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Blog 222: Campaign Novelization

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After the big boss battle, what comes next? The big confrontation with the Mother of Flies. Exactly at a time when none of them are able to handle it. Drama, drama, drama.

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Chapter 33: Put on the Red Light

Fmughwa landed with deliberate lightness on the bridge of stones to Mother’s house. Only the slightest ripple crested out over the rice paddies. Smoke piped up from top of the dam into the sunset sky.

Mathal and Crosael hopped off either side of the beetle. As Mathal helped Rizzardo down, Mother walked out onto the deck with a familiar horned head in hand, her fist closed around Kulata’s tongue. Mathal’s gut curdled.

She, Crosael, and Rizzardo didn’t have a spare spell between them. Even Crosael’s ink was almost gone. Mother, with her Maggot Tree safe and familiar healed, was at full strength. Mathal couldn’t fight her. She couldn’t even bargain.

Mother smiled. A line of flies rose in a skittering vein along her neck.

“Great job, kids. You really made your mama proud. Mathal, I’ve just got one itsy bitsy little chore for you.”

Mother raised Kulata straight out in front of her like a morbid, sentient toast.

“See, I found your toy after you hid from me, funny girl. We did a lot of talking.”

She jerked their tongue around. Kulata could only hack and cough.

“A lot of talking. But it turns out, you can wish your last wish over to dear old Mother, and it won’t cost either of us a thing. All you have to do is say the words.”

Mathal’s mouth dried as her palms sweated. She couldn’t fight. She had to talk. She couldn’t talk. Tarvi could talk. Tarvi wasn’t here.

Flies pulsed over Mother’s temple.

“I’m only asking because I respect you, funny girl. But if you can’t respect me enough to give an answer…,” her voice dropped and she smiled, a line of flies skittering from lip to lip, buzzing over her teeth, “You’re gonna make me give your tongue a little pull, too.”

Kulata could talk. Mathal’s fists closed, squeezing out a line of sweat.

“Kulata, is that true?” she croaked, eyes forced wide against the instinct to shut.

Mathal breathed hard through gritted teeth, but the pounding in her ears drowned out the sound.

Mother jumped off the deck. Mathal flinched but only for a second. Mother didn’t pounce on her. She landed hard on all fours, one of which was Kulata’s head. Their skull cracked against the stone, but whatever kind of undead they were, they didn’t bleed.

Mother shifted up to her feet and switched her grasp from Kulata’s tongue to their horn. She gave the devil’s head a little shake.

“Tell her.”

“Yes, it’s true, it’s all true.”

Mother stepped closer with each lisped word. In the corners of her eyes, Crosael and Rizzardo each backed away. With Fmughwa the Deathgorger to her back, Mathal had nowhere to go. She was out of options, out of allies, and soon to be out of wishes.

Mother stopped at ten paces, Kulata out in front of her. Mother needed both wishes.

“Ok. Ok,” said Mathal, holding up both of her empty palms. “There’s just something I gotta say to Kulata before I wish them over to you. Something that’s been bothering me.”

“Make it quick, Mathal, my arm’s getting tired.”

“Kulata, you were right. When you said you weren’t my personal talking tote bag, you were right. You’re a soul-stealing piece of [redacted-dacting-dacted], but you’re not an object. You’re a person, and I’m wishing you back to the one that you were.”

“WHAT?”

“You can’t wish back the dead!” Kulata screamed as Mother exploded into a raging cyclone of buzz-sawing flies.

Mathal shut her teeth against her scream and dived into the rice paddy. The flies followed her under the water, their acid biting through her skin even as they drowned. The buzzing black mass weighed her down from all sides, crushing her into the mud of the shallow paddy.

She screamed a torrent of bubbles. Her nails sheared through the biting bodies. The flies only dulled her claws with their sticky guts and followed the scream down her throat.

The mud of the paddy quaked under her hands and knees. The raging storm of flies pulled away from her body, but a deep shadow and pressure remained over her. She broke the surface of the water choking and spitting up insects under a shiny black exoskeleton.

Fmughwa stood over Mathal, head lowered and mandibles bared at six, possibly five, swarms of biting flies in humanoid form. Mother screamed her inhuman, buzz-sawing scream. Fmughwa screeched back, her subsonic pulse churning the paddy waters. The dam shook. Hemp rope snapped. The wooden ladder fell from the deck to the ground.

Mathal muttered Infernal at a mile a minute in the ensuing silence.

“Kulata, I wish back your full undead body and devilry.”

The paddy on the opposite side of the stones glowed with a soft, rust red light. Kulata’s head rose to the surface, the edge of their neck just below the waterline. The devil grinned.

Rust red flames geysered up in an explosion of searing heat from the earth through the water to the height of the clearing. The blast battered into Fmughwa and rocketed straight through to Mathal and the paddy. The forced ripped away her breath and knocked her back under the water. Her back pounded against the mud, but she kept her chin tucked and waited out the boiling wave.

Mathal crawled up onto a stone, dripping and steaming muddy water. Fmughwa, Crosael, Rizzardo, and Mother all did the same. The flames had vanished. They’d left a second completely naked person in the swamp.

Kulata, seven feet of lean rust red and branched black horns, floated a hair’s breadth over the still surface of the ash-choked water. Black, skeletal wings, possibly just for show, unfurled fifteen feet out to either side. The devil threw back their head with a wild cackle.

Crosael, the first to recover, tossed his hat at Kulata. They only set the hat askew on their horned head.

“Hey mortal, you wanna ditch this joint?”

“Get me the [redacted] out of here.”

The devil whooped and flew into Mathal, sweeping her off her hands and knees. They flew higher and higher into the dusk until the Hagswamp was nothing but a puddle of red mud beneath their feet.

“Where to?”

“Anywhere but here,” said Mathal, voice cracking.

Her eyes burned and blurred. Kulata hefted her up onto their shoulders. She barely had time to grab onto their horns before they zoomed off yelling full speed ahead. Mathal screamed into the wind. It roared away all sound and tears.

Kulata descended twenty minutes later over some far grove of the Etherwood, no different from any other spot in the sea of green. The devil set them gently down on the topmost branch of the canopy. They sat side by side among the leaves and watched the stars wake only an arm’s length away.

“You could’ve wished for anything.”

“I wouldn’t do that to Chelon. And it was the right thing to do. I think.”

“Future contractees will certainly think twice about treating me as an object now.”

“So you’re just going to go off and steal more souls?”

“That is my Hell-designated occupation.”

“This isn’t Hell.”

Kulata remained silent for a full minute.

“I’m not going back to Westcrown. It’s been too long. I need to stretch my literal and figurative wings.”

“I still have one more wish.”

“So I recall,” the devil smiled.

They turned to face her, offering up both palms. She turned and placed her hands on theirs, frowning in question.

“Mathal, I give to you my true name and trust it in your confidence. When you decide to make your final wish, speak ‘Khazrae,’ and I’ll be forced to appear.”

“Naked?”

“Hopefully I’ll have found some decent clothes by then.”

“Will you come back with me to my mom’s place?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks, Kulata.”

“I’m already here. And naked. You can call me by my name--if you like, no pressure.”

She snorted.

“Thanks, Khazrae.”

Mathal turned away, back toward the stars. They sat in silence with nothing but the night breeze between them.

--/--

They returned to the house at midnight. A thin trail of smoke still piped up from its heart. Fmughwa clung to its underside, snoring peacefully over the stinking compost.

Mathal pounded on the dam door with Khazrae at her back. Crosael, followed closely by Rizzardo, let them in.

Mother didn’t look up from where she sat cross-legged by the chalk circle of fire. Mathal sat across from Mother but kept her eyes on the flames flickering between them. Khazrae placed a hand on her shoulder. She gave them a nod and a pat. It was all the support she needed. The devil went to sit in the corner with Crosael and Rizzardo.

“I don’t forgive you.”

“Good. I raised a killer, not a forgiver.”

The flies in her face extended the ends of her mouth into a skittering smile.

“I’m not here to kill you, either.”

“Weak.”

“When I leave tomorrow, I’m never coming back. I know that probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but it means something to me.”

The fire popped and crackled in the silence between them.

“I should’ve killed you when I had the chance,” Mother muttered.

“You would’ve had to kill your own familiar first.”

Mother pounded her fist to the ground. Mathal jumped.

“I know!”

Mathal straightened from her defensive hunch as Mother straightened from her lunge. The flies pulsed at her temple, but when she spoke, her voice was as even as Tarvi’s ice.

“I hate you for that.”

Mathal’s gut clenched and eyes pricked as though she’d taken a punch. She stood up.

“You’ve never treated me like a daughter!”

“Because you’re just a tool!”

Mother rose and the fire rose to greet her. She stepped into the chalk circle to a point one black-nailed finger into Mathal’s face.

“You’re nothing without your strength. The strength that I gave you.”

Her pointing finger traced an arc of flame over at the three in the corner.

“Why do you think they cling to you? Why do you think you even have friends?”

“I’m strong because of them!”

Rizzardo pointed at himself and looked from Crosael to Khazrae in confusion.

“Not him. My real friends. We’re stronger than you could ever make me.”

Mother lowered her arm, her head. Her shoulders shook. She threw her head back in wild, cackling laughter. The flames roared up around her in a crackling chorus.

Mathal turned her back to the burning and walked away. Khazrae followed her to the door. Rizzardo hurried after them. She let them out first.

She stood in the doorway, half her body in the cool night breeze. She raised her voice just enough to be heard through the hyena cackles.

“Crosael, you wanna go camping with us?”

Crosael looked back at Mother. He gave her a little wave and bolted through the open door.

Mathal did not look back.

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