anachronism - [uh-nak-ruh-niz-uhm]
1. something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological context.
The steady clip-clop of hooves echoed along the roadway. They'd been outfitted with uniquely designed shoes, alloys tuned to minimize the impact from trotting along the hardened black surface rather than a more natural dirt path -- and the steady puttering of an iron box underneath the cargo hauling carriage was reassurance that their heavy load wouldn't be too burdensome on the upward climbs, either. A standard arrangement, all told, for industrial hauling in this day and age.
The non-standard part would be the driver. She wore a simple brown cloak, suitable for weathering the elements, but even under its concealing cloth it was clear this wasn't the heavyset, well armed sort of burlyman hauler that usually rolled along this route. A head and a half too short and a hundred pounds and change too light, to say the least.
Not that this deterred the bandits any. In fact, it encouraged them -- their leader stepping right out of the tree line, waving for his comrades to join him. Why bother ambushing? A simple human roadblock would be enough for a mere slip of a girl.
(It wasn't the biggest blunder that these generic thugs could've made, but it certainly was one of the classics. Right up there with "He's just one man! We can take him easily!" and "Surrender? To the likes of you?!".)
"Hold where you are!" the bandit leader demanded, raising his nocked arrow, pulling back the bowstring. "'twould be unfortunate if I had to end the life of one so young, would it not?"
On cue, the carriage rolled to a halt, the driver tugging back on the horse reins. The clip-clop clipped slightly, clopped once, then stopped.
"You would be the Crimson Arrow Gang, then?" the girl asked -- face partially obscured by the hood, but not her moving mouth, tinged with an unusually blue shade of lipstick.
"You've heard of us, then? Of our total control over these wildlands, of how nobody gets through here without paying a toll? Excellent! That will make the task simpler. It seems our reputation has indeed grown," he asserted, swelling with pride. "Now, then! There'll be no woodcutting today, missy. We'll also take any valuables you have, and your horses. As I am a gentleman, we'll leave one for you to ride off on -- don't worry your pretty little head about that. Although... if I may suggest, you might enjoy riding with us onward towards adventure and riches! Far more enjoyable than returning to that pathetic little village..."
The girl tugged back her hood, to get a better look at them; revealing an unusually silvery-white hairdo, short and well kept. She studied the man, head to toe, evaluating him before making her query.
"Please correct me if I'm wrong, sir, but isn't a bow and arrow a bit of a primitive weapon for your people?" she asked. "I'm not certain why I should feel it's a threat. Certainly the projectile would be quick, but with some skill, avoidable--"
The other, less pompous bandits promptly raised semiautomatic assault rifles, backing up their leader's preferred huntsman's bow. Clicks and clacks of weapons being primed to fire and safeties released punctuated their reply.
"I see. That's more in keeping, then," she said. "Still, I'm afraid I'm not very concerned about simple kinetic metal pellets. I'd like to point this out because there's still time for you to lay down your weapons and surrender before you have to discover why I'm unconcerned."
"Surrender?" the leader asked, trying to hold back the laughter. "To the likes of you?!"
And THEN the silvery energy blaster was produced.
Ah, she thought. That's indeed more threatening. Before further unpleasantries could be conveyed, she threw off the cloak, and became a brief silvery blur, landing neatly in front of the horses... and crossing her shiny metal forearm bracers in front of herself.
When the weapons opened fire (a surprise reaction to her sudden movement, she hoped, rather than some true desire to maliciously do her harm) one arrow, sixteen rounds of armor piercing lead, and a beam of pure white light as wide as a man's fist were directed her way. And all of them deflected easily by the pair of domed force fields thrown up by her crossed forearms.
"What are you doing, Una?! Shoot these idiots!" another girl's voice called out from within the cargo hauler's covered passenger cabin. The irritated voice had to shout to be heard over the weapons fire.
"Emily, if I drop my shields, they could harm the horses!" the white-haired girl, hereby named Una, replied. She was holding her ground, despite the numerous impacts against her defensive shields, but unable to act beyond that.
"Oh, of all the... fine! Plan B!,,...!"
The strange word, twisted back onto itself into a language that was no language at all, echoed with a more resounding force and volume than should have been possible within the cabin enclosure. But that sound was then droned out quickly by the snarling, growling noise of strange creatures waking from slumber, with deadly intent on their non-minds...
Specifically, a swarm of chainsaws now levitating out of the cabin windows, given magical life, which poured forth from both sides of the carriage and honed in on the bandits.
The "Crimson Arrow Gang" had faced down farmers, armed mercenaries hired by farmers, and even some of the more deadly varieties of enchanted beast the wildlands could have thrown at them. But when a fleet of airborne saws capable of easily slicing through the age-old wood of trees start menacingly floating your way in full defiance of the laws of physics, it's usually time to use the pants lavatory.
The panic fire redirected immediately, as the pack of animate lumberjacking tools surrounded them -- this time aimed at the metal implements of destruction.
Not that this had any noticeable effect on reducing the overall lethality of their situation. Bullet impacts simply caused the saws to spin in air a little before resuming their menacing. A reflective metal surface parried the energy weapon's blast, before whirling in a sharp arc to cleave the metal raygun in twain. A shower of sparks burst from the bandit's hands, the two halves of his stolen gun falling uselessly to the ground.
Oddly, the circle of woodsmanly doom had left a gap -- one that led down the road, away from the carriage. Seeing an opportunity, the bandits took the better part of valor and ran for their lives, slipping through that crack in the defenses and fleeing.
All save the leader, who tried to make a run for it, and faced the saws again for his effort. They'd let the others run. The bowman wasn't going to be so lucky.
"I know it doesn't look this way," Una tried to reason, while lowering her shields. "But honestly, we mean you no harm. All we want is information. I would like to reiterate my suggestion that you surrender; it would make this much easier for everybody involved--"
"I surrender! Oh god, I surrender!!" the bandit king screamed, falling to his knees and covering his head with his arms, defensively.
Airborne saws wobbled a bit, before collapsing to the ground, enchantment fading... but when the leader opened his eyes and peeked out from under one arm, he now found himself staring at the business end of a surprisingly similar energy weapon to the one his cronies had found... although this one was in the hands of the girl in the metallic dress-like garment.
"Who put you to this task, sir?" Una asked, her voice not the slightest bit fierce, despite this technically being an armed interrogation. "We looked into the history of your 'Crimson Arrow Gang'. You're petty criminals, survival oriented, simply stealing to keep your people fed and moderately wealthy. You have no reason to hassle the lumberjacks on their way into the deep forests, there's not nearly enough profit in it. Therefore, our guess is that you were hired. Are we correct?"
"You are correct."
That reply hadn't come from the bandit, however.
Further down the road, where it was narrowest between the two sides of the forest... the trees themselves creaked and groaned, leaning inward. Their branches crossed, forming a natural seat. Perched there upon the branches was a figure, wreathed in summer and autumn, colors of green and auburn. Her leafy feet did not touch the cracked asphalt road; she simply dangled there, idly swinging one leg, her glowing eyes bearing down on the girl.
Barken lips parted. "You are a long way from home, little animal," she spoke. "You have no true stake here. You were no doubt hired to stop my animals, just as I hired mine to stop the ones who harm these forests. Money... such a silly human thing..."
"Ah.... I'm.. not familiar with your species, miss--"
"Miss Dryad," Una said, assuming it was a formal name. "But if I am interpreting correctly, then... yes. We were hired to clear the route so the lumberjacks could resume. The wood is needed to build communities down the road. Shelters, homes for those suffering in the elements."
"It's not my fault the animals are ill equipped to the rigors of the seasons," the Dryad said, with a shrug. "That doesn't give them justification to murder the trees. It does, however, give me justification to murder the animals. I have declined to, so far, simply turning them away... but now I see you wielding those murdering tools against my pack. I see the time for mercy is at an end. The weeds must be pruned."
She held two fingers to her lips, and whistled in the way wind slips between the branches on a breezy day. The trees began to move, parting the way... for figures like her, thin and mobile and leafy. Dozens of them. Already surrounding the carriage.
The girl took a step back, for the first time that day. "W-wait, wait, please, Miss Dryad..! We can come to a compromise--"
"No. No, we cannot. Slaughter the animals, children."
Moving quickly, Una grasped the dial on the back of her blaster. One twist to the right, and it could have the lethal force needed to... what? Burn down a few of them? Not enough. Her shields were directional, they couldn't stop an surrounding ambush like this. And her friend Emily in the carriage, even with her strange powers, would likely not be enough either--
A walking tree took one step onto the road. And then was swiftly jerked back into the depths of the forest, as if a snare had pulled it backwards with incredible force. Because that's precisely what happened.
Metallic twangs sang through the air, more snares firing, logs swinging, trees groaning under weight and howling in rage as the entire forest was rearranging itself. A figure blurred between the shadows between the trees, pulling a wire here, setting off a trap there, making a quick improvised loop over a branch there. An ambush to ambush the ambush was firing off, and being adjusted on the fly to compensate for the heavier, non-human foes that had wandered into it.
When the majority of the mobile forest army was pulled to the ground or up into the branches, the figure finally emerged from the shadows of the Dryad's tree arch, appearing behind her, a metal pistol held to her head.
"Incendiary ammo," the boy spoke, his voice calm, emotionless. "If you don't know what that means, it means fire. Human shape means a brain here I can burn. If not, it'll at least hurt. Friends'll be out of the snares soon, I think. Doesn't matter. Call them off or burn."
The Dryad's hiss was like crackling leaves, crunching underfoot. "This is merely an inconvenience, animal. You cannot kill me any more than you can kill the forest--"
The boy's other arm curled around her neck, hand raised to reveal a red pushbutton detonator in one hand, thumb on the trigger.
"I push this, I kill the forest," he said, again with no more feeling one way or another. No rage. Simply a series of facts, being presented in logical order. "Everything burns. This entire place, everything. Doesn't matter. None of it. Decide now."
"This is-- this-- agh! Wait, everybody, stop, WAIT!!"
THAT voice was loaded with considerably more emotion. Emily the Witch, a young woman no older than her companions, awkwardly stepped from her hiding place within the hauler's passenger cabin. She waved her arms wildly, trying to get attention -- almost knocking the pointy black hat from her head on the low cabin doorframe as she scrambled to get out.
"This is so... so stupid!" she declared. "Everybody, listen to me! Scout -- hands off the trigger! Nobody needs to get shot or blown up today. Now. ...as... a wanderer, one familiar with accorded bonds of wild forests, one respectful of nature's innate power and with respect due in turn, I hereby request peaceful parlay until the sun falls behind the branches! --dammit, I DEMAND peaceful parlay!"
And in that moment... the ambushes, the bandit (currently on his knees in a growing yellow puddle), the bombs, the blasters... none of it mattered to the Dryad. She focused her attention on the one in the familiarly shaped hat instead.
"I know the smell of you," the lady of trees said, a note of curious surprise in her words. "A sapling of Lilith... and yet I don't sense her influence about you. You are indeed a strange one. However, you know of the accorded bonds, it seems, and are due respect in turn for your station. Very well. What do you offer?"
Exhaling in relief, the witch pushed some of her irritability aside, trying to keep calm. "Look, not ALL of these trees are yours, okay? I know how Dryads work. You have a protectorate forest. You can't possibly claim to be defending the entire wildland in this area."
"...I suppose not, no," the Dryad admitted.
"So you've got no right to stop the.. animals from logging outside your haven. As much as I know you probably hate it, you're overstepping your jurisdiction and this crap has got to end! ...uh... I mean.. respectfully, ma'am."
"A defiant sprout, within this one," the Dryad said, smirking, if it was possible to do so with lips made of leaves. "Very well. Keep the animals out of my protectorate. They will never be considered for respect as your kind are, witchling, but I will leave them be. You have my word. ...I trust you will make your friend disarm those animal fire-devices?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. Fine. ...let her go, Scout."
The boy hesitated. No trembling. Just considered the situation for a few more moments, rather than blindly obeying... and slipped down out of the trees, landing easily on his feet. The gun and the detonator were held aloft, in a peaceful gesture, then set down.
The Dryad remained in the branches, watching the trio curiously. "You keep strange company, sapling. An outsider, with outsider spark... and this one. I would watch this one, if I were you. His shadow may hunt for you now, but the wild hunt in him is not something you can leash. ...keep the animals out of my forest and you'll never see me again. Farewell."
With business here finished, the forest guardian merged into the wood of the trees themselves, her arch splitting, trees seeming to visibly shrink back into the tree line. In moments, there was nothing unusual about the forest, leaving behind only tall oaks and empty snares.
Scout gathered up his weapons, before returning to his companions. And ignoring the suspicious glare he was getting from the girl in the pointy hat.
"You never said you were going to plant firebombs in the forest," Emily said. "Just the snares, for Plan C, in case the bandits fled back into the trees."
"Plan D," the boy said, with a shrug. "Made sense to me."
"I really, really, really, REALLY don't like it when people get all secretive and make these kinds of plans behind my back. I thought we were in this together," she said, crossing her arms and tapping her foot, obvious body language that the boy paid absolutely no attention to. "And what'd she mean, about 'the wild hunt' in you?"
"What did she mean, about being a sapling of Lilith?" Scout countered.
"...anyway," Emily said, changing the subject in the clunkiest manner possible, "We'll just redirect the loggers away from the Dryad's realm. Now that I know there's one out here, I can find a ritual spell in my book that'll clearly mark the borders. Guess we're done here, and about freaking time. That paycheck had better be waiting for us when we get back to the village, or we're not eating tonight. Let's get outta here."
The hunter and the witch turned to the silver girl. Who still had her energy blaster aimed at the bandit leader, whose mouth remained agape in shock.
"Sir, now that you have surrendered, I have a question which is outside the scope of this particular task but of much personal importance to me," Una spoke, trying to sound as reassuring as someone with a gun to your head can be. "I would greatly appreciate your cooperation in this inquiry, and promise it will not detain you for--"
"What? Huh? What?" the bandit babbled, having trouble with the big words.
The boy spoke up for her. He knew what she was going to ask. It was the question that would be dragging them all over the wilds, after all. He knelt down, and looked into the bandit's eyes... his own empty, passionless, but somehow conveying vast importance. And vast dangers beyond the scope of a simple forest road altercation.
"Where," he asked, "Did you find an Orbital's energy blaster?"
by stefan gagne
One week previous, there was no unlikely trinity of powers, no journey to undertake, no story worth telling. Not yet, at least.
Stories had a habit of happening around Edgar Wellbrooks, proprietor of the Olney Inn. Stories didn't happen TO Edgar, understand, simply... around. It was a common side effect of living on the Fringe, the contested area between two world powers, where all manner of odd characters wandered in and out. If the story didn't happen in his immediate vicinity, he'd at least hear about it, and pass it along. Stories of the mysterious wildlands of deep forest and weird creatures to the west, stories of the tall and powerful cities of metal to the east. Tales enough to keep folks buying beer, which kept him paid, kept him fed, and this the circle of life complete. In as much as it kept him alive.
The Olney Inn (located conveniently in the heart of the Olney Settlement, "The Breadbasket of the Tri-State Area") served well as a rest stop between worlds. It was on the road to the Washington Memorial, for instance. Not that the D.C. path got many tourists anymore, but the ones who were willing to brave the trip and see what was left of that great city usually were adventuresome sorts, willing to tell and/or make up stories for the local barkeep. To the west were the wildlands, where hunters and salvage teams would delve into Deep Virginia. Some of them even got as far as West Virginia, which was quite a feat. Those ones would always come back with something interesting, either salvage from a dead city, a mysterious Fae artifact, or at least a tale of barely getting out alive.
So, when a group of travelers of Mysterious Origin showed up at the Olney Tavern, wearing Mysterious Cloaks, hunkered down and trying not to look important (serving only to give them a Mysterious Aura), Edgar knew he had his work cut out for him and the rewards will be great indeed. If he could tease a story out of them, he could talk of the Mysterious Travelers to others and boost his business's reputation as a place where interesting things happened.
He waved away the busty barmaid (hired specifically for her bustiness, as she tended to drop drinks as often as she served them). Edgar would handle this crowd himself. He pulled a fresh order pad, tossed a towel over a shoulder, tried to look every inch the barkeep he could, then approached.
"Welcome to Olney," he said, while setting out a bowl of pretzels. "You folks just passing through, or are you here to see the sights?"
The tallest of the three figures, an old man with one of those droopy white moustaches you normally only see on wizened old kung fu masters in ancient movies, looked up from fiddling with a silvery salt shaker.
"Ahh... we are here to purchase items," he said. "That is all. There is nothing the least bit interesting or unusual about us. --what sort of metal is this? It's quite fascinating! Very light, yet well sculpted and aesthetically pleasing!"
"It's.. uh. It's just chrome. You spray the stuff on, and it gets shiny. I think. ...do you guys want to order anything?" Edgar asked, trying to steer the conversation back to normality. "I have some.. very uninteresting drinks, if you prefer..."
"Excellent! We will have your three least interesting drinks."
"Right. Two on tap brews. And what'll the kid have?"
The smallest of the figures looked up, regarding the barkeeper in confusion. (Edgar latched onto the unusual color of her hair, a silvery white, cut loose and short and straight.) "Kid? I am nineteen years old," she said. "Generally, that age range is identified as 'young woman'. --ah, wait, I understand! Is that number of years insufficient for this 'on-tap-brews' you refer to?"
"Uh... we generally go by Eastusa law, and no, they say you gotta be twenty one," the bartender noted. "Where are you folks from, anyway...? Some independent settlement?"
"That is where we are from exactly, thank you," the third figure, wider and distinctly more grumpy than the others, stated in angry tones. "Please obtain these on-tap-brews and one of whatever you feel is appropriate for the kid and that is all that needs to transpire. You may go now."
Shaking his head, Edgar returned to the counter to fetch two beers and a soda pop from the fountain. These folks would be a tough nut to crack, but nothing he couldn't handle.
The tavern doors swung open, tiny brass bell above them jingling away, like the laughter of the men who entered. Now, this crowd Edgar knew well... the Olney Frontliners.
Things had improved considerably around Olney since Eastusa's bureaucrats finally accepted their application for sponsorship. That meant Frontliner security, and that meant people would be more likely to hang around rather than do their business and scramble, for fear that the place would collapse under an attack from the woods. The Frontliners weren't just there to whack the big bad wolf, either, they represented a bond between this little farming community and one of the world powers. They had a big brother, and big brother had a bigger father looming out east. With them on your side, folks knew you were the real thing.
These specific Frontliners themselves, though, that lot Edgar could do without. Brash and arrogant young men, giant-killers who had no giants to kill, since Olney hadn't seen a raid in months. Their Officer could only keep these soldiers training and drilling and staying focused for so long, before they started simply blustering about town, occupying space and attention in an effort to waste away the hours.
They'd show up midday, as they had now, and drink all the way to closing. They'd laugh, and tell stories of various sexual conquests both real and fictional -- stories of little use to Edgar. He'd already heard all their tales of action against the Faerie Court, so there was no more coin to mine there. They were loud, annoying, and ran up tabs like no one else could. And if they spooked off his far more interesting patrons, he'd have words with their Officer, no doubt about that.
"...I'm not kidding, man, SWORDS," one of them, who Edgar recognized as a bulky guy with nine fingers named Demolitionist Gunther, was telling. He knew this story already, of course. "That's all they had. Pointy ears and swords, and they come charging at us! All war whoops and Fae blather. I mean, they HAD to know they had no chance, right? Nobody even got a shot off. Claymores took the whole group out."
"And that's my point, that they charged and died," Rifleman Johnson said, all grins. "Bam bam bam, kaboom, gone. They could've run for the hills instead of facing us and getting fragged. I don't get that, why do they even bother? Just get out of the way, or roll over and die, already. Nobody screws with America when America wants your turf."
"Hey, be fair, they could have screwed plenty if they had a caster. I've seen Fae mages and the like. Nasty bastards. You gotta put 'em down fast and hard before they can get a word in edgewise."
"Okay, a caster could've caused SOME trouble. But even the casters go down when you put a dozen Frontliner units on their asses. Command even tried to be civil, to send a Scout ahead with a truce offer, bail and forfeit your land and we won't kill you all. They stayed and fought, even knowing they didn't have a caster, didn't have anything that could stop us. That's just stupid. Just like the Grimms, buncha kiddie tale rejects--"
"They were defending what was theirs," a voice from the corner shadows of the tavern quietly replied.
This got everyone's attention. Except for the Mysterious Travelers, who were doing their best to look uninteresting. (The self declared young woman got a nudge by the heavyset traveler when she tried to take an interest.)
Edgar hadn't spotted the customer before. If he had, he would've served a drink. And would've raised an eyebrow, possibly even two, because the figure in question wore a Frontliner's uniform unlike any he'd seen before.
The boy couldn't have been a hair over twenty. He slumped in the corner booth, idly nudging around a pretzel from one of the many free bowls lying around the tavern. His uniform was disheveled, seams starting to fray in a several places. It had stains from mud and blood and more, halfheartedly cleaned out but still leaving telltale darkened patches here and there. The same careless attitude applied to his personal appearance; stringy black hair, generally uncombed, falling down to the nape of his neck wherever it wasn't sticking up.
"Who the hell are you?" Demolitionist Gunther asked, because he was the sort of person to ask that sort of question. His eyes flicked over the stylized icon of a crosshairs on the boy's shoulder. "New recruit? Officer didn't say nothin' about some rookie joining us, much less a Scout. We already got a Scout."
"They were defending what was theirs," the boy repeated from before, ignoring the questions. "That's what you were wondering. Why they'd fight to the death, knowing they were fighting to the death. Just defending. That's all."
The other Frontliners got up, chairs scraping in unison as they slowly moved to surround the boy's booth. Edgar swore under his breath; this could only go one direction, the one that led to losing a few tables and chairs in a wild brawl. Hopefully the Officer would offer to pay repairs again...
"Boy, I was askin' you a question," Gunther said. "What's your name? Looks like your patch got ripped up. What unit are you with?"
"Odds are, they had nowhere else to go," the boy continued, still ignoring him. "The wilds are sometimes just as dangerous to them. You fight with your back to a wall, you fight, period. Fight until you die. Can't show weakness. Can't be easy prey. They decided to go down standing up."
"Ohhh, I'm gettin' it now," Gunther said, a wide smile spreading over his lips. "Boys, we got us here an AWOL hippie sissy treehugging Section 8 punk fairy-boy grass smoking Grimm wannabe. ...I leave anything out?"
"Figure you got in every insult you could there, man," Rifleman Johnson confirmed. "I guess we could call him gay, too, but I think fairy-boy covers it. We can cut right to the part where we kick his ass now, right?"
(Motion peeked in from the corner of Edgar's eye, as the young woman stood up -- and then was forcibly sat back down by her companions. Don't get involved, the barkeep figured they were whispering to her. Not our problem. A common reaction when things went south in Olney.)
A light crunch sounded, as the boy chewed on a pretzel. "I just want something to eat. That's all," he said. "I'll leave now. Can leave through you, if that's really what you want. I don't care. It doesn't matter. None of it."
"Alright, enough of this talkity talk. Whaddya say, Frontliners? He's just one man! We can take him easi--"
A more exact evaluation of the potential difficulty of battle was not forthcoming from Gunther, as the boy moved with frightening speed, shifting from sitting in recline to pouncing the man in less than a second.
Panic took hold at first -- the boy landed several sharp, edge of the hand blows to the man's throat. A man without Gunther's bulk would probably have died right there and then; as is, he was only horribly incapacitated.
Then the real fight began. The Frontliners weren't slouches; they were trained for close quarters combat, for unarmed fighting, as some of the Fae were remarkably bullet resistant and keen to engage you up close and personal. The unspoken members of the unit, five strong in all, all went after the rogue Scout at the same time. There'd be no one-at-a-time attacks, black ninja style; it was a dogpile.
Edgar wasn't much of a martial artist. He liked movies about them, the few he'd been able to see; he had media recordings, expensive ones that had to be bought from traveling salvage merchants. But in the end, it was always just a blur of fists, feet, parries, blocks, throws, dodges. He couldn't recognize any of the moves, just the ballet of them.
This wasn't ballet. This was brutality. The young man moved from Frontliner to Frontliner, punching them, kicking at them, in some cases BITING them if need be to put each one down. When they grabbed him, he'd hurl his entire body weight around to throw the weight, or would ram one into the other by unbalancing them. Blood was flying within moments, bruises forming, even a few teeth soaring through the air.
The last one standing, Johnson, looked like he was ready to throw in the towel. He took several shaky steps backwards, hands up defensively... and the boy didn't seem to care, advancing on him, like some sort of horrible hunting dog. He was actually GROWLING... and in one final, sick lunge--
He rebounded off thin air. The young woman had interspersed herself in between the two men, throwing up one hand, with a flash of silvery metal like the top of a salt shaker -- and the boy simply bounced off nothing that was actually there. The distraction was enough to confuse him, to snap him out of whatever trance had him-- and the resounding impact of metal on wood was enough to bring him completely back to his senses.
That would be Officer Griffin's iron war mace, pounding against the doorframe. Once, twice, splintering wood.
"That's ENOUGH," he declared, in a voice would not be denied. "Enough. Stand, soldier."
The boy stood upright sharply... before slouching again, in the same apathetic, half-eyed stare he had before everything went to hell. He looked around the young woman, who was already slinking back to her table, doing her best not to be noticed -- and succeeding, as those still standing had bigger concerns at the moment.
"Name and unit, son," Officer Griffin said, his voice still firm... but non-threatening.
"...I'm a Scout," the unnamed Scout declared. "Frontliners unit Bravo Six, Austin. Sir."
"Austin? Austin, Texas?"
"Son, nothing got out of Austin alive."
"Correct, sir. Nothing alive."
The Officer holstered his rune-scribed war mace, and scratched his chin. He idly cast his gaze to his soldiers, who were groaning and peeling themselves off the floor, then back to the Scout.
"I won't call you dishonest, son, but consider my position," he suggested. "It's highly improbable you're from one of the worst brush fire conflicts with the Fae in modern history. If you're lying, you're a disturbed young man indeed. If you're telling the truth, I'm guessing you're still a disturbed young man, to have survived what command deemed a situation with no survivors. ...finally, you've cleaned the clocks of my entire unit. You're aware of the regulations against enlisted infighting, and the penalties?"
"I'll have to take you into custody until a military hearing can be convened. Until we can figure out who and what you are, at least, and hopefully get you the help you need. Are you going to come quietly, son?"
Edgar found himself actually leaning over the bar, straining to listen in on the story developing around him, waiting for the climax to come...
--when another figure burst on the scene, pushing roughly past the Officer.
"This entire village is about to get pounded flat!!" she declared, waving her arms wildly. "Everybody out! Out, out! Run for the hills!"
Not even the strange young Scout knew what to make of this. Confused silence was the beverage on tap as the third young person to enter the tavern today continued her hysterics, trying to rouse as much attention as she could.
"What're you doing lying around?! You've got to evacuate these people!" she told the unconscious Demolitionist Gunther. "Up, up! C'mon! Get a move on! We've--"
She spun on one heel to face Officer Griffin, so fast her ragged old pointy hat nearly wobbled off her head. It was adjusted back in place, as she obeyed the same "atten-SHUN" aura the Scout had.
"Miss, would you kindly explain what you're talking about?" he asked. "Quickly, now."
"O-Ogres," she explained, quickly now. "A legion of them are headed this way! If you don't get these villagers out of here by nightfall, they'll--"
"Ma'am, we've dealt with ogres before," Griffin patiently explained. "Granted, my entire squad isn't usually groaning and bleeding on the floor before engaging with them, but the village defenses alone should be enough. They're an unorganized lot and scatter easily."
"Not these. You didn't SEE these, okay? I did. Not you, me," she explained. "I got a real good look at them from above. They were marching in a perfect grid formation! Ogres don't DO that!"
"And how'd you see them from above, then?"
"I was flying, okay?! Do I have to explain each and every..."
The mistake was realized one moment too late. She suddenly felt quite conscious of the weighty old enchanted broomstick slung across her back. And the battered but still very pointy hat on her head. And the rune-inscribed book of magic in a hip holster slung from her waist...
"Under the Eastern States of America's articles of allied village sponsorship, persons of magical professions are to be arrested and executed. Soldier?"
Surprise took her, in the form of the nameless Scout clamping one hand over her mouth, and using the other to bind an arm behind her back. No way to read a spell aloud, no way to access a book to read from. Despite being marginally feral, he had plenty of strength to restrain a witch of equal years to him.
For his part... Officer Griffin simply sighed, and rubbed at his temples. "This is going to be a long day. Johnson? Quit staring. Go and get Scout Rowans, and dispatch him to find the ogres. I want to know if they're actually somehow organizing against Olney or if this is a deceptive load of magical hooey. Scout... whoever you are. Will you surrender to custody for the time being, until I can at least sort out what to do with you?"
"Sir," the Scout agreed, able to keep his eyes on the commander while still restraining the struggling, muffled-but-cursing witch.
"Good. Bring her. Keep that anti-caster hold in place. I'll get you a cell in the bunker. We're going to sort this mess out, one way or another."
From the bar, Edgar let out a long exhale. He probably wouldn't get to see the end of the story. He'd have to make something up, for when he told it to the next passer-by.
Rough stone, hewn and piled and mortared together. Roughly cut iron bars on the windows. Torchlight as the only true source of illumination, while the setting sun went out over the trees. Olney's jailhouse as every inch the primitive, medieval torture dungeon, save for the lack of actual torture equipment -- it was one of the first things built, before proper Eastusa sponsorship, before proper building materials could be traded for. Normally it only held drunks sleeping it off, or the occasional con man who thought they could make a quick swindle on the village and hightail it to the north.
It did not normally hold malicious, corrupted spellcasting witches who employed Fae powers to dominate and destroy all man hath wrought. Technically speaking it wasn't holding one now, but the law was the law, and all casters (human or Fae) were forbidden from Eastusa territory. Frontliners were taking no chances, using standard handcuffs behind the back, and a cloth gag with wound ball to keep her from speaking a single arcane syllable.
The same restrictions were not used on her cellmate, despite the fact that he was the only one who had actually assaulted anyone tonight. For his part, he didn't seem to need them; he was content to sit on the bench across from her in the same cell, one leg propped against it, holding his knee and stretching the muscle a bit. If you looked in his eyes, you'd see boredom, apathy... and perhaps something pacing in tight little circles while it watched you. If you knew what to look for.
Rifleman Johnson didn't know what to look for. So, he concluded they were both completely insane. He thumbed through the witch's confiscated spellbook, from the other side of the bars. Despite the elegant leather covers, a modern stainless steel three ring binding kept the removable pages locked into the book.
"Funny word art things," he concluded, unable to make much sense of the scrambled letters and fonts, each tightly packed within a square border, one per physical page. "This some kind of Fae porno rag? Or an honest to goodness weapon of mass arcane destruction?"
"She can't reply," the caged Scout noted, stating fact.
"Allow me my little entertainments, nutjob," Johnson said, setting the book aside. He'd gotten some steel back in his spine after nearly begging to surrender, back during the bar fight. Or at least he thought he had his steel back. "You're both dogmeat, anyway. Nothing I say will matter. Eastusa's decided it wants no truck with Fae powers, 'specially not human traitors trained to use Fae powers... and the Frontliners don't take kindly to AWOL crazies."
The lone Scout decided to ignore the Rifleman after that, focusing his gaze on the young witch. Who tried to avoid that gaze. And avoid Johnson. This meant she was pretty much limited to staring at the floor... and waiting.
"Y'hear me in there, Fairy Godmother? Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, you know," Johnson taunted. "I wonder how they're gonna do it? Transport you over to Baltimore, hold a trial, lethal injection? Or maybe just burn you at the stake in town square, like the good old days? Serves you right for turning your back on humanity, throwing in with the Faerie Court--"
The Rifleman got his feet fast, the standard reaction to one of Officer Griffin's entrances.
Griffin appraised him, nodding once. He was fighting fit enough. "You've got more important things to do than prove your ignorance to the prisoners," he said. "I want you on the line with everybody else still standing. We may have ogres incoming."
"Sir, you don't believe this skank, do you? She's tricking us. There's either nothing coming, or she's just trying to spook--"
"Soldier, I don't recall asking for your tactical assessment of the situation," Griffin reminded him. "Given the only clever thing you've done today is back off from this boy before he could kill you, you're ahead of your peers, but not by THAT much. Now. We may or may not have incoming. Won't know until our Scout relays back with his recon. I intend not to be taken by surprise, if things are exactly as the girl predicted. And that means you and Betsy need to be sharp and present. Can you do that for me?"
The Rifleman's mouth split into a wicked grin. He picked up his heavy assault rifle, throwing a switch to load up an iron shot core, Anti-Fae flesh piercing. "Ready, sir. Always ready. You know that."
"Then let's get to the line, soldier."
"Right. ...uh. Sir? The prisoners?"
Griffin considered the quietly glowering girl, staring at him with frustrated malice. He considered the unreadable young man with the tattered uniform.
"I can't spare anyone to watch them, so one of them will have to watch the other," he decided. "Son, she's not to leave without my say so, spellcraft or not. Same goes for you. Understood?"
The rogue Scout gave a brief nod. It was enough. The Officer signaled a deploy, and marched his way out, a slightly hesitant Rifleman following behind.
And then there were two.
The witch weighed her options. Schemed, planned. She knew that the boy knew that she was scheming and planning... a simple enough Insight, not one that required much effort, but Insight nonetheless. Could she act quickly enough? Could she get out before he could stop her...?
There was always the possibility of waiting. An opening would make itself known, eventually. Maybe during prisoner relocation, maybe even during the execution itself. Maybe the Officer would simply let her go... he seemed to be brighter than the rest of these jarheads, even if he had to follow his own little book of rules. ...or maybe one of his minions would get a little itchy and put two in her head before she could be funneled through proper channels.
So. Escape. Because the alternative was just too risky. She took a deep breath... and triple-tapped her fingers against her palm sharply, a familiar pattern.
The ordinary beaded bracelet on her wrist shifted shape, responding to the signals sent up the nerves in her skin, and reformed into an enchanted lockpick. It sought the handcuffs on magical instinct, without needing any external spellwork. The lock popped in moments, the gag yanked down by her freed hands immediately after. She had her sleeve pulled away, revealing one remaining square-bound spell of letterwork in tattoo ink, next to two pink scars bearing identical designs...
...a spell that would take a second to read aloud. Possibly two. Plenty of time for a boy with the Scout's speed to stop her. And just by hesitating long enough to consider that possibility it became an eventuality. He was watching her intently.
It was called a "mexican standoff," not that she really knew why. She'd never learned what mexican meant. Presumably it was an adjective meaning tense and prone to sudden, terrible violence when it all goes horribly wrong. Violence she'd very much want to avoid.
"If I read this spell, I'll be out of here," she explained. "Gone. It won't hurt you, and I won't hurt you. I swear. Just... let me go. Okay?"
The boy shook his head. Not very hard... just a tiny shuffle, left to right, eyes never leaving hers. "I'm under orders, ma'am."
"You don't work for him," the witch noted. "I can tell. I've got Insight, sometimes. I got it when I briefly saw the aftermath of that little tavern party. You're as much an outsider here as me, and you've offended them and their laws just as much as I have. I could get you out of here, too!"
"I take them from the uniform, not the man. It's... something I still do, despite," he said, without specifying what it was in fact despite of.
"They could kill you. I mean, they WANT to kill me, because... well, frankly, because they're ignorant back country bigots," she said, with a snort... letting her arms drop. No point casting her Escape now, anyway. "But after they're done with me, you're next. Armies never do things small. It's all bluster and shouting and murder."
"They could kill me," he agreed.
"Aaand... you're okay with that, then?"
His eyes finally drifted away from hers. Not far, just enough to gaze past her.
"It might be for the best," he decided. "For all of us."
This guy IS a nutjob, she thought bitterly. Serves me right.
"Serves me right," the young witch muttered, because she felt like chastising herself in a voice louder than a mental whisper.
He cocked his head, at that. "What serves you right?" the boy asked.
"Trying to do the right thing," she explained, slumping down on her prison bench, rubbing at her sore wrists. "It never ends well. I see trouble, I've got two options. I can poke my pointy little hat in the ring and try to help, and then everything goes sideways. Or I can keep my pointy little hat down, ignore it, and then everything goes sideways again."
No reply to that. So, eager to fill the space with her words of wisdom, as was her wont, she continued.
"I try to help a pixie glade from being bulldozed by a human settlement, and all that happens is the Animate bulldozers go out of control and level everything in sight. I try to whip up some potions to tidy up a contaminated well at an independent village, and it works great... until I accidentally unmask a conspiracy by a rival village to wipe those poor farmers out and take their land. Triggers a hot war out of a cold one, and I'm lucky to get out alive. And now, I spot something that should not be possible, an organized army of ogres bearing down on an Eastusa settlement... and in thanks for warning them of the dire peril, I'm going to be burned at the stake. Hence. Trying to do the right thing never ends well."
That at least merited a shrug from her cellmate. A fountain of delightful conversation, this one. Time to take it to the offensive.
"That's me, Emily the Ever-Failing, Arguably Good Witch of the West. And what's your name? Or should I just call you 'Scout'?"
"I guess. Sure."
"...seriously? You just want me to call you by your, what is it, rank?"
"Role. Scout. Stealth, recon, sniper," he explained, reciting the book in his mind. "Observe and report. At times, surgical elimination of targets. Lethal, precision force. Key targets eliminated for maximum effect and minimum risk. Find an opening, take it. ...hunt. Hunt the prey and kill them. Always make the kill."
"Be all you can be, eh."
"And no name, then?" Emily asked. "Did your mommy and daddy just hate you that much? I could just call you 'Bob' but it doesn't fit. Or John, or Scott, or Tim, or Jack. Oooh, how about Ezekiel?"
"Scout. What I am is more important than who I am."
"And are you as insane as they think you are?"
He had to consider this one, before responding. "Don't think so," he decided. "Just incredibly dangerous to everything around me. What Court are you?"
That tossed her momentarily. "Err...?"
"The Faerie Court," he clarified. "The courts of Lady Summer and Lady Winter. Seelie, Unseelie. The Fair Wind and the Chill Gale. Queen-of-Life and Queen-of-Death. One of them had to train you in magic. Which one are you? What are you?"
Glaring, she gritted her teeth. "Neither, thank you very much, Mr. Scout. ...just because my original teacher was with the Summer Court doesn't mean I owe them anything. Nothing. I owe them NOTHING. I'm a witch, pure and simple. My magic is mine, now; I do what I want to do and I do it on my own terms."
"Like failing to save human settlements."
"...yes, things like that, thank you, good sir."
"All the other witches and warlocks I've met are predators. You're not one," he said, not bothering to phrase it as a question. It was just how it was. "All of them. Every one. You're different. And they're going to kill you anyway."
Before Emily could say something acidically witty or bitter or snotty or sarcastic, the heavy oaken door swung open.
In a flash, she had her mouth gag back in place, and her hands held behind her back. She couldn't redo the cuffs, but if she twisted her body to look at the doorway, they wouldn't know. It could be an opening. It could be what she needed...
The tall figure of Officer Griffin, his runic war mace ready to draw from its hip holster, stood there.
"We're leaving the village grounds," he declared. "Boy, caster hold on the witch. Odds are she's popped her cuffs by now."
And like that, he had her hands held there, another hand over the gagged mouth. Just in case. No feeling to it, no judgment, just following orders. No shot, no opening she could've exploited in time... no way to access the Escape spell tattooed to her arm. If this was truly the end of the road, then it was inescapable...
Griffin fetched the witch's broomstick, hat, and spellbook. He also fetched a burning torch from the wall.
"Are we bringing her away from the public grounds for the execution?" Scout asked, watching the Officer carefully as he made the inquiry.
"Are you going to follow your orders and bring her where I tell you to, son?"
"Then we're leaving."
The trio departed the silent village without another word. Around them, war preparations were being made, tasks to attend to. Nobody spotted the death march, or simply didn't care enough to pay attention.
Although a window on the third floor of the Olney Inn opened with a tiny creak, and a white light flashed briefly, streaking into the sky to follow.
Emily wanted to scream, but the hand firmly held over her mouth prevented that from happening.
She wanted to scream at her captor -- to call the old man an idiot, a fool for ignoring her warnings. Scream at his masters -- for being blind to the reality of the world, for sticking to what they knew even if it got them killed. Scream at the world in general -- for allowing things like this to happen when they could have been avoided. And, honestly, to scream at herself -- for getting involved in the first place, or rather, for not allowing herself to not get involved. There was a distinction, there.
None of her screams would've been for mercy, or to plead for her life. That she was sure of. True, there was fear, the same fear she always had behind her eyes when she was stuck in situations like this, but she'd never let them see. Don't let them see weakness, don't let them smell blood, or they'll kick you and keep on kicking. She'd learned that one long ago.
They were a distance away from the village now, into the darkness around this tiny pinpoint of humanity... and she could feel the light rumble through the ground. The steady march of the ogres, coming from all sides, seemingly. A march in perfect sync, which should have been impossible...
Officer Griffin raised his hand, a signal to stop. The Scout paused in his hustling along of the struggling witch, as the commanding officer (or perhaps just the commanding uniform) unholstered his runic war mace.
"This was a gift," he spoke, answering an unheard question. "I'd heard not to accept gifts from them. Those gifts always came with a price. Still, it felt rude not to accept it. If I hadn't come along when I did, I don't like to think what those brigands would've done to her... low men, men of no character, who prey on the confusion along the Fringe. I only did what had to be done, what any honest man should have done. What I saw of her didn't make a difference to me, you understand."
"Sir?" Scout asked or prompted.
"The ears, see," he explained. "Pointy. Elven. She was a Fae, and I protected her from humans. Oh, I got a reprimand from command up in Philly for that one, but I accepted the reprimand without a word or thought. See, which one was my kin and which one wasn't, none of that made a difference. All I saw was a wrong that needed righting. She thanked me with a gift of this mace, and I understand a gift of iron from a Fae is a rare thing indeed. Said that so long as I never spilled innocent blood with it, as long as I used it to defend as I had done that day, that strength would never fade from these old bones no matter how weary and battle worn I grew. You can release the caster hold now."
Without hesitation, Scout's grip released, and Emily pulled herself free immediately. Her arm went to slide her sleeve up, to reveal her tattoos... but while he didn't pause to release her, she did pause before fleeing.
"You have my apologies," Officer Griffin said, setting down her broomstick, hat, and spellbook. He didn't look back at her, though... he was looking outward, towards the source of that pounding rumble, the approaching horde. "I don't write the laws, miss. But if I don't at least appear to uphold them, the town would lose hope. It's not a matter of losing face or losing respect -- it's a matter of hope. They need the rule of law to show that they can stand up to the darkness. Even when they don't fully understand that darkness. But I do, and I knew sure as sundown that you were right. My own Scout reported back minutes ago. The ogres are organized... and flanking around the settlement. There's not enough room to evacuate through. We can't defend all the borders at once for long, but we'll do what we can. You've got my thanks, ma'am. You can go on your way."
Yes, fine, whatever, an officer and a gentleman, so very doomed, time to leave, Emily's mind mumbled to herself. You warned them, and that's all you have to do.
She fetched her personal effects. Put on her beloved and tattered old hat, slid the spellbook into its holster with practiced ease. Propped the broomstick against one shoulder. Made no effort to mount it and fly away.
Flying away is not what an honest woman should do.
"If I came to help you, that means I came to help you," she explained. "Since telling you off wasn't enough, clearly I have to fight to keep you pistol packing city folk alive. It's your fault I have to get mixed up in this, you know. Jerk."
...and the old man chuckled. "Guess it is, at that. I won't say I wasn't hoping to hear it, though. I had a feeling. So. Tell me. How do we survive this?"
Right, then. To solve the problem, like a proper witch should do. Because nobody ELSE would have the brains to solve it without a witch around.
"There's no way an ogre has the brainpower to do this. They have a leader, someone organizing them," she reasoned. "You probably figured that out already. Ogre minds are weak, though, they can't simply be shouted at and expected to perform like trained soldiers. Flanking is not in their playbook and they couldn't read a playbook if you jammed it in front of their faces. That means you've got magic fuddling up their minds... or more like de-fuddling. I'm thinking it's a particularly warlike Faerie, maybe even a Winter Courter imported from the north, tasked to crushing humans on the edge of Fae territory. If the leader's dealt with, if the spell is broken, the ogres will snap out of it. They'll probably be so confused that your men can run them off easily, assuming they don't break and run on their own."
"So, a surgical strike, then."
"Yes sir, mister soldier man sir, ten hut," she agreed, with a mock salute.
"Good thing he's with you, then."
It was easy to forget the lone Scout's presence. Emily had to think for a moment before realizing what Officer Griffin meant... because behind her, the Scout was already loading a gun, and checking his equipment. ...where had he gotten equipment? Wasn't he in prison just minutes ago?
"I'm ready, sir," he said.
"Right, then. We'll hold the front line," Officer Griffin said, turning to leave. "We'll buy you as much time as we can to break their ranks from behind. Good hunting, soldier."
The veteran got a short distance away, before the boy made up his mind to speak up.
"Hm? Yes, son?"
"If you'd ordered me to execute her, I would have killed you," he said, quietly. Almost too quietly to be heard.
Griffin considered this.
"Good thing for me I had more sense than that, then," he decided, and continued along on his way.
The pair crept through the edges of the forest, keeping the shadowy, rumbling figures of the ogres to their left. Never directly in front. Flanking a flanking force would have been difficult, if not for two factors.
One, stealth -- the boy's uncanny ability to avoid stepping on any stray twigs, to keep his feet moving despite uneven ground and fallen logs and low hanging branches. He slipped in and around and under and through any difficulties in his path. It was a bit unsettling to Emily, honestly; he was moving as if he knew the forest inside and out. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he didn't. If he didn't, and still was able to slip through the trees with this much ease, that said something she didn't want to consider.
Emily herself had given up walking. She couldn't keep up with his progress, not on foot, not in her traditional long-hanging gray skirts. Instead, she hovered a foot away from the ground on her broomstick, letting him find the best way through, weaving along behind him. There was nothing quite like impossible flight on a cleaning implement for soundless travel.
The other major factor working in their favor was the ogres themselves.
They were close enough to touch the beasts, fifteen foot tall walking piles of muscle and fat. They flattened trees as they marched, not even by swinging their massive clubs, simply by ... treading over them, snapping thick forest wood like dried out sticks. They marched in perfect formation, right leg left leg, timed and flawless, causing the earth to pulse. Meaty feet, pounding ground...
But the eyes. The glassy, half-sleepy stares. She was right about magical control, had to be; the silver circlets each one wore, hardly standard ogre war accoutrements, those were probably the link. If pried away from their heads, it'd break the spell... but breaking away only one or a few of them wouldn't stop the march, only confuse it a little. They had to find the one who wore the master circlet, the one headband to control them all. It was a guess, sure, but one she felt confident in.
She opened her mouth to explain this, wanting to relate this witchy knowledge to her silent partner -- and he pressed a finger to her lips quickly. Shhhh. At first she felt alarmed and annoyed by this intrusion in her personal space. (Never lay your hands on a witch without permission, boy! her mind screamed.) ...then she realized he had a damn good point, and killed any thought of speaking. It beat having thoughts killed by ogre clubs, after all.
Despite realizing the need for silence, she couldn't keep out a choked-back little cry of shock when they found the body.
They'd sent someone to confirm, someone to see if she was speaking the truth. He'd reported back what he saw on his radio. And then, the ogres had mutilated Scout Rowans.
He couldn't have been much older than the nameless Scout. They wore similar uniforms... they even looked sort of similar... except Rowans was in two pieces while her companion remained whole.
The ogres hard torn him in half. Torn in half, tossed the body parts aside, and continued the march. Uncaring. Killing and moving on.
We're going to die out here, her panic-thoughts whimpered. I'm in over my head. I'm no combat mage. I have a spellbook, I know some tricks, but it's all utility magic. I never wanted to learn how to kill. A full blooded Fae spellcaster could easily burn me to a crisp, pull my limbs apart, torture me endlessly for weeks just because they could and I couldn't stop them. I shouldn't BE out here. I just wanted to warn them and then run for my life...
"Won't let that happen to you."
Her thoughts broke off like one of the trees the Ogres were casually pushing aside, hearing that tiny edge of a whisper from the living Scout at her side.
He said no more, motioning for her to follow. Leave that behind and come along, he didn't say. There's too much to do. Think about it later.
Her broomstick drifted along behind in silence.
They found the target soon after.
She knew it on sight and wished she hadn't; the commander was riding in a pumpkin carriage, an enchanted gourd on wheels with no windows, only a single magically padlocked door. It moved under its own power, following behind the marching army, no doubt containing the spellcaster within. And, given pumpkins were only used by those of great power or nobility within the Faerie Court, whoever was in there probably could kill them both with a single word. Assuming it wasn't in fact Lady Winter or Lady Summer...
...wait, no. The pumpkins were from Summer's side of the court. Why would Summer be marching to battle? Sure, they had plenty of dust-ups with humans, but rarely on THIS scale. Not these days, at least, when the conflict was a cold war rather than a hot war. If it was a snow-sled following the ogres, that she could accept -- it'd be out of place this south of the Canadian border, but...
"...think we're out of their earshot," Scout said. "Whispering's okay. How do we get into the vehicle?"
"W-we don't," Emily admitted. "The lock... it's magical. I don't have any spells strong enough to work on that. I don't think ANY magic will, not even the pick I keep up my sleeve. Little short of an Archmagus would be strong enough..."
The Scout considered his options. He slipped a hand into a utility pocket at his belt, pulling out a small metal gadget of some sort. "They're looking forward, we're behind. They won't see this. Shield your eyes, it'll be bright when I start cutting..."
A tiny fwmph sounded, as the pocket torch fired up.
...a technological means of cutting? That could do it, Emily thought. The Fae were usually too focused on counterspells to consider what bullets and explosives and raw physics might do to their toys...
The Scout crept along the ground, sidling on up to the carriage. He crab-walked alongside it, and started to cut. It took a careful hand to apply the white-hot flame to a consistent spot on the lock. He could have hopped up on the footstep runners along the carriage, but the additional weight might have alerted the rider that something was wrong. Still... once that lock fell and the door opened, there'd be no going back. No time to hesitate.
Emily hopped off her small broom, holstering it to the loops she'd sewn onto her backpack just for that purpose, and crept up behind him, wishing she had his uncanny ability at moving over rough terrain. She nearly twisted an ankle on a loose rock, and the grass stains would be quite nasty to get out of her skirt later...
No time to complain, no time even to think. The lock sliced open quickly. Scout had a gun out already, a silencer screwed onto the barrel. He was in through the door, the oddly wobbling light from within swallowing him whole. Throwing caution to the wind, hoping for the best, and ultimately wishing she'd warned him that she was hardly a "You Shall Not Pass" sort of wizard, Emily jumped in after him.
The surprise of what she saw was nearly enough to freeze her in place.
The spell did the rest.
"!" a voice shouted, sadly faster on the draw than the two young would-be heroes were. Not much faster, though -- Scout was already halfway across the room and taking aim with his pistol when the spell hit. It left him frozen in a mid-leaping dash, every muscle locked, gravity ignoring him for the duration. Emily was frozen too, but had barely gotten both feet into the room, much less being in any sort of combat stance. She cursed herself for not having a book drawn before entering. Hindsight can be a painful thing...
But hindsight was dashed completely by foresight, rather, the sight before her.
It was a FaePlace, a special room-within-a-room, far larger than the external pumpkin would allow for. A familiar spell, and one she'd used herself at times. Each one reflected the character of the caster... in this case, it was somewhere between an opulent throne room, and an armory. Glittering crossed spears and swords, jewels embedded in their hilts, each before a shield bearing insignias from the Summer Court. The owner loved weapons and loved opulence, and even if it was all useless Faerie dreamstuff that'd evaporate outside this Place, it mattered enough to serve as decoration.
The caster herself was not Fae, however. She stood by an ever bright candle of green flame, the main source of illumination in the room, casting dark shadows behind the frozen pair. But even in the strangely bright-yet-dim lighting, Emily recognized her.
"Hello again, runt," her former friend greeted her with. "This is a surprise. I was figuring the normals would have burned you at the stake by now."
"J-Jesse?!" Emily exclaimed, unable to believe her eyes -- and received a sharp slap across the face for her cordiality. It hurt even more when her body was locked in position by the spell.
"That's Lady Runeblade, thank you very much, weakling," the other witch hissed. She smoothed out her sparkly battle dress, all gleaming chainmail and lace and other bizarre fashionable elements, and stepped back, her candle-shadow casting over Emily. "I left Jesse behind. Lady Runeblade is far more fitting for one of my power. One who actually can cast spells without books, unlike the runt of the litter, the one we left behind along with my old name..."
"Wait, wait, look-- Je-- Lady Runeblade," Emily corrected. "Listen to me, alright? Please. I get this, okay? You're going to battle, prove your chops to the higher ups. But Olney's no threat to the Summer Court. I don't know who told you it was, but they're just... just a bunch of pissant little farmers! There's nothing there worth fighting over!"
The 'elder' witch, despite being no older than Emily, chuckled. "You're right," she spoke. "It's a worthless little town, and far enough from the Court to not matter one bit. Summer doesn't actively seek open war, it's not her way. But tell me, runt... what better place to test my new power than a meaningless village nobody will ever miss?"
Runeblade tapped the silver circlet on her head, matching the ones the ogres wore. The one headband to rule them all.
"Things are changing, Emily. We have power. New power -- new and strange, but power nonetheless," Runeblade explained, as she began to pace within her FaePlace, shadow shifting along as she went. "Those chosen by the Lady Summer, lifted up from humble human upbringing, will do well. Rising stars like me. But not you. You... once my slaves prove this power in battle, you I'll deliver to Lilith. She'll want--"
Her shadow passed over Scout.
It was easy to forget about him. He blended in, became a part of the surroundings, became a non-issue. He didn't speak up much. He didn't posture. He didn't act until he was ready to act. When two witches, one haughty and one terrified, were busy exchanging the expected words, he could become nearly invisible. But that didn't mean he wasn't there. He was simply lying in wait.
The shadow passed away as she continued to move, but Scout was no longer there.
She must have sensed a change in the surroundings, because she turned to look around -- and nearly got her head taken off by the pouncing warrior, who emerged from the other side of the room, wreathed in shadow until he passed through the light.
Her reflexes were sharp. Always the physically fit one, Emily bemoaned internally, as she rolled to the side and avoided the lunge. Her attacker landed in shadow again, and... somehow emerged from the other side of the room. Crisscrossing as he made his attacks, now armed with a combat knife rather than the pistol.
Slash marks appeared, many of them carving up pieces of her ridiculous battle dress, one appearing along an arm... and finally, one across her left check, as Scout landed in front of her, pausing to get ready for a final lunge.
If fire could have filled her eyes, if her voice could have shattered mountains, they would be dead where they stood and/or were frozen in place, in Emily's case. But her voice did resound with another deadly force, the power of the magic burned into her mind.
"!!!" she screamed, and the world went white.
On the plus side, Emily was no longer frozen by a spell.
Now she was frozen by fear. Probably not an improvement.
The pumpkin carriage was a smoking wreck, the FaePlace spell destroyed by the point-blank explosion of raw willpower. The three had emerged back in the real world, in the dark and ruined forest behind the ogre march, among the tree stumps and flattened grasses.
Scout had been knocked thirty feet away, and somehow landed on his feet in a perfect three point stance, knife behind him, ready to make another go of it. Emily simply landed on her rear. Painfully.
The one she knew before as Jesse was livid. Her battle dress was in tatters, smoke wisping from her hair -- but the circlet remained in place. Her look was one of absolute, rabid, quite murderous rage. No haughtiness, no superiority, just raw brutality. It was a look Emily remembered well, from their last encounter...
A jeweled saber was drawn from her back. This was personal, now. There'd be no spells, just blades. And it seemed Scout wouldn't have it any other way, either.
The Summer Court witch was not a mere back-row spellcaster, a human mortar cannon. She'd always been one for fitness and exercise... and for fencing. Always a keen interest in fencing. And when the two began to dance together, Scout's blade flashing against her blade, it was an equal battle of speed and strength and brutality.
That last part was the most frightening one. Emily hadn't seen Scout in actual combat, not yet... but she didn't like what she saw. The passive, expressionless boy, the quiet one, was meeting Jesse the Runeblade's rage and ferocity at every level. She didn't think the boy was capable of snarling, and yet there he was, like an uncaged animal finally given free reign to be what he was at the core...
Are you as insane as they think you are?
I don't think so. I'm just incredibly dangerous to everything around me.
It was the kind of animalistic frenzy a man could get lost within, maybe never to emerge again. The same very specific, very deadly madness that took all of Emily's friends, once upon a time, and turned them into things like Lady Runeblade. A long odds guess, conjecture, but Emily had firsthand experience on her side of what was likely to happen here. That's when she decided that something had to be done to stop the fight.
She drew her quick-access spellbook from the holster at her hip, flipping straight to the page she wanted. No searching, no checking a table of contents. She knew this book inside and out, having written it entirely by hand. She couldn't, she wouldn't cast spells from memory alone like Jesse had been doing for years -- but from paper, she couldn't be equaled.
Bending low, she scooped up a handful of loose rocks from the ruined forest floor, and scanned her eyes over the page, reassembling the right word, the right tones from the mapped out squared spell printed there. "," she whispered, feeling the word become power become stored energy within the rocks, ignoring the wispy scent of ash from the printed page... and took very careful aim.
It's like a snowball fight. It's all timing, it's all aim. You wound up your arm and you hucked a load of balled up snow at your friend. In this case, replace friend with enemy and balled up snow with charged rocks, but otherwise the same concepts applied.
The window was small -- she had to hit Runeblade and not Scout, despite their frenzy of attack and counterattack, dancing around the forest floor. But she found her mark.
A bunch of pebbles should've simply bounced off that armored battle dress, harmlessly scattering. Instead, electrical current was discharged from the impact, funneling through the metal strips and buckles and right into her flesh.
One scream of painful surprise was enough of an opening for the fight to end.
Scout slipped around her, knife pressed to Jesse's throat, ready to swipe it side to side and lay open her arteries.
"NO!" Emily screamed, running forward, nearly tripping over the crushed branches. "Scout, no! You don't have to kill her! --SOLDIER! Caster hold now, that's an order!!"
It was like a transition from one segment of film to another after a jarring break. Where there was the face of the big bad wolf, there was the passive features of the silent Scout. Where a knife was at her throat, now a hand was clamped over her mouth, the other wrenching arms behind Jesse's back. The blade had been discarded, sticking out of the ground, handle up.
Without the ability to speak, she couldn't cast magic. Without being able to move her hands, she couldn't use any magical items, couldn't pull a spellbook (not that her kind bothered with them). Even as strong as she was, even as she struggled against the hold, this was a technique developed for years and drilled into every Frontliner fit enough to draw breath. All to keep her kind from being a problem. Jesse had been neutralized.
"No voice, no commands, no way to order your pet ogres around," Emily summarized, marching forward to be face to face with the enemy, staring down Jesse's hate-filled eyes. "Surrender. This stupid play-war of yours is done. We'll send you packing back to Summer and that'll be... that..."
Ogres shouldn't be allowed to move silently. It wasn't fair. Or maybe they'd just been so busy dealing with the crazed witch that they didn't notice her rallying the troops. But she didn't say a word! Spells needed a voice! How could she have...?
The enthralled beasts were surrounding them. They'd doubled back, flanked, circled, and were now ready to defend their mistress. Lady Jesse Runeblade looked... smug.
The club was already in motion. Precise, too. It'd smash into her side, fling her maybe a hundred feet away, kill her on impact without even grazing their commander. No time to dodge. No time to cast a spell. No time--
A silver blur snapped into focus in front of her, and her vision was blocked by a powerful blue light. A dome of energy had flared into being to her side -- and when the club smashed against it, the shield-bearer skidded sideways a few inches, but held fast.
White hair twirled as the newcomer looked over her shoulder. "Rub your thumb left to right along the Neural Band!" she shouted. "Then pull, hard!"
Emily had to fight down the urge to ask stupid, time-consuming questions like "Who the hell are you?" and "How did you block that club?". Fortunately Scout didn't even have the slightest inkling of a thought of a notion to ask any such questions. He simply released Jesse's mouth and swiped a finger along the band, before grasping, and pulling it back and over her head.
The witch's scream was ear piercing, as silvery wires slid out of her flesh, networked cables and links of metal tearing away from skin, pulling through her skull itself. The pain must have been blinding... but in the end, the silver band came off, trailing red-dipped leads and connectors with it.
If that scream was loud, the scream of the ogres was far louder. Their connection was gone, the organizing force that was making them move as one unit. A confused, terrified, and extremely violent ogre armed with a battle club could be a force of nature unto itself. Have a few dozen around you and it was murder on wheels.
They started hitting things. Hitting the trees, hitting each other, hitting themselves if they had to; they wanted to lash out and export the agony they felt deep within their brains on anything available. The silver girl had to parry several more club blows, weaving in and around the only humans standing to do it.
"We need to enact a rapid departure!" she declared. "I'll take the thief, you take the boy! GO!"
Oh, right, Emily thought. I have a broomstick.
And it looks like I'm going to live, too.
Eventually the ogres got tired of hitting things. Some collapsed on the spot. Others wandered away, bewildered. The army that never should have been simply wasn't any more, and nature sorted out the rest.
Of all the places Emily wanted to be right now, Olney was not at the top of the list.
It was quiet, at least... the battle had never reached the town. The Frontliners had set up extra defenses, Griffin had rallied the troops, but despite some odd noises in the distance, nothing had turned up to knock the town flat. Jokes were made, soldiers breaking the tension of the evening with horsing around, and life went on as usual without a care for the doom that nearly befell them.
...that would likely change when someone asked "Hey, where'd Scout Rowans go?" and they noticed the massive forest destruction and likely several ogre corpses lying around. But for today, life went on as usual.
Una (for that was her name, Una, she made a very polite and cheerful introduction of it despite hurtling through the air at high speed away from a war zone) had led them back to the upper floor of the Olney Inn, into the open window she had snuck out of originally. They could depart when night fell again, she reasoned, and depart by air. Nobody needed to know that Emily the Wicked Witch was back in town.
The other wicked witch was a different story.
She'd been laid out on the rough and uncomfortable inn bed. Sweats had broken out across her forehead, being tended to by Emily, trying to keep the bandages on Jesse's puncture wounds from being soaked through. The fallen witch was moving her mouth, as if to talk, but no sounds were coming out. The unfocused look in her eyes was worrying. Odds were, Una sadly noted, they may never focus again.
"Neural Bands weren't designed to be removed so suddenly, not while in operation... but... I couldn't think of what else to do," she said, while supplying Emily with fresh washcloths as need be, the three young conspirators gathered at their enemy's bedside. "I drained my shield's mass capacitor trying to keep the kinetic transfer of those impacts from sending me into orbit. We couldn't stay any longer..."
Emily set the cloth aside, and picked up her open spellbook again. "," Emily she cast, the page vaporizing as she read the spell from it. An identical copy of the spell was on the next page, and the page after that. ".. ...I don't honestly know if this will work, it generally can't do much on serious wounds, but... it's better than nothing.."
Scout leaned against the wall, by the headboard of the cheap bed. "This is dangerous," he noted. "She tried to kill us. Tried to destroy the village. She'll try again if she wakes."
"Yes, well, not all problems can be solved by killing people," Emily spoke, dismissing the boy with a sharp tone. "If she comes about maybe she'll have a chance to figure that one out. ...but you are right that we should be careful. We'll stabilize her and then bring her to the wildlands. I know a friendly colony of pixies, Summer Court, who will take her in. Then she's their problem. After that, I'm done with this mess, and all the better for it--"
The door slammed open. Scout looked ready to spring into action again-- but stopped, as the cloaked figures stood in the doorway, agape in horror and surprise.
"...what.. what madness is this!?" the wider of the two figures exclaimed. "Una! Explain yourself! You're out of your cloak and... and you brought these sub-Orbital surface dwellers in our rented domicile?!
Una quickly got to her feet, smoothing out her silvery one-piece dress, bowing sharply. "Tertiary Pragmatist Councilmember Lar, I welcome your return and--"
"Out with it, girl!"
"I had no choice," she said quickly. "If I didn't interfere, they would have died."
The other figure, more elderly with a well managed white beard, stepped around her companion and into the room. After a brief moment, considering the scene... he leaned down, and gave Una a warm hug.
"Daughter, it's good to see you," he said. "We were looking for you, scanning the skies and treetops. You did worry your paternal figure, you know."
"Sorry, father. I disobeyed and snuck out. I accept consequences," Una spoke.
"Now now, let's not speak so quickly of consequences. Reasoning is more critical, and even Lar will agree with that. I'm certain you had adequate reasoning, which if given a moment to explain, will come about in a satisfying manner."
"Right! You see, I was concerned about the fate of these two--"
"It's this," Scout said, holding up the Neural Band.
That chilled the room a good ten degrees. Lar stepped forward cautiously, taking the silvery headband from the boy, studying it... studying the wounded young woman in the bed. He could put the rest together himself.
"This technology doesn't belong planetside," he said. "It violates non-interference policy straight to the core. We certainly did not bring it with us today; how it got here is a mystery that requires resolution. The girl must have found out about this, and went to recover it herself and investigate the source, upholding the Orbital policy of noninterference. Although her decision to work alone is questionable, and this matter clearly is beyond her capabilities. Ono, we must return at once to consider this matter, after mindwiping the witnesses."
Tensions went up, temperatures dropped a bit more. Emily fingered at her blouse sleeve.
Una was first to speak.
"No," she said.
The taller figure, Ono, cleared his throat. "Daughter, please. He is right. We must not let our.. apparent mistakes cause harm to their culture. We will--"
"There has been enough damage to the minds of the surface dwellers done today -- and all of it our fault, one way or another, father. I won't be a party to any more. There is an alternative, which I have been evaluating quietly for several minutes contemplation. They can assist me in the investigation!"
"What?" Ono spoke, puzzled.
"What?!" Emily blurted.
"WHAT?!" Lar shouted.
"Hm," Scout considered.
Lar was first to react with more than one syllable, arms flailing in disapproval. "Primary Council Leader, this is unacceptable! An investigation must be carefully planned, must be assigned to citizens with appropriate talents and knowledge of surface culture--"
"My daughter has studied the culture of Eastusa all her lifespan. It is her primary hobby, if you recall," Ono said, the idea starting to take root behind his eyes.
"Oh, yes, I know all too well why the singular leader of our people just had to take a dangerous vacation with his doting daughter down to her beloved Earth for a 'New York Peace-Za'," Lar grumbled. "And how THAT little stopover turned into a trip to observe the floral growth at the Washington Memorial. I'm surprised we didn't end up visiting every one of these crude little villages along the way, for that matter!"
"She is of age, Lar. She has the talent and the knowledge. What's more, she is accompanied by a soldier of these lands, and... correct me if I'm wrong, miss, but you have the talent and knowledge of the Faerie race, yes?"
Emily, still a bit bewildered, mutely nodded.
"I can think of no better grouping," Ono decided. "She may require assistance in both sides of this country's struggles to find the source of this hypertech artifact. Even if we assigned citizens to help, I would want them involved, for my daughter's safety. That is... assuming they are interested...?"
Slowly, Emily raised her hand, feeling like a schoolgirl again.
"Question," she said. "...who ARE you people?"
Oddly, this set off a wave of embarrassment with the three outsiders. Una cleared her throat, and offered a bow.
"I'm Una point zero one, and this is my father, Ono, Primary Council Leader. That's Lar, a Councilman who works for my father," she explained. "We're aliens from outer space."
Emily gave up trying to understand after that point.
Most of the long-winded explanation using bizarre words with plenty of syllables was lost on her, but she picked up the basics, enough to convince her that she had hit her head earlier and was living out some bizarre mish-mash parody of the media she'd watched over the years.
They were Orbitals, Una explained. They lived in giant cities that hovered over the Earth without falling to the ground. They were from somewhere else entirely, and were simply here to watch us from afar, to learn about us, before they would move on to do the same to some other world. Her particular city hovered over Eastusa, tasked with studying it -- something Una took exceptional interest in. They had shiny silver technology that was fifty zillion years ahead of anything from Scout's world, and totally perpendicular to Fae magic. They were powerful, they were benevolent, they were quiet and distant, and they'd royally screwed up and dropped some of their tech on our world.
(For a moment, Emily wondered why she could accept metal machines that roared and hauled across great distances on wheelspokes while burning dead dinosaurs in their bellies, and could accept arcane powers of light and darkness that wove physics-bending willpower from nothingness, but shiny space people was too much for her to deal with. That was enough for her to accept that as crazy as this all was, it was real, and it was unfortunately happening to her.)
The Neural Band was a product of their civilization. Normally it was a learning tool, a way for teachers to communicate with classrooms of students, a rapid means of transferring thought. However, used on the weak-minded ogres, it became a weapon, a terrible thing that nearly destroyed an entire village of living, breathing people. This was why the Orbitals stayed out of our business, high and out of sight, even if they probably could solve a lot of this world's problems... they felt supreme responsibility for their power.
And for some damn fool reason (although "not having her memories scrambled" was top at the list) she numbly agreed to help little Miss Shiny Panties wander all over creation trying to figure out how a battle-crazed witch got her hands on their "hypertech."
Time slid by quicker, after that. There were arguments with Lar, who hated the idea to the core. There was tending to Jesse, who hadn't improved much at all. Renting of a wagon, to help them get her to the Summer Court, since flying this many people by broomstick and "jetpack," which is what Una called the strange small silver backpack she wore, was too awkward to suffice for long distance transport. Eventually, they snuck out of town, regrouped on the roadway beyond, the elder Orbitals left, and it was just the three of them plus one prisoner.
"So," Emily said, feeling as if things had finally caught up to the here and now.
Una held up a hand, pausing her, as she watched her father and the grumpy politician float away, on their oddly broomstick-esque physics defying jetpacks. ("It doesn't really use jets," she'd explained, "It uses a quantum gravity coil powered by a mass capacitor to achieve a flight effect. But from watching your films, I assumed you'd understand 'jetpack' more.") Once the two were clearly out of earshot, she lowered her hand.
"I.. didn't want to tell them this, because I felt it was the only way father would agree," she said. "But I know you two never wanted to be dragged into our problems. You're just as much victims in this as your fellow Earthling is. So... you don't have to come with me, if you don't wish to. I will trust you to keep my secrets, without threatening your memories. Myself... I am willing to investigate these.. anachronisms, and do it alone."
Well! That's that, our work here is done, time to go, Emily thought.
"You realize you'll get eaten alive out there, right?" she said, instead. "I mean, frankly, you stick out like a sore thumb. You talk funny. You don't really know how things work. I've only known you for a day and I can tell already that you're gonna be chewed up and spat out by this planet."
"I'd like to think my years of study had--"
"You can't learn Earth from a book, or watching it through a telescope. Even one pointing down instead of up. ...I can't believe I'm about to say this," Emily forewarned, "But I have to come with you. I really, really don't want to. It's just another in a long line of instances where I mix myself up in doing the right-yet-stupid thing. But hey, why break tradition? ...fine. I'm in. I want to be the one to hand over Jesse to the Summer Court, anyway."
Una managed a weak, thankful smile. "Well, then... I welcome your assistance, Emily the Witch. ...and you, Scout fellow?"
He'd almost managed to slip into the background again. Una had an uncanny habit of spotting him, engaging him head on. She'd done it all night, and each time, some primal mindset in Emily had been surprised to see he was in fact still around.
But the boy shook his head.
"I can't," he said. Quiet. "I shouldn't."
Emily nibbled her lip. "I'm not afraid," she said, making a guess. "I don't think you're a danger to me--"
"You do. You just don't want to think that, and wish you couldn't," he corrected her. "I should go. Good luck."
Without a further word, he turned to his left, and walked straight into the roadside forest. He kept his ears trained, listening for the squeaky axles of the motor-assisted, horse-drawn cart, and waited for the girls to be long gone before he stopped walking.
It was for the best. He had his purpose. He had his eternal hunt. He wasn't one to work with anyone else, because he was supposed to be alone. They would understand that and would be fine without him. His walking resumed.
You will follow them.
His walking ceased.
"What?" he asked, aloud.
You will follow them.
"...they're not my enemies."
I never said they were.
"They're not my prey."
I never said they were.
"You want me to kill them?"
I never said I did.
"Then... what do you want?"
I want you to follow them.
You will find glorious hunting along their path, youngling. Is that not enough?
"If I'm with them, they'll just be in danger."
You will prove far more dangerous than the dangers they face.
"That's my point, actually."
You will follow them.
"If I refuse?"
The boy fell to the forest ground, a puppet with snipped strings. No heartbeat, no pulse. Not that he had any before, either.
An hour later, a stinging pain made him sit upright. He had to blink several times to clear his dry eyes, after they had been hanging open for so long.
Never forget you are dead. You are mine. Follow them. If I command you to hunt for them, you will. If I command you to herd them to their deaths, you will. The dead have no choices remaining to them. Go.
"...yes, Lady Winter."
Rising to his feet, the boy turned around, and resumed walking. He was out of the forest, down the road, and back with his new companions in short order.
to be continued
copyright 2009 stefan gagne