Bixby Alladocious and the Ancestor Festival
A tale by Michael DeAngelo
That familiar sickly sound resonated in his ears as he passed through the portal. More than ever, then, he was aware of his surroundings. His first time, Bixby couldn’t be sure of anything. Disoriented and weak, it was like being born all over again.
Dozens of deaths—or was it hundreds by then?—had taken the mystery out of the Nexus, and its many paths that led toward judgment, and the inevitable journey to whatever came next.
For Bixby Alladocious, that time would only come when he deemed it so. Years prior, he learned that he was one of those magically enhanced individuals that roamed Tellest. Some scholars and sages called the gifts or curses the Strain. Bixby’s meant that, while he could still die, he would not remain that way for long.
He spotted the familiar face among the web of pathways. Her fair skin and white gown contrasted with those dark blue and purple platforms, and the hulking fellow at the center of the place called the Nexus. The lady of the place wore a veil of disappointment that day as well, and Bixby had a suspicion as to why.
“Lady Adessa,” he said, offering a little bow.
“Mister Alladocious,” she cooed. Even in that soft, enchanting tone, frustration was detected.
Despite that, Bixby wore his mischievous smile. “Let’s not do our usual dance. You’re not happy with what just happened.”
“I’m not unhappy,” she said. “I’m just a little confused. Everything seemed to be going fine for you, and yet, it seems you were compelled to hurl yourself off a cliff.”
He reined in that smile as best he could, standing taller and giving the lady of the Nexus his best matter-of-fact visage. “The portal from the Nexus was right on the other side of the chasm. Dying just saved me two days of travel.”
Faced with that revelation, she stared in uncomfortable bewilderment.
“I sense that you don’t exactly approve of my decision.”
Adessa stammered for a time, before she found her words once more. “When I told you that you could essentially be recast in human flesh once more, I thought you’d use such a gift to fight against insurmountable odds, or challenge foul beasts. I never thought you’d throw your life away for a…a shortcut.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Bixby went on. “There’s a certain thrill to it as well. My only lamentation is that the cliff was not higher. Of all the ways I’ve died, careening toward the ground with the wind in my hair has been my favorite.”
The lady of life and death fought against the will to slap her hand against her face, managing to shake her head instead. “So you took this shortcut, and for what? What couldn’t wait two days?”
That smile was back on Bixby’s face then, and he shook his finger at the woman he admired so. “Ah, but that would be spoiling a grand part of the adventure, wouldn’t it? When I first arrived here, you asked me if I thought I was ready to be judged by the big fellow over there,” he said, pointing to Cebrum, the lord of the Nexus who stood at a central dais among that network of platforms.
“I’ve fetched idols from trapped crypts, scaled mountains to gather rare herbs—I’m as good-hearted a scoundrel nowadays as you’ve ever met,” he proclaimed. “But I’m not so handy with a sword, exactly. If I am to challenge those insurmountable odds you spoke of earlier, I’ll need a little more power in my arsenal.”
She arched an eyebrow while she considered his words. “What are you up to, Mister Alladocious?”
“Mistress Adessa,” he said, drawing up her hand toward his pursed lips. “You’ll just have to wait and see.” He planted a gentle kiss upon that delicate, frost-colored skin before letting that hand fall. As he passed by the woman, he offered up a wink.
* * * * *
The cauldron bubbled over, its viscous green contents threatening to spill from the iron rim. With a flick of the old fellow’s wrist, a subtle thrum overpowered the noise of that pot, and a few large snowflakes appeared from thin air, cast forth into the fire there. The flames hissed as they diminished, reminding the wizard of their power. He grinned at that thought, but caught himself before he allowed himself to speak back to the crackling fire.
As the liquid settled once more, he stirred it with his wand, a gnarled stick that none would have suspected as a magical implement. Deeper he plunged it into the murk, until he was holding onto the last bit of it by his long fingernails alone.
That concoction slurped and effervesced, but in a few moments time, he saw as it lowered. He dipped the wand further as the green goop dissipated, and before long, the wand tapped against the bottom of the cauldron. The wizard waited for a few more moments, and withdrew that wand, which looked as though it had never been touched by the brew.
Before he could bask in the satisfaction of the magical strengthening, a high-pitched ring echoed out in his tower. The old fellow clenched the wand in his hand and spun about, approaching the steps to the foyer.
Despite his age, the wizard lunged for the door and flung his hand out, the wand leading the way. It wasn’t a bandit or a rival sorcerer before him, though. A young man in a tattered yellow tunic and red overcoat stood just at the bottom of the stone steps leading up to the tower. With another flick of his wrist, the wizard canceled the spell that he prepared.
“Who in the blazes are you, lad?” the old man asked. “Everybody knows that my tower is off limits, so you’re certainly not from Dustside.”
“I’m not,” the stranger declared. “But you’re Irwin Silvermane, are you not? My father, Hanlon, would always speak of you in such high regard. He apprenticed for you some time ago.”
The wizard—his hair a stark white despite his namesake—arched a bushy eyebrow as he considered the lad’s words. “Hanlon? Hanlon Alladocious?”
“The same,” the visitor said. “I’m Bixby.”
Irwin hummed to himself. “I never pictured Hanlon as a family man.”
Bixby couldn’t suppress a chortle. “I wouldn’t put it that way. He was more stuck with me than anything. Even though I gave him a whole slew of trouble over the years, he still did me a kindness and shared with me his last name.”
“Ah, so an adopted son,” the wizard understood. “Well that would seem more to character for him. Well, if you’re like a son to Hanlon, I suppose you’re sort of like a grandson to me. It wouldn’t do to leave you standing out here in the cold. Especially since a step or two in either direction might set off another of my wards. Clearly your father didn’t warn you about those, eh?” Irwin shut the door behind them as they drew into the tower.
“I could sense them a bit,” the lad returned. “I’ve grown wary of traps and spells in my journeys. I’m sorry about the alarm you set. I figured that would be a much better way to announce my arrival than a knock on the door. You had that enchanted as well. I wasn’t sure what was on the other side.”
“Well, you’re farther along in your lessons than Hanlon was when he was your age. I suppose he taught you some of the arcane arts then.”
“A few cantrips here and there. Truth be told, that’s why I’m here. I’ve learned a fair amount of what he knows, but he wears many hats for the people of Rosburg now. Magic has fallen by the wayside for him, but I’ve never been more interested.”
Irwin didn’t bother to shield a laugh of his own. “My boy, I’m getting a little long in the tooth to be spending the last of my days showing you how to pull magic from the aether. I could recommend some other wizards who—”
“You’re one of the greatest wizards this side of Blacklehn,” Bixby protested. “I’d be wasting my time with the other arcanists of this country—and I’d be the greatest apprentice you’d ever worked with, I promise you.”
“One of?” the wizard echoed, dismissing the rest of the lad’s claims.
Before Bixby could sling a retort back at his host, the deep blast of a horn resonated in the field outside the tower.
“Now that is the appropriate way to summon a wizard of my renown,” Irwin declared. He leaned past his guest and opened the door once more, his wand at the ready.
The new visitor, barely visible as far away as they were on the horizon, waved their hand with vigor.
An arc of that wand over Irwin’s head sent a brief wave of color over the area, then. “Come now, Cassidy. The wards have all been temporarily disabled.”
Bixby folded his arms over his chest, irked at the delay to his training. The girl who solicited a visit to the old enchanter jogged across the field, until she stood before the bottom step. Her fair skin was left with a shade of pink at her cheeks from her exertion.
From outside, she couldn’t see the stranger, but Cassidy stood on her toes to peer past the wizard. “I apologize, Master Silvermane,” the young woman said. “I know you don’t like to be bothered for something so trivial, but Dustside is in dire need of help.”
“Why don’t you let me decide how trivial it is before I shoot you down,” Irwin huffed. “Well? Go on, girl.”
Cassidy cleared her throat and nodded. “Well, as you know, the Ancestor Festival is set to be underway in the next couple of days. We’ve made all the arrangements for the feast, sent out the invites to the reputable lords from the area—as if they’d bother to come to our little village—and we’ve decorated the whole place, from wall to window. But…”
Irwin arched his eyebrow, his patience running thin.
“As you know, the most important part of the festival is the ancestors. A few years back, Waymond carved skeletons out of the bones of hill giants. We used those to take the place of our ancestors, and they’ve been a focal point of our ornaments ever since.
“Around a month ago, some shifty fellows stayed at Gaden’s lodge. We didn’t think much of it at first, but they were asking about the decorations—you know how Elder Rassik likes to have everything up by the Autumnal Equinox. The skeletons went missing last week, but yesterday evening, we received a letter from those men that passed through. They’re claiming that they have our decorations, and they won’t give them back unless we pay a hefty sum.”
Irwin hummed and stroked his long, grey beard. “You’re right. That’s not exactly something I’d bother myself with. But I—”
“I could take care of your problem,” another chimed in.
The wizard spun on his heel, almost surprised by the sight of Bixby once more, as though he had forgotten the man was there.
His other guest outside couldn’t hide the flash of her eyes when she first saw the stranger.
“If I took care of your bandit problem, it’d free up your time to focus on the things that are more important to you. Then, when I’m all finished, you can use some of that time to train me.”
“Well, it’s an interesting proposition, but do you understand what you’re getting yourself into, lad? A pack of bandits is a simple problem for a wizard of my skills, but don’t you think they could be a bit beyond you?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Bixby said. “I can more than take care of myself.” To accentuate his point, the man snapped his fingers, and summoned a flickering flame above his thumb. He stood there for a moment, proud of his minor spell, but he winced and shook his hand as the fire burned his skin. “Do we have an agreement?” he pressed.
Irwin huffed again. “Very well then. I end up ahead no matter what—if you succeed, you’ve bought me time, as you said. And if you fail, well…let’s just say I won’t have anyone pestering me to be my apprentice any time soon!” He turned to Cassidy with a grin visible behind his bushy beard and mustache. She blanched, unsure if his comment was meant to be construed with such malice. “Young lady, this is Bixby, the son of an old friend of mine. Show him the letter and we’ll see if we can’t get you your skeletons back in time for the festival. Now go on, then, both of you. I’m only going to keep the wards disabled for a few more moments.”
“Thank you, Master Silvermane,” Cassidy said before offering a quick curtsy. She was in motion a moment later, hurrying across the fields before those dangerous wards could be enacted once more.
Bixby took more time to arrive safely away from the tower. Even when the old wizard slammed his door shut, and the first flashes of green light announced the activation of those spells, he strode forth as if he cared not.
“Hurry, Bixby,” the young woman pleaded. “We need your help, and it won’t help anyone if you’re dead!”
“It’s a little bit early to making those kinds of bold claims,” the man said as he arrived beside her. “Alright, they sent a letter, right? Let’s see it.”
Cassidy reached behind the hem of her pants, and pulled out a creased piece of parchment. She unfolded it and handed it to her would-be hero.
Bixby spent a few moments reading the details, his eyebrows arching further with every word he muttered. “This doesn’t say you’re getting your ‘ancestors’ back,” he said. “All it says is that they won’t destroy them as long as you pay them. Do they even know they’re made of giant’s bone?”
“Well…no,” she said. “But I thought it was implied that—”
“Listen, ransoms are a tricky thing,” Bixby interrupted. “If it was a living person we were trying to get back, chances are they’d already be dead. They’d take the money and run, and you’d be out of a lot of money in addition to a family member or loved one.”
Cassidy placed her fists on her hips and stood taller as she considered his words. “We’ve barely made it across the field from Irwin’s tower, and it already sounds like you’re wringing your hands of our problems.”
Bixby shook his head. “I’m not giving up on helping you. I just think you should set some expectations before you get your heart broken.”
“Fine,” she conceded. “But what if they still have the skeletons? Should we prepare whatever money we can and just hope for the best?”
The man scoffed. “Absolutely not. Once they have the money, there’s no reason for them to give you anything anymore. No, we have to come up with a plan. And I have one that is absolutely brilliant.”
* * * * *
“This is the most foolish plan I’ve ever heard of,” Cassidy declared. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“That is definitely a possibility.” Bixby’s voice was muffled, but she heard it even beneath the sound of the horses trotting along. “You’re sure I’m covered completely, right? If they see me, all of this is for nothing.”
“Yes, you’re covered from head to toe in coins. How are you even breathing in there?”
“These slits we carved into the chest for my eyes are helping well enough. Now you remember what you have to do, right? Once you get the chest off the wagon, you go back to Duskside.”
“It’s Dustside,” she corrected.
“Whatever it’s called,” Bixby protested. “If the bandits suspect anyone is following them, they won’t return to wherever they’re hiding out.”
“Let’s just start with me getting the chest off the wagon,” Cassidy said. “It would have been hard enough to tug the thing to the ground when it was filled with coins. Now I have to deal with you as well.”
He harrumphed loud enough to be heard from within the chest. Bixby grew silent, though, when the carriage drew to a stop.
“What’s going on?” he ventured.
“Nothing,” she said. “We’re here.”
“Be careful,” he said after a pause. “If they’re keeping an eye on this place, and they see that a lone woman came out this way, they might try to take you with the gold.”
“They could try, but I’d sooner slit my own throat than go with those brigands.”
“Let’s try to have you avoid either fate, shall we?” He heard the clang of the handle on the side of the chest then. “Make sure the top is latched tight. If I go tumbling out of the chest—”
“The plan won’t go according to plan, I know,” she said.
Another brief pause came from within the chest before Bixby spoke again. “I can tell you’re warming up to me.”
“Quiet,” she bade. “I don’t want to argue with you while I’m pulling you off the wagon.” She exerted a tremendous amount of energy, grunting and groaning, but finally, she managed to slide the chest from the center of the wagon. Gravity took it the rest of the way, and it was only through her continued pulling that it landed on its bottom instead of tumbling end over end. “Are you alright in there?”
“I think I swallowed a few of those coins,” he declared. “Besides that, I’ve never been better. Now get out of here. There’s no telling how long it’ll be before those highwaymen show up. I’d rather not have them see you talking to a box.”
“Stay safe, Bixby,” Cassidy said. “I don’t want anything happening to you, even if you are a bit annoying.”
“Said the village girl to her savior,” he added. She didn’t offer up a protest to that as she drew away. As the girl walked back around the chest and over to the driver’s seat of the carriage, Bixby twisted and turned until he felt the thin sliver of metal on his hip. “This better not take too long,” he whispered. “Sometimes boredom feels worse than death.”
* * * * *
Bixby was shaken awake when those two handles were grasped.
“Damn, this chest is heavy,” a gruff voice declared.
“Well, we did ask for a lot of coins,” a second man said. “I’m just surprised they were able to scrounge it altogether this quickly. A small village such as this, all the way out in the country—”
“And with Blacklehn’s taxes, no less.”
Those two men bantered on long enough for Bixby to rid himself of his stupor as he stifled a yawn. As he blinked away his fatigue and discomfort, he saw as the fields between there and Dustside drew further away. Before long, grass gave way to trees and in the thickness of that forest, light grew scarce. He narrowed his eyes, remembering the path the brigands were taking. Their conversation remained a buzzing drone in the hidden man’s ears, for all his concentration remained on the path they took.
The forest, too, was left behind then. Torchlight replaced the rays of the sun as uneven stone fell into place beneath the chest. The footfalls of the bandits echoed, and finally, raucous laughter deeper within the cave wrenched Bixby from his focus.
“Can you believe it, boss? They actually gave us the money!”
“Bunch of sentimental idiots, then,” a deeper voice called out.
“We’re not giving the skeletons back?”
“If you want to lug the damn things back out there, you can go ahead. I already got what I wanted.”
With his ear against the wood of the chest, Bixby heard a quiet warning uttered. “Don’t even think of doing it. Jorgen is liable to slit your throat while you sleep if you try to take them from the cave.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” the deeper voiced fellow at the back of the cave bellowed. “Crack that chest apart and let’s see how rich we are.”
Bixby gripped his knife hard enough where he could not be certain he did not draw blood. When he heard the chest open, he sprang up, sending coins flying in every direction.
“Your greed will be your downfall!” he cried as he extended his arm, pointing it at the nearest bandit.
What Bixby couldn’t have predicted was how fatigued his legs had grown in that position. Even as he wore a stern visage and considered his surprised foes, he was tipping forward.
He crashed to the ground, hard enough for a puff of dirt to be cast out. His knife slid from his hand, and rolled across the ground. It came to a stop beneath the boot of the man furthest back in that cave. Bixby pushed off the ground as best he could, and caught a better glimpse of the bandit leader there. Adorned in leather and fur, he was older than was expected. A full beard was the same charcoal grey color of the walls in the cave, and it met with a silvery coif that was brushed back. A leather cord ran through that hair and over his ear on the opposite side of his head, setting an eyepatch in place there.
Behind Jorgen, torchlight illuminated a pair of skeletons, left to lean against the back wall of the cave.
Bixby was pleased with the sight of those stolen ornaments.
He didn’t see as Jorgen flicked his own knife to one of his men. “Kill him. We don’t need anybody knowing where we’ve set up camp.”
The interloper didn’t have enough time to roll to his back before the blade plunged into his lower back. Bixby groaned and tensed hard enough for his knuckles to crack. A moment later, his body relaxed, and he collapsed once more into the dirt.
“Bring ‘em to the pit,” Jorgen said. “We’ll burn him later.”
* * * * *
With a grunt, the man threw his burden off his shoulder, into the wide, deep pit that had been carved into the earth. Bixby landed with a tremendous thud, and the bandit wiped his hands off before he walked away.
Besides the distant chirping of birds and squirrels, the place had grown quite. Disguised by a thick copse of trees, that pit was far from anyone’s eyes or ears.
Emboldened by that fact, Bixby growled a long, deep obscenity that would have made Jorgen blush if he heard it. Despite the tremendous agony that wracked his body, the injured man rolled to his side and sat up. His left arm wobbled without his command, and he sighed when he realized it was broken in more than one place.
The lip of the pit was too high up for him to climb with his injuries, he realized. There weren’t any branches or stones that he could hope to use for leverage. He had worked to convince his foes he was dead for nothing.
Battered and broken, Bixby sat against the dirt wall of the pit, and hunched over, folding his body until his airway was blocked. Against all of his instincts, he fought on until the last of his breath flew from his lungs, and he was left with only darkness.
A moment later, the darkness was colored a tinge of violet as he found himself in the Nexus once more. Bixby stretched as though he was still folded into that uncomfortable position, but he couldn’t deny the fact that was essentially as good as new.
He paused for a moment, looking into the distance at those meandering pathways. The lithe figure, dressed all in white, hadn’t seen his recent arrival, and ushered lost souls on their way.
Bixby went on his way then as well, turning about and pressing through that purple vortex that led back to the land of the living.
* * * * *
She walked with that staff leading, ready to strike out at anyone who might try to surprise her. That forest was dark, though, and Cassidy had to admit that she wasn’t certain she felt confident in herself.
That doubt was made manifest when a branch cracked deeper in the forest, and the young woman sprang away in response. She let a quiet growl slip through her lips, and grasped her staff tighter.
Cassidy ventured deeper into the woods, then, gnashing her teeth together as she drew closer to where that sound had echoed out from. The hair on the back of her neck stood up when she saw the clearing in front of her, and the pit that was carved out in the ground there.
She inched closer toward it, her hands tightening around the staff until the tension caused it to creak. When she reached the pit, though, and glanced inside, nothing was there but some foliage and broken branches.
A sigh of relief escaped her, and she leaned on her staff to catch her composure once more. She was so relaxed that she didn’t immediately notice the familiar fellow as he emerged from the line of trees on the opposite side of the clearing.
“What are you doing here?” Bixby snapped. “Don’t you know this place is dangerous?”
Cassidy scowled at him from across the way. “I was trying to make sure you were safe. It’s been longer than you said you’d be, and I didn’t know if you needed help.”
He stomped around the pit, and reached her, shaking his head all the while. “You must have followed them, or else you wouldn’t have been able to find this place. I told you not to.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t listen!” she pressed.
Both of them sighed in unison, then.
“I couldn’t find their hideout,” Cassidy said. “I’ve been in this forest for an hour at least. I lost track of you and those men almost as soon as they disappeared behind the trees.”
“I had a good view of where they went,” Bixby countered. “They’re in a cave not far from here. Your skeletons are in there as well.”
“Really?” she asked. At once, her disposition shifted, and a smile stretched her lips. “Well let’s go get them!”
“Why don’t you let me handle that?” he countered. “Like I said, these men are dangerous. I don’t want you anywhere near any of them when I try to get your ‘ancestors’ back.”
“I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Sometimes, perhaps,” Bixby said. “But you wear your doubt clear enough for me to see it. That’s not a bad thing. A little bit of uncertainty is what keeps people alive. But you can’t be careless.”
She arched her eyebrow and leaned on her staff again. “And what is it you’re doing?”
“I can afford to be a little cavalier. It’s daring when I do it. Just…promise me you’ll stay out of trouble while I work on getting back your things. I have a feeling Irwin won’t be so willing to take me on as his apprentice if anything happens to you.”
Cassidy let her gaze drift on to the nearby trees, and her mirth drained away again. “Fine.”
“It won’t be long now,” Bixby promised. As he passed her by, he squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll get your ornaments back to you in time for the festival.”
As he proceeded deeper into the forest, the young woman turned to watch him leave.
* * * * *
“I say we send one of them back, Jorgen,” one of the bandits ventured. “We can break it to pieces and leave it right at the entrance to town for them to see.”
“Yeah, nobody messes with us,” a second brigand added.
The bandit leader sat on his crude throne at the back of the cave, spinning one of the village’s gold coins between his fingers. The words of his men echoed in the cave, but he didn’t hear any of it as he stared at the reflection of the torches in the coin.
One of the brigands let a laugh fly through the air. “What kind of idiot locks himself in a treasure chest to be hauled off to a thieves’ den anyway?”
“This kind of idiot,” another voice resonated through the cave.
The quartet of thieves spun about to the entrance, and saw that familiar face.
“Wait a minute,” one of them called out. “Ain’t you supposed to be dead?”
The brigand who threw disposed of Bixby turned to Jorgen, then, who was much more attentive upon his throne. “I swear boss, I threw him into the pit, just like you said.”
“Looks like you’ve got some dissention in the ranks,” Bixby said. “Can’t quite trust any one of your lads now, can you?”
A crooked smile stretched across Jorgen’s face, lifting that grey mustache. “I trust them just fine. You, on the other hand, stranger, are beginning to work on my last nerves.”
“Well then say goodbye to them, because I’m just getting started.” Bixby snapped his fingers again, summoning a flickering flame above his thumb. He breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t burn him as it did back in Irwin’s tower. “Unless you all want to feel the fires of Evarice burning you to a crisp, I suggest you relinquish those skeletons. They belong to the people of Duskside.”
“It’s Dustside,” one of the bandits corrected.
“Whatever!” Bixby growled. “Are you going to give up the skeletons or not?”
Jorgen rose from his throne, then. “Well it seems you give us little choice,” he said, turning about and approaching those skeletons in the back of the cave. He reached down as he passed his chair, though, and when he came back into sight again, he leveled a crossbow in Bixby’s direction. “We’re simply going to have to kill you again.”
Before the intruder could consider leaping away to safety, a quarrel sprang out from that crossbow, and thudded into Bixby’s chest. The flame was extinguished immediately, and the man fell to his backside.
“Damn it!” the injured fellow cried. “Do you have any idea how much this hurts?”
“There’s no coming back from that, boss,” the man who laid the killing blow before commended.
“Even so, get over there and stab him a few more times for good measure.”
“Wait a minute,” Bixby said with a groan. “Let’s be reasonable about this. I’m sure we can come to an understanding, can’t we?” He kept talking until the knife plunged into his gut once more, and then he teetered backward until his head hit the stone of the cavern.
“Back to the pit with him, Sanders,” Jorgen said. “And this time, make sure he’s really gone for good.”
* * * * *
She balanced her staff across her knees, fighting off the urge to go to sleep. A quiet sigh shook her frame, and she considered dropping from her perch in the tree, when a sound reported below.
Cassidy was prepared to complain to Bixby for taking so long, but she kept her mouth shut when she saw the bandit.
Sanders didn’t notice the girl in the tree, concentrating once more on bringing his burden to the edge of the pit. With his red, black and yellow outfit—was that Bixby on his shoulder?
The bandit pulled his victim down, slamming him to the ground before the pit again. He fell to his knees beside the body, and stabbed him a few more times for good measure. Wiping the perspiration from his brow, Sanders rose, and kicked Bixby’s corpse into the pit.
Convinced that his task was completed, he returned to his path through the forest, leaving his victim to rot where his leader demanded.
Once enough time passed, Cassidy dropped from her perch, and crawled toward the pit. She tenuously drew closer then, and just as she was about to peek over the edge, she heard someone clear their throat behind her.
The young woman turned, and couldn’t keep her eyes from going wide.
“I thought I told you to clear out of this forest,” Bixby said. “You saw that brigand just now, didn’t you? If he spots you, he’ll kill you, you know.” He sighed as he reflected on everything that transpired after arriving at that forest. “You’re a pretty girl, so he might have worse things in mind for you if he got his hands on you.”
Cassidy climbed to her feet and started to turn back toward the pit when Bixby slid his hand around her hip and nudged her back the way she came. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want to have whatever happens to you on my conscience, so can you please let me do what I need to do here? Go back to your town and wait for me there. Can you do that for me?”
She swallowed away her apprehension and did as he told. As she went on her way, she passed a confused glance his way, but he gestured for her to continue walking. Once he was satisfied that she was gone, he turned and approached the pit.
“Now to deal with you, me.”
* * * * *
Jorgen leaned forward in his seat, running the knife he procured from Bixby under his fingernail. The chest of gold—far less than he asked for—was by his side, and the crossbow rested comfortably atop it.
One of his men ran into the cave then, struggling to catch his breath. “I can’t find Sanders, boss.”
“He should be back by now,” another said.
“Each of you get your weapons and get out in those woods,” Jorgen ordered in his gravelly voice. “The first of you to find Sanders alive gets half the gold those villagers gave us. Go on, get!”
Whether it was the promise of riches or their leader’s stern command that gave them incentive, it didn’t take long for the cave to clear out, leaving the storied highwayman alone on his throne. A few minutes later, though, he heard footfalls echoing off the cavern floor.
“I was wondering when you’d be back,” he said. He glanced up and noticed his foe, that man in the yellow, red and black outfit. Bixby looked no worse for wear, and drew further toward the throne than he had. “There’s something not quite right about you, is there?”
“In more ways than you could possibly know,” the intruder quipped.
“I didn’t catch your name the last couple times you were here,” Jorgen spoke. “Usually I like to know who somebody is before I kill ‘em, but I suppose you’re a special circumstance, aren’t you?”
“My name is Bixby Alladocious, and I can do this all day.”
“I’ll bet you can,” the bandit leader chortled. “Only thing is, so can I. It must get tiresome coming all the way back here from the pit, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, at least I get your friend to carry me there.”
“Speaking of which…”
“He’s alive. Although seeing as he killed me twice, now, that’s more than he deserves.” Jorgen paid special attention to that admission, arching his eyebrow as those words echoed in his mind. “He’s tied up out in the woods. It should be some time before your men find him. So that leaves just you and me…and your crossbow.”
“Oh this old thing?” Jorgen asked as he leaned over and patted the weapon on the chest. “Don’t worry about that. I only have the one bolt, and it bent when I was busy sticking you with it. That said, if you want to come over here, I’d be happy to give you your knife back.”
It was Bixby’s turn to consider his foe’s words and his confidence. “Are you going to part with the skeletons or not? No matter what your friends do to me, I’ll keep coming back again and again.”
Jorgen offered a toothy grin to his would-be opponent then. “No, I don’t think I am going to hand these over to you, and here’s why: I suspect you and I are cut from the same cloth, Bixby.” He stood then, peering at his foe with his uncovered eye. “You may be right; you could keep coming back again and again. But me? I’m not going anywhere.” He accentuated that statement by reaching up and tugging away his eyepatch.
Uncovered, Bixby saw that there was nothing wrong with Jorgen’s eye. He tilted his head, gazing at the man in curiosity.
“Got into a fight at a tavern once upon a time a few years back,” the bandit leader said. “The lads saw this hulking, dumb idiot shove a broken stein into my eye. I couldn’t very well go on as usual—you know how people can be about these kinds of things, especially in Blacklehn. So I let them think my eye is all beat up behind this thing. Truth is, it only took a few days for me to see as well as before.”
He brought Bixby’s knife up to his hand then, and carved into it, half-smiling and half-scowling at the pain. “So what do you say there, Bixby? Do you think you can come over here and grab these skeletons from me? Or are you going to end up back at the pit again?” He turned his hand about so that the intruder could see that the wound was already closing, though blood poured from the site of the injury.
Bixby looked at his foe and sighed. He knew he could never hope to outmatch him in his current state. Jorgen could endure forever, but Bixby would die again and again, leaving nothing but a pile of corpses behind.
That thought rooted itself in the man’s mind then, and he couldn’t hold back a smile of his own.
“Why don’t you keep those skeletons as a souvenir, Jorgen,” he said. “We’ll call today a stalemate.”
As Bixby turned to walk away, the bandit leader arched an eyebrow, wondering what the stranger had planned.
* * * * *
Bixby watched the fire burn away the flesh from the two bodies. He hummed to himself then, and nodded. “This is the first time I’ve given myself a proper funeral,” he muttered. “And I’m doing it twice.”
He stripped his corpses naked, tying his clothes together to create a makeshift canvas. Skin and muscle were chewed away by the flames, leaving only bones behind.
The man moved his shoulder in circles to alleviate the aching there. Carrying both of his bodies to the far edge of the forest was no easy task, but he didn’t want to chance running into Jorgen’s men. The smell alone was enough to catch someone’s attention, but the smoke would have been seen from any of the clearings close to the cave.
That far from the bandits, though, Bixby was free to take care with his task.
* * * * *
She leaned against the cottage, flanked on either side by one of her mother’s flowerbeds. The aroma helped to keep her calm, but she wasn’t able to keep herself from worrying about Bixby all alone in the bandits’ woods.
Cassidy stood, then, ready to make the trek back to Irwin’s tower. The man who wanted to be his apprentice had taken on too difficult a task, and she couldn’t in good conscience allow his pride to be the end of him.
As she looked down that dirt path out of the village though, she was struck by an odd sight. A lone figure approached, the twilight at his back, along with a canvas that looked similar to his clothing.
The young woman jogged out to meet him, noticing the skeletons there behind him before she came up behind him. Her bright smile caught Bixby by surprise, but no more so than the embrace she wrapped him in.
“How did you do it?” Cassidy asked. “I thought for sure something terrible had happened to you.”
He clicked his tongue at her. “Ah, but a magician never tells his secrets, and for now, that’s about all I am.”
“Well, you’ve certainly earned that apprenticeship with Master Silvermane. I’ll be sure to tell him we’ve got our festival ornaments back first thing in the morning.”
“Take your time and enjoy remembering your ancestors,” Bixby insisted. “In truth, I could use a day or two of relaxation before I submit myself to Irwin’s training. Go ahead and tell Rassik to set these two back in place. I’ll bring them to the center of town after I catch my breath.”
Cassidy offered up a little nod, and went on her way, back to the town.
Alone again, if only for a brief while, Bixby set his burden down and spun about. “These two will do for now, but don’t think for a moment that I’m done with you, Jorgen,” he whispered. “Once I’m done learning what the wizard has to offer, you and I will surely meet again.”
He took in another deep breath before he grabbed hold of the canvas once more, and dragged it toward Dustside.