“Ms. Banyan?” Garth said, staring.
Jess’s face, carved out of wood, was staring back at him. More of the identical dryads stepped out of the woods, their eyes fixed on Garth.
“My lord, we have to escape,” Ellanore said, putting herself in front of him, a delicate longsword raised to defend him. Commendable, but Garth was the one with spare bodies.
“Move aside, child,” Ms. Banyan said, nudging Ellanore aside with her spear.
When Ellanore refused to budge, Garth stepped out from behind her, pulling the enchanted disc out of his pocket and setting it on Ellanore’s shoulder.
Instantly, Garth’s skin returned to its purple hue.
Ms. Banyan’s eyes widened, brimming with tears.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
A voice like thunder echoed in Garth’s mind, brimming with anger.
WE HAVE SUFFERED WITHOUT YOU AND YOU RETURN TO US NOW?
The pressure drove Garth to his knees, clutching his head as something tore through it. Around him, the cultists watched Garth with curiosity and alarm.
“I was dead!” Garth shouted, his head splitting at the seams.
THEN WHY ARE YOU HERE?
Ms. Banyan knelt and stroked Grass beneath their feet.
“It’s alright, my love, we both saw him killed. That was not his fault.” She said, and the pressure lessened somewhat as Grass regained control of his emotions.
Why are you here?
“The dungeon behind me formed some kind of phylactery, near as I can figure.” Garth said, pointing a thumb over his shoulder.
There’s no one left. For hundreds of years. There’s NO ONE LEFT TO PROTECT!
YOU GAVE US ONE PURPOSE AND IT’S GONE!
More Ms. Banyans knelt and soothed Grass. The voice in Garth’s head dimmed again, dialing back from head-splitting so headache inducing.
Only outsiders, for hundreds of years, nothing but invaders.
Garth pursed his lips.
“Have you considered letting new people settle here?”
The voice in Garth’s head went deathly silent.
I suppose that’s what we did the first time, isn’t it? Those memories are so dim, hardly anything left but feelings about things I can’t even remember.
Garth stood and cleared his throat.
“Grass and Banyan, by the power invested in me by Beladia, I expand your raison d’être to include Mayorship of L.A. and the responsibility of resettling it.”
Everyone stared at him. Garth could even feel the bamboo looking at him.
“Did that work?” Garth asked hopefully.
We’ll see, Grass said with the equivalent of mental grumbling.
“It’s given us something to think about,” Banyan said, then her eyes pupils dilated. “Can you imagine, Grass? Children again!”
“Glad we could settle that.” Garth said, turning back toward the trail.
Where do you think you’re going? Ms. Banyan’s spears came up instantly.
“I’m going to head over to that wizard tower.” Garth said, pointing at the massive weathered trunk on the side of the mountain. It had long since fallen and been torn apart by time, but the first twenty feet or so of jagged wood still clung to the mountainside.
“I’m gonna loot the ruins of my hopes and dreams, get some clothes that don’t scratch my nutsack so bad, then probably launch some kind of nefarious vendetta on the people responsible for this.” Garth motioned to the forest around them, with its distinct lack of people.
Maybe waterboard Argus again if he’s still alive.
The thought reminded him of Sandi, standing four feet away in her sheer chainmail. That thought got him thinking about his daughters growing up in the hands of his enemies, believing that they were born evil.
And that thought got him punching a nearby oak tree.
Garth’s fist sank into the wood, burying itself to the wrist like he was punching into Styrofoam.
“Not a lord,” Garth said, taking a deep breath and pulling his hand out of the tree with the harsh squeal of stressed wood, healing the damage to the oak as an afterthought.
Garth inspected his unblemished hand.
This is ten strength?
“Just had a bad thought, I’m fine. I would like to go now.”
“You’re leaving us?” Banyan asked.
“Sure am,” Garth said, walking through the forest of bamboo spears, bending them out of his way as he strolled past the army of Ms. Banyans.
“Don’t want to sound…cliche, but if I get caught here, chances are both of you will get burned to the ground. So I’m leaving you, to protect you.”
Ms. Banyan narrowed her eyes. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“Fine,” Garth shouted over his shoulder. “I also want to be as far away from my immobile, vulnerable phylactery as possible so they don’t make the connection should I get creamed again.”
That’s more like the father we remember. Grass whispered in his mind.
I guess they are my kids too, Garth thought. He did make them, after all. They seemed like they turned out okay, if a bit rough around the edges from hundreds of years of neglect.
Show me somebody that wouldn’t damage.
“Eh,” Garth waved them off. The confused cultists formed a narrow line behind him as the forest began to warp around them, propelling them forward until they were cruising through the thick undergrowth, speeding through Grass’s brain toward Garth’s former tower.
Garth was whistling ‘Take me out to the Ball Game’ when they arrived at the ruined tower. The top of the tree had long since sloughed away, exposing the rooms inside to open air.
Garth didn’t have enough control over mana to fly yet, so he climbed up the side of the tree until he got to the exposed room. before him lay his storage room for some of Garth’s more expensive stuff.
Garth heaved himself up and into the moss-coated room with a grunt, followed by Ellanore and two of her purple sisters.
Every wooden surface was drenched with moss, and every metal table, every clamp and shelving unit salvaged from Home Depot had become a rust outline on the floor.
“Damn,” Garth said, running his toes through the piles of rust and moss. There was nothing left from his shelves. None of the valuable ingredients, none of the prototypes.
“God I hope the landmine carrots didn’t go wild.” Garth murmered as he searched through the mess. It looked like his place had been picked clean by scavengers a long time ago.
Garth didn’t hold it against them. They had probably needed the dough and where was Garth? Getting stripteases from a deity in the afterlife.
Garth could now honestly say he had no fear of death. He’d still probably avoid it out of habit, though.
“There’s nothing here.” Ellanore said, glancing around the ruin.
“Nah, I packed a little suitcase in case of emergency in here,” Garth said, orienting himself. Everything was covered in moss and worn away by time so it was difficult to tell exactly where he was. The wood was dead, so the mechanism wouldn’t work either, but Garth was pretty sure it would still be there.
He hadn’t told anyone about it.
Let’s see, the east facing shelves were here, then about two paces west.. Garth knelt down and jammed his fingers through the rotten wood and yanked a chunk of the floor out, tossing it against the wall, where it landed softly against a pile of moss.
Underneath him was the bug-out bag. Garth put it together in case the peasants ever came up to his tower with torches and pitchforks. The contents hadn’t been particularly useful in the last emergency, but now they were going to come in handy.
In the hole, glittering gold peeked up at him underneath the rot-shredded fabric of the bag.
Five million credits, in ingot form, stamped with the Inner Core’s seal of approval, along with three self-replenishing milk bottles – Garth tossed those aside – and five enchanted core slices on rotten necklaces, designed to make the user less noticeable and more resilient, and at the very bottom, three Mythic Cores along with tools, rare metals, and supplies, wrapped in a forearm-sized canister of cured leather, the most valuable part of the entire bag.
If they his family ever needed to relocate, it had the tools to make everything they might need. Much like a 3-D printer on a space station. Just good planning.
Shoulda taken a minute to send this with Wilson.
Wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but it was the thought that counted.
Garth wanted to check the contents, but the way the Cult of Garth was gawking at the gold ingots, he figured it was probably best not to blow their little minds.
“People win revolutions,” Garth said, hefting a gold bar. “But money helps.”
I need a new bag for this stuff. And I need Heartstones.
Garth wanted to get back in shape as quickly as possible.
They traveled on foot, leaving through the steep valley between the crescent mountains, and were stopped for inspection at a stone fort just outside.
“Welcome back from the Green Hell,” the gateman said jovially, the plump man teetered back in his seat as he waved them through. “Anything to declare?”
You need a shave and a bath, Garth thought, his arms crossed.
“About two hundred pounds of Ironwood,” One of the young cultists said, putting his backpack on the table and opening it to reveal a severed log. “Nothing else in there but poison and death.”
“That’ll be one hundred and fifteen credits for the lot of it then.” The fat man said.
“I lost a sword in there worth more than that!” he shouted.
The fat gatekeeper shrugged. “I told you it wasn’t worth your time. Say, did you see anything from the other idiots that came in there after yah? Said they were looking for some sap that turns things to gold or some such.”
“Not hide nor hair.”
“Nobody’s loss, I guess.” He glanced at the purple women mingled in with the rather large group of cultists.
“I thought you were moving in, what with all the breeders you were taking in there with ya. Damn idiocy, I thought, but maybe you were right about the forest liking them.”
“I’d appreciate it if you kept that to yourself. I still want to explore a few of the untouched areas before anyone else gets a chance.” The cultist dropped a couple gold credits in the man’s hand.
“No skin off my back, guess you’re out quite a few credits now, though.” The gatekeeper chuckled. “Just keep your Garthspawn on a leash when you get back to town, we don’t care what you do with your whores in the woods, but don’t care for an incident inside city limits, understood?”
The gatekeep glanced over his shoulder at the gate, then back to them.
“Just to be sure, All of these Garthspawn have their papers, yeah? Cuz that’s a right lot of them. I was under the impression they were rare. And valuable.”
Ellanore and quite a few members of the group went pale. That wasn’t good.
“What are you, the sheriff?” Garth demanded. “Just take the money and open the gate.”
“Who the hell is this little spitfuck, and where did he learn to talk to his elders!?” The gatekeeper roared.
Elder my ass, Garth thought, rolling his eyes moments before the gate slammed open, drawing his attention.
A posse of some hundred men wearing leather armor and riding horses burst through the gate, leveling crossbows on them.
“Michael Brooke and associates, you’re under arrest for the theft and trafficking of the property of the state,” The man with thick sideburns in the front spoke, holding out a script as he read.
“Including Ellanore Garthspawn, Athena Garthspawn, Alice Garthspawn, Number Three Garthspawn, and Ferra Garthspawn. These and any other stolen property on your person will be confiscated and remain in the possession of the state.
He smiled and cast his eyes over the six or so women he hadn’t mentioned by name, and Garth could see the gears turning in his head. Something told him that he was going to personally confiscate the stolen property.
“You should have told me you were slaves.” Garth muttered to Ellanore.
“I’m not property.” She bit the words out.
“He seems to disagree.”
“Shut up! Get them in chains and on the wagon. If we make good time we can have an execution this evening at outpost 3502!”
One of the young cultists made a break for it and a bolt threw him to a ground, with half a dozen more pinning him there as securely as a butterfly on display.
“Unless you want to die. Right. Now.” The mutton-chopped man scanned them with narrowed eyes. Nobody wanted to die right then and there, so they stayed still.
The captain passed the gatekeeper a small leather sack that jingled with coin.
“Pleasure doing business with you.”
“So nice being alive again,” Garth said, taking in a deep breath of unwashed bodies as he was bodily shoved toward a wagon bound for his execution, chains dangling from his wrists.
“Shut up, kid!” a man said, aiming a blow at Garth’s nose.
Garth leaned into it.
“Ah, fuck!” The man said, cradling his hand as his chortling cohorts lifted Garth onto the wagon.
“Don’t worry kid, testify against these murderous scum, and you’ll only get five years hard labor, rather than a noose.” Another man said.
How was a noose supposed to kill someone with inhuman endurance? Nooses only worked because the human body is frail. After a certain point it would just be waiting for them to starve on the rope.
“Honestly think I’d prefer the noose.” Garth said with a shrug.
“Your choice, lad.” They shoved him into the wagon.
“Also, why does everyone keep calling me kid? Can I get a mirror?”
“This shiny enough for you, shitstain?” A soldier growled, holding a saber under Garth’s throat.
“That’ll do.” Garth grabbed the blade and moved it to get a good look at his face as the cavalryman grunted, trying to tug it out of his hands.
The blade was thin, and not terrifically smooth. Garth had to pass over his features a little bit at a time, from his brows, to his eyes, to his lips, but what Garth saw there floored him. mid to late teens, maybe? Rosy cheeks and smooth, unblemished features. Smaller nose.
“Bleh,” Garth said, letting go of the saber with a twang. The cavalryman reeled in his saddle, nearly falling off his horse. He gave Garth a strange look before swallowing his words and sheathing his weapon.
I spent a long time waiting to get respectably old, but on the other hand, it’s best not to look twenty extra years of gift lifespan in the mouth.
“Wake me up when we get to the gallows,” Garth said, finding a comfortable position and closing his eyes.