A Scythe in Time: Part 9
Heroes are people who do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of consequences.
The group was on the move once again.
But I don't want to be on the move!
Despite Ferdie's objections, they had resumed their travels, unwilling to spend another night haunted by menacing spells and traps set by unseen hands. Iiwi had found a set of well-hidden caves while on reluctant patrol that morning, and though Newton cautioned of the possibility of gryphons prowling the area, a bit of eager scouting/spelunking by Lita and the sign holder had turned up no signs of the raptors in the caves or surrounding brush. Thus the rest of the travel-weary group journeyed from the not-so-deserted monks' ruins to a network of caves nestled further up the mountains a walk of several leagues over steeply sloping, rock-and-burr-strewn brush, but a nevertheless a refreshingly short distance for those of the party growing ever more accustomed to day-long hikes.
The relative brevity of their trip was of little comfort to Ferdianna, who spent much of the day protesting the party's departure from the shads and relative comfort of the ruins, her borrowed pony's awkward gait and rather pungent smell, the horribly common flush of color all this riding about in the sun was putting in her regally pale cheeks, the scandalously improper seating arrangements amongst those that rode specifically, that her double shared a saddle with one who was not only a member of the opposite sex, but an entirely different species - and the fact that certain individuals of station (such as the gallant white knight who had given her his own horse) were made to walk by those of peasant blood (such as the vile, black-feathered demon that rode the nightmare, not that she could imagine her noble rescuer ever even attempting to ride such an ill-tempered beast as the aptly-named Fiend).
Unbeknownst to the group currently suffering the royal's rambling list of complaints, breaking camp had been the best course of action for all their sakes. Shortly after their departure that morning, a small group of trackers and advance scouts arrived at the ruins and began searching for signs of life or recent visitors - and not long after that, a stealthy contingent of skilled spies converged upon the village, sliding into position around the choking underbrush and shadowy corners around the ruin's outskirts as they quietly observed the exploring scouts. But the warding spells on the village, tricks and traps and glamours and numerous other enchantments intended to keep out the odd explorer or curious traveler, though dormant during the wandering party's overnight refuge, were active once again, and as the scouts gawked at the snare spells and the trackers frowned at a scent and trail suddenly vanished, the newly-arrived spy troops had no idea the group they watched was not the one they were meant to watch.
Evening came after a long day of hiking and exploring, leaving the group seriously rethinking whether or not a princess-dumping side trip to the nearest town was warranted. Ferdianna continued to insist upon taking every last bedroll for herself, decrying the party's thin, coarse wool blankets as cold and scarcely any protection at all from the rocky, uneven floors of the caves. She spent no small amount of time fussing over just exactly where her bed ought to be made this corner had too many pebbles, that one had some dried vines poking around the edges, and a speck of pale green rock moss discoloring part of the wall, and, oh, this spot would be perfect, but for the slight draft that blew in from the cave mouth, and one so delicate as herself oughtn't sleep there she'd get a chill. At length, she put on her most entreating helpless maiden face and soulfully distraught eyes, convinced Drake to clear a relatively flat patch of rock of all dirt, pebbles, and assorted debris, and proceeded to direct bedroll-folding and precise placement for nearly an hour before releasing the tired duck to go off in search of his own comfort.
Bob and Beak dealt with the news of the princess's blanket-hijacking as best they could, spending hours upon hours hunting in vain for pine needles not to be found in this part of the mountain countryside, only to eventually yield to the inevitable and collapse exhaustedly upon the dirt floor. The rest of the party, too tired to even bother searching for alternative bedding, simply spread out across the interior of the small cave they'd chosen to make camp in, doing their best to sweep as many errant pebbles from the ground as possible before bedding down though for her part, Iiwi spurned the gravel-strewn dirt interior altogether, opting instead to perch just above the entrance to the cave, amongst the bushes and underbrush that masked it from view so well that the others quickly took to using her as a guide back to their hideaway. The horses were secured in a similarly hidden cave nearby, with D'Gal camped beside them lest hapless thieves or hungry gryphons try to steal their mounts in the darkness.
A tired Newton sat beneath a mage-light with a quill and roll of parchment, surrounded by spellbooks and magical tomes as he worked to weave together the spells he'd chosen for their inevitable confrontation with the temple dragon. The magic here was complicated, and he was determined to get the incantations woven just right, to maximize the tailored spells' power and effectiveness and to minimize the odds of them spiraling out of control while he cast them, as high-level spells such as he'd need to stand against the fire-lizard could easily bring about apocalyptic bouts of destruction if botched or allowed to run unchecked. A second scroll lay by his side, steadily gaining entries into a list of ingredients for a defensive potion he meant to brew. This in itself was a difficult task, as trying to refine a tailored potion from multiple recipes often required a knowledge and understanding of each ingredient's magical properties and behaviors when combined with heat, pressure, and other ingredients all of it a finely-tuned skill Newton had never really learned and seldom had time to practice. Potion-making was not the magic of choice for a wandering mage such as himself; it required time, resources, and most importantly a sense of timing, for the difference between a Healing potion and Poison draught was often no more than a minute's boil and several seconds' delay in adding the brambleberries and ground newt's tail to a foaming cauldron. Given his track record on spell-learning, potions was definitely not the sort of wizarding a book-taught and unapprenticed mage such as Newton favored. He paused, rousing himself from his musings to read over the notes he'd transcribed. It certainly looked promising
The spell is nearly finished, milady, he proclaimed, proofing his work once again, A bit of searching for the potion's ingredients, some time to brew it properly, and we'll be set to face the drag- he halted, blinking in the soft glow of the mage-light at the darkened cave and the slumbering forms of his exhausted companions.
Night had fallen while he'd worked on the spell, and the others, lacking a fire inside the cave or even sufficient energy to chat amongst themselves as the suns' light drained from the shadowy cave, had long since drifted off to sleep, curled in a defensive cluster far from the entrance. Ferdia and Squeaks had fallen asleep sitting with their backs to the cave wall, sliding in their slumber until their shoulders touched and held them both propped in place. Ferdie slouched at his sister's side, back to her free shoulder rather than the cold stone wall, the tiny captured sheep gnawing at the fraying cuff of his pants leg as it strained to pull free from the rabbit using it as a pillow - much as the sign holder was using Lita as a pillow - while Ivan sat propped against a rock. Only Drake, standing slouched against the far wall by Ferdianna's nest of pillows and blankets and keeping watch in theory over the group in case some unnamed murderous fiend attempted to massacre them in their sleep, and Iiwi, perched outside the cave amongst the overhanging brambles, slept apart from the clustered party members.
Newton shook his head, grinning to himself. Such a colorful, spirited group. He would miss them, when they returned to their world wherever that might be. If they made it back, of course. They had yet to hear from their Science mage, and here it had been over a fortnight. The wizard opened the book nearest him, skimming through its pages. Perhaps there was something he could do to help
Wow, the sign holder whistled as he and Lita set off down the path leading away from camp, his eyes ticking off a mental tally of the items listed on the sheaf of parchment Newton had handed them at breakfast that morning, Do we really have to get all this stuff?
Yep, his friend nodded, tugging their reluctant lamb along the path with the help of a leash of pink silk sash secretly borrowed from Ferdianna while the princess slept in once again, Every last one of 'em.
For one lousy spell?
The rabbit shrugged. That's what the wizard said. I guess since he's combining a couple different potions, there's gonna be lotsa ingredients. At least we don't have to get all the ingredients just those on our list. She picked her way down a particularly steep patch of slope, untangling the bleating sheep from a patch of brambles it slid into when its uncertain feet slipped in the slick dirt. She paused at the bottom of the eight-foot slope, turning and beckoning the sign holder to jump towards her rather than attempt the slope himself.
The young kiwi frowned, peering down the sloping drop for a moment and gauging the distance between him and the rabbit, debating the odds of falling short. What about these ones at the bottom here? he asked, taking a running jump towards her outstretched arms. She caught him easily, nonchalantly shrugging at his question. Not quite satisfied with his partner in crime's response, the sign holder persisted, pointing to the items in question as she set him back on the ground. 'Gold, jewels, and anything expensive-looking'? They're not like the rest of the stuff we're supposed to get.
He frowned, squinting at the suspect listings. They're not even in the same handwriting!
Lita snatched the paper away as the kiwi scrutinized the familiar script along the bottom of the page, striding briskly down the game trail before them at a pace so quick the sign holder had to rush to keep up with her and the trotting lamb. Her words took on a similar speed. Maybe he was in a hurry, and added them last-minute. Lotsa people's handwriting looks different when they're rushing.
It's not even in the same color ink!
What, he can't borrow a pen just to jot down a few last-minute additions?
The sign holder halted, folding his arms and scowling up at the exasperated dust bunny. You added that stuff, didn't you, Lita?
She shrugged. Like I'm not gonna do it anyway. Besides, you heard the lizard dragons have a thing for gems. Might as well pick some up in case this spell of his goes sour.
Come on, kid, it's just some grubs an' herbs an' stuff, she stated, tossing the list up in the air as she started back down the trail, laughing as a backwards glance showed the sign holder leaping to retrieve the fluttering list. What's a little treasure-hunting on the side gonna hurt? It's not like we've got any of the hard stuff, like boar's feet or orc toenails.
Boar's feet and orc toenails?!? Drake goggled at their short but treacherous list of items. And just where are we supposed to find stuff like that?!?
Wherever there's boars and orcs, I'd imagine, D'Gal shrugged, lightly tugging Fiend's reins to side-step a patch of brambles as Drake and Gallant blundered into the chest-high thorns and flailed about for a moment before pulling free. Can't be all that hard.
Do you honestly think I'm about to go after vicious, razor-toothed boars and evil, ill-tempered, club-toting orcs when I keep getting savaged by sheep?!?
The Vycerian smirked as yet another bramble-bush smacked his reluctant partner in this trying quest for spell ingredients. Being barred from shooting or even just maiming Dumas was irksome, but it had thus far provided him with an opportunity to torment the Platyrian another way: by taunting him. Drake had no concept of how to respond to a verbal jibe. Perhaps you're asking for it. You doing anything that might be considered leading them on?
Drake scowled, pausing for a moment to pick the largest of the bramble thorns out of his feathers. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate you?
And yet you keep coming back for more, D'Gal smirked, raising an eyebrow in amusement. There's a term for that, Duck.
No, no, D'Gal shook his head, wagging a finger at the duck as his horse picked up the pace a bit, quickening to a trot, The word I'm thinking of starts with 'M'. But you're quite close.
Drake growled, muttering something unrepeatable as he spurred his pony to match the fiends' brisk gait.
Aha! Bob cheered, pointing at the exotic and important-sounding items on their list, Finally, a quest worthy of a hero of my caliber!
Grocery shopping? Ivan deadpanned.
No, Bob growled, glaring at the grey-feathered villain with the blood-shot eyes of a caffeine-addict who'd been denied coffee a bit too long, or at least since breakfast, Searching for such dangerous items as Siren Scales, Fox Fire, and Dragons' Bane.
Beak frowned. But, Bob Newton's notes say Sirenscale is a waterweed, Foxfire is a tree fungus, and Dragonsbane is a type of poisonous mushroom that burns the skin and works as a flame retardant.
The yellow kiwi paused, scowling. The unicorn horn, then. That's gotta be hard to find.
Newton said there was this old witch that-
We are going to hunt down a unicorn, Bob intoned.
Oh, to have that on tape for the next time Bobetta's around, Ivan mused, recalling the heiress' prized collection of figurines.
Fifteen minutes later, a breathless gray kiwi burst through the shielded greenery that hid the party's cave, having grossly underestimated the effects of coffee-deprivation on his 'nemesis' such as the propensity to fly into a rage of righteous indignation and boots of fury at the drop of a hat (or the mention of the yellow kiwi's fiancée').
A lounging Ferdianna looked up from her cushioned seat of blankets stacked atop a pair of shaded rocks that rested vaguely in the shape of a reclining couch. Glory be, she blinked, as Ivan collapsed to his knees gasping for breath, Are you quite all right?
Oh, absolutely, the crimelord panted, waving away her look of vague concern, The guys just *cough* felt it best if you *cough* weren't left all by your lonesome. He sucked in a lungful of air, trying to regain some semblance of his usual cool dignity. With your insistence on civility and Drake off stalking D'Gal again, that left me.
Iiwi rode the rising air currents, circling higher and higher amongst the cottony white clouds above the clustered mountains and thick forests as she searched for the two items on her list. Despite the amount of jealous looks and grumblings such a short tasking had earned her, the Flier was less than pleased with the quest the wizard had entrusted her with. She needn't find much, no. But that which she did need to find would be none too easy to locate and lay hands or, rather, talons on.
'One fistful of earth from sacred ground, the holier the better', she muttered, rolling her eyes as she mentally went over her assignment, 'And one stained red with blood.' Gee, thanks, Newton. Send me halfway across the countryside in search of an untouched church cemetery and a fresh battleground, why don't you? 'Cuz, y'know, I just love the squelch of mud between my talons at five thousand feet
She banked right, following the wind current as it took her over the ruined abbey from two days ago. Buzzards squawked as her shadow drifted over the circling scavengers and their precious carrion still strewn about the ruined field. No fresh blood there, she sighed, and certainly no sacred ground anymore, not after an army occupation and the previous days' battle not to mention D'Gal's stunt inside the abbey itself. Still, there was something below that made her pause, circling the area with a frown.
An army in red and gold was now camped out inside the ruins, picking around the warlord's dead in search of any valuables Ivan's enthusiastic wards might have missed. Here and there pairs of scouts wandered about, exploring the surrounding forests with a purpose. One caught sight of her shadow and glanced up, calling to his comrades and pointing to the skies even as she dodged back behind the thinning clouds. But she was evidently too high up or too indistinct to be of much interest to the soldiers below, as no one else seemed to pay the scout heed. Still, an army intently combing the sight of a battlefield was looking for something. And an army wearing the Crown's colors as Newton called them - combing the sight of a battle that had been fought to retrieve the captive Princess Ferdianna could only be looking for one thing. Well, one thing aside from loot, anyway.
Well, this was interesting. Hardly relevant to her current search, but certainly worth mentioning upon her return to the caves. Perhaps they'd be able to relieve themselves of the pampered Royal after all, and free to roam on their own terms once more. Newton and the others would be pleased to learn such good news.
Provided, of course, willpower won out over the urge to fling her muddy cargo at the fastidious wizard that had sent her on this errand
Here we are, milady, Newton waved them towards a hewn cave set deep into a set of mossy ruins tucked inside the mountain forests, the crumbling structures so ancient they made even the monks' village seem shiny and new , Inside, please.
Ferdia went in first, stepping into the dusty darkness only to find the cave was surprisingly large, open, and well-lit. Its main chamber was nearly thirty feet around, and strangely circular, with a smooth floor of dust-covered stone, limestone-slicked walls thick with moss, and a curved ceiling that gave it the look of a natural vaulted roof. There was a small, fist-sized hole in the ceiling's center, letting a single shaft of sunlight in to light the center of the chamber and illuminate the dust motes her circuit of the cave kicked up.
Nice, Squeaks commented, walking along the chamber's perimeter and gazing up at the bit of greenery fighting for light near the hole in the ceiling. But what are we doing here?
The spell to quiet the dragon calls for a Moonlily, Newton supplied, stepping into the cave carefully, A very rare plant. This is the only place I know to find them.
Ferdia shrugged. If you say so. What's this thing look like?
Like that. Newton pointed up towards the ceiling. There, nestled in the greenery clustered around the break in the rock some twenty feet above their heads, bloomed a small, bluish-white flower that looked to be in the midst of deciding whether it was meant to be an orchid or a rose. Its fragile, waxy petals, as numerous and layered as any rose's, flared out in an arrangement of the orchid's three-point design, guarding the silvery-blue stalks in its center. It was a splendid beauty, all things told, and the two detectives might have voiced similar sentiments, had it been within reach.
Great, Ferdia muttered, How're we supposed to get it, eh? That hole doesn't look big enough to fit our hands through, even if we could find it from outside.
Squeaks paced out a measuring of the circular patch of sunlight on the cave floor, doing some quick calculations. He nodded in agreement with his partner. She's right. And the walls outside are too sheer to climb without any sort of equipment.
Ferdia stared up at the flower. A pity we don't have Iiwi with us, she sighed, But she's gonna be busy for a while. She gave Newton an appraising look. Don't suppose you could magick it down for us?
The lizard wizard shrugged. I could try, I suppose. Burn off the stem with a fireball, sever it with a mage-bolt
The cops paled at the thought of fireballs and bolts of concentrated energy bouncing off the cave walls. Perhaps a levitation spell? Squeaks volunteered, Send one of us up there, and we'll get it ourselves.
That might be safer, the lizard agreed, with a self-depreciating grin, All right then
Grin fading, he raised his arms in front of him, making slow, deliberate movements and chanting in a low voice. Most of it was in an ancient, bastardized Latin dialect, but it was quite obviously a spell, as ghostly threads of glowing energy slowly materialized and flowed with the wizard's movements. The energy concentration in the cave rose tangibly, as did the volume and pace of Newton's chant, until with a final 'Levitatia!', he released the spell.
Squeaks shot backwards into the cavern wall, slamming into the rock with enough force to shake some debris loose from the ceiling.
Oh dear, Newton gasped, as Ferdia rushed to her partner's aid, He was supposed to go up, not over, and not nearly so quickly! Perhaps I mispronounced a vowel sound somewhere
New plan, Squeaks growled, rubbing the back of his head as he strode into the center of the chamber, We form a living ladder.
Are we tall enough for that? Ferdia asked.
I'll try it before I let him try any more spells, at any rate, the mouse muttered, glancing back at the cave wall that now bore a vaguely mouse-shaped indentation. He waved Newton forward. Come on, you first.
Why me? the lizard whimpered.
Because Ferdia's lightest, and I don't trust your balance.
Reluctantly, Newton positioned himself under the flower, planting his feet solidly and bending forward to brace his hands on his knees. Squeaks waited until the wizard had a properly braced stance before using him as a step-stool, squaring his feet on the lizard's shoulders. Once Newton creaked into a standing position and steadied himself somewhat, the mouse waved Ferdia forward.
She shook her head, laughing as she clambered up Newton's back and climbed onto Squeaks' shoulders. There's never anyone around with a camera when you need them, she grunted, pulling herself into a standing position. Newton shifted uncomfortably as Ferdia rose to her feet, and her arms shot out to regain her balance.
Careful, now, Squeaks cautioned them both, gripping his partner's ankles to steady her, Can you reach it?
Ferdia strained forward, stretching out her arm in a futile attempt to reach the flower. Need another foot or two, she sighed, pulling her arm back and steadying her balance again.
I can't move an inch, in case you're thinking of asking, Newton grunted.
Squeaks thought for a minute. You trust me, Blue? he ventured.
Always, she smiled down at him, flashing a victory sign, Whatcha thinkin'?
You'll see. Newton, just hold still - and so help me, if you move
I won't, I won't, the lizard grumbled. I think my back's locked up anyway, he added.
Squeaks shifted his grip on Ferdia's ankles, supporting the soles of her feet instead, and slowly lifted her above his head.
Wow. Squeaks, I am impressed, Ferdia chirped.
came the strained reply.
She stretched upward again, straining to reach the bloom. I need another couple o' inches, she muttered.
We don't have another couple inches! the mouse yelled.
Hmm, she grunted, straining forward even more. Overbalancing, she tottered, quickly withdrawing and flailing her arms out to keep from falling. She felt Squeaks suck in a quick, grimacing breath, her partner fighting spasming arm muscles to keep holding her overhead as she struggled to regain her balance. This isn't going to work, she muttered. After a few more seconds of straining to reach the bloom, she had an idea.
Hey, Squeaks, she called down, I have complete faith in you, got that? Catch me.
With that, she leapt for the moonlily, snatching at the stem in midair. Squeaks, unprepared for her lunge, lost his balance, just barely managing to turn the would-be fall into a jump from Newton's shoulders to the ground. The jump sent the lizard tumbling away, and Squeaks had a split-second to whirl around and lunge into Ferdia's path, twisting to catch his partner as she fell but as he hadn't time to brace his feet, he tumbled backwards, landing roughly on his tail.
My hero! she cried playfully, hugging him.
Bravo! Bravo! Newton called merrily from his seat in the dust on the other side of the cave, laughing as Ferdia climbed out of Squeaks' lap and helped her partner up. Did you get it?
Yep, she smiled, triumphantly holding up the flower.
And, Newton? she added, snatching the bloom back as he reached for it, If you screw this spell up, I will be forced to maim you horribly.
The wizard blinked.
.Maim me, milady?
What she means, Squeaks supplied, rubbing his lower back as his muscles let him know just what they'd thought of that little maneuver, Is that we're not doing that again.
Oh, the lizard nodded, taking the moonlily and carefully wrapping it in silks, Well, that goes without saying, Sir Knight.
It does? they chorused.
Indeed, Newton nodded sagely, Moonlilies bloom only under blue moons once every three months or so. If this spell fails, we may not live long enough for the next one.
Ferdia blinked. Y'know, she muttered to Squeaks, If he wasn't so important to all this, I'd hurt him.
The sound of pounding feet and panicked yelling shattered the relative peace of the dappled forest as Bob and Beak sped along the underbrush at speeds that would have done a panicked Ferdie proud. The pair dodged trees and leapt over rocks and snags with the flowing grace of a herd of fleeing deer, adrenaline and the will to survive expertly guiding their feet and balance. A fall at this speed might not kill them outright, but it would undoubtedly still prove fatal by allowing the blood-stained beast bearing down on them time to catch up to its intended prey. Lean and angular but the size of a mighty Clydesdale, the pale shade at their heels lashed its whiplike lion's tail and lengthened its mighty stride into an uncanny equine version of a cheetah's swiveling-shoulder sprint, covering huge lengths of ground at impossible speeds as the two that had dared approach it ran for all their worth.
Yaaaaaaa! Bob shrieked, prize-winning cute feet an orange blur as the kiwi dashed for safety, all thoughts of heroism gone from his mind in the face of their current situation.
I thought unicorns were shy, gentle, peace-loving creatures! Beak yelled as the pair fled before the savage white fiend of cloven hooves and fiery breath set on running them through. The ghostly white spectre of a horned horse screamed in rage behind them, quickening its pace as the kiwis leapt over a fallen log and briefly lost their footing on a grassy slope.
Yeah, well, that's what I used to think about sheep, too, Bob retorted.
But its got a skull skewered on its horn! Beak protested, dodging a swipe from the furious unicorn's curved ivory horn as the beast snaked its head at the kiwis.
All the more reason to run for our lives, I say! Bob yelped, willing himself to go faster. This was no way for heroes to be treated, his inner voice cried. We're far too cute to be skewered!
So, a bored Ferdianna hovered around Ivan, hands firmly locked behind her back as the gray kiwi attempted to sort Lita's pillaged loot and thoroughly ignored the royal, What sort of lord are you?
Ivan didn't bother looking up from his sorting. I'm not, he said.
His disinterested tone was meant to discourage the princess, but Ferdianna was used to being the center of attention, and was intent upon sparking a conversation of some sort. After all, to her reasoning, this gray bird was the only person in the group apart from her white knight that exuded even the slightest bit of culture and genteel mannerisms. A duke, then? she guessed.
The princess frowned at her unresponsive companion. This game wasn't much fun. Are you perchance an Earl?
Ivan sighed exasperatedly. Look, princess, do I look like nobility?
Ferdianna's brow furrowed in thought. Not to me, no. But you carry yourself with dignity and importance, such as only a nobleman would be capable of doing. Moreover, I have heard others besides your servants refer to you as 'Sir', and the Commander says you're some sort of lord.
Okay, first off: the kids? My wards, not my servants, Ivan stated, glancing up to meet her gaze with the look of one nearly out of patience explaining something to a small and simple-minded child. More like apprentices, really. Second: the title's a worthless affectation, since I'm far from the eldest son in a family that's been landless and broke for generations. I've made something of myself, but my family's title's had absolutely nothing to do with that. And third: what Dumas is too much of a wuss to tell you is I'm a crimelord, okay? A rogue, a con, a thief - master thief, actually or king of thieves, if you'd prefer. Not much of an assassin, but I've got them on my payroll, so why bother dirtying my hands more than necessary? Don't get me wrong I'm a fully respectable merchant and businessman as well, but I run my city from the scum up. Happy?
Glory be, Ferdianna breathed, hand fluttering to her chest at the thought of being left along with a criminal. Especially one such as this, hiding his villainous nature behind a mask of civility so completely as to fool even a discerning maiden such as herself. She took several steps back, distancing herself from this dangerous fiend.
Ivan went back to his sorting, and the cave fell silent, save for the occasional clink of treasure.
I suppose all this gold's not yours, then? Ferdianna asked after a moment.
Ferdie was hiking back to the caves along a winding mountain trail, assorted bundles of roots and tree sap and limestone pebbles firmly tucked in his pockets or tied in bundles and carried under his arm, when the telltale sound of approaching Doom met his ears. Against his better judgment, the bluebird turned and looked down the rocky slope in time to see a mean, wiry mass of muscles and sharp edges burst from the trees in hot pursuit of a pair of screaming kiwis.
He recognized the creature chasing the kiwis as a unicorn, great and terrible and more like the savage creature in ancient, frightening Eurasian lore than the loveable fuzzy ponies of European Renaissance art and myth. It might be interesting to note that, when compared to the dragon and gryphons he'd seen about this world, the unicorn was perhaps the most frightening more because it challenged popular mythological stereotypes than anything else, but also because it seemed quite a bit faster than the other creatures so far. It was a wonder, he noted, that Bob and Beak were managing to keep a few paces ahead of the beast or, perhaps, Beak was attempting to slow the creature via MindSpeak, with some success. Even so, the speeding procession was unnerving.
It was also headed straight for him. A trained professional, Ferdie was able to analyze this turn of events in mere microseconds, summing it up in a highly succinct, technical pronouncement.
Oh, crap, he gleeped, just before high-tailing it to the safety of the caves as fast as his pounding feet could carry him.
In the thick forests and weed-choked game paths along the hills and sloping valleys not far from the cave-pocked mountain, a pair of red-and-gold uniformed scouts paused, reining in their horses and tilting their heads at a new sound echoing on the wind.
Do you hear screaming? asked one, after a moment's puzzled listening.
I think so, the other agreed, hesitantly. Though it's probably nothing. I've heard about this region from some of the old-timers in that unit from the abbey. They say the whole place is bewitched in one way or another game disappears before you, water bubbles from the earth as hot as if t'were poured from a kettle, the trees grow thick and foreboding in unnaturally quiet groves. It wouldn't surprise me if the wind does odd things in these mountains as well. If fact, a ghostly moaning breeze would fit right in - there's supposed to be a whole haunted village out here somewhere, after all. Stuff and nonsense, you ask me, but then it could always be the work of witchcraft and wizardry. Something to scare intruders away from a hermit mage's cottage, or some rot.
Still, his partner frowned, glancing uneasily in the direction the scream or was it several screams all blended together? seemed to be coming from. Perhaps we should look into it. Y'know, just in case it's important.
Huh, the second scout chuckled, taking up the reins again and clucking his mount into a slow walk down the slope they'd paused on. You just don't want to go back to camp with reports that there's no trace o' whatever army took his Lordship's sister.
Too right, the first agreed sheepishly, falling into step with his comrade as the two continued their search, I mean, would you?
Not me, mate. The prince looks just about ready to take someone's head off, you ask me. And when someone like Prince Ferdinand was in such a mood, head really could roll. There wasn't a soul in the masses of scouts combing the countryside around the ruined abbey willing to return to camp empty-handed. Someone had laid siege to Kronos' men mere days ago, and the victor presumably had taken the captive princess with them when they'd left the battlefield. And even the most stealthy of armies leaves a trail of some sort. The trick now was to find it before the frustrated royal lost his temper. Let's check out this screaming, then.
Several peaks and valleys from the determined scouts, Squeaks, Ferdia, and Newton were steadily picking their way back to camp, their list of ingredients gathered and stowed with care amongst the saddlebags of the tired horses now plodding dispiritedly along the tricky slope. As the trio helped their mounts navigate the crumbling dirt path, Squeaks cocked his head, flicking his ears to better listen to the muted sound of cliff-muffled, barely-audible echoes on the wind. I hear screaming, the mouse declared.
Ferdia paused, glancing in the direction her partner's swiveled ears were attending. She heard the whisper of wind whistling through the valley below; if she concentrated, it sounded as if it could possibly carry a scream or two - and Squeaks' hearing was far better than hers, so if he said someone was screaming, then someone was screaming. But who was out in those hills that could possibly be screaming? Ferdie?
Squeaks shook his head. No, not your brother. Sounds more like
he frowned, Bob and Beak.
But all they had was herbs and fungus and things, the bluebird frowned.
And unicorn horn, Newton winced, Though I specifically told them to go to a very personable witch trader's hut along the way. I even gave them herbs to pay her with. They couldn't have gone after a live unicorn!
Why not? Ferdia wasn't sure she liked where this was headed, but she was having trouble picturing the slender white horses dotting Bobetta's abode as the sort of creatures that could produce screams from anyone but her brother. What's wrong with-
Vicious things, milady, Newton assured her, shuddering. Bloodthirsty, even. Why, they'd be worse than mountain sheep if they didn't kill their victims so quickly.
Ferdia blinked for a moment, considering this bit of news. You sure it's not just Drake screaming? she asked Squeaks worriedly.
Across the valley, Drake paused in his efforts to clean and bandage the nasty gouges and bite-marks from boar tusks and teeth that comprised his newest wounds, an icy shiver running up his spine despite the day's heat and his pony's warm saddle. Do you hear laughter? he called ahead to D'Gal.
No, the villain shrugged nonchalantly, Probably just the wind.
No, I'm I'm pretty sure I hear-
Dumas, D'Gal glanced back at the duck out of the corner of his eye, voice bored and unconcerned. If you're hearing voices, I really don't need to know about it. Just toss over the boars' feet, and you're free to go gonzo at your leisure.
Drake hesitated as the pair left the relative safety of the forest path they'd just left, worriedly appraising the rather forbidding horde of giant, bear-sized orcs dozing lazily around the shredded carcass of a freshly-killed deer. The hulking creatures were easily a full four heads taller than he was, muscles bulging and bunched into hard knots that were without fail unnecessarily adorned with sharp, bony bumps the size of golf-shoe spikes. Sharp teeth poked from the pronounced overbites of their jaws, and many had two long, yellowed tusks jutting from where their lower canines should have been. Thick, cracked claws tipped their feet as well as their beefy hands, which invariably clutched at stone axes, heavy spiked clubs, piked swords, and for those with stubby fingers or broken claws - razor-sharp, strap-on metal battle-talons. The mottled greens and grays of rock fungus stained their tanned leathery hides, and even asleep, the horde was a fearsome sight to behold. It occurred to Drake that the tallest of their number would probably still tower over him even if he were to ride atop a proper horse and not the diminutive Gallant. Unnerved, the duck began debating the merits of a strategic withdrawal before some unspecified deity unleashed whatever malevolent plan was causing them to laugh as maniacally as the ephemeral laughter drifting on the winds was laughing.
actually, you don't really need my help with those toenails, right? he asked the black-feathered fiend before him nervously, I-I mean, granted, these orc things are twice the size of Great Bears, but they're asleep, and-
D'Gal rolled his eyes at the cringing Platyrian. Pansy, he muttered, venturing past a pair of booted orcs sleeping apart from the main group, almost as if they were guards.
Hey! Drake yelled indignantly, I heard that!
Shut up, idiot! D'Gal hissed, head snapping around to glare at the duck, You'll wake the-
But the slumbering forms before them stirred at the indignant outburst, snapping awake with an assortment of bellows, roars, and angry gestures. The pair of guardian orcs scrambled to their feet at once, hissing and snarling at the ebony intruder in their midst as D'Gal whirled a skittish Fiend around to face them, the nightmarish horse backing nervously away from the stinking hulks of menace and teeth. Behind the horse and rider, those of the horde more disposed to early-morning slaughter grabbed up their weapons and lumbered forward in attack with surprising agility for creatures as large and knobby as they were. D'Gal sucked in a breath, glancing between the massing horde and the loose pairs of guards now blocking all routes of escape and grimacing.
So much for the easy way, then, he grunted, drawing his sword and spurring the skittering Fiend into a battle charge, Hya!
Drake watched as the Vycerian lit into the infuriated pack of orcs, temporarily lost in an internal battle between his conscience and his sense of justice and self-preservation as to whether he should help his most hated foe or let Nature take what he fervently hoped was her course. Thus distracted, he completely missed the sound of rustling branches and snapping twigs behind him.
The ambush came a mere half-second later.
The suns were hanging low in the sky by the time D'Gal finally made it back to the camp, noticeably slouching in his saddle astride an unusually quiet and subdued Fiend. Even from a distance, the nightmarish horse looked exhausted, sporting a host of fresh, glistening wounds and favoring its front right leg as it trudged along at a weary pace. Its rider was in somewhat better shape, as much of the dried blood matting his feathers was not his own, but a nasty gash at his left temple and hastily bandaged tourniquets about his arm and leg on the same side bore witness to the fact that neither of the pair had escaped the battle with the orcs unscathed.
The sorry condition of horse and rider did not escape the attention of the waiting party, who abandoned their dinners and hastily scurried from the caves with varying expressions of concern and alarm.
What happened? Ferdia demanded as Newton cast a quick Healing spell on the pair.
D'Gal winced as the quickly-woven spell touched off a fresh wave of pain from nerves that had only just dulled their response to injuries during the trip back to camp. He swung out of the saddle with care, landing on knees that held, but balance that wavered. He kept hold of the saddle horn, surreptitiously leaning against Fiend to keep from falling or giving any of the assembled group the mistaken impression that he needed their help, but made no move to stop the wizard from casting his spells. He answered the bluebird's question almost as an afterthought, shrugging as nonchalantly as his torn shoulder would allow. Ran into a spot of trouble.
Obviously, Newton observed, readying a more thorough and painless Healing spell. Not orcs, I hope? he asked worriedly.
A whole bloody herd of them.
Goodness. Congratulations on surviving, then, the wizard commended. He squinted at the bloodstained makeshift bandages wrapped about the duck's limbs. They didn't bite you, did they?
D'Gal frowned. Not that I recall. Why?
Newton waved away the looks of alarmed curiosity aimed his way. Oh, nothing to be too concerned about. Only that the beasts have poor hygiene, and bite wounds tend to get infected if not properly cleaned.
There was a collective sigh of relief from everyone save Ferdianna, who lingered nervously at the mouth of the cave, worriedly fiddling with the pearl beads on her skirt as she peered out at the blood-spattered ebony duck and exhausted horse. Where's Sir Drake? she queried.
'Sir'? Ferdia frowned, glancing back at the princess. Since when is Drake a 'Sir'?
Ferdianna blinked. Oh, I I simply assumed that since that one, she glared disdainfully at D'Gal, was a knight, the Commander must surely be one, too.
Never mind that, Squeaks interrupted Ferdia before she could respond, turning to D'Gal, Where is Drake?
Hell if I know, the Black Knight shrugged.
You lost him?
Yes, Arcadia, D'Gal snapped, I lost him. Bloody ponce set off a herd of orcs, then couldn't be bothered to pitch in and lend a hand dealing with them. Last I saw of him, he had a pair of horsemen looking to cross swords with him.
Beak frowned, looking perplexed. But he didn't have a sword.
D'Gal glanced at the brown kiwi, blinking a second before his characteristic smirk slid into place. Then I suppose it wasn't much of a fight, he grinned, shrugging. As I said, I was otherwise occupied.
Iiwi sighed, sensing where this was going. I don't suppose you tried tracking him down once you'd finished with the orcs?
I was a bit more concerned with my own well-being, he stated, tentatively unwrapping the bindings on his arm to inspect the Healing spells' handiwork. The wound had been quite severe, tearing the flesh to the bone, but it had deflected the brunt of an orc's swinging spiked club, sparing all but his temple from a blow meant to crush his skull. Now it seemed little more than a bad wolf-bite, and the deep gash from an orc's armored claws hardly more than a scratch on his leg. Which, he grunted, impressed, Is far better now than a moment ago. Nice show, wizard.
Newton bowed. Iiwi, however, rolled her eyes. I suppose that's my cue for another round of 'eye in the sky', she sighed, fanning her tail feathers and straightening a few primaries.
We appreciate this, Iiwi! Ferdie called after the Flier's fleeting form.
Speak for yourself, D'Gal snorted.
Ferdie scowled, the duck's subdued manner temporarily making the bluebird forget just exactly who it was he was talking to, I'm not talking about Sir Sheep-bait, he snapped, I'm talking about how much we rely on her to track people down, now that all our phones and radios and communicators and what-have-you aren't working!
D'Gal blinked at the bluebird's unexpected outburst, then shrugged, too tired to really care either way. Have it your way, then.
Riding the mountain air currents that helped bear her aloft once again, Iiwi hadn't made it more than a few hundred paces from the caves when a hint of movement in the woods caught her eye. The displacement was too wide and long to be any type of forest creature she knew of, and seeing as there was a dragon loose in the countryside, logic dictated she determine the rustling's cause, and warn her compatriots as necessary.
She spiraled down on a weak pocket of wind, gazing intently at the line of wavering leaves tracing the thing's path, then jerked up with a start when she realized this was no creature she'd spotted, but a tightly-packed line of marching soldiers, clad in the red and gold of the Crown's troops much like those she'd seen earlier by the abbey. Circling around to gain a greater altitude, she tracked the soldiers' path as far back as she could, postulating where it was the men were likely headed given their present course.
The soldiers, it seemed, were keeping close to a trail of blood and dragged hoof-prints that, while far from any given path, was easily spotted as it wound its staggering way down slopes and valleys, leading the tracking soldiers along a route that would bring them straight to the network of mountain caves.
Iiwi swore. D'Gal hadn't been kidding about the extent of his injuries. Still, he'd seemed so nonchalant about them and Newton so quick to Heal them that it hadn't occurred to her that the wounded duck, normally so skilled at covering his tracks, could've left a trail even Drake could've followed. And if it hadn't occurred to her, the others might've missed it too.
She pulled her wings in close, banking to pivot around in a dive. Drake's rescue could wait until after the others were safely out of danger.
Drake woke with the mother of all headaches. This wasn't entirely unwelcome, as Dumas had learned that pain was an excellent sign that one is not only alive, but conscious. Still, there was the lingering question of why his head throbbed so. His first thought was that it was somehow D'Gal's doing. But as his memory began to clear, he found himself having to resolve the desire to blame the Vycerian with the fact that last he remembered, the fiend had been busily fending off a swarm of orcs so fierce as to make the sheep seem gentle. (Here he paused with silent gratitude, for a headache was far better than his likely fate would've been with the orcs.) The fuzzy haze lifted a bit more, and he recalled a rustling in the bushes behind him and Gallant, and a brief flurry of confusion as forms leapt out around him. And then nothing, until his waking here.
Where was 'here', anyway?
Canvas stretched overhead, held up and anchored by long vertical poles. More canvas hung along the edges of the squared tarp, forming surprisingly solid-looking walls. Okay, so he was in a tent. A big tent, with layers of thick, woven rugs stretching along the ground to form a soft, piled floor as deep-colored swags hung half-rolled along the walls to blot out unwanted light. Such luxuries tended to indicate importance was this an officer's tent, perhaps? He glanced around at the tent's furnishings. Beautifully carved wooden furniture, a wealth of cushions, stacks of maps, and bursting bags of gold coins and gilded trinkets adorned the room. And that, most likely, put him in the commanding officer's tent.
This was worrisome, as this meant it probably belonged to one of those 'warlords' Newton continually mentioned. He highly doubted he was in the care of the King's army after all, the only gryphonic crest he could spot had been used for axe- and sword-throwing practice and his impression from Princess Ferdianna was that the warlords Newton so feared were ruthless, bloodthirsty savages of the worst sort. Definitely not the types of primitives he cared to be around, much less at the mercy of.
But why was he here? There didn't seem to be anyone guarding him, or any shackles tying him down. In Drake's experience, that was good. He went to move.
And found he couldn't.
He blinked, lifting his head to get a better look at his hands and feet. His eyes confirmed what he'd initially thought: he wasn't bound. Not by rope or chain or any other sort of device that he could see. A brief bolt of panic shot down his spine was he paralyzed? He doubted primitives even those with magical knowledge and expertise could heal that sort of injury. But his fingers and toes wiggled just fine, calming his fears. He could even shift his limbs about, to his relief. Not paralyzed, then. Good.
He rolled onto his back, wondering if there was some sort of force field hovering above him. But he could see no telltale shimmer of such a field, and found he could move and flail about quite effectively until he tried to sit up. Each time he attempted that, he found he could no longer move even a muscle.
Odd, he thought. Perhaps it was a spell of some sort. Then again, perhaps he'd simply been drugged.
It occurred to him that, in addition to being unable to sit up, he no longer wore his ruined uniform. Rather, he was clad in a pale canvas-colored tunic and leggings. The fabric was wool, and a far coarser weave than his polymer uniform - but a garment of considerable quality by primitive standards. How very unusual.
Perhaps we're to be sacrificed, a voice mused in the back of his mind.
Don't be ridiculous, he told the voice, though he found himself unable to counter the argument.
There was a rustle behind him, as the front of the tent flapped open to admit someone before floating back into place. Drake turned to catch sight of the newcomer, trying to raise himself up on one elbow despite his proven inability to do that sort of thing right now. He settled for twisting around in the visitor's direction.
It was like looking in a mirror. Indeed, if it weren't for the figure's additional attire a flowing cape, a gleaming silver breastplate overtop the same style tunic Drake himself now wore, ivory-sheathed sword belted at his side, and pale leather boots - Drake would've been convinced that was precisely what he'd done. He felt his jaw drop in surprise as he blinked in astonishment at the duck before him. Then the figure smirked in amusement, and the malice in his expression sent a jolt of ice water rushing through Drake's veins. He'd seen that look before, and it was never good.
Amazing, his double remarked, gazing at him appraisingly, I hadn't believed the scouts, but now? They might just have earned a bonus.
Drake's brow furrowed as he frowned in confusion. But the caped version of himself circling his prone form continued on, answering him before he'd fully formed his question.
Such likeness, he mused, pausing before Drake, Truly remarkable. And not a glamour no, my mages assure me you are untouched by magic, apart from a strange tendency to corrupt mana in your immediate vicinity and all the misfortune that brings. Heh. Angered a god, have you? he smirked, cruel amusement briefly lighting his cold eyes. You've lived to regret it, I'm sure. But no matter, he waved it aside. You're under a spell now, as I'm sure you've noticed. Quite a piece of work, actually; it allows for complete freedom of movement, but will not permit the recipient to rise. He leaned against the polished wood map table, grinning with mock-interest. Do you like it? he asked conversationally.
Drake frowned. His double did likewise.
The spell does permit you to speak, you know, he informed his captive. When Drake still said nothing, he shrugged, and resumed his pacing.
Enjoy your silence while you can, he stated, I have mages to loosen your tongue when I truly require an answer. You are one of Ferdinand's 'special forces', are you not? You might as well admit it, as a rather large, he mimed his hands around his belly, bird has already told me as much. Tell me, where is the prince now?
This time, Drake's frown was one of confusion, not dislike. His double did not pick up on this, however.
Come now, he cajoled, No point in protecting them; I'll find them eventually. Talking to me will just save you some suffering. And don't think your comrades are coming to rescue you; they have no knowledge of your plight. My scouts assure me your compatriot was fatally outmatched by those orcs. By the time anyone comes looking for either of you, there'll be naught but a scattering of well-chewed bones to speak of your fate.
Drake grinned, taking his double by surprise. D'Gal, dead? He'd have jumped for joy if he'd been able. Then at least some good will come from all of this, he chuckled.
His double's air of confidence faltered. After all, he knew very little of this man, save for what could be gleaned from his exotic attire and equipment. Everything else was second- and third-hand reports and rumors. Perhaps the ducks were mercenaries, and not compatriots but no matter. You do know who I am, do you not?
I could hazard a guess, Drake cracked.
I am Draco, of the House of Platyr. The peasants of this land have dubbed me the Pale Knight.
Can't imagine why, Drake quipped, ignoring the irony in favor of the duck's monochromatic appearance.
You have a sharp tongue, Draco snapped, one hand reflexively gripping the dagger sheathed at his side, But I assure you, my blades are sharper. I'd suggest you still you tongue before I do so - permanently.
Drake considered commenting on the problems that would have then caused the duck when Draco wanted an answer, but decided against pressing his luck. His double looked alarmingly serious.
Now, Draco continued, pleased to see his captive had some sense, Perhaps you would be more forthcoming if you knew why I ask where your comrades are?
Drake shrugged. Why not? It's not as if I'm going anywhere.
The Pale Knight glared at him briefly, then tapped the gleaming serpentine dragon embossed on his polished breastplate. The crest of Platyr, he explained. Sacred beasts to my people for centuries, before King Ferdinand began destroying them in droves.
And now, what, you're avenging them? Drake frowned.
Avenging? Draco repeated, incredulous, Ha! If anything, I thank the beasts, for so weakening the king's forces that league upon league of fat, rich countryside was left unguarded and just waiting for the taking! The princeling Ferdinand may have grown quite capable with a sword these past years, and felled my feeble armies in the East while making noise about driving me from the land but I will not be run off, not while there's still treasure to pillage! And, to that end, I have taken an interest in the rumors that claim the prince has taken to traveling with a mage that can summon dragons. True, yes? he looked at Drake.
The Platyrian looked away, unwilling to lock eyes with so sinister a reflection.
Still, that was enough to tell his double all he needed. But of course I know, he grinned darkly, My bird told me. I had a nice ambush waiting for the prince and his mage, would he but travel slower. Now, I'm not asking you to betray your king, or even the prince - simply that you help me recover the mage, that I might summon more dragons to resume their destruction of the Crown's forces and prolong my merry reign here.
Drake raised an eyebrow. Newton does not wish to become a war mage. He'd sooner let you kill him than fight for you.
Ah, but is he willing to let me kill the rest of your little party as well? Draco countered, waggling a finger. Dragon-fire is quite painful, I'll grant you - but the beasts can also be taught to swallow a man whole. I'm told it takes hours for such unfortunate souls to die, and I have mages that-
Enough! Drake warded off the mental image of his friends dying a slow, agonizing death in a sweltering hell of fiery gas and burning acid.
Tell me where they are, then, Draco stated, leaning forward earnestly. Let me surround them and take them peacefully, sparing them from all that unnecessary bloodshed.
Drake considered his options. He didn't trust his double to keep his word; the duck reminded him far too much of D'Gal to be trustworthy. Still, it was tempting to just tell Draco where the camp was. The thought of Squeaks and Ferdia being digested alive haunted him. Arellians were staunch military types, trained to hide their pain in silence; but primitives had no such training, and would doubtlessly scream. And scream. And scream
The scenario played out over and over in his mind, the screams searing his eardrums as a hypnotic spell he hadn't even been aware of fed his fears back to him tenfold. The more he refused to give his double the information he'd requested, the more vivid and intense the images and screams became.
Draco smirked as the captive duck cringed and writhed, eyes screwed shut and hands clamped over his ears in a desperate attempt to shut out whatever horrors the hypno-spell was showing him. Let him suffer the untold agony of his worst fears for a while, the Pale Knight grinned maliciously. Then we'll see how willing he is to talk.
The campsite was a flurry of activity in the wake of Iiwi's news of the approaching army. Party members scrambled about this way and that, readying horses and grabbing treasures and blankets and the piled ingredients for Newton's potion as Iiwi flew high above in wide, hurried circles, reporting the army's progress with each pass.
D'Gal alone seemed unconcerned with this development, leaning nonchalantly against the resting Fiend before the caves as the others scurried about.
You know, Lita remarked as she darted by with an armload of loot, of all the people I thought'd lead an enemy to us, I never expected it'd be you.
D'Gal shrugged. First lesson of warfare, Farlane: expect the unexpected. I didn't intentionally leave that trail; I was simply too preoccupied with other things to consider how easily traced the trail I did leave was.
And now you're not even so much as helping us get underway before the army following your trail gets here!
He favored her with a sidelong glance as she grabbed up a handful of glittering baubles from the sorted piles by the cave . Don't let the absence of open wounds fool you, Farlane. I took quite a beating from those orcs, and lost rather a lot of blood. Healing spells or no, I'm tired. But unlike some people, who inform the world of every little ache and pain, I don't advertise my injuries. Besides, it's not as if the party's not nearly ready to go as it is.
Lita huffed, depositing her armload of treasure into a bulging sack of loot and slinging it over her shoulder, still glaring at the duck. Several feet away from her retreating form, a similar argument was raging.
Why are we leaving? Ferdianna demanded, tagging along after Ferdia and Newton as they loaded the potion ingredients into the wizard's saddlebags, Your Phoenix says the troops bear the King's crest. That makes them my brother's army!
And? Ferdia prompted.
You promised to return me to my brother as soon as you happened upon his men - yet now, you flee their approach! Do you intend to return me or not?
Ferdia paused, looking at her flustered double. You know, you're right. We did say that, didn't we?
Milady! Newton protested worriedly, We cannot simply ride out to meet them! Even if they didn't recognize us from the castle, they'd still-
Yes, yes, I know, we need to keep you away from them, Ferdia reassured the wizard. Still, she glanced over at the kiwis jockeying for space on Ferdie's old horse, Hey, Bob! You're the hero type; you wanna return the princess to her brother?
Bob, sensing the opportunity to finally act his rightful role of Hero (while at the same time avoiding such vicious and psychologically traumatizing creatures as unicorns), quickly agreed. You bet! he nodded, as Ivan hastily leapt from the shared mount with a grumble of None for me, thanks.
Atop a neighboring slope, the commander of His Majesty's forces watched the flurry of activity about the caves through a spyglass. Much of his view was obscured by the swaying treetops between the two slopes, but he could clearly make out several characters by the horses, recognizing among them not just his beloved sister, but the lizard mage from the eastern mountains a fortnight ago. He scowled.
Problems, my liege? the nighthawk behind him enquired. General Winfield had been quite surprised when the prince had arrived with a full armored contingent several days ago, and while he understood the royal's desire to see his sister's safe return, he'd yet to grow accustomed to the bluebird's commanding presence.
The boy at the abbey - he indicated a mage and a small group of Morgath's soldiers had wrought the devastation we observed, did he not?
In a sense, sir. He was under a mage's curse when we captured him, and escaped before regaining the ability to speak. But between him and surviving guard's mad testimony, we surmised a contingent of Morgath's scattered forces had attacked with a dragon or demon of some sort at their side.
An accurate assumption, General, the prince nodded, still tracking the party through his spyglass. The rodent also indicated they'd posed as Kronos' own soldiers and my sister, did he not?
That he did, my lord.
Indeed, Ferdinand frowned. I know this lot. They travel under the protections of a firebird and a powerful mage. I first encountered them with the rest of Morgath's forces in the mountains; they arrived too late to turn the battle, but escaped after calling down a maelstrom of wind. And even as I searched for them in the mountains, the brazen louts presented themselves at my father's castle, posing as myself and my sister and calling a dragon to raze the castle and surrounding city once they were inside its walls. Truly, their treachery knows no bounds. It hardly surprises me to find it was they who slew Kronos' army and took my sister. As sure as the suns rise, they are the Pale Knight's own scouts and crack troops and uncommonly dangerous ones, at that.
How do you propose to take them, sir, if they are as perilous as that? Winfield asked, peering at the forms across the forest. The scrambling birds and mammals hardly looked the part of evil fiends but in Winfield's experience, that only tended to make such villains all the more dangerous.
The prince chuckled. They make it too easy, now that I'm accustomed to their trickery. See how they place the one posing as my sister with a group of soldiers on an open field, readily observable for all to see, as the mage and strike fighters move to the far side of the mountain to ready an ambush for those that approach the princess. But I'm not about to take that bait. Have you any mages in your command?
Winfield frowned. He'd heard how fast the prince burned through mages. Still, it would be treason to lie. Two, my liege. Neither much more than novice Healers and glorified Apprentices.
A mage is a mage, much as a soldier is a soldier, Ferdinand pronounced. The level of skill varies, but the basics are always the same. Mask each mage with a contingent of soldiers, and send them 'round the far side of the mountain. We'll set an ambush for their ambush.
High above them amidst the clouds, Iiwi watched as the pair of mounted figures galloped back into the forest, headed on a course to rejoin the lines of marching soldiers. She folded her wings, diving back earthward behind the mountain.
Heads up! she called to the forms of her friends as they made their way haphazardly down the mountain's rocky slope, We've got movement among the brass!
Good, Ivan opined, They've spotted the bait, then.
Newton glanced worriedly back at the kiwis casually guarding the princess as she waved jubilantly to troops just emerging from the forests near the bottom of the slopes. Are you quite certain they'll be all right, milady?
Ferdia and Squeaks, tucked behind the rocks and foliage further up the slope, scrutinized the troops below. I hope so, the bluebird stated, We're banking on a happy reunion here, and Beak's ability to cloud the soldiers' minds a bit if things go sour. Still, we'll be here as backup if things don't work out-
Hey! Iiwi squawked, pirouetting in the air overhead and fluttering urgently above the soldiers in the forest. She darted back to the retreating group, worry etched into her features. Half the line just disappeared! They were marching along, then poof! all of a sudden, they're gone!
Newton fidgeted nervously. That sounds like a spell. They may have seen through our ruse.
If that's the case, Lita stated, swinging the sign holder up onto her shoulders, the lamb flailing about angrily in the air at the end of its silken tether for a moment before the kiwi reeled it in and held it firmly, It's time to book for safer pastures!
The rabbit sprang into a run, leaping from rock to rock as she made her way down the steep slope, as nimble as a mountain sheep. Ferdie scrambled to follow her, skidding and sliding down the slope as fast as he could fling himself, with Ivan and D'Gal following suit though both attempted to speed their decent with a bit more dignity. Newton hesitated at the level shelf his horse stood upon, once again at odds with the instinct to flee and a deep-rooted desire not to abandon those he'd sworn to serve. His horse was a bit more decisive, tugging at the reins and edging down the slope and away from the approaching lines of soldiers across the mountain.
Iiwi circled the mountain uneasily, searching for even the slightest hint as to where the missing soldiers had gotten to as Ferdia and Squeaks mirrored her search from the ground. Newton was also looking for the men, trying his best to detect even the slightest twinge of magic in the surrounding forests. Flier, cops, and mage all found the evidence they sought as a band of soldiers burst forth from the tree line at the bottom of the slope - and unlike those that calmly approached the princess across the mountain, these charged the surprised party, lunging after Lita as the rabbit sprang back with a startled yelp.
As the group fell back, retreating up the slope in the face of a tightly-packed line of soldiers, the men approaching the princess also leapt into action, and in the resulting confusion, a third contingent of soldiers changed from the brush just before Newton, rushing the wizard as his horse shied away from a line of fighters invisible mere seconds ago. The lizard spurred his horse for the far side of the mountain, pulling up short as yet another line of men charged from that direction as well.
Wizard! D'Gal yelled from further down the slope amidst reports of gunfire that drove a series of fighters away from Ferdie as the bluebird careened from one corner of the field to the next. The Vycerian had drawn his sword against the first rush of soldiers, and pointed to a line of fighters chasing after Ferdie as his nightmarish horse reared to batter those men foolish enough to approach its red-eyed fury. The line's at its weakest here! Give us a spell!
Right! Newton dodged an axe as it cart-wheeled though the sky, mentally running down a list of possibilities as he raised his arm.
But before he could utter a word, a stream of fire arced across the sky, eliciting a scream from Iiwi as it singed her wing despite her frantic dodge. The fiery stream followed her as she dove away, desperately wheeling and dodging to stay just out of its path, and as Newton made to call up a fire shield for the harried Flier, a second bolt flew his way, spooking his horse and singeing the fireproofing spells on his robes. He whipped his head around, heart leaping to his throat as he caught sight of the bolt's source: a young mage at the side of the armored commander from the mountain pass weeks ago. The wizard only just managed to call up a shield as the next bolt flew at him, horse skittering sideways and lashing out with its back hooves as soldiers tried to flank the distracted lizard.
Mage! the commander called from his white charger, Did I not tell you it was useless to run? You have led me on a merry chase, 'tis true, but rest assured - it ends here!
I'll not become one of your war mages! Newton retorted, readying a spell of his own that sent the soldiers nearest him stumbling backwards from the wind spout's force.
The commander watched the defensive ward, eyes glittering dangerously beneath his helmet. Aye, as you said before. But I'm not offering you clemency now, mage; you've proven far too treacherous to keep. Releasing a dragon? Razing an army? Kidnapping the fair princess? The world will be a far safer place with you amongst the dead than t'will ever be whilst you live. He nudged the young mage beside him with his foot. Let's have that bolt now, lad. Just like you practiced.
The mage hesitated, earning a kick from the commander as the bluebird snatched the crossbow from him. Very well, then; I'll do it myself.
A spell hit Newton from behind as the wizard readied a shield to fend off the commander's attack. With a startled yelp, the lizard realized he'd lost his ability to move to an Immobilization spell, and the shield he'd only half-finished casting fizzled to nothing as the commander leveled the crossbow at him.
The prince smiled darkly, taking aim at the lizard as Newton struggled in vain against the Immobilization spell's hold, his fingers just beginning to squeeze the trigger when a thunderous shot rang out and splintered the device in his hand. A second shot followed nearly on top of the first, glancing off the side of his helmet with enough force to knock the bird backwards.
Leave my wizard alone! Ferdia screeched from the saddle of a horse taken back from the kiwis, barreling down at the commander with her gun drawn as Squeaks followed on their charger, providing cover fire and winging the commander's mage as the youth readied another mage-bolt.
Granted a moment's relief and reprieve, Newton rallied, summoning enough magical energy to shake off the spell of paralysis as Ferdia skid her mount to a halt between him and the astonished commander. Squeaks came to a similar halt behind Newton, keeping a level eye on those soldiers that had been trying to flank the wizard.
I suggest you call your men off if you value your life, Ferdia growled at the stunned bluebird, leveling her weapon at his chest. Because I guarantee that armor's not thick enough to repel a direct shot.
The commander gazed at her in utter astonishment. Sister?!? he exclaimed in disbelief.
That caught Ferdia off-guard. Huh? she frowned.
Brother!!! Ferdianna shrieked, charging through the baffled soldiers at speeds that ought to have been impossible for a pampered princess swathed in twenty pounds of silk and lace to achieve. She threw herself at the utterly astonished commander, wrapping his leg in a hug when leaping up to embrace him proved unmanageable in her weighty dress. Glory be! I thought I'd never see you again!
The bird looked at her in complete confusion, lifting his faceplate to better see both her and the Fury still staring him down with some nameless and fearsome new weapon.
Newton smothered a strangled gasp as the commander removed his helmet. The prince, he whispered to Squeaks' curious glance.
Well, that's a relief, the mouse commented mildly, to the wizard's consternation. Who did you think it would be?
Ferdinand glanced down at the image of his sister latched onto his knee. Ferdianna? he queried uncertainly.
Of course! she exclaimed, Who else would I be?
Are you all right?
Oh, absolutely, she nodded happily, Now that you're here. This lot saved me from that warlord, but they're an awfully rough bunch. Always traveling or running about, and sleeping on the ground! I haven't slept indoors, let alone on a bed, in days. And their food is always so unbearably cru-
They rescued you? Ferdinand blinked.
Indeed they did. That awful Kronos man had me locked up in a dirty old cellar with nothing to ea-
Not to interrupt the happy reunion, Ferdia interjected, steel in her voice, stance unchanged, But your men are being slaughtered. Are we still in the midst of a battle, or not?
Ferdinand glanced from the mounted trio before him to the firebird menacing his men with razor-sharp beak and talons, the brown swordsman wielding an enchanted sword with lethal accuracy against the weapons of all who approached him, the yellow bird whose feet whirled in boots of fury, the grey bird who fought with weapons similar to the one the Fury held, the bluebird stampeding and trampling his men as a barbarian youth battered stragglers and a small bird loosed a vicious mountain sheep at the wounded, and the black-feathered mercenary knight dispatching all who found themselves within striking distance of his sword or savage steed. The Fury was right his men were faring poorly against this strange and savage group. And he was at a bit of a disadvantage one mage down, the other nowhere to be found as he faced the heavily-armed trio before him. The Pale Knight's soldiers and generals were infamous for taking no prisoners. What, then, stayed their hands if they were truly the fiends he'd taken them for?
Unless, of course, they were not such fiends
It was time, he decided, for a tactical truce. Soldiers! he bellowed, Lower your weapons! We have an accord!
Grudgingly, his men did as he commanded, though it took the Fury's dark knight a bit of effort to restrain his nightmarish mount even after they'd done so, and the stampeding bluebird ran until the grey bird tripped him up, sending him tumbling into the knight's tempermental steed as the two youths chased after one last soldier, trying to pry their sheep from a gash in his leg as the man flailed about in a panic. Finally, save for the lamb's angry bleating, peace fell over the battlefield.
Ferdinand turned back to the group before him, breathing a mild sigh of relief as the Fury lowered her weapon. Questions burned within his breast. Who were they? Who had they sworn allegiance to, if not the Pale Knight? Or had their allegiances shifted since Morgath's defeat and their victory over Kronos at the abbey? He gazed at them levelly. He was the crown prince, after all; perhaps they'd simply spotted an opportunity to secure for themselves legitimate titles, land, and pardons. Regardless of their motives and intentions, he expected a full accounting of things now. He drew himself up higher in the saddle, looking down at them disdainfully. He was royalty, after all, and now there was a truce, he intended to remind them of their relative station. Within reason, of course. I believe some explanations are in order, he stated.
What's there to explain? the warrior image of his gentle sister demanded, You have your sister; our obligations to her are complete. So if you'll excuse us, she nodded, prodding the lizard's horse with a heel to nudge it into motion down the hill, We have other matters to attend.
Indeed you do, and you are not excused, the princely commander frowned at their withdrawing forms. This wasn't proper behavior at all! Did they truly expect to simply hand over his sister and depart the field? Even without making demands for power and station, such brazenness was unacceptable! He wanted no, demanded an explanation! Twice now you have fought my soldiers - not to mention impersonated a royal and unleashed a dragon on our capital. You will answer for it!
Don't take that tone with me! the Fury snapped, You forget who won this battle! She shrugged off the restraining hand of the white mouse that had followed her charge, continuing her angry tirade unabatedly. Besides, we unleashed nothing on that city; the dragon attacked it of its own accord. Moreover, Newton here didn't release it; Ferdie did.
It was an accident! the bluebird called indignantly up the slopes.
We are working to remedy the problem, Majesty, the mage added, as the prince blinked at the lizard's sudden change in demeanor.
But first, Ferdianna interrupted the bluebird's thoughts to gaze up at her brother with an expression of seriousness and concern, They must rescue the great and noble Sir Drake, who watched over me whilst I was in their care and has now been captured by the forces of the Pale Knight.
He is not a knight, the Fury hissed, So just drop the 'Sir'!
But he has been captured, Ferdianna insisted, giving her brother her most entreating look of sincerity, Please, brother you march against the Pale Knight as well. Might we not join forces with these base savages in pursuit of our common goal?
Base sava- - Common goal? the Fury repeated with distaste, What common goal? We're out to rescue one hapless idiot; you're trying to destroy an entire army. I see no reason to enlist your assistance at that price.
Then, dear lady, Ferdinand sniffed, smugly stressing the ill-fitting term as the seething Fury's feathers fluffed in anger at the verbal barb, You have yet to experience the fearsome terror of the Knight's legions. I assure you, even such a strange and tricksome group as yours will be unable to get within a league of him before he detects you and sends a contingent of soldiers out to deal with you. You'll fare far better challenging him alongside us, and rescuing your friend during the battle.
Squeaks leaned forward to catch Ferdia's ear as she made to respond to the 'friend' remark. It couldn't hurt to ride with them for a while, he whispered to her and Newton, Mask our presence inside a larger target until the opportune moment, when both sides are far too occupied with each other to notice us.
Ferdia frowned. Granted, Squeaks was the one with military training and strategy, but she was the one being insulted now, and the prospects of traveling with her brother's caustic double were far less appealing than they might have been if the prince wasn't currently regarding them as one might regard a filthy, skunk-sprayed, mange-ridden stray mutt that wanted to cuddle. Plus there was the whole magic angle Ferdinand had tried to take Newton by force when they'd first encountered him, and had been intent on destroying the mage this time around. She would hardly blame the lizard if he preferred they continue their quests separate from the prince's forces. She glanced his way. Sound strategy or not - they are an army. Are you going to be okay with that?
The wizard looked uneasy. Yes and no, milady. Provided we are treated as a separate force, and not as part of the prince's soldiers, not expected to take part in whatever scraps the army engages in along the way. But such an arrangement would not be honored for long, and armies travel far slower than we have been.
Ferdia frowned, thinking. If I may? a voice interjected, startling the trio as D'Gal sidled up to their strategy session, There's nothing in this army that'll keep us from leaving once we wish to. The soldiers are poorly trained and tired, the mages injured and unskilled, and there's nary an archer in sight.
He's got to have archers somewhere, Ferdia protested, He had dozens before.
Then he's a fool for not using them on us in place of his infantry, the ebony duck shrugged, Which only bolsters my argument. Besides, he seems to know of this Knight, and if that proves to be who we're up against well, best to read up on your foe before riding out to face him, eh?
Fine, Ferdia sighed, turning back to the waiting prince. We'll travel with you - for now. But that's an extremely temporary arrangement, and we're none of us your subjects, so don't go acting as if we were.
Ferdinand shrugged. By now, he'd taken note of the group's outlandish attire, as well as the fact that none but the mage had shown him even the slightest fraction of respect his rank demanded. They were either wandering heroes, or foreign envoys seeking to test the land's strength either of which deserved some amount of leeway for favorable reviews. After all, he needed allies, not another shipload of crusaders or invading armies. Very well, he agreed. But I want a full explanation. Of everything.
So, a reasonably calmed Ferdie ventured, wandering over to his sister as the army and reunited royals withdrew from the field and trotted off to tend their wounded and reform their ranks, Is that ruggedly built Charlton Creston clone this world's version of me?
Ferdia shrugged. Either that, or Ben Hur in chain mail, she commented, turning to survey the rest of their group as a circling Iiwi fluttered to a landing and began worrying at her scorched feathers with concern.
The Flier paused for a moment, blinking at the mental image visualizing that combination produced. You know, she said as Newton dismounted and cast a Healing spell against her singed wing and ruined primaries, I think I like that image better.
Ferdie grumbled something about movie stars and their fan bases, but stopped short as Ferdia hooked an arm around his neck, catching him in a headlock. Don't worry, bro he looks nothing like you, she chirped.
You could say that with a little less enthusiasm, you know, he sighed.
Oh, no, she shook her head, Gotta say it with feeling. Otherwise, it just sounds like I'm trying to make you feel better.
He rolled his eyes, reluctantly stumbling along after her as he began the task of prying her grip loose. Oh, perish the thought, he muttered.
Ferdinand frowned at the Fury's assembled group, resting on a pile of plush cushions inside the spacious tent his men had pitched in the suns' failing light, digesting the volume of information he'd been told over a long day's travels. Some of it was truly fantastic who believed in flying ships and a land where commoners governed instead of royalty - but reputable enough given the enigmatic group's strange dress and social customs. He'd stopped remarking on their bizarre habits hours ago, when even his gentle sister had told him It's just how things are done in their land. Still, the thought that their land was actually a different version of his own kingdom was a rather incredible story. He didn't buy it just as he didn't buy their explanation of doubles. What you're saying is, you're us.
In a manner of speaking, yes, Ferdia nodded, We're the same people, but from completely different worlds.
Interesting, the prince considered. Granted, there was definite resemblance between he and his sister and the Fury and her brother, but there wasn't much there royal dalliances couldn't be brought to explain. Father had traveled a great deal in his day, after all. And just when did I become a cowardly whelp?
A cowardly what?!? Ferdie demanded.
My sentiments exactly, Ferdinand smirked.
I am not a whelp! I'm I'm ooh! Ferdie fumed, muttering under his breath.
Problems? Lita smirked, glancing his way.
Nothing much, the bluebird grumbled bitterly, Just wondering if killing him would count as murder or suicide.
Ah, the rabbit nodded sagely, Suicide. Definitely suicide.
Ferdie frowned. What makes you so sure?
She blinked at him, incredulous. Hel-lo? You forgetting how large and muscular and, well, buff this guy is? You'd be dead before you knew what hit you.
Gee, thanks, he grumbled.
Ferdinand had, meanwhile, moved on to other comparisons. You say on your world, Father is dead, Mother is alive but eccentric, and I'm a willowy bit of nothing. He smirked as Ferdie fumed in the background once more. So tell me, who was it that allowed my dear, sweet, gentle sister to become some sort of barbarian warrior princess?
Ferdia, preoccupied with shushing her brother's renewed infuriation, only half-heard what the prince had said. A
Come now, the royal continued, waving at her in a 'look at this!' gesture, Look at you! Savage wolves could raise a more feminine creature!
Hoo boy, Ferdie gulped as his sister's face flushed.
You want savage? Ferdia screeched, lunging at the prince, I'll give you sav-
Ferdia! Squeaks caught her mid-lunge, holding her back by her arms as Ferdinand rose to his feet to watch the exchange with a bemused smirk, Calm down! He's in denial it's best we try not to take anything he says personally-
And consorting with vermin! Ferdinand clucked, shaking his head, Honestly, whatever happened to the good clean respectability of-
Squeaks whirled on the prince, catching him across the beak with a right hook no one had quite seen coming. This was probably for the best, as Ferdianna was too shocked to scream, and the soldiers outside the tent gave no indication of having heard the thump! as the prince crumpled to the ground.
Ferdia stood blinking dumbly at her partner as the mouse released her other arm and shook the sting from his hand, but rallied beautifully. Squeaks!
Hmm? he blinked distractedly.
How am I supposed to beat him senseless when you've already knocked him unconscious?
The mouse shrugged. He'll wake soon enough.
And by then I'll've forgotten what I was going to clobber him for!
Oh. Squeaks frowned, studying the prince's sprawled for while rubbing a sore knuckle, Sorry? he volunteered.
You'd better be! Ferdia vented. I was really going to let him have it, too!
I really am sorry, he partner chuckled, patting her shoulder reassuringly, Perhaps when he wakes up, he'll say something equally infuriating, and you can pummel him then.
It's not the same, she huffed. Then she paused, becoming aware of another sound in the room. And just what are you laughing at? she demanded of the villains, her indignation only making Ivan and his wards snicker and howl with laughter all the more.
Her gaze turned to D'Gal, who, though the first to succumb to laughter at the mouse's outburst, had quickly recovered and now watched them closely, the twinkle of mirth still brightening his face. Don't say a word.
Oh, he smiled in endless amusement, I wasn't about to.
I mean, I'd love to, but in spite of all the clever asides and snide remarks that spring to mind, I really don't fancy getting shot.
Glad to hear it.
Moreover, I couldn't even begin to decide which one to choose!
He was hungry again.
The cat-birds had learned to flee before him, and were far smaller and swifter in the air than his lumbering, leather-winged form. Even on the ground, they eluded him, ducking into caves and crevices he couldn't wedge so much as a talon into. There were far fewer mountain sheep to snack on than he remembered, too, and both game and livestock seemed in short supply. What had the two-legs been doing, that there was so little food around?
Even the two-legs were fewer than he remembered; clustered in small colonies and barely more than skin and bones themselves. Only those traveling in the big hunting packs were worth eating - and those, he recalled, were the most dangerous. Still, he had to eat, and so he launched himself into the evening sky once again, circling the countryside in search of his next meal.
But tonight, it seemed, was different. Tonight, something called to him from the west, in the sweet, welcome tones of another of his kind.
He flew for hours, laboring against wind currents and through magical dead zones, homing in on the imploring cries of the dragon in the distance. The suns slipped low in the sky, and the light began to falter, but still she called, so on he flew.
It was quite dark when he finally drew near her location, circling the forested mountain in search of the first dragon he had heard since waking in the two-legs' stone prison. His ears told him he was very close now practically above his lonely compatriot and yet his eyes could not make out her form. Was she hiding? And why did she still call, when he was so close? Why not let him know where she was?
Perhaps she hadn't seen his approach, and could see him in this darkness no better than he could see her. He rocked back, shifting his weight to his haunches as he beat his wings in a hover. One roar, just to let her know he was near. And perhaps a bit of fire, to show off his health. He tilted his head back and roared, punctuating his greeting with two short, friendly nose-puffs of flame.
The woods below immediately fell silent. Definitely not the reaction he'd been going for. He slipped back into a leisurely glide, rumbling and clicking like a harmless, playful fledgling. Nothing to be afraid of here, he projected. Just a friendly fellow dragon.
A frightened scurrying met his ears from the patch of woods where he'd last heard the lonely dragon. A brief glimmer of hope flared in his breast before he realized the scurrying creature was far too tiny for a dragon of any age. Even a newborn hatchling displaced more foliage when rushing about in the trees than this creature did. Still, he squinted at the jostling leaves, straining to make out what was there. After all, food was far more scarce than it had once been; perhaps dragons had made themselves far smaller in order to survive? After a moment, his efforts were duly rewarded; in the frail moonlight, the fleeing form was just visible as it darted through the small clearings pock-marking the forest.
It was a two-legs.
Dragons are not stupid creatures. Their intellect is perhaps not as sophisticated as the dominant sentient species ravaging the world under the guise of civilization, but they are still quite bright, and very perceptive. They know when they've been had. And they don't like it one bit.
With a mighty bellow of rage, the temple dragon pounced, rowing his great wings once to buoy himself up before folding them and launching himself into a roller-coaster dive. He flared his wings out as the ground roared up, spitting a plume of flame into the ground around him as he arced around his prey, caging it in a ring of fire before plunking down inside the circle to close for the kill. But this two-legs was a magic-user, tossing tiny fireballs at him like an angry hatchling as he circled ever closer. It raised a stick against him at one point, chattering something as he closed, and the haunting call that had brought him all this way began anew, just outside the blazing circle. But the dragon was not one to fall for the same trick twice. The ghostly entreaty only further bruised his wounded pride, and he sprang at the fleeing two-legs with an angry snarl, catching its leg in his jaw. He flipped his head back with a smug grin, crunching the squalling creature slowly and enjoying its squeals for the short while they lasted.
That was the problem with two-legs, the dragon mused. Too small. And mean, nasty creatures, all of them. This one had lured him far from his den with its trick, and now he was hungry, homeless, and alone in the dark. With a roar of angry defiance, he sprang back into the starlit sky, searching the darkness below for even the slightest bit inviting chasm to curl up in for the night.
Across the valley, on a sheltered hill, a cloaked figure took the spyglass from his eye and stepped from the shadows. A second, trembling form did likewise.
It seems, the first remarked, feathers reflecting the bright moonlight as he watched the dragon's departure, That the summons worked quite well, but failed to enrapture the beast.
Y-yes, s-sir, the second quavered, eyes fixed not on the airborne dragon, but on the dying embers of the ring of fire.
Tell me, mage, the first rumbled ominously, What good is it to call a dragon, and then not be able to control it?
Precisely. Now, do you know of any other spells that would bring the creature under my control?
Y-yes, sir, the quavering robin replied. S-several.
Then why do you waste my mages by teaching them only one? the Pale Knight snarled.
B-but sir, Greer protested, I taught them all the hypno-spells and mind-control charms I know of!
Are you saying, then, Draco hissed, That your knowledge and spells are worthless?
No, sir! Greer fought the rush of images as his life flashed before his eyes. Worthless individuals, he'd found, had absolutely no life expectancy at all in his master's service. Not at all! Per-perhaps the lad was too terrified to try more than a few of them or or perhaps he was simply not a strong enough caster. The spells draw their potency from the mage's ability, and a dragon's sheer size and presence are hard to overwhelm with mind magic.
The Pale Knight scowled at the impotent mage. I am not one to suffer failure, mage. Go over your spells with your pupils once more, and find some new ones to teach them. We'll try again at dawn, and I expect far better results that this dismal failure. The beast will not stay long once day breaks, and I would hate to have to wait while you search out a new summons. Am I understood?
Y-Yes, my lord, Greer bowed shakily, glaring after his mater as the cloaked duck stalked off.
Capture a dragon, he muttered once he was certain he was alone, Easier said than done - even a decade ago, when the practice was still readily attempted. Dragons are magical creatures, and smart to boot. If t'were all that easy to bring 'em to heel, the King's armies would be full of the beasts, instead of adorned with dragonscale vests and dragon-bone plates, shields, and daggers. But you don't care a whit about that, do you, Sir? Of course not. You have people to deal with those things. Bah!
Still, if he failed to provide a working solution, he would be in for untold amounts of suffering. Being eaten by a vengeful dragon almost seemed a light sentence by comparison.
He set off in search of his latest batch of magic trainees.
Newton stood before a healthy cookfire, carefully stirring ingredients into a borrowed stewpot while scrutinizing the potion's instructions. The parchment he'd prepared the modified brew's recipe on floated at eye level in the firelight before him, held in place by the same Levitation spell that had sent Squeaks careening into a cave wall when he'd tried it the day before. Small, lightweight objects were easier to control in the spell than larger, living ones, he'd found. Not that the mouse had seemed all that thrilled to hear the news
The rest of the group clustered nearby, having been unceremoniously chased out of the commander's tent by an indignant Ferdianna once the princess had recovered from her initial shock and been assured her unconscious brother would be fine, if a tad bruised, in a few hours. D'Gal dozed on a low tree branch by their tethered horses, having caught a few brazen soldiers rifling through their saddlebags earlier. For their part, Lady Ferdia and her knight had opted to walk the perimeter of the camp, discussing strategy. Their progress was easy enough to track, as lounging soldiers would suddenly spring to attention, pause, and lean forward in curiosity when the cops passed by. The rest of the group with the exception of the young kiwi, who was engaging their sheep in a game of fetch-the-soup-bone huddled together with a worn deck of cards, playing what the Phoenix who had been excluded from the game in the interest of keeping it friendly called 'Poker'. The scarlet bird hopped about on the ground, circling her companions while occasionally dispensing advice and to the wizard's eye, anyway apparently teaching the rabbit girl how to cheat properly.
Newton smiled. This was one of the things that so endeared him to this mismatched lot the sheer colorfulness of their characters.
He turned back to his potion, tossing in the rest of the herbs and fungi and nonvolatile elements and letting them stew for a few moments as he fetched the more dangerous ingredients and the dried and crushed moonlily from his saddlebag. These he added carefully, one by one, taking care to stir the brew thoroughly after each puff of smoke and phosphorescent flash. He had to be extremely careful now one misstep could cause the potion to catch fire, or even explode, and he only had one helping of the rarer ingredients as it was. If the potion did sour, it would be a disaster. They would never be able be able to get replacements of some items like the moonlily and orcs' toenails in time.
And besides, the prince's young war mages were watching. He absolutely refused to bungle a spell in front of them. Professional pride, and all. Plus, he didn't want to seem an easy mark to anyone in the camp still contemplating forcing him into their ranks.
The boars' feet sizzled as he dropped them into the boiling potion, dissolving slowly into brown sludge and slinking tendrils of yellow gas that hung heavily below the rising steam wafting off the brew. Next came the orc toenails, which needed to be sprinkled in individually, as each one sent a puff of smoke and a shower of green sparks up as it hit the water. Then came the blood-soaked earth, still moist from its storage in a fascinating clear pouch his companions had provided for him. He emptied the pouch's contents into the pot as the brew turned a muddy red, then added the churchyard dirt, watching as the blessings and powerful Holy spells used to sanctify such grounds and protect them from necromancers roiled through the makeshift cauldron, burning the mixture clear with a brilliant shaft of light that shot straight up into the sky as a single vertical luminescent column for a brief instant before vanishing.
Newton looked around uneasily. He hadn't expected that. He caught the eyes of Lady Ferdia and her knight watching him across a sea of startled, staring faces, and managed a sheepish grin, rubbing the back of his neck and shrugging nervously. The bluebird laughed, waving as she and her knight resumed their roving strategy session. The soldiers blinked at the pair's reaction, shrugged, and slowly went back to their nightly tasks. They were used to mages and the strange phenomenon that often accompanied their spells, and couldn't be bothered with the strange flash of light if it had been intentional.
Breathing a sigh or relief, Newton turned back to his potion. It was boiling lightly now, as clear as water but as thick as tree sap, he discovered as he tried to stir the brew. He carefully unwrapped the roll of silk and leather holding the dried moonlily, crumbling the plant to pieces in his hands before sprinkling the bits and sweeping those crumbled on the silk into the potion. The bits of pale blue petals and faded green leaves floated to the curved bottom of the pot, lying inert for a few moments as the worried wizard stirred them around. Then they began to noticeably fizz, bubbling up from the bottom, their effervescence thinning the brew and tinting it greenish-blue as much of the liquid in the pot wafted off in a stream of clear, white steam.
As the steam cleared, Newton found that the remaining bluish liquid in the pot had stopped boiling. Following a quick check of his notes on the parchment, he snuffed the fire with a Smother spell, lifting a ladle-full of the potion out to find it curiously cool, as his notes speculated it should be. He fished a set of rounded flasks from a padded saddlebag, pouring the potion off into each of them and finding, disconsolately, that he did not have quite enough to fill the second flask. Still, backups were just that. Emergency fail-safes should the unexpected happen. With a bit of luck, he'd never need the second flask at all.
He corked the flasks, putting a Protection spell on both of them before tucking one into the pockets of his robes and the other in his saddlebag just in case.
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