Chapter 3

Val the Valiant

The group frantically raced into Mick’s Middle Ground and shut the doors behind them. Jack bolted toward Mick and pushed him, knocking him over. Mick rolled over onto his stomach, took his large hands and clamped them around Jack’s ankles, jerking them forward causing him to fall backwards. Mick rested his hands on Jack’s calves and used them as a support to stand back up. Jack screamed feeling the pressure of Mick’s massive weight on his legs. When Mick rose he towered above everyone like a sturdy mountain. The entire speakeasy went silent, and the customers who were already inside stopped drinking and gawked at the scene that was unfolding; the group stood motionless, looking toward Mick. As he stood there, they could feel the atmosphere in the room immediately plummet, creating an eerily similar feeling as when the group was confronted with the Beastly Belles. His demeanor changed completely and they were trapped in the same room with this man who looked nothing like the Mick they knew – in fact, Mirain even thought he looked dangerous.

    Mick took a hold of Jack’s neck with one hand, picked him up like a puppet and hurled him against the wall. No one watching could believe what they were witnessing, as Mick easily picked up this full grown man with one arm. He held Jack there for a moment, simply staring at him. He leaned down closer to his face, and as he spoke his voice seemed to have dropped an octave. He was hauntingly calm, and his voice, while soft, traveled throughout the room. “If you ever,” he began, grabbing Jack’s face with his other hand, squeezing it together, “try to start another fight on Nomenlinder ground, I will personally bring you to a Belle,” Mick looked him up and down. “Do I make myself clear?”

    Jack looked away, nodded, “Yes,” he gargled, barely able to breathe.

    Mick released his grasp, and turned to everyone in the room. “Back to what you were all doing,” he said joyfully. Mirain’s eyebrows shifted slightly looking at him – his demeanor shifted instantly back to his chipper disposition without skipping a beat. Mick looked around the speakeasy, gave everyone a smile, and waved. “Just had to teach Sparky here a little lesson on what ‘No Fighting on Nomenlinder Ground’ means.” The people sitting at the booths shifted their attention back to their drinks and hushed conversations.

    Mirain slowly inched towards Mick. She gave him a nervous grin, “Are you okay?” she asked.

    Mick smiled and extruded one of his famous belly–laughs. He gently patted his hefty hand on her back, “Of course I am!” he shouted gleefully. He leaned down towards her, “I’ve got to keep some order, and having a guest behave so inappropriately in my own home is unacceptable,” Mirain didn’t know what to say, feeling a tense space between them. “Come on now, kiddo,” he said kindly, wrapping his big arm around her shoulder and squeezing her softly. The space quickly shifted, becoming warm and welcoming. “Gimme a smile!” Mirain couldn’t help but do as she was told. She even let out a small laugh. She was amazed at how he could go from being hard and unnerving to projecting happiness out of every pore of his body. “Thatta girl!” he shouted cheerfully.

    As Mirain’s attention shifted away from Mick, she became alert to her surroundings. She was standing inside the entrance of Mick’s Middle Ground. The entire inside of the speakeasy was covered with dark paneled wood, similar to the wood she remembered seeing in the room she woke up in. The walls were garnished with carved wooden statues of men and women protruding from their flat surface. In every corner there were elaborate wooden peacocks with four legs spreading their plumes proudly. The speakeasy had booths all along the walls, with maroon red and mustard yellow cushions resting on the seats. As people entered, some would find a place to sit at the booths, or they would walk down the short staircase in front of the doors that led into a large open space. High–top tables filled the back half of the floor, leaving the front half open for people to dance. Centered in the back of the speakeasy was a stage that had royal purple and golden drapery hanging from the ceiling covering the back wall. Three identical women wearing the same red velvet dress stood in the center of the stage singing, accompanied by a pianist and a cellist.

    “Welcome to the Middle Ground,” Mick said proudly, opening his arms to the room. “First drinks are on me, but after that they’ll cost you a few clams!” he said loudly.

    “Clams?” Sam asked.

    Mick gave him an odd look, “Yeah, clams!” Sam was still giving him a confused expression, “Uh,” Mick hesitated. He looked in the corner of the room, and began snapping his fingers. “Eh,” he groaned, “I’m not sure what else to call it,” he looked at Sam, “Clams are what you use to purchase things.”

    “Oh, like money!” Sam said.

    Mick gave him another odd look and laughed to himself, “Uh, sure,” he said, clearly confused.

    Sam looked over to Mirain and nodded to the dance floor, extending a hand toward her. “Would you care to dance, my lady,” he grinned at her.

    “Why yes, my good sir,” She grabbed his hand, playing along “I would.”

    The two walked onto the floor with each other as the rest of the group dispersed into smaller pairs around the bar. Sam and Mirain slowly swayed back and forth as the women onstage continued to sing. The space began to grow still and somber. The two continued to dance together, and the music seemed to slowly fade away from them. “How are you holding up?” Sam asked out of the silence, his voice was firm.

    Mirain stared vacantly at the peacock in the corner, “Huh?” she hummed.

    “Are you doing okay?” Sam asked.

    Mirain took a deep breath, and focused on him. “I mean,” she hesitated, “I think so?”

    “Are you sure?”

    She paused for a moment. “Honestly, I guess a part of me hasn’t really registered what happened,” she started, “but I’d say another part of me thinks that Jack hit how everyone was feeling on the nose,” she looked Sam in the eyes. “I mean, they’re gone,” she whispered. She looked around, spotting members of their group around the room. Her attention glided back to Sam, and she gave him a worried expression. “I mean, we’re not–” she shook her head with her mouth open, trying to make sense of the situation, “I don’t know,” she dismissed herself.

    “No,” Sam said quickly, “what’re you thinking?”

    The two continued to look at each other, “I mean, we can’t be on Earth? Can we?” she asked. Sam looked bewildered. She motioned around the room. “Like, this place,” she whispered, “isn’t home. Nothing about this is familiar, not to mention it all seems just a little insane. And on top of that, I don’t know how we got here, and neither do you, and no one we were found with seems to know where we are either,” she rambled on, clearly thrown into a panic.

    Sam exhaled, “Honestly, I tried convincing myself this was just some crazy dream,” he looked her up and down, “but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this is all real.”

    “I can’t make sense of any of this,” her voice shook, “I mean we just witnessed two people get murdered, and everyone around us is acting like this is a normal daily occurrence,” she blurted. “Like, where are the police? Are those women going to get caught?”

    Sam shook his head, “I honestly don’t know, Mirain.”

    Mirain’s eyes searched for the answers she was seeking along Sam’s face. She paused for a moment before stepping away from him. “I’m gonna go talk to Mick,” she said adamantly.

    “Do you want me to come with you?” Sam asked quickly.

    “No,” she gave him another forced smile, “that’s fine. Just go get a drink and I’ll meet you at one of the tables.” Sam nodded and headed towards the bar. Mirain’s attention was directed towards Mick, who was drinking and talking with Rae, the woman who came with the child and another woman, even though her letter only allowed two people. A redheaded man sat next to her that she recognized from their group of 28 as well. She walked over to them, and stood next to Mick for a moment. He noticed her briefly, smiled down at her and ruffled her hair while he gave his attention to the redheaded man.

    “–Yes, Mick, I understand that,” the man said. He had a very distinct Irish accent, and his voice was a little higher than Mirain had expected. He had thick eyebrows on a long face with a defined jawline, and short red hair that made you want to stare at how beautiful the color was. “What I’m saying,” he continued, “is if there are no –” he started waving his hands in the air looking for the correct phrasing. He looked over at Mirain, “It’s Mirain, right?” She nodded. He gave her a grin, “I’m Casey,” he said acknowledging himself, then shrugged over to Mick. “He doesn’t understand what police are.”

    Mirain’s interest was peaked, and she let out a small laugh. “That’s funny, that’s exactly what I came over here to ask him about,” she said, focusing her attention to Mick. “Well, they are like the authority where we are from. People who are,” she mimicked Casey’s movements, looking for the words, “sort of, elected or like volunteer to hold people accountable for their actions.”

    Mick gave her a confused expression. “We hold everyone accountable for their actions? I don’t understand.”

    “Okay, um, let’s see–” Mirain’s gaze shifted towards the ceiling. “Oh! Okay,” she said, narrowing her attention back to Mick. “Where we are from, if you kill someone, like those women did, there are people who go after them to punish them for what they did. They lock them up for a long time so they won’t be able to hurt others.”

    Mick’s eyes widened as his lightbulbs began to flash. “Oh,” he said loudly, “we sort of have that, but not really. There’s no locking up. The closest thing you’re going to get to that is Val and his army.”

    “Who is Val?” Casey asked.

    “He calls himself a General – he created an army in response to the Beastly Belles,” Mick took a sip of the drink he was holding, “but they don’t protect anyone, really, unless there’s something in it for them,” he shrugged. “They just go after the Belles.”

    Casey sat up. “Where can we find him?”

    Mick squinted at him, “Were you not listening to me before we left? Val and his men are found at twelve o’clock!” he bellowed.

    “Will he help us?” Casey asked.

    Mick looked baffled. “Help you? With what?”

    Casey returned Mick’s look with a dumbfounded expression, “I don’t know – to prosecute them? Make sure they pay for killing two people?”

    Mick laughed, “It’s not like you can just walk into Belle Territory and expect them to apologize!” he took another sip from his drink, “I don’t know where the lot of you come from, but it doesn’t work like that here. If you were to walk in Belle Territory, they wouldn’t so much as blink before splitting you open.”

    Casey looked uncomfortable. “So what then,” Mirain interjected. “Do we just sit here, and accept that two people we know, died?”

    Mick set his drink down, and looked closely at Mirain. He spoke softly, trying to be gentle, “I understand wanting to avenge a fallen comrade – I do,” he shook his head, “but that’s not as simple as you make it out to be. The Belles are dangerous women, and it’s not as simple as you kill one of them and it’s all said and done. They come back.”

    “What do you mean they come back?” Casey’s eyes narrowed.

    Mick took a deep breath, “They have these little girls. When they find a girl who hasn’t matured, they kidnap her and do something to them.”

Rae looked disturbed, “That’s horrifying,” she said in disbelief, glancing over at her daughter, Alice.

Mick went on, “They call them Belle–To–Be’s. They share the same genetic code as the original ten Belles,” there was silence between the three of them, both Casey and Mirain staring at Mick obviously confused. Mick rolled his eyes slightly, “As in, if you kill a Belle, the child that holds the same genetic code will turn into the next Belle.”

“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand,” Casey blurted.

Mick sighed, “Okay, I’ll explain it from the beginning then. Somewhere in the land of Lugn, there’s a witch. She’s been here far longer than any of us, and she holds strange majim.”

    “Majim?” Mirain asked.

    “Uh – abilities,” Mick clarified.

    “–So she’s evil?” Casey asked.

    “No,” Mick shook his head, “not necessarily. She’s helped Angeline and me before when Angeline became ill. She cured her.”

    Mirain looked at Casey and back to Mick. “So, what does she have to do with this?”

    “Listen,” Mick exhaled, “I don’t know much about this stuff. Angeline knows much more about this whole process – her and the witch are very close. All I know is that the Belles had the witch’s help to create some kind of blood–ink–ritual that they use to turn these little girls into Belle–To–Be’s.”

    “–But what’s a Belle–To–Be have to do with a Belle coming back?” Casey pressed.

    Mick looked uncomfortable, “Somehow, when a Belle dies, the genetic code is rewired and put into effect. The little girls, very quickly, and from what I hear very painfully, turn into a new version of the Belle that just died, depending on which genetic code she is given. It’s like having another life, except you remember all of your past lives perfectly. They age immediately, somehow becoming a 20–something adult, resembling in a way, the Belle they are replacing. Each of those little girls comes out of that process a highly trained and experienced killer. They become the next Beastly Belle. There have always been, and always will be ten Belles at a time. It’s kind of like a lineage system. When one dies, another must take her place instantaneously. The way Angeline explained it to me is that this is their process of keeping ten at a time.”

    “Okay, but like –” Casey started.

    “No,” Mick said quickly. “No more,” he shook his head. “I don’t know anything else. If you want to know more about the Beastly Belles, you’ll need to talk to Angeline about it,” Mick picked up his drink and finished it off. “The best I can do for you is bring you all to Val’s tomorrow and you can see if he can ‘do anything for you.’”

    Casey perked up, “Yes!” he exclaimed, “That would be perfect!”

    Mick let out a big groan as he stood up. “Well, I’m off to bed,” he started to walk away, but quickly turned back around. “Oh, and before I forget, there are rooms you can stay in, twelve levels down,” he pointed towards a doorway in the corner under one of the peacocks, “I believe there are enough for all of you. You may have the entire twelfth floor while you stay on Nomenlinder Territory.”

    As Mick started to walk away again, Mirain trotted after him. “Hey Mick, can I ask you something?”

    “What’s on your mind, kid?”

    “It’s not super important, but I’ve noticed here and in the room Angeline brought me in earlier, that there are a lot of peacocks around. What’s the reason?”

    Mick’s lip curled, “A pea–what–now?”

    Mirain chuckled, “A peacock!” she stated, pointing to the bird in the corner.

    Mick started to laugh, “That’s not a ‘peacock’ – whatever that is. That’s a very rare creature. It’s the last remaining descendant of a Great Beast that used to watch over the land.”

    Mirain hesitated, “What color are they?”

    “Why they are supposed to be a beautiful sapphire blue, and emerald green. Beautiful creatures I’ve heard.”

    Mirain nodded quickly, “Yeah, a peacock. Those are peacocks. I’ve seen one before.”

    Mick’s expression changed drastically, and he gently took ahold of Mirain’s arm. “You’ve seen one here? Where?” he asked harshly.

    Mirain shook her head, “No, not here. In a zoo back home.”

    “A zoo?” Mick asked.

    “Yeah, a place where they hold animals?”

    “How many? Are they beautiful? How did you get one? Where did you find one?” Mick barraged her with questions.

    Mirain grew a little concerned, “I–” she hesitated, “I’m not sure,” she shrugged. “I mean maybe I’m wrong, the carvings just look a lot like the birds I’ve seen, except the ones I’ve seen only have two legs.”

    Mick nodded, “Oh, yes you must be confused then. Those are very, very rare creatures. Very holy creatures. They bring great fortune, and prosperity to those they bestow themselves upon. If you ever come across one, be sure to bow. They hold great power, so you mustn’t ever be disrespectful to them. Even the Belles stop to bow before a Great Winged Blue Belly.” Mirain grew quiet, and Mick nodded to her again. “Okay, well, go to bed soon kid,” he said softly, “if you’re meeting Val tomorrow you’ll need your rest, he’s a… well, he’s a handful.”

    As Mick left the room, Mirain noticed Sam in one of the booths. She walked over to him, and sat across from him. “Hi,” she said softly.

    “Hey,” he smirked, “how was your chat with Mick?”

    “He’s bringing the group out tomorrow to Val’s Territory.”

    “Val?” Sam asked. “Oh, wait, he’s the army dude, right?” Mirain nodded. “Is he gonna help?”

    Mirain’s shoulders raised, “I’m not sure! Maybe!” She looked around the room, and pointed towards the bird in the corner. “What would you say that animal is?”

    Sam looked over, “A peacock!”

    “That’s what I said!” Mirain said cheerfully. “Apparently it’s not.”

    “What is it then?”

    “Some Blue Belly bird thing, I guess. It’s supposed to be some holy animal to them or something. Mick was very adamant that if we ever see one that we need to bow.”

    Sam’s eyebrows shifted in disbelief. “Bow?”

    Mirain shook her head, “Don’t ask me,” she trailed off. “Oh, by the way, we are on the twelfth level down. The rooms are all ours.”

    Sam took the last sip of his drink. “Well, that’s nice of them,” Mirain nodded. “Okay well, what do you say Meerkat? Ready to call it a day?”

    “Yes please!” Mirain sighed.

The two stood up and headed towards the staircase, telling the others on their way where they could find the bedrooms. They walked down a carved dirt staircase to the twelfth floor. The doorway at the bottom of the stairs led into an illuminated hallway made of metal, vastly different aesthetics than the staircase they just went down. It looked very clean, almost futuristic. As they made their way down the hallway, they chose rooms next to each other. Mirain gave Sam a hug, and pressed the button to open her room door. The door moved into a slit in the wall, opening up to a beautiful silver colored room. A large bed sat in the corner, with a nightstand embellished with a bouquet of beautiful pink and green fresh flowers. On the left side of the room was a small bathroom, that like the rest of the room looked very modern, compared to everything else she’d seen. A variety of candles filled the space, giving it light, one of which was filled with oil with remnants of herbs inside dispersing a faint sweet aroma into the room. Mirain walked to the bathroom, and shut the door. She stepped into the shower and turned on the running water. As the cold water poured onto her skin she stood in the silence, feeling the drops of water pelt against her flesh. Standing there, she began to cry, the water continuing to pour. Though her tears derived from a place of exhaustion and confusion over the events that just took place, some were from the happiness she felt over the comfort of finally feeling a bit of ease that she, and Sam, were in fact alive. After she was done, she put on the pajamas she found in the room, laid down and fell asleep.

When Mirain woke up the next morning, she could hear voices in the hallway. She stayed in bed, and listened to their hushed conversation.

“I was talking to a few of his men in the bar last night,” Casey’s familiar Irish accent came through the doorway. “One of them said that you could join their cause, and help hunt down the Belles. I don’t know about you guys, but I think I’m gonna do it.”

“–And do what?” another voice replied. “What do you plan to do? You saw how they killed those two boys yesterday! What makes you think you’re going to be able to do anything?”

“Well, I assume they have guns, so–” Casey said quickly.

“–But what if they don’t?” the voice interjected.

“Well, I don’t know, I just think it’s better to do something than just sit around here and do nothing!” Casey said sternly. “Look around you. Do you know where we are? We’re in ‘Lugn,’ but where the hell is that anyway? I don’t know about you guys but I believe in things happening for a reason, and maybe that reason is to stop these women.”

There was a short moment of silence. “I guess,” the voice replied meekly.

“I’m with you, let’s do something,” another voice replied. Hushed voices filled the hallway in agreement.

“So, it’s agreed. We’ll sign up together,” Casey said. Mirain took a deep breath as the group outside her door all shuffled back to their rooms. As she moved around in bed, dreading getting up, the door to her room opened. Sam stood in the doorway.

He tilted his head slightly, trying to find her face. “Uh, you awake?” He said softly into the room.

“Ehhhh,” she groaned loudly.

He grinned and entered the room, making his way over to her bed. As he sat down he patted her leg, “Get up, loser. If you don’t go eat breakfast now, you’re not getting any because we are leaving in fifteen minutes.”

She groaned at him again, “Fine,” she sighed. She got up, and went into the bathroom to change for the day. “Hey Sam,” she said apprehensively, “you weren’t apart of that meeting in the hallway a few minutes ago were you?”

“What meeting?” he asked.

“There were people outside my door talking this morning about joining that Val guy.”

“Joining him? For what?”

“That Casey guy said that he wanted to help fight the Belles.”

Sam scoffed at the idea, “That’s stupid, what is he gonna do about it?”

Mirain paused. “I don’t know,” she said softly.

Sam stood up, and walked next to the door to the bathroom. “Are you worried about it?” he asked.

“I don’t know, kind of, I guess,” she said faintly.

Sam knocked onto the door gently, “Hey, I doubt anything will happen. They’re probably just interested in getting information, or seeing what the guy will do to help.”

She nodded to herself. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” Mirain walked out of the bathroom wearing a simple, green knee–length dress.

“You look good,” Sam said, smiling at her.

She tapped his scruff–covered face as she walked by him, “I know,” she said quickly. He laughed as the two walked out of the room, and up the stairs together into the speakeasy. As they walked in, most of the group was up and eating, though the room looked different to Mirain. When they first arrived last night, the bar had a jazz–like feel to it, permeating red and purple hues throughout the space. Though now, the room filled with an early morning glow. She looked up to the ceiling. She hadn’t noticed the windows before. They stretched across the wood paneling, allowing the sunlight into the room. Mirain looked over at the carvings of people embedded within the walls. Last night, they all seemed so vibrant, looking as if they would come to life at any moment and start dancing with everyone. However, this morning was completely different. As the sunlight hit their faces, shadows covered half of them, causing a reverse effect on the carvings, making them look as if they were receding into the wood paneling. Mirain began to feel uneasy, though the feeling was quickly blown away with the small footsteps that were running toward her.

Alice, the six–year–old girl that was apart of the group ran up to Mirain and gave her a big grin. She was in an orange sundress with pink flowers on it, and her hair was up in pigtails. “My mom says that we’re going to be okay!”

Mirain kneeled down to her. “Yeah?” she gave the little girl a big smile in return. “Well, let me tell you something,” Mirain looked around the room checking to make sure no one would hear her secret, raising a hand to her mouth, “I think your mom is right!”

Alice began to giggle, “Mom’s always right!” she shared confidently. She ran back towards her mother, Rae, who was sitting on one of the barstools. Mirain and Rae made eye contact from across the room, and Rae waved toward her.

“Morning!” a voice came from behind Mirian. She turned around and saw Hadley.

“Hi Hadley,” Mirain said with a smile, “Good morning.”

He squinted and pointed his finger at her, “Hey, Mirain, if we are going to be friends you’re going to have to learn to tell the difference between me and Hadley,” he said playfully.

Mirain’s face became slightly red, “Grey! I’m sorry, you look so similar!”

Grey gave her a lighthearted expression, “Well we should, we are twins after all. And again, call me Fritz!” he said quickly. He lifted his hand and pointed to his left eyebrow. “If you look carefully, you can tell that this eyebrow is shorter than the other,” his finger shifted from his face to Hadley, who was walking into the room. “When we were kids Hadley thought it would be a good idea to burn the hair off of my eyebrow so our parents could tell us apart.”

Hadley walked into the conversation, “Yeah, I did,” he said proudly, “–and you never looked better!” he winked at his brother.

“It ended up working better than we had thought, because the hair never grew back,” Fritz said laughing to himself.

Hadley nudged Mirain, “It’s Fate, I tell you! I was always meant to be the better looking one,” he said teasingly.

“We look the exact same,” Grey said promptly.

Hadley’s eyebrows rose, as he gave his brother an empathetic look. He put his hand on Grey’s shoulder, “Coming from the guy with the ugly ass eyebrow, sure!” he teased. Grey rolled his eyes. “Alright,” Hadley said, moving on. “Where’s the grub?” he asked eagerly, rubbing his hands together.

“Eat quickly, boys,” Mick said loudly, walking into the room. “We will be late to see Val, and he’s genetically speaking, an angry person on a good day, so we’ll not want to keep him waiting.”

The group ate quickly, and gathered near the front of the speakeasy before leaving. The 28 of them walked out of the building, and headed around to the back where they departed the Middle Ground, and walked through the sand towards Val’s Territory. Whispers of people in awe were spread through the group like wildfire as they were walking, looking towards the sky. The sky had a deep royal blue tint to it, moving like water through the air, though it was as if they were looking through a clear lake. The night sky sat just behind the blue tinted sky – clearly visible to the eye, exposing the stars perfectly. Positioned among the stars sat a sun, and two moons. Though they were vastly different than the moon they were used to seeing. The larger one, that filled a fourth of the sky, was a light brown color with yellow, green and burnt orange stripes running across its surface. The second moon sat to the left of the first one, and was a fifth of its size. It was a plum color, with glowing fumes radiating from its atmosphere. Both of them were stunning to look at, and hung in the middle of the early morning sky, as if to have their beauty recognized at all hours of the day. However, while the two moons were quite impressive to look at, the real spectacle that was catching everyone’s attention was the sun. Not because of its beauty, or its extravagance – in fact, it was quite plain, and simple. Everyone was staring, because they could. They were able to look directly into the sun without needing to cover their eyes. A giddiness advanced through all of them with this new found ability.

“Not to be the that guy,” Jack thundered in, “but isn’t this a bit stupid, considering two of us were killed yesterday?” He said motioning to the open area they were walking in.

A gasp came from the elderly woman. “Oh my,” she said in distress, “he’s right! We shouldn’t be out like this, we’ll get killed!” she started to raise her voice.

“Mommy,” Alice said, grabbing onto Rae’s hand. The group began to panic slightly.

“Everyone calm down,” Mick said loudly. “Normally, Sparky would be right,” Jack scoffed at him, “however, we’re headed towards Val’s Territory, and while technically, yes, this area still holds the potential for danger, it’s far less likely here because the two are in conflict so often.”

“Try telling that to the boys who died yesterday,” Jack said chuckling to himself. Mirain gave him a dirty look.

“Tasteful,” a woman murmured within the group.

Mick turned his focus to Jack, “The Belles and Val’s men do not get along. They are the two groups that fight the most, so it would make sense they would avoid each other unless they are looking for a fight.”

“So?” Jack said in a dragging tone.

Mick took a deep breath. “So, the Belles are not going to go through Lugn this way unless it is absolutely necessary. Yes, it is possible, but highly unlikely as it will only result in unnecessary problems for them. The Belles may seem impulsive, but they aren’t going to go searching for avoidable squabbles.”

“That’s funny, they seemed to get in an avoidable squabble yesterday,” Jack said arrogantly.

“Jack, will you just shut up?” Mirain yelled.

“Just tellin’ it like it is, Sweetie.”

Sam charged at him and pushed him. “Don’t call her ‘Sweetie,’” he said firmly.

Jack raised his hands in the air and grinned, “Alright, tiger, geez.” Sam sneered in his direction.

“Alright, boys, settle down,” Mick shouted. He pointed forward, “We are almost there. We hit that Mini–Patch, and Val’s is right in front.”

The group continued to walk together through the Mini–Patch and when they arrived in Val’s camp ground, men were everywhere. Some were standing around, others were working out, and some were sitting around talking, eating and drinking. They all wore the same maroon colored uniform that reached up to the middle of their throats, though their shoulders were exposed. Ten stars forming a circle around a black sphere was embroidered on the center of their chest plate.

Housing complexes filled the area, and to Mirain’s surprise they looked somewhat modern, similar to the kind she’d find around her neighborhood back home. One house stood out the most, it was the only white complex surrounded by maroon and forest green houses, and was much larger than the rest. A very small, very pale man with black hair exited the white building. As he walked closer to the group, Mirain noticed that he was actually a child, though she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about him. When he reached the group, he stood there, motionless. His eyebrows were thin, his cheeks were fleshy, though his nose was very large, and pointed. His face was stagnant, and while he may have looked like a child, he soaked the air with his frigid disposition.

“What do you need?” he said firmly. His voice was clear while also securing a grim tone to it that sent chills down Mirain’s spine.

“Who the hell is this?” Jack boomed through the crowd. The child didn’t even acknowledge Jack’s comment, he continued to stare at Mick.

“This, is Val,” Mick said timidly.

Everyone looked at the child. Jack began to laugh out of the crowd. “That,” Jack said in between his laughter, “That is Val? He’s just a kid? Is this a joke?”

Mirain looked over at Val, who was finally began to focus his attention onto Jack. When the Jack and him finally made eye contact, Jack’s laughter began to settle. The space between everyone in the group quickly developed into an awkward silence. Suddenly, Jack started to feel uncomfortable. As everyone stood in silence, anticipation circulated the group that something horrific was about to happen. Val’s face was unwavering and remained still. The only movement that came from him was his chest rising and falling as he continued to breathe. Though you barely noticed he was breathing as you could hardly look away from his eyes. Val slowly stepped towards Jack, and the crowd moved opening a direct line to him. Val slightly tipped his head to the right, staring at Jack. Jack swallowed the spit in his mouth.

“Listen carefully,” Val began. His voice reminded Mirain of Constance. She remembered as Constance spoke, her voice seemed to spread over your skin, like a snake looking for something to suffocate, though this was different. Val’s voice wasn’t searching for something, it knew exactly what it was hunting. “When the Belles come for you, you insignificant waste of space, you will quickly come to regret saying that,” he said rigidly. He continued to stare at Jack, and began to scream, “Men!” he shouted, his voice becoming coarse and painful to listen to. “You are hereby forbidden to assist this man!” he pointed at Jack. “If and when a Belle sets her sights on him,” he scowled at Jack, “he will fend for himself!” Jack’s heart began to race, and Val stepped forward becoming only inches away from him. He began to whisper to him, “When they begin to gut you, and you’re just about to slip away,” he paused looking Jack up and down, “I’ll stop them from killing you completely. I’ll slit their throats, and as their lifeless bodies fall beside you, I will stand over your corpse of a body and watch you beg me to kill you,” Jack’s breathing became fast and heavy, “–and I’ll just watch you slowly fade from this world, knowing full well I could have saved you,” he turned around. “–But what do I know,” he said softly, beginning to walk away. “I’m just a kid.”

Mirain looked at Jack, whose hands were shaking at his sides. She walked over to him, and rested her hand on his arm. “Are you okay?” she asked gently.

“I’m fine,” he said quickly, pulling his arm away from her.

“My name is Valitus, but you can call me Val,” he said loudly to the group. “You are on my grounds, and while you are here I expect that you do not bother my men, you do not bother me, you do not ask questions that have no value, and you especially do not,” he looked back at Jack, “question my authority,” he said firmly. “My men are 782 strong, and are highly trained to combat those repulsive beasts people mistake for women. Ten of my men are known as the Valiant. These men are the best warriors the land has to offer,” he shifted his attention to one of the men watching. “You,” he shouted angrily, “Fetch Fletcher at once. His presence is requested.”

The young man quickly ran into one of the houses. A few minutes passed before he ran back out. “He’s on his way, sir,” he said quickly.

When the door to the house opened again an extremely tall man walked out. Abnormally tall in fact, as he was significantly taller than Mick when he reached the group. His skin was ghostly pale, though as he got closer it seemed to even be slightly blue. His face was long, and he was uncomfortably thin. You could see his bone structure clearly as he stood there, it was like looking at a skeleton with a layer of skin over it. Mirain began to feel uncomfortable again. He wore a greyish–blue cloak around his body that looked like it had been scorched and cut up. His hair was pure white and long, hanging in his face. He wore a large, lavish crown that hung over his face, covering his eyes like a mask. His arms were abnormally long as well, it was almost as if someone had pulled his limbs apart like taffy. Quite possibly, his head was the heaviest part of his entire body, as a result, he hunched over when he walked. He resembled, Mirain thought, what a human spider would look like. As she watched him, he had this unnerving sadness that seemed to seep from his cloak.

“Ah, hello Fletcher,” Val said softly to the man. “Will you please call your brothers here?” Fletcher did not respond to Val. Instead, he lifted his palms upward towards the sky, as if he was pleading for God’s help. His mouth began to move but no words came out.

Mirain nudged Mick. “Mick, is he sick?”

Mick shook his head, “No, he always looks like that.” Mirain hesitated, unsure of what to say. Mick looked at her, “No one really knows what he is, or if he’s even human. They’re all kind of like that in a way.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, looking up at Mick.

He nodded towards Fletcher, “Unlike the Belles, all ten of the Valiant are very different. They don’t resemble each other, and they don’t look like us – some don’t even talk. The only thing they have in common is that they’re all a bit creepy like that.” Mirain looked at Fletcher. “–But, that being said, they’re the only ones who seem to pose any threat to the Belles.”

Mirain shifted her attention back to Mick again. “Wait, what does that mean?”

He looked down to her. “They’re different. Different in the way that the Belles are different. They’re like the perfect match, equally dangerous, and equally unpredictable.”

“But the Belles look like normal women.”

Mick shook his head in agreement. “They do, you’re right,” he pointed towards Val, and began to whisper. “Some have said over the years, that Val sought out the Witch of Lugn and forced her to use her majim on a few of his men. Her abilities are in fact, very strong, and typically work perfectly. Though Angeline seems to believe that it’s tied to her Will, and if she is forced to use her majim unwillingly, whatever she casts will go haywire, and become cursed.”

“Do you think that’s true?” she asked him.

Mick shrugged. “You know, I’m not entirely sure,” he said softly, looking at her. His attention shifted to Fletcher, “All I know is that, those ten just randomly showed up one day, and have been a force to be reckoned with since.”

Rapidly, and all together, nine other men wandered into the area. One man was like a mountain – he was just as tall as Mick, but his stomach was much larger. He had a large round reddish nose, marked skin, and a dark brown beard that hung to the middle of his chest. He wore maroon and silver armor, and held an enormous, extravagant hammer made from metal and wood that looked as if it had been woven together. If you looked closely, you could see the wood had been carved with what appeared to be a mythical scene that looked similar to Vikings fighting off a sea monster. Another haunting man stood next to Val, wearing a pearl and gold outfit similar to a Cardinal in a Catholic church. The surface of his face was terrifying – smooth skin flattened his face and covered the spaces where he should have had a nose, eyes, and a mouth. A smooth metal plate was implanted into the back of his skull, blooming out like a flower. When you looked directly at him, it was like looking at a painting of an angel, or a holy figure that was adorned with a magnificent halo. His arms looked as if they had vines embedded into them. As they traveled down to his forearms, the eight vines exited around his elbow and hung to the ground – he held them firmly in his hands like whips. Another one of them was similar in stature to Val – he was quite short and had a child–like face. However he had an extremely toned body, and only wore loose brown fabric pants that cut off at the middle of his calves. His blonde hair swept to one side, and his body was marked with brown spots. As he walked, his back became exposed and there were blooming flowers coming from his skin, like someone had planted seeds into his flesh. Purple veins crawled down from the base of his eyelids. Unlike the Beastly Belles, all ten men varied in shapes, sizes, and appearance. Some looked more human than others, and some didn’t look human at all.

“These,” Val shouted, “are my Valiant. They are the most skilled warriors in all of the Land of Lugn,” he repeated, putting his hands behind his back. “Listen carefully – the lot of you. Do not stand in between them and a Belle. They have been trained to impulsively eliminate a Belle on sight. They will not stop until it is dead. If you are in the way, you will become a casualty. You will not be mourned,” he said harshly.

“Wouldn’t that make them just as bad as a Belle though?” Mirain questioned.

Val’s gaze shifted to her. “No, you stupid wretch,” he glowered at her. “Those things are not people. They kill real people. They are foul creatures that must be eliminated, and wiped from Lugn completely.”

“What happens if you are able to actually kill them all?” Sam asked.

“Then Order will be restored to Lugn,” Val stated confidently.

“Yeah – but what happens, though?” Sam asked again.

“What are you going on about, you rat?” Val started to become angry.

“If you kill them all, and everything gains “order,” what happens then? What do you do? Do you all just, disperse and go home? What happens to your ‘Valiant’?”

Val gave him a disgruntled look, “Of course not,” he said angrily. “The people must be controlled, the Witch must be hunted down, the land must be replenished and regrown, the little abominations must be destroyed.”

“Little abominations?” Mirain asked.

Val looked irritated. “The children the Belles have taken,” he said quickly.

Mirain stepped forward, looking panicked. She raised her voice, “–But those are just little girls,” she interjected.

“They are not little girls,” Val said critically. “The second those creatures take a child, they are no longer a child, they become nothing more than a festering putrid animal – a shell for disease. Filth that must be eradicated.”

“You wouldn’t even try to save those poor little girls?” Rae shouted.

Val screamed, “They are not girls! They are not children! They are animals!”

Mirain stepped forward more, but Mick grabbed her shoulder, holding her back. He shook his head, “This isn’t the time, or the place, for that,” he said in a hushed tone.

Val began to pace back and forth in front of everyone. “If there are no more pressing naive questions, I would like to ask you one,” he stopped, and looked around the group. “Why have you sought me out? Why are you here?” No one said anything for a moment.

Casey stepped forward. “We showed up here yesterday,” he started, “and none of us really know how we got here. Mick offered to help us, and he brought us to his Middle Ground,” he looked over at Mick, and back to Val. “–But on our way, two of us were murdered by those women.”

Val looked unmoved. “Join me,” he said firmly. Everyone looked slightly surprised. He looked around, “That’s why you’ve come, isn’t it? You seek revenge?”

“Not necessarily,” Casey said timidly. “We wanted to come here and see if you could do anything, or help.”

Val looked annoyed. “We are doing something,” he said haughtily. “Our entire purpose is the elimination of those, things,” he stepped forward. “You have insulted me, you have insulted my men, and you have insulted our vision. How dare you come here and assume we’d avenge your own fallen. What kind of men are you? If your brethren fall, you must avenge them yourself,” he preached, “how disgraceful.”

“I don’t think–” Casey began.

“–That much is evident already,” Val remarked. “We will do nothing for you,” he said soundly. “If you would like to do something for yourself, do something for the betterment of not only Lugn but each other, you will join me. If not, I demand you leave my grounds at once, or I will set my Valiant upon you.”

As he said this, the Valiant all began to shift in posture. They looked as if they were ready to pounce at a moment's notice. The group shifted in their place, and Mick held up his hands. “Alright, Val,” he said pleadingly. “That is enough. We will be on our way.”

“Wait,” Casey said anxiously. Everyone looked over at him. “I’d like to join,” he looked up at Val.

Val grew a wicked smile on his face. “Wonderful, anyone else man enough to join?”

A middle–aged woman from the group stepped forward. She had short black hair, her skin was a beautiful tawny, golden brown. “I’d like to join,” she said gently.

Rae stepped forward, “Emilia,” she whispered harshly at her, “What are you doing?”

Val began to laugh, “I enjoy your spirit, woman, but I do not take your kind.”

“Her kind?” Mirain came forward.

Val gave her a disgusted look, “A woman, wretch,” he barked, moving his arms around. “Look before you, do you see any women here?” Mirain looked around at all of the men that made up Val’s army. “No, you don’t. Women cannot keep up with my men,” he stated arrogantly. “–And may Lugn forbid, if you were to ever be caught by a Belle, they would either kill you are force you into a Belle Mothership, or worse, a Mother Matron.”

Emilia quickly receded back into the group. Mirain glared at Val as he started to pace the group again like a lion over a carcass. Another man walked forward, he had short dark brown curly hair, and bronzed skin. “I’ll join,” he said actively. He had an Italian accent.

“Wonderful,” Val said quickly. “–And what is your name, soldier?”

“Antonio Ricci,” he stated.

Suddenly, another man stepped forward. He was hefty and pale, with taupe colored hair with strands of gray here and there that hung onto his forehead. “I would like to join,” he said quickly. He had a Russian accent.

Immediately after, the woman standing next to him, similar in age and size, grabbed his arm. “Egor, no,” she said firmly. She too, had a Russian accent.

He grabbed her hand, “It is okay, my Diana,” he whispered, “I will be fine.”

“–But,” she pleaded, and he removed her hand from his arm, walking forward. No one else from the group budged.

“Alright, is that it?” Val said boastfully. “Excellent. I’m very happy not all of you are cowardly vermin,” his attention shifted to Mick. His face went still, “I will return them to you every day at sunset,” Mick nodded. Val turned back towards the three men. “You will be on the front lines today. Do not worry, you are to just witness what my men are capable of. I am even sending Arthur here with you,” he patted the man standing next to him with the vines coming out of his arms. “If anything were to go wrong, he will protect you. Today will not be the day you perish. You will be headed to Belle Territory in search for one of the Belle’s ten amphoras.”

“What’s an amphora?” Casey asked.

“It is a large, intricate vase, that each holds one of the Belle’s genetic code. If you destroy the amphora, the Belle will be unable to make any more of those little beasts. All ten amphoras are scattered through Belle Territory in different locations and are guarded by a Mother Matron,” Val responded.

“What’s a Mother Matron?” Mirain asked.

Val scoffed at her. “Nothing you need to worry about,” his gaze glided to one of his men. “You,” he shouted, “take these three and suit them up. Prepare them for the journey.”

The man nodded, “Yes, sir,” he looked at the three men. “Come with me.”

As the three began to move, Mirain lunged forward and grabbed onto Casey. “Hey,” she looked him up and down. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Casey looked confused, “What do you mean?”

Mirain shook her head, “Well, like,” she hesitated, “I don’t know. What is this going to do for you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Why are you doing this? What are you getting out of it?” she asked.

“I’m helping everyone,” Casey said quickly, “If those women aren’t around, then people will be safe.”

Mirain gave him a concerned look, “Are you sure?” she asked softly. She could see Casey falter briefly. “I mean, if you really think you need to do this,” Mirain squeezed his arm a little tighter, “–okay. But honestly, you don’t seem to really have a real reason for doing this. You’re just going, and risking your life – and for what? For Val?”

“No, I’m doing it for those guys,” Casey said, trying to convince himself.

Mirain’s concern shifted to doubt. “Really? What are their names?” Casey paused, and looked down at his feet. “I understand being confused, and having the feeling like you should do something, but this isn’t going to accomplish anything,” she said harshly. “You’re not doing this for anyone, you’re just going to be like them, and you’re going to kill someone or you’re going to get killed.”

    Casey became flustered, “Well, I have to do something!” he shouted.

    “Be better,” Mirain nodded, “That’s what you do,” they made eye contact. “If you murder someone, that’s it – there’s no going back. You can’t undo that, and you’re going to have to live with the fact that you took someone’s life. That doesn’t go away.”

    Casey looked back down and tugged his arm away from her. “I–” he wavered, “I have to go.” He stepped away from Mirain and chased after the others.

    Sam walked over to Mirain, and put his arm on her shoulder. “There’s nothing you can do, Meerkat,” he said quietly. Mirain nodded at him, and walked over toward Mick.

    “Ready to go, little lady?” Mick said gingerly.

    Mirain gave him a somber expression. “Yes,” she sighed, “I guess.”

    As the group began to leave Val’s Territory, Mirain could hear Val screaming in the background. As she turned around to see him, she saw Casey, Egor, and Antonio standing with a few dozen men, and one of the Valiant. She watched them as they cultivated around Val. He pointed towards the Belle’s Patch and shouted one last time, “Men, move out!” Mirain watched as they marched toward Belle Territory, and as she walked towards Mick’s Middle Ground, she couldn’t help but feel that the space between them was more than just physical. She continued to watch them as they faded into the distance.

    “Do you think they’ll be okay?” she asked Mick.

    Mick looked over at the specks of their bodies in the distance, and grew a defeated expression. “With someone like Val leading them,” he reflected, “you really can’t be sure,” he hesitated and looked over to Mirain. “For all we know, he might use them as bait.”