Luga's army might have begun anew hostilities, but news of Luga's death spread quickly throughout the ranks. Not only did they no longer have a leader, but with the Hurik goblin clan gone, the taomen crushed flat, and Daggeuro unscathed in the duel, the forces the shade had assembled disarmed and peaceably exited the city. Only three objected to this, the soumen, and they were slain before their specters could do more than wound a couple of Watchmen.
There were no cheers, no celebrations, and no riots in the streets. There came from the Royal Guard present at the duel a subdued sort of acceptance that everything was over, that something monumental had occurred, and it was going to change things in ways they did not yet understand. They knew it, the Watch knew it, and Luga's army knew it.
Kathy, Dimanche and Daggeuro left the park an hour after the duel, as the last of the stragglers began shuffling away from the duelling grounds. The kennin High Knight had Boon and Bane on his hips again, Kathy was wearing her bow and her axe, and Baron Dimanche had his cane tucked into his armpit like a marching baton. They marched away from the park under a darkened sky, Daggeuro stopping them a few streets away to take a report from a sergeant regarding the soumen.
"Nobody else seems to have any fight left in them," the elven sergeant said, eyeing Daggeuro's companions warily. "We're just letting everyone leave if they raise no trouble. That's what you wanted, right?"
"That's right," said Daggeuro. "See to it that none of the businesses are ransacked. We don't need to have people coming back to their stores to discover they've lost everything."
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, saluting and marching away. Daggeuro appeared to sag as they got farther from the park, making a direct line for Selena Barnick's house. When they were within a hundred yards of her home, he stumbled over his own feet, requiring Kathy and Dimanche to support him, guide him along. Some essential part of him had been drained by the encounter with Luga, despite the lack of physical or magical attacks thrown from his end. Kathy had to wonder how much it had cost Daggeuro to block, absorb, and deflect the spells the shade had cast against him. Apparently, quite a bit.
She and Dimanche managed to get Daggeuro through the front door, delivered onto the floor in Selena's living room, and with the elven woman's help, got him out of his armor. The plates of armor were vaguely warped, something Kathy hadn't been able to see in the dark of night, and when Selena removed the armor, Kathy was horrified to discover that Daggeuro's body was letting off a sickly, feverish heat, and he had several sores weeping blood in a steady stream along his sides.
Selena got Daggeuro onto the couch and began tending to his wounds as Kathy and Baron Dimanche headed for their rooms at the Phoenix Inn. Kathy didn't even make it out of her gear, except to drop her axe and bow and quiver next to the bed. To say she was exhausted simply wouldn't cut it.
The entire following day dragged by in a fog for Kathy. When one spends much of a day fighting for their life, approaching the end of that day by keeping over a ton of stone levitating twenty feet up for the better part of an hour, then finally finishing it by half-carrying a fully armored man to his girlfriend's house, one does not absorb details come morning. Kathy didn't recall climbing in the shower, nor toweling off, yet she smiled as she sat on the edge of her rented bed, wrapped in a heavy towel.
"Comfy," she said to the empty room. The next thing Kathy was fully cognizant of was standing in the doorway of the hotel's in-house diner in strange, soft purple pajamas and a dark bathrobe, leaning on the doorframe for support.
To her relief, Baron Dimanche was there, and he helped her down to a seat and ordered her food. She couldn't later recall what she ate then, but whatever it was, it served its purpose as fuel. She wasn't eating for taste's sake of the pleasure of food. This was pure calorie consumption for the purpose of surviving, making it to a point where her mind cleared and fired on all cylinders again.
It was almost evening when Kathy's mind began operating as normal again, the world spinning back towards a cycle and pattern she understood. Once more she was in her hotel room, sitting at the card table in one corner, checkerboard between herself and Baron Dimanche. The tall, angular black man, dressed in a loud neon yellow dinner jacket and pants, didn't wear his usual smile as he looked down at the checkers.
"Baron?" He looked up at her, and his face animated, lit from within as he gently smiled at her. "Why are we playing checkers?"
"I'm not entirely sure why," said the Baron softly. "I just pulled de box out of deir game closet down de hall. It's a comfort t'ing for me. Whenevah my bruddah gets angry wit' me, or some plan of mine falls t'rough, or I feel down, I try to find someone to play checkers wit'."
"Well, why are you feeling down," Kathy asked, feeling more like herself by the moment.
"I shouldn't say. You just focus on de game. We'll have food brought up shortly." They finished their first game, moving onto a second match after Dimanche returned from ordering food for them. A few turns in, Kathy cracked her neck and groaned in relief.
"Soooo much better," she drawled. "So, what's it like out in the streets?"
"Dere was a lot of damage to de southernmost districts of de city. Luga's people broke, burned and pillaged pretty thoroughly. De café is all right, though," he said with a smile, which immediately faded. "De civilian casualty count was bad. Five-hundred and seventeen dead, two-hundred and forty-eight injured. De Watch lost four-hundred and eighty-eight officers, seventy-two injured."
"Wow," said Kathy, staggered by the sheer numbers. The fighting had not even lasted a full day, and the loss of life just on her side of the clash topped a thousand dead. She could scarcely imagine so much damage being done in such a small period of time and area of space, but she supposed that was the other sharpened edge of magic. On the one hand, there was light and illusions and protective spells and rituals that could make life easier. On the other, there was the magical equivalent of WMDs.
Kathy tried to put such thoughts out of her mind for the time being. At the moment, she just wanted to eat, play checkers, and catch some more sleep. These were simple needs, all met within a short time of one another.
When she next awoke it was because of a sudden shift of weight on her rented bed. Kathy opened her eyes to discover a broad back dressed in some silky, dark blue tunic before her. She followed the back upward, until she saw the familiar sight of the back of Daggeuro's head. Kathy sat up quickly and wrapped her arms around him in a half-tackle, realizing now what had seemed so off the previous evening with Baron Dimanche.
"Mighty hell, Miss Kathy, you're going to choke me to death," the kennin knight said laughingly, pulling his head out from under her arm, slithering upright off of the bed. He looked narrower to Kathy around the midsection, and there was a bagginess to his eyes she didn't care for.
"You don't look good, Dag," she said, rolling off of the bed on the other side. "Are you all right?"
"I am, yes. To tell the truth, I wasn't just a day past. I was comatose until a few hours ago," Daggeuro said, his voice strained. Kathy could hear it now in his tone, the utter exhaustion he was feeling. Yet despite his fatigue, he still looked like one of the most vibrant and powerful figures she had ever seen. "There's an upside, though. I haven't taken any reports yet, and apparently I'm not going to for a few days, by order of his majesty the king. Dimanche told me the casualty numbers when I saw him an hour ago, so I know the worst of it. That's enough for me."
"Well, I'm glad to see you again," Kathy said with a smile. "I was afraid I wouldn't get the chance before going back."
"Nonsense," he replied. "We have at least one last day as companions. This afternoon, the king wishes to see the three of us again in the throne room. Now, I will leave you to make ready for the audience, as I must do the same." He shuffled toward the door, hesitating in the entryway, hand on the knob. "Miss Kathy?"
"Yes?" He gave her a tired look, but it was one full of good humor.
"Miss Kathy, I am glad we met." He shut the door quietly behind himself, leaving Kathy to get ready for her audience with the king.
The trio met in the rounded courtyard in front of the king's manor, Baron Dimanche in an impeccable white tuxedo (wooden sandals, of course), Daggeuro in his parade armor, festooned with medals and intricate scrollwork painting lines on the breast and back plates, and Kathy in a flowing green and white dress given to her as a gift by Selena Barnick. They looked fit to be shown off like showcase figures, which seemed fitting to Kathy. This would likely be the last time they three stood before king Ovin in the center of his court.
"Is that comb supposed to be so poofy," she asked Dimanche in a sidemouth whisper, staring at the top of Daggeuro's ceremonial helmet.
"Yes," Dimanche whispered back. "D'ough, nevah saw a helmet comb so dusty." She nodded, rummaging through her gear bag for a brush.
"Give me that," she said to the kennin as Dimanche snatched the helmet off his head.
"What in the name of the gods," Daggeuro blurted, trying to pin Dimanche down as the voodoo spirit weaved like a snake through his grasp. Kathy brushed out the dust from his helmet's red comb, handing the headpiece back as Daggeuro's hands found Dimanche's narrow neck. "Oh, thank you," he said, dropping Dimanche.
"Comb was dusty."
"Why didn't you say so?"
"Figured this was more fun." A few minutes later, a manservant beckoned them into the manor, leading them through the entryway and main chamber to the doors of the throne room. The twin doors were opened, and the manservant declared in a booming voice made louder by some minor magical trick, "Announcing the honorable Baron Dimanche, of Spirit Plane, the lovely and brave Lady Kathy Potts, of Mortal Plane, and the great, esteemed Lord Daggeuro, or Ether Plane!"
There was applause from the throne room as the trio entered, thundering peals of it. When they passed through the doorway, Kathy saw the walls swarming with shapes, which resolved themselves into tiny people standing in the streets of Celia. Little floating eyeballs hovered around the throne room, and she thought, huh, their version of cameras. Pretty cool.
The praise and shouts of festive people, all happy to see their heroes in the recent battle up and about, died down as the king floated up and over his throne. The trio stopped before him, all three kneeling in unison.
"Rise then, ye three brave and noble souls," king Ovin decreed after a long pause, waiting for all to fall silent. "I, king Ovin, rightful ruler of Amermidst kingdom, shall address each of thee in turn, that all three may receive thy just thanks." The trio nodded as one, a perfect though spontaneous reaction. "Baron Dimanche, take a step forth from thy companions."
The voodoo spirit took a step forward, looking somber and straight, his feet planted, hands atop one another on his serpent cane. King Ovin waved one hand towards the side of the throne room, and a pair of rhino-men came trudging over in brilliant golden armor. They carried between them a heavy-looking black hope chest with silver buckles and hasp, setting it down with ease.
"Baron Dimanche, I have it on good authority that you were personally responsible for besting the troll vindicator known as Foruk, felling him in mortal combat," said Ovin. "I know not the specifics of how, but that matters not. The fact is, without this most capable of Luga's allies, the shade effectively lost his field marshall and a potent magic wielder, who could have aided him in making the carnage so much worse. You traveled far with your companions in furtherance of this court's aims, and did so without objection or complaint, dutifully and competently. You have shown great honor, and so we honor you. You are freed of your debt to this court, and we personally offer you this as well."
The rhino-men unlatched the chest and opened it, revealing a glimmering green short staff. It was floated out then by Ovin, sent along the air until the voodoo man took it in hand. It sparkled dark green, the metal cap on each end trembling with energy.
"Behold Serpentus, Staff of Snakes," said Ovin aloud. "It will allow you to command any serpent-like creature of bestial intelligence, regardless of its power or origin. This gift we give you, Baron." The voodoo man could not contain his joy, marvelling at the staff, tucking his cane through his cumberbund in order to twirl Serpentus. "You may now step back."
"Thank you, your majesty," he said with a bow, stepping back to stand on Daggeuro's left.
"Next, Lady Kathy Potts, step forth," king Ovin declared. She felt her heart thudding hard as she took one long step forward, curtseying to the king and queen. Queen Titania, Kathy saw, held their littlest in her arms. "Lady Kathy, you are as a newcomer to us, newly Awakened, yet instantly thrust into danger on our kingdom's behalf. You could have left anytime you wanted, but you remained, out of your sheer child-like adoration for the magical realm we take so much for granted. You left behind the world you knew, unsure if you'd make it back there. You have stood true as a companion and friend to Lord Daggeuro, and thus, to this court. We honor you and your rare talents with this."
The rhino-men had not left, nor had they replaced the hope chest. However, when they opened it, something new was revealed within. It looked like a block of orange clay, roughly the size of a microwave.
"This is roakon, a kind of rare clay only found in Amerwest kingdom caves along the ocean coast. It can be made into any shape at all, and though it can be hardened with fire, it never breaks, only melts back into the unshaped lump you take from the host block."
Kathy saw the value of this substance right away, given the nature of her powers. But she would be going home soon, so why....
"And, of course, we hereby extend to you the title of Great Friend of the Court of Ovin," the diminutve king announced to great cheers all around. "You are welcome to return here whenever you wish. Please, take your gift and step back." Kathy opened her gear bag for one o the rhino faerie men to drop the clay block into, then stepped back to Daggeuro's right side.
"And ah, lastly, our beloved High Knight, Sir Daggeuro. Step forth." There came uproarious cheering for the kennin, so loud it hurt Kathy's ears. When Daggeuro stood before Ovin, there was a minute-long pause for the crowd to quiet down. "Sir Daggeuro, you have protected this city and its peoples, commanding the Watch and the Royal Guard, personally combating our enemies, and guarding over our safety better than any could hope. You have shouldered great burdens for us all, squaring yourself against the shade Luga, in a duel in which he wielded magics far above and beyond your own skill against you. Yet you held firm, and in the end, though it cost you much, nearly your life, you vanquished the shade once and for all. You, sir, are a hero without compare."
The rhino-men opened the chest once more. What Kathy saw there were three scrolls and some sort of signet ring. The first scroll was unrolled by one of the rhino men and read aloud by the king.
"First, let it be known henceforth that Lord Daggeuro shall no longer be held liable for the burdensome task of micromanaging the Watch throughout the kingdom, but only in Celia. He shall command wheresoever he goes, but those other precincts shall be commanded by regional commanders, in a system to be developed shortly. By order of the king, so signed." Daggeuro let out a laugh, but one of great relief. Kathy could see tears threatening in his eyes. The second scroll was unrolled. "Second, let it be known henceforth that Glory House, the vacation home of the royal family located in the outhern province of Achens, shall be gifted to Lord Daggeuro, High Knight of Ovin's court. By order of the king, so signed."
At this, the first tears overspilled Daggeuro's eyes, and Kathy, ever empathetic, began weeping joyfully with him. The third scroll was unrolled, and king Ovin continued.
"And lastly, as this court finds itself having to do every twenty years or so due to your bullheadedness, you are hereby commanded to relieve yourself of all duties for a much-deserved six month vacation, effective when you exit this manor. By order of the king, who cherishes you as much as the public cherishes you, so signed."
King Ovin floated forth and touched one small hand to Daggeuro's snout. The kennin bowed his head, turned around and embraced Kathy and Dimanche, sending up a fresh round of applause from the citizenry.
The celebration lasted well into the night.
Daggeuro and Baron Dimanche stepped through the rift behind Kathy, into her apartment's living room. They had all partaken of a hard day's celebrating two days earlier, and the day after had been spent in the café, recovering and reminiscing. Mostly Daggeuro had told tales of his own adventures, while the human woman and voodoo man sipped coffee and listened.
Now, dressed in her own clothes, Kathy recoiled as Tigger came flying from the couch to meet her. She caught him perfectly, stroking his fur and nuzzling him. "Ohhh, dids oo miss me, huhhh?"
"I'm going to be sick," Dimanche mocked. Kathy shot him a look and walked to the bedrom with her cat, returning a few minutes later. She had only deposited her gear bag and opened her laptop, which was sitting on her bed, so she could check the date and time. When she came back to the two men, she appeared non-plussed.
"Daggeuro, you told me a long tme ago that time moves differently from one Plane to another, right?"
"Sometimes, yes," he said. "You were in the Ether for almost two months, there. How long passed here?"
"Only three weeks," Kathy replied.
"A fair exchange rarely occurs," said Dimanche, surveying the small apartment.
"Kathy," said Daggeuro, cupping something in his left hand. "The Baron and I thought you might want to keep this," he said, holding out the green earring which allowed its wearer to speak to the holder of its mates. Her eyes lit with delight, and she took it to her room straight away, tucking it into her jewelry box in a drawer all its own, after some rearrangement. She returned to the living room to find Tigger staring up at Daggeuro curiously.
"Well, I suppose this is just good-bye for now, then," she said, feeling the desire to sob right behind her words. "Who knows? Maybe I'll pester you guys later tonight."
"Kathy," Daggeuro began with a sigh.
"I know, I know," she said, sniffling. "It'll probably be a while. And it's not like you guys can arrange to have things taken care of here for me again like you did this time."
"That's right," said Daggeuro. "You'll have to see to these things yourself in the future. Most cannot do both, and so are forced to chose which world they wish to live in. I do not envy you the choice."
Baron Dimanche, clearly acting on cue, waved his hands to open a rift into the in-between then. He gave Kathy a brief, fierce hug, kissed the top of her head, and strolled through, out of sight.
"Dag?" The kennin faced her squarely, and she embraced him like a brother, holding tight. "I'm going to miss you, at least until I see you again." Daggeuro said nothing, just stroking her hair. When he pushed her back easily, stepping toward the rift, he gave her a parting look of questioning. "Like you said," Kathy said with a tearful chuckle. "Balance. I'll figure something out."
And with that, Sir Daggeuro was gone.
Six months later......
Kathy filled out her job report on the computer kept in the kitchen. She was now the proud owner of her own small cleaning business, working mostly out of office buildings at night. She kept three cleaning crews going at all times, making certain to keep her clients clumped close together. Easier to control that way.
Her magic gave her one hell of an advantage. She didn't disclose to her clients that she animated all of the equipment and large plush dolls to do the work, and they got a damned low rate for services compared to most. In the last four months, she'd cleared close to eighty-thousand dollars in contracts. More than enough for her purposes.
One day, after returning home from her job at the group home, the idea had just come to her like a lightning strike. A loan from her mother had paid for the first set of equipment needed, and from there, it had been, to use a pun, magical.
As she input the last line in the report, Kathy shot out a quick email to all ten of her clients, letting them know her services would be available again in a month's time. When she hit send, and the confirmation appeared, she shut the laptop and hummed to herself, hopping happily to the bedroom. There, her gear bag sat ready on the bed, Tigger laying contentedly next to it, his special collar around his neck.
Tigger stood up, stretched. He cocked his head at Kathy as she strapped on her bow and grabbed out the dragonbone dagger. "Not going to warn them we're coming," Tigger said, his words flowing from the collar she had crafted him with the roakon.
"What fun would that be," she asked, cutting open a rift leading straight to Selena Barnick's front door.