Chapter 21: To The Sea

Chapter 21: To The Sea

“What is it, Gnome?” whispered Arden.

They were huddled together partway down a narrow alley between two large and sturdy stone buildings. Rain came insistently now, and a growing stream of runoff from the sprawling stone that paved most of Hillcrest was rushing down the alley around their feet on its way toward lower ground and the sea beyond.

“Someone’s a few streets behind us, tracking our movement,” Gnome answered in a low voice.

Drops of water landed on his face and in his eyes as he squinted up at his friends. “You three go on. I’ll stay here. With any luck, I’ll be able to surprise them, or at least learn what we’re dealing with and catch up with you back at the cottage.”

So Ohlen, Arden, and Boudreaux emerged back onto the main street. The rain had driven any would-be pedestrians indoors, and the thick clouds muted whatever was left of twilight. They turned toward Westwood, but stayed close together to obscure the fact that Gnome was no longer in their midst.

They had not gone far before they heard the tussle.

Gnome had flown off the wall, from a vantage point about ten feet in the air, onto the unsuspecting pursuer. They were rolling and grappling in the street like two tomcats fighting over the same territory.

Racing back, they saw that Gnome was entwined with an assailant not much bigger than himself. Boudreaux stepped in, pulled the two apart, and held the thin young man aloft by the collar of his tunic.

He was sputtering, “M-mister Gnome, Mister Gnome, it’s me Waif.”

“Waif!” cried Boudreaux setting the terrified young man back down on his feet. Gnome stood up dirty and sopping wet. “This is what saved you from a swim in the Torrent a few nights ago, Gnome?” Boudreaux pointed and laughed heartily. “They don’t make you thieves very big, now, do they?” He was amused, in spite of the scowl Gnome leveled at him.

“Sorry I jumped you, Waif,” said Gnome, panting slightly. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Mister Gnome,” Waif returned tremulously. “I’m just a bit winded. I ran here all the way from Fish City.”

Waif instantly had their full attention.

“How did you know where we were, Waif?” Ohlen gently asked the question on all of their minds.

“Oh,” Waif looked down at his feet and said simply, “I have friends, sir.”

A moment or two passed in which falling rain was the only sound. They were all still looking at him expectantly, so the young thief hurriedly continued. “When Mister Gnome asked me about the docks, it seemed really important.” Here Waif paused a moment, before turning to Gnome and confessing, “So I asked some friends to follow you, Mister Gnome, so if I found something, I’d be able to get to you fast.”

“What’d you find, Waif?” Boudreaux asked bluntly.

Waif looked nervously over his shoulder. “I asked about the tattooed sailors,” he said in a low voice. “I asked a man who knows things, who knows what happens when night falls in Fish City. I lied to him.” Waif was whispering now, “I told him The Master wanted to know.” There was fear in the boy’s eyes.

“What did he tell you?” Ohlen pressed lightly.

“Nothing, sir. He didn’t say anything about the sailors. At least not with his mouth. He just looked really annoyed, and then said that me and The Master should mind our own business in The Grotto and leave the sea to the sailors.” Waif’s voice was barely a hiss. “But I saw him look out at the water, down a ways southward of the docks. So I said I was sorry for bothering him and left fast. But after a little while I snuck back to the seaside, down by where he looked.” They were all leaning in close, as the young rogue concluded in an excited breath, “And I found something!”

“Good work Waif!” Gnome encouraged. “What was it?”

“I’m not sure exactly, Mister Gnome, but I can take you there if you like. It’s like a hole in the seawall. I hid and watched for a little while, not sure what I was seeing. And just as I was getting ready to leave, something came out of it, fast. It was big. I don’t know if it was an animal or a man, but I’ve been running ever since.” Waif was smiling sheepishly now, clearly proud of himself.

And so they followed Waif. He darted through dark alleys, muddy slums, and hidden paths. On they sped from Hillcrest through Watertown and then down into the mud of the Grotto. At last, in the dark of night, they approached the storm-addled sea and the loudly crashing waves on the rocky coast to the south of Fish City.

Rain pounded down in sheets now, soaking them to the bone.

She couldn’t see.

She regained consciousness slowly through a thick heavy fog, and almost immediately regretted it. Her body was burning. She felt scorched clear to the backs of her eyeballs. Movement caused her blistered skin to feel like it would split right open and let her bones pop out like a roast bird’s.

Are my eyes open? she wondered. I think they are.

She forced her hand to probe the space immediately around her. It felt like cold, wet earth. It actually felt good on the burning skin of her fingers. She clawed some of the earth into a small ball and smeared it on her arm. The relief from the searing hot pain was significant.

For several minutes she worked, gingerly at first, to cover all her exposed parts with the thick mud, if that’s what it was. She even rolled over and worked the cold slimy salve into her scalp and ears and neck and ever so gently, her eyelids.Never in her life had X’andria so appreciated the simple absence of pain.

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