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Chapter 7 - And a Prize Most Dear

With a fire bolt shot into the distance to light the way, Art followed after it down the mountain slopes in the way of the albatross. A few short leaps, and he stood twenty paces from the gates of the monastery. Two braziers stood burning, one on either side of the doors, just as another pair had stood on the opposite side of those gates. Their light illuminated a pair of shamans and two squads of midget warriors, standing still and idling respectively. They did not notice him; at his range, he remained cloaked in darkness.

Art had told Selena to run through the gates and just keep on running. With the two braziers and the wall behind them that they illuminated, he oriented himself in the direction that Selena ought to have run off in -- along a grass-strewn dirt path leading west from the monastery gates -- and proceeded down that path.

This had been the path he'd traveled alongside the rest of the caravan just that evening. Then, he'd been looking to the monastery as a welcoming, safe shelter and rest point before the descent eastward into the desert on the other side of the mountain range. Now he was walking away from the bastion of the invaders, a broken man, and not expecting succor for a very, very long time.

Once he had gotten sufficiently distant from the midgets stationed at the gates that he grew confident that they'd not see his firelight, he adjusted his grip on his staff, allowing it to evoke within his mind the warmth of the hearth and the crackling of the fireplace. Captured fire blossomed into a sphere above the cresent of his staff, lighting his way.

He kept his eyes peeled as he advanced, scanning the path before him and periodically looking over his shoulder. He had his light up so that Selena would be better able to find him; after all, he doubted he'd be able to find her himself in this darkness. But just as the fire attracted the moth, so he expected his staff to gain the notice of any midget patrols.

His torchlight showed something dark upon the dirt before him. At his distance, he couldn't make out the shape half hidden in darkness. It didn't seem to be moving. Midget warriors lying in ambush? He couldn't take the risk. Not wanting to engage in melee, he pointed his left index finger, sending the ball atop his staff hurtling right over the shape in the darkness. If he came across any enemies, he'd want to try to hit them with a firebolt in the chest before they closed in on him. In daylight, he'd be able to get off at least a dozen or so hits when out in the open. In night when he couldn't see more than a dozen or two steps ahead, he'd have time to lob a fire bolt no more than once.

As its light passed overhead he could make out what it was. Small bodies, splayed out upon a pool of blood, lying still. He released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and approached. Two fallen midget warriors, one with its chest impaled by an arrow, the other with an arrow through its left eye. So the midgets had given chase after the fleeing Rogues even outside of the monastery. Had this happened shortly after he'd led the beast down the maze of its corridors?

Now that he'd arrived here he could see another midget body lying crumpled further down the path. It had an arrow sticking out its knee and another out of its back. From it Art judged that it must have toppled over from the arrow to the knee, exposing its back for the second arrow. How many of them had fallen?

He advanced further down the path, but did not find any more corpses, midget nor human. Thank the heavens, Art thought; looks like the retreating caravaners and archers had managed to escape without suffering further fatalities out along this path. If they'd one this way, he mused, then perhaps they'd asked for shelter for the night at the nearest village over, and he'd be able to come across them soon enough. The thought of finding Warriv, Taril, and the others spurred him to move faster down the road.

Out here in the woods, surrounded by shadows and silhouettes, he felt terribly out in the open, alone, vulnerable. He turned to look at the corpses he'd passed, and remembered that the shamans had used some kind of way of reanimation to bring corpses back to life in the fight earlier. He had one of their staves, and having one of these fallen helping to protect him could easily prove a literal lifesaver. Even if it took him some time to get the corpse up, he figured that extra protection would definitely be worth it.

He twirled the staff in his hand so that the skull sat on top, adjusted his grip accordingly. Instantly the way of the hearth vanished from his mind, and the flames vanished from the staff, plunging him back into darkness. Then he felt in his mind the emotion of controlling a puppet on a set of strings, the feeling of pulling on a string and having the doll move an arm, then a leg, accordingly. The exultation of having one's will translated into action by another, in real time, and exactly as one specified. The urge to raise one up right before him. A way of the puppeteer. With it in mind, he willed one of the corpses to stand up.

Except, nothing happened. With the bottom of his staff he groped about in the dark, prodded where he knew the corpse lay, and it hadn't risen, or moved, from what he could tell. Was he supposed to will the midget corpse before him to stand up and move? Or had there been something else involved, and he just wasn't doing it right? Unlike with the other way the staff granted, he couldn't be sure how to go about applying it. He'd not seen the exact actions the shamans had been using to cause the animation to begin.

Paying attention to the way, he felt the ability to pull on puppetstrings, however… it felt like the connection had been severed. Did he need to first establish that connection, then? He knelt down and rapped his knuckles against the corpse. Ah, that felt better -- he'd forged a connection with this one. He then stood up again and willed it to rise. He heard only the soft sound of the midget's legs moving against the ground, but it hadn't stood up. Had he done it wrong, then? Told it to rise when he needed to control all its actions individually? He couldn't see what he was doing out here in the dark. If only he had a light source at the same time as when he used the way of the puppeteer--

Swapping back to the way of the hearth, he walked over to the nearest tree and snapped a twig off one of its branches. He stepped back to the corpse and there let the twig fall to the ground, then launched a fire bolt at it to set it alight. By the dim orange glow of its light he could see the corpse even as he swapped back to the way of the puppeteer. With a tap of the bottom of his staff against the corpse, he re-established that connection, and once again he thought to have it rise.

It rose up off the ground, as if being levitated, but the levitation slowed the further Art tried to mentally pull up the corpse, and despite his best efforts Art could not get it to properly stand up. The moment Art stopped focusing on getting it to stand, it sagged and dropped back to the ground, inert. Not what Art had hoped for, but a beginning, nonetheless. Was the way lacking in power? It couldn't be -- he could feel the way of the puppeteer with every fiber of his being, the ability to raise up the dead right there at his fingertips. He'd seen the shamans raise several of them with ease. Why then, such difficulty at getting just the one to stand? Had they used some way to facilitate the process and make it easier?

Then the realization hit him. He'd been trying to raise the entire mass of the corpse by the exertion of the way alone. He hadn't tried to get the corpse to stand on its own two legs, and let its legs support its own weight. Brimming with excitement at the realization, he mentally gave it an order to stand up, this time positioning its own legs to brace itself. After several failed attempts that saw the corpse collapsing each time, he finally managed to get it to keep from tottering by propping itself up with all four of its limbs. Then, he had it balance itself on just its two legs, squatting, and once he managed that, raised the bones in the creature's upper body. This time, helped by the fact that it was now standing on its own two feet, the raised creature stayed raised.

"Yes!" Art cheered to no one in particular, thumping his staff in the air, very much pleased with himself. He figured that if nothing else good had come from this night, at least his ability to raise a corpse would be a start. "Now, let's dance," he whispered, and used the way of the puppeteer to drag the corpse forward while swinging a leg forward at the same time, to support its shift in weight. It toppled over.

Art cursed, sagging, and leaning on his staff for support even as he thrust it into the dirt of the road. Given what he'd seen of controlling these creatures, the amount of effort it took to just raise the one… It seemed he would have to painstakingly control every last aspect of its movement. He'd hardly noticed the passage of time just now, but if it had taken him as long as he thought he did to just get the thing to stand up, he had plenty of work cut out for him. He figured if a baby had to first learn to stand before learning to walk, then getting it to walk would almost certainly be just as, if not more, tricky than getting it to simply stand up. Would it take an hour, or ten, of dedicated focus with his mind? Toddlers certainly took far longer to learn to walk. For him to rediscover how each group of bones in the body moved in order to keep balanced, would take far longer than he had, and he supposed these creatures having a bodily shape and size different from his own certainly would not help matters.

And that was just walking. After that came running, leaping, backpedaling, sidestepping, dodging, and other movements he'd not figured out how to do yet, if he hoped to use a raised creature in combat. And even that would just be movement. He'd then have to figure out how to get it to wield a weapon and also a shield, to attack and parry and block. How to get it to do that whilst simultaneously moving it about, to take advantage of any openings provided by a foe. At that moment he decided he stood no chance of mastering the way of the puppeteer in any time range that would make it of any use in his search for Selena.

He was starting to gain an appreciation for the necroturges of the Great Cycle School.

"Rest in peace," he said to the fallen creature, then proceeded into the darkness.

He'd proceeded a good way down the path and had yet to come across any of the midgets. Perhaps not as many patrolled these parts as he'd thought. Thinking it was safe, he began to shout "Selena!" at the top of his lungs, and to send flaming orbs shooting out every which way to illuminate the grassy countryside in the hopes of catching sight of her that way. He shouted as he walked, shouted and shouted, for how long he didn't know, but that his voice soon grew hoarse.

His throat felt parched. He hadn't drank anything since going to sleep, and the shouting hadn't helped. How many hours had passed since he'd awakened? How long would he have to continue calling her name? He wished she'd just show up already, she in her small body rushing into his arms.

Out of the darkness did indeed coming running a figure. "Oh thank good-- Oh shit," he corrected himself as it approached close enough for him to make it out as another midget warrior. It had no paint marks over it.

Art reached for his sword with his right hand… then realized it wasn't there. Neither his sword, nor his right hand. He felt a pang of fear, and for a moment he froze, unsure of what to do, or of why his left held not a shield but a staff, and how was he going to defend himself again? And he felt so tired…

The midget warrior stared at him, its mouth agape as if stunned. Then it dropped its scimitar and buckler on the ground with a clang and fled into the darkness with its hands in the air, screaming "Bawk off!"

Art stared in relief as it fled, even as he felt the rush of blood coursing through him. "My… I'm that scary, aren't I?" Then he fell to his knees, feeling light headed. He hadn't even begun to recover from all that blood he'd lost, and that close encounter had him scared witless when he'd ordinarily have cleaved his sword right through the creature. If that was all he could do against one midget warrior, his fate in battle was looking grim indeed.

As he looked down at himself, he saw himself and his armor completely smeared and caked in midget warriors' blood, blood from the battle he'd fought previously. Something he'd never again be able to replicate. The midget warrior, had it attacked, could have probably killed him just now. But the midget warrior didn't know that. It had seen what he'd done earlier, how he'd utterly butchered its comrades, and so it had fled, fearing an Art that no longer was. Saved by what proved yet another reminder of how far he'd fallen. He burst out laughing at the irony. "Ha, I guess I really was very scary."

Then when the the somber smile had faded from his face and his dry laughs had died out, he realized he'd have to work out a plan of attack when next he came upon a midget warrior to even stand a chance of acting. He continued to walk down the path, deep in these thoughts as he kept calling out Selena's name and watching all about him for potential threats.

Minutes, hours passed as he continued as his search down the path led him ever further away from the monastery. Had the little girl with her frail limbs truly run this far, or even walked all this distance? Or had he passed her by in the dead of night? Would he ever find her at this rate? The road his took had been slightly curving about as it headed west, and overall seeming to be going further and further south as well as he marched, or at least so he thought. He'd been following the road. If Selena had actually just gone in a straight line she'd be deep in the forest to his north by now, and they'd never cross paths, she never hearing his voice and never seeing the light of his staff. He'd kept to the path thinking she wouldn't dare to venture off the path; but that doubt lingered. He hoped she wasn't more stupid or reckless than he feared.

If he couldn't find her… He shuddered at the thought of first having lost his arm, then losing Selena too, for it would render his sacrifice in vain. He'd lost so much already, he couldn't bear to lose more. So many dead… visions of seeing the fallen sisters and caravaners through the monastery and its catacombs came to mind unbidden. No more, he thought. Not Selena too.

Please, high heavens, he thought, eyes brimming with tears, in his desperation. He tried to clasp his hands in prayer before realizing one held his staff and the other could hold not at all. Please, let me find Selena. Please let her be safe, please keep watch over her. Even has he finished his prayers, however, he knew no help would be forthcoming. They'd forsaken all those in the monastery, after all, the captives therein must had cried their hearts out for heaven's salvation only to find none. And he, why, Art could scarcely count himself among the devout.

He scarcely noticed when the stars in the night sky began to twinkle out one by one, disappearing into the gradually lightening firmament. The lands below remained plunged in darkness, where only the light from his staff lit the way, reflecting the branches of the trees overhead and beside him. He focused on the ground right before him and on taking step after step, ignoring the ache in his feet and along his waist, the crip shooting pains in his right arm, the wounds all about him. Onward, ever onward, he walked with mind weary and preoccupied, toward what was certainly either Selena's salvation or his doom.

He almost stumbled into them. A midget warrior, suddenly visible from the reflected torchlight. It had woad paint all over its forehead and chest, and for a moment looked as surprised as Art was. Woad, Art recalled, marked this one as fearless, and he'd not be able to send it or its allies fleeing in terror as he had the solitary unpainted one from earlier. Art's heart sank in dismay. One on one, he might -- just might -- be able to take. Two on one? He'd be a fool to fight. But three?

"Rakanishu!" -- "Rakanishu right back to you!" -- "Rakanishu da! Daka, daka! Rakanize kureku da! Rakabosh!" -- "Ah, fuck," shouted Art as he offset his grip on his staff, plunging them all back into darkness, and scrammed to the side, into the forest with them hot in pursuit.

Damn it, cursed Art, as his hand approached his belt where he'd normally clip his scabbard. Just the three of them, and not a black painted one among them. If the beast hadn't taken his arm, he could have stood and fight, and the likes of these would have fallen before him like wheat before the scythe. Now, just their presence had forced him to flee.

He stumbled through the forest, across its uneven floor with its overturned rocks and fallen branches and patches of bushes and waist high grass. Out in the forest, leaves crunched and branches snapped underfoot. They'd have no trouble tailing him with such a dead giveaway. He tripped over a rock, gasped as he stubbed his tender right wrist against the dirt and scattered plant matter across the forest floor. Stumbling to his feet, he continued his run, even as he heard the shouts of the pursuing midgets behind him. He couldn't keep running in the forest. He was already getting himself lost as he weaved through trees and bramble. Twice already he'd almost smacked his head into a tree he couldn't see, and had only managed to dart out of the way at the last moment because he'd been holding his right arm out before him for that very eventuality.

Art looked up upon the starry sky, made out the patterns of the thirteen constellations and knew his orientation; he was now heading north, away from the road traveling east and west.

With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly.

And he had backflipped over the midgets, landing with a loud crunch of grass. The other three gave a cry -- they'd heard the new source of the sound, even if they hadn't made out his silhouette leaping over their heads against the starry sky. He continued his run, until seconds later he wound back on the dirt road. He could tell from the smoother floor and the fact that the crushing sound of leaves did not persist. Without sound to give him away, here on the road he could disappear into the night with the three of them none the wiser. He took a few steps out of the way, then crouched and stopped moving altogether.

Moments later the approaching crunching of feet in the distance ceased, to be replaced by the sound of light plodding over the dirt ground. The three of them shouted at each other in a cacophony, sounding more and more frustrated, but made no more sound. Art knew them to be staying put about ten yards away. If he made a sound, they'd know his position, and he couldn't sneak away without making a sound. He heard no birds chirping -- they wouldn't, after all this commotion -- and the soft ones of the insects could not hide the sound of his footsteps.

Art propped his staff against his chest as he knelt, and with his left hand he felt alongside the dirt path for a couple of pebbles, picked them up. Then he threw one in the direction of the midget warriors, twenty yards away. He heard them scamper away from him, shouting. He then threw the rest of his pebbles, thirty, forty, fifty yards away, and heard their retreating shouts and plodding.

He took a deep breath as the racing of his heartbeat subsided and all his aches flooded back stronger than ever, forcing him to grit his teeth to shut out the strain. That was too close, he thought. The midget warriors, out here, some ten miles from the monastery? He doubted this group had ventured out here solely to catch Selena. The implication of that worried him even more. If the invaders wanted more than just the monastery, this entire countryside could be swarming with the fallen right now. If Selena had run into that group… Or any other midgets, for that matter, she'd be dead now. Art's heart sank in despair.

When had he come to care so much for her, to care so much as to whether he lived or died? From whence had he brought upon himself such responsibility? he asked himself as his body protested against this abuse. What did it matter to him whether she, a mere stranger, lived or died?

His rational mind could provide no answer. Only, he thought, that she mattered to him. Not because of their having known each other or been friends -- they'd scarcely spoken more than a few words to each other. She symbolized to him that he hadn't been a complete failure in all this disaster at the monastery, even though he'd immediately abandoned his friends and fellow caravaners right from the beginning of the attack despite their being his employer, even though he'd turned and fled when he could have stood his ground to face the beast. Even though he'd failed to save all the others, watched some die and even helped to put other fellow humans to death -- at least, by saving Selena, he'd done something good, that he'd saved an innocent person's life.

So long as she survived. If she died, then none of what he did would matter in the end. Without her, he'd be nothing more than a sellsword who'd failed in his duties -- failed to stay by his employers' side and protect them, failed to earn his pay. With her, he was more than just a mercenary; he was a hero, and she would know it even if none else did.

Then it sank further into that despair as he realized that the people living in villages and hamlets up to twenty or even thirty miles west of the monastery possessed next to no defensive forces whatsoever. The Sightless Eye's monastery had been the local fort, for the locals. Now they were all fresh meat waiting to be slain, and he doubted the rogues could warn them all in time.

He resumed his walk, ever west-ward. When he judged himself to be a safe distance away from the midgets from earlier, he once again lit his torch-staff, once again called out Selena's name, hoping against hope that she'd be all right. His gait grew slower, his breath more haggard, his mind weaker, and his vision grew dim even as the sky grew brighter. He called at barely a whimper, his voice gone hoarse from shouting. He limped, right arm clutched around his torch staff, propping against it as an infirm man might his walking staff. His cheeks felt cool where his tears had dried in the twilight air, and he had no more tears to give.

And then, he beheld Selena's tiny form in the distance, lying on her back. She stirred, stretched her arms out and yawned, gave one look at him, gasped on seeing Art, and raced toward him, saying something.

Oh, thank the heavens she's okay, thought Art, relief flooding the husk of a man that remained of him. Thank the heavens. And then he collapsed, unconscious, with a crunch against the leaf-strewn forest floor, right before Selena.

When Art next awoke, he felt a weight on his abdomen, light and soft, birds chirping all about, leaves rustling upon flowing wind. His cheeks felt cool, his body warm, and he rested on his back.

Ah, this must be heaven, he thought. I'd died last night, fell to my death, and the gods had seen fit to grant me entry.

He opened his eyes -- daylight streamed into his eyes, with the sun, glorious in resplendant brilliance, shining directly overhead, sending shafts of vibrant hues through the interwoven branches sprawled above. Branches, slowly dancing. Leaves, fluttering. The blue of the sky shone like brilliant stars through the verdant canopy.

"Yep, definitely heaven."

The moving of his lips told him that he felt so very thirsty. He felt absolutely starved, too, and then he sensed the pain all over him, his right arm worst of all, shooting pains, even as his right hand felt numb. Numb, he remembered in grief, because he'd lost it. He raised his right arm, saw it ending in a stump, blackened at its heart and with red all around, an ugly gory mess. White in the middle -- cleft bone with marrow exposed.

"Heaven sucks."

The weight on his abdomen rolled about a tad. He craned his head and saw the girl. She had her head resting on him. She looked an utter mess, golden frazzled hair bestrewn with blades of grass and a crinkled yellow maple leaf. Her ordinary peasant girl's gown had mud and dirt smeared all over it, as did her shoes and her fair skin.

"Selena?" he whispered. He could scarcely believe it. All through that terrible night he'd been searching, always searching, for her, and he couldn't remember a thing about actually finding her, yet here she was. What luck, that she had survived and he had found her!

He wrapped his left arm around her waist, holding back his tears as he whispered, "Thank the heavens, you're safe." She lived, and that meant that all he'd forced himself through the night before, had not been in vain. "Thank you."

Then he closed his eyes. It felt safe here, safe after so long a nightmare of suffering and terror, and he longed to just stay here and catch up on much needed rest.

The girl squirmed, yawned, and opened her eyes to look at him. "Morning," she said as she patted him in the chest with her little hand. "Morning morning morning!" She leapt to her feet, practically bursting with excitement and, grabbing his left hand, began trying to pull him up. "Wakey wakey time! Get up, sleepyhead!"

"Oh, I'm an oaf now, am I? Well I'll have you know, I saved you last night." -- "Did not!" -- "Did too." -- "Did not," she finished with finality and her arms akimbo and staring down at her. -- "My, but aren't persistent, little one. As if you'd know." -- "I should know. You were sleeping the whole time. -- "I was… How could you possibly say that…" -- "I know because you slept all through yesterday you big, sleepy, sleepyhead!"

"Ha," chuckled Art, thinking of how the girl hadn't been there to see him make his stand against the invaders within the monastery. She'd fled after all, and hadn't looked back. Of course she wouldn't know. "Wait… I slept all through yesterday?" He sat up and grasped her arm in his hand. "Really?" -- Nod. -- "Shit." He'd been out for an entire day and night. More than that, as it looked like noon already. "Shit."

He looked around. Forest surrounded him on all sides; a dirt path cut through it not thirty paces away, and a tiny stream flowed on the other side. The little girl must have drank from there to keep from going thirsty after all this time, but after a day and two nights of nothing to eat she'd be downright famished right about now. "I… guess that really does make me a sleepyhead, doesn't it? Well, I have an excuse," he protested, lifting up his stub of a right hand, and fell sullen again.

Selena took hold of his cauterized wrist. -- "Aargh!" he shouted as he pulled his arm away from her. "That hurt, Selena. Don't touch."

She looked up at him in concern. "It really hurt?" -- "Yes, it really, really, really, really hurts." -- "Hmm, let me see." She reached out for his arm again, though this time by his wrist, and he let her. She then began breathing at it, softly and slowly, again and again, as Art watched on in confusion. "There, does that make it feel all better?" -- "No, I'm afraid it hurts even if you do that." -- Pout. -- "But, coming from you, I guess it's all right." -- "Yay!" she cheered with a fist pumping the air, before clapping her hands excitedly and with a smile.

Rakanishu, the thought went through his mind. A midget warrior, scimitar upraised, then banging it against a buckler. Red skin, gnarly teeth, woad, pitch. He shook the thought from his mind. His right hand had gone instinctively for his scabbard, though neither of them were there. He fell silent.

"How did you do that?" -- "Huh?" -- "Where did you put your hand?" -- Where did I put-- thought Art in disbelief. -- "Oh, it's a trick, isn't it? Can you teach me? I want to be able to make my hand disappear!"

Art shook his head slowly, chuckled, then let it fade. He couldn't very well tell the harsh truth to a girl that young. "Well, you see, after you ran off I had to visit a… an acquaintance. For my getting you out of there safely, he rewarded me with a magic trick, made my hand disappear, only I haven't seemed to figure out how to get it back yet."

"Oh," the girl said, looking crestfallen.

The beast, slashing out with its claw from the opening doorway. In time with that flash of memory, the stump of his arm flared in pain, and he winced, clenched his teeth.

"You don't have to lie," she said, looking at him reproachfully.

"What? I wasn't…" Wait… "Well aren't you smart. Since you asked… Back at the gates, I had to keep on fighting, after you ran on through, to hold them off. I… had to fight a lot." -- "A lot?" -- "Yes, I mean a lot a lot. To give you time to run away. Good thing you did, too. They wanted to eat you, you know."

"I'm not all that tasty!" -- "Oh yes you are." -- "No I'm not. If I am, you'd have eaten me already." -- "Oh, are you feeding me your arm now?" -- "Sure," she said, sticking out her bare arm to him. -- "Well then, if you're offering… I hadn't eaten for two days. I'm starving," he said as he grasped her outstretched hand and brought it before his mouth, opened his mouth wide and made an exaggerated "Aaah" as if about to bite down, then blew a very noisy kiss into her arm.

She tore her arm away, giggling as she danced about, feigning running away from a predator for a moment before stopping. "That was funny! It sounded just like a fart!" Then she looked askance at him. "You actually took a bite out of me. How could you!"

"Aww, I didn't hurt you, did I?" -- "Yes you did!" -- "Okay, then let me take a look at it," said Art as he reached out an arm for her. She stretched her arm out to him, pouting. He began to blow at it, where he'd supposedly 'bitten' her, softly and gently blowed all over it while making light sweeps over her arm with his fingers. He looked up, saw her watching him intently. "That feel better?"

She nodded, grinning. "Much better! Like I'm back to one piece." She sat down on the leaf-strewn grass beside him, sighing. "I'm sorry you lost your hand protecting me."

He shook his head, looking wistfully at her even as a renewed wave of tears brimmed his eyes. "I'm sorry, too."He felt sorry, yet happy. The little bundle of joy had brought more happiness into his life in five minutes than he'd had in days, weeks even. At that moment he felt glad, even blessed, to have been the one who'd rescued her.

He wrapped his arms around her, held her tightly, squeezed his eyes shut even as he let the floodgates burst, sobbing into her shoulder with abandon. "I'm so glad to have you back… I'd lost… so much… There's so much… I'll never be able to do again…" He choked his words on his heaving. He just held on to her, tightly as if never wanting to let go of her.

She for her part wrapped her little arms around him and patted him slowly on the back as if trying to console him. "There now… Don't cry. I'm here for you."

Then her stomach growled. His did too.

"Oh crap," he said, ending the embrace." I feel hungry, and I mean really, really hungry. Did I really sleep for over a day?"

She covered her mouth with her hands as she stepped away and burst into a peal of laughter. "I had you fooled, didn't I? I totally had you fooled!" -- "You little imp, get back here!" -- "Aah!" she screamed and ran -- Art gave a half-hearted chase, shouting after her, "I only slept for a morning, didn't I? Didn't I? After all I did? And what was that you called me? You little weasel, get back here!" -- "Aah!"

Weaving their way through the trees, Selena laughing and Art shouting in pursuit, he soon caught her and pulled her back to him. "Got you! I got you! Now you get what's coming for ya," he said, then proceeded to tickle her all over. -- "Stop! Stop!" she shouted, flailing her arms wildly and kicking about futilely with her feet as she squirmed and giggled, helpless, before Art showed her mercy and they collapsed upon the forest floor with Selena sprawled over him and heaving and Art laughing.

After a blissful minute of peaceful quiet, Selena said, "I like you. You're just as fun as mommy."

"Oh. That's… quite a nice compliment, thanks."

"Where's mommy?" -- Oh, crap. -- "When are you going to go back for her?" -- Oh crap oh crap what do I say? thought Art -- "You are going to go back for her, right? Right?" she asked. When had she turned around, to stand on top of him, pinning him down like that? He couldn't even turn aside. He couldn't look away from her, with her eyes wide with worry. Seeing those tears in her eyes, just ready to cascade on down, he couldn't bear to break the truth to her.

"Yeah, we'll go back for mommy, Selena. I promise you. We'll bring her back. But I can't do it alone, not after what they did to my hand," he said, raising up his right arm. "So I'm sorry, but I can't do it now. We'd need to first find people to fight with us, so we can scare away the baddies who want to hurt us and eat us. They'd need to be people who are good at fighting and who want to help us, so it may take us some time to find enough of them. And then we'd have to fight our way back there, before we can go save her. I'm not saying it will be easy on you, Selena, but you're a big, strong girl, right?"

She nodded, even as the tears started to flow.

"And big strong girls like you won't cry, you'll stay strong, right?"

She nodded, even as she brought the backs of her hands to wipe away her tears, sobbing, and as her tears fell to stain Art's ruined gambeson.

"Then get's get up," he said as he gently moved her off him, and then stood up. "There's a long journey ahead of us, and the longer we wait the longer it'll be before you get to see her again."

He didn't exactly fancy the prospect of Selena seeing her mother again, though. By the time they got back to the monastery, her decaying corpse was sure to have turned putrescent, and the innocent girl would be treated to a sight and smell that would haunt grown men into their nightmares.

But, as he took up his staff and led her with his handless arm to resume their journey west, he figured that she probably already knew this in her heart, and it was only that sliver of hope offered by his words that kept her from succumbing completely to despair. After seeing the girl so joyful and innocent, he couldn't bear to see her broken. He vowed to himself, then, that he would keep the light of that hope going for as long as possible. Even if it meant keeping her hopes alive with lie after lie.

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