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Dim Prisons and Drakes

Book 2

by Nagrij

 

Chapter 6

An hour later, with us almost to where the town of Shrewsberry stood, and the bug jokes still hadn't stopped. They had ranged from the mildly humorous attempts to get me to blast Phil on the grounds that he was a haven for fleas, (something I secretly thought at least could be true) to the more direct and far less funny suggestion by Randolf that I blast the ants spotted on the trail.

At least now it was mainly just devoted to snickers and muttering amongst themselves. Jerks; I defy them to get hit in the face with a beetle that had recently been chewing on a walking human corpse a short time before and not get a little trigger happy. Not that I was in any way trigger happy. I ignored a fresh spate of giggles from my so called friends with head held high. Philistines.

At least pastor Collins hadn't joined in, though the sympathetic glances he had been giving me after I apologized for my failure rankled too. I'm not made of glass, no reason to think I'll crack just because of silly attitudes. And I'm not in any way phobic about bugs, despite what they all may think. The fatigue I had been fighting since I summoned the earth elemental had not helped the former illusion; even on the straight and relatively level road I couldn't push with any speed. I couldn't tell if I was slowing my friends up, they were being very good at acting like our pace was good, but I couldn't help thinking we should be there already, and they all had longer legs than I did.

Just as I despaired of ever reaching the next town over, we crested a small rise I don't remember being there when last I was this way and saw it below us, in a depressed clearing full of wildflowers. Lilac and bluebells? that didn't make much sense... about as much sense as me knowing those flowers, let alone being able to tell them apart. Though I supposed bluebells were so easy anyone could I.D those. At any rate the road led down and right through them, to the town of Shrewsberry. Which was apparently under martial law.

I could see the haphazard barricade in front of the road, constructed of overturned wagons and carts, and the beginnings of a palisade. I could just make out rough dressed people working on the latter, and hiding behind the former, with bows, sickles, and scythes in hand. the crude mismatched marching patrol was hardly intimidating, but a nice touch.

And of course as we started down, their sentries saw us and all activity ceased. Almost criminal that, we could be a distraction. A good thing we weren't, but we obviously had much to discuss with the local powers that be. The further down we went, the more my own heart sank. It was blatantly obvious that whatever had happened, the town of Shrewsberry had not only not avoided it, it had been smacked by it as hard as we had. Hand carts and wagons could possibly be explained, or have been the only thing changed.

But instead, the houses were crude logs and mortar, much as the ones we left behind this morning. Most weren't even painted or whitewashed or whatever it was ours had. I could almost see the well in the center of town in my mind's eye, with the gossips chatting by it. The inn close by, the Mayor's house would of course be painted. Perhaps there would even be the remains of a monster of some kind, barbecued on a bonfire last night? Nah, that level of deja vu would end the world. But something had to spook them.

"Hands visible guys, and walk slow. The natives are pretty riled up."

General assent was evident even without words, and we all raised our hands. Starting down, the thing that hit me the most was the smell; the lilacs and bluebells did more than vie for spatial dominance, the fragrances were heady when combined. It actually made me slightly dizzy... at least I hoped that was what was making me dizzy. The cautious (or perhaps paranoid) citizens waited until we reached shouting distance of the barricade. They did not send out a welcoming party, instead preferring to seek cover so we had no convenient target.

"That's far enough, strangers! State your business!"

Seriously? I mean, seriously?

This did not bode well for finding answers here at all; if they were so far gone as to act like cliche villager yokel hick extras, then they wouldn't be smart enough to avoid licking metal in winter, let alone provide us good information. I feel that Karl summed the sentiment up well for all of us.

"Seriously man?!? What the hell do you think our business is? We're trying to find out what the hell happened to us! Maybe you like having to walk everywhere in itchy clothes and crapping behind bushes with no TP, but try to understand not all share your sentiments. Now can we talk, or not?"

The man, startled out of his hick impression, stood. He was a tall, lanky sort, a good seven feet tall if he was an inch. He also looked to weigh about as much as I did. His unkempt, spiky, and rather lank hair was almost orange, and his skin had more in common with leather than I would have felt comfortable with. He was holding a scythe easily in one hand, and as he stood, he waved it about with such abandon that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a head roll towards us.

Randolf's muted scoff of "Amateurs." made me grin a bit though. How quickly he forgets.

I didn't recognize him at least, that was something. I'd have been downright ashamed if he'd been a friend of mine. Unfortunately, he seemed to know me right off.

"Lady Muse! It's Lady Muse!"

Whispered murmurs started; gossip spreading like wildfire, and no doubt faster than the people who just ran off as if their butts were on fire. Just perfect. I suppressed the urge to facepalm.

"Um, do I know you or something?"

Then from out of nowhere hands grabbed him and dragged him back beyond my vision behind the wagons. There was muted whispering I only caught every third word of, mainly words like "idiot" and "get us all killed". Then a new face stepped out behind the same wagon the other guy was dragged behind.

He was a small man, barely a few inches over me with a slight gymnast's build. He wore dark almost black grey cotton pants, a dark maroon tunic that looked to be some kind of wool, and a black hide vest. He also sported a cap, one of those strange folded ones with a small ostrich feather plume sticking from it. The dandy image was completed with a few decently crafted pieces of jewelry and a rapier attached to his hip.

"Sorry; please forgive Owen, he was dropped on his head one too many times as a child."

Snickers all around, my own joining them. He made a sweeping gesture while we recovered and the 'sentries' lowered their 'weapons'.

"So, of course you're here to investigate all this. I must admit I didn't expect to see you here though Lady Muse. Mayor Conratty is a fool."

Well on that we could all agree, but this was curious. Why would he say such a thing?

"Why would you say that, Mr...."

"Ah right. Apologies again, I'm Leeroy Wylde. Right now, I lead this rabble, for the moment. And to answer your question, for some reason, your name and likeness is known to us. In the same way as I now know how to us this." He tapped his sword to clarify.

So the same way I knew magic. Somehow I had a reputation that went beyond those who knew me. A good or bad thing? Only time would tell. I was leaning towards bad because it seemed to suggest what we all suspected; that this event was well beyond just one or two towns. That it might be state or even continent wide. The thought that it was truly worldwide hovered around my head for a second, but it was too big. The best I could do was work on my own end of this. He continued.

"As for Mayor Conratty being a fool, well he is about many things. But if it were me, I wouldn't simply send the strongest magic user in the region away on an errand, even one such as this. Especially one such as this. I'd want you close to home, especially given the trouble we had yesterday."

Natural segue into the million dollar question.

"And what trouble would that be?"

"Well, aside from the obvious situation, yesterday morning this large tusked ape faced humanoid came into the center of town, where everyone was gathering, and started yelling gibberish. The encounter ended with the thing assaulting and almost killing one of our own, before we managed to chase it out of town."

I was pretty sure I knew, but I had to ask the next logical question.

"Was it an Orc?"

The light dawned in his and other eyes, like a flashlight turning itself on. He finally waved us in, and weapons were lowered.

"Yes, that's what it was! It had to be an Orc! But what was an Orc doing in the center of town? I mean, their kind...."

He spared a glance at me, one so quick I don't think anyone else caught it. But I knew what it meant. Their kind weren't welcome. Orcs had a reputation of being dumb bloodthirsty brutes, who only valued strength of arms. The problem is, I could not fully trust what my mind was telling me, or my gamer and myth knowledge.

Because like me, that Orc had been a human two days ago.

I wasn't sure, and hoped I was wrong, but logic and intuition both screamed out that I was correct. But should I mention it? If I didn't, then these villagers might well kill the next orc to come along. It was clear that they were scared; the fear was on every face, even more so than the ones back home. Fear was the death of logic.

"Have you performed a head count yet? A tally of all the people you have here?"

"We have, a head count on the green was the first thing we tried. We had almost a dozen people missing. Three came back today; some were on trips to other towns for one reason or another, and found themselves having to walk home. We suspect more were out there, and simply did not make it."

"Possible, but I have another theory. Who is still missing?"

"Why, looking for someone?"

I shook my head.

"No, but I have a theory that needs checking. Can you arrange to take us to the homes of the missing?"

His piercing look seemed to see something he didn't like, but he nodded.

"I don't know all the details, I'm just helping out here. But I can get you a guide to take you wherever you need, assuming our own Mayor agrees. It's time to go see him now."

"Of course."

It suddenly occurred to me that my party had been silent this entire time... too silent. I looked back to find them all staring at me; Karl with amusement, Matt with a shrug, and the rest with calculating gazes and glassy eyes I really wasn't comfortable with.

"What?"

"Nothing, nothing. Mr. Wylde, can we confer alone a moment?"

"Sure."

He motioned everyone back as I was pulled into an awkward huddle. Thomas started off.

"You do remember you're not in charge of this expedition, right?"

"Of course I'm not, I'm just impatient. Look, it was obvious from the moment we saw them this wasn't some local thing. It was obvious to them the moment they saw us too. We answered our first question already; we just don't know how far it extends. Finding missing people is important, it will cement friendship with the locals around here, which we may need, and allow us to explore their territory unopposed. We need that to make sure we find all clues and gather all the information we can, both of which we may otherwise miss. We also can't dismiss the possibiliy that one of the missing people might have information we need."

The collection of dropped jaws tempted me to start using them to pot plants in. That they seriously thought I was going off half cocked-again was something I needed to talk to them about at length, but here and now was not the time nor place. Karl added his thoughts.

"Remarkably well thought out, but we need to balance it against the risk that we're taking. The forest is filled with dangers, we know that already. Getting us all killed looking for people that are most likely dead won't answer the other questions we need to answer."

Randolf chimed in, loud whisper threatening to carry.

"That's right, and for all we know the natives here could be hostile! I don't like the look of them at all."

Phil elbowed him in the gut with a smile.

"You always think everyone is hostile."

"That's why I'm still alive." was the solemn reply.

...The hell was he talking about? The closest he got to mortal peril was pissing off a member of the Hell's Angels by decking his girlfriend/old lady. His eyes looked more than a little gone. I snapped my fingers in his face.

"Bullshit. Worse you ever did was fight in bars. Don't go flaking out on us."

He snorted rudely.

"Like you know all there is to know about me."

Karl broke it up before it had a chance to get ugly.

"Alright I think we're done here. I agree with Lady Muse's thoughts, and back the decision. But let's not get lax. Watch your backs."

Mr Wylde looked up with some masterful restraint on that poker face of his as we started back towards his people. He had been joined by another. A small (about my height! Finally!) almost completely bald man who looked like he was one foot, perhaps even the wrong foot, into his grave. No trace of the amusement I'm sure both were feeling at our football huddle. I hung back this time, letting Karl take the lead.

"Sorry about that."

"It's no problem; may I present our Mayor, Mr. Anderson."

"Nice to meet you, Mayor Anderson. So about this problem you guys have, with missing people? Our resident expert seems to think that it might be a good idea to investigate the houses."

"So I've heard, it's an excellent idea. I had ordered them closed for fear of looting or vandalism. People are scared right now. I'll act as your guide myself; I knew all the people missing personally, and it's quite a blow. I fear the worst."

It was highly likely that his worst was not the actual worst, but I had been chastised, so I won't say anything. Let Karl, the leader, handle it.

I decided to focus on the surroundings. The village, now that I could see it, was better constructed than home, (with the exception of my house) with actual planed lumber set in a box shape, many of them stained various shades. There were no gaps, any potential holes or cracks were filled with some dark substance that in most cases matched the wood it was adhered to. They also seemed to be put together with actual pegs, maybe even nails, rather than the slotted wood construction used just a few miles away.

Where we had a green, Shrewsberry had a large stream running through the center of town, almost enough to float boats on. I could see small fish of some sort or another darting through the crystal currents. The entire visible length of it was studiously avoided by the townsfolk, save one spot of hard packed earth naked of plant life downstream, where water was being gathered by the more industrious.

There were well kept wooden walkways inset in the dirt but appearing (and feeling) very sturdy, along with a few small bridges over the stream. No doubt more to keep the stream from being befouled than the people. Hygiene for the win. The market was laid out on the north side, and had people, farmers or merchants, selling fruits and vegetables. I recognized the cabbages and lettuce, the turnips and potatoes. Some were a mystery, however.

The people sported hard faces still bearing shell-shocked looks. Even the merchants didn't seem to have their hearts into their work; the yelling was halfhearted and barely obnoxious. I could still hear the rather complex birdsong going on outside the village. Those songs were far more interesting, I had to admit.

"You! Stop right there!"

The deep booming voice fooled me from the first. I looked around for it's source, then realized my mistake when motion hit the corner of my eyes... The lower edge. And of course a true nightmare was beheld the moment I looked down. I should have known in a world with Elves, zombies, and possible Orcs, the Dwarf race would also be a thing.

What was more surprising was the irrational surge of hatred and contempt I felt the moment my eyes beheld his glory; a surge of emotion which, judging from what I saw in his eyes, he shared... right down to the surprise. I took a mental step back and went back into observer mode.

The Dwarf was perhaps 3 and a half feet tall, with a wild beard that reached down to his boots in true zz top fashion, a light gray contrast to his dark brown hair. His eyes were a rather piercing blue, his face filled with a veritable road map of lines and crags. He wore some slightly smelly and very stained leathers under a shiny mail shirt. His trope weapon of choice was the double bladed war axe poking up from behind his head. Gods only knew how he managed to keep his head intact when he turned it, or for that matter, how he reached the axe in a fight without an impromptu shave. His boots were metal shod, and he left deep impressions in the earth behind him as he stumped up to us.

His mutter of "Oh great, one of them." Was of course heard by me, and I think that it was intentional. I don't think anyone else actually heard it, being a bit too busy fighting off bemusement. The Mayor and our guide though, both took the Dwarf seriously. Which meant that maybe I should too. The ever so faint smell of fresh blood clinging to his person seemed to corroborate that idea.

"Mr. Mayor, Mr. Wylde. What is going on?"

"Mr. Stone."

Of course, how very fitting. I really hoped all Dwarves didn't have rock names; I'd have to murder a few small children till the world felt right again. Or as right as it currently did, anyway.

"Mr Stone, meet Lady Muse, Pastor Collins, Thomas Caine, Randy Wills, Matt Lockland, and Karl. They have come to our neck of the woods to investigate all the strangeness. Everyone, Ethan Stone, a resident of Shrewsberry."

The Dwarf raised an eyebrow, no doubt noting that the Mayor hadn't given Karl's last name, and that our town of origin hadn't been offered; He should know both as common knowledge, but that did not mean he did. He didn't seem to be an out of towner. At least, the locals around him treated him like he was one of theirs. He spared another venom filled glance for me and some more veiled hostility for the rest of my party. The Mayor noticed and his words started tumbling out.

And of course, his last name was Stone. The flintstone theme flashed briefly through my mind, and it required effort to re-tune into the Mayor's verbal diarehea.

"Mr Stone, Karl and his friends are here to investigate the issue that has beset us all. They have managed to survive the journey to us in order to compare notes."

"Oh, and what have you found so far?"

I stayed silent as Karl answered.

"Dinosaurs and zombies so far. Well that and that this is more than one hamlet wide. Right now we are considering finding just how far it extends."

"And we thought it was dangerous with just the Orcs." The Mayor shook his head, the fringes of hair he had left waving in his self created breeze.

"Have you tried sending out an expedition of your own?"

He shook his head at me this time.

"No, we were too busy freaking out; we decided to turtle up here and wait for help. This is the place, the first house."

The Dwarf spoke up.

"You sure about letting them in there Mr. Mayor?"

"Well I don't see what it could hurt. Mr. Wylde if you please?"

Leeroy made a slight production of producing a slightly rusted old style skeleton key, from his pocket and opening the door. Thus clued in, I took another look at the place in question. At first glance it didn't look any different than it's neighbors. It wasn't even larger. But on that second glance, it had iron nails, a full doorknob with a lock, and sported almost fine iron hinges on the door and window shutters. Said door and shutters sported actual scrollwork, a series of lazy lines in an almost Celtic fashion.

So someone with a little wealth lived here; even more wealth than the rest of this town. I wasnt jealous... much. My own hinges were bronze.

As we entered, the Mayor first, I took a closer look at the locking plate; there was something about it that looked odd from the iron I'd seen so far... A quick touch and my finger tingled. That was odd.

"Say, is there any magic on this door? Any magic users here at all?"

The others looked puzzled as Leeroy answered me.

"Well there is an apothecary on the other side of the square, and our priest, but no, no mages. And there shouldn't be any magic on the door."

A quick shifting of my own perceptions revealed no magic on the door whatsoever. Weird. A longer touch to the plate, and my finger was on fire.

"Ouch, what the hell!?!"

Matt was at my side in an instant.

"You OK?"

My finger had an angry red burn on it which covered the entire pad. The Dwarf grumbled behind me, face in his hand.

"Get a move on you blasted faery! It's cold forged iron... you know, the stuff you're allergic too."

Well color me stupid. I should have remembered that. In the game most types of Elves had no such weakness; but in myth and lore, most of them do. I'm sure the light dawning in Matt's eyes reflected my own. Alright, so I would have to avoid such metal in the future. But I didnt have to let that sawed off runt know I was grateful for the heads up. I'd have figured it out eventually, he likely didn't need to say anything at all.

"Alright I'm moving shrimpy, don't get your beard twisted."

The burn hurt with a dull aching throb. It would be a good reminder to be careful.

The front door opened into the living room, which was a mess. The rather sturdy looking polished oaken table was broken cleanly in two, the companion chairs splintered. A plush divan was upended in the corner, books were strewn about, many of them ripped in half. a quick glance down the small hallway revealed tattered clothing strewn everywhere, and various valuables strewn about; jewelry and coins, mostly.

What sort of Orc would leave valuables behind? Of course I was all but sure of my answer. I took a look into the kitchen. It looked much like mine, with a rack for pots and pans, a granite fireplace, and another large sturdy oaken table. There was another door off to the side which I assumed led either to a cellar or pantry. The kitchen was also spotless, pristine and untouched. There were even red checkered curtains on the windows.

Everyone else had gone straight to the bedroom, so I joined them there.

"other than what you saw, there were no signs of violence. Not even a little blood. So we are at a loss. We can't really determine if anything is missing."

"so who lived here?"

"Sidney Black, a friend of mine. We went to high school together. He was a successful lawyer, and we had been friends for years. The Orc that came charging down the square and accosted me came from this house."

I spent my time looking. This house was indeed for a rich person, as it had a bath and a washbasin, with a pure unblemished mirror... The trail of destruction started here, if the razors and soap thrown about were any indication; perhaps it could have started in the bedroom itself, but if so then why would the trail lead into the bathroom, then out again? It didn't lead down the opposite hall, it didn't lead to the kitchen, it led from the bathroom to straight out the door.

"Mr. Stone, when you first woke up yesterday and found out you were... shorter, what did you do?"

Thus put on the spot before us all, he scuffed a gouge in the floor with his boot, trying to smooth it over. It almost worked, he had some heavy feet.

"Well I imagine it was much like you; I freaked out a bit, and tried to figure out what was going on."

I nodded. Karl looked as if he understood too, as did Tom.

"It seems that Elves and Dwarves aren't the only new species humans have been transformed into. I'm fairly confident judging from this evidence that your old friend was the Orc that accosted you."

I could see the denial forming on the Mayor's lips so I pressed on.

"The trail started at the bathroom, at the mirror. If I may engage in a bit of speculation here, Mr. Black wakes up, notices he's green now, and stumbles to the bathroom, where he beholds his new form. distraught, he panics and gives in to his new found rage. then he stumbles outside for

help, only he can no longer speak the common tongue. Enraged again, he finally hits you, and horrified at the act or afraid of the consequences, he runs away."

"But why would he no longer speak the language?"

"Not sure, but yesterday morning I woke up knowing how to speak Elvish. The day before I was multilingual. Perhaps if I hadn't been, I too would have problems communicating?"

I looked to the Dwarf and he nodded. He knew and had known multiple languages too.

Matt spoke up.

"Well, while we are on that subject... you do talk rather off sometimes, with strange grammar and word choices sometimes. It's not anything too bad, I mean most of the time you're spot on, but it's almost as if English is no longer your first language. And also when you burned your finger you cursed in Elvish."

I had no idea, why had no one told me this before? It was actually pretty important.

"If it's even English all of you are speaking. It may not be; but in either case, it's fairly obvious now that language barriers will now exist."

"... I had no idea. My own friend and I treated him like a monster...."

"Mr. Mayor! Snap out of it sir, there is no way you could have known. For now it's more important that the word be spread and we check those other houses. We don't want anyone else making the same mistake if we can help it; after all, if people are turning into Orcs too, well Orcs are well known for their tempers and less than forgiving nature. Any antagonizing on our part can lead to problems we don't want."

Like killing on both sides.

"Right! I'll spread the word that we don't want to shoot them on sight or anything. I wonder if anyone in town can speak their language...."

I didn't want to mention that if so, they had likely already turned green and either run or hidden themselves. I addressed the next question to Karl, as politely and deferentially as I could. In a way, I was lucky that what I had changed into looked so much like a human. And perhaps gave off a nice unthreatening vibe, being smaller than they are. I know that I was never so happy to have taken French and Spanish in college, and I did not like to think such thoughts.

"I think we've learned all we need here; to the next house?"

"Yeah, I think you're right; let's go."

The next houses were clear; no signs at all of violence, and everything was where it was supposed to be, best as any of us could tell. The relief was palpable, we had no more changed people running around. However that meant that if the people of Shrewberry were serious, search parties would have to be organized and conducted. Our part here in determining the truth of the disappearances we done.

Of course, like every other question answered, it raised more. Like, the biggest question: why was I the only changed person in our little hamlet? Why were there no missing townspeople like Shrewsberry had? Was it such a rare occurrence? Why was it rare? What dictated the change in

the first place, did it follow any rules at all?

No answers to those.

I'd also been keeping my senses focused on the main problem; I'd seen no weird magic or dimensional anomalies or felt anything strange at all. Which made me think my new senses may not be the way to go about finding anything out... but of course it was all I had. Senses gather data, which the brain then interprets, and all that. The fact that I wouldn't have had any way to detect anything of the sort two days ago was promptly shelved as a useless distraction.

The summary of the situation in Shrewsberry was that until we arrived they knew less than we did. We were not going to find answers here. The only good lead we found was the language angle, and I had no idea what to make of it yet.

"So looks like we're pretty much done here. Lady Muse?"

I nodded, I couldn't think of anything else we needed to check. The Mayor was still troubled.

"Thank you for helping us. Please, if you find our missing people, send them home."

"Yeah we will. we will keep an eye out; chances are they went missing along the road, and that's where we're going, so... we will do what we can."

"Excuse me, Mr. Mayor."

The Dwarf again, still staring at us in myopic suspicion.

"Yes Ethan, what is it?"

"I'm going to go with these people, in the best interests of Shrewsberry. Someone needs to represent us in this endeavor, and I'm nominating myself."

Oh no. No no no. I tried to shoot Karl a look to let him know how bad an idea this was. He was rather obviously avoiding looking my direction. Matt looked amused. I knew the others would be no help; Pastor Collins would not object at all, and Randolf and Thomas would be more interested in sticking it to me to help me here.

"Well I can't make you stay, you have a choice... "

Make him stay. Make him stay!

"... If their team does not object, that is. Otherwise we might have to form our own."

Sure lay on the guilt, jerk. I knew they had no magical artillery, and that lowered the life expectancy of any party they formed significantly. There were no objections from us.

"Splendid! Thank you for taking on our representative."

Again the Mayor looked relieved. Wanting the Dwarf gone perhaps? If so, why? Hopefully that wasn't it. Hopefully it was no more than him being happy that Mr. Stone wouldn't be off on his own, or following us alone. I knew how stubborn Dwarves were, and thought that the most likely outcome to any dissent on our part. I shouldn't immediately jump to racism off the bat. Or maybe, judging by the relief I could see on Mr. Stone's face, I should.

"If you don't mind, just let me get my traveling pack. I'll meet you at the road in 5 minutes."

"Sure, we'll be there."

 

Chapter 7

True to his word, Mr. Stone did not keep us waiting long. It could have been more than the stated five minutes, but without watches or smart phones we had no way of knowing. It' s the little conveniences that are missed the most. That true-ism was actually from a reporter reporting in a war zone; Baghdad, I think, but I couldn't remember for sure.

“Thank you for waiting. I appreciate the chance to go along.”

Karl asked the million dollar question I wanted to, but didn't dare.

“So, why did you want to come along? You seemed pretty suspicious of us before.”

In response he pointed rather rudely at me.

“Well, you had her along. You even listen to her. You seem to have level heads, more so than those we just left. To be honest, it felt as if it were just a matter of time before I was run out of town; I just hastened things a bit. Hopefully either we can fix whatever happened, or absence will make their hearts grow fonder, and I'll be able to go home after all this.”

That was... surprisingly forthcoming of him, and I could sympathize. I made the effort, and lowered my own paranoia a notch. The way he was treated must have been far different than the deference/awe I had been treated with so far; it had to be a mage thing, as opposed to an Elf thing.

Poor Dwarves, and their lack of magic. I couldn't even imagine it... which was really strange, because I hadn't had any myself a few days ago. Or had I? The cars, phones, television, and computers... wasn't science a type of magic in itself? Those devices were able to make the impossible commonplace every day.

Of course, we didn't have elementals a few days ago, so there was that. Didn't have zombies either. But we had legends of zombies, for thousands of years in some cultures. So what did that mean exactly? I was on to something there, I smelled it. A ghost of a ghost of a thought.

“So, why do you listen to an Elf anyway?”

Well that was rude; very rude.

“How partial are you to that beard, exactly?”

He backpedaled.

“I didn't mean it like that! What I meant was, my own home town was treating me as if I were half a stranger; like I didn't belong there, with them. And you heard how they reacted to the Orc. I'm fighting a fair bit of prejudice that's been rammed into my head sideways, and unless I miss my guess little lady, you are too.”

While I bristled at the little lady comment, I had to concede the point.

“I am, and I'm sorry; I'm trying very hard not to snap.”

He nodded thoughtfully.

“As am I, but that begs the answer to my question; why aren't you receiving the same treatment? Even my own village was all but kissing your ass.”

It had to be reputation somehow. While beating the dinosaur with magic would be enough for my own home, Mr. Stone's town would not know anything about that until I told them, and they still treated me with respect. How would I have such a reputation? I've only been using magic for a few days.

“It has to be my reputation as a mage somehow. Let me ask you; were you always a bit taciturn, or introverted?”

He nodded, conceding my point.

“Yes, I never did like the neighbors much, but I was never impolite or anything of that sort.”

“right. I think somehow who we were carries over into who we are now; no idea how it works, but I was always sort of active in my community.”

For better or worse. It definitely was part of why Mayor Conratty was anxious to get rid of me. Come to think of it, pastor Collins had too... and Karl was more a friend of mine than the Mayor's. I didn't know if the others were sort of enemies of the Mayor, or more of the general malcontents, but I suspected the latter.

“Perhaps that's it, but something tells me there is more to it, and it's something worth investigating. So, here I am, and I can help you all investigate what's going on as well. Safety in numbers and all that.”

“You'd have followed us if we hadn't said yes, wouldn't you?”

Mr. Stone nodded.

“Or course; wouldn't you?”

I had to admit, at least to myself, that I would. I didn't need to say it out loud however, Karl, Matt and Mr. Stone were already turning away to give more attention to their surroundings, and Randolf was looking at me in a new light, by all appearances. It made me a bit uncomfortable really, but I didn't let it show – I hoped.

I had to focus myself; we were out of the village limits proper, and the forest was starting to close in again. After the zombies in the gas station that wasn't a gas station, a certain amount of wariness was called for.

After all it was only paranoia if no one was out to get you.

The late afternoon however, mocked such attention; it was calm, with a slight northerly breeze. The sun was bright and warm; even the highly overgrown forest was bright in comparison to when we set out this morning. The air carried the same hint of flowers and wild spices it had before, and I couldn't help but want to breathe it in.

And of course in the middle of taking nice deep breaths, I caught all the men staring at me. Damned if I do, indeed. Mr. Stone snorted.

“Must be an Elf thing.”

“I was smelling the air; don't you smell the hint of wild onion? The strong smell of Horsemint off the right?”

“Of course I smell it, faerie, I just don't need to breathe it in like that. What's so great about the stench of a few plants?”

“Never mind Mr. Stone, if you don't understand, I don't think I can explain it to you.”

Thomas piped up from a nearby tree.

“It's OK, she can breathe like that all she wants, we won't complain at all.”

“Shouldn't your eyes be the other way? You know, facing away from us, looking for threats?”

He grinned, the smug bastard.

“I couldn't possibly pass up such a view. Any ambush that gets us is worth it.”

“You won't say that if a dinosaur sneaks up on us.”

They all stopped and just stared at me.

“Alright, so they can't really sneak. My point stands. Screw you guys anyway.”

Karl decided to rope in the morons.

“Alright guys, the point is still a good one. Eyes facing where they should be. Focus up, remember the zombies.”

They all sobered up, even Mr. Stone, who hadn't seen them personally.

A lesson of a more abject sort was not long in coming. Karl fell into, of all things, a pit trap. It was cleverly concealed in the middle of the trail; None of us spotted it. If Karl's feet hadn't been heavily armored, the spikes at the bottom would have impaled him; as it was, he was able to keep standing, barely. The climb out was a long one however, even with Randolf helping things along.

So who set it?

A quick investigation revealed dark freshly turned earth, still bearing it's musty smell. The worms were still wriggling along through it, and the stakes were green and oozing sap. For all of that, it had been camouflaged by a master; small sticks in a grid pattern bearing a slight dusting of what had appeared to be hard packed dirt. For all I knew it could have been from the road itself mere hours ago; it certainly smelled like it.

A quick thought and gesture, and the dirt the hole was missing came out of the woods and filled it again; wouldn't do to leave traps like that in the road for the next passersby to die to.

All done in hours. Maybe less. What could...?

“Thomas.”

“Yes?”

“Phil.”

“Yes?”

“You both need to start scouting ahead, very carefully. Stay in sight of us and each other at all times, and be on the lookout for anything unusual; anything at all that doesn't fit. There will be more traps like this. Karl, get a walking stick, a long one.”

Matt, a bit more savvy than the rest when it came to these things, bent over to whisper.

“What are you thinking?”

My whispered reply was cryptic; I didn't want to give voice outright to the horror I feared it was.

“Something I hope I'm wrong about. Oh boy, do I ever hope I'm wrong.”

There was a new trap about every ten feet on the road. Pits, swinging logs coming from the tree line, once an honest to the gods rolling boulder trap. All cleverly concealed by a master of the art, or so Phil kept insisting. I just knew that my guess was getting more likely.

According to Phil and Thomas, the traps out in the woods lining the road were even better. Or as Phil was putting it:

“I'm telling you, you almost fell in it. One more inch to the right and you'd have been upside down, hanging like a trout.”

Thomas of course, was bristling worse than a cornered porcupine.

“No way in all the hells was it that close. I had a good amount of clearance to disarm both traps, and I managed just fine.”

“I know what I saw Thomas, you were almost trapped while disarming another. It's OK, we can't all be as good as me.”

That did not bode well at all.

“So the trap builders are getting more creative then?”

“Yes indeed. I'd suspect they were watching us, but I haven't caught them at it. So if they are, they are VERY good.”

Of course they are. Sigh, it almost has to be them, doesn't it? I can't think of any other critter or race so good at trap making and so absolutely cowardly as to employ long term trap ambush tactics like this. Especially after the first several traps didn't work; any other race would switch to some other tactic. But not these, no they would just hide, and good luck finding them.

And all this was taking place along what was once a well traveled road, leading to two different villages, with only 10 miles or so between them, and not more than a mile away from Shrewsberry. Someone was bound to get hurt or killed if we did nothing.

But how to draw them out? Usually getting 'caught' was a good way to draw them out, but the traps weren't big enough for all of us, and the evil little things wouldn't come out before a healthy group like ours. Unless we made them. But if their boltholes were too good for even our ranger and rogue to spot, how would we do that?

I wouldn't burn the forest for this, that was just stupid.

Think! How to do this? Of course, I'm an idiot... the very same thing we were discussing earlier. Reputation. They always did have a nice healthy awe of magic, and magic users. I could use that to bluff them. It would require a light show, but I could do that.

“Group huddle guys. I've got a plan.”

They huddled; I silently directed Phil, Thomas, and Randolf to face outward so we couldn't be shot with arrows while our backs were turned. It wasn't likely, but it could happen.

“OK so the plan is, I make a flashy light show while you all cover me, then I bluff. You guys follow my lead.”

Karl looked curious.

“Why do you think that will work? We haven't seen any sign of these trap builders; they could be long gone by now.”

“No, they are here; watching us. I'm sure of it. They have just had hours to prepare their camouflage. It's like their traps now, so well hidden we'd have to trip over it.”

Matt asked again.

“You know what's doing this? How dangerous are they? Orcs?”

“I suspect, and if I'm right, they are very dangerous. And no, worse than Orcs.”

Mr. Stone spoke up, having invited himself to our huddle.

“What could be worse than Orcs?”

Pastor Collins shook his head, finger to his lips.

“Don't say such things. It could be always be something worse than Orcs. Or worse than worse than Orcs.”

I stared at him, and he blushed.

“You know what I mean, Muse.”

I nodded.

“I do, but trust me, if I tell you, you won't believe me. Just work with me on this. We need to solve this, or Shrewsberry citizenry is in danger. Anyone who comes down this path that isn't as good as we are is going to die. And they might even be able to get one of us, if we continue to let them try hard enough.”

Karl's hand was a comforting presence on my shoulder.

“We trust you. Do what you need to do, we will follow your lead.”

I released a breath I didn't know I was holding and nodded. How to make the best light show? Hmm, a simple summoning? I already knew I could summon Elementals. No, in the numbers I needed I'd quickly drain myself, even with minor ones. So if I couldn't do that, I should fake it.

My own variant of the light spell, a little juiced up, would do perfectly. Especially when combined with another small spell I knew. This was the first time I went ahead and actually focused on my magic, without the element of surprise or adrenaline dump from seeing a charging dinosaur that could level a house.

It was harder than I thought to make the magic come unbidden. It was a focus, a feeling, a code of emotional response. I'm not sure how to describe it, other than to summon light, I needed to feel light, to be bright emotionally. I was also very sure that it was different for other spell casters.

Stray thoughts defeated the process though, so I had to start again. I ignored Matt raising his eyebrow at me and cleared my mind with far more ease than I should have... almost as if I were more experienced at this sort of thing than I really was. Another piece of the puzzle.

In seconds 6 multi-colored balls of light were swirling around me, trailing a slowly fading colored dust and making strange sounds, almost ghostly ooooo noises but not quite. I actually fed pretty proud of my creations until I caught the muted snickers from the peanut gallery.

Philistines, I swear if they screwed this up... well it'd be the toad treatment, and flies for all.

Now, to make this good. Loudly, and as clear as I could.

“If you don't come out, I'll send my minions hunting for you. You won't like what happens when they catch you, so come out now. You have five minutes.”

I sent the harmless balls of light flitting around the group, slowly at first, then faster in a show of agitation.

Then I swear, my ear twitched. Stupid twitchy ears, they had caught something. A gust of wind brought more, and I realized what I was hearing was a snatch of conversation:

...but what is minute?”

“Not know, may be magic thing? You want find out? Could be bad.”

“But she say we have them. Isn't have things good?”

Oh gods damn it. I hate being right. I really do.

A quick twitch sent two of my globes of light heading the direction of the sound. The reaction was immediate.

“It sees us!”

“The jig is up! We should flee!”

“Shut up Norie, you is stupid! Give up is only way!”

Thomas twitched a bit. The voices had raised, and he had heard that part. The next action of the little scum in question though made that point moot. The horrid reedy voice I'd heard raised itself in an ear wincing, strident refrain from back along the road we had just passed, not more than 100 feet from us:

“We give ups! Don't hurt us!”

They were as tall or perhaps a little less than the Dwarf, but had to weigh far less. Animal like legs despite an upright posture, hands that might be lacking in fingers, but managed to have an opposable thumb. Snaggle toothed maws under beady black eyes, ragged clothes covering mottled fur and scabrous lesions. Small harmless claws, but one held a rusted dagger, and the rest small cudgels.

And oddly enough, they had hair, sticking out straw like from baggy potato sack hats. It just had to be freaking Kobolds.

Cowardly, back-biting, trap setting half intelligent vermin only one jump up from giant rats, and probably distant cousins to same. They certainly had the look of bipedal rats, without the fat. Thomas's hands tightened on his bow, making it creak. Karl looked amused if anything, Randolf looked intrigued. Matt and Mr. Stone looked as suitably horrified as I felt, however.

Matt's reaction was expected, but Mr. Stone's wasn't, perhaps he had previous experience with the things? If so, how? Was he a gamer in another life, like Matt and I? Questions for another time.

As I watched, the one in the least ragged clothes stepped forward from his small pack of four, mouth open to speak. I cut him off. (I hoped it was a him, it was wearing pants... but then they all were.)

“Is this all of you? Speak truth or all of you will be cursed.”

I didn't know any curses, but I knew Kobolds were among the most superstitious races in all fantasy settings. That was what made this plan work; the little vermin would not willingly bring down the wrath of a magic user upon themselves, even a weak one. And I was anything but weak. Exactly how strong I was I didn't know, but Kobolds were no threat face to face.

They preferred to set traps then loot the corpses made by them for valuables and food. Sometimes the food was the corpse itself. They rarely attacked full well equipped parties though, preferring to let them go by in favor of easier conquests. We were never really in danger, but ordinary Shrewsberry citizens would be killed without thought or remorse.

But for all of that, I couldn't forget the most important fact; these cowardly flea bitten things may have started out as human as I was. They had in effect, fell for my ruse and surrendered. Anything final we did to them could be murder.

Of course, if they were just jumped up rats, then murder was stretching it, even though they were sentient now. Sentience on their part was debatable anyway.

In response to my both shouted and pointed question, the one I took for the leader raised a small beaten metal whistle to his mouth (I hesitate to use the word lips, they didn't seem to have much there) and blew it.

I knew it was a whistle due to just being able to make out the broken hearing destroying sound. Any dogs in the area would surely be going crazy right now, but I could tell it was outside human hearing range. It was nearly outside of my own, and oh how I wished it had been.

“Others come now, you no curse, yes?”

I tried to look as stern as possible. It seemed to work. Or perhaps it was Randolf behind me, idly fingering his many weapons. Karl was just as bad, and Matt was downright glaring. Only pastor Collins showed any signs of leniency at all.

“As long as they all show up and quickly, no I won't curse the lot of you. How many of there are you?”

He counted. Using his fingers, then his toes. I tried very hard not to scowl through the long process.

“Twelve.”

Well that was surprising; he actually could count past ten, and knew what the number meant. No wonder he was the leader. He also didn't hesitate, trying to make himself as small as possible, cowering before us. They all were. I sent my balls of light further out, trying to make them look menacing for the new arrivals.

Two I had spell out the words “Give up or be cursed” in common, the language we were using. I knew the dust I had them spitting would be good for something.

“Then we wait.”

I couldn't contain my curiosity any more.

“So, Norie.”

“Yes, mighty one?”

“Were you always like this? You and your pack?”

The confusion was immediate. The face he made was charming, in a child's nightmare kind of way.

“Like what mighty one?”

“Always short, furry, and... smart? Good at traps?”

“Oh, yes yes Norie always smart and furry. Norie's pack always good at traps. Is good for food.”

If the Kobolds were ever human then, they did not remember being so, or lacked the capacity for it now. But chances were that they were not. The rest of us remembered easily enough after all. But wasn't memory a function of intelligence? I was pretty sure I read that somewhere. The bottom line was, I couldn't be 100% sure.

We really didn't have to wait long. No more than 10 minutes, all told. Twice groups did not come out, but the leader, (the infamous Norie) blew the whistle again and yelled, pulling them from hiding before we even knew they were there. Waste of a species, only partly sentient, but they had sharp senses.

Each new group added to the pointless arguing amongst them, words flying too fast for me to properly decipher through their atrocious accent. His pack seemed to hold Norie responsible, and most wanted to stay hidden. Norie in turn pointed to me, and said I would have killed them all if he had not called them out. They countered that his group was the only one in direct danger, (a surprisingly clear observation from them) and he should have kept silent and died a hero.

Once the last group was walking towards us I no longer had to put up with such crap. A good stomp of my magic infused foot to the hard packed earth of the road and a nice thunderous crack sounded.

“Shut up, all of you.”

I split the light balls in half (making 12) and sent them at the little vermin. When they floated harmlessly into the now shrieking beasts, I let them dissipate, giving the appearance of the light being absorbed into them.

“You said you no curse!”

“And I didn't. That magic is to track you. You will disable your traps, all of them. Then you will leave this place, and never return. If you do not remove your traps, I will know. If you do not leave, I will know. AND I WILL KILL YOU ALL. Understood? This is the only mercy you get from me.”

Norie doffed his cap and bowed, showing me his charming bald spot. “We understand, and obey.”

Some chattered directions and they split up, two groups heading off into the woods, and one back along the road we hadn't traveled yet. In order to hedge my bets, I borrowed a few crows from the trees nearby. Another simple spell had their eyes following my target groups. I hoped they wouldn't notice the tails, they had proven very observant. One last crow took a small note from me, and went to find a certain Mayor.

Once the vermin were out of earshot, the expected blow up happened.

“So why are we letting these... things go, exactly.”

Wow, that was Karl's reaction. Normally he was among the least bloodthirsty of us.

“Because they might have been as human as us, not all that long ago. I really don't want to murder someone if we can fix this, or fix them.”

“But they said they weren't.”

“They may not know, anymore.”

Randy put his two cents in, backed closely by Mr. Stone of all people.

“They are dangerous, without a doubt. They kill to rob people. They target the weak directly.”

My anger rose. I tried to keep the heat from my reply.

“They can't help that, exactly! What happens if we kill them and manage to figure out what's going on? Do you really want to kill someone who hasn't done anything wrong yet?”

Matt chimed in.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you see any bodies? We'd have found any if they had any victims; after all they don't seem the burying type to me. Heck, they only rely on the traps because they can't actually fight anything straight up.”

Randy's reply had more than a little heat of his own.

“They are still dangerous, no matter what they might have been before! We have to deal with the realities of now! Letting those things kill people just because they might have been human before is stupid!'”

He was right into my face, spitting. I wouldn't back down.

“Then you go right ahead! They are right down the road, murder them all with a smile! I made a choice, and I will accept the consequences! They won't find villagers traveling alone, Shrewsberry is currently being warned, I made a choice to turn away from having my own prejudices, that were shoved into my head sideways, rule me. You do as you like.”

He looked as if he got it, but he was, if anything, more angry.

“No, you made our choice. Ours. You decided for all of us... remember that. I won't stand for that again. Anyone they kill is strictly on your head alone.”

Ugh. Pissing contest with me unarmed, so to speak. He had a point, but the world wasn't always going to wait for us to vote. I suppose we could have though, this time. Well I wasn't going to apologize to his butt-hurt self.

“Understood.”

We started off again in silence, Randolf leading the way with Thomas and Phil scouting, and Matt bringing up the rear. Karl, pastor Collins, and I were in the center.

I noticed a distinct lack of eye contact, and more than a little cold shoulder from the party at large. Or maybe it was my imagination. I certainly hoped it was. The only thing I felt from Matt were his eyes occasionally glued to my ass. I wasn't sure how to feel about that.

At least he was looking for threats behind us some of the time, and if he was so mesmerized, he wouldn't turn completely against me. At least, he shouldn't. After less than a day, I was already making new friends; only not.

Hopefully I wasn't losing any old ones.

The rest of the day was spent in an otherwise blissful stroll through nature, complete with birds chirping, the sun shining, and trees and brush rustling in the breeze. And the smells were pure and sweet. Fresh pine needles, various grasses, the occasional deer, and just about any wild flower you could hope to smell. There were no further traps.

It was soothing, but I felt half sorry for those around me. They didn't seem to see/hear/smell the same way I did, or as much. They were missing out. Maybe Thomas could; I'd have to ask when we stopped. Occasionally, when Phil or Thomas checked in, they would look back at me (we were maintaining a loose formation on Karl's unspoken insistence), say something to Karl or each other I couldn't quite catch, and chuckle. Every great once in awhile I heard a chuckle by them from the forest too.

Close to sunset, or at least sunset for the forest (when the sun dipped below the tree line, still some time from full sunset, but more than enough to make a forest dark) Karl halted and signaled us all to close up.

“It's time to find a place to set up camp; our two scouts are going to range on either side of the road, the rest of us are going to look a bit closer in; stay within sight of each other, and be careful. The events of the day have proven this is dangerous.”

I had to; I just had to.

“Alright, but I have something I need to ask. Phil, Thomas, what's so funny?”

They looked at each other in a perfect deadpan moment, then both burst into laughter.

“It's you.”

“It's definitely you.”

“Using balls of light farting pixie dust to try and look scary.”

“Only you would even think such a thing intimidating.”

“You're lucky the rats were so gullible.”

“You'll be in trouble if you do that against anything smart. First the bug thing, then this.”

“You're such a girl there, Sailor Moon.”

Oh. Oh! Oh, damn it. Damn it all.

“Shut. Up. Go find a camp, before you need to find flies.”

“Sure sure there, mighty one. Phil, ribbiting away.”

“Thom, ribbiting away!”

They actually jumped their way into the forest. While croaking. Un-fucking-believable. Mr. Stone and Randolf were already laughing so loudly the birds were flying off in alarm (I did not blame them). Karl was at least silent about it, and Matt was red in the face. Pastor Collins just looked pole axed. His question of “what is Sailor Moon?” did not surprise me.

Rather than answer I turned to Matt.

“What's your problem? My spell choices not funny enough for you?”

“Not at all, just imagining you with a henshin sequence.”

Urk. By all that was, that was sick. I slapped him upside the back of his head.

“Mind out of the gutter there, and focus.”

Karl, who had managed to compose himself, interrupted.

“That's my line, Lady Muse. Look for a camping spot over there if you would. Matt and I need to have a little talk with pastor Collins.”

“....Fine.”

I left. I didn't look as hard as perhaps I should have. They waited until I was out of easy earshot however.

Meanwhile they chatted and laughed. In two cases, they laughed rather loudly. Pastor Collins also went red in the face a few times too. Then Randolf caught me looking and wiggled his bushy uni-brow at me.

Philistines.

Well, there was no clearing this way, so time to go save Pastor Collins from the corrupting influences currently surrounding him.

“Alright he's a man of god, or a man of a god, quit trying to warp his head.”

Matt pulled his innocent look at me, but Karl went for the more direct challenge.

“He's holy, not dead. Right Collins?”

“Quite right; nothing in the new faith about celibacy., at least as far as I know. Matt was just explaining all about this anime I missed, and what a henshin sequence was. It's been quite educational.”

I swear I could see a small stream of blood from his nose, but with his beet red face I couldn't be entirely sure. I was too late. It'd only been about five minutes! Randolf was openly leering. I wanted to hit him, but I felt I'd hurt my hand to do so. Karl glared at him a bit and he stopped. Then he changed the subject.

“So, anything?”

“No clearings at all nearby that direction, let alone ones with handy sources of water or easily defensible locations. So, no. Not really.”

“Well I didn't think there would be. So now we wait for the scouts. Who are supposed to be smart enough to avoid trouble, and should therefore be back any minute.”

“Bad idea to say anything like that.”

“I know, but I strongly suspect they are off drinking somewhere, so I'm a bit angry. If they can hear me, they better come out.”

Delivered in a normal tone of voice, with little emotion. Karl was formidable. A slight rustle of brush and Thomas was next to us; Phil showed up a moment later, materializing next to me. Me, of all people... the jerk.

Him I could punch, so I did.

“Ouch, what was that for?”

“Scaring me. Don't do that.”

“Point taken. Karl we found a good spot.”

He pointed off to my left.

“Good, it's beginning to get a little too dark for my liking. I don't want to run into anything in the dark. Lead on.”

He did, leading us a good fifty yards or so into the wild undergrowth. The moment we left the road a form of uneasy twilight struck us. I remained sure footed, but there was much stumbling around me. A few curses here and there, too.

The clearing in question wasn't big enough to let the sun through the gloom, but it was big enough for a sizable fire pit and several tents or shelters. The pine trees closing ranks around it would keep out the worst of the wind and any rain, and the brook that was busy babbling on the other side was a convenient source of water. In fact, there already was a sizable fire pit of water eroded stones in the center of the grass free clearing, and the old fallen tree that was our way in (a break from the ring of trees) bore evidence of old ax or hatchet marks. Possibly both.

All I really cared about was that it was big enough for tents, if we wanted to. And I wanted to. Sleeping on the cold, dirty ground in no way appealed to me.

Of course I knew what sort of ridicule I'd get before hand. Farting pixie dust indeed. Nevertheless, I reached in and pulled it out while striding to the back (and incidentally the highest) patch of the clearing. Normally, it would be just me, and my sleeping bag (or in this case, bedroll). But this close to a bunch of huge men I felt the urge to have another layer between me and prying eyes. Besides, I had to use locking spells on something with a kind of door; a tent qualified, barely, while a bedroll did not.

Hey, I didn't make the rules... or even know about them before I thought of it just now.

The tent was a welcome nod away from the light and dare I say feminine cloth I had hitherto found, being a tough burlap in serrated earth tones. The pattern made a good camouflage in a temperate forest or plains setting with a little work, and the bottom had a built in heavily waxed groundcloth. The stitching on the seams were as fine as those on my clothes; the entire thing kit, with a bag full of bright copper tent stakes, mallet, and screw together tent poles included probably weighed less than my spell book.

The real question was, where had it come from? I didn't remember packing it last night. For that matter, I had thought about it twice today, hadn't I? As if I had known it was there all along; had it been in the bag of plenty all along, and I knew somehow? If so then why hadn't the other items been in it? Was I getting way too paranoid about every little thing?

I ignored the peanut gallery, busy drinking the fresh water or just plunking down and relaxing, and started rolling the tent out.

“Hey, is that an actual tent?”

Matt strode up, cup in hand, water drizzling down his chin, and got in the way.

“Grrrrrrrrr.”

He jumped back. “What the... did you just growl at me?”

I finished rolling the tent out, the end touching right where his feet were before, and nodded.

“Sure did.”

A few quick blows with the mallet (the head of which was covered in padded cloth to prevent the noise from traveling, apparently I wasn't the only one who was paranoid) and the stakes were driven in; the ground was nice and soft. Good farming loam, unless I missed my guess.

“Might I ask why you growled at me?”

I knocked another stake in.

“Well you were standing right where the back of the tent goes. Door flap towards the fire, slight downgrade from the tree line, otherwise the area is flat and level. Perfect place for a tent. In fact, best place for a tent in the entire clearing.”

I drove the last stake in. Now this tent was a form of pup tent, so all these pieces had to make two tent poles. I started linking them up.

They were carved of course. They suffered from the same motif as the bag itself, wooden vines coated in resin, the odd flower cropping up. Each pole also had a stylized thorn hook at about two feet up( the poles were three feet all told, or I was a Dwarf).

And now that I could stretch it out, the design scheme on the tent had it's own rose and vine motif running the length of it, through the muddy multi-hued 'earth' the tent portrayed. When spread out, it had more than enough room for any three people and looked like a small flower strewn hillock, or at least it would from a distance.

Not at all out of place in a forest, but a little more... Elf like than I had previously hoped. At least the copper stakes didn't burn my hands.

I went inside to place the final stake, and it promptly got worse. The inside was a second layer, this one of beige linen, with a small window in the back (also covered in linen, white). The linen had a meadow in full bloom painted on it, lightening to a pastel blue sky, and the window was the sun. Of course. I threw my bag inside and closed the flaps. No one must know.

“So um, that thing looks pretty big.”

“Indeed it does.” I replied as I looked around idly. None of the others seemed to have tents. Karl didn't seem to care, dragging a small stump in front of the fire pit. Phil and Thomas were gathering firewood, and pastor Collins was working on lighting said fire in the fire pit. It wasn't really late in the year, or shouldn't be, and the temperature was still warm.

But a fire made us all feel safer; and a fire here would be almost impossible to spot from the road, or deeper into the woods.

Randolf clanked off with Mr. Stone, gathering firewood by excuse, telling bawdy stories by the sound and sharing liquor by the smell.

“So, um... can I share your tent?”

“Grrrrrrrrrrr.”

I won't lie to myself. Watching him jump back like that was pretty satisfying. I did manage to keep a straight face... mostly.

“Right. I'll take that as a no.”

I looked up; there were clouds, painted fiery yet muted colors, scudding their merry way across the sky. They seemed none the worse for wear for the rain burden they carried. A quick sniff of the air revealed a hint of fresh moisture.

Feh, they would live.

“No room in the tent; it's strictly a single.”

He stared, completely flabbergasted. But none must know. Besides, it was too hot to sleep clothed, and I'd be damned if I'd let any of them in to possibly sneak a peek. So I stared back, one eyebrow raised in challenge. I kept my cool even when Karl snorted laughter behind me, but almost lost it with Matt's retort.

“Chicks.”

OK, I admit to being a jerk here, but Matt is the one that joined in to mock my light creations earlier. Along with the bug thing. And he had been staring earlier, when he thought I wouldn't know. I am sure of it.

But that one stung.

“don't you have something useful to do?”

Karl interrupted before things could go further downhill. He handed Matt a small wooden shovel.

“Yes he does. Matt, go dig a latrine, now.”

Matt moved off.

“Other direction Matt, not next to the stream.”

He shook his head as I face-palmed.

“Sorry Lady Muse, he was out of line there.”

“No need for any apologies, I'd be happy to share normally, but there are... complications.”

It really wouldn't do to have the people I may need to save my life feel that I don't trust them. I did. But all the same, as close a friend as Matt was, I wasn't sure he'd ever see the inside of that tent. At least not while I was in it.

And that went double for the rest of them. I'd just never live it down.

“And you Lady Muse, you get the first cooking duty.”

...excuse me?

“Excuse me?”

“Yep. Cooking duty. Phil and Thom are out hunting. Whatever they catch, they skin and bring back. Pastor Collins has fire duty. Randolf and Ethan are handling the fire wood. I have first watch, and Matt is digging the latrine. That leaves cooking duty. Tomorrow night we all switch jobs, except possibly Thom; he's our best hunter.”

So, it wasn't the whole 'woman’s work' bs. I guess I could live with that. If they started treating me as some stupid simpering yokel in homespun though, It'd be the toad treatment.

“Alright, I get it. I'll get everything set up.”

I had a sort of medieval mess kit, I remembered that one and had made sure to pack it before. It was small though; I hoped it was up to the task. Turns out I needn't have bothered. As soon as Mr. Stone spotted my little kit he ambled over, muttering.

Mr. Stone had almost a full kitchen in collapsible pots.

“I think you'll need it, lady. I heard Thom talking about the deer trail he'd found not too far from here.”

A deer? An entire deer? Heck with that, if they brought back a full deer, of course I'd need help. Of course one look at Karl and I knew I wouldn't be getting any; it'd be my task alone to dress and cook it. I had no idea how to cook anything like that, unless it was as venison steaks.

And of course, Google was dead. Good luck finding really cool recipes for really strange food now. Perhaps after we solved the mystery of the ages, we could find Chef Ramsey.

Luckily enough, Thom and Phil did not bring back Bambi. Unluckily for me, they did bring back a brace of Thumper. The no longer cute cuddly things had been skinned, (mostly) bled, and dressed before being brought back to camp, so as not to attract local wildlife of the more dangerous sort. At least I had that going for me.

I decided on a stew, with some tubers and wild onions (and some garlic, salt, basil, and mushrooms from my own food stores, but no one needed to know that). It's very hard to screw up any kind of stew. Stew is almost unkillable. Nevertheless, I tried. Fortunately for all stomachs involved, I did not succeed.

At every comment of 'great stew' and 'very good' I searched for signs of mockery. It all seemed to be genuine, but I knew it wasn't as good as it could have been. After everyone was finished and busy seeing who could make the loudest belch, I retired to the stream to wash the dishes. Always part of any cooking job as far as I was concerned.

Besides, I doubted any of the others had brought soap.

Then my task being done, I nodded my good night to Karl (who was the only one paying attention) and went inside my tent. I did not want to leave matters there though, so I cast about in my mind for that which came so easily now; at least part of the time. This time it took longer than I wished.

I focused, and the door 'locked'. Another moment of focus, and I had an alarm set; anything with hostile intent coming within 50 feet of the tent would set off a loud hawk's cry. I chose a hawk specifically because it would be out of place at night, and yet hawks had been flying around earlier this very day. So someone or something with less knowledge of animal behavior might ignore it. Like a bear; bears were rather big on my mind at the moment.

I still felt better knowing that Karl was on watch. After all something might get past my spell somehow; a sentry was always preferable to just magic alone.

Preparation work done, and my two spells adding to my weariness (keeping up with tall people on the march was hard work) I shucked my clothes and hung them on one of the thorn hooks. The bag went on the other. Then I climbed into my bedroll.

The conversation was too loud.

“Did you see that?”

“Well, now I know why she insisted it was a single.”

Sigh. “Gentlemen.”

The reply came in chorus. “Yes, Lady Muse?”

“Shut up.”

“Yes Lady Muse.”

I swear. They had to rehearse or something.

Though I tried, sleep was a long time coming.

Chapter 8

Sometimes, no matter how much sleep you have, it's just never enough. And sometimes you wish you could sleep more. Very rarely do those days coincide though. Today, with the pleasant rays of the sun streaming through my tent's fake one, removing the slight chill, and my very warm sleeping bag firmly ensconced around me, was one of those rare days.

Then again, with the pleasant rays of the sun streaming in, it was at least an hour past dawn; the sun wouldn't be able to penetrate the forest canopy otherwise. And that of course, meant I was likely late.

On the other hand, I was comfortable, and didn't hear any hints of movement. My spell alarms hadn't been tripped, so I was inclined to believe it was a completely innocent sort of silence. Unless of course, someone could manage to get past them without setting them off or dispelling them, and then start world war 3 without me hearing it.

Who was I to say what was and what was not possible? The world didn't make sense anymore.

So as much as I wanted to just lay back and read my new book, I decided to get up and dress. I could possibly read a little while everyone else was breaking camp if it was just a case of me being early. Turns out it was neither.

Everyone was up, breakfast was made (and mine was waiting) and everyone was looking at me as I opened the tent flap.

“...What?”

It was a wonderful morning, with fresh scents and bright colors. Of course, there had been a little bit of a drizzle some time last night, which led to a few soggy companions huddled around a fire. Also at some point last night, a brown waxed tarp had been affixed to some trees as a makeshift shelter against the rain.

Their sleeping bags and bedrolls were on a line, drying. Surely it hadn't been that bad.

I joined the group at the fire, grabbing my set aside plate. The stares continued.

“Seriously, what? I didn't sleep through some wake up call of yours, did I?”

I was pretty sure I was told last night I wouldn't get a stint at watch... though maybe I was wrong in that? Karl finally deigned to answer.

“No, they are just wondering how much you knew and when.”

A slight sinking feeling. What I knew about what? Had the distrust our Gimli reject suffered started affecting us now, after a delay?

“...What?”

“The rain, lady Muse. The rain. You set up that tent; Elves don't normally use such, at least according to our resident experts. So they were wondering if you knew it was going to rain last night.”

That delivered deadpan with pointed glances at Phil and Thomas, letting me know three things; that he wasn't in on this, tempers had apparently actually flared, and who the actual experts were. The tone of voice also let me know he didn't believe a word of it, which made the next part a bit of a shame.

“Um, actually, I did. But in my defense, our woodsman did too! So you really need to talk to him. Also, I apparently do use a tent, at least most of the time. It felt like second nature after all. I'm not sure why.”

Maybe because the sleeping under the stars thing was a bullcrap stereotype, and I didn't go for it?

“She has a point, Thomas. You should have known too.”

“Meh, I smelled rain, but thought it would hold off another night. It was a light scent after all. I'm pretty good, but when its 50/50 I can get it wrong.”

I smelled a rat, is what I smelled.

“And you expect me to be better at it?”

He didn't miss a beat. “Yes.”

Alright, time to get insulting. I opened my mouth but Matt put a finger to his lips briefly from his position behind Thomas. So I shut up and let him handle it.

“You pissed off Lady Muse yesterday something fierce. We all did. Is it a wonder she didn't mention any chance for rain? We got soggy, it was our own fault. You didn't mention it either, and that's your fault. Quit trying to shift blame onto her for your shit.”

“Alright, I get the point.”

With a sour look, Thomas reached over and started undoing the knots holding up his tarp. I approved, it was a sunny day, with no hint of rain lingering in the air. The various birds were frolicking in the sky, and my ears could catch other small critters likewise frolicking in the forest around us, used to our presence and noise by now.

In short, the makings of a wonderful day.

“Lady Muse, I don't suppose you could help us dry our things, so we could get going, could you?”

I empathized with Karl on this one. On the one hand, a large part of me was screaming silently that there was no rush; we had nowhere specific to be. On the other, the sooner we got some place, any place, we would learn more of just what happened to us and our world. I could feel that urgency in a very real 'nails on chalkboard' kind of way. So I ignored that traitorous part of myself that urged relaxation.

“Sure.”

Now, how to do this... the easiest way would be with fire. But fire would of course, burn. The next easiest would be air. But I didn't want to risk blowing things away. Any spells strong enough to dry the cloth in a hurry would either risk burning or blowing it away. Wait, water could work, and there was a stream nearby...

I really needed to stop coming up with solutions to problems that involved summoning Elementals all the time. It was the strongest spell I had, and really took a lot out of me. Hmm, maybe a variation on my magic toilet spell? That could work, and it didn't take that much out of me.

Well casting the spell didn't. Enchanting something with it did. Good thing that wasn't what I was being asked to do, or I'd have to say no in order to avoid wasting more time, most of it flat on my back.

Using a slightly more juiced version of my 'instant bum drying spell' was easy enough; even moving from bedding to bedding. Using as many uses of it as I did still didn't come close to one elemental summoning, even a small one.

The two spells seemed sort of similar, actually. The main difference being power added and a difference of degrees....

“Lady Muse.”

“Huh, what?”

Karl was next to me, and I hadn't heard him approach.

“You alright? You were staring off into space there.”

“Yeah I'm fine. Was just contemplating spellcraft.”

“So... are they done?”

I nodded and pointed to the small puddles under the bedding.

“All done. Should be completely dry and ready to pack up. And before you ask, no it didn't take all that much effort.”

“Good.”

He grabbed his own and began to roll it up. Taking that as my cue, I went back to my tent to pack my own things up. My bedroll was easy enough, and everything else I used was packed up beforehand... so in no time at all I was left with the one chore I didn't want to deal with. The packing up of my tent.

I traced a hand along it, following one of the vines sewn in. It was dry. Not a magical dryness, I was sure, just a normal one comprised of rain sliding off and the sun evaporating what was left. The poles came apart with a half twist, the copper stakes came out easily with a single pull on their ring heads.

No dirt at all stuck to them; not even a speck. The holes made closed back up as if nothing had ever been hammered in there.

The tent folded up easily, with no air bubbles and went back into it's pouch with all it's accoutrements as if it had never been out of it.

OK, this crap was getting weird; I'd never had a tent that cleaned up so easily; either the poles wanted to do their own thing, or the stakes wanted to stay in the ground forever, or the tent needed to be refolded five times before you could fit it back in it's bag. Even one of these enchantments was beyond me. But I couldn't help thinking that it had been made specifically for me.

So who had made it for me? My father, like the sword? Or someone else?

I wonder if there was some way to magic up a few of these answers, so I'd be at least a little less confused? If so, it's probably beyond my current power; cause I couldn't think of a way to do it currently. Maybe if I read more. Which would necessitate me demanding down time in which to read.

Maybe I would have to, but that felt like a drastic measure this morning. I could feel time wasting as I stood there, bag in hand. A quick glance showed much the same point of view among the rest of us; we were all already packed.

Well everyone but Ethan, who was still rolling up his bedroll with some muted curses.

“Alright Lady Muse, you got up last, so all the other jobs were taken before you. You have the last one; filling in the latrine.”

Karl handed me the small shovel with a smile. Jerk.

Sigh, Oh well. I took the thing with as much grace as I could muster and went to do it. Someone had been very... enthusiastic during the night, and with no paper, no less. I tried very hard not to breathe through my nose.

When I was done, I couldn't smell anything though. Jobs done right, that's my motto, even in bizarro world.

I made sure the shovel was properly clean then returned it. By the time I was done, all evidence of the campsite's recent use had vanished; a form of magic in itself, though one of mundane origin. While I could do it, I had to admit to myself that I couldn't do it as well as some of my companions.

And then just like that, we were back on the road, squinting in the suddenly brighter sunshine. There was no one on the road, a fact that both made me sigh with relief even as it filled me with a vague dread.

You would think someone else would have used the roads by now. I mean sure, most people would be motivated by fear not to, but we couldn't be the only intrepid types in all the land, reshaped or not... could we?

Something wasn't adding up here.

Something was telling me that we should not be the only people on this road. A road which, only four days ago, was busy. Not the busiest by any means, but seeing cars zip by every few minutes was the norm. That same road for the past few days, now had nothing on it but a few kobolds, setting traps.

They hadn't even had any victims in their traps, something I at least had looked for. Even considering the lack of time, that seemed odd.

Having nothing else to do, I sent my Raven to scout the path ahead. I had already taken the place Karl wanted me to take; right behind him. Thomas was scouting the road ahead in his own way, Phil was behind. Matt and Ethan were leading the way and setting the pace, and Randolf was behind us watching the rear.

We were still lined up like ducks or lemmings to an ambush, but we couldn't do much about that without ditching the road, something we were loath to do. For better or worse, by silent majority, we felt our best chance to get answers lay with civilization. So we stuck to the one landmark we had that we knew would lead us to it.

It was somewhat after the sun was directly overhead that we got to the next village. I compared what I saw at the other side of clearing to the mental map I had. Yep, Georgetown township, right there. Named after Washington and sporting some five thousand people a few days ago... and currently a walled community.

Which was very odd; the other small towns, ours or Shrewsberry, hadn't been walled.

“Let's wait a bit Karl, like we did for Shrewsberry.”

He nodded, picking up on the feeling we all seemed to have, and we waited just outside the forest. I could see that the road led both into the town... and a fresher, less beaten path led off to the side. Focusing, my eyes could pick up signs of decay in the wooden palisade; The logs weren't chinked well, and the ropes were sagging.

Five minutes revealed no activity on the wall or in the watchtower, and the gate was sagging open. I could see not a single hint of movement. The grass in the clearing closest to the town was a mottled brown and laying over. It did not move in the hint of a breeze we had, as the other grasses did.

I recalled my raven and sent him over the place. His general sense of the village was a lack of motion; of activity of any sort. There was nothing more he could communicate to me, my link with him wasn't good enough yet and my ability to speak his language nonexistent at the moment.

“I think whatever happened here, we missed it.”

Thomas picked up on something I hadn't thought of.

“Chances are we missed it some time ago; there are no traces of smoke. Fires around this place would be going strong for days after they were made; even at home some of us had embers in our fireplaces, pumping out some smoke. Nothing like that here.”

Karl nodded.

“Not a smoking gun in and of itself, but highly suggestive. Alright so a vote; do we follow that,' he pointed to the newer trail leading away from Georgetown. 'or do we go in?”

I didn't even hesitate.

“We go in. There may be answers in there, especially because it looks like it does, not in spite of it.”

Matt and oddly enough, Ethan both backed me, with a chorus of “I second that.” followed by a mild glare at each other.

Thomas and Pastor Collins shrugged their lack of feeling, while Randolf and Phil were more cautious.

“I don't like the look of it. Or the smell. I say we go around.”

The way Randolf was fingering the scar road map on his face was a bit disconcerting.

“The smell, Randy? We are a bit far for any scents to reach us.”

“I'm not talking about that kind of smell, Karl.”

“I'm with Randy on this one, Karl. Something just feels wrong here.”

I nodded, letting them know I felt it too, but refuting the argument.

“That's exactly why we need to look. We're investigating, remember?”

Randolf nodded slowly.

“Yes, I understand the point. I just feel that caution is more important. We can't do anyone any good if we die to some random dinosaur or something worse, regardless of what we find.”

Phil added his thoughts.

“I'm just not a fan of dying at all, for any reason.”

Karl made a show of considering it, but we all knew his mind was already made up.

“Noted; but we also need to take risks too, and this one looks like a good one to take. We go in, standard formation and try to be quiet this time.”

We got into our standard traveling formation again, only spread out a bit more, and started in again. There was no hail or challenge, and no noise at all save for things rattling in the light breeze. The sun seemed to dim a bit more with each step towards the place, and the willies were a definite thing.

Up close it was easy to see the palisade was in total disrepair; the gate hadn't been destroyed by conquest but by the elements. The ropes were loose and rotted, the wood crumbling and lopsided. The path was overgrown oddly enough, with weeds long dead. The smell was of vague decay and mold.

Once past the gate, it was even more strange. The sunlight seemed not to reach all the way into the village itself, and there were dead weeds and live disgusting looking mushrooms everywhere. There was standing brackish water in puddles, stone depressions, and even holes in the wood rotting everywhere.

Not a single building looked as if it had been touched in ten years. The thatch roofs of the houses had long since rotted or fallen in, the doors were as rotted as the palisade gated and also hanging ajar, and the assembled detritus of living had seen much better days. Our own noises and footsteps seemed curiously muted in the silence, as if they were not a part of the scene in which we found ourselves.

I'd been to this town five days ago; it had been a bustling if small Midwestern backwoods metropolis.

The good news is, we saw no evidence of bodies. Any bodies, even animals.

I had a hard time thinking we'd even find insects, for some reason. I certainly didn't see any; not even mosquito larvae in the brackish water, and normally such a thing was a given.

I certainly wasn't going to drink any water from here; and food was a revolting thought. I normally liked mushrooms, but ewww. A glance showed the mushrooms were the only things alive in our sight range. My raven felt no reticence in coming down however, so I used him to fly by and see if anything was startled out of hiding.

Nothing. Just the dead grass screaming it's reedy moans in the wind.

I looked to Karl. I actually felt splitting up into two teams would be a decent idea here, as long as we didn't stray too far. We needed to do like the Scooby gang and cover ground to look for clues while not tempting old man Rivers to put on his mask. But I didn't dare suggest that; it would be summarily rejected, just because I made it.

So I waited for the proper decision with patience, poise, and grace.

“What's gotten into you? Fire ants in your pants?”

Matt was grinning, a wan thing in this atmosphere, but Karl actually looked concerned after asking that. The jerk. I was not fidgeting!

“I'm fine, thanks. No I'm not detecting anything other than what you all are. At least, I'm pretty sure I'm not.”

He gave me his patented 'pull the other one, it has bells on' look but didn't call me on the statement.

“Alright. Randolf, Thomas, Pastor Collins and I will take the right. Lady Muse, Matt, Ethan, and Phil take the left. Yell if you find anything interesting or unusual. Or at least, unusual for this place. Be careful, and meet back at the gates in an hour, whether you find anything or not.”

I knew I wouldn't have to say anything. Karl and I understood each other. I even understood his reasons for splitting the group up the way he did. He could have taken Ethan too though, I doubted his presence would even slow anything that wanted to eat me down. I also doubted he'd try.

Pretty uncharitable of me, but I couldn't help it. I wouldn't let anything eat him though; if I did, I'd never hear the end of it. My raven still couldn't spot anything alive from the air, so I started off along the first side street leading of into our assigned search area. Matt stopped me with an iron hand.

“I go first, lady Muse. Ethan you have the rear. Phil, scout for us.”

With a whispered “got it” Phil was gone; talk about spooked. Sigh; more glass treatment. If there was anything weird going on, I was likely more able to handle it than Matt. After all, there was nothing alive visible here, which left more unpleasant options. The old gas station was in the forefront of my mind.

Matt was in fact, placing himself directly between something he likely could not fight and me. I didn't know whether to hug him or brain him. And where had the hugging thought come from, anyway? That's it, he definitely deserved a braining later, if only for making me think about hugging.

Ethan wasn't talking, which was a plus; his eyes were everywhere, and his hand was stroking his ax like he was a villain in a movie and it was his cat. It looked like a good “boo” would send him screaming back to the road.

I could be really mean here. I was half tempted to. More than half tempted.

Bur I wouldn't. A soft tone would do wonders.

“Hey, Ethan.”

He looked at me, the question in his eyes. I pointed to his ax, and his hand upon it.

“Relax. I know how the place feels. But we need to do this. Just... take a breath, OK?”

I could see it all; he started to get angry at what I was suggesting, then stopped and noticeably backed that up. He was actually taking the advice as intended.

“It's just that a place like this is a prime breeding ground for spooks.”

Well that sounded ominous; but wait, how did he know that? How did any of us know that? What was actually tripping our senses here? That last sense we had that spoke of danger; it was obvious we were all feeling that sense screaming at us, but why? How? We weren't similar anymore, at least not too similar. This felt like a clue. Perhaps a small one, but a clue nonetheless.

“How do you know?”

He lost his temper a bit, and raised his voice accordingly.

“What do you mean how? It just is! Look around you, you daft Elf!”

Then the light dawned yet again, just as Matt turned around with a warning glare.

“I get it lady Muse... it's the lore of my people that abandoned places like this are a haven for hungry ghosts....”

By people I was fairly certain that he didn't mean humans. I had to bring him back from the brink before he retreated mentally, so I nodded.

“Mine too; we have that much in common. Why though, that's anyone's guess.”

A pointed glance at Matt, who had heard us but whose face only betrayed confusion gave me another piece. There was no lore of his people regarding places like this, just as you'd expect from nice logical humanity. All I had was the knowledge that such lore was there; apparently Ethan felt it strongly enough to remember individual stories? I'd have to ask later, at a more appropriate time.

In the interest of being thorough, I went to one of the homes. The door was collapsed into a bundle of rotted wood to the side, which seemed a little soon for the rest of the decay of the place, as if it started decaying earlier. A look inside without breaking the plane of the doorway was therefore easy to accomplish.

That look revealed a rotting oak table and a few collapsed chairs, rusted pots and utensils, and a crumbling fireplace much like my own back home. The floor, oddly enough, was made of clay tiles that had at one point been painted. Those tiles were cracked and faded.

Even the dirt encrusted cloth doll in the corner looked rotted.

On the one hand, the door looked more dilapidated than anything else; it was almost sawdust. On the other hand, everything else was fairly uniform. Which was odd in the extreme. Given different weather conditions and exposure to the elements, I would expect the stuff in the houses to be better preserved.

That did not seem to be the case, but perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps there was something different here going on?

I did not enter the house. Call it a superstition. I also stopped Matt from entering the house I was looking in.

“No Matt.”

“Why not?”

A good question, and one I didn't really have an answer to. I did have a good deflection though.

“Remember the gas station? Let's try not to disturb anything inside the homes, alright?”

He thought a bit.

“Got you; guess we can ignore the interiors for now. If we need to we can always check them later. If we don't we are just wasting time doing it.”

Reminded of the time I looked up. Maybe a half hour had passed already, judging from the sun. That seemed a little odd; a little off. Had we really been looking that long?

“Come on, let's hurry and complete a sweep.”

We walked quickly, attempting to take in everything. My raven caught occasional glimpses of Phil around us, or the others moving through. I didn't want him to get too close for fear my own party would get twitchy and kill him.

Unfortunately, all we saw was more of the same. It was beginning to remind me of the story of that old lost colony, Roanoke. I doubted it was the same of course, but everyone was gone, and there as no evidence as to where; nothing was out of place, there was no rubble from an attack, (like by a dinosaur) and no bodies. It was as if everyone who made the town had simply decided to get up and walk off, taking nothing with them.

And that did nothing to solve the issue of what was making us jumpier than cats high on catnip. Though it was suggestive. Maybe the feeling itself was responsible for everyone leaving? ....Right. Leaving ten years ago, when our Georgetown was populated and bustling 5 days ago.

This town did not match my Georgetown. Not only that, but it didn't match my expectations either. The why seemed very important; but there was just nothing around to tell me. Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that there was some presence here; it only got stronger the more we lingered in fact. It was for that reason I kept us out of the houses, I realized.

The town still felt occupied, somehow. By something.

And I was an idiot for not recognizing that feeling earlier.

“You know something Elf, I can see it on your face.”

I came back from my musings to the accusation from the peanut gallery.

“I'll tell you later, Ethan. For now let's just focus on completing the pass. And getting out of here. Like now. We have our evidence, or at least some of it. It's time to focus on getting out.”

Matt needed no further urging for haste. And we completed our half circle around the town; according to the position of the sun, we were late by about forty-five minutes. Yet when we arrived, we could just make out the other part of our party at the other end of the street, leisurely headed our way and not waiting impatiently for us.

I gestured with my arms rather manically, but did not yell. Then we waited. For another half and hour easily, we waited for them to walk down the street to us. They did not hesitate or stop to sight see, yet it still took them that long to cross the distance.

Matt caught on before they caught up to us; I had to stop him from joining them. Maybe it wouldn't hurt anything, maybe it would.

Karl spoke first, as soon as they got in range of a normal tone of voice. His voice didn't carry far, even in the silence.

“Alright Lady Muse, what's going on?”

Thank goodness they seemed to have picked up on it too, at least something. How much remained to be seen.

“Later Karl, we need to move now. I'll explain later, once we're clear. Back the way we came, not through the town.”

With a raised eyebrow and a nod, he led the way.

I wanted to run, and I likely wasn't the only one, but his pace forced a walk out of all of us. By the end of that walk I was ready to jump out of my skin; the sun told me it was nearing six-o-clock or so. That position seemed to reverse some in the sky with each step out of the village, until we stood once again on the border of the dead grass, where the newer path around Georgetown was.

On the other side of that, the Sun seemed to be nearing the three-o-clock range. Plenty of daylight left, and possibly another mystery solved. I spoke up first to forestall the inevitable questions.

“Time and possibly space were acting differently in there, I'm all but certain of it. Why I don't know, but it didn't strike me as safe to stay, given that everything affected seemed to be aging rapidly.”

I made as good an inspection of my companions as possible, even as they got the idea themselves and looked each other over. They didn't look any older to me. Pastor Collins said a prayer and made a show of looking at us with glowy eyes.

“We haven't been affected by any sort of aging magic or curse; perhaps we need more exposure for it to affect us.”

Karl interrupted the general freak out session.

“Then let's not give it a chance to; let's assume Lady Muse is right, and get down the path and well out of here before anything happens.”

We stayed to the far side of the trail... and we didn't walk. I checked my gear as best I could, on the off chance it didn't affect people so much as non-living objects. But all my gear seemed perfectly preserved. From what I could tell the gear on everyone else seemed okay too.

I wasn't too worried about myself; Elves age slower than humans, a well known fact from fantasy lore everywhere; if my human companions didn't look older, I wouldn't either. Besides I was pretty sure Randolf at the very least would speak up had I suddenly become a hag. My hands still looked unlined, and my body was firm.

“Not that I don't mind the show, but what are you doing?”

Of course Matt, being behind me, had seen everything. I took my hands from my breasts.

“Just checking same as you. I saw you checking the family jewels.”

I was still faced firmly ahead so I could only hear his grin.

“Hey got to keep an eye, and a hand, on the important things. You look fine by the way; better than fine, you vain foxy thing, you. If anything you lost a year or two.”

“You look... unaffected as well.”

The grin I was hearing turned insufferable.

Karl didn't turn around either.

“Shut up. Keep silent and let's focus on distance.”

I was rather awed by the stamina we all displayed; we kept up the not quite headlong flight for a bit over an hour. Phil and Thomas spent their time scouting ahead as fast as could reasonably be deemed safe, and the rest of us booked it.

I was gasping and wheezing with the rest by the time we did stop, but I felt I could go another hour and not drop. I didn't let on though; poor Ethan was doubled over coughing, and looked as if another step would kill him. We were very lucky nothing jumped us.

Or maybe not, we hadn't seen anything alive big enough to jump us, though the insects and squirrels were back at least.

Another check proved we all looked just as old as we had this morning, and no older. Same for our gear. Maybe, just maybe, I could relax. Of course if something was wrong, for this type of thing pastor Collins was our best bet. I wasn't sure I could do anything about freaky time warps or premature aging, but a goddess could reverse either... if pastor Collins could make her care enough.

I on the other hand, would have to peruse my book for answers or fixes on the off chance. Bah, who was I kidding, I'd be doing that the moment we had camp set up.

“Alright, we set up camp here. I want it nice and cozy before dark.”

This time there were no arguments. That feeling of strange occupation, of presence, had left me by now; I wasn't sure when I had lost it. But the area still felt haunted to me. By the looks of things, I wasn't the only one still spooked. No one else wanted to take chances either.

“Lady Muse, you have firewood duty. I want enough to last the night.”

On that Karl and I were in perfect agreement.

“Wait, I don't think Lady Muse should be off alone; I'll go with her.”

Matt's concern was touching, but easily waved off.

“Oh, don't worry about it. I'm not going out there at all. You can watch me to your heart's content.”

Karl gave me the stink eye.

“Don't worry, you'll have your firewood.”

After all, it was only the matter of concentration and focus... and perhaps too much energy for me to waste. The small mud man waited patiently for me to collect myself and give it orders.

“Bring me dead wood no larger than that man's forearm, and no smaller than my finger. Continue gathering the wood for the next hour and bring it right to this spot to my left. Carefully stack the wood into a neat pile. After that you may go.”

It nodded, burbled once, then slid it's way off to do as ordered.

“And why did you do that?”

“I saw some Holly and willow that I'm going to use to weave into a few symbols that will offer us some protection from the supernatural; ghosts and other spooks, such as you might find in a town like we just left. I'd rather have that done before dark. Since I wouldn't be able to do both before dark, and since an elemental isn't likely to be attacked by a ghost, it goes out and I stay.”

He sighed, taking in Ethan's hopeful look at the mention of protective symbols. No doubt he was cursing our superstitious selves.

“Makes sense I guess. Provided that mud man can collect enough wood. Alright then, get to work on those charms.”

Rolling my eyes so he'd know exactly what I felt as I snapped off the crisp salute, I went to the nearest willow tree. I hated to tear limbs off live trees and such branches would be less effective in any case, but this next part was going to be embarrassing. So I waited until no one was watching or listening in, leaned up to the trunk, and hummed a certain song as softly as I could, convincing the tree to part with a few branches in exchange for the rapid growth of others.

A fair exchange for a tree, as it were.

Once done with the willow, it was on to collect the Holly. I turned around after crooning to it to find an audience. For once though, they did not seem interested in making wisecracks. I settled in to work, weaving the very supple limbs together in a specified manner while the other camp chores were done, weaving my own magic into each in turn as my hands worked.

Pastor Collins came by as I was working on the third one, working his own brand of magic over me. He was checking us all for various evil influences, but I couldn't spare the focus to see exactly what he was doing.

I had one for each cardinal direction by the time I felt my elemental dispel; it had made a neatly stacked mound of logs and branches almost as tall as I was in an hour; easily enough to last the night. The ground wasn't all that even but none of us wanted to go back into the woods, so the firepit and fire were started right on the trail itself.

I didn't smell any rain, which was a good thing, because between the drain from the elemental, and the charms themselves, I was pretty much flat on my back. I barely managed to hang them properly, and collapsed on my half unpacked sleeping bag. Matt was of course the first to notice.

“you okay?”

“No; help me unroll this thing?”

He helped while I took a long pull of water from my canteen. As soon as he had it spread out I flopped on it, breaking out some granola from my stores. I was pretty sure none of us wanted to test eating anything from what could be a haunted wood.

“Well pastor? What's the good word?”

“No curses, no strange illnesses or ailments, no ill effects at all from what I can tell. There was a faint echo of an echo of something, but I don't know what it was. All I know is She let me know that while it could have been very bad for us had we stayed, nothing is wrong with us now.”

Of course She meant his goddess. Whom he had asked directly... and whom had answered. Guess I really didn't need to worry about any crisis of faith issues anymore. That in an of itself was another clue. At least, I thought it was.

After all, it could mean that pastor Collins was 'going native'. Perhaps have a goddess breathing down his neck added just enough pressure for such a thing. And perhaps I was way off base, and a colossal jerk for thinking such a thing.

“So what did we learn by viewing that town, and why did we risk our lives going into it?”

Ugh. Of course Karl would ask now that we were somewhat safe. And I wouldn't be able to pass out until I answered him.

“We learned that time did not flow in the township of Georgetown at the same rate it does for us. Why, I don't know. We also learned that either the people moved away from Georgetown before this happened, or were not affected somehow. We also learned that the Georgetown we remember and the one that we just saw earlier are not the same.

Before this, we saw towns that were parallel to our own, and people we knew. Georgetown was different. Why, I can't say. I'm not willing to stay there long enough to uncover all the answers that place undoubtedly has. I'm not sure what the cost of staying would be, but I'm sure I don't want to find out.

We also learned that some of us have an actual other history jammed sideways into our heads. Ask Ethan if you want to know more. Well no rain tonight, so I'm just going to sleep. Don't mess with the charms, and wake me if WW3 starts.”

And amidst incredulous stares, I did.

Chapter 9

I came back to the land of the living slowly, amidst half remembered nightmares involving strange spectral phrases and broken things. Almost as if those same dream creatures or whatever they were refused to let me go.

But come to I eventually did, to find Matt and Phil both watching over the camp from opposite sides. A double watch I approved of, but why didn't they wake me to take my turn? I probably could have used the break from... whatever had been in my head last night; any concrete images had vanished like wisps of fog with full wakefullness.

Upon closer inspection; both Matt and Phil both looked pale and wild-eyed. The others were tossing and turning in their sleep, and the wards I created last night were glowing ever so faintly in the pre-dawn light. Another moment and I'd have been unable to see it as the sun broke over us all.

I wouldn't have missed the heavy, heaving sighs from both our sentries however. Something was up, and I really hoped it wasn't what I thought it was. They both gave a guilty start, having been focused on the surroundings away from camp, and more than likely, on their own thoughts as well.

“So what did I miss? What has you so spooked?”

Matt answered me, Phil was busy waking up everyone else. There was no waiting in pleasant languor this morning.

“About 3 or 4 am, just as we settled into our watch; we started hearing noises. Distant, near silent, but audible to both of us clearly from across camp. That was about the time everyone started tossing and turning.”

Noises was in no way clear enough; and from the way his eyes rolled, he knew it... and was dreading my coming question.

“What kind of noises?”

Phil broke in with a laconic tone that hid his fear and relief well; not entirely of course, but well. Something had definitely happened.

“Oh just voices and sounds of the world at first; things like cars and trucks and planes. After that it was mostly screaming.”

That didn't sound good at all.

“Screaming?”

“Long, loud, wet and throat tearing... for a solid half hour or so, multiple voices, all screaming. That and your wards glowing.”

Well what the hell?!?

“Why didn't you wake anyone up?”

Matt fielded that one.

“We actually tried. None of you would wake, not for anything. So we settled in, tried to watch for more physical threats and hoped for the best.”

Well that explains the relief at seeing the sun rise; only all too well. Made me more relieved to see every one else getting up; haunted and knowing looks between them or not. As for me, I immediately started working on my calligraphy.

The others were finished packing up by the time I had the signs ready, bright and dry with bright red painted words and borders. Each one had a warning that there was danger in the area ahead, and in the event that someone absolutely had to travel that way, to bypass the town we'd just seen. In as many languages as I could, which turned out to be six. I could only hope it was enough.

The kobolds we met two days ago, for example, might well be too stupid to read. But they had to survive somehow so maybe their instincts were better? Orcs I knew were superstitious, and would take the warnings seriously. So would Elves or Dwarves, simply by knowing that I (an Elf) wrote it.

Humans would likely ignore it, or worse, go into the town itself to prove there was nothing to fear. But I had to try. Maybe I could save the smart ones at least. Karl looked on, and I could sense the approval. In fact while I was painting those signs no one bothered me. I posted the first and started walking along the border in the woods itself. I had to cover as much ground as possible.

“Muse, wait!”

I looked back to find Matt running up. He swiped half the signs from my hands with a wink.

“Faster this way. I'll take this side.”

A sign every 20 paces meant that I had covered about as much area as a football field. Any further back into the undergrowth and no one would see the signs anyway, no matter how brightly painted. I was tempted to cast some sort of attention gathering magic on them... but I didn't know any. In my opinion that was a rather large hole in my magical education, and one I should remedy as soon as possible.

After all, magical attention getting could be the first component to magical distraction spells, which would be an alternative to killing people indiscriminately. Killing was something some people might go for, or even enjoy... but it wasn't me.

Thanks to Matt, we were ready to go after only a half hour. While Tom was tapping his foot, clearly anxious to be gone, and Ethan was pale and staring back in the direction of the ghost town, Karl was patient. He didn't say a word as we came trotting back from opposite directions, just motioned everyone to fall in. Which we did.

I had a debate about taking my charms, as they cost me quite a bit in power and materials to make. But if I took so much as one, it compromised the circle. And that circle might save a life, or even several. So I left them.

The slips holding the charms wouldn't even degrade in the weather; not even the worst rainstorm. I did good work. And I carefully stomped down on my feelings of regret over leaving them. I could always make more. Well, at least one full batch more. Hopefully we would get to a town where I could restock some of my precious metals; they made good bindings.

I had to work pretty hard to keep up; the pace being set away from the gloomy forest and towards the relatively less gloomy forest was almost a jog. Ethan was even trying to push the pace a little, by jogging himself. As for me, I didn't think it necessary. The phantom sounds and images had dissipated like so much mist in the sunlight. It was safe.

Well, ghost safe, at any rate. Though come to think of it, we hadn't seen anything alive since yesterday. To be fair, we hadn't been looking all that hard, but we'd only seen birds. Birds I was not seeing or hearing so far this morning. My own raven did not count.

Nothing scrabbling about in the underbrush either. Plenty of insects though.

And then just as I was about to quote a movie where an alien comes down to Earth to hunt people in true one-liner fashion, a flock of starlings took off. A large flock, several hundred strong, and headed directly away from the ghost town, as we were. My ears started to twitch with all the sudden sounds of re-awakened life.

No one else seemed to be catching on, but everyone had breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the starlings. I deemed it safe to let my raven scout. Of course no sooner did that happen than he had to dodge a hawk, going after breakfast. My raven was smart enough to dodge at least. The starlings, not so much, but that was nature, and no concern of mine.

The road widened out and signs of recent use became more frequent. Fresh cart wheels and spoor from beasts of burden, mostly. I wondered when the last time I had seen an ox was. I would certainly see one soon; that was ox crap sitting right on the road.

The forest also started to clear, but not into plains. Instead the trees faded into worked land, with wheat, corn, and beans on either side as far as the eye could see. Broken up by houses dotted amongst the fields like stars in the night sky. Each field had a fence or posts marking the boundary of it, and for the most part they were small compared to the farms I was used to. Not that I had seen the status of farming lately, I'd been too busy.

But now I could see the image brought home; without the labor saving devices of our machines (our past, I thought with a sense of irony), without tractors and intricately made metal plows and the other things we had developed, there were many more farmers needed to work a given plot of land than we had been used to for at least a century.

And if a Feudal system was back in place around here, then most of them would be starving come winter.

But I had seen no evidence of that in the last two towns; there was very much a sense of 'you earn it, it's yours' about food and goods both from the last two (inhabited) towns. but if this situation we were in was persistent, how long would that last? The older systems from earlier eras were very much the ancestors of modern day protection rackets. Not so good in the 21st century, where people's rights were respected. But very good for dark age or early Renaissance tech and systems, when rights only belong to the strong.

I'd know when we hit the first city; which should be tomorrow given our pace. There would be no village within easy reach today, unless geography were markedly different.

With a mental shrug, I waved to those farmers throwing up hesitant waves our direction. If they were friendly to people they no longer recognized, that was a good sign. Of course, the general settled nature of the land without any form of oversight for things coming out of the woods was a little odd, but much as I wanted to break ranks and go ask about it, the look on Karl's face stopped me.

His face was taut and thoughtful. Come to think of it, the farmers stayed seemed to be staying well out of yell range... or bowshot. Wonder why that was? Matt just looked worried, when he looked back my direction. Ethan was oddest of all; as pale as he had been when back in the haunted forest. I really hoped he didn't know anything I didn't. The farmers I had seen thus far were all human, but surely that was just coincidence, right?

There had to be Elf and Dwarf farmers somewhere, right?

For that matter, there had to be Elven and Dwarven controlled lands. It was a fantasy world given. So where were they? I didn't have a clue, save for one small nagging feeling that spoke to me almost like the old movie I vaguely remembered; “Go west, young man, go west.” Except I wasn't a man anymore. What I needed to find, and hadn't really been able to before I left home, was a map.

A map, like any of the books I had owned, would have been altered to show the new world we were now a part of, right? So if so, then a map would answer many of the questions about where we were and how we got there. It might even answer a few on how this all happened.

But maps were usually more rare than books if this world followed ours in tech level and such. Only the truly wealthy of the age could afford well drawn hand made maps. But then, if a map was a map was a map, and simply changed... wouldn't we have several per person just lying around? I mean Rand McNally printed maps should be just as good now as anything else. But most of those had been stored in car glove compartments... and cars were horses now, right?

I missed seeing any horses with glove compartments, let alone maps. Argh but this was infuriating! For every thing I remembered, every idea considered, it felt as if there was a counter to it. And I bet, I just bet, that Karl already considered the map thing, and if I open my mouth I'd look like an idiot. And of course here I was, worrying myself silly over stupid thoughts I couldn't answer right now. I was doing more than looking like an idiot lately.

Pulling out my journal with the intention to sketch and make notes on my questions brought up another of the same; namely, we all still knew how to read, didn't we? Literacy was pretty much taken for granted in our society, with 98% of all of us knowing how to do it. I knew how, and in more than one language. Matt knew how. Pastor Collins had to know how, in order to read the tenets of his faith. But did we all?

Yet another question to put into the journal for another time. Hopefully a time not too distant.

The further we hiked, the more settled the land got. The less wild. And the more uneasy I felt. So I almost jumped when the men in armor appeared in the distance, still perhaps a mile away when my eyes picked them out. They were fully armed and armored, wearing long chain mail shirts with greaves, and sported spears, short-swords, and large daggers.

There were twelve of them, and they were being led by a man on horseback clad in splint mail and bearing a large curved sword. A scimitar perhaps, but it looked a bit too large to be one. It was hard to tell at this distance. They seemed to be dressed alike, as a cohesive party, but it was hard to tell. But then again...

“You all see that?”

Karl responded.

“See what?”

“The party of armed men on the road ahead of us. They look like uniformed troops.”

Seeing the hint of hope in their eyes I cursed my traitor tongue and amended my words.

“Well, troops from the dark ages or so at least. Not U.S. army or anything awesome like that.”

Seeing the fleeting hope dash itself on the rocks of reality hurt, just a little. But still I had to steer this conversation to fruitful ground.

“Well at least now we know why the farmers don't seem too worried, I think.”

“Oh?”

I nodded almost to myself, watching carefully and making sure before I replied.

“Yep, no one is making any moves to run or avoid them, so they aren't likely to be criminals. Uniform equipment marks them out as an armed force, and the greetings from the farmers ahead of us marks them as friendly.”

Or at least friendly to the farmers. I tended to doubt they were dangerous to us on principle, but these were interesting times, after all. I certainly wouldn't discount it.

“Well do we relocate and let them go by, or do we walk on?”

Matt put it nicely, but I could tell he wanted to hide. It was pointless though, and I proved it by pointing at the farmers, who had been keeping track of us the entire time; no doubt in order to stay away from us. But they knew where we were now, and unless we wanted to commit murder and flee they would be able to direct any pursuit our way.

Karl hadn't even asked; he just kept squinting forward with a frown creasing his face. I don't think his eyes were in the best shape, it was pretty obvious he couldn't see the troops and wanted to. Come to think of it. It looked like I was the first to see them, and they still weren't in range. Oops, couldn't everyone else see this far? Yet another question for the book.

At any rate, it took a good fifteen minutes of both of us marching towards each other before we met. And well before that we all got a much better look at them.

Their armor was all shiny steel chain mail without a single speck of rust. They also all wore matching helmets, full one with a face cut into them and a nose piece. I wasn't sure what they were called, but they reflected the sun as well as any mirror. They had the same burnished greaves and armguards. They were even roughly the same height (too darn tall, or about 6 feet each) and their weapons could have been stamped from a mold. Unfortunately I couldn't make out much in the way of features, as the helms prevented that.

Their leader however, didn't wear one. His bare head was open to the sun and his hair bleached blonde from it's rays. At least I assumed that was what it was from... it certainly looked like it. His face was open but creased with old cares, but his blue eyes sparkled with vitality. He could have been anywhere from 25 to 45; it was just hard to tell.

He didn't look to be suspicious of us, just riding right up on that large shaggy corn colored roan of his. His splint mail gathered more light than the chain mail though, and I was forced to squint my eyes almost shut when he got close. His sword felt as if it had power, and up close was just as big an enigma as it was from a distance.

They all wore matching emblem patches on their sleeves, a shield and crossed spears (which seemed a little generic to me). The man on the horse also wore another patch that was three simple yellow lines. So he was the officer of course, as if I needed more confirmation.

They all had less road dust on them than we did, and hid their curiosity somewhat well, though I seemed to be drawing every eye. Could they see my ears or something? My hair should be covering them....

“Well met friends! And who might you all be?”

I really should have suspected that big, bluff, hale and hearty type voice and forced tone. The smile didn't fully reach his eyes, even though his soldiers seemed to be keeping their weapons well away from us and any misunderstandings.

As I had been told to do, I let Karl do the talking. Let him screw things up with the locals, I wouldn't care. Much.

“We are travelers from the village of Solace, beyond Shrewsberry; an expedition to discover what the hell exactly is going on, basically. I am Karl, this is Phil, Tom, Ethan, pastor Collins, Randolf, Matt, and Lady Muse.”

Understanding crossed his face like the sunlight itself as he shifted in his saddle.

“Ahh, another one of those. Well you're as welcome as the rest of them, but I can't promise you'll get much in the way of answers. I'm Harry, and this is my squad of merry men. We all used to be police for Toledo, which you are not far from. I must admit to being curious about what you've seen, since you are the first expedition to come from this particular direction; we've had several from the North, South, and East already.”

“Well a dozen or so miles back is the town of Georgetown. It's... well, in a nutshell, it's haunted somehow. If anyone else made it through before us, I would be very much surprised. We only made it because of our mage here.”

He spared me a second appraising look and a courtly bow while he was still on his horse, which is quite the trick.

“Ahh yes, the famous Lady Muse, who commands the elements. You have quite the reputation my dear! I see at least some of it is well deserved.”

Was he flirting with me? It certainly sounded like it. And that was all kinds of shudder worthy. But hopefully I was misreading that. And wait a sec, how would I have a reputation of any kind past my home town? I had been to Toledo before, but no one there knew me from Adam. And he knew I had some control of the elements. Certainly sounded like he knew me. My phantom reputation had spread pretty far.

“You know of me? How, exactly?”

His hearty grin gained an undertone of someone who knew a secret that he wouldn't share.

“Well, somehow, the people who can work true magic at a certain level are known to us all. Tell me, have you heard of Stick?”

And like a light bulb in my mind, the image went off; a stick thin old man given to wearing flowing gray robes who knew some of the secrets of conjuring and enchanting. He worked out of an old pile of bricks tower in the middle of downtown Toledo.

Of course, Toledo didn't have such a tower last time I was here, but I knew it did now, with the same certainty that I knew the sun rose in the East. Which would have been confusing I guess if it didn't anymore.

“I see your point.”

“I take it you have not had much in the way of more worldly interactions as yet; those of us in larger cities spent much of our first day thoroughly confused, as multiple associations such as that one were made one after the other. For example, Toledo does not have a Mayor anymore... we have a duke. Which I will now direct you to see, so that all your questions may be answered.”

“Not going to take us personally?”

He shook his head, smile still in place.

“Not at all, just take this badge here' – he handed it to Karl after a short hesitation; I could tell he wanted to hand it to me – 'and when you make it to the gates hand the guards that and tell them Harry sent you. Chances are they would let you in anyway, but I want to make sure. The more magic users we have working on why this happened, the better, to my thinking. After all, if this isn't magic, then what is?”

Something about that last statement struck me as wrong, but I conceded the point until later. I caught Karl motioning us out of the corner of my eye. I looked over to find my group already stepping to one side of the road, so I hurried to do the same so I wouldn't look like a jerk.

“Alright, just follow the road then I take it?”

“Yes, just follow the road and show the badge at the gate. If you have no further question, we will just be on our way? We need to patrol this road and see where it leads. Orders are orders are orders, after all.”

Wait, hadn't he heard us?

“But A good 6 hours from here, you'll hit the boundaries of Georgetown. We weren't kidding, it's haunted somehow. We even posted signs. It's dangerous.”

“I'm sure it is, but there are towns and outposts that belong to the great kingdom of Ohier there, and our orders are to find them or find out what's become of them.”

The kingdom of Ohier; a somewhat back woods kingdom of the lands of man, stretching to the border of wild country and then... Elven lands? So we were far to the East of Elf lands? What did that mean for places like California and Oregon? Did other places have Elf lands, like Britain or France?

I shook my head clear as Harry looked on, amused.

“Remembering where you come from?”

“Sort of. Look, if you absolutely must go past the signs we laid out, camp at the campsite we used, the charms should protect you, and then book it using the path, not the road. And by all that's good in the world, don't stop until you hit Shrewsberry, even should you find yourselves traveling at night.”

That took the wind out of his sails. I felt gratified to finally get past his happy go lucky demeanor. And then ashamed of feeling that; I was a horrible person sometimes.

“Any other hints of advice?”

“Yes; beware of dinosaurs. We had one attack us, and it required sorcery to defeat, or at least easily defeat. Came right through our town and tried to eat the residents, first day. If you see one before it sees you, hide.”

He nodded, glancing back at his men, whose visible features were beginning to look a little green.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head. I wanted to tell them about my suspicions on the roaming Orcs and the zombie encounter, but I didn't think his men would be able to take it after everything else.

“Um, no, that's everything. Good luck, Harry. See you again soon.”

You never know, he might survive. Though with the lack of magic users on their side (I sensed only a few small charms and the sword, and nothing the troops wore screamed 'mage' to me) I suspected they were going to die. Though if they made it to Solace, our town would take good care of them.

And with a jaunty wave he led his now much more slowly marching band of merry men off in pursuit of adventure and destiny. Which may or may not include a fast, grisly death. Once off the road we continued our own trek.

I rapidly noticed right off that the farmers in the local vicinity were no longer steering clear of us, and when I waved more than a few of them returned it with some show of enthusiasm. I was gladdened that the farmers were paying attention and smarter than they looked. That and the fact that they trusted their own armed forces or militia or whatever they were now.

That said, it gave me hope that now when I gave the warning I needed to give, it would be respected and welcomed. It took almost no time at all to single out the one I thought I needed to find; an older man with gray hair directing a few others in the tilling of a field with old school rakes and hoes.

“Hold on guys. Need to do something really quick.”

I broke ranks and vaulted the fence separating the road from the farmland, confusing my party. At least they stopped. And they shouldn't be confused, they had seen the same things I had, for craps sake.

As soon as I had vaulted the fence all work had ceased, and the old man and his staff? Family? There did seem to be a bit of resemblance there – were watching me, tools held in not quite firm grips and not quite hostile stances. In response I kept my hands in plain sight and spoke first.

They were typical of the people I'd seen in the role recently. Lined and careworn faces along with not quite clean hair, dusty clothes and wary expressions. One of the workers was a girl no more than eight years old, who was staring at me with something more akin to awe than caution.

“Hello.”

The old man's response was terse and just shy of rude in tone.

“Hello. Can I help you?”

I had to say it all quick and at once, or it would likely be misinterpreted. So I rushed it.

“Yes, I was hoping you would do me a favor and pass on a warning to the people around here. Almost a day's travel back west along the road is the town of Georgetown. It's haunted somehow. I'd strongly advise against heading that direction past the signs I posted near the road. If you could tell all your friends and neighbors, I'd really appreciate it.”

His face had opened up by the time I finished and took a breath. His family (I was sure now) had followed suit.

“We can do that. Thank you for the warning.”

“You're welcome. There is a safe path if you have business or family beyond Georgetown; you just have to be careful to stick to the trail and not enter the town itself. We came from Solace ourselves, and made it through in good shape. But it is something to be aware of. Good luck in your endeavors”

And the old man bowed. Literally bowed to me. The little girl was doing her best fish impression and reaching an obviously forgotten grimy hand my way. It was time to get out of here before the Twilight Zone gremlins came in.

“Thank you, Lady. Good day to you, and I'll see the word gets out.”

I wasted no time, throwing a 'thanks' over my shoulder as I ran. Not the best speed I could make, but I wanted some distance before the family started worshiping me as their new goddess or something. I could still feel their eyes on my back, and it was giving me a rash.

Of course the peanut gallery had things to say when I got back to them.

“So, what was that all about? Wanted to tell them you like their banjos? Or admire the crude tools?”

Thomas was a jerk. And classist, if that was a term.

“If you must know, I was warning them, same as I did the squad we just met. The last thing I want to have happen is some random kid or farmer go into the woods chasing a horse or something, and get eaten by Georgetown somehow. The old guy is likely one of the respected members of the community and will spread the word.”

He snickered and I knew I was in for it.

“Oh? I just thought you were flirting with your new potential boyfriend.”

What the literal hell. Was he 12 or something? Was I traveling with children now? Phil sealed the deal:

“You certainly looked like you were flirting; 'Good luck, Harry! Come back soon so I can rustle your jimmies!'”

I didn't even know what that meant, but I knew it couldn't be anything good. I could guess at least. Every single day, it was something. I might well have to give one of them the toad treatment, just to teach them the meaning of respect. Karl shut that thought down.

“Enough you morons. Let's just go. The sooner we get going the sooner we can get our answers.”

And he started off at a pace just under a jog, forcing us to shut up and follow. Ethan clapped a hand to my back as he walked by in a comradely gesture that caused me to stumble. He didn't grin at that though. Friends in adversity, I guess. Matt was a little more gentle, but did the same thing, for the same reason. At least his wouldn't leave a bruise.

We walked in time with the creeping sun, silently. I for one, was enjoying the fresh scents of sage and wildflowers in the brisk breeze and bright light unobstructed by any trees. I didn't mind the gloom of the forest, but there was no substitute for the warmth and light. I really wanted to just lie in it and soak it up for an hour or so, but I knew that would go over well.

This area actually seemed pretty safe; at least nothing jumped out at us. The farmers didn't seem to be worried at all, going about business as usual; well as usual as their business could be without tractors or power tools.

And then just as the sun set, we came upon a break in the monotony of fields dirt and road dust. An oasis in the desert, a comforting glade in a forest, a sure sign of comforting civilization... An inn.

Comments   

0 # Horrid 2016-11-09 18:57
Your second installment of "D Ps + Ds" was enjoyed, Nagrij. Thank you very much. More chapters are greatly anticipated. Hopefully, this project will not delay your eagerly-awaited Whateley Second Gen postings. Maybe some of your excellent Fan Fiction from the late and much missed old website will be on this excellent new site someday as well? Sorry to present you with such a long wish list. Take your time and once again thank you. :-)
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