Part 26 - Highmond's Thing

Our group of, let’s call them adventurers, ran far and fast and fleet and foiblesome - no, not that last one, sorry. They angled northeast, which led them a little away from where they hoped Pythagoras was working at zeppelin repairs but a lot away from the volcano.

They were caught once more in the reverse pull of time that surrounded the fiery mountain. Fortunately, they were in much less danger then, and they spotted it quickly enough that they were able to sit on Iona before she became worrisome.

When at length the trio felt safe and the sun felt heavy on the horizon, they decided to make camp. “Erm, Edna,” Highmond approached her sheepishly, in part because he still had no pants. He was fidgeting with a small, flat, round rock, placing it back and forth in the pocket of his waistcoat. “Is it possible,” he continued, “That is, would it be alright--It’s only, we’ve run quite a lot today and these old bones,” he laughed a low, harumphing laugh, “are not as sharp as they used to be, I tell you…” he trailed into more harumphment.

“Your bones used to be sharp?” Iona said, from where she sat building a fire (mostly by cursing at it for not yet being fire).

The gentleman scholar stumbled out of his laugh, but Edna only said, “Highmond, ask what you mean to ask.”

“Er, right. Yes. Sorry. Could I skip building the cabin tonight?”

Edna was lost. “The cabin?” she asked.

“Or the shack, I suppose you could call it. The shelter I built the last time we slept in the woods. You know.”

Ohh, that, she thought. “Ohh, that,” she said, “Yes, of course. Highmond, I never expected you to build us a house every night we slept outside. We can just,” she paused, failing to find another way to say it, “sleep outside. It’s one of the least terrible parts of adventuring.”

“Oh! Oh, good then,” he said, not sounding as relieved as Edna had expected. She pointed her sharp chin at him and after a moment it worked like a knife, cutting him open so he spilled, “I only thought, perhaps you thought, that it was sort of my, well, my thing you know, as an ad--,” he stopped himself, the lie already broken, “as an aspiring adventurer.”

“Your thing? Highmond, building cabins in the woods to avoid camping can’t be your thing. It’s far too small. Your thing is bigger than that.”

Iona chuckled from her spot by the (almost) fire. Highmond blushed some more. “Er, perhaps we should call it my, well,” he paused to think, then once he had found a suitable replacement, finished the sentence as quickly as he could manage, “modus operandi.”

Edna wasn’t fazed. “The cabin is a quirk,” she said, adding, “and that’s fine,” in an unconvincing tone. She had been wanting to talk about this with him for a while now. “A few quirks can enhance your thing - make it more impressive or unusual,” Highmond’s face went lava hot, and he looked down - at the ground or his pantslessness, Edna did not know. “But you can’t build an identity out of them,” she continued, “there isn’t enough substance there.”

“I see,” he soon said, but Edna wasn’t positive he did, and she needed to make sure the zeppelin-riding scholar who always wore a tuxedo, used jetpacks in place of parachutes, had a robotic turtle sidekick that lived across multiple bodies, and kept trying to make canes useful understood.

“I once knew an adventurer, an archer, called the Great Greg,” she began.

“Oh, dear,” Highmond said involuntarily. Archers were a dime a dozen among adventurers. You could hardly fire an arrow without hitting someone who knew how to fire it back at you. Because of that, the ones who made archery their thing had to be always innovating. Explosive arrows led to knockout-gas arrows, which led to fist arrows that punched, which led to therapy arrows that turned into blow-up couches and listened as their targets talked through their traumas.

“To avoid the arms race,” she went on, “he experimented in other areas.” She was suddenly very tired of standing, so she moved to sit by the soon-to-be fire, helping Iona as she spoke. Highmond followed and sat across from them both. “First he added roller skates,” Edna continued darkly, “which worked alright, as long as he stayed in the city. But soon that wasn’t enough. He needed people to pay attention to him, so one day he built a kind of wearable sound system that blasted up-beat music as he skated along.”

“No!” Iona cried, shuddering.

Highmond was visibly unnerved. “But, what of stealth?” he added.

The fire peeked into life at the end of Edna’s poker. She leaned in as it gained strength, and the others followed. Their chins and the bottoms of their noses were glowing in the swimming, orange light. “What of stealth? It was dead to The Great Greg.” She darkened even further, her eyes darting between her friends, her head never moving. “But it gets worse, for even that would have been workable, if he had meshed it all into a cohesive image. He could have called himself Party Archer or The Rad Bow or something similar.”

The others looked dubious, but she just shrugged and continued. “It would have relegated him to the b-list of action-adventurers, but he’d still have a career. Instead, one day, Greg had an idea. He realized that arrows are really no good in tight-quarters, and so got to work on bringing a new talent into his arsenal.” She paused, looked back and forth, then enunciated as clearly as she ever had, “Close. Up. Magic.

Gasps from across the flames!

“How could he!” Highmond roared.

“What was he thinking!” Iona yelled.

Edna leaned back, satisfied, as she waited for them to calm. Finally Highmond asked, with great fear and no pants, “What happened next?”

“He got a job at the headquarters of the Adventuring League,” she started casually, then lowered her voice as she leaned back in. “As”, she looked to Highmond, “an” she looked to Iona, “Accountant!” She bellowed over the fire and the others screamed in terror, for this was the worst fate any adventurer feared. Neither death nor dismemberment could haunt their dreams so much as sitting at a desk all day, adding numbers in one column, then subtracting them from another (or whatever accountants actually do, most adventurers can’t be bothered to figure that out). Edna, of course, thought it sounded like a nice, peaceful life, but she had known how it would affect her companions.

When the screams and the laughter were done, and Highmond had wiped his eyes and straightened his mustache a thousand times, he asked, “Is that true?”

“Yes,” Edna said, her voice back to normal, “but whether or not it happened doesn’t matter. The truth of it - the important truth - is that when you create quirks, by faking interests or manufacturing choices, you build them like walls around yourself. Eventually the world will only see the walls - flat, boring walls, devoid of meaning - while you suffocate inside.”

Highmond nodded, a little sadly, so she knew he understood. To soften the blow, she added, “If your quirks are genuine - actually a part of you - that’s different of course. Then you’re just eccentric, and that’s--” Edna stopped herself from saying what she actually thought of eccentricity, “--fine. It’s fine. Yeah, it’s fine.”

She stopped, watching Highmond. He sat there in the light of the flame and still no pants, nodding slowly at the fire. Iona excused herself so it was only Edna and Highmond now. The longer he stayed silent the worse Edna began to feel. Had she been too preachy at the end? He didn’t ask for her advice. Why did she always feel the need to give it? When he finally spoke, Edna felt like she’d been waiting a thousand years to hear his answer - like she was a distant descendent of the true Edna Star, who had heard in prophecy and myth that one day this old bobble-head might utter a response to a long-forgotten parable.

Highmond suddenly jumped to his feet “HAH! Edna Star! Giving me advice! Oh, how lucky I am!” he said, fulfilling the prophecy - like all prophecies - in a confusing and unexpected manner. “You’ll turn me into a proper adventurer before we’re through!” Then he began to dance around the fire.

Edna was so relieved she hardly knew what to say. She felt a little tap tap at the back of her mind - Grief was whispering something through the mail slot, but Edna let the joyous sounds of Highmond’s raucous, pantless dance drown it out. Iona soon returned and, never one to miss a dance or an opportunity to be in her knickers, hiked her dress up and began to jig.

Soon they pulled the laughing Edna up, too. Her Pain was stood doing the washing in her head. She worried it wouldn’t let her join, but Pain smiled and nodded at the door of her mind. Go, have fun, it said, but be back by eleven or I'll come and pull you back myself! Edna raced to join her friends, yanking her pants down so as not to come overdressed to the party.

And they danced until they fell asleep, and it was the most fun Edna had ever had on an adventure.

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