​Chapter Four


       Tktckschtck was born into the mines of Skreeholm in the midst of a slaughter. The men of Mondane had delved heedless and deep into the bowels of the mountain, and by chance had broken into one of the side tunnels belonging to the Skree. Three parties of Guild Heroes are maintained on retainer by Mondane, protecting the miners in rotating shifts. The rest shift was sent into the tunnel to clear it of danger, and they came upon the birthing chamber of the small colony.
       In all three Kingdoms, the Skree are considered deadly pests, and in areas of common infestation, as around Skreeholm, bounties are awarded for their skins.
       The heroes sent flares into the chamber, blinding the dark adapted Skree. The only light in the Underearth is the phosphorescence of several species of fungus; the flashes sent them into chaos. 
       Two rangers set about clipping their wings, herding the runners toward the center of the chamber, where the bard and the tank held the ground. A dozen managed to skitter away into the cool safety of darkness, but two score met quick, merciless ends. The pregnant bitch was being skinned when Corneus floated into the chamber, face white, pudgy fingers twitching.
       The party of doughty heroes did not have the opportunity to scream. Their ashes settled in the cracks of schist and slate. Corneus floated sadly from Skree corpse to Skree corpse, arranging limbs and closing eyes. Then he came to the would be mother's half-skinned remains, and he sensed the spark clinging ever so tenuously to life within. Color and excitement returned to his face. This was, after all, what he had come to find. 

                                                                                        *      *     *

        Tktckschtck (Names among the Skree are highly specific and assigned sometimes generations ahead of time according to the blind Fatetasters predictions. Tktckschtck, roughly translated, becomes either "Eater of Flowers" or "Destroyer of Worlds;" the tenses are ambiguous.) was renamed Tiddles by Corneus, who proceeded to raise him as a human. (Incidentally, Tiddles' mother's name, Stckvscht, equates to "Egg of Desolation". This is of particular note as more usual appellations among the Skree run along the lines of "Fungus Snorter", "Big Sharp Claws", and the ever popular "Brightbelly".) Corneus was forced to make minor adjustments to the vocal cords, since the larynx of the Skree makes human speech impossible otherwise. Aside from this, little direct meddling went on in Tiddles' physiology. Corneus' sense of fair play forbade too much magical interference with the little monster's growing pains.
       Remarkably enough, he did not need it. The average Skree lives approximately twenty years. By the age of three Tiddles was fully grown (not quite three feet high) and speaking High Valanthian fluently, as well as a few of the Child Tongues and a smattering of Faerie. Corneus rarely took the time to interact with him directly in any significant fashion, and so Tiddles was brought up by a bevy of fond slaves and by the spirit bound in his educational Tablet. 
       Soot-grey scales gradated to near white around his throat and belly, with webbed fingers and toes, and small talons in place of nails on his otherwise human hands. His beady, violet hued eyes gleamed red in the absence of light.

                                                                                        *      *     *
                                                                                        
       Maggitha, white of face and eye, stood in the path of the naked barbarian, terrifying in all his proportions.
       "Let my daughter go," she commanded. The barbarian only stared at her, eyes like copper bases, and said nothing. "Don't you understand me? Are you not civilized?" Well of course he isn't civilized, Maggitha, isn't that obvious? Her eyes traveled downward and froze, until, with an effort, she tore them away. World snake, indeed. Poor Kerrigan, no one is ever going to be able to believe that you're unsullied after this.
       "Don't you speak?" she went on desperately.
       The barbarian looked past her. "I saved you both." His voice was unaccountably gentle, and sounded very far away."I take her as my payment."
       Kerrigan, hanging over his shoulder, gave the barest whimper, but was elsewise silent. She shivered like a frightened hare.
       "You can't!" Maggitha screamed. "She's all I have!" Without her, I lose everything else soon enough.
       The barbarian glanced toward the wagon and the remaining oxen, who ground contentedly at their molars, as oblivious of this conflict as they had been of the more violent one just finished. He was clearly skeptical.
       "It is only a year and a day. Then I shall release her, for she will hate me."
       I hate you now. Maggitha bit her tongue. Surely there was some way free of this. She was an ingenious business woman, was she not? Was there nothing she could offer this barbarian, nothing she could give him in exchange for her daughters freedom?
       Her eyes flicked downward again of their own accord, and she began to warm.
       "Don't go yet," she began, but the barbarian ignored her. He resettled Kerrigan on his shoulder and strode forward, into the ruins. Maggitha ran after him, wailing, but the barbarian offhandedly batted her away, muttering 'woman', as he did so. When her daze cleared, he was nowhere to be seen, and her screaming went unanswered by her daughter.

       "Stay quiet child," the barbarian said, and Kerrigan obeyed. Her mother's cries soon faded in the far away, swallowed by the forest of ancient masonry that was growing all around her. Her whole body felt numb and heavy, as if she was floating over the ground. Fear had scoured her mind so thoroughly that she was not afraid. She was caught in a perpetual moment, looking neither forward nor back.
       At length, she was set down. Kerrigan blinked. She was staring at a marble rendering of her own face. "What," she said even as the barbarian shushed her. The statue was smaller than her. She was taller by a hand, and her bone structure not quite so angular or fine. And those pointed ears... But still, the likeness was quite striking.
       She saw that the barbarian was appraising her, and she shrank into herself. He turned away and set about building a fire in a pit that had clearly been used for that purpose on many occasions before. There were several leather packs nearby, and a heavy wooden pole fully as tall as a man and twice as thick as her wrist. Neither uttered a word until he was finished, and then it was simply 'stay', before he slipped further into the ruins. 
       Kerrigan obeyed.

                                                                                        *      *     *

       Cornelia petted the lizard child and listened to him coo. Such a sweet creature, with its sticky webbed feet and its stubby snout. Cornelia couldn't help but think of it as her pet, and what matter that it could speak better than she? Conversation wasn't her purpose, and caring for Tiddles was a pleasant relief from her duties as one of many woman in Corneus' seraglio. Wizards and their appetites.
       He was playing with that Tablet, and communicating with the face that appeared in the clay only for him. They spoke a language she did not understand, but recognized as one the wizards used whenever they didn't want their slaves to eavesdrop. It didn't matter of course, what a slave did or didn't hear, but one could never be sure to whom they would report, or whether something extra lurked behind their obsequious mien, a daemon hidden in their flesh to spy.
       Cornelia adjusted her translucent silks, and sighed.
       "Time is running out, oh squamate one. Do you have any more questions to ask of me?" The face in the clay smiled expansively. "Remember, the wiznet knows all."
       "I'll always have more questions," Tiddles snout twitched irritably, "but am I ready for the testing? Do you know?"
       "It isn't going to be a test, properly speaking, it's a challenge. And the difficulty of the challenge hinges entirely upon the efficacy of your opponent. Rest assured though, the advantage lies with the one whom I have trained."
       Tiddles flicked his pointed ears. "Don't they have a Tablet just as I do?"
       The face in the clay sank away, "In a manner of speaking, yes. Only my attention is not given to them so willingly as it is to you."
       Tiddles did not know how to feel about this. On more than one occasion the teaching daemon that dwelled in the Tablet and accessed the wiznet had evinced an unwanted fondness for him. It was something he was very conscious of as being a mystery. Aside from being a Skree in the world of men, he was not peculiar or special, and hardly deserved a second thought from anyone, let alone the enigmatic face in the clay.
       "Shall we review an elucidation of the fundamental procedures of cauldron care and alchemical proportion? Truly, Squamous, you will do well. I can guarantee it."
      The face melted away, leaving a blank off-white slab in its place. Tiddles wondered what it had meant by 'guarantee'. The room he shared with Cornelia was nine feet by nine. Enough space for sleeping pillows and curtains, a wardrobe and a brazier, not much else. He had no need of books, the tablet was thousands of those to be sampled as he wished, and he had only two miniature robes. One to wear and one to wear while sleeping. The human girl's cossetting him was his chief pleasure in life, beyond languages and mysticism. She was a foot and a half again taller than him, very short, that is, and endowed with a delirious lack of sharp edges, a voluptuousness that would never turn to fat, because magic made it so. It was with a mixture of ecstasy and mortification that he dreamt of her, and leaned into her careless embraces. Cornelia would have undoubtedly thrown him out a window, if there were one, if she had even an inking of half of half of his lessermost inappropriate thoughts.
       Many uses has a snout.
       Cornelia rubbed a scented oil into his scales before he left for the trial. He had only his day robe. All the apparatus of a prentice's work were to be provided for him by a third party. Tiddles went out of the servants quarters and took a spiral staircase up until he was on the central level of Corneus' tower. Lavish carpets and tapestries, generously embellished stone, surrounded a fireplace rimmed in gold that Tiddles could have nested in.
       He went outside, into a vast enclosed cylinder, the massive sand colored blocks so numerous and remote that they seemed no more than rough grains on an otherwise smooth surface. Uniform light poured out of the ceiling hundreds of paces above, polishing the towers and the gardens and the myriad paths of unblemished pavement. Tiddles set off down the way, a tiny humanoid in a world of grand proportions. He held his arms out to his sides and made little puttering noises, amused at being alive.
       Soon he arrived at the amphitheater that waited near the center of this level. Its acoustic shell was sculpted to appear as a wave crashing over an invisible rock. Servants skittered here and there, their duties numberless and nameless. They were usually selected by the wizards for their aesthetic appeal, so everyone that Tiddles saw was beautiful with the exception of the wizards themselves. For some unknowable reason they all seemed to come in but a handful of typecasts; the jellyful slob, corpulent and jolly; the gaunt apparition, hook-nosed and mean; and the wizened ancients, very Gandalfian, with or without a twinkling eye.
       There were a dozen or so wizards in the stands, and perhaps four times as many servants to attend their every imaginable whim. Corneus waved at Tiddles as he passed him headed for the stage.
       Awaiting him there were cauldrons and beakers, spindles and flukes and oracular instruments, a few tomes, a panoply of chalk and candles, needles and no small quantity of unlabeled alchemical reagents. Of course, there was all of this again for the use of Gargamel's chosen prentice. That one stood waiting at the opposite end of the stage.
       A young boy with blond hair cut at the level of his chin. A cherub's face with glass blue eyes caught in an emoteless mask. The robes were decorated with patterns suggesting a coral reef, though all in shades of gray, and Tiddles could almost make out the minuscule fish darting through the maze.
      Tiddles trilled his nervousness and went to check his measures and baubles for flaws. All must ever be perfect perfect perfect if he was to show that he was better, if he was not to let his father master down. The other prentice showed no sign of even knowing where he was.
       A few words were exchanged in the stands as various venerable personages conferred. Tiddles could not make out what they said, so he did his best to ignore them.
       Finally everything was arranged to his liking, and still the blonde prentice had not moved. That was alright, if a little unsettling, because it meant worse luck for him. Tiddles was of the sort that confounds luck with preparation. Corneus rose, and one pudgy hand swung skyward, and the windless air of the Tower of Sorcery held as still as the roots of the Tree of All Things.
       Then the hand swung down.


© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl

 Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted

William Myrl