Dim Prisons and Drakes (Part 1)
Dim Prisons and Drakes
I woke all at once, with none of the customary hangover effects. That alone was puzzling, if welcome. The last thing I remembered, I had been visiting the last bar of the evening-my fifth. I had been celebrating getting my job as a legal aide to the firm Jenson, Jenson, and Jenson. Pretty good for a recent law school graduate, a middle rung firm, nothing like dealing in the big leagues, but solidly middle-class clients. Small businesses, a few activist groups, and every once in awhile one of the few really sensational cases that hit Ohio like a meteor, with the same frequency.
Cataloging effects, I realized immediately I wasn't at home. The bed was too soft, and somehow lumpy at the same time. As if the box springs had not been included. Feeling around, I started paying attention to what my eyes were telling me. I was in an honest to gods four post bed; I didn't recognize the wood grain. I also didn't recognize the hand fondling the wood grain. Or the hand with which I reached out to that first hand, though both were my own. They were both small, delicate, hairless and a pale white.
Last night they were larger, callused, and a healthy nut brown color.
My voice had also shrank, from a nice baritone to a light melodious soprano. I looked down but was unable to tell much, swaddled in thick quilts as I was. It actually required a fair amount of effort to pull them off, and I discovered....
"No no no no nonononono!"
I came back to myself in the bathroom, or what was left of it. The place was shocking. The shower was a clawed tub, made perhaps of brass. The counter and medicine cabinet were both made of wood, common cedar lacquered to a glow. There were at least three buckets, slatted wood banded by iron. There were no taps to be seen. There was no toilet. And the mirror....
It was a large piece of what had to be steel, polished somehow to a mirror finish; there were a few places that were a little warped, it was not perfect. Not silver backed glass at all. Mirrors like this hadn't been made for centuries, I was sure.
And that mirror was showing a small woman, petite and fine boned. Skin so pale she glowed in the light, hair dark as a raven's wing, and eyes of pale lavender. Young yes, but not a girl; the breasts were plainly tenting the elaborate dress she wore, and her hips flared outward with an appreciable curve.
She also had pointed ears. When I moved my hair back, I could see them. And of course that acknowledgment was what had set me off in the first place; the room wasn't some strange throwback, the entire house was. And I had pointed ears and breasts. Looking back out, I noticed the hall had no lights; I looked back into the bathroom; it had a candelabra hanging from the ceiling, a crude looking iron affair, all black with large uneven rivets.
The kitchen looked positively barbaric; something out of the 12th century. the counters were heavy oak, There were pots hanging from some sort of framework. The knife rack was far from the machined block I was used to, and the knives were larger. The oven was a large stone fireplace with some sort of iron contraption set off to the side, and a hook on a crude hinge. A fire was set, but not lit, and an absolutely huge cauldron was placed over it. Iron seemed to be the order of the day. The fridge was instead a huge chest... filled with ice, and what appeared to be mutton, cheese, and butter.
Oh, crap. I felt lighter than air as I ran back to my den. The heavy oaken door was only the start of what was wrong there. My desk was absolutely huge, a dark almost black wood with intricate scroll-work depicting forest scenes. A heavy, crude table held glass bottles, beakers, and tools which I vaguely recognized. The problem was I shouldn't recognize them at all, I never did take chemistry.
And my pride and joy, my two thousand dollar computer... well if this was somehow my house. It seemed to be since the layout was exactly the same, and my house was one of those odd sprawling ranch houses that had had additions. And if it was, my prize computer rig was a large wood bound book, complete with a what looked to be a brass locking plate. Unwillingly I found myself getting close. Yes, it was a locking plate, shiny brass. It had a keyhole, inset in a circular plate which held a depression of a hand. The name of the book was "The various mysteries", written in beautiful calligraphy. The picture was of some sort of woman with four arms, holding the elements in each. It was not at all a victim of mass production.
There did not seem to be a single device made after the 16th century... unless it was made by the Amish.
Oh hell, what about outside?
The windows were just little wooden... doors? shutters? With a small bar locking them shut. I picked one in the kitchen to open. It was supposed to show a nice maple tree outside my front lawn, and my attached garage. Instead, it showed the same maple tree, right down the gnarled right-hand branch I broke while Climbing it as a child, and some sort of unattached outbuilding. The breeze was welcome at least.
My house was still at the end of the street, as it always was. On the outskirts of town. A changed town, with thatched roof houses made of wood-crude wood planks or logs in some cases, chinked with some substance that thankfully was not mud. Or at least I didn't think it was, it was white. there were no street lights or cars. No mailboxes, no perfectly manufactured fences. The grass wasn't cut.
The street wasn't even paved. It was beaten earth, a track leading directly from my house. My house was different though; it was cut stone, finely placed. At least if my kitchen wall was any judge. I eased the shutters back till they were almost closed, so I could look out hopefully unobserved.
There was no way this could be a dream; even if my imagination was this good (it wasn't) I'd never felt the texture of cut stone in a dream before. The cool stone block my hand was pressed to was just too... there to ignore. No motion save that caused by the wind outside. No people, no animals. Barely any sound. The sun was barely on its way up. Had I really woken up so early? If I wasn't completely crazy (a big if) then I'd only slept about 2 hours, tops.
I felt rested enough, without even the hint of mental fog I should have. Or perhaps that was the secret; maybe I had been slipped a hallucinogen while in that last bar. Hmm... but if so, this was one of the best hallucinations I'd heard of. There were no out of place elements. No random BS to make you go "whoa, I be trippin", it was all very mundane so far... if you were living in the dark ages or something. Still, that might be the explanation. It would certainly explain why I wasn't hung over, and could feel things. Might even explain the damn dress. Less explainable of course was how I filled said dress out, or why I could feel bounce on my chest when I moved.
It's a sad day when you have to hope that you've been given a psychedelic with long term drawbacks by unscrupulous persons. With nothing else to do, I decided on making tea. there was a tea kettle hanging from a hook near the unlit fire. It looked like I could just swing it in, to the side of the cauldron. I checked the cabinets; despite their new appearance (as old hand carved things of decent workmanship, showing a garden in bloom across their doors) the tea was exactly where I left it; the second cabinet to the right. But it was in a bag, as leaves.
I knew how to brew tea the old time-honored way, of course, so I took the flint and steel (also hanging on a small hook above the mantle) and struck, lighting the fire. Luckily enough, the kettle sloshed full. I tasted it with a finger. It was water, tasting slightly of metal from its stay in copper. I had no idea where the water's source was. There was no source for it inside the house, but it stood to reason if I had somehow been whisked away to Amish-land, that there would be an outside well.
So I let the tea steep a bit while I pondered. Everything had its place, and that place was where I would put it. Or to be more precise, where I had put its counterpart in my house. The tea was where my tea had been, and while not being Lipton it was tea. The icebox, filled with food that I would prefer (I was most thankfully not a vegetarian) was where my refrigerator used to be. The bed was where my sleep comfort bed used to reside. Now unless someone had played the most elaborate prank in the history of the world, everything I owned had become some sort of dark ages or Medieval era counterpart.
Which does nothing to explain the pointy ears, or the breasts, or the unobstructed breeze between my legs. Or even the size. Last I heard gender reassignment couldn't take a foot off your height, or give you bones about the same size as a birds. The dress even looked... well good. I could admit to myself that if I were really a chick like this in a strange bizarro Amish world, I would own a dress like this. Dark blue skirt attached to a short sleeved white top with light blue accents. It did not constrict much and was made of light cotton. Hardly my first choice, but if that was the fashion I could do worse.
Movement pulled my eye. One of my neighbors was cautiously stepping out into the now bright summer morning. It was Phil. Phil was a middle-aged accountant that worked for some H&R block clone. He was prematurely graying, balding, and beginning to broaden a bit at the waist. Divorced with two kids he was paying for but never saw, he was a thoroughly beaten man. At least, all that was true last night. This morning he was still prematurely gray, and still balding. But he appeared to have lost a good 50 pounds off his middle. He also had biceps bigger than my own had been - maybe bigger than my new thighs.
Pretty good exercise program for a single night.
At the same time, it was obviously Phil; it was still his face. He had come out of what would be Phil's house in bizarro world, even though it had gone from a neo-colonial to a wood planked single story house with a rush roof. Still a bit of a worry wart, he stepped out onto his now unkempt lawn, a large stick in his right hand. It had the look of a weapon.
Well not my first choice on who to see, but beggars can't choose, I suppose.
The door out was just past the living room, which was a room I had until this moment blown by, and I wasn't sure I had the time to catalog it now, but.... Well, the loom stopped me. An honest to the Gods loom, sitting there with bundles of thread and cloth under it. Hell. No. In the other corner was a guitar and dulcimer, the center of the room was taken up by a large couch formed into a half circle. Of course, my television and DVD player were missing. In their place was a fireplace, with some sort of iron box set near it. The box had holes and shapes cut into it.
Enough, no time to explore all this. There was a sword and dagger hanging on a peg next to the door. I left the sword but took the dagger. Opening the door got me immediate attention from a slightly shell-shocked neighbor. I rushed out, realized I had forgotten shoes, and rushed back to find a pair of beautifully crafted but painfully small looking leather boots. Phil started walking towards me as I was shoving my feet in them (of course, they fit), and so we met nearly in my yard. He towered over me by a good foot or more, and by weight alone could likely make 2 of me.
I struck first.
"Philip, is that you?"
What the... Philip? Where had that come from, I'd always called him Phil before.
"It is Lady Muse, do you...?"
He stopped dead, an almost comical look of confusion on his face. I'd have laughed if I was sure my face didn't mirror it. He tried again.
It was like he wanted to say my name, but his mouth was forming other words against his will. I gave it a shot.
"That is not my name."
"And yet it is."
He nodded again.
"Your name is Philip, and my name is... "
I led him on, hoping he could connect the dots. He tried.
"N N NN Ne-Lady Muse."
He shot clear through confusion to outright alarm, and I was right on his heels.
"I've been your neighbor for years, right?"
"I didn't look like this yesterday?"
He shook his head and added his own two copper.
"Heck, I didn't look like this yesterday; and you... well, you were a guy!"
So if this was a hallucination, it was a shared one.
"You don't think someone spiked our food with shrooms or something, do you?"
He shook his head.
"Too persistent for a drug trip my Lady, is everything in your house changed like mine?"
I refused to tell him about the stupid loom. I wasn't making clothes for anyone, screw that, though he looked like he needed new ones, that homespun wool tunic and pants couldn't be comfy... With a shake of my head, I snapped out of it.
"Yeah, it's all changed, got fireplaces and copper pots and my computer's gone."
He nodded grimly.
"Same here, I wonder how far it spreads? I mean judging by all the houses whatever happened hit the entire street at the very least."
"No... I hear no cars, no trucks, no engines or anything else. No sirens or anything else. Whatever it was hit the entire town. Let's take a walk."
I pointed to his stick. "Expecting trouble?"
"Not sure, seemed like a good idea at the time. you were too I think." He pointed to my dagger.
"Won't argue the point. I'm kinda hoping that everyone else isn't as big as you. I can already tell you I hate feeling tiny."
He laughed. "You are pretty runty, but that's the way elves are, right?"
We stared at each other, the unwanted epiphany bonding us both in that moment.
"Well, at least I'm not a Vulcan, that would be just plain disturbing. Come on."
More people were beginning to come out now, hesitant and bewildered but following our example. There were numerous calls and I heard my new name more than once, spoken with at least a touch of awe. What that meant, I had no idea. Yesterday most of these people wouldn't do more than give me the polite brush off. One of my worst fears was realized. Even the women were larger than I was. Heck, Laura Miles, our resident bottle bleach blonde (who was no longer blonde, but instead a brown that could best be described as dirty diaper brown) stood a full head taller than me. She looked roughly the same, still very pretty, but dressed in gray wool like perhaps half the people present. I saw only one person in cotton, and that was her father, the owner of the village bank. There was a rather disturbing amount of cured leather, though; quite the BDSM crowd here.
And of course, I was the only one who looked so... drastically unlike themselves.
Each neighbor that came out and joined our walk sank my hopes a little more. I had REALLY hoped I had somehow licked the wrong frog or something. But they all looked of a piece, they were not Amish (there was more than a little swearing) and the entire population of 2500 could not lick the same frog. It just couldn't happen. My mind switched almost unwillingly to something in the water... but I never drank water. Fish poo in water, it's just not safe!
We made our way through the next few streets, now spotting other groups like ours. Everywhere I looked I saw homespun wool, leather, and bewilderment. In many cases outright fear. More than on person, opening their door and spotting my group or another, simply shut it again.
The final streets, in the center of town, were paved with rough cobbled stone inset into the ground to make a roughly smooth surface. On main street, where our few businesses were located, there were even more spectacular changes. Our bed and breakfast, once a rather large rambling two-story house that rented rooms to people lost enough to find us, was an inn.
It no longer looked like a house at all, being a large two story box made of logs. The sign out front depicted a sleeping ogre. There were no words. Next to it, and I mean right next to it, was a stable. It was a complete stable, with horses and mules, as well as a few oxen. The building shouldn't even be there. Yesterday it was... it was... hell, what was it yesterday? Ah, an ice cream shop!
I know I expected that business to fold in a matter of months, but this was kind of a spectacular way to fail.
Several paces beyond the stables was another building; it used to belong to Matt, who had taken over his fathers' repair shop and garage. Matt and his father Brian could always repair anything with a motor, and almost anything that ran on electricity. They never threw anything out, a stance which saw the city try to evict them more than once. Something about beautification and property values.
Their business had become a blacksmiths. Sign depicting an anvil, open barn-like half of the building with a great fire roaring inside, tools hung up along the walls. Three anvils of differing sizes placed next to multiple large buckets. And most importantly perhaps, Brain Lockland stoking the aforementioned fire with a long iron poker. I altered my course.
He turned to look and waved. Then went back to poking the fire. Finally I got close enough, running to outpace my entourage. I think I summed up the situation rather well.
"Brian, what the hell?!?"
"Good morning Muse. Thought I'd get an early start on the day, things are going to get hectic around here."
"But... but... what the hell?!?"
He got close, towering over me. Darn it, why is everyone so huge? He was already redolent with the smell of sweat, and made Philip look small.
"Simple math, my Lady. Yesterday I knew how to repair carburetors. Today I know how to shoe a horse or fix a wagon wheel. I do want to know exactly what happened, perhaps even as much as you want to know. But that is a mystery for wiser heads then mine to unravel. So for now, I stoke the fire and prepare the steel and iron."
He raised his voice, turning away from me and back to the fire.
"Don't hesitate to let me know if you find anything out."
He felt like the entire problem was too big for him, so he passed? I didn't get it. To be that passive was anathema to me. Perhaps he'd feel like I do if he woke up a shrimp of a woman. Perhaps when I was done trying to deal with this, I'd ask him.
"Does Matt feel the same way?"
Brian grabbed a chunk of metal and threw it in the fire.
"Matt is not awake; he said something earlier this morning about drinking with some buddy of his, celebrating a new job."
Oops. Of course Matt had been with me; but my hangover had been cured. Why wasn't his? Or wasn't it? I felt rested, didn't he?
"I didn't feel like waking him Muse, he'll come to the world in his own time."
"Alright, got it. Try to keep sane, OK?"
I moved on, head awhirl. The crowd was milling around behind me, muttering to each other in such a way that I could pick nothing useful out.
"When you lot figure it out, let me know, alright? Until then there is work to be done." He reminded me.
"Sure thing." I called, wondering what he saw that I didn't. I was pretty sure I was as lost as the rest of the people here, including him. The choice to just wake up, know smithing, and decide to live as a blacksmith seemed surreal.
And what did I know? How to play the dulcimer. How to weave cloth. How to cook, but I always knew a bit about that. No, now I knew how to cook dark ages style, roasts on spits and similar things. Looking around I could see people as lost as I was... but it was easy to see them as farmers, or herders, or hunters. Heck the local dollar store had been converted to a general store. But yesterday I knew law. I had studied years to gain knowledge of the law. And today I knew... what?
I didn't know, but I did know that my hard earned education was gone. Precedents, amendments, even tax law-it all drew a blank. Maybe that was one of the secrets of this thing. Brian could work as a smith because he had been given the knowledge; it had been popped into his head like it belonged there, and the rest of us didn't have that, perhaps?
Or maybe it was just that he, like me, thought that there was no way to make sense of this mess, and wanted to leave it to wiser heads? I could relate to that.
I snuck my way along the edge of the crowd, taking note of other changes. Beyond our new general store/market, was a two story home, made of rather handsome brick. A bit crude by the standards I was used to, but much better than anything else this morning, save perhaps my house. I knew Mayor Adam Conratty lived there, and today he was up early (for him). He was one of the few that while bigger than I, would not tower over me like a giant.
Small, with sparse brown hair in a ridiculous comb over and rich clothes - a pair of cotton trousers, a silk shirt and dark red leather vest, he cut a rather ludicrous figure. His toupee was missing of course, but as if to replace it he had a sword buckled to his side. He was talking to Ed Landrys, our village sheriff, in front of his house.
Ed was very different. Of medium height and build before, his weight had shifted from his middle to his arms. He looked a bit like a tank with legs. He also looked a bit younger than his 40 years. He had on leather pants, with a cotton shirt and ring mail over that. A very large sword hung from his back, and an ax from his belt. I did my best to sneak up.
"...still, we have to find out just what all this is! The people will expect us to know!"
"I understand that mayor, but we've no phones, no computers, no electricity, hell there was a railroad line that cut through here yesterday, and it's gone. My car was a white horse this morning, no CB on that. We'll have to walk anywhere, and see if we can get to a big city, find out what they know."
"And that through what appears to be wilderness now. Oh, hello Lady Muse. Interesting day, isn't it?"
Well since they saw me I edged closer. The look in the mayor's eye wasn't exactly filling me with confidence though. It was as if he were setting me up for something.
"Interesting is an understatement gentlemen. I see the same phenomenon hit here. It hit the entire town?"
Ed answered. "It did, everything from your street to the rail line, which is now a tannery. The stench is... well it's bad."
"I can imagine." I'd been to a tannery before. I wondered for a moment why these two were so chatty with me, since I was one of the citizenry they wouldn't want to panic, but shelved that in favor of voicing the fear we all had.
"So chances are, this isn't just some local thing. The train tracks disappearing and trees here suggest that this may have hit all over."
Yesterday, fields were pretty much all that were around this village for miles. Now today, while there were still a few fields, great old growth trees had sprang up over night, and to the east and west of us were actual forests.
"It might be. But it could be that just our stretch was hit by this... whatever it was. The tracks, and roads and such could start back up just a few miles down the road. We will need to find out."
"But which way?"
"Best direction would be north, but I checked. Our road north is gone. So whoever we send should probably go east, then try to head north. Best choice to go would be Toledo, bound to have some answers there."
I had to ask. "Well can't we just go overland to the north? Even without a road it can't be that bad."
Ed looked at me grimly. "Roads, even unpaved ones, denote civilization. Going just straight north sounds good, but we don't know what else is out there. It could be nothing is. but it could be something is. It could even be that whatever did this to us, is."
"I see your point. I think a town meeting needs to be called, and this plan needs to be worked out by everyone. See you two a bit later."
I'd spotted something else down the distance, in what could only be our new village green, in the center of town where the park once stood. An old fashioned well, with buckets and all. Some of the women were drawing water and talking next to it. I only recognized the mayors wife, Sylvia Conratty.
She was a gossip and a harpy.
When I was a child, before I put away childish things, I used to skate. One year my friends and I made a plywood half-pipe. H aving no where else to put it, we spent our own money to buy the materials and made it in the park. Thanks to my dad, we had the city's permission and everything.
It was only up a month before Sylvia petitioned to have the 'eyesore' demolished. She didn't stop until it was. It took a month, but she managed. A terrible end to a wonderful summer spent catching air. That was a decade ago. and that decade had not been kind to her; she had lost much of her trophy wife looks. Her blonde hair was now the color of used dishwater, her face sagging.
You could say I was a bit bitter.
She was a study of contrasts this morning. On the one hand, she was obviously miserable to be doing any sort of work herself, let alone something so domestic as drawing water. As I approached she drank half of it and sent the bucket down again. On the other hand, she seemed to be in her gossipy element, holding court among her own neighbors.
"...And I think that... oh, Lady Muse. Good morning."
Well, this did not bode well. "A good morning of sorts. If I may?"
I gestured at the well, and she moved back. "Of course! Please, help yourself."
I took over, drawing the bucket up. "So, you were saying?"
"Oh, we were just discussing how all this could be possible."
Finally the bucket reached the top and I used my hands to cup the water and drink. The good Sylvia, with poor grace, took the rest into her own bucket almost immediately. No doubt already plotting to boil it to remove my germs.
"By all means continue. You had a culprit in mind?"
"Well I would almost think that it would have to be...."
"AAAHHHHHHH HELP ME!"
I headed to the sound of the screams without further ado. Whatever she thought was probably wrong, and stupid in ways I didn't want to contemplate. The scream had come from the north, on the outskirts of town. Kind of ironic, in a way.
I reached the end of the street just as Ed passed me; with a long effortless stride he made it look easy. Vigo Iverson had always been a farmer, he owned and worked a good 500 acres yesterday. I was willing to bet that today he cultivated less. He ran past me in his underwear, not seeing me or anyone else. After taking a look toward the end of town, I didn't blame him at all.
...Was that a dinosaur?
Vigo's house had always been a lavish thing before, a three story rambling place just past the village limits. I couldn't really tell how well made it was anymore because of the two legged lizard currently sitting on it. Luckily Vigo was a widower whose children had long since moved away, so we could be reasonably sure no one had been hurt, yet.
And yet, dinosaur. Two legged, short stubby arms, a good 15 feet tall if it was an inch. and the teeth, big as knives of course. The name learned in childhood, when most kids learn them came swimming into focus: Tyrannosaurus Rex. The king of tyrants, or something. It was a brown that might have blended into the forest if it weren't so big, with a tough looking hide and large three toed feet tipped in claws as long as my arm.
And of course Ed goes ahead and charges the darn thing with a war cry. Takes a swipe at the toe and his sword bounces off. Amazingly, Ed dodges the lunge by that huge head, rolling just out of the way. I looked between this melee, and my dagger. Ed was alone. Everyone else who had come to gawk was behind me, or busy following Vigo. Distantly I heard doors slam.
I had to do something... but what could I do? The answer came from the mouths of idiots.
I spotted Melvin entering stage left. Now Melvin was a kid, years younger than I was. He was also a huge nerd. For some reason during my college years, when I was still frequenting the lone comic shop in our area (the Dragon's Hoard, next town over) he had bonded to me like a kicked puppy. For years he had engaged in a soft form of stalking, trying to get me involved in his role playing groups and live action activities. Of course I said no, that crap gave me the hives.
So I knew when I saw him coming out in a rough brown woolen robe, rushing past me towards the possible dinosaur unarmed, that it would be good. Good in the most bad, awful way.
Melvin stopped 30 feet away from the death match, where a bloodied Ed had his blade up between him and the now confused lizard. He began making throwing motions with his right hand and screaming.
"Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!"
Oh my gods... was he trying to live action the thing to death?
The dinosaur turned from him to Ed and back again, fixing them both with it's beady eyes. No doubt trying to decide who to eat first. Another look at Ed's sword decided it; obviously Ed was tougher to digest. With a bellow it started towards Melvin. And of course that's when it happened.
I could see the texture of the creature's skin, minute pebbles. I could see Melvin pale and scream louder, with more raw panic. The acidic stench of urine hit my nose like a flood.
And the lightning bolt formed in my mind, a structure somehow conforming to atmospheric dynamics and the laws of physics. Both things I only barely understood. But I knew... I KNEW that beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the lightning bolt in my mind was real and would strike the dinosaur.
That it would in fact kill the dinosaur.
For a millisecond or a year, that image held in my mind. Unspent potential digging like a splinter in my core. Then when I could stand it no longer, I released it.
And a real honest to gods lightning bolt flew from my outstretched hand and struck the dinosaur in the face. I closed my sensitive eyes against the discharge, but managed to see the poor creatures eyes cross before it fell over like a cow receiving a bolt in the head at a slaughterhouse. Also like the cow, it did not move. I opened my eyes and blinked spots from them as Ed walked over and plunged his huge sword into a handy eye. The thing didn't even twitch.
"That was awesome! That was so amazing! And you're an elf hottie now, that's so cool! Teach me how to do that!"
Melvin danced around me, oblivious to his own close call. He had been a bit too close to the discharge-he now sported an Afro that would do a 70's exploitation film proud. The sour stench of his urine completed the image, as he danced around in soiled robes.
I couldn't help myself. I laughed.
I quickly noticed my laughter had a rather manic edge to it that I did not like at all, so I stopped.
"Melvin, go take a bath. Now, please."
Melvin, who had still been doing some half-baked tribal style victory dance long past the point where that ceased to be funny, stopped with a suddenly sheepish expression.
Despite myself, I softened. The kid brought out the worst in me, really.
"It's fine, OK? It's fine. Just... go bathe, you stink a bit."
He nodded and ran back inside his own home. For a brief moment, I wondered where his parents were, then dismissed the thought in favor of more immediate concerns. At least now I knew why they were all calling me a Lady, though the Muse thing still made no sense.
Made perfect sense to be ultra polite to someone who could dump a lightning bolt on your head. And the term Lady here was obviously meant as a salve to the ego. I turned to Ed, who was still poking the dinosaur with his sword.
"It's dead you know, you made very sure."
He nodded with some puzzlement still evident. "Indeed, though I've no doubt your spell was the true culprit behind the beast's demise. I was simply wondering how good an armor the hide would make. And also whether or not the beast is good to eat."
He must have seen something in my expression. "What, my Lady? We don't want it going to waste, do we?"
No, I guess we can't have that. Besides, how would we bury the thing?
"I guess not... just check it for parasites before you go cooking it. Not fond of eating worms."
"A good point. Alright. you men, get some ropes! We'll drag this thing out of town and cook it there!"
Shudder. Was I the only one that had sanity left? Well judging by the amount of foot dragging as Ed's 'help' threw ropes around the carcass and oxen were brought and harnessed into place, I might not be. Though I guess eating it is a better option than having something else attracted to the smell since it was in town. Ed only had one deputy, hmm....
Oddly enough for all the of the crowd's low-grade roar, the minute I spoke up with a polite tone and only a bit more force than normal, I was heard immediately. The crowd had upon my approach, stifled itself almost completely. No doubt I would be fully ostracized by nightfall. I shook my head - there were more important things to worry about than my social life.
"Yes, Lady Muse, what is it?"
"Mayor, Ed only has one deputy."
"Yes, Karl. a bright young lad as I recall, fresh out of college...."
"Yes, Mayor, but maybe we need to help them both. I think we should set a watch."
He cocked his head, looking like nothing so much as a turkey in that moment-confused and flightless, with little recourse save waddling and clucking. Or whatever sound turkeys actually make.
"Yes, a watch. People watching the woods and plains from the outskirts of town to make sure that another predator can't sneak up and attack our friends and neighbors without timely response from us. As it stands, we are nearly defenseless."
The change from bird to calculating politician was immediate and remarkable.
"An excellent suggestion! Philip, find Karl, tell him to pick some men! Good stout men! We can watch at the corners...."
I left the planning session without a word; I had to find Vigo. He wasn't anywhere in the crowd, but well beyond it at the well, his back to the stones that made it. Hunched and miserable, unless I missed my guess.
"Don't worry, the house isn't as bad as it looks. I think only one room is affected, and maybe the supports for the upper story where the head came in."
"Thank goodness for that - what was it Lady Muse?"
Well, confusion was a better sight than shell shock, and it seemed to be the order of the day anyway.
"A kind of dinosaur. A T-Rex I think. Remember 'Jurassic Park'?"
"But... how did it get here? I mean one minute I'm looking for my entertainment center, the next there is a face through it. I didn't even hear the thing come up, though I wasn't really listening for it. I mean, who expects to be attacked by a dinosaur?"
"Well safe to say not a soul worried about it before today. Was there anyone else at home?"
He looked at me oddly for a moment. "I live alone Lady Muse, you know that."
So certain circumstances didn't seem to change. Vigo seemed a small sample to draw from, but he was merely the last. I'd been noting wedding rings, who left and entered certain houses, and oft-stolen glances between certain participants. I now felt safe in assuming that marriages, trysts, and any other arrangements survived whatever had happened this morning. Which meant that Vigo's surviving relatives should be states away, and beyond any immediate help we could give or receive.
But you can't take such things for granted when you wake up a wisp of a girl. I was suffering from a severe lack of information, but I was sure of one thing. There were others like me out there, rare as a transformation like mine seemed to be. Hopefully, there were no worse.
For all I knew, that dinosaur was a dog yesterday. Hey wait, that was a good thought! Vigo had two German shepherds yesterday. Where were they now?
"Vigo, where are your dogs?"
"I don't know, they used to be inside with me, but they lit out when the dinosaur hit the house. Didn't even try to protect me, the cowards."
He upended the well bucket over his face messily while I pondered. I couldn't blame the dogs, I don't think I'd protect him from dinosaurs either. But....
"Did the dogs sense anything?"
"Yeah they were barking and causing a fuss; that's why I looked out the window in the first place."
"Excellent; do me a favor?"
He turned to me, asking the question with his eyes before his mouth cracked open. "What do you need, my Lady?"
"Go find Karl, and tell him the watch needs dogs. At least 2 dogs with good senses per watch position set."
"Oh, good idea Lady Muse! I'll go find him right now!"
And since you aren't really hurt, it'll keep you busy and out of the way. Not to mention less depressed because you're actually doing something pro-active. I stole a glance at Sylvia. Too bad I couldn't do that with everyone. Suddenly there was too much noise. Just too many people, talking non-stop about things they had no way of knowing about. I couldn't take one more casually overheard stupid theory about what had happened.
As before, none noticed me leaving; apparently I could be quiet when I wanted to be. Besides, I couldn't quite shake the idea that there were more clues back at my new/old house. The trip back took almost no time at all; even with the dress trying it's best to trip me, I could manage a respectable speed.
The outbuilding I had passed up earlier was the place to be now; it was a stable. No animals of any kind inside, sweet fresh hay on the stall floors and small tools designed to punch leather placed neatly in order on a large counter. Under that a few well-made drawers held other tools of unfamiliar purpose, as well as a few items I understood. Like the curry brushes for example, obviously for horses. I didn't own any, though, something I found odd.
I'd seen a few horses already here and there, they had seemed to take the place of cars. I had a car last night. but no horse or any other beast of burden today. So obviously this stable was meant for others, no need for fresh hay in a stable where the owner had no animals, unless said owner expected guests. There were no fences, so I did not own a pasture. the water trough was full, the water clear. Old rain water would be brackish, I'd think.
Though then again, the water may have just been poofed there like the rest of bizarro Amish-world. However out back, behind the stable was another well. This one was much smaller than the town well, with only room for one bucket at a time. The stone was white; I did not recognize it. It also didn’t appear to be placed by any mason, instead appearing to have somehow raised itself from the earth organically.
Evidence of magic perhaps? Something other than calling down destructive forces? But whose hand, mine or another's?
Just beyond the well was an irrigated garden; no pictures or words, and too early in the season for me to find out what if anything was planted there by looking at the plants themselves. Not that I was an expert in plants. Just beyond the rather large garden were trees, apple, and cherry. I knew both of those because in my childhood I had loved both fruits, and researched them with the idea of convincing my mother to plant a tree of each for pies and the like. Turned out that I couldn't even get her to give the planting idea a first thought, let alone a second. Trees of our own could not compete with store bought, it seemed.
After dad died, all thoughts of trees withered; I was a bit busy ensuring we had money to eat at all. But here they were, just as I had envisioned them so many years before. An apple to the left, and a good 60-70 feet away a cherry tree on the right. Both offering shade and little else at the moment, but both very welcome and exactly where I would have planted them. Both about 8 to 10 years old.
The dark musty rabbit hole yawned before me for a moment; only it was a pitch black inky stretch with a sulfurous smell and unspeakable noises.
"N-Muse! You here?"
And just like that, I was back. A little disoriented, I stumbled back towards the house. I knew who was calling me the very instant I heard the voice. It had changed slightly, into a deeper tenor than I strictly remembered last night, but I could still recognize it easily somehow. I could only hope the same thing were true for him. It was of course, my drinking buddy. Matt Lockland, son of Brian and now default apprentice smith.
I turned the corner of my new stable to find him approaching it. Tall (more tall than I was, but I was growing to expect that from everyone) with hair a sandy sort of brown and somewhat large liquid blue eyes, he was not quite as impressive as his father was muscle wise, but it was obvious he wasn't too far from it. Yesterday he was all of 5 foot 4 and maybe 150 soaking wet.
It looked good on him. Were my eyes as wide as his?
"So I sort of knew when I woke up you'd be different, but wow... actually seeing the difference is something else."
"Wait, you did? You knew I was different?"
I caught his arm and dragged him back towards the house, but not before he caught a glimpse of the trees. His eyes widened again, realizing the significance immediately. I just kept tugging, and soon enough he answered me.
"Well not exactly, but when dad mentioned a 'Lady Muse' I knew he meant you, and it sort of came out of nowhere. What's going on?"
I snorted - delicately. I don't think I was allowed to sound vulgar in any way anymore. And I don't know where that idea came from. Maybe I'd try later.
"Hmm... interesting, I have no such knowledge regarding any of you. And as for what's going on, your guess is as good as mine. Our world went to hell somehow, all I know."
Perhaps the knowledge regarding people being different only occurred when the people you knew were, well, very different? I mean everyone else in town was human. The only certain thing was my list of questions today had just gotten beyond any sane mental length... I'd need to write them all down or something.
I had to drag Matt to a seat in the kitchen and plunk him down in it. I started making tea for us for something to do.
"Wow, I didn't really want to look at much before I got here, but your kitchen kinda brings it all home, no pun intended."
"You didn't even look at your room? Bet that old Megadeath poster is something really funny today."
"Ugh, don't remind me, I saw it! It was a poster of the God of smithing."
Interesting.... "Oh? Do tell."
"Why? You think it might be relevant?"
I gave him his tea before answering. "I think it all is. You woke up today a smith's apprentice, with a poster of the God of smiths hanging above your head. What did it say?"
"Vulcan bless our works. It mostly had pictures of a huge guy I assumed to be Vulcan doing forge things."
"Vulcan, huh?" Wasn't that a roman name for the god of the forge?
"So you didn't have anything like that?"
I snapped back from ponderingsville. Only a year ago, I had posters of bands and the like still present throughout my own animal den. However, I took them down in favor of some rather bland landscape prints that, I realized oddly enough, had not changed at all. I remembered seeing them where they had hung in my old house, crude nails rather than little hooks holding them up now, no doubt.
"No, my wall coverings are unchanged, at least to a casual eye. I'm willing to bet they are real paintings as opposed to reprints now. I doubt Gutenberg set up shop in this reality, at least not yet."
"Truer words were never spoken. Looked at your books yet?"
Dread found my core and twisted it.
"No, only the one that replaced my computer. I take it you have?"
"Well, I only own a few really, not the reader you are... and they are right next to my bed, so I couldn't help but see them. I had a few fantasy books, they seem to be the same, though I have a feeling we'd better read them to make sure. My nonfiction has changed, though. History books seem absolutely fine, but everything else nonfiction is just weird. My Chevy engine manual, for example, is now a treatise on how hot flames need to be to correctly alloy certain metals, and how to stoke them."
"Ack... Now I don't even want to look. All those books I had."
I had almost no fiction in my mini library. Over half of my books were books on laws around the world or history. The other half were trash that I'd been meaning to get rid of for years. Now it might be interesting to see what those had become... or it might not. After all, Matt's fantasy books seemed unchanged. Hmm, a thought....
"What about the sci fi?"
He shook his head ruefully and drained his tea. "Those, are a total loss. Nothing survived. Anything with guns, planes, space ships, any of it without being pure history is just gone. I don't know, maybe someone else's books survived, but mine didn't. And I loved me some Battlestar Galactica books too."
I could sympathize. If whatever happened were (Gods forbid) permanent, entire generations of people wouldn't know the works of Asimov or Bradbury for examples. Heck, no guns meant even King would be gone!
I do think we could all live without Clancy, or Patterson however.
"OK, I want to see your computer book."
My what? Why did dread clutch me again? "My what?"
"The book your computer became. My computer became a sort of steam engine. Yours became a book. Something tells me there is a weird connection there."
"Really? A steam engine? What does it do?" I led the way down the hall, leaving the kitchen fire low.
"Heats water currently; Not sure it works right. It's supposed to run a water pump. I didn't really look to hard at it, it wasn't important."
The unspoken thought was there here, and by default I, was important enough to drop everything. I couldn't really fault him for that; aside from my own ego, it was pretty obvious that to solve this thing we would all have to look for the out of place elements.
I fit that bill.
I led the way into the den with a flourish. "Here we are, that's it on the desk."
I took a look at some of the other titles I'd neglected this morning. History, history, periodical... oh hello. My trash might have just become something interesting.
"Got the key for this?"
I resolved to look at the new stuff later. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Hmm... I'd guess...around your neck."
I arched an eyebrow. He held his arms out as if I'd attack him. "Hey, just a guess. Looks like a real old book, full of forbidden knowledge; where else would you keep it?"
I shrugged and fished about my neck, finding a very fine chain there. I pulled it up and lo and behold, a small silver or silver plated key. Very suspicious. I should have felt it before, if only by where it was resting.
"Wow, you're good. That is if this isn't a key to the bathroom or something."
"Do you even have a bathroom? We only have an outhouse, and it stinks."
I shook my head. "Not sure what I've got. Didn't see an outhouse, but the bathroom has no toilet."
It took some time to work the chain around to see the clasp, it kept wanting to get caught in my ridiculous hair. But in no time, I was staring at a simple clasp, very easy for my fingers to work. Larger fingers might have an issue with it, though. The key fit smartly in the lock and turned easily with a loud click.
And as I opened the cover, sparkly dust took flight from the book, catching the dim light in a blinding rainbow effect. I blinked my eyes clear and met Matt's, doing the same.
"Not. One. Word."
"But, but... it's faerie dust!"
My small hands were around his large collar, pulling me up to his eye level since I couldn't pull him down. "One more word and it's a toad's life for you."
I had no idea how to make good my threat, but I'd find a way!
"Alright, alright your highness, don't get upset."
A glimpse of something... then it was gone. I yelled to cover the disquiet of those casual words.
"Don't call me that, jerk! This is serious. I am not some faerie princess, and if you don't drop it, you will be."
At that the book flipped pages violently while our eyes widened, coming to rest on the page: 'The spirit of matter and how it may be properly shaped by the strong mind'. I could feel my predatory grin split my face. Matt, on the other hand, looked lost.
"What's it say?"
"You can't read it?"
He shook his head. "That's some sort of elven, I can't read it. Though it makes sense that you're bilingual."
I frowned momentarily, then grinned again. "The book decided to leap to the page regarding polymorphs. I don't think it likes your taunts."
Matt took a step back despite himself. "OK OK, I got it, no more teasing. Just don't let it magic me."
Heh. "I don't think it can on it's own, its merely telling me how. It's kind of interesting in its way...."
Matt reached over me and shut the book in a hurry; I looked up at him, a bit confused. He shrugged but I could tell he was uneasy.
"Study time later, we both know you can do magic. What else should we be looking for?"
I sat down in my overstuffed chair, placing my feet on a footrest in convenient reach with the ease of familiarity. "Not sure; I think some of the answers are in homes like ours. Like the books, and how our personal stuff has transformed, but I think the big answer of why is out there, in the world at large."
Matt seemed less than impressed with my sweeping gesture. "Probably right, but where? How do we narrow down the search?"
"Same way your basic scientist does when confronting a problem; trial and error. It's already big enough to warrant attention from the world, even if it's only affected us. And using the books as evidence, I don't think it has, I think it's a much larger phenomenon. The books suggest as much. If it's larger, even world affecting, then the entire world will be trying to find a solution. From the best minds down to the mayor Conratty's of the world."
He pulled up a chair. I found myself wanting more tea, but I was comfortable. Sigh.
"So what do you think we should do?"
"What we will end up doing; just about anyone will be able to see that we won't get any answers at all if we sit pat here. We will need to mount an expedition past the town. The mayor and sheriff were already discussing one this morning in fact. It'll be filled with people that can be trusted, but who aren't vital to the performance of the town itself. To be honest, you might be considered yourself. Though I'm not sure who will go or not. If there are more of those dinosaurs, then the list of people I'd trust to be able to survive out there is small."
"Good point. And I doubt I'd be considered for such a thing, my family is not on good terms with the Conrattys."
My mouth and the door opened at the same time. I shot up, disturbing my stool as a floating tea service came into view. Matt was somehow already behind me, a dagger out and pointed at the vague humanoid outline that could barely be made out in the dim light. a sort of phantom butler...?
It served us tea, righted the stool, and left. I turned to Matt, took in his dagger... and laughed. Perhaps a touch of this morning's hysteria in it, but good cleansing laughter. Matt looked stubbornly angry for a moment, then laughed a bit himself.
"Sorry, and before you ask, no I didn't plan that. I guess I need to watch my stray thoughts around this pile of rocks. I wanted more tea."
"That was an honest to goodness phantom servant wasn't it? Just like in...."
I cut him off, laughter forgotten. "Yes, just like in the game."
He leaned back in his chair. "You know, for a tiny hot elf chick, you sure can make with the fear."
"It's OK, I know where you're coming from. I bet they are loving this bullcrap, though. I'd just as soon have a car."
Anger and hatred were buried just as quickly as they had surfaced, hopefully never to return. Though I knew better; we all have darkness and stupidity inside us. The trick is not to let it rule.
"Now see that's what I'm talking about; when you smile you really show a person what the phrase 'light up a room' means."
Was he hitting on me?!?
"And when you blush you look especially cute."
He was, the rat-bastard!
"Out out out! I want some peace now, need to think without your constant teasing!"
He managed to look contrite, but I was pretty sure he was faking. I started shoving him out the den. "Alright, sorry. I know, I'm going. It's a way to cope, you know? I'm pretty freaked out by all this. And you well, despite how you look, you're you. Normal."
And safe, you know he's thinking I'm safe to mess with. Wow, what could I say to that? "I get it Matt, and I'd love to have you stay and chat all day, but I need some alone time to think."
"Yeah I get it. You won't stop thinking about it, and won't let the problem or weirdness or whatever rest unresolved. It's your nature, you can't let a mystery stand. Be back later and lock your door. You can never tell what people will do in a crisis."
I nodded as he strode out. "Sound advice, see you later."
He waited till he heard my bolt slam home, then walked off, whistling. the street was empty except for him, but I didn't see any strange creatures lurking. Either there was nothing else or the watch was working. Then again, I'd heard no alarm, and I was out of shout range of the other parts of town.
Whoops, can't think of everything. It was probably fine. Now for the more important thing. I thought really hard about unexplored areas of my house. I was praying I didn't go low-tech enough for a chamberpot, cause that is just gross. I'll reinvent the toilet if I have to! Though... how DID a toilet work? Something about a gasket flooding water down into a bowl when opened, and releasing a valve at the same time. I think.
Judging from Matt's own knowledge loss, I doubt even a plumber knows how a toilet works today. Depressing thought.
My thoughts of toiletry did have an effect. They summoned the phantom butler, who gestured me to follow him/her/it. that's it, I'm naming the thing. I mean it's a construct, not even a ghost. I don't remember casting the spell for it. I also don't remember seeing it this morning, which is a mild issue. Perhaps my disorganized thoughts and anything but calm mind had affected it? It did seem summoned by my thoughts.
At any rate, it led me to what I had taken to be a hall closet my first time through. Perhaps because originally it had been a hall closet, next to the bathroom (which of course it still was). Opening it I received a mild shock. A small room with a porcelain bench and opposite, a porcelain sink. the bench, of course, had a hole cut or shaped out of it in the center, and the sink was filled with water. There were no taps or pipe work anywhere I could see.
So an indoor outhouse? That sounds even worse than a chamber pot. Why didn't it stink? Oh well; I shut the door on the servant who thankfully hadn't followed me inside, and settled in. I had to go of course, and that was one of the reasons I wanted Matt out of the house. Knowing he was lurking around with me trying to find a bathroom would have been... weird.
And of course, porcelain is cold. Very cold, even on warm days it seems. But finally, I got done and started to stand up, when the first of two rather immediate oddities struck me... quite literally. The first being water all over my new parts, as my new crotch was inundated in sweetly scented (rose hips?) water. As I goggled and stood up to see where it was coming from, just like that I was dried. As if those same areas and only those, had been subjected to an instant blow dryer.
But there had been no heat, it was more as if the water was just encouraged to go elsewhere, with no clingy moisture left behind. Looking down I had caught a glimpse of a faint blue glow and a sighing gurgle accosted my ears at the same time. Of the urine or of any water, there was no sign; I couldn't see all the way down into the bench, but somehow I knew nothing was there save maybe a bit of dust.
Hmm, magic toilet. Beats an outhouse any day of the week. Feeling fresh and clean I turned to the sink. There was lye soap next to the sink bowl and I grabbed it, dipped my hands into the water and lathered up. Technically I hadn't touched any... sensitive areas, but it never hurt to be clean, right? Besides, the sink is magical too, I just know it. They are companion pieces after all.
I was right, after washing my hands I removed them from the water, and as soon as they were past six inches they were dry. Just like that, and even looking I hadn't seen how it was done. Just one moment wet, and the next dry. The soapy water was also just as suddenly markedly less soapy. As clean as if it had just been placed in the basin, in fact.
Downright handy. Now if I just knew how it was done. Or maybe I did, and needed to remember? Ugh, my head hurts just thinking of it all, and of course, aspirin is a distant memory. Silly body needs satisfied for the moment, I went back to the den, grabbed my magic book and dragged it into the kitchen. The stupid thing was large and heavy. I brewed tea and opened it to the first page:
"To my darling Muse on her naming day; may this enchanted book of profundities serve you well wherever you may roam. Love, father."
Well, that was odd, my dad was the religious type. He'd have burned the new me at the stake. Second page:
'On the nature and spirit of fire.'
There was a good chance someone wanted to speak to me. The massive incessant pounding on my door was a decent hint. That was a real shame, cause I'd been reading the most interesting things.
"Muse! Come on out! Sheesh, I know you're in there!"
Like, apparently fire's nature is to burn and purify, and the only reason it is seen as a destructive force is its misuse or imbalance. That's science now, it seems. I shook my head in misery; this did no wonders for my rising headache. Letting Matt back in was a great distraction, so I did. Of course, as I turned from the door, he dragged me out of it.
"Come on, barbecue time!"
Huh? Taking another look as I was dragged, I realized it was sunset. The sun seemed to be swimming in an ocean of flames. I'd been in that damnable book for some time. Aside from the sun setting, there was another glow in the center of town. This one seemed to be surrounded by rather brazen noise. Right, roast dinosaur.
"So, you were reading your magic book, weren't you?"
I looked up at Matt; much to my annoyance he hadn't let go of my captured arm yet.
"You know me too well. Of course, I was. Specifically, the chapter on fire as an elemental force."
"Good; you need a break before you tac-nuke us by accident. Here, take this, you'll need it." He handed me a small pouch of tooled leather I recognized as hanging on a peg inside my kitchen; when had he grabbed that? I snuck a peek inside to find a delicate polished wooden fork and a small but sharp looking knife. Ahh, personal cutlery.
"Oh, if I tac-nuke you, it won't be an accident, I assure you. I'm coming, mind letting go of my arm?"
I could just barely make out his blush as he let go; you'd think I just told him I had leprosy, it happened so fast. Luckily, I had the perfect awkward moment smoothing comment. I picked up the pace to use it. "Come on, if we don't hurry, the drum sticks will be gone!"
He stared at me like I had grown a second head for a moment. Well I thought it was funny anyway. Of course they were nowhere near out, the legs were huge. There were large tables showing the nicks and scars of heavy use set at the edge of the bonfire, filled with crude gray clay plates, pots, and bowls of herbs and condiments... well such condiments as we had. Of course we had no ketchup.
"You sure you wouldn't rather have the stuff over there?"
I looked to where Matt was pointing. It was a table filled with vegetables, with a few tubers and fruits. Potatoes, apples, some kind of berry I didn't recognize offhand (but looked vaguely like a blackberry) wild onions... someone had been busy. I got the inference though, Matt was either making a joke or insulting me outright. After all wussy elves are vegetarians, aren't they? They couldn't possibly eat meat. Pointedly I grabbed one of the proffered plates and tore into the well roasted hunk of leg placed on it. (OK, so I actually used the knife and fork I had in my small pouch; I'm not a barbarian!)
Matt pulled out his own pouch; maybe all the good citizens had them. Then again Phil was eating with his hands... messily, so maybe not. The meat itself was delicious; though oddly enough it did not taste like chicken. After all, weren't birds descended from dinosaurs? Instead it was a richer, heavier flavor of deer... sort of. The vegetables looked lonely, so I snuck a few when Matt turned his back.
The scene reminded me of a sort of outdoor viking feast, with lots of wine (the contents of those malformed clay jugs) and loud merriment; I began to wonder if the noise would draw predators. Then again, wouldn't too much noise and fire drive them away? I needed to bone up on my hunting skills. Of course many of the predators I was worried about didn't exist yesterday.
"So, Lady Muse."
I refocused. "Mayor Conratty."
He had grease smeared all over his face. How did he manage that with utensils? "We have decided on the party to send to Toledo."
A hint of unease, a flare of danger.
"The village council decided on Karl to lead the expedition, and Phil Keene, Thomas Caine, Randolf Wills, Matt Lockland, Pastor Collins... and you."
No. No no no no no no no! "Wait, what?"
"We need you to go. You handled that dragon thing with ease... "
"...Whatever. You handled it. If our expedition gets attacked by something like that, they need you there to help them."
"But you guys will need me here!"
I'm not doing the whole party sent into the woods thing! They can just sue me!
He started using his greasy hands to tick of points; seriously, did he bathe in the stuff before breaking out the silverware?
"There are more of us here than are going; and so far your insights have been useful. The council and I believe you will be most useful in uncovering what is going on. Plus we have Frank."
"Frank Cipro, know him?"
I knew him, a smarmy forty plus guy. Five foot six inches, weighing about 200 pounds. A soft pockmarked face over a flabby body. Always working on his next scam. Last week if I remember right, it was penis enlargement devices sold over the internet.
"Yeah I know him."
"Well he can do magic too! So we won't be defenseless with you gone."
I begged to differ. "I must confess I am a bit curious. Excuse me a moment."
I went to go find Frank; I didn't have to go far. He was right at the edge of the firelight, staring at me with an intensity and expression I felt was normally reserved for the victims of pedophiles and serial killers.
"Yes Lady Muse? Enjoying the party?"
Well, I was. "The mayor tells me you can use magic too?"
"Yes Lady Muse, I displayed a few tricks for the council. I wanted them to know that there was more than one wizard in town."
Hmmph, shows what he knows. I'm a sorceress. Wait, did I just think that? No, no I most certainly did not. "I see, that's great news, and puts my mind at ease. Tell me please, how would you have handled this beast?"
I speared a bite of leg from my plate to remove all doubt about what I could mean. His rather soft goatish face morphed into an expression I'd seen on a few people before, he was going to be evasive. The eyes looking up and left for brief stints, the pulling away, further from the fire and me... he was going to lie or tell a half truth.
"I'd have used 'Arrow of Acid'; it's a spell that melts a target."
So a half truth then. I've no doubt he'd have used it, it was likely his strongest spell. For him to even mention using it, it would have to be the only thing he'd have a chance of taking down a T-rex with. The spell though had several problems. It was thrown, for one. While my lightning was cast without fail on any target I could see, the Arrow of Acid was thrown like a rock, which meant you could miss. You could even hit someone else in the middle of a crowded melee. The second problem is, even if it could kill a dinosaur (which is doubtful; perhaps a 50/50 chance) the acid takes time to work. Which meant that you'd have a burning, sizzling, pissed off dinosaur attacking people in the meantime. Possibly for minutes before dying.
It was absolutely the wrong spell to use, and he knew it. The only reason anyone would use it is if they had no other spell capable of doing anything of consequence. One look at my face and he knew that I knew it too.
"I am aware of that spell. Thank you for answering me."
I turned to go back, but his next question stopped me. "Lady Muse, what is your strongest spell?"
Hah. I should have known it'd come to this. The usual way... well the usual polite way for one caster to gauge the strength of another. Most spell-casters answered such questions, with a lie if nothing else. How very silly, to compare spells known and assume that it was strength. Of course the real question that most meant to ask was: 'What is your strongest destructive spell?'
How very human.
"Well, I know the elements of fire and lightning, I know water and earth. But in all probability... "
I turned to him, focused for an eternal moment, and conjured a rose from nothing.
"...pure creation is my strongest spell."
I knew one thing, it sure took a lot out of me. I could barely make it back to my seat and drink before slumping. I would be darned if I let that hack see me sweat though. I handed the rose to mayor Conratty.
"Alright, he's not as good as me, but he'll do."
For you guys at any rate; I don't stay where I'm not wanted, and this is the mayor and council working together to rid the village of undesirables. Maybe it's that I'm too powerful and he's scared I'll take over? Nah that's the council as a whole, I'm no longer human and I command weird powers. No secret why they want me gone; they can control Frank, or think they can.
"Then you'll go? Splendid! The expedition is set to leave in the morning, at first light."
"One other thing, I can understand everyone else, but why is the Pastor going?"
"Well not only is he a priest now, he was a medic in desert storm. We do want you all to come back, after all." He delivered that with a grin and a chuckle that did little to reassure.
"I see. Makes sense. Alright, it seems I have to pack, so excuse me."
He gave a jaunty wave with his face buried in his plate. I could just make out his muffled "Good night."
Since I knew all the other players, a visit to Pastor Collins before I turned in seemed a great idea. That isn't to say I didn't know Pastor Collins, but I most certainly didn't know the new Pastor Collins. What god did he serve now? Vulcan, like my friend? I considered that doubtful, he'd always seemed so nice and passive when I avoided him like the plague before. We got along mainly because he wasn't one of those in your face types, and didn't care that I was an atheist. He'd talk to me anyway, and religion wouldn't even come up.
Oddly enough for a village this small, Pastor Collins' church wasn't the only one in town. It was one of two. Before it was simply a single story rambling brick structure erected in the late 60's. I wasn't sure about the denomination, but it was erected completely by donations and seemed pricey. Now it was quite different.
Honest to the Gods Greek style marble columns of the purest white held the oversized polished and stained timber framework and shingled roof, and the walls were made of finely quarried and cut sandstone. Where the stone had come from was anyone’s guess. The building itself was much smaller than it used to be, covering a bare fraction of the land; but the property was surrounded by trilothons of sandstone and wood, giving the impression of both open space and enclosed, sacred area. It was beautiful.
It was also empty. At least, the outer area was. The boundary was easy to discern... I felt something as soon as I crossed it. A sort of full body tingle, kind of like getting a mild static shock over your entire body. Hmm. Step back, and again; same result. Reaching the inner sanctum, I did what any polite person should do... snuck a peak to see who was there. The place was empty save for the man himself.
Pastor Collins was always a man I had deep respect for. A veteran of desert storm now in his 40's (though I hadn't known he was a medic) he had actually seen combat there. Not everyone had. When he left he was cocky and strong. When he came back he was slightly broken and deeply religious. He was always a big man, but hadn't changed as much as the others around here; still solid but graying prematurely, which contrasted with his unlined and still almost boyish face in a unique way. The loose white cotton pants and tunic he wore were different than anything else I'd seen so far. He still had his army ink though, all down his arms. He went to some seminary a year after his enlistment ended, and came back again to preach the gospel. something he'd been doing for decades now.
Now he looked forlorn... lost. Deeply troubled. I probably shouldn't, but I felt I had to intervene. After all, our lives may soon depend on him.
"Copper for you thoughts?"
He started violently and looked back. "Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt."
"No, it's fine. Come in Lady Muse. What can I do for you?"
A bad idea to answer that directly. Instead I pointed past the alter, where a statue of a woman who had to be idealized in just about every way stood looking down upon the sturdy oaken pews, a soft loving look upon her perfect face.
"So who is it now?"
"Minerva, Goddess of healing."
If anything he looked even more miserable. Ahh crap, I hate being right. A crisis of faith of epic proportions. I sat next to him and he took that as his cue to start.
"I knew Him yesterday, loved Him yesterday, walked with him and spread His message yesterday... and now he's dead. She's here, as if She were always here, and He is dead. My mind is filled with her message, her ways. I can barely remember his name at all."
Not knowing what else to do I gave him a hug. "It'll be OK. We will figure out what happened. Besides, not to belittle what you're going through or anything... but His message is a healing one, right? Healing the sick, helping those less fortunate?"
I pointed to the statue to help my point.
"Well so is hers."
He promptly lost himself in thought. Was that all it took? Crap that was easy. "Look, got to go pack. See you in the morning, OK?"
"Sure. See you then."
I left him with his eyes boring holes into the placid statue, as if the answers he sought would be found there. Who knows, maybe they will. The visit certainly answered a few of my questions. With only one example in front of me, I was fairly certain all new priests would have powers. I felt his Goddess here, and somehow that feeling was familiar, even though I'd never felt it before in my life. Which meant that if his new faith held, he could be very useful. Perhaps more so than I.
Sure I felt like a jerk for thinking it, but We needed every advantage.
I stepped back into my place and the smell of fresh brewed tea drew me to the kitchen. There it was, brewed by the spectral presence floating just behind my counter. At least, I hoped it was. I hadn't even realized I wanted any, but the specter had. I still had to come up with a name for that thing. Ah ha, I got it! Boris! Perfect name for it, it looked like a Boris.
I couldn't be sure, but I think it shuddered a bit. I sure hope so anyway. Well on to packing anyway, Boris could handle the dishes. Sheesh one day, and already I'm getting lazy and indolent due to newly granted magic. There had to be a moral in there somewhere. Not like I could trust Boris to pack for me. I instinctively knew that would be beyond his pay grade. Time to see what traveling clothes I had... this silly dress wouldn't cut it.
My closet was full of dresses, ornate ones, frilly ones, plain ones, all on hand carved hangars that looked as if they were grown for the purpose. In an... armoire? (I think that's what it's called.) There was a selection of corsets and panties of various types and colors; some looked like they hooked into each other somehow, others were far less elaborate. Nothing. I turned back to the closet, refusing to believe any elf would only own frivolous clothes, and that's when I noticed the cloth wrapped bundle stuffed way in the back of the closet, behind the winter boots and snow shoes.
I could barely move what turned out to be a huge chest the size of a steamer trunk. Made of heavy oak and banded with steel, it sported a viney thorn filled rose plant scrawling it's way across both the wood and metal parts. There was no lock, just a hasp, and it opened wide without a sound at my merest touch. I could tell immediately I hit pay dirt.
Dark gray leather pants, still supple and somehow soft. Lined with something on the inside that felt like, well felt, but wasn't. At least I don't think it was. A second pair in black, treated the same way. A tan leather tunic with short white cotton sleeves seamlessly sewn onto it, lined like the pants and with what appeared to be lily designs worked into it. Anther tunic much the same but all maroon and sporting roses. A rather elegant light gray cloak that had no special stitch-work, but I could tell was special somehow. I could also tell it matched the boots under it, which were delicate, very well made, and carried on the same rose motif I'd seen off and on in my house. They looked so small... I wasn't sure I'd get used to seeing my feet fit boots like this.
In a corner was a dark tan bag, a finely woven burlap satchel about the size of one of those cavernous purses some women liked to wear that you could fit a compact car in. There were Runes stitched into it with a fine black thread, running up and down it's surface. I knew immediately what it was of course, so I set it aside. A wooden canteen was next, looking like one of those old circular canteens except it had no seam. Grown into that shape, of course, makes sense for an elf. I swear if I started munching granola and singing odes to trees....
After that was the sword. Even sheathed in it's leather scabbard (with, of course, silver roses worked into it) I could tell it was odd. The metal was an odd reddish gold that caught and drew the eye. The hilt was wrapped in two pieces of rowan with an odd bumpy leather stitched into place around them. It made a pretty good grip. The width and size was of a rapier; again delicate was the first word that came to mind. However the hilt was obviously made for two hands (especially hands as small as mine) and the length was almost that of a full broadsword. Light enough for one hand but a little unwieldy, obviously designed for two.
I pulled it; runes etched and chased with some dark substance, possibly metallic in origin, chased themselves across it's length. The script was elegant, beautiful, and almost readable; something about it tickled the back of my memory. One word I could make out clearly and most powerfully as the blade whispered it's soothing greetings into my mind: 'wasp'.
Thankfully the blade was quiescent. I had no true idea, but according to the best lore I could go on, magical blades often fought their owners for dominance or took control of them. There was nothing of that here however, just a soothing caress of my mind and a mental farewell before I sheathed it. Questions, questions.
Had the battle for dominance already been fought by the other me? Or had this blade been made for me in such a way that I was already it's master? Did it matter, in the long run? I took the bag and packed it with one of the sets of traveling clothes, some underwear (including a few of those stupid corsets) a dress for special occasions (hey I was taught to carry one set of good clothes when traveling by my mother, sue me). That disappeared into the bag without a hitch, so I added rope, a small knife, the canteen, some small pots and pans, and most importantly... my magic book, along with a few books from my library. I was pretty glad when my magic book didn't cause the 'bag of plenty' to burp up all it's contents or open a hole to another dimension. I've heard some magic items could cause the bag to be finicky like that.
Last thing I needed was another dimensional headache; I already felt like how I imagined Ash from the Evil Dead series must feel. Oddly enough I had the feeling that the most important book I had wasn't the magic book, but the now aptly named 'forbidden beastiary' that my old game monster manuals became. It was a large set of small books, bound in leather and each about the size of a small paperback. In each were the alphabetical listings of each known monster or race supposedly inhabiting the planet, along with common trends in culture, strengths, and most importantly, weaknesses. There were thousands of entries.
Knowledge was power after all, and knowing what spells or tactics worked best against monsters like say, trolls for example could mean the difference between life and death. I just hope the books are accurate. The flyleaf said they were penned by 'Owam the all knowing', whoever that was. Last I knew those same books were penned by a bunch of sweaty nerds with nasally laughs.
Packing complete, I disrobed (getting the dress off was a pain, the buttons were in back - Boris to the rescue.) and chucked the stupid clothes down a small chute near the door before I realized I now knew what that small well concealed chute was for. I decided not to think about that, but slipped under the cool sheets. It was moderately warm, and during the hot days and nights I did not like to sleep in clothes. The bed seemed warm and comfy enough, the night calls of the owls and animals soothing, so I stayed there.
I woke all at once, much as I had before. It was not yet sunrise; the night was still dark. Oddly enough that hampered me not at all.
I could see everything by the brilliant pale light of the half moon. I walked into the kitchen to make breakfast and go over my mental checklist. Some mildly hard bread (baked into a sort of french loaf, which I just gnawed on-no need to have manners at home) and some eggs from my icebox prepared in my iron skillet was plenty. I just did not have the appetite of the old, bigger me.
Of course the eggs reminded me, that I had an icebox full of stuff I wouldn't be here to eat. and that somehow reminded me of my cellar. My fruit cellar, reached from inside the house by a trapdoor under the rug in the living room, had all sorts of preserved foods for winter... or trips. Some preserved with standard techniques... and some with spells. All I really needed to do was cast the spell on my icebox, and it would keep, at least for a few months. 5 to 6 if my screwy memory serves.
It was kind of odd how I had magic for every little convenient thing. Of course the spell itself was one of my more powerful ones; it'd fairly wipe me out, at least for awhile, but something told me food would be very important down the road. No corner McDonald's or hostess Twinkies in well titled convenience stores. First thing was first however.
The cellar was even more cool than the rest of the house, stone just like the rest of it, and even darker than up above. I actually had to retrieve and light a candle! Let's see... beef jerky, deer jerky, rabbit jerky... good grief, how many animals can you jerk anyway? Stacks and stacks of it, rolled into stacks of wax paper. Various herbs of esoteric minced or dropped whole into blown glass jars and capped with cork or metal, sealed with wax. Hams pickled in small airtight barrels of brine.
Along the far wall opposite the shelves holding the herbs and jerky was a series of bins. Each one had the preservation spell cast upon them, and dates carefully written in charcoal on their sides. The dates were in a series of days, one after the other, and just under 3 months ago. Which was a relief, I had plenty of time. I knew that a properly ensorceled bin or chest could keep food like this indefinitely (at least until the food was removed, of course) but I also knew with the same surety as the other knowledge that kept popping into my head, that I did not have the power or knowledge for that... yet.
So instead I grabbed a few stacks of the beef jerky and a few jars of dried apple and orange slices. Some of the preserved bread from the bin (travel bread, unleavened stuff that was called 'hardtack' in the days of yore) blew out my candle since I had my hands full and walked back up very carefully. Enough food for the winter indeed. To me, it looked like I had enough food down there alone to feed a family of four for the winter-I couldn't imagine the new me eating all that in less than a year.
Well I had to stop procrastinating, but my trick memory just told me of another thing I couldn't do without. So back into my den I went, this time to the small lab opposite the bookshelf. Under that large and heavy scarred table was a small box. I now knew that it was a field alchemy kit, filled with things like sulfur, rocks exuding iron oxide, glass work such as the table above it sported, and other essentials of portable chemistry. I fit it into the bag too-the opening stretched and the box seemed to shrink at the same time.
The bag had a pretty large interior space. I almost wanted to try and fit my house in, now. After all, it had a kicking bathroom. Ugh, no more time to waste.
I entered the kitchen, sighted up, and cast the spell. It was like my lightning bolt, all visualization and intent. However unlike my lightning bolt this one knocked my butt to the floor. This served to remind me that I was still roaming naked through my house like a loon. So immediately after the fog left my vision and the walls stopped rotating around me I got up and rectified that situation.
Plain black silk panties, a matching corset that felt as if it would breathe (and let me breathe) the tan tunic and gray pants? leggings? I'll go with pants. Of course the entire outfit was as form fitting as it could get without being formed around me, but I was hoping the cloak would hide that. I even had a good long pair of socks so the boots wouldn't chafe. Of course the boots felt as if they were hugging my feet, but that was immaterial; after hours of walking they might feel very different.
And of course now that I had my clothes on I had to go to the bathroom. Sigh.
So after THAT was done, I belted on my sword and knife, grabbed my bag and was ready to go just as the sun started over the horizon. Still a little wiped, I dreaded the next step. Stepping outside with a travel mug of tea, I closed the door, locked it with the key, and then started the spell known as 'Magic lock'. (Fitting name, really, so plebeian.) Like before it too was all visualization and intent. thankfully it was a minor spell that simply kept people without the power to cast spells out of the place you warded. It also required some effort to break, even for a spell-caster. So while you could simply go back in anytime, any caster trying to break in needed the 'Magic knock' spell (Yes pretty plebeian again) and to test their latent power against yours.
I was pretty confident that even if Frank knew the 'Magic knock', he'd never get inside. and anyone from here without magic could try till doomsday. I was just hoping they wouldn’t get pissed at failure and demolish my entire house somehow. Or that something stronger than me would come along and demolish them all, my house included. Oh well, at least the 'Magic lock' didn't knock me on my butt again. For the next hour or so even conjuring a feather might, but that spell is weak in cost for how handy it is.
And of course I'm the first one here. At least the sunrise is amazing. All yellows and reds around an absolutely huge red hued sun-as if the sky was stabbed and is now bleeding out.
Wow, nice morbid streak... I'll have to watch that.
I did not have to wait at the edge of town long; I was grilling our night watchman Dave Sims on if he'd seen or heard anything. He hadn't, but his dog Jonesy had barked twice last night, once a sort of desultory warning. Once fast and furiously, standing stiffly in front of his master and facing the woods in loud slobbering madness. Neither time did Dave see what set Jonesy off so.
I listened, petting Jonesy, who was half asleep and leaning into my touch. Soon he was set to be relieved by Phil, of all people. I remembered the cowardly Shepards well; hopefully they would do better this time.
"Good morning Matt. Seems all was mostly quiet last night." He shook his head and yawned.
"Mostly isn’t even close, Hal's dogs kept barking last night, really loudly. Kept me awake most of the night, and likely a few other people too."
Hal Smith had a bloodhound. Didn't bloodhounds have a vastly superior sense of smell, or am I remembering wrong? Either way the village wasn't attacked last night, so maybe I was just over thinking it. The watch had done it's job, the dogs had done theirs.
Time for us to do ours.
I took a closer look at Matt; he had a large hammer strapped to his back (the thing had to weigh 20 pounds, at least to my less than expert eye), a gladius strapped to his side and a small shield strapped to his arm. He also had a backpack that was about my size strapped to his back, under the hammer. He was also wearing a chain mail shirt that stopped just shy of his knees. He didn't seem too burdened by it all, the jerk.
"Did you bring everything?"
He shot me a dazzling smile, not understanding the true thrust of my question and therefore taking it seriously. "I think so, I've got food, water, weapons, flint and steel, a good whetstone, rope...."
"And a partridge in a pear tree?"
"Heh, well what about you? You look to be traveling light. Though I must admit the leather is a great look for you." I ignored that and held up my magic bag.
"This holds a bit more than it looks to."
He caught sight of the runes and started; I caught sight of our other party members walking up together behind him but still some distance away.
"Is that a 'bag of plenty'?"
"Sure is, seems to be the biggest size too. Found it in a trunk with the clothes and sword. I assume the mail shirt and sword were in a similar place for you?"
I inspected my other party members just entering hearing range and caught his nod out of the corner of my eye.
"In a trunk in my closet. The hammer though, that was hung up on hooks above the mantle."
Pastor Collins was in a gray robe and cassock like a monk, no doubt with his comfy looking spun cotton underneath. He had a rather large silver necklace on a crude silver chain. both looked to be pure; the necklace was of two small hands clasped together in prayer. thankfully for my mental health his backpack was less massive and rather jauntily hanging from one shoulder. I could see a small bedroll and some pots tied to strategic places on it. He wore only one thing that could be considered a weapon; a small bat or cudgel, made from a large oak stick capped on both ends with iron. He seemed to be in good spirits this morning, a smile breaking easily over his features as if to mimic the dawn itself.
Karl was right beside him, dressed in clanky scale mail and sporting a long sword that I could tell at a glance was not quite as... elegant as mine. He also had large metal shod boots, iron greaves and bracers. His backpack was the smallest yet, but had all sorts of seemingly random items hanging from it by crude twine (like a waxed blanket, a jar of something I couldn't make out, and a hooded lantern, to name a few). He was also carrying one of those steel viking style helmets, with the nose and cheek pieces, and a spike set on top of it.
Thomas Caine was dressed as a hunter. His thick cloak was brown with gray and green patches sewn into it, his clothes were the same. He had a bow as tall as I was and a quiver that I'd be willing to guess carried some long broad head arrows. He also wore a knife and short sword at his belt, and he had no pack. Judging by the way his cloak moved, I'd be willing to bet it was all pockets, and filled to the brim. His long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and his green eyes flicked from point of interest to point of interest, never staying in one place long. A slightly too pretty playboy the day before, he was obviously all business now.
Randolf Wills was almost his polar opposite in looks. He looked like someone had taken a hammer to his face multiple times, then used a meat grinder on what was left. He had no hair, only one eye, the planes of his face were out of alignment... and he had some of the nastiest scars I'd ever seen on anyone or anything. Yesterday he'd looked like a normal human being; a bit on the ugly side, a barroom brawler tough with a bit too much testosterone for his own good, but normal. Now he looked like something had to tried to hammer then chew his face off. He was built much like everyone else I'd seen so far; slabs of muscle packed on a large frame. Even worse, he was dressed head to foot in shining, clanking steel plate, complete with a helmet (I wished idly that he would close his visor-soon). His sword was massive, easily the same weight class as Matt's hammer, and he also carried two small hand-axes which also looked to be tools of murder more than simply tools, if their curved blades and swept back handles were any indication. His backpack was about the size of a school bookbag, and was jam packed so that the contents threatened to spill into the dirt. Cloth of some sort was what was on top of that hastily packed mess.
I controlled my reaction well enough to answer Matt. I don't think Randy was fooled though, his face tightened in the most hideous smile I could imagine.
"Must have been some massive hooks, that thing is huge."
Matt turned around, he must have finally heard them. How he missed all that sound I don't know. I felt like a brass band was approaching... or an ironworks. As they got close the smells hit... mold, rancid oil, rust and salt. Definitely an ironworks. I decided to be polite.
"Good morning everyone."
A chorus of "good morning Lady Muse." greeted me, and I had a flash of me teaching high school with a set of particularly delinquent students greeting me. I really hoped discipline wouldn't be a problem. Then I realized we were short one. I needed more caffeine in the mornings, where was the other Phil? Phil Keene was our resident small time hood yesterday. Every town has one, no matter how small. He was ours.
A resident since birth, he was into drugs and petty vandalism at first, and the drugs led to his specialty... breaking and entering, sometimes with the residents at home. He never turned violent however, preferring to run if seen and give up if caught. For that reason the book had yet to be thrown his way; the extent of his hard time was a year in juvi. I half knew what he'd be this morning however. I could see the party mechanics as clearly as the bright blue sky above me.
Then I spotted him. Up in a tree, 5 trees down and to my right, leaning against the trunk with large toothpick in his mouth. He was dressed all in grays and greens, like Randolf, and sported four very large daggers strapped to his belt. I could see no armor of any kind, just a burlap tunic (which sounded terribly uncomfortable as an idea alone) and loose cotton pants. It took me a bit more to see the two satchels and small bag he had in the tree with him. He was our thief, of course. Every party had to have one, as a secondary scout and trap expert.
The feeling that had dogged me for a day, that I was living in one of my old gamer worlds, came back stronger than ever. I really hoped that this wasn't the case; many many people tended to die in such worlds, a fact rapidly glossed over by the inane ravings of small men wearing thick glasses and hiding their faces behind paper screens.
I shook the feeling off when Phil waved and jumped down, soundlessly while the others were still greeting each other. He would be great at his role, I could already tell that if I tried to pick him out of a crowded street, I'd be unable to. Whether I knew him or not.
He grinned when the others jumped; he'd always liked being stealthy, and he was better than ever.
"Shit man, Phil, where did you come from! We were just discussing who was going to get to wake you up!"
"I've been around. So what's the plan? I kind of expected the mayor to see us off and give us orders, but I think he's still asleep."
Karl answered. "Well partying till around 3am will likely do that to you. The basic plan was to find where the border for all this is, or failing that, to find out just what is going on. I say we take this very road here to the east, and see what Grummige has to say."
Grummige was the next town over, some 12 miles away. Another hamlet much like ours. Fifteen minutes by car, a good three hours or so away on foot. Well, three hours via good roads, which we did not seem to have anymore.
"Then let's get started; we're all here, and daylight just started burning."
We stepped on past the town limits and the budding sunlight was immediately cut off by the tangle of old trees. The farm country of my boyhood was completely gone, replaced by a confusing tangle of old growth forest that I could tell at a glance had been here for centuries. It blocked out the sun's heat and light, even on the road, cooling us all off instantly and shrouding us in gloom. It was without a doubt a boundary of sorts to the different world we found ourselves in, and we were trespassers.
Hands went to swords, all jokes and laughter ceased, and we all strove to make as little noise as possible. Randolf, Phil, and I succeeded. The others sounded like a herd of wildebeest stomping through a china shop. They couldn't even breathe quietly. The only good news is that I was upwind of them. Then of course, even that good thing had to end.
"Lady Muse." I turned to see Karl almost running down the road turned deer trail with delusions of grandeur we were using, clattering like a train with engine trouble.
"You really should stop taking the lead; let Randy walk it alone, and come back to the main group please."
Ugh. Double ugh. If I insisted, he would no doubt say something to the effect that I wasn't armored, and not as strong as the rest of the group, and should therefore be protected while I focused on causing damage if we were attacked. But I really didn't feel like dealing with those arguments, as sound as they might be.
I really hoped that was it, and not the whole 'you're a woman now' thing. Cause if he said that, I'd likely kill him... with fire. Lots of fire. Really hot fire.
"Fine, just try to keep it down. You guys make enough noise to wake the dead."
Oh. Oh, crap... I shouldn't have said that. I'm completely in the wrong trope to say that.
"Something wrong? You're looking a little...."
"No no, everything is fine, nothing wrong at all."
He didn't look convinced. Matt looked amused, the smug jerk. He knew what I was talking about! Knew all about tempting fate. Several moments passed however, and no zombies jumped out at us... so I guess we're safe? We were sort of taking route of the old road (old as in, was there a day ago) as best we could. It was rough considering nothing but game trails existed now.
I was just starting to relax when a low trilling whistle that sounded birdlike but wasn't echoed through the trees. Instantly all stopped, Matt with one foot still in the air. I couldn't resist a slight smirk, even seeing how serious he was... that had to be uncomfortable. Randy strode out from behind a bush in front of Karl, and almost got skewered.
"Sorry, just me. That signal is mine."
I nodded; I knew that. They should have too - shouldn't they? Karl interrupted my thoughts.
"Just some sort of weird ruin ahead. No signs of life, but it was... well you'll have to see, provided you don't want to just say screw it and go past."
Randy kept his voice low, following Karl's lead. I looked around. We were in the middle of the forest, without so much as a small rise for cover. We did however have plenty of trees for that, and more than a hint of bramble. Most of the forest was gloom ridden old growth, but without landmarks or any reason to have a ruin placed here to be seen. However, if I was right, another road had once cut through here, right past that fallen log.
Which meant that the old abandoned gas station should be around here.
Half of us were on the same page, creeping up slowly and as quietly as possible. The other half made the rest of us look bad, somehow tromping down our road-trail like wildebeest in heat. I swear they seemed to be carrying twigs with them, just to drop and break underfoot. I resolved to speak to them later, and at the same time I could make out Randy resolving the same-if the muttered curses meant what I think they did.
After all, mine did.
The ruin itself was in a small clearing just off the path; more than a few stumps rotting in mute testament to how the clearing was made. It was a crumbling tower made of stone, surrounded by a rotting gated bug ridden palisade. It was not any sort of ruin that belonged in our world, and appeared older than any old building should be around here. Yet here it was.
The top had fallen, so that it was impossible to tell just how tall it had been when erected. Only the first six floors were still winning the battle against nature, The large blocks of what appeared to be sandstone still mortared together. Walking carefully around it, I could see places where the fallen stone had crushed the palisade; even if the log drop gate had been closed and locked, entry would have been simple. The gloomy pall of the forest seemed almost to concentrate past that yawning entrance, hinting at dark mysteries.
It also rather nicely answered the first question this expedition was meant to answer. Phil voiced it for all of us. "Well guess that answers the question of whether it was just us."
The next question of course, was how far this all extended. The more immediate question and one the expedition wasn't sent to answer was what was on other minds, however.
"Should we check the place out? Could be answers of a sort here."
I couldn't stop the shiver of dread as I replied. "That's a bad idea. It's not part of what we need to do, and it's obviously unsafe."
"Oh come on Lady Muse, where is your sense of adventure?"
"Killed and stuffed into a box, next to the dead hooker." Laughter did not distract them.
"I still say we check it out; it won't take long, the place isn't that big, and we can be on our way."
They outvoted me quite handily; only Matt voted with me. It was OK, they would learn. Hopefully not until after I was out of the line of fire, but they would learn. We all trooped up in a loud disorganized gaggle, my eyes alert even as I dragged my feet hoping to talk them out of this.
"Come on guys, let's not do this. It could be a dangerous haven for things like that dinosaur or worse. At least let Phil go first to scout it out before we all go in... "
I really wanted to say 'before we all go in like tards, but that would be an insult to retarded people everywhere. They at least had more sense than to go into a place like this.
"Well that's reasonable."
Except Phil objected. "Why do I have to go first?"
"Because you're the one most likely to detect nasty surprises meant for trespassers before you die to them. We are far less likely. Maybe Randy could, but I'm not all that great with that sort of thing, and I know the walking foundries aren't."
"Ugh, fine, use reason on me. Alright, all of you stay here, I'll be right back. If I'm going in, I don't want all you tripping something on my head that I could have avoided."
He walked off, only his muttered curses showing he was even here among us at all. It was... well to be honest it was both unnerving and worthy of jealousy. Not even my own steps were as quiet without help. I was fairly sure the boots I was wearing were helping me cheat. Of course, I wasn't going to tell anyone that. It was purely my own skill, and not magical boots that made my footfalls resound with quietude!
Just like the camouflage cloak didn't really help me blend in at all. That game referred to them as boots and cloaks of 'elvenkind'. All skill if asked though. Wish I could get a view of the sky. Well, without having to climb a tree. Sigh, I hate being idle. To pass the time I chucked walnuts at Matt when he wasn't looking.
He caught on quick, and soon walnuts were whistling through the trees as we dodged, grins on our faces. It was something to do. Of course it made little noise right up until an errant throw hit Karl in the breastplate with a sound oddly like a bullet ricochet.
If his glare was any indication, he was not appreciative. Matt and I of course gave him our best, most wide eyed innocent looks. I think mine was better.
And of course the moment was ruined by Phil coming back out of the shadow steeped entrance like a dog with his tail on fire... silently. He made no attempt at stealth at all, and yet remained quiet as a muted whisper... however he was still visible, and just did not seem to care. Speed was more important apparently. He hadn't even bothered to brush himself off; he was covered head to toe in dust and cob webs. Hmm.
Judging by the almost anime wide eyes, the slack jaw, and the wild erratic movements, something down there had scared him.
"Yeah epically bad idea to go down there."
His voice was raw and hoarse, and his eyes locked onto the passage he left as the sound hit us, loud enough to startle a few finches overhead into panicked flight. Two of his larger knives just seemed to appear in his hands, which started flipping them in what I would term a nervous gesture. He winced at the amount of noise his voice made and ducked down. He wasn't ducking down in front of anything either; he was still clearly visible.
"Sorry about that. There were a few traps, but nothing really bad. Old cellar down there. Problem was there were people down there. Dead ones."
A snake started to slither in my gut.
"Then what's got you so distressed?" Pastor Collins inquired. He had been so quiet all morning I had (shamefully) forgotten he was there.
"I said they were dead, not that they weren't moving. I expect them up to meet us, at any moment."
I hate when I'm right. I really, really do. I started paying more attention to our surroundings, and lent only an ear to the debate.
"So what should we do?"
There was no door, it had long since rotted away. The blocks were very heavy, and would take too many of us too long to move. If I used the really destructive spells I had in my arsenal (mostly fire based) then I'd no doubt kill us all in the forest fire-along with our home town, depending on winds.
"Couldn't we just outrun them?"
"Sure but what if they follow us? What if they don't and go somewhere else, and hurt someone else? What if other people come across this place not knowing they are down there?"
"I get it, I get it!"
Ugh, come on, think! We can't pile logs up in front of the doorway, they would burn too, or just eventually get moved by sheer mindless force. We don't even know what type of undead we are dealing with... wait, undead. We have a cleric.
Why am I so worried?
I turned back to the group. "Ready to hear a few suggestions?"
Karl replied in the affirmative glibly, pale though he was.
"It's simple. Pastor Collins can hold them in the door while we drop a stone in front of them. They won't be able to get to us then. Phil I need to know if there are other exits."
He shook his head. "Checked before I went down; only the one, unless there is some sort of escape tunnel somewhere. Went all the way down too, that's why the dead are so pissed-I kinda walked in on them."
Pastor Collins turned ashen as I spoke with Phil.
"Lady Muse, I'm a priest, how can I possibly fight off the undead? Especially alone as you're suggesting? Surely I misheard you?"
"You won't be alone, and it's precisely because you are a priest that you can. You hold your holy symbol up in front of them and yell whatever comes to mind, and your Goddess does the rest."
Yes, I am blowing smoke here. I had no way of knowing that this would work. However, it was a perfect time to test it, and he really would have armed backup. He just had to be in front of them to try to repel them, first. Even if it didn't work, they probably wouldn’t have time to grab him, drag him down into the cold dank recesses of the ruined tower, and rend him into bloody gobbets.
Sometimes I really am a despicable human being. Or not anymore. Of course all this hinged on one rather important fact, as my eyes made out some movement in the gloom. Phil tensed and his knives stopped spinning as Pastor Collins got into position, trepidation oozing from the man. I walked up beside him; my plan, and if he went, we went together. Besides, not like I could really help carry those stupidly large stones.
"Crap, Karl, can you Matt and Tom even pick up one of the larger stones?"
The first undead burst from the ruins in all it's horrid glory. An adult male, possibly young. The rubbery, waxen face hanging in strips from it's skull made it hard to tell with certainty. I could feel myself detach as I continued to make out details. Something had clearly been at the thing at some point; bits of bleached white showed on the arms and legs, and the entrails were missing. Some other things were clearly still at the corpse, as it seemed to shed bugs of all kinds as it moved, in what I could only call a shamble with deceptive speed. A low dry cracking moan issued from behind it, clearly there were more.
Then the smell hit, just as Pastor Collin hesitated with a small plaque made of silver with a muttered prayer. As soon as he held it up he seemed to become somehow more. More there, slightly larger than life.
"Back into the darkness you unclean things! Back to the graves you once knew in the name of Minerva!"
A soft light that briefly outshone the sun erupted from the disk. The zombie (I was pretty sure that was what it was by now, from the smell if nothing else) stopped so fast that bugs flew and hit us. I couldn't stop my flinch, but Collins didn't waver; his eyes blazed fire and brimstone, his face somehow both cold and kind.
"Back, thing which should not be!"
The undead retreated into the doorway and the down the steps beyond, colliding with more of it's own in the darkness.
"Lady Muse, we can't lift any of these! They are embedded too deep. You got a plan b?"
Crap! crap crap crap. Crap crap crap crap crap crap... wait a minute.
"Can you use that big honking sword to collapse what's left of the doorway here? That would block the exit."
Tom rolled his eyes and mouthed 'big honking sword' back at me, but ran clanking up to the arch, up on a stone and set to work fearlessly, ignoring the occasional nasty arm that would try to sweep past the white light at him. Collins was sweating now, but would have none of that. It only took a minute or so before the stones of the arch collapsed in front of the door. Pastor Collins and Tom both backed off warily; we were all still able to see a hint of movement beyond in the now fading but still almost painfully bright light.
"So um, now what? We run like hell?"
I shook my head at Phil, trying to get my nausea under control. A corpse eating beetle had hit me in the face. At least I hadn't swallowed it.
"No, now it's time for my part in the plan."
Aiming very carefully but quickly I shot a golf ball sized wad of fire into one of the cracks where an arm had briefly appeared. The good news was I had angled it correctly, down the staircase. Without further ado I grabbed the good Pastor and started running, hauling him behind me. Tom had already gotten the idea, clanking behind me as soon as the fire left my hand. The others were a bit slower.
"Might want to run."
A long weighted glance between me and the ruin and we were all going, stumbling over hidden roots and fallen trees.
The big boom was of course, spectacular. Those bastards had hit me with corpse bugs, after all. I steadied Collins then turned back. Tom was picking himself up while shooting me a dark look, The others had taken cover behind trees or folds in the earth. They were already back up, and looking with no small amount of awe at the scene.
The tower itself had fallen much closer to ruin, the blast bulging the heavy stones outward in all directions, just barely missing compromising what was left of the structure. However, the blast had been contained, and directed mostly downward. Only a few small fires burned outside, though there was a glow from inside, just barely spotted when I strained myself, that I did not like. Sigh, I had been hoping the containment would be enough, but I don't dare chance it.
Once again the elements responded to my concentration, and heeded my call. This time it was earths turn. I stepped out of my focus to find a small man-shape made of dirt and grass staring at me with glowing eyes the color of mud.
"Put out all fires within five hundred feet of me, please. Then you may go." The dirt man nodded, collapsed into a pile and rolled off, leaving a slight but detectable trail of new growth in it's wake.
I nodded a bit wearily, sitting down to catch my breath.
A rough hand drew me around, and Tom's hot breath hit my face. "If you could do all that, what was the point of all of us playing with stones and putting Collins in danger?"
I blinked into his anger. "Would you rather have had me drop enough fire to light up 100 feet of forest on top of us without containing it? If the explosion itself didn't kill us, the massive forest fire would. Or maybe summoning the elemental with no idea that it was needed? Those things are draining to play with, and I can't keep it here long. Besides you all need to get used to thinking and acting quickly, as a team, to crap you'd never have dreamed of existed before."
Karl stepped up and gently removed Tom's arm from my shoulder.
"She's right man; she used a minimum of force to get the job done as cleanly as possible, only pulling out the big guns when she had to. Besides, you did well; when you see the mage cast a spell and run, you run too. The rest of us froze up a bit too long."
I wearily shook my head again, watching the dirt smother more flames. "No, I am not happy with my performance. I froze up too, in the beginning. I meant to have my sword out and covering our priest when he tried to hold back the dead, and I meant not to use the fireball at all. I was originally going to use some oil from our stores and just let gravity carry the fire to them; less messy and worrisome all the way around."
He raised an eyebrow at me, intimidating me to confess with his spocky ways.
"The first zombie threw corpse bugs all over me; I didn't feel too inclined to hold back at that point."
His incredulous snort ticked me off.
"What?!? It was disgusting, that's all!"