Verse 4: THE GAMBLER
While Forest Trolls undoubtedly inspired the popular saying "dumb as a stump," they are actually quite wily. Loud's first blow was directed at Polglase rather than the actual object of its wrath, most likely because it recognized the Dragoon as the greater threat and decided to take her out of the equation. Then again, maybe it hit Polglase simply because was she closer. One never knows.
Trolls are among the most respected of the universe's countless sentient races; amortal beings, all but immune to physical damage, noble, stalwart guardians, adept at dealing with disasters natural and un. Widely sought as allies in conflict, they are fierce and tireless combatants who will only join a cause if convinced it is just. Highly intelligent, well read and erudite, True Trolls are honored members of their respective Faerie Courts.
Forest Trolls are not, however, True Trolls, and share virtually none of their antecedents' finer qualities. There is some pardonable confusion between Forest Trolls and the Braganthi (Tree Troll), but only to the casual observer. Adults of both breeds loom anywhere from six to nine spans tall and are covered in hard bark and leaves. The easiest way to tell them apart, though, is by the eyes: Braganthi eyes glow a deep, soulful green, while the eyes of a Forest Troll are sometimes hard to distinguish from knotholes. Other clues: the symmetry of Braganthi limbs and the beauty of their foliage, as opposed to Forest Trolls' misshapen, haphazardly arranged branches and leaves that are often off-color and plagued with split veins.
Forest Trolls are the bastard offspring of Braganthi and the brutish Swamp Orku, a race best known for smacking each other with blunt instruments, yodeling, and standing around waist deep in muck, staring vacantly into space for days on end. Moreover, they are offspring only in a purely genetic sense, since a Braganthi would no sooner mate with a Swamp Orku than a dragon would mate with a pile of manure. Forest (and the other Lesser) Trolls were long ago bred in laboratories by white-robed industrial Taskmages with receding hairlines and no social lives whatsoever, in an effort to produce cheap labor for an ever-expanding market. Forest Trolls are one of their most noteworthy success stories, and are valued for their strength, diligence and durability; albeit not by True Trolls, who view them with disdain and disgust. Put into common terms, in the Great Family of Trollkind, Forest Trolls are the barely tolerated cousins given camp cots in the basement and forced to pay rent. The kind of relative who would be seated at the children's table at reunions. The less said about some of the other Troll / Orku crossbreeds, such as the (shudder!) Fungus Troll, the better. Still, though they are not the equal of their great and noble fore-bearers, Forest Trolls are not to be taken lightly.
Thus, T'Lexigar harbored few illusions regarding his chances in a one-on-one fight with Loud. He had none. Yes, as a Minstrel he had been schooled in magical self-defense, and the sword he habitually wore was no mere showpiece. T'Lexigar was deceptively strong, despite his willowy appearance, yet here his strength was overmatched by at least an order of magnitude. Nor was he exactly a pushover, having a working knowledge of pressure points that, when pinched, struck, or kicked, could temporarily incapacitate the hardiest of jealous boyfriends or self-appointed music critics. Alas, a Forest Troll – enraged or otherwise – has no pressure points at all.
In times like these, T'Lexigar often recalled another bit of advice his mentor Roberlein had given him: "Always have an escape route." There were two possible candidates. Unfortunately, the window was closed and almost certainly unbreakable, and there were thirty assorted humans and two Forest Trolls between him and the tavern's double doors.
Guess I'll have to play this one by ear, he told himself.
As Loud swung both of its left branches at him, the Minstrel flung himself backwards. The upper branch missed his face by a feather's width, but the longer lower one clipped his hipbone, spinning him violently around. Losing his footing, he wound up on the floor halfway under a table. After a moment's consideration, he decided this was as good a place as any for the time being and snatched at his sword belt. Using a rapier against a Forest Troll would, he suspected, be as useful as smacking a mountain cat with a paper fan. Still, it was a better choice than the other weapons at his disposal: a laughably puny dagger, his hands, and his mandojo.
His fingers had barely snagged the swordbelt when the table above him shattered. The Troll limb that had done such an effective job of furniture distressing continued unimpeded towards its target, namely his face. Twisting to the right just as the wooden fist slammed into the floorboards hard enough to send splinters flying, he tried to scuttle away, only to have Loud catch his left ankle and hoist him into the air, his mandojo thunking resoundingly against the back of his head. With his free leg, the Minstrel kicked into a backwards flip, in the process breaking the Troll's hold and nearly breaking his ankle. Landing gracelessly but upright on an adjacent table, he drew his rapier and brandished it at his irate foe.
"You want a piece of me, ash-hole?" T'Lexigar taunted.
"Not ash… yew!" Loud roared.
"Gods bless you," the Minstrel replied automatically.
Captain Polglase had momentarily had the wind knocked out of her by the surprise attack, but she recovered almost at once. She sprang to her feet behind the overturned table and, with practiced eye, surveyed the melee in terms of terrain, traffic, and threat assessment. Fully half of the tavern's occupants were crowding around the door, climbing over each other in their haste to attend to urgent matters elsewhere, creating quite the bottleneck. Ten patrons were watching the fight with varying degrees of interest, but she discounted them as mere animate furniture. There were two ogres in the room: one apparently intent on ignoring a situation that was none of his business, the other happily chewing an order of sausages – plate and all. So they did not count either.
However, there were two potential sources of trouble. Across the room, three Men and a Sand Troll were rising from their seats and encouraging the rampaging foliage. It was not uncommon for Lesser Trolls to work as landscapers, and from the presence of a Sand Troll, Polglase surmised that the crew had been engaged in building the new whackem course a wing or so down the road. If they decided to stop giving moral support and become participants, things could get dicey fast.
The other potential threat was cowering in the corner. Her bright red-and-yellow robes proclaimed her to be a Pyroclast, and if her relative youth and obvious anxiety hadn't marked her as a Junior Apprentice, the single solid black band of felt on her sleeves and hem clearly did. The girl was spooked, and a powder keg in more ways than one.
"Get out of here, kid!" Polglase growled at the terrified young woman. The Dragoon drew her banded sword from its sheath and pointed at the throng by the door. "That way! Now!" The apprentice's head jerked in Polglase's direction, and she tentatively moved to comply. Polglase turned her attention to the fight already in progress and moved to help the Minstrel. The boy had some chops, she noted, and was agile enough, but his stance lacked balance, his weapon was a joke, and he was not thinking beyond the moment. He was clearly improvising, which might be fine in music but was no substitute for a battleplan.
"Civilians!" Captain Polglase muttered with a wry grin. That single word said it all.
Loud and Annoying took up positions on either side of the table on which their chosen prey was standing and, at some unspoken signal, brought all eleven arm-limbs crashing down, reducing it to so many flying splinters. Their target however, was already gone.
At the last possible instant, T’Lexigar had jumped, grabbing desperately at a light fixture floating overhead. Swinging from it, he managed to land on top of the bar, skidding a bit on the ale soaked surface, then dropped behind the bar, twisting his already sore ankle in the process.
The Trolls looked down at the floor, figured out that their prey’s pulverized body was missing, and looked about, trying to determine where he had gone. Annoying, whose uppermost eyehole was situated farther up its trunk than its cousin, caught sight of a blue-black head crouching behind the bar and, pointing one limb towards the Minstrel’s hiding place, thwacked Loud with another to gain its attention. As one, the Trolls charged.
Polglase, with all the experience of a seasoned campaigner, swung her sword – actually more of a 2.5-span truncheon – in a precise arc that caught Annoying as it past, right in what, on a being of flesh and bone would have been the knees. The impact felled the not so mighty woodman, knocking it off its roots and sending it to the floor with a crash. The Dragoon quickly turned her attention to Loud, but before she could reach it a sandstone fist hit her in the small of her back, sending her sprawling onto her victim. The fallen Troll, who had been using three of its limbs in an attempt to regain its roots, crossed the fourth and fifth over Polglase's chest and squeezed. The Sand Troll that had blindsided her loomed menacingly over them both, looking for an opening.
T'Lexigar was crawling towards the end of the bar, hoping to dash for the slowly thinning crowd at the door when he found himself face-to-roots with Loud. Troll towering above him, T'Lexigar scrambled away, just barely staying out of reach of the grasping branches. A backwards glance told the retreating Minstrel he was rapidly running out of bar. Once it was gone, Loud would be upon him.
As the wooden limbs closed round her chest, seeking to squeeze the life (and possibly the lungs) out of her, Polglase focused her will and Summoned Armor. Armor is a complex and altogether fascinating thing. The apex of several million years of military research and development, it protects its wearer from nearly every conceivable threat… as long as it is actually being worn. Unfortunately, armor is heavy, bulky, and not really suited to such activities as sleeping, bathing, or spending a night in a public house enjoying a smoke, a drink, and a few relaxing hands of poker for small stakes. Realizing this limitation, the Dragoon's had, in their nigh infinite paranoia, equipped their defensive paraphernalia with the latest in auto-equipping enchantments. Thus, Polglase’s breastplate, which had been sitting in her room at the Festival Inn some six wings distant, was transported – in less than a heartbeat – across the intervening space, and instantly coalesced around its master who exhaled gratefully, then cast Electrify.
Annoying, who barely had time to register the changed situation, continued to squeeze with all its considerable might, albeit against suddenly greater resistance. Then a jolt of liquid fire shot through its limbs, flashed across its trunk, and into its heartstone. Its leaves and branches suffused with jagged blue-grey incandescence and, with a shriek, it shuddered once then lapsed into unconsciousness. The limbs holding Polglase convulsed, crackled, burst into flame, then snapped free of Annoying’s torso.
Grunting at the smoke, she easily regained her footing, then ducked as the Sand Troll lunged for her. With a smooth twist and flourish she plunged her left hand into its midsection up to the wrist and cast Fuse. Nothing happened for half a second. Then the area around her hand metamorphosed from tan to grey to crystal white, spreading outward like wildfire. In seconds, the Sand Troll was an immobile glass statue with a look of confused disbelief on its face. Polglase wrenched her hand free, taking a chunk of glass with it. She shook her fist, shards braking free to rain down on the floor.
"Who wants to be next?" she snarled.
The Weren landscapers looked at the still smoking Forest Troll on the floor and at the gaping hole in the Sand Troll's midriff. None said a word. In fact, they looked incapable of speech altogether.
T'Lexigar's back was literally against the wall, and all he could see was bark, bar supplies, and impending doom. His rapier, stuck in Loud's trunk, smacked uselessly against a bag of pistachios as the Troll closed the gap. T'Lexigar tried desperately to think of a spell that would get him out of this picklejar, but at the moment the only one he could dredge up was Mood Lighting, hardly apt under the circumstances. Then he spied a dark brown earthenware jug, clearly labeled "DOG'S PISS: Absolutely Unmalted Whiskey" and below that, in even smaller letters that he couldn't make out but knew, from unfortunate experience, it stated "95% Alcohol by Mass." He grabbed the bottle and, shielding his eyes from the fumes, smashed it against Loud's roots. The pool of liquid spread at first, but receded quickly as it was absorbed into the Forest Troll's nether limbs.
"What elf dooooo?" Loud rumbled, swaying in a breeze that was not there.
T'Lexigar had taken advantage of a commonly known fact about Forest Trolls. Every so often, they must take root and draw nutrients and water from soil. Since they don't want to stay stationary for very long, attracting pesky squirrels, birds, and woodcutters, their roots are quite efficient at drawing what they need from the ground in a timely fashion. To Loud's chagrin, the same roots proved equally efficient at soaking up some of the most potent Tazyr whiskey in all of creation. The bottle, in fact, had been kept on the lowest shelf to minimize the chances of an explosion if it accidentally fell. Loud had met the fate he intended for T'Lexigar: he was well and truly smashed.
This did not make Loud any less dangerous, but reduced its reaction time sufficiently to give T'Lexigar a chance to vault over the bar and head for the small throng still trying to elbow their way out the front doors.
"Coming through! Hot soup! Lady with a baby!" he called, bumping into a short blonde woman in bright red-and-yellow robes.
Makasha Donshiffre, Junior Apprentice Pyroclast, had nothing more exciting planned when she set out to the Greenhill than the prospect of getting mellow enough to justify succumbing to the advances of a total stranger. All such randy thoughts evaporated as she tried to escape the bedlam around her. She was probably not really cut out to be a Pyroclast if noise and destruction made her so uneasy, she realized on some level; after all, Pyroclasts essentially live to blow shit up. She was still in the earliest stages of her apprenticeship, though, and hoped she would eventually get used to it. Just not tonight.
She felt someone bump into her and reflex made her look to see who it was. What she saw was a handsome, if shallow, Minstrel, his long dark hair flailing wildly, and behind him a Forest Troll, awkwardly turning around so it could continue the chase.
"Eep!" Makasha screamed like a boy, and the first thought that popped into her mind was Forest Troll = Wood. The second was Wood + Fire = Ashes. The third was "Cast Firebolt!"
So she did.
As Firebolts go, it was fairly puny, a sphere about the size of a smash'em ball. As trajectories go, it only missed Loud by a span, and might have come closer if the soused Troll hadn't been tipping like a palm tree in a hurricane. In terms of results, however, it was pretty impressive. The sphere struck a crock of Wild Muskrat, which blew apart and ignited several more adjacent bottles. Moments later the Greenhill’s liquor wall exploded, setting the entire bar area merrily ablaze. The force of the blast also shoved Loud right into the washroom door, where it stuck.
Polglase assessed the situation with a somewhat jaded air. Spotting the tavern owner, she grabbed him by the shirtfront and demanded, "Fire extinguisher!"
"Th-there," he stammered, pointing at the wall by the washroom door, from which Loud was in the process of clumsily extricating itself. Polglase dashed past the struggling Troll and grabbed the red wand. She aimed the business end at the conflagration, then bellowed the activation word "Extinguish!" (The bellowing wasn't strictly necessary; a whisper would have done just as well, but Polglase had found that shouting at inanimate objects helped her maintain her inner calm when life was being more than a little irritating.) A thick cloud of fire suppressant foam totally failed to emerge from the device. Puzzled, she examined the wand more closely; its charge, she noted, had expired two years previously.
The Captain gave the owner a withering glare. "You are in so much trouble," she told him, then addressed the room entire. "Everybody down!" she yelled in her best Command Voice, then turned her attention back to the fire. Without checking to see if she had been obeyed, she cast Implosion.
The effect was instantaneous. The bottles, shelves, mirror, back wall, and a good two-thirds of the bar collapsed inward. The fire, deprived of oxygen, went out – or rather "in" – with a loud pop! and soon all that remained was a smoldering sphere of debris illuminated by the moonlight pouring through the hole where a wall had been.
T'Lexigar dropped like a stone upon hearing Polglase's Command, as did every other non-troll occupant of the Greenhill. Loud (still wedged in its doorframe prison), Annoying (still crackling), and the Sand Troll stayed where they were, although the later shattered into several dozen pieces, the largest resembling a glass ostrich egg. Once he was certain the immediate danger had passed, the Minstrel got gingerly to his feet.
"You hurt, lad?" Polglase demanded. T'Lexigar checked himself, his mandojo and his purse, then shook his head. "Then get out of here! I shall attend to the wounded." With that, Polglase bent over a grey-bearded man bleeding from a scalp laceration.
The Minstrel did not need further encouragement. He leaped over the rubble and out through the new egress into the night, intent on putting as much space between himself and the Trolls as possible. They would be after him soon, he knew, and were tireless, single-minded trackers. Loud would not stay trapped in a doorway forever, and Annoying would eventually come to its senses and join the hunt. T'Lexigar took to his heels, heading for the most obvious landmark, the stark tower that stood silhouetted against the night sky. He had covered a fair distance when he heard a thunderous crash behind him. Looking back over his shoulder, his hair whipping in the breeze, he saw a Forest Troll. Putting on a burst of speed, the Minstrel fled up a rise and Loud followed, stumbling, behind him.
As he started up the hill, the Minstrel noticed the breeze growing to a gust, but he paid it scant heed, his long legs carrying him ever upward as the gathering wind lent him speed. He was in sight of the crest before he realized that he was less running and more being dragged along ever faster by the now gale-force winds. Looking up he saw a gaping hole of swirling energy, directly in his path, drawing him ever closer to its maelstrom maw. Deciding he’d rather take his chances with the Troll instead, he turned round in his tracks and made to escape. Still, despite his intentions and efforts to the contrary, he found himself being sucked inexorably backwards. Then the slick turf betrayed him and, all at once, the wind snatched his legs out from under him, planting him face first in the grass. This lowered profile did nothing to impede his involuntary progress, nor did his desperate attempts to anchor himself by clawing at the dirt. Clumps of sod flew back behind him as he failed to gain purchase in the soft soil. In seconds, the suction lifted him off the ground and – with a panic he had not felt since his childhood – T'Lexigar Machallo flew into what looked to him like a vertical pit full of liquid oblivion. Before he could even open his mouth to cry out, the Minstrel was gone.
In his study, Shim Po was just about to recheck the spell book when a large object came shooting out of the left-hand tunnel and into the Protective Sphere. It hung suspended beneath the spinning Chaos Seed for a split second, barely long enough for the Mystic to make eye contact with the cartwheeling figure, and then whooshed out the other conduit for the remainder of its journey.
"What kind of infernal creature was that, Master?" Rogi asked with a straight face and a barely stifled giggle.
"I don't know," Shim Po admitted. "It looked vaguely like a Minstrel I once bested at poker."
As master and minion continued to stare at the sphere, wondering what would happen next, the tunnels began showing disturbing signs of destabilization. They changed color, started getting fuzzy around the edges, and there was a noticeable hum that wavered between 60 and 325 cycles in pitch but was definitely getting louder. Shim Po was about to give up the whole plot as a miserable failure and flee for his very life, when another, much larger creature – about six spans tall and covered in hard bark – caromed through the tunnels and disappeared after the first.
"Now that is more like it," Shim Po cackled, rubbing his gnarled hands together.
"Forest Troll," Rogi observed.
"What you were so delighted to see was nothing more than a common garden-variety Forest Troll" Rogi sneered, "In fact, I think it was one of the crew working on your new whackem course. Face it, Master. You are a lamentable excuse for a villain. You just sent a harmless Minstrel and a Forest Troll gods knows where, but if it was within 500 wings of the Mystic Guildhall, I will cheerful eat my own stool and call it chocolate pudding! That's it! Consider this my notice. I am taking that job as an assistant embalmer at the Yorvadan Municipal Morgue. The conversation – not to mention the smell – is bound to be an improvement, and… what are you staring at?"
The look of stunned amazement on Shim Po's face brought Rogi's rant to a screeching halt, and he turned around to see what the Mystic was seeing. The tunnels were vibrating. They changed color several times a second. The danger was palpable, yet neither man could wrench his gaze from the sight. It was like watching a skin shed its snake. The hum passed beyond the range of hearing, but could still be felt in the very marrow of their larger bones. Books flew off the shelves and began to shred themselves. The Protective Sphere was definitely more oblate now, being stretched beyond all tolerances. Something had to give, and with a flash of turquoise light and a huge "Kablam!" the Sphere winked out of existence. The tunnels shrank away to nothingness and then every magical object in the room – the floating light orbs, the plate which kept the tea warm, the revolving award for public service Shim Po had browbeaten the City Council into giving him, and the fifteen self-cleaning plaques which the Mercantile Association of Yorvadan had given him over the centuries for Meritorious Service to the Economic Community (i.e., buying lots of stuff and paying for it on time) – exploded into fragments, plunging the room into sudden (not to mention stuffy) darkness. Shim Po and Rogi were flung to the floor. The echoes gradually died away, and all was very, very still.
Finally, after an extremely uncomfortable silence, Shim Po said, in a voice not quite strong enough to be a whisper, "Actually, I meant for that to happen."