Stargirl

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Chapter 17: Adventure II

‘You guys okay?’ Marty asked, hand on Ziggy’s shoulder.

‘We had a bit of a weird encounter,’ TM explained. He rubbed the back of his head, feeling as if he had forgotten how to sit down.

‘What’s up?’ asked Veggie. Ziggy rested her head on Marty’s shoulder, looking as if she might cry, while Dominika put her arms around her.

‘We, er… ran into Al Tyer,’ said TM. Derrida pushed a chair out towards him; he let his knees go loose, and slumped into it. ‘It was kind of surreal.’

‘Al Tyer?’ Derrida said confusedly. ‘Wouldn’t have had him down as the parkour type.’

‘No, he’s not, as far as I know,’ TM mumbled, keeping a worried eye on Ziggy. ‘We popped into the museum, to check it out before –’ he noticed Derrida, Marty and Dominika all watching him ‘– before the space rock exhibition ends. And, well… Tyer was there. Kind of freaked Zig out.’

Dominika held Ziggy tighter; Ziggy squeezed her arm gratefully.

‘What did he do to freak you out?’ Veggie asked Ziggy; she shook her head.

‘Just said some stuff,’ she said quietly.

‘As above, so below,’ TM recalled.

‘That’s what I heard O’Ryan saying to him,’ Veggie said thoughtfully. ‘He seemed kind of freaked out by it, but…’ He trailed off, exhaling uncertainly. ‘I guess weathermen are just a weird sort of bunch.’

‘Seemed like more than that,’ TM said quietly. ‘Like he was… scared, or trying to scare us. Like he knew something we didn’t, and he wanted us to know it.’

‘Forget about that guy,’ Marty said, stroking Ziggy’s hair. ‘He’s barely even a minor celebrity, what does he know?’

‘Maybe his very low-level fame got to him,’ Derrida suggested. ‘He’s had a teensy tiny taste of the high life and it’s driven him crazy. Or something.’

‘The way he was talking,’ TM said, then paused and thought about it for a second. ’I don’t know. It’s just, the way he sounded, I don’t think I’d be surprised if something’s got to him and made him… a bit… not right.’

‘Huh,’ said Veggie. ‘So Al Tyer’s had a breakdown. Might tip off the papers about that, get some sort of commission on the story.’

‘I call dibs,’ Derrida said.

‘Ignore that weirdo, Z,’ said Marty quietly. ‘What does he know about anything?’

Ziggy gave a hesitant nod, fingers digging into her cheek. Then she sat upright, the breath leaving her body in slow, shaky flows.

‘Need a distraction?’ Veggie asked. She nodded: first to him, then to Dominika, who released her tight hug reluctantly but kept a hold on Ziggy’s hand. ‘Awright,’ Veggie said, flourishing his campaign papers with an overly dramatic flick of the wrist. TM caught his eye and gave him a small smile; Veggie’s eyebrows twitched reassuringly back at him.

Okay! So!

Since we left off, our most excellent and well-travelled heroes have been training like crazy for many days, down in Rusk’s lovely basement. The time spent down in his training camp has made everyone stronger, more dextrous, more agile – even smarter and more charismatic. They’re well-rested, fully-healed, levelled-up and just generally better stats’d to high heaven.

One morning, about a week after they first made the acquaintance of the Leaf of Lanriel, Rusk gathers our brave adventurers in his fancy office above Leaf HQ.

‘Mornin’, fella,’ says Malachi.

‘Oh, come on,’ Derrida said despairingly. ‘We’re one minute in and you’re already out of character?’

‘Sorry,’ said Marty, his tone entirely unapologetic. ‘Gotta get back in the right mindset, or something. Hang on, let’s give this a go.’

‘Lo and behold, Master Rusk, he who commandeth the Leaves, and the Branches, and the Berries. May all creation and its bountiful tree be the willing and honourable subject of thou and thee’s brilliance.’ Malachi does a backflip and a curtsy and a salute all at the same time.

’It’s thee and thine,’ Derrida corrected. ‘Also, you should have had to roll for that.’ Marty made a ‘pfft’ noise and waved his hand to indicate something flying right over his head, to which Derrida could only sigh. ‘Fine,’ he conceded. ‘You talk how you want.’

‘Sup,’ Malachi says.

‘Good morning,’ Rusk says, studying the heroes. ‘You all seem to be well-developed.’

‘Is he saying we have nice boobs?’ TM asked; Dominika gave a sly smile, one TM recognised as her ‘accepting a compliment’ expression.

‘No, he’s –’ Veggie rubbed his forehead in exasperation. ‘He’s talking about your development in the areas of heroic-ness and theivering-itude, you know?’

‘You all appear to be well-trained and as if you have become more skilful,’ Rusk says, very clearly and unambiguously.

‘Why, thank you,’ says Barry. ‘We appreciate the generosity of the Leaf, allowing us to use these facilities to train and heal.’

‘Yes, you were in a little trouble when you got here,’ Rusk says, as tactfully as possible. ‘But I think loaning you the use of these headquarters is the smallest of prices to pay in return for the liberation of this city.’

‘He’s very optimistic, isn’t he?’ Derrida observed.

‘Today,’ Rusk continues, without breaking step, ‘is the first day of the beginning of a new era of the lives of the people of the city of Lanriel.’

‘Slightly awkward wording there, buddy,’ Marty said quietly; Dominika snorted, and the corner of Ziggy’s mouth perked upwards for the first time since the museum. Veggie looked ready to defend himself, but saw Ziggy smiling and dropped it.

‘Today is the day of a big quest,’ Rusk clarifies.

‘We’re ready,’ says Barry, pounding his fist against the Shadowguard emblem across his armoured chest.

‘Good,’ says Rusk, laying a set of floor plans and a few pages of notes across his desk.

Veggie obligingly slid his own, hand-drawn copies of the documents across the table; the group peered in at them.

‘These are the plans to the Imperial Citadel of Lanriel,’ Rusk explains, pointing helpfully. ‘They should help you to navigate. And these are some notes on the residents.’

‘Looks like there are possible hostages in there,’ Malachi says thoughtfully, casting his eye over the pages. ‘Two imperial cousins of the corrupted line, Lanfal and Linske Lanriel-Lanlanar, are usurping the power and holding the citadel with the help of their three bodyguards Strowman, Tank and Fist. Then there are a few other cousins from one of the more well-liked branches, including Lienna, Lalto and Limlia Lanriel-Lestenal –’

Marty broke character again for a second. ’You’re terrible at coming up with names, Veg. I mean, do all the members of the Lanriel family have names beginning with L?’

‘Yup,’ said Veggie proudly. ‘And aaaaaall the cousins.’

‘We’re never going to remember them all,’ TM said.

‘Fine,’ said Veggie, looking distinctly put out. ‘There’s Evil Cousins 1 and 2 and Nice Cousins 1, 2 and 3. And Bodyguards 1, 2 and 3.’

‘That’s probably easier,’ Marty said. Veggie pulled his pages of notes back across the table, crossing out a few lines.

‘I did a whole family tree and everything,’ he said dejectedly.

‘Anyway,’ says Malachi, ‘we’ll basically want to eliminate both Evil Cousins, plus all three bodyguards, while also saving the Nice Cousins.’

‘That’s about the essence of it,’ agrees Rusk.

‘Well, sounds easy enough,’ Malachi says. Atgard hisses his willingness to go off and do violent stuff.

‘We’ll prepare you,’ says Rusk, ‘with tools, equipment… items. That sort of thing.’

‘Oh, good,’ said Derrida, ’tools and equipment.’

Rusk leads the group back down into the Leaf hideout, opening a door they’ve never been through before. Inside is a room lined with shelves stuffed with weapons and bits of thief kit adorning the walls, which the heroes look around at in appreciation.

‘You may take whatever you wish,’ says Rusk.

‘Righty-ho,’ said Veggie, pulling out a pile of tokens from somewhere, ‘pick your gear.’ He spread the tokens across the table, each one a hand-cut circle of cardboard embossed in marker pen with the name of some useful piece of equipment. Dominika immediately plucked out the ones marked ‘grappling hook’ and ‘springy jumpy boots’, to which everyone else groaned enviously.

‘Zig, you’re a roguish type,’ said Marty, picking up ‘hidden blade’ and ‘awesome parachute’. ‘You can probably make best use of these.’

‘Aw, thanks,’ said Ziggy, taking the tokens gratefully. TM watched her expression as she added the little cutouts to her stack of papers and ability cards: to his relief, the uncertainty, confusion and fear that had been written all over her face a few short minutes ago seemed to have faded away.

‘We won’t let you down,’ says L.

Atgard preps himself with spring-loaded pile bunker gauntlets designed to pierce, punch, pummel and generally precipitate progress.

‘He’s not much of a climber,’ Derrida admitted, ‘but he can bash his way through anything you lot can scamper up.’

Malachi sorts himself out with a bulky tome of spells designed for concealing, revealing, sneakily assassinating and such. Meanwhile, L kits up in the accoutrements of an accomplished rogue, equipped with a folding repeater crossbow, a pouch of curved throwing knives, a hidden extending blade in a bracer at her wrist, a light cloak shimmering with charms of camouflage, a folded parachute in a satchel strapped at her back, a set of daggers of many trick varieties, a pair of goggles imbued with magics of revealing -

‘Whoaaaaa now,’ said Marty. ‘Where are you getting all this?’

‘Menemenmnenmn,’ said Ziggy, grinning at him.

‘Hm,’ said Marty suspiciously.

‘Look,’ said Ziggy, ‘the whole thieving, sneaking, roguey thing? Kind of my deal.’

‘Fair point.’

Anyway. Barry has a brand-new, all-black set of leather armour, flexibly designed to enable him to make the best use of his Shadowguard abilities, and a set of small pouches filled with various powders explosive, smoky, toxic and all sorts. Iveline has a new assortment of compact bows and crossbows concealed in various places on her body, and a quiver of different types of arrows, plus her shiny new grappling hook and a pair of slim-fitting leather boots with extra-springy heels for added jumpage.

‘Well,’ said Veggie, ‘I think I might have given out too many gadgets.’

‘Naaaahhhhhhh,’ TM drawled. ’We’ll probably need ‘em, knowing how hard you make your quests sometimes.’

‘True dat,’ Veggie chirped. ‘Anyway, you also get one secret item each.’

Rusk takes each of the heroes aside, one by one, and gifts them with a unique piece of equipment. ‘These may aid you,’ he says in a meaningful sort of way.

‘Well, I think we can predict what sort of stuff we might run up against based on what you’ve just given us,’ Derrida said.

‘Possibly,’ said Veggie with a knowing smile, ‘but who says the person with the right bit of kit is going to be in the place where it’s needed?’

‘Aaaaaaaaaahhh,’ Derrida gurgled excitedly.

‘Good luck on your quest,’ says Rusk. ‘We will all owe you our freedom and gratitude for as long as we live, if you should succeed.’

‘When we succeed, you mean,’ says Barry in a really heroic voice.

‘A really heroic voice?’ Derrida said. ‘I think you should probably have to roll for that.’

‘Fine,’ said TM, and rolled. Both of his dice landed face up, both displaying the highest possible result. ‘FUCK, YEAH!’ he declared, leaping up out of his chair onto the table and fist-pumping with great ferocity.

‘You’ll probably wish you’d saved that luck for a more dangerous time, ya know,’ Veggie warned.

‘Bitch, I don’t care,’ TM dismissed him, resuming his seat. ‘Barry’s fuckin’ heroic.’

‘WE SHALL SURELY NOT FAIL IN THIS DIVINELY-ORDAINED QUEST WHICH YOU HAVE SET, O MASTERFUL RUSK,’ bellows Barry in the most amazing heroic voice anyone has ever heard ever.

‘Oh, good,’ says Rusk, slightly taken aback by Barry’s phenomenal lungs. ‘Anyway, you should set out today. Spend the day in the city, gather information, and then at sundown make your move.’

‘What sort of information do you mean?’ asks L.

‘Oh, y’know.’ says Rusk off-handedly. ‘Stuff.’

‘You don’t actually have anything planned for the day, do you?’ TM said.

‘Nope,’ admitted Veggie. ‘Skip to sundown?’

‘Skip to sundown,’ everyone agreed.

‘Farewell!’ declares Rusk, and the group embark out into the city.

‘Oh, hang on,’ said Veggie, ’I need everybody to quickly roll a research check, ‘kay?’

‘There’s no stat for “research”,’ Derrida complained.

‘It’s the average of your perception, knowledge and charisma,’ Veggie told him. ‘I made up a new stat.’

‘You can’t do that,’ Derrida exclaimed, taken aback. Then he looked around at each of the group. ‘Can he do that?’ Everybody made some variation on the same ‘ehh’ noise and expression of utter apathy. ‘Fine, make up your stats, whatever.’

Everybody’s dice rolled, as did Derrida’s eyes.

‘Okey cokey,’ said Veggie. ‘You, you and you -’ he pointed to Ziggy, Dominika and TM in turn ‘- all gain one useful fact about the building or its residents, which I shall reveal to you when the time comes. You -’ a point to Derrida ‘- alienate all the citizens and nobody tells you a damn thing.’ He examined Dominika’s dice more closely. ‘Oh, and somebody tries to steal your falcon, but it pecks their eyes out. So now the guards’ll be looking out for somebody with a falcon.’

‘What’s its name, anyway?’ Marty asked; Dominka slid her character sheet across the table at him. He flipped it over and read aloud, under the ‘Pets and Familiars’ section: ‘One falcon. Sharp talons, good at scouting, fun icebreaker. Named Dogpet.’ He handed the sheet back to her, apparently unable to help a grin that revealed his upper teeth in a somewhat creepy manner. ‘You named a falcon… Dogpet.’

Dominika nodded firmly.

‘I like it,’ Marty said. ‘High five.’

‘Anyway,’ Veggie interrupted, ‘you’ll need to bear in mind that every guard in the place is probably going to fire at sight as soon as they spot a ranger type, who’s blind to boot, skulking around with a fucking falcon. You’re not exactly inconspicuous.’

‘I think we got this,’ Ziggy said, folding her arms behind her head with all the lazy casualness she could muster. ‘We good.’

‘That’s the spirit,’ said Veggie.

The day passes, and each of the heroes spends some time checking out the local inns and taverns and… bars. Pubs. That sort of establishment. At any rate, all except Atgard, who being an enormous snake with giant metal punchy fists is not super conducive to friendly conversation, manage to learn something from the locals of Lanriel. When the sun goes down, our adventurers reunite before the walls of the Imperial Citadel.

‘Why is it called the Imperial Citadel anyway?’ Ziggy said suddenly. ‘I thought the family was, like, just kind of broadly in charge, not running an empire.’

Marty laughed loudly, patting her shoulder. ‘You’re one of us now for sure,’ he said, ‘picking apart Veg’s skills as campaign master.’

‘I’d like to see you do better,’ Veggie retorted.

‘You know none of us could,’ said TM reassuringly. ‘That’s why we keep you around.’

‘Thanks, I think,’ said Veggie, and continued.

Before the walls of the Imperial Citadel, so named because it was once home to the line of emperors who resided in Lanriel -

‘Ahh,’ said Ziggy.

- the heroes look up, and take in the sight of this enormous, white castle. It is a symbol of the pure, fair power and justice wielded by the Lanriel family, but that is now corrupted, so dark ivy and purple crawlers line all the perimeter.

‘Subtle,’ said TM.

Inside are the two cousins who currently hold the wallets paying the guards, and therefore the power of the city itself. Those are the targets of our fair and brave heroes, and before the sun rises again they must both draw their last breath.

Ziggy clapped politely as Veggie finished his speech.

‘Everybody roll perception,’ Derrida suggested. ‘We need to find a way over these walls.’

Iveline spots a section of wall covered in thick branches of climbing plant, underneath which are various holes in the brick which could act as viable footholds. L and Iveline climb up easily with their high agility; Malachi manages to scamper up with the help of a charm of weight loss, which he just happens to have lying around and not because he’s self-conscious or anything, and by hooking his sorcerer’s staff over the lip; Barry absorbs himself into the many shadows crawling about, and slithers over in the darkness cast by a nearby tree. Atgard punches the wall really hard to make bigger footholds.

‘That better not have made too much noise,’ TM said warningly.

‘Nah,’ Derrida said. ‘Atgard might be a seven-foot snake built like a brick with superpowered gauntlet fists, but he’s pretty light on his feet.’

‘That’s true,’ said Veggie, looking down at his notes on each character. ‘You did put it in, right there under “backstory and miscellaneous attributes”: “pretty light on his feet”.’

The heroes clear the first outer wall, and alight carefully down on the other side, in an open garden with lots of willow trees and babbling brooks and such.

‘Well, this is nice,’ says Malachi.

‘We need to get inside without being detected,’ L tells the group.

‘Yes, you do, actually,’ Veggie said, ‘since the thing that L found out on her researchy travels today is that there are a ton of charms and spells and sorceries and magicks, and other such things, placed on the entrances to the building. If you go in through a main entrance, or get spotted by a guard before entering, alarms are gonna be sounded and everyone in the building’s gonna be coming down to get you. Plus the important rooms will be sealed off by magical walls and traps.’

‘Sounds intense,’ said Ziggy.

Iveline swings her grappling hook about pointedly, and sends Dogpet the falcon up to peer in through a window.

‘Window,’ says Barry thoughtfully. ‘Can we all make it up there?’

Atgard pounds his fists together. ‘Why not,’ he hisses.

‘Okay, Iveline,’ says Barry, taking charge. ‘Get that hook up there -’

Iveline clears her throat, and Barry sees that she’s already done it.

‘Of course she has,’ TM said.

Iveline makes her way quietly up the rope; L easily follows her, and they slide open the window and clamber in. L fans out her cloak, creating a wide shadow in the moonlight down the side of the wall; Barry sinks into it and travels up the wall.

‘I guess I’ll need to roll for this one,’ Marty said, as if anticipating impending disaster.

‘Naturally,’ Veggie said. ‘Derrida, you haven’t got a chance on this one so I wouldn’t even bother, to be perfectly honest.’

‘How am I meant to get in, then?’ Derrida demanded.

‘There are lower windows,’ Veggie said, shrugging. ‘How’d it go, Malachi?’

‘On the edge,’ Marty said doubtfully, examining his stats and dice.

‘Idea,’ said Ziggy.

‘Hold the rope,’ L calls down to Malachi quietly. He grips the rope as tightly as he can, and the three heroes who’ve already made it up through the window pull him up as quickly and silently as possible.

‘Atgard, wait here,’ Barry instructs. ‘We’ll try to disable the security spells so you can just enter.’

Atgard hisses unhappily, but does as instructed, folding his arms and leaning against a sturdy tree trunk.

‘Can Malachi actually do that?’ TM said to Marty as an afterthought. Marty shrugged, looking at Veggie.

‘Yeah, why not,’ Veggie allowed. ‘Probably.’

The four sneaky heroes find themselves at the end of a long corridor, to the sides of which are several doors. Barry’s special item from Rusk might come in handy here: an interior map of the Citadel.

‘That’s a bit shit,’ said TM. ‘I mean, there’s a map right there.’ He pointed at the map Veggie had painstakingly drawn, which Veggie quickly concealed under a few pages of notes.

‘Well, yeah,’ Veggie said, ‘but Barry doesn’t know that. Which is why I kindly gave you this very useful map, so you’re welcome.’

Barry pulls out his map and unrolls it, checking it carefully.

‘I have absolutely no idea which window we came through,’ Barry admits.

‘I do,’ L says.

‘You do?’ TM said.

‘Yeah, I think so,’ said Ziggy. ‘Right?’

Veggie nodded. ‘She’s got, er, really high map-reading stats. I also made up a map-reading stat.’

‘This is the main gate,’ L says, pointing on the map, ‘which makes this the wall we came over. Then we headed straight through the garden, crossed the stream at this bend, and this is the window we came through on the second floor.’

‘Nice,’ says Barry.

‘Which means,’ L continues, ‘that we’re now in this corridor.’

Barry and Malachi look down at it closely. Iveline just sort of loiters in the hall, since her Blindsight isn’t quite ridiculous enough that she could read a map with it. ‘So… the Nice Cousins are in one of these rooms?’ asks Malachi.

‘Looks that way,’ says L.

Iveline, hearing this, starts walking slowly along the corridor, listening to any sounds within the rooms. Dogpet toddles along on the ground beside her so as not to make any distracting flapping noises. She stops beside one of the doors, and points to it meaningfully.

‘We should really get Atgard inside before we start completing objectives,’ TM said; Derrida nodded.

‘Too right,’ he said. ‘Atgard’s getting antsy waiting outside. Plus I don’t want you lot getting all the EXP without me.’

‘We must proceed, for now,’ Barry says. ‘We may need Atgard’s help.’

Iveline nods in agreement, but gestures towards the door behind which the Nice Cousins reside. L nods, and nudges Malachi meaningfully.

‘What?’ says Malachi.

‘You’ve got a nice soothing voice,’ says L. ‘Tell them we’ll come back for them. They’ve heard us here now, so we can’t just walk away without letting them know.’

‘Fine,’ says Malachi, pressing his ear against the door to listen. ‘Hello?’ he says, and hears a desperate-sounding voice from inside call ‘Hello?’ back. ‘We’re brave heroes, here to rescue you and depose your evil cousins,’ Malachi says reassuringly.

‘Roll for it,’ Veggie said. ‘See how they respond.’

Marty slapped an ability card down, reading ‘Soothing Words’. Then he rolled. ‘Add one eight-sider to that thanks to my excellent oratory skills,’ he said, tapping Soothing Words, ‘and with that I think you’ll find that that’s a critical pass.’

‘Not a natural one, though,’ Veggie said, ‘so no super bonus.’

‘Aw,’ said Marty. ‘I was sort of hoping Malachi might tempt one of the Nice Cousins into a bit of nookie.’

‘I don’t even want to know what sort of check you’d need to roll to actually have intercourse,’ Derrida said.

‘I do,’ Ziggy chirped.

‘We’re alright,’ says a shaken female voice from within. ‘My brother is not well, but… we are safe.’

‘We have to go and… sort out some stuff,’ says Malachi. ‘But we’ll be back, I promise.’

‘I believe you,’ says the voice from within, ‘but please hurry!’

Malachi nods heroically and the group make their way down the corridor, following Barry’s map.

‘You know they couldn’t see you nod, right?’ Ziggy pointed out.

‘I’m sure they heard it,’ said Marty flippantly.

Turning a corridor, the group suddenly find themselves face to face with an enormous man whose arms are covered in tally marks.

‘Hello,’ says Barry.

‘Intruders?’ says the man, who is clearly not particularly smart, and picks up an enormous club. ‘Tank smash!’

‘Really?’ said Marty. ‘Tank smash?’

‘Hey,’ said Veggie, ‘it’s not easy coming up with this many distinct and interesting characters.’

‘Apparently not,’ TM said, smirking.

‘Hey, what are the things on your arms?’ says Malachi, pointing to the tallies.

‘Number of Tank victims,’ says Tank.

‘Pff,’ says Malachi. ‘Come, Mr Tally Man, tally me banana.’

‘Then I wave my dong at him,’ finished Marty.

‘Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,’ said Veggie. ‘Roll for it.’

Marty paused. ‘Ehhhh,’ he said uncertainly. ‘I’m not sure I wanna risk a critical fail on this one. Daren’t think what might happen to the old wang.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Veggie. ‘Roll priority, y’all.’

Tank makes the first move, springing forth with surprising speed, and swings his club down on Iveline. She manages to sidestep most of the blow, but takes damage to the arm.

Dominika tapped insistently at a ticked checkbox on her character sheet, and rolled.

Iveline’s Counter Strike ability, which she gained training with the assassins of the Leaf, lets her strike back in retaliation. She puts a deep cut on Tank’s arm with her long knife, then cartwheels athletically out of range and sends Dogpet in to peck at his eyes. He falls back, his giant hand clutching at his face as the falcon sets upon him.

‘Marty, your shot,’ said Veggie.

‘Malachi uses…’ Marty began.

‘Ooh, ooh,’ said Derrida excitedly, waving a hand in the air. ‘Buff me, buff me!’

‘You’re not even in this fight,’ Marty observed. Derrida sank back with disappointment. ‘I’ll use Charm of Strength on Barry.’

Malachi calls the power of ancient warriors to his staff, and casts a great magic upon Barry to increase his strength. L then dashes towards Tank, ducking down to slide between his legs, and pops up behind him to slash at the back of his legs. Tank falls to his knees, groaning in pain.

‘There’s darkness about, right?’ said TM, scratching his chin.

‘Yeah, why not,’ said Veggie.

Barry sprints down the hall, sinking into the long shadows along the walls, and emerges in midair before Tank, where he strikes with his long sword in both hands and takes off the kneeling Tank’s head.

‘Wait, what?’ Marty said, blinking in surprise.

‘Hm,’ said Veggie. ‘I guess you all increased your stats more than I was expecting.’

Tank falls down in front of the group.

‘That was easier than anticipated,’ Barry says.

‘I wouldn’t bet on it continuing to be so easy,’ Malachi replies. ‘Something tells me that some god watching over this and divining our fate will likely see our easy progress and decide that it would be really fun to make everything more difficult.’

‘Oh, stay in character for once,’ Veggie bemoaned, to which Marty grinned, stuck his tongue out and gave him the finger.

‘Let’s keep going,’ says L, leading them down the corridors without bothering to look at the map.

‘We need to find the hub of the security spells,’ Malachi says thoughtfully, hurrying to keep up. ‘There must be someone keeping them active.’

‘Then we need to take them out,’ L says.

‘How do you know where you’re going, anyway?’ Barry asks.

‘I memorised the map,’ L says dismissively.

‘You did?’ says Barry.

‘You did?’ said TM to Ziggy.

‘L’s got a good memory,’ she explained casually, ‘and so have I.’

L heads down numerous twists and turns (‘How big is this place, anyway?’ asks Malachi, not entirely rhetorically, but nevertheless nobody bothers to answer). As far as Barry, doing his best to keep track of their progress on his map, can tell, she’s heading for the dead centre of the place. Eventually they reach a large, open room with large curving staircases at either side leading down towards a man with outstretched arms, standing in front of an enormous rotating ball of energy.

‘Well, I guess that’s it, then,’ says Malachi.

The man hears him -

‘Oh, bugger,’ said Marty, ‘sorry about that.’

- and turns, arms majestically dropping into a wise sort of pose, like the one Chinese people are sometimes doing in those ancient portrait type things. You know, like a kind of… beard-stroking, other arm folded… thing. With really wide sleeves.

‘Anyway,’ Veggie finished lamely, ‘he’s seen you and he’s pissed.’

‘You must be one of the bodyguards,’ Malachi calls down.

The sorcerer gives a deep, wide bow. ‘I am the one they call Fist.’

‘Wait,’ said Ziggy. ’This one’s Fist?’

‘I’m getting to it,’ Veggie shushed.

‘I am called Fist,’ says Fist, ‘because I do not need to use my fists.’

‘That’s fucking dumb,’ says Malachi.

‘Marty,’ said Derrida reproachfully.

‘Sorry,’ said Marty. ‘Just to reiterate, and I’m saying this out of character now: that’s fucking dumb.’

‘Thou speaketh odd,’ Malachi clarifies.

Fist raises a fist, shrouded within his enormously roomy sleeves, and extends his fingers with great force, like Bruce Lee but more wizardy.

‘You’re really having fun describing this guy, huh?’ said TM.

Veggie nodded happily. ‘Fight’s on, bitches: roll.’

Barry makes the first move: leaping down from the landing, ignoring the stairs entirely, he positions himself to Fist’s left.

‘That’s it?’ Veggie said with an air of surprise. ‘You’re not going to attack?’

‘Not yet,’ TM said, thinking carefully. ‘I think I have a plan.’

Iveline looses an arrow right into the enormous revolving ball of magic, where it vanishes in a puff of disintegrating wood and feathers.

Dominika shrugged. ‘It was worth a shot,’ Marty translated.

Fist begins his fight now, waving his arms around like this.

Veggie’s arms wheeled about him like poi.

He makes a complicated gesture, drawing a magical circle, and the ball of magic hovering behind him pulses blue.

‘Fist gains Yoten’s Lock,’ Veggie said, noting it down, ‘a passive buff that raises his defence against non-priority critical sneak magical hits, so long as they’re not triple-break stunlocks on the fifth turn of a racial ability activating.’

’Why the hell did you give him such a specific ability - and more to the point, why would that be his first move?’ Marty asked, laughing.

Veggie shrugged. ‘Might come in handy, never know. Fail to prepare and all that.’

‘Also,’ said Ziggy curiously, ‘what exactly did all that mean?’

‘Nobody knows,’ TM said reassuringly.

L pulls out her crossbow, shooting an arrow right at Fist.

‘Roll,’ Veggie instructed; Ziggy did, as did he. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Close, but Fist’s supernaturally high perception lets him dodge it.’

‘Balls,’ said Ziggy, adorably.

Malachi sets about casting a favourite charm of magical burglars, a charm of unlocking and unsolicited entrance.

‘Sounds a bit rapey,’ said Veggie.

‘I’m just trying to take out the bloody security spells,’ Marty said defensively.

‘How many turns to cast?’

‘Er… next one.’

Barry finds himself unable to use any of his Shadowguard abilities on account of the enormous glowing ball in the exact centre of the room, which sort of eliminates most of the shadows in the immediate area. He draws his long sword and punching dagger, moving towards Fist, and strikes with both. Fist is able to magically deflect the main strike, but takes a hole from the dagger in his side, which is wounding but not serious. Barry moves back out of range, though not before taking a magical slap to the face for mild counter damage.

Iveline sends Dogpet in; he soars above Fist’s head, banks down to narrowly avoid flying right into the magical nexus, and scratches at the back of his head with sharp talons.

‘Ahh,’ said Veggie smugly. ‘That’s a non-priority critical sneak magical ability, so Fist only takes mild damage.’

‘How is that magical?’ Marty demanded.

‘Rangers’ pets count as magical tokens,’ Veggie said happily.

‘You bastard.’

Fist swats Dogpet away with his open hand; the falcon swoops back up to join his mistress on the balcony above. Then he holds his hands in the air in front of him, poking out of the end of his really hyperbolically large sleeves, and whorls of blue magic start to form around his fingers.

L decides to move in close, leaping from the balcony. She hurls three trick knives in one smooth whip of the elbow: one blade hollow and filled with explosives, one curiously and exotically poisoned, and one weighted so as to seem to change its path in flight. The explosive hurtles into the ball of magical activity, causing a medium-loud boom and a violent shaking of the spinning sorcery.

‘It’s weakening!’ L announces, ‘possibly.’

The weighted blade curves about, past the small magical barrier Fist places up in its place, and nicks him on the arm. His wounded arm drops, the other coming to grab it in pain, and while his guard is down the poisoned knife thuds into his shoulder.

Malachi’s spell complete, he releases it, and the ball of magic shudders and shrinks before disappearing completely. Fist yells in distress as his incredibly useful buff drops.

‘Also, that’s the security nexus unmagickened, so the door’s open for Atgard now,’ Veggie said.

Atgard bursts through the door -

‘How does he know it’s open?’ Marty said inquisitively.

‘Instinct,’ Derrida answered, tapping his hands on the table in frustration.

‘Roll for it,’ Veggie said exasperatedly.

Atgard’s suddenly bizarrely sensitive perception of magical forces kicks in, and he realises the door is no longer alarmed, so he kicks it down with his massive snake foot and barges in with a great hiss-roar thing. He leaps on Fist from behind, punching him mercilessly.

‘Fist’s taken a fair bit of damage,’ Veggie assessed, making a few notes. ‘Re-roll priority, dudes. Atgard’s shakin’ this order up.’

Fist reaches out to the empty air in which his ball of magic once floated, summoning the remainder of the energy from the space. Tendrils of blue magic sprout from nothingness, surrounding Fist in an aura of powerful sorcery. Fist suddenly grows in size and power, shining bright blue and calling a powerful spell to himself. The glow around him starts to intensify.

‘Can I make some sort of check to identify this spell without using an attack turn?’ Marty said thoughtfully.

‘Why not,’ said Veggie.

Malachi knows what the spell is: an area-of-effect explosion that will do damage only possible to describe as ‘severe to extreme’ to anyone caught near the centre of its radius. It also requires a level of pain and desperation on the caster’s part, so Fist must be fairly well-injured.

‘We have to take him out before he can finish casting!’ Malachi yells to the party, then casts a simple, speedy magic missile at him. Fist reels back, groaning in like a distorted voice ’cos he’s all big, and a spherical barrier springs to life around him.

L skips backwards, towards Iveline and slightly further away from the ominously glowing Fist, and looses another crossbow bolt at him, which bounces harmlessly off the barrier.

‘TM, your turn,’ Veggie said.

Barry does nothing.

‘Wait, what?’

TM tapped the side of his nose. ‘I told ya. I’ve got a plan.’

‘No shadows about,’ says Barry, correctly: the enormous globe of brightly shining magic may be gone, but Fist is now just as luminous. ‘Iveline, it’s time for That Plan.’

‘This isn’t shonen, man,’ Veggie said despairingly, ‘you can’t just capitalise That Plan and suddenly unleash some new ability that conveniently happens to be just what you need to beat this enemy.’

‘Dominika?’ TM said pointedly. She nodded.

‘You didn’t seriously make a Plan, capital P Plan,’ Veggie said in disbelief.

‘Maybe,’ TM said proudly.

Iveline draws her bow and nocks the heaviest, sharpest, most magically enhanced arrow in her quiver to it, then with a motion of her head directs Dogpet. He launches from her shoulder, swoops about the room, and flies past L, his talons grabbing the parachute out from under her cloak. As the falcon’s flight path takes him between Iveline and Fist’s enormous glowing self, she releases the arrow. It punctures the folded parachute, which unfurls in the air and billows out behind the flying arrow, casting a fluttering shadow in its wake.

‘Aaand I think I’ll take my turn now,’ TM said smugly.

Barry leaps forth, descending down into the shadow of the billowing parachute, and rides it speedily behind the arrow. The arrow lodges in Fist’s outer barrier, and the shadow of the parachute, flapping about in the light cast by Fist’s glowing body, casts itself for a split second on the inside of the magical shield. Barry erupts from the shadow, on the inside of Fist’s shield, and sinks both his blades into Fist’s face.

‘That was fucking awesome,’ Ziggy said, punching TM eagerly on the shoulder.

‘Please say you’re gonna allow that,’ Derrida implored Veggie, who could only sigh.

‘That was a pretty awesome bit of roleplaying-cum-ingenuity,’ he conceded. ‘Gotta allow it.’

‘Woop,’ chirped TM.

Fist sinks to his knees, slowly because he’s so big and everyone knows that big monsters fall slower.

‘Derrida, your turn,’ said Veggie. ‘Finish him off.’

Atgard activates his newly-learnt ability of Religious Fervour, drawing zeal and energy from his faith in the great Blood Gods, and rips off both Fist’s arms.

‘Fucking hell, Derrida,’ Marty exclaimed.

Then he imbibes in Fist’s spurting blood, absorbing his magical strength, and punches him so hard in the face that his head explodes.

‘Christ,’ agreed TM.

‘Okay,’ said Veggie. ‘Moving on.’

‘I think I might need a quick comfort break,’ Derrida announced, stretching his arms. He looked contented, as if he and not just Atgard had personally just feasted on the flesh of his foes.

‘Pick and mix run?’ Marty suggested.

’Oh, heck yes.’

Marty and Derrida were out of the door faster than anyone could have said ‘greedy buggers’.

‘Well, this seems to be going well,’ TM observed.

’I’m slightly concerned that it might be going too well,’ Veggie mused, making a few alterations to his campaign paperwork. ‘Might not have sufficiently planned for this whole… trainingamebob.’

‘Another fictional death,’ TM thought he heard Ziggy mutter, and decided it might be time to watch more wrestling.

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