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Jem
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Planestuck

(Please do not post here. Comments should be posted in the Planestuck OOC thread, or pm'ed to me. You may use the Subscribe button at the bottom of this post to follow this thread.)

-----

My name is Abaris, after the famous one. The first thing I want you to know about me is that I used to stride worlds.

I don't look it now, I know. Except maybe the armor. Hopefully it may cause a few cutthroats to think twice. But I know if they look close I'll look like a scarred, greybeard commoner wearing some rich man's equipment.

It's not too far from the truth. I don't move as smoothly as I used to. My thoughts are muddy -- damnation! That's what really gets me. Getting old as a druid is suppose to impart wisdom. I used to know where every significant portal was on my world, and I knew how to sniff out the elemental vortices, and I had the spells and the tools to cross continents and get there. When the world needed a druid fixing something on the Ethereal, or Faerie, or the border Elemental --

"The what?"

Every Prime has its quirks, son. I've learned that mine was closer to the elements than others. We called it the Indwelling. They were areas of the Inner Planes that were close enough as tangent to the major points in my world that. . . ah, worry about it later.

Back to today. For decades, we'd been worried about the undead army of Longmont. It used to be a tiny, remote mountain kingdom that other kingdoms ignored and every now and then came through, killed a few militiamen and declared that the borders had changed, along with their tax duties. Well, they got tired of that. We still don't know what fiend their lord trafficked with, this Hidden Prince that empowered them, but they managed to raise an army of shadow and death. Creatures that sucked the soul out of you and left your body a husk, until it rose to add to their ranks. Wizards that could corrupt magical tools into new and wickedly powerful forms.

At first they only used the army to hold off invaders, but that kind of power never stays contained. When their neighbors came in to put a stop to the cult, they not only fought them off, they pushed back and started conquering the entire Alluvium. Turned from a police action into a struggle for survival.

They'd take over a town, march into the cemetery, and before anyone could blink they had a militia that often outnumbered the locals. More than a few petty lords decided to collaborate, too -- you could make a pretty turn on an inheritance if every lord in the fiefs around you fought, and you were willing to take a few wraiths as deputies to see to the population's obedience.

This one legion of theirs had decided to aim for Pirdesse, which was one of the nicer regions around, at least in my opinion. Theocracy, big paladin order. What the druids had gotten wind of, though, was that their target wasn't the king's castle, or the Basilica. We caught a troop of some undead, hell I don't even know if the type had a name, they might have been creating new ones, making for their capital crimes court.

See, Pirdesians didn't like to execute people, but keeping people in gaol and trying to reform them is expensive. So for people convicted of serious crimes, they made the Black Rod. Think cubic gate, except a touch sends you to whatever the user thought was the morally appropriate layer of Carceri.

We'd heard that Longmont had plans for the Rod. Something he really wanted to do with it. And you can imagine that we didn't like the idea of an artifact that powerful falling into the hands of the master of an expansionist army of undead, fiends, and shadows. So we were trying to get it out of there when we had the fight of our lives on our hands.

I nearly had the soul sucked out of me. I saw two of my oldest friends die beside me. God. . . mother. . . they're probably going to be risen tomorrow, oh lords of death take pity on them!. . .

. . .give me a minute. . .

Cirrus, oh all the gods I hope you were smart enough to fly out of there when this happened to me, my baby. Fly above the shadow spreading across our land, forget me and soar with your sister eagles. I will never forgive myself if they took you too. . .

. . .ah, hell.

sniff Right. I was nearly dead. I could feel the last spark of my soul in me, and I didn't think I could get the Rod to any nearby allies. So I said a prayer and broke it. I probably really shouldn't have been able to. Maybe somebody listened to me. But it broke. I felt the blast hurling me through the worlds -- and I landed on a slope here and nearly fell to my death in the gorge miles below, except I caught up on that thin trail that led to your cave and managed to stop myself.

-----

"Hm. You don't seem evil."

"You're the first to say that to me in a while. Come to think of it, you're the first to say anything to me in a while."

"We are back of nowhere, aren't we."

"No, we are not. We are on Colothys, the fourth layer of the Outer Plane Carceri, on an unnamed orb, in a cave. So yes, back of nowhere."

"Rushed, clipped and precise, then a more natural tone. You're required to answer questions put to you directly. You're like a mimir, then?"

"In some ways. I am a spirit bound to record and provide information. However, I am intelligent and have more sensory capabilities."

"You're like a sensory stone?"

"I do not know what that is."

"You record things on command?"

"I record everything around me constantly. I am not allowed to forget."

"You can play it back?"

"Yes."

"How?"

The floating silver disk demonstrated, hovering horizontally and replaying above it a translucent image of me entering the shallow cave, regarding the gewgaws lying about with suspicion, and then poking them with the butt of my spear. It faithfully reproduced the strings of invective in a variety of Lower-Planar tongues that followed the results of these essays when my sacred weapon flashed sparks upon contact with the entities trapped inside, which I listened to with amusement for a little longer than I really ought to have.

"Handy. You said you're bound -- and everything else in here seems to be a trapped spirit, too. Depository for prisoners?"

"If you are referring to Carceri as a whole, that seems metaphysically correct. If you are referring to this cave, the description is technically accurate but imprecise in its import, as the proper description would be more of a treasure vault."

"How did you get here?"

"I do not know the nature of my creation."

I cocked an eyebrow. Literal. "How did you -- by what series of events did you come to be trapped here?"

"My earliest memories are of being a spirit in the misty edges of the world, which enjoyed tricking people. My tricks got meaner. I was bound to one thousand and one years of service by the shaman Farf, as punishment for inflicting injuries upon his tribe. When the tribe was conquered by the orcs of Zrazzg, I was taken as spoils of war. I was put to use by a series of chieftains and conquerors, sometimes traded and sometimes stolen. My last taker was a kelubar gehreleth who escaped the control of his summoner, slaughtered him and took several magical items, including myself. He was interested in items specifically of trapped evil spirits, which he keeps here and and sometimes researches or sells."

"Uh-oh." I glanced at the cave mouth. "How often does the boss come back?"

"Irregularly, often months apart."

I relaxed a bit. "Strange that the place isn't better guarded." It was silent. "What security measures are you aware of on this place?"

"Obscurity. The cave does not appear to be near any significant settlement." Damn. It was going to be a pain and a half to get out, then. "There are also several destructive symbols hidden beneath easily-piercible illusions at various points around the cave, meant to be glimpsed by persons of greater magical ability than yourself." I winced. That stung.

"I was wondering what was behind the glowing screen in back."

"Seeing it would probably kill you." In my current state, yeah.

"Thanks for the heads up."

"I can be of some help to you by taking the initiative to convey information you did not think to seek, if you will take me with you. This cave is very boring."

". . . You don't read as evil to the spear because you're not a fiend, you're an ethereal spirit. But you've spent a lot of years hurting people, and Carceri isn't a place to find trustworthy beings. Aren't you just as likely to lead me in to a trap as lead me out?"

"I know the area around here. I could have tried manipulating you to look at the symbols. And I have had nearly a century being occasionally tortured by a kelubar gehreleth and otherwise doing absolutely nothing of interest to give me time to reflect on my poor life choices. Finally, you must have seen the landscape outside. Do you have the remotest idea where the route to the next layer up is? If not, do you have the first thing to lose by taking my suggestions?"

"This is the Lower Planes. There's always a worse place than 'nothing currently happening to me.'" I leaned on my spear and thought for a second. "How much time is left on your service?"

"Six months." I whistled. A thousand-year-old spirit would have seen a lot of things.

"Can you use any other powers than those you've displayed?"

"Not in my present straits."

"Can you speak without being spoken to?"

"Yes."

"But can you keep shut up when I need to sneak around?"

"I want to get off Carceri as much as you do, not least because there is a kelubar gehreleth that regards me as his property."

"Which I will immediately make an enemy of as soon as he finds you missing. Can he track me with you?"

"I do not know."

I thought. Trusting anybody you just met on Carceri was a really bad idea. But. . . he wasn't undead, or a fiend, so in his own realm he was a natural being, which gave me a duty to him. He was, probably, being tortured by one. Occasionally. And honestly, he was right about hardly being able to make my current situation worse.

I reached out my hand and snatched him out of the air. "Okay. Which way?"

As I was inching my way along the scree-slippery trail outside, he asked me the obvious question, and I told him my story, and here we are. We have a moment of breathing space on a ledge, but I'm sure that's not going to last. . .

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

A sound different from the ever-present sighing of the wind through the impossible gorges came to me, and I looked up from where I was taking a breather. Stupid muscles getting tired again. I used to be able to do this as a mountain goat. Or an eagle...

...I shook the irrelevancies out of my head and focused. The low buzzing drifted toward me again, and I made out the silhouette of an enormous insect against the redness the land threw up toward the sky.

I searched my memory. Chasme. Yes. That was what this kind of demon was called. I used to know that sort of thing backwards and forwards. And I had better learn to stop thinking about what I used to be able to do and start focusing on surviving, because I also remembered that they were a sort of Abyssal enforcer, always on the lookout for weaker demons to catch deserting the Blood War.

It seemed to be on that duty, or one like it, now. It followed the mountainside on the other side of this gorge, sometimes swooping closer to look at something. It was several miles away horizontally. But it was high enough to see me if it glanced over here. At least by angle -- I had no idea how sharp its vision was.

The ledge was no cover at all. The cliff behind me was rust-red flatness. The last bend I had rounded was a half mile ago. I had spells... how odd. I could remember the shape of some of those I had prepared this morning, but they were husks empty of power, what a curious feeling... and of the few elementary spells remaining that I could wrap my mind around, none of them were suited for hiding, a situation I planned to resolve as soon as I could get some sleep.

Now another sound. Scrabbling on the rocks. A rutterkin this time, scrambling on all clumsy fours ahead of the chasme. A crossbow, a helmet and a scrap of armor: probably a Blood War deserter. Would a battle passing by here be a problem, or a solution?

The rutterkin reached a spot almost directly across from me. Lucky him -- his trail had a ledge small enough for him to hide under. He folded himself up under it, saw me, and froze.

A long moment passed.

If he cried out, the chasme would see me, most likely, and not him. If I pointed the chasme to him, I might earn reprieve if the chasme stuck to its original mission and ignored me. Each of us had reason to betray the other. And this was Carceri, where power came from betrayal.

The wind carried the approaching drone of the searching chasme.

Then suddenly I thought of one of my spells. Good old traditional Druidic effect. But the cliffside was practically bare. I looked around: there it was.

sigh Of course it would be razorvine.

When the chasme dipped near the ground on the other side of the gorge again, I dashed from my exposed spot to where a clump of the stuff overhung a ledge. Wincing, I stuck my arms directly in to the stuff and whispered a few words.

The razorvine responded to the entangle spell with evident glee, tightening around my forearms and reaching hungrily for the rest of my body. I swung down, putting my weight on the tough strands and clinging to the bottom of the overhang.

Blood dripped down my arms as the razorvine tightened around my hands and elbows. The joints in my armor were no match for the slow questing blades of the animated plant's stems, not when I had willingly offered myself to it. I gritted my teeth and hung on until I was well and truly ensnared, and then dismissed the spell.

The buzz of the Abyssal bounty hunter filled the gorge. A shadow would have passed by us had the light here been in any way natural. And then it moved on.

We both waited several minutes before daring to move. The rutterkin left his hiding place first, and watched me from across the way. Before attempting to extricate myself, I spent some more precious spell energy healing the wounds I had suffered; the blood loss was beginning to be serious. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to reach my knife or unstrap my spear --

The rutterkin unlimbered its crossbow and started messing with something from his quiver. Of course, I hadn't expected gratitude.

I could just reach my spearhead with my right hand. If I could grab it and cut that stem, I could make better time with the rest of the stuff.

The twang-zip-thwock of an arrow was a familiar sound. The following hiss was not, and I risked a look at what had just hit near my legs. A glob of acidic stuff had landed near the razorvine, and was steadily burning away razorvine and bits of rock, not to mention dripping onto my foot and causing some nasty blisters.

I looked over at the rutterkin. "I help," it said in Common, reloading its crossbow, and grinned broadly.

I said nothing and grabbed for my spearhead, sawing for dear life. But it was too slow, and the acid singed me even as it loosed the razorvine's hold on the rocks before I could cut myself free. Still tangled in a few coils of the stuff, I dropped off of the underhang and slid down fifty yards of mountain face before catching up against a boulder with a bump that knocked the wind out of me.

The rutterkin's uproarious laughter above me echoed through the canyon. It was only mild comfort a minute later when I heard it turn to screams as the chasme came back to collect its prey, and flew off.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

I looked up the mountain face I had just slid down. The grade was tricky to judge in Carceri's ground-emitted light, but I could see where I had knocked loose patches of gravel on the way down, and it looked pretty steep. The bad footing made me cautious of attempting the climb -- as did the gorge below me, almost a mile. If I hadn't caught where I had, the rest of the mountain face below here was nearly sheer.

I pulled out the possessed disk and tossed it in to the air beside me. "Do you know if this trail meets up with the one I was on?"

"I am not certain." He spun, emitting an image of the gorge as seen from above -- from the kelubar's usual flight path, I imagined. It was patchy, as might be expected from someone seeing it through a clenched fist the whole way. I located the ledge I'd fallen from, and could see that in the direction I'd come from, this trail headed down toward the gorge bottom. Further forward in the direction we had been heading, it eventually rounded a bend near a pass where two of the peaks joined on my side of the gorge. The image cut out near there, but if the two trails met, that seemed like the best bet. If nothing else, it seemed like a shorter climb up and perhaps a gentler slope.

"On the other hand," I muttered, "any flatter land in Colothys is liable to be inhabited." A gust of wind screamed through the gorge, as if to confirm my pessimism, and I flattened myself against the rock wall. "And no other trails to this peak you know of?"

"The peak with the portal to the next layer up from this orb is several mountains away," he said. "There are probably several trails, but they must eventually converge. Unless there is more than one portal upward, of course. What I am certain of is that backtracking or widely detouring could easily lead you out of my range of geographic knowledge. "

"Allright," I said after poking at the image for a bit, "forward then." I collected the disk and was about to put him in a pocket when I thought to ask, "Say -- what's your name?"

"I never had one before being bound. Most of my masters either never cared or gave me one in mockery."

"I'm not your master," I said absently. "Is there a name you might want?"

"No." So much for that -- for now, at least. I was sure I'd be wanting to give him a handle later.

The next couple of miles were as uneventful as a trip can be when one is trying to gain distance from a fiend's lair while hanging on for dear life against gusts of wind on the edge of a mile-deep valley. I rounded the last bend that the disk had been able to spot from the kelubar's flight path, and sure enough, a saddle pass had formed here where two mountains butted up against each other.

From the farther mountain, a rivulet splashed down in to the saddle and split in two. On my side, it carved out a shallow bed and spilled over a cliff face, disappearing in mist before it reached the bottom. In Carceri's red light, of course it looked like nothing other than a wound in the mountainside, gushing blood.

And sure enough, a spring meant inhabitants. In this case, several raggedy lean-tos and a shallow cave clung to the far mountainside, a couple of hundred yards on the other side of a U-sloped cut. Petitioners, possibly, though I didn't see them about. More worrisome, though, was the encampment near the spring, too large in number to be the owners of the shacks. Looked like a Blood War unit -- probably the outfit the rutterkin came from, for several more of them were scattered about, and a number of dretches and manes, which I didn't try to count too closely. Several dozen, though. A small unit, for them; such weak demons had to attack in huge numbers to be effective.

The chasme was nowhere to be seen; perhaps it was with a different group, or perhaps it had taken its prey somewhere other than the camp. The current leaders appeared to be a few armanites, but they were arguing over rank. From what I could snatch out of the Abyssal, a raid in the next valley over had gone badly, and this group was down a few of the demonic cavalry. They had retreated here and now a lower-ranking armanite was challenging a wounded superior for his failure.

The manes and dretches didn't seem to care about the argument, wandering about aimlessly, but the rutterkin were energetically taking sides, probably at random. A fight was in the borning, and I would have been more than happy to leave them to it, if I didn't have to figure out a way to the other side before one of them spotted me. I inched back around the bend and thought hard.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

I had to get to the other side, but they were in the middle of the pass, and I couldn't go down below them because the cliff was sheer.

At least, I couldn't take the low road on this side. What about the other? And to get over there...

I looked up. Indeed, the mountainside was more climbable here. The slope near the pass was shallower, and the track above was closer. If I stayed around this side of the bend, I should remain out of sight of the demons until I was above them, hopefully far enough to that I could crawl across and then down on the other side. Repeat the trick on the other mountain, and I could make good my escape.

As I prepared to climb, though, the natural problem occurred. One of the manes, uninterested in the fight, had wandered aimlessly off to the side of the camp while its superiors were arguing -- actually, stabbing each other, if I interpreted the latest sounds right. But while it may have been a stupid, squinty-eyed beast, it was still a demon with a heart of evil and and ill-wishing to mortalkind. It saw me, and stopped for a moment as it tried to figure out -- I don't know, maybe what I was, or what it was supposed to do.

I unlimbered my spear. It came to some conclusion, and a vicious expression came over its distorted face. I had to strike before it could cry out, but I couldn't let the fight be seen. I poked straight at its fanged mouth. It growled and spat, and clawed at my weapon. As I hoped, it lunged toward me, and I retreated.

Slip! Damn. Walking backwards on a foot-wide path over a sheer cliff was not a wise thing to do! I regained my footing, but it was on me. Fortunately, the magic of my armor had not been drained as I had, and its claws scrabbled but failed to penetrate the good workmanship.

I lifted my spear and plunged it downward into the thing's soft face. Its weird green and black ichor dripped out, the smell revolting, but I twisted it inward.

The blood. . . what did that smell remined me of? The manes' claws fell backward, its fat body shuddering as the animating force left it. I had fought demons before, fairly large battles -- why was something tugging at my memory? The smell of the dead demons... the terrifying screech of vrocks... the explosions of spell and --

Explosions! Manes exploded when they died!

I pushed its body backward with the spear, as its skin started to blister. I ducked to the ground, covering my head, as with a fearfully loud puff, it spread acid droplets all around us.

They fell on to my clothing and skittered off the magic of my armor. When I sat up, I and my equipment seemed mostly unharmed save for a few pinpricks, for which I was grateful.

I got back into a ready position, in case any other demons had heard the struggle, or the manes' death throes, and come to investigate -- but they were still preoccupied, it seemed, for which I breathed a sigh of relief.

I turned to the climb and put my spear in its strap. It was too steep to negotiate without hands. It took me tense minutes, but I made it to the next track, and pulled my head over the side.

To see the chasme, sitting on the upper trail and playing with what was obviously the remains of the rutterkin.

I froze. It would be suicide to face a chasme in my current state. If it turned its attention --

-- but it did not, and a moment later it lifted off. The buzz trailing down to the floor of the pass, and several fresh yells, told me it had decided to get involved in the fight.

I hauled myself over the edge of the upper track and began the slow crawl to the other side.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

I kept low, belly to the ground, as I crawled along the upper track of the pass. I struggled to balance between haste and silence, for the sounds of the fight were reaching a peak, and if they settled down again before I could get across, I could easily be exposed. It was also possible that they might leave and not look around; or they might come right down whatever trail I was on. Given my odds of surviving should I be spotted, I felt that making every effort to get further away from the camp was wise.

Hands and knees, hands and knees. I thought of all the myriad forms of nature, each suited to their niche, and listing them in my head made a mantra of my devotion to creation once more. The large and powerful were respected and feared, but right now I would much prefer to be small and lowly: a cat on soft paws; a chameleon tiny and invisible; a beetle, to fly unnoticed in plain sight directly to my mountain goal; a snake, who some hated, saw as cursed, but who could impart to a patient listener the timeless wisdom of Ouroboros and the healing in the staff of Aeschylus, and who had a usefully low profile.

In the middle of the crawl I passed where the chasme had been. I have, in fact, experienced more disgusting things in my life than crawling face down over the slimy remains of a dead rutterkin, but I decline to tell such stories without needing to.

Where the track branched off into a trail down to the pass below I was most exposed, but I hurried across and heard no change in the fray. Whatever luck was with me, I made it across and around the sharp edge of the mountain on the far side.

Sure enough, the slope was slightly shallower here, and it appeared that the troop had hiked up from the valley further below. There was a pile of discarded stuff, and several bodies, on the slope below. Had the battle been here? No; there were no signs of blood and rent weapons, nor any magical residue, and the tracks I could see up the hill were fairly straight, not the chaotic intermingling of a fight.

Cautiously, for the sounds of the fight were finally dying down, I descended the far slope to a point well below view of the pass. From this closer vantage, I started in surprise. The bodies were mortals! And not baatific mercenaries, either, not unless halflings, gnomes, and even a pixie were taking devil money in large numbers these days. Some would, sure, but this was a unit -- and a unit of small folk, at that. What was that about?

Now here was a double mystery. Demons didn't often take prisoners. If the troop had retreated from a battle, why would they have carried heavy bodies? Meat? Demons ate for fun, not sustenance. If it was for the loot, why not take the loot and leave the bodies? And what was a squad of small folk doing in deep Colothys if it wasn't to do with the Blood War?

I looked up. With the fight quieter now, while I was out of sight for the moment all it would take would be a demon wandering back toward this pile of stuff for me to be spotted. "Hey," I said quietly to the spirit in the disk, "can you project illusions?"

"No," it replied -- equally quietly, thank goodness. "My images are simply pictures, and mostly translucent, as you have seen."

"Yeah, but can you make a picture of the view down there and cover my body with it as we walk? It doesn't have to be perfect, just help me not be spotted with a casual glance from a distance."

"I can try."

I let him float, and an image shimmered in to existence around me. No one would have believed it on close inspection, but it might keep me a little bit safer as I made my way across.

As quietly as I could, I crossed the rocky slope. As I got next to the bodies, I revised my understanding of the situation. My poor grasp of overheard Abyssal had led me to a wrong conclusion.

Of course this hadn't been a Blood War battle. This was four layers down; armies went through on Othrys. And the thousand tiny cuts and burns on the halfling with the gold stripe on his wrist told me that this prisoner had been interrogated (at least if the demons hadn't been torturing him just for kicks, which was possible). This troop of demons hadn't retreated from a battle. They had lost a quarry! Maybe one particular quarry, whose friends had died for him, or maybe a larger group that this was just a few of.

I had to take a moment or I couldn't call myself clergy. No one could possibly have lain this disrespected heap of bodies to rest. Making the sign of the Eternal Circle, I addressed them hastily and quietly. "This is not your place, spirits of brave mortals, dwellers of sunlit lands. This is not the prison of your soul, neither these shells nor these nested orbs. Depart in peace for Yondalla's fields, for the green harbors of Arborea, or even rebirth, wheresoever your soul takes you."

That done, I stooped to collect one thing that I saw in a halfling's pack: a rope, with a grappling hook on the end and a small bag of pitons attached. Sensible equipment, right? I mean, what kind of fool shows up in Colothys without climbing gear?

Other than me, that is. Anyway, better I ended up with it than the demons.

As I was bent over, I saw another victim's satchel, and praised Yondalla's craftsmanship for making such a wise and hardy race. Naturally no halfling worth his salt would head to the wilderness without food and water. There might have been something else in there, but I wanted to waste no more time searching. I tucked the climbing gear in the little pack -- too small for me to wear, but easy enough to throw over one shoulder -- and hurried to the marginally greater safety of the other wall of the gap.

On this side, the rickety shacks and lean-tos gave some cover near the wall. I hugged their backs. The inhabitants seemed to have been run off, or perhaps had been killed; in one, I heard the noise of some little demon tossing one place and not finding anything of value. They crowded near the trail, and I was able to stay out of sight until I rounded the far bend.

As soon as I did, seeing no watcher at the far trail, I took to my heels. Time to put as much space between myself and those demons as I could.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

"Perhaps a little too much space."

"What?"

"Sorry, Disk. Lost in thought." I looked out over the surprisingly normal -sized range of mountains that rolled away before me. Instead of rust-red rock rising in sheer cliffs to impossible distances in to the sky, there were mountains jagged enough but still bearing scrub, trees, and, at their tops, wide caps of snow. The ground didn't glow here, either -- the light of the sky was a diffuse red glow from the rest of Carceri around us, giving the light the quality of a ruddy early sunset.

A chill wind blew down from those peaks, and a sluggish river misted with cold vapors wound past me. The air was sharp. Outside, Colothys howled with wind but you never escaped a slightly fetid smell. Here, the wind bit, but there was the smell of green and living things. And, above it all, the metallic smell of fresh blood.

I let Disk out to float. "This doesn't match your map."

He spun for a moment. "Our goal still appears to be there," he said, and he projected a small image of a mountain I could see, a few days' travel in a straight line, probably a week or more depending on the intervening topography. That one was still the impossible kind, and I would be glad of the climbing gear when I got there, but it lay on the other side of what looked like passable terrain.

"How recent is your information?"

"My last overflight was approximately 5 months ago."

"I'm guessing that the only thing that could make this major a change to the terrain is deific intervention."

"Agreed. It appears that the borders of a god's realm have changed."

"Do you know what gods call Colothys home? Or prison, as the case may be?"

"I do not. If my old master ever dealt with the local Powers, it was not while I was present."

I cinched my sleeves. The temperature was getting to me a little, but once I got moving again that should be less of a problem. Unless I had to cross those mountains near the snowline, in which case I was definitely going to be wanting something warmer to wear than a light robe and my armor.

"I feel like I ought to know the answer to this." This seemed like a wild place, a place of a Power, if it was a Power, that I ought to know. Frustrating, to have my head muddy even while it felt, in a way, clearer than it had since I had gotten here. My senses were heightened. Every blade of grass seemed distinct, every sound crisp. The howls of wolves carried from the range above me, the sound of thunder approached from my right, the lapping of the river droned on.

Wait. Approaching thunder?

"That's an animal stampede!" Heavy animals, it sounded like. Lots of them. And it was headed right this way. I grabbed Disk out of the air and turned to flee.

Naturally, the border was farther away from the inside. The river wound on behind me.

The river -- maybe reaching the river would turn or at least slow the stampede. I dashed for the riverbank.

Sure enough, behind me a herd of some sort of beast crested the hill. I didn't know what world they were native to, but they looked like gazelle, except that their fur shone grey and white, silver flashing under the red light of the sky, save where many of them sported red slashes dripping blood.

They were faster than me, but I had a head start. I made it to the riverbank and had splashed a few yards in to the cold water with the herd a few hundred yards behind me, and that was when the hunters around the next hill upstream broke the temporary dam they had built.

A neat trap, I thought as I heard their approaching racket. Drive the herd toward the river, block their escape with a flash flood, and kill them in the pen. The only problem was, I was an uninvited guest at the party, and I was about to be either trampled by a stampede of ungulates or carried off by a wall of water higher than my head, depending on whether I stayed in the river -- too wide for me to cross by the time that water got here -- or dashed back out.

I grumbled and dug in an inner pocket for one of the pieces of equipment I had tucked away when I armed for the expected battle this morning. I had oodles of survival equipment at home, but I had geared up for a fight in a city, not a wilderness retreat. There was, however, one item that had a fantastic number of uses for a druid, and which I almost never left home without. I still had a couple more, I just had no way of getting any more of them for a long time. At the moment, though, it seemed like now or never.

I hurled the feather into the soil beside the riverbank. "Grow!" And sorry for planting you in such a place, I added mentally.

In seconds, a huge oak tree had sprouted and gripped tightly the wet soil. I hustled up the branches lickety-split, and sat in a fork as the river rose to and then beyond its foot, a torrent fit to drown man or beast.

The herd knew it too. As they ran up to it, a few tried to jump or fell in, to be swept away, but the mass of them split off to either side, trying to run up or downriver. The hunters had flanked them, however, and with howls they lay in to the churning mass of beasts.

Howls. Now that I got a look at them, the hunters were wolves. Were wolves that clever in this realm?

No. Not were they. Were wolves. They spoke to each other in a language, not one I recognized, but clearly speech, not just wolves' vocalizations.

I waited as the hunters slaughtered their fill, and then slaughtered more. Their victory laughter and triumphant calls rose over more carcasses than they could possibly eat before they went bad, unless there was a large tribe nearby that they were feeding. It was not until most of the dozen or so had begun eating that they allowed the rest of the panicked herd to escape.

The flash flood had died down behind me, but if I fled, I knew instinctively that I would be marked as prey. Nor could I fight my way out of this.

I waited as the pack gorged itself. Fat and happy werewolves -- and maybe sluggish, though one should never count on that -- would hopefully be easier to deal with.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

It didn't take long. They ate like -- well, wolves. Soon they lolled on the ground, stuffed, their conversation muted. A couple of them set to skinning a few, though apparently they had no intention of dragging a pile of carcasses somewhere to feed a town. Wasteful.

After most of the pack was thoroughly sated, the largest one stood up. He said something slowly and languidly in their language, and looked directly up at my seat high in the tree. The rest of the pack's gaze followed. They had known I was there the whole time.

I knew if I acted like prey the pack would oblige. I stood up from the fork of the branches where I had been sitting, and hurled my spear down next to the trunk. It stuck in the soft soil. I followed it myself, jumping down and landing hard, but staying on my feet. I straightened up and looked the lead wolf in the eye, drawing my spear and pointing it at him.

He stayed where he was and growled something at me.

"I don't know that language. Perhaps you speak Planar Trade?"

He barked dismissively. In a rough Sylvan, he said, "Don't care to speak Ortho tongue. You know this one, I bet."

"I do," I replied in the same language.

"Druid." He began to circle me.

"Yes."

"You think we don't notice brand new giant stupid tree in our hunting ground?"

"I didn't want to interfere with your hunt."

"Why not eat with us?"

"I didn't take part in your hunt. Hardly fair."

"Fair! Who cares fair? You that kind of druid."

"Then let's say I'm no hyena. I want to eat, I'll kill something myself."

He was slowly closing in with each circle. I kept the spearpoint towards him.

"You are no petitioner. You don't act like Carceri. Why you in Malar's realm, fair druid?"

Malar! I could feel the color draining from my face. I should have guessed. The wolves could tell, too -- their air of satisfaction at my reaction to their god's name was palpable. "Just passing through."

He howled with laughter. "From where to where? You escape from Porphatys?" He stopped, his breath hot on the point of my spear, staring me down. "You come hunting weres without silver, balance man?"

"Didn't come hunting weres, wolf. I don't really give a flip what you think I'm here for, either. It's my business and not yours."

"Wrong! Our territory. We say who comes and goes, who is hunter and who is prey!" He batted my spear with a paw, and flinched back as the spark within flared at his touch. The pack was on its feet now. "Tool of the enemy! You die!"

I braced a foot against the tree and prepared to go all out at the lead werewolf. There was no way I could take all of them. Maybe if I killed their leader, I could convince the pack to let me go.

"Wait, Rip," said a lighter, female were's voice. "He smells funny."

"He smells like dessert!"

"He smells like death, Rip!"

"Idiot woman!" Actually, the wolf used a different word, but we can be polite. "This is no petitioner!"

"Not a petitioner -- oh, for the love of -- " The female speaker shifted to human form and approached me. It didn't seem like an attack, and I didn't want to take the spear off of the lead wolf; she drew her utility knife, and then before I could stop her, nicked my arm.

"Ow!"

She licked the blood off the blade, then made a nasty face and spit the blood out.

"Poison in his veins."

"What?" said the leader. "Not human?"

"Human blood," she said. "But tastes like rot in it. Can't you smell it?"

"Aah," I said. They both looked at me. "I was in a fight with some undead recently. They took some out of me. . ."

"Aaaaah," said Rip. "So you are temporarily out of sorts."

"Yes."

"We kill the weak." "That is proper," responded several of the others. Liturgical, apparently.

"The weak are an easy hunt," I said. If I remembered anything about Malarites, please let this be right. . .

He paused. "You are right." He opened his mouth wide and lolled his tongue, a wolf grin. "You will be our guest for a sleep," he said. "You rest. You recover. This sort of thing, it takes about a day, yes? You shake it off, prepare your spells. You will be stronger in the morning. Better hunt."

He turned to two subordinates, who I had seen slinking around the others' carcasses. "Runts! Take his spear and armor back to den."

"You think I'm going to give up my --" he looked at me disdainfully.

"You in no place to bargain, weak little druid. We will give you the lesson of the hunt. You are safe for a while." He kicked a carcass. "Take some meat. I know your type -- don't worry, these don't talk." He looked up. "You rest. Battle your poison. When you taste better, we let you go. You can run, or you can try to find your arms and then run, or you can come back and try to kill us. Your choice. Is a good hunt, hmm? It is fair. You like that kind of thing." He laughed again. The two smaller wolves changed into human form and came up to me.

I thought about it for a minute. Refusing him presumably led to me getting clawed to pieces here and now. I handed one of them my spear, and he took it gingerly by the lower portion of the haft. Another minute or so, and I was disarmored entirely, and their prisoner.

On the other hand, at least I had a place to sleep.

I passed on the venison. Could be lycanthropy in the wounds, you know.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

Their clan's den was a small system of caves higher up a nearby mountain. It was several miles away and uphill, and they amused themselves keeping me moving as fast as I could, pushing and tripping me with their bodies. (At least they didn't nip me; I assumed they regarded lycanthropy as a plus, not something to be bestowed on an enemy.) I was lighter without my spear and armor, but not as fast as wolves, and by the time we made it to the den I was stumbling with fatigue.

The arrival of a stranger in the camp caused some excitement, and pack members crowded around me with varying degrees of curiosity. Rip spoke to the assemblage in their tongue, and none of them touched me, although I was clearly under several pairs of watchful eyes.

A woman in ragged hides pointed me at a spot of ground well away from the caves, and gestured down with her hand. I sat, and this seemed to be what she wanted.

Since I had a moment, and I was tired, I shucked the undersized backpack and pulled out the halfling's traveller's rations. I was expecting it when a bystander rushed in to snatch the food from me, and socked him one, which was long enough for Rip to yell at him for bothering me. With a snarl, he backed off and let me eat.

My holy spear was another object of curiosity, especially for the half dozen or so kids -- cubs? whatever. I watched a pack of them around it lying on the ground, a collection of laughing young savages in the forms of wolves and hide-bedecked humans. Even though I couldn't understand their language, the dynamic was clear. They would dare each other to touch it or pick it up, trying to show how tough they were as the divine power within it flared and rebelled at their god's corrupted blessing. One of the bigger kids actually managed to grip the haft and do a few inexpert moves with it.

The smallest of them, a cute tyke who shifted between an awkward white-coated wolf cub and a curly-haired blonde, had been taking some ribbing for hanging back, watching his elders in awe. He finally dared to touch the spear, flinching behind an outstretched fingertip, and to his surprise -- as much as everyone else's -- the weapon did not react. His only trouble hefting the spear was the weight of it. The others looked at him silently, as I internally rejoiced at proof that the children here were not born tainted, imprisoned in Carceri though they might be.

The sudden silence drew the attention of an elder, who yelled at them, sending them scattering. She took to wolf form and chased the little one down, grabbing him by the neck and starting to give him a sound beating, apparently for failing to be appropriately Malarite.

I stood up with a balled fist, and one of my guards growled at me.

"Don't get any ideas about saving him, treehugger," he said in Planar Trade. "That's my cub. You raise yours in fear of your own gods and let us do the same with ours."

"You should have let him try to fight Petra," laughed the female who had told Rip to wait before eating me. "Rip already told her not to kill him."

"No fun for Rip if Petra lames both his legs before the hunt tomorrow, though." They bantered on like this for a while.

And really, what could I do? Even if I was in any shape to snatch him and run, it wasn't like I could turn the kid over to the City Watch to be fostered out. Soon, his ideas of right and wrong would comport with those of his parents, as childrens' ideas were supposed to.

I sat back down. But I didn't stop watching until it was through.

Afterwards, an adult gathered the spear and armor and took them up to the cave. They were taken far enough into the back that I couldn't see exactly where they were left. If I wanted them back in the morning, I'd have to go through the pack to get them.

Not that morning was much of a concept here in the endless half-light of Malar's realm. There was only the time spent in pursuit of your goals, or not. And right now, I was tired, and had the security of the pack's den, if not a comfortable coexistence with the pack itself, so apparently the action that would most assist my goals was to sleep. I put the halfling's backpack under my head, stretched out on the bare rock, and tried to sleep.

Sleep I must have, because I was woken some impossible-to-guess time later by a whisper.

"Master Abaris?"

I opened my eyes blearily and looked about. Several of the wolves were sleeping, while several of the others who had been lounging around were now up and about, but it seemed like none of them had spoken to me. Certainly I hadn't told anyone here my name.

The whisper came again.

"Master Abaris. Can you hear me? We're scrying you."

Ah. I recognized the voice now; Bitucus, a student of a colleague of mine, Garos Whitesun. I lay back and closed my eyes, trying to speak toward the spell as quietly as I could.

"I can hear you."

"Our previous scrying wasn't able to get a message through. We were beside ourselves with gratitude when we saw that you were alive. We regret that. . . well, the news is a little good but mostly bad."

"Go ahead."

"You were right that the attack on the castle was just a diversion. Longmont's forces retreated after you broke the Rod. The Basilica agrees that they would rather it be broken than fall into Longmont's hands. The wights, uh, took half the Rod, but the Basilica has another half and it doesn't seem magical anymore, so we're not sure whether they can really do anything with it except maybe render it for components, but they may have just been automatically following --"

"Bitucus."

"Right. Right." The voice paused. "Master Garos and Master Ioturix Snowbeard are dead. Master Ioturix rose again. He's with Longmont's forces now. I'm sorry."

My breath caught. I had known the two of them for decades. And Snowbeard's epithet wasn't just because of his magnificent facial hair. His command of ice and snow was unexceeded on our world. I gritted my teeth. "Whitesun left instructions to be reincarnated if he fell in battle. Snowbeard. . . remember, some of Longmont's wights retain some of their --"

"We know. Um." Bitucus took a moment to steady himself. "You may be pleased to know that Cirrus escaped. She's been hanging around the Tidesea stone circle. We're not sure if she's waiting for you or what."

I exhaled again. "Thank the Protector," I whispered.

One of the guards opened an eye from where it had looked like he was snoring. "Are you whispering a spell, druid? Keep shut up and get your rest --" he cocked an eyebrow. "Are you crying? Pitiful."

"Sorry, Master Abaris," my scryer said. "There's one last thing. We did some divinations, and the Basilica communed with some of their angels too, to get some extra clarity on any advice for your situation. Unfortunately, the response was pretty consistent.

"You know the rule on Carceri. You get out when you're stronger than your jailer. Because you willingly broke the Black Rod, the signs and omens all agree. To get out, you're going to have to be stronger than yourself.

"We don't know what that means, but that's your only ticket out of there. There's something that goes along with that, too: other than telling you the escape condition, we can't send you any help, even advice. Any help initiated from the world you left or the friends you had not only won't work, it will trap you in Carceri for the rest of your life.

"You're on your own."

I digested that for a little. "Understood," I whispered. And somehow, in character for Carceri.

"I'm ending the scrying. I can't send you any real luck, sir, but know that I wish it for you."

Silence from the spell. I lay listening to the distant calls of animals, hunter and prey. And then, with nothing else to do but try to regain my strength, I slept again.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

I awoke to the sound of thunder. Normally, I enjoyed a good storm, but here the storm approached from the inter-orb space in a lightning-rent mass, driving before it not the smell of petrichor, but foul scents swept up from the orbs of the prison world. Lit red from below by our glowing orb, it grew in the sky, as if it intended to engulf and consume us.

It was time.

I did what I could to freshen up, but the facilities weren't really set up for guests. When I turned around, a bearded, long-haired pack member in human form, wearing furs that had apparently been chosen for their consistent black, was glaring at me and shouting in their tongue.

"What?" I said. "I don't understand you."

He glared at me some more, then turned around and stalked toward the cave Rip had entered last night.

The female whose name I had yet to learn looked over from the boulder where she had been perched, keeping an eye on me. "It was Night's tree," she said in Sylvan. "You just challenged him."

". . .oh." I shrugged.

"You shouldn't take it so lightly." From Rip's cave there sounded first shouting, then snarls, and the pack scattered outdoors. Tumbling into the open space, Rip and Night were in a blood match. They separated and started circling each other. "He's demanding that Rip let him take up your challenge."

"I wasn't really challenging him."

"He knows. He's also smart enough to know that if he lets you off because of that he can be accused of cowardice by some other ambitious upstart."

"If he wins, will he let me be long enough to get prepped?"

"I wouldn't count on it. He didn't like the idea of letting you live in the first place." They closed, bit, drew back, circled again. "Night's ambitious in the pack, but when it comes to hunts and fights, he doesn't care to make things complicated."

"I'd better get busy then."

I knelt right where I was and made the sign of the Eternal Circle. To the sound of the approaching storm and the snarls of the fight, I began to meditate.

This was Malar's realm. Therefore, I hunted. My quarry were my memories, trapped beneath a fog of evil. My net was my consciousness. Into my mind, I set forth.

"The first act is the one that cannot be understood," old Adhertos had said. "We live in a world of cause and cycle. The sun draws forth clouds from the ocean, the clouds descend as rain upon the land, to run in river to the ocean."

Rain began to spatter on the slope around me.

"Where, then, is the beginning? What force creates from nothing?" He addressed his students.

"The Lifewell," I replied. "All manner of energy and matter come from there, even fresh souls."

"Chaos," said Marocatos. "All forms emerge from the roil of formlessness." We had been rivals, in that schoolboy way.

"Good answers both," said Adhertos, "but it is the nature of the Lifewell to create life, it is the nature of Chaos to shape and destroy. What maade them?"

We hesitated. Could the Positive Energy Plane have created itself from nothing? Marocatos ventured, "Just because it's not logical for Chaos to have created itself from nothing doesn't mean it didn't. Logic doesn't hold there."

In my memory, I struggled to reach for memory. Meditating on the slope, I tried to remember how to remember.

I piped up, "Since the Lifewell can create anything else ex nihilo, it might as well have created itself first." I wasn't going to be outdone by him.

Rip and Night closed again, claws raking flesh. They separated once more, Night being tossed downslope. He stood, shook himself, and charged upward again.

"So both of you, favoring your creation theory, have a one-time event where your source of all other things gives rise to itself first. You will, I trust, recall the creation stories we have discussed from various religions. Atum supposedly created himself. Several other gods claim to be uncreated. For all I know, they're all right. As Marocatos points out, something not quite logical happened at the point where all the cycles began. Something different. That is the one glimpse we have of the incomprehensible boundaries of divinity from within this mortal world."

"And that is why, as druids, we pledge ourselves to the protection of Creation. All of creation, without fear or judgment."

The wind began to pick up. Rain slicked the stone.

"What is there to protect creation from, then?" I asked.

"Lord Shiva is the Destroyer," ventured young Roveca.

"And Re-Creator," Marocatos and I simultaneously appended.

Rip and Night both landed a swing on their opponent's face at the same time, and they backed away, clearing their heads.

"True on both counts," said Adhertos. "Perhaps one day we will come to disagreement with Shiva about whether the time has come to destroy this universe. And perhaps we will agree with him. We are fairly sure now is not. For there are still creators: artists, and builders, and fruit-bearing trees, and vibrant creatures."

"Builders make cities," muttered Marocatos. "Them I don't like."

The black fog in my skull rose up and battered at me. It didn't like me. It hated. It wanted me to hate it, fear it. The throbbing in my head matched the pounding of the rain on the rocks and the spatter of blood from the fighters' wounds.

"You're a builder when you pitch your tent at night," I pointed out. "They're ours to protect too. From. . ."

Night recovered first, and launched himself at Rip. His jaws surrounded Rip's neck.

"From. . ." I thought hard.

I pushed forward. I would not fear. Pain would not stop me. My thoughts we my own -- get out! I am me, creating myself in the midst of creation!

"From uncreation." I looked up. "From senseless destruction. From acts that end cycles without restarting them. From creatures that steal souls from reincarnation and the afterlives where they can serve their deities to make a better universe."

Rip had gotten his paws under Night, though, and before Night could close, he heaved with all the strength of his body. Night tumbled into the air, and where he came down, Rip was waiting to grip his neck and look into his eye, threatening death for anything other than capitulation.

Marocatos would not be outdone. "Didn't the Lifewell, or Chaos, or whatever created everything else, create the Deathwell too?"

"We don't know," said Adhertos sadly. "We don't know much of the era of Creation. What we do know is that the creatures of Uncreation universally appear to consume and destroy without replacement or rejuvenation. They are unlike all other things of this world, which exist in balanced cycles. We are willing to use the energies of that plane when we must, when the conscious choice to destroy can serve the greater balance, but if our duty to the world, if our very survival instinct as living creatures, is to mean anything, it means that we fight them."

Survival and rage warred in Night's eyes, but survival won out. He went limp, signalling submission.

"So, today we will study the meditation techniques you will need, if you ever come in to contact with such powers. . ."

The storm rose. Uncaring, I knelt in the rain, hands in the sign of the Circle, and reached for my memories, for my strength. The clouds in my brain battered back at me, refusing to surrender. As I pushed past them, they vanished like smoke, only to choke me and coat my inner eyes with soot, my muscles with the torpor of the grave.

But I was alive. I fixed on old Adhertos' face, strained for the sound of his words. Mantras and affirmative verses ran through my mind. I was alive!

Rip released Night, and Night clambered to his feet. Pausing for one last look at me, he turned and ran in to the storm.

The last of the internal fog cleared, and I felt cleaner under the downpour, as if black ink were washing off of me in the rain.

Mostly, I knew, this was an illusion. The evil power had not vanished; it had only dulled my senses to the point where I could no longer distinguish its presence. I was like an acolyte again.

But it had not been entirely in vain. As I thought over my training, I recalled something that would be very useful today: how to glide tracelessly through wilderness. I still lacked the clear insight that had allowed me to touch the greater powers of nature in both form and spell, but I remembered more than I had, and I knew that at least a few more powerful spells were at my command.

I looked up to see Rip among my guards. He growled something to them, and they nodded. He turned and went back to the cave; waiting for him in the entrance was a pack member in human form, carrying some bandages and some kind of herbs. He didn't seem terribly damaged; I was sure the hunt was still on.

I backed up under the tree, where it was not remotely less wet than the rest of the place, but at least for the principle of the thing, and tried to recall the best selection of spells I could muster. I was coming back for that armor; I seriously doubted I could survive Carceri without it. Which meant that I needed to have a really good plan.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

It wasn't a good plan. But it was the best I could come up with by the time Rip emerged from the cave and howled to call his pack together. My guards went up to join him where he stared at me, a hunger and hatred smoldering in his eyes.

He looked practically unharmed. Werewolf bites weren't silver, after all. I suppose that made fights like the one I had seen earlier pretty common among pack members.

The rain had turned into a steady pounding, making the ground slick and reducing visibility. The first was bad news for a biped, but the second was hopefully good news for the hunted. And as for the first, I could do something about that.

This spell was pretty redundant once you could change your own shape, but for now, it was something useful that I recalled from my early training. If you were going to be hunted by wolves, you had better be able to either fly, or run at least as fast as a wolf.

I leaned forward and landed on all fours as my limbs changed shape and my clothing disappeared to be replaced by fur. I faced the pack as another wolf.

They shouted in furious challenge at the apparent mockery. "We will eat you from the feet!" said one. "Infidel!" shouted another. "I will drink your soul with your blood!" Rip snapped his jaws, and they raced down the hill. I turned and fled through the trees.

We were more evenly matched in speed, now, and it was going to take them longer to catch up. That's what I wanted -- to lead them away for a short distance, as many of them as I could.

It was a good thing I didn't really want to outpace them, because I wasn't. Wolves weren't copies of each other, after all, and several of them were faster than me here on their home turf. Both they and I occasionally skidded on slippery ground, but not all of them did, especially Rip, and he led them in closing the distance. He knew where to jump to cut distance off the downward path, and he knew where a patch was likely to be slippery.

I made it to a region of woods that I judged to be thick enough for my purpose, with Rip close behind. Skidding to a stop, I turned to face the pack, and dismissed the spell. (Like most sensible druids, I had previously practiced the thought-pattern adaptations necessary to cast spells while in animal form. Regrettably, I had not successfully retrieved that ability from my memory.)

It took them a few more seconds to close in. That was all I needed. I uttered the words that caused the trees around me to bend to my aid, and the pack was, mostly, caught in their suddenly twisting branches. Several managed to avoid the initial seizure, but still had to deal with the trees' repeated attempts.

Rip, who had been closest to me, was not quite caught in time -- he slammed in to me, and I could feel his claws raking along my ribs. I shoved him away with all my strength, and before he could attack again, a tree grabbed him.

I uttered the words of a third spell, a copy of my first, and took on wolf form again. Easily maneuvering between trees that bowed to my will, I evaded the struggling hunters. My blood disappeared into the rain as I struck out, top speed, at a right angle to the cave. Several wolves behind me had not been caught by the entangling trees, but they were the slower runners, and this time I managed to outpace them.

As soon as I was out of visual range in the rain, I counted steps. They knew the area here better than me; I was taking a significant risk running into a region I didn't know. I made sure I was leaving no tracks; the rain, which had helped me lose them visually, made this task easier as well.

After a minute or so, I turned back uphill. I did my best to hide in the trees, but I was moving at top speed and I wasn't that far ahead of the hunters. The slower ones of the pack they might have been, but they were skilled, and they had spread out in order to prevent just such misdirection. The upslope wolves found me and signaled the others, causing the pack to follow me once more.

By this time Rip and the others had surely made it out of the trees. My only hope for survival rested on getting back to my equipment. "Disk," I said, "it's time."

"Understood," he said, and projected around me a copy of a running wolf. "The rain will help, but don't expect this to fool them for long."

"Got it."

When I next ran into a dip, my image instead hesitated at the edge, then turned to the right and ran along the rim. I paused and listened, heart pounding. The sound of the pack came closer, then turned right.

I waited until they were committed to a greater distance than they had been, and climbed up the far side of the depression. From here, it was a shorter run back to the main cave.

The whole pack hadn't run after me, just the ones interested in the hunt. Still, that meant that the ones left behind were children, a few parents, and some of their aged. I blew past them as fast as I could. Oddly -- interestingly -- none of them seemed to particularly care to attack me as I passed. Only a single mother, Petra I thought, bristled at me from in front of a few kids.

I wasn't there to hurt anyone, though. The cave grew even dimmer in the back, away from their lamps and the firepit near the front, but I could see my spear. I dropped my wolf form and grabbed it gratefully, then look around for my armor.

My armor.

My. . . where in the Red Hell was my armor?!?

A low laugh came from the front of the cave.

I turned. It was Night; his wounds hadn't been treated like Rip's, but they were still minimal.

"I knew you'd come back for it, human. Rip thinks I don't know the teachings very well. But I know one of the smartest hunts is to wait where your prey has to go."

Momma calmly shoo'ed her young ones out of the cave as Night slowly sauntered in. The youngsters watched the scene with great interest, peering around the sides of the entrance after they got out.

I leveled the spear at him. "Where's my armor?"

Another laugh. "That answer's not going to matter unless you survive me!" He launched himself at my throat.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

Unarmored, I had no intention of meeting him skin to fang. My trump cards had to be saved for Rip, or the pack entire, unless I was really about to die. I kept the spear between me and him as much as I could, not attacking, just trying to get around him.

The weapon had been blessed by our entire circle, consecrated to the war against Longmont's undead. It had served me well in many battles. Night barely noticed it; the spearhead would plunge and retreat with hardly more than a singe where the holy power had flared, and sometimes not even that. Only by the physical impact did I manage to keep him off of me.

Struggling for a few seconds, I managed to edge past Night towards the opening of the cave, and started backing out. I hadn't been bitten yet, but my luck wouldn't hold out forever. I had expected to use this spell to buy myself some time to put on my armor, but it would have to do now.

I called upon the earth in its gentle aspect, addressing the ceiling of the cave. The gap in concentration on my defense was enough for one of Night's attacks to succeed, and I felt his claws tear a gash in my side.

Years of discipline kept me focused, and I felt my spell succeed at the same time. With a swing of the spear's butt I batted him away from me, and into the area of the fall of thick mud and chunks of rock I into which had turned the cave's roof. Night was effectively buried -- whether he suffocated before he could get out wasn't going to be my concern. I turned around.

Petra was standing between me and the cubs, bristling. I shook my head. "I don't care, lady." I looked up in the rain. "Disk? Where are you?"

"Behind you, boss." He flashed a bright image of sunshine to show me where he was hovering on the slope above the cave. "Last I saw, most of the pack was running a search pattern near where I cut out. I don't think Rip was fooled, though. He never rejoined them that I saw."

"I have to find him."

"What? Why?"

"Because I'm pretty sure he --"

Petra barked. A warning. Not to me. Unheeded by excited children, headstrong boys. She had grabbed one by the neck and pinned another with a paw.

I looked down, to a youth who could not have fully understood the danger his tiny bite to my calf had put me in.

I said something which apparently isn't a naughty word anywhere but my homeworld.

I grabbed the cub by the neck and bodily tossed him back toward Petra, who promptly began beating him soundly. I knew the gist of her raging; Night had used his claws deliberately. A bite was a gift, unless your bites killed.

To Disk, I said, "I bet you didn't see a single spring of wolfsbane anywhere in your trip, did you."

"No, boss. I wouldn't expect it to grow wild in Malar's realm. Do you think it took?"

"I guess I'll find out next full moon."

"Our childrens' bites don't tend to carry the full Gift until they're adolescents," said the voice I had both wanted and dreaded to hear.

Rip approached from the edge of the woods, my female guard from last night following him. "It's a possibility, though. If you'd like to check, try to change. The change is easy here, by our lord's grace. Look." He reared, and took his human form.

And there it was. My armor.

I leveled the spear. "Allright. Let's make a deal. If I kill you, I take my armor and the pack lets me go."

"I don't think you understand how a wolf pack hunts. I certainly recommend you kill me. But all it will mean is that you have one less wolf to deal with when the rest of my pack gets back here."

He changed to wolf form again, and howled. It cut clearly through the wind, and I knew I had perhaps a minute before the pack got back.

Time for the last significant spell I had dredged from memory this morning. As Rip closed the distance, I uttered in a magical tongue words that I knew would offend the very land about me, and prayed that it didn't draw Malar's attention -- or that if it did, he decided to let his worshipers deal with it or die.

"Eclipse the silver light within. . ."

. . .and Rip stumbled and collided with me in human form.

His shock was great, and it instantly flared to rage. "Blasphemer!" He drew the shortsword that had appeared upon his body.

But now the protective skin of moonlight had left him, and my spear found its mark almost before his sword was out of its sheathe. The spear flared in the wound, and his skin blackened. He gripped the shaft, falling to his knees, and looked beyond me. "Take him. . . wait -- who. . ." he said.

His companion! I turned, trying to free my spear from his deathgrip.

The wolf he had been speaking to was backing off from a new creature. I couldn't even identify it, at least not under the circumstances. Like a big cat, but there was intelligence in its eyes. Not a weretiger, though. It sniffed the air and turned to me. Its expression was conspicuously missing its largest upper right fang, which at least partially explained what it said to me:

"You've got my tooth, human."

The pack poured up the slope, eyes glinting in the downpour. The newcomer was as unknown to them as to me, apparently. But was this a fresh foe to divide my flesh with the weres, or an ally?

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

The creature sauntered towards me, cautious and alert. It glanced at the pack, which was currently weighing the odds the same as I was.

I yanked my spear from Rip, who fell to the ground clutching his chest -- in bad condition unless he got help fast -- and kept it pointed at the newcomer. He stopped a few feet from me, though I was under no illusions that he couldn't cover it quicker than I could cast a spell.

He waited for a moment. Then he sniffed the air. No normal creature ought to have been able to smell anything in this rain, much less tracked something through it, and yet he nodded.

"You've got my tooth," he repeated in Planar Trade. "Give it back."

"I don't think I have anybody's tooth. I'd remember taking it."

"I will rend you apart to retrieve it if I must." Still, it glanced at the were pack as it said that. It wasn't eager to fight me while fighting them.

I thought hard.

"Wait, I think I know." The halfling's backpack! I'd been wearing it slung over one shoulder, awkwardly. I reached up and pulled it off. Carefully, kneeling with spear out, I opened it up and glanced inside.

One more meal of rations. A burnt-out ioun stone. A journal and a bunch of notes I hadn't had time to read yet. And a small bag. I plucked it out, slung the pack back on, and opened the bag.

"Huh." Teeth. Different shapes and sizes, clearly different species. The mate of the fang staring at me. A big molar from a herbivore. A shark's tooth. A bunch of others, all tied together with a single long strand of braided sinew. I shook the bag off and brought the strand in to the dim light.

The pack went nuts.

They bayed and growled. The newcomer tensed, but they made no move to attack.

"Thief!" said Rip from the ground, in his rough Sylvan. "Return it!" He grabbed my kneeling leg, attempting to drag himself toward it.

"What the hell is this of yours?"

"Not yours, infidel! That is a Malarite --!" I didn't know the word he used, but I recognized the idea, and slowly the feeling of power in the thing was dawning on me.

I'd been carrying around a Malarite power key.

"You will. . . never be allowed. . . to leave this place with that holy thing." He reached for his blade, and I stomped on it.

I said to the newcomer, "Can you keep the pack off me for a minute?"

"To what end?"

I looked down at Rip. No, that was ridiculous. It would take far too long.

I stuck my spear through my belt and grabbed the strand by the newcomer's fang. Then I yanked.

The pack surged forward a step, then halted as I stood there, tense, ready to destroy their icon.

"Let's try that deal again, Rip. Give me my armor."

"And we get our key?"

"You get most of it." I nodded at the newcomer. "I get to the border of your territory, he gets his tooth back. You want it from him again, I think your god has a pretty standard quest to get it back."

"A hunt," Rip said. "That is proper. But. . ." He winced. He really needed help soon. "I. . . cannot let you. . . destroy the icon."

"You're not letting me. If you attack me now, I do it instantly."

Rip paused.

The female wolf from last night, who I really needed to name if I could, spoke up. "An icon is reparable, Rip. If the cat flees with all of it, we have nothing."

After a long moment, he nodded.

As Rip called over a couple of his pack to treat his wound and help him out of my armor, I looked over at the newcomer. "And what do you say?"

His tail lashed. "You would set the pack on my tail to save your own hide."

"They'd be after you anyway. And I'll travel with you if you want." Disk made the sound of a cough, from up on the slope. "To the border, at least." As he thought, I added, "If you say no, you risk losing the tooth in the fight. And your life, of course." I wanted to ask some obvious questions -- was it really worth it? I knew how it could be reattached, but did he? -- but it would be stupid to bring up anything that might dissuade him.

"Very well."

It took a few more minutes for Rip to remove my armor, and several more for me to awkwardly don it while holding on to the strand of teeth. I was conscious that much of the time, the big cat was guarding my back while my spear lay on the ground, his teeth a moment's lunge from my neck. I was conscious that any minute the pack might decide to risk it all to regain their holy icon, and drown us in a wave of wolf calls, likely killing me even the newcomer survived. But neither of these things happened, and I finally stood armored once more.

"I'll take them to the border," said the female.

Rip looked at her, and asked a question in an accusing tone in their own language. She responded, and he didn't like the answer, but I couldn't grasp the gist of the passage. She turned to us. "Let's go," she said, without waiting for me to declare that I was ready, and set off in the direction I had come.

"Wait," I said, and pointed to the peak in the distance. "That border."

She looked up. "Huh. You're trying to get off the layer," she said.

"Just take us to the border of this pack's territory. I'll -- we'll -- deal with the next bunch on their own terms."

"Suit yourself," she said.

Rip shouted a couple of orders to his pack, and two young wolves set off at top speed in the direction we were headed.

"Suppose we'll find out what sort of reception they're preparing for us when we get there," the cat murmured, and turned that way.

I spared a glance back as we trotted off. The mudpile I'd created was still, and I wished I hadn't.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

The rain was starting to slacken to a steady drizzle as we hiked over wet grassy slopes in the red reflections of the distant light. I was the slowest of the three of us, to their annoyance, but by Rip's agreement to save his icon, we were safe until we reached the border.

"Can't you shift wolf again?" she asked.

"No, that wasn't a natural talent of mine. Just a spell. And I'm out of those for now." She snorted. I shifted the conversation away from my remaining spell energies (which happened to be minimal at present). "So what's your name? I've been meaning to ask."

"Does it matter? Aren't I your enemy?"

". . .actually, I bet you're not." She stopped and looked at me coolly. "You kept Rip from killing me out of hand at our first meeting."

"You would have poisoned him."

"Not enough to matter. You were one of my guards all night."

"Keeping you there."

"Keeping me under your eyes rather than someone else's. And you came back with Rip, alone, when he turned away while the others were hunting my distraction."

"He's my pack leader."

"Everyone else stayed with the main search. But you could have attacked me while I fought him."

"We don't interfere--"

"Yes you do. Wolves are pack hunters. It's not about honor. It's about the efficient kill." I waited. She was silent. "Fine. I'd still like to think of you as something other than 'that female wolf with the gray back patch.'"

She looked back at her coat as she trotted. "I don't have a gray--!"

"Gotcha."

She looked at me quizzically and shook her head. "I don't get it." The cat rumbled, a chuckle. The wolf sighed, and said a word in the wolf tongue. "It's their word for ice."

"Their, huh."

Ice tsked. "Fine. But you won't get more details out of me willingly. Not yet. You're too eager to trust, and it will kill you before you get out of here if you don't unlearn it."

"She's right," the cat added.

"And what's your name? Mine's Abaris," I offered.

"I am Hybrid Creation Number Twelve of Project Sampsa."

"Talk about a name with a story behind it."

"Like Ice, not one I care to talk about with someone I just met."

"Mind if I call you Sampsa?"

"That's fine."

"And how do you intend to put the tooth back in?"

"Put it back in? I just don't want part of my body to be part of a power key for a god worshiped by the Vile Hunt. I can sense the thing while it's in there. It's how I tracked it. All of the teeth in there are from creatures that are still alive, and bothered by it; if they die, that tooth will fall out. Enough fall out and it'll be rendered powerless." He paused. "Are you saying it can be put back in?"

"My world has a large stock of simple incantations. They're not hard to learn; our druids tend to pick up a bunch of them. One of them will replace a tooth in its socket and heal the gum."

"I heard incantations were dangerous," said Ice.

"They are," I said. "If you use them too frequently, or try one that's beyond your skills. But this one isn't hard, and I have the healer training needed. Although we'll have to find some materials I don't have immediately. Powdered limestone and such."

"Huh." He was thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I admit that would be a bonus. Perhaps I'll stay with you long enough to get that done."

"How did you come across that thing anyway?" Ice asked.

"Dead halfling."

Ice tensed. "You killed him?" she asked.

"No, it was a small unit. Err, no pun meant. Demons got them."

"A unit? Was their leader dead with them? He would have worn a purple cloak, or carried a shield blazoned argent, three violets one and two purpure leaved vert."

"Your heraldic grammer is excellent for a--"

"Just answer the damned question!"

"No. I didn't see that device or a halfling in a purple cloak." She breathed again, and we walked on in silence for a bit.

"Look," I said, "ever since I saw those guys I've been eager to know what they were down here for. It's a long way down from the Styx. And halflings and gnomes and the like are, you know, just as commonly good and bad as any other race, but pixies tend to the Upper Planes, plus anyone demons slaughter, you know, I figure they've got a point in their favor."

"Allow me to introduce you to a little scrap they've been having with devils," Sampsa interjected.

"Understood," I said, "but as a general rule the point still stands." I turned to Ice. "If you were with them, and it has something to do with this power key, then maybe being a little more open about it will help us escape this tangle with our lives."

Ice chewed on that for a bit. Finally, she said, "The Vile Hunt has been more active recently. They used to be just a stupid lot of speciesists with a pathological obsession with the Beastlands and the impossible goal of empyting it out of talking animals. But lately they've expanded their ideas. Some of them are talking about hunts as vision quests. They were never very philosophical before. And get this: they're claiming that they've made friends with the Athar."

"Why?" I asked, because she wanted me to. "What percentage do the Defiers have in the Vile Hunt?"

"Athar are about seeking, in a way. And more importantly, the Hunt's claiming that they've started cluing themselves in on humanity's creator god. They've gotten all Gnostic on the other gods, calling them secondary creators and saying that they're hiding the true Creator from humans."

"So they're looking to expand in to god-hunting?"

"Animal god-hunting, at least. So their activities have gotten a lot more focused. They're poking around on the Beastlands for secrets. Strong word has it that they're looking for ways to take on one of the animal lords." She glanced at my scavenged pack. "And then Malarite artifacts started showing up with them. A holy symbol here and there, known priests. And then stuff like that." She addressed Sampsa. "It would help if you divulged to us the circumstances under which you lost your tooth."

"You would know all of that if you were involved with this from the Malarites' side," said Sampsa, "and following the icon would be an excellent way to locate and deal with a group come down from the Upper Planes to put a stop to such activities. Thus, I will decline to provide details until I have much more reason to trust you."

"See, Abaris? That's how you survive around here," Ice said, and turned back to the trip.

"How long do we have?" I asked later.

"The border's not rigidly defined," Ice replied. "We should reach it. . . oh, right about the time you get tired from the day's march."

"And what are your neighbors like?"

"There are fewer weres in their pack; mostly regular humans. No love for Rip, and sometimes they're willing to buy something from outsiders rather than eat them. But you? And with what you're carrying? I can't see them giving you any better a deal than Rip."

No use sighing. I marched, and tried to think of our next step.

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Re: Planestuck

I had been getting a little comfortable with the rain. It decided to put a stop to that nonsense, and started to turn chilly. My garments had been meant for a warm, dry climate, and the result was most unpleasant. I was in bad enough shape after a morning being hunted by a wolfpack and the better part of a day's march, and decided that something had to be done. Tomorrow, a spell to endure the elements. Today. . .

Looking around, I spotted a large patch of reeds by a riverbank just below us. I turned toward it. The other two stopped to watch me go.

"Where are you headed?" said Ice.

"Here," I said, and started cutting handfuls of reeds.

"What for?"

"Haberdashery." I quickly braided several of the longer ones.

"If you had a proper fur coat like normal mammals this wouldn't be a problem," said Sampsa. "We don't have time for this. Rain won't kill you."

"It's mighty unpleasant," I replied, and continued weaving. "Anyway, a cone hat will just take a few minutes. If I had a couple of hours I'd cook up a raincoat."

Ice sat on her haunches underneath a shrub. "If you think that delay will improve your situation --"

"I'm not delaying. I'm hatmaking." I finished the frame quickly and clomped through mud over to the shrub to yank off leaves for surface.

"You're already soaked through, too," she added. "You think the hat will help?"

"Yes. Look, you think it's so easy being a human in this mess, take human form and walk with me."

"No thanks."

I layered leaves. "How close are we to the border?"

"Close enough that we're in frontier territory now," said Ice.

"Really." That sparked a thought. I pondered the ramifications as I finished the hat surface and braided a strap.

A few minutes later I had something that wouldn't last for more than a couple of days but would work for right now, and with some relief I put it on. "Ice. Take human form for a minute."

"Are you stupid or deaf? I said no."

"It's not about the rain." I dug out the Malarite power key. "I'm going to give you Sampsa's tooth, and then you're going to go wolf again. The tooth itself will only be residually magical once it's out of the icon, so you should be able to tuck it away."

"To what end?" said Sampsa.

I took a close look at the knots holding Sampsa's on. As I had suspected, they were more than just physical. I laid the icon on the ground and pulled out my spear. Touching it to the loops, I began to dig at the sinews holding it in. With sparks and hisses of smoke, it fought back, but eventually the tooth popped loose.

I looked up at Sampsa. "How do you feel?"

He took a deep breath. "Much better, thank you. But my earlier question still stands."

"I'd rather the pack we're about to meet not be able to take your tooth off of me with a sudden surprise attack. I've been racking my brains trying to figure out how to assure safe passage through the other territories between here and my goal, and I think I've got an idea. I'm going to make myself some insurance."

I picked up the fang and held it out toward Ice. She regarded it for a moment, then went human, took the tooth and put it away in a bag. When she returned to wolf form, it melded with the rest of her equipment. Good, then. I returned to prying out teeth.

"Are you destroying the icon now?" asked Ice. "They will never let you live."

"Not destroying it," I said. "Weakening it." The next fang came out easier. I looked around. "Are we watched?"

Sampsa shook his head. "Not unless they are much better at hiding than I would expect from what I saw of them earlier," he said.

I nodded. "You know this locale, right?" I asked Ice.

"Of course," she said.

"Good. Tell me the names of the landmarks we see."

She did so, giving me the names in the local tongue and in Planar Trade, as I dug several inches in to the ground and buried the second tooth I had just pried out, covering the hole back up and concealing it as well as I could.

I straightened up, and held up the power key, now with three of the larger teeth prominently missing. "One of them they'd have to fight Ice for, another one me," I said, pocketing a second tooth. "The third they won't be able to find -- I could have buried it anywhere in the miles between Rip's den and the border -- unless, of course, you plan to turn stag on us," I added to Ice.

"Though if I do," she said, "I would have to attack you for the one you hold, and it would be clear to Sampsa that I was betraying our common goal."

"Meaning," concluded Sampsa, "that I should promptly attempt to seize my tooth from you, putting me on his side in the resulting fight."

"Are we all friends now?" I asked.

Ice barked a derisive laugh. "Ask me again when we've passed up more opportunities to stab each other in the back. Are you done covering various parts of your anatomy for now?"

"I am," I said, and adjusted my hat.

"Then let's get to the border."

An hour later, we looked down over the edge of a fault that fell the height of a few men. Grass and bushes on this side turned to gravel and scrub beyond, where the wind split as it spit down from the interorb void.

Waiting for us at the bottom of the slippery path were the two wolves Rip had sent before us, and a half dozen new folk: humans likely, weres possibly, thought at the moment all of them stood on two legs, and were reasonably well-armed. They looked up at us as we crested the sightline. I held the power key aloft, where it could be seen through the cold drizzle. Once it was clear that I had what they had come here for -- or most of it -- we descended, seeing who it was that we would bargain with for the next stage of our journey.

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Re: Planestuck

"I say we kill him."

And things had been going so well.

"What is your response to his riddle, then?" asked the leader of the new pack: as Ice had said, not all of these were wolves. This man was young, bronzed, with sun-bleached hair and golden cat's eyes that suggested a touch of fiend. Tieflings, if I recalled correctly, couldn't be made lycanthropes, which would explain why the scars he bore hadn't transmitted the dise-- err, circumstance -- to him.

"He was hunted this morning," said the other speaker. This one was human-looking too, but he had the otherworldly air about him, an aura of muted affect and coolly distant threat -- he was a petitioner. Fascinating, that a living mortal could achieve a position above a petitioner in this realm. A certain straightforward meritocracy applied here after all. "He has traveled on foot, at human speed, from Rip's den. He cannot have diverged far from the direct path." We hadn't, either. I kept my face as straight as I could. "Somewhere between here and there we will find the missing piece -- the one that remains after we seize the other teeth from him and his treacherous allies."

Ice snapped a response in their own tongue, to which the petitioner replied. They argued briefly, and the new pack leader considered.

I piped up, "To a petitioner, forever isn't so long. If you have all eternity, a finite amount of space can be combed as thoroughly as you like. But if I survive the trip through this realm, you can have that tooth back in, what, a week?" Surely the pack leader wanted the icon -- preferably in good repair -- for himself, and sooner rather than later.

"There is also," added the petitioner with quiet menace, "the small matter of the fact that you have desecrated a gift from the Lord of Hunters himself."

The pack leader nodded. He said casually to me, "You realize, that sacrilege means your death is assured regardless. Even if we let you cross the territory, once you've told us where the missing piece is you have no further leverage."

"I suppose I feel confident enough that I'll be able to run once I've gotten to the border." And perhaps by the time I had crossed the territory I would have obtained more leverage.

The petitioner growled something to the pack leader. Ice said, "He says you must have a trick up your sleeve."

"Doesn't everyone?"

The pack leader snorted. He eyed the icon, still held in my hand, then looked up at me. "Know fear, Abaris. Even if you escape us at our border, even if you think you can run, we have many trackers experienced in hunting across planes. Your life will one day be forfeit."

I shrugged. "I'm a mortal. I was born with Death stalking me. 'One day' doesn't scare me."

"So be it." He turned to his underlings. "We let him through," he said in Sylvan, presumably for my benefit. "You will keep silent as to his crime, lest he be killed by angry brothers of ours before he can reveal his burial site." Nicely vague antecedent on that last clause there.

He turned back to me, and held out his hand.

Time to see if our negotiations were going to hold any water at all. I handed over the icon.

He took it reverently, kissing the larger remaining teeth, and was about to slip the string over his head when Ice said, "Are you sure it's okay for you to do that?"

He stopped. "What do you mean?"

"The human got it from some unit of troops outside our borders. Not brothers. It must belong to someone."

"It belongs to whoever holds it. You know that."

"Say rather that it belonged to someone, then -- someone favored by the Hunter. If they are still alive, they might come back for it."

"Let them!" he laughed, and slipped the string over his head. "If they come in peace, I will be honored by their presence. If they come in war, I will fight them. If they win, I will die at the hand of a great one. If they lose, then they were unworthy of this thing which they lost."

He stood taller with the icon on his shoulders, and the men with him, petitioner and mortal, were distinctly more respectful. I almost hated to give the thing up, except that I couldn't think of any other way to get through here.

"So you hadn't heard of such a thing being given out?" I asked. "One would have thought that they made news."

He glanced at me. "News travels fitfully around here. We live under the aegis of our god -- who cares what goes on elsewhere? The outside doesn't bother us."

"People hire Malarites for their skill at tracking, though, don't they?"

"Of course. And sometimes there is the call to increase the faith. . . are you just going to stand around now that we have made agreement?"

I tugged at my hat. "It's been a busy day. If I'm not going to be fighting for my life in the next few minutes, if it's all the same to you I'd like to look for a place to make camp."

He stood there for a beat. Then he blinked. "What? I should help you?"

No, of course not. I turned to Ice. "Is there any place along this fault to get a bit out of the rain?"

"This pack has a hunting lodge about a mile-"

"You're not welcome there," said the petitioner.

"--there's a shallow cave or two a couple of miles to our right," she offered.

"Let's go then." We trudged along the escarpment. The delegates of the new pack didn't follow us closely, but we were under no illusion that we walked alone.

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Re: Planestuck

The rain had dropped to a drizzle now that shelter was close by, of course. It was quiet enough that I could hear a growling that wasn't a wolf, but my stomach. The halfling's pack was out of rations, so if I was going to eat, it was going to be off of the land.

"Will they mind if I forage?"

"Don't forage," Ice said quickly. "You can, and you'll find plenty, but if you eat first of the forage here the realm will mark you as prey, and everyone you meet will know it. Even babes after their mother's milk must first taste flesh before berries here."

Sampsa commented, "First flesh is a Malarite ceremony, isn't it?"

"Yes." They chatted casually about Malar's worship and society, clearly leaving me to my own devices. Ice had gorged yesterday and wasn't hungry; Sampsa was apparently in no hurry either.

Once we'd found the shallow caves the rain had stopped completely. I looked at the lay of the land. It sloped down heading away from the escarpment; I saw copses of trees that probably marked the continuation of the river we'd touched earlier in the distance. Very well then.

"I suppose neither of you are hungry, but I'd rather not -- " They looked at me, practically daring me to say I didn't want to be alone. " -- never mind." I set off for the river.

The scrub was easy to move through, and the gravelly, gritty soil was draining well. My boots crunched across it as I went alone through the bushes, deliberately leaving a trail for Ice and Sampsa to follow in case something happened to me. I kept alert for hunters seeking to do unto me as I intended to do unto others; the scrub was short enough that I would see anything man-sized a long way off, but anything the size of a wolf or bobcat could get close enough to charge me if I didn't keep an ear open.

Once I was looking for it, game was plentiful here -- it was, after all, the paradise of a hunter god. But by the same token it was not kind to prey animals, and many of them were small or sick. I realized that if you wanted good meat here, you had to set yourself a challenge and meet it.

Nothing attacked me on the way there. The river was 20 minutes away from the caves, and after the rain it was swollen, clearly higher than normal given the slope of the banks. I tested the footing near the edge and found it sufficiently stable to wade in a short ways. Without other protection I was instantly soaked, but I just had to live with that.

My spear had been put to this use before, so I had no fear of sacrilege. Malar and I might differ on the definitions of a fair hunt, but I had caught my dinner plenty of times. I stood in the hurrying waters and became still, spear poised.

The water was energetic, dark with sediment that was normally settled. I let it flow past, watching the pattern of its ripples, learning where it tended to break and merge.

Once I knew how each piece looked on its own, I let my sight expand to take in the entire field before me. Then I waited.

A dark flash. A bulge in the wave. My spear darted, and caught. I pulled it from the water. . .

. . .dragging a branch. I tossed it and returned to my wait.

Perhaps half an hour passed. I had picked up a few small fish, and more than a few branches, and was hoping to collect something that I could carry through a few days, when a larger shadow moved in the waters below me, coming up the current.

The crocodile would have had to be a powerful swimmer to approach upstream here, and it would have needed a keen smell for blood to be motivated by the few drops that would have floated downstream from my hits. Normally crocodiles waited to ambush instead of seeking out prey, but you had to allow for Lower Planar critters to be ornery. Whatever the case, it was big, and I happen to have been reliably told that I'm tasty by no less than three species of man-eaters.

The crocodile was stealthy for its size, but I was in the middle of a hunt and alert for motion. Without the element of surprise, it never had much of a chance against an armed and armored man. It got in a scrape of a bite at one point, but I didn't need spells to dispatch it.

I dragged the croc out of the river. Forget the fish. This monster would feed me for days. If I'd had time, I could have made any number of useful things out of that tough hide, too.

I looked it over. Well if I didn't have the time to make use of the hide. . .

I looked up. "Okay I know I'm being watched. Can we talk?"

(Fun fact: If you do this and you're right it tends to be very impressive to your hidden watcher. And if you're wrong, nobody's there to notice.)

After a moment, a guy with a shortbow stood up from behind a bush. I managed to keep myself from starting back; he was barely 20 feet from me. Damnation but these Malarites were good.

He grinned. "Good fight," he said in Sylvan.

"Thanks," I said. "I can't haul around this whole carcass; you interested in trading for a good crocodile hide?"

He sniffed. "Maybe. What're you looking for?"

"Some decent wilderness gear. Bigger pack, a pot, waterskin, knife. Palmful of salt, flint and steel, bow and a quiver with a dozen arrows. Oh, and a hooded poncho."

"How the hell you get out here without all of that?"

"Got magicked here against my will."

"Heh. Welcome to Carceri. Everything you say but the bow and arrows, and I can't get any poncho. Can get you a cloak."

"I'll throw in the little pack for a bowstring and some arrowheads."

"No deal."

". . .allright, done. How about the meat? Its flesh would dry to about half weight. I'll trade you for that in jerky."

"Half that. You care what the jerky is?"

". . .never mind."

"Thought so. You'll be here?"

"The little caves, over that way," I said, and waved toward the escarpment. He nodded, and set off deeper in to the territory.

I started slowly dragging the croc back toward the caves. Now I was a target for scavengers, of course, but after the first couple of coyotes and vultures tried their luck, the rest of them got the hint.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

A day's march in rain and river, bookended by fighting for my life twice, had left me completely spent. The hours had been short but full. As I dragged the croc's corpse into view of the shallow caves where Ice and Sampsa waited, my vision wavered. I was old, I realized -- I had once been toughened by years of war and adventure, but much of that had been taken from me, and now I was left with little to show for my years.

"Damned wraiths," I muttered, and fell to the wet soil beside the croc.

There was a black time.

When I awoke, hunger had clawed its way to the front of all other motivations. But first I had to interpret my sensations. There was a musty, organic smell. My surroundings were dim, but warm, and I was in a tightly enclosed space: rock on one side, and a large but softer mass on the other -- "Sampsa?"

"Ah, you're awake." He shifted away from me, and I realized that he had taken me to the cave and pressed me against the back wall, keeping me warm in my wet garments.

"I appreciate the warmth."

"I took payment from your catch."

"As long as you left me some!"

He laughed. "Plenty for a human."

"I must have been asleep for several hours. Did someone --"

"Yes, he came by. Since you weren't awake to confirm the terms, he said he'd return later."

"Allright then." I sat up.

It was drier outside, and so was I, although my robes were still damp. The skies had begun to clear, though a bit of chill still hung in the air.

Ice was sitting by the croc in human form. There was a small pile of wood beside her, peeled of its wet outer bark, and she was still passing the time shaving bits for tinder. She glanced over at me. "You eat anything on your trip?"

"Not yet," I replied. My stomach growled at me, insistent. "Best satisfy the local rules, I suppose," I said. I reached down to pry open its jaws and cut a slice of tongue, which seemed like the most appetizing bit to eat uncooked.

Ice cocked an eyebrow at me but said nothing. I held the little shred of raw meat in front of my mouth, hunger driving me, aided and abetted by rationalization (rules were rules, right?), warring with civilized reflexes and worries about contamination.

I dropped it. This realm tried to brutalize you. I wasn't going to let it. "Give me an hour to pray, and I'll be readier."

"Whatever," she said.

I knelt down by the cave, made the sign of the circle, and meditated on the teachings.

"What's the point?" said Marocatos. "We already have two rabbits in the traps. We're eating tonight."

"You don't leave an animal - pant - wounded," I said as we ran through the forest. The deer would have been faster than us, but its bloody back leg was hampering it.

"It's getting dark," he said. "And we're close to the Nevdan border. Word has it he was -- pant -- in negotiations with Longmont. The night -- pant -- isn't safe to get lost in here."

"Then let's catch it fast," I said. We came to a stretch of thinner trees. I nocked an arrow on the run, and paused for a step. I loosed, and missed.

Marocatos passed me the moment my arrow was leaving the string. "But seriously," he said as I charged of after him again, "what's the point? Mercy? We're going to kill it. Some mercy."

"It's not right to leave an animal in pain."

"Don't you think it would rather live with a wound than die?"

"It'll --" we jumped a tangle of roots -- "fester. If illness doesn't kill it, a predator will."

"That's the way it would have died."

"Except I started this. I have to take --" we split around a tree -- "responsibility."

"Maybe it will survive. Old ones get strong that way."

"It's the rule," I said. "Don't harm things without cause." The deer reached a dropoff, which was its undoing. As it slid down the side of a gully, it lost its footing and fell. We leapt down after it. Marocatos grabbed its antlers and exposed its throat. I put an end to it.

In the sudden silence, Marocatos said, "I guess pretending this was the reason you shot it in the first place. . . doesn't make enough sense to me. It's a stupid rule." He looked at the deer, its eyes still open, seeing now the next world. "It gave us a good chase. We should have let it go."

"Lots of druids are vegetarians," I said as I lashed its feet to a convenient branch.

He picked up his end as we climbed up. "I'm not that broken up over it," he said.

I returned to the world. Now, without further ceremony, I dusted myself off, went over to the pile of wood that Ice had gathered, and quickly arranged it for a fire. With a simple spell, I had a flame in my hand, strong enough for the wood to catch quickly.

Ice had left the slice of tongue alone. I quickly cut several more, enough for a small meal, and in case of parasite or some planar toxin that might have lodged in the croc's flesh, I spoke a word of purification over them. I stuck them on a bigger skewer and let them dangle for a while, turning my attention to opening up the hide with my spearpoint. It wasn't the most convenient tool, but it kept me distracted for a few more minutes.

When the meat had cooked just enough to give it a semblance of civilization, I ignored the croc, grabbed the tongue slices off the fire and burned my tongue having my first bite in 24 hours.

I sat back. "Oh, thank goodness. Something in your stomach makes a man feel whole again." I looked over at Ice, who was warming herself by the fire. I looked at the tongue slices, and passed the stick over.

She looked up and waved me off. "Eat."

"You were patient."

"You killed it."

"We're traveling together. And two days is long enough for you to be hungry again." I pushed the stick at her. "What, don't you eat cooked food?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm not entirely a wolf, you know," she said, and grabbed a slice off the stick.

I munched on another bit. I hadn't had a chance to really look at Ice in human form before. Her waist-length hair was long and black, the same as her coat as a wolf, her eyes the blue of her namesake. She wore leather, the same as everyone else around here, jacket to moccasins. She had a little wealth, choosing clear and blue stones set in gold bracelets and anklets. Her knife was one with a vial in the hilt, usually meant for poison, and from the weight of it as she moved it I guessed it was loaded -- I'd have laid long odds the load was silversheen. Probably a capital crime around here.

"So where to now?" I asked. "Do you know this territory?"

"Not as well, obviously," she said. "I know Tigereye's den is further along the river, I've been there a few times. They're on a crossroads of paths that lead in and out of the domain towards one of the biggest dens, Night's Rest. They're further in, near the center. Night's Rest actually has a town, built up around a temple and everything. It's where outsiders usually go when they want to hire trackers. That's where we should head."

"Hope I don't meet Malar at the temple."

"You only wish for that honor."

"That honor probably be the end of me."

She looked over at me coolly. "Maybe he'd try to convert you, you know. Gods can be pretty persuasive regarding their own philosophies."

"Did he persuade you?"

Now she glared. There was a moment's silence in which I think she actually considered attacking me, and I tensed. Then she breathed again. "Sampsa is right about one thing. I am a Malarite, Abaris. You had best treat the Beastlord with more respect if we are going to work together."

I shook my head slowly. "There's no way. You have to be lying. You don't act anything like what the God of the Bloody Kill teaches."

"There is more to him than the bloody kill. If you will listen you may learn."

"If you're a Malarite and I'm a druid why am I still alive?"

She did not reply for a moment. "Perhaps I'm a heretic," she said.

We did not speak again until Sampsa came back. "I see you have eaten too," he rumbled. "We are waiting for the trader?"

I nodded.

Sampsa looked back and forth between us, and decided to ignore the conversational dynamic. "And then where?"

"Night's Rest," said Ice. "It's a little to the left of the direct path across the realm for us, but there are roads to speed our travel. Also, I want to stop in there and do a few things." She glanced at the fire. "Abaris may wish to keep his spellcasting to a minimum. And cover up some of those markings on his armor." She snorted. "And I wouldn't acquire an animal companion between here and there if I were you."

I thought about Cirrus, waiting for me at Tidesea. "Keep the druidry a secret. Understood. Why do you want to go to Night's Rest?"

"It's convenient," she said. "And like I said, I have things I want to do there. Do you need me as a guide, or do you want to strike across territory on your own?"

"Side trip it is," I said. "Sampsa?"

He shrugged. "I have no objection. Powdered limestone, you said?"

"Yeah." I went back to peeling the hide off the croc as we waited.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

My trader came and went, and I finally felt decently equipped for a wilderness journey. Before we set off toward Night's Rest, an hour's work found us some plants with sap that dried dark and sticky, and I covered some of the more obvious druidic symbols on my armor. This also served to make it look rather filthy and used, although it was impossible (and probably unwise) to hide the fact that it was magical, not to mention. . .

"Looks expensive," commented Ice.

"A substantial fraction of my worldly wealth," I replied.

"You were rich?" she asked.

"Comfortable enough, what with a war on."

"There's always a war on," she said matter-of-factly. Sitting crosslegged next to it, she looked it over: leather fashioned into the usual ensemble of cuirass, leggings, and sleeves, plus a helmet. Into its natural shadings had been imprinted and sewn stylized images of wave and flame, wind and stone. I had collected many of the necessary dyes from various elemental planes myself. A little unusually for the style, it sported a bevor, a neck protector, on which a piece of clear quartz was set. Roveca had crafted the set, so I knew it was tough and reliable. "I don't recognize the leather," she said. "And that doesn't happen often."

"I haven't seen the creature personally. It's from the continent south of mine. We call it a camel-leopard. It's said to be a giant of horse kind, with small horns, the tail of a lion, and these camouflage spots."

She paused a beat. "You made that up just now."

I laughed. "Is it any weirder than a manticore?"

"Humph. Giant. Is it vicious?"

"Horse-kind. Vegetarian. Eats trees from the top down, they say. Whatever the truth of the stories, it gives good leather for lightweight, tough armor. The natural camouflage is just a stylish touch."

Sampsa finished cleaning his face and came over to join the conversation. "What's its magical virtue?"

"Like a lot of the high-end druid armors, it's designed to project its aura of protection regardless of my shape. Hopefully that will become useful again soon." I smiled grimly. "Its most expensive magical feature is completely useless at the moment: it would have been nice to be able to go ethereal and leave Carceri in an instant, but there's no Ethereal Plane nearby. It'll resist fire, and --" I tapped the crystal at its throat -- "this has the virtues of a necklace of adaptation."

"It's good that you avoided ironwood armor," said Ice. "That's a dead giveaway of a druid. This kind will suit a ranger as well. Can you fake that?"

"Reasonably well. Several of the spells are the same. I've already meditated today but I can anticipate that tomorrow. Think anyone would be able to tell the difference in the casting?"

"Oh yes. Don't use druidic magic unless you have to." She looked off in the direction we were headed. "It's going to get rougher. Rip may have seemed coarse, but the packs that live nearer the center are competitively devoted. And Malar repays their devotion. Hunts are fierce and frequent. We're likely to cross the path of predators both bestial and sentient. Many both."

"Sounds like a bad place to be a prey animal. What's at the bottom of the food chain?"

"Same as everywhere on the Outer Planes. A god's power." She cocked a cool eyebrow at me. "I know what you're implying. That this world would be unsustainable on the Prime. To which I reply, no shit? It's Heaven, it doesn't have to be possible."

Sampsa pointed out, "I assume there's a standard theological response to the rejoinder that most of the universe thinks Carceri is a hell."

"Their loss."

"Succinct."

Ice continued, "Three of us makes a pretty small traveling pack, so be prepared to demonstrate that you're not worth the effort to kill when we get near Night's Rest."

"What about in the town itself?" I started donning the armor again.

"I've only been there a few times. There's a veneer of civilization. Don't expect it to last -- they don't really distinguish between trouble and fun. We'll need to fall in with one of the local packs as hangers-on if we want protection."

"Do we?" asked Sampsa.

"If we don't," she said, "they make good money hunting sentients off-plane, and they have to practice sometime. Practicing on each other is perfectly fine, but outsiders don't have relatives hanging around to come back at you."

"And why are we going there again?" I asked. She started a wisecrack in response, but I added, "Come on. I can fake being your muscle but unless you want me to pretend I'm mute --"

"--that's not the worst idea I've heard all day --"

"--I'd rather not say or do something that screws up your plans."

She drummed her fingers on the ground and turned to Sampsa. "My plans aren't completely gelled yet. Are you willing yet to tell us something more about how your tooth came to be part of the icon?"

"You'll want to know in particular any part that might have to do with these little folk you're concerned about."

"Yes."

He hesitated, then nodded. "On the move?"

I stood up, armored, equipped, and recently fed. "I'm ready." Without a further word, Ice turned wolf, and set off leading us down the river.

Sampsa was quiet until we had gone a mile or so. When the sound of the still-swollen river became loud enough to interfere at least a little with the carrying of sound, he launched into his story.

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

"The short answer is, I was selected due to my relationship with my creator. You'll need the details on that, which will explain a bit of my reluctance to talk about it. . ."

He was silent for a bit.

"The Beastlands are a pretty inward-looking plane. Project Sampsa is one of the few interventionist initiatives you'll find there. It's a group of wizards, priests, druids, alchemists, and a few others, who are devoted to healing major environmental disasters on Prime worlds. Being based in a place where spirit is malleable and the animal nature is strong makes it easy to hasten the creation of lifeforms to fill niches or resurrect specimens of extinct species."

"I'm a little surprised I haven't heard of them," I said.

"They tend to seek opportunities rather than advertise. Work like that costs money, and nations in dire straits after a major blow to the environment will pay well."

"So they're parasites," said Ice. "Working for money, feeding off of the wounded."

"No -- at least I wouldn't call them that. They wouldn't last long if they did it for free. They're leery of operating under the aegis of a god, and relying on donors would severely restrict their operations. This is simply the way they can have the biggest effect, as they see it."

"At any rate," I urged him on.

"Yes." He licked his chops. "I was meant to be a top-level magical predator. I was an attempt to blend a base of lion and tiger with cat features of manticore and griffin."

I pursed my lips. "Manticores and griffons are intelligent." Messing with their life force was an ethically heavy proposition.

"I was not meant to be so. But ligers are vigorous hybrids. And their spells may have worked to greater effect than intended." He glanced at his sides. "I was born with vestigial wings, actually. They shriveled. But I have dreams of flying."

He continued quietly. "When their spells to mold animal creatures failed upon me, and they realized that I understood speech, I was marked as a failure."

"No living creature is a failure," I said urgently.

"I understand your philosophical position," he said, "and its moral import was shared by my creators. They gave me shelter, saw to it that I was raised and educated. A bit catch as can, they weren't set up to be a school, but when you are surrounded by mages and alchemists and priests with stacks of books on everything from abiogenesis to zymurgy, you learn a few things.

"No, the failure refers only to the original purpose of my creation. My litter-mates were more successful -- they were aged, bred, the population shipped off to the Prime that had needed them. I alone was left behind, of no particular use to those who had brought me in to being." He paced along. "May you never know what it is like to be the only one of your brothers and sisters with speech. I could grieve with Five when he lost his wizard friend, but could not tell him of an afterlife; could lie down with Seven during her difficult pregnancy, but never comfort her with the soft glow of a poem."

"I have run with packs of wolves," said Ice, "and mourned more than one matriarch before the snows broke. I do not think that sorrow compares to yours, but I offer it in sympathy."

"Thank you," he said. "At any rate, I grew up. I might have stayed around Project Sampsa as a soldier, but I decided to get away from those memories. They were based on Krigala, so I went down to Brux to do some thinking. Visited the Cat Lord and paid my respects. It was while I was there that I made the acquaintance of the Vile Hunt. You see, it's a great success among them to be the one to take out the last member of a species -- and apparently I qualified."

I made a noise. You couldn't really say there were words in it.

"I thought that would meet your disapproval," he said lightly. "After I and a few friends had taken out the first couple who tried, they apparently poked around a bit more and found out that I was a reject from my creator. That really got their attention. It was shortly after that that the Malarites showed up. Strong ones. I was captured, my companions killed. Me, they bound, and they took my fang." His face writhed into a snarl.

"The process of doing so involved a certain amount of scarring and branding. My coat's grown back now, but I can tell you. I've seen a few magical writings growing up, and I'm absolutely certain that it was important to them that I had been discarded by my creator, or was a species estranged from its god, or something to that effect."

"Damn," said Ice.

We both waited for further commentary from her. When it wasn't forthcoming, I prodded. "What?"

"I was. . . worried about this. Normally, a power key only lets you casts spells that you usually couldn't, right?"

"Well, 'only' is a little dismissive -- that's a hell of a power boost," I said. "Not to mention being a sacred thing itself."

"Right, right," she said. "But Sampsa describes an awfully specific requirement, don't you think? I mean, I know practically zero about magic. But things like other things are important for it?"

"Law of Sympathy. Sure."

"So if you want a symbol of killing power against a god, what might help? What about a fang from predator rejected by their creator, a creature that need answer to no deity? A cat with no loyalty to any cat god?"

". . .maaaybe."

"So what if that icon is more than just a power key? What if it's an anti-god weapon? Or at least an anti-animal lord weapon?"

"That's a lot of speculation."

"I know. I know." She shook her head. "We need more facts. And that's something I hope we can find around Night's Rest. Someone had to make that thing. Maybe we can hear something about who."

"You have contacts you trust?"

She laughed. "Of course not. I have people that I might be able to ask, if we're careful, and either bribe them or threaten them enough, and then get out of town before they alert someone else."

I looked to the road ahead. "Sounds like a plan."

We had gone perhaps another mile before something struck me. "Say," I said to Sampsa, "where did the Little Folk come in to it?"

"Oh," he said. "They were from the nation that put in the original order. Something had happened with some major magical or divine blow-up. Even they never knew quite what. Anyway, they needed to repopulate a swath of continent fast. Project Sampsa heard about it and offered their services; they agreed. They sent some young representatives who were willing to hang around and keep an eye on the work for the years it would take. We became friends. A couple of them came with me after my -- the others were shipped off." He paused. "They were the ones the Malarites killed. Takes an odd halfling to enjoy lounging around on Brux, but they always seemed comfortable with it."

"They were from my world," said Ice. "There's as much variation in Little Folk technology as there is in human tools across the planes, and on my world the Little Folk are the ones that have stayed closer to nature. They're not the sort of comfortable fat little burghers they are on a lot of planes; on my world they roam, they hunt, they gather."

"Who was the one with the heraldry?" I asked.

"One who had made a name for himself as a hero in human lands," she said.

"He came for vengeance?"

"Not his style. Probably investigating the same thing we are. Also. . . possibly other things related to the original disaster."

"You know what that was?" Sampsa asked.

She hesitated. "Planar incursion," she said, and over our questions, said, "You'll get nothing more on it from me at the moment."

"Fine," I said. "Do you expect to meet him in here, then?"

"Our gnomes are extremely good at illusions," she said, "but it would be very risky -- on the other hand, if he decides that coming in here is his best option I wouldn't remotely put it past him."

We went on for a bit. Finally, I asked, "If your suspicions are borne out, what do you intend to do?"

She was silent. "I don't know yet."

". . .all right."

Jem
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Re: Planestuck

We followed the river for the rest of the day. With no sun and moon in the sky, we just kept going as it pleased us, once diverting to take a meal from a herd of those ungulates I had seen Rip's pack hunting the first day I was here. (Being much slower and louder than Ice and Sampsa, I was the decoy hunter, driving them toward the other two in ambush.) We took the skin with us -- furs were cheap around here, said Ice, but at least it was something for trade.

Tigerye's den was in the middle of a plain, surrounded on three sides by a tight bend of the river. Earth had been mounded up to the height of a man to create a defensible platform big enough for several families. Tents, tipis and lean-tos were the order of the day on its top.

As we approached, Tigereye and his people emerged from the scrub and forded the river, conveniently showing us where to do the same. Passing near us, Tigerye said lowly, "Remember, they don't know what you did or why you're here. Keep it that way."

We forded the river under the kind of watching eyes I had seen in innumerable tiny villages. Ice had taken wolf form, to display a local's presence, and she was probably known to some, but Sampsa and I were definitely outsiders. Suspicion of strangers, hope for something to relieve monotony, and the searching gaze of avarice. One of the latter made no hesitation as we rounded to the earthen ramp.

Teenagers. There is no world where they're not trouble.

A lanky boy squatting near the fencepost with his friends yelped, "Whose corpse you steal that armor off of, old-timer?"

His redheaded companion added, "Yeah, you got no use for a warrior's outfit like that."

"Give it to us, we'll let you retire here."

We studiously ignored them as we came up, but they stepped out to block out path just after Tigereye went past. He paid them no mind, heading for a communal firepit in the middle of the village with a kill. Others watched to see how the scene would play out.

"We said give it here. What you deaf?" said the lanky one. He grinned. "Old are weak. We kill the weak."

"That is proper," came the murmur from the others.

We stopped in front of them. I tried to stare him down, but he wasn't the type to back off from that.

"I'm not really in the mood to kill a kid for being an idiot," I said. "So I guess how this ends depends on how stupid you are." I made a show of examining him. "From the looks of it, things are none too promising."

Ice said, "I paid him good money for what he can do. Why don't you-"

"Tell you what," he said, pulling a shortsword out of a calf sheath. "I kill him, I take his armor for your payment. If I win I was stronger anyway, right? Better fighter for you." I watched how he held it. . . he was no professional, but he wasn't a virgin to it, either. My main worry was that I really ought not to use spells in front of a crowd, so I was limited to my spear, and the butt end at that unless I wanted to answer awkward questions about a sacred weapon. Whether I could make him stop before he seriously damaged me or got mad enough to try to bite me, that was the question.

No point putting it off, though. "I got this," I said casually to Ice. "Hardly worth my salt to you if I couldn't take care of a kid, right?"

She shrugged. With Sampsa, she moved off to the side. Lanky's two companions also backed off, leaving us alone to let him take my measure. I unlimbered my spear, then turned it around.

Lanky snickered. "Pointy end goes the other way, old man."

"Ain't trying to kill you," I said. "Let's quit jawing."

He rushed. As I expected, he had speed; but I had time to wait, and as he came in range, I spun the haft.

He ducked, even faster than I had anticipated, and stabbed upward. I stepped backward, backing down the ramp, and got an idea.

At our next passage of arms, I stopped worrying about attacking him. The haft of my spear was clumsier than the point, but it had weight to its advantage, and as he probed with the shortsword again, I planted my back foot and swung hard for the hilt.

He was an animal hunter. If he had had more experience fighting people he might have anticipated the move, but today, there was a crack of wood against wrist, and his blade dropped to the ground.

I seized the dramatic momentum and spun the spear so that the point was toward him. I waited through a beat of silence, and then said cheerfully, "No need for either of us to get serious now, right?"

He took the offer to save face. "Course, stranger. Just some friendly testing." He stepped to the side and picked up his sword. I put my spear over my shoulder and climbed past him, perfectly aware of the possibility of a sneak attack as soon as he was behind me, listening carefully for the rustle of moccasin turning on dirt. . .

. . .nothing, though, and I made it back to the top and rejoined my traveling companions. "Easy as pie. After you, ma'am."

She took human form and approached the fire pit. A couple of locals approached and they spoke quietly for a few minutes, after which I handed over our fresh fur and we got settled in a currently unoccupied lean-to with a dry patch of ground below it. Ice's negotiating had also managed to acquire us a skin of beer, which Sampsa sniffed and refused.

As we sat and rested after the day's travel, Ice spoke very quietly in my ear. "It will be convenient for me if you could play up your outsider status a little."

"Sure thing." Since it had been safe to forage now that I had had meat, I had spotted and dug up some tubers on our way here. I spitted them and let them roast over the fire. As I waited, I saw Ice chatting leisurely with some of the locals -- presumably they were rival dens most of the time, but not while she was just a guest passing through. I supposed it would make a convenient opener to commiserate about the odd behavior of vegetable-eaters, although surely they had to have some kind of plants in the diet. . . I mulled it over while I waited.

She came back after a while. Of course we wouldn't discuss here anything she had just learned. "Can you handle first watch?" she asked. I nodded, and without a further word she curled up under the lean-to and slept.

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