“Staying the Night…”

The extremely dead Under-King did in fact have a fat purse, stuffed with gold-plated cowry shells gathered and smelted by a distant sea.

After a brief search of the feasting hall, Ira, Dragon Face, Corax, Vincol, and V’vendy made their way into the dead necromancer’s private chambers.

The Under-King’s bed chamber was lit by glowing crystal shards that were nailed into the walls and placed on the shelves like lamps. A sleeping couch in the center of the stone room was draped with velvet cloth for comfort. Lady Ira sniffed sharply at the decor.

There was a table in the corner of the room, a round slice of tree trunk propped up by four stuffed and mounted deer legs. Rare jewels, gemstones and beaded necklaces were carelessly scattered along the table’s surface alongside small clay tablets carved with the Swayer’s Script.

Two items were set on the edge of the table away from everything else; a wooden bowl filled with five lead balls, and a mirror made from black obsidian.

Ira picked up one of the lead balls and rolled it between her fingers. “What are these for?” She wondered aloud.

“Medicinal, perhaps?” Dragon-Face mused, frowning as he adjusted the fit of his copper mask. “What am I saying?” He muttered. “This is the den of a blasphemous villain. It’s probably a torture device or something.”

Dragon Face’s finger brushed agains the horns of his copper dragon mask. A blue spark leapt from his mask to his finger. “Gah!” Dragon Face cried out. A larger bolt of lightning crackled out from the wrestlers’s mask and hit the chamber floor, scorching one of the straw mats on the ground and filling the chamber with smoke.

At arms!” Ira shouted in alarm. V’vendy nocked an arrow to her bow, and Corax drew his saber. The smoke quickly cleared from the room, revealing a familiar-looking Nobble dressed in an embroidered nightshirt and bearing a thick book strapped to his back.

“Hey guys,” Uuco the Witness yawned. “Anyone seen my hat?”

“Uuco!” Dragon Face exclaimed.

“Yup,” Uuco confirmed, nodding. “That’s me!!”

“Uuco, you’re alright!” V’vendy said, lowering her bow and smiling. “We’d thought–“

“Whoa now, boys and girls,” Uuco protested, raising his hands. “Nothing bad happened! Just popped over to the other side and back, is all.”

“The other side,” Dragon Face repeated slowly. “Friend Uuco, did you transport yourself to to some kind of…lightning dimension?” He asked.

Uuco yawned again. “I’d tell you, but I’m in my pajamas. Ask in the morning”

“I would ask how you got pajamas, but you’d just play coy,” Corax said under his breath, sheathing his saber.

Uuco coughed into his fist, then squinted at the lead ball Ira held as she glared at him. “Well I’ll be dipped in brew!” He exclaimed. “The Under-King had a Seeker Stone with him!” He glanced at the bowl holding the rest. “Seeker Stones, plural! Good thing he didn’t use those to fight us.”

“Seeker Stones?” Ira frowned, staring closely at the lead ball. “The lady Ira has heard of those: they fly around and hit things you dislike…?”

The Seeker Stone shot out from Ira and tore through a tapestry on the west wall that crudely depicted the Underworld King leading an army down a mountain on horseback . It rebounded of the stone, twirled and settled back in Ira’s hands.

Ira’s eyes widened. “Useful!” She exclaimed.

“You might as well take them,” Uuco said to Ira, rolling his neck around casually. “I can always take them back if I want…besides, you need them.”

Ira’s mouth thinned as she reached out and pocketed the Seeker Stones. “What is that supposed to mean?” She asked after drawing her hands out of her pocket.

Uuco glanced at Ira with lazy, half-lidded eyes. “Oh, nothing, ma’am,” He drawled. “Just figured you could use something for when you run out of enchanted harp strings and get reduced to knifing folk.”

Ira glanced away. “The Lady Ira pays no heed to petty insults, Nobble,” she said, turning and walk to the other corner of the room. “Count yourself lucky that’s the case.”

Uuco snorted and sat on the necromancer’s couch with a thump, stretching his arm and legs out like a cat.

Corax prowled over to Uuco and tilted his narrow avian head to the side in contemplation. “Uuco the Witness.” The dinosaur rumbled. “I have great respect for you, but you should apologize to–”

“Shh!” Uuco hissed, raising his hand and pinching his fingers together. “I have great respect for you.” He said. “Period. That’s where the sentence should end.”

Corax snapped his mouth shut and glared at Uuco.

“Uuco,” Dragon Face said folding his arms over his thick chest, “Thank you for slaying the Necromancer before he could drain my life force.”

“Aw shucks!” Uuco said, smiling. “T’weren’t nothing!”

“However, I believe you said we were embarking on this expedition to save children,” Dragon Face continued. “And yet, I haven’t seen any children around!”

“I said we were gonna save children, and we did!” Uuco said, waving a finger chidingly. “If children from the town wander over here, they’ll be safe!”

“True,” Dragon Face admitted, “But–”

“But what?” Uuco exclaimed, puffing his chest out in indignation. “Did you want children to be in danger here!”

“Of course not!” Dragon Face said hotly. “But–”

“Then what’s the problem?” Uuco said, lying back on the couch and kicking his tiny legs back and forth.

But I would have helped anyway if you’d been honest, Uuco,” Dragon Face said, folding his arms over his chest. “You don’t need to exaggerate the truth with me.”

“I’m a historian,” Uuco replied with a sigh. “Exaggerating things is my business!”

V’vendy looked up from stuffing gemstones and scrolls into a sack to frown at Uuco. “You seem on edge,” She told the Nobble. “Are you…well, alright?”

“I’m fine!”‘ Uuco declared, sitting up. “I haven’t felt this good in years, in fact!”

Vincol picked up the obsidian mirror from the table and squinted at it. “Pretty!” He remarked. “I wonder how much this would sell for?”

“Let me see!” Uuco got up, walked over to Vincol, and snatched the mirror from the chief’s hands.

“Hey!” Vincol protested.

Uuco stared into the mirror, his face and mustache faintly reflected on the black finish. As he watched, an image began to form in the mirror, a sphere inside a narrow oval. A simple symbol of an eye. As he continued to gaze, the stylized eye’s pupil began to twist in on itself, transforming into a gently curving spiral. Then the spiraling pupil split into two…

Uuco stuffed the obsidian mirror into his belt pouch. “I’m keeping this,” he said hastily.

“Hey now: I had dibs on selling that!” Vincol cursed, glaring at Uuco.

Uuco pulled some gold shells from his purse and slapped them on the table. “Here,” he said. “That should cover it!”

“Do you know what it is?” V’vendy asked. “Is it a powerful artifact?”

“Nope, nope!” Uuco stammered. “It’s…it’s something for old people! Helps with memory loss and such! I’m old, you know!”

He walked off to one of the shelves and pretended to look at the fertility totems it held. Corax walked over, leaned over Uuco with his long, slender head, and spoke into his ear.

“Is that mirror going to put us in danger?”

Uuco tensed. “No,” he said at last.

Corax snorted loudly like a horse. “I’ll assume you’re telling the truth, historian,” he whispered. “But if that mirror puts us in danger, I’ll tell them what you really are.”

Uuco ground his teeth, sparks dancing up and down the back of his spine, leaving a whiff of ozone in the air. “You do that, sonny,” he growled, “and I’ll tell them what you are.” He glanced over his shoulder and the carnivorous, feathered gaze of Corax. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a secret standoff.”

Corax bared his teeth. “No we don’t,” he said. “Tell them my secret if you feel like.” He turned his back on Uuco, and Uuco had to duck under the dinosaur’s tail. “They’ll never believe you,” Corax said over his shoulder.

As Corax walked back to the table and started shoving valuables in his saddlebag, Dragon Face adjusted his copper mask and walked up to the glowering Uuco.

“Friend, Uuco,” He said, “I do not mean to pry…but are you sure that dark mirror is safe? It belonged to a wicked necromancer, after all!”

“I’m telling you, it’s harmless!” Uuco shouted in frustration. “Harmless, harmless, harmless!”

%%%

The doors of the Wailing Saber Longhouse were thrown open. Chief Valeria looked up from her sweeping to see Innkeeper Vincol, an armored dinosaur, a masked man and the Pilgrims she’d sent out barge in, carrying Uuco the Witness in their arms. The Nobble moaned loudly.

“Quickly!” Corax shouted to Valeria, his back feathers standing on end. “Clear a table!”

What’s going on?” Valeria asked, setting her broom down and rushing over. “And who’s the big lizard?”

“No time to argue, Valeria!” Corax said, sweeping plates and mugs off one of the inn tables with his tail. “All too soon, I might be breaking my oath to protect this old coot!”

Valeria’s eyes widened. “You mean…you’re Corax? When did you become a dinosaur?”

“The pain…” Uuco groaned, rocking back and forth on the table and clutching at his chest. “Oh, the pain! Oh, I’m sorely wounded!”

“Uuco!” Valeria cried out, rushing over to his side. “What’s wrong?”

“A curse!” Uuco groaned. “A terrible curse laid me low!” He sighed with a bone deep weariness and closed his eyes. “The only thing that can lift my pain now…is a kiss from a true beauty! But where oh where can someone like that be found?” He lamented.

Ira sighed and sat down. Corax relaxed, his head-feathers drooping. Then he snorted musically in disgust. “Dragon Face,” he drawled, turning to meet the eyes of the masked wrestler, “we need your help!”

“Leave it to me!” Dragon Face replied, clenching his fists by his waist. “If my comrade in arms need a kiss, then the undefeated Dragon Face shall pucker his lips!”

Uuco scowled and sat up. “Not you!” He grunted, waving Dragon Face off with his hands. “Siddown!”

Valeria put a hand over her lips to stifle a chuckle. “Uuco,” she said softly. “Did you find whoever’s been been driving the local animals crazy?”

Uuco nodded. “Yes ma’am,” he said. “There was a crazy necromancer in the caves by Giant’s peak: the fellow was controlling evil rodents and trying to make himself a corpse army.”

Valeria’s eyes hardened. “Did you send him shrieking into the afterlife?” She asked.

Uuco nodded. “Yes ma’am!” He said.

Valeria laughed brightly, leaned down and pecked Uuco on the cheek. “That’s worth a kiss, I think,” she said. “And worth the reward I promised you all, Pilgrims!” She drew several strings of of gold shells from her apron pocket and passing them out to the gathered Pilgrims.

You’re very generous, Innkeeper Valeria!” Ira exclaimed, stowing her payment in her belt pouch.

“Generosity?” Chief Vincol scoffed, poking his head into the Longhouse’s open doors. “That’s a laugh! You have no idea how much she gouges travelers that spend the night!”

“Vincol,” Valeria declared, narrowing her eyes. “What brings you over to the classy part of our village? Need to borrow more fleas for your bedrolls? We’re fresh out, I’m afraid.”

“Vincol…er, helped out,” V’vendy said, softly yet audibly. “He slew zombies, took many wounds, and helped defeat the necromancer. He complained a lot–”

Vincol pouted.

“–but he was quite brave,” V’vendy concluded, leaning her bow against the side of the table and sitting down.

Chief Valeria looked at Chief Vincol, eyebrows raising. “You were?” She asked.

Vincol looked away.

“You were,” Valeria concluded, voice colored with awe. She took another string of gold shells out of her pocket and pressed them into Vincol’s hand. “You have brought honor to our village Chief Vincol,” Chief Valeria admited. “If you gave your all alongside the Pilgrims, I suppose you earned these too.”

“Fah!” Vincol muttered, handing the string of money back. “I’m fine: I got my fair share of spoils from the Necromancer’s chamber anyhow.”

Valeria nodded. “Fair enough.” She walked over to Dragon Face, who’d dropped to the ground and started doing sit-ups. “Seeing as you tagged along too, muscle-man,” she said, offering him Vincol’s share, “I reckon you earned this too.”

The wrestler sat up, took the string of gold shells, then tucked his hand back behind his head and dropped down. “My thanks, most–oof–generous innkeeper!” Dragon Face said in-between huffs.

Uuco sat up. “Well then!” He declared, bowing. “A fine experience it’s been working for ya, ma’am! But time has passed and soon, no doubt, our caravan will be moving on. Hidden Gods bless your business, and may they watch over our Pilgrimage…”

“The caravan’s not moving until later tomorrow,” Valeria said hastily. “I heard it from one of the wagon leaders: a broken axle or something.”

Ira pinched her nose. “Naturally,” she said.

“Well I’ll be rolled in wax!” Uuco exclaimed. “What are we supposed to do until then?”

“We could shop for supplies,” Corax pointed out. His stomach rumbled. “Among other things,” he said sheepishly, “I think this new body requires lots of meat.”

“There’s a butcher down the block I know by the name of Hanbah,” Valeria suggested, crouching and picking up the plates and cups that had spilled on the floor. “Come to think of it…Hanbah mentioned she was looking for Pilgrims to help her with some problem.”

Ira looked up. “What kind of problem?” She asked.

Valeria grinned mirthlessly. “A bandit problem.”

%%%

The Pilgrims, along with Vincol, crouched behind a hill and spied on the five black-clad men that sat around the campfire.

“Are we sure they’re bandits?” Corax whispered to Ira.

“What else would they be?” Ira whispered back.

“They could be traders,” Corax said. “Their wagon is filled with dried goods.”

“There’s too many dried goods.” V’vendy whispered, lying on her back with an arrow nocked to her bow. “And look at the men: they have swords and spears, and their hands have callouses traders wouldn’t.”

“Then maybe they’re a dance-fighting troupe!” Uuco whispered a tad too loudly. “Maybe all those bandit attacks were just them trying to challenge folk to a dance-off!”

“No,” Dragon Face declared grimly, slowly right along the hillside. “I’ve met many dance fighters. Their code of honor would forbid them from challenging non-dancers.”

“Then they must be a simple group of thugs,” Ira concluded, contempt in her voice. “No loss to civilization if we wipe them out.” She drew her short sword, pulled three Seeker Stones from her belt pouch, and nudged the snoozing innkeeper with her elbow.

Vincol woke up from his nap. “What’d I miss? Are we fighting…?” He asked, looking around bleary-eyed. He frowned. “Where’d the masked fellow go?”

Down by the bandit campfire, a massive figure wearing a copper dragon mask and a dark cloak melted out of the shadows and seized one of the thugs in a bear hug.

“Quail miscreants, thieves of honest folk’s earnings!” The masked wrestler declared, squeezing the bandit tightly and hoisting him up as a meat shield. “Tonight, you face the wrath of the great and terrible Dragon Face!”

“Go, go, go!” Ira shouted. She stood and blew on the Seeker Stones in her open palm. They flew out of her hand, darted through the air, and struck one of the bandits in the skull. V’vendy loosed an arrow that pierced a bandit’s liver, and Vincol hurled a bottle into the campfire that exploded, hurling embers everywhere.

The bandit leader was knocked off his feet by the blast, then got up and threw himself at V’vendy, his leaf-shaped sword sliding free from its scabbard with a musical ‘ring’. “You! I’m taking you to the Underworld with me, Deathweaver!” The bandit cried out as he slashed at V’vendy.

Not a chance!” Corax shouted, lunging forward and blocking the bandit’s sword with his own sickle-shaped blade. He and the bandit leader strained again each other’s weapons for a time, each trying to force the other back. Then Corax reached over the locked blades with his long snout and bit the thug’s nose off.

Glargh!” The bandit leader screamed, staggering back, and dropping his sword to clutch at his ruined face. “Ye bhut muh nose! Bhstard!”

Without warning, a bear emerged from the darkness. Roaring, it seized the bandit leader by the leg and dragged him off screaming into the night.

“Bear!” Vincol shouted, fumbling the bottle he was carrying in his hands and dropping it. “Oh Hidden Gods, I thought we’d stopped the animal rampages!”

“Take this, thug scum!” Uuco declared, running down the hill towards the last standing bandit and doing an acrobatic roll across the ground. “Ambush Fire Blast!”

As he rolled to his feet, a gout of fire sprang from his fingertips…and flew up into the sky, missing everything.

%%%

The Pilgrims, save for Vincol, trudged back into the Wailing Saber Inn after sunset, bags under most of their eyes.

“We would be ever so grateful to take shelter in your halls, oh Great Chieftain,” Lady Ira mumbled to Valeria, setting the strings of gold-shells they’d received as payment down on the bar counter. “Let this gift repay your for your hospitality.”

“Be welcome to my halls, and rest to your heart’s content!” Valeria replied, taking her money back with a smile. “There’s five empty chambers upstairs; take your pick.”

“…could I get a goodnight kiss?” Uuco muttered, eyelids and mustache drooping.

“If you need one,” Dragon Face said to Uuco with concern, “then as your comrade-in-arms I’ll–”

“Not you!” Uuco shouted at the wrestler. “Ah, nevermind: goodnight, Valeria,” he mumbled, walking up the longhouse’s wooden stairs to his room. All the other Pilgrims soon followed.

%%%

V’vendy woke up to the howl of wind battering against fur pelt that sealed up her room’s window.

Her eyes snapped open. She reached out and gripped the bow and single arrow that lay beside her on the bed. She touched her finger to the bow’s strings–the length of gut was vibrating softly, like a plucked harp. She leaned over her bed’s side and placed a hand on the floor: she felt a faint quiver run up her arm, as if entire inn was rumbling.

V’vendy rose and got dressed, tying her green Pilgrim’s kerchief around her neck last. As she picked up her bow and arrow, the door to her room burst open. In a flash, V’vendy nocked the arrow to her bow, drew to her cheek and aimed at the intruder.

“Peace, V’vendy, peace!” Ira shouted, holding her hands up. “I’m guessing you felt the rumbling too?”

V’vendy sighed and lowered her bow. “Please knock next time, Lady Ira,” She sighed. “I wouldn’t want to shoot you by accident.”

“The Lady Ira shall be more careful next time,” Ira said. Her eyes narrowed. “But you felt it too, right?” She asked.

V’vendy nodded. “I did.”

Dragon Face barged into V’vendy’s room, hastily tying the leather thongs of his mask to the back of his head.

“I felt the rumbling too!” He declared. “And not just that: over the howling of the wind, I heard voices in the distance, crying out in dismay and calling for ropes and ladders to be brought out!”

The masked wrestler slammed his fist and palm together. “There can be only one conclusion!” He proclaimed. “The Wailing Saber Inn itself has somehow been freed from the tethers of gravity, and is currently floating up into the sky!”

Ira and V’vendy stared at Bronze Mask, unblinking, for some time.

“…I don’t think that’s the case, Dragon Face,” V’vendy said gently.

“What our kind-hearted Archer means to say is that your theory is ridiculous,” Ira snorted. She walked over to the window and ripped the fur pelt away; a strong breeze and pale morning light trickled into the room. “And easily disproved…” Ira started to say, looking out the window.

As it turned out, Dragon Face was wrong. The Wailing Saber Inn was not, in fact floating through the air.

The entire town of Crimson Girth was. The road leading out of Crimson Girth now ended in a jagged gap of crumbling soil and treeroots, with nothing but blue sky beyond. The bedrock beneath the town had ripped itself up from the ground, carrying the village and it’s people  farther and farther away from the countryside below.

To the left, Ira saw a group of shopkeepers and farmers gathered by a cottage learning over the the town’s edge, hauling its residents out one by one with ropes. In the center of town, caravan leaders stroked the manes of panicking donkeys, keeping them from fleeing in panic over the town’s side.

Ira stared out the window for a long, long time. “V’vendy, Dragon Face,” she said, voice laced with disgust. “Go wake the others up.”

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