Chapter 1: We Be Goblins
It all began with five little words. “I'm starting a D&D game.”
Colonel Sheppard looked up from his paperwork. His office was in the usual state it took when he was in residence. The laptop that represented an overflowing inbox of paperwork unfulfilled sat closed on his desk, the screen still stubbornly on. He held a tablet in his hands, one that he could tilt toward his chest in case of curious passerby so no one would see the internet chess game he was in the middle of. McKay knew he was supposed to be working on forms and either didn't care or took pity on him by goading him into game after game over the network. He tilted the tablet now and surreptitiously removed his feet from his desk.
As though Colonel Carter hadn't just walking in and seen it all. And said those five little words.
“A what?” Sheppard asked.
“A Dungeons and Dragons game,” she said. “I think. I'm leaving it up to Dr. Rowan to decide what ruleset we use. I was wondering if you'd like to play.”
“Dungeons and Dragons,” Sheppard said. He'd heard of it before but he'd never... “I've never played it.”
“We're starting at level 1 so that's not an obstacle,” Carter said. “Wait, you never played?”
Sheppard shrugged. He'd never had the opportunity. Imagination wasn't exactly encouraged in his family life and in his experience the Air Force seemed to attract people who used to beat up D&D players in high school. It wasn't something he thought about so it wasn't something he missed.
“You're playing,” Carter said. It almost sounded like an order.
“So what is it?” Sheppard asked.
Carter grinned and sat on the edge of his desk. “You play a character in a story,” she explained. “You don't know the story. You don't know what happens next. Only the Game Master, Dr. Rowan in our case, knows the whole story. Dice add an amount of randomness because luck is always a factor.”
“What kind of story?” Sheppard asked.
“Fantasy. Save the world.”
Sheppard was not impressed. He felt like did that most days. Doing the same on his day off just seemed tedious. “Pass,” he said.
“You don't want to save the world from an evil wizard?” Carter tempted.
“Not big on fairies and unicorns,” Sheppard said.
“Suit yourself,” Carter said ominously. She left without a word.
Sheppard was just about to make his next move, McKay had moved Queen to Queen's Rook 4 and Sheppard had to come up with a proper answer, when his office door opened again. Sheppard hid his annoyance and looked up.
“I can take over,” Lorne offered.
Oh. Oh! That was much less annoying. Now Sheppard could properly trounce McKay from his bedroom.
“What did Colonel Carter want?” Lorne asked.
“I saw her in the hallway,” Lorne explained. The logical deduction was implied. “What's up?”
“Oh, she asked me to a Dungeons and Dragons game,” Sheppard said.
“You should join,” Lorne said.
Sheppard felt an eyebrow raise. “What?”
“Yeah, you should join,” Lorne said. “If it's anything like the D&D games SG-1 was supposed to have under the mountain it'll be a riot.”
Sheppard's expression changed to something that generally questioned the sanity of the person in front of him.
“What?” Lorne asked.
“You're serious,” Sheppard realized.
“Absolutely. You should. It'll help you unwind.”
“I'm not wound,” Sheppard muttered. He sat up and felt his back twinge in protest. His eye twitched as the irony hit him. “All right, fine, the thing with the Replicators has me a little... tense. How is killing imaginary dragons in a dungeon going to help?”
“Just try it,” Lorne said. “You'll be surprised.”
Sheppard found his team in the mess hall. McKay and Ronon seemed to be in the middle of some sort of competition, or perhaps McKay was just hungry and Ronon found it amusing to try and out-eat him. That did seem to be happening more than it used to. Sheppard sat next to McKay before it devolved into the both of them growling and trying to steal off of each other's trays. It would inevitably end with Ronon winning and taking all spoils while McKay pouted.
Teyla sat nearby, her tray out of reach of the competitors. Sheppard took the hint and slid his own tray out of their reach before they noticed it. He almost succeeded, only losing a jello cup and a forkful of mashed potatoes.
He cleared his throat. It did nothing to distract the eating frenzy. So he sighed and just said it. “So, um, I won't be able to go camping this Sunday,” Sheppard said.
That stopped the eating. Ronon gave him a suspicious look. “What's up?” he asked. A fork then stabbed into Ronon's tray. Ronon's focus returned to his opponent and he growled, teeth bared, at McKay. McKay answered, shoulders back and fork in hand. Ronon struck, his own fork stabbing into the bulk of what might once have been a salsbury steak and dragging the entire plate away. McKay attempted to defend his tray but was unsuccessful. He sat back with a 'hmph' and held what pudding cups he could salvage. McKay's attempt to look dignified was somewhat lessened by his need for a napkin.
“It is impressive watching them eat,” Teyla said with a distinct tone. Sheppard couldn't tell if she was being diplomatic or sarcastic. “Has something happened, John?”
Sheppard had been looking for some excuse to avoid camping on the mainland, it was true. But this time he had a valid reason. “I was asked to join a... well, a game.”
McKay wiped his face with one hand. Then he wiped his hand with his almost completely neglected napkin. “You're not playing Ancient Civ,” he said.
“I'm not playing Ancient Civ,” Sheppard agreed. Nobody should be playing Ancient Civ. There were real cultures in Ancient Civ. It made the cultural victory disturbing and the economic victory worse. The military victory was just a nice name for 'genocide'. “Carter asked me to play D&D.”
“Dee and dee?” Teyla asked.
“It's a storytelling game,” McKay said as he peeled open one of his salvaged pudding cups. He looked around for a spoon but it was with the rest of his tray in Ronon's possession. Sheppard held out his own spoon in offering. McKay took it. “A bunch of you play characters and someone tells the story.”
“We had those,” Ronon said. “The storyteller was the only one who knew the story. The other players, we called them player-characters, had to decide how to react as events unfolded.”
“Huh,” McKay said. He tried to reach for his tray to steal it back. Ronon slid it out of McKay's reach.
“Was it played by nerds in basements?” Sheppard asked.
“Of course not,” Ronon said. “We had storyhouses. The storyteller told the story from a balcony while the player-characters acted the events on a stage. For some of the larger battles the entire audience would be involved.”
McKay groaned. “The Satedans invented LARPing.”
“I take it Earth has something similar?” Teyla asked.
“You could say that,” McKay said.
Sheppard wasn't entirely sure what he was getting into. But he was sure he would be getting out of camping on the mainland that Sunday. That alone was a win.
Sheppard found the game room in its usual spot, the North-East Pier at the false end of a corridor.
Dr. Tomson sat in the back surrounded by tiny bottles of paint and an army of tiny people. Some were painted, some were not, some looked half-painted. She used brushes that did not seem small enough to paint tiny details on these tiny people and Sheppard still had no idea how.
Half a dozen people were clustered around a table while Dr. Parrish dealt. Given the hat he wore and the cards it looked to be some sort of poker variant. A few noticed him and started eating their jellybean winnings, possibly to disguise their betting or maybe to make the sizes of their stacks less intimidating.
Several board games were in use, a couple of tables were covered in army men and...
“Ronon?” Sheppard asked. Yes, Ronon was indeed peering down the side of a table and waving a measuring tape around. On the table before him an army of bird-headed warriors faced off against bipedal crocodiles wielding giant mallets among spindle-shaped dice.
“Hey Sheppard,” Ronon said.
“I thought you and Teyla were going camping,” Sheppard said. He looked around the room. At least she was nowhere to be found. Carter was there, though, sitting at a table with a collection of books and papers and weird dice.
“Decided to watch you guys,” Ronon said. “Colonel Carter said if I was going to be here I needed to be playing a game.”
Sheppard felt his stomach roil with nerves. It was an unfamiliar feeling. “Ronon, I don't know if...”
“I can play this and watch,” Ronon said.
Sheppard sighed. Ronon wasn't going to leave. At least he wasn't going to mock him. Hopefully. He headed over to the table where Carter sat waving him over.
He recognized everyone here. They were all scientists. Dr. Pete Rowan ran the local brewery out of the chemistry labs, Dr. Branton was one of the anthropologists at the base of the East Pier, and Dr. Simpson was an engineer who had delved so deeply into the puddlejumpers' base code it was hard to get her out. Even Carter was a scientist hiding under her rank. “McKay coming?” he asked. It made sense for McKay to be here.
“He said no,” Carter said. “Don't worry, we've got enough people here. What do you want to play?”
Ace stood in a town square, a lone elf surrounded by what felt like a thousand humans. The Swallowtail Festival was usually an excuse for these small coastal towns to hold a street fair and throw open their temple doors. The street fair seemed to be accounted for but the temple was closed. Instead a podium stood before the temple doors.
Although to be fair, those were ornate doors. The rest of this town seemed to be made of wood and stone, where did they get glass like that?
Ace felt out of place here. His greatsword was peace-bonded into its sheath, a compromise with the city guard. He hadn't wanted to leave it in the tavern, too many bad experiences with bar staff helping themselves to his stuff while he was out. His chain shirt jingled merrily against his chest as he walked through the stalls and looked at all the wares he didn't have the money to buy. His ears had the food vendors trying to offer him leafy things and teas while perfectly good meats roasted over hot coals.
The local priest, who still hadn't opened the temple, gestured to a large wagon being wheeled into the square by acolytes. Or maybe they were apprentices. Ace wasn't sure of the terminology.
He didn't pay much attention to the speech the priest gave. He'd heard it before. Desna, the goddess of travel and dreams and Varisian humans, fell to the world and washed ashore 'here'. Every town and hovel and city on the sea claimed Desna washed up there. She was nursed back to health by a blind child. Desna repaid the child by turning them into a butterfly, beautiful and ethereal and constantly being chased by children.
Speaking of, the acolytes pulled the cover off the wagon and a veritable swarm of butterflies rose up in a riotous cyclone of color and wings. The crowd cheered. Ace clapped his hands politely, more interested in those great smells coming from the large dishes being hauled from carts and taverns. And kegs...
This place knew how to throw a party.
The food lasted almost until sunset. The beer less so. Most people were attracted by the spicy curry salmon put out by the lady with the weird hair so Ace was able to get his fill and then some of the lobster stew put out by the guy with a wooden leg. He seemed genuinely willing to talk about how he lost the leg but Ace noticed the story was different each time. Just today the stories said his leg was bitten off by a gigantic fish, lost in a duel with a wizard, and that he cut it off himself while the 'Sandpoint Devil' tried to drag him off by that foot.
Eventually sunset brought everyone back to the still-closed temple. Ace stood in the back with a stick of roasted meat, cold leftovers he was able to con off of the stoic guy who ran the tavern with all the deer heads. At least, he thought it was a con. This meat was pretty good, even cold. Kind of a sharp taste to it though... Wait, this wasn't fresh...
Ace shrugged to himself and kept eating. The peppercorns covered the funky taste of rot really well.
The priest took to the podium and slammed stone against the wood. Ace jumped. Nothing that small should be that loud.
The priest cleared his throat. “Welcome, everyone, to the Swallowtail Festival. Today we forget the Late Unpleasantness and the darkness it brought to Sandpoint, for today we consecrate--”
A piercing scream stopped the priest's words before the speech truly began. Everyone looked around for the source. Then another scream and in the distance, tittering chanting scratching voices. Something small ran through the crowd, then something else, and another as they started singing.
“Goblins chew and goblins bite. Goblins cut and goblins fight. Stab the dog and cut the horse, goblins eat and take by force!”
People began to panic and run while dogs barked and horses screamed. Ace stuffed the stick of meat in his mouth, holding it like he was a dog himself as he reached back to break the string that peace-bonded his weapon. He pulled the greatsword from its sheath.
He was not alone. He spotted a blonde human standing on a cart tossing knives into the melee. She saluted him with a knife before throwing it right at him.
He had not noticed the goblin as it climbed the wagon behind him and jumped at him from the high ground, its small sword raised. He did notice it now that it was pinned to the wagon like a grotesque doll.
Ace saluted back and entered into melee with his sword swinging.
Suddenly his sword vibrated with... music? He looked around and saw a human with a buckler strapped to one arm, hands and voice raised above the din. He'd taken the steps of the temple and defended it with voice and rapier.
A goblin raced by him, running for its life from a large dog. The dog was in turn being chased by three more goblins, all with weapons raised. Ace accepted it and chased after the lot. The cart full of fuel for the night's celebratory bonfire burned, casting an eerie light over the scene as the sun sank to the horizon to be swallowed by the sea.
And then something next to him exploded.
Ace stopped in his tracks. He just noticed his snack was missing but that was no longer important. Who was blowing things up? With what?
A glowing ball of anger shot in front of him, impacting a goblin in the chest. An unassuming man with a staff and a glowing hand stood in the middle of a pile and was shouting 'come get some'. Given the lack of attackers it seemed few wanted some.
Then Ace felt the music change. His sword rang with music that wasn't good, it upset the balance of his sword. This upset Ace. The goblin bard sang her creepy song even as Ace realized she held his snack in one hand.
“Chase the baby, catch the pup. Bonk the head to shut it up. Bones be cracked, flesh be stewed, we be goblins! You be food!”
How anyone could sing and eat at the same time Ace had no idea. Nor did he want to find out. He shouted a challenge, raised his sword to try and shake off the upsetting music, and charged.
What followed was not something he was proud of. Others might tell the tale but he never did. He would never admit to having a prolonged swordfight with a goblin, not when he had his greatsword and she wielded a stick of meat. Worse, it was his stick of meat, he conned it from the tavernkeep fair and square! He would have won that swordfight, too, if the blonde woman hadn't taken the opportunity to impale the goblin on a dagger. A dagger! His weapon was three times as tall as his foe and said foe got felled by a dagger.
But at least it was over. Mostly.
The fire was doused, the temple remained locked, the crowed was dispersing to the local taverns for something to calm their nerves, and Ace found himself left in the square with the three others who had successfully defended themselves.
“Charlie,” the blonde woman said, indicating herself. “You can buy me a beer for saving your life.”
Ace scowled. “I had it,” he said. “Ace, by the way. And I totally had it. I was just setting it up for a proper skewer.”
“Right,” Charlie said, her grin getting wider.
“Reggie the Bard!” said the man from the temple steps. He flicked the blood off of his rapier and sheathed it. “Tales, songs, random knowledge, at your service.”
“I like your music,” Ace said.
The fourth one stayed quiet. Charlie looked at him questioningly.
“Thomas,” he said. “I'm a sorcerer.”
“It's hard to beat a Magic Missile to the face,” Charlie said. “Let's hit the tavern. After that I could use a drink.”
Sheppard sat at the table while the other players talked about themselves. Rowan described the scenes using more voices than any one man should possess and more imagination than Sheppard thought possible. He wasn't even looking in the adventure book, it lay closed next to him with post-it notes stuck in any number of pages.
Simpson played the mysterious sorcerer Thomas who was described as far too ordinary to be as mysterious as she was making him out to be. Maybe she hadn't thought of a backstory either.
Branton, on the other hand, had an entire past behind him that involved failed wizard training, piracy, and a stint in a traveling circus. Also, his name was apparently 'Reggie the Bard!' complete with capitalization and punctuation.
Carter, thankfully, seemed more realistic in her backstory. Something about growing up on the streets of Magnimar, some big city to the south. She only ever used daggers because they could be found anywhere and hidden in more places than that. Sheppard wasn't entirely sure that knowledge was fictional. He'd heard stories about the exploits SG-1 got up to.
Sheppard... had not thought of a backstory. Or a character. Or a personality. He had an elf fighter with a greatsword who enjoyed drinking. Suddenly he felt very stereotypical.
“Next Sunday?” he heard Rowan say.
“Next Enforced Sunday,” Carter said. “Whenever that is.”
“I'm game,” Branton said.
“I... might have work,” Simpson said.
“McKay doesn't enforce the Sundays?” Carter asked. “He's supposed to.”
“No, he does,” Simpson said. “But... I just... There's some stuff I need to get done and...”
“We understand,” Rowan said. “Come if you can.”
“I will,” Simpson said before gathering her things and leaving.
“Not bad for your first session.” It took Sheppard a moment to realize Carter was talking to him. The game room had changed while they were playing. Ronon was in a corner pretending to read a book, the book was upside down. The poker table had changed to blackjack and a completely new set of players. Dr. Tomson was painting a different set of tiny people. The armies fighting each other on tables now wore power armor and too many skulls on their belts. Wait, who went through the effort to paint tiny skulls like that?
“Think you'll be back for more?” Carter asked.
Sheppard had to admit, it was fun. Even when he and the goblin bard were rolling badly their failure had been twisted into a comical swordfight against his own kebab. “Sure,” he said. “I'll be back.”
Chapter 2: The Glassworks
The roar of the glassworks' furnace rumbled through the entire building. The corridors were lit only by the light streaming through the admittedly broad and expertly crafted windows. But that didn't help the eerie dimness in the enclosed hallways or the storage rooms.
Something was terribly wrong here. First it was broad daylight. The owner Lonjiku was missing, thought at home by his workers, thought at work by his house servants. His daughter Ameiko was supposed to meet her brother Tsuto here last night but she never returned home. Then there was the little factor of the glassworks doors locked tight during business hours even as the furnace chimneys belched thick black smoke into the air.
Reggie the Bard! had said that was wrong. A proper furnace shouldn't blow black smoke like that, he said. A proper hot coal furnace wouldn't blow smoke at all.
Ace took him at his word. Reggie the Bard! was always good for random information like that. Charlie had just shrugged and fiddled the door open like it wasn't even locked. Thomas volunteered to keep watch outside while the others did their thing.
Ace didn't like that but he had to admit, Thomas was the logical choice. That and Thomas had mumbled something about an experiment and “day off or no day off McKay's gonna bite my head off if I don't get those figures in on time”. That left Reggie the Bard! as their only magical backup in case something went wrong. But that was okay, Reggie the Bard! couldn't blow things up like Thomas could but Reggie the Bard! had that healing touch and the music that made Ace hit harder.
Ace wanted that music as soon as they saw the blood spatters in the servant's quarters and the demolished kitchen. A dogslicer, a goblin's sword, stuck out of a sack of grain where it had been forgotten during looting. “Goblins,” he hissed.
“I'm not surprised,” Charlie said. “When hasn't it been goblins?”
“Sandpoint's environs host several goblin tribes,” said Reggie the Bard! “They're not usually known for targeted attacks like this. They tend to focus on small caravans and lone travelers.”
“You think they've got a leader?” Ace asked.
“Goblins always have a leader,” Charlie said. “Even I know that. No, this is worse. Think someone's united the tribes?”
“I hope not,” said Reggie the Bard! “I got shit to do.”
Ace ignored the discussion behind him. He didn't care much for the state of goblin politics, all that mattered to him was that there were goblins screwing with his town. That was enough.
The loading room was in delicate disarray. Sacks of chemicals and pure sands were stacked on the floor here, vials of shining powders on shelves. An empty safe hung open, the key still in the lock.
“What the hell?” Charlie muttered. She moved to listen at the doors leading to the glassworking room. “They're in here,” she hissed.
“How can you tell?” Ace asked.
“The little shits are giggling and breaking things,” Charlie said, giving him a look that clearly detailed how thick she thought he was being. “On three we bust in and bust them. Reggie, get ready to sing.”
“Ready,” said Reggie the Bard!
Ace pulled his sword. Charlie took several throwing knives from her bandolier and readied them.
She threw open the door.
“Roll initiative,” Dr. Rowan said.
Carter rolled her die. “Charlie gets a 17.”
Sheppard picked out the right die, a strange 20-sided thing, and rolled it. He scanned his character sheet for the right modifier. “Ace gets a 12.”
Dr. Branton rolled his die. “Crap. Reggie the Bard! rolled a 4.”
“Greased lightning,” Rowan drawled while he rolled for the enemies. “Thomas is outside so... Charlie, you're up.”
“What do I see?” Carter asked.
Eight goblins cavorted through the room, reveling in their disgusting chaos. Two wielded tongs still oozing with molten glass pulled right from the open furnace, dueling with each other until the glass cooled and then they called a time out to stick the tongs back in the fire before pulling out fresh ones to continue. One attempted to juggle a collection of bottles of various colors, dropping most of them. The total number in the air stayed about the same as he had a spotter tossing new bottles into his hands.
The other four goblins were much less innocent.
Bodies in various states of dismemberment were scattered about the room. Limbs were missing from the collection. A glance at the open furnace gave a horrible realization but at least these poor people were dead before being fed to the fire. The man propped up against the wall did not look like he had been so lucky. He was encased in fresh glass, his seared flesh visible through the disturbingly tempered transparent cage. His limbs and skull were twisted in nauseating rictus, almost as though he'd been alive when the glass was poured.
Four goblins crouched over a dead body, busy with their work. One held a thumb up to the encased man like he was critiquing art while barking orders to the other three who poured ladles of molten glass over the body. Then he'd smack them and scold them and send them back to the furnace for more glass to try again.
A half-elven man watched the entire tableau with a distinct air of boredom. He was the first to notice the door open and the people coming through. He sneered as he recognized the local 'heroes' and shouted at the goblins. Chaos stopped dead as eight pairs of goblin eyes turned to the door. Glass shattered as all the juggled bottles crashed to the floor, the table, and to the goblin's heads.
Charlie smirked and threw a throwing dagger before diving behind an overturned table. A squeal told her she'd hit something alive or at least important.
Ace charged in, sword raised. The two goblins with fiery tongs met him on the floor, trying to fight with searing oozing glass as their weapons.
The half-elf raised his bow.
And then Reggie the Bard! began to sing as chaos began again.
Everything was going so well. The goblins were inept, though their small weapons still drew blood. Ace kept trying to wade through the chaos toward the half-elf, this villain who dared work with such annoyances. Surely he was responsible for all the death here. The goblins certainly didn't burn Lonjiku Kaijitsu alive in molten glass.
And then everything went so wrong.
“Reggie!” Ace shouted.
The half-elf seemed to flow across the battlefield and took Reggie the Bard! by surprise, punching him in the face. But that shouldn't have caused the music to fade from Ace's sword. That shouldn't have put Reggie the Bard! on the floor. That certainly shouldn't have set three goblins on Reggie the Bard! as they gleefully carried his unmoving body to the open furnace.
Ace's scream of fury didn't drown out the screams from the fire. Nor did it make the sudden end of those screams any less terrible.
Charlie's knives flew in from nowhere, catching the half-elf in the shoulder. Ace took the opening to leap over a downed table and impale the villain on his sword.
Goblins squealed and scattered as their de-facto leader fell. Ace let them run, too exhausted to do anything.
The furnace belched thick black smoke up the chimney into the sky.
Sheppard watched in horror as Branton laughed, grinned in satisfaction, and then shook Rowan's hand. “I know you said you'd make it memorable but wow,” he said.
“I aim to please,” Rowan said.
“What the hell?!” Sheppard demanded.
Carter gave him a calculating look. He didn't notice.
“I got called back to Earth,” Branton said. “I'm scheduled to leave on the next dial-out. I asked Pete to make my death a memorable one.”
Sheppard looked aghast at Rowan.
Rowan's easy satisfied smile fell as he realized something was very wrong here. “You okay, Sheppard?” he asked.
“I'm fine,” Sheppard said as he got up and left.
“Not your fault,” Carter said as she got up. “I'll talk to him. Good death, Branton.”
Branton's grin had not fallen even as she left.
Carter followed Sheppard down the hall as he stalked toward the labs.
“Sheppard,” she said.
He kept fleeing.
“Sheppard!” she snapped.
Sheppard stopped in his tracks, back far too straight. Fury flowed off of him in waves. “What?” he snapped back.
Carter approached, eyes taking in his stance, his expressionless face, his toneless voice, his barely contained rage. “You're taking this too seriously,” she said. “It's a game, Sheppard, you're not supposed to take it seriously!”
At least that got Sheppard to react. “Not supposed to take it seriously,” he repeated dully. Then anger flooded his words. “The last time I didn't take a game seriously Rodney and I found out after the fact that we were toying with real people!”
“How is this the same thing?” Carter demanded. “I haven't seen an Ancient device that turns fantasy into reality yet, have you? It's not real! It's pen and paper and dice and books. Nothing is real.”
Sheppard didn't back down. “I don't like losing people like that,” he said.
“I know you don't,” Carter said. “I'll talk to Pete about it.”
Sheppard made a noise in his throat that might have been a hum or a growl. There was no way to tell.
“Branton asked him for something 'memorable',” Carter said. “Pete was just delivering. It's a game, Sheppard. Things happen in the game, they don't mean anything out in the real world. It's fantasy.”
“It's... weird,” Sheppard said, looking away.
“It's healthy,” Carter corrected. “Back when I was heading SG-1, Dr. Robinson got all of us into role playing games to de-stress. It lets us be something else for a time. For a few short hours we can forget the gate and just run around in a fantasy world slaying dragons. Or sneaking around megacorps. We can be superheros, we can cast spells, we can stab the people who deserve it and not be arrested for it.”
Sheppard had to admit that last one. Carter played her character as a bit too knife-happy to be right in the head.
And it had been nice beating up goblins. They even got to save a kid. And Pete was good with the imagery.
“It's not real, hmm?” Sheppard allowed.
“None of it matters,” Carter said. “You die, you can roll up a new character. I'm sure Pete will make sure you go out in a suitably impressive explosion.”
Sheppard couldn't suppress the smirk at that one.
“How about this, I have Pete wrap it up for today and we play again next Sunday? Whenever that happens to be...”
“No, I'll go back in,” Sheppard said.
When they got back to the game room even Branton's grin had fallen to concern.
“It's nothing,” Carter said dismissively as she and Sheppard sat down. Still, she gave Rowan a look. He nodded once.
“Okay,” Rowan said. He opened the adventure book and pulled his notes out. “The remaining goblins ran out through the loading room and down a set of stairs into the basement. What do you do?”
“I check this guy here for information,” Carter said. “I want to know who he was and what he was doing with a pack of goblins.”
Sheppard found himself in the labs. McKay was busy directing the traffic of a dozen scientists all demanding attention. The latest crisis had been minor, barely even worth mentioning, something that should have been handled without waking McKay up in the middle of the night. Now the science team was paying for it with his ire and an extra dose of micromanagement.
Zelenka looked up from where he'd been hiding behind his laptop and visibly sighed in relief when he saw Sheppard at the door.
Sheppard nodded. The signal was seen, decoded, and accepted. Not like it needed much decoding, Sheppard could see McKay was getting ragged around the edges. The man hadn't taken a day off since Sundays became enforced. Something about 'someone needs to be in charge of this nightmare'.
“McKay,” Sheppard called.
McKay waved at him bitterly. “Go away, Colonel, I need to fix this.”
Zelenka's hopeful look turned desperate.
“McKay,” Sheppard said again. He pulled a powerbar out of his pocket. It was still malleable from being in his pocket all day but he doubted McKay would notice.
“What!” McKay snapped. He turned to begin what might have been a truly epic rant about incompetence but it fell flat.
Sheppard waved the powerbar like he was baiting a fish. He pulled it away when McKay tried to grab it.
McKay pouted, his eyes narrowing. If Sheppard didn't know any better he would have expected a petulant growl.
“You missed breakfast,” Sheppard said. “And lunch.”
“Wait, I missed lunch?” McKay asked.
“They're setting out dinner. Come on, you need a break.”
“But lunch was supposed to be those little meatballs with gravy!”
“I'm sure there will be some leftovers,” Sheppard placated. It was a blatant lie, the marines had gotten to the meatballs within twenty minutes of the announcement. “But we won't know unless we check.”
McKay looked conflicted. He shifted from foot to foot until he came to a decision. “Make them fix it,” he ordered, pointing to Zelenka.
“It will be easy without extra harping,” Zelenka scolded.
McKay waved off the perceived insult and followed Sheppard out of the lab.
Dinner had nothing to do with the illusive meatballs. Instead it was something with pasta and chicken and vegetables all tossed in oil and cheese. McKay accepted this fate with an extra handful of cheese and a chocolate pudding cup.
Sheppard sat down across from McKay with a tray less loaded with cheese. He never liked the cheese in this dish, it felt too much like it was trying to hide the vegetables. Sheppard disliked the subterfuge and the inability to find all the broccoli so he could pick it out.
McKay dove into his dish, shoveling large forkfuls of pasta and chicken and he even ate the broccoli. Sheppard shook his head in bemusement, he couldn't comprehend anybody being hungry enough to willingly eat broccoli.
“Wha?” McKay asked, mouth full.
“Nothing,” Sheppard said, a smile forming despite himself.
McKay ignored him and went back to eating.
“McKay, when was the last time you took a Sunday off?” Sheppard asked.
McKay paused, his fork held halfway to his mouth. He set it down. The last Sunday he'd taken time off had been Carson's last Sunday. He sighed and pushed his tray away.
“I don't want to talk about it,” McKay muttered. “If I'd...” He looked down at his hands and sighed. “'M not hungry anymore.” He got up and left, leaving his tray on the table in front of Sheppard.
Sheppard watched. That was unexpected.
He waited an hour before taking a couple of beers to McKay's quarters. He knocked.
The door opened. McKay stood there looking exhausted. “Oh, it's you,” he said.
Sheppard rolled his eyes and raised a beer bottle to eye level. He made offering motions with it. McKay sighed and took the beer. “Come in,” he said.
McKay's room was a bit of a mess but that was nothing new. A couple of days worth of dirty clothes were scattered on the floor, trailed in a well worn track from the bathroom to the bed. The desk had the induction charger that went missing from the artifacts catalog that first year, a couple of laptops sat on it receiving wireless charge. The bed was hastily made, a tablet among the sheets where it had been tossed. Shoes were in a pile in the corner, socks stuffed inside in an attempt to hold the foot funk contained.
Sheppard sprawled out on the bed. It was the only logical place in the room to sit. It also made McKay give him that petulant look that amused him so. Sheppard sat up and twisted the cap off of his beer.
McKay looked at the beer in his hand, something unfortunately American and watered down, and sighed. He wrapped his shirt over the neck and twisted off the cap. He took a long swallow.
“You need to take the chance to relax,” Sheppard said.
McKay huffed. “And when I do someone else I care about dies.”
Only then did Sheppard make the connection. He looked down at his bottle to cover the fact that he hadn't known.
“I relax enough,” McKay said. “It's not like I'm constantly in there fixing the incompetence of the idiots I'm supposed to call 'colleagues'.”
Sheppard felt guilty. If he'd had known he would have dragged McKay off some Enforced Sunday and made him relax. RC cars in the corridor, chess in the mess hall, the kitchens at midnight to steal all the pudding cups they could carry, a offworld market, anything. Even camping on the mainland with Ronon and Teyla would be enough, at least it would give McKay something new to complain about for a day. He tamped down the guilt. He knew now.
He could do something about it now.
“Radek could handle the labs for a day,” Sheppard said. “Heck, I bet Dr. Kusanagi could do it.”
“Oh yeah?” McKay demanded. “And when someone fucks up who's going to yell at them?”
“You can yell at them later,” Sheppard said. “If yelling at them worked they wouldn't do stupid stuff in the first place.”
McKay looked about ready to argue that but he couldn't. Instead he covered the action by taking a drink. “Fine,” he said sullenly. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, Carter has me playing this game...”
McKay rolled his eyes. “Fine. I'll play.”
“Great! Enforced Sunday at noon. Pirate Pete will get you set up.”
McKay scowled. He'd play a game or two. Then when something blew up he could say 'I told you so' to everyone and never have to take a day off again.
Chapter 3: Prophecy
McKay sat in the game room with an empty character sheet in front of him. It had been suggested he be the first one in to make his character but he didn't know the system, the world, the whole point of this game was not something he had experience with. Instead he was stacking the polyhedral dice on top of one another in an attempt to make the tallest most varied dice tower possible. He was just about to put the pyramidal 4-sided die on the very top as a capstone when the table was knocked by someone else. The whole tower collapsed. McKay looked up with a glare.
It was Dr. Rowan, one of the organic chemists. Rowan's past willingness to bribe him with stims despite medical advice was what kept McKay from delving into a rant. Instead he stuck to a huff and a glare.
“Have an idea for a character yet?” Rowan asked as he sat down.
McKay looked around the table. There were empty chairs, several large books, a blank character sheet, scratch paper, and a small bowl filled with dice. The game room itself was much less abandoned. The betting table in the back seemed to be hosting a game of craps complete with shouting, bouncing dice, and loud wagers. Dr. Tomson came in with her case of painting supplies. She set out the little bottles of paint, a painting palate, a small cup for water, and brushes. She pulled miniatures from the case for painting, sat down, and with a grand gesture took her thick glasses off.
The rest of the room was slowly filling out as people awoke from their chance at sleeping in. Enforced Sundays were known for starting late after a big breakfast of whatever the KP staff felt like that day. Today it was omelets from a strange purple egg laid by therapods on one of the uninhabited planets, day-old muffins, and a tasty crunchy fried thing re-purposed from one of the mashed vegetables served earlier in the week. McKay figured he had a good half an hour before Sheppard and Carter came in with whoever their fourth player was.
“What are we even playing?” McKay asked. “What is this game?”
“Pathfinder,” Rowan said. “It's a Dungeons and Dragons variant based on the 3.5 rules. The world's called Golarion.”
“No, I mean, I've never played anything like this before. What am I supposed to do?”
Rowan's eyebrows shot up. He would never have guessed. “That's okay,” Rowan said, covering his surprise. “Sheppard had never played before either. Here's the thing...”
McKay sat through a vague explanation of the rules, the whole idea of playing a single character in a story that the player didn't know. The world was a place where magic existed and was controlled through various means, most often the careful study of arcane forces, the wild chaos of bloodlines, or the devotion of the self to a deity or nature or something equally esoteric and unknowable. The world was post-apocalyptic, having survived the destruction of its major civilizations eleven millennia before and the death of humanity's god a century ago. Most of the glories of the past were forgotten, held only in legend and stories passed down in isolated pockets or among the wandering travelers of Varisia.
That gave McKay ideas.
Mira sat in the wagon, its shifting and creaking a comfort as she studied the text she'd cobbled together from forgotten stories and the carvings on old monuments. The language of magic was an intricate one, difficult to read on its own. It was a self-feeding cycle, the language of magic required the spark of magic itself in order to unravel the symbols into words, the allegory into stories, the runes into power. Without the understanding of magic the language of magic couldn't be understood.
It had taken her years to understand that. She still had the charcoal rubbings of the ruined spires that allowed her that breakthrough. They were tucked among the unbound parchments she carried in case of more ruins.
Magical study took time, an hour of study and contemplation every morning to choose which of her spells she'd prepare for the day. It was nothing like her cousin Vinyamar. Nooo, he was 'blessed' or something. Mira huffed as she carefully turned pages. Something in his blood gave him the magic in his fingers, there was none in his mind. She knew, she'd tested it. He couldn't read the magic in her book. He might be able to throw half a dozen balls of fire at bandits but he was no wizard.
And yet those fire balls made everyone love him more than any of her cousins or brothers or sisters. He got to ride ahead on the horses and he always danced the best when Baba Rann sang the songs at nightfall when the wagons were still and the smells of food and family drifted from the campfire's edge.
But Baba Rann hadn't given him her cards even though she was old, very old, too old to dance anymore. Mama said she was waiting for one more good prophecy and then she'd give the cards to Vinny and her soul would fly up to the stars to dance with Desna.
Suddenly there was bright light. Mira jumped and held her spellbook to her chest. “Vinny!” she scolded, scowling at her cousin.
“Little book moth,” Vinny taunted. “Baba Rann's calling for you. Bet it's to get you to give up the books.”
“Bet not,” Mira said. She carefully closed her spellbook and wrapped it up in one of her scarves. “If you touch it I swear...”
“Yeah, yeah, you'll set my hair on fire.” Vinny sat in the wagon as she stood up, arranged her skirts and her scarves, glared at him once more for good measure, then jumped out of the wagon onto the road below.
The three wagons of their small caravan plodded along. The ocean was visible to the west, the morning sun glinting off of the waves. Farmland and grasslands stretched to the east, little houses dotting the endless yellow sea of grains with their heads hanging heavy for the harvest. The horses snorted, tails flicking in protest against their yokes. In the distance a town was visible on the shore, cute and small and without a gate blocking the road. Beyond, on a cliff over the shore, an ancient ruin stood as tall as the seabirds flew.
The wagons were plodding ahead without her. She ran with them, past them, up to the lead wagon. Her father waved down at her from his perch in the driver's seat. Mira smiled at him before grabbing the floor of the open wagon and pulling herself into the darkness.
She sat on the floor panting. A globe of light flared to life in the darkness. Mira knew now what that spell was, Baba Rann called it Dancing Lights. The lights did dance, flickering like stars that she could touch. “Baba,” she said.
Baba Rann was an old old woman. Her hands were gnarled, her nails like claws. Her face looked like a withered apple so dry even the horses wouldn't eat it. Her wispy white hair was hidden underneath the scarf she wore, beautiful blue and purple silk that carried the stars and the sun in gold tassels and silver thread. She sat on a mound of pillows on the wagon's floor, a low table before her. That table was draped with a simple blue cloth. In the middle of that cloth sat a deck of cards even more ancient that Baba Rann. These were her prophecy cards, her harrow deck.
“Come, child,” Baba Rann said. She gestured with a bony arthritic hand to the pillows before her, across from the table.
Mira sat down obediently. Nobody disobeyed Baba Rann.
“Tell me, Mira, do you know the town ahead of us?” Baba Rann asked.
Mira shook her head.
“That is... Sandpoint.”
Mira nodded. She waited for Baba Rann to say why this was important.
“Do not be fooled by its beauty, child. Sandpoint is a place of blood. The stones seep red with the blood of forever.”
Mira cocked her head. The town outside had seemed very pretty. But many towns in Varisia were the result of Chelaxian foolishness, of stonebound imperialists who couldn't comprehend the Varisian's ancient claims. The wheels of a thousand wagons crisscrossed these lands, marking this place as theirs. What the Chelaxians couldn't claim with words they took by force. Now their god was dead and they'd fallen to diabolism. Soon their vaunted 'civilization' would collapse in on itself like all others before them as the wheels of a thousand wagons continued to turn.
“That blood awakens,” Baba Rann said. “There is an ancient evil there.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Mira asked. She was getting suspicious and excited. Baba Rann always stayed away from ruins and the old magical runes, she claimed they were evil. Maybe the Sandpoint ruins were an evil Mira could learn from? After all, magic itself wasn't evil otherwise Desna wouldn't grant it to those who could hear her.
“I see a man,” Baba Rann said. “Tall, pale, hair as black as the starless night. He has stones sewn into his skin and his spear is on fire. I fear him, child.”
Mira felt her blood run cold as Baba Rann's face went slack and her eyes wide and unfocused. Mira pounded the roof beam of the wagon three times. Everyone knew to bang the wagon beam three times when Baba Rann went into a prophecy trance.
The wagon slowed to a stop.
And then bony claws gripped Mira's scarves and pulled her close with a strength Mira didn't know someone so old could have.
“The burning spear!” Baba Ran shrieked. “The world on fire behind him! The living fire of nightmare! Mhar!”
Mira's father looked inside from the wagon's roof. He called for the caravan to stop, that this was important.
Baba Rann screamed, long and loud, before she went limp. She drew rattling breaths as her hands went limp.
“It's okay, Baba, you're all right,” Mira said, trying to calm the woman down before the entire caravan got excited. She glanced up at the Dancing Lights spell, flickering in the corner like a firefly.
“Someone stands before him,” Baba Rann whispered. “The old magics. The living fire can be quenched...” She pulled on the blue tablecloth, the cards sliding close. “These... are yours... Mira... Stop... him...”
Baba Rann's hand went limp.
“Baba?” Mira asked. “Baba?!”
The dancing star in the corner flickered out.
McKay looked around him. The game room was filling up with people and sound. But this corner was absolutely quiet. Only then did he realize he and Rowan were no longer alone. Carter sat at the gaming table with a pleased grin. Sheppard stood nearby, his mouth hanging open in shock. Ronon stood next to him, also grinning broadly. At least Simpson wasn't looking at him funny. McKay glared at them all. “What?” he demanded.
Rowan gave them all an easy smile. “He's never played before,” he said innocently.
Carter's grin turned to absolute shock. “No way,” she said.
“Neither had I,” Sheppard defended.
“Yeah but you weren't that good,” Ronon said. Sheppard elbowed him in the ribs. Ronon kept grinning.
“You've never played?” Carter asked.
“You need friends to play,” McKay said and his expression turned to one of detached disdain, as though he dared them to say anything.
Carter's shock turned to something uncomfortable. She swallowed and looked away. Rowan's discomfort was less visible even as he matched McKay's gaze.
“You have friends now,” Ronon said. “You're good at this game.”
Sheppard sat next to McKay and nudged him out of his thoughts. “Wait, Conan's not going to watch is he?” McKay demanded.
“It's a good story,” Ronon said. He took Carter's annoyed expression for what it meant and went off to find someone to play the wargame with the little animal-headed armies. He liked that one.
Simpson sat down on the other side of Carter. “I don't know how long I can stay,” she said. “I have... stuff...”
Sheppard glared at McKay. McKay shrugged.
“All right,” Rowan said. “McKay has his character all set up so let's get started.”
Ace awoke to the feeling of hard floor under his back and something boot-shaped nudging his side. The clanging sound of bells rang in his ears. Or maybe that sound was the remains of last night.
No, it was both. He blinked up at the ceiling timbers. Sunlight streamed through the windows to light the wood aflame with reds and golds and brown. A lot of brown. And yellow. Oh wait, that was just Charlie looking down at him. Wait, why was she in his room? He had a room at this here inn and he'd even paid for it. With real coins. She couldn't just barge in here.
Ace rolled over to try and get back to sleep but there was a distinct lack of blanket and a table? Benches? Chairs? What gives? Ace sat up into a slow sitting position. “Who brought me downstairs?” he asked.
Charlie rolled her eyes. “You never went up,” she said. “You passed out on the tavern floor.”
“Why... are there church bells?” Ace asked. “It's morning.”
“Elves don't do morning bells?”
“Put 'em at noon,” Ace whined. Whether it was because of a true cultural difference or his hangover Charlie couldn't tell.
“I think they're funeral bells,” Charlie said, looking out the window. The bells were ringing longer than the standard morning bells.
“We did tha' yesserday,” Ace slurred as he tried to stand up. It didn't seem to work but he did find a tankard. He sniffed at it, wrinkled his nose, and took a deep swallow. He coughed and wiped his mouth.
“Not Reggie,” Charlie said. “Not locals either. We should go look.”
Ace hoisted himself to his feet with the help of a barstool. He belched and made a face at the taste.
“I should go look,” Charlie amended gracefully, her own nose wrinkling. “I didn't think elves could smell so bad.”
Ace glowered at her and walked out of the tavern. He almost managed a straight line through the crowded streets toward the cathedral.
The glass panes seemed strangely ominous for a moment but Ace shook it off. It was just an unpleasant reminder of yesterday and Reggie the Bard!'s sendoff. There hadn't been a body so there was nothing for Father Zantus to bless. Just empty words to an empty shrine and three lonely strangers honoring the death of a companion they'd fought beside for mere days...
Ace shook the melancholy from his head and stepped inside.
The Sandpoint cathedral was here for a reason. That reason was in the large open courtyard. Seven ancient standing stones stood guard around a stone altar. On that altar laid the body of an old woman. Only then did he realize the cathedral was full of people. Ace slunk into the back, hoping to go unnoticed.
These people must be Varisians. He'd heard of them, seen a few in town, but not like this. These were real Varisians, the ones who lived in caravan wagons and wandered like nomads.
A woman stood near the altar. Her thick red hair hung in riotous curls underneath a dark blue scarf decorated with silver and gold threads. Father Zantus kept putting his hands on her shoulders as he spoke.
Ace snuck back out of the cathedral. He found Charlie and Thomas outside. “Funeral,” he said. “Big one.”
“There's a Varisian caravan parked near Madame Mvashti's place,” Thomas said. “Looks empty.”
“Might be them,” Ace said, gesturing back to the cathedral.
After a bath, a meal, and a proper morning's sleep, not necessarily in that order, he was ready to greet the day just in time for the noon bells.
What was it with humans and their day bells? At least elves weren't obsessed with the sun like these night-blind humans were. Elves properly appreciated the moon and timed their prayers to the opening of the moonflowers.
For a moment he felt like someone was laughing at him. Then the feeling passed.
Thomas was missing again when Ace walked out of the tavern feeling somewhat more alive. His throat didn't taste like sour beer anymore and he smelled no worse than these humans. He spied the red haired woman in the street looking somewhat lost. Strange, he could see the funeral procession leading into the boneyard. Shouldn't she be in there?
She wore far too many skirts and scarves to be practical. She carried an overstuffed satchel with a loose scroll of parchment dangling almost to the ground. The dark blue scarf on her head was different from any of the others she wore, neither blue nor purple but somehow both with silver-threaded symbols embroidered into the silk and gold tassels hanging from what seemed like random ends. Still she kept it wrapped around herself like it was the most important thing she owned.
“Why aren't you at the funeral?” Ace asked.
The woman jumped, wide blue eyes turning to him like she hadn't expected to be addressed. “Oh, I, um...” She looked ashamed? Why? “Baba Rann's last prophecy. I... can't stay with my caravan anymore. There's something I have to do first.”
“Prophecy, you say?” Ace mused.
The woman nodded. “I can't go home until I...” She sighed. “Of course, divination hasn't been the same since... well, you know.”
Ace sort of knew. He was an elf, he was old enough to remember when Aroden, god of humans, died and took prophecy itself with him. Although it was better than the alternative. Nobody wanted the human's god living on this world, they'd get even more insufferable.
“So you have to do this thing otherwise you can't go home, even though divination hasn't worked right since the human god died,” Ace said.
“Yeah, that's about right.”
Ace had to smirk at how little fazed she seemed by all this. In fact she seemed almost irreverent. “So what will you do until then?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I'm decent at blowing stuff up,” she said.
“You know, I appreciate people who can blow stuff up.”
A blinding grin spread over her face. “My name's Mira,” she said. “I specialize in evocation magics.”
“I'm Ace. I hit things with swords. The others are inside. Let me introduce you.”
Sheppard scowled as McKay was still laughing at him.
“'Moon flowers',” McKay gasped. “God you're such an elf.”
“You're playing a woman,” Sheppard shot back.
“At least he's not playing a blonde,” Carter said.
Sheppard had a mental image of Carter's implication.
“I am not that narcissistic,” McKay said defensively.
“I don't know...” Sheppard said, drawing the words out with mocking amusement.
Rowan noticed Simpson get up. “I should go,” she said.
“What's up?” Carter asked.
“I should... I have to finish the analysis of the last solar storm.”
Sheppard glared at McKay.
“What?” McKay asked. Then he figured it out. “Wait, that analysis doesn't need to be done for another two weeks. It's not even going to take you two hours.”
Simpson excused herself anyway and left.
“I sense a pattern,” Rowan said.
“So do I,” Carter said. “Be right back.” She left, following Simpson down the hall.
“What's going on?” McKay asked.
“I'm not sure she really wants to play,” Rowan said. “She's quit every session early claiming work. Apparently work she doesn't even need to do.”
“And we're down a player again,” Sheppard mused.
“I planned on something like this,” Rowan said with a shrug. “Players come and go. Adventures can take months to finish and we have a rotating staff. Any of us can be called back to Earth for a month, a year, permanently. They don't even have to tell us before recalling us en masse.”
Carter came back in. “She's just not having fun,” she said. “So she's officially quitting.”
“And Thomas rides off into the sunset,” Rowan said. “Good to know. You're at a good point for it. Now then, where were we?”
Chapter 4: The Boar Hunt
Dr. Rowan looked around the lab.
This was the main lab, usually full of engineers, Ancient tech experts, physicists, and McKay. Now was an exception simply because it was late in the day and there hadn't been an emergency in a couple of days. Privately he thought there should be a sign on the wall like those at oil refineries, '__ days since last emergency'. It could be a white board so people could keep the number updated. He was sure the mathematicians would enjoy having data to back up their claim that major emergencies only occurred when McKay was available. Then maybe Sheppard would let Teyla back onto active duty and AR-1 would get out of the city more often.
McKay was tapping away at something on his computer screen. Rowan tried not to notice it was a freecell game. The lab was mostly empty, Zelenka at his own computer and a couple of scientists in the back. Kusanagi waved at him, Rowan waved back.
“What is it, Rowan, I'm busy,” McKay said.
Rowan rolled his eye yet now the freecell game was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were real reports half-finished on McKay's screen. Fair enough. “I was wondering if you had time to talk about the game,” Rowan said.
McKay's hands stopped dead in mid-word. For some reason the half-finished freecell game popped back up. He turned to Rowan, his expression carefully neutral. “What's wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing's wrong,” Rowan said. “I just... had something to ask you.”
Those words might have been a mistake. This whole thing might have been a mistake as Rowan watched something close to dismay break out from behind McKay's eyes before he turned away. “I... thought it went rather well,” McKay said.
“It did,” Rowan agreed, keeping his voice calm and level. He was deeply curious as to what made McKay act like this. At the same time he knew he desperately did not want to know. “I thought it went spectacularly.”
McKay then looked at him, torn between confusion and betrayal. “You're... not kicking me out?” he asked quietly.
“Of course not,” Rowan said. “Heck no.”
“You're not quitting are you?”
Obviously Rowan should have thought this through more. “I don't plan on it,” Rowan said. “Is there anything I should know?”
“No, no, nothing,” McKay said. “Then... why are you here?”
Rowan sat down on a lab bench. He wasn't sitting on anyone's computer so it was fine. He ignored the sensation of being glared at from Zelenka's direction; this wasn't a chemical lab, he wasn't going to dissolve his pants again. “I expect the game will have some... delicate events in the future,” he said. “Something that could get me punched if I sprung it on Colonel Carter. And Sheppard's out of the question entirely.”
“Why?” McKay said, getting suspicious. Rowan could see the scenarios evolving.
“He's playing a dude,” Rowan said.
“Oh,” McKay said. “Oh!”
Rowan smirked as he realized the scenarios in McKay's head did not take that into account.
“So you're asking...” McKay trailed off.
“I'm asking if you'd be offended if someone decided to hit on Mira,” Rowan said. “You don't have to respond favorably, just...”
“Oh,” McKay said. “Why would I be offended?”
Rowan was not entirely sure why McKay seemed unable to comprehend the situation. But then he'd heard the rumors, that McKay met Carter by hitting on her like every bad stalker joke imaginable before she punched him for it. At least, that was the rumor. They seemed to work together well enough now so either Carter was a bigger man than he was or the rumors weren't quite so accurate. But then, the exile to Siberia totally happened, that was a matter of public record. Rowan shook off his confusion. Now was not the time. He didn't need to know the ins and outs of his superiors former lives to work with them. “Some people might be,” he said with a shrug. “It's a good way to get punched.”
Soft snickering came from behind them. They both looked over to see Zelenka pretending he wasn't listening while trying not to laugh.
“I'm comfortable with my sexuality,” McKay said dismissively. “Do whatever. I'm sure it'll be fine.”
Rowan nodded. McKay had no idea what he'd just agreed to but Rowan wasn't going to argue with an affirmative like that.
“Was there anything else?” McKay demanded. The freecell game on his computer disappeared again. Rowan noticed the keyboard hadn't even been touched. Had McKay been augmenting his machine?
“The next batch of product is ready,” Rowan said. “I figured you'd want to know before the requisition order came in.”
“I will go take a look,” McKay said. He closed his laptop and left, making a beeline for the transporter and the beer Rowan had just admitted to finishing.
“I will fetch my share later,” Zelenka said. “Trends show the military will learn in half an hour. I have until then.”
“If you want to risk it,” Rowan warned.
Zelenka smirked. He held up a radio. It was not his own. He glanced at McKay's workstation.
Rowan grinned as he realized.
“You know, I might be interested in this game of yours,” Zelenka said. “And not just to watch McKay fend off his own poor tactics.”
“I'm gonna get punched,” Rowan lamented.
“Perhaps by Sheppard,” Zelenka agreed.
“I probably won't be able to get you into the story immediately,” Rowan admitted. “We can wait until next Sunday if you'd rather...”
“I will find ways to entertain myself,” Zelenka said. The radio next to his computer beeped. He held it up to his ear then put it down. “Is not important,” he said. “Will solve itself.”
“Somehow I'm not assuaged.”
Zelenka smiled. “Then let us leave this here and go distribute your product properly. Remove ourselves from the solving.”
Rowan could agree with that. He did not want to explain why he was complicit in Zelenka stealing McKay's radio to protect illicit beer distribution.
Charlie and Mira watched the commotion with various expressions of mirth. Charlie didn't even bother to hide her gleeful grin at the antics in the fenced pasture behind the Goblin Squash Stables. Mira, on the other hand, couldn't help but interject. “You're doing it wrong!” she shouted.
In the pasture Ace was running for his life. Or at least that's how he was acting.
The three of them were at the stables on the invitation of some local lord. Charlie and Thomas had saved his life during the goblin raid and now the lord was looking to repay the act with some frivolity. At least, that's how Charlie described it.
Mira looked at the horses she and Charlie had been 'given'. Rented, more like. The horses were to be returned by the end of the day. They both had bored mares, calm and docile, draped in full bridle and saddle. Mira's horse snorted.
“I know,” Mira said, patting the horse. “I should.”
“Should what?” Charlie asked as she hoisted herself onto her horse's back. She wasn't very good at it and ended up facing backwards. She scowled and dismounted.
“I should take pity on him,” Mira said.
Mira walked out of the stables to the pasture fence where the Stablemaster Daviren was shouting random tips and laughing at Ace's failure. “Are you sure he knows what he's doing?” Mira asked.
“He hasn't a clue,” Daviren admitted. “But Stormhoof won't really hurt him.”
Mira hoisted herself over the pasture fence.
“Are where are you going, lady?”
“Ace can use my horse,” Mira said. She whistled to catch Ace's attention. “I'll ride this one!” she shouted. “Try my horse!”
Ace ran for the pasture fence and vaulted it while Stormhoof reared and roared behind him.
“You have an eight in strength, McKay,” Sheppard said.
“I know,” McKay said defensively. “Ride is based on dexterity. Unlike you I have ranks in Ride.”
“Why?” Carter asked, craning her neck to get a look at McKay's character sheet. “You're a wizard.”
“A wizard's absurd intelligence means Mira has an absurd number of skill points,” Rowan said as though it was obvious.
The game room around them continued on with its activities. Poker in the back today, a game of Risk in the corner, an argument over who got to be the thimble in Monopoly, Ronon sat one table away not even bothering to pretend to play a game. Instead he sat next to Zelenka with a tray of various snacks pilfered from the mess hall. Zelenka had a tablet in front of him, occasionally consulting with Ronon in hushed tones. It would have seemed more suspicious if Ronon was quiet at all about their discussion. The random “druid sounds good” and “McKay's already a wizard” and “stabbing's always good” gave away their activities.
“I'm going to wait until the horse stops lording his victory over Ace,” McKay said. “Then, once he's calmed down I'm going to take out an apple.”
Ronon picked an apple off his tray and tossed it toward the gaming table. Sheppard caught it and looked at it, wondering what was going on. McKay took the apple from him and bit into it.
“What do you do?” Rowan asked.
“This, mostly,” McKay admitted. “I'm going to stand here slowly eating an apple. What does the horse do?”
Rowan rolled a die, one with expressive faces on it instead of numbers. The face came up somewhat happy. “Stormhoof will approach. Remember, he's naked. He's no bridle, no bit, and no saddle. You'll need to get him back into the stable for saddling if you want to ride him.”
McKay smirked and took another bite of his apple. “I have a better idea.”
Mira dangled her half-eaten apple in front of her, coaxing Stormhoof over to her. He stepped closer, wide nostrils sniffing. She held the apple out and let him take it.
Stormhoof ate the apple and snorted. His tail swished behind him.
Mira reached out to gently rub his nose. He stepped back once then let her pet him. “You're bored here, aren't you?” Mira asked.
Stormhoof didn't answer, not with words anyway. She didn't know Speak With Animals but she'd grown up around horses. Every caravan relied on its horses, treated them like family. She knew the basics of calming, riding, and caring for a horse. Stormhoof just wasn't used to the attention and had to be handled with care. “You don't like the saddle, do you?” she asked. “You're not the only one. My caravan has a horse, Nightmoth, who can't stand the feel of reigns or a saddle. She walks next to the wagons. Sometimes I got to ride her when my cousin and I scouted ahead.”
Stormhoof rumbled. She knew it was a happy noise. “Will you let me ride you?” she asked.
Stormhoof didn't answer. But he didn't shy away when Mira moved to his flank, petted his shoulders, put her hands on his spine and hoisted herself onto his back.
Then everything changed. Mira buried her hands in Stormhoof's mane as he reared and ran around the pasture.
In the stable Charlie and Ace watched in shocked appreciation. “You sure she's not a druid?” Charlie asked.
“She said she's an evoker,” Ace said.
Ace had to agree. Mira rode sidesaddle, bent low over the horse's racing back. Her skirts fluttered, her feet tucked underneath as hooves thundered without the malice that had chased him. Instead there was something different, something almost gleeful with her scarves trailing behind her, her red hair bouncing and blowing in the wind.
“You're staring,” Charlie said.
“Hmm?” Ace shook himself out his reverie. But the effects remained. He watched Mira as she pulled the horse back under some semblance of control, or maybe she was simply taking credit for his actions as he slowed down to a trot then a triumphant stop, head tossing gloriously.
“A beautiful specimen.”
Ace started at the new voice. The man who stood beside him was familiar, a human lord who had to be rescued during the goblin raid. Ace tried to remember the name.
“Lord Foxglove,” Charlie said. “So glad to see you're well.”
“And you of course, my dear,” Foxglove said. He took her hand and kissed it, lingering at a strange leer that made Ace feel uncomfortable. “I see your companion Thomas has moved on. Such a shame.”
“The untimely death of Reggie the Bard! affected us all,” Charlie said, pulling away from him. “If you'll excuse me, my lord.” She mounted her horse correctly this time. She pulled on the reigns and kicked the mare's sides, guiding the horse out of the stable.
Ace turned his attention back out to the pasture where Mira was arranging herself properly on the back of Stormhoof. He still wasn't entirely sure how she managed it without a saddle or without straddling the horse securely. Wasn't one supposed to straddle a horse?
“Who is she?” Foxglove asked as he too leaned against the pasture fence to gaze at its occupants.
“Her name's Mira,” Ace said. “She's a wizard, I think.”
“An enchantress, no doubt,” Foxglove said.
“An evoker,” Ace corrected. He was feeling uncomfortable again. Foxglove had a look he did not like.
“A pity,” Foxglove said. “She's certainly bewitching enough.” With that he left, leaving Ace alone in the stable with a bad feeling about this.
That discomfort did not lessen after mounting his own horse, Mira's boring old mare Socks, and joining the hunting party for this boar hunt. It was a small hunting party for such challenging quarry, no one even carried a boar spear, but then maybe Lord Foxglove didn't plan on succeeding. He certainly wasn't very interested in the hunt. Rather he kept trying to ride too close to Mira, sending her horse snorting and trotting off. Mira either didn't seem to notice or maybe she didn't care that Foxglove was content to spend the day hunting her instead of their actual quarry.
Then Ace got his first look at the 'boars' of the Tickwood and had to admit, these were not dangerous. The wild pigs were hairy and tusked like real boars but they were small, stunted. Was this some sort of forest playground? Ace knew of such things, forests stocked with tame game for bored nobles to play hunter in, but he thought only the elves of Kyonin were the right mix of vain and lazy. Apparently the humans had their own versions.
Foxglove wasn't even involved in the actual hunt. Ace tagged it with a bow and then the chase lasted some pitiful amount of time until Foxglove's manservants cornered the animal with spears and put it down.
“Most excellent,” Foxglove crowed, clapping his hands in delight. “You all must join me at the Rusty Dragon this evening, I'm sure the Madam Kaijitsu can create something simply divine with this trophy.”
Mira came up nearby, Stormhoof glaring sidelong at Foxglove's large black charger. The charger snorted in warning and stamped once.
“Perhaps you could charm my horse the way you did yours, my dear,” Foxglove said. He guided his charger alongside Stormhoof, his hand drifting across to her waist.
“It's no secret, my lord,” Mira said. “A simple bribe with an apple and a promise not to saddle him. Horses do enjoy their finery.”
Foxglove leaned in close enough to whisper. “As do we, my dear.”
Mira dug her heel into Stormhoof's side as she felt Foxglove's hand drift much lower than was proper. Stormhoof leapt into a moment of sprint before turning on Foxglove and his black charger. Mira looked as unimpressed as Stormhoof did. Foxglove merely winked at her.
“You're gettin' grabby there,” Carter warned.
Rowan grinned unabashedly and pointed to McKay. “I... have permission.”
Carter gaped at McKay who had the audacity to look proud of himself.
“Why?” Sheppard asked.
“I am comfortable with my sexuality, Colonel,” McKay said. “I don't need to prove anything.”
The Rusty Dragon was more subdued than it might have been. Ace understood why. Ameiko's father had been killed by the same man who murdered Reggie the Bard! Both of them suffered horrific deaths and even though nobody told her that her father had been alive when he was encased in molten glass, well... That was the kind of horrific realization the mind jumped to on its own without needing any outside help.
It explained the lack of Ameiko's distinctive singing. Not that Foxglove wasn't prepared, he had a couple of musicians on hand to provide some background music.
At least it seemed like background music. It was less than audible over the din of conversation, of plates banging, of laughing and cavorting, of one of the locals standing on the hearth telling the most exaggerated story Ace had ever heard. Okay, that itself was an exaggeration. Some of the stories Jargie Quinn down at the Hagfish tavern told about how he lost that leg were worse.
And then he heard the slap.
Ace could have sworn the entire tavern went silent, but maybe he just didn't hear it all anymore. All he saw was Mira looking flustered, like she'd just pulled herself out of unwanted arms. Considering the look on Lord Foxglove's face that scenario seemed so much more likely. Foxglove descended, grabbing both of her wrists and pulling her against him even as she struggled.
Ace was on his feet before he knew it. He didn't have his sword but he didn't need it. There were plenty of other weapons nearby. Even just a fist.
Foxglove's nose made a satisfying crunch against his fist.
“Sheppard!” Carter shouted.
The entire game room was indeed quiet, most eyes watching the game in the corner. A few enterprising poker players took the opportunity to shift a few jelly beans among the stacks. At the Monopoloy game a scientist still absently shook the dice cup, the rattle loud in the silence.
Sheppard realized he had not in fact punched Rowan. Even though Rowan had McKay's wrists in a vice-like grip and had been whispering something obscene in McKay's ear while he put up a token struggle. But he realized he had wanted to.
Then delighted applause broke the tension. Everyone turned to see Ronon with his eyes shining in glee, giving a standing ovation. Zelenka looked up at him, eyebrow raised.
McKay slumped and easily twisted out of Rowan's grip. Rowan merely bowed, which did not help the situation at all.
“He warned me you might punch him,” McKay said, glaring at Sheppard as he plopped down in his seat.
Sheppard looked confused then sheepish as he realized it had been an act. Rowan had spun McKay out of his seat, arms around him like iron bands to hold him still against his will. McKay obviously knew what was going on because he hadn't panicked, he'd stayed in character and didn't simply duck out of the enforced embrace. Not until Rowan whispered something in McKay's ear and got slapped for it. Then it went further and...
Sheppard had to remember, this wasn't meant to be taken seriously.
“So Ace seriously gets up and punches Foxglove?” Rowan asked.
Sheppard cracked his knuckles. He still felt the need to hit something, real or no.
“Okay,” Rowan said. “That shocks the tavern into silence. Foxglove lets go of Mira and puts his hand to his face. You bloodied him a bit, he does not look impressed. 'You should have said something, my clever enchantress,' he says. He looks Mira up and down and smiles. It's creepier with the bloody nose. 'Once he's recovered from your charms you should come to Magnimar. I'd love to show you a proper city.' Then he turns, snaps his fingers once, and leaves. Most of the tavern's occupants leave after him.”
“Good riddance,” McKay said. “An enchantress, can you believe him?”
“One person doesn't leave,” Rowan continued. “There's an elf woman in the corner. She's got hoops in her ears down to her shoulders, hair tied at the top of her head, and she looks like she's been enjoying the free food until now. She gets up and saunters over.”
“Can I help you?” Carter asked, taking on Charlie's minor drawl.
“'I'm looking for someone who can help a girl out,' she says. 'The name's Shalelu. I scout the Hinterlands around here and I got a lead on your goblin problem.'”
Chapter 5: Thistletop
Ronon's grin followed them out of the gaming room, down to the transporter, up to the mess hall, and all through the lunch line. It continued even when a table was selected and McKay began unwrapping a pile of sandwiches.
Carter finally couldn't stop herself. “Why do you watch us game, anyway?” she asked.
“We're Satedan High Theatre,” McKay said before growling at his frustratingly wrapped sandwich and tossing it into the middle of the table. He went for another one, resolutely ignoring how Sheppard took the wrapped sandwich, unwrapped it easily, then somehow ate it with a distinct smugness.
“On Sateda you'd have costumes and prop weapons,” Ronon said. “Every scene would be acted like Rodney did with Foxglove. An entire audience would be watching, hanging on your every action.”
Carter looked like she needed to say something but it wouldn't come out.
“This would be done in playhouses and everything,” McKay explained. “Pete would have his own balcony and minions.”
“Storyhouses,” Ronon corrected. “For big scenes the entire audience would be involved. And only the storyteller knows what happens next.”
“Jack needs to hear about this,” Carter said.
“Oh god no,” Sheppard said. He hid underneath his sandwich, not even reacting when Ronon stole it and ate it. “Don't tell him about this.”
“Why not?” Carter asked.
“I'll never live it down.”
“Jack played a half-orc barbarian named Berry for a year and a half,” Carter said, completely deadpanned. She ignored the snort and the painful-sounding coughing next to her. It turned into a wheeze as McKay stopped choking on his sandwich and stared, open-mouthed and speechless.
Sheppard did not look any less disturbed by this statement. “Jack O'Neill,” he clarified. “General O'Neill. Played this game. As a half-orc barbarian named...”
“Berry,” Carter confirmed. “Berry had the most annoying plot-armor imaginable: giant tits and a chainmail bikini.”
She looked around the table. Interestingly enough McKay had recovered from trying to inhale his sandwich and was now grinning while pointing at Sheppard, as though he'd just proven something. Sheppard looked disturbed, his entire worldview shifting. Ronon was the only one unaffected by her statement, instead he was stealing sandwiches off of McKay's tray and stuffing them into pockets she didn't know he had.
It was to this tableau that Teyla entered the mess hall, cocked her head at the display, and came over to their table. “I appear to have missed Rodney proving Sheppard wrong?” she said as she sat down. She patted Sheppard's shoulder. “This is not the first time, John.”
McKay sat back, smug rolling off of him in waves. “I told you it didn't mean anything,” he said. “So I'm playing a girl. Doesn't say anything about me.”
“You're playing the closest thing Golarion has to a scholar,” Carter said. “You specialize in blowing stuff up.” She recognized McKay's character as a gender-switched version of himself. Not that she could talk, Charlie was her personified desire to stab people who deserved it. And Sheppard was... also playing himself to a certain degree, the version of himself he wanted most people to see. “You're playing what you know,” she finally said.
McKay's smug did not fall, at least not until he saw his empty tray. He glared at Ronon who returned one sandwich.
“Perhaps you'd like to join us?” Carter said to Teyla. “I know I've kind of co-opted them and...”
“I have little desire to act out a fiction,” Teyla said. “Athosians do not tell stories like yours. Our stories have a basis in history. This idea of inventing a story without purpose is strange to me. I am not comfortable with it.”
“Sorry,” Carter said.
“It is not your fault,” Teyla said. “It is something your people do to comfort each other. I understand.”
Sheppard felt a little guilty at her easy dismissal. He looked around the table. They were breaking for snacks and for Rowan to do 'GM prep stuff, you understand' for an hour. Maybe he should skip out on the second half of the game and spend the time with Teyla?
“I have agreed to a sparring session later today,” Teyla said. “Rodney, you did not tell me Dr. Kusanagi was such an expert with her weapon.”
“Kusanagi?” McKay asked, confused. “Miko Kusanagi? She has a weapon?”
“Yes, the bladed polearm she calls a 'naginata',” Teyla said. “She claims it is a traditional woman's weapon of her culture. It is delightful to spar with an expert of her caliber.”
Sheppard could tell he was being insulted. He decided to take the high road and sulk quietly even as Carter glanced at him and grinned. Fine then, he wouldn't skip out on the game to spend his Enforced Sunday with Teyla.
Besides, it sounded like they were finally going to be able to kill stuff. He was looking forward to that.
“How will you introduce me?” Zelenka asked.
Rowan gave him a knowing smirk. “Goblins take prisoners,” he said. “It's easy enough.”
Everyone else was gone for an hour. Rowan and Zelenka were alone in their corner of the game room. The poker game in the back had devolved into arguments over shifted stacks and stolen jellybeans and ended up with everyone eating their winnings out of spite. Now a new poker game was forming with Dr. Parrish dealing and stacks of miniature chocolate bars. The Monopoly game continued, having progressed to the 'disgruntled glares' stage. Airman Roberts sat in a corner with a board game box, grinning hopefully at people while gesturing to the box and the empty table around him in an attempt to acquire players.
“So you want to be a cleric?” Rowan said.
“Yes, I was looking at the gods,” Zelenka said. “This Mother of Monsters seemed interesting.”
“No,” Rowan said. “No for reasons.”
Zelenka didn't exactly pout. “There is this god of murder...”
Now Zelenka pouted. He looked back at the book. Most of these gods didn't interest him, they were too... wait... “What about this one?” he asked, pointing out the correct line. “The goddess of vengeance. And prostitutes.”
“You're already making this hard for me,” Rowan complained, sighing. “Yes, I'll allow you be a cleric of Calistria. No you can't be chaotic evil.”
“Now why would I do that?” Zelenka asked. He almost sounded sincere. Rowan wasn't fooled one bit.
Ace was getting tired. He knew if he was tired the others must be exhausted. Okay, maybe not Charlie, she seemed to be able to sneak and stab and lurk without ever losing stamina. But Mira...
She'd fallen back on minor spells and her crossbow, a sure sign that exhaustion was sapping her magic right out of her. They would need to rest soon. But they couldn't afford to retreat, not yet, not while the goblin leader lived.
The warrens outside were bad enough, short tunnels in spiny brambles that had felt like suicide. Too wet to burn, too thick to cut, too short to fight in. It was sheer luck that got them to the rope bridge to the main compound. Unfortunately the frontal assault left them with few options other than victory. Immediate victory.
But there were noises beyond this next door. Charlie listened at it, her face scrunched in confusion. “It's not goblins,” she said. “Someone's fighting in there.”
Before Ace could stop her she had the door open.
The large courtyard was open to the sky. Tenacious clumps of partially trampled grass grew fitfully in the hard-packed earth stained with blood. In the center a trio of goblin dogs circled a man with a shield and club, weapon raised as he swore and goaded the creatures. One lay dead behind him, its head bashed and bleeding.
Charlie jumped into the courtyard and threw a dagger, embedding it to the hilt in the spine of one of the goblin dogs. Ace rushed in. And then it was over.
The man fell to his knees, gasping from exertion. “Thank you... strangers...” he said. “I have prayed for the tools of my vengeance... And now you are here...”
Mira paused while trying to reload her crossbow. “I'm no tool,” she said. “I've been insulted.”
The man looked shocked. He bowed to her. “My apologies, my lady,” he said. “I have meant no insult.”
Mira had the feeling someone somewhere was laughing at her. The feeling faded quickly.
“I am Cela,” he said. “Devotee of the Lady Calistria.” He stood up. Cela looked like he'd lost most of his gear at some point in that he was wearing pants and not much else. He wielded a large stick as a club and a shield that was one size too small. He had tattoos but no proper holy symbol. His pointed ears marked him as a half-elf.
Meanwhile, Mira was investigating a barred door in the back of the courtyard. It seemed to lead to a shed that was vibrating with barely controlled anger.
“Bad idea,” Charlie called. Mira ignored her and lifted the bar. She opened the door.
“Mira!” Ace shouted but she was already inside.
The expected sounds of dismemberment did not happen. Ace crept forward, in some loud manner of creeping, and drew his sword. He jumped in front of the door, weapon ready to rescue Mira from...
Ace's shoulders fell and he sheathed his weapon. “Are you sure you're not a druid?” he demanded.
Inside the shed the goblins had imprisoned a gigantic horse. It was thin and panting, its gray coat ticked with white, its giant hooves wreathed with fur. Mira was feeding the thing apples from Desna knows where, apples the gigantic horse ate daintily from her hands.
Mira gave him a look. Ace could have sworn the horse looked as unimpressed as she did.
Charlie looked at the horse, remembering the rickety rope bridge between Thistletop and the mainland, the dense warren of thickets, the fact that the courtyard was surrounded by buildings too small for a heavy warhorse of this size. “How?!” she demanded.
Carter fixed Rowan with a glare that clearly called bullshit. Meanwhile McKay ate another apple while Sheppard made faces at him. Zelenka was the only who didn't seem affected by the ridiculousness of that particular encounter.
“There's a secret to that rope bridge,” Rowan said, justifying himself to Carter's glare. “It can be rigged to hold a lot more than it looks. It's less stupid than it seems.”
Carter sat back, continuing to give him a sidelong glare.
“There's a second storage shed off of the courtyard,” Rowan said, turning to the other players. “Cela's stuff is in there. You have your holy symbol again and you can cast spells.”
“Great, we need a cleric,” McKay said between bites. “We got beat up getting in here.”
“Are you going to be eating an apple every time we find a horse?” Sheppard asked.
“Should I not?”
Sheppard couldn't find an answer to that.
“I will do this... ah, yes, 'channel positive energy',” Zelenka said. He rolled the indicated dice. “Everyone heals five points.”
“It's something,” Carter said. “We might get through this.”
Cela was proving to be a more capable fighter than Mira, although he had little to no talent for wanton destruction. And Cela had the presence of mind to go into battle wearing armor, unlike the wizard. Mira had explained it once, something about armor interfering with the complex patterns and delicate energies needed to conjure the power needed to cause a goblin's head to explode at 30 paces. Ace wasn't sure why she wore all those skirts and scarves, then. Surely they interfered just as much?
Regardless, they fought their way through Thistletop to the locked doors of the goblin's throne room. Charlie made quick work of the locks and then they were in. Ace had his sword drawn ready to take down the little monsters, Charlie had knives at the ready, and Cela had a spiked bullwhip at the ready.
“Stop!” The voice had the toothy annoying quality of a goblin but the words it spoke were Taldane.
The throne room was exactly as disgusting as Ace thought a goblin throne room would be. The 'throne' was a heap of pelts and skulls, a large horse skull over the back. Pillars studded with iron spikes held up the ceiling, human hands dangling from some of those spikes. Large skins covered the walls, only somewhat preserved as leather. The entire place had a distinct stench of goblin and decay.
On that throne sat a tiny thing, teeth filed to points and chunks ripped from its ears. A guard or adviser or both stood nearby, a giant lizard lay curled up in a corner sleeping.
The goblin leader stood up. It wasn't Ace's imagination, the leader was somewhat shorter than the others. “You have not earned the right to approach me, for I am Ripnugget, warchief of the Thistletop goblins and you! You are trespassers here in my domain. You steal my things, you take my trophies, you kill my people! You, longshanks, have much to answer for.”
Charlie glanced up while this self-styled 'warchief' was talking. She saw movement in the shadows of the ceiling. She looked at the others but no one else seemed to have noticed. She knew Elven, one and a half of her companions were elves, surely one of them would understand...
“Ceiling,” she whispered in Elven.
Cela's ears twitched as he heard the rustle above them. He winked at Charlie.
“You!” Ripnugget shouted, pointed at Mira. “Veiled one, you look like you understand the value of parley over battle. You may approach. No one else, you! Alone, you!”
Mira sighed. “Fine,” she said.
“Bad idea,” Charlie warned.
“I know,” Mira muttered. She didn't even have any magical protection, not since her scroll had run its course.
“Ceiling,” Cela whispered in Elven.
Ace craned his head up even as Charlie and Cela both winced.
“Now!” Ripnugget shouted.
“Mira!” Ace shouted. He'd seen the ambush above them, the bows all trained on her. She looked up just in time to see them.
Ace charged right into Mira, knocking her to the ground as the arrows flew down. He felt fiery pain as one of them found its mark.
And then everything happened at once. Charlie threw knives into the rafters, Cela flicked the tongue of his bullwhip to wrap around a goblin's ankle while he swung the creature as a weapon in and of itself. Mira struggled beneath Ace, hands shoving at his shoulders. Ace slowly painfully got to his feet, picked up his sword, and raised it as the goblin warchief mounted the sleeping lizard, hitting it with the butt of his weapon until it awoke.
Ripnugget spurred the lizard on, charging at the fighter and his precious wizard.
Mira stood up. Wrath rolled from her in waves as she pulled a card from her harrow deck, screaming Thassalonian obscenities at the charging goblin and then...
A bright flash of light, a riotous spray of color...
The lizard tripped in its charge, twisting and curling as it fell. Its rider did not fare much better as he went slack, sliding out of the saddle and landing on the floor of the throne room.
The room went quiet. Only Mira's furious hissing breaths broke the silence. Then sound descended again as the battle ended quickly. Charlie and Cela took to stripping the bodies of their valuables, quietly arguing over who should get what. Mira looked at her harrow deck, Baba Rann's prophecy cards, and the card she'd pulled in anger. In readings the Peacock was a card of beauty frozen in time, of swift societal change. Today the glare of the cockatrice had sapped her enemies of all strength and will with a splash of color. The spell Color Spray was in her spellbook but she hadn't prepared it. She'd never even used it before. Yet here were the results, the goblin's warchief laying on the floor in a pool of his own blood where his throat had been slit without fuss or bother, his riding animal dead beside him.
She heard a commotion and all introspection fell away, given over to laughter. Ace had been shot during the ambush. The short shaft of a goblin's arrow still stuck out of his ass.
The entire table was laughing at him. Sheppard made a face. “Just for that I'm taking all the pickles,” he said.
“The goblin pickles?” Carter asked. “You can have 'em.”
“Eugh.” McKay made a face to accompany the sound. “They have smoked side of Boromir in there, not interested.”
“Nerd,” Sheppard said.
McKay looked affronted. “Well then I guess I won't invite you to blow stuff up with me,” he said, sniffing.
“In or out of character?” Sheppard asked.
“Either. Pete made a bad batch of C4 and I was going to dispose of it properly but...”
Sheppard looked to Rowan for confirmation. “It was a bad batch,” Rowan admitted. “Didn't come out right. Safest thing to do is take it out onto the mainland and blow it up.”
That was confirmation enough. He nudged McKay with his shoulder. “I'll bring beer,” he offered.
McKay seemed to consider the offer. His eyes betrayed him. “Good beer,” he said. “None of this American water.”
Sheppard grinned hopefully at Rowan. “Yes, I'll get you the good stuff,” Rowan said, voice dull as though this was some extreme effort on his part. As though he didn't have his own private stock for barter, excuse, and emergency.
Sheppard sat back, smug and satisfied. He was going to get to blow stuff up with McKay. Better yet, since this was an official disposal of dangerous explosive chemicals he could claim this was a part of his actual job. Carter was right here not objecting and everything.
“Fire in the hole!”
A muffled FOOM and a puff of dirt betrayed the charge of poorly mixed C4 as it was destroyed, consumed in the fire of a proper RDX charge.
The jumper sat on the edge of the treeline, far from the field that by now was pocked with nearly a dozen small holes. Pete's 'bad batch' was not particularly large but it was being broken down into small charges for 'safety' and each charge set up and set off individually. Near the jumper, downwind from the flying dust, Ronon and Teyla sat around a fire with these strange tubular 'hot dogs' roasting on sticks. A bag of marshmallows sat nearby although those looked like they might not make it to nightfall and the traditional time for roasting as Teyla kept eating them by the handful.
At the edge of the field sat a cooler of beer, a brick of RDX, and a plastic bucket filled with what Peter Rowan assured them was an imperfect C4 mix. It seemed strange for Pete to mix a bad C4 batch but it had to happen eventually. McKay used rubber gloves and a lack of common sense to shape the C4 mix into a new charge while Sheppard hooked up a new detonator to the small charge of RDX that would be used to blow the C4.
A new spot in the field was chosen, the collection assembled, and then the pair returned to a safe distance.
“Fire in the hole!” Sheppard shouted.
A shower of dirt sprayed in the air and splattered on the ground, the various small craters, and the pair who gleefully watched. They seemed to be giggling.
Teyla rolled her eyes and stole another handful of marshmallows. Half the bag was empty. “I am glad they are enjoying each other's company in this world,” she said.
Ronon raised an eyebrow and tried to take the bag of marshmallows from her.
She snatched it away, holding it close. “I know you enjoy their fictional world,” she said. “But it is fiction. It is better that they live here rather than there.”
“It's just Enforced Sundays,” Ronon said. “Nobody's living in it. Colonel Carter says it's healthy to be someone else sometimes.”
Teyla made a humming noise, perhaps of disapproval. Or maybe of dismissal. Or maybe it was an order for Ronon to get her more marshmallows. “Did she say why that is?”
“Fire in the hole!”
Ronon picked up the stick of a roasting hot dog. It was charred black from the flames, split and weeping juices. It didn't seem to have any internal anatomy... He bit into it anyway.
In the field Sheppard and McKay built another bomb as the great orange sun sank low on the horizon.
Night fell in the fields outside of Sandpoint. The lights of the town glittered behind them. Here, under the moonlight, Ace watched and giggled while Mira drunkenly flung charges of magic into the fields, charges that exploded with flashes of fire and lightning and color.
She cackled, laughing manically at her own power. She leaned against him, leaned so much they fell to the grass laughing.
Ace reached for the bottles of wine they'd liberated from the tavern. Their glasses were elsewhere, maybe back inside? No matter. He handed her a bottle, keeping another for himself. It tasted like honey and flowers.
Mira looked at him under thick eyelashes, blue eyes clear in the moonlight. He wondered what she saw, if she could see what he did. He wondered if he could show her.
“Hey,” Ace whispered. “What is it?”
Mira laid her head on his chest and sighed. “Nothing,” she said. She nuzzled his tunic, it still smelled like the lining of his breastplate. They both needed a bath, there was no way they didn't still smell like Thistletop. “Just... thinking.” She yawned.
Ace let his hand rest on her back as he took a swig of wine. He felt her arms curl around him as...
“Mira?” Ace asked. She didn't answer, instead groaning as she stuffed her face into his chest. She'd fallen asleep.
Ace smiled. He petted her hair as she slept. It had been a long dungeon, she needed sleep. And the night was beautiful.
Mira pounded on the door of the room. The noise echoed in the inn's hallway. She could almost hear the voices on the other end of the hall's many doors grumbling about the time. It was early, what's the ruckus, tell the witch to go back to sleep... She didn't pay attention, pounding harder. “Ace!” she shouted. “Get up! This is important!”
The door unlocked and unlatched. Ace stood there, dark hair in disarray, eyes half shut, shirt missing. At least he wore pants. “What is it?” he asked, yawning.
Mira still held her fist up as though to continue pounding. “I didn't think elves slept,” she said.
“'S a myth,” Ace said. “Why am I awake?”
It took a moment for her brain to kick back in. By the time it had her mind was back to screaming at her about the urgency of horrible recent events. “The Crows is missing,” she said.
“Crows.” Ace leveled her with a sleepy glare. “There's crows missing. It's night, I'm sure they'll fly back in later.”
“No no no, not birds,” Mira said, trying to get him to understand. “The Crows! The cards aren't complete! How am I supposed to read if the cards aren't complete?”
Ace obviously didn't understand the importance of this development. Mira debated trying to make him understand but Charm Person would be rude. And she didn't have it prepared. The cleric did, though, Cedric or Seela or whatever his name was. “I have to talk to the cleric,” she said, running off down the hall.
Ace debated going back to bed. But if he did that she'd get even weirder. So he followed her as she ran down the hall to Cela's room.
She didn't even knock, she didn't have to. Cela's door was unlocked. He was also... occupied.
Cela was wide awake and so was the barmaid in his lap. She tried to cover herself from the sudden intrusion, hands going to her breasts, but Cela merely thrust deeply into her, making her moan while he turned sultry eyes on Mira.
“I'll wait,” Mira said, leaving. She shut the door behind her.
Calistria was a lustful goddess, the lady of prostitutes and wanton passion. Vengeance came with that portfolio, born of the same hot passion that fueled affairs and one-night stands. It made sense that a cleric of Calistria would seek to honor his goddess by bedding a barmaid.
Ace walked up, almost awake. “Thought you needed to see the cleric,” he said sleepily.
“He's in the middle of 'midnight prayers',” Mira said. “Don't want to interrupt.”
Ace gently pushed her off the door and walked in. It took a moment for him to realize what he was seeing and then Ace was wide awake. “Oh holy fuck!”
Sam Carter nearly fell out of her chair laughing.
McKay was not much better. First he fell against Sheppard while laughing. Then Sheppard shoved him over and McKay actually fell out of his chair. He didn't seem to notice or mind, choosing instead to lie on the floor laughing.
Rowan had his head down on the table. It did not muffle his own laughter even as he tried to pull himself together so he could salvage the game.
It took Sheppard a moment to realize what he'd said. Then he grew red and tried to hide behind his hands.
Zelenka, on the other hand, was managing to maintain an air of indignance despite the situation. “You are an elf,” he said with an imperiousness that made Carter clutch at the table and her own belly. “You know the duties of a priest of Calistria.” Zelenka's expression changed with ominous slowness to a mighty leer. “If you are going to interrupt my prayers you might as well join. It would do you good.”
Sheppard scootched away, taking over McKay's chair. McKay was on the floor, he wouldn't miss it.
“Five... minute break...” Rowan muttered.
Sheppard didn't trip over his own feet, honest, he must have tripped over McKay. He didn't go far, only to the table where Ronon sat watching them with a bowl of snacks.
McKay sighed and clawed his way back to his chair. He sat, panting and gasping. A glance at Carter, who was similarly less than hinged put him back into giggling.
“They're good at this,” Ronon said.
Sheppard gave Ronon a wary look.
“It's in the game,” Ronon said. “It's not in real life.”
At the table Zelenka leaned over, laying his head on the table next to the other players'. “Are you done?” he asked innocently.
Carter snorted before managing to hold in her mirth and sat up. “I'm okay,” she said. “I'm okay.”
McKay laid on the table and sighed happily. A few minor chuckles escaped him before he bottled it away and sat up, his red cheeks and breathlessness the only sign he'd been laughing at all.
“The way I figure, Pete's not really interested in McKay,” Ronon said. “He just acts like it when he has to play Foxglove. Same way, Dr. Z isn't interested in you like that. He's just acting like it because his character's a whore.”
“Hey,” Carter warned.
“Is not inaccurate,” Zelenka allowed.
Carter glared at Rowan who pretended not to notice.
“You can flirt without meaning it,” Ronon said. “It's what they're doing.”
Sheppard thought about it. He was still thinking about it when Rowan got control of the table again and called everyone back.
Mira's room looked ransacked. Ace forgot his flustered state as his blood ran cold. Had she been in here when the thief did this? What had they taken?
Charlie looked out the window, checking the sill and the street below. There were some faint marks but she couldn't tell how old they were. This room was on the second floor, a convenient slope of the lower floor's roof just there within easy jumping distance. She shuddered. This room wasn't secure at all. “Someone broke in and did all this?” she asked.
“What? Oh, no, I did most of this.”
Ace stopped in the middle of putting the straw mattress back on the bedframe and gave her an exasperated look. He dropped the mattress on the frame with a grand gesture of distinct frustration.
“What?” Mira demanded. She pulled a deck of cards out of her scarves and jumped on the mattress. She folded her legs below her and spread the cards out before her.
“Is that... are they real?” Cela asked. His eyes were wide and he looked afraid to touch.
“They were my Baba Rann's,” Mira said. “They're older than she was. Older than our wagons.” She looked sad, gazing at something or some time no one else could see. “She gave them to me. With her last breath.”
Cela looked like he was gazing at some terrible, wonderful thing. Ace wondered what these cards were to elicit such a response.
“Are they magic?” Charlie asked.
“They're my magic,” Mira said. “They wouldn't work for anyone else.” She pointed to an ominous gap in the cards. “The Crows is missing. I searched everywhere for it, tore this room apart to find it, and it's not here. I read for a man downstairs earlier and I had the Crows then. I checked them afterward and I had the Crows then. I went to sleep and I had the Crows then. I had a nightmare, Desna was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't, I couldn't stop it, and when I woke up the Crows was gone.”
Only then did Ace realize this might mean something more than the loss of just some card. Perhaps it was the utter seriousness that Cela displayed despite barely wearing his small clothes. Or maybe it was the gentle way he sat across from her on the bed, carefully stopping himself from even touching the cards without permission.
Charlie had the same sense of dread. “You can stay in my room,” she offered. “This one is too open, the window isn't secure.”
“Thank you,” Mira said. She looked like she was about to cry.
Cela gently touched her arm. “They are your cards,” he said. “They can tell you who took the Crows.”
Mira nodded. She spread the cards out further and pulled out the eight cards of the suit of keys. There should have been nine but the Crows was a card of the suit of keys. She overturned the eight cards and swirled them around, eyes falling closed in something between relaxation and concentration. A sense of magic so strong it made Ace's hair stand on end filled the room as she pulled a single overturned card and revealed it.
“The Rabbit Prince,” she said, voice subdued. “It's useless, my skills won't find it.”
“Desna wouldn't do that to you,” Cela whispered. He moved to sit behind her, his hands gently stroking her shoulders, her arms. She didn't move away or toward his touch, instead seeming to accept it. “Continue. You may not find it but perhaps you will find the one who will.”
Mira took a deep breath and nodded as she collected the cards together and shuffled them, delicate hands working expertly against the ancient waxed paper. Despite their age the cards were bright and vibrant, their colors as pure as the day they were painted. But there was no way to know their age, nothing but vague caravan tales.
She closed her eyes, flipped over nine cards in a grid, and then opened her eyes. She wasn't done. Her fingers gently touched each card, pulling some out of the spread and replacing them in the deck. The Uprising, the Waxworks, the Dance, and the Sickness all returned to her deck, unread.
“I've never seen one of these before,” Charlie said, watching from the window.
“The Rabbit Prince is the guide card,” Mira explained. “He's struggle personified, the second son left untitled, his broken sword represents the capriciousness of battle. There is no victory against the unending struggle. Bravery, skill, luck, all are useless against him.”
She ran her fingers down the cards that remained in the spread before her. “The Tangled Briar and the Rakshasa,” she said. “These events did not begin recently. This is something from some ancient past come back to haunt us. It's already done terrible things, enslaved the weak to its will.
“The Demon's Lantern,” she continued. She pointed back to the Rakshasa. “This enslavement continues even now. There is great evil at work and we will all suffer for it as we grope through darkness for an answer none can see.”
She pointed to the last two cards. “The Survivor and the Beating.” She shuddered. “Absolute loss... and eventual recovery from that loss. That is a faint comfort.”
“Destruction of this 'great evil'?” Ace asked.
“Not without sacrifice,” Mira said. The Survivor was a solemn card, a single wounded knight on a throne surrounded by his worldly treasures and the ghosts of his fallen comrades. It contrasted with the darkly comical tableau of the Beating, a screaming man being dragged underground by thirteen undead hands.
There was a knock on Mira's door.
Charlie ducked into shadows and palmed her daggers, ready to throw them. Ace realized he wasn't carrying his weapon, instead he cracked his knuckles and helped himself to Mira's crossbow. Cela patted her shoulders and stood up to get the door, his holy symbol hanging visibly from his neck. He put on an air of elven detachment and opened the door.
The entire room... fell out of battle-readiness as Sheriff Hemlock stood there, looking exhausted and haggard.
“What's wrong?” Cela asked. “It is not yet daylight.”
“This can't wait until morning?” Ace asked, tossing the crossbow back into its corner and scratching his bare torso. He yawned though it seemed exaggerated.
“It cannot,” Hemlock said. “This is a situation of utmost seriousness.”
“Murder,” Mira said. She held up the Rakshasa and raised an eyebrow. A crocodile-headed man leered smugly from the card where he sat on the back of a naked slave while daintily drinking tea.
Hemlock looked shocked that she knew about it. Then his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he said. “We have a murderer in our midst – one who, I fear, has only begun his work. This town nearly tore itself apart during the Late Unpleasantness when the Chopper's slayings went on unanswered. I'm afraid we might have something similar brewing now.
“A few hours ago the murderer struck at the sawmill. There are two victims and they're... they're in pretty gruesome shape. The bodies were discovered by one of the mill workers, a man named Ibor Thorn. I've got my men stationed there now, keeping the mill locked down, but the thing that bothers me isn't the fact that we have two dead bodies. It's the fact that this is actually the second set of murders we've had in the last few days.
“I come to you for help in the matter. My men are good but they're also green. They were barely able to handle themselves against the goblins and what we're facing now is an evil far worse than that. I need the help. But I'm afraid you'll need the help, too. You see, this particular murderer knows one of you as well.”
Hemlock pulled a folded piece of parchment out of his coat. He unfolded it to reveal a smaller bloodier scrap of parchment with Mira's name scrawled on it in blood.
Mira waved the others away from Hemlock and his twisted bloody note. Without getting up from her perch on the bed she gestured for the note to come closer. Hemlock moved to give it to her but started and scowled as the note went without him, gently floating into her hands. She unfolded the note to find its blood-lettered contents.
“You will learn to love me,” she said, voice dull with an odd lack of surprise. “You will desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to the Pack and it all shall end.” She turned dark unreadable eyes to the sheriff. “Signed Your Lordship.”
“The note was found pinned to the sleeve of the latest victim,” Hemlock said. “It's my belief this note was left to throw suspicion onto your friend here. While I don't believe any of you had anything to do with the murders, well, your friend here is a Varisian, a sorceress, and a fortune teller.” He glanced at the cards before her. She sat up straight and seemed to dare him to say something. He did, but not what she was expecting. “If word of this note gets out the rest of the town might not be so... understanding. I trust you'll agree, this needs to be kept quiet.”
“Of course,” Charlie said, stepping forward to guide the sheriff out of Mira's room. Her fingers twitched as her hand went to the small of his back. “We'll get on this right away. But first we need to get the cleric some pants, you understand.” She smiled and nodded and got him out the door. Then she tossed the coins she'd lifted from the sheriff's beltpurse to Mira. “In the meantime you're staying in my room.”
“Good idea,” Mira said. The bloody note was a poor substitute for her missing Crows.
McKay glared. He glowered. He growled. Through it all, the subject of his ire grew more and more sinister, taking on a wide grin and low hiss that only added to Rowan's ubiquitous eyepatch. Rowan leaned forward, hands steepling in front of him, grin deepening as he said those words that had seemed so innocent at the time.
“But Rodney... I have permission.”
McKay's anger drained into horrified realization.
Rowan leaned back and laughed, evil laughter that caused the rest of the game room to take notice. The poker game in the back paused, Parrish holding the river card in the middle of the deal. The game of Clue paused mid-turn, the marines around it all looking like they were suddenly faced with a real murder. Even Dr. Tomson in the back stopped painting long enough to put her glasses on to see what was up.
“Kind of a dick move,” Carter warned.
“I can be kind of a dick GM,” Rowan admitted. “After the first session I knew he was skilled enough to handle it. And that he wouldn't punch me.”
McKay's horror faded under the smugness of an ego-stroking.
“No, but Sheppard will punch you,” Zelenka warned. “He already has in metaphor.”
“Wait, that guy...” Sheppard sat back in something akin to awe as he realized Foxglove was the murderer. The whole thing from the previous book was setting up this murder case. And he couldn't let that knowledge alter how his character would act. Yes, he could see where the urge to punch Rowan would come in. He looked over at McKay and saw he'd made the same realization.
“All right, none of us know Foxglove did it,” Carter said. “Let's get this train wreck going.”
A growing crowd collected around the sawmill with the rising sun. City guards stood at the doors, barring access to all but those with permission to be there. The rest had to make due with craning their necks and maybe bribing a halfling to sneak around back.
Inside was the gruesome scene hinted at by the town crier. Machinery sat idle, toothed gears frozen even as the waterwheel continued turning merrily in the stream below. Sawdust splashed with blood and disturbed by a desperate struggle coated the plank floor. A log splitter loomed ominously on one wall, the body of a woman in several pieces on the floor among bloodstained firewood. The sight was stomach-churning but it didn't have the same impact as the man nailed to the wall.
The body of Banny Harker hung limp from the long nails used to hang him in place. The arms were nailed at the hands, the wrists, and the shoulders, the legs dangling free. His jaw was removed, his face clawed off to reveal the bare muscle and bone beneath. His shirt was torn open, sleeves dangling from his arms while his bare chest bore some sort of mark. The mark was not one he bore in life, or at least he had not been alive for long after its carving. The instrument that made this mark was sharp, all the better to make clean, neat, visible slices in the skin.
Mira went still, her breath falling and her face hardening in something almost like cold resignation. She knew that symbol, the seven pointed star.
Cela busied himself with examining the wounds, splaying his own hand against the claw marks on the body to show how they were made with disturbingly human-like hands. Ace followed the footsteps around the room, feet dancing lightly in a reenactment of the struggle that had been this man's last defense. It was Charlie who noticed Mira as she pulled a necklace out from her blouse. She hadn't owned it long, she'd looted it from the caverns beneath Thistletop, but it was the same symbol.
“Mira?” Charlie asked.
“It's the Sihedron,” Mira said. “It's an ancient symbol of Thassilon. The seven schools of magic.”
“There are eight specialties of arcane magic,” Cela said. He paused in his examination and looked at her. She did not look well. Not ill, but not well.
Mira shook her head. “Divination is a modern specialty,” she said. “The ancients thought everyone should know a little bit of divination. It was considered foolish to specialize in something so mundane.”
Ace stopped acting out the murder and noticed the strange tableau unfolding before the body. He came up behind Mira and lightly touched her arm. “Hey, you all right?” he asked.
“No,” Mira said. She tucked her medallion back inside her blouse. “No I'm not.”
The body of Harker hung on the wall, jawless skull mocking them with its silence.
“You planned for me to pick up that amulet,” McKay accused.
“I did not,” Rowan said gleefully. “Any one of you could have picked it up. You're just the only one who knows what it is. Good roll, by the way.”
“Hmm? Oh, thanks.” It took McKay a moment to register the deflection. “Don't change the subject. You planned this!”
Rowan laughed evilly. It did not help his case one bit. “I didn't, I swear, but I am willing to use circumstances to my advantage.”
“Mercilessly,” Carter said.
The game session had reached a natural ending at the reveal of the first corpses. The next session would begin next Enforced Sunday with the sheriff bringing up all the little tidbits of information he couldn't say because the group wasn't following the adventure book with arbitrary exactness.
McKay left to get food, Sheppard following close behind. Zelenka thanked Rowan for a good game and left, claiming he had an 'experiment' he needed to run. Rowan supposed 'I have to distill or we'll run out of Jumper Fuel' was an experiment, nobody knew what the military would do if their rotgut dried up. Nobody wanted to know.
Carter stayed behind, feet up on the chairs next to her. She waited until the room had returned to their normal activities. The game of Clue had finished long ago, replaced by Airman Roberts and his successful attempt to get a game of Arkham Horror running. The gambling in the back was finished, Parrish and Lorne playing a two-man card game at the table instead. Dr. Tomson was stretching in all sorts of strange bendy ways that did not look healthy.
“Something on your mind, Colonel?” Rowan asked.
“You could say that,” Carter said. She stood up once Rowan was all packed up. “Walk with me.”
Rowan followed her out of the game room. They didn't take the direct route to the transporter at the end of the third hall. Instead they headed further out along the North-East Pier toward the Banned Balconies, an infamous collection of balconies without intact railings or windows.
“You need to tread carefully,” Carter warned. “McKay is much less together than he seems.”
“There's a lot about him I don't know,” Rowan said. “Oh, sure, he'll talk your ear off about himself but none of it means anything. It's rare that he lets anything important slip and when he does...” He trailed off, not wanting to think about some of the things he'd heard.
“You see what I mean,” Carter said.
The Banned Balconies blew salt air into the hallway. The view here was spectacular, the large gibbous moon visible above the horizon despite the daylight.
“You remember your first character,” Carter said.
Rowan smiled as he remembered. “I was an AD&D wizard in the 90s,” he said. “We ended up trapped in a mushroom demiplane because the DM didn't want to run the game anymore. That was a short game.”
“But you remember it,” Carter said. “I was a 3rd edition ranger named Fletch. Archer. Lieutenant Franklin ran the game until...” She didn't have to say it. Lieutenant Franklin had walked through the gate as part of SG-8 and never come back. “This is McKay's first character.”
“None of them have played before,” Rowan said. "All of them are on their first characters."
“Sheppard's playing a self-insert,” Carter said. “Zelenka's playing to get something out of his system. McKay's put together a whole backstory with a family he never had, a history he never appreciated, and a mastery of the world he's always wanted.”
Rowan leaned against the wall. “Is this a plea not to kill Mira?” he asked.
Carter leaned against the wall next to him. “A bit,” she admitted. “Moreso, it's a friendly warning. Watch where you step. Remember why he's never played before.”
Rowan stared out into the rising moon. Later in the night its mate would rise after it, ten degrees to the south, a pale crescent in resonance with its closer friend.
Friends. Without the outer moon the inner would loop around and crash into the planet's Roche limit. Without the inner the outer would spiral away into deep space. Together, along with the Unseen Moons, orbits were kept in check. Pete Rowan was a chemist but he knew enough about orbitals to make the metaphor work. Nobody wanted McKay to spiral into certain doom or to fling himself away to lonely nothingness. They needed him to keep the city running. No other CSO would have approved of Rowan's extracurricular chemical production in exchange for a cut of the product. McKay kept Sheppard from getting serious.
Serious was bad out here.
“I'll see what I can do,” Rowan allowed. “But I'm not letting up. He'd notice and he'd be rightfully insulted.”
“Fair enough,” Carter said.
I used to have a Harrow deck and would use it for in-game divination. In the hands of an experienced RL diviner they're fairly accurate for predicting what a Paizo adventure is going to do :P I left it behind when I escaped my ex's place with the contents of a backpack. The reading here was one I put together, I assume it was Pete's doing.
Chapter 7: The Demon's Lantern
The Deadalus was in port and Colonel Carter was stuck in her office coordinating. Major Lorne was on the East Pier handling the supply offloads, Dr. McKay was supposed to finishing any last minute experiments to prep them for their journey to Earth, Colonel Sheppard was surely supervising something important and not just hiding from work, Dr. Keller was inventorying medical supplies, and she was here coordinating it all.
The Daedalus was on the ground and she was stuck in here. It wasn't fair. The Daedalus never landed on Earth, there was no way to maintain secrecy. She hadn't even got the chance to observe its assembly; Edgeworth Station was out in the Kuiper Belt where nobody would see, its orbit logged by the Hubble so it could be properly ignored by the various space observatories. She'd attended its christening but that was done in Earth orbit after its first Atlantis mission, hastily repaired battle scars still visible in the titanium alloy plating.
She'd seen it land once, only once, when the landing required her attention and the Daedalus was listing due to internal damage. Repairs took a week, a week where she'd spent every chance she got looking at the giant ship dwarfed by the Ancient city, sitting wounded and half-assembled on the open Pier. Jack understood why she volunteered so much of her time on the ship's repairs, time when she 'should' have been running the city. Atlantis was a well-oiled machine by this point, it ran well enough without her interference.
At least, until something went wrong.
A general alarm sounded through the gateroom. Personnel rushed around for half a second before calming down and watching the monitors. Not life-threatening then. Carter tapped at her laptop to bring up the past few incident reports. On average there were two or three of these minor alarms every week. Sometimes they were interesting. Usually they came out of the science department.
McKay would handle it.
His lab was on fire.
That was McKay's first thought as he heard the alarm sound in his ears and in his mind. Then he realized it was a small fire and it wasn't technically his lab, it was the second storage unit off of the main science lab. But it was his lab and things were on fire that shouldn't be.
Those thoughts ran through his head as decades of training kicked in. He forgot to drop his dry-erase marker, instead sticking it between his teeth to free up his hands as he reached for the big fire extinguisher. The thing weighed a ton but he hoisted it over his shoulder and thought the doors open as he jogged the three doors down to face the closed door of the second storage unit.
The door wouldn't open. He glared at it and commanded the city to open the damned door, insisting he had fire suppression equipment of sufficient caliber.
The door slid open and he ignored the sounds of coughing and choking coming from inside. Instead he sprayed down the electrical fire that had burned in what was once a perfectly serviceable Ancient electron microscope.
McKay's first thought now that the fire was out was one of angry frustration. Where was he going to find a desktop electron microscope now?! One that didn't require an entire building and self-contained vacuum chamber? One he could make marines lug into the field for him?
Then he turned on the two idiots who were in the room when the fire started.
He slowly reached up to pluck the dry erase marker from his teeth, holding it like a cigar as he glared at the two. These weren't scientists. These were military. He didn't recognize them. The Daedalus was berthed on the East Pier. This equipment had been scheduled to be loaded for transport to Earth. It all made sense.
It all made him very, very angry.
Sheppard ran up with a half dozen marines, fire gear at the ready. But the door to the alarmed area was open, the fire obviously wasn't raging out of control, the acrid stench of burnt wiring and suppression foam stung the eyes.
Instead the emergency appeared to be over. The dressing-downs had already begun.
“--the most insipid, idiotic thing I've seen this week! You do not have permission to be in here, what the fuck were you on?! Neither of you hosers have the slightest clue where you even are, do you!”
Sheppard winced as a victim within decided to defend himself. He heard a vague 'bu--' that was cut off by an impressive-sounding clang. That got Sheppard moving; if there were weapons involved...
“You! Shut up! I don't care what drivel you think your commanding officer said, this area is restricted! Which you'd know if either of you could read.”
Sheppard caught a glimpse of the room. The storage unit was pretty well demolished. The fire's damage was difficult to gauge, that would require cleaning the unit from the absolute mess caused by zealous overuse of the fire extinguisher. Two men stood in the middle of it, their uniforms trashed under a thick film of fire retardant. Piles of pale purple foam obscured the room, the damage, the men's feet... McKay stood before them, fire extinguisher resting on his shoulders. In one hand he held a dry-erase marker like a cigar, waving it about as he kept ranting.
“Your orders, or I assume these were your orders since they were the orders Caldwell forwarded to me, were to wait until my science team had everything ready! Then you were to stand around looking pretty while we did all the work! You utter plebes couldn't even manage that! Did you flunk basic training? Is the Daedalus staffed by semi-trained monkeys? Is the SGC sending us their flunkies because brainwashing your dumb asses is too expensive now? That's it, isn't it! The SGC sent you imbeciles here because letting prats like you die in the field is less paperwork than re-education! Well I would be happy to oblige but then I'd have to sweep your deaths under the rug and you are not worth my time.”
“Be nice,” Sheppard warned.
McKay turned on him and Sheppard regretted it. McKay clamped the dry-erase marker in his teeth and two-handed the fire extinguisher, dropping it at Sheppard's feet with an ear-splitting CLANG. He stood straight, slowly reaching up for the marker. He pulled it out of his mouth with a low dangerous sigh, still holding it like a cigar. “If Caldwell can't keep his dunces under control we will have to rethink the Daedalus's landing privileges.”
Sheppard knew then that something nice had been destroyed. “We'll talk to Caldwell about it,” he said. “Now let's just--”
McKay pointed at him with the marker. “You're not talking me down this time, Colonel,” he warned. “There were Nice Things in there. These empty-headed wastes of skin--”
“Rodney,” Sheppard said, not quite shouting.
“Fine,” McKay snapped. He stepped out of the storage unit and thought the doors closed.
The frantic pounding from within was somewhat satisfying.
Caldwell entered Carter's office with a file box in his hands. It did not seem like it was particularly light. He put the box on Carter's desk. “Your contraband, madam,” he said, oddly formal.
Carter grinned and ripped the tape off the box. She rifled through the contents, a collection of books, banned substances, a chocolate stash that rivaled McKay's, and best of all... She pulled the glass bottle of artificial lemon flavoring out of the box and hugged it before placing it on the floor where no one in the gate room could look up and see it.
Caldwell stood there looking like he was trying not to be amused.
“You'd be surprised what you miss out here,” she said. “I have been craving grapefruit for a month.”
“I'll let O'Neill know,” Caldwell said. “He kept suggesting orange flavor.”
Carter made a face. “Artificial orange, bleh. I'm not that desperate yet.” She opened the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a glass flask of Zelenka's Best. “And your contraband, sir,” she said, mirroring Caldwell's earlier formality.
Caldwell grinned and slipped the flask into a large pocket of his flight suit.
Both of their radios crackled. Caldwell's call seemed more sedate or at least there was less screaming than Carter's. She winced and shook her head once McKay was off the line.
“Fire in the second storage unit off the main lab,” she said.
“Already put out,” Caldwell confirmed. Sheppard had said as much.
“We should go rescue your men,” Carter said. “McKay was looking forward to some of the tech in unit two.”
“I was too,” Carter said darkly.
“Luckily no one was hurt,” Caldwell said. They both heard the 'yet' despite no one saying it.
“Let's get on it,” Carter said with a sigh. She hid her bottle of fake lemon flavor in the bottom desk drawer. Then she and Caldwell left to go rescue two Airmen from the wrath of McKay.
The game room seemed more crowded today. The Daedalus was in port, its departure delayed by the fire in the storage unit and the resulting need to enforce a Sunday before the science department decided something rash.
Sheppard was not looking forward to it. Maybe he should rethink today and offer to spar with Teyla. But she was pregnant and he didn't feel comfortable sparring with her, not when a bad hit might really damage her. Her insistence this wasn't a problem didn't help. Her quiet frustration with him wasn't helping either. Worse, she was right. He could feel a drift apart there, her impending motherhood causing him to change how he thought of her. It wasn't entirely his fault, at least he didn't think it was. It was just...
This was easier. Even if this did mean he would be sitting within strangling reach of three fuming scientists, all of whom had been dipping into a bottle of Zelenka's Decent. The bottle was right there on the table under the watchful rationing eye of Pete Rowan, who as a chemist was not fuming, he was merely angry on principle.
There had been Nice Things in that storage unit.
“Let's get started,” Rowan said as Sheppard sat down.
Mira held her scarf over her face. She tied it tight and whispered a spell to keep the air around her clear of stench.
The sacrifice at the sawmill had not been the first.
“No one in this town has access to Gentle Repose?” she asked.
Sheriff Hemlock gave her an annoyed look. “Father Zantus has more important things to attend to than your delicate sensibilities,” he said.
Mira gave him a look that said she was not amused.
Ace wasn't amused either. It made sense to him that preserving the bodies against decay would have made finding clues easier. This storage basement was cool despite the lingering heat of early autumn upstairs, but it was not cool enough to preserve against rot.
Cela didn't seem to mind as he handled the bodies with his bare hands, splaying his hands against the same claw marks as before. The same Sihedron rune was visible on the bloated corpses, the carefully scored lines distorted by stretched skin.
“How long ago did they die?” Charlie asked.
“Three days,” Hemlock said.
“Their stench is more than three days' worth,” Cela said. “I agree, Gentle Repose would have been helpful. You could have come to us sooner. Calistria is always willing to avenge a murder.”
Hemlock scowled. He seemed to blame Mira for this. She smirked at him.
“Were there any witnesses?” Charlie asked.
“One but I wouldn't recommend it,” Hemlock said. “Two days ago a patrol of guards on the Lost Coast Road were assaulted by a deranged man near a barn on the banks of Cougar Creek. The man was obviously sick and insane, feverish, eyes wild, frothing at the mouth, caked in blood. The guards subdued him and checked out the barn.”
“These three,” Ace predicted.
“Correct,” Hemlock said. “They'd been dead at least a day by the smell. We identified them as Tarch Mortwell, Lener Hask, and Gedwin Tabe, known con men and swindlers.” He glanced at Mira. “I'm sure you're familiar with the type. I wasn't surprised to find them dead. It was only a matter of time before they tried to swindle someone worse than them. But given the mill and this 'Sihedron' rune...”
“You think they're connected,” Charlie said.
“It's possible,” Hemlock admitted.
“Where is this witness?” Ace asked. “Can we speak to him?”
The Saintly Haven of Respite was a squat stone building with a stone-flagged roof built under the lee of the Ashen Rise. Limestone cliffs ringed the sanatorium, blocking it from the gaze of the curious and the suspicious. Cela shuddered. He did not like this place.
He liked it less on the inside. The place stank of sour cleanliness, incense burning in every hallway. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the floors scrubbed clean, but that sour smell set Cela on edge.
Erin Habe, the esteemed doctor of this sanatorium, led them through the halls giving a vague yet pointless description of the workings here. The incense was meant to soothe deranged minds, the location was excellent because it allowed for the privacy and safety of the patients, Sandpoint offered such easy seclusion from the distractions of Magnimar. Of course, that meant difficult cases were rare. In fact, the sanatorium only had a handful of patients. Grayst Sevilla was a most interesting case. He'd witnessed murders most foul and the experience drove him completely insane. Habe couldn't possibly let anyone put themselves at risk by questioning Sevilla alone, of course not.
Cela rolled his eyes and allowed the doctor to insinuate himself into the situation.
The attic room was small yet so much bigger than it seemed it needed to be. Sevilla was curled up in a corner, wrapped up in a straitjacket.
“Mr. Sevilla, you have visitors,” Habe said cheerfully.
“Skinsaw...” Sevilla whispered. “Skinsaw, the skinsaw man, he's coming, he's coming he's coming he's--” Sevilla's eyes were wide, pale, bloodshot. But then he laid eyes on Mira. “You...”
“Interesting,” Habe whispered.
Sevilla fell forward on the floor of his cell, dragging himself forward on his elbows. A strange delight crossed his features as he crawled toward Mira. “You... It's you... It's... He said. He said he said he said! He said you would visit me. His Lordship. The one that... He unmade me... He said so... He has a place for you. A precious place. I'm so jealous. He has, he has a message for you. He made me remember it. I hope I... haven't forgotten. The master wouldn't approve if I forgot. Let me see... He said, he said if you came. If you came to his Misgivings, that if you joined his pack, he would end his harvest. In your honor.” He shuddered even as he fell on his face.
The attic room was far too small after all.
Sevilla ripped the straitjacket open from the inside, torn straps swinging free, and launched himself at Mira, laughing in his madness.
Mira raised her hands and shrieked in answer, anger bubbling out of her at this situation, at the sheriff showing himself to be a bigoted hypocrite, at this murderer and his obsession with her, all of it channeled into her magic. When Sevilla grabbed for her she slammed her hands onto his chest and let go. And then...
It was over.
Cela watched in fascination as Sevilla fell to the floor twitching, his flesh still burning where she'd touched him. He knelt next to the body. The man was still alive although he would not be for long. Not without healing magic. “Take Mira outside,” he said. “The doctor and I have something to discuss.”
Ace and Charlie left, not quite dragging Mira out with them. Cela and Habe were alone.
“This man will die without healing,” Cela said. “But then, you knew that already. His ghoul fever would ensure his death.”
Habe's expression was carefully neutral. “I did what I thought was best,” he defended. “Father Zantus doesn't have the power to cure this. This man's already insane. Why shouldn't I take the opportunity to study the disease before he died?”
“Quite pragmatic,” Cela said. “Immoral but sensible. I can appreciate that. Surely as much as you can appreciate his death was his own doing.”
“Your witch killed him,” Habe said.
“In self defense,” Cela said. “Surely you would have defended yourself. I see no crime here. From any angle.”
Habe smiled. “Neither do I, sir.”
Cela's grin seemed to know more than he let on. “Then perhaps he died of his fever. Such a shame. But now he can be at peace, perhaps with his sanity restored in death.”
“I'd never thought of that,” Habe said. “Would raising the dead result in restored sanity?”
“I have no idea,” Cela said. “But today is not the day to find out.”
The two men left the attic cell as the twitching man behind them seized and then lay still, his final breath rattling in the empty room.
The sanatorium door slammed open. Mira stormed out, her skirts in her hands. She ran down the steps until there was grass under her feet and the stench of sour clean was gone. She dropped her skirts, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sky.
Charlie stood on the sanatorium steps, shocked into silence. She looked at Ace and did her best to let him know she was going to stay out of this.
Ace must have taken the hint because he went after Mira, walking softly through the tall grass. Her red hair and blue-purple scarves blew free in the wind that tried and failed to carry her screams away from her. There were no words, only the unending sound of fury, frustration, the impotent fear of this murderer who taunted her into a twisted chase as she sought her own... death? Was that what the notes meant?
He waited until she ran out of breath, or maybe she'd just run out of sound. She slumped over, breathing deeply as she stared down at her hands.
Ace settled down in the grass next to her. Her scarves wrapped around him of the wind's accord. He reached out, slowly so she could pull away if she wanted, and took one of her hands in his. She leaned against him and wrapped his arms around her waist. She was shaking.
Ace held her close as the faint stench of a dead thing drifted along the wind.
Charlie watched them from the sanatorium steps. She was still watching when Cela came out of the building. He sat down next to her.
“The good doctor will not hinder us,” he said.
Charlie slowly turned to look at him. He seemed far too satisfied with himself for her comfort.
“We should return to town,” he said. “It is no longer safe out here at night.”
Charlie could agree with that.
The crowd at the Hagfish was smaller than normal. The place had a sense of anticipation, as though everyone were waiting for something bad to happen.
Mira was knocking back pints of beer at Ace's insistence. She wasn't quite sitting in his lap but it seemed the more she drank the closer she got to just that. Ace didn't seem to mind. In fact, his own efforts at drinking were rather awkward to accommodate the woman trying to use his chest as a pillow.
Charlie was trying to ignore the situation in the corner in favor of Quinn's story of how he lost his leg. This time he'd started with harpies and went on from there.
Cela was unconcerned with the story's twisted yarns. Instead he watched the corner where Mira kept trying to slide drunken hands underneath Ace's tunic while she nuzzled his neck. Ace, to his credit, was finally giving a sign that he wasn't made of stone.
And then it all shattered as the tavern door slammed open. A man in ripped clothes stood there, covered in mud and dripping with sweat and blood. His eyes were wild, his mouth forming words without sound.
The bar swung into action. The man was brought to a seat and given a drink for his nerves. Frantic patrons gathered around him, all wanting to know, all demanding answers, all shouting over each other.
Ace sighed, gently lifted Mira off of him, and stood on the table. “ENOUGH!” he bellowed.
The tavern went quiet and finally the man could be heard as he muttered words barely heard in the silence.
“Mumble mumble... scarecrow... scarecrow... mumble scarecrow...”
Mira picked herself off the bench where Ace laid her. She shook her head but the room didn't entirely stop spinning. Still, she had to get up. She knew those words. She stood up, staggering and weaving in a movement with a creepy rhythm to it. Her words did not help at all as she spoke the rhyme the man was trying to recite.
“Mumble Mumble Scarecrow alone in the maize. Sleeping in the daytime, a stitched man he stays.”
The man looked up in terror as Mira began to move with more deliberateness. It might have been a dance if the room wasn't slowly filling with dawning horror.
“But when the moon she rises, up Mumble gets. He shakes his hands at first and moves his feet the next.”
The man jointed in the recitation, his own terrified voice a creepy counterpoint to Mira's singsong rendition of the twisted rhyme.
“And when the dog is snoring, and when you're fast asleep, Mumble Mumble Scarecrow will find you good to eat.”
The man slumped onto the table as Mira twirled in the room, giggling like she'd gone mad. Ace jumped off the table and grabbed her, dragging her out of the tavern into the cool night air, away from the whispering and the pointing and the speculations.
Ace shoved Mira against the wall. “What's wrong with you?” he demanded.
Mira was still giggling. “It's a nursey... nursery rhyme,” she said. “My brother used to scare me wit' it when I was little. 'E's scared of a nursey... of a childrens' poem.”
“Mira, someone's trying to make you look responsible for murder,” Ace said. “You're not helping.”
Mira pouted. But the mirth was gone from her eyes.
“Someone's sacrificing people, Mira. You knew what the symbols mean. You knew the nursery rhyme. The murderer is leaving notes for you. Can't you see how bad this all looks?”
Ace felt terrible. She was shaking in his arms, she looked like she was about to cry. “Why are you still here?” she whispered.
“You're right,” she said. She couldn't look up anymore, eyes falling to the ground. “Someone's killing people and... and they want me. If I give myself up... it'll all stop.”
“No!” Ace put a hand under her chin and tilted her head up, forcing her to look at him. “You're not giving up. We'll stop this, Mira, I promise you. We'll put a stop to this and you'll be okay. You'll be just fine. I promise.”
She believed him.
Rowan gripped his chest in a grand gesture. “Ow my heart!” he cried.
“Calistria approooooves,” Zelenka said. Carter snorted and hid halfway under the table as she tried not to laugh.
The bottle of Zelenka's Decent was mostly empty. There were no cups on the table, only the bottle that had changed hands so often that nobody remembered who'd partaken and how much they'd each had.
The game room regulars had learned to ignore the table in the corner. Members of the Daedalus crew could be identified by the wide eyes they cast in the direction of the corner table where Sheppard realized he'd shoved McKay into chair and had one hand under his chin like they were about to do something scandalous. Sheppard pulled away as McKay blushed and reached for the bottle.
They'd all had a lot to drink.
Carter sat up and sighed happily. She was almost too drunk to play. Then she saw someone in the room who normally wasn't. “Calistria may approve but I doubt Caldwell would,” she warned.
Sheppard quickly hid under the table. It was not a smooth movement. The thud and the faint 'ow' from underneath caused Carter to collapse into giggles again.
“Smooth,” McKay said. He didn't fall over while trying to look under the table but it was close.
“What wouldn't I approve of?”
The table thumped again. Sheppard rubbed his head as he climbed out from underneath and sat on his chair, trying not to visibly sulk.
McKay stood up to face down Caldwell properly. It would be easier if the man stopped moving from side to side. Or maybe that was on McKay's end. “We... are relaxing,” he stated with too-perfect enunciation. It didn't help that he still had the bottle in his hand. “So we don't kill your... mindless minions... for their lack of any sense.”
“Pathfinder game,” Carter said. “If you wanted to I'm sure we could find a chair...”
Caldwell sighed. “I'm in the city once every six weeks,” he said.
“I offered,” Carter said. She reached over and plucked the bottle from McKay's hands, taking a swig.
Sheppard looked confused. That answer meant... Caldwell played? When? How?!
“Don't let me interrupt you,” Caldwell said. “I'm sure I can find something to do.”
Rowan took the bottle from Carter and took a drink. “Now then...”
All clues should be so obvious, Ace thought.
The fields were full of scarecrows. Those scarecrows were all monsters in disguise. Those monsters all fell to a sword to the chest as well as any other monster. Were it not for the rotting sacrifice in the farmhouse it could have been just another monster hunt. The note was almost an afterthought against the simple acts and actions of hungry dead and sharp steel.
Charlie sharped her knives, buffing out the nicks caused by so many undead ribs. Cela searched the bodies for clues aside from the obvious. Ace wiped down his sword, keeping an eye on Mira as she stood on the knoll overlooking the corn fields and the dead scarecrows hanging from their posts.
He did not expect what happened next. She started laughing. She laughed and spun in the wind even as it brought the stench of so much death up to them. He watched her as she lost her balance and fell in the grass.
He smiled though he felt less mirth than he perhaps should. If not for the events of the past few days her actions would have seemed almost elven. He walked up to her and loomed over her, blocking the sun from her eyes.
She looked almost serene. It was a good look for her. Even beautiful.
A shout of triumph behind them stole his attention.
“What is it?” Ace shouted.
Cela held up an iron key on a leather neck cord. “I have it!” he shouted. He ran down the knoll, flopping to the grass next to Mira in a barely controlled slide. He gave her the key. “We await the next murders no longer,” he said. “This is all the proof we need to seek your vengeance, my lady. We have the key to Foxglove Manor. At your word, we shall invade his sanctum and take payment for his actions.”
Mira reached out and took the key. The iron key still carried a family crest, a bell-shaped flower surrounded by thorns. Was this the demon's lantern the cards warned her of? Or was this the end of the swamp of taunting notes? She had to trust herself, trust her friends. Trust in Ace's promise.
“Daybreak,” she said. “None of us are at our best right now. We rest, we plan, and at daybreak we strike. We will burn Foxglove Manor to the ground if we have to but we will end this.”
It would end. One way or another it would end.
Chapter 8: The Beating
Dr. McKay trudged into the conference room, coffee in hand and eyes closed against the cheerfully bright lights that kept not dimming no matter how much he begged. This had to be some sort of punishment, it had to. The city itself was punishing him for drinking and gaming all last night or the fire in the storage unit or some other such reason. Maybe he wasn't spending as much time as he needed to stuffed in the conduits elbow-deep in circuits and crystals.
He'd have to send Zelenka to do it. He was smaller, he fit better.
McKay scrunched up his scowl to something epic and mentally screamed at the lights. They marginally dimmed, just enough that he could open his eyes.
Oh. That was the problem.
Stupid sun. Stupid orange subgiant sun shining bright yellow-orange sunlight through windows and balconies. Stupid Ancients and their architectural styles emphasizing open spaces and natural light.
People were looking at him. McKay sat down at the table and made a mighty effort to pretend he hadn't just shut off all the lights to no appreciable avail.
Sheppard didn't look bad at all. But then the bastard was wearing sunglasses inside like he was making some sort of fashion statement. McKay still felt the need to wipe that smirk off his face though.
Keller looked all high and mighty, all disapproving of his life choices. She probably didn't even know what the Daedalus marines destroyed otherwise she'd be just as pissed as he was. He ignored her as she was obviously not qualified to pass judgment on his hangover.
Zelenka, the bastard, he didn't look like he'd been drinking at all. Probably grew up on the stuff.
At least Sam Carter looked tired. She also sat with the sun to her back, strategically placing her chair so as to keep the bright out of her eyes. She was drinking tea, tea of all things. Weird. What was weirder still was the... smell... McKay's eyes went wide as he moved to the furthest seat from her, not caring that it put him perilously close to sunlight.
The meeting was useless, nothing new to report. There was the little issue of the fire day before yesterday and McKay did get a moment of vindication when Keller heard about the losses for the first time. Shock, outrage, simmering fury, then low anger and sullen acceptance. McKay thought she accepted it rather quickly, he was still in the 'simmering fury' stage. It helped that the marines in question were under orders to clean every bit of debris, crystal, plastic, wall, and wire of fire damage using their toothbrushes. Caldwell had drawn a line at locking them in the unit until they were done though.
The meeting ended with a sullen agreement. The Daedalus needed open clearance to land in order to deliver supplies. Thus they couldn't be banned from the city no matter how many Nice Things they broke. McKay had agreed under protest, at least until he remembered coffee still came from the Daedalus. Coffee plants were still on the list of banned substances, probably in an effort to control them all.
Well, it worked. Sort of.
McKay fled as soon as the meeting was dismissed. His headache was almost completely forgotten but he had a whole new reason to flee the bright sunlight of the conference room.
“She was drinking lemon,” McKay hissed.
Sheppard stabbed his fork into his macaroni and cheese. The macaroni were of a strange consistency, they kept sliding away from his fork. Or maybe it was the artificial cheese. Maybe even the plastic fork.
Lunch was just beginning in the mess hall. Sheppard and McKay had gotten there just in time to snag the freshest, hottest, presumably the tastiest offerings before the lunch crowd stormed in and picked over all the good stuff. Sheppard and McKay had a table in the corner, the empty tables around them giving the veneer of privacy.
“Sort of,” Sheppard admitted.
“Sort of? Sort of?! Look, either it'll kill me or it won't!”
“Probably won't.” Sheppard managed to spear enough noodles to make a mouthful and took the bite. He lingered, making the effort to lick all of the fake cheese from the fork before going back to stabbing noodles.
“How do you know?” McKay demanded.
“I asked her,” Sheppard said as though it were obvious. “I smelled it too, wanted to make sure. She assured me her source doesn't smuggle in anything banned, just the compromising things. Such as her disgustingly artificial lemon flavoring. It's so artificial I bet you could drink it without problem.”
“I see no need to test it,” McKay said. He slapped Sheppard's hand away from his tray where a wandering fork was attempting to steal his fake cheese.
“Nor do I,” Sheppard said. He speared the last of his noodles and pondered the grainy puddles of fake cheese on his tray.
“So who's her source?” McKay asked.
Sheppard shrugged. He ran his finger through the fake cheese and licked it off.
“That's not food,” McKay said.
Sheppard just licked slower, letting his eyes linger on McKay.
“Um...” McKay swallowed thickly. And then the moment ended as Sheppard was out of fake cheese to lick.
“Carter said if I ever wanted anything compromising she knows a guy,” Sheppard said. He grabbed his fork and stabbed into McKay's tray, coming back with a forkful of macaroni and cheese. He ate it with a triumphant smirk that did not seem warranted considering the meagerness of his victory.
It took McKay a moment to realize. “Hey,” he complained, pulling his tray close to protect it. He grabbed his own fork and dug into his lunch. He wondered who this 'guy' was.
Of course it was Caldwell. It had to be Caldwell. It couldn't be Lorne or Chuck or some no name Sergeant in the barracks somewhere.
McKay stood outside of Sheppard's office, or at least it was Sheppard's in name. Sheppard spent as little time as possible in this office, preferring to foist his paperwork onto Lorne or even Caldwell when he could get away with it. Given the current state of the science team it made sense Caldwell was hiding out in here.
McKay announced himself by thinking the door open.
To Caldwell's credit he didn't seem startled. He simply looked up from the laptop he was reading.
McKay stepped inside and allowed the door to close.
“What's this about?” Caldwell asked.
McKay had no idea where to begin. How did one ask an unlikely smuggler to smuggle him something? Especially something so embarrassing? He settled on a tried and true tactic. “I need a favor.”
Caldwell visibly relaxed, for some definitions of. “What kind of favor?” he asked.
“I, um, I talked to Sam, I mean, Colonel Carter and... She said you help her get stuff that would otherwise be... difficult...”
“I'm not smuggling coffee,” Caldwell said. “No plants, no cuttings, not even the green unroasted beans. We know all too well what Atlantis can do with even that little bit of DNA. I will not be responsible for cloned coffee plants all over Pegasus.”
McKay hadn't even thought of that. That was an idea. But it would have to wait for later. “This isn't about coffee,” he said. “This isn't banned at all. It's just... embarrassing.”
Caldwell looked him in the eye. “I'm not smuggling sex toys.”
McKay had no words for that. He had the horrible mental image of Caldwell in a sex shop pondering dildos and trying to match sizes. He curled in on himself, hiding his face behind his hands. “Not what I'm asking and I will never unsee that.”
Caldwell seemed to enjoy McKay's pain. At least that was the only explanation McKay had for the man's strange grin. “Good,” Caldwell said. “Imagine why I have to say that.”
“Oh god...” McKay had to shake the images from his head. He knew they'd be back later to haunt him as he tried to sleep. He'd have to keep them at bay with math or something. But he was here for a reason. “This is nothing about that,” he said. “Nothing illegal, nothing banned, if I thought you could get me a cat I'd ask but I know better. This is about the Pathfinder game.”
“I assume there's normally less drinking than yesterday.”
“Much less,” McKay agreed. “I'm playing a character who uses a harrow deck for... various reasons and I don't know anything about it. I don't have one; I know they exist, Pete had one Sunday before last. I'm sure there are books on it, rules for it, whatever's out there.”
“So you want me to...” Caldwell trailed off. “Why is this embarrassing?”
“I think it's a divinatory aid. I can't have people thinking I'm taking this crap seriously. But I really want to know this stuff... for my character of course...”
“Makes sense,” Caldwell said. “I'll see what I can find. Anything else?”
McKay was about to leave but then... “Can you get really good chocolate?”
This place was haunted.
There was no other word for it. Ace didn't even have his sword unsheathed; blades were useless against powers that lurked just on the other edge of perception, on the wrong end of reality. It seemed every room in this cursed house had invisible hands grasping at their psyches, dragging them into hallucinations so real they ripped and tore at mind and body.
There was no sword that could have sliced Cela away from being dragged around the collapsed ballroom by the beautiful woman only he could see.
There was no blade that could have stopped Charlie from trying to stab herself in the neck with a shard of broken wood.
There was no weapon of any world, of this one or the next, that could have stopped the torrential growth of disgusting fungus that wrapped them all in spores, crawled all over their skin, burrowed down their throats, and then disappeared without a trace. The memory still made Ace itch in places he didn't even know he had.
Foxglove Manor was a nightmarish place of rot, decay, malaise, and a sense of wrongness so complete that Ace couldn't believe Mira's tales about the place. There was no way Lord Aldern Foxglove lived here, no matter how creepy the man had seemed during the boar hunt.
“They call this place 'the Misgivings',” Mira had said. “It's cursed by fire, by devils, by suicide, and some say by worse. It's said there are some deeds that should never be undertaken.”
Now, as they explored this place, Ace found himself believing in curses.
There was a scream.
Ace didn't even draw his sword. This scream was too familiar.
Charlie giggled as she pulled the cord again. She let it go and that same scream issued forth from the disembodied monkey head mounted on the wall.
“Will you stop that,” Ace snapped.
Charlie laughed as she looked at the monkey head. “Why would anyone own this?” she asked. “It's so... weird... I'm taking it.”
“Mira's doing some sketches of the stained glass windows,” Ace said. “She says they mean something but she's not sure what. Something about not being allowed to study things this dark.”
“Well that's not ominous,” Charlie said.
“Not at all,” Ace agreed.
Upstairs Mira sat on an old couch, its padding and cushions in curiously decent shape. She had a large board in her lap and parchment laid out before her. Her fingers were black with charcoal as she copied the stained glass windows before her. She winced as a horrible squeaking sound came behind her.
“That was painful,” she complained, not even looking up.
Cela held a violin, its finish peeling and the bow string frayed with horse hair swaying every which way. The violin's gut strings were stiff and brittle. “I am unsure I can tune this without breaking it,” he said.
“Then don't,” Mira said.
Cela looked over her shoulder then up at the stained glass. “You are good,” he said. “It is a strong likeness.”
“I was never an apprentice,” she said idly as she worked. “There was no one to teach me magic. I learned from the ruins. But we moved on so often, this was the only way I could bring the ruins and their secrets with me.”
“Perhaps you will find secrets here,” Cela said.
The stained glass windows on this floor depicted a diverse array of animals and plants. The first window showed a scorpion, the second a gaunt man crawling with bats. The third window depicted a moth with skulls patterned on its wings. The fourth showed a tangle of plants with bell-shaped flowers and the fifth a young woman sitting on a well with a giant spider descending for her.
“I already have,” Mira said. “These are all classic spell components for necromancers. The venom of a scorpion, the breath of a vampire, the tongue of a deathwing moth, the juice of the belladonna, and the heart of a maiden slain by poison.”
“What does it mean?” Cela asked.
“Either a necromancer worked here because it's creepy or it's creepy because a necromancer worked here.”
“Are all necromancers creepy?”
“Baba Rann always said necromancy was dark magic,” Mira said. “It was a one way trip to undeath and Desna couldn't forgive that.”
“And was Baba Rann a priest?”
Mira shook her head. “The cards spoke to her, and Desna to the cards. She had a book of spells like mine, all full of past readings and signs and the stars. When I put together my book of spells she always said she didn't care what I put in it so long as I stayed away from undeath. She said the cards warned her about it, said bad things would happen to me if I dabbled in undeath.”
Mira scowled at him.
Cela noticed her attention. “Oh, not about you, my dear,” he said. “Just that it seems restrictive to bar you from a study due to fear. It makes more sense to study that which one is afraid of. I sense you feel as I do. After all, I have seen you use such magic. You have not barred yourself from necromancy. You know better.”
“I have barred myself from abjuration and conjuration,” Mira said. “I cannot summon and I do not hide. I am an evoker. I use my power to affect reality around me, to harness the elements of creation, and to defend myself so I do not need to hide. Raw life force is a part of reality, why should I weaken myself by giving it up?”
“Well said, my lady,” Cela said.
Footsteps on the stairs behind them drew their attention. Three sets of footsteps climbed the stairs even though Ace and Charlie were the only ones there.
“What have you got?” Charlie asked. She pretended there wasn't a strange monkey head shaped bulge in her pack.
“Necromancy,” Cela said.
Mira explained the meaning of the stained glass windows on this level and the level below. She predicted there would be matching windows with more meaning to them on the attic floor and perhaps even the basement given how the house was constructed.
They did not stay in the attic long.
Something in the attic screamed and screamed and nobody wanted to know what it was. They stayed only long enough for Mira to sketch the two windows there while Charlie and Cela tried to keep Ace from throwing himself out of the window.
Finally Cela slapped him and Ace stopped screaming. Recognition came back to his eyes and he looked around as though seeing everyone for the first time in ages. “I'm... I'm not on fire?” he asked.
“You are not,” Cela said.
“Do you have any idea how far that drop is?” Charlie demanded, pointing at the hole in the window. Canvas fluttered over the hastily covered hole which seemed like it was entirely the right size for someone else to have gone crashing through it long ago.
“I was... someone was...” Ace looked at the old scorch marks marring the wood near the broken window. “Someone tried to... burn this place down. It didn't work. They were engulfed. They went out the window, burning all the way down.”
“Try not to die,” Mira said as she worked quickly. She was never good at drawing people and these windows were of two people. One, a pale woman with dark hair, green eyes, and an iron staff. The other, his lower half broken and missing, a regal man wearing a crown of ivory and jade.
“I'd rather none of us died,” Charlie said. “It would be inconvenient.”
The basement was full of rats.
But it was also full of answers.
Old books in an old worm-eaten library, stained glass windows with the key to the entire glass story, a demolished workshop filled with the remains of research past. Mira settled down on the floor of the ancient laboratory and spread out the charcoal drawings. She called books to her, their delicate state leaving dropped pages and fragments as they drifted through the air to lay open at her bidding with their secrets open to her gaze.
“Mira, are you all right?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, yes, I'm fine,” Mira said, waving away needless concern.
Ace knelt down next to her. He didn't understand any of the scrawled and faded writing. Most of these books were too smudged for him to read or maybe they weren't written in Common at all. “Mira, what is it?” he asked.
“I know what he was doing,” she said.
“That's good,” Ace said, sounding happier than he felt. “That means we can finish up here and get out. I doubt Foxglove is here at all.”
Mira didn't acknowledge his words.
“Mira, you're scaring us,” Charlie said.
Cela stood in front of the windows, studying them. One showed a man drinking a potion. The other showed that same man, now long dead, triumphantly brandishing his completed work, a seven sided box that seeped mist. He made the connection. “The stained glass windows,” he realized aloud. “They're a lich formula.”
“What?” Charlie asked.
“Mira,” Ace warned.
“I don't plan on using it,” Mira said. Finally she looked up. Her eyes were wild but, disturbingly, there was no trace of this place's haunting. “Besides, I think he failed.”
“What do you mean failed?” Charlie asked.
“I think his attempt to become a lich ended in failure,” Mira said. “It would explain this place.”
“I thought a failed lich was just a dead man,” Cela said.
Mira shook her head, a smile blooming over her face. “A failed lich isn't dead,” she said. “Nor is it undead. It's forsaken, somewhere in between. A horrible fate...”
“Mira, stop this,” Ace commanded.
Mira glanced at him then ignored him again as she went over the notes in these old books.
“Mira, this is a bad idea,” Cela said. “Your Baba Rann warned you about this, don't you remember? Bad things will happen if you dabble in undeath.”
Mira looked up at him, pouted, and slammed a book closed. The cover ruptured in her hand.
Ace grabbed her under her arms and pulled her to her feet even as she pouted. “I wasn't going to use it,” she said. “I was just going to study it.”
Ace rolled his eyes as he let Charlie pick up the charcoal drawings and put them away.
McKay pouted at the other players. The fact that they were all immune didn't seem to matter. Rather it seemed to make him pout harder.
“Becoming a lich is a bad idea, Rodney,” Carter said. “It costs all of your gold and most of your soul.”
“Bah, who needs a soul,” McKay said, overly grandiose.
“I get the sense liches are evil,” Sheppard said. “Rodney's not allowed to play evil. He'll get ideas and apply them to real life.”
“I built a bomb in the sixth grade,” McKay said. “I think I'm already evil.”
“You are not evil,” Zelenka said. “There would be more dead bodies to hide if you were.”
“More?” Carter asked ominously.
Zelenka pretended he hadn't said anything wrong.
“Anyway,” Rowan said, working to get them all back on track. “Piles of broken stone, dirt, and a few ruined pickaxes line the edges of the next room.”
The room was lit with a single flickering lantern. Mira snarled as she saw him, that damnable Aldern Foxglove, sweaty and dirty and wild and he didn't notice them at all. Instead he kept digging away at the stone floor with a pickaxe. With each strike he muttered out two words. “For you.”
She knew who he meant and she was offended by is offering. She raised a hand to finish him off but the floor broke open. Shrieks from beneath turned to claws turned to glowing red eyes as a pack of ghouls, as thirteen undead hands reached up for Foxglove and dragged him underneath. He didn't scream. With horrified fascination she realized that sound was a sigh.
And then red eyes all turned on her.
And then someone was shaking her.
The ghouls were gone. Foxglove was gone. In the middle of the floor a spiral set of stone stairs descended into the bedrock of the cliff.
“The haunting had you,” Cela said. “What did you see?”
Mira took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she realized she knew exactly what she saw. “The Beating,” she said. “It ends down there. It all ends there.”
“Then that's where we go,” Ace said. He pulled his sword and led the way into darkness.
Chapter 9: The Rabbit Prince
Warning for PC death. She gets better...
This was more like it.
Ace's sword felt good in his hands. Ghouls were physical things that could be destroyed, dismantled, killed with a quick stab and slash and it just felt good to be capable. It felt good to watch Charlie jump on the back of the gigantic monstrous bat and stab it repeatedly until it twitched and lay still. It felt good to feel the healing wash of Cela's power as it caused their foes to shrivel in on themselves, screaming in agony. It felt good to see Mira step into the corridor above the largest cavern and fill the belly of the cave with fire.
That all ended when they found it.
It. And him.
The room was suffused with a stench, a rotting miasma that came from the fungoid wall on the far side of the cavern and the delicate porcelain plates and platters all set out on a serving table in the corner, their contents crawling with maggots. A table in the center of the room held what could only be described as an altar complete with a portrait that might once have been a painting of someone else, redone in blood to look like...
Mira growled as something, someone moved in the chair facing the altar. The chair was smeared and sticky with blood, its leather rent by grasping claws. Those same claws now curled over the armrests and their owner stood up.
“Motherfucker,” Cela whispered.
Aldern Foxglove was a hairless creature of teeth and claws and the stench of undeath. His once regal finery was stained with blood, dark patches that looked like he'd tried to lick them clean at some point. His eyes glowed an ominous predatory green in the dark cavern, lit only by the Dancing Lights that flickered red behind Mira. Those eyes went wide as he saw her, his maw breaking into a twisted mockery of a smile. “You, you've come to me,” he said. “I knew my letters would sway your heart, my love.”
Ace's grip tightened on his sword. Given the fury coming off of Mira in waves he wondered if he'd get the chance to use it.
“Come, my dear,” Foxglove said, holding out a clawed hand. His other claw slid something out of his sleeve. “Let us consummate our... hunger...” He flipped open the war razor and jumped on her, even as she raised her hands to set him aflame.
The spell failed as she screamed, as he bit and bit and...
Charlie sunk her knives into his back and the battle began properly.
It did not last long.
Ace debated sitting in the monster's chair but easily dismissed that. No matter how much he wanted to clean his sword that chair was too disgusting. Instead he watched as Charlie looted the headless corpse, as Cela held his holy symbol against Mira's breast and cast the spells that would bring her out of this ghoul paralysis and heal the wounds she'd suffered.
She jolted back to awareness, grimacing and hissing in pain. Despite Cela's magic the bite wounds on her shoulders and arms still looked red and raw.
Ace wandered around, taking in this place. The fungoid wall was strange, the worst of it seemed to grow from a great black mass in the middle with the vague shape of a man. A shattered puzzle box lay scattered on the floor, its seven sides oddly familiar. He had the strange urge to touch it...
“Bad idea,” he muttered to himself, moving away from the wall.
The serving table was somehow worse. Crystal decanters were filled with congealed blood, plates and platters held raw meat that might have been humanoid in origin if that disembodied hand was any indication. Ace seriously considered becoming the vegetarian stereotype people jumped to when they thought of elves.
But the altar...
“Mira,” Ace called. She had to see this. And maybe set most of it on fire.
Mira got to her feet and staggered over to the altar. She brushed aside the ruined parchment of used scrolls and the disturbing charcoal sketches of her nude. She picked up a ruined and stripped feather, brandishing it at Ace. “I liked this pen,” she snapped. She ripped the remaining barbs off of the feather shaft and snapped the quill in half.
She tossed aside an apple core and teeth from a shell comb. She picked up a wad of her own red hair, tangled and matted in some sort of bow, and threw it to the ground. She held up a blue and silver scarf and growled. It was a mockery of Baba Rann's scarf, the one she still wore draped over her hair. She could see the white ash drawn on the silk to try and duplicate the delicate twisting lines of the original. She tossed that aside and stopped cold.
“What is it?” Cela asked. Then he saw. “Oh, good, we found it.”
The Crows stared up at her, the missing card from her harrow deck. She gently wiped a smudge of charcoal and dried blood off of the card's delicate artwork.
“He is already dead,” Cela said softly. He almost seemed to be talking her down. “You have your vengeance. He'll not take any more from you.”
Mira held the card to her chest and sighed. Whether it was relief or resignation not even she could say.
“The card isn't damaged, is it?” McKay asked.
“Roll a luck die,” Rowan said.
“Really? You're going that route?” Carter asked.
Rowan grinned. The game room was back to something akin to normal, the Daedalus and her crew out in the Void somewhere between galaxies. The card table in the back hosted what looked like competitive solitaire although no one was sure how. A small chess tournament was taking advantage of the city's best chess players' distraction with the Pathfinder game, Airman Roberts was hosting the Loser's Table complete with beers and snacks. What made that ominous was the Loser's Table's physical proximity to the Pathfinder game, so close that Ronon sat among the 'losers' while watching the game and regaling those around him with tales of other games he'd watched. One of the historians was sitting so close she was almost in his lap, enraptured with his every word.
“I'm going that route,” Rowan said. “I don't know how damaged the Crows is, I didn't plan on the question. I'm willing to let chance decide. Rodney, pick a die, any die, and roll it. Tell me the result.”
Rodney picked up a six-sided die and rolled it. “Five,” he said.
“All right,” Rowan said. “The Crows is filthy, there's blood stains on the image. The card isn't warped, nor is it torn, but the right wing of the tengu is stained. It's not bad but the spot's seeped into the ink so you're not sure you can pull the stain out of the card without damaging it further.”
“That wasn't lucky at all,” McKay complained.
“It wasn't bad,” Rowan assured. “Gives the card character. The cards remember where they've been. Several of the cards have little spots and smudges in them, your Baba Rann always said it gave them wisdom.”
“Huh,” McKay said. It was a thoughtful sound.
“You've killed Foxglove,” Rowan said. “What so you do now?”
“We take everything not nailed down and get out of here,” Carter said.
“Not everything,” Sheppard said. “There's a lot of stuff I'm perfectly willing to leave here.”
“You head back to Sandpoint then?” Rowan asked.
“Yes, we need to report our success,” Zelenka said. “And regroup.”
Mira pushed the mug of beer away from her. She was hungry, in fact she was starving, but the idea of food made her nauseous. She should eat, the tremors in her hands told her that much, but she knew she'd just throw it all back up again.
Foxglove was having one last laugh at her expense. No, not a laugh. Not really. This was worse.
For all his letters, for all his begging, for all his talk of this 'pack', he'd been right. The deaths would only stop if and when she joined them.
She knew what this was. The disease had several names. Belly blight, ghoul fever, Kabriri's curse, they were all the same. The disease was fatal.
She watched as Cela cavorted with the serving girl, inviting her to sit on his lap. In a rare failure of form the girl was having none of this, instead she dumped a mug of beer on his head.
Charlie sat in a corner sharpening knives, arguing with Ace over a map or another note or something. Mira didn't feel like getting involved. She was already far too involved for her own good.
Sometimes people could shake off this disease on their own. She knew she wasn't anywhere near hardy enough to do so but she could imagine it. She went up the stairs to the room she was sharing with Charlie and laid down on the bed. She wrapped all of the blankets over her shivering form and tried to get some sleep.
She awoke to the feel of hands on her forehead. She opened her eyes to see Ace looking worriedly at her. “Hey,” she said.
“How do you feel?” Ace asked.
Mira closed her eyes. She couldn't lie to his face but she could lie to darkness. “'M fine,” she said.
“No you're not.”
She sighed and tried to curl up in the bed. The shaking didn't make it any easier. She hurt all over, mostly her middle, as she curled around her belly and groaned. “Gonna...” She just barely dragged herself to the edge of the bed before vomiting over the side.
“You're definitely not.”
“Sorry,” Mira muttered as she curled back up. Her throat tasted like fire, her insides felt like fire, her skin felt like fire. She shivered as Ace picked her up and carried her downstairs.
She must have lost awareness because the next thing she knew she was on the great altar in Sandpoint Cathedral. The seven standing stones ringed her. She shivered on the cold stone. Living people never lay on this stone, only the dead. Only the dead were allowed here. Why was she here?
She saw a pair of faces above her, both looked worried. At least neither Father Zantus nor Cela spoke the words that would have sent her off to Desna's arms. This wasn't a funeral yet.
“I don't have the power to cure this,” Father Zantus said.
“My studies were of the living, not of the dead or undead,” Cela said. “I don't know what this is.”
“This is something we call 'ghoul fever',” Zantus said. “It's a disease but it's also a curse. Ghouls spread it to the living with their bite. That's likely how she was exposed unless... You don't think she's resorted to cannibalism lately?”
Cela snorted. “Depends on what the Hagfish serves,” he said. “You cannot trust what people say about her.”
“What, that she's a witch?” Zantus laughed darkly. “You'd think here of all places people would understand Desna's gifts. No, I don't believe the rumors.”
“She was bitten by a ghoul two days hence,” Cela said. "The same one behind the Sihedron murders. The one who tried to have her implicated."
Zantus looked worried. “Might Calistria grant you the power to cure diseases?”
“I believe so,” Cela said. “I shall pray to her tonight. Otherwise, what do you suggest?”
“There's a ship bound for Magnimar leaving in the morning,” Zantus said. “If you can't release her from this fate by sunrise I suggest you take it. I can book you and your friends passage but there's nothing else I can do.”
“We are in your debt,” Cela said, bowing.
“Then consider ours paid,” Zantus said, also bowing. “These 'Sihedron murders' were stopped by your deeds, not ours.”
Cela bowed again. A pattern seemed to be emerging where neither cleric seemed willing to be the one to stop.
Finally the door to the Cathedral opened. “What's the word?” Ace called from the doorway.
Zantus stopped first. He scowled at that fact and at Ace's lack of manners. “You may come in, my son,” he said. It was more of a command than a welcome.
Cela grinned with personal triumph as soon as Zantus wasn't looking. “Ace, help me carry her,” he called. “I need to pray for Calistria's aid this midnight. Perhaps you would assist?”
Ace resolutely ignored the cleric leering at him as he picked up Mira and carried her out of the Cathedral.
“So...” Zelenka said, leering openly. “Will you assist?”
Carter was trying to ignore the situation as she hid behind her hand. Rowan seemed resigned that this was turning into 'one of those games'. McKay looked at Zelenka, then at Sheppard, then he seemed to be visibly pondering the idea.
Sheppard sighed with a grand slump. What the heck, this was just a game. “Sure, why not,” he said. “No details though.”
Carter gave him a speculative look.
“I said no details,” Sheppard said defensively. “I don't need to know. Besides, if it'll help Mira...”
McKay looked pleased with himself.
“Okay,” Rowan said, sparing a glare for Zelenka. “You realize you don't actually need to have sex to get your spells back,” he said.
“I know,” Zelenka said. “But they don't.”
Sheppard looked scandalized before he groaned and hid behind his hand.
“Well then,” Rowan said. “Ace, you had no idea people could do that without rope.”
Sheppard could feel McKay laughing at him.
Ace was exhausted and sore as he stood in the Cathedral in the early hours before sunrise. He was pretty sure he'd pulled something in his thigh and it ached. Worse, Father Zantus kept looking at him weird.
The stars shone overhead as they stood in the circle of standing stones hidden within the Sandpoint Cathedral. Seven stones, seven altars. One altar of ancient stone in the center, six of new wood along the walls. Holy symbols of the human gods of travel, of family and commerce, of beauty and the sun and the sea all looked down at them from those walls. Symbols of wood, of horn, of marble, of gold plate.
Yet in the middle of the standing stones, of this ancient sacred site long dedicated to Desna, it was a priest of Calistria who called forth the power of his god. Her elven presence was nowhere to be felt or found, unwelcome in this human settlement. But it was Mira's only hope.
Mira's faith belonged to Desna. Maybe, just maybe, Desna would take pity and allow one of the elven gods to affect this site.
Or maybe not...
Cela held his holy symbol against Mira's chest as he called forth Calistria's power to cleanse the disease from her. He shuddered with that power, an inner light that Ace could feel even if he couldn't see it.
Cela fell to his knees next to the stone altar. Mira lay on the stone where so many others had been laid to begin their final journey to Desna's grace. But Mira was still alive.
“I can't,” Cela whispered. “Calistria granted me the power but... I do not have the strength to wield it against this...”
Mira curled on her side and shuddered. She whined through the pain of the wracking shakes.
“The ship leaves at dawn,” Zantus said. Ace couldn't help but think the man seemed somehow smug about this. “There are churches in Magnimar that could cure her. The church of Pharasma would be my suggestion.”
Cela hoisted himself up, using the stone altar for leverage. He ignored the scandalized look Zantus gave him.
“We'll take her there,” Charlie said. “Thank you for all your help, Father.”
“I wish I could have done more,” Zantus said.
Ace carried Mira out of the Cathedral. After everything he'd personally done to aid Cela in this ritual Ace didn't like the superior way Father Zantus lorded Cela's failure over them.
“He was rude,” Ace said, still glaring at the Cathedral as the doors closed.
“Desna won't grant him the power,” Cela said, also annoyed. “But of course no one else can wield in his church.”
“You think he sabotaged you?”
“No,” Cela said. “This disease is simply not what the Father claimed it to be. He led me to believe this was a simple task. It is not. We'll try again on the ship to Magnimar but I do not hold much hope.”
“Shut up, you two, Father Zantus got us passage on the boat,” Charlie warned. “You want to speculate, wait until after we're on board. I don't think you want to carry Mira on a three day's ride over land.”
Ace and Cela both huffed in annoyance and headed to the docks. At least they had cause to head to Magnimar. Charlie had reason to believe Foxglove was following the orders of someone there.
The ship creaked and groaned around them. The sky above was growing dark, the sun dipping below the horizon. Ace didn't care. All that mattered was that they'd reach Magnimar the next morning. Then they could disembark, run Mira to the Cathedral of Pharasma, and get them to cure her of this horrible disease.
Cela couldn't. He'd tried. He'd taken the ship's cook to bed with him and returned with spells of potent power and yet that wasn't enough. Now all they could do was wait, wait and hope.
Dancing Lights bounced in the corner, lazily orbiting the lantern Charlie had hung to give Mira something to aim at. Over the last three days the light had gone from burning merrily inside the lantern to flickering ominously below the lantern to now circling chaotically nearby and underneath and around. Dim droplets of light dripped from the spell like it was melting, like it would soon dissolve away to nothing.
He heard footsteps behind him. Cela wouldn't have his spells back, it wouldn't be him. No, it was Charlie.
“She's going to be all right,” Ace said stubbornly. He held Mira's hand like it was the only thing keeping her alive. Like he could save her with his touch.
Charlie glanced up at the flickering orb of spell's light. It faltered, dripping down like blood in water before reforming as a dim wad underneath the lantern. She didn't hold Ace's conviction, not at all. She knew it would take a miracle for Mira to survive the night.
“You should get some sleep,” Charlie said. “I'll sit with her.”
Ace hadn't slept since they boarded the ship. He didn't want to go. He didn't want to leave her. He knew if he did she'd leave him.
“Ace,” Charlie said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
He shrugged her off and glared at her.
“It's not your fault,” Charlie whispered. “Get some sleep. You'll need it when we make port.” She smiled and then lied through her teeth. “How will we get Mira to the Cathedral if you're too tired to carry her?”
Ace sighed. “You're right,” he said. But he didn't want to let go.
“I can get Cela in here to cast Sleep on you,” Charlie warned.
Ace sighed again. He laid Mira's hands against her chest as she lay on the cot. She looked like Death would come for her soon. For a moment he believed they'd beat the Lady of Graves at her own game. But he knew better. Charlie was telling him to go so he wouldn't have to be here when she died.
“Don't leave her alone,” he said, pleaded.
“I won't,” Charlie said. “I'll be here.”
Ace stood up and walked away.
He resolutely didn't watch as the amorphous orb of Dancing Lights dripped to the floor and faded away.
“Fuck!” McKay shouted.
His last Fort save had failed. Of course it had, by this point he'd have needed to roll a 21 on a 20 sided die to succeed. But what had him swearing was the six sided die in front of him. In order for Mira to survive to sunrise he would have needed to roll a one.
A six was not a one. It was the opposite of a one.
Rowan looked like he wanted to say something but couldn't. Instead he looked around the table. Carter looked resigned yet still annoyed at him as though Zelenka's inability to roll a successful caster level check was his fault. To be fair, the needed roll was not a small one and Zelenka had made several attempts. At least Zelenka looked he was blaming his dice instead of the story or the storyteller.
Sheppard looked quiet, that disturbing quiet he had after Reggie the Bard!'s death. Rowan had hoped that he'd get over that but, well, this was McKay. McKay had that carefully controlled look that did not bode well for the object of his ire.
“Hour break,” Rowan said. He pointed to McKay. “Not you. We need to talk.”
“Yeah, I just died,” McKay snapped.
“Yes, you did,” Rowan said. He paused to look at the others who hadn't left. “Hour break,” he said again. “That means 'go away'. Go hit the mess hall or something.”
Sheppard stormed off. Carter gave Rowan one lingering look that did not bode well before following.
“The dice did not favor us today,” Zelenka said. “Bad luck happens.” He finally left as well.
McKay pouted and sat back, crossing his arms as though daring Rowan to do his worst.
Rowan thought about it, just long enough that he could see McKay's urge to snap and rant and demand and bitch rising to critical levels. “I may have an idea,” Rowan said just as McKay was opening his mouth to begin.
That stopped McKay's rant in its tracks. “What, I'm magically not dead? Cela tried that. Three times. It didn't work.”
“No, no, not that,” Rowan said. “Despite the stupid Fort save this was a variant of 'ghoul fever'. He had a 30% chance of making the check each time he rolled.”
“You couldn't have given him the buttsex modifier?” McKay demanded.
Both Rowan and McKay resolutely ignored the muffled snickers around them.
“Sets a bad precedent,” Rowan said. “But I have an idea. Tell me what you think.”
Chapter 10: The Survivor
Someone in Atlantis liked to bake. It wasn't a regular member of the KP staff. That's all anyone knew; the staff were more than willing to keep the baker's identity secret if it meant they weren't the ones who had to make these spectacular cookies. Today's cookies involved some sort of local spices and soured cream all rolled in sugar. Whatever they were they made for a passable snickerdoodle.
Carter had commandeered two dozen of the cookies under the clause of 'it's good to be the boss'. The half-empty plate was sitting in the middle of the table where she, Sheppard, and Zelenka all wondered what would happen next.
“Fifty-fifty he stays in the game,” Zelenka said.
“I told Pete not to do this,” Carter said.
“Wait, you told him?” Sheppard asked.
“I have my reasons,” Carter defended. “Rodney's the only one we have here who can make heads or tails of this Replicator code. If anyone in this city needs to stay sane it's him.”
“That code makes no sense,” Zelenka said. “It's nothing but unconnected clauses and multitudes of if-then statements leading into nowhere.”
“Nobody's blaming you,” Carter said. “I've looked at it too, I couldn't make sense of it either. I have no idea how Rodney does it.”
“But that means Rodney has no backup.”
“Unless you can get your Wraith friend to work with us again,” Carter said.
“Well, he's not really what I'd call a 'friend',” Sheppard said. He took another cookie.
“He hasn't eaten you yet,” Carter said. At Sheppard's deadpanned look she revised her statement. “He hasn't eaten you lately.”
Sheppard sighed. “I asked Caldwell to smuggle me some new RC cars,” he said. “If Rodney quits the game I'll leave too. Keep him from working too hard.”
“We'll miss you,” Carter said. “But it's up to Rodney. If he wants to stay it won't be a problem. If he gets disenchanted and leaves later on, it'll be up to you. I won't order you to play with Rodney but...”
Sheppard grinned. He quickly wiped the smile from his face and replaced it with a look of mock-seriousness. “It's a difficult task but if I'm the best man for the job I suppose I'll have to.”
Carter managed to keep a straight face just long enough to throw a cookie at him.
“That... is an interesting plan,” McKay said.
“I hadn't planned on anyone dying,” Rowan admitted, emphasizing carefully. “But I did prepare something just in case.”
Rodney wondered if that was a lie, if Rowan had indeed planned this. Maybe just a little bit. “The others have no idea,” he realized.
“Cela knows the basics. The others don't have Knowledge (religion), they only know what they've been told. It'll be tricky, I think it all depends on Sheppard.”
“His character does carry a comically large sword,” McKay agreed.
“Do you have any nonlethal spells prepared?”
“We'll level them up to sixth as soon as they get to Magnimar,” Rowan allowed. “If you level now you can take Hold Person. Ace has a weak will save.”
“I feel weird plotting against Sheppard like this,” McKay said.
“It's for his own good,” Rowan said.
Mira opened her eyes.
She was alone. The cabin was empty. She cast Dancing Lights out of reflex and realized as she did that she didn't need it to see. The spell brought color to the black and white darkness but it didn't bring light. Or maybe she didn't need light...
Her eyes went to her hands, her... claws...
Kabriri's curse always had the same ending. Descent into undeath, into madness, into unending hunger.
She was hungry. Starving. The last time she'd felt hunger like this she'd been a child, the wagons trapped in the snows of winter in the foothills of the Kodar Mountains. There was no escape until the snows receded, no end to the searing hunger as the wendigo of the north howled and called all their names. Baba Rann held back the nightmare with a single reading as she cast doom upon the one whose death would save them all. Mira had cried for days, Lightfoot had been her favorite horse. His death saved them all but she would gladly have suffered that hunger to save him.
She felt that hunger again, a burning crushing hunger than gnawed at the insides. She could almost hear the wendigo outside.
She listened to hear the howling wind and whispered names but it wasn't there. Nothing but creaking sails, groaning wood, and lapping waves.
So the tales were true. But she didn't feel any different. She remembered her life. She remembered her magic. Weren't ghouls supposed to lose themselves? Or was it the hunger that drove them mad?
No matter. She reached for her spellbook and began her preparatory studies.
Ace stood on the deck of the ship. The stars shone above, only sparse clouds wafting across the sky to block their light. What did Desnans believe? Would he find a new star in the sky where Mira's soul watched them now? Would her family wonder what had happened to her? How would he even find them? The Varisian roads were well known and well traveled but which caravan was hers?
He held her scarf in his hands. It shimmered blue-purple in his hands. Esoteric patterns of spirals and swirls and stars shone silver in the moonlight. Sewn into the seams and under the golden tassels were small gems kept hidden for emergencies. Spell components, bribes, the occasional fine or large bar tab, these gems could get them out of any jam.
Except this one.
“I could not save her.”
Ace heard Cela settle against the railing of the deck next to him. He wanted to blame the cleric, he did. But he couldn't. However he could blame Foxglove. They should have let the man die in the goblin raid, then he wouldn't have turned murderer. He wouldn't have grown obsessed with Mira. He wouldn't have killed her days after his own death.
“I cannot even take vengeance for her,” Cela said. “Foxglove is already dead.”
Ace held the scarf over the water. All he had to do was let it go.
Cela's hand grasped his wrist. “Don't,” he said. “She may want it back.”
Ace pulled the scarf back from the railing's edge and had to stare at Cela.
“If Zantus was not lying, if she did die of ghoul fever, she will awaken,” Cela said.
Ace took a step back. “As what?” he asked.
“I don't know,” Cela said. He honestly did not know.
Ace wrapped Mira's scarf around his neck and headed down below to the hold. He stormed to her cabin and paused at the door. He hadn't been down here since Charlie sent him away. He didn't know if he could handle seeing her dead body, lifeless and still. But the idea of a monster lurking there where she'd once been made him pull the door open.
He stood in the doorway transfixed by the sight of glowing red eyes staring back at him. A maw littered with sharp teeth opened and hissed.
Ace felt his heart break as his hand went to his sword. She'd come back but not as herself, not as his Mira and now...
And then she hissed a command and he couldn't move.
Was... was this the terrible 'ghoul paralysis' he'd heard Cela mention? Was the monster wearing Mira's skin going to eat him now? He wished he could close his eyes. He wished she'd get on with it.
Instead she was... talking?
“I know this looks bad and I'm sorry but it's not like I can re-life myself,” Mira said, pacing the floor of the cabin before him. “I woke up like this and yes I know exactly what this means but please don't kill me, I'm not going to, okay, I'm not planning on eating anyone and wait, that sounds even worse, look, just... The spell wears off in a little bit, just don't kill me after that? Please? Because Cela's a cleric and I don't know Calistria's views on undead and that might get bad and I have no idea what Charlie's going to think and, wait, give me that.” She reached out and unwound her scarf from Ace's neck. She laid it over her head to hide her new form.
She was... She was striking to say the least. Her beautiful red hair was gone, strewn about the bed where the fever had stolen it in clumps. Her ears were pointed like an elf's ears. Her skin was porcelain pale, bloodless and waxy smooth and Ace wanted to touch her, to know what that skin felt like. Her eyes were red, nothing like Foxglove's shining green eyes. Her mouth hid a sinfully long tongue and a multitude of pointed teeth that looked like they could rend living flesh if she so chose but instead she was talking without pausing for air or thought.
“This doesn't hide me at all does it,” Mira realized. “I can't go out like this, how can I go out like this? Wait, how do I even look? Foxglove looked hideous, I'm not hideous am I? All rotted and gaunt and icky and... and wait...” She started laughing. “The Sihedron amulet! Oh, Desna's laughing her head off right now, I know it. Don't you see, Ace? This amulet casts Gentle Repose on any dead body you put it on! I'm a dead body! I'll never have to worry about being gross since I can't rot! Oh that is disgusting to think about, maggots and worms and eurgh...”
Ace felt the hold of magic beginning to fade. At least he could blink. His hand twitched.
Mira jumped as she noticed the movement. “Please don't kill me, I only have one of those prepared today, it's a difficult spell and I'm just lucky you're kind of dumb otherwise it wouldn't have worked and, wait, you're not dumb I'm sorry I said that!”
The spell wore off and Ace was able to drop his sword arm. He breathed slowly, deliberately, trying to keep himself from doing anything rash.
Mira noticed he wasn't trying to kill her and stepped forward. She tentatively reached out to him, wickedly long claws visible despite her best efforts. He couldn't help the glance at them.
She pulled away.
“You're undead,” he whispered.
“I... think so,” she said. She tried to look less threatening.
Ace reached out to her, his hand gently stroking her face. Her skin was cold.
He turned and left without a word.
Mira watched him leave and sank onto her bunk. She hid under her scarf as she tried not to cry.
Ace, meanwhile, stormed through the hold to Cela's bunk. He pounded on the door and opened it without ceremony.
The sight before him was one he both expected and never would, not even after he'd been involved in such actions. The ship's cook was a rather large and hairy man. Cela was neither, small and thin and smooth in all sorts of indecent places. The cook had Cela on his hands and knees and was thrusting into him from behind while Cela moaned like a wanton. Ace was struck by a sudden memory as he remembered what it felt like to ride that man and--
Ace blushed as Cela's glazed eyes focused on him.
“Mira's awake,” Ace said, nearly stumbling over his words as he tried to get them out quickly. “I need you come check her out!” He left, slamming the door behind him.
Ace had the feeling someone was laughing at him. It wasn't important. What was important was...
Wait, where'd she go?
Charlie stood on the bow of the ship, watching the bow lantern as it cut their way through the night.
The darkness was nearly total for her. Stars twinkled above but the horizon wasn't anything she could pick out with any surety. She didn't know the coast, she wouldn't know where Magnimar was from here. But soon they'd be pulling into port one day too late. If Mira had told them she was sick in the first place, if Cela could cast a damned spell correctly, if Magnimar wasn't so far away... So many ifs. None of them mattered.
She heard footsteps behind her. She glanced back, realized what she'd saw, and had to turn to stare. “You're dead,” Charlie said.
Mira hummed her assent. She leaned on the railing, her scarf gently blowing back to hint at her new-found baldness, her pointed ears, her red eyes. “I'm feeling better,” she said.
“I watched you die,” Charlie said, clearly not okay with this situation. “I held your hand as you died!”
Mira reached for her. Those were big claws. Charlie pulled a dagger, daring Mira to come closer.
“I only had one Hold Person prepared today,” Mira warned. “I already used it on Ace.”
“You're dead,” Charlie said. “You can't be here. If you're here that means you're a ghoul and you're dangerous.”
Mira scoffed. “Of course I'm dangerous,” she said. “We're all dangerous. Ace wields a sword that weighs more than I do, you have knives in places even Cela couldn't find, and Cela can make bones crumble with a touch.” It clearly wasn't helping. She backed away from Charlie, claws out as she debated reaching for her harrow deck and using its own magic to recall that spell in case she needed it.
Charlie lunged. Mira dodged out of the way, pausing for a moment to wonder how she did that. That moment didn't last long as Charlie came at her.
Mira ran back along the deck to the hold.
Ace sat on Mira's bunk. Long red hairs lay strewn and tangled all around him. He ran his hands through them and sighed. She was... not alive. She was up, at least. Undead. Unchanging. Even elves eventually grew old and died and she'd never have that. But then, in all likelihood he'd never live long enough to have that either.
If these past few days taught him anything it was that their lives were dangerous ones.
He gathered a handful of hair and looked at it. It seemed wrong to do this but... He pulled a string from his sleeve and tied the lock of hair together. He hid it in his tunic even as Cela came in.
“So where is she?” Cela demanded.
Ace looked up. Cela was rumpled, ruffled, and barely wearing pants. It seemed to be a look he was used to wearing.
Ace opened his mouth to admit he'd lost track of her when Mira tore through the hold and jumped into the cabin. She hid under the bed like a cat and hissed, red eyes glowing in the darkness.
Ace had the absurd urge to start laughing and never stop. Maybe reach down and boop her nose like a kitten's. Then the urge passed as he brought himself under control. He noticed Cela was looking at him strangely; it had nothing to do with Mira's current predicament.
Charlie ran up, knives unsheathed. “Where is it?” she demanded. “Mira's a ghoul and we have to put it down before it eats us all!”
Ace pointed at her as though this were the reason he'd barged in on Cela's 'prayers'.
“She is a ghoul,” Cela agreed. “Ghouls are not mindless eating machines. That would be zombies.”
“I thought you didn't study undead,” Mira accused.
Ace looked under the bed where she still hid. “You're not helping your case.”
Mira growled and playfully batted out at him with her claws.
“See?!” Charlie said, pointing dramatically.
Ace looked at Charlie, looked into the darkness where Mira crouched like an oversized cat, and decided on what upon later introspection seemed like a highly stupid plan. He laid down on the bed so he could dangle his arms and head over the side, reached under the bed to grab Mira around her middle, and tried to drag her out from under the bed.
It didn't work. She must have gotten stronger or more dexterous or maybe both because he did not expect her to grab him by the shoulders and drag him under the bed like some sort of cheesy childhood monster.
“Ace!” Charlie shouted.
“Mira!” Cela scolded.
Ace realized he was laying on top of her and that her claws were tangled in his tunic. He felt his cheeks warm as he blushed.
“This... wasn't my plan,” Mira said.
“What was your plan?” Ace asked.
She didn't answer, not aloud. There was no blood in her veins to blush but she still managed to look sheepish. Maybe it was the droop of her pointed ears. Maybe it was the large red eyes that still seemed so delicately innocent. Maybe...
Ace gently stroked her cheek. “I'm glad you're all right,” he whispered.
“I'm glad you think I am,” Mira whispered. She untangled her claws and let her hands slide around him to hold him.
Someone outside kicked the bed. It might have been Charlie. She certainly sounded annoyed as she complained she could hear them and this didn't prove anything and if Ace got himself dead it was his own fault.
This seemed like a good point to stop the game. Sheppard and McKay were getting out of hand and Rowan knew there would be no getting them back on track, not after the 'boop' incident. And that was something Rowan never thought he'd see, Sheppard breaking McKay of Mira's suspicious lurking by poking him in the nose. Claims were made that McKay was acting like an irate cat and should therefore be treated as one but McKay was having none of it and now the building rant threatened to be one for the record books.
Indeed Sheppard took the signal for the end of the game and tried to escape. Or maybe he was leading McKay out of the game room so the ensuing rant would be more private.
“Interesting solution,” Zelenka said as he left. “I would not have thought of it.”
“Nor I,” Carter said ominously.
Rowan did not like the look she gave him.
The game room was transitioning into smaller games as the chess tournament ended. The winner was Sergeant Elliot, the marine everyone called Boss regardless of anyone else's orders or rank. He stood on a chair with a chess bishop held in one hand like a cigar. Someone else questioned where that chessman might have been and the posturing quickly ended as half the room laughed. The card table was gathering a game as Dr. Parrish brought out a brand new jar of betting materials fresh from the Daedalus's recent run: a gigantic plastic jug of jelly beans. The jar may have had a 'Costco' label on it, it was hard to see from Rowan's position.
Carter waited until Zelenka left and then fixed Rowan with a long glare.
“It wasn't my fault Zelenka couldn't roll a 14,” Rowan said defensively.
“You couldn't have given him the buttsex modifier?” Carter demanded. She resolutely acted as though the snickering around them wasn't happening. “Sheppard even offered.”
“It sets a bad precedent,” Rowan said. “McKay asked me the same thing and he agreed with my reasoning. Trust me, I had planned on Zelenka rolling better than a six. I was even willing to fudge his results a bit if he got close.”
“So now we have undead,” Carter said. “Rodney is running an undead character.”
“I gave him options,” Rowan said. “Of those options he chose this.”
“Look, I'll work with him on this,” Rowan said. “I know how the rest of the adventure path goes and this won't get in the way. In fact, there's a lot of opportunity here that won't be seen until later. He'll be fine. Trust me.”
Ronon caught up with Sheppard and McKay in the mess hall. They were piling their trays with some of those deboned 'hot dogs' in buns. Sheppard was pouring chili on his while McKay opted for a bowl. Ronon saw Teyla at a table and waved. She waved them over to join her.
Ronon sat down with her. As he'd hoped McKay and Sheppard joined them. He reached over and stole one of McKay's hot dogs.
“Get your own,” McKay snapped. “I'm hungry. Everyone else got a break; I assume you ate food.”
“Why do you think that?” Sheppard asked. His chili dogs were too hot to eat so he focused on acting like he wasn't still full of cookies.
“It's what I would do,” McKay said. He then glared at Sheppard. “I could smell it on you.”
“Smell me often, do you?” Sheppard asked, leering.
“Only when you smell good,” McKay said. Only then did he seem to realize what he'd just said and blushed. His embarrassment lasted only until he had to smack Ronon's hand with a spoon to save his tray.
Sheppard picked up one of his chili dogs, trying to figure out a way to hold it without getting chili everywhere. Prospects did not look good. He ended up cradling the whole thing in his hands and resigning himself to stuffing his face into things.
“Good game today,” Ronon said. “Liked the twist.”
“Twist?” Teyla asked.
“I died,” McKay said like it was the most normal thing in the world. At her horrified look he amended his statement. “I got better! Honest, I'm fine.”
“You're undead,” Sheppard said. He started on his chili dog. “You're a walking corpse who eats people,” he said, talking with his mouth full. “You only look fine.”
“I'll only eat people who deserve it,” McKay said as he delicately spooned chili onto his remaining hot dog.
Ronon pondered the chili aspect of these chili dogs and and dipped his pilfered hot dog into McKay's bowl of chili.
“Gross,” McKay snapped. “Who knows where you've been.”
“Here,” Ronon said, answering the implied question.
“Not the point.” McKay noticed Sheppard's lack of usable hands and reached across the table to divest Sheppard's tray of a chili dog.
“Go ahead,” Sheppard said, mouth full. “Ate a lot of cookies earlier.”
“Ha!” McKay shouted, triumphant. Then he realized. “Wait, there were cookies? Fresh cookies? The 'Mystery Baker' was in here?! Damn, I missed it!”
“Have you considered a pursuit where no one 'dies', even in jest?” Teyla asked with a sigh.
McKay paused and seemed to visibly consider the idea. This didn't stop him from slapping Ronon's invading hand with a spoon. “No, this is more fun,” he said. “I can sit down, let my mind run off with me, and nobody hits me with sticks.”
“Sparring's fun,” Ronon said. “It's good for you.”
Sheppard finished his chili dog and realized his napkins were no match for the chili remains all over his hands. He started licking.
McKay waited until Sheppard was busy before darting his hand out and...
Sheppard stopped in mid lick, tongue sticking out, two fingers in his mouth as he realized McKay had just poked him in the nose. He fixed McKay with a calmly questioning look, ruined completely as his lips wrapped around his fingers and sucked.
McKay looked smug. “Nobody gets to boop me and walk away, Colonel,” he said.
“I think it's a 'cat' thing,” Ronon said as Teyla looked to him for answers.
Teyla merely shook her head as she allowed her focus to wander. The others seemed set on their fictional pursuits. She didn't understand it, nor did she like it, but in the end she guessed she didn't have to.
Chapter 11: Magnimar
Cannibalism warning. It happens with ghoul characters.
Ace stood around feeling uncomfortable.
He supposed it was an unfortunate side effect of their activities here in Magnimar. The Foxglove townhouse led to another place then yet another and somehow they found themselves on the top of a tower fighting a flying snake.
It wasn't really a snake and it was using magic to fly but it was still a flying snake. Ace planned on insisting upon that point no matter how many people pointed out the lamia had hands and a human torso and breasts and a cobra's hood. And cast spells. And had a gold spear that leaked despair. And tried to turn him to stone with some mask.
That was a weird day. No other word for it.
Now he stood in the middle of a large foyer surrounded by the city's elite. He wasn't allowed to wear his armor, instead he was made up to look like some sort of posh elven lord. The idea made him want to belch and scratch himself. But he supposed that's what happened when one uncovered and ended a plot to assassinate the lord-mayor.
Cela wore something equally elven despite his half-human heritage. Yellow and black fabric draped around him, doing nothing to hide his form. Ace looked down into his wine glass, wondering if that was due to some magical tampering or if he just hadn't drunk enough yet.
Charlie looked like many of the local noblemen with her brocade and her doublet and her bobbed blonde hair. Ace wondered how many knives she had hidden in those sleeves.
Mira was... Ace had no idea if Mira was going to show up or not. Events in the church of Cayden Cailean proved she couldn't get drunk, wouldn't ever satisfy her gnawing hunger with mere food. Perhaps she'd skip the ball entirely. She'd been hiding from the city in some bolthole in the Underbridge. Cela had some friends with the church of the drunken god who were keeping an ear out for anything ghoulish in the city's shadows and so far nothing. No strange deaths, no more corpses than normal, just Mira's insistence that she was working on something and she'd come out when she was ready.
“Ace, is it? Enjoying yourself?”
Ace turned to the voice, a rather large and round man with a particularly garish hat. The Lord-Mayor Grobaras held what must have been the most ostentatious goblet in the entire room, there were rubies embedded in the crystal. Those rubies were nearly lost in the deep red wine that caught the light such that it looked nearly black.
“Of course, Lord-Mayor,” Ace said. He knew how to ingratiate himself to nobility, it was something every elf of Kyonin had to learn if they wanted to survive.
“You haven't joined the party,” Grobaras said. “Dinner will be served soon, and then of course dancing.”
“I'm waiting for someone,” Ace said.
Grobaras sniffed, sneering just enough. “Ah, yes, your necromancer.”
“Evoker,” Ace said absently.
“She's an evoker,” Ace said, his tone daring the lord-mayor to disagree.
Grobaras sniffed again, redirecting his sneer. He left Ace alone, mingling with his other guests.
The outer doors opened and a footman allowed a woman to enter. It was... It couldn't be...
Ace stood transfixed. Mira wore beautiful blue silks edged in silver. A bright orange-red scarf was wrapped around her waist, accentuating her thin curves while hiding the gaunt nature of her undead form. Her blue-purple scarf was draped over her head, translucent enough to see her underneath and, wait...
Mira drew the scarf back, letting it fold over and fall to her shoulders.
“How?” Ace asked.
“I told you I was working on something,” Mira said.
She had hair. Her red eyes matched the long red tresses still confined by the scarf. Ace reached out and...
His hand touched nothing. He watched as his hand stroked her soft red hair but he couldn't feel it. The illusion was a complex one but it wasn't total. “Will it wear off?” he asked.
“I enchanted Baba Rann's scarf,” she said. “I couldn't enchant it to make me look human again but I think this is close enough.” She stepped back and let him look.
Mira the ghoul was thinner than Mira the human was. This illusion made the attempt to reverse that, or maybe that was the result of the careful drape of fabric and twist of scarf. Her claws were impossible to see, hidden under magic and the illusion of long silk gloves. Her teeth were still sharp but less threatening, less inhuman. Vampiric, maybe. She was still pale, cold, smooth, her red eyes striking and her will a force of its own.
“I think you're beautiful,” Ace said, breathless. “I mean, you always were and you still are but--” Cold fingertips pressed into his lips. He could feel the tips of her claws against his skin.
“So I look all right?” she asked wryly.
Ace nodded. He offered his arm. She took it and he led her into the vast ballroom.
The lord-mayor didn't look overly pleased that they were there but cleared his throat anyway as he tapped his crystal goblet with a spoon.
“Ladies, gentlemen, esteemed guests, we're here to show our appreciation for these fine heroes for their roles in uncovering and foiling a most heinous plot by our own Justice Ironbriar to have me assassinated.” Grobaras waited for the gasps and the applause to die down. “Yes, yes, thank you for your concern. I assure you I'm fine. Ironbriar on the other hand...” He allowed the crowd to titter with vague and pointless laughter.
“I'm sure you've all had the chance to meet... most of them,” Grobaras continued, eying Mira. She drew herself up and seemed to dare anyone to say anything. “There will be time for meeting the necromancer later.”
Grobaras winced as four voices shouted “Evoker!” He visibly sniffed at the interruption and continued. “My Office has been given full access to the trappings of Ironbriar and his accomplices, until such a time as the Council of Ushers decides what to do with them. Viewing is in the ballroom. Please, enjoy yourselves.”
Masks and robes of the Skinsaw Cult hung along the ballroom walls. Ace shuddered as he looked at them, empty and devoid of the cultists who'd tried to kill them all. Mira glanced at one, looked away, then stared. An eyebrow arched as she quietly cast Detect Magic. She smiled as her hunch proved correct. “These are fakes,” she whispered, switching to Elven for privacy.
“What?” Ace asked. “You're serious.”
“Nonmagical fakes,” she whispered. “We got paid for these, right?”
“Finder's fee, half cost.”
“Good enough. I don't care what happens to the originals, I don't plan on being here long enough to find out.”
“Where will you go?” Ace asked.
Mira shrugged. “If nothing comes up here, I don't know. There's a prophecy I'm supposed to fulfill. I suppose I have time now but... I'd like to know if I can ever go home.”
Ace couldn't see the weaving of magic that was missing from these cloaks and masks. But he trusted her. “You could come with me,” he said. “I don't have anywhere to go. Or maybe I could come with you?”
“I'd like that,” Mira said, leaning close to him.
Rowan closed the adventure book with a satisfying 'snap'. The second adventure was finished.
“You all hit level seven,” he said.
Carter hissed in triumph and began making notes on her character sheet. Sheppard leaned back and stretched. He almost found his arm draping over the back of McKay's chair but caught himself before McKay noticed.
Zelenka flipped through the core book and skimmed a few pages. “In that case I'd like to ask Calistria for a Sending spell,” he said. “I need to take petty revenge for a minor slight.”
“Okay,” Rowan said. “Against who?”
“Are you still blaming him for my death?” McKay asked.
“No, this is a minor grievance. I only wish to rub events in a little bit.”
“The fact that you're burning a 4th level spell when a letter would suffice certainly rubs it in,” Carter said absently.
“Ah,” Rowan said, finally getting it. “In that case, you have 25 words.”
Zelenka sat back to think about his word choice.
Sheppard was able to level his character up in under two minutes. Being a fighter was easy that way. He nudged McKay. “Let's see what's in the mess,” he said.
“Good idea,” McKay said. He moved to get up.
Rowan pointed at him. “You're not leaving yet.”
“What?!” McKay demanded. “Oh, come on. I haven't eaten in hours! We're done, right?”
Rowan smiled. McKay did not like that smile. “They're done,” he said, gesturing to the others. “You... have some circumstances we need to deal with.”
McKay crossed his arms and pouted as he slouched in his chair. “Being undead's hard.”
“I'll bring you something,” Sheppard said.
McKay's pout dissolved into a blinding grin. “You will?”
Sheppard smirked and left.
“I have it,” Zelenka said. “'Foxglove worked under orders of Skinsaw Cult. Assassination plots foiled. Investigating Turtleback Ferry at request of Magnimar government. Mira recovered with aid from Cayden Cailean.' Is twenty five words exactly. I do not wait for his answer, is unimportant.”
Rowan snorted. “You may not pay attention but it comes through anyway,” he said. “In essence, Sandpoint's safe, assassinations are worrisome, and why didn't you go to the Pharasmins? They were the only ones who could have saved her.”
Zelenka grinned. “So he thinks.”
“That's one way to tell them she's undead,” Carter said. She chose a feat and finished leveling up. “Now we can never go back there.”
Zelenka scoffed. “They couldn't handle goblins,” he said dismissively. “I don't fear them and neither should Mira.”
“Speaking of,” Rowan said, his smile returning as he regarded McKay. He pulled the adventure book toward him and reopened it, flipping to pages near the back. “Mira... You said you wanted to find some... things... You hear of just the place.”
The lord-mayor had a 'favor' to ask of them, one that came with a pittance of gold to cover expenses. Charlie headed off to exchange several of her daggers with better made ones, Cela said something about petty revenge, Ace spent his time at the church of Cayden Cailean partaking in the holiest of beers, and Mira had her own plans.
Mira lurked in the Undercity. Her death had made her more persuasive, maybe it was the eyes, and she was able to find what she sought in the shadow of the Irespan where the city guard knew not to venture. There were monsters here, murderers and thieves and giant rats. But there was one thing even monsters feared and that was necromancy.
She'd spent an entire night in the lord-mayor's mansion being called a necromancer. The church of Cayden Cailean decided it was easier to pretend she was 'just' a necromancer and not anything worse. The city guard called her a necromancer to her face, a witch behind her back. She was used to being called a witch.
She wasn't the only one. Her questions had led her to a tiny independent graveyard run and operated by a 'witch'. This place was a shack in the darkness next to a small plot of bare dirt. A sign proclaimed it to be a graveyard even though there were only three dilapidated headstones. The expected smell of death did not drift from beneath the earth here. She allowed her scarf to fall away from her face and knocked on the wood frame.
A black rooster flapped awkwardly up onto a leaning gravestone. It fixed her with beady black eyes and clucked.
“Hey,” Mira said, reaching out to rub the rooster's feathers. The rooster trilled and pecked at her claws. It then jumped, flapping clumsily into the shack's glassless window.
The door opened. The black rooster drew itself up, puffing its chest and flicking its tail feathers. It stood amidst the bright green hair of a gnome with big silver eyes, a wide grin, and a stare that seemed to see right through Mira's scarf of disguise. “Dropping off or picking up?”
Mira wondered how one might 'pick up' from a graveyard. It was better not to ask. Her belly growled as her hunger decided to make itself known. She winced and hissed aloud until she could ignore it.
The gnome gave her a calculating look. “Come in, come in,” he said, far too gleefully to be natural.
Mira looked around, hoped she wasn't making a mistake, and stepped inside. The rickety door closed with a distinct sense of finality.
“Call me 'Tartegre',” he said. The rooster flapped away to perch on a bookshelf. The second shelf was dominated by a large nest. “He's 'Shimmer Pitch' but I'm the only one who gets to call him that.”
Mira recognized a caster's familiar. The rooster moved and acted with an intelligence she'd not seen in many goblins. “May I call you 'Pitch'?” she asked, scratching under its beak. The rooster trilled and rubbed its head against her claws, no fear whatsoever in its feathered head.
“Honey, if you keep scritching him like that he'll let you call him whatever you want,” Tartegre said.
Mira noticed there were eggs in the rooster's nest. She recalled something about eggs hatched by roosters, or was it rooster eggs hatched by toads? Either way, that knowledge did not sit easy with her.
Tartegre stirred a bubbling pot on the fire. He ladled a portion into a bowl too big for his hands. “You should eat something,” he said ominously. “Hunger can be maddening, don't you think so?”
Mira's pettings slowed as she pulled away from the rooster. She ignored it as it pecked at her claws, insisting she get back to proper business. She pulled her scarf from her head and allowed the illusion to drop.
Tartegre merely smiled. “Sit, hun, sit down. Have some soup.”
Mira sat down, wondering if she'd followed the wrong directions and ended up somewhere truly terrifying. She took the bowl, expecting it to leave her feeling as empty as the lord-mayor's feast the night before. Nothing she ever ate would quench this hunger, nothing except... And there was no way she would ever...
She took a polite sip and...
Mira moaned aloud as the agony of her hunger faded. She shuddered at the sheer weight of sweet relief. The pain was gone...
The pain was gone!
Wait, no, no! It was coming back! She whimpered and drank from the bowl again. Food, glorious food! It didn't feel like ash in her belly, it didn't taunt her with empty promises, she could feel it... The hunger came back soon after each swallow but...
Mira looked into the bowl, at the thick stew with its chunks and shreds of slightly overcooked meat. She looked up at Tartegre, at the delighted grin on his face as he watched her with rapt attention. He giggled and bounced in glee as she stared at him in horror.
Ghoul hunger... could only be satisfied... by the flesh of humanoids...
“You must be young,” Tartegre purred. “I have so many leftovers in my line of work. Eat as much as you like.”
Mira wanted to put the bowl down. But the hunger was coming back. She began to realize how so many others before her went mad with it, why they lost themselves. She wanted to...
She brought the bowl to her lips and drank it all. On the edge of her perception she could hear the gnome laughing in glee, the black rooster crowing.
McKay sat in dawning horror as Rowan calmly described the scene. Intellectually it made sense, being a ghoul allowed him access to some nice things: immunity to disease, poisons, and mind effecting spells, increased hit points due to the charisma bonus, increased dexterity, natural armor, Mira was a much more powerful character now than before. A fighter would be devastatingly powerful with these advantages. It was only expected that there be some drawbacks.
Mira's unnatural aura of undeath that scared animals and small children was a problem but it was something that could be managed. The smell was a nuisance but it wasn't like McKay couldn't burn some skill points on crafting perfumes, besides the smell would only get bad if Mira ate people. That fact, that ghouls ate people, was something he'd dismissed as unimportant.
Now he realized how wrong he was.
Rowan stopped talking as Sheppard came into the game room. He carried a cardboard box with several sandwiches in it, a travel mug of coffee, and looked like he had several cookies stuffed in his pockets. Rowan made the effort to look like he hadn't been describing anything abnormal at all, nope, nothing weird here.
McKay had no idea how the man did it. He wasn't even sure he wanted to eat anymore but his stomach growled at him as Sheppard sat down and started pulling things out of his pockets.
Rowan stole a cookie and continued. “Once your bowl's empty Tartegre refills it without asking. Then he asks why you're here, other than lunch.”
McKay held a sandwich halfway to his mouth and debated putting it down. But he couldn't. He was too hungry.
Tartegre glanced over Mira's shoulder at her spellbook. His eyes went wide as he recognized the writing style. “What brought you to necromancy?” he asked. “Aside from, well, the obvious...”
“I'm an evoker,” Mira said. “Necromancy doesn't oppose evocation. Why should I pretend it does? Necromancy is no more difficult than divination.”
“Everyone should know a little bit of divination,” Tartegre said absently, looking worriedly at his rooster. Pitch clucked back at him. “How old did you say you were?”
Mira looked up at him. She could see his sudden worry but didn't understand why. “I didn't,” she said.
Tartegre sat looking thoughtful. Pitch flapped down to perch on his head.
“I'm in the market for some scrolls,” she said. “Animate Dead, of course. Maybe a few other things. There are some small spells I've heard of that I never learned. Perhaps you could help me out there.”
Tartegre fell out of his chair. Pitch took to the air squawking. The rooster landed on Mira's head. It settled down as if to brood her bald head like a giant egg. She giggled, Pitch was warm.
“Of, of course, my lady,” Tartegre said, suddenly formal and deferential. He scrambled to his feet and ran off to a trap door in the floor.
Mira looked up at the rooster, who looked down at her as if sharing in her confusion.
Tartegre returned quickly, a pair of skeletons following him. One held a collection of scrolls, the other a spellbook. “Look, look, peruse all you wish! I... need to... do something...” He headed outside. Soon the sound of someone jumping into a rain barrel reached her ears.
“Wonder what that's about,” Mira mused aloud. Pitch clucked dismissively, it was unimportant. Mira had to agree as she took the spellbook from the bowing skeleton. She flipped open the book to copy a few of these cantrips she'd missed due to her lack of an apprenticeship.
Later she left with a black feather tucked behind her ear and an open invitation to return whenever she so wished. A few extra scrolls were tucked under her arm and her spellbook felt heavier with the spells she'd long ago been warned she should never touch. She silently begged Desna's forgiveness but Baba Rann's predicted 'bad things' had already happened and now she needed every edge she could get.
“So why did you need us all to leave for that?” Sheppard asked, eating one of the sandwiches he brought for McKay.
McKay nearly choked on his sandwich.
Sheppard looked suspiciously at Rowan.
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with,” Rowan assured him. “Mira just needed to acquire a few scrolls from shady sources. Nothing important.”
Sheppard did not look entirely convinced but he let the matter drop. This game was getting weird enough as it was. There were some things he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
Chapter 12: Forbidden Arts
“This makes no sense!”
“It makes sense if you take the time to look at it.”
“Nic nedává smysl! There is no connection between clauses. There are statements that have no meaning. There is nothing to influence the code!”
“Are you blind?! It makes perfect sense!”
Zelenka and McKay stood across from each other, neither backing down. Zelenka's insistence that the Replicator code made no sense was true. There were minimal connections between clauses, it was written as though the program was expected to know which statement to access next without using logic gates to make the determination. McKay's insistence that the Replicator code made sense was also true. These senseless, gateless, logicless portions were determined to be the original code unaltered by Replicator or Wraith meddling. The Replicators may have been discarded by the Ancients but they worked from the beginning; it was only with the addition of extra code that they began to stray from their original purpose.
The extra portions of code were riddled with extraneous information, gates upon statements upon a million dead end if-thens that didn't matter, shouldn't matter, shouldn't even be there. These were tagged as Replicator additions to their own base code.
McKay had tagged the portions he'd added, using a dud copy he kept as reference. These lines looked like a drunken hybrid of the two styles, extraneous if-then statements leading to some logic gates that were then ignored by later loops of code, all leading to a function that worked just enough. It wouldn't win any awards and it wasn't pretty but it ran.
There were older portions that seemed a bit too elegant to be original code. These sections were tagged for easy access but nobody wanted to admit in public what they meant. These commands countered the original function, this was what turned the Replicators off in the first place. The Wraith did this.
McKay was tired. He was tired of being the only one who could make sense of the logicless code. Reading it gave him a headache after more than an hour and he always came away from it feeling cold. He'd found a few things that helped him cope and interruptions were not one of them, thank you very much. He glared at Sheppard in the doorway.
“Busy,” McKay said.
“Food,” Sheppard said, gesturing behind him.
“Busy,” McKay said again. “Replicator code.”
“You can't teach other people to read it the way you do?” Sheppard asked.
“Nejsou žádná slova,” Zelenka muttered. “Není tam žádný smysl, to běží na duchy.”
“Yes, yes, it makes no sense, it's full of illogic and madness and whatever,” McKay said dismissively. “Go elsewhere until it does.”
“Rodney,” Sheppard said. It wasn't a whine. It wasn't even close. Honest.
McKay pointed to the corridor outside. “Out,” he said in a voice that allowed no protest. “Go away. I will eat later.”
Sheppard watched in horrified fascination as McKay pulled the screen close to him, set himself up with a couple of laptops, put a set of headphones on his head, gave him one last glare for good measure, and then...
Sheppard had seen that glazed-eyed trance-like look on McKay before. It was usually when he was concentrating on something, occasionally when he was about to do or say something brilliant. It meant bad things would happen to the one who disturbed him. Sheppard took the hint and left the lab.
Zelenka stormed past him, laptop under his arm, muttering in Czech. Sheppard hear something about logic and sense and Gypsies? Weird. Sheppard trotted to catch up to him. “What was that about?” Sheppard asked.
Zelenka kept his pace, annoyance radiating off of him in waves. “It is no use,” he said. “There is no sense at all to the Replicator code. I cannot work with it, there's nothing for me to work on. All code has certain rules, steps the program follows to reach a conclusion. The steps are all missing. It is... You have experience with math, you know how frustrating it is to see a proof with steps missing. Too many steps gone and you cannot follow the proof. It proves nothing.”
Sheppard knew the feeling. Sometimes following McKay's thought patterns felt like that.
“Replicator code is like that,” Zelenka continued. “Out of 32 lines only, say, lines 1, 9, 11, 16, 23, and 32 are present. I am expected to follow this code with that much missing. There is nothing connecting clauses together.”
Sheppard winced. “And McKay gets it,” he realized.
“He is not the only one,” Zelenka admitted. He considered his next words carefully. Nobody wanted the Wraith involved but if it was the only way... At least the others should know of the option. “We know of one other who has succeeded with this code.”
Sheppard stood in the field under protest. He did not want to be here. He didn't want the cloaked jumper 20 paces to the south to have to be here. He didn't want his team to have to be here.
He was here to meet the individual in question. Teyla was in the jumper to make sure he was coming and that he was alone. Ronon and McKay were there to make sure nothing went wrong and because it had been ages since they did anything together as a team. A squad of marines rounded out the benches inside the jumper, weapons down as they all waited.
“You think he'll be here?” McKay asked.
“Hope not,” Ronon said. “We don't need him.”
“You know that is not true, Ronon,” Teyla said. She shifted in the jumper seat, the seat back was not comfortable given her rounded belly.
Ronon reached out and slid a hand between her and the seat back. He curled his fingers and smirked as she leaned back into his hand and groaned, wiggling just enough to dig his knuckles into her tense muscles.
McKay watched them with a look of contemplation, like he was trying to figure that one out. He seemed to come to a realization and abruptly looked away, eyes glazing over as he tapped at the sensor feed through his laptop.
Outside Sheppard tapped his radio. “Rodney, Teyla, any sign of them?”
“No, John, I... ah...” Teyla moaned aloud as Ronon's knuckles hit a particularly sore spot.
“Ignore them,” McKay said. “Nothing on sensors. Teyla's a little busy. Give it five more minutes.”
“It's been long enough, Rodney,” Sheppard complained. “Five more minutes isn't going to matter.”
McKay disagreed. Five more minutes felt about right. “Five more minutes,” he repeated. “It's not going to ruin your day.”
Teyla sat up straight, eyes wide. “John, he's coming.” Her eyes went languid as her face went slack, the strangely relaxed expression she got when establishing mental contact with someone. “He's here...”
Above them a Wraith dart screamed down from the clouds and twisted to land in the clearing. The pilot disembarked, jumped to the ground, smoothed down his coat, glanced directly at the cloaked jumper, and only then allowed his gaze to land on Sheppard.
“Ah, Sheppard,” Todd said. “I knew you'd require my help.” He looked at the jumper as though he could see it through the cloak, as though the cloak wasn't even there. “I see you brought Dr. McKay. Good. We can get to work.”
Sheppard always hated this part. Stupid Wraith. Stupid Wraith mental contact. Stupid Wraith with thousands of years of experience. Stupid Wraith who enjoyed keeping him off-guard. Stupid Wraith who seemed to be able to hear all these thoughts as he had them. Well he hoped Todd enjoyed them because he wouldn't be giving the Wraith the satisfaction after this.
Todd seemed almost tauntingly pleased by Sheppard's unnerved state.
It wasn't natural.
Rowan sat down at the table. Carter was already there. “We're enforcing a lot of Sundays,” he mused aloud.
“Sheppard's idea,” Carter said, flipping through a book. “He seems to think the Wraith will cooperate better if we let him sit in a cell an extra day.” She looked up. “I know exactly what he's doing. If Todd didn't seem so amused by it all I'd object.”
“You think he's really amused by it?” Rowan asked.
Carter shrugged. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “It's as good enough an excuse as any.”
“Rodney gets... touchy... if he thinks he's being coddled,” Rowan realized.
“I think the fact that he doesn't have backup is getting to him. We don't have a military option. I haven't even let him hear the intel yet; the Replicators are moving against the Wraith.”
“That's good,” Rowan said.
“By neutralizing their food supply.”
“The last thing we need is Rodney blowing a vein because of a stim overdose or blowing a chromosome with the ascension machine.”
Rowan opened his mouth to answer but the game room door opened. McKay looked exhausted, shadows under his eyes and a slight tremor to his hands. Sheppard looked much less beaten down as he carried two large travel mugs of coffee. And yet it was McKay who was berating Sheppard for needing the day off, if not for this he could get to work with Todd right away on this stupid code.
Sheppard put both mugs down on the table in front of McKay's usual seat and then took his own seat. McKay sat down heavily, wrapped his hands around one mug, and slowly inhaled. A low blissful sound fell out of him as his eyes closed.
Zelenka came in, his single mug of coffee in his hands. He looked at McKay then at Carter then sat down.
The game room was quiet today, not much going on. Today's Sunday was being enforced a mere three days after the last one and most people were just taking the time to sleep in. The gate was active, people breaking into groups to head to offworld markets. Today was normally a trade day and Teyla had volunteered to take over, to keep the Enforced Sunday from interfering with obligations.
Rowan opened a new book. The title did not look comforting. “Let's begin, shall we?”
Cela stared openly as Mira rode up to them on a horse.
The road outside of Magnimar was long and dusty, many days between them and their destination. It had been decided that they would take the old Varisian road but Cela knew there would be problems, not the least was the unnatural aura of a ghoul. Animals would not suffer their presence, it would be impossible to find a horse willing to carry Mira. Walking would add ten days to their journey.
And yet here she was, skirts dangling off to one side, no saddle or bridle between her and the horse, her scarves trailing behind her in the breeze. Her illusion allowed for her hair to bounce along with, though the image didn't quite catch the wind in all the right ways.
Charlie and Ace sat on their own horses, both waiting on the road for Mira to catch up. Ace tugged at his horse's reigns as the animal shifted and stamped, uneasy at her presence. Charlie had no such control over the animal and it decided to continue on the trail without any of them.
“Let's get going,” Mira said as she approached. “I don't want to have to maintain the illusion longer than I have to.”
“I thought you enchanted your scarf so it wouldn't take effort to maintain,” Ace said.
“Not me,” Mira said. She patted her horse's neck. "Him."
Cela noticed then that her horse's mane and tail bounced along with its trotting but didn't quite catch the wind in all the right ways. His eyes went wide. “Mira, what did you do?” he asked.
“Be easier to show you,” she said. “But first I want a few miles between us and the city. Wait, where's Charlie?”
They found Charlie still on her horse, arms crossed in annoyance. Said horse had found a grassy field sheltered by a turn in the road and was grazing contentedly.
Ace grinned at her. “Still haven't gotten the hang of riding?” he asked.
“Screw off,” Charlie said. She tugged at the reigns and kicked the horse's sides. Her horse, a deep bay mare named Cocoa, looked at her and snorted then went back to grazing.
“That's Spot,” Ace said, pointing to Cela's horse. Cela's black mare was not spotted at all. “And this is Sugar.” He gestured to his own horse, a gray gelding with white ticks all over his hindquarters. Ace wondered about Mira's horse, the animal had walked to this field and just stood there, no grazing, no sniffing, no noises, nothing.
Mira looked around. “I guess we're far enough away that I can drop the illusion,” she said. “This is Lightfoot.” The image of the brown horse faded away, leaving bleached bone and bare skeleton in its wake. Sugar screamed and reared. Spot bared her teeth and snorted, tail flicking. Cocoa looked up, laid her ears flat, then decided everything was fine and went back to eating.
“Ah,” Cela said, as though this were completely normal. “That explains much.”
Ace wrestled Sugar under control while Charlie gaped openly. “Where did you get that?!” she demanded.
“I raised it,” Mira said. “What?”
“What?” McKay asked. He finished his second mug of coffee.
“Who gave you an undead horse?” Sheppard demanded. He glared at Rowan.
“It was dead when I got there,” McKay said. “What?”
“You let him have an undead horse,” Sheppard said, enunciating every word as he glared at Rowan.
“Mira bought the scroll, she transcribed the spell, she found the horse, she raised the horse, she knows the illusions, and people already call her a necromancer,” Rowan said, enunciating right back. “You're on the open road. If I throw a wandering paladin at you, who would you back?”
“Me, I hope,” McKay said.
Sheppard slumped. He crossed his arms and glared. He was not happy with this.
“Your, um...” Ace didn't know what to call it. “Your demon horse isn't going to eat the other horses is it?”
“He's not a demon,” Mira said as she slid off. She stroked Lightfoot's nose as though it were a living horse. “You're not a demon are you? No, no you're not. You're just a widdle skeleton, yes you are...” Lightfoot waved the few tailbones it had like it was swishing a tail that was no longer there.
Their camp was simple enough, a few bedrolls around a fire. Charlie watched, visibly disturbed, as Mira petted the skeletal horse. Cela had the living horses in a nearby pasture, letting them roll around to get the feel of saddles and reigns off of them. The sounds of snorting and soft neighing came from the pasture.
“If you're worried about the horses you might as well ask if she's going to eat us while we sleep,” Charlie muttered to Ace. She then turned on Mira. “I saw what Foxglove did to you, I know you could paralyze us so we wouldn't be able to scream. How do we know we're safe?”
“I'm not going to eat you,” Mira said, turning her red eyes on Charlie. She ignored the memory of how wonderful it felt when the hunger faded. She wouldn't chase that feeling, she couldn't. That road led to eternal madness and endless solitude. She shook off the thought. “And Lightfoot isn't going to eat the other horses. He's a skeleton, they don't eat anything. They don't sleep, they don't eat, they don't get tired.” She smiled as though solving a problem no one else had thought of. “He can watch the other horses while they sleep! I know there's predators and horse thieves out here, he can keep the other horses safe.”
Ace sighed. This was not why he'd bought a ring of sustenance but he was glad he had.
The next day they were breaking camp when a voice hailed them. “Hail, travelers, I-- holy shit!”
The elf who stood at their camp was familiar. The hoop earrings that dangled to her shoulders, the hair tied up in spikes, the cloak that covered her bow arm, they'd met her before. Most of them.
“I don't know you,” Cela said. "Ace?"
“Shalelu, hi,” Ace said, feeling uncomfortable. Much had changed since the goblins at Thistletop.
“What the hell?!” Shalelu demanded. She managed to tear her horrified stare from Mira and instead focused on Ace, he looked like he had some answers. “Father Zantus tells me you were contracted to head to Turtleback Ferry and I thought I'd hitch a ride! He didn't say nothing about her!” She pointed at Mira. Mira hissed, teeth bared.
“Ah, yes, she died,” Cela said as though Mira's death and rebirth were an ordinary occurrence. “Father Zantus offered what help he could but in the end it was for naught. At least Calistria granted me the power to avenge her death. And now she is returned to us.”
“As a...” Shalelu looked Mira up and down. The illusions weren't active, leaving her open to full scrutiny. Mira smiled, letting too many sharp teeth act as a warning. She hoisted herself up onto Lightfoot's bare spine, feet and skirts hanging daintily off to one side.
Shalelu opened her mouth to say something but Ace cut her off. “She's not a necromancer,” he said. “I don't know why people keep saying that.”
“Is a safer term to use around Pharasmins,” Cela said. “They kill undead on sight. At least they ask necromancers first.”
“Ah,” Ace said.
Shalelu pointed at the pelvis of the skeletal horse walking away from them, taking Mira with it. “That... is a pretty convincing necromancer.”
Ace rolled his eyes and mounted Sugar. He kicked his heels and Sugar trotted off after Mira. Sugar whinnied and shied away from the skeletal horse but he didn't rear this time.
“She's only a necromancer until you see her blow stuff up,” Charlie said, mounting Cocoa. She kicked the mare's sides and flapped the reigns. Cocoa looked back at her and stood there. “Stupid horse, walk.”
Cela piled the last of the party gear onto his horse Spot. “You may ride with me,” he offered. He and Shalelu shared the saddle as they followed the road.
A routine developed over the next few days. Every night the horses were staked in a clearing by the road, Lightfoot standing off to the side so as to avoid spooking them. Mira worked on various bits and things, enchanting unique wondrous items while everyone else slept. Ace sat up with her most of the night, keeping watch. He watched her as much as he watched for midnight dangers.
There were few caravans this time of year, the rain and the wind making travel less than ideal. Cela and Mira had their own magical solutions to the weather and offered them to the others. Soon the horses had blankets to protect them from the wind and rain, Shalelu had a new cloak, and then the incident with the cougar changed things.
That had been a strange night. Everyone awoke to the sound of screaming. Ace and Mira stood on the edge of the clearing where the horses were tied, watching as the firepelt cougar lost its chance at a meal. Soon it lost much more. Mira let Lightfoot keep the bloodstains, his forelegs coated in dried and flaking blood. The other horses lost their fear of the skeletal creature and stayed close to him.
Ace skinned the dead cougar and prepared the fur. By the time he'd convinced Mira to let him to use Lightfoot's ribcage to stretch the pelt nobody could muster up enough fear to be surprised.
Rowan sighed and put his head in his hands. Not even an hour into today's session and already his game was getting ridiculous.
“Just so you know, I'm not letting you use Lightfoot as a stretching rack for any old dead skin you find,” McKay said. His tone was far too normal for the strangeness of his words.
“Of course not,” Sheppard said. “Only the pretty ones.”
Rowan looked to Carter for help.
“You did this,” Carter said, pointing at McKay.
“You're supposed to be an evoker,” Rowan accused.
“I am,” McKay said. He looked around, confused. “That didn't change, did it?”
“I hope not,” Sheppard said. “I prefer you blowing stuff up over not.”
Rowan thought of something and picked up another book. He flipped through it, skimming a section. That seemed to leave him feeling less hopeless about things, as he chuckled darkly to himself.
“What did you do?” Zelenka asked ominously, looking at Sheppard and McKay.
“Nothing.” Both men spoke at the same time with differing levels of veracity.
“Don't worry about it,” Rowan said. “You leave the Yondabakari Road and follow the Skull River upstream. The remainder of your trip is fairly uneventful and in a few days the river widens into the Claybottom Lake. On the other side of the lake is Turtleback Ferry.”
The town had no news from Fort Rannick. There hadn't been word from the fort for weeks, not since the month of the Black Moon began. No one wanted to be the one to check on the Black Arrows, not with the ogres and trolls known to lurk in the forest. Nobody wanted to be the one to wander into an ogre ambush if the Black Arrows had fallen, nor did anyone want to bother a group of antisocial rangers if they weren't in danger.
They stayed the night, Mira having to concentrate the entire time to keep the illusion over Lightfoot. By the time they were ready to leave her headache was not assuaged by the worried stablemaster who had stayed up all night with her horse, trying to get him to eat something. Ace had to slip the man a gold coin and tell him not to worry because he could see that look in Mira's red eyes, the one where she wanted to set someone on fire.
She got the chance a short ways outside the town.
Ace wondered if it was normal to be thankful for ogres.
Given how Shalelu acted when she found the bear, someone's injured animal companion, Ace realized his relief was not normal at all.
Neither was the sprawling shack that stood in the clearing before them.
But at least there were monsters.
Chapter 13: Forbidden Acts
General helluva warning. Hook Mountain Massacre is generally considered the most nauseating adventure Paizo has ever published. Do not read while eating.
Cannibalism warning. Not just Mira, either. This applies to the next few chapters too.
“Deliverance?” Carter asked.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” McKay countered.
“Evil Dead,” Sheppard said, grinning at McKay. McKay hit him.
“What is this?” Zelenka asked.
“We're trying to figure out what movie this house is from,” Carter said. “It can't be Evil Dead, that one had the protagonists trapped in the house while monsters invaded. We're invading the house full of monsters.”
“There was this one 'X-Files' episode,” McKay said. “Ooo, or The Carpenter.”
“So... wait, no, there wasn't a house in The Devil's Rejects was there,” Sheppard mused.
“Next team night we're watching all the dumb horror movies you've obviously missed,” McKay said.
Zelenka and Rowan looked at each other. Zelenka shrugged. “I never learned to indulge in movies,” Zelenka said.
“This place doesn't remind me of a movie,” Rowan said. “It reminds me of a neighbor's place when I was a kid.”
Carter looked horrified.
“What?” Rowan asked.
“If it is like I'm imagining, I knew of place like this too,” Zelenka said. “It was said children who disobeyed their parents were kidnapped to feed the man's dogs.”
“Jesus,” Sheppard whispered.
Carter and Sheppard both looked horrified. Perhaps it was the utter seriousness of Zelenka's words or maybe his matter-of-fact delivery but they believed him.
“Yes, yes, you grew up in Soviet Czechoslovakia no electricity and had to battle giant rats for food,” McKay said dismissively. “Can we move on?”
Carter and Sheppard both glared at McKay. “What?” McKay asked. They all missed Zelenka's smirk.
Mira took a deep breath, letting it out with a long shudder.
She didn't notice Cela and Ace both look at her strangely. She was undead, she didn't need to breathe, therefore the action must have some deeper meaning.
It did. The hunger burned in her in this house of inbred hells. The ogres and their kin who lived here reveled in their appetites, especially here in their own home. Little went to waste. Human bones and sinew became chairs and tables with stretched human skins as upholstery. Hands and feet and equally unsavory cuts of meat were allowed to dry for decoration or boiled down for soups, the bones sewn into toys and chimes and fetishes and the myriad collection of traps that threatened them with every step.
The kitchen was the worst. She had to grip at her middle with her own claws while the others all made ill noises and barely held back their retching. A butcher's block stood near the fire and a large iron pot bubbling away with something none of the others wanted to consider. Fresh blood still dripped from the block, the hastily wiped cleavers hanging on the wall above. A platter sat nearby, an array of severed fingers with their nails removed awaiting their addition to the stew pot. Mira grabbed one of the bloody rags on the wall and lifted the pot's filthy iron lid.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
She didn't even hear her own wanton moan, not until she felt the knife at her throat. Mira opened her eyes.
Charlie looked ill, pale and disturbed, one of her daggers at Mira's throat. “You're not even thinking about it,” Charlie said threateningly.
“Oh, she's thinking about it plenty,” Shalelu said.
Cela forgot his disgust and smiled as he watched. He giggled.
Charlie and Ace both glared at him.
“Hunger is the purest and simplest lust of them all,” Cela said, almost purring as he watched. “You know you want to, Mira.”
“No!” Charlie shouted, pressing her knife harder. “You can't. If you do...”
“What?” Mira asked, her voice deceptively calm. “What happens if I do?”
“If you do... It won't stop. You won't be able to stop yourself. You'll kill us all. We're all dead if you do this, Mira.”
“Are we?” Ace asked.
Shalelu shrugged. “If she turns weird I'm running.”
Mira smiled, an easy smile that didn't watch in the slightest with her next words. “How do you know I haven't already?”
Charlie took a step back, her head shaking as she mouthed the word 'no' over and over.
Mira picked up the pot's ladle and dipped it in the bubbling stew. She blew grave-cold air over it to cool the bubble then took a sip. She moaned aloud, nearly dropping the ladle as the hunger faded for one precious moment. She winced as it came back, demanding more of her. She took a breath to steady herself, tamping down the need. She looked over at the others, at their varying degrees of horror, disgust, curiosity, and utter delight. They all expected her to do something, to attack them or to drink the entire pot. In the end she did neither, instead trying to defuse the situation with words. “Needs salt,” she said.
Carter and Rowan both leveled tired glares at Zelenka. Sheppard, meanwhile, had his own turned on McKay.
“What?” McKay asked.
“'How do you know I haven't already',” Sheppard said, quoting deadpanned.
“There was this necromancer in Magnimar,” McKay said defensively. “He just kept feeding me. What was I supposed to do, say no?”
“Generally yes,” Sheppard said.
“That would have been rude,” McKay said.
Sheppard sighed and gave up.
“There's a reason I said you couldn't be evil,” Rowan said. “It wasn't because I thought you were incapable.”
“I have not fed her,” Zelenka said. “I have not killed to feed her. I have merely made the suggestion that since the opportunity has presented itself, she should partake. It is cruel to force her to hunger more than she has to.”
Carter made an array of facial expressions as she thought of responses, prepared to say them, then dismissed them before she got the chance. Finally she slumped in her chair. “Fucking chaotic neutrals,” she muttered.
Rowan sighed. “Moving on,” he said.
The hallway led down to a filthy doorway barely held together with bent nails and half-hammered pegs. The door creaked on its hinges, opening to a nightmare of stench and sight. Fat flies hovered around overflowing buckets used as makeshift chamberpots. A huge easel leaned against one wall, pots of crushed organs and clotted blood acting as paint and pigments. A gigantic bed sat in the middle of the room. That bed was nearly completely obscured by the morbidly obese ogrish woman spread out on its sagging mattress. A red curtain draped over her lap was the only clothing she wore, leaving her stretched and split skin open to the buzzing flies.
Mammy Graul moved on the torturously creaking bed, rolls of flesh shifting and splitting as she sat up and screamed. “BOYS! GIT IN 'ERE! Y' LEFT THE DOOR OPEN AGIN!"”
The ogre zombies who clawed their way out of shadows and a closet were somehow less disturbing than the living creature who cast Fly and then rose from the bed.
“I am not a necromancer,” Mira said with conviction. “That is.”
The zombies advanced. They fell quickly enough even as Mammy Graul screamed her ire at the invaders in her home. Ace charged in, sword raised, only to be grabbed in one massive hand. He began to scream as dark oily magic invaded him and brought him to his knees.
Shalelu fell back, shooting wildly. Charlie threw her knives even though she didn't know what to do. Cela flung the tongue of his whip around Ace and yanked, trying to pull the fighter from the necromancer's grasp.
Mira didn't hesitate. She jumped on the ogress's back and bit, clawed, howled, snarled...
She didn't stop until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Cela stood there, almost serene with his horrible understanding. “It's over,” he said. “It's done.”
Mira looked around the room. It was still a disgusting morass in here but now there was blood and viscera everywhere. Shalelu and Charlie had Ace between them, all of them on the floor while Ace sat curled in on himself with his hands on his head. Cela looked so damned understanding and...
She was covered in blood. None of it was hers. The hunger hadn't yet come back. What had she... Who...
Oh... She looked down as her bloody claws, soaked in red up to the elbows. Blood stained Baba Rann's pretty blue and purple scarf, turned the silver patterns red. She could taste the blood on her lips, feel it drying all over her face.
She had spells, she could have... But there was... And she... And Ace...
She looked up at Cela and wrapped her arms around his legs, rubbing her bloody face against his thigh as she shook and shuddered and tried not to cry.
Ace's head was killing him.
Cela assured him the curse wasn't permanent, he'd be able to lift it tonight after he prayed for a Break Enchantment. Until then it wouldn't get worse, he could handle it until then right?
Of course Ace had said yes. Sure, he could handle it. It wasn't like his head felt like spikes were being driven through his skull from the inside out.
“Is it dead?” he asked, groggy.
Two sets of hands next to him, one set on each side. He couldn't even find the space to joke about the armored tits on either side of his face as Shalelu and Charlie both leaned close to him like they were trying to protect him. Maybe it wasn't dead? But the last thing he remembered was Mira jumping on it... all fangs and claws and... she saved him...
“You're safe now,” Shalelu said.
“No one's safe,” Charlie hissed.
Ace tried to get up. It wasn't easy with both women pressed so close to him. He squinted through the pain as he raised his head to look at the carnage.
Carnage was a good word for it. The corpse of the necromancer was split open down the back, rent with claws and marred by bite marks and missing chunks where Mira had torn entire pieces away. Organs were few, thankfully, but gallons of blood pooled on the floor. Mira still wallowed in it, blood staining her skirts and her skin and all her pretty scarves as Cela let her paw at him. Then she looked up and...
Ace almost forgot the pain in his head as he crawled out from between the overly protective women. He made it across the floor, kneeling at the edge of the pooling blood. “Hey,” he said.
Mira looked up at him. Her eyes were as red as the stains over most of her face. It dripped down her neck, down the front of her blouse, stuck all her scarves to her and she looked so miserable he couldn't stand it. He untangled her from Cela's legs and pulled her close to him.
“I'm a monster,” she whispered.
Ace held her tight. “No, no you're not,” he said. He ignored Charlie's scoff behind him. “You're not you're... Mira...”
Mira curled up in his arms. “I couldn't let you die,” she said.
“I'm glad you didn't,” Ace said.
Charlie looked from Cela who was trying to spit-wash some of the blood from his robes, to Ace who had a freaking ghoul in his lap, to Mira who was the freaking ghoul in his lap. “You're all nuts,” she said.
They continued to search the house despite Ace's cursed headache. The pain made him slower to react to things, easier to hit, but he still hit back just as hard. He insisted he was all right so they continued, though Mira stayed with him. He didn't seem to mind, leaning on her when the pain get bad.
Then they came to the barn.
The ogres and their kin fell easily enough but the barn held worse secrets.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Mira said.
“You're a walking bad feeling,” Charlie muttered.
Ace looked down, shaking his head to clear it. He stopped mid-shake and went still. “Guys?” he said.
“And I'm sorry about that!” Mira snapped. “Is that what you want to hear? Fine! I'm sorry this happened to me, I'm sorry you have to put up with me, I'm sorry you had to watch me save Ace's life! I died, I can't change that! Cela can't change that, you can't change that, no one can. So what do you want me to do, die again? Leave?!”
Mira glared at Ace who was still looking down.
Cela looked at Ace then down. He went still. “Mira, dear, please tell me you prepared Fireball today.”
“Of course, why?” She looked down. “Oh.”
Charlie looked down and shrieked.
Below them, below the catwalks, below the cages with their battered captives, there was a web. The gigantic funnel web was the size of the barn. Something inside the funnel moved, stretching huge hairy legs out toward the scream.
Then Mira threw out her claws and the giant spider was engulfed in flames.
That only seemed to make it mad.
Ace came to a decision. He squeezed Mira's hand. “Try not to hit me,” he said.
“Wait, what?” Mira demanded. She was readying more fire to throw at the thing. Charlie threw daggers into the thing while Shalelu drew her bow.
Ace took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead. “I'll be right back.” And then he stepped off the catwalk.
“Ace!” Mira shouted, leaning over the edge to see... She slumped and glared when she realized he'd fallen to a sheet of web only a few feet below the catwalk. He couldn't move much, stuck as he was to the web, but his sword arm seemed free. She pouted at him.
“Mira, kill the thing!” Ace called.
Fire made it mad. But eventually it burned like anything else.
Sheppard straightened his spine, stood tall, then spent all that posture on a confident swagger as he entered the Ancient detention level. The holding cell contained only one occupant. Around the holding cell, one to each corner, all staring blankly inward, four marines stood at attention with their weapons at full parade display. They all glanced at Sheppard as he entered, each of them attempting to put some menace into their blank stare.
It didn't work. Their prisoner stood in the middle of the cell, hands behind his back, easy grin revealing unnaturally sharp teeth.
“Todd,” Sheppard greeted.
“Sheppard,” Todd said. “Are we done making me wait?”
Sheppard debated having Carter enforce a second Sunday. It wouldn't be the first time Sunday came two days in a row. But one day was petty, two days was pointless. Besides, McKay was chomping at the bit, desperate to get going with the Replicator code.
“We have our reasons,” Sheppard said, trying to be cryptic.
“Ah,” Todd said, letting the matter drop for now. “Then I suppose you've decided whether or not I'll be allowed to use my hands?” He raised his hands, slowly wiggling the fingers as if to taunt. The feeding slit on the right hand gaped obscenely.
“That depends on you,” Sheppard said. If Sheppard had his way Todd would be shackled the whole time but McKay had shot that idea down; what was the point of bringing Todd in at all if they wouldn't let him work?
Todd hissed through his grin. Sheppard had the disturbing feeling he was being laughed at.
“Lead on, then,” Todd said.
Sheppard undid the protections that separated him from a dangerous predator. The energy field fell and the door opened. Four marines, one from each corner, all leveled their weapons on the captive as Todd stepped out into the city proper.
“I'm surprised it took so long to make these decisions,” Todd said conversationally as Sheppard led him through the corridors.
“They're important decisions,” Sheppard said. He checked their guards. There was one before and three behind, all of them with weapons at the ready. He did not understand the Wraith and their strange sense of superiority.
“It seems to be the discussion would take an hour at most,” Todd said. “No matter. You're ready now.”
There were four more guards at the labs, all ready to take their posts around Todd. McKay had been ordered to stay five feet from the Wraith at all times but Sheppard held no illusions there, he knew McKay would ignore those rules in the heat of discovery. Guards in the labs were supposed to keep Todd from taking advantage of McKay's exuberance.
The labs had been cleared of all nonessential science personnel. Only Simpson, Kusanagi, Zelenka, and McKay remained, all of them looking like they'd gotten various amounts of sleep. McKay had an extra mug of coffee next to his normal travel mug and a pair of little white pills hid in their shadows.
Todd looked around the lab and hissed in satisfaction. His eyes lit on McKay and he grinned. “Good,” he said, drawing out the word. “You have some ability to see the obvious. That will make things easier.”
Eight marines and four scientists against one Wraith. Sheppard stood outside the lab as the doors closed. He hoped he hadn't just made a terrible mistake.
Chapter 14: Seeing the Obvious
Todd stood in front of screens and white boards all strewn with Replicator code. He tapped the keys on a laptop, scrolling through page after page of code, all of it filled with pointless loops and meandering statements leading nowhere. Clauses led to null variables, errors and bugs abounded and were patched around yet never removed, this portion of the code was a mess.
“They learned,” Todd mused.
“That is what they do, no?” Zelenka asked. “Replicators are learning machines.”
Todd looked at him strangely, slitted pupils wide. Then he hissed and turned away. “Not these Replicators,” Todd said.
“Perhaps that's the problem,” Kusanagi suggested. “We're thinking of these Replicators as the Milky Way versions. Maybe these work differently.”
“The Milky Way Replicators were made by the Asgard,” McKay mused.
“And these weren't,” Simpson realized.
Four scientists and one Wraith stood in the main lab. The normal activity was gone; everyone else was confined to auxiliary labs, to McKay's own private lab, or sent off-world to known facilities for field work. Instead four marines stood at the walls all looking like they had boredom headaches. Outside the lab there were more, four at the doorway to the lab and a squad leader nearby keeping radio contact with everyone involved. Thus far the Wraith hadn't tried anything.
But that was no guarantee he wouldn't.
“What did that code look like?” Todd asked.
“Oh, I have some,” McKay said. He pulled up one of his own programs. There weren't as many random loops or pointlessly defined variables but there were some. “That was written using the Milky Way code as a base.”
Todd hummed as he looked at it. “Simplistic,” he mused. “Unfortunate.”
“What part?” McKay asked.
Todd looked at the human scientists he was forced to work with. These four supposedly represented the best and brightest minds of the expedition. That thought did not fill him with confidence. “These Replicators, built by the... Ancients... were not meant to be learning machines.”
“What do you mean?” Zelenka asked.
“They had a function,” Todd said. “They were built to carry out that function without the threat of learning.” His careful veneer of civility broke as he lunged at McKay, snarling. “You taught them to think!”
Todd pulled back and reapplied that veneer, hissing low in his throat. The sound of so many weapons cocked and trained at him was unimportant. He looked out over the three scientists who stood and stared then turned back to growl at Dr. McKay. “We will have to rectify that.”
“How?” Kusanagi asked. She ignored Simpson trying to keep her quiet.
Todd smiled. “The key is to make them believe an action was their idea,” he said.
“If they do not think how do they believe anything?” Zelenka asked.
“I must concur with Dr. McKay,” Todd said blandly. “Their code as written allows for some interpretation. It simulates thought without changing the ultimate outcome. Over the millennia interpretations have been added but never before has their code been so crudely tampered with.” He tapped on the laptop's keys again and brought up a sample of delicate, elegant code. “I'm particularly proud of these clauses here.” He pointed out several lines. “I believe this started a philosophy that lasted a thousand years until the interpretation changed.”
“And that doesn't denote thought?” Simpson asked.
“The interpretation was purged from the system,” Todd said. “The adherents were...” He looked at McKay, growling low in his throat. McKay winced and looked confused. “I believe the term you might use is 'reinstalled'. The adherents were reinstalled.”
Todd watched and felt the visceral reactions around him, the disturbed disgust and the personal offense. But McKay wasn't distracted by an emotional reaction. Instead the man felt confused and suspicious. Todd hissed in satisfaction. This would be interesting.
Sheppard stopped outside the lab for the third time that day. He hadn't gone inside, instead tapping into the open audio feed from outside the lab. Aside from one incident early in the day Todd had been surprisingly civil. The radio chatter and the audio feed were still normal. It was normal enough that the marines were joking amongst themselves. Sheppard glared at them and that stopped the jokes for the moment. Working with Todd might seem easier than working with McKay now but once they got hungry McKay would only metaphorically bite someone's head off.
Sheppard debated heading inside. They'd been at it all day. Rumor from the marines implied there'd been some sort of breakthrough early on and from then it'd just been planning and arguing and some shouting but no actual work. Sheppard recognized one of McKay's impasses, he'd need food or quiet or something to distract him.
There was a shriek from inside the lab. The door flung open and McKay tore out of there. Weird, Todd wasn't chasing him. Instead Todd clapped his hands together once. “We should begin again tomorrow,” Todd said like some sort of twisted professor. “You have all been invaluable.”
“To je prázdné,” Zelenka muttered.
“How was it?” Sheppard asked from the open door.
“We have found the problem,” Todd said happily.
“He and McKay argued all day,” Simpson said, gesturing to Todd.
“How is this different from Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka?” Kusanagi asked.
Sheppard had to admit she had a point. Then his radio chirped. “Sheppard to the gate room.”
Sheppard tapped his radio. “On my way.”
“You should hurry,” Todd said. “Dr. McKay was most distraught when he realized your deception.”
Sheppard glared at Todd.
“He did not say anything,” Zelenka defended. “They were arguing, then Rodney drops quiet and says 'oh god they're all going to die'.”
Sheppard looked from Todd to Zelenka to the confused scientists. He took off running to the gate room.
McKay ran to the gate room and Carter's office. The smell of ozone followed him, a phantom smell that wasn't there. Molecules weren't shattering under plasma charges, the crust wasn't fracturing to allow the red hot mantle to bleed all through the city. Yet he remembered it vividly, like he was there, like he was watching Replicator ships firing on a city he'd never even been to. The heat, the burning, the terror, it was all so real and then it was gone, gone in an instant. Now memory chased him as he stormed up to Carter's office.
He ordered her door open, not caring that she looked up in shock at his interruption. He was furious and...
...and he didn't know why.
He remembered it all, the heat of the plasma, the burning fires as the lava spread to consume his building, the stench as the atmosphere itself burned, the char of his own flesh and...
But it couldn't have happened. He was here, he was fine, he'd never even been to that city before. There was nothing.
“Sorry,” he said, curling in on himself. McKay turned to leave.
“Rodney?” Carter asked. “Are you all right?”
“I'm fine,” McKay said dismissively. “It's nothing. I just... I'll go see Keller.”
McKay turned and left even as Carter's hand went to her radio. He decided against the infirmary and instead fled to his quarters.
He expected the chime that came not ten minutes later. He didn't expect it to be Sheppard.
“Hey,” Sheppard drawled. He leaned on the door jamb. “Can I come in?”
McKay gestured vaguely at the inside of his quarters. As soon as Sheppard was inside McKay went back to his careless sprawl against the bed. “Sam sent you,” he said.
“She may have,” Sheppard admitted.
“Don't you have Wraith to wrangle?” McKay asked.
“Damn thing's been doing that growling thing with the grin for the past half hour,” Sheppard said. “He went back to his cell without a fuss.”
“It's called 'purring',” McKay said.
“Wraith do not purr.”
McKay gave Sheppard an unimpressed look. “He purrs,” he said. “I had a cat like him once. Always thought she knew more than I did. This one just happens to be right about that.”
Sheppard opened his mouth to ask about the cat but decided he didn't want to know. “What happened?” he asked instead.
“I made a mistake,” McKay said, staring ahead at the ceiling. He didn't want to have to look at Sheppard, to see the disappointment in his eyes. “The Replicators here weren't thinking machines. I taught them how to think. I taught them how to alter their own code. I mean, they're really bad at it. Really bad. First year programming student bad. But I taught them that and now...”
“Now they're coming after us,” Sheppard supplied.
“Now they're fighting the Wraith by purging the galaxy of humans.”
Sheppard went dead still. He looked away. “I didn't know Sam told you,” he admitted.
McKay's eyes fell closed and he let out a long sigh. “She didn't. You did. Just now.”
McKay sat up. “I get it, you didn't want me to know,” he said bitterly. “I don't blame you, what if I said something? I'm sure this is some big state secret and--”
“We did it to keep you from going nuts,” Sheppard said, cutting him off.
That brought anger to McKay's blank eyes. “'Nuts',” he said. “Nuts. Nuts! You didn't want me to break. You'd rather I take my sweet-ass time while out there a million humans die at the hands of something I did. Something I can fix!”
“You were working without backup, of course we wanted you sane!” Sheppard snapped.
“Because they're all idiots!” McKay shouted. “They can't even see the obvious!”
“What 'obvious'?” Sheppard asked.
McKay slumped back onto the bed. He wanted to do this but he couldn't. He was too tired to work up a decent head of steam. Maybe the others could pile together some excess anger into a physical response but he didn't have enough left. “I'm not even sure,” he admitted. “Todd called it 'seeing the obvious' and he's right, it's all so... It's right there and I can see it, I know what matters and what doesn't and what I can leave out but no one else can. Why can't they see it, John?” McKay turned tired eyes up at Sheppard.
Sheppard sat on the bed next to McKay. “I don't know, buddy,” he said. “But you have to slow down.”
McKay cut him off. “Not that. How can I slow down? I taught the Replicators to think. I taught them how to change their code. I gave them this idea. People are dying out there... because of me...” The momentary sting of ozone hit his nose again and he closed his eyes against the assault on his senses. Yes, maybe he was seeing things, maybe it was a sign he needed to slow down. But he couldn't afford to.
McKay sat alone in the lab. It was Sunday, another enforced Sunday, but he wasn't going to the game room. Not today. He'd requisitioned Todd for the day and they were going to pound out this program today if it killed him.
Todd walked in flanked by his usual guards. He looked around the room with a detached curiosity. “The others are not here,” he said.
“Astute deduction,” McKay said. “It's just you and me today. We seem to be the only ones who can read this code, the others don't need to be here, let's get this done.”
Todd checked his surroundings, moved to a more advantageous wall for leaning against, folded his arms, and slumped against the wall in a move that reminded McKay far too much of one of Sheppard's moves. “No,” he said.
Utter betrayal crossed McKay's features before he hid it behind his anger. “Then I'm doing this myself,” he said flatly. “Fine. I've done it before.” He started tapping on the keyboard.
Todd hissed low in his throat. “You're not,” he said.
“Then are you going to help me?” McKay demanded.
Todd bared his teeth and hissed. “Not today.” That hiss turned to a twisted grin. “I was promised a day off.”
McKay turned murderous. “We don't get days of!” he shouted. “People are dying out there because of me!”
Todd cocked his head and watched. “Humans always die,” he said.
“The Replicators are starving your people as they kill mine! Don't you even care?!”
Todd smiled as though this made more sense. “I see,” he said. “Guilt. You think you taught them this tactic.”
“I taught them to think,” McKay snarled, throwing Todd's own words back at him.
“They used this tactic before,” Todd said. “The Ancients programmed it into them.”
McKay looked like he'd been struck.
“The Ancients did not value human life as you do,” Todd said. “Not even as food. That is one thing you and I have in common, Dr. McKay. We both value human life in some way. Those values are different, of course, but important.”
McKay was not going to admit this all made some twisted sense. Nothing else made as much sense as this. Todd's words enveloped him, caressed him in ways that made him agree. The worst part of it was his own sense of logic couldn't argue.
“So trust me when I tell you this,” Todd continued. “We will not find the answer today. You are exhausted and I am not an insect to be kept in a glass jar. I need some variation of experience or I will go as mad as this code will drive you.”
McKay had to admit he was very tired. And he wouldn't like to have to sit in a cell all day either. McKay recalled Todd had been in prison once, held by Kolya as a living torture device meant to extract information and execute prisoners. The idea of going back to a cell like that filled him with intense dread, a clawing pain in his mind that left him shaking.
“I see you understand,” Todd said.
McKay nodded. What did he understand? He wasn't sure. He needed a day off.
Todd showed a hand to his guards, splaying the fingers to prove it was his non-feeding hand. He walked up behind McKay and placed that hand on the back of McKay's neck. McKay groaned and his eyes fell closed.
Todd raised an eyebrow at the nervous guards around them. The guards stood down, lowering weapons they hadn't even known they'd drawn.
“Let's head to this 'game room' of yours,” Todd purred. “You can tell me about Mira.”
McKay nodded, eyes half closed.
Wait... Who told him about Mira? It... wasn't important...
“I told him not to,” Zelenka muttered.
“I could order him,” Carter offered.
“He's not going to pay attention,” Sheppard said.
The game table was short one player. Rowan cracked his knuckles as he skimmed through the adventure. This was not a day where he wanted the group to be down a player. He was already going to be playing four NPCs, three Black Arrow rangers and Shalelu, two of them with strange familial ties and one traitor waiting to sell them all out to the adventure's midboss. Worse, today was exactly the kind of adventure where Mira's talents at battlefield control would have been most valuable. He just knew the difficulty of taking a keep full of ogres would have appealed to Mira's tactical nature and her completely understandable zeal for blowing things up.
He didn't even notice as the room went quiet.
He did notice the whine of Ronon's gun. “The fuck?” Rowan asked, looking up.
Todd walked in with his non-feeding hand on the back of McKay's neck, guiding the man. McKay looked half conscious, like he was in some sort of trance. He blinked up at Todd with slow languid eyes and then looked at the table with the same sleepy gaze.
“The fuck?” Rowan asked again.
“My sentiments exactly,” Sheppard said. “Ronon?”
“Yeah?” Ronon asked. He raised his pistol.
“His ire is unnecessary,” Todd said. He then let go of McKay.
McKay stumbled then managed to find his footing. He blinked, shook his head, and only then seemed to realize where he was. He turned on Todd. “What did you do?!” he demanded. “That was some sort of, of of Wraith mind control, wasn't it? Wasn't it!”
Todd did not back down from McKay's tirade, instead he almost seemed amused. “Yes,” he said. “Yes it was.”
McKay's anger faltered. He'd expected a denial. "Oh."
“I will not work with a lunatic,” Todd said. He put both hands on McKay's shoulders, ignoring the sounds of weapons readied all around him, and pushed McKay into a chair. “We will not work on code today. You will not work on code today. You will unwind or I shall do it for you and I guarantee you, John Sheppard will not enjoy that. Play.”
McKay took a moment to parse that sentence. That moment was all Todd needed to turn and walk off. He didn't leave, instead moving to the cases of painted miniatures on the walls. He came to a collection of small dragons arranged as a chess set.
Sheppard made to get up. McKay stopped him with a hand to his arm. “Do you have any idea how boring it is in the holding cell?” he asked. “Every advanced mind needs a chance to goof off.”
Sheppard stopped dead. “You're not still being mind controlled are you?” he asked, horror plain in his voice.
“Todd ordered him to play games,” Carter said. “What would the Wraith learn from a Pathfinder session?”
“Ogre tactics?” Rowan suggested. “The value of really cool dice. The secret of the Fireball spell.”
“Not more ogres,” Zelenka sighed. “Can there be less incest this time? Was disturbing.”
“Are you sure you're okay?” Sheppard asked.
McKay nodded. He still looked exhausted but less haunted and much more awake than before. That was an improvement, at least. “I'm fine,” he said. He glared at Todd who he could tell was still purring. “Mostly I'm annoyed.” And confused, but he didn't voice that part.
“Are you going to be okay to play today?” Rowan asked. “We could do something else.”
“No, I'm fine,” McKay said. “I promise. So we have Fort Rannick to liberate. What sort of plan do we have?”
Sheppard sat back as the game began. He watched McKay as intently as he watched Todd. The Wraith didn't leave, not now that he felt he didn't need to. His guards stood near him, all waiting for some excuse to put him away again. Instead Todd collected some choice pieces from the miniature cabinet, handling them with due care as he set them up on a strange circular board he drew on a sheet of paper. He placed the figures down and seemed to absorb himself in a...
No. Sheppard didn't want to think of whatever games the Wraith might play. Not even as Dr. Corrigan moved in and sat far too close to the Wraith as he asked questions, made a nuisance of himself, and convinced Todd to teach him how to play.