A Scythe in Time: Part 7
Although fate presents the circumstances, how you react depends on your character.
They hiked the better part of the day, sticking to the forests and a few overgrown meadows rather than risking a chance encounter with soldiers or angry peasants on the road. The dragon was nowhere in sight but, as Newton explained, that would not deter the mobs all that much, as it was widely held that only a mage could break a binding spell such as that which had sealed the crimson monstrosity. The wizard was quick to claim this logic largely false; apparently, anyone that could read the incantations which eliminated the generally illiterate peasantry in favor of schooled nobility, high clergy, and, yes, mages could void the seal with only the slightest knowledge of magical energies. Still, it was no use trying to explain all this to the citizens of the late capital they had seen a wizard, then a dragon, and were now homeless and out to wreak their vengeance upon whichever they found first. And while that sort of mentality was far from uncommon, Newton explained, the dragon itself was, and would therefore warrant unusually painful punishment for the soul eventually held responsible for its release unpleasant news for Ferdie, who was spared a panic attack by virtue of the fact that he wasn't around to hear said news.
The group's progress was slow, due to their forest-bound, meandering course away from the city as well as the frequent stops to help Ferdia untangle a foot from the battered hem of her dress. They pressed on despite her protests to stop and let her change until well after mid-day, when our weary band of travelers reached a small clearing beside the river running through the forest. Many of the castle's panicked steeds had also paused here, tired and unsure of how to cross the swiftly-flowing water, and Newton ventured into their midst in search of his horse.
Finally! Ferdia cheered, darting behind a bush. She emerged moments later clad in her police uniform once again, the ruined dress balled up in her fist.
Squeaks quirked an eyebrow at her as she made to pitch the dress into the river. Where exactly were you keeping that?
What, this? the bluebird shrugged, smoothing down her uniform, In my pockets and under the dress. I wasn't about to risk losing it. She drew her arm back, aiming to land the torn velvet halfway across the river.
You might want to hold onto that, milady, Newton advised, leading his horse away from the herd of expatriate horses. The warhorses Squeaks and Ferdie had used followed after him, accustomed now to traveling with the wizard's mount.
Ferdia blinked, glancing at the dress disdainfully. Why would I want to hang onto it? It's torn, it's dirty, it keeps tripping me up, and it's not like I'm gonna need it to play princess again.
Are you certain, milady? the lizard persisted, You were last seen in such a dress; it can establish your identity if need be. And think of the effect finding your ruined dress floating down the river would have on your subjects! They'd think you dead!
No one will believe your identity, milady, if the kingdom is mourning your death. If anything, we'd all be executed for impersonating a member of the royal family!
That's a, uh, capital offense? Ferdia asked, fingering the dress and laughing nervously, Well, then we'll just hang onto this a bit longer, then. Squeaks, where's my belt?
The mouse removed the weighty police utility belt still slung across his shoulder, tossing it to his partner as he turned to regard the horses. No saddles? he observed.
Newton shook his head. No, Sir Knight. Our mounts were stabled when the fire broke out. They wouldn't even have bridles were it not for the haltering spell.
But all your books! Ferdia exclaimed in dismay, remembering the scores of magical tomes the lizard kept packed in his saddlebags, Oh, Newton, I'm sorry!
Sorry? Newton looked flustered. Milady, do not be sorry. You are a royal, after all. Such things are beneath your station. And anyway, none of us could have known a dragon would attack the castle.
Newton held up a hand. Milady, please - let me finish. Spell books tend to soak up some of the magic contained within, making them quite hardy. There's a good chance they survived the fire.
Squeaks frowned. Even if they did, they're still back at the castle, which makes them as good as lost to us.
To us, yes, but not to your Phoenix, the wizard grinned, I've been studying an illusory spell similar to a glamour, but a bit more difficult that should allow her unhindered access to the grounds.
If she lets you spell her, Ferdia remarked, shaking her head, She doesn't generally like people using her as a guinea pig. She paused, scanning the skies around them. Come to think of it, where is Iiwi, anyway? I haven't seen her since she checked in with us hours ago, and I can't raise her on radio mine's not working anymore.
The batteries have finally run down, Squeaks supplied. They're nothing but extra weight right now.
Yeah, well, they'll be that much extra coming out of our paychecks if we ditch 'em, his partner replied. Still, do we have any idea where the Redbird went?
She mentioned trying to find the rest of your entourage, Newton said, opening the Grimoire he still had on hand and picking the twigs off a long stick, I took the liberty of telling her we'd meet up at the river.
Well, good, Ferdia grinned, We'll just take a break here for a while, then
.What are you doing?
Attempting a summoning spell, milady, the wizard replied, continuing to scratch a series of shapes and symbols on a bare patch of earth along the riverbank, As confident as I am about the illusory spell, saddles are heavy things, and we will need several of them. I'm curious to see if I can conjure one over from the castle.
Mouse and bluebird took several discreet steps away from the busy wizard, preferring to watch from a safe distance in case this spell got away from him as the previous spell from that book had done.
One hour and several dozen casts later, the exhausted wizard collapsed against a nearby tree, thoroughly spent. He'd managed to summon three pigs, a saddle blanket, four sets of stirrups, a torn cool-down towel, the scorched remains of a pair of saddles, a frightened but ferocious mountain sheep, and what appeared to be a steaming pile of intestines. This last item had caused no small amount of disconcertion amongst the trio, and it was only after an extensive bit of reassurance that Squeaks and Ferdia managed to convince Newton to cast the spell again. This cast, however, had brought a marauding troll in their midst, and the exertion of bringing it down had sapped the last of the lizard's strength.
I'm sorry, milady, he croaked, gasping for breath, I'm afraid I won't be able to conjure us saddles after all. I've failed you.
I don't know what you're talking about, Ferdia replied, patting him on the shoulder as she walked by with an armload of cloth as Squeaks chased down the squealing pigs, You've brought us two blankets, dinner, she paused as several shots echoed in chorus with a series of squeals, and three saddles!
I'm in no mood for jest, milady, Newton stated glumly.
Me neither, she shrugged, making her way back to their clearing.
The saddles I called are all burnt and cracked! he protested, And there were but two of them!
Ferdia paused, turning to face the wizard with a grin. No, there were three. The troll was carrying the last one. Squeaks and I figure we'll pad the first two with leather and wool once you've recovered enough to cast the curing spell we found in your book.
Newton blinked. Curing spell? There were no Cure spells in the Grimoire well, perhaps for illness and poison, but not for tanning leath-
Oh, we weren't looking in the Grimoire, she assured him, shaking her head, We were looking in this little leather spellbook.
Newton frowned quizzically.
Ferdia sighed. Don't you get it, wizard? The troll had your saddle. The Summoning spell worked.
Either that, or it's one hell of a freak coincidence that all the stuff's been scorched well, except for the sheep, it just smelled of smoke and would've been in close proximity to the stables. But trust me, it worked. You just needed a few practice casts to get the hang of it.
Though the ogre worries me, Squeaks stated, wandering over to the two as the crackling of a cook-fire and the sweet smell of ham drifted up from the riverbank.
It wasn't an ogre, his partner sighed, years spent in the company of a sci-fi / fantasy nut finally yielding knowledge of value, It was a troll. Looked like something straight out of Ferdie's monster encyclopedias. And it was in half-melted leg shackles, so I'm guessing it'd made its way out of the dungeon.
What would a troll be doing in the dungeon?
Why, for security, Sir Knight, Newton supplied, Properly trained, they're far better than any kind of guard dog. He frowned. They also make excellent berserker soldiers, if you can tame them enough to keep them from eating too many of your own men. I'd hate to think it a practice one would find in the King's own army, but it is a possibility.
Ferdia shrugged. Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, I don't really care it's dead, and I'm hungry. When's dinner?
Squeaks cocked his head to one side, giving his partner a sidelong grin. Depends.
On how much longer you intend on staying up here chatting instead of coming back down and helping me prepare the other carcasses.
Ferdia grinned playfully. Jealous?
No, the mouse sighed, Tired. And I haven't the slightest idea how to carve a rack of lamb.
Ferdia cocked an eyebrow. What makes you think I know?
Oh, I'm not saying you know, he replied, the grin returning to his face, Just that if you're the one doing it, you won't be able to say I've done it wrong.
She frowned. Did you cut the pigs wrong?
I wouldn't know. Would you?
Not really, she shrugged, waving to the prone and nearly sleeping Newton as they wandered back to the clearing, But I'll take a look anyway. At least that way, when Iiwi sees them, we'll both look like uncultured heathens.
It was quiet and peaceful in the valley meadow, the woodland creatures capering about in the warm sun and enjoying hearty meals of sweet grass and wild heather. Songbirds flit to and fro, piping their merry tunes as they gulped down ripe berries and careless insects. One would almost expect an oboe to break into a few bars of Spring, such was the gentle tranquility of the valley.
Things like this just scream for a torch-wielding mob.
After them! Don't let 'em get away!
Git back here, ye miserable little t'ieves!
The 'them' in question burst from the trees, running at full tilt from the baying hounds and marauding mob armed with pitchforks, even - at their heels.
We're gonna burn ye at th' stakes! a frenzied farmer yelled.
After we tar an' feather ye! his compatriot added.
With piping hot tar, too! cried the first, not about to be outdone, An' yer own feathers!
Several strides ahead of the mongrels leading the mob's charge, the small brown kiwi being bodily dragged along by his partner in crime, legs pumping air far more than they touched ground as the rabbit plunged ahead, cried out in protest. Litaaa! You're going too fast! My arm's gonna come off!
It's me or the dogs, kid! she yelled back, At least this you'll live through!
Maybe we should just give them their stuff back!
Are you kidding? the teen was incredulous, Nothin' doin', kid! These things're bigger'n eggs! But, if it'll make you feel better- she jerked the young kiwi off his feet again, tossing him up and dodging under his fall to catch him on her back, Hang on!
Why am I hanging- the sign holder yelped as a flaming arrow shot past them. Lita, they're shooting at us!
Are they? she asked, That's good!
It means they're falling behind! the long-legged dust bunny replied, lengthening her strides into great one-legged running leaps to further distance themselves from their pursuers.
But we're running out of room! the sign holder protested, pointing to a swiftly-flowing river up ahead, Look!
Lita looked, swore, and angled left, running with the current alongside the banks of the river. The mob, however, being more familiar with the terrain, had anticipated this move, and now chased parallel to the rabbit as well, keeping her locked between them and the river. With a glare at their closing pursuers, Lita swung the silver - and now gold- and jewel-laden - sack at a dog that had gotten a bit too close for comfort.
This isn't gonna work, she grunted, her stride faltering a step as the heavy sack's swinging weight tugged her off-balance, We need to get across the river! Any rocks or shallow spots ahead?
The sign holder scanned the river rapidly flashing by next to them. No, but I don't see why we couldn't just swim-
That current's too strong, kid. It'd pull us under and sweep us away. We're gonna need someplace shallow enough to ford, or a spot with enough snags for me to hop.
Oh. Well, how 'bout a waterfall?
Patently bad idea. Lita paused. Why do you ask?
The small kiwi on her shoulders pointed a shaking wing to the landscape not far ahead of them, where forest, river, and muddy bank abruptly disappeared into sky, spray, and a thunderous crashing.
Oh, scragg, she swore, spotting the teams of mounted peasants lining the trees just beyond the bank, No wonder they stopped shooting at us. They knew once we hit the river, we'd run out of room
So what're we gonna do?
Well, Lita shrugged, sprinting to a granite boulder jutting into the river not far from land's end, We're gonna- she bounded up the boulder, pushing off with a powerful, dual-legged bunny hop, -jump- they soared through the air, river rushing beneath them an instant before they landed heavily on a nearby rocky outcropping twelve feet inriver and just at the edge of the drop, -the falls! With another powerful leap, she catapulted off the rocks, launching them into the space beyond the tumbling water.
Litaaaaaaaaaa! the sign holder shrieked, losing his grip on her shoulders as the two plummeted towards the pool below, What are you doinnnnnnnng?!?
Getting us clear of the ro-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahks! she yelled as the kiwi began his protest, anticipating his question. As his grip loosened in freefall, she swung the bag again, pitching it towards the riverbank in hopes of recovering most of their plunder. Hands now free, she reached out to snag hold of her young friend's wing.
But the sign holder presented far less surface area for the forces of air resistance and drag to work on, and even with his tiny wings pumping furiously in the air, he fell away from the rabbit with an ever-more-terrified scream. And her attempts to angle / air-lunge after him only netted her a perfect eye-ful of the swiftly closing hundred-foot drop, eliciting a shameless scream from her as well.
Their meal of roast pork and lamb chops was nearly finished cooking when muffled screams and a tremendous, metallic crash echoed down from upriver, cries of startled birds filling the sky as wild creatures frantically winged away from peaceful perches the clatter had so obviously disturbed.
What was that? Ferdia wondered, attention riveted in the direction the sound had come, Sounded like a car wreck!
If you mean metal hitting wood, Squeaks agreed, taking off after his partner as she sprinted towards the sound, then yes. But there were splashes as well.
Iiwi took flight in a whirl of feathers as the cops disappeared into the trees. I'll meet you guys there! she called.
After a flustered moment of indecision leave the food to burn or remove it from the fire and risk a carnivore finding it? Newton shrugged, dashing off in the direction the mouse and bluebird had gone.
The waterfall was scarcely more than half a mile away, its sound channeled and magnified by the trees and cliffs surrounding it. A tiny lake formed at the bottom of the falls, cupped protectively in the curve of the cliffs, a brief haven of tranquility where the tumbling water could idle a few moments before flowing into the river. The banks alongside the falls were strewn with silver and gold jeweled trinkets goblets, dishes, flatware, candlesticks, gilded frames, baubles, jewelry all sorts of finery, glittering in the grass and mud as well as the surrounding bushes and trees. A beaten burlap sack bobbed weakly on its side in the shallows, slowly spilling more treasures until Iiwi swooped down and plucked it from the current.
What happened here? Ferdia frowned, I mean, why would someone just pitch a sack of loot over a waterfall?
Probably because it was loot, the scarlet Flier supplied, flitting about the treetops to scoop the errant shinies back into the sodden bag, There's this whole mess of people grumbling about up on the cliff ledge.
Yes, but where are the people they were chasing? Ferdia persisted, eyes scanning the far bank for scrambling hoods.
Squeaks perked his ears, picking his way across a tangled driftwood scrag to the source of a low moan as Ferdia and Newton followed after him. With their assistance, they managed to pull Lita free of the waterlogged weave of grasses and sticks holding her fast to the scrag, half-carrying the stunned rabbit back to the banks.
Hold still, miss, Newton advised, muttering a quick healing spell to mend some of the teen's more serious injuries and dull her pain. There you go, he pronounced, helping her into a sitting position, Nothing left but aches and bruises now.
Long time no see, Ferdia greeted her as Lita quietly thanked the wizard, Where's the sign holder?
Lita blinked, glancing about at her rescuers in confusion that quickly shifted into concern. What do you mean? We went over the falls together, he should be- she broke off, staggering to her feet as the others scattered in search of the small kiwi. Hey, kid, she yelled, wishing once again the boy were a little more forthcoming about his name, Where are you?
Over here! a voice sputtered after a few tense moments of panic. The bedraggled form of the sign holder waved frantically from the river, desperately clinging to a half-sunken tree branch poking out of the middle of the river that still hid the rest of the wooden monolith. The current's too strong! I'm not gonna be able to hold on much longer!
I've got 'im! Iiwi yelled, dropping the bag of loot to the ground and diving at the small, feathered form slipping from the river scrag. She caught him much as she had the bag, landing on the banks a few wingbeats later to deposit the sodden but unharmed sign holder before the group.
Thanks, Miss Iiwi, he sang, catching the surprised Flier in a hug before she could dodge aside.
yeah, Iiwi fumbled, patting the young kiwi on the head in a subtle attempt to slip from the hug, No problem, kid. I'll just, uh, take it outta that sack you two nearly killed yourselves over.
You can't do that! Lita frowned, all traces of gratitude vanishing at this threat to her haul, That's our stuff!
Half of which'd be a mile downriver if it weren't for me, the Flier bristled, and the other half a paltry sum for saving your lives. You should be grateful.
Lita muttered something about lazy thieves.
It's not like you won't have more than enough time to get more, Iiwi huffed, But if you're gonna be so moody about it, I'll just take a few choice items when we get back, and call it even. You're young, after all; I can't expect the same amount of professionalism after saving your tail as I'd get from an actual-
If everyone's alive and well, Squeaks cut in, placing the last bauble in the bag and slinging it over his shoulder, We've got food on the fire back at the camp. If you don't want your dinner burned, I suggest we start heading there now.
Food? rabbit and kiwi chorused, eyes shining at the prospect of getting more than the odd stolen table scrap for dinner, Why didn't you just say so? Lita cheered, shooing them ahead of her, Come on, let's get going!
Bob plunked the beans into the small metal cup, hooking it on the end of a stick before dangling it over the modest campfire Ivan had managed to get going. Ignoring his arch-nemesis' smirk when several beans popped from being too close to the heat, he levered the stick higher, determined to roast the beans.
Is that even the proper way to roast those things? Ivan queried, eyeing the cup as yet another bean popped like kettle corn.
Bob shrugged diffidently. I don't know. But it's the best I can do with a cup and a campfire.
Is it even worth the effort? Ferdie frowned, poking at the leaf-wrapped bits of fish and pheasant smoldering at the bottom of the flames, I mean, they're wild, after all. Suppose they have no flavor?
Flavor, nothing, Ivan scoffed, Suppose all you wind up with is scorched and popped kernels?
Oh, ye of little faith, Bob sniffed, removing the cup from heat and gingerly tipping the steaming, whistling beans into a cup of water boiling over the fire, Just you watch; in a couple of minutes, I'll have a cup of delicious wild coffee, and you'll all wish you'd been nicer to me so I'd share.
Beak inspected one of the popped beans, biting into it experimentally. He grimaced at the strange bitterness of the airy pulp, watching in disbelief as Bob wolfed down every last fluffy coffee-colored bit. I'm afraid I'll never understand your love of this 'Java', he sighed as Bob inspected the boiling beans.
Love has nothing to do with it, Ivan smirked, At this point, it's an addiction bordering on obsession. You ought to sign him up for a Coffeeholics Anonymous meeting, or check him into a rehab center, or something.
I am not addicted, Bob snapped, I simply feel better when I can drink coffee, and I ran out of my emergency supply sometime last week.
In that case, Ferdie deadpanned, scooping out the cooked meat, We're lucky we're all still alive.
We're still lost, Ivan pointed out, Don't you have any idea where you were heading from or going to when you bolted from the dragon? We can't rely on finding abandoned campsites like this all the time; we've got to find the rest of this crew, or get to an Inn and wait for them to find us.
But we don't have any money, Beak protested.
Shut up, Ivan growled.
Ferdie shrugged. Newton never really mentioned where we were headed. We were at the capital city, but that's all I know. Iiwi'll find us eventually.
Alive or dead?
Alive, of course! We've got plenty of food here, and it's not all that cold out, so we'll neither starve nor freeze. She'll find us.
So will the army, Ivan remarked, If we keep building fires at night. We should stick to burning them by day and going without at night. We don't have a wizard covering our tracks anymore, you know. We need to locate this castle, and see if we can get onto the same route they took.
Bob ignored the rest of the argument, sniffing the heavenly aroma of fresh-brewed coffee wafting from the old cup. Ah, coffee. Straight up black, untamed by cream or sugar, and more scorched than not, it was still divine ambrosia to the yellow kiwi's starved palette. Let dragons and wars and evil sheep hound the peace of mind of his companions; as long as he had coffee, Bob was content.
You know, Drake stated glumly, I'm beginning to think you're not really trying to catch up with Arcadia at all. You're just trying to lead me astray.
D'Gal quirked an eyebrow at the Platyrian trailing behind him on a pudgy white pony. I'm not leading you anywhere, Duck. You've been following me of your own free will.
Oh, indeed. Drake rolled his eyes. Someone's got to keep an eye on you, after all. Otherwise there'd be no telling what evils you'd wreak.
As if you could stop me. Take my word for it, Duck if you were truly cramping my style, I'd've gotten rid of you days ago.
Aha! Drake shouted triumphantly, leveling a finger at the Vycerian on the black horse, So you admit to attempting to lure me to my doom! Don't try to deny it! Your intentions of leaving me at the mercy of that dragon are all too obvious!
D'Gal reined his horse in, shooting Drake a condescending look of quizzical disbelief. Why would I want to do a thing like that?
To watch me suffer as I'm burned to a crisp and devoured, of course! It's just the sort of black-hearted villainy that-
I don't need a dragon for that, D'Gal stated, It'd be far easier to set you afire and leave you to the sheep.
Drake paused, blinking, then cast about worriedly for even the slightest hint of wool amongst the hills.
D'Gal smirked, rolling his eyes and nudging his horse back into a walk. Relax, Duck. I'm not out to kill you right now. Arcadia's simply making better time than we are.
A likely story!
Sod off, eh?
Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you? You with your lies and curses no one understands, always telling people to-
I've got better things to do that listen to your bloody whining, the Vycerian snapped, spurring his great black horse into a gallop.
Hey! Drake shouted mid-rant, clicking Gallant's sides in an attempt to encourage the pony into a gait faster than their current half-hearted slog that resulted in naught but a low snort from the beast. Get back here!
It suddenly occurred to Dumas that being left without the only thing the murderous bleating hordes tended to shy away from was tantamount to asking for a painful, woolly death. He nudged Gallant again, urging the pony to a faster gait. When this again failed, he attempted to call back his foe with the threat of blackmail. They'll think you killed me if you come back alone!
I'll send the red bird back 'round to prove I haven't! the ebony-feathered villain shouted back, voice already muted by distance and the echo of thundering hooves, In the meantime, give my regards to the sheep!
Sheep?!? Drake yelped, kicking desperately at the pony's sides now as the urge to flee took hold of his brain and shook it, Where? Where!?
Iiwi had just set out on her first find the lost souls flight of the day when the sound of yelling and thundering hooves drifted up from a valley below. Circling over across the hills muffling the sounds, she caught sight of two figures on horseback one in black at a serious gallop, one in white falling further and further behind as their grudging gait floundered somewhere between a canter and simply flailing one's legs as fast as possible. Iiwi laughed. Small question who these would be.
She swooped down, calling out to the black rider as she leveled her wings in a fast glide. Hey! she pulled up alongside him, just above shoulder height, Runnin' from anything specific?
Not really, he replied.
Just doing it to piss Drake off, then? she persisted.
Keen. We're just inside the trees four hills over. Follow the river, she advised, flaring her wings to drop back away from D'Gal as the Vycerian galloped on. After a moment, the rhythm-less sound of plodding hoof beats and a wind-broken breathing reached her ears, and Drake and his gasping pony lumbered up into view. Having fun? she called to the frazzled white duck.
Absolutely not! he yelled back, That vicious fiend sicced a pack of sheep on me!
Iiwi glanced around the flowing landscape. But there aren't any sheep for miles!
Don't be so sure! Drake advised, scowling up at the sky, I swear, it's like as soon as someone even mentions them, they materialize out of nowhere, crawling out of the woodwork!
As a lesson in humility, a fleet of logs appeared along the hill, and impossibly large quantities of sheep began pouring out of them.
Drake screamed, redoubling his efforts to speed his mount's plodding pace as a legion of fluffy white doom bore down upon him. Help me! he pleaded, as even the pony picked up on the danger and quickened its staggering pace.
Oh, very well, Iiwi shrugged, I don't see why not. She darted back up high in the air, pivoting around to dive shrieking down at the sheep. This scare tactic worked the first few times she did it, but soon a brazen bit of razor-toothed wool lunged at her in turn, clipping a few loose feathers from her wing.
Trailing feathers, Iiwi wheeled around, leaving Drake to his fate as she headed back to the forest with an angry squawk.
They hadn't been walking all that long, really, when Iiwi's shout reached their ears, just ahead of the sound of swiftly-pounding hoof beats. The sign holder ducked behind Lita as the cops and wizard readied their guns and spells, the group as a whole drawing in close for defense.
D'Gal's horse leapt into view at the edge of the tree line, jumping an extruding tree root with a loud whinny. The Vycerian smirked at the group's defensive stance, reining his mount to a high-stepped half-trot as he drew abreast of them.
Entrances like that can get you shot, you know, Ferdia chided, holstering her weapon as the group slowly eased apart.
The Vycerian rider shrugged, indicating the snorting black beast still chomping the bit and fidgeting as he held it prancing in place. Horse wants to run, we run. Fighting it too much gets me ignored completely. Besides- he inclined his head back to the forest. A great deal of yelling and thrashing drew near, culminating in Drake bursting from the underbrush amidst a swarm of sheep. Gallant stumbled on the same root D'Gal's horse had jumped, and duck and pony tumbled to the ground amidst a snarl of frenzied wool.
D'Gal gave the group a knowing look as Newton leveled a few Fireballs at the sheep to drive them off.
All right, Ferdia conceded, Your entrance was better than his. Where's Iiwi?
Headed eastward, back towards the castle, the black-feathered fiend supplied as Drake whimpered something about having been right about being scorched and devoured after all, Off looking for the rest of your mates, I'd say.
Well, it's good to have you back, Newton stated. Er, I suppose, he added, casting a quick healing spell in Drake's direction as he stared at D'Gal's horse and the evil red glint in its eyes, By the by, where did you get that horse? It looks to be half nightmare!
Took it from that farm, Drake groaned, batting away his pony as it began munching his hair again, It's name is Fiend. Frightfully accurate, wouldn't you say?
Only if yours is named Doofus, Lita muttered.
Can we stop? Lita ventured, shifting uncomfortably in her horse's saddle.
What, again? Drake frowned from the back of the group.
Yes, again, the rabbit retorted, I need to stretch my legs.
But we just stopped an hour ago! the duck protested.
Two hours ago, Ferdia corrected, and if you don't want to stop, Dumas, then keep right on going. I for one could use another break.
Here, here, Squeaks nodded, These saddles weren't made for two people. No offense, he glanced back at his partner.
Ferdia shrugged. None taken. These things are just burned out husks covered in sheepskin. Kinda makes you appreciate how padded the old ones were.
My point exactly, Lita glared back at Drake, So unless you want to offer up your saddle in trade, stop complaining about our breaks.
I'm hungry, the sign holder interrupted, in his best petulant child voice.
Newton glanced up at the suns hanging in the sky. Goodness, it's nearly an hour past noon. No wonder you're hungry, lad. We've missed our lunch.
So can we stop? the small kiwi asked hopefully.
I'm more than willing to, the wizard frowned, but we don't have any food to eat if we do,
Behind him, Iiwi sighed wearily. Let me go see what I can find, she yawned, stretching her wings a bit before taking flight.
The Flier's scarlet form had just disappeared above the canopy when D'Gal eased out of the underbrush ahead of them.
Fiend! Drake yelled, Where have you been?!
Plotting the end of your world.
Aha! I knew it-
The ebony duck rolled his eyes at the puffed-up Platyrian. I've been scouting the territory. Where's the Flier going?
What do you care? Drake bristled.
Tut, tut. Where are your manners, Duck?
Manners? Manners? Drake fumed, You're responsible for countless atrocities, and yet you accuse me of poor manners?!
D'Gal met the Platyrian's angry gaze with a neutral expression, the ghost of a smirk in his eyes. You are the one that's yelling, are you not?
Squeaks stepped in before the hostilities could once again escalate to the point where Dumas would need another bone-knitting spell, drawing the conversation back to its original track. Iiwi's out looking for food. Did you find anything out on point?
Always the peacekeeper, aren't you, Arcadia? D'Gal smirked. Unusual calling for an Arellian. In answer to your question, though, yes, I've found something. There's an old fisherman's hut jutting into the river not far from here. It's in ruins, but there's still some tools there, and it bodes well for our chances of finding river fish. Interested?
The group nodded. Well, all except for Drake, who was still busily fuming.
Right, then. Follow me, the Vycerian stated, tugging the horse's reins to coax it back into the shadowy underbrush. Well? Come on, he chided the others as they hesitated at the path's edge, It's not all that far, but you wouldn't want to walk it on foot.
You can't be serious! Drake protested as the group followed the ebony-feathered duck into the thick tangle of bushes, It's obviously some sort of murderous tra-
Can it, stuff-shirt, Lita snapped from the edge of the path, twisting around to face him, We're tired, we're sore, and our legs are cramping from all this riding. Anyone that tries to ambush us is in for one hell of a butt-kicking. She leaned over, bringing herself, eye-to-eye with the Duck on the diminutive pony, That goes double for whiny conspiracy theorists.
Drake bristled. Don't try to threaten me, truant. I could track down any one of a dozen arrest warrants with your name on them in less time than it takes to-
Lita side-booted him, kicking her horse Ferdie's old mount into a run to catch up with the rest of the group. Ponce, she growled back at the duck.
Iiwi wheeled at treetop height, folding her wings and diving with the suns at her back towards the crystal water's surface with talons outstretched, snatching up the unwary fish that had drifted out of its protected hiding spot seconds earlier. She flared out her feathers, pumping her wings to burst back into the air with a cry of triumph, her catch struggling to escape the grip of her talons.
She circled back towards shore, dropping her prey with a self-satisfied warble atop a mat of leaves already littered with more of its fallen brethren. How're we doing? she called to the cops cleaning the fish as she banked around another turn.
Six and counting, Ferdia replied, tossing a newly-cleaned fillet into a battered stone bowl already half-full of water and fish bits. Lita's gonna stew some of the smaller ones, so go ahead and get one or two more foot-longs and we'll be set.
Roger that, the Flier chirped, winging back above the part of the river thickly carpeted with bright green waterweeds. She scanned the gently-swaying underwater grass for signs of the fish hiding amongst them, mentally taking stock of where her traveling companions were in case she suddenly had need to find them. Hey, she called over to Ferdia, Where's D'Gal?
Out hunting waterfowl, the bluebird shouted back, Something about wanting something more substantial than minnows. And Newton's out looking for nuts and berries an' stuff for the stew.
Ah, the Flier nodded. Wait. Where's Drake?
Ferdia shrugged. Don't know, don't care. Probably out following D'Gal around.
While he hunts ducks.
Eh, Ferdia shrugged again, Whatever. They haven't killed each other yet, so what do I care if Drake makes his own suicide missions?
Redbird didn't respond, her attention riveted to a patch of waterweed she'd just glimpsed a fin flash into. Ferdia turned back to her fish as Newton emerged from the forest with a hat-ful of acorns, chestnuts, and a variety of red berries.
Shell the nuts, and save them for later, Squeaks greeted the wizard, They'll keep, and we'll want snacks later on the road. Bring the rest to Lita.
The wizard bowed distractedly to the mouse and bluebird sitting on leaves, surrounded by flint blades and fish guts. Some orders of knights were trained to live off the forest, he reminded himself, as well as being resourceful. And the Princess was under a spell. Small wonder an enchantment that had her running about like a barbarian warrior bestowed her with the ability to stomach so unladylike a thing as handling and gutting raw fish.
He watched the Phoenix as she dove into the river shallows, showering the far shore with water as she hauled a writhing fish from its hiding place. Bespelled or not, it never ceased to amaze Newton how capable his companions were at taking care of themselves. A powerful enchantment indeed. He wondered if they'd remember any of it, retain any of these newfound skills when the spell wore off.
He wandered over to the far end of the abandoned fishermen's camp, making his way towards the rabbit girl hovering intently over a pot balanced atop a roaring fire.
Boil, boil, toil and trouble, the teen sang, dancing with the small brown kiwi around the steaming pot, a wooden bowl in her hands, Fire burn and cauldron bubble! She reached into the bowl and tossed a handful of its contents into the pot. Eye of newt, leg of Spam, can of tuna
Newton could stand it no longer. Are you casting a spell? he asked, fascinated.
Lita jumped, startled. She hadn't heard the wizard's approach, too engrossed in her fun to pay attention to the world around her. She turned to face him, looking sheepish as the sign holder stopped dancing. Nope.
Divination? the lizard guessed.
A potion, then?
Not really, she shook her head.
Newton frowned, confused. Well, what, then?
Lita shrugged. Just making lunch.
Yep, she grinned, relieving him of his hat to dump most of the berries in her bowl, mashing them with a cleaned stone as the sign holder tossed the rest into the pot. We're having fish stew. Of sorts. I think I'll use the berries as a jellied marinade for the fillets and maybe whatever D'Gal brings back. Hey, bring me some of those nuts, will ya? I wanna crush 'em for flavor.
Newton blinked. You can cook? He'd figured the girl for some sort of barbarian guard. It never occurred to him that her temperment and thievery might be part of the spell. Perhaps she'd simply been a bandit gang's cook.
She shook her head. Nah, but I've seen it done lotsa times, and bugged Ivan's chefs enough to know the basics. Still, don't tell them, she jerked her chin at the cops, that. I griped going into this, and I've got a reputation to uphold.
Newton nodded dumbly. Chefs? Ivan that was the grey bird, the thief lord had chefs? Fascinating. Perhaps not all of this group was bespelled, after all. That would go a long way to explaining the youths' behavior, as well as the Phoenix's. Still-
What was all that chanting for, if you're only making stew?
Hm? Oh, that! she blushed. It's part of an old play we read at school. Figured as long as I had to cook, I might as well have fun.
Read? A play? School? For the wards of a thief lord? Newton shook his head. Odd spell, this. Perhaps they were all enchanted, after all. Different memories seemed to leak through for each of them the knight's training, the Princess's memories of her father enough to make him hope the spell was weakening.
Either that, or they were telling the truth, a possibility too frightening to contemplate
You shot me! Drake yelped.
I did not.
Well, you shot at me!
I shot at the duck, which happened entirely by chance to fly in front of you, Dumas, D'Gal stated, retrieving the fallen waterfowl from the reeds along the shore.
I still think this is a sick perversion, the Platyrian protested, Hunting feral ducks like this. It's like eating your ancestors!
D'Gal looked at the limp feathered creature he held by the neck. Its feathers were mottled and barred, much like the wild ducks of many worlds he'd visited, though instead of mallard brown, this one was beige and white a partial albino. More like eating your ancestors, Duck, and if that's what it takes to get rid of you-
You are a soulless fiend! Drake shouted.
Ah, D'Gal grinned, But I'm a soulless fiend that'll eat well.
Drake huffed, grudgingly following the villain back to the party's camp. Just don't be surprised when cannibalism gets added to your list of offenses, he grumbled.
I won't live to hear the charges read, D'Gal replied. You know it; I know it. What difference would one more charge make? What difference would a hundred?
Drake blinked. Strategy might not have been his strongest point, but he knew motive when he heard it. So that's it, then? You assume your crimes mean death, so what's another atrocity or two?
D'Gal turned, glaring at the duck trailing a few paces behind him, and when he spoke, it was without the bastardized pronunciation Drake was used to the fiend giving his name, Assume, Dumas? I assume nothing. Platyria ordered the rest of our wing executed; what's to stop them from finishing the job?
-Is too weak to stop them, and you know it. They're killing us off, fool.
Drake scowled. Stop saying 'us', fiend. It makes it sound as if I'm one of you.
Fine, D'Gal glared. Your people are killing my people off for no other reason than preserving border territory. And whether you believe that or not, I will fight it to my last breath.
For all the good it does, Drake huffed. Suppose you're telling the truth. Hypothetically speaking, of course, since obviously you're not, but supposing you were. Have you done anything to make Platyria more disposed to helping your kind? No. If anything, you've only made matters worse. Now, if you'd-
We tried negotiating. Years ago. Repeatedly. D'Gal cut in, Always with the same answer. And our actions have saved more refugees than you know, and helped those struggling to survive even as your kind has made it harder to do so. At least now the universe has heard of our plight. Perhaps someday, once we've weakened the Empire enough, someone like the Alliance can step in and make you listen to reason.
When you've weakened that's it! That's why you're in league with the Bagels; you're trying to destroy us!
D'Gal rolled his eyes. Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall, Duck, but at least something occasionally gets through.
Drake scowled. You know, you're making a big mistake here.
Oh? How so?
Ever think about what's going to happen if you succeed here? Hasn't it occurred to you that the Bagels want us all dead? My kind and yours?
Well, of course they want us all dead! That much should be obvious to anyone!
And this doesn't bother you?!?
D'Gal shrugged. Not a bit. They'll be so busy crushing your kind that they won't even notice mine until we're safely out of the area. Toss in a bit of creative sabotage to hobble them, and not only do we have a clean getaway, by they get annihilated by the last remnants of a vengeance-driven Platyrian Navy. And so we kill two birds with one stone.
Drake blinked, speechless.
D'Gal grinned evilly. It's got a sort of ironic beauty to it, wouldn't you say?
It-It'll never work, Drake sputtered.
We'll see. It's worth a shot, at any rate.
It'll *never* work!
It MIGHT work, D'Gal corrected, wagging a finger at the puffed-up duck, And that's all the odds I've ever asked for.
You know, Ferdie mused as he and the kiwis wandered down a forest path in hopes of catching sight of the others, I wonder what day it is back home. My rent was due in a couple weeks, and I had a bill I forgot to mail
Bob frowned, counting the days they'd spent on this world so far. Oh, no! He stopped dead in his tracks, paling, I've missed Bobetta's ballet!
What's so special about that? Ivan shrugged. She's been in plenty of them.
Yes, but this was the first time anyone had ever performed this one off-Broadway, and she was going to dedicate the opening performance to me! the yellow kiwi wailed. Oh, Sweetie, I'm so sorry! Forgive me!
Beak blinked, confused. Can she hear you?
No, but everyone else can! Ferdie muttered.
Bob ignored the bluebird. I hope so, he sniffed, addressing Beak.
Hrmph, Ivan huffed. Cry me a river, hero. So you missed a performance; so what? A greenhouse of flowers and a couple cases of overpriced chocolate and she'll forgive you. I, on the other hand, had an important meeting with the Vegas bosses, a conference call with New York, and a business dinner with a senator, all of which are going to be hell making up for because they'll all demand proof of where I've been. I'll be lucky if only two of them try to kill me on principle alone.
That's what you get for being evil, villain, Bob sniffed.
Only the dinner was about business, hero, the gray kiwi snapped, The other two concerned legitimate matters.
Now there's a frightening thought, Ferdie muttered.
A butterfly is a frightening thought with you, blue boy, Ivan retorted. Honestly, we Mafioso types have mundane concerns too identity theft, the best publisher or studio to pitch your story to, which parts of the desert are filled to capacity
So what'd the senator want? Ferdie asked.
To whack his opponent, Ivan shrugged. Nothing unusual.
Were you going to? Bob demanded.
Ivan looked affronted. I don't do that sort of thing, hero.
No, you have people for that.
Ivan quirked an eyebrow at his normally dense nemesis. At any rate, he waved it away, I never made the meeting. I suspect he'll just approach someone in the next town they campaign in.
I wonder how my baNAna tree is doing, Beak mused, oblivious to the past few minutes' discussion, I haven't been around to water it. I do hope it's not suffering from dehydration.
Ferdie blinked. What about your job?
Oh, Newt usually calls them when something like this happens, the Magi nodded.
Wait. 'When something like this happens'? Ivan repeated, incredulous. You mean this sort of thing has happened before?
Well, not exactly like this, no, Beak admitted, But accidents happen with his experiments all the time. Once I got stuck as gelatin for a week. And then there was that time he shrank me to the size of a flea and I got lost. Oh, and once he turned me all purple and green and my feathers started falling out in patches and-
Enough, Ferdie interrupted, wincing. We get the picture.
Why do I have this bird on my payroll again? Ivan muttered, desperately trying to convince himself that the plethora of weapons and advanced technology the genius churned out more than made up for the odd body-switching and marooning on an alien world.
Come on, Ferdie reasoned, If you didn't help fund Newt, he would never have completed the Intergalactic Kiwi Network.
And, as a result, I wouldn't be stuck here, the crime lord grumbled.
Yes, but we wouldn't have met the Hooties, either, and then Iiwi wouldn't've been able to bring you all that nifty miniaturized technology.
Bob blinked. Wait. Iiwi gave him that stuff?
Part of the terms of borrowing his ship, Bob, Ferdie reminded him, You were there, remember?
The yellow kiwi fumed. Ooh, I am so going to have a talk with Redbird when she gets ba-
Hey guys! a cheery voice greeted them from above.
Iiwi! Bob yelled jubilantly, You're back!
Where are the others? Ferdie asked.
We're camped out a couple miles upriver, the Flier laughed, circling overhead, Follow me a bit, I'll guide you to the right trail. It's a bit of a hike, but we've got plenty of food once you get there. She flew ahead, circling slowly as they tromped along after her, gradually pointing them to the river.
She's such a nice bird, Bob remarked happily, I wonder if she's got any coffee.
Ivan rolled his eyes. You are a complete basket case, hero, he muttered.
All right, Bob stated, raising his wing, All in favor of never splitting up again?
Ferdie rolled his eyes. Bob, Jeez, we agree with you already!
Oh yeah? Then why is half the group off wandering by themselves again? the kiwi demanded.
Because they can take care of themselves, hero, Ivan snapped, They can track their way back, and they're not going all that far.
As I recall, that was how we got into this mess in the first place, Bob retorted.
The crew trekked along a winding road, out of the forest, now, on the rocky hills just between it and the river. Newton knew of an abandoned monks' colony hidden in these hills, nestled among trees and a branch of the river, and the group had unanimously decided to take refuge there a while rather than continue wandering aimlessly. For his part, the wizard wanted very much a place where he could study his spellbooks for hours, paging through the tomes in search of some way to stop the marauding temple dragon, which they still spotted every now and then cutting through the skies along the horizon. The others held out hope that their own mad genius, Newt, would find it easier to locate them if perhaps they were all together in one consistent location.
Drake and D'Gal were once again riding point, the former far less enthusiastic about this than the latter, checking in with Iiwi every few minutes to confirm their location and the absence of enemy fighters. Lita had also taken to wandering again, popping back every half hour with food or valuables to stash among their spoils. And after much debate, Bob and Ivan had agreed to share Ferdie's old horse, as the bluebird steadfastly refused to go near the bugle-trained charger again. He and Beak walked quietly amongst the riders, accustomed now to the days' strenuous hikes.
On the whole, things were going smoothly. Food was plentiful this close to the river, and there wasn't an army or soldier in sight. Even farms were hard to find, though herds of mountain sheep roamed the rough countryside, keeping Drake in a constant state of near-panic. It was only a matter of time before the abandoned colony's spire rose into view.
Then the monk appeared.
He came from out of nowhere, tearing down the hills like a pudgy brown bat out of hell. At first, it seemed the bird was simply fleeing pursuers, and the group turned a set of wary eyes to the woods behind him, wondering if, in spite of themselves, a contingent of soldiers lurked nearby. But instead of a uniformed guard charging after the man, the forest remained still, and it was the monk himself that spotted and scrambled for the group.
This, in turn, sparked a flurry of activity in the group. Iiwi circled rapidly overhead, scanning the ground while simultaneously calling that the coast was clear and sounding the alarm. Her squawks brought Lita and the sign holder running back to the group as Ferdia reached over the back of her and Squeaks' saddle to nab the kiwis' horse and drag it alongside theirs in a defensive living wall block across the front of the group. Behind them, Newton readied a Fireball, and Beak's lightsaber fired up with an airy hum.
Their reaction in turn startled the frantic monk even further, and the graying sparrow tripped in his attempt to slow down. The sudden pounding of hooves behind him again spurred his flight, and when a nightmarish horse and rider burst from the trees right behind him, his jolt of terror knocked his already teetering balance completely off, sending him tumbling head over heels. He skid to a halt just short of Squeaks' horse's skittish hooves as the black rider reined his own mount to a quick stop in what would have been a frightfully menacing flanking move had a duck on a white pony not blundered into the nightmare's hindquarters, sending it into an angry skitter, thrashing at the pony.
D'Gal! Ferdia yelled as the pony shied away from Fiend's snapping teeth, Get a hold of that thing!
I'm working on it! the black-feathered duck snarled, jerking the horse back only to have it rear up on him.
After a few minutes' struggle and a botched Sleep spell that if nothing else distracted the nightmare's attention the hulking black horse was finally brought back under control, glaring over at Drake and the now-drowsy pony with undisguised bloodlust. Still, when it didn't lunge at the pair with revived fury, the group shifted their attention back to the frightened sparrow in monks' robes still huddled at their feet.
Ferdie, recognizing the look of someone teetering at the edge of mindless panic and gibbering terror, decided it best if he, the professional coward and presumably least threatening member of the group, stepped in. He stepped out from behind the horses he'd hidden behind, slipping past his friends and living shields to greet the breathless sparrow with a slightly sheepish smile.
Sorry about that, he said, offering the monk his hand, We're a little edgy right now. Can we help you?
The bird looked at Ferdie's proffered hand uncertainly. Come on, Ferdie encouraged.
With great trepidation, the sparrow took his hand, looking quite startled when the bluebird pulled him to his feet. S-Sire? he stammered.
Ferdie rubbed the back of his head. Guess that depends on who you're asking. Newton here certainly seems to think so.
The monk glanced up at the lizard in mages' robes watching him intently from atop a chestnut horse. Seeing his questioning look, the mage nodded once.
Oh, Your Majesty! the monk wailed, gripping Ferdie's hand with both his own, What luck! I thank the Almighty for my good fortune! He made a holy symbol in the air before him. You cannot know how good it is to find you so quickly! Our monastery has fallen into the hands of the dread warlord Kronos, and the fiend has taken your honored sister hostage!
Whaaat? Ferdie looked skeptical. That can't be right. My sister's ri- Ferdia kicked him sharply between shoulders from her perch in the saddle. -ight delicate, he finished, glaring at his sister as he rubbed his sore shoulder with his free hand, She shouldn't be held hostage by anyone. It's dangerous.
Newton raised one quizzical eyebrow, perplexed. But before he could voice his question, Ferdia jumped into the conversation. Where is this monastery? she asked, doing her best to appear as unladylike as possible, Tell us the way, and we will save your friend.
The monk glanced about the motley crew before him. You, ah, you are a battlegroup?
Ferdia fumbled. Yes, well
We're guerilla fighters, D'Gal chipped in, Scrappers and ambushers. We're faster and harder to catch than your standard army.
Right, Ferdie nodded, They're my special forces.
The sparrow looked skeptical. They look a bit like bandits to me, my lord.
That's all part of their disguise, the bluebird assured him, gesturing at the group. Look at them. We've got skilled fighters, a magic swordsman, a legendary Phoenix, our own mage why, we've even got a Fool, he finished, motioning to Drake, Excellent at diversions, I tell you. And over here's Ivan, our point of contact for all things criminal, and his wards, sneaks and spies of the high- er, lowest order. We've even got the heroic Danger Kiwi in our ranks!
Bob swelled with pride as the others glanced about with muted expressions of surprise. Ivan almost looked impressed with Ferdie's ad-libbing. Your brother lies pretty well for a coward, the crime lord commented to Ferdia.
That's because the monk's got his hand in a death grip and won't let go, she replied. If the bird doesn't buy it, Ferdie's the one in the most danger.
Ah, Ivan nodded sagely.
Milady, Newton whispered questioningly.
Shh, Ferdia shushed him, Not now.
Not now, she repeated, Look, it's either a trap, or someone really is in danger. Might as well find out which.
The sparrow scanned the group one last time, turning his attention back to Ferdie to shake the bluebird's hand once again, patting it gratefully. Oh, yes, Majesty. Special soldiers. Yes. Of course, of course. I thank you. Quickly follow me, I will take you to the monastery. He backed up a step, skittering sideways back along the path before turning and picking up his pace on the hills.
How can he move like that and be that out of shape? Ferdie grumbled, jogging as the rest of the group moved to follow the monk.
Same way someone who avoids the gym like a plague maintains his waistline, Ivan deadpanned.
Hey! Ferdie was indignant, I exercise!
Fleeing in terror once or twice a day is far from a comprehensive workout, the Mafioso rejoined.
They'd been hiking a little over an hour before the monk came to a halt, gesturing to a small stone abbey and adjoining living quarters standing in a clearing at the bottom of a hill. We are here. Kronos has set himself up inside the abbey proper, and holds the fair Princess in a storeroom down below.
Storeroom? Bob asked, What would they need with a-
Wine cellar, Bob, Ivan commented, He's talking about a wine cellar.
In a church?!?
Ivan sighed. Sacramental wines, Bob. For ceremonies, and blessings, and such.
Bob frowned. Are you sure?
The important thing, hero, is that it's underground, with no windows and only one door.
Well, why didn't you just say so? All we've gotta do is go over there, boot the bad guys, and rescue the damsel in distress!
There are times I wonder what it's like to live in your world, Ivan muttered, rolling his eyes as the yellow kiwi mapped his plan,
So this plan of yours, does it take place before or after we get trounced by the guards? Lita asked sardonically, 'cuz in case you haven't noticed, that's an army cooling its heels on their front lawn.
Indeed, dozens of soldiers peopled the abbey's cobbled pathways, chatting with comrades, raiding food stores, and napping in shadows. Several actually seemed to be on active patrol, roaming about with purposeful strides. Many more simply lounged about, still in their armor and only a leap away from their horses. The abbey itself stood in the midst of all this activity.
Well, an all-out attack is definitely out of the question, Ferdia ventured. And with the barracks at the back of the abbey itself, there'll be no flanking them. There's probably soldiers all the way around the grounds.
You want us to confirm that? Lita volunteered, thumbing at herself and the sign holder.
Nah, Ivan shook his head, There'd be no point. These things typically only have one entrance, so we'd wind up going after the same spot eventually anyway.
The rest of the group turned and stared.
What? the gray kiwi scowled, You think I toured Europe the better part of a decade and didn't pick up any culture?
You certainly hide it well, Bob remarked dryly.
Anyway, Ferdie shook off the thought of Ivan as cultured, Beak, could you-
There are too many, friend Ferdie, the Magi shook his head. I could not fool so many minds at once.
Squeaks blinked, remembering how they'd bluffed their way into the capital city. Wait
Ferdie, what's that spell you mentioned back at the castle gates? The one that generated illusions?
Ferdie frowned. All he really remembered from that bluff was mass restrained terror. A glamour?
The mouse nodded. Would it be possible to use one of those to get in?
Now it was Newton's turn to frown. In theory, yes. But I can't say how long the spell would hold out if I cast it on multiple people. Glamours are bleeder spells each continues to draw energy from the spell-caster until the spell is either dispersed, or the caster's magic is completely drained.
But it could be done, provided we were able to find the Princess quickly.
Sir Knight, an abbey that size it's huge! There will be a great many rooms, and if they've moved her-
Ferdia grinned. That's easy enough to get around. Since this guy's so sure it's Ferdie's sister they've got locked up, we'll just pretend I'm the princess, and act like we're not sure where I'm supposed to be. The guards'll point us right to her, and maybe even unlock her cell door!
Milady! Newton looked appalled.
What? It's as good an idea as any. We've already proven I look like the princess, and it's not like I won't have backup.
But-! the wizard floundered, If you're discovered-!
I'm sure we could provide more than enough of a diversion to keep the rest of the place busy, D'Gal offered, with a shark's grin.
Unless you have any better ideas, of course, Iiwi chimed in, peering intently at the worried wizard.
I- er, that is to say- Newton stammered, No, he sighed, I don't.
Good, the Flier grinned, Then it's settled. Fire up some spells, wizard.
The group watched as Newton, Squeaks, and Ferdia set off across the field toward the abbey, the wizard's glamours masking their uniforms and robes so well nary a soldier challenged them, though a few raised curious eyebrows as the three strode past. When it looked as if the ruse would hold, the waiting party turned their attention back to the diversion they had planned to further draw attention away from the masquerading trio.
Against his better judgment, Ferdie sat once again in the saddle of his battle-trained mount. Horse and rider alike were bedecked in illusionary finery, to the point where even the most simple-minded soldier would recognize the rich red and gold trimmings and elaborate polished silver armor of the fearless Prince Ferdinand the Brave. Bob stood beside him, clothed in the glamour of stereotypical barbarian heroes everywhere iron-toed leather boots that reached his knees, a layered loincloth with strategic metal guards, and an oversized sword nearly as big as he was sheathed and slung across his back. Beak, wearing his trademark look of profound confusion, stood nearby inspecting his own magical disguise, an exotic ensemble of gold-trimmed red cloth that brought to mind the costumes in those Kung Fu movies Bob was so fond of. Only his lightsaber remained unchanged.
Across from them, Iiwi admired the bright, flickering flames that danced harmlessly along her feathers, fanning when she flapped her wings and flaring to greater intensity every time she fluffed out her feathers. Newton's glamour had made her the spitting image of a true Phoenix, and she was delighted with the sight herself as a raptor of living flame.
While the Flier preened, the villains of the group reviewed the playing field again. Both Ivan and D'Gal had refused Newton's spell, and while Drake (who morally objected to being grouped with the villains, but continued to keep an eye on them in case they attempted something dastardly) would have liked a more fitting heroic garb than his now thoroughly scorched and ruined uniform, the Duck had been far too worried the wizard's spell might accidentally backfire and bury him in sheep. Ivan's wards also had no disguise; Lita was nowhere to be found, and the sign holder stood off to one side of their cover of underbrush, sulking. He'd been tasked with keeping an eye on the monk, as well as both Newton and the cops' horses, while the others fought the diversion, and was none too happy about this.
Now, D'Gal was saying, I say we let them get inside, give them a minute, then attack from all sides.
We don't have nearly the numbers we'd need to attack from all sides, Ivan frowned.
No, but they don't know that, and it'll make them think they're being ambushed, the Vycerian persisted. We want to catch them off-guard and keep them that way. We need things to be as disorganized as possible; as soon as those soldiers realize they're up against a handful of fighters instead of an army, they'll stop running to regroup and start fighting back - or fall away from us and let the archers pick us off. He shrugged. Our greatest weapon is surprise. Once we've exhausted that, ours becomes a defensive battle.
Why do I get the feeling I should be taking notes on the unique insanity of Vycerian battle strategy? Drake muttered, rolling his eyes.
D'Gal bristled, clenching Fiend's reins as the black horse rumbled a warning that sent Drake's pony skittering sideways. You can fight this however you see fit, Duck, he growled, I was simply offering up a tried and proven plan of attack.
So much for strategy, Ivan grunted, nodding at the abbey, They just went inside. If we don't get into position now, we'll lose our opportunity. Farlane! he called, scanning the area, Where is that girl?
She went off a little while ago, Ferdie supplied, wandering over to the group with great caution in how close his horse came to Fiend.
Hey! the dust bunny protested, emerging from the nearby bushes with a long, straight branch, freshly-hewn and nearly a foot taller than she was. The branch's leaves and twigs had been torn free, and much of its bark stripped or smoothed out, leaving her with what amounted to a crude bo. Careful what you say about my mother, boss. If she comes after you, I'm outta here.
Where have you been, Farlane?
Out making a weapon, of course, she smirked, Seeing as how no one here had a spare sword handy and all I had was a knife and some old ornamental stuff from the loot bag.
And now you've got a stick, Drake commented.
Lita grinned deviously, twirling the bo around and taking a few practice swings, jabs, and lunges with it. Quite a few of these came within a hair's breadth of clipping Drake, and the duck paled.
There's a lot to be said for a solid bit of wood and the knowledge of how to beat people with it, the rabbit smirked.
Ivan rolled his eyes at this display. Great, Farlane. Now get into position behind the residential quarters. Hurry up, we're wasting time.
The teen shrugged, starting out for the far corner of the valley. Wait, she paused, frowning, Where's the monk?
The monk? Ivan repeated, blinking. Now that she mentioned it, the pudgy robin was nowhere to be seen.
Ferdie picked up on this, too, nervously fidgeting as he peered through the forest underbrush in hopes the cleric had simply wandered off to answer the call of Nature. But no robin was to be found. He's gone! the bluebird exclaimed. This was a significant cause for concern; in Ferdie's experience, a priest that guided you somewhere and then vanished was either evil, a demon, or both.
Iiwi stretched her fiery wings. I could go look for him, she volunteered.
No, D'Gal scowled. He played us. If we hurry, we can attack before he's able to sound the alarm.
Has it occurred to you that he might just be a peace-loving old bird that left to avoid the sight of bloodshed he instinctively knew you'd wreak upon these soldiers? Drake cut in as Ferdie and the kiwis set off running to flanking positions along the forest edge, Or that he had urgent business matters to attend to?
He's a monk, fool. He doesn't have business matters.
Prayers, then. He might be praying for our good fortune.
Perhaps, D'Gal shrugged, But I'm not about to find out. Hya! He dug his heels into Fiend's sides, the horse springing from the underbrush and into the clearing at a gallop.
Drake turned to argue his point further but with no one left but the sign holder, he opted instead to charge out into the fray, as the others were now doing.
Gren looked up from his work as a resolute pounding sounded on the abbey's thick wooden doors, irritating the grungy chipmunk. Bad enough to get stuck indoors on guard duty on a day as fine as this, he grumbled, but now he'd lost his place. Ought to take him a whole 'nother ten minutes to find the needle and remember where the stitch was supposed to go. That was the problem with leather armor, that was. A body had to sew it back up right proper when it got torn up by swords, or it'd fall all to pieces, and then he'd be no better off than the poor bugger he'd nicked these tanned rags from in the first place.
Wha' d'you want? he demanded through a newly-hacked notch well, the hole from an errant axe-throw, if ye must know, but what's a body to do when it's as bored as he'd been an hour ago, eh? in the wood of the abbey's well-kept oak doors, I'm busy.
A scruffy-looking mouse in soldiers' garb glared back at him. Let us in, mate, he snapped tiredly, jerking a struggling silk-gloved arm back as its owner tried to pull free, Got an escapee.
Gren gawked at the indignant form of the Princess as she huffed angrily, stomping her slippered foot in frustration. Her pink dress, all satin and lace and probably worth more than Gren made okay, stole in a year, sported some tears along the lacy hem and a spattering of dirt on the top skirt.
'ere, now, Gren frowned, You 'aven't been rough wit' 'er, now, 'ave ye?
No, mate, the mouse shook his head, Only catchin' up with her, is all. She runs fast, this one. Clever, too. How'd she get past you?
Get past me? Gren repeated, incredulous, She didnae get past me!
'ow'd she get out, then? another soldier, a lizard, asked, looking uncomfortable with his situation. One of the new recruits, perhaps, or someone that still thought of Royals as untouchable.
Gren hesitated a moment as the princess tried to squirm free of her captor's grasp. He could've sworn she'd not gotten past him but, then, he had nearly fallen asleep after lunch, and there had been a minute or two not long ago when Nature had called quite insistently
He pushed the heavy crossbeam from the doors, tugging them open and gruffly ushering the men inside. As soon as the reluctant princess was tugged past the threshold, he swung the door shut once again, heaving the crossbeam back into place. Dusting off his hands, Gren turned back to his battered wooden stool, surprised to see the soldiers still standing in the entryway.
Well? he demanded, What're ye lollygaggin' about fer? Git goin'!
Roight, the mouse half-bowed mockingly, Just as soon as you point us in the right direction, mate.
Ye mean ye don't know where t' take 'er?! Gren blinked.
We're not the ones what were supposed t'be guarding her, the mouse shrugged, grinning, Still, tell us the way an' we'll keep right on doin' your job.
Gren could feel the color rising in his cheeks. The nerve of that man! Take the stairs at the end o' tha' corridor thar, he snapped, pointing down the hall, An' tell tha' useless sack o' feathers down thar tha' he'd best start tendin' his post afore I box 'is ears!
The mouse smirked, turning and with the lizard's help nearly lifting the Princess off the ground as they all but carried the recalcitrant girl down the hall.
Gren turned back to his torn armor, all but forgetting the soldiers. That is, until the shouting and sounds of clashing swords and pounding hooves reached his ears.
The afternoon had been warm and peaceful, and most of Kronos' soldiers had opted to rest lazily in the sun. The duck that burst from the trees astride a furious black charger caught them by surprise, as did the swordsmen and riders that flew out of the forest now at every turn, and the Firebird screeching down at them from clear skies sent many of the already bewildered men bolting for safety. Still some brave souls held their ground, dodging the bird's flames and the others' swords as they scrambled for their own weapons.
Bob was in rare form, charging the flustered soldiers and booting all who got in his way with shouts of Take that, villain! and Cower beneath the heel of Justice! (Bob should not be allowed to write his own taglines.) Beak skillfully engaged the swordsmen charging towards Bob, slicing through sword and sinew and shoving those sufficiently wounded to be of no further threat out of the way. Iiwi wheeled and dove, screaming down out of the sky like a rocket to strike at soldiers as they went for their weapons and scatter those groups attempting to rally into organized units.
For his part, Ivan had opted to embrace the Mafioso way of creating a diversion, taking up a position behind a sheltering rock in the field and picking off all those that demonstrated even the slightest hint of leadership. Concern for ammunition was the furthest thing from his mind this was, after all, the sort of fight those with firearms had been saving their bullets for.
Lita took her time getting into position, flanking the soldiers by emerging behind the abbey and ambushing them while their backs were turned, wielding her makeshift bo with deadly accuracy. She spun and jabbed, swung and thrashed the stick with fearsome speed and aim, bobbing and lunging with a graceful athleticism born of long hours of training and practice. She charged the smaller, more loosely-knit defensive group of soldiers, often planting one end of the bo in the dirt and using it as an anchor point for a double-legged lunge/swing kick.
And even as soldiers fled from her or reeled from encounters with the other party members, D'Gal cut a bloody swath through their ranks, racing along a zigzag path at breakneck speeds. Fiend, as black-hearted and blood-thirsty as a crazed wolverine, was aptly suited for battle, slamming into soldiers and other horses to shatter bones and knock them over, trampling the fallen in his path, and striking out with his teeth and hooves whenever D'Gal pulled him in to a mass of soldiers for close combat. The ebony-feathered duck himself was in his element, having leaned over and plucked a sword from a dying warrior at the start of the fight. Now he cut, kicked, and guided Fiend into crushing all before him, the civility of a phaser set to stun completely lost on him.
Indeed, it was a mark of how tenacious Drake's grip on the situation truly was that the Platyrian followed after D'Gal, attempting to stun the soldiers before they reached the duck and shuddering as his stomach churned at the sight of blood and sound of crunching bones of the soldiers he sailed to save from themselves.
Villain! he bellowed after D'Gal, What are you doing?!
D'Gal sent a sidelong glance Drake's way, hacking another soldier away as the vole charged his right shoulder. I'm providing a diversion, Duck!
What happened to the 'no killing' rule? Drake screamed as the fiend's horse took hold of a charging soldier by his shoulder, reared, and flung the man head over heels a good twelve feet across the battlefield.
Really, Dumas, I never promised not to kill them. I promised not to kill you.
Drake blinked. I think I liked it better when you mispronounced my name.
I've never mispronounced your name, Dumas.
There, see, that's better. More insulting, less scary.
In the background, some idiot with a bugle attempted to toot a battle command. On cue, Ferdie's horse charged the bugler full-tilt, the princely glamour giving horse and rider the look of a general plunging ahead into battle. The bluebird's screams of terror were lost among the shouts and clashing swords, and the bugler was so startled by the display he fell into a mute retreat, giving Ferdie enough renewed control over his mount to whip its head around and flee the other way. This, in turn, led the bugler to regain a feeling of safety, and he again sounded his bugle, starting the cycle anew.
As Ferdie and the packs of soldiers alternately chasing and fleeing from him depending the bugle call ran back and forth across the field, and Lita chased a host of soldiers around, swinging her bo like a bat and occasionally punt-lunging at stragglers, a group of soldiers that had previously escaped attention succeeded in dislodging a section of stone fence before the fiery form of Iiwi bore down at them. As the Flier drove the panicked men at the furiously booting feet of Bob, a stream of small, white, fluffy death-incarnate sheep stormed the field. Gallant, recognizing the instruments of his rider's doom, immediately rid himself of the duck.
Drake took one look at his retreating pony, another at the stampeding death-bringers, and took off running.
The scrawny swallow dozing outside the entrance to the wine cellar couldn't have been more than ten years old, but he sprang forward like a seasoned pro as the trio made their way down the stairs.
Wot's this, then? he demanded of Squeaks, dingy feathers puffing out in tufts of indignation as he tried to look a bit larger and more imposing, Oo's she?
Who's she look like, boy? Newton snapped, sidestepping him.
She ain't the Princess, 'at's for sure, he retorted, 'at one's still all locked up. I kin hear her cryin'.
The trio paused, listening. A low keening sound was emanating from behind the thick wooden doors of the wine cellar. Newton blinked with surprise, forcing a look of disdain back onto his face. This was an uneducated young brute, most likely a beggar or bandit child recruited by the warlord to keep him from reporting this Kronos' movements to others. The wizard wasn't about to be bested by the likes of him. Fool. That's just a trick of the wind winding through these corridors. This is the-
Is not! the boy scowled, stamping his foot.
She is so, Newton insisted, Slipped by while you were napping, no doubt. You're lucky we don't box your ears for this!
Swallows 'aven't got ears ye bloody git, the boy countered. We gots ear-holes, an' you couldna find 'em if ye had a bloody map!
Why you mangy little curr- Newton fumed.
Bloody scalie! the boy yelled, kicking at the wizard's shins, Murdering buncha-
Hey, hey, hey! Squeaks yelled, shoving Newton back mid-lunge and hauling the swallow up by his collar, careful to keep a grip on Ferdia's arm lest they spoil their own ruse. None of that, now, he scolded the boy, levering him in front of the locked door, Just unlock the door, and we'll see who's right.
The swallow shrugged off the mouse's grip, scowling back at them as he tugged the key out of a fold in his rags. Buncha bullies, yoo are, he grumbled. I'm tellin' ye, she's in 'ere, so whoev'r ye've got, she's not- he paused. Being a mere boy (and a rather scrawny one at that), he wasn't allowed any ale, and the lack of an alcohol- and battle-addled brain made him a bit brighter than his fellows. He hesitated. 'old up, the young swallow frowned, as the muffled sounds of a battle raging outside filtered down into the now-silent corridor, Ye know th' Princess is in there, don't ye?
What? the lizard blinked.
No! the mouse insisted.
But the Princess with them looked surprised as well, and didn't so much as try to jerk her arm free of her distracted captor's grip.
Ye do know, the swallow insisted, withdrawing the key and backing away from the door. Ye know cuz yer spies, here t' rescue her, aren'tcha?
The mouse moved to cut off his access to the stairs, no longer bothering to keep hold of the Princess's wrist as she and the lizard slid around to flank the boy.
The swallow looked uneasy. I'll scream, he threatened, edging away from the trio surrounding him.
With a battle raging overhead, do you really think anyone will hear you? the Princess asked, eyes glittering dangerously, Or come running even if they do?
Just give us the key, kid, the mouse entreated, holding our a hand, We'd rather not harm you. We just want the princess.
You want the key? the swallow asked, raising it up over his head and preparing to lob it as far down the corridor as possible, Then go fetch- wossat? he paused mid-toss, blinking at them warily as if they'd all just grown a second set of heads.
What's what? Ferdia queried, glancing about in confusion an instant before their costumes flickered again.
The spell! Newton gasped as the glamour faltered once again, fading to a ghostly transparency that revealed their actual appearance and garb, It's failing!
Spell? the swallow repeated, eyes widening. He flung the key past the group, bolting for the stairs. Mage! There's a mage down here! Hel-
Ferdia caught him mid-stride, clamping a hand across his beak as the spell flickered out. Where's the key? she shouted to the others as the boy struggled.
Squeaks pawed through the layers of dirt and straw littering the cellar floor. I don't know! I didn't see where it landed!
It could be said of the carnivorous mountain sheep that the soldiers feared them as much as Drake did, and indeed their appearance on the battlefield rattled many enough to attempt retreat. Gallant found himself hounded by desperate individuals seeking a horse to flee upon, and was almost relieved as he crashed through the underbrush where the sign holder hid.
But the small kiwi caught and held him fast, handing him back to a breathless Drake when the duck stumbled through the bushes in search of the pony. Marveling a moment at the boy's knack for hiding for many soldiers ran past, but did not spot the bird and horses crouched in a small depression under a mat of woven grass camouflage as well as his willingness to return the equine, Drake mounted up and charged back into the fray, dodging sheep as best he could and completely missing the sheer entertainment value watching his struggles provided.
Keeping a firm grip on the pony's saddle, Drake made his way back toward the marauding black form of his nemesis, who at this point was charging groups of soldiers that now fled immediately upon seeing him. To their credit, the hungry sheep like any other opportunistic carnivores had forgotten about their favorite feathered treat and were wandering about the quieter corners of the battlefield, munching on the dead and dying and scaring off the vultures already scavenging a meal. The hulking black birds lumbered angrily back into the sky, squawking down at the woolly scavengers as they resumed their wait for carrion, circling the sky in droves now as more and more buzzards caught the scent of blood.
Unplagued by sheep - save for one lone lamb resolutely gumming Gallant's back hock Drake watched the pandemonium on the field for a moment. With Ferdie switching from chasee to chaser at the call of a bugle, soldiers fleeing the stick-swinging Lita, and Bob virtually booting soldiers at Beak, he noted that, with the exception of the bloodshed being wreaked by D'Gal, the battle had truly become a farce. Had they not been in this fight for the sole purpose of distracting the soldiers, he would've been ashamed.
An arrow whizzed by his ear, reminding him of the archers lining the windows, downspouts, and bell towers of the abbey, ready to fire at whatever lonely target was foolish enough to present itself. He turned to run for the safety of a group of soldiers, and was nearly bowled over by one as it swept past him in terror. Gallant floundered in the surging sea of bodies, half-rearing as he tried to back out of the crowd. The pony stumbled on some unseen snag, shying as a sheep screamed beneath him. The relentless press of bodies around the pony paid little attention to his panic, and Drake became caught up in the confusion as he tried to keep his balance atop the stumbling, pitching pony. He wasn't even aware of the clatter of hooves until said hooves skid to a halt, and for an instant his world was filled with naught but flashing hooves and the echoing scream of an angry, high-pitched whinny.
Du-mas! D'Gal bellowed, using the proper pronunciation he now knew irked the Platyrian so much as he fought to bring the rearing Fiend's feet back to the ground, Watch what you're doing!
Watch what I'm-
Normally, I'd be more than happy to oblige your death wish, the Vycerian snapped, But right now, I'd appreciate your presenting less of an easy target!
Drake started to reply, but stopped as his foe's attention darted suddenly off the battlefield and onto the abbey towers. Not more arrows, I hope? he queried, catching sight of the bustle of activity atop the rafters.
No, D'Gal shook his head, They're routing men back inside. He jerked Fiend around to face the stone abbey, spurring the horse into a run.
What are you- Drake shouted, urging his tired pony to something approaching a similar gait.
Those archers were their best weapon against us, D'Gal yelled back, They'd only pull them if the abbey itself were under attack. We've been found out!
Weren't we supposed to fall back once they figured out the diversion?
D'Gal shot a disbelieving look back at the Platerian. Some friend you are, Duck. Has it occurred to you that Arcadia might need help?
Well- Drake paused. It hadn't.
Run if you like, D'Gal stated, urging Fiend faster and holding his pilfered sword low as the stone steps of the abbey drew near, I've got other plans!
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