I didn't remember what I was dreaming about, except that the girl was there. Not as she'd been when she taunted and played with me – like in the tunnels, looking scared. As hard as I tried, I couldn't call to mind what she'd been telling me, just the vague impression that it was important. Then she'd been swallowed up by the darkness, leaving me alone somewhere I'd never been.
"Hello?" I'd called out in fear, moving my real lips. That was enough for me to realise that I'd been sleeping, and left me with a disconcerting feeling that maybe it hadn't just been a dream.
I'd managed to fall asleep in an awkward position, and both my shoulders felt sore in a way which aggravated old wounds. Unable to sleep on my side and understanding that any other way was a no-no, I sat up in bed and started making my way into the bathroom, after two false starts.
As I splashed my face with cold water in an effort to wake up, I realised that I was still dressed in my wedding clothes, the nice skirt now creased beyond repair and blouse stained with dinner. It had been an awkward affair between just us who lived in the mayor's house, together with a secretary I'd only seen once before. Her name was Lucinda, and I hadn't quite plucked up the courage to talk to her, understanding she'd probably been working with the mayor day and night. And when I looked at the man himself, something was wrong – there was no air about him, none at all. Not the false dignity he displayed when we first met, nor the relaxed and casual man which knew me so well, but a new side of his character. There was no smile to bring out his laugh-lines, no stars in those bespectacled eyes. He just looked old. Old and tired.
It felt strange forcing an apple into the hands of the Guide – wasn't it supposed to be him that did that? – but he'd needed it. After the wedding, even his hair looked deflated. I could hear him working away, pencil tearing through paper, as mine had what could only be a few nights beforehand. I couldn't get back to sleep, and he was awake . . .
Well, it might be entertaining.
I made some conscious effort to straighten out my bed hair as I wandered down the hallway, still a little shocked by the whole biome dye thing. It had been great fun to wander into the corruption and end up with purple streaks, but trying to make the hair match a yellow wedding had almost made us late. It was slightly pointless, anyway – when I sat with my feet in the sand my hair was yellow, but standing up to tie the ribbon had brought it back to green again. All the same, it was good fun, and I intended to keep at least some of it around. Perhaps I could cut off a lock and hang it from my belt – that would be handy.
It was probably around midnight, the wedding reception long since over. It had been the mayor's suggestion that we didn't go, given that half the village would be there for six newlyweds, but I felt like I was letting my friends down somehow. I honestly respected Christina, even though I was a long way away from understanding her, and hoped that she would get over her daughter not believing in what she did. After all, it might kind of be my fault – I had encouraged Sarita an awful lot.
Without thinking, I knocked on the Guide's door in the way we always had: one knock, ten seconds, then two more. I heard some raised voice from within, and took it as permission to enter, sitting myself down on a neatly-made bed and observing my little idiot. He was still in that nice white shirt and dark pair of pants, but the suit-jacket was placed neatly on the back of his chair. The bowtie hung loosely around his neck, and I reached out to pull it off, interrupting his chain of thought.
"Watcha doin'?" I asked, dangling the material around my own neck.
"Codes," he murmured, sounding tired as hell. I noticed that the apple I'd given him had been eaten all the way to the core, resting thoughtlessly on the edge of his desk. Rambling on seemed to help him think, so I didn't interrupt, trying to figure out the bowtie. "It's not just one, it's a bunch. I think it's the five-letter alphabetical thing, and then a bunch of other layers. I really don't get why it's necessary, it's like having ten locks on a door."
"Keeps zombies out," I pointed out.
"Zombies can't work through one lock, and they wouldn't be reading a book."
"They wouldn't have to work through a lock," I growled, an old argument reawakening, "if you opened the door for them."
"Oh god, not this again . . ." He put his face in his hands.
"Guide, you don't open doors at night! Who the hell does that?!"
"How was I supposed to know there were zombies out?" he exploded back, standing up at his desk.
"It was night, in Terraria, you bloody idiot! For god's sake, you're the frickin' Guide!"
"Yes! Right! I'm glad you worked that out! But can I please continue on with this?"
"If," I compromised, a finger raised, "you never go out at night again ever." He blinked, and then frowned.
"That's not gonna work," he argued, shaking his head.
"If you don't agree, I'll eat this bowtie."
"Don't do that. That'll kill you."
"I'll do it."
"Fine, see if I care . . . No, wait. Don't actually do it!"
He vaulted the space between us, and pulled the bowtie out of my mouth, but my teeth clenched onto the last little bit. I didn't really have any idea why I was doing it, but it was too late to turn back now, and the look on his face as he clenched a soggy bit of bowtie and pulled was just too good to pass up. I unclenched my jaw with no warning, and he went flying backwards, hitting his head against the wall with a solid thunk. I rolled about on the bed, laughing hysterically, as he chucked the saliva-covered bowtie back at me and set back to work.
Soon I was sitting up again, trying to figure out the bowtie. How had he been wearing it? It seemed impossible. I crossed the fabric over, fiddled it around, tied knot after knot, but all to no avail. Apparently having noticed my constant clucking and exclamations of annoyance, the Guide turned around and made a disgusted noise.
"Don't do that, it's been in your mouth!" mother hen cried, trying to pull the thing away from me, but I fought back. Giving up, he started to tie the bowtie with dainty fingers, his face twisted into an expression of disgust.
"Thanks!" I told him with a sweet smile, ignoring the saliva and the fact that it was my fault, watching with amusement as he threw his hands into the air and set back to work.
He shouldn't have done that. It left me with nothing to do.
Just as it dawned on me that I should probably mention my dream, I gave a big yawn. The Guide responded in kind. I waited for a minute, planning carefully, staring right into the back of his head, before yawning again – he did the same. I repeated the process every minute for at least half an hour, revelling in the control I possessed over the Guide. I was the Puppeteer in this scenario, and he was my marionette. Pulled on invisible strings which made themselves clear in yawning. Maybe this was the power the demon felt. I was too tired to get all moral about it.
After what he thought was half an hour of silence, the Guide started mumbling to himself as if I wasn't there. It was a garble, making sense only to him, but I interrupted it every now and then with a yawn. "Well, 'a' is definitely possible, but it has to be that or 'I' unless I've been doing everything completely wrong . . ." He continued on for ages and ages until, desperate for conversation, I made myself known again.
"Do you think I should keep this hair?" I asked him, lying down on the bed, pulling strands in front of my face.
"Maybe," he answered non-comitally, going back to work.
"She said that she could make it simpler."
"Or I could just cut off a bit and–"
"Yeah, good. I'm working."
"What do you think about green, though? I like the biome th–"
"Look," he snapped, finally out of patience, "not everything is about your hair, okay?"
We both froze – me savouring the moment, him regretting his rash words.
"I am gonna hold that against you for the rest of your life," I stated slowly and clearly.
"Yeah, maybe you should," he admitted, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Until I die." He looked back to the papers and blinked four times – a sure sign he'd realised something. "Until you die," he exhaled, wide-eyed. "So 'w' becomes 'u', 'l' becomes 'n' . . . I got it! Oh, thank Christ!"
He began to translate the chapters as I cheered him on, watching with uncomprehending eyes. It was something to do with the alphabet, I got that, but I was never any good with letters anyway. At one point I watched concern seep over his features, and wondered what was wrong. Probably something big, as ever.
"Okay," he concluded, putting his pencil down and pulling up a chair for me. "Here we go. Turns out that there were three codes–"
"Don't explain. Just guide."
"Well, alright. There isn't an amazing amount of information here, but I'll tell you what I've got. First off, like you'd guess from the picture, she's called the Puppeteer because she can control people."
"She?" I asked, eyebrows rising.
"Actually, I don't know. There's nothing specific about your girl, if that's what you're thinking about, so we still don't know how involved she is. What we do know is that she can't manage just anyone – with most people it's just the increases in doubt we heard about last time, but 'those who possess a stout yet tainted heart' can see her right in front of them."
"That's me?" I asked, confused. "Is that a good thing? Did I just get insulted by a book?"
"No," he insisted protectively (more of the book than me). "It just means that you're brave but you've been through a lot, as far as I can tell. Really, that last bit could mean anything. Also, she has a flair for unnatural surgeries, which explains your three-legged double-chested mutant man. He's what they call a puppet – someone, or maybe more than one someone, who was under her control and eventually whisked away. You're probably too stubborn for that, so don't worry, but those puppet guys are really tough, because she's poured all sorts of nasty magic into them. Don't start any fights."
"Wasn't planning to," I mumbled, but he didn't seem to hear.
"Apparently this demon can take all sorts of forms, and create new ones using bits and pieces of her puppets. There's something odd here about 'blank minds' which seems to say that she empties someone out before taking them over, so I'd say your girl in the tunnels was playing some kind of mind game. Speaking of which, she's very fond of them; there's a lot of talk in here about playing games with her victims, trying to find their individual breaking points. That's why she's often depicted as a little girl – there's a sense of childishness about the whole thing which frankly seems very disturbing."
"Do we know if that's actually a form she takes, or something the writer made up?" I asked, no longer feeling certain about the information we were getting. The Guide threw his hands up hopelessly and pressed on.
"But yeah, in all this stuff about different forms and puppets there are a lot of references to masks, but I'm not quite sure what that means. There's something about seeing through her guise, which might be a reference to some kind of true form, like with the Eye of Cthulhu." I was slightly taken aback by his mention of the beast, but tried not to show it. For a moment the Guide stalled, and ran a hand across his forehead, suddenly in my world again. "This next bit . . . I'm really sorry."
"Why?" I asked, feeling unnerved.
"She, er . . . it, um, it might not have been a good idea to shoot her. She . . . she's going to come back. In a big way." He didn't continue, so I stole the sheet he was reading from away, very worried. I was glad to see that the last few paragraphs seemed to have been written by someone of a tactical mind, rather than the usual confusing, impressionistic scrawl.
"She takes revenge on those who have wronged her," I read aloud, glancing up at the Guide, "or on those who she attempted to wrong. Fixating upon only one person, although her wounds may heal in due time, her gaze never ceases. Often . . ." I gulped, "discrediting her victim, she works slowly, worrying them beyond reproach until she delivers a final blow, ever more severe than that which she received. There has been some record of this beast driving her opponents insane with a form of countdown." I thought for a moment – had the mysterious 'five' been the beginning of that? I handed the paper back over to the Guide, taking a moment to think.
Five years? Five months? Five weeks? If it were days, I'd already be starting two. Had I seen a four anywhere, had she been trying to play with me? This probably also meant that she was responsible for those magic zombies popping out of the shadows, and had influenced people's reaction to the mayor.
"I didn't know," he said, and I looked up at him. "I'm sorry. I–I wouldn't have shot her, if I knew it would make this happen."
"It's fine," I told him honestly, waving a hand dismissively. "You were just trying to lend me a hand." I took a moment to calm my racing mind, and then gestured for the Guide to continue reading.
"You might like this bit," he said, managing a weak smile. "Tactical advice."
I grinned, sitting upright in my chair. "That's my kinda thing."
"Well, apparently the bullets only worked because she hadn't noticed me. She'd put all her power, even her defences, into hurting you – that gave us a window. There's no definite amount of time for how long she sits on the sidelines, but I'd be willing to guess it's five something-or-other. When she comes back it's in a big way, more and more powerful depending on the injury she's sustained, like the opposite of how you and me would get weaker. She spends time healing herself and building up, and then gets unleashed. Sometimes she'll send a puppet, sometimes reveal herself to other people, or maybe she'll melt out of the shadows just and tear your heart out."
"Well, that's encouraging."
"I know, but here's the good bit. If you hurt her very badly, she'll only be able to come to you in dreams, and that's when she starts the countdown." He stretched, taking a few deep breaths and a yawn which set me off. "Because I actually managed to shoot her, it should be quite a while before she pops up again."
"But there'll be some pretty nasty revenge when she does?"
"Exactly – and I hope you don't mind me saying, but we should be out of the village when that happens. There's going to be a very big bang when she comes back."
I nodded in agreement, and then snapped to attention. "Wait, who's 'we'?"
"You and me," he answered simply, apparently surprised I hadn't thought of that.
"What? No no no, this is my fight! I can't be putting you in danger, she's only thinking about hurting me!"
"But I'm the reason all this is happening," he pointed out, sitting up straighter. "I shot her, and now she's after you. I'm coming with." He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow in that infuriating way, and I had to try very hard not to choke him to death with a bowtie.
"We don't know enough about her to say that this is your fault, and she started on me long before you got involved. I have to take her on." The Guide opened his mouth to argue, and I raised my voice. "Guide, you haven't seen what she does. The puppets? I mean bloody hell, they're as freaky as it gets! You're not a fighter, even if you wanna be a hero. She could snuff you out like that." I clicked my fingers to demonstrate, and he blinked. For once, it was me seeing common sense. He looked into my eyes, searching for a weak point in my argument, but I was a brick wall.
"Well, we'll see," he mumbled resentfully, gathering his papers and closing the book. "If you don't mind, I think I'll get some sleep."
I didn't plan on arguing that point. Sweeping the apple core off his desk and into a bin, I left the small room with a head full of new information and made my way to the mayor's office. There were raised voices coming from inside, but that was nothing new – probably just him and his secretary wondering how to get his status back. I paused with my hand on the doorknob, realising something. There were more than two people talking, and none of them sounded particularly feminine.
The mayor seemed to be in the middle of a rather violent argument with two other people – one with a clear voice that contained traces of a familiar accent, and the other with an unmistakable squeal. The Speaker of the goblins, and our dear Tinkerer. I put my ear to the door, listening in before I made an entrance.
"You're the ambassador," argued the mayor, no doubt glaring the Tinkerer down. "Can't you do something about this?" A panicked, high-pitched noise answered him.
"Please stop talking as if I'm not in the room!" demanded the Speaker defensively. "This is a very real problem, and I need you to take care of it!"
"I haven't got the time," the mayor argued simply, sounding somewhat pained. "My people are losing faith in me for the first time – that is my crisis. I honestly don't have the time to understand yours properly, and it seems like something that you could take care of without my help."
"You don't know that!" the Speaker cried, and I could hear his chair squeaking backwards as he stood up. "I am grateful for all the help you've given us, but this is something bad. If it continues, my people will riot, and may even attack the humans."
"Well, that's obviously something for the humans to deal with, because apparently I'm not in charge anymore. You should speak to one of the swordsmen. I'm busy." Wow. I'd never heard him so cold.
There was a moment's silence, and I could hear a disapproving noise from the goblin chief. "No wonder your people lose faith," he muttered. "Why would they ever have it in an old man who won't recognise danger when it stares him in the face?"
"Don't ever underestimate what I know," the mayor shouted, losing his temper for one of the first times since I'd met him.
"Why not?" the Speaker sneered.
"Because, my friend, I know an awful lot." I could hear footsteps heading my way. "For example, there was another goblin in line to be Speaker. Whatever happened to him?" The goblin froze in his tracks, turning to face the old man with breath caught in his chest. Now that the mayor had his attention again, he tried to explain himself. "My losing power could lead to a battle that decimates half the village, half of my people. Once that's been taken care of I'll pay attention to your beliefs, but for now I have work to do, and there is a hero on standby. I suggest you wake her."
The Speaker moved to open the door, and I pulled it towards me.
"Hi," I said, smiling at the bewildered goblin. "Sorry for eavesdropping, but I gather something's up with the goblins?"
He blinked in surprise, gave me a slap on the shoulder, and started walking to the church.
X X X
"Are you sure this is necessary?" I asked, peering around in the darkness.
"There was a chance some of the others might listen in," the Speaker explained, a faint glow coming from his yellow eyes. "None of them know this part of the tunnels, they wouldn't come here in case of monsters."
"Exactly my point," I whispered, unable to hide my nervousness. He laughed in that boisterous way, and added to the bruise which was forming on my shoulder. Perhaps it was a goblin custom. "So, what's the matter?" I asked, genuinely curious.
He reached onto his belt, and unbuckled one of many trinkets – a bottle, glowing from the inside. Looking at the golden flame I remembered that it had played an important part in their funeral ceremony, and the way he'd somehow managed to scoop it inside the glass.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked, holding it with great care.
"Erm," I murmured, trying desperately to remember what he'd called it. "The . . . the everlasting–"
"Eternal flame," he corrected.
"Yeah, that." He snorted at my confusion and squatted on the stone floor, inviting me to join him, and placed the bottle between us delicately.
"This is the most important symbol in our culture," he explained, speaking slowly and quietly. "For as long as our memories reach, it has never gone out. We use it to invite the dead to the Way After, and then it passes safely between leaders, down the generations over hundreds of years. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, of course," I whispered, a little offended. "What's the matter with it?"
He glanced around, as if making sure we weren't being listened to, and then picked up the bottle carefully. "Well," he said, taking a moment to find the right words, "for the last few days, it's been dying. At first I thought it was just a trick of the light, but I was wrong. It's almost halved in size in three days – at this rate, it'll be gone soon. That can't happen."
"You have mages, don't you?" I asked, confused. "Couldn't they do something about it?"
"I can't tell them," he explained, sounding urgent. "It would cause panic – and while we're living right under the village, that's the last thing either of us needs. If we were in better circumstances then I'd ask some of the others for help, but none of them can know. Not even the outcast."
"The Tinkerer?" I asked. "But he's not involved with you anymore, and he's good at working stuff out."
"I will never rely on that runt!" he snorted, offended at the idea. "He broke the first rule of our race!"
"Rule?" I asked, confused. "He never mentioned any rule-breaking. I thought you kicked him out because he was so obsessed with humans."
"He didn't tell you?" the Speaker asked, a rue grin splitting his green face. "No, I'm not surprised." I opened my mouth to argue, but he stood up, shrouding the small flame before buckling it onto his belt again. "We might need a mage," he admitted. "One of yours, someone who'd be willing. We don't have any kind of money."
"Abigail!" I decided immediately. "She came with me last time."
". . . She'll do," he admitted resentfully, sounding a bit uncertain. "But we need to act fast. Sware to me, on something important, that you won't breathe a word of what happened here."
"On my honour," I swore, picking up the fact that it was important to him. His face twisted in concentration, trying to make a decision without offending me.
"I don't know you well enough for that."
"Sware on your life," he insisted, one hand eerily close to a dagger.
I blinked, surprised. "No offence, but I'd rather do the honour thing." He looked right into my eyes, hand now resting on the hilt, ready to whip out if I disagreed. "Okay. Alright. I swear on my life."
He nodded. Having made a strange pact with the goblin leader, I made my way back into their main cavern, and took a look at the work they'd been doing since the battle. Alcoves had been carved out of the walls to make simple bedrooms, and candles had been given resting places in the walls, providing almost constant light. I could recognise the Speaker's room by the tattered cloth which hung above its entrance, probably something to do with their beliefs. One happy-go-lucky peon had even opened a small shop, which offered low prices on currently non-existent tradable goods. Adaptable, they certainly were.
"One thing," I told him, turning around. "This might sound a little strange, and it's nothing to worry about, but . . . Have any of your men seen a little girl in the tunnels? We think someone might have gone missing."
"No," he answered simply, turning away. "I hope you find her," he called back, making his way towards his alcove.
"Thanks," I replied, feeling bad for lying.
I entered the church just as the sun started to rise, hoping that no one would spot me wearing yesterday's clothes. Now, to find Abigail . . . where did she even live?
X X X
Merry Christmas, everyone! Less than two hours to go for me, so I thought I'd explain something. The reason I've been really churning out chapters is because I wanted to get a Christmas special out, but there's no way I'll get the story to that point in time.
So sorry, but it looks like these guys will celebrate just a little while after us – it's Terraria, so they can get away with it, right?
Thanks to anyone who took the time to read, and I wish you all happy and safe holidays!