Short Story – On The Ties That Bind

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Snow boots stomped through piles of slush, disregarding the splashes of wet snow as they sailed through the air for mere seconds before making contact with the ground again. Although it was not cold, the gloomy dark skies did not fill Annetta and her companions with much in the way of energy as they made their way to her house. The new year had brought with it new adventures when Annetta’s father had announced they would be moving out of the apartment building. The decision had come when the landlord had seen fit to increase their rent. When Arieus had calculated what it would cost him per year, he had quickly set out to find a property to buy instead. From there, everything had seemed to happen in a whirl as Annetta’s parents had set to the task of not only locating a house, but proceeding to organize the move. Had Annetta not known any better, she would have called it impulsive.

It had been only a few weeks since the move had been completed, and so Annetta, Jason, Sarina and Link were still trying to figure out the fastest route.

Jason stretched, letting out a yawn before going back to holding Sarina’s hand. “Man, all I can say is your folks knew when to pick a time to move. Any colder and trying to find these shortcuts would really suck.”

Turning her head of bushy reddish-brown hair to face him, Annetta spoke. “You’re going to thank me when we do. Bus passes aren’t cheap and I don’t think the school’s going to pay for them anytime soon.”

“Tell me about it,” Jason growled.

Annetta caught sight of her best friend holding the other girl’s hand, then turned back to walking. “So, any plans for Valentine’s?”

The boy seemed to choke on some spittle he had been swallowing when he heard the question. “Uhm… why would you ask that?”

An eyebrow raised, Annetta cocked her head back at him again. “J.K., I might not be the most girly girl on the face of the Earth, but I can tell when two people are dating. I’m not completely oblivious.”

Sarina furrowed her brows in confusion as she looked at Annetta and then over at Jason, silently wishing for an explanation.

Seeing this reaction from her, Jason cursed Annetta under his breath for her having said anything. He stopped, holding Sarina’s hand firmly to make her stop as well, placing more of a gap between them, Annetta and Link. “What did she mean by dating?” Sarina asked curiously, once she was certain they were out of hearing range. “Well, on Earth, when two people uh… care about each other how we do…” the words stumbled out of him as he tried to think how to explain it all to her. “Other people will say they’re together in a relationship, or that they’re…uhm… courting.”

“So we are dating, then?”

“I guess, but we haven’t been on an actual date,” he mused. “A date is when the two people dress up nice to go out together to, uh…”

He was stumped again. These were things he had never paused to think about, much less explain to someone who was not aware of the traditions of Earth cultures. He kept forgetting this was all new to her.

“I’ll tell you what. It might be easier to show you instead, so how about we go on a date on Valentine’s day, since we’ve never had one?” he suggested.

Sarina still somewhat confused by the lack of explanation on Jason’s part. Despite this, she slowly nodded her head in agreement. “Okay… and we have to dress fancy? Where are we going?”

“I’ll figure it out.” He said to her and they then continued walking.

*
Already home from school, Xander Severio sat cross-legged on his bed in front of the television. Keen eyes darted back and forth, a pale blue shade reflected on his face from the screen as nimble fingers mashed buttons together at what would have appeared to be lightning speed to onlookers. Legacy of the Wyrm had been a game Xander had been looking forward to almost all year, and he had raced home from school to find the package containing it at his doorstep. The rest had been history. Another level complete, he sighed, setting the controller down for a moment, allowing his digits to recover. Despite what everyone thought, even he had his limits.

Hearing the front door open below, his listened in on the conversation going on below. The voices belonged to his sister and her friends. Excited to share what had come in, he swiped the case from the dresser that held his console and he went out into the hallway to meet them.

Annetta was the first up the stairs, engaged heavily in a conversation with Link. The anticipation in Xander built as her head popped over the edge of the stairs and came into view.

“Hey dude,” she greeted him. “How was school?”

“Same old,” he answered, trying his best to hide his grin and then pulled out the case in front of her. “Look what came in, though!”

Pulling the cover back slightly, Annetta glanced over the case. “Legacy of the Wyrm, nice! You beat the whole game yet?”

“Pfft, no.” Xander shook his head. “There’s too many things to unlock for me to do that.”

“At least you’ll be occupied for a bit, then.” Annetta smiled. Seeing her friends catch up to her, began to make her way towards her room.

Xander watched as everyone moved past him, each giving him a hello as they went. He knew they would be going to wherever they went on the strange device in his sister’s room, a routine that ever since the night almost a year ago with the storm that had altered the way his sister’s time was spent after school. He also knew that his sister would be getting back late, but despite this, he took a step after them, forming what he wanted to say in his head, despite having a gut-wrenching feeling it would not end as he wanted it to.

“Hey Anne, when you get back, do you want to play some with me? They have a multiplayer mode, and I can only unlock the platinum armour set if I do that one.”

Annetta paused where she stood, and turned slightly to regard him. “I’ll try to make it back. I can’t promise anything, though. Sorry, man.”

Hearing what his sister said, Xander nodded in response. This was how these conversations had progressed like since the night with the storm. Still, part of him had hoped that for once the answer would be different. Exhaling in a defeated manner, he glanced down at the case before going back into his room to resume the game.
*
Candlelight illuminating the thin parchment pages sprawled out before him in various heaps, Puc Thanestorm studied and scanned each in turn, doing his best to take in their contents. Annetta and Jason had long since departed for the evening, having completed their training. This left the mage to do as he liked. He kept no other light on in his quarters within Q-16 when he read, finding it easiest to focus in the dark. The mage was so engrossed in his studies that he did not noticed the sounds of feet shuffling along the metallic floors of the Lab coming towards his room.

A light knocking came on the frame of his ajar door, causing Puc to finally remove himself from his scholarly trance and glance up. Link stood at the door, wearing an unsure expression, his curled knuckles still poised to rap at the wood once more should the mage not have responded. The Gaian youth wore his usual attire of a black t-shirt, jeans and running shoes, fashions traits he had no doubt picked up from Annetta. His dirty blonde hair was cut shorter now than when he had first arrived in the Lab, but long enough that the bangs still parted at the sides, coming down past his ears. His grey eyes were keen and focused as they studied Puc without the fear they once held whenever he came into the presence of the mage.

His attention fully shifted to the youth, Puc put down the parchment he had been analyzing. “How might I be of service, Lincerious?”

Link, whom Puc had always referred to by his birth named Lincerious, strode further into the room, folding his arms across his chest in a pensive, cradling manner. His body language hinted at the fact that something bothered him, this much Puc could tell, but waited for him to speak before inquiring on his own.

“I’m having trouble going to sleep,” Link finally admitted.

Puc nodded thoughtfully, and picking up his staff that rested beside him against the desk, he hit it against the floor lightly, causing all the lights to go back on in the room.

Link cringed from the temporary blindness, closing his eyes shut tightly for a moment as he let them adjust. His gaze then turned back to Puc, who was searching inside the cabinet to the farther side of the room where his potions lay.

“If it is insomnia that plagues you, I can be of service,” Puc spoke once more as he searched the drawers. Rummaging through its contents, he soon after pulled out a vial that he handed to the youth. “Mix no more than five drops in a glass of water. This should aid you.”

“I… uh… thanks,” Link replied, somewhat stunned.

“Any time.” Puc inclined his head in a nod.

The eyes of the two seemed to meet for a split second, before Link turned on his heel to leave. There was an uncertainty in his step, as if something were still making his stay within the gravitational pull of the room. The side effects of fatigue, Puc thought. The Gaian having left his room, he returned to his notes.
*
Arriving earlier than he had anticipated it would take him, Jason tugged at the buttoned-up collar on his grey dress shirt as he waited in Annetta’s living room. He had spent the previous three days putting together his wardrobe for the occasion, the remainder of which consisted of black dress pants, a black and silver striped tie and black blazer to match. Puc had also given them the evening off, when Jason had mentioned what he’d planned for Sarina, though not without a stern warning of how they would have to make the time up later.

“Remind me again why people dress like this?” he grumbled at Annetta, who sat on the opposite end of the couch with her arms crossed, a light, teasing smile visible across her face from hearing what he said.

“You were the one who said you had to show her,” she reminded him, the grin cracking wider.

Groaning, Jason glanced over beside him on the sofa, where there lay a wrapped-up bouquet of roses he had bought the previous day. He did not spend his allowance that he got nowadays on much, with having no time for videogames so getting the money for them had not been a difficult task. The white and pink paper covering the top of them so they would be a surprise.

“You wanna maybe stick those in water or something while we wait?” Annetta asked.

“Nah, the lady at the store said they would hold for a few weeks,” he replied.

“Without water?” she raised an eyebrow.

Before any further conversation could be had, the sound of the teleporter from Annetta’s room could be heard, followed by feet pattering along the wooden floors. Descending the stairs and coming around the corner, Sarina appeared. Her hair was done up, and she wore a green sleek dress with a short black sweater overtop. In her right hand, she also carried a pair of heels that she had taken off so as not to scuff the wooden floor.

Stunned, Jason stood up, trying to be straighter than his restricting clothing allowed him to.

“I…uhm…” He tried to form words and then grabbed the flowers and pressed the forward before himself. “These are for you.”

Chuckling from the side, Annetta rose from the couch. “I’m gonna head up to my room. Shut the door when you guys leave, okay?”

Jason nodded weakly as he saw the colourful blur that was his best friend vanish off to the side, the sound of creaking stairs accompanying her ascent. Before him, Sarina took the paper wrapped bundle.

“Uhm… thank you?” She looked at it, uncertain what to do.

“Oh, you open it.” Jason motioned to where the tape was.

“Ah, like a Christmas gift.” Sarina nodded, fishing out the knowledge from her brain and began to work at the wrapping with her finger.

Getting through the last layer, the girl tore it open as a myriad of crimson rose petals fell from inside. Her stunned expression changing into a smile, Sarina giggled at the sight while Jason looked horrified at the half-wilted bouquet.

“The woman said it would hold…” he managed to say.

Sarina looked over at him. “Oh… did it do something it was not supposed to?”

Jason’s lips moved to open to say something, but he retracted, shaking off the thought. “No, it was supposed to make you smile.”

Glancing down at his watch, he then added, “Let’s put those in some water for now. We should get going. I made reservations at that Italian place for seven.”
*
Having completed her ascent on the stairs, Annetta made her way down the hallway towards her room. When they had moved, she had managed to convince her parents to let her have the room that was on the side of the house facing the street, so that if anyone was coming to her house when her and her friends were getting ready to head down to the Lab, she would be the first to know. Having been given time off, she’d decided to catch up on some much-needed reading. She had accumulated more than her fair share of books over the last year, but not the time to read them. The muscles in her legs coiling to allow her to pivot on her heel, she noticed something amiss from the corner of her eye. Or rather, she heard it.

The silence was odd to Annetta, who knew full well that her younger sibling was in the room right across from hers, most likely engaged with some onscreen foe. At least, he usually was. Poking her head into his room, she found Xander was indeed inside. The mustard colours of the walls brightened the room far more than it was, but they could not do so to Xander himself as he sat on his bed, glancing down at his console. His television, which sat at the opposite end of the room, was also turned off, something Annetta rarely saw happen as well. The more she thought about it, though, the more she realized that she couldn’t remember spending much time in his room since they had moved in, so who was she to know such things?

“Hey, man,” she greeted him. “You feeling okay?”

Xander turned his head slightly to the side, regarding his sister. “I can’t beat the game without the platinum armour.”

Annetta furrowed her brow, recalling their earlier conversation. “You mean the one you can only get in multiplayer?”

“I uh… yeah.” He nodded.

Coming further into the room, Annetta walked past his work desk that held piles of games, along with the occasional action figure. It still looked much the same as when they had both shared a room in the apartment building. Her eyes then finally landed on the console, one controller on it, another wrapped up into a pile with the other two of the available four. Reaching over for the spare, she began to unwrap the cable.

“Now, move over a bit,” she said to him as she plugged it in and turned the console and television on. “We have some armour to get.”

“But Anne, don’t you have to go down to wherever it is you go?” Xander asked.

Annetta glanced over at her brother. “Not today, and besides, what kind of a sister am I if I don’t spot you as player two when you need it?”

“A sister that doesn’t game?” Xander raised an eyebrow.

“Nope, just a lame one.” She shook her head. “So, how many of these levels do we have to beat to get the armour.”

“There are thirty five missions.” He told her.

Annetta clenched her teeth hearing this. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing I got the day off, then.”

The loading screen finished and the game began as brother and sister battled their way through scores of enemies, Xander instructing Annetta on where to go when she wasn’t sure. It felt like old times again, and the room seemed a little bit brighter.
*
The last rays of the sun crested the Eye to All Worlds, bathing the white castle walls in the oranges and purples of twilight. Slowing the horse to a stop, Puc eased himself from the saddle and led the creature stiffly to the stables beside the main building. A series of mishaps with the beasts had left Puc wary of them, a weakness he did his best to hide by continuing to ride them. The grey mare with black markings he currently used was thankfully docile enough for him to handle.

The light continuing to lessen, he tapped the end of the staff against the floor, causing the moss-covered top to glow in pale blue light as though it were covered in fluorescent paint. He’d forgotten the spell in the midst of needing to remember others, and it was only recently that he had uncovered it in his notes again. Certain his mount was secure, the mage made his way to his destination, turning the corner and finding the stairs that led downwards into the side of a hill. It had been too long since he had visited his friend. Stopping at the large wooden door, Puc pulled out his keyring and selecting the right one, placed it into the lock, turning it until he heard the rusted click. The door opening, Puc strode inside.

The Severio family catacombs held the remains of all Severio lord and ladies, as well as their most trusted vassals. Their likenesses all encased in white marble made them look as though they were merely sleeping and would wake at a given moment. It was a place Puc knew would one day be his own destination, though he did not know when.

His feet halted when his gaze met the slumbering forms of Orbeyus, Amelia and Brakkus. While Amelia’s body had never been recovered after she fell to her death, her likeness had been placed in the hall nonetheless, where years later, her husband would join her, and then their Hurtz companion. The three of them seemed so at peace, Puc felt slightly guilty about coming to disturb them. A shallow breath escaped him as the chill of the subterranean chamber touched his skin. Here lay three of the original members that had helped found the Four Forces, and now only he remained. Though Puc had lived already well over a hundred years before meeting Orbeyus and the others, he found that he had never truly been alive until the wayward youth who would grow up to be the Lord of the Axe came to Aldamoor all those years ago with a monstrous Hurtz in tow.

“Would that I could turn back the clock on lives extinguished too soon,” he sighed. “I would have come sooner, but I fear training the youth has taken most of my free time. They’ve grown much, and you would all be proud of them, but I fear it is not enough should another foe come our way. They were far too young in coming here to pick up the mantle, yet at the same time should have been part of this life far longer in order to understand it.”

There was no reply, of course. Puc never expected there to be one, though. Sometimes it just helped to speak and think they were listening.

“I know naught if I am leading them on the right path or into error with my methods at times. I know what happened to you all was not of my doing, that greater forces are at play and yet, if I do not teach them all I know, I fear I as the teacher am involved in their demise and this awareness hurts me most of all.”

The sound of feet on stone could then be heard from behind. Puc glanced over his shoulder to see Link standing close to the entrance.

“Knocking would have been the appropriate thing to do.” The mage turned around to face the youth. “Least you wish to put me in a state of cardiac arrest in thinking the dead have risen.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in that sort of thing,” Link replied as he came closer, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jean jacket. “I saw Ebony was missing from the stables, so I came looking for her.”

“I can assure you the horse is perfectly fine,” Puc stated. “I may dislike them, but I am not in the habit of mistreating beasts of burden.”

Link nodded. His eyes then went to the three sarcophaguses Puc stood before. He had not been down in the catacombs himself since the burial of Brakkus.

The youth’s gaze lingered on the visage of the Hurtz before he spoke. “I miss him.”

Puc’s own eyes then turned to look where Link had, his breathing slow and steady. “We all do in our own way, I think.”

Though Puc did well to hide his emotions, everyone knew the death of the Hurtz had taken its toll on the mage, even if he tried his best never to speak of it. In fact, Puc rarely spoke of anything if it was not related to their training or some form of knowledge he possessed. Did any of them really know him the way Brakkus or Orbeyus had?

“Maybe if you talked about it with someone, it might help us fill in those gaps we are missing.” Link suggested.

“I really do not see how that would benefit anyone.” Puc rolled his eyes as he turned to leave.

Link stood silent for a while as Puc began to leave, but gathering up the courage, he spoke again. “There was another reason I came to you that night when I couldn’t sleep. I came because I had been hoping to talk to you about something other than how my footwork in the arena needs help.”

Puc stopped in his tracks, almost having reached the stairs, and turned to face him, annoyance drawn across his face. “What could you possibly want to speak of?”

The corners of the mage’s eyes softened as he regarded the youth standing before him, a determined sadness lining his face. There was something to Link’s expression that made Puc halt any further hostile outbursts towards him. Something he recognized from an encounter years ago he’d had with a Hurtz who had been sitting at a fire in Orbeyus’s camp.

Lowering the rest of his guard down, Puc adjusted the grip on his staff to a less offensive one. “They say speaking of the dead is our way of keeping them alive long after they have passed, that they live only so long as we carry on their stories to those who come after us. Perhaps this is my error and the reason for which I have remained while so many others have gone before me.”

The mage paused before speaking again. “I am sorry for not having recognized this, Lincerious. Grief has never been a feeling I bare easily before others. It is not seen as one that should be present in Water Folk society. If it is Brakkus you wish to speak of, though, I can oblige in this request. Though I do suggest a setting with more light and less dampness.”

A small smile formed on Link’s face at hearing this. “I was going to suggest the same thing, unless you want to share it with everyone else down here, that is.”

“That will not be necessary, I think.” Puc shook his head. “Words are all that are sometimes needed to improve on the ties that bind.”

With these words in mind, they left the catacombs, the last light of the previous day having fully extinguished itself into the night.