Chapter 25 — Tuesday Morning, June 10 – Up to the Mountains
The adventurers gathered for breakfast at the inn early, in preparation for their day’s journey. The dining room of the inn was surprisingly crowded. Spamwich’s breakfast involved two fried eggs and a strip of bacon, arranged like a smiley face, but the whole thing embedded in a griddle cake. The protein was well done, but the griddle cake ranged from crispy brown to sticky.
Cleo smiled. “Come with us, then. Hound is meeting us by the South Bridge Gate soon.”
Scooter nodded and hurried off.
Sapphire nudged her in the ribs. “Looks like you have an admirer.”
“I’m just being nice.”
“I know that, but does he? Uh-oh, he’s standing up. Don’t look.”
The beardless Viking came over. “Excuse me, might I have a word?”
Sapphire looked up at him. “She’s with me, buddy.”
The Viking looked surprised. “What? Oh really? We didn’t think that sort of thing was allowed here. That’s great news, I’ll tell the guys.”
The ladies exchanged their own looks of surprise.
“Actually, we need some advice. I’m Eric, by the way. Yeah, I played Eric the Orange, but my name actually is Eric.”
Sapphire tipped her head. “Go on.”
“We hear you’ve discussed the status of all us folks with the Earl that brought us here. We thought you might have better insight than most, all things considered.”
The Viking pulled up an empty chair and sat down. “The thing is, I’ve been talking to as many of us abductees as possible. It seems there are two kinds of us. Some folks, like me and the guys here, and most of the palace guard, have memories of our lives before coming here, but others, like Palance and Eastwood and Larsen, seem to have jumbled up memories of multiple lives that they can’t separate. Those three were clearly actors, like us, but they don’t remember anything outside of the roles they played. I’m guessing they were typecast. So, we don’t know anything about this magic stuff, but you clearly do. What we want to know is, are we real, or are we just going to go poof and vanish in a cloud of smoke one day?”
Sapphire started to laugh, then noticed his serious face. “No, no, you’re not going to go poof. Thanks to the Earl’s magic, you are now as real as anybody else here, just messed up, sort of.”
“Well, that’s a relief, I guess. But our friends and family, did we disappear there? Are we ever going to see them again?”
Sapphire looked thoughtful. “You have to understand, this is years, centuries even, after the time you remember. I believe you are copies of the people you were then, pulled forward in time. The Earl’s magic did not change history. The original you likely lived out their lives in a perfectly normal way.”
Grace spoke up. “There is a deeper question. Since magic cannot possibly create new souls, who are you the reincarnation of?”
“How do you know we have souls?”
“Anything with free will has a soul, by definition. It is possible that in your case, you are actually a reincarnation of yourself. You experienced trauma coming here, so you have missing memories in-between, not unlike that of a newborn babe forgetting its short-term memories. Folks like Eastwood and Palance, maybe they are not reincarnations of the actors, but just people who soaked up the roles.”
“You mean like, they were fans?”
Grace frowned. “I guess that’s one way to look at it. Yeah.”
Eric smiled. “Okay. That’s a big relief. I’ve been telling the guys we should audition with the actor’s troop, but they’ve been saying ‘what’s the point.’ If we’re here for the long term, we need to land a gig. Thanks so much.”
Grace smiled. “Go for it, Eric.”
“Much obliged.” Eric tipped his helmet and headed back to huddle with his buddies.
Sapphire chuckled. “I thought he looked a little too handsome to be true.”
Sapphire looked up at him. “Maybe. It’s just a theory. How would you feel about that?”
“Actually, I can get inta it. I remember some cool stuff, thrills from my evil past, I’ll never havta pay for. But seriously, there’s somethin’ youse guys should know about.” He lowered his voice. “Dere’s some real trouble goin’ down at the beach.”
“Capone, Bubba, and Bo has been comin’ down on your old buddies at the beach pretty hard since dem buccaneers came here. You know — puttin’ ‘em down as homeless, racist stuff, crap like dat. Things is gettin’ ready to boil over real soon.”
“What about the rest of your buddies?”
“Hey, I look out for number one. Those t’ree? They’s poison, and dumb, beatin’ on da marks. Now, I told the artsy guys I’d help ‘em get papers to move their camp inta da market place, for a piece of da action of course, and they’s goin’. But there’s some heavy stuff in da works. If youse gots friends there, you’d better pull ‘em out quick.”
“What about Tinker and his wagons? CK?”
“Oh I told ‘em. Tried to make a buck offa dem too, but the man he just laughed — told me his wagons were perfectly safe. I think he’s loony.”
“So you’re all going after the campers?”
“You got it backwards. They’s goin’ after the t’ree goons. Rita’s outta it, she’s mostly keepin’ company wit’ Grief at de office, and Eastwood and Palance they just sits high sentry an’ won’t have nothin’ to do wit’ it. It’s just the t’ree of dem throwin’ around their weight, like the Big Man had their back, but it ain’t so. Their doin’ it on their own, see? And de goof-offs on the beach, they knows it.”
“So why are you telling us this? What’s in it for you?”
Larsen put his hands on his chest and looked innocent. “Who me? I’m just tryin’ to be a fine upstandin’ citizen of dis here community. Maybe you’ll do me a kindness some day in the future, you know.” He smiled.
“Well thanks for the info.”
Larsen nodded and went back to his table.
Grace leaned to the middle of the table. “What about Woody?”
Cleo shook her head. “He never fit into that gang. He’s always off chasing after animals and such.”
Sapphire snorted. “You mean the young Ms. Autumn.” They all chuckled.
At the South Bridge Gate, they were met by a small crowd. Along with Scooter and Hound, with his new girlfriend Dawn, were Shelly and Chief Conch. Sapphire looked them over. “So, are you all going with us?”
The girls were giggling with each other to the side. Chief Conch glanced and them then nodded. “Yes. Daughter wants to go with friend Dawn.”
“And so you…?”
“I here for their protection, nothing more.”
“Right, then. Let’s head out!”
Scooter slid in beside Sapphire as they crossed the bridge. “Doug was his cranky self this morning. Saw us coming and opened the gate without a word, then headed back into the church. So rude.” They both chuckled.
Grace put a hand on the bars. “Sorry, we’re just passing by. Any news?”
“Why yes. You remember that sorry fellow they had locked up in his room upstairs?”
“You mean Bloody? Why do you say ‘sorry’? He caused a lot of trouble.”
“Well, he said he was sorry. And it makes my jaw squeak to think of any living creature caged like that. Well, the news is, he escaped.”
Sapphire stepped to the gate. “What? Why tin man, you didn’t help him escape, did you?”
“Oh no, Miss Sapphire, I would never do such a thing; I’m helping the Withers now. But his minions are still loyal to him. I was here, standing guard, when I got the news. Grim questioned all of Bloody’s followers and learned how they did it. Skipping over the details, as I know you’d prefer, it ended with him slipping through a gap in the back wall and heading up into the mountains.”
Grace’s face fell. “The old mine! Dan and Dora Charles! They were going up there too!”
Cleo grabbed the gate. “We’ve got to stop that monster. Who’ll come with me?”
Rufus raised a hand. “I’ll go of course. Somebody’s got to look out for you.”
Flummox frowned. “What about the visit to the Trogs? And the samples of you-know-what for Bug?”
Sapphire waved him off. “We can handle all that without them. But let’s talk about it along the way.”
Their resolve to go their separate ways only hardened as they came to the Amethyst family farmhouse, on the right just before the first creek. Cleo and Rufus turned left and followed the path into the woods along the creek.
Sapphire nodded, glancing at Scooter. “Yeah, sure. Tell us what sort of trouble you’ve had from the wolves, and the undead or anything else, for that matter.”
“Oh, the Withers never been any trouble. Always good neighbors. And frankly we ain’t much of a target for the wolves either.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Oh sure, we’ve lost a few chickens during the daylight, like always, but can’t always tell what got ‘em. Maybe wolves, maybe not. Maybe just regular wolves, if you catch my meanin’. We always have buttoned them up real good after sunset, and that goes double now. But you see, we don’t have fields across the road, like the rest of the families. We work specialty crops here – fruits, vegetables, that sort of stuff, and trade for the grain we need from families up the river. Oh, we have a dairy cow, but she doesn’t graze either. And the wolves don’t come down this creek, they come from the other side of the Sky family farm, so they’re a much more tempting target, two ways.”
Sapphire frowned. “Tell me more about the creeks.”
Master Amethyst looked thoughtful. “Well, this here is First Creek. There are five all together, emptying into the river south of the dam. Now four of them come down off the mountain ridge, each coming out of a cave that it carved through the rocks.”
Hound chimed in. “They’re all connected you know – the cave networks. They go way back into the mountains, and that’s where the Trogs get their gemstones.”
Amethyst nodded. “The creeks are the boundaries between the families. This here creek is different though. I followed it back into the woods in my youth. It hooks around the end of the ridge and comes from the mountains back behind these. That’s where the old mine is.”
Grace nodded. “We’ve heard about that place. Two of us are heading up there now.”
Amethyst looked stricken. “That’s a damn fool thing to be doin’. That place is a death trap. Old rotten wood everywhere, cave-ins, rusty spikes. I went in there as a kid; it’s a wonder I’m still alive. One of my friends didn’t make it out.”
“We’ll be sure to send them a warning, right away. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. You be careful to stay on the roads, and keep a lookout, iffen you’re going on up with Scooter. Things ain’t so peaceable further on. Out in the fields you can see ‘em comin’, so keep your bows handy.”
The party, now just 10, crossed the low stone bridge where the yellow brick road crossed First Creek. On the other side was the Sky family house and Scooter went in with his mailbag.
Sapphire beckoned them over. “Billy, tell us about the local wolf attacks.”
Billy looked over the heavily armed party. “Well, we’re doin’ better than most. Theres four of us menfolk to stand guard, countin’ young Gene. We’re holdin’ our own. To be honest, we’re lookin’ for payback for what happen to Grey an’ his scout troop. Dang if these new wolves aren’t pretty clever, though. They sneak around, hard to spot, and mostly strike at night. It makes me so mad the Earl doesn’t do more to help us, but really it’s the Teals that need the most help. It’s just the two of them, young couple, Topaz and Jade, now the Old Mr. Teal was killed. He was scoutmaster, you know. Their livestock is bein’ wiped out.”
Eve wrapped an arm around his waist. “Billy sometimes goes and helps guard their farm, too. He’s such a hero.” Billy threw out his chest and smiled back at her.
Sapphire coughed. “So, have there been any attacks on humans since the scout troop incident?”
Billy shook his head. “Not unless you count Rudy Rough and Delft, when they tried to go rescue the scouts. They been feedin’ on our livestock, not people, since then.”
“So the Teal family is doing poorly, being so young. What about the rest of the families?”
“Well, the Vert family is doin’ fine. She’s some kind of witch or somethin’, uses magic to keep the beasts away. She’s offered to help the Teals, but they don’t want anything to do with what they’s callin’ the devil’s work, no offense, m’am.”
Sapphire smiled wickedly. “None taken.”
“Not smart of them, given that’s where the wolves went after them in the scout troop. Anyway, the lion who came in with Woody is helpin’ the Teals keep guard, and Woody is up at the Autumn place. With Mr. and Mrs. Autumn gone undead, it’s just the brother and sister, Sienna and Joan.”
“What about the last family, the Rouges, where the little girls came from?”
Billy nodded. “They were hit really bad, first the two little girls to the undead, then Chap, followed by Rudy, to the wolves. Then of course old Grandpa Rouge finally passed, he havin’ been sick for so long. You seen him at the Withers, after they dug him up. So now it’s just the mom and pop, and they’re kind of old to be havin’ more kids. They have a fair bit of livestock left, but things are actually pretty quiet up that way now, as far as the wolves go. I hear other stories though…”
“Well, I hear wild stories comin’ from up that way lately. They tell of some kind of hounds, spectral beasts that come at night, all made out of jagged lightnin’, that blew in with the storm. They’ve supposed ta been seen runnin’ around the hills, but they haven’t bothered the Rouges none. They say they’ve found some burned up animals — little stuff like birds, squirrels, a fox, even a tree – but no wolves or Trogs. Always at the high edge of the farm, close to the dam. Sounds crazy to me, though; I ain’t seen nothin’.”
Flummox tugged Sapphire’s sleeve. “I’ve been watching something like that from the riverbank back in town. I think they’re real, and maybe connected to the elementals. Powerful magic, that. Something to be taken seriously.”
They bid Billy and Eve good day, and headed on up the yellow brick road. It curved gently to the right before going into switchbacks behind Monolith Mountain. They could see the dam and all four remaining farmhouses, all to the high side of the road. Each had a barn down closer to the river.
They saw the lion at the Teal farm, off in the distance, running with the cows. It stood on its hind legs and waved, before dropping to all fours and running on. Scooter went in to exchange mail, but said the Teals were too afraid to come out and talk.
At the Vert house, Grace let out a sneeze. “Smells like Dahlia’s ointment around here.”
Sapphire nodded. “So she’s more an alchemist than a witch.”
By time the group reached the Autumn place it was getting warm and pushing lunchtime.
“Whoa, there Fetch! Heel!” Woody appeared from behind the house. The sheepdog stopped growling and turned to look at Woody. “They’re okay, Fetch, these are our friends.” Woody looked the group over. “I saw you coming up the road, earlier. Joan insisted on making y’all lunch. Hope that’s okay?”
Grace nodded. “Sure, that sounds great. Where are our hosts?”
“Should be bringing out some stuff now. Had me clearing off the porch earlier so’s they could set stuff down. Not enough chairs, but we do have some blankets to spread on the grass.”
Just then the remaining members of the Autum family emerged from the house. Joan was a pretty young woman, very sweet. Her brother, Sienna, turned out to be a giant of a man — at least 6-foot six. His bland features were almost baby-like, except for the jumbo-sized proportions. He was carrying the bulk of the food, but Woody rushed to help Joan with her load. A second trip and there was plenty of everything, looking delicious.
Flummox tore into a chicken leg. “You two set quite a table. The farm doing okay then, with you two all alone here?” Joan blushed and glanced at Woody.
Sienna waved the sandwich he was working on. “Couldn’t have done it without Woody here. He’s been our savior, getting us back on our feet.”
Woody shook his head. “Nonsense. I’ve just been acting Sheriff, looking out for cattle rustlers while you did all the work.” He turned to Flummox. “Really, he is just being modest. This young MAN does the work of six, and never tires out. He can drive a fencepost into the ground with his bare hands, or pick a cow up and put it on the other side of the fence where it belongs. I’ve never seen the like.”
Shelly’s eyes fixed hungrily on Sienna. “And he’s so big. Not like other men.”
Sapphire nudged Grace and whispered. “Looks like we may have another recruit.”
Chief Conch watched the two youngsters carefully, then sat back with a satisfied expression.
When Scooter finished eating, he stood up. “Well, I guess I’ll be heading on to finish my rounds. Are you coming up to the Rouge place with me? Sounds like Creek Five is the safest way up to the mountains, as far as wolves are concerned.”
Sapphire shook her head. “Nah, I’m more worried about these lightning dogs. I don’t want to tangle with elementals today. We’re right here by Creek Four, and I don’t want to waste time going further out than we must. It sounds like this way will get us to the Trogs okay. What do you think, Hound?”
Hound glanced at Dawn. “Sounds about right. From what the farmers are telling us, the wolves hold the more southern caves, the Trogs the north. What we don’t know is how far up they’ve pushed. Creek Four cave might be clear.” He turned to Dawn. “It might be dangerous though. Maybe you should stay here.”
Dawn shook her head and grabbed his arm. “Nonsense, I’m going with you. You’re not getting away from me that easily, and you can’t hog all the fun. Shelly? How about you?”
Shelly gazed admiringly at Sienna. “Oh, I think I’d better stay here where there is a big man to protect me.” She blushed and glanced at Woody and her father. “Men. Men to protect me.”
Scooter raised his hand. “All right then, I’ll be on my way. Shall we meet back here before heading back to town?”
Sapphire glanced around the group. “That might work, but if it’s getting on towards dusk and we’re not back yet, you lot better head to town. Wouldn’t want you out on the road in the dark.”
Scooter nodded and headed up the road.
Joan jumped up. “Let me send some extra hams with you – maybe you can trade with the Trogs.”
The party, now down to seven, thanked their host and headed up Creek Four towards the mountain ridge, laden with picnic hams.
Flummox snorted. “If nothing else, the scent of these hams will bring the wolves down on us!”