This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
“Is the coast clear?” a voice urgently whispered.
“Oh, I can not believe you just said that!” another voice criticized far too loudly.
“Ssshhhh!” the first voice chastised the second voice. “Just check and see if anyone’s around, okay?”
Pause and silence.
“All clear,” the second voice confirmed in a go-ahead sort of way.
“All right, who’s got the shears?” the first voice -- which happened to belong to Jérel Valdis, Minkelven -- inquired.
“Got ’em,” a third voice -- belonging to a drinking buddy of the Minkelf -- answered.
“Okay, then,” Jérel motioned with a wave of his furry hand. “Let’s grab the whoople.”
“You know,” the second buddy spoke up again, an air of distaste about him, “When you put it like that it kind of sounds --”
“Shut up!” the Minkelf pushed whispering to its definitional limit. “Let’s just get this done.”
“Why are we doing this again?” a fourth party spoke up for the first time, his eyes noticeably glassy.
Jérel dropped his guard and sighed. “We’ve been over this. Fenwhite is taxing the hell out of imported river wheat.”
“And kettleberry beer is made out of imported river wheat,” the Minkelf reminded his group of buddies in a lecturing tone.
“Why don’t we just use our own river wheat?” the second buddy ventured.
“Because river wheat grows in Shehan,” Jérel educated him impatiently. “You see any river wheat around here?”
“Nah... guess not.”
“All right, then. Let’s grab the whoople and do this as quietly as possible.”
“Maybe expensive beer ain’t such a bad thing,” the third buddy chimed in, shrugging his shoulders in acceptance. “We do drink an awful lot.”
“I don’t believe this!” Jérel frowned and allowed his voice to raise a little. “An hour ago you guys were behind me on this!”
“An hour ago we were all drunk,” buddy number four ventured.
“That doesn’t make any difference!” Jérel fairly scream-whispered. “This is the right thing to do. It’s a protest... a political statement.”
“Shaving Fenwhite’s whoople is a political statement?” buddy number three asked uncertainly.
“You know,” the second buddy broke in, wearing a frown of distaste, “When you put it like that it kind of sounds --”
“Dammit, can we just do this already?!” Jérel put in what he hoped was the final word. It was. The others shrugged indifferently and made ready to go through with it.
“Good,” the Minkelf nodded approvingly. “Now, Fenwhite and the Misses are in the reception room with some diplomat or another --”
“You’re really up on your current affairs,” buddy number three pointed out sarcastically.
“Fenwhite has an official whoople-walker,” Jérel ignored the comment through sheer force of will. “You can set your watch by him. He always brings Skippy out that door,” he pointed, “at exactly four-thirty. That’s about thirty seconds from now. Reggie and Phil are gonna’ grab the guy,” he looked to the two buddies in question. “Don’t hurt him”, he added with emphasis. I’ll shave Skippy while Bob holds him down. Agreed?”
Assorted, non-committed nods.
“Great,” Jérel sighed. “You guys are real activists!”
“Can we just hurry up and go back to the bar?” buddy number three whined.
“Sshhh!” the Minkelf warned. “The door’s opening...”
And so it was done.
Off in the distance the sounds of rumbling echoed over the land, and the ground shook gently as the fur flew. It was an unnatural sort of rumbling. Something ominous and foreboding. Perhaps Jérel’s political protest would be overshadowed by this looming threat...
We, personally, hope that’s the case. It’s pretty hard to expand that protest thing into book form.
* * *
“Yes, Lord Wyndham?”
“Where in Zuppita’s furry...?! Oh, forget it!” Zaccheus Wyndham, wizard of wizards, Lord wanna’-be of the Seven Pillars of Kuloth, sighed dejectedly and plopped down heavily in a stiff, wooden chair in a manner most unwizardly. Rubbing his temples in exhaustion, he motioned for the youngster to join him. Taldo flapped over to the wizard uncertainly. The last time Zaccheus had lapsed into one of his moods, Taldo had very nearly wound up in a vegetable stew. Zaccheus grew impatient with the bird’s hesitancy. “Just perch your feathered hide, Taldo!”
“Yes, Lord.” Taldo settled warily upon the wizard’s staff, waiting uncertainly for whatever.
“Do you pray to the gods, Taldo?”
The nerve-wracked owl had not expected this question by any turn of the head. “My Lord?” he expressed his confusion.
“It’s not a difficult question, Taldo.”
“I pray to Moya, the god of pine needles,” Taldo dove right in enthusiastically.
“Pine needles?” Zaccheus inquired distractedly, with little enthusiasm.
“Yes, Lord. We, the followers, -- the tiny twigs on the great trunk of Moya -- believe that one day Moya will return, and all the world’s pine needles of long ages past will resurrect and unite to --”
“Shut up, Taldo,” the wizard grated impatiently.
“Yes, Lord,” the bird hung his head obediently.
“Does this pine god answer your prayers, then?” Zacc tried again.
“Yes, Lord...” Taldo ventured. “Provided we phrase the prayer in the form of a question. You see, Moya --”
“Shut up, Taldo,” the wizard again grew impatient.
“Yes, Lord,” the owl bowed his head once again.
“I answer to no god, Taldo,” Zacc stated defiantly after a moment’s pause. “Do you know the power of my arts?” he asked confidently.
“I’ve never doubted it, Lord,” the owl nodded.
“Don’t interrupt, Taldo,” the wizard had apparently not actually desired any feedback.
“Yes, Lord,” Taldo resigned himself to simple responses.
“The gods are weak, Taldo,” the wizard seemed more to be thinking aloud at this point. “And I have found their weakness and we are it.”
“I’m sorry?” Taldo dared to ask.
“The gods need us, Taldo. They need you and they need me.” Zacc hesitated a moment and looked up at the ever-attentive owl. “Well, all right, maybe they don’t need you,” he frowned. “But anyway, without their followers they wither and die like an old, useless memory. With no one to proclaim their might, they are mighty no longer.”
“I don’t follow you, Lord,” Taldo tipped his head a bit to one side.
“There’s a big surprise,” Zacc huffed distractedly.
“Huh?” the bird frowned.
Zacc realized that he was simply abusing the poor owl at this point. He decided to try to involve the bird a bit more, conceptually. “If I told you to go to the market and fetch me a swamp melon, would you fetch me a swamp melon?” he asked, searching for signs of life.
Taldo jumped from his perch and flapped toward the door.
“Taldo!” Zacc scowled.
Taldo returned. “Something else, Lord?”
“I don’t want you to go, Taldo,” the wizard wore an expression of fatigue mingled with disappointment.
“Oh...” the bird struggled to keep up.
“It’s a hypothetical question, Taldo,” Zacc explained, rubbing his temples.
“Just answer the question, bird,” the wizard gave up entirely.
Zaccheus pictured Taldo roasted to perfection on a tray with some nice, mushy boiled carrots just the way he liked them. He sighed. “Forget it. You already answered. You’d go. But now say you didn’t know what a swamp melon was --”
“You didn’t know what a swa--”
“Stop that!” Zacc lost it.
“Yes, Lord. I’m sorry. Was that another of these hypological questions?”
Zaccheus sighed again. Maybe a nice, hot buttered roll. Rolls go with everything. “Just pretend we don’t speak the same language, and you couldn’t understand a word of my command. What then?”
“Why, then I’m afraid I should be left utterly clueless, Lord.”
“There’s a big surprise,” Zacc muttered.
“Not only could you not carry out the command,” the mage ignored Taldo’s confusion, “but what would become of the meaning of my words, Taldo?”
“The meaning would be lost on me completely, Lord.”
Zaccheus resisted the temptation. “You would have no concept of my idea, quite correct.”
“To what end do you speak, my Lord?”
Zaccheus cast the owl a suspicious glance. This was not the first time Taldo had seemed to demonstrate that there might be a brain under all those feathers. But he just passed the incident off as a fluke. “Are the gods the same as you and I, Taldo?” he resumed his inquiry.
“No, Lord,” Taldo seemed shocked.
“No, indeed. They are not of flesh and blood...” he appraised the owl quickly, “or feather...as we are. They do not exist as we know existence.”
“I see, Lord,” Taldo nodded.
“Do you, Taldo?” Zacc pressed.
“No, Lord,” Taldo admitted, dropping his head.
“What would you say differentiates us from the dumb animals, Taldo?”
“Our minds, Lord.”
“Quite so. And do the dumb animals have their gods, then, Taldo?”
“I tend to think not, Lord.”
Zacc largely resisted again, but muttered an observation.
“I agree, Taldo,” he opted to move on. “What, then, is the domain of the gods, Taldo?”
“It would seem that they exist in our minds, Lord.”
“Oh!” Zacc perked up a bit. “So you are paying attention. Anyway, you’re half right. They do exist in our minds. But they also exist through our minds,” he fixed the owl with a penetrating stare. They inflict themselves upon us through our consciousness. Without our reflective minds, the gods do not exist.”
“I follow, Lord,” the owl nodded, though he seemed a little anxious.
“Then tell me, what purpose do the gods serve?”
“Well... ” Taldo considered. “Moya --”
“Spare me the pine needles, bird,” Zacc became instantly irate.
“Yes, Lord,” Taldo paused uncertainly.
“Well?” the wizard pushed impatiently.
“I do not know their purpose, Lord.”
“I will tell you,” Zacc took over sort of reassuringly. “Their purpose is to further their own gains. To perpetuate themselves. The gods are nothing more than amazingly evolved parasites, bottom-feeding off of the awareness of the physically-rooted mind.”
“Um...” Taldo attempted and failed.
“Don’t bother, Taldo,” Zacc waved away the owl’s best efforts. “I didn’t tell you any of this because I expected you to understand. Quite the opposite. Anyway, you needn’t know anything further.” He scrutinized Taldo momentarily. “All in all, I’m going to have to say that this conversation really wasn’t worth my while,” he added a final thought.
“I’m sorry, Lord,” the lackey apologized for lacking.
“Indeed you are,” Zacc nodded approvingly. “Now go away,” the wizard shook his head in irritation.
Taldo made to leave.
“But not beyond earshot,” he reconsidered quickly. “I have a feeling I’ll be needing you soon.”
Taldo flapped away obediently, ever keeping a wary eye on his unpredictable master. But Zaccheus had already turned his thoughts inward, to the matter of the gods and how to be rid of them for good.
* * *
Little waves of powdery snow fanned out around the Minkelf’s boots as they plowed through the ankle-deep dusting. Jérel stared at nothing in particular as the trees whizzed by him in fluid silence. A strange but welcome stillness hung over the vast forested land of Undinaellah; a silence as to hypnotize with its monotony. Jérel whisked along, silent as a breath, the world frozen and lifeless all around him.
Damned poetic, yes? It’s really a shame to have to ruin the mood with what happened next.
“Ouch!!” Jérel fell flat on his furry snout, his lower half sunken into a snow-shrouded hole in the ground. Cursing in a curious near-Elven dialect, he began the painful process of dragging himself up from the hole when a strange and violent concussion -- vaguely groundquakish -- rocked the area all around him. Having just managed to lift himself from the sinkhole, he now found himself face-first in the snow yet again beneath a sizable tree branch. Aching in more than a few locations now, he managed to heave the branch from his person and to get to his feet as the tremor faded into obscurity. Brushing the snow, dirt, and tree bits from his fur and clothing, he straightened fully upright, painfully, and dazedly took in his surroundings. “Well,” he began thoughtfully. That, unfortunately, is when the second branch fell.
* * *
“Taldo! Taldo!” Zaccheus Wyndham, wizard of wizards, mage of mages, and everything else that we already told you, stood with his arms folded across his chest, his right foot tapping impatiently.
“Yes, Lord?” the lackey flapped himself present and alighted duly on his perch.
“About time, bird.”
“I’m sorry, Lord.”
“Yes, you are still that. I’ve a task for you. Fetch our travel gear and be ready to depart upon the coming hour.”
“We’re leaving, are we?”
Zaccheus stared at Taldo upon his perch for a piercing moment. “Yes, we are leaving. Now, scoot,” he scowled. Then, sizing up the bird yet again, he amended, “Or whatever it is that you do. I’ve got my own preparations to... to prepare,” the wizard stumbled. “Now get going!”
Taldo flapped off obediently to do his master’s bidding. Zaccheus hurried himself about his business. And hurry he must. It would not do to be caught at home unawares as his opportunity passed him by. No, that would not do at all. And make no mistake, the opportunity was at hand. Zacc’s time was nigh. He redoubled his already frantic efforts.
* * *
“So, what exactly is he supposed to be?” one of the small gaggle of odd little beings gathered around the unconscious Minkelf inquired of their leader.
“A Minkelf,” that leader answered.
“And why are we here, again?” another of the band asked of the leader.
“Lr told us he’d be here,” the leader motioned to the prone Minkelf.
“I know that much,” the other scowled. “I mean, what’re we supposed to do with ’im?”
“Just get him back safely, that’s all Lr said,” the leader shrugged.
“How’d he know the Minkelf’d be here?” yet another asked.
“How’s he know anything?!” the leader frowned. “He’s a HolyGlove, he just knows stuff.”
“Oh...” the others nodded and fell to silence.
The small band just stood in a semicircle around Jérel in continued silence for a brief space.
“Tall sucker, ain’t he!” the leader stated the obvious with a little puff on his little pipe. The stench of zigger weed wafted up and around the small band of onlookers, then just sort of clung there fouling the air incessantly. For the longest time the smoke wafted, and the throng kept on thronging. No one said a word, least of all Jérel. He, of course, had a valid excuse. Those around him had no excuse for anything, as you’ll soon gather for yourself. These little people were the little-talked-about and little-seen Gloves of Giznad Forest. We’ll tell you a little about them.
A pathetic bunch. Popular opinion holds that there’s no excuse for a Glove. Such is their lot. But then, all beings learn eventually to come to terms with the reality of their particulars as a species. They learn to take themselves at face value. And the Gloves, no exception, have managed to do just that; and it’s a good thing, because no one else wants to. Most folks don’t care for Gloves. And they don’t care to have to interact with them. In fact, though it is generally difficult to bring species together in agreement on much of anything, a nice spot of Glove-mocking seems to have done the trick on many the occasion. In fact again, well-orchestrated Glove-bashing is often just the trick to help to break the ice at interspecies get-togethers, or on occasions when folks otherwise feel that inter-species tensions are running high.
Strangely, this cross-cultural and cross-species Glove-bashing inspired a poetic trend among the various peoples of the Durid some ten Tays ago. And such was the appeal of this new art form that even the more or less poetically illiterate sometimes felt motivated to take part. And that’s rarely a pretty sight. One such attempt -- a piece written by a Mr. Phelpig Lupio, and renowned for its comparative lucidity -- runs thus:
’There once was a Glove from the Giznad
Whose face was malformed just a tad
It could make rain fall up
Even frighten a schnupp
And gee whiz was it ugly!′
For those of you who don’t know, the schnupp is generally regarded as the homeliest member of the rather extensive whoople family. Thus the effective use of comedic insult in this example. Sadly -- for anyone who takes pride in literacy -- this piece ranks among the more coherent and culturally sensitive of Glove-related poems. Thus, Glove poetry has yet to breach the academia barrier, largely. Still, a movement -- however questionable -- is under way presently at the University For Somewhat Higher Learning in Xylon to see the bulk of ‘On Gloves Peasant Poetry’ captured in print and duly annotated for posterity. Those in the language and literature department feel that “...On Glove Peasant Poetry speaks highly of and contributes vastly to the cultural aspects of daily Duridian existence...” blah, blah, blah. Due to a general lack of irony at The University, however, none of the faculty really knows for sure just whether all of that ‘cultural enhancement’ stuff might initially have been nothing more than a wise crack that garnered unforeseen merit and attention from the department-heads. We feel that the referenced “poem” pretty much speaks for itself.
In any case, Gloves simply are unattractive folks. A description is rather difficult and would involve detailed instances of repeated reverence-vomiting, so we’ll steer well clear of that for right now. Suffice to say that Gloves are a bit short and wiry, generally bearded and big-nosed (regardless of gender) with decidedly simian features running amok over an otherwise perfectly ghastly countenance. Those gathered around Jérel Valdis were no exception. Pushing aside his nose to get a better look, the foremost Glove turned and spoke to the others:
“It looks like he’s gittin’ up.”
True to the narrative, Jérel was indeed slowly regaining his senses. Let’s check in on him more directly, shall we?
Somewhere in the murky backwaters of Jérel’s unconscious mind he rather enjoyed his conscious mind’s unconsciousness. Anyway, those would have been Jérel’s words had anyone asked. But it was not to be. Bit by bit, he felt himself subtly reviving. The last of his senses to come around fully was his sight. He lay awkwardly on the cold ground waiting for his vision to make a decision. At long last he attained his sight.
“Aaiiigggghhhhh!!!” he panicked, and scootched back a bit in the snow.
“Why does everyone always do that?!” the leader-Glove demanded rhetorically (though it’s very doubtful he realized that’s what he was doing).
“I’m sorry,” Jérel wheezed himself further into consciousness. “My eyes are playing barbaric tricks on me!” He closed them and rubbed his slanted forehead methodically, waiting for the nightmare ape-toads to fade back into the recesses of his over-taxed and under-qualified imagination. At last, finally convinced of his visual sobriety, he ventured a second look at his new friends.
“Aaiiigggghhhh!!!” he scootched a bit more.
“Stop that!” the same Glove demanded.
“Well... You don’t make it easy!” Jérel snapped back, averting his eyes. Can’t you do something about that?!”
“About what??” the Minkelf nervously covered his eyes with his hands but dared to peek ever so slightly out from between his fingers. “You... about...geez” he stumbled, but decided it best to pull himself under control and to make sense of the situation at hand. “Oh...” he peeked out a bit more, ” don’t worry about it.” He sighed, lowered his hands to the ground, and resigned himself to a tenuous calm. “So... Who are you guys, anyway?”
“O...kay...” the Minkelf nodded, intent on just running with the moment. “I’m Jérel Valdis, Minkelven... from the Tibangea.”
“We know who you are,” the leader Glove nodded.
“You do?” Jérel frowned.
“Yes,” the Glove nodded, then puffed a bit more on his pipe.
Jérel waited expectantly for him to elaborate. The wait proved long. “Why do you know who I am?” he prodded a tad impatiently.
“We were sent for you. Lr told us you’d be here.”
The Minkelf struggled to understand the awkward, vowel-less name. “Who told you I’d be here?” he squinted.
“Lr,” the Glove repeated. “He told us that you’d be here.”
“Yeah...” Jérel frowned, having expected clarification of, not mindless repetition of, this point. “I was expecting, you know, a bit more information on how you knew I’d be here...” his voice trailed off expectantly.
“We were told,” the Glove reiterated, and fell silent.
Jérel gave up. “Well, that’s funny,” his eyebrows popped up, “Someone else knew I’d be here, but I didn’t even know I’d be here...”
The Gloves stared at him stupidly and silently.
A thought occurred to Jérel suddenly: “Where is here?” he asked in confusion.
“You took a pretty good bump on the head from that branch,” the Glove leader motioned toward the offending limb.
“Branch?” the Minkelf glanced around him, still lying on his back in the snow. So that’s what it was...”
“Yes,” the leader nodded.
“Listen,” Jérel began, but was cut off.
“Your questions will all be answered in time, Jérel Valdis, Minkelven. Our Holy Glove will speak with you when we reach Glovenhome.”
“Holy Glove?” Jérel laughed a bit, his head still smarting from the bashing.
The Gloves found no humor in the subject.
“Right...” Jérel stumbled. “Um... I don’t know any of your names,” he looked to the Glove who’d done the only speaking since he’d come back to consciousness.
“I’m Tk,” that Glove responded, the sound of it being more of a clicking noise than a proper name to Jérel’s ears.
“Okay,” he nodded acceptingly, not feeling up to mocking the stranger. “What say we try to get me to my feet?” he asked of the Gloves expectantly.
“That is why we’re here,” Tk smiled, reaching out his hand.
Having thus accomplished the raising of the Minkelf, the Gloves and Jérel set off toward Glovenhome, and toward this ‘Holy Glove’ who’d sent the rescue party. Jérel wondered idly just what lay in store for him, and how in fact someone had known that he had been in need of assistance. And why someone cared at all...
On they walked through the snow, Jérel lost in thought and still nursing his throbbing head.
* * *
Regional Marshal Stuart Fenwhite, as a reward for faithful and exemplary service while in the ranks of the Territorial Guard, had been granted prestigious social status. This status, by many accounts, he took far too seriously; it being more of an honorary appointment than a functionally political one. However, his status and his dedication to his new Marshal’s post are quite beside the point. Of concern to us is a small part of his honorarium.
Because of his noted love of dumb animals, Fenwhite had been presented with a prize-winning plains-whoople, renowned for its indescribably fantastic coat; a coat which, curiously, the whoople can grow once and only once. Damage to the fur is regrettably permanent. Thus the Regional Marshal had come to take great care with and of his honorary pet, Skippy. Mrs. Fenwhite had also taken great pride in her husband’s whoople, but for different reasons.
And so it is that the scene unfolds at the Fenwhite mansion, with both the whoople-walker and the pet conspicuously missing for some time. Regional Marshal Fenwhite stands in the foreground, hollering anxiously, as the little darling himself lovingly races into view.
“Skippy! Skiiipy! Here, boy! C’mere, Skip-- Aaaaaaaiiiigggghhhhhh!!! Noooooooooooo!!!!!”
* * *
“May I ask where it is that we are going, my Lord?”
“Now why precisely would you need to know that, Taldo?” Zaccheus asked the owl flatly.
“No reason other than idle curiosity, Lord,” the cautious lackey answered, settling down upon the mage’s left shoulder. Curiously, tenuous though their relationship was, the wizard never discouraged Taldo from this particular habit. Taldo often spent the better part of his time napping upon the mage’s person. Probably Zacc didn’t mind because such an arrangement made the young owl easy to find when necessary. Truth be told, Wyndham actually rather disliked having a bird roosting on his robe, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d put pragmatism before personal preference. At this particular moment he scarcely noticed.
“Idle curiosity, eh?” the wizard echoed in the interrogative. “Well, you’re certainly adept at the former, if nothing else. Have you gathered everything that I’ve requested?”
“All that I could carry, Lord. The larger items I have instructed the Ux to carry to your wagon.”
“Good enough, I suppose,” the wizard mumbled distractedly, his nose buried in wizardly pursuits. “Go supervise things, then. Make sure those damned clods don’t destroy everything I own!” he grouched, then added, “Go on, shoo!” for a measure of finality, though he’d scarcely given the bird an opportunity to move.
“As you wish, Lord,” Taldo bowed and flew off as instructed toward the wagon and the hulking -- though otherwise severely lacking -- Ux.
“Say, Taldo...” the wizard began a bit suspiciously, some thirty seconds or so after his lackey had gone out of the chamber. When he noted that the bird was missing, the suspicion fell from his tone. “Oh, it wasn’t important, anyway...” he mumbled, returning to his involvements.
Outside, next to the wagon, Mux Ux turned to Lux Ux and jerked his head toward the incoming Taldo. “Here comes that whoople’s wag again,” he frowned. “Whadda’ ya’ s’pose he --”
CRASH!! A wizardly implement fell to the ground and shattered.
“Oh, shit...” Mux managed, nearly thinking the worst. “You don’t s’pose that was worth nothin’, do ya’, Lux?”
“Hell’f I know,” Lux returned in a gravelly voice. “Le’s just get it cleaned up fast and pretend like we never seen it, eh?”
“Good thinkin’, Lux!” Mux congratulated his Ux friend. Then he frowned uncertainly, “Just repeat it slow one more time so’s we both gots the same story if --”
“Aaiiighh!” Taldo flapped up to the scene and panicked at the sight of the mess. “You broke it!” he snapped at the Ux. “You broke the master’s Eye! You may as well just cut your heads off now and get it over with!”
“Oh, don’t get your beak bent, bird,” Mux alliterated casually. “Lux gots a good idea. What we do is we just hide the scraps and --”
“Oh, save it!” Taldo cut the lumbering Ux off impatiently. “Who do you think you’re dealing with here?!”
“Ah, shit,” Mux put on an air of bravery, “I ain’t afraid of --”
CRASH!! he elbowed another implement off of the side wall of the wagon and onto the ground, where it shattered into fragments.
“Oops...” he shrugged indifferently, staring down at the mess.
“Oops??!” Taldo looked as if he might plummet to his death of frustration. “Will you stop waving your arms, you great clod! That was the -- ”
CRASH!! the Ux backed away from the raving owl and knocked over a third magical device.
Zacc really needs to stop buying his implements from the Wizardly Fragiles Express catalog.
“Ohhhh,” Taldo alighted in front of the Ux and held a wing to his forehead. “Get lost,” he panted. “Just get out of here. Don’t touch anything else!”
Mux and Lux shrugged and stomped off gracefully away from their duties as requested, leaving the owl alone to ponder the mess. There was good reason for a faithful servant of Zacc’s to be upset. What had taken nature thousands of hecturns of Ariela to create, took two Ux only minutes to destroy utterly. Truly, a bad turn of events where the ambitious wizard is concerned.
Taldo stood staring at the mess. Strangely, a little owl-smile crossed his beak, and he chuckled softly. He stared off after the receding Ux. He stared at the mess again. He looked about him, as if scanning the area for onlookers. Confident that he was alone, he flapped off and left the mess messy.
Not a bad decision, we gotta’ say.
* * *
“By Xantippe’s golden thighs! Doesn’t that hurt?!” the Minkelf wore an expression of utter disbelief mixed with empathy.
“Ah, Jérel, if ...” (much self-induced vomiting) “...if you only knew!” Tk gasped, smiling in religious fervor.
“Well, I’m not going to find out!” the Minkelf backed away from the Glove uneasily. “That’s awful!” His words brought angry glares from the womenfolk, who toiled nearby as the menfolk vomited reverently. Jérel couldn’t have cared less at the moment. Spiritual vomiting simply would never be his sport. In fact, it rather disagreed with him. Go figure. Further, holding down that damned whoople-intestine tart the Gloves had fed him was proving task enough without the addition of the unpleasant after-dinner entertainment. Ltr threw in (actually threw up) his two bits next, and Jérel’s worst fear of the moment in turn came to pass. Falling to his knees, he shuddered as he vomited up the tart onto the ground before him. With his immense gastric discomfort came warm smiles of acceptance and approval from the womenfolk, who decided on the whole that they’d judged Jérel prematurely.
“Amen” Tk commended Jérel, smiling over at him from his own vomit-vantage.
“I’m gonna’ kill you, Tk,” the Minkelf sputtered through the tart bits revisited, a look of utter revulsion writ upon his face. “And you wonder why nobody likes you!”
“C’mon, Minkelf!” Tk praised Jérel warmly, failing to understand the anger. “You did well for your first vomit. Have some pride in yourself.”
“Pride in myself??” Jérel sputtered, still convulsing. “You’re gonna’ sit there all hunched over and tell me that I can find pride and inner meaning in puking my guts out?!”
Tk cocked his head in confusion, still not following. “I don’t...” he frowned uncertainly, stumbling for words. “Are you... Am I to understand that you’re actually not familiar with the teachings of the EverGlove?”
“The what?” the Minkelf couldn’t suppress a laugh, even given the circumstances.
“Perhaps it’s time that you talk with Lr, now, Jérel,” Tk advised solemnly, finding no humor in the subject.
“This supposed Holy Glove,” Jérel said distastefully, straightening his back a bit so that he now knelt more upright.
“Supposed?” came a gently confrontational voice from just behind the Minkelf, and a hand lay softly upon his shoulder. Comprehension was swift:
“It’s good to meet you as well, Jérel Valdis Minkelven,” the HolyGlove smiled. “Come,” he invited their guest. “Walk with me.” He motioned that Jérel should follow him away from the main throng of Gloves, and Jérel -- perfectly content to leave the festival of vomit well behind him -- happily obliged. He made his way to his feet uneasily, leaving the remnants of his ‘spiritual ecstasy’ behind, and walked off after the retreating Glove. They had not gone far before the HolyGlove began to speak to the Minkelf over his shoulder as he walked, chin held high: “It’s difficult to know where to begin, Jérel...” he paused dramatically in his speech, an air of importance about him that irritated the hell out of the Minkelf.
“You could start in the middle if you like,” Jérel suggested sarcastically to the Glove’s back. “Starting at the beginning is kind of trite.”
The HolyGlove turned and smiled, took a meaningful and deep breath, and began: “In the day of the ElderGloves, thousands of Tays PMW --”
“Pre or Post?” Jérel asked abruptly, not particularly concerned that he’d interrupted.
You see, ever since the end of the Marsh Wars, some two thousand tays past, the accepted abbreviation in terms of Tays (turns of Ariela, the outer moon) has been ‘PMW’. Unfortunately, no one ever knows whether you’re talking about Pre Marsh Wars Tays or Post Marsh Wars Tays. So they always need to ask. It’s a bit irritating in our combined opinion. But what do we know from etymology?
“Pre,” Lr educated the Minkelf, smiling graciously at the interruption. “Thousands of Tays PMW,” he resumed educationally, “the one called Mihtan gazed alone from infinity upon infinity,” he stretched his hands out before him dramatically and paused to allow this ‘deeply philosophical’ information to make its impact.
“Wow,” Jérel said absolutely flatly. “I love a good platitude.”
“This gave Him a searing headache,” the HolyGlove frowned slightly and continued, “though He couldn’t know where, why, or from whence it’d come, or even whether it’d ever come at all. This gave Him an even bigger headache. Or so He reckoned.”
Jérel looked on unappreciatively.
“And so, then... or earlier... or later...” the HolyGlove clouded the tale with further philosophical uncertainties and drama, “did Mihtan create a wrinkle in space and time and place upon that point the first Gloves, the chosen race.” He looked to Jérel for signs of interest. He found none. He continued. “These Gloves were given the Durid, a land that they might call their own, and also were given a Great One, the ElderGlove Himself, Kuloth the Seer, who set forth upon the Durid with absolute knowledge in his Holy grasp, and with Seven Holy Seeds. These he carried to the seven reaches of the continent and fed unto the virgin soil, that they might bring unto the bleak Durid the miracle of life. From the Seven Seeds of Kuloth sprouted aloft the Seven Mighty Pillars, whose heights rose to the skies, and were ever after known as The Seven Pillars of Kuloth.” Again, the HolyGlove swept his hands out before him dramatically. Jérel failed to care. “To these Seven Pillars together did Kuloth the Wise grant the power of cosmic balance. The pillars were imbued with the essence of spacetime. Inherent in their structure and location is the balance of the Durid. Let the Pillars be upset, and the Durid could be no longer in stasis.”
“Uh huh,” Jérel grunted, less than concerned.
“Kuloth recognized the tenuous hold of the pillars, and recognized the need to protect them from accidental disjunction. Thus did he pull from his knowledge the arts of the magi, and he laid a spell upon the Seven Pillars, that their secrets might never be revealed.”
“It’s what I’d do,” Jérel nodded, playing along.
“Without intention, however,” the Glove continued unabated, “thus did Kuloth bring simultaneously upon the Durid the nature of Evil. For he had unleashed paranoia from his knowledge, and with it distrust, and all motives ulterior. But this the Elder Kuloth could not know, for the Great One did not see as Gloves do today. The mind of Kuloth was of knowledge and of Divine Intention, and not of advocacy and opinion. His was the vantageless perspective.”
“It must be a bitch to get glasses,” Jérel frowned.
“Continuing with His labors, then,” the Glove scarcely acknowledged Jérel, talking at him more than to him, “Kuloth brought forth the seeds of physical knowledge and planted them throughout the Durid, and everywhere sprang into being the trees and the grasses, the many races, the waters, the skies, the dumb animals, and all that are part of the Durid, large or small. Last, he brought to the intelligent races The Word, and written and spoken language. With this tool, he recorded the fundamental Truths in the Elder Lether script and gave unto the chosen race The Handbook, the written commands of Elder Law.”
Lr paused dramatically, here, awaiting comment. He found only a blank stare. After a moment of further silence, Jérel’s eyebrows popped up and he offered of Lr’s story-telling, “It had a good beat, I could dance to it... I give it a fifty.”
“Thank you, Jérel Minkelven,” Lr nodded uncertainly. “Have you any other comment?”
“Yeah,” Jérel frowned, “What, by Yedda’s infinite beauty, does any of this ridiculous nonsense have to do with uprooted trees and groundquakes? That’s how I wound up here, and that’s pretty much all I care about!”
“Well, my foreign brother,” Lr replied in an annoying calm, “It has everything to do with it, and with other things as well. You see, Jérel, these episodes of natural upheaval are not pure. Evil hands are at work here, spreading evil, dirty germs and plague with every filthy grasp at the sacred.”
“Cute,” Jérel half-smiled.
“Thanks,” Lr accepted the compliment with a bit too much enthusiasm. “Imagery is my hobby.” Regaining his more serious composure, he went on: “This is an old evil, as old as the Durid, as old as the birth of Kuloth’s knowledge, and it is now reborn in a most foul heart.” Lr bowed his head low and fell silent.
Jérel failed to appreciate the moment of silent reflection. But, to his credit, he did break in with a rather insightful question: “Wait a minute! Somewhere in that prose you said that the Durid is kept in balance by the eleven pillars of ghoulash, right?”
Lr squinted hard and rubbed his temples. “Sure. Why not.”
“Okay,” Jérel walked over and laid a hand on a tangle of newly-exposed tree roots, “Do you call this balance?”
“I do not,” Lr said flatly.
“So these Pillars must be, like, whacked, or something?” Jérel offered an enlightened appraisal of the situation.
“Sure. Why not,” Lr repeated himself, clearing his throat several times.
“Wow,” Jérel frowned, “What happened to ’em, anyway?”
“The magic of the Pillars -- which once belonged only to Kuloth -- now belongs to another as well. A wizard now knows their secrets.”
“Huh!” the Minkelf pondered. “Just like that?”
“Not so much,” Lr replied. “The wizard has sought the essence of the Pillars for several hundred Tays.”
“Yikes,” Jérel summed up. “That’s a long time.”
Lr nodded gravely. “Indeed, it is.”
“So when did this wizard finally crack the code?” Jérel inquired in slang.
“Completely?” Lr didn’t seem to mind the manner in which the Minkelf addressed him. “About three weeks ago. Before that it almost looked as if he’d failed. But alas!” he threw a hand to his forehead far too dramatically. “The Seven Pillars now lay under his power.”
Jérel seriously considered laughing. He opted against it. “Failed?” he asked instead. “How’d he almost fail?”
“Ah...” Lr chuckled, which Jérel found to be a little odd, considering the HolyGlove’s earlier concern, “Funny story, actually. You see, the wizard’s got this bird... a helper of sorts... who aids him with spells and chores and whatnot...”
“Okay,” Jérel indicated that he was following.
“Anyway, there they were, on the brink of discovery, when the bird pronounces a word wrong --”
“Huh?” Jérel interrupted out of necessity.
“In the incantation,” Lr expanded. “I don’t really know what happened for sure,” he genuinely seemed at a loss. “By rights they should’ve been vaporized or something,” he added incredulously. “Instead, they just blew the opportunity and had to face a sizable setback; which, obviously, the wizard weathered nicely,” Lr pointed out.
Jérel stared at the HolyGlove silently for a brief space. “How in the hell can you possibly know all of that?” Jérel asked incredulously.
“I get a weekly newsletter,” Lr wise-cracked. “It’s called ‘Durid Today’. Great pictures.”
“Uh-huh”, Jérel suddenly felt his chain being yanked.
“I just subscribe for the articles...” Lr explained.
“Of course,” Jérel rolled his eyes noticeably. He then changed the subject. “So about these pillars... Where exactly are they?”
“I told you,” Lr said, “They were brought into being at the Seven reaches of the Durid.”
“But...sure, yeah,” Jérel stumbled, waving his hands about, “Look, I’m no geography whiz... But isn’t the Durid kind of... you know...square-ish?”
“Yes,” Lr replied succinctly.
“Then these seven reaches really don’t reach very far, I gather,” Jérel frowned.
“Ah,” Lr’s eyebrows popped up, “Now you’re thinking with a true lack of dimension, Jérel.”
“Thank you,” the Minkelf smiled wryly, “I’m very clever that way.”
“I see,” Lr smiled.
“Look, I don’t get it,” Jérel amended his wise-crack.
“I know you don’t,” Lr patiently nodded his understanding of Jérel’s lack of understanding. “Follow me, please.”
Jérel loped along after the HolyGlove as the group’s spiritual leader led into the thick of the forest. “Interesting,” the Minkelf said non-committally, feeling as if comment was required of him.
“You should be much impressed, Jérel,” Lr smiled. “This is the first time any outlander has ever set foot upon Glove HolyGround.”
“It’s kinda’ hard to tell it from the other ground, isn’t it,” Jérel stated flatly.
Lr made a face, but offered no return comment, for within the space of a few more steps they emerged from the forest and Jérel found himself in the midst of an enormous clearing. All was green and lavish with plant life. Fountains fountained and statues stood statuing, and in the center stood a breath-taking structure of glass and marble.
“Wow!” Jérel gasped, genuinely impressed. Then he turned his attention to the glass and marble structure. “Why’s it breathing?” he wondered aloud.
“No idea,” Lr shrugged. “Still... beautiful, isn’t it!”
“Amazing,” Jérel admitted, though he found it to be a little weird. “So, why exactly are we here?” he asked as Lr led him under a giant archway and into the greatroom beyond.
“We are here to see the Pillars,” Lr informed him, as he led Jérel toward the center of the enormous room. “And these are they,” he stopped walking and waved his arms dramatically to indicate the contents of the entire room.
“Where?” Jérel asked. “What? Oh...” he caught on at last, gazing around himself.
“I see you’ve got it now,” Lr said. “Welcome to the Durid, Minkelf.”
True enough, Jérel was standing smack in the midst of a perfect representation of the Durid. Specifically, he was standing in Thorograhd.
“This is really cool!” Jérel exclaimed, genuinely engaged for the first time since coming to GlovenHome.
“This time of year, yes,” Lr agreed, nodding.
“Where’d it come from?” the Minkelf asked excitedly.
“A cold front came down from --”
“No!” Jérel interrupted, his excitement very quickly giving way to anger. “The room.”
“Ah,” the Glove nodded. “This,” Lr answered proudly, waving his arms about, “was Kuloth’s last great task, the construction of a permanent history of the creation of a balanced world.”
“Wow,” Jérel displayed genuine appreciation.
“Such was the strain of his undertaking,” Lr added with reverence, “that the great Kuloth perished only moments after its completion.”
“Wow,” Jérel repeated, nodding his head, only half paying attention as he looked around the room, taking in the scene. “Wait a minute,” he snapped back to full attention. “It killed him?? This is nice and all,” he waved his hands hither and yon to indicate the room in general, “but it killed him? It’s only a big model. What the hell?!”
“I don’t think you understand,” Lr shook his head gravely. “Come here, please.” Lr led Jérel to the far northeastern corner of the room, and motioned to the familiar landscape. “You are...” he searched for the right phrase, in order to indicate Jérel’s place in the room as relevant to the Durid. “Well, you are here,” he settled for triteness.
“Thank you, mister tour guide,” Jérel frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“What is this, Jérel?” Lr laid his hand on a section of the room’s geography.
“That’s a big, charred glump of dead trees and assorted destruction,” Jérel shrugged.
“Three, two, one...” Lr anticipated.
“Hey!” Jérel’s light bulb lit up dramatically. “Holy shit!”
“Quite correct,” Lr nodded patiently. “You see, Jérel, this is an eco-room. This room is the Durid. It mimics every reality of the actual Durid on an infinite basis.”
“Holy shit!” Jérel appreciated the complexity of the endeavor, if not the subtleties of more complex language. “But how? I mean... it’s so small...”
“Good question. It’s kind of a complicated thing... it’s technical. Suffice to say, the eco-room is a physical manifestation of your imagination.”
“You step to the vaguely appropriate geographical sector, and the eco-room shows you what you want to see.”
“Indeed. You can see now how the great Kuloth depleted his life-force in the undertaking.”
“I suppose,” Jérel nodded non-committally, his failed attempt to understand the eco-room fully showing plainly on his furry face.
“I thought as much,” Lr sensed Jérel’s ambiguous understanding.
“So...” Jérel exhaled, “We’re in the middle of an unbalanced Thorograhd because...?” he held his hand out as if Lr were supposed to place in it the answer to the question. To Jérel’s surprise and confusion, that’s exactly what the HolyGlove did. “What’s this?” he asked, staring down at the unfamiliar object he now held.
“That, Minkelf, is the means for projecting your imagination onto the venue of the eco-room.”
“You mean I just hold onto this thing” he glanced down at the device again, “and whatever I want to see pops up in front of me on the floor?”
“Well...” Lr hesitated. “With some exceptions, yes.”
“Well, the eco-room does mimic the Durid exclusively. Past and present. It’s not a fantasy tool.”
“Oh...” Jérel mumbled dejectedly.
Not wanting to get muddied up in the Minkelf’s fantasy world, Lr prompted him to get back on focus: “If you recall, Jérel, we came into the eco-room in order to see the Seven Pillars.”
“Yes...” Jérel slowly got back on track. “So?”
“So that’s why we’re in Thorograhd. If you’d be so kind as to concentrate on my story of Kuloth and the Seven Pillars...”
No sooner was it said than an image of a pillar appeared in front of Jérel.
“Hey! Neat!” the Minkelf exclaimed, passing his hand through the ghostly recreation. “It’s like... an illusion or something!” he smiled as he continued waving his arms wildly to and fro through the image.
“Jérel?” Lr attempted to get the Minkelf’s attention.
“Yeah?” Jérel began, only to be distracted: “Ouch!!”
“Right... ” Lr winced. “By the by,” he finally got the words out, “The eco-room manifests your thoughts in the physical plane. That pillar’s granite.”
“But a couple seconds ago I swiped my hand through it!” Jérel whined, jumping up and down and clutching his pained fingers.
“Six seconds ago, precisely,” Lr amended for him. “The eco-room requires six seconds to process the visualized information.”
“I see,” Jérel scowled. “So, where’d the stupid thing come from, anyway? I’ve never seen the pillars before!”
“But I have. That is why I asked you not to visualize the Pillars but rather to focus on my telling of them. The eco-room needs only a loose reference to complete the desired image. That knowledge which I imparted to you was sufficient to translate to the eco-room an image of the Pillar, as we’d requested.”
“Okay...” Jérel acknowledged, deciding it best to just absorb this new information without entirely too much fuss. In that vein, he suddenly became introspective. “Say, Lr...” he whispered, scrutinizing the HolyGlove, “What’s the deal here, anyway? You’re going on like Stephen Hawking, and your brothers-in-vomit over yonder can’t even tie their own shoes.”
“Now, Jérel...” Lr warned gently, shaking a finger at the Minkelf. Then he stopped short and mumbled something, obviously distracted.
“Yes?” the Minkelf waited.
“Normally I wouldn’t be telling anyone this,” Lr began. “But given the circumstances...”
“Yes?” Jérel waited impatiently.
Lr looked Jérel squarely in the eye, his demeanor very serious. “My name is Klynn,” he said purposefully. “I don’t know how to tell you any of this except to just tell you. So listen.”
“Okay. That’ll work.”
“The eco-room brought me back here some Tays ago--”
“I helped Kuloth to build this room, and to raise the Seven Pillars.”
“You’re from the past?”
“But... the other Gloves...” Jérel stumbled awkwardly, not knowing quite what to ask.
“Have reverted,” Klynn said sadly. “Genetics,” he threw up his hands. “Go figure. What was once a flourishing civilization is now basically...” he searched for an appropriate description.
“Yes?” Jérel looked on questioningly.
“Cabbage,” Klynn admitted, a little embarrassed.
“This is starting to sound like a bad ‘Land of the Lost’ episode,” Jérel frowned.
“Oh, hey!” Klynn suddenly harkened back to a simpler time. “I loved that show! Great special effects!”
“And then?” Jérel impatiently dragged the Glove back to the topic at hand, rolling his eyes. “You came here to fix things or something?”
“No,” the Glove shook his head. “I did not come. I was brought. You see, Kuloth’s engineering was a marvel. The eco-room is safe-guarded. The balance of the Durid itself depends upon the maintenance of the eco-room, and the maintenance of the eco-room depends upon a competent culture. Thus, in the light of inevitable dysfunction, the eco-room called upon me and brought me here of its own free will.”
Jérel paused and stared. “What a bunch of shit,” he frowned.
“All true,” Klynn shook his head.
“You were just yanked out of your time?”
“And just dropped off here?”
“Whoah! What did the other Gloves think about that?”
“Ah,” Klynn smiled mischievously. “Some of them were the teeniest bit skeptical...” he began.
“I can imagine,” Jérel nodded.
“I really couldn’t let them in on the truth, you know,” the Glove sort of apologized to his kin through Jérel.
“I can see where it’d be a problem,” Jérel nodded, awaiting more detail.
“I had to come up with something...” Klynn hedged.
“Yeah,” Jérel agreed. “What was it?”
The Glove paused uncertainly.
“For cryin’ out loud, Klynn,” Jérel grew impatient. “What already?”
“I convinced Tk that we were twin brothers separated at birth,” Klynn tilted his head, a little embarrassed by the notion.
“He bought that?” Jérel frowned, having trouble believing what he was hearing.
“Hook, line, sinker,” Klynn nodded.
“What is this, an episode of ‘As the Stomach Turns’?” the Minkelf mocked the entire affair.
“Jérel...” Klynn rolled his eyes.
“Ya’ tell him your name is Dorian?” Jérel further mocked.
“Honestly,” Klynn attempted to defend himself.
“I suppose the nurses at the Glove hospital mixed you up with another baby at birth...” Jérel tried to fill in the revolting and banal details.
“We don’t really have a hospital, as such...” Klynn got off track.
“You guys look absolutely nothing alike,” Jérel got around to the point.
The HolyGlove nodded. “It’s the tiniest bit embarrassing, all around...” he seemed as if he had more to say, but was holding back.
“Oh, what else?” Jérel couldn’t believe there might be more.
“After a while he said he remembered me,” Klynn laughed softly. “We talked about ‘old times’...” he bit his lip. “Some days we talk about ‘mom’,” the Glove struggled not to fall apart with laughter.
“You have got to be kidding me,” the Minkelf pondered the impossible depth of Tk’s gullibility.
“We’re not being very nice,” the Glove pointed out, still struggling to control himself.
“It’s kind of hard to be!” Jérel snorted.
“All right, Jérel”, Klynn ultimately regained his composure fully. “We’ve had our fun. Let me finish,“.
“Oh, I haven’t even approached my fun limit,” Jérel frowned in continuing disbelief.
“Jérel...” Klynn exhaled meaningfully.
“Oh, all right, dammit,” the Minkelf gave in.
“Once I’d gained acceptance,” Klynn tried to get back on track. “I set myself up as HolyGlove and proclaimed this area Sacred Ground,” he motioned to the surrounding room. “That helped to keep the others from nosing into something...” he tried not to insult his fellow Gloves, “complex,” he settled on with a smile. “And since then I’ve been monitoring the eco-room, keeping an eye out for whatever future turmoil is in store.”
“Future turmoil?” Jérel wondered aloud.
“Yes,” Klynn acknowledged. “The eco-room would not have called me did it not forebode ill for the balance of the Durid.”
“Oh,” Jérel seemed a little puzzled.
“Which brings me to you,” the HolyGlove added with emphasis.
“To you, yes,” Klynn nodded. “The eco-room acknowledges your presence, Jérel. Until now that was a privilege reserved solely for Kuloth and myself.”
“You must be joking,” Jérel challenged, his face a little ashen beneath his fur.
“Hardly. The eco-room values you, Jérel. I sense importance in you somehow.”
“Yes, you. The eco-room would not be mistaken.”
“Well, it must be! Can you check the fuses or something?!”
“Jérel...” Klynn tapped his foot.
“What...?” the Minkelf played dumb.
“Fuses, indeed!” Klynn half-smiled, his eyes fixed on Jérel.
“Well, what makes me so great, then?” the Minkelf addressed the issue at hand.
“I have no idea,” Klynn shook his head, “except to say that the eco-room senses you as a threat to that which in turn threatens it. The enemy of an enemy is a friend.”
“Friend? Why does it need me as a friend? It could have lots of other friends! It’s got you... and Tk and all the others, and...” he stumbled. “Well, actually,” he amended his rant, having thought better of it, “they all suck! But it’s got you, right?”
“Jérel...” again the foot tapping.
“What?” the Minkelf feigned innocence once again.
“As I was saying...” the HolyGlove prompted.
“As you were saying,” Jérel sighed uncomfortably.
“Fine,” Klynn finalized the matter. “This,” he said proudly, slapping the marble structure which now towered over Thorograhd, “was the first of the Pillars to be erected. If you look closely, you’ll begin to understand the particulars of the placement of the Seven.”
“Sorry, what?” Jérel was a bit muddled.
“I’m trying to explain to you why the seven pillars are where they are,” Klynn thumbed it down a bit.
“Ah,” Jérel nodded. “Yeah, what about that? You said they were placed at the seven reaches of the Durid. Was the continent different then? Have its edges been weathered?”
“Stop thinking horizontally, Minkelf. You limit yourself.”
“Do I?” Jérel mocked.
“You do,” Klynn preferred not to take the bait.
“Okay. So maybe if you just tell me what I’m missing...” the Minkelf prodded.
“Not a problem,” Klynn dove right in as of where he stood. “This, the first Pillar, the Pillar of the Daydrites, was given life atop Kulin Rha, the loftiest peak in the Paxton Mountains and indeed on the entire continent. You see, from the vantage of each of the Seven extremes of the Durid was Kuloth able to encircle the essence of life on the continent, and so ensure the balance.”
Jérel appeared to be puzzled.
“You with me so far?” Klynn asked in response to the expression of uncertainty.
“Um...” the Minkelf stammered.
“You’ve got questions,” Klynn stated more than asked.
“Yeah...” Jérel began weakly, “I’m mostly with you. But seven extremes? At best I can come up with North, South, East, West...” he stumbled, searching for more options, “up... down,” he ventured at length.
“That’s six,” Klynn said with a nod.
“Thank you, I can count,” Jérel scowled.
Klynn took the hint. “The Seventh Pillar is...” he cleared his throat, “not here,” he explained for lack of a better explanation.
“Not here?” Jérel frowned.
“Right. Not here.”
Jérel stared at the Glove blankly. “A lot of things aren’t here, Klynn. Are they all pillars, too? Hell, there’s thousands of pillars that aren’t here.”
“I don’t think you’re quite on my wavelength, Minkelf,” Klynn suggested.
“I don’t think all your waves are splashin’, Glove,” Jérel returned.
“Okay,” Klynn smiled. “I’ll try again. The Seventh Pillar is,” he motioned with his hands, “now where I just said it wasn’t.”
Jérel frowned. Lots. “It’s here?”
“No, it’s not here.”
“But you just said it’s here.”
“No, I said it was here.”
“It was here?” Jérel sort of whined.
“Well, where is it now?”
“I can see that! But where?”
“Now it’s there,” Klynn pointed.
“There?” Jérel pointed also.
“Where is there?”
“I got that part!” Jérel snapped.
“Then you’ve got all of it,” Klynn returned calmly.
“I don’t think so,” Jérel leveled.
“Look, Jérel, it’s not here now, but it was. And it will be, soon.”
“Oh, heck, it’s been and gone by this time.”
“Where did it go?”
“Nowhere. It was always here.”
“Klynn... I’m gonna’ belt you! Where did it go?!”
“Nowhere. It was always here. It’s just not here now. Now it’s there.”
“Oh, goodness, no! No, it’s a heavy sucker!”
“Okay...” Jérel mentally tore everything down into more easily digestible cerebral tidbits. “It doesn’t move, but even though it’s not here now, it was here. And right now, it’s there. Correct?”
“Splendid,” Klynn smiled.
“No, it’s not splendid, dammit! Why isn’t it here?”
“It was here,” the Glove pointed out with an innocence of intent that made Jérel’s blood pressure rise.
“I know that!” Jérel screamed. “And just where is here, anyway? Every time you’ve said here you’ve been standing in a different spot. I thought it didn’t move.”
“It doesn’t,” the Glove educated in a soothing voice. “Again your thinking is linear, Minkelf. Think planar.”
Jérel huffed, attempting to control his anger. “Plainer?” he asked, clueless, having lapsed disappointingly in a few of his half-Elvish abilities.
“Planar,” Klynn motioned with his hands. “Here isn’t here or here,” he stepped about randomly on the floor. “Here is here!” he said, pulling his arms to his sides. Here is now,” the Glove tilted his head to one side in thought, “for serious lack of a better explanation,” he added apologetically, wincing a bit at the very suggestion.
“So it’s a time thing we’re talkin’ about, eh?” Jérel frowned. “Whadda’ ya’ mean ‘lack of a better explanation’? That’s the most sense you’ve made yet!”
Klynn smiled. “I’m pleased if I’ve bridged the gap between our minds,” he said. “But I’m afraid I’ve misled you somewhat. You see, here and now represent two very different dimensions. Mixing them is dangerous work, and it’s best left to the infinite,” he pointed out confusingly. “However, if your finite ways can comprehend of the Seventh Pillar only through a spacetime reference, so be it. It does at least plant a seed of the actual reality in your head.”
The Minkelf stood quietly pondering this information, staring at the floor. The Glove studied him thoughtfully, “Though I imagine it must leave you a tad bewildered,” he attempted to discern Jérel’s feelings.
“You got that right!” Jérel agreed heartily.
“Well, then... So shall it be. In spacetime terms,” Klynn shifted his approach fluidly, “you can never experience the Pillar in the present. It has been and it will be, but it never is.”
“Clear as mud, right? Hang in there. Without the Seventh Pillar, Jérel, the other six could maintain the balance of the Durid for only a hypothetical, physically impossible, teeny-weeny finite division of time called The Present.”
Jérel suddenly perked up a bit. Klynn took note.
“You see, that’s the problem when mixing dimensions; the physical world doesn’t operate on the infinite level. Physical realities preclude the comprehension of metaphysical infinities. Simply put, the circuit of six Pillars couldn’t conduct properly without a really funky resistor.”
“The seventh pillar,” Jérel nodded.
The Minkelf stood silent for a moment. “What does it resist?” he asked, still trying to understand.
Jérel nodded though he hardly understood a word of any of this. “Sounds tricky,” he commented non-committally.
“Simple, really,” Klynn shook his head.
“How’s that?” Jérel refused to believe that any of this could be easy to comprehend.
“The physical world doesn’t really exist,” Klynn dropped a conceptual bomb. “Kuloth and I simply hid the Seventh Pillar from your physical perceptions. Therefore, the only way that you can comprehend of it is apparently in terms of spacetime. To your world, the Pillar was where it is, and will be where it is, but is never where it is.”
“Uh-huh,” Jérel returned flatly, beginning to doubt all of this.
“Hey,” Klynn shrugged. “It’s just another reality like any other. But born of a very different mind.”
“I guess...” Jérel droned, having been tugged elsewhere in his mind by the mention of ‘reality’. “Say there, Klynn...” he ran with this new direction, “How in Yedda’s name did this sorcerer guy ever figure out all this jazz and take over the pillars?”
The HolyGlove smiled. “He didn’t, exactly...” the Glove hedged. “Anyway, not if I read your question right.”
“Well, hell, what’s the worry then?!” Jérel scowled.
“The worry, Jérel, is that Zaccheus Wyndham is a very powerful mage, on the verge of unlocking the magic of the elusive Seventh Pillar.”
“Zincius Windmill?” Jérel ignored the threatening information and locked onto the funny stuff.
“If you like,” Klynn had expected more concern from Jérel over the whole ‘very powerful mage’ bit.
“Zaccheus Wyndham has long known how to control the Six Pillars, to turn them to his advantage, make them do his bidding.” Klynn walked over to the now visible Seventh Pillar and put his arm around it. “But he still doesn’t know how to find this one!” he smiled mischievously. “And trying to command the Six Pillars without the Seventh is a lot like standing too close to the campfire,” he warned in colloquial simile.
“How’s that?” Jérel frowned.
“You just might get your ass burned off,” the Glove brought it home.
“Indeed,” Klynn nodded meaningfully. “Zaccheus is far too patient a man to risk such high stakes as world conquest on pretty good odds. Zaccheus needs an absolute sure thing.”
“What do you mean, ‘pretty good odds’?! You mean this guy could do whatever it is he’s planning without the seventh pillar?”
“Conceivably, yes,” the HolyGlove conceded. “See, the Six Pillars really are the keepers of the Durid. The Seventh is more of a... remote control. Through it, Kuloth and I communicated the passage of time and events to the other Six.”
Jérel frowned. “So how in Yedda’s --”
“Please, Minkelf,” Klynn held a hand to his head, as if he’d had all he could take, “enough with the colorful curses. Just ask your question.”
“Oh, sure,” Jérel mocked. “You can say ’burn your ass off in the fire, but I can’t say --”
“Jérel,” Klynn grew noticeably impatient.
“Okay. How could Zantippititee Wyndshisname possibly do whatever it is he’s doing without the seventh pillar?”
“He could mock together a workable substitution.”
“But... really, he could do that?”
“Why not?” Klynn shrugged sort of indifferently.
“Well,” Jérel thought it over, “I kind of envisioned this whole pillar business as being pretty intricate.”
“Oh, it is certainly that. But... well... the rest of the continent has come a long way while my people slipped gradually into the mud,” he offered in an honesty rarely seen in their world or in any other. “I’m afraid the Seventh Pillar isn’t all it used to be.”
“The Seventh Pillar was in its time...” Klynn searched for the right words, “a singular creation, at once aesthetically pleasing and impossibly functional...”
“And now?” Jérel awaited he knew not what.
“It’s a different world,” Klynn failed to get to the point. “Things operate differently,”
“Yeah,” Jérel pointed out, “I deduced that from the ‘It’s a different world’ comment.”
The Glove hesitated, obviously experiencing some difficulty. In fact, he was struggling to find words which might effectively put a cap on this conversation without revealing too much which yet remained hidden from Jérel. “Over time,” Klynn began, obviously crafting this reply as he went along, “the nature of worldly realities changes...” he stumbled. “The pillars are no longer shrouded in the mist of lore,” he gestured uncertainly with his hands.
Jérel looked on with growing impatience.
“What was once steeped in magic and legend has now been revealed,” he meandered, his attempt being the verbal equivalent of hacking his way through thick jungle with a machete. “Eventually, knowledge of the pillars became more mainstream,” he worked his way around the truth while yet revealing some fact. “Eventually there was disagreement over the ownership of the pillars,” the Glove revealed a bit more. “Territorial disputes...” he gestured meaningfully to the pillars’ placement around the continent.
“Okay...” Jérel seemed to be keeping up. “What already?”
“Well, it came to the point that someone or something more central had to assume ownership...” he walked way around the truth with his approach. “That’s when the first Zowie-Marts began to appear,” he leaped a giant chasm in terms of logical steps, and the fear that Jérel would interject at this point showed on his face.
“Don’t follow,” Jérel squinted.
“Just stay with me,” Klynn dodged the concern deftly. “At this point,” he rubbed his temples uneasily, “as the Durid had evolved into a maddeningly litigious society, and as cultures and territories vied for rights to the pillars, fighting over them as national landmarks and as for-profit entities --”
“Right,” Jérel nodded, no stranger to the hassles of modern living.
Klynn felt he’d suddenly hooked the Minkelf, and now worried less about being snared in an obvious half-truth by a keenly critical mind. “Eventually,” he made another tremendous leap in the process, “centralized control fell to the Zowie-Marts, under the auspices of the Council...” he trailed off here, having just inadvertently brought up about a dozen different avenues for critical deconstruction.
“Go on,” Jérel had been blindsided by the tale itself, and had thus failed to pick up on the extreme lack of detail.
“Eventually it was understood that the pillars themselves were to be considered national treasures,” Klynn explained, “but that in function they could not be legally denied to the populace.”
“Why the hell would anybody want --” Jérel began.
“Almost done,” Klynn cut him off.
“So the pillars were then protected under patent by the council for a period of time...”
“But eventually --”
“Yeah,” Jérel grew tired of Klynn’s approach. “‘Eventually’. Got it.”
Klynn continued, “Rights to their production fell to public domain --”
“People started manufacturing pillars?” Jérel became utterly confused.
“Long story short,” Klynn desperately hoped that Jérel would allow most of this conversation to pass without scrutiny, “the Zowie-Marts... actually Zowie-Mart central... came to control production of replicate-pillars...” he stumbled noticeably now, “albeit confined by a legal statute restricting their actual use...”
“You can sell ’em but not use ’em?” Jérel frowned.
“Essentially,” Klynn nodded. “So in this way the pillars became available to --”
“You mean all the wizard ever had to do was just buy a pillar?!” Jérel asked incredulously, his thoughts having come full-circle on the subject.
“Oh, no, not exactly,” the Glove was ever so thankful that Jérel had by-passed all of the loopholes in the story and gotten right to the point of their discussion. “No. But that’s his next move. You see, the legal protection against their use is more than just a footnote. It’s active.”
“The Council,” again he hoped there’d be few questions, “saw to it through their means that no one who purchased a pillar could actually utilize it in any way meaningful to its purpose.”
“Why buy one, then?” Jérel wondered aloud.
“Who knows...” Klynn shrugged. “Collector value, I guess... Why does anyone do anything...”
“Anyway, that’s really what Zacc’s been working toward all this time,” the Glove pointed out. “A way to circumvent the protections put into place by the... regarding the use of the pillars,” he thought better of his approach. “Zacc has figured out how to make a Zowie-Mart pillar do his bidding.”
“And he’s on his way to pick one up now?” Jérel suddenly began to see some practical relevance to this conversation.
“Yeah. Eglavia. There’s a new Zowie-Mart over in Eglavia. Big sucker, too. That place carries everything!”
“And they’ve got pillars,” Jérel more stated than asked, still a little unsure about all of this.
“You ever been in a Zowie-Mart?” Klynn directed the conversation meaningfully.
“Never had the occasion,” the Minkelf shook his head.
“Yah, they’ve got Pillars,” the Glove nodded in appreciation of the stores’ impossibly massive inventories. “Probably got an electric nose-picker if you want it.”
“Ooh...” Jérel said thoughtfully, suddenly distracted.
“Jérel, back to the subject at hand...”
“Yes. At hand.”
“I’ve learned that Zaccheus Wyndham,” Klynn brought it all home, “now that he’s deduced the nature of the eco-room and learned its subtleties, and now that he’s unlocked the secrets of the actual use of the replicate-pillars, aims to buy a Seventh Pillar from the Eglavia Zowie-Mart, and aims to use it to gain control of the Durid forever.”
“Holy crap!” Jérel responded the best he knew how.
“Sure enough,” Klynn nodded.
“And?” Jérel prodded.
“And he must be stopped!” the Glove put in for good measure.
“Damn right!” Jérel nodded his full agreement. “What are you gonna’ do?”
“Not me,” Klynn shook his head meaningfully. “You,” he pointed.
“Me?!” Jérel seemed shocked.
“Yes, you. Why do you think I told you all of this?”
“I don’t know... ” Jérel pondered. “I thought maybe you were just a little weird. But I see now that you’re completely nuts!”
“Jérel, that attitude simply won’t do.”
“Oh, my attitude won’t do??” he mocked the HolyGlove in an unflattering voice.
“That’s right,” Klynn kept his composure.
“Well, why me?” Jérel saw that the Glove was serious.
“I told you. The eco-room likes you.”
“Oh, don’t give me that shit!” Jérel wasn’t about to fall for flattery. “You just don’t want to do it yourself, so you’re handing me your dirty work!”
“Now, Jérel, you really have no choice,” Klynn became deterministic. “Whether freely or under duress, you’re going after Wyndham.”
“Says who?” Jérel half laughed.
“Is that supposed to persuade me??” the Minkelf asked incredulously.
“If that doesn’t,” Klynn added with all seriousness, “this will: The very fate of the Durid, even of the world as we know it, may just depend on your getting involved personally in this matter!”
Jérel stared at the Glove for an extended moment. “Oh, puh-leeze!” he mocked the Glove at length, laughing disrespectfully. “Does anyone ever actually fall for that?! Sounds like something you’d read off the back cover of an action-adventure novel!”
“Jérel, I’m quite serious,” Klynn wore a frozen expression.
“You couldn’t possibly be.”
The Minkelf stood silent for a moment, frowning immensely and trying to decide whether to just cut and run from this lunacy. “You’re actually serious,” he shook his head.
“I am,” Klynn repeated himself.
“This isn’t some kind of a joke...” Jérel wasn’t really asking.
“It’s not,” the Glove continued in the vein of brief responses.
Jérel stood silently.
“You’ll go?” Klynn dared to ask.
“I’ll go,” Jérel muttered at last, having been overtaken by the notion that all of this could really be happening. “But I’m not bringing you back a T-shirt!” he added in true smart-ass form, scowling at the Glove.
Klynn smiled and reached to put a hand way up on the Minkelf’s shoulder. “Oh, don’t bother resisting, Jérel. You’re the one for the job, no question. It was meant to be. That’s why I sent the others to bring you here. That’s why I’ve told you all that I have.”
“So... What do I do?” Jérel asked with notably small enthusiasm.
“You will set forth at first light upon the West Road, and travel across the Durid to the Zowie-Mart in Eglavia,” Klynn shifted back into HolyGlove mode. “The West Road will take you directly. But be warned,” he added with fairy-tale-type inflection, “do not mistakenly start down the Road Of Good Intentions!”
“The what?” Jérel thought he’d heard wrong. “Why not? Where does that go?”
“Somewhere you don’t want to be,” Klynn answered vaguely.
“I’m already someplace I don’t want to be!” Jérel snapped. “By Yedda you’re a weird one! So, where is this road of good intentions, anyway?”
“That’s the problem, Minkelf,” Klynn continued with the fairy-tale-character approach. “It’s everywhere. With your every step, The ROGI will attempt to set you upon its course. You must be cautious, Jérel, and remain alert at all times. Be wary of The Road Of Good Intentions, Jérel, and be ever mindful of your heart.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?!” Jérel squinted, failing to appreciate the whole dire-situation speech. “What are you, the frickin’ Dungeon Master?? Talk straight for once, will ya’?”
“I’ve told you all that I can, Jérel,” Klynn wrapped up his involvement neatly. “When the morning comes, you must make for the west, never to see me again.”
“Oh, great!” Jérel’s grouchiness intensified. “That’s just wonderful! You’re sending me alone and unwilling through all kinds of hostile territory and wilderness to chase down a maniacal wizard who’s probably going to turn me into a tree-whoople, and all you’re worried about is that I’m not going to see you again.”
“That’s it exactly,” Klynn smiled, yanking Jérel’s chain. “Except that you won’t be alone,” he amended Jérel’s angry rant. “I’m sending Tk and Paul with you.”
“Tk and who?” Jérel failed to recognize the name, yet was at the same time pleasantly surprised that it contained both vowels and consonants.
“Paul,” Klynn repeated. “He’s...” the Glove hesitated. “He’ll be helpful to you,” he settled for good enough.
Jérel fixed the HolyGlove with a penetrating stare. “Why do I not believe you?” he scowled suspiciously.
“Get going, Jérel,” Klynn smiled slightly. “You’ll need your rest.”
“Right,” Jérel said in a glaring monotone. “Rest. A guy needs his beauty sleep so that he can be at his best when an evil wizard melts his bones.”
“Glad you’re with me on this,” Klynn patted the Minkelf once for good measure and sent Jérel on his way.
Their conversation having trailed off thus, Jérel wandered away quietly and reflectively, pondering this strange and sudden turn of events in his life. Klynn watched him go silently. A thin smile curled his lip ever so slightly. What a clever blending of fact and fiction he’d cobbled together for the Minkelf’s benefit. And what an acute comment Jérel had made, though he likely had no idea he’d made it. And what a shame that you at home probably don’t know which comment that might have been...
Klynn looked casually skyward, almost seeming to nod his head toward the heavens. After Jérel disappeared from his sight, the HolyGlove muttered to no one: “This should please the Minkelf’s Three Goddesses, indeed!” He then turned and walked off in the opposite direction, muttering happily that at least he had managed to creatively rid himself of Tk and Paul...
* * *
Zaccheus Wyndham’s decrepit wagon lurched and creaked along the Old West Road toward the icy, rushing waters of the upper Keenan River. He quite desperately needed a new wagon, but just wouldn’t fork over the cash. Such was his way with money. And with everything else as well, actually. The wizard could be rather pointlessly stubborn on the whole, generally at the most inopportune of times. Now was not such a particularly cruxial moment for anyone involved, however. Actually, the morning had been a rather lazy one. Nothing of much note had really come the way of the wizard for some time.
Such is the rationale for bringing up the need for the new wagon, you see. It doesn’t particularly bear telling, but we felt we needed something, interesting or otherwise. Indulge us. Besides, Zacc really did seriously and desperately need a new wagon. So, again, indulge us. Perhaps this wagon stuff will bear on the plot eventually.
“Goddammit in spades! What in the hell am I supposed to do now?!” Thus screeched Zaccheus Wyndham after the body of the wagon had settled neatly to the ground, and the wheels had sought their independence through multi-directional venues. In other words, kaplooey: The axles bent, the bearings spilled out, the seat collapsed, the reins spontaneously disintegrated, the wood rotted, the metal rusted, the spokes splintered, the C.D. player skipped, and the two beasts of burden thought warmly of their new-found freedom.
We told you all of that wagon jazz might pan out. That’s foreshadowing for you! Who knew? Although, we gotta’ say the timing is pretty amazing...
Presently, the wizard and his bird gazed around the ruins of the wagon, being now seated upon a rather large and ungainly pile of sawdust and scrap metal. Neither was the least bit amused. And so they sat.
Suddenly, Taldo’s attention was drawn to a furtive movement amongst the trees. He turned to the wizard with the intention of mentioning this. Then he thought better of it, as Zacc was wearing his ‘If you even dare speak to me I’ll slow roast you’ expression. So he kept his beak shut. We can’t say as we blame him. Unfortunately (though still a better alternative than being spitted) by failing to mention that furtive movement, Taldo failed to alert his master to imminent danger.
“Ouch what?” Taldo ventured to speak, having apparently not heeded the twang.
“This!” Zaccheus yelled, tugging a short, little dart from his hindquarters.
“Ouch!!!” A second tiny missile lodged itself in the wizard’s rear. This time he just left it there and angrily turned toward the trees. “What the hell?! Who’s doing that?! Who’s there?! Taldo!”
Taldo understood the unspecified order. He launched himself toward the lower branches of the great Trilowood trees and, so doing, dislodged a gaggle of tiny offenders. These dropped in a heap at the wizard’s feet.
“What the devil are you little terrors, anyway?!” he screamed at the three scarcely-foot-tall archers, at last yanking the remaining dart from his rear.
“We’re Boots!” the foremost archer squeaked, jumping to his feet and loosing a shaft into the wizard’s thigh, point blank.
“Ouch!! You little shits! Why in the hell do you keep shooting me in the ass??”
“You’re a wizard, aren’t you?” came the squeaky reply.
“Yeah, so?” Zacc placed his hands on his hips as if to scold unruly children.
“Dammit! Stop that!” Zacc screamed, yanking the darts from his body yet again.
“But you’re a wizard!” a tiny archer protested.
“So we’ve established,” Zacc winced and rubbed his dart-wounds.
“Oww!!” another dart found Zacc’s posterior. “You little bastards! I’m gonna’ squish you! Why the hell do you keep doing that??”
“We don’t like wizards,” the same little archer commented matter-of-factly, fitting yet another shaft to the string.
“You don’t like wizards?” Zacc scowled in confusion, trying to reason out the particulars of this unprovoked assault.
“Nope,” the tiny archer answered distractedly, busily fitting arrow to string.
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Zacc snapped. “Gum!” he commanded, and instantly the three Boots before him became helplessly and hopelessly entwined in gooey chewing gum, their weapons hanging uselessly at their sides. Simultaneously, approximately thirty more Boots tumbled from the trees, writhing masses of clinging, stretchy, sticky, gummy goop.
“Yuk,” Zacc scowled distastefully at the squirming Boots before him. “Never did really like that spell... I always feel the need to go and wash up.”
“How do you think we feel?!” the very same troublesome little Boot squeaked up at the wizard as he struggled in vain to free himself of gum.
“I don’t particularly give a whoople’s ass how you feel!” Zacc snapped at the archer.
“Noted,” the Boot in question nodded in full understanding.
Zacc finally relaxed a bit and took stock of his surroundings. “So...” he turned to the most troublesome of the tiny offenders, “now that things are under control around here -- and before I evaporate the lot of you -- what’s your name, you little beast?”
“I’m Rxtylppinctwitcxzchz,” the Boot replied with a smile, and without hesitation. “This is Xkstylnrnpttpkzc,” he pointed (as best he could) to his closest neighbor in gum. Actually, it wasn’t really a point. It was more of a gesture. A pointless gesture, if you will. The Boot continued: “Next to him is Ckreptzcewkox --”
“All right! Enough! Stop already!” the wizard grumbled, plucking out a dart that he’d overlooked. “I’m not really concerned with introductions, anyway. I was only asking for your names so that I could use them against you in a spell,” he admitted. “But for obvious reasons I’ve abandoned that pursuit.”
“Indeed,” Rxtylppinctwitcxzchz giggled in delight. “You see, my great great grandfather Earl -- who, incidentally, single-handedly beat back the allied wizards in the Marsh Wars -- got magicked by a Pylupian Snow Dragon because his name just happened to roll easily off of dragon’s tongues.”
“Uh huh,” Zacc couldn’t have cared less.
“When he finally got used to walking with his arms and legs reversed” the Boot continued with a little tilt of his little head, “he dedicated the remainder of his life to seeking out un-magickable names for the future of all Bootkind.”
“And he succeeded,” Zacc commented angrily.
“Um... well, not as such,” the spunky little Boot went on, struggling fruitlessly against the gum. “You see, no such name seems to really be truly un-magickable. Great great grandpa Earl was at a loss.”
“Oh?” Zacc inquired distractedly, still deciding how best to obliterate the gaggle of Boots.
“So, what’d he do?” Taldo took over with genuine interest, peering from behind the stump which had concealed him during the arrow barrage.
“He decided on a more practical approach,” the Boot replied. “He realized that a long enough and troublesome enough name would give us Boots a definitive advantage over wizards... He got the idea from a Polish guy he met during the war.”
“How’s that?” Zacc inquired, curious about all things magic-related.
“Well, the Polish have really long and con--”
“Not the goddam Polish!” Zacc snapped. “The wizard part.”
“Oh...” the Boot stumbled a bit, having gotten caught up in the retelling of what he considered to be a fascinating tale. “Well, frankly, while you all are trying to fit our names into a spell, we sink lots of arrows into your butts and spoil your concentration.”
“I see,” the wizard chuckled a little, finding this admission to be truly entertaining. “Didn’t exactly pan out, did it,” he rubbed it in.
Rxtylppinctwitcxzchz flushed visibly, lowering his head in shame. “I’m afraid we jumped the gun a bit,” he shrugged (again, as best he could). “There hasn’t been a wizard through these parts in a long while. The boys and I are just a little over-zealous, is all...”
“Uh-huh,” Zacc droned, unconcerned.
“I’m gonna’ go out on a limb here,” the Boot began anew, “and say that if you intended to kill us, you already would have, so --”
“That’s a dangerous limb to be on,” Zacc leveled his gaze on the gummed-archer.
“Yeah...” the Boot swallowed hard. “Anyway... I just thought maybe introductions were in order... what with our cover blown and all...“.
“Okay,” Zacc shrugged, never one to stifle volunteered personal information which could be used against someone. “Let’s hear it.”
“Folks call me Dirty Harry,” the Boot smiled nervously.
“Okay,” Zacc repeated himself.
“This here’s Scooter,” the Boot gestured as best he could.
“Pleasure,” Zacc nodded noncommittally.
“And that’s Spunky,” the Boot went on. “And Punky, and Weasel, and Doc...”
“Uh huh,” Zacc was rapidly tiring of introductions.
“And Mock,” the Boot nodded in the necessary direction, “and Skippy, and Lucifer, and --”
“Lucifer?” Zacc asked with renewed interest.
“Yeah,” Dirty Harry squeaked. “What?” he shrugged through the gum.
“Lucifer Boot...” Zacc tossed the name around just to see how it sounded aloud. It amused him. He smiled. “Lucifer Boot...” he repeated himself with a chuckle.
“Yeah...” Dirty Harry frowned a little, motioning that Zacc should lean in close to him. “Nice enough guy,” he hedged, talking into Zacc’s ear. “Ya’ know, though,” he whispered, “he doesn’t quite seem to fit in sometimes.”
The wizard straightened, moving away from the tiny Boot. “I can imagine,” he nodded, obviously amused. “In fact, I can relate,” he added.
“Oh, sure,” Dirty Harry sucked up. “You may like him, actually. You know, we’re all really pretty likeable once you --”
“Yeah,” Zacc cut him off. “About all of you...” the wizard tapped his foot and scratched his chin in the universal body-language of ‘Just what am I supposed to do with you?’.
“Oh, we’re fine,” Dirty Harry offered while Zacc pondered silently. “We’ll be fine. Heck, we like gum, really. We’re good this way. You can just go on your way. We won’t bug you anymore.”
“I suspected as much,” the wizard grinned. “Taldo!” Zacc grated in the owl’s direction.
“Yes, Lord?” the bird popped himself front and center.
“Let’s get moving,” the wizard commanded.
“Yes, Lord,” Taldo obeyed.
“We’re good, then?” Dirty Harry dared, his eyebrows standing up hopefully.
“There doesn’t seem to be much sport in squishing you at this point,” Zacc shrugged. “Heck, I’m nothing if not a sportsman.”
“Oh, I could tell that just by looking at you,” Dirty Harry piled on the compliments. “And thank you. We’ll be just spiffy right here where we are. Thank you. And may the wind be at your back. May your camels not thirst. And may your zipper never--”
“I’m this close to changing my mind,” Zacc warned with his thumb and forefinger.
“Understood, your wizardship,” the Boot silenced himself.
Zacc scowled and walked off toward Dirty Harry’s right, suddenly and strangely compelled to address this Boot oddity to whom he’d been introduced. “So, Lucifer...” he began, positioning himself before the gummed Boot, with arms folded, “I’ll probably live to regret this... likely wind up killing you...” he tilted his head to one side. “But... I’m feeling giddy, I guess...” the wizard shook his head lightly from side to side, as if to indicate that he wasn’t quite thinking clearly. “We could use the extra man-power...” he looked the Boot up and down quickly. “Or... whatever you’ve got...” he stumbled, unsure why he was about to extend an offer to the little creature. A sudden look of fear appeared on Taldo’s face. Zacc didn’t notice. “You feel like coming along with us,” he asked of the Boot, “or you wanna’ stay here in the gum?” he cut to the chase.
Taldo regarded this development uncertainly and a bit apprehensively, as if wondering what in the world had inspired Zacc to take on more baggage? His eyes darted between wizard and Boot a bit uncomfortably.
“I’m game,” the Boot smiled and nodded, straining at the gum to no avail. “Where are we going?” he asked jubilantly.
“Shut the hell up!” Zacc snapped with a frown.
* * *
“Glove,” Jérel turned on Tk in frustration and anger, “just where the hell are we, anyway?”
“Watch your tongue, Minkelf. If I knew, I’d tell you.”
“Well, c’mon,” Jérel pressed, the frustration evident in his tone. “This is your territory, after all. I would think you’d recognize the occasional landmark. How can you be lost in your own neck of the woods?”
With that remark, Tk’s generally hideous features slipped into a sort of despair and panicked confusion (but hideous, nonetheless). “That’s the problem, Jérel... When we left GlovenHome we passed the Three Markers of the Great Vomiter, and shortly thereafter passed into Jolan territory, followed by Armon and --”
“What’s the problem, then?” Jérel broke in impatiently.
“Well... somewhere in the forested lands is... is supposed to be... a half-way marker between Armon and the West Road / Keenan River crossing,” Tk frowned in confusion. “And we should’ve come to it by now,” he added, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “In fact, I guess we should’ve come to it yesterday,” the beard-scratching became less thought-based and more flea-based in intensity.
“He’s right,” Paul jumped in. “My calculations point to an approximate negative destination time of twenty-three hours, seventeen minutes, and thirty-one seconds. Thirty-two seconds. Thirty-three sec--”
“Good gads, Paul!” Jérel snarled. A few days on the road with the Glove had proven positively unbearable. “...Had to send a goddamned engineer with me!” Jérel mumbled under his breath. “Anyway,” he turned to the Gloves, “You guys must’ve figured wrong. Or maybe we just missed it or something. I’m sure it’s well behind us. We’ll be coming to the Keenan soon.”
“No way!” Paul shook his head. “It’s a great frickin’ giant marker! It’s pretty hard to miss. And I am not wrong. I solved for the imaginary variable ix after taking the square root of i283.7643 and replacing the hypotenuse of a 30/60/90 triangle with a given, but temporary, reference number. Then I simply solved the relevant Pythagorean equation. Sure it’s crude, but my best calculator is back at home!”
During the entirety of the previous math barrage, Jérel had heard only a long, drawn-out sort of whooshing noise. When the winds calmed down, he asked, “So, where are we then, Paul, if we’re not where we’re supposed to be?”
“Hell’f I know,” Paul shrugged.
“Well, what good is all that shit you just spouted if it doesn’t tell us where we are?”
“Hey, Jérel,” Paul fairly frothed at the mouth, “Don’t be knocking math and physics! That equation told us more than anything else could have! If physics and math equations don’t have the answers, then I don’t know what does!”
Jérel stared for a long space at the obnoxious Glove. “Paul,” he said in an exhausted monotone, “Have you ever seriously considered therapy?”
“Funny, Jérel, therapy. Maybe you need therapy!”
“Paul--” Jérel began, but what was cut off.
“Vomiter-forsaken backpack!” Tk was griping in his special way, dropping his pack to the ground for a spot of rest while the other two bickered. “This is the heaviest confounded load! My back’s killing me!”
“All right,” Jérel sighed. “Let’s break and get something to drink. It’s pretty hot for this far north.”
“Boy, you said it, Minkelf!” Tk gasped. “Here, Paul,” the Glove turned to his kin, “let me help you with... where the hell’s your pack?” Tk broke his own rule regarding foul language when he observed Paul’s baggage to be missing.
“Oh, I haven’t had to carry that thing for miles and miles now!” Paul waved away the nuisance with a deft hand movement. “Frickin’ heavy thing, anyway!”
“You mean you just left it on the road?!” Jérel raised his voice. “That wasn’t just yours, you know! There was food in there! That was for all of us!”
“No, I didn’t just leave it!” Paul snapped defensively.
“So, where is it?” Jérel snapped back at him confrontationally.
“I’ve got it!” came a pleasantly outspoken voice from nowhere in particular that Jérel could see.
“What the hell??” Jérel fairly jumped out of his fur. “Who said that??”
“I did!” the voice chirped. “Please don’t fight. I can carry yours, too, if you want. Really, it’s no problem. I want to help!”
The voice was persuasive, almost compelling. But for the life of him, the Minkelf could not seem to root out the source, try as he might. That was quick to change, however.
“By the Great One’s porcelain!” Tk sucked in his breath. “I’ll be rolled in Karpey weed and dipped in piranha fungus! It can’t be!”
“What in hell’s plaid fire are you raving about, Tk?” Jérel scowled down at the frantic Glove, still spinning about in search of the source of the new conversationalist.
“The ground!” Tk said. “The voice is coming from the road!”
“Get serious,” Jérel groaned, in no mood for foolishness.
“But it’s true!” the road confirmed happily, and added, “Say, would you like a good, cold shower? I know where there’s a great little stream with waterfalls and --”
“That’s okay... forget it,” Jérel stumbled, waving a hand at the small paving stone, still unsure about what exactly was speaking to him; and in utter disbelief that it could actually be the very ground. He paused awkwardly, and there was an extended silence. “What the hell are you, anyway?” he managed at length.
“Oh... ” there was a further silence. “My name’s a bit cumbersome, actually,” the road offered politely. “I wouldn’t want to burden you nice folks.”
“Burden...” Jérel repeated mindlessly, still having some difficulties with the situation in general.
“How about if you just call me Bob?” the road offered excitedly.
“Yeah...” Jérel droned, feeling ever drawn into a strange numbness of the mind.
“Well, good then!” the road answered jubilantly. “Everyone’s happy! Say, Mr. Glove,” the road addressed Tk, “would you like me to --”
“Wait a minute!” Jérel suddenly snapped back into wakefulness, shaking his head to clear the fog. “You’re a Good Intention stone, aren’t you!” he pointed an accusing, furry finger toward the road.
“Um... well... I... you know... ” the road attempted to defend itself. “Say,” it opted instead, “that’s a lot of trouble, concerning yourself with thoughts like that... Maybe you could just let me --”
“Forget it!” Jérel snapped, struggling to retain control of his own mind. “Klynn warned me about this!”
“Who?” Tk and Paul asked simultaneously, their eyes a bit glassy from the encounter with the Road, and their attention partially distracted.
“C’mon you two!” Jérel tugged on Tk’s sleeve, attempting to snap him back into full wakefulness. “We’re going. We’ve got to find the West Road again.”
“But really,” the stone protested politely, “Begging your pardon, but you’d be much happier on this road, really... Certainly! I mean... If you...” the voice trailed off to the others’ ears.
The Compatriots -- for such name we have bestowed upon them -- ignored the Road Of Good Intentions at Jérel’s behest, the two Gloves still a bit overcome, and marched off the way they’d come, in search of their rightful path.
The ROGI -- for such name we have bestowed upon the Road Of Good Intentions -- hollered after them into the strange mist forming between itself and the others. “But the scenery...” it yelled politely. “It’s much prettier this way! And what with... with... oh, you know... oh... well, shit!” ROGI fell silent. He’d nearly had them. What a bummer! But ah, well... Other opportunities would present themselves. After all, the Road was nothing if not resourceful. ROGI smiled slyly.
Not that anyone would’ve noticed or anything... Try to remember, he is a road, after all...
* * *
“Taldo!” Zacc roared at the unfortunate owl. “Stop fooling around with that Boot and get up here!” Of course, the wizard referred to Lucifer, in whom Taldo had taken a curious interest. Right now that interest was getting him into trouble. And he needed trouble no more than he needed to be tarred on top of his feathers. Leaving the little Boot alone, Taldo flapped over to the campfire and the grassy hillock where his master sat apparently engaged in thoughts necromantic.
“Yes, Lord?” he bowed. If you’ve never seen an owl bow, you’re missing out. It’s worth the trip to the Durid just to see it.
“Taldo, hold this tight,” Zacc grouched.
Taldo placed a wing on the wizard’s shoelace while Zacc completed the requisite bow with his newly freed fingers. “The bunny goes around the tree...” he mumbled through his thick beard, obviously engrossed. Eventually satisfied, he stood up and tested the fit. “Good,” he declared. “Can never get these damned laces tight by myself!” He glared at the owl, then, who had dared to linger unnecessarily. “That will be all, Taldo.”
“That’s it, Lord? No help with incantations or the like?”
“Hah!” Zacc huffed. “The last time you helped, you nearly blew us both into the middle of the Undine! I think I can manage alone, thank you!”
“Mr. Wyndham, sir,” came an unmistakably tiny voice. “If you please, I have been known to dabble in the arts myself... with some small successes.”
Taldo muttered something safely under his beak.
“Is that so?” the wizard turned a scrutinous leer on his new traveling companion. “What exactly do you do?”
“I’m an Orange Hat, Lord. I do levitations, minor spells, Congressional Budget Wizardry... that sort of thing.”
You should be made aware that the wizardly order is marked by a color-coding system. More advanced practitioners earn progressively-colored hats. The order is such: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Gold.
“Indeed?” Zacc puzzled over this new tidbit momentarily. “May I see your hat?” he requested of the Boot. Lucifer obliged, pulling a tiny orange cone from his back pants pocket and handing it to the wizard.
Zacc frowned in genuine confusion. “Why don’t you wear it?” he inquired, taking the hat.
“Habit, Lord,” the little Boot tilted his head. “My fellow Boots did not look approvingly upon it, as you might’ve guessed.”
“Yes,” Zacc nearly smiled. “But they knew of your interest?”
“And they refrained from filling you full of those wretched darts?”
“That they did, sir.”
“Why?” Zacc was a bit irritated at being the only one injured in this scenario.
“Well, truthfully, Lord, they disliked it largely when they first discovered,” Lucifer admitted. “But I soon had them all convinced that I wasn’t a threat.”
“And that’s it? I could’ve done that!”
“Um...” the Boot added, “And I also had them all convinced that they were bush-whooples, for a while. I may have played with their perceptions a tad...”
“I see,” Zacc chuckled slightly.
“You see, sir,” Lucifer felt free to elaborate, “I’ve always believed that if I can’t be the best wizard, I may as well have some fun with the arts, at the very least.”
“I like your attitude, Boot,” Zacc came as close at this moment as ever in his entire life to nearly liking another living being. “You remind me something of myself,” he half-smiled. “Minus a few feet,” he added, scanning the Boot’s tiny stature.
“I have as many feet as you, Lord,” the Boot was quick to answer.
“This is no time for lousy puns, Boot,” Zacc snapped back to typical form.
“Taldo!” Zacc redirected his attentions and his grouchiness.
“Yes, your Lordship?” the owl flapped over to the wizardly pair.
“See that you find my new apprentice some fitting clothing for his wizardly appointment!”
“Yes, your Wizardship,” Taldo flew back to the recently reconstructed wagon and gathered a handful of wizardly requisites: Robe, shoes, crystal, staff, long beard, bad attitude, all the usuals. These he took to Lucifer with a heavy heart (okay, that one’s a little unusual...). All he needed was another cursed wizard on this journey! What a drag. And just what was Zacc’s interest in this new guy, anyway? How had any of this happened? As if he didn’t know! Entirely fed up with this turn of events, Taldo ended the segment abruptly.
* * *
“Paul, you idiot!” Jérel snapped at the Glove who’d gotten them into trouble with the Road Of Good Intentions.
“I second that,” Tk grumbled.
“Hey!” Paul took up for himself, “It’s not my fault! How was I supposed to know it was a Good Intention stone?”
Jérel stared at the Glove angrily. “The damned thing is the road, stupid!” he grouched. “And it voluntarily carried your pack for miles.”
“I thought it was just being neighborly,” Paul offered dejectedly, feeling the fool. (We’ve never felt a fool, we’d like it known).
“It was being nice, you idiot!” Jérel continued angrily. “That’s what it does. Just keep your eyes open from now on, okay? No more favors from anyone. Got it?”
“I got it,” Paul pouted.
“So...” Jérel pondered the next move. “I guess we try to figure out where it is we are...”
“Where we are?” Tk asked, confused.
“Well, yeah,” Jérel returned. “Wherever that Good Intention wanted to take us, it ultimately failed. And we definitely aren’t where we’re supposed to be... So we must be somewhere between.”
“But we could be anywhere!” Paul despaired. “What’re we gonna’ do?”
“Paul,” the Minkelf began with remarkable patience, considering his growing dislike of the Glove, “Stop me if you’ve heard this. We’re going to figure out where we are!”
“I get it, Jérel,” Paul snapped. “How?”
“Hell’f I know,” the Minkelf shrugged. “We walk, I guess. Eventually, we’ll find something or somebody to clue us in.”
“Say, that’s quite a plan!” Paul said sarcastically, his wit having rebounded nicely from only moments ago. “You’re a real leader, Jérel. Maybe someday you might --”
Jérel brought his bow down on Paul’s skull with a vengeance. You should know that, to date, that’s the most accurate hit that bow has ever scored while in the Minkelf’s possession. It’s a little unclear why, exactly, he continues to carry it around.
“Thank you!” Tk clapped his hands enthusiastically. “That’s something I’ve wanted to do for Tays!”
“Why didn’t you, then?” Jérel frowned, incapable of understanding how anyone could’ve lived with Paul for so long and yet not struck him at least once.
“It’s against my religion to beat on those less fortunate than swamp-whooples,” Tk offered up his reasoning quickly.
“Understood,” Jérel nodded, not wanting to get mixed up in anything ‘belief’ based.
“Hey!” Paul jumped in, rubbing his head. “It’s not funny! That hurt! The chemical reactions and electrical impulses in my brain are the basis of intelligent life! You could treat them with more respect!”
“Yeah, I could...” Jérel was only half paying attention to the rambling Glove, being busy scanning their surroundings for any clues as to their whereabouts.
“Oh, I see!” Paul grouched. “Just because you can’t understand the science of a superior mind -- AACK!”
“Listen, Gloveboy,” Jérel now devoted his full attention to Paul, his thin and furry arms doing remarkably well to hold the Glove aloft by his throat, “The only thing keeping me from feeding you to a steroid-whoople is that Klynn asked me to take you along on this little journey of madness. But keep pushing my buttons and I just might forget who the hell Klynn is! Got it?!”
“Who’s Klynn?” Tk asked again, completely unconcerned with Paul’s well-being.
“Exactly!” Jérel grumbled, dropping Paul to the ground with a squish.
Paul picked himself up casually and brushed stupidly at his muddy clothes. “You wouldn’t be able to treat me like that in a static universe of theoret --”
“Stop mumbling and pick up your pack, Paul!” Jérel alliterated without conscious intent. “We might have a ways to go, so let’s just keep moving.”
As it turns out, the Compatriots did not have far to go at all before they came across a rather wet obstacle.
“Wait!” Jérel suddenly put a hand to his ear. “Do you guys smell that?”
“That was confusing,” Paul pointed out with a scowl.
“What?” Tk frowned.
“That smell. It’s wet...” Jérel fell silent a moment. “There’s a river up ahead. I’ll swear it!”
“A river!” Tk’s ears perked up. “Maybe the Keenan. Maybe we’re not so thrown off after all!”
“I don’t know, Tk,” Jérel shattered the excitement. “Things don’t look just right.” The Minkelf scanned the area around them warily, uncertain about something that, for the moment, eluded him. “Keep your eyes open.”
The three pursuers-of-wizard set off at a trot in the direction of the alleged water. And they found it shortly.
“You were right, Jérel!” Tk squeaked gleefully. “It’s a river, all right!”
“Yeah...” Jérel’s face soured as he knelt to sip from the steady currents, “but not the Keenan.”
“How do you know?” Paul dared to speak, though he covered his head for protection.
Jérel was too distracted to think of swatting Paul yet again. “The water smells wrong,” he said, kneeling down closer. “Smells...” he paused as he scrutinized, “human.”
Paul and Tk cringed noticeably. “Oh, no...” they both mumbled beneath their breath.
“Smells like the Xylonian woodmills,” the Minkelf continued, confident now that he’d latched onto the source of his dis-ease. “Nothing smells worse than that. Except a Xylonian woodcutter,” he amended after some thought. “This is definitely the Ilka. And we’re definitely just downstream of Xylon...” he fell silent for a long moment, with the two Gloves staring onward patiently. “Which is smack on the West Road!” Jérel suddenly lit up.
“You mean...?” Tk dared.
“It looks as though we’ve gained some serious ground, gentlemen!” Jérel smiled.
The Gloves smiled also. The Good Intention had taken a hundred miles off of their course, at least. Welcome news, indeed!
“Hey!” Paul’s light bulb flickered and finally lit up momentarily, “So I did good, then! Ya’ want me to find another Good Intention Stone?”
“Shut up, Paul!” Jérel and Tk yelled in unison.
Paul pouted again.
“Well, we might as well get cracking,” the Minkelf suggested, his brief moment of elation having dissipated at the thought of humans. “There’s ‘civilization’ on the horizon,” he made little quote-quote marks with his furry fingers.
And with that remark they would have set dramatically forth upon the east bank of the Ilka toward the north, and the Waldemar territories, at the same time providing a literary-type cut-off point for this segment... But no!
“If we head for the horizon, we’ll never get there!” Paul educated Jérel. “You see, the horizon is ever changing. It’s just our percep--”
* * *
“And then... I... remem... remem...” Zaccheus Wyndham could scarcely control his laughter enough to spit out a sentence. Next to him, his new-found partner in wizardry rolled on the ground in gaiety, his little Boot belly simply quivering from relentless attacks of the giggles. Wyndham caught hold of himself just enough to pour Lucifer another mug of Drappelbury Slush, a favorite among the magi.
Mind you, Drappelbury Slush is not really very good at all. That’s the bottom line. But somehow or another it doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. It’s a cult thing. Some wizard or another went and started a trend, and now they’re all at it like a bunch of teenagers whose parents are away for the weekend.
Drappelbury Slush is made from Drappelberries. Simple enough. And yet not really. You see, the berries must be ripened on the vine, harvested with precision methods, then surgically implanted -- on an enormous scale -- under the skin of the dunegrass-whoople. There they stay until precisely twelve o’clock noon on mating day (the whooples’, not the wizards’) at which time the enormous seasonal swarms of Shehanian Penian Fairies are expected to migrate over the lands. The fairies race over the Durid and, for reasons unknown, descend onto the surrounding area and lapse into uncontrollable lyrical verse at the sight of the fermenting dunegrass-whooples. The swarm becomes a thick fog of aeronautical activity of various documented -- and likely more than a few undocumented -- behaviors, and the dunegrass-whooples become notably anxiety-ridden. Finally, at the height of insanity, and in the midst of Michael Bolton’s “I said I loved you but I lied”, the Penian Fairy masses commit desperate -- and in our opinion long-overdue -- hari-kari, and throw themselves into the whoople holding-pens in a bloody and stomach-turning heap. We have to believe that this is largely to be attributed to the choice of song (to the extent that anyone ‘chooses’ to listen to Michael Bolton) as opposed to instinctual predispositions.
Now, the dunegrass-whooples, as a rule, have a rather slight threshold for pain and suffering. The mere sight of this mass suicide sends them into a severe, acute-onset, biologically-induced depression. Coupled with the comorbid anxiety, the result is that the whooples manifest their distress physically via abnormally-pronounced goose-bumps.
Drappelberries, inexplicably, are molecularly-drawn to a rather pungent, viscous discharge of these goose-bumps. What can we say... Drappelberries are a unique lot. And more than a little strange by all accounts. The berries ultimately absorb the viscous discharge back through the skin of the whoople, and begin to swell rapidly. This results in the rapid and highly visible swelling of the whoople itself. The reason for the swelling of the berries is two-fold: First, the atoms comprising the molecular structure of the berries are highly unstable, and thus readily discard electrons from their own outer shells in the direction of the atoms comprising the viscous pus upon exposure. Second, the whooples’ immune systems subsequently regard this mutation as foreign and begin an auto-immune attack against their own cells. Dunegrass-whoople immune-response functions on the principle of swelling; foreign bodies are isolated and their DNA is hyper-duplicated within each individual cell to the point that the cells eventually explode and shower their contents all over the host-animal’s internal organs. Again, what can we say... sick dunegrass-whooples tend to die. Hey, it stops the spread of disease through the species, doesn’t it?
As scores of doomed dunegrass-whooples fall dead within carefully-constructed vats / holding-pens, the molecularly-altered, viscous discharge which had exploded within the whooples speeds from their bloated bodies under the pressure of alcohol fermentation, and forms a sticky paste at the bottom of the vat. The carcasses are allowed to remain in the sticky paste for an undisclosed period of time which varies from slush-maker to slush-maker, and which is regarded as one of many industry secrets. After this undisclosed period of time, the carcasses are removed from the base-paste, and the hair, entrails, and other undesirables are carefully extracted from the mix via a specific screening process. Somewhat less secretive than the ‘carcass in the base-paste’ process, the screening process involves the mix being strained through the semi-dried and stretched skins of the Penian Fairies, they being specially and specifically sewn together into large sheets for this very purpose. What remains after the screening process is then mixed with rubbing alcohol in order to thin the solution, and the new mixture is subsequently distilled repeatedly in order to increase the alcohol content. It is then aged in giant wooden vats, and afterward is more or less directly bottled and sold through wizardly outlets Durid-wide. So, there you go: Drappelbury Slush.
The more keen among you have patiently awaited clarification of the spelling disparity. We don’t know everything about it, sorry to say. It’s relevant to the handful of well-kept industry secrets. Rumor has it that after the mix has been sufficiently distilled and re-distilled for optimum alcohol content (upwards of seven hundred percent by volume) the giant wooden vats of premature Drappelbury Slush are strategically aged underground; having been buried tightly stacked and strapped together, covered over with a mixture of special silt from the floor of the Undine at a depth of thirty-seven feet, along with the bloody carcasses of both the whooples and the fairies. Apparently, something in the silt reacts well with something in the carcasses which reacts favorably with something in the composition of the wooden vats which aren’t made from just any wood... You get the idea. But none of this is to be taken as gospel. We got our information from a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy...
Taldo watched from afar with growing apprehension as his master yukked it up with Lucifer. Gee, that would probably make anyone apprehensive, wouldn’t it? Well, Taldo had good reason to be apprehensive; although those reasons weren’t the reasons he had. Chew on that one for a while.
“Remember the ’72 convention?!” Zacc finally sputtered, somewhat coherently. “The Indigos convinced the Reds that water flowed down instead of up because of a Gold conspiracy, and that only a well trained, dedicated group of Reds could break the spell through a concerted effort and thus save the world from disaster or some bullshit like that!” Zacc’s laughter overtook him. But Lucifer took up the slack nicely:
“... And then the Indigos went to the Blues and told them that a small group of Reds had lost their minds and had gone down to the Alda Rel Jem to turn all the fish into drunken Congressmen...!”
Zaccheus jumped back in, “... And the Blues found the Reds with their robes hiked up, about to perform a ritual urination...!”
Both man and Boot simply feel apart beyond the capacity for speech. Lucifer had the giggles something terrible, and his squeak resounded throughout the surrounding forest. The Evil Ones, for such we have decided to refer to them in order to uphold the glory that is the Compatriots’, had stopped their progress along the West Road along about midway between the Nedda River and Xylon, in George Woods. Understandably, this is where the two of them passed out for the remainder of the day.
Taldo kept a wary, although disgusted, eye on the pair of drunken magi. The world was very fortunate that Zaccheus and Lucifer had maintained a certain wizardly composure. Every time Zacc winds up drunk, poor Taldo fears for the safety of pretty much everything in general.
‘There ought to be a law!’ Taldo thought. ‘Get drunk, use magic, go to jail!’ Of course, what jail could hold a wizard? Even hammered, Zacc is a force to be reckoned with. And make no mistake he was plenty hammered. We know this because, had he not been so far gone, he might perhaps have realized that there was no Lucifer Boot at the ’72 convention...
With both wizards snoring soundly, Taldo managed to get in a bit of well-deserved rest himself. Unlike other owls, however, Taldo would not be comfortable in a tree. So it was that, convinced that no one was observing him, he magicked himself up a nice, cozy bed and plopped down confidently onto the mattress. He yawned, stretched, and smiled a knowing smile that you’d not expect from a wizard’s lackey. Then he, too, drifted off to sleep.
* * *
“What the hell are you??” the first in a string of woodcutters confronted Jérel threateningly as the Minkelf walked by with his two Gloves on his heels. The streets of Xylon were crowded with humans today, and the giant man bumped Jérel’s shoulder meaningfully with his own and fixed the Minkelf with a murderous glare.
“Just ignore him and keep moving, Jérel!” Tk whispered as the giant, sweaty Wartonian faded away behind them, shaking his head intolerantly. “We won’t be here long.” Good advice, from one who’s used to insults.
“Mommy,” a little boy clung to his mother’s dress out of fear as the three new-comers approached, “what are they?!” he pointed directly at the Compatriots.
“Hurry up, Billy,” the mother tugged the boy away rapidly, “they’re evil!”
“Why are they evil, mommy?” the boy inquired as his mother dragged him quickly toward ‘safety’.
“They’re different!” his mother exhaled in a panic. “Abominations to the Bracket!”
“We need to get the hell out of here,” Jérel shook his head. “I don’t know what we were thinkin’.”
“I hate humans!” Paul muttered under his breath.
“We can’t pass up the opportunity to try to pry information about the wizard out of the locals,” Tk reminded Jérel. “We don’t have any idea which way he went, and we’re supposed to get to him before he reaches Eglavia, remember?”
“Yeah,” Jérel became a little smug. “I remember. What with me being the one who told you and all...”
“Well, it seems to have slipped your mind,” Tk returned with a frown. “Anyway, this is as good a place as any to begin our search for the wizard.”
“Don’t know if it’s really as good as any...” Jérel mumbled, carefully surveying the humans as they swept wide ’round him.
Tk ignored the comment. After some further thought, he added, “And maybe we could search for some food, too. I’m starved!”
“That’s because you throw up everything you eat,” Jérel cast the Glove a sideways glance.
“Don’t insult my religion, Minkelf!” Tk became angered. “Not here!”
Jérel momentarily considered the Glove’s odd choice of word, but congenially allowed the golden opportunity to pass. “I’m hungry, too,” he said instead. “Let’s find a tavern somewhere and take a load off.”
And so the weary Compatriots set forth into the heart of Xylon in search of nourishing fare, oblivious to what lay ahead... certain members of their party being more oblivious than others, if you’ll allow us a few grammatical liberties.
At this time, since a cast of the dice (not by any means to be taken literally) has led us most unfortunately to the Waldemar territories, and since Jérel and the Gloves are otherwise occupied by their ongoing search for food, we would like to take this opportunity to expound upon that ‘Bracket’ comment. In PMW (Pre) 738, a rather unique and special situation presented itself to human civilization, here in the Waldemar territories. One sunny day, in the heart of Adela, with most of the townsfolk present for the annual greased-whoople wrangling and wrestling contest, a 1972 Ford Pinto appeared from nowhere in the town square, having been sucked quite accidentally through an eddy in the spacetime continuum. Needless to say (but needful to write) the good townsfolk were taken aback considerably at the sudden materialization of the foreign and frightening object. People scattered to a safe distance, leaving an empty clearing around the vehicle. But, human nature getting the better of them, their curiosity began to nag at them, one and all. And so they crept back toward the oddity.
The oddity sat still, doing nothing. What’d you expect? It’s a Pinto. Obviously, no one dared to make a sudden or unwise move, lest the strange beast be provoked. (Again... Pinto.) The animal was quite visibly upset, as told by the inconsistent sputtering and by the hot breath blasting irregularly from its tubular mouth. (Yeah... again...) In addition, a curious-smelling blue-ish vapor was beginning to seep out of the animal from both of its pale-colored, splotchy sides. (Nah... we’re done. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel at this point.) Abruptly, from within the belly of the monster, a deity stepped out onto the paving stones and looked about in wide-eyed wonder. The townsfolk stood paralyzed with fear and wonderment, transfixed by this unfolding of events. The deity slowly approached the foremost and most daring villagers, they now too frightened to react, and he laid a hand on each of their shoulders in turn. He touched them uncertainly. He lifted his hand. He touched them again. He touched his two hands together at the fingertips. He touched the villagers’ shoulders once again. “They seem so real,” he remarked in a foggy voice. “Dude!” he turned his attention back to the beast and to the undisclosed other who remained concealed within it, “you roll the best shit!”
The villagers remained silent and motionless. The deity smiled at them, turned, and stumbled back toward the beast, only to be consumed by it once again. And then, as quickly as the God-Beast had appeared, it faded again to nothingness, the eddy having realized its cosmic mistake. The square lay empty before the dumbfounded townsfolk. For long minutes, no one dared speak. Finally, an adventurous and wide-eyed lad walked forward into the deserted area and pointed, excitedly shouting, “Look! It has left us a Holy Relic!”
Fully aware of the immense spiritual significance of this blessed offering, the good and reverent townsfolk (they’re good and something, all right...) rushed into the square in order to better view and to fully behold the Divine Gift. Not daring to breach a certain reverent space, the townsfolk huddled around the rusty muffler bracket from the safe distance of approximately one yard, ooh-ing and aah-ing in astonishment.
“What is it?” someone asked.
“It is a blessing!” another answered.
“It is divine!” yet another spoke up.
“It is a miracle!” the comments continued.
“It is...” someone offered humbly and reverently, stumbling to comprehend the vastness and immensity of purpose behind the Deity-Duos’ purpose, “it is... good shit!”
“Yes!” others cried out enthusiastically, while still others simply cried, the glory overtaking them, “It is! It is good shit!”
“Let it be so!” a villager proclaimed for everyone’s benefit. “It shall be good shit, and we shall learn of its ways and of its purpose!”
“Yes!” others agreed passionately. “We must learn good shit!”
“But how?” a new voice broke in, somewhat dismayed. “How shall we learn the shit?”
“It is not for us to decide such things, dude!” another warned, quickly adopting the new lexicon. “The shit shall be made plain to us!”
“Yes!” someone else latched onto the idea. “All shit shall be made known to us in time! It is not for us to know the shit, but rather it is for Them,” he pointed skyward, “to put Their shit on us as They see fit!”
“Let us now pray!” another turned his attentions upward toward the shitty heavens. “Oh, great and good shit rollers!” he mouthed most reverently, as the others bowed their heads in silence, “bestow upon us your most holy shit!”
“Amen!” others intoned.
“That we may know the ways of rolling,” the prayer-leader went on.
“And that in your most shitty image we may come to understand the offering left most graciously for us here today!”
“Collect ye the gift, now!” the orator commanded of the others. “Make safe the holy relic and swaddle it in the finest linens!”
Others rushed in to see that it was done.
“Let us go now,” the speaker concluded passionately and with great purpose after the muffler bracket had been secured. “Let us away that we may begin the chronicling of this most blessed day!”
“Yes!” the others cried energetically. “Let us away!”
And so the group, rusty muffler bracket safely wrapped in fine cloth, made its way out of the central square and headed toward the town hall to discuss the furthering of this new cause. In time, to cut to the chase, the square was roped off and deemed Holy Ground. The gospel of the Muffler Bracket was penned; that is to say, the Gospel was discovered, as the writings had always Been and will always Be. Our mistake. And, after a period of misguided education in all things automotive -- speeded along by the second of two spacetime goofs which saw to it that a 1978 Pinto repair manual found its way to the town -- the Gospel was given the divine designation, The Great Muffler Bracket Repair Manual and Spiritual Guide Handbook; these Most Holy writings being the living interpretation of the incomprehensible information put forth by the Almighty Twin Gods into the Manual. The disparity between some of the information found in the 1978 manual and some of the visual recollections of the 1972 auto were deemed Divine and Spiritually Significant. Can nothing deter sheep?
And all because a rusty Pinto dropped a time-worn muffler bracket... Actually, considering the source, it’s a wonder that the villagers didn’t wind up taking to transmission-worship. And on a related note, we can practically hear you laughing. But your religion started how?
“Minkelf,” Tk tapped Jérel on the side. “What about that one?” he pointed to a tavern which he hoped might suit them in terms of information, food, and drink.
Jérel looked across the bustling plaza in the direction Tk pointed, and beheld the establishment in question. “What the hell,” he shrugged indifferently. “Let’s give it a shot.” Toward it they headed, with Paul shuffling along behind them, afraid of being abandoned. Passing through the crowd, they promptly found themselves facing a large, empty courtyard, securely roped off against trespass.
Jérel frowned. “They plant new grass or somethin’?” he wondered aloud. “Why can’t we cross through here?”
“No idea,” Tk shook his head slightly.
“Well, hell,” the Minkelf complained, “now we gotta’ go all the way around,” he indicated with a sweep of his furry arm. “You sure you wanna’ go to this place?”
“No,” Tk admitted. “But it’s the first place I’ve seen. And we gotta’ start somewhere,” he alluded to their need of information. “Besides, I need some food already!”
“All right,” Jérel huffed as he and the two Gloves began their trek around the courtyard toward the tavern. “Let’s go.”
“Which way?” Tk wondered aloud, the tavern being situated directly across the giant circle.
“Like it matters,” Jérel snorted. And off they went in a randomly-chosen arc.
The town having been conceptually reconfigured in order to accommodate the roped-off city center, a direction of traffic flow had eventually established itself, and which the locals knew well. Often, this phenomenon can be difficult to discern, what with various peoples stopping and starting here and there as they walk, in order to visit the stands and booths which littered the marketplace. The pattern tends to reveal itself in time, however. Apparently, the Compatriots had chosen unwisely.
“Get the hell outa’ my way, you goddamned freak!” an obese, toothless, unshowered woman snapped at Jérel as she passed, angry at the notion that someone had caused her the discomfort of one or two unnecessary steps in her carefully choreographed and minimalized day.
“Sorry...” Jérel apologized for no good reason.
“The Bracket loves you!” another passerby smiled as he passed.
“May the shit be good!” yet another gentleman brushed by the Compatriots.
“Roll a good one, stranger,” a third person offered.
“Walk in the right fucking direction, would ya’?!” the next in line snarled with contempt.
“Aaiighhhh!!” a woman screamed and sidestepped far around the approaching trio, catching sight of the two Gloves trailing behind Jérel.
“Never gets old,” Paul returned sarcastically.
“The Bracket exists to support your worries, friend,” the next passerby smiled, his eyes gleaming. “Have you put your troubles on Him?”
“I’m not really sure...” Jérel verbally stumbled as he and the Gloves passed the zealot, “But... have a good day...” he forced some congeniality.
“Roll some good shit,” the greetings continued as the gang walked on, nearly to their destination now.
“Right,” Jérel frowned a little. “Sure... you, too.”
“Good shit to you, stranger,” the foot traffic kept coming.
“Shit. Right. Shit to you,” the Minkelf tried his best.
“This is one weird frickin’ place!” Paul shook his head.
“Watch yer mouth,” Tk scolded his brother-Glove.
“Yeah,” Paul laughed. “Wouldn’t want to offend the shit-gods.”
“Paul!” Jérel warned, desperately not wanting to cause a scene.
“Roll a good one,” another passerby smiled.
“Oh, I surely will,” Jérel tried his best.
“Good shit to you, brothers,” from yet another.
“Are we there yet?!” Paul asked impatiently from the rear, not unlike a child hollering up from the back seat of the car.
“Yeah,” Jérel stopped at last, looking up. The Gloves turned their attention in the direction of the Minkelf’s gaze.
“The Fish Out Of Water,” Paul read the tavern’s hanging-sign aloud. “It’s perfect,” he nodded, appreciating the symbolism. “Let’s go in.”
Jérel nodded, then turned to the Gloves meaningfully. “Probably best if you two don’t say much,” he offered a little apologetically. Neither Tk nor Paul felt it necessary to disagree.
The Minkelf preceded the two Gloves inside. Upon entering, the three found to their great joy that the patrons appeared -- one and all -- to be entirely too drunk to have taken notice of their arrival. Thus it was that they marched up to the bar undisturbed by further insult or other shitty greeting. The bartender was occupied, his back turned to the Compatriots.
“A pitcher of kettleberry beer, barkeep” Jérel called out as he and the Gloves approached a string of deserted barstools, the Minkelf desperately longing for a cold one.
“Name’s Larry,” the bartender began cheerfully as he turned about. “And how many mugs would you AAAIIGGHHH!!” he panicked when he caught sight of the Gloves.
Tk and Paul scowled impatiently, but held their tongues.
“All right,” Jérel nodded tolerantly toward the barkeep, brushing off the issue deftly so that he could get on with business, “yep, they’re Gloves, sure enough...” he redirected the barkeeper’s attention back to himself. “About that pitcher?” he inquired.
“Sorry,” Larry attempted to get his respiration back under control, rubbing his forehead and deliberately averting his eyes from the Gloves. “It’s just...”
“Not necessary,” Jérel cut him off. “Been there myself.”
The barman nodded in understanding. “Pitcher, then?” he confirmed.
“Please,” Jérel smiled.
Larry turned to attend to the appropriate tap. Returning with the pitcher, he plunked it down before the gang of three, finding it necessary to point out, “Don’t see folks like you none too often ’round these parts.”
“Can’t imagine what’s been keeping us away,” Paul returned with a wicked smile.
The barkeeper smiled warmly, missing the sarcasm entirely. Jérel smiled also, then slowly turned toward the Glove and fixed him with such a glare. Paul lowered his head in resignation.
“What brings ya’ through here?” the barman asked, almost as if he truly felt it would be just as good if the trio moved along out of town before very long.
“My friends and I are looking for someone,” Jérel decided that near-honesty was maybe the best policy. “We wonder if maybe you’ve seen him.”
“Could you be more specific?” Larry asked genuinely, missing yet another opportunity.
“Yeah, I guess I could do that,” Jérel decided to go the extra mile. “Wizard.”
“That it?” the beer-slinger had hoped for a bit more to go on.
“Sorry,” Jérel shrugged. “Don’t have much to go on,” he lied, not wanting to reveal too much too soon. “Kinda’ hoped it was enough. Didn’t figure a lot of wizards came through here...”
“So... think you’ve seen him?”
“You say he’s a friend of yours?” Larry frowned.
“Yup,” Jérel continued with the lies.
“Don’t know his name, though?” Larry thought it a bit odd.
“We were never all that close,” Jérel shrugged.
“Uh huh...” Larry replied flatly.
“Seen him?” Jérel pushed.
“Wizard, huh?” the barkeeper contemplated (Bet you never thought you’d read that sentence) and drummed his fingers on the bar-top thoughtfully. “Could be I’ve already seen ’im,” he suddenly remembered, at length deciding that he didn’t care one bit whether any kind of friendship existed between the two.
“Yeah?” Jérel prodded, wondering what inspired Larry to think that it’s unique in any way to have ‘already seen’ someone upon being asked whether you’ve seen someone.
“Yeah,” Larry nodded. “Fella’ come in yesterday with an owl and a little... guy...” he frowned uncertainly. “A ‘Boot’... I think.”
“Boot?” Jérel asked with fake disinterest, taking a good sized swig of his beer.
“That’s what I said,” Larry returned. “Wizard sez’ he’s on his way to get pillared or some such thing...” his frown deepened. “What is that?” the barkeeper apparently hoped that Jérel would know, despite the dearth of information from him on the subject of this ‘friend’. “Some sort of wizards-wedding or somethin’?”
“Why not,” Jérel humored the man, who as it turns out didn’t really pay attention to the reply anyway.
“That your boy?” the bartender inquired.
“Sure sounds like him,” Jérel nodded. “But I can’t believe he told you about the pillars,” his curiosity got the better of him.
“Oh... Well, he didn’t really,” the pudgy man rubbed his pudgy hands on his apron. “I mostly overheard that shit,” he shrugged.
Jérel nodded in understanding.
“Pardon my language,” Larry truly hadn’t meant to take the Lord’s name in vain.
“Consider it pardoned,” the Minkelf casually waved away any concern.”
“He was in here spoutin’ off about it,” Larry continued, having already put his recent transgression behind him, “tryin’ to impress a couple o’ babes.” The barkeeper shook his head and laughed. “He looked pretty well shellacked to me. Them chicks wasn’t gonna’ have nothin’ to do with ’im. My guess is that him and the Boot was into the Drappelbury Slush before they even come in.”
“Really?” Jérel couldn’t conceal his distaste, being somewhat familiar with that particular drink just by virtue of being a drinker himself. “To each his own, I guess...”
“Right,” Larry nodded in agreement.
I prefer a good kettleberry beer, myself,” Jérel raised his mug meaningfully. “Don’t see how anyone can drink that slush...”
“Yeah... me, neither,” the bartender stopped rubbing his hands together and leaned in close, motioning Jérel toward him as to say something in confidence. “I don’t drink, myself,” he admitted in low tones.
“Ya’ don’t say,” Jérel nodded, preferring to get on with things. “So... What then?”
“Well,” Larry shrugged, “they didn’t score with them babes, neither of ‘em, so they just kinda’ up an’ left. Ain’t seen ’em since.”
“That it?” Jérel asked.
“They did rent a couple of movies before the left,” Larry recalled suddenly. “Never returned ’em...‘Naked Babes Of The Durid’ and ‘Dee--’”
“Please don’t finish that sentence!” Jérel begged, covering his ears. “Thanks anyway,” he smiled, reaching again for his mug. “We appreciate your --”
“Kron’s devils and Zippity Doo Dah’s thirteen smelly places!” a voice boomed across the tavern as the saloon-doors swung wide forcefully.
“Oh, God!” the barkeep dropped his head forward into his hands. “He’s back again!”
“Who?” Jérel asked, spinning around on his barstool in order to see what was the fuss.
“Kornan!” Larry pointed frightfully. “That giant son of a bitch has been coming in here every day lately and tearing up the place. He’s awful!”
“Can’t the police do anything about him?” Jérel wondered out loud, as he beheld the son of a bitch in question terrorizing the other patrons.
“Hah!” Larry panicked. “They’re all scared to death of him. He keeps beating the shit out of them! Pardon my language,” he turned his gaze skyward in silent apology for his irreverent use of the word. “Whenever Kornan comes around here, the police just pretend to be busy patrolling the other side of town,” Larry rolled his eyes.
“Really...” Jérel chewed on that notion for a moment, impressed.
“Well, just look at ’im!” the barkeep ducked his head down a bit and cursed the giant terrorist under his breath.
Jérel again spared a look over his shoulder, sighting Kornan attempting to wrangle no fewer than seven men’s wives and/or girlfriends out from under them via a brazen display of bravado.
“Yesterday,” Larry went on, secreting himself by making sure to keep the Minkelf between himself and Kornan, “the captain of the police was found hanging by his toenails over a pit of rabid wolverine-whooples.”
“Oooh,” Jérel withdrew a bit, making a face. “Why the hell’d he do that to ’im?”
“Shits and giggles,” Larry shrugged. “Pardon my --”
“Pardon your language,” Jérel nodded, rapidly tiring of the barkeeper’s religious inclinations. “Yeah, you’re pardoned. Shiggles, you say?”
“Yeah,” Larry nodded, “That’s how he treats people he likes.”
“Sounds like a real friendly guy,” Jérel mocked.
“Oh, no he isn’t!” Larry missed the sarcasm entirely, sparing a glance around the Minkelf’s body. “Oh, geez, he’s coming this way!” he ducked behind the bar and out of sight.
“Frumple’s devils and Mozart’s thrice-cursed alcoholic elephant-whoople!” Kornan bellowed as he approached the bar. “Am I to die of thirst, here?!”
Jérel cringed at the terror’s unique and awkward choice of word.
“Rahnahan’s Seven Pimples,” Kornan continued, stepping up beside Jérel and the Gloves, yet completely ignoring them for the moment, “let’s have some ale, barkeep! And keep it flowing! Or I’ll gut you from stern to aft and spit you over the roasting-fire!” the giant threatened.
Jérel rolled his eyes, becoming increasingly annoyed by the terror’s abusive nature. Paul and Tk sat in nervous silence adjacent to the unfolding scene.
“Aye!” Kornan went on with an unsolicited positive appraisal of himself and of his prowess, “in days of yore we’d do battle all day and booze-and-wench all night!”
Jérel began to feel an itch.
“Aye, but I’m a man’s man! Mattress springs and dinosaur bones --”
“Oh, would you shut the hell up!” Jérel couldn’t take any more, and -- without thinking -- allowed his mouth to get him into trouble. Realizing his mistake, he quickly and fearfully clapped a hand over his mouth, but too late.
We should take this opportunity -- before one of our main characters is slowly and painfully flayed -- to point out something about Jérel. In our society, the Minkelf would likely have been diagnosed by now with something akin to Tourette Syndrome; in his case, a rather unfortunate verbal shortcoming whose nature is such that when Jérel’s patience is tested his mouth tends to run quite well ahead of his brain. Call it a disorder or call it a character flaw, as you like, but it’s a problem that’s painted him into more than a few corners over the course of his life. The present corner in which he finds himself may be his last, we fear.
“What??” Kornan roared, whipping out his ancient broadsword which three regular men could scarcely heft let alone wield with ease of motion and practiced arm.
(Sheesh! 1% plot and 99% descriptive filler is tiring work! Kudos to Howard.)
Tk and Paul retreated with uncharacteristic swiftness to the end of the bar in order to hide, having quickly written their traveling partner off entirely.
“Are you hard of hearing?” Jérel mocked the giant menace who stood poised with sword at the ready. “I asked,” Jérel repeated himself a bit arrogantly, “that you please shut the hell up!”
We should take this opportunity -- while the Minkelf inconceivably yet lives -- to point out something further about Jérel. In our society, the Minkelf would likely have been diagnosed by now with something akin to a Cluster D personality disorder; in his case, a rather unique and defensive fatalism which emerges rapidly in response to a sense of imminent peril or death, and which manifests quite vocally. In short, whenever Jérel believes that he’s done for, he quickly ceases to care -- at a gut level -- what it is that he may say or do in the ensuing moments, as some part of him believes he won’t be around much longer for any of it to ultimately matter. Strangely, this fatalistic response to looming doom has served to keep Jérel alive on more than one occasion over the course of his life, owing to the general disorientation it tends to inspire in those who are poised to end his life. Call it a disorder or call it a character boon as you like, but it’s a reaction which has helped him out of many corners. He may actually live through this present confrontation, we’re hoping.
“He’s gonna’ die,” Larry could be heard to say fatalistically from somewhere behind the bar.
Tk and Paul prepared for the worst, in the manners most familiar to them; Tk vomited and Paul graphed the vector of Jérel’s likely demise.
As Kornan’s great sword rushed toward Jérel’s skull, and all seemed lost, the barbarian suddenly halted his swipe in mid-air. “What did you say to me?” the giant scowled, his bicep looking not unlike a large mammal living beneath the skin.
“Would you please not flex,” Jérel ignored the question and went on abrasively. “You’re blocking out the sun.”
“We’re inside,” Larry pointed out, daring to peek up from behind the bar.
“Way to ruin the moment, you provincial schmuck!” Jérel rolled his eyes at the all-too-literal bartender.
Kornan lowered his sword casually to his side and let go a gusty laugh. “By Greiglespif’s beer gut and Henrinshild’s hairy chest!” he added jovially, slapping the Minkelf (We’ve been known to do that... Don’t tell our mothers) on the back good-naturedly; and in the process sending him careening over the bar to land down on the floor next to Larry. “You’ve got some big, furry balls, stranger!” he sheathed the sword and continued his gusty laughter. “What say you to a tankard of ale!” he extended a giant hand to Jérel, who was just now slowly and painfully arising after having been sent head over heels.
“‘Where you been all my life?’” Jérel answered the question casually with a wince as he felt the enormous arm yank him back over the bar and onto his stool once again. Not at all convinced that he was without broken bones, the Minkelf reached for his newly refilled mug and drank deeply.
Larry stood eagerly at the ready behind the bar, should either the giant’s or his new-found friend’s mug go empty. Tk and Paul came out from hiding, but maintained a very low profile.
“Here’s to great big, furry balls!” Kornan raised his mug and smashed it into Jérel’s, which shattered to tiny shards, spilling kettleberry beer all over the bar-top.
“Hah!” Kornan bellowed cheerfully, as Larry quickly and quietly replaced the mug with one freshly-filled, and went about tidying up the spilled beer.
Jérel massaged his now aching hand, thankful to his three goddesses that he wasn’t sporting a giant, bloody gash. “So...” he began, unsure of how to address the giant barbarian, and rapidly tiring of his company already. But ultimately it was not to matter; Kornan had spotted the Gloves.
Jérel noted the enraged look in the giant’s eyes. “What?” he frowned, sparing a look over his shoulder.
“Sorcery!” Kornan bellowed, his gaze locked murderously upon the two Gloves. He unsheathed his great broadsword once again and flung Jérel out of his way and into a nearby table. “Demons!” he spat at Tk and Paul threateningly.
Minkelf and patrons were sent this way and that as the barbarian plowed toward the hapless Gloves.
“We’re not demons!” Paul protested in a panic (and at the same time in an angry impatience given the foolishness of such a notion!) backing away from the advancing Kornan. “We’re Gloves. That’s all. Just Gloves!”
“Foul spawn!” Kornan spat disgustedly, stepping toward the pair, sword raised.
Meanwhile, Jérel was being happily, quickly, and graciously helped to his feet nearby. Under different circumstances, naturally, the patrons sitting at the table in question would have turned the Minkelf into a handbag or a pair of shoes for having disrupted their pleasure. But in light of his apparent friendship -- however strained -- with the giant menace, they opted to dust him off and to politely right him to a vertical position in an expedited fashion. They then ducked for cover behind their disrupted table.
“By Kron!” the barbar spouted, over near the bar, “you two devils have been sent here by wizards to ensnare me in a magical web!”
As Jérel slowly shook his befuddled head from side to side, and struggled to remain upright, a thought occurred to him from nowhere. “Wizard!” he announced from nowhere, the light bulb all but visible over his head.
“Eh?” Kornan halted the down-rush of his giant blade, and turned to face the Minkelf. “Wizard?!”
“Right,” Jérel nodded. “The wizard. We’re after a wizard.”
“You’re pursuing a wizard?” the barbarian lowered his blade and attempted to think. All patrons in the establishment felt the pain of his immense effort.
“Right,” Jérel repeated. “We came out here chasing a wizard,” he alluded to himself and to the two Gloves. “They’re not demons. They’re like...” he struggled a bit, “they’re like anti-wizards or something... you know?”
Kornan stood silently pondering this logical paradox; that he had nearly slain anti-wizards in the service of his own wizard-hunt. The wheels turned so loudly in his brain that it became physically painful to sit in the same room with him. He lowered his sword to his side. “These are not demons?” he inquired of the Gloves, directing the question to Jérel.
“Not demons,” Jérel shook his head. “Nope.”
Kornan scratched his chin thoughtfully. Or close to it, anyway. “So...” the barbarian began, attempting to put together two and two, “this wizard...?”
“We don’t know where he is,” Jérel shrugged, anticipating the logical question. “Larry says he’s been and gone already,” he pointed in the direction of the bartender.
Larry’s hand stuck up suddenly from behind the bar, waved a bit, then receded, the bartender not at all liking that he’d just been prominently mentioned.
Kornan opted not to kill Larry out of hand, being otherwise distracted by menial thought processes.
“But we think he went that way,” Jérel pointed in a random direction.
Kornan’s eyebrows perked up noticeably, and he raised his sword menacingly.
“And Larry said the wizard was mad that he didn’t score with the two wom...” Jérel thought better of his word usage, “wenches that he was puttin’ the moves on...”
“Aye?” Kornan asked, the anger rising in him now.
“Why not,” Jérel shrugged, winging it at this point, and just happy that he and the Gloves still lived. “And you know what else?” he inched a bit closer to Kornan meaningfully, “I bet he’s kidnapped those two wenches and has them with him at this very moment.”
“Foul spawn!” Kornan spat, incensed that a wizard would carry off a pair of helpless women.
“There’s probably still time to go after him,” Jérel encouraged the barbarian on his way.
Behind the bar, Larry cringed, fearing that this obvious tactic of the Minkelf’s would fail and would ultimately only enrage Kornan further.
“By Kron!” Kornan bellowed, obviously falling for the ploy. “So there is! I’m off!”
“Right,” Jérel nodded approvingly, “Go get ’im.”
Newly determined, the giant barbarian chugged down a gallon or so of ale in a final display of gusto, and charged out the door to do battle with the forces of evil. The room lay silent in his wake. As the doors closed completely behind him, sagging on newly-tattered hinges, a number of patrons dared to peek out from their places of scant concealment. Larry suddenly popped up nervously from behind the counter top.
“Holy shit!” the bartender marveled. “That’s all we ever had to do?”
“Apparently,” Jérel shrugged, still a little out of sorts from the rough encounter.
“This round’s on me!” the barkeeper hollered, joyous at the notion of an otherwise distracted Kornan. Many shouts of thanks and congratulations followed the announcement; the notion of free booze gaining the Minkelf some new friends. The celebration went on for some time.
As Kornan clomped off into the distance on a stolen horse, the buzzing city fading away behind him, one thought burned madly in his one-track mind: ‘Must slaughter woman-stealing, bastard wizards!’
Gee... We hope there aren’t any, you know, implications as a result of this...
* * *
“Up and at ’em, Jérel! It’s a bright new day out there!” Tk yanked up the shade, and a blast of sunlight flooded the room. Jérel tucked his head under the covers and muttered and unintelligible Tibangean curse at the Glove’s importunity. “C’mon, Jérel. It’s late. I’ve already cleaned and eaten and vomited and had a smoke. It’s time to go.”
“Oh, all right, dammit!” Jérel managed in a very groggy voice. Glancing dazedly about the room, he added sleepily, “Where’s the dork?”
“Downstairs annoying the patrons,” Tk didn’t bother to defend Paul.
“Why am I not surprised,” Jérel groaned as he levered himself out of bed and onto his feet. He scruffed his shaggy fur a bit with his hands, then stretched and yawned. He then plummeted forthwith back onto the bed.
“Come on, Minkelf, let’s move.”
Downstairs at the tavern, above which the Compatriots had decided it convenient to rent a room for the night, the scene was a good deal ridiculous. We could tell you what was going on, but you really should witness it firsthand:
“Brother Paul,” a high-spirited, but rather glassy-eyed human was saying, “Do not turn away the love of the Great Muffler Bracket. It is not too late to be saved! Certainly, you see in your ugliness the sins of your people --”
“Stop calling me ugly!”
“Oh, we understand your anger, Brother Paul. We want to help you to wade through the murky waters of life. The Truth shall free you!”
“The truth is,” Paul lectured, loving this particular argument, “that we are nothing but chemical reactions and electrical impulses, and you’re just living an elaborate fairytale.”
“My child,” the human continued with a distressed, but caring, air, “The Great Muffler Bracket Repair Manual and Spiritual Guide Handbook clearly states that there are many things which we simply can’t understand. It is imperative that you accept them as beyond your feeble grasp. The simple Truth is that you cannot achieve Paradise after death unless you take the Great Muffler Bracket into your heart and kneel before It and embrace It and worship It.”
“You’re nuts!” Paul snorted. “Why is your god any better than anyone else’s god?”
“There are no other gods,” the zealot became stern. “The Great Muffler Bracket is the one true God, and you must accept him or face an eternity of afterlife in an auto salvage yard.”
“Granted, that’s a terrifying threat,” Paul conceded, nodding. “But how can you say your god is the only god?”
“Well,” the human pondered (There’re two words you probably never thought you’d see next to each other!) “Sure, other cultures worship different gods... a sun god, or a rain god, and that sort of thing... But they are all heathens and primitives and must ultimately face eternity amongst rusted-out auto bodies.”
Much of this Jérel overheard as he walked down the stairs and made his way over to the bar for a breakfast beer. “So, my Goddesses are heathens?” he asked, frowning a bit, unable to resist this otherwise pointless endeavor.
“All gods other than the Great Muffler Bracket are unworthy, pimply heathens and frauds, yes,” the human confirmed, turning his back dramatically on the Minkelf.
“That’s interesting,” Jérel commented, making his way over toward the conversation, kettleberry beer in hand and a thoughtful air about him. “You know, in my walks and in my encounters with others I’ve been seriously beginning to question my own devotion to the Three Goddesses,” he admitted.
“That’s good,” the other nodded. “It is the first step on your path toward righteousness.”
“Well...” Jérel frowned at the preacher man, having approached the table where he and Paul sat. “Not exactly. You see, as I’ve learned to take a good, long look at myself over time, I’ve noticed that -- in my case, anyway -- it’s obvious that I’ve just been the victim of cultural brain-washing... ” he looked for signs of life in his ‘listener’, but found none. “...That I run the risk of standing before you now simply spewing that which I’ve been ‘taught’” (he made little quote-quote signs with his fingers, indicative of mockery) “over the many Tays by friends and family and others who meant well, but who really never took the time to consider deeply whether what they were telling me was necessarily accurate...” he trailed off meaningfully, hoping that the fat preacher would take up the slack progressively.
“And you now begin to see the error of your ways and the Truth of our Righteous Gospel,” the man nodded approvingly.
“Gee, that’s not exactly where I was going,” Jérel rolled his eyes dramatically. “You see, my defiance of the conformist belief that the ‘Three Goddesses’ are the ‘Truth and The Way’” (again the little quote marks) “to the exclusion of all other beliefs is kind of what spurred me to get out into the world and to experience some confrontational thought... some challenges... Get it?”
“I do,” the man nodded again, “And as I’ve said, this leads you here, by divine intervention, to the point where you now stand basking in the dawning comprehension of our righteousness!”
The Minkelf inhaled deeply. Paul and Tk observed the scene in silence, Tk bothered personally that both men failed to see the Truth of the Great Vomiter, and Paul bothered that no formula had yet come into the discussion.
“Yeahhh...” Jérel made a face, “Look, perhaps from another angle, here... One could take my isolation from my former life and my conscious choice to embrace a larger world as an analogy for the idea that we must all take brave steps into unfamiliar worlds and to try to reason out why it is that we believe what we believe, and why others believe what they believe, and thus ultimately gain a better understanding of ourselves as to why and how we benefit from these beliefs.”
“Brother,” the man became smug and self-confident (Oh, and he’d been so open up ’til now!), “Your loneliness and isolation are signs of your having followed a false path. Allow the true God into your heart and you will rejoice amongst family and brethren who have found The Way to Glory!”
“I can hardly believe the progress you’re making!” Paul couldn’t help himself.
“Put a sock in it, Paul!” the Minkelf snapped, tiring of this conversation and beginning to question why he’d ever believed he could influence the humans to think freely. Against his better judgment, he gave it one more go: “What I’m getting at is that --”
“What you’re getting at is an eternity of damnation with no repair manual,” the human emphasized, “if you don’t confess the error of your ways and repent of your former life of wickedness,” he finally laid all plain.
Jérel dropped his arms to his sides dejectedly. “Okay,” he exhaled, “How about another angle of attack... See, what I’m suggesting is --”
“The only attack here is the Evil Rust eating at your eternal salvation,” the human headed him off. “Think about that. Eternal!”
Jérel gave up entirely. (And none too soon, thank you very much... Good gads!) “Okay,” he said weakly. “I’ll do that... We’ll do that...” he began to back away slowly, toward the door. “We’ll just go and... we’ll do that... We’ll go do that. Thank you.”
He gathered up his Gloves and the three made for the door.
“Not so fast,” the human raised his voice as they made for the exit. The three stopped in their tracks, Jérel weighing the pros and cons of just bolting for the outside world. “Yes?” he ventured, inquiring over his shoulder.
“Roll some good shit, Brother,” the man left them with a proper spiritual message, the effect of which he knew would in time take root and turn these wayward lives around.
“Um... and to you,” Jérel frowned. “Right... good shit... Okay, um... bye, then...” he waved.
And soon they’d skedaddled.
* * *
“Kron’s guts on an ice cream cone! Where are they, wizard?!”
“Where’re who?!” Zaccheus Wyndham cried madly, his inverted body dangling precariously over a pit filled with disoriented snow whooples in heat.
“By Kron’s toenail clippings!” Kornan grated. “I’ll have my answer if I have to flay it out of you, wizard!” the barbarian yelled, whipping out his broadsword. He swung the blade in a terrific arc, his massive thews clanking together in a deafening sonic boom of rampant masculinity.
“No!” the wizard screamed as the blade ripped through the fibrous lifeline, and gravity extended its waiting hand to pull the wizard into an inevitable, natural embrace. (Kornan cut the rope. Did you get that?)
“Ung!” Zacc managed, as he was snatched none too soon from imminent peril by an iron grasp.
“Second thoughts, wizard? Where are the wenches?!”
“I tell you, barbarian, I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about! There’s no woman here!”
“Come off it, wizard! Every evil sorcerer keeps an Amazon babe-type prisoner. I know your foul ways. You plan to feed these poor women to a giant serpent!”
“Serpent??” Zacc frowned, upside down. “Ick! No, really!” he pleaded. “I don’t even like snakes! They give me the willies. I can barely stand to be around those stupid Ux, let alone snakes!”
“You lie, wizard!”
“No, I don’t!” Zacc shouted in desperation. “Oh, if only I were on my feet!”
“But you aren’t,” Kornan laughed, his gusty manliness exuding in big buckets and splashing throughout the forest for miles around, frightening the animals and children and overwhelming the masses of love-struck feminine farmers’ daughters. “And if I’ve learned anything in my travels around the Durid, it’s that no wizard can work a spell in the inverted position.” Kornan shook his head disgustedly. “Ha! You wizards are a queer lot!”
All of this might have dragged on for some time to come, or mayhaps the inevitable should have come to pass, and the morning sun would have risen majestically over a defeated and spent wizard. But no. As it happens, Taldo and Lucifer put in a timely return from a forest stroll; or whatever Taldo does.
“What’s this?” Lucifer asked casually.
Having, of course, been long aware of Lucifer’s presence (Remember, Kornan has the keen senses of a lean, alert wolf) the barbarian replied, “I’m about to do in this wizard. Filthy, black-hearted devil! He deserves what he gets!”
Lucifer strolled up to the pit casually and glanced in. “Ugh!” he scowled. “No one deserves that!”
“Ha!” Kornan boomed, and farmers’ daughters everywhere dropped their water pails and swooned. “What do you plan to do, little man?!”
“Actually,” Lucifer offered nonchalantly, “I was rather thinking of inflicting the worst-nightmare spell upon you. (The Boot made sure to choose a novice-level spell, so as not to arouse suspicion from the troubled Zaccheus Wyndham.)
Kornan, suddenly realizing that he stood in the presence of yet another wizard, reacted wildly. Dropping Wyndham to the ravening whooples, the giant youth launched his massive form forward with the strength of two cast-iron pistons, and he rocketed forward in a pantherish leap, yada yada yada... You know the drill. But not quickly enough. Too quickly for even Kornan’s eyes and ears to follow, the Boot rattled off his spell and the barbar felt the necromantic impact as he plummeted back to the cold ground.
Lucifer smiled as Taldo tediously worked his master free of the love-hungry whooples’ grasp, and dragged him to the safety of the forest floor. (Yes, owls are that strong.)
Just then, Kornan arose. Brushing off his suit and loafers, he cast a worried look into the pit. “Ugh!” he muttered with a pronounced snobbishness. “Dirty creatures.” Looking over at Zacc and Lucifer, he smiled warmly. “Wizards, yes?” The two in question nodded. “Dangerous line of work,” he pointed out with phony concern. “Have you given any consideration to term life insurance?”
“Well --” both wizards stumbled.
“Wait,” Kornan motioned, “My briefcase is just back in the car. I’ll be back in two shakes.” He made to go, but a thought occurred to him, and he turned back toward the pair. “But listen,” he gave them something to consider in the interim, “While I’m gone, I want you to be thinking, ‘How do I feel about myself if I can’t offer that special someone in my life the security of a sixty-thousand durret catastrophic injury policy?’ Be back in a jiffy!” And off he went, to fetch his forms.
“Good gads!” Zacc frowned after the barbar had gone. “Did you have to use that spell?! Now he’ll never go away!”
“Hey!” Lucifer shot back. “I didn’t know that was gonna’ happen! Anyway, I didn’t see anybody else jumping to save your ass! I’d think you’d be grateful!”
“Oh... fine!” Zacc conceded without actually having to say ‘thank you’. “Let’s just get rid of him, okay?”
“I think we can handle that easily enough,” Lucifer grinned.
“One problem...” Zacc persisted.
“What’s that?” Lucifer’s eyebrows popped up inquisitively.
“What the hell’s a ‘car’?” the taller wizard asked, frowning as he pronounced the word.
Lucifer never got the opportunity to respond, as presently a car door slammed in the background somewhere.
“What the hell was that?” Zacc frowned, unfamiliar with the sound.
“I’m back!” Kornan chirped, having appeared from virtually nowhere. “I hope nothing happened while I was away,” he affected concern. We really need to get your signatures on these forms, you two. No telling when an accident can happen. That’s why they’re called accidents. Something can happen to change your life completely from one instant to the next, just like that!” he snapped his fingers for dramatic effect. “Your world could be turned upside down. And when your world turns upside down, isn’t it nice to have the friendly folks at Durid Mutual to lend a supporting hand? Of course it is. Now Mr. Wyndham, for you I have the limited policy, with a twenty-five thousand durret cap. It’s a less expensive policy with many perks that are aimed at the... well, the senior group, with my apologies. By the by, did you serve in the Shoe Wars?”
“Well, I --”
“I’ll bet you did! It must have been fascinating. I’d love to hear about it all sometime. You must have some stories to tell! I’ll bet you do. Now, if I could just get you to initial here and here and sign here,” he indicated deftly, without really giving Zacc time to peruse the document, “I’ll finish all the nasty, confusing paperwork back at the office.” Swiftly, he turned on Lucifer, “And you, Mr...?”
“Boot,” Lucifer said.
“Yes, Mister Boot. For you I have a very attractive policy designed specifically for the vertically-disadvantaged. It features a specialty clause which triples your coverage in the event that you were unfairly made to work in a traveling circus as a leopard trainer on the third Ziggy Day of any month beginning with the letter ‘Q’, provided your net worth does not at any time during your coverage period total more than thirty-seven durrets and eighteen pecks. Now isn’t that a remarkable deal! Triple coverage is really very generous and we at Durid Mutual want nothing more than to work with the customer --”
“Enough, already!” Taldo shrieked. “If you two don’t zap him out of here soon, you’re gonna’ wind up signin’ away your nu--”
“Mr. Owl,” Kornan addressed Taldo soothingly, “Such mood swings aren’t good for your blood pressure. An analysis of typical nocturnal predator blood cholesterol levels reveals a high incidence of heart disease. Wouldn’t you feel safer knowing that your loved ones are protected in the event --”
“Aaaiiiigggghhhhh!!” Taldo, to everyone’s surprise, hurled himself with hurricane force (We told you owls are strong) into the insurance man and nailed him square on the pin stripes. Frankly, we don’t know why he harbors such hostility toward insurance salesmen. But, with the deed done, Kornan sailed to the ground, where, luckily, his briefcase broke his fall. Though uninjured, he yet planned to report the incident to the parent company, as he had an angry-owl-induced-briefcase-impeding-fall clause in his policy. It should be quite lucrative, he thought, as he tidied himself up.
Kornan eased himself to his feet and regarded Taldo. “That was quite a push. You should have that wing examined by a qualified medical professional as a safety precaution. You know, you could have twenty-four hour wing protection if you signed with the proper company. We at Durid Mutual have just the thing --”
“Would you two clowns do something?!” Taldo screeched at the dynamic duo.
The magi had no qualms about this, and before you could say, “There’s an orangutan in my sock drawer” (Or before you’d want to say it... The things we say!) Kornan was magicked away to who-knows-where. (Being a novice-level spell, it’s sadly lacking in specifics.)
“Thank you!” Taldo huffed.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” Lucifer smiled warmly.
“Well, thank you!” Taldo smiled back.
“Oh, you’re most wel--”
“Hey! Chip ’n Dale!” Zacc shouted. “Shut the hell up!”
“Sorry, Lord,” Taldo remembered his place meekly. Lucifer simply fell silent. He’s no one’s lackey. You already know that. Or at least you really should. If you aren’t even the tiniest bit suspicious of Lucifer yet, then we’ve got the coolest bridge for sale...
“This is becoming tiring,” Zacc sighed. “That whole insurance thing really whipped me. I’d like to just wrap up this bit and go take a nap.”
“Can you do that?” Taldo asked in awe.
“I’m not really sure,” Zacc sighed again, staring off into the darkening, evening sky. Taldo and Lucifer stared off as well, in turn. All was silent save the chirping of the cricket-whooples.
Chirp... chirp... chirp... More chirping...
Oh, all right... But just this once. We don’t really like having our narrative-toes stepped on...
* * *
“Paul, shut up!” Jérel barked.
“But I didn’t say anything!” Paul defended himself against the unprovoked attack.
“Oh...” Jérel stopped in his tracks and considered his anger. “Sorry.... It just slipped. It’s pretty ingrained at this point.”
“Forget it,” Paul shrugged.
“I already did,” Jérel made it clear that he didn’t care any too much about the incident or about Paul.
“Oh...” the Glove dropped his head a little sadly.
Silence fell on the Compatriots as they made their way slowly along the Old West Road through the Driftwoods, the sparse forest lands to the west of the Ilka River.
“Sparse forest through here,” Paul remarked unnecessarily.
Jérel eyeballed the Glove menacingly.
More silence followed. Tk almost thought about breaking the silence, but thinking is against his religion, so he decided against it.
Lots of silence.
The Compatriots’ footfalls echoed lightly throughout the humid stillness of the Driftwoods.
Other than that, silence.
Then, a C# major chord, the notes plucked simultaneously from unseen strings somewhere up ahead...
“Hey!” Tk’s eyes got big. “That’s not silence!”
“Oh?” Jérel raised a furry eyebrow. “How do you know?”
“It doesn’t sound like silence.”
“And just what does silence sound like?”
“Like this: ‘Hello darkness my old friend --’”
But he got no further, for a simultaneous verse wafted from the direction of the chord in a shrill tone. Their curiosity piqued, the three Compatriots made double-time for the scene up ahead of them. But their curiosity scarcely prepared them for the strange reality.
That reality was unmistakable. Rub their eyes as they might, the Compatriots had to admit the truth. Around the bend, blocking the Old West Road entirely, sat an enormous, multicolored dragon playing a comparably-sized stringed instrument of sorts. At his side, squeaking out the chipper lyrics in question, stood an entirely too drab and too little brown ferret.
Wholly unsure what to do (What would you do?) Jérel and the Gloves stood bewildered until noticed by the singular duo. The big dragon dropped his claws down over the strings of his instrument-thing, and regarded his audience with a curious eye. Convinced that they were to be an appetizer, the Compatriots made to turn tail and skeedaddle.
But that proved unnecessary. Before the gang could take a step, the dragon called out, “There’s plenty of room down front. Don’t worry, it’s general admission.”
The curiosity overtaking their fear and their better judgment, Jérel and the boys meekly strolled up to the dragon’s feet.
“Hey,” the dragon commented to them idly as he continued playing.
“Hey, yourself,” the Gloves and Jérel said in unison, obviously a bit unnerved.
“You look a little shook up,” the dragon observed casually.
“Yeah...” Tk looked up at the giant dragon-musician. “Don’t know why...” he lied.
“It’s the colors, isn’t it?” the dragon asked with a smile. “It’s a lot to take in all at once, I know...”
For a moment the Compatriots stood silently observing, assimilating data on the dragon, as it were. This dragon required a good deal of assimilating. Uniquely comprised of various shades of blue, yellow, green, red, and brown scales, he truly stood out against... well, everything on the entire continent. The ferret, by contrast, was a squat, brownish lump. And not a particularly attractive lump, at that.
Mostly, the lump went unnoticed. The Compatriots were, after all, gazing intently at a rainbow dragon. In a case such as this, a ferret can wait.
“What’s your name?” Jérel asked the dragon bravely, assuming that the giant creature meant them no harm, and ill-prepared to defend himself if otherwise.
“I’m Rainbow, man,” came a soothing, friendly voice.
“That would’ve been my first guess,” Jérel nodded.
“Yes,” the dragon said. “The colors. We been there...”
“But in a good way,” Jérel replied unconvincingly. “You look very nice.”
“Thanks, man. Who’s your friends?”
“Oh...” the Minkelf stepped out of the way to reveal the Gloves. “This is Paul and Tk.”
“Come again?” the dragon cocked a giant ear toward Jérel.
“I’m Tk,” the Glove grumbled, tired of people always stumbling over Gloven-names; but at the same time pleasantly surprised at the lack of panic. “It means ‘Beloved of the Vomiter’“.
“Whatever you say,” Rainbow nodded, not wanting to get into any of that. “Nice to meet ya’s. This here’s Dweezil,” he indicated the ferret. He’s my vocalist and my best friend.”
“Musicians, eh?” Jérel apparently felt that stating the obvious would make him look like an idiot, so he tacked a question mark on it.
“That’s right, man,” Rainbow slurred in that soothing, bluesy voice of his. (We really wish you could hear it.) “This is my zantrippittee. Beauty, ain’t it!”
“It’s the most stunning one of those things that I’ve ever seen,” Jérel smiled, though he’d never even heard of a zandrilipidy before.
“Thank you ever so much, man. It’s been with me ever since Tinstock. Now that was a concert! Whole damned continent was there! Big two week bash, nobody gave a whoople’s ass about anything except music and zigger weed. What a time!”
“So, you were at Tinstock?” Jérel continued the line of idiotic questioning.
“Damn straight, my man!” Rainbow breathed dramatically.
“Wow,” Jérel was impressed. “I wasn’t even born yet.”
“Aw, dude! Too bad, man! You’d a’ loved it! Really! Dragons playin’ Zantrippittees, wizards summoning dead musicians, everybody getting along with everybody else...”
“Sounds like a real time,” Jérel responded non-committally.
“Yeah...” Rainbow sighed. “But that’s way gone now, man. People are different now. Things are different everywhere. ’Specially here. Waldemar’s the worst! Damned humans, anyway! Spreading their special brand of ethics and morality across the Durid, forcing their thinking on unwilling, innocent cultures...”
“So, what are you doing here, then?” Tk asked for all of us.
“Leaving!” Rainbow huffed. “Damned human dirtbags! Came to do a gig, man, right? But no, the humans decided it was a bad idea. They said our music was immoral... ‘anti-Muffler Bracket’. Well, hell! Sure it was! Damn fool humans and their fairy tales anyway! Just what the hell is ‘pro-Muffler-Bracket music’ supposed to be?! ’Course we ain’t got any of that in our bag! But they didn’t have to cancel the concert,” the big dragon frowned sadly. “Musicians came from all over the Durid for this! This was supposed to be the concert, man! The event! This was Tinstock Two, man!”
“Must’ve been rough,” Jérel continued along the lines of saying whatever the dragon probably wanted to hear.
“Sure was! Why, me ‘n’ Dweezil come all the way from the Shehruds for this! We don’t need this kind of aggravation!”
“You certainly don’t,” Tk threw in his two bits.
“Then! Wait’ll ya’ hear this! Then they says all us creatures not human are unworthy of the Muffler Bracket and that we should come to recognize our inferiority and give ourselves over to the ‘chosen people’ in servitude,” the dragon mocked the humans further.
“How did they plan to get you to do that?” Jérel asked, his interest growing.
“They were gonna’ have a big ceremony at somethin’ they call the ‘Auto Show’. Like we’d stick around for that shit! Them humans are nuts, man!”
“Hence we run into you here,” Jérel summarized. “When did you leave?”
“About two months ago,” Dweezil jumped in. “Most of the other giggers split way before now... rushed out of the territory by the nut-jobs,” he hooked a tiny thumb in the direction from whence they’d come. “But we’re takin’ our time.”
“How’d you manage to pull that off?” Jérel realized the stupidity of such a question as he was asking it.
Dweezil gestured toward his impressive friend. “Ain’t nobody really been on our case to speed up, ya’ know, man...”
“I follow,” Jérel nodded. “So, what now? You guys going anywhere in particular, or just hanging around living the good life?”
“Oh, we’re going somewhere all right!” Rainbow suddenly became rather serious, much to the fright of the Compatriots, who found themselves backing away from the dragon a tad. “We’re goin’ after a crafty ol’ wizard, may the vultures pluck at his festering carcass, man!”
“You’re going after a wizard?” Jérel repeated just to see if he’d heard right. “May I ask whom, and why?”
“Some scum bag with a Boot and an owl along. He come by me ‘n’ Dweezil here not three nights ago, man. Sez he’s got some kinda’ wagon trouble and can I come and help him out? Well, I didn’t see no harm, and didn’t know what kind of trouble he might be having with it. Anyway, somethin’ didn’t feel just right about the whole thing, but I feel safe going with the guy an’ all ’cause I got lots of insurance --”
“I’m sorry?” Jérel cut the dragon off in mid-sentence, shaking his head confusedly.
“Insurance, man,” Rainbow repeated. “This nice guy come along on me and Dweezil that same night not a half hour before. An’ he offers me this great policy...” he trailed off a bit, feeling as if he was going off on a tangent. “But that’s for later, man. Anyways, I figure since I’m covered I’ll go help this guy, right? What could go wrong? No worries, right? Well, before I know it, to make a long story short, this here wizard magicks me right out of my best spells!”
“You’re a wizard, too?” Jérel interrupted again, without stopping to consider the implications of interrupting dragons.
“Hey, I’m a dragon, ain’t I?!” Rainbow seemed taken aback.
“No denying,” Jérel took the easy road. “So what spells did he steal?”
“Oh, man!” the dragon fussed. “My best ones, right? Powerful ones!”
Dweezil rolled his eyes surreptitiously, not intending to be noticed. Jérel noticed.
Rainbow went on, “But a fat lot of good my policy did me! I sees later in the fine print that the damned thing applies to the policy holder right up to the time he signs on the dotted line. Goddam shyster sold me thirty-five seconds of coverage! So, I figures to get that guy, too! But first things first. That wizard’s whoople-fodder, man!”
Jérel shuddered. “I’m really very glad I’m not him.”
Rainbow sighed, realizing that he was coming across as uncharacteristically forward and intimidating. “I’m sorry, man,” he hung his head a bit. “I ain’t really violent at all. Actually, I hate to fight. I stay out of trouble, mostly. But that wizard, man...” Rainbow scowled. “He really gets me hot! Comin’ here an’ bilkin’ me out of my best stuff! Dishonesty really bothers me! Besides, that Boot he was with made a joke about my colors. I hate that!” his face turned yet another color, visibly.
“I understand completely,” Tk sympathized, feeling a sudden emotional kinship. “So, what’re you going to do when you find him?”
“I don’t really know, man. Use my wits, I guess. I’m gettin’ my spells back if it kills me!”
“You mean you can’t use them anymore?” Jérel frowned, wholly ignorant of the in’s and outs of dragon magic.
“No, man. Forgot ’em completely. I just remember that he stole ’em... And that they were powerful.”
Dweezil rolled his eyes again.
“This could be your lucky day,” Jérel smiled, improvising, sensing an opportunity to put some muscle behind his quest. “As it so happens, these Gloves and I are after that very same wizard...” but for other, more complicated reasons...” he evaded the point at hand, working instead toward enlisting the dragon’s aid. “The fate of all the Durid lies in his evil grasp. We must stop him before he reaches the far west, or all may be lost. With your help, Rainbow, and you too, Dweezil, we just might be able to pull it off. What do you say? Join us, for the good of all Durid-kind?”
Both dragon and ferret stared at Jérel silently, frowning. “How long you been practicing that cheesy speech?” Rainbow scrutinized the Minkelf.
“Long walk out west,” Jérel shrugged. “Lots of time to think.”
“Mmm,” Rainbow seemed to ignore the comment. “All right,” he said at last. “We’ll hitch up with ya’.”
“Splendid,” Jérel smiled, already feeling more secure.
And so did the Compatriots -- newly expanded -- set forth again upon their quest. As the evening wore on, a light tune could be heard wafting among the treetops of the Driftwoods. And singing, also. Harmony. The beautiful harmony of true comradeship. Tomorrow would come all too soon for the new-found friends.
Hey... We like to get the requisite warm-fuzzy shit out of the way early on. We hope you enjoyed. Don’t get used to it.
* * *
“Hell fire!” Rainbow grumbled in the gathering dawn. “Is it tomorrow already?!”
“Afraid so...” Jérel nodded apologetically.
“Cripe,” Dweezil yawned and stretched his tiny, furry body. “Already...” he echoed the dragon sleepily. Turning to the Minkelf, he added, “I don’t do mornings,” rubbing his eyes and staring ahead in a fog.
Jérel held back a smile. The two new tagalongs would have to learn to adapt to better hours. Musicians! He glanced at the giant dragon, who was beginning to come around further.
“Ugh! Somebody tone that thing down, man!”
“If you’re referring to the sun,” Jérel replied farcically, “I regret that it is not within my power to do so.” He smiled, and attempted to encourage the dragon, “Come on, big guy. Up and at ’em. If I can learn to be a morning person, you certainly can. Anyway, we’ve got a lot of road to cover if we’re to catch up with this Wyndham and his buddies before it’s too late.”
“I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that!” Paul snipped. He was always a bit snippy in the mornings. As the days wear on, he tends to progress out of that mood and into something more... oh, shall we say, obnoxious and insufferable. Yeah, that’ll work. “Rainbow says they’ve got three days on us already. And we’re lucky that’s all they’ve got on us, what with the way we loaf around!”
“Gee, Paul,” Jérel said with a good deal of curiosity in his tone, “Why the sudden concern? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought I had you pegged for the selfish type. When did you start giving a whoople’s ass about anything?”
“Gosh, how could I take that the wrong way?” Paul returned mockingly. “I’m just as concerned as you are! I know what will happen if the wizard gets ahold of another pillar.”
“Just what do you know about the pillars?” Jérel looked slyly at Paul.
“Enough. Don’t flatter yourself so important, Jérel. I’m not stupid. I know about Lr and his ecoroom.”
“Gee,” Jérel shrugged. “Maybe I underestimated you... Maybe so did Klynn,” he added as an afterthought.
“I know all about the balance, Jérel,” Paul went on. “It’s no big secret. It’s like anything else, it’s out there to learn if you’re only willing. So don’t flatter yourself privileged. Besides, the only reason Lr doesn’t bother teaching the other Gloves about all this is because he knows they’re too stupid to handle it.”
“Who’s Klynn?” Tk asked, proving himself about thirty seconds behind in the conversation... and possibly proving Paul’s point as well.
“Yeah...” Paul frowned. “Who is Klynn?”
“Nobody,” Jérel said dismissively. Obviously, Paul knew less than he thought he knew. Jérel didn’t enjoy holding out information on anyone, but he also didn’t exactly feel empowered about this whole mess. He was beginning to feel like just a pawn in some big game between Klynn and Wyndham, and maybe Kuloth... and whomever else might be playing. He’d been pondering heavily lately just what in the hell he was supposed to do if he actually did catch up with the wizard. Klynn had managed to leave out all of the basically operative principles of all this madness in his little pep talk. Hell, there was probably a lot that Klynn hadn’t bothered to tell Jérel about. More than likely he and the whole fool gang were just a bunch of dupes destined for the slaughter. Comforting thought.
“Ready to get going, Jérel?” Tk asked cheerfully.
The Minkelf stared dully at Tk, and into the Driftwoods, suddenly feeling less than empowered. The sun glared down on him, and he wiped the early-morning sweat from his fur. “Yeah,” he droned. “Yeah, let’s go.”
It is at this point that the Compatriots embarked upon a good bit of boring walking. Because we’re caring types, we’ll spare you the footfall by footfall analysis. Let’s just jump ahead a few hours. You’re welcome.
“Jumpin’ whooples!” Rainbow exclaimed.
“What?” the others pretty well asked in unison.
“Is that...? Nah! My eyes must be playin’ tricks on me, man!”
“Well, we wouldn’t know, would we...” Jérel pressed the dragon for more information, in a manner most unwise. “You’re way the hell up there! We can’t see what you see!”
Rainbow ignored the Minkelf’s poor manners. “Just as well,” he rubbed his eyes. “You wouldn’t believe me. It can’t be. It just can’t be!”
“For cryin’ out loud, Rainbow,” Dweezil frowned, “What, already?”
“Coming this way,” Rainbow managed in utter disbelief, “down the road... is a... a duck! A giant, green and purple duck in a top-hat and trousers.”
“Rainbow!” Dweezil scolded suddenly. “Have you been into my stash?!”
“No, man, I swear it, it’s a duck, no joke, man...” the dragon shook his giant head uncertainly. “Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “I polished off your stash three days ago.”
“You what?” the ferret went bright red beneath his fur, the effect obviously lost on the others.
“Take it easy, Dweezil,” Jérel calmed the ferret. “How far off is he, Rainbow?”
“Hard to say...” Rainbow frowned. “A few hundred yards, maybe... No, he’s... well, he’s pretty close...I can’t really tell...”
“Nice call, eagle eye!” Paul mouthed off stupidly.
“Oh, shut up, Paul!” Jérel scowled. “Does he look friendly?” he then called up to Rainbow.
“He looks,” Rainbow glanced down at the Minkelf meaningfully, “like a giant- sized, overgrown, green and purple duck in a tux, man! Ain’t that enough?”
“Okay, then,” Jérel shrugged. “I guess we’d better arrange a welcome for him.” The Minkelf pulled out his bow and his two remaining arrows. Of these, he chose the one less likely to crumble to dust in mid-flight. He nocked the arrow to the string and made ready.
“Oh gads!” Tk mumbled to whomever would pay heed. “Take cover! I’ve seen him shoot!”
“Tk,” Jérel whispered. “Get out from behind that stump. You’re no help to us back there.”
“I’ll be just fine, thank you,” he called back as quietly as he could.
“What?” Jérel seemed confused.
“No time for questions, Jérel,” Rainbow called down from on high as silently as he could. “The duck’s very near.” The huge dragon scrunched his shoulders and tried to hide his head from view; as if anything on the continent could conceal any part of him. “The duck’s getting really close now...” he added after a quick peek out from under his enormous, leathery wing.
“Now that’s a sentence I never thought could put people so on edge!” Paul said entirely too loudly.
“Paul, shut up!” Jérel whispered urgently. “You’ll give us away!”
“Give us away?!” Paul laughed. “We’ve got a rainbow-colored dragon with us! Hello! People in Aubrey know we’re here!”
“He’s right, you know...” the duck person quacked, having suddenly just sort of appeared onto the scene from a distance none of them had been really able to judge very clearly. “You are a bit conspicuous.”
“You should talk,” Jérel snorted, feeling defensive that all of his preparations should have been rendered so futile. He’s still right, though. At just a shade under seven feet tall, this duck has a few inches on even Jérel. He’s also green and purple and wearing a tux. Not the kind of fellow you’d lose in a crowd.
“Well, then...” the duck began, “Allow me to introduce myself before you choose to shoot me,” he glanced at Jérel, who frowned and lowered his bow to a less menacing position, “Idlewild’s the name. Reginald Ogden Gershtun Idlewild. At your service.” He tipped his hat and bowed. The whole gentlemanly nine yards. Then he arose rather regally (to the extent that a duck can do so) and once again donned the hat with an elegance of motion and style that really just clashed utterly with his undeniable duckness. “And to whom do I owe the honor of this threat?”
“Geez, what a sap!” Paul whispered to Dweezil. And yet, at the same time, he sort of regretted having said it. Perhaps he was being unfair. Perhaps he should give the guy a chance...
“I’m Jérel Valdis Minkelven,” the Minkelf cast a hateful glance toward Paul, suddenly feeling that the idiot Glove ought to give the poor newcomer a chance. “And this is Tk and his... and Paul. And these two are Rainbow and Dweezil.” Jérel didn’t bother to specify which was which, understandably.
“I’m most delighted to make the acquaintance,” Idlewild smiled and greeted each of the Compatriots in turn with a perfectly gut-wrenching charm. And yet, somehow, a very seductive charm...
“So, Mister Idlewild,” Jérel walked up and clapped the duck on the shoulder with an open hand (his own, by the way), “What are you doing, exactly, strolling alone up the Old West Road in trousers and a top-hat?”
Idlewild laugh-quacked as elegantly as anyone in the world could possibly laugh-quack. “An amusing story,” he smiled. “I was on my way east out of Adela -- it’s only just down the road, you know -- with a fully loaded wagon and six Ux...all my worldly possessions, as it were. Not far outside the city I came upon a traveling wizard, and... regrettably my fortune turned ill at that point...” The duck seemed disinclined to go into further detail.
“When was this?” Jérel inquired curiously.
“Oh, some time ago...” the duck answered vaguely. “Ah, not being a duck of much tolerance, I regret that the whole affair shook me somewhat... I’m afraid that my memory of the details is a bit sketchy.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jérel smiled, ever feeling increasingly sympathetic to the duck’s plight, and also beginning to feel strangely beholden to him somehow... “I was just curious,” he added. “It just sounds like someone we know, that’s all.”
“Oh, really?” Idlewild asked in a ‘How distasteful that you should know him’ tone of voice.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Jérel nodded. “We’re heading west, to the Old West Road’s end. Is there anything that we can do for you?”
“Oh, goodness, no,” the duck chuckled. “No, that’s kind of you to ask, though. I thank you most formally for the offer, but as it happens I have family in Hale. It’s not far to the Ilka, and I can book passage to the south from there.”
“I thought you were broke,” Jérel ventured. “You were robbed and all...”
“I have good credit,” the duck replied modestly.
“In today’s Durid?” Jérel was impressed. “That’s saying something.”
“Uh, yes, I suppose,” the duck offered modestly. “Anyway, I was thinking just the opposite.”
“Opposite?” Jérel shrugged.
“That I may actually be of some assistance to you,” the duck offered.
“I don’t know how,” Jérel’s eyebrows popped up quizzically. “We’re pretty well set on our course, here.”
“Yes, I see that,” Idlewild smiled a duck smile (You simply must see a duck smile some day). “But you see, I have a bit more information that you may be interested in... ah, given the circumstances and all...”
“What’s that?” Jérel asked.
“The wizard,” Idlewild replied. “While absconding with my possessions, he muttered something about a temporary diversion off of the Old West Road... Granted, my memory of the matter is cloudy, owing to the trauma of the situation --”
“Naturally,” Jérel sympathized, feeling further drawn into the duck’s tale.
“I overheard him to say,” Idlewild continued, graciously ignoring the interruption, “that he was aware of a shortcut which may expedite his course.”
“A shortcut?” Jérel pondered. “Really? I was quite sure that the Old Wester was the most direct route to --”
“Yes, well, and so you would be,” Idlewild broke in politely. “It’s just that apparently this is something of a... well, a secret path....”
“How’s that?” Jérel frowned.
“Certainly I’m no wizard,” the duck put his wings to his chest for dramatic effect, “But apparently this shortcut is something more of a state of mind than anything else.”
“State of mind,” Paul spoke after his lengthy silence, repeating the duck’s words rather flatly.
“Yes, that’s right,” Idlewild smiled. “The small one, the Boot, said something about visualizing the shortcut.”
“Visualizing?” Jérel contemplated, his head beginning to swim just a little.
“Indeed. Odd, isn’t it? Apparently one just wishes his way through these parts based upon his own needs, and the journey will be expedited. That’s my understanding, anyway. Certainly I have no detailed knowledge of such things...”
“Of course,” Jérel answered quickly, in a very understanding tone.
“Well,” the duck disengaged, “I’ve taken entirely enough of your time. I really must be going, and I suspect that you must also.”
“Yes,” Jérel nodded with a smile. “Best of luck to you,” he clasped the duck’s wing politely and bid him well.
“See ya’,” Paul slurred.
“Thanks for the info on the wizard,” Jérel smiled.
“I was glad to have been of some assistance,” Idlewild tipped his hat formally. “May the road lay clear before you, gentlemen,” he nodded to each in turn. And with those words, he set upon his journey east.
“Wow, man,” Rainbow didn’t quite know what to think. “That was weird.”
“Yeah,” Dweezil nodded.
“Still,” Jérel added, “Happy coincidence. He could save us some real time.”
“Yeah...” the others all said in unison, their heads feeling a bit foggy.
“We just wish our way along a different path...” Tk repeated the duck’s suggestion.
“Guess so...” Jérel slowly mouthed the words, his head thick with haze. “Well, let’s be about it then...”
“Yeah...” Rainbow shrugged. “I guess...”
Their thought processes muddied by the encounter with the clever visitor, the Compatriots stood dumbly pondering their course. With an unclear vision of what they were doing, they embarked upon their ‘new course’.
As the distance increased between the travelers, Idlewild paused in his journey to stare back in the direction of the Compatriots. He stared thus until the very tips of Rainbow’s wings disappeared finally from sight. Mister Idlewild then smiled wickedly, for dramatic effect; you know, in case you hadn’t suspected him of anything coercive or devious...
* * *
“Too cool! Just too cool!” This the giant dragon said for his own benefit after he magicked an ancient, and endangered Blackwood Tree to toothpicks. Why was he talking to himself? Would you hang around a fifty-foot, thirty ton, dragon-magi with pyromaniacal tendencies and a general disdain for everything but himself? Neither would we. So, who else is he supposed to talk to?
Squeek Dragon is one of nature’s more regrettable mistakes. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he’s stupid, and -- perhaps most dangerously of all -- he’s a magic user. He’s a lousy magic user, quite specifically. But that can be even more dangerous. We assure you that, though a magic user he may be, a wizard he most definitely is not. Perhaps we should take a moment to explain this in some further detail. You see, dragons are an interesting lot. Of course, you already know that. But you might not know that dragons are born magic users. It’s something of a birth-right. Scary, yes? Hey, we’d change the rules if we could. Anyhow, though the magic is a gift, it still must be developed properly as a skill. Just as you’re born uniquely suited to ride a bicycle, still you don’t just hop on one and ride it without first getting acclimated, so to speak. Unless you’re Squeek, that is. And of course, you’re not.
Squeek, you’ll soon learn for yourself, is a bad seed. Squeek took a big shortcut. And as it happens, he screwed up... or will have, soon enough. But he doesn’t realize it yet. Everyone else does! But, you see, there’s a small matter of a lack of communication between Squeek and everyone else. What with Squeek knowing everything and having all the answers and such, open dialectic is a bit of a rarity in his particular existence. After all, he is a fifty-foot, thirty ton, magic-using, fire-breathing dragon. Most folks -- even other dragons -- tend to shy away from advising him in any way. Retrospectively, that’s a sad thing for poor Squeek. He needs a good kick in the ass.
Realistically, there’s not a large chance of that happening. Someone may come along, we suppose... But insofar as Squeek’s life is concerned, he’s been pretty well left to his own devices. Thus he’s got a pretty crummy attitude about everything in general. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the cherry on top of the sundae, and it wouldn’t seem that anyone could ever convince him otherwise.
A family of whooples exploded violently, their blood-spattered carcasses flying into the lower branches of the remaining Blackwoods. Yeah, we know. Pretty sick imagery. That Squeek is quite a guy. And presently he’s terrorizing the Middleville area, down in the Uland range. So, you can imagine that life forms for miles around in all directions are positively thrilled to host his little visit. You could say that most of the animal life in the area would be in a bad mood for a while.
And that includes Zaccheus Wyndham, Lucifer Boot, and Taldo Lackey, who just so happen to be rolling through the fertile farmlands just west of the Alda Rel Jem. However, their moodiness owed not to the presence of the most irritating and destructive Squeek Dragon, but rather to a little incident involving Taldo and a chest full of just slightly important magic implements. We’ll spare you the disastrous details. Suffice to say, the owl narrowly escaped being the main ingredient in the previous evening’s hobo dinner. Frankly, we don’t know how he managed to get out of that one with his feathers intact.
Anyhow, he remains alive. And presently he’s rolling down the Old West Road with the wizardly duo, the endless flat monotony drifting slowly by on either side of the creaking replacement wagon. Actually, they were not only moody wizards, but they were also just plain bored! But all that would change. Oh, boy would it change!
“What was that??” Zacc snapped out of his foul mood -- though you’d never know it to look at him -- long enough to ask a question of his traveling companions. Of course, they couldn’t possibly know that a few miles ahead a huge dragon with a bad attitude was blowing up whooples just for the sheer enjoyment of watching them pop. Granted, two of the three travelers (we’ll allow you to ponder which two) could’ve ascertained magically just exactly what lay ahead. But notice we said ‘could have’. What with one of the party (a certain owl) accidentally destroying a box of the most advanced and most powerful necromantic equipment on all the Durid, the wizards had to get used to a humbler way of life for the duration of the trip down the Old West Road.
Not that they were helpless or anything, mind you. Zacc yet retained frightening powers of the wizardly trade. And, of course, not much out there could hope to beguile the skills of a master such as Lucifer. (You may feel free to ‘oooh and aaaah’ now.) To say the least, he definitely could competently perform the necessary feats of an Orange Hat, as Zacc knew him to be, sans magical instruments. But that’s all later’s worry. For the moment, it’s safe to say that nothing much really hinged on the existence or non-existence of the destroyed magical paraphernalia. Well, except for that one, particular, minor trifle...
“Can’t say as I know, Lord,” Taldo ventured to answer what was in actuality a rhetorical question.
“Don’t look overly surprised, do I?” Zacc grated. “Stupid bird!”
“I would venture that it was an explosion of sorts,” Lucifer stated the obvious.
“No kidding?” Wyndham grouched. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just ride on in silence until we find out!”
This they did. And we hate it when they do that because it makes things really hard on us. How are we supposed to make silence interesting? Really, these characters have no idea the sorts of binds they put us in! Fortunately for us they didn’t go very far in silent mode. It seems that -- having become bored with whoople destruction -- Squeek had decided to move east in search of new excitement. As it happens, he was thundering along the Old West Road at a rather destructive clip; knocking over trees, tearing up the ground, just generally doing all those things that you’d imagine a speeding monstrosity with a bad attitude would be doing. As such, he tended to announce his imminent presence.
“Good freakin’ gads!” Zacc fumed as he was thrown out of his seat by the violence. “What in Zooter’s fifteen hairy armpits is going on around here?!”
“I think there’s your answer!” the Boot yelled (which to someone Zacc’s size sounds more like an urgent squeal). Sure enough, Squeek tore into view just in time to really scare the heebie-jeebies out of the whole wagon full of pillar-seekers. Terrifyingly accomplished wizard or no, Zacc nearly wet himself.
“I’m sorry,” Squeek apologized with a most endearing phony concern, halting his destructive progress mid-road in order to taunt the travelers mercilessly. “I didn’t startle you, did I?” he asked sarcastically.
“Well, what do you think?!” Taldo remarked angrily. Taldo might be just a little too accustomed to having wizards around to protect him. Could be someday his beak will get him into trouble. Then again, considering the number of times he’s nearly wound up as soup...
“Yeah, well, I was only pretending to care, anyway,” the dragon shrugged his massive shoulders
“Do tell,” Zacc replied in monotone, his urge to soil himself now nicely controlled by his better judgment and presence of mind.
“Ya’ mind gettin’ out of my way before I squish you?” the big dragon snarled, intending to draw even more attention to his massive ego. “I got important stuff to do.”
“Is that what you call this?” Lucifer smirked.
“What?” Squeek frowned at the Boot, “You saying my work’s not important? You saying I don’t know best how to live my own life?”
“I don’t know...” Lucifer struck a mock-thought posture for a moment. “I might have been saying that. It depends...”
“Oh, yeah? On what?” the dragon frowned.
“On what exactly you were doing back down the road that was creating such a racket.”
“Oh!” Squeek smiled. “That was just me blowin’ up whooples for shiggles. You oughta’ see ‘em pop! Just like freakin’ popcorn, man!”
“Charming,” Zacc commented idly, quickly resuming his usual place on top of things.
“I like to think so,” the dragon nodded.
“I can tell,” Zacc shook his head.
“Forget it. So, you’re a magic-user,” he questioned without allowing the dragon to properly respond. “Or are you just flame-broiling these whooples with that infernal dragon-breath of yours?”
“Damn straight I’m a magic user!” Squeek defended his ‘skills’. “The best! I can blow up a whoople from eighty yards!”
“Impressive,” Zacc lied, and made no effort to conceal it as such.
“Damn straight it is!”
“So... That’s what you do, then?” Zacc condescended. “You blow up whooples?”
“Nah, man. Well... I mean, yeah, sure. But only ‘cuz I’m bored. I mean, here I am, best magic user the Durid has ever known, and I got nothin’ really to do! I guess when you’re the best at something, you kinda’ start to get bored with it.”
“Uh-huh...” Lucifer fixed the dragon with a penetrating and irritated stare.
“You say somethin’, lil’ guy?” the dragon called down. “Couldn’t hear a word of it. ‘Course that just goes to figure. You little guys never was much for commanding attention. And what with as big and powerful as I am an’ all, it’s not too easy for me to notice you puny folks.”
“I hate him,” Lucifer frowned at Zacc. “Can we frost him or something?”
“Sorry,” Wyndham shook his head. “Normally, yes, of course... But I’ve got something else in mind for our new friend.”
“Say,” Squeek roared nearly politely, “What are you all talking about down there? Big powerful fella’ like me has trouble hearing you puny, weak types.”
“Let’s frost him,” Lucifer suggested again, turning to Zacc with a ready posture.
“Can’t pass up an opportunity like this,” Zacc shook his head at the little Boot, a gleam in his eyes. Turning toward the dragon, he said rather loudly, “We were just discussing our travel plans. As you see, we’re on our way west. We’re under way for Eglavia. There’s always room for one more if you’re willing.” The wizard’s choice of words belied the coercive tone in his voice. There was something commanding in his words. Something meant to play with the dragon’s tiny mind.
“True enough,” Squeek nodded, “It would be great for you to have me along... Heck, sure I’ll go. Got nothin’ better to do. Sheesh, I don’t even know how you puny folks managed to stay alive ’til now without me! At least now you’ll have some protection. I mean, what with me being the best magic user on the Durid and all, and that’s just on top of being so huge and strong --”
“Gads!” Lucifer exhaled heavily, unable to stand any more. “Are you just about finished?!” Turning to Zacc, he muttered, “What in the hell’d you go and invite him for?”
“Patience, Boot,” the wizard grinned. “I’ll let you in on it in due time.”
“Hey, c’mon!” Squeek complained. “I can’t hardly hear you little guys down there! What’s going on?”
“We were just saying that it’s time to be going now,” Zacc smiled warmly at the giant dragon. “If you’d be so kind as to turn yourself around, we’ll be starting on our way.”
“Sounds good enough,” Squeek agreed, nodding his massive head. Thus he heaved himself about and set off down the Old West Road, oblivious that he’d just been very smoothly magicked into giving up whoople-blasting and into wishing to join with the Evil Ones on their journey. Taldo and the wizards followed just as soon as they could get the wagon over and around the twisted mass of fallen trees and deep impressions in the road.
* * *
“I don’t get it, Jérel!” Rainbow poked his head up above the tree line and looked around for something familiar. “This is all wrong! It’s like we’re on the wrong road, man. If fact, I’d swear we were on the wrong road if I wasn’t totally sure that we never even set foot off of the Old Wester! Too strange, man!”
“Yeah, I know...” Jérel frowned. “Still... something pretty familiar about all of this... I don’t know.. maybe... Paul!”
“Is that damned road carrying your pack again?”
“Beg your pardon?” Rainbow and Dweezil looked at each other questioningly, a bit unsure about the stability of their new friends.
“No!” Paul became defensive. “I’m carrying my own everything! Shit, Jérel! We haven’t even bumped into another life-form since Idlewild!”
A very long, reflective silence followed that remark. The kind that always precedes the lighting of the bulb over Wile. E. Coyote’s thick skull.
“Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Shit, shit shit!” Jérel raved, positively livid.
“That son of a duck!” Paul snapped, catching on quickly. “Why, I’m so mad I can’t even remember the Quadratic Formula!”
“A sad day for us all,” Jérel mumbled in reply, only half paying attention, but completely pissed that they’d allowed the ROGI to do it to them a second time. “So... I don’t know” Jérel stumbled, looking around the area with uncertainty. “Not much good can come of this.”
“Come of what?” Dweezil asked, bewildered. “What’s all this about?”
“It’s complicated,” the Minkelf shook his head, in no mood to try to explain. “Klynn warned me about this,” he sighed. “And now I’ve gotten suckered twice already!”
“Who’s Klynn?” the others all asked, in some fashion or another.
“It’s not important,” Jérel shrugged, suddenly feeling resigned to whatever awaited them. “We are totally screwed.”
“We’re lost?!” Tk seemed to panic, looking about frantically.
“Yeah,” Jérel muttered distractedly.
“This is bad,” the Glove became uneasy. “Which way’s East?” he began fidgeting.
“I don’t... uh...” Jérel frowned, not following Tk’s concerns. “I’m not sure. Why?” he inquired.
“I need to vomit!” the Glove stated emphatically, then turned away to begin an appraisal of the natural environment about him, that he might duly determine East.
Rainbow watched him go, with one large eyebrow raised questioningly. “What the hell was that?” he asked with some concern, as Tk scurried about identifying North via the moss-growth patterns on the trees. “He okay?”
“Don’t ask,” Jérel shook his head at the antics of the Glove. “Just don’t get me started. “I can’t deal with him right now. Right now we just gotta’ deal with reality. We are totally lost.”
“And aren’t we all at some time or another,” came a soothing, fatherly voice from out of nowhere.
“What the hell?!” Jérel spun and asked of the pin-striped stranger who’d appeared before them with an alarming suddenness.
“Everyone falls on hard times sooner or later, friend,” the newcomer ignored the Minkelf’s concerns and pushed his agenda inerrantly. “That’s why it’s so nice to have someone in your corner,” the vocal lullaby continued, “someone who’ll stand by you in your desperate hours. I can be that someone. We at Durid Mutual want nothing less than the --”
“Hey!” Jérel exclaimed in dawning recognition, “You’re that guy --”
“You’re that thug from the tavern back in Xylon!” Tk looked up from his vomit-ritual, irreverently, and interrupted Jérel. “What in the hell are you --”
“Gentlemen,” the visitor raised his hands delicately, in an attempt to soothe the others’ frustrations, “we all have thugs in our lives at some point, and it certainly is a shame, but we must accept it as a part of life and learn to protect ourselves from the danger. And what better protection than a personalized policy from the good folks at Durid Mut--”
“Hey!” Rainbow shouted down, having been momentarily preoccupied with scoping out the surroundings. “You’re that shyster who sold me the worthless policy! You got a lot of damned nerve --”
“Excuse me,” the soothing voice resumed, interrupting congenially. “Do I know you? Oh, yes, I do. I remember. Of course I do. I never forget a dragon. Especially one so beautifully adorned. You’re mister...?”
“Rainbow,” the dragon frowned.
“Yes, Mister Rainbow. Of course. I remember you well, and may I say it’s a remarkably generous policy which you hold. We at Durid Mutual want nothing less than your total satisfac--”
“Oh, put a sock in it!” Jérel snapped, finding himself in no mood at all to endure the present situation.
“And you are?” Kornan inquired.
“Jérel Valdis Minkelven,” the Minkelf replied with entirely flat affect.
“Yes, Mister Valdis. Please don’t allow your fur to become ruffled on my account. I do apologize if I’ve wronged you in some way. And may I say what an attractive, shiny coat you have. Such a thing of beauty really ought to be insured against theft or damage by a reputable insurance company. We at Durid Mutual --”
“Theft?!” Jérel came unhinged. “Of my fur??”
“It can happen, unfortunately,” the determined newcomer went on unabated. “Why I remember well an incident --” the salesman began.
“Rainbow, will you please flame his ass!” Jérel found that he’d had enough.
“Oh, I do wish that you wouldn’t,” the soothing drawl went on. “I want nothing more than to be your friend, Mister Rainbow...” (While Kornan certainly didn’t want to be charred, he naturally had a ‘Charred by irritated dragon-musician’ clause written into his rather lengthy policy. Better safe than sorry.) “... and may I say that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Why, anything can happen to anyone at any time and it’s certainly nice to know that having the peace of mind that we at Durid Mu--”
“Thank you, Paul!” Jérel breathed deeply, as if a sudden feeling of slow suffocation had just lifted its preponderous bulk from his furry chest with the toppling over of the insurance salesman.
“That’s quite a handy slide-rule you’ve got there, Paul,” Dweezil congratulated the Glove.
“Oh!” the Glove became excited. “Oh, it’s nothing really!” he took the compliment way too seriously and began to run indiscriminately with it. “My calculator really shames this thing, actually. Why, I can’t even convert from Grads to Radians on this dinosaur. You see, with the standard degree mode, I can --”
“Thank you, Jérel!” Dweezil huffed as the Glove fell to the forest floor clutching his head in pain.
“So... Where do we go now?” Tk asked, not the least bit concerned that Paul had just been cracked over the head.
“Wherever the road doesn’t go!” Jérel said pointedly. “We definitely do not want to end up there.”
Thus did the Compatriots, with a new environment at hand, set off toward wherever the road didn’t lead. The receding sounds of the traveling Compatriots drifted back through the forest to the Road Of Good Intentions, where Kornan lay unconscious from a vicious slide-rule injury to the head, his pockets rifled for the cash Rainbow’d forked over in days past. It was all right, of course, though... Page thirty-seven of Kornan’s policy clearly and distinctly lays out coverage for ‘Annoyed Glove, slide-rule-induced injury’...
Yeah... um... We’re seriously thinking about waking him up and having someone strike him again, just out of spite.
* * *
“Would you stop that infernal destruction!” Zacc screamed at Squeek, the limits of his patience nearly reached.
“Maybe,” the giant dragon smiled. “If I gave a whoople’s ass about anything.”
“Well, it’s about time you start doing that!” Wyndham grated, staring down distastefully at the charred remains of a family of vacationing Ewoks. “Although,” he added thoughtfully as he stared at the smoldering lump, “point taken. Just try to keep the ruckus to a minimum, all right?”
“I’ll think on it,” the giant dragon returned arrogantly. Zacc stomped away irritably mumbling something about dragon-and-owl stew.
“Forget him,” Lucifer said dismissively, stepping up alongside Wyndham. “We’re near to Eglavia and it’s time to begin planning for our conquest.”
“Our conquest?” Zacc eyed the Boot. “Why, Lucifer, if I didn’t know better I might think that you were sticking your little nose way too far into my personal affairs.” Though defensive, Zacc did not actually grouch at the Boot, likely because he understood and appreciated this sort of ambition. “I assure you,” he added condescendingly, “I can handle things without the counsel of an Orange Hat. Why don’t you go play with your junior-wizard play set and leave important matters to the big boys. I can’t --”
“Dammit, Squeek!!” Zacc switched gears in mid-sentence. “Knock it off!”
What was recently a Darkwood Tree was now a small, blackened lump of goop. Squeek smiled. Zacc glared at the dragon, then just sighed. “It’s time we broke camp,” the wizard said reasonably calmly. Turning to the owl, he ordered, “Taldo, gather up what little is left of my equipment and pack it up.”
This the owl did, and soon the gang was ready to depart. Once everything was ready, and all were aboard (except Squeek, of course) Zacc laid the movement spell upon the wagon...
...and off they went, down the final stretch of the Old West Road toward Eglavia and the Zowie-Mart and success.
As they roll on in less than noteworthy -- and certainly less than printworthy -- monotony, we would like to interject with a brief but timely look at wizardly implements. They’ve been the talk of late, and what with many of them having been destroyed in one way or another, the situation begs some scrutiny as to just what exactly the Evil Ones (we just love that label!) are lacking.
Implements are important, you should know. Look at it this way: The right tools can really make a job go more smoothly. A skilled carpenter is a skilled carpenter whether he’s holding a hammer or a nail gun. But which one’s going to finish your roof faster? Wizards are no different. Zacc is a force to be reckoned with, you better believe it. But he’s just lost his nail gun. Over the course of this first chapter, Taldo and the Ux have managed to destroy a wealth of virtually irreplaceable magic equipment. Among these implements:
The Hand of Nerd: A three-fingered, glass likeness of Arlud Bellringer’s (Zacc’s high-school shop teacher) right hand, clutching a grotesquely exaggerated sloth snout. Primarily designed as a tool for aiding in levitations, invisibility spells, and cuts against the grain. Very, very delicate. Taldo dropped it.
The Hammer and Scythe: Pretty much self-explanatory. Also glass. Designed for use in those emergencies in which a political state desperately requires an impulsive transformation to an unstable socialist regime. Very, shall we say, tenuous... Taldo dropped it.
The GOP Domestic Policy Wand: With a concerted effort by the wielder, this wand could successfully alleviate the pain, hunger, and general disharmony of all life forms. Owing to an inherent oxy-moron in its construction, however, it never quite accomplishes what it’s supposed to. Results vary.
The Televangelist Self-Pleasuring, Inflatable, Hookerattracter Rod: Also mostly self-explanatory. Guaranteed to attract the opposite sex to various inns and taverns all across the Durid. Also draws currency mysteriously from the pockets of otherwise perfectly sensible people. Thinly constructed and hollow. And it has no real foundation. Taldo attempted to use it once, but was carelessly daydreaming at the time. We aren’t even going to tell you what happened. But again, Taldo dropped the implement... albeit this time while hurriedly flapping away and screaming.
The Manilow Globe: When activated, the Globe insures that all life forms within ear-shot become helplessly distracted and immobilized with pain, rendering them easier to kill. A higher setting on the Globe, the Bolton Phase, saves time and effort for the user and just goes ahead and slaughters the listeners immediately after paralysis. The Bolton Phase, however, has been known to cause extreme discomfort and disorientation in even the most powerful wizards. Best used in conjunction with industrial-grade hearing protection. Glass. Very fragile. Taldo probably would have dropped it eventually, had it not first committed suicide.
The Horn of Dilemma: Sound this horn once, and those who are advancing upon you with ill intent suddenly feel an attack of conscience. While they’re introspectively engaged, it’s a good time to pull out the Manilow Globe. Made of indestructible Orgud-Beast horn. Taldo destroyed it.
The list goes on, but the Evil Ones are approaching Eglavia. And you get the point.
“We’re getting close to Eglavia!” Squeek called down from way up where he was. “I can see it on the horizon!”
“Great,” Lucifer frowned. “His horizon is probably a hundred miles away.”
“Cool it, Boot, we’re getting close enough,” Zacc lectured as the wagon lurched along.
And he was quite correct. It didn’t take long before something more civilized than the Ulandian wastes pulled into view. Here, little farmsteads, there, blacksmitheries, stone masonries, produce markets, etc. All those things you’d expect to see as you pull into a city on a wagon drawn by nothing. These places rolled by, and more places came on, as the wagon rolled toward the heart of Eglavia. The paving stones (just the plain type that don’t try to coerce you) and the wagon wheels clackety clacked together, the sound echoing up and down the empty main street.
“Where’s all the people?” Squeek roared down politely.
“I wonder!” Taldo snorted.
“Shut up, bird,” Zacc frowned.
“So where’s all the people?” the dragon repeated himself stupidly.
“Oh, figure it out, you idiot!” Zacc hollered up.
“Oh!” Squeek beamed, momentarily basking in the glow of elementary-school-level comprehension. “I should probably just wait outside when we get to the Zowie-Mart, then, eh?”
“I think that would be appropriate,” Zacc nodded. “We don’t want to spook the help.”
And then, abruptly, there stood the Eglavia Zowie-Mart. Not very impressive, actually. No different from any other Zowie-Mart, we mean to say. But when you’ve been on a journey, you tend to inflate your expectations of everything. The Evil Ones were a bit disheartened at the sight of a regular shopping center with regular people coming and going.
“Not all I imagined it would be,” Lucifer repeated us. “It’s funny, you know, but when you’ve been on a journey--”
“Can we just get going?” Zacc grouched.
“Sorry,” Lucifer shrugged.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Zacc frowned.
“So...” Taldo asked, “We’re going in, then?”
“Of course we’re going in!” Wyndham snarled. “Squeek! Guard our stuff!”
“Yeah, sure... Whatever,” the giant dragon only half paid attention to the wizard. He laid down next to the wagon and fell fast asleep. Not that he particularly had to stay awake to effectively guard Zacc’s possessions. We get the feeling he did fine just the way he was.
As Zacc stepped through onto the intricately designed floor tile, he instantly felt a weight settle over him; the weight of one hundred and thirty-seven aisles of consumer goods, ranging from apples and aardvark food to zigger weed pipes and beginner-smoking kits, complete with pamphlets: ‘Your new cancerous lump, and welcome to it!’
“This,” Zacc said, waving his arms, “This is why I live out in the pickers!”
“May I help you, sir?” a pleasant voice greeted him.
“Who are you?” the wizard became defensive.
“I’m the greeter, sir,” the greeter chirped. “May I help you?”
“Um... Maybe, yeah.” Zacc was not exactly accustomed to this sort of shopping experience. Usually, he just got everything he needed back at home at the Armon Wizard Depot. But this! This was a bit overwhelming.
“What may I help you with, sir?” the greeter persisted in his way-too-chipper tone.
“Pillars,” Zacc said. “I need a pillar. Do you think you might have a s--”
“Pillars! Pillars! Near Help Desk!!” the greeter shouted into his pager, his voice echoing throughout the enormous openness. Turning back to Zacc, he smiled, “Someone will be around to help you shortly, sir. Thank you for shopping Zowie-Mart. Have a bright, shining day!” In his haste to bound off to greet the next customer, the greeter nearly stepped full on Lucifer’s head.
“Hey, watch it!” the Boot squeaked up from his vantage point.
“Very sorry,” the greeter smiled. “Have a pleasant day! Bye, now!”
“Yeah, I got your pleasant day right here, you motherless son of a --” Lucifer began.
“Hi, there!” the pillar person made himself known cheerfully. “I understand you’re interested in our pillar department?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Zacc said. “What took you so long, anyway?”
“Darned long walk, sir,” the pillar man smiled. “I’m Glenn, manager of the pillar department. Won’t you come with me, please?”
And off they went. Some great length of time later...
“Here we are, sir!” Glenn smiled.
“Sheesh!” Zacc was winded. “Didn’t look like such a confusing place from outside!”
“Actually, sir, we’re just a small operation, by comparison. We’re just sort of a branch outlet now that the Eternal Zowie-Mart has incorporated.”
For those of you who went home this weekend and kicked back with a cold beer rather than do the required reading, the Eternal Zowie Mart is the vessel of existence for the Durid. Didn’t expect that, did ya’?! The whole continent and more is contained within the walls of one, great big, celestial Zowie-Mart. You can’t see it, of course, as the framework extends infinitely into the reaches of the unknown, totally engulfing the suns and moons and most of the Gardola Galaxy. They’re having zoning problems up there, FYI, but construction of a new wing is presently under way nonetheless. So be on the look-out for that. And don’t worry, all matters cosmic and celestial are going to get far muddier before they clear up in the least. You’re welcome.
“Okay, whatever,” Zacc waved the whole Zowie-Mart issue away. “I’m here for a pillar. Can we just stay on topic, please?”
“Certainly, sir! Can you tell me what sort of pillar you’re looking for today?”
“Absolutely,” Zacc said with confidence. “I want a Seventh Pillar. But I don’t see any of those around here. Do you keep them in the back room or something?”
“No, sir,” Glenn chuckled. “No, they’re all right here. We have five in stock.”
“What do you mean, they’re here? All I see is the One through Six Pillars. I want a Seventh Pillar!”
“Well,” Glenn amended harmlessly, “It’s true they aren’t exactly here now... They were here...”
“You’ve sold them already?” Zacc frowned.
“Oh, no sir! They’re all here. Or at least they’ll be here again soon. They just aren’t here now.”
“You’ve got a shipment coming in, then?” Zacc struggled to understand.
“No,” Glenn tried to explain, “Well, yes... But that’s not what I meant. Do you want the pillar, sir? We have them in stock, we just don’t have them now.”
“Aaarrrrggghhh!” Zacc grated. “Do you have one or not?”
“Five of them, sir. We have them a moment ago.”
“You mean you had them a moment ago...”
“No, sir. I mean we have them a moment ago. We just don’t have them now.”
“Listen, punk,” Zacc lost his cool (or whatever he normally has) “I’m gonna’ --”
“You are familiar with Seventh Pillars, sir?” Glenn attempted to feel out the wizard.
“Well... I thought...”
“I’ll get you one, sir. Please wait a moment.” A few moments passed. “Here you are, sir,” Glenn returned.
“What?” Zacc looked around. “Where?”
“Just trust me, sir. Take it up front. The register will ring up the sale price.”
“Listen, kid --”
“Please, sir. They’ll take care of you up front. Have a nice day, sir.” Glenn then walked off to the store manager’s office to demand a pay raise.
“Great!” Zacc grouched. “Just great! Well, the punk says I’ve got one, so let’s get moving!”
Resigned to his fate, Zacc led the others on the walk back up front. Some great length of time later...
“I can help you on register 685, sir,” a sweet but somehow totally disinterested voice wafted to Zacc’s impatient ear.
“Ah, an express lane,” Taldo commented happily.
“How are you today, sir?” the checkout girl asked less than enthusiastically, her chewing gum making her nearly, but not quite totally, incomprehensible.
“Fine,” Zacc returned the small talk.
“Mm hmm,” the girl mumbled, running the pillar over the scanner. Zacc never even knew she’d taken it from him. “Your sale price will be one hundred eighty-seven durrets even, sir. Would you like paper or plastic?”
“I don’t care!” Zacc snapped impatiently. “Just put the damned thing in a bag so I can tell I’ve got it with me!”
“Yes, sir,” the girl proceeded to dump the pillar into a paper bag. Recycling, you know. “Cash or charge, sir?”
“Charge. I left all my cash in my other robe.”
“Yes, sir,” the girl droned. “Passport, sir?”
“Passport?” Zacc frowned, flipping through his credit card library, “No, Durid Express.”
“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take Durid Express. Only Passport.”
“What?! C’mon! This is a goldcard! Look! Durid Express Gold! I have a ten thousand durret limit for cryin’ out loud!”
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t accept Durid Express.”
“Look, girlie! I just traveled most of the continent to get this thing, and I’m not leaving here without it!”
“I’m sorry, sir. You’re welcome to talk to the manager, sir, if you’d like to.”
“You bet I do! Get him out here now!”
“May I help you, sir?” the manager inquired, having observed the scene as it unfolded.
“This gentleman would like to use his credit card to purchase a pillar, sir --” the girl began.
“That’s fine, Cheryl. We gladly accept Passport, sir.”
“I don’t have Passport!” Zacc’s eyes crossed. “I have Durid Express.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t take Durid Express. Perhaps cash for this visit?”
“We’ve been through this!” Zacc yelled.
“I’m sorry, sir, but --”
“This is ridiculous!” the wizard shouted. “I came all the way across the frickin’ Durid for this! I want --”
“Zacc, come on,” Lucifer said quietly. “You’re causing a scene. Let’s just go.”
“Go?? Are you nuts?? After coming all that way, you’re ready to just go??”
“Sir,” the manager began, “I regret that we cannot accept your credit card, but here at Zowie-Mart we value our customers. I’d be willing to put this away for you until you can pay with some other means.”
“Some other means, huh?!” Zacc fumed. Then, suddenly, he cooled off. Perhaps he realized he was fighting a losing battle. Sure, he could just snatch the pillar and torch the store with a giant fireball, but that just wouldn’t be proper. The Wizard’s Guild would revoke his privileges for sure.
“Zacc?” Lucifer dared.
“Fine,” Wyndham said. “Fine. Stash it away for me. We’ll be back.”
“Very good, sir,” the manager smiled. “If I could just get some information from you --”
“Taldo, give the man what he needs!”
Zacc and Lucifer scooted through the automatic doors, leaving Taldo to take care of business. Outside, the mood changed drastically from one of conquest to one of new beginnings.
“What’s up, guys?” Squeek asked brightly, having slept nicely for the span of time that the others had been gone.
“Shut up, dragon!” Zacc snapped.
“Hey!” Squeek quickly became his irritable old self again in the presence of Zacc’s actual personality, “I’ve had about enough out of you, shorty! I’m the most powerful magic user in the world! As such, I deserve some respect! If I don’t get it, I might just umphhh!!”
Without even really paying attention, Zacc magicked Squeek’s jaws shut with duct tape, and levitated him into an inverted position. “Listen to me, dragon,” he said calmly. “I’ve put up with you this long because I see a use for you in my future. But, truthfully, you’re not so important to me that I wouldn’t just turn you into a whoople if it suited my fancy. And then I’ll have Lucifer here blow you up and splatter your bloody bits all about the streets and forests of the entire continent. Understand?”
Squeek nodded vigorously, and Zacc released the dragon from his wizardly grasp.
As the townsfolk ran hysterically for cover from what certainly must have been a groundquake, Zacc, Lucifer, Taldo, and Squeek made their way to the edge of town, not to return to Eglavia for some time to come.
* * *
“We have been trudging through this Great Vomiter-forsaken woods for who knows how long, and we still don’t have a clue where we are!” So spoke Tk, grieved at being still lost and directionless (We’re very familiar with that feeling) in the forest.
“At least we’re not ‘you know where’!” Jérel said with a shudder. “Anyway, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly clueless.”
“What?” Paul asked sarcastically. “Our great leader knows where we are?”
“Shut up, Paul!” Rainbow, Dweezil, and Tk all snapped together.
“Do you know?” the colorful dragon asked Jérel quietly.
“No...” the Minkelf scrutinized as he walked. “But I have a guess. This is looking pretty typical of Aubrey.”
“Aubrey?!” Tk shouted. “Are you sure? Aubrey is just about hell and gone from where we want to be right now!”
“Yes, it is. And no, I’m not,” Jérel answered the questions in reverse order. “Anyway, if we are in Aubrey, then no sense griping about it. What’s done is done. Besides, of all the places we could’ve ended up, Aubrey’s pretty cool. I’ve got some distant relatives in Aubrey.”
“Just where did you say you were from?” Paul asked with his usual biting tone.
“The Tibangea. It’s south of here... If we’re where I think we are.”
“The Tib what?” Rainbow asked.
“C’mon!” Jérel frowned. “It’s a great big, monstrous, frickin’ territory! How come nobody’s ever heard of it?! It’s been Minkelf country since a long way back.”
“How far?” Dweezil asked.
“Oh... I don’t know. A long time.”
“Ah,” Dweezil nodded. “You’re a real patriot, all right.”
“Oh, knock it off!” Jérel frowned. “So I don’t know everything.”
“Who’d have guessed!” Paul smirked.
“So, why’d you leave in the first place?” the ferret ignored Paul.
“Long story. I’ll tell it some other time, maybe.”
“Okay,” Dweezil shrugged. “Good enough.”
“Yes,” a new voice added. “That would be best.”
“Who in the hell are you?” Jérel looked all around spastically.
“You five hold perfectly still, especially the dragon! Or we’ll loose shafts through you!”
“This is interesting,” Dweezil commented.
“That’s not exactly the way I’d put it,” Tk said nervously.
“Who’s there?” the Minkelf repeated himself.
“We are,” came the reply.
“That doesn’t help us very much,” Jérel chastised.
“It wasn’t meant to. What are you doing in our forest?”
“Accident,” Jérel cut to the chase. “Road Of Good Intentions.”
“Ahhh...” the voice considered the information.
“You know,” Jérel said cautiously, “It would help if we could see you.”
“We’ll think about it.”
“All the while with arrows trained on us?” Jérel wondered aloud.
“You really should assume so, yes.”
“Climatic moment,” Dweezil said erroneously.
“What’s the weather got to do with anything?” the voice from nowhere asked.
“I was referring to the tension,” the ferret amended.
“Ah,” the voice demonstrated dawning comprehension.
Probably also the end of Chapter One, we interjected.
Afraid so, we confirmed.
* * *
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