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TODAY

Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

Blagg, why does the sun shine?
-Roger B., Joliet

"You've simply got to look on the bright side of things, Axman," Wilhelm huffs at me as we trudge up the latest rise. We could easily have gone around. But for some reason, as we walk, I continue to choose the path of most resistance.

"Consider it," he says, hurrying to catch me as I increase my pace once again. "How many times you've escaped certain death. How many times you ought to have shuffled off this mortal coil, yet here you are, big and ugly as ever." He chortles. "Only joking."

I don't respond. I'm determined not to answer him until I know for certain whether he is baiting me or honestly being a fool.

"My point, dear Axman," Wilhelm continues, after waiting for a reply and receiving none, "is that you enjoy the favor of the fortunes. It is predestined, this. You, this quest. You and I meeting, in fact."

"Funny," I say, finally stopping to face him and trying not to gasp for air. "I thought that you and I crossed paths because you followed me."

"Only a little, Axman." He grins that easy, smug grin and I turn and move on before I'm tempted to drive my fist into it.

What is it about Wilhelm Warhammer that so vexes me? Still I have no answer, though the question has never been far out of reach since waking up to find him cooking me breakfast this morning, in what I assumed was a fairly well-hidden camp. He always has been outwardly cordial (though in my opinion he comes off a bit high-handed), and like myself he's remained loyal to the throne of King Mandrake when saying as much is a swift avenue toward having a noose fitted for one's neck. Surely he is not my better on the field; a fine warrior, no doubt, who has felled countless enemies, but our weapons are completely different and no real comparison can be made.

But then what can it be about this man, whom I have not seen in long years, that he can appear one day and immediately grate upon my very soul?

He stops now, resting hand on hip whilst the other dangles lazily, looks up at the sky, blue smeared with faint white clouds. He chooses these poses, he has to. "Shall we rest then, Axman?" Grins at me. "About lunchtime, wouldn't you say?"

I sigh and grunt and find a rock on which to settle. It's smaller than the one Wilhelm takes. "Fine," I mutter, and "as you wish." It is mid-afternoon and in truth I would have stopped an hour ago, were the Warhammer not tagging along. The Warhammer. Does he still call himself that? So macho and childish — embarrassing, really...

As we sit I glance up at him, rummaging in his satchel; I rummage in my own but produce only a few battered pieces of fruit. Across the way, Wilhelm has in his hands a plump meat pie. He catches me watching and immediately I look away, furious with myself.

"Axman," he says, "trade me for those plums. I'll give you half." He gestures with the meat pie. It disgusts me, accepting charity from him, but my stomach will not forgive another meal of fruit. When the half-pie is in my hands I wolf it in three bites and don't look at Wilhelm as my tongue collects the last juices between my fingers. It is good.

"So, Blagg, do you mind telling me where we're headed?"

Quickly I press a pear to my teeth, chewing, thinking. How much should I tell him? He can be trusted, and his arm is strong in battle, but how much more of this can I tolerate? His nipping at my heels all the way?

The pear is gone, and I must answer. "M'yrrgh."

"The hag queen? You seek her?"

My eyes narrow; he seizes on the name too fast. "And if I do?"

Wilhelm grins, looks away and runs a hand through his blond curls. This irritates me for reasons known only to the fates. "Because," he says, turning back, "she's left the Great Bog, where she reigned over the alligators and will o' the wisps for nearly– "

"I know all that," I snap. "I came across her myself, months ago."

At this Wilhelm's grin disappears. "Then you know that she has somehow regained her cursed Seeing Eye? The source of her cursed power?"

"Ah," I say, looking down, "I did hear that, yes..." Never mind that it was me who returned it to her; never mind that I had no idea that doing so would fulfill the Dark Lord Kayne's promise to her — that Kayne, the one who took her Eye, would return it before claiming her for his terrible queen.

"I was only asking, as you seem to be leading us toward the Great Bog, but if you already know she no longer haunts that wretched place, then..." Wilhelm lets the question hang, watching me.

"Of course I knew it," I tell him, "but the first step in locating her would logically be to start where she was last seen. I'd planned to search her shack in the swamp for an indication of her whereabouts, but then you appeared."

Wilhelm stands and shoulders his bag. "I did indeed!" He claps his hands and offers me a hand up, which I gamely ignore. "And I'm pleased to let you know the trip into that filthy swamp won't be necessary."

"Why not? Afraid to get your boots wet?"

"Funny, Axman." He flashes me that irritating smile once more. "I'm afraid I already did. It seems as though some brute ransacked the place before I got there" — at this, I redden a bit — "but the fool never thought to look inside her hollow tree."

At this I flush again, and blurt: "Hollow tree?"

"Oh, you didn't see it?" I want to strangle him; instead I look away, set my teeth. He shrugs. "It's right in front of the shack, is all..."

"And?"

"Well, it seemed as though old M'yrrgh kept it as a bit of a shrine, you see," Wilhelm goes on. "Using it to call forth all manner of foul creature."

Still I am vexed that I missed the tree. It was dark, though, when last I was there. And I'd been traveling for quite some time. I fold my arms and wait for Wilhelm to go on.

"But it wasn't so much the peculiar markings and glyphs etched into the tree that stopped me, Axman," he says. "It was the tree itself. The trunk twisted round like a rope, its branches spiraling to sharp points, leaves like daggers. Starting to sound familiar?"

I look down. "The Summoning Tree."

Wilhelm nods. "If she has regained her Seeing Eye, she's certain to return to the Summoning Tree, from which her own was cut. And when she gets there..."

"She'll probably set to work calling up something big enough to wreck the entire kingdom." I sigh. None of this was sounding especially encouraging.

"So you know, then, where we must go," Wilhelm says, stepping toward me.

I nod. "The Forest of Arboula. The site of the last defeat." Where Wilhelm, myself, and the last line of fighters loyal to King Mandrake were finally broken by Kayne's Black Guard, all those years ago. Where our exile began.

Wilhelm lays a hand on my shoulder. "But this time," he says, "will be the beginning of the Dark Lord's demise."

I grunt and shrug his hand away. We head south.

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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