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Twilight Exile

 
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 03, 2008 1:17 am    Post subject: Twilight Exile Reply with quote

I. The Gloaming Land
1. Waking up in a Desert without end.


He came back to consciousness to the beating of a steady drum, each heavy thump rocking his body and rattling the individual bones of his skull so knifing pains lashed throughout his head like a Fury's scourge. It took a moment for the vertigo to pass, until he stopped feeling like he was free falling into the lavender sky above, and in that time he realized that the drumming was his own heartbeat, and the knives in his head were only metaphorical. He was sprawled, spread-eagle, on sandy ground, and the ache from every corner of his being quickly assured him that all of his various appendages were present and accounted for.

Just once, he thought resignedly. Just once, I'd like to wake up and not be hurting, screaming, or crying. He wiggled his toes, felt them respond and complain, and then did the same with his fingers. After a moment of watching the unchanging purple sky, cloudless, endless, he decided to risk sitting up. The effort made his vision blur and with a groan he tucked his knees to his chest, put his head down, and rode out a fresh spell of dizziness.

He was sitting on a flat, featureless plain, for all the world as though he'd simply fallen out of that equally featureless sky. Maybe he had – portals to other worlds could be random like that, opening over cliffs or at the bottom of seas, in the heart of volcanoes and even the depths of stars. He was lucky he'd only fallen, and not been mashed, burned, frozen, or chopped to bits. From the color and quality of the light, he guessed the time to be about twilight, but there was no sign of which direction the sun was setting. Or, for that matter, that there even was a sun to set. The sky was the deeply purpled color of a livid bruise, and the light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, as if the whole plain had been fitted with mood lighting.

His sword was jammed in the ground not far from him, vibrating gently as though it, too, were thrumming to a heavy heartbeat. Paladin frowned and reached for its hilt; it stilled under his hand. It might have fallen mere moments before, though he would have thought he would have heard it. He let go of the hilt, and after a moment, it began to shake again. With a nod to himself and a slithering hiss from the sand, he pulled it loose and wiped the blade clean on a pants leg.

There was no sign of his guns, nor his coat, nor his backpack – nor anything or anyone else from the warehouse, although looking down at his torn and dirty clothes he could see the vivid marks of his recent captivity. He sucked air through his teeth and rested the flat of his sword against his shoulder, the v-shaped crossguard cold against his cheek. No food, no water. No daggers up his sleeve, no armored coat to shield him from the cruelties of an uncaring world, no bag of tricks to deus ex machina his way out of a jam, no Mister .45 to save his arse when he was in too deep. Just himself, his scattered wits, and his sword against whatever this odd, twilit world was going to throw against him.

He shrugged, smiled, and stood smoothly. No time like the present. He stretched, bounced a couple of times on the balls of his feet, then abruptly spun into a kata, his sword spinning in a steely blur around him, breaking the silence of the plan with its lethal, whistling song. His muscles protested sharply and then relaxed as he stretched them, the aches and pains slipping away. He finished with a defiant salute to the unchanged sky above, noted that the light had neither grown nor diminished, and frowned slightly.

Tiny mountains, looming out of the distant haze like islands from a mirror flat sea. They could be small, mere hours away; they could be continent-wide and half a world from him. There was no sense of scale, no way to tell if there was even a horizon line to prove that he stood on an ordinary spherical world and not, say, a giant cube, or a flat disk. Paladin sighed and tucked the saber into his belt, giving the ground another look – save for where his own footsteps had stirred it, and the snow-angel impression of his body, there was no sign to show it had ever been disturbed. Not by wind, nor animal, nor man.

There didn't seem to be anything else to do but set himself in the direction of the mountains and start walking, so he did.

*

There are two ways to avoid being lost. The first is to know, either instinctively or through painstaking awareness, where you are, where you're going, and how to get from Point A to Point B. The second is to admit that you don't know any of the above, and simply not care. After all, to paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. This had been the rule Paladin had followed through all his years of wandering, and despite the occasional setback, it had served him well.

The same featureless plain still spread out around him, and only a long, unbroken trail of his footprints testified to his progress; he might have come miles, now, or only a few yards. He could have been walking minutes or hours, keeping as straight a line as he could manage with no landmarks from which to draw a bearing. The mountains looked no closer, the air still held its twilight dimness, the sky above remained that distinct bruised purple.

But not everything was unchanging; at some point a great, pregnant moon had taken its place in the sky, looming directly overhead like the rock of Damocles, blunter cousin to the better known sword. Perhaps it had risen, completely unnoticed, while Paladin's attention had been wholly absorbed on placing one foot in front of the other in a steady pace; perhaps it had simply appeared there like a magician's trick, sprung full-born and weighty in an eyelash blink.

It was an unfamiliar moon, younger and less scarred than the silver orb he was most used to, the shadowed vales of her mares forming no discernible face, no comforting companion for his long trek. She hung harvest yellow in the endless dusk, colored by the hidden sun, or an unseen haze in the air, or maybe just naturally so. He had time to ponder that, though direct observation required craning his head directly back and staring overhead, throwing his balance off and risking losing his ground-eating pace.

He'd spent a lot of time developing that stride, worked hard on it, because he'd spent a lot of time walking over the years – it was a measured pace, in tune with his breathing, taking full advantage of his long legs to cover the distance, holding himself neither too stiffly nor too loosely. Once set in his pace, he could keep it up for days, chewing up leagues of travel until he finally dropped. A good portion of the effort was mental, pushing aside the complaints of his bruised body and the twinges as it healed, refusing to let his thoughts linger on just how far he must have traveled without yet seeing a sign of anything living, pushing aside the nagging worry that he might be going in circles, or the demands of hunger and thirst as they stirred within. Even before he'd dropped into this bizarre land, it had been some time since he'd ate or drank; unwilling guest to the River Rats, who weren't known for their hospitality.

His memories were hazy. He was used to that; he'd never had perfect recall, had suffered total amnesia more than once over the many years. You could only retain so many memories, after all, and his life had been crammed to the brim with more than its fair share of horrors and heroics, daring adventures and peaceful moments, long summer days and harsh winter nights. But he'd lost track of time over the course of his captivity, and with Kacey's trial date looming ever closer, and solid evidence still in short supply, the gap in his thoughts nagged at him like a vacant tooth, a sore spot that he couldn't stop poking and prodding.

It was that very urgency that led to him being captured, he remembered. He'd started taking risks, making mistakes – letting hasty violence take the place of carefully measured plans. Time was running short, so he'd taken one too many chances and-

He couldn't remember them capturing him. The whole encounter was a blank spot – one of many. He could remember torture, being tied down, beaten. It was nothing that hadn't happened to him before, and he'd had worse. They were nervous about capturing a Guardsman, for some reason, afraid that there would be a backlash about it. They didn't want anything too suspicious to be found when his body showed up in the River – things that might bring questions, like missing fingers and toes.

And then... another blank spot. He shook his head and his stride broke for a moment as his legs suddenly went weak. He staggered across the stand, raising a hand to his head – his fingers dripped sweat. He blinked at the droplets – he wasn't exerting himself that hard, was he?

There was... a fight. There was always a fight. He shook his head again, scattering sweat drops like rain onto the gray sand of this not-desert, and scowled. The air felt humid, still cool but somehow thicker than it had when he started, like he was swimming through a thin soup. He looked down at his clothes, charcoal shirt and midnight cargo pants, both torn and bloodied. It didn't look like all the blood was his, although it was hard to tell with his body patching itself up so quickly... although slower than it might have, if he'd been in the best of shape. No doubt that very recuperation was the cause of this lingering weariness that crept over him, the lethargy that pooled in his muscles if he hesitated a moment too long in his stride; he longed to lie down, and sleep a while, but there was no place in sight to rest, nothing but flat gray sand.

And somehow, he thought, I feel that I've slept too long already... confident, cocky, careless, dead. He shook his head again, resuming his pace with an effort. But how did I get from there to here?

And just where the hell was 'here', anyway?


Last edited by Last Knight on Wed Aug 20, 2008 4:19 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Sun Jul 06, 2008 6:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

2. Walking With Ghosts

He wasn't sure just when he started to see the ghosts. His mind had gone hazy, and then numb, under the stress of recovery, the monotonous repetition of walking through an unchanging landscape, and the struggle with his faulty memories. There simply came a time when he shook himself out of his daze and found himself half surrounded by shadowy figures, filmy and translucent as soap bubbles, floating along like debris being dragged in his wake.

Even as muzzy headed and groggy as he was, his reactions were still true; his sword leapt to his hands as though possessed of its own will, curved blade shining even in the gloaming light. The figures sprang away from him, cowering like shadows before a naked flame, and Paladin slowly turned to keep them at bay. There were nearly a dozen, all told, although with the way they wavered and crossed each other, there might have been twice as many, or only half. There were no clear features – no way to tell if these were human, once, or purely alien, to see if they were shades of the slain or simply shadows. They faded when his gaze fell on them, weakened and grayed as a shadow might wither under the glare of a lamp, and strengthened when he looked away. He could almost hear voices as he turned, never clearly, always just behind him.

They hadn't attacked – yet – but he could feel an undeniable menace from them, jealousy and hatred seething in the air like the tension before a thunderstorm. His peripheral vision picked up flashes of colour passing over them, like an oily sheen - gone when he looked directly, only to reappear again out of the corner of his eye. It was distracting, maddening even, and coupled with his growing headache, what it did most of all was piss him off. He spun his sabre back and forth before him, twirling a tight figure eight. The shadows cowered again, but he could feel the ones behind him tensing, poising to strike. It made for a pretty conundrum - without light or heat, how do you destroy a shadow? He felt for his Gift, touched the flame inside, and nearly cries out as the knives in his head returned, bringing their friends and family with them.

As though waiting for that moment of weakness, the shadows clustered in, moving faster than he'd thought possible. Even so, even as dazed and dizzy as he was, weaky and weary, Paladin was still fast enough to respond. With no room around him with which he might dodge, he took the only route open; straight up, a standing jump that would make any Olympic medalist pale in awe, culminating in a textbook perfect backflip that easily cleared the rushing shadows. His landing would have cost him points as the soft sand slid underneath him, but he kept his balance - barely - and rallied quickly. The hateful whispers, rising to a joyous crescendo, suddenly culminated in a hoarse shriek. They paled as his stare fell on them, but they were too worked up now to be dissuaded by scrutiny. Falling on and through each other in their haste, they rushed him again. He cocked his sword in a high guard and prepared to unleash his fury, although that nagging voice in the back of his mind said that against this foe, it would do little good. He had a moment of despair; against evil, his sword should have burst into light, unleashing its righteous wrath, and surely these things, black and hateful, antithetic to life, were evil. Yet the sword was still and quiet, its mithril blade gleaming in the purple half-light of the endless dusk, but otherwise unremarkable.

Respite came from an unexpected quarter as the shadows suddenly scrambled to a halt and, as fast as they had charged, fled. Paladin watched them go for only a second before turning to regard what could have given them such a fright; he wasn't cocky enough to think that they'd all suddenly gained the good sense to be afraid of him, after all. Sure enough, appearing from the gloom as though walking out of a concealing cloak of shadow - and perhaps she was, for he'd already seen stranger things in this strange land - came a woman. She was dressed simply, in a dress of deepest green, but it was hard to make out any discerning features - a telltale, hourglass figure, a wash of flowing midnight hair. Paladin didn't lower his guard, knowing that what might seem like a friend in need could, instead, simply be a bigger predator, snatching the kill from smaller scavengers. She stopped several feet away, just outside of his reach - curiously so, for with his lanky arms and quick step, Paladin had a deceptively long reach. The mystery was quickly settled, though, when she spoke. Her voice was low and throaty, whispering of long summer nights filled with sweet comfort. When he recognized her, Paladin took two quick steps back and dropped his sword to low guard, holding it like a barrier between them.

"What, wanderer? No sweet greetings for the woman you murdered?" She made a brushing gesture at her face, as though removing a veil, and her features became clearer. Sweetly pretty, save for the slash that split her face diagonally and claimed her right eye. The remaining orb was smoky brown and gleamed vindictively at the horrified man before her, and her full lips were twisted in a triumphant smirk.

"Hello, Anastasia. You're looking quite well for a woman ten years dead. Are you still a murderous bitch, or has being dead tempered your madness?" He was shaken, badly shaken, but he still managed a believable deadpan. It was all part of being a professional hero, after all, the ability to keep your cool and spin off casual jokes and insults in even the most deadly situations. "Perhaps your time in the Abyss has reminded you of what it means to be human?"

"The Abyss? Oh, dear Paladin - as though I'd ever go there. No, there are far more lovely, entertaining places for a woman of my grace and caliber, even with the... modifications you saw necessary to inflict on me. Although, I hear that you won't have any such luxury of choice when your time comes... did you know, there's no less than three Dukes of Hell vying for the rights to your soul? You've vexed a lot of people, wanderer, and they're waiting for you where the sunlight lies frozen on plains of spilled blood, where the skies weep endlessly, where the screams of falling angels rock the dead souls to sleep. I can't wait to see you there."

"You always were a mouthy bint, Ana, too in love with the sound of your own threats. I'd hoped having to listen to yourself for ten years would have taught you the values of silence." He managed a laugh. "No, that's a lie. I didn't think of you once, after I killed you."

"So cold, dear Paladin." She pouted, that adorable moue of disappointment made hideous by the long cut that split her face. "[/color=indigo]But I know I haunt your dreams, my boy, and I know you wake up feeling my nails in your back as you thrust into me...[/color]"

Paladin's stomach did flip flops, even as the incongruity of it all made him laugh. "Is it all about sex with you? No, don't answer that. It's your knife in my back that I feel, and let's be straight - the only 'thrusting' between us was when I put a sword through your heart. Are you so eager to feel that again?"

Her face twisted in a scornful scowl, and she was suddenly upon him. "You're so brave, threatening to kill a dead woman." With two fingers, she turned aside his sword - with her free hand, she caught his other arm, fingers delicately circling his wrist. A bolt of pain dropped him to his knees, and cold filled him, a withering sickness that felt like icicles tearing through his soul. "I've wanted to kill you for so long... but now you're here, and I couldn't bear for the fun to be over so soon." She let go, and Paladin gritted his teeth as sensation rushed back into his arm. "You'll die, long before before you reach the end of this place, Paladin. You'll die, and I'll be here to watch it all, every moment of suffering, every second of agony."

Paladin flexed his arm and winced, glancing between his wrist and the smirking specter before him. "Are you real, lady?" He raised an eyebrow even as he pushed himself back to his feet, forcibly shaking off the latest strain on his battered and weary body.

She tilted her head to one side and stared at him, a bird studying a wriggling worm. "What a quaint question. Are you?"

He shook his head. "Sometimes, I wonder." He flexed his arm again and stooped to scoop his sword from the ground. He thrust it back through his belt and gave the specter a twist of a crooked, bitter smile. "So, is that your plan, then? To dog my heels until thirst finally drops me in my tracks?"

Anastasia laughed and pirouetted, graceful as a dancer even on the loose and crumbling sand. "Oh, I doubt I'll have to wait that long. There are much more vicious things haunting this land than those little shadows I scared off, and you looked to be having enough trouble with them. No, Paladin, your death will be far more entertaining than gasping your last, raving mad from thirst. I can't wait to see your blood again."

She might have had more to say, but only then did she realize that Paladin had stopped listening - had, in fact, started to walk away some time before, resuming his ground-eating stride. She swore and rushed to keep up, hurling curses after him like an angry mob hurling stones.


Last edited by Last Knight on Wed Aug 20, 2008 4:29 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 18, 2008 10:22 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

3. At the Vesper Bell

Death hadn't made Anastasia any more pleasant.

For one thing, she was easily bored, and - as Paladin had commented upon earlier - entirely too in love with the sound of her own voice. When she'd run dry of curses and insults, there had been a blessed few minutes of silence before she'd launched into lurid speculations of just how he was likely to meet his fate. He'd hoped that he might get some forewarning of just what kind of nasties might be lurking in the desert around him, but he quickly realized that she had no idea, either. She was but newly come to this land of twilight, drawn by his presence somehow.

But not knowing in now way prevented her from speculating, and so she droned on - her tone changing without warning from the dulcet, seductive sweetness of Anastasia - Queen's maid, flirt, naively charming - to that of Lady Ermine, terrorist assassin of the Revolution, snarling and vicious. The contrast put his edge, and made it impossible to ignore her chatter, find that state of no-mind that in turn would allow him to push aside hunger and thirst, pain and exhaustion, and make the miles blur by under his boots.

Not for the first time in his life, he wondered if this was what it felt like, to go mad.

When she started singing - again - about how his blood on the sand would gleam as bright as a red, red rose, he knew he had to do something to distract her. Unfortunately, he wasn't the kind of guy who could justify hitting a woman, even a murderous and obnoxious one, and he wasn't particularly sure it would work on her anyway. That left a conversational gambit, and he'd never been one for small talk. Still, there was always their shared history - she'd tried to kill him, and he'd succeeded in killing her. When she paused - to martial her thoughts, he suspected, since she didn't seem to have any need for breath - he changed the subject quickly.

"So, we never did figure it out. How the hell did you infiltrate the Queen's coterie? You passed every background check, truth spell, and loyalty test the Gray Cats could come up with. How did such a notorious spy and assassin as the Lady Ermine manage that?"

She laughed, like a child delighted at having played a trick on her tutors. "Oh, silly Paladin. The Ermine comes as she is needed, when the soul of the Revolution calls; and she takes whoever is most, mmm, shall we say convenient to the cause. Anastasia was a maid long before the Ermine had need of her, and the King's Eyes couldn't tell the difference because there was none. I am she and she is me and together makes us we."

Paladin's lip curled. "You're a soul eater, then. You possessed people and used them as weapons. Were you ever someone real, or just a weapon created by the People for the cause?"

Anastasia pouted. "Of course I was real. I had a life - I had a hundred of them, born again and again in the People's service, for the glory of the Revolution. I remain each and every one of those people - although, obviously, Ana dear holds more sway over others, being the final incarnation and all."

Paladin shook his head. "No, you stole a hundred lives - not even counting the poor bastards you killed because your precious Revolution demanded it, or the ones who got in your way. I wanted to know if there was anyone real at the core of you - if the Ermine was a spell construct or a daemon, a person or a simulacrum."

"Why don't you read my mind? Cast a spell, perhaps, to peer into the very heart of me?"

"I don't do that anymore."

"That's so adorable. You don't... or you can't?"

Paladin shot her an annoyed glance. "You're asking questions you already know the answer to." Anastasia did a graceful pirouette without losing her place next to him, her laughter tinkling musically.

"Oh yes, oh yes, I know. But it gives me such thrills to hear you admit how much you're less than what you were."

Paladin shrugged. "Less of what I was, more of who I am. Nobody is who or what they were, anymore, and sometimes that's a good thing. You being dead, for example - I'd call that a marked improvement."

She sprang on him from behind, wrapping her arms around his neck and cooing like a lovesick pigeon. She felt all too solid - and deathly, burning cold. "Oh, you do have feelings for me! I knew it!"

Paladin gasped for breath. "Agh! Get off me, you psychotic, undead she-bitch from Hell! What is it with all these murderous chicks? Between you, Raven, and Morgan, one of you is going to be the death of me!"

"That's kind of the idea, isn't it?" she purred in his ear. "But tell me true, Paladin, does the thought of me being some kind of soul-construct make it easier with you to live with killing me?"

"Are you kidding? I'm planning to do it again."

She stiffened, suddenly, as if shot - her arms jerked loose from around his neck, and she slid off his back. He rubbed his throat and muttered, "Damn solid for a ghost," before realizing that the ringing sound wasn't in his head. Or, at least, not just in his head.

Somewhere in the distance, a bell tolled - long and mournful, it's solemn knell carrying through the still air. Like everything else in this cursed place, it was indistinct - one moment as soft as whispers, the next loud as thunder, clear and sharp and then fuzzy and faded, split with static like the reception on a bad radio. Like the light, it came from everywhere and nowhere.

"What is that?" Anastasia whispered. Paladin cocked his head and listened, and then shrugged. The sand crunched softly under his feet as he started walking again.

"Vespers," he said dismissively. He felt rather than heard her start moving again, the sick chill of her presence goose-pimpling his skin, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention.

"What?"

"Well, look at the time. What other service could it be?" He risked a glance over his shoulder, allowed himself a slight smirk at the bewildered expression on her face. "Light the candles John; daylight is almost gone. The birds have sung their last; the bells call all to Mass..." He couldn't match McKennitt's sweet tones for obvious reasons, his own singing voice huskier and deeper, but he could carry a tune well enough.

A look of dawning horror crossed Anastasia's face. "I'm lost in the desert with a crazy person." Paladin scowled in annoyance.

"I thought that was my line."

"You're the one talking to a dead person."

"...touche."

If he'd been looking where he was going, he probably wouldn't have tripped over the wreckage.


Last edited by Last Knight on Wed Aug 20, 2008 4:17 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 01, 2008 5:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

4. Go and catch a fallen star

If he'd been looking where he was going, he probably wouldn't have tripped over the wreckage. But he wasn't; too focused on the conversation with Anastasia, the first hint he had was a sharp pain in his shin, and then he went sprawling. Robbed of his usual eerie grace by pain and exhaustion, he went head over heels - barely quick enough to catch himself on his shoulder and roll with it, down an unexpected slope, ending in a heap on the sand.

With a groan, he turned himself over on his back and once again regarded the violet sky, almost mocking in its stubborn refusal to acknowledge the passage of time or the encroachment of weather. Anastasia's laughter rang in his ears, delighted as a child at a carnival, sweet as silver bells. Although he wanted nothing more than to lay there and let the world pass him by, he forced himself upright and back on his feet to take a look at his unexpected stumbling block.

It was a spaceship.

A space superiority fighter, to be exact; the long, sleel body was unmistakable, even as torn and crumpled as it was, with holes in its cockpit staring back at him like empty eyesockets. He shook his head, half in bewilderment, half in denial. "Deus ex machina..." Anastasia walked along one of the broken wings, still giggling - probably the same wing that had tripped him, not that he'd gotten a good look at it while he was tumbling arse over elbows. He rubbed the back of his head and looked around at the desert, then back at the crashed ship, half buried in the sand.

"'Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,'" he murmured at last. Anastasia looked up at the sound of his voice and twirled.

"What a curious, peculiar craft," she said brightly. "Recognize it, leftenant-commander?"

He scowled at her, then back at the wreck. "It's a Rothman-Yamato PF-20X 'Spirit Rider'," he said softly. "Unified Alliance colours. I flew one just like it in Rembrandt's War - as you seem to know, and shouldn't. You know a hell of a lot of things you shouldn't, Lady Ermine." He stared at the twisted remains of the fighter's tail, trying to make out ID numbers or unit insignia, but the the scored and faded metal clung jealously to its secrets.

"I'm sure I have no idea what you mean," she said, slowing her dancing. Paladin shook his head.

"Last time I was a 'leftenant' commander, I was flying one of these. What's your game? Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?" Rembrandt's War. In a lifetime dotted with bad memories, that had been one of the worst - the war, at first so quick and clean, confined to space battles where you didn't have to see the horror violence made of men, didn't have to smell the blood and the smoke and the hate in the air. Everything had been distant and remote, like a video game, and he'd loved it.

And then they'd taken it all down. Bioweapons, thermonukes, planet killers... and he'd had to wake up out of the lovely dream and actually take a good look at what was going on.

"A joke?" Anastasia purred. "Why dearest Paladin, whatever do you mean?" She stopped her dance altogether, resting her hands on her hips. The moon was directly over her head, like an angel's halo. Its silver face had been stained red, though where the atmospheric pollution might have come from, Paladin had no idea.

"This doesn't belong here." The techglass cockpit was still mostly intact, but he could see through the scattered, burned holes in the plastic that the compartment was empty. The pilot hadn't ejected... but he hadn't stayed behind, either. There were reasons, he was sure. Or maybe there weren't - this place didn't seem to pay much more than lip service to reason. Witness the tolling bell, still ringing somewhere in the distance, though easily ignored now. Witness the hanging moon, or the impossible light. The stranded ship was just one more mystery, on top of all the others, and one more phantom from his past. Frustration gnawed at his stomach, for a moment overwhelming the pangs of hunger and thirst, but he took a couple of deep breaths and forced his mind to clear. At least this latest development might be of some assistance. He clambered up on top of the fuselage and felt around the canopy. The cockpit was sealed tight, the ship systems dead - none of the hatch releases worked. With a sigh, he got the best handhold he could on the scorched canopy and began to strain.

"'Belong?' None of us belong here, haven't you figured that out? This is an in-between place, a slippery place - a weak spot in the fabric of reality, just like your precious Rhydin, but lacking the sense of identity. A cosmic subduction zone, where the different worlds collide and the stronger one eats the weaker. It's a borderland, a boundary, and like any other borderland it's subject to a certain... slippage. Didn't the twilight give you a hint, didn't the sand? This isn't a desert, Paladin - it's a beach, but you'll never find the sea, and you'll never find the shore." She bent over and plucked something from the gray sand at her feet and lobbed it at him. It bounced off the canopy and rolled down the fuselage past him. A seashell. "What are you doing?"

"Surviving," he said, and heaved again. The techglass made a wet, tearing sound as it peeled away from the metal restraining it. He pushed it aside, laying bare the cockpit.

"Oh, Pal," she shook her head condescendingly. "Your bird has broken wings, and will never fly again. Besides, it's not like you could just fly out of here, anyway. Like any other maze, the only way out is through."

"I wasn't planning on flying, but thanks for the advice," he said through gritted teeth as he rummaged around in the pilot's compartment. "I'm missing a Nazi scientist to put things back together, and you make a terrible Jimmy Stewart." He sat up, holding an olive drab rucksack with a triumphant smile. "But it's good to see that even your posthumous degree in interdimensional plate tectonics hasn't taught you everything."

"What is that?" Her voice had gone flat and cold as he slid off the fuselage and leaned against it, digging inside the pack.

"Standard Union pilot survival kit in case of crash landing. Food, water, signaling smoke and flares, radio and handgun - or there's supposed to be, oddly enough both of those seem to be missing. Grease paint, compass - spinning around in circles, big surprise - utility knife, and last but not least, binoculars with range finder." He held those up to her, his placid smile showing just the faintest hint of a smirk, and peered through them to the distant mountains. "Well, what do you know? Looks like I can see the shore after all. It's another sixty clicks to those mountains - a "day's" travel, maybe two." He dropped the binoculars back into the bag and grabbed a water pouch, opened it with his teeth. It took a force of effort to sip at the life-giving fluid rather than gulping it. "Oops, guess I won't be dying of thirst." He stretched. "I know you're disappointed."

She flicked her fingers at him, aggrieved and trying not to show it. "Disappointed? I already told you, this desert will kill you long before thirst could become an issue. You won't be walking out of Wonderland."

He shrugged casually and crumpled the empty water pouch. Littering would probably add some color to the bleak landscape, but he dropped it into his pack anyway. "Maybe. What do you care? You're just a bunch of cards." He stretched again.

"What?" She was taken aback. "I don't understand."

He held up his wrist. "No burns. I've been touched by spooks before, and I still have the scars. They always leave scars. You've grabbed me twice now, and the only wounds I've got are mental." He mock shuddered and slid to his feet, hoisting the ruck over his shoulder. "And then there's all the stuff you know that you shouldn't, and it paints one hell of a mystery. Yeah, I know. 'The dead know things.' Not that much, lady, or I'd be dead long before now. I don't know who you are, really, but I've got my doubts. I don't see any reason to keep your company, little haunt, so you can stay here and wail in the wilderness."

"What makes you think you'll be rid of me so easily?" Her hands clenched and unclenched, as though aching for his throat. "What makes you think you'll ever be rid of the dead?"

"You're not dead, lady." He said calmly. "I can hear your heart beating from here." It was a revelation to her, and he watched surprise dawn on her face for a moment, surprise and something like terror. Then it was washed aside by that still, cold anger as he continued speaking. "The more we walk, the more alive you are. Your disguise is wearing thing, and pretty soon we'll both see who - and what - you really are."

"You want to see who I am?" There was nothing of Anastasia left in her voice, or the livid mask rage made of her features. "I was willing to sit back and watch you suffer, but we'll have done with that. You want to know what really I am? I'm your death, wanderer, and I'm done waiting for my time to come!" She flicked her hand, and a sword shimmered into being. A long and heavy cavalry sabre, with red and gold tassles dangling from the polished pommel - the sword of a Queen's Guard, the same one she'd used years before to kill three men after losing her knife in Paladin's back. She lunged, textbook perfect - but Paladin had never bothered much with textbooks. He turned the blade aside with an open-hand slap, drawing his own blade with a sharp upward slash. The draw-cut opened her face along the lines of her earlier cut, and she screamed and slashed wildly. He stepped into the blow, caught her wrist with his free hand, and slammed his own blade home.

They stood, frozen like dancers - her sword high, her wrist in his hand, her other hand on his shoulder, though whether to push him away or merely hold her balance, one couldn't tell. The sword joined them together, protruding from her breast, moving gently with the rise and fall of her breath. There was no blood, from either wound, but shock and pain shattered the mask the Ermine had made of Anastasia's pretty, vulnerable features. "Again?" she asked, the words touched with bewilderment and a distant sorrow. "But... I don't.... what comes next?" She dropped her sword and sagged into him, and tears trickled down from each eye. He released her wrist and brushed them away.

"There, there," he said gently. His irritation and anger were gone, leaving nothing but a lingering memory and a feeling of weighty inevitability. "You know there are better worlds than these. Go to them, and maybe next time, things will be different. Things will be better." He tried to smile, but the crooked twist of his lips felt more bitter than usual. The memory of a lady's maid hung heavily on his mind, outweighing that of the vicious assassin who'd shared her body.

"I'd like that," she said softly, the light in her eyes fading. "Maybe next time, we can be friends."

"I'd like that," he echoed her, and she crumpled in his arms - literally, her flesh and clothes dissolving away into gray sand, identical to the surrounding desert. In seconds, he was alone, his bright blade gleaming untarnished in the indistinguishable light. He stayed in that position for a long moment, then tucked his sword back in his belt and leaned against the wrecked starship, holding his head in his hands. When he looked up again, his eyes were dry, and fixed on the distant horizon. He patted the ship once, a little awkwardly, and started walking again, never looking back.

End part one.


Last edited by Last Knight on Wed Aug 20, 2008 4:09 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 20, 2008 3:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

II. Village of the Lost
1. Mushroom Stomp

He awoke with a cry from an uneasy sleep filled with restless, fragmentary dreams. That was nothing new; he never slept well in the light, even such gloom as this, and the soft sand made for a poor bed. He'd hollowed out a nest and used his rucksack as a pillow, and it had been far from the worse lair he'd had. Not that that stopped him grumpily wishing for better. His muscles protested as he sat up and dug a water pouch out of the bag, and after a moment's hesitation, a ration cube as well. There weren't too many of either - a Union pilot was expected to be rescued within a few days of their crash, or else use their SERE training to establish a more reliable source of supplies. Still, the range finder assured him that the far distant mountains were becoming slowly less so, and with any luck he'd find water and shelter among them soon.

Assuming the range finder wasn't broken, or being mislead. Assuming the mountains didn't just pick up and move when he got close enough to touch them. Assuming the moon - which had changed again while he slept, and was now a sharp, silver crescent as thin as a sword blade - didn't grow sick of hanging around, and decide to drop from the sky onto his head, like a cartoon anvil.

So many doubts, so little time - he finished his water pouch, eight ounces barely more than a sip no matter how he tried to sip and savor it, and reluctantly peeled the ration cube. It was a miracle of modern technology and nutritional science, two thousand calories and all the necessary vitamins and minerals crammed into something not much larger than a chunk of Bazooka Joe - and about as filling, too. The designers had made it extremely chewy, rationalizing that if pilots had to work harder to eat it, then it might seem more like a real meal. Common wit among the Union pilots had been that the ration cubes had been made as unappetizing as possible, even downright disgusting in some cases, to reduce pilferage from stores and to ensure that all other available options were exhausted before resorting to the emergency supplies. There'd been more than one case of a pilot being rescued after a week's furlough on some godforsaken hellhole, with his rations still intact.

Things were certainly bleak, Paladin reflected with wry humor, when you began to miss MREs. Meals-Ready-to-Eat was the official parlance, but combat troopers over the decades had come up with their own definitions. Meals, Rarely Edible. Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. Mostly Rat Entrails. "Three lies for the price of one; it ain't a meal, it ain't ready, and you damn sure can't eat it." Everyone had their favorite entrees, or at least, their least-disliked, and there were some things that were universally regarded as untouchable - the chicken fajita, for example. That meant there was always brisk trading going on, every meal break. What Paladin really missed, though, was the little packet of 'extras' that came in every pouch. A tea bag, usually Lipton's, but occasionally green tea as the Army grew more health-conscious. A tiny bottle of Tabasco, which could make even the intestinal nightmare of creamed chicken palatable. The 'corpse candies', a roll of sugary hard suckers that alleged to be 'fruit flavored', although it wasn't a fruit that Paladin had ever run across in all his wanderings - urban legend had it that it was bad luck to eat them, a surefire way to win a ticket home. Usually in a body bag. Salt, pepper, alcohol wipes, chewing gum to wipe out the flavor of whatever you just ate - little comforts, that almost reminded you of being civilized. No matter how much the grunts bitched about them, Paladin knew it was a far cry from the salt pork and twice-baked biscuit of an earlier era of soldiering.

Although, honestly, Paladin would have preferred that, too, to what he had.

Just as far from MREs as MREs were from hard tack and salt horse, the Union had its survival pack. The 'water' was so packed with vitamins and electrolytes that he was occasionally surprised the package didn't have to come with a spoon.The brass always swore up and down that you couldn't taste the additives, that the fortified stuff was indistinguishable from vapor-distilled water, but he always fancied that he could taste a faint chemical tang to it. Maybe it was psychosomatic. Or maybe the brass just always lied.

And then there was the 'meat gum'. And the less said about that, the better.

And with that in mind, Paladin sighed, the sooner done, the sooner done with. He popped the cube into his mouth, wincing as the taste of some Union lab egghead's approximation of barbecue flavor filled his mouth, sweet and cloying. Not for the first time since landing in this darkened land, he thought longingly of his rucksack - usually quick to heel to his unspoken call, its seemingly endless pouches bulging with all the supplies and luxuries someone living on the road might ever want or desire. Food, fresh water... coffee. The thought of fresh brewed coffee made his mouth water, which only made the reality of meat-gum that much more unpleasant. How long had it been since he'd had a fresh cuppa? Even if there was a way to count the days here in the desert, his blurry memories of his captivity and the days prior would have queered the measure.

The ration cube was even chewier and less appetizing than he remembered them being; who knew how long the fight had lain there, dug into the desert sand? He gnawed at it reluctantly, trying to ignore the sticky flavor of overdone meat, and the way his heartbeat instantly quickened. The brass had a 'neither confirm nor deny' policy on whether or not the ration cubes had been spiked with some form of stimulant, but comparing notes with other folks who'd had to resort to them laid out a convincing pattern. Or the 'jolt' might have been psychosomatic, placebo effect, or just the result of being jammed into the stressful position that forced you to eat one of the damn things. That was the problem with Dame Rumor, she usually had only the loosest grip on the facts before she went running her mouth. Of course, scuttlebutt had also hinted about battle-drugs being slipped into some ration packs, something intended to give the ground troops a little edge. There had been all sorts of mess deck horror stories about companies gone berserk on campaign, tales of madness and murder. Paladin had mostly discounted them; he'd heard the same stories while marching in the Sun King's armies across France, only then it had been ergot in the hardtack. The same tale again in Vietnam, where an infantry company had gotten hold of a bag of flour used in heroin smuggling. Rumor, gossip, tall tales and 'no sh!t' stories - these were the staples of the fighting man, no matter the time, no matter the place. Paladin shrugged and decided he'd wasted enough time daydreaming. Still chewing absently at the ration cube, he straightened up out of his makeshift nest.

He was surrounded.

Sometime during the scant few hours he'd slept - or the past few minutes he'd spent woolgathering - or the split second when he'd straightened up - a small forest had sprung up, a half-dozen mushrooms forming a loose fairy ring around his foxhole. He chewed in silence for a moment; each fungus was easily eight feet tall, their stems as thick as a burly man, flesh a sickly pale and the underside of their caps thickly frilled with gills. He wondered what design or pattern might decorate the tops of those caps.

"Funny," he said at last. "I don't recall it raining last night." It was dangerous to be in the center of a ring, and he shifted his feet casually to a ready position, resting the flat of his sword against his shoulder. The mushrooms swayed, as if stirred by a wind he couldn't feel; Paladin tilted his head to one side and spat out the ration cube. He couldn't explain the odd feeling of tension that hung in the air, that dreadful waiting like a hushed Coliseum audience in the moment before the kill. The soil felt loose beneath his feet, shifting and unsteady...

He threw himself backwards half a second before the trap sprang, barely avoiding the dead white tendrils boiling up out of the ground. One found the discarded ration cube and swallowed it eagerly, bulging slightly as the resilient protein was absorbed into the slimy flesh. Paladin landed next to one of the mushrooms and swayed back just in time as an arm appeared on either side of the thing's 'stalk' and swiped at him. The bottom of the stalk split into legs, and the mushroom-man followed after him, lashing out with powerful but clumsy strikes that he easily avoided, slipping around them with catlike grace. Another mushroom joined the fray, lunging at him from behind - he spun around it like a dancer on a ballroom floor, leaving the two to crash together, and slid under a blow from a third. He rolled backwards, clear of the brawl, and spun his blade around him idly as he came to his feet.

"We're not going to be reasonable about this, are we?" he asked mournfully. The mushrooms replied with a silent rush, heavy feet pounding in the sand, and he sprang to meet them. Faster and more nimble, he danced through their line with ease, sword flickering like silver lightning as he swung, barely visible to the eye. Every motion connected to the next, a cut here and a thrust there, dealing a quick, lethal wound to each opponent and moving on to the next before the first could react. He wasn't even breathing hard as he slid past the last in line, finishing it off with a flourish that left his blade raised in salute. He waited for the crescendo of falling bodies, that familiar rain like feet stomping in applause.

It didn't come.

He turned slowly. The line of mushrooms was just straightening, realizing that he'd gone past them. As they turned, he beheld the wounds that would have been lethal on human opponents - horizontal cuts across 'throats', stab wounds through 'hearts', great gaping slashes that would have left a man clutching at his exposed entrails and screaming for his mother. Here, instead, there was none of the grue and gore - merely cuts across spongy white flesh that opened as they moved, exposing more spongy white flesh and maybe a little weeping clear fluid. Paladin rubbed the back of his head ruefully. "Right. Mushrooms." Confident, cocky, careless, dead...

The closest mushroom took a swing and hit him with a left hook that felt like an express train, launching him backwards. He rolled in the air and landed on his feet, keeping his balance on the soft sand through a combination of natural balance and sheer stubbornness. It felt like the 'shroom had cracked ribs with that hit; every breath stung and wheezed.

Okay, time for a new situational analysis.
The fungi-men spread out, slowly, in a half circle. They're tough, they're strong, they learn from mistakes. But they're slow - I could outrun them... That stuck in his craw. He'd been running too much lately - the shadows in the city, that thing in the sewers. The hell with that. I make a crappy track and field star. Besides, run where? He still had a "day's" travel to reach the mountains, considering the same provisos from before, and running on the soft sand would quickly rob him of his endurance - something these guys seemed to have in spades being, well, fungi. One of the mushrooms made a shuffling approach, partially stooped, arms outstretched like a wrestler. Paladin feinted with his sword and it fell back, but another one moved in on his other side. Looks like we do this the hard way... He reached to touch the fire inside and cried out in pain and shock as light flashed through his head, a sensation too excruciating to be summed up as mere agony - the piercing needles of a thousand migraines all at once, gone after less than a heartbeat but leaving his head ringing. It rang more when the mushroom connected with a hammer-hand, knocking him sprawling. He tasted blood as he rolled to his feet again, and his words sounded slurred to his ears when he spoke.

"Thass it - I'm sick of playing everyone's punching bag." He gripped his sword tight with both hands and severed the next fist to swing at him. The mushroom drew back, but he didn't give it a chance to withdraw - he followed close, dipping to cut its legs off at the knee. It fell back and he spun, catching the next one across the waist as it tried to close. The sword caught in the middle and Paladin twisted as the wounded mushroom rained blows on him. He managed to catch most of them on his shoulders, but one or two made it through to strike his head and blur his vision - he doggedly refused to release his sword, working it back and forth in the wound until it severed through in a rush. The others moved in on him, fists flailing, and he rolled between their legs to get away.

There was none of the confusion he'd hoped for, none of the chaotic flailing or mistaken identity that human opponents would have displayed. Even the legless mushrooms were dragging themselves towards him, and their more intact compatriots spread out to flank him as they charged. "A piece at a time, if I must." Paladin shook his head to clear it, throwing off a fine spray of sweat and blood. The throbbing in his head was receding, and he pushed his concern about his failing pyrokinesis to one side - as he had before, he recalled ruefully, when Anastasia's arrival had prompted him to forget it all together.

The lead mushroom man dove low, trying to tackle him - he used it as a springboard, pushing it further along its way and launching himself at the next. He flipped and landed feet first, boots impacting with enough force to shatter ribs on anything with a skeletal system. It left dents in the soft flesh, and the mushroom staggered as Paladin pushed off it in a backflip, landing on the legless one and crushing its cap. It spasmed once and stopped moving.

Paladin rested his sword on his shoulder, ignoring the sticky sap that clung to the blade and gave the body under his feet a speculative look. "Is that your vulnerable point, then? How very droll." His grin was wolfish as the mushrooms hesitated. When they rushed him again, his blade was waiting.
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 25, 2008 4:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

2. Exiles, All

The battlefield looked like a cuisinart had gone berserk at a vegetarian deli, chunks of giant mushroom strewn helter-skelter about the sand. Some of the appendages still feebly twitched, severed fingers and legs unwilling to give up the fight and struggling feebly to worm their way towards the man that killed them. Paladin leaned on his sword and caught his breath. Crushing the caps had sounded so simple, but things so rarely went according to plan. As with most enemies, the mushrooms had been easier to deal with once they'd been cut off at the knee - or the neck. It wasn't quite the intended meaning of 'divide and conquer', but it worked.

He stretched and grabbed a handful of sand to scrub the sap off his sword before tucking it back in his belt. His rucksack was still in his foxhole, but wormy white tendrils slithered in and out of it, gulping down the meat cubes and perforating the water pouches. He shuddered; if he hadn't woken up when he had, odds were good he would never have awoken at all. It wasn't the first time he'd been spared by the barest chance, and he sent a silent prayer to the Lady in thanks. It looked like he was back to square one, same as when he'd landed here - although, at least he was better hydrated. And the mountains were still there, just a day away.

Except, when he looked, they weren't.

Perhaps he'd gotten turned around - maybe he was just looking in the wrong direction. He turned, then spun, the horizon going past dizzyingly fast. No mountains. Even with all his mental provisos, even with all his self-cautioning 'ifs', he hadn't fully expected the mountains to move, to just vanish. "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is..." he sang softly, as if by wishing hard enough he could make the mountains reappear. No such luck.

One more mirage. Why not? This is a desert, isn't it? A severed arm slithered close to him and he stomped it into the sand without looking. The textbook definition of insanity is repeating the same course of action and expecting different results; perhaps, in that moment, Paladin had gone insane, for he kept turning, kept looking for the distant peaks that had been his lodestone since he arrived. They didn't reappear. He didn't realize he was screaming curses until his voice broke, and then he sagged to his knees. It was crazy; this whole thing was crazy, totally fething cuckoo, and it was dragging him down with it. Why not? The only rational response, the only possible defense, when everything around you has gone insane, is to go nuts yourself. "In a mad world, only the mad are sane." He'd been quoting Kurosawa as a joke, back in Rhydin. If that had been Wonderland, then he was well and truly through the Looking Glass now.

"'This is Hell,'" he whispered. "'Nor am I out of it.'"

"You're right, you know," someone called. "This is Hell, and we're all well and truly stuck in it." Paladin stood and drew his sword in one deft motion, wheeling to bring it to high guard. All traces of his momentary despair were locked away, and he regarded the newcomers with an impassive mask.

There were two of them, mounted on some sort of odd creatures that looked like a camel-sized cross between a rat and a kangaroo. They looked like children, slight of frame and barely three feet tall, but their dusky, weathered features were those of adults. Both were armed as well, holding slim lances and hide shields, and heavy double-bladed axes harnessed to their backs. The axe blades and lance heads were black glass, their clothing the cream colored robes he would have expected to see from natives of a hotter desert, in a sunnier land. They looked wary, and their mounts were nervous and shifting restlessly; he couldn't particularly blame them, if they'd witnessed as much of his little bout with delerium as he was afraid they had. As if on cue, his cheeks flamed red. It wasn't often he lost control like that, and even the stress of all his recent exertions couldn't quite excuse it, in his mind.

"So," he said awkwardly. "If this is Hell, how do I get out?" The two riders exchanged glances, and the one that had spoken first shook his head.

"My people have been trying to find that out for five hundred years now, stranger. If you figure it out, feel free to let us know." Paladin sighed and lowered his blade. Like it would have been quite that easy. The two spurred their rat-things closer, although they still showed caution - and even a little grudging respect, as they got their first real view of the scattered bits of mushroom arrayed around Paladin's foxhole. "Looks like you have quite a fight here, stranger. How many were they, three?"

"Six," Paladin said, sparing a moment to wonder just what language they conversed in. He could understand them well enough, but it had dawned on him that none of them were speaking English - himself included. The language sounded odd to his ears, sometimes gutteral and sometimes sibilant, but his mind seemed to process it just fine. You're in a land where the sun doesn't move but the scenery does. He thought wryly. Better not go getting hung up on linguistics...

"Six!" The second rider spoke for the first time, his voice both astonished and disbelieving. "It would take an army to kill so many!"

"Yeah, well, you know what they say." Paladin rested his sword on his shoulder. "One ranger, one riot." He looked at the scattered remains and shrugged. "They were tough but slow."

"Which is why we are mounted," the first one observed. His voice indicated that he was amused, even as he gingerly poked at a piece of mushroom cap with his lance. "The better to run away from such things when we find them."

"Run where?" Paladin gestured at the desert around them. "I was walking towards the mountains, but they got tired of waiting around. I'm a little short of landmarks, unless you fine gentlemen are willing to point me to the nearest visitor's center or Starbucks." The two gave him a familiar blank look, and part of him wanted to laugh. The amount of people who actually "got" his humor were far and between, even across the many worlds.

"There are many things in this land of Twilight, many things not easily seen by untrained eyes," the second rider said at last, his voice as vague as his words. Paladin shook his head in response.

"Look fella, I'm really not interested in playing 'seeker for wisdom' with either of you. I just wanna get out of this place." He gestured at the surrounding desert with his sword. "You don't know the way out, fine enough. I'd appreciate any knowledge or help you would be willing to offer me, but I'm not going to beg for it." The two riders exchanged glances again, their caution plainly evident. He couldn't really blame them; he had his own suspicions about them, after all the crap he'd already come across in the desert. Although, really, two midgets on kangarats was pretty tame compared to spirits from the past, phantom bells, crashed spaceships and berserk mushrooms...

"Our village isn't far from here," the second rider said slowly, obviously unsure of the idea. "Perhaps we should escort you there. I'm sure our shaman, Banjin, would be interested in speaking with you. He's always interested in the strays found drowning here in the sandy sea." He looked around at the scattered chunks of fungi again and shook his head. "Although you seem to be treading water better than most..."

"There are other people like me?" Paladin said, trying not to let his excitement show through. "Other people lost in this place?"

"We're all lost in this place, stranger," the first rider said with a sad smile. "Every last one of us is an exile here, just like you are. We'll take you to the village. If nothing else, you'll be able to get a decent meal and some supplies. The crops have come in, so there's plenty for everyone."

Paladin looked up at the unchanging sky, then around at the sandy dunes. "There's no sun, and we're in the middle of a desert. What the hell do you grow out here?"

The two exchanged glances again, and the second rider smirked. "Well, we eat a lot of mushrooms..."
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 27, 2008 12:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

2.3 Under The Dragon's Bones

The two riders called themselves the “Uru”, and obviously “not far to their village” was a relative term. Perhaps it was just impatience, eagerness at having finally found someone in this desert who wasn't actively trying to kill him, but the trip seemed to take hours. Neither of the two – Paladin never did find out their names – spoke much on the trip, and both were always careful to keep him a spear length away from their mounts. Not that it would have done either much good, if he'd needed to reach them, but he saw no reason to deprive them of their illusions.

They gave him water and bread that, despite their earlier quip, contained no trace of mushroom whatsoever. He wasn't entirely sure just what it was made of, but it tasted better – and was more filling – than his lost ration cubes, so he wasn't about to complain. It had a tough, gritty texture, and chewing on it served to occupy his mind for a while. Pretty soon, though, it was gone, and there was nothing left to but walk and study his companions.

The more talkative of the two, the one who seemed to be the leader, kept glancing at something that Paladin at first thought was a compass. After a little while, though, he managed to get a better look and realized that it was some sort of a lodestone – only, instead of a magnetic rock on a string, it was some sort of bone, or claw. It shifted slightly as they moved, spinning on its own, as though their target was moving. Sure, why not? Paladin thought wryly. Everything else moved around in this place. Some distant voice in the back of his mind recognized that he was, in a way, blaming the mountains for abandoning him to his fortunes. He pushed the irrationality of that way and concentrated on walking.

What is time, in a land with neither sun nor stars, on a world that may not even spin? What is distance, in a desert without noticeable landmarks, without any means to tell one place apart from the next? All Paladin knew, when they finally reached the Uru camp, was that his legs had acquired the not unpleasant burn that, under normal circumstances, he would enjoy for a few miles longer and then stop for water and a stretch. The two Uru looked both worn and relieved as they crested a slight rise and looked, not down on another sea of dunes, but to a dozen or so mismatched hide pavilions, arrayed around a watering hole. But the tents, and even the small, uneven rows of crops and orchard trees, were not what first took Paladin's attention.

No, that was reserved for the bones.

The skeleton was huge, serpentine, its ribs like petrified tree trunks emerging from the sand. For a moment, he thought they were tree trunks – then he recognized the pattern, and perhaps more importantly, saw the skull. Jagged teeth and hollow eye sockets, but he could still recognize what great creature had once worn these bones under its hide and muscles. Dragon. The bones dwarfed the camp, and in a way, defined it. They held back the sands in a half crescent around the tents, and kept the sand from smothering the plants or choking the oasis. Paladin hadn't noticed much wind in his wanderings so far, but he realized, for the first time, that all of the dunes leaned in the same direction – the mark of prevailing winds. He wasn't sure what that meant, to him. Maybe this place had a windy season, and he just hadn't arrived in it. Or maybe different sections of the desert had winds, and others didn't...

He caught himself with a chuckle. Was he really trying to apply logic to a place like this? That way lay madness... and he'd already ventured down that road a little further than he liked. The two Uru and their kangarats crested the rise and started towards a paddock set up on the outskirts of the camp. Small figures - most likely, children, though the general tininess of the Uru made that a questionable guess – were hard at work gathering the droppings from the small herd of kangarats corralled in the paddock, and Paladin nodded to himself. It was the same with any farming culture – one man's crap became another man's dinner, along down the line.

Became everyone's dinner, really, if you thought about it... which he did as little as possible. He shook himself out of the momentary reverie and caught up with the two riders. They left their mounts with the stable boys - or so Paladin assumed they were, since they took the reins without hesitation and with all signs of competence - and escorted him to the largest of the pavilions. He'd thought at first that it was their version of a town hall, or perhaps the residence of the shaman they'd mentioned, but a familiar hubbub of conversation and laughter dispelled that idea.

"You can wait here, stranger," one of the Uru said politely. "There are other outlanders there, so you'll be in familiar company. Banjin should send for you shortly." They both turned away, and Paladin shrugged and pushed through the tent flap.

It was, as he'd expected from the noise of conversation, a bar. A fairly crowded one at that, lit by half a dozen braziers that hissed and fizzed and produced a sputtering light, but little smoke or heat. There were a dozen people in the room, from as many races and cultures - an elven ranger swapping tales with a Roman centurion, a man in the torn rags of what was once a Starfleet uniform drinking alone, leonines and wolfen and races Paladin couldn't hope to recognize or even describe. Although the mugs were leather and hide and the tables low to the ground, forcing everyone to squat or sit on rugs and cushions, Paladin suddenly found himself awash in deja vu. The place reminded him so much of the Red Dragon that he had to struggle not to crane his head looking for familiar faces - Eva at the bar exchanging sidelong glances with Tucker, Izira next to D'Mourir, the 'Zilla on the counter with a Badsider in her hand, trading girl talk with the Empress...

It took him a moment to recover his equilibrium, to realize that the knot in his chest was homesickness. It had been a long time since he'd felt comfortable enough in one place to refer to it as home, felt like he'd really belonged - even Delila and Aden's temple-mansion hadn't felt like home, as much as he cared for the lovely ladies living within. He would never have expected Rhydin, with all its petty cruelties and outright atrocities, its melodrama and farce, its insane residents and bemused visitors, to have become 'home' to him. He quashed the longing as best he could, but still found himself looking for Kacey in her carpenter's jeans and tool belt, the dust of Esperance still on her shoulders, or that green-haired elf, or his 'little sister' Gem, or that girl with the cybernetic arm...

"Ho, stranger!" The 'bar' was just a longer table than the others, placed at the rear of the tent. The man behind it sat on a cask, raising him higher than the other patrons, like a king on a throne, and he raised an arm in salute as he noticed Paladin. At his words, the murmur of conversation stilled and everyone turned to look at the newcomer in their midst. "Ho, wanderer in the sands of time, that beleaguered gloom of night outside our little patch of daylight." His gesture at the tent was wholly ironic; the braziers couldn't match even the half light outside. "We're a misfit bunch and a motley crew, the scatterings and leavings of a dozen lands, worlds, and times, but between ourselves and our savagely noble hosts we're the closest thing to civilization in this dreary waste."

"Unless you count the Dead!" snarled a leonine, shaking his golden mane and raising his mug in a mocking toast. The wolfen across from him snuffled into his own mug and laughed.

"Or the Black Harpies."

"Or the Mushrooms," the Starfleet officer said in a dead voice, draining his own mug. "Seventeen men I had when we wrecked here..."

"Yes, yes," the bartender cut off what was evidently a much repeated lament by pouring another round from a wineskin. "We could count all those, it's true. And true, too, they're rapacious beasts that ravage the desert, killing and eating all in their path, leaving only embers and ashes in their wake. But truly, brethren, does that alone make a civilization? What about all the other things it provides, like music and culture, intelligent conversation and art?"

"Beer!" Someone in the crowd said, and they all roared agreement. Paladin noticed that, even in drunken enthusiasm, they all seemed peculiarly beat down - only the bartender had any real life to him, and that seemed more caught up in his mocking cynicism than any real passion. The rest of the room was dull and lifeless, as if the desert had drained everything good about living out of each of them. The Starfleet officer looked down into his fresh mug and silently began to weep, tears trickling down his blue cheeks.

"Ah, yes, now there we have the mark of a true civilization, my friends. Beer! The finest achievement of humans, demihumans, humanoids and any other truly civilized race. The ability to remove ourselves from whatever our current circumstance by the liberal application of the intoxicant of choice, the most holy of which is our Lady Ethanol." The bartender hoisted his own mug and drank, and the others did the same. Paladin shook his head and stepped further into the common room, picking his way between the tables with his customary grace until he could kneel down at the bar. "So, what about you, stranger? What's your name, what's your story? Don't be shy, we've all heard each other's tales."

“My name is Paladin,” he said carefully. “I am, as you said, a wanderer. Even before I found myself in this land of sand and gloom, the way of the road was the way of my life. Of late, I've been a Guardsman in the service of the city of Rhydin.” He saw recognition in some eyes, but most of them remained bland. They'd heard a thousand stories before, no doubt, and they all ended the same – here in the desert, beneath the dragon's bones. “I don't know how I came here. I was captured by criminals; there was a fight...” Memory stirred, dimly. “In a warehouse... there was some sort of mirror...” He shook his head. “It broke, I think. And then... I woke up here.” He shrugged eloquently, wishing he had his coat to shield him from all those flat stares, somehow malevolent in their very lack of passion, as though their apathy and ennui might drag him down. “I've been walking across the desert since, trying to stay alive. Looks like I did a decent enough job of that.”

“I suppose you did,” the man behind the counter did, standing up from his cask. “Well, I'm Grayson Morrow by birth, but most of these fine reprobates simply call me Frost.” He bowed courteously, the gesture both simple and elegant. “An adventurer and treasure seeker by trade, though it looks like my story has the same end as yours; a mission gone wrong, a task should not have attempted to undertake, and so I end up here.”

In the dim, flickering light of the braziers, the man's face seemed somehow familiar; he wasn't particularly tall, though he would still tower over the diminuitive Uru, nor was he especially skinny or especially broad. He was deceptively average – mouse brown hair, unremarkable features, the kind of man who would vanish instantly in a crowd. You could see him every day and still not be sure if you remembered him; you could meet him for the first time, and swear you'd met before. He was both armed and armored, which set him out from this crowd, though not from that of most Inns of Paladin's acquaintance; a short sword at his side, the butt of a crossbow protruding from over his shoulder, with a scarred leather breastplate to protect his torso. Paladin frowned slightly at his words.

“Would you perhaps, in rougher company, be referred to as a thief?” he asked bluntly. “Expert treasure hunter” had been a euphemism for the more roguish sort of tomb raider and grave robber for more years and on more worlds than he could count. Far from taking offense, Frost threw back his head and laughed.

“How like a Guardsman, direct and to the point, and automatically suspecting everyone! Yes, my good Constable Paladin, I have been known to occasionally walk away with things that did not, originally, belong to me. It's this flaw I have, and I've always tried so hard to overcome it...” He posed like a hero in a tragedy, downcast and forlorn and then dismissed it with another laugh. “But that's neither here nor there, is it? You, sir, are far from the streets and the city you Guarded, and there is nothing of value to be found in this whole world, save perhaps the water, food, and wine provided free of charge by our generous hosts. Thus, there is nothing for the two of us to be at loggerheads about, is there?”

“Perhaps not.” Paladin said in an agreeable tone, although he was far from being sure he agreed. “Why do they call you 'Frost', anyway?”

Morrow smiled. “Well, perhaps I exaggerated when I said that the Uru provided us so well 'free of charge'. We all have services we provide to the camp, as a whole, although for the most part they are so easily accomplished that it hardly seems a labor to do so. For myself...” He spread his hands, and a bridge of ice suddenly linked them, sparkling rainbow colors. “Well, I have also been known as a student of the mystic arts. Not a particularly talented student, sadly, but I do seem to have some affinity with the elements of winter.” He dropped the chunk of ice in a bucket on the counter, sending up a splash as the wine within accepted it begrudgingly. “The Uru value my contribution to their food preservation, and the gentlemen here at the Bones welcome my skill at making the best cocktails in the desert.” He held a hand to his mouth in a stage whispered aside, “It was a pretty weak contest, to tell the truth.” The room murmured a mixture of praise and jeers.

“So, stranger, shall I buy you a drink?”

Paladin was interrupted before he could reply – fortunate, as he wasn't entirely sure what his choice would have been, polite refusal or relieved acceptance. One of the Uru entered the tent, remaining within arm's reach of the flap, and peered around. When he spotted Paladin at the 'bar', his expression brightened, just a touch. It took Paladin a moment to recognize him as one of the riders who'd led him to town.

“Well, stranger, it seems Banjin really is interested in seeing you. I'll take you to his tent, now.”

There was a murmur of discontent through the gathered outlanders at the prospect of their diversion departing, but Frost had a glimmer of interest in his eyes as Paladin stood up. “Banjin himself, eh? Well, now... I guess you're hardly a simple Guardsman, if the Uru shaman wants to meet with you ten minutes after you crawl out of the desert.”

Paladin shrugged. “Nobody's ever as they appear, Messer Grayson.” The two traded measuring glances, and Frost slowly nodded.

“Well, lad, best of luck with the shaman. I'll tell you one thing, on the house since you didn't get your drink – these Uru seem placid fellows, content to stay in the desert and wait for their prophecy to be fulfilled, but you'll find them mighty tenacious indeed if you show them something they want. If Banjin's so eager to meet you, it means he thinks you have – or you are – something vital to the tribe. You'd better watch yourself.”

“I always do.” Paladin turned on the ball of one foot and walked towards the tent flap. The kangarat rider smiled in relief as Paladin moved towards him, and quickly ducked out of the tent. “Thanks for the advice.”
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 02, 2008 10:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

4. The Desert Mage

Banjin's tent was smaller than the others, made of kangarat hide stitched with eldritch symbols that were meaningless to Paladin's eyes. It had taken the length of the walk across camp for Paladin to realize that the Uru tents were human-sized, even though their residents were (by human standards) diminuitive. He wasn't sure of the reasoning behind that, and was a little reluctant to ask. Banjin's tent, like the others, was human-sized.Where those others were large enough for a human family, this one seemed barely enough space for one man - and, Paladin discovered as he pushed through the flap, it was crammed to the gills with crates and barrels, barely enough room for a sleeping pallet in the corner. Every available surface was pressed into service as a work bench - vials, bottles, wands and books scattered about with no evident rhyme or reason to their placement, all the usual detritus of a wizard's workshop. It was the first glass Paladin had seen since entering the desert, and it was a mixed lot - wine bottles and Mason jars, test tube vials and even what looked like a fish bowl, filled with brightly colored stones.

It took a moment to notice the shaman himself amongst all his tools and collections; even for an Uru he seemed short, all bent and wizened with age, his face a sun-dried prune but his eyes snapping and intelligent behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He adjusted them and studied Paladin intently.

"So, you're the new face in town," he said casually. Like his eeys, his voice was decades younger than his features. "The scouts had quite a talk of your ferocity. Five Mushrooms, was it?"

"Six, actually," Paladin replied, crossing his arms across his chest and returning the mage's regard. "There's been other trouble as I crossed the desert, as well. Things a little more... personal."

"Heh." Banjin grinned, baring a mouthful of pearly white teeth. "Ran into a few shadows from your past, did you? That'll happen out in the desert, especially for you. Your sorrows cling to you like a cloak, wanderer... you look oh so young, but there's a weighty history hanging on your shoulders, and one of these days, it will bury you."

"But not today." Paladin said with quiet steel. There was something of a veiled threat in the sage's words, or maybe just in the knifelike clarity with which he Saw. Banjin only grinned more at his words.

"Ah, but what does 'today' mean, in a land without a sun?" It might have been an agreement, it might not. Banjin moved swiftly on before Paladin had a chance to mull over his words. "I don't doubt I know what you're looking for; everyone does, when they first come here. Even the Uru did. You're looking for a way out of the desert, back to where you came from."

The only way out is through, Anastasia had said. Paladin echoed them quietly, and Banjin gave a surprised frown.

"Eh? Funny, you didn't strike me as a Questor. I guess the search for Paradise calls all kinds of men." The sage looked almost disappointed, and Paladin was quick to shake his head in denial.

"I don't know what you mean. I'm just repeating what... someone told me." Frank admission of ignorance wasn't his usual modus operandi, but he didn't feel he had the time to play along until he could learn more. Banjin frowned at him again through his spectacles, then shrugged.

"I am mistaken. Perhaps we've begun our conversation on the wrong leg. Forgive me; I am Banjin, a scholar of the many worlds, and shaman of the Uru."

Paladin nodded back politely. "Hail, and well met; I am Paladin, a walker of the many worlds, and a Guardsman of the city of Rhydin."

Banjin smiled thinly, slyly. "Hail and well met, indeed. Well, friend Paladin, I hope that we might be of service to each other. I believe I can help you to escape from the desert, and you in turn can help my people do the same."

"What does this have to do with your prophecy?" Paladin took a shot in the dark and was rewarded by seeing Banjin's eyes narrow and lips twist in a moue of distaste. The Uru, apparently, had never learned to play poker.

"Someone's been talking out of turn, I see... but what manners can one expect from outlanders? Tekal should have brought you straight to me, but he feared disturbing me with another false lead." Banjin sighed. "Yes, Paladin, you've guessed correctly. This has everything to do with the prophecy - with ending our long exile, and bringing the Uru home."

Paladin shook his head and crouched down on his haunches. "You've lost me, I think. What is this prophecy? Who are the Uru, and where is home?"

"The specifics of such matters are not for outlander ears," Banjin said, but gently. "We are a proud people, but five hundred years in the desert have robbed us of much of our history and tradition. Suffice it to say that, so many centuries ago, we were sentenced here, to this land of endles dusk. By whom, and for what, are not secrets we share with outsiders. A prophecy was put in place, much like the Questor's tale of Paradise - that one day someone would show us that it's time to come home-" Paladin help up a hand.

"And you just lost me again. Questors? Paradise?"

Banjin sighed again, the conversation obviously not proceeding according to plan. "The depths of your ignorance dismay me, friend Paladin, but I should not be surprised. Not everyone who comes to our desert is a Questor - many of those poor souls in their little 'Inn', drinking themselves into oblivion, arrived here by mere circumstance, and by your ignorance I assume you did as well. But the majority of our visitors are following the Tower path, and I supposed you at least knew of their quest. In brief; the Tower that connects the realms is said to lead to Paradise. The Questors journey through the Tower, and through its many worlds, seeking Paradise, in the hopes of leading their people to it."

Paladin raised a sardonic eyebrow. "This Tower - would you describe it as 'Dark'?"

Banjin frowned. "I've never seen it, but I understand that its appearance changes, depending on what world one is in. I don't believe I've ever heard it described as such, though. Why do you ask?"

"...no reason." Paladin shook his head. I've been reading too much Stephen King lately... "So, Questors go through the Tower, looking for heaven. What's this got to do with prophecy and the Uru? And where do I come in?"

"The Questors believe that, eventually, one of them will make it to Paradise through all the hardships and horrors the Tower may hold, and that one will, in turn, lead his people to glory. You, Paladin, are that Questor to us. You will fulfill the Prophecy, and you will lead my people home."

Paladin snorted in derision. "Brother, have you ever got the wrong guy. I don't 'do' prophecy, Banjin - it's a bunch of pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo that only makes sense after it's over with. Good for a headache and not much else - never mind that to claim the future is preordained is to rob one of free will, and that I simply cannot accept. Our paths in life are formed by our circumstances and our own actions, not by the mumblings of some half baked Oracle centuries dead. No offense."

Banjin smiled. "Even in your denials, you serve Prophecy. We all do." He held up a hand to forestall Paladin's imminent, most likely obscene, reply. "No, enough; I'll speak no more on it, since your feels on the matter have been so eloquently stated. It's past time we reached to the core of the matter, anyway. You want out of the desert; I want your assistance. A trade of services, simple as that."

Paladin's lips twisted in a crooked smile. "Yeah, let's get down to brass tacks. What assistance do you want, and how precisely do you propose getting me out of the desert? Seeing how your people have been stuck here five hundred years, and all."

"We have been 'stuck here', as you put it, because we haven't yet been told that we may leave. We are exiles, Paladin, not just castaways. Help us, and we'll show you the way back to your homeland."

"Are you telling me that you've been sitting here for half a millenium because you're waiting on a friggin' telegram?" Paladin couldn't help but give the sage a flat, dumbfounded stare.

Banjin chopped the air sharply, as if to cut the topic short. "We have sinned, and we pay our penance proudly. That is not the issue here, stranger. You want to go home, we can send you home. The path out lies past the Mourning Tree, home spire to the Black Harpies. I'll give you a key to get there, and a way past their treacherous song, and all you have do is help my people in return. Tit for tat, equivalent exchange."

And here comes the other shoe... "What do you need?"
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 10, 2008 9:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

III. The Dead City
1. Boon Companion


Frost was waiting outside when Paladin exited Banjin's tent, far enough away that it wasn't immediately apparent if he'd been eavesdropping. Paladin had his suspicions, although he also figured that Banjin would have his own ways of keeping nosy ears from overhearing things they shouldn't.

"Interesting conversation?" Frost asked. His tone was elaborately casual, as though he were asking about the weather. Paladin cocked an eyebrow at him but didn't slow.

"Must have been. It's brought you off your throne and out of your castle."

Frost shrugged modestly. "Not a castle... just a caravanserai. I haven't given up the search, even if so many of my fellows have lost hope in the Tower and started looking for Paradise in a wineskin." He fell into step next to Paladin, hustling a little to keep up with the wanderer's lanky stride.

"You're a Questor," Paladin observed, weaving his way through the camp. Banjin had sent word to have a tent made up for him; he didn't feel particularly tired, but after a 'day' walking across the desert, he supposed he should rest. He was back on the road in the 'morning', after all, though he wasn't sure how he would tell - the camp showed just as much activity as when he'd entered, and he wasn't sure what schedule the Uru were following. Maybe they had water clocks or hourglasses tucked away in their tents. Lady knew, there was enough sand around here.

"And you have a keen eye for the obvious," Frost said agreeably. "But I won't hold it against you. I suppose it probably wasn't so obvious to you, not being a Questor and all."

There was the tent; marked, as Banjin had indicated, by a human-sized belt resting on a stick by the entrance. Paladin picked up the belt and considered it, and the sheath hanging from it - the belt was a little large, and he could probably wrap it twice around his slim hips. The sheath, on the other hand, was sized perfectly for his curved sword. He wasn't entirely sure how they'd managed that, but he was grateful they'd gone to the effort. Carrying a naked sword around in his belt was starting to make him nervous, and the belt was fraying besides. "What makes you so sure I'm not a Questor?" He peeked inside the tent, nodded. A linen bedroll, a pillow, a backpack. The backpack would have food and water in it, enough for a 'week' - and more importantly, the keystones. Without those, he was back to wandering the desert like a damned soul, until he died... or something ate him. From what Banjin had said, the two weren't necessarily one and the same.

"You're not the type," Frost shrugged again. "And you're not Marked, so it's a moot point." Paladin turned around to face him and raised an eyebrow at that. In response, he rolled up one shirt sleeve. The 'mark' was a tattoo, circling his arm at the bicep - twisting figures that at first resembled runes, then hieroglypics, then Chinese pictograms swam back and forth. It made Paladin's eyes hurt to watch, and he was relieved when Frost dropped his shirt sleeve back over it. "Questors recognize Questors. We can see the sign, even through clothes or armor - it's how we know our own." Paladin looked around, noticing that the Uru were keeping their distance - his tent was actually set up a little ways off from the rest of the camp. It hadn't been obvious at first, but upon closer inspection he saw that there was a pretty clear demarcation. Us and you. I get a tent, but I'm not part of the tribe. Roger that.

"That's pretty handy," Paladin let the tent flap fall back and turned to squarely regard the other man. "What's this about, Frost? What're you up to?"

Frost chuckled. "You're a blunt one. I have to have an ulterior motive to want to talk to the new kid in town?" Paladin fixed him with a flat stare, and he sighed and held his hands up. "Alright, alright, I figured it was silly to try to play the innocent with you. Old habits die hard, you know? I want to know what you and Banjin were talking about. The Desert Mage doesn't generally condescend to talk to us outlanders, you know?" He turned his head and spat. "So, we're stuck here - if we leave, we don't get a keystone to come back, and the desert eats people, in case you missed it. So it's either a quick death by exposure and violence out there, or a slow death from boredom and stagnation in here, and neither of those get any of us closer to the Tower. But Banjin wanted to talk to you, and I'm willing to bet that's got something to do with getting out of the desert. So, what does he want in return?"

Paladin chuckled. "You have been here a while... yes, he's offered me a path out of the desert. He wants me to get a book for him first, though."

"A book?" Frost raised an eyebrow. "From what, the shop down the block? Where in Nine Hells are you going to get a book out here?"

Paladin let the other shoe drop. "From the City of the Dead." Frost stared at him blankly for a second then let out a low whistle.

"That's... I thought that was a myth. You hear people talking about it sometime, but always second or third hand... I've never met anyone that's really seen it."

"Well, I've got a carved chunk of rock with a skull on it that says it is." Banjin had explained keystones very carefully to him - they were the only way to find anything, in the shifting sands of the desert, acting like a lodestone to the place they'd been taken from. There was a chunk of bone, too, that was supposed to lead Paladin back to the Uru camp beneath the dragon's skeleton. It could be an elaborate deception, a means of tricking him into killing himself out in the desert, but he didn't think so. For one thing, Banjin had seemed pretty damn eager to get his hands on that book - for another, it was really a Rube Goldberg way of going about murdering someone, when the Uru could just as easily have left him back with the Mushrooms. "Anyway, I've got a pretty long morning ahead of me, so I better get some beauty rest." He ducked to go into the tent, but Frost grabbed his shoulder.

"Wait!" Paladin looked at the hand on his shoulder, then at Frost. The shorter man took the hint and released him quickly, flushing a little.

"I want to go with you."

Paladin raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"Look, the way out of the desert has to lead to the next level of the Tower. Maybe there's something else for you, a way to get back to where you came from-" Frost avoided using the word 'home'. At the time, Paladin didn't notice. "-but that's the way every other one of these challenges has worked. The only way out is through. Banjin'll leave us here to rot while he goes about fulfilling his precious prophecy. I want to be on the next level before the Uru are gone."

"So, you'll accompany me now to make sure you get a train ticket out of here?"

"So, I'll accompany you now to keep you alive long enough to bring that damn book back here." Frost's gaze was the direct, unflinching stare of the fanatic. After a moment, Paladin nodded.

"I'm leaving as soon as I wake up. I'll make sure someone lets you know."

Frost nodded, slowly, in reply. "I'll be here." Paladin watched him go as he walked away, then sighed and slipped into the tent. Looked like it was gonna be a long day.
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 17, 2008 10:28 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

2. The Road to the Dead City
He awoke from dreams of darkness with a choked scream clenched in his throat, to find only the stillness of the tent waiting for him. Placid and serene in its spartan decor, stoutly devoid of any threats or terrors, its very normality was calming; the bedroll on which he was curled into a tight ball, his new backpack in a corner next to his boots, his dirty clothes in a rumpled pile on the ground. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, banishing the last cobwebs of sleep from his mind.

Like it or not, he thought wryly, I guess I'm awake.

Which was, of course, the cue for someone to kick through the tent flap with a sword in their hand. Things got hectic from there.

"Dominus, Paladin!" Frost ground out between gritted teeth. "You're killing me!"

Well, that's the idea. It took a moment for Paladin to realize just whose throat he had a crushing grip on. He eased his choke hold and let the other man up. "There a reason you're busting into my tent?"

"You were making so much noise I thought you were being murdered." Frost's voice was harsh as he rubbed his throat gingerly. His sword had been flung into the far wall of the tent and hung up in the fabric - he made no move to retrieve it. "I'm supposed to be watching your back, remember?" He looked up and his eyes widened. "Do you always sleep naked?"

Paladin looked down at himself and shrugged. "I do when the only clothes I own are just about ready to get up and walk on their own. I'll have to jump in the oasis or something." He looked back up, and Morrow was still staring.

"Lady of Pain," he whispered. "You've been through the war, haven't you?" Conscious of his scars in a way he wasn't of his nudity, Paladin flushed. They covered him damn near from head to toe, the intricate scrollwork of a life of violence and danger - bullet holes and sword cuts, claw marks and the puckered half circles of bites, the five burn marks on his bicep where a murdered woman had grabbed his arm, and the livid patchwork of the lash on his back from being whipped half to death. Most of them were silver, fully healed and almost blended into his pale skin, but the ugly slash across his stomach was still an ugly red, pulsing not-quite in time with his heartbeat. Some wounds never healed.

"More than one," he said stiffly, crossing his arms across his chest - left under the right, hiding the tattoo of winding red and black roses that covered his forearm. Dytannia's mark, Allalie's Bane - more bad memories, though taking it on had seemed like a good idea at the time. "Ya mind?"

"Right, sorry." Frost had the good grace to look embarrassed. "It's just - how are you still alive?"

"Same as anyone else - one breath after another." Paladin uncrossed his arms as Frost turned his back and quickly shrugged into his clothes, his skin crawling under the stiff, blood and sweat-stained fabric. There hadn't been any fresh clothing in the backpack, just food and adventuring supplies. No big surprise - he and the Uru could hardly shop in the same department at the clothing store, and it would have taken them days to tailor fresh for him. Frost turned around and wrinkled his nose as he finished doing up his last buttons.

"You look like something left for dead on a dungeon floor."

"So do you," Paladin shot back. "At least I'll look better with a change of clothes and a bath." Frost's lips thinned, but twitched in a smile.

"We're fresh out of both," he said. "Fortunately, I can do you one almost as good." He flicked his fingers sharply, and Paladin's hair blew back as what felt like a ball of warm air washed over him. He blinked and looked down at himself, surprised to find his clothes clean - still worn and stained, but at least noticeably fresher. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, enjoying the minty taste. It wasn't quite as nice as a hot shower would have been, but at least he was clean again.

"Useful spell," he said off-handedly. Frost visibly preened.

"This old thing? It's pretty simple, anyone could do it. I could teach you in a minute."

Paladin shook his head and buckled on his sword belt, grabbing Frost's sword from the tent wall and returning it as he did. "No point - I don't have much talent for magic." Lelune was nothing if not thorough - she'd scoured every iota of the Skill from him, part of the cost of saving his sanity. A pity the dreams hadn't stayed gone as well... "We should get moving. We're burning daylight." He scooped up his pack and slid past Frost through the tent flap. The mage didn't linger.

"Funny," he said with a smirk. "I don't see much light to burn." Paladin rolled his eyes at the unchanging violet sky, noting the lack of moon with a raised brow.

"Whatever you want to call it," he said. "Let's roll."

*

It took three 'days' - as dictated by Frost's need for rest stops - to cross the desert. The first was full of the mage's chattering as he attempted to draw the wanderer out of his taciturn shell. He failed. The second was filled with griping, as the expert treasure hunter aired his grievances with everything - their relentless pace, the endless sandy desert, Paladin's silence, even the journey bread and sour cheese they'd packed for their rations. The third day, after Paladin offered to split the Uru keystone in half and send him back to the village, was spent in silence.

It was just as well - they soon began to encounter the outriders, skeletal amalgamations of man and beast who could only have come from the Dead City. The first patrol took them by surprise, galloping full speed over a dune and descending on them like a nightmare. The two adventurers reacted instantly, like a well oiled machine - a flurry of razor edged icicles springing from Frost's hands and spraying the first rider like a shotgun blast, Paladin leaping to attack the next, bisecting it neatly with a two-handed stroke of his sword. The third skidded to a halt and turned to run, but Frost's next spell tangled its feet and Paladin was upon it before it could recover.

In the aftermath, the two traded grudgingly respectful looks. Frost was the first to speak.

"Looks like the Dead are restless," he said, nudging the scattered bones with a toe. They stirred, as though moved by a heavy wind, and Paladin took two steps and crushed the twitching skull. The bones stilled.

"No kidding," he said. "Well, we'd better act like they know we're here - hopefully, they'll think we're passing by and won't go out of their way to intercept us." He crushed the other two skulls as he spoke, their unquiet rattle ceasing as each was reduced to splinters. Frost nodded grimly, all too aware of the danger the Hungry Dead would present, if they knew two such tender morsels were delivering themselves to the gates of their city.

They traveled on.
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 21, 2008 9:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

3. Breach The Walls

It was later that 'day', for neither were much in the mood for sleep, that the two reached the city of the dead. It was not, as Paladin had expected, a necropolis in the classic sense – an above ground graveyard of tombs, mausoleums, temples and pyramids, of which the ancient Egyptians had been so fond. This was a walled city built on the ramparts of a rocky hill, rising from the sands of the desert like a cancerous growth. There were ranks of houses visible beyond the walls, not laid out in organized rows as a planned city would be but in the fits and clusters of a town that had grown organically, with cobbled streets springing from animal paths and houses and homesteads fixated around the source of water.

Despite that, it was not a living town – no smoke rose from the jagged skyline of chimneys thrusting into the violet sky like raised spears, no clamor from a crowded market, no stink from too many living things kept confined in too close proximity. Even had there not been more of the outriders on the broken and ruined highway that led to the city, that thin ribbon of paved flagstones emerging now from the desert beneath them, even if there had not been more of the twisted products of bone and sorcery stalking the dunes they slipped through as silent as ghosts, both men would have known that this was a dead place, unclean, hostile to life in even its barest form. A cloud hung over the city, though the sky remained as clear as Paladin had seen it since first entering the desert, a near tangible aura of darkness and bleak despair. I am the end, it seemed to say. I am the fate of all things; entropy made manifest.

“Before me, all things created were eternal; and eternal will I stand.” Paladin murmured softly. They crouched behind a dune, looking at the city through hooded eyes. The walls were stark and bare, with no sign of sentries or protections; now that they were closer, it was plain to see places where the stones had crumbled and given way beneath the simple weight of time, opening gaps in the perimeter. Most of them had been patched with bones, mortared together like some sort of grim suture; some still gaped open, waiting to be attended to.

“What?” Frost gave his companion a sidelong look. It was rare enough to hear Paladin speak, rarer still to hear him say something that made sense.

“Nothing. Quoting again.” Paladin shook his head and slid back behind the dune. “Well, we can try to sneak around and make it through one of those gaps, or we can go up and knock on the front door. Doesn't look like they're expecting company.”

“What do you think we should do?” Frost asked. Paladin gave him a flat look. “No, that'll never work. Let's sneak through a gap instead.” Despite himself, the wanderer snorted in amusement.

“Well, normally I'd suggest waiting for the cover of darkness. Guess that's not really an option around here...”

“Wouldn't do much good, even if it was.” Frost frowned at a distant mote of movement stalking through the city streets. “In case you missed it, it's not like they're using eyes to see.”

“Right.” Paladin frowned in thought. “Getting by the sentries is going to be tricky.”

“Sentries? What sentries?” Frost peered over the top of the dune with a matching frown. “Those walls are bare.” Paladin shook his head and pointed at one of the rounded guard towers, careful to keep his head or hand from the view of the walls.

“Look again. Those gargoyles? They've been moving... and I'm willing to bet they've been watching, too.” Frost looked and swore under his breath.

“Clever bastards. Those are Black Harpies... or what's left of them, at any rate.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Paladin asked.

“Not bloody likely. The Dead and the Black Harpies will gleefully butcher each other, of course, but they'll butcher anyone they find wandering the desert. Equal opportunity murderers, the both of them.” Frost hawked and spat in disgust.

“I was afraid of that. It's never that simple in real life.” Paladin craned his neck to look at the walls again, then shook his head. “Well, either we need a distraction, or it's back to knocking on the front door – we might as well do that as try to run up to the walls under the view of those sentries. Unfortunately, I'm fresh out of my bag of tricks, so unless you've got a spell to conjure up an army or something, we might be humped.”

“Well...” Frost pondered the question for a moment, then smirked. “I think I might have something handy.”

“You have an army conjuring spell?” Paladin blinked once, twice. “So... what are we sitting around here for?” Frost held up a hand, worried Paladin might immediately charge off.

“Not a real one. I've got a pretty powerful illusion spell, though, one that might get their attention for a bit.” He gnawed his lower lip. “I don't know if it'll fool their eyes, though... I mean, they're dead.”

“As you said, it's not like those are eyes they're seeing with.” Paladin nodded grimly, looking at the wall again. “Well, it's not like we've got anything else going for us... give it a shot." Frost nodded and began to murmur, the hissing words of magic - like water on hot stones, sounds that could only be heard and forgotten by those lacking the talent for spellcasting. Once upon a time, Paladin had understood them, too - given that his sanity had been the reward for giving all that up, he couldn't be too bitter about the trade. Frost made a short, jerking gesture with his hands and opened his eyes again. Paladin looked at the city, then at the mage, and then back at the city. "Well?"

"Give it a moment. It'll take a second to warm up."

A piercing shriek filled the air, as if on cue, and a horde of screaming figures poured from over one a dune not far distant - dark as night in the twilight air, their bird-like bodies brandishing claws as long as daggers, they could only be the Black Harpies that Paladin had heard so much of. He whistled low as troops began to rush from guard posts and the sentries on the walls sprang into the air to meet them. "Nice distraction. We'll be in trouble when they realize those things aren't real, though."

Frost was pale. "That's... not my spell."

"Wait, what?" Paladin gave him a dumbfounded look... and it began to snow. Frost looked at the twilight sky and shrugged as the snowfall increased, whipping into a blizzard. Paladin tried to catch some flakes in his hand suspiciously,  and had to laugh when his hand passed through without so much as a cold feeling. "You're a magnificent bastard. We'd better get moving while we can still see the walls - we don't want to get caught up in the rest of this cluster." They darted out from behind their dune and ran full tilt at the crack in the city walls, now a barely seen shadow through the blur. The armies crashing together could only be heard, a confused clamour of the Harpies' shrieks and the dry clatter of the skeletal Dead crashing into their opponents.
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 28, 2009 6:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

3.4 The Streets Where Dead Men Walk

The gouge in the wall might have been made by neglect and failure of maintenance, or it might have been made by violence - the scars of some siege engine long since crumbled to dust out on the desert sands. Time had worn down the edges, scoured everything as smooth as ocean glass, and the scattered wreckage of toppled stones made little barrier to their progress. More difficult was the patrol of Dead, hastening along the street towards the fray - with nary a pause at the sight of the two adventurers, they keened a high-pitched ululation and charged, weapons waving menacingly. Grey scrambled for his crossbow, but Paladin was faster, leaping into their midst with a gleeful shout and bowling them over beneath his steel toed boots.

"You're the craziest frakking man I've ever met," Frost spat, popping a bolt into a skeleton's head from almost point blank range. The impact rocked the skull back on its spine, but did little more than make the undead monstrosity pause. Paladin spun and kicked its legs out from under it - literally, sending them flying into the far wall and the bones crashing to the ground. Even that was only a temporary setback, and it resumed its course towards the treasure hunter, pulling itself forward along the cobblestones. Frost leaned back and gave the skull a punt any major league kicker would be proud of, launching it off into the distance. There were plenty more to take its place.

Paladin spun like a dervish, the silver lightning of his sword licking out to parry blow after blow from the rusted pikes and halberds the skeletons carried. Frost had never seen the like; the wanderer was barely visible, all flashing blade and manic grin, a dancing shadow among the skeletons. The mage muttered under his breath and flicked his fingers, sending out a spray of razor sharp icicles to knock a pair of the Dead soldiers apart. And still there were more, another patrol hasting down the street, adding their own wails to the dreadful chorus. They're calling their brethren, he realized distantly. Almost as soon as the thought had occurred, Paladin was beside him. "This is pointless," he said breezily. "All we're doing is attracting attention, and these fiendish bastards are fixing themselves almost as fast as I'm downing them. Time to go with Plan B."

"Plan B? What the hell is Plan B?"

"Run like hell!" Paladin suited action to words almost before he'd finished speaking, turning on his heel and dashing up the street - straight into the next patrol, and through them. Frost swore and hustled to catch up, leaping over the downed guards as their bones skittered and rustled back together. He caught up with Paladin as the wanderer finished curb stomping another skeleton, gleefully grinding its skull into splinters. The two fell into step, hustling up the slope, deeper into the city.

"Where are we going?"

"Further up and further in!" Frost glanced sideways - Paladin hadn't lost that manic grin, his hair a loose, flowing mane around his pale, delicate face. It was a madman's grin, or a corpse's, and abruptly he was far more afraid of his companion than he was of the city full of dead men, almost all of whom seemed to be rushing out to meet them. They boiled out of alleys and cross streets, a teeming mob of bony fiends. Most were human, waving whatever weapon had been closest to hand when they'd been summoned forth to fight - polearms and swords, farm tools and rolling pins, even the scattered bones of less animated brethren. Others were the centaur creatures like the skirmisher patrols they'd seen on their way into the city, and even stranger creatures - undead animals, reanimated Uru barely able to keep up with their larger and faster fellows, and things that could only have been assembled from the discarded, castoff bones of dozens of bodies. "What the hell are we supposed to do when we get there?" If the whole might of the city had been concentrated against them, Frost had no doubt that they would all too soon be brought down - like foxes against a pack of hounds, mousetrapped into a blind alley or simply borne under by the weight of the endless numbers. But, to his amazement, there was little pursuit - as they were espied, the Dead ran to meet them, but as soon as they were past all interest was lost. The Black Harpies - emerging occasionally from the false blizzard outside the walls to shriek and drop rocks and captured Dead soldiers onto the city below - were taking up the majority of the city's attention, and he and Paladin were only a momentary interest.

"Improvise!" Paladin darted sideways suddenly, launching himself into a flip. He kicked off a wall and roundhoused into a skeleton as it emerged from a doorway, demonstrating both incredible agility and an eerie sense of prescience. Frost felt like he had his hands full trying to run and talk at the same time - forget fending off the monsters slithering out of every nook and cranny. What is this, main street? We would have been better off knocking on the front door! "It's what I do best!"

"You are not filling me with confidence!" Frost could feel his legs starting to ache, his lungs starting to strain. He cursed himself for not making better use of the time he'd spent, waiting, in the Uru village, drowning his boredom in a butt of wine. It was time that would have been better spent maintaining his physical fitness, he saw now with the bitter clarity of one convinced of his imminent demise. If only he'd known then what he'd be going through now...

"If you wanted someone to inspire you with confidence, you should have teamed up with a bard." Paladin threw his head back and laughed. "I deal strictly in miracles!"

"You're insane!" Frost spat. An icy grip wrapped around his ankle, and his legs fell out from under him, sending him sprawling to the bruising cobbles. He kicked and lashed like a drowning man, but the skeleton - one of the tiny Uru, demonstrating bulldog tenacity - clung tight, its jaws chattering frantically as it pulled itself up his torso. A silver flash blinded him, and when he could see again, the creature's skull was gone and Paladin was over him, outstretched hand like a life ring before him. He grabbed it eagerly, and Paladin hauled him to his feet, and then down the street, not relinquishing his grip.

"That's the popular theory!" The wanderer said cheerfully. "C'mon, I think I see a shortcut!" He darted to the side, down an alley Frost had barely seen - everything was beginning to blur together as they rushed through the city, like countryside seen through the window of a speeding carriage, leaving only vague impressions - and floating in the midst of the blur, single sharp images standing out like portraits, almost stripped of their meaning by their very clarity in the midst of madness. The tiny figures of skeletal rats dashing out from holes in the walls to nip at their feet as they ran by. Colorful awnings stretched out before silent shops, screaming faces in the canvas testifying to the gruesome origin of their hide. A Black Harpy nearly hitting them as it plummeted from the sky, foul blood pumping from a throat torn out by the skeleton it had carried into the sky to smash. And everywhere, everywhere, the leering skulls and chilling cries of the hordes of the Hungry Dead.

And rising above the city, the silent monolith of the keep that stood in the center of the city like an upthrust finger, an insult to whatever gods sadistic enough to claim this misbegotten land. Their destination, drawing closer one pounding footstep at a time.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 02, 2009 2:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

3.5 Showdown with the King of the Dead

Across the cobblestones, through the winding streets that twisted and turned, tangled as entrails, organically grown over the passage of centuries. The hordes of the Dead showed no signs of thinning; to the contrary, their numbers only increased the deeper the two adventurers plunged into the city.

"It's funny," Paladin observed as he crushed another skull beneath one of his combat boots, his spinning sword forming a shield of flickering silver around him to ward off stabbing spears and slashing blades. "How all of our playmates here are of a most bony persuasion. Can't they afford any fleshy minions around here?"

"The Dead have been so for longer than even the memories of the Uru stretch." Frost wasn't sure where he found the breath to reply; every movement was agony, his body decorated with shallow slashes and cuts, his arms and legs leaden with exhaustion. His sword had been wrenched from his grasp what felt like hours ago, and a captured pike made a more than adequate replacement. "Skin cracks and flesh rots, and only the bones endure."

"But if they don't increase their numbers from living taken from the desert, however do they continue to thrive?" Every movement as graceful as a dance step, Paladin flowed from one opponent to the next, leaving only scattered bones in his wake. Frost kept up as best he could, trying to guard their rear. "Stagnation equals death - or, in the case of these fine dancers of the grim fandango, cessation."

"Oh, they increase their numbers all right," Frost leaned on the pike as the last skeleton present met a steel toed boot, its skull describing a long, gentle arc off into the distance. "It's just that the only thing they're interested in are the foundations, the core. Everything's got a skeleton - Uru, Black Harpies, Questors, even you, you crazy sod. About the only thing in the desert worthless for their purposes - and, therefore, dangerous to them - are the Mushrooms, and even they know better than to charge headfirst into this city." Unlike us, he decided not to add. The words hung unspoken but still present between them, and Paladin's answering glance spoke just as clearly.

You're the berk who decided to follow me.

A dry clicking heralded the approach of another swarm, and Paladin shook his head. "Well, so much for this rest stop." He took a quick swig from his waterskin and looked up. The keep towered over their heads, blocking out the crescent moon and much of the violet sky, omnipresent and implacable as a storm cloud. Frost had long ago started to hate the sight of it, the snatches and glimpses caught as the streets wound and twisted on themselves. Now, there was no escaping the sight of it, brooding and forbidding, its spires and crenelations black and ominous, as though the fortress was somehow aware of their presence, and was waiting for them, breathless and hungry.

Paladin tosses his head like a racehorse eager to loose from its traces. "How're you holding up?"

"Not well," Frost admitted shortly. "Laying down and letting these bastards take me would be a blessing."

"What happened to 'the only way out is through?'" Paladin's wolfish grin was almost mocking. Frost couldn't spare the energy for a rude gesture.

"What happened to, 'shouldn't we be running right about now'?" The horde of the Dead burst from around the corner like a breaking wave. Paladin shrugged eloquently.

"I suppose. Looks like we're just about there, though... if they didn't leave the gates open, we could be in a pickle."

"This isn't a pickle?"

"This isn't even a cucumber." The wanderer grabbed Frost's wrist and hoisted him over his shoulder in one smooth jerk before the Questor had so much as a chance to cry out. "Hold tight for a second." Frost's stomach twisted queasily as he watched the street suddenly pull away from them in a series of dizzying jerks, Paladin leaping from ground to the top of a fence, to a balcony, to the roof as though the extra twelve stone of burden were no more than a feather's weight. As it had before, watching Paladin scatter and break skeletal soldiers like a child breaking reeds, his mind quailed from the evidence of just how strong the deceptively frail young man really was - an ogre's brawny might hidden in a whipcord lean body.

What in the nine hells are you, Paladin?

"It'll be a little quicker from up here, I thin- whoops!" Paladin hit the ground, a spear whizzing dangerously close to the space his head had previously occupied. "Looks like we're attracting the more talented members of the village now. Guess we've gone up in the world, hey?"

"Lucky us," Frost muttered under his breath, slithering to his belly to embrace the rooftop.

"Cheer up, little buckaroo." Paladin said cheerfully, crawling to the edge of the building and peeking over. "It's an unbroken line between us and the plaza in front of the keep from here, and the more of them throw their spears at us, the less we have to worry about stabbing us when we get there."

"You're a very disturbing man, did you know that?" Frost inched forward to the edge, grateful of the chance to rest and maybe plan. It was the first real breather they'd gotten since the rocks outside of town, staring at the walls and pondering how to slip in - if only he'd known then what a disaster this whole mess would turn out to be! Even better, if only he'd thought things through a little more thoroughly back in the Uru village, before cornering Paladin outside of Banjin's tent. Maybe then he wouldn't be in this situation.

No, that treacherous inner voice whispered somewhere in the back of his mind. You'd still be sitting back in the village, drinking yourself to death and looking for Paradise in the bottom of a wine bottle.

"Better to die on your feet than live on your arse, huh?" Paladin asked sympathetically. Frost jerked as though one of the flying spears had found its mark and gave Paladin a wide-eyed, terrified stare. "You're muttering under your breath, bright eyes, I didn't suddenly develop telepathy." The wanderer grinned, a surprisingly boyish expression, and peeked over the edge again. "I think we've got our chance coming up. Think you can make the gap on your own, or should I throw you?"
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 8:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"I'll make it on my own," Frost said grimly. "How about you tone down on the Mister Grabby bit and let me handle myself for a while, huh?"

"Sure thing," Paladin shrugged and pushed himself to his hands and knees, bent over like a runner at the starting line. "Only, you might want to get a quick start on that."

"Why's that?"

"Because our bony friends just found the stairs up." Paladin sprang to the edge and launched himself across the gap. Almost in the same moment, Frost heard the horrible clicking of skeletal feet pounding on steps, and jerked himself to his feet. He needed a running start to clear the same distance Paladin had crossed from a stand still, but as the hungry, leering faces of the Dead burst through the doorway he'd hardly noticed, sheer terror lent him wings and he flew across the gap, arms and legs flailing. He landed badly, losing his spear and crossbow and rolling helplessly until he slammed into the far wall.

"Nice distance!" Paladin sounded impressed.

"Just... shut up." Frost gasped, struggling to breathe again. His crossbow skittered across the floor and collided lightly with his forehead, propelled by Paladin's helpful prod.

"Sure thing." Paladin's voice didn't lose any of its cheer. It took a moment of silence before Frost realized the wanderer had moved on, hurtling the gap to the next building with the same ease as the last. The mage struggled to his feet, grabbing his spear and using it as a crutch. From the far rooftop, skeletons watched with eerie calm, apparently in no rush to catch up. From the near rooftop, Paladin waved. "You coming, slowpoke?"

"Hate... you... so... much..." Frost gasped, and steeled himself for the next jump. Winded, he didn't quite manage the distance this time - Paladin snagging his arm as his lateral distance suddenly turned into vertical decline, hoisting him up onto the rooftop.

"Well, almost..." Paladin's voice seemed to fade away as his vision grayed and the world narrowed into a black pinhole. He swam back to consciousness to hear Paladin still talking. "...the good news is, we're almost there."

"Any more jumping?" Frost curled up on the ground and tried to get his vision to stop swimming.

"Nope. There's the castle." Paladin gestured, barely seen at the edge of eyesight. Frost managed a frown.

"That was quick."

"You might, possibly, have passed out a little bit after that last step. I carried you the rest of the way."

"Oh. Did I miss anything?" Frost sat up and patted himself down. He felt remarkably refreshed, and wondered just how long he'd been out.

"Nothing important."

"Well, let's get moving then." He went to stand up, and Paladin held up a hand to forestall him.

"Just a second... like I said, the good news is, we're almost there."

The other shoe dropped. "What's the bad news?" Frost tightened his grip on his crossbow, wondering if he'd have time to shoot Paladin, then himself, before the lurking hordes of terror closed in.

"We've got one hell of a welcoming committee, and they know we're here."

"I think you and I and a half brick in a sock need to have a long discussion about just what 'nothing important' pertains to." Frost struggled to his knees and looked over the edge of the roof. True to Paladin's words, they had quite the welcoming committee - rank upon rank of skeletal soldiers, punctuated by the brooding mountains of bone golems, interspersed with troops of cavalry and batteries of artillery - catapults and ballistae of bone and sinew, twitching and grinding as they loaded themselves. From the crenelations of the castle, undead Black Harpies watched like a murder of crows, the rasp of their wings echoing eerily in the unearthly stillness.

"Oh, gods. We're frakked."

"Yeah, looks pretty grim." Paladin nodded.

"No, we're frakked."

"We've established that things could be better, yes."

"We're well and truly frakked."

"Would you settle down and try to look at things a little more positively?" Paladin gave him a stern look. Frost plastered a cheerful smile on his face and gave his voice a little lilt.

"We're frakked!"

"Much better." The wanderer snorted in amusement. "Yeah, okay. So, now that we're frakked, how do we get out of this? Should have seen it coming - those skeletons on our tail were herding us, pushing us to the center. We've been dancing to their tune ever since we got past the wall."

"And you couldn't have figured this out a little sooner?" Frost kept reign on his temper through only the dimmest shred of self-preservation; things were bad enough without pissing Paladin off, too. At least for now, the wanderer was - as dubious an advantage as it might seem - on his side.

"Had a couple other things on my mind, like keeping them from skewering us like cocktail olives, didn't I?" Paladin shrugged. "Truth to tell, it didn't even occur to me until we got here and I saw the brass band and red carpet all laid out for us. And take a peek - if that's not the boss in the center, it's one of his trusted minions, all ready to rub his hands together and snicker 'all according to plan' before ordering the mooks to dispose of us."

Frost peeked over the edge again. Sure enough, in the middle was a man of surprisingly average height - his features ascetic and pale, emphasized by the dark robe he wore, but surprisingly fleshy for a resident of the city of the dead. A gold circlet on his brow was the only shine of color to him - otherwise, he might well have been carved from salt or granite, as pale and colorless as dishwater. He stood with arms crossed, as impassive as a statue - or one of his dead soldiers.

"We're-"

"We've already covered that topic in somewhat exhausting detail. Let's move on, shall we? We need options."

"Options? What options? We're stuck on a rooftop, surrounded by an army of dead men! In case you missed it, we're right where they want us! That's a bad place to be!"

"Or it's right where we want to be."

Frost stared at him, dumbfounded. "No. No, it's definitely bad."

"You're so negative."
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