Tuesday, 20 February 2024 01:00

Waiting on the Wind

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Waiting on the Wind

By E. E. Nalley
Edited with kind assistance of Lonely Heart and Janet Nolan; Many thanks

 

Chapter One

Quest? Who Said Anything About A Quest?

It was quite common, even usual, for the Game Master to arrive late. Not that he did so out of any sense of fashion or perversity, but the gathering and loading of the various books, dice, maps and other impedimenta required for the table top Role Playing Game had taken time, as well as their toll on his tired, but well loved Ford Escort. He pulled into their host’s apartment complex with a sense of expectations. He was sure this game would be talked about and remembered for years to come. It would be unlike anything else they had ever done or played before. This would elevate a simple social gathering of friends to the heights of adventure.

It was Friday. The work week was over and the weekend loomed large, heralding the gathering of friends, food, drink and adventure. This was to be a great weekend.

The Game Master, John Lascomb, was twenty four. He’d been working for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office since he’d turned twenty one. His position there had taken him through college and had even given him a small amount of pull within the department. And this small amount of seniority, combined with flexible hours had enabled him to get the entire weekend off.

If anything happened that would normally recall him from a day off, it would cost him some vacation time for this weekend off, but he had been looking forward to it with great anticipation.

Deputy Lascomb stood an impressive six feet with a figure undiminished by the sedentary occupations the rest of his friends were employed with. He was handsome with a straight, clean shaven jaw and nose under dark hair he wore short due to his job. Although he weighed 200 lbs. the active lifestyle the Sheriff’s Office demanded made sure very little of it was fat.

It was with a fair about of excitement that he parked the Escort and climbed out, swearing under his breath as the Glock 22 he wore on his hip caught on the door. Not for the first time, he was somewhat annoyed that the laws of the State of Georgia required him to keep the weapon within easy reach even off duty; lest he come across a crime he could prevent. The small weapon always seemed to be getting in the way. He’d been very tempted to ignore the rule and leave it home. After all, he wouldn’t need it for the game, and nobody would ever know back at work.

This amused his host, Robert “Bobbie” Holcombe, as he emerged from the apartment with a hand truck to assist him with the milk crates of books required for the game they would be starting that afternoon. “John, how’s it going?”

Of all the friends gathering for the weekend, Bobbie, right at the group’s median age of 22, was the most successful so far. He had already graduated from college and held a position as a financial analyst for a major chain of banks throughout the Atlanta area, and his salary had allowed him a spacious apartment, though he lived alone; which was the reason he was playing host this weekend.

John forced a smile as he stood up, his back aching from the heavy milk crates he’d been unloading. “Well enough, Bobbie. How are things with you?” he asked jocularly as the younger man approached with the hand truck, its wheels rattling noisily over the parking lot’s asphalt.

“I can’t complain too loud or too long,” the younger man said, stooping to load the hand truck with the crates of books. “How are things in the world of Law and Order?”

“Oh, same stuff, new day. People being stupid and I get to be involved,” replied John as he helped his friend load the hand truck. It short order it was stacked to the top of its rails, leaving only a pair of crates that would not fit, so John stooped to pick them up and carry them into the apartment.

As the two men began their trek back to the apartment, Bobbie turned and asked his friend, “So, what’s on tap for today?”

John’s smile, as he regarded his smaller friend, was devilish. Bobbie was the smallest of the group, thin, only middling tall, with a face that, perhaps unkindly, would be called effeminate by some. His metabolism was such that no matter how much he ate, he never seemed to gain any weight, thus he retained his rail like figure. “I have something special planned for this weekend, Bobbie,” he said mysteriously, refusing any further requests for information.

Bobbie’s apartment was split between the first two floors of the building. The ground floor entry eased access with the hand truck. It was spacious; its three bedrooms spread across two floors, and that didn’t count the open den that was currently being pressed into service as the game room in which the festivities would take place.

Their arrival was remarked with cries of welcome. Foremost among the crowd of friends who rushed forward to assist the pair was Tom Mackenzie, a great bear of a man who stood well over six and a half feet tall and weighed somewhere in the range of three hundred to three hundred and fifty pounds. While little of it was fat, what there was had settled around his midsection. His hands and arms were enormous, due in large part to his use of them working on cars. He was an accomplished mechanic, who had acquired something of a reputation throughout Cherokee County, for he was frequently asked for by name at the auto repair shop where he worked.

Tom’s hair was a brilliant red, long and somewhat disheveled fashion, matching his full beard. He had a broad, ready smile, whether of amusement or friendship. He easily took the two crates with which John had been struggling, then added a third from the hand truck with out apparent effort.

“Hello John,” he rumbled in his deep, quiet voice, a smile on his lips as he carried the crates into the room where a table and chairs had been set up. “How have things been with you?”

“Well, before anyone else asks me,” John looked around to make sure everyone else was listening. “Let me just say I’ve been fine, people have been stupid and I’ve been involved. That’s just the way it is when you work law enforcement.” John’s laugh joined their amusement.

“Now, before I unlimber all this, let me make everyone aware of a couple of items. I’d like to think this is going to be a pretty special weekend. There are some ground rules and I want you all to start thinking about them now. The game is going to use the AD&D 2.5 edition. We’re going to start everybody off at about tenth level and this is going to be a fairly heroic campaign. We’re going to open things up. All books will be allowed, and I want you to think of a character you’ve always wanted to play, or maybe played in another game and brought with you, because, quite honestly, you’re going to need it. This is going to be a new world, not one of the published ones, so be thinking about that while I get set up.”

John turned to Bobbie as a look of shock settled across the room. “So, what have you got to drink?”

“Um, what are you thirsty for? I like to think I’ve laid on a pretty good sized spread. We’ve got plenty to last the weekend, as this sounds like it’s going to be a pretty major event.” Bobbie led the way into the Gourmet Kitchen. At least, that’s the way the apartment management’s brochure had described it. Opening the refrigerator, he showed he had not lied, as the appliance was stocked full with cases of everything from soft drinks to beer in anticipation of the gathering. “What’ll ya have?” he asked.

“Coke’s fine. So, what kind of character have you thought about or always wanted to play?” John accepted the offered soda and cracked it open with a hiss of escaping pressure.

Bobbie took one for himself, opened it and thought for a moment of how best to answer the question. “Hmmm, the character I’ve always wanted to play? Well, I think we should put the party together as a team. It sounds like you’ve got a pretty rough ride planned for us.”

“Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

“That figures. OK ... the character I’ve always wanted to play…? It has to be Selena. She’s a healer, a cleric of Sune, from the Forgotten Realms. I played her a couple of games ago.”

John chuckled. "A healing cleric of the goddess of love, sex and beauty?”

“Can’t get any if you don’t look the part,” Bobbie’s replied with a grin.

Tom’s deep, rumbling voice penetrated the room. “Now you’re just taking advantage of John’s normally not wanting to have a female character get raped, or deal with periods and all that.” He grinned as he ambled to the fridge and helped himself to a Coke. “You know that’s not right. The rest of us can have our characters messed with, but you think because you always play a female, you get a free pass.”

“No free passes this time,” said John ominously. “The kid gloves are off, boys. It’s going to be interesting. Selena’s fine,” John told Bobbie. “A healer will probably be most helpful and that’s all I’ll say.” With that, he wondered back into the room to another chorus of welcomes from the rest of the group, leaving Bobbie and Tom to stare at each other with a mixture of worry and excitement over the coming game.

Fearfully taking a sip of his cola, Bobbie turned to stare up at the large man. “So, how about you? What are you going to play?”

Tom was thoughtful for a moment, considering the question as though it were some pressing matter of State. Finally reaching a decision, he nodded his pleasure over it, “I’m going to play Yukon, my Bruin Warrior.”

“Bruin?” asked Bobbie. “What’s a Bruin?”

“I read about Bruins in an old issue of Dragon Magazine,” was Tom’s reply. “They never made it into any of the source books, but I’ve always liked the concept. They’re a cross breed, half men, half bears. From what John says, it sounds like we’ll need a pretty tough fighter, and Bruins are really strong.”

Bobbie nodded his approval and followed the big man back into his den, where John was already deep into unpacking the milk crates as the other friends were trying and failing to get more details from him about the game.

Finally, they understood his silence on the matter was final and began the discussion of characters in earnest. “We’ll need a mage,” observed Lawrence Cogsley, the group’s resident book worm. To say that Lawrence was well read was to say the Library of Congress had a few books. The graduate engineering student from Georgia Tech devoured knowledge like a starving man at a ten course dinner. His average sized body belied the keen, constantly probing mind under his shaggy mop of coal black hair. His extremely fair complexion told everyone he didn’t see much sun, but his green eyes, when they could be seen through his wire framed glasses, were sharp and active. “I could play Malcolm,” he thought out loud.

“Are we allowing dragons?” demanded Louis Perico, the short, corpulent gaming geek that every such group, much to its distaste, seemed to attract

“’All books are allowed,’ I said,” affirmed John from his preparations. “That includes Council of Wyrmsand The Draconomicon. Besides, I remember all the work Law put into Malcolm for DragonCon. That’s a great character.”

“He’s out in the truck,” said Lawrence as he stood. “I’ll just go get him.” Like any number of engineers, Lawrence Cogsley had a great love of diametric opposites. There was nothing he liked better than the concept of a lawful good red dragon who was also an accomplished sorcerer.

Louis harrumphed in irritation and proclaimed loudly to the group at large, “Fine, then I’m playing Sir Leto.”

Tom chuckled as he settled with a groan into the easy chair that was the one piece of furniture up to the task of holding up his impressive girth. “We’ve got our paladin, then,” he rumbled. “John, I’m going to play Yukon, you remember me telling you about him?”

The Game Master nodded as he obscured himself behind the pair of screens he’d set on the table before him to conceal his notes.

Then Tom turned to the aberration of the circle, the breathtakingly beautiful young woman who sat beside him. “Ursula, what about you?”

While any gamer will tell you the number of women who are interested in role playing games is rare, the rarest gem of all is the pretty gamer girl. Ursula Croft had gotten into gaming during a brief stint of dating John, before she realized she couldn’t get over the worry of dating a cop. Their breakup had been friendly and her considerable intellect had been intrigued with the creativity of the pastime, so she had remained, after making it quite clear she wasn’t interested in any of the others in the group. Her German heritage displayed itself in her ample bosom. Any number of women jealous of her curvy figure had described her as top heavy, but she had yet to meet a heterosexual man who could find fault with her appearance. Indeed, her problem was quite the reverse. “Well,” she said in her soft contralto, “I wasthinking I might try a paladin, but since we’re doing the team approach to this, I guess I should build a thief. John, will we need a trap rogue or a generalist?”

The Game Master considered her question for a moment, and then as he usually did, acquiesced to her request. “A generalist would probably be better.”

Ursula nodded. “All right, I guess I’ll make one. It shouldn’t take too long. What do I know about this world so I can build a character?”

“You won’t be from the world,” was John’s response. “No one will. So just pick a published world, build a character and we’ll start from there.” This statement brought a chorus of confusion from the collected friends.

“Settle down,” ordered John. “Yes, all these characters will start on whatever world they’re tied to, then be transported to this new world in play. Let’s leave it there, OK? Ursula, creation is 4D6; drop the lowest, re-roll ones and twos.”

The clatter of dice became the beat behind the conversation of the other friends as they settled on equipments, back stories and details to round out their group while Ursula built her character.

As normally happened with a group this diverse, the conversation took on a life of its own, meandering through pop culture, current events and films, more than once having to be steered back to the task at hand by John.

After perhaps half an hour, Ursula announced she was finished and passed the sheet to John for his approval. “Elfish chaotic good, huh?” he asked from over the top of his screens with some amusement. “That’s never been done before…”

“There’s no reason to be a smart-aleck,” she replied primly. “It’s not like I get to play the character I’ve always wanted to.”

John’s tone changed at once. “Ursula, if you want to play a paladin, then play one!”

“I’m …” started Louis. He was cut off by a hail of wadded paper and a chorus of less than polite requests for him to be silent.

“No,” said Ursula firmly. “We’re supposed to be a team. The team needs a thief, and I’m the odd woman out. It’s OK, John, it’s not like I’ve played one of those either.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “All right, who is going to be the party caller?”

“I am,” rumbled Tom before anyone else could opt for the job. “You can’t say you didn’t hear me,” he chuckled. That was certainly true. While Tom normally kept his voice quiet, it’s deep, rumbling tones carried effortlessly, even over the shouting of the group.

John straightened his notes behind the screen and prepared a fresh sheet of paper. “All right, Tom, who is starting with whom and where?”

“Well, I thought Ursula’s Maggie would start with me at my village in Cormyr. Oh, I guess I should describe myself too, huh? OK everybody, Yukon is ten feet tall and covered with a reddish brown fur. He looks like a Kodiak bear with the proportions of a man, stands upright and he has hands with thumbs. He wears a lot of Native American- like jewelry and a buckskin loin cloth.”

“Why is Maggie at your village?” asked John.

“I was traveling. When I was attacked by a group of highwaymen, Yukon saved me,” supplied Ursula. “I was wounded and the shaman of Yukon’s village has been healing me. Oh, I don’t really have a concept for what Maggie looks like. I’ll say she looks like me, about my height but with blonde hair and pointed ears.”

“That’s original,” Louis snorted.

“It’s not like she needs to mentally masturbate to play this game, Louis,” snapped Bobbie. “Some of us like how we look.”

“Which would be why you’re constantly playing chicks?” Louis fired back. Being short and pudgy, he was touchy about the needling he took over his general lack of attractiveness..

“Knock it off,” rumbled Tom. “Louis, where is Sir Leto?”

“I shall be riding forth from Suzail, the capital of Cormyr to deal with the vile brigands that waylaid Maggie,” said Louis loftily. “Sir Leto is six two, by the way, with blond hair and a lantern jaw.”

“How good looking can he be, after all?” chuckled Lawrence.

“I have an eighteen in appearance,” countered Louis.

Lawrence was all but struck dumb. “You wasted an eighteen on a stat. as meaningless as Appearance?”

“Leto wears polished steel full plate mail,” continued Louis as though the interruption had not taken place. “He has a white war horse also in plate barding.”

“What ho, Prince Charming?” laughed Lawrence. “What about the crowd of minstrels singing about how brave you are?”

“Do I have to separate you two?” Tom’s deep voice held just a hint a menace that both men picked up on at once.

John merely chuckled from behind the screens. “Anything else, Louis?” was all he asked.

“Can I get a squire NPC?”

“No.”

“Then I guess I’m done,” he muttered.

Lawrence cracked his knuckles loudly, pleased to get to play his particular character once more. From the binder where he kept all of his notations for Malcolm, he removed an exquisite drawing of the dragon, protected in a sheet of clear acrylic to the murmurs of amazement of the friends.

“I didn’t know you could draw, Lawrence,” Ursula observed as they all admired the detail of the dragon in the drawing. Malcolm was shown sitting on his haunches, talking with a human sorcerer for scale. The dragon shown was quite small, only a bit larger than a sizable horse. Around the dragon’s waist was a belt from which hung a pouch holding a draconic sized spell book, a wand on a leather thong, and pouches for various spell components. His scales were bright scarlet and he wore a large collection of what looked like extremely expensive jewelry; from a heavy looking gold medallion about his neck, to the hoops of gold in his pierced sails just behind his head, and the rings on his taloned fingers.

“I can’t,” Lawrence sadly joined them in admiration of the work. “This was done by Todd McFarland, the comic artist who created Spawn. I won the character sketch at DragonCon. Isn’t it great?”

“Malcolm is a little small, isn’t he?” observed Bobbie.

“That’s why he’s a sorcerer,” supplied Lawrence with great enthusiasm. “He was the smallest dragon of his litter, so he wasn’t cut out to be a warrior, but he was brilliant, and had a talent for magic. He studied for twenty years with the War Mages of Cormyr and now he’s ready to go out on his own. He’s concentrated so much on learning; he never really grew to the size he should be for a young adult.”

“So, Malcolm is in Cormyr as well?” asked John. Lawrence nodded.

“Yes, I suppose I would have been sent with Sir Leto to quell these brigands.”

Around a huge bite of his sandwich, Louis slurred, “A knight traveling with a dragon?” in a most un-heroic fashion.

“A vassal of the King traveling with a respected Mage,” corrected Lawrence with some dignity.

“Knock it off, Law,” warned Tom once more. “Bobbie, that just leaves you.”

Bobbie licked his lips hesitantly. “Well, Selena is a cleric of Sune.”

Louis laughed loudly, nearly losing his mouthful of sandwich in the process. “A whore cleric of sex?”

Before Bobbie could bristle at the barb, John said softly, “Is someone looking to lose their paladinhood before the game even starts?” Louis instantly sobered and mumbled a nearly incoherent apology.

Bobbie cleared his throat and continued, “Selena is five seven with long black hair to the middle of her back that currently is in a braid for travel. She has a nineteen in appearance so she’s a real knock out, with a heart shaped face and green eyes. Her dress has a fairly form fitting bodice and loose skirt that shows off her figure. The bodice also shows off a holy symbol of Sune. She rides side saddle on her brown mare. I guess she’d be traveling with Sir Leto and Malcolm.”

“OK.” John sighed as he finished his notes. “After a day of travel you all arrive at the Bruin village where you are greeted by the elders. They look like Tom’s character, but their fur colors are well sprinkled with gray. Yukon is with them, standing beside Maggie, who is still wearing a sling for her left arm. The most important looking of the Bruin raises his hand and says ‘Well met travelers’.”

Bobbie turned to Tom. “Tom, I dismount and immediately go to Maggie and say, ‘I am a cleric and would be honored to heal your wound.’”

Tom nodded and caught John’s eye to pass that along.

“Ursula, Maggie’s arm now feels better and you can take off the sling. What is everyone else doing?”

“Sir Leto will raise his visor,” said Louis, ignoring Tom to talk directly to John. “He will say, ‘Well met in the name of the King, good sir. I am sent to quell the brigands who have been plaguing you.’”

“What are we, chopped liver?” Lawrence demanded testily.

“Stay in character, Law,” warned John. “Before anyone else can do anything, there is a flash of magical energy and a beautiful woman who radiates power appears before you all. Roll for surprise.”

A chorus of groans was drowned out by the clatter of dice on the table. Tom tabulated the results before turning to John. “Leto, Selena and Maggie are surprised. I only get a half action this round and Law is not surprised at all.”

“Law, are you doing anything?” asked John.

“Do I recognize this woman? I have a number of lore skills as well as the religion skill. Is she an avatar of some deity?”

“You can tell that she is an avatar, but you don’t know of what deity. Are you doing anything?” pressed John.

“I will keep a banish spell in mind, but otherwise I’ll wait to see what happens.”

John nodded. “All right, the woman is spectacularly beautiful. She’s kind of a cross between Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s dressed in silk robes and has several items of jewelry which radiate magical power, Law.”

“Ursula, you find you can’t estimate what her jewelry is worth, but any single piece of it would be a king’s ransom. She looks each of you in the eyes, then says, ‘Brave worthies, I have great need of your assistance. I have come from a world in desperate trouble. An evil man seeks the power of the god of Death. I represent the Council of Powers and, while we can take no direct intervention in his quest, he must be stopped. Will you help us?’”

“Danger, Will Robinson! Plot Hook!” chuckled Law.

“What are you all doing?” asked John pointedly.

Tom took a brief poll of the group before turning to John. “OK. John, everyone steps forward in true heroic fashion and pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honors to be of assistance to Madam Double D.”

Before John could answer him, the room was filled with an intense, blinding flash of light. Everyone in the room felt as though someone had grabbed hold of them through their navels and yanked, hard.

As the spots finally stopped dancing before their eyes, they found themselves standing on a grassy hilltop before the woman John had so vividly described. She smiled, flashing brilliantly white teeth thought the soft amber glow that surrounded her statuesque form. “Thank you so very much,” she said, her voice trembling with barely contained power.

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As the group of friends struggled to recover their senses, the lovely dark haired woman standing next to a now blonde Ursula shrieked in a lovely contralto, “I’ve got tits!”

The scream was followed by a roar of outrage that reverberated throughout the glade. It preceded a thunderous crash as the large body of the dragon that had once been Lawrence lost his balance and fell sideways into a tree, splintering it to toothpicks. “Tits?” roared the dragon as he struggled to stand, holding first one paw before his muzzle then another. “Tits?” he roared again. “Fuck you! I’ve got Scales!

While the group began frantically examining themselves, Tom slid to his rump and began to quietly cry. Of them all, only John was unchanged, still in the white Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office polo embroidered with ‘Deputy Lascomb,’ right down to the Glock on his hip. The Deputy looked at the can of Coke still clutched in his hand, desperately wished for a moment it was a beer, then drained it at a swallow.

“Everyone, I know that was a traumatic journey you just underwent,” said the woman once more. “Try to relax and I will explain everything.”

The Glock appeared in John’s hand as if by magic. “You’ll do a hell of a lot more than explain, sweetheart!” swore the Deputy as he dropped the Coke can to be sure of his aim with both hands. “Get on the ground, now and spread your arms and legs!”

The power released a musical laugh without a hint of malice in it. “Good John, return your weapon to its holster. None of you can hurt me, and it will be greatly worth your while to hear my offer.”

Tom got slowly to his feet and ambled over to the woman, towering over her in his new half bear form. “I can’t speak for anyone but myself,” he rumbled, his voice even deeper than before. “But I can tell you I don’t care what your offer is. I’ll have no part of it.”

“Tom?” asked the woman Bobbie had become, with concern in her voice.

The Bruin turned to stare at her with his baleful eyes. “Yukon was a character in a game, Bobbie. Now I can feel his skills inside of me. The only thing he does well is hurt and kill. I won’t do it. I put a man in a wheel chair once because I used my size. Never again.” With that Tom sat down with great finality.

The woman cupped the Bruin’s face in her hands. “On your world that is a noble sentiment, brave Thomas. Here, it will bring pain and death to your loved ones. Here, might makes right! You will either fight for your friends or watch their agony.”

“Go to hell,” growled Tom.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” shouted Bobbie, her voice somewhat shrill to carry over the competition to speak. The group turned to look at her. “We’re here and this woman brought us. Let’s at least find out why.” Bobbie fixed her gaze on the new comer and tried to set a stern expression on her face that didn’t give away the joy she felt at her situation. This was a dream come true! “Who are you and what do you want with us?” she demanded.

“My name is Aria. I am the Power of Magic of the world of Tyra, where you find yourselves. What John told you is true. An evil man does seek to become the Power of Death here.”

“Why don’t you just stop him then?” demanded Lawrence from the sturdy oak tree he’d found to balance himself. “Why get us involved?”

“Because once I was a simple sorceress. On our world, the Great Powers act through bonding with humans of great courage and prowess. I replaced the previous Power of Magic when he Passed On. The Powers cannot interfere with anyone questing to become the host of a Power.”

“But because we’re outsiders, we’re exempt,” finished John disgustedly as he re-holstered the weapon. His friend’s eyes turned as one, as he finished Aria’s thought. “This is the adventure we were going to play this weekend.”

“Did you have a hand in this?” softly demanded Ursula, the new Elf.

John shook his head violently. “I had a series of vivid dreams and thought it would be an awesome game, Urs. I swear, that’s all!”

“John speaks the Truth,” interjected Aria quickly. “I sent the dreams he speaks of to him, to put your thoughts in tune with my world, to make it easier for you to travel the Void.”

Ursula stepped forward, finding herself roughly the same height as Aria. “Well, that should make it easy for you to send us home. The answer is no.”

“I cannot send you home,” replied Aria sadly. “The confluence that allowed me to pierce the Veil of the Void has passed.”

“Oh God,” rumbled Lawrence, something like terror in his voice. “The next confluence isn’t for fifty years!”

“How do you know that?” demanded Louis, pulled from the near worship of inspecting his new, perfect body with great joy.

“Because I’m a mage, you moron! I have all of Malcolm’s knowledge and abilities!”

“I’ll be dead ... ” whispered John with an infinite sadness, “or so old I might as well be.”

“That would be a part of the offer I am trying to explain to you,” said Aria with another of her heart breaking smiles. “If you succeed in stopping Mandrid from becoming the Power of Death, then one of my rewards will be to extend the extensive lifespan of Malcolm to the rest of you. In fifty years you shall still be roughly the ages you are now. Not to mention having fifty years to enjoy the grateful rewards of the Council of Powers. Is that so much to ask?”

“Murder for hire generally has a bit more monetary reward ... or a long jail sentence,” spat John.

“Who said Mandrid was to be killed?” laughed Aria. “What I said, was that he must be stopped. How you choose to do so, is completely your own affair.”

“And if we refuse?” demanded Tom.

“If Mandrid becomes the Power of Death, then you and everyone else on this world will die. That is his goal; the complete destruction of every living thing on the face of this world.”

“Why us?” was Tom’s mournful question. Aria gestured for the group to gather around her. They did so, some, notably Lawrence, with difficulty and sat facing her. The Power gestured, causing a varied picnic of food and drink to appear before them.

“Eat; you will all be hungry from crossing the Void. To answer your question, you were chosen for many reasons. First, your world grants you knowledge and learning far above what you will encounter here. It gives you a unique perspective to help solve the problems you will encounter. Second, you are all great friends who have made a hobby of dealing with the matters of life and death we take for granted here. We do not expect your services for no compensation. For some of you, the bodies you now inhabit are ample reward,” she said, fixing her piercing gaze on first Bobbie, then Louis.

“For others, this is a chance to seize your destinies, un-encumbered by the realities of your previous world. Surely you realize that in short order you will be able to live as Kings and Queens while you the wait for the next Convergence? In addition, should you still desire to return to your birth world, you shall, with as much treasure as you can lift as our final Thank You for your service. What say you?”

“It’s not like we have a choice, do we?” growled Lawrence.

“If all of this had been spelled out in the dreams I had sent John, would he have believed it?” asked Aria pointedly. “Would any of you, even if he had told you?

She paused to stare into the faces of the group who realized this was as fair an offer as they were likely to receive. “I thought not.”

“What about John?” demanded Ursula, consumed with worry over her former lover. “He didn’t even get different clothes so he doesn’t stand out. Not to mention the fact he really has no way to defend himself.”

Aria smiled. “Unlike the stories some of you have read, his pistol will work here. And I have ensorcelled the carrier for the magazines of his pistol. He has but to remove the full magazine, place an empty one into it, and when he needs another, he shall find the first full once more.

“As for why, in many ways he is the key to your success. John will be your Lore Master. In his mind, I have placed all the knowledge of this world. He shall be your guide. I advise you most strongly to listen to his intuition.”

“I say we go for it!” exclaimed Louis as he helped himself to a turkey leg and took a huge bite. “This is the chance of a life time! Dungeon crawl for real? Come on you guys! We’ll be rich by the end of it.”

Tom snorted in disgust and gave voice to the collected feelings of the remainder of the group. “Have you ever actually been in a fight? How about a fight for your life? That’s a dungeon crawl, Louis. As a game, it’s fun. As a way of life it’s theft and murder. Think about all the times your character was really seriously hurt, maybe even had to be resurrected. Do you think it’s just going to be John saying, ‘You bled out, Louis?’ I’m talking about agony.”

While it was apparent Louis hadn’t fully considered this aspect of their quandary, it did little to truly lessen his enthusiasm. “I’m not stupid, you know,” he muttered. “But even she,” and he pointed at the bemused Aria, “says we’re the best of the best.”

“There’s no dice to cheat at, Louis,” thundered Lawrence, his voice like a spring storm, before he realized just how loud his new body was capable of being.

“I don’t cheat,” countered the new Knight hotly.

“I can’t believe we’re having this argument!” shouted Ursula. “Just look at the two of you! We’ve been snatched from our world and you’re arguing about a Goddamned game?”

Aria made a soft gesture and silence fell like a thunder clap over the glade. “Perhaps this is not the best time to discuss your situation,” she said reasonably. “I shall give you all some time to get used to what is required of you. Know that the reward for your services shall be beyond your wildest imaginings.”

She turned and pointed down the hill to a dirt track that was probably the closest thing this world had to a road. “There is Hangdri’s Road. The City of Hangdri is forty leagues from here, where there is a temple dedicated to me. When you reach it, I shall appear before you again, so that we may complete this discussion. In the chests behind you, you will find that which you need to survive until you reach Hangdri. Fare well.”

With that, the silence the Avatar had cast lifted and she was gone from the glade. It was Lawrence who spoke first. “Nice going, Louis,” he snarled.

Tom shot to his feet, his anger palpable on his sleeve. “Law, if you start anything else today, I’m going to give Louis a demonstration of real pain and you’re going to be my demonstration. That goes for you too, Louis. Both of you stop it!” the Bruin roared. He rubbed his furry temples to collect himself. “Does anybody have any idea how long it will take to travel forty leagues on horse back with at least me walking?”

“Four to five days,” said John instantly, a look of amazement on his face. “Don’t ask me how I know that, I just do.”

“There are five horses tethered down the hill a bit,” Law observed meekly. “One of them actually looks big enough for you, Tom.”

“Let’s see what’s in the chests,” Louis suggested, changing the subject.

“Typical,” muttered Ursula as she got unsteadily to her feet. “I think I should check them out first, guys, although, I haven’t the faintest idea of how, beyond saying, I’ll check for traps.”

“Don’t think about it, just do it,” said John. “It’s weird, almost like you’re not really in control of yourself.”

“Use the Force, Ursula,” quipped Lawrence.

“Is there magic, Lawrence?” asked Tom.

The dragon stared at him for a moment then his brain clicked and he directed his stare at the half dozen chests a few feet from the group. “Yes! They’re all magically active in some way,” he said softly. “Nothing offensive, I think, just kind of a left over from being created by Aria.” Ursula nodded, licked her lips to steady herself, then stepped forward to closely examine each of the chests.

“How do you know it’s magic?” Louis demanded peevishly.

Lawrence turned to him, the draconic equivalent of scorn draped across his muzzle. “I’m a dragon,” he replied, more than a hint of amusement in his tone. “Being able to see magic is one of my abilities. Well, look, here’s a better example. What alignment am I?”

“How am I supposed to…?” started Louis, before the dragon angrily cut him off.

“Don’t think about it!” demanded the dragon harshly. “Do it! Stare at me. How do I make you feel?” Not quite sure how to follow the dragon’s advice, Louis simply stared at the dragon until he realized his feelings were beginning to change. Some small part of him became aware that the dragon liked to be around people and groups. That he wasn’t a loner, per se. More importantly, that he was basically a good person. Someone who could be trusted with a small child, unattended or supervised.

“I … think you like being around people and that you’re a good person?” asked Louis hesitantly.

The dragon nodded sagely. “That’s because I’m Lawful. ... Good,” he told him. “Being able to judge the alignment of someone is one of the basic abilities of a paladin. That’s how Ursula is checking for traps, even though she has never done it before, or I can see magic.”

At the mention of her name, Ursula stood up exasperatedly from her examination of the chests and walked back over to the group. “Either I’m doing this wrong, or there’s nothing there,” she said in her soft voice, her hands on hips in frustration. “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing there, but I don’t have the instant result you guys do.”

John nodded at this bit of information and led the group as they advanced hesitantly on the chests. “Bobbie, why don’t you hang back, just in case. Hopefully you can figure out how to do a healing spell if one of us gets hurt.”

At that, several members of the group looked at each other and then backed away with the healer, leaving John and Ursula alone. “Well, no time like the present,” John said, decisively kicking open one of the chests with his boot’s toe. Somewhat anti-climatically; nothing happened.

The chest was full of clothing of several cuts and styles, some male, some female. It was obviously the remainder of the party’s traveling attire. Rummaging through the chest awarded John a brown T tunic of fairly ample cut with green felt detail work around the sleeves and collar. He selected these, along with a pair of matching wrap pants, forsaking the foot wear he found there in favor of the tactical boots he’d been wearing when he set out from home that morning. “I guess I won’t stand out quite so badly wearing this. Looks like Ursula had it right. Nothing should be wrong with the others, so just carefully check them out while I change.” He took the garments and moved off to a small copse of trees for some amount of privacy.

As John was off changing, the rest of the group began to root through the other chests, which, were likewise were free of danger. In short order they discovered one of the chests was full of weapons. First to be removed was a matched set of long sword and parrying dagger on a leather sword belt which had been deeply tooled by a master tanner with roses, flowers and other ornamentation carved into the leather. Likewise the sword and dagger themselves were more ornate than business like. Their handles were gilded and encrusted with jewels. Louis took them from the chest with a great smile of anticipation and strapped them around his now trim waist.

Next came the plain wand that had been hanging on the portrait of Malcolm on the drawing that Lawrence had shown the group. The dragon gingerly removed the item and placed it on his own belt. The wand was sized for a draconic user, nearly two feet long and while not as gaudily embellished as Louis’ sword, it was obvious that a master of the craft had produced it.

Almost before he was finished, Ursula removed a pair of daggers, much plainer than either of Louis’ weapons, which were went into scabbards on the equally plain belt she put around her fetching waist.. She also removed a strung long bow and a quiver of arrows, which quickly took their place on her back.

“Uh, shouldn’t you unstring that? Tom Asked. I don’t think it is good for either the bow or the string to leave it strung all the time.”

Ursula took the bow from her back, staring at it for a moment. “Apparently Aria felt I might need to get it into action in a hurry. It’s been ensorcelled, so leaving it strung won’t hurt anything.”

Bobbie likewise took a knife from the chest, placing it in an empty scabbard she slipped onto the belt around her narrow belly. A soft smile appeared on her face, as if at some private remembrance of the significance of the weapon.

Last, and most hesitantly, Tom removed a pair of what appeared to be, for lack of a better description, claws that could be strapped to the be back of his hands. They were nearly a foot long, with three wicked looking blades that curved inward slightly. “I can just imagine the damage these have done,” he softly muttered to himself as he put them into an intricate looking keeper on the belt that supported his loin cloth.

“It’s good to finally meet you Sebastian!” exclaimed Louis as he drew the long sword, waving it in a few test strokes throughout the air.

“You named your sword, Sebastian?” asked Lawrence softly.

Louis nodded with some glee as he turned with the weapon, causing the dragon to quickly step backwards, lest he be skewered upon it. “Sebastian is magic!” said Louis excitedly. “It’s a sentient blade, a plus five Holy Avenger…”

“No, it’s not,” said Lawrence simply. “That is a mundane sword. There is no magic in it.”

“But…but…” stuttered Louis, an intense look of disappointment on his face. He turned back to the copse of trees from which John was emerging from, buckling his gun belt about his waist. Louis wailed plaintively, “John!”

“What Louis?” asked John with some annoyance as he approached.

“Sebastian isn’t magic!” thundered Louis.

“I’m sorry,” said John sarcastically. “Do I have Aria complaint department tattooed across my forehead?

“But Sebastian is a Holy Avenger!” pressed Louis. “Lawrence has his wand!”

“Was it on your sheet, Louis?” John sighed, his usual Saintly patience nearly gone. Louis shook his head in the negative. “Then I guess that’s why it’s not magic, isn’t it? I’m not a mind reader, Louis. If you didn’t tell me you had a plus five Holy Avenger, then I don’t imagine that Aria would know you had one, either. So guess what? You get a plain sword!”

“But that’s not fair!” whined the Paladin.

John’s eyes narrowed as he seated the gun belt more comfortably over the somewhat clashing period clothing he was wearing. Basket weave and dark ages high fashion evidently don’t go together.

“You really don’t want to bring up the concept of fairness just now, Louis,” he hissed. John took several deep breaths to regain his composure and pointedly turned to the others as he surveyed the partially opened chests. “So, what all have we got?” he asked resignedly.

Tom ambled over to John’s side and chuckled at some private bit of humor. “Pretty much the stuff you’d expect to find on the back of a character sheet,” he rumbled. “Lots of rope, sacks, pitons ... um, that chest over there is mostly full of food. Jerky for the most part; doesn’t look particularly appetizing. Pretty generic adventuring stuff.”

“So, how about things like, sleeping bags, bed rolls or things to keep us out of the elements?” asked John.

At that, Lawrence came up to the pair, a draconic grin on his muzzle. “Think larger, John. I know you’re upset, but remember, you have a mage. Mortencainen’s Magnificent Mansion?” he asked.

“How are we going to carry all of this?” asked Ursula, gesturing to the half dozen chests with some alarm.

“That’s what I’ve always wondered, which is why I generally make you plan these things out,” said John with a sigh. “But I guess that’s pretty much a moot point, now.”

“Look, I can carry John and we can use that other horse as a pack animal,” suggested Lawrence. “It’s probably good for me and him to be airborne, as that will give our range specialists a greater field of fire, should the need arise.”

John shook his head as he surveyed the amount of baggage the group had acquired before turning to them with a look of resignation on his face. “There’s a little village about half a days journey away,” he said, looking up the sky for a moment. “I’d guess it’s around noon, so we’ve got six, maybe eight hours of daylight left. Hopefully this village will have a wainwright where we can buy a wagon, because that’s really the only way we can realistically transport all of this junk in the long term. In the short term, let’s go ahead and go with Lawrence’s suggestion, as that sounds like the best choice that we’ve got.”

In a surprisingly short amount of time, the boxes had been analyzed, categorized and shifted to a more seeming load spread out across the travelers, the odd horse out taking the brunt of it with little complaint. John removed its saddle and, as best he could, strapped it to Lawrence to give himself something of a seat, much to Lawrence’s bemusement.

With that, the group set off for whatever Fate had in store for them.

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Chapter Two

Sore in the Saddle

The Lyrics are fromNo Sugar Tonight, copyright 1970,
The Guess Who; written byBurton
Cummings and Randy Bachman.
This appearance is without intended dispute of existing copyright.

The group which arrived in the village of Barnsby was hardly recognizable as the group that had set out six hours previously; after having been transported to this world from their own by magic. They slumped in the saddles of their horses, exhaustion on every face, and more than one backside was squirming in a saddle, anxious to be off of it.

Despite the raggedness of their group or even the fact that a fair sized red dragon was in their company, the city fathers of Barnsby seemed to show little interest in their arrival, other than the odd, fearful gaze and tight clutching of a farm tool as the locals made their way home after a hard days work in the fields. The village itself was perhaps two dozen buildings, set astride the road serving as its principal street as it meandered through town. On either side it was flanked by small shops, the obligatory tavern that villages in stories and adventures such as these seem to possess. The group tiredly pulled up to it, and with great gratitude, dismounted from their horses.

“Now I know why John Wayne walked the way he did,” gasped Bobbie. Six hours of riding side saddle had taken their toll. She walked with a distinct and noticeable limp as she massaged her aching rear.

Tom chuckled to himself as he climbed off the massive horse that had been provided for him, easily half again as large as the other animals. Even then, it had been just large enough to bear him. For himself, he was most grateful for the bear-like layer of fat just under his skin. Not only did it serve as an insulator, but it had doubled as a cushion for the long ride and of them all, he was in the least amount of pain. “Yes, but what I’m most concerned with is the curious lack of interest from our hosts,” he said, looking around at the villagers.

As the others followed his gaze, it became apparent that while there was some apprehension, and obviously they were being studied, no one was grasping for weapons or pointing and shouting, ‘A dragon!’ as they should have been.

“Well, I suppose it’s because we’re heroes,” suggested John, as he also rubbed some life back into his back side. “After all, how many times have we, though the games we’ve played, talked about a group of adventurers arriving in a town to almost no notice?.”

Lawrence swiveled his triangular shaped head to stare at his friend. “Yes, but how often does one arrive with a dragon in tow?” he asked sarcastically.

It was Ursula who put things in perspective for the group as she got her own gear settled on her shoulders to carry into the tavern. “Well, I imagine if Lawrence had arrived by himself, from the air, there’d be a lot more commotion. As he walked into town with a group of humans, I would guess they’re going to give us a ‘wait and see’ approach. Let’s not anyone make any sudden gestures or moves.”

From the pouch on her belt, she produced a silver coin and gestured to one of the young boys standing by the door of the tavern. He ran over with a smile on his face. “See that these animals are taken care of, won’t you, my lad?” she asked, presenting the boy with the coin. From the grin that broke out across the boy’s face it would seem this was ample reward. He quickly collected the horses and led them around to the back side of the inn.

“How is Lawrence going to fit into the inn?” asked Louis as he surveyed the human sized door that awaited them.

Lawrence simply chuckled, closed his eyes and concentrated. A soft amber glow surrounded him for a moment, and then he began to shrink, flowing into the shape of a now fairly average sized human who bore remarkable resemblance to his previous self. He no longer wore glasses, however, and the other small defects he’d disliked about himself vanished as well, most notably his freckles. His hair, however, was now as brilliant a red as was the clothing that materialized about him. The wand and spell book had shrunk to stay in proportions to his new form. His was dressed in a slash sleeved doublet of a deep burgundy, through which peeked the crimson material of the billowed sleeve shirt he wore under the doublet. Deep red hose and boots that reached mid-thigh completed the ensemble. “Like this!” he said with a smile on his face.

Then he turned to look up and down the street to survey the town. “You know what concerns me that I don’t see?” he asked suddenly. The group paused and gave their attention to him. “I don’t see any walls. From the looks of the village, this is somewhere around 1200AD as far as their level of technology. So, uh, just barely pre-Renaissance, high middle ages. There should be a wall around this town and there isn’t. This almost puts me in mind of an Old West town. It’s way out of period,” he sounded quizzical.

John thought for a moment before he chose to answer. “There is magic in this world. I suppose magic takes the place guns did in the Old West. There’s probably a mage or two in this town. Perhaps that’s why they don’t feel the need to put a wall around it.”

Lawrence shook his head as if weighing the argument and then disagreeing with it. “Yes, but everybody would have had a gun to fight the Indians with,” he said. “A couple of mages doesn’t exactly make up for a town full of Winchesters, if you take my meaning.”

“Well, I guess we’ll find out one way or the other,” said John as he gestured the group into the tavern.

To say that tavern was stereotypical was an understatement of colossal proportion. In it were the few, grimy regulars that always seemed to haunt such an establishment, along with a grizzled bar tender who was idly making a show of cleaning a pewter tankard before him. The main area of the tavern was perhaps fifty feet on a side and lit dimly with smoky candles and oil burning lamps. The furniture was not of any great quality, yet still, sturdy and functional.

As the group made their way into the tavern, what appeared to be the regulars of the tradesmen of the town were also arriving for the evening’s meal and drink all keeping a polite, if discreet distance from the new comers.

John led the group to the bar, “Good evening,” he greeted the bar keep behind it. He forced a smile which was not returned. “We’d like to see about getting some rooms and a meal, please.”

“We?” growled the bartender, his eyes never seeming to leave Ursula.

John noticed this and worked to keep his anger in check. “Yes, all of us. Is that a problem?”

“We don’t serve the pointed ears here,” growled the bartender. “And you can keep your animal out in the stables with the others,” his eyes flicked to Tom.

Tom actually chuckled as the man’s prejudices were displayed as plainly for the group as the grease stains on his apron, for all to see. He ambled forward and leaned on the bar until it groaned under his weight. “I’ll handle this, guys,” he said. “Now, sir, this is, of course, your establishment, and you’re entitled to run it however you see fit. However, I’ve just come off of a very long journey and the young lady and I would like to frequent your fine hostelry here. We don’t want any trouble. However, if you feel like there needs to be some trouble before we pay our perfectly good money for your services, by all means, let’s get it over and done with.”

The man paled visibly under Tom’s rather intense gaze before stammering out that it would cost a gold piece for the lot of them to spend the night, dinner and breakfast included. Tom graced him with a rather intimidating display of dentition that some might call a smile, before he paid him and led the group over to an empty table.

“What happened to your not getting into any fights?” asked Louis.

“Just because I know I won’t fight him doesn’t mean he knows that, now does it?” said Tom with a smile. “And, Louis? Your Readers Digest Word for the Week is ‘Subtle’. Remember it. Look it up. Use it in a sentence.”

“I’m not stupid,” muttered Louis.

“He keeps using those words. I don’t think they mean what he thinks they do,” Lawrence chuckled to Tom. The bear, however, turned his dangerous gaze on Lawrence, who muttered an apology before turning back to the rest of the group. “Well, onto more pleasant matters of conversation. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why a bartender in a rural village would be willing to put hatred before money?”

“An Elfish Kingdom borders the Duchy of which Hangdri is the capital. They’ve been at war off and on for a couple of hundred years,” supplied John automatically.

“You didn’t think that bit of information was important?” asked Ursula, obviously considerably worried.

“I didn’t know it until Lawrence brought it up,” the Deputy replied defensively. “The good news is there hasn’t been any kind of open conflict in about ten years.”

“Now I’m really worried about why there’s no wall,” muttered Lawrence. He caught sight of a young man in robes, who was obviously working up the courage to come over. “Heads up,” he whispered tensely.

“Nobody do anything before I do,” hissed John. The group watched the young man finally find his courage and walk hesitantly over. He was dressed in deep yellow robes, cut in a way that put one in mind of a monk’s habit. He appeared to be in his early twenties and was fairly good looking. His features were regular, but his looks were somewhat spoiled by the bowl cut his brown hair was cropped in. Around his neck was a fairly heavy looking medallion.

He stopped before Bobbie and bowed before speaking in a clear tenor. “I humbly beg your forgiveness for my intrusion, Lady. You are a servant of the Lover, are you not?”

Bobbi glanced fearfully back and forth between the group and the young man before answering. “Um, yes, I suppose you might put it that way,” she said finally.

“I was wondering if you would grace us with a song?” asked the monkish young man.

“I didn’t know you could sing, Bobbie!” declared Louis to a chorus of groans around the table.

Bobbie quickly flashed the young man with what she hoped was a winsome smile. “I’ve just come from the road, Brother …?”

“Brother Camdus,” the man supplied instantly, returning her smile. “Please, forgive my lack of manners. You must be tired. Please, refresh yourself, and if I can be of assistance, let me know.”

The young man withdrew; bowing profusely as he did so before Bobbie turned to the Paladin. While the smile didn’t leave her face, it grew cold looking less and less as if it belonged on her lovely visage. “Louis, we’re not around the coffee table in my apartment anymore. I swear to God if you blurt something out that might cost us our lives again, I’ll drop a silence spell on you that won’t lift until we go home fifty years from now.”

“I think,” inserted John quickly before anyone else could get their dander up, “that we’d all better guard what we say and do.” He paused for a moment before turning to Bobbie. “Can you sing?”

“I haven’t sung since High School,” the new woman replied. “But there was a guitar in one of the chests and my character knew how to do both.”

“Evidently,” said John, “as a traveling cleric of a locally known deity you’ll be expected to give some kind of show. Be thinking about what you can sing to keep the natives happy. For now, let’s all eat and keep alert. If Bobbie’s performance goes south, we might have to leave in a hurry.”

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The prospect of the coming recital put a significant damper on the enjoyment of the rather simple meal the group enjoyed.

Finally, it seemed obvious the moment couldn’t be put off any longer. Tom escorted Bobbie out to the stables to fetch her instrument and returned with a somewhat mystified look on his muzzle, clutching a tambourine.

Bobbie only paused long enough to deposit the case before proceeding up to the fireplace which she pressing into service as a stage, Tom in tow. “This is an old song where I come from,” she said nervously as she got the guitar settled across her knee. “But as there have been some upheavals in my life recently, it seems very appropriate. I hope you all enjoy it.”

“I never thought of Tom as a performing bear,” whispered Lawrence with an almost evil chuckle to John as Bobbie made sure of the instrument’s tune.

At last she seemed to overcome the last of her own anxiety and coaxed from the guitar a tune that tickled the back of John’s memory that he couldn’t place until she lifted her voice in a clear river of sound.

Lonely feeling, deep inside

Find a corner where I can hide

Silent footsteps crowding me

Sudden darkness, but I can see

No sugar tonight in my coffee

No sugar tonight in my tea

No sugar to stand beside me

No sugar to run with me

In the silence of her mind

Quiet movements where I can find

Grabbing for me with her eyes

Now I'm falling from her skies

No sugar tonight in my coffee

No sugar tonight in my tea

No sugar to stand beside me

No sugar to run with me

Jock says yes, and I believe him

When we talk about the things I say

She hasn't got the faith or the guts to leave him

When they're standing in each other's way

You're driven back now to places you've been to

You wonder what you're gonna find

You know you've been wrong but it won't be long

Before you leave 'em all far behind

'Cause it's the new mother nature taking over

It's the new splendid lady come to call

It's the new Mother Nature taking over

She's getting us all, she's getting us all

Jock said no when I came back last time

It's looking like I lost a friend

No use calling 'cause the sky is falling

And I'm getting pretty near the end

A smoke filled room in a corner basement

The situation must be right

A bag of goodies and a bottle of wine

We're gonna get it on right tonight

'Cause it's the new mother nature taking over

It's the new splendid lady come to call

It's the new Mother Nature taking over

She's getting us all, she's getting us all”

John enjoyed the song, as it brought back memories of listening to it with his parents. Then, he was astounded when Tom, who to until that point had limited himself to keeping the beat with the tambourine, began to add to the final chorus with his rumbling baritone.

Lonely feeling

Jock says yes and I believe him

Deep inside

When we talk about the things I say

Find a corner

She hasn't got the faith or the guts to leave him

Where I can hide

When they're standing in each other's way

Silent footsteps

You're driven back now to places you've been to

Crowding me

You wonder what you're gonna find

Sudden darkness

You know you've been wrong and it won't be long

But I can see

Before you leave 'em all far behind

'Cause it's the new Mother Nature taking over

It's the new splendid lady come to call

It's the new Mother Nature taking over

She's getting us all, she's getting us all”

The house was silent, allowing the final vibrations from the guitar to fall away before guarded applause began to rise, led by Bobbie’s closest friends.

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The pair of rooms the group which were provided by the surly Innkeeper had the virtue of adjoining each other. Being over the fireplace, they so shared its chimney, which provided a bit of warmth in the growing chill of the evening. That ended the pleasant features of the rooms, which were markedly small, the larger of the two barely being ten feet on a side. The smaller of the two held a bed that only a pair of close friends might share while the other had only a liberal spatter of straw that rustled as the creatures who also called the straw home moved through it. “Not exactly a Best Western is it?” observed Lawrence with an upturned lip.

“Reminds me of the last Meth Lab trailer we raided,” replied John as the group surveyed their accommodations.

“I’ve slept in worse,” added Louis, beginning to make his way to the bed.

“Somehow I don’t doubt it,” said Ursula commented scathingly, as Tom collected the Paladin by the scruff of his neck.

“You don’t honestly think you’re going to have the bed, do you?” he drawled.

“Well…?” stammered Louis.

“We’ll just have to make the best of it,” asserted John. “Bobbie, I guess you and Ursula can share the bed.” Ursula didn’t seem to like the idea, but was entirely unsure how to politely voice her objections.

She was saved from having to figure out exactly how to do so by a long string of profanity in Lawrence’s voice. “To hell and damnation with this,” he spat, gesturing for the group to precede him back out to the hallway. Once there, he intoned a series of heavy sounding words that slipped from ear to thought and out once more without writing a memory of their passage, as the view into the room was obscured by a faintly glowing haze across the threshold of the door. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, more than a bit of smug satisfaction in his voice. “Allow me to welcome you to your new accommodations.” With that, he led the way back through the haze, out of their sight.

His friends filed after him, stepping into the golden hue of a sunset one might expect to see at a Caribbean Resort. The five friends rejoined their draconic friend, who had returned to his lizard form, which was now incased by a Hawaiian shirt of the most obnoxious riots of color. They seemed to be standing on a beach of perfect sugar sand, accompanied by grass huts with thatched roofs and wide windows to allow the cool breezes that came off the sparkling lagoon below them to move through them.

Lawrence sipped a fruited libation from a coconut adorned with a paper umbrella. “Welcome, to Fantasy Island,” he chuckled. “Mai Tai anyone?”

“Thank you, Mr. Roark,” rumbled Tom as he helped himself to one of the coconuts. “So, where are we?”

“We’re in that flea infested room we just left,” replied Lawrence. “Or, rather, the glowing archway behind you goes there. Technically, we’re in a memory of a Sandals Resort my mom sent me to for graduating from college. This is now a pocket dimension anchored, for the next twelve hours or so, back to where we were.”

“Mortencainen’s Magnificent Mansion,” finished John.

“Exactimundo,” chuckled Lawrence. “I can’t get us home, but I thought a little slice of one of the nicer parts of it would be just what the doctor ordered.”

“Wish I had more prescriptions like this,” replied Bobbie with a laugh and generous gulp from a coconut of her own.

“So why can’t we just stay here?” asked Louis over his own libation.

Lawrence turned his head towards a fire pit that had been prepared before inhaling deeply. After a moment of figuring out the mechanics of his new form, he spat a long tongue of flame toward the fire pit he’d conjured up, with spectacular effect. The bonfire thundered to life, sending a shower of embers arcing to chase the breathtaking sunset in the distance.

“Because,” he said after a moment admiring his handiwork, “in twelve hours this dimension will lose its anchor back to where we were. To be honest, I’m not certain it is up to holding itself up or if it will just collapse. Either way we are the only living things in it, and I don’t fancy starving to death if it does remain or spending the rest of my life there.”

“What was that like, Lawrence?” asked Ursula quietly, still over awed by the proof of her friend’s new status, nodding her head towards the fire to indicate what she meant.

The dragon chuckled softly. “Rather like having a horrific case of indigestion and getting that massive belch that clears it up.” He lay down on his belly, his snout pointed towards the bonfire and curled his tail around himself. “Has anyone thought about what we’re going to do?” he finally asked.

“Do we really have a choice?” asked Bobbie as she settled near the dragon to soak in the warmth of the bonfire against the tropical cold that the conversational topic seemed to have brought on early. “Either we jump through Aria’s hoops or we die with everything else when, bother, what’s his name? When whatever his name is, succeeds in getting to be the new god of Death.”

“So she says,” replied John. “We have no real information beyond what she’s told us, and so far as I can think, no way to get any.”

“This is not how I wanted to spend my weekend,” grumbled Ursula as she sat next to her former lover. The two shared a glance before she leaned against him.

“I think,” he said after a long pleasant moment getting used to having the winsome young woman leaning against him once more. “The only thing we can do at this point is to at least play along with Aria’s game until we can figure out some way of turning the tables on her.”

“Sounds dangerous,” rumbled Tom.

“Anything worth having usually is,” put in Lawrence softly.

“So, can we go back and forth from this mansion thingy?” asked Louis with something approaching a civil tone of the dragon. The triangular head regarded him for a long moment before answering.

“With some difficulty, why?”

“We’ve got some money,” answered the knight cagily. “I want to go … mingle.”

The dragon blinked incredulously. “You want to go mingle? With the people from an alien world?”

Tom’s rumbling laugh echoed across the lagoon. “He wants to go whoring,” he finally managed to gasp.

Louis shuffled his feet as the eyes of the entire party fell on him. “Why not?” he worked up the courage to demand. “I know good and damn well every one of you have slipped John notes saying the same thing.”

“Ahem!” Bobbie and Ursula squealed at the same moment. The two women shared an amused glance before turning back to the lecherous knight.

“OK, OK! Not you two, but everyone else!” he protested.

“In a game, Louis,” soothed Thomas once he’d mastered his merriment at the younger man’s predicament. “Things …”

“Are real! I know that!” he spat back with some heat, his face becoming flushed.

“All the more reason he wants to go find out how things work for real,” snorted Lawrence. The knight and his age old enemy stared at each other, fuming for several moments.

Bobbie’s soft voice broke the silence. “Louis, if you get a case of the clap, I’m not healing you.”

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Because healing magic requires me to touch the afflicted area and there’s no way on God’s good Earth I’m touching you there.”

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There was a swagger in Louis’ steps the next morning, an unaccustomed bravado that had previously been missing from his demeanor. The others couldn’t help teasing him over it. Of them all, Lawrence took a particular pleasure in needling the knight over his newfound manhood. While a few stern glances from Tom kept things from getting too far out of hand, the dragon contented himself with launching into brassy versions of Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation whenever Louis was in earshot.

True to his word, the Innkeeper had breakfast waiting on the troupe and while it wasn’t a meal any one of them would have ordered at home, it was hot and of a hearty heaviness that promised to stick with them throughout the day.

By John’s reckoning they were on the road by nine, rapidly renewing their acquaintance with the previous day’s aches and pains within moments of the return to the saddle.

“How are we ever going to get anywhere with this kind of constant pain?” lamented Ursula.

“You’re not riding side saddle,” replied Bobbie with a wince as her mare skittered on a loose rock in the track masquerading as a road. “And not a bottle of aspirin on the horizon.”

“Not for about three to five hundred years if I read the tech level correctly,” Lawrence told her. “The only analgesics we can look forward to are of the fermented variety and whatever magic we might have.”

“That’s fine for now,” rumbled Tom. “Just wait until one of us needs a dentist. I had an impacted wisdom tooth last year. I wanted to curl up and die.” A shudder of sympathetic pain swept through the group. “Now, think about that with no Novocain or nitrous oxide.” The Bruin laughed a laugh devoid of humor. “That’s assuming we can even get our hands on a set of pliers and somebody who remotely knows what they’re doing with them.”

“Can we change the subject?” Ursula asked plaintively.

Lawrence turned his gaze to the horizon and found he didn’t like the view. “How about we talk about that ugly column of smoke?”

“Wrong time of year to be burning deadfalls,” murmured John as he shielded his eyes to try to see further. “Damn, I’d give a lot for a cheap pair of binoculars.”

The dragon swiveled his head to fix the deputy with his intimidating stare. “Want to know what’s going on, boss?”

“Give them the once over, but don’t get in over your head. No sense terrorizing the natives.”

“If I fly away from you guys after the first circle, it’sbad guys doing bad things. I’ll lead them off.”

“No,” insisted John. “You could be seriously injured, and I don’t want us separating like that. If we get split up that badly we might not ever get back together. If it’s more than we might be a match for, beat feet back here so we can get a good lead to try and evade.” The dragon nodded sharply before launching himself skyward towards the distant smoke. “Ladies and gentlemen prepare to defend yourselves,” John said quietly as he drew the pistol and made sure of its load.

“Finally, some action,” muttered Louis as he drew his sword.

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Lawrence’s wings bore him aloft easily on the warm spring breeze and the prospective engineer turned draconic wizard reveled in it. A small part of his mind was converting the wind over his wings into lift/drag coefficients, indicated air speed and the other nuances of mechanical flight, but for the most part he was simply enthralled by the experience of flying under his own power.

The land was folded in the foothills and ridgelines of a mountain range away to the west. The dragon used this to his advantage. Staying between them allowed him to approach fairly close to the smoke without either letting him see what the cause of it was, nor be seen. He alighted below the crest of the last ridge and folded himself as flat on his belly as he could. It was uncomfortable, but he was able to discreetly creep up to the crest and take in the scene spread out below him.

What he saw turned his stomach.

Had Lawrence been a bit more detached, he might have been concerned at how quickly his nausea turned to a scarlet rage that burned within him with the fierceness of the bonfire he had created just the previous evening. The serious engineer, he had often said, was the man who could wipe emotion from his mind and study each problem to its logical, mathematical solution. From there the future could be built.

Such logic and rationality fled the dragon’s mind as fleetingly as an early morning mist burned off by the summer sun. With a single word of power, Lawrence’s friends found themselves instantly transported to his side on the ridge as the dragon seethed in rage. “We have to stop this!” he declared, forcing his tone to be soft.

“What’s gotten into you? Stop Who? What?” hissed John, rapidly overcoming his shock at the teleportation.

“Look!” hissed the Dragon, pointing over the ridge line with the tip of one wing.

The Deputy dismounted his horse and cautiously made his way to the ridge.

In the valley between two folds of the land ran a fast moving creek that both made the land fertile and provided water. It was an ideal spot for a farm, which was why it had been chosen. There was sufficient room for crops and a sizable pasture for grazing. It was the grazing animals that had attracted the band of marauders.

There were always those who preferred meat to vegetables, and free was the price anyone could afford. If there needed to be some recompense in blood, well, that was still free, too. The landholders had put up a spirited defense, but had been pushed back into the main house of the farm, which had then been set ablaze.

John could almost hear the screams from his vantage point.

The dragon’s rage became infectious as he strode purposefully back to his horse. “I’m going down there,” he announced, causing Lawrence’s face to split into a fierce grin. “Who’s with me?”

“Sir Leto stands ready…” started Louis before he forced himself to stop and start again. “I’ll go.”

“If I were you, Louis, I’d drop the helmet. Your vision will be severely hampered with a visored helm and I don’t want to be on the receiving end of friendly fire.”

The knight considered this for a moment before un-strapping his helm and removing it.

“Tom?

The man-bear sighed a heavy sigh. “You think I’d let you put yourself in a bad place without someone to watch your back?” He took the heavy metal claws from their keepers and began to strap them to the back of his hands. “But if I find out that bitch has set this up to make us fight …” Tom’s voice trailed off menacingly, as he brandished one of the claws for emphasis.

“I’ll hold her down for you,” completed John before he turned to Lawrence. “You get to be our diversion, big guy. Do a couple of passes to get their attention, pick off whomever you can easily, but try to keep out of range of their weapons.”

“Nothing like a fire-breathing dragon to discourage unwelcome guests,” the Engineer replied.

Ursula made ready to re-mount her horse, but was stopped by John’s hand on her arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.

“With you,” she shot back.

“The hell you are.”

“You’ll need every one of us, John. This isn’t the time to play hero!”

“You think I want to do this?” he demanded, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Of all of us, Urs, I’m the only one who has seen anything even close to what’s going on down there and even I am probably not ready for it. I don’t want you anywhere near it.”

“But you need…” she protested.

“What I need is for you to stay here and protect Bobbie,” he snapped. “Your bow and your knives are the only thing between us getting healed of whatever injuries we get down there and Bobbie getting killed and all of us after him…her.” Then John realized just how tight he was holding Ursula’s arms and forced his hands to relax. “It’s up to you, Urs. It’s a shitty job, I know, but I have to have Louis and Law and Tom.”

“I have a dagger,” Bobbie offered quietly.

“Clean your nails with it,” chuckled Tom as he remounted his horse with a grunt. “John’s right, Bobbie, you’re too valuable to risk. You have to stay here and somebody has to baby sit you.”

Lawrence’s gravelly new voice intoned a series of words of power, causing a faint glow to surround first John, then Thomas. “Blade turns,” he informed them before looking over his shoulder at the column of smoke reaching into the heavens. “Ready boys?”

“Once more unto the breech, dear friends,” quoted John with some rancor.

With a roar that pealed as thunder from one ridge to the next, the Dragon launched himself skyward. As the remaining three friends made sure of their weapons before following him, Tom’s mirthless chuckle brought them up short. “I’ll bet they just shit themselves,” he told their quizzical looks.

“Hell, he’s on my side, and I about shit myself,” John said. “Let’s do it.”

With a kick, the three horses leaped to their masters orders, galloping over the ridge and down into hell. The marauders evidently had no stomach to face down a dragon and were fleeing towards the river.

Lawrence didn’t let them make it, spraying them with a tongue of fire that had a liquid quality to it. It looked rather like a napalm strike in a Vietnam War newsreel. Not satisfied with his initial pass, the dragon circled, breathing fire as a burning victim staggered free of the inferno only to be met with more. There were several scattered about the front lawn of the house that were surely not long for this world based on their wounds, yet they were still pitifully trying to pull themselves to some imagined safety.

The farmers spilled from their home, some of them dreadfully wounded as well, seeking to flee this new menace from the sky only to be brought up short by the three figures galloping towards them. Axes and pitchforks met the rescuers as the desperation of farmers was painted on their tired features.

“We’re here to help!” shouted John as he pulled in his horse to a halt well back from the knot of farmers.

“Are you dragon slayers?” one of them shouted back. One arm was hanging loose but the other held an axe.

“He’s with us,” Louis replied with a smug look.

“Lawrence!” shouted John as the dragon sailed over the farmers fearful heads. “Go get Bobbie and Ursula. These people are hurt.”

“On it,” the dragon rumbled as he winged quickly back to the ridge.

“Your dragon is named…Lawrence?” asked the eldest looking farmer.

“Long story,” replied Tom.

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The remainder of the morning was spent putting out the fire of the main house followed by Bobbie tending the wounds of the farmers. Lawrence discovered that he was equally adept at putting out fires as he was at causing them. Between his magics and his wings the fire was kept from spreading to the buildings of surrounding the main house, though the damage to it was substantial.

The farmers provided a lunch for their benefactors. During it, Bobbie managed to get a moment alone with John to reveal a gruesome discovery she had made. “Look,” she told him once they were out of ear shot of the others. “I’m not a doctor, but as near as I can tell, a couple of those people shouldn’t have survived their wounds.”

“What do you mean?” John asked around a gulp of cider.

“The father had been practically disemboweled,” she said with a greenish hue to her skin as she recalled the sights she’d suffered. “The youngest son had been shot through both arteries and veins in the neck. He should have bled out in a couple of seconds. Most of these people should be dead.”

“John!”

The Game Master’s head snapped to track the terror that had filled Tom’s voice. The Bruin was charging towards the makeshift crematorium they had set up to burn the bodies of the fallen marauders. There the smoking skeletons were struggling to untangle themselves in eerily silent throes of what looked like agony.

“How can there be undead with out a necromancer?” shouted Ursula.

“I banish these undead from my sight!” thundered Louis, his sword held before him like a talisman. The skeletons took no notice, but continued their struggles. “Why doesn’t my magic work?”

With a roar, Lawrence half hopped, half flew to get close enough to the pile to put his breath to its devastating effect once more. The dragon continued to spit until the bonfire blazed white hot, reducing the skeletons to a fine white ash.

As the group gathered around the startling sight, Bobbie finally was able to piece together what had been nagging her. “Guys, these weren’t undead in the strictest of senses.”

“What, the hell, is that supposed to mean?” demanded Lawrence.

“It’s like I was telling John, some of those farmers shouldn’t have survived their wounds. It’s like they couldn’t die.”

“Aria said that the asshole was looking to replace the old power of Death,” said Louis thoughtfully. “If he needs replacing, who’s doing the job of Death now?”

John, despite the immense heat of the fire they stood around felt a chill as he regarded the fine ash and embers that still rose on the updraft. “Nobody,” he said finally. “No one can die.”

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Chapter Three

The Temple at the City of Hangdri

“The ancient Romans,” intoned Lawrence slightly breathlessly as he strode with the small knot of horses his fellow displaced gamers rode, “built a road system that was the marvel of their age. They ran almost absolutely straight, were paved with a gravity drainage system that is the basis of the system still in use today. Every mile there was a marker letting you know how far you’d traveled, how far you were from the next town and from Rome and every fifteen miles there was an Inn that was supported by the Empire itself.”

“Why every fifteen miles?” asked Bobbie in an effort to keep the conversation going to fight the mindlessness of bouncing on the horse she rode. Even a dragon giving a lecture on the shortcomings by example of the rode they traveled was better than nothing.

“Fifteen miles was the distance one could expect to travel in one day. If you started at day break by dusk you’d be arriving at where you’d spend the night,” replied the dragon.

“I don’t think there are any Romans anywhere around,” chuckled John, though his attempt at humor failed.

“Are we there yet?” Louis wanted to know.

“Rest stop, guys?” asked Bobbie. “My bladder’s screaming for some relief.”

John wordlessly pulled the reigns on his horse, bringing the group to a ragged halt. The healer practically leapt from the saddle to scramble towards the tree line. “Urs?” asked the Game Master tiredly.

“I’m going,” she replied just as tiredly, swinging from her own horse. Two days previously the young woman who was now an elf had convinced Bobbie to abandon the cotehardie dress she had been wearing in exchange for a pair of the more expedient buckskin trousers and muted tunic Ursula favored.

Still, Ursula wasn’t entirely sure how she should feel about Bobbie any longer. It wasn’t that she exactly resented his fascination with playing characters in her gender; she knew that females that gamed were rather rare. But now that things had gone from imagination to the rather immediate fact of Bobbie facing a good portion, if not the rest of ‘her’ life as a woman, Ursula wasn’t entirely sure what to do.

More was the point he didn’t seem all that upset about it.

“Bobbie,” she called tiredly as she easily followed the clerics trail into the wood line. “I know you’ve got to go, but you should wait for me.”

“I could barely hold it,” her voice drifted from up ahead over the soft noise of flowing relief. “It’s like my bladder is half the size it used to be.” That brought a chuckle to Ursula’s lips.

“It is,” she announced on her arrival at the squatting young woman. “You have a collection of new organs in there and they take room. Guess where that room comes from?” Finally finished with her business, Bobbie daintily wiped her self and stood, modestly turning away to get the trousers secure once more. After a moment of thinking, Ursula finally worked up the courage to ask her question. “Bobbie, you don’t seem that upset with your predicament. And I noticed that Aria looked at you when she talked about our bodies being sufficient payment. You’re happy about this, aren’t you?”

“Hey, when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade,” Bobbie replied with a sheepish smile.

“Bullshit,” declared Ursula. “I’m not stupid, Bobbie. Hell, Lawrence was more freaked out than you were.”

“Well, if I’d had to learn to walk all over again…” she started, but Ursula cut her off.

“Why didn’t you have to learn, Bobbie? You suddenly had tits and when we arrived you were wearing three inch heels. Have you been practicing?” Bobbie flushed as the elf’s words struck their mark. “Oh, so that’s the way of it.”

“It’s not what you think!” Bobbie protested quickly, her old fears rushing forward.

“What should I think?” she wanted to know.

“I don’t much care for women thinking,” chuckled a low and menacing voice. The two women spun to find a handful of rough looking men approaching, their intentions plane on their lecherous faces.

Without thinking Ursula snap drew the pair of knives she wore and settled into a fighting stance that kept her center of gravity low. “Bobbie, run!” she shouted before launching herself at the speaker, blades first.

She didn’t have time to be amazed with the speed of her reaction. Some part of her had catalogued that there were five of them, arranged in a semi-circular clump around the one who’d spoken. They were dumbstruck that Ursula had chosen to attack rather than cower or run and that pause gave her several seconds of freedom.

The knives sunk to the hilt in the leader’s chest, framing his breastbone, one deep in his heart that would be an instantly fatal wound, the other gouging out his right lung, flooding it with the blood the heart strike was releasing in a torrent. The impact bowled him over as his face went ashen, his cry of pain reduced to a gurgle of agony.

In Ursula’s mind she had planed out a circular rhythm to her attack, the important factor was to always stay in motion so they could not react to her. But that first strike and the look of surprised agony on the man’s face froze her.

Oh, God, I’ve killed him.

It was the last thought that crossed her mind before something struck her across the back of her neck.

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“We shouldn’t be that far from Hangdri,” John was saying as he was finishing re-tying the wrap pants from his own bout of watering the local fauna. “Might catch sight of it over that ridgeline ahead.”

“Just as well,” murmured Lawrence. “Sooner we get there the sooner we can have our little come to Jesus meeting with Aria.”

The breeze picked up, drawing both Tom and Lawrence’s snouts upwind. “Someone’s coming,” Tom had time to warn before Bobbie burst from the tree line.

“Help!” she screamed, stumbling the last few feet into the surprised arms of John. “Men…!” panted Bobbie, “They’ve got Ursula…!” John’s pistol appeared his hand as his visage was distorted by a look of murderous rage. Before he could order his friend’s into action, two dozen horsemen crested the ridge and thundered towards them, spears lowered and bows drawn.

“Stand fast in the name of Duke Reginald!” cried one, his own midnight blue tabard matching the rest save for it being trimmed in gold. He was a striking fellow, tall and straight with a square, honest face framed by a polished steel helm that was decorated by a horse hair plume that had been died scarlet. His dark eyes swept the travelers, evaluating each. If the presence of a dragon frightened him he didn’t show it. “State your names and business,” he ordered.

“I’m John Lascomb,” the Deputy told him, and while he kept his hands at shoulder height, the pistol was still clutched in his right. “These are Louis Perico, Bobbie Holcombe, Tom Mackenzie and Lawrence Cogsley; we come in peace, but a female of our party is being assaulted in the woods!”

“Which way?” asked the horseman. Bobbie pointed fearfully back the way she had come. “Sergeant, take five men at arms and return with everyone you can find.”

“Sir!” snapped the sergeant as he and his men smartly dismounted and entered the woods at a trot, swords out.

“What is your business here?”

John watched the soldiers, for they could be nothing else, depart, warring with himself to ignore the horseman and go and search for Ursula himself. “Easy, John,” cautioned Tom who saw the battle raging behind the deputy’s eyes. The Bruin laid a restraining paw on John’s shoulder. To the horseman he said, “Our business is a pilgrimage to the Temple of Aria in your Duke’s city, Captain, nothing more.”

“Honestly answered, Tom Mackenzie,” the Captain said after a moment. “Your coming was foretold to His Grace and I was sent to seek for you.”

“With weapons drawn?” drawled Lawrence with a somewhat contemptuous glance at the soldiers closest to the dragon.

“These are evil times with evil men who wonder the lands looking for whatever advantage they can achieve over honest folk.”

“Do they frequently wander in the company of dragons?” sneered the Engineer.

“Captain!” The shout of the Sergeant returning brought every eye to the wood line. Two of his men were dragging a prone figure between them by the shoulders. A pair of daggers protruded from his chest. The other men were leading a rough group of sullen looking men on foot. Ursula’s body was slumped across one of the horses the soldiers were leading. “A combat took place a score of yards in the trees,” he reported. “This one was left for dead, but he still lives, by what sorcery I know not. These four others, had moved away west to a spot where five horses were tethered. We captured them as they tried to flee.”

Lawrence’s mouth opened, sucking in a massive column of air in preparation for his solution to the men, but the Captain raised a cautioning hand. “Peace, Master Dragon, if you take the law into your own claws, your companion’s lives are forfeit.”

“Forfeit?!” roared the dragon in outrage.

“Lawrence, zip it!” shouted Tom as he quickly interposed himself between the dragon and the soldiers. “You’re smarter than this, Law, play it that way!” The dragon thrashed in rage for a moment before releasing a tongue of fire away from the soldiers, scorching the field the road ran through. “Pull yourself together, Law and keep your head,” the bruin hissed to his friend.

The Captain’s eyes watched the interplay between the Bruin and the Dragon impassively. Once the wizard had composed himself he turned a surprisingly unblinking gaze on Bobbie. “Speak the truth of this,” he ordered.

Bobbie was shaking at what had nearly happened, her body awash in adrenaline as her mind’s eye painted the details of her near rape and concern at the still unmoving form of Ursula. After several seconds she was able to find her tongue once more. “I…I was using the restroom…” she started.

“Restroom?” asked the Captain, something of a confused look on his face.

“She was pissing,” interjected John, still itching to check on his ex-girlfriend but a part of his mind cautioning him against anything that might place the party into further danger. The Captain nodded and turned back to Bobbie.

“Well, I’d just gotten finished and I was talking with Ursula.”

“The elf?” the Captain wanted to know. Bobbie nodded.

“Yes, we were talking and these…beasts…came out of the forest. Ursula shouted for me to run so I did, while I guess they tried to rape her. I got back here to get help from John and then you arrived.”

The Captain nodded thoughtfully. “The elf is your bodyguard?”

“She’s been serving that way,” replied John. “She is a good friend of ours.”

“Why didn’t one of the men accompany you?”

Bobbie felt a white-hot blush fill her face. “I couldn’t have done that,” she stammered. The Captain found that humorous and couldn’t keep in a chuckle.

“My apologies, Mistress, such a heightened level of modesty from a cleric of your deity is not something me and mine are used to.” He turned back the group of strangers his men still held fast. “Speak the truth of this,” he ordered.

“Tyle was the one who caught sight of her,” the tallest of the men said, speaking for the group. “We was hunting in the forest, your Grace, and thought a quick toss would be just the thing to perk things up.” Bobbie shuddered as John felt his ears perk up. “We walked up after waiting for the Mistress to finish her time with Nature and Tyle let his mouth do his talking for him.”

“What was said?”

“The elf asked her ladyship ‘What should I think’ and Tyle blurts out he isn’t fond of women thinking. I was groaning thinking that probably doubled her ladyship’s rate when the elf snap draws those daggers and shouts for her ladyship to run. Then she leaps a good ten feet and sinks ‘em right into Tyle’s chest. Then she just stops to gloat over killing him so I popped her one across the head and down she goes. We was taking her to your Grace's Sheriff for the bounty when the Sergeant binds us all by law.”

The Captain nodded once more as his gaze to the Sergeant. “Did any of them resist when you bound them?”

“No, sir,” the Sergeant affirmed.

“It seems what we have here is a case of dreadful misunderstanding,” the Captain finally pronounced weightily. “Mistress, have you what you need to heal Master Tyle?” Bobbie nodded fearfully, not wanting to get any closer than she already was to the still seriously bleeding man. “Then I sentence you to heal him of the wounds inflicted on your behalf.”

“Sentence?” demanded Law, though the dragon was careful to keep his tone civil and low. The Captain nodded, fearlessly keeping eye contact with the dragon.

“Indeed. The truth of this is these lads were only interested in the services of your cleric and your elf was a tad overzealous in her defense. Further, you lads turn out your purses from which, Mistress you may take your normal rate for services rendered.”

“Are you implying Bobbie is some kind of whore?” the dragon hissed.

The Captain returned his eyes to the terrified young woman. “You are a cleric of the Lover are you not, Mistress?” Bobbie forced her head to nod. “Then I need imply nothing, Master Dragon. I of course mean no disrespect to her goddess, or the much-valued services her clerics provide, but while a course word for so obviously well schooled a Lady, whore is a truthful application. Mistress, I must ask you to be about your sentence.”

“I…I thought he was going to rape me!” protested Bobbie. “I can’t go near him!”

“The misunderstanding is regrettable, but Tyle was not at fault and deserves to be healed of his wounds. If you cannot bring yourself to it, if some other of your party will do so in your stead I shall hold the matter closed.”

“Louis,” ordered John.

“Sir Louis, at least,” corrected the disgruntled Paladin as he dismounted. As he passed Bobbie he paused to say, “If you weren’t constantly playing drag queens, this wouldn’t have happened.”

John’s hand acted without conscious thought, grabbing the handle built into the breastplate to assist in its donning and pulling him practically nose to nose with the deputy. “You just can’t keep your fucking mouth shut, can you?” he hissed, careful to keep his voice from carrying. There came some stirring of the soldiers that still surrounded the party, but a gesture from the Captain kept them still, his eyes intent on the drama before him. “There’s always got to be the last word, the last dig! Don’t you fucking get it? Don’t you understand just how deep the shit we’re in is?”

“I…I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I just thought…”

With a wordless snarl he pushed the knight off balance and onto his backside. “Lay on hands you son of a bitch,” he snapped as the pistol was returned to its holster. Louis sullenly returned to his feet, his eyes casting daggers at the Deputy, but he turned at last and crossed the distance to Tyle. The two soldiers holding him upright eased him to the ground.

After taking a moment to compose himself, John returned to the Captain. “Sir, with your leave, I would like to see to the health of our friend.” The Captain nodded, allowing John and Bobbie to quickly cross the glade. Ursula had an ugly bruise across the back of her neck, but she was breathing to John’s immense relief. The pair got her down, John holding her into a sitting position while Bobbie, her hands glowing with a faint gold hue, touched the bruise that shrank away from her touch. The skin returned to its normal color before she slowly became conscious once more.

A low moan escaped the Elf’s lips while she stirred, then awoke with a start. “John!” she shouted.

“Easy, easy,” the deputy soothed her. “It’s alright, Urs, it’s ok, just take it easy.”

“Rape,” she trembled, shaking from one end of her body to the other. “They…”

“Honey, it’s alright, no one’s going to hurt you, I swear. It’s handled, just rest for a bit.”

A flood welled up in Ursula’s brown eyes as she stared into her old lover’s face. “John,” she whispered her voice close to breaking. A single tear escaped in a long line down her lovely face. “John, I killed him…” she managed before the dam burst and the torrent was released.

The heavy padding footfalls heralded the arrival of Tom before the Bruin laid a weighty paw on John’s shoulder. “John, we’ve got a problem,” he whispered.

“What now?” snapped the Deputy. Tom’s eyes pointed back to the still prone figure of Tyle and the frustrated form of Louis over him. Ursula’s daggers had been removed from his chest for all the good that had done. The knight was covered in the man’s blood which showed no signs of slowing. Louis was bravely holding his hands over the wounds, despite the green cast his skin had taken on, but even without Lawrence’s’ ability to see magic John knew something was seriously wrong. “Bobbie,” he whispered, turning back to the cleric. “Bobbie, something’s wrong with Louis. I need you to come with me, bud and if he’s not up to scratch you’re going to have to heal the SOB.”

The cleric shuddered, but she did not need to be told how much danger they were all in. She mastered herself and forced a nod. John shared an imploring look with the fur covered face of the Bruin who took his meaning, settling himself with great finality by the elf’s side. It was obvious whoever wished her harm had a large mountain to climb first.

A panic had taken residence in Louis’ eyes as he looking up at the arrival of the two. “I can’t,” he whispered hoarsely, casting a furtive glance at the still mounted Captain. “It won’t come!”

John and Bobbie looked at each other for a moment before the cleric closed her eyes and touched the gapping holes in the man’s chest. Once more the wounds shrank away from her healing touch, closing upon themselves as the color once more returned to Tyle’s square face. His eyes opened, proceeding several minutes of him coughing up blood. “Tyle,” commanded the Captain once the young hunter had control of himself once more. “You owe this cleric your life, both from its saving and it’s near loss. Your crass manner provoked the attack of the Mistress’ bodyguard. In future I trust you shall think before speaking to a pair of women alone in the woods.”

“Your Grace,” coughed the young man, still managing to look extremely contrite. He turned to Bobbie, his hat in hand and his head lowered. “Mistress, I’m powerful sorry for what fright I have given you.”

Bobbie forced herself to nod, but her eyes did not rise. After a moment of regarding the situation, the Captain spoke once more. “This matter is settled,” he said with great weight. “Master Tyle, you and yours may depart. Master John, you and I must converse, but there are more pleasant places we might hold our conversation. Your party shall ride with me to Hangdri.”

“Out of the frying pan,” mumbled Lawrence to no one in particular.

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The City of Handri was a sprawling metropolis for so rural an area, encompassing a square mile from the looks of the gleaming white wall that girded the city like a massive belt. It had begun as a fortified manor that commanded a hilltop overlooking the joining of three estuaries into a single, mighty river. Over time and successive generations, a village had grown up around the Big House, as it had come to be known. Then a city grew up around the village causing a wall to be built as relations with the neighboring Elvin community, alarmed with the sudden, to their timeless eyes, build up of the sons and daughters of men, deteriorated.

As a result of the exigencies of war, Hangdri took on a reputationas a center for learning. Resourceful men thought of new and interesting ways to defend their new city, brining other men to learn of their new and interesting ways. Mages, always the sort to flock to areas of learning, followed; soon thereafter clerics of Aria, Patron of Magic, followed with their traditional congregations.

Yet, for so organic a community, there was a precision by which the city had been developed. As through once it became apparent the town was going to become a city, frantic planning had been laid to make that transition as smooth as possible. The streets were paved with smooth stones with generous drainage channels on both sides through which oozed a reeking bile that everyone had agreed to ignore. Further, the town had been segregated into distinct areas of commerce, based on location.

Nearest to the gates of the city were inns and other lodging for the transient visitor to the city, followed hard by markets of produce and meat, all for the most part grown outside the city proper that had to be imported to sell. Tradesmen had set themselves up in their various crafts next clustered around the real portions of learning in the center of town; the collection of Magical Colleges whose towers and spires gleamed in the early spring sun.

The Captain alone led the group through his city, his band having returned to their garrison by the looming main gates. Despite the lack of his troops, the crowd parted before the Captain and his gaggle of odd tag alongs. “You know, John,” whispered Lawrence as he padded along next to the Deputy’s horse; their heads still the same height. “I’m not complaining, mind you, but you’d think I’d draw a little more attention than what we’re getting.”

John shrugged as he regarded the wedge shaped head of his friend. “I imagine the locals aren’t too worried about who travels in the company of their Duke.”

“Is that who you think soldier boy is?” asked the dragon.

“Everyone thus far has referred to him as ‘your Grace’,” Lascombe replied. “I wouldn’t put money on it, but if Aria had a conversation with Reggie, then if you were him, would have sent just anybody to go greet us?” The dragon shook his head. “Either this guy is the guy, or his right hand. Either way, this guy isn’t somebody I want to tick off, just yet.”

“For an interesting change of pace I’m more worried about Louis,” Law confided with a stolen glance at the sullen Paladin. “You think he just choked back there or…?”

The Deputy rolled his eyes in dismissal. “I think I’d rather not dwell on the failings of the Blue Doughnut just now,” he replied. The dragon clucked his tongue in reproach.

“I’d be the first person to admit I give him more than my share of BS, but it’s not like he’s an ax murderer,” Lawrence said with some consideration. “Every gaming group picks up at least one like Louis, and Louis is just our due.” The Deputy’s face pulled into a frown as he weighed what he was hearing.

“If we were back at Bobbie’s apartment having this discussion over a pizza, I’d probably agree with you, Law, but as we’re not…”

“…We’re all making do the best way we know how,” the dragon shot back. “Bobbie over there is walking around like a robot having finally gotten her first real good taste of the downside of being a chick. Up till now she probably thought it was all beds of roses and leading handsome NPCs around by their collective nose getting her way. He might have walked away from it, but Urs is going to be seeing blood on her hands for a damn long time. I’ll lay some pretty heavy odds she’s going to have nightmares about it for at least a month. Me? All of a sudden I’ve got the mother of all tempers. It’s taking everything I’ve got to keep it in check. Yeah, we’re in a jam, I’m not trying to minimize that. What I am saying is that we’re all under a boat load of stress and coping the best way we know how. Louis copes by pretending we’re still playing a game. Let him.”

The angry retort that leapt to John’s teeth died there as the procession had entered a massive courtyard below the temple itself. This, easily the largest of the buildings in the City, was framed by its own wall within the wall of the city. The paved walk wound its way around a reflecting pool that served to increase the size of the domed building they rode towards. The central cathedral was framed by a pair of towers, one a bell tower that tolled out the hour, the other evidently some type of astronomy tower based on the glint of a metal casing that protruded from the smaller dome that capped it.

But the architecture of the building was not what killed John’s angry reply.

Seated primly at the head of the broad staircase that led up to the great double doors of the building, snake-like tail curved about itself sat another dragon eyeing the party that approached it with some interest. It’s hide glowed a brilliant scarlet in the sun that dappled the courtyard and like Lawrence, it was bedecked with a kings ransom of jewelry; rings of gold and emerald flashed across it’s taloned fingers and the pierced sails between the horns of bone that framed it’s head.

But the centerpiece of this mobile collection was a heavy medallion that hung about the base of its sinewy neck; a medallion stamped with the selfsame rampant dragon that decorated the Captain’s tabard.

The party was greeted by a collection of acolytes that took their horses as they dismounted and were led away in the direction, if the wind was any indication, of a stable. At the Captain’s approach, the strange dragon dipped its head in difference, though its emerald eyes never left Lawrence. “Is everything prepared, Gwendolyn?” the Captain asked.

The dragon lifted her head and voice, a perfect, sultry tenor that sent a chill down Lawrence’s much longer spine. “It is, indeed, Your Grace,” she purred, “as much as can be humanly prepared. The hall has been cleared and a ward placed. Only those in the company of this,” she said, lifting a single key of what seemed to be made of solid gold that seemed dainty in her claw, but awkwardly large in the Captain’s as he took it from her, “may enter; as you ordered.”

“Good,” beamed the Captain, for once a relieved smile across his rugged features. “What should I do without you, old girl?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, Your Grace,” Gwendolyn replied. “Are these the strangers foretold to us?”

The soldier snapped his fingers in remembrance. “Alas, my manners, dear lady I pray you forgive me my error. These are John Lascombe,” he introduced, a broad gesture to each as he pointed them out. “Tom Mackenzie, Bobbie Holcomb, Louis Perico, Ursula, the Elf and as I’m sure you’re most interested in knowing, Master Lawrence Cogsley.”

Gwendolyn batted her eyes in a most coquettish fashion that would have brought a blush to Lawrence’s face; were he still human. She dipped her head low, noticeably more so than she had to the Captain. “Master Cogsley, one is humbled to be introduced to one of name. I am Gwendolyn, daughter of Maximus through Ellsinore, daughter of Gwendolyn the Old, daughter of Ileana who was daughter of Theodore Ericsson, Draconic Lord of Storm Mountain; your humble servant, sir.”

“Uh…” stammered Lawrence, the blush having spread to his tone of voice. “The…uh…the honor is entirely mine,” he managed at last.

She raised her flowing neck so that she and Lawrence were practically nose to nose, her eyes reduced to sensuous slits as she whispered, to the extent her muzzle would allow it, “One has the honor of being,” and she uttered a grating sounding word that a human’s vocal cords could never repeat. The sounds of the words meant nothing to Lawrence; though their emotion raced through his blood that put the single visit he had paid to a topless bar to shame.

Fortunately for the wizard, the Captain rather loudly cleared his throat. “If, fair lady, we might be about our business? There will still be hours in the day for pleasure.”

“Of course, Your Grace,” she purred with an affectionate rub of her head along Lawrence’s chin. Abruptly, she turned and led the way into the cathedral, a bit of symbolism that wasn’t lost on Lawrence. With his wing he held John back so that he could furtively whisper once sufficient distance had gathered.

“What has got her panties so damp?” he hissed to his highly amused friend.

“You do, buddy,” John replied with a chuckle. “Around here, only dragons of great stature get what we would consider a last name. Gwen there has to trace her line back five generations to come to that, so that makes you all that in her eyes.”

“And as red dragons look at mating as a way to gain status and renown, I just became her sugar daddy?”

John wiggled his eyebrows at his blushing friend. “That’s not the half of it,” he told him with a wink. “That word she said? That’s High Draconic for, I’m single and in season. The draconic equivalent of ‘take me now you stud,’” the deputy told his stuttering friend with a chuckle as he ducked under the dragon’s wing to make his way into the church.

“Oh I really need this,” muttered Lawrence angrily to himself.

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Aria, Patron of Magic, was waiting for the group as they filed into the sanctuary of her temple, her eyes dancing in private amusement. The sanctuary itself was a massive chamber under the great dome of the building, a full ten stories from the intricately laid marble pattern below.

The lower floor was curved in rows of pews, as one might expect from a medieval church, although the presence of a balcony above the main floor was unexpected. Above the balcony intricately carved bed-like shelves had been worked into the stone, which Gwendolyn settled herself onto one, giving away their purpose.

John noted this with some interest; it would appear that the City of Hangdri maintained a rather chummy relationship with the local draconic population. This would also explain the lack of interest in the locals they had thus far encountered. Such thoughts were filled away by the Deputy, who gave his full attention to the coming audience with their captor and benefactress. The Power spread her arms as she announced, “Welcome, travelers, to my temple.”

“That’s an interesting opening,” snorted Lawrence in derision. “I would have thought something like, ‘Gosh, sorry you thought you were about to be gang raped, Bobbie,’ would be a good start. Or how about, ‘Hey look, it’s the nice folks I bushwhacked and press ganged, nice to see you!’”

“Law,” growled Tom in warning. “Let’s not have any repeats of a couple of days ago.”

“We certainly wouldn’t want to be transported to yet another dimension to get put to work as janissaries,” hissed the dragon that otherwise held his peace. John laid a placating hand on Lawrence’s shoulder before stepping up to a more conversational distance with the power.

“Well, this has been an interesting little vacation,” he said after a moment of staring into the Power’s endless eyes. “Now maybe you’ll be kind enough to fill in the gaps a bit with a hearty helping of whys and hows.”

“You have a right to be angry,” Aria conceded softly. “I was angry myself when this was thrust upon me, but we make adjustments to what life places before us. I lost my husband, my children and all semblance of normal life when I was chosen to replace the last avatar of Magic.”

“I thought you said that people had to quest to replace a Power,” interrupted Bobbie quietly.

Aria nodded guardedly to the young cleric’s observation. “On the hilltop, I had to be more than a little circumspect with you as there were those who could over hear what I told you then. Here, in my temple, I have a bit more leeway in what I can say. The procedure by which one becomes an avatar is under something of a state of flux.”

“So,” rumbled Tom, “you’re what, last year’s model? Does that make you carbureted or fuel injected?”

“I’ll thank you not to take that tone,” interrupted the Captain, who would have said more but John’s pistol was clear of its holster once more, its barrel a gaping maw threatening to devour the Captain.

“I’ll thank you to keep your mouth shut while me and mine have our little chat,” the deputy said calmly. Aria opened her mouth, but closed it again when the Deputy’s eyes returned to her. “I thought he was important to you,” he said with a cold chuckle. “Between his being here and your sob story about losing your husband it didn’t take much to put one and one together.”

A low draconic growl drifted down from Gwendolyn’s perch, though John’s eyes didn’t waver. “It doesn’t take but six ounces to put a world of hurt on your hubby. It will take a bit more effort to send him off to the cosmic bookkeeper, but you can rest assured I’ll find the time to make that effort so you’d best keep everybody’s temper in check.”

“If you hurt him, I promise you you’ll live long enough to regret it,” the Power whispered.

“Which will leave you in the exact same situation you were in before you put this particular job out for bids,” John answered her. “Now I might not be up to hurting you, but I’ll make a hobby of hurting everyone and everything you care about if I don’t get some straight answers to the questions that have been plaguing me for four days.”

The two locked eyes in a titanic battle of wills before Aria blinked and turned away. “What do you want to know?” she asked finally.

“Lawrence, if the Captain there sneezes without say so you send him to meet his maker.” The dragon’s inhalation was loud in the resultant silence. After a long moment the Glock was returned to its holster. “Now that we’re on a bit more neutral ground, why exactly were we picked for your little black op?”

“I picked you because the Council of Powers needed Mandrid stopped,” she said sullenly.

“Why is that? What makes him so unacceptable?”

“He was the previous Power of Death’s favored cleric, the High Priest of his order.”

“And how was it that that old Power of Death needed replacing?” asked Ursula quietly, bringing every eye to her; the relief painted on John’s face over her emergence from her stupor.

Aria sighed. “You must understand there is only so much, even here, I am permitted to say…” she started before Tom angrily cut her off.

“You answer the lady’s question or this little fracas can end right now!”

“He was destroyed by the Council of Powers,” the Patron of Magic finally admitted.

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Chapter Four

Song Of A Day

Bobbie was beginning to feel more and more comfortable with the guitar across her knee, more confident of the placement of her fingers as she plucked at its strings, making sure of its tune. After the day the group had just gone through, any kind of distraction was welcome; and distraction, she had learned, was part and parcel of the lengthy list of what was expected from a cleric of the Lover.

Secure in the common room from which their individual rooms of the Big House opened on to, the group had gathered by a warm fire, indoors for the first night in three days. That alone had been nearly worth the trip, but to Bobbie’s mind, the minor, convenience uses of magic held far more weight than stone walls, a cheery fire and rooms that were actually clean. The cleric’s bath had lasted an hour and the water had been just as hot when she left the tub as when she’d entered it.

There was something to be said for magic.

But for now, she knew she had to do something to bring up the spirits of her closest friends and a song from home was the script that Doctor Bobbie proscribed. Her fingers fell across the chords and from it sprang a song of longing that spoke to her soul.

As the river of words washed over the each member of the despondent party, as one they couldn’t help but think back to the events that had led to this particularly dreary evening.

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It had been hunger that had spurred Lawrence to split off from the group as they’d left the Cathedral, each in something of a sickening knot of worry. While the dragon had partaken of every meal with his friends on the trail,he had done so in the human form that each time he assumed it felt less and less natural. Further, some unknown knowledge whispered to him that the meager rations he had chewed and swallowed was more for form’s sake than any satisfaction of his bodily needs. He could have eaten nothing and not suffered any real effect until his body would be denied no longer.

It seemed to be connected to his temper; the longer he did not eat as his new form seemed to desire to, the shorter his fuse became. It was only a matter of time before this inferno that smoldered inside him would flare against someone he loved. Still, knowing and doing were two very different things and while his body screamed for the taste of blood and fresh meat, that small portion of his mind that was still the engineering student wasn’t looking forward to the mechanics of his first real meal.

The conversation that had taken place with the Captain, who had been revealed to be Duke Reginald, had seemed to drag for an eternity. It was good that the relationship with the ‘local power that be’ could be repaired; there weren’t many who would be such a good sport about having a Glock in their face. It had ended, much to Lawrence’s relief and embarrassment when his stomach had growled with sufficient volume to echo in the church.

Reginald had quickly scrawled an edict on a sheet of parchment Lawrence had provided, granting him a hunting license and with practically not so much as a ‘see you later’; the new dragon had taken wing. His body had been ignored for four days and it was done being ignored.

Lawrence knew she was following him, making his already foul mood that much darker.

This first hunt was going to be embarrassing enough without having a female of the species along to spur his machismo, what little he would actually claim. It wasn’t that Lawrence was ignorant of the ways of biology; his perfect older brother had seen to that the day he’d turned eighteen. Robert had been in town on leave; an errand, Lawrence would learn, the Forrest Recon Marine had set up three months in advance.

It had been something of a whirlwind tour of the seedier portions of Buckhead, Party Central of Atlanta. Four bars and a strip club later, Lawrence found himself more than a little tipsy and in a motel room that charged by the hour in the company of a sympathetic professional who hadn’t minded how painfully shy he was. She, and despite his best efforts Lawrence still wasn’t sure of her name, had been rather amused to be his ‘first’ a fact that she seemed to place a good bit of emphasis on.

It wasn’t that it hadn’t been enjoyable, far from it, but there had been an emotional void that Lawrence still felt uncomfortable about. Being diagnosed a few weeks later with a case of gonorrhea had been the icing on that proverbial cake. It had cemented a final unpleasant end to a more than uncomfortable experience. Robert had gone back to being the star of dad’s eye and Lawrence had decided that buildings, bridges and roads were easier to get along with.

The countryside he flew over was spectacular in its beauty. Pasture land for the most part close to the city and that suited Lawrence just fine. Beef was going to be what’s for dinner, a dinner that was likely on the hoof below. Lawrence steeled himself for the act and committed himself to a broad banking turn. As he knew it would, the herd scattered at his shadow in nearly every direction imaginable. The new dragon made his choice and dove.

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The Knight Louis Perico had become was troubled. As the company had broken up from the church of Aria, he had let himself wander away from the knot of his friends who were making their way towards the Big House. Like Lawrence, just then Louis wanted to be alone. Once more astride the grey charger that seemed to be his from their first day on this strange place, the troubled Knight gave the beast his head and let him walk as his erstwhile master tried to come to grips with his situation.

His failure at the road to heal the woodsman in Bobbie’s place gnawed at him. It should have been easy enough; place his hands on the wounds and they heal, right? That’s how the rest of it had gone. Or rather, that’s how it had gone that first day. When he had stared at Law and determined the draconic mage’s ‘alignment’ if such an odd game mechanic could be said to be real.

But from that second morning, Louis had known he felt different… diminished, and try as he might, he had not been able to repeat that single success with his Paladin abilities and magics. Not on other members of the group he stared at as long as he dared, nor strangers they’d met on the road. “As if you have any doubt,” snorted a deep, commanding voice that brought the Knight from his reveries.

Louis looked about, surprised to find the City some distance behind them as he tried to identify who had spoken. He reigned in the charger while drawing his sword. “Who’s there?” he demanded, trying and failing to mask the fear in his voice.

“Falling on your sword would be a fitting solution,” the voice taunted him. “But you haven’t the courage for it.” Louis jerked about in the saddle, trying to identify where the voice was coming from, but there seemed to be no one about for some distance.

His movement agitated the horse who, with a well timed buck, cast the would-be knight from his back, over his head. Louis gasped for the breath the fall and armor knocked from him while trying to make out where his sword had fallen. The charger ambled over, his head high and proud as he towered over the fallen gamer. “Pitiful,” the voice stabbed at Louis. “Miserable wretch, I’m ashamed to be seen with you.”

The world spun as Louis tried to keep command of himself, but there could be no doubt. The horse was who had been speaking this whole time. “Rhiansdyr?” gasped Louis as he tried to master himself.

“Rhiansdyr,” the stallion confirmed, “Etoras, horse lord, ranger of the golden plains, Champion of the Battle of Lighthouse Keep, son of the Ten Horse Kings! That I should be reduced to carrying a wretch like you,” the horse went on, his voice dripping disdain. “It sickens me!”

“Now just a minute…” protested Louis as he struggled to rise. At a critical moment the stallion kicked out with his front hoof squarely into Louis’ breast plate. Once more the Knight was returned to his back, minus the breath from his body.

“You be silent and listen, knave!” sneered Rhiansdyr as he kept the hoof on the metal, effectively pinning the young man to the ground. “You are no Paladin! You are a boy playing at being a man; a coward pretending to be brave! You have not deserved to ride me since Barnsby, yet I have borne your loathsome weight in hopes you would learn from your errors, and still you are as pretentious and false noble as when I first laid eyes on you!”

“Barnsby?” gasped Louis.

“Have we so quickly forgotten Brandy?” demanded the Charger.

“So I slept with a whore, so what?”

“A Paladin is a champion of the people! He works always to relieve the oppression of the weak, to defend the helpless, to right wrongs wherever he finds them!”

“Where does it say I can’t get laid?” demanded Louis. The Horse Lord swore colorfully and paced out his anger, allowing the young man to sit up and rub his abused chest.

“Did it occur to you that Brandy might not desire to be a whore?” Rhiansdyr finally was calm enough to ask. “That perhaps she is being held in thrall over some debt or other leverage so that her body is her only asset? Did you even think to ask?”

“No,” admitted Louis after a long moment.

“No,” echoed the horse. “Of course not! Your lust being sated was all that was on your mind. You used her to your own satisfaction and left her with out care if you had fathered a child on her. And you wonder why your powers have been stripped?”

“I didn’t realize…” started the would-be knight, but he was cut off by the stallion stalking up to him, murder in his eyes.

“You didn’t care,” Rhiansdyr accused. “And the only reason you care now is it has cost you your power. Otherwise you would not think on her again. Deny it, I dare you!”

A mighty battle raged behind Louis’ eyes as he fought for some redeeming virtue that would let him deny the stallion’s charge, but in the end a startling level of clarity settled on him. For a brief, crystal moment, his ego was stripped away and he saw himself as others did. Louis’ head hung with the weight of shame. “I don’t deny it,” he forced himself to say. “How can I make it right, Rhiansdyr?”

“Pick up your sword,” the Stallion said after a long moment. “We have work to do.”

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At long last the inferno seemed contained within Lawrence, even as he overlooked the grisly remains of his first meal. It had happened so fast even he wasn’t sure of the memories, and for that he was grateful. The gutted remnants of the steer had its gore covered ribs pointing skyward out of an empty cavity like a macabre bone forest. Everything still human in Lawrence was yelling that he should feel ill looking at the body, but the only emotion the young dragon could call up was warm contentment.

His belly pleasantly full, Lawrence licked absently at his bloody muzzle and wondered when his admirer would make herself known. He had lost track of her since he had committed himself to his first awkward hunt and once he had finally had a kill, Law was far too concerned with eating. Now full and the smoldering fuse extinguished within him, Lawrence raised his eyes and tried to both find her and discover where he was.

Away to the south lay the city, its spires lit and gleaming from the setting sun in an unearthly beauty. Lawrence’s new draconic eyes let him pick out details his previous body would have never been able to make out. He found he could even see Louis and his horse out on the plain, away from city.

Much closer was Gwendolyn who was a respectful distance away, her emerald eyes fixed on him. When she noticed his gaze she dipped her head low. “I trust your meal was pleasant?”

“It…uh…it was great, thank you,” he managed finally; rising and ambling over to a more conversational distance. “I guess I should find the rancher and make some kind of restitution though.”

“I’ll be happy to work something out,” she purred. “This herd is mine, as I spend a great deal of time in the city for the Duke’s business.”

“Oh,” Law managed around what felt like a blush. “Sorry about that. I was…”

“Hungry,” she finished around a draconic giggle. It had the effect of a collection of stones being forcibly rubbed together. “I gathered by how fast you were eating.”

“Look, Gwen, I’m not exactly what you think I am.”

Her blink of surprise was languorous before the coquettish expression returned. “You are not a former human student of building and engineering from some other world of which we have no knowledge?”

“Er…” hesitated Lawrence. “Well, actually yes, that me. How…?”

“I am an acolyte of Aria;” she replied. “While I hold no real magical ability myself, I am a defender of the Church, and before that, a trusted friend and former adventuring companion. I have known Aria since she was a little girl. We have very few secrets you’ll find.” She cocked her head to one side, a diamond the size of a golf ball dangling from the pierced sail about her skull glittering in the fading light. “It surprises you that I am attracted to you?”

Lawrence mulled over his answer carefully. “Well, more than a little, yes. If you knew what I’d looked like before…”

“I do,” she interrupted. “I helped Aria choose you and your friends. For my part, primarily because of my wanting to meet you.” She looked away for a long moment to the horizon before she continued, speaking softly to the distance. “I must admit to being more than a little fascinated by where you come from, and the wonders you have achieved there without magic. The males in my age group are generally thoughtless, brutish bullies, what you would call jocks I think. Trying to carry on a conversation with one is like talking to a hungry, lusty wall. I want more than that for my children. I want them to have intelligence and a love of learning.”

Finally her burning emerald eyes turned back to Lawrence. “I see both in you and it excites me. Does my directness embarrass you?”

Law found he was staring at the ground and forced himself to meet her gaze. “It’s not something I’m used to, to be honest. I’ve never been a ladies’ man and to find someone like you to be so interested in me, well, I don’t know how to deal with it.”

She smiled for the first time as she gently extended her head and rubbed his chin. “That, I can help you with,” she chuckled.

Law found himself deeply enjoying the caress before he could master himself and pull back slightly. “Gwen, I’m only twenty one, I’m no where near ready to be a father…”

“Fifty years is a long time for you.”

“…and when they’re up what if I want to go home?” he demanded as politely as he could think to. Her ire wasn’t something Lawrence wanted to see. Once more she blinked up at him, unfazed if he was reading her expressions right.

“Then I will go with you,” she replied evenly. “I think you will find my own human form winsome, and if it displeases you, I can ask Aria to help me alter it. Lawrence, I don’t think you understand me, so let me be frank. I do not lust after you; I love you. I have since I first saw you through Aria’s scrying pool. Where you go, I will follow. More to the point, I am beautiful, intelligent, independent and strong; you will not find a better mate if you look for a thousand years.”

“I don’t mean to imply you’re not desirable, Gwen!”

Her smile returned as she pinned him with her gaze. “I know I am very forward and you are not used to it. But I am a warrior; when I see something I want, I take it.”

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Reginald placed a heavy gold medallion bearing the same rampant dragon that was his own crest into John’s palm. “Have Ursula wear this,” the Duke told him affably, “and anyone for 100 miles will know to leave her in peace.”

John closed his hand over the medallion, grateful for small mercies. “Thank you, your Grace.”

The nobleman’s smile was genuine. “It is my pleasure. Perhaps once your party solves our current dilemma you would be willing to assist me in improving my relations with the Elves to the south.”

“I’m not a diplomat myself, but I suppose once we’ve saved the world we can talk about it,” was John’s reply. The Duke stared at the former Deputy for a moment before he picked up on the sarcasm and chuckled. From a sideboard, he produced a decanter of wine and a pair of cups, offering to the other man with a gesture.

“I suppose your plate is quite full at the moment,” the Duke admitted as he poured. “You’ll forgive me a bit of opportunistic plotting. It is not every day one entertains a hero from another world.”

John took the cup the Duke offered and raised it in toast. A judicious sip proved the wine to be cool, fruity and sweet. “I’m not a hero,” Lascomb groused to himself mostly. “I’m just looking to survive a very bad situation with my friends and go home.”

Reginald seated himself behind his desk once more and carefully gazed at the younger man over his own cup. “Were I in your situation, I would doubtlessly feel the same way,” he said after a long moment. “Still, it is good that you make the best of things while you are here. I will not force you, of course, but I would be deeply honored if you could consider Hangdri your home while you are here. I have no doubts myself of your success and we would benefit greatly by your wisdom.”

“Not to mention access to knowledge unknown here,” replied John. The Duke’s grin was broad.

“Well, such an arrangement would certainly be mutually beneficial.” He took a deep draught from his cup and sighed appreciatively. “I have prepared a suite of rooms for your group’s use. Think of it as a bit of good will on my part and a hand of friendship from my wife. So long as you are here, they are yours.”

“I’m very grateful.”

“It is my honor,” the Duke affirmed with such conviction that John was certain of his own feelings. “However, there are other, more important issues to discuss. When did your knight lose his paladinhood and why?”

John did his best to keep from dropping his wine cup on the floor. “Excuse me?”

Reginald’s gaze became a bit more uncomfortably direct on the Deputy. “Were you not aware that your Sir Louis has lost his abilities?”

“If you’re talking about that business on the road I’m sure…”

“Master John,” Reginald chided softly. “I am myself a Paladin and I know a fallen brother when I see one. You must tell me of your travels so that, perhaps we can piece together when it occurred and what we must do to restore him.”

“Great,” muttered John to himself. “The blue doughnut strikes again. No, your Grace, I wasn’t aware, though now that I think back on it, certain other incidents make more sense.”

The Duke nodded sagely as he picked up a bell on his desk and rang it. After a moment a young page entered, bowing low to both men as he did so. Reginald gestured to the medallion still clutched in John’s free hand. “Friend, grant us the boon of fetching this to the Lady Ursula with our compliments. Inform her that we shall be some time in council before dinner should she need either Master John or myself.” The page bowed once more, took the medallion and with drew before the Duke refreshed both cups from the decanter.

“Tell me everything.”

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“Would you look at the view!” exclaimed Bobby from the window that had drawn her as soon as the page had let them into their rooms. This common room sat at the base of a squat tower of the Big House, still high enough to command an impressive vista of the river plain below.

Ursula snorted in contempt at her friend. “We’re almost raped, I kill someone and all you can think about is the damned view?” she growled.

“I think I could use a beer,” rumbled Tom as he ducked his head through the door. “Sounds like you could use one too, Urs.” The Bruin ambled to a 5 gallon barrel that sat on the table in the corner, tankards next to it.

The Elf shook her head in amazement. “Sure, Tom, let’s get wasted, that will certainly help.” Tom only paused for a moment before filling the three tankards with the amber liquid and passing them out to the two women.

“I’m sorry, Ursula,” whispered Bobby from the window. “I was just trying to take your mind off it.”

“Don’t you care?” shot back the Elf after her first gulp.

“It didn’t happen,” replied the Priestess. “I know that I should still be…I don’t know…scared I guess? I should feel something, I just don’t. It’s like thinking back on stubbing your toe, you remember that it hurts but you don’t really feel it. I can’t explain it.”

“Bastard,” swore Ursula as she drank deeply again.

Tom settled himself carefully on the sturdiest looking of the chairs in the room. It creaked in protest, but held. “I don’t think that’s something Bobby has any control over, Ursula,” he said reasonably. “From what I’ve gathered, just about every member of the Lover’s clergy are religious prostitutes. I imagine as the ‘deities’ granting magical power around here take steps so that their penitents don’t suffer any ill effects from their strictures. It makes sense that Bobby isn’t all fucked up right now. The Lover wants her cleric able to perform; she’s probably suppressing any unpleasant memory around sex.”

“How wonderful for Bobby.”

“Not really,” contradicted Bobby softly. “There’s a part of me that…God…I’m ashamed to say it. I can’t stop thinking about every man we’ve met. Even Louis…Louis for the love of God!”

Ursula’s laugh was low and completely devoid of humor. “Man, I wish being a slut was my biggest concern.”

“You don’t know how afraid…”

“Oh stuff it!” Ursula shouted back. “You’re so afraid of getting fucked? Or that you’ll like it…?!”

“That’s enough,” rumbled Tom. The two women continued to glare at each other for a few moments before the Bruin’s deep bass voice forced their attentions back to him. “The only way we’re going to get through the next fifty years is to stick together. That means we have to get along. Ursula, Bobby has problems that are just as real to her as you do. You can help her with them, and with all the crap you took for granted growing up a chick.”

“Bobby, you’ve got to realize what Ursula’s gone through today. Don’t get into a pissing contest about who’s got it worse and if you’ve got any kind of magic that will help her for God’s sake let’s have it. Like it or not you two, we’re the only family any of us have for a long time. We either hang together or we hang separately.”

The Priestess looked contrite from her scolding. “Sorry, Urs,” she offered at once. “I might have something if you’d like…?”

Ursula’s nod would have been unperceivableto someone not looking for it. Tom tried to remember the words that flowed like a river from Bobby’s mouth, but they flowed in and out of his mind without writing a memory of their passage. At once Ursula’s eyelids began to droop. “I think I want to lie down,” she slurred, barely able to set down her tankard before she began to fall. Tom’s long arm caught her as she folded over it, snoring softly.

“What was that?” demanded the man-bear as he freed his other hand to effortlessly lift the young woman.

“A Kiss of Oblivion,” replied Bobby serenely. “When she wakes her subconscious will have worked through all the guilt she is feeling and show the memory in its true light; that she was defending her friend. None of the rest will matter to her.”

“You could have warned me she’d keel over,” chuckled Tom as he carried her to the sofa and placed her in the most comfortable looking position he could. Bobby smiled sheepishly before turning back to the window.

“I have always relied on your quick reflexes,” she said with a smile. “It looks like Lawrence has a new friend,” she said after a moment. Tom ambled over to the window to take in the sight of the two dragons flying lazily towards the city, their wingtips practically touching.

“I’ve wanted Law to find somebody for a while; I just hope this Gwen is ok. The last thing we need is to get our loyalties divided by some ‘ho’ no matter how good a piece of ass she is.”

The Priestess looked up at him sidelong. “Tom,” she scolded, “what a misogynistic thing to say! I though better of you.”

“We’re not on Earth anymore, Bobby,” he reminded her. “Law is the biggest gun we’ve got. Be damned if I’ll let him get fucked up by some local.”

Before Bobby could respond the door creaked open revealing the muddy form of Louis in the doorway. His armor was notably the worse for wear and the unmistakable mark of a hoof print was at the forefront of the breastplate. “What happened to you?” exclaimed Bobby as she rushed over, her hands glowing.

Louis waved off her ministrations as he unbuckled his sword belt and hung it on a hook. “I had some sense knocked into me,” he muttered as he began to fumble with the straps of the armor. “And I’ve got the marks to prove it. Can you help…?”

Bobby batted the knight’s hands out of the way and quickly began to work the straps loose. “Are you injured at all?”

The knight’s shoulders rose and fell. “My pride, mostly, but I’ll probably have a bruise from the kick. Guys, I lost my paladin hood.”

Tom’s massive arms crossed over his barrel chest. “When?” he growled. “How?”

“Barnsby,” Louis admitted.

“Whoring?”

Bobby looked up crossly. “There’s nothing wrong in seeking a professional to alleviate sexual frustration!” she declared her voice far more commanding and powerful than normal.

“I just used that girl and I didn’t care about her,” Louis admitted painfully. “If I ever want my abilities back I’ve got to go back there and make things right.”

“Do we look like we’ve got time for side quests?” growled Tom.

“Tom,” soothed Bobby. “We both know we’ll probably need the help healing. I’ll do as much as I can, but what if I get hurt?”

“Great, that’s just great!”

“What’s great?” called Lawrence’s voice from the stairway up the tower. The group turned to see him, once more wearing his human face, a strikingly beautiful woman on his arm. Her curvaceous form was wrapped in scarlet dyed leather that had been re-enforced at strategic points with red enameled metal plates. Her long scarlet hair was bound in a braid she wore over one shoulder and was a perfect match for the leather while her emerald eyes danced about the room. Though she wore no weapon, Tom had been in enough bar fights to know how a dangerous combatant moved.

“Who’s your friend?” he asked cautiously, stepping pointedly between Bobby and the newcomer.

“Gwendolyn,” the woman all but purred. “We’ve met.”

“You’ve lost weight,” chuckled Tom.

“Thank you, though actually I weigh as much as I did, it’s just in limbo at the moment. Are we interrupting something?”

“Just some domestic trouble,” replied the Bruin as the dragoness made herself comfortable on one of the chairs. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Well, I’ve actually got some good news,” Lawrence interjected, trying to ease some of the tension he was feeling between his erstwhile girlfriend and the big mechanic.

“We could use some,” replied Bobby as she finished with the straps on Louis’s armor and helped him out of it. “Louis has lost his paladin hood.” Tom shot the Priestess a venomous look to which she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Well…” stuttered Lawrence. “Gwen would like to join our Party.”

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The weight of the Glock was particularly heavy to John as he listened as patiently as he could to Law’s petition to allow the other dragon to join the group. He did have some good points, John had to admit, and a fighter of any stripe was generally welcome in any adventuring party; one as doubtlessly powerful as Gwendolyn only more so, but there in lay the rub. Gwendolyn was so powerful that only Lawrence himself had any real chance to stand up to her, should she turn on the group.

That wasn’t a thought John liked thinking.

Every so often his eyes would drift over to Ursula’s sleeping form on the couch. Keeping her safe was becoming more and more important to the Deputy, and that part of him screamed for the new fighter to be admitted. The cop half however was extremely dubious of the dragoness’ motives. It was just too easy and too pat how things were turning out. His ‘cop’ sense had the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. “Besides,” finished Lawrence, “Gwendolyn knows where the Mountain of Trials is going to appear! Between the two of us we can just fly to the top and be waiting on the jerk if and when he manages to get to the top.”

The Mountain of Trials was an impossibly high mountain that had the annoying habit of moving. It would appear for a few hours, a day at the most, then vanish, only to reappear somewhere else. If you could manage to climb it, at the top was a catacomb that put the best of Rome to shame. Survive the dangers of the catacomb and at the center was an ambrosia tree. A quick snack later and, so their information went, welcome to your new job as divine power. “That’s awfully convenient,” rumbled Tom from his perch.

“Being best friends with the Goddess of Magic has its perks,” replied Gwendolyn blithely, unfazed by the suspicion she was being met with. “I’m not saying you can’t figure out where the mountain will appear on your own, just that you may not be able to do it in time. I know.”

“So why hold it over our heads?” asked Bobby.

“If it will buy me some trust, I’ll happily give you the location now. However, Lawrence, no matter how highly I think of him, won’t be able to carry all of you to the summit. With my help, we can.”

“My team has a vested interest in this,” John said finally, meeting the dragoness’ gaze without faltering. “What’s your angle, Gwen? What’s your stake?”

“I am in love with Lawrence,” she responded without hesitation. “I want to be his wife and the mother of his children, not to put too fine a point on it. I have a fairly vested interest in his success myself.”

John weighed this carefully before turning to the young wizard who was even more ruddy than normal. “And how do you feel about that, Law?” The younger man couldn’t meet the Deputy’s gaze as his blush deepened. Finally the silence drew a shrug from him.

“I dunno, John. What do you want me to say? I have a beautiful, intelligent woman pursuing me, it’s not like I’ve got a lot of experience with that.” He gave Gwen a sheepish look. “Gwen knows I’m still kinda mixed up about this, but I think she’s telling the truth.”

“Lacking a paladin we wouldn’t know, would we?” John retorted, sending a scathing glance sent Louis’ way. The knight seemed to get a bit smaller as he stared at the stone floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

John weighed the pros and cons of what he was considering, trying to follow every possibility to its conclusion. Rapidly he realized what a fools errand that was, but the hairs on the back of his neck refused to calm down. At last he returned his gaze to Gwendolyn. “Reggie seems to trust you, and I haven’t seen anything yet to dissuade me from the notion that he’s a nice guy. Still, the safety of my team isn’t something I take lightly; no offense.”

“None taken,” the dragoness replied.

“So, are you willing to swear a mage’s oath as to your intentions?” She considered the consequences of such an act for a long span. In his heart, John was glad she had no ready answer, but was carefully weighing the repercussions. After a long moment she met his gaze once again and nodded.

“I am.”

“Ok, that said, let’s have a show of hands,” John said. “Gwen is willing to swear an oath of loyalty that we come up with to join the group. That being said, all those in favor of allowing her in on that proviso raise your hand.” Slowly, each hand of the group, save the sleeping Ursula came up into the air. “Alright then, Law, Bobby,” ordered John as he turned to his friends. “I want you two to come up with an iron clad oath. The party and the safety of its individual members paramount, fair shakes to both parties of the oath, we look out for her and she looks out for us. Equal stakes in any treasure, she doesn’t get the short end of the stick and neither do we.” John turned back to Gwendolyn. “Does that seem fair to you?”

“Yes, and thank you for the fair hearing,” she said earnestly. “I realize you have no reason to trust me. No matter what the oath may say, you have my word as a warrior that my first loyalty will be to Lawrence. I make no bones about that. But his friends are important to him, and anything of value to him has value to me.”

John took the hand she offered and shook it slowly. “Fair enough. Now, how much time do we have before the Mountain will reappear?”

“A week,” she replied instantly.

“So, we have some time to get Louis taken care of. Anyone have any ideas there?”

“I have to go back to Barnsby and find Brandy and make things right,” the knight announced morosely.

“Do we have a better definition of ‘right’?” asked Bobby softly. Louis’s shoulders rose and fell. “Great,” she groused, walking over to the window. “Well I guess there’s not much more we can do tonight, right? Looks like we’re going back to Barnsby?”

“It is on the way,” Gwendolyn offered by way of condolence.

“Good bye, civilization,” muttered the Priestess. “Before we go, I’m off to the bath.”

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The last notes of Bobby’s song died away, the sounds seeming to be sucked up into the stone walls of the room. While the mood of her audience seemed slightly higher, she had the sense to realize it had not had nearly as much of an impact as she might have hoped. She collected the smiles of thanks her friends offered, feeling a bit better herself for her labors.

Thinking that, perhaps another melody was just the thing to keep prodding the mood upwards, her fingers found the cords to one of her favorite Jimmy Buffett tunes. Before she could come to the first bridge for the vocals, however, the room was flooded with a soft, sensuous light that chased away the music before she could draw it from the guitar. As the light withdrew to a more manageable level, a new woman had appeared in the room.

Her hair was loose about her head like a young maiden and so full of highlights of various hues and shades that its true color was impossible to determine. She was dressed in a flowing silk sarong the color of dried blood that played well to her dusky complexion. Her beauty had an animal grace to it as she strolled from the window where she had appeared, delicately plucking her way through the Priestess’ companions that were as still and lifeless as statues.

“Hello, Bobby,” the woman greeted; a seductive smile on her full lips.

“Sune, I presume?” Bobby managed around the lump that had taken up residence in her throat.

The woman’s laugh was low and kindly. “I have many names, in many places, here I am known simply as the Lover. And you are my new Priestess. Are you enjoying your new body?”

“Well, I…” stammered Bobby. “…I haven’t really had time…you know…saving the world and all.”

“Oh, yes, I know,” the deity admitted, one hand languorously mussing what there was of John’s hair. “You’ve been very busy. And as you’ve been so busy saving the world, your Paladin has been stripped of his power because you turned him aside and sent him to prey on a desperate girl in a collection of ramshackle huts that only just deserves to be called a village.” The dark eyes fixed themselves on Bobby and would not let her move. “I’m very disappointed in you, Bobby.”

“You wouldn’t say that if…”

“If I’d seen the Louis you know?” she asked blithely, one hand passing before the frozen knight’s face. As it passed, the corpulent gamer was restored in the same poise as he had been sitting. “What has one to do with the other? Beauty has more to do with forgiveness and mercy than soft skin and full curves my young Priestess.”

Bobby steeled herself and raised her chin. “I had nothing to do with what happened to Louis.”

“Yes, that’s true. He is being punished for his own actions. But no, it’s not true. Had you fulfilled your obligations this could have been avoided. You know that, of course.”

“I…can’t…”

“What you cannot do is be impregnated against your choosing, succumb to or pass any disease that a penitent to me may have in the act of union. And you cannot turn away any soul who seeks the warm and comfort of a fellow human being. If you cannot bring yourself to that, then you have no business in my service. You chose me, my darling, because there is a part of your heart that knows every living thing deserves to feel loved.” Her hand passed once more in front of the knight; restoring him to the fit, handsome form he had been given. “No matter how ugly the inside, or out may be.”

“Are you here to punish me, too?” she asked softly.

“No,” the goddess replied. “Should I?”

“I’m still trying to get used to, well this,” Bobby pleaded, an absent gesture at her form.

The Lover’s gaze didn’t waiver or blink. “Bobby,” she chided softly, “how much more time do you need? You have been fantasizing about this since you were little. Ever since you learned about the difference between boys and girls and found yourself on the wrong side of the gender gap. Do you expect me to believe you are not comfortable in the skin I crafted for you?”

“The others don’t know,” sobbed Bobby, hot, wet tears beginning to flow down her cheeks. “I can’t just…they’ll suspect…!”

“Ursula already knows.”

“And she hates me! I just know it!”

The deity’s head shook slowly. “No, she doesn’t hate you. She is confused, and afraid; given her current situation, that’s very normal. She wants to go home and she is very worried that the people she sees herself dependant on will not help her get home. If you want her as an ally, you have to convince her that you will do everything in your power to help her with what she desires.”

Bobby cried for a few moments, her mind making frantic circles. After a long moment she was able to meet her patron’s eyes once more. “Why…?” she started, but the Lover was quick to cut her off.

“You aren’t ready to know why yet, my precious darling. For now, I want you to content yourself with the knowledge that you are performing a tremendous good. Follow your heart, and you will come to the place you need to be. You will know what to do when the time is right. For now you must know two things. First a devoted husband in this house has been deprived of his wife and though he carries on a brave face the loneliness eats away at him. Your penitence for your failings with Sir Louis, as well as your demonstration of your loyalty to me is that you will go to him and ease that loneliness to the best of your ability tonight.”

A tremor shook Bobby from the roots of her hair to her toes. “Duke Reginald,” she said softly.

“Duke Reginald,” The Lover echoed. “Second, there is an evil that eats at Barnsby; an evil nearly as great and terrible as that which you are here to intercede, for the two are hand in glove with each other. For Sir Louis to win back his spurs he must root out this evil and destroy it. You and your friends may help him in this task, but at the final moment what is to be met is his alone. You will know this time when it arrives. You are forbidden to interfere or intercede in any way. If you fail in this, Sir Louis’ mantle is forfeit.”

“Is Mandrid the real evil Aria makes him out to be?”

“When you have accomplished this task, you will know,” the power replied.

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Chapter Five

The night the lights went out in Hangdri

Ursula awoke with a start, aware both of the fact that she had slept in a very awkward position that had her neck aching and that someone near by was moving with the intent not to be heard. She forced herself not to move as she opened her eyes to slits to peer through the lashes. The new elf lay on the sofa in the common room they had been given, the fire now down to embers that glowed an orange-red as someone passed between her and the fire.

It was Bobby, Ursula realized, once again wearing that damned felt princess dress it had taken two days to talk her into changing out of. The elf’s ears caught the sound of Lawrence’s voice evidently in the throws of passion over the distressed creaking of a rope bed. Bobby froze for a moment before she could identify the sound that had probably woken Ursula before she crept over to the door of the common room and slipped out into the corridor.

Ursula fought to keep her temper before she made sure of her daggers and rose silently; determined to follow the priestess. “I am not going to be stranded here,” she muttered to herself as she silently opened the door and peered out. Bobby’s shadow was just turning the corner of the round stairway that led down into the main portions of the Big House. As silent as a shadow, Ursula followed.

The priestess led her a merry chase towards what were obviously the nicer portions of the keep. Ursula managed to keep up, keeping a wary distance so as not to be seen, her suspicion rapidly becoming anger.

At last, Bobby was challenged outside the doors to what Ursula took to be the Duke’s personal bedchamber. The Elf’s sharp ears let her pick up a snatch of the conversation that took place and what she heard let her anger over ride her common sense for a moment.

Ursula’s toe banged into the brass planter pot.

The guard who was grilling Bobby looked up and the two locked eyes for a moment. “You there!” the guard shouted. “Halt!”

Ursula’s instincts took over and she fled before Bobby could even turn to follow the guard’s gaze. Her heart pounding in her chest, Ursula ran with a speed and silence that amazed the still rational part of her mind. At the first window she came to the Elf ducked through the open shutters, thankful there was no glass window to slow her movement.

The ledge was perhaps half a foot wide and over looked the lower floors from a dizzying height to the streets hundreds of feet below. Before she fully realized what she was doing, Ursula had leapt out into the night.

The world hung in slow motion through the fall before her fingers found the ledge and arrested her movement. She hung for moment then once more her body was in motion, pulling her up into a handstand as she rolled into the open window, the cartwheel ending in a crouch.

“Holy shit,” she breathed in amazement at what she had done.

Before she could begin to fully comprehend her feat of gymnastics, her sharp ears picked up the iron in the door latch turning; someone was entering this room. Her legs unfolded from the crouch, rolling her behind a couch, as the room was flooded with light from a hand held lantern one of the two men who had entered was carrying.

“You’re certain you weren’t followed?” demanded one, his voice low and raspy.

“Of course,” the other responded this one a light tenor that had a nearly musical quality to it. “You worry too much.”

Over the soft clatter of the latch being returned the first voice chuckled an evil chuckle. “And you don’t worry enough. What have you discovered of our Duke’s new guests?”

Ursula felt the hackles on the back of her neck rise as one of the men came over to the window to pull the shutters closed. “More than you’re likely to believe,” the tenor responded. “That they are not of this world whatsoever, despite the forms they take.”

“I know a dragon when I see one,” the raspy voice countered from the door.

“Less than a week has the boy worn that form,” the second replied. “Not that you would know it by looking, my lord. I scarcely believed it myself when I heard it from the Duke’s own page; playing the braggart to the scullery maid. I know not where they might hail from, but I cannot think they are as dangerous as they seem.”

“Aria would not have brought them here if they were not at least as dangerous as they seem, if not more.” There was a long pause before he continued. “I don’t like it. It’s too close to our plans coming to fruition to be happenstance.”

“But they have no knowledge…” the tenor started.

“Don’t add assumption to your list of indiscretions,” the other interrupted. “Do we know how long they will be here? Or what his grace talked with their leader about in that meeting?”

“I know only that his grace gave his own personal colors to a page to present to the elf. Beyond that would be assuming…”

The sound of a heavy glove striking flesh interrupted the tenor’s sarcasm. “Now,” the raspy voice continued. “You listen carefully and mark my words, whelp. I have plotted too long for this to be undone by a cockerel who thinks playing at words is amusing.”

There was anger in the tenor’s voice when it spoke again, yet it was careful to hold respect as well. “What would you have me do, my lord?”

“For starters, you keep your arrogant eyes on those other worlders. If they even begin to suspect…”

“I’ll see to it there is a spy in their midst before nightfall tomorrow.” Tenor would have continued but the door was thrown open.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the raspy voice. The guard who had challenged Ursula was the next voice and it caused her to try and become one with the stone floor.

“Beg your pardon, milords,” the guard started, mail gauntlet banging against the spangle helm he wore in salute. “There’s a thief in the castle, we’re searching room by room.”

“There’s no thief here,” Tenor snapped at the guard, then seemed to reconsider. “I should see to this, with your leave, my lord?” The light left with the voices as the door was closed once more. Ursula took the time to try and calm her racing heart before she cautiously peeked around the bottom corner of the sofa. Her sharp eyes found they had no need of the light that was blocked by the shuttered window to see that she was alone in the room.

Cautiously she stood and considered her options. Clearly the castle was in a major uproar of her flight from the hallway of the Duke’s personal chambers. The hallways would be crawling with guards and as she didn’t have what ever sigil the Duke had given John, it was likely if they laid hands on her she’d be spending the night in the dungeons; or worse.

Ursula made her way to the window, opened the shutters once more and looked out. The tower that had been given over to her and her friends was on the far side of the Big House from here, several stories up and no clear way at least, a clear way that was sane. “You’re a generalist thief,” Ursula whispered to herself as she stood in the ledge and began to examine the stone work of the castle itself. “You can do this.”

She found that mortar must be extremely expensive in the local economy as it was only used well back in the stonework. This had the effect of making the wall like the easy section of an indoor rock-climbing wall. The wall might as well have been covered in handles and rungs of a ladder. Ursula took an experimental step out and found literally thousands of crevasses that served as hand and foot holds.

She closed her eyes and sighed. “It’s just like a rock wall,” she told herself and began to climb in earnest. A few minutes work got her to the roof of this section where she was able to stand erect and run across the clay tiles to the tower they called home. There she found as many ways up as before and continued her climb. In short order she was outside John’s bedroom just as someone was banging on the door.

Ursula scrambled through the window and was able to get a hand over Johns’ mouth to quell his shout of surprise. “I’ve been here all night,” she whispered urgently as she dove under the covers and did her best to appear to be asleep.

John recovered from his shock sufficiently to open the door and demand, “What?” to the guard he found there.

“Begging your pardon, sir, there’s a thief in the castle,” the guard introduced himself. “Are you alone?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no. And my bed mate has been here all night.” John mustered up his best roadside stop scowl at the guard who paled slightly.

“Your pardon for the interruption, sir,” he managed. “Good night.”

Once John was certain they were alone once more he went back over to his bed and pulled the covers away. “What was all that about?” he demanded softly. Ursula hesitated for a moment before pulling off her leather jerkin and tossing it near the pile of his own clothing.

“Climb in and I’ll tell you,” she invited in a quiet voice.

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Bobby watched the guard tear after a shadow and was torn for a moment between following her patron’s orders and helping with this new threat. If there was combat, doubtlessly she would be needed to heal injuries, however, she wasn’t entirely sure how the Lover would take this latest act of defiance. They had already lost their paladin and the loss of her healing magic would be a blow the party may not recover from.

So, steeling herself to what she was about to do, Bobby returned to the Duke’s door and knocked with a confidence she wished she felt. After a moment the door was thrown open, revealing the Duke’s muscular form, bare chest-ed and modesty only preserved by a pair of soft looking home spun trews. “My lady?” he asked in surprise, obviously not expected to be confronted with who was at his door.

“Your pardon, please, your Grace. I was…” and here Bobby stuttered to a stop, not entirely sure how to put in words her mission. “May I come in?”

The Duke wordlessly stepped to one side and Bobby cautiously entered a room both Spartan in its appointments as it was comfortable in what was there. She found herself in an anteroom that served as a sitting room containing a small clutch of comfortable looking chairs and a large table whose lack of adornment could not hide the fact that it was extremely well made for the era.

The Duke withdrew to a cabinet as he pulled on a fur lined robe to make himself a bit more presentable and withdrew a flagon of pewter with two matching goblets. The only light in the room was from a large fireplace on the wall with what appeared to be his bed chamber so that both rooms would be warmed by the single fire. “Wine?” he offered from the flagon he was bringing to the table.

“Please,” she said, stepping forward to take a chair at his right hand. “I’m sorry to have woken you, and it’s rather a long story I’m afraid.”

Reginald poured the wine to the somewhat distant chimes of the cathedrals clock tolling out midnight. “We seem to have some time before dawn,” he said with a chuckle as he presented the pewter goblet. “How can I help you?”

Bobby swallowed a mouthful of the excellent wine and steeled herself for the coming statement. “Actually, I’ve come to help you,” she managed to say.

“Indeed?” he asked with a sip of his own. “And which of my many issues are you volunteering to take over?”

“Your happiness,” she said with as much sincerity as she could muster.

For the briefest of moments confusion played across his features, before a realization flickered into his eyes. “I’m deeply flattered, my lady, but I’m afraid I must decline your generous offer. I am, after all, a married man.”

“To a wife that arguably is no longer human,” Bobby found herself saying. “That must be very trying…” Before the amazement of what she was saying could set in, there was a flash that filled the room and Aria had appeared.

“What is the meaning of this?” the Power demanded, her normally lovely features contorted into rage. “How dare you…?”

The Lover stepped out of Bobby’s form, much to the young accountant’s relief. The two Powers regarded each other, Aria’s eyes practically smoldering with anger while the Lover wore the aloof expression of an experienced tomcat caught in the cream. “Oh, stop thinking like a mortal, Aria. You should be thankful I’m looking out for your widower.”

“I’m notdead,” Aria hissed through clinched teeth.

The Lover smirked. “You are to him. High time you realized it.” She looked at the two gawking mortals and tskedbetween her perfect teeth. “This isn’t the place to have this discussion,” she announced before they both vanished and Bobby and Reginald were alone once more.

“People come and go so quicklyhere,” muttered Bobby to herself.

“Now I’m confused,” Reginald declared to his goblet. After a long drought he refreshed both cups and turned to his startled guest. “What exactly was that all about?”

Bobby shrugged as she appreciated the wine. “The Lover came to me earlier tonight and told me that you were suffering and putting up a brave face alone. There was more, but that’s what it boiled down to. Part of the reason Louis lost his paladin-hood was because I turned him away so as an act of penance I had to come here and…well, you know….”

The Duke’s chuckle was interrupted by a huge yawn. “I’d never thought of myself as an act of penance before. I suppose I should be flattered.”

Bobby felt a blush color her cheeks as she demurely replied, “I can think of many worse things, but nothing better.” She drained the cup and held it out to him. “I should go so you can get some sleep.”

He took it and electricity danced as their fingers touched. Tiredness gave way to far more primal emotions. She was in his arms and not resisting, her face turned up in expectation of his kiss. He was mumbling something as his face haltingly lowered, not that she could determine what he was saying. Their lips met and sparks were traded for flames.

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Tom growled to himself as for the third time that night the noises from Lawrence’s room, adjacent to his own, woke him from the shallow nap he could manage. It was obvious from the volume that both were doing their best to be quiet but that didn’t lighten his mood any. “Even a train has to stop,” he snarled to himself as he gave up and sat up in the bed.

Now more awake he caught a whiff of Ursula’s scent through the open window as his sharp ears just over heard a hoarse whisper of, “I’ve been here all night.”

Something was wrong, the bruin decided, bad wrong. His improved eyesight let him find his buckskin trousers and breech-cloth that he quickly pulled on. Making sure of the claws in their hanger on his belt he snatched open the door just as a guard was about to knock. “What?” he growled, making sure to show as much teeth as he could.

There were four of them, but in the confined space of the hall their pole arms would be useless. The leader stammered out the same story Tom had heard him give John earlier before the bruin made a production of inhaling mightily through his nose. “There’s no one in this tower who shouldn’t be here,” he snapped, “except the four of you! Get out!”

For a split second Tom thought the guard’s valor would get the better of him, but he wisely decided on discretion and quickly made his exit from the tower. Tom watched them go before hauling himself up the steps to Louis’s room and knocking as loudly as he dared. After a long moment the door was opened to the knight’s form in a pair of leggings as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. “What’s up?” he mumbled through his haze.

“I don’t know yet, but something’s going on. Guards were searching the tower. Get up and get dressed while I go down to the common room and see if I can find something like coffee.”

Louis nodded resignedly and closed the door. Tom descended the stairs to the common room and used the fire there to light the smoky oil lamps to give what light could be had at this hour. A short rummage through the chest of travel rations uncovered a burlap bag full of black, glossy beans and a small grinder. He took these and the bag of sugar from their place and tugged on the servant’s bell before he settled down to the task of grinding.

After several minutes of grinding the main door was opened by a skittish looking girl of about fifteen. “My lord?” she asked in a soft voice that matched the scent of fear that reeked from her form.

“I would like a small decanter of milk, please,” he told the girl, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible.

“Cow, horse or goat’s milk, milord?”

“Cow,” rumbled Tom around a chuckle.

She dropped a curtsy and was gone. Tom looked after her for a moment and then it occurred to him there were probably far more distasteful requests made of servant girls at this hour. The grinding finished, he spent a moment wishing for a filter before pouring out the drawer from the grinder’s contents into a percolator style pot he found in the camp kitchen and hanging it over the fire.

“Where are the others?” managed Louis around a massive yawn as he finished descending the stairs.

“Ursula is in John’s room,” Tom muttered as he poked at the fire with an iron. “Law and his new friend are getting acquainted and Bobby isn’t in the tower. That worries me.” The fire more to his liking, Tom fixed the broken knight with his gaze. “Did she say anything to you about going out?”

Louis shook his head and the wideness of his eyes told the bruin there was no guile in his answer. “No! Are you sure?”

“The newest trail of her scent goes out the door and doesn’t come back,” Tom rumbled. “Damn it, damn it, and now guards are tearing up the place looking for a thief.”

“My fault,” floated Ursula’s voice from the stairwell. Tom looked to see her and John just entering the room, both making final adjustments to clothing as they did so.

Heh, good for you, buddy, thought the mechanic to himself. Out loud he asked, “Do you know where Bobby is?” The elf nodded as she took out the tin coffee mugs from the camp kitchen and brought them over.

“The last I saw of her she was outside the Duke’s bedroom. But we’ve got bigger problems than Bobby not keeping his knees together.”

Louis threw himself into one of the overstuffed chairs with a grunt. “Now what? At least it’s not my fault.”

Briefly, Ursula told her tale about her flight from the Duke’s bed chamber and the conversation she’d overheard. As she finished it, the servant girl returned with a pitcher of milk that she gratefully gave up and left once more. “What would an adventure be without a little political scheming?” groused John as he stirred his coffee and then relinquished the spoon. “You said the guard knew who these two Machiavelli wanna-bes were?”

“He didn’t question why they were in an unused room in the middle of the night,” Ursula replied. “And he addressed them both as ‘my lord’.”

“That could just be middle ages polite,” muttered the deputy. “Of course they could also be fairly high mucky mucks of the local gentry.”

“The younger sounding one is probably the seneschal,” opined Louis from his chair. As the eyes of the room turned to him he shrugged and said, “The guy said he overheard the Duke’s page bragging to the Scullery Maid, right? So, that conversation took place in the kitchen. The Maid is too busy during the day to be wondering around the castle. So, if this guy over heard that, then he’s in the kitchen. The only person of quality who would be in the kitchen would be the seneschal unlocking a spice cabinet for the cook.”

“I will be dipped in shit,” muttered Tom. “He’s probably right.”

“Probably, but that doesn’t help our position any,” John sighed. “If the head of the house is scheming against the Duke…” he trailed off uncertainly. “God damn what I wouldn’t pay for a cliff notes version of the local history!”

“You are the cliff notes version,” shot back Ursula. “Aria said she put all the knowledge of the world in yourhead.”

“Not exactly an unbiased source,” groused John. “I know that the Duke’s relations with the Elves to the south are in the shitter because the elves don’t fancy a major city on their boarder. The human kingdom the Duke owes fealty to is separated by the mountains to the north and a marshy river to the east. This duchy has always been a frontier kind of place. Not as big of a concern to the Elves, but now Hangdri has grown into a major city, worse, a major city with a reputation of learning so the trade is picking up making slugging all the way out here appealing to folks looking to better themselves while still staying loyal to the King.”

“Manifest destiny,” muttered Tom. “It’s only a matter of time before the Elves come to blows with the ‘growing’ Duchy. And with separation like what you’re talking about it wouldn’t take much for Reggie to decide he likes to be addressed as your majesty rather than your grace.”

“And he’s got all the resources he’d need,” John replied after an appreciate sip of the coffee. “This area is extremely fertile so he’s got both grains and livestock. There’s a thriving tanning industry for trade goods…”

“As if we could miss the smell,” Louis complained.

“The mountains to the north are practically soaked with iron, nickel silver and tin, not to mention a fair amount of gem stones. The local dwarves are actually vassals of the Duke thanks to a war four generations back when the Duke’s ancestor defeated that year’s King Under The Mountain and they’re now controlled by a Count who owes Reggie fealty. They couldrevolt, but as this is a family of paladins they have no reason to and the trade has made the petty nobles who would organize it disgustingly rich so they’re probably not interested.”

“So, leather, food, grains and beer go into the mountain and refined products and gold coins come out?” asked Ursula. John nodded thoughtfully as he polished off his first cup and went back for a second. “Never mind kingdom, if Reggie starts flexing his muscle and defeats the Elves he has the footing in place for an Empire.

“So, who wants to upset the apple cart?” demanded Louis. Once more the eyes of the group came to him and he shrugged his broad shoulders. “If it’s as rosy as you say, why is anyone plotting against this guy? Sounds to me like he’s an Emperor in the making, all he has to do is sally forth, and his back is covered by a conquered nation that loves him for it. Hell, they’d probably muster troops on general dwarf/elf hostility. So, why is this politicking going on? Dollars to donuts the Duke doesn’t want any of that and so someone is trying to stir up things so he hasto. Or replace him once things are in motion so they get to be High Mucky Muck.”

“Two for two!” chuckled Tom.

“I was a poli-sci major,” the knight replied primly.

“This from the guy who was defeated in an unopposed student government election…”

“I still say it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t vote because I was a candidate.”

John finished stirring his coffee and took a thoughtful sip. Finally, he said, “Be that as it may, Louis' political ambitions aren't the issue here. Reggie's are and if he doesn't have any, someone is going to a lot of trouble to put him into a position of where he has to get some or get killed. I talked with him for about three hours before dinner tonight and if he's aware of what's spinning around him he sure didn't let on. That makes me feel he doesn't have a clue that he's getting played.”

“And the drag queen is in there doing this and that with him,” muttered Louis sullenly.

“And I thought you were improving,” rumbled Tom menacingly.

“Hey, I didn't ask for any of this...!” started Louis.

“Well you certainly were the first on the list when it was offered,” snapped Ursula. “And if Bobby and the Duke arean item now, the last thing we need is for you to start dropping hints his new squeeze used to piss standing up!”

“Knock it off, everybody!” John shouted. “You,” he barked, pointing the finger of the long arm of the law at Louis, “back off Bobby. I don't care if she's a queer as a three dollar bill and into goats, I don't want to hear another word from you about it! We clear?”

“Ok! Ok!”

The Deputy sighed and turned back to the Bruin. “You knew about Bobby?”

Tom chuckled. “I went to high school with him, of course I knew. Oh he tries to stay in the closet but in the eight years I've known him I've yet to see him with a female and twice there bags from Victoria's Secret in the trash when I went to pitch a beer can.” He shrugged. “Bobby was the reason I didn't flunk algebra and get kicked off the team. I might have been a last round pick, but that scholarship was the difference between going to college and not. Bobby's a class act in my book and I don't care what floats his boat.”

Ursula finished off her cup and set it down. “Now, if we could just get some straight information about what's going here, we'd be doing alright.”

“If it's information you want,” purred the honey contralto of Gwendolyn’s voice from the stairs. The others turned to find her descending them with Law not far behind her. “I have just the place,” she finished with a smile as she helped herself to the coffee.

“And where is the fount of untainted, unbiased wisdom?” demanded Ursula, just shy of sneer on her face.

Gwen, having just had her ashes hauled well was in far too good a mood to rise to the bait. “Lawrence knows,” she purred.

“The Great Library of the Planes,” the wizard said.

“The who of what?” demanded Louis.

“The Great Library of the Planes,” repeated Lawrence as he waited his turn at the coffee pot. “It is the repository of all knowledge and wisdom, throughout the various Planes of Reality. Think of it as an entire world whose only purpose is to be this central collection point of learning, books and scrolls. Getting to it is an adventure in and of itself, but if you make it there is not a spell or bit of learning you can't find there. It's primarily a GM caveat kind of thing.”

“And how...?”

“Wizard,” interrupted the young man tiredly. “It's entirely possible if we could get to the library we could find another way home and tell Aria to stick it as we'd be effectively beyond her reach.”

“I know that you owe this world nothing,” began Gwen hesitantly, “but I would consider it a personal favor if we did not do that at least until Mandrid is dealt with. However, I have joined this party and if the will of it is to do so I will abide by it.”

“You joined…?” sputtered Ursula. John quickly laid a calming hand on her shoulder.

“Tell you, later. In the meantime, Law any idea on how to get to the Library?”

The wizard stirred his cup thoughtfully for a moment. “I’d have figured you’d be the better person to ask, John. If Aria forgot to include that little caveat, there’s got to be more editing she’s done. I can do some research into it with the local libraries in the morning, there should be quite a bit of lore here, this being a university town and all.”

The deputy nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds good, Law. We’ll get started on that in the morning. Unless there’s something else going on, Tom?”

Tom shook his head slowly. “Sorry if I woke you or Law, John. Just figured with the house in an uproar, someone should be up on watch.”

“We have been taking the Duke’s hospitality for granted,” mused Louis.

“There is not a traitorous bone in Duke Reginald’s body,” snapped Gwen. “You need have no fear of knives in the dark from him.”

“It’s not him I’m worried about,” Tom growled. “There are at least two members of the local quality that arebusily sharpening knives. I don’t know if they’re just for your buddy Reggie or if they’re addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern”, but what I do know is that my friend is somewhere out in the castle, maybe in trouble, maybe having a good time, and this door,” he said with a rough gesture at the oak and iron clad fixture that separated their apartments from the rest of the castle. “Has no lock on the inside. Now where I’m from folks’ prided themselves on being able to leave the front door unlocked at night, but don’t think for a second I’m going to pick up thathabit in my tenure here!”

The Bruin sighed heavily and looked back up at John. “Louis and I will watch until 3 and then I’ll wake you, how’s that?”

“Gwen and I could…”started Law but to his surprise, his paramour cut him off.

“John and I can watch then,” she told him flatly. “You, milord mage, need a full night’s sleep to work your magic. We may need them soon, if we are making our way to Barnsby or the Great Library.” She turned Tom, her voice steady. “Knock once softly upon the door and I shall rise.”

 

* finis *
Read 2508 times Last modified on Monday, 19 February 2024 20:39
More in this category: « Death Wish Shadows and Dust »

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ReadingIsGood
2 months ago
Not an uncommon plot, but still very well-written, and I'm enjoying it so far, I look forward to the next chapter.
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Jayjay
2 months ago
I thought I had read the beginning before... but certainly not the rest, and am really eager for the next part.
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