Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) - Episode 039
In the dream, Jillian was no longer a fighter; she was a piece of land. Warlords fought on her, trying to own and control her. Tiny insignificant kings erected cities upon her high mountains and in her grassy valleys. Knights flew her skies. Miners dug tunnels through her rocky flesh. She watched them struggle and strive, fall and burn, and felt pity for them. But she could do nothing. Her body was frozen in time.
This dream went on for far longer her ability to remember. She knew there‘d been some genesis, some moment when she had been shaped into this, but it was lost to her. Probably it was a terrible and traumatic event, but she did not know. She did not want to be this way: made of unmoving dirt and rocks, lying fixed in place. She struggled, but there was no Motion in her. Days rolled by, and the little people fought their wars upon her. Suns rose and set.
Then suddenly, in the high mountain range she had come to think of as her head, there was a pinpoint of warmth. Hot fluids pushed to the surface and burst forward. In the face that she showed to the sunshine, a mountain exploded. Her lips burned. A volcano. Motion at last.
It was the end of the dream. The end of the World of Jillian. The mountain erupted.
It was a kiss.
The sun above grew searingly bright, then was overshadowed by something. Blinding again...overshadowed again. Jillian had eyes, it seemed, and they were only just opening now.
Hovering over her was a face she did not know. A woman, wracked and wretched. Hair of black and gray, cheeks hollow and ashen. Only the eyes looked familiar: deep pools of icy blue. She knew them.
These were the eyes on the Dollamancer‘s mannequin...
With a gasp, she sat up on her elbows. The face pulled away, leaving the blazing sun to dazzle her. The withered-looking woman raised a bony arm and grabbed something in the bright air above. She slammed it down upon Jillian‘s head, knocking her flat on her back.
Jillian raised her arms, and smacked her knuckles on something. She tried to rise again, but her head bumped against a pane of crystal, just inches from her nose. In a panic, she beat and thrashed in all directions. But she was completely contained in a clear box, lying on a cushiony mattress and with a white satin pillow beneath her head. Despite several moments of desperate kicking and screaming, the sides of the box would not yield.
She pivoted in place, managing to turn almost on her side, and tried to get her bearings. She saw colors first: blue and white in the sky, gray granite, pink flowers, white marble, and lots and lots of green. Grass and trees were everywhere. It was like a city park, with square shapes of varying sizes dotting the grass all around. Jillian could not recognize this place or what it was meant to be. She could see only that it was outdoors, and except for the gnarled woman, it was empty.
The woman stood beside the glass box in a simple satin gown of crimson and pink. At the sides, the thin garment was laced up with silvery cord, revealing her skeletal ribs. She did not smile, but looked upon Jillian with a keen interest. Her skin was as pale and wrinkled as parchment. She hardly looked able to stand.
They stared at one another for a long moment, until the woman tilted her head slightly. “Prisoner is alert?” she asked. Her voice scraped like a whetstone on a taut bowstring, but Jillian could hear it perfectly clearly through the transparent barrier.
“What?” asked Jillian in confusion. Her own voice echoed closely inside the case.
“Fingers,” said the woman, holding up three of them. “How many do you see?”
“All five,” scowled Jillian. “But you‘re holding up three. Who are you?”
The woman lowered her hand. “You‘ll call me ‘Mistress,‘” she said, turning away. She began looking inside a black satchel on a nearby marble pedestal.
“Yeah, right,” snapped Jillian, “Be disbanded if I will.”
“Belligerence won‘t serve you,” said the woman, not turning around. “You are helpless, and I have everything you‘ll ever need. To the degree to which you cooperate, I‘ll see that you receive it.” The woman stood straight, having found a pair of long red gloves. She began slipping them on. “Give me your name, rank, and side.”
Jillian only now remembered that she had a side. Her mouth opened in horror. “Where are my people?”
“I have them,” said the bony woman. “Say ‘Mistress‘ for more information. Simply say the word.”
Jillian glared at the woman through the glass. It was hot in this case, and she realized she was sweating. How long had she been out here in this...garden or whatever? How had she come to this place?
The woman stared back, waiting with an air of infinite patience. Jillian looked away, deciding to ignore her for the moment.
She turned in all directions, seeing what she could of the place. Her glass box was raised on its own pedestal, to about waist height. The other pedestals and stone shapes on the lawn ranged from simple blocks to little buildings, like elaborate marble or granite sheds. Most were adorned with flowers, in wreaths and bunches. Some had columns and ornamentation, and most of them were engraved with blocks of script on at least one polished face.
“What is this place?” said Jillian, not wanting to look at the woman.
“Another request for information?” rasped the woman. “You ask me questions, but you refuse to acknowledge mine? Even in polite company, that would not be acceptable.” The woman stepped up to the box and put her hand on it, and suddenly Jillian was thrown flat against the pillow. Her body stiffened, and pain stabbed into her elbows, knees, hips and neck. She tried to cry out, but she could not breathe. It was as if she were being pressed flat by a gigantic hand. “And this is not polite company. Say ‘Mistress.‘ Only the word.”
With growing clarity despite the pain, Jillian considered the woman‘s demand. She was trying to be smart about it, trying to think as a Chief Warlord. If she were alive, then her people were probably alive, too. Before she could do anything to help them, she needed to understand what was going on. Resisting for the sake of resisting was a pretty attractive idea–she hated this monstrous woman, whatever she was–but Jillian had to pick her battles carefully. She‘d never before been in trouble this deep.
“Mistress,” she gasped out.
The woman took her hand from the glass, and the pressure was immediately released.
“You asked me several questions, so I will choose which I‘d like to answer,” said Jillian‘s captor. “I choose, ‘What is this place?‘ This is my garden. I plant people here.”
Jillian shook her head. “I don‘t understand.”
“That building,” said the woman, pointing to the largest of the marble sheds, standing in a revered spot on a nearby rise, “is a cenotaph to my brother. I croaked him, and then I uncroaked him. When he was gone, he was gone. It is that way for every unit. But this garden is a way to remember all the ones whose lives I have taken away. To surround them with life. There is nothing like it in the world.”
When what this woman was saying had sunk in, Jillian gasped at the vastness of the green space. There were certainly thousands of stones with flowers on them within view. She was claiming to have croaked that many people, and...uncroaked?
“Lady Firebaugh,” said Jillian in a wondering whisper, and instantly regretted it. The gloved hand touched the glass again, slamming her down.
“Mistress. Say the word.”
“Mistress!” she blurted out. The glove lingered a few seconds longer, then the pain vanished.
“Information,” said the Lady Firebaugh again, “is something we can give to each other. These stones contain information about units who once lived, and who would be forgotten if not for the engravings. I will need your information. We will start with your name, rank, and side...but I feel you are someone special. We may have to talk for quite some time before I can plant you here.”
Jillian‘s sweaty skin went cold. She said nothing. Her captor stared over her with that same unnatural patience, as nearly a minute went by in silent impasse.
“Your reluctance is understandable,” said Lady Firebaugh. “Let‘s start with something a bit easier.”
She gave the barest nod at one of the nearby marble sheds, and the iron door creaked open. For a moment, Jillian refused to believe what came shambling out of it.
“He was your lover,” said Lady Firebaugh. “I watched you.”
At that, the tall figure of an uncroaked warlord in Haffaton livery, resolved itself in Jillian‘s mind. This was Bart. Let this still be a dream. Titans, please.
The Croakamancer leaned over her, smiling coldly. “Tell me more about him, Jillian. Tell me what to write upon his stone.”