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counting minutes

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He rises as he always does, at seven in the morning. Even without the sun, the schedule keeps. Only a few times, has he broken from it, and always it had been after a day of healing from near-death.

Like most mornings, he is the first to rise. He spends the time to study over his spells with methodical precision, making choices about which ones he should take for the day, which ones he doesn’t need.

It is one of the few things he has taken, from his time at the asylum, that strict schedule that his body adheres to even without sound or light to guide it. As cloudy as that time may be, a decade of repetition will mark itself upon any body, especially one cursed with a memory such as his.

Bren Aldric Ermendrud is finishing breakfast, having awoken hours earlier, when even in the height of summer, the sun is still low in the sky.

The others rise, and begin their own preparations for the day. He sees Jester and Caduceus, praying, and the rest of them pull out the food from last night. It had been Jester’s time, casting the spell and he food was mostly pastries and bacon. With a bit of Caduceus’ seasonings, the pastries don’t taste as horrid as would be thought, given their origins. The bacon is not the worst bacon he has ever had, but that says less about it’s quality and more about the food he has eaten, these past few years.

She is smiling, cheerful and bright, and he is glad to see it is only a little bit fake.

It has been a few hours, when they make their way. He announces the hour, and Nott doesn’t appear as eager to strangle him as she was the night before, what he hopes is a benefit of sleep and not something else. At the very least, the sentiment has not completely vanished. Jester catches on a bit too late, but the summoned chimes still work.

Bren Aldric Ermendrud departs from Rexxentrum, and begins his journey back home to Blumenthal. He is not alone.

They press on quickly, but it doesn’t take on for the demoralizing nature of the tunnels to set in. There had been nothing, all the last day, and every eye scans for something interesting, anything at all, but all they can see is the tunnel stretching onwards and onwards.

It is noon. They don’t stop properly for lunch, just a brief pause, finishing off the final leftovers of yesterday’s dinner and today’s breakfast, before pressing forward.

The empty tunnels weigh on them all. Beau suggests that they trip out on the mushrooms Molly got, something which he is thankful the entire group votes against. Instead, Jester hands over the romance novel he had given her, and Beau proceeds to read it aloud.

It is not much of a distraction, he finds, but it catches the rest of the group’s focus, or forces them to deliberately avoid it, which is a welcome boon. What it does is give him another thing to count, to force himself out of his own mind. He counts pages. He counts steps. He counts minutes. He counts every laugh that comes out of the rest of the Nein.

For all that Beau is a good reader, it takes longer for them to finish than they should, with Jester and Nott keep pulling Beau off on side tangents, and trying, with variable success, to drag the rest of the Nein in on their speculations and antics.

It is four. Fjord is staring very focused at the ceiling, and catches something of interest, which pulls all of them off of the book, desperate for any sort of encounter to break the monotony.

Bren Aldric Ermendrud arrives in Blumenthal.

He sends Frumpkin looking, a ribbon of light around his neck, first ahead and then into the side tunnels.

They find kobolds, the small draconic creatures, and he steps into a trap, a rope around his foot hurtling him up into the air, where he dangles, somewhat comically.

Eodwulf murders his parents.

They talk their way out of it without killing any of the kobolds. He hands over Frumpkin and they free the tiny, incomprehensible beast which scampers down ahead, and although he finds himself worried, he can tell that he doesn’t question the decision as much as he would have, as much as he should.

It is five.

The kobolds have sent two of their number after them. He does his best to focus on the sounds they make, and on Beau and Jester as they finish up the end of the novel, and on counting steps and counting minutes and anything but the feel of corpses.

It is six.

Bren Aldric Ermendrud has dinner with Astrid’s parents. He is polite, and considerate, as he’s always been with them, and he is careful about what food he eats.

They acquire a kobold, by the name of Spurt, and none of them find themselves bored, anymore, distracted by their shiny new friend with the interesting makeshift gadgets. A ball of centipedes flies through the air off a ramshackle catapult to hit Fjord squarely in the chest.

It is seven.

Astrid’s parents are dead, their bodies lying peacefully at sleep in their beds, no sign of the gruesome, painful death that had come moments before.

He keeps all the focus he can on the kobold, focusing on every detail of the strange creature as well as he can from a safe distance.

It is nine, and growing late, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Bren Aldric Ermendrud stares at the house he grew up in, and he finds it doesn’t look like home anymore.

The kobold rushes in, and he hears the disgusting sounds as, in a moment, the giant’s hammer crashes into him and splats him flat.

Astrid and Eodwulf help Bren grab a cart, to pull across the door.

They make their plan, on how to get across the river of lava, past the two large giants. As prone as they may be to violence, they know that some fights must be avoided.

The planned illusion doesn’t work, and he turns a giant into a cow.

The cart is pushed into place.

Beau dashes like the wind and Jester grabs his shoulder and suddenly, they are on the other side, and it takes him a moment, to reorient himself. The dog makes it, and Fjord and Yasha make it, although not without taking hits from the giants.

He breathes easier than he thinks he should, and that’s when he realized that Nott hasn’t dropped the invisibility spell - and, with a crashing feeling in his stomach, he realizes that Nott isn’t with them at all.

The giants swing and he can’t see her but he assumes she must be there, and he tries banishment but it fizzles in his grasp and the giants are smashing and the bridge is falling and Bren is raising his hand aloft.

He is halfway through casting polymorph on the giant when he sees her, finally, the spell broken. She is falling into the lava. She is wreathed in flame.

The spell goes off.

It is 9:28 and Bren Aldric Ermendrud burns his parents alive.

He is frozen in place, and all he can do is stare at Nott. He wants to run forward, no matter how useless that might be. He wants to do something, do anything, but all he does is reach out, the hand which had cast not falling back to his side, and he feels the cracks as he sees the burns that rake up Nott’s side, as he watches her eyes go shut.

Beau runs forward, a blur of blue, and she pulls Nott from the flames, and he falls back into the tunnel, and all he can hear in his head is screaming.

Nott isn’t screaming, though. They heal her, and the fire is put out, and they sit there, in the dark, and they all thank the gods that they survived.

It is ten, and they make their cautious camp, and he hugs Nott tightly and lets the screaming fade from his ears.

He counts minutes, and he counts steps, and he counts his family, again and again, to reassure himself that they’re all there.