Warning: This work has been rated 18+.
Written by Chaser
80 Days B.N.D.
“And that’s when I realized that hey, this guy’s not old at all! He just dresses that way to be fashionable,” Paimon said, poking out from the top of her barrel. “And that’s how I met Mogul.”
“I see.” Elidyr had popped the top off of his own barrel, and was shifting around uncomfortably. Lady jumped out to sit on the side of the wagon.
The driver of the wagon, a middle-aged man with a straw-woven hat, held the reins in one hand and turned around to look at them. “We should be clear of the checkpoints now. Just don’t look suspicious, and we should be fine.”
“Yeah.” Paimon jumped around in her barrel to face the strawhat. “Who’d have thought they’d implement a quarantine today of all days? Lucky us, being quick on the uptake.”
She jumped back around to face Elidyr. “Speaking of uptake, I won’t catch that cough from you, will I?”
Elidyr grimaced and shook his head. “I hope not. But I’d like to avoid crowds if we could.”
“Then you’ll be right at home in Serion, sir.” The strawhat pressed a sackcloth to his mouth and breathed through it. “Small place, quaint. Good air,” he added, before turning back to the road ahead. The horse hauled the wagon at an even trot.
“We should be able to collect the root and leaves by midday, then sneak back into Syna at night,” Paimon said. “Shouldn’t be too hard. We might want to hire muscle, though. Just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“Trade secret.” Paimon brought her hands up and made an x. “Until then, it’s just you and me in these barrels, barrel buddy.”
Elidyr smiled slightly, then shifted his shoulders. “I’m getting out.”
“But barrel buddies!”
The wagon rolled through the hills away from Syna, getting further from the river and towards the forest that corralled the plain. Paimon fell over halfway through and stayed that way until the wagon stopped, and she rolled forward to be stopped by Elidyr’s foot.
“Serion Village,” the driver told them, and tipped his strawhat. He accepted their coins from Elidyr with a guarded grip, washing them with water from his canteen before pocketing them. Paimon popped out of the barrel and onto the ground as he thanked them for their patronage, then turned his wagon around and left them standing on the dirt path.
Up ahead, the village lay nestled into the side of the forest, half-in-half-out of the trees’ shade. Newer houses seemed to be built deeper into the trees, while old stumps surrounded the outermost houses. Each house was made of that wood, somewhat uniform, but the oldest ones appeared to be cracked and wearing.
Paimon pointed into the trees. “We’re headed deeper in, but let’s stop through town first.”
Elidyr nodded in agreement, and Lady hopped up onto his shoulder as they set off. It was midday, and children raced between the houses, hopping up onto them and jumping off, pretending to fly. Their parents stood on their porches, gazing after them fondly, before noticing the approaching figures.
Paimon’s dirty brown cloak fluttered around her, the belt buckle shimmering proudly. Elidyr leaned forward a bit, dressed unassumingly enough, but the winged cat on his shoulder cast a bit of suspicion. They saw a mother gesture hurriedly to her children, calling them indoors before the strange people rolled through town.
“I don’t think they like us,” Paimon said as the doors shut. “That's sad.”
They walked through the stumps to the treeline, where a father was pulling at his daughter, trying to move her away. The little girl was pointing up a tree, where a colorful shape was climbing upwards.
“Your cat’s a real charmer, isn’t he?" came a shout from the leaves. A hiss followed soon after. Paimon and Elidyr walked over and looked up.
A big, blue, tiefling man was clambering up the tree trunk, moving out onto the branches. There were leaves and twigs nestled in his dark blue hair, and his silver armor scuffed against the bark as he moved. A big traveler’s pack sat at the bottom of the tree, along with a sword and a staff. In front of him was a small tabby cat, hissing and swiping at him.
Elidyr and Lady looked at each other, then Lady pounced up and into the tree. The man seemed to be having trouble moving. One of his long horns had gotten caught on a branch. “Having a really hard time believing this is a better idea than just lifting you up into the tree," the tiefling singsonged. The little branch holding his horn snapped with a tug of his head. The cat skittered further away from him, and he sighed.
The father, looking away from the tree in horror, seeing Paimon standing next to him, gave up on moving his daughter and instead stood between them defensively. Paimon shrugged. “You, uh, you need help up there?” she called.
“The only one who needs help up here,” the man called back. “Is this cat.”
As he reached out for the feline, the branch beneath him began to shudder, and he froze.
Paimon raised an eyebrow. “That branch treating you well?”
“Not very.” The man set his lips in a line, hunkered down close to the branch, and inched forward. The tabby seemed ready to pounce before Lady appeared next to him. They looked at each other for one second, before Lady pointed with her paw down at Elidyr. Paimon noticed that Eli had taken a wide catching stance.
The two cats seemed to have a back-and-forth, with the tabby digging his claws into the bark as he looked down.
The armored man behind them shifted backward. There was a small crack, and the branch tilted down.
The tabby lost his nerve and jumped, flailing, towards Elidyr. The healer bunched his robes up and caught the cat, bringing it close to his chest in a bundle. He held out, and looked relieved as the cat sat up, shook its fur out, and leapt to the ground.
“Tabby!” said the little girl, scooping the cat up and hugging it to her face. The father stood by in relief, though he still looked very wary of the tiefling man in the tree.
“Thank the gods,” said the man in the tree. “I’ll be right down there, then.” He tried to back up from the already snapping branch, and his horns caught on a cluster of leaves. From the look Lady gave him, Paimon learned that cats were capable of pity, and from the dead-eyed look on the tiefling guy’s face, he wasn’t thrilled will his situation either.
The father walked up to Elidyr and bowed. “Thank you, really. Lettie, what do you say?”
Lettie beamed up at Elidyr. “Thank you very much, Mr. Blue!”
The father chuckled a bit. “She likes nicknames,” he explained, and extended a hand. In all the bluster, he hadn’t noticed Elidyr’s bluecough rashes. “My name’s Tristram. And you?”
“Elidyr var Ardys.” Elidyr started to extend his hand, but saw the rashes and took it back, stepping back a pace.
“And I’m Paimon,” Paimon said, stepping in and grabbing Tristram’s hand, shaking it up and down. “But you’ve seen me before. At a distance.”
“Yes, I have.” Tristram withdrew his hand and looked at her warily. “Sorry, you just seemed a bit...conspicuous before.”
“Entirely fair,” Paimon replied. “But we could still establish good relations. And trade.” Her eyes glinted on the last word.
Tristram chuckled again, but less sincerely. “Maybe. Maybe. Lettie,” he said, “let’s go inside for lunch now.”
“Okay!” Lettie said, cradling Tabby to the point of smothering. “Bye bye, Mr. Blue! Mr. Horns! Ms. Muddy!” Elidyr nodded and smiled as Lady hopped down to his shoulder, and the father and daughter left, rescued cat in tow.
“She was a bit meaner with that last name, huh?” Paimon remarked, scratching her cheek. She turned to Mr. Horns in the tree. “Hey, you want a job when you get down?”
“Depends on the job, miss,” Mr. Horns replied, finally managing to free his horns from his leafy crown. With his head finally free, he let himself slide around the branch, so he was hanging off it like a sloth. He unhooked his legs from the branch and let them hang down before letting go and dropping to the ground with a thunk of his armor. "How can I help you?"
“We're gathering a cure," Elidyr said immediately. "Trying to stop the bluecough outbreak in Syna."
“For free, I might add," Paimon said. "This guy can be very convincing."
Mr. Horns brushed a leaf off his shoulder and belted his sword again at his side. "Sounds like a very noble endeavor," he said, bending down to then swing his pack upon his back. "The bluecough is a nasty disease. What’s your plan to cure it?"
"Essential oils," Paimon replied, grinning. "And hybroth potion is the most essential of them all. We came out here to gather brewing materials, but an extra set of eyes and muscles would help. You've got those things, don't you, Mr...?"
"Then Mr. Belxibis, let's get this root."
“Then I said, that’s not a tiger, that’s a flame-dancer in tiger-skin pants!” Paimon said. “And that’s how I found out about Mogul’s night job.”
Belxibis laughed, moving a branch back and away from their heads. They were traipsing over roots and between vines, Paimon slipping through as the others stumbled behind.
Elidyr ducked his head a little as Belxibis held the branch so he could pass. “So, could you tell us why you brought us both here?”
“Oh, yeah. That.” Paimon brushed her way through some vines and glanced at them. “Well, root of riander only grows in very old trees, most of which have been picked to extinction or killed by natural causes. Some trees, though, can be given magical life. This gives you an infinite supply of roots, if you can take them.”
Belxibis frowned. “If we can take them?”
Paimon grinned. “I did say that these trees were given life. And they have a lot of it. And they don’t like having their roots picked at.”
Elidyr paled. “Oh.”
“So the plan is this,” Paimon said. “Bel, mind if I call you Bel, draw its attention and try not to get hit. If you do, Elidyr should heal you. Elidyr, also don’t get hit. I’ll move in, not get hit, and dig out enough roots to make more cure. Seven or eight juicy ones should do.”
She turned around and saw their shocked faces. “You know, I did this by myself a week ago. And we’re already cutting it close by taking this many roots. I don’t want to risk killing the tree, even if it does give us the amount of root we need.”
“Well,” Elidyr started, but stopped. “No. This should be enough. If this is the best way to get the cure, we’ll try it.”
“Thank you.” Paimon looked to Belxibis. “When you’re ready, bust through that curtain of vines. It’s in that clearing. Elidyr will flank left, I’ll cut right. Have you got this?”
Belxibis nodded and smiled. “Just leave it to me.”
Winds shifted through the forest, shifting Belxibis' tail back and forth. Paimon had the sensation of safety drift around her.
She pointed forward. “Let’s get that root.”
The three of them charged forward, breaking through the vines to the light in the clearing beyond. They stopped in their tracks. The clearing was silent. The tree’s bark had twisted and cracked, some magical expression of agony. It lay on its side, pulled up from the ground.
“No way,” Paimon murmured, rushing over to the tree trunk. “No way.” The stump had been uprooted, a large hole in the ground where it should have been. The tree trunk had been cut clean, countless rings showing in the wood. She knelt by it, feeling the ancient weight of its death.
Paimon looked up at Bel and Elidyr helplessly. “They’re all gone.”
Belxibis sighed. “Someone else must be making the cure...”
“I don’t think they are,” Elidyr said. “Otherwise the outbreak wouldn’t have gotten to this stage.”
“No, no, no,” Paimon said, standing up. “I was here a week ago, when the bluecough was rising. The riander root is definitely making the cure.” Her eyes met Elidyr’s, and understanding flashed between them.
Belxibis frowned. “Well, I mean, if the person who did this isn’t giving out the cure, then--” he cut off, realization dawning, “--they’re not planning to give out the cure.”
“They’re hoarding it,” Elidyr agreed. “And letting the poor die.”
Paimon sat heavily on the trunk of the tree. She patted the bark for a second, and sighed. Her dragon pipe lit up with smoke and ash. She puffed it once, then blew a thin trail of smoke straight up, until her lungs were empty. She breathed deep once more, and smiled. “I’m having a bad day.”