapped him on the arm. “Well, I’m afraid there’s bad news – we won’t be sailing out of ‘ere. Ship’s in no fit state. We’ll have to go through the pass and send a crew back to salvage her. Did ya get all of the beaked bastards? Of course ye did, look at the place. Won’t be singin’ no more, will they? Good job. Bloody good job.”

“Mmm,” Alwyn’s eyes bore into Dain’s back. He sighed and then turned his attention to the captain. “I’ll take my companion and we’ll go on ahead of you, deal with any trouble along the way. I’ll make sure the path is clear for you and your crew.”

“Was hopin’ you’d say that,” She beamed. “Managed to find one of my maps in the hull,” She uncapped a scroll case and pulled out a roll of parchment, unfurling it before him. “We’re here,” she pointed at a jagged stretch of coastline. “Was gonna sail around ‘ere, take us on a wide berth around these cliffs. But if we go through ‘ere, there’s a little fishin’ village, if memory serves, a bit farther up the coast. I reckon that’s our best bet.”

“Got it,” Alwyn scanned the map quickly and comitted what he could to memory. He’d had plenty of practice hastily storing information – a skill that apparently hadn’t been lost to the years. “Do you need more stretchers?”

“Nah,” The captain secured the map and looped the case to her belt. “Funny, the crew that got snatched by the harpies faired the best, save for their minds an’ hearts being messed with. A few swigs o’ spice and they’ll get their heads right again and help the ones who got hurt in the crash. Hey,” She took Alwyn’s arm, forcing his attention. “Remember that,” she glanced at Dain and then back up at him. “Weren’t his fault. He’s gonna be foggy for a while, seen it before. Forgive him his sins, yeah?”

Alwyn’s brow knotted, but he nodded.

“Good lad. Right, I’ll let you get a head start. Best o’ luck.”

***

“We’re to scout ahead and deal with anything else we find as we make our way to a nearby fishing village,” Alwyn glanced back at Dain who trailed a few paces behind. “Make sure the airship crew have a clear path.”

Dain pulled a flask from some hidden pocket of his beloved jacket, which now sported a magnificent tear through the left breast, and took a swig.

“I doubt we’ll find anything, ” Alwyn continued. “Harpies are territorial – they would have cleared the area around their nesting grounds of any threat.”

Dain took another swig.

—–

“Will you stop bloody drinking and listen to me?” Alwyn snapped.

“No!” Dain took a long drag from the flask and then waved it in front of him. “No, I don’t think I will! I was in love, and then she was killed! Killed, before my very eyes!”

“It was a harpy,” Alwyn growled.

“I still loved her!” Dain gestured with the flask and staggered up the path. “I knew what she was and I didn’t care! I loved her, I was blissful, and you stole that from me!”

Alwyn reeled. “Stole it from you? *Stole* it from you? It was going to kill you!”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Dain span on him suddenly, his expression fierce. “I know, Alwyn. I know what she was – what IT was. I know, and it makes me want to throw up. But I still feel it, in here,” he thumped the flask to his chest, “that love, that rapture. It felt real, and now it’s gone!”

“I can’t believe you’re angry at me for saving your life.”

“Ruining my life, more like,” Dain drank heavy from the flask and turned back to stalk along the trail. “My true love, killed!” He mumbled as he went. “Figures I finally find someone who likes me and they get killed!”

“You bloody…” Alwyn trailed off, exhasperated. “*I* like you!” He yelled at Dain’s back. “I like you a whole lot more than that gods damned harpy witch!”

Dain paused, and then his shoulders sagged. He tucked the flask back into his jacket.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Alwyn continued. “I’m sorry I can’t let you sit with this lingering enchantment. It’s driving me up the wall hearing you go on and on about a harpy being the love of your damned life. I was terrified when I realised you were gone,” He caught up with Dain and turned to face him. “Terrified and livid, the thought of you being hurt, or worse. I haven’t been so angry in years. And the thanks I get for saving your life is listening to you-“

Dain lunged forward and pressed his mouth to Alwyn’s lips. Alwyn stood there, shocked, trying furiously to process what was happening and how to respond, when the taste of liquor hit him. Something inside him sank.

“You’re drunk,” Alwyn pushed Dain away.

“I… might have overdone taking the edge off, I’ll admit,” Dain shrugged.

Alwyn’s teeth clenched. “Come on. The sooner we get to the village, the better.”

—–

“But we might come across some flying pigs, I hear they nest in these parts too, and they’re peaceful pigs which wouldn’t present any significant threat to the harpies, so they’d probably let the flying piggies be.”

Dain trudged on silently, staring at the ground.

“Dain,” Alwyn stopped walking. “*Dain*.”

Dain stopped short of bumping into him, and looked up, startled. “Hmm?”

Alwyn fought the urge to reach out to him, to put his hand on his shoulder, to squeeze his arm, anything – but the possibility of Dain wincing at his touch again made him hesitate.

“Are you alright?” He asked, and immediately regretted asking such a silly question. Of course he wasn’t alright. Dain had been thoroughly entralled by an enchantment that had him believing that a disgusting, ugly, barely sentient creature made of feathers and talons and wrinkly hairless flesh was the love of his life.

“I’m fine,” Dain muttered and pushed past Alwyn, continuing along the trail.

“You’re not fine,” Alwyn persisted, catching up to him. “Obviously you’re not fine.”

Dain shrugged.

“Hey,” Alwyn took Dain’s arm but Dain shook him off. Heat rushed to Alwyn’s cheeks. “Are you angry with me?”

Dain stopped walking, his fists clenching and unclenching under his sleeves. His eyes narrowed. “Why would I be angry at you? You saved me from being eaten by a harpy.”

“I don’t know why. That’s what I’m trying to understand. You’ve barely said two words to me since we left the cave. Would you please talk to me?”

“What do you want me to say?” Dain growled. “I feel like I’ve lost the love of my life. I know how absurd that sounds. I was madly, truly, deeply in love, and then I woke up and it was a horrible nightmare and my true love was a monster that wanted to eat my flesh. But that feeling is still there, that feeling that I was in love, like a dream that lingers after you’ve woken up. I still feel it,” He pounded at his chest. “And it’s sickening. It’s heartbreak, but it’s a lie. I’m angry at you because you killed the love of my life, even though I know that it was a spell cast by a damned bloody harpy. You saved my life, actually, so I should be falling at your feet thanking you. But I can’t, because that anger is eating me. And I hate myself for that, too, because you’re lovely, and I hate being angry at you for saving my good for nothing life.”

Dain’s eyes pooled tears. “Who knew that harpies were so bloody obnoxious,” he mumbled.

“I really want to hug you,” Alwyn said quietly, fighting the urge to run his thumb across Dain’s cheek and wipe away the tear that traced its way to his chin. “I know you don’t want me to right now, and I respect that, but I want you to know that when you stop hating me, I’m here.”

“Oh Gods,” Dain let out a little half-sob, his lip trembling. “Why do you have to be so bloody nice?” He leaned forwards timidly and tipped his forehead onto Alwyn’s chest, arms hanging limply at his sides.

Alwyn wrapped his arms around Dain’s back and squeezed gently.

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