Eventually, Puck returned.
Eric walked to Altera’s tent and knocked against the thorns. “Look, I know you’re going through something. But we gotta keep movin'. Or Vaix will hang our asses.”
The thorn tent dematerialized, and Altera nodded. She didn’t say a word or acknowledged Ragna’s presence.
Grendel looked after the women.
It wasn’t his business to pry or to care, but would they be okay? People had different values and perceptions of the world. Conflict was the natural consequence of countless value systems striving to maintain their existence in this world. Usually, these strives could occur in a controlled environment. Here, on a journey, it could become the string that separated life from death.
“What about him?” Eric pointed at Grendel. “Will he turn to normal. He ain’t exactly a pretty sight.”
“He will be fine,” said Puck. “Give him a few hours, and he’ll return to normal.”
Grendel lowered his head.
Why was he cursed with this ability? He wanted to be a hero of justice. Yet, each fight transformed him into this, accelerating the process further. The more he fought for his ideals, the less human he became. Would the day come where he was indistinguishable from abominations like the Twisted?
And if he let go of his ideals, there would be nothing left of him. His drive to quench injustice had filled his world's emptiness. When he had nothing left, his desire to see the monster brought to justice had remained.
"Don’t say that.” Ragna caressed his head. Her fingers brushed over his scales, tickling like a summer breeze.
What was she doing?
“I like you as a human more.” Ragna's mouth twirled a warm smile and hugged his neck. “But you protected us with this form. A new body to fight, to protect. You're beautiful, Grani.”
Grani? Was that a nickname?
Grendel raised his body and carried her on his neck.
“So warm…” Ragna murmured. She closed her eyes and slipped down, resting on his back.
Had he become a steed?
If Grendel could chuckle, he would.
It felt nice. Yet why? What made her different? What made her familiar? Even beyond his sense of duty, he had overtaxed himself for her sake. Was his initial hunch correct? That a connection between them existed?
“Anyway, let’s go.” Altera frowned. “If we follow the river, then, by nighttime, we should arrive in Utgard.”
She averted her face and marched forward.
Grendel couldn’t shake off the feeling that he had earned her ire.
“I apologize, but we require your services for another night.” Evergreen threw a stack of Wert on the bar counter. The wood under the Wert rattled when the coins landed. “My men are wounded.”
“What happened?” The barkeeper grabbed the money and poured a porter for the Paladin.
“Your intel was right. But sadly…” Evergreen drank and emptied a quarter of the mug in one breath. “My partner has mushrooms for brains.”
“Does that mean?” The barkeeper gulped. He rubbed his hands, and sweat beads gathered on his forehead. His eyes glanced at the communication device she had given him.
Evergreen emptied her drink and slammed it against the counter.
The barkeeper jumped up.
“I've no idea. This was Diavolo’s deal, not mine. It's bad faith to check in another man’s burden.”
“It's fine.” Arturo slugged down the staircase. Bandages covered half his body.
“Go. To. Bed.” Evergreen slammed her mug a second time. Every word of her mouth was seething. “Or I swear, that concussion will be the least of your worries.”
Arturo raised his arm, ordering Evergreen to stop. “Don’t forget who your superior is.”
“You think that will save you? Our Majesty should execute you for your blunder today.”
Arturo’s gaze grew sharper, and he gnashed. “How dare you suggest what Our Majesty should do.” He paused to smile. “But I suppose blasphemy runs through your veins.” He faced the barkeeper. “You did your job well. I put my personal interest in front of the mission and paid the price.”
“What was up with that anyway?” Evergreen asked. “Why were you interested in this brat?”
“I just miss Linde. I tried it with Marcus Graswald. But fighting him was just not the same. It was just pretending and faking." He leaned over the counter. "But Ragna. That girl has her mother's zeal. I want to cultivate her. See her grow, and when the day comes where she blooms, I will pluck her.”
Evergreen groaned. "I'll suggest a sensitivity class in my report."
Anyway.” Arturo looked at the barkeeper. “You've fulfilled your end of the bargain. Now, it’s our turn.”
“Yes.” Arturo nodded. His face twisted to a pained expression, and he pressed his hand against his forehead.
“We will take…your…daughter with us. Make…no mistake…She won’t…have an easy…life. Vaix is no Valhalla. She will…have to…work hard…maybe go to…university…or join us…Up to her…But she’ll…be in the capital…away from…here.”
“Seriously, man. Rest.”
Arturo nodded, and the mask of misery his face had turned into worsened. He grimaced and winced as he climbed up the stairs.
The barkeeper fell on his knees. Tears wetted the wood. “T…Thank you.”
“Still, I’m curious,” said Evergreen. “Why do all this to lose your daughter.”
“This village ain’t for her. Patricia’s soon 18. Someone’s gotta take her as a wife. Or the people here will notice she’s different.”
“And in places like this, being different is bad.”
Patrica’s father stood up. “I lived all my life here. My grand-grand-grandparents built the inn. When my pops died, he gave it to me. I’ve met many people from outside here. And they told me ‘bout their lives, ‘bout the cities. Patricia’s listened to all of ‘em. For me, it was too much. But I understood one thing. This village’s small. The world’s big. You know, my wife died last year. From an illness, you lot cured in the big cities. Had I left this place years ago, she would still be here.”
“My condolences. Lost lives that were supposed to walk among us.” Evergreen’s face grew somber. The leather gloves on her hand touched the glass, and with her finger, she encircled the mug’s rim. “There’s no greater tragedy, not greater crime of god.”
“I’m old. Soon, my time’ll come. I never left this place, but for me, that’s good. My life’s here, and it’ll end here. But Patrica’s different. Just lookin’ at ‘er, you can see, she’s smart. Smarter than most here. Here, she’s wastin’ away. In the big cities, she can put her smarts to good use. There’s so much I don’t get ‘bout Patricia. But she’s all I have. I just want her to be happy." He looked outside the window. "This village will make her sad. It’ll destroy and kill her. I can’t let that happen.
“Even if it means never seeing her again.” Evergreen smiled. “Excavating the tomb turned out to be a bust. Only Sir Kay lay here. Tomorrow, our transport will arrive. Your daughter will come with us. Tell her to pack everything she needs and wants to take with her."
“Of course.” The barkeeper poured another porter into the mug and slid it to Evergreen.
The barkeeper grinned. “This one’s on the house.”
“Say,” asked Grendel. “What was your father like?”
“Why are you asking?” Ragna tilted her head.
Nightfall had arrived, and darkness covered their surroundings. Moonlight shone on the path they had to walk, and every ten meters, a lamppost illuminated the way. Asphalt had replaced the earth's soil and proved they had left behind the villages' backwater stasis and arrived in the provinces surrounding the city and country of Utgard.
Grendel had returned to his human form.“I travel a lot and meet all kinds of people. If I can recognize him, I could call you.”
So Ragna rattled down everything she knew about Drake Griffin. From his looks, his hobbies, and favorite foods to every pesky detail Ragna loved or hated about her father.
Grendel came to two conclusions: Ragna was a daddy's girl, and they didn’t share the same father. Unless his father could duplicate himself and change the entire personality of the clone. It was a longshot anyway. But the mystery of the familiarity he felt around her remained unsolved. Why was he fond of her, and why did she make him feel different? Only his mother had achieved that effect so far.
For now, he would have to accept this unresolved mystery. But the future was uncertain, so one day, he could solve this. Because now, he had a mission to fulfill. An enemy to kill.
“How come you never used that form against the Twisted?” Ragna asked.
“I had to keep the guests entranced. In that form, I can’t speak. I can’t fight and protect them at the same time. Anyway. For now, this is goodbye.” Grendel pointed in the direction opposite of him. “The main city is just around the corner. Our next destination is Heorot. I hope we will see each other again, and I wish you nine worlds’ worth of luck.”
Puck nodded. Ragna hugged Grendel and Puck, and the two left the party.
Ragna’s group arrived at the border control – a stone wall two guards struggled to patrol. When asked what their reason to travel to Utgard was, Altera walked in front of Ragna and Eric.
She stood firm. An aura of ice surrounded her. Seeing into her eyes, one might think it had frozen her heart. Altera showed her Id-card and sprouted her fully-healed wings.
“My name is Altera Xion.” Her voice brimmed with authority and grace that one might have mistaken her for Aura dealing with politicians obstructing her ambitions and agenda.
The guards' faces turned blue.
“I request an audience with the Chieftain. Bring me to my brother.”