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Heart of Gold, Hands of Stone

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“Baby!”

Sepiol sighed. Here she comes… Setting down his tools, he quickly dashed out the door to his small workshop. Pakaya stopped her advance just shy of the entrance. Another door saved.

“Work is done! Time to come home!” said the wurm cheerfully.

“I have to finish this ring. Wait out here for a few minutes.” He said.

“But… work is over…” said Pakaya.

“Just a few minutes, I promise.” Said Sepiol.

“Okay…”

“Thank you.”

Sepiol wandered back inside, not bothering to shut the door. It would just be opened if he closed it, and replacing the hinges took too much of his valuable time. Sitting back down in his chair, he continued to set the stone in the silver band he was working on. He had only seconds to complete the piece. And if this thing wasn’t completed by tomorrow…

“Are you done?” asked Pakaya from the door.

“No.” said Sepiol. He set the gem into the band.

The doorframe whined and cracked as Pakaya forced her wide body through. Sepiol took a moment to clamp his eyes shut before continuing his work. Looks like he was buying another door with the earnings. Provided he could finish this piece.

“What are you working on?” asked Pakaya, oblivious to the damage she was doing to the workshop.

“I’m setting a stone into the ring. Please be quiet.” Said Sepiol.

“You’re putting a rock in there?” asked Pakaya.

“Yes.”

“Do you want any help?”

“No.”

“It goes in that lump of metal, right?”

“Yes, but-“

Before Sepiol could finish his explanation, Pakaya had taken the band and stone out of his hand.

“No, wait! Pakaya, don’t!” cried Sepiol.

Pakaya’s tongue protruded out of her mouth as she smashed the ruby and band together between her thumb and foreclaw. Her freakish strength was more than enough to turn the painstakingly crafted band into a nugget of silver with the ruby jutting out from the crumpled mass. Pakaya nodded happily as she admired her handywork.

“I did it! Let’s go home, I want dinner.” She threw the mass of silver onto Sepiol’s workbench.

He stared at it. It had taken weeks to engrave that silver. All that time, wasted. Not to mention the hefty amount of money he would need to come up with by tomorrow to pay his client back. And of course, all the smaller, less lucrative jobs he would have to take to recoup his reputation. A bad review by a wealthy client could mean a drought in business that lasted for months.

“Pakaya…” said Sepiol.

“Come on, dinner.” Insisted Pakaya. She picked Sepiol up with one arm and slithered out the door.

Sepiol watched the workshop disappear over Pakaya’s shoulder as she went. The small shop was carved into the side of a massive cavern, illuminated with tens of thousands of magical crystals. Below, the city of Hohonu sprawled out across the basin. A cosmopolitan labyrinth of all manner of monster. To outsiders, the notion of living within a cave was daunting at best. But those who made the journey below the crust found that the bountiful fields of crops, brilliant luminance of the crystals, and amicable disposition of the populace was not so different from the world above. Except the dark elves. Everyone knew not to delve into their district. But apart from a maniacal scheme to take over the city every now and then, the denizens of Hohonu lived their lives in peace. With a few exceptions.

One of them was carrying Sepiol. Yes, Pakaya had quite the reputation amongst the townsfolks. Many had trouble deciding what to think of her. For every story about her willingness to help and her beatific disposition, there was a story of catastrophic damage to property and person. Not that she meant it. If the townsfolk had sensed any sort of animosity from Pakaya after one of her “incidents,” they would have (attempted to) run her out of town. Common phrases used to describe Pakaya were “exuberant,” “amicable,” and “sweeter than honey but dumber than rocks.”

“I want chicken.” Said Pakaya.

“We don’t have chicken.” Said Sepiol.

“I know where some are!” said Pakaya excitedly.

“Pakaya, you have to pay for them.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya began tearing through the streets towards the market. Thankfully, he had inculcated the notion of trade into her head. Not before Pakaya amassed a legendary rap sheet with Hohonu law enforcement, but at least now they only showed up once a month to give him a bill of what he owed to whom.

“There they are!” said Pakaya.

She barreled through a crowded market to a stall selling chickens, live and butchered. The birds squawked loudly at her rapid approach.

“Oh! They have both kinds!” exclaimed Pakaya, pointing to the butchered chickens hanging from the hooks.

“Pakaya, put me down, I have to pay.” Pleaded Sepiol.

“Okay.”

The wurm set him down. Sepiol gave the vendor an apologetic nod. The troll looked at him with a mildly concerned glare.

“I’ll take-“

Pakaya ripped a raw chicken off a hook and sank her teeth into it. “I like the onsh wifout fur.” She said through a mouthful of raw meat.

“I’ll take five.” Sighed Sepiol, forking over the money.

The troll deftly threw the other chickens into a bag and handed them over, eager to get the walking-insurance-claim away from her stall. Pakaya loudly chewed through the bones of her chicken while she watched.

“Can we go now?” asked Pakaya, licking her claws.

“Yeah. We can go.”

“I want another chicken.” Said Pakaya.

“You can have another when we get home.” Said Sepiol.

“Okay!”

Pakaya departed for home, knocking against passersby and stall corners as she went. The police had mercifully made it an unwritten law that if you were dumb enough to stand in front of a moving wurm, you deserved to be hit. It saved Sepiol a fortune in fines, and them an encyclopedia of paperwork. Not to mention that it was next to impossible to punish Pakaya. Corporal punishment was out of the question. Odds are that the police would sprain their arms before Pakaya even noticed she was under attack. Money meant nothing to her, so they couldn’t force monetary restitutions. Jail time was more of a punishment to the department; guaranteeing the repair of the cellblock she was housed in and the workman’s comp for all the guards injured in her inevitable escape through a solid wall. Which meant that they usually just took what they could from Sepiol and allowed her to go on with her day.

“We’re home! Can I have chicken?” said Pakaya.

Sepiol took one of the chickens out of the bag and threw it to her. Pakaya launched into the air to grab it. While she munched, Pakaya used one of her hands to move aside the massive boulder that acted as the door to their house.

For all the financial penalties Pakaya incurred, they shared one of the bigger houses in Hohonu. There was a rule beneath the ground: you dig it, you own it. And digging was what Pakaya was best at. The house itself was far from the “rich” districts of the city, situated amongst a veritable slum of small dugouts in the walls of the great basin that that Hohonu sat in. In terms of size, it rivaled some of the largest mansions. Dozens of rooms littered the wall of rock that the house was built into, each with its own purpose. A study, a sitting room, a nook to drink lichen tea and enjoy the view of Hohonu… If only Sepiol could afford to furnish any of it. As it stood, nearly every room in the house was a dark cavity, devoid of any furniture or decorations. The only rooms that ever saw use were the kitchen and bedroom; and those were both VERY generous terms. The kitchen was a slab of rock that was left intact to serve as a countertop, with a small stone oven Pakaya had painstakingly carved out with her claws. The bedroom contained nothing more than a pit with a pile of shredded fabrics and feathers, serving their bed. Apparently, wurms had some sort of instinctual compulsion to build “nests” with anything soft they found. To a wurm, soft was a very loose term. Towels, rags, individual chicken feathers, pillows off of chairs, other monster’s clothes, and even burlap sacks were all thrown haphazardly into the sleeping divot. At least their instincts were refined enough to tell them not to bring home anything dirty. Sepiol would collect the clothes she pulled off lines around town and put them in a “lost and found” box in the market every weekend.

Sepiol began carving up a chicken for himself while Pakaya scarfed down the others. The meal was guaranteed to be bland. Not because Sepiol was a poor chef. On the contrary, he could cook a mean dish if he had the ingredients. But keeping anything in the house with Pakaya was a dubious prospect. The wurm would routinely eat his spice cabinet as a snack when she got hungry (which was an hourly occurrence). Pakaya wasn’t above eating raw onions and fistfuls of rosemary if she was hungry enough. Chilies were Sepiol’s only saving grace. One would think that a neigh indestructible mountain of scales and muscle could handle a little bit of kick in their meal. As fate would have it, capsaicin turned out to be Pakaya’s Achilles heel. Even a moderate amount of spice would reduce her to a mewling, sweating mess, oozing tears and snot. It didn’t stop her when she was hungry enough, but Sepiol felt a sense of vindication when he found his wife bawling her eyes out over the remains of his precious spice cabinet.

“Can I have some of yours?” asked Pakaya, leaning over Sepiol’s shoulder.

“No, it’s spicy.” He said.

“… How spicy?”

“Too spicy for you.”

Sepiol threw the chicken into the stone oven and slid a stone plate into place in front of it. Pakaya curled up around him. Most monsters got a little antsy when they saw Pakaya embrace Sepiol. He never blamed them for the stifled gasps and grimaces he got when Pakaya coiled around him. To onlookers, it wasn’t an outlandish assumption that she might crush him by accident. What they didn’t know was how plush her underbelly was. Just the right amount of give. Pakaya could squeeze to her hearts content as long as she positioned herself correctly. Though, in all their years of marriage, Sepiol couldn’t recall a time where she had hugged him too tightly. Wurms seemed to have an instinctual notion of how hard they could coil their spouses. When Sepiol asked her how hard she squeezed him, Pakaya had simply stated that she squeezed him as tightly as he needed to be squeezed. Fair enough.

Pakaya yawned. “I’m sleepy.”

“Big day?” asked Sepiol.

“Yeah!”

Pakaya’s “job” was really more of a freelance position. Most of what she did could be classified as demolition. If someone needed a building gone, they could rent Pakaya to level it in a fraction of the time (usually with twice as much collateral damage). She made a modest sum from her work, if she got paid. Pakaya’s lack of business acumen meant that payment could range from a few coins to some sufficiently shiny trinkets. Sometimes she didn’t get paid at all. A well-crafted lie or story would essentially wipe the memory of the promise of payment from Pakaya’s mind. Sepiol would help with the negotiations when he could get out of the workshop, and the guards knew to make sure she was treated fairly, but every now and then a building would disappear without any exchange of goods or services. Some of the more astute businesswomen had learned that Pakaya could be enticed to do a job “on accident” by claiming that there was food in the walls, or that the building in question was built on top of a kitten in need of rescue. This created a legal gray-area, as Pakaya had technically demolished the building on her own without promise of payment. Dark elves had used a similar tactic during one ill-fated attempt to conquer the city by informing Pakaya that her husband had been taken hostage by sentient buildings and she had to break them down to free him (Sepiol was at work as usual that day). The dark elves would realize in hindsight that informing Pakaya of the evil buildings while they were within their own district was a gross oversight on their part. More than half of all dark elf houses and businesses were destroyed before Sepiol was brought from his workshop to calm her down.

“Did you earn anything?” asked Sepiol.

“Uh… yeah!” exclaimed Pakaya.

She scratched the scales on her arm. A few coins were dislodged from under the scales.

“Good work, Pakaya.” Said Sepiol, collecting the change.

Pakaya beamed. She nuzzled her face against Sepiol, still wrapped snuggly in her coils. He pulled his arms free to retrieve his chicken.

“Can I have-“

“It’s spicy.” Said Sepiol.

“Aww…”

“Why don’t you get ready for bed? I’ll be in in a minute.” Said Sepiol.

“Okay.”

Pakaya went to go rinse herself off in the flow of spring water that flowed from one of the bathroom walls. It served as a water source, shower, and bath all at once. Not every citizen in Hohonu could say that they had running water. Sepiol finished his meal and went to go bathe himself.

“Brush!” demanded Pakaya.

“Alright, settle down. Here.”

Sepiol took a long brush off the wall and began scrubbing Pakaya. The wurm wiggled her body back and forth under the brush, trying to press into the bristles as they coursed across her body. Sepiol often wondered how a creature that could slither between slabs of granite without feeling a thing could appreciate the sensation of a brush on her scales, but who was he to question her when she so clearly enjoyed it? Maybe she just liked spending time with him. After a few minutes of brushing, Pakaya slithered out of the water and shook herself dry.

No matter how much Pakaya raised Sepiol’s blood pressure or emptied his wallet, seeing her get ready for bed never failed to put a smile on his face. Much like dogs, wurms had a specific habit before they went to sleep. Pakaya slithered into the divot full of cloth, burrowing into the mess of fabric. Sepiol watched her thrash around in the divot. Her titanic body undulated above and below the surface as she fluffed the bed. Most people said it reminded them of a rat tending to its nest. Sepiol waited for her to finish rolling around in the bed. When the bed met Pakaya’s discerning criteria for sleeping, she used her body to form a space for Sepiol in her coils. He carefully stepped into the pit of shredded fabric. Pakaya tightened around him, humming happily.

“I love you, baby!” Pakaya said, hugging him tightly with her draconic arms.

“I love you too.” Sepiol kissed Pakaya on the nose. She giggled, returning the favor.

Pakaya was asleep in an instant. Sepiol didn’t know if she was coincidentally exhausted at the end of the day, or if she could just choose to fall asleep, but he always envied her ability to fall asleep in seconds. Warm and content in Pakaya’s coils, he tried to follow suit.

~~~~~~~~

“Madam Cruslacer, let me offer my SINCEREST apologies that the ring isn’t going to be completed on time. I’ve already brought the deposit you put down on it. Most of it…” said Sepiol, offering a purse of coins to the dragon.

She took it, hefting the bag. Sepiol winced at her scowl.

“And might I be so bold as to enquire what went wrong with such a simple task?” asked Cruslacer.

“Well…” Sepiol reached into his pocket and pulled out the crushed ring that he had been working on.

Cruslacer took the lump of metal to inspect. This was going to be a lean few months. Cruslacer was a powerful and influential figure in Hohonu. People respected her. A scathing review from her would be a major blow to his professional rapport. Had the ring been completed on schedule, the business he would have garnered might have been enough to pay his debts off. Cruslacer’s gaze softened as she looked over the ring.

“I must say, the etching on the band is impeccable. What’s left of it, anyways. Am I safe to assume that…” Cruslacer subtly tilted her head towards Pakaya. Pakaya waved back enthusiastically.

“Yes.” Sighed Sepiol.

“I see. Normally I would condemn a craftsman who cannot produce what they promise, but I see that your inability to produce the agreed upon ring is not the fruit of indolence.” Said Cruslacer.

Sepiol smiled nervously. “I’ll get you the rest of your money as soon as possible.”

“Indeed. Perhaps you should invest in a lock, jeweler. It may help to stymie such… uncomfortable explanations in the future.” Said Cruslacer, handing him back the lump of silver.

The dragon flew off, leaving Sepiol with the crushed remains of his painstaking labors.

“If only you knew, lady…” he muttered after he was sure she was out of earshot.

“Your friend seemed nice.” Said Pakaya.

“Nicer than she could have been, that’s for sure.” Sepiol slipped his ring into his pocket.

“Are you going to work today?” asked Pakaya.

“No. We’re going digging.”

Pakaya squealed. “Digging?! Really?!”

“Yes.”

Pakaya scooped Sepiol up, carrying him towards the rim of the city.

~~~~~~~~~

“Papers.” Said a dwarf from the other side of a counter.

Sepiol forked over his digging permits and a map of his projected route. Mining was a huge business in Hohonu, and you couldn’t have every creature that could hold a pickaxe boring into the walls wherever they pleased. Every year there were a few cases of monsters being trapped after tunneling under, into, or over some other mineshaft, only to find that they had effectively sapped themselves in. The bureaucracy behind it was mercifully quick. For the most part, Hohonu cavern and the surrounding stone was stable enough to support large-scale mining operations without threatening the structural integrity of the cave. All the dwarves had to do was ensure that Sepiol wasn’t going to accidentally collapse a shaft onto a different group of miners.

“Looks good. You know the rules: stick to your projected route, if you make any deviations of more than thirty meters, you have to reassess your course.” Said the dwarf.

“Will do.” Sepiol took his documents back.

“Are you going to find a lot of ore and gems today, Pakaya?” asked the dwarf.

“Yeah!” Pakaya was practically vibrating.

“Atta girl.” Chuckled the dwarf.

Pakaya grabbed Sepiol’s collar and hauled him towards the mouths of the mineshafts.

“What are we looking for today?” asked Pakaya.

“Silver and rubies.” Said Sepiol.

“Yeah! Silver and rubies!” Pakaya shot down one of the mineshafts.

Sepiol hung on for dear life. It was up to Pakaya from here on out. She could easily churn through several tons of rock before Sepiol had chipped out a few centimeters with his pick. The only purpose he served was to keep her on track. When they were newlyweds, he had dreamed of a system wherein he would craft the jewelry, and she would bring him a fresh supply of gems and ore. This fantasy was quickly crushed when he realized that Pakaya was incapable of staying focused on the task at hand for more than a few minutes, much less navigating the mining bureaucracy. The first and only time he had sent Pakaya on an unsupervised trip to the mines, she had been returned to him by a mob of angry dwarves serving him with a hefty bill for the damages she had caused in her ten-minute excursion through their tunnels.
Pakaya set about sniffing the rocky walls. Much like a truffle hog, Pakaya could sense veins of ore through layers of stone. Her eyes gleamed. Pakaya began clawing into the wall, quickly reducing the swath in front of her to gravel. Sepiol sat back and watched her work her magic. Pakaya quickly disappeared, leaving only a growing pile of rock behind as she went.

“I found some!” Pakaya’s voice echoed out of her tunnel.

She reemerged with an armful of silver ore. Sepiol took a chunk of the ore and inspected it. Not the best quality, but it was usable.

“Looks good. Leave it there and I’ll grab a few carts.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya deposited the ore in a fresh pile and dove back into her hole. Sepiol went to the mouth of the shaft. Public ore carts, powered by magic, were available for all the amateur prospectors who dug in these mines. It was in the best interest of Hohonu that miners bring in as much taxable stone and minerals as possible. Wheeling a cart down the tunnel, Sepiol began dumping the ore into the cart. Pakaya reappeared with a fresh armful, depositing it in the cart beside him.

“How much do we need?” asked Pakaya.

“How much is in the vein?” asked Sepiol.

“A bunch!”

“Let’s fill a cart. Then we can go looking for rubies.” Said Sepiol.

“Yeah!”

Pakaya dove back in. Sepiol marveled over another chunk of silver. To think that this metal was the whole reason that he was married to Pakaya in the first place.

~~~~~~~~

Sepiol had just earned his guild status as a jeweler. He was a young man looking to make his mark on the world with his craft and fill his coffers doing so. Elegant pieces, each more brilliant than the last, swirled through his imagination. And to make these wonderous accoutrements, he was going to need material. A lot of it. More than what he could afford at from the miners of his town. Taking up a pick, Sepiol struck out for a claim of his own to fuel his craft.

Traveling to the fringes of human civilization, Sepiol searched far and wide for a place to call his own. At long last, he found a promising hill. The rocks were of the right type, the hill was accessible, and the nearest town was only a day’s hike away. A perfect spot to set up a discreet mining operation. Once he had enough ore to start his business, he could simply sell the claim to a mining venture. Or even retain some of the rights to keep himself supplied with metal until he died.

The stone was pliable, yielding easily to his pick. It seemed as if this hill was made to be mined. Lanterns illuminated his progress into the earth. And in the darkness, his pick revealed the first shimmer of silver. Sepiol had been puzzled when he first saw the luster glinting in the darkness. Silver should have been much deeper into the hill. He hadn’t anticipated hitting a vein for at least another month. But closer inspection revealed that it was indeed the precious silver he had sought. Overjoyed with his good fortune, he began excavating the first fruits of his claim.

For days, Sepiol worked like a man possessed to pull out all the silver his arms could carry. After only a week, he already had enough ore to last for months in the city. He almost felt foolish for apprenticing under that jewelry for so many years; maybe he should abandon jewelry and focus on mining. If the rest of the hill was as rich as this vein, he could live like a king by the time the silver ran dry. It was between these fantasies of grandeur and armfuls of precious silver that Sepiol neglected to notice how far down the tunnel the last support was placed.

Rain was pouring down outside the mouth of the tunnel. Sepiol ignored the muddy streams lapping at his feet, too preoccupied with an especially large chunk of silver jutting from the wall in front of him. At last, the behemoth nugget sprang free from its trappings. As Sepiol moved to pick it up, the ground around him trembled. Streams of dust cascaded down from the ceiling. The walls groaned in protest. Sepiol looked back up the shaft at the timber supports he had made, only now realizing how distant they had become. The mineshaft collapsed around him, burying Sepiol under tons of stone.

The weight was unbearable. What little air Sepiol could draw into his body was squeezed out twice as quickly. His arms were pinned against the ground. Sepiol screamed. It was all he could do. No one would hear, no one would come. The death of Sepiol; crushed by the silver he had so earnestly sought. The irony of his demise only made Sepiol more bitter. Sepiol waited in the darkness of his tomb, praying that his death would be swift. Another rumble shook the mine. Perhaps this cave in would crush him completely and end his misery.

This time, the rumbling didn’t cease. Sepiol could feel the ground quake, but the sound or sensation showed no signs of abatement. On the contrary, the tremors grew more pronounced with time. Was the whole hill collapsing in on itself?

And then it stopped. The sound and shaking culminated in an unnatural stillness. Sepiol cursed his luck. It would seem the gods wanted him to starve as penance for his greed. Something sharp prodded his leg. Perfect. Starved and stabbed. Was there no end to his torment? A new sound reached Sepiol’s ears. A faint, sibilant sound that whispered to him from the rocks around him. The noise moved around his body, circling like a buzzard. Slowly, the sound slid towards his head. A scraping noise echoed through the rocks around his skull. And then he could breathe.

Sepiol could hardly fathom the sensation of air freely flowing into his lungs. The sounds and light of the outside world once more reached his ears. Someone was standing over him. He squinted up at them, his vision still blurry from his head injury and the darkness.

“Husband!”

Two clawed hands dove into the rubble to free Sepiol. Hoisting him free of the rubble, the woman held him aloft. Tragically, the misguided rescuer was unaware of her own strength. As she pulled Sepiol free, she yanked too hard. Sepiol’s head shot into the ceiling of the mine, knocking him unconscious.

“Ah! Sorry!”

When Sepiol awoke, Pakaya was coiled around him. She explained that she had saved him that he was her husband now. Naturally, Sepiol wasn’t too keen on the idea of being wed to a monstrous earth dragon. Or monsters in general. After breaking three of his fingers punching Pakaya in the face and failing to elicit so much as a flinch, Sepiol reconsidered. Pakaya may be dumber than the rocks she tunneled through, but she was cute as a button and meant well. Which is more than could be said about many people. Keeping her safe from monsters that would exploit her had become a duty to Sepiol. Protecting Pakaya from the evils of the world was paramount to him. Someone had to guide this lovable moron, and he was the only one she would listen to.

~~~~~~~~~~

“I got more!”

Pakaya deposited a fresh load of silver into the cart, snapping Sepiol out of his reminiscing. The cart was almost filled now.

“That should be enough. Let’s go find some rubies.” Said Sepiol.

“Rubies!”

Sepiol attached a tag with his name on it to the cart, activating the magical engine that would take it out of the mine. Pakaya was already sniffing the ground. The tip of her tail wiggled back and forth while her serpentine body wriggled across the ground.

“This way!” exclaimed Pakaya.

She scooped Sepiol up and hurried down the mineshaft.

“Remember to be careful. Rubies are delicate.” Said Sepiol.

“I’ll be careful!” said Pakaya.

“You have to be gentle!” said Sepiol.

“I will!”

“That’s what you always say…” sighed Sepiol.

Pakaya skidded to a halt. Feverishly sniffing at a wall, she began to scratch at the stone.

“Rubies!” squealed Pakaya.

Sepiol shielded his eyes from the spray of gravel as Pakaya dove into the rock. He just prayed that she didn’t smash these gems to pieces like she did the last time.

“I found some!” called Pakaya.

“Dig around them! Bring the whole rock out, understand?” said Sepiol.

“The WHOLE rock? That might be too much for me to carry…”

“Not the mountain, just the stone around the ruby. As much as you can carry.” Said Sepiol. Trying to relay directions to a wurm was like trying to dictate a heart surgery through mail.

Sepiol waited anxiously at the mouth of the tunnel for Pakaya. A series of scrapes and cracks echoed out. Soon, Pakaya reemerged carrying a monstrous chunk of rock.

“I brought the stone around the ruby!” said Pakaya.

Sepiol sighed in relief. Thank the gods she understood what he meant.

“Perfect. We can take this home, and I’ll chisel it open to get to the rubies.” Said Sepiol.

“Why? They’re right here.” Pakaya dropped the chunk of rock. Her claws contained the remains of several crushed gems.

Sepiol felt very tired all of a sudden. “Pakaya.”

“Yes?”

“Why did you pull the rubies out?” asked Sepiol.

“I thought you wanted the rubies?” said Pakaya.

“I wanted you to bring me the stone with the rubies INSIDE the stone.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya looked at the chunk of rock she had dragged out, and then at the rubies in her hands. “Ooooohhh…”

“What do you mean ‘oh!?’ Why do you think I asked you to bring the rock?!”

“I don’t know, you didn’t say anything about it! I thought you were going to make something out of it!” said Pakaya.

Sepiol pinched the bridge of his nose. “Whatever. It’s fine. Let me see what you managed to collect.”

Pakaya dusted her claws into his hands. There were still some salvageable chunks in there. The rest of the rubies would have to be processes so extensively there would hardly be anything left. With enough time, they might be a nice compliment to a centerpiece gem or an unconventional earing.

“Can you use it?” asked Pakaya.

“I can make it work.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya’s tail wagged. “I knew you could! You’re my smartest husband!”

Sepiol rubbed her head. “Yes, I technically am.”
“Is that all I need to dig up?” asked Pakaya.

“For today. Good work, Pakaya.” Said Sepiol.

“I want dinner!”

“We’ll get some dinner on the way home.”

“I want beef! And chicken! And pasta! And broccoli! All at the same time!” said Pakaya.

“Pakaya, you hate broccoli.” Said Sepiol.

“Then I don’t want any!” huffed Pakaya.

“Alright. We’ll get some dinner, no broccoli.”

“Yeah!”

~~~~~~~~

A sharp rap came from the other side of Sepiol’s workshop door.

“Mr. Sepiol, are you in there?” asked a voice.

Sepiol nearly fell over his chair scrambling for the door. A customer! He wasn’t going to starve yet! Taking a moment to compose himself, he opened the door.
“Oh! Clytem! To what do I owe the pleasure?” asked Sepiol.

Clytem was the succubus in charge of the architectural planning of Hohonu. Whenever the city needed to expand, she was the one to put the stamp on the design. And if she was here, that could mean only one thing.

“I have a job for you and your wife. Are you interested?” asked Clytem.

Jackpot. On rare occasions, Pakaya’s penchant for wanton destruction netted them a substantial work contract. When a new highway or road needed to be carved out of the rock, the city knew who to turn to. Carving out huge swaths of stone was Pakaya’s specialty. Twice the work done in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the price. Sepiol was still paid for leasing out Pakaya, but a good portion of their pay was withheld to pay for past damages. At least the city was willing to go easy on Pakaya as long as they got their pound of flesh out of her every now and then.

“I am. What do you need?” asked Sepiol, trying to keep an aloof attitude. He still had to bargain for a good contract after all.

“We’re adding a new route to the overcity.” Clytem handed him a blueprint of the proposed pathway to the city at the foot of the mountain Hohonu rested under.

Sepiol winced and gave an exaggerated inhale. “That’s a lot of rock. I just don’t know if I can spare Pakaya for that long…”

“Alright, just thought I’d ask. The dwarves have already agreed on their terms, just figured I’d offer you a chance.” Clytem rolled up the blueprints and began to walk off.

“WAIT! I mean, I’m pretty busy, but I guess I could help out. That is, if the terms are agreeable.” Said Sepiol, feeling the last tattered scraps of his ego evaporate.

“Standard pay.” Said Clytem.

“Standard pay? Clytem, standard pay is what I would expect for a standard job. A whole new entry way to the overcity? That’s ANYTHING but standard.” Said Sepiol.

“Standard pay and we’ll feed your wife while she’s on the job.” Said Clytem.

Hot damn, that might be the best deal they’d ever been offered!

“Deal!” said Sepiol, speaking before she could rescind the offer. The poor fool had no idea what kind of tab she just signed. Clytem gave Sepiol a worried look. Too late now, sucker.

“Be there tomorrow morning.” Clytem said sternly.

Sepiol watched her go. Finally, money was on the way! Things were finally looking up.

~~~~~~~~

“Work! Yeah, yeah! Work!”

Pakaya tore through the streets towards the dig site. Sepiol hung on for dear life, trying to guide her. They would have been there already if Pakaya listened to him and stopped making repeated right turns. Pakaya stopped herself in front of Clytem, leaving a divot in the ground.

“You’re late.” Tutted Clytem.

“Yeah. We had some uh… Yeah.” Said Sepiol.

“Whatever. We have the temp track set up for you. Just make sure she follows the specs.” Said Clytem.

“Sure thing.” Sepiol looked over the crew of engineers they would be working with. Monsters who would follow behind Pakaya to clear the debris and add the braces to the new tunnel. And of course, make sure Pakaya wasn’t boring anywhere she wasn’t supposed to.

“Right. Get to it.” Said Clytem.

“Can I eat first?” asked Pakaya.

“After you dig.” Said Sepiol.

“But I’m hungry!”

“Pakaya. Dig first, food later.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya gave a plaintive whine. Seeing Sepiol’s recalcitrance, she puffed her cheeks and approached the marked wall. Her claws flashed once, and she was away.

“I have to admit, this never gets old.” Chuckled Clytem.

In a matter of seconds, Pakaya was already half-buried in the wall. The first cart rolled up to collect the rock. Sepiol began shouting orders to Pakaya, directing her where to dig. And so, the monotonous task began.

~~~~~~~~

“Pakaya! Slow down! You’re going to go off course!” pleaded Sepiol.

“I’m hungry!” said Pakaya.

They were now dangerously far ahead of the engineers. Normal people would have feared a cave in, but not Sepiol. Pakaya would never let any harm come to him. What he feared was wage garnishment.

“You aren’t going to get any food if you dig the wrong way!” said Sepiol.

“I want chicken! And broccoli!” huffed Pakaya, lashing out at the wall.

“YOU DON’T LIKE BROCCOLI!” shouted Sepiol.

“THEN I DON’T WANT ANY!” screamed Pakaya. She froze.

“Now what is it?” said Sepiol, finally catching up to her.

“I smell marble.” Said Pakaya.

“Marble? Like the stone marble?” asked Sepiol.

“I like it too! Let’s get some!” Pakaya began to dig in a different direction.

“No! That’s not what I meant! Stop!” Sepiol grabbed the tip of her tail. Pakaya ignored him, hellbent on tunneling.

A loud crack echoed through the tunnel. That was strange. Normally the rock absorbed or reflected most of the sound. It almost sounded as if Pakaya had just hit some sort of cave.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?!” screamed a distraught woman.

“Oh! Marble!” exclaimed Pakaya.

Sepiol looked past Pakaya. A room full of dark elves stared back at him through the hole Pakaya had just drilled through their wall. Pakaya was engrossed with the marble tiling of the room.

“He knows! I told you the police were onto us!” squealed one of the elves.

“Shut up! He doesn’t know shit!” said another.

The elf at the end of the table slammed her hands down and stood up. “You, human! Explain yourself!”

Sepiol sheepishly stepped into the room. “Ma’am, I am SO sorry about this. You see, I was just-“

“Silence! How much do you know?” asked the elf.

“Know?”

“Don’t play coy!” The dark elf palmed the whip strapped to her belt.

“I-I don’t know anything! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” pleaded Sepiol, throwing his hands up.

“Maybe it’s about the ‘whirled domino-ation’ they always talk about.” Offered Pakaya.

Sepiol gulped. “D-dominos? Ah, I see! A game club. Right. We’ll leave you in peace, then. Just send me the bill; the city can forward it for you, they have a whole mailbox for the claims. Come on Pakaya, let’s-“

“They play games? Why do they never play when I’m around? They’re always telling me to break something or hurt someone And then they laugh about how they’re going to ‘ensave’ everyone, and take all the men. But they always tell me not to tell anyone, so I don’t. Cause they give me a cookie if I don’t!” said Pakaya.

Sepiol could feel sweat bead on his forehead as Pakaya rambled out her disjointed narrative. The dark elf’s eyes narrowed with each word that spilled out of the wurm’s mouth. A nervous grin was all Sepiol could muster to clear his name.

“Ha ha! What a whacky story, huh? Pakaya comes up with the craziest things. Anyways, we have to get back to work, so we’ll just show ourselves out…” Sepiol turned towards the hole in the wall.

“You’re not going anywhere, human.” Said the head dark elf.

Sepiol gulped. Slowly, he turned back towards her. She had the whip in her hand.

“I’m afraid you know too much. The only reason we spared your wife was because she was smart enough to accept our bribes and stay quiet.”

Sepiol highly doubted that. Chances are the food they offered her triggered a factory reset in her brain every time. He had seen her surprise herself by finding more food in her own bowl before in the middle of the same meal. Pakaya probably didn’t even remember most of the conversations, much less care about them. These dark elves must talk about the topic of conquering Hohonu an awful lot if Pakaya could remember it.

“You, on the other hand, are a liability. We can’t have you returning to the authorities with what you know.” The dark elf flourished her whip “This is the end for you, human!”

Sepiol flinched as she cracked the whip back. He heard a snap, but the leather never made it to his skin. He opened his eyes. The whip was clenched firmly in one of Pakaya’s claws. Her other arm dragged Sepiol against her body protectively.

“What are you doing?” asked Pakaya.

Everyone in the room shivered. The natural jubilant cadence of Pakaya’s voice was gone. Her query wasn’t a childlike question about what was going on, it was an interrogative demand.

The dark elf holding the whip shook off her stupor. “The same thing I’m going to do to-“

Her face broke when she tried to pull the whip free from Pakaya’s grasp. Clearly, that didn’t go how she planned. Pakaya stared back at the elf. There were few things more intimidating in this world than an angry wurm. They were dangerous, sure, but it wasn’t as if they tried to carve swaths of destruction wherever they went. Wurms were just too happy and carefree to bother with things like grace and caution. Unless something roused their ire. An angry wurm was a focused wurm. All that mental fortitude that was usually spent adoring their husband or thinking of food coalesced into a sickening malevolent mass whose only purpose was the complete and utter destruction of the object of their wrath.

“Are you attacking my husband?” asked Pakaya slowly.

“W-what if I am?” asked the elf, doing her best to maintain her authoritative demeanor while shaking in her boots.

Pakaya put her other hand on the whip. With a sharp tug, she ripped the leather in half. The chunk of the whip the dark elf still held dropped limply to the floor. The dark elves stared at the torn chunk of leather in Pakaya’s hands. Pursing her lips, the head dark elf wound up what remained of her weapon and reaffixed it to her hip. Turning abruptly, she powerwalked past the other dark elves and out of the room. The rest of the elves watched her go. Pakaya snorted, tossing the remains of the whip onto the elves’ table. Reaching down, she ripped a sizable chunk out of the marble floor.

“I’m taking this. Come on, babe.” Pakaya lurched out the hole in the wall.

Sepiol followed her. He glanced back at the dark elves. One of them gave him a tight-lipped nod, as if to confirm that their business was indeed concluded and that there was no need to sic Pakaya on them. Following his wurm wife, Sepiol began thinking of a way to explain this to Clytem.

~~~~~~~

“That tunnel she carved is coming out of your pay. I thought you could stop her from getting that far off course?” chided Clytem.

“She gets hangry.” Shrugged Sepiol.

Clytem grunted. Taking out a pen, she marked Pakaya’s tunneling on her blueprint.

“Well, it isn’t that far off. Nothing you two can’t fix with a little work.” Said Clytem. She frowned, seeing the lump of floor in Pakaya’s hands. “Where did that come from?”

“I found it!” said Pakaya.

“You found a chunk of polished marble in the middle of a mountain?” asked Clytem.

“Yeah!”

Clytem looked at Sepiol. Sepiol looked at the ground.

“I see. I’m sure that I’ll be hearing more about this miraculous find soon enough.” Said Clytem.

“I want lunch!” said Pakaya.

“Over there. Be here the same time tomorrow.” Said Clytem.

“Will do, Ma’am.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya squealed, wrapping her tail around Sepiol and dragging him towards the mobile canteen that had just arrived on the rails. She slammed against the side of the train car, nearly knocking it off the tracks as she stuffed herself through the order window.

“I want chicken!” said Pakaya.

The cook inside used the bottom of a hot pan to force the wurm’s face back out.

“For fuck’s sake, Sepiol! Control her! Tell her that we’ll have her chicken ready in a few minutes!” said the dwarf.

“She’ll eat it raw.” Said Sepiol.

“You sure?” asked the cook.

“Yeah. She doesn’t mind.”

“Don’t you?” the dwarf asked Sepiol.

True, Pakaya’s chicken breath could get a little rancid. Sepiol could easily rectify the problem by feeding her some mint or oregano. Any herb would do really. It wasn’t hard to get her to eat the stuff. After all, most of the time Pakaya would eat random plants and leaves even without Sepiol’s prompting.

“It’s fine. Do you have mint by any chance?” asked Sepiol.

“Yeah, we’ve got a whole boatload of spices. Why?” asked the dwarf.

“I might need some of it later. For now, just toss the chicken out.”

The dwarf handed Pakaya the first raw chicken. Pakaya began tearing into the thing with her usual disregard for etiquette. The rest of the kitchen crowded around the window to watch in horror as the chicken was quickly mulched into her gullet.

“More?” asked Pakaya.

The cooks scrambled to get the rest of the chickens. Pakaya took one in each hand trying to cradle a third that a panicked goblin foisted at her.

“Look, either you get it out of that car or she’s coming in to get it; and I can’t stop her if she does.” Said Sepiol.

A barrage of chicken flew past Pakaya. She wheeled around, half a chicken hanging out of her mouth, and began to chase after the carcasses littering the ground. Sepiol stepped past her to get something for himself.

“I think I’m going to be sick…” said a dwarf, watching Pakaya wolf down a dust-caked bird.

“Can I get a bowl of that soup first?” asked Sepiol.

Sepiol watched Pakaya finish her meal while he ate his soup. A delicious medley of sausage and vegetables, seasoned to perfection. The perfect end to a hard day of wurm wrangling.

“Can I have some of that mint? I just need a fistful.” Said Sepiol.

“Huh? Do you not like the soup?” asked the dwarf.

“It isn’t for me.”

The dwarf looked at Pakaya. Pakaya belched and rubbed her stomach.

“Mint… Yeah, I’ll find some for you.”

The dwarf returned a moment later with a small jar of mint. Sepiol began to pour out a handful, but the cook stopped him.

“Just take the whole thing, mister.” She said solemnly.

Sepiol walked over to Pakaya. She whined and curled up into a ball.

“My tummy hurts…” mewled Pakaya.

“What did I tell you about eating too quickly?” asked Sepiol.

“Not to do it.” Said Pakaya.

“Did you eat too quickly?”
“No.”
Sepiol glared at her. Pakaya blinked.

“Just eat this.” Sepiol handed her the herbs.

The stench of carrion quickly subsided as Pakaya guzzled the entire canister of dried mint.

“My mouth feels cold.” Said Pakaya, smacking her lips.

“I’m sure. Let’s go home, shall we?” offered Sepiol.

“Yeah!”

Pakaya scooped up Sepiol and started for home. With a belly full of raw chicken, her movement was reduced to a normal walking speed. Sepiol adjusted himself in her arms, savoring a chance to go travel through town without fearing for his life.

~~~~~~~

Sepiol watched Pakaya churn up her pit of cloth and pillows again. Lifting his arms, he allowed himself to be dragged into her coils. Pakaya sighed.

“Is your stomach feeling better?” asked Sepiol.

“Mm-hmm.” Hummed Pakaya.

“Good. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.” Said Sepiol.

“I’ll get more marble!”

“I think we should find a different source for our marble.” Said Sepiol.

“Okay…” Pakaya said plaintively.

“Thanks for working so hard.” Sepiol kissed her on the nose.

Pakaya giggled and squirmed. She peppered his face with kisses in return.

“I work hard because it makes you happy!” said Pakaya.

“You always make me happy.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya beamed. Her eyebrows raised and she gasped. “Oh! But you need to be careful! That mean lady almost hit you. You shouldn’t put yourself into dangerous situations, got it?” She squeezed Sepiol for emphasis.

“Ow! I get it! I never wanted to be there in the first place.” He protested.

“Hmph! You’re lucky I was there to keep you safe.” Huffed Pakaya.

“I can’t argue with that.” Said Sepiol.

Pakaya readjusted herself into a more comfortable position. Sepiol shut his eyes and began to fall asleep.

“Do you think they’ll have chicken tomorrow?” asked Pakaya drowsily.

“Maybe.”

“Will they have broccoli?”

“Pakaya, you hate broccoli.” Said Sepiol.

“Oh. But I love you!” Sepiol could feel Pakaya’s tail waggle against his feet.

“Yeah, I love you too.” He said.