Dim Prisons & Drakes (Part 5)
Dim Prisons and Drakes
"I'm just saying, I never really pictured you as all domestic before that moment. But to see you stirring that stew, the look on your face? I wish I'd had a camera."
I wish I had a lot of things. "Shut up, or I'm turning you into a newt, I swear...."
Matt laughed, distracting me from the idea of which God I should swear to.
And of course we walked into Toledo right then, and the gate guards had heard everything.
"Welcome back, Lady Muse."
Odd that they would greet me by name, and only offer Karl and the rest of us a nod. Our refugees were given a form of stink-eye I wasn't happy with, but they let us all through. For the crowds part, they released a pent up breath they hadn't realized they'd been holding. They thought they were finally safe as they took in the dirty streets and awful smell; I wasn't so sure
I wasn't sure exactly where we were going, and Karl just looked to me and shrugged.
"Castle, I guess." Karl nodded.
"To the castle itself?" Mrs. Castillo asked, finally nervous in a way the dangers of the forest and past horrors hadn't managed. She soothed her rumpled and stained skirts, managing to smear them just a bit more.
"Yes, our orders were to bring you back, and no one met us to tell us where to take you all. We don't have enough coin to put you all up in an inn."
"That seems like an oversight." The mayor admitted, his face sour. He had wanted to resettle outside the capital somewhere. He wasn't alone in that, either.
I wasn't about to admit that thought out loud. The rich and powerful were allowed such mistakes anyway, if mistake it was.
By the third cross street we had an escort; a rather large one. It was probably a good thing that no one had run off as soon as we got to town.
Well, aside from Phil, but he always did that.
We got marched up right into the courtyard of the keep, and to a waiting man. He was very colorfully dressed, in bright green tunic and hose, and wore a hat like a beret - a red beret - with peacock feather stuck in the side of it. He also had one of those wrist sachets, which he was busy sampling.
He was so far into the stereotype there was no way he wasn't aware of it. He was also a bit on the ugly side, with large bulging eyes and a nose to match.
"Alright, refugees, please gather in the courtyard. Adventurers, please follow me."
There wasn't much choice on either of our parts... there were enough armed men ringing the courtyard or drilling in it that anyone wandering would clearly have a bad time. I let Karl lead the way up the winding stone stairs; he was more likely to take the heat for anything people were pissed off about that way. I had my own suspicions there, and I knew Karl did too.
We found ourselves in the tower room we visited before; as before, Sticks was there pouring over a map. He looked up when the opened door blew his maps around a bit.
"Ah, the party from Solace. How does the night find you all?"
"Tired and sick from the things we've seen." Karl told him.
"Right," Sticks answered absently. "A necromancer is an evil like no other. Good work tracking that one down, too bad he escaped justice."
Well, I had expected it. "Did he? How did he escape the troops?"
"Use of some form of teleport, I'm told. There were.. casualties, but at least the fool is gone, off in the wilds. Some other agents of ours will take over from there; Bosar's group has just become free."
I didn't like the inference that we were agents of his, and I could tell the others weren't happy over it either. Sticks continued on, oblivious.
"Got another task for you guys however, if you're willing."
Karl tried hard, but couldn't quite keep all the hostility out of his voice. "What kind of job?"
The duke and I want you and yours to travel to the East, to see how far this extends. Your ability to send reports back is invaluable to such an endeavor, and seems to be more rare than one might suspect."
Well, that was something we were already going to do. I shared a glance with Karl and Matt.
"What about your end of our deal? I thought you had more information on how far all this was yourself?"
He nodded and gestured at the map. "We do. It at least covers the old state, and a good portion of the neighboring ones besides. But how better to find out, then go yourself? You help us, you get an official mandate from the Duke which will help smooth over any boundary disputes or official issues, it's win win!
"Why East though?"
"The direction of the old capital. It would be best to know if Washington D.C. still exists, or the U.S."
Well he had me there. I thought they had already sent an expedition that way though.
"Didn't you send other expeditions that way?"
"For obvious reasons, they have yet to report back, Your party on the other hand, has that ability."
Okay, wait. Other magic users couldn't use the spells the Pastor or I could? "You have so many mages on call or assignment here, and you're telling me...."
"That they are less competent, yes." Sticks interrupted, finally annoyed enough to look at us again. "Or simply less powerful, to date."
Well since he put it that way....
I looked at Karl, and Karl looked at me. He didn't look happy at all.
"Fine, we'll do it. But we reserve the right to stop our expedition and return at any time."
"Thinking ahead? That's fine; the Duke will agree to that, so long as you report what you find to us regularly. Something you have already agreed to, I might add, in return for our information."
He had us there.
"Alright, what do we need to do?"
"Wait here," Sticks answered immediately. "I'll go let the Duke know you've agreed, and he will summon you to his audience chamber where you will formally accept the commission. That will let everyone in the duchy know you're an official agent now, and they will cooperate with you, should you need it. Within reason, of course.
Sticks left while I was still pondering his words. Crap, there were no servants around, either.
"What are you fidgeting for?" Matt asked me.
"They just took us right here, and now we're going to see the Duke. Not even a chance to clean up."
"Figures you would be worried about that." Matt smirked.
Randolf of all people spoke to my defense. "No, she's right. That sort of thing isn't done; we just had a long, tense journey, we're tired, sore, and sweaty, and it ain't normal to go before royalty that way."
He actually took a step back as we all stared at him. "What? Good honest dirt offends them or something."
"They want us gone as quickly as possible," Karl mused. "That's why the powerful document. They want us to do what we want, somewhere else."
"And they might seek to embarrass you at the same time," Sir Henry said from his shadowed corner.
I'd forgotten he was there. Somehow we all had. "How did you do that?"
Sir Henry smiled. "An old trick. Nothing of your Lady's caliber, but my armor hold several enchantments. Chief among my favorites is a sorcery that makes me seem part of the background unless I do something to dispel the illusion."
I could see how that would be handy, especially for a spy.
"There are maneuverings at court. Of course, such things are always going on at court. It would be best if you kept your wits about you."
"And what about you? Will you not run to the Duke and whisper our words in his ear, as soon as you are able?" Thomas asked irritably.
"And what would I say?" Sir Henry asked gently. "My leige, the party you sent away is onto you, they know of your plan to send them away? Exactly what would be the point in that?"
I noticed he did not actually deny the charge. "Well, I can scuttle some of his plan. As always, magic has the answers."
A simple muttered spell and my appearance and scent were both springtime fresh. I now at least looked fresh, for all that I didn't feel it.
"Really?" Karl asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Why not? Don't you want to be clean, for the first time in weeks?"
"Hey now, I bathed. We all bathed, recently even!"
I mimicked Matt's voice before going back to my own. "Yes yes, I even used soap, yes I am amazing. Trust me, it isn't enough when you wear iron shirts all day."
"She has you there lad," Sir Henry opined. "People in our line of work tend to get a bit fragrant."
"It's a good, honest smell," Randolf informed us. "Not a coating of berries and twigs."
"As if I'd waste good fruit on any of you plebians. Now hold still, this won't hurt a bit."
It wasn't all that more draining to cast my clean up spell for the group than it was for myself. Alright, that was a lie, it was very draining. But it had to be done.
Wait. There were traps within traps here. I was a powerful well known sorceress, at least according to all reports - I still didn't quite believe it myself - and to be seen doing the Duke's bidding would be a feather in his cap. It would also degrade my own power; I would no longer be seen as independent. Oh, but this was crafty.
There had to be a way to counter it, but how? This had to be the real reason why we weren't being given time to rest or prepare, he didn't want us to realize all this until later. Any commission we accepted would be dangerous, I had the feeling the Duke wasn't exactly well liked.
I could do nothing about the dents or gouges to their armor, but the dirt removed itself from my companions, and seconds later all torn or cut clothing knitted itself whole. The dirt found a nearby window; I made sure no one was under it before I let it go.
"Oh my gods, I smell like a flower garden." Randolf informed us in obvious disgust.
"It won't hurt you. Might be a welcome change from the sour beer smell."
"Lies, nothing is better than sour beer mixed with sweat!"
"I'll remember that the next time you chat up a pretty lady." Matt said, grinning. Randolf huffed.
"Wait, next time?" Just when did these two have the chance to chat up pretty women? I wasn't getting the chance to chat up pretty men! not that I wanted to of course, that came out wrong. Head, let me start over and let's speak of this no more.
Ahem: since when did these two get the chance to chat up pretty women? I wanted the chance to chat up pretty women! There, much better.
Sticks came back, and took a long slow blink, looking at us. Then he shrugged. "The throne room is this way."
We filed out behind him as he led us downstairs. There was a suspiciously large number of troops idling nearby, just as their had been outside, but they all appeared to be either off duty or rushing to somewhere else. I knew I wasn't just being paranoid though.
The Duke was there, holding full court as expected. Several of the richly dressed worthies looked more than a little ruffled and out of sorts, as if gathered in a hurry. Here and there I could make out whispers, mostly griping about the sudden summons, though there were a few whispers about me. Not us, not even Pastor Collins, just me. I wasn't sure how to feel about that.
The duke was just as fat and balding as the first time we met, with a smile that not only didn't reach his eyes, but barely twisted up half his face. His tunic, hose, and cape were immaculate, and his gold crown and rings all gleamed in the low light of the hall. He wore a sword, and it was clear he knew how to use it, but I doubted he had in years.
Or if he ever had. Most of those around me hadn't known which end of the sword was up before the event, whatever it was. Myself included. It wouldn't do to forget that. I had the feeling some had forgotten it already.
"Ah, the Lady Muse and company. How pleasing it is to see you all, whole and unharmed, safe after your most important mission of rescue for us."
Yep, looks like I had him figured out. Karl's eyes narrowed, and Randolf visibly bristled. But now they were in a bit of a quandary. I'd been addressed directly; if they spoke up, they would be speaking out of turn, and the Duke could start some trouble over it. I stepped forward.
"Yes, the company I am a part of is well, as are the refugees we collected. Unfortunately the necromancer responsible for all the destruction has escaped just punishment, I am told."
Start with a reminder of his own men's failure, and by extension his own, right after admitting our success. A reminder of a distant threat unresolved should help divert attention on the part of the nobles, too.
Something flickered in the Duke's eyes, but his face remained placid and pleasant. "Even so. And since you are all so clearly adept at finding the lost, as well as investigation, I would like to ask you to continue to do so, on our behalf."
Karl could safely jump in now, and he wasted no time doing it. "We already have our own mission, from our own authority."
Yep, he was mad alright. Sticks almost rattled. I was sure he wanted to say some things to me about classified information... if his own superior hadn't started it. Besides, I hadn't signed an NDA on our mission.
The duke didn't even bat an eye - he'd planned for anger. "But surely, my mission can be added to your own? Your mandate is one of exploration; you are already going the direction I need you to go for your own reasons. My requests will be simple to you."
We already knew what they were, but the game demanded to be played. "And those are?"
"That you travel toward the capital, look for the expedition sent before you, and send all information you gather back to us. In return you shall receive the full benefit and resources my authority has to offer."
"The full resources, you say?" Karl asked. "Then you won't mind a little price, to cover the expenses of the roads ahead?"
The Duke looked like he did in fact mind that, but he was committed now. Karl did everything but yell 'in your face!' at him, something I was grateful he showed restraint on.
"Yes, a fee for your services would only be fair." The Duke conceded. "I shall provide one upon your first delivery to me. In the meantime, please accept this.
He tried to pass me the scroll. My hands were firmly behind my back. Karl stepped up and took it instead.
"That is a writ of free passage," the Duke said, as if we didn't already know. "It will provide you free passage as well as full cooperation from all loyal subjects, in my demesne and beyond."
"I'll keep it safe." Karl said, masterfully purging almost all the sarcasm from his voice. I wasn't even sure anyone else could hear it; I didn't see any evidence of it on the Duke's face, or the nobles, or even Ethan's.
"Good. I know that you are anxious to continue. Please, resupply and rearm yourselves, so that you may continue and we all learn more about the tragedy which has befallen us."
He did have a certain flair with words, this Duke. It was easy to see how he got elected; the crowd was eating this up. Now he looked like he was doing something about the event, visibly, in a way that brooked no argument. And incidentally he was again using my name to piggyback from.
It was a little annoying.
The Duke's words were a clear dismissal, and Karl's fists tightened. My own might have as well, for a second. What was this guy playing at? He wasn't this abrasive the last time we were here, nor was he scheming so obviously.
Did he embrace his past life? His new past life? Was the other Duke like this, and the man he was before just didn't matter?
I wrenched my mind away from that thought; only sheer pants-wetting terror lay in that direction, and I refused to believe it. I managed to fall in behind Karl as he bowed ever so slightly and left. The Duke's eyes tightened visibly as I did so.
I had forgotten to bow, and therefore recognize his power. Well, 'forgotten'; he had no real power over me, and I refused to give him any. Had that been what happened? Everyone bowing and scraping to him by instinct, and he had let it go to his head? I hoped that was it.
Once out in the hall, Pastor Collins reminded us he was there. "Well, that could have gone better."
I looked around; we weren't being escorted out in any way, shape, or form. Not even Sticks was with us. the Duke had clearly wanted us gone and out of town as soon as possible, so why not ensure it now?
I assumed Pastor Collins was talking to me; no one else had responded. "The man was infuriating."
"Agreed," Collins said. "but he ignored us in favor of you, so I was able to notice a few things."
"Like?" Karl asked, his own curiosity outweighing his anger.
"Like the other quality in the room aren't happy with the Duke at all, and the merchant class, the business owners, seem to hate him. What he just did there? That was a clear pandering attempt to his base to appear strong."
I could agree with that; I'd come to much the same conclusion earlier. confirmation was always welcome though.
"Possible I suppose."
Just in time to save the day, Sticks appeared. "Come with me, please."
We started following like ducklings. "I'm supposed to see you provisioned. Do you need any new weapons? Work on your armor, or other tools of war?"
"I need some. A strap on my leather undershirt broke in our escape from the necromancer."
"Right then, blacksmith first." Sticks reversed direction and led us outside, in the direction of the hammering.
Ethan perked right up of course. It was probably music to him or something, and not the harsh a-melodic pounding I was hearing.
The smithy had a wide selection - if you liked crap. Swords and daggers and axes and hammers and maces and every instrument of killing you could imagine, all made with metal that smelled awful and didn't look like it would survive it's first fight. But maybe I was being too harsh; I was used to my own stuff after all.
Ethan looked like he agreed with me, and even Randolf had cooled his ardor some.Still, for all the look of the large and very bearded man's wares (he looked like half pro-wrestler half giant or something) repairs had to be made.
Just not to my stuff, since my weapons were still pristine. I wasn't sure if my mending spell would work on metal and not just clothes, but it hadn't before. Had that just been because I hadn't tried it? It didn't matter; our local ironmongers didn't like the idea of me using magic on their gear. I didn't have to ask, I just knew.
Their loss, really. In this case, their loss literally. The duke only had one smith and one apprentice working, which meant repairs would take some time.
Screw all that. "Hey, Sticks. I'm going back up to your tower. I've got nothing I need here."
Sticks seemed less than thrilled with that idea. "What about the apothecary, just across the street there? Potions, oils, and unguents, with all reasonable purchases backed by the Duke?"
I had to admit that counter-offer had me intrigued. "Sure, I can check it out."
It made me wonder what Sticks was afraid of me finding, but that was a concern for another time. Maybe he just didn't like people reading his books; I had to admit I didn't. Not anymore that is - the thought of Matt reading the book I learned from gave me the cold sweats.
The building sticks had pointed out was little more than a small shack made of crudely stacked stone and smelly thatch. At least it had a door - a sturdy wooden one that looked like it could survive a spell or two of mine.
It opened readily enough, and a bell chimed pleasantly above my head.
The inside was just as crude, and filled floor to ceiling with shelves and racks bolted upright. They contained all kinds of things, from leaves, herbs, and seeds to the finished products. With just a little effort, I could get lost in here, provided I could navigate the small spaces.
The greeting after that chime was less pleasant. "What do you want?" an old woman rasped out, standing up quickly enough to knock the stool she was on over. She slammed both her gnarled hands on the counter in front of her hard enough to rattle the earthenware jars placed on it.
"Potions, if you have them. Some better customer service, maybe. Hey wait, I remember you, I think. Weren't you near Abernathy Square a few days ago?"
The old lady squinted; she looked to be about 120, with gnarled and twisted limbs and a squashed warty nose. She looked much like a stereotypical witch, and the stained robe didn't help much.
"I know you," she rasped out. "Yes, that was me, I used to have a house near the square there. I got recruited by the Duke to make healing potions. You're the lady Muse, aren't you?"
She did not sound happy about her drafting. "I am, and I too have been drafted by the Duke, after a fashion. He wants me to go exploring to the North for him."
The woman snorted loudly. "Spy, more like."
I couldn't really deny the charge. "Perhaps, but our mission is to find out what happened, and see if we can reverse it. That said, I was sent here to see if you had anything to help me. I was told the Duke would pay."
Her face twisted. "Aye, he'll pay a pittance to be sure."
I didn't even hesitate. "Then I'll make up the difference."
She squinted at me again, so I shrugged. "As best I can, I'm sure potions are expensive."
I was absolutely sure brewing potions was both expensive and time consuming, and right now I couldn't afford either.
"My best. You'll get my best." she said, and began puttering around the shelves without more than a glance.
I grinned at her. "I said I'd pay, but I'm not exactly made of gold, here."
She snorted again. "We'll do the best we can then. I'm May"
"And you already know, I'm Muse. Pleased to meet you, May."
"Pleased to meet you, Lady Muse. I'm no hurler of spells, but my talents here are the best you'll find short of the North. I suspect it's the same with you."
She bent double and started rooting around the far shelf. "Sticks could probably make a case for himself. A few others around too."
"Perhaps," May grunted, drawing out her prize with a grin that made her look worse, if anything. "But I have good instinct with matters such as these. Don't let them dominate you, sister."
Yeah being called sister wasn't awkward at all. "...Right, sure."
"Confidence, Lady muse. Confidence is a power all it's own. Now, these."
May waved a sagging arm over eight potions, four in earthenware, and four in the more expensive and fragile glass.
"The first is an oil, placed over the eyes, in order to see that which cannot normally be seen. The second is a multiple use potion - one sip only! To render one invisible; it lasts for five minutes. Care to guess why I sell them together?" She asked with a grin.
"No thanks, it's pretty obvious. Next?"
May Idly rubbed an eye as she continued; I thought for a second she'd pop it out, she was going at it so hard. "The next is an oil that offers protection from fire. For best results, rub it in, one use."
I had some knowledge of this sort of thing. "How hot?"
"It should protect you even against dragon's fire. If it does, do come back and tell me."
And if it didn't, I wouldn't be coming back at all; charming. "Sure."
"These next three in the glass are clearly marked with red wax. See the cross there? That means they are healing potions. They should heal most major wounds, and each has three uses - remember, a sip only. I've no idea what an overdose of these will do, but it will not just 'heal better'."
"I got it," I assured her.
"The last there, see the pink wax, and heart in the seal? It wouldn't do to mistake this one for a healing potion."
She stopped and actually leered; I had to suppress a shudder. "What it is Lady Muse, is a potion to make you more memorable in the minds of others. no silly vapid love drought or transformation, this! It draws upon what you already have in order to seem... more."
Well that begged a question. "Did you try it?"
She nodded back and put a bony elbow in my ribs. "aye, and it's why I'm still breathing and not two days cold."
Somehow I doubted that, but I'd take it.
"Mind, this one only has two uses - so it's best you save it for really risky negotiations or something. The effect lasts quite a while though - at least a half an hour, and leaves no evidence of the trickery behind. Keep in mind that someone skilled looking for anything like that will find it, so be careful."
Bony elbow and chummy demeanor or not, she really was giving me good advice here.
"Thanks, how much for them all?"
She rattled off a price and I boggled. "That much? Really?"
May threw back her head and cackled. "Nah. But that's how much the Duke is getting charged for them. You keep your money; if you find the answers, just coming back and telling me what happened will be price enough."
"Deal." We shook on it.
On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again... I wonder would all knowledge of Willie Nelson vanish into the same ether our scientific knowledge went to?
"Are you humming 'on the road again'?" Matt asked me.
Well, it clearly wouldn't happen today. "Yes. I find myself in a good mood, shaking the road dust of Toledo off of my feet. It's a wonderful morning, isn't it?"
Matt grinned. "Indeed it is."
The morning was bright and clear, with only a few puffy white clouds set into the vast light blue gem of the sky. Birds were chirping and flying around on some errand only they knew of, small critters were watching us from the brush, and the air smelled crisp and clean.
Other people on the road were avoiding us, but that was probably for the best. Maybe we looked scary or something. A minor shame, since the farmers and tradesmen we were running into probably knew much more about the area we were about to travel to than we did.
Of course, the most important thing was something they were already telling us, since they were clearly alive and not panicking; so the road ahead was safe, at least to a certain point. I could always task my little helper, the crow, with a little recon; right now he was hanging out in a thermal almost directly over my head, too high up to see much.
But crows that came lower this close to civilization usually ended up filled with arrows; I'd spotted a few like that already. I mean, sure they were the eyes and ears of witches, sorcerers, and wizards of all stripes, but we weren't all bad! Silly superstitions.
Maybe if I made the little bird an orange vest....
Nah, they would just use the bright color as a spot ot aim at.
"On the road again...." Matt sang, grin widening when I looked his way.
"I just can't wait to get on the road again...." Thomas picked the song up.
"The life I love is makin music with my friends....." Ethan belted out, getting into it.
I finally surrendered; after all, if the dwarf was getting involved I'd have to counter that awful voice of his - it sounded like several rusty pipes spitting steam as cats yowl in the background.
"And I can't wait to get on the road again."
We ended up singing the entire song, all of , as loudly as we could carry the tune, while people stared at us and shied even further away. I still nodded politely to them as we went by, even as I came close to tears from the looks on their faces and my rendition suffered from the laughter.
Today was a good day. Even when Matt finished with Willie, and started singing Toxic by Brittney Spears, complete with the dance moves. It made me mourn the loss of cameras and smart phones.
Soldiers passed us on the road, clapping and cheering, having seen the show from a distance. Their horses were fresh, their armor undented, both good signs. The officer with them just smiled and waved us on - I thought he looked a little familiar. One of the ones from duty at the gate when we first came in, if memory served. Was it really only three weeks ago?
It seemed like a minor lifetime ago.
The farmland stretched much farther in this direction, so far in fact, that we ended up camping in some farmer's field. It was a fallow one at least, so it was unlikely we would get into trouble, but the road was still busy as night fell, and none of us felt like getting trampled by horses or mules.
The fire was tricky, but we had enough wood for a small one, and that was enough to let people know we were both there and probably friendly, since bandits would want the cover of darkness. Well there was that, and the fact that bandits were unlikely to have set up tents.
There was no fresh meat, but more than a few wild vegetables and to augment the dried beef we packed. So, after a meal we retired early. Or rather, I retired early - the boys... no, the rest of my party - decided to stay up for a bit and drink in a safe area.
Trap and alarm spells weren't a good idea here. reading to relieve the anxiety I'd never in a million years admit to, was. I felt less safe with friends around me, than I did with active spells. Since when was that a valid concern? That was not a good thing.
The tweeting of birds woke me, and I rolled over to find my spellbook not only unlocked, but wide open. If someone could enter my tent, that would be a serious problem; I'd have to be more careful.
As careful as I hadn't been however, it was pretty clear my companions had been even less careful; I found them all asleep or passed out around the cooling coals of our small fire; Ethan was even snoring, loud as a bandsaw, and smelled so powerfully of whiskey it drowned out almost everything else.
I nudged Karl with a boot. "Wake up, daylight is wasting."
He groaned and rolled over, out of range. Oh hey, my Raven was perched on my tent, so we weren't completely without a watch. Not that these idiots needed to know that. I stepped back in range.
"Come on Karl, wake up."
"In an hour. Just give me another hour, and I swear, I'll get up."
Well, it was only seven, I guess I could do that. But what to do in the meantime?
Reading was an option, but seemed a bit boring after last night. Walking and leaving my comrades in arms defenseless seemed all kinds of bad idea, even as farmer's wagons leisurely passed our campsite.
I could experiment with the concepts of magic I was reading last night... other forms the primal elements could take, or the concepts surrounding creation itself.. or even those around teleportation, since that was how an enemy had gotten away; next time I wanted to be ready to shut it down.
Yeah, no. Twisting time and space like warm taffy didn't seem like something to experiment on before I was darn ready. What about that mending spell? Maybe I could alter it to work on heavier materials, like armor.
But I had no armor to test.
I caught myself eyeing Matt's helm... no, not a good idea; I could break it or something. A single piece of steel, not enchanted, however, would be good practice....
Ethan was still asleep, and his bag was unsecured.
A simple reach in, and I had two small bars of shiny steel to play with. It wasn't stealing, it was borrowing!
I had to wrap both in cloth to avoid the ringing noise as I bashed them together; you couldn't mend anything that wasn't broken, after all. A few small dents later and I tried the spell the normal way, adding just a bit more power. And, nothing. As expected, really.
The second attempt was a bit more serious - and the same result. Annoying. I sort of knew the language of magic; the proper language of magic, focus and intent, not the chanting and bullcrap.
The third result was the same. So, what was I doing wrong?
I pondered while Ethan snored, the sound reminding me of a chainsaw.
It could be the magic, and that was most likely - but I didn't think that was it. So what was different?
The structures, of course. Cloth was less durable, it ripped and tore. Metal bent or extended, in short it broke differently. Due to it's structure or atoms or something. So rather than envisioning broken pieces reattaching, perhaps a new approach.
The next attempy fought me the entire way and took longer, but at the end of it the piece of steel showed fewer dents and dings, so imagining the reverse of stretching was correct. The magic was likely still wrong, which was why it fought me, but I could work on that.
These experiments also highlighted something very important; not only could I do theory work, stuff not explicitly in my book, but I somehow knew all about it, and knew which concepts were wrong. The chanting that Sticks favored, for example? Just a trick to focus energy, a quick and dirty method to do something someone else had done before.
It was also very slow. In many cases, slower than my way of doing things, for all that it was a cheat. I was different somehow though, not the normal, and I wasn't sure why - or even if I wanted to ask that question.
And just that sudden, the hour was up, so I put the metal back in Ethan's bag (he stirred this time, but didn't wake) and dug my toe back into Karl's side.
"Come on Karl, it's time."
"I'm up, I'm up," Karl informed me, face down in the dirt next to his bedroll. That couldn't taste good.
I made some tea while hen pulled himself together - loudly. Even Ethan heard me, but how he did over his own snoring was a question I'd like answered.
"You didn't cook breakfast?" He asked, spitting immediately after as he rolled himself up.
"Fire was dead, and I wasn't my team of drunken idiots to look for wood in empty fields."
Ethan pondered that a second, eyes almost crossing as he wobbled, before pronouncing his verdict. "Fair."
It wasn't even my turn, so Ethan could just deal. Actually, I think it was his turn....
I munched on a little bread as i packed up, waching out of the corner of my eye as my companions managed to shuffle upright. Then it was more waiting, as they got ready themselves. At least the farmer hadn't shown up yet to ask what we were doing camping in his field. Of course he was probably lodging a complaint with the Duke's soldiers, for all the good that would do.
"Come on Lady muse, daylight is wasting!" Karl called from the road, as if I was the one holding us up. He would get his.
"Yeah yeah, I'm coming."
And we were off again, to more dynamic and powerful and amazing walking. I was glad my boots were enchanted, otherwise my feet would likely be falling off by now. I had no idea how my friends could clomp around in their metal shoes.
Bored bored bored, with only the occasional person passing us on the road to break the monotony. I wasn't about to make the mistake of wishing for excitement.
"This is boring. We need some excitement," Randolf cursed us.
"Shut up you idiot!"
He turned to me in surprise. "Oh, come on; what's the worst that could happen?"
Oh my fucking Gods. "Are you trying to get us all killed! The universe ruins people who say such things! Do not ever tempt fate!"
You know it's bad when a dwarf agrees with you. "She's right, lad. The universe has always taken a dump on people who say such things."
A charming yet accurate image.
Randolf scoffed, loudly. "I don't believe in any of that crap. Things just happen."
Pastor Collins was already praying, and I could feel the energy from his earnest entreaty for luck washing from him.
"Randolf, stop antagonizing the superstitious." Karl called back without so much as stopping. Matt hadn't stopped either; did they not believe, or understand?
They would learn.
Wait, why did they not believe, if I did? Was this something from before the event, or after? I don't recall ever being described as superstitious before, but this seemed to me to be something from farther in my past. Or our past - I didn't think I was alone in this belief?
Damn it all, was I being affected by this thing, or event, or whatever too? I thought I'd escaped it, or most of it.
Matt snickered, a bit too loud to stifle. Oh, that Donkey's butt....
"Had you going, just a bit, huh?"
Yeah, he knew exactly what I'd been thinking, the jerk.
"I wouldn't worry about it," He continued as I sputtered at him. "Everyone knows fate just stomps the idiot that said the stupid thing, and not his companions."
Randolf scoffed openly, sealing his fate. I wasn't so sure about that, so I was going to bring out the big guns. Or charms, in this case; I could make a few for luck while walking. They wouldn't be that powerful, but every little bit helps. Pastor Collins could probably make more effective ones, but Gods and Fate had a way of working together, so it was best not to risk it.
Well, I couldn't do the caligraphy ones while walking, but I could weave the dream catcher style ones easily.
I had three by the time night was beginning to fall; the fields were beginning to give way to forest, but only the manicured kind humans made and allowed near their borders. There was plenty of space for a campsite next to the road, and plenty of firewood to ward off any oncoming chill and animals.
We found an amazing spot, in a stand of new growth trees that afford a tremendous view all around us; the breeze was gentle and carried a tang of earthy smells, the sun was shining bright and clear, birds were chirping merrily and small critters were active, and a worm of something dark was twisting in my gut. No one else seemed to share my concern, but something felt very wrong.
There weren't enough charms to cover the campsite, but I did what I could, trying to keep it low key. Phil saw me weaving them into the trees, but chose not to say anything. My tent came next, and I took the time and focus to seal it against the more unusual threat possibilities. Luckily it was built for that, or I'd be wasting a ton of salt and silver in creating the circles.
Pastor Collins caught on immediately, but he just raised an eyebrow and stayed silent.
"Lady Muse, you plan on making dinner any time soon?"
Oh no he doesn't. "I haven't forgotten whose turn it is, dwarf. You wanted to come, make yourself useful."
The little man, twisting his face up. "Fine."
Then he sat right down in front of me, and rooted in his bags. "Hey, what happened to my metal!"
What? He could tell? "What do you mean?"
"The steel ingots are all dented!"
A chance! "I've no idea what happened to your bag while you were - ahem - asleep, but if you want, I can try ot take the dents out. I've been meaning to work on a variation of a spell anyway, to take the dents out of your armor on the road. If dents in your metal matters, that is."
Hey, it wasn't a lie, I really had no idea what had happened to his bag when he was out of it; right up until the time I borrowed his steel.
Ethan scrunched his face up again, more lines just appearing. "Aye, I probably got too drunk and rolled on them, or something. It doesn't really matter, but they may end up selling for more should you magick them out."
He held the ingots over while I reined in my enthusiasm. I took them and he grabbed my hand. "No funny business, elf."
"Yeah yeah, I'm not going to do anything bad to your precious steel, and if I screw up, I'll replace it. I give my word."
Ethan looked like he wanted it back, keeping his hand out a bit too long, but I stared him down and in the end he said nothing. He really should trust me by now, but I guess it was true what they said about dwarves and metal... whatever that was.
That actually made me feel a bit better; I was sure there was a saying there, but I couldn't recall what it was, exactly.
Night fell with a muted thump; all at once. It felt pleasant enough, and things looked and sounded normal, but that feeling I'd had earlier rose again. I rubbed my arms to relieve the sudden goosebumps, and opened my other senses. Still nothing to be alarmed about.
No, wait. There, there was something off to the West, something moving through a field: something huge. My Raven had spotted it while flying overhead, and was keeping an eye on it; it was fast and my raven was too high to get the best of looks.
"Something is coming."
Right on time whatever it was crashed into the tree line, a rough punctuation to my words; everyone sprang into action, diving around and grabbing for weapons.
I debated for half a second, then jumped up the nearest tree branch; the way it was crashing around, I didn't want to be anywhere near this thing's path.
Thomas had the same idea; he was already half up the tree next to mine.
Randolf wasn't as fast in his armor, so when whatever it was crashed out of the brush, he could only get partially out of the way, and the creature landed right on him with a rattling scream. Thomas had two arrows in it, and andolf's sword was sticking out of it's back, and still it thrashed. I held fire however, most of my spells would likely hurt Randolf too.
The thing was the biggest boar I'd ever seen; a truly massive pig, that even now was screaming and stamping and biting, just refusing to die. It was dangerous to even try to get near it, but finally Ethan dived in and grabbed it by one wildly flailing tusk and dragged it off of Randolf with one hand, dropping his weight on it and breaking it's neck.
Randolf was a mess of dents, blood, and gore as he lay there, panting. Pastor Collins rushed up and started checking him.
"Are you okay?"
A dazed glare was the question's response.
Pastor Collins worked his magic, and Randolf looked just as bad. The good Pastor waved him off. "Oh, you're fine, just some surface cuts and bruising, easily healed."
"What happened?" Randolf asked us.
"You got mauled by a pig."
"That was a pig?" Randolf asked. "It fought like a lion!"
Pastor Collins did his magic again. "Well, no sign of brain damage, but...."
"Very funny." Randolf drawled back at him. "It was hard to see with all the fur and teeth in my face, alright?"
"Fair," Pastor Collins admitted.
Meanwhile, I was looking at the boar. Aside from it's size, it looked to be a normal animal. The size however, was a major issue; how could something that large hide? And if it wasn't hidden, how was it not dead from peasants hunting it? Wild boars were too dangerous ot leave running around at the edges of farmlands, and they ate some crops besides. Had they just not had the time to hunt it?
Well regardless, it was a moment tailor made for me.
"Well, you got your excitement Randolf. Feeling better about the day now? Got a few other things to say about boredom, perhaps?"
Randolf shot me the dirtiest of looks as he picked himself up, still dripping some lovely, sticky pig blood - but he didn't say a word.
We all laughed at the boar earlier, secretly relieved when Randolf was basically fine. There was no danger for miles, we had scouted for it. So what was the harm in letting our friend take first watch? It would give him time to clean off and then get a good night's sleep.
My first warning that karma wasn't quite done with us yet were the screams. Great, shuddering, ear shredding sounds that woke me. I fought my way out of my tent with my sword in hand to find that whatever was dying was somewhere past our camp.
Matt stumbled to his feet beside me; Ethan was sitting up and reaching for his axe.
Karl was already dashing out of the camp; I followed, sword in one hand quick spell in the other. My crow was already winging his way up, because I refused to go in blind.
I hadn't seen Randolf. "Karl, where's Randolf?"
I had noticed a stream nearby through my Crow - I really needed to name him - we were headed right for it.
Randolf was there, both mail and undershirt off, both of those dunked in the stream. He, in turn, was being dunked in the stream himself by something that shouldn't exist.
It was a lady; a tall and thin one, decked out in a fine dress and absolutely coated in jewels. The very image of royalty, she was hunched over, one hand wrapped around Randolf's arm, her pretty face contorted in rage. She was also glowing slightly in the darkening gloom, and I could see quite well behind her. She had no color to her save blues.
I let loose my spell and darts of magical force the same color as what could only be a ghost flew true, thudding right into the things face. Not through it, as I half suspected; good.
"Tell me I'm not looking at what I'm looking at," Karl said evenly as the thing turned, letting go of Randolf. Randolf's skin seemed to smoke where it touched him, but the skin itself was blue. Karl kept advancing, sword out, with only a slight tremor in his sword arm.
"A ghost. Unless your sword is magical, I wouldn't get too close."
"You know, I've no idea," Karl admitted, putting himself in front of me.
The ghost hissed, then her face went from pure hatred to haughty. "I applaud your haste, but it is already too late."
That was bull. I could see from here that Randolf was face up so he was in no danger of drowning, and that his chest was rising; it wasn't normal breathing by any means, but with his face scrunched up in pain as it was, there was little doubt he was alive.
"She's just trying to bait you. Don't fall for it." I replied, beginning to gather my will. I wasn't really prepped for ghosts, and the earlier spell didn't seem to do much more than piss her off, but I had a few things I could try.
"Begone, unclean thing!" Or Pastor Collins could catch up and light his pendant on fire with sunlight. That worked too.
Except it kind of didn't. With a screech that almost blew my eardrums, the ghost fled, back up the stream bed towards a row of distant hills.
I got a grip on Randolf just behind Karl, and together we pulled his giant waterlogged ass out. Pastor Collins wasted little time himself, taking a knee and examining the injured arm.
"Oh, this is bad. The undead had quite the party here - over a minute alone with him, and most of that in her grasp."
"Can you fix him?" Karl asked. It occurred to me he may not know just how bad this sort of attack was; not everyone had access to a bestiary.
"I can try. This will be a bit more complicated than healing his arm." There was no doubt that Pastor Collins knew about undead, ghosts included.
I do wish he hadn't driven the ghost away. "Karl, we have to go after it."
Karl turned, and blew a breath. "Yeah, of course we do."
Then he looked me up and down and ran a hand through his hair. "but we need to prep first, we can't do it right now. I know you're good, but we need Pastor Collins, and he's busy right now. We don't have magical weapons, or armor - and some of us aren't even dressed."
Oh. Oh. I thought it was cold; I'd taken my clothes off, and then just rushed out in my underwear when I heard the screams; I'd been giving everyone a free show.
"Right... I'll just go see about that. Yell if you need me."
I turned and ran smack into a grinning Matt. "All nice and wet, glistening in the light...."
"Shut. Up. I thought people were dying."
Matt's grin faded a bit, but he was still game. "I know, but I will cherish the image anyway, especially on those cold, lonely nights."
Ethan brought everything back into focus. "Ah, who would want to see her? She's too skinny by half; not a proper woman at all."
"Right," I agreed. "after all, I don't have enough facial hair."
At least with such fine, upstanding men around Randolf would have no trouble getting back to camp. Once he was stable, that is. it was a lonely trip back; I had another spell prepped, but the ghost didn't show. I'd have welcomed the appearance, for all that I was vulnerable.
It was stupid of me to rush out to the screams without so much as putting on clothes; after all, mine were enchanted. Instead I was running around in my skivvies like a front line fighter at the first sign of trouble. Whether it had worked or not was immaterial, I would have to do better.
I still wasn't sleeping in my clothes, however. That was just gross.
I dove into my tent, and dressed. Phil was in front of the fire when I emerged again, stirring it to greater life. He gave me a once over. "Prepared for war, I see."
Well if he wasn't going to say anything, neither was I. "We have to track it down; if we don't, it'll just track us down tomorrow night. Or maybe even later tonight; such a thing isn't going to willingly let the secret of it's existence out."
"We could just inform the proper authorities, and let them handle it. It isn't our mission after all."
"We could," I admitted. It wasn't as if I hadn't thought of that. "But if we do, the thing will follow us anyway. It either won't know and operate on the principle that we have to physically tell people, or it'll know it's cover is blown and seek revenge."
It was it or us, for all that it may have been a perfectly normal person with hopes and dreams and a life all their own weeks ago. Some things were too dangerous to others to allow them to exist, intelligent or not.
Phil threw the stick he was using to mess around with the fire into it. "That's a good point. Not to mention, it did take a bite or whatever out of one of ours, so a little payback is only fair."
That was another valid point, if not an entirely logical one.
"Well, pick a weapon of yours, I can help regardless of motives."
Phil unsheathed a dagger, flipped it a bit, then handed it to me handle first. it was probably the best one he owned, the work was top-notch and the balance was perfect.
I focused, drawing power together. I hadn't really tried this before but I was sure I had a solid grasp of the principle. The stray moonbeam captured form the air itself wasn't all that scientific, but it worked here; I pressed gently but firmly into the blade, watching as it lit up with a dim if beautiful glow.
"There, that should last the night. While it does, your blade will cut and stab things it normally can't. Even a ghost."
Phil wasn't even listening; instead he was helping the others, who had showed up while I was off in la-la land; that was something else I'd have to work on, otherwise I would get blindsided while trying a trick.
Still, Randolf didn't need everyone crowded around him; he wasn't in great shape, but he was looking better, and clearly Pastor Collins had things well in hand; he finished a muttered prayer and color flooded back into his patient's face.
"Hey Matt, get over here and hand me your sword," I tapped Phil on the shoulder and handed him back his blade; he almost cut himself taking it back.
Matt already knew what was up, and I repeated the process; it was much more draining than the dagger had been, and I knew I couldn't pull it off a third time unless I wanted to be no good for the fight ahead.
When I looked up, Karl was already standing in line, his sword out. "Sorry Karl, I can't. Not a third time."
"I can," Pastor Collins spoke up. He looked a little tired, but his voice came out without a waver. "Give it to me, and I'll do it. Place them all together in a pile."
I shrugged at Karl's look, and handed Matt's glowing blade off. He, and Ethan trundled back over and Thomas dropped out of the trees. A spoken prayer and Ethan's axe, Karl's sword, and Thomas's arrows all glowed a deeper, more brilliant blue than my own attempts.
I was fine with that because i knew the enchantment wouldn't last as long as my own. Silly priests and their silly 'I can enchant everything at once' bull. They didn't even use their own power to do things, they outsourced.
"Thomas, Ethan, Muse, Pastor - you're with me. Phil, Matt, you two stay here and watch Randolf. He's stable now, but if he starts to have trouble, do your best. Failing anything else shove a potion down his throat and come find us."
I had to interrupt. "You're safe from the ghost, at least. My charms will keep it out."
Of course that didn't stop anything else from eating them, but the two were likely good enough for most things around here - after all the ghost probably ate anything alive big enough to be dangerous.
I needed to work on more items I could hand off; I didn't like the idea that our heavy artillery was tied up in our expeditionary force.
"Thomas, take point." Karl stated.
"I've got no idea how to track a ghost," Thomas responded, even as he moved.
That was my cue. "Not a problem. Head towards that row of hills there, that where it went."
"I just want you making sure she doesn't circle on us, Tom." Karl added, which seemed to mollify him.
"Right, on it." With no more than a whisper, he was gone.
"We all ready? I don't want to give that ghost any more time to recover than we have to."
That was the smartest thing Karl's said all night. "All ready."
Everyone else nodded or made the appropriate noises, and Karl set off, expecting us to follow. We didn't hesitate of course, and I was right behind Ethan, who of course stepped in my way and then decided to stump along as slowly as possible on his little legs.
I tamped down my irritation, and the urge to tell the midget to move faster. If I did his knees might knock together. "Want me to whip up a proton pack for you, Ray?"
"Har har," he deadpanned back, but it got him moving.
The row of hills was too neat, too even. and only a mile or so away. The first one we reached was way too even, and ringed all the way around with large rocks. So, not a hill, but a man-made barrow. Several of them, in a row. Which one was hers? We didn't dare get the wrong one and piss off the wrong dead person, that could make another ghost to eat us.
"We go around, there's probably a door at the base somewhere."
There wasn't, so of course Ethan had to make it worse. "Don't you ever get tired of being wrong?"
"Not really. Want to dig for it?"
"I have another way," Pastor Collins stated, stepping between us. "I can simply make a portal in the rock. The issue is we don't want to make any more restless dead - so I will have to pinpoint the evil within."
He held out his tiny statue or figurine of Minerva towards the center of the first barrow... and nothing.
Pastor Collins shook his head and pointed to the next one. "This isn't it."
Right, priests could sometimes sense evil. How had I forgotten that? Or had I forgotten it at all?
It didn't matter, I guess. Not right now, anyway. Pastor Collins took point, brandishing his little statue at the next one, and it too revealed a whole lot of nothing.
For the third barrow, one slightly bigger than the previous two, the statue glowed brightly, first a pleasing blue, and then an angry red.
"This is the one," Pastor Collins said unnecessarily.
Karl didn't call him on it. "Right, do your thing."
The prayer Pastor Collins uttered was minutes long, and had far more in common with a plea or begging than anything else. If I could hear it, then anyone could, and it continued long enough that feet were shuffling and the actual answer to the prayer caught us off guard and looking away.
The answer was a tunnel opened up into the dirt above the ring of rock; the earth simply moved up and out, a visible ripple that moved from where we were to the center of the hill.
"Sorry," Pastor Collins apologized. "That prayer isn't one Minerva normally grants."
I could probably have done this much, with earth elementals. I probably should have.
"Alright, Pastor, you're behind me, Muse, you're next, Ethan take the rear. Let's go, before it runs."
Karl set off at a jog. There wasn't a hurry really, if the ghost ran it would be back; the rays of the sun would drive it back to it's den if nothing else.
A mere thought and a light was floating ahead of us, adding to the glow from Pastor Collin's presented statue; Karl hadn't thought to bring a torch and I wasn't about to run into any undead creature in the dark. That had the opposite effect that I wanted, because Karl sped up.
And of course, when you start hurrying in a small area, you end up smacking into something.
In this case, the roadblock consisted of bleach white rattling bones clad in the remains of rich clothes and ornate armor. The skeleton let out a hiss, and only the fact that there wasn't enough room between them saved Karl from losing something he'd rather keep; instead the sword slammed into Karl's side and slid along it with a teeth gritting nails-on-chalkboard sound.
My prepped spell of force missiles slammed into it, knocking it back and allowing Karl to step out of the passageway and wind up a largest, greatest swing possible.
Which only chipped the shield the skeleton brought up to block.
Behind this, there were more; a full eleven more skeletons, all clad similar to the first, and bearing similar weapons. And behind them, was what could only be a large tomb.
A circular chamber made of cut stone, likely granite. Pots and chests of all kinds and in all colors along the wall, likely grave goods. Shabby, stained rugs and hides coating the floor, faded tapestries and trophies of events past hanging from the walls. Also lining the walls were what could only be empty stone coffins without lids, the stains of decay faintly visible within. There was even a small carriage, complete with the bones of horses laid out neatly in front, as if sleeping, taking up one dusty 'corner.'
And in the center, one very ornate sarcophagus, complete with the gold chased stone effigy carved into the lid. An effigy that looked familiar, even from this angle.
A dozen empty coffins, a dozen skeletons which were even now advancing on us. I started readying a fire spell; there would be time to fall back into the passage and hide behind shields....
Pastor Collins stepped up and tried to make that plan unnecessary. "Back, unclean things! Back!"
One of the dozen skeletons took three steps back while facing us. Slow, deliberate steps. The others didn't even appear to flinch as the light swept over them.
That... shouldnt be possible. Not even remotely. Unless...
"Oh crap. Back in the passage, right now!" To his credit, Karl didn't hesitate.
"What's going on?!? let me through, beanpole!" Ethan shouted from behind. I ignored him.
Not fire, I couldn't use the fire, Karl wasn't set. Instead I focused on containment and a thick gummy web sprang from my hands, coating the entire doorway. Just in time, as it slowed the lead skeleton's sword; Karl just barely made it out of the way.
"Those aren't normal skeletons."
Karl gave me his best 'no shit' look. "No, I mean they are much much stronger, the weapons they have are probably enchanted, and they remember how to use them. They are probably tomb guardians of one kind or another, and resistant to at least some of the arts of priests."
They could even be resistant to magic too; if they were, we'd have to retreat and run for the next country over. And hope against hope that these wouldn't be pissed off enough to follow. The way the first was tearing through my magical web was certainly suggestive of resistance.
A smaller fire, less energy used, burned along the webbing and hit the skeleton struggling toward us within it. There was more than a little relief when I saw it start to blacken; there should be more damage to a heap of bones and metal set firmly into a flammable substance, but I'd take what I could get.
"Let's see how these foul things like this!" Pastor Collins all but shouted, as a small sphere of what seemed to be pure daylight sprang into being above his outstretched hand.
The flaming skeleton that didn't seem all that inconvenienced by the fact that it was on fire jerked to a complete stop as the light from that miniature sun hit it. It struggled visibly to advance, reaching for Karl, and received a sword to the skull for it's trouble.
Not that something so trivial as a sword to the face stopped it anyway. Sweat trickled down Pastor Collin's face; his spell was clearly taking something out of him, Goddess funded or not.
Right, so to take a page from the younger and less sane set of mage... more fire was called for. I could still see the tomb beyond, and that was good enough.
"Karl, get your shield out and duck behind it."
To his credit again, Karl didn't hesitate, and was ready by the time I was. No fool myself, I ducked behind him as the explosion I'd conjured went off; I'd calculated things correctly, though. By the time it got to us, the flames were mostly spent and the worst damage we received were some smoldering clothes, which I could fix later.
The flaming skeleton scrabbled off Karl's raised shield; it was impossible to see if he was the worse for wear, but he didn't sound like he was slowing down.
That was beyond not good, since from an elemental standpoint, fire was supposed to... purify with a vengeance. Or something like that. It was better than water for things like this anyway, at least in my hands. At this point I doubted even an elemental made of fire would kill these things.
Wait, I was an idiot. Why did we need to kill these, anyway? They were like robots built of bone; they were only coming after us because we were trespassing; the moment we stopped doing that, they'd stop coming after us.
And they weren't even evil, in the classical sense. Just far too loyal for their own good. So if I didn't have to kill them...
"Keep them busy; I've got a plan."
"That's comforting," Karl quipped, dropping his sword so he could brace his shield with both hands. Maybe I should have enchanted his shield as well as the sword; something for next time.
I blotted all the distractions out; the scratching and scrabbling noises, the shouting, the changes in light as Pastor Collins moved closer to the entrance. My instinct had been correct all along, elementals could solve the problem. But in this case, an earth elemental was the way to go.
A ripple in the dirt floor beneath me announced when I'd succeeded. I immediately set it to work at the floor of the tomb and began on another.
We could all feel and hear the rumble.
"That you?" Karl asked.
"Yes." It really should be obvious.
Apparently it was. "Work faster."
The second ripple arrived as our both our lights went out, and the skeleton returned to bashing on Karl in earnest. Ethan broke out a small torch as I sent the second elemental in.
The first elemental was finished; with the prep work; I focused my power again, and did what felt natural; I sang.
The stone flooring and the dirt underneath changed into mud; not just any mud, but the heavy, cloying swamp mud that was responsible for the death of the unwary. With all the wight of their armor, and little surface area, the skeletons had no chance. Any that showed any ability to climb out were quickly pulled under by my elementals; they couldn't even attack, the mud stopped the swings of even clearly enchanted weapons.
Karl bashed the sword of his rapidly sinking opponent aside, and kicked it away; it sank into the depths, one hand still clawing for him.
"Well, that's one way," Pastor Collins granted. He didn't sound too thrilled about it.
"How long will that hold them?" Karl asked.
"In a bit, a very long time. They won't have any leverage to get out, and I'll be reversing the spell as soon as I'm sure they are far enough down."
"Cute, then we just walk across and smack ourselves a spirit. Not bad, elf. For an elf, that is." Yes thank you Ethan. At least you don't look as afraid as you did coming in here. Not that I really blame you for that, ghosts are hard to fight.
We all waited, two of us tapping a foot in the most annoying manner, until I was sure my elementals had the situation well in hand. I rose my voice again, and the mud turned back into the cut stone it was before; the elementals helped that along with their own power, and firmed up the dirt underneath as well; I let them go back home, their job well done.
Karl took the first, wary step. He was somewhat worse for wear, sporting numerous shallow cuts, and his shield was almost scrap.
Pastor Collins pushed past him, the symbol of his Goddess held toward the floor. It didn't react at all. I didn't feel like wasting time.
"Either they aren't evil, or they are down too far to set that thing off."
"All undead are evil; even those who choose not to do evil. The very state itself is an abomination. Also, I'd appreciate it if you didn't refer to the Goddess Minerva as a thing."
What? "I was talking about the little statue, not the power behind it."
Pastor Collins smirked. "Gotcha." Smirk or not, he continued to sweep the tomb with the statue; of course it reacted to the sarcophagus itself, almost outshining Ethan's torch. Karl started forward, a crowbar in hand.
"Don't head up there just yet."
A bag of salt (small of course, I wasn't rich) and a waterskin, I delivered both. "Bless these if you would."
The good Pastor caught on immediately. "A circle?"
"A circle," I confirmed. "it seems a reasonable precaution."
He got to work again, and handed my waterskin back; but he kept the salt. "I'll do it."
That was just silly. "No, you do that sun thing again if you can. I'll make the circle, then we can destroy it."
Pastor Collins ran a hand through his hair, thinking. "Yes, you're right. If I do that it shouldn't be able to touch us.I can manage another, for a minute or so."
Something was going on there, but we really didn't have time for me to track it down.
"Not long enough, then. Stay on the lookout and make her flee if she shows up."
"I can do better than that," he muttered before raising his voice in a shout. "Let no evil be allowed to taint this place!" His little statue had put on quiet the light show so far tonight, and it wasn't done yet; it blazed in his hand, and if it were a normal light I'd be looking for burns.
I hurried a bit, but took enough time to be extra careful, pouring the salt in as perfect a circle as I could manage, mixing in the recently blessed water to hold it in place so it couldn't be blown or swept away, and humming a bit to charge it with power. We would be able to enter or leave it but the ghost wouldn't, so long as we didn't break it.
"Alright, you guys can go ahead, as long as you remember not to break the line. Go ahead and open the sarcophagus and then retreat if it comes at you."
Karl nodded and firmed up the grip on his sword. He and Ethan cautiously approached from opposite sides; I readied my little missile spell. A firm heave with a crowbar and the ornate lid grated aside.
"Nothing. I mean, there is a body in here, more a stack of bones than anything, with a mask. Looks to be gold...."
"No, don't!" Karl's hand froze. "We don't touch or take anything here. It isn't our purpose, and it'll piss off the guardians."
"I wasn't going to take it," Karl defended himself. "Just look at it. It looks like our girl."
Of course it did, it was her death mask. "No sign of her in there?"
Karl gave me a look. "Of course she's in here. But if you mean tall, stacked, and glowy, then no. Just her body."
Well, where else could she....
Karl folded in a heap as a pot smashed into the back of his head. There, against the wall, her face more a rictus than anything, was our target. A second pot was sent flying, and Ethan ducked it just in time. An acrid smell mixed with decay flooded the chamber.
I hopped inside the line, dodging my very own earthenware missile, and set my spell down range; just like the first time, it hit her dead on, and just like the first time, it didn't seem to do much more than piss her off.
"Back, abomination!" was Pastor Collin's contribution, but this time it didn't do anything but earn him a pot to the chest; long decayed wheat, if I had to guess.
Throwing long spoiled grave goods at us wasn't going to hurt us, or even delay us long.
"Pastor, wrong target. Aim for the body." I focused and a shield sprang into being between us and the ghost, a semi-solid plane of air that would knock anything thrown at us off course. The ghost could go through with ease... if it could ruin our circle. Why it hadn't tried that first, I had no idea, mabe desperation, but it had lost it's chance.
The good Pastor continued his banishment, his face set. The ghost keened, face set in a scream without sound, glowing tears tracking down her face. She dropped her latest pot and flew aimlessly, hands on her head.
She begain fraying around her edges. In the sarcophagus, the bones jerked up, twitched, and caught fire.
There, the scream was very noisy now. Ear shredding, in fact. The ghost blew apart into fragments of blue and green, which rapidly vanished.
And that, as they say, was that. Pastor Collins fell to his knees, panting, and I wasn't really much better off.Karl was staggering to his feet from the other side, while Ethan was trying to look everywhere at once, his axe out and eyes wide.
I reached Karl's side; he had one hand clutching his face and blood was dripping from between his fingers. His other still had a firm grasp on his sword. I made sure to avoid that side as I helped him up.
"Come on, let's get out of here. Ethan, but the lid back, please."
Ethan did as I asked, still a little wild-eyed, and we all managed to get started in the right direction. Navigating the passageway was just not going to happen side by side. Before I could argue, Karl held me off with an arm and took the lead.
The passage closed behind us, and I tried to forget that I'd just helped intentionally kill a soul.
"Yes Karl?" I turned to him; he was supposed to be in the lead, but here he had snuck up on me.
"A penny for your thoughts." Wow, what a serious face.
"My thoughts are pretty dark, and unworthy of the light of day at the moment."
The day was bright and full of cheer, and in marked contrast to yesterday, there were small signs of animal life everywhere, flitting about the plains trees and sky as if they knew it was now safe. Everything seemed brighter, and the smells were fresh and clean. Even the people who passed us on the hard-packed road were friendly, sharing words of greeting or asking questions on the path ahead.
I felt like I should be slogging through hip-deep mud with buckets of water falling from a blackened sky. The entire world should be mourning.
Karl blew a sigh. "That's fair. If you've got an idea on how we could have handled last night better, I'd love to hear it."
I wish. "That's part of the problem. I really don't see how we could have done anything differently. We were attacked, and our only defense - the only way to avoid deaths - was to go on offense."
"Nevermind the tree-hugger Karl," Ethan sniped. "They have certain old-fashioned attitudes on ghosts and the like."
I whirled. "Who does, exactly, Mr. Scaredycat? At least we don't run from them!"
His beard actually bristled.
"Muse. That was uncalled for."
Damn it, he was right. "I... sorry, he's right, that wasn't right. I took things out on you, and I'm sorry."
He waved it off, but his smile didn't touch his eyes. "Think nothin' of it Lady Muse. I was a bit out of line myself; let's let it be."
"Talk to me." Karl demanded.
We killed a soul. Forced or not, we killed something precious that could not ever be recovered.
"Nothing other than the obvious. Sorry, I'll deal with it. I am dealing with it."
I could tell he wasn't satisfied with that, but he accepted it.
"Alright. Try and stop sleepwalking, please. You almost wandered off for a moment there. It makes protecting you harder."
Right, I was a bit closer to the field than the road, and my feet were pointed slightly more North than they should be.
"And you ignored Matt twice."
Well, that was easy. "Not sorry for that."
Matt was close enough to hear of course. "No one ever is."
Matt played along. "I heard that!"
Karl said his line. "You were meant to!"
Pastor Collins sidled up, dragging the litter.
I'd tried taking a turn on the litter, but Randolf was just too big, too heavy. It was absolutely not my noodle arms that were at fault. Pastor Collins was still in great shape however, and insisted on taking his turn; he told me he'd rather be close as possible when I asked.
I could understand that; Randolf was in no danger of death anymore, but there could be other, nastier... complications. They were likely, in fact, not that I was going to tempt fate by saying that out loud.
"Are you well, Lady Muse?"
Well I couldn't lie about it. "Not really, but I can deal. Let's just go, I'd rather not sleep out doors tonight."
Ethan looked at me as if I'd grown a second head. I flipped him off, and he broke into a smile, as if I'd told him his beard wasn't a rat's nest or something.
I sidled back into line, and everyone else started off in step. Thomas seemed to be as disturbed as I was at least, which was something. But as for everyone else, how were they doing it? Laughing, smiling, enjoying the nice bright sunshine, knowing what I did last night? What I was a part of?
No, I needed to stop. They cared, even if they weren't showing it. They couldn't be that unfeeling.
Forward and onward, onward and upward, even though there wasn't so much as a hill in front of us. How could this land be so flat? It wasn't Kansas.
Well of course it wasn't Kansas, it had trees. Wait, I haven't seen Kansas or pictures of Kansas since the event, maybe it was forested now. That would be nice.
I really needed to focus.
I started going through concentration drills designed to calm my thoughts and help my spellcasting.
And nothing happened; near dark, but not too near dark, we came upon a roadside inn, much like the one we stayed in weeks before. It looked like it's counterpart, a nice, sprawling, but homey place with light and laughter both despite the early hour, and several wagons parked near the stables. There was a stone wall surrounding the property, a mere four feet but still, some protection.
On either side were watch towers, wood frames with a floor, a thatch roof, and a brass bell glittering in the fading western sun. Both figures in the structure were men with bows; well built shirtless men with longbows that would likely cause them problems if they tried to use them in the narrow confines they were posted in. No bells went off, so they didn’t consider us much of a threat.
I was surprised to find myself a little offended by that.
The buildings themselves were made of wood, pine unless I missed my guess. They were four rectangular boxes built large and showing some age, their planks dark with stain, which was heartening. All the windows had glass, which was still the norm but likely wouldn’t be for much longer. This glass was heavy, somewhat milky, and a bit bubbled in places.
We turned in to the churned up ground and went through the gate. The gate had no door of any kind, which struck me as odd; there were hinge holes for one, but of the gate itself, no sign at all.
Once past the wall, it was possible to see a few minor scorch marks on the main building, at the base, and a few more on the stables, facing away from the road. So the promised safety might be just an illusion after all.
The sign over the place had two birds, swords in feathered wings, facing off against each other; the words underneath proclaimed the place ‘the dueling swallows’.
At least it had a door; a large heavy-beamed one bearing many scars, perhaps as large as eight feet tall and five across.
Karl led the way, opening the door, and the clientele inside quieted, as expected. And then they got even quieter as Pastor Collins passed me with the litter.
I strode in, bold as brass, and almost no eyes snapped to me. Just as planned.
There weren’t many female customers, but there were a few. One that looked to be a noble, in a rich sky blue silk dress embroidered with silver (cloth, not the metal itself, and so likely to be a minor noble at best), her burly guard by her side.
The other had a more hard-bitten look, with at least two scars enhancing her raw boned face, more muscles than Matt (but not really) and more weapons than any two of us. Her armor was leather, stained and dusty with all the shine removed, and her clothes were so drab she could have faded into the background even here – if not for her piercing blue eyes.
The last was a dwarven woman, dressed in mail and with one of those conical helmets with the nose thing; she had long ginger hair and surprisingly enough, no beard. She had a shape, but it was hard to tell what it was.
My eyes snapped to Ethan, just as his eyes snapped to hers and he blushed. Interesting.
On the other hand, the men as a whole were far less interesting; the same fare I’d been seeing for weeks. Big burly farm folk in homespun, big burly warriors in a variety of metals and leathers, lean hungry looking hunters in drab greens and browns. There weren’t any of the Duke’s men, nor was anyone matching, so to speak.
The common room was simply huge, but without the skylights the last inn like this had, it was dim enough to be twilight inside. The smoke from the torches tickled my nose and assaulted my lungs; were they burning wild grasses for fuel?
The place not only stank of stale beer and more stale sweat, it tasted of it; that seemed to be mostly from the large crop of regulars, who really ought to know about baths. Maybe they were too drunk to care.
At least the place looked mostly clean – as much as one could tell in this lighting anyway.
Karl had already made his way to the bar, and it was easy to pick out his voice in all the murmuring. “Five rooms, near the front. And a pitcher of beer.”
Right, well this wouldn’t end well. I started looking around for a table.
The barkeep smirked; it wasn’t a friendly smile at all. “I only work here buddy. I can help with the beer, but only the owner can rent out rooms. Wait a moment while I send someone to get him.”
The barkeep used some hand signals to send a waitress while Karl tried to stare holes in him. Meanwhile I’d spotted a table that wasn’t being used; it was about as far away from the liquor as one could get, which was probably a plus.
It was also the closest table large enough for all of us that happened to be empty. If I left it up to one of the others, they would probably start a fight or something.
"Come on guys, we can’t stay in front of the door.”
After I said those words I realized that I was the only one who had actually stayed by the door; I caught up to the rest of my amazing party of friends and got their attention: “The table in back over there is free. Let’s go.”
"Yeah yeah.” I wasn’t sure who said it, but the mutter was about as sarcastic as possible.
Rather can call someone out, I focused on politely asking people to move so that we could get the litter through. At least we didn’t have to worry about damaging the floors, they were plenty damaged already.
Ethan stopped to chat up his new honey as we passed… or maybe just to stare longingly into her eyes, like an idiot.
"Excuse me, do you think you could move your chair a bit so we can get my friend through?”
The mercenary I asked jumped his chair out of the way, staying seated. “What’s wrong with him? Is he sick or something?”
That was a pointed question. If we’d brought a sick person in, something worse than a cold at any rate, I was sure bad things would eventually happen.
"No, nothing like that. We were attacked on the road. He’s recovering from wounds taken.”
"What sort of wounds?” One of his friends asked, a fellow mercenary dressed in some well polished mail. He was staring at Pastor Collins.
That look was almost accusatory, and Pastor Collins clearly felt that judging from the response. “A ghost. His wounds of the body have mended; those of the mind are taking a bit more time.”
"A spook, here?!?”
Matt of all people took center stage before I could. “Don’t worry, everyone. The ghost is dead. Well, dead-er. It won’t be attacking anyone again.”
"Those old hills, a good twenty miles West along the road? They are man-made burial mounds.”
Phil, you utter idiot.
"I should stress that those tombs are in no way safe. We bested the ghost that was free to attack us, but the tomb had guardians; those are safely chained up unless some treasure hunter with more greed than sense disturbs them.”
Phil’s brain caught up to his mouth. Seriously, how could a thief be such an idiot about human greed? People may yet die because he opened his mouth, despite my warnings.
"Right. Forgot about the tomb guardians; very dangerous. We marked it with warnings and moved on.”
The crowd seemed to lean back at the words, and all was business as usual again.
The innkeeper was an old thin reed of a guy, a real beanpole with more wrinkles than any five other people (seriously, his wrinkles had wrinkles!) and long straight hair that had at some point in his distant past, gone white. He stood upright though, and under his cheap homespun was some real muscle, all corded up.
His voice was clear as a bell too, it rang loudly enough from where Karl was seated at the bar to our table. “I hear you’re interested in rooms?”
Karl’s response was less clear, but I could guess.
"Seriously, orcs, and now ghosts? What’s next?”
I zero’d in on the man complaining.
"What’s this about orcs?”
The man, a farmer judging from his muddy clothes and worn boots, started at being singled out. He was young and healthy looking, with a ruddy complexion and probably too much mead in his system than was good for him at this hour.
Of course, being picked out from three tables away might have also surprised him, but I made no apologies for my ears.
He wasn’t the one who answered my question however; another older man showing gray at his temples and in mismatched mail and leather, a mace at his side, took up the task: “Orc sightings have been going up in the last week. Armed bands have been seen roaming, and the farmers and merchants that line the road are getting nervous.”
"Good for business?” I asked him. He had to be a mercenary, or I’d eat my shoe.
"Very,” the man replied with a smile. “The innkeeper is paying a good daily rate. Almost more than I’m worth!”
"Ha!” He was probably paying too much by half, and just thinking that felt dirty; people had a right to be safe, and if paying some war profiteer helped, than it helped and that was that.
"How many bands? What size? Does anyone know?” Once again, Matt got to the heart of things.
"At least three separate bands that could be confirmed, and each one was twenty or more. All we really know.”
Well three separate bands of twenty wouldn’t be much of a threat except to lone farmers – and lone farmers didn’t often have anything worth taking. Merchants could be targets, but usually an armed caravan was too tough a nut to crack, especially on a patrolled road like this one.
It was kind of interesting however, since this was the first reported sighting of orcs I’d heard of since Ethan’s village. Not even the Duke had these reports – which meant it was worth a spell to report it to the Duke. It was probably nothing.
But my gut told me it was something.
Karl strode up, with crude iron keys. He plunked them down before us. “I got as close to the common room as I could manage, on this side.”
I picked a key up; it had a crude number five etched into it.
"Five is the closest to the door, isn’t it?”
"I think so.”
I handed the key over to Pastor Collins. “Matt, let’s get Randolf settled in.”
"It’s your turn, technically, and the beer will still be there when you get back a whole five minutes from now.”
He actually pouted. “Fine.”
I guess some pouting was in order really, since it wasn’t actually his turn. He didn’t seem to remember that he took his turn this morning – or he didn’t really care and it was all for show.
Matt snagged the ends of the litter, and Pastor Collins got up silently to follow. He’d been silent since we hit the inn, where before he’d been his usual self.
I snagged another key and followed as they dragged the litter down the surprisingly wide hall; we all fit with room for others to make it past. He air back here was more clean than in the common room, but only by degrees.
Five was locked of course; and Pastor Collins reached over and unlocked it before Matt could do more than whisper a random blasphemy it was clear he didn’t mean.
I shut the door behind the three of us, locking it. Matt raised an eyebrow. I gave Matt a low wave, but otherwise ignored it.
"How is he?”
Pastor Collins ran a hand through his hair; I noticed a few strands tug free of his scalp and drift to the floor. A thought had them wafting my way and into a hand now hidden behind my back.
"He’s stable, just as he was last night. Physically, there is nothing wrong with him anymore. By all measures, he should have been awake and angry this morning – but instead he’s lost within his own mind somehow.”
"Anything I can do to help?”
"Not unless you know a way to heal a malaise of the soul.”
I had to admit, I didn’t.
Pastor Collins clapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll consult the Goddess. I’m sure she can help, and if you have a role in the answer, I’ll let you know. Just stay sober.”
"Easily done, I’m not Matt.”
"Ha. Ha. Can we go now?”
"Sure,” Pastor Collins dismissed us. “I’ll be fine.”
Matt didn’t have to be told twice, but I wasn’t entirely convinced, even if he did want to be uninterrupted for his next step. “Keep the door locked, and don’t open it for anyone who isn’t us. And bar the window.”
Windows were the true problem in low tech land.
"Yes Mom,” Pastor Collins told me with a smile, while bum rushing me out the door. I turned around to tell him where he could shove that word, and almost ate the door.
I heard the lock click; alright, good Pastor, there was plenty of time to get even with you later.
Instead of walking back just yet, I opened the next room over, good old number six. It too had a window, and I opened the shutters for it to let the breeze in.
The breeze didn’t really cooperate, but the smell from the stables did. It might be better than the smell of mold and old socks, and it might not. But the light was welcome, and I was finally able to take a deep breath.
How to send the message? One of my little spell birds was obvious, but I didn’t want it shot by an overzealous or bored guard in the towers outside or patrolling around wherever – or questions to be asked about who I was sending a bird to and why.
The obvious solution was, since the bird was actually a construct, I could just bend the light around it with a tweak. Well, in theory anyway; I’d never done it in practice, and while invisibility was supposedly simple, funny things could happen when you mixed magic.
With reluctance, I composed the message owning up to the rumors of orcs in the area, why I thought it was significant, and formed the avian construct around the message.
Trying to alter the spell to make it less visible only brought the entire thing to collapse, and a spike of pain to be driven into my temple.
Wait a minute; what was I even doing?
Even above the obvious (going behind Karl’s back) what was I doing with this? If I sent this missive to the Duke, it would be the giants all over again, with even less cause than before. The orcs hadn’t even hurt anyone yet, they were just rumored to be in the area.
It would be another meaningless massacre.
On the other hand, if the orcs were up to no good, the Duke’s soldiers needed to know, or there would be a human massacre.
We couldn’t spend the time to investigate ourselves, the mission came first. Even if we could spare the time, we likely wouldn’t find enough evidence of any kind to warrant siccing troops on anyone.
No, despite the Duke wanting his regular updates on things found, reporting this rumor to him would only lead to trouble, I was sure of it. So how to handle this?
Hm, maybe send the Duke a status report… then send sticks a message too, and casually mention the rumors of orc sightings? That could work… but if I did it without Karl knowing, he’d likely do very bad things to me. Or at least look at me with that look he has, which would suck just as much.
Moot point really if I couldn’t get the message bird to work the way I wanted. Idly I formed another message, and then wrapped my invisibility spell around it; it worked like a charm. No issues, no spike of pain, nothing.
Well now I knew a bit more – like mainly why people weren’t wildly experimenting with magic all day and night now that they could; some ideas stung a bit. I wonder if more powerful spells hurt more if you screwed up altering them….
Silly thought, if course they did. Knowing me, I’ll try the wrong thing some day and my head will explode. My eulogy will be: “She had it coming.”
Or he. He had it coming. A much better eulogy, that.
I closed the window shutters, put the crossbar across them, and made sure some enterprising jerk with a knife couldn’t pry it up (fool me twice and all that). Then I closed and locked the door and strode back down the empty hallway to the common room.
Where, by appearances, my stalwart companions were already on round three.
At least the food in front of them didn’t look too bad; being a mixture of burnt or merely charred at the edges. Mutton by the smell, mixed with onions and potatoes. Yeah, this was a hard pass as a dining establishment.
As if my thoughts summoned her, a waitress all but skidded to a stop at my side, just as I was sitting down. She was young, a large boned but somehow mousy looking thing, all frumpy and brown, in a uniform of white shirt and brown skirt that was at least a size too big for here. The white was more than a bit dingy.
"Can I get you anything?"
"Do you have any fresh fruit?"
The girl immediately took on the look of the put upon; the hero worship ended before it had even begun.
"I think we have some apples in the back that aren't too far gone. If you don't like the special, we've got some fresh bread from the bakery, still warm."
I hated to be trouble: "Sure, bring both if you can." I held up a few coins, more than the cost of my bill, certainly.
Her eyes brightened, and she didn't even wait to finish her acceptance before speeding off. "Sure! I'll be right back!"
I couldn't help but wince as she all but slammed into a patron in her haste; she twisted at the last second to avoid planting herself. There could be only one result from her meeting a plated man half again her size.
Come to think of it, she wasn't tiny - that guy was quite the giant, for a human. In today's day and age, having seen actual giants, it was only prudent to add that last part, even in one's own head. Just as well that he was dressed in clothes that weren't metal and was seated at the bar next to some others that looked to be regulars; he was intimidating enough.
In under five minutes, what had to be a record, the girl came weaving back around the crowd with a two paper wrapped bundles - one wet but not dripping. She set them down in front of me with a triumphant yet apologetic look on her face.
"The apples are clean, I washed them myself. The bread hasn't been unwrapped since it was baked."
"Thanks." I pressed the coins in her hands and she beamed at me.
Then she was off, responding to the tune of another shout somewhere in the corner of the room.
The apples were a bit withered, bright red skin wrinkled but still shiny. They didn't look too bad. I broke the seal on the paper around the bread with a finger and unwrapped it. It looked good, and was still a bit warm. I was still going to check it for mites and weevils though; I wasn't sure I trusted the kitchen in this place.
My little knife would do to check for small critters in both foods with little problem.
The Dwarf scoffed around a mouthful of half-burnt roast. "That's no proper fare lass, you'll lose weight if that's all you eat!"
I just pointed at the more burnt sections of dead sheep. He raised an eyebrow at me, but got the point.
"We can't all be Martha Stewart, Lady Muse."
"Heck, not even Lady Muse can be Martha Stewart!"
Yes, thank you, Matt. "Who liked whose stew again?"
"You had help!" Matt protested with a grin. "We all know how well you cook when left to your own devices."
Were they trying to start a fight? "Be quiet!" I hissed at them. "The last thing we need is a bunch of pissed off regulars, banding together against the outsiders over burned meat!"
Despite my whisper, I'd been heard by the next table over; a ruddy faced farmer, one cheek smeared with dirt, turned to me. "Don't worry about it, Miss. Everyone here knows the cook is awful, including the cook himself."
He pointed to my bread. "The baker on the other hand, is the best in the region; even better than my wife! But don't worry, none of us are going to hurt you here."
Well that was heartening; the bit about the baker more than anything else. "Good to know, thank you."
The man's wide face turned a shade darker, and he all but fell over. "You're welcome, Miss."
He was not alright; it was way too early to be that drunk.
I did find a worm in one apple, and set that one aside. The others were fine, and the bread was perfect and filling. Well, as perfect and filling as bread could be without butter or jam to spread on it. All in all, i would do.
The water on the other hand, was hopeless; one small taste and I gave in and muttered the spell that would remove whatever impurities it had in it, making it drinkable. It did explain much of the drinking going on around me. Some people even caught me drinking from the complimentary pitcher with looks of astonishment, clearly unable to figure out how I could stomach the stuff.
I didn't want to dehydrate, and I was already pushing it. All of us probably were, and many of us would have headaches tomorrow.
"Karl. I'm thinking of contacting our boss about the situation here. not the ghost, the other thing."
There was no reason to tell the Duke about the tomb; that could only end in deaths and tears, the man was far too greedy than any rich man had a right to.
Karl wasn't slow on the uptake. "Well, we probably should. But the boss is a jerk, so I don't know. Just don't get us roped into something again."
I hadn't gotten us roped into something in the first place, jerk.
I stopped glaring at him; after all, what he really meant was 'don't get caught doing something shady and screw us.' "That won't be a problem. I thought about talking to twiggy instead."
Sticks might be a recognized name. Mine was, after all, and prying ears were everywhere.
Karl blew an onion scented breath my direction. "Might work. Let me know how it turns out. When you can, that is."
Translation: if something bad comes of it, bury it if you can. Maybe if we take our time and ignore it, it'll go away. I could relate.
"No problem," I told him. I intended to do that anyway. I was hoping sticks would just ignore it, or take his time reporting it. That way we would have the best of both worlds; forwarning for those that need it, and a bit of covering our own butts.
It was stupid, really. Stupid that we had to think like this, do things like this, in the middle of one of arguably the worst crisis humanity faced; even if it was local, and I hoped it was local, somehow the very natural laws we learned in grade school had changed. Some people had even been altered in body, and even mentality.
I was pretty lucky in that regard; wearing skirts and dresses, yes – but no orc, no giant. I was still very intelligent if I did say so myself, and photogenic enough to not be turned on in the dust-choked streets of our new normal. Perhaps not as lucky as Matt, but I’d take it.
Now if only I had enough apples to make it till tomorrow morning, when we would get out of here. Dragging Randolf if we had to, because we weren’t going to leave the man behind in the care of someone else, no matter how big a jackass he was.
Of course from the looks of things, Pastor Collins had plenty of time to act; most of this crew wouldn’t be up and level headed before noon at the rate they were going.
Which reminded me.
I found the barmaid making the rounds; she jumped with an undignified squeak when I got close, not having heard me through all the noise.
"Excuse me, can I get another loaf of bread?”
"Of course, Lady Muse! Right away!”
I honestly expected a saucy comment about where I packed the last loaf away, but she just sped off, careening off people like a pinball.
One of the mercenaries sitting at the table she was tending looked up blearily: “Did she say Lady Muse?”
Uh oh. This far out? “She did. Hello sir, how are you?”
The mercenary, a small man whose blond hair was mixed with silver, dressed in a faded blue surcoat over leather and with a steel helmet that resembled a bowl more than anything else, squinted, and then squinted some more.
"Ah, Lady Muse! It is you! I recognize that face anywhere!” Then he actually hiccuped, loudly.
I did not recognize this man at all, nor his companions, several large, burly humans, who even now were gazing at me with expressions of awe or worse. They looked to be brothers, or at least very closely related.
"I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Sir….”
"Ha ha ha ha ha! You wouldn’t remember old Mikhail, Milady. After all, we’ve never met. I saw you in the capitol, a few weeks ago. At least, I think it was a few weeks ago….”
He trailed off, and I took that as my cue to leave; enough people were already paying attention, and a few at least seemed to be connecting dots I didn’t really want connected at the moment.
"Well, it’s nice to finally meet you, Mikhail, but I’m afraid I’ve little time to talk; I must see to my companion who fell last night in battle.”
Come on, barmaid, come on, you ran so hurry up.
My words only served to focus the drunk again. “Of course Lady Muse; a sorceress as strong as you needs waste no time on the likes of old Mikhail! Why, anyone who meets with the Duke’s men on matters of import is likely very busy.”
I knew the Duke’s men were not well liked, and some of the faces around me seemed to reflect that. Those few faces were outweighed by another look, which was much worse; hope.
"Lady Muse, the sorceress!”
"We’ve heard of you, Milady.”
"Have you any insights on this calamity which has befallen us?”
I’d really like to ask, as always, how exactly my fame has spread. After all, I’ve done nothing for these people to remember me for, yet just as everywhere else so far, remember they did.
"I'm sorry. My friends and I are investigating, and we've some leads, but we have not solved that mystery yet."
I wasn't lying, we did have some leads. I'm not sure where they were leading, but an entire town out of step or time with the rest of the world suggested something.
"But you are invester... inbesti... looking into it?"
Wow. Good thing cars didn't exist after all, or that guy would be killing someone on one tonight.
"Yes, that is what we're doing."
Should I tell them that the creatures and demi-humans they are currently worried about might have been human once? Or at least some of them?
No, they knew. They had to know, just like all the other places we'd been.
There was only one thing to do – pass the buck.
"I’m sure you all have questions, and I’d love to answer them. However, I must see to my companion. Perhaps you could ask the other members of the expedition in my absence? They each know all that I know regarding current events.”
And none of what I suspect, but that’s par for the course. Heck I wasn’t even sure I knew what I suspected.
I made good my escape as the common room turned almost as one; maybe the others could get nice and drunk off this without spending coin, if they played their cards right. I hoped so, that might just keep them from stringing me up later.
I knocked on room six’s door. “Pastor Collins, it’s me.”
A whisper came back. “What’s the password?”
We hadn’t set a password. “You suck.”
The door opened to the Pastor’s grinning face. “Close enough. To what do I owe the pleasure of this interruption?”
I hurried past him and inside, watching to make sure he locked the door behind me. “Well it’s been a half hour, I thought you were done and could use some food?”
Judging from his frown he hadn’t been done. “Communing with a deity takes some time, Lady Muse. Real time, not pizza delivery time.”
I held out the bread as a peace offering and heard his stomach grumble.
"I didn’t like the look of the special in this place. Trust me.”
He took it, making quick work of the paper wrapping. “Alright, well you’re kinda off the hook. Kind of, because now you’re trapped in here with me.”
"That’s fine, I have my spell book,” I assured him. “Besides, it can’t be any worse than out there.”
"Why, what’s going on out there?” Pastor Collins asked, just before burying his face in bread.
"The drunken inquisition.”
"No one expects the drunken inquisition!” He didn’t even miss a beat; now THAT was a holy man.
Then he sighed and looked over at his patient. “Right, back to it I guess.”
"Eat a bit more first. You know, with manners. How is he?”
Pastor Collins took another bite, this one a bit more tame. “No change. I’m not sure what she did, but that ghost did something. Something not considered typical for a ghost, at least any I know.”
It wasn’t like any I knew either, but ghosts hadn’t been real a month ago – or at least, they hadn’t been believed to be. So who was really to say what was normal?
In one case, it was a sky-mommy. I really hoped the Goddess couldn’t hear my thoughts, she’d strike me with lightning or something. Come to think of it, were the new deities of our world human too at one point? Could that even have worked, and if so, how?
Did the deities know what was going on with us? Did they know what happened? Pastor Collins settled on the floor next to his patient, symbol of his faith clasped in both hands.
No, no… they couldn’t, otherwise we’d have our answers from loyal petitioners and servants already, with no need for us to even travel. It was clear that Minerva alone liked Pastor Collins enough to intervene on his behalf, so if she knew the answer, she’d spill.
Right? I mean, why wouldn’t she? Surely, even if they knew, one would talk to the faithful, right? There wouldn’t be a conspiracy set in place so damaging that would make the Greek gods, Zues included, look like a nice guy, right?
Thoughts like these are why I was an atheist before; if only it could be that simple now. Evidence had been provided, after all, and I had no doubt more was forthcoming in my near future.
There was no reason I couldn’t do my part though, even for this. There were a few herbs that might help, and I had a few in my possession. A tea or infusion would be good, but one was an incense. While Pastor Collins put the rest of the bread aside and settled in, I quietly set it up.
The vapors seemed to ease Pastor Collin’s breathing too, not just Randolf’s. Good, a better meditative state for the man was a bonus. I cracked open my book; maybe it’d help me as well.
"Someone put out that trash fire, that crap is rank,” a weak voice called, just as I was settling into the lone chair the room boasted. “and I’m hungry. Anyone got any food?”
Well that didn’t take long at all.