Lights, Camera, Action!
I stopped dead in my tracks, not immediately realizing what had just happened. As my eyes adjusted, I found myself standing at edge of a large forest, not far from a squad of tigreth soldiers, all female. I wondered at the time, but later learned that this was historically accurate for the movie they were filming; Longshore didn’t unify until after Calliban’s Crusade, and at the time, the tigreth government was a matriarchy, tigreth men being considered only fit for reserve troops.
Realizing my error, I turned around to exit the set only to find a sheer cliff behind me. While there was likely some sort of safety function, I wasn’t about to test it by making a leap of faith.
One of the tigreth warriors had noticed me by that point. After pointing me out to her fellow soldiers, she drew her weapon and approached me. She had a fiery look to her; red fur, amber eyes, and a series of black and white markings over her body, most of which was visible thanks to armor that even Iniagus might have thought skimpy. I get that having fur probably made overheating a serious concern, but it was hard not to stare at the tigreth’s attractive body and face as she approached.
She stopped, her eyes widening.
“My apologies, madam.” I said, raising my hands well away from Glint. “I wandered here by accident. Can you show me the way out?”
She growled at me. Alarmed, I took a step back.
“Uh, nevermind.” I said, “I’ll find my own way.”
I tried to step around her, only for her to block my path. Whenever I moved, she moved so that I couldn’t pass her. Too late, I realized the look in her eyes wasn’t anger.
“Oh, no.” I said, “You couldn’t be in thrall. There’s medication, there’s-”
Her sword flashed in the air. I ducked under it and slipped around her, shocked at this turn of events. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who noticed; several of the other tigreth actors were hurrying our way.
“Look,” I said, backing away slowly, “It’s not that I don’t find you attractive, but I’m in a bit of a WHOA!”
She swung at me so fast that I almost ended up a head short. Thankfully, I had paid particular attention dodging in my training even before Bethany’s training regimen and dove aside instinctively.
As she spun around, I glanced at a nearby tigreth, hissing, “Uh, a little help?”
“Stay in character!” she hissed back, but I noted a worried look in her eye. “Just try not to die, okay? We’ll do the best we … we …” Her eyes began to have the same hungry look.
“Oh, no.” I said, “Not you too!”
She reached for her weapon, growling through her teeth, “Get moving! I can’t … too many of us in thrall.”
I glanced at the group, and to my horror, they were all starting forward toward me.
I knew more about the tigreth than I did about the fional, mostly because of a tigreth girl by the name of Selena. I had an immense crush on her back when I lived in Rimstak. When Uncle Ann noticed, she made sure to educate me very well on the tigreth, particularly the manner in which they choose a mate, in particular the process known as ‘bonding’.
After reaching maturity, tigreth females enter a phase known as ‘the thrall’ in which their innate psionic abilities become exceedingly strong. When a female in thrall is attracted to a mate and said mate is in turn attracted to her, the two will engage in a fight. If the challenger is victorious, the two are immediately drawn to kiss. If they do, the two form a psionic bond that allows them to share thoughts and feelings, and inevitably draws the couple closer together both mentally and physically.
If, however, if the challenger is not victorious, the female in thrall traditionally will fight until she kills him or her. The most common theory for this is that it’s a natural response to the skewed ration of male to female births coupled with an instinctive desire for a strong mate. While actual fatalities weren’t common in modern times, injuries were common.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that when in large groups, the latent psionic ability in female tigreth can spread the thrall to other tigreth. This creates a domino effect of psionic energy that gets stronger with each tigreth who falls into the thrall, and invariably will set off the entire group. One stray thought thanks to a skimpy costume and a pretty face, and I found myself the target of over twenty armed tigreth women.
Fortunately, not every tigreth appreciated the competition. A snowy-white tigreth started forward, only to be knocked aside by the tigreth with the red fur. In a matter of seconds, the entire group was fighting. If the situation had been less grave, I would have been flattered. As it was, I used the distraction to flee.
I had barely made it ten feet before I heard someone shout, “He’s getting away!” Peering back, I saw that some of the tigreth had stopped fighting and were now chasing me.
Even with my training, there was no way I was going to outrun all of them. They were tigreth, and could run even faster on all fours if so inclined. Still, the prospect of a highly probable death was an excellent incentive.
Unfortunately, I was a little too focused on who I was running from and not focused nearly enough on exactly where I was going. A sharp dip in the landscape knocked my sense of balance completely askew, sending me tumbling down the rest of the hill.
After a few jumbled moments, I finally rolled to a stop. From my new position, I could see that I’d gained quite a bit of ground; the tigreth were only just starting down the hill, cautious to avoid the same pitfall as me even while in thrall.
I quickly got to my feet and hurried toward the forest. Casey had mentioned something about finding an entrance to the next set, but I didn’t see anything around that seemed like a way out of the holographic set.
As I neared the edge of the forest, four tigreth leapt from the trees blocking my path. I didn’t even have time to wonder how they had got there so fast.
The redhead stood in front of the others, “He’s mine.”
My mind raced for a solution, something that could clear my path without actually hurting them. Then it clicked: Force Edge.
I leapt back, and swung my blade in a wide arc. A wave of energy burst from my blade, blasting the tigreth away from my path and knocking several out cold, including the redhead. She hit a nearby tree hard enough to make me wince in sympathy.
I started to keep moving when a twinge of guilt made me pause. Although I really should have known better, I knelt down beside the redhead to check for a pulse.
She tackled me before I could even blink. Pinning me to the forest floor, she said, “You can stop running; that was more than enough for me.”
“Oh, I think I do.” I said, trying and failing to get up; she had pinned me down almost exactly as the fional had that night at the lake. Some detached part of my mind made a note to have Bethany add wrestling to my training.
It was strange; If she felt I had defeated her, I was supposed to feel an urge to kiss her; the only thing I felt at the moment was an intense desire to be somewhere else.
She moved her face nearer to mine; I was still struggling to break her grasp when she was knocked away by what looked suspiciously like a Force Edge.
I turned to see a Galden man leading a small troop of soldiers, all wearing the uniform of the mad King Calliban. I hadn’t even thought about it before, but of course it stood to reason that whatever scene the tigreth were shooting involved the brief but decisive conflict that followed Iniagus’s attempts to invade Longshore.
The other tigreth were rushing through the clearing now, their attention shifting to the Galden soldiers. A slight pang of guilt ran through me; while it wasn’t my intention, I’d inadvertently put the Galden soldiers in danger’s way.
“The tigreth are in thrall.” I told the soldier who saved me.
His eyes widened, but he gave me a firm nod. In a quiet voice, he said, “Understood. Keep moving through the forest, and you should reach the next set.”
“Don’t worry about us!” The man said in a louder voice, turning to face the red-furred tigreth, her gaze now on him. “That information is crucial to the King!”
Without another word, he brought his prop sword around in an arc, sending another Force Edge at the red-furred tigreth. She dodged this one and darted forward, only to nearly catch the flat of his blade in her face.
Seeing other tigreth approaching me with the thrall in their eyes, I gave the Galden a final appreciative nod before dashing into the forest. I forced my way through heavy foliage, the tree branches scraping my face as I …
… stepped into a ballroom. All the dirt and leaves that had were stuck in my clothing and hair vanished; my clothes were clean, and I felt as though I had just been given bath. I quickly moved away from the door, as there was nothing to make me believe the tigreth couldn’t enter just as easily as I.
There were high-class people all around. Some were waltzing in the center of the room, others were talking amongst themselves, and still more were eating from the trays set around the room. Everyone wore extravagant suits and dresses, lending the party a very upper class feel. Taking a moment to collect myself, I said, “Okay; the dragon was straight ahead when I entered the battle zone, so I need to head that way.”
Fortunately, there was a magnificent set of doors in the direction I needed to go, at the other end of the hall. As I made my way through the room, I noticed that everyone was wearing masks: elaborate, full faced masks made to look like the various races.
Someone grabbed my hand; her wings marked her as a faerie, and quite a lovely one too.
“Just once, I wish I could meet an ugly girl.” I said, my face red.
She giggled, her cheeks turning bright red. “Thank you, milord. Would you dance with me?”
“I appreciate the offer, milady, but I’m a bit preoccupied right now.”
I risked a glance behind me. I didn’t see any tigreth yet, but it was only a matter of time. Sure enough, I saw several tigreth searching in vain for me through the crowd.
“Come on! It’ll be fun.” Without waiting for my reply, she took my hands and placed one on her waist, the other on her shoulder.
Fortunately, I had studied a fair bit of dancing during my time at the Saybaro; footwork was a major part of fighting with any type of sword. After a few small missteps, I managed to catch the beat and swept through the dance floor with the lovely faerie. Her wings flittered around me, stirring up a sparkly dust that swirled around us.
As we danced, I slowly moved both of us toward the main doors, hoping that the fact that I was dancing this would throw off my pursuers.
The faerie maiden floated through the air with a remarkable grace. I wondered if it was true that their feet never touched the ground after they received wings. Eventually, however, she noticed my glances at the tigreth who were slowly spreading through the outskirts of the ballroom.
“Cat problems?” She asked, a teasing smile on her face.
“Just a bit of a misunderstanding.”
“Let a thought slip around the kitties, eh?”
I laughed, though I was unable to suppress a note of nervousness. Glancing around, I asked, “Mind if I ask you something?”
“I can’t help but notice that you’re the only one not wearing a mask.”
“I never wear a mask. It’s such a silly tradition, isn’t it?”
“I suppose. Still, I feel kind of strange without a mask.”
“Without a … wait, you’re not wearing a mask?”
“Uh, no.” I smiled at her. “This is my face.”
She suddenly backed away from me, a horrified expression on her face.
Feeling a bit put out, I asked, “What’s wrong? I’m not that ugly, am I?”
Pointing a shaking finger at me, she cried out, “GALDEN!”
Everyone in the entire ballroom stopped and looked at me.
Thousands of masks changed into angry faces. Glimmering wings broke out everywhere, lifting hundreds of slim forms into the air. I was surrounded by a horde of unfriendly faeries!
“Get the groundling!” Someone shouted.
Some of the tigreth were immediately draw to the cause of the commotion. To my amazement, though they seemed to notice me, they stopped well clear of the faerie crowd.
Then it hit me; everyone in the ballroom was an actor or actress; the Galden soldier had been quick to refer to me as some sort of contact or informant, and even in the thrall, the tigreth were suspicious of the sentients now that the masks were off. Anyone who lived in Wukice had showbiz ingrained in their personality, and were practically hard-wired to stay in character, just in case the cameras were rolling.
The Faerie-tribe sentients may be friendly in this day and age, but they used to be extremely xenophobic, mostly because ‘groundlings’ kept kidnapping young faerie men and women (though there is some conjecture that said maidens and lads left voluntarily to escape a frighteningly draconian Faerie government). If I played into the situation, I might be able to get to the doors.
“Faerie tribe, period piece,” I said, thinking fast. “If I were a horrible groundling here to steal a faerie bride, what would I do?”
An idea popped into my head. I wasn’t completely comfortable with it, even if it was just acting, but I didn’t have time for finesse; the tigreth were moving to box me in.
I grabbed the faerie maiden and held Glint to her neck, shouting to the crowd, “Stay back! I’m taking the lady with me!”
To my surprise, the faerie maiden seemed genuinely scared. To be fair, I did have a sword against her throat, even though it would take a few minutes of steady sawing to leave as much as a scratch on her pale skin.
“Relax.” I breathed in her ear, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“But y-you have a sword! A real sword! I can feel the metal!”
“Yes, but you can’t feel the edge because there isn’t one. I don’t have time to explain this; just play along until I can get to the next set.”
“Oh! I get it!” She cleared her throat, and screamed, “Let me go, I beg of you!”
A few of the faerie men made threatening gestures, some even using flashy magic, but none moved too close. Slowly, keeping my eyes on as much of the group as possible, I began to make my way across the dance floor.
I was only a few feet from the large chamber door when I caught a glimpse of the tigreth with snowy white fur crouched behind one of the tables of food. Letting go of the faerie, I managed to catch the tigreth in the middle of her pounce and toss her into a large cake.
I turned to make a run for the doors only to have a set of vice-like hands grab me by the arms and lift me in the air. The biggest man I’d ever seen held me aloft and stared me in the eyes. He did not look happy.
A winged cat hopped onto a nearby table and said in a high-pitched but definitely female voice, “Ell would like to demonstrate what happens when people threaten his friends.”
“Ell, no!” The faerie girl shouted, “We were just acting! It’s just a scene for the movie! Tell him, Flip!”
The cat glanced at the big guy for a moment before shaking her head. “Sorry, Min. I don’t think he’s listening.”
Fortunately, I managed to raise my foot high enough to prop it up against the man’s chest. I don’t know if I caught him off-guard or if he was distracted by his friends’ attempts to calm him down, but I managed to kick out of his grasp. I hit the ground running and rammed through the doors with everything I had in me. As the door gave way, I closed my eyes, tried to ignore the pain running through my shoulder, and slammed the door.
After the disorientation passed, I opened my eyes and found myself in a large hallway lined with countless doors. My foot brushed against a can of red paint someone had left near the door leading to the previous set.
The door handle rattled, startling me from my observations. Grabbing a broom that was leaning against the nearby wall, I jammed it under the door handle. I knew it wouldn’t hold for long, but at least it would buy me some time.
I quickly chose a door and ran through it, only to end up in an identical hallway. The only difference was that the can of paint was further away. I could even see the broom I had propped up against the door handle.
Something occurred to me. I waved Glint through the door and glanced down the hallway. It took a moment, but I spotted my blade about fifteen feet away.
“Huh.” I spun around, looking at all of the doors. “One of the doors must lead to the next set, but which one?”
I glanced at the can of red paint. “Guess I’ll have to do this the hard way.”
Picking up the paint can, I splashed some paint on both sides of the door I had just taken. Choosing another door, I walked through, and ended up on the far side of the hallway.
As I marked the door, the door with the broom slammed open. In ran a horde of faeries, tigreth, and the massive fellow who had nearly squashed me earlier. One of them pointed at me and said, “There he is!”
I dove through the nearest door and ended up behind the entire group this time. They were halfway down the hall before I managed to trip over a bump in the carpet and dropped the paint bucket to the floor with a loud clunk.
Not bothering to see who was shouting, I slapped my paint-covered hand on the nearest door, and ran through it.
It didn’t take long for the scene to dissolve into complete chaos. Everyone was running everywhere, tearing open doors, rushing through, and ending up all over the place. A few times, I ended up chasing some of the group that was supposed to be chasing me.
I continued marking doors, stopping only to wet my hand with the paint again, until only two doors remained; one would lead to the ballroom, the other to the next area. The broom was gone, picked up by one of my pursuers as a weapon, no doubt, leaving me with no idea which door was the right one.
The group of faeries erupted from a door to the right just as a group of tigreth emerged from a door on the left. As the groups converged, I picked a door, whispered a quick prayer to the Creator, and ran through it.
About a minute later, I hurried into some kind of lounge on the other side of the new set, my face burning with embarrassment. On the other side of the door, the throng of tigreth and faeries had no doubt been joined by several angry men and women draped only in bed sheets.
“I didn’t know they made those kinds of movies here!” Shaking my head, I dove through the only other door and found myself face-to-face with myself.
We both froze, shocked. As I started at him, I began to notice subtle differences: the shape of his eyes, the shade of his hair, and the fake tan on his skin. Still, it was obvious that he was supposed to be me … but why? Who would make a movie about a bridge-keeper?
My doppelganger was the first to find his voice. “Oh, good. The stunt double. Well, I’ll just leave it to you then.”
He patted me on the back and walked through the door to the erotica set, a move I’m sure he’d regret very soon. Glancing around, I realized I was outside my home, or at least a holographic representation of my home.
There were some pretty noticeable errors, however; the mansion was gigantic, and perfectly maintained. My bridge was a magnificent affair crafted from ivory and gold, and the river beneath it was a raging torrent.
That wasn’t the only thing different; there was a woman tied to a long pole where my tree should have been. It was Sera!
I rushed forward, calling out, “Princess Sera!”
“Jimmy! Save me, my love!”
My love? I barely knew her. Besides, hadn’t she said that she had someone already? Shaking my head, I kept running.
The throng of pursuers appeared as soon as I reached the bridge. The Faerie mob flew through the air, tigreth ran on all fours, and a few people from the last set ran as fast as they could holding sheets over their private bits as they rushed after me.
I spun around; it wasn’t really mybridge, but it was close enough for me to stand my ground and do the job I’d done for the last thirteen years, no matter who was chasing me.
Channeling as much energy as I could muster, I shot a Force Edge large enough to encompass everyone.
The wave of energy dissipated before it could do much more than simply stop the throng. They all looked at me with expressions of surprise.
“Listen up!” I shouted, “I don’t want to fight you, but if you don’t get lost right now, I’m not going to hold back! I am Jimmy Olsen Sakamota of the Wenapaj Royal Guard, and no one is crossing this bridge!”
I braced myself for an onslaught that never came. To my complete surprise, the entire group turned and fled, screaming all the way until they disappeared into an adjoining set. Even the big guy ran off, the winged cat and the faerie girl under his massive arms.
“Damn right.” I said, tossing Glint in the air and catching it deftly.
I turned back toward the princess and found myself staring into the bemused face of a very large blue dragon.
“Plucky little thing, aren’t you?” It commented in a deep booming voice.
It took a few moments for me to regain the ability to speak. The dragon waited patiently, twin curls of smoke rising from its nostrils.
Steeling my courage, I said, “Sir or madam, I am Sir Jimmy Sakamota of the Wenapaj Royal Guard, and I am here to secure the release of Princess Sera by the order of his Majesty, King Iniagus the twenty-seventh. I do not wish to resort to violence, but I have my orders.”
The dragon appeared to consider this thoughtfully. “I think I understand your position, Sir Jimmy, but allow me to present my counter-argument.”
I dove into the river just in time to avoid being blasted by the dragon’s fire breath.
I climbed out hurriedly, soaking wet. I started to pull out Glint when an idea popped into my head. It was a shot in the dark, but after everything else I’d dealt with thus far, I decided to risk it.
“Hey!” I shouted, “What gives? That’s not in the script!”
The dragon seemed to be completely caught off guard by this. “Huh? But I thought … oh! Oh, right! I’m supposed to do the flame breath after you flail your katana at me. Terribly sorry, chap. Let’s just take it from the top.”
The dragon took off and flew behind the mansion. Thanking my lucky stars, I quickly dashed over to Princess Sera and untied her bonds. “Are you okay, Princess Sera?”
“What in Nocturnes are you doing?” She asked, sounding annoyed.
I squinted at her. It was hard to tell with water still in my eyes, but after a moment I was sure that it wasn’t Sera. She wore the same ridiculous armor and had the same ample proportions, but the face, while beautiful, wasn’t the same.
About that time, the dragon flew over the mansion and saw what I had tried to do.
“Hey!” It shouted, its booming voice shaking the ground, “That’s bloody unfair!”
It dove at me with frightening speed as I tried to make my escape into the mansion. It snapped the metal pole like a twig as it flew past. Fortunately, the ‘princess’ had already scurried away.
Without looking back. I threw open the front door of the Saybaro Mansion and ran inside, only to find myself in another forest.
There was a tigreth with auburn fur and a white patch from her nose to her stomach standing next to a Chaser with her hands on her hips. She was talking with a young man about my age wearing a tell-tale green and gray-striped shirt. It was probably just an actor, but I recognized the role he was playing only too well.
“Hey! Narrator Number One” I shouted, rushing over as fast as I could.
He and his companion turned, both looking at me quizzically. As the actor playing One opened his mouth to reply, his eyes suddenly went wide. “Get down!”
I fell to the ground and not a moment too soon; the dragon swooped overhead, its claws missing me by mere inches.
As I rose to my feet, I noticed that the dragon’s right wing seemed injured where it joined into the dragon’s back. It wasn’t bleeding, but it looked as if the bone was exposed. It had probably hurt itself when it slammed into the pole.
As it spun and prepared to dive again, I rushed over to One and pointed at Headache. “Are those functional?”
He looked at them, then at me with a curious expression. “Last time I checked.”
“Good. Could you throw me just above the dragon as it passes by?”
One seemed a little surprised by this request. “Really? You sure, dude?”
“No,” I admitted, my eyes on the dragon as it dove toward us, “but toss me anyway.”
The LEDs on the side of Headache began to illuminate as the strength booster charged. Just as the dragon leveled off, One picked me up and threw me with all his might at the dragon.
The rush of air was almost blinding, but I managed to grab the hilt of Glint and pull it from its sheath. As I passed over the dragon, I drove the point as deeply as I could into the dragon’s back with surprisingly little difficulty. Strangely, the dragon didn’t even seem to notice.
The dragon rose into the sky as I held on for my life. Leveling off, the dragon bellowed, “Where are you, Sakamota?”
“Hey, scale-face!” A voice below us shouted. The dragon focused on One, who was making an insulting gesture with the mechanical retractable hand in one of his Headache units. The actor playing Teria slapped her backside and shook it provocatively.
With an angry roar, the dragon flew toward them. As its body went level, I moved with some difficulty toward the wing. Barely able to see as the wind stung in my eyes, I gripped Glint as tightly as I could, and swung at the exposed joint with all my might.
Glint cut deep into the joint, nearly cutting the wing off altogether. I might have been able to keep my balance if the wing hadn’t torn loose and hit me in the forehead.
Disoriented, I fell from the now spinning dragon’s side and landed with a jarring thud, Glint still clutched in my hand. I watched, dazed as the dragon crashed to the ground and exploded into a million flaming pieces.
“Wow!” I murmured as I began to pass out, “I didn’t know dragons could do that.”