A Scythe in Time: Part 3
Reality is a big, nasty, vicious dragon, but I don't believe in dragons.

        "Where's Ferdie?" Ferdia's voice was alarmed, and with good reason: while the stone monstrosities showed no inclinations of leaving the shrine's protective circle, they also showed no signs of returning to their former posts. The group was scattered amongst the trees some fifty feet from the circle – just out of sabre-range – and a vocal role-call had just revealed her brother's absence.

        The others craned their necks, trying to peer around the wall of golems to see if Ferdie had squirreled himself away somewhere within. Iiwi fidgeted uncomfortably, fighting an inner battle between instincts that wanted to scope out the area from the air and those that wished to keep both feet firmly on the ground, where the effects of the magnetically-induced vertigo were a little less harmful. Lita, however, had other ideas.

        "No sign of him," the rabbit called from her perch in the uppermost branches of a nearby tree, "and no grease stains that might have been him, either."

        "Oh, well, that's a big relief!" Ferdia snarled, glaring up at the teen.

        "I really don't see him," Lita shrugged, ignoring the Death Glare, "He must be hiding somewhere."

        "Oh, well, if he's hiding, he'll be fine," Bob nodded.

        "Provided nothing finds him, that is," he amended.

        Ferdia watched as one of the golems smashed a boulder with its sword. The boulder, which had apparently gotten a bit too fresh in its game of pounce, shattered into tiny fragments and crumbled away. As if to make a point, the golem ground said crumbled fragments to dust. Several nearby boulders cautiously sidled away to the dubious safety of the bushes twenty feet away.

        Ferdie was safe as long as he was hiding, she reminded herself. He was a professional, after all. He could out-coward anyone she knew.

        From deep within the temple rose the long, lingering note of a single, soul-wrenchingly terrified scream.

        Squeaks managed to catch her in a nelson as she broke into a dead run for the circle. Given the ease with which a single golem had casually dispatched one of the larger boulders, this move probably saved her life. It also would have endangered the mouse a great deal, had Lita not at that moment spotted Ferdie, far from danger, streaking for cover.

        To the bluebird's credit, he made short work of the golems. Mistaking his blind panic for berserker rage, many backed away; those that didn't quickly discovered an interesting quirk of physics: namely, that Force may be equal to Mass times Acceleration, but where professional cowards are concerned you must raise that product by an exponential of several thousand. The hulks of animated granite that found themselves in Ferdie's path were quickly reduced to bits of animated rubble, and were quite confused at this development.

        There was no time to celebrate his escape, however, for even as Ferdie tore past them at near supersonic speeds – sending Drake into the stratosphere when the Duck failed to dive aside quickly enough – the grounds of the temple began to tremble and heave in a massive earthquake. As the temple shattered, the rest of the group decided that fleeing post-haste just might be the best thing to do if you fancied living to see tomorrow.

        The temple dragon was definitely *not* a morning person.

        If you asked Newton what it was he liked best about his wandering lifestyle, he would probably regale you with tales of hidden wonders, charming villages, and the lure of the open road. He might even mention the health benefits of an active lifestyle and living without excess. He probably would *not* mention rainy nights spent huddled on the damp earth, the dismay of food supplies spoiling miles from anywhere you could replenish them, or the occasional nerve-wracking escape from pitchfork-wielding mobs.

        Bandits were another matter entirely. Highwaymen like the filthy, plague-ridden rats currently before him were without question the thing Newton disliked most about his chosen path - mostly because they unfailingly brandished sharp, rusty swords and he himself generally had neither sword nor coinage. And he'd be damned if he'd give them his horse.

        In fact, as he backed his mount up to keep the ruffians from completely surrounding him, Newton couldn't help remarking how terribly common bandits were becoming. It was getting so he could hardly travel from one town to the next without at least one band trying to waylay him. It was rather tiresome. No wonder, he realized, your average traveler heads out as part of a group.

        Newton, of course, nearly always found his journeys solitary ones. Not for any fault of his own, mind you - the young lizard was amiable, fairly hygenic, a decent cook, and never failed to pay his portion of the bill whenever possible. He didn't brawl, didn't gamble, and had the sense to steer clear of disreputable-looking women. Nor was his solitude brought on by an unusual destination - while he preferred to avoid cities, as a wanderer Newton seldom had any preference as to where he was going. He would gladly have joined any party, regardless of destination, and yet no party would have him.

        For, you see, Newton was a wizard. And everyone knew wizards meant trouble.

        The average peasant couldn't tell you the difference between a sorcerer, a wizard, and a warlock for all the gold in the kingdom. To them, the only relevant fact was that all three were mages, which put them on the same level as witches. And, generally speaking, witches were widely viewed as an excellent substitute for kindling wood in local religious ceremonies. On the whole, magic-users were seen as heretics, meddling in God's domain and divining things no mortal was meant to know. It didn't matter whether their power was used for good, evil, personal amusement, or not at all - the end result was the same.

        Not that this did anything to stem the flow of mages. It simply made them more cautious. The first thing every apprentice learned was that most of the populous is either out to squelch magic-users or press them into service as war mages. The second thing they learned was that a mage's most valuable possession is his staff. Interestingly enough, Newton's free-roaming nature had – as far as he was concerned - proven this particular tenant false. A magical staff was all well and good as a walking stick, and came in handy in a pinch when you needed something to throw at an errant pack of ravenous wolves, but was far from a mage's most valuable possession. A mage's most valuable possession - at least if he were a wanderer of Newton's caliber - was a very fast horse.

        "Oi!" the rat before him yelled, advancing menacingly, "Stop wit' the backin' away, an' hand over all yuir gold!"

        Belatedly, Newton realized he was backing towards the forest, not the aft part of the road. He would have to dart within striking distance to get back on the dirt path, and even a horse as fast as Newton's could not outrun a crossbow bolt. He drew himself up, trying to look taller. "I'm afraid I haven't any gold to give you," he stated, making a shooing motion in hopes it would drive them away, "Stand aside, now, I must be off. I'm sure you'll happen across more obliging travelers further down the road."

        He'd hoped the haughty tone of his voice, along with the fact that he was obviously a wizard, would cow them into submission. It didn't work. The bandits looked at him as if he'd suddenly grown horns, and if anything planted their feet more firmly into fighting stance.

        "See here, now," he blustered, tossing his head and craning his neck in an effort to look like something approaching imposing, "I'm a wizard. If you don't stand aside, I'll make you regret it."

        Several rats looked a bit worried at this, hesitating as they rethought the whole attack-the-wizard thing. A few, perhaps having seen or at least heard of the exploits of war mages, actually went as far as to back up a step and rummage about their filthy rags for warding talismans and protective charms. One or two even muttered prayers or holy oaths for shields and divine protection. Their leader – a mangy ground squirrel who looked to be the sort who not only cheats Death, but knocks Him unconscious and steals His purse - growled something about not fearing heathen witchery and continued to advance on Newton, undaunted. Rallied by their leader's courage, the rest of the band fell into step once again.

        This called for drastic measures. Newton cast about his memory for a spell. Any old spell would do, really, though he would rather prefer one of the shorter, simpler ones with very few words and associated gestures, seeing as how he was likely to be shot as soon as the bandits realized he was casting. A fireball would be nice, but it would only take care of the bandits to one side, leaving the others open to turn him into a crossbow bolt pin-cushion, which he'd really rather avoid. No, what he needed was a sudden gust of wind.

        He let his grip on the reins relax, drawing his arms back imperceptibly and focusing his mind on the spell. As he concentrated on calling magical energy in his hands, his horse backed up of its own accord, snorting nervously. This alerted the bandits to the impending magic, and they in turn charged the wizard.

        By that time, however, they were too late. Newton raised his hands before him, and with a triumphant cry of "Burst Wind!" brought them down in a slicing motion. Instantly, a gale-force wind blasted down from above the wizard, radiating out from his position and quite effectively clearing the road of everything in a twenty-foot radius not firmly rooted to the ground. The bandits were knocked off their feet and sent hurtling a good twelve feet away.

        Newton, safely in the eye of the brief gale, gazed about in wonder, surveying the brief spell's handiwork as a huge grin spread across his face. He clapped his hands, applauding his work and laughing with delight. "It worked!" he cried triumphantly, "Hurrah!" He threw his arms up in celebration.

        Something whirred swiftly past his head, thunking into the tree behind him just above his left ear. Puzzled, he turned to look at the object, realizing what it was an instant before another crossbow bolt buried itself in the bark just above the first.

        Right. Bandits. Angry bandits, who had just been thrown a goodly distance by his spell and were not all of them unconscious or unarmed.

        Well, that was that. Only one thing to do now.

        Grabbing up the reins, he spurred his horse into a run, dodging crossbow bolts for what seemed like eternity before finally slipping out of firing range.

        He had nearly reached the safety of the Enchanted Wood when something slammed into him from above.

        Dibs watched with malevolent glee as a flurry of white feathers plowed into the fleeing wizard, unhorsing him and sending him tumbling to the ground. His mount slowed, puzzled by the sudden absence of its rider, and plodded back to nose the crumpled form of its master.

        Dibs was no fool. Well, not by highwayman standards, anyway. He and his remaining fellow bandits advanced on their quarry slowly, in case the wizard's unconsciousness was simply a ruse to lure them back into firing range again. Dibs didn't feel like getting hit with another spell, and was fairly certain his fellows felt the same way. Who knew what the lizard was capable of? A rain of fire? A plague of locusts?

        Perhaps he'd even sink so low as to turn them all into fluffy white rabbits, and sell them to roadside conjurers! Dibs had heard tales of such wanton fiends. Wizardry was just witchcraft in trousers, if you asked him, and no good could possibly come from it.

        No doubt about it, the first thing he was going to do when they reached that heathen wizard was bind and gag him, so they could kill the devil-worshipping fiend at their leisure. He wondered if wizards burned as well as witches, or if perhaps more mundane methods like hanging, flaying, stoning, or burying alive were more appropriate. Dibs supposed he would simply lay out all the options to the wizard once he awoke - no doubt the one he showed the most horror and fear at was their best bet.

        The second thing Dibs was going to do when he got over there was figure out where the wizard's assailant had come from. It was as if the duck had plummeted right out of the sky.

        Newton awoke with a start. Another advantage to his chosen way of life was that one soon mastered the knack of never losing consciousness for long. This tended to prevent all sorts of nastiness, such as falling out of trees, getting eaten by wolves, being murdered in your sleep, and so on. In this particular case, it treated him to the view of a long brown muzzle as his horse nudged him awake.

        Which just goes to show how truly valuable a wizard's horse can be. Let's see a stick to *that*, eh?

        In the distance, he could hear the crunch of dirt underfoot as the bandits advanced. Shoving aside the weight that had knocked him to the ground, Newton leapt to his feet and grabbed hold of the horse's saddle. Before he could mount up, however, a crossbow bolt whizzed by just shy of his snout. Reflexes honed by years of avoiding painful death kicked in, and he leapt back to avoid the carefully-aimed second bolt that followed the first one. This took him out of the bolt's path, but also cost him his balance, as he tripped over the sack of feathers that had started this mess and tumbled to the ground again.

        The bandits were closer than he'd thought - and from the looks of them, they weren't taking any chances as far as he was concerned. He couldn't move without a bolt whizzing by, subtly suggesting his life expectancy would be drastically reduced should he make any move that even remotely looked to be a spell cast. Still, his chances of survival at the bandit's mercy were slim at best; he began forming a concentrated ball of magic in one hand, carefully keeping it out of sight. As he did so, the wall that had slammed into him was slowly coming to. It was perhaps a testament to his usefulness that all the duck could do aside from gawk at the approaching bandits was groan and hold his head.

        "So," began Dibs, savoring the anxious look on the wizard's face as he found himself without means of escape. "Aboot that gold..."

        "I really don't have any," the wizard said, cringing away from the dagger at his throat, "No silver, gems, or amulets, either."

        "We'll jest have t' take th' horse, then," grinned the rat to Dibs' left, reaching for the creature's reins. The horse gazed at him inquisitively for a moment, then with a degree of deliberation reached over and clamped down on the rat's hand. Screaming captive firmly held in place, it proceeded to shake its head violently, tearing cloth and sinew while keeping the rat in a vice-like grip. Satisfied its victim had learned their lesson and place in the world, it released the rat with a satisfied toss of its head, snorting derisively.

        "Careful," smirked the wizard, "He bites."

        "I kin' *see* that!" Dibs snarled from the safety of several feet away. He'd retreated at the horse's outburst, fearing it was a diversionary tactic the wizard used to catch people off guard. "I've 'alf amind t' just *shoot* the damned beast roight 'ere an' n- *Oi!* Where are *yoo* goin'?"

        The duck paused, turning back to Dibs as if he weren't entirely certain he was being addressed. "Me?"

        "Yar, *thee*. We're in th' midst of a robbery, 'ere, an' dun go on thinkin' yoo kin jes' skedadle away wit'out payin' jes' cuz yoo fell fromma sky!" a red-brown rat berated him, waving his dagger around to remind the duck just who was armed here.

        This seemed to work to an extent. The duck considered the situation. "But I don't have any money," he finally replied.

        "What?!?" This was really starting to rub Dibs. First a wizard, then a duck that fell from the sky, both with no money!! Didn't anyone in the realm carry a purse anymore?!?

        "Here, now," the duck at least had the decency to look worried, "I'm certain my friends can give you some money..." Cupping his hands around his beak, he turned to the woods and shouted. "Ace! Iiwi? Anyone? I need some help over here!"

        "Oi! What're you doin?!?" Dibs yelped, training a crossbow on the duck even as his fellow robbers muzzled the dolt, "D'ye want someun' t' hear us?!"

        "That was the general idea," came the muffled reply.

        "Well, stoppit!" Dibs snarled, cuffing the bird with his crossbow. "Now, then," he continued, "What should I do wit' you two?"

        "I propose letting us go," said the wizard. Dibs swung around to find the lizard had used the bandits' momentary distraction all too well. Standing far enough away to dodge any shots they might fire at him, the wizard grinned darkly, the glowing orb of energy gathered between his hands promising a mage-bolt of some kind should anyone become a bother.

        "Dun' even move, wizard!" the vole holding the duck roared, raising his dagger to the stranger's throat, "Ye so much as *start* wit' that mumbo-jumbo witchery again, and I'll slit 'im where 'e stands!"

        Dibs took a quiet moment to contemplate why he associated with blokes so thick as to threaten a wizard brandishing a fully-prepared spell. He came to the conclusion that said highwaymen were typically cheap, plentiful, and willing to trust his sense of math when it came to divying up their treasure. It most assuredly was *not* because such individuals had the sort of high turnover rates generally attributed to dragon-slayers. He inched unobtrusively further from the group, readying himself for a quick dash into the brush as soon as the mage-bolts started flying.

        The standoff continued. The wizard was quick to counter any overt attempts by the bandits to scatter, and the bandits - just bright enough to realize that the nastier mage-bolts tended to have a narrow firing range - continued to subtly separate themselves from their brethren.

        "Hey, wossat?" their young lookout queried, pointing urgently above them.

        Every last highwayman - and the duck - looked up. The wizard didn't. "I'm not about to fall for something as simple-minded as that, " the lizard chided. Dibs had to admire the lookout for trying.

        "No, I mean it, there's summat up there!" the lad protested.

        "I dun' see nuthin'," the horse-bitten rat grumbled, "Jes' clouds, is all."

        "Oi! There 'tis! By that there cloud there!" another yelled.

        The wizard was still watching them like a hawk, spell at the ready. Figuring he really had nothing to lose, Dibs risked a glance up. There *was* something up there besides the clouds. Above them, actually. Eagles flew at that height, but the shadows thrown on the clouds were larger than any eagle's. Dibs squinted up at the sky. Something big and reddish...

        ...Once upon a time, Dibs had come across a child's storybook in the carriage of a nobleman he was busily robbing. Dibs, like most common folk, couldn't read, but had taken the book anyway, because it had soft pages and interesting pictures. One of those pictures came to mind now, along with half-remembered tales overheard in a tavern once.

        "DRAGON!" somebody shouted.

        Dibs frowned as his men began to panic. "Dun be redickerous," he chided them, "Thar's too small t' be a dragon." Dragons, at least in his pilfered (and long since outhoused) storybook, were the size of taverns, covered in scales, and the hosts of long, winding tails.

        "Ah," his fellows chorused, sighs of relief spreading across their features.

        A sharp shriek sounded from the clouds as the distant figure among them folded its wings and dove at them like a hawk, looking every bit the part of another mythological monster. Vaguely, Dibs remembered he had passed the storybook around to some of the fellows still breathing alongside him. What were the odds of them recognizing...

        Every last bandit's eyes grew wide with terror. "HARPY!!" they shrieked, scrambling for cover. Not satisfied with the nearby shrubbery, they settled on a mad dash for the horizon, hitting the road at a dead run.

        As the bandits fled, tearing past him without even a hint of attempted malice, Newton allowed himself to look up at the cause of their panic, intrigued. Scholar that he was, he knew harpies were merely creatures of myth, nothing more. And besides, they were supposed to be dull-colored scavengers, not high-flying scarlet blurs. He turned to the duck before him, letting the charged ball of magic dissolve back into the air as he saw the duck was far from alarmed by the streaking entity above them - on the contrary, he was watching the bandits' retreat with a smug grin.

        "Is she a Phoenix?" Newton asked.

        "Huh?" The duck gave him a blank look

        "Up there," Newton pointed, "One of your friends? A Phoenix?"

        "What, Iiwi?"

        Iiwi leveled out of her dive a good thirty feet above the ground. The highwaymen were in full flight and showing no signs of turning back. The robed lizard near Drake didn't appear to be threatening him - in fact, he seemed to be staring up at *her*, and asking Drake something. Certainly not acting like a threat. She harried the fleeing bandits a bit, swooping down to rake about their heads and shoulders, snapping her wings at just the right point to send small gusts of wind whipping around their heels, where it whipped the loose dirt into swirling clouds of dusts. Once she was satisfied the fleeing men weren’t about to turn back around again, she banked into an updraft and set a return flight path for the region of the forest the others were in. Now that they'd found a road - and quite possibly a native with a map - there was no reason for them to continue bumbling about in the underbrush.

        "Onwards, ho!" Bob called, crashing through the underbrush just behind Beak, who was diligently hacking out a path with his lightsaber. "Don't worry, we're coming!"

        "He sounded a bit more to the east," Squeaks called from their left, waving the kiwis to a more accurate heading.

        "I still can't believe no one noticed he was missing," Beak marveled, slicing through a particularly recalcitrant vine.

        "Oh, some of us *noticed*," D'Gal slid into view alongside them, "we just didn't care to *report* it..."

        "As long as you're scouting point," Ivan yelled as the duck melted back into the shadows, "You might as well find my wards and set them on our new heading!"

        The group continued on in silence for a while, correcting their course every now and again with compasses that were very nearly functioning properly again. A whisper of wings announced Iiwi's return overhead.

        "Hey, guys!" she called down, "Good news! I've found Drake about a mile due east of here!"

        "How is that *good* news?" D'Gal queried from the trees somewhere ahead of them.

        "He's found a road!"

        "That'll be a nice change from more aimless wandering in the bush, I suppose," the duck grunted.

        "Any sign of the dragon?" Ferdie called nervously. Aside from a lot of fire-breathing and angry bellowing, the temple dragon hadn't done much in the way of chasing them before losing interest and flying off in the direction of the late village and dead armies. The monstrous creature's quick departure was just as well, though - it had taken quite a bit of searching to retrieve their terrified horse.

        "None whatsoever," Iiwi's voiced filtered down, "Drake's talking to a traveler or something, though. With luck, he'll be able to point out our location on the map!"

        "*Great*," intoned D'Gal, "Now we can wander aimlessly while tracking our progress."

        "Speaking of which," Ivan shouted, "Aren't you supposed to be tracking down my wards?!"

        Newton watched as the little Phoenix flew back to where the duck said their companions were. She circled the treetops for a few moments, then made her way back to them and did the last thing Newton expected a Phoenix to do. She landed.

        It was, simply put, less pyrotechnical than he had expected. Wings spread, tail feathers flared, she circled down slowly, alighting with a two-point landing noticeably lacking in thunderclaps and plumes of fire. After a moment, when he was reasonably certain she wasn't about to burst into flames, Newton stepped forward and dipped into a low, sweeping bow.

        "Newton Greenfield, Order of Merlin, Third Class," he introduced himself, bowing deeply.

        She bobbed, neatly mimicking - and at the same time mocking - his bow. "Iiwi Redbird, freelance detective, bounty hunter, and adventurer extraordinaire!"

        "How do you do?" Newton tried a polite half-bow this time. "Might I ask you a question?"

        "You just did!" she laughed.

        "Oh." He blinked. "Well, in that case, if you don't mind my asking, I thought Phoenixes weren't supposed to land? "

        She cocked her head, puzzled. "I don't see how that could work. What about when their wings got tired?"

        "What about it?"

        "Well, they'd have to land then, wouldn't they?"

        "That's what I was asking you!"

        "He thinks you're one of these Phoenix creatures," the duck supplied.


        "You are, aren't you? You've got a very high magical aura to you. And your wings – I've never seen – I-I just don't see how you could be anything else! A highly advanced shape-shifting mage, perhaps - but even so, maintaining a spell like that would take so much energy even an apprentice could sense you miles away!"

        "Ah." She smiled, tilting her head to one side. "Well, maybe I am, then."

        "Iiwi!" the duck gasped.

        "What? Who says a Flier isn't the same as a Phoenix, huh? You?"

        "Well...no, I guess not."

        "Great. Now, you planning on introducing yourself to Newt here?"

        "Actually, Miss -"

        The duck cut him off, looking rather sheepish. "Forgive my manners. Drake Dumaas, Platyrian Commander and Second in Command under Commodore Mallard."

        Newton fought down a sudden bought of panic. A commander? "You...you're with His Majesty's army?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice level. There were only two of them, after all. A quick Flare, a dash for his horse, and he'd be flying over the countryside again, danger safety left behind him.

        The duck shook his head. "Platyrian Navy, actually. On a bit of an, er, leave of absence at the moment, though," he added, as the wizard visibly breathed a sigh of relief. The navy, he could handle. Sailors tended to step lightly around those who could call down squalls from clear skies.

        The Phoenix smiled. "Drake's our bad luck charm."


        "Well, you *are*."

        "I concur."

        Newton spun around to locate the source of the concurring voice, noting as he did so the yelp of surprise it had elicited from the "bad luck charm" – who, apparently, decided to forgo locating the source of the voice and skip straight to yelling at it.

        "Would you stop lurking around in the shadows like that!!" Drake yelped.

        "I think not," D'Gal chuckled, coming into focus just inside the forest's edge. "One can hardly lurk about in broad daylight, after all. It ruins the mystique."

        "Hey!" another pair of voices echoed from within the forest, "Here they are! We found 'em!"

        Newton watched, speechless, as a small brown bird with a large wooden sign and a tall, lanky rabbit youth emerged from the trees, shouting and motioning behind them to compatriots who were, evidently, still in the woods. The rabbit's outlandish attire had the wizard searching his memory for a land where he'd seen similar wares – right up until he realized the youth was female, at which point his mind simply boggled.

        Which perhaps was just as well, given who emerged from the trees moments later.

        "Stand back – give him some air!" the Phoenix yelled.

        "That's not going to work! Somebody get some water!"

        "This is why contact with primitives is strictly forbidden!"

        "Right. Who's the one that made first contact here, eh?"

        "That is not the point!"

        "I've got the wa-oop! *splash!*"

        "You are *so* dead."

        "Litaaaaa! Give it back!"

        "We need more water!"

        "Aaaa! Call her off! Somebody call her off!"

        "Ivan! Control your ward!"

        "Hey, your brother should watch where he's going!"

        "Wait, I think he's coming around!"



        "But you said-"

        "It was for him! Not *us*!"

        "Well, how was I supposed to know that?!"

        "Bloody bunch of sava-OW!"

        "D'Gal! We agreed! No killing!"

        "He'll live."

        "For the love of all that is holy, somebody take the sign away from her!"

        "Lita-aaa! You're gonna break it!"

        Idly, Newton wondered whether or not the lunatics apparently surrounding him would get bored and leave if he just lay there long enough. Probably not, he decided. Somewhere in the chaos around him it sounded like at least one person was genuinely concerned for his welfare and not, therefore, about to leave him behind.

        He was also vaguely worried about what exactly they planned on doing with the water when and if it finally reached him. Wizards' robes were notoriously hard to dry once wet, and the lack of rain or rivers in his day's plans had led him to let the waterproofing spells lapse.

        Tentatively, he opened his eyes. The pandemonium around him continued unabated; no one seemed to notice his newfound consciousness. Most of the individuals clustered around his prone form were busy taking the black duck to task over something; others were patiently explaining something to a tall brown bird; still others were attempting to lure the rabbit girl away from the base of a tree. Over their shoulders, he could just make out the rapidly approaching form of the Phoenix, grasping a skein from his saddlebags that looked suspiciously full of water.

        "See here, now," he croaked, forcing himself up into a sitting position and commanding his inner Voice of Logic and Reason to stop screaming "Inconceivable!" like it knew what the word meant, "If I say I'm awake, would that get you lot to be quiet?"

        Arguments stopped mid-rant as all eyes turned to him. Off to the side, the rabbit even paused in her menacing of the tree – turning instead to give it a solid kick that brought a bluebird tumbling out of the branches and onto the rocky ground.

        "It might," smirked the black duck.

        Well, he had their attention, at least. Now if only his brain would stop screaming long enough to let him form a coherent thought...

        The silence stretched an uncomfortable length of time while the group watched him expectantly, waiting for him to speak. Finally, one of the party members decided to break the silence. Unfortunately, it was the one individual he was most assuredly not prepared to deal with yet.

        "Right, then. So," the bluebird nearest him began, producing a worn map from somewhere within her strange blue jerkin, "Ferdie's managed to get us lost-"

        "We were already lost," the crumpled blue mass beneath the tree groaned.

        "-he's managed to get us more lost," she continued, "Would you mind telling us where we are?"

        Newton's sanity was slowly gnawing its way through the straps his other senses had used to tie it down; his sense of reason had curled itself into a fetal position and was slowly rocking itself back and forth. Logic, however, was made of sterner stuff, and attempted to restore order by verifying a few facts.


        "Yeah," the bluebird nodded, "My brother." She inclined her head, indicating the bluebird that had fallen out of the tree and was currently dusting himself off, picking errant twigs and leaves off his person while keeping a wary eye on the rabbit.

        Sanity finished sawing its way through one leather strap and moved on to the next one.

        " 'Ferdie' as in 'Ferdinand'?"


        "As in his Royal Highness, Prince Ferdinand Waldorf Alfonzo da Birdie-"

        "NOT MY *FULL NAME*!!!" the dusty bluebird shrieked, tearing towards the group just in time for the final "of the Third Esquire."

        There was a titter of laughter through the group.

        "Ferdinand?" mused the tall brown bird, confused.

        "Waldorf?" the yellow bird puzzled.

        "Alfonzo!" snickered the gray bird, as the rabbit and small sign-toting brown bird struggled to stifle fits of laughter.

        "FONZIE!!" the Phoenix cried jubilantly, spreading her wings to embrace him.

        "Knock it off!" the bluebird yelled. "It's...just...Ferdie..." he growled through a clenched beak.

        His "sister," however, chose to focus on another aspect of this entirely. "His royal *what*?!?"

        Logic opted for a strategic withdrawal and began tiptoeing backward; Sanity, however, finally freed itself of the belted restraints and plunged headlong into the Abyss. Newton gazed up at the bluebird before him, attempting to discount her bizarre costume. "And you must be the fair Princess Ferdianna-"

        "The fair *what*?!?" she shrieked.

        "Ferdianna?" the mouse beside her puzzled.

        "Hrumpf," her brother huffed, "How come she doesn't get the third degree name recitation?" he demanded.

        "I'm lost," whimpered the tall brown bird. The look on his face as the rest of the group expressed similar sentiments strongly resembled that of a wounded deer staring at a pack of hungry wolves.

        "I'm ever so glad you're alive!" Newton gushed, oblivious to their confusion, "Rumor had it the Pale Knight had sacked the cloister you had taken refuge in!"

        "The who had sacked the where I had what-ed in?"

        "Forgive me. It's such a shock, seeing you traveling incognito like this! I trust your gallant brother rescued you just in time?"

        "My gallant what?" she blinked.

        "Rescued?" the mouse queried.

        "Ferdie?!?" the yellow bird boggled.

        "Ha!" the gray bird snickered, "That'll be the day!"


        Ferdie, oblivious to the most recent thread of the conversation, had taken the time to rewind the lizard's previous remarks and replay them in hopes they might make more sense the second time around.

        "Can we get back to that 'Royal Highness' bit?" he asked.

        "Absolutely, your Lordship," the lizard smiled, "What about it?"

        "That's what we'd like to know!" chorused the assembled party.

        The lizard blinked, staring at them with the sort of blank, incredulous gawk generally reserved for observing three-headed sheep or schools of rabid, man-eating goldfish. Then, in a voice that suggested quite a level of repressed hysteria, he started babbling about mages, amnesia, and barbarian hordes.


        D'Gal watched the scene with detached interest and idle amusement as the lizard rambled on about nobles and kingdoms and valiant deeds and treacherous warlords and any amount of other things. It was fairly entertaining. However, while the similarity in names was eerie, the rest of the lizard's story was beginning to sound like the ravings of a madman.

        Besides, he was getting bored. He wandered over to the lizard's grazing horse, engaging the creature in a quick glaring contest before it came to the conclusion that perhaps the ebony duck wasn't the sort to attempt mauling if one didn't wish to become paste. As the horse resumed its grazing, D'Gal took the opportunity to rifle through its saddlebags, on the off-chance of finding something of interest.

        What he found was a map of the kingdom, with a sketch of the royal family on the other side.

        "Look," Ferdia began, cutting the lizard off with a gesture of impatience, "You've got us mistaken for someone else. All we want is directions to the nearest inn so we don't have to spend another night sleeping on the ground!"

        "With all due respect, Your Highness, you and your brother are not well. These barbarians have *obviously* brainwashed you!"

        "They are not barbarians, and they have not brainwashed anyone!" Ferdia retorted.

        "You're the prince and princess of the realm!"

        "We are not!" she protested, "We're-"

        "-Dead ringers for them," D'Gal finished, dangling a charcoal portrait in front of her, "We're either on a parallel world, or that bloody idiot of a scientist knocked us over a dimension or two."

        "Newt didn't do anything!" Bob yelled, "You were the ones that messed up that machine!"

        "We knew what we were doing!” D'Gal shot back, “If you lot hadn't interfered-"

        "You'd be wreaking havoc on my world!" Drake seethed. "I'd much rather have us all stranded here than have you loose in Platyria!"

        "We were headed for Vyceria!"

        "A likely story!"

        "Sod off, eh? Our sun's about to collapse!"

        "Well, it's about time!"

        "Hey!" Ferdia yelled, diving between the two ducks and blocking the fist bound for Drake's beak with a quickly-drawn nightstick. It took some effort, but she and Squeaks (and several worried others) managed to force the two apart. "No killing! You promised!"

        "I promised not to kill him-" the duck began.

        "Or maim him," Beak prompted.

        "-I never said I wouldn't hurt him," D'Gal continued.

        "Huh," Drake snorted, "That's Vycerian logic for y-"

        "Enough, Drake," Squeaks cut in, scowling. "If you didn't keep provoking him, he wouldn't keep attacking you."





        The Duck sighed. "Fine, fine. Blame me, why don't you?" he grumbled, trudging away. "I'll be over here, minding my own business, in case anyone else wants to attack me..."

        “Woo-hoo!” Lita cheered, eagerly leaping to her feet, “Open invitation!”

        “Save it, Farlane,” Ivan sighed. The teen halted mid-bound, stomping her foot as she turned to face the gray kiwi with a pout. “No,” he repeated, “I don't care if he is asking for it.”

        "Oh dear," Newton murmured.

        "Don't mind them," Ferdia sighed, turning to explain the ducks' behavior to the lizard, "They're j-" she stopped, realizing that was not the source of the man's distress.

        Squatting beside the still-reclining lizard was Ferdie, proudly displaying the family photos in his wallet with a level of zeal and accompanying narrative normally reserved for only the most proud of grandparents.


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