*This story is a companion piece to Cypress Wormwood: Monster Hunter.
The stranger’s words echoed as Barnabus hastened his pace to get home. “Keep it hidden, keep it safe, or it’s your head, Toggins! Best believe we’ll come knocking when the time comes to collect, so don’t go getting slick. And trust me, we’ll know.” When the time comes...who knows how long that would be. Barnabus felt the thing slipping in his clammy palms as he struggled to keep in discreetly concealed in his long, black, overcoat. He didn’t like this one bit. He didn’t want to be responsible for such a thing... couldn’t they have just hacked off his hand or something, and then count his debt paid? Why, why of all things, did it have to be this? Barnabas felt the eyes of every stranger he passed on the sidewalk glaring at him as if they had x-ray vision and knew his secret. He was nearly there when he spotted Rodrick Chesterfield slipping out of the pub. “Great, just GREAT, the town crier, that’s all I need! Go away! Turn in the other direction!” He thought. But it was too late. He’d been spotted.
Rodrick’s massive, half-giant hands clamped down on Barnabus’ shoulders.
“Barny boy! Surprised to see you out and about! ‘Specially in this, er, neck of the woods. Little dodgy for a dwarf, innit? No pun intended.” The massive gentleman towered over Barnabus, and his grip made his boney body ache all over.
“Menehune…” Barnabus corrected under his breath. But the brute just chuckled and slapped Barnabus’ back, sending him and the package flying. He grabbed it just before it burst from his coat.
“Sorry bud, I don’t know my own strength!” He laughed again. “Say, whatcha got there, pal? Under your coat.” At his curious glances, Barnabus clutched tightly to the item, then loosened ever slightly, so it wouldn’t get crushed.
“I...uh...You can’t...really, it’s nothing…”
“Ah c’mon, you can tell me, pal!” His massive palms reached out for the coat, and its hidden contents, and all Barnabus could do was squeeze his eyes shut and hope he disappeared, when he heard a familiar voice.
“Rodrick Chesterfield …isn’t it a little early for you to be showing your ugly mug around here? Not that you need to know, but I asked for Barnabus’ help in a crucially important retrieval, and I wouldn’t want any...issues to come up during his journey. You’re not going to be an issue, are you Rodrick?” Cypress Wormwood seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a knight in shining armor. Accepting his help would mean a whole other world of trouble, but it was a hell of a lot easier than dealing with Rodrick alone. He turned to Barnabus.
“Did you pick up the item I requested? The one that can’t be exposed to sunlight or we could all meet an untimely, horribly painful death?” Cyprus asked, throwing dagger eyes at Rodrick. Barnabus could only nod his head in compliance as the monster hunter held out his hand to lift him off the ground.
“Excellent. We’ll be going now.” Cypress turned his back and nudged the impish man along before the giant could hold them there any longer. Barnabus shook nervously, still gripping tightly to the parcel. Rodrick dare not follow. Once they were out of earshot, the little man turned to his massive companion.
“Cypress, I can’t thank you enough, it really was lucky you came when you did, I…”
“Save it, Toggins. Luck had nothing to do with it. I’ve been tailing the Gormon brothers since long before you met their accomplice at Berty’s Bothy. Something this big, it’s no wonder they sent a ghost trader... What the hell do you think you’re doing, making deals with them? You like your skin still attached, right?” Cypress snarled. Barnabus looked at him, horrified. But the hunter continued. “I know you’re holding something for them. And based on your desperate attempts to keep it hidden, I can only guess what it is. But I won’t have to. You’re coming back to my place, and you’re going to show me exactly what you’re hiding.”
The cottage was surprisingly small for a man of Cypress’ stature. It almost looked as if it were abandoned. The hunter saw his guest’s look of disdain and gave a deeply out of character apology. Tiny men were tending to a garden outside. They made Barnabus’ 4-foot stature feel tall. One of them waved and greeted Cypress, who returned a less than enthusiastic grunt.
“Haven’t been home in weeks. Had to uhm. Put a friend to rest and deal with her final proceedings and such.” He paused, and for just a moment, his face softened and drooped in what looked like heavy guilt. It quickly hardened again as he gestured toward the door. “And THEY were supposed to be gone by now. Too scared my ass, they got too cushy with their arrangements!” He shouted just loud enough that the gnomes likely heard him from outside. But an echo of giggles told him they didn’t care if they were bothersome to him. Cypress rolled his eyes and continued.
“Anyway, I took some time off and went to the Oceanid Islands, down the other side of the veil.” Barnabus perked up at the mention of his homeland. Cypress gave him a puzzled look before realizing aloud, “I forgot Menehune were originally island dwellers. Sorry mate. In any case, it was nice until I caught wind of illegal traders, pawning off outlawed creatures like garbage. It had the Gormon brothers written all over it. I tracked them through a couple of bogus sales...all the way to today’s little exchange.” He eyed Barnabus’ coat. “Which brings me to you. Cough it up. What have you got under there?” The monster hunter was practically growling. With one swift motion, he snatched the coat and the wrapping around the object, finally revealing what Barnabus had been hiding. In shock and horror, he took the egg and set in on the table.
“You FOOL! You damned, idiotic, deathwish wishing FOOL! Dangerous! Stupid! Downright insane! Do you have the slightest inkling of a clue what this is?” Cypress was in a full-on rage now. Barnabus counted his blessings it was not a full moon, or he may have been dog chow by now.
He shriveled down in his seat. “Now...now Cypress I...I didn’t steal or capture or...I didn’t...it wasn’t me, surely you believe me, I’m only holding on to it so they’ll forgive my debts!”
“What could possibly be worth this degree of sacrifice??” Cypress barked. Barnabus sank even lower. “Escape.” he said with a sigh. “The Gormon brothers were my only way out, Mr. Wormwood. My family is gone. People say I was lucky enough to be spared but...I don’t feel it.” The little man let out another deep sigh and looked up at the monster hunter with pleading eyes. “Cypress...I had to get out of there. That was nearly 8 years ago, things were so different then, and I’ve been forced to help these brutes ever since. Usually, it’s passing money or notes…Never anything this. I tried to refuse, but they threatened to take me back. And honestly sir...I know for a gentleman in the persuasive arts, with extensive weapon training, and your…” Barnabus motioned up and down to Cypress’ figure.”...naturally intimidating appearance, the beings that took over the islands might seem like little bugs, easy to squash. But for my people..well, the Gormon brothers are far less terrifying than the creatures that lurk there now.
Cypress let out a deeply annoyed, but sympathetic groan. “Toggins, I get it...truly I do...but this was NOT the way to get your freedom.” He eyed the egg with an intense looming.
Barnabas peeped up in hopes of redemption. “Actually Cypress, I’m confident this one is a runt! He’d have to be with an egg this small. I could never carry around a full-sized one. Maybe it’s good after all, maybe this is all they could find, little guys are useless, trust me I’d know! And maybe…” the little man deflated at his larger counterpart’s glare. Cypress wiped his large palm down his face in irritation.
“How much do you know about these creatures, Barnabus?” He asked, trying not to sound pretentious.
“Not a lot, I reckon…” Barnabus sulked.
“It shows. Every member of the weyr has an equally important job. You need the entire group to function, like a pack of wolves. The runt acts as the locator, it can track the others with a sonar technique and a scent unique to their species. Once it can’t find anymore, it starts to wither. The others take care of it until it passes. People like the Gormon brothers have been seeking runts to find other runts for ages now. They don’t allow them to have their natural herd process…Which means….” Cypress took a long pause, as Barabus took a horrified expression.
“They’ll use it! They’ll bleed the poor thing dry! Mr. Wormwood, please, I can’t let them take it! You have to help me!” He begged. Cypress groaned. Oh, how he hated that phrase. But he had to admit, the imp was right. He had to help for the greater good. He didn’t like the idea of the creatures being used any more than Barnabus did. Barnabus continued. “I’ll... I’ll release it. I’ll find a way back to the islands and bring it back to where it came from...I can’t stand to let the poor thing suffer no matter what its species did to my home. But I’ll need help, sir. “The little man continued to plead when Cypress heard a peculiar noise.
“Quit squawking a minute, would you?” he snapped at his troubled companion. Barnabus fell silent until he, too, could hear the noise. Like a low hum, barely audible...and it was coming from the egg.
Damn it, Toggins! Now you’ve done it!” The monster hunter yelled.
“What?! What have I done?” Barnabus looked around wildly for the source of the noise, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong this time. But Cypress dove for the egg.
“What are you doing?! Please be careful!” Barnabus cried.
“You idiot! All the movement from being jostled in your coat woke the damn thing up. It’s signaling for the pack... it’s hatching.” Cypress sighed. He put the egg down, much to his friend’s objection. Barnabus frantically grunted and threw his hands up, motioning toward the egg, unsure of what to do. “Settle.” Cypress sighed again in defeat. “There’s nothing we can do now. Its only hope would be to get to the magik side of the veil, and we’ll never make it on time.” The hum continued until a louder hum in the distance echoed it.
“What’s happening? What’s it doing?” Barnabus demanded.
Cypress put his overgrown palm to his face in disappointment. “They have another tracker...they’re calling to each other. It won’t be long now before they find us and…”
He was interrupted by a loud roar. With a ground-shaking thud, the entire cottage trembled.
Cypress got up from the table to look out the window. “They’re here” he turned to say, but the small man and the egg had disappeared, leaving the back gate to the cottage wide open. He could see Barnabus running in the distance down the hidden path Cypress used for escape from unhappy customers. He was trailing pieces of crumbling eggshell behind him. Cypress watched as the little man paused for a moment, trying to conceal the large wings that had spread from the now hatched egg. The thieves were banging on the cottage door and Cypress used his brute force to hold it shut, but the heathens burst through. Despite their ruckus, Cypress could hear the first cry of a new born dragon in the distance.