"Men are from Cald, Women are from Naroom"
After a long absence, the Warlord returned to the Council of Cald.
He had gone missing in the Naroom Shadow Geyser, and then turned up again—along with a Naroom Magi named Tryn—shortly after the third such geyser had erupted in Cald. Neither of them had been in good shape; they were clearly exhausted after their ordeal, and had both been put on bed rest to be healed by Gar and watched over by arbolits until they felt better.
And at last, they recovered. Barak stalked back into the Council Crater to the applause of his people.
"You look great, Barak," said Ven. "Have you changed your hair style since you left?"
"No, silly," said Magam, waggling her eyebrows. "He's lost weight. Va va voom! Rowr!"
"Wrongo, cousin," said Raega. "He's pumped, that's all. A little extra rippling muscle mass."
The truth was, none of them were right. He wore a slight wry smile on his face for perhaps the first time in his life, a genuine smile with warmth and humor, and although he couldn't quite tell you why he was prompted to smile (or wouldn't, if he truly knew why), it made him all the more handsome.
Then again, there are days that will wipe a smile off anyone's face. This was one of those days.
Barak strode across to his throne and sat upon it. It felt good, especially after all that time lost in the cold heart of the Core, with nothing—well, little, and nothing that he would admit—to keep himself warm. He stretched out on the stone chair and let the feeling of being home wash all over him yet again.
Then he sat back upright, and a serious expression crossed his face. A few seconds of relaxation was all a warlord could ever allow himself.
"Tell me," he asked his people, "what has happened since I have been gone."
"Well, sir, all was quiet for a time after you, uh, left us," said Ven.
"And then, sir, well, the geyser erupted, and shortly after that?quot;
"It's not my fault!" interrupted Valkan. "And neither was the false alarm! Or the key gone missing! None of it was my fault!"
"Key? Missing?" bellowed Ashgar. "I tell you now, half-pint, that better not be my key, because if it is, you'll rue the day you first met me!"
"Blame Gia! She trained that Toneejonz guy in the first place!" squalled Valkan. "Or Eidon! Yeah! Blame them!"
Excuse me," said Ven, "but the Warlord has asked for an update. Valkan, Ashgar, if you would please let me continue?quot;
"FIRE!" yelled Valkan, running around in circles. "FIRE! FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES! Oh, the humanity?quot;
Barak dropped his head to his hands and began rubbing the bridge of his nose. Certainly being trapped in the Core had simplified his life?/p>
* * * * *
Tryn sat on a rock at the edge of a large, steaming pool of sulfurous water. Her chin rested in her hand as she stared unseeing through the rising vapors.
She heard someone approaching with a heavy tread, clearly trying to be heard. She waited until the person had walked up beside her before she cast a sidelong glance to see who it was.
It was Barak.
"What's with the armor?" she asked sullenly. "Come to throw me out?"
"What do you mean?" replied Barak, perplexed. "Why would I want to throw you out of Cald?"
"I think it's pretty clear you don’t want me here any more," grumbled Tryn. "I mean, I haven’t seen you in, what, three days?"
"Affairs of the region," said Barak simply. "I have a job to do."
"Uh-hunh," answered Tryn in a drab monotone.
Barak looked about, as if seeking some support, but none was available, so he rocked on his toes and stared at the steaming lake for a while, trying to think of something to say. "So, um, how are you feeling?" he asked at last.
Silence crept up again, filling the space between them on the wings of the steam.
"So, ah, all recovered? From the Core? And? stuff?"
"The Core?" echoed Tryn. "Yeah."
Tryn snorted in derision.
"That whole episode was one big long unending nightmare for me," said Barak. "I'm doing my best just to forget the whole thing."
Tryn slowly turned her head to glare at Barak. When he met her eyes, the Cald Warlord discovered for the first time what it felt like to be burned; the fire in Tryn's eyes was far fiercer than any he'd seen before. And he'd shared a bunk bed with Valkan when they were kids.
"I see," spat Tryn venomously.
She turned her head back to the lake, then slowly stood up.
"You know what's wrong with this place?" she asked.
"What?" responded Barak, utterly confused by the turn of events.
Tryn inhaled deeply through her nose. "It stinks," she said, then turned on her heels and stalked away.
What happens next? Read Part 4 "Ashes"
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