"Thanks a lot," Isaac drawled, sitting back on his heels on the grassless cliff. A skin-and-bones pale hand encircled his wrist, the grip surprisingly firm for its appearance.
"Oh, no worries," the man connected to that hand replied breezily. "I'll have you know that besides reading, deadlifting idiots from their suicide attempts is one of my favorite pastimes."
"It wasn't a suicide attempt," Isaac grumbled, snatching his hand away and folding his arms over his chest. He grasped for the straps cinched around his shoulders. With a pinch and pull from deft, elven fingers, the lightweight device situated on his back dropped to the ground with a series of minute, metallic clanks. Moments before, Isaac had been standing on the cusp of this floating island, one of many that made up the celestial kingdom of Acropolis. The metallic pack, actually a set of artificial wings, glinted innocently in the sunlight, even as the man, whose name was Ramses, glared at them.
"No, of course not. Flying down into the Cauldron without of scale of armor on your skinny elven behind, wearing an experimental wingback made from partially scavenged blueprints is a perfectly sanctioned idea. If I'd gone back and told Remedy that I could have saved you from foolishly flying to your death down there, I'm sure she'd rip my wings right from my back." Those magnificent tawny fans, which no contraption could ever hope to match, flashed out behind Ramses's shoulders as if to display their glory. "I know you can't relate, not having a pair of your own, but trust me when I say they're a pretty helpful tool."
Isaac peered over the cliff again. The aerial gulch stretched as far as even the keenest eyes could see. Wind-smoothed walls drooped down, the striations in the stone visible. Isaac imagined that researchers like Ramses got as excited as a puppy with a strip of rawhide at the sight, but it didn't do much for him. Enjoyment for him came with his fingers wrapped around a dagger, narrowly skirting the defenses of castles, forts, and monster encampments alike. "Why do they call this place the Cauldron anyway? I suppose with a real stretch of the imagination, those other island edges could form the rim, but it's missing the entire bowl portion."
Ramses snorted. "Please tell me you didn't try to dive into the Cauldron without knowing anything about it."
"I know that it's said to be strictly off-limits."
"But, for someone like you, that's just a joke, right? A suggestion better laughed at than followed."
"You know it," Isaac replied, giving his most bright and confident smirk.
"You devil-may-care folks are tiresome. Remind me again why I'm friends with you?" Ramses didn't let the elf respond. Instead, he reached into his pocket and withdrew a gently glowing fruit. The flesh was translucent, rich, and faintly jelly-like, with a yellow core that leaked shimmering juice that gave the whole fruit a shocking burst of crisp sweetness and firmed up the outer layer, giving it a texture like a soft apple. Magical food was something else! The availability of llumellei was one of Isaac's favorite things about living in Acropolis, a fact with which Ramses was intimately familiar, as he'd introduced the out-of-place elf to the delicacy. Isaac's eyes lit up, taking on almost the same sheen as the fruit itself when it appeared in the angel's hand. "Now, I was going to share this with you," he said, juggling it casually with one hand and grinning as he watched Isaac's eyes bounce and follow its trail. He caught it at last and walked to the edge of the cliff, pursing his lips into a frown. "But, since you're so badly in need of a lesson, I suppose it will have to be fodder." Before Isaac could protest, Ramses tossed the fruit over the edge. The elf emitted a mournful cry and fell to his knees to watch the descent of his favorite treat. He had half a mind to snatch up the flight pack and follow the llumellei but knew it would be a hopeless endeavor. And he was glad he hadn't a moment later, as from the clusters of clouds gathered around the tips of the islands, a horde of viciously snapping snake-like monsters boiled out, blocking out the blue and white sky below with a solid mass of green scales and tar-black feathered wings. The monsters converged on the place where the llumellei was, and from the gnashing and tearing sounds and the spurts of blood that fountained up, Isaac realized they were ripping each other apart, trying to eat the 'prey' they believed had fallen into their trap. A full minute, or maybe more, passed before the horde realized there was nothing left and retreated to wherever they'd been lying in wait before. Once they were gone, no sign of their presence remained except for a memory and a poignant lesson Isaac would never forget.
"That, my dear, boastful elf, is why they call it the Cauldron," Ramses explained as if he were a tutor finishing a lecture for a particularly thick-headed student. His job complete, the angel stepped back, plopped down to the ground, and patted the space next to him. "Now, I'd suggest backing away from the edge, scooting yourself over here and explaining what put the foolish notion of traversing the Cauldron into your mind. Did Remedy put you up to this?"
Before Ramses' suggestion had hit the air, Isaac had begun doing that very thing, his dust-colored complexion now chalky. When the question found his ears, however, that chalk became tinged with red, most noticeably at the tips of the ears."
"Oh, he's blushing," Ramses exclaimed slyly. "That means there's a yarn to spin. Spin away, my merry spinster!"
Isaac gave his friend a bald look. "I'm not the educated type, but you're not slipping that one by me. I may not be married, but I'm neither old nor a woman. In fact, you're older than me by almost sixty years."
"And if we looked alike, I would still be able to pass off as your younger brother. But I digress. Something about that blush tells me you want to be. Er, married, that is, or something along those lines," Ramses hastily corrected.
Isaac blinked and gaped at the other man. "Did you just..."
"Read you like a book? Yes. But don't get all uppity about it. I read many books. Yours is nothing special."
"Thanks, you're so kind, Dr. Ramses. I live for your clinical evaluations of my worth."
Ramses punched Isaac's shoulder. "Come on, are we going to sit here and dither like a couple of old crones, or are you going to tell your story. I can find another llumellei to feed to the Cauldron if you'd like."
"Light Collective, no," Isaac gave in, invoking the pantheon of gods his angel friend followed. "Remedy didn't send me out here, not directly. I made a mistake, is all." He glanced to the side to see Ramses staring at him expectantly and realized he'd dropped off for several seconds, lost in a bittersweet reverie of times gone by. Isaac's hand dropped down to a rod sheathed on his belt, the design of which he knew by heart. The rod was a bar of pure silver chased with gold. A two-inch sphere, also made of silver, with many tiny indents balanced on the rim of a shallow bowl at the rod's end. Together they formed Gui'tynae, an enchanted flail. It was an odd weapon, not anything like he'd usually employ in combat, but it was a gift from Remedy, so he treasured it. The Remedy in question was Princess Remedy Lightborne, daughter of two heroes, a princess and her bodyguard, who'd come together to defeat a great evil several decades back in the annals of history. They had fallen in love through their ordeals, and their union blessed the world with the Paladin Princess. A symbol for all things divine if Isaac had ever seen one. "I guess I misconstrued a whole bouquet of signs and ruined my relationship with Remedy. I'm Sallas Ciars, the divine opener of doors, but my skeleton keys weren't enough to crack the safe of Rem's heart."
Ramses leaned back, nodding his head in understanding. "You tried to make your reprise of her parent's tale, hmm? I assume she didn't take it well. And Seriphal was probably ready to chop off those blushing ears of yours."
"I mean, can you blame me? Remedy is... she's just so wonderful in every way. Strong-willed, sure, but that confidence and strength is so damned charming. This flail she gave me is a clear sign of her favor, and the way she touches my arm and laughs at my jokes..."
"Your attempts at humor are piss poor, so I see how that would be a confusing signal."
Isaac's face twisted into a mask of annoyance. "Can you take this seriously, please?"
"Sorry, sorry, you know I can't resist taking jabs at you. Okay, so tell me what happened. Did you confess your feelings with a bunch of servants around to hear? And Seriphal was there too, I'm sure. Captain of the guard and whatnot, and her duties include making sure Remedy doesn't get her head chopped off charging headfirst into a tussle."
"Worse," Isaac said, utterly shamefaced. "I kissed her, and all those other things were true."
Ramses' eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. "You did what? In front of Seriphal too. By the Collective, the brass pair of carabeechies on you!"
"It just kinda came over me, all at once, and I only realized what I'd done after it was too late," Isaac explained defensively, then sank into himself with a gusty sigh. "I think a part of me has been infatuated with her since I earned my name; that fateful day, I became a turncoat among turncoat soldiers and released her from my boss' dungeons. We were both barely more than kids then. After I returned her home and went back to my own life, I never thought I'd see her again, but lo and behold, like a golden arrow fletched with phoenix feathers, she flew into my life and pierced right through all my defenses, and those of the thugs trying to kill me when she reappeared."
Ramses cracked a smile. "I still recall the look on Seriphal's face when Remedy dragged you up here by the collar of your shirt. I thought she was trying to swallow an unshelled chestnut whole! But, I can see how working so closely with our beloved princess, like you did as her personal scout, might lead a man to think she's in love. But...you kissed her. She probably slapped you, but beyond that...what's the big deal?"
"How am I supposed to face her after making an ass out of myself? It's probably best for my safety and her reputation if I make myself scarce. What's an angel princess supposed to do with an elven thief anyways?"
"Fair enough, I suppose. Idiotic, but fair. So, you thought your best way to escape that embarrassment was to make a trip through the Cauldron?"
"I'd heard it was the quickest way down to the surface from here."
Ramses snorted again. "Oh, sure, if a chunk of you was lucky enough to survive those monsters, it would be a straight shot down to the surface, without any fear of other islands or outcroppings to slow you down. Look, buddy, if you want to leave that badly, I can show you a way out. But, honestly, take it from a guy who has made an ass out of himself in front of the king too many times to count. This embarrassment will be washed away by next week's court rigamarole. Will you ever win Rem's heart? Probably not, she's a damn tough catch, but should you exile yourself over a kiss? Not if you want to have any chance of returning to Acropolis with a shred of dignity. Remember, they don't grow llumellei down there."
"Maybe you're right, Ramses." Isaac took a deep breath and, this time without the sarcasm, said, "Thanks a lot."