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  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Villains & Vigilantes | The Revolution | Revolutionary War | The Bound Rainbow |





    There was still the issue of the dragon's lairs. It seemed undignified somehow, but the best way we had come up with to ask was, "Are there dragons to the east?" and so forth around the compass. The answers were "no" all around. "They're right on top of us?" Lightning. We all looked up reflexively, water streaming into our eyes. "You do mean the dragon's lair?" More lightning.
    "Cloud giants," Phoenix Talon said.
    "Flying castle?" Scott suggested.
    "They've got them. Such things exist."
    I thanked Tempest, somewhat relieved that it had gone so well; being her daughter doesn't mean I don't have an enormous amount of respect for her. I have never yet gotten up the nerve to inquire about the more... personal aspects of just how my sisters and I came to be. The rain tapered back down to normal levels, and we trooped back to our shelter.
    The people sneaking off at night being somewhat easier to come to grips with, we decided to take a look at that first. Phoenix Talon led us out to that part of the woods. The heavy rains hampered Thunderbolt's ability to follow their tracks for any distance. The tracks were unshod and very large. We looked around a bit, found nothing useful, and returned to town in hopes of picking them up there if there was any sneaking going on. Scott kept watch, and very early in the morning heard the familiar sound of many padded feet arriving in town. He woke me and Phoenix Talon up.
    "Wolf riders."
    I groaned.
    Stephanie kneaded Thunderbolt's chest for a bit. "Wolves!" When that didn't work she bit his ear. "Wake up! Wolves!"
    "For once, the cat's telling the truth," Phoenix Talon said.
    The riders were outside, dismounting. One doesn't stable wolves, of course; freed of their harness they wandered through town, lapping up water from puddles, growling at the townsfolk, and chasing down a local cat for a pre-breakfast snack. Their riders kicked down the door of the inn and demanded food.
    "Let's go wreck whatever's going on where the big guys are," Scott suggested. "If we beat these guys up she'll just send more troops."
    Phoenix Talon agreed. "It would just give away our position to no advantage."
    "Unless we killed them all," I mused. Talking to my mother seems to bring out that side of me.
    "Once we take care of whatever's going on with the big guys and then the dragons, we can take care of the wolf riders," the golem said.
    But first we had to get out of town, very quietly, with our horses. There were five wolf-riders and twenty regular troops. I have to admit that I tend to think of the latter as "those poor bastards," given how they tend to come out of encounters with us.
    Below us in the common room, the gnolls were being their usual brutal selves. Scott poked a pseudopod down to look, and with another motioned to the rest of us to get going. Phoenix Talon slipped out the window and toward the stable to collect our mounts; somehow he kept them quiet. It was still raining, and I raised a mist to help cover our movements; moving slowly, Thunderbolt and I made our way out of town to meet Talon. Scott covered us from above once he was sure that he wasn't going to need to create a distraction.
    We spent a day hiding out in the woods, and took turns keeping watch on the nearby fields. Phoenix Talon meditated. He could feel the Eye as a warm, glowing presence at his side. During the course of the day we saw a couple of farmers with a gnoll escort come out to the fields and point at something on the ground. The gnoll leaned down and sniffed, picked up something and rubbed it between his fingers. Not our tracks; what were they looking at? Hunting for truffles? They all left.
    A few hours later another group came, this time a higher-ranking gnoll and a junior one, with the farmer at spearpoint. They seemed to be asking questions with some urgency, and the top gnoll was unhappy with the answers. We knew we could not interfere without giving away our presence to the troops in town and jeopardizing the entire mission; we watched the spears strike in grim silence, after which the gnolls ate their fill and dragged choice parts off with them.
    "At least they use the whole farmer," Talon shrugged.
    "You're a sick son of a bitch," I remarked mildly.
    Scott simply memorized their faces.
    As evening was falling, more traffic, this time one of the wolf-riding officers, who sniffed around, as did his wolf. He was accompanied by the two gnolls who had killed the farmer. The wolf ranged around a bit, communicated briefly with his rider, who turned and smacked one of the lower-ranking gnolls upside the head and began yelling at him. We could hear snippets of their words now, and Phoenix Talon gave in to curiosity and crept closer, practically standing behind the wolf-rider.
    "What did you think—now how are we supposed to—but you—" He wanted to know which one of them killed the farmer, and the two other gnolls seemed to be trying to blame each other. Rider of course didn't care about the farmer's fate—he wanted to know how these two expected anyone to get a scent now that they'd spilled blood all over the place.
    Scent of what?
    It seemed they were under orders direct from Gretchen; the Revolution was in the area and they must be found—they and their new ally. Scott formed a pseudo-eyebrow and quirked it curiously.
    The higher-ranking of the junior gnolls succeeded in blaming his inferior, who tried to argue that he was only following orders, which was when the warg jumped him from behind and ripped his head off.
    "Nature is beautiful," I murmured.
    Phoenix Talon crept back and filled in the gaps in what we'd been able to hear from our greater distance. "They're looking for us. Gretchen sent them specifically after us, and they have a 'new ally.'"
    "How did she find us?" Scott wondered.
    "I'm kind of curious myself, and I'm wondering if it's not this thing."
    "Look, it's not my cat," Thunderbolt sighed.
    He pointed more clearly at the Eye of Da'an. "But that's an excellent point, now that you bring it up."
    "Did you have a bad relationship with a catwoman before becoming a monk?" Scott wondered.
    "We'd better get a move on here and find this mine, and see what's to be seen," I concluded. It didn't look like we were going to be able to pick them up from town, and time seemed to be less abundant than we had hoped, so we moved toward the mine. It was an uncomfortably busy evening of avoiding gnolls and wolf-riders in the woods. It was overcast but for once not raining.
    A patrol passed us. We saw the largest wolf-rider with them, and a gnoll with a huge two-handed sword strapped to his back, just like the one the weird daemon-thing we had met in Fimbulwinter's lands carried. They paused once and looked around, as the three of us who breathed held our breath, and then they moved on.
    Only a few moments after that we became aware of something behind us. It was enormous, and it looked like a gorilla with four arms. It hunkered down, putting its lower set of hands on the ground, nostrils flaring as it scented us. Scott was already in gas form, and Phoenix Talon melted in the shadows and started sneaking around behind that. It was looking right at me, so I looked it in the eyes and stood quietly, waiting to see what it would do.
    I swear to my goddess, one of these days my softheartedness toward animals is going to get me killed. It bent down almost double, bringing its head even with mine, face working as it sniffed. It licked my face in a testing fashion; I hoped it didn't like the taste of elf. I could read conflict behind its eyes, and suppressed rage. It wanted to kill and eat me, and the others, and everything else in its territory. Another part of it was operating on the level of a wild dog that has been broken rather than tamed; this part seemed to win.
    It huffed and moved past me. A turkey clucked unwisely in a nearby bush; the creature sprang with surprising speed. There was a brief explosion of feathers, a crack of bone, and the thing moved off into the dark forest, toward the mines.
    Scott followed it. Thunderbolt looked at the tracks it had left, and confirmed that these were the same as Phoenix Talon had seen earlier. We followed Scott, trying to stay hidden. The "gorilla" knuckled over toward what looked like a depression but turned out to be a sinkhole leading straight down into the shaft. It climbed down, using five limbs, the sixth holding the turkey, and vanished into the depths.

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© 2003 Rebecca J. Stevenson