The Jade Lion, Finale
I've waited too long to post this, I apologize. Reality continues to ruin my life. But here it is, the last piece of the puzzle. Many thanks for reading it.
Adriana scoured every book she and Erik possessed and asked every authority she could find to see if there was some explanation for what had happened, but there was none but the one Torrens had given to her. Demons were so vague about what the terms of their contracts were it was difficult to say just what could break them. All the magicians knew was that demons never broke them prematurely lest they face some terrible punishment. Beyond the simple fact that the contracts bound them to magicians and obliged them to serve those magicians nobody thought about what else there was to it.
“Does your contract have loopholes to let you out of it?”
“Of course not.” Torrens looked appalled at the very idea when she asked him.
“Then how did you cut yours short?”
Torrens rested his chin in his hand and looked across the breakfast table at her, rolling an apple back and forth. He hated it when she didn’t have apples for him, so it wasn’t worth enduring his sulking and whining not to have them. “It is not as simple as you would have it be. I am bound to you by a contract, but I am bound by a far more powerful contract that I agreed to when I became a familiar. That contract allows me to take what actions I must to protect the magician I serve. If that entails severing my contract with them, then I may do so.”
Adriana snatched the apple and set it firmly on the table. The rolling was bugging her. “You didn’t mention this before.”
“I do not recall you broaching the subject.”
Adriana rolled her eyes but went on. “Ok, so you have this – uber contract –that says what you can or can’t do as a familiar then. All the familiars have the same one?”
“No. They are similar in many respects, but each contract is unique to the demon that signs them. We are unique, as are our reasons for becoming familiars, and as such our contracts reflect this.”
Torrens bit into the apple with a crunch and chewed happily for a few seconds before devouring the rest of it in three bites.
“Why did you choose to be a familiar then, why didn’t you stay in your world?”
After picking the stem from his teeth and flicking it into the trashcan Torrens regarded her thoughtfully. She thought he wouldn’t answer at all, he was at it for so long, but he finally did. “If you were to ask one hundred demons that question you would receive one hundred different answers. My answer is and ever will be my own business and no one else’s.”
“Fair enough,” Adriana said with a shrug. She supposed it was a rather personal question, but still intriguing and she wished she knew the answer, not that he would ever give her one. If Torrens was as adamant (politely adamant, but still adamant) about not going into it then she knew not to push him.
The months went by without bringing anything significant with them or leaving anything behind of interest. Before long there were only a few weeks until Torrens’ contract would end. They decided to go to the beach the week before they were due to be in Switzerland, choosing a nice one in France. The cave where she had summoned Torrens was in Switzerland, so France was on the way in a manner of speaking. Before they left, Torrens said his goodbyes to Erik and Sanja with polite smiles. They thanked him for looking out for Adriana, going on about saving her life. Torrens couldn’t see why it was so remarkable. He had sworn to protect her and that was what he had done, there was nothing extraordinary about his actions. In truth, it made him feel rather awkward how they kept thanking him for saving their daughter. It was strange that he should feel so embarrassed from the attention, though he refused to allow them to know he was feeling such. It was not necessary so far as he was concerned for Adriana’s parents to know he had not saved her simply out of an obligation to his duties as her familiar. Well, he would keep that secret with his many others, it hardly mattered what they did not know.
When he escaped the awkward thanking Torrens retreated to the study where he hoped to indulge in Erik’s liqueur cabinet and have a private word with Belna, who he knew was also in the study. Saying farewell to Belna would be a far more pleasant experience for him. She was leaning against the desk holding a glass of whiskey as he came in, smiling knowingly at him. She held out the glass to him as he walked over and he took it with a smirk, giving her a kiss on the cheek as a thank you. It really was a pity they were no longer together; it had been such a – mutually beneficial – relationship. That was a good way of putting it, he thought, but one he knew had always bothered Tor. Torrens took a mean sort of satisfaction in knowing that and sipped his whiskey as he leaned against the desk next to Belna. She took her martini from behind her where it had been sitting on the desk and did the same, watching him over the rim.
“How long will you be gone this time do you think?” She asked after a second or two.
Torrens shrugged, swirling his alcohol in its glass. It could be years or centuries until he was called again. Maybe it was unwise to be so selective in his contracts when it took him away from Earth for so long. There were so few other places he could go, perhaps he should reconsider.
“Maybe I should rephrase that,” Belna said, and Torrens looked up at her. Gods, but she was beautiful. That idiot Tor had no idea what he had done giving her up. Belna nodded at the door, “Do you think she’ll call you back?”
That was a much harder question than the first to answer. Torrens sipped his drink again to buy time while he thought it over. “I do not know if she would risk it again after the incident at the Championship. Any extended contract, which is what she would desire, would carry a heavy price, one I do not think she will wish to pay.”
Belna laughed shortly, mirthlessly, “Yeah, I know all about heavy prices.”
“Yes…” Torrens said, and let it drop for a time. That was one subject he knew to tread carefully with Belna and he valued their friendship far too highly to infringe upon it.
“She might do it,” Belna said at last, “renew the contract with you and pay the price. You did save her life, maybe that’ll be enough for her to consider it.”
“Enough to consider paying Ib?”
Belna lowered her glass, resting it on her leg while she gave him a long, piercing look. She couldn’t see what he was thinking, he knew that, but she was adept at sensing emotion. With that she would know enough to guess what he was thinking. “Adriana doesn’t know about Ib, hardly any of the humans do.”
“But if she did?” Torrens replied, avoiding Belna’s gaze, “would she consider it? I do not think she would.”
Torrens nearly let his glass slip out of his hand, but caught it just in time. “Ask her to pay Ib? Are you mad?”
“You want to know if she’d do it, right? How else would you know if you don’t ask?”
“Madness,” Torrens grumbled, and drained his drink, slapping the glass on the desk behind him and standing straight. Simply ask her? No, Torrens was not as reckless and foolish as that. Adriana would not wish to pay the price of renew his contract regardless of what it was, there was little point in asking. “If I should see Tor in my wanderings shall I give him a message for you?”
“The same one as always,” Belna answered, standing as well and finishing her own drink. “And you had better bring me an answer.”
“Of course.” Torrens half smiled and checked his watch. Adriana would want to leave in a few minutes, he had best go find her. He turned to Belna and touched his forehead to hers, glad that it made her smile. “Farewell, then, my friend. I will return when I may.”
Torrens strode out of the study a few moments later happier than he had been when he entered it, but with more weighing on his mind. When he returned to the living room, Adriana finished saying her goodbyes to her parents and they finally were off to the airport.
Adriana loved the beach as did Torrens, but there was the small matter of why they both loved it. Adriana loved it for the sun, sea, and the wind that blew and smelled so wonderful. Torrens was happy for the opportunity to walk around shirtless and almost gleefully walked down the beach where everyone could see him and his “finely tuned muscles,” as he liked to describe them. Adriana walked with him for as long as she was willing to endure this behavior and much to her relief they managed to find a stretch of beach that was deserted and Torrens had to focus on something other than his physique and its effect on the female beachgoers.
That part of the beach was much nicer, away from the crowds of people and Adriana liked it a lot better than the part they had left. Torrens was a little deflated, but she figured he’d get over it. Adriana wandered down the beach squishing the sand between her toes and picking up the occasional shell or stone. The breeze off the ocean smelled so strong, but she didn’t mind. She half closed her eyes and inhaled it deeply, noting an odd twinge to it. Something about it smelled different, but she couldn’t say what. She opened her eyes fully and looked out at the sea, searching for some excess of kelp, change in color, or something else that would attest to the change that made it so much more appealing than usual. But, finding nothing, she resumed her walk, venturing closer to the water so it came up around her ankles when the tide rose while Torrens went off chasing gulls like some overzealous golden retriever.
She spotted an interesting piece of driftwood a while later, she didn’t know how long and was glad she didn’t care, and deviated to go and pick it up. Adriana stooped and picked up the wood and brushed the sand off it. It was gnarled and weathered and she liked the look of it. Deciding to take it home, she tucked it into her bag and turned to go back to the water again, nearly bumping into a man standing there.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” she apologized, and the man shook his head.
“Don’ worry about it,” he said in something like a Brooklyn accent, then brusquely, “You Adriana Hrothgar?”
He sure got to the point fast and blunt, didn’t he? A little too bluntly for her liking. Adriana studied him for a second or two, but he seemed ordinary enough. And people asking about her was never very odd these days, so that wasn’t anything to worry about. The man was a little strange though, she had to admit. He was taller than most people and about thirty, wearing cream colored pants he had rolled up to his shins and a dark blue t-shirt with some sort of red bird on it. She thought it might be a phoenix, its wings were fiery around the edges. It seemed so out of place on him though, like something he had thrown on at the last minute but would never have worn otherwise. He looked young, but his hair was prematurely gray and highlighted with black, cut short and in an attractive style, but still more gray than she’d expect for someone his age. The color was more reminiscent of someone nearly twice his age, yet somehow it suited him. Still, everything about him said he was a no-nonsense type: his focused expression analyzing her face, his rigid stance, even the fact that his physique matched those mixed martial arts guys on TV and just made him less approachable.
“That’s me,” she finally answered, still assessing him. There was something oddly familiar about him and it was nagging at her. He was magical, whoever he was. There was so much power radiating off him it sent electricity down her spine and covered her arms in goosebumps. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m lookin’ for Torrens, you know where he is?”
“On the beach somewhere,” Adriana answered vaguely, not liking the man’s tone.
“I need to talk to him,” the man insisted, “Where is he?”
“What’s so important?”
“Business. So tell me where he is already.”
Adriana glared at him, not liking him one bit, and there was still that nagging feeling she’d seen him somewhere before. Why couldn’t she remember? A guy like this, with such unique hair and eyes greener than anyone’s she’d ever… oh. It dawned on her who she was dealing with and she crossed her arms.
“Are you a familiar?”
“Not really my job description.”
“Who’s your master?” Adriana pressed him, getting aggravated with him.
“Marin,” Torrens’ voice answered from behind her and she half turned. He came and stood to her right, his eyes never leaving the other man. They were hard and cold and Adriana raised her eyebrows questioningly at him. Who was this guy that Torrens would look at him with so much anger, it was almost rage. He never looked at anyone like that except for that minotaur at the World Championship.
“What are you doing here, Tor,” Torrens growled, and she finally realized why the other man looked so familiar. He looked so much like Torrens they could have been brothers. So, this was the famous Tor that Torrens had been angry with for years. He wasn’t what she expected, especially not a guy that was easily a head taller than Torrens and looked like he could wrestle him to the ground without any trouble. Knowing Torrens, she would have expected someone less – serious.
“I have something for you, a message.”
“A message?” Torrens’ hair was standing on end and Adriana started forming spells in her mind in case she had to intervene. She knew there was bad blood between them, but that just meant it was even more important to keep them from fighting. Torrens was so angry he was liable to wreak havoc if they did and tear up half the beach. But if they did start fighting, how was she supposed to stop it? Could she stop it? Whether or not she could, she didn’t get a chance to think it over before things went flying out of hand and far beyond anything she could hope to control.
“Yeah, I-,” Tor began, but he was interrupted by Torrens. He moved so fast it was just a blur in Adriana’s peripheral vision: there was a horrendous crack like a thunderclap and suddenly Tor was flying down the beach. He landed in an eruption of sand and skidded down the beach, forming a long, deep gash deep enough to hide a decent sized adult.
Torrens ignored her, flexing his hand and gritting his teeth, the long canines flashing white. His eyes weren’t on fire yet, but it wouldn’t be long at this rate, not if he was getting as worked up as he did at the Championship. At least he wasn’t chasing down the beach after Tor. But after a hit like that, did he even need to? As if in answer to her question, down the beach Tor’s hand reached up and he heaved himself up and out of the hole without any trouble. He brushed the sand from his hair and clothes and immediately walked right back to Torrens as if he were strolling down the beach. Adriana had to resist the urge to gape at him as he came closer. She had never seen Torrens hit anything that was still in once piece afterwards, and yet Tor wasn’t even bruised.
“Y’know when I said I wondered what it was like to get hit by one of those? I take it back.”
Torrens didn’t answer, but he didn’t look very surprised that Tor wasn’t any worse for wear after getting a punch like that either. He did look like he wanted to do it again though, and when Tor was within striking distance Torrens lashed out again. This time, Tor was ready for it and blocked Torrens’ fist, grabbed him by the arm, and with a swift, fluid movement, threw him onto his back in the sand, pinning one of his arms below him. Tor put one hand to Torrens’ throat and put his knee on his chest as well, pinning him down while Tor’s other hand clamped onto Torrens’ free arm and pressed it into the sand. All of this happened so fast Adriana was unable to do anything but watch, utterly dumbfounded. Tor had done what it seemed nothing else in the world could do: subdue Torrens. And he had done it in a matter of seconds too.
“So, you’re still angry,” Tor said with surprising calm, far calmer than Adriana would have been if someone attacked her like that. “I get it, Strahlen, I’m sorry. Gods, you don’t know how sorry I am.”
Strahlen? Was that some kind of nickname she didn’t know about? Torrens didn’t seem like the nickname type, but he responded to the name, so it had to be his.
“Sorry,” Torrens snapped back, despite Tor’s hand pressing his head halfway into the sand, “sorry you left without saying anything to anyone? Sorry you were not there when Vespasian and the rest of the Ferus clan murdered our family in cold blood? You would have me believe that you had good reason for leaving, that the gods called you at a moment’s notice?”
“They did!” Tor roared back, making the sand dance and his previous calm completely dissolved. His expression changed for the first time, contorting into angry frustration. “The night before the attack, they called me up and I had to go. You think I’m goin’ to argue with the Nami and Beornan clans?” He and Torrens glared at each other, their chests heaving, and Adriana’s eyes flicked between them. She only understood parts of this, but the gist of it seemed to be that Tor wasn’t at fault. It was hard to say if Torrens thought the same thing, being as he was still scowling at Tor with a vengeance, but she had the feeling Tor would win him over one way or another. Torrens was mad, but he wasn’t trying to fight him anymore. Besides, they had been best friends once, and that had to count for a lot.
“Look, there’s been a lot of trouble, Strahlen,” Tor went on, “Firand attacked Marin at a Council meeting.”
Adriana had no idea who that was, apart from the vague references to him in the fairy tales. He was bad, she knew that much, but just how bad she had no clue until she saw how Torrens reacted. He forgot his anger with Tor immediately and looked troubled instead.
“That’s why I had to go; they needed me to guard Marin. I heard about our clan being attacked, but I couldn’t go back.” Tor released Torrens and stood, holding out his hand to help Torrens up. “I wanted to be there. You know I’d have gone back in a heartbeat if they hadn’t called me up. You forgive me, right?”
“Foolish question,” Torrens grumbled, taking Tor’s hand and pulling himself up while avoiding Tor’s gaze.
Adriana sighed at the two of them. Boys were so strange. But at least the two of them had settled things. Now she had known him for more than five minutes, she didn’t dislike Tor as much either. He was lousy at first impressions, but he got better with time. If nothing else he was very straightforward and he seemed to have his heart in the right place.
“So,” she ventured, and the two of them looked at her as if they’d completely forgotten about her. “What brings you here, Tor, you said you had some kind of message?”
“It’s, uh, not really me that has it,” Tor said evasively and Torrens’ eyes flickered over to the waves.
“Tor, why did you leave Marin?”
Torrens swallowed and for the first time in all the years Adriana had known him he looked nervous. “Marin is here?”
Tor nodded. “He’s the one with the message. A job offer, actually, from the higher ups.”
“The Divine Council?”
Torrens looked even more nervous and Adriana had to wonder who the Divine Council answered to. Her fairy tales had been very vague about that aspect of them. They were in charge of pretty much everything, but the stories never said much about whom it was they took their orders from. Whoever it was, they had to be awfully powerful for the Divine Council, of which Marin was a member, to obey them. And speaking of Marin, she now had to come to grips with the idea that he was very much real and on his way there. As a general rule her favorite fairy tale characters did not come to life. She had only partially believed in the gods to begin with, regardless of the fact that Torrens worked for one. In his world they were gods, but in hers they had just trickled down to the stuff of legends and myths the demons brought with them.
They didn’t have long to wait before Marin arrived and proved that he was indeed real and everything the stories said about him. When he first appeared she thought he was a surfer coming out of the water. He emerged from the waves and shook his short white hair, smiling over at them and walking through the surf towards them with a surfboard in hand. This he stuck in the sand and jogged over, looking no more remarkable than every other guy she’d seen running around on the beach in board shorts. Despite Marin’s obvious cheerfulness, Tor muttered hastily under his breath, “He’s been fighting with Chihiro lately, so he might be a little grumpy.”
“Why’s he fighting with her?” Adriana whispered, wondering why Marin would be fighting with the air goddess, but Tor shook his head quickly as Marin was coming into earshot.
If fairy tales had one shortcoming, it was their descriptions of the people in them. Her imagined image of Marin was what she could conjure up to match what she thought the son of the Sea God should look like, but it didn’t come close to the real thing. Though younger than and not as hefty as the two familiars, he was taller than both of them and had muscle definition that was hard not to stare at. She couldn’t believe the color of his eyes either: a gorgeous blue like the deep sea. Offsetting the general splendor was his remarkably unremarkable wardrobe of the board shorts and nothing else, unless you counted the pearl earring dangling from his left ear. His ears were pointed like elves ears were supposed to be and that was the only thing about him she found strange. Gods had pointy ears? The fairy tales never said anything about that.
Torrens and Tor were bowing, so she did the same, a little late, and rose when they did. Marin smiled at them all and looking up at him Adriana’s brain went very blank except for a string of nonsense words. Marin scratched his goatee a few times and chuckled at her, making her realize she was staring and promptly tried to stop. His earring was interesting, why didn’t she look at that for a while? So she did, or at least tried to, until her eyes wandered down to his chest, which was much more interesting. That lasted until he started talking, when she had an excuse to stare at his face again. It was so strange, she knew he was centuries old, but he looked like he was the same age as her.
He held out a letter sealed with gold wax to Torrens, who took it apprehensively and opened it.
“A job offer for you, Torrens,” Marin said as Torrens read the two pieces of parchment. “It’s from the Nine Captains.”
Adriana edged over to look at the parchment over Torrens’ arm, but the hieroglyphics were too hard for her to decipher very quickly. They were the older kind that wasn’t used very often. At the bottom though, were nine distinct signatures and nine wax seals of every color of the rainbow along with gold and silver. It certainly looked very official, whatever it was.
Marin watched Torrens read the first page and the second without any further interruption, content to wait for him to finish. Torrens read pretty fast, so Adriana only had enough time to pick out a few words here and there like “gate,” “guard,” and “tree,” but nothing really helpful. If they wanted him to guard a tree it didn’t make much sense, unless there really was a Tree of Eternity like in the fairy tales. But then if Marin was real, why not the tree?
Torrens finished reading and neatly folded the two pieces of parchment again, placing them both in the envelope. “You require an answer to return to them?”
“May I discuss this with you for a moment?”
Marin shrugged amiably. “Sure, whatever you want.”
The two of them walked off just out of earshot and started talking in low tones while Tor stayed by Adriana. He kept looking over at Marin though, and couldn’t stay still. His eyes were everywhere watching everything, constantly alert and aware of his surroundings. All he needed was an earpiece and a dark suit and he’d make the perfect Secret Service agent.
“So, you’re Marin’s bodyguard?” Adriana said in an attempt at conversation.
She nodded over at Torrens. “And he’s one too, right, for the star goddess?”
“You two have known each other for a really long time?”
Adriana fought the urge to roll her eyes, since Tor was the only person around to talk to right then, and tried to stay civil. “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Not if it’s superfluous, nope.”
“That’s a good policy, I guess,” Adriana admitted, and tried to stimulate something out of the guy, see if he was more forthcoming with information than Torrens.
“You don’t talk like Torrens either.”
“We adapt to whatever world we’re in,” Tor answered, indulging in actual sentences, “Look like them, talk like them, whatever. He just doesn’t bother. I guess he figured he was already so different from everybody else there wasn’t any point in trying to blend in. Star-eaters stand out, like it or not.”
Based on what little information Torrens had given her on the subject, that was true, and it suited Torrens’ personality to accept that he would always stand out and then make a point of standing out all the more. The guy really enjoyed attention far more than anybody should be allowed to. But then, why wasn’t he doing his job, his real job? Guarding a goddess had to garner more publicity than being a familiar that only got summoned every few decades at the least, a century at most.
“So, what’s he doing here then? If he’s the star goddess’ bodyguard, why isn’t he doing what you’re doing, why’s he a familiar?”
“He asked,” Tor replied, concise as usual. “He does his bodyguard work when he isn’t summoned. Least, that’s what I heard. I wasn’t there, y’know?”
“Yes, I know. You really hurt him, leaving like that. I know it wasn’t your fault,” she added hastily, “I’m just telling you.”
Tor frowned and briefly looked over at his cousin before his eyes resumed their wandering. “No, if I were him and my friend up and left me without a word, I’d do the same. Easy to hold grudges against people you like, isn’t it? They hurt you more.”
He was dead right about that, and she was a little surprised to hear it from him. It just seemed a little emotional for him.
“Strahlen’s a good friend, you magicians are lucky he chose to be a familiar.”
There was that name again that only Tor seemed to use. It had to be a nickname, since Marin hadn’t used it. Maybe it was Tor’s nickname for him, since Belna had never used it.
“Why do you keep calling him Strahlen?”
Tor looked at her with mild surprise, an expression that reminded her strongly of Torrens. “He didn’t tell you? It’s his-”
But what it was, she didn’t find out because Torrens and Marin chose that moment to come back and Tor’s attention was now split between scanning their surroundings and watching Marin, leaving no room for anyone or anything else. Adriana was a little miffed by the interruption, but she didn’t mind having Marin to look at again, he was so distracting in the most wonderful way. Maybe it was because she had gotten so used to seeing Torrens’ unnaturally handsome face all the time that Marin’s even better looks took her so much by surprise. Whatever it was, she didn’t really mind all that much.
“Have a nice talk?” She asked as the two of them came over, and Torrens nodded.
“And while we are on the subject of talking,” Torrens shot a look at Tor, who raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I must speak with you, Tor. If you would excuse us, Lord Marin?”
Marin nodded and waved at Tor to go with Torrens. The god seemed like a really laid back kind of guy, taking everything in stride. He hadn’t stopped smiling the entire time he’d been there and he didn’t object in the slightest to Torrens walking off with his bodyguard. The downside to this was that it left Adriana alone standing awkwardly next to Marin while Torrens had a quick whispered conversation a few feet away. Marin didn’t feel a need to say anything, he was too busy watching the clouds. So Adriana stood in the sand and waited, watching Tor and Torrens’ expressions shift between a handful of emotions that told a strange story about their conversation. Tor wasn’t very happy at the end of it and was quick to inform Marin that they needed to be going.
“Pleasure meeting you,” he told Adriana, who managed to say the same to him and Tor as well.
“Tell him his shirt does not look well on him,” Torrens said out of the corner of his mouth with a grin.
“Just do it.”
Adriana rolled her eyes, but she did it anyway. To her surprise, Tor looked down at his shirt, said something short and grouchy in Old Egyptian, and turned into a giant tiger that nearly dwarfed Torrens’ lion form.
“Ah, see?” Torrens said with great satisfaction, “Tor as he truly is. He cannot stand not conforming to his environment. A minor infraction and he will revert to his true form to blend in with the familiars.”
Tor was a predictably gray tiger matching the color of his hair and was sleek and muscular, cutting an impressive figure. What the point of all this was apart from showing Adriana what Tor’s true form was, she had no idea. Torrens thought it was funny and Marin just glanced at his bodyguard for a moment before agreeing that he looked better now than he had. With a wave to Torrens and Adriana, Marin set off down the beach with Tor at his side and within a few minutes they had vanished under the waves.
“So,” Adriana said when the effect of Marin had worn off, “that’s Marin and Tor.”
“And the job he offered you?”
“I will accept it. They do not require my presence immediately, have no fear.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
“Were you not?” Torrens raised an eyebrow and gave her an odd look that she had seen before but didn’t understand.
“No,” Adriana replied stubbornly and Torrens smiled.
Choosing not to enter into a discussion that was bound to go where she didn’t want it to, Adriana hitched her bag up on her shoulder and set off to find more shells. Torrens went kicking along through the sand after her, but she paid him no mind, focusing on her shell quest and letting the wonderful sea breeze fill her lungs.
The guards at the mouth of the cave were the same two who had been there the night she summoned Torrens. How had four years gone by so fast? It didn’t feel that long since she first saw him. The guards looked the same and ignored her just like they had four years ago.
“Now what,” she asked Torrens, checking her watch. They still had five minutes or so left until it was the exact time her contract with Torrens had begun. It was mildly disturbing how accurate the system was. Contracts ended precisely however many years it had been since they started right down to the second.
“We wait,” Torrens replied, “until my contract ends. When it does, you may renew my contract or let me go as you so desire.”
Renew the contract? She wasn’t sure about that. The price she had paid was so high and she had nearly died because of it. Keeping him would not be cheap. Who knew what she would have to pay this time to keep him around long enough to compete in anything, much less do anything else. But despite all that she was still tempted to renew the contract. She hated to admit it, especially to him, but she had actually grown to like the cat. He wasn’t that bad to have around and having a familiar as powerful as him had been incredible. It was kind of tempting… Finally, she decided to just ask him what it would cost, that would make the decision much easier.
“Torrens, if I renew the contract, how much would it cost?”
“For what period of time?”
That stumped her. She hadn’t thought that far ahead yet. She had been too busy just trying to decide whether or not to renew it period. Well, better to aim high than low, she supposed. “Fifteen years.”
“Fifteen? For that, I would ask for all your memories before the age of thirteen.”
Adriana swallowed. Good thing she had asked. But then he looked directly into her eyes, giving her the most peculiar feeling, as though he were looking straight into her soul. “However, if you give me your heart I could stay forever.”
Adriana nearly choked, but couldn’t break eye contact with him. “My heart?”
“Hearts taste wonderful, I am told.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not getting mine!”
Torrens smirked despite the strange look in his eyes that flashed something akin to disappointment before becoming as they always were. “Pity.”
Adriana grumbled dark things at him, which he ignored, proclaiming that there was now one minute left. “If you do choose to stay,” Torrens continued, “you will see me as I truly am. Is that what you wish? The view behind the curtain is -” he paused for a moment, trying to think of the right word, she supposed, then settled on: “overwhelming.”
It was tantalizing to stick around and see what a demon really looked like, but there had to be serious ramifications for that. They were powerful magical beings; standing in the presence of their true form couldn’t be healthy.
“I’m leaving then,” Adriana stated with more conviction than she felt. This was a rotten goodbye after everything that had happened. Not that he was upset about it. It seemed like he was doing his best to convince her to leave. But then he did something so ridiculously out of character.
Torrens smiled with a devilish gleam in his eye and swiftly bent down and kissed her squarely on the mouth. “Off you go then!” He said cheerfully and started running off into the cave.
Adriana’s cheeks felt hot and she yelled the best expletive she knew in Egyptian. She wasn’t about to let him get away with something like this, so she bolted after him, her shouts echoing off the cavern’s walls and clamoring against his laughter. When she reached the cave of statues it was identical to the way it was on her first visit, minus Daerog’s monstrous statue. Torrens was standing by the empty plinth where his own statue was supposed to be with a big smirk on his face.
“You told me you were leaving.”
Adriana stormed over and glared up at him with all the animosity she could muster. “What –” she prodded him roughly in the chest to accentuate every word, “was – that?”
“If you do not know,” Torrens answered with raised eyebrows, “then you are far more out of practice than I suspected.”
“I am not!”
“Twenty seconds left,” he said, ignoring that, and Adriana felt a gust of wind blowing at her face, momentarily diverting her attention to finding where it was coming from. After a second she realized it was from the plinth. There was a long vertical beam of light coming from above it, like light through a door cracked open. The light widened until it really was the size of a door, then stopped. If it was a door, it was a very strange, yet appropriate one. The idea of the demon world being connected to hers by way of a giant rectangle of light made a lot of sense, all things considered.
“I’m taking it.” Adriana grumbled. She turned on her heel to leave just as the time ran out, as proclaimed by Torrens, and as she did he changed back into his true demonic form and she found she couldn’t take another step. It was obvious why Torrens had given her the option of leaving: he really was overwhelming. He still stood on two feet, but now he was a lion standing on his hind legs with the torso of a man like some lion version of a werewolf. What did that make him, a werelion or something? Was that even a word? He just defied explanation. His fur was blindingly white, his eyes were blue-white flames, and his mane was flickering white fire surrounding his head. Even the tuft of fur at the end of his tail was on fire, but for some reason none of it gave off any heat. If it was, it would be blistering. He wasn’t wearing his usual leather armor either, but metal plate armor instead under his surcoat. It made looking at him a little easier, the black on white, but she had to bend her neck back just to look him in the face now anyway, he was so tall.
“I warned you,” his voice rumbled, making the pebbles on the floor jump. Yeah, he had sure done that, she just hadn’t believed him. “Now, I must ask you for the last time: will you renew my contract?”
The question was simple enough and only required a monosyllabic response: yes or no. That was all she had to do, answer one or the other. It was just hard to think straight when a nine and half foot tall demon was asking you questions. Torrens stood there not asking her again like he said, but he had to be getting impatient. She couldn’t keep delaying forever. She knew what she wanted to say, but the word that came out of her mouth was, “No.”
There was a pause, a deafening silence, then Torrens half bowed. “Very well. My contract with you, Adriana Hrothgar, is at an end.”
Adriana could only nod in response. The magic coming off him was so overpowering it was a miracle she could stay standing. She really wanted to leave right then, so that was inconvenient. Torrens wasn’t leaving though, not yet. He was still standing there looking at her. She wished she could read his mind for once. Ordinarily she would have been worried about what she’d find there, but right now she wouldn’t mind. Maybe then she’d know what to say now. She’d never done this before, she didn’t know what to say to him, what to do. Nobody ever told you how to end things, only how to begin them. There was no instruction manual on what to do when your familiar’s contract ended or how to say goodbye to them. Maybe she would write one herself later, assuming she figured out how to do it somehow in the next few minutes. She had to say something, so she decided on thanking him. Torrens smiled a big genuine smile and took a step closer to her, cutting the distance between them by a few feet. He leaned over until he could touch his forehead to hers and peer deep into her eyes. She wasn’t prepared for that, for the strangely cool flames of his mane touching her forehead or trying to look into eyes that were made of fire. You could get lost in those eyes though. Somehow she knew that looking into them, however she knew that.
They stood there like that for some time until Torrens smile faded almost completely away and he took a step back again. “Farewell, Adriana. I shall see you again.”
Adriana swallowed. He even said goodbye better than she could. “Bye, Torrens,” she managed.
He stepped up onto the plinth easily and waved briefly before walking through the light and disappeared. After he passed through the “doorway” closed and the jade lion statue had reappeared in its place. It was suddenly very silent in the cave and felt empty. There was nothing but her and the statues in their lines. She didn’t know what she was supposed to feel now, but she doubted it was “now what?” Adriana looked around the cave for some sort of sign, but of course there wasn’t one. So, she turned to the one thing that made sense: Torrens. She lay a hand on his giant head and smiled. “You said you’ll see me again, I’m holding you to that, cat.”
With a pat on Torrens’ stone head she decided that was that and there was nothing left to say. She turned and left, kicking pebbles as she walked through the cave out into the night bright with stars scattered across the sky like thousands of fireflies. She remembered someone calling them that once, and it sounded pretty nice. When she walked by the guards they didn’t say anything, since they never would, but she waved to them to be nice. Then with a deep breath of cool mountain air she started down the path back to the town and the hotel she would be staying in. The wind blew in her face and made her eyes water as she walked the long road back again alone.
"You give up a few things, chasing a dream."