A Midwestern Yankee....(Chapter Ten)

[A brief preface before continuing with the narrative here for Kathy’s adventures in the world of the fae, if you’ll all indulge me. I’ve been feeling a little squeezed of late with all of the production that I put forth, between this Substack, my Bitchute videos, and my ongoing writing projects. I need to take a little bit of a breather for at least a few days, figure out what the best balanced strategy would be moving forward, and then return gradually.

Additionally, I do have one other piece of non-fiction to tune up and share, another more personal bit of perspective to pass along to clarify some things for folks. Anyhow, back to the show, yes?]

Chapter Ten

Over the River, To the Woods

              Kathy's third day in Celia taught her three key lessons. First, that in the Ether Plane just as in the Mortal Plane, things were not always what they appeared. Second, faerie and spirits don't always get along. And thirdly, she learned that a few kind words from a stranger had an incredible power to uplift.

              Her first lesson came when she awoke at around six in the morning (according to her watch, anyway) and headed down the street for a quick meal at the diner Dimanche had taken her to the day before. When she entered, she saw a waitress who hadn't been there the day before. She was short and lithe, a vision of beauty with light green skin, hair composed of vines, and what looked like flower petals hanging down from her waist. A simple green sleeveless vest and white server's apron barely covered her upper torso, massive breasts swaying to and fro as she nipped from table to table.

              Kathy sat down at an open table and watched as this plant-woman took her apron off and tossed it over the bar-style counter. The petals flipped up over her upper body, and her long, silky legs, bare of shoes but with her privates covered by thin brown shorts, appeared to fuse together. There came from her a flash of red light, accompanied by a scent of roses pervading the air. The petals opened, legs came apart, and the plant-woman was now a square-jawed, muscular plant-man. The vest no longer bulged, but hung loose, and the man waved farewell to several other servers before leaving.

              Kathy shook her head, marveling. A voice next to her said, "Pilick." Kathy looked up into the face of the young elven woman who'd waited on her and the Baron the say before. "They're plant folken, and they can all do that, change from one sex to the other at will. You're newly Awakened, aren't you?"

              "Is it an obvious thing? Is it stamped on my forehead," Kathy asked, rubbing at the mentioned location.

              "No, nothing like that. It's just that humans here in Amermidst are usually all wide-eyed like you or surly and cynical. Those are usually long-time Awakened who don't want to be back here." Kathy's eyebrow shot up, naturally inquisitive. "Maybe I shouldn't say anything else," the server said awkwardly.

              "I'd prefer to hear the bad with the good, miss, ah," she said, searching for a name tag. "Becky."

              "Well," said the waitress, peering around, lowering her voice. "There's a lot of isolationists making waves the last ten years or so," she said. "They want Awakened humans to keep out or only stay around a few days for trade, and they aren't shy about letting humans know it firsthand. You should keep a low profile."

              Kathy kept that in mind as she ate her meal, paid her bill and left. Despite the relative warmth of the day, she walked about the streets with her hood up, concealing her head an face as much as possible. This way, she was virtually indistinguishable from the average elf in the city.

              After a hour spent purchasing little trinkets and candies, as well as a set of six masterfully crafted wooden bumblebee figures, Kathy overheard what sounded like a rather loud argument down the street from her. She blended seamlessly with a crowd moving to gather there, and what she saw both fascinated and frightened her.

              A gnome merchant, dressed in grocer's green apron and cream-colored, puffy pants and tunic top, stood screaming invectives up at a creature Kathy's mind immediately associated with 80's horror films. It stood around 6'2", not impressive, but towering over the four-foot-nothing bearded merchant. It was vaguely man-like in frame, with tight leather pants and forearm coverings. Gaping, weeping wounds covered its bare midriff, with fishing hooks piercing the edges of its lacerations. Its head was one smooth stretch of skin except a set of peeled lips over decaying teeth that chattered ceaselessly. Its hands, three-fingered blobs of melted flesh wrapped in barbed wire, flailed about as it made incomprehensible noises of protest equal in volume and urgency to the gnome's voice. Its feet, she saw, were leathery pads with more fish hooks speared through the skin.

              "What the hell is that," she asked a fellin standing to her left.

              "Some kind of spirit," the cat-man replied, disgust in his voice. "It's almost always like this when one of those freaks comes over to the Ether. They cause a scene, frighten good, honest faerie folken. Someone should just close off the in-between and be done with it." Kathy watched on, mortified as several people in the gathered crowd began yelling at the spirit creature, throwing pebbles from the street at it. Finally it covered its head with its arms and ran away through the crowd, out of sight.

              Kathy's legs trembled. Wherever you go, there will be the ignorant, the intollerant, Ivy chimed in.

That doesn't make it any easier to see, she thought back. As the crowd dispersed, the gnome called out, "Heliff's Produce, proudly serving the kingdom for four generations! Come one, come all! Get your hard-to-find fruits and greens here!" Kathy just walked on by.

              The third lesson of the day happened a few hours later as she sat in a small café south of her hotel. She walked through the front door, a little chime tinkling overhead as she entered. It reminded her of a lot of the little mom-and-pop stores that still graced the midwest, a quaint little hole in the wall sort of establishment that survived on the loyalty of long-time clientele and regulars.

              Scents of cinnamon, vanilla, caramel and chocolate warred for control of the air, a casualty-free conflict she could have withstood for as long as it raged. She approached a small glass-topped counter, where a poodle-like kennin woman in a bright floral blouse stepped up and beamed at her.

              "Hello, dearie, what can we get you," the kennin asked in a nasal, Fran Dresher voice.

              "Um, just a cup of coffee, something sweet. I'm new here in Ether," she said, taking down her hood. There were only the three staff and four customers, so she didn't feel so on-edge.

              She was handed a rather large cup of vanilla-scented coffee and a napkin, for which she paid two bits. Kathy moved herself into a small depressed area of the café, where a cyclops in blacksmith's leathers and work apron sat on a couch, feet up on a coffee table, newspaper of some sort in his hands. There were also two recliners, each angled to face a little wood burning furnace in the center of the little gathering area.

              Kathy sat in one of these and pivoted the chair towards the cyclops. She took a sip of her coffee, mentally declared it brilliant, and eased her feet up with the leg rest lever. She smiled at the cyclops and said, "Hello there." The cyclops looked up, singular eye blinking, looking around, then returning to her. "How are you?"

              "Um, you mean me," the cyclops asked, his voice gravelly but somehow soft, quiet.

              "Yeah. I don't have imaginary friends anymore, so you'd be who I'm saying hello to," she replied.

              "Oh, uh, hello. I'm, ah, doing well," he said. "And you, human?"

              "Mmm, doing all right, despite some unpleasantness throughout the day. I'm Kathy," she said, sitting up and leaning out to offer him her hand. He looked at her skeptically, then reached out and shook her hand, his grip surprisingly gentle for a man whose trade was obviously requiring brute strength.

              "Vernin," he said, leaning back again. He set the paper aside. "You're an interesting one, Kathy."

              "Oh? Why's that?"

              "I've been coming in here on my third break from Prime Forge every day for seven months. In all that time, only one other person has bothered to be friendly with me, much less talk to me at all," Vernin said. "All because I'm an outsider, a faerie from another Ether." He shook his head, wrung his hands together.

              "Well that's not very nice of them," she said, getting up and moving over to it on the opposite end of the couch from him. Up close she realized he was a giant of a humanoid, easily eight feet tall, and broad enough to take up half the couch. "So you're a blacksmith, I take it." He blinked his one eye at her silently. "The clothes, the apron, the soot and scorch marks on your cheeks. Plus a place with the word 'forge' in it's less likely to be a bakery than, say, a forge." Vernin chuckled at this, a rolling laughter befitting a certain fat man in a red suit. "Did you come here to this Ether for work?"

              "Oh, I only wish that were so, Miss Kathy," he said, smile fading a little. "I came here with several friends for asylum. There is a great war in my home Ether, one that has spilled over into the Mortal Plane attached to it."

              "Oh, I'm sorry," Kathy said. She took a sip of her coffee, still piping hot. "That had to be rough."

              "It was getting rough, yes. The tarchaka, commanders in the army of my home country, were going from town to town, conscripting all of our young men, men my own age. Myself and my brother, along with five of our friends, sought out the weaveway, what are called kalpas here, so that we could escape the war."

              "If you don't mind my asking, who was your country at war with?"

              "The suchak," Vernin said with a visible tremble. "What your humans call vampires." Kathy's spine tingled, her fingers tightening on her cup. "I have only seen three or four such creatures here in this Ether, in the far-away kingdom of Anagella."

              Kathy spent the next fifteen minutes giving Vernin an abbreviated version of events in her own life leading to her current situation. The cyclops sat studiously listening, not interrupting her once. When she finished her tale, she let out a heavy sigh. "Well, that's about all for me. Hey, you're not going to be late getting back to work because of me, are you," she asked, worried for her new acquaintance.

              "Ha! Mayhap a few minutes, but it will cause me no trouble." He set his empty cup down on the coffee table, rose from the couch and offered his hand. "Well, Miss Kathy, go with grace on your journey." She shook his hand energetically, the caffeine from her drink kicked in.

              "Stay with peace in your heart," she replied. She thought she could see a tear threatening in his lone large eye.

              "I will," he said. "I will." She watched the big man leave, unaware of the impact she'd had on his life. For the time being, at least.

              The following morning, Daggeuro came knocking at a little after seven o'clock, the Baron with him in the hallway. The voodoo spirit had selected that day a gray dinner jacket with long coat tails and matching slacks, roughly cut off at the shins. His wooden sandals were once more in evidence, as was a large leather duffel bag slung over his shoulder, resting on his back. His top hat had a bright blue feather sticking out of the hat band, and large shades covered his eyes.

              Kathy had already been packing when they came for her, so she had them wait out in the hallway as she finished up. When she was satisfied that all was well, she strapped on her axe and met them in the hall.

              "We begin our march today southwest," said Daggeuro as they left the hotel. "If we walk at a moderate pace, stopping to rest only twice before camping for the night, we'll be there in five days. There are, unfortunately, no Ether Doors in that region, so we can't shorten our travel time."

              "Ether Doors," Kathy asked.

              "Enchanted doors connecting across large distances throughout the Ether," the kennin High Knight said. "There are two here in Celia, one which connects to Hecas far to the south, and one to Nawka, in the eastern nation of Demoblus."

              "Where would those parralel in the Mortal Plane," she asked as they walked toward the city's southern gates.

              "Hecas is close to Des Moines. Nawka stands next to New York City, practically a twin," Daggeuro said. Demoblus covers most of New England and New York State."

              "Handy to know," Kathy said. The trio passed through the open gates, the brushed hardpack street giving way to looser dirt road. The thick perfume of thousands of people pressed together in a single city faded, exchanged for the crisp, clean air of the wilds.

              Kathy looked back at the city every fifteen minutes or so, until, an hour and a half after leaving, it finally seemed distant. She faced forward, Daggeuro and Dimanche almost side by side, silence hanging heavy between them. Kathy wondered how long it would be before one of them made some remark that the other would bite at.

              When they neared the end of their second hour marching, Kathy called out, "Daggeuro? Could we stop for a minute? My feet are getting sore." The kennin warrior stopped, turned, and nodded at her. The trio moved off of the road, sitting in soft yellowish grasses along the roadside. Kathy pulled her boots off, then her socks, to let them and her feet air out.

              "Don't do a lot of hiking in de Mortal Plane wit' cars readily available, eh," Dimanche teased.

              "Not so much, no. Although I did start taking walks about seven months back to start trying to get in shape," she said. "Wish I had some Dr. Sholl's inserts for these boots. Um, Daggeuro?" The kennin High Knight had drawn Boon and Bane, facing due west. Kathy searched in that direction, as did Dimanche.

              "Ah, yes, I feel dem," the Baron said, springing to his feet, hands swirling with streaks of black energy. Kathy rammed her feet swiftly back into her boots, stood up, and drew her axe. Its history of combat skills flooded her mind, and she stood ready with her supernatural allies.

              The beasts which came lumbering upslope toward them looked like riding mowers with dozens of narrow legs instead of wheels. Small, bulb-like heads, green and covered with strands of fine gray hair, bared razor-like teeth at them.

These monsters brought to you by John Deere, she thought. There were four of them rushing the trio. Daggeuro raced down to meet them, as two curling bolts of power streamed down from Dimanche's hands. Kathy hesitated a moment, then flung herself into the fray. As Daggeuro got within range, he swept his blades in a downward 'X' at the first beast. It cried out, rearing back as blood splashed the ground.

              The specter Kathy approached extended one long limb, a tentacle of some sort, from its underbelly. It swung this like a club at her, Kathy blocking deftly and counterattacking, axe head biting down deep into the creature's protruding, hardened chest. It backed up a step, but she followed through with another swing, neatly lopping its head off. The mower-thing fell over, twitching feebly.

              Kathy threw up violently all over the ground. The other beasts were dead, the whole battle lasting only thirty seconds from start to finish. These things had been out to rip the trio apart from the first, wild monsters whose only imperitive was to kill, eat, and reproduce. If she could barely fight such things without feeling revulsion, how was she to fend for her life against things with clear intelligence, with a place in civilization?

              Daggeuro was wiping Boon dry with a rainbow-hued cloth when he came over to her, sheathing the blade after. "Every soldier, every warrior, feels this way after their first battle, Kathy," he said soothingly. He put one furry hand on her shoulder. "It gets easier, believe me. It becomes instinct, honed by repeatedly coming to the realization that for all of our culture and civility, battle still has the horrible power to reduce us all to the same stupid minute or so of dealing death. You survived. More, you have slain a monster who was set on killing you. There is far less shame in that than you think."

              Kathy was still trying to accept that twenty minutes later, when they set off again.

              Foruk set the hand mirror back in his travel trunk, his need for it finished. His spy in the City Watch of Celia had used his internal connections within the department to confirm where Daggeuro and the taomen's human source were heading, and directly gone home. In the mirror over his bathroom sink the corporal had used a magical seal inscribed in the glass to contact the troll vindicator, relaying the information.

              Now Foruk lumbered over to the small clearing on the edge of camp, stopping shy of coming into view as his master demonstrated for the taomen how to manipulate nearby trees, using their limbs as giant swinging cudgels from a distance.

              When she completed her attempt, Foruk took a hard look at her. She'd grown paler since first arriving, dark hollows ringing her eyes. Casey had also begun wearing patchwork armor, personally crafted by Luga's own hands. She was losing weight quickly as well, though Foruk saw the woman eat like a horse.

She's a corruption, and her exterior is changing to match her interior, he thought. Foruk stepped into the clearing then, one thick hand raised high. "Hile, master Luga," he called out, slowly approaching.

              "Hile, Foruk," the shade called back. He turned toward Casey, reptilian lips against her ear, and whispered, "Leave us for now, dear one. Run along to my tent." She bowed to Luga and ambled away, shooting Foruk a look the troll thought must be smug satisfaction. "Now then, Foruk, what news?"

              "My spy in Celia sends word. Sir Daggeuro, the human Kathy Potts, and Baron Dimanche march southwest, towards the Jeckit Woods." Luga clasped his hands behind his back then, pacing to and fro. "Master, do you believe they three alone are being sent for a fragment?"

              "Yes, I do. And it makes sense, from their perspective. They don't know of your spy or mine in Celia, so they believe we are relying entirely upon scouts to report to us. I had one send a missive this very morning that a heavy infantry detachment was being sent north towards the Bovel Mountains. They seek to draw us out, away from their true course, by force of numbers."

              "What response shall we provide, master?"

              "A simple one," Luga said, his pacing halted. "I shall send a troop of orcs north, accompanied by the wraith, Thrasher. I'll attach a floating eye to one of the men, so that I may see this creature in action for myself. As for you, you shall select five men and report back to me as soon as you can."

              "Master?"

              "Foruk, how much do you know of the Gaedling Goblin?"

              For three days the trio fell into a routine. They would march during the day, stopping every three hours for a twenty minute break, except at meal times for an hour. When evening fell, they would continue on until around midnight and set camp, with Daggeuro taking the first watch and Dimanche the second. Kathy insisted upon a shift on their first night, but both men had refused. Male pride didn't discriminate between man, faerie or spirit, it seemed.

              There had been, during those days, only one other hostile encounter with specters, and they had been exactly like the things in HCMC the night Kathy saw them. She'd frozen, but it mattered not; Daggeuro cut them down easily.

              Twice the group had cleared the road to let trade caravans pass, not bothering with the varied merchant crews. Not that the hucksters didn't try enticing them with their wares. Their words simply fell on deaf ears. None of the trio wanted to waste time.

              On the fourth day, around noon, Kathy could hear running water on their left, beyond foothills they marched parralel with. At one point, Daggeuro brought them to a halt. "Here we turn directly west, for the time being, that we may locate the Serrin Bridge," he said. "There will be Rangers guarding it, and they will let us pass. However, they've sent reports to the capital these last months claiming that water-based specters have begun coming out of the River Jense and attacking their posted men. I haven't been able to come here personally yet to determine the veracity of their claims."

              "Why would dey lie to you, Rover," Dimanche asked, hands on his cane, leaning to one side.

              "My name is Daggeuro, Baron. Show some respect," the kennin grumbled. "The Rangers are close to renegotiating their contract with the court. These claims tend to spring up every eight years or so when contract renewals come around."

              "Ah, politics," the Baron crooned. "Ever de curse, aren't dey?"

              "Yes, well, we can't all be as simplistic as 'might is right' here, Baron," Daggeuro snapped. "That's the method of tyranny, and that ever devours itself from the inside out. Give it time," the High Knight said, glaring at the voodoo spirit. "You'll wait for the right moment to topple your brother, and shortly after that, someone will topple you. Down it goes, until nobody remains worthy to lead."

              "Daggeuro," Kathy said sharply, giving him a slight push on the shoulder. "Don't feed into it," she said, pointing a finger at the kennin warrior. She wheeled on Dimanche then, her eyes set, fearless, despite the mounting horror in her guts. "As for you, quit trying to pick a fight! I came here to help and have an adventure, not babysit." Both men, faerie and spirit, looked properly chastised, hanging their heads. "Okay, Dag? You were saying about the bridge?"

              "Yes, the bridge. If there do turn out to be specters threatening our crossing, we'll have to retreat and figure out another way to cross."

              "What about the in-between," Kathy suggested. But both men shook their heads.

              "Running watah complicates de dimensions of de in-between. Crossing ovah a body of watah dere can land you anyplace on de odder side," said Dimanche in his thick patois. "For instance, we could try crossing from dis side in de Ether, and come out in de northern reaches of Canada on de odder end of de bridge."

              "Whoa, soooo, that's out," said Kathy, cupping her chin with one hand, tapping her cheek. "Daggeuro, didn't you say you had some limited illusion magic?"

              "Enough to shield myself from view to most. Baron?"

              "Yes, I could conceal boat myself and Miss Kathy."

              "All right then. We go through, and if the bridge is controlled by specters, we backtrack to this point so we can sneak across." Ten minutes later, the trio discovered that their contingency wasn't needed, as men of various races sporting olive green serapes with a small bow and arrow patch and a spyglass patch, both worn over the heart, stood at the ready.

              One in particular drew Kathy's attention, a centaur standing by the small guard shack door, a long table with folding legs before him, layered with all manner of strange tubes, glasses, and devices. It looked like a miniature chemistry lab.

              Daggeuro strode towards this Ranger with an energetic bounce in his step Kathy hadn't seen before. When he was a few yards away, Daggeuro called out, "Gailuf, old friend! We are well met!" The centaur turned his upper human torso, and a handsome face worthy of a Calvin Klein ad beamed in joy at the kennin.

              "Daggeuro!" The centaur adjusted his horse torso and spread his arms wide, allowing for the two men to share a brief but fierce embrace. Kathy just stared in disbelief.

              "I know," Dimanche whispered, leaning left towards her. "A genuine display of affection from Sir Daggeuro. Almost unbelievable, isn't it?" Kathy nodded mutely, lips slightly parted in a stupefied expression. She and Dimanche approached.

              "It has been too long, Sir Daggeuro," the centaur was saying. "And it is well that you are here."

              "Oh? Why's that," Daggeuro asked. He folded his arms over his chest, listening intently.

              "You should question me about the wyldfire wave that recently passed," said Gailuf. "I witnessed its calling, but whoever did it must have caught up with me ad hexed my memory, for I cannot remember who I saw performing the ritual." Daggeuro and Kathy both gasped. Here was a witness to the power that had caused Kathy's Awakening, and thus the creation of the taomen. If not for that creature's creation, Luga would have been forced to hold off on retrieving the pieces of the Great Door. Or at least he wouldn't be able to use it right away.

              Therefore, whoever had conjured the wyldfire was in hock with the entire kingdom, possibly the whole of the Ether Plane. If Gailuf could be made to remember who it was, that faerie could be tracked down and dragged before the court.

              "How would his questioning you help if you know your memory was hexed," asked Dimanche.

              "Watch and learn," said Daggeuro, leading Gailuf, Kathy and the Baron around to the back of the guardhouse. He stood with his arms ramrod straight at his sides, closing his eyes. Kathy could smell something like beer wafting from an open window at the rear of the guardhouse, a sour, tangy odor she associated with the kind of dive bars that cops got called to frequently for brawls and parking lot muggings. The orange light came flowing gently out of Daggeuro's eyes as he opened them, like a mist instead of glaring highbeams.

              Gailuf hunched down as much as he could, letting the light fall into his own eyes. Daggeuro spoke, and it was now in his own voice, as opposed to the nigh-demonic twin harmony Kathy had heard him use before. "Gailuf Unver, son of Tiam and Lydia, doth thou hear mine words true in thy heart?"

              "I do, Sir Daggeuro. I hear you, and mark you well."

              "Good. Now, didst thou see the ritual being used that would call forth wyldfire?" Kathy looked to the centaur, taking in his slack expression, his unfocused gaze.  It's like he's hypnotized, she thought.

              "I did," said Gailuf, somewhat lethargic in his reply. "I did not see all of it, and I didn't know what it was at first."

              "All right," said Daggeuro, foggy lights of swirling orange still on Gailuf's face. "Didst thou see who was doing it?"

              "Yes, I saw him," Gailuf said. Daggeuro turned and mouthed to Kathy 'male', as far as she could tell through the fog. It felt warm, soothing, almost like Ovin's voice, but with a hint of iron shot through it.

              "Doth thou know the name of this man?"

              "Aye, but may not speak it," Gailuf said, trembling.

              "Thy hex, what be the pain visited if thou tries to speak plain through it?"

              "My bones shall all break, save my skull and breastplate. All others shall snap." Daggeuro's eye lights flashed crimson for just a second, a snarl on his face that made Kathy want to be in another time zone. When his anger showed, it came in IMAX. The orange fog returned a split second later, as did the look of serenity upon the kennin's face.

              "Very well. Without naming him, can you speak his race?"

              "Nay, for the same restriction shall apply."

              "Well, was there anything unique about him," Daggeuro asked, narrowing the fog into twin beams shooting directly into Gailuf's eyes.

              "Ah, yes. He is the only one of his kind able to use magic. And he serves the shade, Luga."

              "Foruk," Daggeuro said. There came a loud 'POP' from Gailuf, who then collapsed onto his side, unconscious. The Baron went to his side, fingers to the centaur's neck.

              "He sleeps," the voodoo spirit said. "Your correct guess broke his hex, Sir Daggeuro. Clever way of getting you the truth. He should be commended." Daggeuro's power faded, and he knelt by Gailuf as well, patting him on the flank of his lower horse body.

              "Gailuf was always clever," said Daggeuro. "It's part of what makes him a skilled potionmaker. It used to make him a valued member of the Royal Guard." The German Shepherd-headed warrior rose then, moving back around the guardhouse towards the bridge. Kathy and Dimanche exchanged a wide-eyed look.

              "I'll ask him," she said. "When we have a minute." The Baron just followed the human woman as she raced to catch up to Daggeuro. The knight stood at the end of the quarter-mile long stone bridge, speaking in hushed tones with a stout minotaur with three yellow stripes on the left shoulder of his serape. By the time they caught up to Daggeuro, the minotaur was barking at several men to fetch corporal Gailuf and take him into the guardhouse for a rest.

              Kathy and Baron Dimanche walked almost shoulder-to-shoulder behind Daggeuro as the kennin knight led them along the bridge. Kathy cleared her throat, then said, "Hey, back there, you said that friend of yours used to be a Royal Guard. Why isn't he anymore?"

              "It is natural that you'd be curious," Daggeuro replied over his shoulder. Kathy saw him look quickly down at the water as a fish of some sort jumped out of the water and dove back down. He was confident in their safety, but ever watchful. "He had been in service to his majesty as a Royal Guard for fifty-three years. His mate, Gwen, served as a Ranger within any three days' run from the capital, that they might spend time together, as mates are won't.

              "Twenty-two years ago, a group of orcs loyal to Luga set upon a large trade caravan bound for the capital from the kingdom of Sowwick. Gwen and three other Rangers had met with the caravan on Amermidst's borders, as per orders from the king. When the orcs attacked, they did so from ambush, with the aid of a souman among them."

              "Souman," Kathy asked.

              "We call dem wild-tongues in de Spirit Plane," Dimanche said. "Men and women who can tame and control specters. Dey are rare."

              "Precisely," said Daggeuro. "Against a mere twenty orcs, the Rangers and caravan toughs would have been enough. But a full host of giant scorpion specters fought alongside the orcs as well, overwhelming them. There were no survivors." Kathy's hand went to her mouth, holding back a moan of pity for the poor man they'd left behind at the Ranger encampment.

              It was only when she looked back that she realized they had cleared the bridge three-hundred feet back. She turned her attention once more to Daggeuro. "So why isn't he a Royal Guard anymore?"

              "When news of the attack reached the court, Gailuf ran mad. He conscripted twenty officers of the Watch, without approval, and rode out to the site of the ambush. He recognized the orcs as Luga's by way of a mark they all bore on their left biceps. From there he led his men to the boglands in the northeast of the kingdom, a territory Luga has long held as his own. He intended to wage a personal war against the shade, but they only reached the outskirts of a goblin and gotrin village which pledges fealty to the shade. Most of the officers were slain, and Gailuf was wounded in his retreat."

              "Wow," Kathy breathed. The trio wound around a corner in the road, once again passing between foothills. "So, was he discharged when he came back?"

              "Not immediately, no. The king gave Gailuf a choice. He could either assemble a host of assorted Watchmen from all over the kingdom and wage unsupported war on Luga, or resign from the Royal Guard and accept a position in the Rangers, to honor his mate's work and help prevent future attacks like that which took her life. He chose the Rangers."

And who could blame him, Kathy thought. Crafty of Ovin, though. Very political. Guy's just barely survived an attack on Luga's people, and he gets to chose between doing it again or changing titles. Well played, king Ovin.

              The trio marched on for another hour before coming out of the foothills, into a vast, sprawling plains. Everywhere there were grasses of various heights and colors, shrubs of unknown sorts, for miles and miles. And, Kathy saw, far on the horizon could be seen a woodland.

              They were over the river. Now, they needed to get to the woods. Otherwise, no grandmother's house we go, she thought with a grin.