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Things you never forget

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A monster settlement tucked along a river flanked by a large, dense forest was -- for the most part -- a peaceful place. There were the occasional squabbles, of course. Someone was always howling about something… the weather, their neighbors, the humans… but it was overwhelmingly peaceful. The last fight had been when two monsters were arguing over the tulips were pink or fuchsia. And the whole argument ended with both sides apologizing. Followed by hugs. Then tea.

Grillby couldn’t stand it.

The moment he was old enough, he enlisted in the sentry guard, only to realize that this too was boring. Guards didn’t send raw recruit boys out on missions, they made him stand watch in front of the gates on peaceful, sunny days. So now he had to listen to the arguments about the flowers.

The indignity.

There was nothing to do for it though. Grillby often spotted runners and couriers traveling the land, and noticed quickly that they were all the fleetest and smallest of rabbit monsters. Ones that would draw no attention and could vanish into the thick of the woods in a moment’s notice. Grillby, on the other hand, was literally unable to hide if his life depended on it. A six foot tall inferno didn’t hide. Not unless your house was supposed to be on fire, perhaps.

“See anything, boy?” Gerson asked, leaning against a oak staff, half asleep at his post. The tortoise monster didn’t do anything without Very Good Reasonto move, content to just stand there and look official rather than go looking for trouble. More than once Grillby had caught his superior asleep at his post, standing up, eyes open. It was… unsettling.

“...No, road is clear.” Grillby kept his position with his back straight and at attention, while Gerson was perpetually half stooped over with the weight of his shell.

“Good. I’m making rounds ta the other gate. Keep an eye open.” The tortoise pushed away from the wall, knocking the gate open with a heavy shove from the staff.

Grillby watched the guard captain enter the city gates before returning his attention to the road. Far down the path, he could see where the road took a sharp dogleg and made to follow the river. If he looked further, he could follow the river itself as it continued to the sea. On a clear day, he would be able to see the ocean… slightly. It was usually a gray haze, like a low hanging cloud. What he wouldn’t be able to see, no matter how clear the weather, was the human village set at the base of the river where it touched the sea.

Today was not a high visibility day. The human settlements burned wood and coal, kicking up sooty black clouds into the sky though. There was a gray haze that spiraled upwards where the village would be. Even without perfect visibility today, the roads were noticeably clear. They had been completely empty for the past two weeks and it was becoming suspicious. Not even the human miners who had a small quarry not even a league from the monster village had been sighted.

There was a running rumor that another plague had struck humanity. Grillby had also heard some cat folk whispering about the human King dying suddenly, and the humans were in mourning for their monarch. Yet more gossip was that it was indeed a plague, but one the humans were blaming monsters for. News and gossip blended together. Someone claimed there was no plague and the human king was fine, but men were waging war on their neighboring humans... again. None of the gossip was news, nor was it probably true. Grillby had only been a guard for three boring months, and those whispers had been bouncing around even then.

Maybe there is some truth to the rumors, though,’ Grillby mused to himself, lifting one bare hand to his fiery face to rub at his chin. He found it strange that human travelers would vanish from the roads overnight. The monster couriers and scouts could only report massive activity behind the human city walls, but the gates remained closed. Every human settlement was this way, gates sealed and all humans safely tucked inside. It was as if they were expecting an attack. Grillby didn’t have a clue who would attack humans though.

Humans were ridiculously strong. A human Grillby’s size would easily be able to win in a physical skirmish. Their strength came from the fact that humans were made of… ‘stuff’, instead of being constructed from magic. ‘Stuff’ was apparently high endurance and able to resist much damage that would be crippling to a monster. Word is that if a human was stabbed through the gut, they could get themselves back to safety, and recover. If that happened to a monster, there would be only dust left behind. Humans could lose limbs and still persist on. They would leak a red liquid if injured, similar to a monster starting to dust, but in the case of humans the red liquid actually helped them heal. It was called… bud or blod or something? Gerson once told him young humans would have all their teeth fall out to regrow larger and stronger. Everything about humans was built for survival.

It was terrifying.

“Alright kid, shift’s up. Go home.” Gerson’s deep bass voice startled Grillby, his fire wicking outwards defensively. A fluffy white hound was following the tortoise as he shuffled back to the gatehouse. The dog raised one paw to his forehead and gave the fire elemental a smart salute and a tiny bark before taking his place at the gate.

“Yes, sir.” Grillby said clearly, though he felt like today was another wasted day.

“It sounded like there was good news at yer family’s house… might want ta be hurryin’,” Gerson gave a wry grin, scratching over one of the scars on his plastron.

Grillby’s flame burned yellow and wild, “She’s … already?!” Taking three panicked steps forward, he barely remembered to stop and give the hound his polearm, retreating three steps and almost throwing the weapon at the other guard before breaking into a run through the gates. The guard gave a yip, but he didn’t even hear it over the sound his flames made - a dull roar and crackle of anxiety. A manticore crossing the road had to bodily throw themselves out of the way when Grillby tore through the street, leaving a trail of embers as he bolted.

Taking a sharp left turn, boots skidding on the dirt path, Grillby hooked his hand into a wrought-iron fence gate and hurtled over the gate rather than take the two seconds to open it. Charging up the path, the fire monster came to a halt at the door and finally managed to reign in his panic to manageable levels and keep himself from knocking the door down.

Taking a slow breath, his flames wicking from a panicked yellow back to his typical orange, Grillby carefully opened the door and called out, “Chispir?”

The house was alive with a flurry of flames. At once Grillby was grasped by a wildly swirling yellow elemental. “Grill! There’s a--, I’m a… it’s,” Words failed the other elemental. Flint was half laughing, half crying.

Flint’s near hysteria caused Grillby to panic, “Flint, Is Chispir ok?”

“Why are all the men in my life prone to panic? Stars, I’m fine, worrywart.,” Lifting one hand up from a sofa ahead, Grillby caught sight of blue fire twirling around her fingers elegantly. Chispir was his older sister … by five minutes. Twins were rare among monsters. Grillby might have been the larger twin, but his sister would never let him forget he was the 'baby'.

Looking over her shoulder, Chespir gave a wide smile, flames curling in pride. “And so is your niece.”

Flint almost bodily dragged Grillby over to the sofa. His sister sat there, leaning against the sofa in exhaustion, and a glowing green egg in her arms. Both new parents were glowing with pride, their flames almost too bright to look directly at. The egg was small enough that it could fit easily in two cupped hands. It was hard to believe that in only a year this would be a small elemental. Under the emerald shell, something pale and white fluttered.

“Is that-,” Grillby started.

“Do you want to hold her?” His sister didn’t even let him finish.

Balking, Grillby stepped back, his brow wrinkled. What if he dropped the egg? What if he hurt his niece before she even hatched? “I… really don’t--,”

Chispir was known for never letting him finish his sentences though, “Get over here, and sit your flaming rear down.”

Flint clapped a hand on Grillby’s back, sparks of excitement shimmering about him. “It’s not everyday you get to be an uncle for the first time. … oh stars, I’m a father now. Oh stars...what if she remembers me panicking back there? Oh no, what if she thinks I’m an awful father?” Flint was the polar opposite to Chispir in every way, the stereotypical fire elemental: passionate about everything he did, quick to temper, always acting first and thinking later. The two of them worked well though, Chispir’s cool flames tempering Flint’s wild blaze.

“She’s literally not going to remember any of this!” Grillby protested as Flint started to work himself into another panic.  He sat carefully next to his sister, watching with amusement as his brother-in-law went into another fit.

With both hands cupping the egg, Chispir placed it onto Grillby’s lap. He tried to remain still, but he reflexively jolted when his sister released the egg. As he brought both hands up to make sure it didn’t accidentally roll off his lap, he felt the soft magic inside flutter. The white soul under the shell seemed to be doing laps inside the roomy egg. Green magic cushioned the soul, revealing the small spark’s color under the shell.

“She’s… you know she’s a girl then?” Grillby looked over at his sister.

“Call it a mother’s intuition. I could be wrong… but I never am,” his sister laughed, a wide grin appearing through blue flames. Elementals didn’t need a mouth to speak, but out of courtesy for the other monsters most of them did. Forming a smile took a conscious effort for most elements, but not for Chispir. She was always fast to smile, and just as fast to frown and scold someone as well.

“That’s my sister, so humble,” Grillby chuckled. As he touched the shell, the small soul was following his fingers on the other side. “I’m going to be an uncle,” he said quietly to the egg.

Chispir seemed tired, leaning against her twin. “I’m sure you’ll be a fine uncle. And Flint is going to be an amazing father.” Her fire was bright, but seemed smaller than normal. Producing an egg took a lot of magic out of both parents. Fire elemental children in particular took a lot of magic to raise. Grillby offered a spark of mana to his niece, and was surprised when the soul tugged gently on the magic, taking it like a shy child accepts a present from a stranger.

“She’s beautiful.” Grillby admitted, running a lick of orange fire down the egg gently. The soul seemed to chase after his flame, playful and curious.

His sister gave a hum of acknowledgment, but seemed to be slipping into a light sleep. She had never been as robust as Grillby was. Chispir tired out easily, and her flames were best suited for small things like cooking in the restaurant she and Flint ran. For the past few weeks, his sister and her husband had been gathering as much mana as they could for this chance. And now a perfect little elemental was developing, waiting until she was large enough to hatch.

Grillby had known his niece for all of ten minutes, and he was absolutely in love with this child. He wasn’t sure how it was possible to feel so proud of such a tiny spark, but he was.

And yet somehow, less than a day later, he’d feel absolutely nothing.

 


 

In the dead of night, the humans attacked. The night watch didn’t even see the first wave hit. Humans came up the river, not on boats, but by walking in the shallows. The walls had a metal grate over the mouth of the river, but it was meant to stop boats not individuals. A small force of humans crept along the wall, reaching the sentry outpost inside the walls and dusting every guard watching the front gate.  The moment the gate opened, pandemonium ran wild. A low bleating horn woke all sleeping guards and monsters from their bed. A second alarm, a heavy iron bell, rang out to give the order to assemble all civilians and protect them. The horn stopped blowing even as Grillby shot out of bed, whoever had sounded the first alarm was no longer able to keep the horn going.

Fire was mostly incorporeal, it took Grillby seconds to diffuse through his armor and take a more solid form, no need to don it hastily. Running out of his room in the guard’s barracks, Grillby was met with complete chaos outside. While the gate guards had fallen in a single attack, the second guards that patrol the interior of the city quickly set up a blockade around the now-open gate. There was a siren in the midst of the hounds, singing her lethal song for the human attackers. Any human unfortunate enough to hear the compulsion in the song dropped their weapon, staggered to the river and threw themselves in. They did not rise to the surface again.

Grillby felt a cold chill run up his back, his flames crackled wildly as he witness the melee. This was the first battle he had been in, it wasn’t a practice bout with padded weapons and target dummys… all targets were living people. Guards were falling under the sheer number of humans pressing through the gate. The small group of hounds were no match for the army attacking them, it was only a matter of time before their barricade fell and they were overrun. Already the smarter humans had blocked their ears at the siren’s song.

“Boy!” Gerson’s deep bellow pulled Grillby back to his senses. “Glad yeh made it, now if yeh could, give us a wall!”

This, Grillby could manage. The only warning he gave was his amour suddenly wreathed in fire before a towering, ten foot high wall of fire sealed the breach at the front gate. Humans howled in agony and threw themselves out of the village flailing helplessly as they fought the blaze. The wall began to creep backwards, following the retreating army until it blocked them entirely.

Overhead, thunder began to rumble.

“Not now, not now!” Grillby hissed. He could feel the air heavy with humidity. It could start raining in a few minutes or a few hours, but there would be rain tonight. The firewall would not hold if it started raining, the magic would immediately extinguish. Grillby was one of the most offensive-heavy fighters in the guard. But if it started raining, he was more useless than a moldsmal.

“Good job, lad!” Gerson called, his attention on getting a fallen monster back on their feet. “Can ya keep the fire going here, and check on the villagers? We can’t stay here much longer. They have… superior numbers to us.” There was defeat in the tortoise’s voice. They battle had just started, and Gerson could sense a losing fight. No point in killing all his men to make a stand. This was now a retreat, they would get as many survivors as they could to safety.

“Y-yes sir!” Grillby turned and bolted straight back into the village. The wall would burn indefinitely, as long as he kept magic funneled into it and was within range to do so. The monster settlement wasn’t very big, only a few blocks in any direction. It took him moments to reach the center square where the villagers were gathered. A makeshift guard of monsters armed pitchforks and magic kept the more vulnerable members in the center of the group. The dull claxon of the tower bells were still ringing, but it appeared nearly every villager had already assembled.

… no, not every villager. “Where...Flint? Chispir!?” Grillby didn’t see his sister’s brilliant blue fire, nor Flint’s own yellow fire. His was the only flame in the entire square, his orange flickering light stretching shadows ominously into grasping claws.

Acting as command for the civilians, a hound in full plate lifted his head and swiveled his ears to look at Grillby. The monster gave a low, grumbling growl, ending with a deep woof, nosing towards the restaurant that Chispir and Flint lived above. The guard had yet to see them leave their house.

Hesitating only long enough to make sure there was no attacking group of humans about to rush the civilians, Grillby dashed for the restaurant along the river. His cloak snapped behind him flames twisting through the fabric but it was not consumed by the fire. By the time he crossed the square and shoved the door open, his armor had entirely been wreathed with flame in anxiety.

The sight of three humans armored in soaking wet leather armor and clutching longswords in his sister’s house took Grillby entirely off guard. Perhaps not as off guard as the sight of a fully wreathed elemental bursting through the door, but in the single second of silence where Grillby looked down at the three human soldiers and they looked back at him and all were stunned.

Lvl 3. They were all lvl 3.

He exploded.

A fire monster’s home is spelled to resist fire, but at the moment Grillby didn’t even care if it had been as flammable as tissue paper though. Releasing a pent up nova of fire, the humans were caught in the blast, their sodden leather armor not offering the least of protection against a firestorm. A whirlwind of flames tore through the room, destroying anything not spelled to resist fire and scorching the walls with its heat. The windows imploded, shattering shards of glass into the room and a breath of fresh wind fueled the flames higher.

Leaving the room burning, Grillby staggered towards the back of the house. “C-chis? Flint?” 

“Grill. We’re… back here.” Chispir’s voice came from the back bedroom, door closed.

Hissing a breath of smoke and ash in relief, Grillby reached for the doorknob. The metal was searingly hot, Chispir’s work no doubt. She had set her magic on the metal, making it too hot for the humans to pull the handle open and the door was too sturdy to easily break through. Fumbling with the knob, Grillby managed after the second or third attempt to get the door open. Struggling to a stand straighter, Grillby pushed the door open.

Blue light flickered unsteadily in the bedroom, the crest of his sister’s flame just visible on the other side of the bed. She didn’t stand to meet him, or even acknowledge that the door had opened. His sister was weeping.

“Chispir! What--,” Grillby stepped forward, his foot skidding on the floor. He had stepped in something that made the tile slippery. Ashes.

No… his instincts told him it was dust.

Kneeling on the floor in disbelief, Grillby put one hand to the pile of dust. They were warm, dying embers hidden under the pile.

“Th-they came while we slept. Before the alarm bell started.” Chispir clutched at the bed covers, looking over the top of the coverlet with glittering beads of magic dripping from her eyes. “Broke a window, Flint heard them. Flint--,” Her voice broke, and a soft mewl of anguish escaped her.

Rising to his feet, Grillby felt the room tilt. Or maybe it was the dizziness amplified. He took three unsteady steps to the bed, nausea rising. With one hand clutching the covers, her other hand was dull with dust and limp. Motes of dust spun off of Chispir like snow, illuminated silvery by her flames. Grillby could see the scorch marks in Chispir's dress, deep burns that started at her core and slashes in the fabric. She had been stabbed, a direct hit to her core. 

“...no.” Grillby was not a healer. Chispir was going to dust right before his eyes. Even if he could heal… a wound like this was beyond all but the most skilled. Flint had been struck down and taken off guard, but Chispir had fought back. The room was covered in char and embers where she had run the humans out of the room and set the door on fire. But they had gotten several strikes against her. Chispir was not a warrior. She was a kind-hearted, warm elemental who liked baking and the first snow of the year.

“S-saying ‘no’ won’t stop me, little brother.” Chispir tried to laugh, but it came out a bark of pain. “Please. Please don’t --,” dust was spreading up her shoulder now, the fingertips on her other hand starting to come apart.

Gathering his sister in his arms, Grillby held her as she shivered. He couldn’t tell if it was out of cold, or fear. His flames rose higher, trying to comfort her. “What do I do?”

Chispir’s hand was too weak to reach out, so Grillby took hers in his hand. “Please. She’s...in the basket.” Her gaze dropped to look at the space under the bed.

With his sister leaning against him, Grillby reached under the bed and his fingers touched a woven basket. Pulling it gently out, inch by inch, as if it was made of brittle ice, Grillby moved the basket to Chispir’s side. From under the wrappings of soft cloth, a green light glowed. Flicking away the coverings, Grillby sighed, seeing no damage to his niece’s egg.

Pulling his sister against him, threading an arm under her legs to lift her as he stood, Chispir gave a pained whimper, a cloud of dust rising as she shuddered. “Don’t. Leave me here. With Flint. I can’t… leave him.” The fire was fading fast, Chispir was down to embers, blue coals that barely could cast a faint light. She was falling.

What was the point of fighting if he couldn’t even protect the people who needed him the most? He had craved excitement and adventure, never once did he think that his sister would be harmed in any of his dreams of the future. As little sparks, he couldn’t remember a time when Chispir didn’t encourage him to do whatever it was he desired. When he decided to join the guard, she told him he had a courageous heart and she was proud of him and he had never been more content. Moving as gently as he could, Grillby brought Chispir to the sweeping pile of dust where Flint had fallen.

The egg on the bed covers glowed pale in the dark room. The soul insist battering against the shell as it tried to reach towards them.

“Chis, I don’t know how to raise kids. What do I do?” Grillby lifted both hands to his sister’s face. She was struggling to breathe, her flames turning into glowing embers and fading.

“She needs… magic. And… love.” Chispir gazed at her daughter’s egg. “Don’t you dare...shut yourself away. She needs you, you need her, you dull spark.” The gentle insult was followed by a weak laugh.

“Promise me.” Chispir’s voice was a hiss of dying coals.

“... I promise. I won’t leave your daughter. I’ll make sure she turns out just like my big sister.” Grillby, burning tears of magic rolled down his face.

Chispir didn’t live long enough to hear the last of his words. She went to dust and Grillby was left holding a shimmering pile of ash. Slipping through his fingers, his sister’s remains drifted to Flint, leaving his hands empty.

Even with the ringing of the village alarm bell still clanging, it sounded a hundred miles away and so distant. The house was on fire, at some point Grillby’s firestorm had caught something on fire in the other room, and despite the resistance to flames built into every surface his magic had eaten through the spell. But none of that seemed to matter. The glow of his niece’s egg seemed dimmer, the soul fluttering inside the egg falling still. Did the kid know she was now an orphan?

With a trembling hand, Grillby gently grasped the egg. There was a fierce battle outside, howls of the hounds and the clangor of steel beating against wood shields. The human army had found another way into the village. He needed to to back out there. He’d failed his family tonight… he couldn’t fail anyone else. A leather satchel was at the bedroom door, the heavy bag his sister used for groceries. Without hesitating, Grillby scooped up the bag and carefully placed his niece into it, swaddling the egg with cloth until it would not roll around. With one last look at the flickering green light under the shell, he tucked the wool strips around the egg and closed the flap. Pulling the strap over his armor he winced as the bag bumped against the back of his hip with every step, but the egg remained safely bundled.

Grillby walked through the burning building, not caring that the timbers were starting to crack and crumble under the flames. As he passed the remains of the cutthroats who had killed his sister and brother-in-law, Grillby’s fists clenched into white embered knuckles. A sword of pig iron was warping in the fire, only the hilt still held form.

It would do.

Taking the ruined sword from the dead human, Grillby channeled flames through the weak iron. The metal warped and reformed. With magic and heat, the blade sharpened, strengthened, and reforged itself as a molten metal weapon. It took almost no magic to bend a half-melted sword into a new shape.

Exiting the house, Grillby could see the monster guards had fallen back to the square, fending off humans from the riverfront. Gerson was bellowing orders at someone, a phalanx of shields popping into existence with his own magic. Grillby didn’t even wait for the tortoise to shout a command at him, he gestured at the path the humans were coming from and a second firewall rose to block them and burn any unfortunate enough to be in the middle of it when it went up.

“Your timing is exceptional, boy.” Gerson was sporting a new scar, his eye squinting half closed as dust speckled his cheek. At least luck favored the captain, the wound was shallow.

“...” Grillby grit his jaw, fending off a human with his flaming sword. The sword alone was enough to cause most humans to rethink their attack plans and back off.

Gerson was in the prime of his years, he’d seen a lot of fights. He’d seen a lot of grieving as well. The monster didn’t have to ask why Chispir didn’t follow Grillby. He knew the look of grief that Grillby wore. However Gerson was a career soldier, and they’d all have to survive the night first. Grief would come later.

Grief always came later.

The guard, bolstered by Grillby on both offense and defense, managed to shove the human attackers back hard and put enough distance between themselves and their army. The civilians were in bad shape, most were panicked and a few were wounded. A second, smaller group of humans were waiting at the northern gate. They had been waiting for fleeing monsters to pick off one by one. They hadn’t expected the entire city, backed up by the full guard to burst from the gate.

Every single one of those humans had lvl. Humans skilled at killing monsters. Rage burned deep in Grillby’s chest, painful embers that rubbed together and spat sparks. Hissing, he snapped the sword out in a sharp lash at the first human who stepped forward to block their exit. Though the human raised their own sword to block, they found it entirely ineffective when the metal of Grillby’s half-molten blade warped around their steel and splashed hot iron across their armor. Human armor isn’t designed to protect against liquid metal the soldier was quick to discover, before he expired. The blade reformed even as the next human stepped forward.

“Don’t fight them one by one! All of them at once!” Gerson was at Grillby’s side, a magic shield went up in time to block a glancing blow.

Rage made it hard to think, but Gerson’s words didn’t require a lot of thought to follow. Launching a volley of fireballs, Grillby doused the entrenched troops with flames, causing most to retreat. A second command from Gerson, and the hounds quickly sealed their own city gate behind them, destroying the locking mechanism and delaying the bulk of the human army inside the city.

After that, it was madness. Grillby didn’t even know where they were headed, just the desperate pace that was set was enough to cause the civilians to stagger and weaken. Rain started shortly after, and the rage that was clouding Grillby’s mind was washed away. After that, all he knew was pain.