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Foundering Valley – Chapter 36, Sunday, June 15 – Two Hunting Expeditions

Chapter 36 – Sunday, June 15 – Two Hunting Expeditions.

 “Wake up, sleepyhead!”  Flummox flipped back the corner of the blanket and tickled the toes thus exposed.

 “Grumpfimuffle,” responded D-Stract, kicking and pulling the blankets up over her head.

            “Well, I guess that’s an improvement in the sound-proofing department; you’ve been snoring like a pig all night.  Just how much did you drink last night?”

            D-Stract poked the top of her head out from under the blanket.  “Not that much.  Are you calling me a pig?”

            “No — actually, it was more like ocean waves coming in, over, and over, and over…”

            “Golly.  Maybe Conch’s herbs worked.  Voice of the water…”

            Flummox sat down glumly.  “Maybe so.”

            “I’m sorry – I got you worked up last night.  Did I fall asleep on you?”

            “The moment your head hit the pillow.  Tease.”

            D-Stract covered her head again, and started muttering something.

            “Come on, get up.  We’ve got places to go and things to do.”

            D-Stract made no comment, but about a quart of water slithered up out the washbasin and crept along the floor towards the back of Flummox’s chair.

            “You’re going to get the tail end of breakfast if you don’t start moving, and with Spamwich cooking, that’s going to be pretty awful.”

            D-Stract stuck her head out of the blankets again.  “You would leave me here and go chasing after somebody else’s tail end?”

            “If that’s all you gunna do, yes.”  At that moment, the cold blob of water struck him from behind.  Flummox shot up in the air and gave a shriek.

            D-Stract burst into laughter.  “Oh too bad — your tail end is wet now.  You’ll have to change clothes I guess, so I’ll have a chance to catch up.  I guess Conch’s herbs really did work.”

            “Woman, if I take off my clothes, it’s not going to be just to put on dry ones.  Defend yourself.”

            “I thought you’d never ask.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 In another room in the inn, Grace sat moodily at a little table that held a candle.  She tried feeding bits of her hair into the flame, and they did not burn.  She passed a finger above the candle flame, developing a black streak of soot but feeling no pain.  Slower and slower she went, and finally she held her finger stationary above the candle – nothing.

 “Are you okay?”  Sapphire was sitting up in the bed.

            “Okay?  No, I’m fantastic.  Weren’t you happy enough last night?”

            Sapphire stretched, letting the bedclothes drop.  “I have no complaints, whatsoever.  But didn’t your mama teach you not to play with fire?”

            Grace looked up.  “We had some problems that way.  That’s how I ended up with the pagans as soon as I was of age.”

            “Sorry, sore subject.  Speaking of sore…”

 Maude broke into their thoughts.  If you two are going to start going at it again, I’m going to scream.  Come on – they might start without us!

            Sapphire shook her head.  “I doubt it.  Everybody else drank a lot last night.  I doubt there’s anybody around not hung over, unless maybe it is Mother Theresa.”

            Grace giggled.  “Or Sister Schubert.  I think either of them would be shocked to see you sitting there like that, in all your natural beauty.”

            It was not much later that Maude gave a mental scream.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Cleo and Rufus were the first ones down for breakfast.  Cleo dug into something that seemed to combine the worst aspects of spaghetti, jello, and fried onions – which Spamwich claimed were eggs.  Rufus called for a mug of ale instead.

 Casting about, he noticed Bones, the medic, sitting at a table with a half-finished glass of whiskey – and two empties as well.  Rufus headed over to his table and raised his mug.  “I see you are drinking your breakfast as well.”

            Bones looked up.  “In your case it’s a matter of taste.  In mine, it’s medicinal.”

            Rufus sat down.  “What seems to me your trouble?”

            Bones scowled.  “Life.  More specifically, after a prolonged and in-depth look into the mysteries of life, the universes, and everything else, I’ve come to the conclusion that life really sucks.”

            “Sounds like you’ve had a pretty bad day.”

            Bones looked at his glass, rolling around the last of the whiskey.  “When I woke up in this place – which I now know was the beginning of this life I’m living – I was struck by how primitive the medicine here was.  Ninety percent of what I knew was how to run scanners and sensors and administer what the computers told me to.  I knew how to recognize Rigelian Fever and Centauran Shakes and a dozen other intergalactic maladies, none of which are here.  Now I know that that ninety percent of what I know is just all literary fiction and my life is a total fraud.  I’m not really a doctor, I’m a poseur, a charlatan.”

            Rufus pouted.  “I’ve met a number of you ‘summoned’ folk.  Most are pretty sharp, and by all accounts you’ve got a pretty good grasp of first aid yourself, and a strong stomach for forensic investigations.”

            Bones waved a hand.  “That’s just attitude and common sense.  You want proof?  Just look at the numbers.  The Earl summoned five of us so-called doctors, five.  The first went and ruined his own health without doing anyone any good.  The next two turned out to be psychopaths, one not caring who he hurt as long as he was not caught, and the other blaming all his mistakes at the operating table on the support staff.  And me – I ran screaming from that lab the moment I saw the medieval torture devices they tried to use in the name of medicine.”

            “Zhivaga seems to being doing all right.”

            Bones nodded.  “She is, but what’s she’s doing isn’t by way of training.  We don’t seem to bring anything with us that isn’t in public knowledge.  Zhivaga — she has empathy, curiosity, flexibility, a willingness to adapt to the tools at hand, and a need to do what she can to help – a wonderful attitude.  And there it is in a nutshell.  All we brought with us is attitude.  Me, I have to cling to my oath.  First rule is: do no harm.”  With that, he gulped down the last of his whiskey.

            Rufus fingered his mug in silence for a while.  “We’re going after Dr. Green and The Visitor today.  You know they abducted that undead hobo, Caboose?  Probably for dark experiments.  You could help if you came with us.”

            Bones looked at his empty glass.  “No.  Problem is, I don’t know what I don’t know, and that has me paralyzed with fear.  Barmaid!  Goldilocks, be a dear and bring me another of these.”  He looked back at Rufus.  “Sorry.  It can really hurt a man to look in the mirror, and not like what he sees.”

            Rufus rose and patted his shoulder.  “Give it time.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            It took till late morning to get the mules packed, since Animus, Cleo, and Rufus were the only ones moving at more than a snail’s pace around the inn that morning, but they managed to get the party out the door and moving well before noon.  They had to rouse Clang, then Doug, to do their jobs, but they finally crossed the South Bridge where they split into two parties.

 Animus escorted Flummox, with his lizard tongue, and Sapphire, who spoke with animals, and who for now had Foggy Bottom trailing behind, loaded with tents and rations.  She was wearing several nice jewelry pieces herself that they had leveraged out of the uptown folks.  She knew better than to trust the mule to carry them, this time.  They headed east away from the Withers estate, along the transition zone where the forest met the burnt barrens.  They intended to have a chat with Crysophordia, the dragon.

            The jewelry pieces had been obtained the night before, with the aid of Parrot.  Rufus had simply sent the hawk around the uptown estates, looking for open windows.  It turned out the majority were open on this warm June day.  The jewelry would hardly be missed, given the uptown affinity for stealing jewelry back and forth from each other, and their absence would certainly not be blamed on the adventurers.  It was simply a matter of how many trips Rufus could coax Parrot into taking before he himself fell into bed with exhaustion.

 Cleo led the rest of the group west, past the Withers estate and along the yellow brick road through farm country.  Rufus gave most  of his attention to talking with the animals — Parrot the hawk and Shithead the mule, who carried their equipment.  Still, he kept an eye on the pair of softly snoring mouslings in Shithead’s saddlebags.  They had imbibed nearly as much as the humans the previous night, and were having an even harder time recovering.

            The remainder of his attention was given to discussing elemental magics with D-Stract, Grace, and Maude.  They were intent on confronting the elementals up above the dam, and trying to broker some sort of peace amongst them.

            Rufus was a master of Air & Fire, and now held the lodestone which, he hoped, would give him protection from the lighting creatures.

            Grace was a master of Fire & Earth and now had Maude to help deal with the Spirit realm.  She had Conch’s snail pendant, which definitely seemed to make her fireproof.  Her new-found power over Water was as yet untested, but she felt it fill her up when she thought about it.

            D-Stract wore the shark-tooth pendant, supposedly making her proof against Water.  She delighted in her newly discovered Water magic as they went, causing every puddle they encountered to playfully slosh up at the travelers.  This was the only magic she knew, and so was enjoying this new window into the world, immensely.

 On the road, there were various other stragglers heading back out to the farms.  Ahead of them was Master Amethyst, who staggered off the road towards his farmhouse.  He suddenly stood up straight, then started a dash towards the farmhouse.  “Kids!  Honey!  Come out, quick!  The pigs have escaped!”

 The rest of the Amethyst family emerged from their cottage and began trying to herd the pigs back to their sty.  It didn’t help that the chickens were out as well, and feathers flew everywhere.

            Grace turned to Rufus.  “Why aren’t they trying to catch the chickens too?”

            “They’re actually supposed to be out.  They keep bugs out of the garden.  Then, they come home to roost at night.  The pigs, on the other hand, would rather run away and live in the woods.”

            “Do you think they need help?”

            “Nah, not unless you want to get pig slime on your boots – they seem to be doing okay.”

            They trudged along until they came even with the Sky farm.

 Little Gene Sky was running up to the front porch.  “Papa!  Grandpa!  Billy!  Belle!  The goats is out!”

 The Sky family emerged from the farmhouse and dutifully began chasing the goats, which again were scaring the chickens.

 Eve emerged last, and simply stood on the porch watching them all.  She noticed the adventurers, and waved lazily.

            D-Stract turned to Rufus.  “Well, she doesn’t seem concerned.  I guess they have the situation in hand.  What a weird coincidence, though.”

            Rufus rubbed his beard.  “Isn’t it though?”  They waved back, and continued down the road.

 When they came to the Teal farm, their pigs were loose too, and Rufus finally put two and two together.  He went to Shithead and slapped the nearest saddlebag.

 A rumpled-looking mousling with a topknot poked his head out of the bag.  “Hey, I’m sleeping here!  Can’t a mousling get a little peace around here?”

            “Sorry, Sticker, I was looking for Flicker.”

            “He’s on the other side.”  Sticker’s head disappeared back into the saddlebag.  Rufus went around to the other side of the mule.

Flicker’s head popped up.  “Good morning, Rufus.”

            “I know what you’re doing.  Cut it out.”

            “So you admit now that I really can open cages at a distance?  My plan with the lava flow would have worked.”

            Rufus scowled.  “If only the Fire elemental had cooperated.”

            “Well, that part wasn’t my fault.”

            Rufus took a deep breath.  “Stop this at once, or I’ll …”

            Flicker stuck out his chin, though it was mostly beard.  “You’ll what?”

            “… tell those High Council mouslings exactly how you’ve screwed up, and how many of their laws you’ve violated.”

            Flicker clamped his jaw shut.  “Hmph.”  He disappeared back into the saddlebag.

 Rufus looked up to see a golden shape flash across the road.  The lion roared and two pigs went squealing in terror back to their sty.  The lion proceeded to help the Teals round up the rest.

 As this was happening, Palance came strolling down the pasturelands, from the direction of the hills, at a more leisurely pace, and raised his hand in greeting.  He stopped short, then tersely delivered the message that he intended.  “Talk with Woody.  Wolf problems.”  He tipped his hat and headed back up toward the hills.  The adventurers exchanged glances, shook their heads, and proceeded on down the road.

            The Vert family farm was very peaceful, if fragrant, with only the chickens roaming free.

 Woody was sitting on the front porch of the Autumn farmhouse.  He tipped his hat.  “Morning Rufus, Ladies.  If you’re lookin’ for the newlyweds, they’re still kinda busy.  You don’t want to be goin’ inside.”  Miss Joan Autumn giggled and blushed.

            Rufus shook his head.  “Palance said you’re still having wolf problems.  At least I think that’s what he meant.  He gave us all of 5 words – pretty meager payoff for him hiking up and down the hill.”

            Woody snorted.  “A man of few words, our Mister Palance.  Me, I enjoy company.”  He reached over and patted Joan’s hand.  She blushed even deeper.  “But you’re right, that wolf-devil is full of tricks.  I started on diggin’ a pit, like y’all said, and he stole my shovel!  Been some more hits on the livestock too — lost a chicken earlier — around dawn.”

            “Need any help here?”

            “Nah, I’m awake now, so he’s not going to get away with anything else.  Tracks lead up to the hills, but I’m not going to follow.  That devil would circle around and hit us again while I was chasing shadows up in the trees.  Now if you were to find that wolf yourself, and do for him, well, that would be just peachy.”

            “We’ll keep an eye open, but our mission today is with the elementals up above the dam.”

            Woody whistled.  “Good luck to you, then.  Hope you come back in one piece, and not charbroiled.  You know what you’re doin’?”

            Rufus nodded.  “Let’s hope so.”

 Dorothy and Eastwood were sitting on the porch at the Rouge farmhouse, watching clouds, and the hills, respectively.  They called out their greetings as the adventurers approached.

            Grace ran up and gave Dorothy a hug.  “How are you doing, out here?”

            “This place really feels like home.  And I have an actual human friend now.”  Dorothy turned and smiled at Eastwood.

 Master and Mistress Rouge heard them and rushed out to offer them lunch.  The adventurers accepted, and the couple took the opportunity to pump them for the latest information on their children.  All four were awaiting the success of the experimental treatments being conducted on the Charles couple, before they could start treatment themselves.  Rudy was keeping company with his friend Delft in Chief Grief’s establishment.  Rose and Gloss were sleeping it off in the crypt at the Wither’s house.  Grandpa Rouge of course was beyond medical help, having actually died, but was having the time of his life (ironically enough) with the late Mrs. Sky, at the Withers mansion.

            Eastwood detailed further raids by the wolf, while Cleo looked on with a grimace and wide eyes.

            The Rouges agreed to keep the mule and their camping equipment at the farm while the group conducted reconnaissance up into the hills.  They encouraged them to come back for supper and spend the night.

            The four of them headed off on foot, their only baggage being a set of saddlebags slung over Rufus’s shoulder.  Cleo unlimbered her bow and kept it at the ready as they climbed the switchbacks leading up to the dam.  Suddenly she stiffened, and held up a hand.  The others stopped, and she held a finger to her lips, then pointed to the brush.

 “How’s a guy supposed to catch dinner with you making so much noise?”  The small figure of Sniper emerged from the bushes, his crossbow pointed at the ground.

            Cleo relaxed visibly.  “Maybe if you were a better hunter, you’d get enough to eat so you could finish growing up – my very little friend.”

            Rufus stepped forward.  “Hi, I’m Rufus.”

            Sniper laughed.  “I know.  That’s my job.”

            Rufus raised his eyebrows.  “Really.  So, have any luck finding game around here?  I’ve not seen a living thing since leaving the Rouge farm.”

            Sniper shook his head.  “A few scorched critters worth saving – they weren’t gnawed on or anything, just burnt.  Then I saw wolf tracks.  I’ve been tracking that gray one every chance I get.  Hit it with crossbow bolts, too – only the silver ones hurt it, but not enough.  There are blood spots over there.  It can’t have gotten far.”

            Cleo turned with a look of anguish to Rufus.  “This might be our only chance to stop it from spreading…”

            Rufus smiled.  “Okay, you go with Sniper.  We’ll be fine.  Thanks for the escort this far, but your arrows won’t do much good against creatures made of lightning.”

            Cleo looked relieved.  “Thank you.  I’ll try to make it back for that supper we were offered, but we might need to keep going through the night.  Don’t worry about me – just focus on your mission and keep your fingers crossed and eyes open.”

            Grace put a hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t you need rations?”

            Sniper held up a charred squirrel.  “I’ve got that covered.”

            Everyone but Cleo grimaced.  “All right then.  We’d better hurry.  Where is that blood you saw?”  She and Sniper hurried off, their noses near the ground.

            Rufus shook his head.  “She’s never this happy indoors.  She’ll be fine, but we need to look sharp now.”  He opened the flaps on the saddlebag.  “Okay, you two – out.  My back hurts and I’m not carrying you any further.  Besides, we need your eyes on the trees.”  The two mouslings emerged, grumbling, and straightened their clothing.  “We’ll just leave these saddlebags here beside the road.  We can get ‘em when we come back through.”

            The three humans and two mouslings continued up the yellow brick switchbacks until they emerged halfway up the left side of the dam.  One more segment would take them to the top.  A big chuck of stonework was missing from the upper lip of the dam, and the full volume of the raging river spilled through the breach.  On the far side they could see where the aqueduct jutted out next to the now-dry spillway that used to control the level of the lake.

            They heard a humming sound, and smelled something burning.  The hair stood up on the backs of their necks.  The humming broke into a crackling sound.

            “Get behind me!”  Rufus pushed the others back down the road and turned to face the pair of creatures approaching them from the mountains to the left.

 The creatures were each surrounded by a fuzzy halo of crackling lightning, as sparks flew to the nearby brush, but the beasts themselves were well defined, if alien.  One was silver, one was black with glowing red eyes.  They seemed to be composed entirely of sharp elbows and knees, with exoskeletons, but quadruped.  They moved and acted like dogs, but quicker and much more jerky.  They were also slightly bigger than the largest dog Rufus had ever seen.

            They crouched and growled, then gave a few barks.  Sparks flew from their mouths and landed on Conch’s lodestone, which was hung around Rufus’s neck.  He felt nothing.  Encouraged, he held out his hand.  “Hey, puppies.  How ya doing?  Come here.”

            The two lightning creatures stopped barking, and approached him, circling.  They growled to one another, unlike any animal sounds, but nevertheless, Rufus could understand.

            The black one sniffed.  “What is it, Flash?”

            The silver one skittered back.  “It’s a human, Thunder.  There are many of them here; this is their world.  We should be afraid.”

            “Maybe it will play with us.  It has a stick.  Maybe it will throw the stick for us.”

            “Don’t be a fool.  Maybe if we kill this one, the rest will run away.”

            Rufus decided it was time to change the conversation.  He raised his staff, and exerted his will.  “I am Rufus, and I am your Master, creatures of Air!  You will not harm me, nor any person while you are on this world.  Do you understand?”

            Flash cowered, tucking its tail between its legs.  “I told you we should be afraid.  We should not be here.”

            Thunder fawned at Rufus’s feet.  “Master Rufus!  Someone to play with, at last!  Will you throw the stick?  Will you scratch behind my ears?  Let me lick you!”  A tongue of lightning played over Rufus’s chest, but was absorbed by the lodestone.

            “Down, boy!  Down!”  The creatures backed off and lowered themselves to the ground like twin sphinxes, heads high, ears cocked alertly.

            “Now then, if I play with you, will you serve me, and do what I say?”

            “Yes, Master Rufus,” they both yipped.

            “What about the Air elemental in the next valley?  Do you serve it too?”

            Thunder’s head dropped.  “It brought us here, then got bored.  It wouldn’t play with us, or anything.”

            Flash shook his head.  “It brought us here, then threw rain on us.  It stung.  That blowhard didn’t want us – it was mean.  We had to run away.”

            “What manner of creature did they call you, where you came from?”

            “We are razor dogs, Master Rufus.  We are siblings.”

            “This is a very strange place to us — so wet, so hot.”

            “Very well then, Razor Dogs.  Here is what I want you to do.  You are to go back up onto the mountaintop where it is cold and dry, and wait for me to come back.  I will call you when I am ready to play with you.  You will hurt no one.  You will approach no one.  Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Master Rufus!”

            “Anyone who throws a lightning bolt up into the sky is to be obeyed – they are your friends.  You will come and do their bidding, but you will not get too close.  You will not lick or bark at them – that might hurt someone.  Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Master Rufus!”

            “Two of my friends are tracking a wolf through the mountains.  You are to watch over them from a distance – do not get too close!  But if they need help, you help them.  And remember, you come when I call you with lightning.  Do you understand?”

            “Yes, Master Rufus!  That will be a good game.”

            “Okay, go now.”  The two creatures backed away, turned, and bounded up the hill.

            Rufus turned to look at his friends, who stood looking at him, speechless.

            Flicker stuck out his tiny chest.  “I wasn’t scared.  I throw lightning bolts too.”

            Sticker poked him from behind with his sword, and he squawked, jumping two feet into the air.  “You’re a fool then, Flicker.  Me, I think I wet myself.”

            D-Stract leaned on Grace for support, as they both thoughtfully stroked the talismans they had around their necks, thinking about the elementals they were going to have to face.  “That’s going to be a tough act to follow.”

            Grace shook her head.  “I don’t know about that — depends on which act you mean.  I think I wet myself too.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 “That’s close enough, meatbags.  I heard you a mile away.  I see you brought Foggy Bottom, but not that elf with the big bow.  Good choices.  What else did you bring me?”  The dragon was a quarter of a mile away, perched in a ruined tree at the edge of the burn barrens.  Its voice rumbled like thunder.  Flummox clung tightly to the mule’s harness, while Animus kept an eye on their surroundings.

            Sapphire spoke loudly toward the dragon, but in a voice no human would expect to carry that far.  “Greetings, oh Crysophordia, I have returned, bearing gifts.”

            “You again, with your tiresome whining.  Last time you visited, you gave me a pile of worthless rocks.  Have you come to insult me that way again?”

            “No, I brought with me three very fine pieces.  A ruby pendant, a neck piece with a dozen small emeralds, and a gold chain with something with rainbows inside hanging from it.  I’m not the expert on naming gems that you must be.”

            “An opal.  Very well.  Leave them hanging on that bush there, and go.”

            “Not so fast, oh mighty Crysophordia.  You are entitled to one piece just for talking with us – the emeralds I think.  To earn the other two, you must help us with some things.”

            “I do not help humans.  Give them to me, and I will let you sleep soundly tonight.”

            “I did not expect you to haul your precious tail down out of the trees.  I just wanted information.”

            “Well, that’s different – perhaps.  Okay then, information: there are elementals loose in the next valley, and it is not safe for you to go there.”

            “We know that, oh lazy one, I was referring to specific information.  We need to track and capture three humans who came through the burnt barrens, perhaps a week ago.  Tell us where they went, and you earn one piece.”

            “Humpf.  Very well.”  The dragon shifted its weight around in the tree, looking over its shoulder, and a branch crashed to the ground.  “They met up with two lizards, Mandor and The Seer, who took them to their lair at the southern extreme of the barrens.  Leave the other stones and go now.”

            “You’ve earned the ruby, I think.  But for the opal, you’re going to have to give us something to help us capture the humans.”

            “I see.  Well, the Queen is the key to everything in the land.  Some call me King, as if I was one of the lowly lizards, but I do not deal with mundane politics — she does.  I am more a figure to be worshipped.”

            “We’ve heard of her.  How do we get on her good side?”

            “I don’t think she has a good side.  She calls herself Queen Medusa, and claims decent from that mythical figure.”

            “Really?  So how do we keep her from turning us to stone?”

            “Ah, that’s where I can help.  Just say the words, ‘Oh wha, ta goo, Siam’ and spin around three times, and she won’t be able to turn you to stone.”  The dragon chuckled, sounding like distant thunder.

            “You try my patience, you fat old lizard.  That is a very old joke.”

            “Well, what you don’t know is, she can’t turn you to stone whether you say that little ditty or not.  She’ll try to convince you that she can, and many intruders are scared and run away, but in truth, it is all a bluff.  Show her you are not afraid, and she will bargain.  That is all.  You owe me all three stones now.”

            “Where is the Queen’s domicile from here?”

            “Due east.  Now leave the jewelry and let me daydream in peace.”

            “Thank you for helping.”

            “Helping?  I did more than that; I gave you a complete plan.  You just have to do the leg work.”

            Sapphire shook her head, hung the jewelry on the bush, gathered up her friends, and headed east.

 The land was broken and rolling, with gullies hidden between low hills.  Anyone approaching would be surprisingly well concealed.   The sky, on the other hand, seemed immense, with no low-hanging clouds.  A bird with huge wingspan and greenish feathers circled high overhead, then disappeared to the east.

 Soon, a grayish shape, like a bat with a 12-foot wingspan appeared, flying at middle altitude.  It dropped something that fell far off to their right with a heavy thud.

            Flummox looked off in that direction.  “What was that?”

            Animus shook his head.  “You don’t really want to know.  Foul creature.”

            A second missile landed closer in to their left, but Flummox still couldn’t spot it on the ground.  The nature of the missiles became clear when the next thing that fell was a fine golden rain.  This did find its mark, and left a strong ammonia smell in the air.

            Flummox shook his fist in the air.  “I’m not good enough a shot – do you think you could hit that thing with an arrow, Animus?”

            “Not so high, and moving so fast.  Look, what’s that?”

 Another flying shape had joined the first one.  This one was also gray, but had pink wings and belly, and was noticeably fatter.  The feces it sprayed on them from above was much looser, almost liquid in nature.

            Sapphire gagged.  “That’s enough!”  She shot a lightning bolt into the air, between the two figures, which beat a hasty retreat to the east.

            Animus watched them go.  “Which one were you aiming for?”

            Sapphire shrugged.  “Couldn’t make up my mind, so I split the difference.”

            Flummox held his arms out to the sides and surveyed the damage.  “Well, strangers in a strange land shouldn’t always expect the warmest of welcomes.”  He managed to keep a straight face.

            Sapphire burst out laughing.  “Let’s break out some water and clean up a little.”

            Animus wrinkled his nose.  “Let’s move on a little bit first, okay?”  And so they did, then they did.

            Later in the afternoon they came to a high escarpment that cut across their path.  It was split in two by a steep-walled gulch that continued on their heading east, rising slowly as it went.  They debated whether to climb up the gulch or try to skirt around the escarpment.  Since they couldn’t see where the escarpment might end in either direction, they headed up the gulch, single-file with Animus in the lead, Sapphire pulling Foggy Bottom along in the rear.

            Soon they heard rustling and shifting sands ahead and above them, and began to have second thoughts about their decision.  They could see that the path was nearly risen fully up out of the gulch and hurried forward.

 A beetle the size of a melon scurried down the path past them, spooking Foggy Bottom but otherwise ignoring them.  A second one followed, clacking its mandibles at them, but also hurrying on.  Then they emerged into a wide area with broken rocks.  The area was alive with dozens of the beetles, scrambling in their general direction.  These beetles were not as benign.

            One beetle rushed at Animus, and he shot an arrow at it.  The arrow bounced off its armored back plates.  The beetle then grabbed his leather boot.  Animus kicked it away, then jumped up on a nearby rock.  Another beetle approached and he took careful aim.  This shot pinned its head to the ground and it expired with a minimum of thrashing.  However, a third beetle jumped him from behind and started climbing his leg.  A downward smash of his fist dislodged it, but he felt sharp pain, lost his balance, and fell from the rock.  Rolling quickly, he staggered erect, but spilled half his arrows on the ground.  He ran limping for a larger rock, which he managed to get on top of, and looked around to see what was happening with his friends.

            Flummox had dropped his bow and was laying about him with a small axe.  He seemed unharmed.  “Sapphire, try talking to these things!”

            “I am, but there are too many.  I send one away, and two others take its place!”

            Just then, Foggy Bottom screamed.  The mule had smashed one beetle with a hoof but another had gripped it around the leg.  It broke into a run, and headed away to the south.

            Flummox whacked a beetle squarely with his axe.  “So do it loud, like the dragon’s voice!  Don’t you have a spell or something?”

            “It takes time to work up a spell – and I’m a little busy right now!”

            Animus leapt down from his rock, wincing as he landed.  “I’m coming!”

            Sapphire backed against a huge outcropping, closed her eyes and began muttering under her breath while Animus got in front of her, shooting two more beetles that got too close, right through the head.  Flummox whaled away at the beetles around him, but they didn’t seem very persistent, and he did little damage.

            Finally, Sapphire burst forth with an incredibly loud chittering sound and all the beetles froze in place.  Then, they turned as one and stampeded down the gulley that ran back down to the west.  Suddenly, they were alone and all was quiet.

            Sapphire took a deep breath.  “I’d better go find Foggy Bottom.”

            “I’ll start a fire.  I think we’ll be here awhile.”  Animus leaned over to pick up some dried brush and drew a sharp breath between his clenched teeth.

            “Hey, you’re bleeding.  Let me take a look at that leg.”  Flummox helped Animus lean over a smooth rock, belly down, while he explored the back of Animus’s knee.  “I wish D-Stract was here – she’s better at this sort of thing than I am.  But it doesn’t look too bad, a deep scratch maybe, but in a bad spot.”  Flummox tied a rag around it, then began collecting bits of brush, using his axe on the most stubborn stumps, while Animus sat on the ground and arranged them in a pyramid.  They had a small fire going by time Sapphire returned with the mule.  One of its legs was dripping blood, but mercifully it was still walking.

            Sapphire surveyed the damage.  “I guess I could try to work up a healing spell for the both of you.  Any other damage?  Flummox?  No?  I’ve seen Rufus do this.  Give me a moment.”  Sapphire sat down, closed her eyes, and began muttering to herself again.

            A voice came from behind them.  “You aren’t going to eat those, are you?  What a waste.”  Flummox alone understood the words, though of course the others understood through their mental contact with him.

 They whirled around and saw a strange bird-like humanoid, black with a brown robe, casually approaching them from over a rise to the north.  If it had wings, they were under the robe.  It was using a long sword as a sort of walking stick.

            Flummox stood, still holding the axe.  He glanced at his bow, now lying by the fire, then spoke in the lizard tongue.  “Beg pardon?  Waste what?”

            The bird-man gestured.  “Those beetles.  They’re quite a delicacy, you know.  I’ve been tracking them all afternoon.  Tell you what, I’ll trade you for them.  Do you like honey?  I’ll give you a jar in exchange for whatever beetles you caught.”  Seeing them relax, the bird-man pulled a gallon-sized glass jar from his robes, in which a big junk of honeycomb was shining stickily.  “I’m Raven, by the way.”

            Flummox nodded.  “I’m Flummox, and it’s a deal.  These are Animus and Sapphire.”

            Raven sat by the fire, still leaning on his sword, and placed the glass jar on the ground beside him.  He glanced around at the visible beetle corpses, then at Flummox, and cocked his head sideways.

            Flummox straightened up, and put the axe back in his belt.  “I’ll just collect them up, then.”  As he brought back the beetles, one by one, Raven popped them into a sack, until Flummox brought the last one, which had been stomped on by Foggy Bottom.  This one Raven held by one leg and inspected for a moment before throwing it into the fire, where it sizzled and popped.

            “Don’t you like the crushed ones?”

            Raven swung his beak side to side.  “I don’t like ones that have seen the bottom of a mule’s foot.  You never know what they’ve stepped in, or where they’ve been.  Speaking of which, you shouldn’t be here, you know.”

            Flummox sat down across the fire from him.  “Oh really?  Why’s that?”

            The beak dipped.  “Well, there is an agreement, sort of a negotiated settlement.  The lizard tribes are to stay east of the river and lake, in barrens and marsh, while the humans stay to the west.  Right-of-ways are granted for the causeway and the burial grounds, but that is all.”

            “But we spoke with the dragon, Crysophordia.”

            “I doubt he gave you letters of transit or anything.  It’s not his… style.”

            “He told us to go speak with your Queen, and gave us directions.”

            “Oh, you really don’t want to do that either.”

            “Why not?”

            “Well, she collects stone statues – sort of a memorial to unwanted visitors, if you catch my meaning.”

            “I heard those were faked.”

            “Well, I’ll admit the bulk of them may have been carved by her friend, Rodan, but how can you be sure that some of them aren’t really formerly people?  You want to take that chance?”

            “You’ve been there?  You’ve seen these statues, and the Queen, and yet you yourself are not stone….”

            “Of course, the enchantment might only work on humans, and perhaps elves too.”  Raven glanced over at Animus.

            Flummox took a deep breath.  “Look here, we’re in pursuit of three humans that came this way before us.  We agree, they should not be here, and we’re trying to take them back where they belong – by force if necessary.”

            Raven dropped his sword and clapped his talons together.  “Awesome!  Why didn’t you say that in the first place.  I never liked what Mandor and The Seer were up to, and I am sure they didn’t have the Queen’s approval.”

            “What are they doing?”

            “Well, colluding with humans, of course.  They have some sort of scheme cooked up.  All very dark and irregular, you see.  Won’t let any of the rest of us in on their secrets – say we’ll run and blab to the Queen.”

            “And did you?”

            Raven’s beak clacked.  “We tried to tell the Queen, just because they were being so elitist, but without proof… our wings are clipped.”

            “So you’ll help us?”

            “Sure.  We’d love to stick it to Mandor and The Seer.  Hold on a second.”  Raven tilted his head back and made a cawing sound.  There was a rustling sound and two shapes appeared over the rise.  It was the aerial bombardiers from earlier in the day.  “It’s okay, guys, they’re with us – or at least not with the others.  The enemies of our enemies and all that… you know.”

            The gray and pink one, roughly the size and shape of a winged hippopotamus, stuck a finger in its mouth and drooled.  “Uh, we’z sorry about dat ting, earlier.   We tot you was wit Mandor, ya know.”

            Raven stood.  “Let me introduce Tutu, and over there is Batty.”

            The all gray winged humanoid gave a little bow.  “Pleased to meet you.  Nice lightning bolt, by the way.”  The three newcomers were all speaking in the lizard tongue, but the others understood from Flummox’s mental translation.

            Sapphire gave a nod, and gave a response in the common human tongue.  “Thank you.  I’m Sapphire.”

            Batty gave a puzzled look and turned to Raven.

            “Sorry, this one is Flummox, who speaks our tongue.  That’s Sapphire and the elf is Animus.  They seem to be following the conversation, but don’t say much that I can understand.  I don’t think they understand our language.”

            Flummox and Raven then filled in the newcomers on everything they had discussed so far, and Batty tried again to convince them that visiting the Queen would be a bad idea.

            The sun began to set as they discussed possible plans.  Batty and Tutu agreed to fly south and learn what they could about conditions at the lair where the humans had gone, and winged away.  Raven declared he would nest with them that night, and produced a salve that they smeared on Animus’s knee, then Foggy Bottom’s leg.  Meanwhile Sapphire and Flummox broke out some supper, which Raven sniffed at doubtfully.  Instead he pulled out a couple of the beetles, which he munched on with great gusto.

            They fell asleep under a starry sky, as Animus sang an elvish ballad in a low voice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Cleo and Snipe did not have much luck in their hunt.

 They had tracked the gray wolf to the top of the western mountain ridge.  They saw it scramble to the top of the ridge.  It stared down at them, then bayed.

 Suddenly, the two razor dogs appeared and chased after the wolf, who disappeared behind the mountain crest.  They followed after slowly, and soon all was quiet.

            Cleo and Animus climbed laboriously to the top of the ridge, and tried to follow the tracks from there.  The wolf had evidently been chased off a long drop.  There was a lot of blood on the rocks, far below, but no sign of a corpse.

            Giving it up as a lost cause, the hunters returned through the growing dusk to the Rouge farm.

 On the road, right in front of the farm, they met the Chief of the Trogs, standing staring at the farmhouse.

            Snipe hopped forward.  “Hail, Chief!  Are you all better now?”

            The Chief turned and looked at the pair.  “Yes, the infection was halted, and I have slipped away from the clutches of Nurse Scrubs.  I was just considering whether to head up to the caves, or seek some hospitality with our old friends, the Rouges.”

            “But Chief, you’re so close to home.  Everybody is waiting for you.”

            “It would hardly be fitting for me to trudge up the hill and arrive dirty and out of breath.  Not a fitting entrance for the Chief at all.”  He saw the look of puzzlement and concern on the other’s face.  “Between you and me, they said it might be a few days before I’m 100% again.  I’ve walked all this way, my old clothes are beginning to itch, and the climb seemed a little daunting.”

            Sniper shook his head.  “Chief, you’ve vanquished the werewolves and reunited the Trogs.  Once again, you’ve shown that you are the best of us – you are our hero.  They are all waiting to celebrate your return, and if you’re a little tired, that’s to be expected.  Come home.”

            The Chief smiled in gratitude.  “Thank you, Sniper, I will.  Will you walk with me?”

            Cleo shuffled her feet impatiently.  “You know I don’t speak a word of goblin, right?  I can’t follow a thing you’re saying.”

            Sniper turned to her.  “Sorry.  I’ll be going back to the caves with the Chief now.  Perhaps we’ll catch the wolf another day – or better yet, it will get lost in the wilds far on the other side of the mountains.”

            Cleo nodded to Sniper.  “Okay, I’ll bid you both a good evening.  Chief.”  She nodded in his direction too, then turned towards the farmhouse.  “I wonder what’s for supper.”

~~~~~~~~~

 Five of them stood on the top of the dam and surveyed the ruined valley beyond.  A stretch of water with a few muddy patches showing, and with mud circling around its rim, was all that was left of a much deeper lake.  The green shore to the left hosted a number of very active waterfalls.  Waves from their impact raced across what was left of the lake before losing force and sliding toward the dam.  The rocky shore to the right had a steamy rift near the water’s edge.  Smoke curled upwards.  All around, jagged edges were interspersed with hard, dark lava flows.  Loose debris was scattered about on the right-hand ridge, and little bits of sand and gravel were constantly shifting downwards.

 Parrot tried to circle above the valley, but was buffeted by strong, turbulent winds, and returned to the safety of Rufus’s shoulder.  “There, there.  Good boy.  Things look pretty torn up, but where are the elementals?”

 Maude’s voice tittered in his head.  You forgot to put on your rose-colored glasses.  I can see them quite clearly.

            Sure enough, as all three humans raised their magical awareness, dipping into their training or new-found talents, as the case may be, the world took on a completely different complexion. 

 Rufus saw an air elemental, flitting above the valley, taunting and teasing those below, who took occasional notice and chased her away.

 He and Grace saw a fire elemental, couched deep in the rift in the right-hand valley wall. Its arms ran out like snakes and caused the water to hiss and steam where he touched it.  His hair snapped and waved, sending plumes into the sky.

 With their new-found affinity for water, Grace and D-Stract saw the water elemental at the base of the waterfalls.  It occasionally gathered together water in its wide-stretched arms and made a rush at Fire, pushing a wave ahead of it, but was unable to swamp the fiery rift.

  Grace alone saw the Earth elemental.  It stood high on the ridge to the right.  Every once in a while it would kick sand and gravel down on the fire elemental, temporarily smothering it.  Then it would stomp its other foot, causing the earth to buckle and convulse, sending a wave of water back toward the water elemental, where it splattered against the  far side of the valley.  Then it would raise its gnarly fingers above its shoulders and rake the underbelly of the sky.  The effect was like that of dragging one’s nails across a slate chalkboard, and the air elemental would fly away screaming, far up the valley.

            Rufus turned to the others.  “Look, we have a defense against the water and the fire, and to some extent the air.  But these things are supercharged; this is not going to be a power play.  This has to be a negotiation.”

            D-Stract nodded.  “Yes, we must get in their heads and figure out what makes them tick.  We need leverage.”

            Rufus pointed at D-Stract.  “Right.  So imagine you’re a water elemental.  What motivates you?”

            “That’s easy.  Your hatred of fire, of course.”

            Rufus pointed at Grace.  “So you’re a fire elemental.  What motivates you?”

            Grace swallowed.  “Well, you’re in love with air.  You want to chase after her, wrap your arms around her, merge with her.”

            Rufus pointed at Flicker.  “You’re an air elemental.  What motivates you?”

            “You’re a chuckle-headed ninny.”

            Rufus frowned.  “That’s not really a motivation…”

            “No, you.  You are a chuckle-headed ninny.  I can see all four elementals.  What they’re doing is plain as day.  I will go and take care of the earth elemental first thing.”  With that, Flicker scampered away, hopping from rock to rock, until he was near the feet of the earth elemental.  The image was like a mouse confronting an elephant – the scale was right.  Only in this case, the mouse wore a blue wizard’s robe and instead of being frightened, the elephant broke out laughing.  Then, it nodded and waved the mouse away.  Flicker came scampering back.  “Okay, that’s taken care of.  I told him we were here to broker a peace between Fire and Water.  I asked him whether if we succeeded, would he be able to hold Air in check.  That’s when he laughed.  But he did agree to let us alone, and not hurt us, as long as we are working on a peace deal.  Now its you guys’s turns.”

            Graced looked dubious.  She patted the snail shell hung around her neck.  “I think I’m next.”

            D-Stract reached out towards her.  “Do you have a plan?”

            “Yeah, I do.  What’s the worst that could happen, anyway?”

            Maude giggled.  You could join me in the afterlife and we could be sisters forever.

            Grace grimaced.  “Well, there’s motivation for you.  Wish me luck.”

            Grace climbed down the broken rock of the dam breach and leapt over the running water to the other side.  She then began to slowly work her way off the dam onto the slope to the right, then along it towards the steaming fissure.  The earth elemental, true enough, paused as she passed, and shifted to a new spot before resuming it’s stomping and clawing.  She stepped gingerly on rock fall that looked unstable, but it supported her weight without incident.

            As she approached the fissure, a snake of hot lava curled out and darted at her – but it splashed at her feet.  A larger head with flaming hair and glowing eyes glided up out of the hole, locked its gaze on her, then slowly rotated its head to the side without blinking.  “You carry the protection of the gods with you, Daughter of Eve.”

            “And you burn with the brightness and beauty of a million stars, oh creature of the depths.”

            “Why, thank you.”

            “It would be a shame if you were to be buried far below the earth again, where none could gaze upon you.”

            “Why should that happen?”

            “You know the forces of Earth, Water, and Air conspire against you?”

            Fire hissed with a flickering tongue.  “Hundreds of years I lay buried because of them, with never a glimpse of the sky.  They fear me, you know.”

            “It is only a matter of time before they smother you again, and bury you deep.  Unless….” Grace paused and placed a hand on her chin.

            “Unless what?”  Fire slithered further out of its hole.

            “The problem is… this spot you’ve chosen to emerge from.  That mousling wizard had no sense of proper geography.  In Asia they call it Feng Shui.  Perhaps I could arrange a spot where the others would have no objection to you coming out and seeing the sky, from time to time.”

            “Yes!  This is a miserable damp hole, cold and wet.  Where can I go?”

            “Well, it would mean accepting some limitations on your passion; you would need considerable self control to be near humans without harming them.  And too, you would have to work with us to set things right again.  But, if you are in agreement, my friends and I have a plan to keep you some freedom – some access to the sky.”

            “Anything.  Even a hundred years is too long not to gaze upon the lacey clouds.”

            “Very well then, we will set things in motion, and let you know what you must do.”

            “Thank you, mortal.  I must learn more of this Feng Shui.  I will honor the spirit of the plan, its purpose and intent.  But, beware the treachery of Water.  That one must be bound by firm promises and contracts.  A web of words cannot hold it.”

            “I will keep that in mind.  Thank you.”

            As Grace worked her way back along the slope, she conversed with her friends using the Monk’s magical mental connection.

            Grace:  I think it’s all set.  We just need to find another exit for the fire, one we can control.  I think we’ll have to find the Yetis another home.

            Rufus:  Sounds like you’re thinking about the dwarves and their glassworks.

            Grace:  Yes, but I don’t trust them.  You remember what a mess Gorbag made of his butcher shop.

            Rufus:  Good point.

            D-Stract:  I think I’ve got an angle on that.  Once we’re done here, perhaps we can get those razor dogs to ride herd on the fire elemental.  Between them and the dwarves, they should be able to manage.  Belt and suspenders.

            Rufus:  This is going to take some cooperation from the other elementals, too.  Earth has a stranglehold on Fire, so it’s going to have to allow the change.  Also, I think we could maybe get Fire to flow lava onto the dam and plug the gap they made – that would be our payment for services rendered.  It would require both Earth and Water to hold back while that happens, though.

            D-Stract:  Okay, that’s a long list of stuff, but I think I’ve got it.  Wish me luck – my turn now.

            D-Stract patted the shark tooth around her neck and headed back to where the road started across the dam.  She carefully crept down the muddy slope to the water’s edge.

            As she reached the lake, a large wave rose above her head, began to crash down on her, but then froze like a painting in the air above her.  The water looked greenish brown with the sun shining through it, instead of reflecting the blue sky.  She could see much further down the muddy slope now, beneath the former water level, where rocks and tiny crustaceans gleamed wetly.  This seemed logical, since that’s where the water had come from to make the wave.

            D-Stract patted her shark tooth again.  “Whoa there, I’ve just come to talk.”

            The elemental peered over the top of the frozen wave.  “I have no need to talk.  Nice trick that.”

            “I have protections.  Didn’t know I could freeze a wave, though.”

            “You didn’t.  Your ‘protections’ stopped my wave from enveloping you, so I left it where it was for dramatic effect.  Were you afraid?”

            “I’ll admit it did almost take my breath away, but if you can do that at will, I have a use I could put that trick to.”

            “And why do you think I would help you with that trick?”

            “I did come here to negotiate several mutually beneficial exchanges.  That could be part of one of them.”

            “Do tell.  And how will we set a price on my trick?”

            “I said mutually agreeable; I assume you don’t need money.  I find that in any negotiation it helps to list out all the things we could be doing for each other, and then weigh them in a balance.”

            “Fine.  I want Fire out of here.  Put that on your list.”

            “Well, actually, we have a plan to do that, and it would let you rebuild the strength you once had, when this lake was intact.”

            The elemental drew back and narrowed its eyes.  “I expect you mortals will be rebuilding your dam soon enough anyway, to try and harness a tiny fraction of my power.  Why should I not just… wait?”

            “We have a plan to fix the dam much more quickly.  I can get Fire to pour lava into the dam breach, repairing it, if you will only draw back and let him work.  Then your waters can fill the valley again.”

            “Okay, done!”

            “Hold on a minute, that is just one element of a potential agreement.  There is more.  Take for instance the lower lake.  All the detritus that Earth throws at you, you wash down the river, but then it settles in the lower lake.  It is filling in and shrinking, over time.”

            “And what do you propose doing about that?”

            “If you can do that trick of yours, and pull back the waters above the sand bar, we could cart it off for you.  Presto!  Larger lake for minimal effort.”

            “Again, you offer me a service and don’t name the price.  I’m waiting.”

            “Very well.  You know the old mine, south and around the bottom of this mountain ridge?  The lower levels are full of water, but no stream flows from it.  Do you know the place I speak of?”

            “Of course.  Earth and I have contested for paths beneath the mountains for years.  I have easy access to this valley, and four paths through the caves to join the river below this dam.  However, the contestation of the old mine did not turn out as well.  I penetrated, but Earth was able to cut my foray off.  That water has been isolated, deep and brooding, for well over a hundred years.”

            “So, if we provide a path, you will withdraw the waters therein so that we can abide and toil there, sending those waters to the sea, and leaving the place dry forever after?”

            “Let’s just say for as long as the mountain stands firm; forever is a long time.”

            “It is agreeable then?”

            “Let me recap what you are proposing.  You will let me swell the upper lake, increase the depth of the lower lake, and let me recover the waters now trapped in the old mine and all I have to do is nothing, three times over?  Not stop fire from fixing the dam, pull back my waters while you clear the lake bottom, and accept back the old waters when they are released from their confinement?  I remain suspicious.  What do you get in return besides an old hole in the ground?”

            “I want a promise from you to never sink a ship, or break the causeway again.”

            The water elemental looked up at the sky.  “Let me think, here.  I do nothing three times now, for a promise to do nothing for an indefinite time in the future.  I think I can live with that.  It’s a deal.”

            “We’ll hold you to your word, mind you.”

            The elemental smiled wickedly.  “Of course, mortal.  Do these things for me now, and I’ll make your life easier tomorrow, and the tomorrows to come.”

            “Very good.  I will let you know when those things are about to happen.  Good day.”

            D-Stract gave a little bow, then turned and started back up the muddy slope.  The wave behind her sank softly back into the lake.  She swore she heard the waters making a chuckling sound as she went.

            Rufus:  Masterful work.  It thinks it is getting the better deal, since it has no intention to be bound by its future promise.

            D-Stract:  Yep.  I’ll be happy if we can just get its cooperation for now.  We need the dam and the sand.

            Grace:  And the best part is that the old mine will make a ready-made home for the Yetis, if we use their cave on Monolith Mountain as Fire’s new home.  I hope they get along with the Charleses – they and Eeek will both want to play around with all the toys under the water in the mine.

            Maude:  We’ll just have to introduce them to each other, won’t we?  That’ll be fun!

            Grace & D-Stract each rejoined the others atop the dam at about the same time.  The party looked at each other and gave a collective sigh of relief.  They then started back down the road to the Rouge farm, where Cleo was singing the praises of what Madam Rouge was doing in the kitchen.

~~~~~~~~

{Stay tuned for the next chapter.}

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