| Fracturing Fear|
|Nibar finds himself in a tense situation, with no one to help him.|
He could just see the door between the swirl and flare of dresses and robes as it creaked open on its well-oiled but ancient hinges. What he saw filled him with a slow, sinking dread. He would know the look, behavior, the easy, joking arrogance that this new trio displayed on any race, in any city, anywhere. Bullies were bullies the world over. They didn't change with age, language, species, or location. He suspected their actions wouldn't vary much either.|
Nibar had found his way into this, the most prestigious and well-respected purveyor of tailored clothing in the whole of Seaharrow. After receiving their monies from Henry, Nibar had remained behind in their rooms, thinking. He knew that the group was supposed to be outfitting themselves for a party full of nobles, but he simply couldn't justify the expenditure of their still-slender funds for a ridiculous, opulent costume that would be useful for exactly one evening. Out on the road, where he had grown used to spending most of his time, such clothing would quickly be rendered useless; he'd look as much a vagabond as he did now. Yet, Nibar was a child of the city, and as a child of the city he appreciated clothing of fine quality. So, here he was. Not for some costume for the festivities, but a pair of robes, of fine quality, but simple and unadorned. Something that could stand up to the abuse and ill-treatment of his current life and still better than beggar's rags after washing.
He had almost finished examining the tailor's wares when the trio entered. Disguised by his magics as a gnome, complete with what he thought of as a plausible cover story, he decided simply to stay out of their way. With luck, they would only stay long enough to pick up an order and then leave.
He found his cautious hope dashed as soon as the leader opened his pink, too-full mouth. To Nibar they looked like a pair of some strange species of slug, mating right on his face. 'Well, Magritte,' he said, standing in the middle of the shop with a smirk that yelled louder than the town crier of trouble round the corner, 'do you have that shirt ready that I commissioned from you for Eleanora's party? Or are you bent on making me look the fool to everyone who matters in Seaharrow?'
That smirk never even made a move in the direction of his eyes. Nibar knew this sort too well. Bullies, bullies who enjoyed hurt people with words, and when they couldn't with words, they'd hurt with money or influence, and when those didn't work...they'd hurt with other things.
'Your pardon, Lord Havendish, but I do remember clearly telling your lordship that your shirt would not be ready until tomorrow afternoon. That still gives you two days to make sure everything fits well before the party, my lord." Nibar glanced back at the shopkeep, saw the set in her jawline and the wariness in her glance. He hadn't fully learned human body language, but spending two years in their company almost exclusively had taught him well.
'Do the drudges of this city know anything at all other than incompetence? I swear, you can't be counted on to do anything right.'
'I'm sorry your lordship is upset, but we had agreed upon tomorrow as the date for you to pick up your shirt. If you like, I would be happy to confirm this in my ledger. In any event, as I explained when your lordship placed the order, I have at least several other orders and alterations to handle before I can complete yours, my lord.'
The smirk had left Lord Havendish's face now, and his eyes had gone even harder. His boots thumped on the worn stone floor as walked over to the counter. 'I don't care what your other orders are, you wheedling, whinging drudge. I do care about how I will look to the real people of Seaharrow at the masquerade. You will fetch my shirt, do whatever you need to finish it, and you will turn it over to me, and you will do it as quickly as ever you can. Because if you don't, you won't be getting paid for it.'
Nibar glanced around for a new place to hide, but there was none to be found. From the vantage of the tailor's counter, there was nothing veiling him from the lout in finery. He was tall, impossibly tall to Nibar's eyes, with the slender muscled strength of a young man in his prime. His back was to Nibar, as he was still haranguing the tailor.
But she did not intend to be intimidated so easily. 'Your lordship has given me a clear indication that he does not intend to pay for work fairly and legally contracted, work which WILL be delivered on time. By the laws of this city, I no longer have any obligation to complete your order, my lord.'
'Laws,' he shot back with a new sneer. 'If you had a brain in your head, you'd remember that my father makes the laws in this city. So if I don't get satisfaction, I will see to it that I find it in some other way.'
With that, he turned from her and strode to the wall opposite Nibar. He could see the man looking over the wares hung on the wall, as though checking the merchandise. He reached out, and with a casual yank of his arm, tore down several dresses, ripping two or three of them in the process. With a cry, the tailor leapt around the counter, but before she could reach Havendish, his two cronies each grabbed an arm and dragged her back.
"You should know better than to take attitude above your station, clod," sneered Havendish. "I get what I want, when I want it." He glanced around, seeking the next pieces to tear down from their places.
Time seemed to slow for the little kobold. He'd heard that time dilated for some people in the midst of some traumatic incident, but in his experience--and there was more traumatic experience than he wanted to think about--time had always seemed to speed up, leaving him little time for anything but fear and a split-second decision.
But time slowed now. Thoughts and emotions burst through his mind with a speed he would not have credited if it weren't happening to him. Anger, indignation, contempt, disgust, a desire to help the hapless shopkeep, wondering what he could--or should--do.
And fear. That old companion. It had been with him for so much longer than any of the friends he'd made in his insane journey...his exile. He knew it like he knew the texture of his hands, like he knew the moods of the sky, like he knew the subtleties of spellcasting. It had so many, many different facets to expose to him, so many different levels and shades and hues of fear, that he could have come up with a hundred new words to describe the character of each kind of fear.
Of late, it hadn't been as obvious, Nibar knew. Hadn't been as paralyzing. He'd learned to let his instincts take over, and to keep out of the fray, and he found having an all-day ability to fly helped soothe the worst edges of his fear. He'd learned to turn his mind to analyzing the situation, and then to determine how best he could help his friends.
But that didn't mean that the fear was gone. It was still there. It clung to him, like a rancid smell. He could keep it in his head as he worked to aid his companions, keep it from seeping out and giving courage to their foes, or infecting his friends, but he couldn't keep it from his mind.
And now there were no friends to take the blows, to do the fighting, to wade into the muck and blood. Now, he was alone, and the terror paralyzed him like a bolt of lightning. These were not small people, not Havendish, not the man and woman who followed his commands without a moment's hesitation. They were young, strong, and more than twice Nibar's size. It rooted him to the spot.
But the tailor was in trouble, and given both Havendish's mood, and the enjoyment he seemed to be taking in her helplessness and the destruction he was wreaking, Nibar knew that there was a good chance that the tailor would soon be needing a healer--or maybe a gravedigger.
In this drawn-out moment in time, a voice rose in Nibar's mind. It was him, talking to himself, but it came to him in the voice of Agonis. The avuncular, gentle old voice that he'd only heard for a few brief hours on the Ethereal Plane. "That woman needs help, lad, and you don't have time to be standing here wondering whether you can do anything. Of course you can do something. You're afraid; you're here, alone, facing down three humans. But you are stronger than you realize. And that fear in your gut, boy, that fear hasn't controlled you in quite some time. Even when it did, you managed to help your friends anyway. Do you think bravery is about not being afraid? It isn't. It's about feeling that gut-wrenching terror, feeling unable to do anything, and managing to do it anyway. Because it has to be done; because it's the right thing to do. That's bravery. And you have won out over your fear in so many ways already. Don't let this decision be the one that bests you. That poor shopkeep needs help, and you can give it."
As though whatever had been slowing time in mind had shattered, the movement around him returned instantly to its normal rate. Havendish had just reached the next display, and was reaching out a hand to it.
"S-s-stop," quavered Nibar in his high, reedy voice, as he stepped forward, around the dresses that had been concealing him. He could feel the hand holding his staff shaking enough that he was afraid he'd drop it. He tightened his grip until his fingers hurt, and stared at Havendish as calmly as he could manage.
Havendish turned, mild surprise painting his features. "What's this, then?" he asked, looking Nibar up and down. "A gnome, in Seaharrow? Does this look like your business, little gnome?"
Nibar blinked, then he remembered: the illusion magics he'd had to erect around himself to travel in public here without creating a panic. A gnome was the easiest lie to maintain: he didn't need to alter his movement or mannerisms much, didn't need to try to act natural moving in a body that was too large.
Havendish was already turning back to the clothing, already disregarding him. Nibar thumped his staff on the floor of the shop, snapping Havendish's face back to him like a whipcrack.
"It's my business when...when an innocent businesswoman is being harassed by spoiled, mannerless thugs who think because they want it, they deserve it." Nibar's voice was still shaky, quavering, but he was losing the stutter as he regained his footing.
Nibar could see Havendish registering him as a target now. The smirk on the lordlings face deepened just slightly, but never for an instant did it touch his eyes. Nibar knew it meant that Havendish, if left...undeterred, would leave him bloody and with at least a couple of bones broken. He tried to look unconcerned; he had no idea whether he'd managed to be convincing.
"I haven't seen you here in Seaharrow, ratling, and I'm sure I would have known if something like you had shown up, even one so Common. So maybe you don't understand how things work here. We are the nobility, and that means we have standards to uphold. Respect from the peons to be maintained. And it's obvious that we're going to need to teach you to show respect to your betters." He began advancing on Nibar, flexing his hands. He must be enjoying himself, thought Nibar, because it was clear that the man was going to pummel him personally.
It was the moment Nibar had been preparing for. He didn't want this, but he knew that the moment he'd said his first word, he would be forced to do it. Anything stronger would mean further damage to the tailor's shop, and her business had already suffered enough.
On the second step Havendish took, Nibar completed his spell. He unleashed the five bolts, let them arc out, finding their marks unerringly. Each of the lackeys took a bolt directly in the chest. They collapsed to the floor as if suddenly boneless. The other three bolts sped straight into Havendish. They struck him almost simultaneously, with an arcane flash, throwing his back against the wall behind him. He slid down til he was on the floor, his torso kept upright only by the wall behind him. His eyes had gone glassy and dazed. The tailor stood over the other two, a stunned look on her face.
Nibar knew this wouldn't be enough. Besting them would only seal their hate; they would find him and they would murder him. Then they would come back, and the tailor would feel even more of their ruthlessness. It wasn't enough to stop them--he had to break them, to crush their defiance, their sense of power, any sense they had of being able to get to him.
With only one bolt spared for them, Havendish's cronies, groaning and struggling, were slowly making their way back to their feet. Nibar knew it had to be now. He walked slowly, purposefully over to Havendish, trying to look steady, and maybe slightly annoyed. As stepped up next to him, Nibar completed his illusion spell.
"I have little patience for your ilk, wretch," he said. As he continued to speak, the illusion curled around him. To those looking at him, the air around him seemed to darken and contract. Nibar seemed to be the center of a raging maelstrom of air. Lightnings crackled around him, and power seemed to simply bleed off him. Havendish's eyes went wide, and his cronies, who by now had found their feet, backed away to the door.
"You might think about revenge after you leave here. Against me. Against her. You don't want to do that. If you do, I will know. And the next time, I won't let you leave...at least not upright. Killing you would be a service to the world. And it would not come quickly. I can make you spend an eternity in pain. And if you ever disturb her again, I will."
The young noble's already-wide eyes goggled, straining to pop out of his head.
"Do you understand me?" asked Nibar, glaring down at him.
His only response was a quick nod.
"Very well. Get out of here. Forget the ball. Forget your business here. But remember what I've said. I don't make a habit of lying."
The other two were already gone. Havendish scrabbled to his feet and raced out the door.
Nibar let the illusion dissipate, then slumped down to the floor himself. The magics he'd used were minor, hardly a drain on him, but the will he'd exerted, to stand there, to stare the bully down, to deliver the threat, had exhausted him. But he'd done it. All on his own. Alone. With no one to help or protect him. He couldn't say what it was, but he felt something shift within his mind, rearranging the structure in his head.
"Little master, I don't know who you are or how you did that...but thank you. You are welcome in my store any time, and you'll have a discount on anything you care to buy." The tailor seemed none too steady herself, but stood over him, offering a helping hand. Nibar grasped it gladly, pulled himself back to his feet with her aid.
He managed a weak, watery smile, and said, "Please don't thank me. I hate bullies."
|Associated Regions: Seaharrow|
|From the journal of Nibar The Nervous|
Contributor: Chris Schuettpelz