Disclaimer: I own nothing and am making no profit.
Acknowledgement: Rpeh for some beta work and advice while writing.
Author's note: This is part three of my four part Holiday bonus series of adding Christmas related chapters to my completed stories. If you enjoy it please check out the others as well!
Solstice in the Desert
Caelya pulled herself up the sandy dune with way too much effort, fight with every step as the ground slipped away under her. Their horses had died a few days prior and she was convinced Torman actually had no clue where they were going. She cursed under her breath and leaned against her staff to support herself.
"Mage lost," Ragthuk said, voicing her opinion for her. He was tall, pale, and massive, and Caelya was convinced knew more of the common tongue than he let on.
"I know precisely where we're going," Torman responded prissily. Their mage had complained surprisingly less than she'd expected. He was of her height and had the permanently tanned skin of someone used to warmer climates. He was always the first to gripe about something uncomfortable so she was fairly surprised that he wasn't constantly bitching.
Then again, this trip had been his idea. And he was answering a summons from his original master in the city where he'd been raised. So, he should at least, in theory, know where it was. Although Caelya had absolutely no idea how anyone could tell one gigantic sandy dune from the next.
"Mage lies," Ragthuk scoffed. Given that he'd turned pretty much into a pack mule with the deaths of their animals, she figured he had the most right to complain. He looked quite comical with seven packs hanging off of him along with his own large axe and other assorted smaller bags hanging off his belt.
"Nah, we're getting close," Volke said. He pulled the cloth he'd kept over his face to protect from the desert winds. He had dark hair that fell past his eyes and was perhaps a head taller than Caelya.
"How can you tell?" Caelya the cleric asked.
"A feeling," Volke said cheerfully. He stepped up to the top of the dune and gazed around. He was carrying her pack, as all of their gear had been too much for Ragthuk. She hadn't really wanted him to, but he'd just picked it up and after a fortnight of wandering she liked not having the weight on her shoulders. And he insisted that they keep their cleric as healthy as possible. His dual daggers hung sheathed on his hip and a bow across his back. He stared out over the dunes with far too large of a smile on his face. After a moment of silence he pulled out a couple pieces of salted beef from a pouch on his hip and offered one to her.
"Forgive me for not trusting your feelings," Caelya said. Her usual pristine blonde bun was in a disarray after climbing the dunes. She knew she should have taken some sort of head covering, but only Volke had been smart enough to worry about that.
She loathed to accept the jerky, thinking perhaps their resident thief probably stole it from starving orphans or something. The man had nothing that resembled morals. But she was also starving. She chewed it slowly, making it last as long as she possibly could.
"Well we can't just starve to death in the desert, that would be way too anti-climatic," Volke said.
"I doubt the Gods care where we die," Torman responded.
"Oh, I think they do," Volke said as he offered a piece of beef to their other two companions as well. "Anyway, I can smell a town and we're close."
"You can't smell a town," Caelya scoffed.
"Sure you can," Volke said without offering any hint of the scent.
"We should try to do a few more dunes before we retire for the evening," Torman said.
"But look at the view from this one," Volke sighed and melodramatically turned and faced the rest of the group. He stepped up toward Caelya and brushed a loose strand of bright blonde hair from her face. "It's almost as beautiful as our lovely cleric."
"Just because you haven't seen another woman in a fortnight doesn't mean I'm beautiful," Caelya said, slapping his hand away. She was rather self-conscious of her oddly angular features. There was probably some elf blood in her ancestry, although not enough to giver her any of the benefits of that race.
"Cleric pretty," Ragthuk agreed.
"And you're going to argue with that?" Volke said, gesturing to the barbarian.
"We should get moving," Caelya said, starting down the dune and making her way to the next one.
Two hours and a couple of dunes later Caelya drank the last of her water and decided that dying in a desert really wasn't that bad of a way to go. She probably shouldn't have moved so quickly to get ahead of the other three. But Volke was irritating her and it seemed worth it to have a barbarian and a mage between her and the thief. She hunched into her staff, knowing her legs were close to giving out and glanced down.
"Ragthuk?" she asked as the Barbarian.
"Yes?" he grunted as he ascended to the top of the dune.
"Is that a city or have I completely lost it?" she asked. The barbarian trudged up next to her and stared down.
"City," he said quietly.
"Oh! Thank the Gods," Torman coughed.
"You've completely lost it," Volke said.
"No," Caelya sniffled as Ragthuk looked confused and pinched himself, staring down the dune.
"At best that's a large town," Volke added.
The crack echoed through the dunes as Caelya slapped Volke as hard as she could muster.
"You stupid, stupid annoying-" she waved her arms in frustration as the words didn't come to her.
"Ouch," Volke said while rubbing his cheek.
"Thief deserved it," Ragthuk commented.
"As much as I am in favor of general harm coming to Volke," Torman commented, "We'll wind up camped on this dune tonight if we spend too much time out here."
"Well it is a lovely dune," Volke said.
"Caelya?" Ragthuk asked.
"Yes?" the cleric responded.
"Slap thief again," Ragthuk said and another crack rang through the dunes before the four started to descend toward the city. This time, Torman took the lead as they approached what he was convinced was his home town.
Caelya thought he should know that. But he claimed he left when he was young and it looked similar but he couldn't fully remember. Oh well, she figured, at least they could get directions to where they were supposed to be going. And maybe there'd be an inn with real beds and a bath.
They arrived in the middle of a festival. The town was lit by many multicolored lanterns, children were running through the streets, there was happy chaos all around. Three of the four exchanged glances while the festivities acted around them. Volke was nowhere to be seen.
"It must be the solstice!" Torman laughed. "I completely lost track of time."
"Meat on stick," Ragthuk said, drooling.
"You can't even tell what that is," Caelya said.
"Snake probably," Torman said. "Or sand worm."
"Gross," Caelya said.
"Meat," Ragthuk said, moving toward the stand.
"You just had salted beef!" Caelya said.
"Hot meat," Ragthuk amended.
"I don't think it smells that bad," Volke said, reappearing at Caelya's side. He offered her what appeared to be some type of cinnamon dusted bread and a deliciously cold cider. While taking something offered by Volke was a recipe for waking up in the wrong bed sore in unusual places, it looked too delicious to pass up.
"Would have been too much to ask to buy one for the whole group?" Torman teased.
"Buy?" Volke asked, sounding genuinely confused by the term.
"Oh Gods! Who did you steal this from?" Caelya asked after resisting the urge to spit out the cider.
"No idea," Volke said.
"How can you have no idea?" Caelya questioned.
"It's not like I asked! I just took it!" Volke responded.
"You are literally awful," Caelya said.
"Yet you're eating it," Volke said.
"I'm starving," Caelya countered ineffectually.
"Me too," Torman said. "Pass a hunk of that over." Caelya debated not doing so but instead she ripped it in half and handed him the chunk she hadn't taken a bite out of. Ragthuk returned a moment later with a still wriggling worm impaled on a stick. He took a large chomp out of it and Caelya fought back the urge go gag.
"Well is this Mila'Tora?" Volke asked, eyeing Torman.
"It is," the mage smiled as he gazed around his home town.
"Where's your guild hall then?" he asked.
"Other side of town, near the south gate. But no one will be there. The solstice festival is a huge party we'd have better luck looking around the town for them," he said.
"Okay," Ragthuk said. "They look like mage?"
"We don't all look alike," Torman scoffed. Ragthuk shrugged.
"Must," Volke said. "Look that might be one! Why don't you go ask!"
"Okay," Ragthuk said, walking toward a tall man who looked nothing like a mage.
"The worst," Caelya said, shaking her head at the thief.
"We'd probably have more luck near the south gate," Torman said.
"You boys can go scrounging around all you like. But I am going to find an inn with a warm bath and clean sheets and crash. We can just go to the guild in the morning," Caelya said.
"Can I join you? I love baths," Volke said.
"No," Caelya said. "If you want to make yourself useful find a tailor and get me some linen so I can fix my robe.
"It's a festival where would I find linen? There's no way the shops are open!"
"Well, find out!" Caelya said as she started to walk down one of the streets. She has absolutely no idea where she was going, but deeper into town seemed like the best bet.
She was only walking for perhaps a mile when she found an inn. A few horses, camels, and an odd purple and horned creature stood outside of it at the water trough. She stepped in and secured a room and a bath for the evening.
She wasn't too shocked to find Volke in the room after she'd finished bathing. He had his headgear off and his dark hair was spilling over his eyes. He was shirtless and running a sharpening stone over one of his daggers.
"You done in the bath?" he asked as she pulled the towel tighter around her shoulders.
"Yes," she said.
"Awesome," he said and slid off of the bed and called for the serving girl to bring fresh water. Caelya ignored him as he left. She dug a thin shift out of her pack and put it on before sitting at the small vanity in the room and brushing out her hair. Nearly a month of walking through the desert had made it more disgusting than she would have thought possible and it felt wonderful to have it clean once again.
Once that was done she turned her attention back to the other bed in the room. Volke had left various small rolls of cloth on the bed. She picked through her light armor and the robe she'd tossed off before sitting on the bed and going through the ritual process of mending her gear. None of it was in that bad of shape.
The cook found her a few minutes later with two trays of a beef and vegetable stew and a bottle of cider. The cook told her Volke had ordered it shortly after his arrival. She nodded and started in on one of the trays. It was far better than anything she'd had to eat recently.
"How's the stew?" Volke asked a moment later. He had a towel wrapped around his waist and was drying his hair with another.
"Better than worm on a stick, I'm sure," Caelya said.
"Probably," Volke agreed. He poured himself a glass of cider and refilled hers before starting on the stew. He went back to tuning his daggers as he ate.
"Can you do mine too?" Caelya asked.
"Sure, I can do you," Volke said. She rolled her eyes but dug through per pack for the stiletto she kept for emergencies. She tossed it, sheath and all, to him. He let it land on the bed next to him and kept his attention on his own weapons.
"Can you fix the hole in my shirt from those damn centaurs?" he asked.
"The ones who we told you wouldn't agree with your poker rules?" Caelya asked as she mended her robe.
"The very same," Volke said.
"Have you washed it in the last year?"
"Probably within two months," Volke said. Caelya made a face as he dug it out of his pack and tossed it at her. She caught it and examined it, looking for the hole.
"The red is the closest cloth I have to this shade. And even then, it won't match all that well," she said.
"That's fine," he responded. "As long as the hole is gone I'm good."
"Okay," she said and started to patch it carefully. They were silent for a few more moments as the innkeeper came in and cleared away the food. Volke unsheathed Caelya's dagger and examined it.
"This is fine, I'll give it a new edge but it doesn't need more than that," he said.
"Thanks," Caelya responded and tossed the shirt back to him. He caught it absently and tossed it down with the rest of his gear. Caelya pulled an old spell book out of her pack and started to read.
Moments later Volke decided her dagger was good enough. He slipped off of his bed and tucked it in with her robe before blowing out the candles and sliding onto her bed next to her.
She rolled away from him but he slid an arm around her and pulled her body against his. She sighed and closed her eyes, letting the book fall off the side of the bed.
"We're alone," he whispered.
"Sleepy," she yawned.
"Fine," he sighed, nuzzling his face into her hair.
She woke without even realizing she'd fallen asleep. Volke was already dressed and picking through some breakfast. She yawned and sat up as he offered her a plate. A few moments after finishing he left the room to give her some privacy while she redonned all of her gear and spent a few moments doing her hair back into an intricate bun.
Moments later she met the rest of the group outside the inn. Torman offered the reigns of a horse to her. She took them and pulled herself up.
"To the guild?" she asked.
"Yes," Torman said. "I saw an old friend last night. He told us someone will meet us there this morning. But he wouldn't tell me what the urgent summons was about."
"Of course he wouldn't," Volke sighed. Caelya noticed there were only two horses. She offered her hand down to the thief. He took it and mounted up behind her. Torman took the other horse and Ragthuk walked next to him.
It was slow going through the town, mostly by choice. They weaved through the remnants of the party the night before. Caelya yawned sleepily and barely paid attention to where the horse was going. She was dozing off when Volke leaned forward and pressed his lips to her neck. She elbowed him in the ribs and shot a glance to the side to see if Torman and Ragthuk had noticed anything.
They arrived at the guild hall moments later. Caelya slid off of her new horse and tied it up outside the building next to Torman's while Ragthuk and Volke examined the large structure.
"Amazingly there doesn't seem to be anyone here," Volke said dryly.
"Place looks abandoned," Ragthuk said.
"That it does," Torman frowned. "The gardens out front were always well tended. The lemons were some of the best I've ever had."
"Well they're dead now," Volke said. He unsheathed his daggers while Ragthuk lifted his axe from his back.
"Would it be so difficult to have a welcoming party and a feast just once?" Torman groaned and lifted his own scepter.
"We'll never get that lucky," Caelya sighed, holding her staff at the ready.
"I lead," Ragthuk said.
"You got it, big guy," Volke said as he seemed to fade into the shadows. The barbarian started walking toward the heavy oaken doors of the guild hall. Caelya and Torman followed him carefully.
"Door isn't trapped," Volke whispered from somewhere above them. "Nothing out of the usual. I could get in through a second-floor window."
"Don't split up," Torman said.
"Fine," Volke sighed. He appeared back by the door as Ragthuk reached to open it.
Nothing impeded their path inside. Ragthuk stood in the center of a large foyer and looked around.
"Gods," Torman whispered. "What happened?"
"Fight," Ragthuk said. The entire first level was destroyed, the furniture in pieces and strewn about, debris littered the floor. Caelya stepped over a destroyed chair and gazed around.
"Obviously," Torman frowned. "But why?"
"Loot?" Volke said.
"There's nothing of great value here. I mean maybe a few coins for the spell books but that's about it," Torman said. "Maybe some of the ritual objects but I can't imagine they're worth trashing the place over."
"Well someone did," Volke said.
"But still, how?" Torman asked. "This place regularly housed fifty plus mages. It wouldn't be that easy to just come in and destroy it."
"No one here now," Ragthuk said.
"Don't remind me," Torman said, wincing at the thought of the dead, wondering how many were his friends.
"Seems odd that no one in town seemed to notice," Volke said.
"Agreed," Ragthuk nodded.
"Maybe it just happened?" Torman asked.
"Possibly," Volke said. "But some of this damage seems like it happened a while ago and I think I smell rotting meat from that direction."
"The kitchens are that way," Torman sighed.
"I'm going to go check the upstairs," Volke said.
"Be careful," Caelya said quietly, the foyer was giving her the creeps but she couldn't pinpoint any reason why.
"I'll be super sneaky," Volke said, smirking at her as he faded into the shadows once more. Caelya watched him climb the stairs and then joined Torman in examining the foyer while Ragthuk moved to peer into other rooms.
After a few minutes of searching, Caelya thought she saw something slither along the floor out of the corner of her eye. She rounded on it with her staff but nothing was there.
"What?" Torman asked.
"I thought I saw something," Caelya frowned. Ragthuk moved toward the debris pile she was looking at and started shifting through it with his axe.
"Nothing," he said.
"Oh," Caelya frowned. She stopped looking around the room then and instead focused on a few areas, wondering if she was really hallucinating it and trying her best to shake off the feeling that something was wrong.
After what felt like an eternity Volke slid down the banister and landed neatly on his feet with the rest of the group.
"Nothing," he said. "Well, something, but nothing alive."
"What was it?" Torman asked.
"Same as down here. But there's a lot of clothing and bedding and what not and most of it looks like it's been eaten through. Like it's been totally ignored for years," Volke explained.
"Odd," Torman said. He kicked over some debris in the corner of the room and frowned as it revealed absolutely nothing.
"We should get out of here, this place is freaking me out," Caelya admitted.
"Agreed," Ragthuk said.
"Where's your sense of fun," Volke teased.
"The last time you invoked my sense of fun I wound up fleeing a hot spring with a pack of zombie dogs chasing me while I wore way too little clothing. I still haven't replaced the boots you made me leave," Caelya frowned.
"Yes, but it was fun, wasn't it?" Volke smirked.
"No. It was the opposite of fun."
"Pink underwear," Torman laughed.
"Bouncy," Ragthuk giggled. The noise sounded completely off coming from the larger man. Caelya blushed and clenched her hands over her staff.
"I'm going to kill all of you," Caelya said.
"Probably," Volke agreed. "But let's do it after we check out the basement."
"There isn't a basement," Torman said.
"Sure there is," Volke laughed. "Or else why would we come here?"
"Probably off of kitchen, for storage," Ragthuk said.
"And let's go check it out," Volke said, stepping toward the kitchen. Ragthuk followed immediately. Caelya and Torman lagged behind. The kitchen was in the same state as the foyer. Except it looked like half prepared food had been picked through and rotted. The smell was atrocious and they all gagged upon entering.
But they pressed through until they reached the stone stairs leading down to the basement. Ragthuk slipped in front of Volke and led the way down the stairs. Ragthuk stopped on the last step. Volke peered around him.
"Huh," he said, staring at the landing.
"I'm going to puke," Caelya added as she looked at the scene before her.
The floor of the larder was littered with a layer of blood, bone, and gore. Corpses were strewn everywhere. The bodies were in various states of undress with large chunks ripped out of them, limbs hanging on by threads, and various missing appendages. What clothing was left on them looked to be in much the same situation.
But the general carnage was far less disturbing than the fact that the floor seemed to be slithering about one way or another. The bodies seemed to be sliding over each other, rubbing against each other, and moving on their own accord with the wet slopping constantly filling the room.
"What is this?" Ragthuk asked, moving to step toward it.
"More damn zombies," Caelya frowned.
"I'd maybe stay on the step, big guy," Volke said peering around him. On the opposite side of a larder a figure, standing amongst the carnage, turned to face them, and then fled down a cave cut into the wall.
"We have to go after him!" Torman exclaimed, attempting to push past Volke and Ragthuk to move down the hallway.
"Maybe you also shouldn't step into the orgy of worms," Volke said.
"What?" Torman asked as he and Caelya looked down, shifting their focus to the ground. She wasn't sure how she hadn't noticed it before. The corpses weren't moving on their own. No there were hundreds of gigantic worms ringing through them. The worms were shifting around the ground, dragging the bodies around as they bled and ate.
Caelya gagged once more as a large open maw burst through the breast of one of the nearest corpses. Hundreds of teeth ringed its throat as it kept pushing forward, toward the stairs and toward Ragthuk. The barbarian tried to swing his axe at it but there wasn't enough room. Instead he winced away, hoping to shield the blow with part of his body and armor.
But the blow never fell. Volke slammed one of his daggers through the creature. It hissed loudly, an off-putting shrieking noise that seemed to emanate from the very core of the creature. It reeled back, annoyed but not dangerously harmed. Except it's momentum caused it to fall backwards into the pit.
The other worms turned on it immediately, lunging for it and pushing themselves through it, eating bits of it. More of the shrieking filled the room as everyone but Volke gagged. The thief barely paid attention to it, instead he cleaned his dagger with one of the furs hanging from Ragthuk's belt.
"Baby sandworms?" the thief suggested. "Looks like there's eggs in the corner."
"That could certainly wreak havoc in an enclosed environment," Torman said. "But I feel like they should have been able to defend from that."
"Probably," Volke said. "But they didn't. So that's pretty much a moot point."
"We have to go after that man," Torman said.
"Why?" Ragthuk asked.
"Because he had the Chalice of Mila'Tora," Torman said.
"The what?" Volke asked.
"It's a legendary magical cup. They say drinking from it can dull pain and instill happiness," Torman explained.
"That just sounds like someone was drinking alcohol out of it," Volke said. Caelya and Raghuk couldn't help but snicker.
"It's a powerful magical artifact that the guild has protected for centuries!" Torman exclaimed, looking frustrated by the thief's glib attitude.
"Question?" Volke asked.
"What?" Torman spat in annoyance.
"Why didn't that come up before?" Volke asked.
"What do you mean?" Torman asked.
"Ten minutes ago, when we were wondering why someone would trash the first two floors of the mage guild, you remember that?" Volke asked.
"Yes," Torman said.
"So why didn't you say, 'Oh I bet they stole Flippy the Fabulous Firemancer's magical drinking cup' rather than insist nothing of value was here?" Volke asked.
"It must have slipped my mind," Torman said. "Regardless we need to get it back."
"So, are we going to plan for that or just watch the worm orgy?" Caelya asked.
"Worms gross," Ragthuk said.
"I agree," Caelya said.
"Well, we have to go through them," Torman said.
"That seems like just a stupid decision," Volke said.
"You have a better idea?"
"Sure," Volke said. "That tunnel goes east. There's very little east of here outside of town. So, it might not even have an outlet. Rather than gingerly dance around becoming worm food, I say Caelya and I head up top while you two start a fire and torch the damn things."
"What would that accomplish?" Torman asked.
"Aside from killing a disgusting number of worms? The guy either flees out of the building, in which case you and Ragthuk just wait and grab him as soon as he steps foot back in town. Or he flees through his tunnel. Which, if it has an outlet, the smoke should show us exactly where that is. Caelya and I then wander east and see if we notice anything. If neither of us get lucky, then we wait for the fire to go out and find the cup after."
"We can't risk destroying it," Torman said.
"If it's not fireproof it's not a magical artifact worth a damn," Volke said.
"And you would know?" Torman asked.
"Probably more than anyone else here," Volke said.
"Fire plan better than fighting plan," Ragthuk said.
"As much as it pains me to agree with Volke, I think he's right," Caelya said.
"It won't work," Torman sighed.
"And why is that?" Volke asked.
"This species of sand worm is virtually immune to fire," Torman explained.
"Of course it is," Volke said, rolling his eyes.
"So we'll have to engage them," Torman said.
"Well, typically if something is immune to fire it's weak to cold," Volke said. "How about you just freeze the room. That way we can just sneak around and cut them in half until they totally stop wriggling."
"The ambient temperature is too high for me to cast such an ice spell," Torman said as snottily as he could muster.
"You are the worst wizard I have ever encountered," Volke said.
"I'm a magician," Torman responded. Volke airily waved his hand as if he didn't think that was a particularly pertinent detail.
"If you two don't come up with a better plan than that I am going back into town and finding the quickest way to get as far away from here as possible," Caelya said.
"Agree with cleric," Ragthuk said.
"I still say we light them on fire," Volke said.
"It won't kill the worms!" Torman exclaimed.
"Fuck killing the worms," Volke scoffed. "It'll kill the idiot with the cup. It's our best option that isn't just finding the local guards and making them deal with it."
"If these things slaughtered mages they will destroy local militia," Caelya said.
"Militia have spears. Spears are thin and have range. Ragthuk has an axe that makes him look like he's compensating for something, I have two knives, you have a staff with a pretty gem on the end and our mage has a book," Volke said.
"Ragthuk huge," Ragthuk said.
"I have a sword," Torman responded snottily.
"We are not equipped to fight this," Volke said.
"You have a bow and arrow," Caelya added.
"I have a bow," Volke said. "Given that we were going to Torman's old home to answer a summons I did not bother restocking on any arrows."
"Of course," Caelya sighed.
"Magic missiles?" Ragthuk said.
"What's that?" Volke asked.
"Thief and me block door. Cleric and bad wizard-"
"Magician," Torman spat.
"Shoot missiles at orgy. We smack down any that approach," Ragthuk said.
"Well I don't like it," Volke said. "But at the very least it could funnel them to us."
"We don't really have a shield though," Torman said. "You'll be pretty defenseless."
"I can create a barrier in a pinch but we'll probably need more firepower than just Torman," Caelya said.
"Well if they start to seem overwhelming we can back up the stairs and hope they really suck at climbing," Volke said.
"They should," Torman responded.
"Just with you saying that makes me think they'll be able to climb just fine," Volke scoffed.
"Fuck you," Torman said. "I'll go behind Ragthuk."
"Shouldn't the more important party member be behind the person that can actually stop an attack?" Volke responded.
"Screw you man," Torman said again.
"Cleric important," Ragthuk agreed. "Cleric fix hurts."
"Volke will keep me safe," Caelya said, hoping to diffuse the tension. It didn't work that well as Torman and the thief just stared at each other. Until eventually Volke spoke.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, babe," he said. Caelya hit him on the head with her staff. Ragthuk chuckled.
"Start now," he said after a moment.
"Wait I'm not ready!" Torman gasped while digging through his bags. Caelya got annoyed and pointed her staff around Volke. He leaned to give her some room as she shot a bolt at one of the worms.
It impacted it hard and blew a large chunk out of the worm. But that just seemed to anger it. It rose up and shrieked loudly as Volke and Ragthuk took defensive stances in the door way. It shot toward them but as it passed two more of the worms started to consume it.
"They turn on each other when weakened," Caelya said.
"Aim for the edges of the group, see if we can lure them and create a path?" Volke suggested as Torman hit the middle with a fire ball.
It wasn't effective. The large mass of worms raised up and started rushing toward the door.
"Are you serious?" Volke yelled.
"What now?" Torman gasped in surprise.
"You just said they were immune to fire! You just pissed off the entire horde!"
"Shut up and fight!" Torman said as the worms reached them. Ragthuk put his axe through one as another shot underneath the blow only to be dissected by Volke's daggers. The two fighters kept up the barrage as the creatures kept coming. The two eventually stepped down into the room proper, fanning out slightly to provide more room for the casters. Caelya kept firing as well, doing her best to prevent the creatures from gaining any more ground.
Torman, though, only attacked when something came close enough to him to pose a direct threat. He made very little effort to assist the group.
The worms swarmed Ragthuk first. He managed to fend them off with a whirlwind of blows. But there were simply too many of them. Far too many. And once the first got a bite in, more and more followed.
Caelya immediately shifted from an offensive role to a defensive. She threw every healing spell she had at the barbarian. Ragthuk helped by downing a couple of potions as he tried to step back toward the stairs.
The worms seemed to sense his retreat. As if on cue they shifted their focus onto the thief. Their numbers were thinned by that point but there were still over a dozen of the creatures left. Volke stepped toward them, twirling his twin daggers and dodging around the creatures.
Volke had never really told them about his past. While he was always jovial there was always a sense that there was far more beneath the surface than he let on. He was normally happy and cheered up everyone around him.
But there was more to him than that. A side he did not let show very often. The only time she'd really seen it was a couple of months back. They'd encountered an evil lord who was oppressing his people.
Caelya hadn't really paid that close of attention to the specifics behind it. But the man had been a powerful mage in his own right. And he'd been tormenting his people in all sorts of heinous ways while trying to breed a superior race.
Something about it had rubbed Volke the wrong way. She'd never seen him move like he had in that throne room. It was quick and efficient. He'd stepped away from the empty throne before the man's head had even hit the ground. Ragthuk and Torman had watched in awe and tried to cheer with him after.
But he'd wanted no part of that. In that moment she'd known that their thief was far more than just a thief. But he wouldn't talk to her about it. So, she'd let him settle back in to simply being their thief, for better or for worse.
Sure, the constant thievery was a bit of an annoyance. But they tolerated it because he'd grown into a valued member of their group.
And it didn't hurt that he often stole the best gifts. Torman's current spell book and Caelya's staff were both items he'd pilfered from their previous owners. And he was an exceptional thief and people enjoy the things they're good at. In the end, stealing was just a part of him.
Hell, Caelya thought as Volke stepped toward the worms. It was that part of him that made her realize he cared for her. It was a year previous that he'd given her the necklace she now wore. It wasn't anything special, just a gold chain with her birthstone on the end of it. But he'd bought it for her.
That was what made it special.
The man who could steal anything, had bought it for her. He hadn't even stolen the coins to buy it. He'd known that it would have bothered her to get something intimate, something personal, and spend her entire time just wondering who it actually belonged to.
He'd taken small jobs in their down time. Little mercenary contracts here or there, or even just helping someone move something or helping harvest a crop. They'd thought he was insane. And he'd shrugged it off and just said he liked to help out.
But then, a year ago on the winter solstice he'd taken her aside when the other two weren't paying attention, and given it to her. More often than not she'd found him a bit annoying, a bit too fake, and like he was purely a façade covering up for something deeper and darker. Then she'd looked down at the small wrapped box with the necklace in it, and up at his sheepish expression on his face, as if he was afraid she'd reject it.
And somehow, in that moment, it had all clicked to her. She'd known what it had meant, what he'd done for the simple jewelry, and just why he'd done it. It was far more thoughtful than she'd have thought him capable.
Their relationship had started that night. They did their best to keep it a secret, although they both suspected the others knew and simply didn't say anything about it. They didn't change any of their routines and they had very few precious moments together.
Moments like last night, which she'd blown. She frowned as it occurred to her that she'd blown him off on what might have been their last chance together. She'd been too focused on being clean and in a warm bed and actually sleeping to have it occur to her that it had been their one-year anniversary.
She knew what she had to do. Her gaze shifted toward Ragthuk. Torman had pulled him back to the relative safety of the stairs. Volke had distracted the worms long enough for his teammates to get out of direct danger. But he'd been surrounded in the time it had taken.
One of the worms closed in on him and reared up to strike. He twirled around and took a chunk out of it with the dagger in his left hand. He ducked around another that propelled itself toward him and speared a third with his right dagger as the entire scene turned into a dance.
The creatures were too tough, too durable, for his quick slashes to do much more than be a minor irritant. At least for the first couple attacks, anyway. He never went for the easy kill. He would take minor slashes here or there, any opening he could get his blade onto a creature he took. It didn't need to be a deep cut, just enough to cause harm.
Eventually she understood his strategy. It turned into a sort of dance, his blades flashing in the dim light with every little movement he manager to muster. They were too hard for him to kill with one quick blow. So, he was torturing them with many. They started to slow, but so did he. He could only dodge so much as the creatures swarmed him. And again, Caelya knew how she had to act. She fingered the necklace, the gift, once around her neck before taking a deep breath and stepping toward him as well. He did not deserve to die as worm food. No, he deserved much better than that.
"Caelya, no!" Torman yelled as one of the worms split off and came at her. She managed to blast enough of it away with a spell as she stepped toward the winded Volke. She restored him as much as she could from afar and then joined him in the dance. The thief smiled at her
They worked well together. Well enough that the tide changed quickly. Volke would maim one and she would either bash it away with her staff or finish it with a bolt of magic. It was surprisingly quick work. Quicker than Caelya would have thought possible.
She was drained when it was over. She wanted to fall to her knees and catch her breath and chug a mana potion. But the ground was still covered in gore of all kinds and the thought of landing inside of it disgusted her. Instead she leaned against Volke.
He held her up, sheathing his daggers and panting with the effort of the fight. He pressed his face into her hair in their moment of victory and kissed the top of her head.
"Thanks for the assist," he whispered.
"Any time," she whispered back. She gazed up at him for a moment before looking over his shoulder at their other two companions. Ragthuk was sitting on the steps and catching his breath. Torman was standing before him and looking furious. The mage raised his hand at Volke and Caelya and fire appeared on his fingers.
"Burn!" he shouted as the fire leapt from his hand and sped toward the thief.
"No!" Caelya gasped. She spun around, desperate to put herself between Volke and the fire. And she succeeded. The fire burned through her robe and scorched her back. She screamed and fell away from Volke, toward the grime on the ground.
She landed face first in it. Blood filled her mouth and nostril and splashed toward her eyes. She gagged and pushed herself up on her hands and knees, her palms slipping on the wet floor. She looked up long enough to see Volke stepping toward Torman, and Ragthuk pulling himself to his feet.
She gagged out the bile in her throat and blew out her nose, coughing against the metallic taste of death on her tongue. She rubbed the remnants from her eyes with the sleeve of her robe before turning her attention to the scene before her.
Torman was casting another spell, more fire appearing on his fingers, but Volke was too quick for him. Volke stepped up before the mage as the fire danced around his fingers. One quick slash was all it took. Torman's fire-lit hands rushed to his throat, trying to prevent himself from bleeding, but he fell to the ground anyway. Dead.
"What the fuck!?" Nigel yelled in the café, luring me out of the fantasy land.
"Language!" Derek yelled from behind the counter. "There's children present!"
"Shouldn't have blasted Daphne," Matthew laughed. "Hell of a coup you had there. You lasted a whole one roll."
"I have no idea how the worms didn't get him," Ian said darkly.
"Lucky rolls," Harry smirked from across the table. "But I think that's a good enough note for my fiancé and I to leave on."
"Oh it's still early," Matthew frowned. Ian and Nigel exchanged looks. Both were doing their best to not look at Daphne.
"Yeah but Daph promised her dad she'd make biscuits for the Christmas party and someone hasn't even started yet. So, she better get her butt on that or she's not going to keep her promise," Harry said.
"Don't talk about my butt," I responded
"Can I do other things to it instead?" Harry asked. Nigel glared at the older man while Ian looked down at the sheets of paper before him.
"No!" I shrieked. He didn't usually talk about us that much. We'd managed to keep our relationship relatively secret when we were dating but eventually they had noticed the ring on my left hand, and that we seemed less and less interested in staying out all night on weekends playing a fantasy game. No, we had better ways to pass an evening now.
Still I enjoyed the games and I made us continue them. But the atmosphere has slowly been changing the last couple of months. And now Harry had killed Nigel. I couldn't really see a way that this was salvageable.
"Well regardless if you don't get home and get baking I have no idea how you'll get to your evening bath. And you know how much I love joining you for your evening bath," Harry said. I felt the blush rising into my cheeks.
"Fine, leave," Nigel spat.
"Have a good night," Matthew smirked.
"Oh I will," Harry smiled brightly which just caused me to blush even more and silently decide that he would not have nearly as good of a night as he hoped. I stood and put on my jacket as Derek approached with to-go cups of tea.
"Thanks," I said quietly as I took mine and Harry took his.
"Where's mine?" Ian spat.
"Maybe if you ever paid for something, or tipped nearly as well as Harry does, I'd think about giving you something," Derek laughed. Harry smirked and slid an arm around me. I wanted to shift away out of general annoyance for him, but I also liked being close to him. After a few more goodbyes we left the café and started our walk home. We were silent for a block or so before I spoke up.
"Why were you such a dick to my friends tonight?" I asked. "And the sex comments you know I don't like that around them."
"I was perfectly nice to Matthew," Harry countered. "And I know Ian and Nigel annoy you."
"You annoy me too. I'm still marrying you," I retorted.
"Well that's because I'm irresistibly charming," Harry nodded knowingly.
"More like annoyingly persistent," I laughed. "But you didn't answer my question."
"Well they were trying to kill me. When their stupid worm ploy failed miserably Nigel tried for the cheap shot. I won," Harry said.
"Ploy?" Daphne asked.
"I'm sure once they ate me they would have cleared a path for you to go after the fabulous cup of stupidity," Harry said.
"Why would they want to kill you?" I asked, taking his hand as we walked.
"Because they think if they repeatedly kill my character I will eventually grow bored with showing up and then we'd split and then they'd have a chance to sleep with you," Harry said.
"And just how would you know that?" I asked, finding the entire situation to be comically ridiculous.
"I read their minds," Harry said.
"Sure you did," I laughed. "Tell me, can you read my mind?"
"No. You're a wall of silence," Harry responded.
"Well then how did you figure this out then?" I asked again.
"Derek told me of a conversation he overheard," Harry admitted.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.
"I didn't think it was that relevant. I didn't think they'd actually be that stupid. And I was pretty sure that you'd still want to marry me even if Volke was heinously murdered," Harry explained.
"I don't know, I like Volke," I laughed and glanced up at him as coquettishly as I could mutter in the moment.
"Maybe I'll invite him over for Christmas then. He does love a good biscuit," Harry responded.
"Ugh, right, I need to make those damn things," I sighed. I really wasn't looking forward to that. But I had promised to make a batch or two plus a yule log. Mostly because if the dessert was left up to Astoria it would be completely inedible. Although since moving in with Theodore her cooking had increased ten-fold. I couldn't help but wonder if maybe they had a cook.
"I already made the biscuits while you were taking you exams today," Harry said. "They're not quite up to your standard but I doubt anyone will notice after dinner."
"Really?" I laughed. I'd never known him to bake. But it was hours off my plate had he.
"Yeah. It was actually kind of fun," Harry laughed. "You're on your own for the yule log though."
"I can do that in the morning," I said, marveling at how much the evening had freed up in just a few moments. "Assuming the biscuits are up to par. I can't have you embarrassing myself when they come out tomorrow night."
"Of course. We wouldn't want your baking prowess ever doubted," Harry nodded as we stepped into our building. It was just a quick elevator ride up to our apartment. He took my coat off as we entered and I wandered toward the kitchen were platters of biscuits resided, with a small wrapped box resting in the middle of them.
I stepped over toward them and eyed the box. But I hadn't eaten anything in a few hours and the cookies seemed more pressing. So I tried one of each. They were good enough for me to try two of each just to make sure I hadn't been wrong the first time.
Harry stepped into the bedroom saying he wanted to change. I peered down at the wrapped box. A small note rested beside it. I picked it up and couldn't help but laugh as his writing teased a taste of more to come. He was either playing way too hard off of the food pun or just being his usual absurd self.
I unwrapped the box and opened it. Inside was a simple golden necklace with my birthstone on it. I rolled my eyes but chuckled to myself as I looked down at it as soft Christmas carols started to play from the bedroom. I slipped the necklace on around my neck and stepped into the bedroom.
Harry wasn't there but the door to the bathroom was open. I paused for a moment before stepping into it. He hugged me as soon as I entered, and then kissed me softly.
"Like the necklace?" he asked, peering down at it.
"Uh-huh," I said.
"Bath?" he asked, letting his hands slide up and down my back gently.
"That sounds lovely," I said, already relishing the feeling of warm water surrounding the both of us in the large tub. He started undressing me then, slowly, carefully, and lovingly, removing everything but the new necklace. And the water was as wonderful as I'd anticipated. I dozed a bit as we rested in the warmth.
His lips on my neck stirred me awake. He'd brushed my hair to one side and I tilted my head to let him continue.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"Just after midnight," he responded.
"Mmm," I sighed happily. "Merry Christmas."
"Our only as fiancés," Harry smiled.
"I never thought of that," I said.
"Well last year we were just starting to get together," Harry smiled. "I think you'd have slapped me had I even called you my girlfriend."
"I might do that anyway just because it would amuse me," I said.
"I know," Harry smiled.
"And next year we'll be husband and wife," I said.
"Can I be the wife?" Harry asked, playfully.
"No," I laughed. "I already have the dress picked out I'm so not going shopping for a suit."
"Fine," he sighed playfully. I couldn't help but smile.
"I love you," I laughed.
"Good," he responded. "Merry Christmas, Daphne." And he wrapped his arms around me and held me in the warmth as our first and last Christmas as an engaged couple began.