They hadn't actually lost much more than two hours, on account of the rain. By the time they made camp for the fourth night of their journey, they had covered roughly half of the distance between Triscot and Near Port. Considering how little they'd traveled the first night, the trip so far had essentially taken three days. However, when they awoke on the morning of We'ginday the 13th, they found it once again pouring. After a little deliberation, it was decided that Cameron should conjure a team of wild striders, so that they might travel through the rain, on land. The force fields normally in operation during flight were not used, except for the one protecting the cockpit from the rain. (Tom grumbled that when not in flight, they should just call the 'cockpit' a 'box,' but Cameron said that term should only be used for carriages and stagecoaches; normal wagons which weren't built for flying didn't even have external driver's seats.) It took some time for the striders to reach them, and then to harness the striders and hitch them to the wagon. They ended up beginning the fifth day's trip around Second Four, at least two hours later than they normally would have started flying. They also stopped for the night about an hour earlier than they otherwise might have. And so, that whole day brought them only two hundred miles or so closer to their final destination, as opposed to the over nine hundred miles a day they were used to.
The next two days, they started and ended their travels at the usual hours, but that still only brought them up to three hundred miles a day. When they awoke on the eighth day, the sun was shining, and it didn't look like there was likely to be any more rain in the near future. Everyone was eager to get back to flying, as they'd traveled a shorter distance in the last three days put together than they had in any one of the three previous days. However, Cameron said it would be better to be safe than sorry, as rain can sometimes come apparently out of nowhere. Darius also thought it would be best to continue traveling with the striders for awhile, but for a different reason: he'd decided it would be best to make camp that night on the western bank of Hook River, which marked the end of the forest they'd been sticking to for the past week. The striders could get them to the river by at least an hour before sundown, but if they released the striders now and went back to flying, they'd either have to fly longer than usual today, to reach Dragon Wood, or else make camp on the open plain. And since no one wanted to fly after dark or camp out in the open, they agreed. Additionally, Darius said camping by the river would give them a chance to do laundry, for the first time since leaving Triscot.
The day remained sunny, and by the next morning, the rain seemed a distant memory. So, they released the striders, put away their freshly cleaned clothes (which had been hung out to dry overnight), and took to the sky, much to everyone's relief. That night, they made camp just outside Dragon Wood. If the weather held, it should take just two more days to reach Near Port. In the meantime, Tiejo was excited by the prospect of possibly spotting real dragons; though Darius told him not to get his hopes up, because dragons tended to stay more to the deeper areas of the woods, while they'd be keeping to the outer edge.
On the tenth day, they took off right on schedule, at Second One. Four hours later, at noon, they landed for lunch at a rest stop. It would be about four hundred more miles before they reached the end of Dragon Wood, and they planned to go perhaps another three hundred miles along the coast after that, before making camp. Tom wondered how that would be any different from two days ago, when they'd all decided they didn't want to camp in the open, away from the cover of one forest or the other. Darius said he knew some caves on the coast, where they could hide the wagon overnight.
Meanwhile, Alecstar was enjoying the weather, as they got closer to the Northern Alliance. As they sat at a picnic table eating threenut butter sandwiches, Emma said, "It's nice to see you smiling for a change, Star."
"Well, I can't help it... it's just nice to experience actual Spring. It's been years since I've felt any weather I'd describe any way but 'Summer,' regardless of what anyone in the southern villages may call the seasons. But this... ah, the cool air, the chirping birds, the scent of melting snow...."
Tom said, "There are always birds making a racket in southern villages, as well. And I really don't think snow has a scent. It's just frozen water."
"Well, what really makes Spring special is that it means Winter is over. And as much as Winter may have its own merits, it eventually becomes just a pain in the ass, in so many ways. Anyway, we tend to get different birds, up this way, not the tropical birds that are more common in the south. And there aren't a lot of birds around in Winter at all, so hearing them in the Spring... heralds warmer weather, after months of snow, ice, and bitter cold. As for what Spring smells like... perhaps you're right, but I just thought 'the scent of melting snow' sounded more poetic than 'the scent of mud and decomposed vegetation.'"
Tom nodded. "I can see that. Objections withdrawn." Turning to Darius, he aked, "What about you? Still looking forward to some Spring ale, when we reach Near Port?"
"If they've got any left, definitely. I'll even stand you a pint. ...Hell, I'll treat us all to a pint of something, in any case. Winter, Spring, Summer, or something perennial. But for now, I'm enjoying the weather as much as Star, I expect. I don't know if I'd want to be here in Winter, but Spring is better, up here. Besides, it gives me a chance to wear my duster and fedora, which I generally can't do down south... it's just too damn hot in most of the Land's villages, for the duster, at least. And I almost never wear a fedora without a duster. But this is totally my favorite look... not that I give too much thought to how I look...."
Thew asked, "This is how you dress in all your stories, right?"
"Yeah. I mean, the fictional me. He doesn't usually have to worry about things like weather. Or any of my psychological issues, for that matter, since the character is an idealized version of myself. He's a lot like me, aside from such unpleasant points... which makes for a nice way of escaping the reality of myself. It's kind of therapeutic. ...Also, I figure if I wrote about a protagonist with all my neuroses, he'd just annoy the hell out of my readers. Wouldn't want that, eh?"
"You might be right," said Thew. "Although, I don't think I'd see the harm in mentioning those things just once, or at least rarely enough that it doesn't get too annoying."
"Right, because that's totally how emotional and psychological problems work: they happen only once in a great while. Hardly worth complaining about, even."
"I know things like depression or social anxiety can strike at any time, and what makes it so bad is how often it happens, but couldn't you just trust your readers to remember you, I mean, the fictional you, have these problems? So you wouldn't have to shove it in their faces all the time?"
"Perhaps, but there are problems with that. For one thing, I wouldn't want them thinking my protagonist feels that way all the time, or that life is just completely unmanageable for him. Because that would be an overstatement. On the other hand, I'd worry that when he's acting or speaking fairly normally, it would belie my initial assertion that he had those problems at all. It could seem like when a spell came over him, it was just sort of tacked on to the story, or that it really doesn't happen any more often for him than it does for everyone else. But I think my main problem with the idea would be that... I have to live with this. My character would have to live with this. And believe me, it's a hell of a lot more frustrating and annoying to experience these things firsthand than it is to read about them. But if I was going to go to the trouble of giving a character these problems in the first place, the whole point would be wanting my readers to have at least a vague idea of how annoying it is to be me. And that means I'd feel obligated to intentionally annoy them with the frequency of such spells. And yes, to shove in their faces the fact that my protagonist suffers more than they do, often for no reason at all. That a lot of the time he can seem, and even truly feel, fairly normal, but not a day goes by that he doesn't feel at least a brief, minor case of depression, and probably not a week goes by that he doesn't at least semi-seriously contemplate suicide, whether in the near or distant future. That it's so much harder for him than it seems to be for 'normal' people to accept unacceptable things. That, while he's usually capable of talking to people when necessary, it's often impossible for him to hold casual conversations, even with close friends. That it can be impossible for him to be the first to say 'hi.' That he can never look anyone in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time. That he abhors the idea of touching anyone, even while a part of him wishes he could. That he can often have things he wants desperately to say, but can't, even knowing no one would mind, or perhaps that people would like him better if he did say what was on his mind. That he's funnier, cooler, and more interesting than he usually manages to show; part of what's wrong with him is being deeply embarrassed about his good points. But also, that he's sure much of what he likes about himself is stuff others would think he should change... and if he did, there'd be nothing left that he likes about himself. That he almost always feels alone, even when he's with friends or family. That he knows how much closer his way of thinking is to that of other Landians than someone with the same psyche would be to 'normal' people on planets like Earth, but still feels just as different from his fellow Landians as a Terran would from his fellow men and women. That he thinks long speeches in his head about all that's wrong with him, at least once a day. The same damn speeches, which gets unbearably repetitive. But he can't stop. Believe me, for my stories to be realistic, I'd have to repeat such rants, once every few scenes, and often make them much longer than all I've just said. Only then would my readers have a real clue what it was like to be my protagonist. I don't doubt that I'd reduce the frequency of his spells, so it happens less often in the story than in real life, just because... even I'd get annoyed, reading my own writing, if it happened like once per chapter, or something. And because it would take up too damned much ink, when there are more pertinent aspects of the story that need telling. But reducing the frequency... would defeat the purpose of mentioning it at all. So... yeah, I just think it's better for my character not to have my problems, in the first place."
"Okay," said Thew. "I guess that makes sense."
"Anyway," said Emma, "getting back to the subject of fashion... I definitely think this look suits you. It's funny, I've noticed people in Triscot wearing hats like that, whenever I've been there over the last couple of years, but I don't think I've ever seen them in any other village. And I've never seen that kind of coat, before."
"Thanks for changing the subject," said Darius with a momentary grin. "I was starting to annoy myself. Well, I got both the hat and coat from a store that specializes in fashion trends from Earth. It was founded by a tailor and his wife, who's a hatter. They're both spirit-talkers, which is how they know about alien fashions. First time I got a duster and fedora was when I was a teenager, soon after I started adventuring. I've had to replace them a couple of times over the years, including the other day when we were getting ready for this trip. Because of course, they were among my things in the wagon that we lost in Tonad. The duster has never been a big seller in Triscot, because of the weather, but it does better there than in some villages even farther south. And I hear the company's mail order catalog does well in the Northern Alliance. But fedoras are a bit more popular, in Triscot. It's a style that was popular on Earth about fifty years before the Land was created, so they say. Most people wear them with suits modeled after ones from the same era, but I've also seen people use the hat with trench coats... Well, when it's raining. I suppose they're probably wearing suits under the trench coats. But I've never seen anyone pair a fedora with a duster, though personally I think it's cool."
"I agree," said Cameron. "Though I doubt I could pull it off, myself."
"No," said Emma, "but maybe next time we're in Triscot, Darius can take us to that store, and I'll help you pick out something that makes you look cool, too."
"Oh, I've got a few ideas," said Cameron....
"Anyway," said Darius, "we really should get going, if we want to make it to the caves before dark."
So, they all finished their meals and did whatever else they felt the need to do. But just as they were heading back to the wagon, another wagon pulled into the rest stop, coming from within the woods. It was a smaller, uncovered wagon, drawn by a pair of striders. There were two passengers, a man and woman, both apparently in their early twenties. While the man secured the striders to a post, the woman approached the Chaos party.
"Hi," she said cheerfully, extending a hand for whoever might decide to shake it, "I'm Taryn."
While Darius was glad he wasn't at the front of his group, and so was in no danger of being the one to shake her hand (Ginger took care of that), he did think of a reply to her greeting. He said, "You can't be Terran; surely you're Landian, like the rest of us."
She rolled her eyes, but then laughed. "Silly! It's not my race, it's my name! And it's spelled T-A-R-Y-N."
"Huh. I know a gryphon who I suspect would approve of that spelling."
"Oh...kay. So anyway, what're y'all doin' here? Are you adventurers? Where ya from?"
"Yes, we're adventurers, though we're all from different places, originally. Well, a few of us might be from the same place. I'm from Triscot, as is Thew."
"I'm from Woodstockade," said Emma.
Taryn's eyes widened, as she looked closely at Emma for the first time, and noticed her ears. "Wow, I've never met an elf before! That's so neat! Have you been traveling with humans long?"
"Um, I left home a couple years ago, and joined a band one year ago... including three of my current companions. What about you? What are you two doing?"
"Oh, my brother and I have a friend named Laura Woodrat. She's a hermit, lives alone at the tip of the cape, at the far end of Dragon Wood. We occasionally visit her to trade for the seeds she collects from these pretty, big, yellow flowers she discovered, out there. I don't think they exist anywhere else on the Land, that I've ever heard of. But the seeds are delish! So we take them and sell them back home in Kimirin, and sometimes stop in Near Port along the way. Don't really make a lot for our efforts, but seeing as we're hill rats, it's not like we have rent to pay, or anything. Besides, we'd go even if it was just to see her, and not business at all. She is a friend, after all."
"Neat," said Darius. "I'd love to try some of those seeds. How much are they?"
"A capital for a pound."
"Alright." He fished in his coin pouch and withdrew a one-piece.
"Thank you!" said Taryn, as she took it from him. She ran back to her wagon and hopped over the side. A centhour later, she returned, and handed Darius a bag. "You have to crack the shells to get to the edible bit."
By this time, her brother had been standing around looking at everyone, unable to get a word in. After Darius had taken the bag of seeds, the young man extended a hand toward Darius, who shook it, without too much anxiety.
"I'm Josh Hillrat," said Taryn's brother. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Hey, I have a cousin named Joss."
"It's Josh, with an 'h.'"
"I think I know my own cousin's name."
"He's right," said Thew. "He's talking about my brother, and his name is definitely Joss."
Josh sighed. "I don't doubt his name is Joss. It's nearly as common a name on the Land as 'Tom' or 'Xander,' or whatever. I'm saying my name is Josh."
Darius grinned. "Sorry, I know. I was just playin'. But seriously, you gotta admit, 'Josh' is kind of an unusual name."
"Yeah, well, it's the other way around, on Earth, you know... Josh is short for Joshua, there, but on the Land, given names are often full even if they sound like nicknames. So, my full name is Josh, though because it sounds so much like the much more common 'Joss,' I do kinda wish my parents would've named me Joshua."
"Hey, I understand. I have friends named Dave, Chris, and Rob, all of which would be nicknames on Earth, but are my friends' full names. Oh, I'm Darius, by the way. But you can call me Dare, if you like... because even on the Land, some of us do have nicknames."
At this point, Tiejo could contain himself no longer. He'd been waiting for an opening, and finally he exclaimed, "Tiejo Streetrat I am being! Glad to be meeting fellow 'rats. Knowing many street rats I am, and a fair number of dock rats, river rats, and wood rats, but not so many hill rats I am knowing. And you say you are friends with a wood rat?"
"Yeah, well, that's what Laura calls herself," said Josh. "I don't really think it's a very apt name, because she's not homeless. She just likes living in the woods, far away from other people."
"Oh." Tiejo looked momentarily disappointed, but his countenance immediately brightened again. "Still, you are being real hill rats?"
"Oh yeah. Not a bad life, as there are plenty of hills and mountains around Kimrin. Though of course we have to stay away from the mining camps."
"Liking I would to be visiting the hills of Kimrin."
Taryn said, "Well, are you folks heading our way? It seems unlikely, as you probably wouldn't be so far east, if you were going to Kimrin... but then again, we're here, and we're going to Kimrin, so... you never know, right? Point is, maybe you'd like to join us?"
Josh glanced at the Chaos's wagon. "I'm sure we'd just slow them down, Sis. They're obviously flying."
"Oh. Right." She seemed disappointed.
"Anyway," said Darius, "we're actually heading to Near Port."
"Okay. Well... if you're flying in that direction, you'd best watch out for UFOs. Though they only come out at night, and most folks who fly don't like doing so after dark anyway, but... just thought I'd mention it. Better safe than sorry, right?"
"Uh... what do you mean by... UFOs?" asked Darius.
"It's a Terran term... and by the way, that time I'm spelling the word T-E-R-R-A-N. It's not my term, it's something they say on Earth. Or did, hundreds of years ago, according to the stories that are currently popular in Near Port. It stands for 'Unidentified Flying Object.' Which could mean anything, really, but it's generally used to refer to alien spaceships."
Everyone was speechless for half a centhour. Finally, Darius said, in a quiet, awed tone, "Woah. Vanilla."
Tiejo looked dubious. "Are you sure these UFOs are not just being maybe... dragonses?" He said this with an air of reverent hopefulness.
Josh scoffed. "Pff, anyone who lives in this area knows a dragon when they see one. There's no way anyone would mistake one for anything else, let alone a spaceship."
"Oh." Once again, Tiejo was disappointed.
Tom asked, "But surely no one seriously believes aliens are visiting our world? That's crazy."
"I agree," said Ginger. "The spirits I know all say our world is off limits to aliens, at least for the time being."
Taryn shrugged. "Hey, I was just telling you what I've... what we've heard. It's not like we've seen them ourselves. And I'm not saying they're spaceships, just that no one knows what they are. But they're sure not dragons, nor are they any kind of flying Landian vehicles anyone's ever heard of."
"Okay," said Darius. "Thanks for the warning, we'll be careful." Just then, something occurred to him. "Hold on a centhour, guys," he said to Taryn and Josh. Turning to Thew, he said, "Can I talk to you privately?"
Darius led his cousin out of hearing distance of the group. "Listen... I promised your father I'd make sure to keep you safe, and you promised to stay out of the actual rebellion. You just came with us because you wanted to head north for your next adventure, but I don't see any reason you should have to go with us all the way to Near Port. It would probably be safer for you the farther you are from us, from this point on. So... if these two wouldn't mind- and seeing as they already invited all of us, I doubt they would- what would you think of going with them to Kimrin, while the rest of us head to Near Port?"
"Huh. I guess it's okay with me. Um... I still don't get a bittrickle bubble, do I?"
"I just mean... is it okay to use one of Cameron's t-mail bubbles you've been using all along... if I need to contact you?"
"I suppose so. But it would be best to do so only in an emergency. Meanwhile, you should also call someone... like Evan, I suppose... to let the family know about this. Did you have a plan for staying in touch when you went on your first adventure?"
"Not by t-mail. I could send a letter, after I get to Kimrin, though. Or maybe you could call your father, after LandOrder lets you know the network is ready."
"Okay, well... yeah. Not sure when that'll be, but it's still quite possible I could get a call through before a letter would reach Triscot."
The two of them walked back to the group, in time to hear Taryn telling the others, "Oh, she has a greenhouse," apparently in reply to someone's question.
Darius waited a moment to make sure the conversation was over, before addressing Taryn and Josh. "So, I was wondering... you did ask before if we'd like to join you, and while most of us have business in Near Port, my cousin Thew, here, isn't involved in that. Perhaps he could go with you to Kimrin?"
Taryn smiled. "Sure! Always happy for some company." She turned to her brother. "I mean, if it's okay with you."
Josh shrugged. "Fine by me."
Tiejo said, "Aww... wishing I could come. But... our business in Near Port is mostly mine. So supposing I am that I should not to be leaving my friends. Oh well, some other time, yes?"
"I'd like that," said Taryn. "If you don't have anywhere you need to be after you take care of business, why not head on over to Kimrin? Ask just about any street rats you meet there, most of them know us."
"Trying I will," said Tiejo. Then he had a thought, and asked, "By the way, are you maybe knowing someone named Arnold Sullenhest? I am not knowing if he's ever come so far north, but he sayings he knows 'rats in many villages...."
Taryn shook her head. "Doesn't ring any bells. Why?"
"Just, um, is something I would liking to discuss with you and your brother, maybe, but there is not being time, I think. And anyway, is something I wouldn't bring up without knowing you better, first. But I could giving you a t-mail bubble, a nice red one, so you could call him, maybe. Tell him Tiejo Streetrat said... No, wait. Hmmm, maybe I give you a bubble, you know how to use? Tell it your name so it can receive calls for you?"
"I've only used public t-mail, but I have friends who've used their own bubbles. They've taught me how they work."
"Ah, good. So... I giving you one, you make it your own. Then later I calling Arnold, ask him to call you, maybe."
"What's this all about?" asked Josh.
"Is secret. Needing to know you both better, like I said. I am trusting Arnold could to be learning if you are... well, if it would being safe to share our secret with you both. And if you would being interested. I let him judge, okay? You seeming nice, and hoping I am that he decides to... call you. If not, well..." Tiejo shrugged. "No matter. We could still being friends, maybe. I will surely try to find you later, when I'm free."
"Whatever," said Josh.
"I'm intrigued!" said Taryn. "I hope your friend does call. But either way... I'm going to hold you to your promise that we'll meet again."
Tiejo smiled. "Yes. Definitely you should be holding Tiejo... to my promise." With that, he handed her a red t-mail bubble.
"Well," said Darius, "it was a pleasure to meet you both, but we really must get going. We have a schedule to keep."
"Okay," said Taryn. "Good-bye, everyone."
"Bye," said Tiejo.
"Take care," Darius said to Thew.
"You too, cousin."
The Chaos party went to their wagon. Thew collected his pack, and joined his new traveling companions, while the Chaos took to the sky.
We'ginday morning, 19 Sp'mo', Tom brewed jasmine tea, instead of the usual coffee. When Darius asked the reason for the change of pace, Tom replied, "Because it's Ginger's favorite."
"Well, that's nice of you. Any special occasion, other than being We'ginday?" Turning to Ginger, he asked. "I suppose you'll be leading us in a spiritual discussion this morning, as you did last week, while we were waiting for the striders Cameron summoned to show up?"
"Actually," Ginger said with a smile, "I feel like taking the day off, as far as spirit-talker duties go. Because actually, it kind of is a special occasion."
With a grin of her own, Emma excitedly opened her pack, and pulled out a present, which she handed to Ginger. "Happy birthday!"
Darius had wondered why some of the others had brought packs with them to the camp fire, outside the cave where their wagon was still hidden. Now he knew. "Ah. Well, happy birthday. Wish I would've known, so I could've gotten you something. It's a shame I didn't save the chocolate until today."
As Star, Cameron, and Tom handed presents of their own to Ginger, she said, "Thanks, everyone. And Darius, don't worry about it."
"Tiejo also is wishing I had known about your birthday," said Tiejo. "But then, not even knowing when my own birthday is being, so... happy birthday." He shrugged.
Darius said, "Well, if we get to Near Port early enough tonight, when I'm treating everyone to a beer, I'll also pay for your meal."
"That's not necessary," said Ginger.
"Although," said Tom, "at this point I think pretty much the only money any of us have is what your father gave us before we left Triscot. And I rather thought of that as belonging to the Chaos, as a group, rather than any one of us. So would you really be 'treating' us?"
"Hey, I split up that money among all of us, and I'm planning on paying for things out of my own purse. I assume each of us can mostly do the same, with regard to meals, lodging, or any personal shopping. And for anything we need that is specific to our mission, we can pool our resources. So in that sense, yes, I'll be treating, since for Ginger's meal tonight, and one beer for each of you, none of you will have to dip into your purses. But in a larger sense, I believe my father did say, at one point, that he owed me back-rent for living under the land that my uncle West and I technically own. He may have been joking, but I'd kind of like to think that whatever money you currently have, I treated to you the first night we left."
"If you say so."
After Ginger had opened her gifts and thanked those who had given them, Darius said, "Anyway, it's a shame Tino couldn't be here for the occasion. But maybe he'll show up when we get to the village?"
"It's entirely possible," said Ginger. "I've never known him to miss my birthday, before."
"Ooh," said Emma, "and let's not forget... it's just a few days til Mor's Birthday. We should all do something together that day, too."
"Ah, yes," said Cameron, "a holiday mostly celebrated by elves and merfolk, but one which is of interest to Sorreters, as well."
"Who is being Mor?" asked Tiejo.
Cameron explained, "He was the Sorreter who first came up with the idea of using magic to engineer mythical creatures, back in 539. And since such creatures have also made adventuring more interesting, I suppose it's fitting for adventurers like all of us to celebrate his day."
"Ooh, yes," agreed Tiejo. "And maybe also it would being a good day for seeing dragons?"
"Uh... well, I doubt any of them will be flying anywhere near the village, but you never know. Actually, maybe we could see if there's a zoo or circus in town, which might have various mythical creatures."
Just then, Darius's bittrickle bubble chimed, for the very first time. He fished it out of his duster's pocket, and read a text display which said 'Oddberry for d'Artagnan.' He said, "Open."
"Ah, good morning, Mr. d'Artagnan," came the voice of Cherilyn Amalgamator. "I trust I haven't woken you."
"No worries, Ms. Oddberry. We've all been up for a little while. Actually, it's funny you should call just now, as we're drinking jasmine tea, at the moment. Considering the name of your establishment... and now that I think of it, aren't oddberry flowers used in making the stuff? Sorry, I just now got that."
"They are, but in fact that is only half of the reason I chose this particular code name. Perhaps one day I'll explain the other half. For now, I just wanted to let you know that the network is up and running. LandOrder's Sorreters in various villages will continue expanding the network for awhile yet, to make it even more secure. But it should be safe to begin using it, now. Though I expect none of us with access to the network will have much to report, for the immediate future."
"Well, thanks for the heads-up. We should be reaching our destination by tonight, but I'm not sure exactly when our immediate mission will be... put into action. I'll let you know how it goes... assuming we're successful. If we fail, I suppose we won't be in a position to let anyone know anything."
"I certainly wish you success, then. So, unless you had anything else to discuss...?"
"I can't think of anything. Talk to you later."
"Good day, d'Artagnan. Close."
Darius put his bubble away, took a sip of tea, then asked his companions, "Did you ever notice that some days pretty much nothing happens, and other days a ridiculous amount of stuff happens? I mean, that seems to be true of life in general, but particularly since we started our journey, back in Plist. That one day in Jump Village seemed pretty busy, and one of the days we spent in Triscot seemed to last about a week, all by itself. I feel like most of today should be uneventful, just more flying. But it's Ginger's birthday, the bittrickle network is ready, and tonight we'll be arriving in Near Port. It makes me wonder if anything else is in store for us, today?"
Before anyone could reply, the group suddenly found their position being rushed by what looked like at least a hundred soldiers, storming down the bank which overlooked the beach.
The Chaos party jumped to their feet. Tom turned to Darius and said, "Seriously, you've got to stop saying things like that."
Cameron commanded, "Anyone who has their bubbles with them- either kind of t-mail- throw them down, now!" They did as he said, and he cast a quick spell which activated the destruct spells on all their bubbles, both there and the ones left in the wagon.
A moment later, the soldiers had surrounded them, and drawn their swords. Darius drew a dagger, mentally wishing he had his own sword on him. "I'd say there are about fifteen to twenty for each of us. I'll take the ones-"
"You'll take no one," said one of the soldiers, stepping toward the group of would-be rebels. His own sword remained in its scabbard. To someone who accompanied him (who wasn't even armed), he said, "René, if you'd be so kind... make sure the ex-Sorreter doesn't use any more of his tricks."
"Sir, yes sir," came the reply. He cast a spell of his own, which triggered the anti-magic blanketing spell he'd spent some time setting up, before the soldiers had revealed their presence.
When that was done, the first man again addressed the rebels. "Well, well, the feckless son of Adam. I can't exactly say it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, but I do rather look forward to getting to know you, in the near future. It should be interesting to learn how someone can be at once so like, and so unlike his father." Turning to Alecstar he said, "And Major, it is good to see you, again."
"Captain... Charles, wasn't it? One of Tovan's men? I'm sorry I can't say the same."
"Well, that's quite alright. I was being facetious, in any event. But please... call me Colonel. You see, I outrank you, now. Not that you still hold any rank, since your desertion, nine years ago." To the others, he said, "My name is Colonel Charles Woodman, and you are all to be my guests, for the foreseeable future. I'm afraid I can't say much for my hospitality, let alone your impending accommodations. But, you know... you get what you pay for. And of course, your stay will be free."
Darius said defiantly, "Colonel, I demand to know by what authority you and your troops have accosted us."
"By what authority? I'm sorry, what part of 'colonel' don't you understand?"
"That's not what I meant! I mean... why are you accosting us? What gives you the right? Are you in the habit of attacking innocent civilians? Is that what my taxes are paying for?"
Woodman rolled his eyes and smirked. "Really, Mr. Lonewander, let's not play games. After the incident in Tanq, this should hardly come as a surprise. It was only a matter of time, don't you think? And 'innocent'? Please. You're not dealing with the likes of InterVil, now."
"Police, army, what's the difference? You're still bound by the law. Last I heard, we were officially being requested to come in for questioning. And we declined, which was well within our rights. What happened to Agent Monogwrangle was regrettable, but it only happened because he overstepped his authority. If you were wise, you wouldn't repeat his mistake."
"Do not compare me with a bleating wretch like him. You'll find that I don't make threats; I take action. When I say you're coming with me... trust me, you're coming with me."
"But... you can't do that!"
"I beg to differ. But now I tire of this pointless conversation." He turned and began walking back the way he'd come, as his soldiers advanced on the Chaos.
Darius dropped his dagger, but shouted, "Enjoy your advantage while it lasts, Colonel!"
Without looking back, Woodman replied, "Don't worry, I shall."
The troops formed a solid circle around the rebels, and began marching them up the bank and on toward their waiting wagons.
As they walked, Ginger turned to Emma and said, "You know, up until a few centhours ago, the day was going so well. But now... Worst. Birthday. Ever."
Meanwhile, the Colonel's Sorreter, René, hung back. waited until the wagons had all flown off, then walked over to the cave. He called out, "Hey, Zeke!"
Zeke Sanguine emerged from the cave, leaned against the outer wall, and greeted his old friend. "Hey, René, nice of you to drop by."
"Nice of you to call, last night."
"Well, you know, it is kind of my job. So how's things back home? Has the marshal returned from the capital, yet?"
"Not officially. But after his meeting with the king a couple weeks ago, Demos called Daily to warn him Primus was planning on investigating Supprus's claims, while allowing us to believe he was still in First Village. I think that was the day before you left on this mission, so I'm surprised you hadn't heard about it."
Zeke shrugged. "They usually don't go out of their way to tell me things unless they have a job for me. I'm sure I would've heard in a couple days or so, if I'd been around."
"Okay. Anyway, Daily called General Middlebury, and had him make sure there was no evidence to be found. Meanwhile, the general called all his colonels, including Supprus himself, and our own dear Charles, and ordered them to increase training exercises and other regular duties. The official reason for this was wanting to be prepared in case the rumors of possible rebellion were true, though the real reason was to keep Supprus busy, so he wouldn't have time for more snooping. Of course, Middlebury had to give the same orders to everyone, so it wouldn't look like Supprus was being singled out. That surely would've made Primus more suspicious."
"Anyway, all the extra exercises provided the perfect excuse for Colonel Woodman to send out a company of troops after your call, last night. A little 'night training' hardly seemed out of the ordinary, in the current climate throughout the Army."
"Ah, good," said Zeke. "Although, that Lonewander guy had a point. It's going to be tricky for Woodman to hold the prisoners indefinitely. After all, Mufasa Gothic is expecting me to call him sooner or later, to let him know when the Chaos reaches Near Port. He'll want to assign police there to resume the observation of the suspects."
"Well, luckily that's not really your problem. For now, your job's over. You can just hang out and relax, until your next assignment. Meanwhile, let Woodman or Daily or somebody decide when you should call Gothic, and what to tell him. Or maybe even let one of them make the call themselves. After all, they're the ones ordering us to break the law, so they should be the ones who have to deal with the law."
"Ah, true! Oh, the burdens of command! So glad I have no authority. All the fun, none of the responsibility, am I right?"
"You said it, buddy. Although I suppose we'll both be hearing from Durell, before long. He'll call you to congratulate you on a job well done, and me to assign me a new task, now that we have the ex-Sorreter in hand."
"Oh well. Have fun with that. But until the order comes... I'd say we've both earned the rest of the day off. Care to join me for brunch?"
"Sure... oh, but first, anything good in the rebels' wagon?"
"Nah. Just standard adventuring supplies. I made a list for Woodman, but who knows if he'll even bother sending anyone to collect the vehicle or its contents?"
"Huh." René looked over at the camp fire, and noticed a few packs sitting on the ground. He went over and looked through them. Only one was of interest; the others were all empty. "These must be presents. I heard the redhead mention her birthday, as she walked away. Think Woodman would let her have any of it, if I brought it back to the base?"
Zeke grinned. "You, my friend, are entirely too sweet for your own good. Sadly, the colonel is not."
René put on a grin of his own. "Yeah, I was just kidding. Still... it would hardly do to leave litter on the beach, like this." He picked up all the bags, walked into the cave, and threw them into the wagon. Then he figured, he might as well take a quick look to see if there was anything he found more interesting than Zeke did.
He exited the cave carrying a rolled carpet, and Zeke asked, "Don't you already have a flying carpet?"
"Of course, but this one seemed a bit different from the others in the wagon. I thought I'd check it out, see if there are any interesting modifications."
"As you like." He produced a watch from his pocket and said, "But oh, look at the time! I haven't eaten yet today, so can we go, already?"
"Absolutely. I haven't eaten since we set out last night." He extinguished the fire the Chaos had left behind, and began walking away from the camp site. Zeke followed.
"You mean you traveled by wagon? With the common troops?"
"Colonel didn't want to take the chance on the ex-Sorreter being alerted to my use of magic."
"I know. Just skip it."
Zeke nodded. They passed out of the area covered by René's short-range anti-magic spell, and the two of them translocated back to Near Port.
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