Chapter 1: Apart
It was never supposed to be like this. Then again, it was never supposed to be anything.
Blinky never considered himself much of a romantic. He’d always preferred his books to such things.
He regretted his lack of contentment with what he’d had now. Sure, he, personally, may have ended up here regardless, but…
Blinky gazed down at the woman cradled in his arms. He stroked a lock of hair away from her face.
…at least he’d be alone.
Barbara coughed. She stirred, and then wiggled around for a better position. Blinky’s arms immediately went to helping her find it. She didn’t look up at him. He wished she would. That, or protest, argue, tell him she was strong enough all on her own. Anything that sparked that bold, brash personality he hoped was still in there.
Breathing heavily, Barbara collapsed against Blinky’s chest. Her eyelids fluttered shut. Her skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. That worried Blinky, but it wasn’t like there was much he could do. Except wrap his arms around Barbara, hoping that would help warm her up, remind her that support was still there.
The door to their cell opened.
“Don’t you dare die on me,” Officer Kubritz greeted Barbara before her eyes went to Blinky.
He glared back. “She would be better if she weren’t locked in here!” He spat. “You have me. I can assure you, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all troll kind. You have no need for Barbara. Release her!”
“Tell me, Mr. Blinky, was it?” Kubritz strolled into the cell, her heels clicking against the cement floor. “Does that encyclopedic knowledge cover troll-human hybrids?”
Blinky glowered and tightened his grip around Barbara, but didn’t reply.
“I see. Has there ever been such a thing before now?” Kubritz regarded him with an icy expression. “Surely someone as knowledgeable as yourself would know?” Her frown deepened. “I do expect an answer this time, Mr. Blinky.”
“No, there has not.” Blinky grumbled.
“Of course.” Kubritz chuckled. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? My people have studied trolls before. We know quite a lot about your kind. There isn’t really all that much that you could tell us that we don’t already know.” She smirked down at Blinky. “You should feel proud, Mr. Blinky. You are still helping the advancement of our knowledge.” She gestured for her armed men to advance into the cell.
“Please.” Blinky gasped when he realized, even if he could fight, this is a battle he wouldn’t be able to win. “Don’t hurt them.”
After her men pulled Barbara away from Blinky, Kubritz stepped forward to inspect the doctor. “Oh, rest assured Mr. Blinky, I don’t intend to. Just study.” Kubritz placed a hand on Barbara’s very rounded, very pregnant belly. “After all, your child will be the first of its kind in the world. We wouldn’t want to jeopardize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you’ve given us, would we?” Kubritz signaled her men to take Barbara away. Once they were gone, she turned back to Blinky. “Good new for you, though. You’re being released.”
Barbara wrapped her hand around her son’s chubby fingers and moved them so she could see the illustration on the picture book page he was pointing to. “A cat,” she told him softly.
“Wuzzacat?” Arthur, named for a close friend of the father he’d never met, attempted to stick his fist in his mouth. His mother stopped him and gave him a spoon to suck on instead. Unbeknownst to her, getting a spoon had been his entire plan all along. They were only allotted so many spoons each day and his mother insisted he not eat them all at once. Arthur didn’t really get why. There would always be more spoons tomorrow.
“A cat,” Barbara began to explain. “Is a type of animal. They’re furry and they say ‘meow’.”
“Live outside?” Arthur looked up at his mother with wide eyes. He blinked, uncomprehending of why there were tears in her eyes all of a sudden.
For as long as he could remember, the ‘outside’ had been a distant, faraway concept. Kinda like the imaginary land he made up in his head and went to when the facility doctors had to run tests on him he didn’t like. His three-year-old mind couldn’t conceive of the idea that there was a world beyond his own he’d never been too. His whole life, it had always been just him, his mother, and the various officers and doctors who ran the facility they lived in.
“Yes, cats live outside.” Barbara closed the book. She wiped her tears away on the back of her sleeve. “How about you go draw for a bit? I need some rest.”
“This green is nice.” Jim showed the color swatch to Blinky.
Blinky nodded, but didn’t speak a word. Jim didn’t push. Re-Painting Day was always hard on the troll.
They sat on the floor of an immaculately-clean nursery, surrounded by an eclectic gathering of toys and necessities for a toddler. Or, at least the kinds of things the Internet told them a toddler would need. They didn’t actually know. They didn’t actually have a toddler.
“Or, we could try this light yellow.” Jim continued on through the swatches.
Originally, the nursery had been set up by both Barbara and Blinky, back when they’d found out about their pregnancy. Barbara had wanted to paint the walls herself, and had even started sketching out cartoonish animals on one (the first year they’d done the Re-Painting, Blinky and Jim had come to a silent agreement to never cover over the pencil lines).
Now, each year, on the day they calculated would be the baby’s due date, Blinky and Jim redid the room. They replaced the unused toys, books, and other things with new belongings their research told them a one year old, a two year old, a three year old would require and repainted the walls in a new pastel tone. They tried to keep things as gender neutral as possible, as they didn’t know whether Blinky had a second son or a daughter, or whether Jim had a brother or a sister.
Originally, it had been their way of trying to say they would get Barbara and the baby back. Now, it was their way of memorializing them.
They had no way of knowing their date was about a month off from Arthur’s actual birthday. He’d been born early.
Chapter 2: Reaching Out
While editing, I realized that what I initially had planned as the full Chapter 2, which was over 7K words long, was a lot to take in at once. When I was halfway done with reading through it, I realized I myself needed a break before going over the second half. I also realized I'd come to a natural pause in the action. After a brief mental debate, I decided to split it down into two chapters (as to have a breather between two emotionally intense sequences).
This Chapter 2, therefore, is one half of the original I had planned. Chapter 3, which will be posted sometime tomorrow, will be the second half of the original.
I would ask, if you can, please comment and let me know what you think. I spent a lot of time and effort on this story and I'm eager to know what your guys' reactions are to it <3
From: Stuart Electronics
Subject: You’ve Won A Free Stereo System!
Jim rubbed his temples. He clicked to delete the email. It was the fifth such email he’d received this week alone. The hackers trying to infect his laptop with a virus were persistent, he’d give them that. He wasn’t going to let them succeed in their mission though. There was nothing, absolutely nothing (in his mind), more humiliating than being a computer engineering student who had to take his laptop into tech support because he’d infected it with an easily avoidable virus. Again.
There was making mistakes, which happened to pretty much every one of his classmates in his major program on the regular. And then there was what Jim did. He’d long since given up counting the number of ways and times he’d screwed something up (also the amount of hints his academic advisor gave him whenever they met that he should maybe pursue another interest field). Jim was well-aware he didn’t truly belong in computer engineering. He didn’t have the passion, drive, or patience for it.
But he needed it. Desperately.
Jim’s gaze fell on the framed picture he kept on his desk, right in his line of sight for when he grew tired enough that his eyes began to drift away from his laptop screen. There was a teenage (still happy and not perpetually exhausted) version of himself. There was his adoptive dad, Blinkous Galadrigal, who he called on weekends to checkin with (mostly to ensure Blinky was still managing his depression symptoms alright—the last few years had been especially hard on him). And there was Jim’s mother, Barbara. Jim’s gaze lingered on her. It had been four years now since he’d last seen her, last hugged her, last heard her voice. He wondered how she’d changed. He wasn’t really sure he wanted to know, considering where she was.
She hadn’t abandoned Jim like his first dad. He was going to get her back. No matter what it took. He would (somehow) learn enough about computers to hack into a military black site’s security system. He would break in. He would rescue her, and his younger sibling. He had no idea how, but he would.
That’s why he was doing this, despite his classes and assignments regularly feeling like torture. He had to remember that.
The door leading into the apartment opened behind Jim.
“Hey, Jimmy-jam,” Aja called her usual greeting. She dropped her backpack by their kitchenette’s counter with a thump. “Class today was the worst. I think Professor Lempke’s trying to put us to sleep. There’s no other reason he’d keep droning ooooon and ooooon.” She mimicked her most hated political science professor’s mannerisms as she made her way over to Jim. Aja looked over his shoulder at his screen. “If you need help again, I can get little brother to come over.”
Jim sighed. “No. I’m good. I actually managed to finish the assignment all on my own this time.”
Aja gave him an incredulous look. “You sure? Krel can still check it.”
“Yeah.” Jim blew a raspberry. He didn’t meet his girlfriend’s gaze
Aja picked up on his sour mood. “Come on.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Cooking something always makes you feel better.”
It did. The kitchen was a realm Jim excelled in. It always had been. Since, well, since as long as he could remember. Back when it was just him and mom, eons ago, he’d started making meals when she worked late at her residency. Something had always felt right about it. The way he could feel confident when he picked out ingredients. The way the knife felt in his hand when he chopped. The way he had gotten skilled at knowing just what a dish needed to give it that last, little flavor boost.
Once upon a time Jim had considered culinary school his dream, and he hadn’t really given up on that. He’d just postponed. Indefinitely.
“So…” Aja probed when Jim was fully in the rhythm of cooking ramen (not the instant kind, but the good stuff with vegetables, some beef, and an egg). “I saw you looking at that picture of you, your dad, and your mom again.” She hesitated. “You want to talk about anything?”
Jim didn’t look up from what he was doing. “Not really, no.”
He hadn’t told Aja (though they’d been going strong for over a year and moved in together). What was he supposed to say? My dad’s really a troll, with four arms, six eyes, and blue stone-skin? His human appearance is just an illusion he maintains so he can keep his job as a guidance counselor at my old high school? Which he does so he can pay for the house I grew up in, so when we get my mom—who was literally kidnapped by the government, by the way—back, we can have the life that was stolen from us?
Aja was one of the very few completely good things about Jim’s life. He couldn’t bear the thought of her looking at him like he was nuts.
“Jim.” Aja walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around him. “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
“Then, why don’t you?”
“It’s not that simple, Aj. I—” Jim closed his eyes. “I just can’t.” I can’t lose you too, he thought but didn’t say.
“Jim.” Aja began softly. “I love you. That’s not going to change. No matter what weird family drama story you may have.” She took a breath. “Remember how I was scared to introduce you to my family? How I really thought our weird shit would push you away? Remember how you said nothing could ever make you do that? Not even the most overprotective, ridiculous uncle in all existence? Do you remember all that, Jim?” She rested her head on his back.
“Yes.” Jim intertwined his fingers with Aja’s.
Aja wiggled around so she and Jim were facing each other, but she was still embracing him. “You didn’t run.” She reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand. “I won’t, either. I promise.”
Jim sighed. He looked into Aja’s eyes. He could feel his heart thrumming in his chest. He was scared. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was. But, he did want a future with Aja. The truth would have to come out at some point or another for that to happen.
Now was just about as good a time as any. Probably.
He took a breath. “How would you like to meet my dad this weekend?”
The years Blinky has spent as a human could have been kinder to him. He’d always been a portly man with a receding hairline (ever since his first transformation), but the wear on him hadn’t always been this bad.
In the beginning, it had been easy, oh so easy, for him to feel good. Barbara had been there. Her opinion, and her son’s, were the only ones that truly mattered to Blinky. Now, they were gone. Both of them.
Not that Blinky begrudged Jim for going off to college. Quite the opposite. He’d strongly encouraged the boy to live his life (there was no sense in both of them being held back by past sorrows). He only wished Jim had chosen to study something that suited him a little better, like the culinary arts.
Still, without Jim (or Barbara), it became increasingly hard for Blinky to ignore the derisive comments or pointed looks he’d get from people about his appearance (sure, he was clean and well put together, but there was a certain type of person who really didn’t like chubby people). He tried not to let the things said haunt him, but they still had their effect.
Coupled with his fading hope that he’d ever reunite with Barbara, and Blinky didn’t often feel good about himself (or anything else).
Humans called it depression. He accepted the term without much argument. To do so was better than making Jim worry.
“Even the word ‘hopeless’ isn’t completely devoid of hope,” Blinky muttered to himself halfheartedly as he looked over his appearance in the bathroom mirror. “Although, more significance should probably be given to the second half of that word. It is hopeless, after all.”
That’s not the point of the phrase, Barbara’s familiar, warm voice echoed in his head. And you know it.
If Blinky closed his eyes, he could imagine her there with him. Wrapping her long arms around him from behind and resting her chin on his shoulder.
You’re looking handsome as ever, she’d say to his reflection. Though you only take out that particular shirt and jacket combo for special occasions. Have I forgotten something again?
Jim’s bringing home his longterm girlfriend to meet us, Blinky would reply. I stuck a reminder for you out on the fridge.
Blinky opened his eyes. What would Barbara say to that? To the fact that her son, her son who she last saw as a high school sophomore, was now a college sophomore? To the fact that he’d moved in with a girl?
Apprehension filled Blinky. How was he to do this? How was he to stand in for Barbara on such a momentous occasion with her son?
“This isn’t about you,” Blinky muttered to himself. “This is about Jim needing a supporting parental figure. Since you cannot get her back, you must do this for her.”
He opened the cabinet to retrieve the “antidote” to his humanness. That’s what the trolls considered it. Nowadays, Blinky considered his human self more himself than his original troll form. Because, if being a troll was so honorable, he no longer wanted to be one.
Vendel, please! His old pleas played through Blinky’s head. She’s with child! I don’t dare think what they’ll do to her, and the baby, after its born! We have to rescue them! I’m begging you!
But Vendel had refused him. We cannot risk the lives of trolls in a fight against these humans, he’d stated so calmly. Not while they have weaponry that could destroy us all. I am sorry, Blinkous, but the one you gave your affection to is human as well. She belongs with her own kind.
Her own kind could be TORTURING her as we discuss this! Blinky remembered how his fists had hurt as he slammed them on the table. How his voice echoed around the Heartstone chamber. She carries MY child! A half-troll child, surely—
Enough, Blinkous, or must I remind you that an impure is no honorable thing?
Blinky had left Trollmarket for good after that. He only returned now to pick up more of his transformation potion and visit Arrrgh!!! on occasion.
If his family didn’t belong, neither did he.
Blinky’s phone vibrated. He picked it up and unlocked it. Jim and Aja should be arriving soon. Perhaps they’d sent him a message informing him how close they were.
There was no text from them yet, but there was an email notification. Expecting maybe Jim had sent something else along, Blinky opened his email app. He frowned at what he read:
From: Stuart Electronics
Subject: You’ve Won A Free Stereo System!
Well. That was disappointing. But, Jim had warned him about such scams. Without a second thought, Blinky sent the email to his trash.
Blinky shook his head. Enough of such negativity. Jim was bringing a long-term girlfriend home to meet him. The boy expected him to be a strong, supporting parent. He could do that. For Jim, he could do that.
It did take a weight off Blinky’s heart to know Jim had found someone to love. He’d often worried that Jim would get as stuck in sorrow as Blinky himself was. But, it was evident in the way Jim always talked about Aja Tarron, that he loved her deeply. That she made him happy. Blinky could not possibly hope for any more.
Blinky was, once he got past all his other, darker emotions, excited to meet her.
He put the potion that would turn him back into a troll into his pocket. He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to explain that part of himself. Since he no longer wanted to be that part of himself.
Even though she’d talked Jim into doing this, Aja was apprehensive when she and Jim reached his father’s door. She’d met the parents of significant others’ before, and it hadn’t always gone well. They either didn’t like her personality, or her determination to change the world. Or the fact she could followup with a well thought-out plan to become an activist after she graduated with a degree in the political sciences when they tried to disregard her ideals as youthful folly.
Aja found people’s first impression of her usually was as someone bubbly, personable, and just a little naive (that part frustrated her to no end, considering how often it led to dismissiveness). When it turned out she wasn’t what they thought, they tended to get intimidated. Not Jim (which was part of why she loved him). But it had happened enough that now she worried.
Jim’s father, Mr. Blinkous Galadrigal, opened his door when Jim knocked. He welcomed them with the biggest smile imaginable, which was rather reassuring.
“Hello, hello,” Mr. Galadrigal motioned them in. “You must be Aja.” He spoke directly to her. “Lovely to meet you. I’m Jim’s father, Blinky.”
“I thought your name was ‘Blinkous’?” The question fell from Aja’s lips before she could stop it.
“Unfortunately it is. I prefer Blinky, thank you.” Now his smile was strained.
Aja winced. First mistake of the evening.
“Hey, dad,” Jim intercepted the awkwardness before it could get worse. “I was thinking we could tell Aja everything. Like, everything everything. So, um.” His expression turned sheepish. “It would probably be best if we start with that.”
Aja’s heart rate increased. Here they go. She wanted to know this. She did. Yet, now that she found herself on the precipice of knowing, she found herself incredibly nervous.
Did she really want to know all of Jim’s secrets? Did she want to be with him that much?
Yes, yes I do, Aja reassured herself. She wouldn’t run. She’d promised.
Blinky studied his son, and then Aja. He nodded curtly. “Alright, you two get settled.” He gestured to his living room. “I won’t be but a moment.”
When they sat on the couch, Jim took one of Aja’s hands in his own. “This is probably going to be a little strange to see, but Blinky’s still Blinky.” He paused. “And I’m still me.”
“Can you tell me what to expect? Why did your father leave the room?” Aja’s mind scrambled for an answer. Perhaps Blinky had gone to get something? But she sensed that it was more than that.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
Significantly louder footsteps than the ones that had left it entered the room. Instead of answering Aja’s questions, Jim merely motioned for her to look.
“Seklos and Gaylen,” Aja murmured the names of the gods of her family’s religion. “You are magnificent.” She stood and walked over to Blinky. “May I?” She asked permission to touch his shoulder.
Blinky silently nodded.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone of your species before.” Aja ran her fingers over his stone skin. “What are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I am a troll, Ms. Tarron.” The expression on Blinky’s face was caught halfway between relief and confusion. “We are a race of centuries-old beings made of stone. For generations, we have lived in hiding from mankind. May I ask, you don’t seem that shocked? My appearance, I’ve found, can be quite shocking. “When I…” he gulped. “When Barbara—Jim’s mother—and I met, she—” he chuckled “She hit me over the head with a broom.” He took in Aja’s concerned expression. “Make no mistake, Ms. Tarron, she did not truly mean me harm. I just startled her is all.” His own expression turned sad.
Aja distracted him. “To answer your question, my brother and his boyfriend, Eli, often go out hunting for the supernatural. I used to go with them on occasion.” She paused. “They were very good at finding things.” She patted Blinky’s shoulder. “You’re no more ‘shocking’ to me than a giant creature with at least a dozen eyes and a spiky tail.” She laughed quietly. “We named him Buster. He lives in the woods behind my Uncle Varvatos’s house.”
“You never told me this,” Jim cut in sounding hurt.
“I was working up to it. I was already worried enough that my eccentric family would scare you off.” Aja wrapped an arm around Jim’s shoulders. “Next visit was going to be the ‘meet all our strange pets’ visit, I swear.”
Blinky looked between them. “Well, this has gone significantly more smoothly than I admittedly thought it would.” He held out a hand to Aja. “It has been a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Tarr—Aja.”
“Likewise.” Aja took Blinky’s hand and shook it. “It’s actually kind of relieving to know that this was the ‘big secret’. I was a little bit worried there.”
“Not quite,” Blinky inhaled sharply. “If we are going to be completely truthful on this occasion, there’s a bit more to our story we must share.”
Jim walked Aja back to the couch, sat down beside her, and took her hand in his own. “My mom.” He glanced at Blinky, who gestured for him to continue. “She didn’t leave us or anything like that—”
“She was taken,” Blinky interrupted. “We were going to have a child. Because it was ours biologically, it was a hybrid. Therefore these human scientists saw fit too…” He blinked, and then blinked again, but his eyes remained watery. “If you’ll excuse me.” Blinky fervently wiped at them. “I believe I have something in my eye.” He hastily left the room.
“It’s a hard topic to talk about,” Jim told Aja in a placating tone when Blinky was gone. “So…”
“It’s okay,” Aja reassured. “We don’t have to discuss it anymore.” She paused. “I appreciate that you told me, though.”
Jim intertwined their fingers. “I want us to have a long future together and, for that to happen, I don’t think there can be any big secrets between us.” Jim looked away from Aja. “I miss mom, but I know she’d want me to be happy. And I know she’d definitely really like you.”
“I wish I could meet her.” A realization hit Aja. “This is why you won’t change majors, isn’t it? You want to save her?”
Jim glanced at the doorway, but Blinky hadn’t come back yet. He answered, “Yes, but you can’t tell my dad. He thinks I’m trying to live my life to the fullest. I don’t want to ruin that for him.” Jim paused. “And, I don’t want to get his hopes up that I actually can save mom. Cause if I fail, it would really, really hurt him.”
“I understand.” Aja squeezed Jim’s hand.
“How about a movie?” He suggested. “Something happy to commemorate this occasion?”
They chose one. None of them really watched it. They were each too wrapped up in their own thoughts. No one said as much. They each wanted the others to have a good and pleasant evening, and didn’t want to ruin it with what they were actually feeling.
The evening came to a close. Aja and Jim said their goodbyes to Blinky and each hugged him. They were staying in a local hotel, since there wasn’t really space for them at the house and they wanted their privacy.
When Jim and Aja’s car drove around the corner, Blinky went upstairs. Briefly, he looked in on the never-used nursery, and then went to his own room. He sat on the end of his bed and closed his eyes.
Blinky could almost imagine Barbara was there with him.
The car ride back to the hotel was quiet. Aja knew Jim was giving her space to process his family’s secrets. She appreciated it, and was using the time to think. Just not exactly about what he thought she was.
Honestly, Aja had always known there was something a little bit off about Jim. His hesitancy when it came to talking about his mother. Aja had long since guessed their separation hadn’t happened in a normal way families fell apart. His complete dedication to his studies despite his lack of passion for them. There had been times when Aja could hear the longing in Jim’s voice when he talked about culinary school. She had wondered time and time again why he didn’t just transfer. Being at different colleges wouldn’t change their relationship. He wouldn’t have to worry about leaving her behind. They were them. They would make it work.
Aja had always wanted Jim to be happy. It hurt sometimes to know he wasn’t and nothing she did ever seemed to be able to change that.
Now, it felt like some final piece had clicked into place and, for the first time, Aja was truly seeing the full picture of Jim Lake Jr., and his family. There had been times in the past where she’d feared that they’d get to this place of truth and things would end. Their love would end. He’d stop holding back from her and the secret he kept would be overwhelming. Too much. Too dark. Too scary.
Aja Tarron didn’t scare easily, but she still did have fears.
But, now they were here, in this moment.
Aja waited until they were safely in the privacy of their hotel room before speaking. She put her purse down on the desk chair, turned to her boyfriend, and asked softly, “Jim?”
“Yes.” The expression on his face fluctuated between fear and anxiety. It pulled at Aja’s heart.
“I know you think you have to learn how to hack to save your mother, but you don’t.” She took a deep breath. “There’s another way. If you’re okay with it, I can ask Krel to help us. We both know he’s way better at computers than you.”
“Us?” Jim stared at her. “Aja, are you sure? I mean—”
Aja stepped forward to put herself directly in his personal space. “I told you I wouldn’t run, my goofy noodle man, didn’t I?” She cupped his cheek with his hand. “I will not stand to see you hurting like this any longer. Your mother will be rescued, by us. Together.”
Jim just looked at her, relief clearly written on his face. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”
“You have.” Aja grinned. “But I enjoy hearing it.”
Jim kissed her.
Chapter 3: First Contact
and now for the second half of the original chapter 2!
“Alright, I’m here.” Krel marched through the hotel room door. “What’s so important that you two couldn’t tell me over the phone?” He went over to the mini fridge and poked through it. “Man, you guys don’t have anything. I knew I should have stopped at that taco truck I passed on the way.” He groaned. “I guess I’ll have to wait, buuut I’m so hungry.”
Aja and Jim shared a glance. Jim nodded ever so slightly at his girlfriend.
“Jim can explain everything,” Aja told her brother. “Give me your keys, I’ll go get us all some food.”
“Alright.” Krel plopped himself down in an armchair. “You know what I like.” He held out his keys to Aja. Then, he turned to Jim. “Now, tell me, why have I brought my car full of theoretically-existing spyware technology to this dumpy California town?”
“Firstly, Arcadia isn’t dumpy. I grew up here. And it’s a long story,” Jim began. “That starts with the fact my stepdad is a troll, a literal troll. Not an Internet one…”
Aja came back with tacos just as Jim was finishing his story. “Sorry, it took me so long. That taco truck? Has these delicious spicy burritos. I tried to get the guy to give me his recipe for you Jim, but he wouldn’t. I had to eat my first two there, just so he’d give me more.” She sat on the bed next to Jim, pecked him on the cheek, and ignored the ‘bleh’ face Krel made as a response. “So, where’re you guys at?”
“I was just telling Krel that we can’t tell my dad any of this. What we’re going to do.” Jim glanced between the siblings. “If he finds out that we’re going to try and rescue mom, it would get his hopes way up that he might get to see her again. But, if we fail or the mission doesn’t work, he’d be heartbroken. We can’t do that to him.”
“Got it,” Krel replied. He cracked his knuckles. “Now, we plan.”
“You’re going to help, just like that?”
“Eh, yeah.” Krel shrugged. “If I hack into a government facility before Shannon, she’s gonna owe me for our bet. Plus, if I’ve learned anything from being her brother.” He jerked his thumb at Aja. “It’s that you can’t just stand by while injustice happens. You have to stand up to it.” He opened his laptop. “I used to hide and keep my head down and hope things would work out, but no longer! Krel Tarron fights for what’s right!” He enthusiastically hit down on the laptop’s power button.
The three of them discussed and planned well into the night.
Jim was drifting off to sleep when his phone buzzed. He groaned loudly when he saw it was yet another email notification reading:
From: Stuart Electronics
Subject: You’ve Won A Free Stereo System!
Krel looked over his shoulder. “They still bothering you? Here, let me see if I can get rid of that. I should check our all phones anyway. Make sure no one’s listening and all that. No, but seriously, no one’s been listening in on your phone calls, right? Yeah, I’m going to have to make us untraceable.”
Jim handed over his phone and went to sleep.
They spent the next day solidifying their plan and left in the evening. It was a long drive to Area 49B, and they’d have to hide their car in the woods some distance away and hike the rest to avoid detection.
While Krel set up his reconnaissance drone, Jim pulled Aja off to the side, where they could talk without her brother overhearing.
“I just wanted to say thank you.” Jim scratched the back of his head. “I know this isn’t regular couple stuff and we could get in a lot of trouble if we’re caught.” He paused. “It just, it means a lot me.”
“I know,” Aja hugged him. “If it makes you feel any better, I’d probably do something pretty similar to this on my own anyway. I am an activist, after all.” She rolled her eyes. “Or I will be when I’m not stuck spending all my time in dull college classes.”
Jim leaned back so he could see Aja’s face, and stroke her cheek with his thumb. “Summer’s coming up,” he told her. “I don’t know much about politics, but I can make you super healthy meals for when you go out and fight.”
“I’d like that.” Aja rested her head against his chest.
“That’s weird,” they heard Krel say from where he was doing his thing.
Jim and Aja shared a worried look. They approached Krel. Aja asked, “What is, little brother?”
Krel held out the display he controlled the drone with. “You see those dots? Those represent people. But, they’re not moving or anything.”
“I take it they’re supposed to.” Jim frowned.
“Like little ants. Yes.” Krel chuckled. “But, it’s like everyone in the base is…frozen? This can’t be normal.” He hesitated. “I think we should leave. Something strange is going on.”
Jim stopped himself from snapping; no we can’t leave, we haven’t even tried to get mom out yet. “Can you get more detailed intel? We knew this wouldn’t be easy. I want to exhaust every possibility before aborting the mission.”
“I can take the drone in a little closer, but not by much. Not if we want to stay undetected.” Krel thought for a moment. “I’ll also do scans for toxins in the air. You know, evidence of a gas leak or something that could have knocked everyone out. If there’re doing scientific experiments in there, something could have gone wrong and—”
“Maybe think in your head, little brother? Hmm?” Aja interrupted him.
Krel looked at his sister, and then at Jim. “Yes. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but we need to be careful.”
Jim walked away from them, to the edge of the clearing they’d temporarily set up their base of operations in. He closed his eyes. He knew he had to consider the possibility that what they would find in Area 49B wouldn’t be good. He knew Kubritz and her scientists kept his mom and the sibling he’d never known prisoner because they wanted to study them. He had a a gut feeling that whatever that research was, it wasn’t ethical.
Blinky had always told Jim his mom would want him to live his life free of guilt that he was free to live as he chose while she was likely being…
Jim bit back a cry. He needed to be levelheaded. He would save his mom. That’s why he’s here.
“Jim?” Aja approached him. “Krel found something.”
Jim took a breath to clear his head. “I’m okay,” he told his girlfriend. He turned and walked back to Krel with her.
“While there’s no airborne toxins around,” Krel said when they reached him. “I’m still not convinced that we’re not walking straight into danger. However, I know I can’t stop you.” This was stated directly at Jim. “The guy my sister loves, who I happen to like more than some of the other guys she’s brought home. Don’t take it too personally, but I’d like to keep you around a little longer.”
“Oh, you like Jim!” Aja cooed. She threw her arms around Krel and captured him in a tight hug. “I knew you did!”
“I’m also doing this for you,” Krel grumbled at his sister. “Because I know I can’t stop you from following him into that base and I’m the only one who can keep the both of you relatively safe in there.”
“Still, you like my boyfriend,” Aja teased.
“Let’s just focus, shall we? While literally getting all the intel for you, which, by the way, you can thank me later for, I hacked into their network and downloaded the base’s structural schematics,” Krel led Jim and Aja through the woods. “There’s a side door this way. It’s not supposed to exist because it’s a security risk, but apparently the staff really like the food from a local taco truck. Huh. I wonder if it’s the same truck we got our food from? Cause it was really good. I can totally see shady government employees breaking protocol for it. Anyway, it’s a massive hassle for them to open the gate every time someone wants a burrito, so they built a secret access door and hid it in the wall. It should be right over here…”
Aja followed his gaze and stared too.
So did Jim.
The sight before them was not one they were expecting in the slightest.
“That would explain why no one was moving on your display, wouldn’t it?” Jim commented to Krel. His stomach plummeted. Something had happened here. Something worse than the usual stuff that probably happened at the base.
“Yes, it would.” Krel swiftly typed on his display. “I’m not picking up any life signs from them, and I already checked the air so whatever did this probably already dissipated.” He paused. “I’d prefer it if we don’t linger too long here anyway. They’re creepy.”
“Yeah,” Aja agreed. “Krel, when we get in there, get to their main servers and hack in. Jim and I will take the schematics and start heading to where we think his mom is being held. That way, we’re already moving by the time we’d need you to unlock any doors. If we’re thinking positively, like really, really positively, maybe the whole base is like this, which would make it a lot easier to infiltrate.” She looked to Jim for reassurance.
Jim wordlessly shrugged back at Aja.
Krel passed out earpieces for them to use to keep in contact. After a long hesitation, the three moved forward.
The access door was open. A crowd of people Jim, Aja, and Krel had to maneuver through to get to the entryway were running out. Or, rather, a crowd of stone statues were posed like they were running out the door. But, they seemed too detailed to be normal statues. Their expressions too lifelike. And, there was literally no reason anyone would install a collection of stone statues next to a secret access door of a secret military base.
Inside the walls of Area 49B, things were the same as at the door. Stone people, caught in all manner of poses, were everywhere. Some seem to be fleeing. Some seem to be panicking. One or two had the appearance of giving orders.
Jim, Aja, and Krel didn’t waste time in carrying out their tasks. They split up and hurried off in the direction of their respective targets. Krel promised to disable the security cameras once he reached the servers. Jim and Aja agreed that the “Containment Center and Research Lab” building was their best bet.
They had to wait nervously by a set of stone people outside the building while Krel got to the servers, hacked in, and opened the door for them.
While you guys are in there, I’m going to see if I can find out what happened here, Krel’s voice came over their earpieces.
Jim responded, Good idea.
The first hallway in the Containment and Research Lab was barely lit. The ceiling lights had been left on since whenever everyone got turned to stone. They flickered and buzzed, which did nothing to soothe either Jim or Aja’s nerves.
Jim reached out and took Aja’s hand in his own and squeezed. After Krel unlocked it, they opened the door to the next room together.
A massive lab sprawled out in front of them. Along the walls were giant containers filled with yellowy-green liquid and unrecognizable specimens. There were two countertop workspaces in the middle of the lab. On one was a dissection tray holding something green and gooey with a solitary skinny arm sticking straight up out of it. Beside the tray was a massive stone leg with crystals jutting out in every direction.
Both Aja and Jim grimaced at those.
The second countertop workspace was a mess. What was once a collection of vial samples had been knocked over. Most of the vials were either cracked or shattered. Their fluid contents congealing all over the countertop and dripping onto the floor.
There was an electric prod broken almost completely in half on the floor by the second counter. Sparks flew from its broken ends to drown in the liquid puddles.
Jim and Aja gave the mess a wide berth.
“Aja, up there, look,” Jim whispered as loudly as he dared.
“AAaaghh!” Aja jumped.
“Sorry.” Jim winced. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Wasn’t you. This place is just seriously spooky. Now, what do you want me to see?”
“Up there, the sign above that door. Long-Term Holding. I think we need to go through there.”
Long-Term Holding was a long hallway of doors leading into cell rooms.
A stone person blocked the door leading into the first cell room Jim and Aja came to. As they approached, they noticed that the person was poised with their blaster held out in front of them, as if they’d just fired a shot into the cell. When they followed the person’s line of sight, Jim and Aja saw a pile of stone rubble in the center of the cell.
Aja entered the cell first, and knelt down by the rubble. She picked up piece after piece of stone and examined each and every one. “This was someone,” she whispered. “and that person shot them. To destroy them. They were stone, and defenseless, and that person.” Aja turned back to glare at the person with the gun at the door. “Blew them up.”
Jim walked over to her, took her hand in his own, and squeezed it.
“We will find a way to bring them justice.” Aja faced him, a severe expression on her face. “Whoever this was. The others they harmed here. Your mother…” Her eyes widen. “Oh, Jim, what if—”
“Don’t say it.” Jim cut her off. “Just don’t.”
Fear of what they’d find had already blossomed in him when he’d seen the first stone person. If anything, finding these destroyed remains just magnified the emotion. Jim couldn’t allow himself to think of the possibility…
No. He wouldn’t think that.
“We need to keep going,” Jim stated curtly. He gazed across the cell at a child’s crayon drawing tapped to the wall. It depicted what could have been an adult and a child holding hands or it could have been a bunch of green and blue squiggles. Jim honestly couldn’t be sure. “We need to find the cell we know, with absolute certainty, was my mother’s. No matter what, we need to find out what happened to her, and to my sibling.” He led the way out of the cell.
The next few cell rooms were all empty and appeared unused. It wasn’t until Jim and Aja reached the very last cell in the hallway that they found something.
This cell was marginally bigger than the others. It had a second door, which had been left ajar. Jim could see a shower, a toilet, and a sink through it. The cell’s overhead lights were slightly better quality than those throughout the rest of the building too. They didn’t flicker quite so much. There was a secondary, small lamp by the bed, which was noticeably a better quality than the cots in the other cells. But none of these things were what truly set the cell apart.
The walls, instead of being the same, bleak white like the rest of the building, were covered with the pinned-up, crude, crayon drawings of a child. Most of them were random, incomprehensible scribbles, but a few of them held figures.
There was “Mommy,” a stick figure with long red lines for hair and thick, black rectangles over the top half of her head-oval. Glasses, Jim realized after a minute of staring.
There was “Onkl Maxie”, who the artist seemed to have the most trouble with. Onkl Maxie mostly looked like a fat, green spider. Jim wasn’t sure that’s what the intent was. But, he figured, it was possible that a spider had crawled in through a crack in the wall and the artist had seen fit to name and draw it.
Finally, there was “Me,” a distinctly blue-green stick figure. Both color crayons had been used to draw this one, blue right on top of green. Me had similar hair lines to Mommy, though theirs was colored with bright orange rather than red. Me also had a carefully-drawn second set of stick arm lines beneath the first.
Jim gazed at that last figure. He knew he shouldn’t be this certain, but he felt, deep in his soul, that Me was his younger sibling. The sibling he’d never met. The one he’d never known. The one he sometimes stayed up late into the night wondering about. This. This is what they looked like.
There wasn’t enough in the drawings to determine gender, but Jim’s sibling had red hair like their mother. Though, going by the color crayons they used to draw both theirs and Barbara’s, theirs was a brighter red-orange instead of her subdued red-brown. Jim’s sibling’s skin was likely stone like Blinky’s, but more of a turquoise than a true blue like their father. Four arms—it had taken Jim a moment to process that that’s what those lines were. Not the sloppy drawings of a child, but an intentional choice.
So much like Blinky. The thought hit Jim like a freight train. His sibling looked so much like their father, who’d they’d never met.
Something constricted around Jim’s heart.
This was it. This was the cell of his mother and his sibling.
Thankfully, they were not there as stone statues.
“Aj—Aja? Can you give me a minute alone?” Jim whispered hoarsely.
Aja hesitated, but ultimately decided to accept his request. “I’ll be right outside the door,” she told him softly.
Jim inhaled, held the breath, and then exhaled slowly. He repeated the action, and then again until he felt his heart rate go down. Once he calmed himself, Jim turned his attention to the bed and the table next to it. There were more drawings there, but these were different.
Rather than being sketched with crayons, they were drawn with pencil and the skilled hand of an adult.
His mother always loved to doodle, Jim remembered. There had been Saturdays when he was little where they’d sit on the couch and she’d draw him whatever he wanted for hours.
Jim picked up Barbara’s sketchpad, or rather the notepad with “From the Desk of Sergeant Costas” in professional type font at the top. So, they couldn’t have even been bothered to get her a nice, artistic one? Just whatever they had to discard. Anger rose in Jim at the slight, but then, sight of Barbara’s artwork subdued it.
Within the notepad were a multitude of sketches. The first ones were of a baby. Each sketch captured a different expression on the infant’s face; joy, sadness, temper tantrums. Then, with each passing sketch, the baby got progressively older until they were a toddler happy to smile for their mother.
Jim studied what appeared to be the latest sketch Barbara did of his younger sibling. Now that he had a clearer picture, he was able to see the child was rather boy-ish, with pointed ears that stuck out from the sides of his head. Two short, rounded horns also poked out of his hair. He had six-eyes like Blinky. Once again, Jim was struck by the similarities between father and offspring.
With great care, Jim stacked the sketches chronicling the life of his brother and put them aside to take with him when he left.
That done, he turned to the remaining sketches.
There were a couple of Jim himself. Or, rather, Jim as he’d appeared as a sixteen-year-old who hadn’t yet grown out of his favorite, blue jacket. These were accompanied by the caption, your brother, Jim Lake Jr. Barbara had spent extra time ensuring her lettering was neat and legible instead of the chaotic scrawl Jim remembered. He ran his fingers over the writing. His mind frozen with the thought that his mother touched this same paper, written on it. Spent time on it. She’d wanted her second child to know her first.
A few sketches of Blinky were hidden under the ones of Jim. These were a little sloppier and only one carried a forcibly-neat caption, your father, Blinkous Galadrigal. That sketch was stained with tiny, circular watermarks. Tears.
Barbara had been crying when she drew it.
Jim bit his bottom lip to prevent a cry of his own from escaping. He’d held in his emotions this long. He couldn’t afford to break down now.
‘You guys?’ Krel’s voice came through Jim’s earpiece. ‘You need to get over here. There’s something you have to see.’
“Jim?” Aja called to him from the hall.
“Coming.” Jim wiped his eyes. He gathered all the sketches, both Barbara’s that he’d set aside and all his brother’s on the walls, which he gently took down, and placed them carefully in his bag. He gave the cell room one last, long look before turning to go.
In his pocket, Jim’s phone vibrated. He cursed. It was probably Blinky. Plotting out his cover story in his head, Jim fished around in his pocket until he grasped the phone. When he saw ‘Stuart Electronics’ on the caller ID instead of Blinky’s name, he scowled. This would be the last time.
Jim answered the call with the intention of telling the scammers off once and for all. “I don’t know who you think you are, but you need to stop trying to steal—”
He dropped the phone. It clattered to the floor.
“What was that noise?” Aja inquired. “Are you okay in there, Jim?”
“I’m—I’m fine,” Jim hastily responded. He scrambled for his phone. He breathed a massive sigh of relief when he saw that it hadn’t dropped the call.
That voice. That gentle, sweet, feminine voice. Jim knew that voice. He gulped.
“M-mom?” Jim hardly dared ask into the phone.
There was a sound halfway between a sob and a relieved gasp on the other end of the line.
Chapter 4: Back at the Beginning
Chronologically, this chapter (as well as chapters 5 & 6) runs parallel to chapters 2 & 3 and marks the beginning of this story's nonlinear narrative format.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 will tell the story of Barbara (and a few other characters) from the time of Barbara's capture to the phone call at the end of Chapter 3.
Specifically, this chapter goes into the events and details surrounding the kidnapping.
*Story tags have been updated to include new characters and story elements*
Six years prior to all on-base personnel being turned to stone, the scientists of Area 49B made a chilling discovery. An alternate dimension, one right next to their own.
They didn’t know much about the place. Only that whatever they sent through the “Fetch” device they’d recovered from a raided base of the mysterious Janus Order never came back. So, in the name of finding out more, they used the Fetch to create a much larger portal generator. One capable of punching through to the other side.
Sergeant Costas gazed through the glass of the observation room at the massive machine. He’d never considered himself one to hinder scientific discovery. He’d accepted the recruitment offer to come onto this base because Area 49B, confidential though it was, was known to be at the forefront of technological advancement.
But this device made him question.
They were the government. They were the Good Guys. The reason they did everything they did on this base was to protect the general populace from threats they didn’t even know existed.
Up to this point, those were the truths Costas upheld to himself. His reasoning for following along with all of Kubritz’s plans. No, he didn’t always agree with her, but he trusted her. He knew she had everyone’s best interests at heart. Always.
Yet. Doubt lingered in his mind. Made him wonder. Was it such a good idea to punch a hole in the very fabric of reality itself? Especially when they didn’t know what waited for them on the other side?
Costas knew discovery came with dangers. He accepted that. However, his grandfather had always taught him that, sometimes, there were things best left alone.
“Start the test,” Kubritz commanded. Their subordinates obeyed and started powering the machines.
The fetch activated. Power flew into the generator. Green lightning crackled. A dark, swirling portal opened in front of their eyes.
Costas’s gut twisted. Maybe what was on the other side of the portal generator was one of those things his grandfather talked about.
“Status report,” Kubritz barked.
“All readings report system is stable,” one of the technicians responded. “Everything is going according to plan.”
“Prepare the probe.” Kubritz paced in front of the windows without taking her eyes off the portal. “Remember this day, boys. We will lead the world into uncovering whatever’s beyond that breach.”
A sharp alert pierced their ears. Costas covered his with his hands, but the high-pitch sound still came through.
“What is THAT?” Kubritz yelled.
“Ma’am, something’s trying to come through from the other end!” A different technician than the first furiously typed at their station. “I’m trying to shut it down, but—”
Kubritz slapped his hands away from his keyboard. “No, let it come through! Whatever it is, we’re prepared for it.”
A green hand reached through the portal. It found its way onto the platform in front of the machine. All eyes watched with bated breath. A second green hand joined the first. Then a third. A fourth. The hands pulled forward. A head of bristly, darker green hair surrounding two short horns emerged. A mouth with massive tusks gasped for breath. Six eyes opened from squinting to take in this new place.
Whatever it was made it all the way through the portal.
Then the generator exploded.
Once the sprinkler system came on, men in protective suits wielding fire extinguishers entered the generator chamber. They confirmed that the life form that came through had survived.
He called himself Dictatious, and he was rather grumpy.
It had been odd at first, waking up next to someone in the mornings again. Barbara had been slow to adjust. To let herself relax when Blinky wrapped his arms around her and embraced her. To let herself lean into his touch. To trust he’d respect her boundaries.
It was a subtle difference. Blinky’s affection felt more genuine, more real, than James’s ever had. Barbara found it hard to describe the difference to herself. James had been affectionate, certainly, but his love had always come with the expectation that she’d do something for him in return. Or let him do something to her.
It was love with James, she’d told herself over and over again, but it was also exhausting.
Barbara certainly didn’t miss it.
In comparison, Blinky was more…reverent? Barbara frowned. Maybe that wasn’t the right word, but it was early morning and she wasn’t quite awake enough to deeply start considering words. It felt like the right word, in any case.
The way Blinky touched her, like she was something priceless to be handled gently. To be cared for. It made her feel warm in a way she never had before. Like she could actually relax for once, and completely and utterly trust the person she was with.
It was a feeling she still wasn’t accustomed to, but one she wholly wanted to be. She had time, though, to adjust.
Or, she had.
Barbara opened her eyes and stared at the wall across from her bed. Something dropped in her belly. A wave of anxiety, of fear, washed over her. She shuddered.
“Something the matter?” Blinky stirred behind her. He put a hand on her shoulder, and caressed her arm.
“No,” Barbara replied without taking her gaze off the wall. The fact that she was lying to him just made her feel worse, but she couldn’t bear to let the truth out. “Just thinking.”
Blinky was good. He was kind. He’d been an excellent father figure to Jim, who loved him dearly. She couldn’t possibly hope for any better. She couldn’t lose him. She couldn’t do anything that would drive him away.
“Dammit, Barbara! I thought you were on the pill!”
“I am. James, please, just calm down. We’ll figure this out. Just, stop yelling. Please.”
“Figure what out? You let yourself get knocked up! There’s nothing to ‘figure out’! We’re going to be stuck with some whiny brat now, because of you.”
She’d remembered staring at James, wanting to retort that he’d been there too, that her then current condition couldn’t have happened without him, but he was already upset. It wouldn’t do any good to aggravate him more, so she’d fallen silent as he stomped out of their home. She’d sat on the end of their bed, wondering why she’d ever thought her husband would be happy that they were going to be parents.
Things had gotten marginally better after Jim was born. James loved having a little person who adored him around, even if he dumped most of the work—the sleepless nights, the diapers, the cleaning up after Jim threw his food around—on Barbara.
She’d never told Jim, but if James hadn’t left them, she’d been preparing to divorce him. In some ways, his departure from their lives made things significantly easier on her.
Nearly two decades later, Barbara had found real love and happiness. As with the first time, one thing led to another. Only, this time, the memory of the first kept her from doing as she had before.
Barbara was pregnant. She’s suspected and confirmed her suspicions almost two weeks ago. She hadn’t told Blinky. The words were there, in her mind, waiting to come out, but she couldn’t release them.
Blinky was not James. She knew that. He was better. He’d react differently. Better. This child would have two parents, and an older brother, who loved them unconditionally.
Yet. Barbara feared her news would scare Blinky, or drive him away. She had a basic understanding of troll reproduction (it had come up in their conversations prior to becoming sexually active). She knew it was a lot less likely for a purely troll couple to accidentally create a child. What if Blinky disbelieved that the child was his? What if he renounced her on that assumption, false though it was? Sure, he’d admitted to her he’d always wanted a child of his own (and he’d come to see Jim as such), but would he actually accept a half-human, half-troll offspring? One that didn’t truly belong in either world? Had such a thing ever happened before?
Barbara knew trollkind didn’t have the best opinions on non-trolls. Blinky’s hesitancy to take her to Trollmarket to see his library informed her of that. What if he realized neither the child, nor her, really belonged with him in his world? Would he turn away in disgust? Think of their relationship as one huge mistake? Would all the love she thought she felt coming from her significant other turn out to be a lie again? Would she be left alone with a child again?
Barbara didn’t want to think about the possibilities. She was happy. She finally got to be happy. She didn’t want that to be ruined, or to change. And, if she told Blinky about the pregnancy, about this new development to their reality, everything would change.
“What are you worrying about, hmm?” Blinky pulled her towards himself.
“Barbara, I know you. Something’s been bothering you for days.” Blinky wrapped her tightly in his arms.
Without thinking, Barbara nuzzled into his chest, taking the comfort readily offered. She loved this. She couldn’t lose this. She couldn’t tell him. But, well, her body would tell him in the next few weeks regardless. Barbara tried not to sob, but she felt herself shudder regardless. “I…”
“Shhh.” Blinky placed a reassuring hand on her back. “It’s okay. I’m not going anywhere. Take all the time you need.” He stroked her hair away from her face.
“There’s something I’ve been needing to tell you.” Barbara bit her lower lip. She refused to look at him. “But I’m scared it’s going to change everything.”
“Barbara.” Blinky cupped her cheek in his hand. “We will work through it, whatever it is. Together. I will never leave you on your own. I swear to you.”
Barbara looked up into Blinky’s eyes then. The certainty she found in them gave her confidence. “I’m…” She gulped. “I’m pregnant, Blinky.”
Many things could be said about Dictatious Maximus Galadrigal. He was cunning. He was self-centered. He didn’t care who he hurt as long as he himself came out on top. All true things, of course. Dictatious never fancied himself a liar. Not when it came to such things. Lies were only good when they got him something. He couldn’t see how lying about his inherent characteristics would gain him anything when the truth was far more threatening.
Given the chance, Dictatious would even betray his own family. Not that he cared. He didn’t. Blinkous had abandoned him to rot in the Darklands centuries ago. It was only fitting Dictatious’s brother be sacrificed for his own freedom in turn.
At least that’s the logic Dictatious used when he realized nothing else was going to work to negotiate his release. He’d spent months giving the pathetic fleshbags who held him captive all they could ever want in terms of information and knowledge on trollkind, in the hopes they’d be pleased and let him go. When they didn’t seem keen on that, Dictatious recognized it was time to switch tactics.
He had two moves left. Two final pieces of information that he’d kept to himself.
The first was the location of a ruthless troll assassin, who could be controlled by something as trivial as a ring. As much as Dictatious would enjoy his fleshbag captors being cut down by Angor Rot, he didn’t want to risk them actually gaining control of the assassin either. Dictatious wanted to live. Not constantly look over his shoulder for death.
So, no, he wouldn’t tell them about Angor Rot. Not unless he was truly desperate. And he was Dictatious. There was absolutely nothing that could make him that desperate.
The other move Dictatious could make did not create an uncomfortable twanging in his heart. It did not. For he no longer truly had a heart. Or, so he told himself.
“You wanted to talk to me?” Colonel Kubritz addressed Dictatious as she entered his cell.
“Yes, I believe I have one final piece of information that could be of interest to you.”
“Before I reveal this truly essential tidbit, there’s something I want in return for it.” Dictatious paused. “My freedom. Swear to release me from this vile facility of yours and I will tell you the most important thing I’ve been holding onto.”
Kubritz chuckled. “What makes you think whatever trivial fact you have this time is crucial enough that I’d do that?”
“Because.” Dictatious pushed himself off his bed. “I can only tell you so much. I was trapped in the Darklands for centuries. I know almost nothing about my brethren here. But. I can tell you where to find someone who does. Someone who’d be a much better captive than myself. Someone who could tell you all about the trollish weaponry you so desire.” He folded both sets of hands together behind his back. “Unless, you no longer wish to know how to defend mankind from us trolls?”
Kubritz pursed her lips. “I’m listening.”
Dictatious grinned. “Not very far from here, I believe, is a town called Arcadia. Beneath it, a trollish settlement called Heartstone Trollmarket. There, you will be able to find my brother, Blinkous Galadrigal. He will serve as a far better prisoner than myself.”
It didn’t take Kubritz and her men long to look into and find Dictatious’s brother. Though, when they did, they were much more interested in the human woman he’d impregnated and their future child than Blinkous himself.
The last day they’d spend together started normally enough for Barbara and Blinky. They woke up, padded sleepily through their morning routine, and saw Jim off to school. Though technically Blinky could drive the teenager, as he worked at Arcadia High, Jim still preferred biking with his friends.
Honestly, that was something Blinky was rather glad of. It gave him an extra few minutes alone with Barbara in the mornings. He’d never seen her as scared as she was when she admitted her pregnancy to him. It pained him to know that she’d been hurt so badly in the past that she feared him now. A part of him wanted to seek out her ex and exact vengeance. A stronger part of him knew it would be more worthwhile to regularly remind her of his love.
Blinky brought a tray with juice, some fruit, yogurt, and granola to where Barbara had settled on the couch. He put it down on the table beside her. He stopped to kiss her on the forehead.
“Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything,” he reminded her. “I’ll check-in with you during my lunch break, but, if before that—”
“I’ll be fine, Blink.” Barbara stopped him. “We both will.” She absently passed a hand over her now rounded belly. “Nothing’s going to happen. I’m going to spend the entire day here, on the couch, watching whatever marathons I can find.” She gave him a knowing look. “It’s going to be rather boring, in fact.”
“Yes, well, you are carrying something that has no historical precedent. Since we cannot confer with a human doctor without revealing certain truths, we must do our best ourselves.” Blinky took a blanket off the back of the couch and spread it over Barbara’s legs. “For you, that means no stressors or excitement.”
“You know how I used to say you’re romantic when you’re concerned? I take it all back,” Barbara grumbled. “You’re no fun.”
“It is in my nature.” Blinky quickly pecked Barbara on the lips. “Just think, after the baby’s born, we can go on all the adventures you want and then some.” He stroked her cheek. “Until then, accept that you’re going to have a relaxed and peaceful maternity leave.”
Barbara sighed. “I am, but I don’t think I’ve done nothing like this ever. In my life. It’s making me fidgety. Just sitting around all day.” She leaned back against a pillow. “I can’t wait until it’s over.”
“I know.” Blinky stood back up. “Expect my call around eleven.” He headed toward the door.
Once he was gone, Barbara turned on the TV and flipped through channels until she found something interesting. Sally Go Back wasn’t among her favorite shows, but she’d watched enough of it when Jim was younger to have a passing knowledge of its lore. She wondered if her second child would enjoy the show. Though, they’d definitely have to wait a couple years before introducing them to it. Sally Go Back may be a kids’ show, but definitely not one suitable for babies.
The doorbell rang. Barbara groaned. Lamenting the loss of her comfortable position, she shoved herself off the couch. When she opened the door, she stared at the primly-dressed military woman on the other side. Vaguely, Barbara wondered if this would have anything to do with her brother, Joey, except she knew he’d been discharged years ago.
“Can I help you?” Barbara asked the woman.
“Are you Dr. Barbara Lake?”
“That’s me. What’s this about?” Barbara kept one hand on the door. She restrained herself from slamming it shut. Something about this, about the way the woman was looking at her, didn’t feel right.
“My name is Colonel Kubritz. I’m with a scientific research department of the government. We’ve received reports of strange occurrences here in Arcadia.” Kubritz paused, and then, with a little more emphasis, added, “Of stone creatures that walk the streets at night. I’d like to ask you a few questions. Can I come in?”
“No.” Barbara began to shut the door. Her heart thumped rapidly. This was bad, very bad. She needed to get to Blinky and Jim. Get them out of town maybe. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if Blinky was discovered by the government.
Kubritz grabbed the door, preventing Barbara from closing it all the way. “It would be much easier if you came willingly.”
“You said you just had a few questions. Why would I go with you if—” A flicker of orange movement caught Barbara’s eye. She yelped and ducked.
A person in an orange hazmat suit, who’d been sneaking up behind her, lost his footing and fell. He grunted as he hit the floor. Barbara didn’t have time to worry about him. More men were coming in through the backdoor.
“We can either do this the easy way or the hard way, Dr. Lake,” Kubritz spoke way too calmly. “It’s your choice.”
Barbara headbutted the first hazmat guy to come near her. She punched the next in the stomach. She needed to get out of there. There were too many bodies between her and the backdoor and, even if she did make it, she’d be trapped in the fenced-in yard.
She whipped around. Kubritz was the only person between her and the street out front.
“Don’t even think about it.” Kubritz smirked. “The only way you’re leaving here is with us.”
Barbara rushed forward. She ducked when Kubritz tried to grab her. She shoved with all her weight and knocked her would-be kidnapper aside. She went for the opening that left her.
And then Blinky was inexplicably there.
“Oh, Barbara? What are you doing up? I forgot my phone and—NO!”
Barbara didn’t know what Blinky’s last yell was about. She knew she needed to warn him to get away, but the thought felt distant. She reached for it, tried to vocalize it, but it drifted out of her mind. She swayed. Why was the world suddenly so blurry? And everything so muted? She needed to…she needed to…
Consciousness left Barbara. She was caught by Kubritz’s second-in-command before she could collapse. He gathered her up in his arms.
“Take her out around back,” Kubritz ordered. She handed off the syringe that had recently been filled with tranquilizer to one of her hazmat guys. “And load her up. I’ll handle this.” She turned back to where Blinky stood frozen in shock. Her words snapped him out of it.
“Let her go!” Blinky stormed into the house, only to have his arms immediately grabbed and restrained. He shoved at the hazmat guys. His true troll strength shone through as they were knocked aside. He reached for his potion and downed it in one quick gulp, becoming troll once again. “I said, LET HER GO!” Blinky charged after the man carrying Barbara, but didn’t reach him before he got outside into the sunlight. Blinky tried to pursue the man anyway, but the pain of the daylight on his stone skin forced his retreat. He roared.
“Mr. Blinkous Galadrigal, I presume?” Kubritz came up behind Blinky. Her steps were evenly timed. Her heels clicked against the wood floor.
“What,” Blinky growled, “is the meaning of this?”
“I think you know,” Kubritz replied. “You aren’t exactly from around here, Mr. Galadrigal. You must’ve known we would’ve noticed sooner or later.”
“I am not a threat to society. Neither is Barbara. Let her go.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t going to be possible.”
“Why not?!” Blinky reached for Kubritz, but his arms were grabbed before he could slam her against the wall. It took almost all the hazmat guys to hold him back. “She’s pregnant, for Deya’s sake! She can’t possibly be a threat to you.”
“She’s not.” Kubritz loomed over Blinky as he was forced to his knees. “But she is an unprecedented, scientific marvel. One worth studying.” She examined her nails. “Regardless of what you now may think of me, Mr. Galadrigal, I am not merciless. You may escort your wife back to our base and join her if you’d like.” She held out a hand to him. When he didn’t immediately take it, she added, “The alternative is staying here and never seeing her again.”
Reluctantly, Blinky went with them.
Vendel was many things. Among the trolls of Heartstone Trollmarket, he was venerated. He knew himself to be knowledgeable. He and only he knew of a handful of ancient and powerful spells and magical workings. He was strong. He’d spent years mastering fighting techniques that used a staff. He liked to think of himself as witty.
But, and perhaps most importantly, Vendel was old. He ranked among the oldest trolls alive. His age gave him wisdom, but it also left him fatigued.
Retirement was not considered honorable among trollkind. ‘Giving up’ was what most thought of it as. Much better to keep pushing on until one could claim a glorious end on the battlefield. Vendel recognized this. So, he did not retire (though he wished to nearly every passing day). Not exactly.
Instead, Vendel chose a troll he considered worthy of being his successor as Elder of Heartstone Trollmarket and trained him, right there in the public eye. Let the trolls believe he simply wanted to be prepared in the event of his untimely demise. It was not like them to recognize that Vendel was slowly passing off his responsibilities until it was his successor, not himself, who led them.
In hindsight, Vendel was now realizing, he probably should have chosen someone else.
Blinkous Galadrigal had potential, yes, but cultivating it had proven more difficult than Vendel thought it would be.
As a scholar, Blinky had the historical knowledge and resources that would allow him to know the people he led on a deeper level. As a fighter, he wasn’t much, but such skills could be taught. Blinky, too, had a certain charismatic flare that Vendel once thought would aid him marvelously as a leader.
But, and what had become most clear over time, was that Blinkous Galadrigal had too much curiosity for his own good.
Blinky’s interest in humans, Vendel had accepted as a passing fancy. Hadn’t they all been intrigued by the lifeforms that dwelled on the surface from time to time? So what if Blinky made use of a modified potion recovered from Gatto’s Keep to walk among them? Better he got it out of his system now, while Vendel was still there to cover up his actions rather than later, when he’d be leading Trollmarket on his own.
The human woman was an unexpected (and unwelcome) development. Fascination with humans was one thing, but to choose one as a mate? The very idea made Vendel feel ill. Blinkous had gone too far. It was time for Vendel to rein his successor in. To bring him back into the fold, and remind him his first responsibility was, and always would be, to Trollmarket.
It was excruciatingly frustrating that Blinky was captured by other humans before Vendel got the chance. Regardless, Vendel had the power and the authority to free him, and so he would.
Vendel raised a small force, not big enough to be a true army, but certainly big enough to intimidate humans, and marched on the base where Blinky was being held. When they reached the end of the woods, he commanded his trolls to remain there while he and Kanjigar approached.
The leader of the humans, a woman in green, came out to greet them.
“Vendel of Trollmarket, it is an honor,” the woman spoke. “My name is Colonel Kubritz.” She cocked her gun. “Now, what do you want?”
Vendel planted his staff into the ground. “I am here for the release of Blinkous Galadrigal, a troll you have wrongfully imprisoned.”
“What makes you so sure I’m just going to give him up?”
“I have brought with me a formidable army. Refuse to release Blinkous and we will reduce your fortress to rubble.” Vendel gestured to Kanjigar, who set off a dvarkstone.
“I see.” Kubritz frowned. “But, you must understand, I can’t just let our prisoners go. They have created a hybrid between our races. A threat to our security. One which must be contained.”
“You misunderstand,” Vendel spoke calmly. “We have not come for the human woman or the whelp she carries. They are not our kind. They are not our responsibility nor are they under our protection. As they are human, I leave them under your authority.”
“Ah. In that case.” Kubritz made a gesture back to her men. “I will have Blinkous brought out to you.”
When she seemed to be occupied, Vendel turned to Kanjigar. “Return to Trollmarket. Do not speak of any of what happened here to Blinkous. He will come to realize his folly with the human woman was a mistake, but I fear he will remain attached to her for some time yet.”
Kanjigar nodded, and then departed with the trolls.
“Colonel Kubritz? Ma’am?”
“What is it, Costas?” Kubritz didn’t turn to him, but kept walking. It was unfortunate that they had to give up one of their trolls, but they hadn’t meant to capture Blinky in the first place. Of their prisoners, he was the one she was most willing to let go.
“Are we releasing Dictatious, as well? They seemed to want the trolls we have and—”
“No.” Kubritz cut Costas off. “Vendel did not mention Dictatious, so we will not let him go.” She paused. “You may tell our long-time troll friend, the deal for his freedom’s off too.”
“But, you gave him your word!”
“And now I’m rescinding it. With the hybrid on the way, it is within our best interests to keep a troll on site.” Kubritz finally turned to Costas. “Blinkous is only being released because he is not worth an all-out battle with them. Understand?”
Barbara was well aware she should be happy. This was—would have been—a momentous occasion. Her eyes registered the sight of the nurse applying the ultrasound gel to her uncovered belly, but her brain wasn’t really taking in the sight.
None of this felt real. Not really.
She knew she’d been captured by a shady government organization. She knew she was being held against her will. She knew they’d separated her from Blinky. She wasn’t sure she actually believed that they’d released him, like they said. She hoped. When she had the energy for it.
Most of the time, everything felt dull. Muted.
In the beginning, those first few horrible months, she’d tried to run. Over and over again. She’d kicked and screamed whenever they’d come for her to do their tests. She’d even sunk her teeth into one person who now hated her.
None of it worked. She was still here. Still alone.
She should have known better than to hope for anything else.
“A boy,” a voice broke through the fog surrounding Barbara’s mind.
She started. “What?”
“I said, it’s a boy.” The nurse glared at her. She wasn’t the one Barbara bit, but she was friends with her. She scribbled a note in the file, but paused. “You got a name?”
“What?” Barbara knew it wasn’t normal to feel like thinking every thought was like slogging through waist-deep jello, but she couldn’t get her brain to function properly. “I…um…”
She and Blinky had talked about names, certainly, but they hadn’t been anywhere close to doing so seriously. She tried to remember the boy names they’d come up with.
“Look, I need to fill something in here.” The nurse tapped the file with a finger. “If you have a name for it, I can put that in, but otherwise they’re going to make me come up with a designation. So, why don’t you help me out here?”
When Barbara was finally allowed back to her cell, she curled up on her bed. She faced to the left, to the side Blinky would have been on if she were home and they were together.
“Arthur,” she told the empty space there, where she could almost pretend Blinky was resting. “I named our son, Arthur. After Arrrgh!!!.” She paused to wipe her eyes. “I know how much the big guy means to you.” Barbara took a deep breath.
“I’ll try to keep him safe.”
Chapter 5: Closing The Miles Between Us
I forget exactly where I first heard of Blinky and Dictatious's troll tribe being called the "Conundrums". If anyone knows where it was first coined, I'd be happy to add a reference note.
CONTENT NOTE: There's a description of an unspecified life-threatening situation in this chapter. It happens to Barbara (and is the only scene I think where she's the POV character in this chap). She lives, but if that makes anyone uncomfortable, it's only that one scene. It starts out with "the world spun", and you can skip over it by scrolling down to the divider between it and the next scene.
*what's specifically happening to Barbara there will be expanded on later on. I'm being purposefully vague on the details.
“Mother, he’s so loud,” Dictatious complained. He plopped down on the floor of their dwelling’s main cavern. He crossed both sets of his arms. He pouted. “Can’t you make him stop crying?”
“Oh, but I am.” Reedra smiled at her eldest son. “Come see.” She gestured him over to where she stood by his brother’s cradle.
“I don’t wanna.”
“Dictatious Maximus.” There was no arguing when Dictatious’s mother took that tone. Sullenly, Dictatious padded over to her. He glanced at the wailing, wiggling whelp in the cradle with barely concealed disgust. When he himself was that little, he surely hadn’t made this much noise.
“See.” Reedra gestured with one hand, as her other three wrapped blankets around Dictatious’s brother. “He’s settling now. Your brother just needed comfort. He’s still so little, being out in the world is strange to him.” She glanced at Dictatious to ensure he was paying attention to her. “We call this ‘nesting’. We wrap blankets around whelps to reassure them when the open air gets too overwhelming on their skin.”
“He didn’t have to cry so loudly about it,” Dictatious muttered.
Reedra tousled his hair. “That’s how whelps communicate, my child. They have no other way. You were not much different when you were small like Blinkous.”
Dictatious wrinkled his nose. “Nu-uh.”
“Oh yes.” Reedra lifted him and swung him around in her arms. Dictatious couldn’t help but giggle. “Now, promise me,” his mother’s tone turned seriously. “Promise me, you’ll always watch out for your brother. I won’t always be here to look after the two of you.”
“Yes, you will, mother.”
Reedra looked at him sadly. “Oh, Dictatious. That’s not how life works.”
Dictatious nuzzled his head into the crook of his mother’s neck. “I don’t want you to go,” he said softly.
“I don’t plan on leaving you, my son. But you will grow up, and someday, very, very far from now, I won’t be here for you anymore. Then, you and Blinkous will have to depend on each other.”
“I’m not going to depend on a whelp.”
“By then, Blinkous won’t be a whelp anymore.”
For a halfbreed, Blinky’s son didn’t appear too bad looking. He didn’t look nice, by any means, either. But, his Conundrum heritage did shine through. The whelp had the six eyes and four arms characteristic of Dictatious’s kind. His coloring was a green-blue caught between Dictatious’s own and Blinkous’s, too.
The whelp wiggled and cried out. The dreadful sound pierced Dictatious’s ears. Never before had he wanted to return to his own cell so badly. He wished they hadn’t brought him in for the birth. Sure, he was a troll, but he had no experience with such things. Whatever insight the fleshbags thought he had, it didn’t exist.
Dictatious grumbled to himself. More than that, why did they have to thrust the newborn into his arms? Surely, he was too precious to them to entrust to Dictatious? But all the fleshbags were focused on the mother—Blinky’s mate—who, almost immediately after the birth, they rushed out of the room. Dictatious didn’t know what they were doing with her, but, from what the fleshbags said, he knew she’d been weakened considerably by the process of expelling a whelp from her body. Yet another reason why trolls were superior to mankind. They didn’t carry their young in their own bodies.
Regardless, so long as Blinky’s mate was in a dire state, it seemed the whelp would be left in Dictatious’s care. The troll decided, at the very least, it would be in his favor to see if he could get the newborn to stop wailing. If only because it would help his own throbbing headache.
Dictatious saw a clean-looking, discarded blanket on the floor and picked it up. Remembering his mother’s words about nesting long ago, he proceeded to wrap the whelp up in the blanket.
That did help. The whelp quieted, but continued to squirm.
“Child, if you do not still yourself, I could drop you. That would not be very good for either of us,” Dictatious muttered.
Though the likeliness of him understanding was absolute null, the whelp seemed to hear. He squinted. Almost opened his eyes, but didn’t quite manage it. Something about that made Dictatious feel odd.
No, Dictatious didn’t care about the whelp. Certainly not. The very idea was absurd.
But. He too had once been a child. He remembered what it was like being young, before he learned to focus his eyesight. It hadn’t been easy, learning how to control all six of his eyes. It had taken time. Quite a lot of it.
Dictatious grumbled to himself, but rocked the whelp all the same. Comforted him. Again, not out of caring for his nephew. But, perhaps, there was value in aligning himself with Area 49B’s newest, most important subject. Dictatious could provide useful information on trollish growth, which, in turn, would grant him power. Something he sorely needed.
Dictatious didn’t care. Not for anyone but himself, no. But, so long as providing care to the whelp would favor him, he would do so.
Not because he cared.
Because he didn’t.
The world spun. Blurred, unidentifiable shapes shifted around Barbara without coming into focus. It was impossible for her to tell what was real or not. Her thoughts refused to settle. She groaned.
Barbara tried to say something. Her tongue felt heavy, immovable. Her head felt like it had been stuffed full of cotton. She may or may not have actually made noises. She had no idea, and no way to figure it out.
Her eyelids fluttered closed. The darkness was nice. Calming, whereas the chaos of the world was dizzying. She felt lighter, less burdened. The pain was fading. Everything was fading. That was fine. The quiet didn’t hurt as much as everything else did.
“WE’RE LOSING HER!”
The words pierced into Barbara’s mind. She whined. She just wanted to go to sleep. Why couldn’t they go away? Why couldn’t everything go away? She was so very tired.
“We have no choice, then.” Another voice commanded Barbara to stay and pay as much attention as she could. She hated it. “Go tell them to prep for our arrival downstairs.”
Barbara felt herself move. She didn’t move herself. The world around her shifted. Like it was going by and she was just a passenger. She groaned. She wanted it to stop. It wasn’t comfortable. She wanted it to stop. She wanted the pain to end.
Everything halted. There was a pressure on Barbara’s wrists, and on her ankles. Light pricks along her arms. If she were her normal self, Barbara would recognize the pinpricks of injection needles.
“We’re ready, sir.”
“Begin the transfer.”
Fire shot through Barbara. She screamed. Her eyes opened. She saw a bright light directly above her, like the ones she knew from operating rooms. She struggled. Her restraints kept her tied down. She pulled and pulled, but she couldn’t break free.
Then. It was over.
Barbara collapsed down against a soft pillow. She ached, but it wasn’t as bad as before. The fog over her brain had been fried away.
“Status report?” The voice sounded somewhere to her right.
“She’s stabilizing. She’ll live.”
“Good.” A hand pressed to Barbara’s forehead. She didn’t fight the comfort. “She needs to rest,” the person went on. “After that, she can meet her son.”
My son. My son has been born.
The thought took up all Barbara’s mental energy before she was sedated into sleeping.
When Barbara woke, Blinky was the first thing she saw. She smiled. Maybe it all had been a bad dream and…
The world came into focus. Barbara frowned. She truly saw. No, whoever was with her wasn’t Blinky. This troll was green.
“Who are you?” She asked hoarsely.
Seeing her eyes open, the not-Blinky troll came over to her. He put a heavy weight down upon her. Instinctively, Barbara took whatever it was in her arms. “Here is your whelp,” The troll stated curtly.
My…whelp? Barbara’s mind asked. She looked down.
There was her child. Her Arthur. He was a bit strange upon first glance, but that was because Barbara wasn’t accustomed to seeing a half-troll. She held him tight. He cried a little. Settling back into an old mentality she hadn’t needed since Jim was this small, Barbara figured out what he needed. She shifted positions until her son could breastfeed.
“Disgusting,” the troll muttered.
Barbara glared at him. “And you’re here because?”
The troll glared back. “They haven’t allowed me to leave yet. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have been here at all.”
“But it isn’t up to you.” Colonel Kubritz entered the cell. She turned to Barbara. “Glad to see you recovering well. You had us all very worried.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Barbara grumbled.
“Don’t. We have every intention of keeping you alive and well and with your son.” Kubritz clasped her hands together behind her back. “Now, let me tell you how things are going to go from here. You will be allowed to care for your son. You will nurture him. And when my scientists need to do tests, you will not argue. Understood?”
Barbara nodded. She didn’t really have any other choice.
“What about me?” The troll asked. “I admit I know some useful pieces of trollish knowledge on whelps, that I’d be willing to give only for the right compensation. But surely you do not expect me to live with them?” He gestured at Barbara and Arthur.
“No, Dictatious, you are no longer needed here,” Kubritz responded. “The guard outside will return you to your own cell.”
“Dictatious?” Barbara whispered. “Blinky had a brother named—”
“Yes, yes that’s me. Unfortunate, isn’t it?” Without a backward glance, Dictatious departed.
“Don’t think he’ll help you in any sort of escape plan,” Kubritz told Barbara when Dictatious was gone. “He’s the one who informed us of you in the first place.”
“If you’d just allow me to help.” Dictatious grew more and more impatient by the second. His head hurt. He wanted this to be over already. But, experience over the past year had taught him, it wouldn’t be over until he got Barbara to listen, even as impossible of a task as that always was.
Dictatious didn’t hold the fact that she hated him against her. If he were in Barbara’s position, he’d likely feel the same way. What he couldn’t understand was why she continuously failed to see that working cooperatively would only serve to benefit them both and, most importantly, Arthur.
The whelp depended on them, both of them. Dictatious would never admit to the responsibility he felt for his brother’s son, but he’d long ago reasoned that the last descendant of their tribe did deserve a fighting chance at life. And it was his duty, as the only Conundrum troll there, to ensure he got it.
“Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Barbara glared, while rocking her wailing child. This was, admittedly, a marked improvement from her past behavior. In the beginning, she’d only tolerated Dictatious’s presence because she had no other choice.
Once upon a time, the scientists agreed that Dictatious, as a troll, would best know how to comfort a part-troll infant. Thus, they brought him in whenever there was a problem, which was often. Of course, they’d monitor the situation and take pages and pages of notes, but the scientists wouldn’t help at all (something about observing ‘natural’ trollish interactions and all that entailed). It had been torturous for Dictatious, to say the least. He didn’t know much, but he still knew some, and he used that knowledge to try and help. Not that Barbara ever listened to him. It had taken her eons to go so far as to acknowledge his presence.
“He’s teething,” Dictatious snapped at the human woman. “He’ll only be soothed by sinking his new teeth into something. The only thing we have that’s strong enough is the stone skin of a troll.”
Letting a whelp bite their arms was actually something most troll parents took pride in. It was a personal way for them to take part in their offspring’s growth, as well as the marking of an important milestone. Trollish parents would show off the marks left by their whelp’s teeth for months after, and always exclaim how strong their children were.
If he ever got out of Area 49B, Dictatious knew it would just be another thing on the very long list of things that Blinkous would never forgive him for taking part in.
“Thank you,” Barbara said quietly when they got Arthur calmed and sleeping. She hesitated, more words clearly on her mind, but a mental debate raging in her head on whether or not she should actually say them. “When he’s old enough to understand what it means, you can be Arthur’s ‘Uncle Maxie’.”
Dictatious didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say. There was no precedent here. No explaining the odd feeling that rose in his gut. Finally, he nodded. He didn’t acknowledge those particular words, but returned with an offer of his own.
“I can see your perspective on how being here is uncomfortable. It is my experience as well. I can negotiate with them to get you something that would make the time go by more easily.” Dictatious raised one eyebrow with his question.
Barbara thought for a minute. She met Dictatious’s gaze. “Some drawing paper would be nice. I think I’d like to record Arthur’s growth somehow.”
In the end, Dictatious talked Sergeant Costas into a deal where the sergeant would regularly supply Barbara with pads of paper, drawing pencils, and, eventually, crayons for Arthur. It meant Dictatious had to give up negotiating for the privilege of being able to walk outside, but it was worth it. Barbara didn’t quite relax around him, but she was just a little bit more kind to him.
Overall, that made the next few years a little easier to endure.
“Mama?” Arthur traced his index finger over the illustration in the picture book. “Is Uncle Maxie my papa?”
From what Arthur understood of the concept, it seemed right. Most of the kids in his picture books had a papa, who helped their mamas raise them. Arthur knew he wasn’t like the kids in the books. None of them seemed to live in places with lots of scientists. Because of that, his life was much different than theirs. But, Uncle Maxie acted like the papas in the books. He was allowed to help take care of Arthur. He told him stories and taught him all the things Arthur needed to know about being a troll. Arthur wanted Uncle Maxie to be his papa.
Arthur felt his mother inhale and then exhale in a deep sigh behind him. He slumped. He had a bad habit of saying things that made her sad. He never wanted to. He just seemed unable to prevent himself from doing so. It was very frustrating.
“No, he’s not your papa,” Barbara told her son. She put the picture book they’d been reading aside and reached for her drawing paper.
Arthur wiggled around to face his mother. “But he looks like me. He’s a troll too.” He didn’t add that Uncle Maxie was the only other troll there, because his mother knew that already.
Barbara began drawing, which drew all of Arthur’s focus. He loved watching her draw. The way she put down strokes with her pencil was so rhythmic. Soothing. Arthur watched as she drew a troll, one like him who wasn’t Uncle Maxie.
“Your papa is a troll named Blinky,” Barbara tapped her sketch with her pencil to show Arthur. “Your uncle, Maxie, is his brother. They look very similar to each other. That’s why you look like your uncle.” She smiled at him. “You are very much like your father.”
“Oh.” Arthur frowned. He guessed that made sense. Sort of. “Why isn’t Papa with us?” All the papas in the books were with their families. Arthur and his mother weren’t allowed to go anywhere, so that meant that his papa should be here, with them.
“He can’t be, Arthur.” Barbara said quietly.
“Why?” Arthur blinked uncomprehendingly. “Doesn’t he wanna be with us?”
“He does.” Barbara pressed her lips together. “But he’s not allowed.”
“Oh. Did he do something bad? Is he in trouble?” Those were generally the Reasons why Arthur wasn’t allowed to do things.
Barbara carded her hands through her son’s thick hair and teased out the tangles. “No, Arthur. Your father has done nothing wrong.”
Arthur considered that, but he was still confused. What other reason could there be for his papa not being there? He felt his mother wrap her arms around him and squeeze him tight. He nuzzled into her embrace. He was careful to angle his short, stubby horns away from her so they wouldn’t poke her.
“Arthur, your father would like to be with you very much,” Barbara spoke. “If he could, he would be here in an instant to hug you. He loves you.” She sighed. “But the people in charge of this base don’t want him to be here, so he can’t be. Do you understand?”
Arthur answered, “Yes, Mama,” even though he didn’t really. He still wanted a papa.
One of Arthur’s favorite parts of the regular schedule was playtime with Uncle Maxie. The scientists escorted him and his mama out of their room to the much bigger play area in the lab. Then, they brought Uncle Maxie out and let him into the play area too. Of course, the scientists still had to watch them through the big, glass wall separating the play area from the rest of the lab, but that was nothing new. The scientists watched everything. It was just a part of life.
Arthur waited patiently for Uncle Maxie. He held a new drawing clenched in his fists. He really wanted to show it to his uncle. He’d spent forever on it. Mama hadn’t even helped one bit, like she had with some of his other drawings. That was okay, though. Arthur knew Mama had been especially tired this week. The scientists had taken her for more tests than usual. She returned to Arthur super sleepy after each. Arthur knew what it was like to go through a set of bad tests. He let his mother rest.
Arthur glanced back at her. She sat slumped against the wall, her eyes half-closed. He frowned. Arthur went over and shook her shoulder. “Mama?”
Barbara offered a small, shaky smile. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“I did a drawing.” Arthur held it up to show her. He wanted to make her feel better. Seeing her like this made him uncomfortable, but he was too young to recognize what ‘worry’ was. He didn’t know how to help. All he had was a drawing.
“That’s nice,” Barbara murmured. “Give me a couple minutes to rest, and then we’ll play.”
Uncle Maxie arrived. Arthur grinned. His uncomfortable feelings temporarily forgotten. He hurried over to the adult troll.
“Uncle Maxie! Uncle Maxie! Look what I did!” Arthur pushed his drawing up at his uncle’s face.
“That’s nice,” Dictatious said fondly. He tousled Arthur’s hair, took one glance at Barbara, stepped toward her, hesitated, and then made his way to the opposite side of the play area.
Arthur followed him doggedly. “See, that’s me.” He pointed out one of the squiggly figures on the piece of paper. “And that’s you.” He pointed to the other.
“Ah.” Dictatious smiled. “I suppose there is meaning you wish to impart to me, my little nuisance?”
Arthur nodded vigorously. “We’re family, and Mama says I should draw my family.” Unlike his papa and his older brother, who Barbara has drawn him examples of, Arthur had actually seen Uncle Maxie. He tended to have an easier time drawing him than he did them.
Dictatious hesitated. He glanced again at Barbara. “You consider me your family?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Arthur cocked his head curiously.
“I…” Dictatious’s breath caught in his throat. “No reason.”
The rest of the observed playtime came and went.
Arthur and his mother were taken back to their cell.
Dictatious was taken to his own not long after.
Dictatious sat on his cot. He held Arthur’s drawing in his hands. The paper it was drawn on was flimsy. If he wasn’t careful, it would be easy to rip it. Dictatious didn’t want to. The drawing had no value, certainly, but it meant something to him regardless. Something Dictatious could never quite explain to himself, and wasn’t sure he actually wanted to.
Dictatious understood why Arthur would call him family. They were the only trolls at the base, and they did share a relation. Technically speaking. But. He himself has spent the past four years trying to distance himself from that very fact. From the uncomfortable feeling that rose in his chest whenever he thought about his nephew. The life his nephew was fated to having.
Because of him.
Dictatious closed his eyes. As much as he hated thinking about it, that was the truth. If it were not for him, Arthur—his kin—would be living a happy life with both his parents. He’d be on the outside, where he could learn all about troll history and his heritage. He would be able to claim his birthright, as the last of their tribe should.
Dictatious opened his eyes. It was time he righted a wrong of his own creation. Not that he’d ever admit to the mistake, but he would remedy it regardless.
After two hours of it, Dictatious could firmly say he did not like hiking. He had the stamina for it, sure. But the experience was not comfortable in the slightest. The jungle air was hot and muggy. Droplets of moisture condensed on his skin. Trying to wipe them away proved fruitless. Multiple times, Dictatious’s feet sank in mud (he didn’t dare consider what else he might be stepping in).
Of course, there was also Kubritz and her men from Area 49B, all who kept giving him expectant glances. It was logical. Now, of all times, he had the opportunity to make a strategic escape. He should be making a strategic escape. Rather than, say, risking awakening an untrustworthy assassin.
But, he wasn’t.
Dictatious hadn’t come up with this plan for himself. For it to truly work, for Arthur to be freed, he had to allow them to find Angor Rot. He had to grab the Inferna Copula right from under Kubritz’s nose before she knew it existed. He had to allow her to take both himself and Angor Rot back to Area 49B. Then, he could use Angor to eliminate the base and get Arthur, Barbara, and himself out of there.
Dictatious knew controlling Angor Rot would put himself in a direct line of danger from the assassin. More than anything, that utterly terrified him. Hundreds of stories told the morbid fates that befell those who became Angor Rot’s master.
The first time he’d researched the assassin long ago, those were what dissuaded Dictatious from seeking him out. He’d considered himself smarter, superior, then all those who came before for refusing the temptation they gave into.
Now, Dictatious couldn’t help but wonder if they had their reasons too. Beyond power for themselves. Someone they cared about. Someone they wanted to save. Desperately badly. But had no power on their own to. So they turned to the dark promise of one granted magic from the Pale Lady herself.
Dictatious refused to wonder which of their fates he would end up most like.
“This has to be it.” Kubritz signaled for everyone to stop. She looked back at Dictatious and raised an eyebrow, silently asking him to confirm her statement.
Dictatious gazed at the temple wall that loomed before them. Fate was calling to him, he could feel it. “Yes,” he told Kubritz. “This is where we will find Angor Rot.”
Kubritz ordered one of her men to go around and find the entrance. They waited in silence for him to return. When he did, Dictatious’s heart rate increased. He’d only have one chance to snatch the Inferna Copula before anyone noticed and asked questions. He couldn’t risk Kubritz getting the ring. The only thing he feared more than Angor Rot was Kubritz being the assassin’s master. Sure, it would ultimately mean a horrible fate for her, but, before that, it could lead to trouble for him.
The inside of the temple was freezing cold and dark. Their footsteps echoed through the corridors. There was nothing, not even a rodent or a spider, there but them. Something about that was ominous. Dictatious heard the distant plopping of water droplets, but he could see no source for them nor any dampness anywhere.
They came to the temple’s main chamber. A hole from a collapsed part of the ceiling let moonlight shine through. It didn’t do much in terms of illuminating the place. Chains hung from the ceiling. Their metal swaying with the occasional breeze, they clinked against each other. Four of the chains ended in open shackles, which troubled Dictatious.
Kubritz led her men into the chamber. Dictatious hung back around the perimeter. His eyes cast over the walls, searching for a sign of the secret compartment that a book once told him contained the Inferna Copula. He found none. There was a small opening by a lever, but it was empty and the lever already pulled.
“There’s nothing here,” Kubritz snapped. Her men finished kicking around the stone rubble in the center of the chamber. They uncovered nothing. Kubritz aimed her blaster at Dictatious. “Was this some kind of trick?”
“No, no I assure you,” Dictatious pleaded. “All my sources pointed to Angor Rot being here. This is the temple where the great wizard Merlin entombed him. He has no power to move on his own. The only way he’d be able to leave is…”
Dictatious hadn’t thought there was something he feared more than Kubritz controlling Angor Rot.
Dictatious gulped. “Is if someone else already woke him up.”
Chapter 6: A Twist In The Road Up Ahead
Remember how I tagged this fic for 'Major Character Death'? Well, I'm finally cashing that warning in. Not everyone will make it out of this chapter alive.
Angor Rot stood on a hill overlooking the base. Even if the humans knew to look for him, they’d never be able to find him. The night was a long-time ally of Angor’s. It never failed in cloaking him.
A flickering, golden orb rolled through the grass. It bumped into Angor’s foot stump, and then again. Angor plucked the eye up between his index finger and thumb. He plopped it back in its socket. Though it would have been of use to let it remain in the base, he wanted it back with him for the assault. It wouldn’t be very sporting of him to have such an advantage on his quarries. Not when he already had the upper hand.
From behind the ancient assassin came a rumbling. Angor turned around. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the approaching human vehicle’s headlights. He knew better than to flinch as though the light were the sun now. Regardless, modern electricity was not among the new advancements he favored.
The headlights winked out. Angor heard the car door open and slam shut. Footsteps advanced on him. Angor focused on the yellowy glow of the ring on his companion’s index finger. The Inferna Copula. The only thing he cared for.
“You understand what you are to do?” The current wearer of the ring, one Waltolomew Stricklander, spoke. Angor didn’t care much for him, just as he hadn’t cared for any of his predecessors. It mattered not who wore the ring. One way or another, Angor would ensure their end. Eventually.
“I require an answer, Angor Rot.” Stricklander’s tone turned harsh. His shining, yellowy-green eyes narrowed.
Angor chuckled. “You doubt the clarity of your earlier commands?”
A knife flew past Angor’s head and thwacked into a tree somewhere behind him. A second one, glinting and cold, pressed against his neck.
“I doubt your capacity to listen properly,” Stricklander growled. “Now repeat back to me your assignment or we will see how deep this blade will cut into you before killing you.”
“Infiltrate the base.” Angor sidestepped away from the knife. “Locate this human woman.” He took a photo earlier given to him from a pouch on his belt. “Retrieve her and the halfbreed child.”
“Alive. I’ve told you. I want them alive.”
Angor returned the photo to its pouch. “Is that all?”
“Eliminate everyone else on the base. I’ve had quite enough of Kubritz and her men’s meddling.” Stricklander templed his hands. “When you’re done, return to this exact spot. I will be waiting.”
Without another word, Angor strode off. Only when he’d left Stricklander’s sight range did he stop. He opened one of his belt pouches and took out a few stone figurines. This particular wearer of the ring did not like his use of golems. ‘Outsourcing’, Stricklander called it. That was of little concern to Angor. Stricklander hadn’t been specific on how Angor was to take out the base, so he’d do the job as he pleased.
Angor laid a small piece of cloth down on the ground. Upon that, he placed the golems. He untied a large gourd from his belt and uncorked it. With caution, as to not waste a drop of the valuable liquid, Angor poured the gourd’s contents, Creeper’s Sun poison, down onto the golems. He stepped back.
Five green, slimy beings rose to tower above him. Silently, Angor used the Skathe-Hrün to open a portal. He led the golems through into Area 49B.
Arthur stared at the remains of the squishy creature lying on the tray. He remembered watching it in its cage. He’d liked how it scuttled around and hissed. It had always looked at Arthur curiously when they brought it out during his tests. Like it was fascinated by him, and not in the way of the scientists that led to a lot of poking and prodding. They’d encouraged Arthur to try and communicate with the creature, which they called a ‘goblin’. In his head, Arthur had named the creature, ‘Fred’.
And now Fred was gone. Squashed. A puddle of goo.
“Hey, hey sweetheart, don’t look at that. Look at me.” Barbara turned her son’s head toward her.
Arthur gazed up at his mother, but, right now, he couldn’t find much comfort in her. She may be his mother (and have superpowers), but, like him, she was controlled by the scientists. She couldn’t make them do anything or make them not do anything.
“I know you liked the goblin, but we can’t let ourselves get too caught up on that kind of stuff, okay?” Barbara pursed her lips. “They’re going to be doing a few more tests today, so I need you to be very brave, alright?”
One of the scientists came into the lab. He put a tray of vials down on the worktable next to Arthur. Arthur curled up into himself. He hated when they took samples, which they did fairly regularly. Sample-taking always hurt. The scientists couldn’t get their needles into his stone skin, so they always resorted to trying new things. The worst had been when a scientist tried to convince the others just to cut Arthur’s arm off completely. Before they’d made him leave Area 49B altogether, Arthur had been terrified of the man.
Barbara sensed her son’s discomfort. She wrapped her arms around him. “I know, sweetheart, I know.” The heavy inhibitor bracelets they made his mother wear rested heavily on Arthur’s shoulders. “We just have to get through this, and then we’ll get to spend some time with your Uncle Maxie. He’s back from his trip, how about that?”
“That’s a good idea.” One of the scientists said to a second while he put a new tray, one with a stone leg with crystals jutting out in every direction, down next to the goblin remains. “Get the adult troll. Maybe he’ll be of use to us here.”
Dictatious was brought into the lab. A scientist with an electric rod prodded him along.
“Must you use that infernal device on me?” Arthur’s uncle glared.
“Word is you led Kubritz on a wild goose chase and wasted everyone’s time with the whole ‘Angor Rot’ thing.” The scientist jabbed at Dictatious with the prod. The troll dodged. The scientist glared. “So, yes, you need a reminder to stay in line.”
Dictatious crossed him arms and refused to say anything more.
Arthur clung to his mother, but then the sight of something new and unknown took his attention.
A dark, purplish-black spot appeared in the middle of the lab. No one else seemed to notice it. Arthur stared. The spot grew in size. It swirled around and around, like the bathwater when Arthur’s mother let it out after she was done bathing him.
Arthur whimpered. He didn’t mean to, but he did. New Things tended to be Not Good.
That caught the attention of his mother and uncle. Both looked up, and saw the dark, swirling thing. Dictatious tensed. Barbara pulled up Arthur entirely into her arms.
Something emerged from the portal. It was tall. Taller than the scientists. A troll. One that didn’t look remotely like Arthur or his uncle. He knew not all trolls were like them, but Arthur had never seen another one before. This troll was scary. The way his eyes rotated around to fix themselves upon Arthur was scary.
“Hey! You can’t be in here!” One of the scientists yelled.
“Where did he even come from?” Another reached for his blaster.
The troll regarded them. He turned back to his portal. He stepped aside to allow a set of massive, slimy creatures through. Someone fired a blast. The shot hit one of the creatures. The creature looked down briefly, and then reached out a mitt of a hand to touch that scientist. The scientist turned to stone. The others screamed.
Arthur hugged tightly to his mother, who retreated to the far side of the lab with his uncle.
“Angor Rot,” Dictatious spoke in disbelief. “What’s he doing here?”
“You told them about him, remember?” Barbara snapped.
“Yes, but he wasn’t there. We went to the temple. It was empty.”
Angor ignored the panicking scientists. His golems were making short work of turning them into stone. They were of no concern to him any longer. He advanced on Dictatious, Barbara, and Arthur.
Dictatious moved in front of Arthur and Barbara. “Angor Rot. I don’t know what you want, but we are not the ones in power here . Please, I ask your assistance. Free us.”
“I’m not here for you.” Angor motioned one of his golems over. It advanced on Dictatious, who gulped and retreated away. While the golem cornered Dictatious, Angor fixed his gaze upon Barbara and her son. “You’re the ones I need.”
“Why?” Barbara turned so she was holding Arthur away from Angor. “Why do you need us?”
Angor ignored her. He stepped closer. Barbara stepped back. Angor stepped forward again. Barbara pressed her back against the wall. Angor reached for her.
Barbara slapped his hand away. She glared, and balled up her free hand into a fist. Her other arm remained tightly around Arthur.
Angor blinked. He withdrew a knife from his belt. He wouldn’t hurt them. Physically. He would threaten.
Barbara focused on the gleaming knife. She gulped, but stood her ground.
Dictatious plunged his fist into the golem cornering him, withdrew its totem, and broke the stone. The golem collapsed. Seeing the danger Barbara and Arthur were in, he looked around for anything that could help. Dictatious saw the scientists’ electric rod cast aside on the ground nearby. He ran for it.
“You are of no concern to me,” Angor rumbled. He grabbed Barbara’s arm. “But I have orders to follow.”
Barbara yanked, but didn’t manage to free herself of his grasp. She kicked at Angor’s legs, and stubbed her toes on his stone. “Have you considered disobeying?”
Angor ignored the question. He summoned another portal.
Something stabbed into one of his exposed gashes. Fire raced across his body. Angor roared. Released Barbara.
Dictatious dropped the prod. It dangled from Angor’s body, where it continued to send electric currents. Dictatious snatched the Skathe-Hrün from Angor’s grasp.
“Hurry!” He yelled at Barbara. “That won’t neutralize him for long!” He tried to lead her to the exit, but a stone person blocked their way there. They turned and ran back for the cells instead.
Angor yanked the prod out. With a snarl, he snapped it in half and threw it. It collided with the sample vials and knocked most of them off the worktable. Angor ignored the mess. He stormed after Dictatious and Barbara. His footsteps thudding heavily.
Dictatious and Barbara entered Dictatious’s cell. The troll hurried to shut the door.
“Barbara, go!” Dictatious threw the Skathe-Hrün at her. He slammed his shoulder against the door, keeping it closed. On the other side, Angor Rot pounded. “Take Arthur, use the shadow staff, and GO!”
“I…” Barbara down at the weapon in her hands and then back at him. “What’ll happen to you? I can’t just leave without—”
“You can and you will!” Dictatious ordered. He held up his arm, the one not pressed against the door. “It’s already too late for me,” he said sadly. Stone creeped up the arm, petrifying it. Destroying the golem hadn’t come without a cost. “Now, please. I have made many mistakes in my life.” He took a deep breath. “Don’t let failing to save you and Arthur from this forsaken place become one of them.”
“The staff is powered by emotion. Think of my brother—think of Blinky—and use your feelings for him to get you and your son far, far away from here.” Dictatious made eye contact with Barbara. “Please, I’m begging you. Go.”
“Arthur, hold on to me as tightly as you can.” Barbara put her hand on the back of her son’s head.
“But, Uncle Maxie?” Arthur’s lower lip wobbled.
“He’ll be okay.” Barbara lied, and hated herself for it. She looked back at Dictatious. “He’ll be okay.” Dictatious nodded at her silently. “I…I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be.” Dictatious reassured. “I have lived a very long life.” He sighed. “I can’t say it’s all been good, but, at least, this way, I’ll have done one courageous thing in my existence.” His gaze turned to Arthur. “Getting to know you, my little nuisance, has been the greatest time of my life.”
“UNCLE MAXIE!” Arthur cried. He reached out to Dictatious, struggled to get out of his mother’s arms to go to his uncle, but Barbara held him tight. “Uncle Maxie…” Arthur whimpered.
“Be good for your mother.” Dictatious instructed. “And, when you meet your father, tell him I’m sorry for all that I’ve done.”
Arthur began to cry. Large tears rolled down his chubby cheeks. He didn’t quite understand what was happening, but he hated how it made him feel.
Barbara closed her eyes. Pressed her lips together. Did her best to channel her conflicting, confusing emotions; her sorrow knowing the fate she was leaving Dictatious to, her fear of the mysterious troll, Angor Rot, that was after them, her hope and her uncertainty about seeing Blinky again. Despite her tumultuous state of being, she successfully opened a portal.
After one last torn look at Dictatious, Barbara, holding her son tight, walked through.
The portal closed behind them.
Dictatious sighed in relief. He moved away from the door. He struggled to reach the center of his cell. The Creeper’s Sun overtook his legs right after he made it there. He turned his gaze to the drawing Arthur had done of the both of them, pinned to the wall. The door burst open, but Dictatious ignored it. He wanted the last thing he ever saw to be one of his favorites. When he felt the Creeper’s Sun finish with his body and start on his neck, he closed his eyes.
Everything ended. Dictatious Maximus Galadrigal knew no more.
Angor Rot glared at the stone remains of the troll. He’d felt the magic of the Skathe-Hrün activate and disappear. He knew someone had used it to escape. He’d been hoping it was the troll and that his quarries had been left trapped for him.
His eyes swept over the cell. But no, they were gone. All that was left was the remains of a troll with a reputation for cowardice, whose final act was apparently a change of heart.
Two green shots fired past Angor’s head. He turned. One of the humans, a survivor, stood at the entrance to the cell. In the human’s hand, a smoking weapon. His arms shook, but the human fired again and again at Angor.
The assassin snickered. He took out a knife coated in Creeper’s Sun. Such a fighter deserved a more fitting end than at the hand of a mindless golem. The human kept firing as Angor advanced. None of his shots hit Angor, but one did Dictatious’s remains. They exploded, and collapsed in a heap. Angor was careful to step over them.
Angor loomed above the human, who stared up at him in horror. The troll assassin stabbed.
Angor maneuvered around the stone guard. He considered leaving the building, but determined to look around first. Stricklander wouldn’t be pleased when he found out Angor failed to capture the woman and the halfbreed. Angor didn’t fear him, but the changeling would be a nuisance unless Angor came up with some kind of distraction.
He strode through the rest of the building, checking each and every room as he went. There was nothing of note until he went down a set of stairs to a basement area. A massive crystal sat next to an empty confinement tank. The latter held no interest for Angor, as he knew not what to do with such technology, but the former did. Angor Rot had never truly been in the presence of Heartstone crystal, but he could still recognize it, even when it was dead.
Angor glanced at the humans’ notes, but he could not read their language. However, he did recognize one thing. An illustration. A woman in shining golden armor.
Baba Yaga, the Eldritch Queen. The Pale Lady.
He had his bargaining chip. Angor departed.
As he walked through the rest of the base, Angor noticed the mission hadn’t been a total failure. Each and every human he came across had been turned to stone by his golems. The base was neutralized. Carefully, Angor used his knives to remove the totems of the remaining golems and destroyed them. Once the golems disintegrated into dust the wind picked up and spread, he departed.
“You failed. How could you have failed? They were prisoners. Retrieving them should have been simple task.” Stricklander paced in front of Angor.
Angor didn’t see the point in arguing. It would only prolong the changeling’s diatribe.
“If you’d at least managed to turn her and the child to stone like you so carelessly did the rest of them, that that would have been reversible,” Stricklander spat. “Perhaps that would have been better. Easier to transport them at least. But now.” he shot a glare at Angor. “Now, I have to clean up your mess.”
Angor inspected his nails.
Stricklander rubbed his temples. “Return to Arcadia. Await further instructions. I’m done with you tonight.”
“Do you follow the will of your lady creator, Stricklander?”
“Your lady creator, the Queen of the Shadows. You were created to follow her will. I’ve had time to watch you, Stricklander. Would she be pleased with how you are leading her children?”
Stricklander bristled. “How I choose to lead the Janus Order is not for you to question.” He narrowed his eyes. “And, you should be the first to know, she’s gone. I am your only master now.”
Angor laughed, a chilling sound that echoed through the night. “Then, the remains of her former prison in the humans’ base is of no interest to you?”
“Holy guacamole! My guacamole holy!” Stuart Durian sang as he drove. It was late. He’d prefer to be home, but he couldn’t afford to pass up this business opportunity. His electronics store wasn’t doing so good as of late. None of his other odd jobs brought in that much money either. He needed as much income from the taco truck as possible. He wasn’t in the red yet, but that would change soon.
So, as much as he may not like driving forty minutes out of town to sell burritos to the employees of a secret-ish military base (that he worried would one day see fit to make him ‘disappear’) in the middle of the night (the best time for them apparently), he’d still do it.
The road ahead disappeared.
“What on Earth?!” Stuart slammed on the brakes. His truck screeched to a halt.
The road reappeared. The dark void that had been blocking it suddenly gone.
Stuart blinked. He’d gotten enough sleep, right? He thought he had.
Something moved on the road ahead. Stood. Stuart recognized the figure of a tall woman, but his brain didn’t fully register her appearance. The woman brushed her hair back over her shoulders. She turned. Faced Stuart’s truck. Her eyes pierced into Stuart and he knew this was real.
The woman wobbled. She dropped the strange, stone walking stick she held. Her legs gave out from under her. She collapsed.
Stuart was out of his truck in an instant. He rushed to her. Strange or not, he’d never not help someone.
“NO!” The woman yelled at him. She grabbed her staff. Tried to use it to keep him at a distance. “Please. Don’t.” She maneuvered herself in front of Stuart. Blocking something from view, he realized. A child maybe? It definitely seemed the right size for a child.
“I’m here to help.” Stuart put up his hands in what he hoped was a calming gesture. “I don’t mean any harm. Mind telling me where you came from? I didn’t see—great stars above, what is that?!
Something distinctly not human poked its head out from behind the woman.
“Nothing! It’s nothing!” The woman shoved herself between the creature and Stuart. “Please,” she begged. “He’s a child.”
The child peaked out from behind the woman again. He was a bluish color. A fact Stuart’s mind refused to let go of. He had what looked like small horns. His cheeks were stained from tears. His eyes, of which there were six, were red and puffy.
Was Stuart utterly weirded out? Yes.
Would he still help the mother and son? Also yes.
“Alright. Alright, alright, alright.” Repetition was soothing. At least for Stuart. He ran a hand through his hair. “I can take you back to my place for some food.” He looked them over. “And maybe a change of clothes.”
“Why?” The woman stiffened. “What do you want?”
Stuart recognized her unease, her fear. “To help. I’ll admit, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here. But, I’m not the type of person to leave someone in need of help out in the middle of nowhere. You don’t have to come with me, but your only other option is a secret military base thataway and they may not…” He looked the two over again. Right. Something in his gut told him that’s where they came from.
Barbara picked up Arthur. She briskly walked over to Stuart. She scrutinized him carefully, and came to a conclusion. “Right. We’ll go with you.”
Chapter 7: Almost There
For the first time in years, Barbara didn’t wake to the sound of footsteps approaching her and Arthur’s cell room door. The sound she woke to was birds chirping outside the bedroom window. She opened her eyes and stared at the first finch she saw as if she’d never seen one before in her life. Her brain slowly registering where she was and how she came to be there. The finch chirped again, took off from its branch, and flew away into the sky.
Arthur stirred beside his mother, but didn’t wake. Unlike Barbara, he could sleep through almost anything. Barbara smiled down at her son. During their captivity, she’d tried to give him as best a sense of security as she could. When he was around her, he felt safe, that she knew. It had been all she could hope for while they were at Area 49B.
The noise of pots and pans clanging together nearby, and then the sizzling of bacon drew Barbara’s attention. She thought of Jim. Something constricted around her chest. Barbara quickly banished the feeling, and all the thoughts it brought with it. She couldn’t think about him. Not now; not ever again.
Barbara’s stomach grumbled. She kissed her son’s forehead and stroked his hair back. She saw to it that Arthur had a pillow to cuddle, and then wiggled out from being protectively wrapped around him. When he, in his sleep, stuck his thumb in his mouth, Barbara, reassured of his safety, slipped from the room.
Stuart’s apartment was small, messy, and cramped, but Barbara was used to tight spaces. As she walked, she made note of the door they’d come in through last night and a fire escape visible through one of the apartment’s windows. After determining which she would take as an escape route if she needed to, Barbara approached the kitchen.
“Ah, you’re up,” Stuart greeted her with a smile. “I hope I didn’t wake you, but it’s hard moving around in such a little space with so many things, let me tell you.”
Barbara nodded, but didn’t say anything. She carefully watched Stuart’s body language. He was relaxed, open. He wore a comfy-looking bathrobe over a t-shirt and sweatpants. None of his pockets had usually-shaped bulges. No concealed weapons or prods then.
Stuart wiggled his toes in his slippers. “…Everything okay?”
“Yes.” Barbara smiled. She knew the expression on her face was altogether too tight and not reassuring in the slightest. She hadn’t gotten a lot of opportunity to smile at someone who wasn’t her son recently. It occurred to her she may have forgotten how. “I was, um, just wondering what’s for breakfast?”
“Oh, errr, a little this, a little that.” Stuart shrugged. “How do you like your eggs?”
Barbara blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Your eggs,” Stuart repeated. A concerned expression, that made Barbara apprehensive, flitted across his face. “How do you like them done? I can do sunny-side up, poached, scrambled, any type you’d like really. Did a YouTube series about eggs while back. Promotional thing for the truck. Man, do people love their food vids.” Stuart laughed, which turned awkward when Barbara didn’t laugh with him.
Barbara moved a stack of old newspapers off a seat at Stuart’s table and slid into it. “Oh, um, however you’re doing yours is fine,” she responded to Stuart’s question quietly.
No one had asked her how she liked her eggs since, well, Blinky had always known how she liked them. Again, Barbara nipped that line of thought at the bud. Not now. Not ever again. She rubbed her index finger on what was apparently a permanent stain stuck on the table.
“So.” Stuart brought a plate heaped with scrambled eggs, steaming bacon, and toast over to the table. He placed it down with a fork, knife, and napkin in front of Barbara. “I’m not one to turn away someone in need. You can stay here for as long as you like. But—”
Barbara tensed. Her right hand went to turning off the safety on her left inhibitor bracelet. She wouldn’t go there if she didn’t need to, but she would do anything to protect her son.
“—I’m going to need answers to just a few questions.” Stuart sat in the chair catty corner to Barbara’s. “Starting with, is anyone going to be coming after you?”
Barbara pursed her lips. She removed her right hand from the safety. She didn’t show it, but she was relieved to not go there. “Most likely,” she told Stuart. “Everyone at the base was left…indisposed, but there are others who’re…interested in my son and I.”
“O-okay, sure. Not a problem. Toootally not a problem.” Stuart put one hand up reassuringly. “Believe it or not, I do have some pretty nifty security features around the old shop. Got a lot of antique equipment in here that need protecting.” He chuckled, once again trying to lighten the mood. Once again, he failed. “Alright. Next question.” Stuart moved on gracefully. “Do you and your kid have names? Something I could call you? Sorry, but I’ve been referring to you as the ‘redheaded lady I picked up on the side of a creepy road in the middle of the night’ in my head and I’d really like something better.”
“I’m Barbara. My son is Arthur.”
“Cool. Good to know. I’m Stuart.” He held out his hand to Barbara to shake. When she didn’t, he sighed. “We’re going to have to work on your social skills, aren’t we? Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical.”
Barbara would have ignored the question anyway.
“Alright, last question and then I’ll let you eat.” Stuart hesitated. “What exactly is your son. Don’t worry, I’m not judging.” He put up his hands defensively. “But even I can see the kid’s not all human.”
Barbara considered withholding the truth. In the end, she didn’t. Not entirely. “Arthur’s father is—was—a troll.” She pushed her eggs around her plate without looking at Stuart. “Trolls have stone skin, lots of eyes and limbs, and an aversion too daylight.” She paused. “But he’s gone now,” she lied. “It’s just us.”
Barbara would be lying even more if she said she didn’t miss Blinky and Jim terribly. But, the more she thought about it, the more confident she became that contacting them would be the wrong choice. Whatever happened next, for herself and Arthur, wouldn’t be easy. Whoever sent Angor Rot after them would likely send him again. Eventually the government or someone would check in at Area 49B and learn of their escape too. That would mean operatives being sent to hunt them down.
She couldn’t bear the thought of dragging her loved ones down with herself and Arthur. It had been years. Blinky and Jim had probably rebuilt their lives. She was doing them a favor by staying away.
Barbara watched as Arthur slowly adapted to life at Stuart’s apartment. Her second son had always been one quick to adjust. Their lives at Area 49B called for it. The scientists thought up new tests and trials for them to endure regularly. The stress would have destroyed them if they didn’t learn to attune themselves to frequent, unknowable changes.
While Arthur colored with crayons Stuart had given him, Barbara spent most of her time sitting in the window seat overlooking the street outside. She knew she should just take Arthur and leave Arcadia. It would be safest to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Area 49B. But, the city had been her home for years. Her family’s home for years.
Every morning, at precisely 7:45 AM, she could watch Blinky’s car drive by Stuart Electronics on his way to work. Blinky had a tendency of almost always arriving at exactly the right moment to be stopped by the red light at the one big intersection of the street. After braking, he’d take a sip of his coffee. Then, the light would change and he’d leave. It was okay, Barbara told herself. He’d be back that afternoon, once school was let out. She figured out which days Blinky had appointments with students after school hours since he wouldn’t drive by until later on those days.
She knew she couldn’t, shouldn’t, miss him. She needed to move on. Blinky, clearly, was able to go about his life just fine. Her and Arthur invading it would just complicate—ruin—things for him.
Barbara couldn’t help the emotions that ached in her chest, though. One morning, after Blinky drove past and Stuart left to sell tacos in his truck, it got to be too much. Acting on impulse, Barbara grabbed Stuart’s laptop and typed in his password (he’d given it to her her first week there, in case she wanted to go on the Internet while he was out). She opened up Stuart’s email account (he never logged out of it). She didn’t dare try accessing one of her own accounts in case they were being watched.
Chewing on her lip, Barbara clicked the ‘compose’ button. This was a terrible idea, she knew that. She really did. She just needed to see them once. From a closer distance. There were places in Stuart’s apartment where one could see down into the store without whomever was down there being able look back at oneself. If she could get Blinky (and Jim) into the store, she could have one final look at them (just to be sure they were indeed fine) without them ever knowing.
Into the subject line of the email, Barbara typed, You’ve Won A Free Stereo System! In the body of the email, she wrote a brief message about winning a contest and how to collect the prize (by coming in to the store). After reading over her work once, Barbara gulped and sent the message off to Blinky’s email address.
In the coming days, she sent numerous followup emails when the first didn’t get a response. When that still didn’t work to draw Blinky to the electronics store, and after a long debate about it, Barbara got onto Stuart’s social media profiles. Thankfully, a lot of the youth of Arcadia had friended the guy who ran their favorite taco truck, so it was easy for her to get on the profile page of the very popular, Mary Wang, and, from there, find, and jump to, Jim’s profile page, where she found his new college email.
Barbara began sending her contest emails off to both Blinky and Jim hoping at least one of them would show up. That is, until the day Stuart approached her.
“We need to talk,” he told her with a frown on his face.
Stuart led Barbara over to the kitchen table. “When I said you could use my laptop freely, I meant things like browsing the web.” He gave her a stern look. “Not getting into my accounts and using them without my knowledge.”
Barbara didn’t reply, or make eye contact with Stuart. She’d known him finding out about what she was doing was a risk, but she hoped he’d turn a blind eye.
Stuart ran a hand through his hair. “I wasn’t going to pry.” He took a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and smoothed it down on the table in front of Barbara. “But this is you, isn’t it?”
Barbara stared at the paper. It was a printout of her profile from the clinic where she used to work’s website. Her younger self smiled for the photo as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out,” Stuart went on. “I did some digging into the people you’ve been trying to contact and there you were.” He paused. “They’re your family, aren’t they?”
“I wanted to see them,” Barbara whispered. “One last time before we leave. I…” She clenched her hands into fists. Her nails dug into the palms of her hands. “I’m sorry. I won’t use your email again.”
“It’s all good. I’m not going to hold a grudge or anything like that. But seriously, all you had to do was ask.” Stuart stood up. “Come on, the truck’s due in front of Arcadia High soon for the after school snack rush.”
“Blinky Galadrigal, that’s your guy, right? Student guidance counselor? Yeah, I’ve sold him a taco or two.” Stuart grinned at her. “I can set up a meeting between you two no problemo.”
Barbara stiffened. “No.”
“I thought you wanted to see him?” Stuart looked at her dumbfounded.
“I do.” Barbara hesitated. “I just need to know he’s okay. Then, I—we—can move on.” She stared at her fists. Clenched and unclenched them. “If he knows we’re here, he won’t want to let us go.”
Stuart slid back into the seat next to her. “Would he harm you?” He asked quietly. “I know I may not seem like the kind of guy who knows a thing or two, but I had an ex who got.” He paused. “Pretty stalker-y toward the end. I loved Gwen. She meant the world to me, but man, was our relationship an unhealthy one.”
“No.” Barbara shook her head. “He would never. He loves m—he’d love Arthur.” She bit her lip. “He always thought of Jim as his son. He was so excited when we found out we were going to have…” Barbara’s gaze went to Arthur sitting on the floor in the other room with his crayons. “I can’t let Blinky know about us. It would break him when we leave.”
“Ignoring the fact that this apparently human guy is the father of your troll son, because I’m sure there’s a good explanation there, what about you?” Stuart asked. “Are you really sure leaving is what you want to do?”
“I have to!” Barbara slammed her hands down on the table. Then winced. “We have to,” she added quietly. “The longer we stay, the more danger we’re in. You’re in. I can’t drag Blinky, or Jim, into this mess. They deserve long, happy lives.” She took a deep breath. “The only way they’ll be able to keep the ones they have is if Arthur and I stay away.”
“Barbara.” Stuart reached for her hand, which she allowed him to take. He squeezed her fingers comfortingly. “I can see that this is hurting you. They’re your family. You love them. From what I’m getting here, they must love you too. A lot. I think they’d want to be part of this choice.”
“I can’t let them.” Barbara pulled her hand away. “I know what they’d decide, and I can’t let them. I’ve accepted that this is my fate, but it will not be theirs. Please, just help me see at least Blinky one last time,” she pleaded.
“Alright.” Stuart sighed. “You can hide out in the back of the truck. There’s a certain spot where no one looking in from the window can see you.”
“Mr. Galadrigal?” Barbara studied the man sitting alone outside Mr. Benoit’s Cafe. He struck her as the right sort to be a student guidance counselor, but she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t the best judge of character. No, both James, and then Jim’s teacher, Mr. Strickler, proved that she wasn’t the best at that.
“Ah, yes, that’s me.” Mr. Galadrigal closed and put down the book he was reading. “Please, sit.” He gestured to the chair across from himself. “Dr. Lake, I presume?”
“Yes.” Barbara sat. “Thank you for meeting me. I…” her brain scrambled for the right words. “I appreciate you taking the time.”
“Of course, of course. It’s my job after all.” Mr. Galadrigal chuckled. He bent down and lifted some papers out of the messenger bag he’d propped against his seat. “This is Jim’s current report card and a few written statements from some of his teachers.” He looked at her. “I’ve been told you’ve already talked with Mr. Strickler?”
Barbara nodded. “Yes. During conferences night,” she lied. “He told me Jim’s been distracted, even to the point of falling asleep in class. He thinks he might not be getting enough sleep at home.” She paused. She hated admitting to this next part. “His theory is that Jim is taking on too much responsibility. Jim—he tries to take care of me. Doing chores around the house, cooking meals, that sort of thing.”
Because I’m always working, Barbara thought but didn’t say. Because I come home exhausted. Because if he hadn’t taken over in the kitchen I’d be giving us food poisoning regularly by now. Because I’m not really his parent, but someone who shares his house. Because he thinks he can’t rely on me. Because he can’t. Because I’m failing him. He’s my son, I’m the only parent he has left, and I’m failing him.
She jumped as Mr. Galadrigal said her name.
“It’s okay not to know what to do.” Mr. Galadrigal reached forward and placed a hand on hers. “That’s why we’re here.” He smiled reassuringly at her. “To figure out your next step.”
“I—thank you.” Barbara exhaled. “I just don’t know what to do. I try talking to Jim, but nothing I say seems to work.” She hesitated again. “We’ve been arguing lately, more than we used to. I...he’s been pulling away from me, especially since—” She stopped herself. There were a lot of things Barbara had come to this meeting prepared to admit. Her disastrous, almost-relationship with her son’s history teacher wasn’t really one of them.
The attraction there had been mutual, at least it had seemed that way. It had been years, since James really, that Barbara attempted to pursue a relationship. It felt nice to open up like that again. But then there were little things. Inconsistencies. Lies. Walter would give her one excuse for not being able to meet and seemingly forget about it later. He’d brush off her concerns smoothly, silkily, to the extent that she only remembered she’d meant to talk to him about something hours later.
Most of all, in the beginning, she’d seen Walter’s concern for Jim as a positive thing. Something that showed he cared. He brought up some very good points about how Jim seemed to always be taking care of, ‘mothering’ her. Prompted her with suggestions, that, ultimately, led to this growing chasm between her and her son.
Barbara wished she’d noticed Jim’s discomfort at Walter’s involvement in their lives before it got to this point.
“So…” Mr. Galadrigal started talking, and in such a way that Barbara wouldn’t be surprised by his voice again. “I think our first move should listing out the responsibilities at home you think are causing Jim the most stress.” He slid a pad of paper and a pencil over to her. “After that, we can brainstorm ways to bring the issue up with him. If you want, we can have the conversation with him in my office, or, if you’re more comfortable doing it alone, it can just be between the two of you wherever you see fit.” He paused. “My job here is to help in whatever way you think you and your son need. I’ll make suggestions I think could work, but ultimately the final decision to take my advice or not is completely yours.”
Barbara listened to the teenagers outside Stuart’s taco truck chat and laugh with each other. In the half hour since the school day let out, more and more of them had arrived. Most ordered something from Stuart, and then lingered around the truck to talk with their friends for a while. A part of Barbara wished they would just leave already, and she felt immensely guilty about that.
No one knew she was there. Prior to their arrival, Stuart had showed her a corner of the truck the equipment blocked from sight from the window where she could hide. She’d settled in before they’d left the electronics store and hadn’t budged since then. Stuart made no outward indication he knew she was there, although in lulls between orders, he did linger by her and ask her, out of the corner of his mouth, how was she doing? Did she want to get up? Stretch her legs? Maybe walk around outside for a bit?
Barbara knew he was trying to gently push her into revealing her presence so that when Blinky eventually arrived, he’d be able to see her, but she refused Stuart at every provocation. The best thing for her family would be if she stayed far, far away from them.
She closed her eyes and leaned back against the cool metal wall of the truck. They were better off without her. She hadn’t been the best parent before Blinky came into her and Jim’s lives. Sure Blinky had helped her improve at communicating for a few years and subsequently her relationship with Jim grew stronger during that time, but, again, that was only a few years.
She’d been at Area 49B for a few years too.
“You okay?” Stuart glanced Barbara’s way as he expertly wrapped a burrito. “I have some of those squeezable stress balls and know a few exercises for dealing with anxiety if you’re getting overwhelmed. Or I could take you back to the store to check on Arthur?”
Barbara shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I thought you wanted me to be out here?”
“I think it’s good idea, yes.” Stuart handed off the burrito to its waiting customer, and then started working on the next order. “But, and I know I don’t know what it’s like to go through everything you have, I’ve been through pretty tough things too.” He heaved a breath. “I know what it’s like to get somewhere, realize you’re not prepared yet, feel massively overwhelmed, and panic.” Stuart made eye contact with Barbara. “Just know, I’ve got your back, alright?”
“Okay.” After a minute, Barbara added, “Thanks, Stuart.”
Blinky’s face lit up when he saw Barbara. “Barbara! How have you been. How’s Jim?” He gently pulled her off to the side, so they were out of the way of everyone trying to walk between lecture halls.
Something inside Barbara fluttered at that gesture, that she was important enough to him that he’d ignore literally everyone else for her. A quiet voice in her head chided her for continuing her bad habit of falling for anyone who showed her the slightest bit of kindness or affection. Barbara silenced it. Now was certainly not the time. Plus, she wasn’t actually interested in Blinky. She was just happy to see someone she knew. This yearly medical conference was always boring. It was nice to get the chance to talk to someone pleasant (who didn’t drone on and on) for a change.
“Blinky? I didn’t expect to see you here.” Barbara wondered if the relief was obvious in her voice. She hoped it wasn’t. That would be awkward to explain. “And Jim’s much better, thanks to all your help.” She couldn’t help but smile as she went on, “We’ve been talking through things. He’s agreed to stop doing chores before school. His teachers report he’s not falling asleep in classes anymore too.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Blinky embraced her in a quick, friendly hug. “Sounds like the two of you are doing just fine on your own, without me.”
Barbara's smile fell away. “I—it was a pleasure getting to know you, Blinky. I…I know it’s not strictly professional, but I was hoping you’d remain a friend, to both me and Jim. He likes talking to you. Sometimes I think there are things he finds easier to tell you than me.”
Blinky raised an eyebrow at her. “Yes, well, I take my confidentiality agreement with all my students very seriously.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean tell me what you discuss. I just, I’m glad he has you,” Barbara hurriedly explained. “I was hoping that you’d still lend him an ear even though things have been improving. Jim lost his father already, and, like I said, he likes you. I…” she trailed off. “This is going to sound so silly, but I don’t want him to lose you either.”
“I promise you.” Blinky took her hand between his. “I will always be there for Jim, regardless of professional duty. He is a brilliant boy, and I am deeply honored that you, the both of you, have let me into your lives.” He pressed his lips together and, for a moment, Barbara thought he looked nervous. “Since we’re both here, would you like to accompany me to a quaint, little cafe I found for a cup of hot tea?” Blinky asked.
Barbara stepped back. “I don’t know if we have anything more we need to talk about on Jim.”
“Truly, I was hoping to get to know you a little better, Barbara.” Blinky looked away from her. If Barbara didn’t know any better, she’d think he looked a little embarrassed. Was this him trying to ask her out? She banished the thought. Blinky went on, “I admit, it does bother me that I have such a close relationship with your son without knowing much about you. If you’d allow it, I’d love to get to know you better.”
“I, um, getting something hot to drink to warm up does sound wonderful.” Barbara smiled, though not altogether confidently at Blinky. “Though it’ll have to be coffee for me.” She reached for his hand, so they wouldn’t lose each other in the crowds.
This time, when her heart fluttered, she let it.
“Hello, Stuart.” The familiar voice pierced through Barbara’s thoughts She audibly gasped, and then slapped her hands down over her mouth. Her heart thundered. She tried to slow her breathing, but failed. He was there. Right there.
“I’m afraid I can’t do my usual today. I’m in a bit of a hurry,” Blinky continued from the other side of the truck, oblivious to the fact the one he’d longed for for years was within arm’s reach of him.
“What’s the rush?” Stuart asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in this much of a hurry, Mr. Galadrigal.”
Barbara saw Stuart visibly slow down all of his actions. For her. He was giving her a chance to say something, to make her presence known. Most of the teenagers had moved on already. She couldn’t hear anyone else outside. This was the perfect opportunity to make herself known. She should say something. Shouldn’t she? No, Barbara reminded herself. No, she can’t do that. No matter how much her heart screamed at her otherwise, it was for the best if Blinky never knew she’d come to see him one last time.
Barbara shook her head, no, vigorously at Stuart. Disappointment flashed across his face, but he respected her wishes. He pretended like she wasn’t there.
Oblivious to their silent conversation, Blinky responded to Stuart’s question, “My son, Jim, you remember him? He’s visiting from out of town this weekend. He’ll arrive in an hour or two and I’m afraid I haven’t cleaned the house.” Blinky chuckled.
“That’s exciting.” Stuart went about making Blinky’s food nonchalantly. “Is it just a regular visit, or a special occasion?” When he walked past Barbara, he flashed her a very pointed look. Again, Barbara refused to move. Stuart let out a barely perceptible sigh, and returned to the window. He didn’t mention Barbara to Blinky.
“I do apologize, but I can’t stay a moment longer to chat this time. I must be getting home.”
And then, Blinky was gone. His footsteps fading away.
Barbara exhaled the breath she’d been holding in. Blinky was fine. He was fine. She shouldn’t have to worry about him. She should be able to leave town now. Blinky was fine.
After she and Stuart left the school and dropped by the shop to check on Arthur, who hadn’t budged from his spot in their room, Barbara sent out another stereo contest email. Stuart knew she did it, he saw her do it, and she was very glad he didn’t ask why.
The day of their first kiss, it rained.
Aching for fresh air, Barbara had walked to Mr. Benoit’s Cafe for her lunch break. The morning had been exhausting and she had been looking forward to a quiet moment away from everything. So distracted in her thoughts was she that she didn’t notice the large, gray storm clouds in the sky before it was too late.
Knowing if she tried to wait out the rain, she’d be late returning to the clinic, Barbara braved walking through the downpour. Within minutes, she was soaked to the bone and shivering.
She saw the headlights of the car and braced herself for the splash of gutter water that never came. The vehicle pulled up beside her. Blinky rolled down his window.
“Get in!” He called over to her. Barbara didn’t hesitate. At least not until he was driving in the opposite direction from the clinic.
“Blinky, where are you going? My work is the other way.” Barbara tensed, one hand on the door handle. Blinky had never struck her as the kidnapping type, but she’d been wrong about men before.
“I know, but you’re in no condition to go back on the job like that.” With one hand, Blinky gestured to her soggy clothing. “I’m sure your coworkers will be fine with you going to get changed into something warm and dry first.” He pulled up in front of her house. “Please? I would have asked first, but I know you. Personally, I’d prefer if your stubbornness didn’t lead to you catching pneumonia.”
“Oh, alright.” Barbara grumbled. “But only if you come in for a cup of coffee.”
“I’ll agree to those terms as long as I’m the one making the coffee.”
Barbara shot him a look. “My coffee isn’t that bad.”
“Are you willing to wager on that point?” Blinky smirked back. He leaned toward her like he was going to kiss her, caught himself, and then retreated back.
Barbara refused to let herself feel disappointed. “Come on.” She opened her car door. “If we run, we won’t get that much wetter.”
That would have been true if Blinky hadn’t slipped and fallen in a mud patch. By the time they made it inside the door, they were both sopping wet to the bone, muddy, and breathless. Barbara hurried upstairs, changed out of her rain-drenched clothes, and then dug through some boxes until she found something old of James’s that would fit Blinky. When she returned to him, Blinky wrapped a blanket he’d grabbed off the couch around her and rubbed her shoulders ‘to warm her up’.
Barbara didn’t remember deciding to kiss him so much as she recalled how good it had felt when he kissed her back.
Barbara remembered wanting to press herself into Blinky’s embrace that day, and him pushing her away because he was still in his soggy clothes. She remembered waiting for him to change, and then coming back to her. She remembered calling in to the clinic to tell them she wouldn’t make it back in that afternoon. Because the roads were flooded, she’d said. Not because she’d found something—someone—that made her feel loved in a way she’d ached for, but told herself she was fine without, for years.
Being in love again had been awkward, strange, difficult. Barbara wasn’t young anymore. She had a demanding job and a son. As far as ‘appealing’ went, she was the farthest thing from it, she believed. But, Blinky was patient and kind. To him, she was the most beautiful person in the world. He made her feel cherished, and happier then she’d been in a long time.
Those happy days were over, she told herself.
Barbara leaned on the window counter of the taco truck and toyed with a sugar packet. It was deep into the night now. Stuart doubted they’d get more customers. Regardless, he didn’t pack up. Barbara knew he was waiting because of the very slim possibility either Blinky or Jim could show up for a late night snack, and she was visibly there, out of her hiding spot, in plain sight.
What would Barbara say if either of them did show up? She’d been wondering for about an hour now. Barbara could imagine their faces seeing her for the first time again in years. They’d be ecstatic. She’d tried to convince herself otherwise. To convince herself they no longer cared about her or wanted her. That seeing her would fill them with disappointment, dread. Barbara couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Blinky and Jim were her family. She knew they still loved her, just as she loved them.
“Errr, hello? You aren’t closed, are you?”
Barbara jumped. She hadn’t noticed the girl walk up. Her heart leapt in her throat. She’d only come to the window because there was no one around. Her brain scrambled to figure out how to respond to someone who wasn’t Stuart or Arthur.
“Sorry to startle you,” the girl apologized. “I was hoping to get some tacos?” She toyed with a lock of her long, white-blonde hair. “My boyfriend, my brother, and I are having a…a late night study session. We could use the brain food.”
“Yes. What can we get for you?” Stuart called to the girl, but didn’t fully take over from Barbara. The expression he shot at her told her that he expected her to be social and engage at least once that day. Take her name for the order, he mouthed to Barbara.
Barbara gulped, but turned back to the girl. It wasn’t like she knew who Barbara was or had any connection to her anyway. She was safe. “Your name, please?” Barbara asked in the polite tone she’d once reserved for speaking to patients with. “For the order.”
“Oh, Aja. That’s an A, a J, and then another A,” Aja said. “Sorry, but people have messed it up so much that it’s just easier for me to spell it out for them.” She shot Barbara an apologetic smile. “Your Diablo Maximus burritos, how spicy are they really?” Aja casually changed the subject.
“I can assure you, they’re the hottest burritos in town,” Stuart answered before Barbara got the chance. “They’ve been known the cause the emptying of bowels within ten minutes,” he added proudly.
“Are you sure?” Aja asked skeptically. “Cause I’ve tried a lot of spicy food, and nothing ever goes that far.”
“Try one, and then try to tell me it’s not the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten.”
Both Barbara and Stuart watched in awe as Aja ate the first burrito offered to her in a couple bites, asked for a second, a glass of milk to act as a palette cleanser between them, and then gave the second the same treatment as the first.
“Those were sooo delicious.” Aja sighed contentedly. “Can I have your recipe? My boyfriend’s a great cook and I’d love for him to make me some of these.”
“Sorry, secret recipe.” Stuart answered. “Can’t have my competitors getting ahold of how to make my top seller.”
Aja sighed. “That makes sense. Is there anything else you can tell me how to make? My boyfriend…he’s having a rough time. Bringing him new recipes is the best way I know of cheering him up.”
“No, sorry.” Stuart placed the first bag of prepared tacos on the counter between himself and Aja. “Tell you what.” He looked at her. “You get this boy of yours to come here some time and I’ll teach him a trick or two he probably doesn’t know.”
Aja frowned. She shook her head. “No, that’s okay. He’s—we’re kind of busy right now, with…” she thought for a moment, as if remembering what she told them she and her boyfriend were doing before, “…our studying. I don’t know how things are going to go after all this.” Aja stopped, clearly debating saying something else. “Honestly, I’m kind of hoping he’ll drop out and go to culinary school if everything goes well.” She looked down. “The only reason he’s not doing that now is because of his mom. I mean, I get it, but he’s not happy where he is.”
“He should do what makes him happy, not what makes his mother happy,” Barbara said before she could stop herself. She didn’t look at Aja, or Stuart.
“I know, and he does. He tries.” Aja sighed. “But, he misses her. He…doesn’t really get to see his mom. He decided what to study because he thinks it’ll bring her back. I get that. I really do. But seeing him like this, it weighs on me too,” Aja admitted. “I want to support him the best way I can, but how can I know if what I’m doing is really the right thing or not?” She winced. “Sorry, I don’t mean to dump my problems on you guys.”
“It’s all good,” Stuart reassured. “You have no idea how many people tell me things. I assure you, everything said in the vicinity of this taco truck is kept strictly confidential.”
“You can’t know if you’re doing the right thing or not,” Barbara surprised everyone, including herself, by speaking again. She refused to face either of them. “It’s not possible. You can only do what you think is best. That’ll have to be enough.”
“The good news is.” Stuart took Barbara’s train of thought and went in his own direction with it. “Whatever you’re going through, whatever trouble is up ahead, you’ll have each other to lean on for strength.” He wrapped an arm around Barbara’s shoulders and squeezed. “Things are easier when you don’t have to face them alone.”
Barbara knew he was speaking to Aja, but she couldn’t help but feel he was directing some of his advice toward her too.
She thought about it as Stuart made the rest of Aja’s order. The thought of sharing her burden was frightening, but the idea of not having to carry it alone was oddly reassuring too. She’d break herself a hundred times over to protect Blinky and Jim, but what if she didn’t have to?
Despite everything that had happened between now and when she’d last really been with them, could she really have a life with them again?
“There’s something I need to show you.” Blinky told Barbara. They’re sitting on the couch. Their knees gently bumped against each other. With Jim out of the house at a friend’s for a sleepover it wasn’t hard for Barbara to imagine how this night would end. How she knew she wanted it to end. How she hoped Blinky wanted it to end too.
“Oh?” Barbara smirked. “What’s that?” She edged closer to him.
“I’m going to go down into the basement.” Blinky removed himself from Barbara’s embrace and hastily stood. “I want you to wait for a few minutes, and then come join me down there.”
“Please, just do this for me?” His voice sounded uncertain, scared. It worried Barbara, but before she could question him on it, he left. His footsteps echoed down into the basement.
Barbara remained on the couch, counting the seconds. She couldn’t say she understood what was going on, but she trusted Blinky. More than that, she loved him. Whatever this was, he had to have a good reason for it. Barbara took a deep breath, and then followed him downstairs.
In the basement, she saw him for the first time. Really saw him. His true troll self. Later, she’d be embarrassed when telling the story, that her first response had been to grab a nearby broom and go on the offensive. She’d always been an act first kind of person.
Blinky, at least, had the foresight to dodge out of the way as she swatted at him. “Barbara! Barbara, please, stop! It’s me! It’s Blinky!”
“B-Blinky? I—what—I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“I’m what’s called a troll.” Blinky straightened to his full height. He wasn’t actually that much taller than Barbara in his troll form. Her mind locked onto that thought as he continued his explanation. “My human appearance was a disguise. Something I put upon myself to walk amongst mankind without betraying my true nature. I never intended to deceive you. I lived the life of a human man for decades out of curiosity upon what such a life would be like. When I first met you, I truly did want to help you and Jim. I saw the pain you both were in and desperately wanted to alleviate it.” Blinky hesitated. “I…I never meant to fall in love with you, or you me.” He exhaled. “I can only hope for your forgiveness for my deceits, but whether or not I deserve as much, I’ll leave up to your judgment.”
For the longest minute, all Barbara did was stare at him. She couldn’t believe him, that this was him. Yet, the troll before her seemed so much like Blinky that a part of her knew what he said to be true. Hesitantly, she approached him. She could see the worry in his eyes. The fear, she realized, that he was about to lose her. That she’d reject him, now when he was at his most vulnerable with her. She reached up and touched his face. He placed a stony hand overtop hers. It was cool to the touch, but not unwelcome.
Barbara embraced Blinky, or as much of him as she could hold. Her arms may have been long, but she still couldn’t wrap them all the way around him. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” Barbara whispered.
Barbara hadn’t stopped loving Blinky that night. They’d gone on to conceive a child together when they returned upstairs. Neither of them knew it at the time (or thought it was possible between them). They’d made that discovery later.
She’d been relieved, Barbara remembered. Happy that he’d shared one of his deepest secrets with her. He’d let her in. Allowed her to share his deepest vulnerability. It had made them stronger, in the long run. Their love had grown because of it.
If she were to go back to him now, could the same happen?
Barbara was scared, yes. So scared. Scared that returning to Blinky and Jim would hurt them, that it would drag them into the miserable mess her life had become. Scared that letting them in would only cause them needless pain. She hadn’t even let Dictatious get that close and look what had happened to him.
What if it did the opposite, though?
She was exhausted, Barbara would admit that to herself. She was tired of being alone, of shutting everything, and everyone, out. In that second, she allowed herself to wonder what it would be like if things didn’t have to be like this. Honestly, she liked the thought.
Barbara remained silent as Stuart finished the last of Aja’s order and the girl went on her way. She remained silent as she helped Stuart pack up for the night and during the drive back to the electronics store. She remained silent up until the moment where she picked up the shadow staff and, for the second time that day, promised Arthur she’d return to him soon.
First, there was someone else she needed to return to.
Barbara stepped out of the portal. She took a moment to orient herself to her new surroundings. She was in her house’s basement or, rather, she was in Jim’s (once new) room.
Soon after they found out about her pregnancy, they’d decided to move Jim out of his room upstairs. It was a mutual decision between him, herself, and Blinky. It would only be a year or two until Jim left for college and, being on a completely different floor of the house, he’d have significantly more privacy. Blinky and Barbara would be able to keep the baby close, in his old room, too.
Plus, renovating the basement had turned into a project Blinky and Jim bonded over. Barbara smiled as she remembered the hours they’d spent discussing their plans, their long trips to the store for color swatches and materials, and their jokes and laughter as they worked.
The basement maintained some semblance of being Jim’s room now, but it was also clear no one was currently living there. There was dust everywhere, and boxes dumped haphazardly on the bed, like someone had brought them down here but hadn’t really cared where they left them.
Barbara frowned. An ache twanged uncomfortably in her. She didn’t have very many memories of Jim living down here. He and Blinky had just finished up when she…when she was…
She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to think of anything else but that.
Once her breathing slowed again, Barbara walked upstairs.
The house was silent, empty. For a moment, Barbara feared Blinky had gone out. She heard a noise coming from their old bedroom. She hesitated on the threshold, and then entered the room.
What she saw made her heart ache. “Blinky?” Barbara whispered.
He was there, in the dim light of a single lamp with a flickering bulb. So was the bottle of booze in his hand. She could smell it even with the distance between them. The whole room reeked of alcohol.
“Oh, Blinky.” Barbara approached him. She sat on the bed beside him, but he turned away from her.
“You’re…you’re just a figment of my imagination,” he slurred. “You’re not really here. You’re never here.” He hiccuped. “All because of me. Because I was a fool. A fool, Barbara! I loved you, and look what it did. They took you, and it was all because of me.” He went to take another sip of his drink, but Barbara grabbed his arm before the bottle could make it to his mouth.
“I think you’ve had enough of that.” She carefully pried the bottle from his fingers.
“N—no, I haven’t. I still remember.” Blinky groaned. “J-Jim came tonight. He came tonight Barbara. Do you know why? He has a girlfriend. He loves her. She loves him. He wanted to introduce me to her. He should have introduced her to you, his mother. Not me, the imposter.” He snorted. “I don’t belong here. I stole all this from you. I ruined you.” He looked forlornly at her. “You must hate me. Wherever they’re keeping you now, you must be cursing my name. I took everything and you’re gone now.”
“No.” Barbara pulled him up into a sitting position. In the back of her mind, she ran through the proper procedure of how to care for someone intoxicated. “Blinky, I chose. I wanted to be with you. I always wanted to be with you. You never stole anything. You were always welcome here, with me.”
Blinky drunkenly gazed up at Barbara. His shaky hand made its way up to cup her cheek. “I wish you could be here when I wake up in the morning,” he whispered hoarsely.
Barbara took his hand in her own. She brushed her lips against his knuckles. She bent down and kissed his forehead. “I will be,” Barbara promised him, and herself. “I won’t leave you.”
Blinky chuckled sadly, like he didn’t believe her, before passing out.
Remember in Chapter 3, when Aja went out to get food while Jim explained why they need to break into Area 49B to Krel?
*I decided to post this one earlier than I planned, but there'll be more updates at the end of the week ;)
Chapter 9: Reunion
There was a certain feeling Blinky had longed for these past four years. The feeling that came with opening his eyes in the morning, taking in the gentle glow of the sunlight, looking over to his right, and seeing Barbara’s peacefully sleeping form.
It was one of the things Blinky had loved the most about their life together. How he’d always find her there. She seldom woke up before him. He’d gaze at the way the sunshine cast her hair aflame in its light. The way soft shadows danced across her features. The rhythm of her breathing.
Blinky had always been in awe of Barbara. So unlike a troll. Fragile yet beautiful at the same time.
Her absence made his heart ache.
To wake up and see her there once again took his breath away.
Blinky reached out a shaking hand and stroked Barbara’s cheek with his thumb. She was warm, alive. Present. He could hardly believe it. He didn’t believe it. Blinky drew his hand back. He, perhaps more than anyone, knew that it was possible to alter one’s appearance. As much as he wanted to believe the person sleeping next to him was Barbara, he reminded himself he needed to be cautious.
Quietly, Blinky reached over and opened his night table drawer. He rummaged around in it until he found his gaggletack. He gripped the iron horseshoe tightly, lifted it, and gently pressed it against Barbara’s exposed shoulder. Thankfully, she didn’t wake up. Or transform. Relief washed over Blinky. He returned the gaggletack to its place in the drawer.
Next, Blinky withdrew a small vial. He wrapped his sleeve around his hand and uncorked it. The potion inside was a revealer, meant to expose a transformed troll (such as himself). Careful not to get any of the liquid on himself, Blinky tilted the vial until a single drop fell out and landed on Barbara. She stirred. He held his breath. She didn’t wake. And again, she didn’t transform.
“You’re here.” He whispered. Then, Blinky’s mind caught up with him. His heart may desire to believe that this is her, his love, his Barbara, but, again, he must be cautious.
Blinky reached out and traced his fingers down Barbara’s jawline, feeling for the tell-tale magical current of a glamour mask. Like both his previous tests, this one was met with negative results.
“You’re really here.” Blinky breathed the words.
He’d loath to wake her. Barbara looked so peaceful. But Blinky needed reassurance, that this wasn’t just some immensely realistic dream his desperate mind created. Tentatively, he put his hand on her shoulder and shook her gently.
Barbara jerked up. Her hair whipped around her head. Panic was in her eyes. Then, she saw Blinky. Her expression softened.
He shuffled closer to her. Blinky reached out his hand, but hesitated when it was halfway between them. He wanted to touch her, to hold her. Yet, Barbara made no movements toward him in return.
The fact that they haven’t seen each other in four years hit Blinky like a freight train. He’d changed, certainly, since they saw each other last. It would make sense if Barbara had changed too. It occurred to him that maybe she’d stopped loving him. After all, who knows what horrible things she’d been through? All because she bore a halfling child—his child. Whatever happened to her, it was because of him. His fault.
“Barbara, I…I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what…” Blinky choked up.
Barbara didn’t say anything. She leaned forward and pressed herself up against him. Instinctively, Blinky’s arms wrapped around her and embraced her as tightly as he dared.
The first sob came quietly. Blinky felt the dampness on his nightshirt rather than see or hear Barbara cry. He rested a hand on the back of her head and held her close.
“I’m sorry,” Barbara finally spoke. “I’m so sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.”
Blinky shushed her. “No, nothing that happened was your fault. None of it.” He held her close. “What matters is that you’re here now. You’re safe. You won’t be hurt again. I won’t allow it.”
Barbara squirmed so she could look up at him. Her glasses were clouded over. She took them off. There was something slightly off about her eyes, but, in that moment, Blinky couldn’t quite place what.
“I…” She gulped. “I…I never thought I’d be with you again.”
“But you are,” Blinky reassured her. “You’re here now. And I love you. I love you so much.” He pressed his lips to the top of her head in a kiss.
Barbara rested against him again.
They stayed like that for a while. Neither willing to let the other go quite yet.
Over an hour and a half later, Barbara followed Blinky downstairs. He’d heard her stomach rumble and determined, like himself, she needed breakfast. Barbara would have preferred to stay up in the bedroom, but Blinky balked at the idea of letting her out of his sight. As if she would disappear the moment he took his eyes off her.
She wouldn’t. A part of her, the part of her that was quietly panicking, wanted to grab the shadow staff and go, but she wouldn’t. Barbara couldn’t do that to Blinky. Not again.
So, one step at a time, Barbara followed Blinky down the familiar stairs of her house. She froze when they reached the bottom. Her eyes locked on the front door. Her stomach twisted into knots at the sight of it, the memories it resurrected. Thankfully, Blinky hadn’t noticed her hesitation. Quickly, Barbara moved on.
She took a deep breath to calm herself when she reached the couch. She was fine. Perfectly fine. This house had been her home. It was familiar. It was safe. The ones who’d try to forcefully remove her from it had all been turned to stone. She had nothing to fear from them anymore.
Barbara determined to sit on the couch while Blinky put together breakfast. He could see her from the kitchen, and she could have a little space to catch her breath.
Barbara looked around the room. It had hardly changed in four years. The couch was the same. The TV was the same. The wallpaper was the same. Her eyes fell on the framed photos on the wall. There was the old one of her med school graduation, and next to it…
Without thinking, Barbara got up and walked over to examine the new photograph. There was a version of Jim, one older than she remembered. He stood next to Blinky, who had a casual arm reaching up to wrap around his shoulders. Jim was taller than Blinky now, Barbara realized. She stared at the black graduation gown Jim wore in the photo. Her fingers traced over him and the certificate of graduation he held proudly in his hands. It was dated 2018. Two years ago.
Her son graduated high school two years ago. Barbara’s sight went blurry. She bit her lip. She didn’t want to cry anymore. She’d known that she’d missed Jim’s high school graduation. Each day had been meticulously scheduled and kept track of at Area 49B. This whole time, it was a fact she’d known and accepted. But now? Seeing evidence of it? Something inside her wanted to scream.
Barbara heard Blinky’s footsteps come up behind her. They were unusually loud. He was making an effort not to startle her. If she were in a better state of mind, she would have appreciated the gesture.
“We were thinking of you that day,” Blinky told her quietly. “We wished you’d been there with us.”
Barbara nodded silently.
“I, um, I made toast?” Blinky offered uncertainly. “Come sit. We have a lot to talk about, I think.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Barbara blurted. She didn’t want to explain anything about how she got out of Area 49B, about Arthur, about the storm of emotions twisting and howling inside her.
“Alright.” Blinky frowned. Barbara could tell he was disappointed, but he didn’t want to press her too much. His expression abruptly lit up. “Jim’s actually in town right now! I could call him. Have him come over.” He paused at her lack of response. “How does that sound?”
“That sounds wonderful.” Barbara offered a shaky smile. It was supposed to be wonderful, right? She should want to see her son, her first son, who she hadn’t seen in years. Who she’d missed at least one important life event for. Who probably was nothing like the sweet, young boy she remembered.
Blinky frowned again, which just made Barbara feel guiltier that she wasn’t happier, more excited. She sat in silence as he took out his phone and called Jim. The phone rang and rang and rang, but no one picked up. Blinky called again, but the same thing happened. He sighed, closed his eyes, counted to ten, and then opened them again.
“So, I have a bit of news.” Blinky looked directly at Barbara. “It’s nothing bad,” he added hastily. “But Jim was in town for a very specific reason.” He hesitated, and turned his gaze from her. “He, well, he visited with his long term girlfriend from college, to introduce her to me. She’s a lovely girl. She makes him very happy.” Blinky reached over and took Barbara’s hands in his own. He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand in what he must’ve thought was a soothing gesture. “They’re staying at a nearby hotel, in a single room together, and it’s still fairly early in the morning.” He finally looked at her.
“His girlfriend,” Barbara spoke the phrase. She wasn’t surprised by it. She didn’t have much of a response to it really. Everything felt far away, distant. Muted.
“Yes.” Blinky inched closer to her. “It may be best to wait an hour or so before trying to contact them again. Give them time to wake up.”
“No.” Barbara shook her head. “That’s fine. I should be getting back anyway. I’ve already been gone long enough. They’ll be worrying and—”
“WHAT?!” Blinky jumped up. “You can’t possibly be considering returning there to them! I won’t let you. I don’t care what threats they’ve made, I’ll—”
Barbara interrupted, “Not Area 49B, Blinky. I—we—got out. We’ve been…Arthur and I have been staying with someone here in town. He’s helped us quite a lot.”
Blinky pulled up in the alley behind Stuart Electronics. His heart pounded. How many times had he driven past this place on the way to work the past few weeks? How many emails had he received from the store about ‘free stereo systems’? How could he not have figured it out before now?
In the passenger seat, Barbara undid her seatbelt. She put her hand on the door handle, hesitated, and looked to him nervously.
Internally, Blinky berated himself. None of that mattered now. What mattered now was her, was meeting their son. The child he’d barely let himself hope for the entire morning. From the moment he’d confirmed that it was her with him, Blinky had ached to ask Barbara what had become of their child, but he could plainly see her unease, her uncertainty. So, Blinky had quietly decided not to push her too much. To let her open up in her own time. The pain Barbara was in, her ability to heal from it, had to be his focus. Whatever it took to help her recover, he would dedicate himself to. His own desires had to come second to that.
But knowing the child they’d conceived together—his son—lived and that he was about to meet him filled Blinky with an indescribable joy.
Barbara reached over and interlaced her fingers with Blinky’s. “I…” She trailed off. “When we were…at Area 49B, I did drawings of you for Arthur. They may be a little…outdated, but he should be able to recognize you.” She hesitated. “Troll you, that is. He looks a lot like you and he thought that—I wanted him to know he took after his real father.”
“Oh.” Blinky shoved his hand in his pocket, and took out the little bottle of transformation potion he kept on his person. “In that case, I should probably be a troll when I meet him.” He got out of the car, and, in the shadow of the Stuart Electronics building, transformed back into a troll.
When Blinky was ready, Barbara led him over to the back door of the shop. She took a key out of her pocket and unlocked the door. “It’s me!” Barbara called out into the building when she and Blinky walked inside.
Pattering footsteps thundered toward them.
“Mama!” Arthur threw himself at Barbara, who swung him up in her arms and hugged him tightly. “I missed you so much.” Arthur nuzzled into Barbara’s shoulder.
“I promised I’d always return to you,” Barbara whispered so softly Blinky almost wasn’t able to hear her. She kissed her son’s forehead. “Arthur, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.” Barbara turned toward Blinky. “This is Blinky. He’s your papa.”
Arthur looked at Blinky. He cocked his head curiously. “My papa?”
Blinky stared at his child. “Great gronka morka,” he breathed. “Six eyes.”
Arthur gasped. He reached over and put two hands on Blinky’s cheeks, so he could lean forward and examine Blinky’s own sets of eyes. “Six eyes,” he repeated his father’s phrase in wonder. “Like me.”
“Yes.” Blinky laughed. He reached for Arthur, and Barbara carefully transferred their son into his arms. “Like you, my magnificent child.”
“Like Uncle Maxie too.” Arthur giggled.
Barbara exhaled. “There’s something you need to know, Blinky.”
Barbara sighed. Rolled over. Sleep wasn’t going to come to her. Careful not to rouse Arthur, who was curled up against her, she sat up and slid her legs over the side of their bed. She ran her hand softly through her son’s hair. He hadn’t woken, so she had no need to lull him back to sleep. The action was a comfort to her only. She got out of bed.
As silently as she could, Barbara tiptoed through Stuart’s small apartment. She passed Stuart’s partially-closed bedroom door. Barbara could hear him snoring inside. He was a heavy sleeper. It was unlikely what accidental noise she could make would stir him, but Barbara didn’t want to chance it.
In his living room, she paused and looked at Blinky, sleeping on Stuart’s couch. He hadn’t wanted to leave her and Arthur, even just for a night. Stuart had been more than willing to let him stay over, and overall encouraging. He’d given the three of them space the entire day, only interrupting their long conversations to bring them snacks, drinks, and blankets to curl up under.
Barbara still wasn’t sure how she felt about Blinky. It wasn’t that she didn’t love him. She did. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him, or be with him. She did. It was just that…
She wanted to be with him, but she wanted distance from him at the same time. She wanted his affection, but she felt like she was suffocating when he gave it. She wanted him to stay close, but she panicked at the suggestion they sleep in the same bed.
She wanted him near to her, but she shoved him away whenever he attempted to get close.
It confused her. Her emotions confused her. Everything she’d gained in the past day, she should want. She did want. But Barbara also ached to push it all away. It was too new, too different, too scary.
Except, it was her old life. The life she should have never stopped having. She should embrace it.
Barbara never wanted to go back to Area 49B, to have to have that life again. Yet, a part of her ached for it. For the normalcy of her daily schedule there. For the comfort of a routine that, though may be miserable, at the same time was a known entity.
Right here, right now, she felt like she was floundering in a sea with no real way to save herself in sight and the sinking feeling that somewhere, just out of her sight, was everyone she cared about being happy without her.
Barbara wrapped her arms around herself and walked away from Blinky. When she told him about Dictatious earlier, he hadn’t outwardly given much of a response. She could see him keeping his emotions from her, keeping himself in check so he wouldn’t frighten her. She wanted to scream that, no she wasn’t delicate, while wondering if she would break every other minute at the same time.
Once she arrived in the electronics store proper, Barbara took a breath to calm herself. She maneuvered her way through the chaotic space to the stairs leading up to the small balcony, and sat down on the second-to the-bottommost one. She wished she’d brought a blanket with her, but didn’t double back to go and get one.
She let her restless thoughts wander.
Eventually, Barbara’s gaze landed on the store phone in its cradle. An idea came to her. Softly, she walked over and removed the phone from the cradle. Barbara ran her thumb over the lit-up number buttons. It had been years since she last held a phone like this one. It had been out of date long before her imprisonment. She took another calming breath, and then dialed one of two phone numbers she could never forget.
The phone rang once, twice, before someone on the other end picked up.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but you need to stop trying to steal…”
Barbara didn’t focus on the words themselves as much as on the one speaking them. That voice. It was older, more adult, then the last time she’d heard him, but Barbara recognized her first son’s voice all the same.
“Jim,” she said before she could stop herself.
The other end of the line went silent. Something constricted around Barbara’s chest. Had he hung up? Did he not want to talk to her? It was understandable, in a way. He’d built a life in her absence. Why would he want her back now? He hadn’t asked for this. It was selfish of her to assume, to call in the middle of the night like this. He’d probably been sleeping, or—
“M-mom?” Jim’s voice sounded shaky, uncertain, but hopeful.
Barbara couldn’t choke back the relieved sob that rose in her throat. She gasped, attempted to keep emotion out of her voice, but failed.
Strickler stepped back from the dead Heartstone. For that was indeed what the large crystal was. He hadn’t wanted to believe Angor Rot when the assassin told him, but now, after his own inspection, there could be no doubting what it was.
Humans, specifically the humans of Area 49B (in Strickler’s opinion, the worst group of humans if there ever was one) had obtained Heartstone. And, going by the notes they’d left in their basement lab, they’d also had knowledge of Morgana herself.
This was indeed troubling. Strickler frowned. During his long tenure as Head of the Janus Order, he’d sought to end any and all threats to his power. He’d taken out every challenger who questioned his authority, orchestrated the events surrounding the death of Bular the Vicious, and even destroyed whatever hope remained that Gunmar and his Gumm-Gumm army could return from the Darklands.
He (and he alone) had brought about a new age, an age where he and he fellow changelings could rise to the top, be the most powerful in the world, uninhibited. Nothing could stop his machinations from coming to fruition.
Except, perhaps, the Pale Lady herself.
Strickler had what he considered a healthy respect for his Lady Creator. Without her, he wouldn’t exist, or have the powers he did. As eldest among her changeling children, he (and he alone, in the beginning), had been given the abilities of a polymorph, one who did not need a familiar to transform, who could transform into anyone he desired. He was grateful, certainly.
But, Strickler also had a long memory. One full of his first few siblings. The ones who hadn’t survived like he had. The ones Morgana had carelessly discarded when they were no longer of use to her.
Strickler was well aware he was the only one who remembered them now, was the only one who still, in moments of utter weakness, cared. The other changelings in the Order wouldn’t turn away from Morgana for their sake. They would choose her over himself, always. Because she was their Lady Creator, and he was nothing more than their aggravating boss.
“I have a new assignment for you, Angor Rot.” Strickler turned to the assassin waiting in the shadows behind him. “One I expect you to complete exactly how I instruct. I will not tolerate another failure like this.”
Angor remained silent, but his gaze was fixed upon Strickler.
“You are to sneak into Trollmarket. Remain undetected to its inhabitants while doing so. You are to confirm that our Pale Lady’s prison has indeed been removed from the Heartstone. Upon doing this, immediately report back to me.” Strickler whet his lips. “Do not go after the Skathe-Hrün or the one currently in possession of it beforehand. It was your failure that allowed for it to be taken from you. You will figure out how to do this task without it.”
Angor made no response.
Strickler waved his hand dismissively. “Well? Get going. You have a job to do.”
“As you command,” Angor finally acknowledged him before turning and stalking off.
Only when Strickler was sure the assassin was gone did he take out his phone. He knew Angor Rot didn’t fully comprehend the concept of a phone call, but he didn’t want him knowing more than he had to. It would be best if he didn’t overhear his next conversation.
Strickler typed the number into his keypad. He’d memorized it rather than putting it into his speed dial. In the event someone stole his phone, he didn’t want them figuring out how to contact her. The entire point of keeping her out on a wild goose chase was so that she couldn’t ally with any of the other changelings against him.
“Hello?” The young, feminine voice answered on the third ring.
“I have a new mission for you, Stalker,” Strickler spoke curtly. “Return to Arcadia at once.”
The feminine voice sighed. “What is it?”
As much as he hated giving out information over the phone, Strickler knew it was best to tell her at least something. She had a tendency to get rebellious when he didn’t. “Something that should interest you. The humans captured a young half-troll and, it seems, could have given him unimaginable power. You are to track the whelp and his mother down and bring them under our protection.”
“I understand. Is that all?”
“I will have more details upon your arrival.”
Under ten minutes later, a dark portal opened up in the basement room. A figure in golden armor, carrying a staff that could have been a twin of the Skathe-Hrün, stepped out of it. Despite her intimidating appearance, the Stalker was about a head shorter than Strickler.
“I’m here,” her golden eyes, reminiscent of that of a cat, glared at him. “What do you have on the ones I’m going to be hunting?”
Chapter 10: Interlude: A Meeting of Star-Crossed Lovers
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Toby ran a hand through his hair. It was nearly down to his shoulders now. He knew he should probably get a haircut, but he kind of liked this new look. All he needed was something to tie back a short ponytail and grow out a beard and he’d fully have a swashbuckling pirate aesthetic going. He’d be ruggedly handsome, and good with the ladies. Well, better with just the one lady who really mattered to him.
He passed a hand over his clean-shaven chin and tilted his head up so he could examine it in the shop mirror. He knew he was capable of growing facial hair. He shaved regularly to prevent that very occurrence. All he had to do to get a beard was stop.
“Thinking about turning to a life of acting?” A feminine voice giggled behind him. “You’ve been staring at yourself in that mirror for over ten minutes, TP. I’m beginning to worry you’re turning into one of those frat jocks who’re obsessed with themselves.”
Toby turned around. “A debonair gentleman such as myself has to be concerned about his looks. How else would I—”. He swept his arms down in a well-practiced move and scooped his girlfriend up into his arms. “—sweep such a fine, sophisticated lady such as yourself off her feet.”
Claire threw back her head and laughed. “You got me there.” A mischievous grin overtook her face. “But I think you’re too wily too be a gentleman.” She plopped a costume pirate hat she’d picked out on his head. “There! Your true self is finally revealed!”
“Arrrgh!!!” Toby vocalized loudly. “Where did you get me lucky hat? I left it in the capable hands of me first mate.”
“Oh, but don’t you remember? I am your first mate.” Claire wiggled out of Toby’s arms. “And I always will be,” she added confidently.
“You know me so well.” Toby wrapped his arms around Claire, pulled her in close, and kissed her.
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Claire turned to lead Toby out of the shop by hand. When the owner muttered “hmph, tourists,” in a grouchy tone after them, she looked over her shoulder and flashed her eyes red at him. Then smiled and waved at his startled expression.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” Toby whispered out of the corner of his mouth. “You could get in trooouble.” He drew the word out into a tease. His eyes darted over the crowded road, searching for suspicious faces.
Claire snorted. “In more trouble than I will be if Waltolomew ever finds out about us? I doubt it.” Despite her amused tone, she too was carefully watching for signs that they’re being followed. One hand she kept in her pocket, wrapped around an amulet she always had on her person, just in case she needed it (and she tended to fairly often).
Toby sighed. He took his eyes off everyone else and gazed at Claire “You give any more thought to my question from last time?” He asked. He knew what her answer would be. They both did. But it was fun to pretend otherwise.
“You know I can’t.” Claire took the amulet out of her pocket and fiddled with it. “Not while I have this. Sure, I could give it up, but then my successor might succeed in capturing you.”
Toby snorted. “Nah. I let you find me cause I liked you. I’m not going to do that for anyone else.”
“I caught you.” Claire rolled her eyes. “Three times.”
“All so I could capture your heart,” Toby retorted.
“That’s not the way I remember it happening—”
Before they could fully get into reminiscing about the game of cat and mouse they’d played back when Claire was but a special operative of the Janus Order sent to hunt down a changeling who’d paired off with a human and produced a son and Toby was that son, Claire’s phone rang. She frowned at the caller ID.
Toby glanced at it for himself. “Think Walty’s onto us?”
“He shouldn’t be. The regular updates I give him are some of my best work. As far as he knows, you’re one of the most elusive quarries in existence.” Claire answered her phone. “Hello?”
While Claire talked to her boss, Toby turned to gaze out at the ocean. Numerous cruise ships come to visit the popular tourist location of Cozumel, Mexico dotted the horizon, but they weren’t the one he was looking for. Toby’s ship was special, and not just because he lovingly called it home.
To the untrained eye, the AllHaven was just another massive ship. If one knew how to look, however, they could see through the magical glamour surrounding it. Like Toby, they would be able to lay their eyes on the tall, fiery-colored Heartstone rising between its sails. They’d be able to see all the other unusual modifications, like the forest made up of stony trees and giant mushrooms that took up most of its decks or the floating platforms that served as landing pads for the ship’s flight-capable passengers too. They’d recognize the AllHaven as no ordinary cruise ship.
Nothing appeared to be amiss from what he could see, but Toby knew he should check in soon. As the son of the AllHaven’s founders, he considered it his duty to ensue his home, and all who sought refuge there, were protected. Always.
“I have a new mission.” Claire returned her phone to her pocket. An apprehensive expression written across her face.
“What is it?” Toby frowned.
“Waltolomew knows about one of ours.” Claire nodded toward the AllHaven. She pursed her lips. “One you haven’t gotten to yet. By the sounds of it, they were captured by one of the human organizations, but managed to escape. I’d say Area 49B, since he’s expecting me back in the U.S.”
Toby tensed. “What’s the mission exactly?”
Claire pulled Toby into an alleyway cloaked in shadow. When they were out of earshot from the street, she went on, “I’m to hunt down a whelp and his mother and bring them under the protection of the Order.”
“That’s...odd.” Toby’s frown deepened. “I thought the Order’s protocol dictates killing any changelings who dare to create offspring?”
“It is.” Claire paused. “But I don’t think a changeling is involved in this one.” She fidgeted with her amulet. “He would have specified that I was to execute them, like, you know, I was supposed to do with you. But he wants both child and mother captured alive. That’s not normal.”
“What if they’re his?” Toby posited. “Not that I see him as the fatherly type, but could he—?”
“No. I’d be the last to know about it if Waltolomew broke his own rule like that.” Claire bit her lip. “Something strange is going on with this one. I’d better get back before he starts to wonder what’s holding me up.” She cupped Toby’s cheek in her hand. “Since he’s assigned me the job, I have a chance to get them to safety before the Order truly gets to them.”
Toby placed his hand over hers. “I’d better be getting back too then. Tell them we’ll be having some new arrivals soon.”
Claire kissed him. Their lips lingered against each other. Neither wanted to break apart. Both knew they had to.
Claire stepped back. She held up her amulet, the Amulet of Metamorphosis. An amulet of immense (and mysterious) magic, it had been forged centuries ago by Morgana, mother of all changelings, to aid them in their fight against the troll and human worlds. The one who wielded the amulet took up the mantle of ShadowStalker, protector of all her brethren.
“By the will of my Lady Creator,” Claire cried out. “Starlight is mine to command!”
Once the golden armor of the ShadowStalker fully appeared on her and her weapon of choice, a staff with a forked end, materialized, Claire turned back to Toby. “Keep in contact?”
“Always,” he responded.
Claire called forth a dark portal. She rushed back, stole one last kiss from Toby, and then walked through the portal.
Toby waited until the lingering tingle where Claire kissed him disappeared. Then, from his pocket he drew out a glowing crystal dagger, a horngazel of sorts. On the wall of one of the buildings sandwiching the alley, he drew a large semicircle. He pressed his hand down within the confines of the glowing border he’d drawn. A portal opened. Through it, he could see his room on the AllHaven.
Toby went through.
Since it's unlikely I'll get back to these unfinished projects, I thought it would be a good idea to insert in parts of them here, so that, in the end, they will have a piece in a story.