Tarklie awoke with the familiar clanging of Ting’s only means of communication. He was busy wordlessly arguing with his master in the next room – Maris was none too impressed with what breakfast he had brought her. Tarklie opened her eyes wide in an effort to force her mind to wake up quicker. Last night was the first night she had slept more than a few hours at a time, but her body wasn’t used to it. She had a severe headache, and her body pleaded for more time to recover from the last few months of poor sleep. She had been in a permanent state of alarm for months on end; now that she had stopped she wasn’t sure if she was capable of starting again.
She pulled herself up and threw off the covers. She had slept in her new lightweight armour, a necessary habit developed on her home plane, but this gear was vastly more comfortable. Her hair was splayed and tangled like the overgrown razor fields, blood and debris stuck in its wild weaves. Maris had left a wide toothed comb on a cabinet alongside a wooden cup of water. She certainly has her priorities set. Tarklie thought, and wondered just how long Maris had considered mentioning her guest’s appearance. Tarklie gulped down the water in one go and brisk shoved the comb through her hair, ignoring the severe tugging at her scalp. After just a few minutes it was mildly tamed, and various bits of indescribable matter littered the floor at her feet. She sighed at walked towards the door to see what the fuss was about in the other room.
“I know you’re vertically challenged my little tin toddler, but when I send you to fetch food, I prefer if it hasn’t been dragged half a mile along these streets. Do you have any idea what fluids stain this stone?
“I just cannot stand bruised fruit, it erks me.” Maris exaggerated a shiver down her spine and swung her head across to see Tarklie entering.
Tarklie’s eyes were wide visibly shouting don’t bring me into this!
“Good morning sunshine, I see you found the comb I left you and put it to very little use.” Maris picked up some sort of food Tarklie had never seen in her life. “Hard to believe you can grow anything in this ground, but it’s not half bad. If I’d eat it then I’m sure it’s beyond your expecations.”
Tarklie took it in her hand, squeezed a little and tested its weight. It was round but long, yellow with tinges of green, and it still felt cool to the touch. She brought it to her mouth and smelled, and a smile worked its way across her face. She chomped down and tore a side off.
“I tend to peel it first but I suppose your bowels may need the extra work by now… is fruit partly metal on your world too?” Maris looked on at Tarklie like some sort of foreign savage as she emptied the contents of the sack onto her table.
“No…” Tarklie replied, mushed up food muffling her words. “It’s like this but less… sweet.” She still looked like a giddy child to Maris.
“Perhaps that explains your overall demeanour; I couldn’t imagine a whole world filled with people as regimental as you. I bet they ceremoniously stuck their bitter metal fruit up their- goodness, don’t eat the middle darling or your intestines will forcibly eject themselves onto the floor.” She wagged a hand at Tarklie and took what little was left off of her hands.
“I am the mother of two mentally stunted children…” she sighed and passed Tarklie some more fruit and bread. “Eat your fill; we need to plan our exit strategy. Things have escalated somewhat after you spread several men’s limbs like you were decorating a dragon’s nest.”
“I’ve gone from commander to wanted criminal in the space of two days. Still, at least I’m not being chased by ferocious flesh and metal, just Torchlight’s finest armed farmers…” Tarklie rolled her eyes.
“Wanted criminal? Please commander sir, the militia won’t fuss in this sort of affair, it’s the grim gangs whose numbers you thinned and whose property I… well that stuff was all mine in the first place.” Maris’ face told a different story.
Tarklie’s eyes thinned as she mentally scolded her friend.
“Don’t be judgy.” Maris pointed at Tarklie and then threw herself on the quilted seating. “I get enough of those eyes from him.” She tilted her head towards Ting, currently unsure where to place himself in this conversation.
“You know you never told me what you were stealing in there yesterday.” Tarklie crossed her arms intent on pressing the attack. “No secrets and all. Let’s see what all that bloodshed was for.”
Maris sat in silence, pupils locked in place as her brain calculated her chances of slithering out of this situation. It didn’t take long before she tossed out the idea of lying to Tarklie out of her list of options. Tarklie was mildly naïve, but some things could not get past that gaze.
“Alright, but I wasn’t stealing anything. I hid things in that place before I left for safe keeping. Those fellows knew something was in there but couldn’t find it. I am a cunning mage after all.” Maris tapped at her temple and bounced her eyebrows up and down theatrically.
Tarklie looked unimpressed.
“Please smile occasionally, I need to feel like at least one of my companions has a soul. Ting, go fetch the sack from my room.”
Ting did as he was commanded and Tarklie could hear the little robot bustle in Maris’ room next door. The sound of dragging baggage filled Maris’ ears as she squirmed at the thought of her items being ruined.
Thank god they’re made of stronger stuff. Why couldn’t he be taller? Maris thought.
Ting scraped the sack along the floor up to Maris’ feet and then whizzed up to Tarklie in anticipation of a show.
With one final cursory glance at Tarklie, Maris tipped the sack upside down as a pile of bizarre contraptions began to litter the floor. Each one was made of the same sleek shining material.
“Etherium.” Maris spread her palms wide. “It may not mean anything to you, but imagine the most precious metal on your Mirrodin, then times its value by ten. People on Esper literally live off of this stuff. It makes everything, extends their life spans, and it can buy a man’s ticket from the slums to the high life. Most importantly however, it oozes with unending magic, and powers whatever device you make out of it.”
“Like your key that unlocks everything.” Tarklie asked.
“Is Ting etherium?” Tarklie looked down at Ting, who looked back with careful consideration.
I hadn’t thought of that. He mused.
“I doubt it. I have yet to meet anyone that has half a clue what he’s made out of, and even I can’t feel any power leaking out of those joints of his. Whatever it is, he’s nearly impossible to destroy. Probably some old armour plating.”
“Regardless, most of this is for self-preservation.” She picked up a metal band that looked not too dissimilar to a bracer.
“This slips on my wrist, give it a flick and-“ a long thing blade of metal shot in and out in the blink of an eye. “Hey presto, a punctured lung.”
Maris tossed it aside and picked up a small spider-like clamp.
“Slap this on a man’s head, neck or spine and he’ll be able to breathe and… not a lot else really.”
“Does any of this stuff not kill people?” Tarklie looked down at the pile and found very few hopeful candidates to her question.
“When somebody stops you in or around Torchlight, it tends not to be to ask a question.” Maris began packing her previous devices back into the sack, and then stopped when she came to a bulky but beautifully crafted bracelet. She tossed it over to Tarklie.
“If this removes the limbs it’s attached to, I can assure you I won’t be sacrificing my remaining hand for you.” Tarklie held it back out to Maris, who simply looked back at the jewellery.
“It’s just a silly old bracelet.” She snapped back.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to-” Before Tarklie could finish there was a thundering bash on the door.
Tarklie dashed towards her shield, swung the straps round and tightened it hard on her forearm. She pulled her spear and swung it low until its tip pointed dead centre to the door. A muffled voice shouted behind the door.
“You can’t hide yourself among the rich Maris. They won’t protect you. Nobody will protect you after yesterday. I have two dozen men ready to bash this door down. Come willingly and hand over what belongs to Grenley or we’ll toss you off the highest point of the mountain.”
“This is inconvenient.” Maris was weighing her options.
“When you told me things had escalated you didn’t mention it would be this quickly.” Tarklie hissed in a whispered voice.
Tarklie looked down to Ting and nodded towards the door. She knew what he could and would do if necessary and he seemed all too keen to do it. He sped towards the door.
“Hey, get back here. You don’t take orders from her; you’ll wind up stolen and serving Grenley tea and breakfast! What’re you gonna do, look at them affectionately to death?” Ting turned back to Maris, head down in defeat.
“They could easily have this house surrounded Maris, I knew this was a bad place to lay low.”
“Get in my bedroom.” Maris ordered.
Tarklie could only look at Maris in disbelief.
“You heard me. I’m not as helpless as I make out. You and Ting both, get in the damn bedroom.” Maris shot her arm out like an angry mother. “Now!”
The three of them rushed into Maris’ bedroom as the thuds on the door began beating harder and harder. Maris held her bag of goods in one hand while she produced her etherium skeleton key from her chest. Her room was nearly identical to the one she had Tarklie sleep in, save for an enormous fur rug made from some animal Tarklie couldn’t recognise. Maris kicked it away to one side of the room and thrust her key in a hole chipped away from the floorboards. Like clockwork a small shaft opened up, and likewise Maris dastardly grin spread across her face.
“Surrounded my foot you of little faith. Don’t worry poppet, I’ll look after you.” Maris winked at Tarklie and shot down the shaft. “Ladies first!”
Tarklie and Ting gave each other questioning looks and then followed close behind. Maris was waiting next to a lever a few feet down and pushed it hard. The entrance closed as they hear the front door to her home explode into splinters. Tarklie could hear Maris muttering a short phrase and then the staircase tunnel was illuminated by the soft blue glow of her hands.
“Never forget – I’m more than just a pretty face Lord Commander. And sorry Ting, this wasn’t designed for people who can’t descend stairs. You made need to carry the poor little sap Tarklie.”
Ting looked at his master, perplexed. He surveyed the tunnel with his eyes and then sprung up to the ceiling, his rollerball sticking to the ceiling like glue. He rolled around above Tarklie’s head, and then produced his little arm to clang his tune once more.
“Don’t. Even. Think about it.” Maris raised her hand. “They’ll hear you. And you never indicated in any way that you could stick to things. That would’ve been incredibly handy in past predicaments…”
“Where does this go, and where are we going Maris.” Tarklie asked.
“This will lead us out a back passage-” Maris stifled a giggle “Fitting for a place like this… Out of Torchlight entirely. Then we’re going to head to civilised territories and find ourselves a Planeswalker like your friend. We’re going to Bant, where the fields are green, the people are welcoming, and the residences are classy. If we find one of those walkers, we’ll hold them at knifepoint and ask them to sort you out. However it is you want to be sorted out.”
“I don’t think it really works like that.” Tarklie realised Maris didn’t quite grasp the gravity or the complexity of the situation. Everything for her was definitive. “But, it is a start. How do we get there?”
“That’s where things get difficult. We have a desert to cross, my old home shard to skirt around, and a very large and unpleasant epicentre where the shards are joined. Then we get to lands of grass and gold and, well, take it from there.”
“You make it sound easy. Come on, I’d like to get out of these tunnels. Bad memories.”
“Ladies first.” Maris nudged Tarklie ahead. “You’re my meat shield remember.”