Friday, April 25, 2014

PBM: Chapter 2: Handle With Care: Part 5

In which the parade gets rained on...

On the other side, the muddy track of the road runs strait west, up away from the river-bank, and vanishes into a wall of tall grasses, marking the edge of the prairies which Rant informs you are known to the Eraka as “Segara Saka Suket”, the Sea of Grass. As the road vanishes, Rant’s spell goes too, leaving the animals once again struggling slowly through the mud and the axles of the wagon tangling in the grasses. To your right, just north of the bridge, you see a wide area where the grass appears blackened and blighted, somehow made even more dreary and unpleasant-looking by being drenched in rain, in the center of which stands a shoulder-height, ornate wrought-iron fence, surrounded by a knee-high stone wall. A few stray paving stones make it look as if the road from the bridge once ran right up to the gates. As if to encouraged by your proximity to the old graveyard, the rain picks up and a flash of lightning streaks across the sky.

Donovan pulls up on the reins to slow the oxen before they get hung up in the tall grass. He flinches at the crack of thunder overhead and pulls his hood lower. He stops the wagon at the edge of the Grass Sea and stands up to try to see farther through the mist and rain. “Lyra, council reward or no, I’d rather not go poking into Valhingen Graveyard on a day like this. I’d prefer to swing wide around the graveyard as well, but that means heading out into the open prairie before cutting back north and east, but that looks like it will be extremely slow. Unless someone wants to walk ahead of the cows and hack a road for us.” He sits back down and pushes the crossbows under the bench to try to keep them dry. “If you want to take a look, Lyra, I suggest that we do a drive-by. If we stick to the verge where the dead grass is, it should be easier going for the wagon and get us close enough, but not too close, to take a peak at your graveyard, and hopefully get us north of the city faster…”

Despite sitting on horseback in the mud and the now driving rain, Frantiska somehow manages to still look calm and dignified—her soaked clothing does not cling, her raven dark hair stays out of her face, and the mud somehow does not stick. She turns Thistledown, who looks particularly unamused at having mud up to her girth, north towards the graveyard and leads the way, “Let’s get moving then.”

Donovan struggles to back up and turn the cart to follow his decisive new friend. “So, Lyra, what are we looking for again?”

Lyra kneeled behind the driver’s bench, bow across her lap. “If I recall correctly, the council wants any information on the nature of whatever has taken up residence there. The grass itself isn’t much of an indicator, unfortunately. I can think of a half dozen reasons just offhand—magic, defilement, curses, a strong connection to the negative plane, a strong connection to one of the lower planes. Maybe that’s just a particularly unusual looking native specimen.”

The wagon rolls slowly past the old cemetery, the steady creek of the wheels and drip of rain occasionally accented by a clap of thunder. A breeze blowing off the sea from the south sends the rain pelting in through the back of the wagon, strait into Brother Rant’s face, but means that Lyra is kept relatively dry. Sitting on the bench beside Donovan, Teldicia lights of fog lantern and shines it ahead of you. The black grasses do not seem to bother anything, though Hrud, bringing up the rear near Brother Rant, points out that they are bent in a way that indicates they’ve been trampled fairly regularly, not with any clear path or direction to the damage, but rather looking like a fairly large number of creatures, probably bipedal, milled about the yard in a relatively aimless fashion. As the wagon drifts slightly closer to the cemetery wall, Teldicia sweeps the lantern in that direction, revealing that the ground inside the fence is heavily disturbed and oddly mounded, like giant mole-hills, as if something forced its way up out of the ground from below. Even with the lantern, you cannot see too far past the fence, as a thick fog seems to hang over the graveyard, in addition to the rain.

Frantiska rides closer to the fence surrounding the graveyard, roughly 30 feet away, and allows her eyes to adjust, shifting to the infra-red, hoping that the heat from anything living will stand out more against the rain and mist. At the same time, she reaches out with her mind, feeling for whatever emanations of malevolence may be detectable. Her bow is out, readied, and loaded with one of the new silver arrows.

To Frantiska’s elven sight the graveyard looks just as it is—dead. Everything looks a uniform cold blue, a stark contrast to the grasses of the prairie behind her, which teem with life. If anything stands out, it is that the surfaces within the graveyard look even colder than the rain which is falling on them.

To her other sense, however, the graveyard seems blazing with light. The emanations are overwhelming, nearly knocking Frantiska from her steed. Sharp, stabbing pain returns to her head, accompanying the sense of pervasive evil—as if the graveyard itself were a single entity, living, thinking, and plotting something horrible.

Donovan tries to focus on driving, but can’t help but look at the beaten grass and upturned dirt. “You know…sleep spells don’t work against zombies…” he mutters, “…and arrows go right through skeletons.”

“Those magic blades and sling bullets will have to suffice.” And gravity, Lyra thought, would work on most things if it came to it. Or creating an aperture bisecting an entity would result in…. Lyra shuddered.

As crowded and smelly and claustrophobic as the city was, Hrud found the the fouled waters and corrupted vegetation before him now to be much more upsetting. The disturbed graveyard was merely icing on the cake [or whatever the Eraka equivalent would be]. “«What is the source of this evil?»”

“Kalau saja aku tahu.” Thistledown is already straining to get away from the accursed site, Frantiska lets her have the reins, giving her only the slightest nudge back towards the wagon. “There isn’t the slightest sign of life in that place,” she says as she pulls up alongside Teldicia and Donovan, “not even an insect, and yet the whole place seems to be thinking, plotting foul deeds. Not the passive evil of a curse or a spell, but like the very ground is sentient. Some powerful undead creature must be at work here, a lich, perhaps, or a shade, or a vampire of great age. Something not only able to raise the dead from their graves, but grant them thought and then control them to a single purpose.”

She shudders. “The list of places in this town that need to be razed to the ground just keeps growing…”

Donovan looks back at Lyra, “Anything else we want to know about this place? Other than ‘how fast can we get away from it?’”

Lyra flinches at another crash of thunder. “When we return to the training hall in Phlan, there is a technique I may be able to master that may be of some use. Many undead exist between this world and another, and it is possible to force them to one or the other.”

“Well that doesn’t sound too immediate. Let’s get out of here before whatever kicked up that dirt becomes as curious about us as you are of it.” Donovan flicks the reins, trying to push the oxen to go at least a little faster to get away from the cemetery, no matter that there is no road, and its raining, and its grassy, and that they’re cows. “Come on…” he pauses and looks at the oxen, realizing that the liverer never told them their names, “…Mr…Brisket! Come on, Sirloin! Giddyup!”


One of the oxen stops in its tracks briefly, throwing its head and looking back at Donovan as if offended by his comments, nearly upsetting the cart. Jerked to a halt, the other gives an angry bellow and they both start forward again at a good clip. Only a few minutes later the grass fades back from black to green and the cemetery is fading into the mist behind you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Adventures in the Middle Kingdom: Thus spake Hán Yì Srotāpanna to the È Guǐ

In which a sorcerous false priest converts to Buddhism and becomes a Monk.

Sole dominion over the earth,
going to heaven,
lordship over all worlds:
the fruit of stream-entry excels them.

My name is Hán Yì.
If you had appeared before me two weeks ago, I would not have believed.
I was told by my mother that I was descended of the immortal Hán Zhongli,
who turned stones to gold with his fan.
But I took all the teachings of Buddha and the Tao as chicanery,
Lies meant to pacify a superstitious population,
I refused to learn and indeed called myself holy.
I deceived the people through lies and sorcery.

I failed in my charge to defend an examiner of the eternal emperor,
When the examiner died, I bade my friends throw her from a cliff,
Then I bade my lord Gang Way steal her seal and take her place.
Then I saw her. Her spirit cursed to roam the world,
and she sought her vengeance on my lord Gang Way and me,
Yet we escaped unharmed.

I built a statue to the Buddha,
an abomination born of my imagination,
in keeping with none of the sutras,
and then bade my friend Hu Dat Bum destroy it,
and yet I beheld it hold back the powers of a flood,
Buddha saved our town despite my perfidy.

I lied my way into a camp of bandits,
made friend with the enemies of my people,
made them believe that I was enlightened,
then led thirty men of them to their deaths.
And yet, I saw my friend, Timur Selçuk Khan,
slay the bandit king with one failed shot of his bow,
an arrow guided by Buddha to its rightful target,
and our enemies became our friends in truth.

A day ago, I led a procession to bury this king of our enemies,
Up to the peak of Green Wall Mountain,
There I lied to many holy men of the Way,
Through illusions and subterfuge, I made a mockery of both the burial of the sky,
and of burial by fire, and bade his body be stolen by birds of my own creation,
And yet Feng Huang appeared to us,
and bore up the body of the king in her own talons.

In each dust-mote of these worlds
Are countless worlds and Buddhas...
From the tip of each hair of Buddha's body
Are revealed the indescribable Pure Lands...
The indescribable infinite Lands
All ensemble in a hair's tip of Buddha.

I know now that my soul is worthless,
I have dishonored my blessed ancestor,
Despite my best efforts to denounce him,
the Buddha continues to right all our wrongs.
We do not have three-hundred thousand bushels of rice,
So I must trust the Buddha once again,
If you hunger, devour my worthless soul for now,
and trust in the Buddha to sustain you for the future.

Friday, April 11, 2014

PBM: Chapter 2: Handle With Care: Part 4

In which the party FINALLY gets out of town...

Donovan comes in to Half-a-Loaf through the back door of the establishment, at about the same time that Rant leads Frantiska, Hrud, and Amara in through a side door. The main doors of the place, facing on the market, stand open to two very long lines of people, one going in, another out, both standing three abreast. Despite the mix of humans, goblins, orcs, and…other things…the affair is amazingly peaceful and orderly, with only a little bit of shoving near the back of the line, probably because of the four, fully armored Tyrran battle-priests who flank the doors. Inside the line divides, allowing the ‘customers’ to walk down one of three long tables where the white-robed Tyrran and red-robed (if the sheer, revealing things they wear can really be called robes) Sunite priests scoop large ladles of thick soup into hollowed-out pieces of bread.

Despite the hundred or more people in the one room that is Half-a-Loaf, it is surprisingly quiet, the only sounds being the steady shuffling of feet in the lines, the faint schlopp of soup pouring into bread-bowls, and numerous murmured “thank-yous” in dozens of languages. The smell, however, is overpowering. The delicious smell of hot stew mixes in the air with the scent of hundreds of unwashed bodies in a way that makes you almost light-headed as you open the door. At the far end of the barn-like building, where Donovan enters, there are a few benches and stools set up against the walls, mostly occupied by the elderly or injured, who are in turn being tended by another handful of priests from either sect.

Look as you might, there do not appear to be any other rooms in the building, nor do you see any food preparation being done. Given this and how full the pots of stew look despite the hundreds of souls being fed, you imagine some sort of conjuration must be at work.

Seeing Donovan, Frantiska raises a hand in greeting, then steps back outside. “Brother Rant, I’m going to take the horses around to the back. I trust you will keep an eye on Amara.” She pats Thistledown and looks at Hrud’s mount, “Hrud, apakah Anda ingin saya untuk mengambil kuda Anda kembali ke gerobak?”

Donovan slips around the room to where Brother Rant is and quickly explains about the situation with Ellen waking up and the discussions in the wagon. The two of them then make their way to the priests who are providing healing services, then, after a brief consultation, head out to the wagon. «Lyra,» Donovan calls up as they step out the back door, «it sounds like Sune’s priestesses are actually trained and equipped to deal with these kind of situations. Can you get Ellen out of the wagon?»

Lyra still only looked at the girl with her peripheral vision. “I haven’t been in town long, but all of the Tyrrans I’ve met have been really nice. If you don’t want to eat here, will you at least come speak with one of the priestesses? They can help. I’ll go in with you, if you’d like.”

Ellen takes a tighter grip on Lyra’s arm and looks up at her in a silent, pleading sort of way.

Lyra gives her a soft smile. “You can try out those new shoes while we’re at it. I’ll be right there with you.”

Hrud finishes looping the reigns of his horse around the back of the wagon, then walks over to where everyone is gathered. “Apa kita siap«Are we ready»?” He says to the group at large. Then, to the girl, “Aja pengin teka karo kita «You coming with us»?”

The girl looks alarmedly at the tall, muscular, and barely-dressed barbarian speaking unknown syllables at her from the back of the wagon, at the handsom, but heavily armed and armored priest translating for him, at the pudgy, bespectacled old man speaking rather harshly at her from the front of the wagon in an equally incomprehensible tongue, then back to Lyra. More crawling than walking, despite the dome of the wagon leaving plenty of room to stand upright, and still keeping a grip on Lyra’s arm, she moves to the front of the wagon, away from Hrud and Rant, and climbs down, on the side opposite Donovan. Her eyes look moist, almost on the brink of tears, but continue to dart between the many people crowding around her. She tugs Lyra’s arm towards the shop and whispers, “I think I’ll take my chances with the priestesses…”

Frantiska points across the street. “Donovan, is that the smith that you said could possibly re-lacquer the swords?” She rubs her forehead again and grimaces. “Rant, do you mind translating for Hrud, since he’s got one of those—I’m not really feeling up to it right now. So, it would be nice if you were not carrying around obvious symbols of Xvim, but lacquering metal is not a fast process…we’d probably have to leave them to be worked on.” The look on her face makes it obvious that she is not pleased by the thought of further delays, or perhaps that she is just generally irritable because of the headache, or, even more likely, both.

Lyra climbs down from the wagon as best she can with only one arm free, and tries to keep in step with the girl as they head to the back door of Half-a-Loaf. She thought she felt the start of the bruise where Ellen’s right thumb was. With her free arm, she knocks twice and then pulls the door open enough to check that there is nothing that would further startle Ellen before heading inside, keeping between Ellen and the crowds.

The smell was overwhelming as Lyra looked around for a priestess that would be free to assist them.

Once the girls are clear, Donovan climbs up into the wagon. “I’d prefer to have ensorceled steel close at hand, no matter if it’s tainted. We’ve talked much of the swamp, but getting away from the city is no mean feat itself. Worse perhaps. We’ll strike out south and west, towards the bay, through the shanty. It would be much faster to go north and east to reach the Phlan Road, but that would take us past Kuto’s Well, a known bandit hot-spot, and then across the bridge into the old wealthy districts where the Xvim’s temple is, which is entirely controlled by the orcs. Though the swords might give us something of a pass, I’d rather not take any chances of angering Xvimlar temlars. So, south and west.” His face looks unusually grim. “From there we should swing wide around the city, most west than north. The northern sections of the old city are equally troublesome—the old textiles district is home to many hobgoblins and gnolls, the old castle is overrun with bugbears and, judging by the occasional large projectile, they have either giants or siege engines, and the gods know what might come out of the graveyard. So we should cut at least a mile west of the city, out of catapult range, then head north. There is a newer, but less nice, bridge north of the city, almost half-way to Sorcerer’s Island, where the river is blackest—the smell is worse, but we should avoid the humanoid tribes that way. From there we’ll be able to rejoin the road into the swamp, but taking the long route that way, we’ll probably not reach the road until dusk…” Why did I take this job, he thinks to himself.

Forewarned of the situation by Donovan and Rant, Lyra and Ellen are met at the door by a pair of priestesses—a Tyrran with white, strait hair almost indistinguishable from her robe, and a full-figured, almost plump, Sunite with skin as white as the Tyrran’s robe and lips as red as her own. Both have eyes that show considerable experience and wear expressions of deep kindness and sympathy. The Sunite silently takes Ellen’s arm and guides her to a stool in a quiet corner, the Tyrran addresses Lyra, “Thank you, Miss Lyra is it, I recall Sister Theymr mentioning that you’d stayed with us last night, we’ll take it from here. Sad to say, Priestess Alliance has quite a lot of experience with cases like this. Too many of these beggar-girls make easy prey for the orcs—the would-be adventurers don’t fair much better.” She takes Lyra’s hand and gives it a reassuring pat. “We’ll make sure she’s okay. You watch out for yourself out there.”

Lyra nods. “Thank you for your kindness, Sister. Please take good care of Ellen.” She looks over at Ellen across the room, and certain that she is in good hands, heads out the door.

Lyra waves at her companions as she walks over to the wagon. “I think she’s in good hands. Are we ready to head out?” Her new sword knocks awkwardly against the wagon as she tries to climb up into the wagon, so she settles for sitting on the edge then swinging her feet up. Not the most ladylike of entrances, but it will have to do until she gets used to the sword belt. The sword. Lyra cringes at the thought. She was just talking to a Tyrran priestess!

“Is there something we can do about these swords? I don’t think anyone’s likely to mistake someone like me for a chosen of Xvim, but still….”

Frantiska quietly slips in as Lyra is leaving and walks over to the priestesses near Ellen. She grabs one by the arm and presses her purse into the woman’s hand, “When you feel the girl has recovered,” she says, “please see that she gets this, to start a new life with.” Once she has assent from the priestess, she smiles, exits, and mounts Thistledown.

“We were just talking about that.” Donovan waves at the tall, burly smith hammering away in the yard across the street. “Matteo over there does lacquer work, but Frantiska says that can take quite a while, and everyone seems eager to get underway. We should probably just get moving and deal with them as-is. We can look into getting a fresh coat of paint on them when we get back. Alternatively, a little work with a knife could probably remove or deface the holy-symbols, then just pray to Jodj that Xvim doesn’t notice and take offense…”

Not the answer Lyra was hoping for. “What about getting the blade refitted with a new hilt entirely? Would that be any faster than lacquering it?”

As they talked, Hrud walked over to the smith looking around at his stall. After a moment’s search, he found what he was looking for sitting off to the side – a bucket of ashes taken from the forge. Using his blade to stir up the darker, cooler ash at the bottom, the barbarian quickly (just in case) scooped a handful of ash and rubbed it over the gauntleted hilt of the green broadsword. It wasn’t a permanent solution, but it would at least cover up those hateful eyes.

The blacksmith could easily pass for a barbarian himself—tall, lanky, blond, and shirtless, with tightly-coiled muscles in his shoulders and one arm, and numerous small scars where most of his chest-hair has been burned off by stray sparks. He looks up briefly from his work, but, noticing what Hrud is up to, merely nods and turns back to his hammering.

The dark ash does a passable job of disguising the weapon’s hilt, though, given the thin drizzle of rain that begins almost immediately thereafter, you doubt it will last long.

Frantiska shakes her head at the disgusting display the smith is putting on. Has he no shame! she thinks. She looks to make sure that Rant has Amara in hand, then turns Thistledown towards the westward road. “Are we ready to go now?”

“Rant, tell Hrud that I think I’ve got the hang of this thing if he would be more comfortable riding.” Donovan doffs his hat and pulls his hood up against the rain. He takes the reins and coaxes the oxen forward slowly.

Lyra holds a hand out the back of the wagon briefly and watches the rain droplets roll across her palm. “How far do you think we’ll get before evening?”

Hurd, having gathered the few items he’d left on the wagon, returns to his mount and waited patiently behind the wagon.

Not having much to offer in the current conversation, the barbarian found himself remembering one of the times he was out watching over the cattle as they grazed – this must’ve been during one of the Eastern migrations, due to the number of streams they crossed – the herd knew it was time to return, but for whatever reason, couldn’t seem to find the place where they’d forded.

They meandered aimlessly for quite a while before finally finding the right place and getting their return trip under way. It was nearly dark when they’d returned; old Skadi was furious: “Yer a headache when you’re here, and a ulcer when yer gone!” Still, all the animals were accounted for, so the he didn’t stay mad for long – even let him take the herd out the next day. Skadi was a grouch, but a lazy grouch.

Back in the present, Hrud wondered when this herd would finally find what they were looking for and be on its way.

The oxen are clearly used to working as a team and pulling loads of this sort and their slow plodding gate brings you steadily away from the city. Beyond the market and the smithy, the road bends south, towards the shoreline and away from the walls of the new city. You pass the ruins of the Library to your right, the area around it oddly clear of the hovels you’ve seen elsewhere, beyond which the ruins of the old city slowly fade into more and more shanties. Past the market all semblance of paving vanishes, leaving your animals plodding through mud tracks and puddles, made ever slicker by the continuing mist of rain. The oxen do not seem to mind though, and the large, wide wheels of the wagon slide easily over even the worst of the potholes.

Near the shore, the road, if you can call it that, bends westward, veering back towards the old town. Within a mile all further remnants of the slums settlements have vanished and the track comes within throwing distance of a new, but poorly crafted, wooden palisade that marks the old textiles district. Though the rain continues, a brightening of the gray-white sky overhead tells you that it is just past noon, and allows you to make out several tall, humanoid forms perched on towers at the corners of the wall. They stop and watch your progress, spears clearly visible in their hands, and, for a span of several minutes, you suspect that they might sally-forth to assault the wagon. As you near the far corner of the palisade and the road begins to bend away to the south again, you one lower its spear and pull something up over its head to ward off the rain and turn away.

Only a little further west the slight wind changes and a horrible stench assaults you. The grasses along the trail fade to gray, wither, and then vanish altogether, and you soon find yourselves looking at a wide stretch of black water pouring into the bay and leaving a large gray smear on the sea to your left. Donovan points out that this is the west, and smaller fork of the Stojanow, and marks the historical limits of the city of Phlan. The track bends northward here, and, this close to the defoliating effects of the river, turns into a soupy morass through which even Hrud’s sturdy pony is forced to proceed very slowly. You see an old stone bridge crossing to the west side of the Stojanow a few hundred yards north of you, within easy shouting distance and shortbow range of the stockade surrounding the textile district. You see more and more heads appearing in the tower closest to the bridge and suspect they are thinking the same thing…

Donovan winces on seeing the guards on the wall. “Sorry,” he mumbles, “I forgot we’d have to cross over the fork going this way…and that it was so close to the old Cadorna place.” He reaches down beside him and checks to make sure both the hand crossbow and heavy crossbow are loaded and ready. “I geuss that means we’ll be pretty close to the graveyard when we cross over as well.” He puts on a fake smile. “On the bright side, I doubt those hobos will chase us over the bridge with the graveyard so close.”

He keeps a hand on the reins and the brake, just in case, but lets the oxen keep up their steady plodding. “We have to cross one way or the other, so we should probably just keep going…”

Lyra places her bow and two quivers of arrows next to her. The sides of the wagon might offer some protection, but not enough. And the graveyard as well. “Wasn’t one of the council proclamations regarding information about any entities in the graveyard? We should keep an eye out as we go by.”

Frantiska, who had been riding side-saddle with her legs tucked up against Thistledown’s flanks to avoid splashing her boots with the dark, foul-smelling mud, drops into the stirrups and pushes Thistle into a trot, kicking up a great deal more mud, to put herself up alongside the exposed side of the wagon. She pulls out her longbow and bends it across her knee to string it and knocks a brightly-fletched sheaf arrow, making a great show of readying the large bow, hoping that it’s obviously superior range will help deter the creatures on the walls. As she does this, she chants the words of an arrowflight spell. “My apologies Mr. Donovan, but I am beginning to hate this town of yours…”

Noticing how the members of the group appear to be readying their ranged weapons, Hrud does likewise with his shortbow.

Lyra stands up in the back of the wagon, and fails to find any gaps in the canvas that she would be able to shoot from. “Usually I am not one to advocate initiating hostilities, but perhaps we might wish to discourage them from standing up there while we still have a range advantage?”

Brother Rant pushes Amara down behind a crate and grabs a light crossbow, “Stay down.”

“But I can help,” she says.


“But I can help!”

“Miss Amara, please stay down.” Rant loads the crossbow and crouches at the back opening of the wagon, steadying the bow on the top of his shield. The girl looks at him huffily, mutters something to to the kitten she is holding, which vanishes.

“Ok, but only until Whiskers gets back…”

Lyra takes up position behind Rant, so she would be able to fire over his head. Kneeling to pick up one of the quivers she whispers in the trade tongue: “The girl is a genie-binder, you realize? When Whiskers comes back, it— She? I’m not sure. Either way, it will have something for her, and she will use it. I’m not sure you realize what you’ve signed up for in protecting her.”

Donovan looks back at Lyra in astonishment, but keeps driving, “Range superiority or no, I count at least a dozen up there, and only seven of us down here, counting Amara. Do we really want to get in a shooting war with a whole tribe of hobgoblins?”

“Genies?” Rant raises an eyebrow then looks at the place where the blue cat was only a moment ago. “I’ve heard of stranger things…” He looks out the back, then speaks up so that Donovan can hear from the front. “At the rate we’re going, we’re certainly not initiating a battle from this angle.” He moves up to the front of the wagon to look over Donovan’s shoulder. “If they sally forth, this mud will make us very easy targets, with no way to escape.” He smiles and moves back to Lyra, “I’ll be right back”, then hops out of the back of the wagon, sinking well past his ankles in the muck.

He pulls out his holy symbol, takes a fist-full of the mud, and bows his head in silent prayer. As he finishes, there is a faint sucking sound as his boots, the hooves of the horses and oxen, and the wheels of the wagon all come free of the mud slightly. Thistledown whinnies and stamps her hooves, clearly surprised that she is now standing firmly on top of the muddy track.

Rant runs to catch up with the, now much faster-moving, wagon and pulls himself up. “Whatever you do, don’t leave the road until we’re across the bridge…”

The wagon and horses free, Rant leans his head out of the wagon, «Master Hrud, Lyra and Frantiska suggest that we should attack the creatures on the wall before we are in range of their bows. What is your opinion on the matter?»

«One doesn’t try to sneak past a bear’s cave by shooting into it – unless the bear is already charging. Would it be possible to put up a smoke screen?»

Teldicia perks up as Rant translates Hrud’s question. “Maybe…” The wagon continues to rattle along having covered half the distance to the bridge by now, smoothly crossing the mud as if it were hard paving stones. Teldicia stand up on the driver’s bench, holding on to the canopy to maintain her balance, and waits. You can just see one of the creatures on the wall begin to draw his bow, probably just to test the range as it still a long shot, when Teldicia raises her hand…and the entire top of the tower is enveloped in darkness, looking like a great, black globe has been set over the top of it.

An arrow comes streaking out of the darkness and lands in the mud twenty paces or so from the wagon.

« … Nicely done.» Hrud, expecting actual smoke, takes a moment to shake off his surprise at the sudden globe of darkness, «Can you make wagon noises too? Lest they track us by sound.»

“You guys are all awesome,” Donovan breathes. “Tell Hrud that was a great idea. Now lets get across the river before they figure out what happened.” He snaps the reins and urges the two big draft animals to pick up speed as much as they can.

Lyra reddened a bit in embarrassment. Her own magical aptitude was still rather lacking. She moved up to the front of the wagon, watching for incoming arrows that may hit the oxen or driver’s seat.

A handful of wild shots come streaking out of the darkness, most nowhere near the wagon. One, however, comes hurtling, probably at random, strait at one of the oxen, only to vanish in midair a foot away from the beast. You hear a pained scream from up on the wall.

With no real resistance forthcoming, the wagon crosses the bridge over the river with no further problems. A tiny blue unicorn appears in Amara’s lap and she mumbles huffily, “We could have helped…”