Nomura wasn’t stupid. She knew where Gunmar would go once he got to the surface: the Janus Order. With Stricklander overthrown—and she only knew that because of Jim—the Order would house the Gumm-Gumm king safely until the Eternal Night. Had she not pieced that together, she might have walked right back into Gunmar’s clutches, and she was not willing to do that again.
So that left her with two options: stay hidden in Arcadia, perhaps hide in Trollmarket; or find the only other rogue Changeling in the world.
Finding Stricklander was easier said than done, of course. He hadn’t clawed his way to the top of the Janus Order by doing things the easy way. If one wanted to gain his favor, they had to jump through three hundred hoops and then find out they were in the wrong damn circus tent and do things all over again. If he didn’t want to talk to anyone or be in a social situation, he made sure he couldn’t be found for at least three days.
As far as the Order was concerned, Nomura knew they assumed Stricklander was as good as dusted. After all, no one escaped Angor Rot. Even if the Trollhunter managed to kill the assassin, every Changeling would just assume Stricklander had been caught in the crossfire or had been eliminated as soon as his little bond to the human had been cut. There would be no help from the Order.
And obviously the Trollhunter had no ideas either. While in Gunmar’s dungeon, Jim had revealed many things about his relationship with Stricklander. He had no clue where his former teacher would possibly go, and Stricklander hadn’t given him any sort of clues, either. Or perhaps he had, but Jim had been too preoccupied with taking care of Angor first. His friends (the newly dubbed “Puberty Patrol” as Jim had loathingly repeated to Nomura) also wouldn’t know.
That left the school. Getting in at night was not at all difficult. Schools today were more worried about safety during learning hours, not in the dark with no one but a janitor and some random Spanish teacher around. Picking the lock to Strickler’s office was even easier, though she doubted she’d have such luck trying to enter the inner sanctum.
She found a laptop on the desk and opened it up. It wasn’t even password locked, good gods how did these humans function?
The screen lit up with a desktop picture of a pristine white truck and about a thousand apps and file folders framing it. She clicked on the email icon and fished through various messages. Finally, she spotted an email from Strickler. Skimming through the contents revealed little other than a white-faced lie about Strickler resigning due to family medical concerns back in England and that he’d named Uhl—the owner of the laptop, she assumed—the new interim principal.
Nomura scoffed. Was this school district so poorly budgeted that they could only afford no more than three teachers at a time?
She sighed and tapped a finger to her chin. No way would Strickler actually go to England. It was just the easiest lie he could use due to his accent. Bastard wasn’t even from England. He just fell in love with that suave accent 150 years prior and never let it go.
So that excuse was most definitely a dead-end. This left her with one final idea.
She had to break into the inner sanctum.
Thankfully, Strickler’s lovely smoky guard dog was taken care of, so the only thing stopping her was the door itself. She rummaged through the desk, looking for any sort of out-of-style pens or baubles that could hide a key. She even checked the bookshelf itself for some sort of pull-out mechanism.
With a great, exasperated sigh, Nomura flopped back into the principal’s chair. Strickler was cautious, she had to give him that. There was no way he would leave an extra key just lying around. But even he made mistakes. Even he forgot shit at home sometimes—and how many times had he grumbled about forgetting ungraded term papers at his apartment?
So, what happened on those blue moons, when he would forget the key pen? What would he do? How would he get in?
Nomura turned to the piano. The goddamned piano in a teacher’s office. It was so out-of-place, like he was trying to say “Look at me, I’m not at all normal, but who cares? I’m British, I can do whatever I want!” Bastard.
She played a few keys randomly, then all of them one at a time, then a lot at once. Nothing happened, save perhaps an echo. So, she attempted some impromptu Bach, something Strickler might like. Still nothing.
She pursed her lips. Then, in a fit of desperation, she played her own favorite tune: the melody of In the Hall of the Mountain King.
A click, a few whirrs, and suddenly the office’s back wall rose up. Nomura smirked. Of course he would use her tune. Why wouldn’t he?
Nomura rifled through everything in that sanctum, pocketing things she figured he wouldn’t miss. Things the Order would most certainly love to get their hands on, but there was no way in Hell she’d let them have them. She especially bagged up the secret stash of Grave Sand, because the Order definitely didn’t need to get that. Also, she figured having a stash for herself might benefit her in the long run when the Eternal Night came around.
A lot of the items in the sanctum were useless to her and/or special to Strickler in some way. These she left alone.
As she tore down a few posters off the wall, something caught her eye. The back of one of the maps—Changeling locations, most likely—lit up from the backlight of one of Strickler’s gemstones. She picked up the map and held it up to the light.
A picture of Greece faded into view. A few of the islands were circled, some crossed out and some check marked. One at the far East made Nomura squint. It was circled slightly more than the others, but had no checkmarks next to it.
It was a start…
Unfortunately, Nomura couldn’t just hop on a Gyre and be in Greece in ten minutes. Trollmarket would have a fit if a third Changeling waltzed right in. And of course, she wouldn’t be able to receive compensation from the Order, so a plane ticket from California to Greece was going to be out of her own pocket. Thankfully, her accounts hadn’t been frozen or redistributed, so she managed to take out her funds and place them in a separate, Non-Order bank account.
15 hours and at least ten cups of coffee later, she was sitting at a café in Athens, looking over tourist attractions. No longer in her tight purple blouse and black pencil skirt, she was comfortably dressed in a modest white shirt and a floral-patterned skirt.
Best to not be conspicuous. Besides, she rather enjoyed Greece. Lots of ancient pottery to mull over, ruins to explore and reminisce in. Ah, if only she could spend a week or two on vacation here.
She sighed and checked her burner phone. A flight from Athens to Pothia—the capitol of the island Strickler had circled—would only take an hour, but she couldn’t afford to lead a possible shadower to his location. If any Order member was tailing her, it was best to lose them among the many isles of Greece before ending up on the one she wanted.
So, the next few days were spent boating around Greece. Time was precious due to Gunmar’s escape, but as long as America didn’t start blowing up on the news—literally, not politically—then she had enough time to waste on running around. Okay, it wasn’t totally a waste; she was methodically checking around every island that had been circled and crossed out on Strickler’s secret map. Pothia, on the island of Kalymnos, would be the final stop.
Finally, her tourist barge ended up on the shores of Pothia. It certainly was beautiful, she had to admit. The buildings and signs were colorful and clearly Greek, but some of the architecture had Turkish influence. That made sense, since the island was right next to Turkey. Nomura was sad she couldn’t stay for a long period to bask in the mesh of cultures here.
Like many of the port towns she’d been to, Pothia’s shoreline was covered in boats. From tourist barges to fishing dingeys, boats were crammed into the docks like sardines. And Nomura had a sneaking suspicion Strickler would be in that rat’s nest. More people meant he could hide in plain sight, even if the risk of being spotted by another Changeling was somewhat higher. Strickler was a master at hiding within a crowd, though, so Nomura knew she had her work cut out for her.
For the most part, she wandered the docks looking interested in whatever the fishermen happened to be selling. Sponges were the most popular product, as evidenced by the sheer amount of them on display throughout the various docks and fisherman communities. A few boasted rare fish, some had oysters and pearls.
She bought some fish here and there, stuffing them into a basket. To her human nose, they smelled foul, but she knew she’d enjoy the raw fish as a Troll later.
Soon, she began asking around. Looking for an old friend, she’d say, or maybe that her brother-in-law had come out to Greece in search of a new life. To some old men, she showed a picture of Strickler, taken from one of the school’s faculty photo databases. No one recognized him, so she went deeper into the rat’s nest.
The deeper she went, the further she was from the tourist locales, the more humanity began to shine through. Dirty and off-colored boats floated in the waters, potato bags filled with trash hanging off the sides, people were milling about in ragged but functional clothing, and yet the communities seemed closer, more personal and friendly. People were dirty not for lack of hygiene, but because their jobs demanded them to be slimy and filthy. Yet their smiles were bright at the sight of a newcomer.
So, Nomura tried a little harder. She actively searched the run-down piers, asking more people if they’d seen some English man through here. The same negative answers echoed back.
Finally, she caught a break.
“That face seems familiar,” an older woman said. She squinted from behind her yarn stand, which sat next to her husband’s fishing barrels. She faced her grizzled husband. “Doesn’t he look like Leander?”
The old man took the photo and twisted it around. His eyes sparkled with slight recognition. “Aye, that’s old Tsaoussis alright! If you add a beard, it’d look just like the bastard!”
Nomura almost chuckled at the word. “Where can I find this…Leander?”
The couple pointed towards an even more run-down section of the docks. The wife said, “He lives down there. Drinks himself to high heaven with whatever money he makes.”
“Dunno how he catches anything the way he stumbles through the day,” the husband griped. “Always comes around sellin’ some decent sponges, sure, but he’s drunker than an American redneck!”
“His boat’s called The Lady of the Lake,” the wife supplied.
“Seen better days, that’s for sure,” the husband said. “You tell that bastard he still owes Alec that six pack!”
Nomura thanked them for the information. For good measure, she bought some eels from the man and a scarf from the woman.
She found the Lady easily enough. It looked slightly newer than the other boats docked here, with brighter colors and slightly newer-looking equipment. But it stuck out only barely amidst the poorest of the fishing vessels. The people here were deep in their bottles, and there were no children running around. A few dogs and cats were fighting over some poor fisherman’s stock.
She didn’t approach the Lady of the Lake right away. Instead, she quietly asked a passing man only part-way through a midday hangover if Leander Tsaoussis owned the vessel. He confirmed it after a few minutes of half-conscious contemplation.
As she wandered closer, Nomura spotted a single occupant aboard the Lady. It was a man with a large-brimmed straw hat covering his face, just sitting under the boat’s awning with a giant bottle in his hand. He didn’t move—dead to the world, she assumed.
She boarded the vessel quietly, trying not to trip over the fishing nets and various alcohol bottles—oh. She spotted a larger case of empty Glug jugs. This boat had Troll booze on it.
She tip-toed closer to the man. He wore a ratty, no-longer-white tank and torn jeans stuffed into slime-covered boots. The skin on his bare shoulders and arms was a deep, tanned olive color, with dark sun-kissed freckles splattered everywhere. The bottle in his hand was empty. Nomura tried not to gag at the sudden odor of fish, vomit, and booze emanating from the man as she neared.
She gingerly lifted the straw hat, revealing the darker and freckled face of Leander Tsaoussis—aka, Walter Strickler. He’d grown a beard, which probably would have looked better if he’d bothered to upkeep it. Right now it looked more like a salt-and-pepper bird’s nest, matching his even curlier and more tangled rat’s nest he once would have slicked into a pompadour. His large nose was slightly sunburnt, peeling at the bridge. The rest of his face was gaunt, with dark bags under sunken eyes.
The fact that he hadn’t woken up yet meant Strickler was deep in a drunken depression. He would never allow a Changeling to get the drop on him like this.
She glanced around, making sure no one was watching. Then, she dumped a bunch of empty bottles into a potato sack and hurled it onto the dock. She gathered all the Glug into one section of the deck, including the empty bottles, but didn’t dump it. Finally, she took a net rope and—after triple making sure Strickler was out cold—tied the depressed Changeling to his seat and up against one of the awning poles.
That done, Nomura walked to the helm, also situated under the awning but on a deck above Strickler’s. If she had been in Troll form, she would have had to duck up there. Thankfully, her familiar’s height meant she didn’t even have to worry about it brushing against her scalp.
Setting sail wasn’t that difficult, even in the overcrowded area in which Strickler had made his home. She swatted at a seagull as it screeched its displeasure at her sailing its nest away. She really hoped its nest actually wasn’t in Strickler’s hair…
Eventually, she steered the boat out to sea, father out than any sort of fishing vessel would dare to go. How he hadn’t woken up yet was beyond her.
She dropped anchor when they were so far away that even land wasn’t visible. Not knowing how deep the water actually was, she’d decided to use some of the heavier Glug crates and tie them together with the actual anchor, throwing them overboard easily with her enhanced strength.
As if sensing the strongest booze had left his presence, Strickler finally awoke with a snort. He lifted his head sleepily, blinking in the sunlight. Then, he shifted against his restraints in surprise.
“What the…?” His voice was thick from sleep and alcohol.
“Rise and shine, Mister Gibbs!” Nomura called from the helm. “Captain Barbosa needs you ship shape!”
“Gibbs wasn’t…part of his crew…” Strickler squinted. “…Nomura?”
“In the flesh.”
“Am I dead?”
She smirked. “You wish.”
He tugged against the ropes. “What’s going on?”
Nomura finally crossed the deck to stand in front of him. She crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “Consider this an intervention.”
Strickler blinked, brow furrowing. “How are you…How did you get out of the Darklands?”
“Jim helped me.”
“He’s alive? Is…Is Gunmar…?”
She shook her head. “Gunmar’s free. The Order’s giving him sanctuary, and I decided to get out while I still could.”
Strickler sighed. “We should start a club…pull up a seat, then.”
“No thanks,” she said with disdain. “I’ve fallen this low before, remember? Back when Draal and I broke it off. I’m not doing that again.”
Nomura slapped him, the sound reverberating off the ship deck and scaring a passing gull. Strickler looked at her in shock. “Get it together, Stricklander,” she snapped. “Gunmar’s loose, the Eternal Night is practically here, and the Trollhunter is definitely not ready. And yet here you are, wasting away on a godforsaken dinghy, drinking your senses away until what? You finally get so drunk you forget what time it is and try to fly in sunlight? You drop into the ocean and drown? Or were you waiting on the Pale Lady to rise and send someone to kill you?”
He had the decency not to look her in the eyes.
Nomura scoffed and walked away. She pulled out a crate of Glug and made sure he saw it. “Tough shit,” she growled. With little more than a grunt, she hefted the crate and threw it like a discus out into the ocean.
Strickler’s eyes glowed. “Nomura, don’t! I…I need those!”
“No you don’t.” She took another crate of human alcohol and threw it out. “Just like I didn’t need it. What you need is to wake up. You need to get back to your old, haughty self. Pronto.”
Strickler renewed his struggle against his bonds. She could see a drunken rage surging through him, but it wouldn’t be enough. “Please,” he begged. “Don’t throw it all out! At least leave a little bit!”
She looked him right in the eye, took out a single bottle from a crate, uncorked it…
…and turned the bottle over so the ocean could have a drink.
Strickler howled in misery as the last few drops exited the bottle. Then, his misery turned to anger. “You’re going to wish you had died in the Darklands,” he threatened.
“I’m quaking in my shoes,” she said dryly.
Nomura strutted calmly over to his bound form and patted his gross hair. “Remember when you did this to me? Remember how you took away all my booze at once? How angry I was?”
His eyes continued to glow. An inhuman growl rose up in his throat.
“I want you to know,” she said as she peeled him off the awning pole. He was still bound to his chair, though. “I forgave you for doing that. I mean, eventually I forgave you. Because, in the long run, it helped a lot. Helped me get over Draal long enough to get my life back together.”
She dragged his writhing form to a door to the aft of the boat just below the helm. She opened it to reveal a small ladder well that led below deck. “You know, I never was much for magic stuff. I like the practical things, like blades and armor. But you did manage to teach me one thing…”
She shoved him, chair and all, down into the abyss. He landed below with a mighty crash, but Nomura wasn’t worried. His pride was probably hurt far worse than his body.
“You taught me how to make magical wards.”
She slammed the door and carved a few sigils into the wooden frame. They glowed brightly for a few seconds, and then she could see from below the door that the inside began to glow. Then, the lights faded.
She pulled up a crate and reclined against the wall with an audible sigh. Within minutes, Strickler’s yells had turned guttural, and she knew he’d transformed. He pounded against the door, shouting curses. The wards did their job, though, and the door stayed shut. Even the wood around it wouldn’t splinter.
Nomura took Strickler’s sunhat—which had fallen off earlier in his struggles—and put it over her eyes. It was going to be a long few days…
There is a phrase that humans use when suddenly cutting off an addict from whatever it is that they depended on. They call it cold turkey.
The phrase is an interesting one, to say the least. After all, what about a frigid Thanksgiving bird made anyone think of addiction withdrawal? Most theorized it was something to do with the goosebumps and cold feeling one gets from the need of their addiction after cessation. Some attributed it to cold being and old way to say, ‘state it outright’ and turkey a shorthand of talk turkey—another linguistic anomaly in the ever-growing oddness of the English language.
Nomura was no linguist. She was an anthropologist by nature, dealing with historic artifacts and the like, but languages were far less interesting to her. Sometimes, though, phrases like cold turkey would pique her interest, if only for a brief moment.
Trolls had no such phrase to describe the abrupt cessation, and probably never would develop it. Addiction to Trolls was nothing more than a passing fancy for outside observers. The inebriated or incapacitated nature of Trolls did not alter their behavior for the worse, nor did it carry over into the domestic realms of family care. Abuse so rampant in human society did not occur in Troll circles, at least, not as often.
Changelings, however, were another matter. Because of Morgana’s interference, they were more susceptible to negative effects of substance abuse, specifically in the mental department. A Changeling with a Grave Sand addiction could be more violent, and have difficulty knowing when to drop their human disguise. They’d be more Troll-like, sure, but it was more like they were devolving into Gumm-Gumm brutes. Their minds deteriorated into feral territory, and ultimately, if not immediately treated, the poor Changeling would have to be put down.
Where Grave Sand heightened the Trollish instincts, Glug—and human alcohol, if enough was consumed—made one slower and sadder. They’d end up embracing the human mental problems such as depression and anxiety and their reactions and ability to adapt on the spot would slow down. They, too, would eventually need to be put down due to their performance hinderances if not taken away from the addictive substance.
So it came as no surprise that Changelings had adapted cold turkey into their everyday talk, and then someone decided it was too human-sounding. And so, going feral phoenix was brought into the mix.
Interestingly, though Grave Sand and Glug addictions cause effects wildly different from each other, abruptly halting the abuse of either substance would herald the same results on the subject.
‘Going Feral Phoenix’ was a three-step process for the recoveree. First came the rage—the Troll rage of being cut off from their coping mechanism. It was blinding and all-consuming, and it threatened to never stop unless the substance was back in the poor Changeling’s hands.
Currently, Strickler was experiencing this. Within a few hours of being cut off, he’d burst out of his bonds, as well as his human form, and had attempted to ram the door. Gone were his suave mannerisms and silver tongue. He was no more human than a rabid dog, snarling and frothing, scratching desperately at the wood. He roared in rage as his attempts were thwarted by magics far stronger than his mind could currently comprehend.
Nomura remembered that stage. When she’d been forced to quit her own Glug addiction after breaking it off with Draal, it had been like a fire had ignited in her belly. It was an all-encompassing fury, so primal that Nomura wondered if perhaps it had something to do with their creation and suppressing of their original Troll natures. Regardless, it was still an awful experience for everyone involved—hence the wards against the door now.
She heard scrabbling below deck. Strickler was on the move, searching for new exits, new weaknesses in the hull. She didn’t worry; they were so far out that if Strickler managed to breach the hull and escape, he wouldn’t make it. Swimming as a Troll—especially one without River or Oceana Troll blood—was near suicide due to their stony dead weight, and Strickler’s wings would be useless from the water weight as soon as he tried to fly. And if he became human, he’d never make the swim to shore. He’d realize it soon enough.
So, Nomura sat back and read a book on her phone, only half-listening to the scratches and shrieks of Strickler below. Once or twice, he went silent, which prompted her to glance up from her reading. But then he would suddenly get a second wind and give a raspy roar, slamming into literally everything.
He went on like that for two straight days. The ship groaned as he zoomed through the lower cabin like a cat high on catnip, rocking it dangerously. Nomura spat curses as he did this, knowing he was trying to piss her off. She wouldn’t take his bait. She wouldn’t open the door or let down the wards to yell at him like a spoiled toddler. He may not have been in his right mind, but he seemed to have retained enough sense to attempt a basic ambush predator’s subterfuge. Nomura was impressed he’d managed to hold onto even that much; she’d been so angry all she wanted to do was hurt. No false pretenses, just straight murderous intent.
A passing fishing boat on the second morning had led to some awkward inquiries, but Nomura had convinced the occupants that all was well. She’d even managed to barter some food and water from them, giving some half-assed excuse about accidentally running out halfway through her island hop. Strickler had mercifully stayed quiet below decks, only scratching at things every few minutes to alert her that he hadn’t attempted an escape.
As soon as the fishing boat had left, Strickler resumed his raging. He was weakening by that point, and it wouldn’t take long for him to collapse into the second phase.
After anger came despair. A gnawing, gaping feeling of emptiness consumed the Changeling after they burned off their rage. It was a deep-rooted human emotion that so many Trolls can never comprehend, though many claimed to feel it. The despair was so strong it was dangerous, and left the recoveree extremely raw and vulnerable, unable to transform back into a human despite emoting in such a human way.
On cue, at the dawn of the third day, Nomura heard Strickler cry. At first it was a whine, almost hidden away by all the growls. Then, within minutes it became a keen breaking up his grunts of diminishing rage. Finally, he broke into a wail.
Nomura’s heart clenched at the sound. It was so raw, so unabashedly sad and woeful. His cries made the entire boat quake. From the sound of it, he’d managed to haul his winged ass right to the bottom of the ladder well, probably in a last-ditch effort to escape out the door before he became incapacitated by his own sorrow.
Nomura remembered this, too. This stage was the hardest to get over, but the most rewarding. Where the first was a series of red rage, a desire to hurt and get at the substance which was denied her, the second stage was a deep regret over the loss of whatever it was that had driven her to turn to the substance in the first place. In her case, it had been Draal. Betraying him and cementing her place within the Janus Order—as well as forever barring her from truly belonging within Troll society ever again—had cut her deep. Deeper than she’d ever care to admit out loud.
At first it had been numbing. She’d attempted to convince herself that she was proud. That she had become a rising prodigy amongst Changelings, and it was the start of a promising career. It hadn’t worked, and in the end, she’d turned to Glug. Strickler had found her much like she found him days ago, rotting alone in a sea of booze, trying to forget the breakup. And when he’d cut her off and she’d gotten to the second stage, the pain had been unimaginable. She was forced to face what she’d done head on, forced to either get over it or perish. At the time, the threat of Bular finding out and devouring her had eventually been enough weight on her mind to help her along. She assumed Strickler would face a similar ultimatum in his mind, but with Gunmar looming in the background instead of Bular.
Strickler had allowed her to grieve, even though he technically wasn’t obligated to. He didn’t have to help her at all, yet…he had. He’d secured her in a place where she could go Feral Phoenix undisturbed, where she wouldn’t be able to cause trouble or accidentally challenge Bular. It was only right that she did the same for him.
Strickler’s wailing was so loud it made the water ripple. Nomura tried her hardest to ignore it. This was not a stage in which he could be helped.
It took a whole day before his keens became understandable. His voice was returning, and with it came the source of his sorrows:
Nomura pinched the bridge of her nose. Of course… Of course it was a break-up. Barbara Lake, the cause of his suffering, probably the love of his life. She tried not to gag at his sappy cries.
For the entire night, he sobbed loudly about the Trollhunter’s mother. How she was just so perfect and how he didn’t deserve to know her. He wailed about how much of an ass he was, how he never should have dragged her into this life—or Angor into hers.
Holy shit, how many languages did he speak again? Apparently, the number was over ten because she was sure he was apologizing to Barbara in at least that many. From English to Italian. French to Mandarin. Common Trollish to Changeling dialect. Nomura’s head spun from how much the languages flowed into each other, becoming one giant, desperate apology.
Nomura inhaled and held it for a few moments, just like she had when he’d attempted subterfuge a few days prior. Strickler did not make a sound. He wasn’t crying loudly, wasn’t moving around.
Nomura finally stood up and walked over to the door. She put her ear to the wood.
“…I’m…I’m ready, Nomura…”
She sighed. After a few moments, she released the wards and opened the door. Strickler didn’t attempt to burst past her, which was a good sign. She descended the ladder well and found a very human Strickler on the floor, clothes in tatters and hair even messier than before. He looked absolutely cowed.
Nomura crossed her arms. “Ready to have a civil conversation?”
“Good. Let’s start with the fact the damn world is ending.”
Nomura had made Strickler steer the boat to a decent dock close to a clothing shop, because everything he owned right now was gross and stank of a rainbow of booze. Thankfully, she still had plenty of money to spare, even to bribe various high-end store clerks to allow the hobo man inside their shop.
Three and a half hours of shopping and grooming later, Strickler was once again presentable. His hair and beard had been trimmed and styled, the former of which was tucked into a dark grey Greek fisherman’s cap. He was now wearing a nice tan turtleneck and dark khakis, though one couldn’t exactly see most of that layer as he also wore an oversized peacoat to hide his too-thin frame. His decent black slip-on shoes clacked against the roads as he and Nomura walked. He looked like a lighthouse keeper, something she’d pointed out and he’d chosen to ignore.
As a treat, Nomura allowed him to have a large coffee to get some energy back.
“He’s not going to win,” Nomura said bluntly. They were walking through one of the wharfs, uncaring of who heard their conversation of Trolls and wizards. They could easily lie and say they were talking about a show and no one would question it. “Little Gynt is dead set on being the nice guy, even in the face of Gunmar.”
“It’s his way,” Strickler commented, voice slightly hoarse. “It’s the human in him.”
“He’s gonna die.”
“You don’t think I know that? Nomura, I know Jim isn’t ready. And I hate to admit it but…it scares me.” He looked her right in the eye, his own green orbs wide and extremely terrified. “It scares me that the only thing standing between Gunmar and the rest of the world is a small teenager!”
Nomura sighed sharply. “What happened to the Strickler with all the plans? The one who refused to admit defeat just because his favorite chess piece got taken. Oh wait, I know. Barbara Lake happened.”
He glared at her. “Nomura,” he growled.
“Get over it,” she snapped. “The world is ending, your favorite student is underprepared, and all you can think about is your breakup.”
He pouted childishly. After a moment, he sobered up. “Nomura, I…”
The Changelings turned to face an older couple walking nearby. Nomura recognized them as the couple that had told her where to find Strickler almost a week ago.
The old woman gave Strickler the once-over. Her eyes twinkled. “My, My, Leander, don’t you clean up nicely!”
“Easy, dear,” the man said.
“Lay off,” she chirped.
Strickler took the hand of the woman and kissed it. Nomura rolled her eyes at how easy he fell back on the Gentlemanly Act. “My lady, I’m sorry for acting so disgracefully recently. I’ve been out of sorts, going through some rough times.”
The woman blushed. The man scoffed. Nomura tried not to gag.
“You still owe me,” the man grumbled.
Nomura produced some big bills. “Here. That cover the six pack?”
The man made a show of counting out the money. He gave her a dubious look. His wife elbowed him in the ribs and he finally said, “Aye, consider your debt paid, Leander.”
“Come by the stall later,” the wife invited with a wink. “When you got some more sponges to trade.”
“Thank you, madam,” Strickler said. “But I’m afraid I’m finished with the sponge fishing business. I have to return home.”
Nomura blinked. “Really? Just like that?”
Strickler elbowed her.
“Well, Leander,” the old woman said. “Good luck with your endeavors.”
As the couple left their company, Nomura faced Strickler with a dubious look. “So you’ve just suddenly decided to change your mind? Go back to Arcadia? Or did you mean go home to your original Tribe and make amends before the Eternal Night?”
“Perhaps I just needed to be someone other than the depressed bag of bones that I had been.” He scratched his neck absentmindedly. “Jim isn’t prepared for Gunmar. But it’s no use lamenting this fact. Blinkous isn’t doing enough, so we must fill in the blanks.”
Nomura smirked. “Nice to have you back.”
“I’m not back fully,” he admitted. “Give me the plane ride to stitch my old personality back together.”
“What about Barb?”
He twitched. “I…I need to distance myself from her. Jim comes first.”
She twisted a finger through Strickler’s beard. “Can’t wait for Little Gynt to see this masterpiece.”
“I’ll never let you live it down. You know that, right?”
“Unfortunately, I know it all too well.”