“So if I understood correctly,” Pepper starts after hearing Ashen’s lengthy explanations, “we have only mere hours left before I get sent to prison, you get executed on the spot for treachery, and Cherry spends the rest of her life as a stranded magic ghost.”
The knight’s already meek demeanor crumbles some more as she awkwardly rubs the back of her neck.
“And on top of that, Cherry is functionally mute for the time being.”
I nod, annoyed.
Pepper slowly inhales, then lets out a heavy sigh. “I will get started on the time portal. Ashen, please tell the guards to comb the swamp one last time for any remaining animal.”
“Aye aye.” The knight gives us a tentative thumbs up, then paces down the stairs.
Pepper takes a few stacks of paper and a dozen or so pencils, then climbs up a stair to her workshop. I trail behind.
The room is about as messy as last I visited it, with the addition of the soldier statuettes neatly stacked to the side, each still dimly glowing with the soul they contain.
Pepper sits down, crossing her legs, then starts furiously covering her paper pages with writing, quickly throwing a glance at her hastily drawn chalk pattern on the floor every once in a while. “Can you do a headcount, please?” she asks me, quickly pointing at the wooden effigies.
I silently get to work, not that Pepper would hear me even if I had anything interesting to say. I pick up the first statuette, then a second, so on and so forth, mentally keeping track as I start a new pile out of the ones I’ve already counted. The only sound in the room is that of Pepper’s frenetic scribing.
At the twenty fifth statuette, I slow down. I remember this one well, it’s the first one we had saved. I look at the two piles forlornly. I’m grateful we’re on our way to restore so many victims, but my mind can’t help but wander to the ones that we didn’t have the time for.
“We have done what we could, Cherry.” I turn my head around and see that Pepper was glancing towards me. “That is more than enough. The results cannot always be perfect. It does matter that we did the right thing, and it does matter what we did manage to accomplish, even if it is incomplete.”
“I guess, it’s just…” I don’t really know how to finish this sentence. I reply with a thumbs-up and a smile and I hope it is enough to drop the conversation, then get back to my task.
“Cherry?” she calls out. “I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for sticking around and helping a malevolent idiot find a kinder way to live.”
I snort. “I don’t think I had much of a choice in that, stuck as I was. But no problem, I guess.” I can’t help but think back to the old warlock now. Seems that in the end, Pepper’s words of mitigation had gone through. I had become so much less self-conscious about the accidental, yet positive mind scrambling. Not that I’d ever jump at the occasion to do it again, obviously, but I’ve made my peace with ridding the world of the warlock. Plus, meeting Pepper had been pretty fun, even in the middle of the craziness of being one and a half foot tall and made of cotton.
I arrive at a final tally of 154, not counting any last minute finds from Ashen. I stand back up, approach Pepper, and show her one finger, then five, and four.
“One hundred and fifty-four then?” she asks, making sure she caught my number correctly. “That is not bad. That should be about half.”
“The King sent three hundred people after you!?” I ask, incredulous.
Pepper seems to pick up on my question merely from my expression alone. “Well, with troops of about thirty strong each, it racks up quickly.”
I growl, sitting down next to her, while she goes back to her task.
“I still have not thanked you yet for the body either,” she says, going back to our earlier discussion. “So thank you for that as well.”
“You’re welcome again.” It’s hard to think that that too has been an accident, and one as fresh as an hour ago, and yet I have to admit it isn’t on my mind anymore. Maybe the situation is that dire, or maybe, now that the bandage is ripped off, the negative feelings surrounding transformation have gone away too, like removing a cast and realising your limb has healed better than you expected. “Say, why did it happen anyway? I really only meant to change your eyes.”
Pepper looks at me flatly. Oh. I make a swirling movement with my hand, point to her eyes, then gesture at her body in general with a whelmed expression. She squints for a moment, but does seem to put my question together. “I am still thinking through that specific mystery. There are so many elements to take into account. Fact of the matter is, you went to accomplish our pact, when you touched me with intent, energy poured out of you, and when it was over, I was fully female and our connection was cut.“ She closes her eyes and thinks. “My current train of thought is the energy was stored to accomplish the old pact from your ancestor, was accidentally used on our new one for some reason, and… Well, who knows what variables your being-made-of-magic situation introduced to the table. Maybe our connection was not quite what we thought?” Her eyes open again, she reaches for my plushie and squeezes it in her arms. Is it helping her think this through maybe? “...I am starting to have a hunch, but it is… bizarre.”
“Heeeey!” We hear from the window. Sounds like Ashen and the guards are back. Our discussion stops there as I go for the stairs and Pepper resumes her work.
It’s a bit of a disappointment to see they have only brought back one soldier, but I can’t exactly blame them, since, coincidentally enough, it’s a white tiger like me. 155 it is then. The animal fights against its restraints fiercely, but in a single touch from me it yelps and transforms into another totem. I hear gasps from the crowd, from their perspective this must’ve looked like a tiger spontaneously turning into a floating wooden statuette, but we can’t really spare the time at this point. Ashen looks at the statuette, then searches for about where my eyes would be, and gives me a nod.
I realise, as I hear the gallop of a horse trudging in swamp water, that our time is up, and I run back to the workshop as quickly as I can, while Ashen readies herself to stall for time.