He saw nothing. He tried to look in front of him, but there was nothing. He tried looking behind him, but there was nothing. Everything was white. He tried to rub his eyes, and to his surprise, it worked. Crocarius was laying down on a grassy lawn under the shade of a tall, gnarled tree with pretty yellow leaves. He stood up and looked around at his surroundings, and he saw a great many people around him. He seemed to be in a park or a courtyard where a party was going on because there was food laid out on tables, people playing games on the grass, and many friends talking amongst each other. Croc took a small stroll through the terrain, and couldn’t help but smile since everyone else was. He looked over towards the west end, and there by the gate was a woman, dressed in a white silk gown. Aphrodite. He approached her, tapping her on the shoulder, and she turned around. It was not her.
“Hello, sir. Can I help you?” She politely said.
“No, I thought you were a friend of mine. Sorry.”
“Who is your friend? Maybe I know her.”
“Well, her name’s Aphrodite, but she’s not the goddess or anything.”
She laughed, and said, “Of course she isn’t. She couldn’t be because I am.”
And she continued laughing, patting Croc on the shoulder.
“Okay, thanks anyways,” Croc turned to walk away, but she called him by name.
“Bye, Croc. If you ever see her again, tell her I said hello.”
He sharply turned around.
“How did you know my name? What is this place and why am I here? I was… in the caves. Fighting Titan. I thought I killed him, but…”
“He killed you. This is the Elysian Fields, where the good people go to spend their after life. You are deceased, Crocarius.”
He looked to the ground, thinking to himself, “How could this happen? How could I die?”
“You are only human, as much as you think you’re invincible,” and Croc looked down at the ground again, admitting she was right.
“So, you care for Aphrodite, do you?”
“I do, as a friend. So, don’t put a ‘love curse’ on me or anything.”
“I wouldn’t do that. There’s no need. I saw your face when you thought I was her. You love her.”
“I loved my parents. I love my sword. I don’t love her, I barely know her.”
“Love isn’t about how much you know someone, it’s about how that person makes you feel. You know she has been losing her powers.”
“Yes, but she’ll be okay.”
“No, she won’t. I have taken her powers from her.”
“Why would you do that? She’s been loyally praying to you since she was a little girl, and this is how you repay her fealty. That’s why I hate the gods. You all think you’re superior to us.”
“We don’t think, we are. We have to be.”
“How can you say that? That’s so pompous.”
“Croc, the gods were given the power to be the utmost authority on any subject. But, we are only very wise, we are not the embodiment of these notions. That’s where a lot of gods have it wrong. Aphrodite can only preach to people so long about love without being in love. Can you hear that?”
She looked off to the side with her eyes, as if listening to a far away sound.
“It’s her. She’s praying. All your friends are in trouble.”
“She’s praying for her powers back. You must give them to her. My friends need her.”
“No, that’s not what she is saying. She’s praying for your safe trip to the Fields. She believes you to be dead.”
“But, she could bring me back if she had her powers. You have to give them back to her.”
“Croc, she does have them, but she has to believe in them. She has to believe in love.”
Croc could now hear a voice, not in his head or ear, but in his heart.
“Oh, wisest Aphrodite, this man died to save my life many times. He sacrificed himself for me, but I cannot save him. I pray to you every night to help the people of this land to find love and cherish it. But, now that I had a chance…for me, you take it away. Oh, goddess, hear me in your heart, that I loved this man, and I wish I could tell him to his face.”
Croc looked at the goddess and she replied, “That’s all she needed. Her own love. Now, you can give it to her. Lie down and your love will save your life.”
Croc turned around to rest and saw Gert, standing in front of him. He knew what this meant.
“Gert, why are you here? This isn’t possible,” Croc muttered.
“I died, Croc. I am dead. But, I can die in peace, for I know my parents are avenged. Goodbye, my friend.”
Croc watched Gert walk off across the busy yard and find his parents having a brunch. Gert embraced them, and sat down to join them. Croc laid back down on the grass, but then another party joined the dwarves in their feast. It was his parents. His mother and father, alive right before his eyes! This was great! He had so many things he wanted to tell them, about his life, about Aphrodite, but as he stood up to go and greet them, the goddess of love herself stopped him.
“Croc, it is time for you to go.”
“But, I just want to see my parents, if only for a minute.”
“You cannot linger here, or you will remain here. Death’s doors only stay open for a few brief moments. This is not your time, or else you would not be allowed back.”
“So, is this Gert’s time?”
“In most cases, I wouldn’t know. But, I have been waiting for this day, so, yes, this is his time. He will not be allowed back among the living.”
“Then, she is all I have left.”
“Then, go to her, Croc. Love her with all the passion inside you.”
So, yet again, Croc lay down on the warm, comfortable grass and closed his eyes. He could now see, in his head, that he was in the cave, on the ground, dead. Dite was over top of him, crying and praying. Titan had the crown. He was controlling the Ancients to kill Gert and a very large bear. He saw Gramis lying on the ground, unconscious. Gert now threw his hammer and knocked the crown off Titan’s head, and the bear dove in the water after it. Gert grabbed his hammer and charged Titan, bashing his other leg from the front of the knee, snapping it in half. Now, the bear is out of the water and he has the crown on. Gert rejoices and cheers, but he turned his back on Titan. He rammed a sharp jagged rock into Gert’s back. Then, he picked up his friend’s axe and came down across his neck.
Croc woke up. Dite was crying still, but happy, and she held him and kissed his face. He told her to wait for him here. He stood up slowly, like he was living in a slower speed than real life. Croc picked up his sword. He then walked out from the darkness of the cave and marched up to Titan, who’s back was turned. Croc alerted him.
“Turn around, scum.”
He was foaming at the corners of his mouth, gripping the sword tightly. Titan was now only half of himself, resting on a stump of a leg, and another broken one. He laid the axe down and used his hands to move his body around. He was about the size of Croc now, who was standing up.
“How… did you?” Titan asked, with mouth agape in disbelief.
“It was love. And this…” he moved his eyes to his sword, “this is hate.”
And Croc raised it above his head as Titan simply said, “Do it.”
Croc came down as if a thunderbolt from Zeus, splitting the giant into two fractured pieces with a single, god-like downward stroke. Blood washed over Croc’s body and the halves fell to the ground for the final time.
Croc looked over at Dite, who was still weeping, as she was mending Sashrala’s leg. Splink seemed to like her.
Croc picked up Gert’s body, and put his head and hammer and axe into Gramis’ large sack and started to carry them off. Dite helped Sashrala back to his feet, and they placed Gramis on the great bear Shardic’s back.
Shardic had incidentally used the crown to tell the ancients no one would ever use that power for evil again. Demagauge and Cuttice, who were missing, had tried to convince the bear they wanted to give the crown to the elves, which they did, but almost got bit because of it. He could hear the Ancients voices’ in his head, and they all thanked him, and his brave friends. The Pegasus informed them that the rainbow would take them out of the accursed cave safely, so they all followed the rainbow back out to the open air again. You could walk on it like normal ground, but could look through it beneath you and everything had a wonderful multi-colored hue to it. By request, Mako had his pack round up all their friends who had been left behind for proper burial.
Once back outside the cave, the great Shardic was once again in human form, and soundly asleep. Croc opened the wagon door and saw four heads pop up and look at him, still wrapped in sheets. Croc, now with Dite looking in, smiled and shut the door back. The Cave of Foul Stench was now behind them. Also behind them, they could no longer hear signs of battle and they saw a large line of elves way off in the distance, marching back across the river. Shardic had bestowed the crown to Grace of Heart to be put in the Ancient’s care, and she informed him that they indeed were going to leave it with the elves for safe keeping. As they were loading up the wagon, Gramis had finally been revived, and saw something bright on the ground. He bent over to pick it up, and when he did, he laughed out loud. Croc looked at him.
“What’s so funny?”
“This is it. This is the beetle of the White North. Now, Tauster can help me find my kingdom. I’m going to be a king!” and he started skipping around, as Croc watched in disbelief.
Over the Dunan River, past a vast network of craggy rock land, and into the sweet serenity of a pleasant wood lies the Elvin Kingdom. Marked by it’s enormously tall trees and houses built into them, it is the most wonderfully spectacular land in the entire Dunan region. It’s people are known for their love of the earth, and the trees and the air, but on this day, they were not in the best of spirits. One of Queen Lillandra’s top generals in the Elvin army was slain inside the treacherous Caves of the North. The ancient wolves of this land brought his body back for a just ceremony, but none knew exactly how it had happened, sans two: Demagauge, Elvin by nature, thief by trade, and his equally talented burglar friend, the wily Cuttice. They had come to his funeral today to pay respects and try to figure out the cause of his death. After the procession, the Queen and some of her staff had asked Gauge and Cuttice into her private chambers for discussion.
“Demagauge, Cuttice, we thank you again for one, making sure the Tamer did not fall into the wrong hands, and two, for preserving Alvistar for us today.”
“Of course, it was no problem. I am of elvenkind, and I will serve my kingdom when it calls for it.”
“Yes, of course, now of Alvistar: Tell me, Cuttice, of the attacker.”
“Yes, well, he was hard to see, I only got a small glimpse of him. He was completely in black, and very had to see. It was almost as if he was wearing a shadow. And he was quick, so quick I didn’t even see him do anything, just him for a split second, and then, he left.”
“And I understand he spoke to you?”
“Yeah, he stood over Alvistar’s body and whispered ‘Traitor’ to me. Then, he vanished.” Demagauge interrupted.
“My Queen, tell me have you heard of a man named Kodo?”
One of her advisors stepped forward.
“Yes, we are aware of Kodo. He is mysterious, and seems to hold a grudge against us. Many years ago, he infiltrated our very own kingdom and staked an Elvin warrior to a tree. He left a note saying, ‘Sooner than later.’ He’s rarely spotted, and some say he can ride any creature known to man.”
“I’ve heard all the rumors, but I don’t put my faith into words. If need be, I will find him.”
“We also found the three daggers and our best mages are trying to scry into them. We appreciate all your help, and you’re more than welcome to stay.”
“No, Queen, we both have work to do. But, we could use two of your swiftest horses.”
“Certainly. When you are finished with them, let them go. They can always find their way home.”
Gauge and Cuttice went to the barn and got two nice steeds from the stable master. Then, they walked to the edge of the tree line together and stopped. Cuttice looked at Gauge, and smiled.
“So, we’ll meet back in Millbourne in a week, right?”
“Yes, that’s the deal.”
“You know, I don’t have to go. I could just stay and…”
“No, I need you to do me this favor. Give my deepest apologies to the Guild. And warn them if anyone comes looking for me.”
“I will. Be careful.”
“Think of me when you have time.”
She turned her horse around, and kicked him, as she galloped away.
Gauge remained there, watching her figure, the outline of it, in the sunlight. He knew if he had a chance for any kind of regular life, it was riding off in the distance. He stayed long after she was gone, enjoying the environment, something he had neglected, even though he enjoyed it more than thieving. He saddled up a few hours later, and just as he was taking off, Lillandra’s advisor, Kirks, came through the trees on horseback from the village.
“Demagauge, you’re still here. I was riding out to find you. Where’s the woman, Cuttice?” he asked, panting.
“She has gone. Many hours ago. Why?”
“Our finest wizards have scried the three daggers that killed Alvistar. They were hers!”
In the town of Luskan…
Gramis sat in Tauster’s study as he heard the old mage arguing with his granddaughter.
“But, Grampa, I love him and he loves me! I’m marrying Lentern, I don’t care what you say.”
“Fine, make your own mistakes. But, never trust a musician!”
And he heard a door slam, and the familiar sound of many staircases being stomped upon. The old man then sat down across from his friend.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes, the beetle shell. This is it.”
Tauster picked up the shell, and dipped it in a nearby bowl of honey, then put it in his mouth and began chewing it.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had one of those? I thank you, dear sir.”
“But, you told me you needed that to help me find my kingdom?!”
“Oh, no, I was craving one. Don’t worry, we’ll find it.”
“Tauster, I wanted to ask you something. Undead.. have been springing up all over the place, and attacking me and I have no idea why. In the cave, myself and Gert were moving through a tunnel, when petrified hands started coming from the rock and trying to grab us. I then heard a deep voice say, ‘ Join us or be made to.’ I lost it and blew the whole tunnel apart with a fireball. Have you ever heard of anything like this before?”
Tauster was digging in his ear with his pinkie, then noticed Gramis was looking at him.
“No, no, very odd indeed. Okay, let’s see here. Let me look into my stones,” and he dumped a small pouch of colored rocks on the table. They fell into a crude circle and then a small pool of liquid appeared in the center. It had a scrawny arrow on it also, pointing southwards.
“Looks like south. I’m seeing beyond the Ageless Sea. Perhaps in the Morrow region.”
“Well, thank you, kind wizard. Thank you very much.”
Back in the Silver Wood, Sashrala and Hawkeye, along with Splink arrive at Dysia’s lake and wait for her emergence. Again, they see the beautiful creature spring from the water, as it glistened in her hair.
“Hello, my friends. I am glad you have returned safely home. I am aware of your success.” And she looked off behind them, where Mako, in human form, came forth. He greeted the warriors with handshakes.
“It is good to see you two. The ancients have nearly completed our journey across the Dunan. I came here for an offer. Thanks to a certain native, my pack is short one member. I would like if you, Sashrala, would join us.”
Sash looked at Dysia, and dropped his head.
“I am sorry. My heart will not allow me to leave Dysia’s service.”
“You do not have to. Now, that we have recovered the crown, our rules have been changed by the Elvin Queen. We now roam the world as free creatures. We need your courage.”
Sash dropped to one knee after a few moments, and replied, “I would be honored.”
“As would we. And Hawkeye, great spirit of Shardic, we owe you many thanks. Without your help, we may not be so friendly right now.”
He nodded to the great leader, and said “Baco wit desala.”
Mako nodded, returning the gesture, “ Baco wit desala.”
Hawkeye left that evening and returned home to his tribe, who had dearly missed him. His wife held him tightly when she saw him, then looked surprised when he presented Splink to her. Soon, they would mate Splink with a normal rabbit to help repopulate his species. So would Hawk and his wife.
In the town of Fleets, inside the Rusty Bucket…
“Fine, the wedding’s off!” and young Jillineath stormed out of the bar. Lentern shrugged his shoulders and continued playing his fine polished lute on stage.
On the other side of the bar, Permion was ‘inquiring’ about the missing Elizabeth to a young bar maid as Mary Ann happened to walk in. She stopped cold and put her hands on her hips, watching the young man.
“Permion, you toad! I thought you wanted to marry me?”
“Yes, but not tonight!”
“How dare you!” And she picked up a drink from the counter and walked over to splash it in his face. Although, he ducked the liquid and it went all over his young friend, who then laid her five fingers across his cheek.
In through the front door came Crocarius, with his new set of black dragon scale armor, acquired from his last adventure. He thanked Dernock for it when he escaped with it. It had only been a few weeks since the whole ordeal and since he had to bury his best friend. They had done it right there, in front of the cave, putting three men into the ground, well two men and a dwarf. Croc had been grieving, silently, but having Aphrodite with him has eased the pain. Croc had also enjoyed making new friends, like Gramis, Permion, and the tracker that everyone had been looking for who he was told was called Hawkeye. Dite told him of Hawk and Gert’s bravery and defense over his one time dead body. Now, he was sticking around town, with Dite. They had went back to her temple, where he met her mother and father. He asked for her hand in marriage. Not soon, but one day. She gave him a new outlook on his life, and renewed strength. He looked forward to every day and night with her. But, he really didn’t know where to go from here. Continuing to hunt Bane was all he could think of. He was happy it was he who had struck the final blow to Titan. It didn’t bring back Gert, but it was a small satisfaction. Dite was at their regular table, ordering meat and cheese and wine for their supper. Thanks to an irregularly large sack, they were able to take most of Dernock’s treasure and now, none of them had to worry about money, at least not for a while. Croc said his greetings to Permion( who he had found to be quite entertaining. He told him he would help him look for his missing girlfriend, even though he seemed to be enjoying the single life) and to Lentern(who Croc believed had now been engaged and dis-engaged to Jillineath three times.) As he greeted his soon-be wife with a kiss, he heard a loud trumpeting outside. The noise alerted the bar, and it continued in quick, clear beats. The bar emptied, including Croc and his companions. It was a royal caravan, owned by the Dunan Parliament. The trumpeter stood in front of a fine carved, exquisite wagon. He spoke loudly and efficiently.
“Now, presenting, a member of the Parliament of the Dunan region, Lord Palfray!”
Steeping out of the wagon was a youthful looking man, light blond hair possibly turning white, in a velvet cape with a satin vest and trousers. His eyes were kind, and looked every bit the part of a diplomat.
“Crocarius, come forward,” he stated very plainly.
He obliged, stepping forward, smiling.
“It is good to see you, my friend. I trust you have taken good care of my son.”
“Of course, although I think he’s getting married.”
Lentern ran forward, looking shocked.
“Father! It is good of you to come. How are you?”
“Enough, Lentern. Are you ready to come home?”
“I want to stay with Croc. I’m not finished writing all of his adventures down.”
“Yes, but school is starting soon, and you must finish. No arguments.”
“Yes, sir,” and he stepped over to his father’s side.
“Croc, speaking on behalf of the Dunan Parliament, we have a proposition for you.”
“Seeing how you defended our lands, and we thank you, we thought you might want to watch these lands full time.”
“Well, see, I have a fiancée now, and we…”
“Croc, I understand. But, you were not alone in those caves, were you? I hear there were wizards, thieves, savages. Where are all your friends?”
“I barely knew some of them, so you can see that would be a problem.”
“It’s just that we have these Northlanders running wild in Kings gate, and it’s a tougher problem than our constables can handle. Who knows what else may go wrong. We need someone like you, Croc. A born leader.”
“A born leader, huh? Dite, what do you think?”
“I would have to agree.”
“Well, then, Lord Palfray, it’s a deal. But, we want a house, of our own, right there.”
Croc pointed off to a large empty patch of land, in the fields.
“Consider it done. Well, I can promise the people of these lands they can sleep safer at night now.”
E N D
“That was a great story, grampa. Did it really happen?”
“Of course, it did children. Why would I deceive you?”
“Grampa! You were silly when you were younger.”
“Thank you, kids. Now, tomorrow night, I will tell you another one. How does that sound?”
“Will Croc and Aphrodite be married in it, Grampa?”
“Now, you know they do. Don’t be silly,” said an elderly chap, getting out of his old rocking chair. Three small bright-eyed children got up out of the floor, and hopped into three separate, comfy beds.
“Tell us something, Grampa, please? Please?” They all sat, with big teeth grinning in big smiles.
“Okay, I’ll give you a little bit. Croc did get his group assembled, and those who joined him where Aphrodite, Permion, Gramis, Hawkeye, and Demagauge. They eventually captured all of the Northlanders, except for Siphon. He kept escaping their grasps. Until, finally, on the cliffs of Ore-Rock Mountain, he tried to throw Aphrodite off of them. Crocarius, enraged, chopped off his whipping arm and saved his beautiful fiancée. Siphon fell off the cliff, but was never discovered at the bottom. Then, the group fell apart.”
“But why, Grampa, why?”
“Tomorrow, kids. Wait until tomorrow.”
“Okay, g’night. We love you, Grampa.”
“And I love you too.”
And he kissed them all on the forehead, and pulled their warm blankets over their necks. He watched them sleep for a while as he rocked in his chair. He loved their innocence and dreamed of a time when the world would be like that again.